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Obama and your grandmother

Last updated on: October 06, 2009 12:49 IST
B S Prakash on the lessons Obama learnt from his grandmother and why they sound so familiar to Indians. Illustration: Uttam Ghosh.

'When I was young, my mother did not have the money to send me to where all the kids went to school. So she decided to teach me some extra lessons herself at 4:30 in the morning. Now I was not happy getting up that early. A lot of times, I would fall asleep right there at the kitchen table...'

Tales from your father about how he was brought up by his mother, your grandmother? From an eminent Indian scientist, someone like Dr A P J Kalam on his early austere upbringing? No. This is President Barack Obama speaking to school children about his mother, about his years in Indonesia where he went to school, not just reminisces, but to impart the message that the key to their success is at least partly hard work. And telling them that he knows it, having experienced it himself.

There are other things in common between Obama's beliefs and what your grandmother -- if she was a stern disciplinarian -- may have tried to teach you. An important message: That what educationists these days call 'the delayed gratification' is a good thing to imbibe. But before getting there, a little more about the context and authenticity of Obama's message.

I took the above quote from Obama's speech on September 8 this year, to mark the event when children start their school year in America. He spoke at one school but the message was intended for the whole nation.

The content was almost common sense, at least for us from the Indian tradition: the need for hard work, taking responsibility, overcoming hardship and disadvantages, and education as a provider of opportunity.

What was remarkable in the American context was that a president was saying these things and that too a president who had experienced the handicaps and had also tasted the temptations of being a shirker, or to use our lingo, a 'timepasser.'

That this was not a political speech or worse a hypocritical preach should have been evident to anyone who knows Obama's story as told by himself much before he became famous and could conceivably 'window dress' his biography.

Dreams From My Father, Obama's early autobiography, came out in 1995, when he was only 34 and much before he became a US senator in 2005. It is a fascinating story of his mother, father, grandparents and growing up in Hawaii, Indonesia and later starting his work as a community leader in Chicago.

Obama would not have known when he wrote this book -- and he wrote it and not a ghost writer -- that he would become so famous that every event in his life will be a matter of public scrutiny and will be dissected by the media and his critics one day. That is why, the book without any self-consciousness mentions his smoking (and not cigarettes alone, but worse things), harsh treatment of some class mates and so on. But our focus for the moment is on his being woken up early.

In Obama's telling, his mother emerges as a dreamy-eyed, good hearted and generous white girl born to her parents, who settled down in Hawaii, not a typical US state and one without too much racial prejudice, given its own mix of Polynesian, Japanese and American population. Here, when she was a young university student, she fell in love with Obama's father, a bright and dignified student on a scholarship from Kenya.

The father left for Harvard after two years, the marriage did not last, but they had 'Barack' who stayed on with the mother and grandparents. The father that is portrayed from Obama's pen is a noble but tragic figure, turning into an embittered figure in Kenya, but that is a different story.

Some years later Obama's mother met an Indonesian student again in Hawaii and followed him to Djakarta, where Obama went to a normal school. And this is the period from which his lesson about discipline and getting up early, in other words, the grandmotherly wisdom comes from.

First, Obama's mother woke him up at 4:30 in Indonesia for a few years, and later having been sent back to Hawaii for schooling, his grandmother made him imbibe the value of work and good grades.

This is the background then for Obama to sound so much like an Indian grandmother: Sit before your books, finish your homework, don't get distracted, take responsibility, education is important, but even in areas where it does not seem immediately relevant say cricket or Indian Idol -- for us, or basketball or rapping in the American context, success does not come without much effort etc, etc.

This message from their president may have sounded much like what they hear at home for students in America from Indian, Chinese or Japanese families. But it needed to be said for many from different family or ethnic backgrounds. To use a gross and sweeping generalisation for those kids from black-ghetto, Hispanic, or trailer-trash-white backgrounds, all terms to denote 'disadvantaged' in social terms.

The question of why students from some backgrounds excel in academics has itself become an interesting academic study in the US with its multi-racial and multi-cultural society. All the studies show, not surprisingly, that Asian children -- Chinese, from the Indian subcontinent (not only Indians, but Pakistanis and Bangladeshis too), Koreans etc tend to excel in schools, as also Jews and many from East-European backgrounds. Why?

Evidence yields some analysis which is almost commonsense: educated or even super-educated parents -- how often don't we read about the parents of a whiz-kid who tops the spelling bee competition, father a doctor and the mother a mathematic professor ;) growing up with books at home; family values as distinct from broken homes or constant fighting and tension between parents; peer group pressure etc. Not to mention good genes.

But there are two other factors that are worth looking at in terms of motivating a child: The attention-deficit-disorder and delayed gratification. Your grandmother may not have known the first one, though Obama does; the second is known to both of them!

The multiplicity of attention seeking diversions and devices is a challenge for all parents and educationists. Earlier it was just the television and in India we had developed practices in some homes of rationing television time or even keeping the television in the attic during Class XII examinations.

But it is now your child's time with the computer itself that is worrying. With all the social networks -- Facebook, My Space, Twitter, SMS, MP-3, -- quite apart from games and the ever present porn, who knows what your kid is plugged into? Can he focus, concentrate, and not be distracted?

Or are these old fashioned concepts and his/her ability to work with all this, an inescapable and essential factor?

There are rival theories but my understanding is that the evidence shows that ADD --Attention Deficit Disorder -- will negatively impact on the development of the mind, even if it may nurture nimbleness of the fingers. Seen thus, ADD is a modern affliction.

'Delayed gratification,' however, is a fancy psychological phrase for an old lesson to forego immediate pleasures for later benefits. 'No gain without pain.' We have been brought up by our grandmothers believing in this. 'Don't waste all your time on the movie/television/cricket. Work now and if you do well, rewards will come later.'

Again there is enough evidence to suggest that the ability to postpone satisfying the immediate desires and impulses can benefit a child. Obama too is pointing this to children in a society with greater temptations and distractions.

Since this column in a sense has been about the educational advice to Indian and American children, may I repeat the story I have told before from Thomas Friedman, another famous American worrying about the state of learning in that country. Some decades back he used to tell his children at the dining table, 'Finish your food: think of all the Indian children who may be starving.' And he writes that he now tells them 'Finish your homework: think of all the Indian children who may make you starve.'

B S Prakash is the Indian Ambassador to Brazil and can be reached at To read more of his columns please click here

B S Prakash