The toothless smiles

From the archives….

Human needs are strange things. We all know the basic needs of roti, kapda aur makaan (food, clothes and a roof over the head). These are physical in nature, but there are other needs, which are motivated by factors and compulsions that are far from physical. They, in fact become more and more intangible, complex and vague as one grows older — from needing milk and a cuddle when hungry as an infant, to getting acceptance in a peer group as an adolescent to social status and more as an adult.

The idea intrigued me enough to make me an observer. What followed was a revelation of sorts — all in the course of a workday morning.

The early morning routine of the household is shattered by the piercing wails of the baby.  “Ma, Pinky is crying, make her shut up!’ announces the five-year- old sister of the baby. She is in a bad mood. It was bad enough that the baby had taken away her position as the apple of everyone’s eye in her grandparents’ house, without her crying all the time for more attention!

In the other room a 17-year-old member of the family is wrestling with a tough math problem and tut-tuts impatiently at the crescendo of shrieks emerging from the baby’s room. Various other clucking and irritated mutterings follow. Since the mother of the baby is busy elsewhere, I rush to the crib to investigate. She needs to be changed. I pick her up, coo and talk to her as I change her diaper. When I put her back in the crib, she gives me a toothless smile of divine beauty and contentment.

Her need born out of helplessness and dependence has been met by someone who loved her unconditionally. She feels secure and her world is a happy one — for the moment. That is all that matters.

The five-year-old has clearly outgrown the stage when a hug and kiss would have satisfied her. This is not to say that these two are not needed anymore but in addition to them she also needs attention and lots of it. The arrival of the baby has threatened her position in the family. It is the birth of the ego and jealousy in the human mind. These two come with their own set of needs.

“Ma, give me a cuddle, right now!” she demands climbing on to her mother’s lap. When she is told to wait till the baby has had her milk, the five-year-old whines, “You never ask the baby to wait. You don’t like me.”

Unlike the baby’s need which when met elicits a happy smile, the five-year-old has already begun evaluating her needs and trying to get the maximum mileage out of them. There is nothing unconditional or physical about this need. I see the beginnings of the loss of innocence.  It is the birth of negative emotions like jealousy, impatience and anger at the thwarting of the ego.

The ten-year-old is not bothered if the family members are too busy to pay him the kind of attention he had craved for as a five-year-old. His need now is peer approval and inclusion in their group. He is very upset because he has not been allowed to go on the class picnic. His prime worry is about the reaction of his friends and classmates. They would call him ‘kanjoos’ (miser). He is already feeling left out because he is the only one amongst his group of freinds whose family doesn’t own a car.

The teen we met earlier is done with the math problem. He has his own set of needs: to be the best in his studies, in addition to being seen as a ‘cool dude’ by his friends and admired by the opposite sex. He gets up and hastily accosts his mother. He needs permission to stay out late; it is his first date and so he also needs an advance on his pocket money for the outing and a ‘cool’ outfit to go out in. “I promise to get up early and bring the milk every single day, please ma,” he begs her. This is a supreme sacrifice for someone who loves his morning snooze. He is clever enough to know that some manipulation, bargaining and even sacrifice are in order to have his needs met. Note that the needs have become even more complex, requiring more than simple gratification.

The lady of the house is rushing through her chores, — she has some shopping to do. Her husband has got a raise and they have just moved into a bigger house in a more up market area of the city. They are planning to host a party for his colleagues. She is afraid that the old curtains and worn out sofa would not pass muster in the eyes of the guests. She has been embarrassed already when one of the neighbours had dropped in to say hello. Hence the shopping trip. The need here is one of status. It is vague since it is meant to satisfy others and not oneself — an extrapolation of the teen’s needs for approval.

Her husband is hollering for something. She can’t recognise him for the same amiable man who used to turn his hand around the house. Of late some unnamed ego hassle has cropped up which needs constant bolstering and is gratified only when she goes huffing and puffing to do his bidding. The ego which was born in the five-year-old mind has grown over the years and has taken deep roots by middle age and demands bigger gratification.

Her father-in-law is grumbling about not getting to see the newspaper till afternoon, when everyone else has had his or her use of it. Ditto with the mother-in-law who is complaining : her granddaughter has come for the delivery of her second child and as the senior member of the house, she should have been rightly consulted about the her diet. “Who has the time or patience for an old woman’s wisdom?” she shoots at no one in particular. The need of the older generation is one of respect and authority. They feel threatened by the loss of both. More intangible needs!

