Dial M for Mother …

Veteran Indian actor Naseeruddin Shah has published his autobiography. He has spoken about the troubled relationship he shared with his father while growing up that took a turn for the worse and created a lot of bitterness. The clash is on account of typical reasons like the father being the authority figure who tries to determine his son’s life and/or tries to discipline him for rebelling. Shah is honest enough to admit that even he made similar mistakes with his children.

By: Andrew Penner Collection:E+ Courtesy: Getty Images
By: Andrew Penner
Courtesy: Getty Images

Now that is one stereotype that is true to life and we have seen enough of it in our movies. Father’s are shown to bear the ‘stiff upper lip’ while enacting what they think is ‘tough love’ that will help their sons. Even genuine admiration or praise is not given directly lest it spoil them. Typically mothers are seen to bridge the communication gap and play the role of peacemakers. Fortunately in most relationships this is only a phase that passes over once the son becomes an adult and takes charge of his own life.

I and my elder brother grew up in a traditional middle class Tamil brahmin family. There was no ambiguity about how our lives were to be run – my mother was a homemaker while my father was the bread earner. To our eyes, he had the most important job in the Government office and everything related to him was priority. A hush would fall by the time he returned home and we would quietly pretend to study our books. My mother was adept at using him as the ultimate threat, ‘Do this or Don’t do this or I will tell appa once he comes home.’

But my appa was just an ordinary man who was mostly jovial and would love to provide the best he could for us. He would give us small treats whenever possible. But we too made mistakes in getting into his bad books especially whenever he had a bad day at office. And somehow he never had the kind of patience that my mother had – beyond a point even the most harmless prank could rile him.

Still things went along fine till the time I became a teenager. I saw a great fight once between my father and elder brother when he wanted to join an MNC Pharma company as a Medical Representative. My brother eventually won that battle. At a much later stage my father was not happy with the flat my brother bought, but by then it was no contest as for better or worse, increasingly my brother started to take his own independent decisions. It was interesting to note then that my father was proud of my brother but chose never to praise him to his face.

By then I was in college and odd fights would break out for the most inane reasons. Whenever my father was angry, he would go into a shell and withdraw himself. It would pain me but I would find it impossible to swallow my ego and be the first one to make peace. My mother intuitively had learnt this routine, I guess, that had happened in the past as well. She would diplomatically break the ice for us.

I have recollections of such funny battles that seemed important at that time – once I wanted my father to shift his loyalty from Indian Express to Times of India. It is the silliest thing to fight for since everyone tends to develop a habit for a paper and that is not so very easy to change. I finally had my way but had lost interest by then. We merrily continued to take the Express. My mother wittily remarked to me that having my way had been more important to me than wanting to reading the paper of my choice.

But it was a seesaw battle – my father would not listen to me when I wanted to pursue a BA degree in English Literature instead of a B.Sc. I was bitter about it for quite a while – funnily enough I topped my F.Y.B.Sc. class and it was galling to see my father feel so vindicated about his decision. Eventually I felt that I had avenged my loss when I opted for NMIMS in Mumbai instead of staying at home and studying at Symbiosis for my MBA degree. By then amma too had enough of our silly fights as she termed it.

I was most bitter about my father’s decision to re-construct our ancestral home in Chennai while amma, anna and I looked forward to buying a flat in Pune – a place where I had spent my childhood. The house caused a lot of hardships and heart burns in the family. It was tragic to note that even my father no longer wanted to leave Pune when he was critically ill.

Finally I graduated and was slated to join work. But just before that my father passed away at our ancestral home. My company was kind enough to accommodate me and I moved to Chennai to be with my lonely mother. I stayed in the same ancestral home that had caused such genuine anguish to all of us. And I came to terms with all that was my father’s legacy. It was during this time that my mother narrated to me various anecdotes about my father being so proud about my achievements and happily sharing it with our family and friends.

And yet the old disciplinarian in him never allowed him to say a word of praise to me in person. I am told that a daughter enjoys a very special relationship with her father. I cannot say for sure whether that would have been the case with my father as well since we did not have a sister. All I can say is that while reading Naseer’s experiences with his own father, I recollected many of my past memories. ‘A shy and awkward boy who could easily share a laugh or a secret with his mother, but who found an inexplicable chasm between himself and his father …’


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