It was no secret that I hadn’t seen or spoken to my father for many years prior to his passing. A fact which fascinated a great number of people – literary aficionados, academics, biographers and journalists. You don’t achieve that level of professional success without your personal life coming under intense scrutiny. In that respect, I cannot even begin to recount the number of interviews I have declined over the last decade. But my desire to tell my story now has nothing to do with appeasement, or of trying to set the record straight. Nor will it be sensationalised nonsense penned purely for financial gain. I want to write about my father to try and understand our complex relationship and work out exactly how I feel about him today.
In my early years, Father was a very distant presence in my life. Naturally, he spent a lot of time locked away in his study. Each evening, I distinctly remember him coming into my bedroom to kiss me goodnight. Most vividly of all, I recall his subtle pinewood cologne mixed with pungent cigarette smoke, the bristly feel of his stubble on my cheek, and the soft, whispered words he invariably spoke: ‘Sweet dreams, my child’.
To say the least, he kept very peculiar hours. It wasn’t uncommon for me to get up in the morning and find him sprawled out unconscious in an armchair, or sitting outside by the swimming pool, bare top, dishevelled, in only his underwear, drinking wine or whisky at what constituted dawn or a little thereafter. In those moments, he could be incredibly tender and affectionate. He would beckon me over, pick me up and perch me on his knee. Again, a collection of very adult smells assailed my senses – the strong liquor and distinctive Turkish tobacco, the almost sweetish smell of his sweat, the earthy scent of hair that had gone unwashed for many days. None of which was unpleasant, I must stress, but things which, even now, evoke memories of those stolen moments we shared before the rest of the household woke up. ‘You see the way the breeze stirs the surface of the water?’ he said to me once. ‘You see that slight rippling effect, like crumpled sheets upon a love-spent bed? You see how beautiful it is, how a breath of wind, a mere caress, can create such a wonderful, calming vision? That, in so many ways, is the best that we can hope of each other. If, in some small, infinitesimal manner, we can produce even the most fleeting moment of beauty in this life, something which touches and moves another person, we will have ascended to the level of the gods.
But more often than not, I was openly discouraged from trying to interact with Father. The constant refrain throughout my childhood, up until my early teenage years, was to be quiet, that Father was working and wasn’t to be disturbed. Most days, when I returned home from school, I would sneak to the back of the house, press my ear to the door of his holy study, his inner sanctum, and listen to him tapping away at his computer keyboard, the furious click-clack, click-clack, the relentless literary onslaught that went on for hours at a time. And I’d squeeze my eyes shut and try to picture him hunched over his laptop and wonder what kinds of things were running through his head. Back then, it was the only way I could feel close to him.
In regards to my mother – and to preface what I am about to say, she was an exquisitely beautiful woman, a lot younger than Father – she did everything in her power to protect and sustain her husband, to ensure that he had the perfect conditions in which to work. Most evenings, we – Mother and I – would eat together at the main dining table. Regardless, she tried to make mealtimes normal and fun occasions. She tried to make up for my father’s absence, in effect, playing the role of both parents. With utmost attentiveness, she helped me with my homework, asked how my day had been, took an active interest in my life, friends, hobbies and pastimes. If Father ever made a request, however, if he shouted out from his study, her reaction could not have been quicker or more unequivocal. It was as if she was attending an emergency situation, even if all he wanted was a glass of water or a box of matches, a way and means to light a cigarette. For she would bolt upright, drop everything she was doing and rush to the back of the house.
In this manner, I came to realise that the mysterious ‘work’ which my father undertook behind the study door was of the utmost importance. But it wasn’t until I was ten or eleven years old, that I plucked up the courage to ask mother outright, what exactly it was that Father did. ‘You don’t know?’ She laughed. ‘Why, darling, your father is the greatest, most important writer in the whole wide world’.
This, although I wasn’t really aware of it at the time, inspired me to become both a model pupil and a voracious reader. Books were treated with an almost holy reverence in our house. My father’s own personal library contained around twenty-thousand volumes. Many of which were leather-bound first editions, signed, and worth a considerable amount of money. As a special treat, he would every now and then read to me in bed at night. Robert Louis Stevenson. Alexandre Dumas. In a rich expressive voice, like an actor onstage, he recited entire chapters in one impossibly exciting sitting, savouring each and every word. Whenever he read a particularly moving, poignant or beautifully written passage, his voice would often crack. So moved was he by the power of the words, of literature itself. And this was something – seeing how deeply this distant monolithic, unflinching figure in my life’s emotions were stirred – that made me attach immense significance to the written word, too. To gain my father’s approval, to have him take notice of me, I began to read incredibly widely, and to study so hard I barely had any time left for more everyday pursuits.
In turn, whenever I received a glowing school report, Father would buy me a beautifully printed Folio edition book. Classics like Jane Eyre, Tess of the D’Urbervilles and Anna Karenina. Books which may’ve been a little advanced for my age, but books I came to treasure because of the touching inscriptions he would write inside: To my darling daughter, to mark another important milestone in your life. Remember, you will never have a more devoted friend than a good book.
Still, I didn’t feel any closer to the real man, I didn’t feel any love, affection or warmth from him. Weeks could pass, sometimes months, where I would barely see him for more than a passing moment each day, where he would even forget to come to my bedroom to kiss me goodnight. If I broached the subject with Mother, if I complained about his coldness and disregard, she told me that he wasn’t like an ordinary father, and that we weren’t like an ordinary family. ‘His work is very important’, she said on more than one occasion. ‘As an artist of international repute, he needs to dedicate himself to his writing, to propel his work to new heights. In one hundred years from now, people will consider him one of the greatest literary figures of all-time. But with that comes a lot of responsibility, a lot of painful sacrifices. Of course, he would love to take a break every now and then. Of course, he would like to do the normal things, normal fathers do. But that’s not going to be possible all that often, I’m afraid. And it’s something you’re going to have to accept, hard as that is’.
There were holidays, however – Italy, Spain, the south of France – times that were calm and relaxed, normal, far removed from the somewhat tense and restrictive atmosphere of the family home. But still, Father was always in the background, he never came to the beach or accompanied mother and me on any excursions, museum or gallery visits. He rarely joined us for lunch or dinner. Any trip away, for however long a period (and sometimes we would rent a villa for the full six weeks of the school holidays), was no more than an extension of his working life. By that I mean, he always wrote, he always locked himself away for long hours at a time. I always heard the sound of his incessant typing fingers – click-clack, click-clack. In fact, it was not unusual for me to fall asleep to that strangely soothing, soporific noise and awake to the very same tapping, the very same click-a-clacking.
Often, visitors called to whatever villa we happened to be residing in, swarthy, foreign guests who spoke halting English in a myriad of soft to heavy accents. These (in the main) men, always impeccably dressed, distinguished, important looking, intellectual types, nonetheless treated my father as if he was some sort of deity figure. The reverence they displayed made me feel as if the role of a ‘writer’ was more important than that of a prime minister or monarch. On these occasions, Father would become genial and talkative. I could tell he liked the attention, that there was perhaps something a little vain and conceited about him. For he would very much attempt to deflect the blanket praise he received, to play down his achievements. It was endearing; because of the distant detachment that was so defining in everyday life, like a shield around the real person, I never really associated my father with having emotions, as if he were somehow immune or above such petty, pesky things as human feelings.
