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Thursday, June 14, 2012

Will they still need me?

NEW YORK: It is a brilliant Father’s Day afternoon and I am sitting at McSorley’s, the oldest pub on the buzzing Lower East Side of Manhattan, where my younger daughter lives. She has invited her friends to quaff a few beers with me. Focused on making a life for herself in “this city that never sleeps,” she works hard and makes the most of the vibrant metropolis; mind-ful, I suspect, of the old Frank Sinatra standard: “If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere.”
My older daughter, on the other hand, has chosen to make Delhi her home, hanging out with friends from all over the world who happen to live in the capital. Both of them traverse the world with an easy sophistication that is enviable.
When my first daughter was born, my mother gave us a plaque, which read “You must give your children roots and wings. Roots will give them the strength to face any adversity; wings will help them soar above everything to explore new worlds and go farther than you ever did.” As I sat in the pub, with the group of bubbly twenty-somethings, I couldn’t help thinking of my mother’s plaque and marvelling at just how we may have got it right with our daughters.
The older daughter’s roots and the younger one’s wings are a perfect foil for my mother’s advice. They both make their way in the world. While I do draw a sense of satisfaction from their achievements, there is a nevertheless a disturbing arrhythmia in my mind. My thoughts go back to the cheerful holidays spent in our various homes in the US and in India: the warm Christmases, the lazy Sundays; the vacations we shared in Goa, in Europe and in the United States; the hysterical laughter while watching the bumbling antics of Inspector Clouseau in Pink Panther videos. These are comforting and pleasing memories; the sadness comes from knowing such togetherness will become less frequent in the years to come.
Such sweet and sour emotions are a luxury that today’s fathers enjoy. When I was growing up, fathers were remote persons. They inspired awe, sometimes admiration; most often fear but hardly ever love. Whether liberal or conservative, they just did not get involved in their children’s lives. The authoritarian ones ran their children’s lives according to their worldview; the more liberal ones simply accepted things.
If they couldn’t control their children or satisfy them with baubles, they pulled back and became even more distant. The distant father, the absent father, the authoritarian father, the indulgent father… these are classical personality formulations on which much of today’s psychology and literature are based.
This is the thing about Father’s Day: even in blasé Manhattan: it evokes teary reactions in grey-haired men, who are otherwise balanced and not prone to sentimentality. Ever since it was first observed in Fairmont, a small mining town in West Virginia in 1908, the day was “etched in sadness as well as thankfulness”.
The Fairmont event was a church service in remembrance of the 360 men, many of them fathers, killed in a mining disaster the previous year. However, it was not until 1972, when President Richard M Nixon proclaimed it a national holiday that Father’s Day became established and its observance began to spread around the world.
Father’s Day is when children honor and indulge their father. There is some amount of Hallmark Card artifice to it. However, for me, it has always been a pause; a chance to remember the wonderful times growing up with my children; to recognize that the relationship with them is always ambiguous. You love them and hope for nothing in return. Most times, you experience pure joy; other times, there may be sheer aggravation. Underlying it is a bittersweet taste: as involved fathers we try to move heaven and earth to smooth things for our children when they are dependent on us. The haunting question is: will they still need us when we’re 64?
On a brighter note, some day we will have grandchildren on the knee.
This column appeared in DNA, June 26, 2007.