The target of the husband’s ire and the complaints of the older members of the family is at the end of her tether. She is rushed off her feet as it is. What about her? Does anyone care? Her need is one for appreciation of all the roles she is playing day in and day out ceaselessly.

She sighs. Just then she hears a feeble voice calling out from the inside room. It is her bedridden grandmother-in-law. In the chaos and cacophony, no one hears her. The woman pauses in her tracks evaluating her choice: husband’s tantrum or the old woman’s need? Volume wins the debate and she goes to her husband.

It is again left to me to do the needful. I run into the room to find the octogenarian woman coughing. I lift her up gently and hold her as she slowly sips the glass of water I give her. I then smooth her frizzled hair from her brows and straighten her pillows, while softly talking to her. It is no use since she is tone deaf and can only see my smile and feel the love.

With a contented sigh, she lies back on the pillows and gives me a beatific toothless smile of gratification.

Her simple physical need born out of helplessness and dependence has been met by someone who loved her unconditionally. She feels secure and her world is a happy one — for the moment. That is all that matters.

It is then that it suddenly strikes me: Human needs have come a full circle.


  1. How beautifully you have summarized the full circle of life and how wonderfully you have chronicled the needs at different times Zephyr ! I am in awe. Yes, life does come to a full circle.
    During this stage, human mind is beset with so many wants, needs and frustrations and life doesn’t seem simple at all.
    The other day, I was wondering about happiness. I realized happiness was in feeling the breeze, sipping a hot cup of tea, lying back in a comfortable bed, even in washing vessels with total mindfulness.. happiness is in being alive and sometimes in the rush of life, we forget to be happy and expect it to make an appearance in a grand way.. As Ruskin Bond puts it in his book.. “happiness is as elusive as a butterfly and we must never pursue it. If we stay very still, it may come and settle on our hand.But only briefly.”


    1. That one morning brought to me the truth of how we can find and learn a lot of lessons if we are observant and are able to perceive things with an open and questing mind. Loved your observations about happiness. I would go as far to say that happiness has been commodified as many other things in this commercial world and so we have come to expect it to make an appearance on paying the price! That reminds me, I still have to buy the Ruskin Bond book 😦


  2. Interesting observation.and so true..tabhi kehte hain na ki ..old and chilldren are same..


  3. hellooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo MAMI how are you doing

    remember me …


    1. Hey Bikram! How are you? Of course I remember you. Good to see you back.


  4. Yes, human needs come full circle indeed! In the beginning and at the end they are pretty simple, – in between they are more complicated…….


    1. And because they are complicated, they are hard to fulfill!


  5. Hi Zepgyr. That is such a wonderful article. So uncomplicated and close to home. Its uncanny how complicated and even dramatic our needs become once the basic ones are met. It’s important to read such posts every once in a while just to remember how happy we are. However, even when we know we have everything we need, there are things we want. Even if not having them won’t kill us. You know like approval, appreciation etc. Despite knowing everything, it’s hard to get into that zen state where you don’t crave such gratification. Any tips? 😉

    PS I read all your posts. Just that they make me want to post long wordy comments, and that, with my tots, is impossible. Hence you never see me here. But i love love love coming here, keep writing.


    1. No dear! I am as clueless as you are about getting over the useless needs that we seem to be accumulating and then being disappointed about when not met 😦 But we can always keep striving to inch closer to the zen state, can’t we? 🙂

      Thanks for reading the posts, and though I would love to have feedback however lengthy they might be, I am glad you consider my posts worth reading 🙂


      1. Well take my little boys away for the weekend and i’ll type a lifetime’s worth of feedback on your blog. otherwise, theres only so much i can do while they sleep 😉


  6. First things first. I love the layout.
    Now for the post. This is one honest , beautiful account. I agree with you that the tenderness and warmth, a little caring goes a long way. will come back and make my boys read this one.


    1. Thanks for the compliment on the layout. I will pass it on to Vinni 🙂

      I am glad you liked the post. The underlying need ultimately is basic even when it is cloaked by other considerations isn’t it?


  7. Nice page design


  8. nice article. and very close in its examples with Maslow’s hierarchy principle, which simply put will cause a person to yearn for intangible personal and social benefits only after the basic have been been. – Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs


    1. One more reference to Maslow! I am going to check it out right now to see if I have missed out on any point. Thanks Sumit.


      1. Let me guess! All the people referring to Maslow and his theory here are MBAs 😉
        Maslow’s Hierarchy is taught as a cornerstone of marketing wrt positioning of a product. Very similar to the evolution of need you have described in your blog post… 🙂


        1. I dunno, but the observations are mine alone. Do you think I should copyright them or may be make a theory out of them?


