Monday, April 23, 2012


Lois Mailou Jones: Initiation, Liberia
It is all over the Internet now. I saw it on HuffPo yesterday. And on Twitter today. I refuse to copy the photograph or add a link even. If, you still haven't read or seen the vile photograph of the Swedish 'Culture' minister, Lena Liljeroth, cutting a cake in celebration of the 75th birthday of Sweden's museum of modern art - Moderna Museet, you only need to Google any of them for the story. As performance art and in celebration of the "freedom of expression" and also that of World Art Day, participating artists were asked to bring a cake. According to this account, the minister, (an apparent culture skeptic and critic of provocative art) was asked to cut the first cake that was rolled in after being warned that it was indeed a performance piece. She acquiesced, the cake was rolled in, she cut it (although why specifically in the genital region, I am yet to fathom) with nary a protest (in fact, if the article is to be believed, with 'nervous' laughter), a photographer snapped a picture, it went viral and here we are.

To the expected outpouring of criticism, the response has been, 1) that this was 'performance art' and was intended to be representative of the freedom of expression 2) that the said minister is an avowed critic of provocative art and that, 3) the artist is an Afro-Swede whose own head served as the muse for the cake's screaming (literally) version. A particularly vile defense if any.

To address points 1 &2 (point 3 above is not worthy of a rebuttal):
If you indeed have the freedom to express yourself in this way, everyone else has an equal freedom to castigate it as sickeningly crude. I would say that it deliberately picks at the already frayed seam of the African-American's racial identity. I choose to single out the African American since the unhealed wound of the inhuman bondage of slavery is especially unique to them. It is bad enough to inflict this sort of thing on a hapless public in the name of art and the freedom to express oneself; it would be even worse to call this an intellectual artistic effort. Nothing in the range of even 'mildly' clever can be used to describe this monstrous anomaly parading as art.

 As for the reaction it was meant to provoke (don't forget this is 'provocative art'), even by Mr. Palme's condoning tone, the audience tittered nervously. They responded to this visual violence with laughter. Laughter.

Not outrage. Not angry silence. Not a refusal to participate in this not-so-smart attempt to obscure art as abuse. Any or all of these would have been a provoked reaction too. Such a response would have assuaged. Would have been an uplifting reassurance that indeed we have kicked history in the eye and made the tough transition to our better natures. Instead, what we have today is a macabre display that demeans art and a grotesque response that slices the scabs off our wounds and sears them anew.
Jacob Lawrence, The Libaray
Unlike other peoples that keep the flame of memory alive by the repeated regurgitation of their oppressions; the history of the African American is much obscured and in fact, denied. In the words of Ira Berlin, a celebrated historian of slavery, social identity is rooted in history. The African-American struggle with identity is mirrored by the absence of a past.

Let us never forget the horror of this shameful history that used the very body of Africans as art. In her book, Medical Apartheid, Harriet Washington painfully troughs this savage ditch of our not so recent past. In a heartbreaking chapter titled, Circus Africanus, she details the use of African slaves as art exhibits and scientific specimens all over the United States and Europe, with cities like New York and Paris playing host. I list some of these long forgotten horrors from her book, in the hope that these stories of human indignity are remembered, retold and that, our collective memories will never let these atrocities rise again, in whatever form.

1. Ota Benga, 23 years, an African captured in the Congo was exhibited in the Bronx Zoo in the 20th century (1906) in a monkey cage along with a gorilla and an orangutan.  The New York Times actively supporting this as furthering the understanding of 'evolution'. His cage bore a placard titled: “The African Pygmy, ‘Ota Benga.’ Height 4 feet 11 inches. Weight 103 pounds. Brought from the Kasai River, Congo Free State, South Central Africa by Dr. Samuel P. Verner. Exhibited each afternoon during September.” (pp. 76-77). From the Times: There were 40,000 visitors to the park on Sunday. Nearly every man, woman and child of this crowd made for the monkey house to see the star attraction in the park, the wild man from Africa. They chased him about the grounds all day, howling, jeering, and yelling. Some of them poked him in the ribs, others tripped him up, all laughed at him. (p. 78).
Ota Benga was finally freed, and in a final act of hopeless submission, he committed suicide.

