My father Dr KP Karunakaran, Professor Of Political Science, died on the 8th of Feb 2005. After the cremation at Bangalore, we were advised by many of our well meaning friends on the critical need for many copies of his death certificate. My mother, my brother, my sister and I exchanged quiet yet amused glances. Why must we have death certificates? Our friends obviously didn’t know that he left behind no pension to transfer, no deposits in bank lockers, no houses, nor property to be bequeathed.
But he left behind treasures which few mortals could. What was this fine mans legacy? We remember him as a father who rarely, if ever, sermonized, advised or berated us. His singular characteristic was that he never criticized people. He faulted bad ideas, poor execution, poor thoughts and a lack of vision but rarely discussed people except the lives of great men; Gandhiji, Martin Luther King and Bernard Shaw being particular favorites. He rarely spoke of himself, his experiences, nor ever glorified his past. For a man who was a Fulbright scholar who went to an American University in his early twenties and to London to complete his Masters in Political Science – it was unusual that we heard almost nothing of his experiences from ‘abroad.’ The only references were his amusing tales of his wife who visited Oxford and returned to India preening to everyone about when she was at Oxford!
He retained an impish sense of humor – most of his stories were a creation of his imagination – my mother could not be faulted for vanity!
He had more than his share of human failings – he was so unbelievably forgetful that fellow absentminded professors would be put to shame in comparison! He has taken University lectures with shirts worn and buttoned inside out, eaten pumpkin from the fridge thinking it was a watermelon, entered the neighbors flat and sat in the drawing room mistaking it for our house - there are so many stories! His fondness for beer didn’t quite match his bank balance; his stubbornness to have his way surely exacerbated the health of my mother’s heart. He knew nothing of our school activities; he rarely remembered the class his three children were in. (His only interjection in our formal education was to put off the lights and insist that we sleep early and not study late!) He probably knew even less about our chosen careers. In fact, once he introduced me, an Army Officer from the Infantry, as an Artillery Officer to Mr. IK Gujral, the former Prime Minister of India!
The lessons flowed from the example of his life which we were so privileged to observe – there were rarely words spoken.
We learnt the meaning of egalitarian human values, the value of reading widely, and the lofty ideals that men must hold. Integrity and professional honesty to ones chosen profession and the passion one must devote to ones work, were lessons we, his children picked from him life.
Anger was unknown to him – envy and jealousy never figured in his dictionary – material wealth he never cared for, spiritualism never meant going to temples – he never ever did. A man who seemed eternally happy without a care in the world – his secret - to be less judgmental with few expectations from others - and never to covet material possessions.
His admiration for Gandhiji was a constant source of many childhood stories. When we were very young, he recounted how Gandhiji was asked just before his meeting in England with King George, on whether he would feel inadequately dressed in his loin cloth in front of the Emperor. We squealed with laughter when he told us that Gandhiji immediately replied, “ Not really, he shall be wearing enough for both of us!”The courage and determination of Gandhi was a constant source of admiration for my father, so too his humility, his unbelievable mass communication skills in an era without Radio or television, his fine sense of humor and his zest for life. We grew up admiring Gandhi when Gandhiji had become unfashionable. Today when I look back, I realize how much we as a nation, need to rediscover Gandhi. Our politicians attend corporate events, are happy to be felicitated with inane titles like Indian of the year, or minister of the year .. My fathers often spoke with great admiration of how Gandhiji, whose life’s mission was independence of India, quietly turned back on the Independence day celebrations on the 15th of Aug 1947 at Delhi and spent the night at Naokhali in West Bengal where he felt his presence was most needed to restore communal harmony.
His favorite Gandhiji quote was, “You must Be the change you want to be in the world” Our leaders today find to difficult to leave the comforts of the big city to live amongst their people – especially in the developing conflict zones of India; Naxal affected regions, areas of communal hostility or of farmer suicides. They seem to believe that sound bites on television will solve India’s problems!
When I chose to join the National Defence Academy to pursue a career in the military, ( I told my teacher father I wanted to ‘ do’ and not ‘talk’) he didn’t discourage me – he only said ‘make your profession your joy and hobby – you will never feel you are “working” in your life.’
After traveling the world, when he returned to Kerala for his final 13 years, I queried him on whether he missed intellectual company among the villagers in a remote north Malabar hamlet. He replied with a witty anecdote about the “Moothe Ashari” (senior Carpenter) who returned to his village in his old age to remake wooden spoons after designing and making many glorious houses in the city. The younger carpenters didn’t want him to work – but he pleaded with them to allow him the joy of doing what he started with - because that is all his ageing body could now do.
We know that he was unique – it was a rare honor to have been born his children and to have kept his company. One has been blessed for this rare privilege.