The violence and viciousness of a child’s world are well known. Samuel Golding’s 1954 novel Lord of the Flies, the staple of English literature courses today, dealt firmly with this as he de-mythologised conventions of the helpless and tearful child and showed how monstrous they can be. The unpredictable world of children has been the subject of countless books. Dickens’ children are a useful point of reference here- leading terrible lives of quiet misery.
I remember watching Jack Clayton’s Our Mother’s House (1967) before I became a mother myself and being quite horrified by the unforgivingly cruel world the children chose for themselves. Burying their mother in the backyard and shutting themselves off from the outside world they established their own world within, with its chilling rules and rituals. More recently, The Karate Kid (2010) blends children’s savagery with issues of race, which I think are far more relevant in today’s world than Golding’s paradise-turned hellhole parable.
A black child in China, a brown child in small town white America, a Turkish migrant’s child in Sweden, a Hispanic in Korea: the mind boggles at what such children are going through as matters of race, community, ethnicity and gender are decided in playgrounds and schoolrooms.
A child’s world is hard work. The sudden quarrels that sunder familiar friendships, the bullying, the trials of strength, the taunts and mockeries that have to be faced each day from other children can sometimes be more dangerous than in an adult world.
Salman Khan, the Bollywood actor, produced a movie named Chillar Party (2011) in which a group of privileged children in a modern apartment complex torment Phatke, a poor village boy as he tries to eke out a precarious existence as a car-washer. The scene in which the boy’s pet mutt is locked up in a car and left to suffocate as Phatke, tears coursing down his cheeks, begs the rich children for mercy on his dog may be mawkish to some.
But it works! Phatke was a street-child himself in real life and may have brought to his role the understanding of felt experience. India has no official figures of its street children but there must be millions of them: grubby bodies, scarred faces, glue-sniffing, rag-picking multitudes who live precarious lives of beggary and crime.
My son, who at sixteen has changed schools and joined a new one, brings home terrible tales of teenage brutality. Not the fist-fighting, drug-taking violence of Hollywood movies, but the more insidious tales of identity and belonging, of a closed circle of insiders and the rejected outsiders; of the new boys who hang around on their own, packless, while the old boys have hardened their ranks and refused admittance.
As the schoolboy Goggles Ledwidge, a minor character who nevertheless makes an important point in Aldous Huxley’s Eyeless in Gaza realised, it is hard to belong. Huxley’s novel was about the turbulences in sexual and class-politics in 1930s England. But Goggles, like so many others who had gone before and would come after, realised soon enough that childhood is the first point of entry into the bitter lessons of life.