The Dream My Father Gave Me

EconHistorienne, in her classic daydreaming pose.

Papa never wanted me to write. To be fair to him, he didn’t imagine one could do this for a living. Writing was like gully cricket in Patna’s congested alleys which would melt into loo-colored nullahs at the first shower; it was an unreliable game dependent on too much weather and too little on education. The predictable successes that would emerge out of sincere devouring of unimaginative books for civil service examinations consumed his vision for my future. I wouldn’t need them; I would bypass the mediocre to clutch at success like a gifted babu made in my mother’s cerebral womb. Writing was for the lesser mortals, the less ambitious, the idle minds who never tire of daydreaming.

Stacks of journals on my bookshelves didn’t ever interest him. All he cared about was if I had stolen his weekly stock of India Today and Outlook. Then, to be not discovered for my love-laced poems or stories was a relief, but in hindsight, I now think it would have been a blessing if he had discovered the fruits of my poetic spells much before I had resigned his dreams for journalism, the closest I could get to a job that allowed me to write and get paid for writing.

In those days, I would wake up middle of the night, walk over to the terrace next to my room and plonk myself on the writing desk with the table lamp illuminating the pages of my journal. In the dead of night, I wrote and wrote till my fingers ached. I woke up late on the weekends. My mother called me ‘padhaku’, the one who is consumed by studies. She was the only one I desperately wished would stumble upon my journal accidentally. Mother knew I was writing, but my love poems scandalized her. She never read them, though she was a poet herself.

My writing was left to my own devices then. Uncritiqued, unappreciated, uncared for, it grew like weed and waited for a violent uprooting by a hyper organised clutter clearer with scant regard for poetic exuberance. Each day, voices other than the one in my journals grew feebler, living a lowlife next to the singular idea of success presented to me since my pre-teens: the Indian Foreign Service (IFS). One by one, my father kept unveiling ways for me to get there. General Knowledge was important, so was an understanding of politics, history, and science. English and law, he said, were in my blood and in Hindi, I had a natural advantage, thanks to mother. He expected these would enable an easy transition to the IFS, but the more I learnt, the more I thought of breaking out of the path laid out for me. My grandfather was a lawyer, all his children studied law, a majority of them became judges, and one of them joined the state bureaucracy – a respectable precedent for a family immersed in learning. My father was a judge; I could join the IFS. My future journey was plotted like a carefully manicured lawn; all I had to do was to walk into it and flower.

Every Sunday when father was home, he softly injected the belief that there was no other vocation as fulfilling as the IFS. For this ambition that demanded my single-minded devotion, my siblings and I heard the jarring morning invocations for study on the weekends when he was home. “Rimjhim (my pet name)! Start early, learn by reading aloud, always write and revise!” he would yell to me. I loved sleeping (I still think it’s my favorite pastime) so it was a punishing schedule. Newspapers arrived first, and I enjoyed reading them. At night, sharp at 8, there was the news bulletin on DD National which we as family watched and discussed together. My younger sibling Belu (not the one to challenge the status quo ever) listened intently as he went about discussing India and the world. I remember telling myself how much I loved my father at this moment – the only moment when we could disagree or debate with him over current affairs, or our developing stance in politics or our understanding of history for hours and he wouldn’t lose patience.

These debates constituted the collaborative effort of a family towards a common ambition – our careers in bureaucracy. To all this, my brother reacted like an outsider, almost invisible to us, and us, invisible to him. He was there but he wasn’t quite there, never speaking, never looking like he was even remotely into it. To occasional questions posed to him, he would just look at my mother and ask: “Ma, would you fill up sacks and sacks with money and give me a helicopter to fly when I grow up?” I remember the day he asked this the first time and my mother laughed. My father didn’t share her enthusiasm. He said, a bit annoyed: “Your sisters would become officers, and the degree of your disinterest shows you can be their orderly at best.” He wouldn’t understand much and he didn’t care, and that was the best part.

