Chapter 29: “You don’t need a husband, darling. You need a maid.”

Ch 29

January 5, 2013

Sitaram Bhartia Institute of Science and Research

Every three months after Hasan’s birth, I used to come to Delhi for a couple of days to get his vaccination done at the hospital where he was born. During my pregnancy we’d volunteered to be part of a research in which babies’ growth charts were tracked over the period of one year. So until Hasan turned one, every three months they assessed him for mental and physical development. Usually, Sajjad always accompanied me for vaccinations and such, but this one time he had an important meeting in office which he couldn’t skip. I had to go alone with the baby—and I was perfectly ok with that. (I don’t consider myself a damsel in distress, remember?)

What I hadn’t realised, though, was that it’s one thing to be an independent woman doing your stuff and travelling alone, and quite another to be a woman with a child travelling alone. To top it all, I was carrying Hasan in my arms with a hospital folder clutched in one hand. No baby stroller or anything to help me out. More fool me.
Things went pretty well until I dropped the folder while getting up from my seat and the jerk sitting next to me wouldn’t even pick it up. His wife who was nursing a baby in her lap nudged him twice, but he was way too busy with his cell phone to respond. I somehow managed to balance the baby against my shoulder, supported with one hand, and picked the folder up. The wife smiled apologetically at me. I smiled back. Not her fault that her husband was a total jerk.

After I got Hasan vaccinated, I had to get myself vaccinated too—against cervical cancer. Sonia, my doctor, had prescribed vaccination for it soon after Hasan’s birth. She, however, wasn’t available that day and a nurse came to inject me. Now let me remind you all that this was winter and getting a shot meant pulling up several layers of clothing—in my case an extra one because of my Abaya. So far, so good. But pulling all the sleeves down proved quite a challenge, and the baby who’d been lying quietly by the side so far just decided it’s time to start bawling. Amid all the pulling and the bawling, my hand smacked the folder from the table top onto the floor—with all its contents splattering out.

The door whooshed open and another woman entered the room with her baby—and a maid in tow. She took one look and rushed to help me out.

“Thanks so much,” I murmured gratefully. “It’s tough handling a little one alone! You see my husband had an important meeting today and he couldn’t accompany me here…” I was ashamed at being so flustered and clumsy.

The woman, cool as cucumber in her elegant dress and perfect hair, smiled at me sagely and pronounced a line I’ll never forget:

“You don’t need a husband, darling. You need a maid.”


August 1, 2013

It’s been about a fortnight since Sajjad left for Oman and now my mother has managed to arrange for me a ‘maid’. She isn’t really a maid but a live-in babysitter of sorts and a total godsend.

Respite had already reached me around the time Hasan turned 6 months old—the editor of the newspaper I was earlier working with had rang me up to ask if I’d like to write freelance for them.

Would a bee like honey? You wouldn’t have to ask, but if somebody’s asking I guess nothing could be better. So I had my Shelf Life column back, and I was doing literary reviews and criticisms once again. Ah, the relief. Like being submerged for so long you’re just about to give up…and then your head breaks surface and your lungs swell and sputter at the sheer ecstasy of taking in gulpfuls of air. Ahhhh…………..

But then writing a column every week, and the reading of book after book which the column required brought its own set of problems—not the least of which was a super-attention seeking baby.

Hasan has been born with the will, stubbornness and attention-seeking tactics of no other child I’ve seen. Let me elaborate.

Most mothers like to cover up with a dupatta or a piece of cloth while they’re nursing the baby, and I’ve seen them comfortably chatting up other family members while the baby suckles. Not little Highness Hasan. He will bawl his head off if I try to cover his face while feeding, he will kick up an awful fuss if I do not maintain absolute eye contact with him ALLL through the feeding, and he will petulantly refuse to drink altogether if I start conversing with someone else. When His Highness Hasan feeds, his mom dare not engage with someone else. Phew!

But wait, there’s more.

You cannot leave him alone for even a minute. Even when he was two months old, he would keep waking during his sleep and look around to ensure he wasn’t alone. If he was—woe unto the entire household. I was harrowed to the extent of not being able to even go to the loo in peace. If he was in a cradle he would show the least bit of interest in a toy—2 minutes tops, before bawling his head off on realising there was no one sitting by the side. The outcome of all this was that I spent all day sitting with him, totally at the mercy of his whims. His Royal Highness Hasan.

