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Feathers from a Father

By Latika Mangrulkar Email By Latika Mangrulkar
June 2010
Feathers from a Father

The role of the father is frequently forgotten or relegated to the back seat. In the 50s and 60s fathers were not equal parents, they were the major power, though they regularly stayed on the periphery of their children's lives.

That was how it was in our family of three sisters and a younger brother. TatyaKaka we called him, in this joint family of numerous cousins as well as uncles and aunts in the central Indian city of Nagpur. His was a magnetic presence. Our mother had the day-to-day influence and responsibilities but it was Kaka who drew us.

After I left home my autocratic, controlling father, amazingly enough, became my confidante and my conscience across the oceans, though I could never tell him. That was the ambience of that time.

This man of rigid discipline, a retired army colonel, a busy physician, unlatched the cage for this mynah to find her wings, allowed her to spread her feathers like a bright flamingo. At a time when few parents had the courage to let their daughters pursue higher studies, Kaka permitted an unmarried daughter to go to a foreign country.

I can still recall that twilight evening, Kaka’s tall frame bent at the railway window, his arm resting on the grimy ledge as he bid me farewell, not sure when he would see me again or if I would ever come back. Maybe Kaka was prescient when he said, “All I know, beta, is once you open the cage and let the bird fly, it will return only when it wants to. No one can force it.” I was impervious to his heartache that day, as he stepped away from the moving train and blended into the receding crowd on the platform.

At the ripe old age of 22, those words meant little. For years they had no value. Then my children were born. My trials and tribulations of raising them in an alien land brought back the echo of Kaka’s parting words.

In my youthful euphoria Kaka's words had little significance. But his words surfaced every time I had to decide what my son should or should not do, or pricked at critical moments when I had to let my daughter make up her own mind.

I arrived in America with a letter of graduate fellowship, a few dollars in my pocket, and about 250 dollars worth of traveler’s checks stuffed in my wallet. These were my tools for freedom.

I recall my days at the mid-western university where I was discovering my way in the world of academia. During the hectic running around I rarely thought of what had gone through my father’s mind as he watched his daughter disappear into an unknown world.

At night I cried myself to sleep. In the darkness, the reality of being on my own hit home. I missed my mother but, even more, it was my father’s calming words that I craved. Here in the cerebral environment, as I tasted the heady wines of the intellect, I had yet to make connections with whom I could share my thoughts, from whom I could get the validation Kaka so readily offered.

Often my father’s poetry—Marathi, Sanskrit or English, a line or a jingle apt for any occasion—came to mind, but translating the ideas in this new context seemed an impossible task. As I read Eliot and Thoreau, Frost and Emily Dickinson in their own social milieu, I missed not having Kaka around to share and gloat over the literary nuggets I discovered. Laboriously written letters had to suffice, and those were plenty.

Thus began a correspondence between a father and daughter, one that may not have the historical significance of a Jawahar Lal and his Indu but, certainly, a conduit through which I could channel my aching soul.

Don’t get me wrong. I still argued with him and was terrified of what he might say, though, separated by many countries and oceans, his wrath was no longer imminent. He became father confessor to whom all indiscretions, big or small, were reported. Nights, once again, became peaceful.

The first and last time I took a whiff of a Marlboro was noted, as was the first and not the last glass of wine, or if one too many was imbibed.

I even dared to confide in him about my adventures with the opposite gender. When I was dating an Afghan student, our commonalities were glowingly emphasized. Just as easily I informed him that the escapade ended, once I realized that the Northeast Frontier was too rugged for this Marathi girl to conquer.

A writer who prided herself on being precise, my tale overflowed the narrow boundaries of the aerogram that was my vehicle for reporting. The conclusion had to be carried forward on a second set of this folded stationary, carefully marked “Chapter Two.” As I licked the blue rectangle shut, I made doubly sure the bold, red, letters of chapter numbers were legible, only then I dropped them in the mail box at exactly the same moment.

Having taken such care it did not occur to me that the vagaries of the Indian postal system would not deliver Part I first. Needless to say Kaka’s response was swift, the fuming worry heard, loud and clear. Kaka couched it in loving words, but not enough to prevent my knees from shaking.

Then real love happened. For the first time I kept it a secret till both of us, my fiancé and I, decided we were ready for marriage. A courtship of over fourteen months had prepared us and we agreed to inform our respective fathers on the same day.

At a time when telephone calls cost the price of gold and cyber ways were a distant possibility, we had to rely on the lowly aerogram again. Our letters went together, though the responses followed a different time table. My future father-in-law took weeks to grant us permission while Kaka’s approval came within days.

In a short letter, addressed to both his daughter and the man he handed her over to, it was a vote of unconditional confidence “I can only trust your judgment; after all you are a mature young adult.”

The bird had returned to the cage, that too with a partner. What more could a father want! Once again the mynah flapped her feathers and came home to snuggle in her father’s arms.

Latika Mangrulkar is an educator, writer, and storyteller.

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