Half a tomato every day at three. Not a day missed. Tomato never replaced with the amiable amrut or placid pear. Tomato lush with lycopene, without a comforting dash of salt. All of its 10 acids to be had without fuss or fracas. At 3pm every day. Recounting to me the pitch perfect daily routine of her best friend, my eight-year-old holds a mirror to my face. “That, Mamma, is called discipline. It means you decide to do something and keep doing it without fail, every day, no matter what.” Wise as an owl, after a weekend sleepover with her best friend A, my little one took me to task. Once my involuntary pride at her aphorisms had ebbed, the crux of what she was trying to say emerged, clear as day: “I don’t mind a disciplined life. But can you, Mother, provide one?” And I, a drifter, cloud gazer who mostly relies on the ‘work of the moment’, felt lost at sea, with nary a compass or an albatross.
For as long as I can remember, discipline and I have had a troubled relationship. What is this life if not left open-ended? The lush expectation of each moment that could shape-shift in a million ways, take you to paths not taken — is that not the true essence of joie de vivre? When parenting falls on such a person, the results are problematic — ambiguous at first and then chancy with a hint of touch-and-go.
When other parents were firmly enforcing ‘stand in a corners’ and ‘time-outs’, I was seeing a thousand possibilities in their acts of mischief and wondering if I had the agency to question what has been or not been done. A lover of corners, I installed one for time-outs but it quickly became an art project. I added a red-and-white striped chair and left sketch pens around for them to doodle in their time-out thoughts on the wall. I did not believe in consequence or punishment. For who am I to inflict punishment? Or determine the rightness and wrongness of things. One thing I did however — I discussed.
Now the problem with discussion is that the children who have now gone from being cute pre-linguists to precocious pre-tween and gothic-lingo pre-teen, have now assumed that everything is on the table for an argument, nay, discussion. Bath before school or after? Surely it ought to be seasonal? Banana after badminton? Or pear? Shadow Hunters by Cassandra Clare? If not, how about Radio Silence by Alice Oseman?
Meanwhile, friend P recharges her batteries with an afternoon nap so that late at night, when her mother is back from a gruelling day at work, they can sit companionably over algebra or parse an entire poem. Friend C does riyaz for a full hour in the morning. Friend D practices sitting in aramandi for a full five minutes every evening, the same way that Michelangelo climbed the ladder every single morning for five years to paint on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Ghastly sameness! One that I overlook when I consider the genius of Michelangelo. Yet, my children, tired of surprises and blank spaces, are building their own rituals, their own boundaries and sameness-es. It is cosy to know what to expect of an evening, my elder daughter told me the other day. And I scoff at them, little Sisyphuses with their stones.
My eight-year-old is crafting her own dailiness these days. I have designed a daily planner for her, complete with season-themed bric-a-brac on the margins — autumn leaves, Durga’s third eye, adjectives. To the routine itself I am failing to contribute. With my almost-teen I am fumbling in other ways. My steadfast disparagement of discipline has cost her a best friend. My daughter and Friend R met in April — start of the school year when a section re-shuffle happened. Soul sisters.
“You be my parabatai, I be yours” — she said to my daughter.
“At long last, I have found my best friend Mamma!” — my daughter was ecstatic.
“Oh yes darling. Wasn’t it worth the wait?” — so was I.
They began co-writing a novel, a fantasy romance cum murder mystery. Over Zoom, during recess at school, they discussed the novel and the ‘crush of the week’. There were study dates, shared notes — as I saw it, two bright children, kindred souls. And then came that momentous occasion — a sleepover at the friend’s house. Friend R’s mother and I worked in perfect coordination — she planned exciting meals, lined up movies to watch. I bought peel-off face masks — kiwi and pomegranate, and new reels for the polaroid moment. Pitch-perfect.
Then it no longer was. And I was responsible for the undoing of this symphony. Friend R’s mother, an accomplished dancer, had apparently found my obvious scorn for structure, dangerous. After the sleepover, while my daughter packed her overnighter, chattily I shared little anecdotes with R’s mother — how my daughter doesn’t practise the piano as often as she should, how I could have written more, how we went on sudden road trips and thought nothing of missing school. How we were all unrealised talents. This would be recognised by many as the quintessential Bengali mother’s pride — laced with sarcasm, peppered with fake humility. We praise by unpraising. But pride, like everything else, has ethnic contexts. The mother, an artist, an achiever, in whose days every moment is precious, took me seriously and forbade her daughter to mingle with mine. “She will pull down your standards, distract you, corrupt your perfect discipline.” Poor R poured her heart out to my almost-teen who was inconsolable for a while. This impossible control over everything — from pre-scheduled LinkedIn posts to a complete absence of imperfect children — would one day be the end of art, emotion and beauty. I hardened my stance against discipline. But this incident lit a fire in my pre-teen. She chose to embrace discipline. Her days are now bound by a schedule — water-tight, clockwork, around the far edges of which I look in, hoping to entice her for a swing in the sun.
Chasing dust motes and afternoons, I have quit jobs, lived on the edge, pushed and pushed my luck. Now, I decide to let the tomato reform me. Searching for an answer to the question of how and why a fruit or a vegetable could define an hour of the day, I seek out the mother who has implemented said diktat. What is the certainty that every day at 3pm tomato will agree with the weather or the state of one’s oesophageal sphincter? More importantly, how does a tomato cohabit with free will? The mother in question, is another achiever — someone I fangirl over. A senior IPS officer in charge of Delhi’s notorious law and order, Lady Singham, as she is often called, has inspired a major character in a popular Netflix show. While I am keeping oral traditions alive, reading out bedtime stories, hugging my eight-year-old for extra warmth and expanding on the benefits of co-sleeping, Madam-Sir — first responder and moral-keeper of heinous crimes — is out there prowling the city jungle, conducting raids, busting gangs.
At a birthday party, I accost her about the regimen of tomato. With a twinkle in her eyes and perhaps a bit of wistfulness too she says, tomato at three is non-negotiable — a metaphor and Pavlovian response. “My entire life is open-ended. Days are a work of the moment — built around a crime or injustice. I ease them into a schedule so that their hours are full and accounted for. A and her brother need that. It keeps us together, even when we are apart.”
A firebolt who has crashed all sorts of gender barriers at work, my friend has come home from dangerous drug mafia raids only to be faced with a sulking nanny handing in her notice. I began to see in a different light snippets of disciplining that I have earlier scoffed at — the sameness of these rituals, a feminist tool that women are wielding to compensate for workplace structures that do not make adjustments for their dual roles. In solidarity, I too have instituted the regimen of tomato at three. For two days in a row, an entire tomato has been consumed when the clock strikes three. Would my tomato-ness last the week? I wonder.
The author is a writer with a day job in global policy