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Saturday, April 17, 2010

A father's abiding woe...

When does a dad go wrong? And when he does, can he ever forgive himself?

Pupu was born a more than normally lively and intelligent child. She loved to listen to stories, yet she was already past two and having difficulty concentrating on making the effort that every child must make to start on the long journey to literacy – learning the alphabet. Being persuaded that it was best to start with the mother tongue, my wife and I had been trying gently, but with ever increasing anxiety, to get her to start reading on her own (we didn’t believe in relegating even such basic responsibilities to those cram shops that call themselves by the fancy name of play school). Already precocious at that early age, she had memorized all the writing in her first picture book by simply listening to us chanting the rhymes over and over again, and naughtily tried to pass it off as ability to read! Naturally, she was caught out when we switched books. And one evening, when her mother had complained after several months of fruitless struggle, I lost my temper.

I had always been, both by training and temperament, a firm believer in Asimov’s aphorism ‘Violence is the last resort of the incompetent’. Never in two decades of teaching had I ever hit a pupil. Yet that evening I put her firmly on my lap and gave her an ultimatum: ‘I’m not letting you go until you have started reading on your own!’ I find it agonizing to recall the next half hour, though more than a decade has passed by – it seems like yesterday. I scolded and threatened, even cuffed her on the head and boxed her ears two or three times (I am ashamed to say I probably even slapped her once), all the while holding her tightly to my breast and urging her ‘Go on, go on, keep trying, again, again, again, you can do it…’ and she sniffled and sobbed and wriggled and kept whining ‘I can’t, I can’t, I can’t’ and went on trying desperately, poor child. I had almost given up in despair when I saw that the miracle had taken place without either of us noticing it: she was reading fluently, and quite unconscious of the fact that she had done it!

I stopped her short in mid-rhyme and said, ‘Look, darling, you can read now!’ And you should have seen her look of startled, unbelieving surprise, and then the lovely, heavenly smile of delight and pride lighting up her tear-stained face: ‘Oh, yes, daddy, I can really read now, can’t I?’ and we hugged each other as though we had just been declared lords of the world…

It has been years, and now Pupu is a very grown-up sort of teenager, big and smart and talkative, a voracious reader in two languages far ahead of most people of her age, and learning two more languages with hardly any prompting on daddy’s part. Every time I ask her for forgiveness, she says, ‘Oh, come on, Dad, I should say thank God you took a firm line that day!’

So did I do the right thing after all, and can I be forgiven when I stand before the Lord’s Judgment seat?

[That was mum and daughter studying together a few months after the nightmare was behind them...]


Vaishnavi said...

Dear Sir,

I must say, of all the posts I have read in recent times, this one is my favourite! My mother used to do the same when she lost her temper with us when my brother and I were kids. How we used to howl then! I remember the first time I was taught the tamil alphabet. My mother taught me for an entire day and all I insisted on doing was draw squiggly lines. It makes me smile now, but I remember distinctly how much I cried that day and how mom apologizes for that even now. And Sir and those of us who have grown up in environments like these where the parents genuinely try to teach us things and lose their tempers occasionally, well, the truth is we don't even remember it! I suppose I considered that incident as a part of growing up and now regret the perfect imp of mischief that I was. I certainly drove my parents to distraction. So I agree with Pupu :) Kudos to her for trying to learn a third and a fourth language. I love both the pictures sir!


Tanmoy said...

Dear Suvroda

I was privileged enough to read this post in advance. It is very touching. God bless all of you.



Rajdeep said...

Very moving.

Best always.

Shilpi said...

Swallowing the lumps takes more than a bit of doing, and one may just about be able to sense the agony when one realises that one doesn't wish to imagine being in your shoes for that 1/2 an hour. But one can neither then imagine the unparalleled startled delight at the sudden miracle nor the feeling of being 'declared lords of the world'...and some things fall short of the imagination anyway!

Descriptive words fall short, and would be a waste of space to appreciate this latest inspired piece of yours, Suvro da. And for the time being - since your admirable and lovely daughter has more than just forgiven you - you can hold that close to heart as I both suspect & hope you do, and leave the thought about the Good Lord and being before His Judgment seat when you get there....although a couple of amusing possibilities come unbidden to the head.

The photos are heartbreaking. And yes. God bless Pupu, Boudi, and you.

Love not unmixed with awe.

Shameek said...

Dear Sir,
This one truly one of the best posts i have read and certainly one that touched me.On reading this post i was reminded of a similar incident.....

Amit parag said...

