This year marks only the fifth Father's Day I'm celebrating. No, it's not because I'm a delinquent, disrespectful daughter but something more prosaic: The day to honor dads crossed over to India's shores only a few years ago.
Growing up, I couldn't imagine a special day for mothers or fathers. Whatever for? The last thing a typical Indian kid wants is attention from dad, because that usually means you're in trouble.
In many Indian homes, gender roles are fairly rigid. Fathers are breadwinners, mothers are homemakers. Mom takes care of the day-to-day running of the house, oversees the kids. Dad? Stoic and generally tired, he's the ultimate authority to enforce rules being challenged, scold you for bad grades — or mete out extra pocket money if he thinks you deserve it.
Growing up in India in the '80s and '90s, my friends and I thought of our fathers as remote but powerful figures. Fathers didn't seem to know what to do with their kids besides boss them around. One friend would watch Hollywood films of dads and sons playing baseball and marvel at the idea.
"My father was the heavy hand," said another friend. "When he spoke it was like The Master Has Spoken." I remember feeling absolutely thunderstruck watching an American dad doing handstands with his kids in a Delhi swimming pool. Who knew dads could do things like that? But, then, he wasn't Indian.
In my house, our conversations, were either about grades (too low) or how much time I spent on the phone (too much). Other than that my father was busy rising through the ranks at the company he joined as a management trainee and retired from as managing director.
Once I left for college in the States, things changed. On our weekly calls, my father would ask about more than just school. And conforming to the sentiments and rituals of my peers, I started calling him on Father's Day. Over the transatlantic call, he always sounded a bit surprised when I'd say "Happy Father's Day, thanks for being a great dad." I now think that he was surprised by the very notion. Parenting was a duty in his mind; you didn't need to be thanked for doing it.
I moved back to India in 2007, and my relationship with my father grew quite close. I lived with my parents for a year, and at meals, over films, we started to have real conversations, share feelings, thoughts, even talk about the past. But I never expended money or brain-space on what to gift him for Father's Day.
Then in June 2011, out of the blue, my brother asked me, "What are we giving papa for Father's Day"?
I blame it on retailers. They began promoting the holiday and offering greeting cards and "masculine" gifts.
Clearly, my brother had been brainwashed. As if birthdays weren't hard enough, for the first time ever I found myself scrambling to think of another present for our father.
So far, we've bought him flowers (he was a bit taken aback) and books, and invited him to a brunch he kept trying to wriggle out of. "Oh, chhado, na, let it be," he kept saying of Father's Day. "It's just a racket to sell more stuff."
But it's hard to resist the pressure. In the last five years, India has appropriated both Mother's and Father's Day with unbridled enthusiasm.
Here's a sampling of subject lines from my inbox just today:
Plus coupons to buy dad discounted furniture (What says, "I love you, dad" better than a 4-seat dining room set?) and knickknacks (a flask with a mustache decal for the dad who needs booze on the go).
Even small-city malls have huge signs up for Father's Day blowout sales. And if you didn't already know that the holiday is imported, here's a tipoff: All the posters feature white men.
Now it is possible that some Indian dads would be a little embarrassed by a pillowcase that says, "I love dad, he's my superhero." But there's no denying that India's dads have changed. One of my guy friends takes care of his daughter so his wife can go to brunch. Another takes his kids camping. That's not the way my dad did things (although he did have his hip side — he roller skated and watched Elvis Presley films, played tennis and wore bell bottoms).
So what to give my 71-year-old dad, who thinks gifts for Father's Day are a waste of money?
To find out, I called and asked him.
"When is Father's Day?" he countered.
Sunday, I told him, laughing.
"Nothing," he said, thoughtfully. "Just ... send me a nice message."
I said I'd do that anyway.
By this time he was laughing, too. "Well, then," he answered, "What more do I want?