On Father's Day, in search of a new fatherland

I even see the first-floor balcony father would stand watching my daughter playing. On Father’s Day, my eyes cried a little, but there’s not much cry left in them anymore, only the desire to feel the richness of the sorrow I once knew. It’s been close to two years I have not seen my daughter who is now 11. It’s been over a year-and-half that father passed away. Father’s Day?

I may not have done a good enough job, when my daughter was still there, to deserve that honour which, years back, I would dismiss as western clatter. But the phone call from Calcutta, where she now lives, did come through Sunday, and that was it: a 10-minute conversation in which she asked me if I had had breakfast and I wanted to know how she was doing in school. The last few seconds were taken away by the anguished I-love-yous and the I-miss-yous, but I could sense she wanted to talk more, anything.

Speaking on Father’s Day two years back, Barack Obama famously said that “any fool can have a child. That doesn’t make you a father. It’s the courage to raise a child that makes you a father”. True. But I have often times wondered what is it that fathers lack that reflects the doubts and obvious ambivalence so many women — and the Indian judiciary — show about male involvement and parenting.

The boorish, bullying, brow-beating judges — specifically the ones seated in Calcutta — thought otherwise when the inevitable petitioned-battle for access to my daughter in the larger custody war was adjudicated by them. In their competitive frenzy to win and turn around difficult cases, the leech-like lawyers had their own spin on the laws and the probable outcomes. Certain concepts like ‘paramount interest’ and “the best interests of the child” have come to dominate judicial pronouncements and decisions without there being a challenge to the dominance of such vague, but worthy sounding, notions and platitudes. The uncaring and partisan orders and judgements that the vain men in black robes deliver, sometimes by imposing their morally reprehensible and legally untenable notions of reconciliation on divorced couples, smack not just of condescension but also hold fathers guilty, as if they have committed some abominable crime just by being fathers.

I know of one Calcutta judge who, when petitioned to adjudicate a simple issue of wider and comprehensive access of a father to a child, first sought to reconcile the divorced couple and then arrogantly declared in open court that he did not recognise the foreign court order that had decreed the separation and given the child’s custody to the father. Leave alone parents’ rights, it did not occur to ‘the learned’ judge that there is also something called the rights of the child — that the girl or the boy would like to share exclusive moments of mischief and joy, make demands, piggy-back, or go out for a sandwich or share an apple pie with vanilla ice cream with the father. Implicit in Indian court orders arising out of matrimonial/divorce issues is ‘father knows least’ and that the child of divorced parents can grow up best in the mother’s care. It is my sense — and contention — that judges are not just biased in favour of mothers but, on most occasions, play to the gallery, as though women as a category are a constituency that must be appeased and pampered so they could win their promotional laurels in the judicial hierarchy and society at large. Justice is sacrificed on the altar of gender rights and politics.

Friends ask, “So... can’t you see your daughter?” And all I am left saying, looking the other way, is “it’s complicated”, hating to go over and over again the story of a messy divorce and the messier details of a so-called ‘reasoned’ court order delivered by one among a tribe of small men with big egos.

Joint custody

“At a time when family courts are being flooded with petitions by divorced fathers and mothers clamouring to be part of their children’s lives, the courts must view the matter more humanely. One way to settle bitter custody cases is joint custody. But above all, judges must be sensitive to the rights of the child,” says S Susheela, a Karnataka high court advocate specialising in matrimonial cases, including child custody. According to Susheela, “the judges must feel that fathers have been robbed of the years when their children should have played piggy-back with them. Parental alienation is a potentially dangerous social phenomenon that the courts must recognise and use their wisdom to put an end to”.

A Bangalore-based NGO, Children’s Rights Initiative for Shared Parenting (CRISP), has been trying to unite ‘unfortunate fathers’ to promote a culture that would make shared parenting acceptable and easier. Among CRISP’s members are single fathers and others who scoff at those who assert the inherent superiority of mothers. They say — and I agree — that the judiciary wastes a huge amount of energy and money making an end to a marriage more bitter, especially because it has a deplorable understanding of child welfare and outdated and half-baked notions of social concepts in which the father is relegated to a mere ‘visitor’.

I am not bitter anymore about the divorce. My ex-wife is but virtually a stranger. Even the memories of the end to an unhappy last seven years of the marriage are receding. Time may have diminished the pain and the hurt, but I would wait for a Father’s Day when one of the nicest things anyone could say to me — by way of a gift — is that I have been a good dad too. I can’t teach my daughter all the frilly things of being a girl but that — and more — can always be done by “getting to the other side”.

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