THE PROLOGUE: It was a mellowed evening in March. The crimson setting sun was all set to say a goodbye to the day and the Arabian Sea was looking resplendent. I was walking all alone on the Calangute beach in Goa. My wild curly hair was flying in every possible direction and suddenly I heard a voice asking me from behind: “Hey, are your curls real?” I looked back, smiled at the unknown face and said, “Genetic dear, my dad had it.” There was a lump in my throat when I referred to my father in past sense. I felt terribly lonely and lost at that particular moment. But then in a flash of a second, my father’s smiling face with his mop of curly hair came back to me as if reassuring me of his tender presence in faraway Goa.
For many people outside the walls of my home, he was ‘Sir’ who taught them physical chemistry. For me, he was just ‘Baba’, with whom I had an organic relationship. It feels painfully strange and odd to write about him. There are thousand splendid memories curled up in my heart and it’s not easy to choose one and allow another one to let it be where it is.
Everything that I enjoy in life now — reading, music, craft, high-octane cricket, gardening, cooking for people I love, a cup of Darjeeling tea in a bright colourful ceramic tea set, writing with a fountain pen, laughing in gay abandon and most importantly giving without calculating in an age which swears by ‘profit and loss’ — that’s all I owe to Baba. He did not tell me how to live, he just lived and I picked it up all from him– some consciously, some subconsciously. I was lucky to have my hero, my inspiration, my aspiration in my home. I never had to look far.
I always considered myself as a ‘father’s daughter.’ I never really felt scared of him deep within even though the whole campus was scared of him. Though I got my share of scolding (I was quite a naughty and stubborn child) from him, I always felt intensely close to him. In the later part of my adult years, when I argued with him on silly matters, he would give me an indulgent look and say, “ati fazil” (too naughty). He was the one who taught me alphabets and made me fill up hundred and hundred pages of cursive hand-writing notebooks (even when I was all grumpy and most reluctant). Today, when people comment on my nice handwriting, I say a silent ‘Thank you, Baba.’
There were occasions when he used to preside over functions in the college campus. On those occasions, as a child, I remember I used to spend hours polishing my shoes (I don’t know how those poor shoes survived) and checking my ironed dress innumerable times. Much before the function started, I would be sitting in a chair grinning ear to ear, waiting impatiently for my father to give the welcome address. My little chest used to swell in pride seeing my father sitting like a superstar on the stage. I was like a Helium balloon. Flying high with pride. And when Baba used to finish his speech, I would clap most enthusiastically and a little longer than many others. That was not enough; occasionally I would cast glances at people (my little friends included) sitting next to me just to tell them silently, “You know, my dad’s the best.” It was my ‘IT’ moment. Obnoxious, the world might think. But I always walked with my head held high because I was Dr Gangadhar Sahu’s daughter. A man who had immense courage. A man who earned every single penny with honesty and grit. A teacher who loved his students like his own children.
He was a chemistry professor yet he was most encouraging when I chose to take up humanities in my higher secondary. Unlike many fathers in this country, he never ever forced me to take up science. And those years in the college under his eagle eye as my principal are still the best years of my life. Just before I joined the college, Baba had a heart-to-heart talk with me. Those days, boys passing nasty comments, indulging in dirty graffiti on college walls were the order of the day. Baba told me, “Don’t rush to me if somebody tries to bully you. Deal with him in your own way. Be confident.” That was my first great lesson in taking charge of my own life and situations. He had no sense of fear and expected his daughters to be like that. All through his stint as principal in Bhadrak College, as a gawky teenager, I was always on a clay feet worried about his security. But he was courage personified— never scared of any physical assault and managed students’ unrest with enviable grace and dignity. But he also had wonderful ways to show that he cared. No matter how busy he was as a Principal, he would always fill ink in my fountain pens before an examination. He would check my pen box and arrange it with lot of love and care.
He knew my heart was in literature, liberal arts and he encouraged me to explore that. There were mornings when I used to wake up (when we lived in the principal’s quarter in Bhadrak ) and sit on the front verandah to revel in the beauty of coconut trees swaying lazily in the breeze and the river Salandi flowing quietly. Only once he had asked me about this morning activity of mine and I told him, “I am enjoying the ‘drushya’ (as they say in Odiya).” And he gently let me to be in that blissful state. Similarly, when India played against Pakistan in a cricket match (that unforgettable Sharjah match in which Javed Miandad hit a massive six off Chetan Sharma), he encouraged me to enjoy the match even though I was having my board examination the next day. Every time a Pakistani batsman played a good shot, he used to appreciate. From him, I learnt to enjoy cricket without the baggage of jingoism and pulp-patriotism.
