Friday, 3 March 2017

Being A Minority in an Authoritarian State: Some Thoughts on the Death of Srinivas Kuchibothla

An Indian man was killed in America last week in a racial crime. It is a tragedy and my heart goes out to the victim’s family, left suddenly shattered, trying to make sense of something random and pointless. I could not get the incident out of my mind, and this post developed as I kept thinking about it.
The first point is one which is made very often, yet keeps recurring. In any instance of violence by a white person, whether they kill two people or twenty, the media narrative is always an individual one. Psychological reasons are advanced: this person was suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, that person was diagnosed with schizophrenia and so on. A brown person killing another may be suffering from PTSD too, especially if American drones killed their families, but the label in such a case is always of terrorism. This is true as much of the so-called ‘liberal’ media as of the conservative one. The presidency of Donald Trump has granted the hooligans of American society greater visibility, but one should keep in mind that the Black Lives Matter movement, demanding justice for racial crimes, started under a different president, who may have been more charming, better read and much more in control of his language, but who did not follow any radically different policy about racial inequality.
The reference to the Black Lives Matter movement and to the Western media representation of crimes committed by brown-skinned people has the potential to upset a lot of Indians. This is because quite a few Indians think of themselves as different from African-Americans and different from Muslims, even though some Indians in America have faced racial profiling ( Because there is an Indian population in America that is better off financially than Muslims and black people, they are more likely to be living in a safer neighbourhood, and so perhaps statistically less likely to face the racial scrutiny and/or everyday oppressions that these people face regularly. But when a racist person enters a public space with the intent to kill, they are not going to distinguish between Hindus, Sikhs or Muslims. To a racist white person, whether you are black, brown or yellow does not really matter.
Note that I said ‘to a racist white person’ and not ‘to a white person’. Not every white person is racist, but that does not mean that racism only exists in individuals, especially individuals who kill, scream abuse or write graffiti. There is also a racism that is endemic to the system, that is inbuilt into the administration and exists beyond individual manifestations. It is this systemic racism that allows white crime to be individual but black crime or brown crime to be a narrative about the nature of the African-American and Muslim communities. It is this endemic racism that allows individual white people to commit crimes, crimes that may then be linked to specific political causes, and still not have their crimes extrapolated to their community at large, as happened in the case of Anders Breivik in Norway. If you are an Indian in America today who feels unsafe because of the colour of their skin, look to the resources of the minorities and the oppressed people. Because whether you like it or not, you are a minority. And that means that you are vulnerable in certain specific ways, that the majority of the country does not have to think about or take into account in their day-to-day lives, and so can dismiss more easily as not existing or not taking any sort of psychological toll.
This might also be a good time to think about the fact that this is how minorities in India feel. In India Muslims worry because you can get killed for visible Muslim practices like wearing a cap ( or eating meat that may or may not have been beef. ( This is not to say that Muslims are afraid only in Modi’s India, just as racial injustice has been happening in America even before Trump. Minorities in large societies, whether they are Muslims, Hindus or Christians, learn that their definitions of survival, prosperity, freedom and choice are always going to be different from those of the majority. They understand that their world is never going to be as fair as that of the majority, and things will not fall in place as easily for them, be it in getting a house to rent, getting an equal education, getting a job, or simply being thought patriotic without having to constantly prove it. That is why they learn and teach their children the practices to survive and thrive. This would be my advice to Indians in America: form alliances. Find the people who fight for the rights of everyone, for equality not just in name but also in practice, for those who protest each time an act of minority oppression occurs. These people are your tribe, and they will help you make some sense of this madness and provide the opportunity to take some form of action, if you so wish.
