A question of answers

The strange thing about your child growing up is that however much you are ready and waiting, it has this ability to creep up on you in the most insidious way, catching you totally off-guard. Like when Re asked me the other day: “Mamma, what is a husband?”

I knew where this was coming from. We had been watching Shrek 2 on loop and Fiona and Shrek made a fetching couple, replete with PDA. Re likes that, the PDA bit. “Oh, that didi is so happy with her dadda,” he said, almost pleased with himself on account of their on-screen camaraderie.

“It’s not her dadda, it’s her husband.”

Hence the question.

Now, this was quite an opening. In my earlier avatar, I would have said one of many things: that a husband is someone you marry and then feel weird whenever you are introducing him as “the husband”. Or someone you haffto be friends with on Facebook. Or someone you produce at family functions so that nosy geriatrics stop asking you about “good news”. Or someone you have to hear whine every day and be polite about it, even pretend it’s cute. Or someone you wake up with one day, and realise that unless you work really hard at making him run away, he will be lying next to you, somnambulistic, impervious to light and sound, every single day, for the rest of your life.

But then I realise he is a three-year-old, and I am his mother, so I obviously can’t colour his perception of things. I also realise that to him, answers are everything. Answers are the doors to more questions.

And so I say, somewhat reluctantly, “It’s what a mamma calls a dadda. Or Mrs Shrek calls Mr Shrek.”

I don’t know whether he is convinced by my answer. I have no means of finding out. But he is quiet again, so maybe that went well.

A few scenes later, Shrek is being attacked by Puss in Boots. Re is enraged. Shrek has obviously found a special place in his heart by now and anyone or anything that hurts him is the enemy. He screams at the screen, “Stop it, Puss in Boots! Don’t do that to my husband!”

“It’s not your husband, Re, it’s Mrs Shrek’s husband.”

I obviously haven’t factored in same-sex marriages here, but the whole thing is so darned complicated already, I am thinking.

Re is not convinced. He is already comfortable equating husband to father figure and peeved at this enforced limitation.

That’s the trouble with the growing-up virus. You are never really prepared for it, even if sometimes it might be the most eagerly awaited thing in your life. I thought all I had to do was be vigilant about gender stereotypes and teach him to respect women. But now I know what they meant in those boardrooms when they said, “Explain it to me like I am a four-year old.”

I will never really master that, I think, no matter how many books I read. But one thing I had decided early on was that I would never tell him, “You are a baby, you won’t understand.” There would always be answers. Even if they are answers he doesn’t want to hear.

Time passes. We move on to other movies, but inevitably return to Shrek one day.

“Why is Shrek angwy with Mrs Shrek?,” Re asks, seeing a visibly upset Shrek post a visit to the in-laws.

“Because they just have different expectations from each other. And each cannot understand what the other is saying,” I muster the courage to tell him. I didn’t want to say he was pissed off with his in-laws and their snootiness and attachment for all things material.

“No mamma, they are not having expotatoes!”

Okay then. That was not very bright of me. But here’s the tricky part with children. Sometimes, the only way to say it is to say it like it is. And sometimes, it is to say it like they want to hear it. It’s just that it is a hit or miss and you keep trying.

I could have said, “Shrek likes to live in the jungle and he was not comfortable with the castle and table manners and all of that.” But would it have worked? I don’t know. I can try next time.

The thing is, he has already decided that Shrek is the good guy. So, until he figures out a new hero, I will have to tread very carefully in Shrek-zone.

By next year, givaffe will be giraffe, cocodiling will be crocodile and hippopotis will be hippopotamus and Shrek will be replaced by someone else. But the questions will continue. For a long, long time. I better work on the answers from now on.

(This post first appeared as my column in the Indian Express Sunday Eye on 30th September, 2012)



Conversations about Chhota Bheem, shoe-towels, Shrek and other people in my universe

“Mamma, I want to watch chhotabim!”
“But you haven’t had your lunch. Even chhotabim must be eating lunch at lunch time.”
“But chhotabim have soooomany laddoo no?”

*Thinking, WTF, okay, I will try another strategy*

Do you know that there is no teevee in Paloma’s house?
But there is teevee in my house no? Come, let’s watch chotabim!


