Chapter 39: Splitting the bill— the worry bill


March 30, 2014

4 pm

Private beaches at five star resorts are almost all the same: sparsely peopled with resort guests lounging in the serene company of the sea. Of course, it’s the natural differences that make each one unique—the sand colour, the marine life, the water clarity. But the Kovalam beach is different in myriad other ways—because it is only partly private. The other half is public property, and there’s just an invisible demarcation—aside from the guards —that separates resort guests from the local public.

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That’s why Kovalam beach in daylight is miles away from the Kovalam beach of the night past. Before our eyes lies a scene bustling with activity and brimming with the typical flavour of South Kerala. Rows upon rows of catamarans with fishing nets dangling from them, young boys lolloping in the waters at a distance and families strolling along the edges of the waves. And speedboats lined up, awaiting their passengers. It’s a cheerful slice of everyday life—not everyday life for us, though, and we bask it all in. But it’s the speedboats that are most tempting. The owner of the nearest one watches me give it an eyeful and immediately comes over to give us the pitch. Since he’s seen us wandering over from the resort side of the beach, he quotes a price that is double, if not triple, the usual amount.

Negotiating prices is sort of my Achilles heel—I’m terrible at bargaining. Worse, if I really like something, I’m willing to be ripped off just to get my hands on it—call it impatience or gullibility or both. Sajjad’s a lot better at it, and he tries to use his skills now. But the speedboat owner has far greater skills for he has seen the look on my face—and he, like all men, knows the power wives exercise on their husbands. Nope, he refuses flatly. Take it or leave it.

Fine, we leave it, says my guy coolly, and turns his back on the speedboat. Oh no, we don’t—I put my sulky face on, draw him to the side and tell him: “I’ve never been on a speedboat before and I don’t know when I ever will again! It’ll be sunset soon and then we’ll lose all chance of doing this!” I hiss from between clenched teeth.

“Just give it 5 minutes! He’ll come around—I’m sure of that. He’s seen us coming over from the resort side, that’s all,” Sajjad tries to reason.

“I don’t care what side we came from!” and suddenly, “You’ve been on all those water scooters and jet skis in Oman so you couldn’t care less for this speedboat ride. I’m the one who’s going to miss it.” Darkness clouds my mind again, bringing back the reality of our situation—so easily obscured in this paradise. I cannot see reason. I go cold. “We were splitting the bill, remember? I’m paying for this. Just say yes to the man.”

I see it. I see the Silent Sajjad face come back on, and I know he’s miffed. I ignore him and walk over to the speedboat guy myself, quoting a slightly lower price. Take it or leave it, I tell him. And he agrees.

As we’re strapping on our lifejackets, we realise there’s no lifejacket for the little guy with us—the one and a half year old. The driver is most apologetic, he says we don’t have lifejackets this small. Sajjad and I exchange glances. His glance says: I don’t think we should do this. Mine says: Oh no. Oh no. Oh no.

The driver looks from one face to another, watches his prospects dwindling and immediately assures us that he’d go very carefully and slowly and we needn’t worry at all: people with kids do it all the time.

And I’m desperate. I’m hanging onto life with this vacation—outside of these golden sands and swirling waters I see nothing but bleakness. Sajjad sighs. “I’ll hold him tightly,” he offers, giving up. We position the kid between us, each with an arm around him—and I have a sense of déjà vu: from the time we did that elephant ride in Jim Corbett National Park. But our boy’s grown up since then—and I utter a silent prayer that this doesn’t turn into a disaster like that time.

The boat takes off.

There is something unimaginably enthralling about the sea, about whipping across untamed waves, about your hair—or scarf—billowing in the wind, about bouncing wildly from one wave to another like a dolphin gone somewhat mad. With each bounce the boat whacks on to the water, our bottoms being thoroughly smacked on the hard-as-wood seats! I am whooping with joy, open-mouthed and screaming—clutching at my scarf as the wind tries her best to snatch it off. I glance at Sajjad, then—and though he’s enjoying himself, he looks uncomfortable and a little strung up.

“What’s the matter, are you ok?” I ask him.

“Yes, fine. The boat’s bouncing too much. I’m worried for Hasan.”

