The World Is a Scary Place


Jul 8, 2016


I must have been 4 years old the first time I walked to my grandmother’s house alone. Sure, she lived only five minutes away. But I had to walk by myself – “at the side of the road, not in the middle” – through two very crowded streets before I entered the colony in which she lived.

I remember that day quite clearly. Mom stood at the window, smiling and urging me to go on, watching me until I disappeared around the corner. She didn’t call my grandma to find out if I’d reached. My grandma didn’t have a phone, you see. But I reached safely and even though I don’t remember the rest of that day, I do know that I wasn’t escorted to my grandma’s ever again.

I knew this made me different from my friends. I didn’t have an overprotective parent; my mother gave me the freedom to gallivant and didn’t particularly mind if I wasn’t in her line of sight at all times. I was among the only children allowed to ride their bicycles on the streets, rather than inside the tiny compound.

When I think back to those days, I still feel elated, adventurous and free. My independent streak as an adult is rooted in those solitary childhood explorations of my environment and myself. I learned that even though I couldn’t control situations and circumstances, I could get by using my wits. This is an important lesson.

But after becoming a parent, my sunglasses of nostalgia have lost their rosy tint, have started to crack around the corners. I recall more easily, now, the scary moments, like when a boy riding by on a bike asked me to throw my underwear at him – I was 6 years old. When a hypnotic god man tried to make away with my pocket money, I was 10. When I was hit by a motorbike, skid on 20 feet of tar and hit a gutter – shaken, scraped, but mostly unharmed – I was 12.

Experiences like these make me fearful of what’s in store for my still sweet and innocent baby. It doesn’t help that child sexual abuse in India increased by 336% between 2001 and 2011 or that an estimated 135,000 children are trafficked in this country every year.

That these numbers are likely due to a spike in awareness and reporting and that most (though not all) of these children are rural, poor or otherwise vulnerable does nothing to assuage the fear I feel for my own, more privileged child. I read the papers; it happens in my own city, in my own communities, too. And all I see in these reports are the words “at school,” “from the neighbourhood,” “in the home” – places meant to be safe.

I don’t know how my mother could have let me walk to my grandma’s all by myself, I really don’t. Or let me ride my bike out on the crowded streets for hours.

“What if I had gotten snatched?” I ask her, suddenly shaken at what I now feel was extremely relaxed parenting. “You wouldn’t find out until eight hours later!!”

Here I am, so scared of something happening to my child, it paralyzes me. I refrain from leaving the house alone with him, waiting until my husband, a friend or nanny can come along, too. I even avoid the park that’s 50 meters away.

Mum won’t have any of this though. She can’t understand how I can coop up my child – and myself – for fear of the unknown. I’m not an overprotective parent, I tell her. Times were different when we were younger. The world is now a very scary place.

“Wasn’t it always?” she says. “And you still turned out OK.”

She’s right, I know. She always is. And I’m grateful to her for letting me find my own way rather than letting her fears to prevent me from experiencing life. But I promised my son when he was born that I would do everything in my power to ensure nothing bad ever happens to him.

Then again, my mother, too, probably made that promise to me. It’s a promise most parents make, I imagine. But the world is too big and too chaotic to control. The only thing we can control is whether that promise turns into protection or paranoia. And whether we equip our children to manage when, inevitably, we’re not around.

My mother found that balance. Once I had learned to read, write and make friends who weren’t my cousins, she let go because she had faith I’d come to her if and when I found myself in a tight spot. I didn’t ride my bicycle outside the invisible boundaries she chalked out for me. And any uncomfortable situations with strangers, as well as people we know, were reported to her immediately.

I know in my heart that I’m already laying down the foundation to hold back my child – and myself – from largely good, character-defining experiences. Once you slip over into paranoia, it’s difficult to find the way back. So I’ll take small steps until, perhaps, I find myself with my son on an evening walk around the park.


Written By Afsha Khan Jayapal

Afsha is an ex-journalist who has written for The Indian Express, Hindustan Times, Bangalore Mirror and Conde Nast India. Now, she’s a full-time writer who loves to tell stories. Many of them are true, but some are made up inside her head.


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