Are you having an adventure?


The Alchemist is a book I always hark back to, when I’m feeling unsure of myself and undecided. I always recall Santiago and his quest for the treasure – and the point where he realises that the treasure he saw in his dream was in the very place where he had lived all his life. It was buried at the very point from where he began his journey. This makes him wonder why he was brought all this way for nothing; why he had to face everything that he did, when he could have found the treasure right where he had been.

And the wind whispers to him, “But then you wouldn’t have seen the pyramids…”

There couldn’t ever be a better answer.

What Santiago wanted more than anything was to see the pyramids. The treasure was his destiny but what he wanted was the pyramids. In fulfilling his destiny he also needed to fulfil his heart’s deep longing.

And that is why, sometimes when I doubt myself and the path that I set out on, I always remind myself—why did I choose this path? Because it was the path to my ‘pyramids.’ You might have fulfilled your destiny in other ways, I tell myself, but then how would you have seen the pyramids!

Let me explain.

I sometimes doubted why I had joined journalism, particularly when people insisted that I would have been better off had I gone into academics or civil services and so on and so forth.

But then I asked myself—why did I join journalism? The answer was always, because I wanted to know more of the world, to see varied facets of the world, to explore and discover and meet diverse people and have varied experiences. In one word, I wanted to have an adventure.

And that’s the honest truth. I had no altruistic motives. Perhaps I did want to change the world, make it a better place, yes, but the primary motive was to have an adventure. And I have been having one for sure!

Image: Zach Betten on Unsplash

My decade in journalism has been a wonderful and fascinating adventure. Perhaps others have achieved a lot more than me. Perhaps I’m not ahead in the ‘race’. But for me it was never about the race anyway. Never about the destination. It was always about the journey. And as far as the journey is concerned, I have nothing to complain about.

However, as far as the Alchemist is concerned, I do have something to complain about. In the book, as it is in so many books and indeed in life itself, the women do nothing but wait for the men to have their adventure and return to them. I bristled at it then and I bristle at it now. Where is the adventure and the journey for women? Why must they always remain inside the four walls and wait? I felt a surge of anger at the world then, as I often do even now.

The second time a story of adventure made me cringe and feel a surge of anger was when I was pregnant with my son and panic stricken at how my life was falling apart all around me, how my dreams were slipping farther and farther away from my reach. Around the 4th or 5th month of my pregnancy, I had watched the movie ‘Up.’

I still have negative associations attached with that movie.

Here is why.

When the movie began I identified very, very much with the over-enthusiastic, adventure-seeking and headstrong Ellie. I loved how she had made complete plans for her exploration trip to Paradise Falls, and how she was sure she’d go there. But when the movie progresses, the dream goes farther and farther away from her. I felt my heart sink because I saw it as a mirror of my life. Early motherhood had snatched my dream away from me and stolen all my adventures and trapped me. (Or so I thought then.)

And in the end when Ellie’s husband makes it to Paradise Falls, I felt myself seething with rage. Shaking with rage, literally. He had no right to be there! It was not his adventure, he had not been yearning for it all his life, it was not he who had made all plans for it and he did not deserve to have this dream!

It was Ellie’s dream, she’d wanted it all her life!

But where was she? She was dead, gone, nowhere! Did she have her adventure? NO! How dare he have that adventure alone, how dare he pretend that he was doing it for her when she couldn’t even partake of it? I felt myself burning with anger.

I think Carl in the movie had the same feelings perhaps, when he sat in his chair and with a heavy heart opened Ellie’s scrapbook. And saw how she had felt that she did have an adventure in the life they shared with each other. It was beautiful.

And yet, it made me seethe with anger even more.

All those platitudes of happy family life being an adventure in itself are reserved only for women. ONLY for women. Are the men ever told that happy family life is enough? It’s only the women who are told that your adventure is inside the four walls of the house while the men can go have their adventure even on the moon. I was burning with anger.

Over the years, though, I realised that for some people, their adventure might indeed be in a happy family life—but I couldn’t be one of them. Happy family life was important for me, yes—but it wasn’t enough. It wasn’t the only thing I wanted. I wanted to go out and embrace the world and have my own adventure.

And I did.

Image: Nurhadi Cahyono on Unsplash

Perhaps not with as much speed as I would have liked, perhaps not in as great a magnitude as I would have liked, but I did.

I may be a slow walker, said Abraham Lincoln, but I never walk backwards. I wrote this line in my diary when I was 14. And I never forgot it since. And that is how slowly, but surely, I found my footing back. Slow walker but never walked backwards. Thanks, Abe.

There’s still far too much to be done, and far too much left undone. But I can see that I’m moving forward, on my very own adventure.

