Monday, January 5, 2015

My Architect or Sex is Not Enough for Fathers: Our Efforts to Know our Dead/Living Fathers

(Poster of the film 'My Architect' a film by Nathanile Kahn 2003)

How do you call your father, if he is no longer in your life or has never been in your life or has left you at some point of time? May be it is very easy: if your father was a painter, you could refer him as my ‘painter’, the one who painted you. If he was a sculptor, you could qualify him as ‘my sculptor’. That’s how most of us refer the God, the ultimate father (feminists may take objection here for them the maker is always the mother. No dispute please. I too consider, at times, God as a woman, a very black woman; hey Mamma!!), the maker. The same hands that have made you have made the lowliest of creature in this earth too. So be humble. But what about the father, your father, who comes once in a while to meet you and then disappear for so many months, if not years? Why do mothers cry when fathers come back? Why do fathers look young and mothers old? What is this father and who is this father? I remember M.T.Vasudevan Nair talking about his father coming back from Colombo with a girl who faintly looked like him. Another friend tells me the story of his father who has taken him to a girl’s marriage. Why did she come and touch my father’s feet? Why did she look into my eyes before turning them to her bridegroom? Why her eyes were tearful?

I do not want to go into any Freudian discussion of father figure. Every son is not out there to kill his father for the fear of him getting at his mother. Every son is not sexually challenged by his father. It is one of the ways of looking at things. Theoretical tools, for sure. But what about the sons who go out looking for their father because he was not there at all in their lives while they were growing up. He is remembered by an occasional hug, a peck at the cheeks, some lunches together, some dinner together, a game of cricket in a play ground where he bowls at you and run behind the ball laboriously. Father reminds you of the fragrance of shaving cream, strong arms, hearty smile and glowing eyes. This man who disappears from your life has to be sought out. His reality should be dug out. He should be understood and if he is worthless, leave him behind. But the search should be on. Any son, who has challenged his father in Freudian terms or otherwise, should seek him out from obscurity. I remember Theodor Vel Wagner, the protagonist of O.V.Vijayan’s ‘Thalamurakal’ (Generations) coming back to Palakkad, from Germany to know the roots of his father. Oh good lord, where is my father? What would I call him?

(Louis Kahn and Nathanile Kahn)

Three of us sit there in a beautifully but subtly decked up drawing room, sipping small shots of the Balvenie single malt whiskey silently, feeling the heat of it tracing the inner routes of our self and contrasting the feeling with the raging cold outside. This moderately lit up room has one large glass window that opens to a little balcony with arm chairs and so many little curios culled from all over the world and beyond it there is a large garden where people, pigeons, dogs, cats and drivers relax. Along the frame of the window there runs an artificial wine with white leaves and white flowers. Each flower is a small little light and our host tells that it is brought from Japan. The lit up creeper adds to the feel of the room and it turns into a bower hanging between dream and reality. We set up a computer and projector and we are ready to see a documentary. And the name of the documentary is ‘My Architect’.

This Oscar nominated documentary is about Nathanile Kahn’s search for his father, to know his father and to understand him. This father had denied him the right to be his son though he gave him his family/surname. Nathanile father died when he was just eleven years old and his mother was his third wife. They lived in a remote forest edge in Philadelphia and occasionally his father visited them. His mother was a full thirty years younger to his father. His mother worked with his father in an architectural firm where she fell for his charismatic father. He was already married twice and was the father of two other children, who were around twenty years elder to Nathaniel. His father never wanted to break his first marriage and when the second woman was pregnant with his baby, and when she mentioned about the child and the physical involvement they had, he just said in his charismatic way that she should take it ‘philosophically’. She did not challenge the man nor did the third woman who became the mother of Nathaniel. But he craved for his father who died at the Penn Station in New York. He was seventy four years old. When the Police made the inquest and the following interrogations the identity of the dead man was revealed. His name was Louis Kahn, the world renowned architect.

(world renowned architect Louis Kahn)

Louis Kahn was born to a Jewish couple in a rundown building in Parnu, which is in present day Estonia. He studied architecture in the University of Pennsylvania where he became a professor later on. He met with a fire accident in childhood and his face was deformed. His father said it was difficult for him to survive but his mother said that he had an ugly face which would help him to be famous. He did become famous not for his ugly face but for the monumental buildings that he made in various countries including India (Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedaba) and in Bangladesh ()the Parliament building in Dhaka). No 20th century architect could escape the influence of Louis Kahn. Be it Charles Correa, Balkrishan Doshi, Frank Gehry, IM Pei or Philip Johnson, they all were influenced by the architectural style of Louis Kahn. With all his five feet five inches body, Kahn stood tall as an architect genius and it brought people to him like a moths to a light. Many perished and many survived and those survived still speak of the burning, the sweet, cool burning they suffered at the flame of Louis Kahn.

(Bangladesh Parliament house by Louis Kahn)

Nathaniel Kahn grew up as an orphan and he wanted his father back. It was impossible to get a dead man from his tomb. Hence he decided to make a journey to the tracks that his father had travelled. He visited each and every building that his father had created. He met people and interviewed them. Many broke down when they came to know that Nathaniel was Louis Kahn’s son. They knew that there was a son like that but nobody knew where he exactly existed for Kahn did not want to acknowledge that relationship with his mother and son. Nathaniel came to India to visit the IIM at Ahmedabad. Balkrishna Doshi could not find words to express his feelings for the departed genius. And in Dhaka, the chief government architect cried when he spoke of Kahn. “We were the poorest country in the world. But Kahn gave us democracy through this building,” says the architect with tears rolling down from his eyes. The film ends there. Out there the night has thickened and has covered itself with the inevitable fog. We eat dinner in silence.

We three men, all who have lost their fathers in different phases of their lives. One has a father who was a great painter who made miniature paintings and meticulously catalogued each and every painting that he did. One has a father who was a teacher and a weaver of clothes; a self styled craftsman. One has a father who was a lost politician and a government servant and a devoted social worker. One has lost his father when he was in his twenties. One has lost when he was in his early fifties. One has lost his father when he was hardly fourteen years old. One runs a foundation on his father’s name. One recreates his father at every juncture of his life. One tries to capture his father in his words, each time when he writes about any father in the world. All three of us are fathers. We shudder at the sight of the imagined and possible plights of our sons and daughters. Our fathers have inscribed them in us, irrespective of their time and context of departure. Our efforts are to know them and may be whatever we do to know them finally take us to ourselves. ‘My Architect’ consolidates our love for each other. And we pay tribute to Nathaniel Kahn in silence and Louis Kahn is remembered not only for his architecture wonders but also for this son’s effort to know his father.

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