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Things I learned from my daddy

Luis Dias

This column is overdue by little over a week. My father, Manuel Dias (November 27, 1928 – August 21, 2000) would have been ninety this year. Although it is almost two decades since he left, all too soon, all too suddenly, it still seems like it transpired much more recently. Time has managed to dull the pain from a stab to an ache, but it’s still there.

In so many ways, he influenced the person I am today. I could write reams about this, but I’ll confine myself to a few vignettes.

I was inescapably surrounded by music.The very few memories of my toddler years in Berlin (then West Berlin, West Germany) involve staring transfixed at the glow of the bulb on our Philips record-player as I listened to music. In our Panaji home, there was even more music-related paraphernalia: the old family gramophone, stacks of shellac records, 78s, and later additions of 45s and LPs; the impossibly weighty spool- tape-recorder, precursor of the audio-cassette. The music spectrum included the earliest Hindi films, Konkani, and lighter fare, but the bulk was western classical music. The earliest ‘song’ our father taught my brother Victor and me was Schiller’s Ode to Joy chorus from the final movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, in German: ‘Freude, schooner Götterfunken…’ To this day, I know that text by heart.

As if that weren’t enough, there were books about composers and operas, and record-sleeves, many in German and Portuguese and even other languages, but enough in English for me to try to make sense of the new sound-worlds. My impromptu ‘listening hour’ was in the afternoon, as the family rested. I began with nursery-rhyme records, moving on to light music, then Strauss waltzes, and then on to ‘heavier’ music, which initially I didn’t care for so much, but over time and repeated listening, grew on me. If my dad caught a familiar segment, he would come in and ‘air-conduct’ with me, and if I had trouble understanding something on the record-sleeve, he’d explain it to me. He’d translate the lyrics of the songs of Edith Piaf, Amália Rodrigues and Heintje for me as the music played. Each time I listen to those songs, I can still hear him do that.

One song that he could never sing without a lump in his throat or tears welling in his eyes, was ‘Adeus korcho vellu’. That effect has rubbed off on me too.

Our violin lessons were a throwback to his own lessons, from legends like Dominic Pereira and Micael Martins. One of my violins is a family heirloom, put together by my great-uncle Luís Bismarck Dias, from whom I got my own name.

On my tenth birthday, I was crestfallen to receive from Daddy, not an age-appropriate story-book or toy, but the epic ‘Os Lusíadas’ by Luís de Camões, unabridged and in the original Portuguese, no translation. “It’s by another Luis!” he said to me cheerfully, ignoring my disappointment. But then, on our regular trips to the Central Library, he’d put the epic into context against the marvelous azulejo tableaux by Jorge Colaço in the entrance, and the cantos, stanzas and pictures would come to life. Today, I’m grateful he made that gift.

The house was, and still is strewn with books everywhere, in English, Portuguese, German, French, and to lesser degree in other languages. He introduced me to Shakespeare’s plays, and could recite many extracts from memory. I read Charles Dickens, Victor Hugo, Alexander Dumas and so many others thanks to him.

I still remember the excitement when the full set of Encyclopaedia Britannica arrived in the 1970s, the ‘Google’ of its day. And literally everything he read, even borrowed library books, was underlined or marked by him. I found it very irritating then, and hid books from him that I treasured myself.

We had father-son tiffs galore, and I would give him the silent treatment, sometimes for days. His peace offering would usually be an earmarked newspaper or magazine article that he thought would interest me, left by my afternoon tea-cup. And so the ice would be broken.

He was obsessed with hanging porcelain plates on the walls, and we would be roped into the logistics. He loved to hand-paint outlines of drawings and paintings by Picasso, Chagall, Toulouse-Lautrec, on those plates. And he’d hang framed reproductions of the Great Masters on the verandah walls. Our task was to take them down when the breeze was too strong, and then put them back again. They were my entry-point into art, as were the paintings and sketches (each with their own little story!) of Ángelo da Fonseca, a family friend and fellow Zuenkar.

He hero-worshipped the leading lights of the independence movement, and pictures of Nehru, Gandhi and Ambedkar jostled for prime space as if they were close family relatives.

He wasn’t much of a cinema-goer, yet I remember him taking me to see Tchaikovsky’s ‘Swan Lake’ on Cine Nacional’s big screen; ‘The Great Waltz’, a Johann Strauss II biopic; and ‘Animal Safari’, which awakened a lifelong interest in wildlife, and a desire (still-unfulfilled) to visit that continent. ‘African Safari’ has an amusing side-story: Daddy wasn’t used to queuing for a ticket, and some misunderstanding led to us going to see ‘Pocket Maar’ instead! Daddy was furious, and marched me off (although I wanted to stay!) as soon as the film began.

Daddy wasn’t a church-goer either, but boy, did he know his Bible, in several languages! He could quote chapter and verse, and tell you which episodes in Jesus’ life were described in which Gospel, and the chronological order of Popes through history and so much more.

When I entered MBBS, he relived his student days vicariously through me, constantly poring over my textbooks (which I absolutely forbade him from underlining!), and offering aide-memoires. One that he found particularly funny was how to remember that the left heart valve was called ‘mitral’: “Remember, bishops wear a mitre, and bishops are never right!” and he’d laugh at the joke every time.

When I got to England in 1998, the streets were littered with connections to him: Covent Garden, the Globe and Stratford-upon-Avon, Baker Street (Conan Doyle and Sherlock Holmes), the National Gallery, and so forth. I had the expectation that at some point my parents would come over, and we’d visit all these together. But in 2000, he was gone. Numb with shock, I came home to bury him, and returned to work. On a free weekend, I visited the National Gallery, and when I got to Caravaggio’s ‘The Supper at Emmaus’, I sank down on a viewing-bench. The floodgates opened and I wept uncontrollably as I hadn’t done before, knowing that we’d never experience all this together.

But he lives on in my son Manuel (named after him): the book-craziness, argumentativeness, love of chess, and the “I-need-to-be- alone, just- to-think” moments. Happy 90th, Daddy! Always remembered, never forgotten.

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