Tuesday, June 26, 2012

An Open Letter to a Brand New School Year

Dear School Year 2012-13,

It’s that time of the year. That time of life.

My daughter, my little darling, my pride and joy, is about to get into her first year of formal school.

My firstborn, so far sheltered within the embrace of the home and never too far away from the loving arms of those who care for her, is stepping out into the real world. My husband and I have been her teachers so far, and we will continue to share our feeble wisdom with her. But now we’ve come to one of those baton-passing moments in life.

Given the magnitude of the milestone, you must forgive me if I seem a tad sentimental. You’ve probably seen countless young children pass through your stately portals since the first school began. But this is a first for me. Maybe in three years when it is time for my little son to take those steps, I will be more assured. Of course, knowing me, I’d say, highly unlikely. But no harm in being optimistic, don't you think?

By the way, you must forgive me for writing this long missive. I am a little overwhelmed, and I’m hoping that writing to you will help. You see, I am a mere mortal, and this motherhood thing is my grasp of something bigger than me, something too big for me to contain. And like every mother, I want the best for my child. Not just the best things. Even the best, well, non-things.

What I want for her seems conflicting at first sight. I want to be able to protect her always; I also want her to be independent. I want her to always remain within my sight, so I know that she is safe; I also want her to fly and achieve her own goals. I am not bothered by my own ambivalence. It is only natural for human beings to feel very deep and sharp emotions for their little ones.

I read somewhere that the most important thing that parents can teach their children is to get along without them. As a mother who still has an invisible umbilical cord binding her with her kids (then again, which mother doesn’t?), I find the separation (for want of a better word) strangely disconcerting. I knew there would come a time when she would grow up, and start to do her own things, have her own friends, make her own decisions. I knew that life would beckon and she would answer it. I knew this would happen. And yet I feel as if I have been caught unawares.

The one year she spent at her playschool, KidsLand, of course, doesn’t matter. For one, it was just down the road, so it never really felt like she was away. And secondly, there's something about kids at playschool. They all studiously ignore each other. It's as though, somewhere deep down in their little minds, they've got it all figured out; they know it is only a temporary arrangement.

Besides, going off to school is, in most cultures, the first definitive rite of passage. It is the first time my little girl will be setting out on her own. She will be making her own friends, getting snubbed, bullied, yelled at (sometimes with good reason, and sometimes without). She’ll learn to distinguish between good company and bad. She’ll learn that, if she lets them, people will buoy her spirits and deflate them in equal measure.

One part of me, a very small part, would like to cling to what has been so far. To her childish prattle, to her innocence, to her dependence on me. But even as I cling, I know childhood is not mine to keep. She has to grow up. She has to learn to be independent. Losing one's illusions is one part of growing up. But I am still optimistic enough to hope that she only loses her naivete, not her innocence.

Experience, I’ve learned, is the best school teacher. And life throws so many experiences at us. It cares little whether the person at the receiving end is a wizened octogenarian who has seen more than a 1000 full moons or a little one whose age is a single-digit number.

School itself is a foretaste of everything that life can offer. Bullies, fighters, among other things. Ironically, children will still persist in believing that algebra and exams are the greatest bugbears there ever will be.

But despite it all, school was fun for me. I made some good friends. I had fun learning. Not everything I learned back then has particular relevance to my life today, but I won’t abuse you for that. That is the fault of the education system.

Because I loved and enjoyed school so much, I wish the same for her. I hope she will enjoy school. My parents were encouraging and supportive throughout, never once pressuring us to score more marks, and I hope I can do likewise.

I remember returning home every day to give my mother a blow-by-blow account of everything that had transpired at school that day. I’d like her to use me as a sounding board in just that way.

I hope her eyes light up when she sees the school library. I hope she reads all the books there.

When she steps on to the playground of her school, I’d like her to stretch her arms and legs and feel refreshed at the thought of being out there in the open.

Of course, school isn’t the place it used to be anymore. For one, it’s been accused of wiping off the originality that kids are born with.

You know what I mean. You know how children are. You’ve seen enough of them over the years. Every moment of every day is brand new and carries within it the seed of a host of beautiful experiences and opportunities – that is the attitude with which children view and live life.

I’ll be keeping a close watch on what the school teaches my kid, and hopefully I can teach her to understand and question, to ask and listen. I see us (my husband and me) as allies of the school, doing our best to bring out the best in our child. I hope the school and I are on one page on this.

I hope even as the school seeks to educate her, it also instills in her values of goodness and kindness, courage and sensitivity.

I wish I could sit her down and talk to her about all the mistakes that I made back then and all the things that I would do better if I had the chance. But four-year-olds have no need for philosophy. And I have no desire to burden her with the load of my accumulated experience. Right now she is living in an ideal world. All rights, almost no expectations or responsibilities, except for the “Put your toys away,” variety. But that will soon change. Examinations, tests and other challenges will loom up large.

Right now my little girl and I are best friends. I hope it stays that way. Through the wonder years and the hormone-driven years when kids are always rolling their eyes in the presence of their parents, when they find their parents so un-cool. 

I told her yesterday that she would be making friends in the big school. And I asked, “Will you forget this friend when you make other friends?” And then she said something that fit snugly in my heart. She said, “No, Mama, they will be my school friends. You are my best friend. ”

When it comes right down to it, I must confess, there is another concern. Once you are a mother, you never stop worrying or thinking about your children. You get used to feeling vulnerable on account of them. And then you realise that you cannot always protect them. It's enough to drive anyone batty. Fortunately for my sanity, I am a prayerful woman. And so I am going to pray to Someone to whose authority you, O unit of Time, are as subject as I.

