Chapter 42 (ii): Village Life


village life

 

A village is a hive of glass, where nothing unobserved can pass

—- Charles H. Spurgeon

 

May 4, 2014

Before I was married, I had no idea what village life was like. Even my grandparents on both sides were city dwellers. And never had I glamorised country life either, the way many people do—for its simplicity, slow pace, close knit family atmosphere, fresh organic produce and so on. I was a city slicker through and through.

I never actually had to live in the village after marriage either, for my immediate in laws—the husband’s parents—were city dwellers too. It was just the ancestral home and the extended family that we used to visit in the village and that only on festivals, weddings and special occasions. And to be fair, my husband’s ancestral home in the village is a far cry from the typical village homes you’d imagine in India.

A sprawling khandaani house spread across 10 acres—40,500 square metres, to be precise—flanked by the family’s mango orchards on one side and a small lake on the other, and divided into separate, independent sections for each of the six families that make up the home. Like a private colony with interconnected doors that are forever open to each other.

The rooms all come equipped with most of the amenities you’d find in an urban middle class home. My bedroom is a large, well ventilated room with a sparkling bathroom that I particularly adore, mostly owing to the rain shower head fitted especially for me upon my arrival. But the thing that most delighted me when I first arrived as a bride was the courtyard facing my room—all abloom with pink bougainvillea and the Madhumalti or Rangoon creeper. The adjacent courtyard boasts a flowering pomegranate tree and a grand old Neem, another one has a flowering peach tree while yet another boasts red chilli plants. A veritable organic heaven of sorts.

And yet, what struck me hard right from the beginning was the huge cultural chasm. Within the beautifully painted walls and blooming courtyards, the lives and mindsets are quintessentially representative of regular Indian villages. The values I’ve lived and sworn by all my life are alien here, drawing blank astonished looks if I so much as utter the phrase “women’s rights” or “gender equality”— unfortunately/fortunately my favourite phrases in any conversation. Women are expected to know their place– quite literally.

But then again, this isn’t something odd or astonishing—considering that I’ve met some of the most deep rooted patriarchal mindsets in swanky urban settings as well–it’s not like my own relatives are immune to it either. It’s a general Indian trait—except I happen to not share it, and thankfully, neither does my husband. But the effects of patriarchy are never as manifest as when you become a mother.

In truth I am aware that this is just for a few days. I am aware that it springs merely from a place of love for the kid, I’m aware that all their advice can be taken calmly. But with everything going wrong in my life right now— dashed hopes, frayed trust and unreliable business partners—calm is the one thing I cannot be.

What I am is desolate, suffocated and utterly trapped.

 

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Chapter 42: In-laws and outlaws


May 3, 2014

And so life continues as usual. Usual being, in the Indian context, amid the hot and spicy curry of relatives, social gatherings and, not to be forgotten, constant social scrutiny.

Right now I’m in a small village almost at the border of Western UP—the ancestral home of the in-laws. My existence post marriage has been a strange crossover between extremes—my urban, English-speaking family and my husband’s completely desi and robust, village-dwelling extended family—plus my own journalist-blogger self who feels happiest in the Metro city of Delhi. An interesting mix, if a tad un-mixable.

But never had the distance felt so glaringly obvious as when my little one appeared on the scene.

The birth of my son has literally landed me in the midst of a crossfire, a tragi-comic tug of war that never ends. This has, in fact, led me to conclude that all relatives—regardless of whether they are yours or your husband’s— should always be referred to as in-laws. For they are the ones always laying down the laws. In-LAWS.

Now, it’s a fairly normal occurrence in life—no matter how unpleasant—that mothers get shot down all the time for their alleged incorrect parenting. You child might be hyperactive, not active enough, too polite (hence a pushover), not polite enough, too fat, too thin, too addicted to books, not interested in books, too talkative, not talkative enough—there’s a whole variety of parenting flaws that relatives will only be too happy to point out to you.

This is irritating enough in the normal course of things, but the impact of being constantly belittled is magnified manifold when you are the only one at the receiving end, with no partner to defend you or even to share the blame. To make matters worse, people from both sides of the fence are having a go at you.

To my family, my boy is a junglee—a wild child absolutely bordering on the uncontrollable. Having been exposed to a baby after almost two decades, they have completely forgotten what children are usually like.

“What an atrocious kid he’s turning into! He just keeps upsetting things and throwing stuff and running around. Can’t you even keep him in check!”

Directly opposite this, to my extended in-laws from the village, he is a pushover, a whining mouse of a boy. They have a house absolutely teeming with kids who create a racket all day long.

