An enquiry into breasts


{This is the first part of a two-post series on how making children aware of their bodies, without guilt and shame, helps in the formation of healthy attitudes and beautiful relationships in adulthood.}

All they’re looking for are answers they can understand in uncomplicated ways and make sense of this huge confusing world

Two years and six months ago my son came up and tugged at my T-shirt and, with all the curiosity of a four year old, pointed to a certain body part and asked, “Mumma, what are these? Why do you have them and Baba doesn’t?”

I would have been caught entirely unawares if I hadn’t been reading voraciously about child psychology and concepts of body awareness, right from the time that little H was tumbling around in my womb. If I hadn’t been thinking deeply all these years about the best ways to be a communicative mother, the kind of mother whose child never has to think twice about opening up to her. Having done all this thinking much in advance, I wasn’t flustered. I was calm.

“This is a body part, honey. Like any other. Like the arms, legs, stomach, back, neck. These are breasts. Parts of the body.”

“Why doesn’t baba have them?”

“Because he’s a man, sweetheart. Men and women have some differences in body parts. Baba has a beard, but Mumma doesn’t—right? Lions have manes but lionesses don’t. Peacocks have long tails but peahens don’t. There are some body parts that are specific to males, while others are specific to females.”

He beamed at me, then. And promptly went back to his toys.

He had understood.

No shame, no embarrassment, no humming and hawing. Children are not looking for us to heap our own mental blocks upon them. All they’re looking for are answers they can understand in simple, uncomplicated ways and make sense of this huge confusing world that they’re still very new to.

One year after this incident, it so happened that my sister was visiting us at my place. I’d brought a pile of freshly dried laundry into the room and dumped it onto the bed. I had made a habit of asking little H to help me out with folding the laundry—smaller clothes like his own T-shirts or handkerchiefs or hand towels. And he used to be very happy doing it. Now while we were doing all this, little H happened to come across an undergarment of his mother’s. A brassiere.

He held it out in the most normal way, but in a split second my sister snatched it from his hand, muttering embarrassedly: “Hain, hain!” (Which is the Hindi equivalent, loosely, of a mild reprimand.) I knew exactly what had happened here.

Given the highly sexualised image of women’s undergarments in our society, leading to a whole lot of shame and taboos being associated with them, ‘boys’ and ‘men’ are not supposed to see women’s undergarments. (The same rules however, do not apply to men’s underwear. Women can even wash men’s undergarments. The sheer hypocrisy of it!)

My sister was merely doing what we had always seen around us. Preventing the boy from seeing something that would ‘pollute’ him perhaps.

I came around calmly, and picked up the brassiere.

“It’s okay, he’s only handing it to me,” I addressed my sister, while my son looked on, decidedly confused about why he’d been reprimanded. “It’s just an undergarment you know, like a baniyan—a vest.” I was addressing my sister but speaking in the tones I would use to speak to my son. My words were intended for him, of course. “Baba wears a baniyan, a vest, because he’s a man. Mumma wears a brassiere because she’s a woman. It’s just the female version of a baniyan.”

And then very normally, I folded the garment and put it away in my wardrobe. Very, very normal.

No shame, no embarrassment.

Our bodies aren’t minefields of shame. No child of mine is going to grow up with that attitude.

My sister gazed extremely proudly at me and smiled. “You’re an awesome mom!”

I laughed and hugged her gratefully.

Just about six months ago, I was discussing with another adult about mother’s milk and the difficulties of breastfeeding in certain cases. My boy who was now six years old immediately came up to me with a flurry of questions: “How, mumma? How does the mother feed her own milk to the child? What is mother’s milk? Where does it come from?”

This time I was caught unawares. I burst into nervous laughter… a bit amused by his innocence but also jittery about the right way to answer this. I was, however, also acutely aware that it was crucial for me to answer this in a normal, matter of fact way, without attaching embarrassment to it.

I pulled him into my lap and said, “When the mumma gives birth to a little baby, God sends milk into her breasts. The baby does not have teeth to chew and cannot eat with his hands. So the mumma takes him into her arms and feeds him from her breast.  That is how God provides food to the little ones.”

