FATHER & SON: A LIFETIME JOURNEY

Last night, my father was felicitated as a real-life hero by one of the biggest stars in the world on a television show – my personal journey to seeing him as a hero took forty years.

Mr Bachchan’s Touching Personal Tweet on the Morning of the Telecast

One of my fondest memories of my father was waking up early in the mornings and seeing him out on the verandah, perched on his favorite rocking chair, scratching out his novel onto the pad propped on his knees. Through my bleary little eyes, I used to marvel at his dedication — I struggled to wake up early during exams and he did this almost every day of the year!

Like all children, my father was my hero. For the world, he was known as a prolifically creative author, painter and cartoonist, but for me his most remarkable quality was that he never imposed his parenthood. In fact, he trained me to call him by his first name. So when he came home from work in the evening, I would drop my cricket bat and run to him, happily shouting: ‘Hiii Aabid!’ Outsiders were sometimes shocked. But most remarked that we looked more like friends than like father and son. And that made him happy.

Teenagehood happened. And gradually, without realizing it, my opinion changed. I began resenting the fact that, unlike my friends’ fathers, he could not afford to buy me roller skates, then a skateboard, then a bicycle, then a Zx Spectrum computer. I blamed him for not being ‘fatherly’ enough in teaching me worldly things — how to shave, how a bank works, how to drive a car.

I didn’t realize it then, but I spent my adult life trying to not be him. In my twenties, I sought solid father figures, in bosses and in spiritual teachers and left home; I looked to these new ‘fathers’ to tell me exactly what to do in every situation. Because that’s something my real father never did.

Since I secretly blamed him for his unreliability and his selfishness in pursuing his joy, I became the opposite: a steady dependable breadwinner who earned enough money that my son would never see me as a loser. Dad’s Bohemian spirit could not survive in an office for six months, I stuck to a corporate desk for more than a decade. With a sadness veiled as pride, I confessed to friends that everything I had wanted to enjoy in life — my first cellphone, my first car, my house — I had had to buy myself.

In between my busy career and marriage, the distance between us grew into monthly phone calls, mostly initiated by him, which began awkwardly and ended abruptly. The distance between us had grown so much that when he began a neighborhood campaign to save water by fix leaking taps for free, he didn’t tell me till many months later.

In my forties, after my son was born, I began seeing him differently. I experienced such an intense love for my son — I wondered if this was how my father must have felt when he saw me growing?

After I quit my full-time job to become a consultant in 2012, I began spending more time with him. In early 2013, I wrote a blog post called ‘Saving The World One Drop At A Time’ about his one-man NGO, which now had a name as quirky as his personality: Drop Dead Foundation. My blog post went viral and was translated into Italian, Spanish, Greek, Malagasy and Russian. Word of his inspirational campaign spread and he began getting more praise, awards and love than he had seen as an artist.

It was a still a home-run enterprise, working from his laptop and living room in a dingy suburb. When I offered to contribute money, he refused point-blank saying this was not a family enterprise, it was a social enterprise: if it had to run, it would run with the support of society or not at all. So I began helping him occasionally with media and PR. Still, I kept a safe distance between his world and mine. As the creative head of a major movie studio, I felt uncomfortable editing his NGO documentary in the ramshackle edit suites that were offered to him free.

As I faced the challenges of my own marriage and fatherhood, I began appreciating him even more. I appreciated that in becoming a husband, he never fully gave up being a freedom-loving human being – what I had all my life put down as selfish now seemed sane. As a father, I found it was more loving to give my son the freedom to learn on his own rather than forcing my conclusions on him. As I watched my son’s intelligence grow rather than his obedience, it made me feel as happy as my growing must have felt for him. My relationship with dad warmed into Sunday lunches, surprise gifts and more regular, friendly conversations. I began working on a documentary about him, put out four English translations of his novels onto Amazon Kindle format, and helped him sell his older books for film and TV adaptation rights.

