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My earliest recollections of my father are not of his face, or indeed his voice, but of his footsteps – the long, measured tread with which he traversed the long, echoing hallways of our house.

It was a stride that commanded attention, even respect.

Upon hearing it, the crowd of boys that normally hung around in my brother’s room drinking long gulps of ice-cold water from tall bottles, would suddenly grow silent and slip away noiselessly down the stairs.

I would hurriedly take out my schoolbooks and pretend I was doing my homework. Even the household help seemed to walk straighter as they respectfully brought him his tea.

Great Expectations

And yet my father seldom raised his voice or spoke harshly to us. We were simply in awe of his erect bearing in polished black shoes and the stiffly starched khaki Air Force uniform that rustled as he moved. 

His chief interaction with us was to check our homework every day and make sure that we scored high on school tests. He had very high expectations of us and even on Sundays – when he was home – we were expected to hit our books for at least part of the day. Reading comics – our favorites were Dennis the Menace and the Lone Ranger – was frowned upon – we hid them inside the pages of our schoolbooks and read them.

Life After High School and Homework

By the end of high school my relationship with him subtly changed as he became more of a friend than a strict preceptor. He had his heart set on my studying Medicine and was rather disappointed when I chose to pursue Literature instead.

However, he soon came around and we bonded over a shared love of books.  My father was a voracious reader with an eclectic taste. He did not believe in spoiling his children with what he considered useless toys and fripperies, but he never denied us books. He encouraged us to read everything that he read without censorship – except for a few Victorian romances that were carefully locked away in a cupboard (along with his stash of brandy) because  he  did  not  deem  them appropriate for my innocent eyes (little did he know that I found a way to sneak into that cupboard and read them anyway).

My Father Loved Poetry

I was amazed that this stern-faced man who could take apart the radio and put it back together in a few hours, could also be so sensitive to Milton, Tennyson  and  Keats.  As  the  son  of  a  Tamil  scholar  and  a  graduate  of  a  British Missionary school, he could quote long passages of the Bible in both English and Tamil with equal ease.

He would entertain us at the dinner table by reciting in Tamil his favorite story of Jonah and the whale – narrated with much gusto and dramatic flair. The dinner table was our favorite place to discuss books, travel and other subjects, and we would often sit there long after the food had been cleared, just talking.

When my mother tried to redirect us to the living room he would jokingly remind her of a Tamil proverb that says that “food for the brain is more important than food for the stomach.” That table became the focal point of all meaningful family interaction.

My father had a keen sense of  the comic side of life.  Some of his favorite authors were P.G. Wodehouse (of Jeeves fame), O. Henry and William Shakespeare. He would often reminisce about their jokes and stories – “Do you remember the Ransom of Red Chief?”

My Father the Jester

One hot summer night I had stayed up late to study for a test. The whole neighborhood was dark apart from a harsh naked light above my desk. All was quiet except for the sounds of crunching gravel and a tapping cane as the Gurkha went about his nightly patrol.

All of a sudden the long curtain in the doorway moved and I heard a voice whispering “Hamlet! Where art thou Hamlet”! I looked up startled. There was my father behind the curtain, beckoning to me. There was a split second of silence before we both burst out laughing.

“Appa, what are you doing?” I asked. He came into the room and sheepishly handed me a cup of milk that he had warmed to sustain me through a long night of studying!

All through my college years we enjoyed sharing the poetry and novels that I had to read. He was tireless in helping with constructive criticism and endless discussions.

I can picture him now, reclining in bed with a tumbler of Scotch on a nearby table, and reading while smoking incessantly – an addiction to tobacco that eventually led to his death from emphysema. He would knock off the hot ashes behind the headboard – I later found they’d made a small depression in the floor behind his bed.

Remembering a Man with a Twinkle in His Eye

As a senior military officer my father often travelled abroad, and he always had a fund of  colorful  anecdotes from  his  trips to Japan, or Russia or the UK. His vivid story telling made both my brother and I determined to travel after our studies were over – indeed we have both travelled widely in our adulthood.

This gift of the gab endeared him to children too – I have seen him get down to the level of the smallest child and hold its attention with an animated story. Later in his career he received the AVSM – a prestigious award given by the Indian government in recognition of his technical contributions to the Indian Air Force. It was a proud moment for our family.

My father passed away at an early age – much earlier than I was prepared to let him go. But whenever I open an old, yellowed book of Palgrave’s Golden Treasury of Poems and see his name written on the fly leaf, when I hear my children reminisce about stories that he had introduced to me and I to them, then I see that sly twinkle in his eyes again and know that he will always be a part of our memories.

Images: Susheela Narayanan

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Susheela Narayanan

Susheela Narayanan is a retired early childhood educator and Professor of Child Development from San Diego Mesa College. A longtime resident of San Diego, she is active in her community and with Rotary...