He was everybody’s daddy.
Daddy was short and short-tempered. The former a cause for our amusement, the latter our fear. This combination made us hide from him, while keeping an eye on his unusual body movements that be used as material for jokes later. My sister and I would observe his stout figure from a slit in the curtain when he came home seething with anger about something or the other. Sometimes we’d pretend to be asleep and observe him with fascination, mixing his whiskey with water, grumbling at the news-anchor report about yet another scandal. The next morning, he would kiss our cheeks, leaving a prickly sensation of stubble and a scent of Benarasi paan lingering on our faces through the day.
We were his endearing grandkids. Daddy. That’s what we called him, even though he was our grandfather, simply because we’d hear our mother address him as daddy. Our grandmother, accurately addressed as nani, had given up all hope of correcting us and would refer to him as our daddy. Every time he’d come home after a long day at the shop, there would be three generations of people rejoicing "Daddy is here!"
Nobody could understand where his anger stemmed from, for the occasional intensity of it would make anybody ponder its roots. There were the usual culprits - family strife, migration and career struggle. He had been abandoned as a child and raised by his elder sister, having to live without a strong sense of guidance (which he vigorously enforced on his own children by being a strict parent). As a migrant from the Ambala region of Punjab, he stumbled upon various small businesses, most trial-and-errors, fine-tuning his destiny. Within ten years, he had opened a garage, a roadside dhaba, a small ice-cream factory, eventually settling on a dairy shop. 1970s Bombay ensured that he had to struggle through license raj, waiting list for telephone and electricity connections that lasted for years, bribes and beatings, and a fast-changing landscape that demanded quick adjustment to language, climate, and traditions.
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For us kids, however, he was Santa Claus (red cheeks and a portly belly included) who appeared only during summer. School vacations began with a stay at daddy’s house and ended with gifts, kisses and additional weight, put on from regular visits to the ice-cream shop. It was like a scene from the Chocolate Factory, with treats sprouting from every wall, aptly named "Delight".
My personal Santa Claus. Image credit: Jitesh Jaggi
In my teenage years, I began working part-time at daddy’s shop. It was the kind of job adults dream of; I had near-to-complete autonomy, flexible hours, and was surrounded by ice-cream, sweet lassi, and chocolates. Even the dismal income of Rs. 20 per day was twice the amount I was getting as pocket money. It’s no wonder I stuck around for 7 years which afforded me a chance to get close to him.
My earliest memory of my grandfather-turned-daddy-turned-employer was his muted laughter. Either prompted by one of the funny anecdotes that a regular customer would narrate, or a comical accident from one of the newer staff, or sometimes all alone assisted by memory, he would convulse on his chair, round stomach vibrating, lips tightly closed (which I suspect was to keep the paan in), and laugh his strange laugh. It was the kind that made you join him even if you didn’t get the joke. The laughter of a 'cranky old man' as his staff referred to him.
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I remember watching him in awe as he deftly operated his curd churning machine and make glasses of thick lassi. The machine was brought from Ambala during his annual visits to the family and friends. He would similarly prepare rabdi, paneer, ghee, shrikhand and many other varieties of milk products all in the small shop. And so, a city boy who thought all these goodies came from a plastic cup, was introduced to the self-reliance and dexterity of a village migrant.
The lessons continued at home too. Teaching us about fruits and dry fruits and their benefits. All this while he drank his whiskey with water, and chopped radishes. We spent nights laughing at his incipient slur and drink-induced jovialness, while enjoying our mangoes of the season.
As he lay in the hospital bed, this time completely mute and not just his laughter, skin riddled with eczema and a dysfunctional liver, I recalled how I started reading because of him. Every afternoon, which was slow time at the shop, he would read the newspaper from the headline to the sports column, then pass it on to me. After scanning page 3 (Bollywood debutantes duh), I started taking interest in the rest of the paper, eventually forming a life-long habit.
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My last memory of him, notwithstanding the ominous environment of the ICU, comforts me whenever I think about the frayed branches of my family tree. Standing in front of him as he painfully expressed regret over a life spent on the pursuit of money and stability, I held his feet, not in reverence but consolation. I smoothed out his agitated, wrinkly skin and kept nodding at him, tears flowing over.
A son lost early in life to alcoholism, another to aloofness; a daughter married in a faraway land, another crying by his bedside - everything made him regretful. Nowhere in his ramblings did he bring himself up, or his own condition. His huge belly that enchanted us all our childhood was reduced to a paunch. I kept rubbing his feet gently as I imagined he did to us when we were kids.
I like to think that I have been one of the few people he allowed to penetrate his stoic demeanour. I have known and thought more about my grandfather and his history than about my own father, and that’s why he will always be my Daddy.
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By Jitesh Jaggi
Cover photo credit: medium.com