Memoir / Essays: “My Father, My Father, The Chariots of Heaven!”: A brief memoir on a writer’s Dad

A.V. Koshy

I spent the last one day of his life with my Dad making him tell me Abdul Kalam stories. For those of you who don’t know, Abdul Kalam was the President of India before he passed away, but much before that he had been a rocket scientist and then the Director of ISRO, India’s Space Research Organization, where my father had also worked. My sister and I sat on the bed and listened. She went in and out but I just sat there.  My Dad being from what Keralites call Madhya Thiruvithankoor (central Travancore) was called by his colleagues ‘Achayen’. This means, basically, a Christian from Central Travancore, probably owning a rubber estate, for those who don't get it, nothing more, nothing less or else, but though my Dad had no estate, but his colleagues at his workplace VSSC called him that, affectionately and respectfully. 

One day Dr Kalam asked him, "Mr Varghese, why do they all call you achayan? Shouldn't they call you by your name?" My Dad explained that it was a mark of friendliness. Then Dr Kalam - who was not yet one then, by the way, but still only just Abdul Kalam, Director of ISRO, told him, "then I too will call you the same from now on." My Dad laughed and said, "you can if you will let me call you Mr. Kalam." He meant he would not call him sir or director. Dr Kalam laughed and said, "sure, you can." 

Until Dr Kalam left VSSC, and later too, they both called each other the said names, much to the chagrin and dismay and discomfort of many, seeing the easy camaraderie and amiability between them. They never stopped addressing each other as friends and equals which shows both Dr Kalam's greatness and humility that he did not let his soon coming degrees (honorary Ph.Ds and positions, ones greater than being the Director of VSSC) take away his simplicity. It reveals my Dad's forthright simplicity too, as I do not know anyone else who could have done that and "gotten away with it, then or later, (though there were others like Mr Nair, Kalam’s secretary as President, who were treated the same way by Kalam) as Dr Kalam grew in stature.  

My father passed away the next day after telling me this story. I had gone back to Bengaluru by then, but returned to attend his funeral in Thiruvananthapuram. Seeing him for the final time had been a miracle as I had come down all the way from Saudi just to see him knowing it may be the last time, and it was as if he had kept himself going just to see me. He had been in hospital before my coming and had almost slipped away.
There are other stories about Kalam and my Dad I want to preserve. When my only younger sister died at the age of just seven months, we were living in a house that was literally set in a hole, a small one, being not at all rich, Dr Kalam came to visit us. After sitting there quietly for a while, he got up to go. He saw a Bible on a small teapoy we had. He took it and asked if it was Dad’s and on being answered in the affirmative, he said: ‘This is good to have with you now, read it and you will find the answers and comfort you need at this time’.  

After he left ISRO, Dr Kalam met my father, once or twice more, once in a hotel in Chennai and then somewhere else. The friendship was the same as before. When he became President, my Dad wrote only once to him, to show him a poem my daughter had written. Dr Kalam replied, via his office.

My father was a purchase officer of rare integrity, though I say so myself, as his son. One day he found himself posted to SHAR in Sriharikota. While the posting was inevitable to some extent and long delayed in his case, perhaps, as he was someone no one wanted to let go off, it was still cumbersome to leave and go, having a wife and three children and another one in a hostel. But there was no choice, he being a government servant, and he went. 
My mother could never go to SHAR - she had her hands full with bringing up three children who all needed much attention. But my sister and I went for a month and came back happy to have been with him. We had a gala time with the greatest Dad on earth.
The Director of VSSC was supposedly close to my Dad, as were others in the top echelons of scientists in the organization, like Kalam. 