But this proved to be the exception as opposed to the rule, very much a temporary lowering of his guard. Because when we returned home, everything very much reverted to type.
Not until I got a little older did Father show much interest in me as a person in my own right. To put this into the correct chronological context, he’d just won a prestigious international literary prize for his latest novel and been awarded the Prix Goncourt (the first time a non-French writer had been honoured in such a way). For a two- three-year period, he became quite well-known in everyday life, outside of the literary bubble he had previously occupied with such singular, suffocating distinction. This, ultimately, culminated with the BBC commissioning an in-depth documentary about his life and work.
Back then, I had just turned twelve years old. In a few months’ time, I was to attend a renowned boarding school in Switzerland. During filming (and the vast majority of the footage was shot in and around the family home), he called me into his study, where the camera crew had set up for the day. When I entered the room, he beckoned me over and sat me on his knee, like he had when I was a much younger child. Whilst squirming inside, painfully shy, I nonetheless managed to keep my composure and answer a few of the brief questions that came my way during this segment of the documentary. How does it feel to have a famous writer for a father? Is it easy living with such a prolific and renowned author? – the general gist of what I fielded prior to Father launching into a long, meandering monologue (unprompted, or so it seemed to me at the time) about the joys of parenthood, how much pleasure he derived, on a daily basis, of watching me grow up, of seeing my own unique personality develop, how proud he was of not just my academic achievements (and here, he did reference my imminent departure for one of Europe’s finest seats of learning) but , how he saw me as a personification of purity, human kindness, how he marvelled at the goodness of my heart, for the simple fact that I was a far worthier person than he would ever be.
As you can imagine, this took me aback, as I never had the merest inkling that Father held me in such high esteem, that he paid that much attention to me at all, despite my best efforts to gain a place in his affections. Even more surprisingly (and this is perhaps best illustrated by including a direct section of the interview transcript), that he had given serious thought not just to the future development of my character but my future, full stop, something akin to a career path.
Interviewer: And what do you hope for your daughter when she grows up?
Father: I suppose it would be rather cliched and unsatisfactory if I were to say that I hoped she would be happy. But, of course, as a parent, that is my most ardent wish. But in such times as we are living through now, to wish even the simplest of pleasures on our loved ones is like asking for the moon. Therefore, we have to readjust our expectations accordingly. And while you may think I’m being unnecessarily pessimistic, dramatic even, as is the wont of any literary figure, an individual who spends the vast majority of their time locked away in their lair, subject to the ever-growing demands of their creative imaginations, I can but only speak with specific regard to my own family. And daughter. To answer your question with any degree of honesty, I will say this. Both my wife and I have tried to instil certain qualities in our daughter which we feel are important. We want her to be a kind, considerate, compassionate individual, someone who doesn’t put her own selfish interests above those of other people. We hope that she will find a worthy vocation, a reason to be in life which will allow her to display those qualities for the greater good. We hope she continues very much in the way she has started out in life. What that equates to in terms of a career is entirely up to her. All I know with any certainty is that when you are possessed of such abundant gifts, it is truly a sin not to share them with your fellow man and woman.
The interview with my father is still available today. On YouTube it’s amongst the most viewed videos for that particular categorisation: literary, books, writers. When I feel particularly nostalgic, I watch that section of the video time and again. There is a brief moment, when the camera pans in on me, perched upon my father’s knee, that if you look closely enough, you can see how deeply his words affected me, you can almost see them sinking into my young brain, into the very fabric of my being, inspiring me to set out on a worthy path in life. And, if nothing else, I will always be eternally grateful for Father planting such seeds in my head. Because I did use my personality, the qualities he eulogised in the interview itself to make a difference in the lives of so many vulnerable people.
But if anything, it was another incident that took place around this time, the weeks prior to me leaving home, that made an even bigger impression on me. Probably because it was the only real occasion – bar the odd times he read to me in bed at night – that Father invited me into his vivid internal world. I remember the evening in question so well, in the kind of minute detail a novelist as accomplished as he would no doubt approve of. Not just because he actually, physically sought me out, but because he clearly wanted to share something that he felt was incredibly important. This, I must stress, was a very unusual state of affairs. So unusual that when I heard him call my name from the bottom of the stairs, I gave a quite profound start, the same kind of panicked start my mother gave at the dining table whenever Father shouted out to her. For a horrible moment, I thought something terrible must have happened. But when I rushed from my room and peered down the banister, he simply told me that he wanted us to watch a film together that evening, perhaps the greatest, most powerful film ever made. The Elephant Man.
As you no doubt appreciate, a film of that nature could but make a huge if not disturbing impression on such a young girl. For a start, it was shot in black and white, something which confused my very unsophisticated mind. For I had no conception of the artistic side of the filmmaking process, how certain effects – the bleak, gloomy cinematography and unsettlingly effective score – could be used to evoke atmosphere, a sense of foreboding, dread. But as the film progressed, as the full extent of John Merrick’s physical deformity was revealed in such a brutal, uncompromising way, Father took my hands and whispered soft words of reassurance, telling me not to be afraid of such a hideous disfigurement; he told me that he was just a man who’d suffered terribly, who was born that way, and that such things could happen in life, and it was up to us as good, kind, generous, spirited people to not shun and dismiss those far less fortunate than ourselves but to embrace them, to help them live as normal a life as possible.
From thereon out, I became completely engrossed in the story, in the way the doctors and nurses do indeed help this poor, unfortunate soul, how they build up his confidence, encouraging him to become the human being he so desperately wants to become. This was helped greatly by Father’s whispered commentary – ‘You see, he can talk, he is articulate and intelligent. Now the people around him have got over his shocking appearance, they realise that he is possessed of such endearing personal traits’. I found something so wonderfully worthy about these good and kind characters. And, in equal measure, was appalled by the nasty and unkind characters who try and exploit Merrick for petty financial gain. The scene at the station where he is harassed, knocked to the ground and surrounded by finger-pointing passers-by, when he says: ‘I am not an elephant! I am not an animal! I am a human being! I am a man!’ touched and moved me in a way no single piece of art has ever, or will ever, move me again.
A few months later, during my first year at the boarding school in Switzerland, I started to appreciate not only what my father did, the nature of ‘his work’, but to fully immerse myself in the work itself. Even though it was never encouraged, or, in fairness, openly prohibited, I began to read my father’s books. In my spare time – and I did this in a very considered and ordered manner, so it in no way interfered with my studies – I devoured everything he had ever written. From his debut novella, to his first collection of short stories and early poetry, all the way through to his more mature work, the novel that had won him the prestigious literary prize and the Prix Goncourt.
