The ties that bind

When I was little, I would draw and paint like most children do. But I was lucky to have parents who saw potential and encouraged me. I went to art school right after my grade 10, enrolling for a five year degree course. When it was time to choose a specialisation after my first year of art school, I was advised by my mother to choose Graphic design. In her practical manner, she said I could always paint, but I needed a skill that would help pay the bills. So after four more years of studying graphic design, I was immediately absorbed by the advertising world. All was well in the beginning. It was glamorous, relatively better paying than my roommates who were in banking, and I was fortunate to have some very good bosses. Job satisfaction was kind of happening, although I didn’t know it then. I was working on big campaigns, travelling on shoots. I was given increasingly bigger accounts to work on. The only thing I resented was the lack of time. Advertising is a demanding business. Clients usually are in a rush, deadlines are tight, and your time is not your own. I found myself spending more and more nights in office, working late, eating unhealthy, rarely seeing the outside world. It got to a point where I had a spare toothbrush in office. But I was young, single, and had no responsibilities.
That changed when, at 27, I lost my father. I needed to spend a lot more time travelling back home to look after the farm, my mother, day to day affairs. My parents had had a late marriage, and I am an only child. Our home was in a slightly off-road village, a day’s journey from my city. When my parents married, there was no electricity, and the single road was a mud one. Although we did get electricity later, and our main road was tarred, both these were moody things. The road was rutted after every harvest by bullock carts, and the electricity failed for a good four months every monsoon. This is not an exaggeration. Even today, in the middle of the intense monsoon, power remains iffy. Living in the forest makes you tough, and living off the land, you become inured to the lack of comfort. When your annual income depends on the whims of the weather, you become philosophical and stoic. You learn to appreciate and help the neighbour – sometimes your life depends on him.
When I was five, our home was burgled by local thieves. Knowing my father kept a shotgun next to his bed, they quietly moved the gun to the sprawling backyard, afraid my father would wake up and shoot them. Much later, I learnt to be grateful they didn’t use it on my sleeping parents. The burglary was discovered when my father woke up in the morning and went to the backyard as usual, and saw his shotgun propped up against the old jackfruit tree. Because of the life we led, my father had three licensed firearms, (a double barrel, a single barrel, and a pistol) and he took care of them very well. I remember him cleaning, oiling and polishing the double barrel shotgun, and not allowing me to touch any of them. When, at fifteen, I gathered the courage to ask him to teach me to shoot, it was one of the few times I saw him angry.
‘A gun is a dangerous thing. You don’t need to learn this’.
After he passed away, I had to sell all three. Now I wish I had kept the small pistol. Though I know he was right. A gun is a dangerous thing.
But I digress. So when my father passed away, I needed more time away. My boss was
understanding and supportive. I got to take a three month sabbatical, and found myself home for longer than five days for the first time since college. There was time to breathe, to enjoy the monsoon (my father had passed away right at the beginning of the rains), to absorb and understand my father’s work better. I got many letters, from people who had known him, his agricultural suppliers, government workers, rural banking advisors. I spent hours trekking in the forest with a couple of our workers, getting to know our land, its boundaries, rivulets and trees. As a child, I used to jump at the chance of accompanying my father to our various lands, where I would read a book or play by myself while he overlooked the work. Now it was daunting to think of the responsibility. I missed a sibling, a cousin, an uncle, someone I could turn to for advice.
Friends advised me to sell everything and ‘reduce my burden’. If you haven’t grown up on land, it’s difficult to understand the ties that bind you to it. Every tree, stream, gate, fence, season, is a soft yet solid companion. There is simple joy in the daily rhythm of life. I could not bring myself to sell anything. After a decade, my mother put her foot down and we sold a fair amount of agricultural land. I thought I was making a sensible decision, because we couldn’t look after it anyway. Better to let someone else cultivate it. But I hadn’t bargained for my strange heart. I still feel I should have kept it, for my father, for the countless times we walked the dogs there, ate the litchis and guavas from those trees, drove away the neighbours’ cattle, shook tiny ripe mangoes from the tall tree planted by my great grandfather. Sometimes those ties that bind get stronger with age. They know no boundaries.

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