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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View With A Grain Of Sand

child shell

My almost-five-year-old son is gradually leaving his magical world-without-words for our grown-up world where words obscure, and even replace, reality. A world where a dead stump of a word like ‘man’ does not change whether the body is twenty or forty or eighty. A world where every moment will feel like a previous moment because it can be described by the same words. A world where life itself feels caged within a small, four-letter-word.

It is sad to see him bit-by-bit losing his innate wonder as he excitedly journeys to become a grown-up every day. And once in a while, it is important for us grown-ups to revisit our original, virginal perception too. In which words have no place — except as musical sounds. In which we realize how many lies we must cocoon ourselves within to live our ‘normal’ life.

Here’s some excerpts from a beautiful, mind-stopping poem by Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska that does that job for me. I hope it gives you also a glimpse into the magical world-without-words that we live in once again:

We call it a grain of sand,
but it calls itself neither grain nor sand.
It does just fine, without a name,
whether general, particular,
permanent, passing,
incorrect, or apt.

The window has a wonderful view of a lake,
but the view doesn’t view itself.
It exists in this world
colorless, shapeless,
soundless, odorless, and painless.

The lake’s floor exists floorlessly,
and its shore exists shorelessly.
The water feels itself neither wet nor dry
and its waves to themselves are neither singular nor plural.
They splash deaf to their own noise
on pebbles neither large nor small.

And all this beneath a sky by nature skyless
in which the sun sets without setting at all
and hides without hiding behind an unminding cloud.
The wind ruffles it, its only reason being
that it blows.

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Healing Dad

Aabid Surti

Last year, my father visited my therapist brother GD for a healing session for the first time, almost 15 years after GD began healing. The healing session had been powerful and by the end, dad had fallen into deep meditation. He looked at ease with himself, his eyes steady and chronic cough silent.

As we drove back at night to Mumbai together, expressway lights swishing past the corner of our eyes, we talked more than we had talked all year. And we talked about real things – not things to fill the silence. He remembered the incident when GD, as a toddler, had fallen from a mid-ocean pontoon — how he had miraculously survived certain death. And how, as a teenager, GD had meditated so long he damaged a nerve in his leg for years. He spoke of how he had been incensed with GD as a twenty-something who ate, slept and meditated all day while he worked. And about how my mother cried for months after GD left for Pune to live with his spiritual teacher and stopped phoning home. But most of all, he spoke about how proud he was of both of us today.

Two decades ago, in a family of modest means, a grown-up son’s decision to devote his life to spirituality had real financial implications. And while dad did not ever say a word to stop GD, some part inside had remained raw and sensitive. And until this session he had not allowed himself to fully take support from GD.

I quietly told dad that GD and I often speak of him as a rare father, who gave us freedom and yet supported us. Who did things for us he did not agree with, but maintained his integrity. Who did not shame us because we were not following what he thought was the right path.

Talking to him, I realized how little we know even about those closest to us, because we never talk beyond immediate, daily problems and information. How hurts can lie unexpressed within for years, until distances grow into long empty highways. But most of all, I realized how few words it takes to express appreciation that can be missed for decades.

As I helped dad unload his luggage at the end of our journey under a pool of halogen streetlight, I knew it was not just his healing that had happened today — a circle had been completed and a deep healing had happened for all three of us.

I share this with the hope that you take some time out to rediscover your own parents. To hear their stories, and their versions of your stories. And to thank them for the way their lives arced to make space for yours. Watch them paint images of your life that you didn’t see before. And you show them their own beauty in a new light. So often, under the inertia of mundanity, it is the important ‘I-love-you’, the ‘please-forgive-me’, the ‘sorry’ and the ‘thank you’ that remains unexpressed until it’s too late.

My Father The Author

Aabid SurtiI grew up hearing that my father Aabid Surti was a great writer. He had been conferred a National Award for Literature in 1993 so I didn’t doubt it, but his books were mostly written in Hindi or Gujarati languages, neither of which was a fun read for my English-educated self. So it was not until my late thirties that I actually read a book written by him.

Sufi coverThe first book I read was an English translation of Sufi – The Invisible Man Of The Underworld. I remember I kept telling my wife every few pages how marvelous it was, secretly expecting it would go downhill soon after. But the pace didn’t flag right until the final twist at the end. It was an amazing parallel biography of dad’s life with that of an underworld smuggler, both of whom grew up in the same crime-infested section of Bombay in the 1950s. My wife read it next, stopped communicating with the world for a night and day, and emerged another fan. She recommended it to her parents, and so it went on.

