Absentee Fatherhood

This year I saw Mira for exactly 3 weeks. The rest of the time I have only watched her from afar, catching snatches of her morning routines or her bedtime sleepy face. I get her to say hi, blow me kisses, make her smile, and in general have a repeating conversation of “what are you doing?” in various baby tones.

In some ways, I feel frustrated at having Mira grow up away from me; I feel deprived of having been stolen many “first” moments. Through this period an unsteady and cuddly Mira transformed into an energetic 18-month-old with perceptible motor skills and comprehension. Technology preserves these transitional memories that I can spin into stories as Mira grows up. Google recently made a collage of all our photos and videos into a sappy montage, the kind that only parents fawn over, one that is terribly potent (especially for immigrant parents with their unhealthy reliance on memories) and which is excessively embarrassing when shared.

The last time Mira was in Brooklyn, she was a very shy baby. Visitors who wanted to pick her up were discouraged with a bout of tears and a baleful and offended stare after being returned to Neha or me.

India has changed her. She is surrounded by humans, a lot of whom are adept at handling children, and more importantly, by those who do not think it a violation of familiarity to handle someone else’s child as their own.

Her grandparents and mother claim she loves books. They all insist on parading how much she loves her books whenever I call. They try to broker a conversation between Mira and me, asking her to perform various token gestures as a sign of their proxy parenting success. Indian wifi garbles my frustrated remonstrations to leave her alone when Mira talks to me, to let her be. When through some stroke of luck the adults are distracted, Mira holds the phone peering down into the camera smiling at me.

Because I hope to move back to India very soon, I quell my irritation at her being given screen time of 5 hours a day. “It is your daughter, why are we taking care of her?” is a confrontation that I would have no justifiable answer to, and an imposition that I am well aware of.

That is also the question that I have constantly chewed over for many years, in many forms.

Why and how did I end up in a country that was designed to stifle economic growth unless one knew how to navigate it with aforethought precision? As much as I would like to claim that personal and political growth was also stunted, it was this extended stay in the developed west as an immigrant that seeded and nurtured in me these developmental awarenesses. The India I grew up in, an offline India whose boundaries were set by personal and geographic limits did not expose me to discussions happening in faraway lands, in varied households across a vast continent. Zuckerburg and Dorsey have given an avenue for an explosion of voices, amplifying the many tumultuous voices in a country whose dialogues were muted for long for lack of a megaphone.

I do not necessarily view my current situation as something particularly troublesome or pathos-inducing.

We have cousins who have fallen from fortune who have not been able to get back on their feet. I have in uncles and aunts family patriarchs and matriarchs, royalties, who now earn their living doing menial work. Another aging relative’s adopted daughter has cerebral palsy. I fear to ask if they knew of the condition when they adopted her. Whenever we visit one of Mira’s aunt in Mysore, I am struck at how the family of five, of two teenaged daughters and a disabled aging parent, manage to live in a tiny tenement with no privacy.

Whenever there is a gathering of relatives of the extended family I married into, I am struck at how varied everyone’s fortune has turned out to be. This state is made even more poignant when everyone has nostalgic memories of their generational wealth. Over food and drinks served by those who are better off, stories of decadence are shared with glazed eyes and slurred tongues. Those who have managed to preserve or compound their fortunes promise to increase the frequency of such gatherings, while the others trying to corner them discretely for a quick reminder about their children’s school fee or mothers’ medical bills.

It is easy to be reminded of my own good fortunes in such settings.

It is also a good lesson to remember, that fortunes depend on many capricious factors, the more of which you try and accumulate, the more likely the chances of survival. Deliberation has its advantages over deterministic kind-heartedness.

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