I have to confess I didn’t know my father until last month. He was always working when my sisters and I were young and seemed very strict (he did not like noise). I did know that he was brilliant a maths teacher and he could do huge sums faster than a calculator. Now he is blind and disabled and unable to look after himself. He suffers from Parkinson’s disease as well. I went home for about a month to sort out his financial matters and get my mother’s eyes operated because she is the sole carer for my father. Working my way through my father’s papers over a few weeks, I uncovered many beautiful and terrible secrets that he had kept quiet about.
Apart from the incongruous materials in the 21 plastic bags that I sifted through (for example, two pairs of shaving sets, someone’s cheque book, x-ray sheets, medical reports and other things), my mother handed me two ‘special’ bags, which she said, he always carried with him. But in those two bags, I found many diaries ( and our school reports of which he was proud). I was trying to find out why there were 24 bank accounts but I discovered other things. My father kept meticulous short notes in the diaries- ‘X delivered papers to me at 7-30 pm’. But amongst those mundane observations were also one liners, ‘Watched sunset’ or ‘Looked at the stars tonight’. I remembered how we used to discuss the clouds, stars and skies- those were lovely memories. He also liked to take photos and draw with water colours. He had a great interest in rural technology and always helped anyone who came from the village to the city- although as a child, I resented anyone sharing our tiny one bed roomed home. I found a notebook with his lovely flowing handwriting about his teacher’s training- ‘The aim of teaching mathematics is to increase the thinking power and reasoning abilities of the student.’
But there were also letters that spelt out how he had been bullied at work, his pay withheld and once even assaulted. As a child, I remembered these incidents but had not understood them- like my father coming back from his school in not a very good mood, not having enough money (I found the well-thumbed ‘ration card’ which listed the broken rice riddled with weavils in particular that we used to eat). I remembered one incident when someone had come to apologise for something. All those memories suddenly made sense to me. My father was a proud and honest man, who had worked his way into the big city from an impoverished background in the village. But to some bullies who were already established, this good looking and clever man was a threat. So not only did they make fun of him but also got students to do this for them. His family also inadvertently became victims of bullying. I remember hearing about a student coming with a knife to threaten him because my father had prevented him from cheating at the exams. I remember us walking back after an evening celebration and being followed by some students from his school and my mother saying to us, ‘Don’t look back or answer’. I didn’t know why she was saying this and I was petrified.
Now my mother tells me that the students were making fun of my father because he had bought a big piece of cloth, enough for two shirts (to save money) and they called him a miser for having two shirts made of the same cloth. I found counterfeit bank notes folded up in his diary that had been given to him as payment. I don’t know how we must have managed without as we were already so poor. No wonder he was working so hard. He kept quiet about this. I found some newspaper cuttings where his plight at not being paid had been highlighted in the press.
All this followed me when I went to the University. I was happy when I saw ex-students from that school had joined the same course but they gave me strange looks when I proudly mentioned that my father was that famous maths teacher from their school. One of them was distinctly cold to me and I often wondered what I had done (and in fact, I was shamed that he did not think I was good enough to be his friend). I tried so hard. Now I know that their behaviour had nothing to do with me. I don’t know when my father’s mental health deteriorated beyond repair and therapy. He was a very sensitive man and the many years of abuse simply overwhelmed him. There is only so much a person can take. I feel sad that I did not understand all this was happening and that my father, protected us by simply keeping quiet and venting his feelings in his diaries. No wonder he carried his diaries with him all the time- he was ashamed and did not want anyone to know about his humiliation.
Now things have changed and mental health is gradually being given a recognition. Sadly for us, this is a little too late- my father is towards the end of his life. He cannot write or paint or watch the skies anymore. If I should meet these people again, I have the confidence and self esteem to no longer want to be friends with them. They may not understand my father or me yet but I hope one day they will have enough compassion and wisdom to recognise the beautiful mind which taught them and gave them the means to that wealth and power. I hope they will be able to express their gratitude to their teacher someday. For me, I feel I have paid that debt of gratitude to my father now. As Nichiren says, “The old fox never forgets the hillock where he was born; the white turtle repaid the kindness he had received from Mao Pao. If even lowly creatures know enough to do this, then how much more should human beings! …Surely they should not forget the debts of gratitude they owe to their parents, their teachers, and their country.”