I failed as an Indian parent.


I knew right away that I failed as an Indian parent when my 16 year old son sent us a video of Greatest Recorded Speeches in American History. Along with the link was a short message “cool stuff”. Instead of math and science, both my kids ended up loving liberal arts. My oldest is a Shakespeare nerd, a poet and writer. She is one semester away from graduating with double major in English and Anthropology. My son loves history and is thinking of pursuing political science. While he is good with numbers and can solve scarily long algebra equations with relative ease he does not spend all his time solving word problems and doing science experiments. He listens to discussions and likes to discuss the pros and cons of issues. He despises the divide in political beliefs that polarizes this country and wants to find a common ground. As I looked at his message of the recorded speeches, there went my hopes of either of my kids getting a 40 dollar an hour internship in a tech company while finishing college and a fat salaried job right out of college. As an Indian parent, I am a total failure. I did not steer my children to exclusively math and science like a parent from my part of the world who told me she wished her child could drop world history so he could take another science course.

The title of this blog is written in jest of course and I am doing a gross generalization of all Indian parents when I say they push their children towards science. However, till date many parents from where I come from, believe their child should study science to get ahead in life, including my father. It was clear from early on that I was a lover of literature. Yet, when I passed my 10th, my dad insisted I take up science in my 11th grade. I believe he still dreamed that I will excel in math, physics, chemistry and biology, sit for Joint Entrance Exam and finally get into med school. In reality, although I enjoyed biology, I struggled in all 3 other science subjects. My grades, as expected, at my school leaving exam were dismal and more importantly, I was very unhappy. My self esteem plummeted and self confidence took a nose dive. At that point, I took a stand and declared I wanted to study English. A degree in English literature was not very promising those days but my parents let me pursue my choice, for which, I am immensely grateful. I was lucky enough to attend a university that was not simply an educational institution, it somehow molded my outlook and view points and helped me become the person that I am today. And while I am never going to be rich, I have a job as a public library worker, where I can use my education and be happy with what I do.

The truth is, when I see Ryan enjoying the greatest speeches of famous men and women, when I see Sahana quoting Shakespeare verbatim, when Ryan discusses difficult issues of life with reason and logic, when Sahana writes beautiful poetry my heart rejoices. They are the progeny of two parents who pursued liberal arts. Instead of building robots in their childhood or conducting fun science experiments or doing mental math, we read to them, talked about Sean’s work about helping vulnerable communities become self reliant through out the world. We did not give them a boost towards science in their early childhood. In retrospect, science may have even taken a back seat because their primary care giver, me, did not enjoy science. That is on us. We should have made more of an effort to encourage them to explore science.

However, as a lover of liberal arts, I am thrilled at their curiosity to learn more about literature, philosophy, history, political science. I may be biased but I firmly believe we need a section of lovers of liberal arts to hold up half of the sky so our compatriots, the science lovers can hold up theirs. And by complementing each other we strive towards completion. It’s just that the other half will do the balancing act with much more bank balance than we will but hey, money can’t buy happiness, right?😜

Pilgrimage, no less…


A happy coincidence occurred in my life recently. My friend’s daughter sent me a questionnaire for her summer holiday project. One of the questions was ‘Name five people who have influenced you and why!’ I didn’t have to think much when I wrote the name of my class teacher. One of those five people, who has been most influential in my life is my class teacher of 5 years, Miss______. Guiding and inspiring a class full of hormone imbalanced teenagers must not have been easy, but Miss (that is what we called our teachers in India) did it with an ease which amazes me now.

A few days after writing the answers to the questionnaire set by my friend’s daughter, I found my teacher back in my life after 23 years, thanks to Facebook and efforts of a very dear girlhood friend, who kept on searching for her. Her efforts paid off, Ms _____ was found. We were told in her excited status update, to send in friend requests. After my initial doubt of is she the real one, I sent in a request and got accepted as her friend right away. From student to friend. Life has come to a full circle. I have grown up! I instantly wrote to her as I excitedly told my family,

‘I can’t believe it, I found my teacher on Facebook. I am messaging her right now! This is surreal!’ Yes, I am one of those people who overuses the term surreal.

Her influence in my life has been twofold. The first one being that of what educators dream of – instill the love of learning. She ignited in me the love for languages. She taught us Bengali for five straight years, and in those five years she held open the door of Bengali literature for me. I peered in and saw the treasure. And then there was that point of no return. She let my imagination soar, she waved the magic wand and opened my blind eyes so I could immerse myself in the prose and poetry of Bengali literary stalwarts. She taught me to think on my own, she gently let go of my hands, stood back and watched as I took hesitant steps towards appreciating literature. Appreciation of literature transcends language barrier. Love of Bengali literature paved way for love of English literature and translations of literature in other languages. She taught me to express my ideas coherently while writing. Well expressed ideas got kudos, a satisfied smile and a nod of the head. Badly written assignments got this rebuke,

‘Eki mudir dokan er bhasha? ‘ (This type of language belongs to grocery stores)! Why grocery stores? Don’t ask. 🙂 !