A incident and a good thought:
1. In class 10, you related another similar incident which happened with you-when your father berated you for using a word(that particular word was "pirate", wasn't it?)the meaning of which you did not know.
At the end of that particular class you had said," You learn good things the hard way and there is no other way".

2. M. Scott Peck says in his book that a very loving parent suffers along with his child and a good child can relate to that and is really grateful.


Ankit( Sameer_c28@yahoo.com) said...


Very nice and touching post indeed.. And for a change not controversial at all :)

Warm Regards

Suvro Chatterjee said...

I am afraid you have little idea of what people can find 'controversial', Ankit! A lot of people will manage to find a great deal that is absolutely objectionable about the contents of this post, such as a) I am a sentimental old fool, b) a weak-kneed father spoiling his daughter, c) one fond of making mountains out of molehills, d) one who maintains double standards, ... how many more do you want to know?

Ankit said...


I am all sleepy eyes but cannot resist responding.. I would love to meet those people.. I guess that would be entertaining and fun..
a) Sentimental: We all should have some sentiments.. Else either we are a hermit who has excelled in art of detachment (wish I be there one day) or a avatar of Ming filled with evil intentions
2) Weak kneed father: Till 10 months back, I could not have appreciated your post so much.. Now that I am a weak kneed father myself, and happily so, I can more so relate to your post :)
3) Mountain out of molehills : Happiness is also about taking pleasure from small incidents in life.. There are so many 'molehills' in my life which are significant to mountainous proportions.. My wife is already bored forced to listen to some of those ‘insignificant’ incidents time and again :)
4) Double standards: I do not know you personally, but your writings speak otherwise.. But yes, Sir, with due respect, your posts( if analyzed in order) can be confusing sometimes -- maybe only to my little brain.. But again that’s what makes it so interesting and captivating I guess

Sir , finally, allow me to slightly move away from the topic. Would you please mind commenting on this article in telegraph if you get time..
Has history always given India the raw deal?


Suvro Chatterjee said...

Aha! So now you know how miraculous fatherhood can be, Ankit! All my blessings for the child, and good wishes for you... of course, so many people comment on this blog without really having any idea what they are talking about! That's one of my lasting regrets.

As for the last part of your comment, that is the sort of thing I'd like to discussed privately, by email.

Ankit said...

Thank You Sir. My Best Wishes for you and your family too!!




This post took me back to the time when we used to have our classes in your home, approximately nine years ago. I must confess it was the most enjoyable time I experienced. Yet the knowledge transfer that happened was immense. Pupu was very small at that time. She just loved to imitate Lord Rama, influenced from the "Ram Mandir" close to your home. The temple bells used to ring at sharp 7 'o' clock and that made all of us a little sad because it meant the wonderful two hours had passed and we would have to depart. Apart from regular studies in our classes, we used to discuss about novels and we used to listen to plays of Shakespeare. Your collection of novels was of immense interest to us and I still remember you would lend your novels to us. I remember the economics lessons that we had: In school we used to be so confused about some topics in economics. We would all bring the most complicated of the topics to you, and you would give us an example and suddenly all those tricky topics would become simple and easy. Thank you Sir for making economics easy for us!
One evening after the class was over and we were departing, suddenly one of our classmates fell over the centre table and broke the glass. The next day when our class was scheduled, boudi had told us to be careful. We were all sad because we thought our image had been tarnished. A few days later, it was bijoya time and boudi brought in sweets and snacks for us, with a smile. While the food delighted us, the smile made us really happy and we took it for granted that we were forgiven.
Nine years have passed by; still that room where we used to have our classes feels so near to me.
The MasterCard advertisement says - "There are some things that money can't buy...", I believe knowledge tops the list in this regard. Thank You Sir for the knowledge you shared with us.


Suvro Chatterjee said...

Thank you kindly, Soumik. So heart-warming to see that some old boys remember some such incidents so fondly. The boy who broke the glass was Sayan Sarkar, wasn't it? I was not angry at all, but momentarily terrified that he might have hurt himself badly - I am that sort of man. Doesn't this blogpost tell you the same thing? That is why it still hurts so much to think that so many ex-students have cut me dead, or chosen to bad-mouth me behind my back without ever trying to get to know me well...

Anonymous said...

