Tag Archives: parenting

The Venus Flytrap: Shaheen Bagh

Standard

Night and day on the banks of the Yamuna river, a peaceful ongoing gathering led by women has become the inspiration the nation needs to turn towards humane principles. At Shaheen Bagh, crowds are said to burgeon to thousands at times. The very elderly hold court here bravely. Children have always been welcome here, and a vibrant culture of music, puppetry, reading together (aloud and silently) and more has been created by participants of all ages. A small shadow has fallen over this beacon of resistance. A four month old infant, Jahaan, who accompanied his mother Nazia for many rounds of vigil at the protest site, passed away last week after suffering from cold and congestion.

Nazia has already returned to Shaheen Bagh. “Why was I doing this?” she responded to the media. “For my children and the children of all us who need a bright future in this country.” She has two other children under six years old, and her family is of a working-class background.

There are many, especially among the privileged, who brand her selfish, irresponsible, a paid agent and worse. They blame her for her baby’s death. If Jahaan had grown older, and been murdered one day for having been at the wrong place at the wrong time while wearing a skullcap – as happened to 15-year old Junaid on a train in 2017 – would such tears still fall? There are similarities here to the concern that anti-abortion activists and right-wing people in many countries (including India) claim to have for theoretical children, even as they turn away from the plight of refugee children interned in border camps, queer children who are bullied to suicide, and students left behind by warped education systems that sustain generational poverty. The least vitriolic among them may find an individual case “sad”, while refusing to acknowledge how a sequence of events was set in motion. To do so would to be agree with those who protest, at Shaheen Bagh or anywhere.

The trajectory of this bereavement, and the blame for it, doesn’t rest on one person’s choice. How many details there are to determine whether a child will survive a Delhi winter if he has a bad cold. Does his shanty have adequate heating? Do his parents have money for medical expenses and nourishing food? Does their clinic have enough resources? Does the structure of society, with its interlinked hierarchal systems, provide for their wellbeing? In short: would this child survive a bad cold even if he hadn’t caught it a protest? How then can a parent’s decision to take him there be considered the sole one for his demise?

What kind of parent takes a child to a protest? One who cares. One who knows that the world that child has been born into will not let her protect it from its iniquity for long, and that by showing him the truth, she inoculates him against indifference. One on whose behalf we can also ask these questions: What kind of parent teaches a child discrimination? What kind of parent wants a child to inherit a world from which plurality, freedom and compassion have been excised?

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on February 6th 2020. “The Venus Flytrap” appears  in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Breastfeeding – In Public, In India

Standard

We had just ordered lunch at the 5-star hotel when Shamala Hinrichsen’s 8-month old got hungry too, so his lovely mom reached right into her dress and started to feed him. Our conversation continued as she rocked him gently. That was the first time I’d seen a woman breastfeed publicly in Chennai, without hiding her body. A foreigner of Tamil origin who’s been travelling extensively around India on work, she says, “I’ve seen women in rural areas do it with unapologetic authority. It’s a perfectly natural act.”

The Indian railways announced recently that 100 of their stations will have segregated nursing areas. In a letter to the Ministry of Women and Child Development, these areas were specified as “[a corner] provided with a small table and a chair with appropriate partition/screen around it.” But is that enough? Dentist Dr. Deepa V., whose child was recently weaned, never nursed openly owing to shyness. She says, “In public facilities, people still turn to the wall to hide themselves. I remember the looks my relatives gave me whenever I lifted my salwar to feed while travelling with them. I think this discomfort is the main reason why we train babies to accept formula milk earlier.”

Another mother, now nursing her 7.5 month old, related how she sat at an eatery in a Chennai mall and started to nurse, unable to do so in the stuffy public toilets. Immediately, the staff directed all the male customers to sit away from her. She was appreciative of the concern for privacy and comfort. “I think the horror stories we read about breastfeeding moms being fined, shamed or trolled are really a US problem,” she says. “There’s a solid sisterhood solidarity everywhere for the nursing mom. No judgement if I’m in a salwar kameez or saree or tank top or shorts and I want to feed the baby – that’s it, the sisterhood comes into force.”