Then in early November, on one of my little spiritual circle’s weekly group calls with my brother and our mentor GD, the last piece quietly fell in place. One of the participants on the call complained that he forgave others, but never completely. GD asked us to remember all the people in our lives whom we were still subtly punishing. He asked us to connect with that part of us which secretly held on to the energy of a punisher, a mini-tyrant or a stern judge meting out justice to others. “One of the easiest ways to catch where this is operating in your life,” GD said, “is by asking: who are you still subtly making wrong? Who do you think needs to be fixed? Is it your boss, your friends, your parents, your partners, your company…? That’s where the resentment is hidden. The tail of the elephant which you are still holding onto…”

I remembered dad. I don’t know what happened but in a flash was bridged what seemed to be a lifetime’s distance: he became fully my father again.

The following night, I got an urgent message from him saying that he had just landed into the city and needed my help for an interview the following day. I noticed in myself a level of welcoming towards him I had never experienced before. I offered to help him with the paperwork, his clothes, and the questions. I told him not to worry — I would be there for him whatever time he wanted for however long it took.

By chance, I found out later that night the ‘interview’ was an appearance on one of the biggest reality TV shows in India, called ‘Aaj Ki Raat Hai Zindagi’. It is an adaptation of BBC One’s ‘Tonight’s The Night’ hosted by superstar Amitabh Bachchan, the Indian equivalent of Sean Connery. The show felicitated ordinary people doing extraordinary things and dad was being felicitated as one of the heroes because his ingenious effort in water conservation had saved over 20 million litres of water.

En route to the shoot, I spoke to my brother on the phone. He was pleased to hear about dad getting long overdue recognition, and equally pleased at the transformation in my energy towards dad. He offered to send remote core healing for both of us during the hours of the show recording. He pointed out that in my wholeheartedly supporting dad, we were both being supported by the universe.

Backstage at a reality television shoot is a confusing, intimidating world — hundreds of audience members hunting for holding areas or canteens, dozens of crew members angrily muttering into walkie-talkies and multiple layers of security asking who you were. While I was at home in this world, dad was lost. Knowing I was there seemed to calm him. I helped him choose the outfit, guided him on signing release forms, and as we waited for the delayed shoot to begin, we paced across the studio lot till sunset chatting about life. Anyone looking at us would have mistaken us for friends.

The creative team of the TV show, noticing his youthful quirkyness during research, had designed his entry onstage with dancing girls to a Bollywood song. They told him of this idea only just before the show but dad was not flustered. I helped him quickly learn the hook step in the vanity van, but beyond that his lifelong joie-de-vivre and innocence made it a perfect entry onstage.

I saw my father differently as he stood on the stage. I have seen many superstars sharing a stage with Mr Bachchan and they struggle to divert any spotlight away from this imposing legend. Dad was doing it effortlessly, just being himself — a solid human being. Every anecdote was greeted with laughter and his palpable love was returned by the audience in showers of applause.

“It’s not only about water,” dad said at one point. “If you can’t save water, save the sparrows who get cut on kite string every year or help stray dogs who get diseased. But do something for the world which does so much for you.”

We all bathed in the magic of this one human being, alight with the fire of belief, who was making this grand strobe-lit studio stage seem small and hollow in comparison. At the end of the show, Mr Bachchan was so moved he offered a surprise personal donation towards Drop Dead Foundation. Being a media person, I have grown cynical of stars’ grand public acts of charity because I know it’s mostly for PR — later the money comes from the studio, movie producer or channel, if at all. But Mr Bachchan surprised me by adding with endearing humility a small request that this not be a part of the telecast. Dad got up and did a little victory dance.

Backstage after the show, dad’s work continued — he shared brochures of Drop Dead Foundation with the camera crew and the production team, some of whom felt inspired to begin this work in their own neighborhoods. In between post-shoot interviews, he enrolled housewives, schoolgirls, elderly couples with spare time. He wasn’t a hero only when the camera was rolling, he was the real thing.

As I watched the episode later on television, I was a little sad that much of the magic of the evening had been edited out due to time constraints. But perhaps it was perfect — the world didn’t get to see him in his full glory, but I did. And it had taken me a full forty years to see it.