Rather mystified, he took a moment to digest this information while staring at my face. (While I mulled over the fact that he wouldn’t have been quite so mystified had we decided to have another baby.)

“You know it’s somewhat like our cat in Aligarh feeding her kittens,” I added helpfully. “You’ve seen that, right?” Recognition gleamed in his eyes. He understood then, I think.

Yesterday as I was changing his clothes, little H looked up curiously at me while I slipped his T-shirt on his head, and pointed to his own chest this time. “What are these called, mumma?”

I sighed inwardly. Here we go again.

“Nipples. They’re called nipples.”

“Okay… and what are the other nipples?”

I was a bit confused but soon realised he meant the silicone ones that baby feeders have.

Yup. Here we go again.

“Well, you know how God sends down milk in mothers’ breasts for little babies, right? But sometimes babies have to be fed from bottles. So the bottles have nipples to let the babies feed in the natural way.”

Understanding gleams in 6-year-old eyes again. And off he goes to play.

I allow myself to sigh loudly.

It becomes difficult, sometimes, to have an answer ready at all times for all questions in a way that is age appropriate and does not induce feelings of shame. Especially for a small town woman like me who was never explained things in this manner.

But I don’t want my son to grow up with taboos about body parts— associate shame with underwear or the parts that are covered by it. I want him, as he grows up, to slowly understand the concept of privacy, the need for certain things to be merely private, not shameful.

There are parts of our selves—not just of our body, but parts of our soul, our mind and even our heart—that we’d like to keep to ourselves or share only with some specific people whom we deeply love. We would not want to reveal them to the whole world at large. That does not, in any way, indicate that we are ashamed or embarrassed of them. There are certain acts we would prefer to indulge in privately, without the intrusion and assault of prying eyes. Acts such as breastfeeding. Or making love. That does not, in any way, indicate that the acts themselves are shameful.

Privacy needs to be delinked from shame.

Our bodies are sacred, beautiful — and normal. It is only when children learn to embrace and accept this, can they grow towards forming fulfilling and healthy relationships as adults.

(To be continued in the second part.)

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Happy Father’s Day, across worlds


The last time I visited my father was in March this year. I was in Allahabad to attend my cousin’s wedding.

I was visiting him after 6 years. There was much to say.

When I visit my father, I prefer being alone. Because not everyone understands the depth and significance of father-daughter conversations. Especially when one of us lies beneath the earth.

Even if they do understand, I still prefer being alone. So I can have a heart to heart conversation.

The last time I came here, I insisted upon my mother, sister and husband leaving me alone at the grave, and going on ahead to the adjacent mosque without me. My mother protested—she couldn’t fathom this at all—but my sister who understands me better than my mother, and can deal more firmly with our mom, insisted on leading her away.

I don’t think I spoke to him at all then. The tears wouldn’t stop long enough for me to speak. I sat and cried to my heart’s content, if one could call it that. I hadn’t ever properly cried for my father, I think.

I was 9 when he passed away. It was a car accident. We were all in the car, traveling at night. It was an Ambassador, the car given to civil servants, with the driver behind the wheel, a gunner and an orderly sitting beside the driver on the long front seat of the car. Our family of four sat in the back.

I was asleep when the truck rammed into our Ambassador and made short work of it.

I remember nothing. All I know now is by hearing other people’s accounts—my mother’s and the driver’s.

In the hospital, I was in and out of consciousness for about 3 days while my injuries were taken care of. Upon asking repeatedly about my father I was told that his condition was far more critical than ours and he had therefore been taken to Delhi for treatment. Meerut being barely a couple of hours away from Delhi, I began to insist on being taken to him. Which is when I was told that he had a critical head injury and had to be whisked away to the US for treatment.

The United States of America was far enough to put an end to my insistence.

But for the next couple of months, after I got home from the hospital, I would be found mostly hovering around the telephone, hoping to get that one awaited call. The one call telling us that he was better and would now be coming back.

The constant stream of friends and relatives offering their condolences were told, with sharp nods and winks, not to mention my father’s passing in my presence. And yet there was something… an air of stifled secrets… somehow always on the verge of splitting at the seams and giving themselves away. I was beginning to suspect.

Two months later I finally found out, quite by accident, when I overheard my mother discussing things with her father. It wasn’t a shock. I knew already, almost. It was just a confirmation.

