The laughing bride!


 

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My childhood friend on her big day

A few days ago, I read an article by Taslima Nasreen, saying that Deepika Padukone had shattered an age-old custom and set a precedent for Indian brides, by posting pictures of herself laughing at her wedding.

And though I’m very happy for Deepika and Ranveer, and unequivocally in favour of the laughing bride, I am inclined to disagree with Ms Nasreen a bit. Just a little.

Deepika isn’t the first to shatter the custom. She’s just part of the changing fabric of Indian society, although by virtue of being a super star, she has the ability to grab eyeballs and influence millions, which amplifies manifold the significance of her laughter. However, that said, she is in no way the first.

At the risk of sounding hugely conceited and raising smirks and snickers, I will now give myself a pat on the back and declare that I was the one to break the custom, not Padukone. And I’m not a movie star either. (What the heck—this is my blog, where else can I indulge in such unrestrained narcissism?)

So here’s how it was. I was chit chatting with my friends and grinning away to glory, perched proudly on the bridal stage at my wedding in 2010—eight years before Padukone. I’m the trendsetter here—by a long decade.

The elderly ladies at my wedding would whisper to each other, scandalised at this brazen display of happiness, and one of them was later known to remark, with some displeasure, that the bride looks very contented. “Dulhan badi mutmayeen lag rahi hai!” she would declare with disdain. One of my best friends from school put it very succinctly, sometime later: “Well, you’re the girl who’s never been silent on stage, all through school and college. No one could have expected you to be silent on the grandest stage of your life!”

Touché!

(The funniest, or perhaps saddest, part in all of this is that when the wedding videos came, I realised that the videographer had deliberately edited out all the scenes where I’m laughing, with my teeth on display. Drat the world!)

However, I must give Nasreen credit for one thing: she hit the nail on the head. Mine was a love marriage. The road to wedding tears is often paved with arranged marriage apprehensions. Not just the evil paraphernalia that marriages in our side of the world have become associated with, but the very nature of arranged matches where you step into a life with a complete stranger.  That’s not to say that all arranged marriages are doomed or loveless—my parents were an excellent example of one such match that was always mistaken for a love marriage, by everyone who met this happy couple. But it does bring its fair share of fears, which, at least at the outset, aren’t present in the love marriage scenario.

So it was with me. I knew exactly who it was that I was marrying. I knew his family, I was comfortable with what I’d chosen. We’d been waiting for this day; it was a moment of joyous culmination. No nervous apprehensions of what lay ahead. (That does not, in any way, mean that what lay ahead could have been predicted. What lay ahead was perhaps equally torturous— tears or no tears. But ignorance is bliss, as they say.)

And that moment on stage was preserved perfectly in time, untouched by any sombreness or grief.

However, this would be a very one-dimensional view of the bride’s tears at her wedding if I did not also take into account several other factors—separation from the parents being one of the biggest. Most girls have never lived away from their parents before they get married, and it is a poignant moment when you know that now you shall be leaving the nest, making a new and separate life for yourself. For the parents as well, this brings a wave of mixed feelings—letting go of the precious creature they’d been nurturing all this while. Watching her step fully into a distinct life.

For the boy’s parents, this moment might come at places other than the wedding. I’ve seen boys’ mothers cry softly when their sons leave the nest to go out into the world and make an independent life for themselves. It’s just that for girls, at least in our side of the world, this usually doesn’t happen before the wedding.

For me, though, it did. I’d already been living in Delhi, away from my family, for over a year before I got married. My moment of realisation that I was finally leaving it all had come a year before my wedding, an overwhelming feeling punctuated by silent tears. There’s more to crying than just grief, or fear.

And thus it came to pass that my wedding ceremony went by without me shedding a single tear—not even at the rukhsati, the sending off of the bride.

I was far too busy murmuring rapid instructions to my sister to hold me properly, and heaven help her if she let me fall to the floor clumsily in all my wedding regalia. All this while my uncle stood by me, chuckling softly.

In my family, as is the custom, a sehra is tied to the bride’s forehead (a bit like the groom’s sehra but shorter) before she is sent off. I’ve no clue about the origins or reasons for this ritual, and I’d gladly do away with it when it’s time to marry off my son, if my future daughter-in-law so wishes. The result of all this sehra-tying is that the bride is momentarily robbed of her vision and has to be led away by family members into the groom’s car, entirely blind.  Now I couldn’t even control where I stepped, when I’d controlled half the wedding ceremony and rushed about from banks to tailors’ shops one day before my wedding—complete with henna painted hands.

So it came to pass that beneath my blinding sehra I was fiercely whispering instructions to my sister. “Where’s my vanity box? I hope it’s being kept in the car and not being left behind.”

“Where’s my purse? Did you pick it up? It’s got money in it! For heaven’s sake don’t leave it at the stage.”

“Who has my jewelry case? One set of keys is in my purse. Who’s been handed over the other set? Just make sure it’s sent to my room and not misplaced!”

So on and so forth.

Control freaks don’t cry. They instruct.

But then a few years later, one of my former classmates did me one better, for she posted a picture of herself pinching her husband’s cheek on her D-Day — complete in wedding attire. I’ll have to admit I rued not having done that with mine!

