My Conception Story

As the month of March drew to a close in 1993, I traveled to India to spend some time with my terminally ill mother. I arrived ‘home’ on March 30th; my mother passed away on April 25. In those four weeks or so, all spent in the close proximity of my mother, I talked and listened a great deal; I sought to elicit stories and tales about the past that I knew would soon be lost with her passing. In particular, I urged my mother to tell me stories about my father, who had passed away fourteen years earlier; she had borne adequate witness to an important part of his life; she had been his friend and companion. I asked for a recounting of the years following their wedding, the years before I was born–my prehistory. Among the stories my mother told me was how I came to be.

In the 1960s, my father was a fighter pilot in the Indian Air Force, his life spent at various bases scattered all over the country. Before my parents’ wedding my father had served time in what were termed ‘non-family’ bases; no wives or children allowed. My mother had joined him on a ‘family base’ after their wedding; when the Air Force ordered him to move–hopefully to a ‘family base’–she moved too. The logic behind designating some bases ‘family’ and others ‘non-family’ is not immediately clear to me; you might imagine it had something to do with proximity to the border, or their use in combat missions. But amazingly enough, during the 1965 war with Pakistan, while my father flew combat missions out of an air base at Adampur in the Indian Punjab, my mother, along with her seven-month son (my elder brother) stayed at their normal family residence during operations. Indeed, she witnessed a raid by the Pakistan Air Force on the base, and spent time in a trench as bombs exploded not so far away. My mother might have imagined that with my father now married with children, the time was over for him to spend time on the dreaded ‘non-family’ base. But the ways of the military are indeed mysterious.

In the summer of 1966, my father returned home from his flying duties one day and told my mother the bad news: the air force was assigning to him a ‘non-family’ base in the north-east for an indefinite time. It would hopefully be a short posting, a stop-gap measure, but he was needed. My mother could join him later, when accommodations had been arranged, but for the time being, the family would be separated. On hearing this, my mother flew into a rage. How dare the air force do this to her? She had a year-old son to take care of; she would now have to move back home with her parents or with her in-laws, neither of which seemed like palatable alternatives. (She was always a proud and independent woman.) My father for his part, grew increasingly defensive and irate: There was nothing he could do about this state of affairs; protests were futile; this was the military and he had to follow orders. My parents squabbled furiously for a while, a conversation that finally came to an end as my mother tearfully stormed off to her bedroom while my father retired to the living room to read and to calm down in his own way.

Then, as my mother told the story, she thought and thought for a while, and then finally, she strode into the living room, and said to my father, “If you’re going to go away and leave me alone, I want another baby.” As she told me this, my mother leaned over, squeezed my hand tightly and said, “Samir, that’s the night we made you.”

I was born nine months later in March 1967, at my grandfather’s residence in Central India.

On Encountering Resistance And Lovin’ It

This morning my four-year old daughter marched into our living room, and clutching a ‘storybook’–a collection of tales based on Disney’s Frozensaid, “Papa, this is my favorite storybook. I like it a lot. I know you don’t like it, because I know you don’t like princesses.” Having made this announcement, she walked over to the couch, sat down, and thumbing through its pages, began ‘reading’ aloud to herself. (My daughter cannot as yet read, but she likes to make up her own versions of the stories she has had read to her; needless to say, some rather interesting plot twists result in her recountings.)

I listened to her announcement and watched her ‘read’ with some pride.

She was right in surmising that I ‘don’t like princesses.’ I’ve often said uncomplimentary things about ‘princesses’ in front of my daughter: they dress up too much; their clothes won’t allow them to play in the playground, or go climbing or hiking; they seem to spend too much worrying about what they look like. When we see a video of a sportswoman or a female performing artists, I make sure to point out that the athlete looks nothing like a ‘princess’; princesses don’t play guitars or the drums; and so on. You know, the usual things a parent concerned about the relentless ideological assault of the pink princess advertising machine–the toys, the T-shirts, the make-up kits, the stories of being rescued by princes, the unrealistic body images of skinny, blond, white girls–would do. My daughter has clearly been listening and watching; she knows her father doesn’t ‘like princesses.’

But she does like the adventures of Anna and Elsa, and all the excitement, magic, monsters, and animals that seems to enter their lives. (I’ve still not seen Frozen and I don’t think I ever will but I’ve read out a couple of the stories from that book to her so I have some idea of what entertains my daughter.)

