My son had his Christmas party at school this past week. It coincided with a couple of birthdays, the teacher’s among them. So it was, in fairness, probably a bit more than the other classes got. But there was a whole turkey that was carved in class, a ham, complete with fixings, bespoke birthday and cupcakes, and sundry snacks from around the world, as befits a meal at an international school. I don’t know about the kids, but I rolled out of there in a meat- and sweet-fuelled haze, to fall asleep on the couch at home.
The kids sang, the other parents there clicked away, there were even back presents for the class — because if an adult is getting gifts, clearly the children must get something as well. It was a joyous, happy occasion, a moment of rest to savour amidst the burgeoning whirl that is my 10-year-old’s student life.
Then why, just before I drifted off on my couch, was I still thinking about it?
This was hardly the last days of Louis XVI, right before the fall. Parents spoil their children around the world, and it is always relative to their means. Yet the custodian clearing away the mess after the class party could have been forgiven for questioning the children who’d tossed their icing-laden cupcakes after one bite. Perhaps she didn’t even bat an eye, for she sees that level of conspicuous waste every day.
No man is a hero to his valet, goes the old saw. No privileged young student is an angel to the person picking up after him, either.
But surely the existence of that person, the one who sees what you’re throwing away, should be motivating you to finish what you’ve picked up? Shouldn’t that be one of the goals of the sort of school my son attends; to recognise that the people you read about actually walk among you, and that many of them would be happy to have what you so unthinkingly toss aside?
One of the cardinal rules of being a good columnist is not milking the festive season for a moral. (At least, it should be.) Yet it is also true of my two countries that they have appropriated Christmas primarily as a monument to consumerism, shorn of any compensatory moral lessons. Bigger trees, better presents, brighter lights... Not that this isn’t true of anywhere else; it’s just more marked where I live and am from, because both China and India are trying to cope with the sort of growth that removes legions of people from poverty, but exacerbates their difference from those left behind.
You could argue that the sour odour of some young prince’s entitlement is an inevitable side-effect of the income inequality that bedevils both China and India. But most entitlements start from ignorance. Children should be encouraged to examine their unearned privileges — for example, going to the sort of school where your school trips are to foreign countries, and not just the monument down the road.
My kid is at this sort of school, and this piece could be read as a po-faced whinge at what I could change but choose not to. But I do take care to explain to my son, at every step I think it necessary, that while he need have no guilt over what he can’t control — his birth, for instance — he needs to keep his humility, because what he enjoys is unearned by him. And there’s no guarantee that it is permanent.
Look at Louis XVI.
One of the more surprising things a recent arrival in China will encounter is the sheer breadth of its engagement with its fractious past. Given that the Chinese state is seen as being frugal with the facts, the number of texts (verbal and visual) that deal with the aftermath of the fractures of the 20th century — the formation of the Republic, the Japanese occupation, the civil war, the Great Leap, the Cultural Revolution et al — will keep both scholars and the merely curious busy for years. Especially when they deal with what you could call the “Mao” years, they can be seen as part of a national “reconciliation” process — even if it was never termed as such.
I have read book after book that treats of lives torn from the equanimity that previously characterised them, placed without reason or context on the edges of what they would have known, to be summarily re-educated, and hence reborn as better citizens. But I still can’t conceive of it, because “revolution” is clearly something you need to live through to really understand.
That today’s ageing Tesla drivers may well have had their childhoods pushing brooms and picking spuds in camps is a sobering thought. Perhaps one impetus to the headlong rush to reckless consumption is the individual’s personal experience of the sands shifting below his feet.
But surely this fragility characterises India as well. Even if, perhaps because we haven’t yet had our revolution.
One way to deal with this is to ignore it, which is to assert the moral right to throw our cupcakes away. The other is to embrace humility and all it entails.
If nothing else, at least the princes to come will smell better.
Avtar Singh is the author of Necropolis. He lives in Beijing
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