Letter composed atop a train berth


Image by Ramona Schumacher (Unsplash)

This post was written 4 months ago, atop the upper berth of a carriage in the Prayagraj Express, en route to Delhi from Allahabad. As one of the most tumultuous and bewildering years of my life comes to a close, I thought it appropriate to end it with this post that contains a letter to my sweet little H, the apple of my eye.

I was about to fall asleep on my train berth. I felt cold and drew my blanket over my head, and then idly wondered if I might suffocate and be found dead by morning. Passed away peacefully in my sleep. 

That sounds like a nice way to die, peacefully in one’s sleep. Inside a blanket. On a nice little train berth, pleasantly air conditioned, rocking gently to and fro like a cradle, snuggled inside a soft sky blue blanket. I’ve loved sleeping in trains ever since I was a kid. 

And as I thought this I wondered what I’d like to do if it were indeed my last night in this human form? 

I’d had a lovely conversation without jhagda (quarreling) with my better half after quite a long time! Check.

I’d had a tears-of-happiness conversation with my sister in the evening. Check. 

But little H!

His face swam before my eyes. Since he and his cousin little S were asleep together on the berth opposite mine, I hadn’t kissed him or hugged him before sleep as I always did. 

And I suddenly knew what I wanted to do if it’s the last thing I did. 

I wanted to write a letter to you, my son. 

I think I’m just projecting myself over here, because I have always yearned to have something written by my father for me to read. I knew he was a man of letters.  Of poetry. Of books and deep thoughts. I wish I could have had something with me that would help me know him better. Who he truly deeply was. His fears, his dreams, his worries, his passions. Every day of my life I keep wishing I knew him more.

But in spite of all my morbid death fantasies, I hope you never have to read this letter as my last to you.

I hope and pray that I stay alive to write you more letters. Because I know what it’s like to have only half of me alive at all times—the other half conjured up only through memory and imagination.

I don’t know who exactly I’m writing this letter to. Grown up Hasan? Teenage Hasan? Child Hasan? 

We can never really know who reads our letters once they’re out there, can we? 

Little H, I don’t worry about you, because I see you’re a fine little man already. You’re thoughtful, sensitive, independent. You have the sprouts of universal love in you. You’re truthful and understand the meaning of justice and compassion. 

You’ll grow up to be a fine man. 

I don’t want to tell you who you should be. All I want is for you to be a good human being. What you do with your gifts is up to you.

And you have many gifts:  you love animals and birds and insects and trees and flowers. The natural world excites you endlessly. You love automobiles and machinery – cars, trucks, planes, bikes and their functioning. You love listening to me recite my poetry to my mother although you don’t understand a word of it. You like flipping through my thick books and sometimes make me read from them to you, just because you want to share what Mamma was reading. You have many gifts dear heart. Life will show you the way and help you discover them as you grow and evolve.  

What I do worry about is that there are way too many patriarchal systems around you, woven in inextricable ways that undo all the tapestries of equity and gender justice that I try and weave around you. 

I do know that I would be very unhappy if a son of mine grew up to be a man who does not think of women as his equals, as people who have the same rights as him, and who deserve the same opportunities as him, whatever differences there may be in physiology. Be that man, my son, but also the man who understands the differences between sexes and the struggles emanating from them.

For it is important to stress that equality does not mean similarity.

Two people may be very different in skin colour, hair colour, eye colour, nose shape, mouth shape and so on, but they’re still entitled to being treated as equals- in opportunity, in law and in life. In humanity. People confuse equality with sameness. But being equal doesn’t mean being the same.

Equality is the right to being treated as equals despite all the diversity and differences that exists among human beings.

I would be very sad if you did not grow up to respect women. If you saw the privilege that you had as a man and felt smug and entitled about it- instead of feeling that this privilege came to you at a cost to someone else, and knowing that the onus was on you to correct this skewed reality. Knowing that the onus was on you to take enabling action, which allows someone else to flourish and thrive along with you.

Know this, my son: being born into privilege means it is a test you inherited, to see how much of that privilege you are willing to relinquish for the sake of equality and justice in society, in the world. This applies not just across genders, but across groups that are traditionally underprivileged- financially, religiously, socially. 

What will matter most is how willing are you to speak out for and support those who are marginalised, whose voices are constantly being stifled and whose presence is constantly being crushed. Nothing would make me happier than seeing you stand up and speak for the oppressed.

