My kid loves to see the pictures of birds and animals. He asks me questions on who can eat whom or who will win if there is a fight between any two. These hypothetical questions are sometimes difficult to answer, but I still try. I use my knowledge from watching episodes from Discovery and Animal planet channels. Sometimes I am fortunate enough to quote mythology. For example, he asks me if a crocodile and an elephant fight, who is going to win. I remember a line from a prayer we sang in our childhood days, “Aahe neela shaila”. A prayer in the name of Lord Vishnu. An elephant devotedly prays to the God to save itself from a crocodile that has caught the pachyderm by its leg. Lord Vishnu sends his “Chakra”, a fascinating, enigmatic rotating wheel of serrated edges, and separates the head of the croc from its body.
Then he asks me if a Hippo and a shark fight, who will win. To my terrific luck, I had watched an episode on how a shark attacks a hippo in shallow water and torments it initially and how the hippo finally gets its act together and in a single powerful bite pierces its long pointed teeth into the shark to finish it off.
These were relatively easy questions, I think. He stops at a picture of a vulture and asks me what they do and what they eat. I tell him that they are scavengers, feeding on dead animals. My kid remembers seeing dead dogs on the road. He asks me if vultures would come and eat them. He takes fancy for the long curved beak and the neck rising like a furry fountain from the hulk of a torso and asks me if he can see a vulture feeding.
For a moment I don’t have any ready answers. Then I tell him that vultures are dirty and he shouldn’t go near them.
On a different day, I am reading rhymes to him. “Old McDonald had a firm…” and “Here we go round the mulberry bush” among many others. Old McDonald had pigs in his firm and mulberry bush had juicy mulberries. My kid asks me to get mulberries for him. He also wants to hear the “Oink Oink” of the pigs. This time too I don’t have any ready answers. In my helplessness, I become unmindful and float into a world of my own where I see myself walking with my kid, with pink little pigs and piglets in tow, towards cheerful bushes bursting with mulberries.
In times like this I wonder about many things, especially on what our so called “Progress” or “Civilization” has brought us into.
When I was a kid, most of my time was spent outdoors. When we came back from school, we threw our bags into the bed and went out to play with other kids of our age. We would start our imaginary bikes and vroom into the field, steering clear of the sharp blades of the paddy leaves. Or if the paddy plant is small, we would plunk right into the mud and race our imaginary dirt bikes. We would run around the playground and stop to see flocks of vultures feeding on a dead cow. We would be scared of their beaks and run away. We would reach the edge of the village and climb on the old mango tree. We would suddenly let the branch go, swing downward and hang by our legs. Or we would stand on the ground and take aim. Almost everything would become a target of our target practice. The thinner or smaller, the better. Electric poles, electric wires (telephones poles where hardly there then, they are hardly there today too), tree trunks, fruits on the trees, railway tracks and much more.
We would stop at thorny bushes laden with berries, abutting the village playing field (and there were many such fields where we played regularly). We would carefully push our heads into the bush, scratch our faces regardless and pick berries. We would then make a necklace out of the berries by piercing them with a thin twig and take them home.
It was always an extremely beautiful experience when it rained. The velvety red ladybird bugs would appear in the fields. To spot them on the ground and to hold them in our hands was surreal. The world around us would be surrounded by water with tall grasses or paddy leaves piercing through the surface and tossing in the wind. Snakes would slither into pools and frogs frolicking and making that “tick tack” noise. When the frog’s sound changed, we would know something was wrong. We would run out of our houses and find our hunch right. A snake would pull the helpless frog into the water. We would sympathize with the frog and throw stones at the snake. Mother would come out and reprimand us for this. She would explain that this was the law of nature and a frog is destined to be food of the snake. She would also tell us that one shouldn’t attack anyone who is eating. It’s a sin. She would drop the deadly word into our conscience, “sin”.
