They say childhood is supposed to be the most formative time in an individual's life—things you learn then, stay with you your entire life. So if you were anything like me (aka an average Indian kid), growing up in a middle-class Indian household meant learning a lot of things. It meant learning how to live with constantly being compared to Sharmaji’s kid, having a perpetual fear of a flying slipper land on your head, and understanding the value of academic victories. For me, though, it also meant learning to swallow all my questions.
Because what even was the point? It wasn’t like I’d be getting any of them answered. While I was just trying to make sense of the world around me by asking ‘why?’, what usually came in return was either a reprimand, a “you’re too young to know” or a “because I told you so”. Thus, after a while, it felt futile to even ask the questions. During family get-togethers, there would be always be a group of adults (mostly all the uncles, because I learnt early on that middle-class social etiquette also dictates women have to have their separate conversations in the kitchen or a space independent from the men) who would be discussing everything that would intrigue me, but it always would seem so difficult to break into their conversation. The adults were supposed to know things better, and they didn’t have to explain themselves to the child I was. And additionally, being a girl, it was automatically worse—not only did I not know enough because I was a child, but was also expected to not have so many opinions because I was a girl.
This dismissal of questions was something I subsequently thought of as a dismissal of who I was as a person. Even though I didn’t know it at the time, this was something that I carried with me into adulthood. Because of a lack of validation and consideration from adults I respected, growing up meant becoming an adult who would resist asking questions because it meant facing the same rejection. “Children, like everyone else, need to feel validated—that just because they are children, it doesn’t mean what they think is stupid or trivial,” says child and adolescent psychologist Tripti Vaid. “They need to not just be looked at as growing beings, but as humans whose thoughts have value. Because, when you don’t encourage children to think for themselves—and don’t make them understand what consequences could come out of certain actions—the lack of decision-making abilities and low self-esteem can intensely reflect in the way they look at the world.”
Now that I am an adult with more resources at hand to get my answers without having to rely on those who clothed and fed me, I am a little more forgiving of my parents. I’ve realised that the problem of doing things mindlessly without asking questions is more of an Indian problem at large. Though Article 51A of the Indian Constitution lists ‘developing scientific temper’ as our fundamental duty, our classrooms encourage rote learning, setting the base quite early on. On top of that, the importance of religion and religious figures in our lives means it’s often immoral to even ask the questions you’re thinking of as a child. The atmosphere in schools often carries on to workplaces, where questioning superiors is seen as a blow to their ego and leadership skills. But where this attitude truly hurts us all is politics.
We resist asking questions to the government because ‘it hardly matters anyway’ and ‘things are not going to change’—our two favourite excuses. And this is how we become an accepting and forgiving public who can be swayed with claps and lamps, without asking why we need those props in the first place. But we fail to realise it is important to examine why we let ourselves be a passive public. The advent of the internet has given us all enough accessibility to resources—resources that help us question the people in power and ensure we get what we are supposed to. But, ironically, where the internet enables us, our upbringing teaches us that if something doesn’t directly bother us, we shouldn’t get involved. The belief remains that nothing is going to change in India—so what is the point of questioning and trying anyway?
Not only do we not ask questions to people answerable to us because our upbringing disallows questions, but also because we don’t know how and what to question. Our upbringing has never really allowed us to interact with the system—the system that we love to call incorrigible—and the more we can avoid directly interacting with the system, the better. “The question is always why to put in so much effort. A lot of us call it the ‘chalta hai’ (it’s okay) attitude,” says Rashi Vidyasagar, director at the mental health startup, The Alternative Story. “How it goes is like this: Is it temporary? Then I’m good. Am I not not personally bothered by it? Then I’m good. But in this process, we don’t see a lot of our rights being infringed. Because for that I’d have to understand what my rights are, and that is simply too much effort for our middle-class selves.”
We also avoid questioning the government because of our own association with it. If we question it, it means we acknowledge having wrong preferences and making mistakes—which often means acknowledging the faults in our support systems and identities. And for a lot of us, that is a step towards rejecting ourselves. So instead of questioning, we choose to support it any way we can—even if it means silently watching by as the lesser privileged bear the burden of the government’s failures. “My father, for example, wouldn’t criticise this government, because that would mean admitting he made a mistake,” adds Vidyasagar. “And in middle-class families, patriarchs don’t make mistakes.” Other reasons for not asking questions can range from thinking that this will make the one asking questions look ignorant or weak to sheer laziness to not knowing whether it’s okay to ask questions because of being brought up in a way that looks at it as being arrogant to just not knowing what a powerful tool questioning can be.
But why is questioning so important anyway? It's simple—questions lead to change. If we didn’t ask questions, none of the development we have in the world would be there in the first place. And in a country with one of the youngest populations in the world, it's important we inculcate the behaviour early on. “It is the responsibility of all the stakeholders—parents, families, schools and colleges—to create that space where children can be allowed to think,” adds Vaid. Because when it is not just one of us questioning and holding the people responsible accountable, but the entirety of its 1.38 billion people, it has to reflect somewhere.
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