By: An anonymous father
It was the 70s, and we were growing up fast, perhaps too fast it seemed at that time. Years have passed since and some incidents are still fresh in my mind like it was yesterday, while others have faded along the way. As I grow older, I often think about my father and how he handled us, and how much I learned from him about what it means to be one, without ever having been ‘instructed’ or even being aware of the influence. I don’t think I could ever live up to being the kind of father he was, but having him as my hero, as a role-model, has definitely made me a better person. I miss him deeply and will always regret the fact that my children never met him.
I remember this one time when we were sitting at the lunch-table, as my mother served herself some rice, I made this rather inappropriate remark to her about white rice not being good for her health. My father, who was always judicious in his comments responded curtly, “…… ……. and smoking is good for you, right?” I was stunned. Up until then, this was a secret experiment, not yet the habit that it became later. I had no idea that he knew since I had been very discreet, or so I had imagined. It is another matter that it took me a long time to kick the habit, but I certainly understood that I had crossed the line with my mother. With great difficulty, I managed to finish my lunch. This was how he was, one sharp comment, and then silence. Long drawn explanations were not considered necessary.
Flash forward to a few years ago. My son was just about the same age as I in the lunch-table episode and some tell-tale signs of an emerging habit had begun to show. I deliberated on my own past as I planned what I should say to him and when. The common advice “You will realise what it feels like when you have your own” (children, that is) became abundantly clear to me. Somehow, I indicated to him that I knew, and that it would be a good idea for him to wait until he was earning before taking to the habit, if at all.
More years went by and not once did I see any obvious signs of a cigarette, but as an erstwhile smoker with a keen sense of smell (for traces of tobacco), I knew. In order to ease his comfort at home when he visited, I once suggested to him that he should feel free to smoke in my presence. But I guess life is not quite so simple, and I have never seen him smoke. With my wife or I, my children do not have the freedom to be rude.
This example brought two points to my mind. Firstly, that it is essential to remember one’s own childhood indiscretions while dealing with your children. I am reminded of R. K. Laxman’s cartoon showing a scruffy young lad with report card in hand, looking quite smug. Evidently the Dad had seen some red marks from a distance and was sketched in Laxman’s inimitable style, with a raised finger and stern countenance. The blurb showed the son saying something like “Oh, this is yours, Dad. I found it among some old papers in a suitcase”!
The other point I wanted to make here is that if one doesn’t make mistakes in the process of growing up; if you don’t trip, you don’t learn how to get up, brush off the past and get back to the business of living. My father would use Mirza Azeem Beg’s Urdu couplet to exemplify this: गिरते हैं शहसवार ही मैदान-ए-जंग में I वोह तिफ़्ल क्या गिरे जो घुटनो के बल चले.
Somehow, we expect our children to be on their best behaviours, to always succeed, to be the best at everything; perhaps that is what makes life more difficult for them, and lead them to hide their indiscretions from us. This much (and much more) I have learnt from my father, he was perceptive, strict and strong, and he never raised his hand on us. One glance from him would be enough to send the message home. It worked for us, as I hope it has for my children. I have tried hard to be the best that I can be.
The verse: The child is the father of man
Some of our readers may be able to estimate the author of this piece since the title is a pet phrase of his; one that he tends to apply rather indiscriminately, mostly in jest. But that is beside the point. When we first confront the expression “Child is the father of…..” it is quite easy to misjudge the meaning. Applied erroneously, it can imply that children tend to be precocious and adult-like, often going beyond their parents. But as most of you would know, originally, it was meant by Wordsworth to epitomise his understanding of the life-span, that our childhood experiences shape (child is the father) who we become in later life (man). Here are the original lines from ‘The Heart Leaps Up’.
“My heart leaps up when I behold; A rainbow in the sky
So was it when my life began; So is it now I am a man;
So be it when I shall grow old; Or let me die!
The Child is father of the Man…”
The poet examines his union with nature and raises the question of continuity, of immortality, that became the subject of his subsequent verse ‘Intimations of Immortality’ in which he writes that “Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting…….”.
On influence: Carbon copies, default templates and mirrors
Family life has a long-lasting impact on us, both through biological and behavioural transference, but a reasonable understanding of that impact is essential. It can be frightening to consider how influential families can be, more so in their absence. It is important to understand that the impact is powerful but not immutable, and this ensures that we are not reduced to becoming carbon copies of our parents. Theories of development fluctuate in the importance given to genetic inheritance and experience; but more recently, it has become understood that separating these forces is artificial and unnecessary. As the popular science writer Matt Ridley argues, Nature is expressed via Nurture; as inextricably linked, rather than separate or in opposition. Undeniably, the ways in which we were brought up becomes a default template for us to rely on, Indu remarks.
