In the name of the father

In the name of the father

In the name of the father

Knowingly or unknowingly, most fathers expect their sons to follow in their footsteps. The idea may be to perpetuate their business or profession, or prolong their own lives through proxy, or establish a patriarchal right. Whatever the reason, it’s not surprising since perpetuity is a continuing desire in the human race, writes Shreekumar Varma.

When Italian businessman Vito Corleone considered his line of succession, he found his youngest son Michael quite reluctant to join the family business. Being educated way beyond his family, he had other ideas. As luck would have it — or destiny or don-genes or the velocity of paternal desire would have it — Michael finally replaced his father, outstripping his seniors, outplaying the Don, slipping so comfortably into the old man’s shoes that he soon grew more calculating and vicious than even his father.
It’s true, there’s no saying what a rising son will do.

Well, that’s The Godfather. The ‘business’ is a little too extreme there for milder, non-fictional people like us. But the mechanics of desire and succession is about the same everywhere. Fathers, even the most open, liberal, ‘modern-minded’ of them, are bound to harbour a chunk of expectation regarding their sons. That’s how a father’s made, whether he likes it or not. If not a blatant wish to have them follow in his footsteps, at least an untold aspiration, a fingernail-slice of desire, to gently guide them on their way. “He’s mine, he’ll do what I tell him,” he thinks even as he waves his hand and announces magnanimously: “It’s his life, he’ll make his own way.”

It’s a seed of longing. The idea may be to perpetuate his business or profession, or prolong his own life through proxy, or establish a patriarchal right, or simply do the right thing for his son. Most of us don’t even know a reason. I remember bedtime when I was five or six; everyone else hung on, only I had to leave the room. I knew I was going to miss something precious. Same thing: fathers want to miss nothing; even when they move on, their little clones will be in place, watching closely. Is that a reason? I don’t know!

Dreams galore

Long years ago, my father’s cousin — their closeness dating back to junior school — came to visit. They had a daughter and son. I watched in surprise as the son swept through our house like a genie unleashed. His parents had absolutely no control over him. My mother smiled nervously.

My father attempted to look lenient. The boy leapt from the terrace, balancing precariously on a ledge. My uncle shook his head. “Let’s see how kind his destiny is!” It was one of the most despairing, helpless, cruel things I’d heard.


“First I wanted him to join the IAS. Then I thought he’ll follow in my footsteps, get into some Government-run public limited company,” he told my father, his words ringing clear even today. “Now I just hope he’ll be useful, and not harmful, to society.”

Meanwhile, his son vanished into our kitchen to vanquish cutlery. He prised books from their shelves and pretended to read voraciously, laughing at his own antics. He became an aircraft with extended arms as he ran past a shelf of exquisite but doomed bric-a-bracs.

We watched in a desperate trance. My uncle, whose brothers were all celebrated intellectuals, had nurtured ambitious dreams. We saw those dreams drying out in his eyes. The boy’s was a pricey activism. The parents lived their days in tension. There was no saying when a bone would break, or worse. Medical bills were frequent. School reports were horror stories. We kept hearing of his trivial dismissal of laws — institutional, social and natural.

When I got a job in their city, I visited them and went for long walks with my uncle. I rarely saw my cousin. “He’s busy with his gang,” my uncle said. They lived in a lane that grew dangerous after dusk. My cousin was responsible for keeping the peace, aided by his ‘cycle-chain gang’. “Otherwise, it’s not safe for girls to walk alone.” My uncle had a gravelly voice that made it difficult to detect emotion.

When my uncle died, I visited my aunt. She and her daughter welcomed me. Her son was fast asleep. No one dared wake him up. “I told him you were coming, but he’s like that.”
As I was leaving, her daughter whispered to me, “Don’t think badly of him. One of his friends got injured in an accident. He fought with the police and the hospital, got him admitted, gave blood and stayed up with him the whole of last night.” With a tight smile, she added, “They all look up to him.” My only thought was that my uncle’s final dream hadn’t gone in vain.

The hopeful father isn’t just an Indian phenomenon. An article in The Daily Mail from six months ago suggests that parents in the UK had a similar tradition of expectation. However, things have changed and sons not only veer away from their fathers’ calling, but deliberately choose to do something drastically different. A survey shows that today only seven per cent of children follow in their parents’ footsteps.

The article quotes current James Bond, Daniel Craig, as saying he knew from a young age that he didn’t want to be a pub landlord or merchant seaman like his father, or an art teacher like his mother. He wanted to be an actor. Fortunately, his parents supported his dream and his mother took him to theatre classes at the age of six.

The most famous example of this trend, adds the article, is Margaret Thatcher. She, of course, didn’t grow up to be a grocer. It’s a twin-powered trend, actually. Children consciously moved away, and onto other pastures. And parents started actively encouraging their children to pursue other, more financially rewarding, careers. From 46 per cent ‘conformity’ in Victorian times to only seven per cent now is a striking departure.

Class distinctions

The article also quotes an ancestry website’s content manager who says that occupations were often dictated by social class in 19th century Britain. This single idea, translated into Indian circumstances, gives us a bright insight into our own father-son passing-the-pillow. I hadn’t known much about class distinctions in the UK until a professor who’d read my first novel told me at a University conference in Scotland: “This isn’t unique to India. We have a class system too. We can spot class simply by the way a person makes tea or holds his teacup.”

So it’s clear. One reason for keeping to your father’s profession was that it was difficult to go beyond your class. You couldn’t hope to cross the line to find a more refined occupation. And, of course, you wouldn’t come down to try something below you either.

Consider this in the Indian context. You’ll find the scope of this article opens up the reasons for the original caste system and its later corruption. Briefly, when my father’s a baker, I become a baker. When your father’s a scholar, you become a scholar. Soon, you store and hoard information, thus clutching at power. You use that power; and I’m kept baking all my life. My son becomes a baker, yours a scholar.

Ages later, we have indelible lines separating us. It’s so easy to travel from hereditary access to proprietary right! And thus, the father’s wish becomes the right legacy, the caste system in stone. So you see this: a father’s innocent wish to see his son in his mould, or continue his undying work or keep up the purity of his perspective was actually the springboard that launched the caste system. It soon influenced everything and became the underlying reason for the compartmentalisation of people and people.

I started writing about a father’s kith-wish, his plans for his son, and see where I am! The king had his prince, the politician became place-holder for his son, and I had my dream’s repository. The times have changed though; you can’t get people to follow you without reason, even your own son. That’s the general reading on the wall, though you do find increasing public evidence otherwise.

The actor prepares his son who strains and squeezes out meagre talent, but he’s out there, being his father’s son. The architect, lawyer and doctor hold their office for their son. Art and craft can be taught, and so surgery, logic and design, but not an indefinable something that sparks universal recognition. Genes may carry forth talent, but will they ensure hard work, discipline, stress-management and serendipity? A father’s son should branch out and find his own level. The world is big enough.

Perpetuity is a continuing desire in the human race. The yaksha asks Yudhishtira: What is the greatest wonder? He replies: We find countless people dying every day, yet we feel our own life will go on forever. That’s the greatest wonder! Your children give you respite from that knowledge. You feel the baton will continue down the track. As for me, I don’t complain. Though my sons chose art and sound engineering in preference to writing, they did start — and are still — writing. Today’s reluctant successor could also end up as the Don, better than the old man.

Get a round-up of the day's top stories in your inbox

Check out all newsletters

Get a round-up of the day's top stories in your inbox