Expectations that kill: A case for parenting in India

I grew up in a home where girls were not really expected to soar to heights in their career, and were expected to be demure little things stirring the porridge in the kitchen. While that came with baggage of its own, I believe I narrowly escaped the catastrophe of what intense academic pressure could do to you.

My masters thesis was about the perception of school in children, and even in my current work, I come across children and teenagers facing academic and career issues.

The problem is not the stress they face, because each  situation in life will have stress, but it is the peculiar way that patentable expectations have become so set in stone that question their rationality is never a question.

‘Make my parents proud’ was written by almost each 9th std kid who answered my Masters thesis survey. This meant that he or she wanted to keep scoring impossibly high and end up in an IIT or an IIM or be an MD. Anything else was unimaginable.

The parent is a child’s first reference point of the world. We take our parents very seriously. In this country, all the more so because of the culture of obedience. It becomes very difficult for us to fathom that our parents have unrealistic expectations from us.

The result: We start to feel that the problem is within me. I must be dumb or stupid. Or else, why can’t I score like my elder brother or my neighbor’s kid?
Pretty soon, I start to doubt my self image and become a bundle of nerves. Extreme anxiety can make me kill myself. But I will not dare question my parents.

An important part of childhood is to explore and understand yourself. While we like sending our kids to expensive classes and buying world class toys for them, we do not let them be free and think. The result being that a 15 year old cannot answer a question as simple as ‘what are some things you have been good at since childhood?’

How can he, when all he was told is how bad he was, how he was letting everyone down, and how he must do better still.

India is facing a parenting crisis. Right from setting realistic expectations to handling failure to managing the sexuality of the child, we are not at all up to the task. While many parents, especially parents of children with special needs are in fact learning these things, the masses seem to still be following the age old rigmarole.

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Here’s some facts to wrap your head around if you are a parent: each child is not going to be an engineer or a doctor or an IAS officer. If money or a good career could buy happiness, 36% of India would not be depressed. 30% of young people have mental health issues.

The question before you is this, can you accept a child for his unique strengths and capacities or would you want your child to be a self-hating bundle of anxiety? Or worse, dead?

The by-lanes of Kurla.

I have always at wanted to do volunteer work. When I saw a mail saying that Pratham foundation learning lab needed volunteers to help teach English to BMC school students, I leaped. There was some backward and forward discussion, because my class ought not to clash with a trip that was planned or with my research data collection. The trip was cancelled and I was to teach in the afternoons so mornings were free for data collection.

So came my first day. It was a group of young students who would soon go to college, and wanted to go ahead in life with confidence, and learning English would help them to do so. I was as nervous as they were, as I was assessing them, and they were assessing me. All of their needs were very different and I wondered if I would do any good a job.

I decided to start with grammar on the second class, but two of the students did not turn up. But at least three did. One of those missing came for the third class, and he told me he found the grammar and dictionary stuff useless, as he just wanted to read and get done with it. I did not force him to pay attention. But when we were doing reading towards the end of a class, he could not pronounce what was taught at the beginning. I told him this is why its necessary to learn the basics. I don’t know if I helped him grasp the need or built an even higher wall. I do hope its the former.

The other employees offered to take me to Kurla station via a shortcut, and since I didn’t want to be rude, I did agree. These were women whom I admired because they could mix with the students freely. I know that with me, there was an invisible wall. The short-cut consisted of going over a gutter and through the back-lanes. It.It is a different world out there. I won’t pretend to be the first one to point out  the contrasts of city life. We have all heard about the skyscrapers next to the slum.

But what I saw was my discomfort translated into tangible objects and sights. Because of Field Work from TISS, we have been taught not to show off when we go to work with people who might not be as economically and socially privileged as us. Some of my classmates agreed with it, others just pretended to do so to please the teachers. I was not sure why I myself followed this. I did not think we were at par with them, because regardless of how much we toned down, it was apparent that we came from different places.

Yet, that day, going to the station I realized something. It was not that just because we behaved properly with them, everyone else would. And the point was not to give that impression. Rather, it was to further the belief that they have in themselves. To grow that thing, that belief that pushed them to come to us, to come to an English class. To portray to them that kindness can exist. To portray to them that just like the gutter won’t go away overnight, to change their situation would not be an easy job, but the point is, the journey need not be unpleasant.

Even the by-lanes of Kurla can have trees that give shade, and whose leaves rustle in the wind.