When in doubt, always use this mantra—look at the power structure. Where is the centre of power? Who holds the most power? Only then will you begin to understand the lay of the land, only then will you be able to understand who is being oppressed. And if you find yourself in a position of power, remember, power is only given to you to help the maximum number of people you can. That and that alone is the correct use of power.

Always remember this: human beings are all fallible. Do not make demi-gods out of them, do not turn your heroes into people you worship. Always be ready to ask questions and be prepared for uncomfortable answers. Humans are always looking for saviours, and from there stems our tendency to put people on pedestals and worship them. Worship no human, my son! Uphold only the principle of humanity above all else. Do not go looking for saviours. People must make efforts to save their own selves. But beyond that, try and save as many others as you can.

Always try to see things from different points of view, even though that perspective may clash with yours. Always try to understand and explore various opposing points of view, and only then make up your mind. And even then, be ready to listen and course-correct.

And when you have made up your mind, my son – (let me say this with the help of a verse from the Quran) – “And when you have made up your mind, then put your trust in the Lord. Undoubtedly, the trustful are dear to the Lord.”

Happy New Year, little H. May you learn many, many new things this year, and may you grow into a man who is a paragon of knowledge, courage, compassion and fairness. Above all, fairness.

All my love,

Mumma

The way you make love


(This post is the second part of the series on body awareness and answering children’s questions about intimacy.)

A person I know, once told me that when he found out ‘how babies are made’ his first thought was to be horrified and think “Oh no! My parents could never have done such a thing!”

Does this sound somewhat familiar?

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Gratitude.

It’s one of the most important things in life. Gratitude towards Nature, towards the Universe, towards God—however you like to think of it. And one of the most significant things we must be grateful for is this body, this home for the spirit. A precious, sacred gift, which deserves to be treated as such.

Growing up with the feeling that some parts of the body are shameful and ‘dirty’ creates associations of guilt and doubt, which has long lasting effects right into adulthood.  One of the most prominent effects of this is negative body image— inability to accept one’s body in all its natural beauty, the way that the creator crafted it. Skin colour, hair colour, height, build, features—everything. Every person is unique, beautiful in their own special way. Only when we understand the precious gift that our body is that we can come to understand this.

The second deep seated effect is felt in the expression of romantic love later on in life in the most intimate way possible.

The way that adolescents come to know of physical intimacy and lovemaking plays a very crucial part in how their attitudes will shape out in the future. I think I was lucky in this respect.

Around the time that I was 12-13, I chanced upon a book that belonged to my literature-loving, extremely well-read aunt—my uncle’s wife. This book was titled: ‘So You Want To Get Married?’  The year was 1999/2000.

I had been pottering around the house, going through the many bookshelves, looking for something new to read since I had temporarily exhausted my own book haul. It was then that I decided to rifle into my aunt’s bookshelf which was actually not supposed to be accessed by me. I was not supposed to be nosing around in my uncle and aunt’s room in their absence, but as it happens, the forbidden is always exceedingly tempting and appealing. I had had my eye on her bookshelf for a while, merely because the books she read seemed new and fascinating. So as soon as I had the chance, I invaded it. I still have no idea why I picked this particular book, because of course, at the age of 13 I was not contemplating getting married at all!

I opened the book merely out of curiosity I think, and flipped through some pages. I can’t remember if I read the entire book. Perhaps not. But there are some portions that I will never forget as long as I shall live.

“How many people think of God when they are making love?” asked the book rather audaciously.

It went on to say that we do not think of divinity when we are making love, because we associate physical intimacy with shame or at best a ‘guilty pleasure’. Either we think of it as something ‘dirty’ and thereby unholy, or something associated with the pleasures of the flesh and thereby ‘worldly and materialistic’. The association of pleasure with guilt gets so deeply ingrained that it prevents us from finding the sacred within.

On the contrary, there is no better way to experience divinity than through love.

Later, when I delved into the Islamic understanding of lovemaking, what I found was quite the same. Lovemaking with your sacred partner is defined as an act of worship, an act of piety –bringing you closer to God. In the end, though, the most important thing is ‘intention’. It is what’s in your heart that matters. The way that you approach intimacy will determine what it becomes.

“The way you make love is the way God shall be with you,” said Maulana Jalal Ad-Din Mohammad, better known as Rumi.

When two souls are so merged with each other, so in sync with each other that every fibre of their being connects at a sacred level, when what they share in that moment is not superficial but profound and mystical, that is when it connects both of them to the higher self, the spirit that pervades the entire cosmos. In this transcendental view of love, the physical becomes so deeply fused with the emotional and the spiritual that it rips apart the element of shame, moves far beyond mere reproductive function and also beyond the shallow realm of ‘fun’ and ‘enjoyment’.

