& occasionally about other things, too...

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

He was my father

Meghnadurga (circa mid-1980s)

A few days back, Rajesh Macwan, a friend, sent me a few lines of my father Meghnad Bhatt’s poem about the advice that a father, who is entering the fifth decade of his life, is giving to his son, who is about to turn 25. 

But before I get into the poem, let me give a brief background. 

According to the Hindu Vedas, the four ashramas (stages) of a human being’s life are 

  • Brahmacharya (bachelorhood, student), 
  • Grihastha (householder), 
  • Vanaprashta (to give up on worldly life), 
  • and the final stage of Sannyasa (life of a mendicant, a life of renunciation). 
Vanaprashta means to enter the forest. When one enters the forest, one begins to relinquish one’s love for material possessions. Typically, that phase commences when a person enters the fifth decade. In most Indian languages, the fifties end in "Van" (51 = ekyavan, 52 = bavan, 53 = trepan, and so on). "Van" is forest. 

In Gujarati, Vanaprastha is called Vanapravesh. Also, in Gujarati, as in other Indian cultures, the advent of youth is a considered period of foolishness and clueless rebellion; it’s when a person, and especially a man, is no better than a jackass. 

The exact age when this transformation from a human to a jackass occurs is when a man turns 25-year-old.

Gujarati language has a term for it: Gaddha-pachisi. An approximate translation would be jackass 25, an age when young men are no better or worse than jackasses. A relatable reference is the contemporary popular psychological term ‘quarter life crisis’.

Now, let's get back to the couplet that Rajesh Macwan sent me. 

I have attempted to translate the poem into English. I'm not particularly good at translations, but I wanted to include the poem in this blog post which I'm posting on the 23rd death anniversary of my dad, so, please indulge me.

A simpler translation of the title of the poem that Rajesh sent me would be: 

Advice of an aging father to a young son 

But it wouldn’t capture the essence of the angst that the original title and the poem possess.

So, let’s go with the bells and whistle title: 

Advice of a Vanapravesh-aged father to a son who’s on the anvil of Gaddha-pachisi. 

I'm not sure if the improvised, hybridized (English-Gujarati) title works, and if it doesn't go back to the simpler version above. 

And now the poem’s translation

Till yesterday

The one who wore his father’s spectacles and romped around pretending to be “Pappa”

Has suddenly turned critical of bapu-cracy (gerontocracy), Mayank?

There never really was a gap between us, ever

The unasked, unanswered question that ends the poem is: "Or was there? (a generation gap).

Meghnad wrote this in 1985. He turned 50 that year and I was 23. He was at the height of his creativity. He was a successful union leader, having unionized the clerical staff of Mafatlal Group, in the heart of Bombay's corporate world - Nariman Point. 

His journalism was flourishing. He was writing for Janmabhoomi and Pravasi (edited by the redoubtable Harinder Dave). Although rather late, his first collection of poems Chhiplan was published in 1980 to good reviews, and his second collection Malajo would be published in a couple of years. During the decade, he won recognition as a poet from the Gujarati literary establishment. 

On the other hand, I was at a crossroads of my life. I didn’t want to do what I was doing – chartered accountancy, and wasn’t sure I could turn journalism (at that time my steadfast interest) into a vocation. 

He didn’t lose patience at my indecisiveness, and what in retrospect was clearly a sheer lack of purpose. 

I’ve often blogged about Meghnad here, but it has mostly been of how deeply he has influenced my thinking. I haven’t written much about him as a father. And more than a poet, a union leader, a committed leftist ideologue, he was a father.

I could fit a book of the many instances that I remember of him being a father. Today, I’ll narrate just a couple. 

On the evening of my sister’s wedding, after she had left with her husband’s family, Meghnad broke down and wept inconsolably. Nothing would make him stop. He didn’t want to stop. He cried for a long time, lying on the bed. 

My grandmother, my mother and I stood near him, gaping at each other, not knowing what to say or what to do. Later, I asked him the cause of his utter desolation, but he didn’t answer. He never talked about it ever. 

I saw my father cry only twice. The second time was when he reached Bombay from his maiden trip to the United States, a couple of years before he passed away. 

And, here's another instance of him being a dad.

I think the males in the Bhatt family have a genetic defect in the eyes. They all have to wear glasses at a young age. My father, my son and I have had to wear prescription glasses at about the same age. In my case it was in 1974, when I was 12 years old. 

We had moved to Teli Gali in Andheri a couple of years back, but my parents were still unfamiliar with the place, and they had excellent, long-nurtured relations in Kalbadevi-Princess Street area.   

So, I had my eyes tested at the Round Building (at the intersection of Kalbadevi Road and Princess Street) and my glasses made at Ganko opticians (at the intersection of Old Hanuman Lane and Kalbadevi Road). 

That late afternoon, we were returning home from Ganko. I was wearing prescription glasses for the first time in my life.

It was raining and I was unaccustomed to seeing through the glasses. While descending the stairs at the Marine Lines station, I nearly slipped and would have tumbled all the way down to the platform, had Meghnad not grabbed my hand and pulled me up. 

He was angry. That was rare because he was seldom angry. But it was momentary. He pulled me to him and said in a calm tone. “We must be very careful.” A little later, when we were inside the local suburban train, he said, "We must start living in Andheri." 

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