I interpreted this completely differently to the majority of analysis I read before creating this post, but I will give you both interpretations.
Others have said that this poem is about the increasing alienation of the older generation and a father who feels increasingly lonely in his world and with his family who no longer relate to him.
I actually see this as a poem about a dedicated father who has worked his skin to the bone in order to drag his family up from the gutters. Having somewhat succeeded his children have grown up to be different to him and their more affluent background means that feel they cannot relate to him. Nevertheless I see a sense of pride in where the father has helped him family go and recognising his role in the rise and success of his bloodline.
My father travels on the late evening train
Standing among silent commuters in the yellow light
Suburbs slide past his unseeing eyes
His shirt and pants are soggy and his black raincoat
Stained with mud and his bag stuffed with books
Is falling apart. His eyes dimmed by age
fade homeward through the humid monsoon night.
Now I can see him getting off the train
Like a word dropped from a long sentence.
He hurries across the length of the grey platform,
Crosses the railway line, enters the lane,
His chappals are sticky with mud, but he hurries onward.
Home again, I see him drinking weak tea,
Eating a stale chapati, reading a book.
He goes into the toilet to contemplate
Man’s estrangement from a man-made world.
Coming out he trembles at the sink,
The cold water running over his brown hands,
A few droplets cling to the greying hairs on his wrists.
His sullen children have often refused to share
Jokes and secrets with him. He will now go to sleep
Listening to the static on the radio, dreaming
Of his ancestors and grandchildren, thinking
Of nomads entering a subcontinent through a narrow pass.
Dilip Chitre (1938-2009)
I can’t find a great deal about this poem, not even when it was published. If you know, please comment and let me know.
I can you an incredibly short biography of Dilip Chitre. He was an all round artistic chap in India, famed for his poetry, film making and painting. Although he was born in Gujarat, he moved to the sprawling city of Mumbai when he was 13, where he published his collection of poetry at 22.
Similarly to For My Grandmother Knitting this poem explores familial love and the role of parents in securing the livelihood of their families. In addition, both poems point to shifting times and how age makes us overlook the older generation and their contribution to our existence.
On the surface this is simply a father’s journey home after a tiring day at work to his family, arriving home and being ignored and unappreciated by his kids.
However, beneath the surface we have some complex imagery with connotations relating to the parent’s role in a family and comment on how life shifts for each new generation meaning the old become somehow disconnected with the world.
Language and techniques
I’m going to look at this from my perspective, which I think is a rather positive interpretation of the poem and the life of the father. However, if you’d like to read a concise take on the other interpretation I mentioned, try here.
The title is interesting. Notice that it is in the present tense and he is ‘returning’, almost as if he never stops on his journey. This is an early reflection on something I feel the poem shows throughout and that is the hardship of fatherhood and the constant need to provide for your family.
The other part of the title to look at closely is the word ‘home’. The connotations of home are numerous, but it is an overwhelming positive word of comfort, warmth, acceptance and belonging. Whatever a home is, it is the one place that we want to be and feel apart of. Thus all his journey and his work that is later described or alluded to in the poem is for one thing: so he can provide a home and develop a home for himself.
If you think about how hard life was for grandmother as she brought her family up, in the previous poem in the collection, then you should quickly see parallels here. The father is on the ‘late evening train’, which implies he has worked a long day, a fact that is further established by the imagery of his eyes provided by Chitre. They are described as both ‘unseeing’ and ‘dimmed with age’ and they ‘fade’ at the end of his day.
We have two things to consider here. First this imagery makes me imagine that the father is worn out and thus must be working incredibly hard. However, I think they are also ‘unseeing’ because they are not focused on his surrounding and what is going on during his journey home, but they are focused solely ‘homeward’ on one thing: his family and providing for them.
If you delve into other images in the poem, you’ll see this idea further reflected. His ‘pants are soggy’ and his ‘raincoat [is]/Stained with mud’ implying that he has been working outdoors and exposed to the elements. If you work in an office you don’t generally end the day covered in dirt. You could argue this is a reflection of Indian train stations, which can get a little messy during heavy rain (I have some harrowing memories of my time at a train station in Varanasi waiting for a three-hour delayed train!), but I don’t think that is the point.
This image connects us with the idea that the father comes from a poor background. The type of work he must be doing that leaves him exhausted and dirty, but also the fact he ‘standing’ on the train suggests a very poor or impoverished background and a manual job.
However, Chitre contrasts this idea of being of a low social status or standing with an image of optimistic aspiration for something better for him and his family. Although the bag he carries is ‘falling apart’ (further suggesting his poverty) it is ‘stuffed full of books’. Books are tools of self-improvement and through reading and education we can equip ourselves for higher social status position or change our social expectations in life. So here they stand as a metaphor for a father’s determination to improve life for his family. This is particularly powerful thanks to the word ‘stuffed’, which makes me think that he is taking every opportunity to lift his family up and raise their living conditions.