I am careful not to project my anxieties on her. In their own childish way, little children are far more mature about these things than we can ever hope to be. It is we adults who must guard against the urge to put our old, burdened heads on their young shoulders.

School also brings another huge change into our lives. I will now have to get used to there being a whole host of influencers in my child's life. Right now, there is just me and my husband, and she cheerfully accepts whatever we tell her. But that will change as she enters school. Back in the days, I remember closing some arguments with my parents with these words, "My teacher said so." And the peer group, that formidable set of youngsters that gives many parents sleepless nights, will also raise its hydra-like head. And she may begin to wonder how her parents who such a short while ago were the smartest people she knew suddenly don't seem to have a clue about anything.

My little girl has been the centre of the Universe for so long. Now she will meet other little people who have also held similar positions of importance, and through those associations and sub-associations will emerge her world view and her self-image. She will make mistakes along the way (as parents, we would give anything to spare our children the pain of going through some tough life experiences and choices, but that is not to be). It is Nature's decree that every being must face its own tests, make its own mistakes and learn its own lessons.

As I put my thoughts down on paper, trying to sift through the welter of emotions that has overwhelmed me, I turned to watch my little girl fast asleep, blissfully unaware of the things that were driving her mama into a tizzy. The expression on her face calmed me, and as I watched my sleeping child, I made a wish and more for her.

I wished that even as she lost her illusions, an inevitable part of growing up, she may never lose the magical prism through which she now views life. May she grow without the gravity that is associated with growing 'up'. May she never forget that her mama and dadda will always be there for her.

And so finally the uniform was crisply ironed, the shoes shined, the little school bag and the accompanying paraphernalia of water bottle and tiffin box all ready. And somehow, in a halting, faltering way, juggling her my-darling-is-a-big-girl-she-can-take-care-of-herself and her my-sweet-baby-I-hope-all-goes-well-with-her moments, this mama is ready too.

Dear School Year, 2012-2013, Bring it on.

Thursday, June 21, 2012


Book: The Clockwork Man
Author: William Jablonsky
Publisher: Silverfish
Price: Rs 225
Pages: 231

Karl Gruber is a master craftsman and genius, a creator of automated clocks whose art and exquisite beauty has made him famous not only in his homeland, Germany, but all over the world. The zenith of his art is seen in Ernst, a man constructed entirely of metal and clockwork, with suede skin, glass eyes and a complex mechanical anatomy. Working on an internal system that needs regular winding and constant ticking standing in for heartbeats, Ernst is nevertheless imbued with human characteristics such as courage, sensitivity, intelligence and a strong disdain for violence.

Ernst lives with the family of Gruber, who he respectfully calls Master. The family consists of Gruber’s daughter, the elegantly beautiful sixteen-year-old Giselle, and son, ten-year-old Jakob, who is mischievous and sometimes spiteful. A housekeeper, Fraulein Gruenwald, completes the household.

The story emerges in the form of a diary, meticulously noted down by Ernst, with the permission of Gruber, and at the express request of a Professor Wellesley for the purpose of introducing himself to the academic community and so vindicating the art and genius that led to his creation.

In the Gruber household, Ernst lives his days, contented with the knowledge that he is of service to his Master. Despite himself, knowing well that he is not a human and may not aspire for such things, Ernst develops feelings for Giselle, who willingly leads him on. Their relationship, so unfathomably indescribable, becomes intimate.

Just as Ernst begins to believe that he lives in the best of possible worlds, tragedy strikes just days after Giselle’s 17th birthday. The family is devastated, the Master broken and led away to an asylum. Stricken with guilt and misery, Ernst begins to blame himself for the doom that has blighted their lives. Powerless to help the Master and unwilling to continue existing in a scenario where everything that was familiar and comforting has gone kaput, Ernst allows himself to wind down, an act that approximates suicide.

When he wakes up over a hundred years later and thousands of miles away from his homeland, the world has altered irrevocably. Gone is the genteel, slow and graceful way of life that characterised his memories of life with his Master’s family. In its place, Ernst encounters a world which is harsher, and, in many ways, completely incompatible with all his Master’s teachings. He seeks to make sense of this new world, while trying to come to terms with the realization that everything that was dear to him is gone.
In this endeavour, he is assisted by a slightly imbalanced vagrant named Greeley, who guides him around and teaches him the ways of the new world. Through it all, he never loses sight of his desire to learn more about what has befallen his nation and his Master’s family and to restore his Master’s reputation, maliciously damaged by the scheming inventor Edison.

At first I mistakenly thought the story was a reworking of the Frankensteinian tale, but Ernst, who enjoys reading the classics and has read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, shuns the comparison.

What I found slightly disconcerting was that despite being from another century, Ernst shows no great discomfiture at waking up in a world in which the values and mores that he was so used to have given way to attitudes that are debased. The fact that women in this century sport male attire, the fact that the language has altered so considerably and other changes, inevitable over the course of a century, arouse no special curiosity in him. Perhaps that is owing to the fact that Ernst is not human. A human might have balked, but not Ernst. He is, after all, made of sterner stuff.

The diary is written in a charming way, and at many places it is clear that Ernst has no mean sense of humour, especially when he talks about Greeley and his own experiences as a window mannequin. As you read through the pages, you find yourself feeling sorry for Ernst. You begin to understand the pathos and beauty that underpin his existence. The story of Ernst comes alive against the larger events that occurred in Germany and the world, namely World War II and the rise of the Nazis.

Despite being not-quite-human, it is Ernst's humanity and his kindheartedness that shines through the pages and stays with you long after you have finished reading the book. It is for these reasons that I would highly recommend The Clockwork Man to you.

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