Perhaps the two month gap of finding him gone and waiting—with some glimmer of hope—softened the blow. Or perhaps, a 9 year old doesn’t really grasp the reality of death.

The gravity of it. The extent of it.

The enormity of it.

I don’t think I cried much for my father then. There was no format or structure available to cry for him. I hadn’t even attended his funeral.

The earliest tears I remember happened when a person from the household staff spoke of Papa’s funeral to me. Of him being carried on a state plane to Allahabad. Of him getting an official send-off with guns and other paraphernalia.

Of my father in a white shroud.

My mother was furious with the man for telling me all this.

On hindsight, I am grateful I never got to attend his funeral. That is not an image of him I’d have wanted to live with. The image I have now is the one that’s best suited to his memory. Impeccably dressed as always, handsome and splendid and cheerful, with his booming, infectious laugh. Opening his arms to me and sweeping me up every time I rushed towards him, even when I was 9. Lighting up any room by his mere presence. That’s the man I remember.

There was no crying for him then. The crying came in intermittent bursts over the years, when the enormity of death began to sink in, year by year. Crying while reading a book that reminded me of him. Crying while watching old videos of my birthday parties. Crying while listening to old casettes of nauhas that were recited in my ancestral home. Crying while listening to poetry.

Trying not to cry when looking at a friend’s father reminded me of what I didn’t have. Trying not to cry when I brought home medals and awards.

I’ve been grieving backwards for two decades now; grieving with heightened intensity as time takes me farther away. The chronology of grief is strangely fashioned. The more time passes, the deeper it takes root.

The first time I visited my father as a grown up, the crying was still not proper. It was of the choking, surreptitious kind, the kind that you wish to hide from others—the kind that is so private you do not want people to see. The involuntary, incessant flow of tears like blood flowing ceaselessly from a gaping wound. I wanted to stay back and ask the others to leave. I couldn’t.

The second time around, I had come prepared. Prepared to weep. Prepared to grieve. To be alone and cry. Which is just what I did, caressing the earth of his grave with my palms.

And now, this time, this year, I had known again what it was I wanted to do. I wanted to talk to him now. Tell him of the things I held inside. A dear friend had told me recently about how he visited his grandparents’ graves and sat and conversed with them, speaking to them of all that he held within his heart. Instantaneously, I knew that this was also what I wanted to do. I wanted to go to my father and talk to him. The way I would always have talked. The way I had not been able to, for 20 long years.

And then I did.

Sending the others ahead into the mosque I sat once more beside him. And talked to him like I hadn’t talked in two decades.

I complained to him of my mom. Huffily telling him how difficult it was getting to reason with her and how much more stubborn she was now than when she had been with him. Told him of the wedding and the festivities. Of how everyone was. What they were doing in life. Who had how many kids. Where everyone was. Who missed him the most.

About my son and how he loved hearing about Nana.

About my book that I was working on. My articles. My travels. My successes and my failures.

The innermost crevices of my heart.

Somewhere along the way, the tears came back. I put my palms upon his feet.

Suddenly I felt very tired. Weary of the world. Of life. I was overcome by a desire to lie down right there, right next to the earth upon his grave. Lie down like I needed rest, and put my arm over him.

I looked around to see if the graveyard was empty. It wasn’t.

There were a few men standing and talking in the distance. They’d easily spot me lying down within the rectangular boundary of the grave and most likely think that I’d become possessed by some djinn or evil spirit. Most unhelpful.

I sighed. Maybe next time, then.

Kissed my fingertips and placed them upon him.

Until next time, Papa. Always in my heart.

——————————————-

Happy Father’s Day to all the fathers and daughters, sons whose bond transcends worlds and survives even death.

Reclaiming Fairy tales


New Age Fairytales

Fairy tales have never had it as bad as they do in recent times. But they’ve never got it quite as good either.

They’ve been receiving a bad rap for promoting stereotypes among little girls—persisting in upholding the idea of the damsel in distress, waiting for a prince to rescue her— and with good reason. For times have changed and the stories we tell our children need to change as well. The good part, though, is that instead of discarding them altogether, writers, especially young writers, are reclaiming the fairytale. The fantasy, the magic, even the love— transforming and adapting to a new world.