But over and above the fact that my daughter is capable of spending time by herself with a book, what about her remark made me regard it with some pride? Well, she does seem to have established some crucial distance between what I want and what she wants for herself; she doesn’t seem to be entirely reliant on seeking my approval–she did not, after all, walk up to me and plaintively ask me for permission to read her book. Rather, she acknowledged a disagreement between the two of us, and then went ahead and did what she wanted. (I would like to think she regards Anna and Elsa’s adventures as showcasing activities that the princesses I don’t ‘like’ don’t seem to engage in–those two get up to considerably more action than the typical princess–and so, in some ways, even her liking the tales in Frozen reflected my interactions with her.) I’ve often told my daughter that she should ‘do what she wants’ and not ‘worry about what other people say.’ Today, she did just that, and what’s better, she didn’t care about what someone in a position of authority had to say about what she liked and wanted to do.

On Being Able To Forge My Father’s Signature

A few years after my father passed away, I began to be able to forge his signature. One day, on a lark, I picked up a pen and tried to sign his name; much to my surprise, a reasonable facsimile stood forth. I stared at it for a few seconds, and then tried again. The resemblance of my production to the original grew; or so it seemed. There was no point to this exercise of mine; there were no documents to be forged, no school report to be faked. I’d just been curious to see if I could emulate my father in at least one dimension, one that had always seemed to capture, quite acutely, at least one aspect of the irrepressible flair I associated with him.  I called out to my mother and showed her my ‘work’: she agreed I had, indeed, made a good copy. There it was: the distinctive ‘P’ of his first name, which required an extravagant loop to close the ‘top’, and then, a quick, seemingly unintelligible sequence of lower-case letters, followed by the extravagant ‘C’ that began his last name, followed by yet another quick run of lower-case letters, and then, finally the closing flourish, a sharp, short line drawn underneath the first and last names, finished off with a pair of stylish dots. I had seen that signature hundreds of times: on report cards from school; on letters my father had written to his brothers, my grandfather, my mother; on official documents pertaining to his service in the Air Force; on various official documents that always seemed to be required by the ever-present state bureaucracy that pervaded our middle-class lives. I had seen my father draw it quickly and efficiently, mostly with a fountain pen. I’d always marvelled at how he closed the loop on the ‘P’; he seemed to throw his fingers and the pen upwards, and then drew them sharply down, so that the closed ‘P’ looked like a balloon floating above the stem below.

I know I carry around traces of my father in me; in the books I read; in the music I listen to; in the pleasures I find in the outdoors; in the ways I respond to the sights and sounds of aviation. I‘ve even tried to emulate his appearance; the crewcut I sport and the aviator sunglasses I wear suggest I haven’t given up on this endeavour. My father didn’t know it, but I paid him a lot of attention. That successful attempt at forging my father’s signature showed that somehow, through all those sessions of observation, I had internalized his actions; or perhaps there was some ‘machinery’ in me that made it possible for me to function in the same way.

I‘ve made note here of how I think my parents live on in me and my life. That successful attempt at forgery might have been another way to make my father alive in me again. As I enter a stage of life–the middle-aged years–that my father never got a chance to live through, I wonder how else his presence will manifest itself.

On Not Being Able To Knot (A Tie)

I cannot knot a tie; I never learned to. Thankfully, my work responsibilities do not require me to self-induce asphyxiation on a regular basis and so I can eschew the wearing of one to work. On the rare occasions that I wear a jacket–the last occasion was in September 2014, when I officiated a friend’s wedding–I go tie-free; it’s a more dashing look. Or so I’m told. And so I press on, reassured that the absence of a tie in my sartorial arsenal does not leave me inadequately armed for this world’s challenges.

Things weren’t supposed to be this way. As a young boy, my father’s occasional tied-and-suited look struck me as impossibly glamorous; I too, wanted the three-piece suit, and the possibilities it seemed to entail. And the surrounding culture of formal wear and occasion-appropriate dressing beamed its approval upon such tastes.  I wore a suit and tie for the first time in boarding school; we were required to wear such an ensemble on our monthly ‘town leaves.’ That institution also required the daily wearing of ties with our school uniforms. Then, I passed over my incompetence in tie-knotting by seeking the assistance of my fellow students. I tried my hand at it myself but the end results were always a little less than inspiring, and I quickly gave up. (An old failing.) Moreover, it was easy enough to remove one’s tie at the end of the day without undoing the knot, and to save it for next day’s wear. A tie once knotted could thus be used again and again. Thus armed, I made it through two years of daily tie wear. Later, when my father’s three-piece suits were handed down to me, I wore them with pride and affection, scarcely believing that I was wearing the same garments I had seen him don so many memorable times. I proudly posed for many photographs in them, hoping I was displaying the same style and panache my father had so effortlessly instantiated. But I still could not knot a tie; sometimes my brother helped out, sometimes an older male relative.

