Be Empathetic – Lessons from my dad

My father was a great teller of tales. However, neither he nor I realized this for much of his life.  If I had asked my father tell me a story which I’ve don’t recall ever doing he’d have likely said, “I don’t tell stories.” However, he did. And darn good ones at that. Only they were narrated while we waited at railway stations or airports or while he was dressing up for work or waiting for dinner to be served. Many of them were just vignettes – episodes from his own life, that it took me many years to figure were stories – darn good ones – well worth repeating. And today as I share them with my daughters or at times with unsuspecting colleagues, I understand how they’ve shaped me.

My favorite story was my dad’s recounting of how as a young man he’d attended a village play  and particularly his re-telling of a specific scene from the play. My dad as with many Indians’ of the pre-WWII generation grew up in a small village. Entertainment meant the occasional village fair, a rare trip to town and most often a religious celebration which would include makeshift theater featuring song and dance. Plays, much like Indian movies of the early forties, were largely based on religious themes – often stories from one of the two great Indian epics Ramayana or Mahabharata. 

For those not familiar with the Indian epics, the Ramayana is the tale of the hero-king Rama, who is banished to 14 years of forest exile, on the eve of his coronation. His life in exile, including the search for his kidnapped wife Sita culminating in the epic good vs evil battle with the demon Ravana and his triumphant return to the throne, forms the arc of the story line. Rama’s father, the old king Dasaratha is forced to exile Rama, due to an IOU – a promise he made to his youngest wife Kaikeyi (he had three) who sought the throne for her own son.

Vanavas

Photo: Margarent Freeman

Village theater, even today in India, is often a makeshift stage, with a curtain or cloth draped to separate the backstage from the action up front. The actors heavily made up, rely on their costumes and loud voices to make up for the lack of scenery or other props. With stories such as the Ramayana, the audience which knows every scene needs little else.

As the curtain pulls back, the old king Dasaratha is reclining on the royal couch. My father’s voice chokes up as he narrates the scene. When I was much younger, I could never understand why dad choked up thus. We knew how the story ended! My dad’s eyes fill up and he’s not able to speak any further. With some nudging and prodding, he starts again. “Rama, Rama, Rama” the King calls out – loudly first, his voice filled with anguish and then softly. He gets off the couch and staggers forward as if wanting to go after his son. He continues, calling out “Rama, Rama, Rama” in a voice that breaks and gets weaker by the moment. And then he collapses and dies right there.

By this time, my father’s eyes, still wet, begin to twinkle – as though he’s thought of something naughty. “Then the crowd goes wild – they clap, cheer, hoot, jump up to their feet. “Encore, encore” a lone voice is heard. Then the crowd picks it up and shouts itself hoarse.” My dad is back in the crowd himself. Then the actor, playing the dead King, rises – steps back and begins again “Rama, Rama, Rama” and goes through the whole scene, crying, staggering, calling out and dropping dead. The crowd can’t have enough. By now my dad and I are both laughing out loud. I never tired of hearing this story and would ask my dad often to narrate it.

Yesterday when my younger daughter asked me, for a school project, to tell her what was happening in Palestine, I started to recount the tale of Israel. But in a moment, my own eyes were filled with tears – hot tears of anger and frustration at the real and perceived injustices. The same tears flow just as easily when I narrate the tale of Abhimanyu the young prince from the Mahabharata, cut down in his prime by eight great warriors, who trapped and ambushed him. While “sad songs say so much” as Elton John put it, it’s not just sad news or unfairness that brings me tears to my eyes. I could just as easily be watching Martin Luther King Jr. assert “I have a dream” on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial or listening to Eminem crooning “Mockingbird” to his daughter Haley. Like my father crying and laughing at the same time while recounting the encore rendition of the death of Dasaratha, I too find myself emoting easily.

Be empathetic” is the lesson my dad taught me that day and as my kids wipe my tears and try to coax me to continue, I realize how that one death scene has shaped me!


Five years ago today, my father passed away. The good news was that I got to spend a lot more time with my father, the last five years of his life – even as he and my mother struggled with his Parkinson’s Disease. The bad news is that no amount of time would have been enough. An earlier draft of this article appeared on Medium.

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