2. Black hair was described as wool (p. 78) and the features of displayed blacks were used to locate blacks’ low status on a supposed evolutionary continuum between monkeys and whites. (p. 82). PT Barnum and his traveling circus displayed many blacks.

3. The Khoi are a group of hunter-gatherers in the region occupied by today's South Africa. They were renamed Hottentot by the Dutch, a pejorative term to describe their clicking language. The gluteal and labial prominence of the Khoi women earned them infamy and their anatomic disposition was equated with sexual shamelessness and immorality. One of their ilk, a woman called Saartjie (pronounced Sart-kay) was captured by the British and used as human display/medical specimen in London. Her body was subject to all manner of medical examination and procedures. Over a short period of time she went from being a medical specimen to a circus one, paraded naked in public, in parties and in street-side cages as the Hottentot Venus. She died of an unknown infectious illness at the age of 27. Even in death, Saartjie was not allowed to rest. Her body parts were displayed in jars and her skeleton hung in the Musee De l'Homme in Paris (pgs. 82-85).

The list of African-Americans that were subject to the most inhuman indignities for slavery, for medicine, or for pure exhibitionist pleasure, is simply too long to be told here. The narrative of our history has conveniently pushed their unsung tales into deep long forgotten crypts. Ms. Washington has done us all a yeoman service by rescuing them in what, I can only imagine, must have been an extremely difficult effort. Their story demands a read. Their names deserve to be remembered.

For Mr. Makode Linde and Ms. Lena Liljeroth, I have only two words that they will do well to never forget: Ota Benga and Saartjie. Our time needs to give their unjust past a grave and remorseful respect.

What I know now about the then unknown

If I knew then that I could bear losing you
If I knew that living trumps grief
If I knew that after dying a thousand deaths, I would survive with an incredible cowardly courage,
I would have spared you my terror
I might have known to laugh with you
I would have let you live.

The right to choose our food - Are better food labels an answer?

 Mark Bittman in today's NYT writes, that the government must frame policy that regulates what we choose to eat. I agree and I'll explain why.

A society is a communal organization. Its success requires its members to live, behave and eat responsibly in a way that fuels both, their own personal growth as well as that of the community. When self-regulation and self-discipline falter, it always has a larger impact than the self and at some point a ripple effect will be set in motion. The people who today say that they don't want to be told what to eat, must also understand that they will fall sick someday and then, other people will not want to pay for their health. Personal responsibility with lifestyle is acutely tied to health care costs. I am not saying that we must become ascetics; I only ask that we exercise some measure of control and balance in our eating choices. The right of choice is not absolute. It comes equally balanced with the responsibility of making the right choice. Without that active process of considered decision-making, we stare at the face of ruin.  Frank Herbert, the author of 'Dune', says it better: "Seek freedom and become captive of your desires. Seek discipline and find your liberty".

The risk from a bad diet to disease and overall health is far greater than that from tobacco or alcohol. That fact cannot be ignored any more, simply because packaged food is ubiquitous and has invaded kitchens. Things strewn in happy, warm fuzzy places, like kitchen shelves and brightly lit grocery aisles, autosuggest good wellbeing. It is a very hard exercise to whip up enough worry to make this sort of food taboo. After all, unlike tobacco or alcohol, they don't sit in designated areas in a supermarket; they occupy shelves in every aisle.
Paul Cezzane: Still life; Bavarian State Picture Museum, Munich
Our eating and buying patterns are ingrained and changing them is akin to a huge tectonic shift in lifestyle and the task in indeed a formidable one. Yet, in the face of increasingly worrying information about food related health disorders, obesity and diabetic epidemics, change is not a choice anymore.

