Darling of a Pigmy Size: Parenting, Child Care and Child-at-Risk

On September 1, 2012 by admin

Aryak Guha



The Image-Event

“A two and a half year old boy banging his head on the floor whenever he sees his mother is a very disturbing scene, but that is precisely what Abhigyan Bhattacharya used to do, forcing the Norwegian authorities to take him and his sister Aishwarya into their custody.”


Thus starts an article published in The Hindustan Times (27th April, 2012, e-paper), a newspaper owned by the largest mass media conglomerate in India[1], reporting on the recent controversy surrounding Abhigyan and Aishwarya Bhattacharya. The Norway-based Child Welfare Services (called Barnevernet, afterwards CWS) had taken these kids, ‘minors’ of 2.5/3 and 6 months/1 year[s] (variously reported in newspapers) respectively, into custody in May 2011 citing lack of proper care by their biological parents. National media waxed hysteric on this sensitive issue – call it a ‘scandal’ or heart-rending tale – turned into a daily melodrama with images of distressed, tearful parents and grandparents transmitted ‘live’ or printed on front pages, not to mention the bonny faces of the siblings themselves. Many of these, significantly, were ‘file‘ photographs showing the smiling kids, mostly the son, in the arms of either of the parents (again, more often the father). The high visibility of the whole affair reached a climax of sorts when the then premier citizen of India, Ms. Pratibha Patil, a lawyer and a women’s rights activist herself[2], ‘personally’ stepped in to persuade the Norwegian state authorities to restore the custody of the siblings to their parents. The siblings’ paternal grandparents had personally urged Ms. Patil to look into the matter following what then appeared to be a diplomatic cul-de-sac between two embassies even after repeated requests from Indian authorities including Mr. S. M. Krishna, the Cabinet Minister of External Affairs (reportedly at the exhortation of Mamata Banerjee). The grandpa, appearing on a television channel with tears trickling down his eyes, urged all Indian nationals to provide support in the forlorn quest for his grandchildren, to hold them in his arms again, for nothing less would satisfy his pensive heart – in a manner reminiscent of Subhash Ghai-style lachrymose family saga. Going by the amount of desperate outcries of ‘family-nation(-al)’ citizenry against the ‘brutal’ measures of Norwegian authorities (the profusion with which age-old, stereotypical images of Nordic or Viking warlike barbarians were invoked to collapse with modern charges of racism is for anyone to see), the tears coming from a Hindu Brahmin senior citizen did strike an emotional chord after all, sympathies were duly ‘channelized’, and public pressure piled up to pose a national crisis. So much for tyranny of public emotion on display in the age of reality TV.

High-level bureaucratic intervention and constant media glare over what could (or should, as some thought) have been a ‘personal’ affair was assisted by the fact that the NRI Bhattacharya couple, the father a geo-physicist and mother a homemaker, later accused each other of threat to (and even actual) physical assault and launched police diaries/FIRs, drawing in their respective parents in turn. The (paternal) uncle of the kids, chosen by the father as the kids’ rightful guardian in the face of allegation against the biological parents’ incompetence to provide fit benchmarks of rearing, added to the controversy by (apparently) declaring the kids’ then foster-parents (also ethnically Indian) as better candidates (than himself, a kin and doctor by profession) in the matter of parental care. By that point in time, print and electronic media in the two concerned countries (and outside) were being flooded with opinions on both sides of India/Norway and biological/foster parenthood – not to speak of ‘good/bad’ and implied ‘East/West‘ divide that often accompany such passionate public debates – or any permutation of these binaries. The common-sense ‘theory’ of cultural relativism, a familiar but important consideration in these matters – often favoring the parent/-country in this case as a prima facie look at English-language newspaper reports, editorials/op-eds, and exchanges in various blogs available in public domain would confirm[3] – was advanced by Anurup Bhattacharya (the father in question) when he was quoted by various newspapers as saying that the Norwegian authorities enforced their decision ostensibly since the parents fed the siblings by hand (with a probable hint at breast-feeding) and shared bed with them at night, by all means common practices in India/West Bengal. There was a particularly fervent article supporting the Indian case, by then a national cause, on Kafila. The bio-note at the end of this article described the author as “a lawyer and a mother” (with an oblique emphasis) and ended by urging Delhites to join a protest march in front of the Norwegian embassy. An open letter with a similar import has also been published in The Hindu on the last Independence Day, signed by several women dignitaries including ex-MPs and ex-Chairpersons of National Commission for Women. Both of these articles argue, if predictably, along certain Feminist lines placing (somewhat alarmingly) the immediate onus of child-rearing on the mother – here turned into a victim[4]. The latter is directed at two journalists reporting on the incident, accusing them of deliberate misrepresentation of the mother’s plight – not only hinting at having forsaken the nation-state but belied the most powerful imaginary of them all, the mother (or the act of ‘mothering’). For everyone familiar with the late 19th century Hindu cultural resurgence gaining necessary historical/historicist legitimacy in the context of anti-colonial struggle, this moral plea directs us toward a bad infinity.