Let me reiterate. Pleasure, joy and fulfilment are different from recreation and fun. The ocean is the same, but the surface scarcely resembles the depths, in terms of all the treasures it holds within. Those who are skimming the surface haven’t the faintest idea about the great wonders ensconced in the depths.

About a year ago, I was having a conversation with a very learned and wise elderly person, a septuagenarian who reminds me always of my mother’s father. He and I were discussing religion. And this is what he said to me: “God can only truly be experienced through love.” And then he went on to say how important it is to let our children know that they were brought into this world through an act of love—love as ordained by God.

But how often do our children get to hear that? How often does it happen that adolescents are introduced to the concept of physical intimacy in such a mystical, spiritual and profound manner?

This reminds me of an anecdote. A person I know once told me that when he came to know about ‘how babies are made’ his first thought was to be horrified and think “Oh no! My parents couldn’t have done such a thing! That’s so wrong!”

We’ve all somehow been conditioned in such a way that our first reaction to the idea of physical intimacy is to view it as ‘wrong’. Like an awful secret. And why does that happen? Because it involves parts of your body which, since childhood, have been associated with dirt and shame in your mind. So how could you ever associate something that involves those ‘awful, dirty’ parts of the body with any kind of spirituality and sacredness?

The idea of lovemaking as something filthy and shameful gets further perpetuated if your introduction to it is through pornography. If ever a beautiful thing in the world can get debased and brought down to the lowest level, it is the disfigurement of lovemaking through pornography. And that is why it is important for your children to get to know about lovemaking from you, and not from porn.

Think again. The person whom I just quoted said that his parents couldn’t ever ‘do such a thing’ because it’s wrong. Parents are generally, in the eyes of the child, the embodiment of all that is sacred and righteous in this world. If we were told about lovemaking by our parents, in a dignified spiritual manner, we would never think of it as something ‘shameful’ or ‘wrong’.

My son’s only 7 right now, but the day isn’t far when he would ask me about the birds and the bees. I used to dread the day and wonder how I’d tackle it, but now I feel calm. Prepared. No, I am not going to sit him down and give him a talk. I will let him come to me with his questions—the way he always does, knowing that I would never shut him up. And when he comes, I won’t tell him just about reproduction, but about love. That every person on this earth was crafted through an act of love— love as ordained by God.

(While also hoping fervently that the details have been covered by the biology teacher in school. Give me a break, okay? I’m a MOM.)

Jokes apart, though, I really would tell him about the sacredness and beauty that one experiences – while also, significantly, emphasising that it is an expression of love meant only for adults. Just as there is an age for studying everything, and you cannot cover your high school syllabus in third standard, or do your PhD in high school, there is an age and a level for expressing love in a certain manner as well.  

And because I adhere to a certain belief system, I would tell him that this expression of love must be reserved for the person whom he decides to spend his entire life with – his sacred wedded partner. Not necessarily because of sin, but because turning lovemaking into something casual would completely hollow it of its beauty. Oneness and divinity through love cannot be experienced if it is restricted to the shallow realm of ‘fun’. You must delve into the depths and for that to manifest, you need to wait for that one soul who shall be completely in sync with you.

(However, that brings us to the important concept that marriage alone is no sanction for sex. It is imperative to learn the importance of consent and mutual respect, of understanding and caring for each other’s wishes and desires. And all this shall be the subject of the next blog post.)

Perhaps my ideas are outmoded and old-fashioned. But then the idea of spirituality and God is also outmoded in the eyes of many. You don’t have to agree with me. All you have to do is hear me out. Ready? Thank you.

So now that things are coming back to me as I write, I just remembered that I accidentally watched Shahrukh Khan’s ‘Maya Memsaab’ movie on TV, in the same year but just a few months before I came across that book of my aunt’s. The reason I was watching that movie was that I was a Shahrukh-obsessed 12 year old and little could I have known that a Shahrukh Khan movie might have ‘forbidden’ scenes in it. (And it was on TV in the late 1990s.) I still remember that neon-drenched, awfully cinematised, horrid scene from the movie, which shocked the bejesus out of me and for days I went around horrified, thinking, “No way on earth is this ever going to be something I do!”

And then a few months later, God sent me that book to read (or so I’d like to believe) so I could see things in a magnificent, pristine light. See what a difference it makes!

