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An Obituary For My Father
My father died on June 16 at the age of 90.
I have relied on his memoirs — the first, which covers the first half of his life, is a wonderfully evocative chronicle of a very different time and place — for some of what I write here.
My paternal grandfather was a school teacher in the hill town of Ootacamund. “Ooty” was then in the Madras Presidency, a region in southern India directly ruled by the British and named after its capital, Madras (now known as Chennai).
My grandmother returned to the ancestral village of Perinkulam for the birth of each of her six children. This village lies in what is now the Indian state of Kerala. That is where my father was born, on February 21, 1930.
My father’s childhood in Ooty was simple, almost rustic. In his memoirs he describes with remarkable detail what it was like to live in a small town in South India in the 1930s.
Money was always tight, with six children on a school teacher’s salary. He studied at the local municipal school — the school at which his own father taught was strictly for British expatriates.
The language of instruction was Tamil, with one “section” a day in English. Going barefoot was the norm; no child in his school wore shoes or sandals to school.
My father viewed education as the key to success in life. The path out of his humble childhood to a military career hinged on being educated in the right place at the right time.
My grandfather had applied, on behalf of my father, for the sole scholarship available to residents of the Madras Presidency to attend the Royal Indian Military College in the town of Dehradun in the far north of India.
This was in 1941, the middle of the Second World War, and the British sought to expand their recruiting pipeline for military bodies beyond the traditional Northwest Indian martial communities who had served the empire for two centuries (the Sikhs, the Pathans, and so on).
My father, 11 years old at the time, was interviewed by the British governor of the Madras Presidency, a forbidding gentleman who, in my father’s words, was “six foot four inches tall with steel blue eyes and a balding head”.
He received the scholarship, and was soon traveling the length of the country by train to join the most prestigious military school in India.
The five years at the RIMC defined my father’s character in many ways. I’ll skip the more obvious ones involving martial values — duty, honor and so forth — as those come with the territory. I want to focus here, instead, on the complex cultural dynamic at work.
My father was a South Indian, a Tamilian, in the north of India and in a military school, at a time when there was little intermingling between the regions of India. The exceptions lay in the upper reaches of the Indian National Congress, but that was a thin layer.
There was no martial tradition in the South to set against the Punjabis and Pathans and Gurkhas of the North and Northwest of India. My father was in many ways representing an entire Culture in an alien environment.
In his memoirs, he writes with great affection about this period for it created the foundation for the kind of life he led. But it feels clear from his writing that he felt he was carrying the reputation not just of his family, but of his community and his region.
The RIMC environment created in him, I believe, a relentless drive to “make it work”. Failure was just not an option, and success required getting things done.
This was one of his most fundamental qualities: he was interested in finding solutions. He wasn’t interested in regrets. He was deeply empathetic, but he wanted people to take command of their lives, as he had at the age of 12.
My father chose the Indian Air Force upon completing his five years at RIMC, and joined the service in September 1947 — the very first pilots’ cohort of free India.
It was still known as the Royal Indian Air Force — the “Royal” went away only when India became a republic in 1950.
I won’t re-hash the details of his Air Force career given he wrote two wonderful books about that life. I’ll touch here on points that may not be immediately evident.
My father joined the Air Force as a teenager not because he was thinking particularly clearly about his likely career trajectory. He joined it because he was in love with the idea of flying.
I say this because his career accomplishments and the long arc of his life should not obscure this basic point: he loved to fly, and he was really good at it. As a young fighter pilot he was well known, perhaps notorious, for being a bit of a daredevil.
He flew right to the end of his Air Force tenure: at the age of 58, he flew the new Mirage fighter jet that had just been inducted into the service.
Being a career fighter pilot demands a very peculiar set of attributes. It requires physical bravery; neuromechanical skill; intelligence and memory; and both prudence and risk-taking in equal measure.
He obviously had all these attributes, to have survived and thrived in that era as a pilot. There is a throwaway line in his memoirs about one phase of his training on a Spitfire in the late ‘40s: “three of our course mates died, on three consecutive Fridays”.
But these skills only speak to the flying part. If you are to rise to the very top, you also need to be a charismatic leader of men; an excellent manager of the modern variety; adaptable to changing conditions; and tough but fair.
He was also all these things, and these human qualities stayed with him after the Air Force was far behind him.
From what I saw in my father’s friendships from that time — he had several close Air Force friends who are still alive, more than 70 years after their friendship began — the service was both diverse and close in the early years after independence.
There are many reasons for that. It was smaller and more intimate. The euphoria of Indian independence also motivated these men throughout their lives, for they had grown up under colonial rule.
But if I were to risk a more speculative observation, I would also say that they were able to graft a unifying national identity onto their diverse cultural backgrounds. This might be impossible to do in the India of today, where fragmented identity politics drives virtually everything.
My father retired from the Air Force at the mandatory age of 58. Right at the end was a moment of great disappointment.
He was the anointed “next Chief” of the Air Force. But the then Chief died before completing his full term, and the inflexible seniority rules worked in such a way that my father just missed the window by four months, after a 41 year career.
