My father was born and raised in Jaffna, a small Tamil town in northern Sri Lanka. And like many Tamils of his generation, he was determined to leave from an early age, not just for a better life, but for a safer one too. He first came to the UK in 1970, armed with his suitcase and £50 in his pocket. And after an initially tricky period adapting to a new culture, a new environment, and pretty much a new everything, he landed an assistant teaching role at the University of Bath.
In the years that followed he would obtain his PhD, essentially be forced to return to Sri Lanka to marry my mother, have three boys (of whom I’m the youngest) and take up employment with an American oil firm that saw the family bounce between Sri Lanka, Norway, Thailand and finally the UK, which we’ve called home since 1984.
I have mixed feelings about my childhood. For the most part, it was a happy one. We were raised in a very safe, loving environment and we never went without. I was incredibly close with my brothers and had a great relationship with my mother. But I had no real connection with my father. The part he chose to play in our lives – as far as I could see – revolved around two things; education and discipline.
I get it now. He simply wanted the best for us and felt that that was the only way to achieve it. But as a kid this was very hard to understand. And of course, this was also a reflection of how he himself was raised.
He worked hard to send us to a private primary school. But being the type of man he is, from day one he was already thinking about our entrance exams to secondary school. I remember the routine like it was yesterday. We’d come home from school. Have maybe an hour or two to act like regular kids, before first completing our actual homework and then additional assignments.
He’d make us stand in a line as he marked our work at the dining room table. As the youngest, I had to wait and watch as he smacked my brothers for every mistake they made before he even got to me. And when I say smack, I don’t just mean a slap on the wrist. It was usually across the face or the back of the head and it HURT.
In today’s world a lot of people would be quick to call it abuse. And whilst I absolutely felt it was uncalled for, I wouldn’t classify it as such. But there is a fine line.
When I was about 8 or 9, I destroyed a telephone in his study as some form of protest against my mother. My punishment? I was marched into the living room, made to take my shirt off and using the same cord I’d previously cut, I was flogged repeatedly across my back until my mother finally intervened. I counted 12 lashes before she stopped him.
He definitely crossed the line.
I despised him after that. It wasn’t just the physical pain but the humiliation of it all. But with most things in life, you eventually learn to move on.
Given his academic achievements and the fact that we were ‘his children’, he placed an unbelievable amount of pressure on us. And in spite of our success, we still usually felt like we had failed somehow. In 1993, I needed to score at least 230 in my 11-plus exam to gain entrance to the state funded grammar school he wanted me to attend. He was so embarrassed about my 232 that he lied to people about it. A week earlier, I had received a full scholarship to a reputable private school, something neither of my brothers had done. Yet there I was at age 11, feeling like his useless, under-achieving son.
Fast forward ten years and nothing had changed. I studied Statistics & Economics at University College London, graduating with Upper Second Class honors. My father thought I should’ve got a First Class honors and didn’t even come to my graduation.
Long before I’d even gotten to that stage in my life, I was still considering which subjects to specialize in at school. Now I’m not saying I would have made it as an actor. But when I mentioned to my father that the head of drama had specifically pulled me aside and asked me to seriously consider pursuing it further, his message was pretty clear:
“Music, art and drama are subjects for dreamers and certainly not for any son of mine.”
To my father, professional success means one of two things; working for a firm or in a profession that garners instant respect and recognition, or earning a ton of money. After graduating I didn’t know what I wanted to do. High on my priority list was to go travelling. But my father convinced me to apply for a Masters in Finance, as surely with one of those under my belt, the big banks would come knocking and all would be right with (the) his world?
That was probably the worst year of my life. I had no interest at all in the subject matter but at the same time, I didn’t want to disappoint the old man. Ironically, there was a Tamil girl on the course who felt entirely the same as me and I encouraged her to speak to her father about it. She did, and subsequently dropped out after the first term. I didn’t and subsequently wasted a year of my life.
I eventually found work in the financial industry and though it ticked neither of his boxes and wasn’t at all what I thought I’d be doing with my life, I stuck with it and forged a pretty decent career for myself over the years.
Being financially independent from my father made it easier to deal with his disappointment but the problem was, I still had feelings of doubt. On a sub-conscious level, there was still that need to finally obtain his approval. But the more pressing question; “Was this how I wanted to spend the rest of my life?”. There is a popular saying; “There are those who work to live and those who live to work”. I’d been married and had also owned a home. ‘Working to live’ wasn’t for me, so two years ago, I decided to quit my job.
Seeing this as an opportunity to wield his influence again, my father suggested applying for an MBA. Hell, he even offered to pay for classes to prepare for the GMAT. Thankfully, with the encouragement of three of my closest friends, I finally grew some balls and spoke my mind. By using the money I’d been saving for that house society dictates I should buy, I eventually embarked on a trip abroad.
That trip was a game-changer for both of us. Without question, it was the best year of my life. The two months I spent volunteering in a mountain village in India was probably the most meaningful, eye-opening period of my life. I fully intend to go back one day and have even been asked to become a trustee of the charity. But I can’t commit to them fully until I’ve sorted out the other things in my head. One of those ‘other things’ is a desire to write a book, which is something I wouldn’t have felt brave enough to discuss, let alone attempt before. It was only while I was away that I started to really believe in it, writing my first story in that same village.
Unfortunately people back home weren’t as receptive to the idea:
“Is this a joke?”
“Since when have you been interested in writing?”
“God only knows how my father was going to react”, I thought.
His response blew me away.
This past year reading your emails, listening to you talk about your experiences, I realize that I got it wrong all these years. I pushed you too hard to be someone who I wanted you to be instead of considering what was important to you.The past is the past and there’s nothing I can do about that. But going forward I will support you, even if it’s something I don’t really understand. So ignore everyone who is questioning what you’re doing. You’re my son, not theirs. If you’re
And you never know, if it’s half decent, you might even make some serious money like that Harry Potter fellow”.
Although our relationship is so much better than it used to be and it must have taken a lot for him to say what he said, I still don’t think I’m ready to do the same. So through this article, I have put it in writing instead:
I’m not sure if you’ll ever read this but if you do, I’m sorry if you’re hurt by the
way that I’ve portrayed you. Yes, I’m grateful for everything you’ve done for
me and the opportunities that have subsequently been afforded me.
I really am. These words are just feelings that I’ve suppressed for too long and writing this has given me a means to let them out.
I won’t lie. Remembering how you used to be has not been easy. But this piece also serves as a reminder of how much you’ve changed and I love the guy that you are today. If only we could have known him 30 years ago, things could have been a lot different.
As you said though; the past is the past. And although I’m still not sure what the future holds in store for me. I see now that you will have my back, even if my choices are not what you had envisioned for me as a child. And for that I truly thank you.”