The campaigner

My 12-year-old is hankering after a phone. We haven’t yet succumbed to his entreaties. I  watch him with admiration as he comes up with the most ingenious reasons why he must possess a phone, even if not a smartphone. The arguments run the gamut of reasons, from the emotional, and the practical, to peer approval. For long I had thought that Ishaan was a babe-in-the-woods, compared to his peers, but after listening to him the past few months, I am relieved. The boy certainly has his wits about him!

Actually, this is not the first campaign he has run. In this season of elections, that is an appropriate metaphor, isn’t it? The first campaign was for a PS4 or the PlayStation4, for the uninitiated. I was dead opposed to it. Sachin’s counter argument was, most of his peers have it, and how long can we keep him away from these gadgets? I wasn’t convinced.

It was at the O’Coqueiro restaurant in Porvorim in Goa, that Ishaan finally won his PS4. I remember that moment. We were hungry and tired from our journey from Mumbai, and home in Vagator was still half an hour away. O’Coqueiro is an old favourite, and we stopped here for dinner. We had ordered prawn curry and rice, chicken cafreal, and prawns in butter garlic sauce, and as we waited for our food to arrive, Ishaan started a monologue. After a few seconds, I perked up and sat up in my chair to better focus on what he was saying.

He had launched into a passionate rant about the PS4. He milked emotions for all it was worth, citing the ridicule he faces from friends, the bullying he is sometimes subject to, and the utter joy he would get from such an acquisition. At one point, he had tears of self-pity rolling down his cheeks. This was a tour de force of a performance. I was stunned. Here was a son, whom I didn’t quite recognise. Sachin struggled to maintain a poker face, while I tried my best to look empathetic. Finally, he came to a stop. When I sighed at the end of his rant, and looked at him without a word, was the moment I think Ishaan and I both realised that the battle for the PS4 was won!

The rest was just semantics. Of course, I did my mom thing and put in place a system – no PS4 on school days, no PS4 even on weekends, only on long weekends and vacations…you get the drift. It’s another matter that he tries to convince us every weekend, that since the weekend begins from Friday after school, every weekend should technically be considered a long one!

But a gadget is a devil of a master. One gadget only engenders a longing for more of its kind. The dust had barely settled on the PS4, when the hankering after a phone began, a year ago. Why a phone? I asked Ishaan. He argued it’s the most handy communication device for him in case he is: 1. Kidnapped (to which I said they would take his phone before they took him) 2. He is in an emergency (kidnapping apparently is not an emergency), 3. When he wants to just speak to me (I was deeply touched, but not convinced), and the best of all, 4. He doesn’t have to harass us for our respective phones! (I was sorely tempted, especially with this last argument.)

But saner counsel has so far prevailed. Sachin has instead, got him an iPod, which looks almost like a phone. Together they have loaded it with music. The iPods of today bear no resemblance to the iPods of an earlier generation. Now they are wi-fi enabled, have cameras, and except voice calls and WhatsApp, Ishaan can do everything else, including watch videos. The other day, I saw Sachin and Ishaan peering at a Springsteen video on the small  iPod screen. Have we solved for one problem, just to create another…time will tell!

Finger-licking good!

banana tree clean close up dew
Photo credit: pexels.com

We were attending a traditional wedding in Kerala a while ago, where the wedding feast was the elaborate lunch or sadya served on large banana leaves. A traditional Kerala sadya is purely vegetarian, with multiple courses, all eaten with rice. Even the dessert of payasam or kheer is often eaten on the leaf itself.

So, there we were, waiting in anticipation, and in order, all the dishes were served, the rice the last. My husband and I started to dig in, only to realise after a few moments that our ten-year-old had not started, and was trying to attract the server’s attention. He wanted a spoon, and heaven help us, a fork! Under the bemused gaze of the rest of the clan, who like us, were all eating with their fingers, and with some gusto, Ishaan got his spoon (they were rather apologetic that they couldn’t provide him with a fork).

It was a moment of epiphany for me. Family  members jovially called out, he’s a true saipan (foreigner), isn’t he? I was quite embarrassed. It had never occurred to me till then that my boy didn’t know how to eat rice with his fingers! In my quest for hygiene, and since I was not always at hand to feed him, from babyhood, the emphasis was on using cutlery. It was only a clean means to get the victuals into the child. It had become so habit forming that even after he could eat on his own, he continued with his spoon and fork routine. And I never ‘taught’ him how to eat rice with his fingers. Rather, it didn’t occur to me to teach him.

Sadya
My son waits for his spoon, while the rest of us dig in with our fingers!

Eating with fingers, if you are alien to the culture, is an art to be learnt. We who have been bred in it, don’t realise that it can be intimidating for others. A Canadian I met in Colombo, many, many years ago, said there is a technique to eating with your fingers. I looked disbelievingly at him, wondering why he was making a meal out of such a simple thing. So he demonstrated by scooping up some rice in his right hand and just tilting his  fingers into his mouth, which looked clumsy and messy. He looked at me quizzically, where am I going wrong? I mimicked his action. And only then did I realise that after we scoop up the rice, we use our thumb as a kind of piston to push the food into our mouth. It was an Aha moment for me. Go on, try it. You will understand what I mean. So unless someone has shown you the right way, it can be a difficult task. That was also a moment of epiphany. Just like we have to learn how to use chopsticks, for instance, people from other cultures have to learn how to eat with their fingers!

