Letters to a Father
At that time, my father, an army officer, was posted far from us. I was in Panjim, Goa preparing for my 10th standard examinations. Father was at that time in Chandimandir Cantonment, Chandigarh. This was in 1994, when STD telephone rates were high, and the ubiquitous and cheap mobile phone network did not exist even in anyone's fantasy. The only connection was our doughty old postal service, that carried an inland letter card anywhere for seventy-five paise postage.
I would faithfully write to him a letter every Sunday, detailing all that had happened in the past week. It would be about performance in school examinations, with a greater focus on disagreements with teachers and fights with the other boys and girls over what the right answer to any question was. There would also be mention of prizes won (or missed) in competitions, and what other competitions were forthcoming.
There would be the reply from father. Father would of course, ask probing questions on actual marks obtained (which I was careful to dodge), while encouraging me on in the extra-curricular activities. He laid special stress on excelling in those too, for in his opinion a man's character was made my more things than marks.
There would be discussions on the country's politics and economics too. That was an exciting time, for Manmohan Singh had then presented a few budgets that promised to change this country forever. I could sense a strange apprehension among adults those days – seeming uncertain what was going to come. It was father, who in letters explained how India had come close to bankruptcy in 1989, and how these budget measures were trying to escape from the trap. In response to these, I would often outline to him outlandish schemes for reforming the country, mostly centred upon me being a benign dictator in the mould of Kemal Ataturk.
He gave me lessons in history in those letters – how VV Giri had resigned from Nehru's cabinet over a union issue, how Nehru had to deal with CD Deshmukh and Sardar Patel. Those discussions may seem arcane to those who were not part of them, but they went a long way in shaping my outlook – for I am now a firm republican who believes no human is infallible.
But most of all I waited for stories from his own boyhood. He would write about his cricketing days on the streets of Matunga, and I could hear the panes of windows smashing as sixes crashed through them. He told me about his formative years at Satara Sainik School, a boarding school for boys who wished to join the armed forces. His descriptions were so vivid, I sometimes feel I was the alumnus and not he.
Father once wrote to me that a man sees his father as a hero when he ten, as a villain when he is twenty, as a nobody when he is thirty and discovers him again when he is forty. I didn't understand what it meant, and dismissed it as the kind of 'wisdom' adults keep throwing at children.
It was a practice for me to sign all of my letters to him as “Your terrific son”. I wonder what he felt about so preposterous a claim on my behalf. I was just a regular teenager then, innocently looking at the world which I would enter soon. I had the wildest dreams – of making a Nobel Prize-winning discovery, of writing a Booker-prize winning novel, of being a great general, even of staging a daring coup to become this country's benign dictator.
I never lived up to that adjective.
I passed out of school with 80% marks. Father had taken voluntary retirement at that time to be besides me as I prepared to write those terrible examinations. Reading every year about how many students commit suicide unable to bear the stress of those exams, I wonder that I survived them. But there was a bit of a mission – I had now a moral obligation to live up to my father's best hopes. He never spoke of them loudly to me, nor did he try it by indirect signs. All I knew was that he was there to support me, answer my doubts. And that I was free to take any road I wished.
I took the road of scientific enquiry. I enrolled in XI Science stream, and passed my XX examinations with 80% marks. That was a disappointment to many. We had shifted to Mumbai, a city whose colleges do not entertain you if you score below 90%. At that time, it had been a vague aspiration of mine to be a medical student. My marks clearly prohibited such dreams. All I could do was take admission into a B.Sc. programme. I thought I was a shame to my family.
But to father it made no difference. Or if it did, he never showed it. He was more interested in appreciating the fact that I was ranked first in the first and second years of B.Sc., and that I had earned a name for being a well-rounded student at college.
July 2000 was a huge turning point in my life. For I had just secured admission to the integrated PhD course of the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), the country's second-most prestigious research institution. The moment I received the telegram offering admission, my shout of triumph was heard in the entire colony. For it was not just success, it was redemption. I was about to enter the portals of an institution ranked above the famed IITs. I was suddenly numero uno among my cousins, the very jewel of my clan.
IISc was a great place, which opened me to the fascinating world of science. But it was a triumph doomed not to last long. Three years later, I left IISc with a mere Master's degree. Not having been able to take the stress of the place, I had gone into depression and lost a lot of weight. When I brought my bags home, I felt I was a persona non grata, a total failure. The only person who felt anything otherwise was father.
I spent the next two years as technician at NCL, Pune. It is a prestigious place in its own right, but it had nothing like the prestige of the institute I had just left. Father was rather keen that I attempt the CAT examination and go for an MBA. I was then still keen on science. Every other weekend we would be embroiled in an argument, and he was increasingly looking like the villain. I thought he didn't care for my dreams, but only his agenda
On my own efforts, I secured admission to the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR), the most prestigious research institution in this country. I had redeemed myself again, entirely by myself. I was now unstoppable, world conquest was near at hand. Those who doubted me had been silenced. I had shown Father what I was capable of. For wasn't he a mere ex-military officer with an engineering degree, second class? And wasn't I going to get my Ph.D., build a fabulous research career, and win a Nobel Prize?
I wasn't going to. I was an outright failure at TIFR, having to leave the place in under two years. Another bout of depression, this time even some dangerous notions of suicide. How was I going to go home and face that villain? And what was I going to do with myself? The first failure was tragedy, this was a shameful farce.
Father was disappointed, truly. This time, he could not hide it in his facial expressions. He had a daughter whose future he had to think of, a son who wasn't on his feet was a blow to him. His income was certainly not enough to support so much. But he never said a word.
To me, the villain was failing to be a villain. He failed to crow over me. He failed to hector me over doing that MBA exam, even though I was entertaining thoughts about it now. Most of all, he failed to lose faith in me. I had risen from the ashes once, I would rise again.
It was the fastest growing up I ever did. At ten he had been a hero, at twenty a villain. But now closer to thirty, I was going to let him bypass the nobody stage, and go straight to the friend stage. For, I realised, he had given up being father long before I gave being son. He had grown on to become friend, and now it for me to catch up.
Today, I am a copywriter. I have had a steady rise in both confidence and salary, been praised by my bosses, implemented successful marketing campaigns. Become happier by the day. But there's one person who was happiest. For he has found that friend he waited for so long.
A friend to go on long walks on, and share stories again. Stories about internet start-ups and digital marketing, the younger telling the older how we plan to build a new world. Stories about the future, in rather real terms – about getting some life insurance, about a home loan in the next year. And stories about old letters, and retracing a journey. A journey in which I have made the biggest discovery I could make – for I have the most terrific father in the world.