My Dad

by Prem Puri

My Dad, Devi Dayal, was born in the year 1905 in the small town of Sirhand, in the State of Punjab. My Granddad was the only breadwinner in the house and was poor, working as a helper in a sweet maker (halwi) shop. There were no resources for my Dad to go to school. At a young child of about eight years old, he started working as a child laborer in a factory which produced wood products. He supplemented the family income. Family conditions deprived him of any education and thus he was growing up as an illiterate person. Life was hard. India was deep into slavery. Although the British rulers called India a British colony, for all practical purposes Indians were slave to the British. There were no laws restricting the British for dealing with native Indians in any way, form or shape. Dad often told us that that he had seen several times a British person beating an Indian mercilessly for no reason. All he could do was witness the beatings. He told us that there were signs all over –“Indians and dogs not allowed”. During these formative years, he had developed a great inferiority complex from white people.

Up until his mid-twenties, he worked from one factory to another. My uncle, who was elder to my Dad by ten years, worked at a shop. The owner of the shop was a merchant who dealt with red chilies. The farmers brought carts full of chilies from the fields to his warehouse. Each farmer collected the chilies in huge heaps. Merchants from all over the country came to this market place in Patiala, our small city in Punjab, to purchase chilies. At night dozens of laborers worked in the market place to pack these tons of chilies in jute bags which then were taken over to the train station. The merchants did not pay till they sold the chilies in their own market place.. Although the chilies were shipped from November till February, the money was not collected till mid-summer. The farmers were paid the same day and therefore the shopkeeper at Patiala had to fund the entire purchase. He deducted his commission from the sale of the product. While working at this shop, my uncle learned to keep books. He was taught basic arithmetic so he could keep accounts for the owner of the shop. One day the owner had a heart attack and died. His children were not involved in the business, so my uncle took control of the business thus getting an opportunity to transform himself from a servant to a business owner. Unfortunately he could not get the business to succeed. He convinced my Dad to come and work with him. And at 25 years old, my uncle arranged his marriage with his wife’s younger sister who was 15 years old. My uncle was not as hard a working man as my Dad was, as he was an extremely hard working man. His day started at 4:30 every morning during the Chilies season which lasted about 4 to 5 months a year. He would then go to receive the farmers coming to the city in their carts. Many shopkeepers were chasing these farmers to take them to their respective warehouses as it constituted commissions. My Dad was a very likeable person and with his personality he brought a lot of business. After spending about 4 hours in the morning, he would come home, get ready and go to the shop. It was during this time he learned how to read and write in Urdu and Hindi. He also learned basic math and some accounting and learned how to keep books. Just after lunch he went to the warehouses to monitor the bidding process and ensure that his customers were satisfied. All during this time he was exposed to very unhealthy environmental conditions. The smell of the chilies filled the air which often clogged his lungs. My uncle never went to the ware houses. He was strictly an 8 hour duty man who stayed at the shop primarily greeting customers. My Dad worked till mid night every night except Sundays when the markets were closed. During the season we saw him on Sundays only, as he came home late and left again before we woke up. Since my uncle gave my Dad a 25% share and business started flourishing the family began to do well and my Dad began saving money for the future. Four children were born while Dad was working at this shop and I was the fifth one. The period before I was born, business was doing very well. My Uncle’s shop was well known, not only in Patiala city but in near by villages and cities also and he became a well known person. My uncle gave my Dad a surprise at my birth; he fired him since he could now replace him with some one who demanded less money. So when I was born my father was jobless, wondering how he was going to support five children and a wife. My Dad was an extremely hard working man. Once I asked him, “When do you sleep? You are always working.” He Said, “I can sleep while walking. When I come home at midnight, it is cold and I wrap my self in blanket. There is no body in the streets, so I take naps while I am walking home”. Seems impossible but I know he was serious and not joking.

So my Dad decided to start his own business and opened a shop right across from my uncle’s shop. The business was a success and it continued on until his death. My uncle asked him to combine the two businesses but he refused. Thus I grew up with my Dad owning his own business as a commission agent. I have a lot of memories as to what was important to my Dad. He was an honest person. He repeatedly told us that if you get money by cheating others then you will end up spending that money to buy medicines for your children. Your family will be destroyed and you will end up having children who will possess no character and have all the bad habits you can think off. He was possessed by this belief that there is nothing worse than keeping money which belongs to others. So being honest was at the top of his list.

He was extremely devoted to his family. His entire purpose in life was to work for his children. When it came to himself he was totally detached to money. He focused on education. It was very unusual in those times for children of well to do families to get an education, as most children were groomed for family business. Against the advice of his peers, he stressed hard for education. Even though he could not afford to send all his children to expensive private schools, he did send me to a private school. All he thought always was as what to do for his children. He was a persistent man, who never learned how to give up. In our teen years, he emphasized the importance of charitable work. He often invited orphan children for meals at home and served them with great feasts. He also took us regularly to local hospitals and went from bed to bed, as patients were kept in a hall, giving them fruits and nuts. He provided medicines to the poor who could not afford them otherwise. We were growing up bearing western clothes where as my dad always wore very simple clothes. One day when my brothers and I were distributing medicines in the general ward, the nurse surrounded us to thank our father for helping the poor. We looked at them and told them that the man with us is our Dad. They were shocked since they all thought the man who accompanied us was our family servant. They were shocked that such a simple man was bringing up children who seemed so well educated.

