Chapter 26(ii):The unChinese curse


“May you live in interesting times.”

That’s a very famous Chinese Curse—famous everywhere except for China, that is.  Quite like the numerous things in which quoting ‘China’ becomes customary, because China is exotic with a mystic eastern air to it—and because ordinary people don’t really pay that much attention to it except for the jawdropping growth rates and bullet trains. And Kung Fu.

Here’s to the un-Chinese curse.

 

June 13, 2013

7 p.m.

Remember where we left off last time? Sajjad and I were sitting at a bench across the road from the lake, waiting for the rain to stop. (And it isn’t remotely as romantic as it sounds: the bench across the road does NOT face the lake, so we have our backs to it. With Hasan in one set of arms and a positively enormous baby-supplies bag in the other set, and two umbrellas balanced precariously between us three, we’re neither of us remotely inclined to crane our necks and gaze at the view behind. )

And now here we are, three hours later: decidedly distressed—barely shielded by an umbrella that seems flimsy as a leaf beside the three-hour-long relentless rain thundering down with palpable anger— standing by a traffic-clogged road waiting for the driver to pick us up, all the while bouncing an increasingly cranky, bawling baby. Mummy and Fatima are nowhere to be seen—probably still shopping at the Mall Road.

Another half hour and the car is here. Hasan has managed to fall asleep in his Baba’s arms, soothed at last by his Mamma’s lullabies. Perhaps that’s the reason why he’d been so irritable all this while: sleep. But a mother’s instinct tells me there’s something else too. A sleepy baby wouldn’t cry for almost all of one hour before he succumbs to rocking arms and lullabies—and refuse to take his bottle, too. The reason becomes clear enough when we reach the hotel. Hasan has a major—and I mean major—nappy rash, all courtesy of a severely runny stomach. His nappy didn’t appear soiled an hour ago, so it was probably stomach ache, or some such general unwell feeling that a poor 9-month-old can only communicate through wails and bawls.

The rain is still pouring down mercilessly. The heavens have flooded over, water crashing over the edges onto the mortal world. Just this corner of the world, that is. Heaven tipped to a side with all that weight.

It’s well past 9 pm, the rain shows no signs of abating, traffic is all choc-a-bloc and we have no clue where to find a doctor or a chemist shop. I call up Hasan’s old paediatrician in Delhi and she doesn’t pick up. There’s a mild probiotic that I’ve brought with me but that’s no match for the severe infection that he seems to have picked up. On hindsight, he was showing signs of a mildly upset stomach even when we’d arrived in Corbett. But it was mostly indiscernible and I’m more the stay-away-from antibiotics mom. Well, so much for that.

2 a.m.

The poor baby is in great pain. It’s the worst rash I’ve ever seen—and it’s only just the second time he’s ever had a rash. We spend a sleepless night full of baby-screams. A sleepless night is bad in itself, but the worst thing ever is to see the helpless little one—for whom you are personally responsible—suffer agonisingly. Am I a bad mother? Could I have done something differently? Was it because of the elephant-n-soother episode? Was I neglectful? Should I have acted on the very first signs?

Experience is only gained through the worst episodes.

June 14, 2016

The final day of our doomed vacation. And it still rains.

The Heavens really have ripped apart. The flow earthwards has slowed but is far from clamping down.

Around mid-day we depart for Aligarh. Hasan is a little better outwardly, though Sajjad and I are more the worse for wear. We have over eight hours of road journey ahead, and with the persistent rain it would take longer.

7: 30 p.m.

A mostly-uneventful journey has turned eventful as the rain-soaked universe stops us midway. The road is almost flooded and we see a huge SUV stuck in the water ahead. A ditch? Probably. Dead engine? Perhaps. No one can make out on the water-puffed road. The driver is apprehensive of taking our vehicle into the literally murky waters. But we can’t keep waiting there forever—and forever is what the rain-bearers seem to be aiming for.

Mummy’s lips start moving with fervently pronounced though inaudible Quranic verses. She’s the most devout of us all, her lips the very first that break open in prayer, no matter what the occasion.  I suppose Sajjad would get the distinction of being more of the sticking-to-the-religious-rule-book type, but when it comes to impromptu prayers spoken from the heart, mom tops us all. Well, here we are, engines revved up and sloshing through the muddy pool, with the odds stacked high in favour of our vehicle getting stranded right in the middle.