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However, now that I think of it, my family brought in the laughing tradition 20 years ago at my uncle’s wedding. I was about 10 years old, and had been officially stationed by the bride’s side to make her laugh.

My grandma, the bride’s mother-in-law, would keep coming up to her and telling her, “Darling! You can smile! It’s your wedding! No need to bend your head and look demure! Be the happy bride.”

And I, completely smitten by my aunt-bride, kept cracking jokes about family members to make her laugh. We have plenty of pictures in the album with her teeth on full display. I guess it’s in the blood. My family loves laughing brides.

Perhaps these may be exceptions to the norm, but the norm certainly is changing rapidly. We have far more smiling brides— blushing, yes, but smiling too—than crying ones, movie depictions be damned.

Ms Nasreen needs to open her eyes to changing Indian culture. The joyous bride is hardly as big an anomaly now as she was, say, a decade or two ago. Laughing brides are quite in vogue.

The bar was set a decade ago.

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My numerous ‘wives’


maids

 

I had never, ever imagined in my life that one day I’d be writing a piece on domestic helps. The ubiquitous and yet elusive maid. The subject of endless angst, animated discussions and innumerable internet memes and videos.

It is very common for Indian homes to have domestic helps—mostly part-time workers, but sometimes also full-time ones, in the form of live-in maids, whose services are generally utilised by working mothers like myself.

Lately, I’ve realised that the relationship between a woman and her help is uncannily like the relationship between the man of the house and his woman, as in the days of yore. In fact, the manner in which most women, including me, speak of our domestic helps is almost exactly the way that patriarchy-infested males speak of women such as me.

Let me explain.

You feel they are upstarts, they are getting too big for their boots, and demanding too many privileges. That they have forgotten their place. That no matter how good you are to them, it is never enough.

Yes it is true that there are domestic workers who swindle and cheat and take advantage of their employers, just as there are women who, when they assume a position of power, become more Evil Queen than good witch Glinda of the South.

And yet, these maids belong to that category of people who’ve been exploited, underpaid, trampled over for centuries. They have not had even a semblance of rights. They’ve been at the mercy of the maai-baap. And now, when they have some bargaining rights, when they have the audacity to demand and talk back to power, the maai baap resents the usurping of centuries-old privilege.

So I have to pay my maid a lot more, accept most of her demands, and complain to my friends how these maids are a necessary evil. You wish you didn’t have to tolerate them, but what can you do, you poor thing, you need them to run your life smoothly. Much like the husband that declares how his wife is a necessary evil, how he wished he hadn’t married her but then she is the one who keeps his household running smoothly.

So yes, while this may feel like an ‘inconvenience’ for us—tolerating demands, paying higher prices—it is definitely a good thing for humanity in general, especially as far as human dignity is concerned. Nobody is a maai baap anymore. It’s a straightforward employer-employee equation.

Now if only I could get some loyalty. Sigh.

Oops, there I go again!

Conditioning takes such a long time to be overcome.

——————

Postscript : This blog post was originally written several months ago. In the time that passed I realised that I have actually had several loyal domestic helps, but had to lose them when they relocated to the villages they had come from, for personal reasons. So I’ve had plenty of loyalty as well. And I’ve absolutely no reason to complain.

There are good people in this world and there are mean ones. There are good maids, and there are mean maids. Lord bless the good ones, for they literally keep our lives from collapsing!

Importantly, they also show us the mirror, giving us a glimpse of what we’d do when we’re in a position of power. As the best parameter for evaluating people is to see what they do with power once they have it.

Observations of a twisted mind


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No, it’s not my birthday. It’s not the beginning of a new year. Well, yes, it is the first month of the Islamic calendar, but that is not the reason for this post. Or is it? It may be that spiritual times make one contemplate the nature of truth and belief systems more deeply. Or perhaps, more appropriately, these are merely random ruminations of a twisted, convoluted mind.

So here are six lessons that life hurled at my head. Whack! Ouch.

