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An ode to my father

June 15, 2019

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I am what I am, all because of my father. I know it sounds so clichéd, but there is no other way of putting it because this is true.

No other person has believed in me as Abbu did. And it was his belief that led me to believe in myself — he saw me as capable enough to achieve anything if I put my mind to it. He considered nothing to be beyond my grasp if I tried to reach for it. But sometimes he did feel I was not utilising my full potentials. And for those times he did not have any harsh words for me or any sermonising lectures — he simply had inspiring stories of strong women who had excelled in their spheres, be it Razia Sultana, Marie Curie, Fatimah Jinnah, Helen Keller, and, closer to home, Anita Ghulam Ali, a dynamic educationalist who was his senior.

Even his bedtime stories had strong heroines of the likes of the smart Scheherazade of Arabian Nights who tells the sultan such fascinating stories that he doesn’t execute her, and of Portia, who was able to outsmart the cunning Shylock in Merchant of Venice. At that time I didn’t think much about the subtle life’s lessons I was learning, in retrospect, I do realise their impact.

His confidence in me built up my confidence; so much so that I have needed no other source to recharge myself even now. His love taught me to love myself with all my flaws and finesse. Nobody — yes, nobody — can shake my self-esteem because he made me see myself through his eyes only. His appreciation and approval was all that mattered, and I always had that, so now no one’s criticism can make any difference.

His love was not excessive or showery, it was just there — calm, secure and motivating, not overpowering, controlling or suffocating. He let me take my steps, fall, dust off and then encouraged me to start again. He let me forge my own path, just made sure that it led to a destination worth the journey and the struggle. And I learnt to thrive, not tumble, in struggle, by seeing him face his struggles without ever trying to find an escape. He taught me that things had to be done, responsibilities had to be fulfilled and doing things yourself is the surest way to get things done and well.

Self-reliance and being happy with whatever one got after making an honest effort were enough — whatever else the world did or had was immaterial. He never envied another person, though he heaped loads of praise on anyone whom he considered as ‘zaheen’ — intelligence, education and a literary taste were all that he considered worthy of admiration and respect.

Worldly possessions were meaningless for him, therefore he spent his life in pursuit of ‘ilm’ and I grew up in a home that had more books and magazines than furniture. And now in my house, my books and bookshelves are my prized possessions, which I enjoy caring for more than I bother dusting my living room showpieces.

My fondest childhood memories are of going into a bookshop, getting lost in the shelves and walking out with any book of my choice, no matter how expensive. And boy, some were expensive! The excitement Abbu felt in a bookshop was so pulsating that it just rubbed off on me and my brother. And for days after, the books that the three of us had bought would take over our lives until we went on another trip to a bookshop!

I think the fact that he let us read whatever we wanted, without enforcing what he considered suitable, also played a part in making us enjoy reading. He believed in reading for the sake of reading, and it was just natural to follow his example.

Perhaps the most influential aspect of my father on my personality was the fact that he never treated me any different from my brother. This is not to say that he treated me as a boy — just that he gave equal opportunities to the two of us … and maybe a little more love and support to me. Or maybe I just like to consider myself as my father’s favourite. Whatever it was, a daughter was no different from a son to him.

Abbu had this amazing ability to connect with people of all ages, especially children. All my cousins could sit, chat and joke around with him like friends, he was the one elder in the family they could confined in without the fear of being judged, though he was never too good at remembering what he was not supposed to divulge.

He was particularly good at keeping kids entertained, even those who were meeting him for the first time. He played with them, let them do whatever they liked, such as jump on the sofa while I fumed inside, and eat whatever they wanted. He believed that children need to feel free to develop fully.

He once told me that while growing up, he feared all his elders in the extended family living in his ancestral home. The only way an elder talked to kids then was to scold them for anything and everything, and he disclosed that he had decided that he would never scold his kids or make them fear him. To him, love and respect could not enforced by discipline, it was cultivated through giving love and respect. Come to think of it, he was better at understanding the simple and straightforward emotions and dealings of children than the complex makeup of adults.

And I saw him taking adults for what they appeared and said to him, trusting their words and then being disappointed and dismayed. But he never learnt from such experiences, or maybe it was because he never gave up believing in the innate good in every person.

Yes I do miss him, but somehow there is hardly any emptiness because, while he was there, he gave so much to me in so many ways that it still fills me up with so many memories and countless lessons he casually imparted through the stories and knowledge he shared.

Yes, sometimes I do get sad that he is no more, but I prefer to be happier for having had a father like him. Optimism is another lesson I learnt from him and it will remain with me forever, just as he will.

Published in Dawn, Young World, June 15th, 2019