I share this not to say that my relationship with my father is special, but that this is the journey every father and son must make. And the circle between father and son is closed not because a father does something grand and glorious but because a son is willing to finally forgive him for not being the perfect father. Simultaneously he finds he is forgiven for not being the perfect son.

A few days ago, my six-year-old son was having a play date at home. As I sat nearby reading a book, I overheard my son boasting to his five-year-old friend: “My papa starts his work in the night, even before its morning.” I almost fell off the couch. I quietly prayed that my son’s journey from adoring to hating to finally forgiving his father is as perfect as mine has been.

Thank you dad for everything.

With my father and son

With My Father and My Son

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To watch the episode of Aaj Ki Raat Hai Zindagi on which dad appears, click here.

To know more about Drop Dead Foundation or to ask how you can contribute, click here.

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Look Pa, No Rules !!!

Nirvaan at The Beach

My son is at an age when he creates the rules of whatever games he plays. And still gets that the point of every game is to have fun. So if he dashes into a wall in an online game, he claps with glee. Collecting the maximum widgets doesn’t make sense to him yet. He is just as happy prancing around aimlessly.

As he grows up, he will be taught that every game has a purpose. And rules. And only one correct end goal. He will feel sad when he doesn’t reach that end. And frustrated when he feels he’s not good enough. He will get stressed playing the same game. He may begin to feel that if he hasn’t completed or mastered something, it was a waste of time.

Gradually, as he becomes an adult, he will completely forget that the rules came afterwards. Not just in his play – which will become serious and competitive – but in life too. He will forget that the bottomline of the game of life, too, is to have fun. He will believe that collecting the maximum widgets called ‘money’ is the only correct point of this game.

He will buy into the rules: that you can only be happy once you can be described as successful or rich or have a perfect body; or that you can’t live ecstatically until you find the perfect partner or perfect enlightenment. He may add rules, limitations and conclusions around his creativity that don’t allow him to be spontaneous and original. He may even lock himself down with judgments about what he can wear, what he can eat and how he should live in order to not ‘fail’ at life.

But maybe, someday, his own child will come running, squealing with joy towards him across the grass… and tumble. And then laugh with wild joy and do it again because falling is so much fun! And hopefully, that day, my son will remember that it is only a grown-up rule that falling down is bad.

And, in fact, that rules in life are actually arbitrary. The solid realities that bind us are enforced by thoughts and concepts that we have breathed life into. He will realize he can still choose any rule… but he doesn’t have to! And he may join his son in laughing because he will instantly feel freer than he has felt in many years. He will have fun once again in that moment when he is playing the game like he did as a child — without someone else’s rules.

Picture courtesy Vishal Punjabi @ The Wedding Filmer

The Spiritual Gifts of Parenting

Spritual Parenting

This morning I heard a talk by the insightful Buddhist meditation teacher Deborah Ratner Helzer about her year as a monk in Burma. Living in a hut frequented by snakes, scorpions and spiders the size of her hand, she braved malnutrition in the most challenging experience of her life. Everything after that would be easy, she said. Until she became a parent.

Being a parent has been the most rewarding and difficult part of my spiritual life too. At times, I have been almost moved to tears by the lack of control over my schedule. The concept of a lazy day of solitary ‘me-time’ is as extinct as the Dodo bird. ‘Silence’, ‘Space’ and ‘Neatness’ are relics of a bygone era Deborah Ratner called “BC” (Before Children).

For many months, I searched for support on this subject in the form of books or spiritual teaching but found precious little. Recently, though, I have begun to consider the spiritual gifts parenting could bring.

The overwhelming experience of loving someone more than yourself is the most noticeable change for most parents. Nothing broke my self-centered bubble like this incredible love did. In spiritual terminology, it is the perfect heart chakra opener for introverted, ‘mental’ meditators.

Then, there is the obvious privilege of watching Pure Consciousness without stories functioning in human form. And the wonder of re-seeing the world through a child’s eyes. Living with such an unconditioned being throws into contrast your own lazy, solidified behavior patterns.