The child does not need to be told that there are parts of him or her that are dirty. What the child needs instead, is to understand that the body is sacred, beautiful—a gift from God. The reason we cover it is not because we are ashamed of it, but because it is deeply personal and private and, quite like the deepest of our feelings, we reveal it only in the presence of special people instead of sharing it with strangers.

And yes, every child – or adolescent or teen – deserves to believe in magic.

In the infinite magic of love.

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)

 

Nominated for Indian Blogger Awards 2017 !


And it’s that time of the year again! Once again, we’re in the middle of a nail-biting race to the finish: This blog has been nominated for the Indian Blogger Awards 2017.

So if you’ve ever found anything relatable in it, if it has ever made you smile or sigh or touched you in any way, please do click on the image with the award and write a testimonial for The Reluctant Reproductionist on the page that opens.

I would be grateful !

The Indian Blogger Awards 2017

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…)

Chapter 40: If life were made of moments


March 31, 2014

Another day of lazing in the beach view suite and feasting on the irresistible buffets.  Our travels, though, are being thoroughly affected by the lack of foresight in planning—we’ve booked all three meals at the resort: buffet breakfast, buffet lunch and buffet dinner. So by the time you’re through with breakfast and you think of going somewhere far for sightseeing, you start worrying about getting back in time for lunch. I mean—my man here starts worrying about it. The intriguing part is, he’s not one of those food obsessed guys that give their wives a tough time on a daily basis—we’ve never ever had ‘food issues’ in our home. But every time we finish breakfast and I talk about us getting out of the resort and actually exploring Kovalam and its periphery, I’m greeted by the same reply: “but we won’t be back in time for lunch then!” And when we’ve finished lunch, it’s pretty much the same again.

I’m beginning to suspect this has less to do with his overflowing love for the resort buffet than it has to do with his general weary, morose, dampened mood that I’m observing for the last 3 days. Despite the fact that he’s trying to be the good husband in every way possible, he still feels distant, closed.  I’m trying not to create a fuss about it, but I’m well aware that something’s definitely wrong. There’s a huge build-up of stress inside him, a mental fatigue that transfers to his body and makes him want to just relax and do nothing—find some semblance of peace and calm.

So it’s the beach again for us—and I really can’t complain.

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The waves are incredible today—far more than last evening. I wade into the shallows and sink down to my knees, letting the water envelop me. Wave after wave crashes upon me, sometimes right over my head!

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Hasan sits on one of the beach chairs, gazing at us nonplussed—his mom being buffeted by waves and his dad clicking away happily.  The little one isn’t so keen on the ocean himself—though he loves water, he’s not familiar with this strange kind: the one that’s alive and thrashing around, making a wild din. It scares him. But I don’t want him to be scared, I want him to get closer to the ocean, to touch and feel and smell and explore it. It’s just that parental instinct to have your children love the things that you love—they might not, but you at least want to try.

I walk over to my little boy, pick him up and propping him on my hip, get back into the waves. Since I’m standing with him in my arms, he can observe the ocean at a safe distance: surrounded but not engulfed.

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He’s still not very thrilled, but at least he’s interested and not bawling to get back to the shore. By and by, I put him down on the beach at the edge of the waves. He’s still weary of what perhaps seems to him a watery monster, and I try to distract him with the sand.

He is intrigued. Scoops up a fistful and looks at it with a frown of concentration.

Sajjad joins us, and soon we’re all making little sand hills. It’s a moment I couldn’t let slip away, and I pick up the camera to preserve it forever—this  moment of father-son bonding so precious to me and so utterly gratifying.

Sitting at the shore reminds you how much moments resemble grains of sand. You can gather them in your fists or gather them into little hills, but sure as daylight they’ll slip away. The tides of life reclaim them, leaving a blank canvas behind—just so you don’t stay caught up in one, just so you can create another.

Like the Baker’s Wife sings in Into The Woods:

“..Let the moment go

Don’t forget it for a moment though

Just remembering you’ve had an ‘and’

When you’re back to ‘or’

Makes the ‘or’ mean more

Than it did before…”

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After lunch we go up to the Skybar—which is just an open terrace during the day—and gaze down into the azure waters that turn an emerald green just where the cliffs jut out. The cliffs! They are an amazing sight, and you can just picture the mermaids coming up at night to sing their ocean songs.