I can see that I’m moving towards the pyramids.

Finding the treasure would be incidental.

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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Chapter 39: Splitting the bill— the worry bill


March 30, 2014

4 pm

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The boat takes off.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kovalam enhanced

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


March 30, 2014

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

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

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

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

Something needs to be done about this, and pronto.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Chapter 37 (ii): Midnight at the beach


The Tides

 

29 March 2014

9:45 pm

The day’s not over yet, folks.

Just as I’m finishing up my dinner alone by the pool, the shuffle of feet makes me look up. The guys are back—the big one and the little one, the latter looking decidedly chastised. Sajjad comes and takes his seat beside me.

“What happened?” I ask, looking from one to the other, for they are both rather sombre.

“Well,” says Sajjad, “Hasan and I had a long chat about how his behaviour was completely unacceptable and why it is very, very bad to keep irritating mummy like that.” He looks sternly, meaningfully at the little boy who hangs his head in shame.

My mouth falls open in amazement and I gape at both of them, father and son. Has he really been having this stern “long chat” with this 15-month old boy, and has the boy really understood? By the looks of it, it seems he has! But then they’ve always shared this bond. When Hasan was only a month or two old, Sajjad would take the crying baby in his arms and speak to him directly, looking him in the eye. He would speak to him, not coochie-cooing like people usually do with babies, but speak gently, wisely, like you explain something important to another person. And the baby would stop crying and gape at his father, wide-eyed at first, and then with rapt attention. They really do understand each other.

And so, finally, we finish the dinner in peace, together at last, all three of us—sans tantrums, sans annoyance, sans bitterness. A moment of beauty is a joy forever.

 

10:30 pm

We’re back at the Suite and the little one is finally asleep. Standing at the terrace, I take in the silver-tinged waves in a frame of swaying palms trees, and I’m hit by an idea: why don’t we take a night stroll on the beach? Why wait till morning?

True, we’ve had a tough and tiring day, true we need to get some rest. But hey, it isn’t every day you come to Kerala, do you, and we have just 2 more days here.

“What are we gonna do with Hasan, though?” Sajjad looks at the boy sleeping on the bed.

“We’re going to put him in the baby stroller and wheel him all the way to the beach.” I smile triumphantly.

There’s a direct path just below our suite leading to The Leela’s private stretch of the beach, a sloping paved route on which we push the stroller now. Well, ‘we’ wouldn’t be the correct term, actually, because I queen it all the way to the beach and Sajjad obliges like a gentleman. Hasan sleeps peacefully, blissfully unaware of his surroundings—blissfully for us, that is!

A gateway leads to the shack-shaped beachside sea-food restaurant of the hotel—The Tides, as it’s called—and beyond that, the beach. We slip off our footwear and leave it at the edge of the sand. But now we have a little problem. It’s impossible to drag the baby stroller over the sand. My plan has just backfired. Nonplussed, I wrack my brains for a solution; we’ve come this far, we’re not going to just sit at the edge and watch from a distance. There’s a whole ocean waiting out there. And then I spot the hotel’s official guard standing nearby—a uniformed guard, because this is a private beach—and I have another idea. Walking over, I ask him if he would please keep an eye on our sleeping baby while we dip our feet in the sea for a bit. Of course, he smiles. No problem at all.

That seems to take care of our little one for a while, but we’re both more than a little apprehensive at leaving our baby there. Nevertheless, he is well within our field of view and we keep casting glances in that direction just to be doubly sure.

And now, the ocean. Dark, mysterious, foaming at the edges and stretching as far as the eye can see.  We stroll over to the edge and let the water cover our feet. Feels like heaven already. A bit of sand gives way from underneath our feet with each wave, shifting and shimmering like silk. We walk in farther until the water swirls around our calves—the waves are boisterous and splash right up to our waists. The shore is absolutely calm except for the ocean’s incessant sighs.

Slowly we walk back onto the sand and park ourselves on the beach chairs. The stars peer at us from every direction. We sit there drinking in the scents, the sounds and I savour the feeling of lying back on these deck chairs in silence, side by side. Silence that marks the ease of togetherness, silence that doesn’t hang heavy in the air. And yet, some part of him feels far away, some part that I can’t really pinpoint. I just hold his hand, and ask him nothing. We all need our spaces and our silences.

Hasan is still asleep when we walk over across the sand, and we thank the guard for his kindness. Casting our gazes back at the shore one last time, we begin the uphill climb.

It’s almost midnight. I look again at the ocean, and make a wish before the clock strikes twelve, before the magic ends.

All I ever wanted is right here before me. The only thing I want is for this to last forever.

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.

