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Childhood, an extraordinary quality

Reading or looking at what she does, I tell her that it is a gift, and that she should work hard to retain it. It’s a gift all children have. Only the greatest... hang on to it, writes Soumya Bhattacharya.

india Updated: Feb 13, 2010 23:17 IST
Soumya Bhattacharya

Reading or looking at what she does, I tell her that it is a gift, and that she should work hard to retain it. It’s a gift all children have. Only the greatest... hang on to it, writes

Baba, the moon looks strange.”

“Why do you think it’s strange?”

“It’s odd.”

“But what’s odd about it?”

It is late on a Saturday evening. Looking out of the window in our living room, we can see, through a filigree of branches, the moon in an inky sky.

“The colour,” our eight-year-old daughter says. “It’s orangey. And it’s all smudged. Look at the clouds on it. Weird.”

“What’s weird? ‘Weird’ is a rubbish word. It used to mean ‘strange’ once upon a time. Now it means nothing.” Being the detestable culture snob that I am, being the despicable language merchant who long ago enlisted for the war against cliché, this comes out before I can help myself. Mistake.

“Why does ‘weird’ mean nothing?”

I saw it coming. It is standard diversionary tactic.

But parenting is a bit like chess. You anticipate the attack, the scurrying up of the pawn on the left flank to divert attention from the rook in the centre of the board. I ignore the pawn, and focus on the rook.

“Oh, I’ll tell you tomorrow. But what about the moon, then?” We are back to the rook.

“It looks like an old woman’s face,” Oishi says, and trots over to stand on the sofa to get a better view — and, also, to think up a more precise simile.

No, the moon doesn’t, I think, look like an old woman’s face (or at least not like the face of any old woman I have ever seen), but I’ve won this round: got her to say something other than ‘strange’ or ‘odd’ or ‘weird’.

She does startle me sometimes with the analogies she draws. She looks at the shapes of clouds, patterns left by steam on a mirror, the imprint of a drying stain on a tabletop, and then she compares it to something I wouldn’t have thought of.

All children have a particular ability to look at the world — with awe, with surprise, with freshness. It allows adults to engage with the world and the things in it in a different way.

I keep asking Oishi to draw things as she sees them, or to write about them as she perceives them. She does when she doesn’t feel it is a chore. Reading or looking at what she does, I tell her that it is a gift, and that she should work hard to retain it.

It’s a gift all children have. Only the greatest of artists hang on to it after they have become adults. And only they, in their work, surprise us by rendering intimate and new the familiar and the jaded.

It takes Saul Bellow, one of the truly great masters, to write that icicles hanging from a hospital roof are “like the teeth of fish, clear drops burning at their tips”. Or to describe a man with a wooden leg “bending and straightening gracefully like a gondolier”.

Bellow retained that gift. But doing it is really hard work.