Sunday, March 2, 2008

A Privileged Childhood?

(This post has been inspired by the Mad Momma's angst about her son's nursery school admission and her unease at the prospect of him having only privileged, rich children as peers)
In retrospect, yes, I was extremely privileged. My father was a junior government employee who went, on assignment, to England when I was not even two years old. We lived on the first floor of a house with a beautiful bay window, and we had toys, books, good clothes and a good education in private schools. What we didn't have was a sense of belonging. This was in the late fifties and early sixties, when Britain was nowhere as multicultural as it is today. A sense of alienation was a part of my psyche for a very long time after that. We returned when I was eight years old, to an India of which my sister and I had neither memory nor concept. Since our knowledge of Hindi was rudimentary at best, despite my mother's sincere efforts, our educational options were restricted to 'English medium' schools. We went to a convent school for four years, where our fluency in English was an asset. My father paid far more than he could really afford, but my sister and I were happy students and did well. Other children's socio-economic status was neither apparent nor distressing. Some girls did come to school by car, and a rare invitation to a birthday party took us to a larger, fancier home. My sister and I used public transport, along with several other girls from our school. As academic achievers, we were generally confident and self-assured.
Our home was in a middle-class, government 'colony'. The several hundred houses of the kind we lived in were divided into blocks. Each house had a large front verandah, a small room, a big room, a small back verandah, kitchen and store room, a bathroom and a toilet. If you were lucky enough to live on the first floor, as we were, you also had a large private terrace with high walls, and an open 'barsaati'.
In our particular block of eight flats, we were privileged for several reasons. We had lived in England, and so we had material goods that were considered to be luxury items in the early sixties- a fridge, a transistor radio, an electric cooking range, Pyrex dishes, good cardigans and coats. (We had no furniture for a long time, but our home was comfortable with aesthetically covered trunks as settees, and pretty covers for our beds, which were, of course, string cots - charpais). We also went to a convent school, which was considered very expensive then. All our neighbours' children went to government schools. Our particular block of eight flats had a peculiar demographic- three families had eight or nine children each, the others had maybe four or five. The people with many children all sublet the smaller room to a tenant. In our immediate neighbourhood, we were at the top of the heap. My father also had an uncle and a cousin in the civil services, so we also had people with cars visit us fairly often. I assume that the rest of our colony was as mixed as our little part of it was. My father had an old friend who lived in another block, he also had five children and had also sublet a room, but he did make sure that his children went to better schools than the government run ones.(One of his sons went to one of the IITs, a daughter did a PhD). The same structure was used in several ways. Several people got the front and/or back verandah glazed, or the upstairs barsaati 'covered'. There were many fairly prosperous residents whose homes were well decorated as well. We used to play outdoors with our neighbours' children, but though they were people we played with, with whom we had lots of fun, lots of wild games of cricket and 'pitthoo' and 'staapu', they were not friends, not people we confided in or shared our deepest thoughts with. We were far too snooty ourselves to think of them as friends. Our 'friends' were all part of the 'decent', English speaking world of our school! ( Any sense of compassion and equality that I now possess is a result of my fabulous college education). Our extended family also thought we were very special girls because of our stay abroad at an early age, so we were generally made much off and yet kept thoroughly grounded by various relatives at different times!
