Monday, August 16, 2010
Just this past weekend, my sister shared with me one of my late father's reminiscences: apparently when my father started out on his first job as a new college graduate all those many years ago in Chennai, India, he was so poor that he had no money to buy shoes. He could afford a pair only when he drew his first salary. For reasons that I still cannot explain, this anecdote moved me, and continues to evoke a range of emotions in me. I had known that my father grew up poor--his father had been a prominent lawyer in Chennai, but gave up his legal practice when Mahatma Gandhi called on all Indians to quit their jobs so that the British would quit India. When Indian independence was finally wrested from the British, my grandfather's fortunes had been so eroded that he never really recouped his losses. My father and his siblings relied on scholarships for their education. Education, then hard work, was my father's way out of poverty. So the poverty that he had grown up in was not a surprise. But the bare feet (so callused that, he told my sister, he could not feel nails and other street junk when they pierced his soles!) moved me. Because of all that he attained and achieved in his life, despite his starting point. Because of all the charity and good he did as his own success grew, perhaps in memory of those hard early days. And because, as my sister told me, there was not an ounce of self-pity in him as he shared his recollections with her--he was joking about how awful and hard-as-wood his feet were, in those shoe-less days. Typical of the man who gave pancreatic cancer a run for its money and withstood the worst that it unleashed on him, for 14 months, without a complaint or a whimper. Dying, deprived of the ability to speak, the only thing he would whisper to my mother and sister is: "I am fine."