One day in June 2020, I had had enough of Peppa Pig. I found a penguin documentary and put it on for my children. I didn’t know it was going to change my life. Much of the pandemic is now a blur but I can organise the epochs in different ways. One era begins the day my elder son’s much delayed speech suddenly organised itself into its first word. Not quite clear but clearly enough, he said: wildebeest. Mama-papa took another month or so. He said giraffe after wildebeest.
His younger brother likes to play “which animal?”. Walking down the street, I asked this four-year-old, “Which animal lives in Africa, is named after a river and likes to lie on the river bank and sun itself?” Salt-water crocodile, he replied. I looked down at him. He was smirking at me, having anticipated my reaction. “No, it’s Nile crocodile,” he now yelled, bouncing up and down on the footpath. The animal trivia king was adding plot twists in his private reality show—because his mother, wracking her brains to come up with newer and newer questions about the wee beasties to satisfy his wee brain, was simply not fun enough.
Let’s be real. Having watched most of their animal documentaries as many times as they have and listened to hundreds of super trashy and addictive YouTube shows about animals, I know a ton of animal trivia too. I can tell a jacana from a jerboa, an agouti from a coati, an armadillo from a pangolin—I still have an edge over the four-year-old and six-year-old. But just a tiny edge, to ensure that the tiny emperors will let me live another night in the 1001 animal trivia nights. So every couple of days, when I am walking down the street and need to ensure the boy whose hand I am clutching doesn’t run out into traffic, I can pull a rabbit out of my hat. To be precise, I can pull a snowshoe hare.
I know a lot but I am not spending my waking hours mainlining animal facts. It’s not my life’s work. In the lowest point of our pandemic life, one of our children, age 4 at the time, insisted on watching, over and over again, not Disney’s Elephant documentary (Meghan Markle’s first après-royalty gig), but the documentary about the making of the Elephant documentary. It was not super dull but dull enough to be never watched again.
Since then we have moved away from DisneyNature’s dozens of sweet, vacuous documentaries—their plots are startlingly conservative American material. After you have watched them 23 times, you feel like joining some revolution somewhere. We have moved on to the massively scaled, Sistine Chapel equivalent of animal documentaries—the new David Attenborough series on Netflix. The kids then watched those over and over again till my father began to blame the children’s strange intonation “on that terrible old man’s voice”. My scientist friend Vivek told me that my children had joined the international club of Attenbros. I watched the 95-year-old animal nerd in cardinal-red winter gear stand on a snowy slope talking about the ptarmigan’s white feathers and thought to myself, “I want to care about something so much next year.”
Weeks before the pandemic, my friend Shrada moved house and gave me a dozen palm-sized plastic animal toys. The collection has grown and grown. The baboon is in the children’s tub. The sloth perched on the tree is on the coffee table. The seven elephants wander around the house. The toucan is in the kitchen. I hate them all, always lost, always tiny, always divisive. I keep threatening to throw them in the trash. The children look away from my ineffectual self towards Attenborough or Blippy or the Kratt Brothers or Sosa.
One day, we realised our older kid could read. He had learnt the alphabet but suddenly he was reading. Our high-level bribes for their volatile travel personalities was already photo-heavy coffee-table books about animals. The books sometimes seemed to be half their bodyweight (roughly the same amount hamsters can store in their cheeks) but that didn’t seem to matter. Now he could read and didn’t need me to read to him any more. We recently went to a public library for the first time. The older one, still not much of a talker, buzzed about and then turned to me. “I want an Arctic book and an Amazon book.” How do you know such things exist, I wondered briefly before grunting and going off to perform my urgent task. At least Arctic books are bigger than Baby Elephant and don’t get lost in the sofa.
“I hate nature,” I tell my friend S. “Sure,” she says, still a few months away from the arrival of her daughter and her built-in desires, power for chaos and ability to squeeze your heart in their greedy fists. Look at these nerds, I complain to my husband as the children, who have been unbearable the whole day, now lie in bed in matching pyjamas with animal books, sweet as pie. “You did it too!” he tells me. I regret telling him about checking out volumes of encyclopaedias from the library when I was a bored child. “Not so much,” I protest.
My brother tells me, “Your kid goes on and on about animals.” As if I didn’t complain all the time, I immediately attack him, “So did you.” My brother was Sher Khan till he was six, claw-tapping and growling included. “Not so much!” he protests.
I walk into my parents’ living room and find my father and my younger child rapt in the new season of Attenborough on Netflix. They gasp, as perfectly coordinated as the fully-grown and juvenile male birds of paradise training to dance. “Have you seen this?” my father exclaims. Yes, I lie without looking, but then I forward snippets of animal videos to him. I am rewarded in emojis.
I send my naturalist friend the drawings of animals I have learnt to do for the boys. I have never drawn a thing in my life. I still hate nature but when I read Rajiv Eipe’s book Hello, Sun! to the boys, every frame of the muddy child going from snail to spider to babbler is familiar in its demented, joyous viewfinder. Hanging out with the Attenbros had ensured I counted the number of babblers in one illustration. Seven. Deliberate, I was sure, since babblers are called saath bhai (seven brothers) in Hindi.
Time is a slowly emerging concept for many children. For neurodivergent children, more so. I think about this a lot during the dinosaur phase. How do I explain extinct? I avoid it. But then they check out a thick book about extinction, attracted by its stunning illustrations. They are amazed by the animals and I have to keep interjecting that these animals are gone. They are lost. The kids are unfazed by this. So far, in their world, the lost elephant eventually reappears in the sofa.
Nisha Susan is the author of The Women Who Forgot To Invent Facebook And Other Stories. She posts @chasingiamb.