14 November 2014

Calvin is sitting on the back of the car.

– “How do they know the load limit on bridges, Dad?”

– “They drive bigger and bigger trucks over the bridge until it breaks. Then they weigh the last truck and rebuild the bridge.”

– “Oh. I should’ve known!”

The mock-heroic Calvin and his tease-happy father reveal a picture of lightness. In the words of another great American cartoonist, Theodor Seuss Geisel, the fact is but an evidence: “Adults are just outdated children.” As India celebrates Children’s Day, let us shuffle the classical kinship order to reaffirm the deeply playful potential of the parent-child bond. But this rapport goes beyond the jokes, the laughters and the complicities. A unique, intense and prolonged life experience, it must be recalled as the possibility of actual cohabitation, of patience, and of comprehension, when the everyday proximity makes understanding more than a luxury: an absolute need. This week, Gayathri Sankar and her mother Himanjali inverse roles in the performance of a dialogue, to explore the empathising capacities that develop through the years of a familial relation. Veritable nest of all human sociability, the family is also the fundamental playground of communication, expression, and language. Through the practice of a playful exercise, they make us wonder: can we, truly, arrive at the point of view of one another?

Debate

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On Car Rides

Gayathri Sankar

The Most Sensible Cliché

Himanjali Sankar

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It was at a child’s birthday party, and Gayathri was perhaps four years old. The other girl’s name was Tanya, and she was eight; four years older than Gayathri and when you’re that young, the age difference is important. Perhaps like everything else, people grow accustomed to growing older, and then it loses its meaning. Either way, being an eight year old gave Tanya an unquestionable authority over anyone younger, an authority which she was ready to impose.

“You had picked up a toy,” I told Gayathri many years later. She was thirteen then. “And you were trying to play with it, when Tanya told you in a very snarky voice that you couldn’t, and snatched it away. I felt so very angry and bothered.”

“Why do you even remember this?” Gayathri asked.

“All the while she was being super rude and you were all sweet and understanding, attempting to reason with her. It broke my heart. Why do I remember? You obviously don’t.” I shrugged.

“Of course I do.” She scoffed. “I keep a list of all my enemies. She was number 23. I recall having her assassinated the following day.”

Humour is generally our tool of communication. We don’t end conversations with love you’s and mark reunions with hugs. After a point, I gave my daughter the steering wheel, and, although I occasionally give her directions, she’s learned to navigate on her own. How effective this method is, I can’t be sure. I’ve often been informed that I’m better at bringing up dogs than human beings, which isn’t particularly comforting since we have been informed by multiple sources, including the vet himself, that our dog is completely neurotic.

“At least you don’t bite people.” I say, comfortingly.

However, I have noticed that parents who keep a firm control of the steering wheel tend to be kicked out of the car completely after a point. Gayathri doesn’t assure me that she loves me and then proceeds to secretly sneak out to places – partly due to a lack of places to sneak out to and mainly because of what I’d like to believe is a slight trust developed between us. And so, the freedom I give her is met with rewards in the form of secrets, or rather, a lack of them. Perhaps people also grow accustomed to secrets with age, and the gossip of teenage girls doesn’t shock me particularly anymore.

Of course, it’s far from a faultless relationship – the supposed car that I have unintentionally picked up as a metaphor has its dents. Honesty means lowering the pretense that motherhood is what I was born for, my ultimate purpose in life. When she complained to me, I didn’t hesitate to inform Gayathri that I don’t, in fact, always know what I’m doing.

“I don’t find that particularly hard to believe.” She answered wryly. “But you could at least do a better job pretending.”

In fact, on first embarking on the magical journey of parenthood, I must admit to looking down at the tiny alien-like creature I held in my arms, and feeling slightly worried:

“You were worried that I was ugly?” Gayathri asked with horror.

“To be fair, all babies are slightly odd-looking, and it was my first time.”

“Where’s the beauty of motherhood? The magical feeling of holding a person made out of your actual DNA?”

“I loved you despite your ugliness, don’t worry.”

“Ma!”

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Another incident I recall is one where Gayathri was four and I had just had a second child a couple of months back, which meant little patience with Gayathri’s tantrums, even the tiny ones. So when she kicked up a fuss at bath time one day, my fuse was at its end. Children are oddly like cats when it comes to bathing, and I didn’t have the patience to cajole and persuade her. I dragged her kicking and screaming, and although she bawled through the ordeal, I got the bath over faster than I would have otherwise. And then later, of course, I felt guilty:

“Well, it’s not like that incident scarred me for life.” Gayathri told me when I reminisced to her. “And you’ve made me cry multiple times – you’re a spiteful person, come to think of it. Why do you remember this occasion?”

“I suppose it’s because of how easily it could have been avoided. You were young, and Samhitha had just been born – all you wanted was attention, really.” I said. “And I do think I scarred you for life, it could be why you still resist the idea of bathing.”

“Ma!”

Having a child means that you’re now going to mould a life – everything you say or do can potentially impact the child in ways that a parent can’t sometimes predict. We have the power to impact most everyone we meet really, whether for the better or worse. But the responsibility that comes with this power is tripled in the case of your children. A tremendous chunk of what they are and will become is your responsibility, and the love that you feel towards them is so ridiculously strong that the thought of allowing them to feel hurt without a reason, even if was for a little while when they were four or five, is so very heartbreaking.

In conclusion, car rides with children can be a crappy experience. (Sorry, this metaphor is refusing to go away.) There are disagreements about the music, who’s taking up the most space, and car sickness tends to be a disagreeable experience (and not just for the person suffering from it). When children grow up, their tastes in music might evolve a little, they may learn to settle down, and the amount of vomit will hopefully decrease. If you’ve taught them well enough, they’ll eventually take over the wheel, and give you some time in the backseat.

