Remembrance day

November 13, 2011 § 2 Comments

Yesterday The day before yesterday was the eleventh of November, which is Remembrance Day in certain countries not including Malaysia. The eleventh of November is also my father’s death anniversary date. Another kind of remembrance day.

When I was living in Canada I couldn’t not pay attention to Remembrance Day, but I tried anyway. For Canadians (or the national, public proclamation of Canadian-ness), Remembrance Day involved a specific exaltation of war that seemed to override its original purpose to remember people who died “in the line of duty”. But even “in the line of duty” is a tidy phrase. It suggests that Duty is a clean, abstract concept that all documented human beings in service of a nation-state come to quite naturally. It carefully elides the narratives of power that fuel state interests and produces war as a necessity.

As far as I know, no one in my family has died while serving in a war. I think I come from a long line of people who kept their head down, did what needed to be done, and tried not to kick up a fuss. Sometimes I see this as unfortunate, but that’s a story for another time. Maybe.

There have been people in my family who have been hurt (and killed) while resisting the forces of war as they tried to keep their head down, did what needed to be done, and tried not to kick up a fuss – when the Japanese forces occupied Malaya, for instance, or when the Sri Lankan army occupied its own country.

The thought of my father as a soldier makes me laugh, and it would have made him laugh. This despite the fact that that I always sensed he was at war with himself and the world. (But really, who isn’t?)

While in Canada, when November 11 came around each year I tried to block out what the world instructed me to remember and tried to remember what I could of what I wanted to remember.

Sometimes panic sets in because I think I’m forgetting. I pay attention to what Barthes[i] wrote in Mourning Diary and feel worse because this is true to my experience, and far more encompassing than the simple act of forgetting:

We don’t forget,

but something vacant settles in us.

The vacant threatens to spread.

My father was religious, but in all the wrong ways. I was for awhile similarly and haphazardly religious until I dabbled with an obnoxious bout of atheism and soon realised it made about as much sense to me as religion. So now I’ve settled into a comfortable agnosticism that alternately disbelieves and believes the gods to be in everything. In the brown pools of my dog’s eyes, for example. Or in my smartphone, when I receive a text from someone I’ve been thinking about for months. In my nephews.

Perhaps I’m like my father in this sense; he adhered to a form of Hinduism that sought gods in everything and everyone. To see gods everywhere is different from recognising the god(s) only in yourself. To see them everywhere, you’re going to have to risk being fool a lot of the time. I mean, you’d probably have to be a blubbering fool. You’re going to have ridiculously high expectations about everything, and as a predictable consequence you’re going be consistently disappointed, hurt, and taken for a ride. You’re likely to be absurdly emotional, moved by all the wrong things and wrong people and touched by some wonderful things and some wonderful people.

I can’t imagine any other way to be. Or, it’s likely that I don’t know any other way to be.

Kalighat painting of Hanuman

I’ve been dipping in and out of Arvind Krishna Mehrotra’s translation of Kabir’s poems since I bought it some months back. My introduction to Kabir was through my father’s copy of the anthology translated by Rabindranath Tagore, though I’m sure I was too young to appreciate the subtle, quiet dynamics of Kabir’s phrases back then. Since my father’s death (it’s been 11 years, I just realised, though true to the cliché it feels just like yesterday) I’ve been unable to find my father’s book. It bothers me that little bits and pieces of my father, kept alive through a slapdash collection of old watches, old rings, old books, and old documents, letters, photographs, postcards, and birthday cards could one day just disappear. First a book goes missing, then a photograph, and then you forget the face, the grooves and the lines on the skin, the tilt of a smile.

When I can’t remember anything, before I start to panic, I think about where my father might be now. Maybe a sort of ragtag paradise with unlimited dishes of spicy mutton varuval and whisky under palm trees, in a cool breeze, Louis Armstrong singing into the night. I imagine him hanging out with Hanuman; they’d get along with their similar rogue sensibilities.

Mehrotra renders Kabir’s devoted, irreverent style in a way that reminds me of my father’s devoted, irreverent worship of the gods. “He’s a tricky chap,” was his common refrain when I used to tell him as a child that I’d prayed to Hanuman for so-and-so and did not receive what I had requested.  He’d say that, and then place an offering of flowers or fruit at the prayer altar where a row of pictures and statues of the gods sat in a row.

When I try to remember my father I just remember him as he was. I imagine that his reaction to any kind of paradise would echo Kabir’s:

I’m waiting for the ferry,

But where are we going,

And is there a paradise anyway?



What will I,

Who see you everywhere,


Do there?

I’m okay where I am, says Kabir.

Spare me the trip.

I imagine him to be okay where he is largely to remind myself to be okay where I am.

I try to remember his voice and as I do I can almost hear him saying these words: And is there a paradise, anyway? I’m okay where I am. Spare me the trip.


[i] And today I learned that it’s Barthes’ birthday, today. (That would be November 12, because I realise I’m posting this when it’s no longer today. That is to say, it’s November 13.)

*Photo credit: Eye Burfi

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