When journalist Kalpana Mohan’s elderly father falls ill in Chennai, she is on the next flight over from California. Caring for her sometimes cranky, sometimes playful, yet always adored father at his home in Chennai, Mohan sets out to piece together an account of her father’s life. Here is an excerpt from her book, ‘Daddykins: A Memoir of My Father and I‘:
Daddykins concentrated hard during his hour of therapy. My father’s greatest challenge, Physio-Saar explained, was to tell the brain to teach the left hand to lift it high above the head. Daddykins would lift his right hand instead. My father was learning to build a link between his left arm and brain; he was using the code between his right arm and brain to apply it to his left. Daddykins’ neurologist was astonished by his patient’s focus. “I’m yet to see another man — even one who is in his seventies or his eighties — with your father’s optimism and fighting spirit. No one in the medical community will believe he’s doing this at ninety.”
A few weeks later, Physio-Saar brought equipment that began reactivating my father’s nerves. Little by little, Daddykins began to feel life in his fingers although he never recovered sensation in his index finger. After a few weeks of physiotherapy, he was able to lift his left arm high above the shoulder. But his forearm flopped. He was permanently damaged by the stroke in countless other ways. He stopped enquiring about his family or the world outside. Sports drew out his old self for a time. We prayed for one-day cricket and tennis on TV. Late in January, on one evening during the Australian Open, Daddykins became his sprightly old self watching Roger Federer play against Andy Murray. A Federer fan, Daddykins claimed that he didn’t like Murray because he was Scottish and they were ‘all so arrogant.’ That evening, as always, his valet, Vinayagam, played the role of the sports commentator.
“Aiyo, Federer, don’t hit a fault!” he yelled at our Sony Bravia. He turned to me. “The problem is our man always hits the net.” Vinayagam knelt by Daddykins’ black recliner. “Look, it’s 30-15, Saar, are you following the game?” Daddykins nodded and continued staring at the television screen. Nurse Bindu sat on her usual spot on the diwan on my father’s right. I lounged on a rattan chair between my father and my husband Mo on the rust-orange sofa working on his laptop.
At one point during the match, Daddykins told us not to breathe. Federer’s going to hit the ball, he said. Federer slammed the ball. The house came down in Rod Laver Arena.
Vinayagam shot up and screamed. “3-2 for Federer!” He clapped. And Bindu clapped. And I clapped. And Mo clapped. Then Federer thwacked another point. “Yes! 4-2 now! Yes!” Daddykins could not clap. But he lifted his right hand high into the air over the top of his recliner. “Yes! 4-2. Federer, enough! Stop!”
Vinayagam turned to address me. “Amma, your father and I watched every game—Australian Open, French Open, US Open and Wimbledon—together. He taught me the rules. We used to set our alarm clock to get up in the middle of the night to watch our favorite games. FIFA World Cup. Grand Slam. World Cup Cricket. We used to be crazy like that.” For years Daddykins bought himself the best seat at the Nungambakkam Tennis Stadium to attend a whole week of Chennai Open.
Then, as we went into a commercial break, Vinayagam called out to Mo who was tapping away into his keyboard. “Saar, my boss has taught me everything there is to know about tennis. But now he doesn’t even know the rules anymore. Saar, do you know that this is much like a banana plant giving birth to its sapling?”
Fully in the spirit of things that day, Daddykins cheered for Federer while insulting Murray. Perhaps it worked because at the end of a tense match, his beloved Federer emerged the victor. But he was angry because Federer didn’t show the grit of his old game.
“Go home now,” he grunted to Federer as his square face loomed into view on television. “Your wife’s going to have your head, I’m telling you.” Then he turned to Bindu. “I’m so fatigued now after watching this fellow win.”
“Thatha, but you didn’t play,” Bindu said, hugging his frail shoulders. “They played.”
“Yes, I know. But it’s so easy to tire out when you’re watching tennis. Especially a game like this where it took that mutta payal took two hours to win one silly point.” Daddykins patted her head. She laughed. Her white teeth sparkled against her pretty black face.
“Anyway, all this has made me hungry,” Daddykins said, looking at Vinayagam and Bindu. “And I need to celebrate this victory with some Ensure.” His face now wore a woebegone look. “Please?”
One morning, Daddykins walked again. Physio-Saar and Bindu stayed close on either side of him but they did not hold my father as he walked towards the dining area from the living room. “There, let me walk towards her,” he said to me, pointing to a laminated photograph of my mother on the living room cabinet. “She was my inspiration to resume walking.”
Daddykins lifted his left leg consciously and walked with his arms up and down, as if he were a soldier in an army regiment enacting a drill. “Walk normally, Saar,” Physio-Saar reminded him. Daddykins continued to walk as if he were part of a military unit.
“Great! Now let’s walk towards mother’s other photo, Daddykins,” I said as my father walked past me. “Look, she’s on that wall too,” I said, pointing to the collage of our family out on the dining room wall.
“Yes, there she is, my inspiration,” Daddykins said to Physio-Saar, stopping at the wall to point to a photograph, in black and white, of my mother in a pensive mood. He stood there with Bindu and Physio-Saar, staring at another photograph of himself and his wife taken a few months after their wedding. Daddykins, twenty, in a formal western suit. My mother, fourteen, in a sari. Both looked timid, a little anxious, perhaps, as news about the end of the World War and the allied troops readying for D-day came in through the wires.
My father’s face creased into a smile. “Yes, your mother was an inspiration, but many times she was a source of my perspiration,” he said, as he stood by the collage crumbling in toothless glee, his late wife frowning behind him.
Kalpana Mohan writes from Saratoga. She is the author of two books, Daddykins: A Memoir of My Father and I, and An English Made in India: How a Foreign Language Became Local.