HindustanTimes Sat,27 Dec 2014
The next best thing
Soumya Bhattacharya, Hindustan Times
New Delhi, February 19, 2011
First Published: 22:23 IST(19/2/2011)
Last Updated: 22:30 IST(19/2/2011)

Be prepared," someone with experience in such matters told me. "It will come your way sooner or later."

He was talking about the pleasures and perils of being a teenager in today's urban India.

The peer pressure, the temptations, the line between being stuck up and prudish and yielding to abandon and desire, and how that line is not as clear as it might seem to observers, and how hard it might be to be on one side of it or the other.

He was talking about the perils and pleasures of being the father of a teenager in today's urban India. The pressure, the adjustment, the line between being authoritarian and entirely letting go, and how that line is not as clear as it might seem to observers, and how hard it might be to stay on one side of it or the other.

We have met each other's daughters. And he said: "Be prepared. It will come your way sooner or later." Sooner, I should think, sooner. Everything comes one's way sooner these days.

But then, isn't parenting a continual process of being prepared? Of preparing for the next thing, often subconsciously, often without knowing what that next thing will be. And then, when the next thing turns up and socks us, we are still floundering, still not quite ready, still unsure of how to deal with it.

Flailing and flux, swaddled in ambivalence, is parenting's natural element.

When our girl, now nine, was an infant, all through those sleepless nights and cranky tummy runs, the teething troubles and severe illnesses, my wife kept hoping that things would sort themselves out no sooner than she had outgrown infancy.

They didn't, of course.

Each phase brought (brings) with it its own anxieties and vulnerabilities, its storms of joys and heartaches.

If you are a parent, for as long as you are a parent, nothing is ever sorted out. Things simply get better and worse at the same time.

And things can - and will - go wrong in an instant. There you are, sitting in an idyllic circle, doing something together, and a stray remark, an expression of annoyance or contempt or ingratitude, something or the other reeking of the shared histories of parents and children (the longest of histories that human beings share with each other) crops up. The idyll is ruined.

Philip Larkin, the laureate of irony, thwarted hope and a particular kind of Englishness, articulated it in the closing stanza of This Be The Verse:

Man hands on misery to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
And don't have any kids yourself.
Larkin never had any himself.

But for those of us who have chosen to, and, having chosen, are aware of how fraught the whole business is, and how full of complexity, what are we to do?

For once, I have a clear idea.

I know that there is this or nothing. And nothing is so much worse.

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