My ten-year-old is obsessed with Calvin and Hobbes, the comic strip by American cartoonist Bill Watterson. He reads and re-reads them, chuckling quietly (or not so quietly) to himself, and finds it so funny that he reads it aloud to anyone within earshot, taking on the roles of Calvin, Hobbes, Calvin’s long-suffering parents, and anyone else in the frame of the day.
Watterson’s unique sense of humour has a timeless appeal that transcends all ages, covering broad issues ranging from environmentalism, public education, profound philosophical quandaries, and existentialism apart from the many nitty-gritty aspects of just being a child in a largely adult world.
In one of the scenarios my son read out to me, Calvin cynically remarks “I take it there’s no qualifying exam to be a dad”, after his father is unable to answer seemingly elementary but actually quite complex questions about nature: (What are clouds made of? How do they float? Why are they white while the rest of the sky is blue?).
It reminded me of something that was said to me ages ago, long before I myself became a parent: that there is no job in the world more important than the ‘job’ of being a parent, yet it is also the only ‘job’ that requires no prior training, internship, or qualification. Everyone sort of drifts into it and ‘learns on the job’, as it were. Some do a splendid job, others struggle, but I like to think that almost everyone does their best, and with the best of intentions.
Is there such a thing as an ‘ideal’ or ‘model’ parent? It means so many different things to so many. Parents of more than one child will tell you how their approach varied from one child to the next, not only in terms of birth order or gender, but also each child’s temperament and personality. It also varies from geographic location and cultural background. An Indian parent might have a different set of rules to one from say, China or Europe.
Thoughts about parenting have evolved over generations; attitudes towards corporal punishment (remember “Spare the rod and spoil the child”?) and children’s rights have improved a lot, in just a generation. Despite this, an estimate in 2014 by Human Rights Watch reported that “Ninety per cent of the world’s children live in countries where corporal punishment and other physical violence against children is still legal”.
Have you been in that uncomfortable situation where a stranger, or even someone you know, smacks their child in your presence, and you’re left wondering what to do? Apart from telling that person that they really shouldn’t, what else can you do? Is it “none of your business” if it is someone else’s child? “You look after yours, I’ll look after mine.” Is it really as simple as that? If there is any truth in the adage “It takes a village to raise a child”, then aren’t we all part of that village?
But however well-intentioned, it also raises the uncomfortable spectre of vigilantism, and the implication that some of us have better ‘certificates’ of parenthood than others.
The other virtual ‘certificate’ that is being demanded more and more often, by more and self-appointed people, be they politicians, or television anchors, or even a random person on the street or any public place such as in the cinema, or even in cyberspace, is the yardstick of just how ‘Indian’ or ‘desh-premi’ you are. The implication is that if you fall short (and often they’ve made up their minds even before they make it their business to ask you) in their opinion, you could somehow be a threat to national security, and/or need to be shamed, ostracised, or punished. The punishment could be a severe tongue-lashing, or worse, much worse.
It was already absurd even before the Pulwama incident, but only went even further downhill after that. The ‘spot-checking’ of just how ‘Indian’ you are can range from a language test (as trespassers on our own family property once had the temerity to put us to: “Rashtriya bhasha mein baat karo!”; their ability to speak Hindi trumped our ownership rights in their opinion), to how energetically one stands on hearing the beginning of the national anthem, to being able to know all the lyrics of a controversial patriotic song (never mind that the interrogator may himself not know them!) to practically any random idea that pops into their little minds.
Matters came to a head earlier this month when Union Minister Piyush Goyal got his hackles raised by questions from India Today television anchor Rahul Kanwal regarding the retaliatory air strike in Balakot Pakistan following Pulwama. After several barbs from Goyal, Kanwal hit back: “Neither me, nor anyone sitting here needs any lesson in nationalism or patriotism from you or anyone else,” drawing a spontaneous burst of applause from the audience.
Kanwal got much praise for maintaining his composure while handling the situation. But equally many, even from his own journalist fraternity, felt the chickens had come home to roost. Had the media been quicker to call out, and more vigorously, the ever-growing and ever-bolder self-appointed vigilante ‘anti-national’ police, from within their own ranks, or politicians, right-wing outfits and lynch mobs, this epidemic could have been nipped in the bud.
But Kanwal did have a point. None of us needs a certificate on how ‘national’ (if that could be seen as the antonym of ‘anti-national’, that much-used term) we are. The qualities we should all have, as citizens or parents are essentially the same: honesty, integrity, love, kindness, compassion, empathy, a community spirit, a willingnessto listen, and an absence of prejudice or hatred towards any community or group.
And this is the perverse irony of it all: the ‘anti-national’ vigilante brigade, in having a pathological deficiency in these qualities, are the most ‘anti-national’ of all.