Perhaps I’ve lost my way every once in a while, I’ve never had the patience for maps. But I find my way back. And it’s a bumpy, potholed ride, but, overall, I’d say it’s almost enjoyable. I even find myself humming along to their music once in a while.

(Not the Skrillex though, that music is insufferable.)

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I have this memory. I was six years old and I got into the school bus and I looked back at my mother who was waving goodbye to me. I didn’t wave back. The rest of the day in school I felt awful. When I reached home that afternoon, I ran up the stairs two at a time. I don’t know what I was expecting – what cosmic vengeance that could have been wreaked upon my mother because I hadn’t waved at her. But nothing had changed. And life continued the exact same way it always had.

I don’t know what, if anything, I learnt that day. That all our actions don’t necessarily have consequences? That love is not connected to a wave of the hand? When I told my mother about my silly irrational fears of that long-ago day, some four or five years later, she said, you must never regret anything you say or do to me. Ever.

Parents are strange, irrational creatures in many ways. The child-parent relationship is a jumble of paradoxes. Child and parent – two ends of the spectrum – with all sorts of contradictions in-between.

My mother says she has a diary in which she writes down how much money she spends on us. So we can repay her when we start earning. It’s a silly joke but I don’t quite like it. The idea that it doesn’t all come free. I suppose it’s not money she is talking about as much as the fact that one can’t always be unthinking and take stuff for granted. But whatever she may say I know what’s what. And it is as unconditional as love can get – maternal love.

It’s such a cliché – maternal love. But it’s possibly the most sensible cliché of all. I don’t think my mother ever wishes I was a different child from the one I am. Of course, she is full of my shortcomings and the wonderfulness of other kids. But I know that the only children in the world she can ever imagine having is me and my weird sister. However perfect (as in my case) or imperfect (as in my sister’s) we may be. It’s a relationship in which we don’t exert any choice – we don’t select our parents or our kids. Yet it’s the most organic relationship of all. The one that is never quite up for debate.

I didn’t ask to be born. It is a decision that was taken for me. One day, when my mother was all grumpy about all she has to do for me, I told her that. She agreed. And she said I should think a lot before I decide to have children because she had me unthinkingly. That wasn’t exactly comforting but I thought about it and I think this is what she meant – having children is a big responsibility, it entails a lot of hard work and it is not something one should do just from social pressure.

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My mother has told me that she doesn’t regret having us. Never. She thinks her life would have been infinitely less happy and meaningful without us. She is not sure if that is because of how fabulous we are (I think it does play a bit of a role) or because of the hardwiring that is plumbed into our DNA – the way mostly everyone thinks that a life without marriage or children is not worth living. I don’t know about marriage – it is definitely a social institution. But procreation is natural, right? I don’t think she should question why she had two lovely daughters (one lovelier than the other – need I say which?). And she should treat them real well, because that is what mothers are supposed to do.

I told my mother that. That since she signed up for being a parent, she also automatically signed up for various minion duties – like dropping me to dance class, making sure I had nice clothes and the occasional lemon tart. I love lemon tarts.

So whatever the reason may be, a whole lot of human beings have kids. Knowingly or unthinkingly, they sign up for a lifetime of insane loving and silly worrying about their offspring. Thankfully our mom never pedals out that silly parental cliché about her childhood being better than ours for etc etc reasons. Her weak spot is technology. She thinks my sister’s brains are leaking away because of all the TV shows that she watches. She goes ballistic when she sees me on tumblr or whatsapping, never mind if it has to do with studies. Not that she doesn’t whatsapp all the time herself. Just saying.

And malls? She acts as if they’re terrorist cells, destroyers of the environment, disgusting perpetrators of meaningless consumption. My sister and I plan to sedate her the next time we go to a mall. In any case we visit malls once a year as a family and then spend the next eleven months recovering.

I don’t know what my mother’s expectations were when I was born. What she wanted from this little thingy that she had given birth to. But I know she changes those expectations every day to accommodate the person I am. Because despite all the nagging and whining she does, despite all her hopes for me, my happiness is what matters – it is all she is after, really. Nothing should come at the cost of happiness, according to her – a bit of selfishness is good. Yes, her ideas for a life worth living is not exactly what it should be. At least, I don’t think it’s the normal advice that mothers give to their daughters. But let me stop here. I must not divulge too much. All I can say is, the sum total of her parenting strategies is a somewhat dubious parental legacy that I have inherited from a slightly weird mother.

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Gayathri Sankar is a tenth grader at the Mother’s International School. Due to a sad lack of excitement in her life, she occupies herself by avoiding homework, dancing to bad pop music, feeding stray dogs and obsessing over celebrities. One day she intends to leave her mark on the world, till then you will probably find her taking a nap or daydreaming.
Himanjali Sankar did her schooling from Loreto House in the days when girls still wore bloomers, and before Calcutta became Kolkata. She came to Delhi to do her M.Phil in English Literature from JNU and forgot to leave the city afterwards. An editor by day and a writer of children’s books by night, she currently stays with two girls, one dog, one man, a relative called Meera and forty-six potted plants. She loves coral reefs, Margaret Atwood, Mahatma Gandhi and WhatsApp.

Disclaimers: The opinions expressed by the writers are their own. They do not represent their institutions’ view.
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The images and the videos used are only intended to provide multiple perspectives on the fields under discussion.

Images and videos courtesy: Bill Watterson: 1, 2, 3, 4

Voice courtesy: Samuel Buchoul

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