Until then, I had only known ‘Sufi’ as the book because of which dad had received death threats from the underworld – at one point forcing us to leave our home indefinitely with just a suitcase of clothes. His books often caused him problems but I always admired dad’s integrity. He bowed down neither to the underworld, nor to political pressures to become a mouthpiece for party agendas. During the Hindi-Muslim riots of 1992, while city Muslims stayed home, he would go alone for a walk down the streets of Bandra during curfew hours and say, ‘Let’s see who dares to kill me in my own city.’ It scared us then – but he was too much of a man to allow someone else to take away his city.

Rama CoverThough he was neither a political nor a religious man, the 1992 Babri mosque incident – where a Hindu political rally developed into a riot involving 150,000 people – and the ensuing riots in which 2000 people were killed, scarred him deeply. He wrote ‘In The Name of Rama’, a scathing indictment of the ruling party inspired by a true incident about a lone Hindu constable who stood at the foot of the mosque to protect it from thousands of Hindu fundamentalists. The book was a fictionalized back story of this character, exploring what is true love and true faith. I read that next and cried through parts of it too.

His honesty created some more humorous problems for him too.

When he wrote ‘The Golf Widow’ which was the diary of his ultimately tragic love affair with his beautiful Japanese art student, my mother was, to put it mildly, not pleased. But the point of the book was not to boast about a boyhood locker-room fantasy. The book is a meditation on growing old and coming to terms with the life we are given.golf widow

Unlike some authors who stick to their niche, dad’s writing spanned multiple genres. His 80-odd books covered crime, biography, romance, spy thrillers, humor, children’s books, poetry and even erotica before it was available in shades of grey.

It has been one of my longstanding dreams to make my father’s out-of-print books available in English to a global audience. Despite his national award, I failed to interest local publishers. Currently, publishing in India is in that awkward growth spurt where it is besotted by young ‘Indian-English’ authors writing about teenage love. I hope that will expand, not just for dad’s sake but also for all the brilliant writing that is hidden buried in Indian languages.

Finally I took it upon myself to get it done. My brother and mentor GD readily agreed to don his cape as a super graphic designer to create the fantastic book covers. And thanks to Amazon, I have been able to make them available at a terrifically low price. I am super-excited to share the links for the ebook versions of three of dad’s best books in English for the first time here.

Looking back, I read the first book written by my dad mostly because he was my father. But the second, and the third, and the fourth, I read because I had discovered an author who knew how to spin a great yarn and gently evoke a glowing pearl of meaning hidden inside it.

And I do hope you find some pearls of your own to carry away too.

 

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 Picture Perfect Relationship

The Myth of The Perfect FamilyA car parks at dusk in the gravel driveway of a picket-fenced suburban home. A square-jawed man steps out, joyfully greeted by a bounding dog. His photoshop-perfect wife, just back from her high-profile job, kisses him at the doorstop: ‘Oh honey, you must be so tired. Let me fix you a cup of tea.’ As they settle down on their favorite couch, they share the funny incidents of their day. Laughter. They move to kiss. Fade Out.

If this is not what your relationship looks like, this post is for you. If this is what your relationship looks like, come back again in a year.

This post is about the box into which we try to fit our relationships, the parameters of which we have got from books, movies, advertising, sitcoms and ‘80s pop songs. We have an investment in believing things can and should look a certain fixed way. Which involves impossible words like unconditional and eternal love, total trust and unbreakable commitment. With mind-reading ability thrown in.

After the first flush of hormones, it becomes clear that these aren’t happening as natural by-products of romantic love, as we had secretly hoped. So we begin to ‘work’ on our relationship. Instead of altering the ill-fitting suit, we bind and cut off parts of ourselves to fit into it. The beauty is that we are mostly not aware of this at a conscious level. It’s an unspoken struggle between a couple employing cajoling, rewarding, shaming, aggression and threat to get to the picture perfect.

Is it possible that instead of one perfect relationship, there are seven billion different possibilities of perfect relationships, my mentor GD asked me the other day. What if our relationship didn’t need to look like our parents’ relationship – or the rebellious opposite of theirs – to be right? What if a relationship was as unique as our thumbprint?

I find just being open to this possibility immensely relieving and freeing. As I deeply open to this question, I find I am present in this moment to my partner instead of trying to load upon her the heavy shell of how-she-should-be. Even if there is a ‘problem’, instead of an umbrella judgment and rejection, there remains a simple statement of what action of my partner doesn’t work for me.

The best part is that in giving her the freedom to not be the picture perfect wife, I free myself. In this freedom, love, like a happy little brook, comes quietly bubbling up.

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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