Have you ever had a moment where someone you respect and place high on a pedestal, says something that completely and utterly devastated you?
It may have been a seminal moment, a turning point where things would never be the same again. Or, perhaps it was something said and done and then swept under the carpet, a subject never to be raised again.
My father was driving me home from my piano lesson, as he did every Wednesday evening. I was possibly nine or 10 at the time.
We often had philosophical discussions on life in general. At least, it was more my father doing the talking.
He would generally speak about kindness, generosity, equality, socialism (I think he was trying to convert me early on to Communism), and I, in turn, would nod my head mutely, my tongue tied, feeling too inadequate, too shy to contribute to our discussion.
While I can still hear his voice, I struggle to recall the words he spoke, although almost without fail he would start his preamble with, “Lady Amna…”
One day, however, I did offer up a response. My father was gently questioning why I said my prayers, why I read the Quran.
“Do you understand much of what you read?” he asked.
To which I replied without even thinking: “Yes.”
I may even have been slightly irritated that he had uttered such a question. He smiled to himself, nodding very slowly, as was his style.
“Why?” I then asked.
But he didn’t answer me, so I pressed him: “Because there is a god, isn’t there?”
And he said without a beat of hesitation: “Lady Amna, there is no such thing as god.”
It was a straight-laced response. There was no smidgen of humour, no twinkle in his eye. A statement of fact, resolute and set in stone.
I thought my world had flipped upside down. I remember the punch of my heart, shock and panic shearing through me.
This was my father speaking, someone who was a part of me, and he had just expressed the thing that was so counter to everything I had been taught.
How could my father not believe in god? It was as though he had turned his back, shunning me and the rest of my family. It was a slap in the face. An act of disloyalty, a betrayal of trust even.
How could he have said such a thing? The hurt quelled in my chest. Life certainly would never be the same again.
Once home, I ran to my mother and burst into tears, telling her what my father had said. I know there was a terse exchange of words as she wrapped her arms around me and muttered that of course there is a god.
And that was the dichotomy in our household. A mother who was becoming ever more religious and a father who had turned away from religion.
What my father said put a chasm in our father-daughter relationship, and while he continued to drive me to my piano lessons and to my sports fixtures, I made it a point to remain steadfastly mute, to blatantly ignore him, which actually did very little to put him off from airing his views.
As a child, my mother had a greater hold of me, a greater part of my heart, and I continued zealously to court her favour by ardently saying my prayers and reading the Quran from beginning to end. An exercise rewarded by a gift of my choosing.
While I read the Quran in its entirety three times before the age of 13 – twice with the English translation – the things I remember are the phrases, “right path”, “day of reckoning” and “hell fire”.
Yes, I enjoyed the stories of Joseph, Moses, and Abraham because, quite honestly, those stories captured my imagination.
And as I grew older, I marvelled at the Quran’s description of mountains pegged to the earth and the jot of blood morphing into human life.
Yet, remaining at the forefront of my mind was imagery of a fire as big as the earth, devouring anything and everything. Me included. I lived in fear of putting a foot wrong, of veering left instead of right.
I feared acting out of the norm, feared expressing my own opinion in case it wasn’t the right one. I was afraid to question in the way my father had done. Blind faith was a uniform which straight-jacketed any curiosity I may have had.
And that lack of curiosity stopped me from asking my father a key question: why? Why didn’t my father believe in god?
If I had, then maybe he would have told me that he had lost faith long ago. Maybe, in the privacy of our drive home, he would have shared something which had happened in his past.
Something that had disturbed him so profoundly that it quite possibly made him turn his back on religion.
My father’s lessons in Islam were delivered in an abominable way. A few years ago, my bari phupi told my sister and I a story. She wept as she recounted what would happen almost every day to our father way back when he was a child.
From a young age he was taught Arabic and he read the Quran. Without fail, each day the maulvi sahib would arrive at their doorstep.
My father would quake at the sound of his voice, unwilling to attend his lesson. My grandmother would nonetheless chivvy him along, ordering him to sit down with his teacher and behave.
Perhaps she thought my father’s reluctance was down to laziness. Perhaps she was ashamed of her son’s lack of respect and downright rudeness.
Perhaps she didn’t know about the physical abuse her son suffered at the hands of the maulvi sahib. Then again, possibly she looked the other way.
If my father made a mistake in his reading of the Quran, or if he didn’t read it in the spirit that the maulvi sahib had intended, then this deeply pious teacher would hand out a punishment like no other.
In my father’s case, he would take the thick cord from the punkah and whip my father again and again.
And so it went on, unnoticed, unchecked. A regular occurrence.
How long this continued, I will never know. My father never mentioned it, and I never brought it up with him.
It’s a heartbreaking story, and whenever I see photographs of my father as a young boy, I notice how he doesn’t smile. Without a doubt he was a handsome child, but there was no light in his eyes.
All I see is a lost and vulnerable child and the shadow of a vile man who enjoyed literally beating the word of god into my father.
It’s no wonder, then, that he wasn’t a fan of religion.
Had I known all of that, perhaps I wouldn’t have been as affronted by my father’s claim that there was no such thing as god.
Then again, as a nine-ten year old, would I have been able to understand the magnitude of his experience? Could I have even empathised?
Looking back, I’m glad he was so frank and honest. My father was imperfect just like any of us. He didn’t conform to my ideals, but that’s all right; I didn’t conform to his, either, and he wholly accepted me.
I think he wanted me to question, to debate, assuming I had more emotional intelligence than I actually possessed.
He wanted me to be curious about the world, and that’s probably why he kept up his monologues during our short journeys in the vain hope he could spark something in me.
Today, as a free-thinking adult, I keep coming back to that episode with my father in the car. As a parent, I want to ensure that my children keep as much of an open mind as possible, to always question, to ask why – unlike their simplistic mother when she was a child.
And just like my father had wanted of me, I hope they are curious about the world they live in, and continue to ask their million and one questions about the mysteries of the universe and the strange quirks of the human race and the lives we lead.
I hope they will recognise that not everything is black and white and clear cut. That we are indeed complex beings, with layers of experience moulding the way we are.
While that episode between my father and I was traumatic, I can safely say that I haven’t been left scarred by what he said, nor did I require years of therapy to come to terms with the way he acted.
Perhaps like so many other things in the past, time washes everything with a tint of rose. It softens the ramification of events.
It’s not only that. It’s the understanding that we’re vulnerable and in no way do I ever want to put my children in a position where they are bullied or abused or exploited.
Times have moved on from when my father was a child, but still the doubt, the worry niggles, the what if .
The very moment you look the other way and something happens which affects them as it affected my father. Perish the thought.
But it’s a memory I’ll remember, a souvenir of our time together. Of how a father inadvertently taught his youngest child one of the most important lessons in life: to always ask the question, why.