One such reclamation is ‘New Age Fairy Tales’, a book of short stories published by The Write Place, written and illustrated by teenage author Ariana Gupta. The book comes accompanied with a jigsaw puzzle too, featuring all the heroines from the cover. All of 16, Ariana has not just adapted the timeless tales of The Little Mermaid, Snow White, Beauty and the Beast, Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty, to the world she lives in and the world she wishes to see, but has also given them a distinctly Indian flavour—with the dauntless heroines sporting sarees and lehengas and bindis!

And Ariana has the freshest take on all these fairytales; certainly not your usual predictable fare. So for instance, Cinderella is not the poor orphan forced to do housework day and night, but the career girl forced by her boss to do double the work at half the pay her male colleagues are given! What’s worse, her contribution is never acknowledged and her unique ideas for the company get appropriated by the boss. So, how does Cinderella get to the grand official ‘ball’ where the new owner would be chosen, and present her ideas as her own? That’s for you to find out!

Then there’s Snow White who takes colourism head on. Instead of merely doing a binary retake and pitting Black against White, the author transforms Snow White into a breathtakingly unique creature altogether, with a face that’s a multi-hued shimmering canvas of all the shades of skin there can be! Now that’s a real fairy tale.

Most importantly, though, the book also reclaims other female characters from the stories. The witch in The Little Mermaid, for instance, instead of being a conniving creature, becomes an advisor and a guide, helping the Mermaid understand how love does not ask you to give up your selfhood. The Evil Queen in Snow White isn’t evil at all, but a caring step-mother. Despite that, her love is typically rooted in tradition, making her the very portrait of an Indian mother—forever trying to find cures for her daughter’s unique skin, forever trying to make her fair!

The stories are refreshing and delightful, not just for children but also the mothers out there. They make you chuckle and nod, and they take you by surprise.

And lest you think the men are all missing, there are positive male characters as well. And that’s important, for our society is unfortunately going through a bit of ‘feminism fatigue’. People look askance at gender rights advocates, and conversations are beginning to reflect alarm and concern at ‘men being alienated’. So people begin to predict what a ‘New age’ fairy tale would perhaps look like—wiping out the men from the scene and vilifying them, which would just be sexism in another form, truth be told. But that’s not the case here.

Prince Charming helps Cinderella in her ultimate goal, but the goal isn’t merely marriage, and one doesn’t necessarily need to be in love to help out a friend in need. A very important message for children, there.

Beauty’s Beast doesn’t morph into a handsome Prince but she loves him nonetheless, for his beautiful mind and for being supportive of her scientific research, for being a person with a golden heart who does not see her merely as a superficial ‘Beauty’ but stands by the love of his life in her intellectual pursuits. Now that’s the kind of love story I would want not just my daughter to read, but my son as well. So that he knows that being handsome is not enough (or even necessary) to be a good partner for someone, unless you are kind and smart and supportive and caring as well. And also, that the person who loves you will not love you for something as superficial as your looks.

While on the subject of sons, though, there is one flaw in the book that needs correcting—and I speak from experience as the mother of a young child. As you turn the cover of the book and come to the very first page, here’s what you find written: “For Little Girls With Big Dreams.”

My 6-year-old son, whom I am doing my best to bring up with an understanding of gender equality and respect for all humanity, was quite excited to see the book when I tore off the envelope that enclosed it. He opened it eagerly because he loves a good story and has not been taught to be prejudiced against things that are apparently “girls’ stuff.” But then he turned the page and saw that it was meant to be a book for “little girls with big dreams.” And he put it back down.

“This is a book only for girls,” he said. I tried to convince him otherwise, by pointing out the other books that had male protagonists in them, but were read by girls as well—Harry Potter being an excellent example. I didn’t succeed too much, though. And learnt something myself in the process.

Stories with girls and women need not be positioned and marketed as only for girls and women—in the same way that stories with boys are not positioned only for boys. Fairy tales are for children, regardless of their gender. Boys need to know about girls and girls need to know about boys. Men need to understand women and women need to understand men. And if we don’t read about and listen to each other’s perspectives, how do we begin to understand each other?

