Confessions Of An Absentee Dad

“Can you come down this weekend and attend the inter-school choir festival? She’s taking part in it and would love it if you are there.”

As calls from my ex-wife go, this was one of the more memorable ones. She does occasionally remind me that ‘I still have a daughter despite the divorce’, but the context is not usually this positive. This invitation was very different from the usual guilt ICBMs, and my mind did a quick inventory of the times I had made myself available for such events in the past. The resultant figure made me squirm.

As a chronically unavailable father, I had never made time to be part of my daughter’s school life. I think that I believed, at some level, that paying her fees and incidental expenses covered my burden of obligation on that front.

“I’ll be there,” I said firmly.

That weekend three years ago, I boarded a train to the city I had left behind even before I regained my ‘single’ status in court. During the journey, I came to terms with some unpalatable truths:

• I had effectively abandoned my daughter after the divorce. I had literally thrown the baby out with the bathwater
• In terms of being a real-and-present Dad, I fell short by a mile. Even before the divorce, I had always been preoccupied with only my own affairs. After it, I continued to be – only with a sense of justification attached
• My daughter’s childhood had passed me by. As a result, the thought of how her needs had evolved intimidated me

I had been playing the undemanding role of the archetypal sugar daddy – in town occasionally to shower her with gifts, then breeze out again.

Her face glowed as I picked her up in the hot afternoon sun. She seemed to take special pride in meeting me in her school uniform. The tie was ineptly knotted. I reveled in a strange sense of wholeness as I set it right. I stepped back and examined her.

“You look absolutely beautiful,” I said. She giggled with delight. At thirteen, this lady-in-the-making had just received male approval from her rightful primary provider. In the rickshaw, she snuggled up to me until we reached the school.

Pandemonium at the inter-school choir festival’s venue. Every school in town had its student choir taking part. The scene was a splash of brightly coloured school uniforms.

She was in her element, introducing me to some of her classmates. How had she been handling questions about her father’s whereabouts in the past? I would have been at greater ease in a boardroom full of strange business suits.

Her class’ choir was the second act after the intermission, and we sat together in the audience until then. It was a mind-blowing experience – these kids could sing! This was not just some kiddie-school do that parents sat through with bored, condescending smiles on their faces… this was a genuine musical event.

She threw me a shy grin as she marched down the aisle with her class’ choir group. Moments later, the geriatric MC announced their rendition – ‘Reach For the Stars’, and they were on.

It was a perfectly choreographed rendition of Shirley Bassey’s timeless song of hope and optimism, which had once made it to the #1 slot in the UK charts.

There’s a place waiting just for you
Is a special place where your dreams all come true
Fly away, swim the ocean blue
Drive that open road, leave the past behind you
Don’t stop – gotta keep moving
Your hopes have gotta keep building
Never ever forget that
I’ve got you and you’ve got me, so…

Reach for the stars
Climb every mountain higher
Reach for the stars
Follow your heart’s desire
Reach for the stars
And when that rainbow’s shining over you
That’s when your dreams will all come true…

After the show, we ambled through the dark streets. I held her hand and breathed in the sights and sounds of this peaceful town I’d left behind. We talked of nothing deep, and it was awesome to share this simple, undemanding moment with her. I bought her a soft toy at a store we passed, overwhelmed by the pleasure this seemed to give her. She has it with her to the present day.

We shared a spicy fast food meal and an orange juice further on, and then I dropped her off at her mother’s place again. There was a lump in my throat… maybe a minor throat infection brought on by the cool weather?

I knew that the deeper stuff would eventually come. She was a teenager now. There would be tricky questions – “Why did you and Mummy split?” “Was it something I did wrong?” For the moment, however, we were still safe. God had given me this fleeting moment of real togetherness with my daughter, at the very fag end of her childhood. No tough questions yet – other than the ones I have been asking myself since then. Of course, it’s possible that I’m taking myself far too seriously.

I did learn something for sure that evening – my daughter doesn’t love me for my parenting victories, or hate me for my shortcomings. She loves me because I’m her Dad. My wife (yes, I remarried a couple of years ago – and she’s the light of my life) assures me that children retain their uncanny ability to love unconditionally right up to the moment we teach them to be adults…

Mumbai – A Bohemian Rhapsody?

