To say learning was important to my father was an understatement. The desire to enlighten blazed in him with missionary zeal. His own life had been entirely shaped by education; it had raised him from the narrow gallis of Bareilly to principal of a college in Amritsar, to cultural attaché to the Indian embassy in the United States, to civil servant in the education ministry, to international cultural delegations, to Vice Chancellor of Sambalpur University.
Education gave him his friends – poets, musicians, dancers. It gave him his passion for books and music. It gave him his artistic sensitivity, his longings and his disappointments.
My father was a writer-in-waiting – waiting for the time he would be free from his job, his travels, his obligations, waiting for the security that would enable him to devote himself to his craft.
As a teacher he had published The Art of Essay Writing and an edition of Julius Caesar. Later on, as a civil servant, he had compiled textbook selections of prose and poetry for government schools under the name of his brother-in-law. Creating anthologies came easily to him: he was perpetually noting down things that struck him as he read, pencil in hand. But his real books lay in the future. One day he was going to put together all the thoughts and ideas he had collected, alongside all the poems he had translated from Hindi into English.
Or so I now imagine, forty years later. To his still growing children, his own ambitions were remote, unlike his expectations of them. My brother, who showed some talent for music, was made to play the violin – which he did in a screechy, amateurish way, and as for me, he wanted me to be a reader: not any old reader but a reader of the classics, the inheritor of all of his books, the one to carry the flame. Nothing made him happier than to see me immersed in reading Jane Austen, the Brontës, Shakespeare, the Elizabethan dramatists and all of their critics, whom I also devoured as storytellers.
I had my vices of course, the greatest of them being a passion for Georgette Heyer. Unfortunately I had to read her work in secret, dreading as I did his perpetual question ‘What are you reading?’ – and the subsequent disappointment that would so quickly turn to cold withdrawal.
My father’s one act of violence against me concerned a book. ‘What are you reading?’ he asked one day, at home from the office for lunch. Defiantly, I turned the cover to show him a lurid picture of a man bent over a half naked woman. ‘Regency Buck’ it said in bold yellow letters over the top of the image. This sight so enraged my father that he slapped me. My glasses flew across the room and for a moment we both remained suspended in horrified silence. Then he crossed to the corner where the glasses lay, picked them up, examined the lenses, handed them to me and silently left. I resolved never to forgive him.
The irony of all this was that I was the only one of his four children who had inherited his love of books. So for me his aspirations were by far the highest, and the punishment for failing to live up to them the harshest.
We grew up surrounded by my father’s books. We ate next to Religion and Philosophy, socialized next to Art and Essays, slept next to Fiction and Poetry. And although we had little money and no more space, he was unable to resist buying the latest in drama, philosophy, history, religion, aesthetics, travel, memoir, letters, biography, essays, poetry and fiction (in both English and Hindi).
Returning home from my first day at college, now officially registered as a student of literature, I was greeted by the books he had bought to accompany me on my educational journey. Arranged on a table in the foyer of our home, the bright colours of the paperbacks gleamed in the afternoon sun: Andrew Wright on Jane Austen, critics on Keats and Tennyson, The Romantic Imagination by C. M. Bowra and more, much more. We were together in this, my father and I: my mother had wanted me to study Economics. ‘All the time reading,’ she would mutter disapprovingly. ‘You live in a dream world! What you need is reality, balance . . .’ (Economics, in short.)
In addition to attempting to mould his children, my father also tried with his natal family. He wanted to uplift them as he had himself been lifted, but they stubbornly remained creatures of the galli (his words) refusing to countenance anything outside that world. Those same gallis had once been my father’s home and sometimes he marvelled at how far he had come. How did he manage with no advantages? From an early life that was purely Hindi-speaking to fluent in English and a lover of the classics in music and literature of both East and West – what had it taken to make that transition?
To see the home in Bareilly where he had been born was to wonder still more. It was traditionally built with small rooms around a courtyard, the polluting toilets placed next to the outer gates, a paved area before the house, a bathing room inside with a long handled pump, a row of kitchens then steps leading up to the terrace and a single storeroom on top. A few beds answered sitting and sleeping needs, while cooking, eating and studying were all done on the floor.
