Wednesday, June 13, 2012

My dad is a travel agent

Allan Bloom professor at Cornell wrote his classic bestseller "The closing of the American mind" in response to a campus disturbance that shook Cornell. Bloom recounts a post card he received from a student on his first visit to Italy, the student had written "You are not a professor of political philosophy but a travel agent". Bloom exulted 'nothing could have better expressed my intention as an educator. He (the student) thought I had prepared him  to see. Then he could begin thinking for himself with something to think about'. When I read that I thought of my father. Does saying 'father' sound better than dad? Saying 'dad' carries a different collegial camaraderie too.

During my visit to Lake District in UK my brother and I took a short cruise ride. We mused about how dad, despite growing in provincial towns, has an intellectual sweep that is pretty impressive. My eclectic interests and idiosyncrasies too come from him. Passion for science, pursuit of incorruptible knowledge, uncompromising pursuit of perfection, ego, humility in the presence of true excellence, deeply compassionate and quick to temper he is quite a bundle.

When we got our first two-in-one tape recorder, a Panasonic, we kids were thrilled to record good old Indian radio programs. He came home one night and we gladly told him that we recorded Tamil movie dialogues  in the blank tapes he had bought to record music. Aghast more about our lack of choices to listen than about losing his tapes he took the tapes and recorded western classical music in 20 tapes. He had not grown up listening to Beethoven or Mozart and lacked any formal training in music though he remains a good singer. He got a local friend, whose family hailed from the ancient Abhraham Pandithar family, to record western classical music. He instructed them never to split a music between two sides even if that meant wasting space. He could not tolerate breaking a musical piece in 2 sides as he felt it would spoil the holistic experience. Hearing a lot about M.S.Subbulakshmi's rendition of Bharathi he wanted to buy it. He asked the store owner  to play a sample and hearing M.S. mangle Bharathi's word in Sanskritised pronunciation he just walked away. One day he surprised us with Latha Mangeshkar's Meera Bhajan. Those days there was no or anything to tell him 'here is what others bought similar to your past purchases'. My brother and I marveled at how my dad would mention about Rabindra Sangeet.

Bernard Shaw's 'Ceasar and Cleopatra' is a big influence on him. His most loved quotes were 'do I have to bite everyone just to shew that my jaws are strong', 'let it burn, a shameful memory' (referring to burning of library of Alexandria) and how Caesar tosses the enemy list refusing to kill his erstwhile enemies who he had defeated. Another favorite quote is from the Book of Esther from the Bible. When the jews face imminent destruction and Esther, unaware, is quiet her uncle warns her 'do not think that if you do not help we will be forsaken. Help will come from above. Who knows, the Lord might have put you in this position only so you can be of help to your people in their hour of need'.

His faith is simple and sustains him in moments of great trials. Unlike many Christians he is comfortable  in enjoying the many facets of Indian culture though it may be overtly Hindu. Whether it is enjoying Sivaji's 'Karnan' or Bharathi's poems or even visiting temples. For three generations our best family friend is a Brahmin. When my friend's mom applies sacred ash as we head out for exams my dad would smile and in fact ask us to keep it on. When science and faith collide he would not hesitate to take sides with science.

Teaching students is a great passion for him. He would lay a great stress on simplifying a concept and breaking it down for a student to grasp. So many students, of every caste and religion, remain steadfast friends across decades. For a doctor his handwriting is very beautiful and he would insist that his PG students should write legible case notes. If the case notes was scribbled he would tear it up, sit down and rewrite it legibly himself.

For 4 years he trained me in public speaking. He taught me how to ascend a stage, how to give a gentle smile before opening the speech, how to modulate, how to look across the audience, how to tailor a speech to an audience, how to speak both Tamil and English properly without an accent in either, how to keep the opening simple 'Good evening everybody' and much more. He would first deliver the speech and record it. Then I'd render it. We would then play it back and forth to compare and correct. My Tamil teacher could never reconcile himself that a boy who spoke English good 5 minutes ago could turn around and deliver a speech on Bharathi equally well pronounced without a trace of English accent. Father loved Tamil literature but he is not jingoistic or chauvinistic about it. Most self styled Tamil enthusiasts give him allergy, like wise it is so for me even today.

Seeing how we kids were getting sucked up in reading trashy Tamil comics or just weeklies he consciously tried to get us interested in reading better books. When it comes to books he is at his uncompromising best. He will NOT respect Kannadasan's trashy set of books on Hinduism, he would be discerning and merciless in denouncing what he does not like.

When he referred a relative to a certain doctor that person was surprised he said "hey you and him do not get along so how come you are sending me to him", my dad replied "but he is the best for this surgery". He would not hesitate to refer his patients to somebody else if he thought a certain surgery was beyond him.

Once he attended as chief guest a function at St Peter's High school where he had  studied. St Peter's instituted 350 years ago was the first school to teach English to Asians. Dad gave a complete mono-acting of 'Pygmalion'. He loved such flourishes and could carry it off too.

I am extremely picky on food. I insist on certain combinations and cannot accept anything less. Dad loves good food and is very picky. Mom, thankfully, is a great cook. One day I got an email from my dad that listed out various combination what kind of chutney goes with what main dish etc etc.

Studying in MMC in the 60's he was swept up in the DMK wave that raged across the colleges. But having grown out of it he repeats that we, especially me, not fall a prey to political activism. Caught up in journalistic fervor during the Arun Shourie vs Rajiv days I wrote an article on the anti-defamation bill that Rajiv was spear heading. My dad's very respected scholarly Pathologist gently chided me saying 'hey I'd have been proud of you if you had written about beta Thalassemia'. My dad calls such forays as 'bromides'.

More than anything he was open with us boys. He would often speak of his mistakes in hot blooded college days and say "learn from my mistakes". He did not create any illusions of his infallibility. Oh another favorite quote from dad is what his chief surgeon told V.K.Krishna Menon "you do not just call a spade a spade you call it a bloody spade'. My dad and I are guilty as charged on that.

It would be remiss to omit mentioning my mother who was the anchor for all this intellectual wandering. She was the disciplinarian who insisted on regular hours of study, had her feet on the ground, ferociously protective of her boys and more. Seeing that my Chennai based cousins speak Hindi the first thing she did was to engage good natured person to teach us Hindi. That my brother was able to go to UK at considerable financial risk was mostly due to her.

I've to stop somewhere. There is no way I can end this blog. When veteran political commentator Tim Russert died I heard a lot about how much he loved his dad. Russert had written a book about his father titled 'Big Russ and Me'. Thousand's of readers were touched by that book and wrote to Russert about their own dads. I got that book for my dad. Since then he calls himself Big Russ.

To Big Russ, 'Happy Father's day'.


Raj said...

well written summary of ur love and affection...Aravind...Congrats....

Rathan said...

Great dad and so are his kids

Iam not sure if I can bring up my kids like him but it's worth a try

Thanks for useful info and wishes to you All (dads)