Giftedness – On the other side

“Your child is gifted! You are blessed!”
“He is such a gifted child! You have nothing to worry about!”

These are phrases that have become commonplace in my world now, coming from the miniscule few who understand what it means to be “gifted.” Sure, from where they stand – and it is a common belief – giftedness is often seen as this wondrous thing that will enable a child to get straight As, and sail through school without much effort. Let me say this straight away: NO. That doesn’t happen, not always. It’s the biggest fallacy (documented and researched) about giftedness. Yes, I love my son. Yes, HE is a blessing. But his giftedness, Nah. No. Nope. And, I have a lot to worry about.

My first worry? That he will always be a label. Yes, and don’t we just love to label everything? Just take a look around. Not just our clothes, or our food, but labels are today quick to be applied even on our relationships, our children and us. Everything has a convenient label. The ‘label’ makes it easier to understand the different. Those who don’t quite fit in the box. After all, we were taught our whole lives to color between the lines, weren’t we? Anything outside the lines, or out of the box is simply wrong! The label therefore is important. It helps to define and even justify different behavior. Sad, but true.

My second worry? That his brain is wired differently. And because it is, he thinks, feels, and functions differently. He doesn’t and may never “fit in” with the society’s limited boundaries of what is acceptable and what isn’t. That pertains to not only what is “acceptable” social behavior but also our archaic and suffocating education system and public mindset.

Let’s look at social behavior. We have been taught our entire lives to conform, to follow societal rules and not question and not speak unless spoken to. “Children should be seen, not heard” – haven’t we (and countless generations) grown up with this? And heaven forbid if you grow a mind of your own!

In my previous post, I had written about how my gifted nine year old struggles with social niceties. He doesn’t always pick up on social cues or sarcasm or even reading between the lines. He is often to the point, direct and states facts; that can often come across as being too blunt or insensitive or politically incorrect! That makes it hard for him to make lasting friendships, if at all. Paradoxically, he also somehow knows that friends are important. So he tries to fit in. In his own way, usually by ‘dumbing down’ (most gifted kids do this as a way to feel more accepted by their peer group). He prefers to clown around and be the class joker just so to ‘fit in’ and is vehemently against displays of his own intellectual prowess. He hates us taking videos or pictures or his musical recitals and performances or even talking about his accomplishments. He has of late become quite adamant about hiding his “gifts’. It worries us – this dumbing down- but we play along at times as we know how important it is for him to be one of the ‘boys’.

My next point of concern is my son’s supersensitivities also known in the medical world as Dabrowski’s Overexcitabilties (OEs). Basically gifted children display intense behaviors in many ways – emotionally, intellectually, sensually, imaginatively and in psychomotor. For instance, gifted children often are a bundle of energy and it takes a lot to tire them (psychomotor). Apparently my son’s impulsive behavior, compulsive talking, and nervous habits are an example of his psychomotor excitabilities! And they are often and quite commonly mistaken for ADHD. Like I had said previously and is so true in the case of our son, you take any emotion – be it anger, sadness, or joy – and multiply it to the power thousand and boy – before you know it you have a potential supernova in your hand! That’s two of the five overexcitabilities right there. In my son’s case, I suspect it’s all five and it’s not uncommon that a gifted individual have all of them. He definitely has sensual overexcitabilities too as he is hypersensistive to sound – in any form. Dog ears, as we fondly call it! Sound is his boon and bane. As a result, he loves his music and is a natural drummer/keen musician but equally hates and is wary of the sound of a pressure cooker or whirring mechanical noises. Which is why it is often difficult for him to sit in a classroom of 30 something kids and concentrate above the din!

The bottom line? My son, like many gifted kids, has his OEs and comes across as pretty intense and animated (most of the times). It makes him the subject of scrutiny and hard stares at school, in the bus, and in social circles as well. “Why is your son like that?” I was once asked by a mother of my son’s classmate. Taken aback, I was quite at a loss for words then (not so now!) for the subject was quite new and intimidating for me. Since then of course I have grown a thicker skin and learned to take the inane queries, and the wide-eyed stares in my stride. My fervent wish is that my son stays oblivious for as long as he can. But I know that’s not going to happen. Eventually, he will feel it too. He is already asking me sharp questions: “Mom, what is a special child?” “Mom, why does xyz kid in my class not play with me?” “Mom, why does he (referring to a particular classmate) not sit with me in the bus anymore?” “Mom, why am I the one to always be the target?” Gut-wrenching for sure but questions that need to be answered still.

Now – take all of these challenges and place them in the context of an environment that is just as archaic, misogynist, and regressive (not to mention an obsolete education system) and tell me, shouldn’t I be worried?

