- This year marks 30 years since he died. I am a year older than he was at his death. I regretted losing him when he was so young. Now I realize I have grown to be him.
My enormous wide feet get many stares, and I feel embarrassed around my friends with dainty feet. Whenever I choose my shoes, I feel awkward around people eyeing my wide feet. Very few shoes fit my extra wide feet. In contrast, my mother had beautiful narrow feet. She lovingly says, “You are the auspicious one with your father’s feet.” Does she tell it to offset my embarrassment? While growing up, I remember wearing Bata company’s two-strapped Hawaii chappals to cover my awkward feet. My brothers and I did bi-yearly rituals of descending upon the neighborhood Bata store and getting to choose our flip-flops. My father led us in wearing those chappals, and I remember the flip-flop sound our chappals made. At home, the familiar sound of my fathers’ chappals, even from a distance, made us aware of when he was coming.
I walked, ran, and went everywhere I wanted, even chasing my friends, wearing my chappals. In eighth grade, the most significant gift from my father was a pair of closed-toe Bata Ambassador brand shoes. With a big family, the budget was tight. My father’s motto was simple living and high thinking. Children’s education was his mantra. He must have saved a little money from his hard-earned tutoring to buy me those shoes. They were delightfully extra wide. When I look back on the history of shoes to cover my awkward feet, I realize that with his feet, I am part of him.
Just before I turned 34, on the 8th of April, 1993, my father died of a heart attack, and he was only 64. I moved to Santa Cruz, California, to raise our sons in 1989. This year is his 30th death anniversary. At 65, I am a year older than he was at his death. His sudden death was shocking. He died in the afternoon. The news reached me very early in the morning, California time. One dreads a phone call from India in the wee hours, far from home. When I arrived in Cuttack, my natal home, his body had already been cremated. I was angry and upset that I could never see him again. I regretted losing him when he was so young. Now I realize I have grown to be him.
I have many regrets about losing my father at such a young age. I missed out on getting his advice and support during my struggling years in a faraway land. When I left for a post-doctorate at Cambridge with my five-month-old son Alok, my mother came to live with me. My father learned to live alone at home for about a year, just for the sake of his daughter and grandchild. When I returned home after finishing my studies at Cambridge, UK, he was concerned about me struggling with two boys less than 15 months apart. After three months of pampering at home, I was reluctantly getting ready to move to the U.S. in the winter of 1989. The thought of moving 10,000 miles away from my father, mother, and the home I spent almost all my life was daunting.
Every day closer to my scheduled trip, I hoped the flight would get canceled, as I stayed in the comforts of my parent’s home. Lovingly, he had offered to travel with me and the young boys to California. But friends were coming around the same time; I traveled with them, and my father was reassured we would be safe. So he did not come. Those days phone calls were exorbitant. I cherished his handwritten letters. As an exemplary school teacher, he helped build the future of thousands of students. He wanted to be involved in his grandchildren’s education — read them Jataka stories, Ramayana and Mahabharata, and tell them his eventful life experiences. With perseverance and dedication to knowledge, he used to walk 7 miles a day to his middle school, and since there was no high school in the whole region, he went to live with his distant relatives to study high school. He would go hungry for days as no one would offer him food at the new place. Still, he knew education was the key to his ambition. He loved to teach math and English. He valued education and was dedicated to teaching.
I was the little girl who needed help with raising two young kids. I instilled his love for knowledge and compassion in my kids. We spent much time reading books at the public library in Santa Cruz. My sons are grown and happy raising their own families. This year in 2023, Alok pledged a scholarship in his high school for a bright underprivileged student interested in pursuing education in Liberal Arts and Humanities. My father must be smiling.
I am sad my father did not live to see his daughter follow his dreams in the distant land. I teach Cultural Anthropology and focus on the diversity of cultures of India and the Indian diaspora at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and instill compassion, fellow feeling, and the uniqueness of differences between human beings. I love my students the way he did as a teacher.
He would have been happy watching my life with my husband, an outstanding intellectual — who is accepting of me as I am, never making me feel small or inadequate. I have grown to appreciate and recognize my talent and skills in his company. My father would have been very proud.
