Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The Norway Issue - Cultures That Are Worlds Apart

The recent news item about the Norwegian authorities taking away a three year old boy and a five month old girl, siblings, from their Indian expatriate parents who are working in that country exposes how, despite all the talk about the world becoming a village, we are all essentially entire worlds away in terms of cultural understanding. Some of the evidence that the Child Welfare authorities have put forth in their defence for seizing the babies and putting them and their parents through unimaginable trauma (its is traumatic to even hear about such a thing) are things that are common in any Indian home. For a three year old son to sleep with his father, for parents to feed their children with their fingers, for not having appropriate toys for their ages, (for being jerky and awkward in movements?) for having hit the boy once - the children have been taken away and will be kept in foster homes until they are 18, by which time they would have grown into complete strangers to each other and their parents. As a concession, the authorities have followed some equally twisted logic and granted the parents three hours of time thrice every year separately with their children. What such a thing should do to the kids I cannot conceive - make them more secure and loving citizens? This has to be the cruellest thing I have ever heard. I really feel for the young parents and hope that this unfortunate issue is resolved soon.

For those of you who do not understand the Indian culture here are some eye openers then. We eat with our hands and the normal way of feeding young children here is to feed them with the fingers. An entire population of 1.25 billion has survived this kind of an upbringing and is doing okay. In Indian homes it is common for children to sleep with their parents until they grow to be much older than three, until three, almost every child sleeps with their parents here. In many homes where there is a space constraint, the entire family sleeps together in one room - and it could mean more than one family. Things work out just fine still. In India children play with anything they can lay their hands on - there are no soft edged toys with big red letters and figures warning the infants not to swallow them or eat them or not to use them to shoot people down - here. They play with rags, with sticks, with wooden toys, with plastic toys, kitchen utensils, mud, anything. What is appropriate for them is what they enjoy playing with. Rarely does anything go wrong. They do not swallow, do not eat and even if they do, they survive. And they do grow up fine, with a sense of humour, a sense of right and wrong - and not a sense of deep righteousness which cannot tolerate another point of view, another culture. That deep sense of misplaced righteousness is the reason why we have such strong cultural gulfs, why people cannot accept other cultures today.

For young mothers who are coping with young children and a new culture, sleepless nights and all the attendant problems of child rearing or infant rearing included, the perfect responses to authorities looking to take away the children may  not be forthcoming. And that I suspect is at the root of everything, the mother's responses, must have been alien, causing her to be bracketed as 'unfit' to rear her own children. In India there is generally help in the form of parents and maids and children grow up quite well, hale and hearty, in the heat and dust, dirt and anger. In India it is not a crime to slap a child (not beat him or her senseless of course, but the occasional slap is part of our culture) and it is not done to inflict trauma. Most of us have grown up with the occasional whack on the side of the head and we are not the worse for it. What would be traumatic really, is if someone took the child away citing these reasons, and separated it from its parents when it is three or worse, five months old, for the next eighteen years.

The West has always missed the forest for the trees in this aspect. There is too much technique, too much logic and too little heart when it comes to dealing with children. All this stuff of 'protecting' the children could cause more harm than anything else. I'd advise them to come to India and see how children grow up here, including the ones born to the poorest of the poor, the ones they love to show in 'India' shots of slums, villages etc. The children may not have much of the above mentioned facilities, but most grow up as secure, well rounded citizens who have the capacity to laugh, to love and to help. Almost all Indians of whom you may have heard of, have grown up in the circumstances mentioned above.

Children who grow up with a sense of isolation could well turn to other forms of expressing their dark emotions, something that we hear of often these days in terms of shootouts in schools and such in the West. Ironically, yesterday, there was a byte from Oprah Winfrey who spoke about how wonderful it was that Abhishek Bachchan still lived with his parents. I am glad the Bachchans live in India and not elsewhere - they might have been sent off to all sorts of institutions under the guise of protecting them. Come to think of it, I am glad that I live in India, where the heart still rules the mind.


Leela said...

I am a regular reader of your blog and especially look forward to the “paradox series.” Please keep them coming – the days I feel low, those posts help greatly.

Today I am commenting because while I do share your outrage over the separation of children from their parents, I am a little disheartened by your simplistic take on how in India things eventually work (“The children may not …, but most grow up as secure, well rounded citizens who have the capacity to laugh, to love and to help. “) out OK and how the west is misguided (“The West has always missed the forest for the trees in this aspect.”)

Yes, I agree that Indian culture and our issues with population and lack of space has resulted in shared spaces but that does not mean “Things work out just fine still.” As a victim of child sexual abuse (it was a close uncle) and as someone who knows people who’ve gone through similar situations, I realize how incredibly na├»ve and stupid Indian parents can be!

We do not teach a child the concept of private space and the difference between a “good” touch and a “bad” touch. Frankly how many parents have that kind of a conversation?

In fact, even if a child, somehow, brings forth this issue, parents stay in a state of denial and continue to interact with the perpetrator as if nothing happened!

I am reasonably well off, I’ve always had my own room, yet because of the so-called Indian culture I had to undergo what I did. And I’ve interacted with people across all social classes and see that child sexual abuse – mostly perpetrated by family members – is much more common than what Indians acknowledge.
Check out this study, in its entirety, conducted by the Government of India in 2007.
(Note:53.22% children reported having faced one or more forms of sexual abuse.)

We cannot simply dismiss the concerns that when parents share sleeping space with a child something might happen, because – hello- things do happen. Again, I know of someone who has experienced abuse at the hands of her own father.

Also, a slap is not just a slap. It’s humiliating for a child. And we all know Indian parents who emotionally torture their children with “love” (your paradox post!) and coerce them into making decisions.

Of course the west is not flawless and their cultural setup perpetuates its own share of issues; I’ve lived in the US for thirteen years and recently moved back to India and now I live, along with my child, with my parents. Being a single mother, I am immensely grateful that I have a system that supports me emotionally. “I am glad that I live in India, where the heart still rules the mind” but I also know that even in the US the heart does rule the mind.

And, I cannot ignore what the west says because I don’t have the “deep sense of misplaced righteousness” that results in “such strong cultural gulfs” because of which “people cannot accept other cultures today.”

There is a lot we can learn from their culture – yes, even in the realm of child-rearing and the raising of a family.

Harimohan said...

Hi Leela,
Appreciate your thoughts on this. You did take a lot of trouble to put your point across well and I really really appreciate that. I do agree with you that my views are simplistic on this rather complex issue - and focus on one side of he issue only. And I must also admit that they stem more from my anger at this particular situation which does not make any sense to me at all.

But I guess we are all trying to live and learn, and perhaps find the balance somewhere. One can only hope and pray that children increasingly find an environment of love, the primary source of which I should think comes from their parents, all over the world. And one also hopes and prays that in all the unfortunate cases of child abuse, there is space for forgiveness. Thanks again for writing.