Of Children’s Pencil Boxes And Ersatz Smartphones

It’s a simple enough object: a pencil box that looks like a smartphone. The box’s lid looks like a smartphone screen decked out with app icons, the ones that all of us smartphone users are used to: the phone, the messages, the various entertainments, the calculator, and so on. Pencil boxes have been decorated and adorned in many ways over the years; this happens to be the latest one that our civilization has devised for it. (My school days pencil box was covered with various geometrical shapes; presumably the manufacturers assumed that I would be spending my class days constructing the figures that lay within the box: a pencil, ruler, compass, divider, and a protractor.) But it is not just the decoration of the pencil box that approximates the smartphone’s look and feel; it is also sized similarly, thus rendering the simulation ever more realistic. Especially if you are only a child, who has not used a real smartphone but has merely seen others using them around it. Of course, the more you play with this ersatz phone the more you realize just how removed its functionality is from the real thing; it makes you want the real thing even more. Which is what it is supposed to do; to the children who play with it.

My daughter is the proud owner of once such pencil box. I’m her disgruntled father. A year or so ago, she, by exerting that unique species of emotional pressure that only a four-year old can, managed to convince her mother to buy the smartphone-pencil box for her. But she had been relentlessly enticed herself: over the course of a few mornings, by a glittering array of such temptations placed directly in her path when she walked into her pre-school’s lobby. A vendor of these ‘toys’ had struck a deal with the pre-school; presumably they would sell their goods to the children, relying on them to badger their parents; proceeds would be shared with the school. My daughter had, of course, seen both my wife and I using our smartphones; she had often reached out to them and we had, with varying measures of success, resisted her advances. But not on this occasion; my wife succumbed, and my daughter had her way.

I’ve been a parent for some five years now, and so I’ve become accustomed to the scale and reach of the child-industrial complex, that giant consumer good industry dedicated to selling you stuff for your children. Still, something about the utter cynicism of this particular maneuver, the unholy alliance struck between the vendor and the school (a private one with a few seats reserved for children in New York City’s free pre-K program), stood out for me. Addiction to smartphones and social media is not a minor problem for today’s children, and one of the hardest decisions a (privileged) parent has to make these day is to decide when to let their child have access to these. To see a school allow a vendor to sell such products was astonishing to say the very least. But the commodified logic of this world will brook no interference with its plans to sell to all and sundry.

I’m sad to say that I did not do too much beyond my initial reaction of irritation (I could have, for instance, had a word with the school’s principal); I was worn out by too many parenting discussions and besides, some other childcare crisis had already presented itself for resolution. So I moved on. My daughter still has the pencil box and I’m still holding out the hope that she will grow tired of it in the right way: by finding something literary or artistic or musical that will hold her attention in more fulfilling ways.

On Avoiding Conversations With Children

Yesterday afternoon, as I rode back from Manhattan to Brooklyn to pick up my daughter from daycare, I noticed three children board the subway car I was seated in. One of them was a friend’s son, all of nine years old; he was accompanied by two younger children. An older woman, clearly their chaperone or caretaker, stood near by. I smiled in recognition (even as the young lad’s back was turned to me) and thought of standing up and walking over to say ‘hi.’ But I didn’t.

A sudden doubt–followed by apprehension–had afflicted me. It had been a few months since I had seen young ‘E’; my time with him then had limited, as he had spent most of his time then playing with several other children; indeed, in general, I had only had limited contact with him over the past few years, and I was not entirely sure whether he would recognize me instantly if I greeted him. My knowledge of his name would reassure him that I was not a perfect stranger but that delayed recognition could be problematic. For ‘E’ was not alone; he was escorted by an adult, one who would not find too palatable the the idea of an strange man on the subway striking up a conversation with her ward. Of course, I would be able to name ‘E’s parents, and talk about them in familiar terms, and convince her–and perhaps ‘E’ as well–that all was well, but that initial minute held out of the promise of being excruciatingly uncomfortable.

I stayed quiet and remained sitting in my seat. If ‘E’ had turned and recognized me, I would have responded to his greeting; but I was not about to initiate contact. I contented myself with the thought that I would write to his mother later in the day, saying something like “Guess what? I saw ‘E’ on the Q train today, riding back home.’

