Why am I crying?


 

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

“Why? Why do you hate this house?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

But not today.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A few minutes pass by in silence.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mummy, why am I crying?

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

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

And I get to hear a fascinating tale.

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

“Yes, and then?”

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

And I understand.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m sorry.” I say to him.

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

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

We’ll do just fine.

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Lullabies for Hasan


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

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

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

“Oh, I love you daddy!”

“Tu masoom, tu shaitaan!”

“But you love me daddy!”

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

Son: “Oh, I love you daddy!”

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

Son: “But you love me daddy!”

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

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

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

And I never did.

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

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

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

If no one heeds your call, walk alone.

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

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

“Amma…”

“Yes?”

Wohi wala sunaiye.” Please sing the earlier one.

I smiled.

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

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

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

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

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

 

For the little hurricane in my life!


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FOR HASAN

You and I
Were not meant
To fight over morsels of food,
Or quibble over
Times of sleeping and waking
And cry over
Broken glasses and doorknobs.
In the midst of silence
We were sent to each other
For a conversation
As ancient as stars and as young
As the light in your eyes right now.
We were sent to envelop
And enfold each other
In questions that dot the sky.
You and I
Like black holes in the universe
Absorbing, magnetic, mysterious,
You and I were sent
As revelations to each other.

Tomorrow we shall wake
And fight again
And cry again over spilt milk
And in that commotion
We shall slip through the cracks
And find our spaces for joy.

It takes a village to raise a Mother


 

Recently, on a mothers’ group, someone posted an anonymous post, and it was a very distressed mother from the looks of it.

The mother was extremely upset—to the point of hitting her child, locking him up in the room and letting him cry himself to sleep—and the reason was that he “preferred” her mom-in-law over her. He followed his grandma around wherever she went but he didn’t do the same for his mom. The kid even followed his grandfather—her father in law—but just didn’t seem to care about his mom. It made her so furious that she refused to breast feed her child that day. And then she also spoke about how she had left a high paying job for the kid and she is not back in shape after having had a baby.

At first look people would judge this mother, calling her horrible and irresponsible and all sorts of insensitive things. Almost everyone was on the ‘side’ of the baby, little realising that the mother and the baby are always on the same side. When one is angry and hurt, the other cannot remain happy.

This post was a cry for help. This lady needs a lot of love and tons of hand holding and hugging—and more importantly, empathy.

Having been there myself—hitting my son and unintentionally taking my frustrations out on him—I truly, deeply feel for mothers who are so distressed.

The problem in the above case, the way it appears to be, is that the lady in question has many frustrations piling up one upon another. She is hurt and upset by the fact that she had to let go of a successful career, and she probably has major differences with her in-laws, so the idea of her son—whom she considers a part of her soul, and for whom she made major sacrifices—preferring those people over her, people whom she probably dislikes intensely, makes her feel unloved and defeated.

The lady didn’t speak of her husband, but I’m guessing there’s a lot of frustration there as well. If the husband were supportive and affectionate, she would find the love that she craved from him and not feel quite so possessive of her son. The boy in question is merely 2 years old.

This mother is perhaps a quintessential example of distressed moms in our society, who suffer intensely on account of a lack of love and appreciation. Lack of love makes us lonely and angry. Lack of love makes us bitter.

In addition this is also a showcase of the problem that ails women by and large, even unconsciously: having to let go of all your dreams for the sake of motherhood, and then attaching all those unfinished goals and unfulfilled expectations with your child.

People expect the mother to be mature, grown up and sacrificing and able to handle every problem even at the cost of her own wellness. That is too much pressure on a young woman, especially a first time mother, and especially one who had to let go of a successful career. People forget that the world of parenting is as new to a young mother as the world of people is new to the baby. The child and mother are both growing together, both learning to navigate in and make sense of an unknown environment, facing stresses they never faced before, coping in a high pressure world. The new mother is almost as vulnerable as the newborn. She needs to be taken care of and soothed and loved as much as the little baby—and yet she is the one responsible for the rearing and nurturing and keeping alive of one whole human being, while no one pays the scantest attention to her needs.

