Diff’rent Strokes

by Anita Menon

I was a big fan of the American Sitcom “Different Strokes” and recall watching it with my kid brother. After many years, I remember this now because of the tragic news of the lead actor of this sitcom Gary Coleman’s early demise.

The sitcom starred Gary Coleman as Arnold Jackson and Todd Bridges as his older brother, Willis. They played two African-American children from a poor Harlem neighborhood whose deceased mother previously worked for rich white widower Philip Drummond (Conrad Bain), who eventually adopted them. They lived in a penthouse with Mr. Drummond, his daughter Kimberly (Dana Plato), and their maid.

What struck me about this sitcom was the varied number of issues portrayed in this sitcom including racism, sexual harassment, etc. Yet I found it innocent and funny all the same. My favourite character was that of Arnold’s and my guess is, everybody who watched it would feel the same. There were plenty of lessons to take away after each episode and that made us look forward to more.

Also, whenever I watched the re-run I observed that though the characters of Arnold and Willis were brought up in a white household, they still sounded and behaved like black kids. Maybe they were grown up enough in a black neighbourhood to change. But their White father made no such effort to change them in anyway. I cannot, over here, for obvious reasons quote the behavorial differences but it is something that we have grown up watching on tv. Primarily, White and Black people/kids behave, talk, appear, differently, doesn’t matter what the education background, economical condition.  So Arnold and Willis preserved their “way” through the show. Extrapolating on that thought, brought me to the issue of how should parents coming from different backgrounds  bring their kids up.

For me personally, it has been a constant challenge even before Mimi was born. Brought up in Gujarat, as a Malayalee, I had often faced problems getting accepted in both the circles. For all practical purposes, I was a Gujarati because I could speak the language like a mother tongue, read and write and give exams in it. At home I wasn’t raised as anything. There was no malayalee culture forced upon me. Culture, language, festivals made me a misfit everytime I visited my parents native. I was tongue -tied everytime somebody asked me my native because though I was born in Calicut, I’d never stayed there. But I wasn’t born in Mithapur, but was raised there. There was always a confusion in my mind as a kid and so as I grew up I reconciled with the fact, that I was going with Kerala as my native though I was as clueless as a frog in the well about Kerala culture and environment. This made me kind of an outcaste ( that is what I believe) when I met up cousins at my parents ancestral home. They cracked jokes in Malayalam that did not make any sense to me. They felt, I just didn’t get it!

So I was apprehensive about my own children being raised in a particular way. I know, my Malayalam language skills are below average and so is my knowledge about the culture. But when I had Mimi, I was more than convinced, in a stubborn kind of way, that I had to raise her like an authentic Malayalee. Or atleast she should be in a position to speak the language and appreciate the culture.

To add to my confusion, I got married to a U.P. Jaat and the cultural clashes happen from time to time. My in-laws still thank their stars that I atleast spoke hindi, which I feel, I do very well. So I thought it was only fair that Mimi should know all about Jaat culture as well.

But nothing prepared me for this.

Whenever I spoke to her in Malayalam, my mother-in-law was quick to interject that I should speak to her in English. Not hindi, not Malayalam. She wanted her to be raised in a non-hindi, non- malayalam kind of way. She was of the opinion that Mimi would learn both the mother tongues eventually but to be up and about this global environment she needs to be good at English. Infact, she did not mind if Mimi spoke no other language apart from English. My mother-in-law, all of 54 years feels the need to prepare her grand daughter to face the challenges of a highly Global scenario and does not care about her imbibing her culture, language or anything.  She started to train her every spare moment by shaking hands with her like they do in the English World and made it a point to speak in English only. So today Mimi shakes hands with people and first word shes learns to speak is not Amma or Papa, but “TATA” which is an English word.

Now here I was in a complete fix not knowing how to bring up my daughter. To make her a part  malayalee and a part Jaat is a tough task, let me tell you when you yourself aren’t either of them completely. Suddenly I feel it is easier to bring her up the cosmopolitan way my mother-in-law suggested with splashes of Kerala and U.P, thrown in here and there for color.

When I asked my own mother about what she thought about the whole thing, she told me one thing, “Just let her be, would you?”