We would invariably skip stones and dispute the number of skips. We would lay abandoned snake scale or a five paisa coins or small stones on the railway track and marvel at their metamorphosis once a train runs over them. While the snake scale would be imprinted on the track, the coin would turn into a very thin plate of metal. The stones would be crushed into a white gray powder. We would pull tender leaves from a thorny bush that we called “kia” in the local language and devour the delicacy of the leaves. We would blow snail eggs back into water and throw timid snails into air and see them drop into ponds. We would keep them on our legs and wait for them to open up and cut our skins with their sharp slimy tongues.
Home was the place where we just ate, studied and slept. Outside, out in the open, we grew up to what we are today. We braved nature, we fought with it and we held it tightly too in a loving embrace. Sitting atop a 30 foot high jamun tree branch, we defied height. Cycling against wind in lashing unkind rains, we defied the monsoons. Reaching the pond bottom and digging ourselves into its cool black mud pit, we defied the hot summers. Running madly along the railway tracks, trying to outrun a slowing train, we defied the winter chills.
With water flowing into one pool from another, we would catch fish by the dozens. We would invent fish-catching contrivances and learn the principles of design, unknowingly. We would build small thatched houses (only to be heart-broken the next morning, for the rain and wind would have thrashed it to the ground), miniature utensils from broken Amul Spray tins, boil rice for our dolls in tamarind shells and heat milk for the cat through magnifying lenses and learn alternative use of things around us. We would make toys out of discarded mango seeds and cycle tyres and tubes. We would make turbines out of leaves or discarded table fan rotors. We would make microphones out of broken radios. We would play cricket with a bat that we made ourselves. A miniature railways crossing, a miniature dressing table, a boat, a bus driven by a tape-recorder motor, a flower pot made of bamboo, kept overnight in water to make it supple. We made cola with hailstones. We grew.
And then I look at my kid. The way he is growing today. There is not much of a playground nearby. The house I have rented is sitting on the entire available land (people want bigger houses so that it can fetch them more rent), leaving no place where the soil can be seen or rain water can be collected or trees can be planted. There are no berry bushes nearby and the small neighbourhood park (which is a rarity in itself) is overflowing with similarly fated kids. They are hardly able to run without bumping into each other. There are the same broken slides, the same motorcycle on a spring, the same criss-cross rope to climb on. My kid gets bored and asks me if we can go home.
Home is worse.
There are vehicles zooming outside. So I can’t let him go out. It is not very safe these days to leave the main door open. I close the door behind me. I don’t know any of the neighbours. I haven’t cared. None of them have cared too. The house quickly turns into a closed concentration chamber where there is no outlet. The inmates have to find peace inside. But insides aren’t particularly great.
There are constructions on all four-sides, completely blocking any passage for fresh air to come in. It’s quite “sophisticated” though, with an AC in each room, a powerful i7 computer, an array of gadgets including an iPad, HD recording mobile phones, a large-screen TV and many, many bright coloured toys.
I pile cheap and costly Chinese and non-Chinese toys on him. All run on battery. All emit the same harsh sound. Many such toys make exactly the same sound. All require my kid to just stand and watch, while the toy performs something on its own. My kid doesn’t want to be a spectator. He thrashes them and pries them open. He tries to explore them, helplessly, trying to find some muse; some semblance of fun from the dangerous broken particles. An axle pointing upwards menacingly, a screw threatening to pierce his soft bottom, broken edge of plastic about to slice his hands.
The house is now full of rolling batteries, twisted remote coils, wheels looking for their cars, cars looking for their wheels.
He finds some solace with the iPad though. He plays on and on. I let him because of my own selfish interest to keep him busy with something. He plays well quite difficult games requiring good coordination and understanding of the strategy. He pumps bullets and bumps off few heads. He races, turns savior and jumps from the helicopter. He chases, he is chased. He lies down on the bed, makes an awkward angle with the screen and keeps on playing for long before I realize that he has played enough. I separate him from the gadget only to find his eyes excessively strained from the bright screen. They are full of tears. I pluck him from the bed and he runs away to the blaring television.
