(Translated from Bangla by Zaynul Abedin)
My eldest daughter had to fill in a college questionnaire. One of the questions was: “Who is your favourite personality?” She wrote, “Mother.”
But I expected she would write, “Father.”
I had always thought my children liked me most, at least more than their mother. Why wouldn’t they? I had never scolded them, a thing which their mother had been doing with cruelty all along:
“Why is the bathroom wet?”
“The sun has gone down. Why didn’t you sit down to study? Sit down right away.”
“Why is the toothpaste open? Put the cap on.”
“Why have you been so long on the telephone?”
“Why is your frock black with dirt?”
“There's a lot of flesh left on the fish bone. Why have you thrown it all away? Take it back from the bone plate? Take it back! I say take it back!”
I did not ever inflict any such pain on them. I would tell them interesting stories over dinner. Every time there was something new on, I would take them to the cinema and we would enjoy watching it together. More importantly, I would often do the strangest things, which I thought would fire the adolescent imagination of my children. For example, when we used to live in the Shahidullah Hall, I would wake them up at night during full moon and we would go swimming in the pond. Being out in the first shower of the monsoon rain was my custom. I had always taken my daughters outdoors while it started raining and we enjoyed getting drenched together. So, why on earth would this person not be their favourite person – who had always done such strangest things for them?
Then one night I could not but blurt everything out to her. She said, “How strange? Why on earth will they not like you? You are their favourite person.”
But when I first set my eyes on her answer to the question of her favourite personality, I found myself wondering if I had gotten away from them. If I really had, since when?
I knew I kept myself busy all day, giving lectures at the university, directing television serials, writing fiction etc. In between, crowds of people would flock to see me. Publishers would arrive to goad me into finishing writing, but none of them would take leave so easily. They would lounge about and spend time chatting and sipping tea. Then young men and women interested in performance would come with requests that they must be given an opportunity to act in one of my plays. Readers who liked my writings, and those who did not, would keep trickling in alike. Journalists would come, too, from different newspaper offices. But nobody bothered about thinking that I was tired. That I felt disturbed. That I needed rest. That I needed solitude. That I needed to take some time off and go somewhere far from here. All my time was taken up by people from outside the family. I had little time to spare for myself, my wife and my children.
Once I had to go outside Dhaka for a week in order to shoot a short film that I was making. As I was getting ready, a throng of visitors arrived. It took me a lot of time to observe formalities. I would have to catch a train, but was getting late. As soon as they left, I got into my car at the eleventh hour and told the driver to go fast. He started driving as if at the speed of light. Only then did it occur to me that I did not take leave of my children; they must have expected that I would say to them, “Good bye, my children!” They must have construed their father as extremely busy and always in a hurry, somebody whom they knew but could hardly recognise any more. This way I probably got estranged from them.
And yet, with a faint hope, I took my second daughter aside and asked her in a hushed voice, so that nobody could hear us:
“How are you, my dear?”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes. I am sure I am fine. But why do you ask?”
“Oh, I was just curious. Now tell me, my dear, who is your favourite person?”
“I have no favourite person, baba?”
“But there must be at least someone whom you like most, isn’t there?”
“Is your mother your favourite person?”
“And chhoto chachi*
Mother said, ‘If your father asks about your favourite person, you will say his name. If you don’t, he will be hurt. It is not good to hurt a writer.’
The list was getting longer, but to my surprise, I noticed that my name was not there. She did not even seem to bother about counting me in. How come? I slept on it for the next two days. I resolved to keep it to myself and not to let my wife Gultekin know about it. Then one night I could not but blurt everything out to her. She said, “How strange? Why on earth will they not like you? You are their favourite person.”
“Are you sure you aren’t saying this only to mollify me?”
“No. I am not. I think there are few fathers as great as you.”
“You must be kidding?”
“No. I am not. Just think about the incident of feeding Sheela milk. How many fathers would do it? Don’t you remember the incident?”
“Yes. I do.”
Let me relate the incident she referred to. Sheela, our eldest, hated milk the most of all the food. She would rather happily drink poison than milk. And yet, in spite of herself, she had to drink a glass of this detestable drink every afternoon.
I felt sorry for my daughter, so one afternoon I just gulped down her glass of milk to her relief. “Don’t let your mother know about it — it is just between you and me,” I told her. Then I had to keep drinking milk for her day after day. At one point I myself grew impatient. She and I resolved to dump milk down the kitchen sink. We could not continue for long though. My wife caught us red-handed.
True that an ideal father in such a situation would not have done what I had. But an indulgent father would most certainly have. Now when my wife reminded me of the milk-dumping incident, I felt relieved. Happy, I went to bed, thinking that I was not at least a bad father. Yet my confusion persisted, and it was nagging away at me for some reason.
Next day I took my youngest daughter Bipasha to an ice-cream shop. She was surprised to see that she alone was being taken. I should have taken all three, as was my wont.
Once she and I reached the ice-cream shop, I said to her in a whisper, “Between your mother and me, whom do you like more, my dear?”
“You,” she said with her mouth full of ice-cream.
The way she responded added to the confusion, so I said to her, “Your mother must have told you to say all this, hasn’t she?”
She nodded in agreement.
“What else did your mother tell you?” I said.
“Mother said, ‘If your father asks about your favourite person, you will say his name. If you don’t, he will be hurt. It is not good to hurt a writer.’”
Truth cannot be skirted around, much less evaded. It had better be accepted. I accepted the truth. I told myself what had transpired to me might as just well happen to any father too busy working. Someday the father would wake up with a jolt to see that he did not have a place in his family. He would lose all his interest in his family and his family would lose interest in him too. It was a strange game!
*A chhoto chachi is the youngest paternal uncle’s wife.
Zaynul Abedin teaches English at the University of Dhaka.