Family Journeys is the name of the project my daughter has to do for school this term. The project has been designed keeping in mind the particular nature of this term, which will be conducted remotely from school, with children participating from the confines of their homes. That they will have access to their parents in a way that would have been otherwise hard to come by is at the heart of this vision for the project. Parents and children will have leisurely conversations about the journeys that generations before them may have undertaken, which students will eventually find in their atlases and mark the latitudinal and longitudinal locations of.
Perhaps it is this approach to education that has helped me look at another journey undertaken by us a family in this time of a global pandemic: a journey inwards.
Looking back from the vantage point afforded by nearly four months of confinement at home (with school only having begun three weeks ago), one can say that both the pandemic and the nationwide lockdown imposed to curb its spread (and we are well aware that these are two separate catastrophes that, depending on where you are located in society, you may have experienced very differently), saw very particular responses from us a family. While fear and anxiety regarding the virus did not get significant space in the conversations at home, the images of workers returning home in distress due to the lockdown, from the cities that had offered them livelihoods did affect us in ways that we are still making sense of. Helplessness, guilt and an acute awareness of one’s privilege came in its immediate wake.
A child’s world, even in the lap of such privilege, does experience the turmoil of the familiar no longer being available; of time stretching in a manner never previously experienced, of promises of travel and outdoor adventure not to be explored within any comprehensible timeframe. How could we as parents hold both this experience of frustration and the knowledge of our privilege together for ourselves and for our child at such a time? We found the clues to an answer by coming undone.
This may sound dramatic, but unravelling the narrative of perfection, especially from the position of authority that a parent wields in a child’s life, has been one of the most beautiful ‘works-in-progress’ that may have emerged for us in this time.
In the first few weeks of the lockdown, we watched films that she wanted to watch without bracketing it with moralising about conformity and consumption. We made her watch films and television series that had been part of the popular culture of our childhoods. We cringed at times when we saw what values we had internalised through these, and we celebrated good writing and movie-making that had lasted the test of time, in others.
We read books aloud together but also abandoned some mid-way when she found it hard to concentrate. We witnessed her returning to books she had read previously and saw how that provided her comfort and so agreed not to introduce anything new unless it came up organically and repeatedly. We avoided making ‘projects’ for our time together. We ended up having conversations that lasted days, and sometimes resulted in unpleasant arguments. We sulked in our corners and shouted over meals. We cooked and cleaned with unerring regularity – the rhythm of this routine becoming the music of our days even as we thought entertainment lay elsewhere.
The Weaving Together
And it has been through this unravelling that two threads of clarity have found their way towards me as a parent.
One has been about the hollowness of middle-class values that we have been brought up on: of minding one’s business, of working hard, of earning success on the basis of one’s ‘merit’. While I have familiarised myself with ‘merit’ debates in the context of caste in India, the hard work and ‘merit’ combination that has manifested itself during this pandemic in the form of productivity of the middle-classes has been an eye-opener for me. A WhatsApp message that did the rounds in my apartment’s group was about how if one had not skilled up during this time, it was a question of discipline and will, rather than a resource like time. I found this both blind to aspects of wellbeing that are not related to time, and violent to those who have allowed the suffering in their contexts to affect them in a way to take pause from their relentless pursuit of ‘bettering’ themselves. If ever there was a time to not ‘mind one’s own business’, (perhaps because more often than not, there has been no business to mind), it has been this time. To allow for the suffering of others whose lives are not like ours to reach us, to stop us in our daily lives, to make us listen, see and re-assess our choices is a need that has been brought home to me sharply these past few months.
This has led me to the other strand of clarity as a parent: to focus on the particular. The sheer scale of suffering has a tendency to paralyse. What can I do in the face of something as big and overwhelming as this? For us as mother and daughter, it has been to move out of our comfort zones, especially in the ways in which we relate to others. We may have discussed Kashmir in the context of slogans that were chanted in the protests that she and I have attended, but what does it mean to go with bars of chocolate (the only thing one can easily disinfect without ruining the taste) on Eid to our Kashmiri neighbour’s house, when we know that they have had to celebrate the festival alone due to restrictions on visitors in our apartment? What does it mean to connect with friends over a screen, and learn to express ourselves differently so that the warmth of our affection can still make it through an unfamiliar medium? What does it mean to experience empathy in the general and channel love in the particular, granular, specific?
And so it is that together she and I find hope in this coming undone; find new life in the mess of all that has been broken; watch the seasons change from our windows, plant coriander seeds and rejoice at the saplings that shoot out of the soil, knowing that to care is to pay attention.
Roopa Rathnam is an eminent Scholar working on feminism and religion with special reference to Pandita Ramabai’s life- trajectory and contributions.