He lived in a small clapboard house on a sandy sidestreet and shared a tiny bedroom with his three brothers and one sister. He was only three when his mom died of unknown causes and the family suddenly had trouble making ends meet. With his dad running a Singer sewing machine shop in nearby Amritsar their aging grandmother came to watch the kids who were taught to scrimp, save, and raise each other for twenty years.
School was important and math was his specialty. Times tables and algebra were done on slate, “The Pickwick Papers” was his English assignment, and gym class consisted of running around a dusty schoolyard full of pebbles and crab grass. In the evenings he worked long hours ironing shirts at the sewing machine store … helping his dad stay on the sales floor by doing laundry in the back. To this day he insists on ironing my clothes when I stay at my parents’ place. Stumbling to the bathroom at six in the morning I’ll see a faint silhouette of my dad pressing my dress shirt in the upstairs hallway before I go to work.
I’ve only seen one picture of my dad as a child and it’s a blurry black and white shot of him with his older brother Ravi standing beside a bicycle. Tall socks, flat faces, and curtly combed hair give a quick glimpse into a simple childhood full of big dreams. He loved math and eventually abandoned Charles Dickens to scrape together his savings, tutor in the evenings, and ride his bike to the University of New Delhi for five years until he got his Masters in Nuclear Physics in 1966.
After university my dad applied for Canadian immigration and was accepted in 1968. He arrived in Toronto with eight dollars in his pocket … and spent it all the first couple days. Years later we’d take the train downtown from the quiet suburbs and rumble past a rusty restaurant beside the tracks. “That’s the first place we had chicken,” he’d say, and we’d laugh at the idea.
He got a job as the first physics teacher at his school. “It’s the king of sciences,” he’d say with a smile, and he even looked like a physicist too — with curly black hair, thick sideburns, and boxy glasses that never changed for years.
He never used the book but knew how to teach.
When I’d bring home my math or physics textbook and have trouble figuring out my homework, my dad would pull up a chair beside me and try to show me how to do it. When I still didn’t understand, he would try again, except this time he would try teaching me a different way. He didn’t just repeat what he said the first time, but came at the problem from a different angle. If I didn’t get it, he’d change again, and again, and again, until me, or one of the many students he taught, finally figured it out.
He never raised his voice, got impatient, or made you feel like you were slow because you weren’t catching on. He simply kept changing how he taught you … until you learned. And in some ways that’s all we’re ever really doing. Seeing things, trying them, and then, eventually, learning them. Teaching somebody how to add fractions or multiply decimals is one thing, but teaching them that they have the ability to learn… giving them confidence in their abilities… showing them they have the power to understand… and letting them feel the satisfaction of understanding… is something else altogether.
I can’t think of many greater gifts my dad gave me, my sister, and many other people, than simply… teaching them that they could do it themselves. Since we grew up near his school we were always bumping into former students, in their twenties, thirties, or forties… at the grocery store… in the bank lineup… or while getting an oil change. And when I was younger I still remember so many times the students would talk to him for a while and then look at me and smile and say “You’re lucky.”
“Your dad taught me math. He’s the best teacher I ever had and I bet he’s going to teach you so many things over your whole life.”
They were right.
When he came to Canada my dad decided to embrace every aspect of his new country. Some of his family members chose to live downtown near Indian restaurants, temples, and shops. While respecting their choices he preferred heading into the unknown and lived as one of a handful of visible minorities in a big city. Naturally curious, he started eating beef, going on school canoe trips, and chaperoning dances, where he’d swirl and twirl my mom at twice the speed of everyone else — in frilly baby blue dress shirts, dark velvet jackets, and a big smile — his boxy glasses flashing rainbow reflections from the disco ball.
He brought home our first Christmas tree, hosted birthday parties at Burger King, and took us cross country skiing a few years after he first saw snow. He didn’t know what he was doing but he knew he wanted to try. My dad saw awesome things everywhere and his sense of wonder with the world rubbed off on me and my sister. This blog is a reflection of his endless excitement.
Last summer a big company in Montreal asked me to come talk about the 3 A’s of Awesome with their employees on a Monday morning. I made it a weekend away with my dad and we enjoyed a couple days of strolling stony sidestreets, eating poutine, and watching French television from our hotel beds. After that I got really nervous about my speech and practiced it over and over for him in the hotel room on Sunday night.
Monday morning arrived and I headed off to the company office while my dad finished up in the city and made his way to the train station. (It was cheaper than flying.) When I finished up and got back to the hotel room there was a note waiting for me on the desk. It was written in faint pencil on a bright yellow cue card and said:
“HI NEIL, After breakfast, I went for a walk South to the water front & came back North and visited the Church. There was no line up at 9 AM. Then I went to the gym. I thoroughly enjoyed my trip and the time with you. Any time in the future you need company for any trip, I will be privileged to join you. Of course your friends come first for your company. Your speech & presentation was wonderful. I am sure you will get standing ovation. Also on Tuesday you will enjoy the book store ceremony. You have surpassed my expectations as a son & professional competence. I hope to enjoy your company whenever possible and trips for many more years. LOVE DAD.”