When my friend Kritika requested me to baby sit her 10 year old son Arnav for a day and a half I was excited. I really like Arnav. He is observant and articulate. He respects women and Kritika tells me that sometimes he goes a little overboard with it. She told me that in his karate class when he has to fight against girls he always loses. The girls are ruthless but he will just never hit them back. When I asked him why he plainly said, ” I just don’t like to beat them, they are all so pretty.” Well, then! It will be safe to say that I think he is one of the nicest 10 year olds around.
In my very limited experience with children I have always loved the time I spend with most of them. Their perspectives are different. They have fundamental questions which you have never tried to answer yourself while you always wanted to. Their love and hatred is based on trust and they trust much easily than adults. There are no grey shades, things are mostly black or white. Life is just very simple.
So when Arnav came home I was looking forward to a day of conversations. We had Pav Bhaji and strawberry milkshake Mumbai style for lunch and then I asked him what would he like to do. He sat on the sofa and swayed his leg, I realised he might be nervous. We had never spent so much time before. So he looked around and pointed at my VR Headset – the virtual reality device that was kept on a stack of books and asked, “What is that?”. I explained the concept to him. About what those goggles/headsets do, the games that can be played, the places that one can visit etc – all from one’s living room. I told him he could go all the way to the space and come back…..twice. This got his attention. I put the VR headset on him and it took him around ten minutes to understand how it functions. This generation is so quick with learning about technology. It is pretty amazing.
Arnav was hooked on to those goggles after that.When his eyes got tired he would switch his attention to the Xbox One sitting in the living room and then animated movies. We spent the whole day sitting on the couch. Him in his virtual world and me studying. At around seven he looked really tired so I suggested that we should have a quick dinner and he should go to bed. He did exactly that.
As I looked at Arnav sleeping peacefully and closed the door I felt uncomfortable. I sat on the sofa with a glass of milk and tried to reason with my discomfort. In the 8 hours that we spent together he got to see dinosaurs through his goggles, shoot men, race cars and watch movies on the T.V. He seemed pretty happy, satisfied even. So what was troubling me? Was it the fact that my existence in the room really did not affect his happiness? If I was not sitting in that room would he really care?
When I got up in the morning I looked outside the window and looked at the beautiful fall colours. It made me feel good just sitting and looking at the trees and the birds chirping. It was peaceful. I suddenly realised what had troubled me the day before. In the 8 hours we had spent together we had not had a single meaningful conversation. In the need of keeping him busy, I had left him wandering in a world that really did not exist. He saw dinosaurs and went into the space …. but it was not real. For an entire day I let Arnav live in a world he would never really be able to touch or feel. All this because it was just a convenient choice for both of us. I could study and he could be entertained just sitting on the couch.
That morning we had breakfast and I decided that we were going to spend the whole day outside. I would take him to the park and spend the day there. I packed us some lunch and left. When I told him we were going to the park, he asked me if we could play video games instead. I promised him if he got bored we will come back home. The 30 mins drive to the park was silent. We walked around in the park, he insisted on holding my hand. So I did. It was a beautiful morning. The nature around us was overwhelming. After a while we sat down on a bench. Arnav had not spoken much the whole of that time. I was almost worried of boring him. But then Arnav asked me his first fundamental question, “Why do leaves change colours in the fall?”. I suddenly felt hopeful. It was another thing that I had to google the answer.
The day after that was a breeze. Arnav was unstoppable with his questions. We spoke about rabbits, trees, squirrels, caterpillars and butterflies. We spread a bed sheet on the green grass, ate sandwiches, I lay down beneath the blue sky while Arnav tried to draw his version of the rabbit. By the end of the day on our drive back he trusted me enough to tell me about a crush he had on a blonde girl in his class. It made me laugh, while he blushed.
When we reached outside his house I got down to get his stuff. As I started to say good bye I asked him which of the days he liked better. “I liked today, it was fun to chase that rabbit in the park.” I smiled gave him a tight hug and left. Out of the rearview mirror I saw Arnav waving back at me with the sack bag on his back and the painting of a rabbit which looked like a rat in the hand that was not waving at me.
This time the real world won against the virtual.
I really hope Arnav will always choose the real over the virtual. I hope he chooses actually visiting Central Park instead of experiencing it on his Virtual Reality headset. I really hope he knows the joy of chasing rabbits will always be superior to seeing dinosaurs sitting in his living room.
In the end I really wonder if we can play a more conscious part in helping Arnav make that choice.