It is late at night and the family has gone to sleep around me. I settle on the cool floor with my laptop. Our youngest child, Naseem, climbs out of her bed and comes to me. She is 3 years old.
“My brain is saying go to sleep,” she says, “but my heart wants to do colouring.”
“Whaaaa,” I say. “Can you say that again?”
“My heart is not listening to my brain. It wants to do colouring.”
We get a box of crayons and a white sheet of paper. We settle down again. Naseem draws circles and lines. She chooses her colours. Artists must listen to their heart. Particularly when they are in the middle of summer vacation.
I feel tired. My feet hurt. I fall off to sleep at unlikely hours, in unexpected places. Holding my bag like a pillow in my lap, snug in the women’s compartment of the Delhi Metro. Sitting with my eyes shut, in the Dentist’s waiting room, to avoid watching the evening news on the wall mounted TV. Someone nudges me awake. I think it’s your turn.
“You do too much,” my mother will say. “Get some rest. Learn to say no to some things. Send the children to me for a couple of days.”
“You do too little,” says the voice in my head. “You are lazy and inefficient.” This voice also sounds uncannily like that of my parents. Now playing in a loop inside me.
Growing up means listening to everyone. Growing up means listening to everyone and then not listening to anyone. Let your sleep catch up with you wherever it finds you. Sometimes I wake up with my jaw drooping. Fix the jaw, laugh at yourself and gather your wits again. Smile at strangers. You’re a grown-up. It’s safe.
My husband leans over my shoulder to read as I type.
“Go away,” I say, putting the screen down.
“Why, why, why?” he says.
“Please, I just started,” I say. “It’s terrible right now, like vomit.”
“So,” he says, smiling. “You’re talking as if I haven’t seen your vomit before.”
Oh well. A rush of memories distracts me. Love is remembering the times you threw up on your lover. Love is letting him read your first draft. Hoping his phone will ring and take him away.
Naseem and I are sitting at the dining table. It is past 3 in the afternoon. The older children have settled with their books in their cool corners of the home. Naseem didn’t eat lunch with the rest of us. She demands her own rhythm and it is too much work to resist her. It’s the youngest child syndrome. By now I feel that all the hard work gone into the fixing, moulding and re-shaping of the older children was no particular favour to them.
“Mama, why do you scold me?” Naseem says. Her mouth shaped like a baby bird.
“I scold you?” I say.
“Oho, don’t you scold me sometimes?” she says.
“When I do bad things.”
“You do bad things?” I say, my eyes doing most of the talking.
“Yes. When I beat my sisters, remember?”
“You beat your sisters?” I say, looking mildly horrified.
“Yes, don’t you know, I wear my chappals in my hands and run after them.”
“Really?” I say.
“Yes.” She laughs. She is looking embarrassed now. “Then you scold me.”
“Should I not scold you then?” I say.
“You should,” she says. She goes back to finishing her lunch.
Sometimes it startles me, how each child has brought out a completely different parent in us. This summer vacation, our children have grown up. They don’t depend on me so much. I can depend of them. I’m sure they feel I have grown up too. When an afternoon lasts too long, I crawl into their circle and curl up into a nap.
I don’t call them power naps anymore. I power down.
Why was this time so difficult? Why did we grouse, moan, whine, whimper so much? When I look back later, I may not remember. Or maybe I will know better. Recovery is not a full stop. We are always recovering.
We are in the car, driving to my parents’ home. Old Hindi film songs surround us. Naseem is sitting in my lap.
“When I grow up, Mamma, I will read your articles,” she says, turning to look at me.
“Whaaaa,” I say. All over again.
On both sides of the road, summer trees, their branches flushed with flowers, rush past us.
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