  1. Everything can be questioned.
    Everything in this world— every belief system, every value system, every tradition, all feelings of pride, belonging and origins—all of these can and should be questioned. All heroes can be deconstructed and looked at from critical perspectives. Ideas, narratives, events—all of them have changed forms numerously before they reached you. It is naïve to imagine that all the information reaching you is pure and undiluted. No question is ever right or wrong, though the answers may be. The truth, if at all such a thing even exists, can only be sought through greater and greater probing. The surface of the ocean scarcely reveals what lies within the depths.
  2. Questions are not always expressions of doubt
    Isn’t that what teachers in classrooms ask: any doubts or confusions? Perhaps that’s where we internalise the idea that questions are related to doubts and confusion. In truth, questions are merely related to thirst, to seeking. To learning. The word ‘question’ is an answer unto itself; for it hides within it the word ‘quest.’ Every question is a quest for knowledge. Every question is a quest for the truth. It may not necessarily be an indication of doubt or scepticism, it may not be, as we tend to believe, an act of casting aspersions on an entity, tradition, idea or belief system. It may just be a desire to probe further and know what lies in the depths. Particularly in relation to religious and national identity, it is possible for one to live in harmony with those systems, be comfortingly and safely ensconced within their embrace, and yet question them incessantly—perhaps only with the intention of distilling and distilling until one finds the purest version. Or perhaps one would find that no such thing as a pure version exists. Sometimes when you peel off the layers, you find… nothing. There is no core. No centre. The centre is a void, a nothingness—much like the dark nothingness that fills up the universe; the nothingness we refer to as outer space. It stays there, a vacuum with its own existence, a blank that doesn’t feel the need to be filled. That is where questions are supposed to lead us: into the vastness of the universe.
  3. Sometimes one may choose, temporarily, not to enter the depths.
    The depths can be frightening. It may not be absolutely necessary for me to know what lies in the depths of the ocean—though it would be good for me to find out. And yet, I may choose only to swim with the waves, I may choose only to see what appears on the surface. Perhaps I’m not ready yet to enter the depths? It is possible. Perhaps I tried and what I found scared me? It is possible, too. Perhaps I tried and was saddened by what I saw? Perhaps I tried and what I saw wasn’t beautiful? Perhaps it horrified me to the extent of destroying the wondrous, serene image of the ocean I had been carrying with me for so long? It is possible. And that may lead me to halt my quest and content myself with swimming in the outer, buoyant waters, full of radiance and joy. And that’s alright. There is a time for everything, and perhaps my time for getting closer to the truth has not yet arrived.
  4. Sometimes a lie may give life.
    Ironic, isn’t it? Sometimes a false hope, a false belief may inspire you to move forward to victory. Sometimes an imaginary ideal may lead you to be the best version of yourself. Sometimes a lie may lead you to believe in the truth of your own ability. Pretty contorted, right? Sigh. This world is such a contorted place. Always spiralling inwards, folding in on itself.
  5. No one will ever be one hundred per cent in agreement with you.
    Nope. Not your best friend, not your sweetheart, not your sibling, not your parents, not your children. The only one who will ever agree with you one hundred per cent of the time is yourself. No—not even you. You won’t always be in agreement with yourself either, for there will always be internal conflicts, confusions, rebellions within. That would be your own self disagreeing with you.
    Still, the only one who comes close to being always in agreement with you, is you. And that is because every person is unique. There’s only one of every person on this earth. Each of us has a unique mind with distinctive thoughts, and has lived a distinct life with experiences unique to us. Our thoughts and behaviours are modelled by those life experiences, and since no two people ever lead the exact same life, no two people will ever entirely agree with each other. So, dear overgrown child-woman, stop trying to convince people so that they agree absolutely with you or see the world the exact same way that you see it. And stop trying to find people who think the exact same way as you do. No such person exists. That person could only be a clone of you. But you would find it very, very difficult to get along with a clone of yourself, because then you would see, well and truly, how awful a person you are. Seriously.
  6. Everyone you’ve ever met in life for some significant moment has become a part of you. The things people do, the things they say, the things you agree with or disagree with, all of it is within you and comes out at some point in life, in the form of a thought, an action, an emotion. Every person who forced you in some way to think, to act, to alter course, or made you decide to remain on course—all of them are within you, for better or for worse. You will never ‘forget’ any of them, though you may perhaps forgive. Stop trying to fight them. Make peace with them. They could have hurt you or pleased you from outside, but from here, from within you, the only person hurting you or pleasing you is you. Don’t hurt yourself any more.

And that’s about it. None of the above ideas are expected to motivate, inspire or guide anyone else how to lead their life. They are random observations, things I happened to learn till now—and may have to unlearn, moving forward. They are notes to myself; meant only to be read and pondered over. And deconstructed.

To make way for the new.

Old school love


A fortnight ago, I was pottering around the house rifling through my book collection, scrolling through Amazon Prime, looking for something to read, something to watch. Something that came with a whiff of old-school, slow-breathing love.

I’m a romance addict. Anyone who knows me knows that. I could make do with very little food but I couldn’t make do with very little romance. I’d been cranky and angsty all week, for no apparent reason, and I was looking for the one thing that would calm me down.

And then, late at night in the darkness of the bedroom I read on my phone Natasha Badhwar’s Mint Lounge column for that week. Suddenly, there it was: a slice of romantic nirvana.

Small intimacies.

The tiny, mostly unnoticeable details in a marriage that carry a subtle, soft undercurrent of romance. Like the tucking back of torn-off buttons. Natasha used this example from old Hindi movies to illustrate her point: “From Hindi movies, I had internalized other aspirations of domestic togetherness. Like the scene in which it is discovered that the man has a button missing in his shirt just when he is ready to leave for work. The woman steps in to deftly sew on a button while he is still wearing his shirt. She moves her face close to his chest to cut off the thread with her teeth, because real women don’t use scissors.

Unmoved by my romantic yearnings, my husband’s shirt buttons have remained steadfast and immotile over the years.

As soon as I read this line I blushed a furious red.

Despite not possessing the qualities of the sanskari sewing-darning woman in the least, I have to confess that it is with quite a degree of fondness that I stitch together my husband’s kurtas that begin to come apart at the seams. And no, not when he’s wearing them. Merely the act of having this mundane piece of white cloth—his kurta— in my hand and putting the quick four-five stitches to mend it, or tuck the odd button that has fallen off, evokes a deep, familiar sort of affection, a feeling akin to sitting face to face at the dining table and talking long past the food is gone.

