On Masala Chai we have eschewed singular stories. As the renowned author Chimamanda Adichie argues, our personal and social lives, our cultures, are imbued with overlapping stories and any attempts to reduce that becomes an oversimplification, a flattening of the immense diversity that exists in any given context. Whichever story is told therefore, is not necessarily untrue, but incomplete. Therein lies the greatest contribution of literature. At a lecture on globalization and its consequences in San Sebastian in the early 2000s, Salman Rushdie made a similar argument, that globalization would never destroy literature precisely because of the fact that there are so many different stories, that in fact, even two siblings from the same household would have different narratives of their family life.
Furthermore, on Masala Chai, we have also made an attempt to take a positive outlook on family life and childhood in India, choosing to distance ourselves from popular trends in journalism. The attention to crime in popular media, keeps us updated about the latest and most horrific incidents of the present, while keeping alive the older stories with which they find connections. The darkest encounters from the deepest interiors are dug up and highlighted, oftentimes more for gathering viewership than providing news updates, it seems. These are the sorts of stories we have tried to avoid, not because the stories are false, but because we get enough of them anyway. Yet, we do believe that it is also our responsibility to raise problematic issues to broaden the coverage of our posts and maintain a balance.
Too much love?
The boundaries of love are fluid, even within well-defined roles and relationships. Although the source of the greatest joys in our lives, affectionate relationships can be problematic when there is a desire to manipulate, exploit or abuse a ‘loved’ one. Such instances are encountered in all human societies, but the situations and solutions vary. In the case of children, this becomes even more serious of an issue on account of their vulnerability and inability to grasp the meaning of such experiences until much later, and sometimes not even then. As we are aware from the statistics available, a majority of abuse of children is perpetuated by known people, often trusted ones.
The family and the world
The Indian family (whatever that is) has been presented in different ways in public spaces. One persisting debate (opposing single stories told from positions of power and attempted domination) relates to the view of the family as a safe haven, the ideal social unit where multiple generations live in close proximity, with harmonious and affectionate bonds between and within generations. This sentiment prevails, but there are many little stories inside homes that are often silenced. Yet again, literature has helped us to look beyond the front door. On the opposing side of the debate is distrust, disbelief or dismissal of the traditional wisdom of family life. These charges have been levelled by feminists, social reformers, welfare agencies and even institutions like schools, health care providers and others. The ordinary parent is commonly held in contempt on account of being ignorant, incompetent or incapable, always in need of advice on how to bring up the child, run their home or live their lives. They are believed to require workshops, intervention programmes, awareness campaigns and the like, for them to ‘become’ good parents, a view that basically assumes that they are not (good parents). This story is as prevalent and powerful as its opposite. The wisdom and dignity of the ordinary parent is barely recognised, and the poorer the parent, the greater the contempt. From an ‘outside’ perspective, Indian parents are seen variously as too indulgent, not firm enough, too quick with physical punishment, careless about rules, lacking in consistency, and basically raising children into dependent adults with little self-control and an inability for self-regulation. These are our impressions from listening to different stories, read and overheard. Quite like Adichie’s account of the view of African communities, the Western gaze towards ‘other cultures’ has, in the past, been imbued with darkness and negativity, believing other people to be somewhere between “half-devil, half-child”. The ripples of these beliefs often emerge in most sinister ways even in current times. The most tragic instances of this are encountered when this stance is taken within a particular culture, by the educated elite towards others, less fortunate than them. It seems quite easy for people to adopt the very stories that have been held against them towards others. I (Nandita) have never been able to understand how this can happen.
Let me illustrate with an example. Around a decade ago, my housekeeper had begun to show signs of a third pregnancy. One morning while doing her morning round of work, she was accosted by our neighbour who unhesitatingly interrogated her about how she could have let this “accident” happen. What else were illiterate, ignorant parents capable of, in her opinion? The couple had in fact, for very personal reasons, chosen to have their third child. The lady in question was livid with the insult, but kept her peace and walked away, displaying far greater dignity than her partner in the conversation. We, however, had a long and extended conversation about her feelings and I have never forgotten the way she felt at that time. How easily we are able to dismiss the dignity of others, especially when they are assumed to be “less worthy” than us. Evidence of this is strewn all over, discussions about rural, tribal or urban poor communities sometimes sounds like people are discussing cattle. They are dismissed as ‘bad parents’, especially when they are interface with institutions like schools or hospitals. The larger story ‘Indians are bad parents’ can be seen repeated within: ‘The poor are poor parents’.
A far more serious manifestation of this contempt can be seen among welfare agencies that promote the radical position that Indian families are frequently abusive towards children (See Suranya Aiyar’s ‘Save your children from UNICEF: A Study of UNICEF’s biased and false claims about Indian parents’). Reports like the “Study on Child Abuse in India” (2007) make claims of serious and rampant abuse of children within the family and this needs to be carefully reviewed for validity before accepting their claims. Research can be heavily influenced by the stance taken by the funding organisations and researchers. Thankfully there are scholars, both within and outside India, who have worked relentlessly in building a realistic image of the world’s people.
