About Zehra Naqvi

I am a woman, and a writer. That's what I am first and foremost. I was a full time journalist doing environment reporting, feature writing and editorials for a business paper. And then I landed a full time job as a mother. Right now, I'm a columnist and freelance journalist, including Associate Editor for one of India's leading online luxury magazines. This blog is just my way of sharing with the world a different take on motherhood, away from all the sugary, sachharine-dipped stuff people usually associate with it. If you think I suck, let me know it. And if you can actually empathise, do do do let me know that too!!

Chapter 37 (ii): Midnight at the beach


The Tides

 

29 March 2014

9:45 pm

The day’s not over yet, folks.

Just as I’m finishing up my dinner alone by the pool, the shuffle of feet makes me look up. The guys are back—the big one and the little one, the latter looking decidedly chastised. Sajjad comes and takes his seat beside me.

“What happened?” I ask, looking from one to the other, for they are both rather sombre.

“Well,” says Sajjad, “Hasan and I had a long chat about how his behaviour was completely unacceptable and why it is very, very bad to keep irritating mummy like that.” He looks sternly, meaningfully at the little boy who hangs his head in shame.

My mouth falls open in amazement and I gape at both of them, father and son. Has he really been having this stern “long chat” with this 15-month old boy, and has the boy really understood? By the looks of it, it seems he has! But then they’ve always shared this bond. When Hasan was only a month or two old, Sajjad would take the crying baby in his arms and speak to him directly, looking him in the eye. He would speak to him, not coochie-cooing like people usually do with babies, but speak gently, wisely, like you explain something important to another person. And the baby would stop crying and gape at his father, wide-eyed at first, and then with rapt attention. They really do understand each other.

And so, finally, we finish the dinner in peace, together at last, all three of us—sans tantrums, sans annoyance, sans bitterness. A moment of beauty is a joy forever.

 

10:30 pm

We’re back at the Suite and the little one is finally asleep. Standing at the terrace, I take in the silver-tinged waves in a frame of swaying palms trees, and I’m hit by an idea: why don’t we take a night stroll on the beach? Why wait till morning?

True, we’ve had a tough and tiring day, true we need to get some rest. But hey, it isn’t every day you come to Kerala, do you, and we have just 2 more days here.

“What are we gonna do with Hasan, though?” Sajjad looks at the boy sleeping on the bed.

“We’re going to put him in the baby stroller and wheel him all the way to the beach.” I smile triumphantly.

There’s a direct path just below our suite leading to The Leela’s private stretch of the beach, a sloping paved route on which we push the stroller now. Well, ‘we’ wouldn’t be the correct term, actually, because I queen it all the way to the beach and Sajjad obliges like a gentleman. Hasan sleeps peacefully, blissfully unaware of his surroundings—blissfully for us, that is!

A gateway leads to the shack-shaped beachside sea-food restaurant of the hotel—The Tides, as it’s called—and beyond that, the beach. We slip off our footwear and leave it at the edge of the sand. But now we have a little problem. It’s impossible to drag the baby stroller over the sand. My plan has just backfired. Nonplussed, I wrack my brains for a solution; we’ve come this far, we’re not going to just sit at the edge and watch from a distance. There’s a whole ocean waiting out there. And then I spot the hotel’s official guard standing nearby—a uniformed guard, because this is a private beach—and I have another idea. Walking over, I ask him if he would please keep an eye on our sleeping baby while we dip our feet in the sea for a bit. Of course, he smiles. No problem at all.

That seems to take care of our little one for a while, but we’re both more than a little apprehensive at leaving our baby there. Nevertheless, he is well within our field of view and we keep casting glances in that direction just to be doubly sure.

And now, the ocean. Dark, mysterious, foaming at the edges and stretching as far as the eye can see.  We stroll over to the edge and let the water cover our feet. Feels like heaven already. A bit of sand gives way from underneath our feet with each wave, shifting and shimmering like silk. We walk in farther until the water swirls around our calves—the waves are boisterous and splash right up to our waists. The shore is absolutely calm except for the ocean’s incessant sighs.

Slowly we walk back onto the sand and park ourselves on the beach chairs. The stars peer at us from every direction. We sit there drinking in the scents, the sounds and I savour the feeling of lying back on these deck chairs in silence, side by side. Silence that marks the ease of togetherness, silence that doesn’t hang heavy in the air. And yet, some part of him feels far away, some part that I can’t really pinpoint. I just hold his hand, and ask him nothing. We all need our spaces and our silences.

Hasan is still asleep when we walk over across the sand, and we thank the guard for his kindness. Casting our gazes back at the shore one last time, we begin the uphill climb.

It’s almost midnight. I look again at the ocean, and make a wish before the clock strikes twelve, before the magic ends.

All I ever wanted is right here before me. The only thing I want is for this to last forever.

Chapter 37: Candles, waves and truffle cakes


March 29, 2014

We’re on a connecting flight to Thiruvananthapuram, and it’s a very long one—6 hours. After the wearing off of the initial excitement at being in a new place with ever newer things to experience, Hasan has dozed off. The first two hours have been mostly peaceful, but now he wakes. We still have 2 more hours to go before we switch flights in Mumbai, and then two hours from there to our destination.

I’d come prepared for this, of course. The baby-bag is filled with new toys and picture books purchased especially to be sprung as surprises at just the right moment. What I hadn’t come prepared for is the level of possessiveness my baby has inherited from me. Not for the toys, no. For his dad.

Boys are usually seen to be more attached to their moms. My boy is an exception. Much before he set his tiny foot in this world, much before his tiny eyes opened to perceive his father’s face, my boy was responding to the sound of his father’s voice.

Scientifically speaking, babies in the womb begin to hear and respond to sounds as early as the second trimester. Initially they only detect low pitched sounds, so the earliest sounds your little one recognises are the grumbling in your belly, the whooshing of air in and out your lungs and yes, your heartbeat. There’s something so warm and gooey about learning that the first thing your baby learns is the sound of his momma’s beating heart.

By the time the little one reaches the third trimester, he can already recognise your voice and begin listening to things you say, read and sing to him. (Hence the recommendations to read out verses from the Holy Book.) But equally important, he can also hear other sounds from the environment, particularly ones that are loud and clear.  Studies of newborn behaviour have shown that babies get used to the sounds they hear often in the womb, and once born, respond more alertly and attentively to those.

