Last week marked two years to the beginning of this column, and I kicked Notes from the Underground off with an article about raising girls, and the way people react when they find out you are the parent of daughters. As it so happens, two years later, I am also the mother now of a little boy and so I celebrate with a rumination about being the parent of a son.
The beginning was like all other beginnings—first, shock and horror and some awe at the evidence of another baby on the way. Then, a knowing nod, because all children are attempts to have a boy baby, or provide a brother for an existing boy. People who initially expressed a great deal of uncertainty about my mental acumen at having another child now nostalgically advise me to provide a brother for the baby, because bhaiyon ki jori honi chahieye na, never mind that he has three sisters to pair up with. They obviously never read the Famous Five, only the Hardy Boys and that bhaiyon ki jori. Bhaiyon ki jori never seems to be so great throughout literature—ask Hector and Paris, or Cain and Abel. I digress. People were kind, and many prayers were offered by many people in a heartfelt gesture that I still find very
touching, for the baby to finally be a boy. People were rooting for me, and while it saddened me a little to contemplate their disappointment had the baby been a girl anyway, I cannot dismiss the sincerity of their good wishes.
So along came the boy, the son, the little lion king and everyone around me burst into joyous flames. It was sweet because they were so genuinely happy for me and irksome because the other side of the coin remain the Lion King’s sisters, and how nobody made any fuss when the third one was born, because oh well. Not a boy, again. But here he is now, the long-awaited son, and he is already being referred to as sahib, and his sisters are being told to call him bhaiyya. Never mind that chota sahib is only concerned with grabbing people’s hair and chewing his feet; he is the heir to our throne and I have now earned my stripes. I have arrived.
But nobody is calling the baby “sahib” on my watch. I’m sorry. Neither will his sisters, who are plenty of years older than him, will ever be allowed to call him bhaiyya. People who are in constant contact with my girls have been told sharpish not to ask them “bhai kaisa hai?” as if they were inquiring after the health of a unicorn that lived on a tree of diamonds. He is just the baby, who is nice to cuddle and annoying when he cries. Ask them if they like the new baby, do they help out with him, is he cute? Why are they being asked in such a particular way? Nobody used to ask the older ones “behan kaisi hai” when a new baby arrived, because the unconscious, underlying implication of referring to a brother so specifically is that having one is somehow different, more special.
One understands why sons and brothers are important in patriarchies. But one is also so hamstrung by that construct that we tend to go overboard with the importance given to male children, and the indulgence shown to them. Why is violence against women on the rise all over the world? That violence is being perpetrated primarily by men, and there is obviously a difference between the boys who were raised in previous generations and men being raised now. It is happening because of the cult we create around sons. If my son is called sahib and treated like the heir apparent people think he is, he will develop a sense of entitlement that will allow him to treat the people around him with arrogance and cruelty. We live in a world where even the boy who came to the house to install the air conditioner could wear an air of aggrieved tolerance when I asked a few technical questions, because I was a woman and what would I know, ergo what a waste of time it was for this kid to have to explain himself to me. Sometimes what we used to call chivalry was just plain good manners. If someone is asking you a question, have the grace to answer without rolling your eyes. But he didn’t extend that courtesy, because obviously nobody in his life has ever told him to be polite to everyone, not just to men. My husband could have asked him to drop and do a hundred push-ups and he wouldn’t have batted an eyelid, but this nosy bibi asking questions was just too much.
We all think we don’t have those kind of children, but we can. Some of us already do. And it all boils down to the small things, which is why I am so adamant about them even if other people think I’m nuts for it. The baby is presently wearing a string of amber teething beads that seem to help him with his discomfort. Everyone who has seen them has been astonished that the baby is wearing a necklace. They’re teething beads, I say, and that reassures them enormously because it isn’t a girly thing, it’s a health thing! Whew! Some people will chortle and feel sorry for the boy, because he will grow up surrounded by women—his mother, grandmothers, aunts, sisters. Not gorgons or libertines or maniacs, just women. The implication is that he will be a sissy, henpecked man, and that is hilarious to them. To me, it is fortunate in the extreme. If my son were to become a man even a quarter as brave, honest, witty and intelligent as the women around him, he will be a fine man indeed.
The writer is a feminist based in Lahore.