Last week I met an American nephew of mine for the first time since he was born four years ago. He’s a delightful little chap—shiny of eye, pink of lip, round of tummy, juicy of bottom, and bright as a button to boot. He’s given to saying things like, “I much prefer to eat it off a plate, thank you”, or “I’m frustrated!” and using words like “mayhem” and “fragile”. He’s obsessed with trains, which he can play with all day and night, and with cars, which he can identify by make, model and year. He gives you dutiful but unflinching hugs. He’s very, very sweet.
When he and his parents landed in Delhi late at night, we stopped by to eat dinner with them. Little Sumer was deceptively easy to deal with at first, requiring one only to hold a cushion in front of one’s chest while he ran at it and head-butted it with all his might. When we crawled, exhausted, to the table, we were looking forward to a nice calm meal. But there is no such thing when there’s a four-year-old in the vicinity.
First he knocked over a glass of water, which anyone might have done, and it occasioned nothing more than a mild ‘Oops’ from the gathering. A few minutes later, he experimentally popped a whole teaspoonful of salt into his mouth as people lunged wildly across the table to try to stop him. He looked a little green around the gills and became unusually quiet; then he turned his head at a tragic angle, opened his mouth, and let loose the sort of bright yellow projectile vomit that the demon in The Exorcist could only dream about. The angle was such that it hit a maximum number of surfaces—the plate, the table, the chair he was sitting on, his clothes, and the floor.
His parents barely batted an eyelid, managing to clean up the mess, strip and bathe the child and coo at him while barely breaking their conversational stride. Changed, powdered, and seated at table once more, he announced, “I threw up!” in case anyone had missed it, and then politely demanded a Coke. He picked at the rice, fingered the rajma, and fretted until Coke was poured into a small glass for him in the hope that it would settle his stomach.
Satisfied, he began to sip at his Coke while we gazed tenderly at his little face rising like the moon above the horizon of the table. The next thing we knew, there was a hideous cracking sound. He had, against most odds that I can think of, bitten off a chunk of the glass, and was frozen in an aspect of prayer—head deeply bowed, mouth tightly closed, eyes glazed with concentration, the rest of the shattered glass in his hand. I could only gape at him in slack-jawed admiration, thinking, I want to learn how to do that, but his parents were considerably more agitated, trying to get him to open his mouth, and yelling at him not to swallow, and shaking him by the shoulders so much that the glass dropped from his hand.
This last finally triggered his self-preservation instinct: he opened his mouth, releasing a mouthful of glass and cola to bawl, out of a face screwed up and red with grief and loss, “My Coke! I want my Coke! My Coke has fallen all over the floor!”
I was able to leave for my very quiet, peaceful home about three minutes after this, with a long-standing hunch confirmed: if you want to make a lifetime commitment, buy a house; if you want to experience parenthood, visit someone else’s kid.