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A Father's Gift
An interview with my dad
A couple of years ago my dad emailed me and my brother:
I very well understand that I am quite an ordinary person, similar to billions of others who lived on this planet before me and some more billions who will follow. As such there is no need for me or for anyone else to write my (hi)story. But just in case you want to know about me some time later… I do not know many such things about my father. Hence these details. I might have told you some of these in bits and pieces but never systematically.
Thus began a series of emails describing every chapter of his life, spanning every decade since the early 1950s, touching upon every theme in life, set in the background of a country and a world that have been transforming, mostly for the better. Over six months, he wrote more than 60000 words, not counting any of the detailed follow-ups answering our questions in each email thread.
After that, he has switched to recording voice memos whenever we think of a new topic, the follow-ups for which we then continue in email.
This has been the most memorable gift from my dad. I imagine there are other families who might be interested in trying it.
Below is an interview of my dad about this project, lightly edited for clarity.
SRAVAN: How structured was this project? What was your overall process? Did you have an outline? Did you write them all continuously, or were there days in between two emails when you didn't draft anything?
DAD: Actually I started answering some of your questions, like how did I plan my investments vs spending, how did I handle giving loans to friends and acquaintances, were there any serious life changing or unforgettable events... and so on.
I had a pretty turbulent time from November 2018 to March 2019. I could not write long emails or answer such questions well. From April 2019, I became relatively free. That is when I started answering in more detail.
I did not plan to write everything related to my life initially. I was only writing thematically. After writing a few emails I realized that theme-based emails needed to cover longer periods of my life. That was when I decided to write emails in chronological sequence. Thus I started covering all the important things that happened during my college days, then university days, and so on.
These were not continuous. A couple of times, even one topic took two or three emails. In such a case, I tried writing them in quick sequence. In the case of others, there were gaps anywhere from one to two weeks.
SRAVAN: How many hours did each email take? Were they over a single sitting or multiple? These days when you record an audio message, how long does it take?
DAD: Writing each email took one hour approx. But preparing it mentally, before starting the typing, took two to three hours. It was during my driving or bath or doing other things. I was to dwell into the past, recollect the events and structure them: that took time. Usually I complete in one sitting – at least the same day once I start.
Audio messages came towards the end. Again I had roughly formulated what I wanted to cover in one audio message which took about an hour. Then recording took between twenty to thirty minutes. Thirty minutes is more than what one can handle (from both sides – talking or listening).
SRAVAN: Were any parts difficult to write? Anything unusually difficult to remember, or difficult to articulate? Did you skip some things, out of some inhibition or any fear of judgment?
DAD: No to all... I wrote only what I remembered. I was honest. I did not skip anything deliberately... Articulation wise you are a better judge. You had questions or opinions on every email and your brother in some cases. That helped me to explain clearly.
As much as possible I tried writing about the incidents and how I reacted. I was not judgmental about other players in my life – at least I did not intend these emails to serve that purpose. Hence I did not worry. I remember writing about some incidents where I behaved foolishly.
SRAVAN: Did you know anyone else who did something like this? Were you looking at any other sources for inspiration? Did you tell anyone that you were writing these?
DAD: No again to all. I did not come across anyone who did something like this.
I read about Jawaharlal Nehru writing something similar in Letters from a Father to His Daughter while he was in prison during British Rule. I read it – not the book itself completely, but about the info when I was in college. We had one of the chapters in our syllabus. But this connection – that I was doing something similar, though I wasn't in prison, but had a lot of free time – came much later.
I did not tell anyone while writing. But after almost completing it, you said that the whole exercise came out very well and may be worth emulating by others. That was the time I told some others in my close circles. Some applauded, some said that they keep sharing many such things when they talk to their children, and some others (only one) felt it was not such a good idea – because of the changing times and no relevance.
SRAVAN: Tell me about your past writing experience. Do you have any ambitions as a writer? Would you want this to be published, or in some way shared with people other than the two of us? Or are you against it?
DAD: I wrote many (close to fifty) articles for journals & magazines, on LinkedIn, etc. I wrote process manuals. So I can say that I had reasonable writing experience. I hope to keep writing even in the future, but I don't claim that to be an ambition.
I have no objection whatsoever to sharing them with anyone. Probably we may have to edit any PII which might appear in some places.
If possible I want them to be shared with others. The times we grew up in were completely different from your times. Our economic, social, technological and other conditions were unknown to anyone in the current generation. If they can understand them, they can better understand their elders.
SRAVAN: Would you recommend this project to other parents? Do you have any suggestions for how other people can approach this?
DAD: I definitely recommend it.
Why: We all share many of our feelings and emotions selectively with others in our circle – some with colleagues, some with friends, some with spouse, some with family members. We share very little with children. Sometimes they do not understand why we behaved the way we did. They observe us and arrive at their own conclusions. They may be right in some cases but might be wrong as well.
If and when they want to know our side of the story, they can read these. Some of my friends told me that they talk about many such things with their children. But by writing, children have access to them any time they wish to read. We ourselves relive while recollecting the past and I was personally happy going through those moments.
When: I suggest upon reaching the age of 60 or children crossing 30, whichever comes later. The writer is at a stage where (s)he doesn't worry too much about what their children will think about them. Children have become mature enough to understand that each person has their own life and no two can have the exact same opinions or likes and dislikes. They can disengage themselves and try to understand the writer as a third person. Of course, this has worked well for me.
What: Write everything and anything that you can recollect. Do not use these writings to advise or suggest who is right and who is wrong. Do not condemn others. Do not judge yourself or others. Be honest. Write each incident and how and why you reacted the way you did. We all take wrong decisions sometimes – there is nothing to be ashamed of. You can write about them also. I did.
How: Use very simple language. It need not necessarily be children's mother tongue, because some children in the current generation cannot read or write in it. Use any language that is convenient to both of you. I prefer writing rather than audio recordings but if anyone feels that they cannot express themselves well in writing or can do much better in speaking, then so be it.
[My own suggestion. Don't overthink it. Don't worry about completeness. You are the subject matter expert. The audience already likes the expert and is interested in the subject.]
SRAVAN: Anything else you want to say? [Leading question, haha!]
DAD: I need to express my sincere thanks to you and partly to your brother. You have encouraged me and kept on asking for more details, and gave good feedback on writing style & contents. You were very appreciative. I sincerely thank you from the bottom of my heart.
I have a soft spot for letters. For many years I have been reading Shaun Usher's Letters of Note blog, book, and now the newsletter.
I did not think about Nehru’s letters to Indira until the above conversation. I have since read the collection. These letters, written in 1928, were from a political prisoner to his ten-year-old daughter who presumably had some understanding of their current personal and political situation. But they barely touch on their own predicament. The letters are not weighed down by the history of the moment. They mainly cover the subjects of natural and human history. I like to think that some officers in the British Rule had read their children these letters at bedtime.
You can read the collection online. They are a quick read. I recently recommended it to a fifteen-year-old, and I would heartily recommend it to even younger children.
Nehru was a humanist. I think he is underrated.
My intention of this essay was to share the idea with more people. I was surprised to learn that not only did my dad have no objections to sharing his letters with others, but would actually like it. A future project of compiling these into a collection, maintaining continuity while removing my and my brother's questions and thoughts, and figuring out what removing the PII of others would look like, etc. sounds interesting, and daunting.
I was also surprised to discover in me a flash of selfishness. I felt, "No, this was something my dad wrote for me so I won't share it with anyone." I wonder if Indira threw a tantrum. The letters she read were her father's gift, but the letters we read are her gift.
Thanks to my dad and partly to my brother. :)