This whole love-through-sewing thing was probably internalised by me through the very cinema that Natasha speaks about. Drat those movies!

She then goes on to narrate an anecdote from her aunt and uncle’s life, of them doing their daily puja (prayer) together. “When she is pouring oil into the lamp, she needs his presence to prepare the wick. He holds the prayer book open as she reads out the verses. From a distance, one can see them instructing each other to do what is so routine for them, you wonder why they are speaking at all. They close their eyes together and go silent, probably praying for the same thing. Their temple room is full of images of deities but they seem like they are in communion with each other.”

The image seemed to fill my room as well. Fill my heart, lighting it up like a diya for the puja.

For the past few days or so, ever so slightly, I’d been feeling a wave of restlessness, a wave of irritation at myself.

My husband and I come from diametrically opposite backgrounds. East is east and west is west and never the twain shall meet, said Rudyard Kipling. But he only needed to see us together to know how the twain doth meet. All these years, my guy and I have been constantly juggling his intensely traditional background and my decidedly modern one, keeping it together by sheer will power and force of love—and umpteen recalibrations.

Sometimes it overwhelms us.

Sometimes I end up asking myself why I got into this at all. How could I have dumped myself in this mess? For that entire week, I’d been reeling under one of these spells of unexplained restlessness.

And then along comes this. This little paragraph about a couple that lights a diya together and prays side by side.

Takes me back a decade in a swish.

Prayer.

When Sajjad and I were still waiting to get married, one of the most romantic things I imagined with him—much longed for and anticipated—was prayer. Together. With this man who brought immense peace and spirituality to my life.

We would imagine the time when we’d be together in one room—our room—offering our namaz with our prayer mats spread out before us.

Joined in prayer. Joined in soul.

“In communion with each other.”

Suddenly, just like that, I remembered precisely why both of us had dumped ourselves into this ‘mess’.

It’s what we had wanted.

We married each other because we had wanted exactly what our other half brings to the table.

I had wanted him, a deeply spiritual man, a calm man. A man who possessed the capacity to listen. A man I could trust. And I, I was what he wanted. A thinking woman, a woman with a mind and a voice. To quote him verbatim, “A woman whose brain is the most attractive part of her body.”

Had he wanted a more traditional woman to match his traditional background, he could have had his pick from the dozens around him. Had I wanted a more modern man to match my modern background, I could have chosen from the dozens that tried to woo me. The reason we were here, together, wading through these frequently-turbulent waters, cutting through the foliage and battling it out together, was because we had both wanted it.

There are times in every couple’s togetherness, when we begin to wonder how did we ever come to be here? The present, the future and the world around gets too much for us. We resent the sacrifices we made, the life we had to give up in order to live this one. Was it even worth it?

In times like these, it makes sense to close our eyes and remember what it was that we’d wanted in the first place. Why was it that we made those sacrifices at all?

That might, perhaps, bring back the answers we already know, but often forget. The answers that sometimes hide within the smallest of things–the things that make up the essence of old school love.

 

 

 

 

Why am I crying?


 

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“I hate this house!” the 5 year old declares in a huff, right after he is tucked into bed and the lights are turned off. I sigh. This isn’t the first time. I know the reason, but I still have to ask him the customary question.

“Why? Why do you hate this house?”

“There’s nothing here. I can’t have anything. No dogs, no rabbits, no birds, no fish. No garden. I hate it!” he exclaims with visible anger.

It’s the same every time. Each time we return from his grandma’s house, which has an entire family of cats, a garden teeming with birds and chameleons and glorious colourful insects—and two rabbits which are a new addition to the family. In my defence, we did try to keep the rabbit.

We bought the little black and white rabbit for our resident animal-whisperer who is fascinated by every creature in the animal kingdom—from cute, harmless ones like dogs, cats and goats to huge ferocious ones like sharks and crocodiles, and even the extinct kinds (dinosaurs and megalodons, which he often dreams of keeping as pets). And since we’re counting, let’s not forget the insects as well—spiders, crickets, ladybirds, grasshoppers. Whichever little guest happens to occasionally visit our apartment in this high rise tower.

Obviously, there was much joy and revelry when I brought home the rabbit, after persistent teary-eyed complaints of how horrible this house was, and how cruel we were to be inflicting a pet-less life on our offspring. At first, all was good. And then slowly, the charm began to wear off. A rabbit is not an expressive pet. It does not bark and it does not mew. It does not lunge enthusiastically at its owner, and it does not cuddle comfortably in the owner’s lap either. It cannot be allowed to roam around the house for then it would nibble down every single thing that stood in its path. (We had a first-hand experience of this when we became internet-less as the bunny chewed down the wi-fi cable.) And so, slowly, the joy of having a pet gave way to whines of, “What kind of a pet is this? This is a horrible pet! I want a dog!”

Despite this, things would still have worked out had it not been for our semi-nomadic lifestyle, which involves visiting our hometown as often as we can, along with attending every wedding that we can. There’s only so many times that your friends and neighbours would be willing to rabbit-sit for you for days, before it becomes an embarrassment even to ask them. And so we decided to leave the rabbit back at our hometown, at my mother’s house. They already had a menagerie of 7 cats; one little rabbit wouldn’t be a bother. And then my sister decided that the poor thing was lonely, so she got another little rabbit, a female one, for good furry company.

