My father lies in a coma before me in Room 314 in Mumbai’s Hinduja Hospital, having suffered a stroke. He has lain still and expressionless for two days, and it is not clear when—or if—he will emerge from the deep sleep he is in. All his life he suffered from acute insomnia, relying on pills to make him drowsy. Now, finally, he is resting. I’ve informed Snigdha, my sister, who lives in California that he collapsed on the dining room floor while eating breakfast. She has asked that I keep her informed.
Mercifully, my boss at Mel-Rho-Ana Boutique in Bandra West is reasonable. He has let me take four days off—without pay, naturally—and I am happy to be with Father, take his hand in mine, and watch his belly rise and fall with his breathing. It alarms me to see him hooked up to multiple IVs. A nasogastric tube feeds him. An endotracheal tube helps him breathe. When no doctor or nurse is in sight, I’ll whisper sometimes into his right ear—his good ear, the left one being hard of hearing—to rouse him from his sleep and remind him that I am here to receive him when he awakens.
My father turned 57 last month. We became especially close after Mother died of dengue complications six years ago and I began to question everything: Why she had to go, why I had been spared, how a tiny mosquito could destroy our family, why life had become a series of tragedies. Father talked at length with me about these topics, often reaching into the mythology, to sort each one with patience and care. I was nineteen then, attending Sophia College for Women to study arts, and Snigdha, twenty-one, had left for the United States on a scholarship to pursue a Ph.D. at UC Berkeley. She wanted to return right away to be with us—it was the middle of her first semester there—but Father insisted she remain in the States.
“Vasundhara is here,” he shouted into the phone pressed to his ear. “She and I will manage. You just focus on your studies there. You will honor your mother better that way.”
Snigdha and I spent hours on the phone in the days that followed. She said she couldn’t focus on anything and spent most of the time pacing her room.
“Oh, Vasu,” Snigdha said. “I think I should be with Papa and you.”
“Listen to Papa,” I told her each time, which was hard for me to say because invariably she’d end up crying, and then I would, too.
This time around, however, Snigdha did not offer to fly home. “No progress. According to Google, prognosis for stroke-induced coma is grim,” I SMSed her last night—morning, her time. Vasu, please text me any time you want, she replied. Will do, I messaged her right away. We used to Skype every week in her early American days. Now it’s only on occasions—birthdays, Diwali and New Year. She claims she is drowning in environmental engineering, the focus of her studies. Neither Father nor I have challenged her on that.
“Vasundhara, it is a good thing she studies hard and is so focused,” Father said one day when I brought to his attention Snigdha’s growing lack of interest in India or us. “She will make us proud. She will not fail me. I am certain of it.”
Father wanted me to follow Snigdha to the States but my Bachelor of Arts degree didn’t get me far (even for the boutique job Father had to pull some strings). In any case, I insisted on staying with him in Mumbai. It frustrates me that so many of our talented youth want to leave this wonderful land for the West, Snigdha being no exception. Since we were little she has been saying that if women wanted to be anywhere important in life, they’d have to leave India for the West. “Vasu, it’s only in the West that life, the way it was meant to be lived, is even possible,” she would say, much to my annoyance. “For women, the opportunities there—Oh! We can only dream of them in India.”
Of course, I disagreed. Mel-Rho-Ana Boutique has empowered me from Day One. Hard work and discipline are rewarded in India, too, I’ve told Snigdha many times. How else could I be chief sales associate in the boutique in just two years? “Total fluke, Vasu,” Snigdha said each time. “Look how hard it was for you to even get the job! When I leave for the West one day, it will be for good.”
“Papa, wake up,” I whisper into my father’s good ear. There is no response—although one time yesterday I swear I saw the corner of his mouth twitch. I know he can hear me. I know he would respond if he could. Outside Room 314, doctors and nurses flit about with clipboards pressed to their chests, looking busy. A constant chatter fills the space here and the noise level—of high-pitched alarms, beeping monitors and several cries of pain—is sometimes louder than at Dadar Railway Station. In Room 315 is a young man who, from what I overheard, fell from a coconut tree and cracked his head. He has been crying incessantly, shrieking from time to time. Father, of course, is unaffected by any of it. Even though he can hear it all, I know. Call it faith, if you want. My prayers will be heard. He will come out of this coma in a day or two—if not any minute today.
This morning, before leaving our flat, I sent an email to his friend Austin Phillips in Birmingham, England. This friend visited Mumbai and us about a month after Mother died. Until then, I had never even heard of him. Father explained that they were classmates at St. Xavier’s High School in Fort, and were the closest of friends, until the Phillips family moved to England when Father was in the ninth standard. Father said they kept in touch through letters after that for a while; later, by the occasional phone call. Then, evidently, even the calls became rare and, by the time Snigdha and I were born, the communication ceased. Mr. Phillips never returned to India, not even for a quick visit. Divorced and a professor of economics at the University of Birmingham, he published four books, Father told me, one of these being a popular textbook that made him quite wealthy.
