“You have no idea how easy you have it, back in my time…”. Chances are that if you are a parent, you have uttered these words before. I have and I don’t know about you, but when I start a sentence with anything remotely like this, my teenaged daughter gets this glazed look in her eyes and she zones me out. I suppose my “life lessons” are not that interesting! As I grow older, I wonder how my dad was able to inspire me when I was younger without me tuning out.
It’s the first day of school and I’m dressed in my school uniform, ready to head out. My dad casts a critical eye on me. He straightens my collar, adjusts my tie, holds up my chin and uses a comb to make sure that my hair is parted cleanly and combed well. “First impressions are last impressions”, he tells me. “If your teacher sees you unkempt on the first day, she will retain that impression for the rest of the year”. Even today on my annual visits home, as we head out to visit somebody’s house, occasionally, he looks at me and asks “Are you sure you have shaved this morning?”. He, of course, is immaculately dressed and well groomed. In many ways, he was teaching me that I had to always look professional, look the part and I’ve tried to follow that advice.
I’m learning to ride the scooter. My dad hands me the helmet and as I start the scooter he says “Control is important. Speed comes later. Anybody can drive fast”. Get the basics right. Build a foundation, the showmanship if at all required, can come later. I’m teaching my daughter how to drive now and I find myself echoing these words. They make perfect sense to me now as an adult.
Its a weekend and I’m playing street cricket. The bowler comes in and bowls and I swat the ball. The ball goes up in the air and I’m out, caught. “No cross-bat strokes, play with a straight bat”, my dad tells me after I return home. He had been watching me from the balcony. He should know, he was the captain of his college cricket team. Again, get the basics right, set the foundation, eschew risks when possible and then try the flashy stuff, only if you have to. In life too, play with a straight bat, don’t try to take shortcuts. A straight bat to my dad has always been a metaphor for honesty, integrity and strength of character. Life will throw all kinds of balls at you, yorkers, jaffas, googlies, bouncers and full tosses, but so long as you are playing with a straight bat, you will do okay.
We are seated for dinner, the rice has been overcooked. My mother serves the rice and apologizes saying the rice is mushy. Before any of us can say anything, my dad says “Ah yes, this is a new variety of rice, cooking times vary, nothing to worry”. That stands out in my memory. In many ways, my father laid an example for me and my brother with his deeds and not just with words. He helped around the house, was a pretty good cook himself, encouraged my mother to visit her parents every year and spend a month with them while he took care of the house and us if we stayed back. I grew up assuming that all dads did this. He taught me that in a marriage, there is no point sweating the small stuff. I help around the house and am truly appreciative of what my wife does for our family, because, when she visits home, I’m trying to fill her shoes here at home. And even though she has dainty feet, they are very large shoes to fill metaphorically.
“You have started with a clean slate, make the best of it!”. My grandfather could not really pay for my dad and his siblings’ education. They relied on their uncles. While my dad stayed with his maternal uncle, his paternal uncle sent him Rs 25 a month in the early-fifties as spending money. My dad supported me and my brother till we settled down. He turned down promotions at his job when they meant moving to locations where we would not have access to the best education. He encouraged me to go out of town to Mysore to study even though it would be a financial burden on him. And when I decided to move to the US for grad school, he put up his house as collateral for my loan. Yes, I started with a clean slate, always secure in the knowledge that my dad had my back. Confident in the conviction that my dad believed in me. Some part of me always knew that I was fortunate to have access to the kind of education that I was receiving and I felt special. My dad did repay his paternal uncle after he started working. His uncle wrote him a lovely letter that my dad still has with him. Another lesson, remember to repay your debts even though they may be given as gifts.
“Education is paramount, never stop learning!” My parents never asked me to study or do my homework at any point in time. I could play when I wanted, study when I wanted. While my friends had restrictions as to when they could play and for how long, I had none. I was, in fact, encouraged to participate in sports. But there was a tacit understanding that I would maintain good grades. I was expected to be responsible. Exams could be tough and my grades might dip, but I had to put in the effort and could not be cavalier in my attitude towards studies. Sports and extracurricular activities were encouraged, but studies were to be the focus. My dad was part of the generation that really saw its stock rise with access to education. After finishing his bachelor’s degree in commerce, he got a masters degree around the time my brother was born and then a law degree around the time I was born. That was quite an achievement, juggling a full-time job, fatherhood and simultaneously studying on the side. He encouraged my brother and me to study further and now encourages his grandchildren. I’ve not matched his feats, but I do try to keep up in my own way, not just learning for my job but also other things in general.
“What we are today – we owe our existence to them”. I speak to my dad every day over the phone. I hear this sentiment at least once a week. He is referring to his maternal uncle and aunt with whom he stayed for 5 years in Hubli as he did his undergrad. As I mentioned earlier, each sibling was taken in by one of his maternal uncles and aunts who let them stay with them till they found a footing in their life. My dad has very fond memories of his stay in Hubli and even today makes it point to keep in touch with his cousins. After Hubli, my dad stayed with his older brother in Bombay for another 6 years. He again reflects on this period of his life with gratitude. Gratitude is a theme that comes through often as I talk to him, for all the people that have helped him throughout his life. He has chosen to dwell on all the positives in his life and I think that leads to a contented, happy life. As I talk to him, I am also aware that I have a lot to be grateful for. To my family, of course, but to also the prior generations for helping me start with a clean slate! He, in turn, has helped people throughout his life. Whether it is helping a cousin find a job, sleeping in hospitals when relatives were sick or serving as a treasurer (sans remuneration) for the high school run by the company he worked for. All this was done quietly with no expectations.
Papa, these are wonderful lessons. They have stood me in good stead and shaped me into the person I am today. The son, the brother, the husband, the father, the employee and in general the citizen that I am. I have never thanked you or expressed my gratitude to you in words, but I hope I have done so with my actions. We live in a world today where we tend to measure our success in life by the material goods that we accumulate and flaunt. By the positions and titles that we accrue and the vehicles that we drive. By our bank balances, real estate holdings and stock portfolios. However, if I can be as good a father to my children as you have been to me, I can say I have been successful. If in the future, my children can look back and tell me that they have enjoyed spending their time with me and that I’ve had a positive influence on them, I would have been truly successful! I am so happy that I am here with you today as you celebrate your 85th birthday. Happy Birthday, Papa, you continue to inspire me. I look forward to our daily conversations and many more life lessons!