THERE is a long-lived myth in our family that I don’t know the first thing about babies. Amma has drilled this myth into me so often that I used to believe it myself. Till I had a baby of my own. That was when I realized that, being an only child, I’d never come close enough to babies to decipher which end you needed to be more careful with, the bobbing head or the unpredictable rear.
I brought the son up on the theory that once you had the rear end swathed in a diaper and the front end stopped with a feeding bottle, you were reasonably safe. But Amma continued with her theories on my basic incompatibility with children. Mothers are things you can never change. Even when the son was a mature twelve-plus, I would still offer him a bar of chocolate when he was in tears over his homework. Sometimes, when I dared to, I would even pat his rump.
My second theory on parenting was the sooner independence happened, the happier we’d all be. Add to that the fact that patience has never been my forte. The result was that the son was potty trained by one, and feeding himself soon after. And that’s how I thought most kids were.
Till I met Brat. We were on holiday with Brat’s parents. And they had no notion of parental control. Brat would break a glass, and the father would croon to him, ‘No sweetie, that’s not the way.’ My toes would begin to curl in my shoes. And Brat would pick his way to glass number two.
Brat would poke his finger tentatively at the barbecue coals. The mother would sing to him from her corner of the terrace, ‘Hotty baby!’ The end of the song would be drowned out in Brat’s squalls as he discovered for himself that ‘hotty’ was just another word for ‘burn’ or ‘major pain’. The first time that happened, the son stopped his solitary antics to come and whisper in my ear, ‘Are they mad?’
I continued to be entranced by Brat. I discovered that even diaper swathed rear ends could be dangerous. Especially when the diaper had been left on for a full day, and gravity got to work on them just when the wearer was on your razai. And that mouths seldom remained closed around feeding bottles that had been left overnight with milk in them.
The husband was overtly impatient. ‘You’ve got a thing about that baby…’ I dived to save my body lotion from two sets of prying fingers. ‘That’s how babies are…’ Another dive, this time for my glass of tea. ‘Stop getting hysterical and leave him to his parents…’ There went my knitting from its needles. ‘They don’t like you saying no to him all the time. Hell, where are his parents?’ Brat had made a grab for his after-shave. The son was more sympathetic, especially after he’d had his brand new Game of Life cards crumpled and flung on the floor.
Back home, Amma listened with equal disdain. ‘You are not used to children. You don’t know how to be with them.’ I sighed. It was an old refrain, and I knew it by heart.
Then Brat came over for the weekend. I had a bad back, and was confined to my couch. And defenceless. ‘Don’t say anything to him,’ the husband admonished as we heard the taxi draw up. ‘Don’t be rude,’ hissed Amma.
Brat came, and Brat left. I remained on the couch and stared up at the ceiling all the while. Amma and the husband did all the fetching and carrying. After they left, there was pindrop silence in the house. Amma and the husband were in a trance they came out of only the next morning.
‘A little bit of him goes a long way, doesn’t it?’ the husband began tentatively. I continued to study the ceiling. ‘He broke the pepper mill Mom brought us from England,’ he continued in stronger tones. Aha! I thought. ‘They never say no to him. That’s not how you bring up a child.’
Amma was equally aghast. ‘My Chinese bells! They’re ruined,’ she mourned. ‘He’s never cleaned up, never put on a potty. How can you bring up a child like this?’
The husband again, after reading the first draft of this column, ‘You haven’t told it like it was. You haven’t written about all that he did.’
I grinned up at the ceiling. There is a god up there somewhere.
First published in The Financial Express.