When I first spoke to my father-in-law, everyone else in the family was embarrassed on my behalf.
It was the first time Papa had visited our home in Delhi and I had finally got a moment with him when we were on our way to drop him back to the railway station. Everyone else in the car was quiet and seemed tense.
“Did you enjoy yourself, Papa?” I asked him from the back seat. Ammi laughed at the silliness.
“Papa does not enjoy himself in our company,” his daughter said. “He just puts up with us somehow. He will be back in his element when he reaches his home in the village.”
“No, I think Papa looks quite happy,” I said, refusing to accept her version of him over my version of him.
“Tell me, Papa,” I asked again.
“Yes, I enjoyed myself,” he said from the front seat of the car.
“Come again soon and stay with us.”
“Let me leave first. Then we shall see,” he said.
Of all the Papas I have known, my husband’s father is the most gentle, kindly version with small eyes that twinkle when he smiles.
Mirza Ashfaq Beg was a 17-year-old student in 1947 when India became independent and was partitioned to create Pakistan. His elder brother was working as a customs officer in Chittagong (now in Bangladesh). He chose to continue with his job and thus his family and he became Pakistanis. Papa went to study at Aligarh Muslim University and became a lecturer in an intermediate college in east Uttar Pradesh. He retired as a principal.
When we travel in the areas near his home, we invariably meet someone who recognizes us as the family of Principal Sahab. His students are everywhere. We are treated to stories of Papa’s glory. For 40 years he was re-elected as the gram pradhan of his village panchayat and is widely respected as a leader of the community.
“I did not know who my father was till I travelled with him on his campaign trail,” my husband Afzal had told me once. Papa had been a candidate in the 2002 legislative elections in Uttar Pradesh. His reputation and speeches laced with Urdu poetry would draw large crowds, but failed to get many votes.
“He is a very good man, he has done so much for us, but you see, politics mein sharafat ki koi jagah nahi hai (there is no place in politics for civility),” people would echo.
Krishnanand Rai, the winning candidate from the same constituency, was shot dead in an ambush three years later. I was in the newsroom at work when the news broke. My hands went cold with dread. In my own amateur way, I realized the importance for Papa of losing that election.
When his wife, my mother-in-law, died 18 months ago, my friend Aneela sent me a cryptic message. “Which one of you will become Ammi now, that is the question,” she texted.
We discovered that the answer to Aneela’s query was Papa. He seemed to have decided that no one was going to feel Ammi’s loss till he could help it. He began to fuss over everyone, worry about travel schedules and order favourite foods to be presented for each person in the family. His own grown children marvel at this side of him, unused to him as a nurturing parent.
Papa’s children and extended family take him very seriously as the patriarch of the family. He is surrounded by people trying to anticipate his needs.
The first person who smashed this hierarchy was Papa’s youngest grandchild—our daughter, Naseem. In a house full of people, she would toddle up to her grandfather with her shoes and ask him to help her wear them and tie her shoelaces. She would insist that only he could read stories to her from her books. Ammi would laugh with embarrassment at the scene.
This is the only version of Papa that Naseem and I have ever known, and for us, this kind, attentive grandparent is his essential self.
My father-in-law has been in and out of hospital for two weeks now. He has suffered a spinal fracture from a fall and we brought him to our home to be able to take better care of him. He has been in acute pain and sometimes it disorients him, making him forget where he is or who he is with.
I have been holding and caressing his hand a lot. It is time to care for those who have taken care of others all their lives.
His son and grandson are his primary caregivers and often retreat from his room unable to feed or console him in the way they had hoped to do. Papa gets frustrated and sometimes scolds them.
When I enter the room, he always smiles, however feeble his strength may be.
“Don’t be anxious,” he says to me. “How are the children? Take care of yourself.”
“Papa, have some soup with a slice of bread,” I say. He agrees with a nod.
For once I am the good cop and my husband is the bad cop in a family scene. I am loving this privilege.
When we got married in Delhi, Ammi and Papa had hosted a lavish wedding reception, a walima, in their village home. Over three days, approximately 5,000 people from surrounding villages had attended the feast.
Papa had got our wedding cards printed in Urdu, Hindi and English with my parents’ Hindu names next to his own Muslim family names.
This man, lying sick in bed today, is the India I was born in. He is the India that I care to live in. An India that honours my choices and accepts me with love and respect. That cares for my opinion. That reorganizes and reinvents itself to make place for my children.
“What is the news,” he asks me, as his pain subsides. I don’t tell him about the viral video of the brutal assault on African students within a kilometre of where we live. I don’t mention anti-Romeo squads humiliating young people in parks and streets in his beloved Uttar Pradesh. I don’t bring up the controversy over the Finance Bill amendments.
I hold his hand in mine, searching for what to tell him.
Natasha Badhwar is a film-maker, media trainer and mother of three.