The more things change in India, the more people seem to stay the same in Bhopal

It is wrong to stereotype cities, something we Madhya Pradeshis (there’s no such term. People identify themselves by the region they live in rather than the state) love to do. For example, Bhopalees think Gwalior residents are too talkative. The latter think the former are crass. Both think that Indore is too commercial and all three consider Rewa as the back of the boondocks. At the risk of creating a new stereotype, I find the kids of Bhopal unique from kids I have met elsewhere.

The most visible difference between Bhopal and Delhi or Coimbatore, where I previously worked, is the demands that children make. 'Tis the season of demonstrative love and I have been getting frequent distress calls from friends who’s kids have demanded nothing short of the manifestos of major political parties—iPads, PlayStations and smartphones—for Christmas, New Year’s, Pongal, Sankranti, Lohri and Bihu. The kids of my neighbourhood of Shyamla Hills aim a lot lower than their counterparts in any major metropolitan.

Every evening, kids here pester me for sugar. No, I do not supplement my wages by peddling narcotics. All they want is sucrose or common granulated table sugar. Such is the craze for sugar that the kids of my locality will stop at nothing to get it. They offer to sweep my apartment, clean my motorcycle and even spy for me in exchange for sugar. The former two proposals I have physically prevented them from carrying out.

During the recently concluded assembly elections, the kids figured out that I was trying to understand electoral behaviour. Two of them volunteered to give voting information of every household in the slum they live in for just four scoops of sugar and two tablespoons of ketchup.

I realised that I have unwittingly allowed them to become fixated to sugar. So, I switched them over to rusk, after finding anardaanas (pomegranate candy) too expensive. To regulate the flow of children, I’ve set qualifications such as jogging in the morning or reading out loud a news item from The Hindu. My newspaper has served as a great leveller, but the stream of children still continue.

A rebellious lot

A lot of my friends who have recently turned parents fear their children may fall into the hands of paedophiles. The hectic schedules of working couples sometimes prevent them for keeping a constant watch on their kids. It was this kind of surveillance we rebelled against as kids. Kids of parents who intervened when children quarrelled on the playground, or who kept a bottle of antiseptic ready even for minor bruises, were ridiculed.

But as some of us began to come out with stories of sexual harassment we faced as children; new monsters have emerged and fear now has a face. Perhaps foolishly, the parents I know in Bhopal seem to live in oblivion of such threats.

A friend visiting from Delhi was surprised to find a bunch of schoolchildren watching cartoons in my living room in the morning. She was shocked to see that I have to sometimes carry the kids back to their homes before bedtime. “Don’t you care about your children,” she asked their father who had come to settle an old loan with me. “That’s why I leave them in Pheroze bhai’s house,” he replied promptly. The father however did get my friend’s drift and later I learned that he had caned his sons and warned them to return home before I switched on the 9 PM news telecast.

Indeed, when I grew up in Andhra Pradesh and undivided Bihar, it wasn’t uncommon for us to sleep and eat in a neighbour’s house. Such innocent times probably don’t exist anymore, but remnants of it linger on in Bhopal. I have noticed that the practice of children cheering soldiers returning home on leave still exists here. It is also not uncommon to find smaller children talking to goats and cows on the street.

When I visit family in Tamil Nadu and Kerala or friends in Delhi, I am sometimes get uncomfortable if not annoyed by their kids. Sorry folks, but that’s how I feel. There probably an age for being pompous and self righteous and 10 is not it. I’ve learned a lot from the internet myself but each child getting a personal iPad doesn’t seem practical to me. Maybe I am a fossil; a product of state capitalism, undue patience and a misplaced sense of contentment and trust.

One feels old when one cannot relate to children anymore. We ask ourselves, “I was in school less than a decade back, so how am I not able to figure kids out anymore?” In Bhopal, at least, this isn’t a problem for me. The kids here are like the kids we were in the nineties.