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We stay there a long time, watching the waves crash over the cliffs, the rays of the sun on the vast blue further beyond, and the stray speedboat creating a path of foam. I peer out to the right and see a path straight from our section of the beach that leads to some more gorgeous cliffs that we could actually climb. “Hey, let’s go there!” I point enthusiastically. “It’s not far, and we could have a lovely walk all the way along the beach.”

“But the sun’s already on its way westward and by the time we actually reach the spot, it’ll almost be sunset. We won’t be able to take any decent pictures,” says he.

I’m beginning to get irritated now. “Oh, drat those pictures!” I fume, but then mellow down.  “Honey, who cares? Even if we don’t get one single decent photo, we’d at least have seen that beautiful place, we’d have experienced a magnificent sunset, we’d have been on those cliffs for real instead of just watching them from afar. I don’t care one bit about the pictures— let’s just take some memories instead.”

“Hmm…” he says, and that’s all.

The sun goes down into the sea as Sajjad, Hasan and I sit upon the small cliffs and the waves crash all around us. As the light wanes, the tide rises. We head back reluctantly, walking along the water but avoiding the now boisterous waves. The farther we inch to the side, the more the waves reach out to touch us. I laugh in delight. “Hey look!” I tell Sajjad. “The sea loves me as much as I love her! Every time I move my feet away from her, she leaps out to reach them again.”

Sajjad smiles a little. “Hmm…” he says again.

Not for the first time, I feel a sharp stab of annoyance at this extreme taciturnity.

I won’t get angry, I remind myself for the umpteenth time this vacation. I will not spend my time fighting. I’ll just be happy we’re here—all three of us.

I slip my hand into his and he holds it tightly. Perhaps some things just have to be understood without being said.

April 1, 2014

The day of departure dawns. And in the manner of all things whose realisation hits only when they’ve reached crisis point, I’m suddenly gripped by the fact that we’ve spent three days in Kerala without so much as a glimpse of the famed backwaters! Who goes to Paris and returns without visiting the Eiffel Tower? Who goes to Egypt and doesn’t see the Pyramids? Who returns from Agra without a sight of the Taj Mahal? Only the stupidest and laziest of people, like the ones that go to Kerala and return without experiencing the backwaters. Nope, I certainly wasn’t going to be one of them.

And so, after three days of just lazing around the beach and the suite, I decide I’m not leaving without a backwater cruise. As soon as we’re dressed I go up to the concierge and ask them about backwater cruises available. The cruises extend for two hours but we don’t have enough time. If we set off at 10 am, we reach the backwaters by 11, which leaves just enough time for a one hour cruise so we can get back to the hotel by 1 pm, and reach the airport by 1:30. Our flight departs at 3 p.m. Unsurprisingly, Sajjad isn’t charged up at all for the plan—he says that’s cutting it too close. But I’m adamant. Of all things that I’m guilty of being in my life, stupid I will not be.

So here we are in the backwaters of Poovar— aboard a small, covered motorboat, in the greenest of canals fenced in by lush, tall coconut palm and banana trees.

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Image from keralatravelpal.com

As the boat chugs slowly across the mangroves into ever narrower meandering streams, even the sunlight turns emerald green, slipping in through the sieve of dense green foliage and reflected by the mysterious, somewhat intimidating murky green of the water. Fishing boats lie moored along the edges, and a coconut-selling boat passes us by.

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We take a left turn and enter a very narrow gully, hemmed in by emerald shrubs on both sides, the foliage almost cutting off the sunlight. The boatman abruptly cuts the motor, indicating that it’s the perfect spot for pictures.

I’m rather fed up, though, of this constant touristy fixation with clicking. We’re not there, it seems, to look and feel and drink it all in; everyone just appears to be travelling for the sole purpose of clicking pictures. Nope, not me.

We just get one customary click, and then ask the boatman to stay put.

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What we’d like more is to revel in the thrill of it all.

Complete silence envelops us except for the incessant cawing of crows and the calls of birds we can’t recognise. It’s a scene straight out of a Discovery Channel documentary on the Amazon River. Delicious thrills run up and down my spine, because I feel exactly like an explorer of the wild. Eyes wide with wonder and mouth agape in smiling fascination, I drink in my surroundings entirely.

Then my gaze falls on the man beside me, and for once, I am utterly satisfied.

Sajjad is as fascinated and mesmerised by it all as I am. Being too much the ‘Man’ though, his mouth isn’t open in amazement —but you can see he’s relishing it to the core.

