My son was three years old when I recall one evening, while coming back from daycare, he sat in the car with his tiny nose pressed against the glass of the window. We stopped at a traffic light and a little boy, hardly a couple of years older than him, knocked on his side of the window.
Startled, he shrank back into my lap. Then curiosity got the better of him and he cautiously peered out. The scruffy little boy outside the window thrust a bunch of red, white, and black polka-dotted balloons at him.
“Please ek le lo na didi (take one, sister),” the boy pleaded, alternating between nervously glancing at the red traffic signal outside and hungrily eyeing the Spiderman school bag and the water bottle inside the car. The light turned green before I could react and as we pulled away, the boy continued to walk alongside the car for a few seconds before hopping back up on the divider.
My son had a puzzled expression on his face. I asked him what was the matter. Haltingly, he dipped into his limited store of vocabulary and asked me why “that boy was giving away so many balloons,” indignation written all over his chubby little face. I understood immediately. He couldn’t fathom why the possessor of such cool goods would give it all away to strangers. This was his first brush with a world outside his comprehension.
I explained to him that the little boy was selling the balloons, and not giving them away, in exchange for money, with which he will probably buy food. I will never forget the look on his face as he slowly tried to process the information that food is not a privilege that many children his age were automatically entitled to. He said it made him a little sad. I asked him why. He said he didn’t know. I let this feeling of sadness wash over him, filling his senses. This feeling will help form the person he will grow up to be.
When the ‘Not In My Name’ protests happened in Delhi, I was going to attend. I didn’t have babysitting and had to take him along to Jantar Mantar. Evening was setting in and the place was slowly filling up with people, many of whom I knew from work. He tightly held on to my hand as I negotiated the crowd to go up front where we would have a clear view of the stage. As the speeches began, he began to fidget. I picked him up and hoisted him up on my shoulders so he could see ahead. He had the best view now and he smiled and waved at people who turned around to look at him and waved back. An elderly lady handed him a pamphlet which he immediately rolled into a binocular shape and held it to an eye, giggling. He was yet too young to understand why we had come here.
After we left he animatedly spoke of the evening. He asked why “so many people” had gathered there. I tried to explain to him in terms he would understand the idea behind a citizens’ protest, individual choice and freedom. But he spotted an ice-cream stand and that was that. I’ve taken him to a couple of public gatherings, and book readings since then.
Last month, I attended the anti-rape protests in Jantar Mantar, called after the brutal gang rape and murder of an 8-year-old girl in Jammu and Kashmir’s Kathua. My son is almost five now and I decided to take him along. He asked me where we were going. I explained to him that a few bad people had hurt a girl his age and those who were as upset and angry as I was, had decided to come together to remember her and find ways to keep other children safe.
“These bad people… are they hurting other kids too?” he asked worriedly. They were not, the police had got them, I reassured him. But we have to keep children like her, like him, safe. At the venue, there were posters of the girl everywhere, her serious, bright eyes looking straight at the camera. Her name was written in bold letters on placards that he could now read.
“Is that her?”
He silently looked at the poster for a moment. He didn’t ask what happened to her and I knew why. Somehow, he knew. Just as he knew that I would struggle to answer his question. The poetry, songs, and the throng of the crowd fascinated him. He looked around him at the people taking videos. He asked me if he could use my phone to take a photo of the stage. I let him. He was hot and sweaty and asked if he could get a tetra pak of juice later. I said yes.
As we were coming back, he stopped in the middle of the road, transfixed by a group of little girls his age, holding up placards, and standing close to each other in the balmy April heat, their heads covered, while the adults supervising them raised slogans of justice and equality. I could understand that he was trying to connect what was happening on stage with this tiny group. It was the first time he was looking at children his age engaged in an act that was completely alien to him, beyond the boundary of his understanding. These children weren’t like any girls he knew in his kindergarten class.
I wrote about this incident in an article, and someone tweeted at me, accusing me of being “worse than the Kathua rapists” for exposing my son to protests at this early age.
The truth is, we lead tremendously insular lives in gated communities and sculpted high-rises. Our children are taught all the necessary skills to fend for themselves in cities. They study subjects at school that will help them build the foundation of their world view. They attend summer camps, have an easy familiarity with luxury and technology, ride horses, learn baseball, roller-skating, and swimming.
But how does one teach empathy to children of privilege from an age when the world around them haven’t hardened their views and desensitised them to human suffering?
Their exposure to poverty is limited to the occasional brush with the balloon-sellers at traffic intersections and, in time, they learn to look away.
There’s a dire need for children to be exposed to the multiple universes that exist outside their familiar ones to learn humanity. How do we reverse the conditioning of centuries? Or more correctly, how do we ensure children have the environment that will help them grow up into sensitive human beings?
We talk of conditioning from an age when children aren’t aware of gender politics. We seem to be routinely blindsided by the manifestations of patriarchy in everyday life, shocked to see educated men endorse misogyny and parade their entitlement. We conveniently forget that every day hundreds and thousands of children are entering the system to be moulded by a patriarchal view of a woman’s place in society. Schools, colleges, popular culture, books, social media, peer groups and adults in their lives are all complicit in this moulding.
In hundreds of cities and small towns, boys are watching their mothers negotiate power with the people around them every day just to be able to live. Those boys are preparing to enter the system with a shrewd understanding of this power. It gives them the upper hand.
You know that a rot has set in when, in 2018, consent has to be painstakingly explained to men. I ardently hope that when my son grows up to truly understand the spirit of resistance and standing up for the rights of others, even at great personal inconvenience, these voices raised in anguish today all around him will have become a part of his moral fabric.
Some parents travel with their children to foreign countries to expose them to different cultures. Others take them to libraries, book readings and panel discussions. I take my son to protests where he hears and sees strong women of all ages come out to talk fearlessly about violence, misogyny, poetry, anguish and love. He sees women laugh raucously, dress whimsically, and express their opinions unhesitatingly. As he grows up he will realise that it’s a world where he will be welcomed as an equal if he accords them the same respect.
I cannot control the person my son will become when he grows up. But I’m hoping that political literacy will bring perspective and a tolerance for all opinion. With participation, he will learn about marginalisation and will fight the system that perpetrates it, not join it.
I’m hoping his early learning will help him recognise bullying and inequality. I see the wonder in his eyes at the little girls with their silent appeals for protection and I feel hope. He wants to talk to them, but he doesn’t know how. I’m certain he will find the language and understanding with interaction and time.
As a mother and a woman, I see this as the only way forward.