Today, the 30th March 2017 marks my Dad’s (I used to call him Baba in true Bengali tradition) 100th birthday. I haven’t given him anything of value while he was alive, I couldn’t, and perhaps I was too busy with myself. And before I could realise, he was gone, forever. On his centenary birthday, lots of memories flashed by me and I thought of penning down some. In a way this is my tribute to an ordinary man but extra-ordinary father or Baba.
The journey of Prafulla Kumar Bhattacharyya (my Baba) began from the village Ujirpur, town Jessore (now in Bangladesh) and culminated in Greater Kailash Part-I, New Delhi. He was the eldest of the surviving five siblings. He was, like most young impressionable Bongs, hot tempered and stubborn. A small argument with my grandpa over land dispute with his cousins resulted in his surrendering all his rights over the land holdings (I am told the total area would be close to the size of entire Vasant Kunj in Delhi if not more). In any case, the land and everything was gone with the partition of the country a few years down the line. But he was in Patna, far away from the village and the property, taking care of his extended family.
After the demise of my grandpa, much before the partition, my father came over to Kolkata along with the other members of the big joint family. He could have gone back and sold the property but perhaps his ego stopped him. As the head of the family, he married of his two younger sisters and helped the brothers to settle down. He was transferred to Patna in the early 40’s where the family grew with seven of my siblings. It was in Patna that my grandma became ill and despite all available and expensive treatments she succumbed to her untreatable ailments. Based on the sketchy info of her sufferings, it seems, perhaps it was cancer that took her life. After the loss of landed property, this time my father lost all his savings in the treatment of my grandma. But he never complained and continued in his endeavour to give his family a healthy life and decent upbringing.
In the early 50’s he came to Delhi on transfer but the joys of settling down in the capital of the country was short lived as he had to leave the job under difficult situation. I think I do not have his courage and will power for survival, with seven mouths to feed and unemployed in a new strange place, I would have long died. But he managed to find another job, albeit much less paying than the previous one. Once he settled down in the new job, the family got extended with two more mouths. I was the 9th and the last child.
My earliest memory of Baba is of going with him on his bicycle to buy vegetables and fish/ mutton every Sunday morning. He would put a towel on the front rod and tie it up for me to sit. It was my most endearing moment with him and I looked forward to it eagerly through the week.
This weekly fun rides with Baba came to sudden end when he was transferred to Jullundhar. He went alone leaving the family in Delhi as my two elder siblings, sister and brother had started working after graduation. He would come home every month end combing with his official visit to the head office in Delhi and spend 2-3 days with us. This continued for about three years till the everyday consumption of heavily spiced Punjabi delicacies took toll on his health, he developed stomach ulcer. I still vividly remember his crying in agony of the pain. It was obvious that he couldn’t possibly continue in Jullundhar. He pleaded with his company for Delhi posting but much like the current times, the company was not interested in a 50+ person in the head office. He quit and filed a case against the company under labour laws. I believe, the case continued for over a decade and finally he won. But by then he was past the retirement age, so reinstatement was out of question but the company paid compensation for all those lost years.
I remember going with him to the Hamdard Dawakhana at Asaf Ali Road for his ulcer treatment. The medicines were like churan and I would at times lick them. The medicines worked wonders albeit slowly but surely he was cured of the ulcers. He took up a job once more first with a publishing company and then with an export company from where he finally retired in 1986.
I was an F&B Trainee in Taj Palace Hotel, hoping to become a Chef. It was 27th June 1986, when on a single day I got to know two bad news that was to change the course of my life. The first one, at work where the HR Manager told me that I cannot be absorbed in the Kitchen as I was not from the food tech institute and that I will be joining the restaurant service as a Captain, something that I detested. The second one was that Baba had a heart attack while in office. According to him, he felt uneasy right after lunch which he thought was gastric issue, so he had Limca with some black salt but it did not help. Thereafter, he took an autorickshaw and came back home. My brother called the doctor who confirmed it was a mild stroke and he should take complete rest. I came back from duty around 2 am and got the details from my brother.
By this time, all my sisters as well as eldest brother had found their life partners and settled down in different parts of Delhi and Germany. In the house were only four people residing – me, my brother and parents.
It was Saturday, 28th June, my weekly off day and my brothers weekend (his was 5 days working), the doctor had come in the morning and after check up had assured that my Dad was doing well but needed to rest further. In the afternoon, my father was at the dining table having his lunch of light Khichdi with my mother at his side. Suddenly I saw him falling down from the chair and rushed to stop his complete fall just in time. My brother called the doctor and as advised we took him to Dr. BL Kapoor Memorial Hospital, the nearest to our home. He had a major stroke and stayed in the hospital for a week. In retrospect, the doctors should have done the by-pass surgery at that time. But back in those days it was not a priority, perhaps.
