When I lift Agastya up to inspect my cooking, he looks at me expectantly. I say “that’s matar paneer.” He solemnly repeats the phrase “matar paneer” as if at a naming ceremony, and proceeds to ask for the dish by name several times, “Mommy, I want matar paneer,” as he grows hungrier in readiness for lunch. I’ve realized that the hungrier he is, the more likely he is to try something new. He seems to like the dish, and continues asking for it by name the next day and despite the fact that my addition of a little red chilli powder and garam masala has made the dish just a tad too spicy for him. In these cases, I alternate the spoonful of vegetable with one of plain yogurt while feeding him to kill the fire.
Although I am very pleased that Agastya likes the matar paneer, what makes me even happier is that his name for the dish is set in stone now. In Hindi words. Not that there is an English alternative, but I feel extremely satisfied to hear the Hindi words rolling off his tongue.
I have suddenly realized that the opportunity to teach Agastya his mother tongue is rapidly waning. I see it in the words for which he now refuses to learn the equivalent Hindi term. For instance his favorite toy, a car is a car. Not a gadi or a pum-pum as my baby brother used to say. The act of first naming seems to freeze things. Milk has remained doodh, water has remained pani and yogurt has remained dahi, even though he now knows the English words for all of those and uses them interchangeably. Now I wish that I had just taught him Hindi words for everything to begin with. Because the first Hindi words have remained sticky, despite the fact that the English ones didn’t take long to make an appearance. He even remembers the silly nonsensical baby words that I used to use nai-nai for bath, ta-ta for hot and ninu for sleep.
I decide to inject lots of Hindi into my speech when conversing with both my husband and Agastya. There are occasional triumphs. At dinner, I hold out a glass of water and tell Agastya “Drink this, pilo” while we sit at the table. He looks at me and giggles deliciously. “Pilo means drink, pilo means take a sip mommy” he says slowly, taking the glass. After taking a sip, he passes the glass back to me saying “pilo” with the same infectious giggle. We continue to play the game, passing the glass between us, and saying “pilo!” Suddenly he says “Mommy, peepee aya” and gets off his chair and runs to the bathroom. Perhaps all is not lost.