Inevitably, her pent up frustration pours out on the child. And then the world shames the mother for being cruel to her child, the world shames her for being incompetent, the world shames her for not being “mother enough”.

What’s to be done in this scenario?

Let me hark back to the famous statement: it takes a village to raise a child.

Now let me twist it a bit: It takes a village to raise a mother.

What we are used to is the idea of insta-mothers served up in 9 months with garnish on top. Mothers, on the contrary, are created over years and years; they grow and evolve and learn on the job. A mother is a human being first. She is an individual first. She has her own needs and desires and dreams and problems and expecting them to put everything aside and just focus on being a mother is downright cruel. It takes a village to raise a mother because when everyone chips in to ease the burden on her, only then can she be a happy woman and, by consequence, a happy mother.

Unhappy women do not make happy mothers. How can they? You can only give what you have in the first place, and if you have no joy in your heart, how can you share it with others?

It is the imperative therefore, of the entire village—the new age village that includes not just spouse, in laws, parents, friends but also bosses, co-workers and flexible workplaces—to raise the child and also raise the mother. Raise her happiness levels, raise her self-esteem and her self-worth so she does not have to live her life bearing only the burden of sacrifices.

In the case mentioned above, the mother is plagued with extreme insecurity related to her child, she is stressed by feelings of rejection that arise from her child following his grandparent about, “preferring” them over her.

Herein lies another major problem that I’ve talked about on several previous occasions: making your child your only source of joy and love in life, attaching all your dreams to him/her. It has happened for decades in previous generations— when women were deprived of love from every other source, focusing solely on the child—and still happens when women give up all their dreams for motherhood.

The child was not born to fulfil your expectations or fill the gaps in your soul. Every child is born with a destiny of his/her own, with a purpose in life to be fulfilled by him/her alone. Your children will not remain attached to you forever, they will—and they need to—become independent and find their way in life and find other attachments and people to love. It is important for them to have healthy relationships not just with grandparents but also siblings, friends, classmates, teachers, girlfriends/boyfriends, spouses, co-workers and so on. With each new relationship their circle will get bigger and you will naturally have to share more and more. How then will you find the strength to let go?

It is extremely important, therefore, for a mother to have other people to bond with—spouse, siblings, friends, co-workers, neighbours. Other sources of love and joy in life. And also to keep following one’s own dreams, perhaps a little more slowly than before, perhaps with some breaks, but keep following them nevertheless—to keep a sense of purpose and direction in life. To have other sources of achievements and fulfilment than just ‘parenting’.  Not only does it ease the misery of your heart, it will greatly ease the debilitating burden of expectations upon your child.

Lastly, but most importantly, when you’re under extreme stress, get help. Get professional help from a therapist or counsellor, or at least approach your closest friends and confidantes. You mental wellness is paramount, and approaching a psychologist/counsellor does not mean you are ‘mad’, any more than approaching a doctor means that you are disabled for life. (No offence to differently abled people.) It merely means that you’re facing a health issue at a certain point in time, and proper care and treatment will lead you to wellness once again.

To the lady who was facing those issues, if you happen to be reading this, let me first hug you. One big, squishy hug to let you know you are not alone. We’ve all been there, and it’s terrible, but trust me you’ll come out of this, and both you and your baby will be happy. You are loved, my dear, especially by all of us mothers out here. One big solidarity bump.

But one word of advice to you—and to all those mothers reading this.

Mothers, please put yourself first.

Yes, you heard that right. The world will tell you to put your baby first, put your family first, and some people will go to the lengths of calling you selfish if you dare to voice your own desires and any kind of ambition for yourself.

Don’t pay any attention to them.

Tune them out like static and ugly sounds from a bad radio. Turn them off like that hollering news anchor on TV (you know who I mean). Shut them down like the gaping smelly mouth of a toilet seat.

The child does not come first. The Mother comes first.

Mothers, please learn to value your sanity, your happiness and your dreams as well. And most of all learn to focus on your health and wellness, because that is crucial to happiness.

Relatives and family members, stop pressurising the woman to sacrifice everything for her child. Stop putting a halo atop the heads of mothers and turning them into martyrs.

