Till a month ago, my father was an independent person in his 70s enjoying his morning walks, reading newspapers (Times of India, DNA and Economic Times), doing Sudoko and making his own breakfast of oats or idli.
One May morning, as he was returning from his walk a stray dog came too close, licked him and he, trying to escape, grabbed on to a car for support. The car’s surface was too smooth and my father slipped. A stranger, truly God’s messenger, protected his head and back but he hit the pavement, broke his hip and spent a fortnight in a Mumbai hospital having a metal plate and many screws inserted during hip surgery and learning to manage with a walker.
My uncle stayed with him in the hospital and I flew back from Berkeley to take care of him in the transition from hospital to home. His room and the flat now had new chairs — yes, a potty chair — essential for the daily functions when he could no longer go to the toilet and a wheel chair to be pushed about. Of all importance now was the urine pot — a white curve that maybe one day would wind itself into a modern art piece, a la Duchamp; the precious apparatus my father now used four to six times at night.
While I started rinsing out the urine pot and emptying the toilet bowl regularly, (it took some effort not to feel like throwing up)—time was running out for my stay and and I had to get back to Berkeley. My back too started acting up with all the bending and twisting. After talking to friends and relatives and making some inquiries, we found Bina bureau, and a couple of other staffing bureaus, nurses who could come from Kerala and live in the house, but nothing appeared satisfactory.
In our building, an uncle with Parkinson’s had just passed on and he had an attendant who was now being recruited heavily. I felt like he was almost a star student being recruited by grad schools or maybe even a star athlete coveted by college programs. My uncle, father, and I called him. Samir said he could not come immediately, but arranged for one Suresh, a daytime attendant for my father.
My father was becoming increasingly frustrated being pushed about, and he could not put his foot down, literally and figuratively.
Years ago, when he was in the IAS—Indian Administrative Service and was Textile Commissioner, Suresh, who had only studied till 3rd standard, had worked at the canteen in the same building, serving chai to the peons and clerks. He remembered my father from then, but now as my father liked to say he was no longer a distinguished but instead an extinguished IAS officer.
Now he and Suresh performed this intricate dance where Suresh steadied the walker and then my father clutched the walker from the bed, hopped to the potty chair or the wheel chair. Suresh steadied it, saying “Yes Father,” or “Yes Pitaji,” and my father sat. No one called him Sir or Sahib anymore.
Now my father was in Suresh’s hands and I wanted to help—to cement ties between the two. So I spent three hours trying to fill a State Bank application form for Suresh to open an account. He and his wife, both semi-literate had managed to get their IDs, PAN card, and Aadhar card, but still it took me, a PhD holder, three hours to fill a form. Couldn’t the forms be simplified, I wondered. And I even had to consult my father while filling out the form!
When not helping my father, Suresh spent hours watching “Mahabharat,” “Ramayana” or all the Amitabh Bachchan films on TV—or laid a mat and rested while my father tried to call. I would go running from my father to Suresh, trying to be the messenger. That is when a two bedroom apartment can seem big.
There was no privacy to speak with my father, those were the moments when Suresh would sneak up on us. But just as he got to see our family, and our food habits up close, I too learned that his mother died when he was young—his father moved back to the village and from his early teens he had fended for himself in Mumbai. The song that came to my mind was “jara hatke, jara bachke, yeh Mumbai meri jaan.” He worked in that Textile building canteen those two decades ago when he saw my father from afar, but as he failed fourth grade he could get a regular job there. Then he took up the job of being a hospital attendant caring for invalids, all the while nursing an ambition that anyone can relate to – he wanted his children to do better than he had done. With this in mind, he had admitted his two daughters in an English medium school.
In this new shared space and dependence on each other, I figured that Suresh may envy my father and me, for living in a nice house, having three meals a day with sabzi, dal and chappatis, washing with Dove soap while he and his family struggled in their jhopadputti. And my father and I were sometimes irritated by his constant presence, including his habit of lingering around and listening to phone conversations. But in this and other interactions, we also see each other in different ways—he our helplessness—my father a one- time IAS officer, a sahib—now dependent even for basic needs, and we see his latent desire to have his children study well. And we appreciate our shared history, our epics Mahabharat and Ramayana, where good ultimately triumphs over evil.
We pull our two worlds closer, as he puts the book my father is reading in front of him and my father teaches him to use an ATM card. Of course, sometimes my father still shouts when he acts too familiar or fails to come when called. When Suresh’s father died recently, he could not go home as he needed his pagar and my father needed him. Thinking of all of this, I keep quiet when he says, “Yes Pitaji,” or “Yes Father,” when my father gets into the wheelchair he has just steadied.
Roopa Ramamoorthi is a scientist and poet who grew up in India and now lives in Berkeley. Her essays, poetry and fiction have been published including on Perspectives on NPR, India Currents, Berkeley Daily Planet as well as in anthologies – She is Such a Geek, Dismantle, Red Skirt Blue Jeans, the best of 60 years of Spectrum, and in Ursa Minor.