Posted by: cochinblogger | May 25, 2010

“Tracing Puppa”: An Appreciation

I was an expectant father, awaiting the birth of our son. A German friend who was in Cochin as a tourist told me, “It’s easier to become a father than to be one.” Over the years, I’ve come to experience the truth of what he said.

Thus it was that I spotted a book one day in the library that I just had to borrow. I was mesmerized by the photo on the cover. A young girl is feeding her father what looks like a biscuit. The expressions on their faces are captivating. The title of the book is “Fathers,” released by Granta, the famed literary magazine. I borrowed the book partly because the cover photograph was so beautiful and partly because I was a father, even though I had stopped reading fiction in college.

Back home, I was relieved to find some nonfiction memoirs in the book. I first read “Tracing Puppa” by Ruchir Joshi, an Indian writer I hadn’t heard of. What a revelation! It’s a superbly written, moving tribute to his father, Shivkumar Joshi, an eminent Gujarati writer. There is no false sentimentality, but Ruchir’s emotions for his father — deep respect, love, and gratitude — color every page. Ruchir has written from the heart. No wonder Granta snapped his piece up.

Puppa is Ruchir’s father. He calls his mother Mummi. It’s clear from Ruchir’s description that Mummi dominated the family.

“Puppa may have been the titular head of the family the three of us made up but, in the day-to-day, Mummi was the General Officer Commanding.”

I wonder how common families with moms as the the main decision-makers are. I know, for example, that the famous mathematician Ramanujan’s family was dominated by his mother, who was an exceptionally strong-willed individual. It’d be interesting to know if some psychologist has studied this phenomenon, and the consequences thereof.

“Boys usually caught it from their fathers and went running to their fathers for comfort. In my family of three, however, the main turbine for generating punishment was my mother. … In the first ten years of my life, my mother did ninety-nine percent of the hitting but also most of the loving. My father slapped me exactly three times and I remember feeling like I’d deserved it. … With my mother a slap had as many meanings as it had names: there was a fear of losing control, there was an anger towards the world in general and there was sometimes a sense of betrayal, when the love she gave me wasn’t reciprocated as she wanted. On the other hand, the three slaps escaped from my father despite himself.”

One fact stands out clearly in Ruchir’s depiction: he had a troubled relationship with Mummi. It was to Puppa that he poured his heart out.

Ruchir is sent to boarding school at the age of 13. At the age of 14, the following conversation took place between father and son. Remember, most Gujaratis are strict vegetarians, and Ruchir’s parents are no exception.

“Puppa, I have to tell you something.”


“Me and my friend Sudeep went to a restaurant before catching the train.”

“Yes. So?”

“Well, Sudeep ordered a mutton burger and I tried it.”

“Did you like … eating it?”

“Yes, so I ordered a whole one for myself. And one for Sudeep because I’d eaten half of his.”

Puppa ducked his head, almost smacking the steering wheel. Then he composed himself.

“Well … it doesn’t come as a surprise. If we send you out into the world this is a risk we take.”

“Yeah, I guess …”

“But. Please don’t tell your mother. On no account must she find out.”

“Why, what will happen?”

“One of you will have to leave the house. It’s as simple as that. Since you’re still a child, she will go. And I can’t have that.”

One can see why Ruchir adores his father. Puppa’s calm reaction to Ruchir’s confession is an object lesson for all parents.

“Our drive-chats began when I was fourteen and Puppa was approaching fifty-eight. It still baffles me how he managed, at that age, to take on all the concerns of a difficult teenager. While my mother tried to deny its existence, my father understood sexual desire. He was an open, sensual man., but my guess is that he never managed to live a full and happy sexual life. … for all her huge tactile sense, my mother always had a hard time connecting love, of which she was a great champion, with lust, around which she was forever a vigilante. My father was never capable of being unfaithful and the different hands that life dealt him meant that he had to sublimate his natural instincts into his writing.”

That’s a remarkable insight which is characteristic of the honesty of Ruchir’s writing.

It’s a piece that should be read by every father. Or anyone who has, or has had, a father. Which is a roundabout way of saying everyone should read it.

Postscript: Ironically, what explains the overjoyed expression on the little girl’s (the girl in the photo above) face is the fact that she (Reina James, who has written for this volume) was meeting her father after a long time; you see, her parents had separated. The cover photo depicts an unexpected meeting at a family wedding. Poignant, what?

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  1. good one…:)

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