The boy in this park and the boy at my hostel are both called Bittu. I know because everyone is always screaming the name- the mother at the park and the five adults in the hostel. Two kinds of screaming for the same two syllables. This Bittu is running around in circles while his mother playfully waddles behind him, pretending to fail to reach his bony arms each time she stretches out her arms. Bittu, Bittu, Bittu- she sings in a rhythm as he laughs and runs. He runs and laughs and runs in circles around trees and shrubs and little birds, until he stumbles over his own feet and falls. In a second, his mother swoops him into her arms. His little face freezes into a smile-frown, as he considers crying but realizes he doesn’t need to anymore.
I’ve never seen the other Bittu cry. He pouts instead, plopping himself on my bed when I do something he doesn’t like or more likely, when I don’t do something he wants me to. He lifts his thumb and jabs it under his chin – “katta!” I do it back with a smile. “Ok! Katta!” These days, he doesn’t say anything after that. He no longer pokes me in the arm or screams profanities I don’t understand. He simply sits there with his arms crossed, knowing wholly well that I won’t last longer than a minute. As usual, I’ll sigh and put away whatever it is I’m working on, doing my best to sound exasperated. “Fine, love, aapko kya chaahiye?”
My friend thinks it’s pretentious to use “aap”, the formal form of “you,” when talking to children. With his cute little neighbor, who picked out tomatoes from her father’s vegetable cart and high-fived me for each one, I found myself using “tum” naturally. She hangs around the gate when I visit him and makes me wish with all my heart that my Hindi was better, just to share stories with her. Over the course of a few weeks, we managed a name, a story, four tomatoes and some rotten potatoes- “tum bahut funny hoon.“ But for Bittu and his sister, even after seven weeks of almost-daily arm-pulling and market-going and chocolate-eating and movie-watching, I reserve an ‘aap.’
It is my silly way of overcompensating- my language-challenged, wisdom-challenged way of showing them I respect them. For reasons that are more mine than theirs, I think they need to hear it.
In my first week of meeting him, he hated me. I was spending too much time talking to his bhaiyya, a lean 21 year-old neighbor who alternated between translating for me and trying to convince me to marry him – the kind of friendship you learn to tolerate before you appreciate. Bittu pulled him away each time we tried to have a conversation, calling me a donkey didi, a stupid didi, a dirty didi, the one he hated the most. Later when the neighbor he called “brother” left, the little one spent an evening of dinner hitting me, leaving a bruise on my arm with his tiny, bony fist. “I am not his bhaiyya,” the neighbor had stormed out earlier that day. He yelled at Bittu over and over again, raising his arms to hit him constantly. “He’s just a kid!” I’d protest. My new friend was blatantly unimpressed. “But there are kids in my house too. They don’t behave like this!” I nodded. This little boy was a lot different from the kids in my homes too.
But so was the way everyone treated him. Between conversations of marriage and Modi the next day, I asked the neighbor if he had noticed the way in which he raises his arm on Bittu- almost as often and in exactly the same manner he aims for the street dogs. He didn’t understand why that was a problem.
The next time Bittu hit me, I held his hand, interlacing my fingers with his and drew him close. Before he could wriggle away, I asked, “do you want to come to the market with me?” He shook his head once. And another time. And another time. When he finally nodded, I grabbed his sweater and he opened the door. We held hands, swinging them up and down as we weaved ourselves through chaotic cars and gutterless roads. We were instantly friends. We got the momos he wanted. He told me he learned a song in school. We sang it on the road even as strangers continued to stare. As we passed the last stall on the street, Bittu mimicked the shirt seller loudly – “sau rupai ka do, sau rupai ka do!” Two for a hundred, two for a hundred. The whole street laughed. When we got home with two Kinder Joys (one girl, one boy) in hand, I asked him, “do you still think I’m a donkey?” He shook his head and ran away.
I bought a bag of smiles with half a plate of chicken momos and a fake-chocolate egg with a plastic toy. It didn’t feel like a breakthrough. But the next few days were.
Each day, he showed me a new self. His versions of the truth contained so much anger at the world. His endless chatter did not sound like that of any other child I knew. In six years of existence, he was able to make long lists of things to hate, long lists of things that hate him; it often felt like those were all he knew. The pandit, the mother, the uncle, the other uncle, the other other uncle- his language for each sounded disgusting, even when I didn’t know their literal translations. “Where do you get these words from?” I throw my hands up when I reached a point of exasperation. When I see the hurt in his eyes, I quickly dilute the aggression with a hug or a chocolate or a quick diversion to Photo Booth. Later, in cooler times, we wrap ourselves in an insufficient blanket and talk about the anger.
I soon realize the words he uses are the same words adults use for him and the words these same adults use for each other. He simply mimics a circle of hatred that surrounds him. In a short afternoon I spend playing with him outside the hostel, I hear half the conversations he normally does. By teatime, I am exhausted and repulsed. The same neighbors who are polite to me yell swords at each other. There are so many stories of betrayal and disappointment and fights and money. Always, money.
Bittu doesn’t talk money but, he too lines his words with blades. When the piece of plastic we were playing with gets stuck on the electricity cables, he calls it dead. He curses the wire, then the plastic, then the tree, then the sky, then me. Chocolate is dead. Lost balls are dead. Balloons are dead. The DVD we bought from the market with the wrong label is dead; the store owner who handed it to us should die. “When you go back, will you die?” Yes.
On the day his father stands him up, he mindlessly watches the movie playing on my laptop, a hazy version of a Bollywood movie that holds no laughter. I try to push him out of the world he’s creating in his head. For the entire week, he had been talking about his father’s visit. “This tiger is so scary!” I pointlessly exclaim. “This jungle is so pretty!” I try again. He hums for some of my outbursts but mostly ignores them as he blinks to push back tears.
I have never seen this Bittu cry. I give him a long hug. I practice my empathy-not-sympathy speech in my head, trying to remember all the vocabulary I need before beginning- everything will be ok, love. We’ll have so much fun before your father gets home. He’ll be home soon. Tomorrow, we can go to the park. And the day after, we can go to Dilli Haat. And the day after, we can watch a movie. And the day after… Bittu makes me shut up by hugging me more tightly. He might be crying. I have never seen this boy cry but I feel something on my shoulder.
I take him on as many walks as I can.
Being somewhere between adulthood and childhood means I remember well how childhood emotions grow up. An isolation that comes from an age where no one pays attention to feelings translate to the kinds of people we become. It means I remember how my own versions of truth has made me the person I am. But mostly, it makes me fear the six year-old’s anger growing into a sixteen-year old’s.
I have no solutions for him. I’m not a nine-week guide to peace and happiness. So I get him more Kinder Joys. The bribes have evolved into responsibilities. We carefully assemble the small plastic toys and lose them within a day. I ask him where he wants to go. We talk about clouds. Around him, I’m not ashamed of my broken-Hindi. Sometimes, he corrects my grammar but mostly, he lets it go. On a day I come home crying, he lets me cry with dignity until I tire myself of emotions, quietly keeping himself occupied with my watercolor pencils. On another, he presses a piece of contraband chicken into my palm before dinner. On another, he tells me how he’ll be a film star as he poses with my sunglasses.
We use every effect on Photo Booth three times a week. He never gets tired of the one with fishes and the one with the roller coaster. I think of how he’ll grow up and how I probably won’t even have a place in his grown-up memories. But he is something or another in mine. So when he tells me to turn around and put my hands up for the roller coaster, I do exactly that.