But, how do we change? Most will agree that most of the fun in grocery shopping is in the mindless browsing of shelves cluttered with bewildering but delectable choice. We love indulging our curiosity with new products and in the warm feeling of guiltless pleasure in knowing that we are both, doing a 'job' and enjoying it at the same time. However, the actual business of buying rarely takes much time because we usually buy the same tried and tested products in the comforting sense of familiarity that marketing folk call, 'brand loyalty'. To move away from the comfort zone of the products we know and like to the uncertain one of products we want to buy, but don't know enough about, we need information. How reasonable is it to expect people to change eating practices, to make an informed decision on what they eat, when the subject of food and diet is littered with confusing jargon, poorly understood directives, improper classification and a lack of easily digestible information about 'what to buy' in the supermarket.

The effort with changing what we eat is confronted with a problem at the outset itself - the definition of 'food'. The word 'food', automatically connotes a good vibe of sustenance, nutrition and wellbeing. And that is also how it is defined. "Food" (or "foodstuff") means any substance or product, whether processed, partially processed or unprocessed, intended to be, or reasonably expected to be ingested by humans. For a more detailed definition, click here. Quite clearly, this blanket definition runs the gamut of all and everything edible and makes no distinction between, a)harmful b)harmless but low in nutrition and c)high nutrition varieties. 'Processed food' is yet another ambiguous term. Processing means altering food from its natural state for purposes of storage, nutrition or taste. Not all processed food is harmful. Bread made with whole grain, for example, is good nutrition. As is, fortified whole grain flour. On the other hand, sugared cereal and refined flour are not. Unfortunately, not all food distinctions are this easy.

Current information on the 'content' of food is hard to assimilate. Food pyramids and Food plates, while useful, offer little real help with 'products' on the shelf. A consumer's health interests are better served when a product's packaging has its glycemic index, gluten content, protein and fat content emblazoned in a sharply designed standardized format that is in one defined place on the box. The current nutrition labels detail, in tiny impossible to read print, complicated information on serving size and percentages of recommended daily intake. This information is extensive and hard to assimilate.

In recognition of the difficulty with putting the food pyramid to practical use, My plate was developed as a more consumer friendly alternative. While that is indeed a welcome step forward; a tandem evolution in food labeling in step with My plate, would have not only increased the visibility of this public health exercise, but also converted it into information that consumers could readily use while making their food choices in a grocery store.

A more specific labeling system for itemized everyday products like milk, juice, cheese, cereal, frozen food, processed grain etc., needs to be created.  This new system will link products directly to My plate in order that a consumer doesn't have to make calculations anymore. The new chart should have already predetermined the My plate daily requirement to an absolute number. All labels will now have a value that is a percentage of that number. The brilliant design of My plate's icon has five food essentials on display in five colors. Food labels can be simplified to display the contents of these same five nutrients in the same five color codes. The color can be graded based on how the percentage content of the box's My plate requirements. The new labeling system might look something like this:
[scribd id=83160882 key=key-jt0xd6d9jp4la37q0ip mode=list]

A quick look at the USDA site, reveals an extraordinary amount of excellent information that is however hard to pare down to needs. A lot of the information on My plate can be condensed and designed to fit into handy download-able charts. These charts should become ubiquitous from the home to the stores. They can be stuck to grocery carts and hung in the aisles. Grocery store employees must be trained in their use. And trained staff must ensure that they be distributed along with food stamps along with verbal instructions on their use.

