- October 1, 2005
I remember when I was very young, my father slapped me once in a fit of anger. Even before the sting of the slap could subside, I saw him crying. He hugged me and started to say he was sorry. I hugged him back and ended up consoling him!
I have always wanted to capture, in some form or another, my feelings about Baba, as I call him, but I want to write about Jatin Das, the person, not just the father. I grew up in a house where my mother, Varsha Das, went everyday to her office, the National Book Trust and my father stayed home. He cooked and cleaned and yes, painted! Talk about breaking gender stereotypes – for a long time, I was quite convinced that mothers went to office while fathers took care of the housework and when it was all over, painted for recreation!. But thank God for being exposed to such role reversals at an early age. Though it sure had its problems – my father’s creativity also permeated the kitchen, which meant that my school lunch box was usually an unorthodox mix of original dishes. My friends loved my father’s ensemble of sprout salad, dahi baingan, brown bread with salami…, thinking it to be rather exotic, while I devoured their roti-subzi-achar, which for me was real ghar ka khana.
He was a rebel of sorts. Society has certain rules, whether about money, about relationships, about how one should live. As a child, it was frustrating sometimes, living with a father widely considered to be an eccentric, but as I grew older, I began to understand how truly privileged I was to have a father so special. He encouraged me to question everything, even himself. (now, of course, he wonders why I argue with him so much!) He gave me the freedom to explore, to wander and yet not feel lost. He was someone who believed in living life’s principles, instead of just being imprisoned in various ‘isms’ that we mouth with such ease.
I’ve grown up hearing stories about his childhood in Baripada, Orissa, of how he would paint endlessly under the trees in the field behind his home instead of preparing for his exams. There were stories about how he went to Bombay at 17, with almost nothing in his pocket to join the JJ School of Arts. Then those innumerable tales of being broke and all the adventures that go with it; his time at the Bhulabhai Desai Institute where Pandit Ravi Shankar would play sitar, Hussain Sahab would paint, Sanjeev Kumar would do plays and Gieve Patel and Nissim Ezekiel would sit together and read poetry. There were many creative friends, and at the same time they were each other’s worse critics. There’s this story I’ve heard a million times from both, Baba and his singer friend, Ashok Mishra, about a large fresco Baba was to do on Marine Drive, shortly after he left art school. It was a prestigious assignment for someone so young and he sure could do with the money at that time. Typically, he postponed the painting till the last day, only to panic the night before. Frantically, he got in touch with Ashok dada and asked for help – he would finish the painting that very night but only if Ashok dada sat with him on the scaffolding and sang until he was done! So, all through the night, Ashok dada sang and Baba painted; the fresco, Ashok dada says, was completed with the first rays of the morning sun.
It must have been a beautiful way to grow, those years of true sharings and learnings. Where do we see that now? Nobody has the time, spontaneous meetings are rare and growing as become an individual activity. Where are those addas Baba talks about which were creatively and emotionally so stimulating? Don’t we need to come together to talk about our passions, our frustrations, our dilemmas, our journeys? No wonder my father still lives in that past. The times have changed, but he hasn’t; neither has his relationship with money, the thing that seems to drive most people. He has no concept of it, doesn’t have any investments, no house of his own, no planing for the future. Since childhood, I have seen our house being an open home, for many friends, relatives and even their friends. We all can be givers, giving what is not the most precious thing or giving to those we love. Seldom have I seen anyone giving, without batting an eyelid, anything and everything and to who ever crosses his path. The daughter in me sometimes gets anxious and upset with his choices and philosophy of life, but when I step back and see him as a person I feel blessed. I am glad that money was never a part of my definition of achievement or success. Many words like practical, strategy, management, career, which have become common place, just don’t exist in his vocblary .Work and life are inseparable for him. Work is always seen as part of living, something that gives joy, makes life more meaningful and above all, helps to grow as a human being.
There is so much pressure in today’s world to specialise, to excel in one focused area and to be ambitious about reaching the top. But what if many different things fascinate you, and what if doing all of those many different things is the only way for you to be happy? Well then you just go ahead, stumble along the way, meet some amazing people, and dabble in what you love doing. He laid a lot of emphasis on core values like honesty, equality and sensitivity. I was reminded ever so often to question my motivations and my actions that it has almost become a habit to do a reality check in every situation. That’s what my father taught me, this maverick I grew up with. Of course people think he is crazy and just can’t believe that a man in his 60s can be so childlike, so ‘scattered’, so worldly unwise. People are always after him to ‘focus’, “you could be so successful if you just focused on painting”, they say. But for him cooking, gardening, setting up an art museum, working with artisans and potters… everything is just as important. What they don’t understand is that for him, the journey is more important and not the destination.
When I began doing films, Baba was dead against it. He would often say, “Film world is like a dragon, it can suck you in and lure you into the world of superficiality, money and fame. The best of people end up compromising and losing their path.” I used to laugh and remind him of what his parents said when he wanted to be a painter. But I know today that if I have been able to keep my feet firmly on the ground, my head on my shoulders and my heart in its right place, then it has a lot to do with my upbringing. I am glad he continues to be my conscience. There isn’t anyone who doesn’t grow up being told to not lie, not steal, not cheat, not be cruel. But we don’t turn out to be such saints. – children learn more from what they see and feel and not from what they are told.
No not all is perfect in him, in fact he has many traits that given a chance I would love to change. But those will be the “impractical” aspects of him. As a person, I would leave Jatin Das alone, just the way he is. I wouldn’t change his passion for life, love for people, belief in honesty and equality, his innocence about the complexities of today’s world and above all his optimism, even in the face of huge difficulties. Writing about him reaffirms my faith in the fact, that he is special.