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One look outside and I have forgotten the annoyance of the past 6 hours. Most literary descriptions of Heaven and Eden depict mountains, fruit orchards and flowing rivers. But if ever there’s going to be a Paradise for me, it would never be one that lacks an ocean.

———————–

7:00 p.m

After the calm, the storm

Back in Battle. The son decided, within about 30 minutes of arriving in the room, that he was in ‘displeased monarch’ mode, which would be kept on for another hour or so. Tantrums accompanied by non-stop wailing and of course, woe betide the woman that dares come close to his father! (He seems to have completely inherited his grandfather’s dislike for romantic displays.) Had I not got my hair cut right before this vacation, I think I might have pulled it all out in sheer desperation.

My sister in law calls to wish me Happy Birthday, and I am beside myself with indignation. Happy Birthday, indeed!

“Oh come on!”  I rant into the phone. “It’s been a whole 6 hour flight full of wailing and tantrums, and a lot more of it since we arrived. I think I’ve just laid a whole lot of my hard-earned money to waste…!”

She laughs at my comic indignation, while my attention is briefly diverted by the sound of the bell ringing at the door. Sajjad goes ahead to open it. Just as I am opening my mouth to rant further into the phone, a brilliant bouquet of blooming red roses appears before my eyes. Followed by a totally tempting, small but shiny glazed black truffle cake.

Everything else is forgotten.

I had asked for the cake in advance, but the roses are unexpected. I’ve just been given a birthday surprise by the hotel staff. Now that’s a first! I wrap up the call pronto, and we’re ready to celebrate.

The sight of the flowers and cake have calmed the kid and he watches, fascinated, as his dad lights up the candles. And then we all bask in the warm glow together.

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8 p.m.

Time to head down to the restaurant for dinner. As we step out from the elevator, an incredible sight awaits us: the entire lobby shimmers in whispering fairy light. Corridors, corners, niches all decked with floating candles casting glorious shadows, making you want to talk in hushed tones or just sit and sigh.

In a minute, we find out the reason for the hotel’s innovative lighting: they’re observing Earth Hour tonight. By delicious cosmic coincidence, on my birthday night.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Candle light dinner

Chapter 36 (ii): How to create Happiness— Part II


March 28, 2014

1 p.m.

Gurgaon. The name literally means “jaggery village”, which you could, if you’re so inclined, also interpret as “sweet village.” (Alternative meanings from history make it “village of the teacher” or ‘Gurugram’ as it has recently been renamed—appropriately, if you think about it, because the teacher’s village could definitely give other places a lesson in ‘upgrading’ themselves.) Now, this sweet little village got lucky when the gods of construction (read real estate giants) decided to look kindly upon it. And so from simple desi jaggery (Gur), it went straight to donuts and macaroons and truffle pastry. The place is now recognised by its imposing glass-fronted, imaginatively-designed high-rise office buildings, malls dripping with luscious labels and swanky residences peopled with humans sporting the most perfectly straightened and artificially coloured hair and the most insanely expensive cars.

This is where I am today, and the reason I’m here is that a certain flight from Oman is due to arrive in a little over an hour. Yep, you guessed it. I’m here to receive my man at the airport. And at first light tomorrow, we’ll be heading to the airport again, this time to catch a flight to Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala.

I tell Hasan, all of 15 months, that we’d be seeing ‘Baba’ now. Of course he can say ‘Baba’. All kids can say Ba-ba, and mine is a born chatterer. At 15 months, he can speak rudimentary sentences that use about 4 words. Things like: “Bahar jaana hai.” (Want to go out.) “Khul nahi pa raha” (Can’t open it), “Baby so rahi hai” (the baby is asleep) and so on and so forth. So yes, of course, he can say Baba. But whether he can relate the words to the actual person remains to be seen. It’s been 5 months since he last saw his dad, which had also been for just 5 days after another gap of 5 months. And because we’ve had zero access to video calling, he hasn’t seen the man on screen either. I look at him, and in exactly four words, tell him, “Baba aa rahe hain.”

Baba is coming now.

3 p.m.

Indira Gandhi International Airport, New Delhi

From a long way off, I spot Sajjad in his grey, green and coral panelled t-shirt and dark glares. I cut across the crowds, deliberately moving in from behind. I want to surprise him the way he always surprised me—stepping quietly from behind and poking a finger in my waist. It always worked. I jumped hard each time, caught off-guard, before realising who it was that had “groped” me!

I poke a finger in his side now, and he jumps a little but swivels round and catches me quickly in the crook of his arm, pulling me briskly to his side. We laugh. “Where’s Hasan?” he asks, looking around. Hasan is just a few steps behind me, being carried by our driver.