Several people advised me to let him cry for some time, and then he’d grow used to being alone. And I did try it—I went for a bath leaving him in his pram in the room. And he cried non-stop for 20 minutes flat, and was still crying when I came out.

After that, every time I was alone and had to take a bath I would wheel his pram right into the bathroom.

But at least I was having a bath—if I was at my in laws place I used to just pour water all over myself and rush out.

Is there any wonder I hated motherhood more times than I loved it?

And now I have this chance to write once again and I couldn’t let this baby walk all over this too. I try writing with him lying close-by, but  after six months a baby starts belly-crawling and rolling over and—wouldn’t you just know it—all that he wants is the laptop mommy is working on. Or the book she is reading. Or the pen she is writing with. And it has to be that very thing and no other.

And so I wanted to kiss Shabnam’s hands when she arrived. Yes, the maid.

Suddenly life feels so much lighter. I can read in peace, I can write in peace. I can bathe in peace; I can urinate and defecate in peace.

I have someone to alternate the nappy changing with. Or the bottle feeding with. And most of all, if I am unwell or dead tired, I have someone to call out groggily at, “Please make Hasan’s bottle this time… I’m dead”

I can go out now with Shabnam sharing the handling of Hasan. I can visit friends without Hasan bawling for attention, I can go shopping without wondering how on earth to do it with a baby in my arms. She has taken half the load off.

That half which is supposed to be shared by the baby’s father. My husband.

Somewhere in my head a voice echoes: “You don’t need a husband, darling. You need a maid.”

Yes, Yes and Yes. And No.

Yes you need a maid. But you don’t need a husband?

Yes, you only need a maid if all you require is a load-sharing caregiver for the child. Yes, you only need a maid if the child’s emotional, mental and physical development is not in the least bit affected by the near-constant absence of one parent.

And yes, you most certainly only need that maid if you’re a lesbian—assuming that the maid is one too, and she completely reciprocates your feelings.

Because if you’re just a heterosexual woman with a heterosexual woman’s needs and desires—including those pertaining to close companionship and emotional as well as physical warmth—you most definitely need that darned husband.

Or if you do not believe in the institution of marriage and are not dependent upon the marital bond for the fulfilment of your desires then I say, thumbs up to you. Go ahead, darling, you just need a maid.


Chapter 28: Labours of Love


Official trip to Jordan, April 2011–my work, my love

One of the major casualties of becoming a mother had been my work. The work that didn’t just mean money and prestige for me, it meant the world because it was my passion—an affair de coeur. I don’t write just because I get paid for it, I write because it is essential to my existence.

Like breathing. Like blinking.

Or even like taking a leak—because if you’re forced to hold it in for far too long, you might just die. And prisoners have actually been tortured to death that way—‘holding it in.’

This is exactly the same—I can’t hold it in…  I’d die. I write because once a thought, an idea has its hold upon my mind, I can neither eat nor sleep until I’ve committed it to pen and paper—or laptop, as the case may be. I remember sleeping beside my mom, huddled inside a quilt with a torch in the left hand, writing down poems that would snatch at my sleep and wouldn’t let go… like unruly sylphs that demanded to be put where they belonged… and well past midnight. This was when I was 12.

Now imagine loving something so entirely, so naturally—and then being paid to do it. Like a chocolate addict being paid to taste chocolates. But that’s not even the best part. The best part is that unlike writing privately in your diary, you write in a newspaper—a medium that’s being read and absorbed by hundreds and thousands. You have your name marked on top of what you write, smartly etched out in print, made eternal and exhibited for the world to see. You cannot imagine what that feels like…

Like the rush of first love, every single day.

And then to have this love wrenched from your grasp.

If you’ve been following this blog, you know that I had to let go of my job around the time I was three months pregnant. That took a pretty big toll on my mental well-being. A job like mine isn’t just a paycheck. It means eight hours of doing something just for your own satisfaction, eight hours of time spent with like-minded people, a circle of friends that have things in common with you. It means going out of the house every day, seeing the world and its minute changes every passing morrow. Meeting diverse people from diverse disciplines—not to mention star achievers in their respective fields— acquiring new knowledge every day. Travelling far and wide on official trips, seeing the world without spending a dime.  It also, emphatically, means having other people to have a good time with than just your husband.

