Loved ones remembered: Dad inspired a passion for learning

Last updated 05:00 20/01/2013

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Life stories: Loved ones remembered

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"Any man can be a Father but it takes someone special to be a dad." - Anne Geddes

The doorbell rang. "Put the kettle on for tea", my Dad's voice would boom from some corner of our home. The identity of the visitor or time of day didn't matter. No one ever went away from the Roy household without a cuppa and a full stomach. That would be unpardonable. Besides it was a good opportunity for my father to get himself another cup of tea.

Oh yes, he loved his tea, my Dad. Buying it, brewing it, serving it, drinking it. We always had precisely twenty three pieces of luggage when our family went on vacation, but the one item that was a constant was Dad's giant thermos filled with boiling water for his tea. Because my father had to have his tea even in the midst of wilderness and it always had to be perfect. I still remember my father communicating his specifications for his perfect cuppa to unwitting waiters and guest house caretakers. The ensuing confusion and frustration - particularly where they didn't speak the same language, a common phenomenon in the great, diverse land called India.

"Boiling water in a pot, milk and sugar separate", Dad would say, gesticulating vigorously. "Yes sir, yes sir", the waiter would say, nodding equally vigorously. But what appeared on the tray after a seemingly endless delay was never according to specifications - it was invariably a sweet concoction of tea boiled to death in sugary milk - making my father sulk. My otherwise humble Dad was certainly a snob where tea was concerned.

I remember my sisters and myself accompanying Dad on his inspection visits to tea estates in North Bengal when we were children. And the fusillade of questions my father would shoot at the driver or tea estate manager as we wound up the lush green, rolling foothills of the Himalayas, the sun glinting through the trees and myriad heavenly aromas overcoming the senses.

"What is the size of the estate?" "How many people work here?" "How much tea is produced?" "Where is it sold?" By the time the visit ended, we were all well-equipped to write a "Starting a tea estate for dummies" book.

In fact, I think my father would have probably made a tidy packet writing "How to...for Dummies" books if only he had he been somewhat enterprising. For he had a passion for learning about everything under the sun. His was a childlike curiosity which could be misinterpreted as inquisitiveness. He had a penchant for books which he inculcated in us from an early age. Where most traditional Indian fathers were anxious to invest in gold for their daughters' weddings, my Dad bought us books.

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"Tell me why", "Lots more tell me why", "Even more tell me why". Every available space in our home was filled with books on every subject in the universe. When my sister started studying medicine, my father had finished reading Gray's Anatomy before she had. Born in a small village in India, orphaned in his teens, with a younger brother to foster, my father, would walk miles to acquire a book he wanted, reading by candlelight and street lamps. He topped almost every exam and went on to become an economist and banker of repute.

My father's breadth of knowledge did not only come from books. He loved to travel and meet people. As children we traveled far and wide in India. Oh the excitement over planning the trip, poring over railway timetables, staying up all night reading the names of stations as we meandered through the rugged, snow-capped, Himalayas in the north, and the Indian Ocean in the south. Through the golden deserts of Rajasthan in the west and the misty rain washed hills in the remotest parts of the north-east. There were trips to historical monuments, holy places, museums, factories, beaches, hill stations, wild life sanctuaries. My father's incessant questions on the way ensured that each trip was educational as we learnt about the culture, traditions and economy of each place.

He had a great flair for language too, my dad. When in doubt, consult the dictionary or thesaurus was his dictum. I still recall the "big row" he got into with the zoo administrator in Kolkata because a word from a Bengali nursery rhyme had been misspelled in one of the murals painted on the zoo walls. "You can't have all these children learning the wrong spelling!" he adamantly declared to the apathetic zoo administrator who failed to understand what the great fuss was all about.

Mathematics was one of his other great strengths and great passion. He never needed a calculator or pen and paper for his arithmetic. He would sit up at night solving my trigonometry and calculus problems (which I never could master) long after I had turned in, hauling me out of bed in the wee hours of the morning to "understand" how it all worked and expecting me to be all charged up about it.

Daddy loved connecting with people. He was always the first to greet his friends and colleagues on festivals. He remembered little things about every staff member he managed, from senior manager to office cleaner. Their names, their children's names and ages. He shared their joys and sorrows. They adored him and called him "Devtulya" or "godlike". Hosting and entertaining people were his other passions. Our house was always filled with visitors. My mother would cook elaborate meals for them and often we would sleep on the floor to accommodate our guests.

Like the quintessential Bengali, Dad loved his food. His friends and workmates were forever regaling us with stories of his winning food challenges which involved demolishing eighty puris, sixty-four rasgullas and countless pieces of fish. When I cooked, he would leave no stone unturned to get me every ingredient I needed, however exotic - lamenting later to friends that his daughter was a very good cook, albeit a bit "expensive".

He had a love hate relationship with the only other male member in the family - our cat Mac. Protesting vehemently as Mac wound about his legs tripping him up, or demanded to be fed for the umpteenth time, it was Dad who would go to the market early in the morning to get him fresh fish and call out to him anxiously when he was off on his midnight sojourns.

He wasn't perfect - my Dad. Far from it. He never made shopping lists, always got shortchanged by shopkeepers, refused to hire a guide at places of historical interest like most men, was reluctant to ask for directions, would not abandon his old t-shirt and battered watch till his dying day, created a great fuss over us watching televison or singing Bollywood songs and was terrible at managing his finances.

But he was still the best Dad in the world for us. "Nothing we learn ever goes waste", he would say. So "learn, unlearn, relearn". This was the treasure I carried with me when I came to New Zealand by myself mid-career to study a third Masters degree much to everyone's consternation. What greater legacy could he have left me?

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