It was the most curious of experiences – journeying deep into the heart of his creative world. But if nothing else, it made me understand so many things about our family life that, even though they had been explained to me in specific detail, I had never truly understood before. To think that my father was capable of writing so many beautiful, thought-provoking stories took me aback. And as anyone acquainted with his vast body of work will know, he, by that age (and he was in his mid-forties when I was born, so approaching sixty then) had produced an astonishing array of books. But what perhaps struck me most, even then, as a teenage girl, was the depth of his writing, his versatility, the range of emotional territory he covered, his compassion, tenderness, intelligence. How he could write from different narrative points of view, how he could get inside the heads of so many disparate characters, expressing their innermost thoughts and feelings. Primarily, because I always saw Father as such a solitary, reclusive figure, someone who didn’t have any kind of emotional connection, or contact for that matter, with other people, the rest of the world. Therefore, it seemed so at odds for him to understand what moved and motivated specific individuals, their secret fears and longings, their hopes and dreams – some wild and unobtainable, others modest but still elusive and just out of reach – things that made them so unique, with a unique perspective on life, and the world around them.
And perhaps it was this anomaly – the dividing line between the artist and their work – that I could never reconcile in regard to my father. All of which, ultimately, led to us cutting off all contact with each other. Because – and this wasn’t apparent to me until many years later – reading those books left me with a sad sense of emptiness, my own feelings of longing and despair. For I realised that my father wasn’t just one man. He was, in fact, many different people all at once. He saw things from a multitude of perspectives. Like the morning I found him staring drunkenly into a body of simple water – i.e., our family swimming pool – he wasn’t contemplating a morning dip to clear his head, like any normal person may’ve been. No. He was pondering something metaphysical, almost otherworldly, in an artistic and literary sense, something that precluded any kind of intimacy or interest in anything outside of his own bubble, his own cocoon world of creation. Put simply, it made me realise that my father wasn’t, and could never be, present in any moment. His mind didn’t work like that. If he sat on my bed and read me a story, he wasn’t doing so for my pleasure, but more for his own literary delectation, thinking about the way each individual sentence was constructed, the natural rhythm and flow of the words. He could neither participate nor enjoy anything in life, to the extent that he may as well have not been around other people at all. He couldn’t feel human emotions only express them. He was a mere conduit, a conductor of light and sound and thought and expression. Only it never touched him, the man, the person.
But, regardless of that and what was to eventually transpire, my father’s work had a profound impact upon me. I even went so far as to memorise certain passages, his words about human kindness, because they reminded me of all the things he had told me as a child, about being a good person, how I should always try and help others, to treat them with the kind of respect I myself would wish to be treated with. For a young impressionable girl there was something so pure and wonderful about everything he had written, everything he had achieved, what such a vast body of work represented, even if, in so many other ways – important, fundamental ways – he was very much an absentee, neglectful father himself, someone who rarely if ever displayed the qualities he championed in his stories.
Imagine my delight when, in my final year of schooling, I received an advance copy of my father’s latest novel, the novel that would, in many ways, cement his place as one of the greatest writers of his generation, containing a beautiful and moving dedication to me:
To the true light of my life, my darling daughter Francesca, possessed of that pure spark of human kindness that is a true inspiration to me when I sit down to write each day. Promise me one thing: Don’t ever change. Your loving Father
Again, his words were like an epiphany for me, encouraging me to carry on doing what I was doing, striving to become a good and worthy human being, to put my heart and soul into my studies, my endeavours, to try and make a difference in the world, to however small and insignificant degree.
And that’s exactly what I tried to do.
In the intervening years, I became the academic success my parents had hoped for. My examination results were amongst the finest the institute had ever seen. During my final term in Switzerland, I had many discussions with the teaching staff regarding my future career path. Medicine was without doubt my main area of interest. Only I didn’t really have the desire to become a doctor as such. Rather, I wanted to help people on a day-to-day level. I didn’t see myself in a modern operating theatre performing new and innovative surgical procedures or ensconced in a high-tech laboratory creating the cure for the kind of debilitating illnesses that had puzzled mankind for centuries.
Regardless, that was the path I followed, securing an unconditional placement at Cambridge University. In that respect, my future was mapped out before me – university, medical school, then a career in the profession. And for the first year, eighteen months that was certainly the focus of my efforts. I attended each and every lecture. I applied myself with the kind of diligence that went some way beyond that of even the most dedicated medical student. I performed incredibly well in my examinations and assessments. I was even lucky enough to secure a regular position as a ward nurse at one of the local hospitals, working in close contact with some of the finest physicians in the country. Here, the more practical side of medicine was revealed to me, a side which fascinated and inspired me in equal measure. I became almost obsessed with each and every patient I interacted with. I, in contrast to my father, liked being around other people, helping to alleviate their suffering, treating them like human beings rather than slabs of faceless flesh, a sickly encumbrance. And I found such immense satisfaction in my work on the wards, be it in administering an injection, dressing a wound, or simply plumping a pillow and spending five minutes chatting to an elderly patient about everyday things, a patient who perhaps didn’t have any friends or relatives to visit them. For I felt as if I were really making a difference in that person’s life.
It got to the stage where I started to resent my academic obligations and longed for the more fulfilling challenges of the ward. I wanted to be out there actually doing something rather than sitting around discussing or theorising.
Everything changed at the beginning of my third year at Cambridge, when I met Royston Campbell-Harding. To qualify what I now consider to be the most significant friendship of my life, I rarely if ever socialised. I had no interest in going out and meeting fellow students, in bars or nightclubs or at parties. Alcohol had little or no appeal to me (and maybe Father’s somewhat fractious relationship with drinking, his epic bingeing after weeks of intense literary toil had marked me in this regard). I wasn’t interested in boys, sex, a relationship, full stop. I just had this insatiable thirst for knowledge, new experiences. I just wanted to spend my time helping other people. To find myself at a dinner party at a fellow undergraduate’s apartment was a far from commonplace event in my student life. But it wasn’t something I completely abhorred. For I always tried to make the most out of any experience, no matter how pedestrian. And as I had promised to attend, whether grudgingly or not, I endeavoured to milk something positive from the evening, to talk to people, to listen and observe, not mope in a corner, making everyone else feel uncomfortable.
That night, I was drawn to one individual in particular. In truth, it was hard not to notice him. For not only was Royston a strikingly handsome young man, he displayed such confidence, intensity, intellectual prowess, he was such a bristly confrontational presence, hellbent on turning even the most trivial of conversations into an argument or debate. More than that, I sensed – and this was literally from the moment I arrived – that he wanted to speak to me, approach me, that, for reasons not altogether apparent, he was greatly interested in making my acquaintance.
Even now, I remember every single word of what constituted an introduction. ‘Your father is a great writer. But writing doesn’t alleviate physical suffering. It’s nothing, child’s play, compared to a surgeon removing a cancerous growth, or performing a major organ transplant’. Words I found in no way insulting. In fact, as you’ve probably gathered, I couldn’t have agreed more. And when I told him so, he invited me to one of the bedrooms, somewhere we could talk in private.