Which brings me to my final point. An authoritarian government is one in which those who govern (government, administration, police and the legal system) think that they know the answers, and expect the governed to obey. An authoritarian government makes it easier for people with hatred to be more open about that hatred, whether in words or action. Such a system does not have room for dissent or protest. The ultimate act of rebellion in such a system is to ask a question or raise a contradictory point of view. In such a set-up, being a member of the minority is always going to be more difficult, because such administrations tend to define themselves in terms of those who belong and those who are outsiders. And all too often, when outsiders ask questions it is easier to label them ‘traitors’ because they already fit the mould of the outsider. But when enough people speak up, it becomes necessary to acknowledge and address the problem, and that is a worthy goal to strive for. Even as we mourn Srinivas Kuchibothla today, we owe it to his memory and his family to not let such an incident happen easily again.

Thursday, 2 February 2017

11 Child Approved Books for Toddlers and Preschoolers

As my daughter grew, the books we read changed. I read a lot of different books to my daughter not only for her sake but also for the sake of my sanity! I end up reading some books over and over again, but if I read from a wide range, then the number of favourites is high enough to give me, the poor reader, some variety. So this is the system I have developed: I follow online book lists and blogs of book lists, and I keep a running list of books that sound interesting (not in my memory but in an online document!). I then put in a hold for them at the library. Luckily our local library is part of an inter-library system and so almost 90% of what I check is available. Of these books, I buy those that either she loves or I love. Otherwise we just read and return it to the library.
Alongside this system, I kept buying books for her. This is because children need books of their own. I understand that buying books is a luxury, but would still recommend that parents buy as many books as possible. Remember that books lose nothing by being second hand! Children need books that they can play with, drop food on, have read to them hundreds of times, pore over the pictures of and whose characters and stories they can recycle in their own pretend play. This is a list of books that my daughter loved, that we read from age 2 to 4.
1. Frog and Toad Are Friends by Arnold Lobel
This was among the first books that my daughter took to. The stories are very simple and very little happens: a button is lost and then found, frog tries to wake toad up while he wants to go on sleeping and so on. I think children love it precisely for the unhurried pace and the simplicity of the action. We went on to buy all the other books in the series and still enjoy them.
2. Little Bear by Else Holmelund Minarik and illustrated by Maurice Sendak
I'm always a little conflicted in recommending Little Bear to anyone. It is an old book, and a gendered one, in that Father Bear is away on a shipping trip while Mother Bear stays at home with Little Bear and looks after him and does all the household chores. At that time, our life situation mirrored the books in that I was the primary stay-at-home parent to my daughter. Yet I knew that there were many contemporary picture books with representations of more equitable households. But I still loved this series more than many contemporary books. The reason is simple: Little Bear plays outside with his friends all day. There are very few toys but lots of imagination and co-operative play. I think highlighting simplicity works for children, and I really find very few contemporary books that have the same sense of simplicity and profundity that this one has. When Little Bear tells Mother Bear that he is planning to go to the moon, she says "Be back for lunch" and I have striven to emulate that matter-of-fact attitude ever since! We went on to buy all the books in the series. Not only that, there was a television series, also called Little Bear that is now entirely available on YouTube. When Shabdita first started screen time, for a long time, this was the only series that we would put on for her to watch. The show, like the books, is slow and soothing with very little conflict, and there is much to appeal to toddlers and preschoolers. Another bonus was that because the show was a very old one, there was never any affiliated merchandising that we would have to negotiate over.
