SUNDAY MAGAZINE

Baby in Beijing

PALLAVI AIYAR

Life changes when the long-awaited baby makes its appearance.

It had taken 14 hours of labour, a late-night, rain-lashed car ride to the hospital and a room-full of people — husband, mother, obstetrician, mid-wife, anaesthesiologist, paediatrician —variously wielding needles, tubes, scalpels, a heavily perspiring brow (my husband) and what looked suspiciously like a bathroom plunger (the obstetrician) — to vacuum out all three kilos of my bonny Beijing-born boy — Ishaan Raphael.

No more privacy

Suddenly my universe was transformed from one that had been filled with “Ps” — pregnancy, pain, pelvis — into one stuffed with “Bs” — baby, bottle, burp and breast. The most sweeping change had to do with this last category. Gone were the days when my breasts were my private business.

This fact was most forcefully driven home when three days post-partum, my gynaecologist, an ageing Australian with a folksy turn of phrase — (while pushing the baby out during labour he had kept urging me to assume an “Indian bum” position, which I realised referred to our propensity to squat on toilets, but am not sure he realised was a somewhat inappropriate instruction given whom he was talking to) — strode into my hospital room and, without so much as an if-you-please, reached into my loosely tied gown, grabbed a breast and gently squeezed.

“Oh! Nice and firm,” he said approvingly. “Milk coming along well.” A final squeeze and he was gone. Life had changed indeed. Just how much was something none of the baby books I had dutifully read or childbirth preparation classes I had taken quite prepared me for. From being a foreign correspondent and author I had morphed into a round-the-clock supplier of diapers and milk. Space ships were taking off, banks were collapsing and Sarah Palin was parading around in $150,000 worth of designer clothes but I remained at best peripherally aware of these momentous goings on.

The first two weeks were overwhelming. It was only in week three, however, the adventure began in earnest when Ishaan Raphael developed colic, leading to long bouts of inconsolable crying through what seemed like interminable nights. Helping us out during this challenging time was Auntie Mei, a Chinese nanny with attitude. Within days she was in complete charge, with my husband and I bowing to her imperious commands in terrified obedience.

The Chinese way

I was put on a diet of small black chicken soup — a perennial Chinese remedy for just about everything — to boost my milk supply. My husband was sternly stopped from swaddling the baby too tightly. We were roundly admonished if we even suggested taking the tot out for a stroll — in China there is a 100-day taboo on taking infants outdoors. And Ishaan himself spent large portions of the day sheltering in her ample bosom.

Auntie Mei displayed the kind of brutal honesty that I had often observed in China over the years. On my very first day in the country I remember having faced a classroom of students at the Beijing Broadcasting Institute where I had been hired to teach English. When I had asked the students to introduce themselves, a rather portly youth had stood up and announced, “My name is Fat, because I am fat.” I’d been rather bemused when his classmates merely nodded slowly in agreement at what they obviously considered to be no more that a straightforward statement of fact.

Six years on and we found ourselves at the receiving end of several similar truthful punches whenever in the company of Auntie Mei. My spouse once asked her to watch a video that taught frazzled parents how to calm colicky children, along with him.

Mei, who tended to treat any advice of non-Chinese origin with much scepticism, sniffed suspiciously when told the video featured a renowned child specialist from the United States but nonetheless sat down to watch. My spouse found that after a few minutes she moved away from her seat next to him to the far end of the room. Assuming she had made the move out of deference to their difference in status, he hastened to assure her. “Please don’t feel awkward,” he said. “You are very welcome to sit next to me.

“Oh, I know,” came the reply. “It’s just that your feet smell.”

Dealing with colic

The term “colic” we discovered is really a description of a certain kind of behaviour — more than three hours of crying for more than three days a week for more than three weeks in a row in an otherwise healthy baby — rather than a physical ailment. Doctors variously advised us to burp the baby regularly, swaddle him tightly and massage his tummy but invariably ended with the sobering conclusion that it was most likely we would just have to wait it out- most children mysteriously stopped crying by the end of three months.

Auntie Mei was totally baffled when we tried explaining “colic” to her as it had been explained to us. “In China there is no such thing,” was her response. In China, we were to discover, much was different. For example there was no difference between the word for “burp” and “hiccup”. Both were simply called “da ge.” We tried asking Auntie Mei how the Chinese could tell the two apart in the absence of different words to describe them. “But they’re the same thing,” she replied firmly. “Hiccups are just more intense than a burp.” It was all a bit confusing since this statement went something like “Da ge are just more intense than da ge.”

The dark tunnel of colic was lit with many moments of humour. At one point my husband and I found ourselves at three in the morning, he jiggling the baby like a jelly fish in a baby carrier while I followed him manically waving a rattle.

But the funny side was often difficult to see. For weeks nothing seemed to help soothe Ishaan during a colic-episode. Then one day, frustrated with all my attempts to calm the baby having come to naught I decided to blast some music over his screams to drown out his crying and lift my mood. I happened to play an old Bob Marley CD.

“Wai yai yai; wai yai yai yai,” the refrain for “Buffalo Soldier” sounded too much like a baby crying for comfort, when suddenly I noticed something. The baby was not crying. He was smiling. In that minute I wept. My baby was finally happy thanks to Bob Marley. He might be colicky but at least he had great taste in music.

Musical solution

I filled the house with music. We danced to dire straits, swayed to Bach and stamped through flamenco. Even Auntie Mei, at first sceptical at this thoroughly non-Chinese solution to the problem, came around and one day I caught her doing the twist, baby clasped to the hip, Chubby Checker belting out a number in the background.

And so here I am — falling in love with my baby a little more every day as we dance our way through colic. He is my wonderful audience of one. I sing to him while we pirouette and all my bathroom singer fantasies are realised. He would take my voice over Pavarotti’s. It’s a giddy complement.

It’s still a bit of a shock to have so completely lost my former life, but then I remind myself that my writings may have a far larger audience but none so devoted as my little one. Gradually I find myself in a place of stillness and peace of mind. That is of course until the next time baby goes “Waaaaah.” But even for a fleeting while, its good place to be.