For hours, Royston spoke with such passion and conviction. He told me about a leper colony in India, how he had been in correspondence with the medical staff there for over a year, how they were crying out for volunteers, how poorly funded and equipped the colony was, lacking in even the most basic of medical supplies, how the government didn’t care about some of the most wretched and impoverished people in the country. He talked about throwing it all in, how Cambridge, medical school, all of it was bullshit, how far the entire profession had veered from its true path, how he was sorely tempted to jump on a plane tomorrow and put his talents to proper use, to do some good in this world. Practical action, he called it. And it sounded like a clarion call, like something I had been waiting to hear my whole adult life.
Not that we jumped on a plane the next day, more the early part of the following week. Royston’s eloquence and conviction had won me over, convincing me that India and the leper colony was the place I truly needed to be. The notion of remaining in England, at Cambridge, sitting in a laboratory dissecting defrosted cadavers of indeterminate origins was pure anathema to me now. I wanted to be at the forefront of things. I wanted to make a difference today, not five, ten, fifteen years down the line. Quite simply, the lure of doing something so selfless and worthy proved far too great.
Surprisingly, my parents took my decision quite well. Not that I gave them much of an opportunity to protest or talk me out of it – I was already at the airport when I called to tell them the news. And not that father could be disturbed, of course. Naturally, he was working, had been – so mother informed me – engrossed in a new novel for the last two months solid, with barely a break. Very quickly, our whole conversation turned into no more than a stop-start relay of her concern for his health, how he was still pushing himself far too hard, rather than my (very) imminent departure to a remote part of the subcontinent, the potential risks involved (abduction, murder, rape, exposure to a whole host of infectious diseases), and the undoubted ruination of my fledging medical career. But I didn’t really care. I was used to it. Besides, I was finally doing what I really wanted to do. And like Father’s wind on the water analogy, I would soon be in a position to bring light and comfort, if not beauty and genius, to the lives of others.
In the days before our departure, Royston and I had clubbed together all our savings – we were both from moneyed backgrounds so this constituted thousands of pounds, and I make no apologies for it – and ordered a contextually huge amount of medical supplies to be sent out to the leper colony. So, not only we were providing our services on a volunteer basis, we had arranged for the colony to be finally equipped like a proper, functioning medical facility.
The journey was unremarkable. Such was our excitement, our desire to begin what we both saw as a most exemplary adventure, we talked, plotted and schemed, wrote endless to-do lists and drew up action plans for what more or less constituted the whole ten-hour flight. If the three subsequent internal flights, in modes of aircraft descending in levels of comfort and safety, culminating in what constituted a flimsy biplane, were such white-knuckle rides, it rendered any significant form of communication all but impossible.
But, thankfully, we arrived in one piece.
Of the colony itself, it could not have made a bleaker, more miserable first impression. And in terms of facilities, it could not have been more backward or unsanitary. The site consisted of around twenty wooden shacks – squat, cramped, rundown – some of which didn’t even have the provision of a basic door. The interiors were much worse. On what consisted no more than plank beds, with no mattresses or pillows, and certainly nothing resembling clean sheets, were some of the most wasted and desperate forms of humanity I had ever seen. Patients of all ages, from infants to ailing octogenarians. Many were covered from head to toe in filthy bandages, their wounds visibly suppurating, often infected to the point of outright putrescence. Others either lay outstretched, barely breathing, or cowered in corners, their arms clasped around their knees as they slowly rocked back and forth. Others still had soiled themselves and lay in their own stinking waste products. To say that the stolid stench of disease hung in every particle of air would have been some way beyond an understatement. And if nothing else, it showed both me and Royston exactly what we were up against.
But we weren’t the kind of people to be intimidated by the size of any task we encountered. After a brief tour of the camp, we insisted on sitting down with what amounted to a skeleton medical staff – Dr Jory (clearly exhausted by what we later learned was over three years of eighteen hour shifts, seven days a week) and two (also exhausted) auxiliary nurses, who had little or no practical training. ‘First things first,’ said Royston, ‘for purposes of both hygiene and the comfort of the patients, we need to clean this place from top to bottom’.
That afternoon, we set about sterilising each of the huts. The supplies we had ordered from the UK had arrived just before we did. Therefore, the camp was better equipped than it had been in years. Organising the nurses and the more able-bodied patients, we moved the beds out of the shacks, washed and scrubbed the floors, the walls, every nook and cranny, until each shack looked like something resembling a safe, clean, functioning medical ward.
Only then, after we had provided ourselves with a solid base on which to build, did we begin what, in effect, were our first rounds, visiting each patient in turn, giving them a thorough physical examination, checking our results against their flimsy medical notes, to see if there was any way we could make them more comfortable. A depressing and harrowing experience. Having been deprived of even the most basic of medical treatment for so long, having been subject to such unsanitary conditions, at least one in three of these poor, ailing souls was suffering unnecessarily.
With utmost care, we cleaned and dressed all wounds, administered basic inoculations and drew up a proper course of medication for each patient. As you can imagine, this was a laborious, time-consuming procedure, which saw us toil through to the early hours of the morning. But it simply had to be done. If we didn’t make systemic root and branch changes immediately, we wouldn’t have stood a chance of helping these people in the short- to medium-term. Their plight was so bleak, a significant number – perhaps more significant than the one-in-three I mentioned – would have soon passed away.
And as I attended to the open sores, the putrefying flesh, I couldn’t help but think back to how terrified I was as a little girl when I saw John Merrick’s hideously deformed face for the first time. But how, with Father squeezing my hand tightly and telling me not to be scared, to not think of the cruel disfigurement but of the person underneath, the human being with a mind, heart and soul, did I come to see these lost, forsaken creatures as real people, people who strove to find some kind of peace and happiness in this world.
Over the coming weeks, we slipped into an orderly routine. We did our rounds on a twice-daily basis, oversaw the preparation and cooking of much more balanced and nutritious meals, and generally ensured that all the patients were provided with the best care possible, no matter the extent of their affliction. But it was perhaps the more complementary side of nursing that had the most profound effect on the quality of their lives. On the wards back in England, I saw how positively patients responded to external stimulus. Put simply, they’re much more likely to recover, or at least make a marked improvement, if they’re engaged in some kind of worthwhile activity. And this can be anything from basic conversation to a game of cards, or more artistic pursuits – reading a book to drawing in a sketchpad. Late morning, after we’d completed our first rounds, I endeavoured to get as many of the patients out of their beds as I possibly could. Like the medical staff, I wanted to get them into a set routine, not merely lie around and wallow in their own despair.
For starters, we transferred all patients to chairs in their individual shacks, or, alternatively, if they were relatively able-bodied, they were taken outside, to partake of some fresh air and light exercise – nothing more than a stroll around the perimeter. But something which had such a revitalising effect upon them, both mentally and physically, they soon looked forward to getting up and about each morning.
This naturally developed.
To fill the long days, I decided to teach those that were willing to not only speak but to read and write in English. On an old blackboard I chalked out words and had my new pupils repeat them back after me. With so much time at our disposal, the patients – some of whom already knew a sprinkling of English words and phrases – picked up the rudiments of the language astonishingly quickly. For this I had not only my own teaching methods to thank, but the small radio Royston had brought along with him from the UK. During break and mealtimes, we listened to a crackly rock ’n roll station, to The Beatles and Elvis Presley. Catchy songs with easy-to-learn lyrics. All of which broadened the patients’ vocabularies and brought much light and laughter to our everyday lives. Even now, I can’t help but smile when I think about Padma, an ailing, hunchbacked leper in her sixties, if she looked twice that age, shuffling around outside one of the shacks humming the words to Hound Dog.