 

 

 

 

 

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I am not weird, I am gifted

“Samudra” (meaning ocean in Hindi) is the name we chose to give our son at the time of his birth 9 years ago. Little did we realize that our bundle of joy would in years to come truly live up to his name and bring into our lives a tumult that we are still reeling under. Just like the ocean, his presence has colored our seemingly ‘ordinary’ lives with myriad hues and moods – at times calm and gentle, at times as stormy and voracious, sometimes deep, dark, mystic and mysterious and at times playful and teasing and downright hilarious! So much so, that our lives have become anything but ‘ordinary’. More of a rollercoaster – and the feeling that we are never getting off! (don’t take me otherwise: I love my little boy to the moon and back, but there are days, when I fervently wish, pray, and even hope for the ‘ordinary’. Just. for. a. few. moments. )

But it is not to be. For Sam, like millions across the world, is a ‘gifted’ child. There, I’ve said it. That dreaded word. Yes, yes dreaded. Much like a disease (oh yes, there are many who have looked at us as if Sam’s contracted some deadly virulent disease and should be locked up or kept away till he is cured!!). Elitist, misunderstood, and hanging like Damocles’ sword over us.
(For the want of a better word, and much against my desire to label or tag any living being I will nevertheless, use it in the writing of this blog – for now.)

It’s a word that, till about five years ago, I was (like millions of people/parents) vaguely familiar with. But the reality of it, and its foibles, hit us when Sam started kindergarten. Wham! Just like that. One fine day, when the kindergarten teacher called us to discuss his classroom behavior and ‘other things’. And she was one of the kinder, more ‘enlightened’ ones, we soon found out. She pointed out his exceptional abilities in the classroom and suggested we see a specialist to well, check his IQ. She had, so to say, seen the ‘spark’. Hadn’t we? Of course we had. Like when he recognized the color blue at 7 months. And all colors and their shades by 11 months. Like when he learned to speak English by himself in 2.5 weeks listening to his favorite TV shows on BBC. When he learned to read fluently at around 4 years by himself. Or when he discussed time travel and the Theory of Relativity at age 6. These were just some ‘sparks’ that caught our attention and promised to fill our days and nights with brilliance or electrocute us just as brilliantly! Especially since I remember when he first stepped into Kindergarten, put one step on the threshold, and with one intense look at his welcoming (read unsuspecting) teacher and proclaimed: “I am not going to be listening to you!”

Yep! It’s been more than five years since that day. The social niceties are still a struggle, if not dispensed with altogether. Heck anything that comes within the definition of ‘social’ norms, or parental (societal) rules, laws, are NOT to be followed. NOT unless there is logic to it, I will simply not abide just because YOU (that could include parents, teachers, or any figure of authority) say I have to! This is a lesson we learned early in our parenting. All that we knew or had seen, or been told about traditional parenting strategies (that generations had grown up with) had to be just locked up and thrown out the window!

Then came the intensities of emotion, and the overexcitabilities (as they are technically called). It’s like you take an emotion – like joy or anger; multiply it to the power thousand and before you know it you are staring into what could become a potential exploding supernova! No, not a meltdown, let me clarify. Just intensity. And anxiety (Are we lost, Mummy? No, no Sam we are just figuring out the route. What’s going to happen now Papa? Are we going to be lost forever? Are we going to be spending the night on the road? Or I am having a tummy ache. Am I going to be sick again? Shall I take XYZ medicine? I will never be able to eat chocolate again! Or is it going to rain today? What if I get wet? Enjoy it then darling! I don’t enjoy it! I need to take my umbrella!). And extreme excitability. We either just LOVE it or HATE it with extreme passion. No greys there.

We had to sink or swim. And swim we did. The past few years have seen us read, research, or collaborate with anything and everything related to giftedness. We’ve poured over books, research papers, theses, met and spoken with experts around the world, collaborated with online communities, parents of other gifted children and support groups – all with the single purpose of making some sense of this new world we are now permanently a part of. And if there is something that I have learned in this unbelievable journey is that it is a beautiful world – not an easy one for sure, not one I would have asked for, but incredibly beautiful nonetheless.

For me, the beauty is this little soul who has these exceptional abilities (and doesn’t know it, yet) that makes each day a wonder, a delight, and a new adventure. His remarkable ability to question what is. And isn’t. (oh yes, the questions are fired 24×7. At us, at teachers, at grandparents or whoever is patient enough to answer till he is satiated) His ability to not blindly accept what is a given, to challenge and push boundaries. The ability to think, and create wonders with the power of his imagination. The ability to use logic and reasoning to solve life’s little mysteries. The ability to push the envelope. Not accept status quo. And most astounding of all: the ability to learn anything and everything with little prodding. As one of his teachers’ recently observed: “Sam is like a sponge, soaking in everything around him.” Remarkably true. A sponge with a slightly defective filter (that’s the asynchronous bit, which I will be talking about at length in a later post). But with a beautiful soul nonetheless.

A soul that has so much to give. A soul with so much passion, it takes my breath away. It makes my job rather difficult (to say the least). Because at the heart of it, he is still a 9 year old. A precocious one no doubt, but still a child.  With the intellect of a 15 year old for sure but the heart and emotions of a 5 year old! Did I say difficult? I did, didn’t I? Insurmountable on certain days. Herculean on others. To ensure that we (yes we: me and you) give him a fighting chance. To ensure that his ‘gift’ is not lost in the desire to ‘fit in’ to what is and isn’t socially acceptable. To ensure that the learning and the questions never stop. To ensure that he gets equal opportunities to live a life that is his own. To ensure that he is accepted for what he is, and not what we expect him to be. And most difficult of all. To ensure that his spirit – with all the intensities and the emotions and the social awkwardness – stays pure. Against all odds. And believe me when I say this: The odds are heavily against Sam, and against us. And against the thousands like him. Especially here. Especially now. The battle, or rather the adventure (depends which way you choose to look at it) has just begun.

