The noise of quiet

One of the things I like about moving house is the feeling of old things getting new lives, new spaces, new journeys. Over a month ago, Re, Bravo (our cat) and I moved into our new abode on the hill of our school campus, where I now teach and they mostly gambol.

I was overwhelmed with the new space I had, but I noticed that I quickly filled it up with things of comfort, although we moved in with just five cartons.

We do the same thing with silences. We have this desperate urge to fill it up, lest it take us to places we do not want to go to. Words are cheap. Silences take work. Most of the time, we are a bunch of overconnected adults, who, despite a cross wiring of our social media avatars, are never connected in any real way, because there are no silences between us.

Even when we take a break or go for a holiday, we fill it up with things to do, places to visit, things to buy, concerts to attend, people to meet, and so on.

We do it to our children. Sometimes I wonder how many inane sound bytes a child gets in a day. I mean there’s only so much “What’s your name?” or “What are you doing?” a child can take, especially when he knows that you don’t really care about the answer, but are just asking to fill in the void. We are so intrigued by silence that we can’t let it be.

As I get older, I’m getting drawn to silences. To people who don’t say much, yet say a lot. Children teach us about the inanity of verbosity. By never saying what they don’t mean, until we start training them to. Every time the stark simplicity of a child confronts our convoluted logic, we are reminded of how unimportant words really are in communication.

We need to find the time to be quiet with our children. We learn more from their silences (and our own) than from words.

I have noticed in my rather limited stint of five years as a parent that very few people can bear a quiet child. A majority of these are parents themselves. Talking is so much in vogue that quiet is considered boring, ancient, uncool. It is as though talking is a default state to be in and silence, an affliction.

As a teacher, I find it in my class too. Each student wants to be the one who speaks first and the loudest. But I am always interested in the quiet child, because, as a child, I never made the cut.

The first thing that struck me about my life in the slow lane was how quiet quiet could be. And how noisy my mind was in comparison. Some days, the only bell that rings is the school bell. But I wanted this. I planned this. I fought for this.

Quiet time came to us in various organic and inorganic forms. There was the quiet time at school post the morning assembly. There were silence bells at mealtime when the cacophony needed to be contained, if only for a minute. There was the ritual quiet time at sunset every day on the hill, beautifully termed Asthachal. Re who usually can be quiet for long periods somehow couldn’t comprehend the orchestrated quiet. He usually ran about, picking twigs and pretending to turn them into wands so he could turn someone into a toad (his latest obsession). Sometimes, he just picked a rock and went to sleep on it.


One day, on our walk to Asthachal, I told him. “You know that Asthachal is quiet time, right? I think it can bother other people who want to be quiet if you distract them.”

But I wonder why we have to be quiet at Asthachal,” he said.

It is important, I wanted to tell him. Because most of us are too small to understand the bigness of quiet. But I didn’t.

Because we talk so much all the time, sometimes it’s nice to rest your mind,” I said.

So will our mind be quiet if we are quiet?” he asked.

There is a small chance, but we can try,” I replied.

(This post first appeared as my column in Pune Mirror on 14th July, 2014)

Age three: Of mindfucks and other games

Somewhere around age three, children gather enough vocabulary and spunk to get back at you in a way they know best. Which normally involves twisting something you said or taking it out of context to say something that will solely be of benefit to them. It also is largely intended to imply that they are not babies anymore and you can just fool them with words, as they have all the armour to decode it. They also learn the art of the subtext around this age, that is they say things without saying them, which is a bit of the mind-fuck as you are just not ready for this level of verbal politics.

So here is a ready reckoner from my life to decode what they mean from what they say:

What they say and what they mean:

Re: Lion was not wearing a tie today!
(What he means: Why the fuck did you put a tie on me? I felt ridiculous!)

Re: Ritushi didn’t come today. And Shaurya didn’t come. And Mahek didn’t come. And Kwishna didn’t come. And Adlai didn’t come!
(What he means: Why the fuck was I sent to school when others bunked?)

Re: Chhotabeeem and Raju are being nangu.
(What he means: Why do I have to wear clothes?)

Re: I want dadda!

(What he means: I have had enough of the controlling you and I would rather be around someone who is okay with me not bathing or brushing or going to school)

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)

Your, mine, ours and theirs

The boy is ‘on the verge’ of a huge vocabulary. There’s a lot he is saying, but I am not sure what language it is in. The only words I can comprehend are ‘mamma’ and ‘dada’.

Which brings me to: What language do I want him to learn? English is like a default setting, there’s going to be too much of that anyway and no, it doesn’t make me happy. Hindi will come with Bollywood and play. Marathi is freely available at home with the cook and the cleaning lady. But none of these would figure as his mother tongue. I don’t want the lad to wonder what to fill, should such an entry exist in the list of future forms he will have to negotiate.

As for me, Tamil is my mother tongue, but I seem to have taken that quite seriously as the-language-on-my-tongue-when-I-speak-to-my-mother. Which brings me to — how your parents become all the more important (especially when they share a mother tongue) when you have a child. They are the only ones who know what is yours, culturally at least.

Some grandmothers do 've them

So I am currently staking a claim to my mother tongue by sporadically speaking in Tamil to him, at which he grins an evil grin, or gurgles, as if I have mixed up my tenses, or worse, my genders. Also nothing feels more ridiculous than speaking to someone who doesn’t speak back to you. Which is why I abhor baby talk and am glad it will soon be over.

The sperm donor is a diplo-brat, which is a euphemism for I-don’t-have-a-fucking-clue-where-my-roots-are.  When I asked him (should have done so before marriage) what his mother tongue was, he said ‘German’ with a degree of nonchalance. It is true. Even today, his German or French sounds better than his Hindi (which would be his mother tongue as indicated by his last name).

It’s all very well to have cocktail cultures arising from mixed marriages, but the whole dilemma of what to keep and what to let go is so not worth it. Well, another occupational hazard of having a baby, I guess.