My father is most likely to be found sitting in his study. ‘Study’ is rather a grand title for the room, the smallest in the house, which used to be my childhood bedroom. It contained little more than a single bed, a small chest of drawers and a fold-away desk where I sat and wrote masterpieces that would never be shared with anyone else. Now it contains a computer desk, two bookshelves, a chair, and a small portable heater that my father uses when the weather is cold, or when his back hurts, or some combination of the two. Sometimes when my father is in the study, he is working. We can tell when he is working because we can hear him bellowing down the phone, alternately in English and in Bengali. Since retiring from fifteen years as a high school teacher, my father works part-time as a telephone interpreter. The work largely involves helping benefit claimants be understood by the authorities which administer their cases, and vice versa. My father has since become an expert in the intricacies of the Department of Work and Pensions, and has a full coffer of amusing stories of fraudulent claimants he can recount on demand. Sadly, he has an even larger number of upsetting cases he has worked on, through his work interpreting in hospitals, courts and police stations.
When my father is in his study, not bellowing down the phone, he is most likely to be writing. Since downloading a Bengali script on his Windows 95 desktop circa 1996, my father has formed a firm and lasting friendship with his computer. On it, he has designed language worksheets for his students, typed numerous letters of complaint, and started writing his own memoirs. But most prolifically, he writes page after page of verse. My father is a poet. Since before my sisters and I were born, my father has written poems – political, melancholy, and presumably, romantic verses have all been penned by his hand. Even his turn of phrase is often poetic: I have heard him refer to my mother’s ‘kalo horeen chok’ (which sounds somewhat less poetic in English: her ‘dark, deer eyes’) and he often remarks that my eyebrows are ‘like the arched wings of a bird’.
When we were younger, my father would write poems to help us learn Bengali – poems that taught us the days of the week, or the names of the months, or even the names of fish and fruit. He also wrote specific poems for each of us – sometimes on our birthdays, sometimes when the fancy took him. One poem he composed for me when I was around eight or nine years old was written in the first person from my perspective. In it, ‘I’ bemoaned my plight of being the middle child, complaining that my parents always nagged me, that my older sister was seen as the golden girl, and that everyone loved my baby sister more than me. And so, as ever, my father demonstrated an uncanny ability to know my feelings, and present them back to me in such a way that I could not dispute his light-hearted accuracy.
After almost thirty years of persuasion, my mother finally managed to convince my father to have his poetry published. Last year, he published two books: one collection of nursery rhymes for children, the very same ones that were written for my sisters and I, and one collection of more mature, adult poems. We are still trying to persuade him to have a book launch in this country, having already had one in Bangladesh, and I am quietly certain that we will eventually get our way.
When my father is at home, but not writing in his study, he can usually be found in the garden. Growing up in Bangladesh, he was used to fields and paddocks and open courtyards in and around the family home. He learnt soon after arriving in this country that English houses in northern industrial towns did not, by and large, have as much open space. The first house that I remember, where we lived until I was six, was a small terrace which had a back yard of about seven feet by four feet. The yard was clad in broken paving stones and was surrounded by a small, low wall that separated the yard from the pavement. All it could fit was a dustbin and, occasionally, the mop and bucket that my mother would leave outside. But after several years of saving and struggling, my parents’ proverbial ship came in and we were able to move to a larger house which, much to the joy of us all, had a garden.
Out of all of us, it was my father who enjoyed and valued this extra green space most. He would carefully tend the three large vegetable plots we had, growing potatoes and radishes and spinach. In the summer, he would rigorously mow the lawn, occasionally mowing over the power cable which would result in a yelp and a scramble to the power supply to shut it off before any sparks flew. He would plant flowers, sometimes getting confused (one year we had sweetpeas growing in the vegetable plot as my father misread the label and thought they were actual peas) and, in the early autumn, he would hold a basket while I would stand on a chair and pick ripe, sweet Victoria plums from the tree at the end of the garden. The end of the garden was my domain which I shared with my sisters – sometimes. We had a swing and a little wooden summer house where we would read, play and generally hold court. Now the old swing – which my father misguidedly painted a sinister shade of black one year – has been replaced with a trampoline and a seesaw and a swing that my niece and nephew play on. It is they, now, who keep my father company as he weeds and mows and plants. They have taken over my old job which was to trail after my father with a little plastic rake and a bucket, and collect the cut grass and compost it. Gardening always was, and is, a labour of love for my father as he suffers from virtually debilitating hayfever. One day of cutting the grass means that the next day my father cannot leave the bedroom. The curtains are drawn, and his eyes are puffy and red. And yet, he refuses to allow me or my mother or even my brother-in-law to step in and help.
