Her Father

My mother’s story can be difficult to understand if you land in it at just any point in the tale. To understand her journey, you’d have to go back a little and know something about the earliest phase of her life, the one she spent under the guardianship of her father, Shri Surendra Nath Tripathi.

My grandfather was, as per the opinions of all relatives and acquaintances who knew him whom I ever spoke to about him, an outstanding human being. This man, who was born on the 15th of July, 1926, studied both English and Hindi literature. Oddly enough, two of his English professors at Prayag Vishwavidyala (Allahabad University now) were major figures of Hindi and Urdu literature: Harivansh Rai ‘Bachchan’ and Firaq Gorakhpuri (Raghupati Sahai). He counted the Hindi writer ‘Agyeya’ (Sachidananda Hirananda Vatsyayan) among his friends.

He joined the External Publicity Division of the Ministry of External Affairs (headed by Dr. S. Gopal, son of Dr. Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan) in due time and served in various posts (from Third Secretary upwards) through postings in Nepal, England, Kenya, Ceylon (as Sri Lanka was still more commonly known then), and Russia. He retained his love for literature and his academic perspicacity wherever he went, and (according to my mother) amassed a brilliant collection of books from all over the world—from the pavements of London to shops in Nairobi. He had begun writing his doctoral thesis on the works of Jayasi some time before his demise.

My mother was born to him and my maternal grandmother, Smt. Kasturi Tripathi (nee Mishra), between his stints in Nepal and England.

Like much of her life, my mother’s birth was difficult. Her mother was in a comatose state at the time. Even the leading expert on maternity and childbirth of the time, Dr. Chandy, a doctor in Vellore to whom my grandfather had taken my nani, had feared that only one out of the mother and the child could survive the process. But my grandfather insisted that they think of an alternative, and ultimately, the doctors found a way. My mother was born healthy, albeit with a calcination issue that led to a slight misalignment of the jaws. Considering her masterful elocution and charming smile, I daresay this was hardly a notable aberration.

For quite some time after she was born, she was called Lynn, my grandfather having settled on the name Pooja after a while, according to an anecdote my mother shared with me.

Mother travelled the world with her parents, witnessing the wonders of distant lands, understanding and developing diverse perspectives, learning to assimilate the best aspects of different cultures.

My mother told me that once, when he came back from work and got into yet another argument with his wife, he said with a dreaded solemnity, pointing at my mother, “इसको अपने पैरों पर खड़ा करके मैं मर जाऊँगा। ” (I will die as soon as I make sure she is able to stand on her feet—a literal translation, because the connotations, I hope, are clear in both the source and target languages). It is as distressing to me to imagine him saying it as if I had been there because my mother once expressed the same view when she spoke to a relative.

I can imagine how she must have felt hearing this, because she loved and respected him. Her sense of honesty, her diligence, her ability to excel in whatever she did had their origin in this beautiful bond. She once told me how he treated a man who tried to bribe him for a longer stay in Sri Lanka. He screamed at the man to leave his lodging, the only time he had lost his temper in his public dealings.

So I can also guess (and now more than ever) what she must have felt like when her father left this world. Like her own death, her father’s resembles the work of a malicious author with a macabre interest in arranging his or her characters’ moments of death just when they have made their life’s story most promising. He was India’s Press Counsellor to Moscow at the time, about six years away from ambassadorship. They had celebrated his fifty-third birthday in Lvov on the 15th of July, 1979. The next day, the car they were travelling in crashed and tumbled off a road in Budapest in Hungary, down a somewhat steep slope. He suffered severe concussions to his chest and head. His wife suffered a complication of her existing medical issues as a result of the injuries. Both were unable to call for help. And – as Leela nani, my grandmother’s eldest sister, tells me – my mother, who escaped with only a hairline fracture, and who could, therefore, have called out, was unconscious.

As per all versions of this anecdote, it was a carpenter passing in a lorry who called for an ambulance, with no help to speak of from the relevant authorities.

My mother was twenty-one at the time. Two years younger than I was when I lost her. She lost her father, who succumbed to his injuries on the 21st of July, 1979, after enduring five days of terrible agony. She used to tell me how he would scream incoherently in pain while he was in the ICU.

That was when her life abroad ended and she came back to India, this time to stay, and, as recent events have determined, she would stay here for the next thirty eight years until her death on the 10th of September, 2017.

{Note: I would like to thank my grandfather’s cousin, Sri Chandrabhal Tripathi (retired Deputy Commissioner for Scheduled Castes & Scheduled Tribes, whom I address as ‘Nana’) for bringing some factual inaccuracies in an earlier version of this article to my attention. Those errors have now been corrected.}

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