“through the act of living, the discovery of oneself is made concurrently with the discovery of the world around us. . ."

Thursday, May 6, 2010

‘Our Children’

(Courtesy Pather Panchali - Satyajit Ray)

The book that I can remember the farthest back in my childhood is a big red book called ‘Nammude Kunjungal’ (Our Children). If I remember correctly, it has been in my possession since I was 4 or 5 years old (early ‘60s). The pencil-drawn graffiti and the crooked Malayalam alphabets strewn among the pages is ample proof for this. In a black and white picture, the face of a mother punishing her son by pulling his cheeks has been angrily scratched with a pencil. I remember the rage whenever I looked at that mother.

The book is still with me. It is a Malayalam translation of ‘Our Children’, written by Flora H Williams and published by Orient Longman Publishing House, Pune, India. Nearly two decades ago, I chanced upon the English original at a roadside hawker. Both adorn the shelf.

The book is about child rearing, the qualities that should be instilled at a young age, the grooming and character building that prepares the child for its adult life. Each chapter is about a single quality; like discipline, honesty, procrastination, courage, corporal punishment etc. The first part of chapter is an essay on the topic followed by one or two illustrative stories. For example, the chapter on honesty. There is a beautiful story about a poor newspaper boy. He sells an evening newspaper. One day he is unable to sell most of the copies and is so dejected because the pittance that he earns from it keeps the kettle boiling in his poor home. Then he meets another boy who boasts that he sold his entire copies. The boy advises him that all he has to do is to shout something like ‘War in America!’ or ‘Terrible train accident in New York!’ or some sensational thing like that. He should run away before the buyer gets to read the news. The boy wonders how he can say that when there is no such news in the paper. He hesitates – in his mind he sees the happy face of his mother as he hands over the money to her. But then he realizes he would have to lie. The boy turns fiercely to his friend and tells him, ‘No! I won’t lie even if I can’t sell a single copy’. As the boys gather around him and tease him for a being a coward, a passing elderly gentleman overhears the commotion and learns about the issue. He admires the boy’s courage and honesty and gives him a good job in his office. End of the story.

Needless to say, all these stories with several illustrations, some even in colour had made a great impression on my young mind. But certain qualities like laziness, procrastination etc remained. Even as a child I was aware and ashamed of my shortcomings.

Even now, I read the book once in a while. The Malayalam translation is archaic but kind of nostalgic. The photographs are beautiful; photographs both Indian and American, of children and people from the ‘40s and ‘50s. How pretty and innocent they looked! The old-fashioned clothes, hairstyles! Landscapes, which have gone forever! Many of the young children would be now old and even dead!

The book is one of the best I have come across in this subject. It belongs to another era long gone. Out of print and out of circulation, the book is as extinct as its contents. It would seem so absurd and anachronous to uphold the values and qualities it extols.

I wonder what I should tell my son. I have reached middle age. The lesson that I have learned from my life is that to be virtuous, not to be ambitious and greedy and cunning is to fail in the life I am forced to live in this society. To be honest is to be dumb. To be truthful is to be cheated. To love is to be foolish. We now live in a world that scoffs at these virtues. I have to tell my son not to fall into the trap of virtues. Yet I have no weapons other than my sentimental, honest heart to pass on to him. The life as I see around, crowds me into a narrowing circle. My heart thuds, my mouth turns dry as the mocking mob draw out their daggers.

********** Balachandran, Trivandrum 06.05.2010


  1. Sir: First things first. It’s a lovely piece that evokes fond memories. I’d a hardbound Russian novel titled ‘Achante Balyam’, it’s no more with me. I still remember the protagonist, a young boy, accidentally drinks Vodka, telephones Mayakovsky, but too afraid even to utter a single word… Thanks for reminding me of all these.

    The concluding para, I can very well relate to that. Yes, “to be honest is to be dumb. To be truthful is to be cheated.” But isn’t one’s conscience that matters more than anything else? I believe so.

  2. Conscience? Easier said than done, when you have fought a thousand battles... When like the boy in the story, one become the butt of ridicule for being virtuous...

  3. Beautiful write, Balan, mixing nostalgia and confusion.

  4. The virtues you hold on are antediluvian in the present times.
    Where hard work has to be substituted with "smart work", you can easily know what are the attributes of “smart work".
    And though I do not disparage the virtues you commented upon, my experience over the past has reinforced the fact that it is foolish to be honest and be fooled in the bargain.
    But then there are certain minimal values that still remain in us which restraints us from going with the herd wholesale.

  5. This is true Balanji, even I feel it is foolish to love, is dumb to be honest.......!

    The story about honesty you narrated sounds like something that can only and only happen in books not in reality.

  6. Beautiful!
    They reminded me of the TV show called 'Malgudi Days'
    Innocent stories which teach you more they intend to..
    I agree with last part about the society and its people..their ignorance towards these virtues..
    But that is how it is today.. changing times have left us with nothing as we continue our struggle to live in this society..

  7. I have often wondered what is the best legacy that I could leave my children with..I know that through them and in their ways and thinking processes, i will continue to live..and when I think so, It becomes suddenly very important for me to be what I am naturally as I know that only this can get suffused into their minds easily and find permenance..to be gentle with gentle people and to be tough with bullies..its so easy to be just the opposite.. similarly honesty is a virtue thats very close to me..it takes a lot of courage but every ounce is worth it! Haven't read the book"our children' but will read it as soon as I can lay my hands on it.

  8. @anil: Going with the herd wholesale! I liked that! The question is whether to survive or perish. Battered that I am, I still cling on to the shreds of dignity that my so-called virtues give and hope- hope and dream for a better tomorrow...
    @Sujata: In spite of my despondency, I will stick to my principles. It is like what Arun said - 'the conscience is all that matters. Like Casabianca on the sinking ship...
    @kalpana: A story it is, but like belief in God, it gives you strength...
    Periwinkle: We can, you know, fight on till the last breath, whatever be the outcome. 'Karmannye vadhikarastha, ma bhaleshu kadachana..

    check out this poem, everyone:
    The boy stood on the burning deck
    Whence all but he had fled;
    The flame that lit the battle's wreck
    Shone round him o'er the dead.
    Yet beautiful and bright he stood,
    As born to rule the storm;
    A creature of heroic blood,
    A proud, though childlike form.

    The flames roll'd on...he would not go
    Without his father's word;
    That father, faint in death below,
    His voice no longer heard.

    He call'd aloud..."Say, father,say
    If yet my task is done!"
    He knew not that the chieftain lay
    Unconscious of his son.

    "Speak, father!" once again he cried
    "If I may yet be gone!"
    And but the booming shots replied,
    And fast the flames roll'd on.

    Upon his brow he felt their breath,
    And in his waving hair,
    And looked from that lone post of death,
    In still yet brave despair;

    And shouted but one more aloud,
    "My father, must I stay?"
    While o'er him fast, through sail and shroud
    The wreathing fires made way,

    They wrapt the ship in splendour wild,
    They caught the flag on high,
    And stream'd above the gallant child,
    Like banners in the sky.

    There came a burst of thunder sound...
    The boy-oh! where was he?
    Ask of the winds that far around
    With fragments strewed the sea.

    With mast, and helm, and pennon fair,
    That well had borne their part;
    But the noblest thing which perished there
    Was that young faithful heart.

    Felicia Dorothea Hemans


Leave a word, please!