 

Let the Shenanigans begin!

On a recent trip to my hometown (by marriage) of Shillong I came to hear a word that has been long forgotten in our usage of the English language. It is a delightful word – shenanigans ‘ – that is defined by the dictionary as “a playful and mischievous act.” What was even more interesting was that it was used by our host – who happened to also own a play school – to describe the innocent pranks of his young wards.

Why did this particular word catch my attention? And why am I writing about it? Simply because today the shenanigans of our children, be it in school, or outside are being increasingly (and scarily) overanalyzed by the so-called and largely self proclaimed hyper vigilantes of our society! These vigilantes come in many forms mind you – teachers, neighbors, peers, and sometimes even parents themselves. All of whom – in their zest to raise the “perfect child” (oh dear me) are getting more and more intolerant and impatient by the day.

Let me make one thing clear. I am not in any way undermining the importance of mental health and the need for therapy when required (I myself benefitted from therapy years ago when I was going through a particularly traumatic time in my life). Yes, life can get tough at times, and am sure most of us can benefit to have a non-judgmental and objective shoulder to cry on, and show us the way when we happen to lose ours. But when the use of therapy, or ‘psychological evaluation’ or ‘occupational therapy’ is advocated as a rule rather than the norm and the mostly innocent pranks of children are increasingly viewed as something that needs ‘psychological’ attention, I think I have cause for worry!

And I take some comfort knowing that I am not the only one. For in a recent, very animated, discussion in my son’s school it was reassuring to hear many parents voice the same outrage. Yes, it is outrageous, and ludicrous when changing moods and often, playful acts of mischief are viewed as ‘disturbing behavior’ often seen as arisen from something ‘dark’ or ‘negative’ in the child’s life or environment. Must we insist on overanalyzing everything a child does or say? Children do and say the oddest of things at times, they go through changes in moods, behaviors, and emotions. To me, that’s pretty normal stuff, and an essential part of growing up. In fact, I would be worried if they didn’t exhibit any of these!

Also, what’s this fixation with raising the ‘perfect’ child? A child who knows it all, makes no mistakes, always says and does the ‘right’ things, and in short: has it all figured out! Shudder! I still have to find an ‘adult’ who is all of this leave alone a child. (Oh yes, there are individuals and families who seem ‘perfect’ or try and project an image of being ‘perfect’ but let’s not kid ourselves shall we? Striving to achieve perfectionism is not all bad, but let’s not hang ourselves or our kids in doing so.)

So let’s just back off a bit. Let’s give our kids the room to grow at their own pace. Let’s not try and push them into adulthood too fast. Let them make their mistakes. Let them flounder. Only then will they learn to fight, to cope, and survive in the big bad world. Let them have that ‘dark’ phase. It’s just a phase. They will get over it. Be there, keep a watchful eye but let’s not rush to the neighborhood child specialist (oh yes, they are as commonplace as the GP of yesteryear!) every time your kid ‘acts out’ or some ignorant (read insensitive) vigilante remarks “what is wrong with your child?” or “he/she is an odd one” or “why does he/she seem so angry all the time?” Have a little faith. In yourself, in your child and in the world too. All that is needed is a little tolerance, acceptance, patience and a big, big dose of good old-fashioned common sense!

And yes, while you are at it, cut yourselves a little slack too. After all, nobody got it right the first time. Be it our grandparents, or our parents. They had their own battles to fight. Sure, we do seem to have plenty of our own. But maybe we need to take a page out of their books. Let nature take its course. Let’s get down to the basics. Let our kids enjoy their childhood. Let us enjoy their childhood too, with all their shenanigans! Let’s not script their lives, and pack each hour with “meaningful” and “productive” activities. And yes, definitely lay off the vigilantism. Our world doesn’t need more of “perfect” individuals, it needs more good and caring souls, the creative thinkers, the doers, and even the oddballs!

Durga’s World

 

It’s a little after 8.00 a.m. on a deliciously cool April morning. I sit down to read the morning papers having just sent off my seven-year-old to school. The hubby is working on his laptop getting ready for an important meeting. The house is pleasantly quiet. I skim through the news and shake my head at film actor Hema Malini’s tweet on ‘senseless suicides’ which apparently is directed at television actor Pratyusha Banerjee’s recent death. Just as I was mulling over her words, the doorbell rang. My husband called out to me: “It’s for you”.

