My Father’s Son

Prem Panicker
Managing Editor, Yahoo! India
The Water Cooler

The story goes back to when I was very young. Thirty days after I was born, my parents took me to the ancestral home in Calicut, and there I stayed in the care of my grandparents till age eight. That was when my parents figured I was old enough to not be a 'nuisance', a burden to two professionals whose minds were set on developing their respective careers. And so I was taken away from the care of my grandparents, and began living with my parents in Madras.

Neither mom nor dad had much time for me — both worked crazy hours and when they did get home, they were more intent on catching up with each other. Their interaction was largely restricted to pro forma inquiries about my schoolwork, a pat on the head and an exhortation to 'run along and play' — a parental edict I was only too happy to comply with. We are talking seventies here: a time when life was a lot less complicated. We didn't have psychologists prosing on about how childhood neglect would produce warped adults; nor did we have magazines featuring articles on the right way to bring up a child.

So I went to school. Played cricket with the neighboring kids. Did my homework. Ate. Slept. Woke up next day to do it all over again.

And yes, I read.

Reading was escape; it was excitement, it was an opportunity to lose myself in the world of make-believe. And above all, reading was fun.

What I read was comics. Phantom, Mandrake, Superman, Batman… you name the comic, I read it over and over till it was in tatters. And then I read the tatters.

My father fed my appetite. Twice, thrice each week I would find the latest comic on my bedside table when I woke up. And every six months, he would take the entire pile with him to work, and bring them back a day later, beautifully bound.

The only change in this routine happened come exam time. The day I brought the exam schedule home, all my comics, old and new, would be collected and locked away in my father's cupboard. I was expected to study, sans distraction.

It was some years before I would become familiar with the meaning and implications of  'cold turkey'  withdrawal — but what I went through when my comics were taken away was every bit as traumatic as anything I was to experience in later life. I would have my textbook open in front of me, but what I saw on those pages was Tarzan swinging along the arboreal heights, off to battle on behalf of Jane. Or Phantom, the Ghost Who Walks, the man who cannot die, riding off on Hero to battle piracy on land and sea.

And then the final exam would be written. And that night, I would go to bed, smiling in anticipation of the morrow.

Sure enough, next morning my bedside table would be piled high with comics — all the old ones, volume piled on top of bound volume, and above them the latest ones.

It's a feeling I still haven't forgotten — waking up on the morning after the final exam, my eyes going automatically to the comics, the thrill of grabbing them by the armload and piling them on the bed, scanning the covers, trying to make up my mind what to read first.

And then one day, when I was 12, the routine changed. I woke up as usual to after-exam euphoria — and found to my horror that my bedside table was totally empty of the beloved comics. I remember scrambling out of bed and racing into the living room, hoping to catch my father or mother before they left to work, thinking maybe it was some horrible oversight — maybe they had forgotten that the holidays had begun.

There was no one there. My parents, as usual, had left my breakfast on the table and gone off to work.

I wandered the house, disconsolate. Stood in the balcony watching the passing parade of life. Walked around the silent, empty house. Wandered into my parents' room, hoping maybe the comics were lying there. Even scrambled under my father's pillow, hoping he had left the key to his cupboard there.

Finally, when it got too hot to stand out in the verandah, when I got too bored with tossing a ball at the wall and, on the rebound, practising the forward defensive stroke, I slumped down on the living room sofa in a daze of disappointment.

The morning papers were there, neatly folded. And beside it, a book.

Even today, I can shut my eyes and recall its appearance. The rust-red border that was typical of the Penguin imprint. The title: Doctor Sally. The author's name: P G Wodehouse.

I remember picking it up, flipping through the pages and wincing at the pages of dull black print on greyish-white paper, unleavened by even a single illustration. Irritation made me chuck it aside. Boredom made me pick it up again. At some point, I began reading it.

The sensible thing to do would have been to wait till dad got home that evening, and remind him that my exams were officially over and could he please give me my comics, thank you very much. But I had this stubborn, willful streak in me, which prevented me from asking for something that I figured was my due anyway. So, when I heard the sound of the key in the lock that day, I hastily put aside the book and, after the ritual evening tea with my parents, went off to play.

Next morning, I picked up Doctor Sally and continued to read. A few days later, I was through. It really is a most hilarious tale, one that to my mind ranks among the best that "English literature's performing flea" had ever produced.

Next morning, when I went into the living room, I found that Doctor Sally had disappeared. In its place, there was Laughing Gas, by the same author.

I picked it up, and began to read…

That was pretty much the story of that summer vacation. One book after another would appear on that table — in thinking about it now, I guess my father must have been keeping an eye on the bookmarks (a book lover himself, my father had taught me never to dog-ear a book) and thus knew when I was through with each book. And that was how he taught me to read. Without an order given, a word exchanged.

