My father, Mir Taj Mohammed, was 10 years older to my mother, Fatima, and therefore much older to me. I remember him as a gentle giant – 6’2″ tall with typically Pathan good looks, grey eyes and brown hair. But he was very well-read and well educated too. He did MA, LLB and knew six languages – Persian, Sanskrit, Pushtu, Punjabi, Hindi and English. He was, in his time, the youngest freedom fighter.
Even today whenever I bump into people who knew him, they talk about his sense of humor, and how he was a gentleman. And I remember the same about him. I wish I could be like him or bring up my child in the same way that he brought us up but I don?t know if I will be able to because I am more temperamental than he was.
Somehow, my sister and I listened to him more than we listened to our mother. He was gentler than her. Of course, my mother loved us too but with my father we were friends. We used to sit for hours and listen to him talk on various topics. We used to call each other ‘yaar’. I did call him ‘papa’ but yaar was used more often. Probably because he never cajoled or pampered us like people do their children but instead, always treated us as individuals, as adults. It was always one-to-one.
My father had a great sense of humour. We used to stay on the top floor of our building. Once, an old couple staying on the ground floor complained to my father, “Upar se cheese neeche aati hai.” My father laughed at the comment and said, “Newton discovered that long ago.”
In another incident, I was teasing a south Indian girl next door by blowing up their letter boxes. Her mother came home to complain and my father opened the door. The lady could not speak Hindi well and she said, “Aapka ladka ladki ko chedta hai meri.” He replied, “Is she as pretty as you are?” She said, “What?” My father repeated his question. She replied, “Yes” My father said, “Then I don’t blame him. If I had met you earlier even I would have been after you!” She smiled.
Besides his sense of humour, another quality I have imbibed from my father is his passion for reading. My father was a very good human being. I try to imbibe that too. I think I have inherited his goodness, though not to the full extent. The only aspect I didn’t inherit was his love for gardening. My father even enjoyed talking to flowers but I have never done that. Perhaps when I am older.
I have definitely inherited my absent-mindedness from my father. I have seen him walk out of the house in just a shirt, shoes, socks – without his pants! He would eat his breakfast in the toilet! He would just forget he was in there. I too forget names, I forget to eat sometimes. But where work is concerned I do not forget anything.
My father never screamed or shouted at my sister and me. My mother did that; even fulfilling his quota. He never hit us but scolded us once or twice. Even if he got serious for even a second, it would scare me but after a while he would laugh it off. He once told me, “Shit, I can’t even get angry with you.”
In another incident, he told me, “Look, your sister is now supposed to be studying. So I will go into her room and throw the novel she is reading, out of the window. You go and get the novel back.” He went, shouted at her and threw the book out. It was a joke and his method to tell us what is to be done.
My dad had a hot temper, not like an Army officer, but he liked correct behaviour. He didn’t expect me to get up and touch the feet of elders but a certain kind of respect had to be shown towards them. Even today if an elderly person is seated next to me, I cannot keep my feet on the table. He never told me not to do so. His persona made me realize that I should not do it.
One routine which formed on its own was my dad giving me milk in the morning. It started because my mother could not get up sometimes. Then it became a routine. He would warm the milk and give me but later decided against it. So every morning we would we would walk to the Mother Diary booth (a milk dispenser typical of Delhi). He would insert a token and I would cup my hands and drink milk directly.
I never got irritated or angry with my father. In fact, I used to love watching my father come home in the evening. My dog would react to him when he was 15-20 feet away from the house. I would rush down take his bag and walk back with him or pick him at the bus stop if he came in a bus or car.
Because of my father, every activity in the house, every duty, was transformed into a game. He charged us with the idea that we were doing such-and-such work because we were having fun. Because of this, I find work fun. That is why, I guess, I’m so energetic. I enjoy small things like sitting and watching a squirrel climb a tree or sleeping on the terrace in the Delhi summers. It becomes a game for me – the best thing that could happen to me that day.
At four years of age, my father taught me that I alone would have to deal with my screw-ups. I was very naughty in school and in the colony and I regularly got into trouble. Once, during a game, I threw a rock at a boy called Tara. The rock bounced on the ground, hit his face and broke his teeth. He began bleeding. We were very scared. I had not done it on purpose. The boy’s father got drunk in the night and armed with a knife, came knocking on our door. As soon as my father opened the door, that man began abusing and screaming: “Your son hurt my son. I’ll kill him.”
He was a rowdy kind of a guy but my dad asked him if he wished to speak to me! Imagine, there was this drunk person with a knife in his hand and my father sent me to speak to him! My father closed the door, came inside and questioned me, “Shah Rukh, have you hurt somebody?” I said, “Yeah.” My mother was hyper but he coolly said, “He is standing outside, go deal with him.” I told Tara’s father, “Uncle I am really sorry. I didn?t mean to harm Tara. It just happened.” I was literally in tears. Of course he didn’t mean to hurt me. My father had that much confidence in human nature, I guess. Dad later opened the door and asked if everything was sorted out. He told that man, “If you have a problem with me, you talk to me. If you have problem with my son, you talk to him.” I could have taken my father’s stand to mean that he didn’t want to stand by me, but I realised that it was his very nice way of teaching me that if I got into trouble, I would have to sort it out myself.
My dad taught me that in the long run, honesty always pays. In my school, St Columba’s, whenever we took a day off we had to submit a leave letter or we would get caned. My father never stopped me from doing anything. If I said, “I don?t want to go to school today,” he would say, “If you don?t feel up to it, it’s okay.” And he would give me a leave letter next day.