Harmful processed food is marketed as grab-n-go convenience, sold in attractive packaging and labeled as 'food'. Rather than the current nutrition labels that few read and fewer understand, parents and activists should lobby for marketing change to ensure that sodas, refined and processed food, etc have health hazard labels that link possible contents to FSIS/USDA alerts and labels that detail the connect between preventable disease and health care costs. While we, as the public, can be rightfully expected to be more responsible in our food choices, it is imperative that academics, scientists, ministries of health and international organizations start engaging in a collective exercise to standardize food terminology and nutrition charts that are easily comprehensible and acceptable to the public.
De keukenmeid
Johannes Vermeer: The Kitchen Maid; Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.
When dealing with the issue of regulating or rationing food to people who use and need government food welfare programs, policy can become predicament. It is hard to make a reasoned for case issuing food stamps that are used to purchase harmful food. Regulating what is purchased on food stamps curtails the choice of a consumer. But, the government cannot be expected to accept responsibility for the exercising of unhealthy choice. That is under the ambit of individual responsibility. On the other hand, any plan that targets the poor's choices while giving the rich a free berth is obviously improper and partisan. One way of balancing this, might be to disincentivize purchase of harmful food by the public as a whole, by simply making the cost of harmful foodstuff prohibitive.  So, while their purchase is restrained by restricting access on food stamps; in general retail too, high costs will serve as an effective deterrent. This method has recorded success with tobacco and cigarettes. Of course, there are limits to how high prices can be raised and the margins might not make a dent with the wealthy. Yet, while it still doesn't level the playing field; a change for the better, and the knowledge that our families are eating healthier, will be a satisfying emollient.

We need to start talking this subject, more heatedly, within our families and communities. After all, if desire is always going to trump discipline, policy must take over and enforce it.

The universal character of grief

I saw this extremely poignant photograph by Samuel Aranda, a NYT photographer on the NYT Lens page . This picture won the 2012 World Press Photo of the Year. It triggered an instant recollection of Michaelangelo's Pieta in the Vatican.
Ultimately the breadth of human emotion is the same and our common and shared griefs transcend any concocted divisions.
Sana, Yemen. World Press Photo 2012, Samuel Aranda
Pieta, Michaelangelo; The Vatican

Battery Park, NYC

Battery Park, NYC
Picture: Author's own. Credit also due to: Iphone
One of my favourite pictures of Battery Park. This summer, in August on what was probably the hottest day of the year. There seems such a sisterhood between the tree with its outstretched limb and Liberty. Both somehow managing to, in all the clamour, stand apart in stoic detached silence.

The predator Indian male. A follow up to, 'Why does India hate women?'

Johannes Vermeer, Woman Holding a Balance, c. 1664, National Gallery of Art, Widener Collection
It seems, for now at least, I find the motivation to write only when provoked by others' writings. The latest is Tripti Lahiri's essay, on the India RealTime blog, entitled, "Why does India hate women?" For an Indian woman, the title itself demands a read and from an opinionated one, a response.
Ms. Lahiri writes on social evils that plague the Indian woman like child marriage, child labour and the thankless and unacknowledged toil of the Indian woman. While I get and agree with the overall drift of her disquiet, I do not agree with the conflation of criminal acts like pedophilia and modern day social problems like teen pregnancy with traditional social ones such as child marriage and pregnancy in married teen mothers. This unnecessary enjambment of issues only confuses and muddies already fervid waters, taking us farther away from finding appropriate and sustainable solutions. The primary grouse the article seems to have is with child marriage (I am assuming the high teen pregnancy ratios since reported in the context of child marriage are related to it. The author does not break the figures down) and the narrative sticks to the 'beaten-to-the-pulp' orientalist belief of chronic social abuse of women and children by Indian society. The ease with which sociologists, historians, journalists etc., spit out the same tired narratives smacks, to my mind, of intellectual laziness. Social history is best recorded by its own people. The colonial interpretation of our society has left us permanently scarred. I have rarely come across any other people that are as driven to self flagellation as the Indian. We excoriate ourselves and our past; deny our own histories and unquestioningly absorb, like sponges, the 'other's' perception of our own selves. By this, I do not mean that we disagree with every record not suitably flattering to us. I only suggest that it is high time indigenous interpretations of our texts, culture and religion are given the due intellectual scouring they deserve. From such an exercise, a more balanced picture of our past might emerge.

