Yesterday (25/09/2021) I performed a small annual rite in memory of our late father that involved visiting a local Hindu temple with some offerings in the form of fruit and bags of pulses to be blessed by the Hindu priest in a “Puja”, or ritual.
When Dad passed away from bladder cancer in 1997, he was in an intensive care unit at the local hospital and my mother, who had tended to him throughout his illness and indeed for the whole of their marriage, had made some “samosas” and freshly brewed coffee in the South Indian style, ie boiled milk and a strong “decoction” from ground Mysore Peaberry beans according to his request.
However, the bouts of chemotherapy and radiation had destroyed his sense of taste and perhaps sensing that the end was near, my father, who throughout his working life had enjoyed everything that life could offer in terms of fine clothes , good food and wine / beer, pushed them aside bitterly. A fighter to the end, he was both open and non-judgmental of the world and a Communist atheist, cynical of the heavy ritualized form of Hinduism that my mother and our relatives in India adhered to, which he dismissed as superstition.
That changed of course at the very end as his belief that he could fight off cancer began to crumble and he asked my mother to pray for him.
On his last evening I was called to the hospital and was met by my mother helping him onto the toilet since by then he was so weak that he could barely stand and following this he took to his bed, sitting up, as if he had suddenly acquired a fresh burst of energy.
He suddenly felt hungry and without anyone asking, and refusing the samosas and coffee that remained untouched in the side cabinet, he asked for a burger and fries – an odd request I thought at the time but I left wondering where I would get a burger and fries at that late hour, the nearest place being a McDonalds in the next town. Luckily, the hospital was situated right next to a Tesco which remained open for 24 hours and I knew they had a section for freshly made fast-food
I went in unsure if they could rustle up a burger and fries quickly enough since I sensed the urgency of the request.
It seemed as if I would have to wait an age for the order to turn up – this was clearly no McDonalds – and I became more and more concerned for my father, who I understand from my mother, became quite agitated that it was taking so long. Eventually the order arrived in a white paper bag and I dashed across the vast, eerie and mostly deserted car park of the Tesco to the hospital opposite, through yet another car park, this time of the hospital, before entering the building and taking a lift to the ICU and then breathlessly and apologetically delivering the burger and fries to my father.
He accepted them graciously but not without a grumble about why it took so long – this was so typical of Dad 🙂 – and tucked in, but after a few mouthfuls of greasy, soggy fries and a bite from a luke-warm burger, he put it aside as my mother, a life-long vegetarian, was happy to accede to his wishes as she had done throughout their marriage by cooking excellent non-veg dishes like biriyanis and curries.
I felt sad and overwhelmed – this was my last duty toward my father and besides buying him the cigarettes that would lead to his cancer (he was a very heavy smoker and had adopted the habit when very young) I have to admit that I wasn’t the best and most dutiful only son a father could hope for – and I can remember wondering why, of all things he would want a burger and fries as his last meal, though at the time we hoped he might live on for longer and suddenly be cured or on the road to recovery by some miracle.
Now, and perhaps even in that moment in the hospital ICU private ward, I like to think that perhaps he was casting his mind back to the early 1950’s when he lived in New York, which, judging by photographs from his time there, must have been the time of his life as he enjoyed well-cut suits, visiting Radio City Music Hall and watching Sid Caesar’s “Show of Shows” on the black and white TV in his company apartment in Flushing NJ, with a group of Indian friends.
Although married by that time, the company he worked for in India had despatched him to New York to act as a representative and to boost foreign sales of the textiles they produced and he spent perhaps a year or two enjoying life in the West and America in particular, which I suppose epitomized Western culture at the time of the post WWII period before rejoining my mother and their young daughter, my eldest sister, before sailing to London and the start of our subsequent life there.
Seen in the context of the upheavals in his large family, coming from grinding poverty in the rural villages of South India, New York in the 1950’s must have been quite something – foreign films in India at that time had been restricted to either Charlie Chaplin and early American silent films and those American and British films approved by the colonial administration, some made 2 decades previously and although these offered a window into America, they were already out of date by the time my father went there.
We have photos of him from the period where he looks happy and relaxed, lounging in his apartment in a well-cut suit and “Arrow” shirt (years later I tracked down the legendary “Arrow” shirt in New York and bought myself a couple), or beaming in shirt sleeves standing next to huge American car somewhere in the Catskill Mountains on a day-trip with friends or wandering around Central Park in the bright sunshine.
I wondered how he, as an Indian, would have fared in the New York of the 1950’s still gripped by Communist paranoia and also segregation – how did he manage to go into a diner for example and order a burger and fries ?…was he turned away in spite of his stylish Western suit and haircut ?
My father was always a fighter however and had participated in often violent protest marches against both the colonialist rulers of India and for Communist ideology, which was rampant in the South of India and promised greater equality for workers, people in general and in particular, for women, and the region remains solidly Left-facing to the present day, and I knew he would take no nonsense from people whoever they were or wherever they were from.
An anecdote my mother likes to mention from time to time is of when he was refused entry into a N.Y barbershop because he was not white, but he refused and ordered the barber to cut his hair, which he duly did. Typical of his generation, my father rarely mentioned any instances of outright racism that he encountered in New York, if any, and if so, he would simply have brushed it aside or confronted it head-on.
So perhaps that burger and fries was a final hat-tip to a wonderful and happy part of his life – not to say that it wasn’t when he moved to the U.K, but he was then in the prime of his life and the troubles and struggles he had faced in India must have seemed like a lifetime away.
I like to think so anyway, that his mind drifted back to his apartment in 1950/51 on a swelteringly hot afternoon with a window open, his A/C running, the TV on playing Sid Caesar and a “Rheingold” beer chilled in the unimaginable luxury of a refrigerator and perhaps a burger and fries on the table as he kicked back – and perhaps even thinking about the mysterious “Shirley”, who apparently once proposed to him while he was there – he was a good looking man after all, but in spite of that he remained loyal to my mother.
He’d left “God’s Own Country” of Kerala, South India and was now in that other “God’s Own Country” of America, a paradise of coconut groves, winding canals and poverty swapped for that of skyscrapers, television and wealth and he was loving every minute of it.