It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.
I am currently between jobs and by ‘between’ I mean praying fervently every time a mail van passes me, putting up evil eye trinkets all across the house to ward off possible jinxes and avoiding trimming my nails at night. (This IS how one applies for a job, right?) One of the unforeseen benefits that comes with being a graduate who is currently unemployed is that you’re suddenly gifted an excessive amount of time on your hands, one that your family has come to identify with meaning you are at their complete disposal, all day, erryday.
I had the pleasure of babysitting my five year old cousin a few weeks back. I have spent a lot of time with her in the past five years, but it only just occurred to me that they’ve never been more than a few hours at most and they’ve usually served as a temporary distraction- something to take my eyes off the screen; most often in the comforts of my room, meaning I set the rules. I dealt the cards and decided what we could or could not do, depending mostly on what her attire for the day was and the subsequent choice of what best medium to destroy it with- poster or watercolours.
This time around, I spent close to three half days with her. That is a total of 36 hours, in her house, at her complete mercy.
Now don’t get me wrong, I love kids. I love how electric their imagination is and how they manage to turn the most mundane household landscapes into a scene straight out of a Steven Spielberg movie. However, my fascination for toddler exuberance does not in any way imply that I am actually good with children. Yes I did do the required reading of ‘Babysitters Club’ during my formative years and I almost certainly inflated my thirteen year old ego with extravagant ideas of how I would keep kids entertained if the idea of leaving your child under the supervision of a stranger was ever adopted in India.
Years have passed by since then. My mind is now almost always filled with adult mumbojumbo, so much so, that every time I chance upon a kid, my brain has wired itself into believing that the only acceptable way to engage him/her is to scrunch my face into something that, almost definitely, is the visual definition of horrifying. This has happened to me on more than one occasion, and try as hard as I might, I simply cannot bring my brain to comply with the fact that a smile will suffice. So you can see why the prospect of entertaining my cousin without the assistance of technology had me scared senseless.
One of my favourite things about children is how they never cease to surprise. I am also now convinced that the word ‘boring’ was invented by teenagers in an act of rebellion against whichever authority they wanted to piss off for the day. The word ‘boring’ has no place in my cousin’s life. Her life is so full of colour at any given time of the day. She somehow manages to bring out the goofiest best in me, pushing me to do things I’d have otherwise staunchly believed I’d outgrown. One lazy Saturday afternoon, she had me, a grown 23 year old architecture graduate, play pretend-bike racing with two discarded stools in the corner of the house as a ploy to get her to study. Another entire afternoon was spent making cakes out of Play- Doh. The last time I’d set hands on, what I am now convinced is acid for children, was a good fifteen years ago and it took every ounce of my willpower to stop me from hogging it all for myself.
One afternoon, I had to help her out of her school uniform. I don’t know if this is the general rule of thumb, because I’ve seen both myself and her suffer at the hands of a pinafore, but I’m starting to see a pattern emerge whilst one undertakes the task of disrobing a uniform- one that involves sucking in your tummy as much you can while the remover of the uniform resorts to a rather vigorous game of tug of war. (Back in the day, I had the distinction of being branded as someone whose every second sentence was ‘I am hungry’ so my pinafore would catch somewhere around my generous belly, refusing to move either up or down and I’d be stuck resembling a human hot air balloon, with the realisation that if food had to taste so good, these were the kind of things one had to suffer in turn.) My cousin apparently has a technique to this game of tug of war, one which I was unaware of, resulting in the two of us being flung into opposite sides of the room, roaring with laughing. My grandmother looked on, now convinced that both granddaughters, were most certainly a lost cause.
We spent another afternoon attempting to memorise words for a dictation test and she did everything in her power to put it off for later. I chased her round the house, watched one too many episodes of Chota Bheem, gave a barbie a makeover before she finally agreed to study after eating lunch. Post lunch, she claimed to have said no such thing while I stared at her in complete disbelief. (In my defense, it’s not everyday that I get conned by a five year old.) Her flat-out refusal to study had me sweating buckets. Because, OBVIOUSLY, her life depended on if she could spell the word ‘elbow’ correctly. I met her again a few days later and she ran up to me and declared excitedly “I got 9/10 in Maths and 10/7 in dictation!” And to think I was worried.
One of the downsides of being an adult is the disturbing realisation that disaster is always around the corner- even in your neighbourhood park. A slide is no longer a fun play on the physics of gravity, but a possible disastrous 8ft fall. Swings somehow end up being even more horrifying when faced with the very real possibility of the occupant being blasted off into outer space. It’s embarrassing to live with this growing realisation that I evaluate everything in terms of its percentage for probable disaster, knowing fully well that I was that annoying kid who knew no limits. I was the kid who ran faster, jumped higher, swung further because I hated being told what I could or could not do. I was the kid who took it upon myself to put an end to the neighbourhood bully once and for all by racing him on my bicycle. This is reality so the underdog does not, unfortunately, reign supreme but ends up skidding on a turn due to her ignorance on the concept of centripetal forces– Or is it centrifugal? I am clearly, still ignorant- and consequently falls into a metre deep ditch. (A subsequent encounter with him ended with my friends and I being chased a good three times around the compound by his dog- my favourite childhood memory.)
I was the kid who set no limits because I did not believe in limits. And here I was, yelling at my cousin, in all my Indian-aunty glory (hands on hips, wagging my index finger in disapproval et all) being the very voice of reason I grew up despising so vehemently. However, one of the many pleasantries of being around children is how easy it is to swing onto their side. It’s a whole lot harder to stick to these preconceived notions of what is safe and what it isn’t when every push is accompanied by such delightful peels of laughter. How do I say no to such unbridled joy? I didn’t.
She’s had me jump walls for her- both figuratively and literally. She’s had me throw hair clips into rivers, just because it suits her fancy. She’s had me achieve my lifelong goal of being a cheerleader, albeit, one at a make-believe Tour De Apartment Complex cycling contest, where the only two participants were my cousin and her four year old friend. She’s had me run beside her looking like a complete maniac while she cycles around, blissfully unaware of my lungs slowly giving away, excitedly egging me on. On one such occasion, she declared herself too tired to cycle any further but demanded that I take over whilst she sat behind me. I did what any self-respecting 23 year old would- squeezed myself into a cycle that is still fit with trainer wheels.
She’s taught me that you’ve not known love till you’ve given someone your most prized collection of oil pastels without so much as a second thought.
In the five years that I’ve known her, my little cousin has changed my life in ways that I still cannot completely comprehend. Granted I did have the excuse of college to avoid the poop-flinging years but it’s definitely been a learning curve- mostly because of the realisation of how far removed adults chose to be from the many small sources of joy that life has to offer. It’s almost eerie watching her grow up, because in everything she does- making the same mistakes, finding awe in the mundane, carpe-ing each diem– I see a tiny part of myself, long forgotten in this rush to be ‘grown up’.
Each day that I have the privilege of spending with her, she has a new story to tell, a new imaginary friend to introduce, a new adventure to be lived. Each day that I have the privilege of spending with her, she shows me a window into a life that is forever filled with joy, happiness, laughter and tears, one that can be yours and mine, if only we chose to open it.
To Annika, Play-Doh and unbridled joy- the best of times.