Suits and ties were scarcely ever required after my school years. I wore them occasionally to weddings and interviews but I have not attended too many of either, and thus have only had to ask for tie-knotting favors on very few occasions. Once, as a graduate student, I needed a tie knotted for a job interview, and was helped by a kindly neighbor; on other instances, indulgent friends helped out. (For someone who could not knot a tie, I was impossibly picky about what I considered a good knot, thus driving some of the good samaritans who came to my aid to apoplectic fury.)

I’m a lucky man; my work does not require me to wear a tie, and I do not frequent social spaces where their wearing is an obligation. My inability to knot a tie caused me some embarrassment in the past–especially around those who for some bizarre reason took this particular capacity to be one of the essential qualities of manhood–but this particular incapacity has now become some cause for celebration. I dodged a bullet.

Gabriel Rockhill On Never Dying

Over at the New York Times’ The Stone, in ‘Why We Never DieGabriel Rockhill writes:

Our existence has numerous dimensions, and they each live according to different times. The biological stratum…is in certain ways a long process of demise — we are all dying all the time, just at different rhythms. Far from being an ultimate horizon beyond the bend, death is a constitutive feature of the unfolding of biological life….I am confronting my death each day that I live.

Moreover, the physical dimension of existence clearly persists beyond any biological threshold, as the material components of our bodies mix and mingle in different ways with the cosmos. The artifacts that we have produced also persevere, which can range from our physical imprint on the world to objects we have made or writings like this one. There is, as well, a psychosocial dimension that survives our biological withdrawal, which is visible in the impact that we have had…on all of the people around us. In living, we trace a wake in the world.

[O]ur physical, artifactual and psychosocial lives….intertwine and merge with the broader world out of which we are woven….Authentic existence is perhaps less about boldly confronting the inevitable reality of our own finitude than about recognizing and cultivating the multiple dimensions of our lives….They carry on in the physical world, in the material and cultural vestiges we leave, as well as in the psychological and social effects we have on those around us.

I’m fond of saying that my parents ‘live on,’ that they are ‘still alive to me.’ By this I do not mean that my parents are biologically manifest in this world. Nor am I ‘merely’ speaking metaphorically; rather, I think I’m deploying ‘alive,’ and ‘live’ in ways that are sensitive to the multiple meanings and dimensions of our existence that Rockhill is alluding to. One way in which I understood this dimension is based on a experience I had during my boarding school years. In those days, I missed my mother terribly; I was away from home for nine months. One day, while walking through campus, I looked up to see one of the glorious sunsets that my campus’ mountainous location facilitated; as I admired the exquisite display put on my for enjoyment, I suddenly felt comforted by the fact that the same sun shone down on my mother, hundreds of miles away at my home. At that moment, the physical distance between the two of us felt insignificant; my mother was not ‘biologically’ or ‘physically’ present, but she was present in other ways. In memory, in thought, in a placement in my life that could only be described by the word ‘presence.’ She was no longer a ghost without substance. That perception of her presence in my life has not changed with her death: she influences my actions and thoughts; she informs my various decisions, moral and political; she serves as inspiration and moral guidepost. Her letters to my father, the books she read; these continue to inform me of who she was and the life she lived. My memories of her animate my relationships with my wife and my daughter; they provide me guidance in those vital spheres. My evaluative sense of myself is often based in large part on reconciling her perceptions of me with my perceptions of myself. I could, with little difficulty, make similar assessments of the presence of my father in my life.

My parents are not non-existent; they are biologically dead, but they are not ‘artifactually’ or ‘psychosocially’ so.

