It was the most severe storm to have hit Madras in years. It rained incessantly for a whole day. Even my dad came back from his office early. There was no electricity and we had to huddle around kerosine lamps in great fear.I was a small lad then and I felt even more small and powerless. I did not believe we would come out of it alive. Then amidst the sound of thunder, we heard the phone ring, sending chills through my little spine. My mother answered it. "It is our right side neighbor. That lady's husband hasn't come back from work yet and she is very worried" my mother told my father. Geez, could he be dead, struck by lightning or something.
"Ask her not to worry" said my dad. Then he proceeded to make a series of phone calls and inferred that the man was last seen heading toward his colleague's house, who had no phone connection. He perhaps decided to spend the night there instead venturing out to his place. He asked auntie to come over and stay with us that night, instead of being alone. I was really impressed by the way my dad got things done. I began to have a new respect for the man and was quite proud to have him for a father.
The next day, it cleared out in a hurry, almost as if the storm never took place. We took an inventory of the rampage left behind by the storm. It wasn't as bad as we had expected. My neighbor returned the next morning, much to everyone's relief.
A huge tree had fallen down in my neighbor's backyard. It had narrowly missed falling on the house and damaging it and an inch this way, it would have levelled their well. 'An act of god, Mr. Mahadevan' my neighbor told my dad. My dad spent most of the day at his yard and personally supervised the removal of the tree. A local lumber merchant and his workers moved the tree ever so carefully, branch by branch and started hauling it away. If my dad were not around, my neighbor would have probably been lost. I was present there all the time, watching the activities and waiting for my dad to give me those little commands. For some reason, I felt important and personally involved. And I was thrilled with my superdad who seemed to know exactly what to do under these circumstances. Although it took another three days to move the tree completely, the most dangereous branches had been cleared. And not only that, my dad had negotiated three hundred rupees for the tree from the lumber merchant.
We got home, a little exhausted. My father returned to his favorite easy chair, finally getting a chance to read his newspaper, drinking his umpteenth cup of coffee.
"Dad, I have been thinking. If that dumb tree can fetch three hundred rupees, don't you think we ought to sell all our trees in our yard and make some bucks ?"
To which my dad gave me a lengthy lecture on the uses of trees in general and then showed me a big photograph on the front page of the newspaper. "Look, yesterday's storm was so severe it actually washed up a huge ship ashore on our beach. And now, if you kids would get ready soon, I will take you to the beach."
We got ready in a trice and went to the beach half-running. We lived within walking distance of the beach. There was a massive crowd on the sands and the ship could be seen even when we were on the road. It was the hugest monstrosity I had ever seen that was standing in water. It was stuck hopelessly against the sands. I pushed my way to the front of the crowd and the closer I got to the ship, it got even bigger and less comprehensibler. My younger sister was too scared to get any closer to it. There were all kinds of fixtures and ungeometrical structure to the ship. There were little people standing on the it. The word 'Steamatis' was written on the side in huge letters and I thought it was a neat name for a ship. I had a million questions to ask my dad about the ship and he answered each one of them to my satisfaction, almost as if he anticipated what I was going to ask.
"Do you know, son, that I had actually been inside a ship"
"No, you did not. You are just kidding us"
"Really, I have a cousin in Malaya and he went back by sea on one of his trips and I visited his ship. That was a few years ago. The ship was huge. They had tennis courts and swimming pools, big living quarters and so forth, right on board"
"How can they have tennis courts. Won't the ball go into the sea"
"No, the courts are away from the edge. Besides, ships are huge"
"What if you had a champion player who hits a powerful shot and then the ball goes into water"
"Well, then I guess they will have to use another ball. By the way, tennis chanmpions don't try to hit the ball out of the court."
This was so exciting. My dad had actually been on a ship! Here
was a man who had always been at cross purposes with my pursuit
of my little hedonistic pleasures, the rule-making wet blanket.
The man who controlled a mountain of money and made irrational
fiscal policies and wouldn't even throw his pocket change in our
direction to see movies and things. Suddenly, there is more to
him than what I had seen of him, all my young life. I grabbed
For days afterward I was in a dream world going around the globe in a huge ship. We went to the beach almost every other day. My house was a stranded ship, the bathroom was the engine room and my dad was its captain. Occassionally reality hit me in the form of math assignments, which involved thinking about hardships!
"What young man, still dreaming about that ship and not
concentrating on your homework" My dad asked me, as he read the
newspaper, sipping his usual coffee. How does he know what I am
thinking. I grinned sheepishly.
"Yes dad. I figured that it makes sense to have a swimming pool in a ship, because you can always fill it up with water from the sea."
