Neither of my parents were college graduates. But they were so wise, so open to the world and so adept at pointing all of their children in the direction of higher education that the fact that they had not had the opportunity to go to college themselves never figured as a deficiency in how my siblings and I viewed them. Our respect for their intelligence and judgement, their keen attention to the politics of their times, and their lifelong engagement with the community in one way or another, made us look at them as people who made things happen. People who gave generously of themselves. My father seemed to be always finding people jobs or showing them how to prepare for new opportunities or make the best of a bad situation. Both my parents were of one mind in their willingness to provide a place for relatives and friends to stay when they needed a respite of one kind or another. They took it on themselves to help more than one or two get through critical milestones in their education.
As children, we just accepted the fact that we often had long term house guests: relatives who came to stay for months at a time and were welcomed and assisted in all kinds of ways. There were no family debates about whether we could share our bedrooms or our birthday or Christmas celebrations. It was just understood we would. I have vivid memories of my father telling someone who had come to our home to ask for what seemed then like a very big loan, that he did not have money to spare. And he didn’t. Newspaper editors do not make a lot of money today, and they made even less then. But the requestor would not take “no” for an answer. He kept arguing his case for hours, confident that my father would relent. He even waited while my father took a nap. And then I watched as my father woke up, took out his checkbook and gave the man the money he had asked for. That loan was never repaid –but it wasn’t spoken of much either.
My daughter would often say to her grandmother with some drama: “Mama. You. Are. A. Hero!” My mother would chuckle with amusement. But indeed she was a hero. As was my father. The older I get, the more I marvel at what my father did as a mere teenager: badgering his older brother to let him move from his birthplace in Kerala to British Malaya to get a secondary school education, and then make a career as a reporter, editor and publisher. If I love words and what they can do, it is in part because my father did. I remember buying small ten cent mini notebooks to do as he suggested: keep a record of new words I had encountered and commit to memory what each one meant and how to spell them. I remember him reading the speeches of Winston Churchill and Nehru and Gandhi and Martin Luther King. He drank thirstily from all that he read. I did my homework against a backdrop of listening to my parents talk about politics in the country they had left behind, in the country they had adopted, and in the British Commonwealth of which we were a part. He was not steeped in the vocabulary of postmodernism, but in his propensity to talk back to Empire he was ahead of many of his peers, and very much the architect of his own evolving identity.
This would be my father’s 109th birthday, were he still with us. He left us nearly three decades ago. But he remains present in how we instinctively or knowingly pattern our lives after his. We discover as we grow older that his habits have become ours. We find ourselves better understanding what it means to belong to a community. We are reminded of how much he valued compassion for the less fortunate and gratitude for the kindness of those who had made his life possible. He lived by the advice often attributed to St. Francis of Assisi: that we should preach the Gospel at all times–and use words when necessary.
I feel a deep and abiding gratitude that he had the courage and sense of possibility that allowed him to venture beyond his native Kerala and build a life in a new country, learning new languages, exploring with interest the culture of other ethnic communities, and living with the kind of diversity he had not known before in the land of his birth. Because he crossed borders, we were able to as well. If we are citizens of the world, it is because he showed us how to become so without losing sight of who we are.
On this his birthday, we honor his memory by walking as well as we possibly can in his footsteps.