My boy loves ball gowns

When Re was three, he used to play dress-up with one of my old deep red spaghetti minis.  It was something I had kept aside to remind me of my thin days, although I usually give most clothes away. Re found it in my closet and asked me if he could wear it. I said why not? I must say it looked nice on him, with his curly locks and twinkly eyes and general poise. He twirled round and round in it and seemed really happy with himself.

It was love at first sight. The red dress and he.

I took a picture. “I hope you are not going to Facebook that,” the husband said, when he saw it.

But the important thing was, we were in agreement that ‘banning’ anything in the early years is the road to rebellion later. So we let him wear the red dress and indulge his ‘feminine’ side whenever he wished.

Was I missing a girl child and that’s why I indulged him? I think not.

Was I trying to unburden him from the constraints of gender? I think not.

I realised that telling him the cliched “Boys wear this, and girls wear that,” wouldn’t work for him. It wouldn’t work for me either.

Every afternoon, Re would return from school and ask for the ‘red dwess’. Sometimes he dressed it up with a sash, sometimes he would ask for bangles or a bindi, sometimes he even tried my shoes with it. We had agreed that afternoons were for dress-up, and he would willingly change into his regular clothes when we went out in the evening. On days that the dress went for a wash, he would be despondent.

Once, he wanted to wear the red dress to the park. My heart sank a little, not because I was ashamed of explaining it to people who knew he was a boy, but because I didn’t want them to think that dressing him like a girl was part of a larger social experiment, from a feminist stand point. I told him he could wear it just once, but then we would have to switch back to only wearing it at home. The lines between yielding to conformity and encouraging self-expression were blurring, even for me. May be I was protecting him from being laughed at, because he wouldn’t know what they were laughing at.

When we went to the US this summer, my friend Amrita wanted to buy him something when she took me shopping. He pointed to a Doc McStuffin bracelet and necklace set at Target. It was his instantly. He wears one or both every single day.

A friend said, “Stop all this, or he will turn gay.” I knew it was coming, but I stayed calm. I tried to explain that there is no correlation between kids cross-dressing and being gay. Maybe it’s a stage and it will pass. Maybe it’s not. But either way, I didn’t want him to feel that he wasn’t able to express himself because we didn’t support him.

Even when Re wore technically ‘baba’ clothes, many strangers still called him “baby” because of his long curls.  I would gently tell them he was a ‘baba’ if they asked. Else I would just let it go. I know it bothers parents when you confuse their kids’ gender, but I was okay with it.

When we moved house to come and live on the school campus where I now teach,  the red dress got left behind. Re missed it initially and still asks about it sometimes, but then he discovered the joys of dupattas and draping. One day, he found a blue sarong that had just the right fall. He draped it around him and pretended it was a ball gown, with tail and all. That was it! The ‘red dwess’ was replaced by the ‘blue dwess.’

I know from experience that some children do not conform to the conventional gender behaviour and Re is one. Some days he loves dressing his dolls, painting his nails and theirs, wearing a tiara, coloring their hair and throwing tea-parties for them; other days, he roughhouses with his cars and pretends to be a monster or a dragon. Of course, had Re been a girl who sometimes dressed or played in boyish ways, no one would expect me to justify anything; no one would raise an eyebrow at a girl who likes football or Spiderman.

May be there is a more simplistic explanation for all this and we are unnecessarily looking for subtext where there is none. Dressing up is what little boys do. You may think your son is a crusader for wearing women’s clothing in public but actually, he’s just playing a game. He is simply a boy who sometimes likes to dress and play in conventionally feminine ways.


(This post first appeared as my column in Pune Mirror on 29th September, 2014)


Children of no lesser God

In a politically correct world that is duly celebrating the girl child, in a world where it is almost in vogue to wish for a girl or adopt one, I begat a boy.

It was a time when most of my friends were dealing with troubled teens at home or, at the very least, had graduated to baby number two. I found myself telling the husband within a few months of our marriage that we should adopt a baby girl in two years if we don’t have a child of our own. I had, at that point, underestimated our ability to procreate.

Exactly a year after this talk, Re arrived. I, who was proud of my womanhood and had bashed men for the longest time in my gender column, had finally given birth to a man. I felt nothing except mild shock. Poetic justice, I thought. “At least he has curly hair, and my cleft,” I consoled myself. I was ready for another man.

Something told me that this project would not work on auto-pilot. I had no clue about how to raise a man: how to understand his layered complexities, how to let him be, yet let him grow and what to expect of him. Plus, the world around me displayed a kind of reverse snobbery about the boy child. In it, boys are best underplayed, or not played at all. Mothers of boys are constantly scrutinised for subtext. Consider this: Boy throws a tantrum and he is shrugged off as “boys will be boys”. Girl throws a tantrum and she is said to have a mind of her own. Boy climbs on to the table in a restaurant and he is “not brought up well”. Girl does the same and she is slated to be the next gymnast. It’s as though in the race to celebrate our girls, we are trying to pretend our boys don’t exist.

As soon as Re’s hormones surfaced (and they show up intensely close to age two), I was at sea. I think a lot of the confusion arose because of my own expectations from men. We want our men to be sensitive but robust, quiet but communicative, accomplished but understated, generous but thrifty, leaders but followers. We want them to be independent and successful, yet we like it when they can’t do without us.

Boys have to prove they can make good friends, good boyfriends, good husbands, good sons, good brothers and good fathers. The men in my life, whether it was my father, my brother, the boyfriends and the husband, constantly had to prove that they were “men enough”. They still do. We are constantly raising the bar for our men. There seems to be this daunting task of making a good man out of a boy, but it is somewhat assumed that all girls grow up to be good women. And for some reason, mamma’s boy is not as cool as daddy’s girl.

I found myself extrapolating every tantrum of Re, every sign of defiance, and wondering, alpha-male, bad boy or just age? By some twist of fate, Re is surrounded by mostly girl children, whether it is in our apartment building or my circle of friends. The ratio is skewed in favour of girls, at least in our world, whatever the statistics might say. He is usually the aggressee and never the aggressor, and I still don’t know whether I should ask him to fight back or let go. I don’t know what would make him a real man. But I will always be okay with him crying. After all, vulnerability is a valuable thing. It’s what the world looks for, I am told.

I looked. I got sensitivity with bravado (“Don’t hold my hand, mamma. I want to hold your hand”), free-spiritedness with extreme attachment (“I don’t want to go to school, mamma. I want to be with you”), defiance with understanding, noise with silence, aggression with empathy and “I” with “you”. Re hurts easily, he loves animals to a fault, he gives me a foot massage on my wretched days, he puts my cup of tea away, he brings me my slippers, wherever they are, he bakes me mud cakes. He likes cars and kitchens and I don’t care which way he goes. He is often mistaken for a girl, because of his locks. I am asked why I don’t cut his hair and I just try and fix a beatific look on my face and shrug. The real reason is, his locks remind me that he is still me.

So there you are. He is me. I am him.

I realised we can never be enough woman without the man in us and they can never be enough man without the woman in them.

Yes, it’s important to celebrate our girls and boys. But it’s more important to celebrate our children.

Pic by Rahul De Cunha of Treestock


This piece first appeared in my column in the Eye section of the Indian Express on 29th July, 2012