Some of the phrases she used for us have become legends in themselves. I will not even try to translate them in English (they were delivered in Bengali, of course) except one. As she asked us Bengali grammar and each of us gave wrong answers and kept standing, she said to us, ‘Bokader jodi kono building thake, tumi tar chile kothay thakbe’ (if there is ever a tall building for fools, you will be given the penthouse suite!) Since 20 of us stood in the class somewhat shame faced at our failure to provide the right answer, this statement caused considerable mirth. But we dared not bring any smile to our lips, so as not to be disciplined further. All the laughter was reserved for after the ringing of the bell. As we filed out into the corridor to go back to our classroom, laughter erupted like a dormant volcano. We imagined 20 skyscrapers of fools built next to each other and all of us looking out of our penthouse suites. It was a collective shame which turned out quite humorous at the end of that period.

Educators have one of the most difficult jobs, I think. They have the responsibility of inciting in their students this love of learning which is (or should be) the primary goal of education. And they have to do this within the strict parameters of set curriculum, standardized testings and the numerous other set of rules that different boards of education dictate for them. Miss had to stay within those parameters, she had to finish the curriculum, despite all the rules, she inculcated in us the love for the language that she taught.

She never had to raise her voice to bring the class under control. Her personality was such that before she entered the class, we sat up straighter, looked attentively towards the front of the class and made ourselves ready to listen and learn. We tried hard for her. I remember, our class got the trophy for being the best class in whole school. I have a proud picture of her holding a trophy with all of us around her, a thin, bespectacled me all the way at the back, peering at the camera. She encouraged us to participate in dramas, public speaking, debates, music. We went out and won inter school competitions in those. She was the wind beneath our sail. She pushed us so we could soar and reach our potentials. I am unsure of how the child psychologists would rate her method of disciplining us, but I, her student, would attribute her disciplining to that what Rabindranath Tagore talks about when he says,

“Shashon kora tarei shaaje
Shohag kore je go”

(The discipline that is infused with love is the best form of discipline)

It certainly worked for us. We felt her love and carried the love with us as we moved on and grew up.

I have so many happy memories of play practices and performances under her leadership. After 23 years, she remembered. Her first lines in my inbox was “Kemon acho? Ekhono natok koro?” (How are you? Do you still act?)

Her one particular advice came back to me after I became a mother and my children started going to school. She had said to us, when we were in eighth grade, ‘Do me a favor. When you are parents and your children go to school, instill in them a love of learning. If family and neighbors worry about the grades they are getting, lock yourselves in a room and throw the key away. Do not participate in the race for good grades but teach them to think for themselves, make sure their curiosity and thirst for true knowledge is satiated.’

Whenever my children truly enjoy a book and excitedly tell me the new information that they learned in school, I see their glowing faces and think of the advice I heard at age 14. I admit I haven’t been able to step out of the race completely, I have partially given in to societal pressure. Yet, I try not to. I try to talk about what went wrong, what they could have done better and most importantly, what did they learn?

All this happened a couple of weeks prior to my short trip to India. And I knew right away that going home would remain incomplete if I didn’t visit Miss. As two of my friends and I rang her doorbell, we became 13-year-old for a few moments, slightly unsure, apprehensive. There she was smiling. Our beloved teacher, now our friend. Three of us went to meet her with our children. The young ones sat silently with a grin on their faces as their mothers dissolved in laughter, again and again. There were, of course, a lot of ‘remember when’s! There were 23 years of life to catch up, so many laughs to laugh, so many memories to remember! My two childhood friends, who went with me to meet Miss are now educators themselves. I sat there quietly listening to them discuss their profession with their teacher, who perhaps, had some influence in their choice of career. They certainly have a wonderful role model to draw inspiration from. As we headed home, my daughter looked at my glowing face. ‘Mom, you are so loved!!’ She said with wonder and admiration in her voice. As I drowned in a beautiful feeling of contentment, I realized I am. I am so blessed to have been loved so.

Now all my visits back home would include a visit with my teacher. It is a pilgrimage, no less. After all, we are ‘her girls’! Every single one of us in that class.

From Mahabharat to caste system to Lokkhon


I was ready to discuss some pertinent questions on social hierarchy and caste system in India as I gathered Ryan’s little body towards me and snuggled down to read the ageless Indian epic Mahabharata. Inevitably the question of caste system was asked as we read about Dronacharya’s refusal to accept Eklavya as a disciple due to his low status in society. Ryan was understandably miffed at such an injustice. The sense of fairness is very strong at this age, and this was extremely unfair. And since, I seem old enough to belong to the days of Mahabharat to him, I was asked if I have ever encountered caste discrimination. I was about to protest. I was about to tell him indignantly that I happened to be born in an enlightened corner of India where caste system was not encouraged. But I paused. Who was I kidding? Caste system existed and still exists.