Re comes home from school, takes off his ‘rainy’ shoes and runs to the bathroom to rinse them. He then turns to me and says, “Mamma, where is my shoe towel?”
“Your WHAT?” *wondering what the fuck is a shoe towel*
“Shoe towel, mamma. I need to wipe my shoes.”
I hand him a rag and say, “Here, use this!”
He shakes his head in annoyance, and then runs to pull out a dainty pink face towel from the drawer and says, “Onwy like this it can be.”
Said towel has now been to places it has never been before.


“Mamma, you are making me upset. Then I am going to run away!”
“Where there?”
“There there.”
“But where are you goving?”
“I am goving to my angry room.”

Nice. Now I want an angry island.


Mamma, you be quiet. You don’t scream, okay?
I am not screaming. I am being assertive.
Then don’t be othertive.


Re and I watching Shrek 2. The scene where Fiona cups Shrek’s face in her hands and gives him that lovey dovey look. Re is overwhelmed (the sentimental fool!)

“Oh, so sweet, that didi is so happy with her dadda!”
“That’s not her dadda, that’s her husband,” I say.
“What’s a hubband?”
AHHH… what an opening, I think. My mind is brimming with all the evil things I can say to answer this question. Instead, I say:
“It’s what a mamma calls a dadda.”


Learning to grow down

A few days ago, while dropping Re to school, I shared an auto ride with a 12-year-old. He was charming, polite, well-mannered, and I couldn’t help thinking, “This is how I want Re to be when he grows up.” He then asked me what I did. Now this question usually makes me squirm when posed by an adult, particularly at a stage when I am ambivalent about my career (or whatever you could call it). But somehow, I was happy that he asked. I was eager to tell.

“I write,” I said. It felt good to say it in a manner that involved no legacy, no flourish, no validation. He then went on to ask me what I wrote about and that was harder to answer. “Everyday stuff,” I said, after some thought. “Marriage, children, food and things like that? But I try to make it funny.” I really wanted this boy to like me.

–“That must be hard. Humour is the hardest to write,” he said.

–“Yes,” I found myself saying. “It is.”

–“Does it make you happy?” he asked.

–“Yes.” It was a “yes” pregnant with extreme conviction, after years. It was a “yes” that set me free.

I love this boy, I thought. He just distilled the meaning of my life for me in this very short ride.

Re and I are going to have many such conversations in the years to come, I thought. This is going to be so much fun, my chirpy mind told me, while my body, still weary from broken sleep and the overtures of my child, an extremely “morning person”, did a mild grumble. I hushed it. My body is getting used to getting hushed by my mind these days.

Children are as liberating as they are limiting. On most days, I feel physically depleted by motherhood, but my mind has never been more fertile as it has been in the last three years. Re and I live in a world of green dogs, blue horses, pink hippos and cats wearing hats, and in that world, anything seems possible. Lions sleep with zebras, baby bears drive mamma bears around, fish climb up mountains, sharks have pet rhinos and cats lick dogs. I love playing along. I seem to be asking “why not” instead of “why” more often these days. I want to learn how to skate, write for children, do ballet, somersault.

Pic By Bajirao Pawar

I think we all reach that point in life when jobs and relationships make us more adult than we ever wanted to be and soon we find ourselves all grown up and nowhere to go. I was there too till I felt slightly rescued by my child. I am enjoying the growing down much more than the growing up. There’s definitely less angst. And more exclamation marks.

Very often, you also put your foot in your mouth. In a nice way. Like when Re asked me one day, while watching Shrek 2:

– “Mamma, why is Shrek beating Puss in Boots?”

– “Because he really annoyed him and that made Shrek angry.”

– “But he is a good boy, no?”

– “Yes, but sometimes, good boys do bad things too.”

I found myself thinking deeper about the treacherous dichotomy of life when Re told me one day:

– “Mamma, you are a very bad girl.”

– “Why?”

– “Because you are a good girl.”

Children have that effect. Just when you thought you had reached a dead end, along comes someone “Youer than You” and you begin to feel grateful to Dr Seuss for helping you start all over again.

So I found “me” back. I found I liked mud and water, that clothes were limiting and that norms were lacerating. I found the joy in black, my child’s favourite shade of paint. I found that horses looked good in pink and a sheep had every business to eat a lion if it wanted to. I found my body. I found dance and how to let it all go. (He had me at “You did it mamma!”). I found that there was a whole new universe in children’s books, for even a die-hard realist like me. I realised that there can never be enough oxygen. Or words. I found a little room in my head where I used to live.

(This post appeared as my column in the Indian Express Eye on 1st July, 2012)