Another gift, Deborah Ratner Helzer pointed out from her experience, is that being a parent gives a sense of urgency to your spiritual practice. You must carve out the time for your daily meditation – you can’t be casual about it.

Yet another gift, my wife reminded me, is that we become conscious there is a sensitive being who is absorbing our fears and neuroses: a real impetus to look within and clean up our act.

Over the last two years, I have noticed there is also a sense of heightened awareness of the world we are creating for our children. And a responsibility to try making it a little better, kinder place.

But as I learnt during our recent summer holiday to Dharamsala, perhaps the most unexpected gift of parenting is how effortlessly a child can destroy our spiritual ego.

We took little Nirvaan to see the Tushita Meditation Centre. It turned out a retreat was in progress and the entire campus was a Silent Zone. Try telling that to a three-year-old! While I struggled to connect with a little moment of silence and browse the bookstore, I could feel a tug on my jeans every few seconds.

“Papa, can I have a sweet?”
Shhh, in five minutes.
(10 seconds later) “Papa, I want a sweet now!”
Yes, just give me two minutes.
(5 seconds later) “But I want a sweet NOW….”

Being forced to play ‘the-scattered-tourist-with-a-noisy-kid’ in a place where I would normally have been at home, I felt angry with my situation. The frustration continued to brew within as we sat for lunch in the noisiest Tibetan restaurant in Dharamsala. Then it struck me to question which part of me was upset. Was it the spiritual ego that desperately wanted to show off my meditative calm to the spiritual folk there? It was. And thanks to my son, I had failed completely. Seeing this let go of the complainer within, and a silence fell in the midst of the restaurant. This was not the cultivated silence of a garden, it was the genuine, deep stillness of a forest.

I realized that what happens on the black mat during retreats is called ‘practice’ because it is practice for the real thing: Life. At times, real life can seem like a hard, rocky road, but with those rocks, you can also build your church.

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The Best Spiritual Advice You Got In Kindergarten

rowboatYesterday, as I was listening to my mentor GD share his increasingly clear experience of the entire field of consciousness as a dream, I remembered an old nursery rhyme. Repeating the lines one by one, I was stunned that there was such precise spiritual guidance encoded in four lines:

Row, row, row your boat
Gently down the stream
Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily
Life is but a dream

We are conditioned to believe in hard work, control and struggle as the way to go up (stream) in life. The first two sentences offer a kinder suggestion of gently guiding your boat downstream to the goodness and perfection that Life already has in store for you. In two simple lines, the verse captures the essence of what we now know as ‘the law of attraction’.

As long as one believes one is the ‘doer’ of life, the best advice is to row gently and go down the stream. The harder you push, the more reality you give to the false ‘doer’. So take it easy: for life is not a static lake but a stream that has its own natural, divine flow.

In the third line, there is a child-like joy of repetition, which gives the feeling-sense of how life may be lived: merrily. And in case you didn’t get it the first time, we’ll say it four times for you! That’s how much fun this thing called Life is!!!

The most beautiful part of the rhyme for me is the last line. The subtle connection that merriment in life arises not from where your boat takes you, but from the final understanding: ‘life is but a dream’. Go merrily, it advises, for life is but a dream. Again, notice that it doesn’t say that life is like a dream – it says life is a dream.

Reading it again, I noticed how the verse progressively moves from personal to impersonal. The first line has a sense of a ‘you’ rowing a boat. The second describes a scenario of a boat going gently down the stream. The third does not say: ‘you should be merry’. It is simply expressing the pure joy of it – merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily. And the fourth, with one joyous lift-off, transcends the whole of life. In four little lines, the song traverses the whole journey from apparent duality to non-duality, between where we (think we) are and the final understanding.

Now that I am a father (in the dream!) teaching nursery rhymes to my little son, this is the one I would encourage him to hold on to for the rest of his life. Maybe someday, on a demanding day at work, he will hum it by chance and rediscover the same spiritual advice encoded in these four simple lines:

Row, row, row your boat
Gently down the stream
Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily
Life is but a dream…

Ancient Newborn Silence

The first photograph of Nirvaan when he entered our home after he was born.