To me, it’s the most natural thing in the world. I have always only eaten with my fingers, and learnt the art (if it can be called that) of eating with a fork and a knife, much later in life. And I am still a reluctant user of cutlery. There is a reason we say ‘finger-licking good’, don’t you think? Of course, some foods are not suited for eating with fingers. But for the rest, especially for Indian foods, fingers are the best.

When babies were born, in an earlier generation, there was this custom elderly women had of rubbing sugar into the gums of the new-born with their fingers. Needless to say, they rarely ‘sanitised’ their fingers. My son thankfully escaped that, and though I have a soft corner for old customs, this is one practice I find truly disgusting. Some limitations have to be imposed on fingers too, I guess!

They say eating with fingers has a myriad health benefits. I don’t know. I just know that the taste of steel with the rice is rather off-putting. So in polite company, and maybe in impolite ones too, I will use cutlery. But at home, I will do as my heart pleases:-)

After that Kerala episode, I took it upon myself to teach Ishaan how he must eat rice. I have to say, some habits are best formed from childhood. When eating with his fingers, there is still an awkwardness about him. He fumbles a bit, like we would when attempting a newly-learnt, and still unfamiliar task. It’s a bit painful to watch him, and I eventually hand him that precious spoon. And he sighs in relief. But I have ensured that he won’t ask for cutlery at our next sadya outing…:-)

 

“Your child is lonely!”

Ishu in sea

Many moons ago, I was stopped by a neighbour during my walk in my apartment complex. Her grandkids and my son sometimes played together, and in the time-honoured tradition of kids, sometimes didn’t. She stopped me to expressly commiserate with me about ‘what a lonely child your son is, playing alone in the garden’. Initially I thought it was a nudge to me to provide a sibling to my progeny. And I was a bit taken aback, as we were not on intimate terms for her to suggest that to me.

Then it dawned on me. It was a nudge at my son who was peering at insects in a corner of the garden, alone. And not for the first time. I replied instinctively to her and then pondered over her words, till much after.

There are many kids my son’s age in our complex. When we moved into this building four years ago, he had faced some amount of bullying. But gradually he had started finding ways around it, even if it meant playing alone on occasions. There were many evenings when he came home aglow with the happiness of having played with friends. The evenings he did play alone, he never complained. Being a ‘creature enthusiast’ he would spend time watching snails, marking the presence of several bats in a corner of the garden, gathering random sticks (weapons to guard the building, you see), and pieces of colourful stones (gems, mama!). He would draw maps of the complex, with areas marked for, ‘bat corner’ and hold your breath, graveyards! Imagination running wild!

My first, second and subsequent instinct was to rush to his aid, exhort his friends to allow him to play with them. I would invite friends from outside the complex to playdates with him. But it was not sustainable over a long period of time. While we worried about how he was coping, he seemed rather nonchalant. To our delicate (so we thought) questioning, he would shrug and say, everything is fine.

My husband and I realised that he was finding his own balance, within his ecosystem. He was sometimes alone, but he wasn’t lonely by any means. Slowly it dawned on us, that being alone sometimes was not really harming him. Far from it. Why do we believe that our kids have to be engaged every second of every hour of every day? There are enough studies out there which tell us that kids should sometimes get bored. Boredom is good for them. Being alone, with just one’s self for company, is good for kids. That is the time when they have to willy-nilly depend on their own imagination, devise their own entertainment. Get comfortable with who they are.

There is not a single child in the world who doesn’t have a friend. Every child is capable and will certainly form bonds of friendship, which will endure. But at the same time if they learn to be happy on their own, they will certainly grow up to be more balanced and happy adults. An ‘alone’ child will find various things to do with his time. Mine sticks bits and pieces and makes swords and shields. He loves discarded cardboard boxes and makes it into some weapon, however clumsy may be the effort, in the process finishing off all the duct tape in the house! He loves swimming and if there are no friends in the pool, he will launch floating rescue missions with the pool boards and floats.

Ishu

Yet, it is very rarely that he complains about being alone and bored. And he loves it when he has any kind of company. He balances both situations pretty well.

Many of us, as adults, fear to be alone. It plagues me too sometimes. I admire women, for instance, who do solo travels. That is the ultimate being alone experience. We fear being left to our own devices, to our own company. If a child is used to some alone-ness while growing up, in my opinion, it can only breed confidence, and not loneliness. Today, these questions seem moot to us. Our son is a happy child, and we value that over everything else.

So my answer to that grandmom then was, “Isn’t it good that he can spend time on his own so happily?” She snapped back, “Not at this young age!” Is there a good age, a cut-off perhaps after which it’s acceptable to be alone? Shouldn’t being alone be as much a part of a child’s growing up, as being surrounded by family and friends? I believe so, yes.