A disturbing account of a father’s legacy
If I can coin a term, Ashok Lavasa is a WhatsApp friend. We’ve only met once, and I doubt if we’ve spoken even half-a-dozen times. But over the last two years, we must have exchanged stuff on WhatsApp at least a thousand times. So, when I discovered the former election commissioner has written a book, I made a point of reading it.
Called An Ordinary Life, it’s the story of his father, Udai Singh Lavasa, and it’s based on the diary that bauji, as he calls him, left behind. In many ways, this is a remarkable, even astonishing, book. Some of what you’ll discover will fill you with admiration for Pere Lavasa. But there’s a fair amount that could disturb you.
At one level, it’s the story of Lavasa the elder’s journey from riches to rags, and his struggle to climb back to respectability. He was a man whose commitment to his principles and values took precedence over everything. His son clearly admires that.
The problem is, so honest is Lavasa’s portrait that his father often comes across as selfish, insensitive, uncaring, a bully, naive and foolishly trusting.
Let me give you an example. The book begins with an account of how his father left a nine-year-old Ashok alone at Bombay Railway Station to make his way to school at Belgaum, a journey that involved three train changes. To absolve himself of responsibility, Udai Singh asked a complete stranger, whose name and address he did not bother to find out, to keep an eye on his son.
The train reached Belgaum at 2.30 in the morning and the school was three kilometres away. Ashok had no money. Fortunately, the stranger was a good man who took him home, gave him a bed for the night, breakfast the next morning, and took him to school. But what if this stranger had not bothered? After all, the little boy was not his responsibility. The thought did not occur to Udai Singh. Not for a moment did he think that his young son could be abducted, sexually assaulted, or killed. Or if he did, it was a risk he was prepared to take.
Ashok Lavasa defends his father by arguing that those were days when you could trust strangers. He says that’s the difference between then and now. He adds that his father was an intuitive person who could judge people by their appearance. Perhaps, but I can’t see too many fathers taking a similar risk and very few mothers would forgive them if they did.
The elder Lavasa could also be horribly insensitive. “His habit of speaking the plain truth, unconcerned about the feelings of the listener … often crossed the norms of ordinary social behaviour”, his son writes. Consider this example: “Bauji had this shocking habit of speaking the most unpleasant truth quite unmindful of how it would be received or perceived by others… he would speak his mind irrespective of the awkwardness that it could create.
When one of my Mamajis died at the age of 50 in a road accident leaving behind his widow and four teenaged children, Bauji after attending the prayer meeting told my Mamiji ‘jo Bhagwan karta hai, acche ke liye karta hai; whatever God does is for the good’.”
The son sees this as an illustration of his father’s passionate commitment to the truth. But to the reader, it comes across as hateful insensitivity. Even, perhaps, cruelty. When I finished reading there was only one thought in my mind — why has Ashok Lavasa revealed the darker side of his father’s character? There was so much else in his life that was laudable, but it’s overshadowed by these black edges.
The truth is, there isn’t a father in this world who doesn’t have character flaws. But how many sons would deliberately reveal them? It’s an astonishingly honest thing to do — and, therefore, creditable — but it presents a loved parent in a rather poor light. I’m not saying that’s to be criticised, but you can certainly raise questions about it.
Karan Thapar is the author of Devil’s Advocate: The Untold Story
The views expressed are personal