Greedy woman that I am, I wanted this embrace to be mine first—not my son’s. But now, Sajjad holds his arms out expectantly. I wonder what the little one is going to do. The little one, though, has no such doubts. He wastes not a second in leaning over eagerly into his Baba’s arms, and once there, wraps his tiny arms around him. He remembers.

I see the smile of complete satisfaction on the young father’s face, and I am struck by how little thought I’ve given to what this man is facing out there. It’s not just me who’s been left alone. He is all alone out there, too. No wife, no child. No family. He has fathered a beautiful little boy just about a year ago, and all this time he’s been deprived of the chance to witness the baby’s milestones. The chance to hear his baby’s first word, to watch his baby’s first step, to hear those little squeals of delight and laugh at his innocent mischief.

I am struck by the realisation of this loneliness. But then I remember all those pictures of him dipping in hot water springs, walking along silver shores, feeding turtles and riding water scooters, and I can’t help but wonder why I must be the one carrying sole responsibility of childcare while he leads the “bachelor life”. I feel my own loneliness more deeply, more bitterly than any other. Light fades, darkness closes in.

As the car meanders through the lanes I glance sideways at his face, and it seems to be the face of a stranger, a man I do not know.

This is when I’m supposed to feel happy. This is when I usually feel happy. What I feel now, though, is just this: indifferent. Numb, the way your tongue is when the dentist injects anaesthesia in the gums. You can move it around but you can’t feel a thing.

7 p.m.

“Sajjad is unusually quiet…” observes my aunt, at whose place we’re staying right now. “No jokes, meagre conversation… he’s quite cheerful normally. What’s wrong?”

If only. If only I could know what on earth was going wrong. Even though the man is generally more of an introvert, he’s unusually morose today. Not in a persistently sulking kind of way, but in an absorbed-in-thought manner, feigning cheerfulness when asked. After all these years I have come to associate this with “something on his mind, but he’ll never tell you what.” Sigh.

What is it with husbands and their absolute fear of transparency? You never share your actual problems with your wife because you don’t want to “burden” her or make her “worry”, when in truth she would be more than happy to lend you a sympathetic ear and more than eager to help out in whatever way possible. What worries her more, ironically, is that you don’t trust the relationship enough to be frank and open about your problems, that you don’t consider her competent enough to support you or help you out. Most husbands think they’re protecting their wives this way, when in truth they’re just isolating them. If you’re a man reading this, know that in most cases, the biggest thing your wife wants is your time—and more than that, your trust.

If only. If only it were this easy to explain.

There is a pattern to this pre-occupied, intermittent gloom. He’s trying. He’s trying very hard to stay cheerful—and often succeeds, because after all, he’s back where he belongs. But then there are those tell-tale intervals of vacant, abrupt silence. Most markedly, the complete absence of his trademark quirky humour, his dry wit and the crazy imagination that would rival JK Rowling’s. All those quirks, the most endearing of his qualities, are missing. There’s no roughness in his demeanour; he’s more tender and loving than ever. But there’s a pensive edge to it all, like he can see something profoundly sad that you cannot see, and because you can’t see it, he can’t tell you what it is.

A terrible burden to bear alone.

But he’s not the only one with a burden. The piling up of days and nights has left me with more frayed edges than tolerable, and I am beginning to unravel at the seams. Inevitably, the eruption occurs.

10:30 pm

I’m in the guest room, putting our son to bed. Sajjad is upstairs, conversing with my uncle, and I stay awake a long time, waiting for him to come down. I can’t leave Hasan alone, for this room is two floors down, and if he woke up and cried, we wouldn’t even be able to hear him. The clock ticks steadily. I wait. And wait. The magma rises.

After five whole months we finally have alone time together, and all this man wants is casual chit-chat. The magma rises further.

I pick the sleeping kid (who promptly wakes) up in my arms, march up two flights of stairs, barge into the room, and blurt out something curt and snappish. My uncle is appalled and clueless. Sajjad looks blank and baffled. He has no idea what I’m going on about. The reason is simple: Earlier in the day, it had been decided we’d be sleeping in the room on the top floor, but post-dinner, the guest room on the lower floor had been cleared for us. The guy had somehow missed the post-dinner development, and even as I waited for him downstairs, he was actually waiting for me to get back upstairs.

Of course, within a minute my uncle realises what is actually going on, and speaks to me kindly, soothingly—at which point I just burst into tears.

Tears are cathartic. The rest of the night proceeds in harmony.

March 29, 2014

8 a.m.

It’s my birthday and we’re at the airport, all set to fly off to the coast.