Clearly, I disagree with the author's take on social tradition and might go so far as to argue that in many of the cloistered communities in which child marriage is still practised; it is a continued tradition of a well meaning parental/societal elder intervention to stabilize the child's future. It comes from a good place even if out of step with modern times and thoughts of liberated freedoms for women. Many of these social 'evils' (as they are called; I would use a more morally neutral term like practices) such as child marriage and dowry were simply aimed at protecting the finances of the girl, giving the new family a resource to dip into when times got hard and attempted to ensure a stable future for children in an unpredictable age. These fundamentally sensible practices (for their time) got distorted and were abused as political, and economic change spun society into a more rapidly dynamic churn than customs or thought could keep step with.

The struggles of today's Indian woman, whether that of the urban working woman who has had the liberty of choice or the voiceless subaltern still subject to ancient stifling traditions, is largely due to the inability of men to evolve suitably with the times. The modernization of society brought on by social reform although necessary, unwittingly ensured the loss of traditional safety nets for women. This combined with industrialization and the consumerism that followed, further eroded traditional dignities of mutual gender respect. Add urbanization and the advent of the nuclear family to the cocktail and you have the perfect petri dish for modern day abuse like prostitution and sexual abuse which regulation and the law stepping into the vacuum, however much they try, cannot fully solve. From this culture of motley parts, arose a virulent bacterium, 'the predator male'. Every 20th century gender crime whether that be female feticide, child marriage, sexual abuse or dowry deaths, can be traced to this one root cause. Of course, it is not hate that drives this treatment of women; but Ms Lahiri knows that already and as an occassional writer and avid reader, I concede that 'hate women' has a potent eyeball catching effect.
Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot: Agostina, 1866
I wish it was simpler to define and describe the perception, and treatment therefore, of women in India and that I could say with dogmatic certainty that it is this or that. If I had to stretch my mind to find a descriptive word; I would probably settle on disrespect, not hatred. But then I know that; that's not true either. There is a great deal of respect for women in India at many disparate and disjointed levels. India is so full of paradox, it is a wonder that 20th century existentialist thought was not conceived here. But I digress, and we are back where we started with confounding questions on sexuality and culture that invite convoluted analysis. Difficult though this exercise, it casts some faint light on the subject; enough that we might conclude the following as probable reasons with a good measure of certainty.
  1. We are a randy race. While this statement can arch eyebrows for its dogmatic proclamation; any woman who has lived in India will attest to its veracity. There is simply no other way to explain the crude and lecherous behaviour that is rampant in the majority of Indian men like a fulminant disease. We live here in the certain knowledge that, only in this country, for some reason (maybe the one I stated above); the minute a woman (irrespective of class) steps out of her home she feels the predatory assault of men in varying degrees. This is a consistent behavioural pattern of the Indian male. As a true example of a great Indian paradox, despite resounding agreement over the truth of its existence, much of this behaviour is tolerated and suffered. In fact, there is such a complete acceptance of it, that we are the only country that has legislated 'women only' seat reservations on public transport. Mind you, this is not on account of any religious or moral objection to the comingling of travel amongst the sexes. We frame transport policy in India as a protective measure for women in complete acknowledgment of the raptorial attitude of the Indian male. Sadly, civil society that should be taking cudgels against this desecration of fundamental decencies puts great pressure (in fairness, some of it is self-imposed) on women to cope and to resort to silence as one of a host of adaptive responses. Most often, the Indian woman with the wired-in understanding that she is her own best defense, routinely employs her own creatviely devised stratagems for survival and self-protection. 