Stop worshipping the kind of mom for whom ‘nothing is more important than her child’.

Everything has its due importance in life. Friends, family, work, ambition, children and yes, the self. The mother must not be pressurised to give up all of them and keep just one.

And yes, I’ll say it again to you— the mother must come first. Before you think of what’s best for the child, think of what’s best for the mother. Because unless she is in the best state of mental, physical and emotional wellness, the child cannot thrive.

Think of it this way: the mother is most important for the child’s well-being, and if anything bad were to happen to her, who would be most affected? The child. If you would not be functioning one hundred per cent healthy and happy, who would be most affected? Your child. So, for the sake of your child, put yourself first. Treat your health, wellness and happiness as paramount. That’s what I always tell my mother. If you don’t take care of yourself, who’s going to be there for us? Who will we turn to whenever we are down and out?

And that’s what I say to all mothers out there: For the sake of your children at least, take care of your own self.

For you must always remember, you can only give what you have.

Mom n Child

 

 

 

Little philosopher: Talking of death with my 5-year-old


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Reading about Stephen Hawking’s death reminded me, for some reason, about my 5 year old’s obsession with death. This originated when he attended a funeral with me about 6 months ago, the funeral of a very young mother who left behind two kids quite close to my son’s age. It originated from him watching her still body and everyone else crying around it. It is far, far too early for him to be watching this spectacle. My mom never let me go to funerals and the first funeral I attended was after my marriage. I still remember how crushed I felt at seeing the silent face in the shroud, even though the lady was not closely related to me. For a 5 year old, the spectacle must have a profound impact.

Since then he often asks me whether I will die and whether he will, too. Importantly, the questions on death are always about him and me, never anyone else. And I tell him, yes, we will. Everyone dies. But I soften the blow by saying that we won’t die until we live to be a hundred years. I will be a hundred at least before I die, and you will be a hundred or more before you do ! He is satisfied for the time being, but the next day he will talk of death again– his and mine.
I hear him out patiently and answer his questions again. Questions on the body, questions on the spirit, questions on graves and questions on the afterlife. And one day, his baby-sitter who lives with us could bear it no more.

“Kyun karte rehte ho aisi batein?” She interjected restlessly, clearly distressed. Why do you keep saying such things?

And I was struck by how I, despite being his mother, never stopped him and never felt disturbed by his talks of our deaths. Talking and thinking of death has been a way of life with me. I am not perturbed by this, I do not consider it an ill omen and I do not feel afraid. I can talk calmly about death. Because I have been dealing with it since I was 9.

And yet it is sometimes surprising to me that my son can talk about it at 5.

In all of these 5 years, for the first time I realised what I enjoy the most with my boy. Quiet, heart to heart talks on topics far too philosophical for 5 year olds.
And I remember then, that I used to call him ‘little philosopher’ , for the expression on his face when he was 5 days old.

Chapter 43 (ii): Letter to my 60-year-old self


(Disclaimer: This post is not supposed to be a comment or judgement on anyone, it is merely a presentation of thoughts on how I’d like to see myself in the future.)

“Perhaps the world progresses not by maturing, but by being in a permanent state of adolescence, of thrilled discovery.”

― Julian Barnes, Levels of Life

About a year ago, when Richard Branson turned 65, he took on 65 challenges given by fans. Those challenges included writing a letter each to his 10, 25, 50 and 65-year-old selves. Interestingly, not one of those challengers asked him to write a letter to his older self—none went beyond 65, his age at the time. But why not?

Penning a letter to your older self would be far more fruitful than penning one to your younger self. Let me explain.

Writing to your younger self is like baking a cake for a dead person on their birthday—they can’t actually enjoy it (though you might feel good about doing it). In effect, it’s just an exercise in self-congratulation. You will never be 25 again—or 10 or 15—so there’s absolutely no point in giving advice to a non-existing person. In truth, these letters are written purely for the benefit of others—younger people, newer generation—so they may benefit from the wisdom of your years and all that you accumulated in experience, which is particularly pertinent when you’re a swashbuckling entrepreneur like Branson.