My uncles ran small-time, erratic businesses. Their futures were mapped from the galli to the shop around the corner and their education hadn’t taken them past the local vernacular school. Their marriages were arranged early and babies followed steadily. Various aunts cooked on separate fires in the long narrow kitchen, reflecting the alliances and hostilities among them. On the times we visited, my father was always the centre of attention while we shrank from the questions that issued from his family’s paan-stained mouths, the friendly faces unable to mask their overwhelming curiosity.
My father felt the gap between himself and his family keenly. He was perennially sending them money (the cause of frequent quarrels between my parents – not outright quarrels, but the fact that we were always short had something to do with them. Nothing was ever enough, they were a bottomless pit.) He felt he owed them. From the time his mother sold her jewellery to send him to England he was obligated to them in a way that pressed heavily on him, though in actual fact he had paid off his debt some years before. Nonetheless, money his family could ill afford had been spent on him.
From Bareilly he had gone to Allahabad to study for his MA. From there on to England, for a chance at the Indian Civil Service exam, even though the quota from India was miniscule and it was extremely difficult to get in. (This was the exam he didn’t pass. As he remembered, ‘I stayed up the whole night to study. I knew all the answers, but I was too tired. I missed by one mark. One mark! They took five candidates and I was the sixth.’ All his life that one mark haunted him.) Stung by shame, he stayed on in England to do a BLitt. In his books I have from that time, his name is inscribed ‘Raghuvansha Kishore Kapur, St Catherine’s, Oxford’. But it was always Oxford he talked of, never his college. Oxford was the holy grail: the place where he had learned to appreciate poetry, art, literature – all of the things that formed his sensibility. The beauty of the word, the sentence; the shades of a painting; the sound of classical music; these became a religion that he followed intensely all his life.
An Oxford degree was something, but it was not a job. During his passage back to India, he spent dejected hours on the deck of the ship musing over his lack of prospects. Also aboard was Dr Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, returning from his post as Spalding Professor of Eastern Religions and Ethics at Oxford. ‘Young man, what is the matter?’ he demanded. And following the answer came the offer of a job at Waltair in Andhra Pradesh.
Two years later my father heard of a vacancy in Hindu Sabha College, Amritsar, through his friend Sirajuddin, fellow Oxonian and a man he always spoke of in glowing terms. The salary was 200 rupees more: his financial obligations were heavy, and he would be close to Siraj and near Bareilly. He applied, the job was his. He moved next door to my mother’s house, and he, his wife, his daughter, mother and the rest became the history of our little family.
My father was born on 12 March 1909. His intelligence manifested itself from an early age. Taken to school by his elder brother, he was found too young for his class. Easy, said his brother, and added several months to his actual age, putting it down on his certificate as September 1908. Raghuvansha was now enrolled in school but in later years this friendly adjustment to give him a head start proved to be the cause of much grief as his retirement approached. ‘Other people give out their ages as one, two, three years less – but here am I, not yet fifty-eight but forced to leave before my time.’
We looked stricken. Circumstances, and my father’s impractical romantic nature, meant we had nowhere to live. We were entirely dependent on the housing that came with my father’s job. What was going to happen now that a few precious months earlier than expected we were to be thrown out of the place we had grown up in?
‘Can’t you tell them how old you really are?’
‘No proof.’ (Heavy sighs accompanied this.)
My father’s tenure unjustifiably over, we left. The house that was morally ours was allotted to another government servant. And one year later my father was dead. His bewildered children were nineteen and twenty, and his widow, still only fifty years old, would spend the next forty years searching for a permanent home.
My mother’s anxiety about our finances ran through our childhood. My father liked to live largely. No one dressed like him, no one entertained like him and no one shopped like him. Once a painting, newly bought, was hung in a carefully selected spot: ‘Look at it from this angle, from the right, from the left,’ he would say, ‘See how the expression changes!’ At the end of the demonstration my mother would remark, ‘We have money problems, yet Vansho buys things every day.’ And my father’s face would fall, like a bird brought down in flight.
What were his vices? That he loved beautiful things, that he wanted to possess them, that he was an aesthete and a dandy when he should have been a middle class homemaker, saving for the future.