        2. Zephyr’s Theory of Evolution of Needs! Sounds nice 🙂


        3. hahaha… well Siddharth, when I learnt about Maslow it was in final year engg., as part of the management module. Having said that, the theory has received heavy criticism over the years, especially due to the fact that the hierarchy need not be universal. social conditions too can stimulate the pecking order for the needs thus throwing the overall structure of Maslow’s pyramid for a toss.


        4. I learnt about Maslow in my psychology class 🙂


  9. Great observation there. Enjoyed it. Have you ever heard of Abraham Maslow’s ‘hierarchy of needs’? You might find it interesting.'s_hierarchy_of_needs


    1. Thank you AN, for the comment and the link to Maslow. I’m afraid I haven’t heard his theory. I will check it out right away.


  10. Nice observation. And I found the last bit very touching 🙂

    Nice theme too! How did you manage to install a non-wordpress theme without a separate domain? I’ve been figuring out how to do that for ages now!


    1. Thanks Chinkurli, and welcome back! As for the theme, I have no clue whatsoever. All I did is to tell my son that I wanted to change the theme to something brighter. He is my man Friday, Saturday and all the other weekdays in such matters! 🙂

      I am giving his links below in case you are interested to know how he did it!


      1. Thanks 😀


  11. It was interesting to read the observation especially how human needs come a full circle… As Ridhima has mentioned, the underlying of every need is actually just love as all human beings crave for it. However, on one of your points – about the baby’s “unconditional” love…. Now the following statement when expressed on a public forum is bound to cause a furore but I am going to do so anyway… i feel that a baby’s love is in fact the most selfish… the baby will love “anyone” who gives it food, protection, etc… yes it is unconditional in the sense that irrespective of “who”, the baby loves the caregiver…. according to me the only unselfish love in the world is that of a parent for the offspring. The parents do not stand to gain anything from the helpless child but they still feed and protect it. The baby loves the parents because they provide food and protection because it is too young to comprehend that these are its parents… the concept of parents is as yet alien to it… even when people fall in love with someone it has a slight tinge of selflessness in it but not so in the case of a baby…


    1. Hey, I never said baby’s unconditional love. It was the caretaker’s unconditional love that the baby reveled in. That proves your point of parental love being unselfish and unconditional. But here too I would beg to differ: I have met many many parents who don’t miss an opportunity to tell their children how they had done so-and-so and such-and-such for them, the great sacrifices they have made for them et al (as of it is a big favour to the kid) There are also those parents who do all this with the hope and ulterior motive of being taken care of in a similar way by their children in their old age. However, this breed of parents is vanishing at a rapid pace in educated families, but still can be found in rural and small town India in god measure.


      1. in rural and small town India, because of a poorer child mortality rate, parents still believe in producing a clutch of children in the ardent hope that at least a couple of them would make it to adulthood. Also, every mouth to feed brings with it two hands that can work and potentially earn money so it becomes the more the merrier. This causes the parents to choose the healthiest child to concentrate on most. Also, since usually a girl’s marriage involves giving dowry and a guy’s, receiving it… in most cases these parents pick the strongest boy child… Looking at it objectively, it is actually the brutality of the “survival of the fittest” rule… the parents, according to me, are only maximising the survival chances of the child most likely to survive… if one of the kids is a runt, a sickly child it would seem like a waste of resources to the parents to try and get him/her upto speed with the others. Of course, there are parents with half a dozen kids who care for all of them but these are fewer incidents. Instead, in most rural families, there is a chosen one.
        In urban India, on the other hand, education and better amenities and facilities allow most kids to survive. Thus, parents do not keep procreating through the better part of two decades, instead choosing to have 1 or at most two kids and then concentrating on providing them with the best.


  12. Such a stark article…
    What aremarkable observation…
    Every one has needs and wants in life . Each age has its own priority. For each of us the priority has the same level of willingness to be fulfilled.
    A Want backed with desire and ability to fulfill … Each priority changes as life moves on …

    The basic priority remains the same , cause at the end of the day wen u sit in solitude, all you want is Love and compassion as it makes us complete!At times a smile at times a tap on back, or a wink, or a hand, or a look matters. This makes we feel that we are Human’s and the demon has not fully taken over!


    1. You are so right Ridhima. Ultimately we all only need love and acceptance from those we care for, but the motivations are changing all the time.


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