This one is for Cheeni and Rooney and all the new puppies who elevate our lives
Be your own person – as long as you do what I tell you
Aha, I thought, a teachable moment. My mind raced as I thought of the many things that I wanted to teach my child. Like a politician who gives the same sound bite no matter what question is asked, I decided to twist my child’s question to suit the answer I wanted to give.
“Life is hard,” I began, my hoarse, sore-throat voice adding gravitas to my pronouncement. “The hardest thing for me is to balance the multiple and often conflicting opinions that come from people I care about and eventually do what I really want to do. Does that make sense?”
My daughter shook her head.
“It’s like when you are a boss in an office,” I continued. “Everyone gives you ideas and suggestions. Often they are the opposite of each other. You have to choose one idea and that’s very hard.”
“Why?” she asked.
“Because the people whose ideas weren’t chosen will feel bad. So you have to choose one idea, but not make the other people feel bad.”
My daughter turned away to observe a hovering butterfly.
Sensing the competition, I pushed on, going into a long and elaborate diatribe about weighing choices, working in a team and being decisive. When I finished, I asked her the same question back, more as a courtesy than any real interest in her answer. What, after all, could be the hardest thing for a fairly privileged 10-year-old?
“And what is the hardest thing you’ve experienced, dear?” I asked, filing my nails.
“Oh, when Inji [our dog] died,” she replied with devastating succinctness.
I felt like an idiot – for dismissing her question, for ranting on about decisions and for forcibly insisting on that teachable moment. No wonder she had looked at me strangely. She probably hadn’t understood a word I said. What was I thinking, talking about being decisive to a 10-year-old, who still has to ask her mother if she can buy a new toothbrush?
But while my methods may have been devious, my message was important. If there is one thing I hope my daughters will learn, it is to be their own people – with one very eastern caveat: be yourself, I say, but do it with grace. Choose your path, but do it without hurting the people who care about you. Yes, it is a paradox; and yes, I find it incredibly difficult.
It is, I find, a peculiarly eastern idea. Let me explain.
For close to 20 years, I lived in and around New York. I have now returned to India and have lived here for six years. To say that there are many differences between the two places would be stating the obvious.
But for a child, there is one key difference between life in India and life in America. In India, people are not reticent with their opinions, particularly on matters that have nothing to do with their own lives. It percolates down from the Indian joint family. Many times it comes from real affection, although it can also be irritating.
My daughters are besieged with opinions about what they should eat, how they should dress, where they should go, when they should return and who they should become. Some of these opinions are easy to dismiss because they come from distant relatives we only see at weddings. But many come from close family and friends: grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins and family friends.
These are well-wishers who have the child’s best interests at heart. But often, their ideas are contradictory.
An uncle, for example, may want to teach my daughter to ride a horse. “No, no,” a grandmother will say. “Why teach such dangerous sports to a girl?”
Who should you listen to? And which path do you choose?
In every country, family members will offer contradictory advice. But here in India, the breadth of what is considered family is so much wider.
Shoba Narayan is the author of Return to India: a memoir