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The comfort of a father’s quiet presence

The comfort of a father’s quiet presence
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First Published: Thu, Jun 17 2010. 08 06 PM IST

Papa’s girl: Gwyneth Paltrow got her first lessons in acting from father Bruce Paltrow. Lucy Nicholson / AFP
Papa’s girl: Gwyneth Paltrow got her first lessons in acting from father Bruce Paltrow. Lucy Nicholson / AFP
Updated: Thu, Jun 17 2010. 08 06 PM IST
In the high-octane orchestra that is the Indian family, the father is often portrayed as the bass player--a preoccupied provider of the background beat--poring over taxes, peering at the computer, signing off on report cards. He comes and goes, this carrierof a briefcase; speaking legalese or financese; good for a buck and an awkward hug but nowhere nearly as colourful as aunts, uncles, grandparents and the diva-like Mom.
Papa’s girl: Gwyneth Paltrow got her first lessons in acting from father Bruce Paltrow. Lucy Nicholson / AFP
Mothers are complicated and intense, characterized by fierce love for their kids, feral protectiveness, unspoken subtexts; guilt, angst, adoration, hate and envy. All of the above, and often all at the same time. Mothers will subsume themselves for their children. Fathers, in contrast, seem merely present; and that indeed, is a father’s gift.
Mothers get into the guilt routine—“I do so much for you and this is what I get in return?” It is hard not to when you are so invested in your kids; when your children are such a huge part of your identity. Fathers, for some reason, don’t get into that “chakkar (cycle)”. Not as much anyway, perhaps because home and kids traditionally have not been their primary purview. Even today’s enlightened dads who help with homework, pack school bags, take kids to music lessons, and are tuned into the emotional life of their son or daughter are able to disengage from that spear-like guilt that mothers are so good at. That is a father’s gift to his child.
This is particularly true with daughters. Every mother I know has done a number on her daughter; and every daughter I know can push her mother’s buttons. No halfway measures here. A mother loves her daughter in toto: with every cell and every fibre in her being. That’s the problem. Fathers make it easy on their daughters. They slip between the cracks. Their love flows between the cells and—like bone marrow, if I have my metaphors right—offer an omnipresent, stable, nurturing kind of support that is quite different from the high-wire act that is the mother. Fathers offer stasis in the parenting equation.
Fathers accept daughters in a way that mothers, who are caught up in the whole “how to protect and yet improve my offspring” rat race, cannot. All this maternal pressure leaves behind traces in the daughter’s mind. A mother’s intentions, however noble, are not without cost.
Mother says, “I am proud that you are so athletic.”
Daughter hears, “She doesn’t think I am good at my studies.”
Mother says, “Blue looks good on you.”
Daughter hears, “What about green?”
Amid this cross-communication and being at cross hairs, it is easy for a daughter to love her father. It is not that he doesn’t yell at her or set down outdated and antiquated rules about toys, chocolates, extra-curricular activities, curfew time and boys. In some ways, he expects more of her than even her mother. Mom, after all, just wants her to get high marks. Dad—oh, God!—Dad wants her to succeed in life, whatever that is. But Dad, in a weird way, gets her, not just in the superficial “I know your strengths and weaknesses and I am going to mould you into a better person” kind of way but in a much, much more fundamental, “You are my daughter and that’s enough,” kind of way. His accepting eyes are different from her mother’s hopeful ones. Or so the daughter thinks. When Mom throws a fit about her tattoos or multiple piercings, Dad simply smoothes her hair back in that primordial parental gesture that says, “It doesn’t matter. All will be well.” When Mom gushes at her teachers about her academic prowess, Dad will glance across the room ruefully and shrug. Father and daughter share a joke with Mom as the punchline.
For grown-up daughters like me, fathers offer a different pleasure. As a baby, everyone said that I was a mirror image of my Dad. I look different now, but in personality I am a lot like him. It is wrong, what people say. Parents aren’t your past; in many ways, they are your future. They offer you a glimpse of how you’ll end up. In my father, I see my contradictions and my angst; my eccentricities and imperfections. Because I love him, I can accept these frailties as my own—without going through years of therapy like my American friends do.
Most kids emulate their parents in certain areas and rebel against them in others. Daughters of mothers who are terrific cooks frequently hate cooking. Sons of fathers who love golf will frequently not touch a club. We are not carbon copies of our parents. We are permutations and mutations of their genes.
Fathers teach their daughters things. My Dad (who I call Appa) taught me how to cycle; he taught me sentence construction and read the awkward poems I constructed. Unlike my mother, who would exclaim and enthuse at my every little achievement, sometimes cloyingly to my teenage ears, my father’s compliments were pleasantly offhanded. He never discouraged but he rarely encouraged in the over-the-top, “Oh, my God, my little baby has written a poem. This is the best thing I have ever read,” fashion of my mother. As a teenager, I much preferred my father’s barely-there compliments: “That’s nice,” he would mumble distractedly as I showed him my latest creation before turning back to reading Chaucer or Yates (neither of whom I, by the way, have ever read—probably because I hated the fact that they took my father away from me). But, I always started by showing off my stuff to Mom, before rolling my eyes and taking it to Dad.
My father’s teaching method too was different from my mother’s and I think this is true for most dads. Mothers get into a frenzy about teaching. Unknowingly, and almost in spite of themselves, they get into the nag, nag, nag, shove it down your throat, learn-or-else model, all culminating with a final whammy: “I am saying this for your own good.” My father taught me lots of things but in a nonchalant way, usually on demand. When I bugged him about what major to pursue in college, he would never give me choices like Ma did. “It doesn’t matter what you choose,” he would reply exasperatedly. “Just be good at it. Just become an expert.” When he taught me how to drive a car, he used the word “anticipate” a lot. And when I asked him the meaning of words— he was an English professor after all— he always, but always, told me to look it up in the dictionary.
To fathers everywhere—for the things you do for your sons and daughters; for the stasis you maintain in the home; and for the weird, lovable, eccentric, incorrigible characters that you are—Happy Father’s Day.
This one’s for you, Appa. And I did look it up in the dictionary.
Write to Shoba Narayan at thegoodlife@livemint.com
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First Published: Thu, Jun 17 2010. 08 06 PM IST