Friday, March 16, 2012

A Daughter Writes

“It’s a girl,” they said, and everyone was happy. One man was thrilled, delighted beyond measure, ecstatic. His first child was a boy and he had been secretly hoping that they would be blessed with a girl this time.

I was quite little when my mother first told me this story, and like a child, I let my imagination do the thinking for me. I imagined Dad doing cartwheels, somersaulting through the air, unable to sit still out of sheer excitement on receiving news about the birth of his much-awaited little baby girl.

It was only when I grew a little older that I realised how wrong I was. Dad has always been a quiet, soft-spoken man. Jumping around shouting and whooping was never his way. Nevertheless the knowledge that I was loved and awaited long before my birth was enough and went a long way towards building my self-esteem.

Growing up, there were a lot of things that we didn’t have, but the things that were really important we never went without. Dad and Mum saw to that. They skimped and saved and gave and forgave. While Mum’s presence ensured an atmosphere of love, affection and security for us, Dad became the weather in which my childhood thrived.

He was never one to spout words of wisdom. So we children merely watched the way he lived his life and picked up whatever lessons we could. One character trait of Dad’s that I have always admired is his patience, a quality that I sorely lack.

Between Dad and Mum, Dad was always the strict one. Or so I used to think. So whenever I wanted something, I used to go to Mum first, believing that she would be more amenable to suggestion. And yet that didn’t stop me from interrupting raucous playtime sessions for the pleasure of bounding towards Dad when he returned home from work. It was a strange mixture of love and fear that Dad evoked in me then.

Dad used to do a lot of activities with us. He would take us out to watch English films at the cinema hall, a big treat in those days. Many childhood summer vacations were spent with him taking us sightseeing around Bombay. Busy as he was, he would make time for us, and it was with a thrill that we would realise that the outing delighted him as much as it charmed us.

Dad was my original Mr Fix-it. So whether it was the broken nose of my disfigured and tattered but still favourite doll that he stuck with Araldite or whether it was an Algebra problem that defied my comprehension, it was to him that I turned. 

Most of the time, he fixed the problem for me right away, setting aside whatever he was doing. 

Only occasionally would he refrain from intervening, believing firmly that some brokennesses were for me to solve. 

Or live with.

Whenever my childhood friends and I played “house, house,” the girl assigned to play the role of the father just disappeared for a while to signify that the father goes to work in the morning and returns in the evening. We had no idea what happened at workplaces, so the “fathers” in our games had nothing much to do except pretend-dress up and leave for work and then come back after a while and ask for tea.

But at home, our resident Mr Fix-it was always busy, fixing and mending anything that was broken around the house, clocks, watches, taps, toys and what have you.

Often as a kid, I would wake up in the middle of the night, frightened out of my wits by the sound of the calendar flapping against the wall, or by the strange interplay of the shadows that everyday objects cast around the room. At such times, it was “Daddeeeee,” that I would call out hesitantly.

No matter how deep he was in the throes of sleep, Dad would wake up and come to my aid. Far from ridiculing my fears, he would dutifully switch on the light and peer under the bed to reassure me that the monsters I feared were not real. His action taught me that courage lay in facing one’s fears.

Much of that love I accepted as my due with nary a thought. But it was only after I became a mother that I understood the depths of a father’s love, of the sacrifices that a man becomes willing to make for his offspring. And how love far from being a warm, fuzzy feeling, is always an act of the will.

And so, on March 17, his birthday, I salute my father. For all that he gave me, and all that he withheld for my sake, for all the lessons he taught me through word and deed, and all the lessons he let me learn for myself, for giving me deep roots and for teaching me to fly.

And on this day, my very own Father’s Day, I salute all those men who take their roles as fathers seriously.

Men who make changes in their lifestyles for the sake of their children.

Men who willingly undertake domestic chores that they always shunned, and happily feed, change and bathe their little kids, and yes, wash them after a toilet episode, with or without gagging.

Men who play rough-and-tumble games with their kids.

Men who turn homeward joyfully, delighted at the prospect of seeing a wide smile on a little face and of feeling little arms around his neck.

Men who dream epic dreams for their children, and are hurt when their children dream different dreams for themselves, but rally around eventually.

Men who strive to give their children those things that they didn’t have when they were growing up.

Men who make time to teach their children to ride bicycles, do school projects and a hundred other things that will be forever lodged in the memory banks of their children.

Men who feel rewarded when their children rush into their arms.

Men whose hearts somersault when they first hear their children call them “Dadda,” or “Papa” or any other word in any other language that is sacred because it means a father.

Men who realise that merely having a child does not make them fathers; they must work at being good fathers day after day.

Men who are prepared to always be on the steepest learning curves of their lives because the issues that matter keep changing as the children get older.

Above all, men who realise their own weaknesses and frailties but are still determined to make a success of this tough job called fatherhood.

A mother gets nine months to get used to the idea of the new life within her womb. But for a father, the transformation is the matter of a moment. No matter how closely the man has followed his wife’s pregnancy, no matter how well he is informed about trimesters and cravings, and other pregnancy jargon, he is swept off his feet by the miracle of birth.

Love wells up within him with all the violence of a piano falling on him from a fourth-floor window. He is transfixed by the fact that that little helpless new creation is a replica of him, his legacy to the world.

After my daughter was born, I was so tired after the superhuman exercise of giving birth, so full of the prodigious feat that I had accomplished, that it was with a quaint mix of delight and surprise that I realised that mine was not the only life that had changed forever. My husband was cradling our first-born in his arms, holding her tenderly, and gazing at her face.

He told me afterwards that he was entranced from the first moment when the doctor showed him the scrawny little being that was our baby. He asked me, "Do you believe in love at first sight?" I didn't answer. I didn't need to. The answer was there in his wide delighted eyes, the look of absolute devotion that would override all other expressions when he gazed at our daughter.

I saw, with surprise and awe, that while I may have given birth to the child, my child had given birth to the father.

From the beginning, my husband was amazing with our daughter. He knew instinctively when she was hungry, when she needed to be burped, when she was asking to be rocked, when she wanted to sleep. It was a treat to watch them together, and I was amazed at how right his instinct was. In those early days, he was patience personified, never losing his cool, slipping effortlessly into his new role as a father. Three years later, it is a role he is reprising with our son.

Motherhood is the most fulfilling tough job in the world. In its own way, so is fatherhood.

Being a dad is a difficult yet immensely significant role. It requires a man to seek to be involved in every stage of his children’s lives, putting their needs foremost, delighting in the milestones they achieve and agonizing over their heartbreaks and losses, fumbling to do the right thing for them out of a sense of duty and love, struggling to be a good provider and protector, and weeding and pruning the young ones during the growing season and running the risk of being unpopular sometimes.

As he gets deeper into his role, a father strives hard to raise a perfect child, in spite of his own imperfections. He struggles to make his young ones feel secure, in spite of his own insecurities. He juggles feeble knowledge of child psychology with conviction honed over a million years. He knows that he must strive to be a better man because his children are watching him more than they are listening to him.

But the job has its satisfactions. If he is a good father to his children, then it is more likely that his daughter will be a better mother and his son a better father, when it is their turn. Fathers who are involved in their children’s lives also give them a head start in life by imbuing them with a sense of physical and emotional security and building their self-esteem.

When a dad does his job right, the whispers of his actions are felt across time. Generations of daughters and sons will, I am sure, wholeheartedly agree.


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