Three on three....no these are not the marks of a short quiz but the number of years it's been since we lost our Dad, three years today on May the 3rd, 2022. As always, when I think about him, it is hard to imagine that he is no longer with us and lives on only in our minds, memories and in our hearts now. And so once again, as I have done on his first and second death anniversary, I have to go back to the 1970s and sift through my earliest memories...one year I wrote about my general memories of him, last year I focussed on his cooking skills and my food memories and this year I have to write about his technical skills, which were a large part of his profession and consisted of one of his favourite hobbies too! Few people are lucky enough to do what they truly enjoy, in my Dad's case, it was fixing things!
Photography has been a huge part of my Dad's life since he was a school boy. His father gifted him a camera when he was a ten year old student at The Bishops School, Pune Camp, and he began going to the photo studio of a very good family friend of theirs, who was a top photographer of his times. Thus began his early lessons in photography and he developed such a passion for it that it was to last a life time. When he was doing the Young Officers Course in Mhow in Madhya Pradesh, he was already developing his own photographs, by converting a bathroom in our huge colonial bungalow into a dark room, as and when needed, and he used to be ably assisted by my mother. Never one to be content with one specialized skill, he decided he wanted to enlarge photos too and hit upon the idea of building an enlarger of his own, as buying one was out of question, as it was way beyond his pay grade! I must have been around four years old and as our play room adjoined the kitchen in that house, I have a very distinct memory of him rooting around in the kitchen cupboard. Then I remember him coming away with two shiny, deep, bowl like vessels and disappearing with them. I remember being upset about my mother's items being appropriated in this manner, though my mother was right there and she had no objection!
Today, when I was discussing my memories of this incident with my mother, she told me those were two aluminium vessels with dome shaped lids, which had been gifted to her by one of my great grandmothers on the occasion of my naming ceremony! Aluminium is a very shiny metal, so my memory was spot on about that and maybe I had got upset when I saw him carting them off because those two items had been part of an occasion important to a new born me ....Memories seem to run deep into our subconsciousness, don't they?
The next day, my Dad proudly called us to view his enlarger and those two vessels had now been painted black and perched proudly on top of the whole device, which worked wonderfully well. I don't remember this, but I'm guessing I magnanimously forgave him for stealing my mother's kitchen items! Here is the enlarger, now forty plus years old and clicked a few years ago by, who else, but my dad himself.
Many a photo was enlarged by this device, hand made by my dad.
This Bazooka like lens was a favourite with him for wild life photography!
As technology advanced, my Dad ensured he kept up with the times, and brilliantly edited his own photos on his home computer. He was also always happy to help my mother's uncle, another brilliant photographer and a very skilled surgeon as well, to edit and upload his photos, something Uncle had always found challenging, given his age. Dad's knowledge did not extend to just photography but to all the software related to photography too. It was no surprise that the very first computer, along with its witty mouse, ( I remember being highly amused by this term as a teenager) entered our house in 1990, at a time when most of India had not even heard the word. My Dad had bought it from a fellow officer who had purchased it while on a stint abroad, but had no clue what to do with it upon his return to India!
So when something went wrong with my gynaecologist cousin's son's first birthday photographs, and they refused to reveal themselves, despite repeated attempts by professionals, she thought of my Dad! After all, all my cousins had spent their childhood watching their mothers give my Dad various electronic gadgets for repairs, the minute he came to our hometown on his annual leave. And he never disappointed them, the gadgets were in top shape again long before his leave was up...And once again, after a few hours of concerted effort, he did manage to retrieve those precious pictures, which he then saved for one set of very happy parents!
Since my Dad was in Signals, communication was the very core of his work and he was on standby twenty four by seven. When half of India was in queue for a land line and the other half couldn't even imagine owning a phone, we had not one but often two lines, right though the 80s until the mid 90s. And there was always one extension at my parents' bedside because Dad had to be contacted at any time when the lines were down, further afield. Whenever his commanding officer ( CO) called to give instructions, my sister and I would immediately be all ears to listen to my Dad's side of the conversation. It went something like this, " Ajay here, Sir. Yes Sir! Right Sir, it will be done, Sir ! No problem, Sir! Right away Sir, copy that Sir!" We would go into fits of laughter, cramming our hands into our mouths to keep from laughing out loud, lest we be heard by C.O. Uncle at the other end. And all the while our dad would be glaring at us, even as he focussed on what was needed from him and gave all the politically correct 'colonial' responses. And guess what, if my Dad was entrusted with the task, it always WAS done, Sir...right away, Sir!
Olfactory memory is also an important part of everyone's childhood. But while other four or five year olds might remember their mother's favourite perfume or the fragrance of their grandmother's incense sticks, I have only one smell lodged firmly in my brain, from those times. The smell of the soldering gun being used! The sticky brown ointment like cream from the tube being dabbed on to the board, the gun being switched on and then the wires being soldered in place and the circuit being complete! Though I was very young, my dad often roped me in to hold the circuit board steady and that's why I guess I experienced this aspect so closely. I have no memory of what exactly it was that he spent so many after-office hours making, but my mother told me it was his own, powerful music system. He had even built the speakers from scratch, getting the wooden part made by a carpenter. We had the system for years and it worked beautifully until the entrepreneur in my Dad woke up and he sold it off! Many years later, my father in law once roped in my then five year old daughter for the same task of holding the circuit board, while he soldered something he was working on. For me, the circuit was then truly complete....
