Photo: AFP
Photo: AFP

The moral of the story

Anyone impressed by the extent to which Chinese mothers will go to get their children to do well knows nothing about the Tamilian Brahmin mother

This week’s big story is about the kind of people my mother will wish her children had grown up to be.

I grew up in Chennai in the 1970s and part of the 1980s, in a middle-class Tamilian Brahmin household in Raja Annamalai Puram, not far from Mylapore.

I went to a school that believed in academics strongly enough to prevent anyone who would spoil its “100% first class" record from even sitting for high school and school-leaving examinations.

Like many of my ilk, I learned to play the violin (it was either that or the mridangam). My sister learned dance (bharatanatyam; and it was either that or the veena for her).

My parents, especially my mother, expected us to do well in school.

My mother’s definition of doing well was absolute—it meant coming first in class. I did that sometimes. But I sometimes came second or third or fourth... but never beyond the top 10. That would displease her no end.

She also expected me to do other things—and so I quizzed (which I actually enjoyed doing), debated, painted, learnt the Vedas and acted in plays (including a Sanskrit one).

I was lucky to have a neighbour who introduced me to Tina Charles and The Doors and Jethro Tull (he was studying in Manipal, which, back in my day, was the kind of place people not smart enough to get into other engineering colleges went to, after paying a heap of money; now, of course, it boasts the CEOs of a couple of large global corporations among its alumni). That’s a strange combination, but the only thing I can offer by way of excuse was that he was from Andhra Pradesh. Heavy Horses was the first Tull album I heard. I was in Class 8 at the time.

I was luckier to have two English teachers who realized I enjoyed reading and writing and plied me with books from their personal collection.

I digress; back to mom.

My mother was no outlier among her peers. Indeed, when I read Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mom, which speaks of the torture Chinese parents subject their children to—all in the interest of the children—I thought her account to be pretty ordinary. I also thought the same of her efforts to get her children to excel. I realize that the book created a lot of buzz but anyone impressed by the extent to which Chinese mothers will go to get their children to do well knows nothing about the Tamilian Brahmin mother.

Interestingly, I didn’t become a techie or a musician, despite going to a good engineering school and learning (being forced to learn) to play the violin for 13 years. My sister didn’t become a dancer, although she did redeem the family’s standing in the neighbourhood by moving to the US and working in technology despite being trained as a dietician.

This week’s big story is largely about young people who have revived an art form called katha kalapshekam (it means narrating interesting stories from the scriptures and then deriving lessons from it for greater good). Fittingly, one is an engineer and another trained to be an auditor. It has been written by Samanth Subramanian, who worked for Mint once. He was a good writer then. He is a better one now. He is also a good quizzer. Writing and quizzing is a good combination.

I should know.

R. Sukumar is editor, Mint.

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