“Children’s words, in some ways, are the escape route out of family dramas, taking us to their strangely luminous underworld, safe from our middle-class catastrophe,” writes US-based Mexican writer Valeria Luiselli in her intricately-wrought 2019 novel, Lost Children Archive, inspired, in parts, by America’s ruthless policy of separating children from their refugee parents at the Mexican-American border. “Conversations, in a family, become linguistic archaeology. They build the world we share, layer it in a palimpsest, give meaning to our present and future,” writes Luiselli in the novel that won the 2020 Rathbones Folio Prize.
My conversations with my son — filled with the wonders of innocence and the delights of discovery — have been my escape route out of the lockdown; they have helped me navigate the gloom that envelopes humanity after the pandemic, providing me moments of lightness at a time when the world around me walks the line of sadness, struggle, foreboding, disease and death. “It’s a bad time to be humans. They can get coronavirus. I want to be part-robot and part-dinosaur,” my son, who has the pandemic playing on his mind, declared the other day. “I can’t go out to eat pizzas or ice-creams or to play with my friends. I can’t go out for my tennis and swimming classes. Can it get any worse than this?” he asks me, exasperated. “I want to ask the whole world to wear a mask and keep washing their hands,” he tells me, adding, “I feel like someone has hijacked me in my own house. I really want my school to open.”
Staying at home, he has been reading, mostly, about nature and conservation, watching several educational videos on YouTube. “You’re so careless,” he admonished me recently. The reason: I had forgotten to switch off the fan while walking out of a room. “You have got to save energy,” he said. As the father of a seven-year-old, I am invariably made to realise it whenever I go wrong — by my own child. Sometimes, these realisations are driven home loud and clear, and in no uncertain terms. Like the one I just mentioned. Whenever I am made aware of my follies and foibles, I make amends. And move on. But, deep within, I know that I am being raised by my son.
My son helps me get a grip on what I already know and seems to urge me to strive to know what I don’t. He propels me to brush up on life lessons I learnt long ago, and, at times, even unlearn a few of them. I feel as if he’s helping me become a better human being. Not too long ago, after I was gruff with a vegetable vendor, he sermonised: “We should never be rude to poor people like these. Imagine if they were not around, how tough our life would be?”
He also keeps reminding me to save water, not use plastic or waste paper, and “always, always” remember to switch off the car’s engine at red lights. “Do you know that earth will perish one day because of pollution and global warming? We should all do our bit to save our planet,” he tells me, often.
Like many kids his age, he is inquisitive. His questions often baffle me, catch me unawares. His observations make me wonder about the depths of a child’s mind. Like many of us, the universe, to him, is one big mystery that needs to be solved, and an enterprise that keeps him often engaged: “What if the planet was a gas giant? Why is there half a moon today? Where do stars go on some nights? Does the sun not get tired of waking up every day so early? What will happen to the earth after 10 million years?”
At other times, there are other questions: “Do you know the mystery behind the Bermuda Triangle? Are angels better or human beings? Do stars have names? What happens when we die? Can gravitational force stop us from growing tall?” When I don’t have a ready answer, I google and provide him with a simplified one. It has been some time he realised that Google knows everything: “How can I be like Google?” he asks me.
These days, he also keeps discussing the stages of evolution with me. “Do you know what these stages are?” I asked once. “Yes, I do. Cavemen. Early men. Men with mail (pigeon). Men with computers. Men with mobile. And men with a virus,” he said, reminding me how all of us needed to build a stronger planet to live on. “If we destroy our mother nature, we destroy ourselves,” he told me.
During the lockdown, he has been going to bed late. When I tell him to sleep, he retorts: “It’ not the time to sleep yet. My body clock doesn’t match with the world’s clock”. One night, I asked him to sleep at once as it was too late. “Not before you tell me a story,” he said. “I tell you a story every time. How about you telling me a story tonight?” I said. He asked: “What kind of a story?” My response: “Umm, a story that makes me cry maybe?” And, then, he said: “I am no longer your son.” Taken aback, I asked: “Wait, what?” Smiling, he said: “It’s only fiction. Did it make you cry?”