The entire point of reclaiming the fairy tale is to spin a new narrative and set in motion the process of building a more balanced world. A world where both genders can thrive, where all colours are beautiful, and where a relationship isn’t a competition of dominance, but a picture of all-embracing love.

That’s when we all live happily ever after.

 

 

 

The severing of the chord


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Today you came to me and showed me how to remove the cheese slice from the wrapping without breaking it. Because you like the entire square intact.

Little Hasan, you’re growing up.

Every day, I watch you grow up in tiny, imperceptible ways. I notice the change in your tone, in your manner of speaking. How you assert your opinion, instead of just throwing a tantrum. I notice how you want more details, more logical answers to questions. I see you rising like the sun and I’m filled with wonder. Awe.

I could never perhaps, be the kind of mother I wanted to be. I could never be the happiest mom on earth, the doting mother, the sacrificing mother. Perhaps I’d never be the woman who gets everything done on time, in the most patient manner. I was perhaps never cut out to be a mother at all.

But the older you grow, the more I wonder at motherhood. It makes me feel things I’ve never felt before. Because I see you develop into yourself, develop more fully into a human being.

For it is not enough to be born human; we must grow into one as well.

You’re growing into a human now, a human who has been given to me— to love to protect, to nurture. But never to control.

Dear boy, this is what I want to tell you, whenever you read this.

I wish to be the mother who learns from you. Never the mother who is irked by ‘young upstarts telling her how to do things better’. I wish to be the mother who is contradicted by you. Never the mother who cannot stand ‘being talked back to’. I want to be the mother who sees the world in a new light, and the light is shown by you.

I want you to be your own person, little boy. I want you to be you.

Just as I want me to be me, as well.

I have always guarded my independence and my identity, my dreams and my aspirations, and never wished to dissolve entirely into the role of mother or wife. And that is why, I think, I cannot look upon you only as my son. You are your own person. An individual. A human. And it fills me with awe and wonder. Beyond being my son, you are someone who has two eyes, two ears, a nose, two hands, two feet—and a brain and heart. All distinct from mine. Why should you see, hear, smell, touch, think and feel the way I do?

I do not wish to see you develop into an image or shadow of me. Why should you? God made you into a distinct individual, with your own destiny. There was a time, little boy, when all I wanted was to be who my father wanted me to be. He was the one who was most proud of me, the one who most pushed me to achieve. And then, somewhere along the journey, I realised that my dreams are my own. I have a path to follow, a destination to reach. And that doesn’t belong to my father; it belongs to me. That was when I cut loose from the dream of being an officer of the law, like him. That was when I went on to explore who it was that I actually wanted to be.

I am my own person. A person who takes her own decisions and becomes who she wants to be. I am not my father’s shadow, and I’m sure he would never want me to be a shadow at all—anybody’s. We were all put on this earth with our own distinct minds and hearts and senses, to reach out to our destinations and fulfil our destiny.

And that, dear one, is why I hope you’ll show me new facets of the world through your eyes. Filling me with even more awe, for the human that you become.

The umbilical chord is severed at birth, my son. Because that is the end of you being an extension of me.

Now you have come out into the world.

Now be whoever you wish to be.

Why am I crying?


 

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“I hate this house!” the 5 year old declares in a huff, right after he is tucked into bed and the lights are turned off. I sigh. This isn’t the first time. I know the reason, but I still have to ask him the customary question.

“Why? Why do you hate this house?”

“There’s nothing here. I can’t have anything. No dogs, no rabbits, no birds, no fish. No garden. I hate it!” he exclaims with visible anger.

It’s the same every time. Each time we return from his grandma’s house, which has an entire family of cats, a garden teeming with birds and chameleons and glorious colourful insects—and two rabbits which are a new addition to the family. In my defence, we did try to keep the rabbit.

We bought the little black and white rabbit for our resident animal-whisperer who is fascinated by every creature in the animal kingdom—from cute, harmless ones like dogs, cats and goats to huge ferocious ones like sharks and crocodiles, and even the extinct kinds (dinosaurs and megalodons, which he often dreams of keeping as pets). And since we’re counting, let’s not forget the insects as well—spiders, crickets, ladybirds, grasshoppers. Whichever little guest happens to occasionally visit our apartment in this high rise tower.

