Whenever we have the luxury to let Isha choose, we ask her ‘What do you want to do now?’ Most of the times, we give her choices based on where we need to be and what we need to be doing. For instance, if I need to go to the terrace to put clothes on the clothes line, I ask her ‘You can feed the birds, or put clothes to dry, or put clips on them, or draw using chalk piece, or anything else you come up with while being with amma on the terrace.’ Climbing on the iron ladder on the terrace up to a safe point (and she knows which rung of the ladder) and coming down from the other side like a jungle gym is usually her most preferred activity while on the terrace. Here are all the different things we do together.
She measures rice and dals as we soak or cook them. She measures water in cups and pours it into the containers. Of course, she would not let go of the container without stirring the contents this way and that way with her both hands, or taking the water in a tiny spoon and playing with it.
Idli making is one of her favourite activities. She likes to oil the idli plates, pour idli batter onto them. This pouring happens in different ways. Sometimes she’d insist on pouring onto the plates herself. Sometimes she’d take a small ladle and pour out of it into my big ladle, which I then pour onto the plates. Before this activity, she’d go around the house asking everyone how many idlis they’d like to have. When we sit down, we count as we pour the batter and say “These three are for appa”, until we have poured idlis for everyone. She waits near the stove and catches the steam, holds it for a while and opens her palm to see the moisture on them. She is currently training to be able to skillfully remove the idlis using the back of a spoon (“just like how amma does”) without any piece sticking to the plate.
She puts back washed dishes into their respective places in the kitchen cupboards and draws.
Whenever I cook beetroot, we use the red juice to paint herself or on the paper. Last week, we marked a 4 sq.ft. white tile in the living room and we paint on it. It was fun using the brush and painting on the floor. We could wipe it off easily later in the day!
She uses mehendi cones which she uses to make her own designs on her left palm. She'd press the cone and allow the mehendi to flow out on to her palm, and then look at the different shapes and decide what they might be. Last week, she said she had made a ‘dragon design’. Then she'd ask me to make a design on her right palm. It almost always has an elephant with its baby (her favourite theme of all times), and a few other elements like trees, clouds, sun, etc. She’d go around doing things while carefully protecting her mehendi until it has dried sufficiently. After about 10 days, when the design fades away, we’d do another one. This activity is a lot of fun for both of us! I never knew I could put mehendi until recently. And these 10-rupee cones last really long!
We spend a lot of time preparing food and eating. Apart from her meals, she eats a lot of snacks in between. Cashews, raisins, dates, banana (her favourite), roasted gram, peanuts, almonds, grated coconut, tomato, cucumber, carrot sticks, fruits and the like – we sit together with them, sometimes have conversations and and sometimes just eat quietly.
We cut vegetables together. She uses a blunt knife to cut only vegetables and fruits that are safe to cut, and only under supervision. For instance, she cannot cut tomatoes (for they are slippery) or carrots (for they are hard). She can cut the snake gourd, papaya, tender beans, banana and such. In the process, we may discover things together and allow ourselves to get distracted. We consciously build time into the activity for that. Yesterday, we were cutting tender French beans. I’d cut the ends and she’d pull out the fibrous string. As she placed them on the floor, they started curling up into different shapes. She started naming the pods after people in her life. Long pods were tall people like 'appa'. Tiny ones were kids - ‘Isha’ and her friends. Medium ones were short people like ‘amma, paatti’. Suddenly, she figured out that if I held onto one end of the pod and she, the other, and we both pulled it in opposite directions, the pod split into two pieces. She’d fall on her back with her piece with a loud giggle saying ‘Innooru vaatti’ (once more). After we did this for a while, she noticed a bean that had come out of the pod and asked what it was. I said it was the seed inside. Then I slit open one long pod to show her the row of beans inside. With a huge smile on her face, she said ‘Amma, this is just like how we play the ‘surprise surprise’ game!’And we slit open quite a few of the pods to see the ‘surprise’ inside. And yes, every single time it looked like she was genuinely surprised! Well, this whole thing took about an hour.