I wrote to Mr. Phillips today—I simply emailed his university account—because I had never seen Father as happy as he was six years ago in the days before Mr. Phillips came to our house. When Mother died, Father sank into depression—he hardly ate and mostly sat in the verandah, staring at nothing, his chin pressed to his chest. His cold storage business began to suffer. The workers who depended on him complained of his absence, his indifference. Yet, he completely snapped out of it and his mood swiftly turned 180 degrees when Mr. Phillips called one evening to say he was visiting Mumbai, specifically the Indira Gandhi Institute of Development Research, for a conference on labor and unemployment. He would like to meet, he informed Father. When Father told him of Mother’s passing, Mr. Phillips insisted on meeting.
In the following days, Father was ecstatic, smiling to himself, hardly even looking at me. He began to eat again, he went back to taking his morning walks, doing his yoga, and even took a renewed interest in his business.
“Who is this man to you?” I asked him one evening during dinner.
“Vasundhara, you have no idea how much time we spent in each other’s company in our youth,” he said. “He, a Catholic. Me, a Hindu. Yet, we were inseparable, the best of friends. Like Krishna and Sudama.”
“You never spoke about him before,” I said.
“I am telling you now,” he said.
“Mother never mentioned him either. Did she know him?”
“I mentioned him to her,” he said.
Quite possibly, no one personified joy more than Father in Mumbai those days. Like a jubilant schoolboy he chuckled every now and then, seemingly at the prompt of some memory of his youth spent with Mr. Phillips. I felt betrayed, I must admit, because, only days before, the house had become a sort of shrine to our memories of Mother. Father had broken down several times when thinking about her, hiding his face in his hands, and it had taken much work on my part to placate him while struggling to hold back my tears. Yet, there he was prancing about now, merriment marking his every step—all because some friend was reconnecting.
One evening, I felt so exasperated by his excitement that I asked him pointblank if he even missed Mother at all.
“What a question, Vasundhara!” he cried, and stared at me.
I regretted my words immediately. But then, with a bolt of boldness, I said, “Did you love her?”
“Have you no shame?” he said, aghast. “No one has ever asked me that. Why do you? But I will answer: Yes, I loved your mother. I feel uncomfortable saying it because we never said it to each other even. She was my wife for 29 years. Not one night we spent apart in all our married life.”
“Sorry,” I said. “It’s just that—”
I didn’t say the rest—how I felt disappointed that he had ceased mourning, how I felt all alone now in my grief, how irritating it was to know, suddenly, that he cared deeply for someone other than Snigdha and me.
Father raced to open the door when Mr. Phillips arrived for lunch on a Sunday morning, just before noon. Our guest was slim, tall and clean shaven. He even shaved his head to hide a baldness emerging. He wore a brown tweed jacket, beige trousers, and shoes with square buckles on them. The moment the friends saw each other they fell into the kind of embrace you see only in Bollywood melodramas that unite long-lost brothers after years of cruel separation.
Father closed the door and led Mr. Phillips toward me. “Austin, meet my daughter, Vasundhara,” he said.
“A pleasure to meet you,” Mr. Phillips said in a slightly British accent. “Ayushmann, you didn’t tell me she was so lovely! How do you like America?”
Father corrected him. I held out my hand to shake Mr. Phillips’s, but he drew me next to him and hugged me. Embarrassed, I lifted my eyes to Father’s face. I saw him wiping a tear with the edge of his kurta.
“I am sorry for your loss,” Mr. Phillips said to me. His jacket smelled of cigarette smoke. His cologne gave hints of spicy cinnamon, rose, and leather. “Ayushmann, I regret I never got to meet your wife.”
“You would have if you had visited us,” Father said, managing a smile. “Rascal! All these years you paid us no visit. Not even one!”
“One of my many mistakes,” Mr. Phillips said. “Life came knocking on my door. What can I say? I have always believed in moving on. Ayushmann, you know that.”
A silence followed. To break it up, I said, “Will you have tea, Mr. Phillips?” I motioned him toward the sofa. “Please sit.”
“Call me Austin, sweetheart,” he said. “Tea sounds splendid.”
They chatted for hours, bringing up pranks they played on classmates and teachers, movies they’d skipped classes to see, cricket matches they’d won against a rival school, how Father nearly failed the ninth standard after Mr. Phillips left St. Xavier’s, how years later Father sent his wedding invitation to Mr. Phillips, how that invitation card never made it to him, how Mr. Phillips married an Englishwoman, how that marriage descended quickly into “one extraordinary headache,” and how Mr. Phillips, wary of romantic relationships, now lived a life of celibacy in Britain.
