Monday, May 21, 2018

Rights That Can Be Wrong (Letters to Parth-21)

When I was born, my parents jointly named me Subharup, partly from their own desire, partly from the suggestions of the many. Subharup in Bengali or Sanskrit means Good Form, or in plain English, a looker. You know that by now; what you do not know yet is how decent wine ages.  Anyway, when I was in school, I encountered the problem with the spelling and the pronunciation of my name. Subha pronounced with an aa at the end is typically a girls name in Bengali, as against Shubho for a boy. When I was 13 or 14, I changed the spelling of my name to read Subhorup. The s is actually sh in Bengali but I retained that to forever remind me of the peculiarity and mystery of the first sounds I heard from my mother's womb. The first language I spoke, though, was Nepali.

When you were named, several days after you were born, suggestions came from far and wide. Nabanitadi liked the name but was worried it would be anglicized to Harry. She suggested HridoyNandan, but none of could get our tongues around it.  Parth, fortunately, was a name given you long before you came to be so there was no discussion on that.

Not liking your given name is a common thing. First off, you feel your parents have been thrust on you, and then your name. Nobody takes you into confidence about what you should be called. A lot of my friends ended up renaming themselves, like folders or files on a computer, some going to extremes. I have a very young friend called Upasana Wordsmith, where she changed her given first name as well as adopted a new surname. She writes under a pseudonym to further distance herself from her name. Another friend uses LNU as her surname on all official documents like her passport, her PAN card, her driving license etc. LNU is turning out to be quite a popular surname the world over now. It stands for Last Name Unknown.

Who you are is not defined by your name or your lineage. Look at Rahul Gandhi for example. He is a descendant of Motilal Nehru and Indira Gandhi. Talk about degenerates. You make who you want to become. It is your right to question, evaluate and reject all that you are asked to accept as long as you are capable of finding a road that you believe in, that you can trust and that you find meaning in. You are not defined by your facebook profile or by your browser cache. You are not defined by your gaming scores or the scars on your soul. You are your only definition. It is a bit hard to take for your loved ones, since most of us would like our loved ones to fit into our expectations, but it is not written in any book that you need to. I would strongly encourage you to read the first few paragraphs of Book 9 of Marcus Aurelius' Meditations.

These days, it would seem that the average Indian is defined by the right to have an opinion. I am forced to watch some amount of television because of your Dadu's love for unnecessary debate over non-existent justice, and I also keep my eyes and ears open when I am out - in the streets, buses, metro, at the lunch room in the office. Thanks to the prevalence and penetration and the illusion of real social interaction generated by digital social media, I realize that having an opinion is now considered an achievement, regardless of what you do or do not do about the opinion. This is my opinion. That is not just enough, it is validation and justification of the importance of my existence.

The other day I was having haleem on the roadside. Being a true blue Hyderabadi, I had parked my car on the street, and it was occasionally causing some trouble to others traveling on the road. A good Hyderabadi usually accepts other Hyderabadi's being Hyderabadi with grace most times of the year. Unfortunately, nature looks for balance in everything, and in the course of time, after many people struggled to work around our car without a complaint, one gentleman had had enough. He raised himself to a half standing position on his scooter and let out his opinion about people like me. Then he sat down, struggled and went his way. I could make out that he was feeling much better by having done that. Like the guys on prime time television news, he had a right to an opinion, a right to express it, and he exercised his right and felt better immediately. Like the guys on prime time television news.
Human beings are unique in many ways. Not only do we believe we sit at the top of the food chain, but we are also the only animal that has codified and enforced rights. These rights or privileges are sometimes implied with no clear communication but universal subscription, and at other times, codified and enforceable by law. We have even created and implemented a structure of rights for other animals. We call them Animal Rights, and every movie has to declare that no animals were hurt during the making of the film. All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than other animals. George Orwell wrote about this four years before the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted by the United Nations in 1949.

Image from NY Post used without asking for permission

'49 was an important year in many other ways. The first vinyl LPs and then 45s were introduced, and people could now buy music and reproduce it on record players at home. The world was devastated, but from the ashes of that devastation of civilization, a new hope was being born. The Paris declaration captured some of that hope. The three decades after that saw a fair amount of violation of what was defined as human rights, but they also saw an equal amount of indignation and resistance to that violation. All of this changed as the sun set on the old world, and the brave new world arose, the world we inherited, the Lucrece we are bequeathing to you.

You will read the Paris declaration, and along with it the history of human rights activism up to this day. Till then, whether you like it or not, there are rights, and some of those rights are protected by law. There are gender rights, minority rights, electoral rights, right to education, right to minimum wages, the list is very long, and varies from social system to social system. Some rights are rights only in the context of the time and society they belonged to, and are very wrong when you try to enforce them in another time and society. I do not know whether that is right or wrong; I was busy when I was supposed to attend those classes.

