Fathers like mine—ordinary men who are barely literate in most instances and worked hard to provide for their families—are remembered only by their immediate families and maybe some friends and people in the communities in which they lived and died.
In a society where success is measured by materialism or academic achievements available only to the few in his time, men like Haniff Shah—a sugar worker who garnered neither fame nor fortune—are consigned to mere statistics in dusty ledgers lodged in dank archives.
As his eldest son, though, I remember him every so often; as, I imagine, my four siblings do. I will not lie by saying I think of him every day. Nor will I ascribe the occasion today for my writing about him.
For me, Father’s Day is almost an insult to fathers and fatherhood. It is commercialisation at a most obscene level. It’s an occasion for children who, year-round, ignore their ageing, decrepit, and sometimes abandoned father, to make a song and dance of offering him a meal, maybe a gift, and spare him some of their precious time that for the next 364 days would be impossible.
As Pa might have put in grassroots terms, laced with his trademark colourful adjectives: “If today is the only day yuh cud t’ink about mih, haul yuh ar….!”
He was never subtle in expressing his views or feelings.
I’m not suggesting that most children treat their fathers (or mothers) badly. For all the damage materialism has wreaked on the society, the majority of families in this country remain tightly-knit units that have not succumbed to the inhuman side of modernity that put paid to extended families’ care for the elderly and the infirm.
Indeed, even among today’s nuclear families, that bond between generations still exists through constant technology-aided contact and frequent visits and interaction.
Still, far too many fathers and mothers, as they grow older, find themselves forsaken by their children and grandchildren—remembered and celebrated with false fanfare only on Fathers’ Day and Mothers’ Day.
Sadly for my siblings and me, Pa did not live long enough to enjoy life after decades of hard labour in the sugar industry. Like so many of his contemporaries, retirement, such as it was, invariably meant early death. He never enjoyed the simple pleasures that we children could provide, even with our limited means.
He was an avid movie fan, so he would have revelled in cable television with its many offerings. He would have had great interest in visiting foreign countries.
And coming from a generation that was largely uneducated but who saw education as opportunity, he would have relished seeing his grandchildren graduate from university and generally do well.
Pa had a tough life growing up. He never knew his mother, who died when he was a child. His father held the lowest-level jobs on agricultural estates, barely eking out an existence, and changing stepmothers to Pa on a frequent basis.
This itinerant lifestyle meant no schooling for Pa. He recalled attending one primary school for a brief period. It was after he married Ma—Khairun—that she, who had spent a few more years in school, taught him to read and write.
Later, we, his children, would add to his basic knowledge base, giving back a little of what he had invested in us.
He went to work early in his tough life as a yard-boy to a white estate manager. Interestingly, this illiterate lad absorbed much of what he saw and heard at the ‘great house’—from the bosses’ conversations to what they ate and how the cook prepared the meals.
Later, we children would enjoy English desserts such as custard pudding, thanks to Pa’s diligence during his yard-boy stint.
I remember him telling me that he was among the workers who cleared the ground—most likely with cutlasses—for construction of the Brechin Castle sugar factory, owned by Tate & Lyle. That will have been sometime in the latter 1930s, since I believe the BC factory began operations around 1940. He found employment there as a labourer and would spend all of his working life in that factory.
In his adult life, he lived in company-owned barracks and a single unit in BC where I was born, later rented a house in Freeport, and finally, in the late 1950s, bought a small property in the then rural Boccarro Village. He supplemented his paltry wages by being a barber during his off time, and a cane and vegetable farmer as well.
In these latter pursuits, I helped from around age ten, and my mother was always the pillar that kept the humble home intact.
Haniff was not particularly strong, nor did he enjoy good health. But he and Ma were strict disciplinarians who never spared the leather belt to spoil the children. They inculcated in their children values that were inviolable—honesty, good manners, respect for teachers, neighbours and elders, good hygiene and so on.
Most of all, they hammered into us the value of education, the only option open to children of the poor.
Pa was not one to openly show love. But I remember one morning, as he “towed” me on his bike to the junction where I would meet friends and walk three miles to school, he whispered to me: “Beta, you must study hard, eh…do well in school.” “Yes, Pa,” I replied, moved by his tenderness.
I was about nine then.
I didn’t fail him, even though I did not pursue academia, initially, much to his dismay. He would later accept my choice of profession—the military—and support me as I took a chequered path in life.
He was proud that I chose first to be a man, to stand by my convictions. And I was proud of him for standing by me, whatever my faults. Thanks, Pa.
Editor’s Note: This Raffique Shah column was first published on 13 June 2013 and is reproduced here at his request. Haniff Shah was born on 29 March 1916 and died in February 1978.