But as far as your own self goes, the exercise is completely futile. What would be more meaningful, I suppose, is to write a letter to your older self. Assuming that you stay alive till the date, it would be quite a revelation to know how your younger self saw the world, what she or he thought and experienced. Memory is a fickle lover—it plays tricks with your consciousness; it shows you past events coloured in the light that you’d like to see them in right now. But it would be infinitely interesting to know your real experience of that moment, as and when it happened. A few months ago, I happened to come across an email conversation with a friend of my college times, and I could neither recognise my own voice, nor did she recognise hers when I sent it to her. We had both forgotten so much of our younger selves from merely 10 years ago. So what makes you think you’d remember yourself correctly from 30 years ago?

That’s actually what a diary or a journal is for—recording your former self. But a journal is a record, not really advice per se. Giving advice to your older self might open up a whole new perspective. Perhaps, once you reach that age, it might enable you to see things from your children’s perspective—and lessen the inevitable generation gap. The acuity of youth is so badly discounted, and then you let it all slip away, turning into an exact replica of your forefathers and foremothers.

Which brings me back to myself— sitting on the fence, peering into the unknown future, thinking: Someday, I’ll be a mom-in-law too. And though there are numerous reasons for writing a letter to my older self, this one is as good as any. Here then, is my letter to my 60 year old self. 60, because I was 25 when my son was born and hopefully he’ll find himself someone to spend his life with by the time he’s 30, give or take a few. Here then is my strategy for the future. It may turn out to be completely unusable advice by the time I actually reach the said age, but it’s worth a shot anyway:

Romantic girl writing in a diary lying down outdoors

Dear 60-year-old me,

If you’re reading this you’ve managed to stay alive for six decades, which is no mean feat in itself. I’m sure you’re far wiser than me; you’ve experienced the vicissitudes of life in far greater measure. But I’m also quite sure that your memories of me have faded to a point where you see me only in sepia tint.

You’re standing at a great height now and can see a greater expanse. But since I’m standing lower than you, closer to the ground, I can see small things in much greater detail, with a lot more colourful vibrance. And I want you to never, ever lose the colours in your life. I don’t want you, 60-year-old me, to find your colours fading into grey like your hair would be for sure. Grey in the hair is a good thing, actually: it means you’ve got dual-toned hair without spending a dime at the beauty salon. But I’m hoping you would still be visiting the salon when you’re 60—don’t let yourself slide into dreary ‘sainthood’ just because your kid’s all grown up.

The reason I’m writing to you now is to remind you of how you were 30 years ago, and to remind you of what youth is like. So you can understand those who would be ‘new’ then, even as you’re slowly entering the ‘old’. Now, here’s my little secret to remaining close to your child—and especially to the woman that falls in love with your child: Don’t Grow Old.

You heard that right—Stay New.

Don’t you have heirlooms and jewellery and chandeliers and all, which never deteriorate no matter how “old” they technically get? They remain classy— vintage, so to speak. ‘Good as new’, don’t they say? But being vintage and remaining ‘good as new’ requires a lot of effort. And no, I’m not talking about trips to the salon—although those won’t hurt either.

The most important thing that needs to be kept as good as new is your mind, through careful maintenance and refurbishment. If you are to understand the ‘new’ people of your time, you will have to read and watch carefully the thoughts and ideas prevalent among the youth at the time, you’d need to be aware of the things they find entertaining and the things they find enthralling—as well as the evolving thought process— without being dismissive and judgemental of them. I can tell you for sure that they would be miles away from your own value system and interpretation of the world, but being dismissive or disparaging won’t help. In fact, you’d need to keep an open mind, for it may well be that the things you considered acceptable turn out to be truly outrageous—don’t forget that there was a time when slavery or sati or domestic violence all were considered acceptable. It won’t harm you to try and understand where your generation had been wrong, too.