But I can solemnly swear that my baby has responded to voices other than mine even before he was born.

Ever since we started feeling the movements in my belly, Sajjad and I noticed how hyper-active the kid was, kicking away with aplomb. Sometimes I’d feel four simultaneous kicks at once and we’d wonder how he was managing to bang on the “walls” with both hands and both feet. Sajjad would jokingly wonder if he was “constructing something” inside! Over time, though, I began to sense a strange pattern to the hyperactivity. It would occur mostly in the presence of his dad. The little guy’s movements would be steady and rhythmic throughout the day, but come evening and as soon as the big guy entered and greeted me with his deep, gruff baritone, the movements would go into joyous overdrive. Like a playful kitten frisking around with happiness, Little Hasan In The Womb would literally turn summersaults at the sound of his father’s voice.

I do suspect that my own excessive, obsessive attachment to his dad played no small role in this development.

One way or another, Little Hasan In The Womb developed an umbilical connect not just with his momma but with his baba, too. A connect that only grew stronger out of the womb; a connect that enthralled and fascinated me.

And later, also irritated me.

Right now on our plane to Kerala, every time I try to get comfortable and snuggle into his dad’s shoulder, he pushes my head off. When I give up the shoulder approach and content myself with holding his dad’s hand, he pushes my hand away too! We’re amazed at first, and infinitely amused.

Somewhere in my heart I know where he gets this from.

Parents hardly ever realise the things they pass on to their kids. Not just hair colour, eye colour, height or build, not even susceptibility to hereditary diseases. Parents pass on, inherently, unknowingly, traits they wouldn’t perhaps even acknowledge in themselves. Perhaps a bit of strong-headedness, a bit of over-attachment. A bit of greedy loving, with attention-seeking thrown in for good measure.

He may look like his dad, but his stubbornness is all mine.

Ultimately, though, there’s only so much amusement to be had in being prevented from holding your own husband’s hand on a holiday that you created, for your own benefit. But you sure can’t reason with a one-year-old, and I sigh and let him have dad all to himself. And occupy myself with gazing out the window.

Thirty minutes later, Hasan has decided aeroplane time is over. He reaches over to the window, begins feeling it around with his little fists and suddenly demands:

“Darwaza kholo! Baahar jaana hai!”

We chuckle. As do people sitting around us. For the poor kid, though, the situation is far from humorous, and he repeats his plea with increased urgency.

Open the door! Want to go out!

We try, in vain of course, to explain slowly that we’re way up in the sky—showing him clouds up ahead, and trees way down below. Yes, I know, he’s only one year old, for goodness sake, but you always need to try, right? Doesn’t mean trying always works.

The next two hours until we reach Mumbai, and then another two hours till we reach Trivandrum, are peppered with frequent remonstrations and tantrums to open the ‘door’ followed by frenetic efforts to involve him in picture books and musical toys.  It takes quite an effort to remember, as we finally descend from the airplane onto the tarmac, that we’re here on holiday. Seems like a battle mission instead, where you end up dropping dead from sheer exhaustion.

4:30 p.m.

Exhaustion makes way for elation as we descend from the Mercedes Minibus that brought in all of The Leela’s guests from the airport, and make a grand entry into coastal opulence.

The Leela Kovalam, here we are.

Leela 2

I’ve experienced some extremely gorgeous five star hotels and coastal resorts in my life, among them The Marriott at Dead Sea, Jordan,  Movenpick Resort at Aqaba— Jordan again; the Trident at Jaipur, and The Leela’s own luxuriant property at Goa. And yet, I fell for The Leela Kovalam at first sight, and fell hard. The resort possesses all the quaint charm of a mermaid home atop a cliff, elevated from its surroundings and wreathed in the ocean’s embrace.

Leela on the cliff

Our first glimpse of Kerala’s coastline had been on way to the hotel when the ocean suddenly burst into sight with a simple left turn, and welcomed us with rows upon rows of fishing boats rocking gently along the shore.

The Ocean is symphony to my soul. Passionate, unruly waves pull me towards them with all the enigmatic power of a lover from a previous incarnation. Every time I face the ocean its roar reverberates in every pore of my body,creating an inexplicable urge to walk straight ahead into the depths, savouring the feeling of being slowly submerged until I am no more separate from it. Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing suicidal about this. It’s an ancient, primeval mating urge, the desire to be destroyed only to unite with your lover—what the Sufi would term ‘fanaa’.

The ocean accompanies us all the way to the hotel and inside it, because The Leela’s most fascinating trait is its ability to bring the outside in. From the lobby to the restaurant, the infinity pool and everything in between, everywhere you look, the ocean is there for you to behold. You can’t step around in here without being conscious of the ocean’s massive embrace, and to top it all, our accommodation is the gorgeous Beach View Suite with its spectacular view, framed by blooming bougainvillea on the balcony.

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One look outside and I have forgotten the annoyance of the past 6 hours. Most literary descriptions of Heaven and Eden depict mountains, fruit orchards and flowing rivers. But if ever there’s going to be a Paradise for me, it would never be one that lacks an ocean.

———————–

7:00 p.m

After the calm, the storm

Back in Battle. The son decided, within about 30 minutes of arriving in the room, that he was in ‘displeased monarch’ mode, which would be kept on for another hour or so. Tantrums accompanied by non-stop wailing and of course, woe betide the woman that dares come close to his father! (He seems to have completely inherited his grandfather’s dislike for romantic displays.) Had I not got my hair cut right before this vacation, I think I might have pulled it all out in sheer desperation.

My sister in law calls to wish me Happy Birthday, and I am beside myself with indignation. Happy Birthday, indeed!

“Oh come on!”  I rant into the phone. “It’s been a whole 6 hour flight full of wailing and tantrums, and a lot more of it since we arrived. I think I’ve just laid a whole lot of my hard-earned money to waste…!”

She laughs at my comic indignation, while my attention is briefly diverted by the sound of the bell ringing at the door. Sajjad goes ahead to open it. Just as I am opening my mouth to rant further into the phone, a brilliant bouquet of blooming red roses appears before my eyes. Followed by a totally tempting, small but shiny glazed black truffle cake.

Everything else is forgotten.

I had asked for the cake in advance, but the roses are unexpected. I’ve just been given a birthday surprise by the hotel staff. Now that’s a first! I wrap up the call pronto, and we’re ready to celebrate.