One day, he called me and said, “Today you go to school and tell your teacher that you don’t have any excuse for being absent yesterday. I used to be really scared of Brother Morris, our tall, well-built Irish teacher. When he caned us, it really hurt. I told him, “My father normally gives me the letter but today he didn’t. Not because he did not want to but he said I have no excuse for not coming yesterday.” Brother said, “That’s the right attitude. At least you did not lie. You were honest.” And he let me go. My father had seen the whole world and had wonderful experiences in his life. He had fought for the freedom of the country, joined Khan Abdul Gaffar Khan, fought the elections against Maulana Abdul Kalam Azad and lost. He enjoyed the fact that he had lost even his zamanat, perhaps he was happy to lose to a great person. When he was 16 years old, he left his home in Peshawar and walked to Kashmir, India. He studied law in a girl’s college, in Delhi. He had no place to stay, so he went to the principal, an Englishman and asked him to let him stay in the hostel. There he was the only guy. It was illegal. He said he pulled it off because he was a charming and decent guy.
After college, he did not become a lawyer because he felt he could not be totally honest with himself and others as a lawyer. He was offered many political posts as he was close to the Gandhis. But he did not accept any help. All his other friends became ministers and MLAs. But my father used to travel in a bus with his briefcase, though we were well-to-do. He was a very simple man and lived a simple life.
My dad dabbled in different businesses. He had a thriving furniture business. Then he was into transportation and had tempos and trucks in Gurgaon. That closed down too as most of his partners cheated him. He was too trusting and honest. This was before I was born so I don?t know much about it. When I was born, he was going through a very low phase. Later, he went into restaurants and hotels. He did everything on his own instead of taking advantage of being a freedom fighter or utilising his political connections.
He died when I was 15. We went on a holiday. And going for a holiday with my father was not to enjoy your stay in luxurious hotels, sight-seeing and eating various delicacies. It means roughing it out. We went to Itanagar and drove in a jonga (a four-wheeler driven in Pakistan then) to Lahore. From Lahore we sat in really crowded tempo and travelled for hours to Peshawar. We stayed in a uncomfortable hotel as we had not made reservations beforehand. My father wanted to keep us in touch with reality. Even though I was educated in a sophisticated Irish School, I am down-to-earth. I have read varied books, done my Masters and am a star, but I feel in touch with reality. I don’t think like a star and feel that I should not meet XYZ people. That has been imbibed from my dad.
My Mother, on the other hand, wanted me to have all comforts. She bought me a car but my dad said, “If you have the money, get it.” He always taught me that one should do things on his own. Once I asked him whether I could travel 20 kms on cycle. He said, “Why ask me? If you think you can do it, go ahead. When I was your age I climbed Mt K2 without asking my parents.” He made me realise that material gains are more or less superficial. If you have them, very good, but if you don’t have them, then it is not the end of your life. He had seen both sides of the coin. He had been well off and then the business was not good. He could survive, in either a bus or in a Mercedes. He was that kind of a person.
My parents never forced anything on to me. They told me, “Read the Quran if you feel like. Read the Gita and the Bible also.” I have read everything. All the religious festivals were to be attended only if I felt like. Like the Id namaz. It was never a compulsion that, “Oh God! I have to go and read the namaz on Friday.” I was very keen to do it. I find a lot of people saying, “Oh God! It’s rakhi today. I’ve to go home.” It was never like that with me. If it was Id, it was meant to be an enjoyable day off.
I find it very strange when I hear a parent saying, “Let’s have a discussion son on what you are going to be.” I think that very British, pompous and uncalled-for. It should happen naturally. I was never asked, “Which line do you want to get into?” I would never do that with my kid. If I said, “I want to be an engineer,” the reply would be, “Ok get into it.” I was never forced to handle my father business. My mother was running it after my father died. Eventually, I never ran the business. I would occasionally run an errand like going to the bank or whatever. We had a big business at that time. It was an oil company.
In the film line, he knew Dilip saab, Motilal and many others. In fact, he knew Anil Kapoor’s father very well. He used to tell me, “If you want to join films, I will tell SK Kapoor to make you an actor.” I remember they were launching Woh Saat Din at that time and my dad said, “If you ever go to Bombay, meet him.” I came and met the wrong SK Kapoor. Just recently, SK Kapoor saab gave me a few photographs of my father.
He told us, “Whatever you do, do it to the best of your capability.” That kind of concentration was taught to me. Also, due to the freedom I had as a child, I did not get into any bad habits. Even today, I don’t like to be told what to do, what not to do. I think you have to understand your responsibilities. Responsibility cannot be taught. I think taught responsibilities are too formal, too mannered. One should know he will be responsible for himself.
Very few people know I used to write what I thought were Urdu couplets. Coming from an Islamic family everyone around spoke in Urdu. My father would read out bedtime stories in Urdu and sometimes also recite the poems of Ghalib and Iqbal to us. I guess my interest arose in writing such couplets because of this. My father encouraged me to think of couplets and write these poems. He even made a book in which he would pen down all that I recited, in his own hand in Urdu. I still have it with me. It is one of my fondest possessions. When he died there was no one to pen down my poems in that book. I didn’t really ever learn to write Urdu. I sometimes have friends who can read Urdu read it out to me. I find the couplets and poems very amateurish and childish. But all the same the book, which is known as a diwan in Urdu, is my fondest link with my father.
When my father died, I didn’t cry. I thought it was heroic. I was one of the pall-bearers and thought I had become a little big man. But I felt cheated despite the fact that he had prepared me for his death.