“What! Is this what you have turned him into? You have a ‘mard bachha’ {male child} and this is what you’ve made him? He ought to be able to hold his own, he ought to be able to fight and run and kick and punch! Make him a man, not a mouse!” So on and so forth.

The worst part is they’re both correct.

My one and a half year old boy is a regular monarch when he’s in familiar surroundings amid people he’s more familiar with. But as soon as he’s out of his den, he clutches at his mom in terror, bawls at the slightest provocation and cowers in fear when faced with a bully.

But let’s not forget that he’s only a year-and-a-half old, for heaven’s sake—19 months to be precise. It’s perfectly normal for a little boy to be scared of the outside world, to be wary of strangers and to be intimidated by bullying. Except for one little thing: my boy is a little exceedingly possessed by stranger anxiety, and a little too unused to rough-and-tumble play. Which isn’t surprising, considering that he’s growing up in the absence of his father, with no ‘manly’ activities to speak of. What’s worse is that my mom has always had the chicken-soup syndrome: too much protection and too little independence. I’m nearly always over ruled when it comes to letting him play a little rough and go out there and explore. There’s always a set of arms nearby to either haul him up or haul him out. This constant hovering has created an additional disadvantage of him being a bit more uncoordinated than kids his age—walking and running only on his toes. Naturally, he keeps tripping and falling over his feet.

Now this becomes particularly terrible when you’re visiting a joint family (with not one but multiple joints) that boasts not less than 2 dozen members— and guests besides. Every time someone tries to pick him up, he bawls. Add to that the village courtyard with uneven flooring and his uncoordinated, running-on-toes gait—and you have a kid that falls flat on his face every half an hour, with his lip cut and gums bleeding each time.

A sureshot recipe for disaster.

A recipe for day long allegations of over-parenting, which is ironic since back home I am subjected to day long allegations of under-parenting. The constant whining, of both the boy and the relatives combined, is getting far too much on my easily-frayed nerves. In case you didn’t notice, though, there is a major difference between being heckled by your husband’s relatives, and being heckled by your own: with your own people, you can snap back and tell them to back off. No such liberty with the husband’s family—not by a long mile.

Grin and bear it gets a whole new definition—only in my case it’s weep and bear it. Every time someone heckles me for my ‘insufficient parenting’, I go back into my own room and weep it out.

I hate and curse my son for being such a cry baby and a pipsqueak. I hate my mom for being such an overprotective hovercraft. And I hate and curse the father of my son for leaving me alone in this onslaught.

He ought to be here. He ought to be the one fielding these questions, he ought to be the one teaching his son to be ‘a mard.’ He ought to be sharing this responsibility with me instead of sprinting off to another country like an escaped fugitive, an outlaw. How I hate him.

More than anything, though, I hate myself for being incapable of properly bringing up my son. For being incapable of handling my own life and doing something about it. Wretched, contemptible, loathsome woman.

I feel it. I feel it again.

The rage that underlines my very being, the magma that bubbles and bubbles. Chokes me with its fiery flow, but finds no escape.

loneliness

 

Chapter 41: The making and unmaking of lists


Lists

April 10, 2014

To the moon and back. We’ve been out of the stronghold of gravity, floating around in our obscure little patch of space, and now we’re back to the heavy zone, weighed down by the mass of our desires and our fears—pulled down by the gravity of facts.

Sajjad is back to the country that has laid claim upon him, and I—I am back to my state of inertia. Tagged to the end of this inertia, though, is a fresh promise: the visit visa. It’s a consolation prize of sorts, to make up for the dearth of actual victories. Instead of the family visa for all of us to live together in the promised land, this would be a two-month passageway to happiness. The next best thing. For two months, his son and I would get a chance to stay with him in the country that hosted him now. It wasn’t exactly what we’d been trying to get all this while, but it was something. Something to hold on to.

It’s just so doable, there isn’t the faintest edge of doubt attached. Sajjad is very sure of this—one more month of waiting and this time I’ll be with him in Oman. Briefly, yes, but I’ll be there. And so, despite having sworn myself off it, I start making a list.

Now, I’m a compulsive list maker. And I’ve made quite a few lists in the past two years. The first time: when there were no plans to move abroad and we were simply looking at another house to move into. I made an elaborate list of all the furniture and home appliances we’d be buying, because our first home had been a fully furnished one.

Oh, what joy lies in the making of lists!  A little bit of order in the disorderly world, or perhaps just a scatter-brain’s feeble attempt at putting things in one place. That it never bode well for me was a different matter altogether.

