I didn't know Nelson Mandela. He was a great man for what he did for millions in South Africa and for being a source of hope and inspiration for billions around the world. Yet, to me, he was this hero out there who had no direct impact on my life. My real hero lived in my hometown, in India; my hero was closer to me, closer to my life and more real than reel.
And like Mandela was to countless others, my hero was a source of inspiration and motivation for me, a sort of guiding light throughout my life. Today, that light has been turned off and it feels as though I am surrounded by darkness... His departure to the heavens, only a few days after the former President of South Africa, has left a big void in me... All of a sudden, I feel alone and empty... My grandfather had finally decided he had had enough; it was time; he had given up the fight against everything life had thrown at him and had decided that Sunday, December 8 2013 was as good a time as any to leave us. Maybe I can't and maybe I shouldn't blame him... In the last two years I had seen my grandfather, a proud and strong man, shrivel up, shrink and succumb to illness and poor health. For a man who had done so much and been through so much in life, he was now bed ridden, and dependent on others for his almost every need. "I am now a vegetable, and I don't like it one bit", he told me earlier this summer. It is when I first sensed that the fight in him was probably finally over.
This was a man who had crossed the border in 1947 when millions had died in what is the largest human migration in history. Not only did he survive the crossing, but he thrived and today leaves behind a big, jointed and happy family comprising five children, nine grand children and even six great grand children. If that isn't a sign of success and something to admire, then I am not sure what in life is! On his death, calls and messages poured in from far and wide, as testament to the man, to his life, and to the impression he had left behind! His life was a tremendous learning experience and example for the generations that were to follow, and the biggest lesson came at the end, when I realized how important it is to treat everyone with respect... and most importantly, to smile!
When partition occurred and my grandparents were forced to leave their homes in [current] Pakistan, they had made their way across the border to [today's] India rather quickly; they did so with few belongings, little money and only a sense of fear, nervousness and tremendous loss; they didn't know what lay ahead of them in this new land. They however never let that sense of loss get them down. That he had crossed the border safely and brought his entire family across was already a testament to his determination and willingness to succeed. The years that were to follow were not easy however. He went through work, traveled the world, did menial tasks and odd jobs, all the while in search of a steady income that would ensure his wife, children and siblings were given the best upbringing possible. "What kind of a father would I have been if I had not been able to provide for my own children?" he once told me. His responsibilities extended beyond just his wife and children. He said, "As one of the oldest children in the family, it was my responsibility to also take care of my mother."
Tired of the uncertainty and the life they were leading, he set out to build his own business. That sense of Sindhi entrepreneurship was trying to shine through, but it wasn't easy. "We would walk for miles, often through slush, muck and rain... We couldn't afford to take a bus, forget a cab. Business was not stable and there were months on end where we had nothing to do. We would turn off the lights in the office and not call our employees in for days so we didn't have to pay them until we had business... We didn't know where our next order was coming from, if it was even coming", he told me as we discussed the early years of this business. In the years to come, his two sons would be drawn by his drive and would join him in growing this nascent enterprise. Their collective ambition and determination ensured that the business not only survived, but thrived and lived on through the generations. That business lives on even today, having recently celebrated its 40th anniversary. And only when I sat down with him this summer to document his life did I come to realize that all of this, everything we had come to take for granted in our lives, had been the fruits of years of toil and sacrifice. It hadn't come easy! All these luxuries, comforts and joys were thanks in no small part to the sacrifices and efforts of this man. It had been a struggle for many, many years and not once had we heard a 'peep' about it.
Other than his successful struggle through the hardships of life, why was grand dad such a hero and such a motivation to me? It was a bond that had been established many years ago, when I was a child. For as far back as I can remember, or I am told, grand dad was my protector, he was the one I ran to when I needed shielding from my parents. I was an early riser as a child, and when I did wake up, I was a noisy child who made sure to wake up the entire household with me. At that point in the morning, my parents wanted nothing to do with me and were more than happy when grand dad came knocking on the door to take me away. This was a daily occurrence in the early years...
When I grew older, I remember the trips we took together -- trips with him to the aquarium, trips on a train to the Hare Rama Hare Krishna temple in the far out suburbs of Bombay particularly stand out -- it used to be just him and me. I don't know why I was the chosen one among the grandchildren, but I was and that probably laid the foundation of a bond that only grew stronger over the years.
In the late 90s, he would be one of the strongest advocates of my move to the U.S., making the case for a better life for me; over the years he would continue to monitor my career progression and would take a keen interest in my development. One of my cousins told me that when he talked about me, "[he] is always very happy to talk about you & from the look on his face when he does, it is with a great deal of pride, in how you have turned out & conducted yourself thus far". His constant monitoring and interest remained a driving force through my life; I had a lot to live up to because I knew that if nobody else cared, it was grand dad to whom this mattered and who was always watching keenly. So I chugged on through jobs, through school, aiming and striving to achieve the best possible result. It certainly brought on a degree of pressure, but also a degree of satisfaction knowing that he would be proud of what I had done. Today, when he is not there anymore, for a brief moment I wondered if it is not worth it anymore... But then as I looked up to the sky I knew that is not what he would want me to do. He would want me to carry on and do the best and be the best I can be!
What I regret most today though, as I sit thousands of miles away from home, is the fact that I never got the chance to tell him a thank you for everything he had done for us. I just hope that wherever he is today, he is listening, watching and reading this. I truly will miss him and endeavor to live up to his values and principles, hoping to be the man he wanted me to grow up to be! You were my hero, daddy; you always will be!