Wednesday, March 12, 2014

D.I.Y. Dad

It's four years now, but not a day passes without remembrances of things past. Here are some I've managed to jot down.

Once I overheard Babuji telling mom that he liked hosing the driveway after a particularly stormy late-summer night, that had left a riffled carpet of glistening mud, decorated by wind-blown leaf motifs, in the uneven driveway, and collected a pool of fickle water in a shallow concavity, where the cement had settled into a subterranean gap created by the exploring roots of a mango tree.
Those were times of an abundant supply of water, and the aspect of wastage, in the process of washing clean a driveway, was unheard of. The collected muck, deposited from the detritus of an entire summer’s dust-accumulated rooftops, and washed down here through sucking, gurgling, flooded drainpipes, one even disgorging a thoroughly disoriented toad, was a couple of inches thick, and even the robust jet of water lacked sufficient force to wash it away. Ergo a maali swept the muddy gruel that Babuji hosed farther and farther away from the house.
Mom’s angst was, with so many helps idling around the property, why did he have to do these menial jobs? There was a simple, direct answer to that question. He enjoyed working with his hands, and a job was a job. He used them to get as close to a task as possible, the only way of extracting maximum satisfaction from a chore. He would have ensured, that the hose was fixed to the storm valve so no water dripped, and the jet he directed, projected at subtly varied pressures of his bent thumb expertly angled, swung around, worked the knotted mud loose just as the broom descended to it. He would have overseen the completion of the task, had the broom swished till no drops flew off its limp bristles, and then stood it in the sun so the remaining stubborn droplets acquiesced to gravity, and the hose eased off the valve, and looped towards its free end, lying exhausted in the driveway, oozing spurts of water as each successively rolled loop drained water through its flaccid length, till not a drop remained in the now flat, multi-looped hose, lest moss and scum form inside it. Both tools had to be returned to their proper places in the garden-cum-tool shed. Only then would he come to lunch, the happiest man on earth.
Dad belonged to the D.I.Y. generation. He relished handyman type odd jobs around the house, squeezing himself underneath washing basins; he didn’t have to try hard, as he was short-statured, but what’s interesting is he’d place himself quite naturally into the best possible position for the physical work involved. There had to be enough elbow room to exert pressure or rotate a monkey wrench, when loosening a sink’s drainpipe.
He also maintained a number of tools to aid him, always pulling out the right ones for a job. If he lacked the proper implement, he would not proceed till he’d procured one, or called in an expert. He had small tricks up his sleeve that worked in a cinch, like when a spanner being used was too big for the head of the nut. Babuji asked for a large screwdriver and wedged its flat head between the side of the hexagonal-headed nut and an arm of the open-ended ‘C’ spanner in a tight fit. When he torqued the wrench counter clockwise it caught, and loosened the nut.

Babuji just loved sending greeting cards and New Year calendars to his family, friends, and acquaintance’s. He supported UNICEF, and bought their greeting cards every Diwali, and his New Year calendars were always of Indian miniature paintings, printed by Chimanlals. The entire process, from choosing and buying cards, writing in and signing them, affixing postage stamps and mailing them, was a closely monitored operation, in which the only step he did not do himself was type addresses on the envelopes.
He maintained serially numbered handwritten mailing lists, with the help of which he set down his salutary greetings inside the card, signing in Hindi, all in red ink, which was a “happy” colour on his palette. Every completed card and envelope used to be numbered lightly in pencil, to match a number and name on his longhand list. This helped the typist retain order on the envelope. Babuji’s oeuvre was in dressing the envelope. The quintessential philatelist, he venerated the stamps he pasted on them. First he chose the most colourful and showy squares and rectangles, forever keen to showcase the best from India, to the world. Then he began pasting them. From a sheet, he folded an entire strip along the perforation, and tore the strip of stamps carefully. Not a corner could be damaged, as it would reduce the stamp’s value, plus reveal a careless philatelist to the world. Once, when I suggested he get the entire lot of envelopes franked at the post office, he looked at me as though he would disown me. No philatelist worth the glue on a stamp would substitute a mechanical device for the gentle little pleasures derived from the use of postal stamps.
Once a strip had been torn, it would be gently folded along the serrations into a gathering of accordion pleats. The first in that face-to-face bunch would be eased open and laid flat on a moistened sponge, held in its round plastic receptacle, so that the film of dry glue succumbed to the moisture; and while the stamp curled upon itself from the sudden moistening, it was instinctively aligned to the upper right hand corner of an envelope, and pressed flat with careful reverence, the pressure maintained till the glue caught. Only then was it separated from the rest of the strip, cast away, perforation by perforation, till it remained in solitary shining splendor, a corner on the envelope, forever Indian. He performed this ritual, without flagging in his zeal, on every envelope.
Then on the upper left-hand corner he would press a self-inking, dual coloured, rubber-stamp that left an impression of a blue aircraft and a red-lettered Par Avion. That envelope-decorating embellishment had to create a perfect right-angled triangle.
The last act was to impress his name and postal address, again with a self-inking rubber-stamp, in the lower left-hand corner of the envelope.
He did not have to do any of these things personally — he could have all of them done professionally at a printing press. The whole she-bang of it, like many of his friends and family did. Many were the greeting cards he received that were printed inside and out without, apparently, the sender’s otherwise busy digits, ever even touching them. Their only connection with that operation would be sanctioning a budget.
But for Babuji, this was an annual ritual through which he touched those that had been a part of his life, whether closely connected with him, or distantly, and he refused to make short shrift of those relationships, of that visible-invisible, blazing-glowing, radiant flame or ember that did after all fan the spirit of his circadian life.
When the bundles of greetings cards were ready to be mailed, guess what the dear man did? He took them to the post office himself, and ensured that the man who smacked cancellations willy-nilly on the tooth-edged paper square, besmirching, defacing it with all the pent up government clerk fury he could muster, desisted his hammering arm and instead, carefully inked the tiniest possible bit of stamp-corner, just sufficient to warrant it “used”, or de-minted, twice over [the first time being when the glossy gum arabica had been irrigated into a colourful limpet on the envelope. That was the quintessential philatelist’s parting watermark. I wonder how many recipients fathomed that shadowy dance of love?