As we enter through the glass gates, there’s a palpable change in the air. It gets lighter, fresher, easier to breathe — with a whole load of emotional magma suddenly cooling, crusting up and falling off both our shoulders. We’ve left the world, the real world with its punches and whiplashes somewhere behind, and entered a happier sphere, a sphere of airplanes and sand beaches and lighthouses and cliff-top resorts. A sphere with just the three of us, a happy little soap bubble so fragile yet so glorious with its kaleidoscopic shimmers. We hold each other’s hand and savour the bubble.

Sometimes, that’s how you create happiness— purposefully, when it’s not naturally abundant. That’s just one of the ways.

 

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Chapter 26(ii):The unChinese curse


“May you live in interesting times.”

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

Here’s to the un-Chinese curse.

 

June 13, 2013

7 p.m.

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

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

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

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

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

2 a.m.

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

Experience is only gained through the worst episodes.

June 14, 2016

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

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

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

7: 30 p.m.

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

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

We beat the odds.

And reach Aligarh around 10 p.m.

Sigh of relief gets a whole new meaning.

 

June 15, 2016

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

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

Panic.

Hasan’s cries are ripping my heart apart.

Panic. Lots of panic.

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

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

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

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

It never rains but it pours.

 

June 16 2013

It never rains but it pours.

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

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

Don’t I know it—oh, don’t I know it.

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

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

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

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

The nation is besieged.

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

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

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

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

INTERESTING times indeed.

flood

 

 

 

 

Chapter 26 (i): All aboard: Nightmare to Nainital


June 12, 2013

2:00 pm

We’re off to the Lake City.

Ideally, we ought to have left several hours ago, but Hasan’s showing signs of an upset stomach and this, coupled with my mom’s sudden desire to take the hotel staff to task over the wrongly charged price of several platefuls of sandwiches, has delayed us quite a bit—and annoyed us just a little more. Hasan, meanwhile is having fun in the car. 20130614_183220

After extracting due apologies and the rightful amount from the management, mom is finally ready to be herded into the car. We’re all a little flustered by now, but the subsequent drive through the hills, alive with gorgeous forests, soothes our nerves and brings us back into the holiday mode.

Starting late has its fair share of disadvantages—a long-drawn-out battle with the traffic in all its honking, zig-zagging glory. It takes two hours for us just to get past the Kosi Barrage of Uttarakhand—which would be a nice enough spot for a picnic and drinking in some sights if not for the endless traffic snailing ahead.

After we’ve got through to the other side, braving a painstakingly long line of queued up cars, we stop at the nearest ATM as we’ve all but run out of cash. I stick my hand under the seat to extract my handbag, wherein lies my Debit card. My hand flails in empty space: no bag underneath. Withdrawing my hand I look around: no bag between myself and Sajjad, none between Mummy and Fatima, not under the back seats, none over and around all other pieces of baggage we have.  Then it hits home: no bag at all.

After having travelled over two hours and entered the second leg of the journey, I realise I have left my handbag—containing all the remaining money, the various debit cards and the multiple ID cards (including my PAN card and my driver’s licence)  48 kms away at Nirvana Wilds.

Forgetfulness is a trait we three Naqvis share ungrudgingly—along with the rather delightful gift of being able to add ‘volcano’ to our middle names: erupting at the slightest provocation. And so we erupt, turning the car into a steaming bowl of lava-on-wheels: squabbling, bickering, blaming lava. Sajjad is normally the voice of sanity in all arguments, but it seems the volcano effect is beginning to rub off on him. So we’re all four absorbed in a hodge-podge of blame-flinging and self-saving arguments, which obviously serve us no good, because there’s nothing to be done but turn back all the way up to Nirvana and retrieve the bag.

7 p.m.

The bag is successfully retrieved. We’ve moved to the lower edges of Ramngar, but now it’s too dark to take on the journey in hilly terrain, and we must look for a hotel nearby to spend the night.

The Corbett Aroma, Ramnagar

The Corbett Aroma, Ramnagar

 

DSC00072The Corbett Aroma is no five-star hotel, but it’s an ok place for one night with tall, flowering bougainvillea trees and pretty good food, as it turns out. Everyone needs rest after a long day of volcanic eruptions.

June 13, 2015

Finally, off to Nainital. Corbett Falls is a short stop on the way— nothing spectacular, but with a little bit of imagination and effort it could easily be made far more picturesque. The walk to the fall is a pleasant experience amid the ferns and the banyan trees with hanging roots, and the little natural pools by the side could be turned into magical faerie pools if only someone had the imagination and the inclination.

Also, you wish everyone had enough civic sense around places of scenic beauty. As it is, wrappers and bits of garbage—however few—flowing down the lower reaches don’t help. A pity.

