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December 23, 1997


Manjula Padmanabhan

Just like a nanny

Dominic Xavier's illustration In the final week of my recent stay in England, the case of the 19-year-old British au pair convicted of murder in the US was the hottest subject of debate. In the homes of my relatives, in the tube stations and in restaurants, Louise Woodward's plump features distorted in anguished disbelief at the prospect of a minimum of 15 years behind bars, were the focus of everyone's attention.

No one I spoke to believed that she was guilty of the murder of the 18-month-old baby called Matthew Eapen. Nevertheless there were troubling questions about her responsibility in his death, the result of head injuries. She admitted that she panicked because she saw that he had stopped breathing, that she shook him to revive him.

His parents, Sunil and Deborah Eapen were vengeful in their certainty that the au pair from Britain had killed the younger of their two sons wilfully. They were determined to see her behind bars for the rest of her life and they rejoiced when the jury brought in its verdict. Later, they appeared before the court and the world's intrusive TV camera to deliver an emotion-charged 'victim statement', sharing their grief and bereavement with all who chose to listen. This display was found to be particularly distasteful to the mass audience in England, despite American observers who explained that it is standard practice in the US, as it apparently helps victims to come to grips with their loss.

None of the news reports in the media commented upon the fact that the dead child's parents were of mixed race, though it was immediately apparently from their appearance and to Indians who recognised the south Indian origin of the name. Was the lack of comment a sign that racial differences have ceases to matter? Or has political correctness ensured that no direct reference can any longer be made to such matters? It's very hard to tell.

Certainly, the parents came in for their full share of public criticism, for leaving their child in the care of a foreign teenager, untrained to the task. Both parents are well-paid professionals. The mother is a psychiatrist who, it was felt by many, should have known better than to have left her son with a girl whose character she reviled so relentlessly on the witness stand. On both sides of the Atlantic, parents expressed their frustration with a situation in which they are bound to leave their precious offspring in the care of inexperienced young strangers, often from foreign cultures and therefore unable to speak fluent English, while father and mother pursue the type of challenging, well-heeled careers which permit them to afford the luxury of such in-house help.

I found myself thinking of the poor quality of child-minders many Indian parents leave their children with. Very little attention is given to the ayahs and other domestic help in whose uneducated care so many pampered children are left. All the advantages of wealth and privilege can be compromised if the person handling a young child is an uneducated illiterate who is superstitious, fanatically religious, or given to sexual abuse. But what is the alternative? At least in the West, the minders are often from the same social class as the family with whom they live. They sometimes belong to wealthy families themselves and are looking for a break from their home-cultures, from their native languages and from their comfortable lifestyles.

Strictly speaking, an au pair is untrained in child-rearing, where as a nanny has been trained. I had always assumed that all nannies were female. But one of my cousins and his English wife have taken the unusual course of employing a male nanny for their three young sons. I met him during my stay at my cousin's home and was most charmed by this interesting variation on a familiar theme.

Doiminique (not his real name) is a lissom, gentle-mannered young person of 19. His mother is French and, to judge by the bronze curls framing his sharp, handsome features in stylish disarray, his father is possibly north African though he doesn't know as they've never met. In his spare time, he takes singing lessons and does a little painting and modelling on the side. He has the use of the family car, a BMW, and a room and bathroom to himself. He helps around the house with the laundry and the cooking, the cleaning and the fetching, while playing video games with the boys and staying home with them when their parents go out.

I asked him how many other nannies of masculine gender he knew and he confessed 'very few'. There are more in France however, where he was trained and where, he says, "They are not so paranoid about leaving children in the care of men. Here they are afraid of child abuse. But girls can abuse children too. There's less talk about it, that's all." Is he trained to look after girls? Yes, he said, "But… I don't think I'd like to. I mean, I don't like playing with Barbie dolls, you know?" Vive la France! I thought, while admiring Dominique's fetching profile.

Illustration: Dominic Xavier

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Manjula Padmanabhan