I’m off to see my brother in London on Monday. He’s recently become a father. And it’s gotten me thinking about my own dad. He’s a pretty astonishing guy. At least to me.
My dad was born in rural Pakistan. He was born in a village, Futoke, in the Punjab region of Pakistan. You won’t find it on a map. It might have 500 people in it. Probably more like 250. I don’t know. Pretty much all of them are relatives of some kind. He was born in 1946, just before Partition (August 15, 1947). He is a child of Empire. Of course, this meant a lot and a little for his own life. His village had no running water or electricity until I was a kid (I remember when they put in “bathrooms” and got electricity). The most exciting effect of the empire on his family was that his father left back in 1957 as part of the Pakistani delegation for the Queens coronation. He was there to take care of and clean up after the horses that the military officers rode on. During that period, my grandmother had a break from having children.
She was married at 14. My grandfather was her cousin. Remember anthropology? My dad’s family is from one of those places that engages in cross-cousin marriage. All the marriages are arranged. My grandmother had her first child when she was 16, and continued to have children until she couldn’t anymore. I’m not sure how many kids there were, but it’s double digits. That continues today. I have at least 50 cousins, likely more.
My dad was born in the middle. By all accounts he was a difficult child. Willful. He had whooping cough as a young child. He claims to be saved by goat milk. I doubt that’s true. By the time he was of age to go to school his eldest sibling, his sister, was responsible for him. She might have been 10 or so at the time. I know it sounds terrible that I don’t know these details. But it’s hard without records, when you’re so far away, and when my father is so reticent to talk about it. One of the proudest moments of his life is when he came to the United States. In many ways he left his old life behind.
As you might imagine, if you’re a willful child, you also don’t make the best student. Rules and regulations aren’t really your thing. And my dad was a pain in the neck for his teachers. I suspect this would have become a real problem, had his eldest sister not kept on him. Every day she bullied him into studying. When she died, some 15 or 20 years ago now, my father was inconsolable. Without her, he would have never had the life he’s had.
With this pressure my father managed to excel. I know lots of people throw around the idea of “genius” pretty freely. But I’d say my dad was pretty close. He’s got a capacity to remember information that is somewhat astonishing. He wanted to be a mathematician. And he skipped several grades along the way in school. To get into college in Pakistan you take a national exam, kinda like the SAT, but different (think the English system). His year he placed 3rd. In the nation. He still complains that he had a cold the day of the exam and could have done better. He was at least 3 years younger than most people taking the test.
He wanted to go off to get a PhD in Math (and Physics). But his father wouldn’t let him. So he went to Medical School. He never did a BA. Five years later he was a doctor at some impossibly young age. He wanted to leave Pakistan, and to do so you had to take an exit exam. He did, passed, and got a visa to come to the US (he’d graduated at the top of his class, so this was no surprise).
He came to the US a very religious person. He’d been raised in a very religious family. He prayed five times a day, and observed his faith devoutly. My grandfather was an Ahmadi — a sect of Islam that might be thought of as the equivalent of Mormons in the United States. Persecuted, not considered real Muslims by the state. The family story is that my grandfather converted later in life, after the children were grown. I’m not sure if that’s true. For the children I think it was a way to distance themselves form their own marginalization in society, especially for those who “made it” (only some of the boys did).
When he arrived in the United States, he couldn’t get a high status medical residency, even though his skills were exceptional. He initially spoke the Queens English, having learned the language in schools. He spent his early years training in trauma wards in our nation’s public urban hospitals. He was in Detroit in the early 70s, Cook County in Chicago, and soon, New York. He soon learned to love the music of the Black neighborhoods he was housed in. And he began to speak like an American, developing a love a slang, and a humor about his mistakes (“both of you three”). He worked like a madman. And on his days off, got into his car and traveled as far as could to see as much of the country as possible. He told me stories of pulling over at the side of the road on long trips to pray. I can only imagine what other travelers thought when they saw him and his friends, looking west, on their prayer mats, on the side of the highways of the midwest.
