I hardly knew him at all.
A pewter bowl full of boiling, scalding water, a hand-held mirror, shaving brush, safety razor and a tube of shave cream in the pre-dawn semi-darkness at the corner of the dining table next to the window is my enduring image of him. Another early morning flight somewhere and he would be gone for a couple of days.
He surrounded himself with a quiet calm and books. Books that entertained, books that educated, classic authors, latter day potboilers, detective fiction, poetry. Dickens, Hardy, Shakespeare, Hugo, Haggard, Christie, Creasey, AA Fair, Erle Stanley Gardner, Maugham, Tennyson, Bronte, Thackeray and more. They were found in abundance in every room and it is to him and his collection that I owe my own escape from a strange world at the age of 9 when he took over the company office in Calcutta. There was violence on the streets of this unknown city with the strange language and the house or “flat” with no open area anywhere but the street.
Uprooted at the end of one grade and arriving in this new city of Calcutta in the middle of the school term meant I lost 6 months of schooling and did not catch up with Math until my final year of school. With Math lost to me, the restriction placed on non-school external activity by Naxalite violence and language issues, I found refuge in his store of literature. Over the next few years I read everything there was on hand including Marie Stopes on birth control. Libraries and book stores still hold a peculiar fascination for me. Without his collection and more importantly the variety, breadth and reach of the literature available I dread to to think what may have become of me.
His sense of adventure was kept in check by the exigencies of being the sole provider for a large family. But it came through in the fierce independence he displayed in a career of 37 years with the same company. “BK runs his own company”, it was said.
It also broke out in his need to drive long distances. The family can tell many tales of inter-city driving sagas, leaving sleepy-eyed well before the sun came up, headed on a 4-hour trip to a beach or even longer runs to various sites or some of his more remote client locations. One of the major reasons I don’t care for mattar-paneer curry is the trip from Ahmedabad to New Delhi via assorted cities in Rajasthan. In the 60’s in India these were adventures of quasi-expedition status.
Breakfast in whatever Dak Bungalow, guest house or hotel we happened to have spent the night, would almost always come with toast carried in on a toast rack. The memory of those toast racks has stayed with me all these years and I managed to find one last year. It lies in my kitchen, never used, a mute memento of those years on the road.
He was an intensely private man. Lonely, I suppose; very quiet. Family lore has it that he turned down an offer to join the fledgeling RAW because he did not want his family under mandatory surveillance or whatever other security measures India’s just-being- formed CIA-like entity came up with. He had a large family but I would hesitate to call him a family man.
His sense of calm was phenomenal as demonstrated by the time when he and I waited at a traffic light. As the light went green, he put the car in gear and gently mumbled “axle’s broken”, turned the engine off and asked me to get out. He got out himself, oblivious to the many honks and hailed a passing taxi. He followed me into the taxi and off we went. The next day the car was fixed – I never heard him talk about that little incident.
There was the time when the family trip up to Mt Abu in the little stick shift Standard Herald packed with kids of various sizes was disrupted by a broken gearbox. Refusing to trust an unknown mechanic, he took the cover off the gear box, stuck his finger under the lever, somehow managed to put it into third gear and we drove home. There was no hint of panic, no wringing of hands, no sitting down to think it over. He just got on with it.
Years later one of my bosses would complain that I was “too calm under pressure”. How could I be otherwise?
He was definitely mechanically and electrically inclined. Electricity, especially, seemed to fascinate him. He hand wired his own string of lights for Diwali, not trusting the store built kits. The family stereo was housed in a custom cabinet built to his exacting specifications by the family carpenter before he spent the next few days installing panels of sockets and switches to run every piece of equipment with room for expansion.
I owe him more than some would say he deserved. While explicitly denying me any assistance, he still taught me more that I use today than any other person I can think of.
That day in October 1985 is at once clear and dim in my memory. It’s late in the evening, he’s complaining of uneasiness, finally calling his doctor, sagging on my shoulder, collapsing into bed. Local doctor hurries over, injections – “his blood pressure is 60/40, you have to transfer him to hospital”. The chair lift down the stairs, he walks to the car, and says “I feel much better”. The ICCU, the normalization of all signs, being sent home by the nursing home staff. My sudden and impulsive decision to go back, buttoning up my shirt as the phone rings. The surreal walk through the hushed corridor, the house physician’s apologetic, mumbled “we did everything we could”, not registering what he means, taking in the defribillator electrodes lying haphazardly next to him and then I’m at his bed, my hands gentle on his forehead.
The only time I ever remember doing that and he would never know.