Remembering My Father — how an unassuming simpleton could inspire his son

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My father lived up to a ripe old age of 84 and died peacefully. Since his death happened on my birthday, in a typical way he made it easier for me to remember his death day and reminisce about him! When he was alive, in every possible way, he made my life easy. So it looks natural that he decided to help me remember his death day too!

Almost more than a quarter of a century of his old age, he and my mother lived in my shade. Both of us were unemotional and rather dry personalities. We had a mutual bond which can never fit to a conventional word like ‘ love’ or ‘affection’! Our conversations were few — practically no chit-chatting, no sharing a joke or laughing together. I used to be at times harsh in criticizing some of his idiosyncrasies.

But he was never harsh with me. If he was unhappy about something that I did, he would mumble a few words of displeasure that will not be strong enough to provoke me. If I was about to do something that he felt not good to do, he would utter a few words of caution. But once done, he would maintain a potent silence and look the other way.

I never saw my father advising me on anything in any serious ‘elderly’ way. But unknowingly he taught many values of life, and unconsciously I had picked up many of his traits which sometimes are very surprising to me. He lived to be an example for me to follow in many things subconsciously.

When I take a stock now, I feel I have imbibed some of the following qualities from him to some extent or to a substantial extent:

Simplicity

He was simple to the core. He avoided all sorts of personal extravaganza. Be his dress, possessions, personal comfort needs – he was minimal in everything. Leaving a suitable allowance for the changes from one generation to another, I too follow the simplicity in my life that he stood for, as a matter of principle.

Thrift

He was frugal to the extent of being stingy. His stinginess made his wife extremely unhappy with him! He would not spend a paisa unnecessarily; he would not throw away anything as unwanted. He would try to extend the life of every object he used to the maximum extent possible. To a large extent, I too follow his habit of thrift (but not stinginess, even though my wife would not totally certify me whole heartedly on this subject!)

Self help

He had large collection of junk (screws, pins, nails, rods, pipes, cycle spare parts, spanners, screw drivers, old electrical items, old water taps, sundry tools, electrical wires , steel wires and what not). He would try to do repairs of electrical appliances, leaking taps, bicycle, water heaters, fans, hand pump, sewing machine and so on with self effort and more or less succeed in doing them.

When I was young, I used to be a curious onlooker and an assistant to him on his ‘mechanic’ activities. When I grew up, our roles reversed. I became the mechanic and he became the assistant! It was not because I wanted to take charge. It was because he would start climbing ladders and stand on precarious supports at his old age to do the things himself and out of worry that he may slip or fall, I was forced to push him aside and take charge! But his insatiable curiosity in all such activities made him a self- appointed assistant to me!

Saving

He was obsessed with saving money for future. In his over-enthusiasm in gaining maximum return on investment, he lost some sizable money on bogus companies taking fixed deposits! He was calculative to the paisa and maintained very elaborate accounts on his income, expenditure and savings. In his old age, he was writing so much of the accounting stuff, calculations, budgeting, investment planning, re-investing interest income and so on that most of his waking time was spend on those activities.

Though I could never become obsessed with saving money or writing accounts in his characteristic style, I opted the easy path. I left all my personal finance management, savings, tax accounting etc in his responsibility and lead a carefree life! Even though my father was a teacher by profession, an accountant’s job was really his dream job. Virtually right up to his deathbed, he was joyfully doing this work for himself and for my sake.

No wonder that this poor school teacher who was earning a few hundred Rupees during his working years and then getting a gradually growing pension income post retirement, became a proud owner of several lakhs of Rupees at his old age and he left all the booty to his wife so as to secure her future after his death.

It was a huge surprise to all in the family when this frugal and stingy man who never used a taxi to travel but travel only in public transport, who opted to use bicycle even till his early seventies, who was never tired of going by walk for a few kilometers of travel, decided to travel by air along with his wife a couple of times to visit his elder son at Delhi! Perhaps he had his own calculations to justify this luxury!

All the savings he did for me in my earnings were so useful and handy in my life whenever I took some pretty bold decisions in life that could change the very course of my life. It might not have been possible without his dedication and obsession to saving.

No wastage

Be it foodstuff, water, paper, cloth, pin, a small piece of pencil or whatever, he was dead against any wastage. He will ‘force feed’ us with fruits if he found that the fruits lying in house would decay if kept for one more day. As a school teacher, he would encourage his students to use one-side papers for submitting class tests. He would not demand leave letters for absent students, saying it was only a waste of paper! He would break open old envelops, reverse and re-paste them and make them ‘new’ envelops. He will not throw away ball point pens and he would buy refills to use them. 

Several years ago when Chennai was gripped with a severe water scarcity, my father brought the system of collecting the water we used for washing and rinsing clothes and used it as a flushing water for the toilet. That habit was continued for a couple of more years by us, even when the ground water situation eased.

When he passed away, he did not only have a huge bank balance, but also a huge box of junk that he had kept for possible future re-use!

Except for the trait of collection of junk, I too more or less follow his discipline of non-wastage.

Master in written communication

He was extra-ordinarily skilled in written communication. If 10 oral instructions are given at at a time, surely 3-4 will be forgotten. But if given in writing, it is there handy for you to refer to and act upon. He knew this nuance very clearly. Whether an official correspondence or a personal letter, or a list of activities and reminders for me to act upon during any of his long absence from home, his written communications were elaborate and thorough. He will not miss any small detail. His written English as well as Tamil (mother tongue) were impeccable.

