Children of love!
If a 5-year-old questioned you about the meaning of love, how would you explain it? What would you say? I am curious to learn because I am at a loss of words too. The truth is, nobody taught us the meaning of love or what it’s supposed to look like and as we transition from one life experience to another, we look for either heaps or scraps of this so-called love. We believe that our parents love us, which is why we exist. God finds two people who love each other and gives them a fruit that becomes a baby and that’s how you’re born, remember? We believe that our cooing and giggles as babies are our ‘I love you toos’ to the world and kisses from mommy and high fives from daddy are their ‘I love yous’ as we grow older. See what I mean? The definition changes constantly and we find ourselves navigating through the meaning of exchanges, touch, smells, letters and even punishments as acts of love. We believe in love’s innocence, it’s purity and find safety in our perceived harmlessness of love. Its incorruptibility is like the goodness in a child and yet children become the most injured by love.
Age 7, Ram brings his first C- home. He has failed in Math but he’s too young to understand what that means. His father is utterly disappointed and appalled by a 7-year old’s inability to solve 2 + 2. But Appa doesn’t fail to express his disappointment or highlight Ram’s perceived weaknesses. He goes on to narrate how he could multiply digits and solve fractions under street lights at Ram’s age. He wants his son to feel inspired, to derive lessons from his past and masks his monologue under the blanket of ‘I want the best for you, hence you must work harder.’ Little Ram learned that his father’s love must be earned and it’s a commodity he can pay for only with good grades. So, he tries with all his might, he stitches stories to marry the numbers just like he’s heard his English teacher to do characters in the lessons they read. Did he succeed? Well, only the grades get to determine that and not the effort invested by him.
Age 11, Afrah has been going to Uncle Sunil’s house every day to play with his 2-year-old son. She doesn’t have siblings and has always been fond of little children. She finishes her homework by 4pm so she can be on schedule to play with the little one as soon as he wakes up from his nap. She runs up 2 flights of stairs with sheer excitement every day and is consistently greeted by Uncle Sunil who says that if she wins the game he’s about to play with her first, she can play with the child for an extra 30 minutes. Afrah hates this game because she doesn’t like how Uncle Sunil’s hands feel on her body. But she loves this child, enough to compromise on her appointment with Enid Blyton, Carolyn Keene and Agatha Christie. She trusts Uncle Sunil who bought her light up shoes when she was 3 so she could be the coolest kid in the park; so, if he says that this is a game, it must be a game.
Our ability to believe in the good that exists in the world comes from the first time the tooth fairy grants us that BMX bike, or the first lick of ice-cream that dad gives us even after mom warned him not to. Our bravery as children is unmatched to anything superior in this world. Have you seen a toddler confidently put a bug in his mouth? Or put a finger inside an electric socket? Children are fierce. My brother, once lit camphor all over the room because he was fascinated by fire and he clapped at the glory of the burning flames till my aunt found him in the room he had set ablaze. Children truly believe in their ability to take on the world, in their invincibility, in their confidence to brave through whatever obstacle lies their way — be it diarrhea or death. But I am amazed at how we see a downward curve in what made us the Napoleans of our childhood.
Age 14, Hari realizes that he doesn’t enjoy wearing pants and a shirt as his uniform to school. He is more intrigued by his Aai’s fresh mogra in her hair or how neatly she pleats the cotton folds of her sari. He loves to watch her get dressed; before she heads to work, before she leaves for the temple, before she proceeds to run errands on the motorcycle with his Baba. His older brothers think he’s a weirdo, he has no friends in school. He is a little petite in size which allows the big boys in school to pick on him. They use markers to write ‘Hijra’ on his uniform, they call him girly and gay to be insulting. He doesn’t understand what his thoughts mean, but when he confronts Aai, she says, “Ignore the big boys in school, beta. They are just being funny.” She ignores his inhibitions about growing up as the gender he doesn’t identify with, she ignores the voices in his head that scream ‘THIS IS WRONG. MAKE IT STOP.’ Well, if he can’t be everything that Aai embodies, at least he can befriend his jealousy of who she gets to be.
Age 17, Natasha aspires to be a singer. She has posters of musicians from across the world, all over her room. She was born in the early 2000s, but she owns cassette tapes and CDs of every artist she has cherished from an era before her existence. She never received training, she was truly a natural. What started as humming bedtime lullabys with Mama at age 5, soon became the essence of her living. Mama passed away when she was 12 and Dada found solace in his soaring career as an investment banker. Their relationship was unique. They ate their dinners in silence, they talked about the house help’s absence and what Natasha’s school fees for the next semester was going to be. Natasha yearned for a relationship with Dada, one that put her in the center of his universe. She was the center of Mama’s, when they’d sing to the tunes of Abba or Kishore Kumar while hearing the pitter patter of the Mumbai monsoon. But Natasha felt her dreams shatter on a Thursday morning when Dada brought a form to be filled for Charted Accountancy coaching. She felt the pitch, the melody, the rhythm, the sound from all her audition tapes turn into a loud screech. They’d never fought, not because issues hadn’t occurred, but because the space between them never allowed volumes to be raised or for disagreement to be entertained. She’d grown up believing that straight A’s paved the way for dreams to come true, that being a disciplined student was going to get her what she wanted. Dada had given his seal of approval. Close enough… close enough.
Social interactions shape the way we see ourselves as children and even teenagers. I’d like to believe that that changes as we grow older, because we develop a stronger relationship with ourselves. I remember being labelled as the fattest and one of the cutest children in my locality and even my family. Ah, a time when fat is a compliment! Everyone would often joke about how my paternal grandfather struggled to pick me up because he was feeble and I was chubby. I loved those stories and all the good memories they brought to the ones narrating them. I also remember growing up as a fat teenager and hating the image in the mirror. The same individuals who looked at the folds in my thigh at 6 months of age and aww’d till the end of their breath, looking at 16-year-old me and saying that my cheeks were too full or that my breasts looked inappropriate in that top. I detested the body I lived in for a very long time. I wouldn’t wear short sleeved clothes because I thought my arms looked too fat, I wore oversized tshirts to hide the bread loaves I had in the name of a stomach, I cut my bangs in the bathroom so my face wouldn’t look as round. I searched for body types in the media that looked nothing close to mine and set that as my goal. I grew jealous of my one year old ‘cute and adorable’ self because I didn’t understand how something that’s endearing and worthy of love at one age could be repulsive as one grows older. I didn’t want a relationship with my body and I resented anyone who had the one I wanted.
It terrifies me to think that we are robbing children; robbing them of their bravery, their imagination, their friendship with their reflection in the mirror, their trustworthy nature and most importantly — their definition of love. Love becomes equated to eroticism after puberty pays a visit, and if we don’t recognize that, it exists only within those limitations which take different forms that are shaped by our experiences as children. Love is the greatest feeling in this world. It’s what you felt when a dew drop sat on your cheek before you turned one, it’s what you felt when you parents kept your baby sibling on your lap, it’s the first taste of the Heisenberg blue when you saw your first crush in kindergarten, when you realized that chocolate fondue is a real thing, when you cuddled with your mom/dad in the middle of the night at the end of a bad dream.
Love is everything. It cannot be shamed by the walls of abuse, neglect, bullying or disappointment. That child within you still lives. It’s why an amusement park seems like a good idea at 4am after a bottle of vodka. So do the unthinkable. Tap into that resilience. Befriend that bravery and boldness that put fear in the bug that made it to your mouth :)
Inspired by Toni Morrison’s God Help The Child and Laurie Kahn’s Baffled By Love — 2 books that will remain etched in me for a lifetime ❤