“America is much better than India,” the new child in the park announces to the group my children are in, unsure of whether she wants to be accepted by them or whether it will be easier to reject them first. “English is better than Hindi,” she adds. “American potato chips are better.”
The older children engage in a discussion with the new child in our neighbourhood. They begin to speak to her in English. Tempers rise and offence is taken on both sides. Our youngest child comes home to me and asks me about hierarchies in the world.
“Is America a bad place, Mamma?” she asks. “Why was that girl trying to make it sound better than here? Is India the best, Mamma? Is it the only good place?”
“No, baba,” I say. “America is just as nice.”
“What about the yellow team in Chak De! India?” she asks me a few days later. “Are they bad people?” She is trying to understand the other.
“The young women in Chak De! India are playing hockey for their country. Too many people are involved in the game when it is played between the teams of two countries. They are not enemies, they are the Australian hockey team. They become friends with the Indian team later,” I say to her.
“Just like in my school,” she says. “Every time the teacher leaves us alone in the classroom, it becomes boys versus girls. We start taunting each other. I don’t like it.”
There is palpable hurt in her words. Her understanding of the world as she grows up is making her uncomfortable in it. I listen and say a few words, but mostly I let her feel her feelings. Make connections on her own.
In class II, she comes back home one day after a trip to the zoo. She doesn’t want to go to school the next day. She looks exhausted in the morning, but as soon as we agree to let her rest at home, she recovers her full energy.
“You are a Muslim,” her friend had said to her at the zoo. She narrates the incident to me.
“I’m a Muslim, so what, I said,” she gestures with her hands and shrugs. “There were three men walking in the zoo wearing kurta-pajamas and a cap on their heads. A pointed towards the men and said, ‘That is your father.’ Why did she say that to me? She knows my father.”
She puts her hand at the back of her head and shows me. I imagine she means a skullcap.
I am speechless. I wonder what kind of conversations A overhears at home. What does she watch on TV? What makes her want to remind her friend that she is different? That she can be shamed by the mere mention of her religious identity?
“Later, when I took out my handkerchief to wipe my hands, A said it was a Muslim handkerchief.” I had given my child a large white handkerchief in the morning when I couldn’t find any other from her own set.
My daughter and I laugh together at the idea of a Muslim handkerchief. Neither of us will be comfortable using it in public for a while.
“Earlier, A was my best friend, but then she began to lay down rules. You cannot talk to anyone else if you want to remain my best friend. You cannot sit with anyone else.”
These children are barely seven years old. A greets me with a cheerful smile every time she sees me when school is over. I nod and smile especially for her.
On her blackboard at home, my daughter writes a few lines on her. “A is rude to everyone except big people and me.” She has zeroed in on details that don’t fit the happy picture of a healthy friendship. She is fearful of what A might say to her when they are alone together.
“I hate her,” she concludes the mini essay on her blackboard.
I tell her she must say no to any experience that doesn’t feel good. She can opt out of conversations that make her feel small or uncomfortable. She can un-choose what happens around her. Her boundaries belong to her. I read other people’s essays on bullying and consent to get a perspective. However young they may be, children must have the permission to be in control. To be able to preserve their innate dignity.
“Sometimes when I do something bad,” she shares, “I think why do I exist at all?”
“I also feel like that,” I say. “Then I sit on the floor with my back to the wall and hold myself till I calm down. I also feel sometimes that I do everything wrong.”
“I will tell all my friends in school that we have a swimming pool at home,” she says. She is referring to the small pond we are creating in our front garden.
“You can call it a splash pool,” I say.
“And there will be fish in it? she asks.
“Yes,” I say.
“But don’t get sharks, okay?”
“Okay,” I say.
“Why can’t I catch this light?” I hear her from the next room a little while later. She has caught a shaft of light coming in from a high window and is playing with it. It falls on her palm, but every time she closes her fist, it escapes from her grip.
“Maybe you can close it in a box or something,” I goad her on.
A while later she has found a solution. I walk into her room to see her toy tea-set arranged in a way that each cup has caught a sliver of light in it. “Light tea,” she says, looking up at me.
Natasha Badhwar is a film-maker, media trainer and mother of three. She tweets at @natashabadhwar and posts on Instagram as natashabadhwar.