Following week, after Dad came back home and life had settled down a bit, I sent in my resignation to the Taj sighting inability to accept restaurant position and insisting on placement in the kitchen. This was once again declined, so I quit and with that my desire to become a Chef was completely quashed. I wholeheartedly moved into my new job of marketing & sales. The timings were long as most days there would late evening meetings or some party. It was practically same with my brother too. In effect my parents were left at home in their own world. Unaware to us all of this detachment of the children somehow affected his health in the long run.
One incident during this time is forever etched in my memory. There was a 3-day marketing conference at the Ashoka Hotel and on the last day after the conference got over, a cocktail party was organised by the host. The wine, beer and whiskey flowed freely and I had just too many (actually I remember up till the sixth peg). I used to ride a Yamaha RX100, the cool bike at that time. I have tried to remember the course of that evening but it remains sketchy. What I remember is that I was stopped by my ex-boss on my way out who insisted I raise a toast with him but it was more than just one! Thereafter I remember having crossed the South Extension on the Ring Road and reaching home safely but unable to get off the bike. Every time I tried, I felt like falling down. Then finally, with great effort I put the bike on the side stand and got down, pushed the bike inside the gate. To me the entire exercise took about 2-3 minutes. My parents were at the balcony watching the spectacle with concern as well as amusement.
Next day (Sunday) at the lunch table I was told that it was good 15-20 minutes that I was struggling to get off the bike. My mother had asked Dad to go down and help me but he refused saying that I needed to stand on my feet. My brother gave me a strong rebuke for being drunk but the most fitting response was from my father. He said nothing and that made me resolve to never have more than two pegs if I have to drive back home.
My parents and especially my father was way ahead of his time. He had given complete freedom to all the children; as a result all of us have had love marriages. My eldest sister was married to a Kayastha from UP, my eldest brother had inter-caste marriage, my youngest didi married a Marathi and that too younger than her and my life partner is a Punjabi. He believed in freedom of choice and the family truly embraced the diversity of the nation.
In 1989, my father had another serious cardiac attack and this time the doctors put a pacemaker inside his body. We were told the life of pacemaker was 10 years and we took it as the number of years added to Dad’s life! The Almighty might have had a hearty laugh.
My sister had come over to our home for the delivery of my niece, Tutul. The little one instantly became the apple of our eyes and especially of my father. She would not sleep till my father sang a lullaby holding her close to his chest. This became a routine for the next three months till she was at our home and it also gave Dad a renewed vigour.
In the next three years both my brother and I tied the knot with respective life partners and Dad had a very satisfied demeanour. He really got along with daughter-in-laws and was much contended playing and keeping company with his grandson Chintu. They were actually inseparable and at night my brother would forcibly take him to their bedroom amid the ruckus of the little one. Then suddenly on 19th November 1991 evening he had a blackout and fell down on the floor. We called the ambulance and rushed him to the closest nursing home. For the next three days extensive tests were done both for cardiac as well as cerebral but every result was negative. He was feeling better and the doctors said they will keep him under observation for couple of days more as they were baffled by the results of the tests. There was definitely something wrong but it was not showing up. On 23rd Nov evening Deepika & I were at the nursing home, my brother and Bhabi had gone back home after spending the afternoon with him. We spoke to him briefly and told him in two days time he will be going back home and he smiled at us. The nurse told us not to disturb him any more so we came out. My sister and Brother-in-law came to see him. They went and came out immediately and said that Dad was using the pot and the nurse asked them wait outside.
We were at the reception talking to ourselves when we noticed sudden inflated activity among the staff. The nurse who was with Dad, rushed with some medication and filling the injection syringes while on the run. The resident doctor shouted some instruction to the receptionist. I thought the other patient in the room who was on life support has become critical and rushed to give moral support to Dad. I was shocked to find the doctors and nurses attending my father only. Apparently, he had cardiac arrest while passing the stool. For the next 30 minutes, the doctors tried their best to revive him but Dad had already decided to quit this time. He had seen all his children find their mate and settle down in life, what more could he be wanting. At 7:20 pm the doctors declared him brain dead and requested my permission to take out the pacemaker that had lived only two of its promised ten years.
My father was an ordinary man to the world but for me he remains an extra-ordinary Dad. I never said this to him but yes Dad, I love you.