I heavily curse myself and pull him out from the television. He first complains and then clutches me tightly with his soft dirty hands and asks me to tell him a story. My heart sinks. I am back at home after a tiring 10 hours at office. I still have something pending before I hit the bed. I am in no mood for a story (even though I desperately want to). A gigantic feeling of guilt almost chokes my breath. I gasp for air, but couldn’t bring around myself for a story at that hour.
I am scared when he grows up, instead of gently blowing snail eggs into the water, he would blow heads off people with blood savagely splattering on the computer screen. Instead of making toys, he would break nicely-packed-brightly-coloured toys that are highly priced for making him do nothing except watching. Instead of making friends with running hens and appreciating their agility, he would waste time making unknown “friends” on the “Social Network” and “liking” photos of their dogs’ poop. Instead of witnessing the majestic beauty of a kingfisher catching a fish, he would just be reduced to watching them on a YouTube or the regular tube. Instead of tugging the breasts of a milking cow and then take the jet of milk directly into mouth, he would be growing up on packed doses of flavoured fatless (to keep him in shape) milk.
I am compelled to think what kind of a life it is. While I am trying hard to earn money to get my kid a secure future, I am ignoring the very kid in his formative years. I want to turn the clock back and give my kid the life that I have had. I long for those days. The unstoppable oneness I had with nature. I question the very civilization we are proud of. Or the “Progress” we are making. What progress? Progress leading to what?
Vanishing jungles and vanishing animals? Or concretization of soil, depletion of ground water, increasing carbon dioxide and fumes in the air? Cyclists being killed by speeding trucks, vehicles running into one another with an alarming rate? Ground water getting polluted, summer temperature touching all-time high each year (For example Bhubaneswar recently recorded the highest temperature in June in the past 80 years or so)?
Kids who should be running around all the time and be hungry for calories developing fat rings around their waists? I see numerous such kids with their celebrity parents in Page-3s and can’t help but wonder.
Why must we avoid every possible opportunity of walking and then buy a treadmill for home? Why must we switch on the AC when the temperature is bearable? Why must we take our car out for something within walking distance? Why must we dig every single inch of soil for minerals by razing jungles to ground? What if the mineral is not extracted? How much worse can happen? May be the decreased supply will jack the prices up and demand would take care of itself. Is that a big deal? Why must we burn tonnes and tonnes of coal to produce electricity? In the summer, people drop dead while walking. ACs stop functioning because the voltage isn’t enough. So there is a race to buy the most “qualified” stabilizer that increases the voltage from 160 volts. Then from 130. 90. 30, I last counted.
I am all for “Progress forward”. But isn’t this “Progress backward”? Isn’t the singular aim of progress and civilization to increase the “happiness quotient” or the “wellness quotient”? Isn’t civilization about existing peacefully with nature, to embrace it with all its glory and beauty and do everything possible to preserve it and let it grow? Does real happiness flow from wanting the next costly car? Or inching closer to the downtown? Why should one keep on earning bigger and bigger amounts of money? For gaining what at the end of the day? I am not saying money isn’t important. But aren’t the compromises we keep making along the way worth taking a re-look?
I know there are no clear answers. But at least I feel good about myself. About realizing that no matter how much I try to buy happiness, it lies somewhere outside the reach of money. Life flows from nature, not from the suave high-rises or the swanky cars. I know I am still very much in the rat-race, but somewhere I know I will stop, look, take a deep breath of life and move on. I will be wiser. I will be aware.
I switch on the car ignition and roll down the windows (something I rarely do, to keep the outside air out). An uncivilized breeze pushes through and swings the doll hanging from the rear-view mirror. After long, it caresses my hair and I realize that my hair has grown long.
My kid complains about the heat and asks me to switch on the AC instead. I reluctantly roll the windows up and retreat into “civilization”. The AC purrs into life and throws the stale air back to my face. I imagined the breeze beating at my windows outside.
Someday I know in my heart that I will ignore him and let the windows be. Someday he will understand. I am sure.
-by Prof. Ashutosh Kar, Associate Professor (IT Area). Alumnus of NIT Rourkela & IIM A