Then there are parental rights. These are rights that a parent has over his children. Most children hate it, and most parents exercise it with a relish comparable to drinking Ugadi Pachadi. Things like play timings, bedtime, homework, screen time, sleepovers. You know the stuff by now. It is a right royal pain, and to add insult to injury, it is enforced in the name of your welfare. I have never forgiven my parents for this, and though your Thammi died without fully understanding the nature of my gratitude to her, your Dadu lives with us, and I make it a point to remind him everyday of how he tormented me, and I try and torment him as much as I can. Which is not a lot, since he is wheelchair bound, excreting into bags which he still is able to empty himself, lonely and forgetful, returning to grieve the loss of Thammi a few times every day. I wish I had the chance to torment him when he was not in such a helpless state. You should never kick a man when he is down. He taught me that by helping me up countless times. He helped me even the few times he did not help me, but that is another story.

You are now getting to be old enough to understand and process this and other matters, which is why you and I never discussed this earlier. When your mother and I were compelled by my decisions to part ways, there was the question of parental rights. I had my views and Mama had hers. We agreed to disagree, but I made it a point to put in writing what I perceived were my needs as far as my relationship with you was concerned. Your Mama and I thought and felt similarly about many some a few things and this was not one of them. Parental rights include the right to physical custody - physical visitation time and regular contact, and the right to legal custody - the right to participate in decisions about the child's health, education, and religious upbringing. By now, you will have figured out that there was no way that we would have agreed on these matters. I have tried to exercise my right to physical custody in the best way I could. Once I realized it was not going to happen without recourse to unpleasantness, I adopted this method - of writing to you as frequently as possible and necessary.

You might have believed or perhaps been led to believe that I relinquished my parental rights in order to pursue my will. You might have formed your own opinion about me and my decisions, and you might have had some help forming them. Regardless, it cannot have been easy to accept that your father chose your absence and chose to be absent in your life. If you have been reading in the order that I have been writing, you probably have the answer to your questions already. If not, you can always go back and start over again. But that would be like a classroom punishment. You are entitled to feel unjustly punished by me, and nothing I say or do will ever take the edge off that hurt.

I have had the good fortune of encountering several people at different times of my life who have mentored me in different areas, all of them meeting the need that was most required for my existence. Of them all, the one that changed my life the most was someone who was in my life for a less than five years. He died a few years after we met. This was more than thirty years ago. We neither spent a great deal of time together, nor did he teach me much. His absence in my life over the last three decades has been my compass. In more recent years, I encountered the teachings of Buddha and the writings of the Stoics, both thanks to a rabid community of almost missionary propagandists. My father, your Dadu, has been "present" to me all his life, teaching me, picking me up when I fell, sometimes letting me stay fallen but still watching over me.

Our dinner table conversations are what Dali, Warhol, and Rushdie would kill to listen in on. My father and I are able to grudgingly acknowledge our relationship - one of great mentorship and simultaneous physical and ideological abandonment. And since these conversations flow very easily (but not very quickly, by the Dadu finishes a thought, you can buy curd from the kirana store and be back), and segue with other conversations, between Madhavi, Devank and Me, they make for the most hilarious transcripts. These will be made public after Devank is 18, to serve as traffic guidelines.

Guidance is all around us. Nature is continuously guiding us. Just as my right to free speech supposedly ends where your sensitive ego begins, right and wrong, ethics and morality are not matters for deep speculation, they flow naturally. Everything has a reason and is part of a greater whole. Nothing is in isolation. Hate cannot exist without an equally powerful love. Abandonment is possible only upon acknowledgment of ownership. You are fortunate in your own way, Devank in his. He knows that he can claim only half the love he gets as his own. The other half is for you, and he knows he must find you and pass that on to you, a caretaking cardiologist till that time comes.

Devank cannot wait to start going to school, and we are dreading that day. He has not been "parented" in the sense that parenting is commonly understood. Both of us have tried our best to stay out of his way, stepping in only when he is at risk of being hurt, and sometimes not even then. This evening, he shortcircuited one phase of the apartment because he wanted to know what happens when you connect the positive and the negative directly. We know now that the only way anyone truly understands anything is by putting things together. He bites, kicks, scratches, throws things, spits, pisses, digs his nose and eats his boogie, and if you ask him to do something, he responds with "you do it." School will be fun.

We have tried not to instill any sense of rights in him (we have also tried to stay away from suggesting that some things are wrong) but he has developed his own royal code of entitlement and justice. You must have too. You will also want to review the concept of rights and liberties with the actual practices across societies. What we say is almost never what we do. Look around and choose your own ground. Enough for this hot summer's day. Trust you are hydrating yourself and your loved ones greatly.

Much love,


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