Special issue with the Sunday Magazine
From the publishers of THE HINDU
ADDICTIONS: February 25,2001
"You're a stupid little bugger," he repeated. "They wont appreciate you in England. You'll end up marrying the first clot you meet, who will want you to settle down with a bunch of screaming children. You'll end up in hell with mortgages and misery! AND the climate's bloody awful. God, you're a fool!"...
"I'm eighteen years old and I've been touring with you and the company all my life. I want to see what England is like, I want to try and get work in the theatre. Please try to understand," I pleaded.
"After this wonderful life I've given you!" he roared. "And you'll break your mother's heart."
"And I'm damned if I'm giving up this chance!"
This screaming match from the book White Cargo, takes place between Geoffrey Kendall who had opted to live in India with his touring theatre company, and daughter Felicity (who did go on to become a renowned actress in England).
A familiar example of the generation gap? But this scene takes us to its source: the parent's obsession with his own notion of the right kind of success for his child. There are abnormally obsessive parents, of course. But the obsessions of the more normal sort arise from noble impulses: a genuine desire that the child must realise her fullest potential, be better than her parents in every way. However, there is a difference of opinion about what exactly this "doing better" implies, and the means to achieving it.
Until the early decades of the last century, things were much simpler, and certainly more defined. The son grew up (with gender privileges) to take his place in the joint family as a wage earner, whether in farming, business or government service. The girl was trained in the domestic chores and arts. Her business was to keep house and raise children. Three to four generations shared the home space. The younger women, especially the daughters-in-law, were often voiceless drudges. Meekness was their greatest virtue.
There was always room for extra mouths, whether an invalid uncle who took years to die, a widow with children, a non-earning misfit, a nephew pursuing higher studies not available in his town/village, and lots of long-term guests. Personal achievement was no big deal in those easier times, and there were no academic expectations or pressures as we understand it today, certainly not on girls.
Such a feudal, hierarchical set up bred a peculiar obsession in the parents, who were suspicious of any close ties between the son and his wife, lest she "poison" him against them, and disturb their position as heads of the household. This led to restrictions and taboos for the young people, even for sharing the bedroom. The mother-in-law's possessiveness found every way of curtailing their time together. We have all heard tales how as young brides, our grandmothers could not speak to their husbands in the presence of others and snatched precious moments when the elders napped!
Even until our parents' times, within the folds of the joint family, parental concern for their offspring did not evolve into complex, high-pressured obsessions. A dozen cousins grew up together, uncles and aunts were foster parents to all. Athai served food, chithi plaited hair, patti told stories, thatha handed out sweets after the morning puja, mama took them out, and young chithappas played games with the children. There was no need for children to constantly claim the exclusive attention of parents. In fact, any parent who showed undue interest in his own child was the target of nasty cracks.
Academic expectations from boys was much higher, girls had a little more schooling than before, as also lessons in music or dance. But nothing with a career in mind. With less population and competition, and far fewer fields of endeavour, there was no need for a second income in middle class families, and no rat race to speak of. Merit got recognised, and those without it managed to get by. The changes came faster in our generation and women began to enter the career fray. By the 1980s, their efficiency and determination transformed the work scenario. Male bastions fell. The joint family was replaced by the nuclear. Two children were the norm, wives were college educated, many trained in professional courses. Two incomes made for higher standards of living.
Lifestyle changes and informality replaced the formal relationship between parent and child. With working wives, fathers began to be actively involved in raising children, instead of "leaving it all to the women."
The new set-up brought new problems. The shrinkage of living space and growing needs of individual privacy resulted in the old, rambling houses tucked into vast gardens being replaced by flats which pigeonholed people into "efficient", cost-effective space. Now the child was under parental scrutiny all the time. There were no gardens to hide in, no groves of escape. Competition tightened, opportunities widened, and the keeping-up-with-the-Joneses' syndrome made parents more demanding of their children's achievements, now multi-directional (computer class, maths tuition, tennis training, cricket coaching, dance-music sessions, IIT-MBA-SAT-GRE-TOEFL tutorials). More recently, children model, join ad campaigns and train for beauty contests as part of extra-curricular activities. Gender discrimination has lessened considerably. A girl's job determines her prospects in the marriage market as much as the dowry.