Obviously, there was much joy and revelry when I brought home the rabbit, after persistent teary-eyed complaints of how horrible this house was, and how cruel we were to be inflicting a pet-less life on our offspring. At first, all was good. And then slowly, the charm began to wear off. A rabbit is not an expressive pet. It does not bark and it does not mew. It does not lunge enthusiastically at its owner, and it does not cuddle comfortably in the owner’s lap either. It cannot be allowed to roam around the house for then it would nibble down every single thing that stood in its path. (We had a first-hand experience of this when we became internet-less as the bunny chewed down the wi-fi cable.) And so, slowly, the joy of having a pet gave way to whines of, “What kind of a pet is this? This is a horrible pet! I want a dog!”

Despite this, things would still have worked out had it not been for our semi-nomadic lifestyle, which involves visiting our hometown as often as we can, along with attending every wedding that we can. There’s only so many times that your friends and neighbours would be willing to rabbit-sit for you for days, before it becomes an embarrassment even to ask them. And so we decided to leave the rabbit back at our hometown, at my mother’s house. They already had a menagerie of 7 cats; one little rabbit wouldn’t be a bother. And then my sister decided that the poor thing was lonely, so she got another little rabbit, a female one, for good furry company.

So it came to pass that our boy became pet-less once again. And every so often, just like today, he declares he hates the house. On other days, I remind him of all the reasons we can’t have a pet, I remind him of how cruel it is to imprison birds in a cage and lock up fish in a glass box. I remind him that we have free birds as pets, the pigeons who’ve been using our balcony as their nesting ground since the beginning of this year. On any other day, I would have said all this.

But not today.

Not today, because I’ve spent an angry evening wondering at the constant battle that motherhood is, at the constant fighting, nagging and tug-of-war that is woven inextricably into mealtimes, homework times, teeth brushing times and generally all those times when he is required to actually do something that is good for him. I’m angry and upset.  So when Hasan reiterates, “I hate this house!” I want to snap right back—“I hate motherhood!”

“I hate this thankless job where no matter what I do, it’s never enough. Never quite right. I hate all this non-stop surveillance and negotiation and threats and yelling. I hate having to deal with you.” That’s what I want to say, but I can’t say it aloud. I just lie down silently beside him, simmering within.

“Don’t come close to me!” He sulks some more. “Door hat jaiye.”  Get away! And proceeds to roll to the far end of the bed.

“Fine!” I reply huffily, turning my back to him and sulking in my own corner. “I won’t come near you at all.”

I’m upset. Not by what he said, no. He’s a little boy. His anger means nothing. But I’m upset that no matter what I do, I can’t seem to make my son happy. No matter how hard I try, he always has something to complain about. No matter what I do, I can never get things done on time, no matter what I do, I can never get things done without a fight. I continue to sulk.

Five minutes go by and I feel a hand on my arm.

“Mummy, turn this side, please. Don’t turn your back to me,” a little voice pleads from behind my back. I sigh. Then turn over, putting my arm on his body and holding him close to me.

“I love you so much but you don’t love me,” I say quietly, a little sadly.

“No, no! I didn’t mean I hate you! I just meant I hate this house.” He tries, in his 5-year-old way, to undo the damage.  I smile a little and hug him.

“I don’t know why I say these things! I don’t like it when I say them!  Main kyun kehta hun ye sab?” he’s almost agitated at himself.

“It’s okay, honey. Koi baat nahi.” I stroke his hair. “It’s alright. I understand.” And then I tell him, “I don’t like it either, when I hit you. I feel sad when I slap you or spank you in anger. I don’t want to do it at all.” I confess to him, sadly. He hugs me tighter.

A few minutes pass by in silence.

Then a little voice asks, “Mummy, mere aansu kyun nikal rahe hain?” Why do I have tears in my eyes?

Again, I’m not surprised. I am the mother of an emotional boy, and sometimes his eyes brim over without him being able to make sense of what exactly it is that’s making him sad.

This, for instance happened a few days ago: We were sitting together, and as I watched him while he played, I suddenly felt a deep surge of love. “You know Hasan, when you grow up, I’ll remember all these games you used to play, and the things you used to say.”

