Jatakarma is performed immediately after birth. A mantra is repeated to the child, often having to do with peace and the generation of talent. The new father welcomes and blesses his child, and may feed him or her with a small taste of ghee.
She is handed to me. She is nameless and fragile. She sleeps. She is purple and brown, splotched with red. Her brain throbs visibly through the delicate skull I prop up with one hand. She wears a white hat and she’s draped with the green towel my wife tried to throw away, that I rescued for my gym bag, that she then appropriated for a bag of spare linen in case of home-birth mess. In the green towel she smells of viscous and post-5k-run sweat. I tried to remember whether the towel was washed after my last run. I wonder whether that was my last run.
I hold her across me. This is the first time I’ve held a baby. While my wife is being checked over by the midwives, I sit topless in my reading chair and feel a warm wet trickle of wee dribble down my stomach.
I whisper my mantra to the towel. The hat is smeared with blood and amniotic fluid. Kalpana, I whisper, so no one can hear me. Kalpana, I whisper over and over because I don’t want my wife to worry that I’m doing this for religious reasons. Especially in her post-body-trauma state. I don’t want the midwives to think I’m speaking in tongues. Even though this moment is the moment I was promised everything would change, I would gain some sort of nirvana state where everything became about the baby; instead I feel self-conscious. My feet touch the edge of the birthing pool, where blood and faeces bob; there are two cooing strangers in our house, who talk in the heightened pitch of the person who deals mostly with children every day; and my wife is in some sort of calm shock, lying on our spare futon mattress, smiling vacantly.
Kalpana, I whisper again and again. It means ‘imagination’. That is the mantra I would like my child to have.
I stand up and walk to the fridge. I open it and pull out a box of butter. I have no ghee. Butter will do, won’t it? Aren’t they the same thing? Except, this is olive spread.
‘Hungry, are you?’ asks one of the midwives.
Embarrassed, I put the butter, the olive spread, back in the fridge. Kalpana, I say to my tiny little baby, with her bony calves poking out from underneath the towel. Kalpana, I say. Kalpana. Imagination.
The namakarana, or naming ceremony is held sometime between the 10th and 41st days of a new life. This ceremony marks the child's formal entry into his or her sect of Hinduism. Names are chosen according to astrology, and learned gurus are consulted in deciding on a name. Names of gods and goddesses are preferable. This tradition is considered a special blessing because you will have the added benefit of remembering the deity each time you say your child's name.
We want to give you a name, child. I don’t think I can wait ten days. Certainly not 41 days. My wife points out that she is allowed to have a name before the 10th day. That’s just the day of the namakarana. When things become official.
Naming is difficult. Our daughter is in the in-between world. If we give her a name that sounds too English, it will jar with my surname. If we give her a name that sounds too Indian, that will strip away half of her Englishness, and also give people cause to project a stereotype on to her. Weirdly, giving her a full Indian name, in my mind, has a higher chance of prejudice than a half Indian name. All the in-between names, well, we live in Bristol. The hippies have stolen all the best inbetween names – popular culture has given us the Mayas and the Jasmines and the Rubys. We are at peak Ruby currently, because of Ruby Tandoh. Scanning through the top 100 names of girls, we cross out any that are on our shortlist. Our daughter will be special. This means we lose all our preferred in-between names.
We have two names left: Anoushka and Olive. Anoushka means graceful. I don’t particularly feel anything towards the meaning – I just love the name. It has a lush open middle and a percussive ending. It’s warm. It reminds me of Anouskha Shankar. It sounds like music. Olive, on the other hand, is sweet, she will have olive skin, we’re fans of olives, food-related things always go down well in my life.
Neither of them fit. One feels too in one world and one feels too in the other. We’re lost in discussion about which name feels most like her. She’s a day old, she hasn’t opened her eyes and she is silent except for the chomping sound she makes when she feeds. She is frail and her legs are still tucked underneath her like she’s a shop-bought turkey ready for Christmas.
She has no personality.
How do you give her a personality?
We call her Sunnie. For many spurious reasons. It was a Sunday, it was a sunny day, Sunny Deol, Sonny and Cher, Sonnyjim as a potential nickname, Sunny side of life, Good Day Sunshine. Spurious, spuriouser and spuriousest. The real reason is, we love the sentiment.
We hope it doesn’t become a rod for her back, a lack of a sunny disposition. She’ll probably become a goth.
My family visits in two clusters. My sister asks me to light a candle for the baby. My aunt brings a tub of food for Katie. The food contains all the vitamins, herbs and nourishments Katie needs to reinvigorate her body following labour. It’s an old ayurvedic recipe passed down through our family.
