Tuesday, November 5, 2013

A House for Fil



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.

Little Dreams


It wasn’t supposed to be that way.

My husband 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. 

We’d decided 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.

And somehow, 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 bleeding gash.

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 machines. 

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 irresponsibly happy.

He’d been 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.

Fil’s mother 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.

Every summer, 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 anthem.

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 an outsider.

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


I wanted 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.

He’d been 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.

The braver 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 weak.

For Fil, that was okay. He’d been happy to live in the shadow of his wife and kids all his life.

I hoped to build him a place where he could come out of the shadows. Throw his weight around a bit. Demand something for once.

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 just dandy.

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.”

Yesterday, any 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. 

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