(Originally published 5 Sep 2014)
My father (“AKR”) would have been 85 today. Today is also Teacher’s Day — an important Indian holiday that every school kid remembers! Since he was a teacher, I thought I would take a few minutes to write about three of the many things that I learnt from him.
ONE: Sheer brilliance. And, hard work. My father is probably the smartest person I have ever met. I’ve been fortunate to be around some very smart people in my life. But, he was head and shoulders above most every one. As Oliver Goldsmith put it in The Village Schoolmaster, “And still they gaz’d and still the wonder grew, That one small head could carry all he knew.”
While I was always blown away with his ability to work his way through problems in math, physics and finance, the day I truly held him in awe remains vividly etched in my memory. It was the day I took the JEE — the infamous entrance exam that millions of Indian kids spend years studying for in order to earn the right to attend the very famous IITs. I remember coming back from the first day (the JEE was a two day test of Math, Physics, Chemistry and English), utterly devastated by my performance on the Math test. In fact, I was convinced that going back for the second day was a complete waste of time. My father asked for the paper and vanished for an hour. He then called me and had me reconcile his answers with what I remembered mine to be. And proceeded to confirm how badly I had done. While I was very upset, a couple things shocked me. One, that he had solved a 3 hour paper in 1 hour! Two, that he had done it with ZERO preparation. And, most importantly, he wasn’t particularly upset with my terrible score. Au contraire, he looked at me and said “I think that you have done well enough to warrant completing the test tomorrow. Go and get a good night’s rest.” I learned how correct he was just a few weeks later when the JEE results were announced.
I remember learning, later on, how he pulled this one off. He would, starting in high school, pick up text books for the up coming year. And, would — over summer — methodically work his way through every problem in the books. He would then re-work the problems using a different solution, trying to cut his time in half. He would then modify the problems, to build his intuition.
Lesson learned: Hard work is just as important as capability. Hard, early in the process, pays off in spades down the road.
TWO: Unending generosity. With no expectation. Growing up, we would never know who would join us at the dinner table. Or, who would stay with us. Or, even how long they would stay with us. We had an unending stream of “Friends of AKR.” Naturally, we would protest from time to time. But, it seemed like — unlike most other topics — this one was not up for discussion.
I never understood what drove his behavior till I learnt more about the family’s history. My father grew up in a very wealthy environment — his father owned a bank, ran a pharma business and was one of the first people in Madras to own an automobile. Unfortunately, the family business fell apart and he lost his father during this process — at age 12. Leaving him, his 2 year old brother and mother at the mercy of the extended family. They lived in several uncles homes for 4 years before he headed off to college. And, it was this (sometimes good, sometimes bad) experience that led him to offer food and shelter — as well as his infinite belief, energy and help — to anyone who needed it. No questions asked.
Lesson learned: Life has its ups and downs. Be an all weather friend. Don’t judge. Help as best you can.
THREE: Zest for life. Here’s to the simple pleasures! My father would travel often and far. As an authority in his field, he’d spend summers on sabbatical in different parts of the world — Australia, Canada, the US, and Europe — lecturing, working and advising. We understood that he was choosing to use his sabbatical time in summer chunks (rather than the traditional “take the family and spend an entire year at another school”) to maximize his earnings. While we’d miss him, the house would be all agog as the day of his return approached. We’d be bouncing off the walls, in anticipation of the gifts he would bring. Since we weren’t permitted to skip school, the rule was simple: Nothing was opened till everyone was home and present. And, then, he would proceed to open his boxes with the pomp of a circus showman… Gifts small and large would emerge from the proverbial hat. A priceless Longines watch for my mother juxtaposed with an equally priceless “Etch-a-sketch” for the doodlers in our midst; a fun, battery powered ride-on car for my brother and a set of boomerangs for the kids and his students. A fresnel lens from Edmunds Scientific and a programmable hand held HP calculator for my college-going brother (probably the only one of its kind in the entire city!). Polish amber for my sister and mother and Singaporean saris for the wives of his friends. And, a story to go with each of the purchases.
While the gifts were fun, what I realized much much later in life — after I had arrived in the US — was that most kids growing up in the US had never had the opportunity to play with, much less own, such amazing toys. We were simply blessed. It was his curiosity that caused him to seek out the most amazing stores. It was his generosity that led him to buy. And, ultimately, his desire to enjoy life that caused him to give away the doo-dads he had picked up.
Lesson learned: The value of the gift is in its uniqueness, the thought put into buying it, and the pleasure the other person gets. It’s rarely about the price.
I will signoff with the note that he penned to me when gifting me a copy of Harry Harrison’s “Father to Son” on Father’s Day on June 15th, 2003 — two years before he died:
It was Fun for You & Me.
Make it Fun for You & Him.
I certainly had a fun time. I’ll do my best by Chirag. Happy Birthday, Naannagaru!