Kamlesh (not his real name) arrived from Delhi with stars in his eyes and a spring in his step. That had me wondering, since he had a grueling second-class train ride behind him. To land in the blast furnace of Mumbai after a non-AC train ride from the sweltering capital in such ebullient spirits is no mean feat.

I had told my wife that I would spend that Saturday with my Delhi buddy. She had been agreeable to the point of indifference, which probably meant that she had planned to join an extended hen party at our neighbor’s place anyway. Women are never averse to more things to complain about at such events.

Anyway, I helped Kamlesh sort out his luggage at Dadar TT and flagged a taxi to take us home. He asked the driver to stop along the way so that he could pick up a couple of beers, and I once again wondered at this laissez faire on what was supposed to be a company-sponsored business trip.

“Mumbai!!” he exulted when he’s stashed his bottles on the back seat. “Sin City! Man, I’ve always wanted to check out Mumbai, and now I have three whole days for it!”

Sin City?! I mean, sure, there is a lot of shady stuff going on in Mumbai that the media just love hollering about. But that doesn’t make the other metros Abodes of Sanctity either. In fact, if I recall right, some Bollywood offering or the other attempted to showcase the slimier side of Delhi’s ‘social’ circles. I asked him to explain.

“Oh, I know, I know,” he said dismissively. “People who live next to the sea never go swimming. You Mumbaiites are so engrossed with the daily grind that you miss out on all the fun that this city has to offer.”

“Well, I do go to the movies with the family,” I countered defensively. “Not that I want to… it’s a sort of recurring weekly hijack. And I take them to every new mall that blots the landscape, too….”

“Pah!” said Kamlesh. “Movies! Malls! See what I mean? You’re missing out on all the REAL action. But then, you’re married.” He said that as if referring to some unfortunate physical defect. I’m sure that there are folks who would agree with him on that. I’m not one of them, and my dander was up anyway.

“Okay, so what do you hope to do in Mumbai after you’re swilled those beers?” I asked him, mindful of not raising my voice. The taxi driver could not have understood much of the conversation, but he had hear the name of his city spoken in less than reverend tones and was glaring daggers at us through the rearview mirror.

“Have fun,” said Kamlesh smugly.

“You may wish to expand on that,” I said reasonably. “You know nothing of Mumbai and you’ll need some local guidance.”

He pondered this. “True,” he said. “Okay, I want to smoke some good Afghani dope, get hold of one of those bimbos Mumbai is so famous for and generally lose ten years of my life in three days!”

I was taken aback. I had never seen evidence of Kamlesh’s bohemian tendencies before. I believe he pushes magnetized mattresses from Japan on unsuspecting customers in Delhi for a living – I mean, it’s not as if he’s in advertising or anything like that. But that was not the point. He had apparently judged this city as degenerate and was all set to exploit the degeneration.

“I hope you don’t expect to find that particular fun package where I live,” I said, though I suspected he would if he looked hard enough.

“Forget home, then!” he countered passionately. “I’m not interested in wasting these three days in some backwater suburb! Drop me off at a hotel in some happening locality. I mean it, pal… I want to make the most of this trip!!”

“What you have in mind is pretty perilous for someone who hasn’t been in Mumbai before,” I said evenly. “But have it your way. Just let me know before you leave for Delhi again. It’ll be interesting to know if you got what you wanted.”

I got off to take a separate cab home and asked the driver of this one to take Kamlesh to Colaba. I added that he might find it worth his while to help my friend find a hotel there, and to supply some classified information. The man nodded sagely and off they went. My home was deserted when I got back and I resigned myself to watching Oprah or something equally soporific on the telly for the rest of the day.

Next morning, I got a call from Kamlesh while I was at work. He wanted me to bail him out at Kamathipura police station, where he had been taken after he was found high and sozzled at one of the better brothels there. The cops had also retrieved a small amount of hashish from him – thankfully not enough to mark him as a peddler. I took the local to Grant Road and went to the chowky.