Having no job means being cooped up at home, which puts unnecessary strain on your relationship with your partner, as you begin clamouring desperately for his attention. And that can’t be reciprocated because he has a job and other occupations of the mind, while the only company you have around are women whose conversation centres around either daily soaps or the daily maid—none of which are remotely interesting to the thinking woman. I felt utterly and completely alone, and then I realised I had to be involved in something constructive to stop myself slipping into actual depression. One of my friends suggested joining an MPhil programme in the Jamia Milia University, which was then just a 15-minute drive from my place. But the near-constant retching and throwing up had left me in absolutely no condition to go anywhere on a daily basis. Which was when I remembered the thing called National Eligibility Test. You qualify the NET and you’re eligible to be selected as a lecturer in any Central University in India. When I’d completed my Masters in Mass Communication I’d been advised about a hundred times by well-meaning people to take that test, but that’s not because they thought it would be a great and fitting career option; it was because of the age-old belief that “teaching is the best profession for women.” And then, too, not because it is a noble and honourable choice, but because it’s a ‘safe profession’ with ‘undemanding timings’—basically being a woman you oughtn’t venture into anything too adventurous.

No offense to educators and academicians anywhere in the world—I mean where would I be without all those amazing teachers that shaped me? But here’s the thing: teaching can be the best profession for anyone—not just women—only if they have the aptitude and the inclination for it, not to mention the skill set. It can’t be a career choice based only on your gender, just because it’s stamped as safe.

I remember interviewing Margaret Atwood once, and she mentioned how during her time there were only about five choices open to women as careers: Nurse, secretary, airline flight attendant, school teacher and home economist. She said she opted for the secretarial sciences, because, in her cryptically witty manner, “I thought that if I had to have a job I didn’t want to have, it should be the one that pays the most.”

I remember musing, even then, how far we’d gotten from there in terms of choices available—but not so very far in terms of mental mathematics—mental growth. The safest, staidest choices were still considered ideal for women—and of course the best job for anyone had to be the one that paid the most—aptitude and passion be damned.

To come back to where I left off, I hadn’t the slightest inclination for teaching nor was I ever bothered in the least by social norms or what people thought of me. I had decided to be a journalist—that’s what I’d studied Mass Communication for—and that’s what I eventually became. But in this period of absolute indecision, where the future was mired in obscurity, I grasped at the one straw in my sight—‘teaching’ which was safe for any time, and which, I thought, would certainly save me from the fatal boredom and mental vegetation that accompanies being a lonely woman at home. It would occupy me in the pursuit of knowledge rather than brooding over the turn of my fortunes.

And so, just to keep myself constructively occupied, I sat for the NET during the seventh month of my pregnancy. The results came out about six months later—I had qualified not just the NET but also got selected for Junior Research Fellowship, offered to the top scorers in the exam, which would get me into Aligarh Muslim University’s research programme quite easily, without a written test.

The JRF-NET is a big deal in the world of academics, and I was accordingly hailed by every one of my family, friends, acquaintances—and former teachers.

But here’s the little difference between love and convenience. To use my favourite metaphor, it’s the difference between a marriage of love and a marriage of convenience. You might get a match that is, for all practical purposes, a source of envy for the entire world. You might get beauty, wealth, and resources beyond your imagination. But there’s one little thing on which all the taste depends… the ‘salt’ of life.

It’s love. Love alone brings elation. You cannot settle for something and be elated about it.

This wasn’t my love. I could scarcely revel in it.

In any case, I couldn’t join the research programme that year, because the dates had already passed by when the results were declared. That was just as well, for my baby was far too small and helpless. I had one more year to decide, for I could join the next year, or even the year after, since the JRF is valid for two years post the declaration of the result. But I didn’t care much either way—we were far more focused at that point on Sajjad getting his visa and moving to Oman, after which, so would I.

A big part of me didn’t even want to seek admission, because I didn’t want to end up stuck in Aligarh with a research programme to complete, while the life I had chosen for myself—my love, my marriage and my happiness slowly crept farther and farther away from me—a continental shift, so to speak.

No, this wasn’t what I wanted. I’ve always been pretty clear about what I want, and when. All I wanted was to create my cosy little nest again, for us to be reunited. I would not create any fresh entanglements here. All I wanted was to join my man in Oman, to pick up the broken pieces of that dream we shared and make a shiny new rainbow for us. To redesign those rose-tinted glasses to view the world with: so we see only beauty, only joy. Three glasses this time—an additional smaller, rosier one. Yes, that’s what I’d be doing, and that’s where I’d be going.

Soon, very soon now.

Or so I thought.