Baba and the Hargile
“Ota ki pakhi Baba? * (“Is that a bird, father?)
I shudder as the huge, ugly bird approaches. Its pale-yellow neck, brown-black-white wings, and long, sticklike legs contrast with unbelievably light blue eyes. The bird is almost as tall as me and at twelve, I am the tallest girl in class. Never have I seen such a terrifying, out-of-this-world creature.
“Or naam hargile. Ora manusher har gile khay. Chiboy na porjonto.”
(It’s called a Hargile. It swallows human bones. Until chewed)
Baba has his story voice on, but I am about to burst into tears. It’s a cold, grey winter evening, and the burning ghat is empty except for one or two dying pyres and a few mourning relatives around them.
What if this bird was from some evil planet, out to get us? Why else would he have such a horrifying name? My heart beats as the bird walks toward us in slow motion, lifting each skinny leg one by one. It’s a nightmarish scene. I close my eyes, shivering, and hold on tight to Baba.
The monster bird didn’t devour our bones that day. Instead, as we walked home, I learned from Baba that this scavenger– the critically endangered greater adjutant stork – is a friend to our environment.
My Superhero Baba
Such is my Baba. My father. My superhero. Ace storyteller, guardian angel of animals of all kinds, and the strongest person I have ever met. As a child, I wondered if he wore a cape. Or if his heart could hold countries in them. In crowds, he never let go of my hand.
He now lies in an adjustable bed; in the room he has lived in most of his life. Monsters, witches, ghosts, and demons of his stories haunt him day and night. He can’t move or walk or even eat or drink unassisted. He needs help with the most basic things in life.
“Ami parchhi na!” (“I can’t!”)
He protests angrily when anyone tries to coax him into uncrossing his legs, which lie stiffly crossed all day long. He has to be fed, bathed, clothed, and cleaned by someone else. He is often in an irritable mood. But his eyes light up the moment he hears my name or sees my face in our weekly trans-Atlantic video calls.
In the light of his eyes, I still see the charming man who had the power to change the world as I knew it.
An accident at 25
After finishing his marine engineering degree my father was on his way home for a vacation. He met with an accident that changed his entire life. He lost four fingers on his right hand. At twenty-five, that meant losing the possibility of a good life that a young, Indian, middle-class man like him should have been able to look forward to.
He wanted a great one, though.
“Ki hobe Chhotomama?” (“What will happen, uncle?”)
Didi Bhai, a first cousin, and his favorite niece, worried he was depressed about losing use of his right hand when she went to visit him in the hospital.
When I was twenty-one, she told me, “He asked me for a pen and some paper.”
Twenty days later, he was writing with his left hand with practiced ease. He was ready to take on the world. Though Baba could not travel across the globe as he dreamed about, he built a new life for himself again out of the remains of his previous one.
Losing a dream
“How did you deal with losing your dream, Baba?” I asked on our regular walk by the Bhagirathi. He smiled stoically, “By waking up.”
Sixty years later he tripped over his pet dog in his bedroom and broke his hip. Though the doctors gave him an A++bone density reading, and he started walking again in three months, this would be the accident from which he never recovered. More falls the following year would completely incapacitate him.
Finding Magic and Mystery
My father isn’t a religious man. He believes in magic and the mystery of the Universe, the metaphysical, and the supernatural. Children thronged around him at family gatherings to listen to his stories. I grew up enchanted by the monsters, kings, warriors, and gladiators of his tales. My love for literature was his unconscious gift to me.
He did not speak to me for a month when I decided to pursue a career in the Arts. He wanted me to be an electrical engineer. At home, I was his assistant when he built a radio, an inverter, and a walkie-talkie.
He had a knack for photography, from waiting for the perfect light to developing and trimming photographs. I loved spending hours in the dim red light of the development room, watching photographs magically pop up on white squares of paper dipped in a pungent-smelling liquid. When I close my eyes, I smell the hydroquinone, acetic acid, sodium carbonate, phenidone, and ammonium thiosulfate, the magical names that had the power to transfer images from a tiny film roll onto paper.
I thought only my Baba could do that. Create magic with anything and everything.
Believing in the impossible
He raised me to believe in the impossible, and to have faith in the incredible strength of the human mind. He taught me to be kind to myself when others could not be. He was certain that I had a gift, though he never told me what it was. He didn’t tell me the story of Icarus but made sure I knew about the Wright brothers at an early age.
When I started working on my first book, he laughed,
Some days, he forgets that I have only one child, a daughter. Or that I have been married for nearly twenty years and don’t live in India anymore. He gets mad when I tell him otherwise.
He sulks. “Otota matha kharap hoy ni aamar.” (“I’m not that upset.”)
I lost myself as Baba lost who he was
I argue with him trying to invoke the person he used to be. The realization that he is no longer himself, is a drowning feeling that wakes me up with a start in the middle of the night. Sometimes, I struggle to breathe, my heart hammering away in my chest.
Initially, when I learned that he couldn’t walk anymore, I stopped reading or listening to anything that could move me to tears. I consciously shut down all the ways through which inspiration could find its way to me. I had long comatose hours where I did nothing. I just stared at a wall or window, or the family photo collage that artfully dots my living room wall. No thinking, planning, or reminiscing, just being.
A friend described it as a higher form of meditation that would help me reconnect with myself. It was not. It was my way of escaping reality. I did not want to be a part of the reality where Baba could not walk. He could make thunderstorms happen for me when I was a kid.
Superheroes never give up
“Of course, he could walk,” I told myself. He just doesn’t want to.
Only, he can’t. There are times when superheroes give up, defeated by circumstances. Hard as it is to accept, sometimes reality brings us face-to-face with unfamiliar, unimaginable, unbearable but undeniable truths.
It’s in those moments that we grow up. We realize that what seems unfair is nothing but an accident. Everything is random. There is no rationale for the things that happen to us.
What gives me peace is that lying on his bed helpless and broken, my Baba doesn’t know that. He still believes he can walk.
He comforts me on his good days; “Ami toh kalkei baranday giyechhilam. Tui ki bhabish ami haat te parina?” (“I went to the balcony yesterday. Do you think I can’t handle it?)
I am ready to trade all the hopelessness in this world for the effervescence in his voice. In that brief moment, he is back to being the man with the power to suspend disbelief for me. The man who made me believe that I could be whoever I wanted if I was ready to believe in myself. Maybe it is all that there is, this belief in our fallible selves. It is what makes us invincible in the face of random eccentricities of time and circumstances. It is what makes us human.
“My father gave me the greatest gift anyone could give another person; he believed in me.”
– Jim Valvano
* “I went to the patio only yesterday. Do you think I can’t walk at all?”
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