My Dad asked the Director if there was no way to not be transferred. 
He said "no." 
Then he asked him if he could be brought back after a year. "Yes, sure," said the Director. "Varghese, I'll bring you back in a year," he said. 
A year went by and my Dad came back to ask the Director again to be transferred back to our home town, Thiruvananthapuram. 
The Director said, "Varghese, actually, it's impossible. I can't do it, for you or anyone else. It's beyond even me." 
When my Dad went out, the man who now had a lovely. flowing beard and moustache and long hair, who looked more like a sage than a scientist, another top scientist, second in command, asked him, "why do you look so downcast, Achayen?" 
My Dad explained to him that he wanted to be back with his family in Thiruvananthapuram. 
The scientist said, "don't worry, dear chap, I know you and you watch, I'll bring you back here." 
My Dad went off, slightly reassured.

Sure enough, when he got his next very big project, the one that all know of, the top scientist, true to his word, insisted that the purchase section could be handled only by my Dad and brought him back. We were happy as a family that our Dad was back with us.
When my Dad told me this story, I felt happy about this top scientist who had helped my Dad, so I asked my Dad his name.
"Namby," he said. "His name is Namby Narayanan." This was the same Namby Narayan who later became infamous at first for being accused of spying on India in the Mariam Rasheeda case and was finally cleared and proved to be innocent only just before his death, when it was almost of no use to him. But at least before he died, he had the satisfaction of knowing that he was acquitted by the nation that had told him wrongly that he had betrayed its defense secrets.

My dad died at 89. As he was nearing 86, he used to send me messages by sms daily - all about things he does and I don't.
Some of the ones I need to do:
'A gentle answer turns away wrath.'
'Hate no one.'
'Give thanks to God for everything' - love this one.
'Don't look for the bad in anyone, but look for the good and appreciate it.'
'Love is not premeditated but spontaneous.' - This one I love, believe in and try to live by.
'Behold, I have engraved you on the palm of my hands.'
'When you go through the floods, it won't make you wet and when you go through the fire, it won't singe you.'

My dad is probably the man I admire the most in my life, let me repeat, at the expense of sounding a bit proud and boring. He was my Elijah for whom I hope to be Elisha.

There are many reasons for this, but I'd like to give some here.

His dad, my granddad, was basically a rubber estate owner and farmer and did not know how to read, and write but my dad has a B.A. Hons in Economics from Ferguson College, Pune. This is like my Ph.D. for his time and place and background. My Dad knew Hamlet and Gitanjali and knows the Bible practically by heart and could quote from his memory long sections from it to us. He believes in plain living and high thinking, He wrote Christian books that help people live peaceful lives, and he was also a Gandhian. He started as a clerk but ended up as the Head of the Purchase Department of VSSC, dealing in things from screws to parts of nuclear warheads, to put it as hyperbole, and built the first ISRO from scratch, up the ground to what it is today, being one of its first employees along with Abdul Kalam, who was then fresh from his aeronautics engineering course, and they were all brimful of idealism and love for the country. This was shown in Kalam and him and that first batch by an exemplary devotion to their work by allowing no corruption in, ever. 

While I saw many of the people my Dad's age become as rich as Croesus, something he could have done by 'fixing' just one deal with a rich Indian industrialist or someone from abroad regarding buying things for the country's space project in parts deals or for ISRO's arms programme, he never did it. This integrity led to him having then and now only enough for himself and his family and never anything more. But it also led to something else, a reputation for honestly that was worth its weight in gold. He lived till the end as he always did, in a simple manner, kind, alone, human, loved and respected by all and making his family, friends, relatives, church members, and all who met him daily, through his sensible and generous nature that looks after others' welfare and only then its own, happy. I should probably write more about him and Kalam but won't, except to say that their breed does not exist anymore in India and it was a breed that was found in nation lovers irrespective of caste, creed, class, gender and religion then, We are not worthy of our fathers who were giants.

Hats off to all our fathers who inspire us sons and daughters and grandchildren in so many ways.

My father used to get up like clockwork at six am everyday. He would then switch the light on in his room. Go to the bathroom, brush his teeth, come back, put on Christian devotional music, and read the Bible. He would then write in his diary. There are whole volumes of them. While studying the Bible he would make copious notes. They later became articles on devotion, and two books, and a quiz book, so thorough was his knowledge of it. He had read it countless times. My father did not talk much. He never used swear words. What he read from the Bible was what he lived by. He had only one bad habit which he quit finally, which was smoking. I never heard him tell a lie. I learned everything from him by watching him which was his only method of teaching. He was methodical, systematic, and respected in the neighborhood as a quiet man who lived an upright life, filled with honesty, dignity, integrity, peace, and good deeds. 