We did actually find the perfect house to rent, but right after I made my list, the home-owner just changed his mind and sold off the house instead! The second time I made my list was when my husband got his visa for Oman, and because I was blinded with optimism and expected to join him there in no more than two months—four months tops— very joyously I made a list of all the things I would be needing to take along with me. I should have just heeded the signs from the first time instead.

But after the second time, I’d sworn to myself I’d never make a list again. And yet, 10 months later, here I am, making another list. A small one—fit for a two-month visit. A cheerful list that speaks of hopes rising again, despite themselves, likes winged seeds rising with the wind, knowing well it’s not they who can fly.

And because there’s no stopping me once I get going, I make another list—of all the places we would visit in Muscat during those two months. Wadi Shab, Shatti Beach, Turtle Beach, Muttrah Corniche, Muttrah Souq, Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque… the attractions seem endless and choosing is quite a task. A deliciously thrilling task that reminds me of all those days we spent planning vacations together, fantasy vacations that involved island resorts, water villas, steaming Jacuzzis and reef explorations in Maldives. This was always our little thing, the thing we did together. Planning vacations—real or imagined.

We would get together and chart out every detail—from arrival to departure, accomodations to excursions and everything in between. That it might not materialise any time soon was inconsequential—what mattered was the exhilaration of planning those holidays together. What mattered was the satisfaction of knowing we would, one day, experience and explore the universe with our fingers intertwined. The image alone was heady enough.

But that was then, when we literally, physically had each other—to talk, to touch and hold. The images now are held together by a string of a promise, fragile and frayed, far too delicate for the combined weight of all the expectations banking upon it.

——————————————————

May 1, 2014

It was bound to happen—the weight was far too great. Another promise caves in on itself. Well, not really—it just keeps hanging in the air like all the others, neither here nor there.

“What’s the update, when do we go?” I ask, for the tenth time perhaps.

“The visit visa is still pending…” he replies briefly. “Sweetheart I’m fed up of waiting, too. Believe me, I’m trying…” his voice floats over the phone—weary, frustrated.

I sigh in exasperation. My faith is, at long last, beginning to wane—my unshaking belief that things are exactly as I’m being told. Of all the terrible things to happen to a relationship, the worst is the waning of trust. The slow, serpentine dance of doubt.

I say nothing, but my mind hardens into a resolve to find out the truth. I decide to text the only other person I know in Oman; let’s call him Mr Y, shall we? He’s the one who had first floated this offer to Sajjad, the offer of a new sugar-coated life.

I tell him, in plain words, that I need to know what exactly is going on there.

“Just tell me the truth, okay?” I text him. “Is the visit visa pending for approval still?”

“No. It’s not pending. It hasn’t been applied yet.”

I draw in a sharp breath—of anger, outrage. Calm down, I tell myself. Give the man some credit—he did give you the honest truth.

“Oh.” I text back. “Why?”

“We’ve suffered major losses in the business— a partner committed major fraud and made away with several crores from the coffers.” That wasn’t a surprise to me—I already knew about it. But that was a while ago, hadn’t they recovered from those losses yet, I wonder. Moreover, the promise for the visit visa was made to me after this whole fiasco, not before. I’m perplexed.

“House rents have gone up majorly in the past two years,” comes another text, before I can respond. But this wasn’t something you said two years ago when you invited us, I think. Again, another text hits me before I can reply.

“And any way, even if you were here, you’d be alone at home all day, wouldn’t you.”

Anger blooms in me. These were a far cry from things he said two years ago. My mind clouds over with rage and I think of a hundred stinging things to say. But I keep shut, for my husband’s sake—my confrontation-avoiding, conflict-hating husband.

Another text pops up: “Plus, think of all those women 10-15 years ago, whose husbands lived abroad. Just think how they coped.”

Now this is just a text and I can almost hear a righteous smirk.

This, from the man who promised my husband a gap of just 2-4 months before he could bring his family over permanently. This, from the man who knew that Sajjad’s first and most important condition was that his family would accompany him abroad—take it or leave it.

This is too much.

“Please don’t talk to me of what happened 15 years ago. 15 years ago you didn’t have a laptop and a cell phone. I dare you to spend 15 days without them right now.” I text back, cuttingly enough, I hope.

He backs off, then. “We’re working on it. Just a little more time.”

I fling my phone onto the bed. I don’t want to hear any more platitudes from this hypocrite of a man.

When Sajjad calls me next I come straight to the point and tell him I spoke to the guy. I give him a word by word record of the entire conversation. “There’s no visa pending.” I almost growl. “It hasn’t been applied at all.”