Sophistication maybe owned by the upper class, but joy definitely isn’t.

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A book review of ‘Sookhe Ghoont’, an Anthology by Ankit Dwivedi.

I think that this is the first time that I am officially reviewing a piece of writing on this blog. Note – I am no authority on Hindi literature, I have read very little of it; yet, I will try my best to do justice to this anthology. I will be going into a bit of a background first, so please bear with me.

The person – Ankit is a friend of mine from TISS. I actually met him only a few days before he published the book, say about ten days before. He was already ‘famous’ in the campus, for want of a better word and half my class is part of a theatre troupe with him, so we end up meeting. We end up talking about larger than life things each time we meet – life, philosophy, equality, whether literature is elitist, and things like that. Each chat with him stirs a lot of thought in my head, and so did his book, but more on that later. From this narrative, you might think he would be some steely-faced, philosopher type. Not at all true. His presence is very humble and unassuming. I think this shows through the poetry as well.

The process – Ankit tells me that 4 months ago, he did not even write a word. His friend Tanya then encouraged him to write down his thoughts, and suddenly, 41 poems were staring at him. It feels magical and movie-like, but I understand this. Sometimes, the right channel is all that is needed to get oneself flowing. He was in the process of getting appropriate cover art, and going to and fro the publisher and other nitty-gritties of publishing. He has not gone through an agent, but done it himself, with the help of a few friends and it really is commendable. Finally, came the night of the book launch. That too, was a snug, comfortable affair. The moving classical music added a celestial touch to the evening, while Ankit blushing and stammering at even the hint of praise added a comical one.

The poetry – The book consists of 41 poems, divided into two themes. The first theme is society, and this section is called ‘tamache’ with 28 poems under it. These are daily observations that anyone would have made on their way to and fro work, or they could be hidden facts of our society that we think of as ugly truths and ignore. From the subtle discrimination to clear maltreatment (of certain individuals in the society) are slowly portrayed as you turn the pages. What I like is that most of the poems are more questions or narrations than opinions. This leaves enough space for the reader to explore their views on the topic. If it were a stern opinion that was expressed, the confrontation would make sure that the possibility of any dialogue with oneself and one’s beliefs goes flying out the window. On the flipside, certain poems were slightly longer than they should be, in my opinion, so that the reader stays with the idea, rather than his or her mind starting to flee because of the length of the poem.

The second theme is exclusively on women. It is called ‘gehno ke peeche’ and has 13 poems under it. The various themes captured under it range from widowhood practices in India, to maternal instinct, the profession of prostitution and how women are generally perceived. The author’s distaste for all of the mistreatment and discrimination is very clear in all the poems, and the view has been articulately expressed. These are everyday stories that we might have nodded sympathetically to and stored away somewhere in our head. To bring this to the fore means facing the uncomfortable truth with regards to what a hostile world it is for women. What I found lacking however, was the narratives of women who do not perhaps think of themselves in terms of mainstream notions of women, or do not want things like beauty, freedom to study or other mainstream struggles of being a woman in a patriarchal society – but say themes like exploration of alternate sexuality and so on. Therefore, I found this section lacking, as compared to the first one. Still, it’s a good attempt.

Aesthetically speaking, you might find tune lacking in some poems. Ankit says that this book is not a book of poems expressing ideas, but a book of ideas expressing poems. Therefore, putting ideas forth takes priority over melody. But the words used are pretty common place, so you need not worry about not knowing Hindi too well. Also, Ankit mentioned trying to translate the poems into English sometime in the future, so hopefully, a wider public can read it. In the quality of poetry, I found a resonance with the works of Arun Kolatkar, the observational and narrative style, with subtle undertones, and often a crudeness which comes from more originality and less refining and polishing of words.

Overall, I enjoyed reading the book. Behind the poetry, I sense an angry mind. Angry, yet not pessimistic. I personally think that a pessimist is an angry person who has lost all hope. So, if a person is only angry yet, he still has hope. And although some of the poems may sound pessimistic, I somewhere sense a desperate attempt in them to make people uncomfortable and move them towards change. In fact, the whole idea of putting forth a book of such thoughts is to bring about some little change possible. This change might be just in the way people perceive such small social instances, but any revolution starts in the mind before it is out on the streets, and maybe this book will provide its own little impetus to that.

The cover of the Anthology