The jacket on the man in that picture is nearly fifty years old, only a little younger than I. The first time I saw it was in a photograph sent back by my father from a long trip to the United States; it is the colour of lightly burned ochre and it has leather buttons on it the size of baby chestnuts. That man is Janardan Thakur, my father, and the boy on the arm of the chair is me. The picture was taken the day Bangladesh was born. To the right of where we sat, still flows the Ganga. To the left was what used to be the residence of the Principal of Patna College, a two-storeyed British era mansion with a deck overlooking the river and a portico up front where cycle rickshaws would lumber up and halt.
Patna had very few cars those days, and you saw fewer around the university; my father had a white Vespa, and when I went out with him, I liked to stand in front, between him and the handlebar, a vertical obstruction that impeded vision and skewed the scooter’s centre of gravity. But it was a thrill riding the prow, even with all the dust and fleas flying into my face.
The Principal of Patna College at that time was a man called Mahendra Pratap, a fiesty votary of the liberation of East Pakistan and a friend of my father’s. He’d hung up a large red-and-green of the new nation in his living room, and he’d called my father that morning for a celebratory breakfast. He was a big man, so big it seemed incongruous to me he could be chirpy as a bird, which he was that morning. He’d hugged my father as if he’d just been bequeathed a personal kingdom. He seemed not to know how else to employ his jollity; he pulled out his Rolliflex and took pictures. This one was among those he sent my father several months later. I remembered quietly sliding down the out-of-bounds bank to the river as my father and Mahendra Pratap engrossed themselves in conversation. He wanted to know what the Americans had been saying about the sundering of Pakistan and the birth of Bangladesh. “So Mr Kissinger couldn’t prevent it, heh?” he grunted triumphally, “Nor his Seventh Fleet, heh? Come back in the evening and we shall raise a toast, but meantime tell me the mood in America.”
My father had only recently returned from a studyship in the US ; he’d been gone six months, probably a little more. He mailed close to a hundred picture-postcards during that time to populate his absence and to relentlessly promise return. I can’t quite tell what they should mean to me today now he’s gone somewhere nobody ever gets postcards from. They are all there somewhere in my cloister of my abandoned treasures, rubber-banded and curling at the corners, my father’s wad of notes to me. They came from far, and at that time, magical places – Bangkok, Kowloon, Osaka, Maui, Honolulu, San Francisco, Salem, Phoenix, Denver, Cincinnati, Missouri, Houston, New Orleans, Philadelphia, Boston, Long Island. There was a line common to all of them, a default appendage, like a signature: “I am missing you but I will soon be back.”
The first one he sent me was from Bangkok of the floating vegetable markets on the Chao Phraya. He must have posted that within hours of waving us off from the Dum Dum tarmac and arriving in Thailand. I can still sense my quiet grouse from that morning, looking at the PanAm jumbo parked in the haze, convinced the only mission of its sortie was to steal my father away, an abduction I confusedly watched and he air-kissed his way to. Could this be a good thing, him vanishing into the neck of that blue-white whale of a plane? He seemed happy to go; I never did make up my mind, although over the next few months, I missed him to tears. I was eight, and provincial. I had no notion of where my father was headed, or why. I only knew he was excited. He’d bought a pair of Chinese shoes the previous day from Bentinck Street, he clicked his way to the plane, turning once, then again, but always headed farther and farther until he became a blur climbing up the ladder, and vanished. Swallowed. I stood there, on the open Dum Dum gallery, refusing my mother’s hand, angry that she had allowed this to happen, let him go. From the moment he had taken the stairs down to customs and entered a space I had no passport to, everything had slipped out of grasp and become irretrievable. I had no way of reaching my father anymore; and he was completely taken by the notion of flight. When the ladder was unhooked from the aircraft and rolled away, the great abductor was free to fly. It revved its engines and began to nose away into the morning mist, and took off in a great groan of bereftness.
That first postcard he sent me already had that line at the end: I am missing you but I will soon be back. He had begun a chain and every subsequent postcard would become a link in the journey back to where we would be together again. By the time he returned, they had become such a daily high, I was almost wistful my father wasn’t still out there mailing them from faraway geographies.
It was during that time that I first got a glimpse of the jacket. It was in a photograph he had sent back, tucked between sheets in a par avion envelope. My father stood wearing it on a promontory across the Grand Canyon. It was an eve-of-twilight photograph, that splice of day between glare and gloom when all the world seems burnished in Macenna’s magic. He sported thick sideburns those days and he stood looking back into the camera in fawn Levis and that corduroy top. I know I say this of my father but I haven’t seen a handsomer sight. There are some things that get so irrevocably imprinted in the eye that there isn’t any need more to revisit them for recall. A Vishwanath square-cut, or Nargis lapsed on Raj Kapoor’s pectoralis major mid-street on a night of torrents, or those airliners sharking into the World Trade Center towers on 9/11. That picture of my father is one such. It is in the albums somewhere that I haven’t revisited in a while but I have never needed to; I can see each detail down to his lengthening shadow travelling out of the bottom right of the frame. He filled out that jacket like I have never been able to although I have now owned it for more years than he ever did. And for all the trips it has taken to the cleaner’s and for all the petrol and weaker scouring agents it has been subject to, it still smells of him. Or perhaps it is just the memory of him ionising around my nostrils at the sight of burnt-ochre corduroy.