The ‘Nature’ of  Nurture

Parenting/Parenthood in an age of sperm, egg or womb donation and single or same-sex parents has become a jumbled affair on the whole.  Things in India are, however, not so baffling – the transition of ‘joint’ family to nuclear units is pretty much the last important thing to have happened to the formally educated, white collar middle class. Hence, multiple models of parenting – social/communal (erstwhile joint family), legal (adoption), biological and moral – rarely appear exclusive of each other although single parent is an increasingly visible reality in bigger cities. Arguably, the last of these is inevitable in all cases and also the most contested, precisely since it is culturally relative: there might be a more-or-less necessary criteria of parental care but none sufficient.

The notion, shall we say ‘common sense’ after Gramsci, that biological parents – especially the mother – are naturally attuned to serve the best interest of her/their child, is probably as closely guarded a cultural myth as one will come across. Without further ado, let me say that in the Indian case, it is a Victorian moral legacy in all likelihood. The idea or institution of ‘family’ as a socio-cultural refuge, and bearing considerable symbolic value/ sustenance as atavistic ideal, appears in public print-media after mid-19th century[5]. Related notions of women’s education, their cultural refinement, ‘progress’ and duty (to husband/child/family/nation) and prescriptions of child-rearing come to occupy the center-stage for the new ‘print public’ (then represented only by newspapers, leaving out oral sources and literature, notably plays and popular verse often set to tune, and visuals such as framed pictures/ ‘bazaar art’). The more recent idea (or lingo, really) of human capital as matrix of investment and management could be traced back to such writings, although it would be ambitious to expect exact correspondence between them. The overarching theme or strain, seemingly, remains that of ‘education’: a corpus of ‘scientific’ ideas and experiments in specific (‘new’) models (Herbert Spencer, Froebel or Montessori, sometimes with particular reference to language acquisition and other skills of acculturation), dietary recommendations, routines or daily habit (often insistent on living/matching up to the Western models of child-rearing and concomitant well-being in health and civilizational progress), standards of interaction with one’s children (how to keep constant watch over her or help growing good/virtuous habits) and, not the least, how to make the most economic use of corporal punishment to the child’s later/better development – at home and school. It is a wholesome transformation or refinement of body and mind/soul that is being talked about, roughly constituting the paradigm of individual ‘growth’ – to be harnessed to the cultivation of a better race/jati. One suspects that this was indeed an important moment of inauguration, after late Foucault, of modern regime/s of knowledge and ‘verediction’. Such synthetic models of ‘development’ found their way, were rehearsed and congealed in the official model/s of ‘value education’ after independence, whether one thinks of various Education Commission reports (at least up to Kothari, 1964-66) or the more liberal ‘public school’ ethos of the likes of Jiddu Krishnamurthy[6].