Even more pitiful is the entry to Nainital in summer, the peak of tourist season. Endless stretches of bumper to bumper traffic, hours and hours of waiting just to get inside the city. Admittedly, the drive offers many a pretty sight with clouds hanging low and terraced hillsides basking in the sun. But all of the sunburnt Indian plain seems to have had the same bright idea.

20130615_122518

The edge of Nainital

We, however, haven’t been bright enough and unlike Corbett, our hotel isn’t booked in advance. There’s many a reason for that, not the least being our uncertain programme, the lack of unanimity in vacation choices, and hotel rooms being sold out by the minute. So here we are, smack in the middle of a sea of fellow tourists with tariffs shooting through the roof and touts having a field day all around us. A combination of poor planning, stretched resources and unbelievable over-crowding has landed us at the Moon Hotel, which in itself is a decent place for a short stay and wouldn’t be bad at all, if not for the fact that we’ve been idiotic enough to opt for the lowest category of rooms.  As it is, we’re now not-so-comfortably lodged into the budget rooms of a two-star hotel, absolutely not my preferred style for spending a precious annual vacation.

Oh well, it’s only for two nights. And right now, we’re focussed on the lake ahead.

Naini Lake--that's about the only good moment we got

Naini Lake–about as close as we got, and no more

DSC00111

Notice the lo-o-o-ng line of cars, please

4:00 PM

I’ve probably never disliked rain so much. Light drizzle has transformed into loud patters and if it were not for the little monkey clinging to us, Sajjad and I would have loved the Mallital-Tallital walk. But it’s cold enough already and getting the baby wet wouldn’t be helpful at all. We decide to split up: The shopping ones—Mummy and Fatima, and the sitting-on-the-bench-with-an-umbrella-and-a-baby ones— Sajjad and me. We try to sit out the rain, hoping for it to stop soon enough so we can go boating at the lake or try some other kind of fun; something to remember this place by.

Little did we know that this was destined to be an always-remembered, never forgotten holiday with Hasan—unforgettable in the way that most nightmares are…

Chapter 25 (ii) : Tiger’s meal on an elephant platter


Fools walk in where angels fear to tread.

Welcome to the All Fools’ Family.

Since there isn’t much to do now that the core reserve area of Dhikala has been closed down early, we scrounge around for options. Turns out there is still an interesting activity available in the buffer zone forest of Durga Devi—follow the tiger’s trail on elephant back.

Elephant-back in the wild

Elephant-back in the wild :image my own

I’d done this many, many years ago with MY father when I was 8—and we’d spotted a glorious, majestic orange tigress that time. So of course, our expectations were raised.

But that ride had been in Dhikala, a ‘proper’ forest, the kind you see on Discovery and Animal Planet—all golden-green grassland with herds and herds of thousands of cheetal—the spotted deer—shifting around as one big, hazy golden-brown-and-white-spotted cloud…

Image courtesy corbettnationalpark.in

Image courtesy corbettnationalpark.in

The gharial—critically endangered fresh water crocodiles— lazing around the Ramganga tricking you into taking them for slow creatures until one of them zips into the water.

Gharial at Dhikala : Image courtesy dailymail.co.uk

Gharial at Dhikala

Monkey shrieks rip the air in there, and wild boars appear right on the mud track. Ahh… it brings back scenes from my childhood: watching langurs fall splat-splat-splat from trees, actually a signal of a tiger being nearby; swaying in tune to the elephant’s gait as we approached the little clearing, watching the orange and black-striped tigress stand up warningly and gaze directly into our eyes. What a moment of pure awe and elation! A little guttural growl warns us off from treading too close into the territory of the Queen.

Image courtesy corbettnationalpark.in

Image courtesy corbettnationalpark.in

But this queen has competition from another species in the award for Most Menacing Mammal of the jungle. Tuskers— wild Asian bull elephants— are arguably the most hot-headed mafias of the forest—deceptively calm from a distance. I see that surprised look on your face—most dangerous? In the territory of the Royal Bengal Tiger? Well… let’s just say if the Tusker spies you ogling at his kin, you’d better make tracks or watch your vehicles turn to pulp—with yourself inside them.

corbett_Safari

Image courtesy corbettnationalpark.in

corbett 4

I kid you not—my mom almost didn’t make it back in one piece. She, along with some family friends, had been watching from a safe distance an elephant herd frolicking in the water. When they’d had their fill of elephant watching and turned to leave, they found their path blocked by a very irate Tusker, deliberately stopping their jeep from escaping.

Colonel Hathi

Colonel Hathi

Since I wasn’t inside that jeep, I can only imagine what the occupants of the vehicle would have been thinking. Saying their prayers, proabably? Imagining last words left unsaid and wills left unmade?

