My four-year-old kid loves to see the pictures of birds and animals. He asks me questions about who could eat whom or who would win if there was a fight between two. These hypothetical questions can be difficult to answer, but I try. I use my knowledge from watching episodes of Discovery or Animal Planet. Sometimes, I also turn to mythology for an answer.

One day, he stops at the picture of a vulture and asks me what they eat. I tell him that they are scavengers, feeding on dead animals. He remembers seeing a dead dog on the road and asks me if vultures would come and eat it. He takes fancy for the long curved beak and the neck rising like a furry fountain from the hulk of a torso. “Can I see a vulture papa?” he asks.

I have no answers because I know vultures are more in our stories than in reality. I avoid the question and tell him that they are dirty and he shouldn’t go near them.

On a different day, I am reading rhymes to him. ‘Old McDonald had a farm’ and ‘Here we go round the mulberry bush’. Old McDonald had pigs in his farm and mulberry bush had juicy mulberries. He asks me to get berries for him. He also wants to hear the ‘oink oink’ of the pigs. This time too, I don’t have any answers.

In my helplessness, I become unmindful and float into a world of my own where I walk with him, with pink little pigs and piglets in tow, towards cheerful bushes bursting with ripe mulberries. And in times like these, I also wonder about our so-called ‘Progress’.

During childhood, I spent most of my time outdoors. After school, we threw our bags into the bed and went to play with other kids. We would start our imaginary bikes and vroom into the field, steering clear of the sharp paddy blades. If the plant were small, we would plunk right into the mud and race our imaginary dirt bikes. We would run around the large fairground and stop to see a wake of vultures feeding on a dead cow. Climb on the old mango tree on the edge of the village, and hang by our legs from a low branch. Stand on the ground and take aim at the electric pole.

We would stop at thorny bushes laden with berries, abutting the village field (there were many such fields where we played regularly). We would carefully push our heads into the bush, scratch our faces regardless and pick berries. We would then make a necklace out them and take home.

The rain was always a beautiful experience. The earth smelled so good. There were little rivulets everywhere on which short-lived bubbles floated and teased. Trees were adorned in an impossible green and the red, velvety rain bugs, the ‘sadhaba bohu’ appreared from nowhere. To spot them and to hold them in hand was surreal. There were plenty of water bodies around where the snakes slithered into and or the frogs frolicking by. When a frog’s sound changed, we instinctively knew it was caught by a snake. We would rush out of the house, shout, shoo, throw stones and make a scene. Ma would reprimand us for trying to save the frog, saying that it was the rule of nature which we shouldn’t interfere in.

We skipped stones and broken earthen pots, and invariably disputed the number of skips. We laid killed snakes or five-paisa coins on the rail track and marvelled at their metamorphosis. We ate tender leaves of the thorny ‘Kia’, our regular after-school delicacy. We blew snail eggs back into the pond and threw timid little snails into the air to watch them gurgle back into the water. We kept the larger ones on our feet to see if they opened up and whether their slimy tongues cut our skin.

Home was the place where we just ate, studied and slept. Outside, out in the open, we grew up. We loved nature but braved it too. We fought with it, but also held it tightly in a loving embrace. Sitting atop the twenty-foot high Jamun tree, we defied height. Cycling against the wind in lashing rains, we defied the monsoons. Reaching into the bottom of the pond and digging into its cool, black mud, we defied the hot summers. Running crazily along the railway tracks, trying to outrun a long, serpentine steam-puffing train, we defied the winter.

That was my life! I now compare that to my kid’s, growing up in a busy city. There is not much of a playground nearby. The small neighbourhood park (which is a rarity in itself) is overflowing with similarly-fated kids. He can hardly run without bumping into another. Every time he goes there, he has to play on the same broken slides, the same motorcycle on a spring, the same criss-cross rope-ladder. He gets bored quickly and asks me if we can go home.