You’d need to read as much contemporary literature of the time as you can, and watch contemporary movies and read/watch the news and be aware of events around you. You’d need, beyond anything, to listen to what your children are saying, analyse the things they say and discuss them along with your own ideas. If you feel they need guidance, discuss your ideas with them based on reason and sensibility, without resorting to the clichéd appeal: “in our times, my son…” or “when I was your age, my son…” I know for a fact that I absolutely resent being presented with these lines, and your son will resent them too—to say nothing of the woman he will share his life with.

The best approach is to find a middle ground— but only when it’s absolutely necessary. In most cases, children that have grown into adults can and should be able to take their own decisions, and the best approach for you as a parent is a hands-off approach. You raised your son to be an independent boy, so let him exercise that independence now, and let him take decisions together with his partner. If at all you need to offer advice, offer it in a positive manner—and preferably to the boy you raised, not to the girl raised in another family with possibly an entirely different set of ideas, values and lifestyles. You may not understand her at all at first, so it would be best to let the man she chose to live with handle all the sticky bits.

How else do you remain new? By adopting the gadgets and technology of the age you live in. I understand it wouldn’t be easy at all, for I can’t imagine what the technology would look like 30 years from now. But I need you to recall now, how difficult it was to first learn to cook. To first learn to drive. To first learn to bring up a baby. To first learn to manage in a big city all alone, after living your overprotected life in a small town. Everything is difficult for the first time, but you’ve mastered bigger things than a new-age gadget, so I’m expecting you to be interested in and using new age gadgets even now, when you’re 60. New age inventions will let you into the fresh world and you won’t feel left out. That’s going to be important, I think, as you get greyer in the hair.

What’s going to be even more important, dear 60-year-old-me, is to have other achievements, involvements and sources of joy than just your kids and grandkids. Believe me, that’s going to be crucial for your own happiness. That’s one of the reasons I find so much joy and pride in my writing—both personal and professional—and in my books and in my travel. If I were to centre my entire life round my son, and make him my only achievement in life, you would be the biggest sufferer, for sure enough that achievement—that son—would no longer need your mothering at 30, and find solace in another woman instead. I want you to be prepared for that, and to not make your son the focus of your life.

I don’t want you to base your entire happiness on events in his life either—his marriage and his kids, because the core of that happiness belongs to him; for you is only the periphery. If you’ll draw your entire happiness from his marriage and his kids or even his professional achievements, you’ll find yourself trying to control all those decisions in a way that makes you happy. If for instance, he chooses a profession or a girl that doesn’t fit your ideal you’ll feel betrayed because that was your only source of happiness. If he chooses to have/not have kids against your wishes, you’ll feel betrayed for you’d have concentrated your happiness only on them. For the sake of your sanity, your happiness and especially that of your son, draw your joy from things in your own life.

Set goals for your own self, goals unrelated to family. Goals for your own achievements, professional or otherwise. Don’t let your only skill be taking care of others, for then you’ll never be able to let your son behave like a grown up. Worse, you’ll even begin expecting your daughter-in-law to act like a ‘mom’ to your son—which is a fatal mistake.

Instead of expecting your kids and grandkids to return the favours you did for them and make you happy, construct your own happiness around you. Stay in touch with friends and visit them. Join a book club or some such community where you have other people to share your days with. Don’t make family the only focus of your life. Make a list of books you’d like to read now, make a bucket list of places you’d like to travel. Yes, I said travel. Just because elderly people in India aren’t expected to travel anywhere except for pilgrimages doesn’t mean that elderly people from other countries don’t pack up their bags and globetrot once they’re retired!

In fact, just imagine how big an opportunity this is, for travel as well as for romance.

Your son is all grown up and has a family of his own. You finally have the house all to yourself and your man. Isn’t that a delicious thought? You could just take your cue from the grey in your hair: grey is sexy. Don’t believe me? Just ask all those screaming fans of Fifty Shades of Grey.

So go all out and plan vacations, explore the world, try new things and have fun. Age is no bar for adventure—and young people anyway would like more enthusiastic elders around! Plus, when you’re having fun in your own life, you won’t grudge all the fun that your daughter in law would be having in hers.

Yes, you heard me. That’s what generally causes a lot of heartburn to mum in laws: “Hamne to kabhi aisa nahi kiya!”

‘We never used to do this, tsk tsk.’