The sight of the flowers and cake have calmed the kid and he watches, fascinated, as his dad lights up the candles. And then we all bask in the warm glow together.

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8 p.m.

Time to head down to the restaurant for dinner. As we step out from the elevator, an incredible sight awaits us: the entire lobby shimmers in whispering fairy light. Corridors, corners, niches all decked with floating candles casting glorious shadows, making you want to talk in hushed tones or just sit and sigh.

In a minute, we find out the reason for the hotel’s innovative lighting: they’re observing Earth Hour tonight. By delicious cosmic coincidence, on my birthday night.

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We move toward the restaurant and take a seat just by the pool, looking over farther onto the ocean, pitch black now. It’s an unbelievably lovely night.

I’m ravenous, and just as we are about to begin eating, the displeased monarch decides he would rather stand in the lobby watching candles. No problem, we tell him, go watch the candles and we’re watching you from here—our seat is at the very entrance and we’d have a good view of him. But wouldn’t you just know it, mumma MUST stand there in the lobby too, he insists. I do stand there with him for a few minutes in the flickering lights. But we can’t stand there endlessly, which is precisely what the little boy has decided. And he unleashes his determined wail, throwing yet another tantrum for mumma to keep standing there with him, watching candles for as long as he wants.

After one whole day of non-stop tantrums, I have reached the edge of my patience. Here I am, all the way from Aligarh, sitting beside a glorious pool in a splendid hotel, with the most scrumptious spread awaiting me in the most romantic ambience possible. And beyond that, much beyond that, I have a chance to share this blissful evening that I’ve fantasised about all my life, with the man I have so desperately yearned for all these months. And it’s being ruined completely.

Sajjad has been trying to assuage the little one, all in vain, and now he takes one look at my clenched teeth and gobbles down whatever’s on his plate, swoops up the bawling boy in his arms, and takes him away from the table. They stay a few moments in the lobby, and then turn a corner, and disappear. I’m left at the table to finish my dinner in peace. At least, I’m sure that’s what Sajjad had in mind by taking the boy away from here. But all of a sudden every morsel is bitter and my mouth is filled with an acrid taste.

I am alone again. After all these months of loneliness, bitterness and coping with a headstrong child, every new second tests my patience, every new moment spent alone pulls at my anger strings. I am suddenly reminded of all the reasons why I didn’t want a baby so soon. I’m reminded of our neighbour whose anniversary dinner was ruined by her bawling son. The bitter Mrs Hyde in me simmers dangerously close to the surface.

I gaze at the candle flickering on my table, at the faintly glimmering pool, and beyond that, at the ocean as black as the sky, flecked by slivers of moonlight.

Suddenly I remember the promise I made to myself: I will make this day fabulous, no matter what.

And I have. I made this day fabulous by deciding to come here, I made it fabulous by bringing my family here—here beside the ocean, here amid the candles. And Sajjad—he made it fabulous, too. He made it fabulous by his very presence.

The universe itself has made this fabulous, by soaking everything in the radiance of a thousand flames dancing together.

No, I will not ruin this by my anger, by the piling up of months of negativity. And if I’m dining alone, I will be happy alone.

I tilt my head back on the chair, close my eyes, take a deep breath. And smile.

“Happy Birthday girl,” I tell myself. “You did it.”

Candle light dinner

Chapter 36 (ii): How to create Happiness— Part II


March 28, 2014

1 p.m.

Gurgaon. The name literally means “jaggery village”, which you could, if you’re so inclined, also interpret as “sweet village.” (Alternative meanings from history make it “village of the teacher” or ‘Gurugram’ as it has recently been renamed—appropriately, if you think about it, because the teacher’s village could definitely give other places a lesson in ‘upgrading’ themselves.) Now, this sweet little village got lucky when the gods of construction (read real estate giants) decided to look kindly upon it. And so from simple desi jaggery (Gur), it went straight to donuts and macaroons and truffle pastry. The place is now recognised by its imposing glass-fronted, imaginatively-designed high-rise office buildings, malls dripping with luscious labels and swanky residences peopled with humans sporting the most perfectly straightened and artificially coloured hair and the most insanely expensive cars.

This is where I am today, and the reason I’m here is that a certain flight from Oman is due to arrive in a little over an hour. Yep, you guessed it. I’m here to receive my man at the airport. And at first light tomorrow, we’ll be heading to the airport again, this time to catch a flight to Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala.

I tell Hasan, all of 15 months, that we’d be seeing ‘Baba’ now. Of course he can say ‘Baba’. All kids can say Ba-ba, and mine is a born chatterer. At 15 months, he can speak rudimentary sentences that use about 4 words. Things like: “Bahar jaana hai.” (Want to go out.) “Khul nahi pa raha” (Can’t open it), “Baby so rahi hai” (the baby is asleep) and so on and so forth. So yes, of course, he can say Baba. But whether he can relate the words to the actual person remains to be seen. It’s been 5 months since he last saw his dad, which had also been for just 5 days after another gap of 5 months. And because we’ve had zero access to video calling, he hasn’t seen the man on screen either. I look at him, and in exactly four words, tell him, “Baba aa rahe hain.”

Baba is coming now.

3 p.m.

Indira Gandhi International Airport, New Delhi

From a long way off, I spot Sajjad in his grey, green and coral panelled t-shirt and dark glares. I cut across the crowds, deliberately moving in from behind. I want to surprise him the way he always surprised me—stepping quietly from behind and poking a finger in my waist. It always worked. I jumped hard each time, caught off-guard, before realising who it was that had “groped” me!

I poke a finger in his side now, and he jumps a little but swivels round and catches me quickly in the crook of his arm, pulling me briskly to his side. We laugh. “Where’s Hasan?” he asks, looking around. Hasan is just a few steps behind me, being carried by our driver.

Greedy woman that I am, I wanted this embrace to be mine first—not my son’s. But now, Sajjad holds his arms out expectantly. I wonder what the little one is going to do. The little one, though, has no such doubts. He wastes not a second in leaning over eagerly into his Baba’s arms, and once there, wraps his tiny arms around him. He remembers.

I see the smile of complete satisfaction on the young father’s face, and I am struck by how little thought I’ve given to what this man is facing out there. It’s not just me who’s been left alone. He is all alone out there, too. No wife, no child. No family. He has fathered a beautiful little boy just about a year ago, and all this time he’s been deprived of the chance to witness the baby’s milestones. The chance to hear his baby’s first word, to watch his baby’s first step, to hear those little squeals of delight and laugh at his innocent mischief.