It was all very subtle. A Wodehouse or three later, I discovered a Perry Mason on the table. A while later, an Agatha Christie. An Enid Blyton. One day, it was a text edition of Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice. Tales from the Mahabharat. The condensed version of The Three Musketeers.

Comics began to bore me.

When, in February 1996, I first began writing cricket reports, it was out of necessity. Quite simply, because Rediff.com was just starting out, and there was no one else to do the job.

I still remember the day an email landed in my box. The writer, himself a well-known byline, took issue with some observations I had made in my report of the previous day's play. And, at the end of his criticism, he added this line: "In matters cricketing, the head disagrees with you, but the heart empathizes. You write with passion, and that is a rare and, to me, a valued commodity."

I read that mail, and found my eyes misting over. Because yet again, my thoughts went back to the past. To a long ago birthday.

Books had already become my preferred gifts — and it almost invariably was a Wodehouse or three. Till that day, when I opened the gift-wrapped package and found, to my disgust, something titled My Name is Asher Lev, by Chaim Potok.

Chaim who? just about summed up my reaction then. I mean, give me a break — here I was anticipating another tangled tale of Bertie Wooster and his near brushes with matrimony, and I get what the back cover tells me is the story of a Jewish boy with an overwhelming need to draw and paint. Like, I needed this? [Sample Chapter]

In the event, that was what I got — so that was what I read: the story of a boy who, despite the proscription of his religion, wants to do nothing but draw and paint. So, sitting in shul, he pays no attention to the rabbi, preferring instead to fill the margins of his book with drawing after drawing of the teacher. Until he is caught. And expelled.

Reluctant to go home, he wanders the streets, and falls in with an elderly Jew who turns out to be a painter. The Jew takes Asher to his studio, gives him easel and canvas and brush and palette, and invites him to paint.

Asher paints. The face of the rabbi, over and over again. Each version leaves him more dissatisfied than the previous version. And the last futile attempt to capture his subject on canvas leaves the boy in tears. At which the elderly Jew asks him, "Asher, when you think of the rabbi, what do you feel?"

"I feel hate!" Asher replies.

To which the artist responds: "If you feel hate, paint hate!"

It is a very difficult thing to do, that. To lower your defenses, to express yourself not just from the head, but also the heart. Because each time you do that, you reveal a bit more about yourself. And the more you reveal, the more vulnerable you make yourself, the more you expose yourself to hurt, to ridicule.

And yet, to my mind, that is the only way to write. True, your feelings may not be acceptable to the majority — as witness the tons of hate mail that used to pour in after some of my more critical comments about the Indian team. Sometimes, readers write in and say, hey, I can understand your anger, your anguish, but I cannot understand how you forget objectivity. Fair enough. The only possible response I had, and still have, is: I paint it the way I see it.

And it all goes back to that book my father was wise enough to make me read at an age when I was young enough to be impressed, to be influenced by it.

Several times, in course of my twenty-odd years as a journalist, I have had people write in and tell me that they thought a particular article I had just written was well expressed, or passionately written, whatever.

And, each time, my mind would flash back to my father. To how he taught me to read and, in the process, inculcated in me a love for words and for writing. And in my heart, I would feel an immense gratitude for that moment in time when he locked up all my beloved comics and left Doctor Sally on the living room table.

Funnily enough, though my father did his very best to discourage me from taking to journalism, he was prouder than the proverbial peacock of the articles I wrote. We were, by that time, hardly on speaking terms — yet he (and I learnt this only after his death) had got a friend in Bombay, where I lived and worked, to buy the newspapers I successively worked for, scan them for my bylines and courier him the clippings, all of which he preserved, arranged by date and subject, within plastic binders which he proudly displayed to neighbours and friends alike.

I did not know this. I did not know that he took pride in my writing.

Just like he did not know that each time someone paid me a compliment, I realised afresh that I owed it all to him.

Neither of us knew that the other felt, because neither of us knew that it is not enough to care — you also have to show that you care.

And that is the final lesson my father taught me. A lesson I learnt on March 17, 1997, when I lay prostrate before his corpse, my eyes blinded with tears. Lying there, I was conscious of just one thought: I loved him. I owed whatever I was to him. And I never had the grace, the courage, the heart, to tell him so.

I never, in all those years, took the two seconds it would have taken to say, "Thanks, dad!"

And now it was — is — all too late….

[This piece was first written in April 1997, the week after my father died, for Rediff.com where I used to work at the time. The link is no longer available -- but the thoughts of gratitude, of loss, of missed opportunities, remain as vivid as they were then. And hence this reiteration, in slightly edited form, to mark yet another Father's Day when a fatherless son looks back at all that he received, and all that he lost].