He got over it. And got on with it. As he always had, this most practical of men.
As I read his memoirs and understood his career better, I understood something about my father: he always spoke truth to power. This is one hell of a thing to do in a military career, and it says much about him and about those whom he worked for and with.
A few years later, my parents began spending more time in the United States, to be closer to their children.
I also believe growing old(er) in New Delhi was not a fate he found particularly appealing. That was a well-trodden path for retired military personnel, with plenty of examples known to him.
His life would have been comfortable — but there would have been no adventure.
This was not normal, but then again very little about my father was “normal”.
It took many years before my parents acknowledged that they had in fact immigrated, for they still spent many months of the year in India.
Their aversion to being dependent was at the “over my dead body” end of the scale, and so they found a small house not far from my sister and built a new life from scratch.
New friends. New network. New laws. New society. New culture. New ways of driving. New ways of shopping. New everything.
In his 60s and 70s, after an entire life of accomplishment on another continent, indeed almost another world, my father mastered all of this.
I view this as the most impressive achievement of his life.
He spent most of the last 25 years of his life in the United States, living close to my sister and her family.
My parents traveled extensively around the world — always squeezing every drop out of every vacation, seeing every sight, walking briskly. He had always devoured new experiences.
They went to India pretty much every year, but naturally my father’s idea of “going to India” involved schlepping to all sorts of out of the way places.
We convinced him at the age of 80 to write a memoir of his Air Force career. Over the course of a year, he turned out 150,000 words and we helped him split it into two volumes — but every word in there is his own.
In short, to add to everything else, in his ninth decade he revealed to us that he could write with the best of them.
He was no prose stylist; but he had a command of the English language, an ear for a great anecdote, and near-photographic recall of large and small episodes of his life.
He wrote the book mainly for his grandchildren. The original plan was to just create a private memoir for the family. But it came out so well that we had to publish it. I believe that gave him great joy and pride.
He squeezed in another improbable adventure at the end. He and my mother found a small Florida community for immigrant Indian seniors, and began spending the winters there.
Understand that this was my father figuring all this out himself. At the age of 85, he did all the work.
They got away from the New York winters, and my father would spend the evenings with a cocktail, surrounded by a new collection of admiring acolytes.
He was always the life of the party.
In the last 15 years of his life, my father suffered from macular degeneration. It got to the point that he was legally blind.
But he refused to give up, and refused to show weakness. He pecked out an entire novel at the age of 90, his last act of consequence.
When I think about that achievement, I think of another abiding quality of my father’s: dignity. That sense of dignity meant he was always his own man.
It also meant that he was less inclined to admit infirmity than most people. In his own fashion he was raging against the dying light.
Florida is where he suffered a massive stroke. He was rendered insensate; his family had the chance to assemble from around the country; he then went in peace, surrounded by his loved ones.
In the final minutes, as his life was ebbing away in the rural hospital, a group of immigrant doctors learned who he was and honored him with the most solemn farewell they could, given the setting.
One of the doctors held up a smartphone and played the Indian national anthem. The rest — and one burly non-immigrant nurse who chose to honor the honoring — stood at attention round my father’s hospital bed with all of us.
He was an ocean and nearly a century away from that small village in the south of India where he was born.
Tears do not come easily to me, but they flowed then.
A recounting like this can only say so much about a person. All that I have written might give the impression of a stern and unyielding martinet. That is very far from the reality of the man.
Virtually every person who has a vivid memory of my father likely remembers him laughing. There was a lot of laughter in his life and his personality.
His jokes, his wit and his grin dominate the memory. This comes across in his memoir, which is full of hilarious anecdotes.
Underneath the hilarity there was steel — that also needs to be said. But he had a weakness for his children and forgave us, especially me, much.
The most significant decision of my life was made at 16, when I chose to come to the United States to enter the University of Pennsylvania as a freshman.
It was not at all an obvious decision. I had compelling choices in India. And going to the US for an undergraduate education was then an unheard-of path in our milieu.
In the end my father left the decision entirely to me. He had made far more consequential decisions at the age of 12 and then again at 17, in far more fraught circumstances.
And so among all the other things I owe him, I owe him this gift of a certain kind of freedom, the freedom to do things differently.
My father respected where he came from and knew well the traditions of his forefathers. More than traditions and rituals, though, he was deeply read in the more philosophical texts of the Hindu religion, and found those genuinely comforting.
The entire Gita is an exhortation about duty, and is addressed to a warrior, a military man, on the battlefield.
I have said many things here about my father. But if I had to pick just one word to describe him, it is this: duty. This was his moral lodestar.
When he was a child, it was duty to his parents and family. In the Air Force, it was duty to his country and his fellow men.
And for the 64 years that he was a husband and then a father, it was duty to my mother and to their children.
What is happiness? It is not another zero in your bank balance; it is not the adulation of people; it is not even the love of your family or the comfort of your friends. All these are ephemeral things, illusions of a sort.
I believe the ancient Greeks got it right: “call no man happy until he be dead”. Happiness is to be adjudged after a man is gone, when you can best consider how he lived his life.
By that measure my father lived, and died, the happiest of men.