Instead of a Book: Letters to a Friend by Diana Athill (Granta, Rs 469) has a paragraph that stopped me and made me think:
“Your favourable interpretation of my calling my mother Ma was undeserved. As children we called her always, Mummy or Mum—words which sound so silly on adult lips that we all three felt we ought to change them. My brother tried to change to Mother, but it never sounded convincing and now he’s slipped back to Mum. My sister and I both adopted Ma, which seemed to have to English ears, a faintly jokey sound which makes it sound less embarrassing than Mummy (which we still use, sometimes, between us). Quite often we call her Gran, that having been established by the grandchildren. When she was a young, modern mother, I remember her taking it into her head that we ought to call her and Dad by their first names… ‘What a flighty and ridiculous notion’ we all three thought in a disapproving way so poor Ma’s bid to be dashing came to nothing. (She also thought it would be nice if all, children and adults, felt natural about seeing each other naked—a daring notion for the time, I wonder what she had been reading?—which we squelched even more firmly. What boring brats!)”
I think I would have had the same reaction if my mother had suggested any of the above, although she didn’t. Now from the battle of the natural, here’s another story told to me by a female friend who was working on a project that involved taking pictures of men in the nude. “H told me how he was trying to bring up his children to be comfortable with their bodies and with his and so he would often have bath with his kids, all of them nude together and comfortable about it. Then one day, his daughter who was romping about, slipped on the soap and reached out for something to hold as she fell. She found his penis and grabbed, but the soap was too slippery and gravity too grave and so she yanked as she fell. That was the end of that experiment.”
I think children sometimes are the most terribly status quo-ist of beasts. They want everything in their worlds to look like everything else in everyone else’s worlds. They want one mother and one father and one house and some grandparents and one car — the one that drops them to school — and each of these must fit a pattern. Daddy must be manlike and Mummy must be womanlike and granny must be oldlike and car must be moneylike.
Another friend of mine with another story. “My son kept saying, ‘No, don’t come to school.’ So I asked why and he said, ‘You don’t look like the other mums.’ I took a look at them and said to myself, ‘Well, I’m glad I don’t look like them because they’re all a bit worse for the wear.’ But, then, I also thought, ‘He should be proud of me. I’ve worked on being fit and looking nice.’” He will be — when he’s in his late 20s. When he’s in school, he will want his mother to look like a mother. If she looks like a yummy mummy, it will reflect on him. What if a senior boy says something about his mum being hot? Will he have to defend his honour? And, what if the mother is on Facebook? What if she gets a friend request from a senior boy?
I have always held that a child is a machine for making you a second-class citizen in your own life. Everything you do will now be measured against the good of that child. You will think about the trip to Prague or his baccalaureate fees. You may even do Prague, but there will be a guilty feeling that you could have saved the money for something more meaningful, like giving your kid some advantage that he is sure to squander.
You squandered yours, remember? Your dad wanted you to learn a proper musical instrument but you said you wanted to learn the guitar and now you can barely plink a chord or two.
Jerry Pinto is the author of the prize-winning novel Em and the Big Hoom (Aleph), a novel in which a Mumbai-based family tries to cope with Em, who suffers from bipolar disorder that often makes her try to take her own life.