ON April 4, a speeding Mercedes allegedly driven by an under-aged boy snuffed out the life of a young professional in New Delhi. CCTV footage reveals the spine-chilling mishap in which the car didn't even try to slow down as it mowed straight into the hapless pedestrian. The sickening charade that followed is appalling because it is so predictable. A la the Salman Khan case, a family driver surrendered claiming he had been behind the wheel when the accident occurred. Nothing tells us more about the depravity quotient of our society, than this attempted subterfuge — the brazen endeavour to shield an offspring from the consequences of his actions.
Apparently, this was not the first occasion when the under-aged boy drove the vehicle or committed a traffic offence. The family was, therefore, fully aware that they were not just encouraging illegality but also endangering lives, when they permitted the boy to go on his joy-ride. Where does this strand of irresponsibility and recklessness come from? It's not as if the family belongs to the usual power elite — politicians, bureaucrats, film-stars, industrialists, the filthy rich or well connected types etc. — from whom we have come to expect such shocking aberrations. So how come, this none-too-influential, upper middle-class family seems to be mirroring the brash attitude of the powerful? Just how did the young brat derive the compulsive sense of entitlement of driving a car, that too at break-neck speed, before he turned 18? What school of upbringing enabled “Daddy” to indulge his juvenile son's illegal, dangerous demands even after earlier violations?
But before we fulminate against the “spoilt” upper middle-class brat and his stereotypically wealthy, businessman father, perhaps it would be good to turn the spotlight inward. For the fact is that it is not just wealthy businessmen who pamper their under-aged brats by giving them keys to four-wheelers. Amidst us, there are also many ordinary, middle-class parents, who think nothing of allowing their minor, school-going kids to take two-wheelers for short, dangerous spins around their neighbourhoods. There are even more parents who don't bat an eyelid while procuring licenses for their college-going teenagers through agents, without ensuring that their sons and daughters really know safe-driving practices. Inevitably, many youngsters do get involved in accidents - small, serious or fatal, given the overall “follow-no-rules” traffic culture in India and because no clear message is drilled into them about responsible driving. But this benign lenience is just one symptom of a more disturbing social phenomenon which has become widespread in the last two decades — the extent to which well-to-do Indians, pamper and indulge their children in their growing up years. Indeed, one may be forgiven in asserting, that Indian middle-class children are spoilt and cosseted to staggering proportions.
Children seem to occupy the position of demigods in Indian families, not ordinary mortals. They are the centre of attention, their lightest demands are met with alacrity, their tantrums are celebrated, and no real effort is made to inculcate a sense of responsibility or consideration in pursuit of gratification. Rarely do well-off parents say “no” to their children, as if it is some taboo word which will crush their little ones’ spirit instantly. In fact, middle-class parents seem to be perpetually on the defensive, guilt-ridden or over eager, as if they are in some way obliged to supply whatever their children ask for irrespective of whether its age appropriate, desirable or within their means.
Advertisers too have assiduously promoted a consumerist image of good parenting in which fathers and mothers are forever bringing smiles on the faces of their kids by providing them products and granting their wishes. Simultaneously, kids are elevated to a super smart, angelic, can-ask-nothing-wrong status. This further legitimises the demand-supply dynamics between parents and children and a failure to meet demands is seen as a failure of parental responsibility.
Social and peer pressures too are at an all-time high. Clichés abound. Parents are supposed to be children's friends, ultra-gentle and attentive no scolding, no healthy neglect, no wish denial — whereas children are supposed to be irreverent, over-sensitive, unreasonable and stubborn but always cute and innocent — young people who are always right.
No wonder so many kids grow up thinking of themselves as minor royalty, with a grossly inflated sense of self, to the complete exclusion of all others beyond one's immediate circle. You just have to observe how badly behaved Indian children are in public places and how tolerant parents are to their antics. That old-fashioned word “manners” appears to have disappeared from our universe. Moreover, middle-class kids are often protected from life's realities and spoon fed, well into their teens. All that they are expected to do is study and have fun. Rarely are they called upon to help around the house, share chores or major responsibilities. All this, coupled with the cultivated narcissism of our times, best personified by the selfie fixation, is shaping a generation of young people, many of whom however bright and gifted, simply lack the psychological and social compass to balance personal gratification with attendant responsibilities. Add to that our general predilection to flout rules as a society and how getting away with it has become a way of life.
So can you really blame Bharat Mata's brats, like the Delhi joy-rider who killed a pedestrian? Isn't it their middle-class parents, who need to grow up first and stop mollycoddling their children to such an extent that they end up being thoroughly self-centred, inconsiderate citizens? No law or government can do that for a society.
The writer is a Pune-based author and film-maker.
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