As we approached adolescence, in addition to the spectre of homelessness, my father’s ill health hung ominously over us. His first heart attack had been luckily detected by a doctor who had taken a pain in his chest seriously enough to hospitalize him. ‘Borrowed time, I am living on borrowed time,’ he liked to proclaim. But it didn’t take long for the temporal loan to be called in: a few days short of his sixtieth birthday my father suffered a massive cardiac arrest and died alone in a hotel room in Madrid. His body was embalmed, placed in a coffin and returned to Delhi in the hold of a plane. I watched, feeling numb, as the unfamiliar box was opened and there, cradled in white satin, lay a stranger in a black pin-striped suit, his face blue, his nose stuffed with cotton, his eyes shut for ever. Gingerly, my father’s brothers lifted him out. A collective wail went up. He was so young, so unmarred! At that point, my uncles must have wondered what price education, renown, travel, if it meant you died alone, so far from home and family.
A pundit had once declared my father’s horoscope to be that of a king, promising fame, glory and great achievement. But he would die young, as kings often did. Now that moment had come.
In due course, I became a writer.
‘We all have a purpose,’ my mother told me one day, moved by the fact that I was doing what my father had always wanted to do himself, ‘and yours is to fulfil your father’s dream.’ I had never seen my purpose in such terms but she had lived with my father’s dreams, whereas I had only resisted them. If it made her happy to see me as a continuation of him, then for once I would not argue with her.
Soon after I published my first novel, Professor Datta, an old student of my father’s, accosted me. He began by congratulating me and was warm in his appreciation. ‘But –’ and here he looked at me severely. I became nervous.
For narrative reasons I had drawn upon my parents’ lives, secure that I could freely represent my teacher-lover in the way the story needed, without offence to anybody. My mother, who was likely to be most concerned, had been given an early draft to vet. ‘If there is anything you feel I shouldn’t say, tell me now.’
My mother was never one to discuss her feelings. When she finished the manuscript all she did was sigh.
‘What? What is it?’
‘How much I troubled my parents.’
That was hardly the thrust of the book and I spent some time pointing out that the author’s intention had not been to apportion blame but to put a certain act in a historical, social and familial context. She had looked her usual resigned self, but went on to support me as much as she could, answering my questions and introducing me to others who could fill the gaps in her memory, to help with final details. After such help, I didn’t think I needed anybody else’s approval. I certainly hadn’t thought of my father’s students, belonging to a past before I was even born. But here stood one, a small fair handsome man, with flushed pink cheeks and fluffy white hair.
As he fixed me with a beady gaze, he shook his head sorrowfully. ‘You have not been fair to your father.’
His agitation was reflected by my own, well hidden guilt. In truth, I knew I would never have been able to recreate the long years of my parents’ courtship had my father been alive. I would never have been able to take liberties with a character based, however loosely, on him. (It could only ever be loose, because the truth was that I didn’t really know my father. I had no first-hand knowledge of what drew people to him or what made him such an enduring influence in their lives, so much so that aeons later they could feel the pain of an ungrateful daughter.)
‘It’s only a novel,’ I said, ‘not a true portrait.’
Professor Datta brushed this weak argument aside. ‘Your father was a scintillating man. You have not done him justice,’ he went on.
‘Fictional,’ I repeated.
‘Now you must write a book about him. Representing him as he really was.’
He fell into silence. I looked at him, remembering the young man he had been and how much my father had loved him. I recalled his visits to our house in Delhi and the urgent discussions as to his future. Should he make a career out of academia, or should he do something more likely to gain money and prestige? There were certain pressures operating, certain authority figures coercing, and in all this my father was his support against the Philistines. I envied him his uncomplicated feelings. I too wished to have known this brilliant man – but the daughter can never be the student.
‘Your father didn’t look after himself.’ Again the professor shook his head. ‘How he loved to talk! He had such a dancing, sparkling mind, leaping over everything under the sun. We visited him after his heart attack; he talked from five o’clock to ten. I kept saying, ‘Kapur Sahib, don’t take this lightly, look after yourself . . . .’
Now we both became pensive, united for a moment in this loss, as we thought of the man talking his way to further illness, wasting the energy he could so ill afford to lose.
[Note: this essay was written with input from Dr V. N. Datta, and is dedicated to Ira Singh.]
Appeared in Hamish Hamilton & Five Dials, [e-magazine], January 2011