In this blogpost, we become aware of the instant recursion that takes place in new positions with old relationships. Although we are largely unmindful of this impact when it unfolds or for years after that, switching perspectives instantly rakes up the past. As parents, we return to our memories of childhood experiences often accompanied by a renewed admiration and a kinder assessment of our parents. This can also be quite overwhelming since it may imply a lack of self-determination, but when the role-model is a positive one, such a realisation can provide comfort and reassurance.
Shraddha recounts that she often scolds her daughter for losing a water-bottle at school. Whenever this happens in the presence of her own mother, she (Shraddha) is quickly reminded about how she used to do the same. Parents of children who become parents provide them with mirrors, and that is a valuable perspective. Nonetheless, the child is still encouraged to be more careful because a mother’s weakness need not become an obstacle to being better at caring for your things! And the show goes on…………
Another significant observation Shraddha made was about the occasional absence of dialogue. There is a sense of “I know”, “I know that you know”, and “I know that you know that I know”. Such conversations and silences are a hallmark of traditional Indian discourse in domestic life. Everything does not need to be articulated if it has been understood. Perhaps at a time when hyperbole has become a hallmark of confidence, thinking about these silences can be heartening. Yet, there are some silences that have not been favourable, and we need to address those alongside. Silence should not imply suppression.
The recently released Bollywood film Bareilly ki Barfi apparently features a dramatic scene between a daughter and father that raises the issue of smoking in the presence of a parent. We have not seen it, but Reshu remarks that it is a hilarious scene. In many Indian homes, smoking, drinking or swearing are taboo, and there is no question of a sanction for these. In others, doing so in the in the company of your parents is considered unacceptable, Reshu reminds us. Of course, there has also been much change over the recent decades, and parents have wanted to dissolve some of these boundaries. Some children now feel free to indulge in the presence of parents, but, in many instances like the one described in the post, even though a parent may give permission, children choose to refrain from crossing that delicate line. Sometimes it can be limited to one parent and not the other, grandparents and not parents. Perhaps there is awkwardness in addition to implying disrespect. Perhaps these are sides of themselves that adult children do not want to share with their elders. These are the borders of their identity and autonomy. Such is the landscape of culture.
Models and role-models
We also wish to discuss role-models in the lives of our children. As their virtual world expands and dusty streets are visualised as speeding hyperloops, children have gained unprecedented access to other people’s lives. Among them there are those they can admire, follow or even worship. Air-brushed faces and photo-shopped bodies inhabit their screens and minds, sometimes making them and the ones around them seem inadequate or over-clad. As social pressure and peer persuasion intensify, this could result in evaluating people and events around as mundane, even worthless. This happens perhaps on account of familiarity and the apparent ordinariness in comparison with the glamour of models. The distant posturing and artificial identities can appear fascinating to the young mind. There is, thus, another important message in this post that we wish to highlight. Our children need proximal role-models in their lives in order to have access to authentic, realistic and affectionate relationships with self and others. Our mothers, fathers, uncles, aunts, grandparents, or siblings are real and available, and they are much more likely to care for us, love us back. We need to understand that family life can be precious, and the people we live with can be our heroes.
Perhaps this story will add to this emphasis without implying absolute or uncritical acceptance of the message. Ganesha and his brother Kartikeya were sons of Shiva and Parvati. One day the two brothers were competing for a divine fruit that would grant supreme knowledge and immortality. Shiva decided to solve the argument by placing a challenge before the brothers, and the winner would receive the fruit. The challenge was this. “Circle the world three times and you will be the winner”. Karikeya who was brave, adventurous and swift as the wind, quickly mounted his vehicle, the peacock and left for his mission around the stars. The portly Ganesha, on the other hand, was endowed with wisdom, learning and the power to remove obstacles. His vehicle was a tiny mouse. Both (Ganesha and his mouse) would not stand a chance in a challenge of speed. Ganesha, for whom his parents were the centre of his existence, circled Shiva and Parvati three times and folded his hands in devotion. “What are you doing?” they questioned him. “For me, you, my parents, are my whole world, and I have circled you three times”. When Kartikeya returned, he felt cheated by his brother, and disappointed with his parents for handing him the fruit. To this Ganesha argued that “You went around the world, and I went around my world!”
Some links for your viewing pleasure in case you have an appetite for comedy. Sometimes they can get straight to the point. There are so many on Dads!
Thanks Reshu Tomar
Source for Calvin and Hobbes: http://www.gocomics.com/calvinandhobbes/