When a spark burnt the lead fuse, he would bring his trusted brown leather toolbox to the electricity panel, unplug the porcelain kitkat fuse, and pry away the burnt remnant of fuse wire. Then he would unspool the requisite length from his fuse wire roll, and insert the new wire in its place, tighten one screw around upon one end of it, and wind the other end clockwise on the screw, so that the length tightened as he wound the screw leaving no slack. Then the lower parallel brass tines were inserted into place, followed by the carefully aligned snap of the upper tines. He beamed a QED when the power was restored.
His experiments with matters electrical frankly scared me. He had no theory to back his forays, except a keen eye that digested how electricians dealt with common electrical problems, and a probing mind that demanded simple and clear answers. I especially feared the clandestine looping of electrical phases, with a ‘C’ of thick wire, to divert part of the electricity coursing into one phase, to ignite the outward supply in a phase temporarily with supply from the APSEB.
But the DIY guy would take a powerful battery-operated torch and descend to the cobweb shrouded electric box. Invariably a help was asked to wave a broom to snare the strands of spidery silk, and then, creaking open the wooden shutters he would hand the torch to the man, directing him to hold it thus, so the beam lit the exact spot he wished. An electric current tester, which stood in the pen stand on his desk just for such emergencies, and which he had grabbed on the way, would then be inserted into an upper crevice of the kitkat to ascertain the ‘dead’ fuse. After unplugging that heavy duty kitkat, he plunged a section of the house into a numbing heavy darkness, stalling every activity momentarily, till he looped the mysterious electricity from one fuse to another, magically, illegally, creating light and dispelling darkness.
Yes, I know it was illegal, what he did, and unethical too, and I don’t have an answer why he did it, except to please his family. And, yes, he was a D.I.Y. dad. One more thing, he wouldn’t touch the electric fuse cabinet with a barge pole, were he, and his help not shod in flip-flops.

Babuji wrote down everything he thought important. He filled books with quotations of all sorts. I never heard him use any of them in his conversations, as he was a man of few words. But he had a firm, set hand, and he chuffed up to the time spent over his cursive exercise books. When my school report complained about my hand, it was a personal affront to him. From the next day I had to show him a page of my cursive detention diligently. I have no complaints. The practice, I think, bore fruit.

Babuji’s worldview was clear. Things were either black or white. It was a bright day when he perceived shades of grey. There was only one way of doing something—the right way.
A book could not be opened and laid flat on a table, as that would crack its spine. A page had to be turned away from clothing while the volume lay in one’s lap, for if its edge scraped cloth, it might tear. There was a way of turning the page too. No hurried and noisy sliding of fingers across page surfaces, no moistening digit tips to gecko pages over. The pointer had to be slid on the upper right hand edge of the page and with a delicate dexterity, and minimal pressure, it lifted enough to slide a few fingers under it, and thus supported, turned. And if, in the process, you got a paper-cut, well, that was the tree’s last act of revenge on being mistreated.


Urmila said...

Each word I read was like a movie going on in front of my eyes of days gone by.Beautifully recalled,penned and I could not stop smiling for so long after I was done reading too! A wonderful man- Babuji!

Anonymous said...

Hey Aasheesh,

What beautiful words to dicsribe how Dad did various things he loved.

I had met him on a couple of occassions at your home and he was gentle .

You have aquired quite a few if his characteristics.... may be not the ones like washing a drive way.

Some of the instances you wrote takes me back to my dad...... I think the generations were somewhat similar in their behaviour and outlook to things.

Best wishes
Sanjeev Swarup

Anonymous said...

Beautiful! Uncle would have loved this. And I know someone else who would have too... if for no other reason than that some of the things described him to a T as well. Thanks for penning this down Aasheesh. It recalls the peace and the unhurried pace of life from bygone days.

Best wishes & regards

Sudhindra said...

This is amazingly well written and enough lucidity to get it catapulted into a nice documentary. Great read.

Shruti said...

Bhai!!!!! My God..... I could actually SEE him doing all those things!!!! As usual, your writing skills leave me spellbound!
And yes, his insistence on us doing longhand cursive writing books has definitely borne fruit! :)
Bless you, bhai, for bringing back these very very fond memories! :*

uzramma said...

a beautiful essay, how to make the everyday special, thank you ...Uzramma

Sheetal said...


Anuradha said...

This is so so beautifully expressed, each of those every day moments lived with parents, observing what they did, thinking later, as time passes, why they did what they did...that world of awe. I still sleep soundly in my parents house, thinking they will take care of what tomorrow brings, the mundane and the challenges.

Husein Latif said...

Beautifully lucid...I love the detail and your way with the written word.

Vishal Baldev said...

Didn't have the good fortune of spending time with him but your many writes,(earlier ones too) bring him back to life. It's like I just spent a day with him while he methodically goes over his most favorite routine. Thank you.

Iffat said...

Thank you for beautifully written and so evocative of those unhurried days of our childhood. I never met your father, but I think mine shared many of the same qualities - particularly the love of using his hands. He was quite a carpenter!