Being a bibliophile, I think of India as a library—a sprawling, chaotic, multilingual, library with over a billion authors. So I’ll open with a personal note on our library-going habits.
As parents, my wife and I took our children to the Morgan Hill library on a regular basis: each Tuesday, the little ones enjoyed the structure of story time and the unstructured exploration of shelves and shelves of books. To be sure, we quickly acquired library cards for both Anupama and Siddhartha. But for years, we accompanied them. Once they were of age, both our children went to libraries on their own, with each other, with friends, with study-groups, and, yes, sometimes with Mummy and Papa.
The library visit is a metaphor for our travel to India. Early in our marriage, Mangla and I agreed to make biannual visits to India a priority. There were layers of purpose underlying this trips back home, but primary among these layers was socializing our kids into an Indian worldview that had shaped our own lives. In contemplating when our children would travel to India on their own, Mangla and I perhaps waited a bit too long: after they had exited their teens. While it was ideal that the four of us shared our summer vacations every other year all over the subcontinent, the children missed opportunities to find their own India and have that India find them. Of course, there is no magical age that applies to everyone who seeks to explore the outside world. And the sprawl and chaos of India does bring out the protective Mama Bear and Papa Bear in many parents. This Papa Bear is willing to concede that if we can entrust our children with a driver’s license, we can encourage them to “drive solo” in India when they are sixteen, but no earlier.
In all societies, socialization of young children is primarily the duty of parents. Over time, extended family, schools, places of worship, friends, media, and government become a part of the socialization process. But parents are the first to imprint their culture on their children. As such, time spent in India during the formative years benefits most from having children and parents share the experience. The time will come soon enough when the balance will shift away from home and parental influence.
Dr. Rajesh C. Oza is a change management consultant.
Yes, the earlier the kids go by themselves, the better
The parent-child relationship changes and develops over time and yet the labels and their subsequent roles remain. The parent is the parent. The child is the child. In many ways India itself assumes a parental role for NRI children. The nation we refer to as matrabhumi, literally motherland, can offer guidance, protection, and exploration much like a mother would to her sons and daughters.
My first trip to the motherland without my own mother was in December 2009. My younger brother and I traveled to India during our winter break, and for the first time without our parents, visiting family in Kolkata, Pune, and Hyderabad. All were places we had visited before and all places where we planned to stay with close relatives. The memories and experiences of my past ten visits, a result of biannual summer vacations in India, lent a familiarity and comfort to this trip. This familiarity helped both us in India, and my parents in the states, as they finally “let us go” alone. Despite our ages, 23 and 20, we were still their babies traveling abroad.
Children travelers can be categorized into four groups. In the first group we have infants and toddlers (ages 0-4) who, of course, are traveling with a parent of guardian. The second group can be characterized as elementary school kids (ages 5-11). Air hosts and hostesses will assist these minors, providing for comfortable, guided, and safe travel to and from India. The third as middle and high school students (ages 12-18). And, lastly, a group considered adults in the eyes of the law, college students (ages 18-22).
In regard to when children should travel to India alone, I advocate the later years of the second group—elementary school kids. Allowing children to experience India as a place to live and not just visit, enables them to call this country their own. For many U.S. born children like myself, India is often thought of as the land of parents and grandparents, of culture and colorful clothing, of (extended) family and festivals. Time spent in India during the developing years creates a bond between the child and the land that is his or her own. This age group is characterized by curiosity, innocence and ability to adjust—qualities perfect for time spent in India.
Anupama R. Oza teaches fourth-graders with Teach For America.