All three of them were right there at Jaslok Hospital when she breathed her last. It wasn’t unexpected. She had been battling cancer for six years. But inevitability does not always help one to be prepared. “She has gone to a better place,” the father said to his two daughters. Such a philosophical assurance often fails to have an impact when you have lost a loved one, especially your mother. And even more so when you are a school-going kid, who needs her mother for just about everything. After all, she is the one to cuddle and wake you up, to hand you your cup of Bournvita while you yawn away, the one who combs your hair, hands over breakfast, and screams about you getting late to school. She is the one you crib to, bargain for things dad would never approve of, the one who wakes up before you on an exam, calms you down when you are blowing your top. Mothers are magical beings who are irreplaceable. Without your mother, you’re lost. And your father is lost along with you.
Braving the storm
Back in 2001, Narayan Seshadri was this super-smart, super-busy professional, heading the consulting practice at KPMG when his wife, Anuradha, was diagnosed with cancer. This was then followed by a blur of events: she was admitted to Tata Memorial to undergo radical mastectomy, chemotherapy and so on. “She was in a bad shape. That was disturbing. The girls just went quiet,” recalls Seshadri. But Anuradha braved the misery to get back on her feet, quite literally, in a couple of months. Employed with the Press Information Bureau, “she handled Vajpayee’s press when he went through knee-surgery in Mumbai. The kids have photos with him,” his eyes light up as he speaks.
Things went back to normal till 2003 when Anuradha had a relapse. Another round of medication followed and a year later, the doctors lost hope. But Seshadri didn’t. Instead of giving up on her, he gave up his job, impressed upon his wife the value of life over money and set out to Houston in the United States for her treatment. After two months, she seemed fine and the couple headed back home. “I decided to do something from home, but my wife and the girls vehemently protested. I used to get on their nerves I guess,” he confides. That was the time Seshadri started dabbling in turning around assets. “It was a conscious choice as it gave me the flexibility to work from home. I also cut down on corporate cocktails dramatically and instead spent time at home,” he says.
Fast forward to 2006. The cancer had crept back. The couple rushed to Houston again. But, this time it didn’t work and they returned to Mumbai. Couple of months later she was admitted to Jaslok Hospital. On August 15, she was finally free of her suffering.
Changing with the Times
Krithika and Deepika were 14 and 10 at the time. But natural, there was grief, uneasy calm, and some disquiet in the air, the day they bid adieu to theirbeloved mother. A day after, when Krithika and Deepika’s teachers from JB Petit school came home to see the girls, there was some polite conversation, and only in a few minutes Krithika hastened to take up a complaint, “Ma’am, you cut two marks unnecessarily in my periodical test.” And the somber mood changed into a casual one filled with giggles. “I heaved a sign of relief,” recalls Seshadri. “That moment I knew the girls could cope. They had to feel — there was no major setback for them in life. I wouldn’t have been able to deal with depressed kids; it would have been a nightmare.” Three months later, they went on a vacation to Bali, which Deepika describes as one of her best vacations with dad.
Seshadri had been playing his part and more for the past few years, but the girls still belonged more to their amma. It was a home divided 3:1; “Dad was always the serious one, a stickler for cleanliness and discipline, while mom was the more easy-going, fun-loving, liberal parent,” says Deepika. As in all Indian families, the extended family members took charge. Both the grandmothers took turns to care for the girls — and that continues to be the case, even though the paatis are 86 and 77. The aunts have been extra doting. “Even the driver has been such a huge help,” says Seshadri. Kalaiarasan, who has been with the family for three decades, would ferry the kids to all special classes and help out with chores at home.
For Seshadri, however, a bigger blessing was the support his children received from their school. JB Petit taught the girls to be confident and independent. And like a dutiful father, Seshadri attended every single PTA meeting. “Whether you met the teachers for 30 seconds or 30 minutes, they always gave feedback, whether it was when Deepika was withdrawn in class, or about their academic performance, it always helped.” The school also made it comfortable for him being a single parent. “Once we had to make a parent representation and all the other reps were mothers, but they included me — that was a really nice gesture,” he says. “All the moms had a crush on you,” Deepika chips in as Seshadri smiles sheepishly.