I am struck by the realisation of this loneliness. But then I remember all those pictures of him dipping in hot water springs, walking along silver shores, feeding turtles and riding water scooters, and I can’t help but wonder why I must be the one carrying sole responsibility of childcare while he leads the “bachelor life”. I feel my own loneliness more deeply, more bitterly than any other. Light fades, darkness closes in.

As the car meanders through the lanes I glance sideways at his face, and it seems to be the face of a stranger, a man I do not know.

This is when I’m supposed to feel happy. This is when I usually feel happy. What I feel now, though, is just this: indifferent. Numb, the way your tongue is when the dentist injects anaesthesia in the gums. You can move it around but you can’t feel a thing.

7 p.m.

“Sajjad is unusually quiet…” observes my aunt, at whose place we’re staying right now. “No jokes, meagre conversation… he’s quite cheerful normally. What’s wrong?”

If only. If only I could know what on earth was going wrong. Even though the man is generally more of an introvert, he’s unusually morose today. Not in a persistently sulking kind of way, but in an absorbed-in-thought manner, feigning cheerfulness when asked. After all these years I have come to associate this with “something on his mind, but he’ll never tell you what.” Sigh.

What is it with husbands and their absolute fear of transparency? You never share your actual problems with your wife because you don’t want to “burden” her or make her “worry”, when in truth she would be more than happy to lend you a sympathetic ear and more than eager to help out in whatever way possible. What worries her more, ironically, is that you don’t trust the relationship enough to be frank and open about your problems, that you don’t consider her competent enough to support you or help you out. Most husbands think they’re protecting their wives this way, when in truth they’re just isolating them. If you’re a man reading this, know that in most cases, the biggest thing your wife wants is your time—and more than that, your trust.

If only. If only it were this easy to explain.

There is a pattern to this pre-occupied, intermittent gloom. He’s trying. He’s trying very hard to stay cheerful—and often succeeds, because after all, he’s back where he belongs. But then there are those tell-tale intervals of vacant, abrupt silence. Most markedly, the complete absence of his trademark quirky humour, his dry wit and the crazy imagination that would rival JK Rowling’s. All those quirks, the most endearing of his qualities, are missing. There’s no roughness in his demeanour; he’s more tender and loving than ever. But there’s a pensive edge to it all, like he can see something profoundly sad that you cannot see, and because you can’t see it, he can’t tell you what it is.

A terrible burden to bear alone.

But he’s not the only one with a burden. The piling up of days and nights has left me with more frayed edges than tolerable, and I am beginning to unravel at the seams. Inevitably, the eruption occurs.

10:30 pm

I’m in the guest room, putting our son to bed. Sajjad is upstairs, conversing with my uncle, and I stay awake a long time, waiting for him to come down. I can’t leave Hasan alone, for this room is two floors down, and if he woke up and cried, we wouldn’t even be able to hear him. The clock ticks steadily. I wait. And wait. The magma rises.

After five whole months we finally have alone time together, and all this man wants is casual chit-chat. The magma rises further.

I pick the sleeping kid (who promptly wakes) up in my arms, march up two flights of stairs, barge into the room, and blurt out something curt and snappish. My uncle is appalled and clueless. Sajjad looks blank and baffled. He has no idea what I’m going on about. The reason is simple: Earlier in the day, it had been decided we’d be sleeping in the room on the top floor, but post-dinner, the guest room on the lower floor had been cleared for us. The guy had somehow missed the post-dinner development, and even as I waited for him downstairs, he was actually waiting for me to get back upstairs.

Of course, within a minute my uncle realises what is actually going on, and speaks to me kindly, soothingly—at which point I just burst into tears.

Tears are cathartic. The rest of the night proceeds in harmony.

March 29, 2014

8 a.m.

It’s my birthday and we’re at the airport, all set to fly off to the coast.

As we enter through the glass gates, there’s a palpable change in the air. It gets lighter, fresher, easier to breathe — with a whole load of emotional magma suddenly cooling, crusting up and falling off both our shoulders. We’ve left the world, the real world with its punches and whiplashes somewhere behind, and entered a happier sphere, a sphere of airplanes and sand beaches and lighthouses and cliff-top resorts. A sphere with just the three of us, a happy little soap bubble so fragile yet so glorious with its kaleidoscopic shimmers. We hold each other’s hand and savour the bubble.

Sometimes, that’s how you create happiness— purposefully, when it’s not naturally abundant. That’s just one of the ways.

 

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Chapter 36: How to create happiness —Part I


Kathi Ostrom, one of my favorite bloggers, makes an incredible statement in one of her posts, and in a very offhand manner. 

“In the past, knowing I couldn’t change my home, my job, my husband or my kids, I’d typically cut my hair… Cutting my hair might not have always been the best way to…shake things up but at least it felt like I’d done a little something.”

I wonder, Kathi, if it’s just you and me?

February 18, 2014

In a little over a month now, I’ll be completing another year on this planet. No matter how indifferent you might claim to be, growing a year older—a year wiser, a year deeper into life—definitely calls for some celebration. But as you might have guessed, I’m in no celebratory mood.

I’m getting way too predictable, aren’t I—and tiring too, because I’ve hit the pause button on life and there’s only so much that can be said about being stuck.

And so, like Kathi, I have decided to change the one thing that I can surely change right now.

Snip-snip-snip.

And there goes the hair.

From all the way down my back to merely brushing my arms, I’ve decimated my treasure by half, trading length for a fresh and fancy style. But it worked. I feel better already, newer and different somehow. Seems like a weight has been lifted off my shoulders—quite literally—and I feel happy.

Suddenly, I know what I want for my birthday. And I don’t need a fairy godmother to get it.

I’m going to gift myself a birthday fiesta.

In Kovalam, Kerala.

kovalam

A trip to Coastal Kerala has been my dream vacation for a long time now. Actually, make that one of the many, many dream vacations I keep conjuring in my travel-crazed head. In a world that seems a lifetime away now, Sajjad and I had been saving up for a really fancy holiday in Kerala, at the super expensive The Leela Kovalam. That dream trickled far down the garden path, though, as the world in all its wickedness tipped up and drained the savings away. But that was almost two years ago.  I’m earning my own money again and a quick calculation reveals that I have saved more than enough to gift myself a birthday vacation. I wanted to see the Kovalam Beach, and see it I will. With or without Sajjad. I can take my mom and sister with me, just the way we used to go in the early days.