3. Ladybird Fairy Tales Box Set
This set has 24 books, and at different ages different books have appealed to Shabdita. When she was younger, she preferred the animal stories or the simpler ones, such as Chicken Licken, The Little Red Hen, The Three Billy Goats Gruff, The Magic Porridge Pot, The Three Little Pigs, The Enormous Turnip, The Gingerbread Man and Goldilocks and the Three Bears. These stories taught her the names of various animals as well as concepts like above, around, below, under, push, pull and so on. Somewhere between 3 and 4, she got interested in Cinderella, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, The Ugly Ducking, The Princess and the Pea, Beauty and the Beast, Jack and the Beanstalk, the Princess and the Frog and so on. Luckily, I had bought this set second-hand off Gumtree, so these are older version, not toned down versions that would avoid mentioning things that are presumed to be unpleasant to children. These stories not just interested her but prompted her to think about concepts like death, step parents and poverty among others. Of course, they are still fairy tales based on princesses being rescued by princes and living happily ever after. I still read them to her because I think protecting children from certain narratives, which do not align with our beliefs, works only up to a point. They live in the world, and have many other sources of input, and I neither can nor wish to control every thing that my daughter comes in contact with. That does not mean that I deliberately read any and everything to her, but there was no way I could keep all princess references out of her childhood, especially because almost every marketing gimmick in this society is structured towards selling princesses to little girls. I am hoping, however, that knowing the original versions of these stories will help her why a book like The Paper Bag Princess is subversive. After all, one needs some context in order to critique things. Another important lesson I learnt from this box set was that individual books are always more appealing to younger children, because they can carry them around. I have a collected stories of Aesop for her, but being one thick book that gets picked less often than these individual stories. And their hold endures. Just this morning, we read Hansel and Gretel before breakfast.
4. Paddington by Michael Bond
I bought the picture book version of this and at that time I didn't even know that it was based on a series of books for older children. The illustrations were lavish. When I first started reading it to Shabdita, she was very young (less than 2 years) and I could see that she was losing interest because she could not follow the text. So I started 'reading' the picture to her. I started describing it "look here is the railway platform. Those people are Mr. and Mrs. Brown. Mrs. Brown is wearing a skirt and a top. Look at her necklace and her earrings. Mr. Brown has glasses, like Mama. And look at that man behind them. He seems to be in a rush. Perhaps he is late for his train'. After describing the picture in the utmost detail, I told her a simplified version of what happens on the page, and continued the story like that. She loved it and then regularly brought it to me, pointing to the illustrations and asking me to 'read' them. I have on and off used this method of reading quite often, especially with books that she finds interesting but are too dense in terms of language. And now, after almost two years, she does it on her own. She loves picking up picture books and making up her own story to go along with the pictures. Not only that, she came to like the story for its own sake and was soon so familiar with it that I could read the actual text to her.
5. The Tale of Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter
Honestly, I didn't get this book for a long time simply because it did not seem interesting to me. The story itself is simple: a rabbit sneaks into a farm even when he's told not to by his mother, eats lettuces and French beans, is chased by the farmer and nearly caught twice before escaping. When I read it though, Shabdita loved it. She was all agog, waiting to see if Peter Rabbit would be caught or not. She was overjoyed when he escaped. And in all subsequent tellings, whenever I read the line "But Peter, who was very naughty", she enjoys that bit of mischief and disobedience so very much. It all holds a vicarious thrill for her, and she likes the book so much that I've started collecting the others in the series. One word of warning though: I'm talking about the original Beatrix Potter series and not book versions of the TV show Peter Rabbit.
6. Caps for Sale by Esphyr Slobodkina
We all know this story, and this version is by a Russian author and illustrator. I bought it mostly because I have realised over time the value of having individual books rather than collections of stories for toddlers and preschoolers, though the latter often have more stories and are more value for money. My daughter loves hearing me shout 'caps for sale', which I do in the style of the tea-sellers in Indian trains, but most of all she loves the monkeys and their antics.
7. Bunny Money by Rosemary Wells
This book, more than any other book, showed me how arbitrary the recommended ages for children's books are. This book is recommended for children aged 6 years or over, and usually I would never have picked it up. But my daughter started watching the TV show Max and Ruby, and loved it. This was the only Max and Ruby book immediately available at the library, so I put a hold on the others and got this one for her. And she loved it! There is very little text in the book, so the first two times or so I had to fill in to explain the story to her, but she understood the entire story, including the fact that they had very little money left for Grandma's present by the end of the book. And now this is the only Max and Ruby book that we own, and I can recite it in my sleep!