So it came to pass that our boy became pet-less once again. And every so often, just like today, he declares he hates the house. On other days, I remind him of all the reasons we can’t have a pet, I remind him of how cruel it is to imprison birds in a cage and lock up fish in a glass box. I remind him that we have free birds as pets, the pigeons who’ve been using our balcony as their nesting ground since the beginning of this year. On any other day, I would have said all this.

But not today.

Not today, because I’ve spent an angry evening wondering at the constant battle that motherhood is, at the constant fighting, nagging and tug-of-war that is woven inextricably into mealtimes, homework times, teeth brushing times and generally all those times when he is required to actually do something that is good for him. I’m angry and upset.  So when Hasan reiterates, “I hate this house!” I want to snap right back—“I hate motherhood!”

“I hate this thankless job where no matter what I do, it’s never enough. Never quite right. I hate all this non-stop surveillance and negotiation and threats and yelling. I hate having to deal with you.” That’s what I want to say, but I can’t say it aloud. I just lie down silently beside him, simmering within.

“Don’t come close to me!” He sulks some more. “Door hat jaiye.”  Get away! And proceeds to roll to the far end of the bed.

“Fine!” I reply huffily, turning my back to him and sulking in my own corner. “I won’t come near you at all.”

I’m upset. Not by what he said, no. He’s a little boy. His anger means nothing. But I’m upset that no matter what I do, I can’t seem to make my son happy. No matter how hard I try, he always has something to complain about. No matter what I do, I can never get things done on time, no matter what I do, I can never get things done without a fight. I continue to sulk.

Five minutes go by and I feel a hand on my arm.

“Mummy, turn this side, please. Don’t turn your back to me,” a little voice pleads from behind my back. I sigh. Then turn over, putting my arm on his body and holding him close to me.

“I love you so much but you don’t love me,” I say quietly, a little sadly.

“No, no! I didn’t mean I hate you! I just meant I hate this house.” He tries, in his 5-year-old way, to undo the damage.  I smile a little and hug him.

“I don’t know why I say these things! I don’t like it when I say them!  Main kyun kehta hun ye sab?” he’s almost agitated at himself.

“It’s okay, honey. Koi baat nahi.” I stroke his hair. “It’s alright. I understand.” And then I tell him, “I don’t like it either, when I hit you. I feel sad when I slap you or spank you in anger. I don’t want to do it at all.” I confess to him, sadly. He hugs me tighter.

A few minutes pass by in silence.

Then a little voice asks, “Mummy, mere aansu kyun nikal rahe hain?” Why do I have tears in my eyes?

Again, I’m not surprised. I am the mother of an emotional boy, and sometimes his eyes brim over without him being able to make sense of what exactly it is that’s making him sad.

This, for instance happened a few days ago: We were sitting together, and as I watched him while he played, I suddenly felt a deep surge of love. “You know Hasan, when you grow up, I’ll remember all these games you used to play, and the things you used to say.”

“Oh, don’t worry, I’ll be saying the same things even then,” he declares without even looking at me, busy in his toys. I burst out laughing at his comical reassurance.  But later that night, as we lie together in the darkness, he says to me quietly, perhaps a little sadly:

“Mummy, when I grow up, you will miss the things I do now?”

I’m surprised. I hadn’t thought he would pay so much attention to my statement, much less be thinking about it many hours later.

“Oh no, honey, I didn’t mean that I’d be thinking about them sadly, I meant I’d be remembering them happily, in a good way,” I hurriedly reassured him. “You know, the way I sometimes tell you about the things you did when you were a tiny baby. They won’t be sad memories, sweetheart. It will make me happy to think of them.”

“Oh,” he says, but his face is still crumpled. I can’t see him properly in the dark though, and now he asks, “Mummy, mere aansu kyun nikal rahe hain?

Mummy, why am I crying?

I’m quite astonished because my simple statement of remembering his childhood wasn’t supposed to carry so much gravity.

I hug him tight. “You tell me, beta. Tell me what’s making you sad. Tell me what are you thinking?”

And I get to hear a fascinating tale.

“Well, I was watching ‘Veer- The Robo Boy’ yesterday, and Veer’s grandfather is attacked by a chemical that reaches his brain. Dadaji (grandpa) faints then, and Veer is not able to wake him up..” he narrates, his voice breaking suddenly as begins to cry.

“Yes, and then?”

“Veer keeps trying to save his Dadaji. And he remembers the things from his childhood, how his Dadaji used to play with him and take care of him when he was a baby,” sobs my boy. “Veer is afraid his Dadaji will die…” The tears fall freely now.

And I understand.

My little boy has figured out the connection between memories and sadness.

How missing someone is an inherent part of grief. How we think of the past most often when we’re sad.  So when he heard his mother talking of ‘missing’ the things he does as a kid, he immediately made the connection to sadness. I had to explain to him then, how memories can make us happy as well, how we can think of the past not just in grief but in joy as well. He needed me to help make sense of all the new things he’d discovered and experienced, among them the newfound experience of empathy—being able to cry for a grief that’s not your own. Making sense of emotions and experiences is not easy even for adults, much less for 5-year-olds.