  2. Mainstream cinema, the prime entertainment resource for the masses, revels in the disgustingly vulgar degradation of women and in the depiction of them as titillating stereotypes further fueling lasciviousness.  Sexual and otherwise humiliation of women in the guise of a hero's machismo is the casually accepted norm in Bollywood and its sister industries. And the depicted response of the heroine? To either burst in tears and exit stage left, or to heave her chest suggestively in mock anger (a response that will soon be tamed by the man with either a teasing song filmed with him jabbing violently at different parts of her body in what is called the tree chasing routine or worse, dance!), or heroically accept the treatment as her lot in stoic suffering. Off the screen and on to the curb; life imitates art and the street easily adopts this hero-like attitude thinking it acceptable since it after all got all the right responses from the lady on the screen, and now proceeds to inflict it on the unsuspecting and irate woman passing by. It is a farcical tragedy that the same heroes, who don't think twice about their public image while portryaing abusive behaviour towards the female sex on the screen, are thronged in their public 'appearances' by screaming women fans and this is interpreted by the man on the street as a condoning of the screen abuse. 'If it's ok there, why not here?' And, can we honestly say the thinking is flawed? If you can pick up the sandal on the street, why not in the cinema halls? A sandal shower on the screen will surely right perceptions on how we would like to be treated. Or is it that we make the distinction between life and art more easily than our less gifted brethren? This influence of cinema cannot and should not be underestimated. Unwanted attentions and lewd comments or vulgar songs sung in cinema style are so commonly rained on traveling women, that we even have a name for this behaviour - Eve Teasing and for the pavement predators - Roadside Romeos. In typical Indian light heartedness, the criminals and their acts are given mild, even humorous, sounding names totally belying the enormity of the agitated anxiety they provoke. Both phrases, aptly descriptive of the local culture, are unique Indian-isms. The more serious assaults are what we read in the papers everyday, register it for micro-seconds before we turn the page. While the law might make distinctions between the degrees of sexual abuse; a very faint moral line exists between a lewd remark and actual assault.
  3. Even in educated and professional middle class circles; the imprinting of gender roles is strong enough that an unconscious acceptance of status inequality exists in both sexes. A married woman and her family still see working as more of a privilege or as a measure of feminist independence and less as a right that is automatic and does not need to be fought for. I am here reminded of a scene in the movie, 'Made in Dagenham' - a  dramatization of the real life story of the fight in the late sixties for equal pay for factory women workers in the UK. In a defining moment in the film, Sally Hawkins, acting as the protagonist, is confronted by her husband about her neglect of their household which from his perspective has been brought on by her activism. Husband and wife get into a quarrel wherein he makes a comment on things having gone too far and of how supportive he has been of her up until then. She turns around in hurt rage and says, 'that's just as it should be'. This sentiment of the normal case scenario, of 'should be', is not felt strongly enough by women to protest the burden of multitasking that they solely bear. Multitasking, at is best, is an exercise in distracted inefficiency. Instead of calling its bluff and in a bizarre twist of the narrative that does not work to any woman's advantage; we are now gauged (and, in all fairness, gauge ourselves too) on our multitasking skills.
  4.  The pampered relationship that sons have with mothers is so characteristically Indian as to be almost unique. For even those Indian mothers and wives who do not think of the pati as paramesh; the son is definitely paramesh. Every generation of men is brought up on this belief and have an innate sense of superiority and entitlement. Not a small part of the blame for this is due their mothers. This peculiarly possessive relationship does not admit to itself the entry of an outsider, laying the ground for future tussles with daughters in law. Reams of print have been dedicated to the unhealthy relationship between mothers in law and daughters in law, the seeds for which were sown many decades before. Women are cuplable in festering and fostering these cultural memes.
It seems imperative that Indian women accept the roles they unconsciously have played in engendering modern societal attitudes towards them. Change then might flow faster and more furious, coming as it will from the very victims of the abuse. In most conflict situations; finding a solution especially for complex social issues, lies in the accurate definition and description of the problem. Legislation alone cannot change or solve society's evils. Reformation of thought is paramount to the development of a strong reconstructive social fabric in order that our daughters might reap the spoils of a more equal life.

The essay that made me start a blog or, The cultural biases of parenting

I just finished reading Amy Chua's WSJ essay on her new book, "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother'. The essay is provocatively titled ' Why Chinese mothers are Superior' and as expected, has galvanized a flood of opinion ( it made me start a blog!), with the editors themselves calling it the most commented-on article in the history of the WSJ! As of last look, it had 6689 comments and this, by the wee hours of Monday morning.

