Usually every year on this day my Mother and I visit Tirupathi, a temple in South India. We go there as we find it gives us peace and only think it's fitting to remember my Father at his favourite spot in India. We go there to pray for his soul and for God to give us strength through the journey of our lives without him. Unfortunately, due to some unforeseen circumstances we couldn't make it this year and I find myself in Dubai. I'll just say this... It feels very strange.
I was working on a blog post about my Father earlier today but just found myself exponentially drained with each word I typed. I wanted to however, post something about him so am going to cheat and post an article I'd written about him 4 years back that had appeared in the Khaleej Times Weekend Magazine as a Cover Story. My writing style may have changed a bit and maybe some things may not be relevant anymore, but most of what I feel remains the same....
|(An ad for my Father printed last year)|
I think all people, after losing someone they love, have a sense of wanting to share with even strangers what the world would now be missing out on, and while my father’s death had made headline news in newspapers in India and the UAE, it had seemed like the most important thing in the world to me to be able to share with people, my side of the story. To show them the real man behind the angry stare. A man that was now lost to the world forever.
Fast-forward five years. Last week I got a call from the editor asking if I was interested in doing a regular column for Weekend magazine.
“About what?” I questioned.
“Anything you want!” came the excited reply.
While an opportunity like this is a dream come true for any aspiring writer, I struggled with what my first article would be about. Life? Business? Gadgets? “Keep it light and funny,” the editor had advised, “your writing is best when you are yourself.”
Yet, being a woman and knowing all about first impressions, I had wanted to dazzle. Three drafts (very witty drafts might I add) on different subjects were penned, but they just weren’t right to be the first. As I drove in my car last week, preparing to leave to a temple in India for my father’s death anniversary on the 6th of April, my subject suddenly seemed so obvious.
“I don’t know how to exist in a world where my dad doesn’t,” says George, in an episode of the hugely popular TV show, ‘Grey’s Anatomy’. “Yeah… that never really changes,” replies Christina as she welcomes him into what she calls, the “Dead Dad’s Club”. As any member of the Dead Dad’s Club in the real world will tell you, you learn to deal with your loss, but the feeling of loss never really goes away. As I’m writing this, I am currently at my desk in the office, with a huge printed canvas of a collage of pictures of me and father through the years, staring back at me.
“You don’t have to have a birthday to be special to me… I love you all the time,” reads an impromptu card I had received from him in 1992. I’ve often had people glance nervously at the collage as they walk into my office, some obviously wondering what something so personal is doing at my place of work. “I wouldn’t be able to function without it,” I want to say to them. Don’t they get it?
Not many people know this, but my father was born with a physical deformity — he had only one ear. This was something he was very conscious of, and would often say it was the reason he got recognised wherever he went. What Papa didn’t realise was that a lot of people who even worked very closely with him never noticed this obvious physical flaw he had. He never did realise that his personality, his aura, was so much bigger than his physical being. Maybe this is what makes me feel his presence around me five years after he’s gone.
FIVE YEARS BACK my mother took over the reigns of the Jumbo Group, and has sailed through many an adversity in her business and personal life, most of them in the glaring spotlight of the public eye. When she first made the list on Fortune’s Global List of “Most Powerful Women in the World,” she was filled with a sense of sadness that it was her husband’s name and accomplishments that should have been written about, not hers. Yet, as the saying goes, behind every successful man lies a successful woman, and in Papa’s case, he always attributed his success to her.
Once in an interview my father was asked how he felt about his rags to riches story, and he had replied he didn’t think anything of it as he had never been in rags. Yet my mother narrates stories to us about their early days in Dubai together, when going out for a movie would be a special treat for them.
It is no surprise that later in life my father would try to shower my mother with gifts at any given opportunity. I use the word “try” because my mother would more often than not decline accepting the same, saying it was a waste of money. My father would explain that it was for her and us kids that he worked so hard, and she would always say, he didn’t work because of his love for us — it was because of his love for work.
However she might have spun it, his love for her was evident to all. An executive from the company had once narrated a story to me about how he spent a day with my father when my mother was out of town. Papa had kept excusing himself sporadically from meetings to call her and make sure she was ok. The executive had probably said to him, “relax… I’m sure she’ll be fine,” to which my father had said, “how can I relax when my jaan (my life) is away from me.” The executive had been taken aback at this public display of emotion, but he had only learnt then what countless others knew — my mother was Papa’s weakness. He couldn’t function without her.
There is an eight and six year age difference between me and my two sisters. Papa would often narrate a story about the circumstances in which I was born. After having two girls already, my parents it seems were fairly confident that their third child would be a son. In fact, they had already chosen a name for him — Kiran.
The day I was born, my father was in Tirupathi, a religious temple in India (and the place I am heading to tomorrow) and asked to be blessed with “Lakshmi” — the Goddess of Wealth. On his arrival at the airport in Bombay, he was told that I, his third child, a girl, was born. Papa would always tease me, “I thought you’d be a boy. Why weren’t you born as my son? I even gave you a boy’s name!”
He also had an unwavering belief that my birthday was somehow lucky for him, and would tell me that every year. I couldn’t help but think about that on my birthday, April 15, 2002, as I immersed my father’s ashes in the Ganges, nine days after he passed away. Ironically, as I was the only unmarried daughter, I was also able to perform the final rites, an act usually reserved for a son. I console myself thinking that I helped bring peace to his soul. I guess this is what they call the circle of life.
MY FATHER had unique relationships with each of us three girls. He related to us differently but always treated us fairly and loved us equally.
Both my sisters had spent their childhood years away from my father in India, while I had the advantage of growing up near him in Dubai. I have a lot of fond memories of Papa from those days. I remember the time he was a chain smoker and on days off from school my mother would send me to his office to keep an eye on him. I’d sit outside his office on the seventh floor of Jumbo House (the main building that is now converted into a showroom in Bur Dubai) with his then secretary, and every so often would peep inside his room only to catch him with a forbidden cigarette. On doing so, I’d run inside and disrupt whatever important meeting he was having and stamp my foot and demand he put his cigarette out.
He soon realised that the only way he could get some quiet time is by having his secretary take me across the road to the Ramada Coffee Shop for cake so he could get his work, and his smoking, done in peace. Fortunately his love for cigarettes was soon forgotten. Unfortunately my love for cake was not!
In around the late 80’s my family moved to India so that my sisters could pursue their higher studies at college. Papa at that time was at his busiest ever and we’d rarely get to see him. My mother in particular had to make several sacrifices in her life as she raised three girls alone and rarely got to see her husband.
I think it was a difficult time for all involved. Being a woman of (many) words from the start, I’d write letters to my father and post it to him to his office in Dubai. I had decided that his youngest daughter was growing up from a child into a teenage girl and that like it or not, he was going to get to know her. I’d get type written responses back from him that he sometimes even hand delivered himself, but what was important to me, was that we had a special secret channel of communication he didn’t have with my sisters.
Upon his passing, I found a file with every single scrap of paper I’d ever written for him, long before my letter-writing trend had even occurred. These included drawings and cards I’d made for him before I could even spell “daughter”, or from the looks of it, write legibly.
I often dream of Papa, and get terrific insight from him. Too many events have happened to me in my life for me to not believe that he is around, taking care of me.
My mother has placed a picture of him in our prayer room, and we both have him in our sight when we talk to God, morning and night.
Five years back I had commenced my article on my father by saying, “Manohar Rajaram Chhabria, is, was and will always be invincible. He’ll live on in our hearts forever.” Four years and 363 days later, I’d like to conclude the same.