27th June 2006
tu zinda hai to zindagi ki jit par yakin kar
agar kahin hai svarg to uttar la jamin par
You are alive … Believe it, live!
If anywhere there be a heaven, bring it down to earth!
From a song popularised by the Youth Choirs of Mumbai and Calcutta in the 1950s, this line remains a rallying cry for the people’s movements ranging from college NSS groups and Girl Guides to Feminist Revolutionaries.
Optimistically exhorting us not to consign all good things to the afterlife and the otherworld, but rather to live well here and now, this song urges us to find answers and touch the foundations of justice within ourselves, rather than blaming past lives or looking for supernatural explanations.
When my daughter was born, 10 days past “due,” I discovered a new meaning to this song .. . womb is heaven, I reflected, where needs are met even without being needed. And yet the baby chooses to come into our world where she must learn new ways to satisfy her desires, and depends utterly on others to hear and help her. Of all people newborns are most cognizant of what heaven must be, and most vigorously determined to bring it about on earth.
Just as Gandhian ideals have contributed to renewed efforts towards deeply nonviolent parenting, what we learn from our children, starting at birth, can help us build a more peaceful, trusting and cooperative society.
It was a meeting outside the Collector’s office in Nandurbar District, Maharashtra that I discovered how systematically the government failed to hear people’s voices and how ruinously this boded for the country’s development planning and implementation. The same women who were so vocal in all the village meetings and leading the shouting in the rally through the district headquarters, were silent before the Collector himself. When I asked why, they told me they could not understand his language – Marathi. They spoke Pavri, Bhilali, and the Collector’s office did not even bother to hire an interpreter for this meeting with its own constituents. Two days of talking and waiting yielded nothing. The Deputy Collector, however, spoke the tribal language, and could put himself in the people’s shoes, because he too had been displaced due to the Akai dam project. It was he who cut through the tall claims made in the Supreme Court and got through to the reality of how much land was available for rehabilitation. Unfortunately, he was transferred the following day.
Since then I have worked to hear people’s voices and make others hear them as well. While District administrators might prefer to speak a more polished Telugu or even English, we speak only to introduce and facilitate the villagers’ speaking and we ourselves translate if required.
Everyday ethical thumbrules such as the golden rule, asking, “what if everyone were to do this?” in deciding on a course of action, or not blaming people in their absence, all guide us in upholding the principle of transparency ourselves.
In most social structures, where there is a hierarchy, no matter how many decisions are made democratically, there are usually a few who exercise greater authority and a large number whose lives are affected by their decisions. Transparency requires those in authority to be prepared to explain their decisions and share information with all whom they govern. Parenting was my first and most intense experience of being an authority figure and I find that I deeply cherish the principle of transparency to help me through all difficulties. People usually say that you should talk to your infants because your voice is soothing, and this will help them learn to communicate. I found talking extremely useful in the early weeks and months just to get through any tough moment. Whether she objected to riding in her carseat, wanted to be upstairs when I was taking her downstairs, wanted to stay outside when we had to go inside … whatever was the conflict, I could just talk about what we were doing, how long it would take, why and what alternatives we had. I could repeat this explanation and even set it to a tune. Though it was not always democratic, it was transparent. Getting into the habit of explaining myself also helped me evaluate options and eventually, I feel, this did empower my daughter to articulate her ideas with confidence that her views mattered.
In my brief stint in the corporate world, though I was not in sales, we all went through customer service training to improve our teamwork skills. Acknowledge others, put yourself in their shoes, own success by sharing it, explain a delay or failure openly rather than keeping quiet about it. While perhaps tricky to implement in a cutthroat business environment, these principles cultivate trust and transparency. These days when a flight is delayed for take off the pilot will get on the intercom and say what the problem is. It was not always this way. Taking passengers into confidence helps them put themselves in the shoes of the pilot and realize that if they were facing these problems they would do exactly the same thing.
Since parents must impose some authority and the child’s voice, especially in the younger years, will never be equal to the parents’, parents have a solemn duty not only to listen to that voice and to empower it as much as possible, but also to be accountable for whatever authority they do impose. The endless “whys” of children are their attempt to hold parents accountable and parents who take these questions seriously, accept the child’s curiosity and interest in finding reasons, will be able to encourage their children to question authority, including their own, even if they do not always have satisfactory answers for the questions. Simply knowing that one is accountable to those over whom one exercises authority, will transform the relationship so that the child’s authority is also allowed to emerge in various spheres, nurturing a reciprocity where parent and child feel comfortable in respecting one another and authority remains tucked away in the background.