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Lessons in Parenting From Life is Beautiful

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There was a family wedding in India a few months ago. So my son, N, and I pretty much camped out at the wedding hall with family (but came home to sleep). We had almost every meal there for three days.

At one point, N had had enough of it. He clearly demarcates between “Indian food” (rice, idlis, dosa, chapati, curries, sambhar) and “American food” (pbj sandwiches, pancakes, pasta, cereal) and if he’s had, let’s say, idlis for breakfast, and rice and sambhar for lunch, then he flat out asks for American food for dinner.

So after a couple of times of eating at the wedding, just as we were going into dinner, he asked to go home. He was tired. We had just returned from an overseas trip and he was recovering from a bad cough. Plus, at home, he could have pasta for dinner.

I hesitated. What will the relatives think? How will it look if I took off just as everyone was getting ready to sit together for dinner?

On the other hand, I really did not want to force N to stay if he did not want to. I could have imposed my will and made him stay. But why? He wasn’t making a fuss. He was making logical arguments about why we should go home (“Mom, I’m tired.” “Mom, look how bad my cough is,” followed by a demonstration for my benefit.) I looked at N’s pleading eyes and decided we were leaving.

We flagged down an auto rickshaw and headed home. As we were riding back home he said, “Thanks Mom. Are you upset because we had to leave early?” I said, “You’re welcome. Of course I’m not upset, but glad you told me what you wanted to do.” The relief on his face was palpable.

On the one hand, I was thrilled that he had said thank you, but on the other hand I was feeling wretched that he was feeling relieved or thankful at all. He was just being a five-year-old and I should be as understanding as I was in that instance every day, every instance.

But I’m not. Quite often other considerations creep in. I have my inspired moments, moments that would warrant a Mother of the Year award, if there were one, but those moments are rarer than I would like.

It is in those moments when I can see myself being a monster that I remember the movie Life is Beautiful.

Life is Beautiful is a movie about many things. It is a movie about the Holocaust. It is a movie about the spirit of one man defying the might of the German war machine. It is a movie about love, about persistence. It is a movie about resilience.

Above all, it is a movie about parenting. It is a movie about a father who, in the midst of all the misery and terror of a concentration camp, in the midst of the horrors taking place around him, never loses sight of the perspective of his young son.

Just so the little boy should not feel fear, the father pretends that the entire concentration camp experience is an elaborate game, translating the stentorian orders of the German soldiers into loud Italian (and not being faithful to the original German of course), pretending that the whole thing is an elaborate game of cops and robbers, a game of hide and seek.

I know it’s just a movie and that in real life, practical considerations abound. But it’s an inspiration nonetheless.

If you haven’t already seen the movie, please do. Just make sure you have a box of tissues next to you when you do. And your favourite pjs, blankie, and your favourite corner of the sofa will certainly help. We had some indication of the sadness the movie evoked as we watched the people from the previous showing walk out of the theater, but we had no idea until we watched the movie ourselves. When the movie ended, no one got out of their seats. People just sat and sobbed quietly.

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About Sujatha Bagal