They say it takes a village to raise a child. It certainly felt that way during my childhood. I didn't spend many of my formative years around extended family, but those that I did made me feel I was being raised by committee.
It was the ultimate exercise in democracy. My mother consulted her sisters during my, ahem, challenging teenage years. My father battled it out with my grandmother when I had to decide between learning French and Sanskrit at school. There was an endless supply of aunts and grandparents to relieve my parents; their services ranging from childcare provision to after-school tuition in history and algebra. All gratis, of course, and all including as many snacks as I could manage.
More than that, though, there was an army of cousins on both sides of the family who made sure I was never alone for long. They were the ones I looked up to, the ones I went to in times of need, and when they let me down or were condescending (my brother and I were invariably the youngest), they were the ones I hated most in the world.
They were responsible for many of my best -- and worst -- childhood memories. It was with a cousin that I learnt to swim. It was with a cousin that I baked a vanilla cake that emerged from the oven a vivid shade of blue. It was when an older cousin complained that I was too young for a Walkman that I had my earliest lessons in materialisms and relativity. It was also with a cousin that I discovered Tintin, then PG Wodehouse, and then Shakespeare. I first talked about liking a boy with a cousin. It was with a cousin that I first spoke -- with terror mingled with pride -- about my changing pubescent body. It was with a cousin that I smuggled my first sip of alcohol out of her parents' stock. It was Baileys, and it tasted heady, comforting and creamy and sweet even as it filled my mouth with a wretched heat. And it was with a cousin that I learnt to think of my life beyond childhood. Many of these occasions were spontaneous, taking place during an otherwise uneventful summer, but when I look back to them, I find they embody the best times of my childhood.
My experiences were by no means atypical. Any child across the world who had access to family, whether they lived in the same house, in the same city, or those who travelled to holiday together over long summers would have had similar experiences. And yet, as I now raise my own two children, I find myself struggling to recreate that sense of family.
For one, we live nowhere near grandparents. We make one long journey to see them each year, but that involves flying for nine hours and straddling a time gap of nearly six hours. There are no aunts or uncles to provide free babysitting; and there are no cousins in the same time zone to set my children their earliest good and bad examples. The bar we set our children is by necessity inward looking, and inasmuch as they benefit from the advantages of living in an exciting, cosmopolitan city in the digital age, there is a part of me that would have them spending more time in the setting of my earliest memories. There is a part of me that would have them climb trees, bruise their knees and learn to bake disastrous cakes.
My children will never experience the blessed relief of an Indian monsoon. They will never feel the blistering heat that precedes it. But they will appreciate the bliss of a hot day during England's temperamental summers. They will enjoy Italy, France, and the myriad other treasures of the Mediterranean just as much as I did the rugged beauty of the Himalayas. They will have their own experiments with food. My son has baked seasonal gingerbread men with his friends, and my daughter very proudly counts stirring honey into her weekend milk as cooking. They are learning jokes I don't find as funny, which I suppose is an integral part of growing up and into one's own self. They have tennis buddies, they have friends they are learning to look upon as family, and they are forming their own stock of good and bad experiences.
The digital age has its redeeming factors too. It allows my children to communicate with their grandparents via Skype and email. My son, nearly six, has a long running series of exchanges with my father by email where they discuss sports and annoying younger sisters. Not quite the lasting value of paper letters stored in a musty old shoebox, but still, it is them sustaining a relationship between intercontinental visits. My daughter -- who just turned three -- takes great pride in sitting on my lap, stabbing at the keyboard to write out her freestyle script, and then pressing the blue send button on my screen to send her message across the miles to her grandfather.
And the very cosmopolitan nature of London, the city we have made our home, helps. Its full of others like us, those displaced from the homes of their childhood. We are all striving to give our children a piece of what is missing, that sense of belonging. We are all trying to recreate the thrill of the first monsoon downpour. And so we find others with similar values. Others who understand, and who will pick up the slack. It's not the village of our childhood, but it's a good alternative. It is a modern dislocated family. And it will provide my children the store of experiences they will draw from for the rest of their lives.