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     Volume 6 Issue 27 | July 13, 2007 |

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A Father, a Child and a Bicycle

Syed Badrul Ahsan

When the sky turns crimson in the west even as the day ends, I remember my father. It has been more than fourteen years since I last had any conversation with him. There will be years, a myriad of them, when he and I will not have occasion to speak to each other again. He has been dead all these years and sleeps in the shadow of pastoral trees through which the winds blow and the rains pour.

My father has always been my hero. He was not a famous man, but he lived by the principles that went into the making of old-fashioned values. In his youth, he plodded through genteel poverty, until he found a job in the geological survey in Calcutta in 1942. It was one of those times when India was in tumult and my father found himself drawn, like nearly everyone else, into the political agitation for Pakistan. As Muslims and Hindus murdered one another in 1946 in the macabre happiness that comes with religious fanaticism, my father negotiated the blood-soaked streets of the great city in pyjamas and dhoti, depending on the area he happened to be passing through. He could have died any moment. He went on to live through the dark weeks and months of the partition of the country. On the day the state of Pakistan came into being, my father found himself, with some of his colleagues, raising the flag of the new country on what would be the headquarters of its geological survey in an arid, sparsely, removed from civilisation town called Quetta. And Quetta was to be the place where, for the next quarter of a century, he would build a humble career and raise a family.

There are days when I turn the pages of my father's diaries, those he kept meticulously for close to three years after the partition of India. They reveal an ambitious young man quite taken in by politics, seduced by poetry and in general drawn to all those things that add a dash of romance to a young man's life. He loved jotting down quotations; and there are pages where verses from poems and lyrics from songs keep me rooted to a sense of wonder, for they make my father come to life once more. It is the image of the father I once knew that I then resurrect in the imagination. How many were the times when he picked me up from school on his bicycle and then rode home across the railway tracks? It was an exciting journey as I, on the back seat made of brass, held on to his stomach with my little hands, screaming in delight. When we got home, my tiny buttocks sore from the ride across the tracks and the stones, my mother was furious at him. My father laughed nervously and quickly gathered me up in his arms. It was his way of saying sorry to his little boy.

As he aged and weakened, my father mellowed into a symbol of calm. Gone was the chain-smoking that had dominated his days for years on end. His temper, into which he frequently exploded in his youth and middle age, had grown conspicuous by its absence. He watched the news on television, shaking his head as he did so. There were too many things going wrong in the country, or so he felt. There were the times when I spotted him dozing off in his chair. And then there were the moments when he pointed to his feet, to tell me how thin they were getting to be. I don't think I will live much longer, he said to me. He had this premonition of the end, something I tried dispelling through reassurances. His father, my grandfather, had after all lived to an unbelievable old age of a hundred and thirteen years, hadn't he? That seemed to revive his confidence in life, his life.

One bright October morning, the shadows of death approached him and seemed to close in on him. In his hurry to collect the day's newspaper and read it, he sat up in bed, located his slippers on the floor, stood up and then fell. Hurting and bleeding in the head, he lay down again. Twelve days later, with medication unable to cause a turnaround for him, he simply passed on into whatever it is that remains after life draws to an end. The night he died whispered of the oncoming winter. The light simply went out of my father's eyes as the throbbing ebbed away from his heart. Sometime later, a full moon rose in the heavens. There was a pointlessness about it all. Or it was a reminder that the tragic music that defines the cosmic pattern of things goes on. It is only the corporeal that dissipates into nothingness.

When it rains, all these countless autumns after my father broke free of the fetters binding him to the temporal world, I miss his silences and his laughter. I think I see him wait at the door, with that faraway look in his eyes, for all his children to come back home at twilight, in the way he waited for them when he walked the earth. I hear the songs he sang, the same that I heard as he wound his bicycle across the railway tracks, my baby posterior turning blue and my heart in a state of thrill.




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