In Praise of South Asian Fathers and Grandfathers

Inspired by the new film Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl, our Balanced Life columnist sings the praises of the men who have supported her dreams.

Sweta Vikram

I was five years old when my dada (paternal grandfather) died. He had throat cancer, which meant he lost his voice and was hospitalized for six months. Every day after school, I would go visit him in the hospital.

My dada couldn’t speak, but he would draw and write in a notebook, asking me to never give up on the arts and my dreams, while the women in the family were probably wondering if my aloo gobhi and daal tadka would keep my future in-laws happy. Would I become a cooking legend, winning everyone’s hearts through my spice rack and perfectly round roti-making skills? But my dada saw me for who I was, not what society thought I should be to fit the definition of a good Indian girl.

When my husband and I got married, one of our wedding receptions was in the town where his paternal grandparents lived. In India, the assumption is most women enjoy shopping, discussing the fabric behind saris, and spending hours picking out jewelry. I loathed all of the above to the extent where I barely shopped for my own wedding. But I was young and had been taught to never express my displeasure, especially as a newlywed and never, ever as a daughter-in-law.

Baba, my husband’s paternal grandfather, recognized the look of boredom on my face as many women praised my sari collection and discussed the jewelry my mother had gifted me. Baba was a lawyer. He asked if I wanted to sit in his office with him and meet with his clients. I literally wanted to dance — it wasn’t just the happiness from fleeing the most mundane, mind-numbing conversations with women who didn’t care about what interested me…but it was the realization that another grandfather cared about honoring me and my needs as a person.

Trust me, I have met my fair share of chauvinistic, pig-headed, sexist, misogynistic South Asian men. But I want to acknowledge the good ones today because we are so obsessed with telling and reading negative stories that we ignore the ones that changed our lives. We have grown so cynical as a society that a lot of men don’t get their recognition. In many instances, South Asian men have pushed their daughters to do better, more than the mothers.

I want to acknowledge the good [men] today because we are so obsessed with telling and reading negative stories that we ignore the ones that changed our lives.

Malala Yousafzai, a Pakistani activist for female education and the youngest Nobel Prize laureate, is another example. In this piece for TIME, her father, Ziauddin Yousafzai says, “I believe fathers have a crucial role to play in the fight for women’s rights. Of course, when your rights are being violated — at home, at work, anywhere — your voice is the most powerful to challenge your oppression. And so women’s voices are the most important in feminism. But in patriarchal societies, a father’s voice is perhaps the next most important tool to galvanize change.”

My husband and I recently watched Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl. The movie starring Janhvi Kapoor is based on the story of the only Indian woman to be a part of the Kargil war. Research says that Gunjan Saxena was also the first woman IAF officer to go to war. Yes, there are many controversies surrounding the movie, from banning and burning Karna Johar’s banner to falsified information to misrepresentation of the Indian Air Force.

What very few to none are talking about is how Gunjan’s father, Lt Col Anup Kumar Saxena, was the only one who believed in her. Gunjan Saxena, a small-town girl, always dreamed of becoming a pilot. Most girls from her generation in smaller towns in India (or even big cities) were taught three things: learn to cook daal, roti, sabzi; be readily available to fulfill your husband’s needs; and, keep your in-laws happy by succumbing to their whims and emotional drama without ever questioning it. Because it’s believed that a woman belongs to her husband’s family. Roll your eyes all you want, but more than 90% of Generation X women growing up in northern India have never been encouraged to develop their own their identity or life.

Pankaj Tripathi, Gunjan Saxena’s father in the movie, is both the spine of the film, as well as Gunjan’s life. Despite societal and familial pressures (from his wife and son), he motivates and pushes Gunjan to follow her dreams. He trains with her so she can get leaner and fitter to pass the physical tests for the Indian air force.

We need more stories like this, to balance out the negative ones we’re all so fond of sharing. Tell us about the men in your life who have been supportive of your dreams!