Pupu was born a more than normally lively and intelligent child. She loved to listen to stories, yet she was already past two and having difficulty concentrating on making the effort that every child must make to start on the long journey to literacy – learning the alphabet. Being persuaded that it was best to start with the mother tongue, my wife and I had been trying gently, but with ever increasing anxiety, to get her to start reading on her own (we didn’t believe in relegating even such basic responsibilities to those cram shops that call themselves by the fancy name of play school). Already precocious at that early age, she had memorized all the writing in her first picture book by simply listening to us chanting the rhymes over and over again, and naughtily tried to pass it off as ability to read! Naturally, she was caught out when we switched books. And one evening, when her mother had complained after several months of fruitless struggle, I lost my temper.
I had always been, both by training and temperament, a firm believer in Asimov’s aphorism ‘Violence is the last resort of the incompetent’. Never in two decades of teaching had I ever hit a pupil. Yet that evening I put her firmly on my lap and gave her an ultimatum: ‘I’m not letting you go until you have started reading on your own!’ I find it agonizing to recall the next half hour, though more than a decade has passed by – it seems like yesterday. I scolded and threatened, even cuffed her on the head and boxed her ears two or three times (I am ashamed to say I probably even slapped her once), all the while holding her tightly to my breast and urging her ‘Go on, go on, keep trying, again, again, again, you can do it…’ and she sniffled and sobbed and wriggled and kept whining ‘I can’t, I can’t, I can’t’ and went on trying desperately, poor child. I had almost given up in despair when I saw that the miracle had taken place without either of us noticing it: she was reading fluently, and quite unconscious of the fact that she had done it!
I stopped her short in mid-rhyme and said, ‘Look, darling, you can read now!’ And you should have seen her look of startled, unbelieving surprise, and then the lovely, heavenly smile of delight and pride lighting up her tear-stained face: ‘Oh, yes, daddy, I can really read now, can’t I?’ and we hugged each other as though we had just been declared lords of the world…
It has been years, and now Pupu is a very grown-up sort of teenager, big and smart and talkative, a voracious reader in two languages far ahead of most people of her age, and learning two more languages with hardly any prompting on daddy’s part. Every time I ask her for forgiveness, she says, ‘Oh, come on, Dad, I should say thank God you took a firm line that day!’
So did I do the right thing after all, and can I be forgiven when I stand before the Lord’s Judgment seat?