Series 7: Dada Baba and me Part 1 ‘My life from my deathbed’
It was a sunny morning amid the typical mid-summer hustle and bustle on the roads of Punjab. The rays of the sun made their way into my eyes and pierced through my pupils, blinding me momentarily yet almost completely. I adjusted my sight, trying to squeeze my eyes to halt the enforced violation of my personal eyesight space by nature’s brightest star, as a bead of sweat trickled down from my forehead and into the wrinkles around my squeezed eyes.
The bus engine roared, and the passengers moved around in unison on every bump. The elderly man next to me had inadvertently fallen asleep with his head on my shoulder, his head moistening the crease of my sleeve ever so slightly, and his silver hair shining with the sun. I was on the highway connecting Lahore to Chak 407; a small town three miles from Tanliawala, which itself is a town roughly half the size of an ordinary football pitch.
My beginnings as a photographer began from this journey out on the highway – quick stops between small towns and big cities – and right when the sun blinded me and the sweat bead disturbed my tranquillity, I had a spontaneous moment of self-actualisation, where my being and my reasons for existence were questioned spontaneously, all at once.
“Is this what I want for myself? Is this how I wish to achieve eternal serenity? Was my reason of existence to serve humanity like this? Is this how I wish to let go of the demons of my past? Is this how I finally start forgiving myself?” I questioned, as the bus came to an abrupt stop as my head bounced off the headrest in front of me.
I was woken up from my daze.
“Probably. Probably not.” I thought to myself as I rubbed my sore forehead.
The elderly man too had been forcefully woken up from his innocent slumber, as he embarrassingly looked around to make sense of his sudden surroundings.
“Where are we?” He questioned, rubbing his eyes like a tired child.
I looked over my shoulder and smiled at his innocence. It was he who now had beads of sweat lining up on his wrinkled forehead as he tried squinting his eyes to look out the window and try to gather his bearings. I reached into my bag and handed over a piece of cloth to him.
“We’ve reached Chak 407, baba ji.”
He let out a sigh of relief then laughed while wiping his forehead, as his toothless gums glistened inside his mouth. Something about his honest excitement struck some chords. It felt nostalgic. It was as if his wrinkled face was what my restless soul had been craving to see.
“I really am getting old. I can’t even recognise my own town!”
He burst out laughing like a child again as the passengers began to make their way out of the bus and into the hot summer sunshine. I couldn’t help but feel the nonchalant calm that this man was radiating even in such hot and humid surroundings.
As his laughter turned into silence, my mind began racing back to the past I had been trying to let go of so bitterly. His appearance and aura unwillingly reminded me of Dada Baba and I felt my head spinning, my eyes momentarily blacking out. As much as I wanted to, I had never really forgiven myself for the way I treated him.
My parents and older brother got killed on a train while migrating from Bathinda, in India, to Lahore, in Pakistan, in 1947. Their lives were taken from them by angry anti-Muslim attackers with swords and guns in their hands and blood in their eyes. I was young enough to forget exactly what happened, but old enough to feel the sheer terror of the situation. Dada Baba used to tell me that as soon as he saw armed men swarming into the train, he took me from my mother’s arms, ran out of the coupe, and jumped out directly onto the tracks. He dislocated his shoulder, but did not let me get hurt. That’s as much as he told me of my past. Never being inquisitive myself, I never bothered about the details either.
Frankly though, he never let me feel like I even needed a mother and a father to take care of me. This man was enough to raise me alone. He risked his life to save mine when I was an infant and taught me the basics of life while I was growing up, all the while taking care of me alone. A lawyer by profession, he was a man of immense principles. There were never really any restrictions put on me by him, but he taught me to be helpful to people in need.
“Spread happiness, my beta. It is one of those selfless things you can do for the people around you and it’s something you don’t necessarily need money for.” He used to tell me time and again.
These were strong words considering they were coming from a man whose only son’s family was taken away from him in unimaginably gruesome circumstances and whose wife left him a year after having their child, following a short fight with cancer. Growing up, I often tried to find the basis of his immense grit and steadfastness.
He used to quote some eastern philosopher in such times, with a bright smile, that was fast becoming toothless,
“If you live in the past, you are depressed. If you live in the future, you are afraid. Only in the present can we find happiness. And that is what your presence makes me feel, beta.”
I soon realised that taking care of me all alone wasn’t something new for him. He was only doing what he was already good at. I was sure he was taking care of me much more responsibly than when he brought up my father. If anything, this is what kept him young at heart and completely healthy otherwise. Never once did I see him flinch or get disturbed by my bullish antics. He did for me what even most fathers fail to do for their children. After all, he was the reason why I became such a restless, rowdy, spoilt kid.
His principles did not allow him to keep a servant or a helper for the house. Despite being a fulltime, active lawyer, he would wake me up early in the morning for school. My clothes were neatly pressed and hung in the room he had set up for me himself. From the curtains to the furniture to my study table to the colour of the walls, everything was chosen by him for me. He kept the water slowly running so that the hot water made its way into the taps on those cold winter mornings of Lahore, so that when I brushed my teeth, the water was warm and easy for me to use. Before I got dressed up, breakfast was already waiting for me on the dining table along with a beaming Dada Baba – fried eggs, butter, jam, and a big glass of pure milk. He dropped me to school every day in his car and waited for me to come out long before my classes got over. His smile when seeing me and him in his black and white attire are still etched into my memories.
Fast forward a few years and my rowdy antics had gotten me into hot water with my college teachers and professors. I was different with how my mind functioned, as my teachers usually told me. It is creative and structured to improvise. It is sharp, but occasionally wanders off to different possibilities. It is built to be strong, and often sets off into letting me be a dreamer. I had a lot of creative energy but I wasn’t sure that I had the arsenal to back it up. It seems Dada Baba had figured this out much earlier than my teachers did, which was why he wasn’t disappointed when I decided to drop out of college and set about to greener pastures, whose location I was still unsure of. Despite me being unhappy with the teachers’ unfair treatment, he never felt aggrieved of my shortcomings as a bright student who was unsure of his immense potential. He had always allowed me to make my own decisions and had always backed me to be content with myself and the choices that I made. He taught me to be positive in the most adverse of times.
“Beta, you need to have a good think about what you want. You can’t sit around waiting for happiness to find you. You find it yourself. And once you do, make it your own. Remember beta, happiness is only found within. No one can make you happy, but yourself. Not me, not your friends, but yourself. If you are unhappy with who you are, what does that really say about you? Do not worry about what you cannot control. Instead, shift your energy to what you can create. Once you start doing that, you will know that the world and its people are not as bad as you think they are.”
Thanks to Dada Baba, I had a bit of a charmed life. I had experienced enough in life to know what was true for other people but was still inexperienced to know what was true for myself. Nothing too traumatic had happened to me. That is until one day I realised that the story of my life had been the calm before the storm all along…
[To be continued…]
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