Silence.

Then: “But he told me it had been applied for…”

“Well, he lied to you,” I bark out.

Either that or he is lying to you now… the serpent raises its hood, venom dripping lustily, drop by drop. You can’t really tell, can you

I hold my head in my hands. My jaw hardens. My gaze falls at the list lying on one corner of the bed—the list of things I was supposed to be taking on my two-month trip. I snatch it up and rend it to pieces… strip by strip… square by square. Gather up the pieces and chuck them in the dustbin.

Not for the first time, I wonder when this will end.

Chapter 37: Candles, waves and truffle cakes


March 29, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And later, also irritated me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Darwaza kholo! Baahar jaana hai!”

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

Open the door! Want to go out!

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

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

4:30 p.m.

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

The Leela Kovalam, here we are.

Leela 2

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

Leela on the cliff

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

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

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

20140329_034900

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.

20140330_080225

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.

20140330_094935_LLS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Candle light dinner

Chapter 36: How to create happiness —Part I


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

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

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

February 18, 2014

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

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

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

Snip-snip-snip.

And there goes the hair.

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

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

I’m going to gift myself a birthday fiesta.

In Kovalam, Kerala.

kovalam

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

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

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

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

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

“Hmm..I think so…” he says slowly.

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

There’s a pause.

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

I sigh. It was worth a shot anyway.

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

“Kerala?”

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

“Hmm.” That word again. “I’ll come.”

Despite my demonstrations of indifference, my spirit surges.

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

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

“Okay.”

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

And they say women are hard to figure out.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter 35: Lands without Lines


TRR Pi.jpg

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

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

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

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

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

January 27, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You’re struggling with a driving test?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

February 10, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Infinitesimally approximated, never exact.

A life, quite literally, of Pi.

Chapter 34: The Witch Inside Me


“We women, when we’re searching for a meaning to our lives or for the path of knowledge, always identify with one of four classic archetypes.
The Virgin (and I’m not speaking here of a sexual virgin) is the one whose search springs from her complete independence, and everything she learns is the fruit of her ability to face challenges alone.
The Martyr finds her way to self-knowledge through pain, suffering, and surrender.
The Saint finds her true reason for living in unconditional love and in her ability to give without asking anything in return.
Finally, the Witch justifies her existence by going in search of complete and limitless pleasure.”

— Paulo Coelho, Brida

maleficent-2014-59

The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnelle  is a 15th century English poem that narrates a tale so timeless, so alluring, it’s been retold a multitude of times in as many versions as the mind can imagine. Over a decade ago—12 years, to be precise— I narrated one of these versions to a boy with a serious demeanour and a crooked smile— a friend and a tease.  He and I sat in the verandah of my house, conversing casually but locked in a joust of wits.

He had discovered the biggest chink in my armour—my fierce feminism— and he knew just how to get my goat. Keep making snide remarks against womankind in general, and sooner or later you’re bound to get the mercury rising. And my goodness, it sure did work. But after several instances of this, I’d grown wiser and learnt to dish it back with a smile. And so, on one of those balmy afternoons that punctuate the month of March, I began:

“You know, you have actually no idea what a woman really wants, and that’s why you keep making fun of them,” I said, grandiosely. “Let me tell you what it is.”

King Arthur, went my version of the story, was ambushed and held captive, but his \wisdom and valour so impressed the enemy that he agreed to spare Arthur’s life. There was, however, one condition: within a year, Arthur had to bring back the answer to the question,’what does a woman truly want?’

As it so often happens in legends, Arthur reached the end of his year without success, but then he met a witch who proclaimed to know the answer. But of course she had her own conditions, too—marriage to the young and most handsome knight in all of the land, Sir Gawain. Poor Arthur could not subject his loyal knight to a lifetime with the ugly, spiteful, malodorous witch with a face full of boils and the most obnoxious behaviour.  Sir Gawain though, loyal to the core, agreed to marry her and she in turn promised to give the answer on the wedding night.  

Now the wedding day was a perfect disaster, with the lady at her witchly best—rude to guests, cackling hideous and disgusting. Gawain, on the other hand, resolutely remained a gentleman, ignoring her behaviour and putting guests at ease.

But as night drew near, Gawain rued his fate and braced himself to enter the bedchamber. Imagine his great surprise, then, when he found in the bedchamber not the hideous witch he had married, but the most beautiful maiden he had ever set eyes upon.

“Who are you, fair maiden?” Gawain asked, confused.