"Wrong you are. Because they use fresh water in swimming pools" my dad replied. "By the way, if you behave yourself and not fight with your sister any more, I will teach you swimming this summer"
"What ?? You ?? Do you know to swim ? Mom, dad says he knows to swim" I couldn't believe my dad. Is there a limit to what this man knows ? Months following that I was in my best behavior. There was even a unilateral ceasefire with my sister and one eventful day I even let her wear my slippers when she could not find her own. Also, I watched over my baby brother without complaining. Of course, I never did a good job of it and I could never stop him in time from banging his head on things. But it gave me ample opportunity to daydream.
It turned out that we never did learn to swim. Something or the other cropped up. But it wasn't high on the list of priorities in the kids' circle. It was cricket. Typically, my father tutored me on the cricketing fundamentals. He was downright wrong about a few things. But, all in all, he was good and I had the best knowledge of the myriad of cricketing rules and the other kids always consulted me on controversial umpiring decisions. Some time later, he took me to my first test match and my stock went up even more among my buddies.
Looking back, now I realize that my dad had simply seized the initiative with this ship business and nipped my rebellious ways, before they even developed. He got me into his folds and programmed me in his fashion. The power of positive reinforcement ! The ship itself sat on the beach like an eyesore. Our visits to look at it became more and more infrequent, although I always made it a point to look at it every time I went to the beach. They tried to tow it back into the sea, but they couldn't and had to abandon it. One day, some politico said the government would convert it into a restaurant. But after a few days, the political wind blew in the other direction and the idea was canned. One time when I went to the beach, a part of it was gone ! My friend told me it was being sold as scrap.
Years later, I saw 'Amarcord' and there was a scene about a ship going awry in a storm, quite similar to my ship episode and I was suddenly reminded of the 'Steamatis'. And it was some more years before I actually sailed in one with my car, from Vancouver to Victoria. I even a bought a picture postcard in the ferry and sent it home. I was tempted to allude to the stranded ship. But at that time it seemed too sentimental and silly. Besides, there is only so much space on a post card.
Once, when I was thoroughly drunk, I mentioned this ship incident to a friend of mine, who was also drunk. He told me it was a classical Freudian situation and called the ship a typical phallic symbol. The way it kept recurring in my thoughts, even if occassionally, only proved his theory, he said.
When I went home the last time, I happened to go to the beach with my dad. Now we no longer live near the beach and getting to the beach was like an expedition. Over the years my dad had lost a lot of his abundant vigor and I had to slow down to keep pace with him. Of late, he has been opening up to me and the neutrality of the setting only helped the situation. We had come a full circle - from the early days of unquestioned obedience to fierce rebellions to back to a healthy respect for each other. We have had a few man to man talks too. But both of us actually felt very awkward about it. When he started telling me about his finances, I wasn't even interested. He started talking.
"At first I thought retirement would be a good relief from the hectic office work. But it wasn't so. I was getting bored. So I and Swamy uncle wanted start this consultancy business. That's when I had my heart attack.. "
Yes. I remembered his heart attack. They did not phone me up,
when it happened, because they did not want to alarm me. Nothing
like long distance worry, I was told later. I got the news weeks
later in an aerogramme, after he got back from the hospital. My
"No, don't worry about it. I am taking good care of myself. I used to drink so much of coffee that it used to flow in my veins. Now I don't drink any coffee. I watch my diet very carefully. Your mother, credit should go to her, watches me like a hawk and makes sure I take all my pills. Even my sugar is normal"
I laughed. "Dad, It is interesting. You are not even rich, but you have rich man's conditions like blood pressure and diabates. You ought to feel flattered"
"Well, I try not to think about my medical condition. I feel good and strong and that's all matters. Now, sitting half a world away, you don't keep worrying about it. Your blood pressure machine and blood glucose testing strips are working fine and I go for check ups so often that I've even become friends with the doctor"
A little kid tried to sell us some peanuts as 'time pass' and before I could even respond, my father motioned him to leave. It was getting dark fast. There was a mini snack industry flourishing on the beach, a neat row of push carts, each exuding its own aroma, vendors beckoning their customers by ringing a little bell and shouting little jingles. Their kerosine lamps formed a straight line that almost ended at the water, almost at the very spot where the ship was stranded some decades ago. Or was it ? Could it be a few hundred yards up north ? I wasn't sure. My dad spoke again.
"Son, I don't know if you remember this or not. You were all very small then. There was once a big storm in Madras and a ship got washed ashore right near that spot. I used to bring you and your sister to the beach almost every few days to show you the ship"
Wow ! Was the man getting the same set of stimuli that I was getting or was he simply reading my mind, like he always used to ? Maybe the ship affected him as much as it affected me. I wanted to blurt out and tell him, yes, I was thinking about the same thing too. But I controlled my impulse. I wanted to let him take the credit for remembering the incident. I played by his rules and feigned surprise.
"Oh, yes, dad. Of course, Geez, how do you remember these things ? It was such a long time ago" I exclaimed.
He had the most glorious grin on his face and his dentures were glimmering in the dim light. He was just being the old dad, impressing his little boy with things that only he could know and remember. Very suddenly, we had both regressed to a distant past when dads were dads and sons were just kids.