My reticence reminded me of a cultural lesson that I had been instructed to imbibe before I migrated to the US from India almost three decades ago. Those who had been to the US before me–high school and college mates who had begun their studies there–had warned me that my cultural predilection for greeting and talking to the children of perfect strangers in public spaces would have to be attenuated by some realities of American life: American parents did not approve of such contact; it was considered a social taboo; and woe betide you if some parent caught you talking, no matter how innocently, with their unescorted child. In Indian public spaces, it was common for strangers to talk to the children of other strangers and sometimes even display a kind of cheek-pulling affection; such behavior would not go down well in American precincts. Keep your assessments of cuteness to yourself; resist the temptation to spark up conversations with a toddler; and so on.

I listened, and I internalized those lessons. I do not talk to a child unless the parent is present. (Even when I escort my daughter to the local playgrounds; once a young girl began talking to me at a playground, and I walked away from her; perhaps an overreaction, but I was not about to take any chances.) Of course, I can empathize; after all, I’m a parent too. Still, there is occasion for some sadness here, that our societies are as afflicted as they are to make such caution necessary.

On Meeting An ‘Illiterate’

As my daughter approaches that miraculous stage in her cognitive and intellectual development when reading independently will start to become a possibility, opening up a portal to a world whose outlines she has, with some astonishment and delight, started  to sense, I am reminded of a childhood encounter which first made clear to me the singular importance of literacy.

During my childhood, an annual visit to my grandfather’s home was a much-anticipated event. One of the indulgences that awaited us there was the opportunity to eat food cooked by my grandfather’s faithful cook, Gopal, a long-serving and dedicated worker who had, over the years, perfected his craft to a point where it surpassed my grandmother’s cooking. Now, she supervised the kitchen from a distance, and left its daily operations to him. He awoke early in his quarters adjoining the main residence, fired up the coal braziers used for food preparation, laid out his cooking implements and got to work. Tea, breakfast, lunch, evening tea, dinner–these issued from his domain effortlessly, each consumed gratefully and appreciatively by our family. An almost literal icing on the cake were his dessert treats, made for us youngsters on special request. He was supremely indulgent in this regard, ever willing to rustle up some concoction or the other which would artfully deploy sugar or jaggery in manners previously unimagined. We–my cousins and I–saw him as an avuncular figure; there was a great deal of affection and respect in our interactions.

One aspect of this affectionate interaction was a desire on the part of my brother and I to share with him–as best as we could–our lives elsewhere: on air force bases, in New Delhi. To this end, one fine morning, I excitedly called Gopal over to look at a book–borrowed for a four-week loan–from a library in New Delhi. I pointed at an illustration and the caption, which I think, had amused me to no end. Gopal laughed along with me and then, abruptly, he said, “What does it say?” I replied, “Here, take a closer look.” Back came the answer, “No, you tell me; I can’t read it.” I said, “Right, sorry, you don’t know English.” He clarified, “No, I can’t read.”

I stared at him, stunned. Gopal was, at the time, over  fifty years of age. He had just informed me that in all that time, he had never learned to read; he had never read a book, a newspaper, or  even a recipe. He had never sat down to immerse himself in a printed page; he had never traversed those spaces made accessible by reading a book. I considered myself to be possessed of an active imagination but at that moment it failed me; I could not comprehend what such a life could be like. I say this–and thought it–without any condescension; I just did not know what it was like to not read, to be possessed of so much seeming incomprehension.

At that moment, something and someone I considered familiar had become utterly strange; I realized the extent of the gulf that separated my life from Gopal’s; and the extent of my fortunes all over again.   

On Learning The Meaning Of ‘Delirium’

I learned the meaning of the words ‘delirium’ and ‘delirious’ when I was nine. The spring of that year, I came down with a viral fever of an unknown variety. My body temperature rose sharply, and my mother responded with the usual battery of treatments: antipyretics and cold cotton wraps for my forehead. But the infection in my body had its usual course to run, and so, despite the medication, and despite my mother’s best supplemental efforts, my fever mounted.

Finally, one night it crossed the 104 degrees mark. I was coherent enough to understand two facts: a) this was the highest body temperature I had ever experienced, an impressive personal record for a nerdy nine-year old; and b) this was a number that clearly made my mother nervous.

That night, as I struggled to sleep, my mother lying next to me to provide me some comfort, I began to see and hear things. The walls of the room that enclosed us began to oscillate, sometimes expanding away from me to form a cavernous hall, and sometimes contracting till the ceiling appeared mere inches away from my eyes. I could feel a lurking presence in the room, an undefinable entity that made me shudder with fear and call out for help. And most bizarrely of all, I began to hallucinate that I had arisen, left bed, and walked to the adjoining living room where a fearsome tiger, pacing up and down its limited length, waited for me.