“Wah! What a combo! A scholar and a brahmachari,” Father said. “Celibacy, however, is the first stage of life, which, let me tell you, you devil, you have long outlived.”
Mr. Phillips laughed, revealing a set of tobacco-stained teeth. Both men clapped each other on the shoulder. I attempted a laugh as well, simply to join in, but it only caused them both to pause and roar with more laughter. Father, I must say, was unrecognizable. I was getting a rare glimpse, I realized, of his youth. No time seemed to have passed for these friends; no absence, no distance had wedged itself between them. Borders, barriers, religion, status—none came in the way. In all the years I have known Father, he was most blissful that day. It was when he fondly punched Mr. Phillips lightly in the jaw that I understood that he loved this friend more than even Mother. No, not in a romantic sense. I mean his loyalty to the friendship, his love for Mr. Phillips, was profound, woven into his DNA, and it seemed to me Mr. Phillips felt the same way. Father is by no means a tactile person, yet he lost no chance to throw an arm over Mr. Phillips’ shoulders or slap him on the back—even on his buttocks once!—or take Mr. Phillips’s hands in his and squeeze them hard for long.
Soon after Mr. Phillips departed our house and, days later, the country, I called Snigdha to tell her we had had an unusual visitor.
“A Mr. Austin Phillips,” I said. “Dr. Phillips actually. A close friend of Papa’s.”
“He never mentioned him,” she said.
“Google him,” I said. “He is a faculty member at the University of Birmingham.”
“If I had the time I would,” Snigdha said. “I’m up to my bloody neck with school work. And it’s just the first term.”
She is probably up to her neck with something else in California now because I have not heard a word from her—SMS or otherwise—all day today. I may as well admit what’s keeping her busy. Last month, she confessed she had entered a relationship with a fellow-graduate student at UC Berkeley, a half-white, half-Chinese man on his way to launching a startup company with two Indian friends. Even though he was considering moving in with her, Snigdha said the relationship was not serious enough to tell Father, and made me promise to share not a word. Is it any wonder my mobile messages to her about Father are going unanswered? So be it. Enjoy America. No need to call or SMS me. No need really to remember us at all.
I am the fortunate daughter to have Father in my life, to be with him now. Yet, there are times when I fear he may not emerge from the coma for several days, weeks or months. A knot of anxiety then rises from my belly to my throat. But each time I take a long breath and send it back down because I cannot allow worry to take over me—the way it would have Mother. She worried non-stop when she contracted dengue. Her anxiety took over her in such a way that Father, who became her caregiver, could hardly leave her side.
“Can you hear me, Papa?” I whisper into his good ear. He does not stir. “Snigdha is busy with a boyfriend. She told me not to tell you.” Not a muscle moves on his face.
I have been checking my mobile every twenty minutes or so, not so much for Snigdha’s SMS but to see if Mr. Phillips has emailed. He hasn’t. Possibly, he has vanished for another set of decades. I wrote to him that if he’d like to say a few words to Father, I would place my mobile to Father’s good ear to wake him up. I mentioned that I well remember his visit to our house six years ago, how he and Father talked and laughed that entire day, how the intervening years of separation between them were forgiven, and how—I thought long and hard before adding this—Father has never been as cheerful again. You disappeared from his life after that visit. That saddened him. But please know that for a handful of days you magically brought a burst of happiness to a man’s life in a way that neither his wife of three decades nor his two daughters ever could,” I typed into my laptop, then erased, then typed all over again. He loves you a lot, I added after some hesitation. More than you know, I typed, then erased.
I proceeded to describe Room 314 for him, how the boy in 315 won’t stop wailing, how the nurses come every couple of hours to check on Father, to see if his diaper needs changing. I added that I fear my prayers will not be answered, that Father will be in this coma for long. I wrote that I would have to quit my job if Father doesn’t wake up, that I know nothing about running a cold storage business, that I have never felt this scared, this lonely before, that only now I am fully able to understand how alone Father was for most of his adult life. I miss his calming voice, I wrote. His easy smile. His abundant and limitless love.
He is the Number One Person in my world, I began my last paragraph. You should know you are his. I cannot know if he is yours. It is said that we are lucky in life to find ours. Maybe this is why we are born, Mr. Phillips: to find that one person in the course of our lives who becomes for us, for all our remaining days, our primary source of unending joy. Please contact me soon. Nothing would please my father more than hearing from you again.
Iqbal Pittalwala lives in Southern California. His story "Pretense" appeared in the Fall 2015 issue of Origins. His story "Unsaid" won first prize in the "India Currents" Katha Fiction Contest 2015.