One of the gifts of raising children is witnessing their developing relationship with one’s parents. “Nana is so funny,” my daughters often say about my father. You only know the gentle version of our family patriarch, and your reaction to him always reminds me to update my own impression of my father.
We are on family vacation as I write this column. My younger brother’s family, my parents and my own family. We are a group of 12, the youngest is almost four and the oldest almost 80 years old. Both my niece Aditi and my father Trilok are the source of the greatest humor and magic in our journey.
My dad, like every other dad I know, likes to be in control. He gives directions, knows the best routes and lets everyone else know what’s best for them. He is an expert in home remedies and yoga and sets a good example. The only complication in the family ecosystem is that his descendants and their spouses, even as adults, have gained inordinate amounts of experience and often do not need direction, guidance, or advice on how to do day-to-day things.
“Drink Haldi with hot milk,” Papa advised me the night before we left. He heard me coughing on the phone. “Okay, Dad, I will,” I told him, although the thought made me sick.
As soon as we were on the freeway with two cars, he called me from his car to see how I was doing. “I think I’m getting a fever,” I told him.
“Did you put Haldi on your neck this morning?” he asked me.
“Yes, I did,” I said.
“What about last night?” he asked.
I said yes and held my head in my hands as soon as I hung up the phone. I had lied. Effortless. The fear of being blamed for my own symptoms of illness had set in, and before I realized what I was doing, I lied to cover it up. I was both shocked and amused at how quickly old patterns return when my parents, brothers and I get together.
I’m pretty sure dad has the same insights as it’s heartwarming to see how hard he tries to be a gentler, more affable, paternalistic presence. His instructions are now less about studying for exams and staying away from TV and more about how best to cut mangoes, brew organic tea and miracle cures for sore feet.
“What do you study?” he asks my daughters to keep up with them. They share with him what their latest projects are. “That’s nice, but what do you want to be when you grow up?” he will ask.
Like most of their peers, the young adults shrug and say that if they choose, they will choose. At that moment, they realize how funny their Nana is because he cannot accept her consolation of not knowing the answer as her definitive answer for now. He tries to provide them with ideas, most of which make them smile.
More than a decade ago, in my mid-thirties, I had spoken to my therapist, Father Os, about my fears and barriers. “What are you afraid of?” he had asked.
“I’m afraid of hurting my father,” I said haltingly in a low voice.
“You can’t hurt your father,” Father Os said calmly. He wanted to relieve me of the burden of taking responsibility for my father’s feelings.
“Talk to your father,” he said to me another day. “Not the person he is, but the person you imagined and built and held in your mind.”
That clicked for me, slowly. I began to realize that I needed to free both Dad and myself from my childhood memories of unresolved conflicts between us. He was both my idol and the person whose disapproval I feared most. If I had felt helpless as a child, it was also true that as a first-generation engineer from his rural homeland, he was also struggling for agency and identity in the big city.
Over the decades, as I had grown up, so had Papa. We both tried to hit the refresh button in our relationship as father and daughter.
From my stories about our very strict father when my brothers and I were teenagers, my daughters know that their grandfather is a much kinder, gentler version of his former self. Their interactions show me that my daughters grandfather has finally discovered the sweet, caring parent in himself. This is a win for the whole family.
— The author is a filmmaker and author.