There is a child in me.
Yes, this is true… even literally, because after all it is the sperm and an ova that finally come together to create a new life. This is what I told Specky when I asked her what she thought she would want to gift a child. ‘A child?’ she asked, ‘any child?’ And then after a pause she went on, ‘Actually every child is just as lovable as your own. Let’s just try and remember the sort of gifts we gave Pushkin when he was small.’
‘That’s a fair idea,’ I agreed, ‘I remember we bought a lot of books for him. And games. And even clothes.’
‘Every sane parent does that,’ said Specky, ‘let’s go back in time and see if there is something we gave that isn’t something that everyone gives. This post then just might give new parents some more ideas to adopt.’
We went into a huddle and even took out old photographs to see if they would put back the clock to make us see what we did for Pushkin. And sure enough we soon came across one picture that had me wearing a Tee-shirt with ‘There is a child in me’ written in a child’s handwriting. No, this wasn’t done by Pushkin when he was small, though there are innumerable scraps of paper and note-books and drawing books that we still have in our family treasure chest that have a range of interesting creations done by him. But this sentence was written by me with my left hand to simulate a child’s handwriting. I remember I often signed his name with my left hand on every gift tag that we made… until he was big enough to sign his own name himself. We always wanted him to have an identity of his own. So even gifts were signed by the three of us… and never did they have an impersonal ‘The Passeys’ or ‘Passey’ written on them. No, not even names in a single hand. It was always our signatures that went with gifts. Always.
I told Specky that one gift that we had insisted on giving Pushkin was that he mattered… and that he wasn’t just a mere three year old accompanying his parents anywhere. This was what we taught Pushkin through actions… we explained to him what the gift was, for whom, and then he was only too eager to put his signature on the gift tag.
By the way, Pushkin has got married on the 14th of December 2013, and a few minutes back I told his wife Monika about what I was writing and she said, ‘He follows the signature routine with discipline… even in London. He has taught me too that a gift must show involvement…’
Specky was pleased when heard her say this. And we retreated back into the Study to deliberate on the next point. So the first gift that we know we have successfully gifted our child is the ability to create an identity for oneself through an involved approach.
As we shuffled slowly through disciplined files of photographs, Specky noticed one where she was in bed with Pushkin, reading a book. Pushkin wasn’t more than an year old then and was surely still far from being a reader of books.
‘This was his all-time favourite story,’ laughed Specky as she recollected how Pushkin wanted her to read this one every night. A time came when he was able to tell the complete story with all dialogues without a prompt… and with all squeaks, squeals, and squishes as the sound props! It was our routine to pick up books with pictures and ‘read’ them out. Pushkin paid attention to our voice and also kept looking at the finger moving over the words in the story.
‘I think this story reading helped him be comfortable with the language earlier than we expected,’ I said. Specky agreed and added, ‘And he read more fiction than most children of his age care to read.’ This was true because he wasn’t even ten when he accompanied his mother to York where she went as a Commonwealth scholar for her DPhil and won for himself a position as a judge for the W H Smith Children’s books awards there. Yes, Pushkin wrote a book review and was short-listed for the panel of child judges and was sent that year’s short-list to read and decide which book is awarded!
‘We were so pleased that year,’ said Specky, ‘and I realised then that we had actually made him fall in love with reading.’
It isn’t buying books that makes a child fall in love with books… it happens when the child has been gifted a love for the written word. This can happen only if parents spend time with a child, reading stories and not just the names of rivers and mountains. This can happen when parents read out fiction with involvement. This can happen when parents read out stories even to children who cannot understand the alphabet. So our second gift to our son was a love for stories that allow the mind to fly around in imaginary worlds and be comfortable there.
‘No wonder he decided to take up architecture,’ mused my wife, ‘designing buildings is also like loving wonderful stories, right?’
‘Yes,’ I said softly, and we continued with our search for more pictures and more stories. At this point I remembered the time when the three of us went from Delhi to Dehradun and back on my motorcycle. That was one terrific ride that had its share of sunburnt skin. When I reminded Specky of that ride she said, ‘Yes, we unfortunately don’t have any pictures of the ride.’
I nodded. This was because I had a Yashica FX-7 then, an analogue SLR camera that could click only the number of pictures in one roll. We did not go click-click-click then as we do now with our Digital SLRs at home. Photography was expensive and so every picture had to matter. ‘Why didn’t we click pictures during that ride,’ I thought aloud. Then it clicked to me that we were actually busy answering the innumerable questions that Pushkin was asking us that we forgot all about clicking pictures.
