It began as a
house we decided to build because the landlord doubled the rent. We couldn’t
afford one in the city so we went to the suburbs. Strictly speaking, we went to
the boon dogs. Beyond a village on the outskirts, where an adventurous realtor
decided to set up a gated community.
He’d set up the
tarred roads. Divided the plots. Put up the street lights and parks. Except
there was no gate and no community. By the time I finished building the house 5
years later, the gated community was acres of empty green space and for someone
like me, the best of all things--- a neighbor-free haven.
It was also a
whole bunch of other things I hadn’t thought it would end up being. The house began
as an idea for a small space - 800 square feet no more.
Two rooms – one
for me and my husband and one for my daughter; a library where my son would
sleep behind the partition; and a long living-cum dining where we would spend
most of our time.
By the time I
finished building, the 3400 square feet
giant it is today, it was a book of many chapters.
To my husband
it was a dream house, or so he said.
To my 18 year old daughter, it is never-never
land, where she can pretend that Peter Pan and Tinker Bell still exist. To my
son- it is finally, home. A place where he gets to keep the awfully lizard-like
dachshund Max, that he so loves. Where he can call his friends. An identity.
To me, it’s a
labor of love. Something I built. Solid and lasting and tangible. But more than
anything else, to me it is, and always will be, the house I built for Fil.
supposed to be that way.
worked nights. For years we’d had separate rooms so
he could live in a darkened tomb during the day. I called myself the call-center widow. It was only half a joke.
that by the time we shifted to this house, he would get a day job or quit and
we’d start a small business or social venture together. It didn't matter what. Hence the two bedroom house, with a single
room for us. The small house with a large garden. Our home.
But plans have
a way of changing.
As I began to
design the house my husband’s dreams grew bigger. He wanted to make space for
my mother to move in with us when she grew old. The idea gave me the jitters.
We weren't, what you would call, the ideal mother-daughter pairing. But I was
her only daughter and there are things you do for your parents no matter what.
And then he
wanted Fil to move in with us. That idea I loved.
He was my
husband’s best friend. (Not necessarily the other way around). Knew him since
childhood. Saw him through all the way from diapers to dentures. Grew old with
him. Truth be told, watched my husband grow old, even as his own spirit stayed young.
the house began to build itself around that idea.
One day Fil
hurt the bottom of his sole jumping down from a chair . Though a why a man his
age should have been jumping off chairs beats the hell out of me. Well, actually,
I know, why.
His wife asked
him to take a suitcase out of a loft (he’d do anything for her) – and he
thought he was Superman while jumping down from the chair ( he always thought
that he was superman).
Either way, his
sole hit the sharp tile skirting on the edge of the floor and gave him a big
I decided that
day, I would have no tile skirting in the house that jutted out from the walls.
That turned to
no sharp edges at all anywhere. Nothing that would hurt him, as that half-blind-as-a-bat stubborn bugaboo roamed around in the middle of the night doing
god knows what. Because he always thought he was Superman.
Fil’s little ways
I knew Fil
would only come to this house kicking and screaming. He loved his independence too
much. But eventually, come he would. He loved us too much. Especially the kids. I
could imagine him sneaking in through the back door at all times of the night, so he didn't disturb anyone. So I built an exit from as many rooms as I could. I could imagine
him reading the paper for hours in the garden. So I built multiple shaded
spaces for him.
A table in the
study where he could potter around on a laptop on his current favorite project (and
he always had one) – would thrill him
endlessly. So I made space along the study window for two tables. And a sofa
for when he got tired.
I could imagine
the cups of (almost) sugar-less coffee he would get me to sneak from his wife. He loved
to watch me make coffee for him. Stirring the powder with a little bit of water
till it got the kind of froth and texture you got from old school coffee
He was an athlete in his time and enormously kicked with both my
kids’ athletic achievements. I could Imagine him getting up in the morning or
late at night to take my kids for a run. I could see him walking down to the
village to get involved in the local politics and road-building. Long teas with
the local sarpanch that he would then boast about for hours.
I could imagine
so many things.
The Fil no one knew
Most of all, I
could imagine Fil unfettered and irresponsibly happy. I needed him to be
accused of being irresponsible all his life of course. But I have never seen a
man carry such a great burden with such dignity all my life.
Fil’s father, a
man of great education and a big-name family, married an uneducated no-name
woman on his parents’ say-so and promptly dumped her when their two kids were
barely 10-12 years old. He never gave
them a penny and never looked back.
This was to define
Fil for the rest of his life.
was a no good illiterate. Barely a mother at all. His brother ran away because
he couldn’t take the stress and was found 40 years later on a railway station by
accident, a barely educated Class IV employee Fil’s childhood
was spent taking care of his mother and shuttling between relatives, begging
for a place to stay.
Relatives who harbored them, didn't often feed them
properly. Those who fed them, didn't want to pay for his education. He begged
and borrowed and scraped his way through school. With the help of one kindly uncle, he finally
made it through to a boarding school on a scholarship.
when all the kids went home, Fil stayed back in the hostel because he had
nowhere else to go. Acres of land. Hundreds of rooms. One little boy all
alone, 24 hours a day for 30 days with
celibate fathers. There are things Fil never talked about. Not even to his
family. Some things he let slip once when he was lying on a hospital bed very
ill. About older boys who made him do things that made him uncomfortable.
Rest of the
time, he made up games to amuse himself. Summer after summer. Hour after hour. He
never told anyone the stories he had hidden in himself, because some stories
can’t be told. And most people don’t have the stomach for such stories. It’s
easier to turn away. To believe they are exaggerated because frankly, they
force us to get involved, to feel the pain. And it’s too much to bear. We hate
the people who force such stories on us so Fil never told his.
