(This article has been also translated in Gujarati by Shri Hiten Anandpara, Editor in Chief, Gujarati Blog, “આપણું આંગણું”. To read this translated article, please click on the following link:
My father: devoted husband, innovative engineer, accidental literary figure
It’s hard to believe that a year has gone by since Pappa left us for his heavenly abode, but the COVID-19 pandemic that started while he was still with us is still around in many parts of the world, and has taken many of our loved ones in an untimely manner. While living in “lockdown mode” like many, I’ve been missing Pappa as well as Mummy on a daily basis, and often think of the conversations I had with Pappa in his last days and months when I got to spend a lot of quality time with him. I’ll try and share some of these stories the best that I can remember.
First and foremost, he was a responsible, caring and devoted father, first to my sister Jasmine and I in our childhood years growing up, and then as a father-in-law to my wife Kavita and a Dadaji to my daughters Prisha and Geeti. He always wanted the best for us: enrolling my sister and I in the best school in Thane, India, standing in line for admission to the best colleges in Mumbai, India, and allowing us to apply and pursue post-graduation studies in universities of our choice in the US. Letting me come to the US was one of the toughest decisions he had to make. He was not very favorable to the idea in the beginning, and it took a lot of convincing by Mummy and some of his trusted friends in India to allow me to go study in a foreign land to pursue a promising future. A perhaps harder decision was when he and Mummy decided in 2010 that rather than Kavita and I moving back to India with the girls so we could be with them in their later years, it would be better for the entire family if they moved to the US and lived with us instead. So he sold the only home he had in India, gave away most of their hard-acquired belongings, and flew to the US with only 2 suitcases each to live together with us in January 2012.
Many readers who knew Pappa are already aware that by qualification he was a B.E. Civil Structural Engineer specializing in RCC buildings. He designed hundreds of residential buildings as well as many commercial buildings such as hospitals and hotels. At the peak of his career in the 1980s he was associated with a majority of residential construction projects in the suburbs of Mumbai in and around Thane.
When he was bedridden at home in the last few weeks of his life, he recalled a couple of innovative ideas he implemented early in his career as a structural engineer. One such project was while he worked for Larsen & Toubro (L&T) and they had a contract to build a water reservoir using RCC. At that time the prevalent mathematics and physics behind the design was to make the concrete walls of the reservoir weigh enough to counter the buoyancy of the water that would cause the tank to float. He questioned why the weight and thickness of the bottom of the tank could not be increased to achieve the same results, thereby reducing the construction costs of the project by a significant amount. His peers and bosses at L&T were impressed by his innovative thinking, and this became the de facto method of designing water tanks after that. Similarly, he was one of the first engineers as an independent RCC consultant to design overhead RCC-only rectangular water tanks on the terraces of residential buildings, something we’re all used to seeing in all parts of India when we visit the terrace. For the first one he designed, the contractors were terrified to take the supporting struts out from underneath the tank because they had never encountered such an all-RCC tank design. Once again, he used his analytical thinking to try something new which later became a standard.
Perhaps most people who will read this blog post will know Pappa as a literary stalwart. But neither he nor any of us in his family would have imagined that he would spend the last years of his life promoting arts and literature, and that would become his defining legacy. After retiring as a structural engineer in the late 1980s, he picked up various hobbies and interests, including almost becoming a Homeopathic doctor (just didn’t have a degree) by studying all of Mummy’s books from her college days. Mummy was a qualified Homeopathic doctor who left her practice after marriage due to societal customs at that time. Pappa even studied Astrology in detail to see if he could match the predictions of well-known astrologers in the birth charts for close relatives and friends. But he didn’t believe in it enough to ever make future predictions of people who wanted to know when their troubled times would end. That’s right around the time when he got his first PC.
Before moving to this important phase in his life where he became a well-known online figure in promoting Gujarati literature, you’ll be surprised to know that he was one of the earliest adopters of computers in India. His first computer, which is also the first computer I learned to program, was a Casio PB-100 pocket computer, where he would write programs in the BASIC programming language (the same one that made Bill Gates famous) to help with his calculations as a structural engineer. He then upgraded to a Casio PB-700, which had a whopping 4-line display instead of the single line in the PB-100, and wrote even more complex programs in BASIC to help with his work. This was all in the early 1980s!
Fast forward to the late 1990s when he now had a Datamini PC running Windows 95, on which he could get online using a dial-up modem and use email to communicate with us in the US, as well as other early adopters of the internet. He started writing articles in English reflecting about various societal and cultural issues, analysing nuances in relationships, and so on, and sharing them with an ever-growing list of people in his email list. Eventually he got interested in tinkering with Gujarati fonts that were just being introduced by C-DAC and others, to practice typing in Gujarati using the QWERTY keyboard.
Once he moved to the US in early 2012, he quickly made many like-minded friends (too many to name, and I don’t want to risk leaving any name out) and found forums and events where he and Mummy would enjoy participating. He gradually worked up the courage to deliver his own talks in Gujarati about a variety of subjects ranging from religion to language and literature to childhood memories. Fortunately for us, thanks to his tech savviness, he uploaded many of his talks to his YouTube channel. He also wrote a number of e-books, including the one he and Mummy put a lot of effort into called “Madva Jeva Manas” (People Worth Meeting) which got him in touch with the most amazing unsung heroes across the world.
Things changed dramatically on March 16, 2015, when he and Mummy were visiting India on their first trip since moving to the US, and Mummy shockingly passed away in a Kolkata hospital on her 70th birthday. All of us were devastated, but no one as much as Pappa who lost his life partner of 45 years. He had dedicated much of his post-retirement life making sure Mummy got the best treatment for the Rheumatoid Arthritis that she suffered with for 30+ years of her life. There wasn’t any treatment option he spared, whether alternative medicine, or gold injections, or the latest generation of biomedicine available here in the US. Pappa started losing interest in continuing his public talks, or writing articles to send via email, or even talking to friends. In December that year, he idly asked out of curiosity whether it was difficult to create a blog as he had been sending articles via email to other famous Gujarati blog sites. Not having any experience doing it myself, he and I sat down together and created a blog on WordPress.com and I asked him what he wanted it to be called. He looked in our backyard, and said, “How about Davda-nu Aangu?” (Davda’s backyard), a metaphor for an online place for like-minded friends to meet. The rest, as they say, is history; https://davdanuangnu.wordpress.com/ became one of the more popular Gujarati blogs, where initially he wrote several blog posts, but eventually set up a regular schedule for well-known literary figures to contribute articles to the blog, while he used his own posts to promote lesser-known people in the field of arts and literature.
I haven’t even had a chance to cover his early childhood, including his harrowing experience after the explosion at the Bombay docks near where he lived and went to school, or how his father went bankrupt leaving them poor and him taking personal loans to pay his way through college. I’m sure his full life story would make for a fascinating biopic movie script!
Hopefully readers have some new insights into Pappa’s life that they were not aware of. I strive on a daily basis to remember his values, his advice throughout my life when I needed it, and hope to make him and Mummy proud as they smile down upon us from their heavenly abode.