Family & Friends, Nikhil

Bedtime Rituals

We all have our bedtime rituals whether we are aware of them or not.  Some rituals are passed down to us and we don’t know their origin but once in a way, we are witness to a ritual take root in front of us.  One such ritual is our son Nikhil’s new bedtime ritual.  But before I get to that, I need to step back a little in time to speak of his prior bedtime rituals.

Our daughter had a fairly simple bedtime ritual.  I had to read her four storybooks before she slept. So that was my bedtime ritual too. Once she learned how to read, that ritual ended. With Nikhil, books were never his thing. In fact, it is only now, when he is almost fourteen that he is paying attention to stories from books, but that is a story for another day.

Nikhil’s earliest bedtime ritual was to listen to lullabies. Nursery rhymes that had to be played softly. We were able to fly with him then and my wife bought a couple of Sansa MP3 players and we uploaded all his songs on an SD card and took these along with us on our trips. They made the trip to India and back. Over time, they gradually gave up their ghost and were consigned to the graveyard of electronic devices, which in our house is represented by a couple of plastic totes.

We then bought a small portable speaker and hooked it up to an iPod. That carried on for a while. At some point, Nikhil got tired of those lullabies and he also learned how to sign “no”. So after signing “no” vehemently a couple of times, we stopped playing the lullabies.

Next, he wanted to sleep with the light turned on in the hallway outside his bedroom and his door closed. I think he was content with the sliver of light that streamed in from the small gap below his door. He did not want a night lamp in his room. We would turn the light off once he fell asleep. But sometimes he would wake up at night and we would have to turn the light on. Invariably we fell asleep before he did and the light stayed on till the next morning.

Nikhil loves to flip light switches on and off. I think he likes the click-clack sound they make more than the strobe light effects. When CFL bulbs were in vogue, we would never get the advertised lifespan since they would be subject to rapid on and off cycles. We tried switch guards of various kinds, they would deter him for a short period of time until he would figure out how to get around them and then he would flip them with redoubled vigor to make up for lost time.

During one of his exuberant light switch flipping episodes, he managed to mess up the switch in the hallway outside his bedroom and the light stopped working. We were worried that he would not fall asleep and we started turning the light on in our bedroom which is just opposite his bedroom. Given my procrastinating nature, it took me a while to fix the switch. We forgot to leave the light on in our room a couple of times and it made no difference to Nikhil. And so, for the last year or so, Nikhil has been sleeping in pitch darkness in his room.

Our daughter returned from college in March due to the Covid enforced closure. After lounging in her room for the first few days,  the inevitable boredom set in and she decided to dust off the digital piano that sat languishing in her room. She was playing after five years and as the first strains of “Für Elise” wafted out of her room, Nikhil’s ears perked up. He had heard her play this a long time ago and he probably remembered the tune. He went up to her room and stood at the door as she played.

And so, each time she played the piano, Nikhil would stand at the door of her room listening to her, sometimes standing still, sometimes stimming but definitely enjoying the music.  Nikhil’s play has always involved toys that produced sound.  If a toy didn’t, he would bang it and play with it.  The piano was a childhood favorite and he had keyboards of various kinds as he grew up.

Now, our daughter is a very affectionate older sister and she decided one day that she would resurrect an old favorite of his. She played “One little, two little, three little Indians”. The effect on Nikhil was electric! It could have been the Beatles playing for the first time on the Ed Sullivan show. He was listening to his one time favorite after a long time and he was ecstatic. He went up to her and sidled next to her on the bench and did the sign for “more”. I’m sure he was saying “Bravo!” “Encore!”. In a way, he was probably reminded of those moments from all those years ago when she would seat him next to her on the bench as she practiced the piano. He would listen intently but once in a while, he would surreptitiously jab a few keys for added effect.

And thus gradually, a new nightly ritual took shape. Now, as Nikhil finishes his dinner, he starts pressing the icon for “Piano” on his iPad. This is a sign to his sister to get ready. It is not enough for her to merely play the piano for him, he needs the ambience to go with it. As we brush his teeth and change him into his jammies, she has to go to her room, turn on the string of shell lights that adorn her wall, turn on a small lamp adjacent to the piano and then turn on the main light in her room.

One little, two little, three little Indians

He ambles in, surveys that everything is in order and then sits on the bench. Actually, amble is not the right word. He steams in like an express locomotive, full of purpose and makes a beeline to the piano. His sister is not allowed to sit next to him, she has to sit on a stool adjacent to him. He then plays a few keys at random, looks at her and then gives her the cue to play. He slides his palm under her palm and extends his finger. She then has to grasp his finger and play the song. She swears that he knows how to play the song and that if she deliberately dawdles, he will direct her to the appropriate key. I don’t know if that is indeed the case, it could be big sister pride talking or it could be Nikhil actually knowing which key comes next. He has great spatial memory, one just has to look at him operate his iPad at dizzying speed and that is evident. The keys on a piano are linear, he operates icons on his iPad that are a grid and multi-layered in depth. Every now and then he will glance back at me and my wife, sporting a big grin as is to say “Look, Ma! I am playing!”

After the song is played, depending on his mood, he will either signal her to stop or he will do the universal “more” sign to listen to her play the song again. Perhaps, after guiding her once, he wants to check if she can play the song on her own. Sometimes he is happy with one rendition, sometimes three. However, after he says he is done, she has to stop. He then waits till she turns off the string lights and the lamp. He won’t budge until that is done. He then saunters to his bedroom, which is just adjacent to hers and as he climbs into bed, she sometimes plays Für Elise or Pachelbel Canon. He sits on his bed with his legs stretched out, his head tilted ever so slightly with his lips drawn in an indulgent smile. His eyes twinkle and he is still, listening in rapt attention. Once in a way, he will point to her room and mumble something softly. It reminds me of an ustad (maestro/guru) of yore who is pleased at the performance of his shagird (disciple). It might just be my imagination, but I like to think he is saying “She can be a pain sometimes, but I think she is alright, especially when she plays the piano!”

The young maestro playing “Für Schwester”

Its bedtime then.  He hugs his pillow and squeals in delight as we hug him and kiss him goodnight.  He indulges us for a couple of minutes and then points towards the door and waves us away.  He has had a long day and it is time for him to be alone with his thoughts.  As we turn off his lights, close the door and turn the light off in the hallway, we can hear him murmur softly to himself.  Perhaps he is humming “One little, two little…” or who knows, he might just be humming that old popular Hindi song:

Phoolon ka taaron ka, sabka kehna hai
Ek hazaron mein, meri behna hai
Sari umar, hamein sang rehna hai!

The flowers and the stars all have this to say
One in a thousand is my sister
All through our lifetime, I hope together we stay!

I don’t know about eternity but so long as she is home from college, I think this ritual is safe. And when she leaves, as she inevitably will, I should learn to play the song.  Or perhaps, I will just slide my palm under his and he will grasp my forefinger and guide me to play “One little, two little, three little Indians!”.  

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