I think it is fair to say that when I was a little girl, times were tough. My parents had to scrimp and save for everything. Times were genuinely hard. My mother was the finance minister of the house, and every penny was accounted for. If a purchase had to be made, it was thought about many times before a deal was finalised. Necessities – we had them all. Luxuries – few and far between. As well as being the finance minister, she was also the education secretary and what she instilled in us was a hunger, a drive, an ambition. Work hard. Be educated. No one can steal your knowledge from you. If you don’t like the way that we live now – that’s fine. The only person that can change that, is you. And she was right. I am grateful for the childhood that I had, I am grateful for the hard knocks, I am grateful that I had a mother who was no nonsense – because all those aspects combined, made me who I am today. I know what it was like to struggle financially – I never want to experience that again. I am full of gratitude for the education that I received – I am a living example of someone who had nothing – studied – and am living the life that I dreamed of when I was a little girl.
As well as being in charge of finance and education, Mum was also responsible for our spiritual and moral development. We weren’t brought up with a sense of entitlement – in fact it was a sense of gratitude. Be grateful that you have a free education – millions of children around the world would love to be in your position, going to school everyday, instead they have to work. Be grateful for the food on your table – millions of people don’t have anything to eat – don’t waste your food. And she would both terrify and inspire us with stories about people in India, more specifically Bengal – people who changed their own lives, and the lives of others for the better.
I distinctly remember the day that my father realised that although my sister and I were brilliant and fluent English speakers, we no longer spoke in Bengali at home and even though we could understand it, we would always converse and reply to our parents in English. I’m really not sure what the final straw was, but one day my father declared that we were only allowed to speak in Bengali at home and if we wanted something, we had to speak in Bengali – or not at all. There was a pin drop silence in the house. Nobody spoke. I remember my sister and I – probably aged 6 and 9 at the time, exchanging horrified glances! I found myself panicking and wildly looking at random objects wondering – ‘What’s the Bengali for cup, or wall, or stairs?’ I couldn’t even remember. My father wasn’t someone to be trifled with, so we took the matter quite seriously. Initially, we communicated in very hesitant and broken Bengali. However, in a matter of days we surprised ourselves with how easy and natural it seemed. There was a method behind what appeared to be complete madness to us.
My mother then decided that I would learn how to read and write in Bengali…
And this was when I was introduced to a character who inspired me, and changed my life for ever. She had ordered some Bengali books from India and they were all created by the same person – his name was Ishwar Chandra Vidysagar. (Vidyasagar, in Sanskrit means ‘Ocean of knowledge’). From a small age, Vidyasagar had a desire to learn and be educated, his father encouraged it too. He was a poor Brahmin boy and would have to work during the day to earn money for his family. Where they lived, there was no electricity in the house, so Vidyasagar’s father would make him study beneath the light of the lampposts on the street. Sometimes, his father would find the little boy cross legged, slumped over, fast asleep with his book in his lap – so his father would tie Vidysagar’s small pony tail to the lamppost, in case his eyes did close and he drifted off to sleep, the pull on his hair would jerk his head back again, and the little boy would continue with his studies. Vidyasagar grew up, went to university, became a successful scholar, championed the upliftment of the status of women in India, and fought for the rights of widows to be remarried. He helped to reform the education system on India and set up a high school for children.
Throughout his lifetime, he wrote many books, but in 1850 he wrote some books for children learning Bengali, called Borno Porichoy. More than a 100 years later, through this book, I was introduced to him.
My parents were old school in their approach to bringing up children. I shower affection upon my own daughters, constantly tell them how proud I am of them, tell them that I love them all the time – it wasn’t how I was brought up. It was a silent acceptance from both sides – we knew our parents loved us, we loved our parents – it was never verbalised – it was never discussed. We were never publicly praised. If we got an ‘A’ grade – there were no congratulations, or bright smiles, or pats on back. The response was a simple ‘Good, do better next time!’ At the time the best grade was an ‘A’ – so there was that! To be honest, I knew what that meant. You can’t be complacent. Good – you have achieved an ‘A’. So have thousands of others. Keep going. Keep working hard. This ‘A’ is not the ultimate goal – you have many more ‘A’s to achieve. We knew that. And we never stopped. We never gave up. We continued to keep going and secretly hoping that one day our mother would say ‘Well done!’. I write that with a broad smile on my face as I type – because she always reads my blogs – and I know that the stubborn woman that she is – that’s never going to happen! I accept it though.
But I have digressed – Borno Porichoy was full of short stories with a moral. I had always found reading English extremely easy. I remember when I was in Reception, my mum practised some key words with me, the next thing I knew, I could read every book on this blessed Earth. Bengali – was a challenge. I had to sound out every letter and blend them to read the word – which was a frustrating but helpful experience for me. It helped me to empathise with those who didn’t find reading that easy. I became more fluent, the more I practised – but even now, if I’m given a Bengali newspaper to read, I take a huge deep breath and know that it will take some time to decipher each word.
What I’m about to share with you is a story from this book, that made me view my parents in a different way. I remember hesitantly sounding it out and reading it to my parents. The story was about a boy called Gopal. Gopal was a good boy. He listened to his parents and always did as he was told. Sadly, his parents died, and he was put in the care of his aunt. He liked his aunt – and she liked him but Gopal soon discovered that he could behave in her care, in a way that would have been completely unacceptable for his parents. One day, he stole from a shop – the shopkeeper complained to his aunt, and although his aunt knew of his guilt, instead of chastising him, shouted at the shopkeeper and said that Gopal would never do such a thing. That became the undoing of Gopal. It didn’t matter what Gopal did, his aunt defended him and never told him off. Time went on, Gopal grew older and instead of being a successful man as his parents had dreamed – he became a criminal. Stealing and lying had become second nature to him. Eventually, in the middle of a theft, he ended up killing a person. The sentence for which was death. As a last request, Gopal asked to see his aunt before he died. His aunt was touched by her nephew’s love for her and hurried to the jail to bid him a fond farewell. Gopal saw his aunt from behind the bars and asked her to approach him so that he could whisper something in her ear. Curiously, she sidled up to the bars and put her ear towards him. Gently, he leant towards her ear and all of a sudden, with a huge strength of force, bit her ear off!
As a 9 year old girl, I had not seen this event coming and I was horrified with what I had just read, but I continued reading.
Gopal’s aunt screamed with terror and pain and shouted at her nephew – ‘I did nothing but love and protect you all your life, why did you do such a thing to me?’ But Gopal’s answer was painfully honest – and as a 9 year old, I remember thinking how his answer made so much sense to me. He replied, ‘Oh Auntie, you didn’t love me. If only you had told me off and corrected my behaviour when I was little, then I wouldn’t be in this jail now, about to be hanged.’
I have never forgotten this story. I remember looking at my parents differently from that point onwards. When they would tell me off, or expect more from me, or not let me do things that other children seemed to get away with – I suddenly realised why.
It is easy to be a friend to your child. It is easy to be the good cop – always making excuses for their behaviour, allowing them to get away with things because they were tired, or not well, or had had a bad day. It is much more difficult to be the ‘bad cop’ – enforce good behaviour, make sure there are consequences for poor behaviour. It means being consistent – which is tiring. It means facing the wrath and displeasure of your child – which is heart breaking.
Although my approach to parenting is different to that of my own parents, I will always be grateful for the richness, the diversity, the literature, the life stories that I was exposed to as a little girl. I will always be grateful for the hunger to succeed that was instilled in me. I will always be grateful that my behaviour was corrected when it needed to be. I will always be grateful that my parents never needed to tell me how much they loved, because they always showed it in their own ways.