I bent down and shook the little man’s hand solemnly: “Nice to meet you Jason.”
Before I could regain my balance, Victor was dragging me to the other side of the playground, yelling at the top of his voice “Priya see, this is my Aji.” A moment later, my grandson had scampered off, on his own this time, because I could hardly keep pace as he sprinted forward to grab another classmate.
Just then Jan, the administrator of the Montessori school and a close friend of mine, entered the play area at the back of the school, where I had come to pick up Victor. Victor promptly turned towards her yelling, “Miss Jan, meet my brown aji.”
Jan and I had raised our children together. When Aashish and Monika announced that they were considering her school for their first-born, I was relieved. After all, my little Victor would not be farmed out to some impersonal day care, as I had been forced to do with his dad. As young parents, raising children in a totally foreign world, we had had limited choices. Yes, relying on the Yellow Pages was the only way I’d been able to locate the first daycare for my now thirty-something son.
How times have changed. What a comfort to have built connections in the New World. A network had been created, and now my grandson could be under the loving eye of a trusted friend. Hearing Victor’s confident announcement made me realize how at home he was here.
Jan and I looked at each other and burst out laughing. So I was Victor’s “brown aji.” The matter of fact observation of color only amused us. But that would not always have been the case.
How different Victor’s Montessori was from his father’s school. How different was Victor’s experience from that of his father, who, as a first grader, once came home in tears, “Joey called me a brownie!” Aashish had sobbed as he ran into my arms. That painful moment floated quickly through my mind. Instinctively I had hugged my five-year-old son tightly, smothering him with kisses. “Yum, yum, and what a delicious brownie you are.” Simple soothing words were all that I could offer my child, trying to hide the pain that seared though my heart.
Our laughter, Jan’s and mine, was a reminder of how far we all had traveled. A light moment filled with silent awareness.
Jan, a Caucasian woman married to an Indian, had also dealt with the issue of color when she had introduced her engineer husband to her Southern family. Her parents were progressive, but the same couldn’t be said about many around them. Now, in her own school, she was creating an open but not a color-blind world. Here a child of an Indian father and a Polish mother felt free to ask questions about skin color and human diversity. A place where my Victor daily spent hours and hours mingling with a variety of people—adults and children.
At age three, Victor had just discovered color, and both of us, his adopted, white Aji and his biological brown Aji, could be part of the rainbow. Neither of us found anything but the wonder of a simple discovery of human variety in his innocent words.
The next day, Victor’s attention shifted to his cousin Rahkesh, my daughter Abha’s son, who had joined me in picking him up from Montessori. Suddenly, Victor asked me, “Aji, you are my grandma right? And Rahkesh’s Aji, too?”
For the 100th time, I assured the three-year-old, “Yes, I am your Aji. And Rahkesh’s too.”
“Oh,” he contemplated this for a moment. “You are my brown Aji, right? Rahkesh’s brown Aji, too?”
As Victor repeated the questions, Jan turned to me conspiratorially. “You know Latika,” she said, “you and I don’t think much about Victor calling you a ‘brown Aji,’ but apparently some of our friends don’t find that funny.”
“Really?” I asked in a slightly surprised voice. “How come?”
“Some parents think Victor should have been corrected right away. These things must be nipped in the bud, I was told.” “I don’t think he meant any harm,” I responded, confused. “He’s just beginning to see color differences. Is there something wrong with that?”
We left the conversation there for the moment; keeping tabs on my two grandchildren was the priority.
But later my thoughts traveled back in time. Several years ago, when Peter Brook’s Mahabharata first came out, I remembered leaving the theater with a friend. She’d felt anger and agitation at the film’s depiction of the mythological characters of the Kauravas and the Pandavas. Historically precise, using an international caste, Brook had created a masterpiece that had still succeeded in disturbing many in the Indian community.
They were angry because the epic had not been presented as a true story or a series of religious events as many of these people had been raised to believe. The interpretation presented on the screen was seen as a mockery of the Great Tradition.
About the same time, Doordarshan’s rendition of the Mahabharata flooded the Indian television as well as many Indian homes in America. That same friend was an avid fan of the weekly episodes of the ancient tome. She was convinced that what Brooks had produced was a twisted western rendition of the sacred mythology.
No amount of explanation from another friend, a distinguished linguistics scholar and knowledgeable interpreter of Hinduism, could make her understand.
I returned to my own response to Victor’s comment. Was I wrong in laughing away what little Victor had said? Was it really a “cute” observation of color?
Victor’s exploration of words and concepts is just beginning. Just the other day, as I went into the bathroom, he asked, “Do you need privacy, Aji?” Surprised at his use of such a grown up word, I must have looked bit askance, because he immediately explained “When I poo I don’t need privacy, but when I pee I do.”
Victor was clearly beginning to understand some of the nuances of language and civil behavior. A light sparked in my head, and I said “Aji is a woman, so she needs privacy both the times.”
“Oh,” he said quietly and went to play with his cars, only to return in a few seconds, to ask from the other side of the closed door, “Do you still need privacy, Aji?”
“Yes I do,” I told him as I quickly rushed out of the washroom.
If he understands the need for “privacy,” does a three year old also understand “color”? When is it the right time to address such issues? Have the roots of prejudice already filtered in? Maybe we need to take our color in stride and not be so concerned with innocent observations. Or am I taking it too lightly?
Latika Mangrulkar is an educator, writer, and storyteller building “cultures of peace” through her Tall Tales.