Sunday, November 13, 2005

Conversations with Children

Kids have such incredible shock value. At any moment, anything can come out of their mouths, absolutely unexpectedly. It makes me wonder – at what age do we stop saying what we mean, and start candy-coating our thoughts for public consumption? Recently, I met for the first time three nieces of mine – two are twins, the third their cousin sister, all about 7 to 8 years old. One of the twins seemed very shy; every time I looked at her, she would freeze and cover her face, turn her back to me and steal anxious glances to ensure I had put my attention elsewhere before she moved on. This continued for most of the evening, until I finally asked her, “why are you hiding from me?”
“Really, are you that shy?” I asked, trying to sound harmless.
Then her answer came, and, I must admit, took me aback.
“Because you look funny.”
“Your hair. It is like a joke.”
“My hair?”
More giggles.
I looked to the others for some explanation. The eldest of the three diplomatically took center stage and offered to translate for her younger cousin.
“What she means is, you are like a joker. Your look is very funny, no? (She asked this as if the answer were undisputable.) So she does not want to look at you.”
No giggles at this point. They weren’t teasing me, but earnestly trying to inform me of the oddity of my appearance. Three heads nodded dutifully.
When I finally looked in a mirror to try to see myself through a child’s eyes, I saw that I had forgotten to comb my hair after my afternoon nap. Of course, it wasn’t all that different from my usual look, so not much comfort was to be found in that, but I had to laugh. I had never been put so soundly in my place, and that at the hands of people whose combined ages did not add up to mine! I wondered – would any adult have been able to put it to me so easily?

Another little girl surprised me a couple of weeks ago. Once in a while I go to the Darpana Academy of Performing Arts to catch a dance performance or play. Usually I’m by myself, since my grandparents don’t like the uncomfortable concrete Greek-style seating, but I don’t mind – in med school, I had to learn to be okay with going to movies and plays by myself, as it’s sometimes hard to get people to go out on your schedule. So there I was, sitting in the third row alone, when a young girl came and sat next to me. She didn’t hesitate with an air of Requesting Permission, as an adult would when sitting next to someone in an almost empty theater. I looked around for her parents, but didn’t see anyone who seemed concerned about losing a child. She was looking curiously at me, so I struck up conversation. I learned that she was 11 years old, and a bharatnatyam student. Finally, I had to ask –
“Did you come here by yourself?”
She didn’t respond, but busied herself with putting chapstick on her lips. I let it go.
“So are you going to be a dancer when you grow up?”
“No, I want to be an all-rounder when I grow up.”
“An all-rounder? What’s that?” I asked, clueless, like most adults.
“Someone who can do everything. I want to be able to mountain bike, and dance, and paint, and play music. Then, once I can do all that, I will become a scientist for NASA.”
And just like that, she broke down traditional tunnel-visioned ambition, and gave me what had to be the wisest answer I’ve ever heard to that common question. Of course – why should we only be one thing when we grow up? Is that what being an adult means? Narrowing ourselves?
The show started, so we watched in silence, and when it ended she took off running without saying bye, leaving the chapstick in lieu of a glass slipper. The mystery broke down outside the theater, where her parents waited for her, and told her to “thank the nice man” when I returned her lip balm.

Finally, I know what I want to be when I grow up: an all-rounded joker (with funny hair). I don’t think you need a degree for that – I think you just need to have children.


Anonymous heena said...

dear "all-rounded joker",

What you have written is so true. Children are so honest and blunt, saying things that may seem so blatantly rude coming from an adult, but coming from a child its so pure and true. I think it gives one more insight into oneself as the children have no other ulterior motives in giving their
opinion, but to express plainly how they feel.

But then we grow up and learn to "sugar-coat" as you put it. We put up a "facade" as we are too afraid or insecure about how we are viewed by the society.. kids can run around "naked".. but we cant!!!

1:42 AM  
Anonymous Mansi said...

When I grow up I am going to be an "all rounder" too. I am with your lip balm wearing friend from the theater. :-)

8:20 PM  
Blogger Raj Kanani said...

All-rounder... count me in for that as well!

2:14 PM  

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