Noted American comedian Groucho Marx once said, “If a black cat crosses your path, it signifies that the animal is going somewhere.”
That’s all there is to it. Disregarding the innocent motives of the feline, we humans persist in making ourselves miserable by ascribing an ominous significance to its ramblings. We ferociously cling to these superstitious beliefs long after the smallest shred of reason has deserted them.
As human beings, we are all superstitious. It is only the extent and the things that we are superstitious about that vary. Nowhere is this more evident than when a little infant draws out the protective instinct within us. When this happens, all the baby-related superstitions are collectively taken out of storage and aired. Random people begin to drop hints about things you should and shouldn’t do, and if you are a first-time mother as I once was, then you begin to listen to their mutterings. You do not always believe what they have to say, but for the sake of the little one, you are not so vociferous in denouncing them. Just in case.
Long before the baby arrived, the Don’ts did. “Don’t cross your legs when you sit,” “Don’t make a wardrobe for the baby before it is born,” “Don’t eat eggs with double yolks and bananas that are joined,” “Don’t lift your arms above your head,” “Don’t tell anyone about the pregnancy” and all the eclipse-related stuff.
Once baby arrived, it was Don’t photograph her. This in an age where people are updating photos of their kids for the world and its cousin to Like almost on a daily basis. Having returned home from the hospital, baby needed to be armed at all times with a black mark to ward off the evil eye. Indians are notorious for sullying the sweetness of our little one’s faces by blackening their cheeks, chins and foreheads. I cringed but gave in. Just In case.
One of the biggest storehouses of such beliefs is the maalishwali, the woman hired to massage little babies, a tradition practised by Indians everywhere. This woman assumes a formidable position in the household with elders sometimes holding her in higher regard than they do the baby’s paediatrician. Doctor’s instructions are routinely passed through the sieve of her wisdom, which is nothing but a hodgepodge of half-baked ideas marinated in old wives’ tales, with a dash of hard horse sense thrown in.
The maalishwali who performed this service for La Niña, my daughter, used to thrust her thick thumb (used for veracity rather than mere alliterative effect) into the kajal dabba and deface my pretty one’s forehead with a large teeka the size of a one-rupee coin. To my continuing dismay, she would then wipe her thumb on my pristine white bed sheet. Even as I winced at the sight of that big black circle on her forehead and its kin on the sheet, it was the Husband who firmly offered her a ear bud for the purpose, and solved both problems at once.
There were other Don’ts that assailed me during those early days. “Don’t ever cut her nails at night” was one of them. No one cared to spell out just what kind of grave trouble would ensue. Maybe they thought that the vague tone of foreboding that they used would serve to deter me.
It didn’t. I used to end up cutting her nails at night. The thought of her scratching her own face in her sleep was frightening. And any mother of a newborn knows how fast and sharp those little nails grow.
One Don’t warned me not to apply oil on the kids’ heads and then wipe it off on my own. Something about my lifespan being enhanced at the cost of my children. It was a silly thought. And yet, not one to be taken lightly. Just in case.
Even our maid thought she’d leave her own two-bit for posterity when she told me that I shouldn’t touch a needle and thread, let alone stitch, lest the baby suffer. I told her not to be silly. But such was the power of Just In Case, that for a few days, I did set aside that huge piece of cross-stitch artwork that I had been working on. To this day, it lies unfinished.
When El Niño was born, three years later, we hired another maalishwali. She turned out to be crazier. She said that little boys must be fed their own urine at least once. Not little girls, mind you, only little boys, she said, elaborating upon her ridiculous theory. I watched her hawk-like for the two months that she spent with us to make sure that she didn’t bring her theories into practice.
When we got a cradle for El Niño, La Niña would enjoy putting her teddy bear, a stuffed dog and a stuffed doll that she calls Chintu to sleep in it. She would be chided for rocking the empty cradle, when her brother wasn’t in it. In vain was her explanation that the cradle wasn’t empty; there were three sleeping beauties in it after all.
“Don’t ever let the baby look into the mirror” was another diktat. I suppose they thought that the sight of another little baby would traumatise my little ones for life. But they only laughed that adorable toothless laugh that mothers will do anything for. And so I used to repeatedly position them in front of the mirror, and make the most laughable monkey faces I could to entertain them.
Emboldened by that laugh, I grew in maturity and confidence, knowing that my instincts and my kids would guide me towards becoming a better mother. And so, one day when someone told me that I should never kiss my babies’ faces, or say anything nice about them, lest I jinx my good fortune, I was able to laugh it off. Suddenly Just In Case didn’t have such a big shadow anymore.
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.