Now we are six

“I want to finish my dream mamma,” Re often says as I wake him these days. I know the weather is lovely and perhaps it makes for better dreams too, and better dreams can only mean better stories and better conversations. I often envy him for having whole, vivid dreams, full of texture and detail, unlike my fractured, jagged, muddly ones with rough edges.

These days he dreams a lot about mermaids (ever since he requested me for a mermaid tail which would help him turn into one) and once he told me I woke him just as he was about to turn into a mermaid. I felt really guilty about that.

Some days I wish I could have the sleep of my childhood when dreams were things you slept for. Once in a while, when I do have them, and I wake up thinking of them, I do try and go back to sleep, before my rational mind gets in the way.

Re once told me, “You can change your dreams mamma!” It seems all you have to do is think really hard about what you want your dream to be just before you go to bed.

“I always change my dreams,” he said. It is when I realized that as adults, we accept reality too easily. We give up on dreams and the world of magic too easily. We have become unidentifiable versions of our little selves.

But our dreams can still save us.

As you read this column, Re will be turning six. I have never really kept track of his milestones but felt the urge to google six year-olds and read the various newsletters baby experts have been relentlessly sending me since Re was a little life brewing inside of me. I read, among other things, that at six, the child is now at the centre of his universe. That he is more of a lot of things – more mature, more adventurous, more independent, more daring. What bothered me was the bit about “relationship with mothers being difficult”. I can feel that already. I also googled some key strategies to cope, and found them in excerpts from Louis Bates Ames Book, Your six year old: Loving and Defiant and some of them were: minimal direct commands, sidestepping, bargaining, not noticing, ignoring or giving more chances. I smiled, realising I need more ammunition now.

For the last two years, birthdays have meant a big deal to Re and he has already become somewhat of an expert in carefully choreographing all our birthdays, his being the most important, of course. This year, he told me. “On my birthday, I will do whatever I want to do for the whole day and you must not tell me what to do.” I quickly agreed, remembering what I read in the key coping strategies.

I remember buying the children’s book of poetry, Now We Are Six, by A .A Milne long before I had a child (I used to, at the time, make excuses for buying children’s books which I always enjoyed more than adult books, I don’t have to make those excuses anymore) and this poem beautifully encapsulates what being a six year-old is:

“Now We Are Six”

When I was one,
I had just begun.
When I was two,
I was nearly new.
When I was three,
I was hardly me.
When I was four,
I was not much more.
When I was five,
I was just alive.
But now I am six,
I’m as clever as clever.
So I think I’ll be six
now and forever.

So my little wish for my not so little boy is the gift of dreams. It’s the only thing that will last a lifetime, if he lets it. So dream all the things you want, because if you can dream it, you can make it real.

 (A version of this post appeared as my column in Pune Mirror on 22nd June, 2015)



What I learned about fairy tales from my child

Our little family of three went to watch Disney’s new rendition of Cinderella at the cinemas last weekend. I was as excited as Re was. How would she be? How lovely would her blue gown be? What would her castle look like? How evil would her stepmother be? What would the prince be like? How would her carriage look? How will the lizard turn into the coachman? And the mice to horses? And the most important question: What would her glass slipper look like?

While Re and I were both riveted, my husband kept turning to him, squeezing his hand, wondering if the harshness of the stepmother and starkness of evil would be disconcerting. Re told him with an equanimity that only a child raised on fairy tales will have: “Wait, she will be sended away from the kingdom soon.”

The child was indeed the father of man in our case.

As a new mother, I often faced the anti-fairytale brigade. They are too black and white, they said. “They glorify concepts of good and evil. They are full of evil stepmothers and witches and fairies and make your child believe in the supernatural.” Another voice said that fairy tales give you the illusion of a happily ever after for everyone and life is not like that.

I paid no heed, and decided to listen to Albert Einstein who once said, “If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be very intelligent, read them more fairy tales.”

In the earlier school that Re went to, I was cautioned: “Let him not read too many fairy tales.” It was too late, as we had read most of them in their various versions. While my friends were still arguing about gender fluidity on social media, Re and I were playing with wands, ball gowns, castles and of course, princesses. When people said I should be letting Re know that there was no real Santa Claus, I went and got ourself a real Christmas tree.

