My father, Mr Rehman, is a retired chief general manager of Western Coalfields Limited (WCL). He doesn’t have a date of birth even though his passport shows January 10, 1942.
What he does have is a story. He was born the year his father went missing while the Quit India movement was at its peak. Dadaji, a train driver, was presumed dead when freedom fighters blockaded all trains. Then, one rainy day, my father was born. His mother, my Dadi, told him this story whenever he pestered her with questions about his date of birth.
As I navigate a world tethered to a mobile phone or computer in 2020, I am amazed at my Dadi’s resilience. She, who was unlettered, gave birth to her youngest child and got busy looking after her family.
My parents had flown to my home inDelhi from Jitwarpur village in Bihar’s Samastipur district to attend a marriage. We were already uneasy as protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act and riots had coursed through the by-lanes of some parts of Delhi. Coronavirus had not hit the headlines in the first week of March. Donald Trump’s visit, which took place in late February, was still being discussed. COVID-19 was there in the country, but in distant Kerala. Anxiety, misery and death were still some weeks away.
Then, in an unprecedented order, the government declared the nationwide lockdown. Suddenly, my parents were rendered “homeless” as they had to cancel the arrangements they had made to go back to Jitwarpur.
Overnight, I became a parent to my parents – though the process had started two years ago when my father was diagnosed with dementia. The lockdown, however, made it official. COVID-19 ensured that my parents were stuck with me as I was to them, like a leaf clinging to a branch. It was the longest I have stayed with them since I left home at the age of 16. Surprisingly, my partner and kids were alright with this – partially because I was the primary caregiver.
New words entered my life: HIb, MRI, Oximeter, vitamin D, Zincovit etc. Words earlier spoken on the phone by my mother acquired a unique sheen – “frail, forgets a lot, challenging to take care of him as I am myself getting old”. Making my father understand the importance of wearing masks and maintaining social distance was a difficult task. My mother accepted things readily, but my father resisted.
Nowadays, he does understand. Even if he forgets, I tiptoe up to him and he complies and wears a mask. Both my parents are learning to rely on me as I have relied on them for the last 46 years. The two of them had sent me across three states to study and make a career. They stood by my decision to marry the person of my choice. I try to remember this as I take care of their needs. I have become super vigilant; my mind races ahead like a stream in flow – always zooming in to prevent falls. It gets exhausting at times. It takes a lot of effort to unsee the panic in my father’s eyes when he forgets where he is.
These days, our favourite pastime is him regaling us with stories. My kids are fascinated with the narration of his friendship with a Mr Brahm Dutt – a relationship born in the hallowed portals of the Indian School of Mines, now known as Indian Institute of Technology, Dhanbad. The nicknames of ‘pandit’ and ‘maulana; endure even after 60 years. For the first time in college, my father had a full egg for breakfast. Through his childhood, his mom only gave him a quartered piece of an egg. He often talks of a well-dressed lady in a green saree and red sindoor who had entrusted her potli of jewellery to my Dadi for safekeeping. He talks with pride that in those days of how Muslim were observed to be honest – a far cry to these days where my kids have to field questions like, “Are you a Pakistani?”
My parents like to watch the news on television. My father reminisces about the Green Revolution. He is a man who was always sure of the roadmap ahead, but now the lines are getting blurred. I feel unsure and scared. My fears get diffused as I make sure that they wear proper winter clothes.
Months into the pandemic, life has acquired its own pace. The protesting farmers also share space with the virus on the front pages of newspapers. Although the vaccine has arrived, the mechanism of getting it is still unclear. We have discovered a distinct rhythm to our lives. My mother has started writing her memoir. Increasingly these days we hug, we bicker and shed tears. Kaun Banega Crorepati provides a welcome distraction. Cooking food and eating together is a blessing that I have learnt to count. We grasp grit, determination and grace.
As we take baby steps in this new world, ‘living in the present’ is our mantra. I bask in the honey-bathed sun rays that peep through the Ashoka leaves and can feel my Dadi’s presence. I never met her – she died before I was born – but she hovers over us like a prayer. I get a glimpse of her struggles and channel my Dadi’s strength. The three of us soldier ahead.
Farah Naaz is an advocate and a writer who has a pulse on things which bothers her. My Instagram handle is Farahnaaz3.