And he is. He’s clutching the boy tightly to his side, and his attention is all but focused on keeping the boy safe. The boy himself isn’t scared—he’s enjoying the ride. But I feel a surge of warm feeling for this father-son duo once again. The fact that Sajjad is worried about Hasan isn’t just about this speedboat ride. It’s a small, mostly unnoticeable detail that the ‘worrying’ has been taken over from my hands—if only temporarily. After a year and a half of incessant, solitary worrying, I’ve just been given a break. From the moment we began this journey, this man has made it his job to do the worrying (with my job being just the feeding.) Perhaps that’s the reason why I feel so much at ease, so free, so devoid of cares. In his own unspoken manner, he has split not just the money bill with me—but the worry bill too. The bill that counts as much, if not more.

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Almost as if on cue, the speedboat slows down. We round a cliff and come to another beach, the famous Lighthouse Beach with the Lighthouse perched upon a rocky hillock. Beyond that, the Hawah Beach—Eve Beach, literally—peppered with fishing vessels of all shapes and sizes. Just as we’re turning back, a military looking vessel approaches the beach— and we’re thrilled to know it’s the smaller patrol vehicle of the Indian Coast Guard.

The boat finally turns and speeds off back across the open sea, slowing down alongside the crimson ball of fire that’s the sun setting into the waters. Sajjad relaxes visibly once we reach the edge and his darling is safely out of the water’s reach. We frolic in the waves, gentler this time, long past sunset.

This holiday is paying off far more than I’d expected. Once again, I remember my promise to myself—the promise that brought us here and created this little patch of happiness. But now, today, the moment in the speedboat brought home a simple truth.

You can’t create happiness from thin air. You could surround yourself with objects that signify happiness, you could create situations conducive for happiness, choose locations that perhaps deliver happiness. But happiness only arises from people willing to be happy. It only arises from people willing to bend a little for each other, from people wanting to make each other happy. From ‘splitting the bill’ together—the money bill and the worry bill—and making space for each other.

Because even for something as simple as a hug, you need to curve your arms, loosen your body and make space for another to fit in.

Kovalam enhanced

Chapter 38: Two’s a cuddle, three’s a huddle!


March 30, 2014

Breakfast at The Leela Kovalam is an elaborate, sumptuous affair, their buffet tables absolutely loaded with all kinds of delicacies, making you feel like Asterix and Obelix feasting in their Gaulish village. And you, of course, are not Asterix but Obelix, stuffing yourself silly. Now, I’ve been known for being a picky eater—a trait I annoyingly passed on to my son—but hotel buffet breakfasts trigger a metamorphosis of sorts. And here I am, combining South Indian Idli-Dosa-Sambhar-Vada and regular potato wedges with completely non-Indian croissants, muffins, gingerbread cakes and chocolate Danish pastry, with some mango yogurt thrown in for good measure. All of this finds its way to my plate, and no—I waste none of it. If I could have these breakfasts every day, I’d be twice my current size.

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As for the husband, he used to be a lot more cautious in his food choices. Now he’s more open to experimentation—not least because he inevitably finds himself at the receiving end of the exotic dishes I order on our vacations (halabi kebabs in a Lebanese restaurant on our honeymoon in Malaysia, which he never fails to remind me of), dishes that I invariably push aside after little more than two morsels. Being the kind of guy who can’t stand to see food wasted, he plies through them with utmost perseverance (and a fairly murderous look on his face).

Buffets are perfect in this regard, though. You can sample whatever catches your fancy without having to cope with dishfuls of something whose taste entirely belies its looks. But the buffet table isn’t the only thing taking our breath away at breakfast here. Morning light has drawn back the curtains from what the night had concealed. An endless stretch of the bluest blue, the sea merging with the sky, the waves twinkling merrily with sun-sparkle and the occasional speedboat weaving patterns of white foam on azure fabric. We’re not just having breakfast here; we’re having an entire ocean for breakfast.

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And for the first time since we arrived in Kerala, we’re having an extremely and utterly peaceful meal, without any interruptions and tantrums. The little monarch is still asleep as we’ve wheeled him to the restaurant in the baby stroller. (This stroller has proved to be the best investment of my life!) But once he’s awake—stroller or no stroller—we’re going to have to be at the mercy of the monarch’s whims and fancies. All things said and done, it’s not funny or amusing to have a moral policeman accompanying you all the time on vacation, putting his stern little foot down on each and every public display of affection. Oh, forget PDAs, this policeman stays right inside your freaking bedroom, for heaven’s sake! Talk about inheriting absolute desi genes from his father’s side.

Something needs to be done about this, and pronto.

