24 June 2012

Honesty, at home

In the worlds most real people inhabit, honesty is a burden the householder cannot afford to shoulder.

Ferrari ki Sawaari is the story of a mild-mannered Parsi with a government job that doesn’t pay very much. It pays enough for him to put his son in a school that offers up such temptations as under-14 cricket coaching camps at Lord’s — but not enough to have a bank loan approved so that he can pay the camp fee of Rs 1.5 lakh. And yet Rustom Deboo, head clerk at the Regional Transport Office, Worli, is a paragon of honesty. When someone mentions “gifts”, he squirms uncomfortably in his chair. When he cuts through a traffic light by mistake, he rides his scooter to the next traffic cop and insists on paying a fine. “But no-one saw you,” says the exasperated havaldar. “Someone did see me,” answers Rustom, eyes twinkling gently behind his spectacles. “My son. And what he sees is what he’ll learn, no?”

Like a good parable, Ferrari ki Sawaari (FKS) sets up two father-son pairs to represent the possibilities inherent in this principle of “Jo dekhega, vahi seekhega”. On the one hand there’s Rustom, whose ethical compass is set by his desire to set a good example for Kayo. On the other is the goonda-politician Tatya (Vijay Nikam), whose son Pakya is a tragically cartoonish spectacle of how badly things can go wrong when sons imitate not-so-good fathers.

But in the end, the fate of Tatya and Pakya is tangential to FKS. The central ethical conundrum of the film is this: what keeps Rustom honest is his son — but his departure from the straight and narrow is also driven by his love for his son. It is a desire to give his child the things he can’t afford on his meagre salary that makes him steal a car.

FKS is a fairy tale, so Rustom only “borrows” Sachin Tendulkar’s red Ferrari, and after a long and charmingly silly series of detours, all is well. But fathers and their dilemmas are at the core of two more realist fictions I encountered recently — and their resolutions are not as reassuring.

The first of these is Girish Kasaravalli’s Kurmavatara, which won the National Award for Best Kannada Film this year. Kurmavatara, too, is about a government employee (it is fascinating, this fictional predilection for the public sector as the site of corruption — or its acid test). Unlike Rustom in FKS, Anand Rao is an old man on the verge of retirement. He has already lived most of his life the way he wanted to: incorruptible, devoted to his work, and seemingly oblivious of his family’s unfulfilled desires. It is only when the makers of a popular television serial about Gandhi zero in on Rao for the title role that he is forced to confront the dilemma he has managed to keep at bay all these years. His grown-up son is convinced that his TV earnings might finally provide the extra push the family needs to secure its financial future: “We can send Abhi for engineering,” the son says, speaking of the seven-year-old grandson.

Rao agrees. But as the film unfolds, we hear the son berate the father again and again for never having made enough money to give his family the good life: “Great! You were honest! But what did you get in return?” The father is cornered into silence. The son tries every trick he can think of to capitalise on his father’s temporary fame: signing him up for a detergent advertisement, getting him to be the mascot of a local political group. Meanwhile, the old man, told to research his character, enters deeper into the spirit of Gandhi. When the son suggests extracting money from the producers by threatening to back out of the part, he asks mildly: “Would that be ethical?” The son throws a fit: “Never seen anyone more unsupportive of his own family,” he rages. The film ends with the son, his wife and child moving out — having stuck to his principles, our protagonist must make his peace with being alone.

In stark contrast is Naresh Kumar, the protagonist of Amitabha Bagchi’s new novel, The Householder. “If you can’t become an officer, the next best thing is to become an officer’s doorkeeper,” Naresh’s father told him in the early eighties. “If nothing else, you can make money by refusing to open the door.” Now “PA to Shri R K Asthana, Joint Director”, Naresh is a very powerful minion. And unlike Rustom and Rao, he has never had any qualms about lining his pockets.

Mr Bagchi’s achievement – discomfiting, and powerful – is to take us into the mind of this man, for whom what textbooks call corruption is simply what he feels is necessary to provide for his family. There is no dilemma here. The path leads straight from the first 70-rupee-kadhai for his wife to gold, shops, plots of land. And when Naresh’s son Praveen proves himself more adept at power games than his father, and even better at absolving himself of guilt, it all makes absolute – if terrifying – sense. “You see, Babuji,” he said. “I have learnt some things from you.”

Only in a wholly fantastic universe, it seems, do sons thank fathers for their honesty. In the worlds most real people inhabit, honesty is a burden the householder cannot afford to shoulder.

Published in the Business Standard,  Jun 23, 2012


Anonymous said...

Great piece!

Anonymous said...

We surely dont live in a world where I cud say like Bhatnagar Sr.IAS,"It was easy for me,nobody ever offered me a bribe."Some succumb to temptation,most walk away but leave a forwarding address but blessed are those who still manage to do so,in a world devoid of all isms except CONSUMERISM.They are the tiny minority but they count.