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Could I borrow your turban?

How do you explain diversity and representation to children under lockdown when all they see is their parents all day?

Labels and names often come with other, unnamed and incorrect ideas.
Labels and names often come with other, unnamed and incorrect ideas. (Photo: Getty Images)

Two weeks ago, when face masks were only just gaining popularity in India, my two-and-a-half-year-old pointed at a man wearing one and shouted, “Run away, run away. He’s wearing a mask."

He removed it, to put his beedi in his mouth, and she shouted, “Okay, now we can go near him."

Wait, what?

Fast forward to today, when my husband was going out to buy vegetables and she said, “Daddy, don’t forget your mask."

Representation matters.

Some of the other mothers at my daughter’s school were recently discussing when and how they hoped to explain homosexuality to their children. I am lucky that way—one of my best friends is gay and regularly comes over with his partner and my daughters have known and loved them since they were born.

Living in India, in diverse and crowded Mumbai, my daughters are as used to seeing bodycon dresses as hijabs and Sundays, my older says, are the best days to go to the park because then all the “Muslim dadas" wave at her and let her go on the swing first.

During Ganesh Puja, she points at every Ganesh idol and says “Namaste. Hindus!"

Driving past a gurdwara, she shouts, “Punjabi people are praying! Waheguru."

Outside a church she says, “Amen, Jesus Christ. All the Christians are there."

At the grocery store, she sees an East Asian-looking baby in a stroller and says, “Japanese babies are so cute. They eat noodles."

I ask her who taught her all that.

“My nanny," she says. “And I also speak Konkani now."

“Really?" I ask.

She wanders off singing a song in Konkani. She’s always right, that little one.

In our other home of New York City, these words, these labels are hushed, muttered, coded. We are increasingly afraid to call anyone anything. And of course sometimes we should be because people aren’t always what they may seem—people have preferences and those should be respected. And, as my girls will learn as they get older, labels and names often come with truckloads of other, unnamed and incorrect ideas.

But as the brown mother of my half-brown, half-white daughters, I don’t want them to live in a world that doesn’t see colour. I don’t want the Indian part of their identity to be hushed. But I also don’t want anyone to point to them and distil them down to a one-dimensional idea and say, “Half-Indian babies like dal."

These things are complicated and being stuck inside the house is giving us all a lot of time to talk.

So I tell her that Japanese babies don’t necessarily like noodles and in fact, we don’t even know if that baby at the grocery store was Japanese. She doesn’t remember the baby but now she wants noodles for dinner.

Talking never works as well as living when it comes to parenting young kids. And it’s a struggle right now in lockdown, with representation shrinking since they don’t see much except us and that means they are mostly seeing me staring at the ceiling in anxiety and disbelief as the world seems to be crumbling all around us. So if someone is willing to lend us a hijab, a turban, maybe an ao-dai, or anything other than the sweatpants I am wearing every single day of this lockdown, I would much appreciate it.

Diksha Basu is the author of The Windfall (Bloomsbury). Her new book, Destination Wedding (Bloomsbury), will be out in June.

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