But he dealt
with them like only a couple of people I know, and came out a better man.
The hand the dealer dealt
When Fil got
married, he decided the one thing he would never do, was hurt his wife. No
matter what. It was perhaps an unconscious childhood decision. As an adult, he made it
His mother had
been abandoned by a no-good husband, it wouldn't happen in his life ever again.
He put everything above that, including his children.
He had grow up alone. Not even a mother worth the name. This gave him a desperate need for a family. So when his wife came
along with a large family, he adopted them too. No questions asked.
He had put
himself through university, got married,
eventually got a job that was making some money. He funded his wife’s
brothers through college. And later, through periodic financial trouble, sometimes
behind his wife’s back.
Every once in a while, everyone gushed
over what a great man he was. Treated him with a certain deference.
Called on him regularly.
What no one ever
got was that he wasn't being a saint, as his wife often called him. Or a giver.
Or even a nice guy. Fil was being Fil. He liked
the idea of being part of a family.
He was really just trying to belong. What he got in return was thanks and respect. No
matter how hard he tried, he couldn't find a family member he could go out for
a drink or chat with, brother-to-brother. No one he could call and say, “hey,
want to catch a cup of coffee?” For all the respect and affection he got, he always remained
Fil had been
dealt a dummy hand by life. But he’d decided to play a man’s game. His father
abandoned his wife; so he would put his wife above everything else. His family had ill-treated
him; so he would be the best family man he knew how. He’d suffered at the hands
of ungenerous people; he would be as generous with his money as he could
possibly afford, often even when he couldn't afford. He’d suffered indignities
but had learned to survive them; so, above all, he would fight for life.
What is it they say about good and decent men --- "It's not what happens to you, but what you do with what happens to you...."
“We are fighters,” he said to me at one of our difficult
moments. It was his favorite line.
From out of the Shadows
to build a house for Fil where he didn't have to fight anymore. Where I could get
him his frothy coffee. Listen to his painfully long lectures. And bloody hell,
if he could get up and take my kids for a run, maybe I’d take a shot at it too.
reviled for everything he was, all his life. Respected when it suited people
and reviled when it didn’t. But most of all, this man who took care of everyone and their families was the loneliest most abandoned person I knew. Fil. Poor, sweet, stupid, lovely, deep, Fil.
he was, the more they asked of him. After all, if a man can do this much, why
not a little more?
If a man can
walk up the apartment steps, why the hell can’t he get in the door?
It’s a fair
question. The proverbial last straw? No one ever thought of it with regard to him. If he acted like Superman, he must be one. Right?
Fil shrugged off many last straws and taught himself to walk again. Had his back broken many times and
put himself back together, all by himself. The last time he fell ill, he sought out an
old business rival to get back his sense of life. There is no emotional gain in helping a strong man, so he helped himself.
But the woman
who refuses to climb up the apartment steps to begin with? Speaks the loudest
about her pains and her illnesses- there’s often an army of volunteers rushing
to get her a wheelchair. We all feel a soft glow of goodliness when we help the
For Fil, that
was okay. He’d been happy to live in the shadow of his wife and kids all his
I hoped to
build him a place where he could come out of the shadows. Throw his weight
around a bit. Demand something for
Never Never Land
The house did
get built. We moved in. My husband never changed his job. We never got back
into the same bedrooms. He built himself another tomb upstairs and eventually
moved out a few months ago. We’re filing for divorce.
It is Never-Never land for my daughter. But
now she imagines it’s a world where we’re all living together and things are
For my son, it
is home because he has Max the dog and Ravi the cook. That's his idea of a home these days. But he is terrified of everyone just
leaving one by one. Especially after my daughter did her adolescent run-away
act like her grand uncle before her.
As for Fil, he
came home a few days ago. We had coffee and went for a drive to drop my
daughter off at the airport. My husband had been discussing divorce terms with
him and something had startled him into taking an education insurance policy
out on the kids. He wanted to talk about it, but we didn’t.
It was a stolen
moment for both of us. Old friends forbidden to meet. I spoke to him about the
house that was meant for him. “You know that’s not going to happen” he said. “But you know I'll always love you. Let’s meet for coffee at least whenever you come to town. Just give
me a call.”
possibility of coffee in town, also passed away.
You see, Fil
is, was, my Father in Law. His name is Boddapati Purnayya. They say he died of liver failure on November 4, 2013. I think he also died of a tired heart. He was just waiting for his wife to return from her holiday in the US, so he could finally let go. If family is someone you don't have to explain yourself to, no matter what you do; if family is someone who indulges all your whims and pet peeves no matter how painful or funny and bizarre, because they are important to you; if family is someone who knows what you want and who you are, without a word said aloud; then he was the only family I had. I hope I was his.
In a world, where very few men are men, he is the best man I knew. I didn't get to say goodbye. But that's okay. He knew I loved him, as he loved me.
Before we have coffee one day...
I don’t know
what this is. An obituary for a man who told all the funny stories and kept the
others to himself. The obituary for a house. Or a dream.
Maybe it’s just
my need to tell a little bit of the story of a man, in death, who never said
much for himself in life.
I will be
moving out of Fil's place by the end of the month. It’s built with a great deal
of love for a man anyone would have been privileged to know. If anyone wants it,
it’s yours for the asking.
As for you Uncle, wherever you are –I know you hedged your bets on the question of god just
to be on the safe side. If your god does
indeed exist, do me a favor before you sit down to tell him a funny story. Give
the bastard a hard one from me.
You deserved better Down Here. You tell him to
make it up to you, Up There. Or he will answer to me when I arrive.