It was such rewarding work, to see what a remarkable impact we had made in such a short space of time. Soon, we allocated the more mobile patients menial duties – sweeping the floors or fetching water. To have even a small amount of responsibility, coupled with their studies, gave them a sense of purpose and belonging which many of them had never experienced before.
But nothing quite compared to the relationship I cultivated with a very special young man.
Kabir suffered from a severe form of Epidermodysplasia verruciformis, or Treeman Syndrome. This cruel, disfiguring affliction was most prevalent on not just his hands and feet but one side of his face. The uncontrolled nature of the HPV infection had resulted in the growth of scaly macules and papules resembling tree bark on the affected areas of his body. In light of everything I have already committed to paper, you will no doubt make a connection between Kabir and John Merrick from The Elephant Man. And it would be amiss, not to say completely disingenuous, of me to try and argue otherwise. Not just because of the parallels in terms of their physical appearances, but because Kabir had endured the same harsh and undignified experiences. For he too had been forced to appear in a kind of circus freakshow from the age of around two or three years old. Almost spookily, he, like John Merrick, had, in early life, not only learnt to speak perfect English but to read and write. In fact, it would be no exaggeration to say that he was possessed of the most amazing mind, a level of intelligence for someone of his background that was nothing short of extraordinary.
From the very first moment I met Kabir, I was determined to try and instil the same kind of confidence that the doctors and nurses in The Elephant Man attempted to instil in John Merrick. I wanted to show Kabir that his life didn’t have to begin and end with cowering in the darkened corner of a shack in a remote part of the Indian countryside. I wanted to encourage him to read and write and express himself with the kind of eloquence and intelligence I, during our somewhat fractious first few meetings, had only seen him display on odd occasions.
But this was not as straightforward a task as I had hoped or anticipated. So cruelly had Kabir been mistreated, he not only distrusted any figure of authority but was often openly hostile, defiant. He resented my presence. He didn’t want to be pitied or patronised, or – and this was something he clearly felt was infinitely worse (and for obvious reasons) – singled out for praise, put on a pedestal to perform like he had so often in his early childhood. But it was through the power of literature, books, the written word, that I managed to not only gain Kabir’s complete trust but open up so many expressive avenues for him, completely turning his life around, giving him something to strive towards.
Six weeks after our arrival at the camp, we received our first batch of books. Through a contact at my father’s publisher’s (without his express permission or knowledge, I might add), I arranged for a shipment of English language books to be transported out to India. In the main, classics, Shakespeare and Dickens, the Bronte sisters. But also, the latest edition of my father’s collected works, a huge volume of around three-thousand pages. Ostensibly, I had made such arrangements to further bring the written word alive for my new pupils, those who had made such encouraging progress in assimilating the English language. And whilst I encountered initial resistance from Kabir, when he heard me reading aloud from Hamlet or Oliver Twist, he was drawn, magnet-like, to our impromptu classes, set up outside one of the shacks.
Each day, I would recite particular passages (selected overnight), talk a little bit about the author’s true intentions, the flow of the words, the way they had constructed any given sentence, and then ask one of my pupils to stand up and repeat what I had just read out myself. And whilst this was very much a stuttering, stop/start, trial and error process, it did begin to garner encouraging results. In particular, with Kabir. After a couple of sessions, I noticed the way he crept out of his own shack and sat on the steps, listening intently as I, or one of his fellow patients, read from Jane Eyre or Wuthering Heights or Macbeth or David Copperfield. And I knew it wouldn’t be too long before Kabir asked to participate directly.
And I was right.
Set alight by one of Hamlet’s soliloquies, Kabir put up his hand and, very politely, asked if he could read it back to the rest of the class. To which I, of course, readily agreed. And it gave me such pleasure to listen to him read Shakespeare with all the drama and pathos of an actor treading the boards at The Globe Theatre, the way he picked up the flow, the subtle literary flourishes that very much define the bard at his most lyrical. And so did the other pupils. When Kabir had finished reciting the soliloquy, they burst out in a round of spontaneous applause and begged him to read something else.
It was just the beginning.
From that day forward, Kabir took a leading role in our classes. In many ways, he took over the classes themselves, very much usurping my role (which, I was only too happy to cede). Having observed me closely, Kabir mimicked my teacherly manner, would read from one of the aforementioned masterpieces and then interact with the other patients. Only this young man had such a passion for literature, he truly inspired everyone around him. His own readings were so masterly and evocative, he held them all mesmerised. Often, I and Royston would be completely blown away by the sight of this cruelly disfigured young man, whose hands were so badly deformed he had difficulty balancing an open book in his palm, reciting some of the most famous and beautiful words in the English literary canon. For we had come all this way to treat the sick and needy, not inculcate, nurture and promote a love of our country’s most famous writers. But that’s exactly what we had done. And it made me think about my father, his life’s work, his own passion for the written word, which had consumed him since boyhood, which was far more important to him than his wife and child. And it made me acknowledge, if not accept (painful as that would’ve been), that it wasn’t the selfish act that I had often thought it was. For now, I was seeing, firsthand, the true power of literature at its finest, the gift writers like my father bestowed upon the world.
But, rather inevitably, being a younger person, Kabir was soon drawn to the more contemporary books in our fledgling library. In particular, to my father’s collected works. Each evening, when I called in to his room to say my goodnights, he would invariably be reading from that vast opus under candlelight. Often, I wouldn’t have the heart to disturb him, so enrapt was he in Father’s words. But, on occasion, I arrived at the end of a chapter, or when Kabir had momentarily broken off from reading, to, no doubt, ponder upon a particularly stirring sentence. Then, he might look across at me, and say, ‘Nurse, I cannot believe that this man is your father. I cannot believe that I have had the good fortune to meet such a close relation of a writer of such genius. I cannot even begin to tell you how much I admire the exquisite stories inside this collection. I cannot tell you how desperately I would like to try and write something myself. Will – will you show me? Will – will you teach me how to become a writer?’ He spoke with such sincerity, it only further highlighted my father’s true power, his incredible genius. For who can truly say that their work has travelled to such a remote corner of the world, has touched such a unique and disparate range of people, has resonated with them to the extent that their most ardent desire is to follow the same path in life?
In this regard, however, I remained somewhat vague and noncommittal. Not that I didn’t want to encourage Kabir to express himself in this way, only I was wary of his physical limitations, the more practical aspects of him trying to sit down and write. By that I, of course, refer to his deformed hands, such was the restrictive extent of the barking effect. Foremost, how was he to grip a pen sufficiently to move it across a sheet of paper? And with no access to typewriters, let alone a laptop or personal computer, the rudiments of the writer’s art were very much reduced to more antiquated methods. But, as it transpired, Kabir had already thought of that.
