From Hindi and Urdu dhoti, dhooti, dhooti, dhootie or dhuti; First Known Use: 1612
Until a few years ago, my father would always receive us at Chennai airport when we landed in India. Dad would be waiting amid the throngs of people huddled outside to greet their loved ones.
His two-tone whistle would give him away from a hundred feet as we walked through the exit doors. Always dapper in a crisply ironed shirt tucked into his pants, he’d wave to us between shrill calls from puckered lips, and whistle again as my kids screeched towards him. Then he’d perform his signature butterfly maneuver. He’d put his thumbs end to end and turn his wrists clockwise flapping his fingers in mid-air. Like many before them, my kids stood transfixed by those wings.
On the way home we would chitchat. I would tell him he’d lost hair and weight. He’d frown at my size, pointing out that I was too skinny. He’d ask his son-in-law about his company’s latest acquisitions and his next business trip. He’d promise my children, once again, that he would to take them to MGM Dizzee World. (He never did.) He promised them he would take them to Pizza Hut at Pondy Bazaar for a paneer masala tikka pizza. (He delivered on that.) All the while his grandkids would hang off his neck, cheeks and jowl, kissing and hugging him until grandpa pried himself loose, begging to be delivered from the rabid forces of love.
When my father became too frail to receive us when we landed, we would greet him at his apartment. He would be fast asleep when we rolled in long after midnight. I would hug him as he lay there in his queen bed, a white silhouette asleep in his white vest and white dhoti. Dad would rouse at my touch. He’d wipe his drool and beam up at me: “Hi, baby, welcome to Chennai.” Then he’d suggest I wash up and eat a bowl of curd rice with mango pickle that his Man Friday, Vinayagam, had set aside for me on the dining table. Then he’d send me off to bed with the promise that he’d be up at 5 A.M. to make me “the world’s best coffee” before he went off on his hour-long walk in Jeeva Park.
For the first time since I made my home in the United States twenty-seven years ago, at the close of October, I greeted my father in a hospital. He was curled up in pain and strapped to intravenous fluids and an opiate. Dad hadn’t showered in days. He hadn’t seen his walking friends for over a week.
“I want to shower, shave and change from this … from this ugly thing into my dhoti,” he growled, tugging at his printed gown. A starched and ironed cotton dhoti would make him well again, he said. Nothing defined him as well as his four-meter (13 feet) dhoti; it would reinstate his “Indianness,” his identity and his dignity. “I want to be civilized,” he said. “Let’s go home.”
It seemed to me that in the hospital my father had morphed into the antithesis of the man I had known since birth. Shackled by pain, my father had grown barbs. He whined. The doctors were hostile, he said. No one would hand him his dentures. The nurses always walked past his bed without once looking his way. Perhaps other patients were bribing them for care, he grunted. No one in the heartless ward cared about an old man like him even though he had begged the staff all through the night for a cell-phone just to be able to talk to his daughters.
But hours later when the pain had evanesced, a happy old man emerged: gentle and logical, genteel and philosophical. He impressed all the doctors on duty. He bantered with nurses. He was indebted to them, he said. In return, one young nurse rewarded him with a light pinch on his gaunt cheek and a compliment: “Chamathu thatha.” By evening, however, he was sheathed in a cocoon of pain again.
On one of his brightest mornings, Dad sat up in bed with a little help and asked to wear his dentures and his glasses. He asked for his checkbook and his daily accounts diary to be brought to him. Then he began to figure out month-end salaries and Diwali bonuses for his household staff. He remembered to deduct the advance to the night watchman. He marked down payments for the milkman—720 Rupees ($13.18) a month depending on the month, he said, and suggested that his daughters verify the amount against the chart in the kitchen back at home. Then there were the monthly dues for subscriptions to television (380 Rupees, he wrote) and those for The Hindu and other newspapers, 310 Rupees. No Diwali inams for the newspapers and cable, he clarified, for those were commercial expenses.
Then he told my sister to bring him his credit card to pay off all hospital expenses. Then she was to bring the cash stashed in a green unmarked envelope in the top right hand drawer of his cupboard so he could take care of any expenses that she had incurred on his behalf. He paused, between the arithmetic, looked at me with keen eyes and said he must reimburse me, his “little girl,” for my flight expenses from San Francisco to Chennai, an unseemly amount that he did not want his daughter and son-in-law to bear on his behalf. When all was done he held both our hands in his and said he was one lucky man to have two such devoted daughters. Then the family goliath in a wisp of a gown lay back on his bed and waved us away. “Go home and rest and I’ll see you tomorrow,” he said, while his nurses wheeled him away to yet another procedure.
As I write this, we await our father’s return home. We hope he’ll slip into his Nike walking shoes and back into his old life. A stack of ironed and starched dhotis await him in his armoire, right above the shelf with that chaotic pile of received window envelopes, those long white postal covers with broken seals that he will reuse for this and that, and that and this, until he will not use them anymore.
Chamathu Thatha (Tamil): sweet and charming grandfather; Inam (Hindi): Gift/Tip
This month Kalpana Mohan writes from Chennai, India. To read more about her, go to http://kalpanamohan.org and http://saritorial.com.