Standing Back And Letting The World And The Child Do Their Thing

Last summer, I met an old graduate school friend after several years. We chatted and exchanged notes about the intervening years and all the issues that had consumed us in that interim: finding an academic position, the dreaded tenure and promotion process, writing, and of course, bringing up children. Because I came to fatherhood late, we found ourselves talking about very different phases of parenting. At one stage in our conversation, while talking about her teenaged son, she remarked that she had been struck by how–after a certain age, perhaps as early as five or six, her son had, in a manner, grown up on his own with little ‘direct input’ from her; she had watched, in some amazement, as her awkward little boy, thanks to his own peculiar and particular interactions with the world around him, and consumed by his own curiosity and drive, had blossomed into a supremely interesting and ‘switched-on’ young man. She had brought him into this world, but he had built his own relationship with it, found his space within it and partaken of its many offerings, utilizing them in his life as needed, bringing to fruition his own interests and desires. (Forgive me, ‘J,’ if I’m not reproducing your observations with the appropriate fidelity.)

I listened with great interest. I realized that, as part of a thought related to some observations I offered here about parenting, I had often hoped for the world to ‘support’ my parenting; that, exhausted and anxious about whether I was ‘doing it right,’ I had worried that my partner and I were not going to be able to do this bringing-up thing by ourselves; we needed help. What ‘J’ had been experiencing and reporting on to me, was precisely that kind of ‘help.’ For the right place to look for aid with our parenting, for support in our efforts to ‘raise’ our child as best as we could, was at our child herself and the world she encountered: what she would do on her own, in the world she saw and experienced, with her own perspectives and orientations and interests. ‘J’s observations resonated with the kinds of statements I had heard other parents make: they were often amazed and surprised by what their children ‘brought home’ with them, by what they had learned on their own, and indeed, how they had broadened their parents’ horizons in so doing.

It’d be entirely dishonest of me to say I experienced anything other than relief at hearing ‘J’s remarks. Perhaps there was some hope in this parenting business after all; perhaps I didn’t need to be so intimidated and oppressed by the thought that I would transmit my dysfunctionalities and incompetences to my child; perhaps I needed to wait and watch as much as I needed to intervene and guide; perhaps, to let myself be guardedly optimistic as well consumed by my usual despondency, I should prepare myself for the pleasant surprises that await me as a result of the forthcoming interactions between my daughter and the world we’ve brought her into.

Some Parental Wisdom, Easily Dispensed

I’ve been a parent now for some 1281 days. In that time, I’ve learned a few things and been disabused of many misconceptions. Here is a potted summary:

  1. Parents are important, but they aren’t the only game in town. Your child is being exposed to a great deal else: other children (the dread ‘peer group’); non-family caretakers (daycare workers, school teachers); the sights and sounds of your neighborhood; the rhythms of your household and the relationships it contains. Your child takes all of this in, and her reactions to it all help construct her self and her experience of her life. Do not fall for the bullshit notion that your relationship with your child is the most important of its life or yours; it’s one among many. This can be both frightening and empowering; keep these in balance. If you can.
  2. Your child will always remain a mystery to you; and you, in turn, will remain a mystery to your child. Do not try to know more or possess more; recognize and respect the limits of this relationship. Think iceberg; think how much happens away from view, hidden in inaccessible recesses of body and mind. Deal with this epistemic barrier.
  3. Remember your own childhood; remember that you had a sense of your life that was quite independent of your parent’s conception of it. Remember the distance between your life and your parent’s; that same distance exists now.  Do not try to make your child learn everything about you; do not try to learn everything about your child.
  4. For fathers: mothers have a distinctive relationship with their children. Respect its specialness, its distinctiveness, derived from a very particular physical bond, further cemented in some cases, by extended, intimate, nurturance.  Do not be grasping; do not be envious; do not strive for that relationship. It is what it is; leave it alone. You have your own relationship with your child; find out what about it is peculiar and particular in its own way, and help develop that aspect on an ongoing basis.
  5. Human beings are difficult; relationships with them are challenging and prickly. Your child is a human being; and it is all too easy to imagine you have some special understanding of its needs by virtue of some special talent. You do not; you have to work as hard as anyone else. Recognize that you will often be left floundering for help as you deal with your child, trapped in morasses of your own making, unable to safely navigate treacherous shoals of misunderstanding, resentment, and emotional confusion.
  6. You will always compare your child to other children; no matter how much you are told to accept your child as it is, you won’t. But that’s because you don’t accept yourself for what you are either; so understand that acceptance of your child will become a little easier if you are a little more accepting of yourself. Otherwise you will project your failures onto your child. Don’t go there. Leave your child out of it.

I don’t have a top ten list. Six of the best is good enough for now.