Wondering who could be calling so early in the morning, I saunter into the living room to see a lady who happens to be my fishmonger’s wife (will call her Durga – not her real name of course – for the sake of this story) and the mother of two of my husband’s protégés at his football academy. I smile to greet the pleasant faced, soft spoken lady thinking it is just another visit maybe to ask about her boys who were away at a training camp. Just then I noticed her red-rimmed eyes and trembling lips and body and my smile froze. She wanted to talk to me privately as it’s a ‘women’s matter’, she said looking at me in despair. My husband discreetly leaves the room to give us privacy. I make her sit on the sofa, give her a glass of water, which she refuses and wait for her to talk. She looks at me and starts sobbing inconsolably. “Memsahib, I want to thank you and sahib for all that you have done for my boys and I know that with you they are always in good hands.” Sensing that there is more to this I keep quiet and look at her with trepidation. Sobbing and shaking uncontrollably, she continues, “Memsahib, please forgive me. Please, I just can’t do this anymore! I want to leave my two boys in your custody. I don’t want to live anymore! I can’t, I just can’t!”

The despair and inexplicable sadness in her voice was unmistakable. Taken aback, I took her hand in mine, and held her shaking and fragile body. “It’s ok. It’s ok. It’s going to be alright,” my own words sounded hollow as I tried to make sense of what she was trying to say. I felt her despair, her hopelessness and wondered what could have happened? What could have driven to this state? I held her tight and let her cry. What were the right words to say? I didn’t know. All I saw was a broken down young woman, a mother who was so beaten, so lost, so desperate. A broken spirit, a bruised body, and haunted eyes.

What could have made her this way? “My husband, memsahib, I can’t take it anymore. I tolerated it for twenty years for the sake of my children, my home, my family but I can’t do it anymore.” What did he do? Did he beat you? Was he drunk? “No, no memsahib. He was not drunk. But he abuses me. I am scared of him. He is very dangerous. He will kill me! I know he will!” And then she showed me the scars. The stab marks all over her body, the bruises and seared flesh. I shuddered. Tears ran down my own eyes. I was shocked at the brutality of it! And there was more. Two decades of mental torture, physical violence, marital rape, infidelity and several attempts to murder her and her children. This was no less than the Nirbhaya case, or any of the countless rape cases that make headlines almost daily. And it had been happening for twenty years. Day after day. Night after night. WHY? Why, I thought? Why would a human being do this to another? And why did she suffer such cruel depravity? There are no easy answers.

Married off at the tender age of 12 to a man much older to her, she had her first child when she was just 14. Two years and countless beatings later she gave birth to another child. The beatings, the cruel taunts, the rapes, the physical brutality, the humiliation, the indignity, continued. For her, and her small children. That was her world. The only one that she had known of since she attained puberty. The only one that could ensure that she gets two meals a day and a roof over her head. The trade off was incidental. Why didn’t she leave him, you may ask? If only it was that simple. Leave and go where, memsahib? She asked me when I questioned her about it? Born to extremely poor parents this marriage was her ticket to survival. “And anyway, I had to make my marriage work, memsahib. “Or people would point fingers at me. After all, isn’t my husband supposed to be my God? To obey and honor under all circumstances?” It was simple economics in one way. Societal norms, in another.

And yes, she survived, if only for her children. But sadly, bit by bit, life and laughter was snuffed out of her. What was even worse, (if there could be anything worse) fear took over. Fear for her life. Fear for her children, her family. Fear of constantly looking over her shoulder. Fear of saying the wrong thing. Fear of simply breathing. So great was the intimidation, the children grew up equally scared of their father. Strapping young teenagers today, they lack the nerve to stand up to this tyranny. Helpless, bound with the shackles of abject poverty, a non-existent education and a psychotic misogynist for a father, what does the future hold for them? What kind of men will they grow up to be?

I tell the story of this woman at length, because somewhere here, I think, lies an answer (or at least a possible explanation) of all that is going wrong in our society today. The ever-increasing violations, the molestations, and the rapes; even suicides and honor killings. Look around you. The story of this woman is the story of thousands of women in India today. Hunted, haunted, suppressed, abused at the very hands of those who swore to protect them and love them. Some may argue that things are changing and that many women are standing up for their rights. Maybe so. Yes, there are women I know who have walked out of such abusive marriages and are living lives with dignity and freedom. But they were the lucky ones; they perhaps had a choice. What about the countless women who don’t? Does that mean they don’t have the right to survive? The right to live with dignity? The right to say NO?

Of course she has. At least, that’s what the media, and advertisements/cinema reminds us often. But consider the odds. What hope of justice does Durga (and many in her situation) have? Yes, she can go to the police station and register an FIR. And we all know where that will lead! “You are a married woman! Why do you want to break your home?” Or she can take shelter in a women’s home in the hope of getting free legal aid and start life anew. Sadly, here too she will have to very lucky to file a case at all because as per the Indian Penal Code marital rape is considered a crime only when the wife is below 15 years of age! Marital rape victims have to take recourse to the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act 2005 (PWDVA) where the offender if guilty is liable to a fine of Rs. 20,000/- and a jail sentence up to one year. That’s it. One year for years or decades of mental, economic, and physical torture! The offender is free, after a year to go back and indulge in some more. In most of the cases the victims, if they dare to raise a voice, are shushed up by society; or get so intimidated by the legal system that they don’t have the wherewithal to pursue. Many go back to their parental homes and try to rebuild their lives, many live destitute lives on the fringes of society, in the hope that one day they will finally be liberated. And free.

