You wouldn’t guess it looking at him now, but when Nikhil was a baby he was delightfully chubby (as babies should be)—moon-faced, roly-poly, and altogether round, except for his chubby little feet, which were as close to square as feet can be, almost as wide as they were long. Like most babies he had many lovingly bestowed pet names, and each of our friends called him something different. Some of my favorites were—from Dr. Harrington, our family doctor—”my little block of granite” (situated as we were on the southern border of New Hampshire, The Granite State), from our old friend Reva, Nanook of the North, and—from our friend Jim—Krishna’s Butterball.
Now, to many Americans, particularly as Thanksgiving approaches, “butterball” probably conjures up the centerpiece of a Thanksgiving feast, but put that image right out of your mind and replace it with this one. Andrew and I had visited Krishna’s Butterball at Mahabalipuram, Tamil Nadu, in January, 1984, on our honeymoon trip to India. Jim, who had lived in India, no doubt had in mind the well-known story from Lord Krishna’s childhood, when his own mother first realized who he really was. You will find the story frequently retold, represented, and re-enacted in India, a favorite in children’s books, in bharatanatyam dance performances throughout India and the diaspora, and on wall hangings for the home. The one above, made from inlaid wood, is on the bedroom wall in our house.
It is said that Krishna was a mischievous child, delightfully roly-poly, and fond of butter. He often tiptoed over to his mother Yashoda’s store of it and helped himself liberally when her head was turned the other way. One day she caught him in the act, scooping a ball of freshly-churned butter into his mouth. When she admonished him and asked him to open his mouth, he refused to incriminate himself and kept it firmly shut. So Yashoda took his chin in her hand and opened it herself. What she saw completely blew her mind. Inside her little boy’s open mouth was not the stolen butter, but the entire universe.
For me, all babies evoke the same awe as Lord Krishna’s mother felt that day. In their wide-eyed innocence, still trailing clouds of glory, they remind us of what human beings are capable of, and fill us with protective tenderness and the resolve to live up to our best selves. That is why so many cultures tell stories like those of Krishna’s childhood, and celebrate the newborn child, as we do at Christmas. For me, this time of year has a personal dimension, since Nikhil was born just before Christmas. (The hospital even sent him home in a large, white-felt-trimmed, red corduroy stocking, with just his shining moon-face sticking out over the top.) My baby will turn 30 this year, and is now, as always, my rock; but he will also always be my little block of granite, Nanook of the North, and Krishna’s Butterball, filling me with awe and inspiring me to be my best self.