In the romantic version of the Indian family as a safe haven on one hand and its travesty as an abusive institution on the other, ordinary parents continue to work hard to better the lives for their children. In doing so, some are inevitably lost, some struggle and some succeed. There are ups and downs in every family and children are the most vulnerable. With this rather long-winded introduction, we bring you today’s post where we confront the issue of child abuse through brief individual stories, without making this either a grand narrative about Indians as universal abusers or as such an insignificant story of individual children. Individuals experience abuse and this is every caregiver’s nightmare. How do we, as a society, strengthen ourselves so that our children are safe from predators? Where do we need to plug the holes without throwing away the container? This is the purpose of these stories.
We would like to thank Dia for her permission to use her sketches for this post.
A safe haven?
There is no denying that the family is believed to be a safe haven, and psychologically, perhaps the most powerful institution that children will experience, since their life circumstances and available choices will depend on it.
The Indian family, with its ubiquitous presence in people’s life is ideally believed to be a secure place within which multiple generations coexist and children grow up with many other adults and children, even if they may temporarily be living as a nuclear unit. These ‘others’ including neighbours, helpers and others, apart from relatives, and they become included in this large bustling group that a growing child ideally sees as a trusted and safe community. The larger inclusive group is also addressed using kin terms to mark their symbolic presence as members of this ‘family’. The ideal image can overtake reality, leaving people who raise contrary issues to be silenced or ignored or opposed. In this month’s post, we bring you some examples of experiences that we hope will raise the issue of how and when the abuser makes his or her entry into the child’s life-space in the name of love, and discuss how we can be more vigilant as a community. This week, Indu Kaura discusses some of her cases that are referred here with the generous permission of the people. We have avoided naming them to protect their identity and would like to thank them for their courage in telling their story and their agreement to share the encounters so that we can be informed.
The stories, by Indu Kaura
At my counselling sessions, I have had some cases of child sexual abuse where fluid boundaries between love and lust became evident. These instances were heart-breaking on account of the fact that persons who was expected to protect and safeguard the child were the ones perpetrating the abuse, or dismissing the claims of abuse by another. When the default image of ‘elders’ is that of a benign and loving person, one who “cannot do anything wrong towards children”, a common solution seems to be to silence the “errant” child. After all, “what do children know”? In fact, “children should not be discussing such matters anyway, they are innocent and ignorant”, not realizing that this position can actually leave children more vulnerable than they already are.
Drawing from these instances, I wish to raise some issues, since this is a matter of grave concern for the welfare of the developing child. The question I wish to ask at the end of the post is, can love in fact be too much sometimes? Do we need to better regulate the ‘love’ that our children encounter?
A young 5-year-old girl, whose parents were employed outside the home, was being looked after by her grandmother. A (male) security guard of their residence was entrusted with the responsibility for dropping and picking up the child from school. The child was repeatedly molested by the guard, and the child complained to her grandmother about it. She was briskly dismissed her (the grandmother), claiming that the child was wrong, the guard likes her a lot, loves her, in fact, and it was she (the girl) who was mistaken.
In separate instances, two girls, both were molested by an older, male cousin from the joint families in which they were living. In both cases, they believed that they were really “loved” by the cousin as everyone used to say. As they grew older, the confusions became serious. Each believed that the cousin loved her a lot, but they were confused and disturbed about the experience as they grew older.
A 7-year-old boy was very fond of an older man in the neighbourhood, who was close friends with the family. He used to call him “Uncle” as is common. The uncle was very “loving” towards him. Too loving!
All these children have, after several years of going through these experiences, reached out for counselling as adults to help them deal with these memories, and at the outset, I can say with confidence, that their efforts have been successful. Their permission to me for using these encounters to help educate others is a testimony to their healing. These instances demonstrate, that in each of the cases, sexual abuse was perpetrated by people who were trusted and loved by both the child and the family and here lies the primary confusion and profound betrayal.
It is quite common for us to entrust the care and supervision of children to others. Mostly this happens in group settings where many people are around, thereby automatically making the child quite safe from sexual abuse. It is when opportunities for isolation are sought that problems can arise, and this is where alertness is crucial. In the instance of the grandmother, the child (who is now an adolescent) could not understand why the grandmother did not protect her, did not believe her. She was deeply resentful of the grandmother and that often showed in her interactions. To make matters worse, the whole family would insist that she should be kind and respectful to her otherwise loving grandmother who had “looked after her like a parent”. She just couldn’t. It is painful to consider what these young children must have gone through.What is important to focus on is that they were able to make sense of their experiences and move on. The young boy is still in therapy, though, dealing with issues of his own sexuality.
Good touch, bad touch. No touch?
