I had decided at the outset that I wouldn’t write about my family this year (their inspiring stories could fill 30 days and more); but there’s one exception. Today, is my father’s 80th birthday. The kids and I, and my brother and his family, are gathered with my parents in New Jersey. Dad didn’t want a fuss, just for all of us to be together. He is surrounded by his four grandkids, and received video messages from family in Calcutta, Bareilly and Karachi – the best presents he could have asked for he said. For me, my dad’s story is the most inspiring one I know. And on his 80th birthday, when he’s feeling not quite himself – a little less confident, a little more fragile – there’s nothing I want to do more than to remind him of his courageous, gutsy, hard working, inspiring life.
My father, born in Bareilly, India, was the first in his family of four brothers and a sister to study abroad and to attain a professional degree. He really didn’t want to go to England to study; he didn’t feel he could succeed. He was content learning to play the guitar; going to movies with his friend every Sunday – the 6pm show at Chowrangi; collecting stamps – the stamp collectors club would meet every 2nd Saturday evening at the YMCA and dad was its youngest member; and saving his pocket money for little treasures from his family’s auction house, the Russell Exchange, a place so full of history and meaning that a film has been made about it. But his brother-in-law insisted; he believed in my father more than my father believed in himself. The day of dad’s departure, dozens of family members came to the train station in Calcutta to see him off, garlanding him with flowers. His father came too, in a wheelchair. He had suffered a stroke just days before. My dad traveled to Bombay and then took a ship to London. So much hope and pride tucked into a 20 year old setting off for an adventure unknown.
My father’s stories of his years in London are full of the trepidation and gumption of a young man trying to make his way, alone. At the airport when he first arrived, a pen pal that my father had exchanged stamps and letters with for years, was supposed to meet him; he was there, and was paging my father. My father had no idea what ‘paging’ meant and was too flustered at Heathrow to hear his name being called. Dad arrived at the hostel where he would be staying, in an upstairs room; the room was so frigid, dad layered on all the clothes he had brought and sat huddled next to a geyser, which he later discovered he had to put coins in to make it blow hot air. He went to Imperial College London and got his degree in engineering. A few years ago, I had the chance to take dad back to Imperial College. He was greeted so warmly at the Alumni office, given an Imperial College mug, and asked to sign their guest book. You should have seen his face. All the memories came flooding back, as he walked around campus and showed his grandchildren the school he once thought he couldn’t conquer.
Two years into his degree, my father’s father passed away in Calcutta; his mother had died of cholera when he was seven. Afraid that my father would return to India without completing his studies, his family didn’t tell him of his father’s death until just before he graduated – almost two years later. My father worked several jobs to pay for his education – at Hartley’s jam factory and at a bakery called Hot Cross Buns. His passion was to travel and to collect beautiful things like fabrics, wall paper, even a tea set. Last time dad came to visit us in D.C., we had tea in that tea set — the first time he had ever had tea in his treasured tea set that he bought in Germany and that he’s carried around the world for 60 years.
Dad worked for a British aircraft manufacturer for a few years after he graduated, and then returned home to find someone to share his life. My father asked his eldest brother and his sister-in-law to find him, a suitable girl. His requirements were quite straightforward: he wanted someone from a good family background, well-educated, but not too educated, easy to get along with, and someone who was family oriented. His brother knew exactly the right match, and wrote to my father: “We have just seen a lovely young girl from a very good family. She’s not too tall, nor too short; she’s slim, has a long braid and mostly wears saris; she seems fairly quiet. We think you two would get along well.” They sent a photograph also, but it was a photo of my mother and her three sisters. My dad did not know which of the four was supposed to be his new bride. My mom was in the first year of her Masters degree when “the letter” arrived, addressed to her father: “I respectfully ask for your daughter Rashida’s hand for my brother Atiq. He has completed his engineering degree from Imperial College in England and has secured a good job. He is highly qualified, honest and sincere. I believe he and your daughter would make a suitable match. Omeed hey ke ap is rishtay ko kabul farmain gay (Our hope is that you will accept this proposal).” And with those words their fate was sealed – a marriage that has spanned three continents, weathered a civil war and countless moves, celebrated two children and four grandchildren, and thrived for half a century.
A few years ago, I interviewed my dad so I could find out exactly how our family came to America, to record that aspect of our family’s history; it ended up being published in the Washingtonian. It inspires me every time I retell the story, which starts like this: “Where you wanna go? Where you wanna go?” I don’t think my father understood a word the cab driver said. “This is our first time in New York, he told the cabbie at JFK airport in his heavily accented Indo-Pak London English. Please take us to a neighborhood that would be suitable for my family.” The cabbie shrugged as he tossed our suitcases in the trunk. We had left our country, our home, our sense of belonging – and now our fate rested in the hands of a NY cab driver from China. We didn’t know anyone in New York. We had little idea of life in America. All of our belongings – some clothes, a few books, a Rosenthal tea set my father had bought in Germany – was in the twine-tied trunk of a yellow cab.
The stories continue — how my father was willing to travel wherever his job took him, to any state, any country, alone, so we could continue our education without having to change schools; how he could never get mad at my brother or myself, and when he did, he would hold his own hand on top of ours and tap it to show his displeasure; how there is nothing he wouldn’t do, no sacrifice he wouldn’t make, for his family’s comfort. To this day. Even though his gait has become a little more tentative, he’s the first one to want to bring my suitcase in from the car; even though his hands have become a little less sure, he’s the first one to want to make me tea in the morning.
Happy Birthday Dad. You inspire me every day. I love you.