Some times our conversations veer off to the divine and he tells me that God “must be like the wind” because “we can feel him, but can’t see him.” At times, he finds faults with Him. “It’s so boring to see all planets in the same shape. If I were God, I would make them in different shapes,” he says. Sometimes, we discuss our dreams — he takes several shapes and colours while mine are all monochromatic: he dreams about fairies and star wars and magical creatures while mine are mostly dreams-within-dreams — indistinct, incoherent. Sometimes, I find him trying to remember what he saw in his dreams, and turning to me for help: “Would you know what I dreamt last night? Could someone enter another person’s dreams.”
My son likes to see “the world in a spin” by rotating the globe on his study table faster and faster. He thinks that chock-a-block is, in fact, a block of chocolates. His ambitions come in varied forms, too. Sometimes, he tells me he wants to be a vet because “I love animals and want to save them from falling sick all my life.” At other times, he wants to be an astronaut, an inventor of games, a chef and, even, a hacker. When we — his mother and I — were house-hunting sometime back, we told him, “We are going to buy you a house with a pool.” He retorted: “No, I’d rather have a pool with a house.” Sometimes, I read out his favourite stories to him: Roald Dahl, Enid Blyton, Geronimo Stilton, and Gerald Durrell, whom he has just started reading. He wishes there was a real Willy Wonka and, of course, a chocolate factory. When he is not doing anything, he is busy imagining dragons, and his strategy to fight them. Like Sinbad, he also, at times, sees himself embarking on a seafaring adventure, exploring the seven seas and finding out what lies beneath. Mermaids, perhaps, he hopes. When he is not imagining dragons, he listens to Imagine Dragons, the American pop-rock band, particularly their track Believer, which he listens to on loop. Video games are a weakness: he spends whatever time he gets losing himself in Roblox and Minecraft. And, then, there is always a bit of Netflix and Amazon Prime.
My son and I often walk, play, read, watch films and listen to music together. Recently, having left me behind in learning how to play the keyboard, he mocked me: “You are a tiny beat and I’m a giant clef.” He knows my weaknesses and strengths. He is sure of himself, confident. When I ask him not to eat ice-cream at night lest he gets cold, he tells me: “You over-fear. I don’t over-fear. I’m confident.” He seems to have a mind of his own and an opinion on everything. He adores me, but he also admonishes me. He looks up to me but he also finds and objects to, flaws in me. He teaches me organisation, conservation, compassion and discipline. He unwittingly demonstrates that there are many ways of seeing. “What would happen if the world was upside down?” he asked me once after he came across a tilted building. “Then, you would perhaps be walking on your head,” I said, jokingly. “No, I would not be head-walking. I would still be walking on my feet, except that I would be walking in the sky,” he said. While rummaging through the pile of his stories books, he once asked me: “Can you imagine a world without books?” I said: “No, I can’t.” He said: “Neither can I. We must make a time machine to know what the world was like before the books? Aren’t you curious to know this?”
One of the fundamental things he has taught me is that a father can be, well, more than a father. The other day, he said, “You know, you’re my BFF.” “Are you sure?” I asked. “Yes, I have other friends, too but you are there with me all the time.” So, yes, a father can be a friend, too.
As a child, I imagined home to be a house in a city, a town or a street. My son thinks differently. The other day, I asked him if he wanted to live in the house we are living in forever. “I don’t want to live in the same house all my life. I would like to live in every city and country for some years and get to know how people live there,” he said. My son also teaches me how language could be inadequate. When he was three and I’d ask him how much he loved me, he’d promptly say, “More than chocolates.” These days, if I pose that question, he says: “I can’t put that in words, that much.”
While my son wishes Willy Wonka were real, he also knows that magic happens only in stories. Ditto, the kings and queens, he thinks. After he watched The Lion King (2019), he told me that he would be like Simba and destroy all my (imagined) enemies. “You are the king of the house, aren’t you?” Before I could answer, he said: “No, no, you are not a king. Kings and queens don’t exist in real life anymore. Only in stories!” “Huh! What is real life anyway,” I thoughtlessly said “Real life is all of us,” he said, matter-of-factly, pointing to the three of us, and making the shape of a triangle with his forefingers and thumbs? “You know, together, we make a triangle.
Even as I keep taking notes, and sometimes recording, while talking to my son in order to build a “linguistic archaeology” of the family conversations and also to layer it in a palimpsest, I often wonder, like Luiselli does: “When, in the future, we dig into our intimate archive, replay our family tape, will it amount to a story? A soundscape? Or will it all be sound rubble, noise, and debris?”
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