A short-tempered father promises some guests that his son will speak to them. The 10-year-old son refuses. The father slaps him. The boy cowers, wails, and eventually does as he is told. The father says he sort of regrets hitting his son, but maintains—reinforcing his unambiguous status as the patriarch—that he hit his son for his own good, and that he ought to in order to discipline him.
An unremarkable incident in an unremarkable day in an unremarkable Mumbai slum.
Given that the boy is a star of the film, Slumdog Millionaire, given that he had just returned from Los Angeles to his hovel of a home, and given that the guests were actually reporters waiting to interview him, the thing became a cause celebre last week.
The London tabloid, The Sun (whose reporter was presumably among those waiting to speak to 10-year-old Azhar), ran the story huge, helpfully titling it—with its characteristic flair for not letting accuracy get in the way of a sensational headline—'Scumdad Millionaire'. (The dad in question told HT the total amount of money the family had at its disposal was Rs 5,000. After that? They would see.)
To give The Sun its due, it was on to a terrific story. Even the quality papers in London would have played it big had they latched on to it. Hitting your child is big stuff in the UK, viewed with the disgust that attends on moral depravity and/or criminal conduct.
In India, the reactions to the story were far more nuanced. There was a fair bit of incredulity and faint amusement at the outrage the incident had evoked. This has to do with the different models of parenting in India and abroad.
Several of my colleagues (all in their mid-twenties, all part of the educated, urban elite, and none of them yet parents) found the whole thing wasn't worth making a fuss about. They all said they had been routinely whacked, lashed and hit with hard, handy objects when they were children. They found it an unremarkable, indeed inevitable, part of growing up.
But I think attitudes towards parenting are changing, especially among India's urban middle class.
I remember being hit when I was growing up. And I did, at the time, think it was an unremarkable, indeed inevitable part of growing up. All my friends were hit too— 'physical abuse' as a phrase hadn't come into currency three decades ago.
The unpleasant, humiliating memory of those experiences has stayed with me. Now that I have a seven-year-old daughter, I believe hitting your children is an unequivocally wicked thing to do.
I have never come even remotely close to laying a finger on my daughter. Neither has my wife. Our girl gets scolded a fair bit—all by her mother—but that is about as far as we shall ever go.
I don't think it is only me. The evidence is merely anecdotal, but most fathers I know, men in their thirties and forties, would find hitting their children—or not protesting if their wives were to hit their children—equally outrageous.
Three things have caused this attitudinal shift. First, the unpleasant memories of one's own childhood, and the desire to not leave our children, when they grow up, with similar memories.
Secondly, exposure to the rest of the world and the awareness of how, like racism, physical abuse of children is seen to be a deeply repugnant act.
And finally, among a whole generation of so-called new age parents, bringing up a child is a much more fraught, anxiety-ridden, careful job than it used to be a generation ago. There's too much thinking, a lot of debate, introspection and circumspection.
I don't know how it is for you. I would like to. I can speak for myself. And I can say that apart from the reasons above, I simply recoil at the sense of bullying and ostentatious, unarguable display of the power equation that hitting my child would entail.