This is a story that I began some time back and like the women that I write about, didn’t have the wherewithal to pursue it. Till I saw the movie PINK by Shoojit Sircar, which deals with similar issues about the women living in India today. It gave me hope that one day we too could be liberated and free to live the lives that we WANTED to, that we choose; and not the ones that were imposed on us by family, society, or our circumstances. Just like Durga.

The Dance of the Maiden

Well, it’s that time of the year once again. A time when the old gives way to the new. A time when there is a certain song in the air. Of new beginnings. Of merriment. Of love. And of hope. That, dear readers, is the promise of spring. A time much awaited and celebrated with great fervor across the country.

In many parts of India, especially in the regions that are agrarian (which is practically most of it), springtime is an important part of the entire agricultural cycle. In Assam, it is celebrated (as we all know it)  as Rongali Bihu and marks the beginning of sowing of seeds. In that sense, it is also believed to be a fertility festival. It is this aspect of the festival that is particularly interesting. In earlier times, young unmarried men and women dressed in traditional finery sang and danced the beautiful and rhythmic Bihu dance in open fields. The Bihu dance form itself, with its sensuous movements of the hips and arms by young women was seen as a celebration of their fertility. It has therefore been described as a mating ritual. According to Praphulladatta Goswami in his book Festivals of Assam “ The Bihu dance seems to have sexual overtones, suggesting its association with springtime fertility cult of earlier times.”

Needless to say, the Bihu songs too are mostly based on the theme of love and “constitute a language of love”. “In fact, at one time, it was through these songs that affections were indicated and later even elopements took place.” It was almost as if, the entire process of finding a mate and the courtship that follows was given a societal sanction.

So, if ancient societies recognized and validated one of the most natural acts of creation – that of procreation, and thus giving the female its due place under the sun, where has modern society gone so terribly wrong? When did healthy flirtations and harmless acts of love (all part of the mating game) began to be perceived as perverse and shameful? When did the sensual songs of love as sung during Bihu simply disappear or change form to vulgar renditions that only seemed to objectify women? When did misogyny replace the reverence that was a prerogative of the female – from where all creation flowed?

The answers, though not that simple, are much closer to home than we may think.  For instance, how many of us may have at any point in time, reprimanded or frowned upon a teenaged son or daughter’s closeness to a friend of the opposite sex? Or worse still, how many of us continue to stereotype our daughters and women around us everyday? This is in fact the whole point of the Bal Panchayat programme in, Delhi, started in 1993 by an NGO Community Aid and Sponsorship Programme along with Plan India as reported in a leading national daily just a few weeks ago. The progressive programme reportedly “encourages young girls and boys of the locality to interact freely and bring an attitudinal change in how they perceive each other.”  The aim: to have a more “balanced view about gender roles” and help “develop a healthy camaraderie between the sexes”.

To do that, maybe we need to look into our past, and remind ourselves of our rich and meaningful customs that provided the very balance that we seemed to have lost. Look at the heritage of Assam, a state that is perhaps known to worship the feminine form like no other. Take the practice of Ambubachi, which is a celebration of the yearly menstruation course of Goddess Kamakhya, when the temple remains closed for three days. Or the practice where young girls – who once they start their menstruation – are decked up as brides and pampered and showered with gifts as a celebration of her being fertile.

These practices deeply revere the female but sadly, it is a reverence that today seems hollow and hypocritical. For while a young girl can celebrate her fertility there is no question of her exploring her sexuality till well, she is married. Or take the still prevailing practice of marrying off pre-adolescent girls in rural areas. On one hand, eleven or twelve year olds are considered old enough to handle married life but on the other hand, those who aren’t married, are expected to wear their chastity belts till they are!

This does not mean that we just let everything go. However, we do need to relook at our skewed societal values and find that balance between the traditional and modern.  We need to question our own conditioning and attitudes, rather than the actions/feelings of our children. Of course, decades of social conditioning will not be easy to undo so fast, I suspect. But a beginning needs to be made. Only then, will our beautiful songs of Bihu resonate the spirit in which they were intended.  And only then, will the maiden’s dance be truly hers.

References:

  1. Praphulladatta Goswami’s Festivals of Assam

The Promise of Tradition

I know. I haven’t written for quite some time now. The past few weeks have been unbelievably busy! Quite a rollercoaster ride, come to think of it.  From new beginnings – a couple of weddings followed by the birth of my niece, and a new job – to journey’s end – the passing away of a dear friend; from never-ending festivities to preparations for Advent and even a rock concert….a  rather dramatic finish to the year!

And if that was not enough, this also happens to be my favorite time of the year. Festivities apart, it’s a time I like to keep aside to quietly reflect upon the year gone by, and to dream and make plans for the coming year.  And I continue to do that year after year, as I had always been a stickler for tradition.  Hmmm. I was quite rigid about some of them, come to think of it. And that brings me to the point of this blog.