Meanwhile, there are some other ‘pressing matters’ that need our attention. With breakfast finished, it’s time for us to head out for sightseeing. Only thing is, we’ve both stuffed ourselves so full we’ve got the exact same feeling one might observe in an over-fed, pampered tabby cat—curl up, purr and snooze like there’s no tomorrow. The idyllic, all-blue setting doesn’t help either—it lulls the senses into a hypnotic state of calm, a state where the world seems to have slowed down and paused, where nothing exists except the whispering sound of waves swaying somewhere far below.

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Oh well, we’re on holiday— we get to decide what we’d like to do. Cuddling up in the middle of the day in a super-soft, super squishy hotel bed with fluffy, downy pillows  and a heavenly view of the shoreline directly from the bed—that’s a pretty tantalising option, so we decide to take it. But that brings us back to problem number one: the anti-cupid who won’t let us snuggle or cuddle or get comfy at all.

And then suddenly, just like that, we have a lightbulb moment. We pull the little one close to us. With one hand, we hold his hand, and with the other, we hold each other’s. Mumma loves Hasan, and Mumma loves Baba too. Baba loves Hasan, and Baba loves Mumma too. And Hasan loves both Mumma and Baba. “We are a family,” we tell him slowly, smilingly. And then, very deliberately, we proceed to hug each other—a group hug, like a sportsmen’s huddle. The little one takes to it instantly, and we’re treated to excited, delighted little shrieks and gurgles as he discovers the joys of everyone hugging each other. This is the moment when we all laugh together. It’s also the moment when I realise, painfully, that this little boy has had so few moments with his small family, that he needs to be shown what it’s like—how we can love several people at the same time, in different ways, and it would not take away from our love for each other.

Children have an infinite, unfathomable ability to understand abstract concepts; all they need is to see the context. When they see it, they know it. They see a hug and they understand love, they see you offer a biscuit and they understand sharing. They see you smile and they understand joy, they see your face crumple and they know that is grief. When they see you hit and shout they understand violence, when they see you throw seeds to a bird they understand kindness.

Little Hasan was only a year old when he understood what ‘brave’ meant: it is to get up when you fall down and not worry about a small bruise. And now little Hasan has to slowly understand what ‘family’ means: it means more than just one person to love, more than just one person to hug. It means that love could be shared among everyone in a family, and it wouldn’t divide—only multiply.

And I, I have learnt something too. I have learnt that when you’re two, you cuddle. But when you’re three, you huddle.

Sometimes the best way to solve a problem is not to go through it, but around. Literally.

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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.

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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 30: The Olympic Baby


Latest research published in a reputable American journal reveals that babies that start walking as early as 9-10 months are 90% more likely than their peers to be extremely athletic, going on to win World Championships and at least one medal in the Olympic Games in their lifetime.

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Image Courtesy: The Times

You didn’t really believe that, did you? Because I just made it up. Though if you did, even for a second, then congratulations! You have already been successfully brainwashed into bringing up The Olympic Baby.

August 2013

Most people tell you that the hardest portion of bringing up a child is the first three months post the birth, before the baby learns to sleep all night through. Don’t you believe them. There’s another part of child-rearing giving this one a run for its money—a very, very close competitor: helping the toddler learn to walk. This has to be the most hair-raising part of the child’s development chart, especially when you live in a home like mine, which must surely be featured in the ‘Good Homes’ Magazine—just to warn everyone else what their home must NEVER look like.

(I haven’t properly introduced you to the Addams Family yet, have I? Well, that is for another time, another post.)

The state of my home has to do with my maternal family’s undying belief that everything must be within arm’s length of wherever you are. So for instance, you don’t have to walk all the way to a water cooler or jug or the fridge for water; every room has its own permanently situated jugs and water coolers. And first aid kits, and little boxes for spices, and little boxes for extra sugar, and salt and pepper shakers, and so on and so forth.

And every little bit of furniture and home décor items—even the broken ones—that we had possessed when our father was with us.

My mother has a bit of a Miss Havisham affliction—refusing to part with old, broken things, setting them up as reminders of an age long gone, an age she refuses to let go—clutching it desperately to her heart, and falling apart even as it all does, too.  It is chaos of the most carefully curated kind, the kind that you can’t change or set right, because someone’s heartbeat connects to it. Because what seems like chaos to you are the salvaged pieces of someone’s once-glorious, now-shattered love story.

But now, place a baby inside this carefully created chaos, a toddler learning to walk and curious about everything that seems so new and amazing—not to mention delicious, for this toddler just needs to put ev-e-ry thing in his mouth—the less it looks like food, the better. And you have a sure-shot recipe for disaster.

