‘Do you like cars?’
It’s the first question my son asks a grown-up or a child he is in the process of assessing.
If they respond with sufficient enthusiasm, they are (on a good day) let into his car-ful inner world. If they shrug, snigger, or — god forbid — say no, they are summarily dismissed.
My son’s adoration for cars used to leave me baffled. There was no logical explanation for it, I’d tell myself; for his love for objects that — in my humble view — were ugly, smoky, and decidedly dull. If my boy were anything like me, he’d be inhabiting bookshops. He’d choose poetry over all else. He’d quote Donne or Dunn. Instead, he was letting me know that he’d spend his entire adult life in a car with a sunroof.
My son’s conversations with me reveal two things. First, (for some unfathomable reason) our children have no desire to be anything like us. Second, each will access the world and all it has to offer — the bounties, the lessons and the learning — his own way.
My son’s doorway to the world is cars. This is where his quest takes him.
In the early days, I was half-inclined to resist his predilections — his seemingly aimless pursuit of vehicular traffic.
But then, my chats with Supriya Narang — an unschooling mother to a boy equally enamoured with cars — and my own expeditions into dingy basement parking lots (as I followed my son) revealed to me the miracle that was unfolding.
My son was actually absorbing details. He was minutely observing things that had, until then, passed me by. The fact that some cars had side mirrors with indicator lights; or that a few had wheels with missing hub caps.
Soon, he was rattling off the names of cars, identifying the exact make of each vehicle by the sound it made. Now and again, he’d add flourishes, charmingly idiosyncratic (‘This is a Mercedes because it has a sad face — see the logo? — that’s a circle and the lines curve down.’)
I realised I had to support my child’s love interest. We googled the names of car parts — hello, front machine cover moulding; hello, side door streamer. We visited second-hand car showrooms. We even traipsed into the more uppity ones (nice to meet you, McLaren).
When my four-year-old approached a Thar in a Mahindra showroom, he called for an attendant. ‘But this car has two gears!’ he said. And the attendant told him of vehicles built for undulating terrain, of how they offered a choice of two transmissions: manual and automatic. My son’s eyes were full moons.
‘I’ve changed my mind,’ he told me that night. ‘I’m going to live in Dakar in a Thar.’
Why do I write this, I wonder. And I realise it is so I remember — despite all the noise around me, I must remember — that this is how we, as human beings, love; this is how we learn; that the two words aren’t that far apart.
We trail what enchants us, we soak in its every nuance. Sometimes, the affair lasts a lifetime. Sometimes, it doesn’t. Either way, we leave richer.
I could spend days walking my son — a decidedly reluctant son — through science and math and language. Or I could let him find his way to them, on his own terms, in time’s ripeness, through what he most adored—wheels. Only one of the two choices would spark joy.
Experts speak of self-directed learning. I think they speak of chasing happiness.
Dharini Bhaskar is the author of These, Our Bodies, Possessed by Light. She is working on her next novel and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org