My childhood does not seem that far away. Not since I have become a Mom myself. As I sing my son to sleep I remember snatches of long-forgotten lullabies that Grandma used to sing to us about a sister trying to awaken her seven brothers who had been transformed to Champak flowers by the wicked witch step-mom. My brother distinctly favoured my story-telling paternal grandma while I loved my singing and more affectionate maternal grandma a little bit more. As I revisit those long-lost memories, I regret not being able to match her sweet, lilting voice (I have simply inherited the wrong genes) and tell myself that the next time I go visit her in Kolkata I must have her sing them to me again. The songs transport me back to my childhood more effectively than even a time machine would have perhaps. The long summer days when my brother and me would plan what we would do when we were ‘grown up’. For us back then ‘grown up’ seemed to be the magic word to unlimited freedom and endless possibilities.
From the half-remembered nursery rhymes to the non-sense verses of Sukumar Ray to trying out various animal calls to lullabies, my versatility and with it my memories of childhood seems to be increasing everyday in direct proportion to my desperation to feed my ten-month-old son something from the menu the doctor advised for him. Oh make no mistake, he loves to eat. From fingers to clothes to the floor, walls, the wooden bedstead, spoons, mobile phones, clay…you name it and he is game to try it, only none of them come approved by his doctor. Memories of songs, stories, poems and forgotten voices have opened a window to those rainbow-coloured days of innocent dreaming and eye-twinkling wonder.
Ma’s voice as she acted out the characters from poems and stories still rings clear to me. If I close my eyes, I can still feel the dog-eared pages of Rabindranath Tagore’s Shishu (An anthology of poem for children) and hear her slightly breathless rendering of one of our particular favourites (both hers and ours). The poem talks about how a little boy comes running to his mother and asks ‘the’ question that most parents dread and fear, ‘Ma, where did I come from?’ The Mom hugs the little boy close to her heart and says with both laughter and tears in her voice, ‘You lay in my heart as a desire.’ (I don’t have the collection with me anymore. This is the essence, if not the exact words.) I remember the oddly comforting effect the poem had on me and my brother even though we were hardly old enough to understand the implications. Now a mother myself, I realize with grown-up wisdom the truth behind the poem. Don’t we all yearn for children much before they are born? Aren’t our children dreamt of, shaped and perfected in our minds long before they are born? Girls start early, playing with dolls, and why only girls, my son is equally delighted with my dolls. Then we grow up and fall in love, and have fun imagining how our children will look like, which genes, etc. Charles Lamb’s immortal ‘Dream Children’ are as beautiful and as perfect as dreams can get about ‘might have been children’.
My daily circus of a life with my son leaves me with very little time to philosophize, and even lesser time to articulate my thoughts and pen them down. But a day spent in the company of my just-turned-two niece and not-quite-one son was too hard to resist. The minute she was back from her playschool, she exclaimed in delight at the sight of her ‘baby’ brother on all fours inspecting the wheels of her tricycle with rapt attention. The initial exuberant greeting ritual of cheek-pressing and nose-rubbing over, she tried to steer brother away from her tricycle to safer zones (babies can be so possessive about their goodies) by trying to guide him to grandpa, her safe haven. She soon realized that ‘baby’ was not grown up yet to understand her ‘come come’. So she sat down and soon both of them were on all fours having crawling races across the floor. The delight in my niece’s face mirrored mine at having discovered some long-forgotten treasure. But she was quite definitely the elder one too, the leader of the pack, the mentor, the little mother all rolled into one. Perhaps mothering comes instinctively to girls. As we grown ups watched them play, giggle and have all-fours races my niece kept up a steady stream of shouting instructions, ‘Bhai don’t put your fingers inside your mouth’, ‘Bhai, come here’, ‘Bhai, don’t go to the bathroom, dirty dirty’, ‘Bhai, don’t touch my potty chair, chee chee, ‘Bhai come follow me…’ And when things got out of hand with a brother who did not yet understand or follow her instructions, she would give up for the moment and say, ‘Bhai go to Pishi (me).’ At just two she has already understood delegation. Their glowing faces and frequent giggles reminded me just how much fun my brother and I had had together while growing up. We were more like twins than siblings. My Mom says that we were so fond of each other that God has given him the sister now and me the brother.