And so now, when he again asks me the question, “Mummy mere aansu kyun nikal rahe hain?”  he expects me to make sense of his feelings.

But a woman can’t always be just a mother at all times. She’s a human with her own feelings too. She isn’t always the guiding light and comforting cushion, she’s also a person with her own vulnerabilities.

“Mere bhi aansu nikal rahe hain,” I surprise myself by blurting this out to him. “I’m crying too.”

Suddenly, he’s very still. His voice is very alert. “Why? Why are you crying?”

“Because I hate yelling at you and beating you and I wish I never did it.”

He nods, very sagely. “Yes, just like I hate saying horrid things and I don’t wanna do it but I can’t stop myself.”

I’m surprised at my little boy and how much he understands.

“I’m sorry.” I say to him.

“I’m sorry, too.” He says, and we hug each other tight, before he drifts off to sleep.

I suppose we may be doing a good job together after all.

We’ll do just fine.

Lullabies for Hasan


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“The first time I ever sang a lullaby to my little boy was when he was 6 months old. Since then, we’ve been through many different lullabies—poems from my childhood, songs from movies, even nauhas and marsiyas, songs of elegy, of remembrance, and a quintessential cultural heritage of Shia Muslims—because not only do I feel it’s a good way of transmitting culture, but also because I get terribly bored of singing the same thing over and over again. Sometimes, I also sing to him my favourite Urdu nazm: ‘Lab pe aati hai dua banke tamanna meri’ (My heart’s longing reaches my lips in prayer). This was the nazm my father sang to me every single day, sometimes as a lullaby. He made me memorise it, and I’ve loved it since I was 7.

During the early years of Hasan’s childhood, I was plunged in a terrible depression as our family was split apart. My husband had to move abroad and visited only twice a year, while I took care of our son practically like a single parent. So one day I sang to Hasan a song from a sad Hindi movie I saw when I was a child, from Akele Hum, Akele Tum. The song is sung by a dad, a single father divorced from his wife, to his son, and conveys the hollowness he feels, though tries to be brave about it.

“Akele ham, Akele tum. Jo ham tum sang hon to phir kya ghum… Tu mera dil, tu meri jaan…”

“Oh, I love you daddy!”

“Tu masoom, tu shaitaan!”

“But you love me daddy!”

Father: “You’re alone and I’m alone—but we’re both together, so why worry? You are my heart, and my life…”

Son: “Oh, I love you daddy!”

Father: “You’re so innocent, but oh, so naughty!”

Son: “But you love me daddy!”

When I sang it to my boy, I replaced ‘Daddy’ with ‘Mummy’, perhaps to make it more relatable, but also perhaps because I was living like a single parent and it echoed my grief.

Now this little boy, all of 2.5, who had never seen that movie, had no context to the song, caught on to something. Maybe it was the rhythm or just the words or how I sang it, but something had an effect on him. He began to cry. Not in a bawling, screaming way. His face crumpled up in agony and he sobbed quietly, burying his face in my arms. I stopped abruptly—I had no idea it would upset him so much.

Kids pick up on emotional cues and possess more empathy than we give them credit for. And also, as I realised later, they have a much deeper connect with us than we really understand. I sometimes feel it was my pain, which reached my little boy and affected him thus. I will never really know, but even today, he doesn’t like that song; one day when he found me humming it, he put his hand on my mouth and said: “No, mummy, don’t sing it.”

And I never did.

Even now, these lullabies, these night conversation form the most intimate, personal part of our connections, because we’re ensconced in a dark little bubble, snuggling comfortably and whispering away.

So recently, I sang a Rabindra Sangeet song to him, just on a whim.

Jodi tor dak shune keu na ashe, tobe ekla cholo re…

If no one heeds your call, walk alone.

I had read the poem a long time ago, perhaps in college, when I first fell in love with Tagore. But the first time I heard this being sung was in Amitabh Bachchan’s voice in the movie Kahaani. Vidya Balan as the pregnant woman looking for her disappeared husband. A thrilling albeit deeply sensitive movie. For some reason I remembered it. The rhythm is soothing and lilting, and I wanted to sing it. I sang the one line, only this line, over and over, because I do not know Bengali, and I cannot remember the rest of the song. I carefully watched my son’s reaction, whether he would stop me. But he didn’t.

He was absolutely still, a sign of attentive listening and fascination. I sang over and over, and felt him relax, still completely quiet though. After about 10 minutes of repeating the same line over and over, I switched back to my standard lullaby. This time, Hasan stirred.

“Amma…”

“Yes?”

Wohi wala sunaiye.” Please sing the earlier one.

I smiled.

And sang Ekla cholo again, all the way until he slept.

This, perhaps, is my closest bond with my son— a shared love for things that stir. Our love for poetry, for melody, our vulnerability for things that move the senses.

And this, my son, is the sum total of my motherhood, the pure, distilled essence of me, of what I give you of myself.  Poems from my childhood, strains of spiritual elegies that define my identity and yours, notes of prayer and symphonies of longing, and songs of strength, of purpose, of will.

In the hope that what is good, and fine, and beautiful in the universe, will stick to your soul, long past those times when the world will show you how dark and terrible it can be. When you cross those times, my son, I hope you will still remember things as gentle and ephemeral as a poem, things like tiny blinking glow worms, which though cannot fight the darkness, can make it beautiful nevertheless.”