Children need fairy tales to make sense of the world. Because sometimes, fantasy can be a great way to reveal the larger truth. When there are no rules to be followed, the truth is often clearer. Like any other good story, a good fairy tale can provide a reference point to your child. It teaches us about hope, courage, hard work, justice. And above all, love and kindness, as Cinderella’s mother would say.

But even if broken down to its most simplistic form, fairy tales help the child’s imagination. And imagination is everything. A child who can imagine fairy wings and magic bean stalks is also capable of imagining other wondrous things. And what can be wrong with a little bit of color?

As adults, we forget to believe in our imaginary worlds. But there are still things in our subconscious that get awakened by fairy tales. They take us away from our everyday world, they free our minds to see the intangible with special clarity. They make us believe in magic. If we are afraid of magic, there is no hope for us as human beings.

Richard Dawkins, prominent atheist, evolutionary biologist and author of The Selfish Gene and The God Delusion had provoked a debate about the impact of fairy tales when speaking at the Cheltenham Science Festival sometime last year. Among other things, Dawkins said that it was harmful to read fairy tales to children because it instilled a false belief in the supernatural. He has since denied the claims, adding on Twitter that fairy stories may “on balance” have a positive effect on children as they grow up by fostering critical thinking.

No matter how politically incorrect stories about evil stepmothers, damsels in distress, and cannibalistic old women may be, fairy tales are here to stay. And that’s a good thing, say the experts. “They work through so many personal and cultural anxieties, yet they do it in a safe, ‘once upon a time’ way,” says Maria Tatar, professor at Harvard College who writes about, and teaches classes on, fairy tales. “Fairy tales have a real role in liberating the imagination of children. No matter how violent they are, the protagonist always survives.”

Writer and child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim believed fairy tales are important to children’s development because the main characters – many of them children themselves – demonstrate pluck, and the ability to triumph over adversity in a world of giants and cruel adults.

The joy is when your child tells you that magic is not real, but still allows him and you the possibility of being enthralled by it.

It is possible to believe in magic, yet know that it is not real.

It is possible to know that bad things happen to bad people, but sometimes they can also happen to good people.

For every Snow White waiting to be kissed by her prince, there is a Pocahontas, who can kiss her Prince and let him go. For Re, they both are heroes, perhaps the latter a shade more than the former.

I don’t think children believe in absolute good and absolute evil. Re told me once, “If you were good, and then you became evil , you can become good again.”

Or this about Cinderella’s stepmother: “Well, she is not a mean person. She just does mean things sometimes.”

Or this about Pocahontas: “Sometimes, you can do true-love’s kiss, but you don’t have to marry!”

The beautiful thing is, until my child believes in fairy tales, I can believe in them too. And that perhaps is the greatest gift a child can give you. Because if your heart remembers that the impossible is possible, you will try it…and sometimes, it works.

(A version of this post appeared as my column in Pune Mirror on 30th March, 2015)

BROWN: Like dosas, samosas and sticky chikki

(As told to me by Re)

Here's to brown empowerment

Here’s to brown empowerment

So there was a beautiful girl called Anahi. She had brown skin like me and she wore really pretty colorful dresses. I loved her gween frock. One day, she met a purple fairy called Anahi and the fairy said, “Come, I will make you fair like snow.”

Anahi said, no, but don’t want to be turned into another color.

Then the fairy said, “But if you are fair like a snowflake and icecream, then you will be beautiful.”

Anahi said, “But I am alweddy beautiful!”

So the purple fairy said, “Then you will be beautifuller!”

But Anahi liked to be brown only, so she said no. And the fairy went away.


Written by: Rebecca Manari

Illustrated by: Heetal Dattani Joshi

Published by: FunOkPlease


Review: The Boy Who Drew Cats

The boy who drew catsIn the last two years, Re has been through a rainbow drawing phase and then a castle drawing phase and a butterfly drawing phase and is currently stuck at a ball-gown drawing phase, no less. In each of these phases, I saw a rather unhealthy obsession with getting the details right and repeating the process as if on loop. So when a book called The Boy Who Drew Cats landed on my lap, I realised the timing couldn’t have been better.

Published by Karadi Tales (Price Rs 150), this is a delightful little story retold from the Japanese by Anushka Ravishankar and intricately illustrated with watercolors and ink on rice paper by Christine Kastl.