We beat the odds.

And reach Aligarh around 10 p.m.

Sigh of relief gets a whole new meaning.

 

June 15, 2016

Sajjad leaves for Delhi the next morning. (We’re still living in that weekend arrangement, in case you’ve forgotten.) Mom joins office too. There’s an extremely unwell little baby with me. And rather bizarrely, it’s still raining.

My grandmother, who lives with my mom, swears she has never heard a baby scream quite so agonisingly as this—and she’s brought up two of her own along with two of my mom’s.  The paediatrician from Delhi refuses to prescribe antibiotics until the stool test reports are here, which basically means two more days of this.

Panic.

Hasan’s cries are ripping my heart apart.

Panic. Lots of panic.

Rush to the local paediatrician, shielding Hasan from the unbelievably obstinate rain.

Doctor’s out of town. There’s a replacement doctor seeing his patients instead, who does prescribe an anti-biotic along with a local application ointment with much higher potency than the regular diaper-rash cream I’d been applying.

Every time the ointment makes contact with Hasan’s little bum, he lets out the most gut-wrenching, ear-splitting wail you could imagine. Wait—you can’t imagine. Another day of this and I take him to our family homeopath.

Turns out the painful skin-burning ointment was actually a treatment for piles. How wonderful.

It never rains but it pours.

 

June 16 2013

It never rains but it pours.

But this downpour is phenomenal. The entire mountainous region of Uttarakhand has been deluged by the most devastating flood in the country—“the country’s worst natural disaster since the Tsunami of 2004”, to quote Wikipedia. The North India Flood of June 2013. Attributed to cloudburst, and to the debris of the “building of dams upstream”, causing rivers to block up and then overflow.

“From 14 to 17 June 2013, the Indian state of Uttarakhand and adjoining areas received heavy rainfall, which was about 375% more than the benchmark rainfall during a normal monsoon.”

Don’t I know it—oh, don’t I know it.

“The main day of the flood is said to be on 16 June 2013.”

Exactly two days from when we left the ill-fated Uttarakhand mountainside.

For days the newspapers and news channels are crammed with reports of over 100,000 trapped tourists as well as pilgrims, as three of the four sacred Hindu Chhota Char Dhams fall in the lower ranges of the Himalayas.

Houses fall over. Bridges collapse. People die. The Indian Army, Air Force and Paramilitary forces put in all they have to get people out of the water’s wrath.

The nation is besieged.

My family and I all pray for the victims and survivors as well as the armed forces at each Namaz time each day.

And I, petty human that I am, can’t help thinking over and over: we’d been there two days ago.

My mother, my husband, my sister, my son. A handpicked selection of the crown jewels of my life.

Escaped by the skin of their teeth the ire of the great North India flood.

INTERESTING times indeed.

flood

 

 

 

 

Chapter 22: Love in the Time of Nappies and Yowls


Make love not war, sang John Lennon. If only…

The world abounds with scare-mongers. Doomsday prophesies a la Nostradamus and shrieking banshees shocking the lights out of you a la Pan the Greek Goat-God. Everyone’s ready, hands crossed across chest, to let you know how terrible a place this world is, and how things just get worse as you get deeper. Have I been turning into one of those banshees here? I hope not, because here are some great things that do happen, and most people don’t mention them at all:

During my pregnancy, I read up a lot about the growing foetus, about beneficial exercises, about how to manage depressing thoughts. But I also read a lot of this: “Enjoy the romantic moments with your partner, because this is the last of your exclusive moments together…” and “You won’t have much physical desire left after the baby” and “Romance definitely takes a back seat as kids come into the picture.” Being the die-hard romantic that I am, the words sucked the life out of me, creating an ever-more-grudging mother.

Perhaps I grew up on too many fairy tales, but the essence of my being is love.

My editor, a colleague and I were once discussing a theory that humans are all driven by the desire for immortality: if not their own selves, then their name must live on forever. We were talking about the things that are most important to people, and my editor, who was of the opinion that it’s either money or family, claimed he could guess what mine was: Family.