When in truth what they’re really thinking is: “Kaash hamne bhi aisa kiya hota!”

‘Wish we could have done this too!”

You better believe it.

And yes, when your son becomes a father himself, try and understand that it’s his turn at parenting. You’ve had yours when you were bringing him up. So you let his wife and him bring up their kid their own way. Suggestions are good, but be careful that they are worded positively and don’t turn into taunts of incompetency or laments of “aaj kal ki maaein… (oh, these modern mothers!)” If you want people to benefit from your experiences, try and be helpful instead of judgemental.

Of course, I understand that when you’re 60 you’ll be possessed by a fair bit of nostalgia for the world as you knew it, the life that you’ve lived. It’s only natural, and you’re only human. And it’s perfectly okay to be nostalgic, because youngsters like listening to stories of an age past, stories of a time they never knew. It offers them a doorway into a wondrous ancient world—ancient to them, at least.

It fascinates them, just as 16 year old me was fascinated by the stories of her maternal grandfather who watched the coronation of Queen Elizabeth on a large screen in a London street, or the story of how he defeated King Zahir Shah of Afghanistan in a clay pigeon shooting competition aboard the ship that took him to England.

Remember him, the gentleman that he was—how he quoted Ghalib and Meer and Dard and Iqbal with aplomb, but dearly loved Simba from The Lion King as well!  Remember the things he stood for— always ready with kind advice but never dismissive of the new world.

And yes, there will be so many times your kids will still need you, times when they’ll be at their most vulnerable. In those times, I hope you’ll be like your own mother in law—in the way she stood by 24-year-old you when you were pregnant and a complete mess, how she took care of you when you were struggling with a newborn, how she taught you things you never knew, and especially how she never once gloated on all these favours upon you.

And I also hope that you will possess some fraction of the steel that shows through your own mother’s nerves, in how she coped with a devastating personal tragedy, how she single-handedly brought up two headstrong girls and how she still retained her infinite kindness, humanity and generosity.

Dear 60-year-old me, I’m quite sure you’ll rise to meet all the challenges and responsibilities life brings your way, but I’m also hoping you’ll have fun in the process—finding moments to bathe in the rain, to explore a new land, to steal a kiss.

I’m hoping you’ll stay new forever.

With love,

Your inexperienced, short-tempered, impatient, naïve, idealistic 30-year-old self

Chapter 43 (i): Someday you’ll be a mom-in-law, too


mum in law

Relationships that come as appendices to the main wedding clause are perhaps the trickiest ones on earth. You could argue that professional relationships are equally difficult, but if your boss turns insufferable—no matter how cushy the job—you can stick your tongue out at him/her one day and call it quits. No such exit clause available here.

When a daughter is born, very frequently your mind shifts to that time in the future when she would be taken from you by people who would claim her forever. You often wonder how that new world would treat her—and hence the extremely common blessing for girls: ‘Allah naseeb achha kare’, or ‘Saubhagyavati bhava’. May you be blessed with good fortune forever.

And though it is meant to be a blessing, it is a profoundly sad one. Ever wonder why we do not bless boys this way? Because everyone expects boys to be able to create their destiny. A woman, feeble creature that she is, is bound to her destiny forever.  And so, perhaps, if I had a daughter, I would have blessed her thus: “Allah tumhein apna naseeb banane ki quwwat de.” May you be blessed forever with the strength to make your own fortunes.

In fact, I don’t remember ever hearing my father bless me with a prayer for “achha naseeb”. On the contrary, what he repeatedly quoted to us, me and my sister, were these immortal lines from an Urdu couplet:

Khudi ko kar buland itna

Ki har taqdeer se pehle

Khuda bande se khud puche

Bata teri raza kya hai

(Elevate the self to such a height

That before your destiny is inscribed

Allah himself would ask his slave

What is it you would have me write?)

He would repeat this couplet day and night to hammer into us one single thought: we are the masters of our own destinies.

Nevertheless, he was a rare Indian parent, an exception to the norm—because the norm comprises of people wringing their hands in despair at her destiny the moment a daughter is born.

