Like Father Like Son

Like Father Like Son

Inspired by a recent trip to India. May I never have to say these words… (6/2004)


Amit’s family lived in a town five kilometers from Udaipur, India between a cement wall and a brick wall, under a large Gulmohar tree. At four, Amit’s mother and father sent him out onto the streets to beg. Each day, he would walk with them into the city. Each day, he would do as his father had taught him and look for the tell-tale signs of affluence: light skin, strange canvas “tennis” shoes, short pants or short sleeves in the summer, loud proud voices from people that seemed to think the world should bend to their will. Each day, from sunrise to sunset, he would tug on pant legs or shirtsleeves and whine “mister, mister” or “lady, lady” until his throat was raw.

By the time Amit was seven, he could understand and speak over 500 words in English. He listened closely to these wealthy tourists and learned quickly. He didn’t learn how to say, “I have a yellow pencil” or “the book is on the table.” Instead, he learned how to say “please” and “I am hungry” and “I need to buy food for my family” and “my father is sick.”

Amit’s father really was sick, and before Amit saw his eighth birthday, his father moved to the next life.

Before his passing, Amit’s father encouraged Amit to work hard, to always keep his faith and belief in God, and to try to do better for his own son when he had one. Amit’s father’s last words to Amit were, “I’m sorry son. I wish I could have given you more.”

By age ten, Amit’s command of English was tremendous, especially since he had never once stepped foot into a formal school. Superior even to his language skills were his “street skills”: he knew the best locations to stand and beg; the best way to approach various kinds of people – old, young, men, women, big groups, small groups; even what to wear and just how much dirt to smear on his forehead.

Amit’s mother died when he was 13. She died from malnutrition. In the last few years of her life, she was too weak even to go out and beg for food or money. Amit held his mother’s hand the last hour of her life and promised himself that he would ensure that he and his family, when he had one, would always have enough to eat.

Without his parents to feed, Amit was able to panhandle more than enough food and money to live. He began saving some money and began selling his extra food. He never charged much for it, but he always charged a few rupees for it, or traded for it.

By 16, Amit had saved enough money to lease a motorized rickshaw. He’d had enough for a bicycle rickshaw two years earlier, but knew from watching the streets that tourists generally preferred to ride in an air-conditioned taxi or at least a motorized rickshaw. And so he waited.

Amit kept his rickshaw spotless. In the evenings, he wiped it down without fail, and hammered out any dents from the day’s driving and the inevitable dings and scrapes. He kept his shirts clean and pressed. His slacks, too.

Amit continued to live simply, between the same concrete wall and the same brick wall, and under the same Gulmohar tree. He started to earn enough to save a few dozen rupees a week.

Besides saving his money, Amit began teaching English to the children in his village. He also taught them everything he knew about life in the streets: how to read people, when to beg, when to ask, when to cajole, even when to cry.

By 18, Amit had leased five more auto rickshaws for the five most promising boys. A year later, he had 20. The year after that, he had a fleet of 75.

Amit let the boys keep any profits above the cost of their rickshaw and gas and a small monthly fee he charged them. Each boy began to succeed and bring much-needed money and food to their families. Each boy knew that they owed the food on their table – or at least its regularity – to Amit.

Amit’s boys trained more boys, who trained more boys. And by 21, Amit was wealthier than anyone in his village could have possibly imagined.

By 25, Amit no longer drove his rickshaw. He was too busy improving and centralizing the way he bought and serviced his fleet of rickshaws, how and for how much he bought gasoline, even how he trained new boys.

Amit left his concrete wall and his brick wall and his Gulmohar tree behind him before he was 30, and a year after moving into a real home with four real walls (all made from identical material!) and an actual ceiling that kept the rain out, and actual plumbing, Amit married a girl from his village. Her name was Neha.

Amit did not follow the custom of throwing an elaborate, and costly, multi-day wedding celebration. He did not ask Neha’s family for a dowry. His marriage to Neha had nothing to do with money. Nor did it have anything to do with caste or station. It was that rarest of things in his village – a love marriage.

Within a year, Neha gave birth to a son, Pradeep. Pradeep grew up, literally, with a silver spoon in his hand. As he grew up, Amit’s business grew, and so had his house and his household staff. Pradeep grew up in the care of a nanny, had his own servant, and once a teenager, his own driver.

But while all of these material things made Pradeep’s life comfortable – he never once had to beg on the streets, he never knew the debilitating pangs of days-long hunger, he could bathe everyday, he never even had to lift a finger around the house – Pradeep was unhappy.

Pradeep was unhappy because he rarely saw his father, who seemed to work seven days a week, from sun up until well past sun down. Amit was either in the room in the house they’d set aside as his study, or was out buying or repairing rickshaws, negotiating petrol contracts, or whatever.

Pradeep simply wanted to talk with his father, to sit and talk and learn about life and muse about the world and philosophy and the human condition. Pradeep wanted the closeness that comes from simply being in another’s presence, from sharing and getting through the details of each day.

Instead, Pradeep’s father seemed only to want to teach him the family business. At first, Pradeep went along, hopeful that spending time with his father would help bring them close together. But all Pradeep received were lectures on financials, on salesmanship, on bargaining and making deals. His father was talking all right, but talking at him, not with him, and certainly not about anything important as far as Pradeep was concerned.

When Pradeep was 15, his father suddenly grew ill. Shakti, the Indian goddess equivalent to the Western concept of Mother Nature, had caught up with his growing up for so many years without proper nutrition and medial attention, exposed to the elements with only a Gulmohar tree over his head. The tree’s orange flowers had been beautiful and mesmerizing, but they hadn’t kept him dry and warm during the rainy seasons of his childhood.

Before his passing, Pradeep’s father encouraged Pradeep to work hard and to try to do better for his own son when he had one.

On what Pradeep somehow sensed was father’s final day in this life, Pradeep decided that he would tell his father what he had wanted, what he had really needed, through the years, how he would have given everything up just to spend time walking and talking and joking and singing and dancing with his father.

For more than an hour, Pradeep cried as he unburdened his heart. Amit listened fully, attentively with the last of his strength. And as he listened to his son, Amit’s mind began playing home movies of his childhood days, back before his own father and mother had died. His mind watched the three of them huddled between their one concrete wall and their one brick wall, under their Gulmohar tree. On cold nights, they would have a fire and sit around telling stories, sometimes just talking about the events of the day or about whatever strange tourists they had met. On warm nights, they sometimes walked to the river and Amit’s father watched as Amit splashed in the water and Amit’s mother washed clothes.

Amit’s memories of his own boyhood enabled him to truly hear the pain and loneliness in his son’s voice, and in all that had gone unsaid through the years and even now. Amit’s last words to his son were, “I’m sorry son. I wish I could have given you more.” They were the same last words spoken to him by his father, only this time, Amit held Pradeep’s hand and held it to his chest, directly over his heart. And as his father passed, Pradeep knew that the “more” of which his father spoke was not money, not business success, not material wealth like jewels, or a big house or a car or fancy clothes. No, Pradeep knew that his father meant that he wished he had given Pradeep more of himself, more of his heart, a deeper and more loving relationship.

And as Pradeep mourned and remembered for many weeks and months and years, he made a promise to himself, and to his wife and his new son, that he would attempt to achieve some sort of balance in his life, that he would work to provide the necessities of life – and, sure, perhaps even a few non-necessities – but also give his time in this life and his love and warmth and compassion and joy to his wife and son. Unlike his grandfather and father before him, he did not want to have to say, “I’m sorry” when it was his time to go.

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