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Review: Dad’s the Word

There’s a wonderful moment in Soumya Bhattacharya’s Dad’s the Word when he chances upon his daughter Oishi standing ‘self-absorbed before the mirror’. He doesn’t tell us exactly how old she is at this point in time; perhaps she is 9, perhaps younger. But it’s a startling moment and one that every father is (or will be) familiar with: his

books Updated: May 01, 2012 05:47 IST

There’s a wonderful moment in Soumya Bhattacharya’s Dad’s the Word when he chances upon his daughter Oishi standing ‘self-absorbed before the mirror’. He doesn’t tell us exactly how old she is at this point in time; perhaps she is 9, perhaps younger. But it’s a startling moment and one that every father is (or will be) familiar with: his little girl, rapt before the mirror, trying to do up her hair and in that instant realising ‘how suddenly adult she seemed’.

What this sparks off is a fair amount of insecurity. Is this ‘grave, preoccupied, poised, lady-like young person’ on the threshold of entering some closed feminine circle from which dads are excluded? Bhattacharya’s women friends tell him how they were close to their fathers as little children, but as they grew up, became closer to their mothers, the fathers receding into ‘remote figures of authority. “Perhaps this is how it is with girls and their dads,” he says. So, will he change with her? Will he keep up? He doesn’t know. But for now, “Every moment of fun is coloured as much by the enjoyment of it as by the mournfulness for its passing.”

It’s easy to slot Dad’s the Word: The Perils and Pleasures of Fatherhood as a parenting book, written from a father’s perspective. But if you’re looking for answers on how best to bring up your children, you will not find them here. This book has none of the certainty of an Amy Chua (The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother) -- though the book is reviewed in Bhattacharya’s collection -- and no absolute Benjamin Spock-like answers.

Instead what you have is a meditation into a larger question: who am I and how does being a father change who I am? In this sense, Dad’s the Word is a self-indulgent journey into a role (parenthood) that is traditionally regarded as selfless.

Bhattacharya is not shy of self-exploration with his daughter as co-traveller, student and teacher on this great journey. How do you explain money and financial matters (why we don’t live in a bigger house with more things) to a child who is growing up in the country’s financial capital? How do you ban television-viewing when there isn’t a ‘great outdoors’ for your child to explore? Is it ok to give your nine-year-old an occasional sip of beer and wine (yes, says Bhattacharya)? How do you explain the death of a pet? How do you justify your refusal to quit smoking? And – the really smart one – how do you get her to become a Barca fan and love football with you?

“Any of you could have written this book,” says Bhattacharya. And he’s right. These are universal questions every parent grapples with. But he’s also wrong. Because Dad’s the Word is a long love-letter from a father to his daughter, deeply personal even in its neuroses (apostrophe obsession? Really!).

“We know our children aren’t perfect. (But are we?) They may not always be what we want them to be. They disappoint us as much as – I am sure—we disappoint them.” And, yet, “They are ours, and they are there. That is no small benediction,” says Bhattacharya.

Ultimately, the great strength of this slim volume is how much it tells us about a father’s insecurities, anxieties, hopes, and pride and how much it tells us that these cut across race and economic class and nationality and, as a mother I would add, even gender.  “Until one has children, one doesn’t really know the meaning of a certain kind of extra-keen, overwhelming, all-engulfing joy, pride, boredom, misery, suffering, anxiousness or vulnerability,” says Bhattacharya. The bad news? “None of this ever goes away.”

This collection of short essays (I wish some had been longer) is adapted from Bhattacharya’s weekly column for Hindustan Times, where he works. The column ran for three years before stopping one month before Oishi turned 10. “I wasn’t sure I had the right any more,” he says. I like to think that in some hidden drawer somewhere, Bhattacharya is keeping a secret diary that documents the emergence of Oishi as a young adult, and his marvel and wonder at that journey.

Dad’s the Word: The Perils and Pleasures of Fatherhood by Soumya Bhattacharya, Westland, 196 pp, Rs 225