We all know how it goes– you have a child and everyone, from beggars on the street to well-meaning relatives, hopes it’s a boy. Girls are all right, but the ultimate prize, one naturally assumes, is the coveted boy that will carry your bloodline ahead, inherit the lion’s share of your life’s earnings and place a triumphant crown upon the mother of said male child (we all know that mother- she is the one who preens, almost imperceptibly, when she mentions her son). As the mother of one, then two and now three girls, this national obsession with boy babies didn’t bother me- but that was before I started to notice the language people used to describe the situation. With my first baby people would smile and chirp about how baby girls were God’s blessings and what fun I would have buying frocks and hair accessories. With my second the smile became tinged with commiseration- “koi baat nahin” being a great favourite, but tempered by “how nice to have a sister.” Which is quite true, so we tootled on happily for another few years, gently correcting people who thought either girl was a boy because they wore shorts all the time. By my third, not only did the world assume we were trying for that elusive boy, but- interspersed with exclamations of shock and horror at the prospect of us having three children- wouldn’t believe me when I would say we were quite happy with another girl! “Koi baat nahin” became a full-blown pity party. Our loyal driver of many, many years greeted the news with complete silence. Just as I thought he didn’t hear me and was about to repeat “It’s a girl!” he said, “It’s God’s will” on a ponderous sigh. All that matters is a healthy, happy baby, I said, knowing little how many times I was going to repeat those words, with growing degrees of waspishness.
The language people use to describe having baby girls is rarely ever positive. What does “koi baat nahin” mean? That’s what you say to someone who missed an O Level A by a one percentage point, or dropped five hundred rupees somewhere, or who fell down and skinned their knee. You don’t say, “There there, it’s all right,” to a perfectly normal, happy pregnant mom unless one is complaining about some terrible pregnancy-related malady (of which there are many). People ask if you have children, and when you say you have daughters, they wave it aside and ask again: Do you have boys?
Boys are real children. Girls are just what happen in between. “It’s God’s will”? If you Believe, isn’t everything? Floods and strange accidents included? Nobody ever said “it’s God’s will” when we won the World Cup or someone lands an amazing job or wins the lottery. But it is God’s will that I be tested with the challenge of raising three beautiful, intelligent, funny girls. The challenges I foresee involve paying exorbitant school fees and never having enough closet space for their shoes, but certainly not the injustice of them not being the ‘right’ sex. “Allah ki rehmat” is bandied around a lot too; this idea that girls bring with them rehmat, that intangible goodwill of God. I’ve always wondered what it is boys bring. I suppose it’s unimportant, because having boys seems to be a Heavenly thumbs-up all on its own. I’ve also been told that my girls will take care of me in my old age; not that I ever want to be in a position where I need said care, but if they aren’t living in a yurt in Mongolia or painting in Florence or killing Wall Street I would probably like the company.
In a changing room at an upscale clothing store I could hear a lady chatting with one of the salesmen, someone she knew well but hadn’t seen in a while. She sounded perfectly pleasant, asking after his wife and kids. How many have you got now? she inquired. The salesman said four girls, his voice warm with pride. Without missing a beat, the lady shot back the dreaded “koi baat nahin.” Stuck in a sweater, I struggled to escape and burst out of my cubicle, full of indignant rage. The salesman paused and said how lucky he was to have such wonderful girls. I stopped struggling. Parents like that make me hopeful about the future my girls will inherit. Mothers of three girls have squealed with glee upon hearing my news. Don’t you ever let anyone tell you otherwise, one said to me after giving me a big hug, but my third daughter is the best thing in my life. She wasn’t saying it sympathetically; she really meant it, and I was thrilled. A baby, any baby, is such an utterly devastatingly splendid miracle that I want to scream when people reduce it to the complete dumb luck of an X or Y. I once said IT’S NOT A BOY AND I’M VERY HAPPY to a green-eyeshadowed khusra outside Jalal Sons, who, startled by my vehemence, stopped entreating the Fates to turn the occupant of my bump into a chaand-sa beta and made a quick escape. I felt so protective of my little girls, being seen as not-good-enough even before they came into the world, that I was willing to bite people’s heads off for daring to suggest they should be anything but their own selves.
The only time I wish I had a son is when I meet obnoxious little boys and men—the kind who treat the world like their personal jagir, no doubt used to having the women in their life wait on them hand and foot. I know older sisters who had to cover their heads when leaving the house because their little brother said so, or were routinely told to get up and fetch their brother a glass of water. I would be privately aghast, envisioning my own (younger) brother, who used to be the one tasked with making midnight sandwiches for himself and our sister during study marathons. Any son of mine would damn well be getting his own water, and learning a few lessons in basic human compassion. Raising a feminist son would be a real boon to society, so I’ve set my sights on my nephew, and change the channel when that Molty Foam ad is on. Other than the rukhsati, a bed bare of sheets is just tragic.
n The writer runs The Sirajuddin Foundation and the lives of her three daughters, which is why she has no Twitter account and a long-defunct blog.