Of course, he did not become all this overnight. He became all this by application and diligence. By the time he died, he had become a towering colossus in my mind of what love means, especially to his grandchildren, all eleven of them, and my two daughters who were heartbroken at his death and still are, and his extended family, and to all who came to our home. He fed us and all guests by cooking for us, being a very good cook, but never complained, and kept the house spick and span, which he had bought with his pension money. He seemed tireless, whether farming in his plot or saving money for us, his children, or planning for his future, so he gave none of us any worries or problems when he passed away. He had even bought his own tomb next to my mother's and kept all the money for his funeral expenses ready. His death was the greatest loss to my daughters as he used to talk to them every day. It has left a vacuum I have not been able to fill so far. The love he gave my son Reuel who has autism is also both unmatchable and unbelievable, laying down his life for him.

My father was very good at his job. Even after his retirement, I saw things in him which were astounding. One was the way he handled money meticulously, to make it multiply to never be in need and always have something extra to give to those in need. Though a widower, he lived a frugal, sparse life. He had no wants but sacrificed them happily for others. He saved money for others by his thrift. He was not rich but never poor and though we had nothing much, he made his best efforts to keep us happy always, so we felt we wanted nothing as his children. He succeeded, mostly. A few people may consider his life puritanical, spartan, and boring, but the truth is it was focused, concentrated, and meaningful, showing tremendous will power.

Another noteworthy habit he had on entering into any contract was to read everything in it, including the fine print. I have never seen Indians do this. He would not sign on any document unless convinced of its legal validity fully. This was what had made him powerful in his job like many other things like punctuality, hard work, dedication, neatness, cleanliness, and truthfulness, etc. 
My father is my example. I have been rather unlike him but nowadays I finally try, more and more, to be like him. He was a giant inside, a towering figure, in his virtue and character.

The Bible says the fruit of God's Spirit dwelling in you is love, joy, peace, kindness, patience, goodness, gentleness, and self- control and other virtues against which there is no law and by the time he died my father had these things in his life in abundance. So he died happily, certain of the knowledge that he is going to heaven. He had surrendered his life fully to God.

God was kind to me that I could meet him on the day before his death and attend his funeral. There were many people at his funeral but what I remember is that he was laid in a sepulcher next to my mother so that both were “not separated in their death”, like David and Jonathan, but reunited, after many years as my mother had left him early and many years he had gone on alone, but without faltering despite it. Here was a man and what a man, a brave man the like of whom you will seldom find anymore, in this harsh world. There were a lot of men like him in his generation, I am certain, but they don't make men like them anymore.

Dad published three books or more. One was a detailed Bible Quiz Book, of which we don't have any copies left. The second was an assimilation of hymns and songs and selected passages from the Bible for singing and reading when comfort was needed. And lastly, a collection of published articles in various Christian magazines. An article he wrote just before death was also published in a magazine after his death. He was a systematic reader of many books, but he found immense pleasure in reading the Bible all over again and again and hence the book, Sweeter than Honey, was compiled and published and became rather famous as many people read it and get spiritual solace from it. This writing ability of his and my mom’s, his wife Sara’s, has also influenced his children and grandchildren, many of whom are also excellent writers. This memoir itself could probably not have been written if not for this gift that he passed on to me. 

Bio: Dr. Koshy A.V. is presently working as an Assistant Professor in the English Department of Jazan University, Saudi Arabia. He has many books, degrees, diplomas, certificates, prizes, and awards to his credit and also, besides teaching, is an editor, anthology maker, poet, critic, and writer of fiction. His latest poetry book Wine-kissed Poems, with Jagari Mukherjee, is an Amazon best seller. He runs an autism NPO with his wife, Anna Gabriel.    

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