Nope, I said, you’re wrong. Close, but wrong.

He was quite surprised, because he’s often heard me speaking of my mother.

“Then it must be God,” he said triumphantly, because he knew for sure that it wasn’t money.

“Wrong again,” I grinned, though I could understand why he made that assumption: I’m a spiritual preacher of sorts.

“Yourself!” exclaimed Kumar (my colleague), like he just hit the nail on the head.

“Hmm… close… you could say that,” I mused, “but not exactly.”

“Then what is it?” Kumar insisted, exasperated. “You must tell us!”

I became all secretive, smiling mysteriously.

“No, really. Tell us.”

“Okay,” I said. “It’s love.”

Haan, so that’s family,” the editor interjected immediately.

“No… It’s not family per se. It’s the man I love.”

“So then it’s children,” he insisted

“No. Definitely not children. Just the man I love.” I repeated emphatically.

“Just you and your man?” Kumar echoed, genuinely perplexed. “Like Adam and Eve?”

That made me laugh. “Yes, somewhat like that. Just love. Everything else comes second.”

(Folks back home might consider me selfish and amoral for this: considering your parents and family second to anyone or anything is almost a crime in our culture. But, this is the truth—laid bare for all your judgement, come who may.)

Cotton candy, hearts and candles. Dark clouds, sea-storm and thunder. Conquering the world together.

To not have romance in my life is to be sucked clean of blood, zombie-fied into blank bitterness.

And that’s why, when those banshees proclaimed the end of romance, I felt I was close to death. But here’s the thing: like all good things in life, love must also be worked upon; you need to work hard for romance too.

Before coming to Aligarh, for the first month of Hasan’s life—in Delhi—this is what I used to do: our baby slept in two hour bursts at night,and generally, exhausted moms are advised to use this time for catching up on their own sleep. I found a better use for that time, though: Sajjad and I watched movies on weekend nights—like we used to before the baby came along. It made life seem a little more continuous. I couldn’t make love yet—too injured for that— so we used to talk love. And then those little things that taste like love…

Aligarh was a lot more difficult, because the move upset the tiny tot, disrupted his routine and turned life into a general nightmare… compounded by the fact that Sajjad and I were together for only about a day and a half every week. But thank goodness for mothers that play cupid ! My mom ensured that she babysat Hasan a lot—especially during the weekends, so we could go out together. Half the nights she would keep him in her room, rocking him in the bouncer, giving us that silver lining…the moonlight behind the clouds…

One of my favourite post-baby-love episodes goes thus:

Sajjad and I are sitting in a restaurant, talking, laughing and holding hands. The waiter suddenly comes close to us, and beckoning to a private table in a dimly-lit corner of the restaurant, asks in a low voice if we’d like to sit there? Considering that in small-town India, the only people who ever sit in dimly-lit corners of any place are college love-birds, we were both left grinning from ear to ear!

But over and above any of this, we realised what makes love work when there’s three of you: You take the baby inside the two curves of the heart. ❤

We made caring for him an act of bonding; we made kissing him and cuddling him an extension of our love. The burps and gurgles became a reason to look at each other with joy. We took him along on our outings, even visiting the Qutub Minar once, with Hasan tucked securely in a ‘baby basket’– photographed by all tourists in the complex!

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The Baby-Basket: 10-day-old Hasan

The Baby-Basket: 10-day-old Hasan

Tucked in !

Peace!

Our baby isn’t an intrusion on our exclusivity; he just turns our love a richer shade of red. Yes, we do have to work harder to keep the colour from fading, but, as Jim’s dad tells Michelle in American Wedding, “It’s called making love ‘cause you have to make love work.”

And so you make love work amid nappies and yowls.

Chapter 17: Seeing is believing


We never see the air. Never see the stars or the moon when the sun shines bright.

Never see our own brain. Nor the heart that beats inside.

Seeing’s believing… or is believing seeing?

There’s so much more to see if only you’d believe…

September 4, 2012

I have just fed my baby and he lies peacefully in my arms, quiet yet wide awake, gazing at me intently. I love these moments when he is so calm and almost looking into my eyes.