We go on long nature walks. We keep them as quiet as possible, of course allowing for conversations when they naturally happen. I would like to recount an experience here. Last year, Isha and I were taking a walk inside the forested 'Valley School' in Bangalore. Satishji (the chairperson of the school) was walking along with us. As we were walking, my noisy mind wanted to "teach" Isha about all kinds of things along the way - 'Isha look, that is that date tree' and on and on. After a couple of minutes, Satishji turned around and said 'Why don't you just let her soak in this experience quietly and make her own sense of it? She is too young to want to make use of the information about what a date tree looks like.' That gently shut me up, and his voice rings in my ears (gently reminding me) every time we go on a nature walk. I'm learning to quietly soak in the experience too without labels.
When we take the bus for long distance travels, we usually travel at a time of the day when we can get a window seat. Sometimes she looks outside the window quietly. Sometimes, she is singing loudly. Once, she was singing her favourite Tamil rhyme ‘Amma Inge Vaa Vaa’ in a fairly empty bus. An old lady sitting behind us got quite excited on hearing a long-forgotten song and started singing along. Soon, two other women joined in and all five of us were singing it a few times. And all the oldies in the bus, including the bus driver and the conductor, were smiling and humming along. It was quite an experience.
When we go on walks in our neighbourhood, she goes on speaking out loudly. She stops by dogs and cats (any animal) and talks to them. Watchmen and maids (resting under the trees and in front of apartment complexes) start conversing with her, and whenever she feels spoken to respectfully she stops to spend time with them. It is so beautiful and healing to watch them connect. Some of these older watchmen from the village also have a childlike innocence. They can smile from their hearts just as easily as they can get upset about things. A short walk of half a kilometer to the next road can take about an hour or more!
Watering plants, sowing seeds, scrubbing and washing clothes, sweeping, mopping – Isha likes (I’m sure all kids like) to do them all!
While waiting for the bus, we play games like spotting different colours and shapes around (on trees and sign boards), for instance. We make up stories with some standard characters (like Krishna and her friend Papu) doing different things that are mostly known to her.
I make playdough with wheat flour, and she can play with it for a long time inventing all kinds of shapes and things to do with it – putting it on her nose like a clown. Her imagination is endless.
The beach sand and water can keep her occupied for hours together! The sand can be anything from ‘the rain’ (when poured down), ‘sambar’ (when she stirs it), 'a hill' (when she piles it up) to all kinds of fascinating things.
Of late, she’s started playing with two-dimensional toys. Our neighbour kids have drawn a whole lot of pictures on the terrace floor using the chalk piece. Isha likes to go up to the terrace and play with these imaginary toys. She’d ask ‘Do you want a fruit salad?’ And then go “pick up” imaginary oranges, apples, pineapple, grapes, “pick up” the knife and "cut them up" into an imaginary bowl and offer it to me and keep some for herself. “Do you like my fruit salad?” she’d ask. The other day, she picked up a story book. It had the picture of a dog sleeping on his bed in his room. She said ‘Amma, I feel like going into that room!’ I said ‘Go! What’s stopping you?’ She smiled, turned around, placed her head on the page, closed her eyes and said ‘Now, I am in that room!’ She made space for me and said ‘Amma, lie down and close your eyes and you will be inside with me!’ I did that. Soon, we were living in that room doing all kinds of things. She said “shhhh… quiet. The dog is sleeping.” So, we whispered about picking up this and that, sitting around, examining the curtain in the room, playing with the soil, washing our hands in the wash basin (all of which were in that picture). Wow, I had never done that before. It was fun.
She gets to play with kids downstairs, and visit friends, grandparents, uncles and aunts, and spend time with them. She has unique sets of activities to do with each of them. She loves it when we have people over (which we often do!)
She has learnt to use the scissors quite well. Whenever she is around and I need to open a fresh packet of something, she gets to cut it with a pair of scissors. Yesterday, she skillfully held a real vessel with tongs and was pretending to make tea for me!
I could go on writing about all the stuff we do, but by now I hope you've gotten an idea!
Now, if you add to all these fascinating and fun times, moments of Isha's tantrums and moments of my impatience and need for alone time and space, only then would the picture really get completed. :)
Now, where does a mother (or father) get all this time and patience from, to cut beans for a whole hour, or stop by every stray dog and cat? And how can one person give all her or his time to being with the child, however fun the activities are? Won’t he (she) need his (her) time? What about their career? In my next story, I’d be chronicling all my challenges of choosing to be the person who spends most of the time with Isha, with Rajeev stretching himself with all his available time too. (By the way, Rajeev has a unique set of creative things he does with Isha. If he gets enough inspiration to write about it, I’d post that too!)