Tuesday, January 13, 2009
Self-reverence, self-knowledge and self-control
In (almost) every phone call from my dad – who is yet to exercise the self-control to not call me long distance every time he emails me to tell me that he has emailed me - I hear the same pearl of wisdom from Lord Tennyson.
Self-reverence, self-knowledge, self-control,
These three alone lead life to sovereign power
Dad cannot fathom why my husband hasn’t yet booked his return flight to the United States, considering he’s expected to fly back in about two weeks at the end of his two-year assignment.
“Just two weeks to go and he doesn’t have an itinerary yet? Utterly disorganized. Both you and your husband have yet to do one thing in a planned and systematic manner. You know, Lord Tennyson said, “Self-reverence, self-knowledge…”...”
Dad’s off on his Tennyson spiel again. Yes, these are the lines by which he walks every morning for an hour (in gear from Paris’ Avenue Montaigne). These are the very lines that inspire him to wake up at 4.45AM to the sound of an IKEA alarm on his dresser, and these, the powerful lines by which he is off to work, at the age of 85, by 10.43AM just when the house help ambles in late, as usual. (She, unfortunately, isn’t literate enough to understand the power of Lord Tennyson’s words and translating it into Tamil is like offering someone soggy ribbon pakoda.)
So this morning dad said he was disgusted with me and is not going to ever again ask me the question he has asked me for the last two years over every long-distance call.
“Have you filled out your US citizenship papers yet?”
“I’m telling you the situation in the US is not going to be peachy forever.”
“Okay, dad, I get it. I will.”
“You’re always saying ‘I will’. But every time I call you still haven’t.”
“Yes, dad. Understood.”
“What ‘understood’? One fine day, mark my words, young lady, you’ll be barred from entering the United States because you haven’t become a citizen. And your husband and your two children would have entered the country and they’ll be long past the passport counter on their way to Baggage Claim. And you? You’ll be left standing at the immigration counter. Mark my words, my dear girl. You don’t realize it now. You’ll realize it long after I’m gone.”
“Long after I’m gone.” Would these have been the most frequently uttered words since man first surfaced in East Africa? With the exception of the first man on earth–who would not have had a hint that he would go one day–has every man used emotional blackmail on his kid with the words “You won’t realize it now but you’ll realize it LONG AFTER I’m GONE"?
I have vivid memories of emotional blackmail since my birth in 1961. I grew up in a neat and orderly household–where all hand-set calendars showed the right date and all pencils were sharpened daily whether or not they were used and “each each thing was in each each’s place” (like dad would say with a fierce pride only evidenced in Lord Tennyson’s Morte D’Arthur). My earliest memory involves the number “9-9-1989”. I suspect that when mom thrust a bottle into my mouth, dad may have said “Drink now, child, so you may survive the stormy night of 9-9-1989.”
See, “9-9-1989” was some number that dad pulled from the air but subsequently ascribed to an astrologer-savant. That, he warned us, would be the day he would be taken by force from the earth. So we listened, paid obeisance to his rules, behaved with a great deal of decorum, organized our lives to make him proud, always remembering that “9-9-1989” was just around the corner.
But 9-9-1989 came and went. Dad has gorged on many an appam since. He hasn' t been shy about feasting on morkuzhambu –with Lay's potato chips on the side, please–either. What’s more, 9-11 came and went. Now 11-26 just passed. But Dad ain’t batting an eyelid. His brow is presently deeply furrowed over who is going to make the clean sweep at the Australian Open this month: Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic or Andy Murray?
My old man has cried wolf forever, as you can see. I’m going to fill up my US citizenship papers all right. But I’m going to do it on my own time, not under dad’s, pardon the expression, deadline.
What dad needs to know is the following. If the guy at the Immigration counter in the US bars me from entry, I’ve always got a place to go back to: dad’s orderly home in Chennai. There I’ll have food, shelter and love, along with pungent reminders of the value of self-reverence, self-knowledge and self-control.