So, what does she write about that stimulated so much debate? Essentially, that the Chinese/ Eastern (she includes Indian, Ghanaian, Jewish, etc. cultures) method of parenting is superior to the Western (read American) style in that, the former breeds a generation of adults that are mentally tough, high achievers as opposed to the latter that fosters self indulgent kids with behaviour bordering on entitlement.

As an Indian (TamBram at that), the importance of a disciplinarian childhood with a strong emphasis on academics is not lost on me. After all, if I still veer towards a book today rather than television even on a weekend afternoon and if the literary in all its forms from academia to bookstore cafes, excites me more than anything else remotely can; yes indeed, I have my upbringing to thank. Having said that, I am not at all sure that has made me more successful than the other guy. More elitist certainly, but successful? Not so sure. Of course Ms. Chua is not talking about dreamy literary types like me. She would definitely tut-tut her disapproval and pronounce me too focused on self indulgent learning rather than goal oriented achievement and professional success. I must assure her though, that in my case, the fault is all mine. Despite all the right things that she prescribes, and more, that were indeed in my upbringing; I somehow managed to steer clear of success.

The question is: are children really the esoteric, fragile creatures that we tend to treat them as, or are they a more robust species, capable of absorbing the tough love that we would like to dish out. If the mind is indeed a tabula rasa and the child's as yet unformed personality hasn't had enough time to throw itself a binge party of navel gazing its sensitive side, then tough love might be a good way to go. If however genetics has a part to play (and neuroscience might agree) they may well be doomed. As with most things, both play a part. Throw culture and environment in the mix for good measure and the heady cocktail that is the ups and downs of parenting is ready to be served. Ms. Chua however seems to eschew the colorful mixture and opts instead for the more one-toned (black or white depends on how you view it) opinion, that the rigid and authoritarian style of Chinese parenting is certainly more on target at achieving success. Although she might well have a case for 'success' as she defines it; there are any number of 'successes' who cleared none of these parental hurdles and still got where they did and an equal number who despite having had all the requisite parental input, still faltered at the success altar. There are simply too many variables involved to be sure one way or the other. Therefore, while I will acknowledge that there are distinctive cultural differences in parenting; I will disagree that these can be surmounted to a point where one style fits all.

The question also is, what do we want for our children? And also maybe, what do we want from our children? We all want our children to do well in life and have secure finances. We all want them to get there the right way and not through illegal methods. Even this simple measure of success cannot be achieved without some equal measure of emotional stability. In some cultures like the Chinese and the Indians, coming as they do from strong familial backgrounds and large family ties, this is a given and tough love is never taken seriously as TOUGH love. It is always seen as tough LOVE. While in a Western model, this is not so given. Many children come from fractured and/or nuclear families with very scanty if any familial ties and their only source of emotional succour is the parent or if they are lucky, parentS.  And so, if the Chinese tend to view their children as strong rather than fragile there is a reason they do so. That strength that they believe is innately in their children comes from the inherent support of family, cultural identity, social and community networks and stable marriages. The Western parental counterpart many times is struggling in an environment which lacks all this, which is the very opposite of this and is trying so hard to beat the odds and be the corrective for their children. Ultimately, the one thing common to most parents world over, is that they try to be the remedial influence for their kids. To imbue their own children with all the things that they feel they lacked in their own childhood. For a Chinese immigrant, that might be opportunity and education. For an American parent used to freedom and its benefits, used to the accessibility of education when needed, used to never having to worry about visas and residency requirements, other success parameters take over and those are happiness, emotional stability and strong social and filial bonds. The assumption here is that if a child is emotionally content and happy, it will naturally want to succeed and excel at whatever it chooses to do. As an aside, a strong economy amongst other things also ensures that you can be a handyman or a trucker and still get by with some degree of comfort in the US while, falling in that group in a place like say, India, ensures a struggle for living throughout life. Which is also why there is such a tremendous self respect and civic respect across hierarchies in the US. For a migrant however, even if once removed, the fear of falling into the very social and economical hierarchial depths that you hurled yourself out of is fresh and doesn't leave easily. The pressure to hold on is higher. These cultural and economic biases find their way into our parenting styles.