When he got to New York he met an operating room nurse from Ireland, Maura O’Malley. They started dating. He’d moved to the US with other students from Pakistan. They were all men. None of them could cook. He learned so they could feed themselves. He would write letters home to his siblings who could read. They would read them to his mother, who would send back instructions on how to make cherished dishes. His siblings would transcribe these recipes in letters back to him. I grew up eating this food. I think my mother fell in love with my father when he dutifully cooked for her.
Like all of his siblings, my father had an arranged marriage before he left Pakistan. He refused. It must have been a terrible ordeal, particularly for the woman involved. She ended up marrying my father’s younger brother.
My mother came to the US for work, and she intended to move back to Ireland at some point. She was from a similar background to my father. From a small 15 acre farm in the West of Ireland, a place hardly known for its land’s fertility. When the British came and took over the land of Ireland, they were fabled to say, “Go to Hell or to Connaught.” That was my mother’s home. And you can imagine what it meant for trying to grown things there.
After a year or so together, my mom decided to move back to Ireland. As a parting gift my father gave my mother a record, Carol King’s “Tapestry”. She brought it back with her as she tried to start a new life in Dublin. She describes playing for parties among her friends there, and missing my father. She still owns the album. And one of the more touching moments of my life is seeing them dance to it, clumsily, back in the late 90s. She moved back to New York after about a year, realizing she and my father wanted a life together. I couldn’t have been easy, an Irish Catholic woman and a Pakistani Muslim man. Neither family quite understood. Yet upon her return to new york, My parents were married within a year.
My brother was born about a year later; I followed him by two years.
My father was not just a great student. He turned out to be an excellent surgeon. The two (intellectual and technical capacity) don’t necessarily go hand in hand. But he was lucky enough to have both. I suspect it was because he grew up in a household where he had to do things all the time. Milk the goats, harvest the rice, and generally fix things that broke. In our own households when things broke down, he usually fixed them himself.
He often describes his job as being a glorified auto mechanic. Except he works on people. I suspect he’s not wrong. He made plenty of sacrifices to make sure his kids didn’t have to have the kind of life he did. He worked impossibly long hours. I didn’t see him a lot when I was younger. But I used to wake up in the middle of the night, and he’d get up with me, make me a glass of warm milk with sugar, sit with me as I slow drank it, and fell back to sleep. He and mom became involved in the arts, trying to inculcate in their children the cultural knowledge they never developed.
And he did something else rather amazing. While my other friends with South Asian parents were often pressured to go into engineering, or better, medicine, my dad exerted no such pressures. He wasn’t the easiest person. When I came home with a math test where I got a 98%, he’d ask, “What happened to the other 2%?” He expected us to be outstanding. And he had the personality of a surgeon at times. In charge. Direct. Demanding. He could have a temper. But he also was so terribly pleased that he could provide a life for my brother and me that he never had. His love is overwhelming at times. If he could, he’d move into the apartment next to me, and we’d have every meal together.
I became a sociologist. My brother is now the research director at the largest race equality think tank in Europe. He has a PhD in political science. My father couldn’t be prouder. In part because he allowed us to do what we wanted, not what we had to.
He’s retired now. And he works every day still. Relentlessly. He never lost that drive his sister helped instill in him. He works a garden that is astonishing. It’s regularly on local garden tours. When people come by and see him on the tours, they treat him like he’s the gardener. Which he is. But I mean like he’s staff. No one every expects that he owns the house he owns. He cooks every meal in our house, and cleans. He can’t sit to watch a movie; he’ll get restless. But at night these days he’s taken to reading up about Math and Physics, the passion he left behind years ago upon his fathers demand, and his need to make it out of Pakistan. He’s 5 foot 3. A small man. I’m a large man, too large no doubt. And folks wonder where I come from at times. My mom is also 5’3”. But basically, both were malnourished as children. My brother and I never suffered such conditions, and we tower over our parents.
I talk to my father every day. As you can imagine from this post, he’s a man I am terribly proud of. I can be very critical of our nation. It puzzles him. Because it was here, he thinks, that he could create for me the kind of life I could never have. And he’s right. He’s the man I most admire in the world. And so I say to him, “Happy Fathers Day, Dad.” I couldn’t have wished for any better…