Memory is only a little about memorising, it’s one in a constellation of things that make up that magical thing called memory. Sense and sensation, association, connection, smell, colour, time, distance, space, voices, silences, genes and the chemicals that make them up, behaviour and its weird geometry. My father never actually taught me to clip my nails but I do not know when or how precisely, I began to clip my nails exactly the way he did, with my fingers splayed and the blades sniping in arches. I was familiar with my shaving rituals long before I sprang facial hair, just what swathes the blade would cut into foam, just those arcs across my face.. My fingers had been choreographed for a typewriter keyboard before my brain trained in Pitman lessons. I see my handwriting from early school on a few Enid Blytons that survive in the household and I see my hand now and can’t decipher the route it took from an awkward squarish scrawl to a stylized slant. Too many years of seeing my father’s writing; too many postcards received from too many places. He never actually taught me. But that is the tango genes dance with behaviour on the helix of memory. There will be pitfalls and missteps in the perilous architecture of the helix but if the tangoing can override them it will eventually spin the dancers into a trance of subconscious fusion. Among the many things —good and bad—I took from him is my habit of smoking, my love for cigarettes and each little act that goes into reducing them into ash. The manner of lighting matches and the manner of bringing the flame to tip, the lips wrapped around the filter in a kiss, eyebrows screwed on the little box of light in closed palms, and then the first puff of smoke shot out like a plume of gunfire. And the fingers yellowed from years of holding and burning the tip too close. I don’t remember if it was he who told me this or I who told him but Graham Greene once indulgently and romantically described his nicotine scars as the “golden fingers of a smoker”. Quite late in our years together — late enough for us to have been comfortable in each other’s company latenights at Leopold’s (a bar in Mumbai’s Colaba district fabled for its libertine, even risqué, nocturnal turnings), which is saying a lot considering the conservative stable we came from and the stable whose rules both punctiliously respected while there – I briefly developed a habit of flicking away burnt out cigarettes with a pincer thrust of the index and the thumb. Soon enough, I noticed him doing the same with rather easy facility.
In the years that he has been gone, I have often spied my mother looking at me in a strange sort of way, in a way I have never seen her look at me, almost as if she were looking at someone else and I just happened to be in the way. I used to shrug it off as my imagining but one day, leaving home and headed for and appointment in peril of being missed, I stopped and asked her, rather irritable, “What is it? Why are you looking like that at me again?” She capped her brow with a palm and said, “Nothing, nothing, it isn’t you, it’s your father, sometimes, with some things, it is like he were blowing through you.” Here’s memory in unfathomable dimensions; it is the memory of one man but it has come to reside within me through various conscious and subconscious routes, and finds various exits — gait, voice, temper, manner, gesture, agitations, the trajectory of my eyebrows, the way I peer over my half-moons sometimes. To my mother, that same memory is an external, even physical, construct. She should know. She has spent more time watching the two of us, together and apart, than we could ever manage.
We all come attached to our mothers and keep going through a series of dis-engagements starting with the placenta at birth. There isn’t a choice about it that we have; attachments to mothers is one of the most essential givens of nature. Fathers are the variables of this equation. Their quantum is a matter of being worked out, about being deciphered through unwritten formulas. Fathers and offspring discover each other along the way or they don’t.
On the first night of my first real disengagement from my mother—my father had taken me, on my great insistence and on my many promises not too cry, to out north Bihar village to attend yearly rituals – I wailed so disconsolately for my mother, my father almost had to scrap the visit and ferry me back. In the event, he didn’t have to but that was achieved by unleashing his fury – one of the few times he did so – on me. I was barely four then and I was told I would never be going out with him again. I did. More times than I can remember. Then on, we never were on a journey not together until he turned the alley where entry is strictly by invitation. I remember him at the point where he forked off alone and forever.
It had to be Bombay, the city that he had grown to love so in such short a time that it could not have just been the sea. Or perhaps it was, I cannot yet reckon. I was on my way back from assignment in Goa to New Delhi and had stopped over to see my parents. But my stopover was shorter than short. Kargil, where military attrition was fast spiralling into what would become the war of 1999, was pressing, and I had to get the first flight out. We spent the morning together in my parents’ Colaba apartment and then my father said he would take a ride with me to Dhobitalao where he had ordered sets of old classics in a second-hand bookstore. He got down en route to Sahar and I touched his feet, as I always did at meetings and partings, and he crossed the road and waved. He was wearing, by some quirk, an ochre shirt and he beamed in the high Bombay noon. I remember thinking on the way to the airport what an odd father and son we made. We drank together and discussed Anais Nin at Leopold’s but it wasn’t ever that I left him without seeking his blessings the old-fashioned way, at his feet. He never demanded it but I have a sense he would have been disappointed if he didn’t. I never felt like not doing it, and that was only because I did not want to disappoint him. He borrowed cigarettes from me but there was something about him that forbade me to puff in front of him. I never did. He disliked me smoking, especially smoking too much. But all he ever did was to scribble advice and leave it in my books as markers. It takes two to tango and we both knew the rules.