CHENNAI : My family and I have lived in gated communities for nine years now. Inside the tall gates of our community, we live amid planned, manicured gardens with play areas. Outside these walls the chaos of urban life rages. A chaos our children rarely come in to contact with. Air-conditioned buses take them to beautifully designed schools and bring them home again.
We drive them to birthday parties, movies and play dates. The last time my son took public transport, he was two years old and we were living in London. He will soon turn 11. When I was 11, I was catching two PTC buses to get to school.Like so many other parents of my generation, I am raising my children in a bubble. We have chosen to do this for our own convenience, and as we tell ourselves, the safety and wellbeing of our children. (Though numerous incidents in the recent past tell us that safety is not always a guarantee)
Our children have space to play in, pools to splash about in and enough classes to keep them occupied from the time they come home till the time they go to sleep. Why should they have to take the 13B to Panagal Park and then switch to get to school? A year ago, my boys and I walked for about 15 minutes home from a clinic. Mind you, we only did that after trying to book a taxi. You would have thought my children were walking the course of the Comrades Ultramarathon.
‘It’s hot!’ ‘I’m thirsty!’ ‘It’s dusty!’ ‘How much longer?’ ‘Why is it so noisy?’ I looked at these two children I had created with a mix of horror and fascination. How had they turned out like this, I wondered. But of course, I knew the answer. I had raised them with limited, carefully curated access to the world outside. This was not their fault.
This weekend we took a train to Chennai and again the questions rained. ‘Why does the station smell?’ ‘Why are people sleeping on the platform?’ ‘Why does that dog have only one ear?’ My almost eight-year-old declared that he never wanted to travel by train again because ‘seeing poor people makes me sad.’ He has already learned that the best way to not have to deal with things that make him uncomfortable is to avoid them. Not confront them. Or understand them.
Or try to look for ways to solve them. But, to avoid.
My boys and their friends will grow up and learn statistics about health and poverty. But it will remain an abstract concept to them. Something they occasionally see at train stations and signals and on school ‘outreach’ trips.
On the train home, I looked out the window as Chennai gave way to smaller towns and villages, fascinated by the changing buildings, dried lakes and station names. My children were glued to their devices, preferring to immerse themselves in a make believe world rather than look outside at the real one. Another bubble inside their bubble. I don’t blame my children. These are bubbles I have created. The question is, how do I burst them? Where do I begin?