Friday, June 17, 2016

Life Lessons I Imbibed From My Father

I am my father's primary caregiver. He has Parkinson's Disease and the tables have turned on the traditional father-child relationship.

My father pleased with himself after eating 
one of his favourite sweet dishes
In honour of father's day when I was asked to write about the lessons learnt from my father, my mind drew a blank.

My father, Anna, did not teach me in the traditional sense - with chalk & board or paper & pencil.  He encouraged my questions.  He gave me experiences. He played games, read comic books, acted goofy. He asked me brain twisters and debated with me. He shared stories. He cracked jokes. He spent time with me. As he did with all my siblings.

And thru' all of these shared experiences, I imbibed learnings.

Amma and Anna in the late 1960s / early 70s
I learnt about doing what right for the larger group, whatever the cost. Like when Anna decided to give up a well paid UN job to come home to India, to ensure that his kids grew up with Indian values (whatever that means!). We often would ask Anna why he did not complete the mandatory time needed to earn a full UN pension (the money would have definitely made a difference to our quality of life). He would respond with, "We wanted you to grow up in India.  With your uncles, aunts, cousins nearby. Where you could imbibe our culture. Where we could keep you away from bad influences for a longer period of time."

I learnt that respecting a person's decision is important. Like when I decided to change schools when I was 15 years old.  I was tired of studying in a girls-only convent school.  It felt as if I was bound in restraints. So I researched the schools in the area and decided to join DPS, RK Puram.  I filled and submitted all the documents needed. Then came the time to pay the fees, and I had no money.  I went to Anna and asked him for the money. Anna just asked me questions to see if my decision-making was logical, and then said, "Don't you think I have the right to check out the school my daughter wants to go to?" I said yes. He visited the school. The fees were paid.

I learnt to listen, understand, and extrapolate. Like when deciding what subjects to study in high school. Anna, had me meet with various professionals - doctors, engineers, bureaucrats, chartered accountants, etc. to understand what a career in their field meant, how their qualifications helped them, what would studying a different subject area done / not done for them in their careers. I listened to them and still did not know what job I wanted to pursue.  So, I chose to study Commerce and Economics, for they seemed to be the subjects that had the most options for further study or work.

I learnt to laugh and make others laugh.  Like Anna and his friends. At a gathering, Anna was always surrounded by laughing people.  He would have an appropriate joke or repartee for any occasion. He never forgot a joke in the middle of telling it.  Once when I asked him how he did it.  He said, "Read as many jokes as you can. Remember funny incidents and turns-of-phrase. When a conversation triggers a memory of one of these, tell it so that it makes you laugh. The others will join in if your laugh is genuine."

I learnt about work ethic. Like when Anna would be one of the few government servants to reach office by 9 am everyday, or work on weekends to complete comments on a file on time, or go to work even when the city was shut down after Indira Gandhi's assassination, delivering on promises and commitments.  His take was - work is worship. If you want to work, then work has to be done, and done well.  Otherwise it is not work and you are fooling around.

Photo from
I learnt the importance of living within my means, financially.  Like when he refused to send me on a school trip. Because there just wasn't enough money. For days, my eyes were swollen from crying, but he wouldn't budge.  Finally, Anna asked me to write down all household expenditures for the month, and promised that, if at the end of the month I believed there was money to spare for a school trip, I could go.  I wrote accounts diligently. At the end of the month there was no money left. I did not go on that school trip.  I still write accounts. I still live within my means.

I learnt to be childlike at any age.  Like driving on "bumpy" road. This was a road that had lots of small undulations so that when we drove on it, it felt like we were jumping on a mattress on our bums.  It gave our Volkswagen's shock absorbers a run for its money, but Anna took us over that road as often as he could. Anna loved bumpy road too.  It was shared enjoyment. We laughed with glee.  Poor Amma said it made her feel sick, but bore it 'cause the five of us liked it.

I learnt about dignity of labour. Like when Anna made us wash and clean the car on weekends.  Not because we could not afford to employ someone to clean the car, but because, "If you are going to enjoy the benefits of having a car, you have to know how to maintain it." Our neighbours were shocked that the Murthi's had their daughters' doing grunge work. Amma and Anna didn't care and neither did we.

I learnt to be spontaneous. Like going to the movies.  We'd be eating dinner at 8pm when Anna would ask for the name of the movie running at Chankaya. If we wanted to see it, the six of us would finish eating, clearing the table, changing clothes, closing windows and doors, locking the flat, tumbling into the car, and driving to reach the movie theatre by 8:50pm to buy tickets and be seated in time for the 9 pm show.  We never missed an ad or a trailer.
Still so many places to visit!!
I learnt to love travel and new experiences. Like when we would visit more than one place on a holiday - city or attractions.  It was never, "We are going to India." It was, "We are going to India. On our way back we are stopping in Greece and Italy." We visited parks and plazas, churches and temples, palaces and museums, restaurants and zoos, beaches and factories. I believe that my parents had wings under their feet, for they were always ready for a trip. As I am now.

I learnt about treating people with dignity. Always. Like when Anna told Amma not to yell at me in front of my friend, after I had been missing for hours.  From school I had gone to my friend's place, and from there to a temple on the outskirts of the city. I had missed the scheduled return-to-home time by hours. They had been worried sick and out looking for me till past dinner time. Anna first dropped my friend home. Then told me to think about my behaviour and tell Amma and him what I had done that had upset them.  I am a stickler for time now.

Tho' I am writing this about what I learnt from my father, in honour of Father's Day, I do think that it would be remiss if I did not mention my mother at all.  I learnt some of these things from her too. And some others that were unique to her and from her.

I learnt from them without knowing that I was learning. And I think that is the best part.

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