Tuesday, 5 July 2011



This is a strange incident, which happened to me when I was a toddler. Whenever I have discussed this with anyone, most people have told me that it is not humanly possible to remember things that happened when one was about four years old. I cannot explain why I remember vividly this little happenstance even though I was just about four years old at that time. I am at a loss to figure out as to why my father decided to instruct this four-year-old about an aspect of deep philosophy of life.

It was in early 1951 when my mother, heavily pregnant with my younger brother, and I were sent back to our village in Kerala for the impending delivery. My father was employed in the BB and CI Railway [now Western Railway] and could not get long leave of absence to stay with my mother during her confinement. It was also a kind of a custom in those days that the wives were sent to their maternal home for delivery in case the couple was staying outside Kerala. Since we were located in Bombay [now Mumbai] my father dutifully escorted us to our village and went back to Bombay to resume duties. I have no cogent memories of the train ride from Bombay to Kerala. What I do remember is the dark and odd smelling corridors and rooms of the large house of my grandparents and also of many other people who were trying to be friendly with me and carry me around. Another thing etched in my memory is that I was unable to understand what these new people were talking because the language I could follow was Hindi.  My only comfort was hanging on as close as possible to my mother and refusing to get separated from her. As she was in the last stages of her pregnancy she too was not physically fit enough to look after my needs and me. But she tried, as every other mother, to make me as comfortable as possible.

All of a sudden the rains started. It was pouring day in and day out. Rains in Kerala are quite different than elsewhere in India basically because of the near-tropical climate in that state. The mornings usually are fairly present and the sun is normally out and shining benignly. On many days one may not be even able to spot a speck of cloud in the sky. But towards early afternoon the rain clouds come in with alacrity and within a span of a couple of hours the downpour starts. This can go on till late in the night or even sometimes till early morning. All but the extremely vital outdoor activities stop and everyone is confined within the houses. A word about the traditional houses in Kerala will be appropriate at this juncture. Houses were made of laterite slabs held together by locally produced mortar which was obtained by grinding the shells of a type of oyster found in the back waters of Kerala. Since there was no dearth of timber, the roofing structure was entirely made up of wood over which baked tiles were paved. To facilitate the drainage of water the roofs were made in triangular fashion with the apex of the triangle being the highest part with the remaining roof slanting downwards. Invariably the houses were made in a square fashion with an open area in the middle. Depending upon the size of the house and the wealth, position, and status of the owner these squares could be one, two, three, or even four in some houses. So when the rains came these open courtyards used to be flush with water draining from the roofs. The sound of the rain falling on the roofs along with the sound of the copious drainage into the central courtyard have to be experienced to believe. For a Malayalee like me it is a soothing sound almost akin to the gurgling of water along the miniature gardens of the Zen practitioners of Japan.

But it was not so when I experienced it the first time. It is not because of the sound of water or because of the rains. Having been living in Bombay, I was no stranger to rain. The problem was the thunder and lightning which invariably accompanied the rains in Kerala. The sound was so extraordinarily loud that the whole house shook. The flashes of lightning, reddish yellow in color, looked as though they wanted to enter inside each room of the house for that fraction of second when it was generated. The primitive electricity connections during those days [I believe, things have not changed much over the last 55 years!] invariably broke down at the first lightning strike each day. The overcast sky, the lack of electrical lighting and the generally dark walls and roof of the houses created an eerie feeling of something surreal. This was accompanied by the incessant rumbling of the thunder and the sporadic brilliant illumination by the lightning. The overall effect of this audiovisual assault was indeed frightening to me. As a child, my reaction was to cling as close to my mother as possible and scream and cry at the top of my voice. All efforts by my grandparents and my uncles and aunts did not succeed in pricing me away from my mother. The screaming and crying went on till I was really tired and dozed off to sleep. This drama was repeated every day when the rains came. I distinctly remember starting to be in physical contact with my mother the moment the rains started; and it was raining every day.