After four years in the convent, when my sister was about to enter the ninth grade, my father decided that we should now move to a government aided higher secondary school, where the syllabus would be more conducive to college admissions later on. This was a school with an excellent academic record. At the time of the admission test the crowd of applicants was enormous, even that many years ago. Well, we got into this school which was very different from our convent. For one thing, there was no uniform- the Principal loved seeing all the students in different kinds of colourful clothes. The hours were also much longer, so instead of the sandwich snack we were used to, my sister and I carried a 'proper' lunch of parathas and sabzi. Tiffins became an introduction to different kinds of cuisine. There are many dishes that I became familiar with only from school friends' lunch boxes! Since our school had a large percentage of Bengali students, the week after the Puja holidays was rather painful to the non-Bengalis, because for four to six days, all the Bengali girls would wear a brand new outfit every day! Once we realised that this was an annual affair, and the only time of year these girls got new clothes, it ceased to matter. For the rest of us, new clothes were perhaps bought for Diwali, or for a family event like a wedding. And they were simple clothes which were quite multi-purpose: the churidar kurtas I wore for my cousin's wedding were simple enough to wear to school. My mother would sew skirts and blouses for us, and also had lots of interesting material that she'd bought in England, and would pull it out of her stock and sew whatever was needed. (My sister was a very determined sort of person- she stitched a beautiful frilly dress for me when she was all of twelve years old). My brother was still studying in England when we came back to India, and once he started working, we were really in clover. He would bring us lovely twin sets and really fashionable trousers and tops and the knee-length lacy white socks that were in fashion then. ( Socks we were supposed to wash ourselves. My mother would wash our clothes, but our sweaty, smelly socks and handkerchiefs we had to wash ourselves.
For years and years we only had the rather smelly and one-eyed, scary looking sweeper woman who came to clean the bathroom and toilet, as our sole employee. My mother would cook, clean,launder, sew, make pickles, and always but always have a dabba-full (an old Cheeslings tin) of some home-made snack. She would also read magazines ( we used to get Femina regularly) and have an afternoon nap. I was probably in the ninth or tenth grade when she finally employed a part time maid. During the summer holidays, my sister and I had to take over the cleaning of the house i.e. the sweeping and swabbing, and in the evening we would take turns making dinner. As I child I loved going out, anywhere. My father used to buy vegetables every week from a small mandi that was atop a slope. I would tag along for the sheer pleasure of coasting down the hill on his bicycle. Putting the veggies away was fun too- first I'd be a sabzi-wali, and arrange all the vegetables neatly, and then put them away. We didn't have much money, but life was good.My father's uncle was very pleased whenever we did well in our exams, and as a reward would take us to the bookshop near his house and allow us to choose one book each. We also used to borrow books from him. Buying books and music was a luxury. In those days the Delhi Public Library had mobile vans, which would park near our house every Monday afternoon. We managed to read a great deal, borrowing from various sources, and having a few good books of our own. My father also had a beautiful radio, a record changer and a few records, and lots of music taped on his spool playing tape-recorder. As we grew older and less interested in ruffianly games in our 'block', we would be allowed to visit friends who lived within an easy walking distance of our house, which meant people of a largely similar social stratum as ours.
Our school had a large fleet of buses, including a double-decker, so practically everyone used the school bus. There was one rather well-to-do girl in our class who would occasionally come to school in her chauffeur-driven Ambassador, but that was it, I think. Among our peers, what really mattered was how well you were doing in class, in sports, in dramatics, writing, art and photography... Whatever talents you had were nurtured. Science students were encouraged to sit for the Science Talent Scholarship exam.
My sister also happened to become the head girl of the school, so I inevitably got to bask in her reflected glory. We had the usual teenage woes, crushes, complexes, but, although we knew that there was not much money available and we weren't rich, we were most certainly not poor either. I have rather broad and unbeautiful feet so I can rarely find or wear fancy footwear that fits me, and I used to be quite miserable about it, until my father very gently pointed out that I should be thankful for having functional, healthy feet. Reminds me of the saying, "I cried because I had no shoes till I saw the man who had no feet".
I honestly don't think I ever felt less than privileged as a youngster. We were so much better off than many other people whom we saw everyday.