In their own lives, adults face frustrations and disappointments which were unknown in the past. They see that dishonesty and unscrupulousness prosper, and merit goes unrecognised in the present system. Their mounting anxiety accelerates their expectations from their children through whose achievements alone can they hope for vicarious satisfactions, rewards.
This increasing inner insecurity in society prompts adults to look for worries even where none exist. They are irrationally testy, cannot afford to relax. The child is a good pretext to get tense about, to vent their anxieties. Parents blame the school over the "non-achievers", teachers fault parents, and both together blame films and television for all the ills they cannot remedy.
The child finds every moment of his life crammed with goal-oriented labours, and no time to call his own. He is not allowed to decide anything for himself. Unlike Felicity Kendall's father, his parents are not troubled that the child's creative potential will remain unfulfilled, or that he is making a wrong choice for materialistic reasons as against more idealistic principles.
The new goals ARE materialistic. And they snowball confusions galore. We are all confused today about what makes for a good life, as our perceptions on this matter have changed radically from the values with which we had been raised. We know in our heart of hearts that the reality around us promotes values which are not the right ones to practise in our lives. Should we teach our children to be unethical? To be opportunistic? But if we don't, how can they survive? This dilemma constantly oppresses our subconscious mind.
The over-emphasis on material things triggers competition. "You will be nothing unless you are the best in class," Mom tells the child in Class One. What she really wants is for her son to grow up into a good human being. But what is a good human being? One who is kind, considerate, honest, upright, sincere and affectionate, gives others a chance, walks before the umpire calls him out, or one who has a flat, car, washing machine, video camera, microwave oven, laptop, DVD player?
Not that the two are mutually exclusive, but the values you cultivate for achieving the two goals are quite different, often contradictory. Caught in this crisis of unknowing, and feeling that they cannot actually teach the child to be dishonest, parents overstress academic achievements as the passport to entering the rat race. "He has to win that race," they say. They cannot believe that he can be a success in any other way (sometimes even materially) if he drops out of the race. And though the corporal punishment of the previous era is not de rigueur today, the child goes through a more punishing regimen with no hope of reprieve or escape. Discipline straitjackets him, he cannot get out of a single class, even occasionally, when he is not in the mood for it. The guilt (conscious or unconscious) of the working mother often makes her extremely severe and unrelenting. "I sacrifice so much, I do all this for your own good" is repeated ad nauseam to combat any rebellion.
There is another torment as well. Fears of loneliness and neglect in old age. In the past it was taken for granted that parents raised children, and they grew up to assume responsibility for parents. But without the joint family, and with working women as the norm, parents cannot look for leisured retirement. They are plagued by the fear that once the needs for babysitting end, or when they become too feeble for help in housekeeping, they may be shunted to old age homes. Ours is the first generation which is uncertain about ending our days with our loved ones around us.
An added reason for the obsessive feelings we have for our children today is the phenomenon of so many of them migrating to the first world in search of a better life. Going abroad seemed a way out for the middle classes, it was salvation from financial insecurities, and resolution of all problems of discrimination at college and work place. It also promised affluence. Our efforts pushed them to cross the seas. We forgot that the bird that flies the nest never returns. We had no idea that such transplantation would transform them, that their attitudes and values would suffer a sea-change. Now their homes are in an alien planet where we don't quite fit in. Many children decide not to invite parents to live with them. Connections are confined to yearly visits or less.
The diaspora has its own brand of obsessions. NRIs struggle to raise their children according to the values they consider essential to their culture, which are in direct contrast to those practised by the world around them. Often, their children simply do not understand what the parents are talking about or why they drag them to weekly doses of bhajan, satsang, community celebrations of puja or Deepavali, to carpeted temples and prasad packed in ziplock bags. Or why they insist that they must join Gita-bhartanatyam-yoga-Indian music classes instead of hanging out in happening places with their friends from mainstream racial backgrounds.
These children have a rough time. They breathe a different air outside the home. But indoors they face inexplicable taboos. As the friction mounts, parents become more obsessive in their demands. Having set up dual worlds, NRI parents are battered by currents from both. The children have a better chance of riding the crest, they have the resilience of youth on their side, less baggage from a distant continent to develop stronger survival skills.
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