Well, they managed to get out of it alive, thanks to the driver who knew his way round the jungle as good as any animal; he zipped away in reverse— tires screeching— out-maneuvered colonel hathi, found an alternate route, and scrunched his foot down on the pedal!

But all of this is the distant, delicious past.

Right now, my mother, sister, husband, nine-month-old son and I are all set on the back of a tamed she-elephant who will take us inside the jungles of Durga Devi Buffer Zone.

The lovely Radha

The lovely Radha

DSC00047

We have two bottles of water tucked under mine and sis’s arm, baby tucked securely in his Baba’s lap, soother firmly and thankfully stuck in baby’s mouth. Radha, the elephant, takes off into the wild, as the mahout chooses a horrible, uneven path to get there— right in the middle of a broad, shallow, uncovered drain-cum-trench, close to the homes of the tribes that live in the National Park’s buffer zone. He points to a dog-like creature sitting close to the homes: a jackal that’s been partly domesticated and now has a litter of three pups playing with the villagers’ kids.

I am unimpressed, though, because a) the memory of this morning’s rather fruitless jeep ride lays thick on my brain and b) I have done a little too much research and found warnings saying the mahouts will rip you off or fool you into believing you saw something that you really didn’t.

Finally we cross the disgusting drain and come out onto the river bed. Goodness, that snaking brown sludge of a river has shed years off her age! She’s a gushing little enchantress here, and the view on both sides is gloriously spectacular. The elephant moves right into the river, and the water comes up almost to the beast’s stomach!

Hills to the left, frothing river to the right, lean-muscled young boys with shiny brown skin swimming joyously around, and us perched on top of Radha, standing patiently in the middle of the river.

And then Radha decides she can’t resist the water, and as we were, after all, her guests, she had to ensure we didn’t miss the fun. So we are almost treated to the luxury of a priceless elephant-trunk-bath as Radha begins spraying herself cheerfully.

One cracking order from her master, with a sharp nudge of his feet, and the lady is back on duty.

Soon as we cross into the jungle, it is clear that this one is different— not the Animal Planet variety, but Jurassic Park. Literally.

At the edge of Durga Devi, venturing into the thickets. Pic my own

At the edge of Durga Devi, venturing into the thickets. Pic my own

Ferns and moss and thickets and huge grass—not golden but tropical green—growing haphazardly and eerily.

20130613_182657

The jungle, as viewed from elephant back

The vegetation is sparser at the edges, where we spot our first animals: couple of spotted deer. Farther ahead, there’s a ‘sambar’duo—the larger sized, unspotted species of deer in those parts.

The Sambhar

The Sambar

Cheetal--spotted deer

Cheetal — spotted deer

My mom, who’d probably live in a jungle given a chance, is clicking away happily. And the other one clicking away, to my surprise, is Silent Sajjad. He wasn’t very keen on the whole wildlife thing, but now he’s having a blast. I’m still unmoved, though. Just goes to show too much research isn’t always good.

“Keep your eyes open; I tell you there’s a tiger in here. It’s been dragging off cattle for a couple of days now. I guarantee it. You’ll get your tiger here,” the Mahout keeps assuring us.

Yeah, right, I think. Sure there is.

The elephant turns left, heading deeper into the jungle, and suddenly, underneath a bush, we see it—the half eaten carcass of a cow.

Holy cow.

There really is a tiger in here, and it really has been dragging cattle off.

Now we’re all really alert, little shivers of excitement running down our backs. We get deeper and deeper, the bushes get greener, thicker, higher, the trees clumpier until we’re being attacked by the jungle: tree branches coming at us from every possible angle, so we hold our arms stretched out in defence as they do their best to whack us to the ground.

Sajjad and I hold Hasan with one arm each crossed round him, because we need our other arms stretched before his face— or he’d be flying across the jungle. The mood between me and Sajjad is a little tense… he’s feeling more and more protective towards little Hasan, and is beginning to regret bringing our little one here. And since he can do nothing about it now, he gets grumpier and grumpier.

And then it happens.

The baby’s pacifier falls out of his mouth and onto the forest floor.

All four of us gaze at each other in dismay and horror. Who the heck is now going to climb down to retrieve it?

“Stoppp!” we shout in unison to the mahout.

“What? What is it?”

“Bachhe ki chusni gir gayi bhaiya…” The baby has dropped his soother… I whine stupidly.

“Oh, itni si baat?”

Is that all?

“Watch my Radha here,” he says proudly, and making a sound like ‘hek, hek’, he nudges her with his foot again, and presto! The elephant holds out Hasan’s soother, neatly folded in the end of her trunk.

Amazing.

