These are the ways I know my father
By Sharanya Manivannan
These are the ways I know my father.
When we first moved to Singapore and she realised the only thing that would quell my raging homesickness was taking the MRT from Bukit Batok, where we lived, to Marina Bay, where I could sulk by the sea, my grandmother told me that my father had loved trains, that even at 32 - the age at which he died - he had never once driven a car, never learned how to. He loved the slow rock of trains, their dull, sexual power, took them wherever he could. Took them when he had nothing else to do. Took them in furies, took them in moments where he sensed an overwhelming turn of fortunes. And it was then that I realised that I, too, loved trains. Still love them. Still catch my breath to think of the pleasure of them. So that now, I imagine his life as a track, a trajectory. Its points of significance. The darkness and the lights. The breakdowns, and finally, the place at which the track disappears, runs underground like a river, or perhaps comes to an inexplicable end.
From him, I got the beat that my heart skips every single time I see the lights or the body itself of the train I have been waiting for, the love of the thrill of sound and speed in a rush-hour underground, the lull of calm that comes when I watch a country curve out its contours for me on a long-distance journey.
In India once, at 15, sullenly following my grandparents on some pilgrimage or another, my father startled me. We were in second-class, where some peon had mistakenly booked us into, with my grandparents grumbling already about the five hours ahead of us. It was ten in the morning, and we were pulling out of Bangalore Cantonment. Looking out of the window in those first few minutes of movement, those most enthralling of departures, I saw a suicide. A glimpse of him as we sped past, all of him - name, home, life, death, choice, despair - reduced to that single gasp that caught in my chest. His head lay severed, separated from the rest of what had been his body by the steel of track. He was bearded, his clothes those of a worker, an anonymous toiler of fields. His eyes - from what I could grasp in those few astonished seconds - were open.
I imagined him trudging down to the station that morning. What could the night before have been like for him? Did he stay awake, drinking? Did he lay down beside a wife, children, in a gesture or normalcy? What was he thinking, as he lay himself down across those tracks and waited in the chill of early morning? He must have been so cold. What went through his mind when he heard the train approaching? That horn the last thing he must have heard. Did he close his eyes? Did he pray?
And in that moment, amidst the tactless chug-a-chug of our journey beginning, I thought I remembered something about my father. It was as though a piece of wallpaper had fallen off to reveal a different pattern beneath. I remembered his voice. I remembered him singing to my mother as he combed her hair, one drowsy afternoon. It fell in great coils onto his lap, and he lifted it section by section and disentangled each one, singing continuously. At one point she took his hand and kissed it, his fist full of her own hair. They had forgotten me. I was on the bed, supposedly asleep. It was only when all her hair had been combed, piled neatly atop her head and secured with pins - and even then only after ten minutes of him rocking her in his lap, her arms about his shoulders, their laughter and kisses - that they looked up to see me with my eyes open. Watching them. Their quiet, undemanding baby. The outsider in their love.
And so this is how I know my father. I know him in me. I know him when I relish liquor, when I flirt with women who have my grandmother's cheekbones and my mother's ass. I know him when I wait for trains. When I catch my breath at the sight of them.
I know him in the click of a camera shutter. I know him in the pendant I found on a beach. I know him the same way I know my mother and grandmother in the blood that seeps from my body each month, the bitter metallic taste of it. I know him in the anthems of nations with red in their flags. I know him in the word, amygdala. I know him in the thunder of Chavela Vargas' voice.
I know him in the only way I know how, the only way I know how to love.QLRS Vol. 6 No. 1 Oct 2006