Chintan Girish Modi
One of the perks of being a book reviewer is that editors often introduce you to books that you may not have discovered on your own. I say this because a lot is being published in India right now and gems that are not backed by big multinational publishers often go unnoticed. What makes books visible these days is not just the quality of writing but also marketing budgets.
I offer this preface before launching into my review of Divya Murarka’s book Purnah: The Complete Parent (2021) because I suspect that it has not reached many of the readers who would stand to benefit from it – parents, teachers, grandparents, teacher trainers, school counsellors, principals, and people like myself who are not interested in being parents but would like to know how the institutions of family and marriage are reinventing themselves in our times.
Murarka is a single mother and a proud parent of an eight-year-old. This book documents her journey with parenting and lessons learnt during this process. The path has been filled with “ups and downs”. The author has spent “many lonely nights with no one to discuss things with”, and her book is an effort to reach out and share her experiences in the hope that others would gain from getting to know what she has gone through and how she has dealt with. She is not looking for sympathy. This book comes from a need to convey that books on parenting must broaden their approach and engage with numerous different kinds of families.
“I remember the first time my child asked about his father, my throat dried up and I was at a loss for words,” writes Murarka. She goes on to describe many instances when her son repeated the same query. She found it hard to tell him that his father had died because she wanted to protect him from pain. She made up stories to put his questions to rest but his curiosity grew stronger when his friends at school asked him about his father’s whereabouts.
At one point, Murarka decided to consult the boy’s school principal and get an educator’s opinion. The principal advised Murarka to tell her son the truth and not give him “false hope”. The reason mentioned was that the truth would make him sad but also help him grow stronger. Murarka is lucky to have found a principal who was open to having this discussion. Not all school leaders have the emotional intelligence to make parents feel safe and cared for. Murarka could approach this principal because she felt that the home and the school were united in their goal of ensuring the child’s wellbeing, so they needed to work together.
Murarka picks out some key episodes from her life and turns them into teaching moments for the reader. She writes, for instance, about a parent-teacher meeting at her son’s school. When one of the teachers showed Murarka her son’s worksheets, she suddenly noticed a worksheet on the topic “My family” wherein the children were expected “to identify the members of a family” in the assigned picture. She notes, “The school curriculum today delivers that a family consists of a father, mother, sister, and a brother, followed by the extended family. The same convention was followed by my child and he had written ‘Father, Mother, Sister, and Brother’.” She was taken aback, seeing that her son had mimicked this general template.
Murarka asked him, “Is this your family?” Her son replied that he was referring to “a general family”. When Murarka asked him to enumerate all the members of his family, he replied, “Mom, grandfather, grandmother, and me.” This incident shows us that children, at a very early age, learn to distinguish between self-expression and communication directed at the teacher for assessment purposes. This example from Murarka’s life reminded me of my own school days. A teacher had asked our class to write an essay on the topic “My mother” and students could raise their hands and volunteer to read out their essays to the whole class. One of my classmates read out a beautiful essay about missing his mother who had passed away. The teacher was uncomfortable. She called it a “good essay”, then reminded my classmate that he could write about someone else’s mother. I am still shocked by her insensitivity.
Murarka writes, “This brings to light an opportunity to initiate and embrace change, for us as parents and educators to address and open up to the other distinct family types in our society.” Why? She believes that it would help the child “naturally accept the various types of family units that exist and not limit his understanding to a stereotyped definition of a family.”
I love this idea and have two resources to share. Pakistani-Canadian author and illustrator Eiynah NM’s book My Chacha is Gay (2014) is about a boy named Ahmed who lives in Karachi with his mother, father, baby sister, chacha (father’s brother) and dadi (father’s mother). Since this is a picture book, it shows different family types using illustrations. The accompanying text says, “Ahmed lives in a joint family. There are lots of different types of families. That’s the best part. If everyone was the same, the world would be a boring place.” His chacha has a boyfriend, who happens to be a pilot. Ahmed loves this couple. He wants to be a pilot when he grows up. He is sad when his chacha is taunted and asked to “get a wife”.
Indian author Shals Mahajan’s book Reva and Prisha (2021), illustrated by Lavanya Karthik, is about twin sisters named Reva and Prisha who are being raised by two lesbian mothers. One of them is Hindu, the other Muslim – Pritam Singh and Runu Yusuf. Runu is called Momma, and Pritam is addressed as Amma. This book is highly entertaining. In a country like India, where same-sex marriage is not legally recognized, it offers readers a way to imagine what families could look like if the law decided to stop getting in the way of love.
Mahajan’s book supports Murarka’s argument that schools ought to make children aware of different kinds of families. If adults are worried about children’s capacity to process this information, they must check if they are being honest or masking their own insecurities.
Mahajan’s book also includes a delightful song called “The Family Song”, which proudly proclaims: “A family’s a family/ no matter how mad!/ A family’s a family/ who hugs you when you’re sad!” It goes on to describe various types of families: “A momma and a dada,/ an amma and a momma,/ two dadas and a grandma!/ A baba, a mamma,/ a mausi and a friendma,/ three babies and a cat,/ a doggy and a rat./ A parakeet who whistles/ or an elephant who sneezes./ An older sister/ grumpy brother/ younger uncle/ cranky mother./ Plants in the garden/ or trees in a pot/ if you’re loved and you’re cared for/ the rest can go rot!”
Coming back to Murarka, she asked her son’s teacher if there was any discussion about “single-parent families” in the classroom. The teacher said that this topic is not explicitly addressed but dealt with “in a subtle way so that the child doesn’t feel singled out, and other children do not come up with inquisitive questions which may hurt the concerned child.”
Murarka tried to put herself in the teacher’s shoes and understand the limitations when one is working with a group of children rather than just one child. However, she was also justifiably concerned about how to make her own child “feel confident” in a society “struggling to talk about it (single-parent families) openly with children and to address their queries.”
Read the book to learn more about how she approached the situation. There was no quick-fix solution. She had to rely on her gut feeling as a mother who loves her child and wants the best for him, but also had to learn to ask for support from family, friends and professionals whenever required. This book is not a manual. It is an exploration meant to initiate conversations that are never had, or hushed because there is no road map to guide them. Hopefully, Murkarka’s strength and vulnerability will encourage many others to talk.
|When every child is taught that a perfect and complete family has set elements of father, mother, brother and sister, they could possibly relate that belonging to a family, where one of these members is missing is an “incomplete family”? What about children who don’t have both parents? How do we define a family for these children? In today’s era, where there are different types of family (e.g., two moms or two dads in case of homosexual couples, single parents, etc.), the definition of a complete family needs to be reframed. With the changing times, we have to redefine the concept of family and the sense of completeness for our children. We need to have a dialogue with children about what constitutes a family, and what binds a family. A group of people living together without any mutual respect or love is not a family. The education system must also look at redefining the elements of a family, so that we not only give a strong message to the children but to the society at large.
(An excerpt from the book)
The reviewer is a Mumbai-based bookworm who loves to write, travel, and conduct workshops with teachers. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.