I had abandoned my PhD in Horticulture only a few months after starting it, and only in a few months of internship on my father’s farm had forced him to exclaim in a whisper, “Oh you know absolutely nothing!” I had topped my masters and was the most sought-after student for the doctoral programme in a prestigious university, after a nationwide hunt, and was supposed to know enough of basic farming. “Do they teach nothing these days?” he said to himself. Quite clearly my real education was beginning at the University Of Papa.
I’m sure all those engineers passing out of college would hear similar words of encouragement on the shop floor of a factory. The young interns, including sons and daughters of industry gods, would hear snorts of derision behind their backs when they did or said something totally dodo. And when they sat digesting their shame at the dining table, the mothers would put a hand on their shoulders, saying, “Go through this son. Only then will you do the same to new recruits under you someday soon. This is the time to learn from stupid mistakes; tomorrow you will not have the guts to be stupid.”
"The chasm between my father’s talent and abilities and my own was too wide for a bridge." The author with his father on their farm. (Photo courtesy: Shashank Gupta)
My father had graduated from the same college as I, exactly forty years earlier. In those decades of financial torture, he had trained his farm to perform tricks like a circus bear. It did his command and snarled at him at times telling him how unpredictable nature could be. The crop failures had been regular teachers. As a young man on his newly-allotted land, he had barely survived in the initial years. So, often thoughts of selling the farm and taking up a job had cropped up. He said that the only silver lining in a bad marriage was divorce, though in reality he never could throw it all away.
He had the right to rebuke me, but not in front of the men. They were ministers who were good to me on the face and chortled later, making sure I heard. In my ignorance and subdued distress, I remember telling them rather casually that I was more educated than their boss. He was a mere graduate, and I was a master in agriculture. In fact, I was the most educated on the farm and in the entire village. To which someone had dared to say, “In that case, Bhai Saab, it may be wise being less educated or not educated at all.”
Obviously, everyone knew more than me. Papa could himself do all the jobs on the farm, from milking the buffalos to doing simple repairs on machinery. He could even make the architectural drawing for a building and oversee its construction. He could draft a legal document as tight as any lawyer. He could do so many more things than any other farmer because he had been taught to be self-sufficient by his American teachers, while in our time professors came chewing paan and it didn’t matter if you deciphered their garbled speech or not. The chasm between my father’s talent and abilities and my own was too wide for a bridge. I had to find something he couldn’t do and perfect it. A casual remark solved it for me.
“The only thing Babuji still can’t do,” one of the men teased him when he was in a good mood, “is reverse a loaded tractor-trolley.” I pretended not to have heard. My heart pounded in my head. So this was to be my trump card. Whether I learnt anything else or not, this I had to perfect. But backing up a trolley hitched to a tractor is no short of a circus act. It doesn’t work like a car. If you turn the tractor left, the trolley bolts to the right. Try this with roller skates hitched to each other and you will understand what I am saying. You turn the tractor ten degrees to the left and the trolley goes twenty degrees to the right. The whole equation changes on an incline and the task becomes impossible when you are carrying a hundred quintals of wheat. The tractor is an ant compared to the elephant it is pushing uphill and not merely pulling along. The tyres skid and the tractor bellows dark clouds. There is a real reason why Papa was not the ringmaster in the department and Billa, our driver-manager, was. I got down to killing the skill.
I say this with some shame and embarrassment at my juvenile attempt at one-upmanship. Whenever the tractor and trolley were hitched and no one watched, I practised. I almost crushed one of the farm dogs and went right through the karonda hedge. The pillar in the porch bore a prominent mark when I struck it hard enough to bring down the roof, but the construction must have been solid owing to my father’s expertise with concrete and steel. There were a few more accidents when I tried my hand at reversing an innocently parked trolley loaded with eucalyptus logs gathered after a storm. I couldn’t control the tractor up the incline and we crashed sideways into the mulberry tree. And by the way by that time, I had begun to understand a bit of farming as well.
I climbed onto the tractor and started it. In the lowest gear, I reversed the trolley inch by inch perfectly into the shed. (Representative photo: Getty Images)
The day of reckoning arrived without warning. The harvesting was on and a trolley loaded with grain rushed from the field to the shed to be emptied. The combine harvester ate furiously and we had borrowed another trolley from Babu Laal Singh, our allegedly demented neighbour. Suddenly, in the thick of action, the other driver disappeared leaving the loaded wagon and four men useless. My father yelled for the driver when he didn’t show up for ten minutes.
“I’ll back it into the shed,” I told Papa.
“It’s not child’s play,” he frowned severely.
“Let me try,” I persisted, and he said nothing which usually meant ‘no’. I climbed onto the tractor and started it. The men looked at my father with worried-bemused expressions and he stared white-faced. In the lowest, slowest gear, I reversed the trolley inch by inch perfectly into the shed. There was absolute silence.
On the way back in the car, with him at the wheel, we said nothing. At dinner, my mother said without glancing in my direction and without speaking that I had tamed the tiger pretty convincingly. She wore her favourite smile. Obviously, my father had proudly told her what I’d gone and done, but he was too proud to acknowledge defeat in front of a mere intern. He never really grew up.