“The Essence of Fatherhood” by Murzban F. Shroff
Murzban F. Shroff is a Mumbai-based writer. He is the author of 4 books: Breathless in Bombay (stories); Waiting for Jonathan Koshy (novel); Fasttrack Fiction (digital shorts), and Third Eye Rising (an Indian collection). His stories have appeared in over 70 literary journals in the U.S. and UK, for which he has received 7 Pushcart Prize nominations. Shroff is also the winner of the John Gilgun Fiction Award, a Commonwealth Writers’ Prize shortlisted author, and a finalist for the Horatio Nelson Fiction Prize. His latest story collection, Third Eye Rising, explores issues such as caste, dowry, child apathy, female exploitation, migrant identities and personal loss, and was featured on the Esquire list of Best Books of 2021.
A father is one who raises you by example. Through his deeds and actions he inspires your journey and imparts certain values that help you navigate your own life.
When my father Fali passed away – he transited sweetly, gently, my mother and I beside him on the bed, where he had spent his last days expressing his gratitude to the Lord and to us for the care we bestowed – several people showed up. Among them were some we hadn’t seen in years: people who had wronged or slighted us, now profuse with apologies. A good man has passed, they said, a man who had never hurt a soul, who only exuded kindness, goodness, and humility. They hoped that my father’s soul would forgive them. Looking at their faces, it was evident that Dad’s passing had woken something in them.
What mattered to us, his family, was that he passed away peacefully. Not a spasm of pain did we see in his eyes. Nor discomfort, nor confusion, nor panic. Nor the fear of a final blow telling him he’d be wrenched from his loved ones. It was a death chosen for the few.
The thing about my father was that he believed in the essential goodness of humankind. He kept himself free of negative thoughts: anger, bitterness, hostility, and cynicism had no place in his mind. He refused to doubt his fellow humans. For to doubt them would be to doubt the Lord’s design, something that was unacceptable to him.
A few incidents sit vividly in my mind. Reflecting on them makes me realize I was born to a man from whom I had much to learn.
My father was born into a poor family, where life was a struggle, marked by scarcity and hardship. So he took up the first job that came his way – in a nationalized bank – where he rose over the years to become a manager. For some reason, he would turn down further promotions, refusing to make his way up the corporate ladder. At the time, this irked me, made me suspicious. Does he lack the confidence? I wondered. This was in my early days, when luxuries and the trappings of success mattered greatly to me. With all the impatience of youth, I believed our family was worse off than others, that we had been deprived of our rightful dues.
One day my father explained to me his reasons for refusing the promotions. The entire top layer was corrupt, he said. They were all on the take: for sanctioning bad loans, for waiving bad debts, for cooking up biased evaluations. It was a system that fed on itself, and those who fell in line made tons of money. Dad said he didn’t need that. He had what he wanted: a loving wife, a nice home, kids he hoped would follow some of his ways.
But our cousin K didn’t see it that way. K, young and ambitious, had gotten his job at the bank thanks to Dad, but unlike Dad, K was unburdened by scruples. Cousin K rose rapidly up the corporate ladder by cozying up to the right people. Then, seated in a position of power, he made his demands: in cash or in kind. If his clients relented, it was because they saw in him a banker who asked no questions, who raised no objections; instead, he fast-tracked their projects and got them approvals, loans, and credit.
Making money hand over fist, K surrendered to the good life. He threw lavish parties, he drank the best of whiskies. At family get-togethers, he would strut around, boasting about eating at the best of restaurants, about buying the latest of gadgets, about choosing premium holiday destinations for his family. The elders would listen intently, for it would be K who would have brought the food and whiskey. What they didn’t know was that it would be some poor client of the bank who was footing the bill. On such occasions, K would make it a point to gibe at Dad for his lack of enterprise, and Dad, much to our distress, would not retaliate. He thought himself to be more fortunate than K.
Some of K’s clients would complain to Dad. “Please, sir; he is unceasing in his demands. Ask him to go easy on us.”
Dad would plead helplessness. He couldn’t tell K anything, because, by then, K had far surpassed him. He wielded great authority and could take independent decisions without consulting his bosses. Besides, K had become the management’s cash cow. Through him they saw their fortunes rise.
Whenever clients would talk about K’s demands, Dad would lapse into silence, and we knew he was mourning K’s downfall. According to Dad, “K, poor man, was misled by his frailties and trapped by his greed.” Dad would look pained when he said these words.
Over time, K’s greed increased. He started asking clients to deliver consignments of food to his doorstep: kilos of kingfish, tiger prawns, crabs, and lobsters. Every month, a new gadget would enliven K’s home, and once every year his house would be painted at some poor client’s expense.
His flamboyant lifestyle started showing in his appearance. His body bloated up, his cheeks puffed out, his eyes appeared small and shrewd. He had health problems, too, which he never discussed, but which saw him rush for his tablets after every meal.
