If you have a problem, fix it. But train yourself not to worry, worry fixes nothing. - Ernest Hemingway

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


  1. In my childhood while I used to roam around the Dhakuria Lake( to-day's Rabindra Sarobar)this time of the year in the company of my father and my elder brothers,I was taught to distinguish between the flowers Krishnachura and Radhachura.Those trees are still there (mostly),children are there too.But they do not have time for flowers now.They are all too busy in learning in different coaching centers how to step out and hit the ball to the maximum, keeping their aspirant parents as waiting on lookers.They all are forced to try to reach to the top and as a result, their childhood offer nothing but uninterrupted labor.A recent court case punishing the father for the death of an unfortunate budding Table Tennis player amply demonstrates our state of affairs.Santanu has rightly forced us to look towards the stark reality.The childhood, now a days, is the recipient of maximum punishment.

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  3. Thanks Satyadasda, for your wonderful and sensitive observation. Yes indeed, shouldn't children have time for trees, and "bees in the sky, flowers on the green hillside"? Your remarks remind me of a few lines written by my late poet friend, Gopal Honnalgiri: "The children don't know that the wooden bench they are sitting upon / was once a living tree / with leaves and flowers, / birds made nests in it."

    And thanks Suvro, for your remarks. (Don't they enrich me often?) You are right, the parents who make their children grow into lazy, selfish, ill-mannered, and parasitic adults, the parents who do nothing to expand their children's intellectual horizons or ensure their good health, deserve to be condemned with equal harshness.

    I also agree with your views on our fetish about "abolition of child labour". No one is saying a child should grow up illiterate, but we should recognize the fact that when a farmer's son learns farming from his father on the field, he is going through a process of invaluable education that no school can offer.

    But I disagree with you on one point: no law can make the educated fools of our country better parents. It would not be possible to enforce such a law simply because there will be millions of transgressors under such a law!

    In casual conversations, I say that we need half a dozen each of Swami Vivekanandas, Gandhis and Tagores to take us out of this mess, but seriously speaking, I do think that our society is seriously in need of a reformer of their stature. We are living in a cesspool of stupidity and greed.

  4. The other day I was reading the biography of Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov-Lenin, and this is the opinion that Lenin had for his father Ilya Nikolaevich: "Father infected us with a feeling of affection for the common people, to whose well-being he devoted all his energies and knowledge. For us he was the authority, and an example of a man with high standard of culture and education, an industrious and noble man, a man of integrity." I seriously doubt how many of todays parents have children who can be so proud of them. It needs more than just a good school and spending a lot on tutions in order to make one's child grow up to an industrious and cultured man.

  5. I am sure there were different kinds of personalities (children and parents) co-existing in the society till time immemorial, but all of a sudden the disgusting ones seems to have taken over the centre-stage. I am not sure whether we should attribute this to the sudden inflow of money into everyone’s pockets and an omnipresent media. It is a huge cost that we are paying, I suppose for progress and I hope these are just a transitory phase for a better future. I don’t know whether we shall all live to witness the better future (whatever that may be), but isn’t after every dark phase comes a brighter phase?

    I have heard stories from you all that when all of you were young, you had met lot of people who could not do full justice to the potential they all possessed. Mostly that was due to financial constraints and lack of information. Now it seems these people (who have either become grandparents or parents) are taking advantage of the surge in money (and information) to pressurise their own children to fulfil everything that they could not do. It is sad because this has turned them virtually into criminals pushing their innocent children to their limits. The perception of success is always misinterpreted in India. While on hand, we hope to feed ourselves and on the other we have to thrive hard to juggle between our interests and professions. We have grown up in such an environment where we were forced to become a bit defensive about assuring our future. I feel bad about that whenever I see it but I wonder whether there were any choices!

    In just eight months of my stay in NZ, the number of children I see on the streets, I have not seen that many in my entire duration of stay (eight years) in Delhi. One, there were no pavements where parents could walk with their prams and two the parents did not have any time as they were forced by their respective offices to devote all of their life to offices. I criticise such parents (who mostly belong to my generation) but then I myself have seen such seniors who went to disgraceful extent in order to ensure that I spend my weekends in office. I have fought with them and have fallen out of rat race because I preferred my own time but then not always the consequences have been pleasing. Offices hardly pay attention to worker’s rights and we all know taking recourse to such things would lead to more trouble. In that scenario, everyone suffers and turn into an inhuman. Still I consider myself privileged for certain reasons because I sacrificed sleep (or rest) to nurture some of my creative instincts but there are many who turn into dumb (or dead) creatures. They turn into dead creatures because they lose the strength to fight the situation out.

    Sadly, even though I love to glorify my country but we are caught in a huge “mogoj-dholai” machine. We have allowed ourselves to be in it, because we think it is safer. We have allowed ourselves to be in it, because we think our children would not face similar situations like we face if they get a shorter road to apparent success.

    In all these those who remain idealistic, they are not free from fear themselves. They fear the situation, when their children would succumb to peer-pressure and deviate from the ideals that they have tried to instil.

    I don’t think any law would help. It is a transition phase (at best) and we have to see through it. We would not be saved from this deluge of moronic things that we are currently witnessing. It is unfortunate that we are caught in that. Some countries like NZ are less exposed than us because they have had equitable distribution of wealth to some extent. In a big country like ours, it was not possible perhaps or may be our leaders were took too much time to get over the hang-over of celebration. There have been jokes about how most of our Babus (during pre-independence) were lazy and corrupt. Rather than becoming focussed after independence sadly their offsprings continued the trend and went on trying to find the shorter route to success.

    It is a fallacy in our characters in general and I find it difficult to admit that but I have no choice. If we would have shown commitment and even if 60 % of our population shows that commitment, most of our problems would be solved but sadly we don’t.

    Azhar’s father is not free from the system. He is a poor man and he wants to cash in on his success because he wants a better life for his family (and himself). He has the same mentality perhaps which was shown by Dhananjay’s hangman who used to take a bottle of whisky before giving interviews to media when that case was ripe. Nobody knows what he does now, so that is why he was stocking money during his heyday. I think Azhar’s father fear that too. I am not sure whether he should be blamed in isolation.


I will be happy to read your views, approving or otherwise. Please feel free to speak your mind. Let me add that it might take a day or two for your comments to get published.