“Oh, don’t worry, I’ll be saying the same things even then,” he declares without even looking at me, busy in his toys. I burst out laughing at his comical reassurance.  But later that night, as we lie together in the darkness, he says to me quietly, perhaps a little sadly:

“Mummy, when I grow up, you will miss the things I do now?”

I’m surprised. I hadn’t thought he would pay so much attention to my statement, much less be thinking about it many hours later.

“Oh no, honey, I didn’t mean that I’d be thinking about them sadly, I meant I’d be remembering them happily, in a good way,” I hurriedly reassured him. “You know, the way I sometimes tell you about the things you did when you were a tiny baby. They won’t be sad memories, sweetheart. It will make me happy to think of them.”

“Oh,” he says, but his face is still crumpled. I can’t see him properly in the dark though, and now he asks, “Mummy, mere aansu kyun nikal rahe hain?

Mummy, why am I crying?

I’m quite astonished because my simple statement of remembering his childhood wasn’t supposed to carry so much gravity.

I hug him tight. “You tell me, beta. Tell me what’s making you sad. Tell me what are you thinking?”

And I get to hear a fascinating tale.

“Well, I was watching ‘Veer- The Robo Boy’ yesterday, and Veer’s grandfather is attacked by a chemical that reaches his brain. Dadaji (grandpa) faints then, and Veer is not able to wake him up..” he narrates, his voice breaking suddenly as begins to cry.

“Yes, and then?”

“Veer keeps trying to save his Dadaji. And he remembers the things from his childhood, how his Dadaji used to play with him and take care of him when he was a baby,” sobs my boy. “Veer is afraid his Dadaji will die…” The tears fall freely now.

And I understand.

My little boy has figured out the connection between memories and sadness.

How missing someone is an inherent part of grief. How we think of the past most often when we’re sad.  So when he heard his mother talking of ‘missing’ the things he does as a kid, he immediately made the connection to sadness. I had to explain to him then, how memories can make us happy as well, how we can think of the past not just in grief but in joy as well. He needed me to help make sense of all the new things he’d discovered and experienced, among them the newfound experience of empathy—being able to cry for a grief that’s not your own. Making sense of emotions and experiences is not easy even for adults, much less for 5-year-olds.

And so now, when he again asks me the question, “Mummy mere aansu kyun nikal rahe hain?”  he expects me to make sense of his feelings.

But a woman can’t always be just a mother at all times. She’s a human with her own feelings too. She isn’t always the guiding light and comforting cushion, she’s also a person with her own vulnerabilities.

“Mere bhi aansu nikal rahe hain,” I surprise myself by blurting this out to him. “I’m crying too.”

Suddenly, he’s very still. His voice is very alert. “Why? Why are you crying?”

“Because I hate yelling at you and beating you and I wish I never did it.”

He nods, very sagely. “Yes, just like I hate saying horrid things and I don’t wanna do it but I can’t stop myself.”

I’m surprised at my little boy and how much he understands.

“I’m sorry.” I say to him.

“I’m sorry, too.” He says, and we hug each other tight, before he drifts off to sleep.

I suppose we may be doing a good job together after all.

We’ll do just fine.

Lullabies for Hasan


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“The first time I ever sang a lullaby to my little boy was when he was 6 months old. Since then, we’ve been through many different lullabies—poems from my childhood, songs from movies, even nauhas and marsiyas, songs of elegy, of remembrance, and a quintessential cultural heritage of Shia Muslims—because not only do I feel it’s a good way of transmitting culture, but also because I get terribly bored of singing the same thing over and over again. Sometimes, I also sing to him my favourite Urdu nazm: ‘Lab pe aati hai dua banke tamanna meri’ (My heart’s longing reaches my lips in prayer). This was the nazm my father sang to me every single day, sometimes as a lullaby. He made me memorise it, and I’ve loved it since I was 7.

During the early years of Hasan’s childhood, I was plunged in a terrible depression as our family was split apart. My husband had to move abroad and visited only twice a year, while I took care of our son practically like a single parent. So one day I sang to Hasan a song from a sad Hindi movie I saw when I was a child, from Akele Hum, Akele Tum. The song is sung by a dad, a single father divorced from his wife, to his son, and conveys the hollowness he feels, though tries to be brave about it.