the mad momma said...

okay you just made my point - just better than i had hoped to.

i rest my case.

we all lived similar lives. and now our kids will never know any hardship at all... the least we can do is try to keep them grounded in some way ....

dipali said...

Absolutely. There is such a difference between the life led by my older kids and the youngest- since he has much older siblings who are doing well in life he hasn't known much material hardship, from our point of view. As a hostel student he may or may not agree. But he is still remarkably grounded, very aware of getting value for money, regardless of who is spending it, and he is a boy who is careful with his possessions. Do not undermine the importance of home values and of the child's own, inherent nature.
And do accept, that with the best will in the world, we cannot control our children's lives beyond a point. If, however, you still have a not so good gut feeling about the school, do something radical and impractical like moving to an area which has a school that you are genuinely comfortable with.
Nothing is set in stone, is it?
And tomorrow it'll be Beanie's turn....

the mad momma said...

you're right. and i agree with that bit. and please dont take my balcony away from me :)

Usha said...

Loved this and brought back many memories of those years when we were young.
Privilege did not make a huge difference in those days because what you could do with your money was still limited. You could still not flaunt it so conspicuously and still not buy so many things that today seem so essential as a child.
I think today it is tougher because of all the indulgences you can have if you have the money which seem like deprivation if you don't. Children become more conscious of money and status at a much younger age. It is a tough decision to send your school to be with such children when you neither aspire to a similar lifestyle nor care about it. You don't want your child getting comfortable with that kind of life style. But then if these schools are also the best academically it becomes even tougher to make such a choice.
Oh, I am glad we were born in the era we were and I have no child growning up today - I'd be popping pills on a daily basis to calm my nerves.

Space Bar said...

i've been following this discussion and i'm actually slightly mystified by the whole thing. there's little doubt that all of us lead more privileged lives than others we can think of. and that is exactly what our parents wanted for us: a life that was better than theirs had been. and yet here we are, worried that our children may have lives of more privilege than we experienced. why?

why do we not trust that they will learn to feel as grounded-yet-privileged than we did? why do we believe that suffering, when it comes (as it must. make no mistake about that) will completely undo them? why do we have so little faith in our own influence on our children?

i believe, like a lot of indians, that a good education is the best gift one can give one's children. but for me, a good education has less than nothing to do with good academics and board exams and all the rest of it; nor does it begin in school or end after a given number of years.

dipali said...

@usha: I personally feel that being a relaxed, comfortable-with-the-world parent is an option that has suited me well, and would , hopefully, continue to do so. As educated parents who keep communication channels open, we should be able to tackle the world as it is today.
I may be a dinosaur, but I'm certainly an optimistic one.
@space bar: I agree with you totally.
Yes, education is a life long process with innumerable sources of both knowledge and wisdom. The entire 'ram-kahaani' of my childhood was to say that like everything else, privilege is relative. I'm sure there were times when I hated doing the jharoo-ponccha because I would have preferred to read, and I hated being called 'maharani', and 'lazy bones', and 'clumsy'. There
were, naturally, times of great angst. But retrospectively, yes, it was, overall, a good childhood.

Unknown said...

Dipali- your post brought back such memories - yes we did have certain privileges that others maybe did not have but againwe did not have the kind of exposure our children have today.Agreed you cannot control your child beyond a point but yes you can help him keep his or her feet on the ground. Mad momma being a wise young mother would do it well I suppose.

Anonymous said...


i think the best bet is todevelop as a person who's equally at ease when has less or when has more!

Itchingtowrite said...

priviledge is just a relative thing to me. and even the priviledged few hav parents working thir backsides off so that their kids can be given those privildges. very well brought out in your post and a very optimistic one!

Anonymous said...

Hi Dipali, Great post and perspective.
I've read MM's post and her concern seems to be primarily about schooling in an environment where every kid is more privileged than you, where not only are you insulated from other ground realities, but you may never really know how privileged you are. Also, like Usha said "Privilege did not make a huge difference in those days because what you could do with your money was still limited. You could still not flaunt it so conspicuously and still not buy so many things that today seem so essential as a child.
I think today it is tougher because of all the indulgences you can have if you have the money which seem like deprivation if you don't." So true..


Anamika said...

I actually wondered about the fridge part in your 'Elixir of life-Part 1' :) Ours came in 1980.

Lovely post!! You are so right, material privileges have not really shaped our current lives and how we turn out. But here I must say one thing that I observe among many Indian friends of ours in the U.S., which is that, kids from affluent backgrounds (not necessarily spoilt) tend to have more confidence in taking career risks and I think thats simply because they may not have the fear of failure.

Anamika said...

Correction..."kids from affluent backgrounds...who are now adults...."

