I suppose people want to have children for all sorts of reasons. I knew why I wanted to. (This is a big thing for me; I seldom have a clear idea of anything.)
a) Being the infantile, continually perplexed, perplexing, obsessed-with-obsession sort of twit that I am, I wanted to grow up. Or at least feel grown up. Nothing — travelling around the world on my own, having a job, being married, seeing my name on the cover of a book — has made me feel as grown up and responsible as crossing the road with my index finger inside my daughter’s fist.
b) We all believe that our lives have some sense of narrative. Having a child, I’d thought, would make me aware of the trajectory of that narrative.
c) Martin Amis, one of my literary heroes, once spoke of how he always wanted to have a girl to find out how the other half thinks. I did too. I was lucky I got a girl. And yes, it does help me find out. (Don’t ask what I do with the information.)
There is another reason for wanting to be a parent. I realised that only last Sunday.
It was my birthday, an occasion which, for years, has entirely lost its allure. I mean, another one? (Sorry, perhaps I am morbid, but I tend to think of death a lot. And like another of my literary heroes, Julian Barnes, I suspect I shall die in extreme pain, in a hospital, fussing, at the same time, over the imprecise use of language.)
This year, it was all spectacularly different.
“Aren’t you feeling excited about your birthday, Baba?” Oishi asked me, a week before I turned 39.
“Er, no,” I said. “I used to feel excited when I was seven years old, like you. My parents would celebrate it then.”
She looked at me gravely. There was a hint of pity in her eyes, the sort that appears when she thinks I am being unutterably stupid.
“What rubbish,” she said.
And then she purposefully set about things.
She made presents for me. Over the next few days there turned up: a photo frame made from cardboard, its borders designed and coloured with felt-tipped pens and crayons; a matchbox, covered in coloured paper, engineered such that when you opened it, it had, on the inside, written, ‘Happy birthday’; several cards, each of a different shape and size; pens of hers, precious possessions, wrapped in gift paper and emblazoned with glittering paper stars; and toothpicks that had been turned into flags with bits of paper
attached to them, each inscribed with a message, ready to be stuck on a cake I refused to have. (In the end, she settled for a mound of crème caramel, made at home, and decked it up with candles.)
On the day, her face glowing with the satisfaction of a job well done, she laid out the presents on a table in the living room, trying to mirror in each detail her own birthday celebration. Hell, she even played the Beatles’s Happy Birthday from the White Album.
As the evening wore on, I really began to enjoy myself. (No doubt the steady inflow of alcohol into my bloodstream through the day had helped.) I was excited.
And that’s the other thing with having a child, I realised. The element of giddy surprise she brings into my life; and, more importantly, the refreshing way in which she can make me feel taken aback by my own response to certain things.