And then. Suddenly. He amazes me beyond words by stretching his tiny lips in a one-second smile ! I do a double take and peer closely into his face to check if he has fallen asleep, by any chance. Nope, he’s wide awake.

I slowly count the days. 1,2,3,4.

4-day-olds don’t smile! No way! But there’s no mistaking what I saw. That was a smile. I know it was.

My 4-day-old just smiled at me…! True, it was a one-second thing… but it was there!

I stare at him in a state of disbelief…but also one of elation.

And then I rush out to my mother in the other room.

“Mummy! Hasan just smiled at me. He did!”

My mother looks at me for a moment. And then smiles. But it’s a different sort of smile. The oh-no-you must-be mistaken kind.

“Honey, that’s not possible. He must be sleeping.”

“But he wasn’t. I double checked that.”

“Then you must be mistaken. The ‘social smile’ doesn’t appear until at least a month.”

“Oh.”

I must really be mistaken… I guess.

September 7, 2012

Sajjad and I are off to see the gynae for a routine visit. It’s my first outing from home after the delivery. (More on this later.) Since we’d be back within two hours, we’re not taking Hasan with us. Mummy will be keeping him company.

Two hours later

As we enter the house, we are greeted by an ecstatic voice.

It’s my mom.

“Baby! You were right! He smiled! He smiled at me today! It’s unbelievable! Well… it was really a split-second thing but he did smile.”

She can’t contain her excitement. The maid that she has brought with her all the way from Aligarh beams almost as much; she was actually the one whom Hasan had really smiled at.

“Didn’t I tell you?” I’m grinning from ear to ear.

“Yes… I didn’t believe you then… but now I’ve seen it for myself.”

There’s so much more to see if only you’d believe…

(You probably won’t believe this, of course. Since I’m not trying to pose my son as a superbaby or something of that sort, and since those are the only two occasions when he smiled…before the real ‘social smile’ thing kicked in, this is just one of those little things in life that pass by like strangely-shaped clouds… memorable, but you don’t know what to make of them. So… do you believe?)

Chapter 15: Enter the Dragon


Hasan pic


My son was born in 2012, which was the Chinese year of the dragon. My mom was always furious when I referred to the hyperactive baby in my belly as ‘little dragon’. You see, dragons aren’t good things in Indian culture. They’re monsters to be feared. (Though I don’t understand all the fuss… I mean, tigers are ferocious too, and people here love to be called a tiger.) Under Chinese tradition, though, the Dragon is majestic, powerful, successful and fearless—with a noble heart.

It’s true I didn’t fall in love with my boy when I saw him for the first time. But long before he was born, deep in my heart a tiny, almost indiscernible space had been carved out by him as he tumbled around in my womb. A dragon-shaped space with little wings. A home for a fearless little dragon.

Sept 3, 2012

I bring the tiny creature home.

He doesn’t resemble me at all. That’s disappointing. He doesn’t seem to resemble his father either… though everyone else says he does…but he’s a little creature with a face all his own…

He was born with a pretty good weight of 3.5 kgs, but never looked like the chubby little babies you see on TV. Long wiry limbs, with fingers that weren’t clenched shut but spread apart in a perpetual gesture of surprise. Thoughtful, pensive eyes that seemed to contemplate the deepest philosophies of life—like he was deep in thought from the moment he entered this world; solving an existential mystery that had followed him here from the dark home in the womb.

He’d often put one of those tiny outstretched fingers awkwardly on his cheek, the perfect touch to complete his look of contemplating philosopher.

My scatter-brained, always kiddish mother takes to calling him ‘Tidda’— grasshopper—for his long, thin body—much to the chagrin of his doting father. It made me laugh to see how possessive and protective Sajjad felt towards this little one… he was more the mother in that sense than I was!

Sajjad took a week off from work (that’s all he was allowed) and went about changing nappies, taking turns with the baby to let me sleep, and bathing the baby during that first week. And the burping, of course, was his sole domain. I suppose I do understand now why women find baby-loving men attractive!

We would both talk with little Hasan and he would listen with the same intent and thoughtful gaze. He has his father’s eyes, I can see now. The loveliest eyes ever.

I think I do love this little philosopher, the one of the shiny thoughtful eyes. Happy little grasshopper. Little wise, noble dragon.