(This piece was featured in the June issue of Child Magazine)

 

The cabbie and me: love in a ride


You never know what can happen in a two-hour-long cab ride, do you?

Love in a ride

Yesterday, on my way to Gurgaon, I overheard the cab driver talking on the phone. I was nervous at first about him talking while driving, because for one I’m paranoid about safety and for another, if a traffic policeman caught us and gave him a ticket, I’d be late for my meeting.

I requested him to put the phone on hands-free mode, both for his sake and mine. And that’s how something he said on the call snagged my attention.

“Arre na, na bhabhi. Isey to main divorce doonga bas. Divorce. Beta ho gaya mera, ab kya fikar hai?”

(Don’t worry, sis-in-law, I’ll divorce this woman for sure. Now that I have a son, what’s there to worry about?)

I was shocked and saddened to hear these words, and thought of saying something to him. But then I reminded myself that I have to stop making everyone’s business my own, and learn to keep my mouth shut at times.

However, fate decided it wanted me to intervene. So within 10 minutes, the guy made another call. I realised from the tone of his voice that he had called his wife. He spoke very gruffly, in a voice one uses to reprimand someone severely and assert one’s superiority over them.

“Kahan hai tu? Phone kyun band kar rakha hai? Kab se mila raha hun phone!” Where the heck are you?Why is your phone swtiched off? I’ve been trying to call you since ages!

I couldn’t hear what the wife said. But apparently her reply calmed him somewhat.

“Hmm.” he said, still gruff but not rebuking her. “Beta kaisa hai?” How’s our son?

I think she must have said he’s crying, because the man replied, “To chup kara na usko pehle!” So soothe him first, idiot!

Slowly, as the husband and wife talked, I saw a change come over the man. His voice softened, his tone mellowed, he began to smile and talk in an intimate manner that is typical of young lovers. “I’ll come to take you back tomorrow… you can go shopping tonight, there’s this place which has nice clothes..” It seemed like he was trying to woo her, like young husbands will often do when their wife is mock-fighting with them.

I was surprised. This does not sound like a couple on the brink of divorce! Not at all. Why then…?

The man disconnected the call. I couldn’t stop myself.

“Bhaiyya…” I addressed him as ‘brother’ (which is generally how we address  strangers in India.) “Aap bura to nahi manege, ek baat puchun?” You won’t mind if I ask you something?

“Kya hua madam?” What happened?

“Why do you want to divorce your wife? I’m sorry I couldn’t help but overhear…”

“Arrey madam! Bohot pareshan karti hai. Dimagh kharab kar rakha hai!” She is such a nuisance, a huge trouble. She’s become a headache for me!

“Why? What does she do?”

“She keeps asking to go to her parents’ house and then doesn’t want to come back from there. I let her go when she wants but when it’s time for me to get her back she does all kinds of drama!”

“Bhaiyya,” I said in a sympathetic tone. “Everyone misses their parents, that’s why we want to visit them frequently. But yeah, she shouldn’t create a fuss about coming back. After all she married you…”

“Arrey madam, what shall I tell you, I have a love marriage! Love marriage! I love her so much! I left my family for her! I came here to Delhi to earn money and left my family in the village! And now she doesn’t want to come back from her parents home!” He had launched headlong into his tale now. I suspect he’d been wanting to talk about it for some time. “I haven’t met my parents since two years now!”

“Oh,” I said, sympathetically. “That’s sad! You should go and meet your parents once in a while, even if you’re working here. Maybe not very frequently, but don’t desert them altogether. You can speak with your wife and try to make her understand, try to find a middle ground…”

“Madam what should I tell you! I left everything for her. I give her all the money I earn. I bring her expensive gifts. Still she is not happy!”

“Why? Did you ask her why she is not happy?” I was genuinely concerned.

“I don’t know Madam! She keeps asking stupid things. Now she doesn’t want me to be a cab driver, says there are too many accidents happening on the road. Well, I am not so educated. I am barely a high school pass-out. I won’t be able to earn as much from a job as I can earn from this cab. And she says these things despite being more educated than me! She is a graduate! She has a bachelor’s degree in science!”

“So you please drive carefully, and you reason with her that even in a job you’d still have to get out on the road, and accidents can happen anywhere. But please be careful in your driving as well. She will see reason, I’m sure. But please don’t break up your family. That’s a very sad thing to happen.” I smiled inwardly at how easily he praised his wife and openly accepted that she had a higher degree in education than him. He did love her in his heart. He only had to be reminded of it.

So on and so forth we went, him detailing his problems with his wife, and me trying to help him see that these were not issues that couldn’t be resolved. At one point he spoke about the ‘bhabhi’ (sis in law, though not necessarily. In India, even neighbours are addressed fondly as brother and sister in law) whom he had just spoken to, and revealed that his wife didn’t get on well with her. She had major fights with the woman. And I had understood, from the beginning, that the bhabhi had issues with this man’s wife.

“Do you all live together?” I asked him.

“No, we live next door to her. But bhabhi comes over to help my wife with the baby, and also because I am at work all day and then Radha is alone.” Radha being his wife.

