Little boy blue and the man on the moon
We see little echoes of ourselves in our children and grandchildren, and surely this is the greatest trick of heredity
My son turned one month old the other day. This is more exciting than it sounds. They begin to see, dimly, and move their arms about quite a bit. Okay fine—it’s exactly as exciting as it sounds. But for a new parent it’s the most wonderful feeling in the world. He was lying in his cot one morning, resting between feeds, when his eyes began to flutter and his breathing became heavier. An early nightmare, perhaps. He thrust his right arm out as if warding off something, then swung it back at speed, proceeding to smack himself in the face. Now this is the kind of clumsiness I am renowned on three continents for; naturally I couldn’t have been more delighted. My boy is just like me, doing my best Ugly Kid Joe impression.
I’ve been thinking a lot about heredity recently. My wife’s father died in March. He had been unwell for some years, but death, when it came, was sudden, a devastation to his wife of 40 years, his loving son, his daughter, six months pregnant. He was one of those fundamentally cheerful people, an optimist despite the evidence of his own failing body. For some years now his health had restricted him to a slim circuit of the country: a long summer in his beloved Bhimtal, in the Kumaon Hills where he grew up, and winter in Kolkata, where he’d raised his own children, and where doctors—and The Turf Club—were rather more proximate. Because his health was bad he had not set foot in Mumbai in decades, but over this last year, whenever we spoke on the phone, he would announce his intention to be here for the birth of his first grandchild. The night we heard he’d died, I thought immediately of those phone conversations, about his determination to be here. Life is one long kick in the teeth. But he saw it precisely the other way.
Soon after we started dating—far too soon to be so familiar, I thought—my wife would walk up to me, flick me on the forehead, and admonish me with a: “Stop frowning! You’re going to get lines on your face.” In all the years before I met her I didn’t realize I do this when I read, but apparently I cannot concentrate unless I am actively furrowing my forehead like a cartoon bookworm. So imagine my delight now, when I see that our boy makes that exact face when he is sleeping. He waves his arms about and acquires the look of someone grappling with a particularly complicated question in particle physics, and—this, surely, is the great trick of heredity—it immediately seems like the cutest thing I’ve ever seen. Sometimes I spot my wife using her forefinger to gently smooth out his forehead as she sits with him, cooing, “don’t frown, don’t frown”, and I laugh a little at her futile struggle against the gene.
When I was a boy, I came to define myself by my scattered roots. My mother is a Malayali Christian from Mumbai, my father half-Kashmiri, half-Bihari, a Muslim who grew up in West Bengal. It is a vital, frequent question in India—where are you from? I never had a proper answer. So I came to define myself by this admixture: a hybrid, in fanciful moments, a mongrel when downcast. I felt this, more than anything, was what made me Indian. My first name is the Hindu term for a confluence of three rivers. I could imagine, fondly, that I was one meeting ground of the Indian idea.
Our son has many years of fun in store confusing curious uncles and aunties. My wife’s father was a Nepali from Kumaon while her mother is a wonderful combination of Scottish and Khasi. Our child has a Hindu first name and a Muslim last, a Nepali-Rajput middle name thrown in for good measure. I am the last person you could accuse of nationalism, especially in these times, but when the boy asks me where he is from, what can I say to him but India?
I hope my son has some of his grandfather’s spirit, a kind of untiring cheerfulness that I’d never come so close to before. It lives on in his children. He was one of those people you couldn’t help but get along with. His son and daughter are both like this. Though I met my father-in-law only after his health had begun its protracted decline, he seemed only to look forward, at what lay ahead. He refused to discuss his own medical struggles. His last years were spent trying to make things smoother for his family than he’d had it himself.
My mother-in-law, who came to stay for a while when our son was born, insists that the little one has the same eyes as her husband—large, yet at the same time with the distinctive epicanthic fold. We find little echoes of ourselves in our children, in our grandchildren.
For instance, I was always impressed by the deep attention my father-in-law gave to his comb-over—the scant threads carefully arranged laterally across his moon-scalp, creating the illusion of coverage in a way pre-op Harsha Bhogle never quite managed. I have noticed my son’s incipient hair falls exactly the same way. They did not get the chance to meet, but there are some things—like a grandparent’s love—that ride across such trifling things as time and mortality. My son will always have somewhere inside him his grandfather’s love. And his terrible hairstyle.
Dad Goals is a monthly series on the pleasures and pitfalls of becoming a first-time father. Prayaag Akbar is the author of the novel Leila.