But even as I think this last thought, the smile in my head droops at the corners…

In truth what I want more than anything is for us to do this together. But alright, I’m not going to get hung up on this. If we can’t be together, then I’ll do it for myself and myself alone.

I do know, though, that Sajjad would have plans of flying over to India for my birthday. He is the kind of man, that rare species of male, who doesn’t have to be reminded about birthdays and anniversaries.

“Are you coming over in March?” I ask him during one of our phone calls.

“Hmm..I think so…” he says slowly.

“Well, you’re going to take us with you THIS time. If you can’t, don’t come over at all.”

There’s a pause.

“Okay then…” slowly, sighing wearily, “I won’t come over at all.” His voice sounds far away, tired.

I sigh. It was worth a shot anyway.

“So… I have decided to go to Kerala for my birthday. You want to come?”

“Kerala?”

“Yes— Kovalam. Like we had planned, you remember? You can come with me if you want to.” I’m giving him a choice. Asking. Not begging, not insisting. I want to show him I can be happy alone. Not that he was the one who wanted me to be alone in the first place. But he is the one who left me alone, and I have had enough. “I’ll pay for the trip, of course,” I add breezily, pointing out, again, that I was self-sufficient.

“Hmm.” That word again. “I’ll come.”

Despite my demonstrations of indifference, my spirit surges.

“We can split the bill, you know.” He suggests.

“Okay…” I chew my lip. “You take the airfare; I’ll take the hotel tariff.” I keep the larger share for myself because the choice of super-expensive hotel has been mine.

“Okay.”

His words are slow, quiet, not entirely… how shall I put it… enthusiastic? For years upon years, I have spent many a day and night trying to fathom this man’s mind, trying to work out the complexities and contradictions residing within him, and failed a million times. For all the intimacy, the friendship and the warmth we share, so much of him is still a stranger to me.

And they say women are hard to figure out.

I spend a few moments wondering about his moroseness, recalling the wonderful moments in the past that were ruined by his unexplained brooding where he withdrew into his shell and refused to let anyone in. Or even to let them know what it was about.

And then I make a decision. I will not let any brooding, any anger, any moroseness ruin this one. This is for me and me alone. I will go out there and enjoy myself, the whole world be damned. And if this makes me selfish, so be it.

And so, after a long while, I begin to feel excited again. And straightaway get to work. Planning the trip, booking the hotel, marking out activities to be done and sights to be enjoyed. And when I book our room at The Leela Kovalam, I choose the gorgeous beach-view suite, giving them special instructions to arrange for a cake on the 29th of March.

“Not a big one, of course, just for the three of us,” I request the amiable lady on the phone. “It’s my birthday.” Suddenly I’m grinning from ear to ear.

“Oh sure, Ma’m!” she says enthusiastically. “We hope you have a great one.”

“Thank you,” I smile.  And swear inwardly to make the day a great one, no matter what.

Enough with the moping. I’ll make my own happiness now.

Chapter 35: Lands without Lines


TRR Pi.jpg

A line: A straight continuous extent of zero thickness, that extends infinitely in both directions.

That’s what we were taught when we first learnt geometry. But the line in its pure form is always an abstraction, because the human existence is bound by beginnings and endings. Infinite, limitless existences confuse the human mind. The line segment and not the line therefore, is what suits human nature better. But given our expertise at aligning abstractions with everyday concreteness, we turn all line segments into a line. So you have telephone lines, electric lines, notebook lines, scratch lines, laugh lines, and the horrible bank lines. The humble, every day ‘line’ carries no semblance of infinity whatsoever, but we refuse to add the word segment to it. Doing so makes us feel better about our own segmented existence—makes us feel infinite as a line.

Despite that, the line segment is an enormously more productive entity than the limitless line itself. Why? Because the line segment connects two specific, finite points. Hundreds and thousands and millions of line segments connecting countless points. Connection is the greatest boon of life; it turns the planet into a network of heart and breath.

Like interconnected arteries, we pump blood into each other. Disconnected, the planet is a morgue.

And that’s why life itself needs a line— lifeline.

January 27, 2014

The worst part about someone you love being in a separate country on the planet is that you know so little about it.

Oman, apparently, is a country that rather detests visual lines. Don’t get me wrong, from what I’ve seen of the pictures Sajjad keeps sending me, Oman has breathtaking shore lines, steep hill lines, and impressively historical architecture lines. Nope, that’s not what I mean. What it blocks are video-calling lines. Skype, Viber, and rather ironically, Line.

Essentially, what I’m saying here is that for long-distance marriages (ugh, that word!) Oman likes to severe the lifeline. We’re scrounging around for life-support. WhatsApp chats and clicks, and very brief international calls. It’s never enough. How can it be, when you’ve loved, lived, breathed and for heaven’s sake made a baby together! Thoughts lose their tone in short messaging, time slows you down in typing—and don’t forget the bawling/snatching baby while you’re calling. Essentially, to be able to talk 10 minutes in peace, you should be sitting in the loo—and even then the baby’s bawling incessantly outside the door.

But that, perhaps, isn’t the biggest gulf in these conversations. There’s a continental gulf— a gulf of disillusion, a dread sea, a bay of delay.

“What’s the update on the family visa?” my favourite question.

“There are some… issues with the paperwork.” Always the same vague reply. “And I’m still struggling with the super tough driving test here.”

Considering that this guy has been driving cars—and I don’t mean remote controlled ones—since he was barely out of his shorts, this seems completely inconceivable.

You’re struggling with a driving test?”

“This isn’t India! The smallest wrong move gets you flunked. You have to change the gear precisely at the indicated speed, you have to remember who has the right of way, you cannot go slower than a certain speed, certain lanes are meant to be kept free for ambulances, certain lanes designated only for trucks and so on and so forth. We’re so used to lack of traffic laws here that the brain has to be completely reprogrammed. You have to unlearn everything you’ve learned.” He pauses, adding, “And importantly—this is a right hand traffic country—the steering wheel’s on the left.”

Uh-oh. That’s bad, really bad. Completely reconfiguring your driving sense.

“Oh…” I chew my lip. That still doesn’t explain why a driving licence is so crucial to me being there. I voice my doubts.

“Well,” he explains, “Oman has very limited public transport options. To be able to get around, you most definitely need a car. And with you and Hasan there, I don’t want to take any chances in case there’s an emergency.”