Katie takes a small bite. She’s not a fan of the taste, somewhere between pure brown sugar and raw garlic.
Presents from our family are envelopes of cash. Not knowing what to buy our child, knowing our particular tastes, our need for gender-less clothes, not wanting to make choices for us, they give us money for the baby. Pound coins spill out of them. It’s lucky to give money in 1s - £11, £21, £31 and so on.
A stack of pound coins meant for my child is placed in a money box for when she’s ready to buy things.
My dad never changed any of my nappies. He has few memories of me or my sister as a baby. He doesn’t know what songs were sung to us, what our favourite picture books were or whether we slept or cried through the night.
It must be a generational thing, I figure, for me to want to be so hands-on. To scoop away waste from the birthing pool, to change nappies, to sing songs, to do some of the night time cuddle support. It’s now socially acceptable for men to be fathers.
My dad is of a type though. The Gujarati male father figure.
We were never close until my late twenties, when circumstance meant I had to help him find a job. We were never close until we worked together and spent lunches together and his pride was replaced with mutual respect. It took us a long time to get to the place where we could converse beyond perfunctory updates on career and housing and sport, mostly cricket. I don’t want my child to get to know me late in life. I want her to know me from the start.
I will not wake up to a cup of tea made for me in silence while I cough up my lungs and clear my sinuses of thick phlegm. I will not change the channel from whatever frivolity is on one channel in order to watch the news and check Ceefax for the cricket updates. I will not work till late at night, come home and drink, staring into space thinking about work, engaging my children only to nod and reprimand as required. I will not eat my meals by myself, one hand clutching the plate, the other shovelling food into my mouth as quickly as possible as I watch half an hour of television and count the seconds till my night cap. I will not work on weekends. I will not avoid changing nappies. I will not only be concerned with exam results and studies. I will not only take an interest at defined junctures. I will not lose sight of the every day of my children.
I will not be my father.
I respect the man. I will be the opposite of him.
My friend pronounces Sunnie’s name with an Indian accent. He says Soo-neeee. I correct him. He repeats the mistake minutes later without realising.
It’s Diwali and Sunnie and I watch the sky for fireworks. My wife snoozes on the sofa. The lights are off, the curtains are open. We wait for Bristol’s skies to be awash with sparkle trails. There are none.
‘For a city that’s obsessed with Hinduism and yoga and pop-up masala chai shops, there is no evidence it’s the biggest festival of the Indian calendar,’ I tell my daughter. She gurgles. I decide all future Diwalis will be in London. With our family. And she will know more about it than me. I know nothing.
I talk to Sunnie in Gujarati. She laughs. She giggles. She finds it hilarious. I say to my wife that I worry she thinks Gujarati is gibberish.
‘Maybe she’s just racist,’ I joke.
We talk about her cultural heritage. I am concerned that she will grow up without the ability to speak Gujarati, any knowledge of Hinduism, no chilli tastebuds and her ears will be a Bollywood-free zone. It’s up to me to educate her. ‘The default is English,’ I say. ‘Everything in her life is English. It’s up to me to enforce the Indian part. I just don’t know how to, because I shied away from it so much. It’s like, we have a milk chocolate bar in front of us. And currently, the mixture is too milky. We need to add more dark chocolate into the mix. Milky milk chocolate is the worst.’
‘It sounds like you’re racist,’ my wife says. ‘Against chocolate.’
I adopt a donkey for my daughter before she is born. The donkey’s name is Little Vijay. I’m taken by his goofy trickster profile, though none of it is in evidence when we visit. He stands on the opposite site of the field and grazes. I adopt him because the other donkeys have names like Sparkle, Buzzby, Meadow, Pixie – he is Little Vijay. His stature and ethnicity ingrained in his personality, he is one of the adoption donkeys. At first I assume that he is constantly up for adoption because no one wants him. Maybe because his ethnic name makes him seem less playful and magical. Less like a Disney character.
He’s a show donkey. An archetype. Which is why he is always up for adoption.
My daughter receives a fluffy beanbag donkey toy with the adoption pack. I place it on the end of her moses basket and wait for her to notice. As she thrusts her arms and legs about in ignorance of Little Vijay’s watchful perch, I whisper the Gujarati word to her. Gadhero. It means donkey, I say. She giggles and reaches out for the toy with her fingers instead of a clenched fist.
I didn’t know I knew the word. Now I do, it seems like the perfect place to start teaching her the language of half of her ancestors. I am her gadhero and together we will muddle through.