As adults, we focus on children’s awareness of being ‘touched’ and to guide them on how to distinguish between the different kinds of touch there can be. The focus is on the child to distinguish, but we fail to censor touching by other people. Again, the onus is on the child. What about advising adults? Even a known person can be directed towards appropriate conduct with a child, but the inherent trust in older uncles and aunts, cousins and friends interferes with this. We hesitate to say things to other people because we believe they will feel insulted. I believe that what children are told has to match what they observe; and that’s where we may be failing in our responsibilities. It becomes very simple for a potential abuser to express love for the child and declare that what he or she is doing is not wrong to the child. We have to target both sides, actually all sides.
A walk to remember
Several years ago, I remember I was walking, taking my grandson along in a pram when he was around a year old. His maternal grandmother was also with us. As a pretty baby, he often received attention from others, people would come up to him to comment, pick him up and play with him. In India, it is quite common to do that with babies whom you meet, even if you do not know the family. I have always seen this as a positive feature of social relationships, but I had become acutely aware of the fact that we need to watch what children are experiencing as closely as what we are saying to them. I began to see some of the affections as intrusive. The encounter that I want to mention was with a neighbour, also a regular walker, who came up to the child, pinched his cheeks and cuddled him, and I remember being uncomfortable about that. I requested her to stop. I felt that with the constant touching, pinching and cuddling, the child would probably see physical touch as always acceptable. That was my fear. With all the things I was reading about and listening to, I wanted to be more vigilant. I recall how offended she was with me when I requested her to stop. My companion on the walk said to me “प्यार से छू रही है” (she was only fondling him with love). I think my worry was that if this was a constant message is, what will the child internalize? Will he be able to distinguish between this and another sort of touch? What about until the time that he can tell the difference? Will this become what love means to him?
Is this love?
As a counsellor, I am angered by these cases. I am filled with disgust towards the adults concerned and this resentment churns inside me when I think of these and other such cases. In my experience, there is a rise in the people coming to me with such experiences, which could indicate increased frequency, or a greater confidence to seek help. I have been wanting to write about this and I believe that we have to be very vigilant about our choices.
Loyalty to the family
I also believe that the desire to maintain family harmony, the sentiment of loyalty, the fear of being blamed for breaking up the family are some of the reasons why children fail to inform others. This was very aesthetically presented in the film ‘Monsoon Wedding’ by Mira Nair. Added on to the baggage is the guilt of being the desired one, maybe having even caused it somehow, plays on the minds of the growing children. This creates a deadly concoction of emotional turmoil. I feel that it is time to redefine the expression of love for children by adults. Although I do not prescribe paranoia, I feel that we are sometimes too open to having children interact freely (physically) with hugs, kisses, and cuddles from and with others. Our cultural practices may be giving abusers the entry into children’s lives and we need to be aware of that. In the name of love, we are perhaps making our children a bit more vulnerable than they already are. Maybe we need to be more watchful of these encounters and look for signs of discomfort, and to listen to children rather than dismiss their messages. Caution also needs to be taken on the other side, children can sometimes make things up too, and we have seen consequences of that in some significant instances, real and fictional. The Hunt, A Danish film by Thomas Vinterberg is a brilliant example, as is the real-life drama surrounding the McMartin preschool story in California. It appears that on every side, we cannot be too vigilant.
At a recent workshop, I was addressing a group of teachers at a workshop organised by NCERT. I began to include discussions about infants and young children when one of the teachers became quite offended, “This workshop is not for preschool teachers” she complained. “We are all teachers of senior classes here.” Suggesting that I speak only about adolescents. I have found this to be a common assumption, that sexual abuse is an issue only for adolescents. Young children are seen as asexual, innocent and therefore we don’t really need to talk about it. The sad part is that for the abusers, young children are the even easier to target because of this reason. Are we, as a society, wearing blinkers towards the possible abuse of infants and young children? Do we believe that everyone loves children as much as we do, and will do them no harm?
In another workshop for preschool teachers, a hot debate arose when I talked about ‘Good touch/bad touch vs No touch’. It was a huge eye-opener for me. As Indians, we seem to be uncomfortable with the idea of ‘No touch’. What emerged was the belief that ‘No touch’ makes children cold and unresponsive to the expression of love. I was a bit surprised, although I am aware about the research on the pre-eminence of physical care and stimulation among Indian families. I remember thinking: “How are we going to teach an infant or young child to differentiate between good touch and bad touch, when the handling of children by a large number of adults remains uncensored?”
This is a very delicate issue and I do not claim to know all the answers. I appreciate the cultural practice of physical love for young children and the security of having multiple caregivers, but I feel strongly that our worlds are always changing and we need greater vigilance on these issues. As families shrink and community supervision reduces, the possibility of unfavourable encounters may have increased and we need to be vigilant about this. Maybe they were always there but we didn’t hear about them. We need to strike a judicious balance while updating ourselves with the times in which our children are growing up to ensure their welfare. Between competing ideologies (in this case No touch vs Supervised touch) we need to be aware of the fuzzy boundaries between affection and abuse, between love and lust, where fluidity can leave children vulnerable to being targeted with unwarranted attention. There are, as in other domains of children’s care, no easy answers.
Featured image: By Dia