They say you are never too old to lose a parent. I certainly wasn’t. I felt three years old the day my dad died – I’m sure those of you who have lost a parent will relate. This edition of the mentor series is dedicated to the man I called Abba. My father. My real life hero.
Ahsan Khan was a giant of a man. He would walk into a room and instantly take charge. He had this rare quality that made him the focus of attention wherever he went. Growing up, we lived in a tiny home in one of the most impoverished neighbourhoods in South Mumbai. Even the bosses of the community gravitated to him with their troubles. He had this knack of cutting through to the heart of issues in one fell swoop. He embarrassed you into realising you were so much bigger than the problem you were whining about and sent you away with the courage and determination to set it right. There was no financial benefit in any of this for my dad, just enormous goodwill.
I am the oldest of five siblings. I have always been incredibly close to my mum, but my relationship with my dad was never easy. With me, he was taciturn and reserved, always the stern parent. I want to tell you he was the same with all my siblings. Nope. It was like I had one dad, reserved and cold, and theirs was another, warmer and openly affectionate. And I never understood why. I still don’t. I guess I should chalk it down to oldest child syndrome.
I remember this incident that completely changed my life. Our home was a tiny, cramped 130 sq ft kholi (room). I was quite a studious bookworm in my younger years, and the only place I could read was under the khatiya (divan). I would hide out under it for hours with my books, among the petis (tin boxes), gothris and potlis (cloth bundles), unnoticed by anyone. At a family event, I must have been in my 8th then, my aunts and uncles and cousins had all come over to our home. As usual, I was tucked under the divan with a book, and my dad was seated on it, oblivious to my presence. All of my uncles and aunts sitting opposite him knew I was there.
My ears pricked up as I heard my uncle ask my Dad what he thought I would be when I grew up. And I listened to my dad say, Aasif won’t amount to much. From the corner of my eye, I could see all of their attention shift to me. I won’t take you through the gamut of emotions I went through from embarrassment to anger; I pretended I didn’t hear a thing. This incident was pretty much the turning point in my life. Every step I took from that point on was to prove to my dad how wrong he was about me. I spent close to a lifetime with single-minded determination to prove I was a son he should be proud of.
He eventually was.
My dad was one of the hardest working men I have ever known. He had a tiny sewing business subcontracting for garment exporters with about 15 sewing machines in a karkhana (workshop). There were times the starch in new cloth would cause skin allergies that would break out into painful blisters. He would work through the pain so he could put food on the table. I only realised how serious it was when I once removed the chindis (rags) he used to bind his fingers. As I cleaned out his deep wounds with potassium permanganate my angst about his attitude to me seemed trivial.
I used to visit him at his workshop after work. He’d make small talk for a couple of minutes and whisk me away to the chai shop around the corner. Jao beta yeh jagah tumhare liye nahin hai, he’d say. This place is not for you. At the time I thought it was my father being the stern, detached parent he always was. Today I look back on the memory with a father’s perspective. Was he pushing me away so I would gravitate as far as I could from his type of work? He wanted a better life for me. He didn’t want the drudgery of his existence to influence mine.
I grew older, started my own company, got married, went from success to success. Very little changed in our relationship though. He remained the reserved parent he always was. I married a foreigner, and my family couldn’t come to the wedding because of visa issues. When we returned home, he came to the airport with the whole family to welcome my bride. I reached out to hug him, and he extended his hand to be kissed in the traditional way. I longed for a hug. I would have to wait for a long time.
Our relationship stayed pretty much the same till he fell ill at the age of 72. I took him to Hinduja Hospital. We were together the whole day, and got to talking openly for the first time. I realised how very unwell he was. It was the day that signalled a change in our relationship and a new closeness I had never before experienced.
I started spending more time with him, sharing my stories from work. Before this, my mum was my only go-to in times of stress. But now I had my dad’s practical wisdom to count on as well. When I’d share my work troubles with him, he’d say one thing, “We started with less than nothing. What’s the worst that can happen? Why stress?” And just like that everything seemed fixable. A conversation with him was a reminder that everything would eventually work itself out.
At 80, He suffered a stroke that left him paralysed and bedridden – the worst thing that could possibly happen to my Dad. He was a proud, independent man who never asked anyone for help. His illness made him utterly dependent on others overnight and chipped away at him a little every day. But speaking to him, spending time with him – you couldn’t tell. He was warm and affectionate with his children and grandchildren — even me. I’d hug him on my way to work every day and when I got back. I was making up for all that lost time with a vengeance. He was too.
My father died at the age of 83, three years after he suffered his stroke. I miss him every time I breathe.
Of all the things I miss about my dad, the thing I miss most is his ability to break the biggest problem to it’s lowest common denominator. To make it seem so trivial that a fix was inevitable. “Niyat me barkat hain”, he’d say to me. Progress is in the intention — a value we are building Fabtech on.
This post originally appeared on LinkedIn Pulse