One summer day, CP** walked out of our home, got into a cab and sped off into the darkness. We never heard from him again.
CP was my father, a bank employee who hated lifelong commitment but got married to please his family. Conversely, my mom believed in ‘marriage above all’, investing everything she could into this relationship.
Then I was born.
My father never visited me in hospital. He did see me eventually but his absence from home became increasingly frequent. Soon he wanted to put me up for adoption or abandon me in an orphanage. He didn’t want a girl.
Mom told him that was never going to happen, so he called a cab and left for good. I was 4.
Mom took up a teaching job at my school. That way she made some money and kept an eye on me, although I hated this CCTV-style monitoring. As a ‘fatherless child’, I was regularly targeted by bullying neighbors and classmates. Some abused my mom for being a single parent. As a teenager, I reacted pretty strongly to these comments and one such reaction almost got me expelled from school.
In a weird convoluted way, I got even with the bullies by acing my schoolwork. I spent hours mastering every subject just so I could top my class. I won all sorts of prizes and scholarships, but instead of making friends, I think I made many people jealous. I was the ‘fatherless child who thought she knew everything’.
I hated my life. Some days I just wanted run away from those horrible people as fast as I could and go to a better world. I wanted friends. Love. Peace. Freedom to think. Enough money for clothes and ice cream.
So I befriended books. They seemed harmless, just reams of printed paper tied up with thread and bound with glue. Inside each book was a different world painted in hues I’d never seen. I laughed at the country cousins with Enid Blyton and revolted against the British with Mahatma Gandhi. Agatha Christie showed me how murderers schemed. Mills & Boon was for when mom wasn’t looking. I read whatever I found in my tiny school library – classics, trash and everything in between.
The worldview I developed from reading those tattered pages was my real education. As I grew older, I studied engineering, programming and business. Those things help me do what I do for a living, but the incremental learning from the old books in my school library has made me who I am.
I was dying to get a job so I could contribute towards family expenses. I got my chance at 14, as stand-in math tutor to three fifth-graders who hated math and me in equal measure. I ended up with a broken bike and a stronger spirit.
Many years and jobs later, I had a conversation in NYC with a colleague who cared about education as much as I did. That morphed into a community project. We used videoconferencing to conduct a ‘global classroom’ – my colleagues across the globe took classes in real time for underprivileged children in my local community. It was entirely free for the children and the company.
The pilot session had a classroom full of wide-eyed teenage girls I handpicked. As I stood before them, my thoughts raced back to our rickety old house, my father leaving in a cab, the ridicule I faced, the books I loved and my mother’s stern voice saying ‘study hard, it’s your only chance out of this hellhole’. I saw myself in each of those expectant young faces. Thirty children. Not even a drop in the ocean, but in my own small way, I had begun to change the world.
My project was a success. Everyone wanted to be on it, so we ran sessions in India, USA and Holland for girls and boys. I think what made it work was that I did it without expectation of reward (OK, the video shoot afterwards was nice, but I hadn’t anticipated that). I did it because I wanted to be the girl paving the way for girls after me. Because I understood that they were dying to escape from similar hellholes. Most of all, because I wanted to be better than my father.
I hold no grudges against those blessed with caring fathers. Nor do I worry about ‘could-haves’ or ‘should-haves’. I share my story to show you that how you interpret negative circumstances is entirely in your control: you can turn yourself into a bitter, vengeful person OR you can open doors for others.
I am my father’s biological child, but I am NOT my father.
** initials changed
Written by Anjana Karumathil