- I feel his presence in my various activities — teaching, and working with the dispossessed and marginalized here as well as in India.
My father Haladhar Biswal was a celebrated teacher at Secondary Board High School in Cuttack. In the 1960s and 70s, while I was growing up, I saw my father working day and night to take care of his five children. He tutored during non-school hours as well — on weekdays and weekends. A teacher’s salary wasn’t enough to run a big family. Besides, my father supported his parents and siblings in the village. Despite being busy, the most vital presence I felt in our house was that of my father.
But before he tutored his students, he would personally attend to his children’s studies in the wee hours of the morning. My brothers remember him as being very stern and strict, but I, being the girl, was spared. My father chose not to be hard on me. I was the carefree one.
I remember while getting ready for school, I would invariably run late, and my father would put big balls of rice dipped in dal, chunky vegetables, and topped with yogurt in my mouth so that I would have some food before running to school.
In his childhood, my father walked to his elementary school five miles every day. Since there was no middle school nearby, he left the village at the age of 13 to study at his maternal uncle’s house in Jatni. Then he attended college in Cuttack, and soon after that began his teaching career. But he stayed connected to his roots and made sure that the youth in his region get higher education and better employment in the city.
My fondest memory is the bus trips with my father to our ancestral village during the summer and winter holidays. The bus would take about up to seven hours to cover just 60 kilometers from the city. When we would arrive at the village into the pitch darkness, my father would call out to his mother — “Bou.” A faint lantern light would show up and my grandma and grandpa would be there to welcome us.
On waking up in the morning, I would see my father surrounded by several high school students. I would hear his warm conversation and very patiently, he would be fielding their questions related to mathematics and English grammar. These bright students would look forward to my father’s visit to gain knowledge and seek his wisdom. My father was a dedicated teacher and role model for many young people. Several people from our village have retired from various posts in education and other government services and always thank my father for giving them the exposure and enabling them to hone new skills.
He encouraged each one of his children to excel in their studies, but never imposed his own will on us and allowed us to choose our line of specialization. He must be smiling wherever he is, as I have followed in his footsteps.
My father wanted to go to Allahabad to study mathematics and become a college professor. But his father was not willing to spend money on his further education. His dreams remained unfulfilled. He made sure that he would never let that happen to any of his children. When my older brother decided to come to America, he sold a piece of prime land to sponsor his education. When I decided to study at JNU, my father was delighted.
Many of my father’s students are spread all over India and the U.S. Some of them — mostly older Odia Americans — call me my father’s daughter.
My father took many young people under his wing and our three-room straight line house in Cuttack was abuzz with constant visitors from my mother’s as well as father’s villages. Several young relatives stayed with us to complete high school and pursue higher studies in Cuttack.
In those days, Cuttack was the hub of higher education, with the massive colonial buildings of colleges, the state high court, general post office, and the main hospital besides major banks. People from the village always needed my father’s assistance and he would never hesitate to oblige them. Being a teacher, he was well respected and well connected.
After my graduate school, I came back to Cuttack to teach at Ravenshaw College and stayed with my parents. In the 1980s, with the development of Bhubaneswar, the new capital just 20 km away, my home town Cuttack was no longer the hub. I had the wonderful opportunity to spend about eight years with my parents when all my siblings had already left home. I became my father’s companion. When he was diagnosed with diabetes, I was his nurse, being in charge of his insulin and special diet. Those were the most memorable years of my life.
In 1988, when I won a Commonwealth Fellowship to pursue post-doctoral research in Social Anthropology at the University of Cambridge, he was beside himself. Our son Alok was four months old. He was worried about how I would manage my studies with a baby. He was getting close to his retirement and he contemplated even taking early retirement to accompany me. Then he gladly let my mother spend the year with me, helping me to raise Alok, without worrying about himself being all alone at home.
When I returned in 1989 with Alok and his younger brother Akash just six weeks old, he was waiting at the Bhubaneswar airport with a gold chain he had ordered specially for the newborn to welcome him. Early morning when Akash would be up, my father would ask me to give him Akash. “Give him to me,” he would say. “You need a little more sleep.”
In 1989, I left home and moved to California. But my heart always remained with my parents. They were getting old and were alone. Every summer, I made it a point to take both our boys to be with my parents. Friends here would always wonder what my attraction to Cuttack was.
In 1992, I spent my last summer with my father and got back in September. In December my husband was going to a conference in India. He asked me whether I would like to accompany him. The days I didn’t work as I was raising two rambunctious boys. With his limited professorial salary, I knew the budget was tight. When my father called and asked if I was coming, I told him I would visit in the summer. My father sighed. That was very unusual.
A few months later, on April 7, 1993, I got a call at 5 in the morning. My father had a heart attack and passed away. He was barely 64.
Life has not been the same for me without my father. I became an orphan. A part of me is gone and I could never reconcile his loss. Although I have learned to cope with it, the ache continues. I do feel his presence in my various activities — teaching, and working with the dispossessed and marginalized here as well as in India. My beautiful memories of him keep him close to me.
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 field work 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.