It’s been five years since one of my most beloved students, with whom over a period of 19 years I had developed a very close relationship after his father died in his teenage, abruptly broke off all connections with me and vanished from my life. The wound has not healed yet – not least because it keeps being rubbed raw every now and then, and maybe also because I have not succeeded well enough in making myself immune to the vagaries of human relations, because I take people too seriously, give them too much space in my life to work mischief in. So I was remembering how many others have been temporarily – usually for a few years – so filled with fascination and affection for me that they started, like this old boy, not only to call me a ‘father figure’ but, carried away by a sudden upsurge of emotion, publicly declaring that they loved and respected me even more than their biological parents. Trust me, there have been not a few, though most of them male (females have their own problems, which I have learnt to accept with a sigh; they generally stick with ‘silent admiration’, which I have dealt with adequately elsewhere). When I get that sort of feedback, I grin wryly inside my mind, and wonder how many months such ardour will last, how soon I shall fade into oblivion. I am rarely surprised.
I have been lately meditating on death, and love, and solitude and things like that. Also, on being a father (interested long-time readers will remember earlier posts I have written on the subject, such as A father’s abiding woe and The world we are making for our children). Not only because I have dealt with very many different kinds of fathers professionally all my life but because trying to be a good father has been one of my strongest and most abiding ambitions since the moment my daughter was born (it’s not a very common ambition, I know too: far more people want to be ‘successful’). And now a major phase of my life and hers is over: she’s gone to live away from me. For the rest of our lives, I shall have my memories, and she will have the opportunity to judge for herself, from a distance both mental and physical, what daddy did for her and meant to her…
As I was saying, I have dealt with a lot of fathers in the line of work, and I would be the last person to generalize about what they mean to their children – especially after the children have grown up. I have routinely met highly irresponsible, uncaring, uninvolved, uninterested fathers, who believe their job is only to supply the money and make occasional pious or threatening noises when the kids seem to be stepping out of line, period. I deal with complaints about absolute bullies, control freaks with warped outlooks whose sole (or at least major) aim seems to be to make life miserable for their children. I meet with doting ninnies who raise pampered brats who will never, mentally speaking, stand on their own feet. I counsel fathers who take limitless lip and worse from their ill-brought up wards because they are too ‘afraid’ to draw the line. I also happen to know some generally nice people, but I have met precious few fathers in my life whom I can admire and call worthy of loving and respecting, unless you confuse ‘respect’ with fear, old habit, greed (of property to be inherited in due course of time) and socially required hypocrisy. Remember that quote from Oscar Wilde?
And I do not merely criticize other people, either. My own father was a miserable specimen. The most charitable thing I can say about him is that he neglected me instead of tyrannizing, and so he didn’t entirely succeed in ruining my life: I grew up my own way, by my own lights, learning everything from my own mistakes and follies and people whom I had elected to look up to, and that has given me a degree of freedom and confidence and self-respect that most people of my age and milieu can only timidly dream of. Also, my grandparents on my mother’s side were my real parents, and much of my ideas about what good parents should be like I imbibed from them, as well as from great fathers both historical and fictional, men like Tagore and Atticus Finch, some absolutely sublime teachers among them.
So I have long had unusually clear ideas about what a father should mean, and what you should mean if you say you love and respect him, what kind of commitment it entails, and how careful you should be before you call someone a father figure. Few people feel any genuine enduring love even for their own fathers: why drag other people into that sacred precinct unless you mean serious business, and have the spiritual strength and depth to carry the burden of that seriousness for any length of time? What’s the point of my seeing more of the Sudipto Basu and Stotra Chakraborty types anyway: haven’t I seen enough, are there still lessons to learn?
Love, I have said a thousand times in my class, is the most used and most abused word in the world, even when applied in the commonest contexts, as between romantic couples as well as the parent-child relationship. Martin Luther King jr’s autobiography is tellingly titled Strength to love. Loving requires wisdom as well as strength of character. Lacking these, no one can ever truly love anybody: one will pretend to oneself, make believe with the so-called loved one, vacillate, gush one day and drop off the next, cheat, suspect, blame, hurt, restlessly keep looking for ‘better alternatives’… in short, do everything in the name of love but love.
As some people with eyes may have noticed and even reflected upon, I have put ‘father’ even before ‘teacher’ in my one-line self-description which is permanently fixtured on top of this blog. Also, my conscience is clear: I have always believed that as with money so with love, one must give before one can even hope to receive, and I have tried to give of myself, as a true teacher must, unstintedly to thousands over a very long working life. Hundreds acknowledge their debts fondly but don’t venture too far in declaring their love and fealty; a far bigger number forget, because they never found anything of lasting interest in me; a few score bad-mouth me. To the first category I openly declare my loving gratitude over and over again; the others I, too, ignore and forget, because the lack of interest is mutual. But those who make me write this sort of stuff I can neither forgive nor forget…