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Educating Sanjay

ALL of the tables in the coffee shop were taken. I looked around and saw an Indian man in his early thirties at a large table near the entrance. I raised an eyebrow, and he smiled and nodded, so I slid my tray onto the table and took the seat opposite him. A large handbag was hooked over the edge of the table. He noticed me looking at it and laughed.

“No,” he said, “it’s not a man-bag. It belongs to my wife.”

“Oh, I hope I’m not…”

“No,” he said. “She’s gone to pick up my son from the school bus.”

He introduced himself as Kapil, as in Kapil Dev, the great Indian cricketer. “But call me Kap. Everybody does,” he said. He told me he was a banker, adding that he is ”between jobs.” That’s like a lot of bankers in Hong Kong during the global financial crisis that never seemed to end. He had a British accent of indeterminate provenance, and I asked him where he was from. “Harrow,’ he said. “Just outside London. I was born and raised there but have spent most of my working life in Asia – Singapore, Tokyo and now Hong Kong.”

I finished my coffee and was about to depart when Kap’s wife appeared with their four-year-old son. The boy rushed to his dad for a cuddle, and then produced a painting from his backpack. He pushed it across the table for Kap’s approval.

“Wow, that’s great, Sanjay. Show it to David.”

Glowing at his dad’s approval, he pushed the painting across the table to me. I thought that it was rather good. Rectangular pieces of brown cardboard had been pasted in an overlapping pattern at the top of the sheet. On the rest of the sheet had been painted orange and red flames that licked at the cardboard logs.

I wanted to know the story behind the painting, but first I asked, “What will you do with the painting, Sanjay?”

“Hang it on my bedroom wall. I have lots of paintings there.”

“That’s great!” I said. “So which way round will you hang it?”

Before he could respond, his mother said, “Well of course, it goes like this.” She held the painting with the logs at the top and the flames underneath. I was slightly annoyed at her intervention. I wanted the little boy’s opinion. I couldn’t care less what his mother thought. But before I could say anything, Kap grabbed the painting and turned it the other way round, with the logs on the bottom. “Don’t be ridiculous, this is the way it should go. Clearly the logs should be on the bottom.”

Before long, what started out as light-hearted banter turned into a full-scale domestic dispute. The little boy looked on, forgotten and confused. At one stage I thought that Kap and his wife (who was never introduced to me) were going to rip the poor little boy’s painting in half. Eventually, they calmed down and turned to Sanjay.

“So?” asked the mom. “How are you going to hang the painting? Dad’s way or my way?” Sanjay thought for a moment and then said, “Dad’s way.’

For that he got a kiss on the lips from his dad. “That’s my boy,” Kap said before going to buy lattes all around to celebrate his victory.

By now, I had become pretty fed up. The parents seemed to have no conception of letting the little boy give an account of his own world. They seemed to think it was their responsibility to impose on him their competing conceptions of the world.

“Forget about your mum and dad,” I said to Sanjay, a comment that drew a glare from his mum. “How would you like to see your picture hung?”

He picked up the painting from the table, studied it for a moment and then turned it sideways so that the logs were neither at the bottom or the top. “Just like this,” he said. “That’s the way it’s going to be.” “That’s the way I like it too,” I said.

Kap returned to the table with three cups of coffee and a soft drink for the little boy. Feeling it was high time to change the subject, I asked the woman what she did. “I’m an educator,” she said. “I teach I.T.” She named a prestigious international school on Hong Kong Island, and picked up one of the lattes from the tray. From the look on her face, it was clear that she felt I had been well and truly put in my place. tj

Originally appeared in Tokyo Journal Issue #271.Click here to order from Amazon

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