So I spend my days running from table to table, spice box to spice box, water jug to water jug, trying to keep my son from wrecking the house—or himself. At night he hollers for milk, and because milk is the only thing you can’t keep right inside the room, I rush out to the fridge to get it. By the time I begin measuring out the milk for rewarming, Hasan is crawling out the bed, and, standing up with the support of mesh-doors that open and shut through a spring, attempting to come out to me. And because he can’t yet handle a spring-door, he pushes it open but doesn’t know how to rush out before it bangs in his face. Which it always does. And so this results in me rushing to pick him up before he gets to the doors, rewarming the milk, measuring it and pouring it in his feeder, all with one hand—while the other hand holds him balanced firmly on my hip. At this rate, I could actually perform in a circus.

You might ask me this: why is he not in a crib? Well, for one, this is India—children sleep in their parents’ beds, and for another, Hasan’s crib has been put away for his own good. Let me explain: this boy is just about 11 months old, can’t walk on his own, only with support, but every single time he is put in the crib, he hoists himself to his full height, perches on his toes, and through some marvellous feat of gymnastics, manages to haul himself right over the edge, landing face down on the ground.

This happened a month ago: I have just had this brainwave and created my blog. I am sitting in the verandah, trying to type while Hasan sits in the crib near me and keeps grabbing at my laptop. I push the crib further away, and now he stretches out to grab the little spice box sitting on the verandah table. (Yes, there’s one here too.) I move the box away from his reach and focus on my writing.

Suddenly, there is silence. Guided by the ominous feeling involving a silent toddler, my head jerks up instinctively— and I dive through the air, just in time to catch him mid-flight over the crib’s edge: upside down with his head on my palm, inches away from that coveted spice box.

Now you know why the crib was discarded. And now you also know why it isn’t just the first three months that top the difficulty level.

November 2013

13 months. Hasan is 13 months old and still not completely able to walk without support. You’d think you’d have known by now the worst parts about the child learning to walk. But you haven’t. After all the running, balancing, diving and retrieving that you do day in and day out, this right here is the worst part of your child learning to walk—and turning out a slow learner:

“One year old and still can’t walk! What? His father was already walking without support at 10 months!”

“Oh his dad was 10 months old when he began to walk!”

“He hasn’t been given proper oil massages.”

“He hasn’t been fed enough eggs.”

“What! 13 months and can’t walk! His father was…..” Yes! Yes! I know! How many more people will inform me about it?

I know that his father was the poster boy of The Olympic Babies. You know, the kind of babies that are so smart they walk, talk, kick, jump, read, write—practically do everything so early they’re sure to win an Olympic Gold in their lifetime—or at least a Nobel Prize. So why don’t they?

We’ve become so accustomed to incentive-linked target achievement on the deadline, we treat our children the same way. Targets to be met on time. But then, this isn’t a recent phenomenon. This race for the Olympic Baby has been on for generations— go back farther and farther in time, and you’d find it intact. The ‘my baby is better than yours’ complex. The subtly malicious way, actually, to make a mother feel bad about her efforts. ‘My mothering is better than yours.’ That’s the real message, from every direction.

The only kind of mothering that’s truly better than the other is the one that creates a happy, confident baby. The baby that feels secure, protected and subconsciously aware of his parents’ belief in him—enough to try new mischiefs; the baby that has ample space to grow as slow or as fast as she likes. For a baby, the world is fascinating, sparkling, jaw-droppingly awesome. The faster the train hurtles along the tracks, the faster the scenery goes crashing past, and you miss out on all the glorious details of the splendid world outside.

Why rush?

The cherub that crawls through the garden finds all the hidden treasures…

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


Ch 29

January 5, 2013

Sitaram Bhartia Institute of Science and Research

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

August 1, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

But wait, there’s more.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yes, Yes and Yes. And No.

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

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

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

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

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

If you were to read this, Hasan…


IMG_20150614_143202

Unplanned.

I read a woman’s article yesterday, when she stressed her baby had not been unplanned, or an ‘afterthought’, or an ‘obligation fulfilled’.

And I didn’t want you to ever, even for a moment, label yourself as ‘unplanned’, without really understanding what it might mean.

There are countless things in life that occur unplanned. Love is one of those.

Falling in love with your father wasn’t something I’d planned either. Not in a million years could I have fathomed that he would be the man I would share my life with.