Hmm. That makes some sense, I reluctantly agree. But my Oman dreams are getting steadily replaced by apprehensions of all sorts— a land with blocked video calling, meagre public transport and a pronounced car culture. My heart gushes afresh with love for the Delhi Metro. Forget the Delhi Metro, my heart gushes afresh with love for the humble Aligarh Rickshaw too.

Sajjad is quick to assuage my fears. “You’re going to love it here,” he soothes me “Every place I go, everything I do, I just imagine you here with me, imagine us experiencing it together. Everything here is so pure and pollution free—I haven’t experienced the slightest ill health since I came. The food is absolutely unadulterated—and you should just taste the milk!”

Now that is a clever line, because adulterated food—milk in particular—has been a common concern for both of us ever since Hasan was born. Additionally, since the period from October to December each year is when Sajjad is plagued by bouts of seasonal asthma in India, the ‘not-falling-ill’ part is a masterstroke. I feel better already.

“And it’s really safe out here. People put up barbecues in the middle of nowhere—completely barren hillsides, even—and there’s not the slightest danger of being mugged or robbed or, you know, women’s safety concerns. I’m already dreaming of us having a barbecue once you’re here.”

Easier and easier. Better and better. The man has gained serious expertise in calming me down.

February 10, 2014

And finally, the day arrives. The man just cleared his driving test. We can officially drive around in Oman when I get there. There’s only one little problem, though. Nobody knows when I’m actually going to get there.

I cannot understand, for the life of me, what exactly is going on up there.

The company’s project for building culverts under a highway has gone down the drain—quite literally. The “vaadi”—valley—came down in a landslide halfway through the construction. Have they ever even heard of insurance, I ask? Apparently there’s been some tiny loop-hole in the policy that prevents it from covering this terrible setback. The company has been struck a major blow.

There’s only so much communication, and no more. Broken, dotted line segments that refuse to be entirely linked. Like a drawing in a children’s book that keeps asking you to join the dotted lines— without numbering them or ordering them in any way. So you keep trying and trying randomly with meaningless strokes to make sense of it and get the whole picture.

I see other, long distance couples, and they’re always—always—on the phone with each other, video calling, talking face to face. With no video calling available here, I am frustrated, unable to connect statements with expressions, unable to look him in the eye and get him down to explaining it all.

I’m beginning to wonder, now, if it’s really even worth it. Is it really worth sitting around, like the princess locked up in the farthest room of the tallest tower, waiting to be rescued? How long can one wait for a line to be cast, a line to grab on to when you’re drowning?

Isn’t there some way to cast your own line?

I can take other people’s advice and join Research at the University, working for my PhD. But that’s not the line taking me in a direction I want. It’s a line that keeps me right here, just “productively employed”. But there’s another line, pulling me in another direction. The one-year-old who’s completely dependent on me.

Shabnam, my godsend maid, has already escaped from the mad house—and who can blame her? I’ve been trying since years to escape this place myself. My mom’s already working full time, so if I opt to work full time too, who do I leave my son with? There’s always my firebrand Grandma Bazooka, of course, but a hyper-energetic, super-attention-seeking boy is too much for a septuagenarian to cope with all day—heck, I’m not even 30 and he drains the life out of me too. I could send him to his other grandparents’ home each day, but every time that happens he comes back with a completely soot-smudged face and blackened hands and I cannot stand the idea of him playing amid soot and cobwebs all day and then nobody caring a fig about washing his hands either. Paranoid mom syndrome. Inherited from my own mom, of course.

But then there’s another, equally important line segment, attached in another direction. My newspaper articles. From writing one column every week, I’ve gone up to writing two. That’s about eight to ten articles a month, and when you’re writing, researching is implicit. The work suits me perfectly; it’s what I find joy in. It fulfils me creatively, and I do not want to pursue any other thing professionally if it means letting this go.

So no, it isn’t that I don’t have anything “productive” to do—though heaven knows bringing up a tiny human being is productive enough in itself. No, it’s not that. The thing is that for me, as for countless other people in the universe, work cannot be a substitute for love. Creative fulfilment is separate from, despite being as important as, emotional fulfilment. Those who’re acquainted with Abraham Maslow’s Pyramid of Need know that the need for achievement is a separate part of self-actualisation than the need for affection, and the need for affection definitely comes first. The very basic needs occupy the base of the pyramid—so unless you have food, water, shelter and safety, you cannot really dream of achievements and freedom. And so too, unless your needs of love and belonging are met, you cannot completely rise to the phase of self-actualisation.

People who drown themselves in work often do it as a refuge from the feeling of being unloved. They seek refuge from a harsh world that perhaps refused them the love they deserved. But I’m not of those. I can’t ever stop seeking love.

And so amid all the line segments that keep pulling me in different directions, the one I seek is the one that most eludes me. Like the proverbial line of zero thickness stretching till infinity, the line carrying me to Oman has become an abstract geometric concept, one that can endlessly be visualised and theorised, but never morphs into an actual, tangible entity, a reality to be experienced.

My present, my future, my life as I know it, has all been turned into Pi.

An “irrational” quanity, whose “decimal representation never ends and never settles into a permanent repeating pattern.”

Infinitesimally approximated, never exact.

A life, quite literally, of Pi.

Is Feminism anti-love? {Feminism vs Fairytales-II}


fairytales-beauty

Lend an ear to a lesser-known tale, the love story of a real life Prince. This is a fairytale with a difference.

In the year 1936, Edward, the Prince of Wales, succeeded to the throne of Britain and became King Edward VIII. But his reign lasted merely 326 days— less than a year— after which he chose to abdicate his throne to the younger brother. Why? Because Edward, the Prince, had fallen in love. Wallis Simpson, an American woman, had become the queen of his heart, but the throne of Britain refused to accept her as the Monarch’s official Queen. Wallis was a divorcee, and it was against the Church’s decree to marry a divorced woman while her former husband was still alive. Edward couldn’t keep both the crown on his head and the woman in his heart—he would have to make his choice. The young King proposed various alternative options through which he could be both Monarch and lover true. But the Church— and the people of England—rejected each one of them.

And so on the 11th of December, 1936, King Edward VIII stepped down from his throne, with these words addressed to his people— words worthy of a lover and a king: “I have found it impossible to carry the heavy burden of responsibility, and to discharge my duties as king as I would wish to do, without the help and support of the woman I love.” Within a year, Edward and Wallis were married in a private ceremony in France.

