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Monkey see, monkey do

By September 11, 2017September 13th, 2017One Comment
‘How do you expect your child to read if he never sees you pick up a book?’


I am sitting with a friend who has a baby. The baby is very sweet; its sweetness, I am told, is part of the machinations of evolution. If it did not have an outsized head and a small-sized body, it might not evoke such feelings of warmth and nurturance as it does. I am not sure whether we have been designed to feel such things about babies; or babies have been designed to make us feel such things about them. Perhaps, it is a chicken-and-egg situation: which came first, the baby’s design or the aesthetic?

At any rate, this is a baby of some determination. He is a wriggly bunch and he is determined to get at something he thinks will satisfy his immediate psychological needs. His mother is equally determined to keep this out of reach.

He wants her mobile phone.

Before you start cooing about how this generation comes pre-equipped with the circuitry required to handle the e-world, let me say one thing. Wrigglebum here is not reaching for tomorrow’s world which has been served up today. He is simply looking for what his Mum and his Dad and his Dadi and his Dada and his Mama and his Mami and his Chacha and his Chachi and his Phui and his Buaji and his (insert suitable familial connector) are looking for.

He sees how much sustenance they draw from their phones. He watches them respond to their phones in an immediate and intimate way that he had hoped, self-centred little wretch that he is, but no doubt designed that way by evolution which has caused him to be born a month premature simply because his species chose to stand upright, thus moving the pelvic girdle around… now where was I in that sentence?

Ah yes, the self-centred little wretch had hoped that this immediate and intimate manner of address was his by right and his alone. That phone has taught him ambivalence. When he reaches for it, he wants to draw from it and he wants to destroy it. He has seen how much it means to those whose love he had thought was his protection from the outside world with its claws and jaws and flames and lack of interest. (Lack of interest is much more terrifying to him than claws and jaws and flames; those are learned fears.) He has seen how they laugh and rage and respond. He has sensed their anxiety when they are parted from it.

All in the head

Perhaps he even senses in some dim way that this is where it’s at. This is where he should be. He claws his mother’s face as he reaches for her phone. I watch and I think of how the world must seem to a baby. Like a jigsaw with bits that don’t fit? Blobs of colour, masses of sound, the taste of milk, the prick of a needle, the murmur of voices… each new thing to be fitted into a frame that does not exist. This me, this not me — even that takes a while coming, I am told. Wrigglebum examines his hands with as much interest as he looks at a new toy. Both come in for the same vacuuming gaze, I need to know, what do I need to know, do I need to know… and that sudden precipitous loss of interest that marks a being that must keep its own survival front and centre and so is not interested in the hand-sewn, hypo-allergenic, llama-wool, made-by-tribals-to-help-tribals which someone has bought him to celebrate his his-ness.

(There is nothing else to celebrate but his being here, against all odds. Richard Dawkins says as much in Unweaving the Rainbow : “The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Arabia. Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively exceeds the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here.”)

So Wrigglebum wants mobile phone.

Hard to be correct

His mum, who is a rationalist, does not want him to have mobile phone. She is worried — but in a vague kind of way — that it might have deleterious effects on his DNA. She has read things on both sides of this debate and she tries hard to do the right thing, but the wrong thing is so often the convenient thing. Wrigglebum’s bum, snug and dry right now in a diaper, is an example of that rule.

As someone who has never had a child, I suspend all judgements on the philoprogenitive. But when I was a tutor, parents would often say to me, “Please tell my son to read.” I would dutifully turn to the child, who was sitting there, his face docile, his heart defiant, and say, “You should read.”

Only later did I get up the courage to say to the parents, “He does not read because he has never seen you read. He sees you come home and slump in front of the television set and so that is what he wants to do. Monkey see, monkey do. If he were in the habit of seeing you seek out a book to relax, to enjoy yourself, that is what he would be doing. I am a writer. I do not want to inflict books and reading on the unwilling. I want people to come to books and find in them what I do: a way to understand the world, a way to understand myself, a way to understand others, a way to leave the world, a way to return to the world more human than when I left.”

“I don’t want to force this child who would rather be doing something else to sit down with a book and hate books and then pass this hatred on to his children. So if you want him to read, sit with him, hold him, read with him, let him feel it as a moment of love between you and him, a quiet moment when you have stepped out of time, made time for him, and then suddenly that book may not seem so alien, and those words may not seem like impositions.”

Then I stopped being a tutor. And parents got mobile phones.

If I had not stopped, perhaps I would be making the same speech, mutatis mutandis .

(Teachers, even tutors, are good at making speeches.)

The author tries to think and write and translate in the cacophony of Mumbai.

Perhaps, it is a chicken-and-egg situation: which came first, the baby’s design or the aesthetic?

That phone has taught him ambivalence. When he reaches for it, he wants to draw from it and he wants to destroy it


Source: The Hindu Sunday Magazine

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