It had me at cat. For those who know me, you know my obsession with cats and their absolute grace and felicity. I could have been Akiro, the boy in the story who loves drawing cats, except I suck at drawing and would take even less chances with a creature I am in awe of. But I can so foresee Re doing it.

Akiro is a little boy who draws cats. Okay, let me correct that. He draws only cats. On mud, in his rice, on rice-paper, on any surface he can gain access to. His aim is to find the perfect cat, which us cat people know does not exist, but Akiro’s parents don’t and they are worried for him. They send him off to become a priest, but Akiro spends all his time drawing cats on the temple wall. The rest of the story is about his fascinating journey through the world, with his cat drawings as constant companions and how he eventually becomes rich and famous drawing cats all over the world.

If you are a cat person, buy two. If not, buy one and gift it to a cat person.



How Eskimoes Keep Their Babies Warm

It is good to read a book which articulates theories that you always internalised but seldom vocalised in a world of over-scheduled babies and over-zealous parenting. For instance, a lot of my initial parenting seemed to involve integrating our social life with that of the child, and wondering how all of us could have fun while still being together. I knew I had cracked it when, at age eight months, my son was dipping baguettes in tzatziki and making a meal of it, swaying to Black Eyed Peas, while we passed around margarita pitchers at a home brunch. It just felt so democratic.

The first chapter of Mei-Ling Hopgood’s book on parenting wisdom from around the world addresses just this. The case in point is the children in Buenos Aires (where the author lives with her husband and two children), who are allowed to stay up while their parents socialise till hours most of us would frown upon.

The book is an insightful, and often hilarious, account of how parents in different corners of the universe, from Argentina to Tanzania raise their children and there are plenty of ideas that are worth trying (although it’s too late for me to try the Chinese split-crotch trousers for potty-training). By studying ways in which children from different parts of the world eat, sleep, play, fight and work (yes!), Hopgood often makes you want to drop your guard in parenting and adopt tradition and culture as at times the more organic and least invasive way of raising a child.

Another nod moment was my utter scorn for baby food and the resulting empathy for babies who will spit it out because it is so yucky, which leads to my philosophy of “what looks good, tastes good,” a sentiment that resonated in her chapter on ‘How the French teach their children to eat healthy food.’

Apart from her researcher’s thoroughness about the cultures and traditions she has examined, Hopgood rings true because of her voice of self-deprecation and her non-judgemental stand. In her chapter ‘How Aka Pygmies are the best fathers in the world’, she examines stereotypes about where, when and how a father interacts with his children and how a lot of it has to do with biology and environment. She explains how in urban scenarios, very often, women leave very little for the father to do, because they believe they can do it the best. She writes, “From the day of Sofia’s birth, I commanded a slow and steady takeover of her life. I’d interact with the nanny daily, plan out the baby’s diet and do our daughter’s hair. It’s easier, I reasoned.”

Hopgood reveals these ideas through observation, interviews, and experience. And although frequently opposing, each of these child-rearing methods has something you wouldn’t mind trying at least once. Like the idea of four/five-year-old Mayan babies caring for their siblings (something that rang true, as I was an unsuspecting candidate at age four when I was handed twin siblings to look after).

Or how Polynesian children always play without adult involvement and how playing with children is not normal in most cultures. She writes, “I was surprised at the number of cultures in which mum and dad don’t play much — if at all — with their children.”

I found myself making several notes to self through the book. “Must try Japanese method of letting children fight and resolve their own conflicts.” Or “Must try the Mayan method of finding my son a chore that is uniquely his.”

In a world where one-size-fits-all parental advice is still fostered, although it doesn’t work, Hopgood’s analysis on cosmopolitan cultures at least gets you started on thinking out of the baby book box. Because far from the world of diapers and scheduling is another way to parent, which very often is worth trying.

Now to find my four-year-old a job. Mayan style.

Author: Mei-Ling Hopgood

Publisher: Macmillan

Price: Rs 499

Pages: 292


(This review was first published in the Indian Express on 23rd March, 2013)

Go the F..k to Sleep: Babies and the art of sleep maintenance

I didn’t sign up for a lifetime of sleeplessness when I signed up for motherhood. But then neither did I sign up for ‘Thou shall not read’ or ‘Thou shall not talk on the phone’ or ‘Thou shall not email/blog/tweet/facebook in my presence.’

