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The definition of a parent

LiveMint logoLiveMint 23-05-2014 Natasha Badhwar

“But Mamma, what I don’t understand is this. How can a mother leave her own child?”

The room was dark. The mother had just settled into bed with her daughters. This was their 15 minutes together before they all went to sleep. Fearing that her voice might break, she didn’t say anything.

“Somewhere in this world, there must be a woman who is my real mother,” continued the child. “I mean, you are there, but there must be another family, right?”

When this nine-year-old child’s mother was recounting this conversation to me, she said she couldn’t remember what she babbled to her daughter in response. She is a counsellor herself and has a remarkable way of taking things in her stride, but for once her words abandoned her. She is a single woman who has adopted two daughters. The younger child was also in bed with them but she seemed to be paying no attention to the investigation her elder sister was engaged in.

“You know, sometimes a mother is not able to take care of her babies. She may be too poor, or very ill…”

“I understand that, Mamma,” interrupted the child, “but there must be a father too. How could he give me away?”

“A parent is the one who raises a child,” the mother began to explain. “It doesn’t matter so much that I didn’t give birth to you. I wanted you.”

“Yes, yes, Mamma, I know that,” said the child, patting her mother. She caressed her mother’s stomach for a while.

“It was as if she was consoling me,” the mother said to me. “I know she needs to articulate these thoughts and I am glad she did. I’m also glad the lights were off in the room.”

I am just sitting there letting my tears flow, because that’s one thing I am very good at. These are tears of jubilation. I was there when this child first came home from an orphanage. She had burn scars on her stomach. Apparently she had been found lying face down on a road, on a hot summer day. She has some questions for her birth-parents now.

My parents-in-law’s haveli in a village in east Uttar Pradesh is a sprawling complex of homes and units where many families live, all somehow related to each other. There are social hierarchies and class divisions and distinct codes of behaviour for different people, most of which I pretend to be ignorant about from my privileged position of the daughter-in-law from Delhi. This makes it easy for me to not actively participate in or perpetuate inequalities, without having to be too overtly rebellious.

Sania is the granddaughter of Maqsoodan phupu, the woman who cooks in Ammi’s kitchen. She was born in the year Sania Mirza’s tennis career was at its peak. Her parents live in different cities, working at odd jobs to earn their living.

“Good morning,” Sania greets Ammi, my mother-in-law, every morning after she has dressed for school and is ready to leave along with her cousins, Gufran and Firdaus. Their teachers have taught them to replace “As salaam alaikum” with the posh “Good morning”. In the evening, Sania sits near Ammi, finishing her homework. Sometimes she gets some help from Sabina, who is a schoolteacher in a village nearby. Sania is a star pupil, good at her studies and always leading in the folk dance and music events organized by her school. Our youngest child is a Sania fan, following her to her quiet corner behind the kitchen, making her read and tell stories in the long afternoons in the village.

I carried a bag full of extra storybooks and stationery for these children the last time we visited the village. Gufran and Firdaus made their choices eagerly. Sania stood next to a pillar in the background. I wanted her to get the best things. She said she didn’t need anything.

“Take these, Sania,” I said, “make the most wonderful drawings with these.”

I insisted she take sketch pens, crayons, paints and a pencil box. A few hours later, Sania came back to me when I was sitting alone. She returned most things.

“Gufran will snatch the sketch pens from me,” she said. “The boys in my class will take away the sharpener. You keep it.”

“No, no, Sania, don’t let anyone bully you,” I said to her. “Why will anyone take anything from you? You hide it.”

Sania knows her world. She patiently explained to me that she had kept what she wanted. She does not want things that will create trouble for her. I tried to inspire her and counsel her but she really knew her mind. Things that I thought would light up her life were of no use to her. They threatened her peace and equilibrium. She didn’t need them.

I looked at the poise and quiet dignity of the child. Sania is her own parent. She not only knows what she needs, she is assertive about what she doesn’t want. She protects her boundaries. She is eight years old.

Natasha Badhwar writes a fortnightly column on family and relationships.

Also Read | Natasha’s previous Lounge columns

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