An Enduring bond between father and daughter
This episode of Our Voices focuses on the special bond between father and daughter. Sunetra recounts how her father, Dhruba, has been a life-long inspiration. She also discusses how she and her own daughters have embraced the values he espoused.
The first pet
The first of many moments of father and daughter bonding Sunetra remembers centre around her first pet. As she and her family moved around a lot, she had never had any pets as a youngster.
It wasn’t until she was 16 that she received her first, a rabbit who would live for 12 years. Sunetra looked after the rabbit for the first years of its life but when she left Kolkata to study at university, her father took over.
“In effect, the rabbit became my father’s pet. My father and I had a very strong bond always but it augmented that bond in very interesting ways. And my father became very attached to the rabbit.”
A unique correspondence
So attached did her father become to the rabbit that he began writing letters to Sunetra on the rabbit’s behalf updating her on the family gossip. Not only that, he would write part of these letters in French. The letters would be carefully folded into four parts. The first lines would be written by him, then the next part by her mother, a third part by her grandmother “and then the fourth bit when you folded over was from the rabbit in French, and it was just wonderful.”
“The music in my life”
Describing her father, Sunetra says that Dhruba was a playful, sometimes mischievous individual. Being a dad sat comfortably with Dhruba’s other roles and attributes. He had a sparkle in his eyes and a youthful expression which didn’t fade as he got older. He was also something of a renaissance man.
He taught African history at the University of Calcutta and he was a keen traveller and a lover of culture. He was also an exceptional singer. “He sang all the time. His singing was the music in my life and has always been the music in my life”.
Talking about Kolkata, Sunetra describes it as “full of these beautiful old colonial buildings and the hustle and bustle of life. It is also the centre of the most vibrant kind of intellectual activity and real internationalism.” Sunetra experienced much of this during her youth through her father and his friends.
From the age of around 11, she would be invited to participate in discussions about film and music. Sunetra was always gratified with the attention she would receive. “When I spoke, all these men who were then in their 40s and 50s would just listen to me. Everyone was accorded respect in their opinion.”
A conversation between father and daughter
This no doubt helped Sunetra develop confidence in her own way of seeing this world. This was put into practice when, at the age of 14, she began to feel out-of-sorts at school. The school she attended was very exclusive and she felt alienated from mainstream Bengali culture.
As a result, while walking back from The Calcutta Book Fair, it was time for father and daughter to have a conversation. She told him her feelings and received a surprising reply. “I said that I wasn’t really happy with my situation at school. And he said, ‘Well, in that case, you should leave’.”
Taking charge of her destiny
Dhruba’s response was anything but flippant; he was being a supportive father in his own inimitable way. “There was so much actual weight behind what he said. It was saying: you need to make a decision right now, Madam, you’re 14 years old. And you need to take charge of your destiny. And I am telling you how you can do that.”
It was the father’s responsibility to ensure his daughter took responsibility for her decisions. Sunetra took her father’s words to heart and successfully completed the entrance exams to enrol in a new school. She spent four happy years there.
Real goals from a loving dad
Sunetra’s academic achievements took her all the way to completing a PhD in the transmission of infectious diseases. When Sunetra’s PhD professor asked Dhruba whether he was proud, he replied “Why? It’s just a PhD.” At first, this response may sound strange, churlish even, but Dhruba’s goal for Sunetra did not rest with academic achievement.
He also did not believe that Sunetra should live her life in order to make him proud. The father’s love for his daughter was expressed by the deeper ambitions he had for her. “Your real goals are to achieve happiness, fulfilment, and to be able to care for others and to be able to do something that makes you feel like you’ve achieved your purpose in life. And that’s not something anyone can endorse externally.”
Sunetra went on to achieve her purpose. She became an award-winning epidemiologist and professor of zoology at the University of Oxford. She is now carrying out her research on the spread of infectious diseases, such as malaria, flu, and COVID-19; and working on developing a new flu vaccine.
Passing on her father’s values
In Dhruba and Sunetra’s case, the father and daughter bond has crossed more than one generational divide. Dhruba’s influence is visible not just in Sunetra’s personal success but also in the way she has raised her two daughters.
Before the pandemic, her eldest daughter had been training as a corporate lawyer. But she has since found herself drawn to much less lucrative roles in public law and human rights. She currently works as an immigration lawyer. Speaking about this, Sunetra says “that’s very inspiring to me and I know that’s exactly what my father would have liked”.
Dhruba passed away in 2004 at the age of 69. Naturally, Dhruba’s passing has been a great loss for Sunetra. But her memories of the father-daughter relationship continue to sustain her. The bond between father and daughter still continues through Dhruba’s voice. Sunetra has recordings of him singing to which she listens regularly.
Talking about how she feels when she reflects on the influence of her father, Sunetra says “it makes me feel blessed. It just simply makes me feel so extraordinarily lucky to have had that person in my life.”