Demographers and social scientists put India’s ever-burgeoning population down to poverty, lack of education and adequate health care and, more basically, plain ignorance. I beg to differ, not drastically, for in essence, they are quite right in their own way. But there are several other little things that are at play here, which they, perched as they are on the isolated peaks of academia, may not have deigned to notice.
I have myself contributed a mite to India’s population, but I think I may be forgiven that one lapse. For it was only the once, and one mistake even God forgives. Or doesn’t he? You wouldn’t think so if you saw the state of my home!
Once the son was a year old, I was besieged on all sides, even by the old lady who sits in my local kirana store. ‘A son must have a sister. It will develop his personality,’ she told me sternly, while weighing out my dal, and scooping out just that little bit that assures her she has not been cheated.
I smiled weakly. The son already had enough personality, and far too much for me.
The Ma-in-Law was next, but she is a practical lady. ‘Beta,’ she said, choosing her moment, ‘if you want another child, this would be the best time.’ I smiled even more weakly. This was not the time to point out that even the government advises a three-year rest period between children. After all, the kirana lady is not such an important person in my life. But this was a lifelong bond. And there were just thirteen months between my husband and his brother. I had to be very careful. Luckily, the Ma-in-Law, in her wisdom, saw fit to change the topic, and I lived to tell the tale.
The son was soon two. One winter evening, sitting huddled cosily in a razai that, luckily, had not yet been wet by the snoring baby between us, the husband said dreamily, ‘You know, I’d like a full football team. Think how nice it would be?’
I looked at him in horror. Of course, I did not know then that I would spend the next eight years of my life on borrowed sleep, but even so, the two years I’d just been through had quite convinced me that one was quite enough.
By the time the son was four, my family had resigned themselves to the fact that we had grown as much as we were ever going to. There were occasional mutterings from the husband on ‘at least a basketball team, then’, but he soon learnt to mutter to himself in the bathroom. The Ma-in-Law beamed ecstatically at my sister-in-law, who was round as a tub with her second, but learnt to leave me alone.
The next assault came from a totally unexpected quarter. Suddenly, the parent-teacher meetings at school became abnormally populated with the fathers of the species, who had hitherto kept well away from the classrooms. Obviously, other mothers of my generation had not learnt their lesson as well as I had. The first babe having been toothed, toilet trained and deposited in school, they were bravely embarking on a second nightmare. And the results were showing. Even the fathers were looking bleary-eyed at noon on a Sunday.
One day, I went to visit a neighbour who’d been advised total bed-rest through her second pregnancy. Sympathy was not uppermost on my mind when I took the mandatory magazines and soup, but the sight of her – swollen belly, puffy ankles, splotchy skin, and utterly miserable – awoke some latent feeling within me. ‘Why?’ I asked her. ‘You had a tough time the first time, so why go through this again?’
She looked cautiously at her first production and my son’s classmate, playing noisily at the other end of the room, and said, ‘Oh, you know, Deepa has been insisting on having someone to play with. She feels so lonely. I have been putting it off, but she has been praying every night to God for a baby sister. She looked so cute, I couldn’t deny her.’
I choked into my tea. Find me one four–five year old who does not look endearingly cute when they are after something they have set their hearts on. And, well, a prayer to God must be answered by God. We human beings had no right to play God, albeit on God’s behalf.
‘Anyway,’ said the mother-to-be, looking dubiously at my ill-concealed mirth, ‘it’s not good for children to be only children. Siblings teach them sharing, adjusting, and then, there’s always someone there for them all their lives. Your son will have nobody. Soon he’ll be sitting on your head, begging constantly to be entertained. If you have two children, at least, you can leave them to amuse each other.’
I beat a hasty retreat. There was no politically correct answer to that one. But, if and when I want a circus, I’d rather buy tickets for one, than have a twenty-four-hour one in my own home.
However, the neighbour’s words were prophetic. When most of his classmates began cooing triumphantly over their siblings, the son felt he was lacking something in life. ‘Mamma,’ he began plaintively, ‘why can’t we have a baby also? A nice, little baby brother?’
My entire life passed before my eyes in one swift, dark moment. This was an emergency, and I had to act quickly. ‘Sweetie,’ I began, pulling him into my lap and cuddling him. ‘You know, all your friends, their parents were probably disappointed in them. So they felt they had to try again to get what they wanted. Whereas Dadda and I think you are the most perfect baby in the world, and you are everything we ever wanted, so why would we want another child?’ The son, being of a particularly vainglorious breed, swallowed that hook, line and sinker. I pushed my advantage home. ‘How would you like a little puppy for your birthday next month?’
I passed my test, but how many women do?
First published in The Financial Express.