Tradition. Christmas, as we know it, is a time of tradition and this is THE one time in the year that traditions take precedence over everything.  As the beautiful lines from The Fiddler on the Roof go:

“Because of our traditions

We have kept our balance for many, many years

Because of our traditions, everyone knows who he is”

I quite agree. Traditions are good as long as they last and especially when they bring joy and meaning to life.  For some, tradition is the glue that holds families together. For some, tradition is something that needs to be done at a certain time of the year, or a certain time in life. For some, tradition is something that you pass on to the next generation, like a precious heirloom.  So yes, I don’t deny that traditions are an important part of our existence. They help us stay connected to our roots and remind us of the very reason for our existence – who we are, where do we come from and what kind of individuals we are going to be.

For me, it was not any different. The ones that revolved around family and holidays were most precious. They gave me a sense of security and stability, and were the only constant in the changes within and around me…for a long, long time.  

Talking about tradition, there are two kinds: those that outlive you and the other kind, the ones that you outlive.

I am talking about the second kind.  (The traditions of my childhood, and youth perhaps). What I am trying to say is that there comes a time, in everyone’s life, I guess, when you know that you have outlived the tradition.  Maybe because you changed direction, or maybe because you’ve been too busy, or maybe simply because you KNOW you need to let go of the old, and make way for the new.

The realization dawned on me a few days ago when I was in the midst of a ferocious spring-cleaning at home. Maybe some part of me realized that I needed to clean the cobwebs around me. Throw out the clutter.  Exorcise.  No more holding on to things, people, traditions that have no meaning in my life. 

Or let me put it this way: I guess its time to make new ones. (Yes, yes, I know. It’s Christmas time, and a time for traditions, so –yes- I- see- the- irony!)  I am looking forward to it actually – new traditions and the promise they hold…

So here’s to tradition – old and well, in my case, definitely new!

 

Admission makes strange bedfellows!

And so it begins. The journey of life – for my son as he is about to go to formal school (well, he is currently going to a play school but that’s not the same thing, is it?) And for me – one of the most anxious moments of parenthood as I go about selecting the right school for my son. Well, the second-most anxious moment, come to think of it. The first was when we discovered that my son had elevated thyroids levels at birth and that it could seriously affect his mental health.  But thanks to timely detection, it all turned out well in the end. Just as I know this will too. But till it does, it is turning out to be quite a roller-coaster ride!

“It’s all so confusing!” remarked a much-harried friend who is seeking admission to nursery for her daughter as well. As we swapped stories, we tried to make some sense of the madness that was around us. But at the end of the hour-long chat we still had no answers, only more questions. The one that had been nagging me (and quite a few equally harried parents) from the time my son was about two years old: How do you know which is the ‘right’ school for your child?  And wait that is not all of it! Even if you did happen to stumble upon the answer, how do you ensure that your child gets admitted into your dream school?

Believe it or not, it is in search for these elusive answers that most parents around me (yes, including me, I’d admit albeit grudgingly) have done things that they would not ordinarily do. But then these are not ordinary circumstances and times like these call for tough (read desperate, if not downright extreme measures!) Foes have become friends, friendship has blossomed where previously there was none, and alliances have been forged (and you thought politics makes strange bedfellows!).  They’ve struck up conversations with so-called strangers at parties or even called long-lost friends, friends of friends, relatives of friends’, colleagues, friends and relatives of colleagues, neighbors, and relatives and so on and so forth. They have joined online communities and forums for parents seeking admission to nursery, struck up inane conversations on Facebook, or even taken the boss’ twice-removed cousin out for coffee. All in the hope of getting some much-longed for answers (and also, the kind of questions that are asked at school interviews).

But I digress. I couldn’t help it. Just log on to one of the parent forums and you’ll see the kind of frenzy I am talking about.

Coming back to my question: How do you know which is the right school for your child? (This question may not be applicable for those who had the privilege of studying in some of the finest schools in the country. For them, the story ends right here. Or maybe not.) Funnily enough, it was a question I had asked a family friend (who happens to be a school teacher) out of sheer curiosity sometime back. Her answer was simple: go with your instincts, you’ll know.

Hmm. I got my instincts working overtime when I did the mandatory rounds of schools in the city. The fancy shmancy ones (with the central air-conditioning and color-coordinated potties) I had no patience for. The so-called progressive schools or experiential learning schools seemed too idealistic and were yet to convince me. The ones that had some kind of legacy (and there were just a couple in my city) – the wholesome, no-nonsense, honest-to goodness ones – well, let’s just say it would be easier to get into Fort Knox! And the missionary/convent schools – well, there were none. Nope, not a single one. Where did that leave me? Do I put my son’s life (or least the next 12-13 years of it) in the hands of half a dozen shining, brand new schools that have mushroomed overnight in the millennium city, in the hope that they will make a man out him eventually? Oh wait, that’s my job, isn’t it? Okay, so give him the kind of education that he deserves?

After much thought, (discussions on the dinner table, heated debates and arguments too) we narrowed our choices down to just a couple of schools, two of them not even in the millennium city. And that was the easy part.