Two years later, Krithika secured admission at the Dhirubai Ambani School and at Seven Oaks in Kent, England. “She topped the entrance for Kent, and we got to know that she had to appear for an interview for a scholarship at the British Council on the same day. I rushed out, pulled her from school, and went straight to the Council.” And she bagged it. “It was not about the money, but the pride that you were worthy of a scholarship,” he adds. Seshadri’s parenting mantra was something he picked up from the CEO of Standard Chartered, Martin Fish. “I met him for dinner once and he told me, ‘The only things I want to give my kids are unconditional love and as many opportunities as possible. Beyond that, they have to fend for themselves,’” says Seshadri of the idea that resonated with him.
“That was my logic for sending them overseas to study,” he says. But then, while he wanted the girls to get international exposure, he was not comfortable with the idea of unrestrained freedom. Kent fit the bill exactly: all the foreign students were in one house with a house mistress, and they maintained a fair degree of discipline. This was a transitioning phase to the US. Krithika went to Northwestern for an integrated science programme thereafter, and Deepika followed Krithika to Kent. “As a rule, I would always take calls from the home and school numbers no matter how important the meeting I was attending. That tradition continues even now. “Any problem, they call me without looking at their watch! I am all groggy but I feel good that they reach out to me.” Seshadri recalls a SOS call from Krithika after she and her friends were pulled up by the school for sneaking out for an all-night party. “She’ll kill me for telling you this,” he shudders!
When it comes to the all-important discussion about what to study, that was an easy one that involved several screaming matches and cold wars. Krithika majored in economics with math as a minor at Northwestern and then joined consulting firm Protiviti, where she works now in the UK. Deepika chose to major in history and war studies. “I said to Deepika, okay, but what after this? Whatever you do must give your life a purpose. And more importantly, you should be able to stand on your feet.” Deepika followed her heart and is still figuring out what next.
“Dad’s favourite is the horse-pond story. I’ve heard it a million times — that you can take a horse to the pond but can’t make it drink,” Deepika laughs, turning her face to exchange a glance with her father.
But right from awkwardly asking for sanitary napkins from the pharmacy to being subject to some ranting on “those days of the month” on why they were born girls, to making masala dosas and omlettes that the girls can’t get enough of, Seshadri has played his part to the best of his abilities. “I do keep thinking what could I have really done better,” ruminates Seshadri. “Nothing, really”, answers Krithika. “Well, all our friends think you are kind of cool, so you must be cool!” Deepika mocks mischievously before the girls burst out in unison, “No, you are kind of cool!”.
What’s your parenting style?
Set broad directions and if they are within it then it’s fine. I am authoritative with respect to keeping things tidy and organised. I’ve doubled up as a mom, but not a helicopter mom!
What’s the one value you have strived hard to inculcate in your kids?
Confidence and self-belief that they can do anything they want to.
Have you ever had to deal with sibling rivalry?
Far from it. They gang up against me!
How do you deal with confrontations?
I sulk and go quiet. Krithika changed her majors mid-way from science to economics and math. I thought she had an aptitude for science and math. I was not on board initially but finally agreed. I understood she liked economics a lot.
What is the best thing you did to help them discover their true potential?
Pushing them to go to the UK for Class XI and XII. I wanted them to have international exposure.
Which events were sacrosanct?
I never missed a single parent-teacher association meeting. Birthdays, stage performances were a must. And once a year a vacation.
Which are the things that you get mad at?
Tiny (Deepika’s pet name) procrastinating. When she missed her visa deadline and we had to let go of a trip, I got really mad.
What have you learnt from your children?
Inquisitiveness and patience.
What’s your signature dish that the kids love?
Masala dosas and fluffy omelettes.
What’s the most embarrassing thing you’ve done for your kids?
Getting photographed in kimonos during our vacation in Japan.
What do your children tease you about?
Watching Tamil serials!
Which were the most memorable celebrations?
Get togethers with friends and family. Understated, Tam-Brahm style!
Which was your most heart-wrenching moment?
Occasions, when they’d say, “We do not have a mother” as a defence. I’d say — don’t bring your mother’s absence into the picture. Think if she were around, would she have allowed it? We all miss her but do not use her as an excuse. Make her proud. I felt bad, but it worked out.
Who is your support system?
My mother. When the girls were here, she was here. My father was also here. He never looked after any of us. But Deepika got all his attention.
Which were some of the issues you struggled to reason with?
Boyfriends obviously. If I start the topic, they say – “Appa, don’t lecture me and don’t make it awkward.” And then, no sanitary napkins suddenly!
Which were some of the crazy moments?
I am considered to be the more stabilising person. Anu and the kids liked the adrenaline rush. We did sky diving in Dolomiti in Italy with the kids.
What would be your tips for parenting?
Patience, unconditional love and giving opportunities to the kids.