In the black and white photo, I am three years old. My father is holding me. I am wearing a brocade outfit, a long skirt and a blouse–the formal attire for children. Dangling from my feet are brocade shoes with upturned toes called mojdis. In the background is a two-story house. Our drinking water is brought from the well on head-loads by village women and the flag stoned bathroom has three thunder boxes as if in the Three Bears Cottage. The government gives my father an Austin, a Jeep, a mare that comes with a horse allowance and a syce. My father uses the car for the metaled roads, the jeep and the mare for roads inaccessible by car. The mare Rani, is a chestnut Australian hunter. One day she took fright and galloped from an empty field two towns away, amid traffic with my father holding on for dear life.
My father is twenty nine in the picture, the Assistant Collector of the district. Sometimes my mother and I accompany him on his travels. Two canvas khaki tents are set up: one serves as an office, the other for sleeping. At 6 a.m., the reveille sounds in the police campground –but before that, lifting the tent flaps, I smell wood smoke from the outdoor fires. Once, through the mist, I saw a tall figure walking, with a sawn-off human leg slung over his shoulder. The leg wore a mojdi. Only now I realize that the mojdi was probably slung on one end of a long handled ax or hoe to save the leather from wear and tear. I had my first glimpse of a snake that slithered into the tent, but I wasn’t really frightened, my father was there to protect us; like the male bamboo which holds up an entire tent.
It is difficult to live up to a remarkable parent. Just like Jambavan inspired Hanuman in the Ramayana, my father inspired me. By simply taking it for granted that I could do great things he brought out the best in me.
I take another trip down memory lane. Expo 67, Montreal. I am a woman guide at the Indian Pavilion. Apart from meeting the likes of Jackie Kennedy, Marlene Dietrich and John Kenneth Galbraith, I traipse between the pavilions and the city in high heels and silk saris. One day, instead of assuming my usual post on the low stool before a wooden carving of a goddess, surrounded by sitar music, I have to take the Golden Agers Club on a tour of the pavilion. They gather around me in a circle: half a dozen women all over eighty along with Harry, the sole gentleman. They are accompanied by a young Miss Gabb, a woman of few words.
I begin my spiel. A woman in a yellow wig interrupts.
“When I was a little girl,” she gushes, making small boats of her hands, “my daddy brought me little pointed shoes from India.”
“They are called mojdis,” I say.
Another woman bobs her head up and down and in a sing-song voice and begins, “My daddy said…”
This interaction with the women abruptly took me back to my own childhood that day. I mused about how the second elderly woman had started her sentence with “My daddy said..” and wondered whether I would be the same even when I turned eighty.
My father had always been my hero, but will he influence me, even when I am eighty plus? That’s what I wondered at the Expo that day.
There is a proverb, “Nothing grows under the banyan.” It is difficult to live up to a remarkable parent. Just like Jambavan inspired Hanuman in the Ramayana, my father inspired me. By simply taking it for granted that I could do great things he brought out the best in me. Great military leaders inspire their soldiers and lead them through hell and high water. The ability to inspire and empower is a gift more precious than mere material wealth. Funnily enough, it is the hero worshipper who benefits more than the hero.
My beloved father has been gone eight years. I was in Chicago when he died. My younger sister says the night he died in a Mumbai hospital a hearse van stopped outside the home at 2 a.m. My father lay in a corner, the lone occupant of the dark, refrigerated van, swaddled in a sheet, unrecognizable. He used to say, “After eighty, it is not a mourning death.”
My father’s words pop into my head, and I long to speak to him again—on morning walks during my annual visits from Chicago. I yearn to share my concerns with him, use him as a touchstone to help me make the right decisions.
I am a grandmother now, but I still try to live up to my father’s expectations, seek his approval, make him proud–even though he only lives inside my head and heart.
Ravibala (Ravi) Shenoy lives in Naperville, IL. She has been published in Sugar Mule, The Copperfield Review, The Chicago Tribune and VOYA: Voice of Youth Advo- cates. A retired librarian, she is a book review editor for Jaggery.