We all had our dreams, but the dream assigned to us was just one, common to all of us. Our desires and abilities were impervious to the common ideal posed for us to emulate. The thing about my dreams was, they were one too many! At eight, in a scarlet red journal that I kept to interview my friends, the first interview was mine, and I noted under the heading – future ambition – tennis player, writer, actor, marathon runner. This was quite a range of aspirations to nurture in childhood but I was miserable for dreaming so much. I dreamed everywhere, every waking moment that I was in school, in the orchard in the backyard of my father’s large government quarters, in the bathroom, on the stairs, in my mother’s closet when no one was watching.

Lost to the winds on the guava tree, I felt strongly about nature (and may be, love but I didn’t quite understand what it was) and hummed a few lines. I was struck by my own lyrical outburst and I thought to myself, I made a poem! I was restless afterwards. When I walked up to mother to tell her about it, I had forgotten the lines! That’s when I started keeping a diary. I never wanted to let go of the words that arose from my chest and fluttered out like birds out of my lips. Mother would often walk into a delirious me speaking to myself and her voice will mock me: “Don’t close the door. What the hell are you doing?”

What the hell was I doing, I asked myself in college. I was marching past my own expectations of me. I was studying History, Economics and Politics. I was leading the class, I had the achiever’s pride and I was finally on the “right path”. I was readying to get shaped by the mold cast for me. History was the mirror to the future, politics was the fervor and the flavor of the present, and Economics was the succor for the rationalizing individual in me. I loved all three deeply, but I majored in English Literature. “The perfect blend of humanities,” father would say.

Then, the explosion in television news happened. I had new heroes to emulate. The conventional path had dissolved to make way for journalism schools to sway young minds. I wrote the exams and got in, with weekly letters from father exhorting me to quit the journalism school and join Rau’s IAS in Delhi. I landed a job with Hindustan Times but father wouldn’t stop asking.

“My bright kid, lost to mediocrity,” he would lament. “What kind of a job is it? What kind of an industry requires such young kids to work for them?”

I was 21 and I had a modest paycheck. But I had talent, acknowledged only when I topped class and nodded to the career advisory on IFS. As if my choosing journalism as a career had swallowed it all, everything I was, everything I could be. What I didn’t truly have was the clout and power of a bureaucrat, or a judge, for that matter, and I am reminded of this often. I didn’t have the entire paraphernalia of power that accompanies a bureaucrat. I never aspired, neither did I work for it. But this was success; my front page journalism wasn’t.

Nine years of writing and reporting earned me book offers and a prestigious scholarship to study at one of the leading universities of the world. I declined the first book offer to study Economic History, to advance my studies in Economics and History. I wasn’t, again, listening. The lateral entry positions in bureaucracy had opened and I was reminded that this was my second chance. Another big move in digital leadership and again, the reminder. Over the years, father has added “politician” and “lawyer” to his list of enviable careers. He has never added “writer”, not even when I started working on a book last year.

So, I gave myself a name and a fresh start. This start doesn’t take me away from anything I love doing: Economics, History and Storytelling. Once this is out, the unsolicited lists and charted paths would fade and EconHistorienne will remain — my exuberant newsletter that will tell stories and advance my research in Economic History.

EconHistorienne comes from the french word “Economic Historienne”, and in case you missed it, it’s quite a musical word for the dull description of an economic history researcher. It’s also the sum total of everything I do, and a much deliberated response to every alternate path thrown at me, and near-equivalent expression of my rebellious “thank you, no, thank you!” exits from numerous conversations over the years. It is also a reflection of me, bereft of expectations and want, and that’s a peaceful way to make new beginnings. It’s also a way to face my fears, resolve the doubts and to revisit the roots of my dormant courage.

In the recent book I read (you can read my review of the book ‘Educated’ on my blog), as Tara Westover writes:

“She was just a cockney in a nice dress. Until she believed in herself. Then it didn’t matter what dress she wore.”

While writing my review of the book in the middle of the night a couple of days ago, I realized how much my happiness from my work has depended on my father’s appreciation of my work. I have waited to hear that he has read the numerous stories I have written, or the promise in the book I am writing. Or, the research I am dedicating a lifetime to.

But let’s get on with it now – EconHistorienne is here and I am excited what this will bring.

Write back to me, I’ll be grateful to you for this.

Love and peace,

P.S.

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