For as long as I can remember, I was very decided and clear about the things I wanted from life. Because Indian society is so shaped that girls as young as 8 or 9 are made conscious of their impending marriage, I had formed very clear thoughts about who I’d marry and how. At the age of 12, I had decided I would not change my last name when I married. At the age of 13, I decided I would never marry a man whose family asks for dowry—in fact, I would never let my mother give me any dowry at all. (Both of these promises I proceeded to fulfil.) And when I was 14—in standard X—I had decided I would name my daughter Zainab. I was in love with that name. (And I had no idea, of course, that it would be Hasan arriving instead.)

And so, too, I had very fixed ideas of what kind of guy I would like. Witty, funny, smart, open-minded, adventure loving—and with a preference for dancing. And romantic, don’t forget romantic. (I suppose I had based that description on my greatest crush of those times: Hrithik Roshan.) But most importantly, over and above all those, it had to be a guy who wasn’t egoistic or overbearing, a guy who treated me as his equal, and who didn’t park himself as an obstacle in my career-path. Yes, I was a feminist from the start.

It was around this time that I first met your father. No, it wasn’t love at first sight for me (though your dad states otherwise, for him!) I wasn’t interested at all ‘in a guy like him’. I didn’t like the serious, religious, sermonising types—and with a beard, no less! I probably hated him, and all the more as my family kept telling me ‘look at him, what a good boy he is, so responsible! Learn something from him!’ Yeah, right.

Well, to cut a long tale short, my falling in love with him came much, much later—several years later. Even then I didn’t really acquire a taste for bearded men. Only your father 😉

Over the past six years of our marriage, he has delighted me by being witty, funny, charming, smart, adventure-loving—and (with much training) romantic, too ! And he certainly isn’t egoistic or overbearing; he’s almost like a tailor-made husband for a feminist. (Almost, because no one is perfect and we ought not to look for perfection!)

But the thing, dear heart, is this: I loved him not because he was all that I’d dreamt of. I loved him just because. I fell in love with him for his honesty, his integrity, his genuineness of character. For being a man I could respect, and even find guidance with. A man I’d never actually have imagined loving. And this, my son, is what I want you to remember: Unplanned doesn’t mean Unloved.

They often compare us women to flowers. It’s not because we’re fragile or ornamental. It’s because we have layers. We’re composed of a multitude of petals—in so many different shapes and sizes. A woman is a daughter, a sister, a wife, a mother—and a doctor, a lawyer, engineer, teacher, journalist or whatever. She’s all of those, and they’re not pitted against each other. They are what make her who she is, each of those petals combined. Like a brilliant multi-faceted diamond, we are all of those at the same time. We don’t have to pick one over another. And that’s where the problem arises.

Society forces you to choose. It forces you to declare that you’re one thing above all others. And mostly, it expects you to declare that above everything else, you’re a mother. Well, I’m not.

I’m not a mother above everything else. I’m a mother along with everything else that I am. It’s an integral part of me. And I shouldn’t have to denounce all other parts to acknowledge this one.

This, my son, is something I hope you’d understand one day, particularly for the sake of the woman you shall share your life with. Someday, I hope you both share a love greater than the one your father and I have. And that day, you’ll know that loving her doesn’t mean we’re less important—or vice versa. In the same way that loving you doesn’t detract from my love for your father—nor his love detract from my love for you. You’re both such inseparable parts of my life.

But here’s the difference, love. And I hope you’d someday appreciate it. He is the MAN in my life. Just as for you would be the WOMAN you love. And that’s not me—though the world would again force you to acknowledge that your mother is most important. That’s when I hope you’ll tell the world: they’re both different facets of me, and they’re not pitted against each other.

She would be the WOMAN in your life, the one who completes you, who’s supposed to be your partner forever. The fact that she completes you doesn’t mean you were incomplete with me—it just means she makes you a fuller, better version of who you were—and that’s how God intended it to be. And so it is—your father and I were blissfully complete with each other. But when you came along, you made us better, fuller version of ourselves—that’s how God intends it to be.

I pray that you’d understand the many diverse loves that our being is composed of, that they’re all different and meant to coexist—without competing with each other. That I don’t love you as much  as I love your father, and I don’t love him as much  as I love my father. I just love you. I just love your father. And I just love my father. Simple. No levels, no greater than or less than. No one is ‘the best’. You’re all me.

I hope one day you’d understand this.

Or maybe, one day you’d come up with your own theories and ideas about the way we love and the way we live. I’d love to hear them and be contradicted.

Till then,

With as much love as a mother’s heart can hold,

Mumma

<3 <3 <3

❤ ❤ ❤