But now, tell me, when a son is born, does your mind wander to the time he’d be taken from you by another? A woman, a rival for his affections, an idol he will worship—much to your chagrin? I’m betting, no. Pardon me for generalising—it’s not a practice I’m fond of —but most Indian moms are so attached to their sons, they place them almost at the pedestal of ‘man in my life’. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not indicating some sort of Oedipal complex here. I’m talking of this—which was more prevalent in the previous generation than it is in ours, but it exists nonetheless:

The husbands were supposed to act superior to their wives—the whole ‘mardon ki shaan’ thing [The Man’s Pride] and not show their emotional side or the wives ‘would get too big for their boots’.  I actually know a person among my relatives who would tell his wife, “If I’m not criticising the dish you’ve cooked, it means you’ve cooked well.” Criticism or silence. Compliments be damned.

The woman, emotionally parched, unable to quench her thirst for approval and admiration, unable to express her physical desires for fear of being considered wanton, unable to find solace in the mere fulfilment of obligations, lives an unspeakable life of bottled frustration. And then, along comes the son. He loves what she cooks. Every son does. (Mine does, too.) And she finds herself showered with compliments. He is a baby. Babies express their love unhindered.

And then, slowly, as he grows up, he starts caring for her—for her happiness and her health. Sees his mother being verbally, emotionally, or even physically abused by either her husband or her in laws, and becomes that Man—the wall of support she always sought.  He becomes the mainstay of her life.

Then, of course, enters the other woman.

His wife. But he’s not the husband his father was.

He compliments his wife’s cooking, has eyes for her, cares about her well-being. And one day, he confronts his mom, taking the side of his wife—much like he had taken the side of his mother not so long ago.  And this woman, who had spent a major portion of her life fussing over her son—considering him her sole achievement, in the absence of all other avenues— feels cheated. Betrayed. For her to grudge the daughter in law’s happiness, then, is quite natural.

If you haven’t already, read Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things, and specifically go through the lines about Mammachi and her son Chacko. You’ll know what I mean.

Granted, all of this is rather dramatic, and not everyone had a life like that. But to varying degrees, most couples—small town, middle class, ‘Indian values’ type— fell within this range.  My father was an exceedingly romantic, mostly liberal guy who fed milk from bottles to his kids, changed their nappies and combed their hair for lice, frequently massaged his wife’s legs and back—something unheard of in his generation— because she suffered from a slipped disc and requested his wife to keep her hair loose down her back and her hands henna-painted at all times, because he loved to gaze at her beautiful self. He would take her out for a stroll by the river, and hire a cameraman to follow them and record their movements like a personalised romantic movie, while a chapraasi (man-servant) trailed behind them, holding the baby (me, one year old).

And this was in the year 1988.

But even then, my mother remembers being fairly intimidated by his quick temper in the early days of marriage, and watching, fascinated and thankful, as his temper completely mellowed down after I arrived:

“He would leave for office in a huff, angry over something, and be sure to not speak to me when he came back. But when you were born, and he came back still angry, he took one look at you and his anger evaporated. And I was so thankful for this angel in my life.”

Now this is a very loaded (offensive, too) statement, but I think this provided a major motivation for women to long for children.

I remember when I was pregnant and not very happy about it, my mum in law would reassure me saying: “Just wait till your son is born (the unborn baby is always a son for in-laws all over India). You will have a great pillar of support!”

What she could not understand, of course, was that I already had a pillar of support—my husband. Relationship dynamics had changed drastically over the previous generation. I already had a complete, fulfilling relationship; I didn’t necessarily need someone else to soften it.

But now, now that I am a mother myself, I often find myself sitting at the fence, wondering what lies on the other side. The side when I’ll be the dreaded law.

So when you are the mother of a son, tell me, do you ever wonder about the time you’ll have a daughter in law? More precisely, do you pause to consider what kind of mother-in-law you would be?

Because, to twist that line immortalised by Ekta Kapoor, the queen of soap operas: Kyunki Bahu Bhi Kabhi Saas Hogi.

The daughter-in-law, too, will be a mom-in-law someday.

 

(To be continued…)