My Conception Story

As the month of March drew to a close in 1993, I traveled to India to spend some time with my terminally ill mother. I arrived ‘home’ on March 30th; my mother passed away on April 25. In those four weeks or so, all spent in the close proximity of my mother, I talked and listened a great deal; I sought to elicit stories and tales about the past that I knew would soon be lost with her passing. In particular, I urged my mother to tell me stories about my father, who had passed away fourteen years earlier; she had borne adequate witness to an important part of his life; she had been his friend and companion. I asked for a recounting of the years following their wedding, the years before I was born–my prehistory. Among the stories my mother told me was how I came to be.

In the 1960s, my father was a fighter pilot in the Indian Air Force, his life spent at various bases scattered all over the country. Before my parents’ wedding my father had served time in what were termed ‘non-family’ bases; no wives or children allowed. My mother had joined him on a ‘family base’ after their wedding; when the Air Force ordered him to move–hopefully to a ‘family base’–she moved too. The logic behind designating some bases ‘family’ and others ‘non-family’ is not immediately clear to me; you might imagine it had something to do with proximity to the border, or their use in combat missions. But amazingly enough, during the 1965 war with Pakistan, while my father flew combat missions out of an air base at Adampur in the Indian Punjab, my mother, along with her seven-month son (my elder brother) stayed at their normal family residence during operations. Indeed, she witnessed a raid by the Pakistan Air Force on the base, and spent time in a trench as bombs exploded not so far away. My mother might have imagined that with my father now married with children, the time was over for him to spend time on the dreaded ‘non-family’ base. But the ways of the military are indeed mysterious.

In the summer of 1966, my father returned home from his flying duties one day and told my mother the bad news: the air force was assigning to him a ‘non-family’ base in the north-east for an indefinite time. It would hopefully be a short posting, a stop-gap measure, but he was needed. My mother could join him later, when accommodations had been arranged, but for the time being, the family would be separated. On hearing this, my mother flew into a rage. How dare the air force do this to her? She had a year-old son to take care of; she would now have to move back home with her parents or with her in-laws, neither of which seemed like palatable alternatives. (She was always a proud and independent woman.) My father for his part, grew increasingly defensive and irate: There was nothing he could do about this state of affairs; protests were futile; this was the military and he had to follow orders. My parents squabbled furiously for a while, a conversation that finally came to an end as my mother tearfully stormed off to her bedroom while my father retired to the living room to read and to calm down in his own way.

Then, as my mother told the story, she thought and thought for a while, and then finally, she strode into the living room, and said to my father, “If you’re going to go away and leave me alone, I want another baby.” As she told me this, my mother leaned over, squeezed my hand tightly and said, “Samir, that’s the night we made you.”

I was born nine months later in March 1967, at my grandfather’s residence in Central India.

The Comforts Of ‘Abide With Me’

Legend has it that Mohandas Gandhi adored Abide With Me, “a Christian hymn by Scottish Anglican Henry Francis Lyte most often sung to English composer William Henry Monk‘s…’Eventide‘.” I learned of this particular proclivity of the Mahatma long after I had first heard the hymn’s notes as a child attending or watching the Beating Retreat ceremonies, which marked the end of the Republic Day celebrations in the Indian capital New Delhi where it was “played by the combined bands of the Indian Armed Forces.” But that experience had little impact on me; the tune was one of many unfamiliar ones that I heard on that evening (the closing of which was always the melancholy, haunting performance of Taps by a bugler.) Matters changed when I attended a boarding school in India’s north-east, where, as I’ve noted, “I was subject to a non-negotiable, uncompromising rule: daily attendance at an Anglican chapel service was required.”

There, during our daily service in the mornings, I joined in the singing of hymns with the school congregation–ably backed up by our schoolboy choir, which came with a full complement of sopranos, tenors, and basses. The congregation’s singing was trained by our school music master, Mr. Denzil Prince, a man whose love for music and passion for teaching was all too visible in his interactions with us. He transformed, slowly and patiently, an incoherent band of squawkers into a harmonious assemblage of voices. Even a recently disillusioned former believer like me could not but be thrilled at those moments when it seemed we had achieved some sort of divine harmony with the beauty of the Himalayan ranges that lay outside our chapel.

Among the hymns I sang and listened to was Abide With Me. It’s opening verse, and in particular, its opening line,was instantly memorable for someone whose melancholic bent had found–in the beauty of the Himalayan evenings and approaching sunsets, and in my separation from my mother–yet another forum for expression. But I did not miss the presence of God in my life; that particular train had long departed the station. I missed my mother. When I heard school choir sing ‘Abide with me; fast falls the eventide;/The darkness deepens; Lord with me abide/When other helpers fail and comforts flee/Help of the helpless, O abide with me/, the comfort I sought was only forthcoming from one entity, and it was not divine. My desire and longing for that missing presence though, felt to me as deep as I imagined that of any believer to be. I was thirteen years old, and I was supposed to be away from home for nine months. Letters, not phone calls, not occasional visits, were supposed to be sustenance during this period. It was not enough. But standing there, in that chapel, or sometimes, outside, listening to the choir’s evening practices, listening to those haunting lyrics and notes, sent soaring up into our chapel’s rafters and through our bodies, it was possible to begin to address some of that gaping absence.