Edward gave up what few men can claim to ever possess—a real crown and an actual throne. He gave up the highest title of his land; from the King of England he stepped down into the position of Duke of Windsor.

There’s always that thing, that little thing, which makes you renounce every treasure, yet leaves you the richer for it. The trivial, insignificant thing that makes you relinquish power yet leaves you the stronger for it. A tiny, inconsequential thing.

A thing called love.

“It was love, love, love, love, love alone
Caused King Edward to leave his throne…”

0———————————-0

Fairytales don’t go down well with feminists.

The argument is that you shouldn’t ‘need a man’ to get you happiness; you should be able to find it yourself.

I see it all the time—the web is full of it. The ‘we don’t need a man’ declarations. I swear I saw a poster on social media that declared ‘Fairy Godmother, bring us the perfect career instead.’ Which is absolutely fine, but does this mean that a career is supposed to replace love? More importantly, as a feminist myself, this is what completely confounds me—do the same rules apply to men; do you ever admonish men for going full speed in the pursuit of love? I know the classic feminist is supposed to hate fairytales; so let me bring you a brief, reverse rendering of two of my favorite ones—from the male perspective instead. (I’m using the Disney versions, of course, not the original Brothers Grimm tales.)

Cinderella

The heir to the throne, the charming and handsome Prince falls in love with a peasant girl—a girl without title or fortune or ‘provenance’, so to speak, and puts on hold every royal activity even as he sets upon a veritable wild goose chase— glass slipper in hand, seeking nothing but the foot that fits it—that one woman who ruled his heart. And when he finds her, ragged and dirty, amid the cinders, he gives no thought to social mores and princely conventions, but takes her hand and leads her to his palace—making her the Queen of the Land.

Beauty and the Beast

The Beast in his huge and haunted castle has been waiting years upon years for a woman whose kiss would save him from this dreaded curse that robbed his human form. When one day a brave and well-read girl arrives to rescue her father from the clutches of the terrifying creature, the castle is filled with hope. The Beast’s kind and gentle side begins to resurface and the two bond together. But when Belle goes to visit her father and is unable to return, the Beast loses hope and languishes in the castle, pining away for his love. In the end, it is only Belle’s love that breaks his curse and makes him whole again.

Now that we just re-read the fairytales, what did we discover? A fairytale is not a tale of escape, it is not a tale of achievement and ambition; it is a story of finding love. Perhaps finding escape and redemption through love, too, but chiefly finding love itself. The actions of the heroes in the above-mentioned tales, or indeed, any other fairytale, are all guided by the quest for love. The thing to be noted is that the women they loved were not for beauty alone—they loved them for their kindness, intelligence, wit and charm. Perhaps, like Prince Charming, they cast aside social conventions and royal concerns, or like the Beast, they let go of their aggression and ego and open up for the healing touch of love. Like King Edward who gave up his throne— it’s love, love, love alone.

So to come back to my question—why don’t you ridicule, downgrade or put down men for casting the world aside in the pursuit of love? Why is a man not labelled as ‘disempowered’ when everything he does is for the sake of a woman? Do you ever hear men say ‘we don’t need a woman’? (Quite the contrary, of course.)

The reason a man never has to say this is because men seldom need to choose between ambition and love. Barring King Edward of course, who heroically tossed it all away—but is still considered a hero, not a disempowered sissy. (And that pretty much displays the inherent sexism in disparaging women when they give it up for love.)

For women, though, choosing love very often means an end to whatever other dreams they had. As Gloria Steinem and her ilk so succinctly put it in their slogans: ‘Sink into his arms and you may end up with your arms in his sink’. Because marriage would be, well, a dead end. Because women went into love expecting a fairytale, and then found that real life never lived up to it.

That was the reason why fairytales were so hated by the feminists: they wanted women to not sit around waiting to be rescued; they wanted women to stand up for themselves and rescue their own selves.  And that’s where it all started—the ‘we don’t need a man to be happy’ philosophy. Find your own happiness; be your own power, your own saviour.

Sisterhood of the liberated, I completely endorse your stand. But then there are different kinds of power, different types of powerful, and not all are the ones we’d want to be. Let’s just sit back and take note: fairytales are rife with powerful women— but they’re almost all evil. The Queen in Snow White, the Stepmother in Cinderella, the witch in Rapunzel. And that’s not sexism, sorry. Powerful men and women, in general, tend to choose the path of evil, simply because evil seems to pay higher—and faster. My point? Power is, in itself, a vile and terrible thing if not exercised for a noble cause. And in this regard, the heroines of fairy tales are far better ideals to aspire to, for they are kind and noble and brave.

The one really powerful and generous woman that springs to mind from fairytale universe is the Fairy Godmother. Think about it—how can you disregard her or forget her role in saving Cinderella? She’s that powerful woman who uses her gifts for positive ends. The sad part, of course, is that all she gives Cinderella are pretty dresses and slippers, and a Coach to get her to the Royal Ball. And this is where the reality of the bygone era steps in—the only ambition a woman could aspire to was a fortunate marriage, hopefully filled with love. Times have changed since then—drastically so. Why then do fairy tales still appeal to girls of all ages, in all generations, no matter what the era? Because, as I said, the fairytale is not a story of escape, it is not a story of ambition. It is a story of finding true love, and deep in the core of all our hearts—ambitious or otherwise—none can deny the desire to be truly loved.

So yes, little girls need to hear tales of women that rescue not just their own selves but others folks too—for that is the nobler thing to do. They need to be told that the purpose of their life is not just to be someone’s wife. Let them hear stories of real women, good and strong, who fought for a cause and either won or went down fighting to the last.

But let them also revel in the fairy tale, for in her heart, every girl is a princess.

Equally important is to let boys hear fairy tales too. When boys hear no fairy tales, they scarcely learn how to value love—and romance. A man that grows up hearing stories of a Prince that braved it all for his love would know much better how to love a woman and not let her down.

Here’s the little thing though—when we write the modern fairy tales this time around, let’s not make love the end. Let the stories step into the future, where the King and Queen both chart their noble paths, both ride their way to glory—side by side —lovers, friends, equals. Let man and woman both be each other’s support and realise their dreams together.