I could not understand what was happening; I clung to my mother in panic, my cries of alarm announcing and describing the various phenomena I was experiencing turning all too quickly into a species of frantic gibbering. My mother did not call an emergency medical service. While there must have been an ambulance service–or a local doctor–that we could have called in New Delhi in 1976, we did not own a phone. Making a phone call meant asking a neighbor for help.  I suspect my mother was reluctant to do so late at night, and that moreover, she was still calm enough to reckon that this was only a passing phase.  A high temperature fever would have been very dangerous for an infant or a toddler, of course, but I was considerably older than that. She continued to place cotton wraps soaked in cold water on my forehead, and continued to try to ‘talk me down.’

My aunt–my mother’s sister, then visiting from the US–was spending the night with us (my father was away at an air force base.) As my mother and her discussed how best to proceed, I heard my mother say I was ‘delirious,’ that my ‘delirium’ was making me see and hear things. I had seen the word in print before and not fully understood what it meant. Now I did.

Sometimes when I describe myself as a nerd, it’s because I remember incidents like this one, and my reactions to them. That night, as I lay in bed, slipping in and out of sanity, I remember thinking it was so interesting that a previously mysterious word had ‘happened’ to me. I couldn’t wait to talk about it when it was all over.

Which I did the next morning. The storm passed, and the tiger left the living room.

On First and Second Languages-IV: Bringing Up Baby

I am often asked, by well-meaning friends, “Are you going to teach your daughter how to speak [Hindi, Urdu]?” My answer, invariably, is “I’ll try.” So I’m trying.  My efforts at teaching my daughter Hindi-Urdu consist primarily of speaking to her in it, with occasional lapses into English.

These lapses have become more frequent. I feel my resolve faltering. This is perhaps ludicrous. My daughter is only eighteen months, and is only now learning her first words. Among them, she has learned one in Hindi–a slightly colloquial, baby-talk term for milk. This surely, is the time to dig in, and press on.

But the challenges are daunting. Hindi-Urdu isn’t my first language; English is. I don’t read books in Hindi–though I have grand plans to read three novels, patiently waiting for me on my shelves; the frequency of my Hindi-movie watching is far outstripped by that of English–and other languages, subtitled in, naturally, English. Very few of my daughter’s local uncles and aunts–who do not live in New York City in any case–speak Hindi-Urdu (though some of them comprehend it well enough to converse with their immigrant parents.) Her grandparents–my wife’s parents–only occasionally speak to her in Hindi-Urdu. I have few Indian friends, and their children only speak English as well. Her linguistic community for Hindi-Urdu–that is, me–looks remarkably scant and impoverished.

Besides, I’m conflicted about this project. While I’m well aware of the virtues of bilingualism, I wonder about the choice of the second language. Wouldn’t Spanish be better for a child growing up in the modern United States? My English vocabulary is much richer than my Hindi-Urdu one; wouldn’t I be aiding her cognitive development more by speaking to her in a language in which I would be more expressive, more fluent, more able to express a broader range of concepts and ideas? Why should she learn Hindi-Urdu? I doubt she’ll become a South Asian studies scholar. And if she does, perhaps she can learn this language later in life? Many area studies scholars do just that, after all.  To ‘learn about her roots’ and ‘where she came from’? But her roots are in Brooklyn and New York City. This is where her father has lived for the last two decades; this is where she was born.  My trips to India look like becoming less, not more, frequent in the years to come. And lastly, I have neither the desire nor the ability to impose a specific Indian identity on her. Mine is confused enough; I doubt I should attempt to ‘bring her up Indian’, to ‘make her aware of her culture’. Perhaps she can sample the bits of Indianness that exist in my life along with all the other flavors of this Brooklyn life of ours and make of them what she will.

Perhaps I’m just lazy, unwilling to put in the hard yards to bring up a bilingual child–like watching movies with her or teaching her the alphabet. Perhaps; it won’t be the first time a dimly desirable project of mine has run aground for lack of drive.

For the time being, I’ll press on, talking as much as I can in my ‘mother-tongues’, trusting that my daughter will find some traction in our conversations. Perhaps she’ll let me know, by her facility, what she’d like to do.

Note: As might be surmised, I do feel some guilt about being so conflicted and insufficiently committed to this project. This emotion has only been exacerbated by a niece of mine–raised in Los Angeles–who has told me she would have much preferred it if her parents had taught her Hindi-Urdu.

Can An Adult Read a Book Like a Child?