His skills were not limited to just building a music system. He could play any musical instrument he laid his hands on, be it the flute, the harmonium or the harmonica! He had never had any formal training but belted out popular songs as if he had been a professional player. Ironically, in the two days that he was at home in between hospital stints in April 2019, the last thing he ordered on Amazon ( I told you he was tech savvy and would give the younger generation a run for their money where shopping online was concerned!) was an advanced harmonica ( a mouth organ). He played one last song and recorded it too...His swan song? Today my son has that harmonica and having inherited my Dad's instrument playing skills, ( he plays the drums, the guitar, the saxophone and the flute), he is trying his hand at it.
In the India of then and even in the India of today, for reasons I personally fail to understand, owning a car or up grading to a better version, is considered a huge deal. Maybe this attitude stems from our socialist policies of the 60s, 70s and 80s, when everyone was in a queue to buy a simple Lambretta or Vespa scooter and only the 'lucky' few owned cars. Well, my Dad got his hands on a used but fantastic car in the early 1980s itself and the model was called the Hindustan 14. It resembled the car in 'Herby Goes Bananas' and I absolutely loved it! He was often found to be tinkering with the car's engine and the bonnet was popped open more often than it was not! In the late 80s, he even changed the colour of the entire car from a silver blue to a dark blue, which he told me was an " Oxford Blue". Well, given the fact that he was an artist too and very skilled at painting pictures, it wasn't surprising that he knew his colours well. He certainly wasn't a person afraid to experiment. This car carted us and our friends around and moved all across India with us, until he decided it had grown too old and it was time to bid it goodbye. The car he drove for over fifteen years was an Indica and as he became unwell, nothing I said could persuade him to sell this truck-like diesel engine car and buy something lighter and easier to drive. He took care of it like a baby and so deep was his knowledge of cars, that no mechanic ever dared pull a fast one over him, every time the car needed some repairs. We had no choice but to sell it after he was gone.... here he is with his car and sure enough, the bonnet is open! I believe he loved the engines more than he did the cars themselves!
And having a particularly skilled engineer Dad meant that we never had to miss our favourite Sunday morning television serial in the late 80s, in case of power cuts, which were frequent in Gauhati, Assam, where we lived then. He would simply pull out our 'Herby's' battery, connect our small black and white television set to it and lo behold, our television miraculously had power, with all the Army kids thronging to our house, once the news was out!
Many men bake these days but how many 'make' the oven they bake in? My mother, a good baker, had a traditional round 'Bajaj' electric oven, common in the Indian homes of the 70s and the 80s. But she had a deep hankering for the 'rectangular, upright ' oven of her childhood, but with a twist! Her mother's colonial oven had been one that worked on a wood fire, hers of course would need electricity. While on one of our shopping jaunts to Gauhati city, a few kilometres away from the army and air force station he was posted to then, my Dad came across a decades old rectangular oven, albeit one that was designed to work on a kerosene stove. I clearly remember it sitting in the shop window, a dusty old thing. But his uncanny eye spotted its potential immediately and he bought it without batting an eyelid. And then he set about converting it to an electric one, right from designing the circuit to locally procuring the materials he needed . He succeeded and how! Some of the best cakes I have ever eaten were baked by my parents in that oven, which was truly a labour of love by my Dad.
It looked something like this and is a hundred plus years old today!
If baking was my Mother's forte, sewing like a professional was ( and still is!) her fondest desire. So with that in mind, my parents bought the much in vogue in the 80s, the sewing machine called the Singer Fashion Maker! My contemporaries will remember the Singer advert which showed the fanciest of clothes being stitched in the least possible time. Well folks, we actually had that beautiful, shiny white machine in our home, and all our fancy clothes were designed by our mother but were still stitched by the neighbourhood tailor! This was because that machine had issues since day one! Either the thread would get jumbled, or it would get cut, or the cloth would get stuck or the motor would stop, you get the picture! Now this was a challenge like no other for my techie Dad and he set work at once. Countless hours were spent after office, trying out each 'foot' that came with the machine and made different types of stitches. He analyzed and evaluated each action and its repercussion, before giving my mother a list of Dos and Don'ts and making her practice under his eagle eye. Thus, he trained the machine to behave itself and we had no further trouble. And a decade and half later, when my mother had progressed to newer and fancier machines, she gave me that one and I happily churned out soft toys for my toddler daughter on it. I used to look at it bemusedly as it purred along, for I well remembered its antics before my Dad had tamed it!
And the knowledge that that machine had imparted to him stood him in good stead, when he was posted to Jammu and Kashmir again, later in his career. Someone had ordered many brand new fancy sewing machines for the unit but no one knew what was to be done with them. So my Dad demonstrated how the machines were to be used and showcased all the fancy stitches that could be produced. The women of the unit were suitably impressed and the machines were sold off in no time, thus freeing up unit money! Truly, there was nothing he couldn't turn his hand to.
And then there is the story of how my Dad lost out on his Engineering Drawing Gold Medal. This one I do NOT remember as I must have been barely three, but my mother tells the tale often enough for me to see it in my mind's eye. All the officers of his course were doing their engineering in the College Of Military Engineering, ( C.M.E), Pune. It was rather far from my grandparents' home but the day of the submission, my Dad was staying at home and drove across town to college and unfortunately got caught in a rainy squall. He was completely drenched by the time he reached and his drawings were a damp, sodden mass too. His fellow officer and good friend ( he retired as one of our top Generals) told my mother later that the minute he saw my Dad looking half drowned, holding his wet drawings, he knew the gold medal was exclusively his! Otherwise, no one came close to my Dad in engineering drawing, but fate had conspired otherwise that day...
I do not need to see a gold medal to understand how technically skilled my Dad was... I witnessed it all my life, until the day he passed away, three years ago today.