The need to be loved is as ancient and natural as life itself. To accept it is not weakness, to deny it is not strength. Ambition and love are meant to co-exist beautifully, boosting up each other.

Just like feminism and fairy tales.

Feminism v/s Fairytales- Part I


“We are becoming the men we wanted to marry.”

— Gloria Steinem

This post has been far too long in the making — four months to be precise; and has changed titles three times, always a little shy of perfection—until about twelve minutes ago, when I was driving my son to school and the perfect title just glided into my mind, fitting in there with a pronounced click.

Feminism and fairytales. There has been far too much of a discourse about this, far too much of fairytale-bashing in the halls of feminist fame. And the die-hard romantic in me couldn’t reconcile herself to it.

And then I read this line by Gloria Steinem—the one I’ve quoted above.

Every time I read feminist authors—or even just quotes from feminist leaders, I feel a sense of solidarity. The power of the sisterhood, so to speak. But when Gloria Steinem says that we are becoming the men we wanted to marry, I get a stupendously severe sinking feeling.

Really? Is that what we want to achieve? To become MEN?

No, I do get it. I get what she means to say. I get the context of the time and place that these words were spoken in—times when the only ambition for women was to marry a ‘suitable’ (read ‘wealthy’) man and live a life of basked glory. So what Steinem really means is for women to possess ambitions over and above marriage, to actually earn their own glory and fame.  To rise and shine, to be all those things they want to be—instead of merely looking for those things in the men they wanted to marry. I get that those words have led us to where we are right now—where a woman leading an independent, successful life is not an aberration. I get it all.

But what I witness now, in the time and place that you and I live in, is that feminism is becoming more and more about women becoming men. ‘Femininity’ is becoming taboo. To be successful, you must be like a man—that’s the subconscious message being sent out. And that makes me sad, not to mention intensely furious.

I haven’t yet watched Aamir Khan’s acclaimed movie Dangal— where a wrestler dad turns his daughters into champion wrestlers. It is actually based on a real life story— of the Phogat sisters, three of whom have won gold medals at the Commonwealth Games, while the others have won medals and accolades in other National and global championships. My sister went for the movie and came back gushing about it. But when she came to the part where the wrestler screen-dad Mr Phogat chops off his daughters’ locks because they were using their hair as an excuse to get out of wrestling, I felt hugely uncomfortable. There it was again—to be successful you must be like a man.

dangal

Part of my discomfort stems from personal reasons, I must admit. My long hair has been a very, very important, distinctive part of who I am. But then, there are lots of women who like to keep their hair short, and there’s nothing wrong with that either.

What felt entirely wrong was that it appeared like the dad forced the daughters to renounce their femininity—so that he could turn them into the sons he never had. (Apparently, in the beginning the movie shows that the family had an intense desire for sons so that they could take the wrestling tradition forward.) But ultimately it leads the women to success and glory—so all’s well that ends well. And everyone goes home clapping.

I would have actually bought that theory, too, if not for the little fact that this past year, Sakshi Malik, an actual female wrestler, brought home an Olympic Bronze for India—and she hasn’t chopped her hair off at all. What’s more, PV Sindhu, the Olympic Silver medal winner, hasn’t chopped off her hair either. In fact, there have been five women in all who have brought home Olympic medals for India: Karnam Malleswari, Mary Kom, Saina Nehwal, Sakshi Malik and PV Sindhu—and none of them has close-cropped hair. Deepa Karmakar who came whizzingly close to a a Bronze medal in the gymnastics category last year doesn’t have cropped hair either. And our very own home-grown Tennis World Champion Sania Mirza is the pinnacle of femininity: long hair, nose-ring, uber-cool and always stylish.

The reason I have chosen long hair to illustrate my point is that long hair is perhaps the most marked of feminine attributes. And by choosing hair, I want to point this out: you don’t need to renounce your femininity to be a feminist.

All the above mentioned women would surely be defined as feminists—breaking the mould with their endeavours. Sania Mirza famously even wore a T-shirt that proclaimed “Well-behaved women never make history.” The thing to be emphasised, though, is always this: feminism isn’t the opposite of femininity. You don’t have to be ‘like a man’ to be strong and successful.

In fact, when we make ‘manly’ attributes the standard of success, we are actually upending the years and years of protest and battle against the belittling of women. We are subliminally spreading the message that ‘womanly’ attributes are worthless and signs of weakness: that femininity cannot lead you to strength and success, only masculinity can. And that, ironically, is the reinforcement of patriarchy—presenting woman and womanliness as possessed of far less value than man and manliness.

Feminism evolved to give women their rightful place in society—so long denied to them. In effect, therefore, to be a feminist is to embrace your womanhood with pride, to wear your femininity like a badge of honour. In trying to be ‘like a man’ you’re merely succumbing to the kind of society whose greatest praise for a daughter is that “She is the SON of her parents.” That is to say, in transforming from daughter to son, she has reached a higher level of evolution.

That kind of mentality is precisely what feminists have vehemently opposed, but when we try to “become the men that we wanted to marry,” I am sorry but we’re playing right into the hands of the chauvinist brigade.

In the stages of evolution of a society, where misogyny is widespread with things like female foeticide being the norm, it is understandable why you would first need to prove yourself to men, just to show that not only are you equal, you can also be better. But as we move toward greater evolution, it is important for women themselves to value their womanhood, and not fall into the trap of woman-shaming.

In essence, what we need to become is the kind of woman we want. Let no one tell you what is womanly and what is the meaning of being a woman. YOU, yourself, are a woman—and YOU get to define what that means—not a man. So if your inner woman finds expression in short hair and wrestling, go for it, by all means. But if your inner woman loves both— long hair and wrestling— let nobody tell you that it can’t be done.

And if your inner woman loves all traditionally womanly things— long hair and cooking, for instance, that’s perfectly fine too—let no one tell you it’s something inferior.  The only thing is to be strong enough to decide for yourself and stand up for yourself—and for other, weaker people. That is the essence of a strong woman.

To be fair to Mr Phogat, though, I watched his interview on a TV show a few days ago, and perhaps by some cosmic coincidence, he was asked the ‘hair’ question. His reply was mighty impressive, I have to admit.

“Looks are fine,” he said. “I get that you want to look beautiful. But when you have done something substantial in life, when you have stacked up your achievements, only then you must focus on your looks.”

No arguments with that, Mr Phogat. No arguments at all.

{Stay tuned for Part II where we will actually discuss Fairytales.}