On her first birthday, Mia was all black curls and drooly smiles. It was as if she had decided, because she was one, that she was going to walk all day long. And boy, did she walk! Mira still thought about it with a huge silly grin. That day was perhaps the first time she had realised she was beginning to think more of babies than she used to. Babies were the epitome of a cliche. They all had an innocence that appealed, they were always cute once they got past the ugly new-born stage; for heaven’s sake they were even cute when they were annoying. If you wanted to turn perfectly reasonable adults into fools, hand them a baby, Mira always said. One way or another it would work — they’d either coo and baby-talk like complete idiots or be totally clueless on what they must do. Either way, fool. But the worst part about this living, breathing, time-and-energy-and-money consuming cliche? It was this: Almost always, most people wanted to have them, no matter what. It was this side she had decided to bury and disown when she had fallen in love with Mia.
It was also the first time she remembered wishing this child wouldn’t grow up. That Mira would always have her arms full of this cherub, placed perfectly on one cocked hip, that she’d always have the pleasure of holding her and soothing any tantrums, pain or disappointment. It was the first time Mira wanted Mia to always remain this adorable, brilliant baby whose eyes held no awareness but that of pure wonder and joy.
She put the book down and sighed. Three years later, that tender, amazing cluelessness had disappeared from Mia’s eyes to be replaced by an onyx-in-the-sunlight glint of mischief that Mira now wished would never go away. She wished her hip-long pigtails would grow no longer, her perfect, perfect milk-teeth would never fall out and that she’d forever believe in monsters and guardian angels alike. She wished, as she often had in the past years, that Mia wouldn’t grow up. Because if Mira couldn’t have the pudgy, drooly Mia to always fill her hands in times of joy and sadness, to bite into gently when she felt an onrush of love, then this would have to do. This four-year old who was discovering puns and lying, who was learning to deal with bullies and heartbreak at being left out of play. This four-year old who thought Mira was the centre of her universe.
Unlike most mothers, Mira dwelt in the now. And perhaps a little in the past. When mothers couldn’t wait to know what their babies’ first word would be, Mira was content with a cooing Mia without ever considering the possibility that Mia would eventually start talking when she was old enough. When parents planned school fees and college funds, Mira looked at two-year-old Mia and saw nothing but a two-year old. Mira didn’t think she could handle her daughter struggling with trigonometry and organic chemistry, or unkindness of other girls, or worse, being bad at sport or art. She had no idea what would she say that would be the right thing for her confidence and yet let her know that her mother sympathised with her. She preferred prefer her Mia the way she was, four years old and completely incorrigible.
Mira gave up her attempts at reading. Her mind wasn’t in it because all she had thought for the past few minutes was Mia. She wandered away to look for her; she felt the familiar rush in her heart. And that kind of surge she had never been able to hold. She had to kiss those tender cheeks, or squeeze that unwilling little body into a hug and only then would the swell in her heart subside. She walked past her husband who looked up at her a little concerned, gently removing his reading glasses as she walked on. She walked past the main door that was ajar to let the evening breeze in. She looked out at the little front yard and called, “Mia, Mia”. No answer. She turned back a little to tell her husband that she couldn’t find Mia but he’d think her silly for being alarmed so quickly. She changed her shoes and walked to the playground where she was sure she’d find Mia playing either on the swings or getting mucky in the sand. She turned back to look once at her house, just to be sure Mia wasn’t there. Then she walked on, planning a conversation in her mind, as she had always done on her walks with Mia. This was Mira’s little game. Every walk she took with Mia had to have a challenging, interesting conversation. If she could keep Mia’s attention for four minutes, if she could actually maintain a conversation on the subject, then she’d have won that day. Some days, Mia flitted off after some glittering thing on the road or asked her own questions about some completely unconnected thing. Those days, Mira found new worlds, new ways to answer old questions. On the days she managed to keep Mia’s attention, Mira would feel mostly happy, but also a little bit guilty, wondering if she had forced a topic. Guilt is like a wedding ring you wear, if you marry for ever. It lives with you and you never see it. Till it’s gone or till it gets better or worse. And then it leaves it’s mark on you. By then, it’s too late. Except you can always take off a wedding ring; guilt, not so much.
The clouds parted and revealed a blushing, setting sun that promised to turn the day’s insipid sky to a slightly more interesting pink, a dash of orange maybe. Not a spectacular sunset but a dramatic one all the same. Mira walked on slowly in her quest for Mia, worrying about how long it was going to take to bathe her and get dinner done before bedtime; she hated delayed bedtimes. The playground was bereft of children; they had all gone home or not come out to play at all because there wasn’t the telltale lazy echo of the swing, and the sand in the pit seemed undisturbed after last night’s rain. Where could they be, Mira wondered. Realising it was a Sunday evening and that most children would be spending time with their familes, she shook her head and smiled, starting back home. I wonder what I should do about my absent-mindedness, Mira thought as she walked back, smiling distantly at the few quiet neighbours who were out for a walk.
“Neel, I can’t find Mira in the playground. In fact, I don’t think anyone’s been there. Should I panic now,” she asked her husband — only half seriously — who, strangely enough she thought, was still waiting at the door where she had last seen him when she left home. “Mira…” Neel started but never got to complete what he started. “I know, I know,” said Mira, smiling at his concern. “I am not panicking just yet, so save the talk,” Mira said as she headed inside to check the bedrooms for Mia. The urge to see Mia’s perfection was suddenly overpowering; all she wanted was to grab her little girl and tell her in her limited way, in her limited language of kisses and words just how much she loved her.
Upstairs, her own bedroom showed no sign of Mia having been there; everything was in its place, intact. Mira smiled again. Another day saved from Storm Mia. She moved to the study, not a book or pen or chair out of place. Last was Mia’s bedroom. “Mia, baby, aren’t you hungry? I want you down at the table right now,” Mira said aloud, manufacturing sternness. But Mia’s room, too, was untouched. She opened the cupboards; clothes for a four-year old. Tee shirts folded, jeans and shorts too. Little, gloriously girly dresses of every colour (except brown, because maaa I hate brown) hung on candy-coloured kids’ hangers. Shoes were in a perfect row at the bottom of the cupboard; hair clips, barrettes, hairbands, all strung on a colourful holder. Not a thing out of place. Except Mia.
Suddenly confused, Mira sat down on the bed. She couldn’t tell if Mia was a one-year old or if Mia had grown up. And were they really Mia’s clothes? Such big ones? And where was she? Was she old enough to wander away on her own? Heck was she old enough to sleep in her own bed, without the sides that would keep her from falling? “Neel,” she called and found him standing at the door way to her room. “Neel, is Mia one or four,” she asked. All Neel did was gently place his arms around her unresisting shoulders, raise and lead her away from the room. He had lost count of the times he had told Mira, while grief, rage and regret massacred his heart, that she had finally got her wish a few years ago. That her Mia would always be four years old.