You give up a lot of things when you have a child. I am not even getting into spontaneous sex and all that stuff we did as singletons.

In my list of things I had to give up, sleep comes right on top. Reading comes a close second. Backpacking on a whim, I am yet to miss.

I realised there are different types of sleep. There is the single-and-unattached sleep which is the best sleep in the world. Then there is the single-and-attached sleep which is fraught with late night texting, talking, BBMing and whatever it is people do these days. There is the married person’s sleep, which in my case was bad enough as he is a night person and I am a morning person. And then there is the married-with-baby kind of sleep, which is as bad as it gets. Need I say the amount of sleep is inversely proportional to the number of children?

When babies are little, they always tell you, “Sleep when the baby sleeps”. What they don’t tell you is, “Wake up when the baby wakes up.”  Because the first thing the baby wants on waking is you. You better get that into your system if you are planning a baby. It is going to be your motto for life. Well, at least the next twenty years.

I still remember my mother tossing and turning in bed whenever my brother had a late night. Or propping me up with pillows and a hot water bottle when I had an asthma attack.  I realise now tough it must have been. She was a school teacher, she had to leave for work at 6 am.

So you see, sleep and motherhood are mutually exclusive. Take your pick. Now.

Daddies don’t have much trouble. A few beers, a double whisky coke, and they are tsunami-proof.  At least most of them are. In case there are hands-on daddies raising their hands, I would so want to know you. You make me believe in the whole concept.

And it’s not about getting over with the first few months and living happily ever after. For when you stop being the chief food source, something else always takes its place. Teething. Dreams.  Colic. More teething. Colds. Coughs. A bruise. A bite. Or just the wanting of skin-to-skin contact. Or the reassurance that mommy is around.

Don’t believe anyone who says their babies sleep through the night. They perhaps don’t know, because they don’t sleep ‘with’ them. They delegate. They make it someone else’s problem. So yes, if you are a ‘babies should have their own room’ believers, you will continue sleeping, because you will never realise how many times the baby wakes up . Out of sight, out of mind.

Since I signed up to be a hands-on, organic, all-things-bright-and-beautiful kind of mother, I had to trade my sleep.

When I had Re, I was bequeathed Gina Ford‘s Sleep Guide to Contended Babies which, at that time, looked like a picture perfect guide to purring babies. A few pages into the book, I realised she was a sleep Nazi who believed in the ‘crying it out’ approach. She believed that if babies are left alone in a room to cry long enough, they will learn to fall asleep on their own. Sounds horrific? I have some news. She sells like hotcakes. Anyway, I threw the book out and welcomed my child to the family bed. It has been a roller coaster ride, sometimes frustrating, mostly lonely, but very reassuring. He knows I know what’s bothering him. Together we manage to find our sleep back.

When mothers say they tuck their babies in, they don’t tell you the gory details. Here is my current routine:

First we read the tomato book.

Then we read the zebra book.

Then we read the tiger book.

Then we read the cocodarling (crocodile) book.

Then we read the maaki (monkey) book.

Then we read the Upsy Daisy- Iggle Piggle book.

Then I am quizzed on random pictures from one of the above books or a totally different one (if he really wants to fuck me over) and asked to identify them.

If I do well, we go back to one or all of the above books.

Time passes. May be an hour. I have a few more strands of grey. The yawns are uncontrollable.

Then he says the magic words. “Baby so tired”

He is asleep in the next ten minutes if I am lucky.

Like most things about motherhood, I have learnt to see the humour in my sleep-deprivation too. It kinda helped that I found this little gem of a book, Go the F..k to Sleep courtesy my friend Priya Kapoor of Roli books who has brought this international bestseller to India. It’s a little baby book by Adam Mansbach, illustrated beautifully by Ricardo Cortes that you can NEVER read to your baby.  You can, however read it over and over to yourself. Not aloud, of course.

Here’s a verse from the book:

The windows are dark in the town, child.

The whales huddle down in the deep.

I’ll read you one very last book if you swear

You’ll go the fuck to sleep.

For someone who has reprogrammed her vocabulary to make it baby proof (Fuck you has become Rock you!), this book came as a breath of fresh air. It’s the one thing I read every night before I go to sleep (after Re has gone to sleep of course)

Go order the book on flipkart.