3rd June marks the 35th death anniversary of my father Gabriel Arunraj David. He was to me everything, a father should be and more. Kind, generous to a fault, a lover of books, animals, plants and children, the inventor of the most amazing stories – Tolkien and JK Rowling pale in comparison, a superb cook – I have yet to eat chapati, buriyani or fruit buns as good as Daddy’s, but most of all he loved me and made me feel I was special – “you are my Chubba, you are my Princess”, he would always tell me.
He died young at the age of 62. It was a terrible shock as he had just been given the green light to go back to work after having suffered a major heart attack. In those days there were no bypasses and Daddy lost 2 of his 4 heart chambers with his first attack. Of course, he never took it seriously. He came home after his stint in hospital saying “it was just flatulence, nothing more” and proceeded to eat his two fried eggs and bacon, accompanied by fried bread everyday for breakfast. His motto in life was ‘eat, drink and be merry for today you live, tomorrow you die’!
My childhood was golden and a fairytale! Growing up in Ampara in a huge garden filled with birds, monkeys and, of course, snakes, life was a daily adventure. Our dogs, cats, chickens and other pets, along with myself ran wild. The day always began with a walk or rather tiptoe through the garden with Daddy in search of fairies. Of course, though I never saw one, Daddy was quick to point out the fairies furniture, toadstools of a myriad colors, striped, with polka dots, stars, etc, of every color and shape.
Some years ago when I was well into my forties, it so happened that there had been a heavy shower of rain the previous night; I was chatting to my mum and remarking on the fact as to how drab and colorless the toadstools were today unlike those of my childhood. My mother gave me a strange look and said, “Your father used to go out every morning before you woke up to paint the toadstools for you”. I was dumbstruck. Here I was in my 40s and still thinking that toadstools came in those wonderful colors of my childhood, only to be told that my wonderful father would get up every morning and painstakingly paint them in order that I could retain my belief in fairyland and all that was magical!
The only cloud in my days during childhood was the fact that I had to have four square meals a day and spend what seemed to me an inordinate amount of time in the ‘high chair’, from which I could not descend until I had eaten everything that was put on my plate. Being an incredibly scrawny child my mother took meal times very seriously so much so that the entire day seemed to be one perpetual meal! Daddy would come home from work for lunch and find me eyes filled with tears, the food being pushed from one corner of my mouth to the other by my ‘Ayah’. Within seconds I was off the high chair, on his shoulders, and we would be playing trains and lo and behold all the food on my plate was consumed!
Daddy had green fingers. He had only to touch something and it would bloom. A lover of rose plants above all, he had over 400 plants and 80 varieties of roses at home and he would jealously guard them from my mother who would demand roses for the vases at home only to be told that they were not ready for plucking. As with plants, Daddy wrought magic with animals and children. They would just flock towards him! My parents’ best friend’s son was a problem child. If his parents wanted him to go left he would go right. At exam time he would doodle on all his exam papers. He derived pleasure from flouting his parents and teachers. In desperation his parents turned to my father. Daddy told them, “take him out of school and give him to me”, which they did. He went off with my father to Ampara where he spent six months with Daddy. He returned a changed person, virtually unrecognizable to the boy he was. Such was my father’s power over children.
Generous to a fault, my mother never allowed him any money apart from what was required to buy a packet of 3 Roses cigarettes. “If I give your father any money he will give it away. One of these days he will come home without the shirt on his back”, she would say. Having said that, when Daddy died, three strangers appeared at our front door wanting to pay for Daddy’s funeral – not one mind you but three! My bewildered mother inquired as to who they were and were told “Mr. David helped us, he gave us our start in life, all we can do is to pay for his funeral”! If that isn’t a testament to the person my father was I don’t know what is.
Daddy always worked and was posted out of Colombo during his tenure with the RVDB – River Valleys Development Board. He would come home once a month and oh how happy and excited I was. I would be jumping up and down near the front gate, running up to the balcony to get the first glimpse of his Land Rover, and when he finally appeared, I would jump on to his back amidst the barking of the dogs and mewing of the cats . Daddy had one particular cat – Blacken, who was the ugliest, most bad tempered cat you could ever come across. All of us were just dirt under Blackens paws except for Daddy. Blacken would never deign to stay at home, only coming for his meals, but 10 minutes before Daddy would arrive, Blacken would mysteriously appear at the gate and the servants would say “ mahaththaya langa athi”. When Daddy died, Blackens grief was terrible to behold. He howled, he cried, he jumped into the coffin, his outpouring of grief was remarkable. He then disappeared for three months and returned a wraith of himself, with all the life in him gone.
When Daddy was in the Intensive Care Unit at the General Hospital, I wanted to do something to cheer him up. My friend Shehara Parakarama and I came up with the plan of taking a couple of Shehara’s dogs to see him in hospital as Shehara lived walking distance from the ICU. To this day I don’t recall how we managed this feat but we did! Both Mummy Lump and P Lump [the two dogs] went galloping into the Cardiac Intensive Care Ward, and not just Daddy but every single patient there perked up and literally revived.
Animals and Daddy could not be separated. My mother’s constant cry to both Daddy and myself was “if this animal does not leave the house I do”! Once Daddy came home with a goat. Well my mother flipped. After much persuasion my mother agreed that it could stay, however, after about six months, one day goat got loose and ate all the clothes on the line – that was it . “The goat goes”. My crestfallen father was compelled to take poor goat away. Similarly, Daddy persuaded my mother to allow me to keep two white mice as pets ‘Kosata Meeyas’. Well one day Mummy comes home from work, goes into her bedroom and in a few seconds we hear an ear splitting shriek and crash of glass breaking. On rushing to her room what do we see but my two little mice seated on her dressing table, washing their paws. The broken glass being my mother’s precious bottle of ‘Ma Griffe’ perfume! Well, needless to say the mice went and my father and I were both in Mummy’s bad books for god knows how long.
Books and learning were Daddy’s twin gods. Nothing could replace them. The day he came home to Colombo from Ampara, he would have a cup of tea, bathe and then off we would go to Cargills, Caves, Lake House Bookshop, for an orgy of book buying. We would return home with the backseat of the car piled high with books. Daddy would then painstakingly sit down, write my name and the date on each book and then proceed to cover them with polythene and brown paper in order to protect them.
Daddy was full of sayings; I will pass this way but once, you carry yourself wherever you go, learning is golden, and so many other simple truths which hold good even today. He would constantly say I bequeath to my children not houses or estates but learning.
A very traditional, old fashioned Indian, he believed that all marriages were arranged in the cradle, frowned on all our boyfriends, had very firm views on what girls could and could not do such as “girls do not climb trees, girls do not ride bicycles, girls do not have facial hair, girls must have long hair”, the list was endless.
It is 35 long years since he died but I still miss him. I hope he knows how much I loved him and still do and how grateful I am to him. He gave me love, a sense of belonging, values, a code of conduct, a sense of discipline, and most of all a wondrous childhood which none of the travails of adult life can ever take away.
He was my Daddy, the most wonderful person in the world!