The following day, when (as promised) I delivered to him a packet of disposable biros and a thick wad of writing paper, Kabir had some strips of bandage and adhesive tape already laid on the low table beside his bed. Asking me to take one of the pens from the packet, he instructed me tape it to his hand, twining a strip of bandage around the shaft of the biro, thus attaching it firmly to his skin. In this somewhat contrived but effective manner, Kabir was able to write, longhand. ‘You see,’ he beamed, running the pen lightly across a piece of paper. ‘I can do it, nurse. I can actually do it. I can sit here in the evenings and write the stories that are running through my head, fit to burst’.
And it was a truly startling process.
Day in, day out, he filled page after page. Late into the night, when I did my final rounds, I would find Kabir hunched over a piece of paper, writing furiously. Soon, manuscript pages began to accumulate. Like someone possessed, he worked tirelessly, he refused to be disturbed, would miss meals, and only begrudgingly broke off to take his medication or have his dressings changed. He became absorbed in the writer’s art, obsessed. For the second time in my life, I watched another human being be completely consumed by the act of writing.
When he had finished what were, in those early days, either short stories or long prose poems, he would ask me to read them. This I did with as much eagerness as trepidation. For what would I report back to Kabir if his work was not of any particular quality? And remember, I am not only the daughter of one of the finest novelists or his, or any other, generation, but an incredibly well-read individual in my own right, someone familiar with the finest works of world literature. But what I discovered, from the first line to the last, was the most extraordinary thing. For Kabir was not only a natural and gifted storyteller, but he had written reams of manuscript pages without making so much as a single typo or grammatical error. It was uncanny, almost impossible to believe. Years before, in a newspaper article, I had read a piece on Mozart, a child prodigy, how at a ridiculously young age he could compose entire symphonies on pieces of parchment and make not a single mistake, cross nothing out – something other composers would never have been able to do in a million years, so complex and subject to revision is each individual piece of music, each part for each individual instrument. Here, before me, was something akin to that very same phenomenon. Not only was Kabir possessed of the most wonderful literary gifts, those stories flowed from his mind to the page in one seamless, flawless stream of words.
Again, this most incredible of discoveries filled me with such an acute sense of trepidation it bordered upon self-doubting dread – it almost drove me mad with indecision. For I couldn’t be one hundred per cent certain whether my assessment of his talents was coloured by my admiration for him as a most amazing individual, or whether he truly was as gifted as I thought he was.
For many weeks, I fretted over this conundrum. I would both reread the stories and poems that had initially impressed me so much, and eagerly devour the new work he wrote and delivered at such a vast and prolific rate. All of which strengthened my conviction – Kabir was a genius. The fact couldn’t be disputed. To think that he was so badly hampered by his afflictions, to think that he was writing in a second language, to think that he had received no formal education to speak of, to think of all the hardships and deprivations of his life, made this feat all the more remarkable.
After lengthy consultation with Royston and Dr Jory (both of whom, it must be stated, were far from literary men), I knew I had to try and get Kabir’s work out to a wider audience. In that respect, I could not have been better placed. For I copied out one of what I considered Kabir’s strongest (and slightly shorter) stories, a brutal allegory of the caste system that ran to just over 1,500 words and sent it to my father. In the accompanying letter, I gave him a brief description of Kabir (leaving out the more specific details regarding his condition – in what proved to be a glaring omission on my behalf), and asked for his honest opinion of his work, whether or not my father considered the story to be of literary merit. In what I hoped (and what proved to be) a persuasive addendum, I told Father that I had rarely if ever asked for his help in any matter pertaining to my life and career, but if he could see it in his heart to give this matter his full attention, as promptly as possible, I would be eternally grateful, for it would help a young man full of promise, a young man from an impoverished background who just wants, in some small, infinitesimal manner, to produce even the most fleeting moment of beauty in this life, something which touches the hearts and minds of other people.
Around two and half months passed before I received a reply. And please, do not misunderstand me. This had everything to do with India’s backward postal system rather than any laxness or reluctance on Father’s behalf. In this short letter, he could not have been more positive or complimentary: Whoever wrote this story, your friend or patient, is without doubt a supremely gifted writer. If fate is kind, I would be honoured to meet the young man in question. And if he has such a vast archive of stories as you suggested in your letter, darling daughter, I would consider it not just my utmost pleasure, but my utmost duty to the literary world in helping him find an agent and publisher for his work.
It would be hard, nigh on impossible, for me to overstate my delight. Once more – and I hate to keep harking back to John Merrick and The Elephant Man – it really was as if my life was imitating art, as if I was living out the most moving and inspiring scenes from the film itself.
When I read Kabir my father’s letter, he broke down in tears. He was subject to such an overwhelming sense of disbelieving joy he lay slumped over his writing desk for close to an hour in a fit of sobs. I couldn’t rouse or move him or stop the tears from flowing. And as I sat perched on his bed, patting his back, trying to calm him down, whispering comforting words, I realised that I had done something very good and worthy, that I had done exactly what my father had hoped I’d do, what I myself had wanted so desperately to do with my life – I had brought hope, joy and fulfilment to another human being, someone who never saw anything hopeful, joyous or fulfilling ever happening to them.
All of which galvanised me into action.
In my free time (and to speed up the process I persuaded Royston to assist me each evening), I (we) made copies of all of Kabir’s stories and poems. Longhand. An arduous process. But one we accomplished in under a fortnight. I then bundled up the papers, what amounted to a manuscript of just over 150,000 words and sent it by special courier service (usually reserved for emergency medical supplies) to my father.
Only this time, a reply came almost unfeasibly quickly – within the space of a few weeks. But it wasn’t from Father this time but the senior editor at his publisher’s, one of the most respected names in the industry. In a short yet effusive letter offered Kabir a three-book deal for a six-figure sum. He wrote of his genuine excitement on reading Kabir’s work, work he considered to be some of the finest he had read in his thirty-five-year career in publishing. And while the finer details of how they would ultimately present the work, whether to split up the shorter and longer form fiction, present the poems in an individual volume of their own, had yet to be decided, the company wanted to fly Kabir out to the UK (at your earliest convenience) to sign the contract and discuss the aforementioned finer details. All being well, Green concluded, we would hope to publish your first book in the next nine to twelve months.
Cue another fit of joyous sobbing that took Kabir even longer to recover from. But which sent the whole colony into such raptures it soon morphed into a full-blown celebration. We cooked up a fine meal, played crackly rock ’n roll music, and had Kabir read his stories to us long into the night.
This most welcome and marvellous development, however, presented us – me, Kabir and the colony’s medical staff – with a number of issues to address. Namely, the logistics, safety and ethicality of flying a patient of Kabir’s condition almost halfway across the world. Not that his life would have been in any danger. Physically speaking, he was in perfectly good health. He had no cardiac or respiratory problems. No specific impairments that would prohibit air flight. It was the more psychological aspect involved that concerned us most. For how would a seriously disfigured individual who’d had little or no contact with the outside world, certainly not the invasive Western world, cope with what would undoubtedly be exposure to cruel comments and ridicule, to people displaying blanket revulsion towards his physical appearance? But something inside of me – and perhaps it was here, on this question, that I acted with a degree of self-interest rather than thinking solely of Kabir’s welfare – told me that his work was the most important thing, that any personal considerations regarding his feelings, both the psychological impact and potential emotional damage were of secondary importance, something we could prepare Kabir for well in advance.
