Weird clothes

Learning about my dad’s childhood

Jayanti Jha

My dad wore weird clothes to school.

Sanjay, my dad, said in his own words: “If you look at my school pictures, you can see a noticeable difference between me and the other kids.” He wore worn-out clothes that hadn’t been ironed, a stark contrast from the crisp, white uniforms the other kids donned.

It wasn’t that his parents didn’t care about him — in fact, they were the reason he could even go to an English school in his hometown, the Mulund West province of Mumbai, India. Even though my grandpa didn’t earn much and struggled to pay tuition on time, he valued education for his children over everything.

My dad passes on these values to me — he always prioritizes learning over grades. He’s never once yelled at me for getting a low score. Rather, he always helps my sister and I understand the material and constantly badgers us about whether we’re retaining knowledge from our classes. Sanjay doesn’t speak a word of Spanish, except for the occasional phrases he picked up from subconsciously watching “Dora,” but he wouldn’t hesitate to quiz me the night before a vocabulary quiz if I asked him to.

My dad has always encouraged me to not stress about minuscule things. Photo used with courtesy of Jayanti Jha

Somehow, he’s been so involved in our education and lives overall that we never really asked him to talk more about his own childhood. My mom came from a village in India, while my dad lived in a bustling city — both of which we visit every time we go to India. And that was the end of the story he shared. But a couple of weeks ago, over a meal of pav bhaji, we got to talking about his childhood.

My sister and I always assumed my mom had the harder childhood — she grew up in a village with little money. But we always knew she had tons of fun with her parents, siblings and friends. We also assumed my father’s childhood was similar to my mom’s joyful one — he often reminisces about playing cricket after school and obsessively reading Agatha Christie’s books. But that all changed when I heard more about what my dad went through.

The first thing I found out was that Mulund West did not look like it does now — there weren’t that many buildings and the city wasn’t very safe. When I visit every four years, I’m surrounded by family and never feel unsafe, except for the occasional encounter with a barking stray dog. But back in the 70s and 80s, it was different, and my dad faced a lot of safety issues, including gangs. He told us about one night when he was coming home from the movie theater at around 11 p.m., he was attacked with glass by a member of a local gang. Luckily, my dad was able to throw him off and went home with mere cuts, ones that he still bears as proof today.

And there’s a backstory to that too. At first, I doubted he was even fit enough to throw someone off of him and defend himself — that guy was armed with glass, and my dad’s current daily exercise consists of yoga and the occasional jog. My dad proceeded to tell me about how he used to run laps near his home and on the streets barefoot because he couldn’t afford running shoes. Thinking about the safety risks of running barefoot on city streets, I was shocked, and further enlightened about the differences in our childhoods.

Because a couple of days before he shared this story, I had tried on my specialized, field hockey turf shoes for the first time. I remember complaining about being in pain because they were getting too tight, producing blisters. And it’s not just shoes — I grumble about my laptop not wirelessly connecting to my printer. Yet my dad ran barefoot on city streets for years.

Regardless of the obstacles, Sanjay stuck with his schooling. Despite not having adequate time to do homework, his natural perseverance shone through. He lived next to his grandfather’s temple, right next to a slum that has since been destroyed and replaced with a building.

After a fight broke out in the slum, all the people his family knew sought refuge in the temple. Sanjay slept lined up with 200 other people on the cold tiles of the temple ground until they could find a home. He recalls not being able to sleep all night because everyone had a story to share of where they were from and why they had moved to Mulund.

Therefore, it’s unsurprising that homework wasn’t one of his main priorities. Instead, he procrastinated — a quality my sister jokes she inherited from my dad. He shared a story about his ninth grade teacher with me, who pulled him aside and told him, “I always thought you weren’t going to get anywhere. You don’t ever do your homework. But I watched you take that exam, and for three hours, you never once looked up from your paper.”

Even though my dad still doesn’t have the best outfits, he didn’t let the words get to him.

These natural smarts stuck with my dad into college, even though he didn’t get admitted to or even apply to the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) schools. He studied engineering, which is pretty common, but also extremely rigorous, especially at Indian colleges. My dad went to a local college, and when we meet up at family-friend events, all his friends tell me that my dad never studied early. He studied the night before or not at all and still brought home the best scores in the class. Sanjay shone in college, and he didn’t let his rougher childhood define him.

The high school he went to was deemed the school that consisted of all the kids with the least talent — anyone could go if they could pay. Storeowners, waiters and low-income employees could all afford to send their kid there. When these kids went to college, engineering proved to be too difficult for some, and they eventually dropped out. While they’re doing just fine now, my dad says with pride that everyone was impressed when they found out over a high school WhatsApp group chat that he moved to America. He was still the weird kid in their eyes.

When I heard these stories, I didn’t believe him. I thought he had finished talking after dinner and got up to leave the table only to run back downstairs once I heard the word “gang.” I’d only heard about them when I binged “All American” during quarantine, but the fact that my own dad has had such an extensive experience with them shocked me.

Throughout his narration of these stories, my dad downplayed every situation. He didn’t call them gangs, but rather simply “bad guys.” He wasn’t poor, but rather had everything he needed. My dad loves books — his interest shone through each time his grandfather would give him some extra pocket money to run to the bookstore and buy a mystery novel by Agatha Christie when his family couldn’t afford it.

I’ve heard those fun stories numerous times — the books, the fun he had with his grandfather, playing cricket during recess. In fact, I’ve heard them more times than I would like to. But I’ve never once heard these sad stories about his childhood, and I expected that this same trend would repeat itself when we asked him to keep talking.

The biggest thing that I’ve learned from my dad isn’t that if you work hard, you can make it to the top and have success — it’s that you should embrace the obstacles along the way.”

But at the end of his spiel, he didn’t stop with a sob story. He ended with how he feels so lucky to have connected with his roots and learned English, Hindi and Marathi while still keeping up his mother tongue, and to have listened to so many different perspectives. The biggest thing that I’ve learned from my dad isn’t that if you work hard, you can make it to the top and have success — it’s that you should embrace the obstacles along the way.

I don’t look at his life story as simply a success story. I see how he’s taken the good out of the bad. Sanjay took 200 strangers living at his home and made it sound like a party. He made moving to America sound like a piece of cake — he just found a job, hopped on a plane and started working. The biggest thing that I’ve learned from my dad isn’t that if you work hard, you can make it to the top and have success — it’s that you should embrace the obstacles along the way. Stop focusing on the dream and enjoy living the life you’re living, regardless of how bad it may seem. Soon, the weird clothes you wore to school will outgrow you, but the stories behind them will still be a part of who you are.