At a recent book-reading session, children between the ages of three and six gathered to listen to me. The reading was fun and the kids listened with open mouths and shining eyes, and drew the story characters with crayons. At the back of the room was a little boy with a well-clad, wellheeled woman watching over him. Enthusiastically vocal during the reading, he found a puzzle to put together on the ground. The woman told him that she was going to take a photo of it and show it to his father. Then, in the next instant, the little boy attacked another boy. I saw him form his fist and ram it straight into the newcomer’s face. The newcomer had walked up to the puzzle and tried to take it apart, probably to put it together himself. Angry at not being asked, the first little boy lashed out. It’s the everyday sort of thing that kids do.
The woman’s response was the one that left me speechless, and wondering if it’s become just an everyday sort of thing. As I looked on, she turned to the newcomer, pushed him away and told him roughly not to break up the puzzle. The first little boy came at the newcomer again and punched him a second time. The woman kept telling the second boy, “Why are you breaking it?” Not once did she turn to the pugnacious little aggressor and say, “Why are you hitting him?” For a moment, I felt confused about who her child was. From the manner of her speech and the kind of entitlement reflecting in her tone and body language, I thought it was her son who had done the breaking. But it turned out that hers was the puncher. And all she said to him was, “It’s okay, I’ve already taken a photo.”
I stood there, bemused by the realisation and unsure whether to say something. Thankfully, one of the organisers separated the boys and gently tried to talk to the puzzle- making puncher. Even then, the mother only said, “He shouldn’t have broken it.” And then she flounced off in a Ford Endeavour, with son and maid in tow. A modern day urban woman clothed in the self-confidence that money can buy. Completely convinced that her place in the world is the one that everyone aspires to.
She’s probably got her son admitted to what the cacophony will announce as one of Delhi’s finest schools. She’s probably enrolled him in extra-curricular and sports classes. She’s probably bought him a library of books and the latest gadgets that promise value-added edutainment. The boy is four years old and he doesn’t stand a chance. He will carry within him an enormous sense of entitlement, a selfbelief that the world owes him all that he desires, a certainty that other people do not matter. There will be no room for doubt — self-doubt will be a bad, bad word — and no need for exploring other ways. I generalise grossly, I admit, but it was a deeply disturbing incident to witness.
As I stand on the margins of this great urban middle class quest for unlocking children’s imaginations — the schools with child-friendly pedagogy, the book festivals, theatre workshops, wildlife trips, astronomy adventures — I wonder what this imagination, if unlocked, is supposed to conjure. What vision of the world will it see when the self blots everything else into insignificance? Straight-jacketed by certitude, perhaps, the task of this crippled imagination will be to see a blaze in a candlelight vigil and revolution in a ring-side view of a televised spectacle. And for those who come to break up the puzzle and try their hand at piecing it together, who dare to light a blazing fire or stir another kind of revolution, there will be the swiftly delivered blow, the ungloved fist, a “Sorry, but he deserved it!”
Samina Mishra is 42. She is a documentary filmmaker and writer based in Delhi