“I’m your wife,” smiled the woman, “the witch that you married. Your behaviour today has won over my heart, and I shall grant you a favour, by transforming into a maiden wondrous fair,” she paused, “But only half the time — either by day or by night. The choice is yours.”

Wise Gawain pondered for a moment. A wife like that would make him the envy of the land by day, but this beautiful woman at night was a sight no man could refuse. The choice was tough.

In the end, Gawain made his decision.

“Since you are the one granting this favour,” he said, “I leave the choice to you.”

The witch beamed.

“Brave and wise Sir Gawain! Know that this is truly the answer to your king’s question. What does a woman really want? The answer is Sovereignty. The power to make her own decisions. And so dear knight, I shall be my beautiful, pleasant self at all times—day and night—for you gave me what a woman wants.”

I ended my narration and gave him a smug smile. “Now do you get it?”

The boy smiled mischievously.

“Hmm…” he said— his favourite word, as I was to discover later. “But there’s another moral to the story.”

“Is there?” I grinned. “What?”

“Inside every beautiful woman… hides a witch.”

I so wanted to punch him, but he’d definitely scored this one.

The episode passed, but the boy never forgot the story— for he remained forever a gentleman, and gave the beautiful woman in his life the best thing a man can give: Sovereignty.

But he had been right, all along. Inside every beautiful woman there does indeed hide… a witch. A witch with deep, burning desires and clandestine thoughts full of sorcery. The Witch that, if you believe Coelho, “justifies her existence by perpetually being in search of complete and limitless pleasure.”

On the surface, I might as easily have identified with the Virgin: ‘complete independence’. But there’s always that little matter of the witch lurking inside…

January 10, 2014

A new year, with nothing quite new to show for itself.

Except that the witch grows stronger with every breath, feeding on unspent passion, unspoken thoughts, unremarkable days and untouched nights. She claws my insides hungrily, egged on by a weakening exterior. The witch is strong and desperate.

Every bone that holds her in is a fossil, assaulted by relentless winds of fate.

There’s a reason why witches are always depicted as ugly, gnarled, crafty creatures of hate. The world is intimidated by their unashamed acceptance of desire, their full-blooded longing, their refusal to be meek martyrs— their need to ask so much of life and their ability to extract it as well. The sorcery of her untameable spirit scares and confuses the world, and so the pleasure-seeking ecstatic witch must necessarily be turned into a fearsome creature— villainous to the core and hideous to behold. Because ugliness, more than anything, repulses humans.

The witch inside me screams.

She screams, inaudibly, in indescribable agony. Twists each strand of yearning she finds and spins technicolour dreams in my head at night—dreams purple with passion and longing, crimson with violent lust. She bottles that which has coagulated inside—unable to flow for so long—and uses it relentlessly against me—against herself—revelling in the pain; hers and mine.

‘Tis true. The witch is forever in search of complete and limitless pleasure.

Pleasures of flesh.

Pleasures of blood.

Pleasures of vein and bone.

A caress, an embrace, a kiss, a whispered conversation deep into the night. A choreography of ecstasy. The world around her is full of it—every image on screen, every poem on page, every note of music wafting around.

 “And the sunlight clasps the earth,
And the moonbeams kiss the sea;
What are all these kissings worth,
If thou kiss not me?”

Percy Bysshe Shelley’s lines pierce through the page.

“Fading in, fading out
on the edge of paradise
Every inch of your skin is a holy grail I’ve got to find…

…So love me like you do, la-la-love me like you do
…Touch me like you do, ta-ta-touch me like you do…”

Ellie Goulding croons from the opposite ends of the earth.
Curse you, Fifty Shades of Grey.

“Lahoo mu lag gaya…” smoulders Deepika Padukone.

“Soya tha nas nas mein ab ye jag gaya… lahoo mu lag gaya…”

‘I’ve tasted blood—it smears my lips,

Long asleep in my veins, it blazes awake.’

The witch smirks. Grimaces.  And writhes.

She knows.

The taste of blood never fades. Never wanes. All it takes is one sampling.

The world around her appears submerged in pleasure and not one speck can she partake.  Blood, blood everywhere, Nor any drop to drink.

Day passes night, night passes day, and the witch’s bloodlust saturates each pore. The more she starves, the more she frenzies. Gnashes her teeth and snaps my veins. My brain clots. My vision blurs.

I’ve tasted blood… it smears my lips….Long asleep in my veins, it blazes awake.

Blaze, blaze, inferno. Raze me to the ground.

For surely it is the fate of the witch to be burnt forever at the stake.