Choxbox said...

posts and the comments are great food for thought. agree with all, have lots to say but too sleepy to type right now..

will send you a mail tomorrow.

Indian in NZ said...

Yeah we should have more faith in our children but then what is the right age to discuss family finances with them - what we can afford to buy for them and what we can't. My daughter thinks that her parents are really rich and can buy anything for her since we have been giving our children the best of everything - it worries me sometimes. My son seems more grounded and has no unrealistic demands.

Sue said...

Dipali, MM, I keep thinking the same thing here: it doesn't matter how priviledged or not your own childhood is. You will invariably end up with a friend from a very different background and will have to learn to live with the differences.

This is when your upbringing (and not your background) comes into play. Damn, I'll just have to do a post.

Neera said...

"For years and years we only had the rather smelly and one-eyed, scary looking sweeper woman who came to clean the bathroom and toilet, as our sole employee. My mother would cook, clean,launder, sew, make pickles, and always but always have a dabba-full (an old Cheeslings tin) of some home-made snack. She would also read magazines ( we used to get Femina regularly) and have an afternoon nap. I was probably in the ninth or tenth grade when she finally employed a part time maid."

I think small little things like these go a long way in keeping kids grounded and realizing the value of their privileges. Parents have to draw a line, first for themselves and more often than not, the kids follow by example, picking up the subtle messages in everyday life. The most profound lessons are learnt this way in my opinion.

Sue said...

Check out what I just wrote on this subject.

Unknown said...

Dipali, this is what we strive for, to make ourselves comfortable enough so that our children will not want what we have struggled for, and yearned for. That was a beautiful post. Just the other day I was sorting the brats clothes and saying, I barely had four pairs of decent clothes when I was in college and this fellow already has an overflowing cupboard. Does he even understand how lucky he is? No he doesnt, but I do. And thats where I need to make him understand that there are others who dont have. Thats my job. Not to deprive him, but to make him understand that he is lucky.

the mad momma said...

@Kiran. Define deprivation.

Anonymous said...

dipali - even when i read your comments on MM's blog long long ago i begged you to start one of your own!
i really hope i can meet you some day.

bird's eye view said...

Loved your post and it brought back so many memories of my own simple growing up years. Despite all the affluence and the options now available for our kids, I think we were the lucky ones, because we learnt to value the real things in life...I really struggle to help my kids understand that.

Anonymous said...

Your childhood sounds so stable, solid and peaceful, Dipali. :0) I think that's what's required, more than any of this frantic catch-up business that's taking over our existence. Already I have cousins who look at me like I live under a rock when I express shock at the scale of birthday parties my nieces have. I believe in keeping it comfortable, certainly, but also simple. And the one thing I hope to ensure when I have children is that they realize how privileged they are. Fingers crossed!

dipali said...

@eve's lungs: Knowing what is really important and what isn't: I hope we have taught our children that!
@itching to write: Nice to see you here. Being privileged is so relative, so much a matter of perception. We know some people who are really well to do, who would be upset whenever they went to their uncle's house for dinner because the meal would be laid out in solid silver dishes- that made them feel poor:)
@dipti: Mad Momma's point is extremely relevant. But given that acceptable schooling choices are limited, parents do have to guide their children carefully in matters of privilege and the sensitivity of the less privileged.
@anamika: An affluent background makes you more secure- you are able to take risks because of a perceived, if not actual safety net.
@choxbox: I'm still waiting for your mail!
@2b's Mom: Each child is so different.
@Sue: Yes. Your post said it all.
@Neera: I think the middle-'classness' of our lives was the best thing possible !
@kiran: much as we like to indulge our children, it is good to make them wait for something long enough to appreciate it- otherwise all these material goods have no value in the child's mind- they are all taken for granted.
@d: thank you so much for your constant encouragement. Now start your blog, please!
@bird's eye view: yes, we were truly lucky.
@OJ: Yes, stable and solid family life, but the angst of being an alien was there, both in England and when we came home with our strange accents that took ages to get rid of! And we missed our brother terribly. But I'm very happy living under my rock- I am always horrified by conspicuous overconsumption of anything!