Monday, December 1, 1967, 4:21 AM. Bombayites were rudely awoken from their slumbers as the world around them shook.
It was the devastating Koyna earthquake.
My mother recalled being panicked at the steel “Godrej” cupboards rattling together. “Aiyayo, what is happening?”, she screamed (I am guessing that is what she said since I was not born yet). My father (without opening his eyes), replied, “It is just an earthquake. Go back to sleep.”
I have heard this anecdote repeated with a mix of mirth and pride by my mother when she wanted to poke fun at my father.
Living in the San Francisco Bay Area, I know that one is not supposed to roll over and sleep if an earthquake were to hit. Having said that, I have to admit feeling awe at my father’s stoicism. I cannot recall a single instance in my life when I have seen my father panic about anything. He faced family, medical, career, and financial challenges (with my mother’s firm support) without alarming his family. I wonder what it was about my father, he always made life look so easy.
Was it his disciplined lifestyle?
Was it his matter-of-fact attitude to life?
Was it his firm belief in God and his daily prayers?
I do not know where he draws his strength. But, I know his family draws strength from him. On Wednesday, October 9th, 2013, when his wife of 56 years passed away, he walked into the hospital room, stroked her head, turned around to his children, and calmly instructed them to start making phone calls to get “the body” home and make arrangements for the funeral. I remember that day being one of extreme sadness. However, there was no panic about how we would get through it. If a man who had lost his beloved partner could think clearly and behave with dignity, it automatically meant that his family could as well.
My version of the Koyna earthquake moment came on January 2015, when my father’s prostate cancer, that had been slow-growing until then, entered Stage 3, and the doctor, in a very worried tone, told my father that it was time to start treatment. I was scared. My father told the doctor calmly, “It is only a little bit of cancer, there is no need to make such a fuss”.
The look of disbelief on the doctor’s face was amusing. I knew my dad well and would not have expected any other reaction from him. My father underwent radiation treatment for 9 weeks, 5 days a week. The radiation center was a good 20 minutes away from our home. We would drive back and forth listening to my father’s favorite old Hindi songs. The weeks flew by and as we reached the final stretch of the treatment, my father wistfully talked about how much he enjoyed the drives, the music, and the company of the lovely nurses who took quite a liking to my father. On his suggestion, we gave a cake as a thank you gesture to the medical staff on the last day of radiation. My father posed for photos with them, and I felt like a proud parent of a high school graduate. We got through it.
Today, in the era of the pandemic and political, social, and economic uncertainty, I realize that my children are probably looking to me to get hints about how to react. I do not possess my father’s courage. But, I simply recall all the incidents in my life when my father must have been concerned but did not show it. Just like my father did through his actions, I try to convey to my children that this will also pass and I hope that they will remember to pass on that message to their children.
Shailaja Venkatsubramanyan has taught information systems at San Jose State. She volunteers with the Plant-Based Advocates of Los Gatos.