Fatherhood is an alien, hostile world, fraught with unnamed and primal dangers. That little bunde of joy in the distance is up to something icky, sticky, or something that goes crinkle, crumble, Crash (with a capital C, yes).
Every day is a relentless struggle, a battle of wits that saps energy with parasitic intensity. Your senses are heightened and on high alert, constantly. They have to be, if you want that LCD to stay on that wall, if you want the glass-topped table to remain in one piece, if you want your phone to not speed-dial your boss all by itself. You’ve got to be sharp, or he’ll catch you flatfooted and turn you into a blubbering mass (more than the usual blubbering mass, at any rate). The negotiations are tough, because the subject upgrades his repertoire and skill with every iteration. And you must at all times resist manipulation.
This alien, hostile world, fraught with unnamed and primal dangers, is called fatherhood.
I know what they say. “It’s all worth it,” “fatherhood is bliss” or that devious gambit, “You know, you should have a kid, best thing in the world.” I’m telling you, don’t fall for it. First, have you noticed that every person who says these things has a slightly manic smile? Or an especially calm temperament? Classic signs of sleep-deprivation. They say these things because misery loves company. Trust me on this one.
You see that little bundle of joy off in the distance? It is most certainly up to something. Something icky, sticky, or something that goes crinkle, crumble, Crash (with a capital C, yes).
Saying no politely but firmly, doesn’t work. It only pisses him off further.
That’s the thing with toddlers. They want to do everything they aren’t supposed to. I mean, what kind of a creature is scared of swings in the park, but will try to stand on the ledge of a balcony? On the fourth floor? Don’t roll on the floor. “I will.” Don’t play with that. Crash. Don’t touch that it’s too hot. “Aaaaaaaah.” Don’t put that in your mouth. “Muffle slurp.” Drink your milk, that’s a good boy. “No.” Eat your food. “Don’t want to.”
The mothers bear the brunt of a toddler’s tyranny. They are subjected to all sorts of emotional atyachaar (Pleeees amma. Just a little bit more) and get the full force of puppy eyes and bear hugs. These are forces stronger than planetary gravity. Something else they have to contend with is the toddler’s discovery of the human body. He thinks the tummy is a percussion instrument. Everyone’s tummy. He’s fascinated with exposed skin. No midriff is left unexplored for smoothness. What stretches the mother’s patience is when he begins to test certain parts of his anatomy for elasticity. Especially so when he does this with a sense of triumphant discovery. Just like Archimedes, the bathtub and “Eureka!”
For a predetermined percentage of the day, toddlers will throw tantrums. There are all the regular triggers of course – wont brush teeth, eat, sleep, come away from the television, etc – but there need be no reason.
One evening, I arrived home to find him peacefully sipping milk, with his mother looking at him incredulously and slowly shaking her head. An hour ago: Mother got dressed to go out, in a grand orange saree with a striking pallu embroidered in green. Tyke was fine until then, excited about the outing. When mother presents herself in the colourful saree, he sees red. He insists that the pallu be the same colour as the rest of the saree. “Don’t be silly,” she says with an indulgent laugh, slightly tinged with foreboding. Pandemonium. He wails, pleads with her to go monochrome, pulls open the cupboard and begins rummaging around for a fully orange saree. After an hour of drama, he relents and picks up his beverage. Poor mothers. And he gets away with most things. After all, he’s divine, isn’t he?
Any male toddler is automatically an avatar in a south-Indian household and enjoys a scary level of diplomatic immunity. This is usually enforced by the grandparents, whose sole objective is to spare the rod and spoil the child rotten. That they skinned their own children alive for the mildest of transgressions is no longer part of their active memory. And quite naturally, when one ideology dubs you a god for upending and pouring a basinful of rice on yourself, and the other prescribes a sound spanking on the buttocks, you know whose side you’re on. This open defection, especially during conflict, raises cross-border tensions to nuclear levels. And all the stresses of the day on all parties involved, threaten to snap with one misplaced word, one stray jab, one little straw. It all builds up to a crescendo of frustration, a bubble of boiling rage.
Then he goes and pricks it. Like a little biological lightning rod, he crawls into the room and absorbs all the tension. He looks at each of them, smiles that premonitory smile and speeds off on all fours (he can run, but he knows crawling looks better) towards the water can. In a trice, differences are forgotten and they run after him before he starts a flood in the living room.
Minutes later, he runs to his drooping mother, raises his arms and smiles, with a look of utter adoration, as if rewarding her for surviving boot camp.
Now at his most cheerful, embarks on a whirlwind tour of charm. He plays catch with the beam of his great-grandma’s torch; wrestles his grandfather, sits down by his grandmother and prays for world peace and cuddles the socks off his mother. He hitches a ride on my shoulders and somehow makes me three feet taller. He asks me a million questions and awards me a doctorate. And at night, as I lie down beside him and he snores like a middle-aged, over-fed banker, a bad dream inevitably rattles him. My palm soothes his chest and my lungs make me say “shshsh, it’s alright.” He turns around, searches for something with his tiny, still vaguely sticky fingers. His palm finds traction on my three-day stubble, and stays there. I sleep like a baby.
It’s all worth it, really. Fatherhood is bliss. You know, you should have a kid, it’s best thing in the world.
(Anand Venkateswaran writes about people. Even when he's writing about food, film or formaldehyde. You can write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also tweet him @viananda)