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Of Mothers and Playgrounds

A close-up of a field of daisies, small white flowers with thin petals arranged radially around yellow centres.

If you’re walking over from my side of Fatehgunj, you can be at the first gate of Sayaji Baug in ten minutes. This public garden, one of the largest in Western India, is a world within a world. It’s a 113-acre sprawl, built along the banks of the Vishwamitri River. Within its gates, massive expanses of green are sectioned off from each other by sweeping paths and narrow little trails. The shadows of trees that I remember from my childhood dapple the ground underfoot during the day. Butterflies dance in the still air at high noon; chittering squirrels dart from tree-root to tree-top; large families of solemn-looking langurs that you know to avoid pick at each other’s backs; birds of every colour whoop and call. At dusk, the rising moon darkens the twisted roots of the banyan trees along the periphery of the garden.

When I was a child growing up in Vadodara, I would run through the entrance of this garden, eager to play. Now I return to the garden as a woman, with a child of my own. A similar exuberance takes over me but with it, a new feeling – a sense of loss. Being exuberant doesn’t come easy these days. Since leaving Vadodara at 18, I have consecutively navigated three Indian cities. This is no mean feat when you live in a woman’s body. On trains, buses, rickshaws, quiet gullies, pavements, bars, nightclubs, I developed my hard-shell city-girl coping mechanisms and wore my defences with pride. Constant vigilance. Travel in packs. Text a friend when you reach home. I learned both how to make myself escape attention and how to stand up for myself and make a scene when a scene was called for. City-living gave me talons and claws, but now I want to put those away. I want something else. I want softness. I want grass under my feet. I want the fist in my stomach to slowly unclench. I want the garden of my childhood to get lost in play while letting sunlit hours pass over to rosy dusk. I’m fatigued from the many years of having to keep my city-girl eyes open and my city-girl mind alert.   

I am now deep in my second brush with a playground-garden because I am a mother of a four-year-old. I live in a gated housing society in a suburb of Pune. The society boasts 7 buildings, two playgrounds, a gym, a pool, a communal “club house” space, and a basketball court all connected to each other by paved driveways lined with trees and flowering bushes. “These amenities you won’t get in Camp or Wanowrie,” the real estate agent had said when we were considering moving here. He was right. This suburb wasn’t Pune proper. The roads undulate gently, there’s less traffic in the gullies. You can see the Sahyadri hills from humongous balconies. And the rent is so low as to almost be a joke. I was sold. I love low rents. I love amenities.

In the evenings, my child and I are at the society playground. This is a sizeable patch of grass bordered by a low hedge. There is also a sandpit with swings, monkey bars, a see-saw and a slide. The grass is cool and crisp underfoot. Another mother sees that I’ve kicked my sandals off and she does the same. “It’s called earthing and it releases stress,” I say knowledgeably, “Yes and it’s very good for the children also,” she says. I look over to where my child is playing with hers. Their fists and toes are deep in the sand. I tell my husband how much the playground means to me these days. It’s a gentle end to a day. An outdoor haven. It’s an opportunity to notice things I wouldn’t normally:  how sunsets begin and how quickly they end, how the light in the sky becomes fragile, the sight of birds flying to nests, the dark shapes of fruit bats against the dying light. It’s nature. “This isn’t nature,” my husband says, “This is landscaping.” Amenities.

Landscaping or not, I wonder if other women can afford even this brief respite. In any discussion of whether green spaces are accessible to urban-dwelling women, I ultimately must ask this question. Why is having a patch of grass, a piece of open sky so important? I’ve grown up in cities. I like my creature comforts – running water, electricity, plug-in mosquito repellents. The answer comes from my new position as a mother. Motherhood is relentless. Even if you’re one-half of a cis-hetero parenting team, care work falls disproportionately to the mother. Equitable distribution of labour is a myth, though we may still bleat about it feebly in progressive spaces. “We both work, we both pull our weight,” is the party line. Yeah, yeah, yeah. I like to say sometimes that my husband works in tech, and I have a degree in women’s studies and work as a writer. “Who do you think,” I joke, “has let their career take a backseat?” Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t go quietly into the bliss of motherhood. In the early days, when my child was still an infant, I struggled to keep up my end of the household income with my freelance writing projects, using time I should have reserved for rest or sleep, to work. I was so brutalised by capitalism that I only saw my worth in how much income I could generate. My self-worth was heavily cloaked in girl-boss feminism, which had always taught me that I was meant to have it all. It took a lot of unlearning to reconfigure care work as WORK, and hard work too. Time works differently for mothers. A toddler’s meltdown, even if it takes a few minutes, can feel like a 12-hour shift. At the end of it, you’re both in tears and you’re sitting on the floor exhausted like someone who has run a marathon (but lost), and then even while you kiss away your child’s tears, you can get overcome by guilt about how badly you handled the whole ordeal. You just want to throw in the towel, but… you can’t. In this journey of unlearning, it is the playground, my small patch of grass, that constantly teaches me gentleness, with myself, with my child. I give up my tired notions of productivity, of hustle culture. You don’t have to produce constantly to be of value, I tell myself, as I look up the name of a bird I’ve just seen. (It’s a Greater Coucal). You just have to come as you are and that is enough. The playground garden shows me that daily moments of frustration, of helplessness, of regret, pass and metamorphose into other things. Love, patience, empathy. The playground also offers me community – the other mothers. Not at all surprisingly, we are the only parents in the playground. A father is a rare sighting, and we like it that way. Sometimes we will talk: about pre-schools, about potty-training, about what we have prepped for dinner. Other times, we claim a corner of the grass and sit there, enjoying a small spot in the wide world, where we can breathe in the sweet air and release the day.

I am deeply aware of how just outside the gates of my luxurious gated society, the real world still roars and clangs. Other young girls are sharpening their talons just like I did and theirs have to be sharper, deadlier. My little landscaped patch of grass is a luxury and a privilege, but it shouldn’t have to be. I want this for every woman, every mother, every grandmother, in every city in India. A place to just be. A younger version of me would have advocated for better public transport, better public toilets and of course these are still very important. But letting nature help me mother has turned me into a zealot. I want natural spaces in whatever form I can get them. A trek in the hills on a weekend. A bench under a tree. I want to dream, out in the open, out in public, without looking over my shoulder. I want to feel like I belong in this world. And I don’t want to beg for it either. It is my birthright.