“Akele ham, Akele tum. Jo ham tum sang hon to phir kya ghum… Tu mera dil, tu meri jaan…”

“Oh, I love you daddy!”

“Tu masoom, tu shaitaan!”

“But you love me daddy!”

Father: “You’re alone and I’m alone—but we’re both together, so why worry? You are my heart, and my life…”

Son: “Oh, I love you daddy!”

Father: “You’re so innocent, but oh, so naughty!”

Son: “But you love me daddy!”

When I sang it to my boy, I replaced ‘Daddy’ with ‘Mummy’, perhaps to make it more relatable, but also perhaps because I was living like a single parent and it echoed my grief.

Now this little boy, all of 2.5, who had never seen that movie, had no context to the song, caught on to something. Maybe it was the rhythm or just the words or how I sang it, but something had an effect on him. He began to cry. Not in a bawling, screaming way. His face crumpled up in agony and he sobbed quietly, burying his face in my arms. I stopped abruptly—I had no idea it would upset him so much.

Kids pick up on emotional cues and possess more empathy than we give them credit for. And also, as I realised later, they have a much deeper connect with us than we really understand. I sometimes feel it was my pain, which reached my little boy and affected him thus. I will never really know, but even today, he doesn’t like that song; one day when he found me humming it, he put his hand on my mouth and said: “No, mummy, don’t sing it.”

And I never did.

Even now, these lullabies, these night conversation form the most intimate, personal part of our connections, because we’re ensconced in a dark little bubble, snuggling comfortably and whispering away.

So recently, I sang a Rabindra Sangeet song to him, just on a whim.

Jodi tor dak shune keu na ashe, tobe ekla cholo re…

If no one heeds your call, walk alone.

I had read the poem a long time ago, perhaps in college, when I first fell in love with Tagore. But the first time I heard this being sung was in Amitabh Bachchan’s voice in the movie Kahaani. Vidya Balan as the pregnant woman looking for her disappeared husband. A thrilling albeit deeply sensitive movie. For some reason I remembered it. The rhythm is soothing and lilting, and I wanted to sing it. I sang the one line, only this line, over and over, because I do not know Bengali, and I cannot remember the rest of the song. I carefully watched my son’s reaction, whether he would stop me. But he didn’t.

He was absolutely still, a sign of attentive listening and fascination. I sang over and over, and felt him relax, still completely quiet though. After about 10 minutes of repeating the same line over and over, I switched back to my standard lullaby. This time, Hasan stirred.

“Amma…”

“Yes?”

Wohi wala sunaiye.” Please sing the earlier one.

I smiled.

And sang Ekla cholo again, all the way until he slept.

This, perhaps, is my closest bond with my son— a shared love for things that stir. Our love for poetry, for melody, our vulnerability for things that move the senses.

And this, my son, is the sum total of my motherhood, the pure, distilled essence of me, of what I give you of myself.  Poems from my childhood, strains of spiritual elegies that define my identity and yours, notes of prayer and symphonies of longing, and songs of strength, of purpose, of will.

In the hope that what is good, and fine, and beautiful in the universe, will stick to your soul, long past those times when the world will show you how dark and terrible it can be. When you cross those times, my son, I hope you will still remember things as gentle and ephemeral as a poem, things like tiny blinking glow worms, which though cannot fight the darkness, can make it beautiful nevertheless.”

(This piece was featured in the June issue of Child Magazine)

 

For the little hurricane in my life!


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FOR HASAN

You and I
Were not meant
To fight over morsels of food,
Or quibble over
Times of sleeping and waking
And cry over
Broken glasses and doorknobs.
In the midst of silence
We were sent to each other
For a conversation
As ancient as stars and as young
As the light in your eyes right now.
We were sent to envelop
And enfold each other
In questions that dot the sky.
You and I
Like black holes in the universe
Absorbing, magnetic, mysterious,
You and I were sent
As revelations to each other.

Tomorrow we shall wake
And fight again
And cry again over spilt milk
And in that commotion
We shall slip through the cracks
And find our spaces for joy.