“Hmm. Well, if they don’t get on well together, maybe you should limit bhabhi’s visits to your home. Ask your wife to minimise contact with that woman.” And then I added, “Bhaiyya, lots of people in this world will try to poison your mind–or your wife’s. They will provoke you into doing something that you will regret later. If you break your home now, who gets affected? Your wife, your son, and you. Bhabhi will go on living her life as she was earlier. Her life won’t be spoilt, yours will be. So beware of people who urge you to break your home. These are but trivial issues.” I said somberly.

The man grew thoughtful now. “Yes… there will be nobody to give me food even.” He mused. But his mind rebelled. “But she is such a nagger. I can’t live with her,” he insisted. And then added, “But I will surely take my boy away from her. Larka to main nahi dunga usko.” He spoke menacingly.

“Arrey bhaiyya kaisi baatein kar rahe ho! Ye to bohot bara paap hooga, chhote se bachhe ko maa se alag karna!” This will be such a grave sin, I said, a crime to separate a small boy from his mother. “You are a grown man, and yet, tell me can anyone love you more than your mother? Do you think anyone would be able to take care of your boy and love him like his mother?”

The man smiled guiltily and said, “You’re right madam. Baat to aap sahi kar rahe ho…”

“How old is your son?”

“One. He is one year old.”

“What! Just a year old! He must still be drinking his mother’s milk!” I was distraught at the very idea.

“Yes ma’m, he does drink his mother’s milk…” he said slowly, thoughtfully, as if he had never considered this fact.

“Then? How big a sin will it be to separate a suckling boy from his mother?” I pleaded with him.

“Par main kya karu madam, mujhe bhi to koi chahiye hoga jiske sahare zindagi guzaroon!” He was adamant. What can I do madam, I would also need someone (the son) in my life for happiness!

“Arrey baba, you keep both of them, na! Why do you want to break up your home? All three of you need each other!” I insisted. “Bhaiyya when you’ll be old and weak, nobody will look after you more than your wife! I have seen this with my grandfather. His two kids took good care of him when he was ill, but no one served him day and night tirelessly like his wife. She stood by him till the very end. Patni se zyada pati ki seva kaun kar sakta hai?” I added pleadingly.

“That’s true madam…” he was thoughtful now.

“Aur aapki to love marriage hai bhaiya!” I turned a bit filmy here, “Sachha pyaar agar mil jaaye life mein to usey chhorna nahi chahiye!” You had a love marriage, and when a person finds true love in life, one mustn’t let it go.

“Madam, college time se!” He impressed upon me, smiling. “I began seeing her when she was in college!” He was reminiscing about the good things now, which was a good sign.

“You know mine is also a love marriage?” I told him. ” 7 years Masha Allah. It’s been 7 years now. It’s not like we never fought. We had major ups and downs. Major fights. But we didn’t break up our home. We did our best to resolve our problems because we both knew that we loved each other.”

“Madam, love to karti hai woh mujhe…” Now he was softening. My wife loves me, he said. “When I told her I will divorce you she burst into tears and cried and cried and cried.” He said softly, with a little smile of love.

“See? She doesn’t want to leave you. You talk to her, reason with her. Ask her does she want to break up her home? She wouldn’t want that, would she? The way you tell me, she doesn’t seem like a bad person. Just immature. Childish. That can be sorted.”

“Arrey, madam. She IS immature. She is 18 years old.”

“What!!” I was honestly astonished. Only 18 and a mom!

“And how old are you?” I questioned.

“I am 21, madam.”

“Oh, Good heavens! You are so young! I am 10 years older than you!” I blurted out. ” Oh my goodness, now I can see why this is all happening! You both are so young and already have such responsibilities upon you!”

And then I literally begged him, “Bhaiyya main aapse vinti kar rahi hun, please, please don’t break up your home! You both are so, so young! You need to give your marriage a chance! For God’s sake please, just think of me as your elder sister! I am 10 years older than you and I have more experience in this department, and I’m literally pleading with you. Give your marriage a chance!”

I continued, “I heard you talking to your wife. You were talking sweetly with her! It doesn’t seem at all that the situation between you two is so terrible that it can’t be salvaged. You two are still in a good place, you can sort it out.”

He smiled when I mentioned him talking sweetly to her. “Arrey madam, I buy her expensive gifts! She asked me for a phone, I just asked her to name the brand! I give her whatever she wants!”

“That’s sweet,” I said, happy because he was smiling now.

“Well, you know what,” he said sheepishly, “I just threaten her with divorce. I…. I love her. I don’t really want to leave her.” He spoke with emotion, and what he said next lifted my spirits. “Madam, apni JAAN hai woh!” She is my life!

I grinned at him. We had reached our destination, both physically and metaphorically. I took out cash from my purse and paid him.

“Okay bhaiyya, thank you for the ride–and remember, whenever you begin to think of divorce, just remember that there is a sister of yours whom you met in this cab, and you remember her words–if you have found love, don’t let it go.”

He smiled at me, and I smiled at him. And got out of the cab.

I’ve no clue whether this divorce will actually be averted or not. But I can say at least this much: he began to remember the good things about his marriage and his wife. Began to remember how much he loves her and how much she loves him.

Sometimes, that’s all we need–to talk, to try and fix what’s broken and not just throw it out. Sometimes all we need is to remember the love.