My Dad was also very loving man. It was his great desire that his children should study in the best possible schools. He tried to get me to good schools near home but I could not get admission. When I was 12 years old he sent me to a school 400 miles from home which took about three days to reach at that time. I could not get adjusted and I cried all the time but the school authorities wouldn’t let me write home. School was enclosed by tall walls so nobody could not get out of the premises. One morning, while the sweeper was cleaning the floors, I slipped out of the school property. My thought was that I will take a train to go home. As I was so young I did not know that it was almost an impossible job. I had no money. When I came out I was told that the nearest train station is 16 miles away. I saw a truck driver getting ready to haul some goods, and I asked if he can take me to train station. He was hesitant but told me that I will have to walk the last 4 miles. After several hours I arrived at the train station and was caught by school officials who were looking for me. I was hauled to a dark room, and with my shirt off, was beaten with sticks till I almost fainted. Seeing my condition, one of the students wrote a letter to my parents about my condition. My mother and my aunty came to see me. My mother refused to take me out of school as she was afraid of my father as he had instructed not to disturb me. My aunty however insisted that I should not be left in this condition as they witnessed the scars on my back. After a few days we reached home, but my Dad was not there. No one wanted to face Dad with me and so I was left waiting for his return in the room alone. I was very scared and sat in a corner. My Dad came after some time and I heard him say, “Where is Prem?” No one answered but some one pointed him to the room. He opened the door and saw I was sitting in a corner on the floor. He came, lifted me, hugged me, smiled and said,” You did right, I never liked that school any way. I am glad you are home.” He was a very compassionate man and his compassion was reflected in every action. It did not matter whom he was dealing with.

Dad’s great sacrifice had started to pay off. Only 360 students were admitted in engineering colleges at that time in entire Punjab state. As a rule one out of a few hundred students made to Engineering school. I was one of the fortunate ones who did well enough in entrance exams to seek admission in any Engineering college in State. I remember the time when My Dad heard about this. He could not talk or walk, as he was so happy. He could not believe that against so many odds, I had made it.

My Dad could not hate. He wished well to every one. In 1950’s hatred among Hindus and Muslims was in extremes. Thought of having a Muslim come to Hindu’s home and have food with the family was newsworthy. My Dad brought Muslims home and have family lunch together. He also was among the first few people who opened his doors and heart to Harjans, the lower cast. The person who used to come home to clean latrines, he made sure that we call him Uncle.

My Dad did not believe in Temples, preachers or gurus. He believed that it was all business. He believed that there is a super power-“God”. Whenever he felt insecure he prayed. He often collected us and prayed with us. He would pray “that all we have is your kind gift to us from water to food.” I never saw him inside a temple.

My Dad worried about the family. He knew that he was not in good health and his premature death would destroy his children. It constantly weighed on his mind. Praying was his way of fighting this insecurity.

Time elapsed. I graduated from engineering school and I wanted to go to the United States for graduate school. There was no immigration visa at that time for Indians, only a student visa. So, if you came to States, you had little chance to leave the country because if you would most likely not be allowed back into the US. My Dad knew a handful of students who left India for the States and never came back, even if there was a death in the family. My dad was not in good health. He could have stopped me from going to the States if he wanted to but he did not. He told me that if I wanted to go to America, he will fund my education.

All of the relatives came to leave me at the airport. When I was walking away to the board the plane, I looked back to see my Dad. His expression is vivid in my memory, like it had happened yesterday. I knew he felt that once I boarded that plane, he would never see me again. On his face was immense grief, yet he did what he felt was right and sent me overseas.

It was 1964 when I came to States. He knew that I was having very difficult time at North Carolina. Finally I graduated in January of 1966 and came to Washington to work. At that time he was diagnosed with Kidney failure and was given 2 years to live. He was under pressure from the family to inform me of his condition but he decided not to as he felt that I was happy working in the States and I would have no future in India. Ultimately in October of 1966, he wrote me a letter informing me of his condition but urging me not to come. I was with him within the next week and stayed with him till his death in Jan19, 1968. I did not grasp the depth of his devotion for his children until one day before his death. As his condition was detoriating at home, it was creating an extreme amount of stress on him. At times he would loose his eye sight or his speech or his memory. It all depended on the degree of Uria, poison in the blood but there were periods of normal health in between. I was 25 years old and witnessing the total destruction of a man whom we loved so dearly. Emotional stress was huge at times. One morning he was sitting on the bed and I was sitting in front of him in a chair. It was dead silence. We both looked at each other and he saw the stress and grief on my face, then he said, “I will be gone by this time tomorrow. This is just a machine.” Even when he knew that he had a few hours to live, he was concerned about me and how it was affecting me. The day went by as usual. The night fell. I used to sleep next to him in the same room. He woke up around 2 am in the morning and I woke up along with him. I asked him if he needed any help. Till this time he was able to take care of himself and whenever I asked him this question, he always said,” why do you get up, I can always wake you if I need help.” But on this night he said, “Call the servant.” I said,” Why do you want the servant?” He said,” He needs to clean me.” I said, “why do you need the servant for that, I can do that.” He replied,” You want to do that?” I said, “yes”. When I was cleaning him, he had a big smile on his face. That meant more to him then all the education and achievements I had. That was my last conversation with him. True to his word he died in the morning.

Prem with his parents, circa 1963.

Prem with his parents, circa 1963.