Baba

I remember when I was very young, in a fit of anger, my father slapped me.  Even as I felt the impact of his hand on my cheek, I saw him crying. He hugged me and started to apologize. I hugged him back and ended up consoling him!

I have always wanted to capture, in some form or another, my feelings about my father. Obviously my memories are filtered through the prism of my subjectivity. But all relationship is based on intimate and subjective experience anyway. 

I want to write about Jatin Das, the person, not just the father. He always taught me to look at people first and foremost as human beings, no matter who they were.

My genes may have given me some of his physical attributes but deep within me, I aspire to have his values and his character, his humor, and his passion.

I grew up in a house, where my mother went to work and my father stayed at home. He had his little studio in the house, and so I grew up thinking mothers go to the office and fathers stay at home to take care of the household! They cook and clean and for recreation, paint! I am so glad that stereotypes were broken and roles were reversed in my mind at such an early age. Of course, it had its own problems, like that of my school lunch box. My father’s creativity permeated the kitchen too—which mean that my school lunch box had sprouts, brown bread, slices of apple or dahi baingan or a bit of some other vegetable cooked in a way that were not traditional. Thankfully, my friends loved my lunch box. That suited us all fine. They happily ate my food and thought it to be rather exotic while I devoured their roti-subzi-achar, what for me was real ghar ka khana!

Baba, as I call my father, right from the beginning, was a rebel... He has told me innumerable stories of defiance. He would paint, endlessly under a tree in the fields, behind his home (in Baripada, Orissa), instead of preparing for his engineering exams. And then there were these stories about him running away to Bombay with almost nothing in his pocket to further his passion, at the JJ school of Arts. Stories that I have repeatedly heard from him and his friends were always about doing crazy things! But they were from his heart and you could see his passion in every one of those anecdotes.

I have heard the following story a million times from him and his singer friend Ashok Misra. He was to do a large fresco on Marine Drive, soon after his college days. It was a prestigious assignment and he needed the money! As a true maverick artist, he postponed it till the last day. He panicked the night before and told his friend if he would break eggs and beat them with color (the concoction needed to paint the fresco), he would climb up the scaffolding of the building and finish it one night. The only condition being, Ashok would have to sing till he finished the fresco! So all night Ashok dada, (Oriya for uncle, as I call him) sang and Baba painted! The two storytellers say that the fresco was completed as the first rays of the morning sun appeared! 

Then there are innumerable stories of being broke and all the adventures that go with it. Life has changed a lot since then. So have the times. But neither has Baba changed and nor his relationship with money!

It was during my Xth class board exam, and as if that wasn’t bad enough, it was also the eve of the Math exam! I was stressed and nervous like any other student of my age. But then most children didn’t have a father like mine. Instead of making sure I was slogging away and memorizing theorems and mathematical applications, Baba saw me all tensed and asked me to water the plants! I was shocked and angry with him. How could he be so foolish and insensitive and ask me to water the plants when I didn’t have a minute to breathe? His logic was simple-if you have attended your classes, you should know your subject matter, and there should be no reason to torture yourself just a couple of hours before the exam. I couldn’t of course counter an argument like that. Even if he was right it was not easy to ignore the fact that I was totally stressed about my exams. He on the other hand felt that watering the plants would calm me down and I would be able to concentrate better. I grudgingly went out and took the water pipe, murmuring to myself that I had an abnormal father who didn’t understand anything. Soon however the accusations were replaced by a peaceful engagement with the plants! The flowers seemed to dance in joy as they bathed in water with their dusty leaves shining once again. I hate to admit that it was the best thing that could happen to me at that time. My mind was refreshed and so when I went back to the god-forsaken logarithms, I really didn’t mind them any more!

As a child, it was frustrating to have a father who seemed eccentric to others, but as I grew I began to understand how special he was. I feel I am truly privileged to have a father who never pressured me to “perform,” whether in studies or anything else. Coming first or even getting a 1st division was never the motivation to study, although much to my mother’s relief, I always did! Baba always encouraged me to question everything, even himself (now he sometimes wonders why I argue with him so much!). He laid a lot of emphasis on honesty, equality and sensitivity. These were like core values and I was reminded ever so often to question my motivations and my actions that it almost became a habit to do reality checks in every situation. My father taught by example. He walked his talk. He would never preach what he did not practice and this had a great impact on me and my brother as we could see his authenticity. I am grateful to my father because of the values he instilled in me. He is now my inner wisdom and also my conscience. 

I remember when I did some of my early films, Baba would often say, “films are like dragons, they suck you in and lure you in the world of money and fame. Best of people compromise, lose their path and forget why they got into them in the first place.” I used to laugh and accuse him of being hyper about it and remind him of what his parents said when he wanted to be a painter instead of an engineer! But I know today if I have been able to keep my feet firmly on the ground, head on my shoulders and heart in its right place, then it has a lot to do with my upbringing. Money and fame were never even a part of the definition of success of life in my family. Work was always seen as part of living, something that would give you joy, make your life more meaningful and above all, help you to grow as a person.

I floated through my childhood and continue doing so with no pressures of proving anything to the world. My father reinforced this by always giving the journey more emphasis than the destination. It was not difficult to believe in this philosophy, as I am restless, interested in fifty different things and want to explore and live every moment of my life. There is so much pressure in today’s world to specialize, to excel in one focused area and to be ambitious about reaching the top. But what if many different things fascinate you, what if you want to lose the fear of failure and what if doing all the different things is the only way for you to be happy?! Well then you just go ahead, stumble along the way, meet some amazing people and dabble in different things. The confidence to be this way comes from my father, a maverick who has done this and more. Of course people think he is crazy and just can’t believe that a 60+ man can actually be so child like, or be so ‘scattered’, have no money every now and then, be so worldly unwise. At best he is a maverick and, at worst, crazy. He doesn’t care about either of those accusations. But it wasn’t easy for us to grow up with half the people laughing at him and other half mistrusting him. Of course those who have seen him long enough or are good with their instincts, understand that it’s just the way he is!  I have often felt he is one of the most misunderstood people I have ever known in my life. But then I am comforted by the recollection of all the people through the ages, who have defied the beaten path.

It has been said that ultimately society ends up paying tribute to the “crazy ones”. Someone once told me that you can disagree with them, criticize them, or vilify them. About the only thing you can’t do is ignore them. These are the misfits, the rebels, the trouble makers--the ones who see things differently. They change things, they move the human race forward. I see my father as a square peg in a round hole and while some may think he is crazy, I know him to be a true human being.

By Nandita Das

2007

© 2020 by Jatin Das