I remember the separate doorways in many houses, backdoor of course, for the sweeper to come in. Sweepers belong to the lowest caste, the untouchables. The man who cleaned our bathroom and took our trash came in through the front door, for the lack of a backdoor. But I do remember the warning voice of our domestic help sounding out a warning ‘Lokkhon aasche, shobai shore jao!” (Lokkhon is coming, get out of the way)! The irony was, we got out of his way, quickly, like he was royalty. At the age of six or seven, I followed the rule and kept my distance when Lokkhon came to clean. When I was a preteen and felt righteously indignant about this whole complicated issue of caste system, I questioned this practice of staying away from Lokkhon. I accused my mother of treating Lokkhon thus, for his low caste. She explained to me she couldn’t care less about his caste. She was a firm believer of Chandidas’s immortal line ‘Shobar upore manush shotyo/ Tahar upore nai!’ (human race is above all, there is no other)! She was simply concerned about the germs Lokkhon may carry, given the nature of his work. She would have no qualms about mingling with him socially, once he was showered and clean. Can’t say I believed her, till one beautiful Holi morning.

Some incidents don’t simply fall away from my swiss cheese brain and this memory is one such. On a bright, sunshiny spring morning in Kolkata, I was playing Holi (the festival of colors) with the neighborhood children. My father stayed indoors and away from lime light to avoid being dragged out to play. My mother was smiling on our balcony as she watched us spray one another with colored water. I believe, it was baba who spotted Lokkhon standing on the periphery of the festivity watching us, with a gentle smile on his lips. His family was far away, he must have been missing his loved ones on this day of colors. Baba called out, “Go get Lokkhon, make sure he doesn’t get away. Put as much color on him as you can!” We paused in our game and looked at him. There he was, in his yellowing banyan and short dhoti, standing a little afar, unsure of where exactly he belonged. One of baba’s friends, went to him, grabbed his hand and brought him in our midst. He took a handful of gulal and plastered it on Lokkhon’s face. Then he enveloped him in a bear hug. My mother came out and put gulal on him. Shobar upor e manush shottyo, tahar upore nai…indeed! At an young age, our parents can do no wrong, but I was at that age when when our parents are never right. That day, that moment, my head bowed in grudging respect, towards my family, for walking the walk as well as talking the talk.

Lokkhon has always been the most loved employee in our household. He missed work, sometimes weeks. I chuckled as I heard my mother yelling at him, “Next time I am going to dock your pay, I am serious this time!” Lokkhon’s response was, “Hehehehehe, boudi! Bukhar ho gaya! Sach mein!” (I had fever, believe me)! I knew there would always be a next time, and that next time will see a threat of docked payment too. I also knew the threat will never be carried out. One simply couldn’t get angry with Lokkhon, in real. His ever ready smile made sure one couldn’t stay angry.

As I got older, I recieved subtle hints. “Didi, my son needs winter clothes. He hardly has any sweaters.”

“How many days did you work this month?” I joined the game.

“Hehehehe, didi, I got sick.” That was mostly the response. Or “I had to go home, it was an emergency!”

I remembered to buy sweaters for his little boy on my way back from work. Why? Because he was loved, and he was gentle and he was such a constant in our lives.

In 1992, when I was in college, the infamous riots over Babri Masjid claimed many lives – Hindus and Muslims took up arms over religion. Lokkhon rushed back to his village in Bihar to take care of his family. When he returned I asked him how everything was. Was his little village affected by the riots? Were people killed? Many bad incidents have been reported and some heroic efforts were mentioned. But many heroes went unsung. The villagers in Lokkhon’s village were such heroes who remained anonymous. This is what he said to me:

“Didi, we have more Hindus in our village than Muslims. But we have lived together in peace for generations. They are our brothers, our friends. We were not going to let anyone harm one of our own. They have their religion and we have ours. But there is no conflict, didi. People came to harm them. They said to give our Muslim brothers up. We took up arms, didi. We said you have to go over our dead bodies to get to our village brothers. We turned them away. We stayed up at nights to guard each other. We took turns. Not one person in our village got hurt!”

Oh, did I mention Lokkhon never went to school? And is considered ‘uneducated’? And he belongs to the lowest of the low castes?

These days when I go back, I enquire after him. Ma says, “Don’t worry, he will come. He knows didi is coming from America!” Sure enough, he comes with the same smile, maybe more gray hair than before and a little bent. But the smile is the same that I remember so well.

“How long will you stay this time, didi? Is dada coming? When? Didi, my children need clothes and I need new lungi. See this one is so torn!”

“Let me see how many days you actually come to work while I am here!” I play on, for old time’s sake.

We both know, he is going to miss days and I am going to buy him lungi and clothes for his children. I still overhear people calling out to my children, “Lokkhon aasche, shore jao!” And my teenager retorting, “Why do I have to move? He is a human just like us!”

My childhood comes back and nudges me gently “Remember?”

Lokkhon