Kamlesh’s wallet, gold ring, watch and Ray Ban goggles were gone. His right eye was blackened and his shirt was torn in various places. He himself was a chastened man and none of the effervescence of two days ago was in evidence. Five hundred bucks and a strident lecture from the PSI later, he was out of the chowky. I took him back to his hotel, where he showered and changed. Then he took a taxi to VT, from where he would catch the first available train to Delhi. I didn’t expect to hear from him again too soon.

A hooker glanced a silent question at me as I approached Grant Road station to catch a train back home. I waved at her with weary good cheer and went my way.

Yes, he was right. People who live next to the sea never go swimming… but that’s not all there is to it. In Mumbai, we live with an understanding – supply does not necessarily equal demand. I hope Kamlesh finds his peace with that fact eventually, or else he won’t be safe anywhere at all….

Mumbai: Reflections On A Dying City

Sometimes it all gets too much for me, and I have to withdraw. Yes, even from my family and friends. Mumbai’s frenetic pace can mesmerize you into thinking that manic activity is normal. That we have always lived this way. But I guess, deep down where we carry our legacy of freedom encoded in our being, we know that this is a lie. The truth is…

Mumbaiites have not always fought for every square inch of space. We have not always attached a monetary value to every aspect of our lives. We have not always had to feel the do-or-die rush of toxic adrenaline as we gear up each morning and evening to engage in choiceless battle with our fellowmen on platform 2, or automotive anarchy in the rush-hour traffic. We have not always had to walk our streets with wary caution, our bodies clenched like fists to reduce the space we occupy to a bare minimum. We have not always had to have mastered the skill of looking through others as if they don’t exist, hoping only that they will be considerate enough to return the favor. We have not always had to traverse this city with one hand on our wallets and the other one clutching a kerchief to our noses.

I have learned of a saner Mumbai at the feet of Dadasaheb Lohekar, who occasionally holds court at the local park where I live. The man is 91 years old and looks every day of it as he sits there with his decrepit Alsatian. However, his memory is as sharp as a Grant Road pickpocket’s blade and he has some stories to tell of this city. Of course, he’s not old enough to actually remember some of the things he talks about, such as the days when Mumbai’s only inhabitants were the Koli fisher folk. Yeah, the people we resignedly make way for in the locals today as they climb on with their noxious baskets, most of us unaware of the fact that Mumbai is named after their patron goddess Mumbaidevi.)

But Dadasaheb is old enough to talk authoritatively of them and the standards of coexistence they adhered to. He is old enough to remember the Parsi, Gujarati and South Indian Hindu families that lived together peacefully here at one time, when property was not an issue of power and the sharing of resources not restricted to partisan community pockets.

His eyes, already filmy with advancing cataracts, cloud over even further when he regales us with stories of a Mumbai we would never recognize today. I don’t blame him. I get sort of misty-eyed myself. And so, on some nights after the daily struggle to emerge intact from the teeming human anthill, I take off on my old Enfield and look for evidence of Mumbai in the urban apocalypse. I leave my suburb behind, aware of the fact that the bike’s exhaust is not doing much to improve the pollution I often complain about.

I see a different Mumbai emerge after midnight, though the city truly never sleeps. This Mumbai tosses uneasily in its half-awake somnolence, the relative quiet after a day of commercial convulsions probably allowing it to reach back into its memory and remember that another order once existed. For some reason, I always end up staring at Haji Ali bathed in the moonlight, glowing an eerie, timeless green. Its aloofness from the madness of the mainland seems to tell me that one can be part of the chaos and yet be apart from it.

As its walkway disappears under the tide, I understand that I, too, need to occasionally deny the city access to the essential me. The rat race churns on less than a hundred yards away, but Haji Ali finds an island of detached peace just by drawing up the bridge once in a while.

“Do you realize that it’s two in the morning?” grumbles my wife as I sneak in. “You will be late for work again. Each time you do this, I wonder if the police or gundas have finally got you.”

I’m up by seven, my mind already strategizing the commute to work and the uncertain odds of another day in Mumbai. I’m bleary-eyed but ready. The most profound insights of a Mumbai night cannot match swords with the realities of the city by day….