I was at the neighbourhood park the other day when the mother of my daughter's classmate rushed in looking very hassled. She spotted her son playing happily at one end and went straight to him and slapped him hard on the face, not once but twice. She wouldn't have stopped if those around hadn't stopped her.
"The last half hour I have spent looking for him everywhere. I had dropped him at his karate class. He went missing from there. I was so worried. He has wandered away from there, crossed the road and got into the park", she said, now crying, relieving her tension. "What would I have done if something had happened to him, if he was hit by a car while crossing the road?"
From what I learnt later, this was not an isolated incident. The child was inclined to get lost in a dream world, and there were also several complaints from his school. Sometimes there were reports of him being violent with his classmates, pulling hair, biting someone in a fit of rage. He didn't care to follow instructions and the mother was worried that he could one day harm himself, his younger baby sister, or his future. She said she had no option but to give him corporal punishment, every now and then, in an attempt to discipline him.
"What else can I do?'" the mother had asked a friend helplessly. That same friend said the mother had used a hot spoon on his feet, on an occasion when the boy was being particularly difficult so that "he would never do it again".
I have seen this same mother play with her two young children in the park, laughing and singing together. I have seen her pick them up and drop them at school and they would look like any other regular family. What I understood from the reactions to the developments in the case of the Indian couple sentenced to jail in Norway for allegedly physically abusing their son is that this way of dealing with the challenges of parenting is not uncommon.
We are certainly not living in a culture of `zero-tolerance' for violence against children. We are rather inclined to believe, quite wrongly in my opinion, that `violence' is needed to teach some lessons. A friend confessed jokingly that his entire family - he and his wife, his parents and his grandparents, would be in jail if Norway's laws were to be applied here.
The arrested couple, Chandrasekhar and Anupama were dealing with a very similar situation while grappling with the challenges facing their 7-year-old son Sai Sriram. They had moved to Oslo in August 2011. Sai Sriram was admitted to the Oslo International School and soon afterwards they were dealing with complaints from the school almost on a daily basis.
A huge docket of email correspondence and an Orange Book that was a message book between the parents and the school teachers shows the parents were regularly involved with and concerned about ensuring their son fitted in and drew no complaints. The notings show there was concern about the boy forgetting things, being unable to control his emotions and attempts to calm him by engaging him in activities.
The parents suspected that their son was suffering from ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) and actively sought help and guidance to deal with it. (According to experts, it is difficult to diagnose this condition in younger children). They were told by the school that since they were not permanent residents of Norway they would not be able to access services of the Norwegian health authorities.
As soon as the Oslo court sentenced the couple on Tuesday, Chandrasekhar called home. The children Sriram and 2-year-old Abhiram were having an afternoon nap when he broke the news of the adverse verdict to his nephew Sailender. Who would look after the two children was his biggest worry.
In its judgement, the court makes it clear that it does not doubt that the accused has experienced parenting for aggrieved that difficult. Also, child care and the school had stated in court that the victim is an unfocused child. This is further reinforced by the fact that the parents had regular contact with the school about the 'victim's' challenges.
The couple is accused of deliberately pressing a hot spoon on Sriram's leg because he did not speak the truth on one occasion. A translation from the judgement copy in Norwegian suggests the boy had stolen balls from the school. The boy was not owning up and I can understand a parent trying to correct their child but not knowing how exactly to do it. Giving birth to a child doesn't automatically make anyone an ideal parent. And in trying circumstances, threat and fear of punishment do often become the last resort.
The judgement also says the couple had allegedly threatened and hit him possibly with a belt on several occasions between October 2011 and March 2012 when there were regular complaints from school about his behaviour.
The parents have denied assaulting Sriram and argue their explanations have not been heard properly. They point out that there were repeated complaints for example about misbehaviour and not wearing the seatbelt in the school bus for which the school threatened to suspend him from using the school bus. The father also said that every morning he would personally put Sriram on the bus and ensured he wore his belt and the mother saw that he was wearing his belt when he got off. Chandrasekhar also said he would demonstrate to the child taking off his belt at home and that incident was probably misunderstood in translation.
The point I am making is all of us, under tremendous stress, do react adversely at times. That may not be our best or appropriate behaviour and in most cases, we may even regret having reacted in a particular manner. Anupama and Chandrasekhar do not seem like parents given to child-battering. The fact is they needed help as much as the child does.
What I also found unfair was that the press release issued by the prosecution had mentioned "maltreatment of their child/ children" as though both children had been abused whereas the detailed judgement copy does not make even a single reference to any physical or verbal abuse against the second child.
The chorus in India now is - if they hit the child, punish them. Yes, no one is suggesting otherwise. But step back and ponder over whether many of us do not find ourselves in similar situations. Are we all perfect human beings, not prone to reacting in a flash of anger at any point in time? Of course nothing, nothing at all, can justify terrorising, intimidating or physically harming a 7-year-old, for who home should be the safest place to be and parents should be the people he is convinced will never allow any harm to come his way. Violating that, to me, is a sacred trust broken.
By putting the parents away, the Norwegian court has acted in accordance with the law of the land. It assumes that the two children will be well taken care of by their relatives and grandparents in Hyderabad. What parents who did love their child dearly could not give, would it be possible for an extended family to give? Can anyone replace the loving cuddle of a mother and the caring presence of a father? What kind of effect denial of parental care will have on the two children in their growing up years, no one can tell for sure.