“Isn’t this exactly like a documentary of the Amazon? Perhaps there’s an Anaconda slinking in the foliage all around,” I whisper conspiratorially to him, “…or maybe a huge croc just lurking under the boat…” I narrow my eyes dramatically for effect.

“Don’t you ever put your hand out to touch the water, then…” he replies with a wicked grin, playing along. We laugh.

The boatman turns on the engine again and the boat purrs out into a wider stream. That’s where we spot a Snake bird and a Brahminy Kite, and I regret not having a professional guide around for bird watching. These backwaters are definite bird-heaven of all sorts.

The stream widens, the boat turns and suddenly we’re into an estuary, where fresh water merges with salty waves. Up ahead the wide shoreline comes into view—we’ve reached another beach: The Golden Sands Beach.

True to its name, the sand here is an arresting shade of pure gold. But even more arresting are the absolutely gigantic waves smashing upon the shore. This is one beach with no gradual undulation into the depths; the earth just sinks abruptly into the ocean’s arms, like the exhausted lover seeking the comfort of familiar embrace. The dance of the ocean is an absolute delight to watch and though we’re standing far off to be very safe for our little one, the waves just close the distance with one mighty leap. The foam swirls around my ankles.

I could just stay here forever.

However, the very pragmatic man beside me reminds me that we’ve a flight due in a couple hours, so I must quit thinking of forever. Sigh.

We head back to the motorboat. The boatman takes us a little further, and presents us with a scene that can only be described as a microcosmic representation of the cultural and spiritual beauty of India. Up ahead is a statue of Jesus & Mary, standing majestically upon a cliff. And just a little beyond that, stands what is called the ‘Elephant Rock’—a natural rock jutting out of the estuary, looking remarkably like the outline of an elephant, which is a particularly revered and sacred animal among the Hindus of South India. Jesus and Mary, in the company of the Elephant Rock—particularly in an estuary— beautifully mirror the ethos of India. In a divinely beautiful spot on earth, where salt water and fresh water mix with utter ease, we find these symbols of the confluence of cultures and subcultures, religions and quests of faith. Can it get any more poetic than that?

“We have an hour and a half more of sights ahead of us. But I was instructed to take you back after the first hour. Do you want to move ahead, or would you like to turn back?” the boatman enquires.

I can’t believe how foolish I’ve been to wait for the last day before booking this cruise. Who knows what sights lay ahead of us? Who knows what paradise awaits us? But then something’s better than nothing I suppose—and if I hadn’t been a fair bit stubborn, we’d never have seen this little slice of heaven either. I feel pretty contented as we head back, from a different route this time, even as the boatman points out floating resort cabins at a distance and quite a few floating restaurants. How I longed to have lunch in one of these!

Driving back to the Leela takes us across the unbelievably green tropical paradise that is South Kerala, the rows upon rows of palm trees with their fringed tops framing the sky. All you can do is sit back and sigh or gape in wonder and delight. On the way we stop at a souvenir shop and I find something just perfect for my mantelpiece back home—a model of a typical ‘Snake Boat’ – a paddled war canoe used in the famous canoe boat races of Kerala—complete with tiny rowers all ready to zip to the finish line.

The rest of the hours slip by in mad frenzy as we race to make it in time for the flight—with a very annoyed and vexed man beside me, who detests nothing more in this world than being late.

As our flight from Thirvananthapuram takes off, we catch our last glimpse of the palm trees spreading out in a frilly emerald carpet beneath us, and a little off to the side the foamy blue of the Arabian Sea. God’s Own Country, as the tagline goes.

And now everything is obscured under a layer of clouds tinged golden with sunlight.

Ascent, descent. Isn’t life always like a plane journey? For a moment you’re soaring in the sky, and before you know it, you are back on earth. We’ve been soaring high for the past three days, between the sand and the sky, in a shimmering bubble of raptures and delight. And the time for descent has come at last. Time to return to the solid ground of everyday life, time to tread the earth complete with its rocks and thorns. But the fact that we’ve had these ‘moments’, that we experienced this bit of untouched bliss, lends a beam of light to whatever darkness that may lie ahead. It presents images of joy to relish, and hold onto, in all those moments when the mind clouds over with doubt, and grief and despair.

 

“Oh, if life were made of moments

Even now and then a bad one!

But if life were only moments

Then you’d never know you had one…

 

..Let the moment go

Don’t forget it for a moment though

Just remembering you’ve had an ‘and’

When you’re back to ‘or’

Makes the ‘or’ mean more

Than it did before…”

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