In ‘The Lost Childhood’ (from The Lost Childhood and Other Essays, Viking Press, New York, 1951), Graham Greene writes:

Perhaps it is only in childhood that books have any deep influence on our lives. In later life we admire, we are entertained, we may modify some views we already hold, but we are more likely to find in books merely a confirmation of what is in our minds already: as in a love affair it is our own features that we see reflected flatteringly back.

But in childhood all books are books of divination, telling us about the future, and like the fortune teller who sees a long  journey in the cards or death by water they influence the future. I suppose that is why books excite us so much. What do we ever get nowadays from reading to equal the excitement and the revelation in those first fourteen years….it is in those early years that I would look for the crisis, the moment when life took a new slant in its journey towards death.

As my posts here on Richard Wright’s Native Son and Toni Morrison’s writing in Sula would indicate, I’m inclined to disagree with Greene: I do think its possible for even adults to read books that they consider to have had a ‘deep influence on their lives.’

However, I think too, that I have a sense of what Greene is getting at. The ‘distance’–between one point of emotional and imaginative maturity and another–a childhood book helps you traverse is perhaps far greater than that any book read in adulthood could take you. The books we encounter in childhood find us having barely commenced many mental journeys; the first steps they help us take are often gigantic and accompanied by a kind of thrill we only rarely encounter in adult life. We are not yet jaded, not yet cynical. All of this is implied in the claims Greene makes above.

The reason a book read in adult life can have the ‘deep influence’ Greene speaks of is related to the childhood reading experience. We might grow up with our selves developed unevenly; we might find ourselves possessed  of great accomplishment and maturity in one domain and yet utterly lacking in sophistication and edification in another. Our formative years might have been biased by particular sorts of influences that drove out yet others; we are, so to speak, only well done on one side. Pockets of callow superficiality lurk within us.

At these moments then, thanks to fortuitous discovery, we are set up for an encounter that is like our childhood reading: we find ourselves experiencing an epiphany of sorts, the same giddiness that so thrilled us as children comes upon us again. And we speak of our newly found intellectual companion in the same breathless fashion as we did of our teenage crushes.

So, I think focusing on chronological age is a mistake. As long as–thanks to previous immaturity–we bear the potential for radical growth within us, we will continue to experience these ‘books of divination.’ Adults can read books like children.

Parents and Children: Perfect Strangers

A couple of days ago, I received news that a gentleman who had known my father during their years of service in the air force had passed away. A dozen or so years ago, we had established a brief correspondence by email; in his messages, he had briefly detailed the extent of his contact with my father and spoken glowingly of him. (In other messages, he regaled me with stories from his own flying days, including one sensational instance of having walked away unscathed from a spectacular, fiery, crash-landing.) I am saddened by his passing, an emotion that has a selfish edge to it: yet another bridge to my father’s life has been folded up and put away.

But even if he had been alive, or for that matter, even if my father had been, I don’t think the mystery surrounding my parents would have been any lesser. It strikes me as a curious irony that the relationship between two entities–parent and child–that are ostensibly so close to each other, closer perhaps than any other type of human pairing, should be infected with so much that is destined to remain unknown. When I look at my daughter, I often catch myself wondering, ‘Just who is this person?’ I know that a great deal of her life will transpire away from my eyes, my presence; I know that despite no matter how much I seek to guide her along carefully planned trajectories of physical, moral and intellectual development, she will ultimately etch out her own grooves and paths in her own way and surprise me all too often. Hopefully, only some of those unexpected occurrences will be unpleasant ones.

I will be a mystery to her too. Forty-six years of my life had rolled by before she was born in a country remote–physically and culturally–from the one I was born in. And by the time she is grown up enough to start taking an interest in her parents’ life–in general, and in the portion before she was born–many more years will have gone by. She will have photos, stories–told by us, and by others–and her interactions with us to help her; the standard paraphernalia we all equip ourselves with to make sense of others. But the enormity of the task seems insurmountable.

Obviously, the problem I raise here is only a special instance of the oldest conundrum of all, the seemingly utter inaccessibility of our fellow human beings. We do not think too much of this enigma when it is manifest in strangers. But when it comes to lovers, partners, parents and children, we are brought up short by the proximity of this inscrutability. We are disconcerted by it; this person, most well-known of all those around me, is perhaps just as much a stranger as those I have never met.

This should be no surprise at all, but the unease we feel is real and palpable. And that too, is entirely unsurprising; for here, as in many other domains of our lives, we vainly seek reassurance we are not  well and truly on our own.