Dads The Word: The Pleasures And Perils Of Fatherhood
Rs. 225 pp 196
As Satyamev Jayate has shown, daughters are not exactly much loved in India. Not at least when they are born. Or about to be born. Most fathers would actually prefer them unborn.
Luckily, I always wanted daughters and grew up with three. The experience was life-altering. So when I read Soumya Bhattacharyas delightful collection of columns on fatherhood (reading them one by one in a newspaper is not quite the same experience) I was reminded of those years of my life. Trying to bring up a daughter (I brought up two at the same time) is exciting and much as I would like to believe otherwise, they brought me up better than I could have ever brought them up. My mother brought up my eldest daughter as I was in the midst of a somewhat messy divorce at the time and my ex-wife brought up my son. If this appears to suggest that Rina my present wife (no, not Rina my past wife) had nothing to do with the bringing up of my daughters, you are totally wrong. She believes it was she who brought them up. Both my daughters agree. At least, in her presence.
I guess I tried to make them who they are today. And they most certainly made me who I am. It was a runaway experience. Like Oishi, the central character of Soumyas book, my daughters had no clue that I was trying to bring them up. In fact, they were deeply sympathetic and tried to hold my hand at every stage. If I pretended to be stern, they would cower and pretend to be frightened but I always knew they went inside their room to laugh their guts out. They knew exactly how much I loved them. So they were never scared of me. They were scared of Rina. For girls, even when they are in their pre-teens, know the difference between an indulgent father and a mother anxious to discipline and make them do well in studies.
Soumyas book reminds me of those times. Bringing up Oishi reads like the most charming experience on earth and Soumya reinforces it with wit, warmth and wisdom, in descending order. The book never reads like a collection of journalistic pieces. It teaches you nothing at all about parenting. Nor does it provide you any answers to lifes questions. But it captures how beautiful the relationship between a father and a daughter can be, given half a chance. The point is: how many of us give it that chance?
The book is actually about three things. Two people who love each other father and daughter in this case try to figure each other out. Because of the difference in age, they see the world very differently. Oishi believes in tooth fairies and Santa Claus (actually she doesnt but thats another story.) Her father believes he needs to bring her up. But the relationship between the two is so riveting that the whole idea of parenting goes for a toss. They laugh, they argue, they seek. But neither of them tries to teach anything to the other except Sharapovas backhand with a plastic tennis racket and a balloon that never bursts. And, oh yes, how to cheat in board games. Oishi wants to win every game and her father wants her to do so without figuring that he is giving the game away, which maybe easy in chess but not in snakes and ladders. So, both cheat, one to win and the other, to lose. This best sums up their relationship.
The second thing about this book, perhaps its most amusing part, is the art of reading and writing English as it ought to be. Soumya is constantly provoked by the improper usage of the English language (and reminds me of Malcolm Muggeridges comment that the last Englishman alive will be unquestionably a Bengali). He wants Oishi to be correct to a fault when it comes to language in a world driven by Hollywood and Corporate Speak. I would have loved to add journalism and social media to that list. Ever since Rupert Murdoch entered our lives, we seem to have lost sight of both journalistic ethics and the English language. The British Parliament is trying hard to correct the former. But language tends to walk down an irreversible course. Once corrupted, its almost impossible to set it right.
The third premise of this book is the celebration of sloth. Bertrand Russells adulation of idleness as a socially responsible goal seems to inspire Soumya who appears to endorse the fact that the morality of work is the morality of slaves and the modern world can well afford to do without it. The British industrial revolution ended more than a century back. So did the Empire. To still celebrate work as the very purpose of our existence, as Max Weber and the Protestant Ethic once did, seems horribly anachronistic. This is where the book shines, in its appraisal of what makes indolence the new aspiration of civilisation. Read this charming book.
Oishi is a lucky girl. She will grow up to read a book about how she brought up her father, as all pretty girls do, even as he kept mumbling about Rashomon and John Updike in his sleep. Yes, she is lucky. I quoted Lorca and Paul Eluard in my sleep and my daughters have never touched poetry since.
Pritish Nandy is a Mumbai-based filmmaker and writer
Soumya Bhattacharya is editor, Hindustan Times, Mumbai