Now we just have one little problem: This is an elephant holding the soother in her trunk, her trunk full of germs and dirt and what-have-you, and this soother is supposed to go inside the mouth of my nine-month-old. And no, we have no sanitizer, no soap—nothing except a bottle of mineral water, with which my mom proceeds to ‘thoroughly’ and ‘diligently’ wash the thing.

Super.

“I can’t put this inside his mouth!” I gaze at the others, appalled. “The ELEPHANT held it, for goodness’ sake!”

“But baby, I’ve washed it very nicely and thoroughly,” my mom attempts to placate me.

“Seriously mummy, this is not going to happen!” I’m still livid.

“Oh yes it will!” My mom flares up now. “You will jolly well put the darn thing in his mouth before he begins to bawl his head off!”

Silent Sajjad is horrified and disgusted too, but he seems to think it better to keep the baby’s mouth shut, if only to keep him from drawing the attention of wild animals.

And the pacifier goes into the baby’s mouth.

Yes, yes, I know, I know! It’s disgusting, irresponsible, totally insane! Yes, I hear you, I hear you all! (cover my ears and clench my eyes shut.)Yes, I’m a terrible mother. Yes, I should have just hung the soother round his neck with a piece of ribbon. How could I not? Yes, I should have carried sanitizer. How could I not? And how could we let him suck that thing???

Well, we did.

The elephant resumes its trail. We find what looks like a little tortoise in a water-filled ditch, and the mahout stops for us to take a picture. (Though in all probability it’s just a stone. )

Tortoise of stone?

Tortoise or stone?

No clue

No clue

And then promptly moves the elephant onto the ditch. “What! Have you killed the tortoise?” I almost scream at him in disbelief. “Mar gaya kya?”

Arre mar jaane do, hamein kya!” Who cares if it’s dead, he says in the most scornful tone possible. (Which sort of makes the stone assumption stronger– he was too nonchalant about it.) But I just cannot believe he said that. I am about to say something curt and preachy, when he suddenly, urgently swivels the elephant in a semi-circle and moves to the right.

“He’s here! The tiger is here!” And the elephant circles another bush. The mahout goads her on. But this time Radha refuses to comply. She is scared. (At least, it appears so— you have to assume that in the absence of knowing elephantese).

The Mahout shouts at her: Arre kya ho gaya pagla gayi hai kya?” What’s wrong with you, you crazy wench? (loosely translated, and a lot funnier in Hindi.)

Several things happen all at once:

Hasan begins to cry. Sajjad and I desperately begin shushing him. “Make him quiet!” Orders the mahout. “Be quiet!” he throws in for our benefit, then gives Radha several blows with his wooden stick. Abruptly, he draws out an iron goading hook—a “bhaala”—and brings it down sharply on her back.

“Arrriii  b*#@#&#@**  chal CHAL !”

Move MOVE you bloody sister-f*****!

A monkey suddenly splatters onto the ground. Mummy and Fatima cry out in unison:

“There, move there! That’s where the tiger is!”

“Oh, Be Quiet, everyone!” Sajjad almost hollers uncharacteristically, making my eyes pop.

The Mahout, instead of taking the elephant in the direction of the monkey, turns her completely around.

“What? We’re going back? Why? Why?”

“He was here. He’s gone now. You were making too much noise.” he declares decisively.

“But the tiger is there—in that direction! Why won’t you take us there?”

The mahout remains obstinate. That’s that.

“It’s the baby! You couldn’t shut the baby up!” my mom is livid.

“What! You both started screaming noisily! The baby had stopped crying!” I furiously defend my little one.

A sullen silence accompanies us as we slowly rock back to the edge of the forest. As we cross the river again, it gradually dawns on us that the mahout deliberately refrained from following the tiger—which was definitely there; the monkey’s frantic fall confirmed as much.

Later, we realise how much more of a blessing this was, how close we were to becoming tiger dinner—with a nine-month-old side dish thrown in for good measure. Yes, you can shudder.

Here’s a link to a video that shows how you can transform from pursuer to pursued in the wink of an eye: Tiger chases Jeep in Ranthambhor

And here’s a link to a video that shows how high a tigress can actually jump: she can take off the hand of a mahout sitting on top of a huge elephant—in one lightning leap: Tigress attack in Kaziranga . Admittedly, it’s not from Corbett, and the full story behind this video is here.

So is it a foolish thing to go looking for tigers on elephant back? Well… not really. Hordes and hordes of tourists do it all the time. It’s all about the thrill, and where there’s a thrill there’s a way.

But is it a foolish thing to take ready-to-bawl nine-month-olds on a tiger hunt in a dense Jurassic-esque forest? You shouldn’t have to ask.

Fools most definitely walk in where elephants fear to tread.

;)

😉 😉 😉