When my son Nirvaan was a baby, my wife and I would put our ear to his little head. We could sense a deep peace within which is hard to describe. Every baby comes on this planet carrying this gift of silence, and gradually we fill it up with information. As Zen poets use haiku to capture the silence in nature, I tried to capture the natural silence inside all babies in this free-form haiku:

My newborn baby
Listen! Inside his soft head
Ancient silence

Image © Aalif Surti. All Rights Reserved

A Huggable Gratitude Mantra From A Three Year Old

Boy Hugging Planet

A few days ago, I was dejected: the boutique hotel we had chosen for our family holiday called to say they had been sold out just a few hours before. As I walked off into my room gloomily, my three-year-old son tagged behind me, asking me: what happened, papa?

Papa is sad, I told him.

Why, he persisted.

I looked into his serious eyes and decided to give him the truth even though it would not make any sense to him: “The hotel we wanted to stay in for our holidays does not have rooms for us so papa is sad.”

He screwed up his forehead trying to understand, then replied: “But mama is still there.”

I stopped in my tracks. Yes, it was true: I did still have his mama, and him, and my family. And so much more to be happy for in that moment. I took a deep breath. And I realized I had more than enough air to fill my lungs for the rest of my life. I had enough earth to explore for the rest of my days. And my life itself is a pure gift – none of us can ‘earn’ even a moment of it.

That tiny exchange with my son triggered off a little snowball of gratitude. Over the week, I began to see that what I called my ‘burdens’ were blessings I was blaming to avoid facing the real issues; and those ‘real’ issues didn’t actually exist outside of my thoughts. Perhaps the only thing as amazing as seeing how much is perfect in your life is seeing how easily the mind gets locked onto the tiny apparent imperfections.

It turned out to be a challenging week, with a few unexpected expenses, delays and stressful moments. But whenever I found myself pulled down into negativity, I reminded myself: But mama is still there. It made me smile and became my personal code to remind me of everything that is all around serving me in that moment.

Eventually, our hotel room worked out perfectly too, as we have found an even better option – a mountain cottage – for ourselves. But the greater joy is in knowing that, regardless of whether it happened or not, ‘mama is still there’.

The Race of Life

The Race of Life

Yesterday, I revisited one of my worst nightmares through my son.

It happened during his first ever sports day. My wife and I proudly sat in the first row, chatting with other parents and wondering if three-year-olds even ran in a straight line, while the teachers cautioned us grown-ups to behave ourselves and not get onto the tracks.

As the whistle blew, all the other three-year-old boys in his group ran. Nirvaan toddled a few steps unsurely, and then stopped and began to cry. With tears streaming down his face, he looked at the hundred-odd parents sitting alongside the track, pointing and giggling at how cute it was. From where I was sitting, it was heart-wrenching to see him look for us – searching for familiar, comforting faces amongst the crowd of laughing faces. My wife ran to the track, I sat frozen – smiling at him but stiff inside. Even though I didn’t think in words, so many questions flashed in an instant: Was he normal? Were we good parents? Was he not able to handle pressure? Was he unable to face crowds? Would this polaroid moment leave a scar for life?

I had a similar experience when I was a little older than he is. And I can still hear the raucous cackling of the ‘uncles’ laughing at me after a prank they had successfully played on me.  In my mind, their faces are always ugly with laughter while I am always in desperate tears. Over the years, I have hidden my fear of being publicly ridiculed and of crowds beneath a cultivated smart-alecky humor. But this event reminded me that the scar underneath still remains to be healed.

My wife and I carried our son close as we left the sports day event early. His teacher reassured us that he had been tearful since morning and it had nothing to do with him at the race. On the way home, I suggested he should get a lollipop for being such a brave boy. In a few hours, he seemed to have forgotten it all. But the image of him on the track alone stayed in my head all day. It reminded me that no matter how much we love our children, we cannot protect them from life. Every parent has to someday learn to let go of trying to run that race for them.

That is a race they have to finally run on their own.

Image used under creative commons via Scott Macleod Liddle