He was a Chemistry professor but he was absolutely wonderful with words. He was the one who encouraged me to discover the joy of the ever-exciting world of words. When I wrote poems during my hostel days, I always sent them to him by post because I could never find a more understanding reader than him. I could always turn to him for intellectual companionship and guidance. When I joined the Press Trust of India (PTI) as a trainee journalist way back in 1995, I was quite nervous before interviewing late Biju Pattanayak in Delhi. It was my first exclusive interview and I was just few days old in the profession. There was no time to rush to any library for research and Google was non-existent. From Delhi, I made a frantic STD call to Baba and he immediately told me to cool down. Over the phone, he guided me a lot in the research part (thanks to his meticulous habit of maintaining newspaper clippings). I sailed through the interview smoothly.
In today’s times of never-ending material desires, I feel content with no LCD television or leather sofa in my Ahmedabad home because Baba taught me to turn less into more. He was a man who could turn a two- course meal into a gourmet one. With his modest government salary, he made me feel like a billionaire’s daughter. He was the one who bought me my first North Star jeans and a blue colour Power T shirt in 1990. He stood patiently outside the trial room and when I came out of the room to show him, he looked at me with a smile and said, “Let’s buy another jeans. It looks good on you.” My love affair with Denim is still going strong. Realising that I love listening to music, he bought me a tape-recorder when I was staying in JNU hostel. Even when I was working in Delhi, he sent me money so that I could buy a ‘hi-fi’ music system.
As a girl (in a highly patriarchal society), I never felt limited in my growing up years. He encouraged me go on an elephant ride when I was visiting him during a holiday to Orissa (that time he was the principal of BJB college) . So, there I was sitting behind the Mahut and going on an elephant ride in the BJB college area and Baba was standing in our garden, waving at me with a smile. Thanks to Baba and his unconditional love and words of encouragement, I still carry a little bit of wild, creative world within me.
THE EPILOGUE: It’s strange that I could never say goodbye to the person whom I loved the most in my life. I arrived in Orissa on January 4, 2011 a day after his mortal body was reduced to ashes. I returned to an empty house which he had built with his honest money and lot of love and labour. A house which gives me a deep intimate sense of home. A house where I will never see him again walking or sitting at the dining table. I deeply regret about not being able there with him on his last day. In many ways, there’s no final closure. And that unexplainable grief is deeply personal and intimate.
For days after his death, I just couldn’t write a single word even though I earn my living from writing. My loving generous friends gently urged me to write letters (e-mails) to them as a beginning step. But the emptiness within me was so huge that I felt as if I was carrying a gigantic ice-berg within me. For hours, I would just stare at my computer screen yet not a word would flow. The days were empty, the nights were lonely. Then one night during my sleep, I saw a dream which felt so very real. In my dream, I saw my father sitting on a chair in our old house’s garden. And there I was running around him, laughing with him, singing and enjoying the breeze, the clouds. Then I heard him saying, “You must write about this beautiful evening.” That dream was a message from him, from the universe to follow my heart and get back to writing. The next day, I wrote my blog ‘The Ice Must Melt Now’ with tears rolling down from my cheeks. It was tears of unexplainable grief of losing my father and also tears of rediscovering the joy of words. I also then started the process of seeking comfort in the thought that there are actually no goodbyes in a relationship as pure and loving as ours. And healing will only come through longing. As Isabel Allende wrote beautifully, “There’s no death, daughter. People die only when we forget them.”
I long for him very deeply every single day, at different moments like when I am enjoying a Gujarati thali in Agashiye, a restaurant we visited together when he came to Ahmedabad, when a new little branch shoots up in the potted palm tree on my balcony, when I listen to Dire Straits’ soul-elevating song, ’So far away from me…. That I just can’t see you’, or when I open my wardrobe to take out a dress and my fingers rush through his neckties (some still have a knot) and a stylish indigo blue jacket. In moments of intense longing, I go to the Gandhi Ashram in Ahmedabad to seek peace and comfort. Sitting on the verandah of that beautiful modest house in which Gandhiji lived, I feel a strange sense of calmness. Baba was an ardent fan of Gandhiji and I feel as if he were around somewhere close to me. And then I come back home to Baba’s letters written in his enviable handwriting (with place and date mentioned neatly on the top). I find an innate sense of life and purpose in his words. And needless to say, I still feel a deep sense of pride when I introduce myself as “I am Deepika, Dr Gangadhar Sahu’s daughter.” What more can a daughter ask for?
(It’s exactly one year since my father passed away… and it hurts a lot)