The strange thing about your child growing up is that however much you are ready and waiting, it has this ability to creep up on you in the most insidious way, catching you totally off-guard. Like when Re asked me the other day: “Mamma, what is a husband?”
I knew where this was coming from. We had been watching Shrek 2 on loop and Fiona and Shrek made a fetching couple, replete with PDA. Re likes that, the PDA bit. “Oh, that didi is so happy with her dadda,” he said, almost pleased with himself on account of their on-screen camaraderie.
“It’s not her dadda, it’s her husband.”
Hence the question.
Now, this was quite an opening. In my earlier avatar, I would have said one of many things: that a husband is someone you marry and then feel weird whenever you are introducing him as “the husband”. Or someone you haffto be friends with on Facebook. Or someone you produce at family functions so that nosy geriatrics stop asking you about “good news”. Or someone you have to hear whine every day and be polite about it, even pretend it’s cute. Or someone you wake up with one day, and realise that unless you work really hard at making him run away, he will be lying next to you, somnambulistic, impervious to light and sound, every single day, for the rest of your life.
But then I realise he is a three-year-old, and I am his mother, so I obviously can’t colour his perception of things. I also realise that to him, answers are everything. Answers are the doors to more questions.
And so I say, somewhat reluctantly, “It’s what a mamma calls a dadda. Or Mrs Shrek calls Mr Shrek.”
I don’t know whether he is convinced by my answer. I have no means of finding out. But he is quiet again, so maybe that went well.
A few scenes later, Shrek is being attacked by Puss in Boots. Re is enraged. Shrek has obviously found a special place in his heart by now and anyone or anything that hurts him is the enemy. He screams at the screen, “Stop it, Puss in Boots! Don’t do that to my husband!”
“It’s not your husband, Re, it’s Mrs Shrek’s husband.”
I obviously haven’t factored in same-sex marriages here, but the whole thing is so darned complicated already, I am thinking.
Re is not convinced. He is already comfortable equating husband to father figure and peeved at this enforced limitation.
That’s the trouble with the growing-up virus. You are never really prepared for it, even if sometimes it might be the most eagerly awaited thing in your life. I thought all I had to do was be vigilant about gender stereotypes and teach him to respect women. But now I know what they meant in those boardrooms when they said, “Explain it to me like I am a four-year old.”
I will never really master that, I think, no matter how many books I read. But one thing I had decided early on was that I would never tell him, “You are a baby, you won’t understand.” There would always be answers. Even if they are answers he doesn’t want to hear.
Time passes. We move on to other movies, but inevitably return to Shrek one day.
“Why is Shrek angwy with Mrs Shrek?,” Re asks, seeing a visibly upset Shrek post a visit to the in-laws.
“Because they just have different expectations from each other. And each cannot understand what the other is saying,” I muster the courage to tell him. I didn’t want to say he was pissed off with his in-laws and their snootiness and attachment for all things material.
“No mamma, they are not having expotatoes!”
Okay then. That was not very bright of me. But here’s the tricky part with children. Sometimes, the only way to say it is to say it like it is. And sometimes, it is to say it like they want to hear it. It’s just that it is a hit or miss and you keep trying.
I could have said, “Shrek likes to live in the jungle and he was not comfortable with the castle and table manners and all of that.” But would it have worked? I don’t know. I can try next time.
The thing is, he has already decided that Shrek is the good guy. So, until he figures out a new hero, I will have to tread very carefully in Shrek-zone.
By next year, givaffe will be giraffe, cocodiling will be crocodile and hippopotis will be hippopotamus and Shrek will be replaced by someone else. But the questions will continue. For a long, long time. I better work on the answers from now on.
(This post first appeared as my column in the Indian Express Sunday Eye on 30th September, 2012)