Dear Sir,
This post has touched my heart.Though I never did something like Pupu, yet it amazes me to think of all those times when I had to get a scolding to learn tables..very honestly, I agree with Pupu. If you had not been strict with Pupu, she might not have learnt things at the right time. And we, do not really mind parents scolding or beating us for things we did because we know it had been for our good.So, you don't need to worry.I am sure Pupu had forgiven you.
Even I am thankful to you for having scolded me, else I would not have realised my own faults.Thank you Sir.
And yes, Pupu if you reading, you look really cute. I love the pictures, especially the first one. Though she looks so innocent,one can see the mischief behind her eyes.
With love

Suvro Chatterjee said...

Thank you, Anurupa. Every such reassurance counts very heavily with me!

And you have good eyes to see with. Author or IAS officer or doctor, you will be good at anything you do. If my blessings are of any worth, I give them to you most gladly.

Amit parag said...

Excerpt from Oliver Twist-
Thus to do a great right, you may do a little wrong, and you may take any means which the end to be attained, will justify; the amount of the right or the amount of the wrong, or indeed the distinction between the two, being left entirely to the philosopher concerned, to be settled and determined by his clear, comprehensive, and impartial view of his own particular case.

Refers to the context, does it not?

Suvro Chatterjee said...

As I said to Anurupa, my grateful thanks to you, Amit. You have no idea (or perhaps you do) how much this sort of reassurance means to me!

And it fills my heart with unspeakable delight to know that even in this day and age some young people can quote pertinent lines from Dickens to make a point. Maybe all is not lost yet. Anyway, my best wishes and prayers for you. Do, do make me proud...

DEBANIK said...

I share your dilemma.

Over the years, though,
I have humbly conceded ground to the other view.I am now looking for
the elusive balance.

In fact, instead of taking pride in ('pride'-for want of the accurate word)
tearing up a trace
to find you internally apologising to your daughter as you wrote this
as you must have been doing for ten years now
just as I would have)
I now see it as a current delta in me that I have been working on.

Aside to your friend Ankit:

Suvro knows he may be judged as week-kneed, sentimental or having double standards.
It occured to me as I mentioned my tears that
this thread may even be labelled attention seeking gimmickry.

In the US of A, they now reluctantly acknowledge the
"immigrant edge"
(or other names it may be called by)

Immigrants often come with mindsets of castaways determined to survive through struggle.
They are full of the fear that
their offsprings would simply not make it if they do not struggle and COMPETITIVELY WREST
their growth milestones.
(a fear
- please excuse the strong word)

So they
(sometimes cruelly) pressurise their children to push to perform.
The children
grow up fully prepared to scram extra miles to offset any disadvantages they may have owing to their immigrant backgrounds.

Its do or die.
A child who has NEVER faced "or die" from its peers
may, going forwards, let himself off his own hook
(as your daughter was unconsciously doing until you closed that option)
as an adult later on.


Disproportionately high entrepreneurial, scholastic and other achievement.

However, look,
you cannot love and fear simultaneously.

Don't believe it? TRY!

I TAKE NOT AN ATOM AWAY FROM THE VALUE OF FACILITATING LEARNING AS I HAVE BEEN DOING (and as - judging by this post and this thread - Suvro does)
OR FROM "Asimov's aphorism"
I seek to learn to
correctly fuse a tiny trace of the other value with it.

the once in a bluemoon frustration I may have had as a facilitator,
a few of the other type
(which Suvro called "cut me dead, or chosen to bad-mouth me behind my back ") is
pre-empted from ever recurring when I
this subtle shift I am working on?

Hard on myself ?
Why not - if it makes me more effective with "my children"?
are you willing to follow suit?

Subhasis said...

Subhasis Chakraborty

Hello Suvro sir,
Reading through your old blogs,I think this one has touched me the most.
In my humble opinion (and coming from a family, where the Bengali middle class mentality rules the day) I can only say that I wish my parents would have learnt some lessons from you.

I think your daughter is truly blessed to have such a thoughtful,kind and sensitive dad.

As for your errors :- Sir, ,the pressure to be ''perfect'' parents is a huge burden of expectation. It is because we define ,what is perfect and what is not,through the spectrum of our own experiences and our wisdom.
Its the will to do good ,and try as hard as possible to use this wisdom in the best way that counts in the end.
So,I think ,you sir have nothing to answer for to the maker.You did your best ,and in that moment ,maybe you could not.But forgiving oneself is perhaps as important as forgiving others.

I wish you many many happy years of fatherhood. And I am sure that your daughter will make you proud.


Suvro Chatterjee said...

Thank you, both Debanik and Subhasis. It is particularly heartwarming for me to see that a more-than-five-year-old post is being read and commented upon again, and so kindly too.