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August 8, 1997


Prem Panicker
My Father's Son
The potter's wheel I guess I need to start off this one with an explanation of sorts.

This particular column of mine is intended as a look at life the way I live, see, and feel it. Which, right there, is both explanation, and excuse, for the personal tone of my writings thus far.

Why this needs mentioning at the outset, here, is because, for the second time on the trot I find, as I sit down to write, that my thoughts go back to my father... to incidents in our relationship which, at best, could be characterised as love-hate... to re-evaluations I have been forced to make about some of those incidents following his death...

Believe me, I do not intend to make you, the reader, a kind of human handkerchief for me to cry into. Neither do I intend for this column to become a kind of long-lasting, public wake in memory of the father I recently lost. So if I am reverting to him here, it is only because the incident I want to describe taught me a valuable lesson or three about life... a lesson I want to share with you...

It goes back to when I was very young. Till age eight, I was brought up by my grandparents. When I turned eight, 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. So, at that stage, 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. As far as I was concerned, their interaction was restricted to ensuring that my homework was all done, that there were no problems in school, that I had all I wanted, and "Okay, son, be a good boy, now run along and play."

Which, of course, I did, quite happily. I mean, we are talking seventies here. A time when life was a lot less complicated. We didn't have psychologists and psychiatrists 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 neighbouring kids. Did my homework. Ate. Slept. Woke up next day to do it all over again.

And yes, I read.

Reading was escape -- before 'escape' became a fashionable word to use. It was excitement. It was an opportunity to lose myself in the world of make believe. And above all, reading was fun.

Child balancing comic books on his head And 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.

And 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 I had 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.

At that age, I didn't know the implications of the phrase 'cold turkey withdrawal'. In retrospect, though, that is what I used to suffer during those periods -- serious withdrawal symptoms. To the extent that I would sit for hours, staring at the open pages of my textbook and see 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 would be there, bound volume piled on top of bound volume. And above them would be 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, my nostrils flaring to the smell of brand new picture books, my hands grabbing for the bunch of goodies, impatient to read them all at once...

I was 12 years old when the routine changed, without warning.

I woke up as usual in the after-exam euphoria. My eyes flew to the right -- and, horrors, found my bedside table totally empty of my beloved comics.

I remember scrabbling 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, 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. Came back, walked around the silent, empty house. Wandered into my parents' room, hoping maybe the comics were lying there. Even scrabbled 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 range. The title, Doctor Sally. The author's name: P G Wodehouse.

I remember picking it up, flipping through the pages and wincing at page after page of dull black print on greyish-white paper.

And not one single, solitary picture except the caricature on the cover.

Irritation made me chuck it aside. Boredom made me pick it up again.

At some stage during the day, I began reading it.

It's like a junkie -- coke, or acid, or whatever, may be his preferred high. But if he cannot lay his hands on whatever it is, then he will hit on marijuana, if that is all that is available.

It was like that for me, that day -- my beloved comics were inaccessible, so I kind of struggled through the words of that book....

I guess the sensible thing to have done was to wait till my father got home that evening and remind him that my exams were 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, in my continuing state of being comic-less, I picked up Doctor Sally and continued to read.

A few days later, I finished it, and laid it aside, smiling despite myself -- it really is a most hilarious tale and, 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 knowing 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.

Within a year, comics bored me...

When, in February 1996, I first began writing cricket reports, it was out of necessity. Quite simply, because Rediff On The Net was just starting out, and there was no one else to do what needed doing.

I still remember the day an email landed in my box. The writer 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 empathises. 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 were my preferred gifts, and it used to be, for the most part, Wodehouse.

Cover -- My name is Asher Lev by Chaim Potok Till that day, when I opened the gift-wrapped package and found, to my initial disgust, My name is Asher Lev, by Chaim Potok.

Chaim who? just about summed up my reaction then.

I mean, give me a break, here -- all I wanted was to lose myself in the adventures 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 need this?

In the event, that was what I got -- so that was what I read.

Have you read that book? It is 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.

He is caught. And thrown out.

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 tells him, okay, 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 Jewish patriarch responds: "Asher, 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 tonnes of hate mail that keeps pouring in after some of my more exasperated, 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 response I can make is that 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, when I was young enough to be impressed, to be affected, to be influenced, by it.

Several times, in course of my eight-plus years in the media, 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, or 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 now live and work, 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, I guess, is the final lesson my father taught me. A lesson I learnt on March 17, when I lay prostrate before his corpse, tears flooding my eyes.

Lying there, I was conscious of just one thought: I loved him. I owed, to him and his vision, whatever I was. 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....

Illustrations: Laura Fernandes

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Prem Panicker