My seven-year-old is no longer a seven-year-old. Oishi turned eight on August 20. I’ll have to now get used to referring to her as my eight-year-old. And also, probably, get used to bearing in mind every minute that she is no longer little.
But then, is she really not?
Trouble is, I can’t tell. This is how the birthday (or, in the typical Mumbai inflection, bird-day) thing went. If she weren’t little — or if she were as much of an adult as she often thinks she is — it shouldn’t have.
She started counting down the days from the beginning of August: 20 days to go, 19… till it became — in a phrase that I have never been able to reconcile myself to — “zero days”.
“I’d be so lucky if my birthday was today,” Oishi said on the evening of August 7. She was being inordinately envious of my mother, whose birthday it was that day.
“Her birthday has come, Baba.” She had just finished speaking on the phone with my mother, and she was sounding petulant.
“Stop fretting. Yours will too — and soon enough,” I said, and realised that I’d been short. I felt a stab of shame and self-reproach.
She looked at me, sighed, looked away and said: “Twelve days to go. You don’t understand, Baba.” My not being able to understand is not a new allegation. I always plead guilty as charged.
Eventually, the day — as it couldn’t but have — arrived. It went off well, with all the bird-day accoutrements that one, at seven, sorry, eight, takes for granted on such an occasion: cakes, friends, presents, and having one’s way all the time.
Late in the evening, her tiredness was shadowed by gloom. This was new; I hadn’t seen her to so clearly regret the day’s passing when she had turned seven.
So I told her, without naming any names, about Flaubert and his novel Sentimental Education, and its interpretation by one of my favourite writers, Julian Barnes. (Without literature, how would I learn — or communicate — lessons of life?)
I told her that the most reliable form of enjoyment or pleasure is the anticipation of enjoyment or pleasure; that no sooner has a special moment or occasion arrived, it is over; that the lead-up to it is everything; and that the end of that lead-up, that the end of the beginning of an event is actually the beginning of the end of it.
“See, you should look forward to your term-ending exams because as soon as they are over, you have your Diwali holidays, and you can go to Kolkata for your annual, week-long visit. Don’t be anxious for the holidays to come. Enjoy the time before it, and think of the holidays.”
She looked nonplussed, and returned to her book. A few minutes later, she looked up and said: “Why won’t my ninth birthday come sooner, Baba?”
I know when I am beaten. Literature only gets you so far. (Or does it also teach you to acknowledge, and be graceful in defeat?)