By Suvendrini Kakuchi
Dad passed away six years ago when he succumbed to his battle against liver cancer. And, boy, did he put up a tough fight. Born in the late nineteen forties when Sri Lanka was then Ceylon, his family belonged to the Tamil minority, representing 17 percent of the national population that occupied the arid and hot north of the country. Known to be resilient and frugal, the elite Tamil families in particular were courted by British colonizers. As history goes, under the British policy of divide and rule, my grandparents decided to rise to the top socially by embracing English and Christianity to please their white leaders.
That tenacious ambition was the spine of my father, a criminal lawyer and one of the most handsome men of his time—and this is not just a doting daughter who believed that. Shanthi, as he was known at the Sri Lanka Bar and to friends, was a man who turned heads when he walked into rooms or the Court. Physically, he was tall with aquiline features and a head of straight black hair that only turned grey at the end. And he fussed inherently over his dress—our then long-suffering valet would be proudly polishing his black shoes each morning before my father stepped into them dressed in his natty black legal attire and long solicitor coat.
Educated in English private schools patterned on British public education, my father spoke impeccable English along with his native Tamil. He straddled two cultures easily as that generation did in Sri Lanka. While they ate their rice and curry with fork and spoon, waltzed with their wives in exclusive member Clubs and attended Church, these families also had beliefs deeply grounded in tradition. A custom that remains sharply etched in my mind is the importance that was placed on the ancestral home that was the core identity for the clan. Gatherings for the extended family were held during the year and were a formidable ritual that nobody, even the most restless of teenagers, dared to miss.
That foundation accompanied Dad throughout his life. At the lofty Supreme Court, accompanied by his bevy of file-carrying juniors, he would take his position when his case was called with a glint in his eye. Indeed, the judges and police knew him well because he could easily win the audience and that was half the battle to victory. The stage was his and he thrived on it.
And over dinner at home he would relate to my brother and myself the facts of some of the more intricate legal cases and meticulously explain how he had worked to turn the tables. The times when he could not win, he would acknowledge the defeat with the same precise objectivity. My mother, who played the family role of making sure everyone was eating well as was expected from her by my father, encouraged us to ask questions.
In exactly that same determined fashion, Dad fought his illness—first by refusing to believe his doctors and when the progression became inevitable he would resort to finding new solutions. By challenging his doctors to constantly find a medical treatment that he believed would save him, he was acting the way he defended his clients --searching for that faint glimmer in the dark tunnel that would lead to victory. He fought cancer as a lawyer when winning was to make sure his clients were not sent to the gallows. By hook or by crook he was going to achieve that.
On a particular painful day, while watching him drive away after a difficult session with his doctor who had predicted his impending death, I realized, despite the sadness overwhelming me that Dad was again teaching me that he believed we could win against all odds, fatalistic as advanced cancer may be. He was challenging the obvious.
But this time, winning was not going to be easy and we watched a proud and dying man’s journey to accept the inevitable, which in my mind was his most precious lesson. As my mother invited the Christian pastors and his closest friends to prepare for the end, his symptoms progressed steadily. And Dad continued to defy them. After his final round of chemotherapy I listened quietly as he brushed away my mother’s concern and donned his black suit to appear for a client in Court. The clothes hung on his now thin frame and the knowing valet brushed the black shoes furiously for Dad to put them on for the last time. Away he walked from the house, two young lawyers in tow.
A week later, Dad died. His body was whisked away and returned to our ancestral house to lie in state looking just like the Dad we knew when he was alive and cancer-free. The cremation was quick, the ashes were scattered in the ocean at his request, and speeches paid tribute to his legal expertise. Then came evening and the remaining family collected in the old study. We missed Dad sorely so we spent our time recollecting what he had taught us—that life and death remain celebrations to be won and lost, each on its own terms.