8. What Do People Do All Day? by Richard Scarry
I got this book from the library because most illustrators talked about the influence of Richard Scarry on their work, and more than one of them mentioned spending hours poring over the incredibly detailed pictures. This book appealed not just to my daughter but to a lot of kids in her preschool, where I had lent it for a couple of days and got back only after they got their own copy! One of the stories is called "A Visit to the Hospital" and this is the story that first cemented my daughter's interest in this book. Other stories include how a house is built, a train trip, a plane trip, a trip by ship, how food is grown, wood and how we use it, and so on. All action takes place in Busy Town, and the detailed layout of Busy Town has greatly expanded my daughter's vocabulary in terms of different shops and professions. It is a great book for a curious child, and again the book will grow with the child, with different stories becoming more appealing at different ages. Just two things of concern though: first, the book is an old one and some things, such as visiting the pilot in the cockpit during a flight (and getting to fly the plane!), are no longer possible. Secondly, the gender roles are pretty old-fashioned here: mother is a worker too, but a worker who works chiefly in the house. What I do usually is point out in conversation, whether reading this or Little Bear above, the way in which things have changed over time.
9. Ling & Ting: Not Exactly the Same by Grace Lin
Shabdita is not a twin, and I was not sure how much a book about twin sisters and their everyday lives would appeal to her. The answer was that it would appeal a lot. This is another book that I can recite in my sleep. Like Little Bear and Frog and Toad, the Ling and Ting books have everyday, commonplace plots: the twins make dumplings together, they get a hair cut, they issue books from libraries and so on. My daughter listens enchanted each time, and I realise anew that it is the simplest books that have the most staying power.
10. Situation-specific books
I have found situation-specific books very helpful in talking about our lives together and what is happening in them. So for example I read at least 5 different books where girls learned how to use the toilet when I was toilet training my daughter, and we read books about going to the dentist before, yes, visiting the dentist. Whether it is preparing to move houses or going to preschool, I've found such books very helpful. It is not necessary to buy such books, however, as they usually end up becoming obsolete after the experience. Also, it is better to stick to versions that have a matter-of-fact tone rather than a celebratory one. Ideally, you want your child to see these things as a normal part of life and not turn them into exceptional situations that require lots of separate preparation. It might be best to read them alongside the usual books that you read together rather than making them the sole focus for a few days.
11. Science and non-fiction books
It seems really unfair to lump a lot of books in this category. I'm wary, however, of recommending science and non-fiction books. This is because they often become a means to an end. The assumption is that reading these books is the same as your children understanding these concepts. Learning doesn't usually work like that. If your child has a good memory, she may remember the names of the planet, just as some other child knows all the lyrics of a song that they hear often. Developing conceptual models, however, be it the solar system, the extinction of dinosaurs or the basic outlines of a world where cities are parts of states that are in turn parts of countries, takes time. My daughter is inordinately curious, and always asking questions, so I read a variety of non-fiction books to her, including not just science but also geography or history. I read them the way I read fiction to her: when she brings me a book I read it out to her. I don't worry about whether she understands it or not. Nor do I try and teach her things from them. I read them out to her mostly because this world is just as magical as anything else we could read about in fiction and right now all I'm doing is showing her the wonder of it. If the book is more difficult, she will wander off midway and bring something else back to read, and that's fine too. Naturally, through this sort of reading I have found specific series that I like and have purchased for us to get back to when she is older. The two I would recommend to most parents are The Magic School Bus Books (I've only read the original ones and not the ones based on the tv show) and the Let's Read and Find Out books. The former series has around 12 books while the latter has over 80 books, so it is best to figure out what interests you or your child specifically and buy accordingly.
So these are the books that are the most popular in my home. Now that my daughter is exposed to more and different narratives across mediums like books, tv and film, her ability to absorb content is expanding. She now enjoys more challenging books. Not only that, her preferences change more often, and I'm sure that any post about the books she enjoys would look very different even two months from now. Let's just hope that I can keep up!