Friday, September 17, 2010

Fathers and Sons; Birds and Bees

This is the first in a series of personalised accounts that I am writing for MW (Man's World) magazine. It was in the May issue (Don't be put off by Shahid Kapoor on the cover. Imagine how I feel - my precious words have gone into that same mag!). Enjoy reading.

It’s been a while since a new TV commercial led to so much speculation, debate and all-round hilarity. A red-bikini-clad diva emerges from the waters, reminding a few classicists amongst us of goddess Venus rising from the sea and the rest of us up-country bumpkins of those memorable days of sun, sand and surf – Baywatch! As she romances the camera with her eyes, a voice-over monkey prattles about trust, faith and uniqueness. And then comes the clincher – it’s an ad for a cement brand.

In eight seconds of sheer brilliance the ad makers have dealt a lethal blow to all advertising purists who harp on about knowing your brand, your product, your demographic, your audience and your paradigm and its eventual shift (purists always talk about paradigms, it’s a powerful word that renders the opponent incapable of a coherent retort).

As I was standing in a large electronic goods store, staring at a vast array of mega-giant television screens which were displaying this work of genius, and chuckling at the audacity of the ad-makers, I noticed something heart-warming and endearing. A family of three – middle-aged father and mother, one gawky teenage son – were also seeing the ad.

The mother’s right hand instinctively shot out, perhaps hoping to distract her son and saving him from the oodles of ample cleavage being displayed all around him. The son didn’t look like he needed any saving. A worn-out war veteran, the expression on his face said - been there, haven’t done that, haven’t done anything really, but seen much better ... most definitely! The father on the other hand looked at the screen and then at his son and sighed deeply – a smile crossing his face. The proverbial baton had been passed. A rite of passage had just taken place. Membership had been extended to the next generation. Welcome to the club, my son.

Similar scenes take place all over the world all the time. Such is the bond of fathers and sons. A man-to-man talk about the facts of life – birds, bees, sex and the dreaded opposite sex – hardly ever take place. A subtle nod, a gentle smile, a pat on the back, sharing a cold beer on a warm afternoon, passing on the prized family barbecue recipe – these are the ways in which fathers acknowledge their sons becoming men.

Indian fathers, especially, are masters of the art of knowingly ignoring. They knew when you stole that cigarette and smoked it with your best friend behind the water tank. They knew why the video cassette of Basic Instinct was returned three days late to the rental guy. They knew when you failed to take the family car for a spin around the block and left it engaged in first gear. And they knew when you tried to sneak in your girlfriend into your bedroom. They always knew. And they always ignored. Just like their fathers, and their fathers before them.

The scene that enfolded at the electronic goods store led me to ask a few friends whether they had ever had a father-son ‘talk’ and if they regretted not having been closer to their fathers and being able to talk about anything and everything on the planet with them.

Most were rather relieved that their fathers had never sat them down and given them a lecture on love, sex aur dhoka. Others remembered advice being doled out on career, handling finances, improving ones forward defence stroke and handling pesky bosses. Many admitted to learning important life lessons by observing their fathers – how they dealt with strangers and loved ones. But almost all the cherished father-son moments were of a subtler, unobtrusive nature – intentionally losing at arm-wrestling for once, giving a driving lesson on an empty highway, overriding mom and allowing one to go on a long school trek, serving a shot of their prized scotch and not interrupting while one was busy chatting up the hottest girl in school after the annual day function.

I probed further. What kind of fathers did we want to become? Unanimous answer – cool ones. A recently married friend wants to be accessible as a father one day. Others want to be more like friends. One extreme - a friend with a four-year-old son wants to present him with an all expense paid week of debauchery and revelry in Amsterdam for his sixteenth birthday. But as years pass we all know that for better or for worse we become more and more like our fathers. Such is the cyclic nature of time.

I can imagine that smile crossing my face as I see my future teenage son gaping at the screen while the red-bikini-clad diva emerges from the waters.

Heaven forbid if he ever asks me to explain the meaning of the ad, though.