The tough part was yet to come. Now that I know which school to send my son how do I assure his admission? With every school following its own system (RTE be damned!) it’s almost like a game of roulette! The only answer I got to this one was from an old friend who refused to join the admission madness for his younger son. (He has just applied to the one school where the older sibling is studying) So exasperated was he with the entire process that he is willing to take a chance this time round. He summed it up for me in one word: sycophancy.  Alright, before we put on our moral hats and get all judgmental, let’s just step back and think for a minute. However much we hate to admit it, he may be right.

The question is: why should I, or any parent, have to resort to sycophancy or curry favors or even learn roulette for something as basic as educating my child? Whatever happened to the good old system of just walking into your neighborhood school, meeting the principal and well, just paying up? That’s it. The entire process took a couple of hours, not 3-5 months. That’s how it worked for me, and my sister, and our cousins. For my hubby too. Or maybe that’s how it’s always been played; all I need to do is learn the rules of the game.

While you are figuring this one out it’s time for me to go roll the dice! Jokes apart, some thoughts on this would be welcome. I am curious to know – from parents who have already walked down this road, and those who have yet to: just how do you do it?

Hey, Mr. Teacher!

A few days ago, I was having lunch with a couple of school mates and one of my high school teachers. She happened to be one of my favorites in senior school and taught me Political Science – a subject I dreaded till I took her classes! (I’ll come to that later.) It was indeed lovely meeting her after so many years (close to two decades, I’d imagine!) – you know that warm, fuzzy feeling you get when you meet certain people.

Anyhow, she hadn’t changed much – she was just as spirited and passionate as she had been when I was younger. And she still treated us very much like adults and individuals in our own right (as she had when we were school kids.) I mean, when I look back, I can only imagine how challenging it must have been to keep a group of raucous, hormone raged teenagers hooked to her lectures! But she did.

Maybe because of the beautiful stories she used to weave into her lectures. Or maybe because she was just different. (At least she did not think that we did not know what we were talking about and she did listen to what we had to say, which I must say made us feel pretty good!)  Whatever it was, it worked. My grades remained pretty good because of her, I am sure of it, as did my love for the subject. In fact, she was perhaps one of those rare teachers who taught us to think for ourselves, to look beyond the classroom and the books.

Good teachers, come to think of it, do that to you. They leave you with much more than just knowledge. Though you may not realize it at the time, they shape your lives in more ways than one, and their words stay with you long after the lessons are over.

The special ones have the ability to recognize your talent and the vision to nurture it. Just like fifteen-year-old Chinese swimmer Ye Shiwen’s primary school teacher. She took special notice of her pupil’s exceptionally large hands and feet and realized that the girl had what it takes to be a winner. For all the brouhaha over China’s ‘medal factories’, it paid off. At the age of 16, Ye Shiwen has not only set a new world record, she has become a poster girl for aspiring swimmers. (Yes, I am aware that teachers in China are trained to spot school kids with special physical attributes, who are then packed off to training camps –  but that’s not necessarily a bad thing, is it? If anything, it proves that there is at least a will to nurture excellence.)

It makes me wonder. Do we (at least in India’s current education system) have teachers who are capable or even equipped to spot talent? And if at all, are they even bothered to do something with it? Are they willing to look beyond the ordinary, to go that extra mile? Or are they willing to settle for mediocrity (as they have been doing for years) as long as the syllabus is complete and the grades are good? Are they ready to break the mold and create winners?

These are some thoughts that come to my mind. Partly because of that stimulating conversation over lunch; and partly because my son is about to enter school life and thus begin a new chapter in his life. As a mother, I truly wish for it to be a positive and enriching one.

‘Where the mind is without fear…’

India turns all of 65 years old tomorrow, the 15th of August.  People across the country are getting ready for the celebrations.  Not me, for this is one party I am giving a miss.  What are we celebrating anyway? Once again, our growing economy (which is swimming in troubled waters)? The inauguration of another glitzy mall or residential complex, read condominium with a Jacuzzi, a sun terrace and the works? Or our so-called medal haul in London? (Well, our performance in the 2012 Olympics is being cited as the best ever, despite the elusive gold. So it may actually be a cause for celebration given that the medals were despite the odds, despite the dismal state of our sports infrastructure or lack thereof, and despite the sheer lack of political will.)

For many of us, yes, these are indeed reasons to celebrate. For me, at this point, most of it is a lie. Where is the freedom when a woman cannot be safe in her own home, let alone her city? Four cases in point: One, the brutal murder of a young woman lawyer in her Mumbai flat a few days ago. Ironically, she was killed by the security guard of the society where she lived. Two, the barbaric and shocking  public molestation of a teenaged girl on the busy streets of Guwahati by a mob of 50 men last month. Three, the kidnapping and rape of a young pub employee of a Gurgaon mall earlier this year. Four, the abduction of a young woman from one of Kolkata’s best-known residential localities and subsequent rape just a couple of days ago. (This is the latest in a series of rapes that have shocked the city, starting with the gang-rape of a woman in a car in February).

