My earliest memories of my father, Shamsur Rahman Faruqi, are about his looks and unusual habits. His hair was a mass of curls that he liked to tug when he deliberated, which was often. I was quite captivated by his habit of wrapping a thick, tightly curled lock of hair around his finger, almost straightening it out, then letting go, all the while he was talking or reading a book.

Father tamed his hair by plastering it with mustard oil. Every morning, summer or winter, he would bathe with cold water, then oil his wet hair and comb it back. It was glossy and slick for a while, but bounced back to its natural curly state as soon as it was dry enough. I can’t remember how old I was — most likely five or six years — as I watched droplets fly from a wide-toothed comb when father brushed his wet hair. His comb was special. No one told me that it was special, but I supposed it was.

He was always reading. And while he read, my mother often stood behind his chair, or the bed’s headboard, and ran her fingers through his hair. He read propped up in bed. The house wasn’t big enough to have a separate room as a study. There was a ‘study table’ in my parent’s bedroom. It was shared among us. The room itself was dominated by two oversized beds that had been custom made in Bareilly, a town in northern India close to the Himalayas, known for furniture making.

The beds were of solid shisham wood and had a distinctive, somewhat overwrought, but unforgettable design. Small, presumably steel, brackets were affixed to both ends of the beds, meant for rods to hold up mosquito nets. (But where could one find such oversized mosquito nets?) Those little brackets, in vertical rows of threes, were good at latching on to clothing. Many a frock received a tear; saris or dupattas were ripped as they got caught in those wily things. Eventually, after many years of ruing over damaged clothing, my parents had them removed.

And I remember him smoking. Gold Flake. A cigarette would dangle from his fingers, the ash at its tip growing long because he was engaged in doing something else. The ash would eventually fall on the floor. He blew smoke rings in the air for me. I loved the smell of tobacco that hung around him. I loved the tobacco stain between his middle and index fingers.

He lived on tea and bread for a while. His shoes were worn out. He wore flip-flops. But stories of his brilliance circulated on the college grapevine.

I also associate my initial memories of him with cars. Father’s early posting was in Delhi. The first car was a Hindustan Morris. It wasn’t self-starting; a crank had to be inserted in the front of the car and given a good whirl to get the engine going. I was fond of collecting trivial things, mostly shiny trinkets, in my little purse. Car keys among them. Once, I put the car keys in my purse and kept quiet while my parents searched frantically for them. Mother and I were leaving by train for Allahabad. Eventually, I am told, a taxi was called for the station. After we were comfortably seated inside our compartment, I opened my purse and fished out the keys. I was probably punished, but I don’t recall any of it.

My mother stayed with her parents in the early years of marriage. Father, after qualifying in the Indian administrative services, was posted to far-off places as a probationer. If I search the farthest corners of my memory, I can recall names of places such as Nagpur in central India and Guwahati in Assam. But I was only two years old then.

I remember Father had a dog called Lizzie. She was a German Shepherd. My parents had a “love marriage”, not an arranged one. My grandparents — that is, Father’s parents — did not attend. Details about their courtship were rarely mentioned; all I know is that Father was my mother’s English tutor. Mother had a masters degree in history as well as an LT (license to teach). Such advanced degrees made it possible for her to secure a job as principal of a girls’ high school.

She wanted to get a second masters in English literature. This is the point Father came into her life, as I am told by a family friend. Father had come to Allahabad from Gorakhpur against the wishes of his parents and enrolled for an MA in the Department of English at the University of Allahabad. He was looking for jobs to support himself. He once told me that he would walk eight or nine kilometres, each way, to the university from his small, rented room because he couldn’t afford to pay for transport.

He lived on tea and bread for a while. His shoes were worn out. He wore flip-flops. But stories of his brilliance circulated on the college grapevine. He had a circle of admiring friends who were in awe of his intelligence. He would read as he walked to the university, pick up and read even a scrap of paper that might fall in his path.

A friend of his mentioned the possibility of him tutoring my mother. Arrangements were made. Purdah was observed. I’m told that my mother sat behind a curtain during the lessons. Love blossomed. She did not complete her second masters degree. I think she only finished the first year. Mother once told me that “Faruqi sahib (she always called him that) cut quite a funny figure in his ankle high (utanga) pyjamas and rubber chappals. When I pointed him out to a friend, she couldn’t suppress her laughter. But he was extraordinary. His eyes shone beneath his thick, black-rimmed glasses.”

Father topped in his MA class and was awarded a prestigious gold medal. But he wasn’t offered a job to teach in the department, as was the tradition in those days. Two of his batch-mates, who had second and third positions, were offered lectureships, which they accepted. Father remained lifelong friends with them. Job anxiety made him move to a provincial town, Ballia, to teach English literature at a degree college. A year of that and he was fed up. He returned to Allahabad and announced to his friends that he wanted to marry my mother.

The columnist is associate professor in the Department of Middle Eastern and South Asian Languages and Cultures at the University of Virginia

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, May 2nd, 2021

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