My father has never left the tiny corner of Mumbai in which he lives. He was born deaf, at a time when being disabled meant you were condemned to a limited formal education. He recently visited my brother and me in London, where we live and work. The combination of my father's lack of travel even in his own city, his quiet retired life and the limits his own society places on him because of his lack of hearing makes him very anxious about anything out of the ordinary. His trip, stressful and unforgettable, helped me see London - and my father - differently. With Father's Day coming up, it helped us look at my dad through clear, unsentimental eyes of grown up adults.
At St. Paul's we took him up the staircase, up the dome on top of the church. Every few steps up my father needed a rest, his usual exertion limited to crossing the road of his home in Mumbai to the vegetable seller. Halfway up the dome, we encountered a special glass plate on the stairs, which allowed us to look down into the church from a great height and have a magnificent view. My brother and my father both looked down at the same time and lightly bumped each other's heads. My father went crazy and said, "Oh no! There is sure to be terrible rivers of blood coming down my face, I think!" The usher woman came running over. My father continued, "I think this may be an aneurysm! Or a stroke! Or a clot?" My brother and I asked him to calm down, told him there was no bump, no blood and told the woman it was fine, and that my father is an anxious man. "NO, NO, blood there is, I think!" moaned my dad as he took off his large glasses and wiped his face with his handkerchief. The woman ran at full speed, terrified, to get her first aid kit.
When she returned she examined him. My brother and I moved away - it was all too much for us to take. The woman said he seemed fine. My father looked disappointed and asked her to check again, which she did. Finally he said he had a small cut on his finger, one he got a few months ago - could she give him a band-aid for it? No, said the woman.
On another occasion, we travelled with a friend on the London underground. It is a stressful way to travel at the best of times and my father was on full alert. My friend was standing at the end of the carriage, an open window behind her, looking out into the open window of the next carriage. As the train moved, the wind between the open windows caught her hair, swinging it up. "YOUR HAIR IS FLYING!" screamed my father. "It will get caught in the tunnel! Death and murder - terrible!"
There have been less stressful moments. My father is fascinated by the bins in London. "What does 'general waste' mean? What is 'mixed recycling'?" We spent a day on the London Eye and seeing various other tourist places and when asked what his favourite part of the day was, he mentioned the bins with some fondness and compassion.
At Tesco, I asked him what he'd like. He asked me the price of each item and converted it into Indian Rupees. The pound is incredibly strong versus the rupee, so my father was feeling faint, as he converted each item into eye watering rupees. He ended up picking up a selection of free leaflets for Tesco Mobile Insurance and Tesco Home Insurance. "What do you want with these?" I asked him. "They're very colourful. I will give them to your mother," he said. He was fascinated and pleased that London had a free morning and evening newspaper including various free magazines and never failed to collect them all with a smile on his lips. My poor mother, I thought, who will be receiving as gifts from London a large bag full of Tesco brochures, catalogues and free London newspapers.
My neighbours fell in love with my father, not for the most rational of reasons. They found his deafness and his communication in sign language unique and endearing. "How sweet your father is, he is deaf," one said, slightly aimlessly. Nevertheless, their interest gave my brother and me some respite and it felt warm and kind. They wanted to learn sign language, each time saying to me, "Do that sign again," or "Tell me what he is saying now," or "Can you tell him this?" or "How do you say this in sign language?" My feelings about my father being patronised - seen as a delightful child with his sign language tricks - were contradicted with the reality that my father loved all the attention he got and wanted to see more of the neighbours. My father, because he cannot hear, cut off from most conversations, always the tourist, wherever he is.
Hard water doesn't exist in Mumbai so my dad had never come across limescale. Seeing the encrusted limescale in my electric kettle alarmed my father greatly. "Poison!" exclaimed my father and proceeded to try to wash the electric kettle with vigour.
On our bus journey to my home one day, my father did not want to sit on the top deck of the bus as we usually did. His knees were hurting from the trip to St. Paul's. He is getting old. We sat on the more crowded bottom deck. He was a little suspicious of an old Somalian man with a wispy beard in a red and white long dress - a sort of religious garb, I suppose. My father signed to me suspiciously and surreptitiously, "Is he a good man? Or a bad man? Or a religious sadhu?" Without being racist, my father was simply showing me his bewilderment with the multicultural London we are all thrown together in, which, to the outsider, appears chaotic and unsettled.
When there was a delay on the underground he declared to me, "Ask the man next to you why this train is so slow." I refused, explaining that people don't chat to strangers on the tube. He asked me why people don't talk to each other in the underground. "What would happen?" he asked. "What would happen if you talked instead of staying silent?" My father isn't completely silent. However, most of his communication is via sign language. I did wonder - what would his life have been, what would our lives have been if he talked, like most other people's fathers did. What would happen if he wasn't condemned to silence?
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