When a child is born, most people start making guesses about which basic template the child’s appearance derives from. Does he/she look like the father or mother? Or maybe the blueprint has been borrowed from the grandparents, or even an old forgotten grand-aunt somewhere?
The face is deconstructed with the eyes, nose, cheeks, mouth and chin compared to its counterpart on the parents’ faces. Similarities and differences are minutely observed and a quick analysis made and dispensed with reference to the other parts of the body, such as the length of the fingers, the shape and size of the toes and the quantity and quality of the hair.
Regardless of the fact that the facial features of little babies alter almost on a daily basis, relatives and other acquaintances take particular pleasure in dissecting the face of the little one to find resemblance with family members, living or dead.
When La Niña was born, we had a lot of visitors from the Husband’s side. All of them insisted that the wee one was a spitting image of him. In fact, for much of La Niña’s early years, I would hear people gush, “Ooh, she’s a 100 percent carbon copy of him (meaning, the Husband).” Lest that not be enough for me, they would re-phrase for my benefit. “She is nothing like you.” This behaviour continues to this day. Just last month, we visited one of his relatives. The woman said to me, in the middle of a totally unrelated subject, “No one will ever say she is your daughter.”
Such comments, of course, pleased the Husband and he preened proudly. I, on the other hand, would be, despite my best intentions, hurt and disappointed.
As she grew, La Niña exhibited a bit of a sweet tooth. This tendency created a tiny flutter amid a family where almost everyone preferred spicy food. “This is a strange tendency,” they muttered. “Where could she have got it from?” The question perplexed them for a while. No one paid the slightest attention to me.
For a while they racked their brains, shaking their family tree vigorously, naming one distant relative after another, in the hope of throwing some light on the progenitor of this tendency. I watched the guessing game, my patience wearing thin. Finally I asked hesitantly, “Has it ever occurred to you that, in some respects, she may have taken after someone who isn’t from her father’s side of the family?” Their eyebrows rose in genuine surprise. I continued, “She could have taken after me.” Horrors! They reacted violently as though I’d just suggested that the courier boy or the milkman was the only other person in living memory who shared her fondness for sweets.
On a rare occasion, a friend mentioned that although La Niña more closely resembled the Husband, her nose was unmistakably mine. Rational as I am, I clung to that suggestion with a tenacity that would have been laughable, if it weren’t so pathetic.
Looking back, I wonder why I allowed myself to feel so disappointed and/or elated at such a trivial matter. It was indeed a most unreasonable expectation. How did it matter if La Niña looked like me or not? Why was I allowing other people’s perceptions to upset my mood? The notes of a rather cheesy Bollywood song, Tune mera doodh piya hai, tu bilkul mere jaisa hai (I have nursed you at my breast, you are just like me), wafted into memory.
Children, I told myself, are never going to be a 50:50 percent mix of both parents. There are factors known as dominant genes and recessive genes that are going to assert themselves in varying degrees. And yet we human beings, naïve as we are, take pleasure in hoping that our children will look exactly like us. The idea that elements from our gene pool are going to be perpetuated carries huge appeal for us. Even as growing children, we begin to appreciate the significance of being told that we are just like our parents.
The other thing I cannot understand is why we as Indians lay so much stress on what the child looks like. What purpose does it serve — this incessant peering into a baby’s face for real or imagined resemblances? Why does a little baby need to measure up to these yardsticks anyway?
Perhaps, at the bottom of it all, we all have a need to feel connected to those who came before us and to those who come after. I’ve had cousins who used to wear their mother’s heels and parade around the house. I know of daughters of teachers who held a ruler in their hands and tried to whack the stuffing out of their stuffed toys.
In the end, our genetic legacies tumble out of their hiding places at most unexpected periods of time. And contrary to the perceptions of some people, they are not limited to body shapes, facial features and graying and balding patterns. We see our children bent upon some task, their foreheads knit in severe concentration, and they remind us of our old grandmother who used to bend over some task in the same pose. We see our kids shouting, painting, enjoying a good book, swooning to the tune of one of our favourite ballads, and they remind us of ourselves, in a long-ago world.
Our temperaments, ways of communicating and listening, sense of humour, perceptions, beliefs and social skills, work ethics, temper, abilities and passions, likes and dislikes, they are all, to varying degrees, inherited. This discovery has done my heart a great deal of good.
I was thrilled to bits when I noted that La Niña, at eight months of age was showing unmistakably that her eyebrows were going to converge over the bridge of her nose. Just the way mine used to back when I was a little girl. La Niña also has my ability to drive her father out of his wits by mere words alone. Every day I discover a hundred things that bind her to me and to my family. The family, I have learned, is a large mirror and we all reflect one another at some time or the other.
So if there is anyone out there who still thinks La Niña is nothing like me, what can I say? You don’t know a thing.
Cynthia Rodrigues Manchekar loves being mamma to 4-year-old La Niña and 18-month-old El Niño. A working mother, she enjoys writing short stories and poems and looks forward to being published someday. She blogs at http://cynthology.blogspot.in and tweets @Cynth_Rodrigues.