Just like Ms.Chua 'knows' that her child can get perfect grades and that it is her job as a parent to ensure that the child does and by so doing, she is preparing it for a better and safer future; Ms Bennett also 'knows' that her child can get to being a strong and capable adult only with the emotional support of Ms Bennett. With the other variables being somewhat entitled child Bennett by its Western birth; it is left to Ms Bennett to ensure mental strength and emotional stability. After all, unlike Mr. Chua, Mr. Bennett left a couple of years ago with the lady next door and Grandma Bennett married again last month. As for 'family', the closest she has is a cousin settled in Sweden. I am not saying that this is true of all Western families and I use an extreme example maybe; but to ignore the starkly different social and familial circumstances between the two cultures and their impact on child rearing reeks of a naive and superficial understanding of the problem.

Is there something that we can all learn from Ms.Chua's claims? In a globalized world with jobs coming fewer and far between and with the looming threat of the rising Asian economies; one that has taken away manufacturing jobs and one threatening to swallow the service sector; it is a good idea for the Western parent to accept and absorb the fact that some of the 'givens' might erode away in the future and their children must therefore be brought up with the critical skills necessary to cope with that erosion. I think a greater emphasis on a college education is mandatory and it is a shame to see so many American children refrain from absorbing the great learning opportunities that American universities afford them. In no other country have I seen such a dedication to learning at every age as I have seen in America and what's more surprising, they hardly trumpet the fact! Now that, to my mind, is a cultural trait indeed worthy of some serious chest thumping.  Yet, the youth of America seem less impressed and are not as focused on getting the benefits of a college education as some other races are. This has to change for Americans to stay competitive in the world economy and this is indeed one place where Ms.Chua's call to stronger emphasis on academics can be taken in stride.

I will agree with almost anyone who says that children should be handled with a little more toughness than many parents do. That however is often easier said than done. I have many a time looked irritably and with exasperation at the wailing kid in the airplane that can only be stopped with a candy bar, the pestering one in the mall that can only be quieted with the toy, the distracted one that never seems to concentrate on its lessons but comes alive when it is dinner time and television is on, the sulky withdrawn one that will stay in a bad mood irrespective of  every effort you make to draw him out; I have been witness to all these situations and wondered how much is bad parenting and how much is situational or personality driven. Should we now start seeing Ms Chua in our rear view mirrors each time a child fails and ask if it is us actually that failed. Do we not do this already? In the face of so much doubt and uncertainty, we must strike a balance and maybe fall back on some common sense tips on parenting:

1. Always focus on academics and good grades. A B is not cause for celebration.

2. Always expect more from your child academically and otherwise - they will learn to do it for themselves soon enough. Never settle for less. Always be willing to spend more time with them to ensure those grades are achieved.

3. Always ensure your child plays a sport - failure there will teach them a lot about success.

4. Always allow social relationships and ensure your child has friends that he/she goes out on play-dates with. Ensure that you make friends with their families too and that one family is always chaperoning these dates.

5. Be the puppeteer in your child's life but be not observed while doing it. Speak slowly but carry a big stick.

6. Let your child have music in his/her life. Whether that is by being a virtuoso or for simple enjoyment. After all music is the soul of life and will indeed row you to safe waters through many a bad time.

7. Do not allow television. It is a wasteful mind numbing activity that is good only for the retired. Nobody learnt anything from television. Ever. No, not even from those documentaries. A book makes your brain think and inspires more creative thought than any audio-visual 'learning' tool ever could. EVER.

And finally, Yes. Do not allow your child to be 'villager 6' in a school play. She/he will gain nothing from the experience apart from learning the art of wasting time at a young age.