His personal letters were very lucid, even though verbally he was not an emotional man. While his spoken language was majestic as a teacher, he however had a strange trait of not being effective in oral communication with others, particularly with his wife and children. He would fumble for words, scramble words, give confusing instructions and so on while talking, but never so in writing!

Through him, subconsciously I learned the importance of written communication. I practice it to the best possible way in all my official and personal activities.

Volunteering service to others

My father, by virtue of his stingy nature, was never keen to donate money for any philanthropic activity. But he would jump up and volunteer to offer physical service to any needy person. This one quality of him could not be followed by me till I reached my middle age, on account of my laziness and basic lack of empathy with others to extend a helping hand. Donating money for a noble cause was rather easier for me to compensate my lack of willingness to do physical service.

Volunteering to do the meaner jobs

Cleaning the toilets, unblocking the gutters, removing dung from the cowshed, washing clothes and heavy bed sheets, carrying firewood, digging up the back yard for planting vegetables – my father never hesitated to do what was normally considered as meaner jobs.

In a marriage hall where my father was just a guest, I had seen him cleaning up the blocked drain in the wash basin area. During my younger days, whenever a death of a close acquaintance took place in our village or at a relatives’ place, I have frequently seen my father offering his service as one of the four men who carry the dead body on shoulders to the cremation ground.

As per customs in those days, during marriage functions, close family members would offer their service to serve food to the guests. In many marriage functions, without any ado, my father would remove his shirt, tie a towel over his dhoti and go around serving food to the guests with utter enthusiasm.

When guests come to our home and leave, my father would invariably carry their luggage to the bus stand or railway station and send them off. If the luggage is too heavy or too many, he would tie all the bags and baskets judiciously to his bicycle and take them along. He was doing such services even up to his age of seventy.

I cannot claim doing any such works with the level of enthusiasm or spontaneity that my father always exhibited.

Self help

My father would avoid seeking help from others for doing any of his personal activities. He would wash his clothes himself. He was never lazy and he would never ask anyone things like “Bring the chair and put it here for me; bring the dried clothes from terrace; why don’t you clean my cupboard? Can you go to the bank and deposit this cheque for me?” He will not even take liberties with his wife or children to do these things! He would do them himself.

Though I am not like him on these matters ( I do take liberties with my wife and children to do errands for me out of my laziness), I am however very careful not to use any third persons to do petty service for me.

Respecting workmen and laborers

My father was never a commanding personality. He could never exhibit bossism to workmen and laborers. He had great respect for mechanics! When any mechanic came and did any repair work at our house, he would happily stand beside him and do his errands! I had seen him setting up a table fan for the sake of a carpenter who was doing some repair work in our house when my father saw him sweating! In my young age when I saw that, I actually felt irritated!

But as I grow older now, I find myself almost following my fathers’ trait! I am unable to command subordinates; I cannot shout at or talk disrespectfully to workmen. I cannot see them standing respectfully before me and talking while I am seated and I invariably ask them to be seated.

Not seeking importance to himself

Be it an official function, marriage or any such family function, my father never expected him to be extended with prominent reception, extra caring, hospitality or prominence. He would be content to sit as a humble man amidst the crowd. He would go to take the dinner without waiting for any prominent person to personally invite him to take the food.

In a typical south Indian marriage where guests would sleep at the Marriage Hall, the tendency of most people will be to reserve a cot under a fan, a mat to lie down, with a pillow and a bed sheet reserved for them. Some people would even demand such comforts as a matter of right. There are elders who would even demand an Air-conditioned room for them! But my father would find an unobtrusive place, spread a towel, fold an old dhoti to function as a pillow and sleep off unmindful of non-availability of a fan above or the blood- thirsty mosquitoes swarming around him!

Not borrowing money

As a natural consequence of his thrifty nature, simplicity and contentedness, my father followed a strict discipline of not borrowing money and not taking any loans for acquiring anything. I was fortunate enough to understand that this is one great virtue that made life far more peaceful and tension-free. I too adopted it as a matter of principle and reaped the full benefits of that principle.

Eating together and eating in time

Right through his life, my father maintained a discipline of eating in time in all three meals of the day. He made sure that the entire family sat together and ate in one go. In a traditional Indian family, ladies are expected to serve others and then eat later. But not to my father. He broke that custom. He made my mother and my wife to sit with others and eat together. He made sure that every item is served equally to all so that ladies don’t end up sacrificing their share for the sake of others.

No wonder this habit had its positive role in the physical health of all the members of the family.

He was very particular about eating balanced food. When we were kids, he would repeatedly emphasize consuming vegetables. He had great attraction for bananas because of two reasons — they were nutritionally rich and were the cheapest among all fruits!

When my father passed away, one of my close relatives who knew my father in close quarters remarked with moist eyes that he was a Mahatma (a great soul). In India, we call truly great saints as Mahatmas. Though my father cannot be elevated to the status of a saint, he indeed lived a life of Mahatma amidst normal house-holders. I am sure, if he were to be alive to hear such a statement, he would vehemently object to being glorified like that!

Related reading about my father

My father’s vegetable garden (Humor)

My father and the scissors (Humor)

A teacher who happened to be my father

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