After much consultation with my colleagues, I decided the best and only thing I could indeed do was sit Kabir down and explain the situation in full. At first, he was naturally unsettled by such a proposal. The mere idea filled him with dread. But the more I explained things, that by facing the world he might foster more understanding, kindness and compassion towards those who suffered like he did, that he could show people that even though he may be physically disfigured, he was still capable of expressing the purest of human feelings, he was still capable of producing literary work of the highest order.
The more we talked, the more he wavered, procrastinated, half agreed only to seemingly talk himself out of the idea, once and for all. But perhaps it was the mention of staying at my family home, as guests of my father, that proved to be the deciding factor in the end. ‘As you saw from his letter,’ I said, ‘he’s very much looking forward to meeting you. Which, believe me, is incredibly rare. Ever since I can remember, my father has existed in his own literary bubble. He hardly ever interacts with other people’. On this point, I was being completely honest and upfront, forthcoming in a way even I didn’t acknowledge. Granted, Father had issued the open invitation; in fact, my mother was particularly looking forward to seeing me, to having some company. Only I failed to consider the fundamental truth of my disclosure – Father wasn’t used to being around people, he spent the vast majority of his life in complete artistic isolation. But in my desire to propel Kabir’s work to a worldwide audience, I lost sight of this completely.
With everything arranged, we set out on what proved to be both an extraordinary adventure from Kabir’s point of view, and an unmitigated and revealing personal disaster for me.
For someone who had never travelled by plane before, Kabir, after a mild panic attack prior to boarding the first aircraft, marvelled at being whisked off high into the air. He couldn’t stop looking out of the window and pointing at the wispy clouds, the faint suggestion of landmass or sparkling blue stretches of ocean below. By the time we’d boarded our flight to London, he was much more accustomed to the sensation. ‘You know, nurse, our journey, it reminds me of those famous Russian dolls I have read about in the past. The Matryoshka doll, I believe they are called. And forgive me if my pronunciation is far from accurate. You twist open one big doll and inside is a slightly smaller doll. You twist open this slightly smaller doll, to find inside a slightly smaller doll than that, and so on, until you get to an incredibly tiny doll. Only we are doing it in reverse, no? We start off in a tiny aeroplane and advance to a big passenger jet plane like this’.
We encountered our first major setback at Heathrow, where Kabir’s shocking appearance generated the wholly expected but nonetheless unsettling scrutiny, the whispered words, the pointing fingers, the general herd-like displays of revulsion that are not just cruel and unkind but hugely intimidating. This precipitated another, far more debilitating panic attack than before, one that saw Kabir cower in a Staff Only doorway, sink to his knees and attempt to cover his face with his deformed hands, to shut out the gawping faces, the disgruntled hubbub. Such was his level of distress, it took a good fifteen minutes to calm him down, to get him back up to his feet. ‘Please, nurse, can you put a covering, something over my face and hands, just until we leave airport? I do not think I can take it. I do not think I can bear to see that look in people’s eyes, the reaction, how horrified they are by my appearance’.
It wasn’t an idea that I particularly liked, but I knew it would be the quickest and most expedient way for us to get out of the airport and proceed to the final leg of our journey. Tearing an old nursing uniform down the middle, I managed to fashion a mask to cover Kabir’s face and to bind around his hands. But due to his hugely conspicuous appearance, we, understandably, I suppose, met with a rigorous interrogation at passport control. To make matters worse, I had no official medical accreditation to speak of, bar my old (now defunct) student I.D. card. But it wasn’t the university’s prestige, or the fact that I was clearly (or once had been) a medical student, or the severity of Kabir’s afflictions, rather my surname that saw us eventually proceed when it looked very much like we might be detained indefinitely. ‘Hold on,’ said one of the officials. ‘You’re not the daughter of the famous author, are you?’ Sensing this could well provide an escape from our predicament, I said that that was indeed the case. And when I presented said official with Kabir’s copy of my father’s collected works as a gift, he couldn’t have been more pleased, or ushered us on our way any quicker.
Fortunately, Father had organised for a car to pick us up and drive us the two and half hours out to the coast, to the family home. In the back of a luxurious stretch limousine, I was able to calm Kabir down, fully this time, to help him relax, to point out the window at the green and rolling countryside of England that he had only read about in books. In fact, it turned into an enjoyable and relaxing journey. Now we were almost at our destination, away from the crowds, those inscrutable stares, we could chat freely about the trip itself, my family, the meeting with the publisher, how, ultimately, Kabir wanted to present his work.
But it was to prove a relatively brief lull, a precursor to something far, far worse.
We arrived at around seven o’clock in the evening, having encountered heavy traffic twenty or so miles from the coast. The house was just as I remembered it – the long, shingled driveway bordered by the immaculate privet hedges, the high windows, imposing turrets. No sooner had the driver switched off the engine than my mother bounded out of the house, open-armed. ‘Darling, so good to see you and your friend from…’ she trailed off when she saw Kabir, minus his makeshift mask. Perhaps I should’ve sensed how the whole audience with Father would go purely by her reaction, how – while not being in any way impolite – she became reserved, formal, how forced and unnatural her words sounded, the nervous laughter. But rather than pick up on these signs, I chose to try and explain: ‘Mother, Kabir is the writer I told you about. As you can see, he suffers from a rare condition called Epidermodysplasia verruciformis. He’s been through so many terrible hardships in his short life, things he has captured so wonderfully well in his stories. And he’s a huge admirer of Father. We can’t even begin to tell you how excited he is to meet a writer of such international standing’.
Mother mumbled out a few consolatory words – soft, heartfelt, encouraging (or so I thought at the time) – and invited us into the house. Funny, the first thing I heard when I stepped under the threshold was, believe it or not, the click-clack of my father’s typing fingers. Darting a look at mother, she shrugged and told us that Father would receive us when he had finished writing for the evening. ‘What?’ said Kabir, as if the very idea of his literary hero being at this very moment engaged in actually writing was the most marvellous thing he had ever heard. ‘He – he is…now…writing those wonderful stories.’ Smiling, I reached out and squeezed his arm. ‘Yes, like I told you. He never stops.’
In the interim – and I say interim as if it denotes a short interlude, when it was actually close to midnight before the click-a-clacking stopped and Father called out to mother – I installed Kabir in one of the guest bedrooms, complete with en-suite facilities and a lovely view out over the back garden, the part not obscured by the quite enormous swimming pool. We freshened up, changed our clothes, and ate a modest but quite delicious supper of cold meats, cheese and crackers.
