Hans Andersen “Emperor’s New Clothes” has been twirling in my brain for the past few days. An incident at a wedding in the family sparked recollections of this tale that I had last read more than a decade ago.
The details of Andersen’s tale are a bit fuzzy in my head but I seem to distinctly recollect that the child in the tale is mentioned just as a child – name, gender, accurate age was not specified – in one version and in another one the child is a five year old called Gloria. I also remember that I had then preferred the previous version to the latter one. As a researcher of childhood I needed a peg -- some cliché, stereotype or depiction that would give me a ‘quintessential’ dimension of childhood. And in the previous version of the tale, this child whom I chose to see as the Universal Child, in my naivety, represented the brutal honesty that grownups like to associate with childhood.
Many books, many libraries, many discussions and many observations later, I now know that ‘scholastic’ assumptions about childhood and children are just about as harmful to them as market driven ones are. I try my best to steer clear of generalizations about childhood and ecstatic reactions to children’s ‘unusual’ behavior. Some incidents, however, lead me to the brink of glorifying some dimension of childhood.
I was playing with a five year old niece, during a wedding in the family, when we were informed that we were missing out on witnessing an important ritual in the elaborate Hindu wedding. We were also told that we ought to postpone our game and watch the rituals because both of us had travelled quite a distance to be there; she had come from the US and I had gone from Mumbai. I was sufficiently admonished and she was equally curious. We made a dash for it. At the scene of action, I tried holding her aloft so that she gets a ringside view of the ritual. Soon I had to confess that I might break my back. Promptly she stepped down and we hunted out a corner from where we could see the proceedings in minute detail. The ritual we were witnessing involves the bridegroom walking out of the wedding, accessorized as a sanyasi, and declaring that he cannot turn into a householder while his calling is that of a monk. The bride’s brother is sent to coax the bridegroom back to the altar. The rituals deem that this mission ought to turn successful, in each case, by merely offering the groom some jaggery. Knowing that most guys of our generation don’t quite like eating raw jaggery, the bride’s party keeps some chocolate handy to help the proceedings along.
Now my little friend could not make head or tail of the proceedings. I clarified them as briefly as possible; that the bridegroom is scared to get married and the other chap in the scene will give him a chocolate to make him come back to the altar. She had two quick queries: “Does he get to eat the chocolate?” and was suitably impressed by the assertive from me and followed it with, “So, they are not putting up a show?”. Now, the second one was difficult to react to. “Of course, they are!” ought to have been my answer but sudden aid from the part of my brain that stores information made me hold my horses. I remembered the catastrophe that ensued the child’s declaration that the Emperor is not wearing any clothes in Andersen’s tale. To avoid the immediate catastrophe of my little Indian-American friend publicly calling an Indian ritual a show upon my confirming her hunch, I quietly took the cowardly grownup route out of the situation by telling her, “No, that was not a show; that is how one gets married”. My spirits sank at my cowardice but were instantly revived when the child turned to me and planted a kiss on my cheek and ran away to play with people nearer her age.