Undeterred, K declared a new goal: his son, now eighteen, would go overseas for his education. Of course, K wouldn’t pay for it. He simply sent word into the market: he could sanction bank loans for unviable projects.
The son was bright; he secured admission into an American university.
Promptly, K threw a spate of parties, where, for the first time, the old aunts and uncles had no advice for the young man who was to set off for foreign shores. What could they say? The boy had such a smart father.
“Look!” said an old uncle to the boy, eventually. “Whatever you do, don’t get an American wife. She will make you do all the housework.”
“He won’t have to worry about that,” said K. “A maid will come in twice a week. What is the point of him having his own apartment if he is going to spend time doing housework?” That was K’s way of informing us that his son had been well provided for.
Around that time, trouble was brewing for K. One of his clients, harried by his demands, filed a complaint with the bank’s vigilance department and sent a copy of the complaint to the Central Bureau of Investigation in Delhi. A colleague of Dad’s who worked in the vigilance department phoned Dad and told him of this development.
That whole evening Dad was pensive. If the CBI team were to find any evidence at K’s home, they would arrest him in the presence of his family and neighbors. Overnight, his reputation would be in shreds; he would become an object of contempt. Worse, he would be arrested on the eve of his son’s departure, and that would demoralize the boy and destroy him.
After much reflection, Dad came to a decision. He called a mutual friend and asked him to warn K about the investigation, requesting the friend not to let K know that it was my father who had helped him.
“Why, Dad?” I asked him. “Why deny yourself the satisfaction of letting K know that it was you who stuck your neck out on his behalf?”
“Because I don’t want to embarrass him,” said Dad. “I don’t want him to feel he has lost the respect of his family. He is in for a hard time, anyway. No point adding to his troubles.”
That was one such instance when I realized the kernel in my father.
Another time was when I had gained representation for my book of short stories from an agent in New York City. The agent was excited and wanted to sell the book at the Frankfurt Book Fair, where the biggest deals were signed.
Earlier that year, there had been a flood in Mumbai, which occurred soon after a major flood in the U.S. My agent was keen that I write out a synopsis of a novel that I could potentially work on, a novel about the Great Mumbai Flood, which had seen my city submerged and paralyzed. That sort of novel would fly with publishers, the agent said. They would pay a heavy advance.
I could not bring myself to work on a prefabricated theme like that and told the agent so. But he was insistent. “You don’t seem to understand,” he said, over the phone from Frankfurt. “There is some serious money at stake here. Just write that damn synopsis and you will never be short of dough. You can write to your heart’s content, thereafter.”
After he hung up, I drafted out an email, expressing in strong words my disapproval of his approach. Before sending it, I showed it to Dad, who read it carefully and then said, “Son, whatever you say, remember: it will reflect on your country. This agent will form an opinion of Indians on the basis of what you write to him.” With that, Dad had transferred a huge responsibility onto me: the fact that I would be carrying forth an impression of my country in every communication I wrote. It was a lesson I would remember lifelong.
Going back farther: to a time when I was struggling to perfect my craft. I would spend long hours at my workplace, writing and rewriting. An average workday would stretch to eighteen hours, and it would be three in the morning by the time I got home.
Walking home in the early hours one morning, I found myself attacked by street dogs. Seeing me alone, they came up snarling and snapping and leapt at me. It took all my shouting skills to keep them at bay.
The next day I set out armed with my grandfather’s old walking stick, a staff of solid teak. When the dogs came up to me, I thought, I could keep them at bay by simply wielding the stick. I was worried, though, that it would take only one of them to slip through my defense and sink his teeth into me. When, later, I shared this story with Dad, he said, “Have you tried carrying some biscuits and feeding them, instead? You might just make some friends….”
I was doubtful of this, as the strays seemed uncontrollably ferocious.
Nevertheless, the next day, I carried some biscuits, which I tossed to the strays as soon as they approached. They stopped in their tracks and snapped them up instantly. I realized how famished they were.
Thereafter, every morning, I would be given a royal escort home, with the dogs prancing alongside and wagging their tails. The stick was back where it belonged: in the closet. Even when I would forget to carry the biscuits, the dogs would be pleased to see me. And their joy at seeing me was consistent and unchanging.
Looking back, I am sure these were the kinds of choices my father would have faced in his lifetime: To be the aggressor or the victim? To attack or be attacked? And each time he would have chosen to opt for kindness over aggression, the biscuit over the stick.
It has been eight years since my father passed away. And yet I remember him daily, many times a day, in fact. Every morning, as soon as my eyes open.
Sometimes I lapse into a deep inner silence, thinking how no child can be complete without a parent, it is the parent that completes the child. And how you never really get over the passing of a parent; it is a void that can never be filled. So the best thing you can do to honor them is to live by the code they lived by, tough as that might be.