By this point, I could tell that Kabir’s desire to meet Father had reached almost unsustainable heights – probably due to the fact that we’d been made to wait so long, as much as anything else. ‘Come on,’ I said, leading him down the hallway. ‘And, please, don’t be nervous. A great writer he may be, but he’s just a man. And a genuine admirer of your work. I’m sure, once you break the ice, you’ll have so much to talk about’. But in truth, I didn’t really know what to expect. I hadn’t seen Father for a considerable time, well over a year. In the past, I had rarely if ever been granted access to his study, let alone been openly invited to enter the room itself. For that reason, I felt a little trepidation and uncertainty myself, as if I was very much entering a space I had never entered before.
In the dim light – the only source of illumination came from a standing lamp – I saw Father’s shadowy figure stand up and make a series of nervous, elliptical gestures, half wave, half involuntary shudder. At first, I don’t think he even took in Kabir’s appearance. So unused was Father to company, I got the distinct impression that he’d prepared a speech in his head, that he was very much articulating something that he had learned off-pat, and therefore focused all his attention on relaying it verbatim. ‘It’s truly an honour to have such a gifted young writer into our home. Your work is not only beautifully written, exquisitely crafted, but it stayed with me for a long time after I’d read it. The true sign of a great piece of writing’. The brief moment of silence was interrupted by a soft sobbing noise. Initially, I wasn’t sure where it was coming from, only to realise that Kabir had broken down in tears. ‘Oh, Kabir, please, don’t be overawed. Like I said, my father loves your stories. This is something you should celebrate’. Clearly confused, Father inched forward. ‘What’s the matter?’ he said, not quite understanding what was happening. When I told him that Kabir was just a little overwhelmed with emotion, Father told him that that was understandable, that in the writing world you had to have a thick skin, that you would hardly die from encouragement. And he even laughed and advanced fully around his desk, towards us, offering what very much looked like a formal handshake.
It was then he truly appraised Kabir’s appearance, the bark-like growth that jutted out from one side of his head, and on both hands as they dangled awkwardly by his hips. In turn, I watched the way Father’s face darkened, how he stopped dead in his tracks, how his eyes seemed to deepen in their sockets and his lips twisted in an expression of almost incomprehensible anger. I knew, therefore, a moment or two in advance, that something very unpleasant was about to happen. Still, his reaction, the explosion of rage, the barrage of expletives, the threats, were like nothing I could ever have anticipated, not in my worst nightmares. For a man who had penned such beautiful and sensitive works of literature, a man who had captured the delicate, vulnerable, tender sensibilities of the human condition, who had openly called for individuals to start with themselves and their own lives if they wanted to make society kinder, better, fairer, to have erupted like that, to have shouted and screamed: ‘Get, get that thing out of my house…I – I can’t bear to look at it…you, you evil bitch, how dare you bring that abomination…that creature here, of all places…the only place I’m safe…’
Now, looking back and being very much wiser after the event, I realise that Father’s reaction was one of pure panic and fear of the unknown. Undoubtedly, I should’ve warned him in advance. That’s why he saw it as some kind of trick, a betrayal, that I had conspired against him, to catch him out, to force him into a difficult, awkward, impossible situation. Then, if he’d found the idea of having someone of Kabir’s afflictions as a guest in his house so unpalatable, we could’ve made alternative plans. By the same token – and this is very much what I have sought to understand by writing this story – I now wonder whether I did this on purpose. I wonder whether I wanted to test my father’s sincerity. Ever since I can remember, he had spoken in such lofty, irreproachable terms about human kindness, of treating people with warmth and compassion, but in his personal life, he was solely incapable of doing that. If I had indeed acted with unconscious calculation, I have to ask myself why. To unmask my father as a phony, a poor-quality human being, someone lacking the worthy attributes he eulogised in his work? To perhaps turn the mirror of the world round to face him, so he could see that he was in no way different to the people he despaired of in his stories, that he was weak, human all too human himself.
Still, I don’t know, as cathartic a process as putting all of this down on paper has been.
With regards to the end of this particular chapter of my life, I can but only give you an honest account. I ushered Kabir out of the study, I apologised to him most profusely, I told him not to worry, to go upstairs to his room and wait for me. At that moment, what I saw as the defining moment in my relationship with my father, I wanted to talk to him alone, to have it out with him once and for all. And whether this was specifically to do with his horrible, unacceptable outburst, or went much deeper regarding his lack of affection for me over the years, perhaps amounts to very much the same thing.
I asked him why he had reacted like that. And to his credit – and by this point, he appeared completely crestfallen, crushed, spent, exhausted, in fact; he was leaning on his desk for support, head lowered, breathing heavily – he tried to explain in full. ‘I can create, I can put my feelings down on paper, but if you touch me, physically, I would be unable to feel it. Not properly. What you must understand, is that I sit in this room and I pour all my emotions into my writing. I work so intensely that I rarely have anything left for anybody else – my wife, my daughter. Anyone. I am a shell, a husk. I cannot deal with situations in the real world. I cannot deal with some deformed creature entering my home, demanding my attention. I have become too sensitive to the world, the cruelty of nature, to the point of profound insensitivity. And I ask you to remove that man – that thing from my home and leave immediately’.
But I saw his words, his explanation as no more than an act, a façade, a flimsy justification for his actions. For what could be simpler than human kindness? Why was it too much to ask? Why was it so impossible for one person to treat another with respect and compassion?
And it was then I started to feel that there was indeed something deeply hypocritical about not just my father, but about writers and art in general. Maybe even something immoral and conceited. No matter how noble and wonderful and beautiful their work, if you cease to be human how can you espouse such liberal views, impose your thoughts on other people, how can you ask them to display traits you yourself are incapable of displaying?
And I told Father this. I took it upon myself to try and challenge him. I wanted to experience the kind of moral or spiritual regeneration that some of his most celebrated characters underwent in some of his most celebrated stories. More than anything, I wanted to hug him, to reach out and physically show him that my love for him was so true and real, that I was above his reaction, that I was kind and considerate, a real living breathing human being. Only for him to push me away and repeat his words of a moment ago, for me to leave with Kabir this instant. ‘If I leave now,’ I said, ‘like this, you will never see me again’. To which he replied quickly and unequivocally, as if this was his most ardent wish, something he had longed for and desired for quite some time. ‘So be it’.
Nine years later, he died of a huge heart attack while writing the final chapter of what many consider to be his greatest book, a book which chronicled everything you’ve read about in this story: his relationship with his daughter, how, as an artist, he reserved all his emotions and love for his work, how he ploughed every last drop of feeling into his writing, that he had nothing left for his only child, but how, to compensate, he tried to instil in her worthy, noble feelings. The fact he felt he had succeeded in his ‘greatest work of art’, in producing a child possessed of those attributes was undoubtedly conceited but undoubtedly true. For I had done all the things he captured in those pages, and the things I myself have précised in the account you have just read – the leper colony, Kabir, overseeing his own hugely successful literary career, a career which saw him lead a rich and rewarding life. But there’s something which rankles with me to this very day. How Father, how any writer, has the power to create, or perhaps distort is a more suitable word for it, their own stories, to present themselves in a better light, to write a happy ending that never existed. And perhaps that’s the one thing I can never forgive Father for. Right up until the very end, his very last breath, the very last click-a-clack of his dancing fingers, he could never be one hundred per cent truthful with himself.