Lest we stray from the topic we started with, I will end this section by drawing your attention to another phase in recent (post-1947) Indian history. The period between early/mid-50s and mid-60s, the years of Nehruvian nation-state in other words, provide the next important bend in our narrative. Nehru himself – towering statesman, fine orator, Harrow-educated scholar and loving ‘chacha’ to kids – personified the nature of cultural investment in the ‘generation next’ of these troubled times, marred by terrible food crisis, wars with neighboring countries, (much disputed) re-organization of states and the beginning of students’ unrest[7]. However, along with dams, pucca asphalt roads (that always so overwhelmed the subaltern ‘counter-epic’ protagonist Dhorai and becomes his final providence – a ‘real nowhere’), bridges, factories and other ‘shrines of modernity’ came Sahitya Akademi, Films Division, (a revamped) Publications Division (now under Ministry of Information and Broadcasting), National Book Trust and Children’s Film Society – a comprehensive, solid investment that would provide the necessary cultural fulcrum for many years to come. Private enterprises like Children’s Book Trust and India Book House came soon after. If the reader is still wondering about the valence of this little history to our present discussion, let me say (for want of a better turn of phrase) that this was the nurture that the nascent nation-state needed, and found – to complement (and multiply, as if it was a simple number game) the project of individual growth already in place.


Rights and Wrongs, Dos and Don’ts

 The discourse of children’s rights in India, having cognate histories in human rights and women’s lib movement, appears in the seventies, that too not before mid-seventies in all likelihood. Nomenclatures like ‘child study’, ‘child-centered’ or ‘child abuse’ that now might seem very familiar and part of common parlance in the civil society are quite recent[8]. The first coordinated multi-national effort to ascribe rights to children took place in the Geneva Convention of 1924 and then, in a more detailed manner, in 1959. The latter provided the structural framework, and also the philosophical foundation of the UNCRC in 1989 to which India became a signatory exactly twenty years back. Since then, as elsewhere, we (the normative adults in their equivalential capacity of citizen-subject) have been virtually inundated with volumes of books, laws, charters, commissions and their mandates, printed matter, oh-so-human photographs, lectures, campaigns, schemes, fact-finding committees, court hearings, radio talks and TV shows – the list is virtually endless. The litany of media wisdom, of which many a listener-viewer have grown rightfully skeptical, and occasional scholarly expertise, have apparently impressed upon us that ‘childhood’ – that golden passage in our life – is on the wane. Just as in the case of the siblings, where CWS authorities allegedly ‘snatched’ (some zealous commentators even brought the charge of ‘abduction’!) the kids on grounds of unsatisfactory ‘parental’ care, and hence, presumably, the children’s right to be cared for (could the clinical diagnosis ‘attachment disorder’ boil down to this?) and parents retorted on the pretext of being shorn of their right to love and care (but always, as the law says, “to the best interest of the child”), the blind spot of care and substantive right of and towards children belies the grand hope of human/child rights documents.

Where does the child figure in this throwback to competing adult claims (‘specialized’ child care/ moral-biological parenthood/state sovereignty) to rightfully own her, body and mind, or does s/he, at all? How does one make the legislators and executives of child rights mutually responsible? How does the (average) adult, as relatively sovereign individual vis-à-vis the child and having the better of age, knowledge and understanding, think or act upon this intimate, diminutive other? How, for one, do relevant laws apply to someone who is blissfully, if ‘naturally’, unaware of their implications? None of these is easy to answer. My response, really nothing more than a hunch, is that we would need to think in terms of new forms/frames of subjectivity and pragmatics, moved less by a (presentist-positivist) sense of ‘should’ or ‘ought’ than strategic employment (or ‘play’) of an other-regarding impulse – an aesthetic, politics, ethics and poetics rolled into one if that was ever possible. For the time being though, I choose to leave you with the hyperlink of a poem, written by W. H. Auden in 1939, that squarely puts its finger on the antinomy of normative law and ‘labor of love’ as it comes:



[1] Like many other big industrial houses in India, the majority stake in the Times group (Bennet, Coleman & Co. Ltd.) is owned by an Agarwal Jain family. Additionally, they sponsor Jnanpith award in literature, Miss India title/ beauty contest, Filmfare awards and Economic Times award for Corporate Excellence.

[2] Ms. Patil, who usually appeared on public media as a carefully dressed familial person, looking rather innocuous in sari and a large vermillion bindi on her covered forehead, and in her capacity as upper-caste, Marathi (supported on that ground by Bal Thackeray who defied NDA dictates during Presidential elections), (first) woman President, was no stranger to controversies herself – mostly to the benefit of her immediate relatives. Predictably, she is known to have been loyal to (undoubtedly) the most powerful family in recent Indian history – the Nehru-Gandhi household – reportedly having over 450 public properties (e.g. roads, hospitals, schools, sanctuaries etc.)/ awards/ government schemes named after its progeny. These details are recounted here to emphasize the influential role played by the institution of family/kinship (and, arguably, the concomitant social distinction or moral legitimacy associated with it) in recent India.

