Before they grow up
As the sole maasi to a nine-year-old nephew, I am afforded certain privileges that few in the family are privy to. The nephew would call me in urgent tones from his Dubai home to discuss a paragraph in the sixth Harry Potter book, or to ask when I think he will get his Hogwarts letter. His mother would shake her head in exasperation at the long distance call, as he whispered confidences about his classmates and discussed the latest books and games with me. I only see him a few times a year, and sometimes I get the feeling that he’s growing up like a weed, too fast for me to catch up.
It’s not only that every time I see him he’s about a head taller. He now inhabits a world that I am not always familiar with: the video games he plays, the YouTube channels he follows, and even the fact that he’s moved on to Alex Rider from Harry Potter! It was easier talking about The Gruffalo and the lives of adventurers, rather than the merits (what demerits?) of Minecraft. Suddenly, I was worried that maybe I was slipping from cool aunt position: at one point he thought I was a witch who went to Hogwarts and an explorer, rolled into one.
Since his nose is often buried in an iPad or another screen, I had a full-scale plan drawn up for when he visited Mumbai this year for his annual holiday: ‘Mission Explore Mumbai and Think Maasi is Cool Once Again’. From a leisurely hike in Sanjay Gandhi National Park to a museum day and taking a walk around Bandra marvelling at street art, I was ready with an itinerary.
Of course, I didn’t factor in on our city’s torrential monsoon; we spent most of those days cooped up at home playing Battleship and Jenga Quake. Much to my dismay, we ticked off something like one-and-a-half things from my itinerary. We managed to reach Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (CSMVS) from Andheri, but first made a beeline for lunch, because it took so long to get there. After being fortified by Suzette’s hot chocolate and crepes, we spent an afternoon muddling around the museum. The nephew tried on different turbans, made himself several block-printed cards, a roller press print, and a Lung-ta prayer flag, was equally fascinated and repelled by the bone jewellery in the Himalayan Art Gallery, and giggled at the size of some of the Mughal costumes.
That day, it took us four-and-a-half hours to get back home. To my surprise, he didn’t fret for a tablet (‘no screens’ was my one condition of taking him out). Instead, he spent the hours experimenting with some coffee beans he had taken from Starbucks and a bottle of water. He sniffed at the decoction he had created and made observations. I answered questions about Mumbai’s history and the sights we passed. The nephew drew a poop family tree in my notebook, while I met a friend for a quick cup of coffee, and then judiciously explained each family member to us. When I picked up my phone to message my sister, with a slight air of superiority, about the screen-free day and the value of boredom, the nephew pointed out that I was using my phone too much. I couldn’t help but make a comment about smart alecks, as I dropped my phone back into my purse.
Another day, we visited Trilogy by the Eternal Library, and I lost him to the world of books for some time.
One evening, we walked down to say hello to a friend’s dog. My sister is terrified of dogs, and the nephew hasn’t met too many in Dubai. But Dane is the gentlest dog I have met; he let himself be pet, and didn’t jump at the nephew, who is still a bit skittish around animals. He came back home announcing, “Dane is the best dog ever”, going on to give an embellished account of the play time to his nani.
We watched Howl’s Moving Castle and agreed that the hopping scarecrow was creepy enough to keep the lights on a bit longer that night.
On the penultimate day, my father had an appointment in Santa Cruz, so despite the crazy rain, we crammed into the car. My parents did their visiting, while my nephew asked if he could wait outside and look at the rain. Armed with a pair of umbrellas, he and I watched the rain fall all around us, pointing out the patterns that rivulets made on leaves and the way everything looked scrubbed clean. We made pretend-rain measurement tools with twigs to guess how much rain had fallen so far. He put out his hand and squealed with delight as the rain fell on his outstretched palm. We tore out pages from my notebook to make paper boats.
As we carefully set the first one in a puddle, I asked him if he’s ever sailed a paper boat. He thought carefully, and said no. We watched our paper boats wend their way through precarious roots, whirlpools, and bob across pebbles and leaves. A blue plastic wire became the Bermuda Triangle that the boats needed to avoid, while the nephew took on the role of on-shore captain. As the tiniest boat started to sink, the nephew let go of my hand, to raise his wrist to his mouth, as if talking into an imaginary gadget. He reported that the boat has been torpedoed by the enemy pirates.
For now, he wasn’t growing up too fast, for me.