Now I am a grandmother, and my grandson, a bundle of joy, was born on my birthday two years ago. I am sad that my father did not live to meet his great-grandson and visit his grandson and his beautiful wife.
My father would have been happy to see Akash, the younger one, a responsible grown-up, married and settled in San Francisco. He was born in Cambridge, and when he was one and a half months old, my father met us at the Bhubaneswar airport in September 1989. He was beaming with joy. Every morning, he took baby Akash to play with and recited Sanskrit hymns to entertain him. He ensured I would catch up on the morning sleep with two babies, keeping me awake most of the night. Akash missed out on getting to know his grandfather. His untimely demise was an irreparable loss for the children and me!
My father’s death was swift. He ran a fever for a few days and was sitting with my mother one afternoon at home. Suddenly, he had a big hiccup, and when he tried to get up, he fell and was gone. He dreaded going to the hospital and always said he would not die in one. But he never took care of his health. I am upset that he did not consult with a doctor before. I was angry and unforgiving to myself that he felt sick and I was not by his side. He raised us five kids, ensuring we all got the education of our choice. He never stopped me from following my whims and was happy when I was ready to fly away from home. But I was upset that I was not there when he needed me. He was diagnosed with type two diabetes in his 50s. Luckily, I taught at a local college and lived with my parents in Cuttack. I became his medical assistant, visiting the doctors, getting prescription medicines, and ensuring he got better. I learned to use insulin shots on him. Later, he switched to diabetes pills. He rarely went to the doctor, never checked his heart condition, and was focused on his dream to translate Bhagavad Gita and the Bible after retirement as he realized the uncanny similarity in the words and messages.
His sudden death ripped my family apart. My mother became physically dependent on her children as she lost her anchor. Over the last 30 years, I have come to cope with my anger and sadness at his loss, and I live with what I have learned from him.
My father taught me the value of education. His outstanding service as a selfless teacher helped me find my voice, become a teacher, care about others, and learn to be kind. My father never said no to anything I wanted to do. In the 1970s, as a middle-class girl, I would have gotten married after an undergraduate degree. Even today, girls are considered the greatest gift in marriage. In 2019, when I encouraged a group of bright girls to pursue a master’s degree and do what they were passionate about, they remained quiet. I was bewildered. One of their teachers said, “Madam, they have no choice. They will do what their parents ask them to.”
My father ignored his relatives, who constantly reminded him of his duty as a father. He thought there was nothing I could not do because I was a girl. My father believed in me when he said yes to my decision to leave home for higher education at a far-away university. He was a kind-hearted and loving person. He must have been despondent when my mother had a nervous breakdown and went through years of a manic-depressive state. I was very young. He cooked and cleaned to feed all of us, besides taking care of the financial burden. He became a mother and father to us.
My father is here with me in raising my children and growing as a parent. When Alok and Akash chose to study what they wanted, I never imposed my will on them. Like my father, I gave them the freedom to choose their destiny and live with their choice. My father used to say, “No one will steal your education. Nurture it and help it grow, and it will never desert you.” This has been my mantra to my children. My father must be smiling to see them accomplished in their journey.
In December 2022, my high school juniors invited me to meet their group at the old school for a reunion. They all spoke about how kind, giving, and knowledgeable my father was and how he helped them grow. I was humbled. He has been with me to share my love and joy.
This is my father’s gift. That’s what my father did for me. I always carry my father within me, in my very existence, my breath and essence. Even if he is not with me physically, he is me, and I am him. He is in my extra wide feet, every breath of mine, and my desire to relate to people who are different from the norm.
Annapurna Devi Pandey teaches Cultural Anthropology at the University of California, Santa Cruz. She holds a Ph.D. in sociology from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, and was a postdoctoral fellow in social anthropology at Cambridge University, U.K. Her current research interests include diaspora studies, South Asian religions, and immigrant women’s identity-making in the diaspora in California. In 2017-18 she received a Fulbright scholarship for fieldwork in India. Dr. Pandey is also an accomplished documentary filmmaker. Her 2018 award-winning documentary “Road to Zuni,” dealt with the importance of oral traditions among Native Americans.