So that’s most of the first stanza. The last couple of things I will mention connects us again with the title. Notice the repetition of ‘hurries’ in the third last and final line of the stanza, this communicates a sense of urgency in the father which relates to the fact he going to the place that he treasures: his home and his family.
There is also a beautiful simile about ‘him getting off the train/Like a word dropped from a long sentence’, which is not as simply as it first appears and connects with an idea at the end of the second stanza, so I will come back to it then.
As the second stanza begins you’ll notice that the imagery suggesting poverty continues in the father’s dinner. ‘Weak tea’ and ‘stale chapati’ sounds thoroughly unappealing. However, I don’t think this was his only choice as his home doesn’t appear to match his shabby state. Bear in mind this is India, his home has running water, a toilet and a radio (if I knew when the poem was written we’d get a better idea if this is what Chitre intended us to think or not).
So if he has other options then why does he go for his humble dinner? I think this is symbolic of the father’s sacrifices for his family, everything he does is to provide for his family and he will suffer and endure for their good.
Notice too that he is again ‘reading a book’ while he eats and thus his sacrifice is all about making things better and aspiring for greater things for his children.
Okay, now comes the difficult bit to deal with using my interpretation. The third and fourth lines of the second stanza paint quite a bleak few, on the face of it, of his existence. He is ‘contemplat[ing]/ Man’s estrangement from a man-made world’, which might make you think that he feels alone and doesn’t understand the modern world. There is an element of that there, but I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing.
Consider the world he has come from, where he is having to work himself to the bone to provide for his family. He has striven to change the lives of his family so they don’t need to struggle. So as much as he finds that he doesn’t quite fit, it is a place that he wanted to reach. I think the father is both the ‘Man’ who is ‘estrange[d]’ and he is the man who created this unfamiliar life by grafting so hard – it is, after all, described as ‘a man-made world’.
His age is portrayed negatively through the fact ‘he trembles’ suggesting a growing inability to handle the rigours of the world and we see the physical signs of decline with the ‘greying hair on his wrists’. However, this isn’t the picture of someone about to drop dead (as grandmother sounds like she might have been in For My Grandmother Knitting), but simply someone getting older with a suggestion that one day he will not be able to provide anymore.
What to make of his ‘sullen children’? Don’t judge them too harshly, as a teacher, I recognise that children moan and are unappreciative. I don’t think this is necessarily picturing them as being unloving or ungrateful, but enjoying the ignorance of youth. Bear in mind that the poem is written from the perspective of one of these children (albeit probably when the child has grown up a bit and reflected back upon how much their father has given for them) and clearly demonstrates a deep respect for the struggle and effort of the father. However, the children are alien to the father in a way as he has lifted the family to a new level and unfortunately his background and theirs are not familiar. They refuse ‘to share/ Jokes and secrets with him’ could suggest a lack of appreciation or it could suggest that they cannot relate to him because of this social shift that he has engendered for his bloodline.
Examine the father’s reaction to his children’s indifference or inability to relate to him. He goes to sleep and is ‘dreaming’. He seems at peace and this makes further sense when we see where his mind takes him. If he is thinking about his ‘ancestors and his grandchildren’ then he is considering his importance in the family line and the role he has played in their journey from ancient ‘nomads’ entering India through the Khyber Pass (one of the few gaps in the earth leading into India from the rest of Asia between the Himalayan and Hindu Kush mountain ranges that provide a formidable natural barrier to entry) right through to the future lives of his unborn grandchildren that he has helped to provide and pave way for.
Thus he doesn’t feel isolated or alienated from his family, but he feels that each generation moves on and he is happy to have helped move his family one step further along in the world. This image of his role in the huge history of his bloodline is also referred to in the first stanza. He is just ‘a word dropped from a long sentence’, which implies that he is a small part of a bigger and more impressive picture. His life thus can only be understood in the context of the whole sentence, which is why he is happy to provide a level of sacrifice to keep this sentence going.
A couple of things here.
Notice the enjambment that makes one big sentence from the opening of the poem to half way through the sixth. This deliberately mimics the long and arduous working day and journey home to his family. Contrast the pace of this section with the occasionally caesura interrupted and much shorter sentences of the second stanza and we can again recognise where the father wants to be and why he is doing what he is.
My second point is possibly a difficult one to make, but I also feel that the lack of rhyme throughout the poem is a deliberate attempt to demonstrate the working background of the father. His life is not one of education and art, but instead it is based on graft although he is determined this will not be the same for his children. In addition, the regularity of line length and number of lines in each stanza could reflect the regularity of his life and struggle – I told you this was a bit lame!
You could interpret this as being mournful or regretful, as if a child has realised too late what a struggle their father’s life has been. However, I prefer to see this poem as being full of admiration and respect for someone who has sacrificed their life in order to provide the best they can for their children.
My view might be influenced by my impending fatherhood and hope that my little one respect all the hard work I do… well, the hard work I might one day start to do!