‘He was too small to have endured that long bike trip sitting on the petrol tank,’ I said, ‘and yet he did it and enjoyed it.’
Specky added, ‘And asked us all those questions about tube-wells, turbaned folk, tractors, fruits, vegetables, trees, mustard fields, mountains, animals, fear, wind, and…’ her voice trailed off into a whisper and as she went deep into the past to savour the excitement of a mother patiently answering questions.
‘Yes,’ I said, ‘and this was the way we interacted with him… always. Never refusing to answer any question. And always encouraging him to ask more.’
I am sure this qualifies as our third gift to Pushkin… the courage to ask questions even if they sounded silly. A questioning attitude is what later transformed him later into an adult who analyses every little aspect and produces results that are fast and accurate and appropriate… even today as we are struggling with a huge range of options for laptops, it is Pushkin who assessed our payment capability, tabulated our skills and our digital needs, browsed through the options and finally gave us the choice that most suited our needs in a matter of seconds. It would have taken us days to zero-in on that option if we had to do this task ourselves. I noticed that as he was reaching his conclusions he was asking questions… tens of them and we were busy answering them all. Some sounded silly to us but… I know they were all linked somewhere in in some ways helped him reach his decision.
Specky agreed with what I called the third gift to our son. She, in fact, added that the fourth gift was also obvious during that motorbike ride. I was surprised and asked what she was hinting at. ‘Toughness,’ she said, ‘the ability to bear long hours of duress and resilience when faced with moments that overwhelm you.’ She then went on to remind me of our trip to Panchmarhi and Jabalpur that year. There was a temple near the marble rocks in Jabalpur that had 500 steps and Pushkin climbed the entire distance. His muscles ached in the night and he cried without knowing what it was that made him cry. But when we massaged his calves he was happy and slept… and was ready for more the next morning.
‘We really must have seemed like we are torturing a small child,’ I said, ‘making him climb 500 steps, sit on a petrol tank for 400 kilometers, go up and down rough terrain, and do things that even teenagers would hesitate doing.’
Specky protested, ‘It wasn’t like that at all. We weren’t behaving irresponsibly. We simply wanted him to be tough when he grew up. And look at him now. He is in the rowing team in London and he does that every weekend.’
I smiled and said, ‘Our fourth gift for our child then is undoubtedly a robust body and a robust mind.’
We thought for a long time on what could be the fifth gift that we may have given him as he was growing. And we recounted every little act that could qualify as a really valuable gift. Yes, they were all important in their own way but one that went way beyond this massive list of gifts that every parent must surely be gifting his child, we saw one that we knew we had loved even then… so many years back. ‘You remember how we played board games with Pushkin?’ I asked.
Specky looked at him and with a twinkle in her eyes, said, ‘And our favourite games were Memory, Life, and Battleship.’
Board games aren’t unique and a lot of parents buy them for their children but I have seen them all being handed over and then parents expect that their kids will somehow keep themselves busy with them. Every time the child comes with his demand of playing Ludo or any other game, the standard reply is, ‘Not now, baby. I‘m busy.’ Yes, we’re all busy but we were lucky to always have enough time to play games. And I must admit here that we actually enjoyed every moment. In fact, I was the one who created the biggest noise while playing these games… all the hurrahs and wows and yeahs and aahs and ouches came from me. And Pushkin loved all of them… he was always excited and went into the heart of every game we played.
Yes, we played games together and we played them all with complete involvement. I’m sure this habit of playing games with the heart and the mind converging has helped him in his later life. Every time he has to complete an assignment he simply lifts the veils of inscrutability around it and crawls in to be one with it… and not just this, he told me that he also effectively involves other members of the team too and manages to infect them all with that fervour and excitement that is so important for the success of any venture. So yes, our fifth gift for our son was learning the importance of absolute and unconditional surrender to the task at hand and the necessity of forming a team of equally involved players. We managed to gift him this ability through playing board games. Learning by doing, as the management pundits might have said.
Games are vital. And playing games with a child are so full of learning… both for the parents and the young ones. ‘Playing games isn’t being frivolous,’ said Specky, ‘and certainly not a waste of time. There is a child in me and I must never lose sight of it.’
I whispered, ‘Even playing games and loving it can become such a charming gift to give.’ Yes, gifts can come in any shape and form… we really need to learn to recognise them.
27 December 2013