As many of my friends know I lost my father to stroke complications on August 3rd, 2014. With the first anniversary of his death quickly approaching I wanted to have some sort of eulogy for him. My younger brother and I quickly arranged for a Hindu funeral. These rituals are a private affair for immediate family and a priest to prepare the deceased on their journey from this world. It’s not a time for family and friends to stand up and say a few words about the dearly departed.
My father did not have many close friends here and most of my closest friends didn’t really know him. I guess this isn’t a proper eulogy but I feel something should be said about his life. So instead of celebrating the anniversary of his passing I want to celebrate his life on his birthday. Baba would have been sixty nine years old today.
July 17th, 1946. Sushanta Deb was born in Chinsura, Calcutta (now Kolkata), West Bengal, British India a year before independence from the UK. My grandfather was a civil servant of some kind and was eventually transferred east to Guwahati, the largest city in the north eastern state of Assam. Baba grew up in Guwahati and would become the eldest of 4 children, 2 sisters and a brother.
Education was at the core of my father’s existence. He eventually became a professor and taught for over 25 years. His academic career is almost unbelieveable. After a day of grueling tests Baba began school in the 5th grade – at the age of 7. He entered university at age 13! Here’s a photo of him as a young schoolboy.
My grandparents though well meaning, literally crushed two of dad’s dreams. He was offered an apprenticeship in audio recording and engineering for film. Taking this line of work would have meant dad moving to the west coast to Bombay. Had he gone he may have had a career in Hindi language – “Bollywood” film soundtracks. One of my grandparent’s neighbors had commented that only people of low moral character work in that business. So promptly he was forbidden from taking that job. Throughout his life though, like many Indian immigrants he would continue to rent and watch Hindi films. I guess it was one way of staying connected with what was happening back home. Baba also was into geology and had an opportunity to intern for an Indian mining company. Aside from a field trip gone awry where he got himself lost in pitch black darkness of a mine, his parents shot that down as well. They didn’t want him sent to the jungles or middle of nowhere. I really hope he was smart enough to not tell them about getting lost in the mine!
Eventually, he would transfer to university in Calcutta where he would eventually meet my mother. It was probably in his Calcutta college years that he decided he wanted to try and make his fortune abroad and decided on going to North America instead of England. Over the course of his academic career he would earn a PhD, and 4 masters degrees. (3 of the masters were in some form of advanced mathematics. I do not know what the focus his bachelor’s degree was. ) He would also go on to have 150 research papers published in both academic and trade journals.
My parents were married in Calcutta in 1969 in what people of my parents’ generation called a “love marriage” – meaning not arranged by parents. Six weeks after their wedding my dad left India and landed in New York City with $8 in his pocket. After a week of living in a YMCA hostel, dad eventually got in contact with someone at the university he would attend in South Carolina. I don’t know what he saw or experienced there at the height of the Civil Rights movement and the Vietnam War. Within a year he found himself working on his PhD in St. John’s Newfoundland, Canada. About a year or so after leaving India he had saved up enough money to bring mom over to the North America. I believe mom landed in Canada in winter of 1970.
Canada became home. My parents became citizens. I was born in 1973 and my brother in 1977. We moved a few times and Baba also tried some things out of academia. For a couple of years he worked for the State Legislature of Saskatchewan before he made the decision for us to move to the US. We left in 1979 and drove way south to Arizona! He taught at Arizona State University in Tempe (Phoenix, AZ) for a year. From 1980-1983 he taught at Creighton University in Omaha, NE before accepting a position at the University of San Francisco, CA.
Baba also began private consulting work some summers between semesters. This enabled him to take us travelling. These trips were the best part of my childhood and profoundly shaped who I am today. By the time I turned 17 years old, Baba had taken us on vacation to: India, Japan, Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan, Australia, New Zealand, Fiji, Mexico, England, Scotland and France.
We certainly had our rough times as well. We had different ideas of what my priorities or career should be. I had my obnoxious teenage years but there were moments when I would be punished for nothing or he had some ridiculous ideas of what would happen if were to be less strict. There were years where I wanted to be nothing like him. Which is ironic considering how much like him I have become!
The Last Decade
After 34 years of marriage my parents divorced. Baba had quit teaching full time and was doing more private consulting work.
Dad eventually remarried in 2005. He and my stepmother Kim moved to Phoenix, Arizona before settling in Las Vegas, Nevada a few years down the road.
My stepmother assisted him with his consulting work. And though they were on the road for work most of the time they were happy. Baba was looking forward to retiring in South India. He had slowed his work schedule down a bit and was actually learning to enjoy down time.
He and Stepmom would visit India once or twice a year. I eventually, learned from my cousins that he would often be asked for career advice. Odd, ironic even since my brother and I went into television production and commercial art – careers that he knew nothing about. It was only after his passing that I learned how much he talked about the both of us and bragged that we had found success in territories he didn’t understand or could help guide us through.
Dad was starting to show his sense of humor again. He still had a fairly open mind. It took 30 plus years but I finally got him to eat sushi, specifically sashimi – and HE LIKED IT! And now all of that is done. Over.
Besides his absence, what hurts is that is that now at 41 I feel that I was just beginning to understand who my dad really was. And all it took was moving out, getting married, supporting ourselves and getting some life experience along the way.
I’ve been thinking a lot about what it must have been like for him in 1969 leaving India to start a new life in a foreign country. Landing with $8 in his pocket and no friends, family, support network or safety net to help him out. He not only built a life for us here he also opened up the world and my mind. Ultimately there is no way to repay the man for what he’s given me. He would say that it’s his duty as a father.
I’ve posted these 2 pix before but I think it’s rare to find your first and last ever photo with someone:
Instead of remembering my old man as an old man, I want to end with a picture of him when he was a young father.
Happy Birthday Baba.