Around the time my father retired from his military service, he decided to build a home on the then-still-developing outskirts of India’s capital, New Delhi. We bought a small plot of land, hired a contractor, and work began. We–my mother, my brother, and I–occasionally accompanied my father on his many trips to inspect the progress of this new home’s construction. (Fate would ensure we never spent a night there.) On those occasions, my father often also made trips to a nearby market to buy supplemental construction materials requested by the contractor. On one such shopping trip, I accompanied him as he drove there. I was nine (or ten.)
Some of the particulars of what happened that afternoon are a little foggy after all these years, but not its most important details. For some reason, after we had arrived at our destination, my father and I were separated–he went to a shop to buy the required materials; I returned to our car to pick up something. After doing so, I turned to cross the street to return to the shop where my father waited. The street was busy with pedestrian and vehicular traffic, as most streets in the market of a small Indian town usually are. As I began maneuvering my way through the various obstacles in my path, a young man riding a bicycle decided it was time for a little fun at my expense. He rode up right next to me, prompting me to take a sharp step back. As I did so, he moved the wheel of the bike in my direction, so that it seemed like I would be run down again. Now, I moved forward, but he changed direction again, once again moving at me, even as I skipped back. He seemed to be enjoying this little game at my expense. I moved back, he followed me, and this time, we could not avoid a collision. I stumbled, fell, and tried to stand up, even as I cast a hurt and reproachful look at this grown-up bully–who had been grinning all this while. To this day, I do not know why he picked me, or that location, for this stupid and dangerous ‘game.’
My tormentor had just committed a ghastly error. My father had been watching this bizarre behavior from across the street.
Even as a small group of people gathered around me to help me and to reprimand the man on the bike, my father had arrived on the scene–as quickly as he could. As he did so, he caught hold of the miscreant. And slapped him once, hard, right across the face. I had been slapped sharply by my father as occasional punishment for miscellaneous offenses in the past; I had never witnessed such a violent or powerful blow. The force of it snapped the man’s face to the right. With the back of his hand, my father slapped him again, this time snapping his head back to the left. Blood ran from the man’s nose; he looked dazed. My father did not speak; there was little need to. The surrounding gaggle of onlookers moved in to rescue his now hapless ‘victim,’ even as they tried to restrain my father–not physically, for I doubt he could have been so restrained, nor would he have appreciated a hand laid on him at that moment; instead, they urged my father to show mercy. Perhaps my father too, decided a lesson had been taught and learned.
I was dazed by the suddenness and violence of what I had just witnessed; by this frightening and exhilarating demonstration of my father’s power and strength. I knew he was a stern man, capable of strict discipline and of dramatic impositions of authority. He had fought two wars, sent men to their death, and scornfully resisted ‘chickenshit‘ officers who had tried to order him around. But I doubted if he had ever been as overcome by anger as he seemed to me at that moment. On that day, there was something about his display of anger and violence that remained mysterious even as I was grateful for his intervention. Now that I’m a father, it all seems so comprehensible; I was witnessing a father protecting his child.