Home is worse, though quite ‘sophisticated’ otherwise, with an AC in each room, mobile phones and iPad, a powerful i7 computer, an array of gadgets, an LED TV and a sackful of bright toys. The rented house sits on the entire land available (people construct bigger houses for greater rent-worthiness), leaving no space for soil or tree. Windows open into other people’s walls. There seems to be no fresh air, no sound of birds. There are vehicles zooming outside, so I can’t let him out. I, like everyone else, keep the main door closed at all times. I don’t know most of the neighbours; I haven’t cared. They haven’t either. So the house is more like a concentration chamber. There is no outlet; the inmates have to find peace inside.

I pile cheap and costly Chinese and non-Chinese toys on him. All run on battery. All emit the same harsh sound. Many end up making the exact same sound (often a terrible version of a hit Bollywood tune). Most require the kid to just stand and watch, while they glow and perform something on their own. But he doesn’t want to be a spectator. So he thrashes them and pries them open. He tries to explore them, helplessly, trying to find some muse, some fun from the dangerous, broken particles. A metal axle pointing upwards menacingly, a screw threatening to pierce his soft bottom, broken edges of plastics about to slice his hands.

The house is now full of rolling batteries, twisted antennas, wheels looking for their cars and cars looking for their wheels.

He finds some solace in the iPad though. He plays on and on. I let him because of my own selfish interest to keep him busy. For some time, he does quite well, pumping bullets and bumping off a few heads. He runs, flies, shoots. He turns side to side, bends his little body, and screams in frustration. When I finally separate him from the gadget, I feel that his tender eyes are strained by the bright screen. I pluck him from the bed, but he runs away to the blaring television instead. I heavily curse myself and pull him out. He complains first but then clutches me tightly with his soft hands.

“Papa, tell me a story. NOW!” he demands. My heart sinks. I am back home after a tiring ten hours in the office. I still have some work before hitting the bed. I am in no mood for a story (even though I want to). I gigantic sense of guilt chokes a part of me.

I am compelled to think about what kind of life it is. While I am trying hard to earn money to get him a secure future, I am able to buy him a better life during his formative years? I long for my childhood. I wish upon him the unstoppable oneness I had with nature.

I worry about our ‘Progress’. Vanishing jungles, the concretization of soil, poisoning of air, depletion of groundwater. Cyclists being crushed by speeding vehicles, pedestrians fighting for space with monstrous trucks. Too many kids with double chins and fatty rings around the waist. Fertile land handed over for real estate. Villages losing their greenness. Strained relationships, split families, increasing insecurity, stress and lifestyle diseases.

A non-stop, rushing, breathless mankind, working hard out there to make everyone’s life better. Isn’t that why we work for? Isn’t that science and technology suppose to achieve?

But to what end, I ask. Can we find a sustainable way to preserve nature, health and happiness? Because in the long run, that’s all we should care about. I know that our race constantly strives to improve itself. But are we overestimating our collective intelligence? Do we think that we could constantly rob the nature for material pleasure, poison earth, kill animals and somehow find a way to restore everything to normalcy? Or that we shoud rather stop bothering about all these little things, because in the end, we survive. And that’s what really counts.

There are no clear answers. But I am happy to realize that no matter how much one tries to buy happiness, it would always lie outside the reach of material possessions. Because quality life and happiness invariable flows from nature and relationships. From loving people, the soil, trees and the air that makes us. Though I am still in the rat-race, someday I know I will stop, look, and take a deep breath. I will be wiser. I will be aware.

——————

I switch on the ignition and roll down the windows (something I rarely do, given the dust and pollution). An uncivilized breeze happily pushes through and swings the doll hanging from the rear-view mirror to show its presence. It caresses my hair after long time, making me realize that the hair has overgrown. The kid, however, complains about the heat outside and asks me to switch on the AC instead. I reluctantly pull the windows up and retreat into my ‘small and safe’ world. The AC purrs into life and throws stale air at my face. I imagine the breeze beating outside, asking to be let in.

Someday I know in my heart that I will ignore the son and let the windows be. Someday he will understand, I am sure.

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