In the 1970s, in the suburbs of a town called Ranchi, my father would record the voices of his little children on his Sony 2-in-1 cassette recorder. This is how I imagine the scene at our home in one of the audio recordings. It must have been a Sunday because Papa was home in the afternoon. My mother is preparing for a child’s birthday party in the evening. I am 4 years old, the middle child between two brothers. I am overeating warm gulab jamuns, fresh from my mother’s kitchen.
“How many gulab jamuns have you eaten?” asks my father.
I make happy sounds but don’t answer in words.
“Is that a stomach or a kuan (a well)?”
“Kuan,” I answer.
He laughs. I remember listening to this exchange at various ages, in different cities. My father’s laughter and awe fills the room every time these voices are played back. The craving for Mum’s gulab jamuns comes back.
What is the value of conversations with children?
I record words with my children in journals and Facebook status updates. I keep them to be discovered again later and share some of them with others. They are like short films; they tell myriad stories and create unexpected connections. They dip straight into my deep subconscious and bring back gifts.
“My teacher only rewards speed,” said our seven-year-old last year. “She understands slow and fast. She doesn’t understand good and bad. And she never notices good handwriting.”
“It’s the ‘breaking news’ landscape,” I thought to myself. One year later, she goes to a different school, a slow school that values laughter and rhythm.
My children are never more pleased with me than when I return home from a day of teaching.
“You are a ma’am?” the youngest child asked me.
“Yes, I am.”
“Do you ask your students to sit properly in the Dining Hall?” she asked, trying to imagine me at work.
“No, I just want to eat whatever they are eating,” I thought to myself, heading towards my Maggi stash to get in touch with my own inner student.
“Don’t go to school tomorrow if you don’t feel well,” I said to our first-born child one day.
She took out a timetable from her pocket and unfolded it. Her finger searched for the Tuesday column.
“Oh no!” she said, “I have to go to school. It’s nariyal ki barfi for sweet dish tomorrow.”
The only timetable that matters to her is the weekly lunch menu (and the single library period of the week).
“Everything is changing,” she said when she was 12 years old. “Some of my friends are becoming...too much like teenagers.”
“I know what you mean,” I thought to myself, kissing her on the forehead.
I record and share children’s conversations for one more important reason. I have grown up in and live in a culture where adults are embarrassed about children’s voices. When children speak, adults shudder, laugh or dismiss them without bothering to listen to them. The fragile adult world fears spontaneous insights. I witness this every day, even in interactions where the love in the relationship is indisputable.
You are a child, you cannot understand anything on your own, we communicate to them. Children say dumb and manipulative things. Your sorrow is childish, your joy is a nuisance. Children must be trained, steered, tutored, hushed and sushed to make them socially presentable. Just like we were in our own childhood. We label our children because we continue to allow ourselves to be labelled. We don’t acknowledge their feelings because we have been trained to neglect our own too.
Our love is contaminated with shame. We are embarrassed to love and admire our children openly. How do we expect them to love and admire us in return?
“Mamma,” said a child newly overdosed on the Harry Potter series, “you sleep late every day and wake up early every morning.”
“Yes, I do,” I said.
“Just like Hermione,” she said, offering me the highest compliment in her book.
“I have made the finest halwa ever manufactured in a kitchen,” I declared, admiring my aate ka halwa concoction.
“It tastes like glue,” said the first child who tasted it.
“Qweet,” we all used to say in our home, mimicking how the baby used to pronounce “cute”.
“It’s not qweet, it’s qute,” she corrected us soon enough.
“Gunjarmaala-popo, I said to the toddler who was talking gibberish just a while ago.
“What kind of language is this?” she replied.
“Mamma, I want a magic wand,” she said one day.
“Hmmm,” I said, waiting to see how this would unfold.
“Not a magic wand, just a beautiful, thin, colourful standing line. That looks likes a magic wand,” she said, offering a solution that would work for both of us.
“Mamma, how many days are left?”
“To my birthday.”
“Tell me in days.”
“Whoooo! That’s close!” She was satisfied.
“Mamma, do you have six thousand two hundred rupees,” asked our 10-year-old, holding an application form for her school trip in her hand.
“Yes, Aliza, I have 6,200 rupees.”
“Will you still have money to send me to school after you spend 6,200?” she asked.
“Yes, Aliza, I will.”
“Okay then, can I go on this school trip?”
There is a little bit of God’s own child in all of us. There is innocence and there is strength. Playfulness and stoicism. We have an imagination as magical as children. We can recover it from where it is buried.
As they laugh, love, learn, fight, ignore, insist, joke, play, preach and sleep, I pick up little tips from children around me on how to deal with the rest of the world. I learn dignity from them.
“Alizaaaa, I yelled across the home, to get our middle child’s attention. “What are you doing on the computer?”
“Mamma, I am collecting jokes,” she answered.
“Mamma, mamma, have you heard the joke about order order?” she asked me later.
A man walks into a courtroom. The judge says, “Order! Order!”
Man says, “Two burgers and three cold drinks.”
Judge says, “Shut up!”
Man says, “No, no, Thums Up!”
Be silly with me today. Be childish and childlike. Talk gibberish to a loved one and count the time to your birthday in days. Get yourself the gulab jamun of your choice. I don’t understand it either, but I know it is the right thing to do. That is enough for now.
“I really don’t like these gulab jamuns,” said Aliza one day.
“How many did you have?”
“First I had four, then another four,” she said.
Forty years later, my mother’s gulab jamuns have clearly retained their charm.
Natasha Badhwar is a film-maker, media trainer and mother of three. She tweets at @natashabadhwar and posts on Instagram as natashabadhwar. Read Natasha’s previous Mint Lounge columns here
Write to her at email@example.com