And these are cases that were reported. Even as I write this post, a woman somewhere, in some corner of the country, maybe in your own neighborhood, is being molested or raped, or beaten, or murdered. For some, these may be seen as isolated cases. But seen collectively, these paint a pretty scary picture. (Scary enough to have prompted one of our national dailies to have taken up a campaign for the safety of women in the country.) It is a breakdown of our civil society and governance. Especially in cities that were previously considered ‘safe’ for women (the notorious distinction of being a rapists’ haven went to the capital city of Delhi till recently).

I have roamed the streets on Mumbai at night in the dreaded local trains and felt perfectly at ease. Guwahati, and most of northeastern India, I held in high regard for the women were treated with utmost respect and lived with a certain dignity, or so I believed.  Kolkata, the city of my ancestors, I believed to be the perfect place to bring up a family in, with its cultural leanings and progressive thinking. And Gurgaon, well, it has been home to me for over a decade now; and while its definitely more populated than it was when I first moved in here amidst nothing but vast expanse of empty fields it certainly felt more safer back then.

Today, I don’t feel safe in my own home; irrespective of the city I may live in, irrespective of how old I may be, irrespective of my ethnicity or religion. (Why, there are newborn girls, and even unborn ones, being killed, or abandoned or thrown in dustbins almost daily; and thousands forced to live a life of abuse because they don’t have a choice – sexual, physical, and psychological abuse at the hands of employers, ministers, caregivers, and worse still – relatives and even parents!)

So, I ask again, where is the freedom? Is this the India we woke up to, the one Pt Jawaharlal Nehru spoke of, on the night of August 14th, 65 years ago, the one poet Rabindranath Tagore wrote of in his classic Where the mind is without fear? While the events of the recent past may have shaken some of us to the core, I would like to believe that we have not fallen off the edge…yet. Small, but sure footsteps are being taken: a yoga guru’s crusade against corruption, the triumph of the individual spirit (@ London Olympics), the battle against polio. Let’s just take a minute and think of the India that our forefathers dreamed of, the country that we want it to be – a country where women are safe and free. Let’s not look the other way this time.

Maybe we need to remind ourselves of the words that were written by Tagore:

Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high

Where knowledge is free

Where the world has not been broken up into fragments

By narrow domestic walls

Where words come out from the depth of truth

Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection

Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way

Into the dreary desert sand of dead habit

Where the mind is led forward by thee

Into ever-widening thought and action

Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.

 We need to wake up. Only then, will we be really free.

The story of us…to be continued

I’m still bathing in the afterglow of a memorable weekend spent in the company of dear friends and family, celebrating our marriage.  For me, it was a celebration of something much more precious – our relationship. After all, we’ve been best friends for twelve years and married for nine. So, what’s the big deal, many of you may wonder. It is a big deal to me. Especially in a world where more time is spent updating our Facebook status than working on real relationships. And especially in a world where having a huge number of Facebook ‘friends’ is more fashionable than ‘relationships’.

Why? Because any relationship worth its salt requires hard work. There are no shortcuts, no ‘buttons’ to click that will tell you what to do next, no three-minute guides to success. You got to figure it out for yourself and you’ve got to make it count.

So, when I look at us, I can’t help but feel a wee bit overwhelmed. Where did all the years go? The memories of our marriage day are still fresh. The smell of fresh earth after the rain (yes, the rain Gods had decided to shower us with blessings and I happily took it as an auspicious sign), of jasmine in my hair, my red sari that I wore in traditional Bengali style, my husband looking the quintessential Assamese in his creamy white pat (pronounced ‘paat’) silk dhoti-kurta; both of us equally nervous as we walked around the sacred pyre. I still remember staring deeply into the fierce flames, the priest’s chants a pleasant drone in the background when my husband gently slipped his hand in mine and held on tightly. I felt reassured; I was not alone in this.

And so the journey began. Nine years, and countless moments later, it has been quite a journey. Yes, we’ve had our moments. The bad, and the good. We’ve fought, we’ve raved and argued to the point of sheer exasperation (hmm, those are the times when I’ve actually forgotten why I loved the man in the first place!). In retrospect, none of it really mattered, except that we came back stronger maybe. What stayed were the good times; like the time we bought our house, or made our first documentary, or got that promotion, or even better, had our son.

For my part, I think some days we learned to just let go, and other days we learned to hold on.  Some days were spent in considerable silence, while others in pleasant, mindless chatter. There have been times when my husband has made me want to be a better person; and then, there have been times when I have just wanted to bang my head against the wall (or bang whatever I can get my hands on! )

What’s made this bittersweet journey possible is two things. One, the ability to constantly stimulate each other’s minds, our thoughts and feelings. Of late, it’s been uncanny how often we’ve been able to read each other’s minds…scary yes, but comforting nonetheless. Two, is my firm belief that after I’ve peeled away the layers, somewhere at the very core of our relationship is a simple, uncomplicated, honest-to-goodness friendship.  I try to never lose sight of that!

And till we have that, the journey ahead should be just as amazing.  I’ll toast to that!