Missing the point

  • Soumya Bhattacharya, Hindustan Times, New Delhi
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  • Updated: Feb 19, 2011 20:04 IST

Penelope Lively, one of England's most well regarded writers, won the Booker Prize in 1987 with her novel, Moon Tiger.

Its narrator, a famous and popular historian called Claudia Hampton, lies dying from stomach cancer. As she withers away, she tries to make sense of her life, and tells us as much about it as about its intersections with others.

Many years ago, when I'd first read the sections of the novel that deal with childhood and children, I enjoyed them, but as ideas or abstractions.

When I reread the book last week, they had the ring of truth and lived life.

"Children are not like us. They are beings apart: impenetrable, unapproachable. They inhabit not our world but a world we have lost and can never recover."

In one of these sections, Lively has the narrator recall her own childhood, remember the anxious annoyance that she, as a little girl, caused her mother; and how she, as a child, saw her own behaviour to be justified and that of her mother's to be unreasonable.

"I was considered difficult. Impossible, indeed, was the word sometimes used. I didn't think I was impossible at all; it was mother and nurse who were impossible, with their injunctions and their warnings, their obsessions with milk puddings and curled hair and their terror of all that was inviting about the natural world — high trees and deeper water and the texture of wet grass on bare feet, the allure of mud and snow and fire… They admonished; I disobeyed."

Sometimes, we consider our girl to be difficult.

My wife, more than I, needs to deal with it because she spends more time with our daughter, and encounters more frequently and at greater length the areas of difficulty.

But then, it's not merely us, is it? Don't you find your child difficult/impossible at times? Didn't our parents find us so on occasion? Doesn't everyone?

Yes, I should think everyone does; finding children exasperating is as much a part of parenthood as finding parents unreasonable and silly is a part of childhood.

Rarely does the parent see it from the point of view of the child. (Rarely does the child see it from the point of view of the parent, but adults are supposed to have more of empathy and rationality than children.)

So when we find our girl, difficult, when we are infuriated by our girl's forgetting to tidy things up, when we are infuriated by how long certain things take to get done because of laziness or obdurateness, when we are anxious about whether the allures of the world will swallow her, we should remember that she might find us — with our injunctions and warnings and obsessions — difficult. Impossible, even.

My resolution for 2011 might be to see things from Oishi's point of view, but how will I?

We can't really see anything from the point of view of a child because we have forgotten what it is like.

Here is Lively, again: "We do not remember childhood — we imagine it. We search for it, in vain, through layers of obscuring dust, and recover some bedraggled shreds of what we think it was."


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