[3] I will not, for reasons of space, mention every article that I have accessed. These are mostly Indian and occasionally Euro-American or Australian, my unfamiliarity with Scandinavian languages being the primary reason. A considerable number hailing from Norway and (west) Europe shared the same opinion, including senior citizens and academicians, and even provided details of alleged high-handedness, malpractice and fund laundering by CWS over the years although there were others, significantly lesser in number, who opined on the contrary.

[4] This is not to discredit or underestimate the significance of gender issue likely to be involved in this case, especially when the mother was being targeted as being more responsible (of the two parents) for the toddlers’ maladjustment, as indicated in the report quoted above, since allegedly she was mentally unstable herself – occasionally getting into an uncontrollable rage that would frighten her son (and, again as alleged by CWS, resulting in the boy’s attachment disorder). The precise nature of her ailment remains unclear from various reports though; it could be anything from post-partum depression to a more general psychotic, bipolar or schizophrenic disorder and clearly, it is ill-advised to judge, let alone blame, her on the basis of newspaper reports. Still, the shared thematic (virtues/shortcomings) of motherhood being equally applicable to arguments for and against the mother in question as a/‘the’ self-evident, innate/ ‘natural’, sacral and near-universal biological/cultural ‘truth’ in nurture remains unclear and, I would say, self-defeating (from gender perspective) both in case of the open letter or the Kafila article. This is not the place to argue that such notions are ultimately contingent middle-class preserves as, for instance, the noted Freudian and anthropologist Bruno Bettelheim points out in The Children of the Dream: Communal Child-rearing and American Education (McMillan, 1969) while working among the Kibbutz community in Israel. Among kibbutzim, community home for child-rearing has been the custom (at least) since 1920s – ‘exclusive’ motherhood or maternal care for one’s biological child is against cultural norm.

[5] Bengali journals from this period (late 1850s-60s, e.g. Mahila, Anta(h)pur, Bamabodhini et al) regularly featured articles on such topics. Since, as historians tell us, Calcutta was the second city of the British Empire, or at any rate the only Indian city that could make such a claim till the capital was shifted in 1912, there is reason to be persuaded that these Bengali journals were pioneers in popularizing these ‘modern’ ideas in India. For a comprehensive selection, see Pradip Basu (ed.), Samayiki vol. II (Ananda Publishers, 2009). Going by available accounts (including the pioneering work of Aries), the perceptive shift toward a child-centric approach to family and childhood as a (quasi-)autonomous stage in life occurs in Europe sometime between the 17th and 18th century. Well-known scholarly works by the likes of Lawrence Stone and Jacques Donzelot would corroborate this.

[6] With the important exception of  Tagore’s Santiniketan, probably the most ‘original’, ‘total’ and constructive experiment among these models.

[7] L. & S. Rudolph and Karuna Ahmed provide an interesting sociological explanation. Following them, the rapid establishment of a full-grown educational system in India had effectively deferred formal maturation and elongated youth as a phase in life. This, along with increasing unemployment contributed positively toward the growing dissidence by students. ‘Student Politics and National Politics in India’, EPW (July 1971).

[8] Even a casual look at the OED will confirm that. Words like ‘child’, ‘childish’, or ‘childhood’ all occur in Old or Middle English. Terms such as ‘child-nature’, child-literature’, ‘child-culture’, and ‘child psychology’ belong to the last two decades of 19th century, while some others such as ‘child welfare’, ‘child-mind’, ‘child care’ and ‘child-centered’ enter English vocabulary in the early twentieth century. The word ‘child-faced’ to describe the physiognomic details of a colored person (‘negro’, actual use, in McMillan’s Magazine) is recorded in 1906. ‘Child abuse’ and ‘child benefit’ belong to 1972 and 1975 respectively. The archaic and literary variant ‘childe’ was used to denote a person of genteel descent, usually belonging to the family of a knight as in Childe Harold (Byron) or Childe Roland (Browning).


Aryak Guha is Assistant Professor of English at S.C. College, Habra. His interests include Children’s Literature and History of Childhood.

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