Vol XI An Angel on the Rock

We have tried several times. Pa and I during our annual holiday catch-ups. We know we should be meeting more often than we do. He refuses to travel and I can only make it during the children’s summer breaks.

Dehra Doon is no longer what it used to be. The valley once surrounded by hills is now missing a lot of its green. Every summer as we make our journey home, the mercury sizzles just the way it does in the rest of north India.

I’d like to blame it on the temperature. The reason why I picked one
of those air-conditioned restaurants dotting the area near Doon’s
up-market Rajpur Road.

Work wise things were looking good. My standards when it comes to
money aren’t exacting and in my book, the bonus was good.

“Pa, this time let’s make it a fancy meal. A real treat from me to you,” I told him, not thinking of the many emotions which would play in his head soon as this line was uttered.

He put on his stoic smile and I regretted my words instantly.

Having made do with so little all his life, he had saved his best for
his children -always.

Never once did he let us feel the burden of expensive hostel fees as
he took us through what was even then a crowded Paltan Bazaar, where we made our stops at the hole in the wall Sunshine Bakery (the best biscuits can still be found there), taking a break for lunch and ending our day with faluda kulfi at Kumar Sweets.

As we made our way away from these usual haunts, sitting in
air-conditioned comfort thumbing through the menu which felt as heavy as a book, he said he was confused.

So was I.

A lifetime in hostels hadn’t left me with a perfect palette and menus
running into several pages leave me wondering where to start. I
ordered things we were familiar with – butter chicken, naan, dal
makhani. It arrived with the perfect cutlery, plates and serving
bowls.

We ate in silence and in that silence I knew something was missing.

I looked at Pa, this man who had dealt with so much including
rejection when he attempted to join the Indian Army in the 1960s.
Standing 6 feet tall but weighing just 50kg, this lightweight farmer’s
son was dispatched home and told to get on a banana and milk diet
pronto before attempting to be man enough for the army.

He did not give up. He was eventually recruited as a jawan, working
his way to the rank of officer and eventually retiring a proud
colonel.

He often used this real-life example to stress the need for learning early and good English: “I was from a small village in Punjab. I could not understand much English. As an officer I had to know English. I would watch English movies on Tuesday nights. If there was a joke in the movie, I was the one laughing after everyone had stopped.”

Apart from his army gear, he outfitted himself solely in a pair of
Bata sandals and three sets of civilian clothes, which in typical army
style were donned on allocated days of the week, to put his two girls
through an expensive boarding school.

Frugal with his own material needs, he gave generously to us in so
many ways, from outings to treats to those most precious of gifts,
love and time.

Before we moved to a hostel, our family ate out once a month, always at an idli-dosa place – think India Coffee House.

As we scooped a bit of the butter chicken with the naan, I knew we
were both thinking of the same thing.

Idli, dosa, coconut chutney, watery sambar, in a non-frilly place.

Two days later, we were re-tracing our food steps letting the aroma of idli-sambar be our guide. There were no fancy plates or table
settings. But we were happy in the knowledge that bliss can be
filtered often through a simple cup of kaffee.

Born and brought up in India, Deepika Shetty started her career as a print journalist in India before relocating to Singapore in 1996.Here, she dabbled in television before returning to print. She launched the region’s first weekly TV show, which profiled several leading authors such as Kiran Desai, Jeffrey Sachs, Thomas Friedman and Alexander McCall Smith. She has been interviewed extensively on visual arts and literary developments in South and South-East Asia and is a regular moderator at leading writers festivals.

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