But if my niece reminded me that most women are born mothers, she also reminded me what we tend to forget only too often. That the converse is also true. Every mother also has that little girl hidden somewhere inside her, who needs to be babied too. After giving the children their baths (my niece insisted to be bathed by me too, which was accomplished after much cajoling, and singing from her evergrowing play list), both of them sat down to their lunches. My son surprised me big time, he who throws up at the hint of anything remotely solid, and has his food to be pureed for him, insisted on eating from his sister’s plate. And to our utter amazement, not only did he manage to swallow the rice and dal whole, he had a huge grin on his face and kept asking for more. He even made a great show of mimicking his sister’s actions and chewing his rice. Post-lunch it was nap time for both the children. But again playing at being the little Mom, my niece insisted on patting her baby brother to sleep. Not only that, she knew lullabies were called for and tried to sing, ‘Ba ba black sheep.’ Seeing her brother giggling away happily with no intention of sleeping she finally allowed me to intervene. With my son fast asleep she came to me and said, ‘Pishi, sing to me and put me to sleep also.’ How I wished then I could sing better. With a full heart I sang her to sleep. As she lay sleeping clinging to my tummy, I almost didn’t have the heart to rearrange her to her pillow. The children slept side-by side hugging onto their pillows and secret dreams, but separated by a bolster to save them from each other. I couldn’t help but wipe away a drop of happiness from my eyes. Babies make you so emotional! I turned back to see my father looking at them with some indefinable expression in his eyes. Then he murmured to me, ‘It’s like you and your brother all over again. How soon babies grow up!’
The desire for children lies dormant in everyone’s heart, whatever the age, whatever the circumstances. You can perhaps never have enough of them. A classic case of the more the merrier! Children with their innocence and wide-eyed curiosity, their trusting eyes and absolute dependence on us for their well being tug at our heart strings. Their open giggles have not yet learnt to hold back. Perhaps they are in touch with their souls. That’s why perhaps we can’t understand their language, they have to instead learn ours. The house now too quiet for our liking lay waiting for the children to wake up and feel it up again with joyous chatter and giggles.
After the children got up, my niece waking up her brother seconds after she woke up, it was milk time for my son. My niece insisted that she wanted to hold the bottle and feed her baby bhai. The mother in her lasted for all of 10 seconds. After which back to her impish childish mode, she told me, ‘you hold, bhai drinks so slowly’ and ran out of the room. She soon returned with her pillow and her bottle of water. She lay down beside her brother mimicking his pose and rested her legs on my tummy. She looked at me and said, ‘Bhai is small. He drinks milk. Didi is big. She drinks water.’ I couldn’t help laughing at how smartly she bypassed her own milk drinking.
All of us decided to visit the sea beach, a mere five minutes walk from my brother’s place. It was a picture perfect evening. A perfectly round moon, a balmy breeze, a gurgling sea, the company of my favourite people and two delighted children. My son latched himself happily to my waist, while my niece held on to my other hand. As the waves came rushing in, the delighted laughter of the children mingled with the roar of the sea. My son lunged forward with each wave, trying to wriggle out and get down to touch the waves. My niece kept dancing with joy, with the shifting sand below her feet and the waves kissing her dainty feet. Depositing my son to the others, I went ahead for a walk on the wet sand with my niece at her insistence. As I turned back I saw two sets of footprints on the sand, my large ones and my niece’s tiny ones, next to mine. When I pointed them to my niece, she insisted hers were the bigger ones. To prove her point, she stood on my toes and asked me to make some more footprints. I hugged her close and told her, ‘Don’t be in such a hurry to grow up, let us enjoy you some more.’ With a lady-like disdain for my cuddle, she freed herself and ran back to the others to tell them of her exciting new discovery,
It was time to end the visit and exchange promises to meet again soon. My niece did not like this part. She clung to my brother and cried her heart out to be allowed to go with Pichi and Pichu (me and my husband). As my sister-in-law took her aside to distract her, it felt like I was leaving a part of my heart behind. Hugging my sleeping son to my heart I remembered stories I had heard so many times from my Mom and grandmoms about how I was the perfect little mother to my brother, though I was barely two when he was born. For us women, perhaps loving and caring are instinctive as is motherhood. One of my mom’s favourite sayings is that all women spring from Goddess Durga and she resides in everywoman. We just have to have the courage to invoke her. For it takes immense courage to bring to this world tiny vulnerable babies, to love them, to nurture them, to protect them. And when the little ones are ready to fly on their own, it would take the most courage perhaps to set them free. Be the wind beneath their wings, be the safety net as they reach out for the sky. In fact, be a little like the sky, surround them with love and oxygen (or are they the same?) and yet remain selfless and egoless. Yes it would take courage…but once a mother always a mother, there can be no turning back, no cowardice, no holding back.