Baba – My Man of History

I’m in a good place in my life right now. I didn’t see this phase coming, but for the first time in years and years, I’m happy – with myself, my life choices and how everything’s worked out for me. I’m thirty one, as old as my mother was when she died. After this year it’ll be strange, being older than she ever was. I was too young to know her at all; to me she was two long legs and a chiffon skirt that I hid in. But in her absence she gave me resolution. I decided early on that I’d have a different life, do something strong and brave and worthwhile, that was my backbone for everything, all my decisions. I wanted to take on the world, but I always hesitated somehow. I thought a lot but did very little, so listlessly I let the days pass and that rhetoric fades. I let it degenerate and with every year I went further away from all that.

I remember when I was young; how I’d find out more, look up words I didn’t know, jot down passing ideas. How my brain would whirr taking everything in and producing an opinion. How I’d be better off with a book read here or a conversation had there. I didn’t really have a very concrete idea about how things should turn out– not in terms of Career or Love but in other ways. I thought I’d bake on weekends, recycle my paper – maybe even make Paper Mache dustbins, have a gravel driveway. My library would have expanded and multiplied. I’d have opinions and make them count. Thought I’d have a garden – instead I have a fashionable cactus plant in the guest bathroom.

Now I take the easy way out – I buy new clothes, visit the parlour on weekends and read more magazines than books. I’m top of the list to be invited anywhere, you see, I’ve become ‘a fun person’. The seriousness, the confusion, the awkwardness of my adolescence has all evaporated. Drinks dinner movie – yes, I’ve become compact. I go watch movies and stop thinking. I’ve lost independent will; I’m their favourite customer because I sway the way they want. The movie or the book itself hardly matters anymore. They don’t make enough of an impression to be memorable. They just become a part of my day, my life for awhile and are forgotten. Now I take advantage of every overpriced, packaged thing available to load my guilt off, for not having stood up and spoken when I should have. Yes, I buy handmade paper and scented candles; I drop all my change in those boxes at billing counters. I flip through the newspapers, no more editorial section for me, it’s all entertainment now. I’ve let my inaction dissipate from my consciousness.

It’s not such a bad thing. Yes, I’m unrecognisable but I don’t stick out anymore.

But who I am today has everything to do with Baba, my father – much loved, much hated. Our tumultuous but quiet lives, now and back then together are more alike than I ever anticipated. My age, three decades and one, sets me back, sets me thinking, of my brief youth, of a future so in my grasp but so out of reach, of a world in my hands that I let slip. Baba…where shall I begin, what can I tell you about him…

Growing up, Perspective and Proportion were two of Babas’ favourite words. He used them all the time – mostly inappropriately. The way he talked; he should have taught philosophy not history. Any advice I’d approach him for, he’d be so vague, so unhelpful, non committal. He didn’t give me yes or no answers; everything had a historical context for him. He spoke to me often, of unrelated things. He didn’t ask me very many questions. He raised his voice regularly and fought with me about what he thought were my political leanings. I had none – though one awry sentence here or there would set him off. “Student politics”, he said to me – “you’re lucky Daela that you think you can ignore it, that you can spend years here and not once bother about it. Do you think a chap in Biafra had a choice?” He rattles off deaths, of people my age who died – here, there, everywhere. “Perspective,” he says, “Politics is not something we choose, it’s what’s thrust upon us, a cruel little joke history plays, it’s unavoidable and it traps you. It becomes a matter of life and death that you can’t hold back. Can you imagine the sickness – in people, in governments, that would make mothers sell their kids and sons betray their fathers? What kind of system does that to us?”

