The descent of our fathers

A remembrance for Father's Day.

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On this, Jacob’s Ladder,
The only way up is down,
Three days in the water,
Watching all the secrets drown,
Jacob’s Ladder

– Lyrics from Chumbawumba song, Jacob’s Ladder

A photograph. Sent through the slow generations. It is slightly torn, a faded sepia image of my father at Sastri College. It is propped up next to my computer. Throughout the day, I look at it many times and waves of memories wash in as if on a tide. The more I look away, the more the image draws me in.

One of my father’s favorite stories was how he played the role of Cordelia in Shakespeare’s King Lear. Since there were only boys, some had to play female characters. He put on a scarf, lipstick and mascara. Was it here that my penchant for cross-dressing was born?

Cordelia’s stay on stage is brief. She emerges at the beginning and at the end. But it determines the whole structure of the play. She refuses, unlike her sisters Goneril and Regan, to give fulsome words of love to her father, King Lear, in return for a part of his Kingdom. Lear asks her, “What can you say to draw/ A third more opulent than your sisters? Speak.” Cordelia replies, “Nothing, my lord.” She continues, “Unhappy that I am, I cannot heave/My heart into my mouth. I love your majesty/According to my bond; no more nor less.” Cordelia, unlike her sisters, refuses to bow to the farce of the love test. An angry Lear banishes her from the kingdom. Goneril and Regan, made powerful by Lear’s gifts, turn on him. Cordelia returns at the end. Roles are reversed as she plays the role of mother to Lear. King Lear sought to turn love into an article of trade, to commodify it, and in the process destroyed it. Is this not what the system has done to us all? Everything, everywhere is to be measured, even human relations in terms of monetary value. Father’s Day is no exception.

Our fathers lived at the height of apartheid. They were always non-whites, no matter what their hopes. But they lived through the humiliation and the crass racial ceilings placed on their ambitions. They buried their pain so we could live. These men. All Cordelias. Living by the Kafkesque hope “that life will be better, but not for us.”

I dig for the past in my parent’s garage. Behind the steel cabinet lies one half of a table tennis board. A net with one stump lies misshapen on its side.

My father was an ace table tennis player. How many times did we stand on opposite sides? How many times would I take the lead, 10-6, 19-15 only to be beaten? He was quick on his feet. If he had a weakness, it was his backhand. I would try to exploit this by a flat serve to the corner. But he would pivot on his heels and, quick as a cat outside a Chinese takeaway, take the shot with his forehand. A blistering drive and if I did get to it, I could only parry it back. And there he would be waiting, drawing his elbow half-cocked, and stab at the ball. It leapt back like a rocket and the point was done. He called that innovation Shaka, after the short stabbing spear used by the Zulu king’s impis. My father, I remind, was a history teacher.

Later, he would make his tea. Leaves brewed slowly on the stove. Milk boiled. Separately. His forehead would crease in mountains of ripples as he savoured his drink. And victory.

The first day that I returned from travels, far, the game would be on. The victory already written, but still I gave it my all.

Then, once, I won two games in a row. A few months later, the same result. Once, rocking on his heels, he fell backwards. I laughed and mocked. Another time, the bat slipped and flew out of the garage entrance. I was beating him. Sending him to his backhand, dropping the ball short and then whipping it with top-spin into the opposite corner. By the end of the set, he was like a punch-drunk boxer, jerking his head, slipping and smashing the ball after it had long passed his bat. I was merciless. Thinking, striving to catch up on two decades of  defeat.

It was the decline. Neither of us had an inkling. But Parkinson’s was eating his body. The ball would not stay in his palm as he served. The short elbow jab was reduced to an involuntary jerk. One day, as he lunged, he fell and cut his forehead. Blood flowed. It was the last match we ever played.

My father, who wielded a table-tennis bat like a musketeer a sword, could not even butter his own bread; had to make do with tea bags as he could not hold the strainer steady.

The half table tennis board was in a state of decay. The borer had eaten the outer edges to sawdust. As I lifted it, the board literally fell apart.

My father. The degeneration seemed in no hurry. Then it gathered pace. The hands that bathed me when I was sick, which grasped me when there was a sudden riot in the Casbah, which sacrificed so much for me, are no more.

Years later, back home, I turn on the TV. The Father of the Nation is in Bloemfontein to speak at Cosatu’s May Day celebrations. The crowd starts booing our Father. The Black cars sweep towards the podium with puffed bodyguards wheezing alongside. Dust swirls. And like magic, the Father is gone, only to appear in Durban. At the World Economic Forum. He tells the suits that booing is an act of democracy. Then why is he running from democracy? Why does he not embrace it and dance to its tune?

The ANC still plays a good game of ping pong. But the pong is getting smellier. They rely too much on the backhander. They still return the ball but without conviction that only allows the little white globe to be hacked back with interest by their opposition. The top six, used to strut around the national table, crowing about their ratings and oozing confidence in their next win. Now, their shuffling gaits remind of puppets on a string. They choke at big contests. Like Parkinson’s, they have lost control even of their own bodies, captured by an invading affliction.

ANC MPs hope to be saved by a secret ballot, revealing how their moral muscle is jittering out of control? That’s how Parkinson’s operates. The symptoms eventually show. In the ANC parliamentary caucus, the shady lead the shaking. Like its medical equivalent, political Parkinson’s is a rot that enters the spine. Gradually, the mind is dulled and the person you once knew is shattered apart.

Thursday. Mother is struggling. Her eyes empty. “Tell me a story,” she implores. The Book of Genesis. Blind, ailing Isaac wants to hand the family largesse to Esau. Twin brother Jacob and mother Rebecca are not happy. They conspire to make Jacob’s arm as hairy as Esau’s with the covering of a goat’s skin. Isaac asks “is that you Esau?” while holding Jacob’s arm. “Yes father.” And through this subterfuge, Jacob is given the family crown.

My mother clearly recognizes this story; she mumbles, “Jacob means the supplanter, the deceiver, Ashy boy. Your father so wanted that name for you.”

Mother signals for me to carry her to bed. She nods off.

I read on. What a book Genesis is.

I read that Jacob came into the world grasping at his brother’s heel, so wanting to be first from the earliest moments of his life. Using the weakness of others his advantage, he gets his brother to cede to him his birth right for a pot of stew. But this will not wash with the old man, Isaac. And so, the only way to round off the deal is to cheat. After the deception was done:

Jacob left Beersheba and went toward Haran (close to present day Dubai). He came to the place and stayed… he dreamed, and behold, there was a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven… And he was afraid, and said, ‘This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.’

And so Jacob entered the nether reaches of Saxonwold. But cheating and taking advantage is not the moral of Jacob’s story. For the Jacob’s of the world to succeed, they require Esau’s. A bunch of people who so despise their birth-right, the sacred legacy of their fathers, that they give it away to crooks for a pot of stew.

Further Reading