If you grew up in India anytime after the late 1960’s you are just like me – having probably have owned a collection of coveted stories, passed down the generations, retold verbally at first, until I was old enough to read, of volumes that were traded, loaned to friends and eventually became dog-eared. You’ve probably never owned just one. It was always a complete collection – until a new title came along and you, just like I did - begged your parents to buy it for you. You probably developed your love of comic books – a habit that does not seem normal for kids from other cultures. Your love of visual storytelling came to life here. And so did your love for all such stories. My childhood was much the same. We became a literary captive to its magic, ever since we held our first, the glorious Amar Chitra Katha.
Thirty some years after my first ACK, crisp new volumes of ACK reentered our home and invaded our book shelves when my daughter turned about 4 or 5. She wanted pictures, expressive images and colorful snapshots of myth and lore from a culture she was only tethered to through her lineage. Her daily brush with her roots was not of much substance because she lived and breathed a different culture, away from all of it. So, we relied on these books to tell the stories for us, to build the appreciation we had for our culture – as our tools, in the absence of an involved family or participating elders. Over the years, we have checked over and over again – if the local retail outlets carried a volume or a book that we did not have. And until last night, my daughter’s collection stood proud, and based on what was available - I believed it to be complete.
We have maintained a practice to pull out an ACK every now and then, and especially around major cultural holidays – to go through myths and fables, stories of great kings and warriors, bravery and conflict. These are stories that hold much importance within the culture. Although there may not be much in terms of retention, as a parent – one feels the need to ensure our children know how to nourish their roots first before they arch out to touch the skies, where a strong foundation creates a framework for a secure, stable structure.
Over the years I have experienced this – that as the stories sink in more with each consecutive read, so does the depth of query, of curiosity, the complexity of questions and the little mind begins to blossom into all that we believe our children are capable of accomplishing.
Last night was one such evening. My daughter, now 10, waited for me to tuck her in at bedtime. We had started one story, from ACK the night before, and last night we were expecting to finish it. It was a story of Shishupala (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shishupala), although a simpler version of it, as told in my beloved ACK. In essence, it is the story of the pride and vanity of one king, Shishupala. We re-entered the story at a point of battle and she immediately requested a synopsis of those pages because the battle scenes gave her nightmares. I obliged. Yet, with each frame I read out loud, I could see the anxiety build up on her face. As I ended the story, just before she fell asleep - she blurted several questions, in rapid succession: What does ‘betrothed’ mean? Do they still do that? Why does Rukhmini have to marry Shishupala? So her brother decided for her? Why does Krishna have steal Rukhmini? Why does someone else have to get mad because their friend cannot marry the person they are ‘supposed to’? So they all start a war because they feel hurt? With each question, my mouth open more but no words came out. And her last question took my breath away: Don’t they have any stories from the olden days about brave women?
As I ordered several books this morning from the ACK series about brave queens and goddesses, I wondered how and where I should begin this dialog with my daughter. Do I say that these are just stories? These are the stories that a whole culture is so desperately built on – the same stories that have been retold over and over again until they become engrained in the breath of the culture – the way of life. It is the stories grandparents tell their grandchildren, and let these become the foundation for how women see themselves in relation to their peers. It has become the structure on which an entire society prides itself but also one that takes the cause of women’s lib and equal rights to a whole new level.
In my life, I am in a slightly unique position – where these roles don’t quite matter anymore. My daughter sees me as a business woman, an entrepreneur, who is also a wife and mother. I also come from a long line of rebellious, strong-willed independent women who somehow made it work – where they played multiple roles within the rules that bound them. I am also proud to know so many wonderful women who share a life path very similar to mine. But I did not grow up this way. This is not how much of society sees me or anyone like me, where it is more acceptable to be a slave to the stove or a paycheck, preferably both. It took me two graduate degrees and careers; and practically running away from home to numb the stereotypical expectations of a woman, to find the confidence I needed to find MY niche, at 40 something. It should not take this long.
These questions are not just valid in my daughters’ context of storytelling but also in her context of a globally male dominated society. Why should there be more importance on external appearances, designated roles and expectations, tangible, bankable skills – as these relate to women? Why should there be more pressure or social norms for acceptable behavior as it relates to women but not enough for men? Why should women be at the receiving end of non-participatory decision making, suggestive dialog, behavior or be concerned about how their peers will value them? Why should their choice in dress, dialog or decision-making be dictated by society? Why should there be any pressure at all? Why should there be this discussion at all?
Parents have a unique position to have conversations with their own children about building a strong sense of self identity first. A few weeks ago, a friend asked a rather delicate question that was, in my opinion, more suitable if the question was addressed to an adult. My mind went through a series of responses – but I spat out some canned ones instead. What I should have said instead is that at 10 my daughter is still a child. I should have said that as a global culture we need to let children be children first and not pressure them into conforming into the rules of society they are in, anywhere, or based on any story they may have read or been told, because those are not their songs or stories. More importantly, I should have said, children need to be strong and confident enough of their own stories before they create new ones. Because, when they start creating their own strong confident stories, I bet you, the world will know.