Twenty-five years ago on this day, my father died in Mumbai. Had he lived, he would have turned 100 today.
I was not with Balkrishna Gupte when he died after a long illness that, to this day, remains mysterious to me. Some physicians said it was cancer of the oesophagus, others said it was complications from a botched surgery of the alimentary canal. Still others offered other reasons — unpronounceable medical conditions with fancy names that only doctors could decipher. In the end, no matter what those conditions or how multi-syllabic those names, my father's heart stopped beating.
I was thousands of miles away at my home in New York when that happened. It was an unseasonably sunny day, but as I worked on a book that had unforgiving deadlines, I felt out of sorts, as though something ominous was going to happen that morning in February 1985. I knew that my father was grievously ill because I had just returned from visiting him in India, but I hadn't been persuaded that he was close to death. Or perhaps it was that I didn't want to accept that possibility; it was a son's denial of the inevitability of a parent's departure. As if on cue that winter morning, a friend called from Mumbai to tell me that my father had passed away.
In that last meeting with my father, I gently stroked his face, kissed him on the forehead, squeezed his still-strong shoulders, and said that I would be back soon. His voice had left him by then, so my father just smiled gently and spoke with his eyes. He said that he loved me and that I would always be his son. He said that his love was unconditional, even if mine sometimes seemed predicated on proximity.
The next time I saw him, my father's eyes were closed. His body was still, it was wrapped in white linen in preparation for a traditional Hindu cremation. As a son, I expected that he would open his eyes and reach out to me with his sinewy hands as he always did, that he would bathe me with affection and offer his protection. As a world-weary adult, however, I knew that he was gone.
Gone? My father? That tall, sturdy man who'd been the bulwark of my life, always a calming spirit? He who had coaxed my mother to overcome her opposition to her son leaving home to study in the United States because he felt that I needed to understand the world? He who was always open-minded about faith, always strong in his secularism and never compromising about his values — honesty, loyalty, kindness, generosity and, yes, humility and humour? That man gone?
Gone? My father? Not even the body in repose in the living room of my parents' Mumbai apartment persuaded me that my father was dead. But then I looked at my mother, and then I knew. It had always been the three of us — and a beloved uncle who lived with us until his death in 1982 — but from here on, it would be just the two of us. On December 31 of that year, 1985, my mother died. This time the doctors said that she died of heart failure. They were wrong again. I know that she died of a broken heart.
The world has honoured my mother since her death: there's a major square in Mumbai named after her — Prof. Dr. Charusheela Gupte Chowk (“square” in the local language of Marathi). Articles have been written about her vast accomplishments as an author and an academician and a social activist for downtrodden women and dispossessed children. Her students still write to me about how much she influenced their lives and careers. And those colleagues that are still living send me, from time to time, warm remembrances of their association. Whenever we meet in India, we exchange anecdotes and reminisce about an era that ended so long ago.
About my father, very little has been said in the public arena. He wasn't a public figure, of course, nor did he lead his life publicly. He led a quiet life as a banker and lawyer. He attended weddings and christenings and religious ceremonies and lectures on history and spiritualism, often taking me along when I was growing up; if I were to draw a map of all the fascinating people and places he took me to see, I'd need the help of a cartographer.
I would also ask such a cartographer to chart the landscape of my father's emotional life. It would be a formidable task, of course, and most certainly not within the competence of conventional cartographers. My father did not leave behind books or learned essays or plays or poetry. He left diaries, to be sure, but the notations were mostly in shorthand that only he knew. During his illness, he wrote me a note saying how proud he was of what I'd done in my life.
My life? But what about his own life? What animated it? Why did he prefer the anonymity of being a largely unseen consort of a highly ambitious spouse, my mother? What gave shape to those inner strengths that energised and comforted her and me and so many others who came into the ambit of my father's life? What explained his integrity, even when he could have taken short cuts just as easily in a corrupt society led by corrupt men? What about his unflinching tolerance of all faiths and beliefs, his refusal to denigrate those who might disagree with him? What about his many unheralded kindnesses to needy people who scarcely bothered to remember? What about his acuity, his keen perceptions about the frequently uncharitable ways of the world? How had his parents influenced him, an only son like his own? What formed his steadfast conviction that good would always triumph over evil, even if only in the long run?
So many questions, so few answers. I wish now that I had been with my father in those final days, holding his hands, asking him about the architecture of his life. Would he have set aside his innate modesty and told me what I wanted to know? Would he have been his own cartographer, mapping out his life for his journalist son? With his voice gone, would his eyes have communicated his story in its entirety? Or would he have asked me why I had waited until the winter to pose my questions? There would not have been any reproach in his question, but there would be sadness.
He could have told me so much. But I never asked. And now — and now it is 25 years later, my father is gone, and I have more questions about his love and his life. I can pose those questions, perhaps more sharply now than ever before because I am in the autumn of my own full life. Who will answer them? I know that I will have to wait until it's the three of us together again — and my beloved uncle. But I wish that there were some way I could say to my father before that reunion how very sorry I am that I never asked while I was much younger and he wasn't quite 100 years old.
(Pranay Gupte is a veteran journalist and author or editor of 11 books. His most recent book, Mother India: A Political Biography of Indira Gandhi, was published in October 2009 by Viking Penguin. His next book, on India and the Middle East, will be released this year.)