Soon came the day when my younger brother decided to enter this world. I have only vague recollections of that day except the fact that he came out late in the evening when I was being held by one of my aunts outside the closed door of the room where my mother was in labor. The issue became more and more complicated because I was not permitted to sleep with my mother for obvious reasons for the ensuing few days. No one could console me and, ultimately, on the third day after her delivery my mother had to keep me on one side while having my baby brother on the other. I can only visualize now what a tough time she must have had because of my behavior. My mother was being given the traditional post–delivery care and I used to insist on being around all the time because I was mortally scared of the thunder and lightning. And I was not aware as to when it will start every day.

My father came after about 10 days on leave. I remember jumping onto him when he came and also that it was in the morning that he arrived. I can still smell the mixed odor of his after-shave and cigarettes when he held me tight that day. By the time my father had freshened up and exchanged pleasantries with the other members of the family it was time for lunch. I remember taking lunch sitting on my father's lap and he feeding me while he was himself eating. Being a joint family, my grandmother was acting as the majordomo in serving lunch to my grandfather, uncles and my father. After the lunch was over we retired to the front part of the house where there was an open area something similar to a large veranda. I was still perched on my father when the first crack of thunder was heard swiftly followed by an iridescent glow of lightning. As if on cue I started screaming and clung onto my father. He could not understand as to why I was doing it. Immediately my grandfather and my uncles started recounting the harrowing time they have been having because of my incessant hollering every time thunder and lightning started. My father listened in silence and suddenly got up. He took me along to the room that we were occupying in that house. He quickly changed into a pair of shorts and picking me up came back to the place where my grandfather and my uncles were sitting. By that time the rain was pouring heavily. Before anyone could react, my father put me behind his neck with my legs straddling his neck and walked out into the rain.

You can well imagine my plight at that time. I started screaming the loudest I could but my father held me back with one hand and started walking further and further away from the house. I screamed and screamed but my father appeared to be unconcerned and not even listening to it. Within a few minutes we were completely drenched. I was clutching the already–thinning hair of my father with my legs locked around his neck. The thunder and lightning was going on incessantly. Maybe it was sheer fatigue that I soon stopped screaming and became silent. My father kept on walking around the huge compound to the house with various kinds of gardens. After quite some time, time that I thought was more than eternity, he asked me,

“Son! Why are you not screaming now?” I did not answer. 

“Are you still scared?” I did not answer that too.

“You can see that the sound and the flash which comes after the sound have no effect on both of us. So do not be scared of these. Do you agree with me?” I mumbled something in answer. He then proceeded to tell me a few words that still ring in my ears after all these years.

“Son! Never be afraid of anything or any situation. If there is something, which you are scared of you have only two alternatives, either to run away from it or to face it. If you start running away from a difficult situation from the early days of your life you will keep running throughout your life. But if you turn back and face the situation either the situation can overcome you or you can overcome the situation. Both are acceptable because in case the situation overcomes you have the satisfaction that you made a serious attempt to get over the situation. In case you overcome the situation you have conquered one more fear in your life. In most cases you will be able to overcome the situation. Remember this, My Son,  and you will not be a loser in your life.”

As I mentioned in the beginning I am still unable to understand why my father chose to put this wisdom into my four-year-old brain. Later on I had asked him more than once as to why he did this. His answer was an enigmatic smile. Only once did he say, “Well! Are you not happy that you have been conquering fears? The fact that you have been decorated by the President while fighting a war for the country is the proof of what I wanted you to become by telling you those things when you were only four years old.”

This philosophy of facing a situation or fear which was drilled into my four-year-old brain by my father, has been one of the bedrocks of my life. I have tried it on numerous occasions and in very different situations and circumstances. Every time, or rather most of the times, I have been successful either in conquering that fear or in mastering and controlling the difficult situation, which I had to face. As an example, I had a very serious fear of heights [acrophobia]. I could not look down from a place more than 10 feet above the ground. Keeping my father's dictum I decided to become a paratrooper and a skydiver. The initial days of training to become a paratrooper and the first few jumps were extremely stressful to me because of the terrible fear I had. But now, after more than 100 descents from various aircrafts and in various places, I cannot even think that I had such fear of heights at one time of my life.

Thank you Dad.

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