Theatre director Samyuktha PC returned to work 3 months after childbirth, bringing her daughter to rehearsals, and openly nursed when required. “At first, I did cover myself, but the cloth over me just made Yazhini and I sweat so badly. And it felt cruel to do that.” From then on, she simply asked if others were comfortable, and carried on – anywhere. “But outside of home and work, bad experiences happened quite often – men staring, women thinking it was their right to drape me. But I was also supported and told I was courageous. I would rather it be normalised.”

While it comes down to personal preference, there’s no doubt that these preferences can be inhibited by societal norms. Which is why Shamala’s unapologetic public nursing seemed especially triumphant to me. In Mumbai recently, when she began to breastfeed on the ground floor of a café, men on the balcony level took their phones out and started to photograph her. She kept feeding. “Would I be gawked at or judged if I were feeding someone with a spoon? I think not. Possibly because it is from an appendage. My breasts. I would like to think people would be as judgemental if I were feeding from, say, my nose.”

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on July 13th 2017. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

TOI iDiva: Supermomhood

Standard

Sometimes institutions get torn down only to be replaced by ones that look a little better, but work just like the old thing. This is why, theoretically and superficially, it’s very easy to say that the average Indian woman of the urban middle class is emancipated. She probably works, and certainly has tertiary education. But the bondage continues: she is expected to bear children, that too specifically in the context of wedlock. Worse, she is expected to want to.

The idea of motherhood is replete with myths. “Mothers are inherently compassionate”. “Mother knows best”. “Womanhood is unfulfilled until one becomes a mother”. In Tamil, there is this frankly shocking proverb: “No chick ever dies from a hen stepping on it”. Oedipus would be put to shame by the extent to which we elevate the mother figure. Like all deeply chauvinistic disguises, it reduces through its elevations, stripping the individual of personal traits, making choices for her and blindly forgiving her personal failings. Children suffer for this, as do their makers.

If we are truly to support or celebrate mothers, it is not in glorifying them but in humanizing them that we can best do this. The Supermom idea is dangerous and must be retired: it is a human body that nourishes a child and gives it life, it is a human heart that loves it. All Supermomhood means, in actual terms, is that women must not only work outside the home, bringing back a salary that subsidizes its management, but must also maintain their traditional responsibilities. The question to ask is: if women have adapted to the pressures of earning wages, have their partners also adapted to the pressures of running a household?

Who makes the meals? Who makes the beds? Who does the laundry? Who monitors the homework? Who does the grocery shopping? Who cleans the dishes? If a child falls ill, who takes the day off from work? How many of these questions were answered with “the mother”?

Some will cheerfully dismiss this maintaining of two parallel careers (only one of which is paid for) as evidence of incredible fortitude. Or more condescendingly yet, that “it’s all for the children”.

Maybe it is. In some cases, surely it is. But not enough to justify such an unequal distribution of responsibility.

Until fatherhood is understood to be co-parenting – and not just a contribution by way of sperm, legitimacy, school fees, a certain kind of love (but not as hallowed as maternal love) and the occasional humiliating consent letter because society does not trust the single woman – the lot of the mother will not change. She will remain both sacred cow and beast of burden.

And for the lot of the mother to change, so must the lot of the woman. Imagine how different things might be if motherhood was not a default expectation, but a conscientious and deliberate decision. Not everyone is cut out for caregiving. Not everyone would, if truly left to their own choices, desire it. Social acceptance of the choice not to have offspring, irrespective of whether or not one is in a relationship (and irrespective of whether or not that relationship is marriage), might be the first step in minimizing family dysfunction. Unhappy people raise unhappy people. And children, who do not choose the roles they are born into, deserve better than that.

An edited version appeared in iDiva (Chennai), The Times of India on Friday.