I felt bad for him sometimes, a little scared – won’t his students laugh at him? Won’t they see through his blubbering, lumbering forgetfulness? I do know just how ruthless my classmates were with our professors. He told me once off hand, “Those fellows who come to class to laugh, will laugh anyway – doesn’t matter who I am or what I’m teaching – it’s really not personal. Still, still…” he back tracks, “so much we let go because we think it’s not personal. So many things we shouldn’t have let pass by…”

He had many manuscripts lying around, mostly incomplete. I read some of them – they were terrible, full of grammar mistakes, incoherent sentence construction and completely unreadable. With great ease (surprisingly) my father finished his book on El Cid, which is his only completed manuscript. Did it get published? His book expanded to include everything, yes – everything (man, history, politics, war, art, love) but then he decided against it because “There are already too many of those know-it-all books lurking on bookshelves everywhere.”

I had a vague sense of respect for him though and short bursts of pride. But as I grew older I began to dislike him, his untidiness, his obvious unoriginality, his needless aggression, how he’d change his mind over everything and his inability to get work done. I worry – about his phone most of all. He doesn’t pick up, sometimes for days. I’ve established a thumb rule – five times over three days – if still no answer I get angry enough to drive over and try to yell at him. It’s uncanny though how he manages to pick up the phone to arrange his golf games.

“There are Big Things and Small Things in life Daela, and neither matters if the other isn’t in place”, this is after his second drink, “If I don’t have my class to go to every morning and my pay coming in every month, my notebooks don’t count, I wouldn’t be able to write”. I pass him some peanuts, “And if I’m going to receive a prize at a formal evening ceremony but here’s no one to pick out my tie and sit beside me, where’s the joy in that? You see Daela, that’s why you must never lose your sense of proportion” It makes me wonder then, if my mother fell in love with Baba because of his idealism, his impassioned if incorrect arguments, or was it just another part of him, perhaps even a part she disliked and tolerated quietly.

As a kid, I was a dim figure to Baba. Sometimes I doubted if he even knew what I looked like, because he didn’t look at me per se, not as a person. If he was excited about something he’d written he wouldn’t look twice or notice my tiredness after a long day at college, he’d seize my arms and propel me to his table, shoving some paper under my nose – “Read Daela, tell me what you think”, he’d fidget around as my eyes ran over the words, my head not registering a thing. I’d try to get by with spotting a couple of spelling errors and remarking that on the whole it was very good. “It is, isn’t it?” Just when I thought I’d got off the hook, he’d ask me more, “what did you think about this part, this phrase, is it too obvious?” – And when I couldn’t match him, he’d dismiss me with an irritated wave, “Oh you’re no good”. But sometimes he’d say something out of the blue that would unhinge my idea of him, like “What a high ponytail you’ve tied today.”

I always thought I had enough time – to find my place, to find my cause. Intentionally I left myself free and blank so that when my calling came along I’d be ready to seize it, sink into it fully. That didn’t happen. And though they’ll all say it’s not true, Baba was to blame too. His meandering ways put me off the map; his desire to raise a free spirit of a daughter made me lose my way. I was confused, eager, willing to work but not smart enough to recognise the opportunities that came, to realise what to sacrifice and when and how much.

Baba is a classic example of a man defeated by the world but one who didn’t put up a fight, a man vastly superior to the post he holds, who has far more knowledge than he is accredited with and who for all his intelligence failed to consolidate it. He didn’t put it all in one place and he worked behind the curtains, in obscurity, in something close to disdain and mockery from his peers. He had enough ideas to have his own philosophy – but he had no charisma, he wasn’t clever – this I realised later, as an adult.

Where his circle completes I don’t know – would it be enough for him if one student in his class is inspired to study his subject further? Is his day a good one if they respond to his lecture? Would he be satisfied if he finally gets his book out in stores? Would he form a group, a club and brainstorm a bit, find that indefinable spark when two heads connect over a common idea they thought was theirs alone? A man of history he certainly is, old fashioned and unwilling to fully accept that history is still in the making, we have chapters to add, we have another chance, that, like they say – change is inevitable but growth is optional. He, like me, has taken the easy way out, or maybe it’s me like him. Either way, I don’t mind anymore, and I don’t think he does too. Anymore.

Inayat Sabhikhi