Saturday, 4 April 2009
Let them play now
Azharuddin Mohammed Ismail, the child star of Slumdog Millionaire, was slapped by his father for refusing to give interview to media. “The 10-year old child, who was plucked from a Mumbai slum to play the young Salim in the multiple Oscar winning movie, has been living amid constant media scrutiny since his return home from Los Angeles. Tired after a long flight, Azhar wanted to go to sleep and refused to oblige the media. His father, Mohammed Ismail … got infuriated and slapped him. "I was being naughty. I did not want to give the interview as I was tired so he slapped me but he loves me,” said Azhar." (The Statesman, 1 March, 2009)
Azhar’s father’s reaction deserves scrutiny, but before that, one must say that the child’s response was amazing. If indeed this was not a tutored statement, the boy exhibited extraordinary poise, maturity, and self-control.
Obviously, the same cannot be said about his old man. He behaved boorishly, but from whatever little has been reported, it would be unfair to judge him. He may or may not be one of those numerous parents who want their offspring to go for the moon, and if an exceptional one does reach there, are too eager to cash their success.
You see these parents – mostly mothers – taking their sons to cricket “academies” on Sunday mornings. I have observed these boys’ faces closely. Very often, joy and anticipation are missing on them. Maybe, for them, it is just another round of “private tuition”, a few more hours of drudgery. It cannot be otherwise if it’s thrust upon them. And sadly, most of them will disappoint their parents. After all, there isn’t room for so many Tendulkars and Gangulis. And in the process, they miss out on enjoying sports, a primary source of happiness in our childhood.
You also see these parents on reality TV contests. They show real people all right, but these gaudy shows reflect only a sad kind of reality, the reality of our greed. These parents pressurize their kids to win at any cost. Some of them even fight with the judges if their children’s results aren’t satisfactory. In these shows, children are publicly abused and humiliated by some stupid judges, for no fault except not reaching the ethereal standards arbitrarily set for them. That most of these judges are leading lights of our cultural establishment is perhaps the best proof of the poverty of what goes on in the name of culture in our society. It is also possible that the show organizers deliberately encourage vicious criticism in order to spice up the show, in absolute, appalling disregard for the young participants.
In a more perverted form of these competitions, there was one where the judges didn’t select a winner, but at every round, threw out the participant that scored the lowest marks. In that contest for the loser’s crown, no one seemed to care how much damage was done to the psyche of a small child when his or her failure was telecast to millions of homes. I have used the past tense in expressing my opinion here because I stopped watching televised contests in early 2008, after suffering a particularly disgusting episode. But I guess they haven’t changed for the better. What has?
Critics and other experts often botch up while assessing creative art. Everyone knows that Van Gogh sold only one picture and got hardly any recognition while he was alive. But the case of Henry Rousseau (1844-1910), a French artist, is less well-known. For some critics, Rousseau was the annual laughingstock at Paris art exhibitions. Yet, he was later admired by leading lights like Paul Gauguin, Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque. You can see his works in famous museums; some of his paintings such as The Sleeping Gypsy and The Dream (the one somewhat incongruously at the head of this post) are widely recognized as masterpieces. Despite belated recognition, Rousseau died in grinding poverty.
We will never know how many musical talents the omniscient experts have managed to destroy. But that number would be relatively small. A much greater number are irrevocably damaged by parents who try to undo their own failures by burdening their children with absurd weights of expectations.
Once there was a controversy in England about what should be taught to children of different age groups. Experts offered conflicting opinions and a storm raged for months. Joining the debate, D. H. Lawrence wrote a letter to the editor of possibly The Times. The subject was: About the nine-year-old. The two-line letter said: Let them play now. Life will teach them what to learn, later. (I am quoting from memory; the words used by Lawrence might have been slightly different, but the message was the same.)
It’s time our parents let their children be children. Nothing helps a child better than a healthy and happy childhood.
And that doesn’t mean children shouldn’t be encouraged to work hard and excel. After all, it is because of the training to work hard that our professionals are making a mark all over the world. (This is true for Chinese expatriates too.) The point is: Shouldn’t children have the freedom to choose their calling? Parents only need to educate them about the available options and provide the infrastructure. It could be gilli danda for one and chess for another, and photography or literature for someone else. There are infinite ways in which children can make their lives enjoyable and fulfilling at the same time. Why only cricket, or vocal music?
And should parents turn a child’s hobby into a pitiless machine that produces champions but destroys childhood in the process?
Postscript: There are sensible parents too, although apparently they are a small minority. It is possible that Azhar’s father is generally sensible. Perhaps he was dazzled by the unfamiliar glare of the limelight. And he is unlikely to know how tiring a flight from Los Angeles to Mumbai could be. (Did he accompany Azhar to Los Angeles? The report is silent on that.) But what can be said about the journalists who pestered the little child for an interview when he was tired, sleepy and jet-lagged? In the cut-throat competition to increase readership / audience, journalists are quite capable of bypassing normal human decency. The Times of India even published a photograph of a crying Azharuddin. Should they have intruded into the child’s private space at such an hour of misery? Should anyone treat human suffering as saleable commodity?
Kolkata, March 2009