Shishir Bhate


Now that I don't keep them company anymore, the books on the shelves at my parents' house in Nagpur look pathetically lonesome. There was a time when I well nigh lived with them, slept among them, devoured them.

But times change. For me, so did the city, when employment compulsions saw me leave both my home and those tomes behind.

Most of those books have been adorning those cupboards and shelves ever since Dad was young. He was fiercely possessive about his collection; even I was not allowed access to it till he was certain I was a serious booklover. Soon, however, both of us realised we needed more cupboards to hold our burgeoning assortment.

It's been a decade since Dad passed away. Now my mother cares for those books, like she does for us. She's as possessive about them as he was, despite the fact that she can hardly read English. To her, they are a part of him -- quiet, reassuring, warm...

Recently, when I was visiting her, I tried to blow dust off some of the tomes. There was hardly any; she dusts the shelves regularly. Yet, they look as forlorn as the benches in a kindergarten when school lets out...

I thumbed through a diary -- an old, everyday diary -- almost full of Dad's neat, spidery handwriting -- and looked at his picture on the mantelpiece. I realise that if, it weren't for him, I'd probably never have been introduced to great minds.

But my father was a sly one. By the time I realised education was just the ability to quote Shakespeare without crediting it to the Bible, I had already borne the brunt of my father's vitriolic wit. His sharpest barbs always found the softest target -- ME!!!

He had this style of passing many a quote as if it were his original contribution to satirical literature. Expressly designed to clip my wings, most of these 'slings and arrows' travelled only my way.

A 'sombre hombre,' Dad found it almost impossible to speak nonsense. I, on the other hand, had this amazing ability to spew forth nothing but balderdash. Little wonder then, that there was a generation gap the size of the Pacific between us.

At family dinners, when I excitedly launched into a harangue, he would look hawk-eyed over his thick, horn-rimmed glasses, with a naughty, tremulous smile on his lips, as he let me complete the apostrophe. Then, quaffing off a generous measure of buttermilk, he'd advise: "It's better to keep your mouth shut and let others think you are a fool, instead of opening it and removing all doubt."

That would effectively shut me up for the next two dinners.

Over the years, taking advantage of the fact that cricket pitches and badminton courts held me so enraptured that I had little time for Shaw, Shakespeare or Socrates, he palmed off many a gem with the imperious air of a creator.

And he'd make no attempt to hide the 'fact' that the inspiration for all his 'original quotes' was the uncouth Bhate Junior.

At times he shook his head and sighed, pretending to make a Herculean effort to conceal his pain at my conduct. Then he'd say: "How sharper than a serpent's tooth it is to have a thankless child…"

Despite being a lawyer -- and a Devil's advocate at times -- he expected his clients to tell him 'nothing but the truth.' When some of them provided him with reason to doubt their integrity, he'd mutter over a mouthful of kheer: "The more I come to know man, the more I love the dog!"

His in-laws, too, were a fond target for his sarcasm. "The more the success, the more the relatives," he'd say, grinning from ear to ear. And Mom would promptly add an extra pinch of chillies to his soup.

"You don't like my relatives," she'd complain. "But I do," he'd counter. "I love all your in-laws." At times, he'd carry it a bit too far, but Mom only smiled at his 'borrowed' wit.

Meanwhile, I gaped awestruck at this 'fountainhead of eternal knowledge.'

"If you steal from one author, it is plagiarism; if you steal from many, it's research," he'd say airily, as he watched me work on a school project, brazenly passing even that quote as his own masterpiece.

It was not long, though, before I discovered the source of the 'eternal fountain'; after all, our home was littered with a sparkling collection of books -- Kafka, Shakespeare, Wodehouse, MacLean, et al. Initially, my 'snappy comebacks' to his wisecracks would be days late. But, soon, I'd honed my brain. It was time to enter the marketplace and end his monopoly.

Dinnertime, thereafter, became an exercise for the grey cells, with him 'creating' phrases and me trying to catch him on the wrong foot. "All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others," he'd exclaim, one eyebrow arched, the pride of a creator in smirk. Then he'd wait as expectantly as an opening batsman.

After a pregnant pause, which was our verbal hyphen, I would answer, "Orwell!" He'd scowl darkly when I was right, impressed by my effort. If not, a triumphant smile would precede an even more triumphant correction. Soft-spoken and gentle as he was, it still took an extraordinary amount of effort to win accolades from him.

He'd stopped cheating on me by then. Instead, both of us would try that on my kid sister.

A modest man, he growled in embarrassment when he felt good and laughed when he was scared -- particularly because he did not want to alarm us. He taught us to learn, love and laugh. "If you can't return a favour, pass it on," was his constant advice to us. I knew he had lifted this one too, but I let it pass.

He was the kind of friend anyone would want to give oneself as a present.

Above all, he was -- as the Bible says -- a good man and just! As is the collection of his books, which Mom lovingly dusts every day…

Shishir Bhate hopes he is as good a father to his daughter.

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