As a woman surrounded by a sea of formidable men -- my father "Appa," my brother, husband and two sons -- I never have to go too far for reassurance and motivation.
Where it's a matter of practicality, there's the husband. When getting a job done is the need of the hour, there's the brother. Following a long, hard day of work, there's the comforting embrace of the children. But my go-to person for inspiration is always Appa. Here's why.
Growing up in impoverished, rural British India, Appa, the second oldest of four siblings, was only four when his biological mother passed away. Unable to care for the children, my grandfather sent Appa to live with his aunt, my grandmother's sister, temporarily. There, Appa suffered from numerous ear infections, which eventually affected his hearing in his right ear. When he returned several years later to live with his father, who had remarried by then, food, among other things, had become scarcer than before and had to be shared between eight siblings.
Despite the family's economic woes and the physical and emotional hardships he had endured, brave young Appa made a choice to focus on life's positives. He did well in school, studying under the street lights, as there was no electricity at home. He engaged in normal childhood activities, including playing gilli-danda with his friends, climbing trees and riding the bicycle. He helped out at home by milking the family's cows every morning, cleaning the cowshed, and bathing the animals. Comparing that to my own childhood, which was unblemished and unfettered, invokes in me a profound sense of gratitude for all that I have today.
A year later, Appa returned to India, found a job, got married, and had my brother and me, all the while helping move the family's needle on poverty. He helped his younger brothers secure jobs and used his savings to help pay for his sisters' weddings. When his brother-in-law abandoned a sister, Appa, and my mother, stepped forward and brought her under their care, much to society's chagrin. A fearless warrior, he supported her emotional and financial needs, and even sponsored her enrollment in a teacher training program, ensuring her long-term security and well-being. His sister and other siblings reminisce to this day, with great pride and joy, about his love, generosity and compassion. Appa's ability to break free of archaic societal norms and hold his own is exceptional and a clear illustration of his progressive attitude.
Appa was a stupendous father -- a rare attribute of a man, even in today's world. From keeping nightly vigils to changing soiled diapers to feeding/bathing my brother and me in a timely manner, he insisted on sharing the burden with my mother. He was a dependable provider, and demonstrated through action professional values such as respect for work, responsibility, commitment and consistency. He spent quality time with the family, taking us to the park, the movies, for shopping, and supported our extra-curricular activities by attending our performances.
Leading by example, Appa instructed us on being honest and keeping our word, on being thankful, on dealing with setbacks, on sacrificing our comforts for others, on conformance to family, on being affectionate and gentle. I never heard him raise his voice, ever. Rooted in his inner serenity, he showed us how to resolve conflicts in a calm, patient manner, without anger or judgment. One of Appa's greatest qualities is his practice of giving unconditional love. No matter what grades I brought home, he was never harsh or critical of me, but always accepting and happy. Is it surprising then that I admire him so much?
Appa and my mother went on to buy a little nest of their own and sent both my brother and me to professional colleges, ensuring a bright future for us. Self-made individuals, my parents are now retired, and spend their time by traveling the world around, championing various causes, staying in touch with their siblings, and enjoying each other's company. A penniless kid from a tiny little Indian village, where a good life was not even a dream, much less a possibility, Appa has carved out a memorable niche for himself through education, hard work and a determination to succeed.
Appa isn't perfect by any definition, but he always strives for excellence and does things with a sense of passion and humor -- an insight I've borrowed to use as a parenting skill. A role model and mentor, he is always ready to help others but refrains from giving unsolicited advice. A surgery a few years ago for a ruptured disc has left Appa with persistent back pain, but you won't see so much as a squirm on his face. He does flexibility exercises, takes daily walks, manages his back pain using medicated balms and oils, and follows a strict, vegetarian diet. Appa's sense of discipline and proactive self-care is motivating for me and my family to take care of our health and well-being.
At age 78, Appa is still the most loving, balanced and adaptable person I know, always curious about learning, always listening, and never taking things personally or for granted. Leadership skills such as determination, persistence, putting others first, a sparkling sense of humor, and cool-headedness make him an absolute hero. Sure, his academic prowess didn't earn him the Nobel prize nor did his sacrifices garner him the presidential medal of honor. He didn't become a business tycoon nor did he rise to fame as an athlete or artist. But what he did earn was his family's love, trust and admiration, and a life of dignity and integrity -- things he would never trade for money, status and recognition.
Appa's grounding philosophy, "live simply, expect little, and give much" as well as his life choices encourage me to examine my own life and evaluate my own life choices. Much like he did, I try to fearlessly embrace the unexpected and lean in to my inner strength -- the hallmark traits of a brave soldier.
While in the fairy tale of my life, my husband is my Prince Charming, my Appa will forever be King!