“KATHERINE MANSFIELD. You will be the Katherine Mansfield of Hindi.”
My father spoke slowly, placing an emphasis on each word. He seemed to be listening to a voice in his head. “Go on, write it down,” he insisted, as though afraid he would forget the ten words if they were not written immediately. His eyes were on my pen as it hesitated above the notebook. Did he really expect me to write that? It was an ordinary day and I still remember it. A crow-pheasant strutted about on the lawn, its tail feathers gleaming black. A dog barked and then there was quiet. I could hear the pressure cooker whistling, even though the kitchen was at the far back of the house.
He said this in March 1994, a few months before he died. He had lately moved back to our Allahabad home, after having lived in Delhi for more than twenty-five years. When he arrived at the Allahabad railway station one winter morning, all he had with him were a few clothes in an old suitcase, an Onida television tied in a checked tablecloth, and a sheaf of papers that he held close against his grey zipped-up cardigan, the only one that he now possessed. I had recently returned from Melbourne, where I had been living for the past five years. It was while I was there that I began to write fiction in Hindi.
My father’s hair was uncombed. Clean-shaven all his life, he now had a beard born of negligence. His nails were long and yellow, and a wilderness had taken over his eyes. He had grown senile. He would stand about in doorways, having forgotten what he had come to the room for. After my mother died, he stood by her bed and looked at the quilt bunched up on it as if he suspected that she was underneath it. Never interested in food, he developed a sweet tooth. He ate the rasgullas that were bought for him from Hira Halwai with a focussed pleasure. He wiped his hand afterwards on his white dhoti. This was a father I did not know.
When I was in my late teens and still undecided over which language to write in, he had told me that the language one is born into, one’s mother tongue, can be the only medium for creative expression. The irony of his statement about Katherine Mansfield, which would not have escaped him earlier, now escaped him entirely. After all, I had started writing in Hindi largely because he had said that fiction can only be created in one’s mother tongue, and here he was setting up a New Zealand-born English writer as an ideal. But I could not say this to him, looking at the changed person he had become.