After weeks of staying with us, it is time for my father-in-law to return to his home in his village in eastern Uttar Pradesh. We know what going home means to Papa. He belongs to his land, it sustains his breath and his sense of being. Mirza Ashfaq Beg is an important man there.

At the breakfast table, I cheerfully state the obvious. “Papa, you are going home tomorrow!"

He pauses to look up and smile at me. Papa has a serious face but this smile that always reaches his eyes gives him away. He is easily amused and always ready to find humour in things. “How are you feeling now, Papa?" I ask him.

“The doctors have given me a clean chit," he says. “But you know what they say..." He completes his sentence with an Urdu couplet:

Agar hal ho gayi mushkil to asaani nahi

jaati,

Bahar soorat mere dil ki pareshani nahi

jaati

(Even when all the problems seem to be solved, for some reason my heart still remains troubled.)

Last year, Papa was diagnosed with Parkinson’s syndrome, and it was a great relief for all of us. I mean it was a relief for my husband and me, because the mystery of what had been happening to Papa over the last few years finally had an explanation. We had been concerned about Papa’s slowing down and had been pushing him to walk more, to go out more, and generally snap out of what seemed like mild anxiety and depression. He would often miss a step while walking and one day he had fallen abruptly and suffered a fracture of the lower spine.

We didn’t know if he would ever recover well enough to be independent again. The diagnosis gave us a name for the problem. Now we knew that Papa wasn’t just being lethargic and absent-minded. He had a condition that was treatable. Collectively, we would beat it back.

Over the next few months, Papa recovered enough to move from his wheelchair to using a walker, and then just a walking stick. He travelled between his home and ours again and again. As we watch him interacting with his doctors, physiotherapists and caregivers, I realize he has a charm that is hard to describe. Doctors stop in the waiting area to ask about his well-being. They tell him they will be lucky to have his strength when they are as old as him. Despite their busy-ness, they chat with Papa about mango season in Varanasi and the cool breeze of mango orchards.

I realize I am not the only one who loves to get his attention.

Sometimes I wake up extra chirpy and speak to my father-in-law as if I am a young girl all over again. This role-playing comes naturally to me, even though it has been decades since I’ve been like this with anyone. I remember girl friends in my college years, sometimes indulging me, sometimes asking me to switch off my face. Now it is my husband’s turn to give me a side-eyed look. I ignore him. Papa responds to me with a quiet laughter. I call him Papaji, in the Punjabi way that I was taught by my parents as a child.

I tell Papa about my work and travels. Like elderly parents tend to do, he wants all the details of logistics. Which route I am taking, who is going with me, who will receive me, where I will stay, when I will be back. He forgets most of the details, or maybe he asks again and again because he needs the reassurance.

He also makes sure that I am reassured of his approval. Again, he quotes poetry and leaves me with words to savour.

Sair kar duniya ki ghafil, zindagani phir

kahaan,

Zindagi gar kuchch rahi, to naujawaani

phir kahaan

(Travel this world, o ignorant one, because life is short. Even if life lasts long enough, your youth won’t come back again.)

I’m sitting next to him on his bed as I type this column. “Won’t you have breakfast, Mami?" asks my nephew. “No," I answer him, “not until I have finished this piece."

“She is making up for lost time," says Papa with a smile. “All the time she has been away while I was here." Then he instructs his grandson to get a cup of tea for me.

More than ever before, my father-in-law feels like my grandfather to me. We discuss the news. I complain to him about things that get to me. “You know how your son is...," I often start my sentences, when he asks me where he is or why he is later than expected. We share jokes about this man who is the reason behind our relationship with each other.

Often there will be some tension between father and son. The roles have been reversed between them and neither of them is comfortable with it. They both miss Ammi, who was the buffer between them. Papa has more grace than his son when a conflict arises. It is hard to watch, yet it is beautiful to witness. Despite the fragility of his physical self, there is a quiet strength that never betrays him.

It makes me think of how many times Papa has known defeat in this long life of his. How many times he has chosen peace over confrontation for the sake of the greater good.

He was 19 years old when India became independent in 1947. It was an exhilarating moment of collective victory, yet it was also a time of personal crisis for his family. His elder brother and his family were torn away from them over the next few years, as the borders between India and Pakistan became harder to cross. Papa got admission in Dhaka University’s engineering course but homesickness brought him back to India.

“I couldn’t eat rice all the time. I needed my rotis," he smiles as he remembers that time.

“What would have happened if you had stayed in Dhaka?" I ask him.

He nods his head, gesturing a no. “I was always with Maulana Abul Kalam Azad. We were never in favour of the two-nation theory. The partition of India was a political stunt that went horribly wrong. It drove a wedge between communities that has never healed."

I have many questions for Mirza Ashfaq Beg. I want to make sense of things that seem inexplicable, I want to understand why we didn’t transform as we had expected to. Sometimes he answers me with anecdotes; sometimes he offers me the gift of poetry, reminding me that he is passing on the baton from one generation to the next.

Natasha Badhwar is a film-maker, media trainer and author of the book My Daughters’ Mum.

She tweets at @natashabadhwar

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