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Friday, July 3, 2009

Fathers’ Day

This piece was written for the Patna edition of the Times India and it appeared in its magazine section on 28 June 2009.


My children had already called me to wish “Happy Father’s Day”, when I was invited to write this piece. I was still wondering about this new convention, awkward as I feel, even accepting birthday greetings. But I guess we must be devoted consumers; must go and buy the greeting cards, flowers, short mail each other messages, Twitter all the time, see and be shown on Facebook. Which is perhaps just as well! It is a good idea to set a day apart for the old man, another one for the dame as well, who is very affectionate but sometimes insistent to the point of being obtrusive. The poor overworked creature, his mind bristling with a multiplicity of agenda, hauling his body from one meeting to another, navigating the traffic, always late on arrival, always late for departure, can not be bothered with filial concerns on a daily basis!

People of my generation - I was born in the 50s - celebrate Gandhi Jayanti, Prohibition Day, Vigilance Day (or week) etc. with the same meticulousness and in the same spirit. We remind ourselves, and each other, that we have not forgotten who Gandhi was, why is it important to shun corruption in public life etc. At the same time we go about our business, recognising that the claims of the real world have to take precedence. The younger generation have different sets of icons and rituals to lift their self esteem. They have their Father’s Day etc. The next generation - produced through IVF and cloned, may be - would perhaps wonder what parents are.

But remember him or not he lives there. The biological memory lurks secretly, in your bones, blood, and grey matter. He is there in every thing that you do, in your failings and your success. Nature and nurture together shape your character. But even otherwise, at the conscious level he is never too far away, and a trip to the ice cream parlour with your children triggers the memories of how it used to be when you were a child. “Memory is the zest of life.” The Nobel Prize winning novelist I.B. Singer once said, “It keeps the years together.”

However the memory that lies stored in the layers of your cerebral cortex is not available simultaneously, ready for instant recall. There are others consigned in some neglected corner in the attic of your brain. Still others are like a subterranean spring flowing just below the conscious stratum but scratch it a little and it breaks forth like a stream undulating and gushing forth.

The years spent with my father – he died early by current standards – telescoped into one brief instant and provided me with a bench mark to judge my own experience as father. Anger, disappointment, frustration, disapproval of the ways of the children as well as undue pride in their achievement, the inclination sometimes to believe in them despite evidence to the contrary, is perhaps generational, and we play these twin roles in succession, speaking almost the same cue lines. My father would never tell me what to do. He was neither direct nor didactic. A trained lawyer who did not practice, he had nevertheless the reasoning skill and persuasive ability of the best in the business. His world of sober reflection and my world of cocky self assurance came into regular clash. He would never take me head on. He was a great admirer of Liddelhart, the British military historian, and followed his strategy of indirect approach. Gradually, insidiously he would immerse me in his moral, cognitive world. Sometimes there were arguments, shouting matches, but at the end of the day I was following his advice convinced that this was what I had wanted all along. I wanted to study Physics. My father said it was my fad; I would do much better in English. Several sessions, later I was wondering how I ever thought I could cope with regular classes and long hours in the laboratory! My father encouraged me to believe that I had taken the correct decision by opting for English.

The scenes were revisited a few decades later. Two of my children chose the career they wanted to pursue. We had as many sessions of discussions, perhaps a few more. There was less heat, more illuminating insights. Children were politely persistent. Their arguments were backed by compelling reasons. They had facts on their fingertips.

At the end of the day my children are doing what they wanted to do, but I am still convinced that they are doing my bidding.