For some years, my father was joined in the garden by his most loyal follower – Cornelius, our grey and white mackerel tabby. Cornelius, or Con as we called him, would merrily frolic around my father’s ankles as he worked in the garden, or would stretch and sunbathe close by. When my father was out, Con would wait and listen for the sound of his car returning. Then, the cat would bound out of the front door and welcome my father back at the wrought iron gates of our driveway. Con left us some years ago – he went missing and never came back. We all dealt with it in different ways – my sister cried. My mother continues to demonstrate her loyalty by chasing all other invading cats out of our garden, with the battle cry ‘this is still Con’s garden!!’. But my father revealed recently, his secret belief that Con is still out there, and has not forgotten us. The evidence he cites is an occasional offering that is left on our back garden steps from time to time. A dead bird or a dead mouse is sometimes found on the stone, almost as an offering from Con to his master, much like he used to do when he lived us.
When my father is not at home, he is usually out and about with his various friends. He has the ability to charm and befriend people whenever he likes; he also has the ability to make the most accurate snap-judgements of anyone I have ever met, and often, in a matter of minutes can identify a person as honest, wilful, weak, manipulative or any other trait. He is rarely, if ever, wrong. Widely respected in my hometown, my father is known as the universal ‘Sir’ because of his history of teaching. Former students would stop and address him in the supermarket, or would hail me in town and ask ‘are you Sir’s daughter?’. Sometimes his former students still ring our home to speak to their ‘Sir’, to update him on their lives, or to ask advice, or just generally, to catch up. Even some of his friends, using the local vernacular for my father, still refer to him as ‘Sir’ even though they were never taught by him. My father has a small, but solid set of friends who he holds in mutual high regard. One of them is Mr B, who owns a local newsagent. Mr B will sometimes ring our house and ask for my father, to see if he wants to ‘hang out’ in the shop. If my father tries any food or my mother makes any dish that he thinks Mr B will like, he will package it up and take some for his friend. Likewise, Mr B keeps a ready stash of treats that my father likes, behind the counter of his shop, including a tube of Carnation milk that he uses to make hot, sweet tea for them. My father has friends from all backgrounds, Muslim and Hindu, Bengali and non-Bengali – but still, when I ask him who his best friend is, he replies ‘your Ma’.
My father’s social life has always been busy, but it took on a new lease of life when he learnt to drive. Both of my parents were late to learn, and passed within a few months of each other when I was about eight. My mother got a company car, a beautiful forest green Renault Laguna that was sleek and smooth and impressive. My father, on the other hand, inherited a tiny, gold Nissan Micra from a family friend who was emigrating to Canada. My uncle would slyly poke fun, calling it a ‘woman’s car’ - my concerns, on the other hand, were more to do with the fact that the middle seatbelt (mine) appeared to be held in with a piece of blue cord. Alas, the life of the Micra was unceremoniously cut short one year during a particularly violent storm. The almond tree in our front garden was struck by lightning, snapped in half, and crushed my father’s poor little car that was sitting innocuously in the driveway.
In fact, my father never had particularly good luck with cars. His beautiful black Mazda 626 was smashed into by a sleeping driver, again, while parked in the street. This was then replaced by the ugliest car he ever owned, a red boxy Toyota. When it eventually failed its MOT, he agreed to the mechanic’s offer to sell it as scrap metal for the princely sum of £100 only to see it being driven around town, two weeks later, by an elderly couple. Despite his bad luck with cars, my father was, and is, the family chauffeur. Apart from long distance journeys, when my mother takes the helm, it is my father who ferries the family around, shuttling my niece to school and back, picking me up from the train station when I come to visit, or dropping my sister off at her friends’ houses. But most of all, driving allows my father to indulge in his one true love: food shopping.
Last time I came home to visit, I was confronted with the sight of four 5-litre containers of cooking oil lined up in the kitchen. Exasperatedly, my mother explained that she had gone to the supermarket and seen that they were on a buy-one-get-one-free offer, so bought two. My father, the same day, had also gone shopping and could not resist the offer either - and so, we were now plagued with twenty litres of oil and nowhere to store it. Another time, my father bought two trays of forty eggs, meaning that my sister had to swiftly learn the art of making omelettes, frittatas, soufflés, quiches and pancakes, as well as bake countless cakes, in order to use all the eggs up. My father is also pathologically unable to walk past a fish counter and not purchase something – from gilthead sea bream, to shiny fresh trout, to tender fish roe, and juicy meaty prawns. He also loves to buy the Bangladeshi fruit and vegetables we sometimes manage to find here in England: tender crunchy potol, long, thin lotha, chunky gourds, sweet papaya, crates of lychees, soft orange mangoes and - very occasionally – katal, or jackfruit – the rich, pungent smelling national fruit of Bangladesh.
I know my father to be many things: a writer, a teacher, a poet, a gardener, a gourmand, a socialite. But more than any of those things, I know my father to exactly that – my Abbu. My Abbu, whose tread I recognise when he walks around the house; my Abbu who is the only person, to this day, who I allow to nurse me when I am ill; my Abbu who still rings me almost every other day to ask me what I’ve been eating for dinner; my Abbu whose advice and guidance means more to me than any number of professors or holy men. My Abbu who has been a father for almost thirty years, a grandfather for five, and an incredible, brilliant man his whole life.