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Wednesday, 2 June 2010

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Fathers and sons (or daughters)

My friend Shanthi Abeywickrama asks me, ‘was your mother proud of you?’ I think all parents are proud of their children, but parents don’t always say it out loud because parenting is a life-long vocation and as such no parent would pass out blank cheques to their children, who might very well cash them at inopportune moments. Maybe it’s a South Asian thing. There is affection. It is shown. A pat on the back. A word of encouragement. All this is there. Still it is rare for parents to go overboard with praise. That they do in private. To other people. Not to the child.

Shanthi asks, ‘Why are people so close to mothers and why is it they write only about mothers?’ The question left hanging is not spoken: ‘why this neglect of fathers?’ It is an old question. It’s perhaps best asked in the wonderful T.M. Jayaratne lullaby, ‘Amma sandaki...’ (mother is a moon...) written by his wife, Malini Jayaratne. A couple of lines will give you the drift.

Piya senehasata kau gee liya una madi (there’s not enough poetry written about a father’s love). Piya senehasa nethida daruwani handunanne? (Do not children recognize a father’s love?) Ammavarun pamanada mathu buduwanne? (Is it only mothers who are to attain enlightenment?)

It’s true, come to think of it. There are very few Sinhala songs about fathers. That’s what this song is about. And it was written (ironically?) by a mother/wife. Are fathers less present in our growing up? Are they (too) aloof? I don’t know. I can’t speak for others for all of us have unique relationships with our parents and our children. My father chides me every now and then about how I am bringing up my children and I respond irritably, ‘What do you know about bringing up children; you were hardly around when we were small!’ Thinking back now, I remember hearing ‘hurt’ in the silence that followed such unnecessary and unthinking outbursts.

He was not around in the way our mother was. Years later when someone told me that there was this fundamental difference between men and women I thought he was talking about my father and mother. This is how it went:

‘Women known the birthdays of their children, when each has to be vaccinated, what time they have to be taken for piano lessons, what time they have to be picked from cricket practices, what their colour preferences and food preference are, what their allergies are; men are only vaguely conscious of some short people living in their houses for about 15 years!’

Thinking of myself, as ‘father’, I felt that Malini Jayaratne was being a tad generous. I felt, ‘yes, it is only mothers who go on to attain enlightenment’ (on account of merit acquired, on account of having perfected the paramitas, those virtuous qualities one has to cultivate in order to achieve ultimate liberation). Mothers nurture in ways that are beyond the comprehension of fathers, however much they might want to be part and partner to that process. Amaradeva’s song, ‘Thaaththa unath’ alludes to this ‘fact’.

But fathers are present. They just don’t get it right most times. My father didn’t thrash us when we did something wrong. That was Ammi’s turf. Mine hit me once with a stick. Just one shot. He controlled with ‘presence’ and ‘silence’. He had his way of educating, of making the transition from infant to child, child to adolescent, adolescent to adult less rocky, traumatic and painful as it could be. Speaking strictly for myself, my father gave me two things that have been constant companions throughout my life: chess and the word.

We are told that we know we have reached middle age when we look at the mirror and start seeing our fathers. I haven’t seen him in the mirror, no. But I do see him in me. And others do too. My father speaks into his beard. He’s so soft spoken that one has to sit at the edge of the chair and strain to get what’s he’s saying. People make the same complaint about me now. It is ironical because there was a time I used to complain that he was being incoherent.

There are two things about fatherhood that was part of my growing up. The first, a poem written by my father to his, in the first collection of his poems to be published (Twenty Five Poems). This was I think the first in that collection and a dedication of sorts. I remember a couple of lines.

‘You kissed me much, last time we met’. And then the last line: ‘...but this, my first poor giving, which you shall not receive’. My grandfather died before I was born. And so, my second father-story, I used to think, was about him. It is a song my father sang quite often: ‘Oh my papa’ by Eddie Fisher (the internet tells me). The lines I remember are slightly different from what the internet offers. This is what I remember.

Oh, my papa, to me he was so wonderful

Oh, my papa, to me he was so good

Gone are the days when he could take me on his knee And with a smile he’d change my tears to laughter

Oh, my papa, so gentle, so adorable Deep in my heart I miss him so today.

To me, as a father now, these are the same sentiments that are expressed in TM’s song. Not the same meaning, but it’s the same thing. It is as much about himself as about his father. We are insecure creates, us fathers are. Aren’t we? We shouldn’t be. We love our fathers, regardless. And our children love us. I am not sure if I’ve answered Shanthi’s question, but I’ve answered some questions I’ve been tossing aside for decades.

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