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

 

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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.

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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.

Movies: Men love action, women love romance. Think you know why? No, you don’t!


(I break my narrative yet again, because this is something that just had to be said.)

Wonder Woman

So I finally got a chance to watch Wonder Woman (yeah, I always watch new movies way too late) and oh girl, am I thrilled! It is absolutely mesmerising to watch Gal Gadot aka Diana, Princess of the Amazons, unleash her raw power and true grit. Watching the movie made me realise a few things though—namely why I have never been a fan of action movies and prefer mostly romances. I just thought I didn’t like all the fighting —until I saw this woman kicking, punching, lassoing and sword-fighting away to glory. And it suddenly dawned upon me that the reason I—and perhaps most women— do not enjoy action movies so much is because 99 per cent of all action movies only ever have MEN taking part in all the ‘action’.

Think about it.

What makes a good movie —or any good story— tick? How much the audience/readers identify with the characters. When you watch a story unfold, you identify with at least one person on the screen—mostly, you identify with the protagonist. For that brief span of time, you are transported to the screen, you are the person experiencing it all—and you vicariously partake of all the pleasures and pains unfolding before your eyes. That is why women prefer romances—because the protagonist there, the focus of the story, is always a woman. However, in common discourse this is projected as: women are only interested in love and romance.

Not true.

Women are interested in adventure, intrigue, thrill and action as any normal human being, but one look at the ‘regular’ action fare you get on the silver screen (and the small screen too) and you’d know that women would find it hard to relate to. It’s actually not the ‘action’ that puts us off—it’s the fact that every single time, it’s always a man commanding and carrying out the action. True, the Y-chromosome is genetically wired to love combat and destruction a lot more than the X-chromosome—and women definitely prefer love to war any day—but hey, when it’s about being the hero and saviour and fighting evil and injustice, women absolutely love packing in a mean punch.

A pity then, that our choices are so very limited.

All the way through Wonder Woman, I found myself jumping up and down in glee beside my very bemused husband, and almost screaming—“Go Diana! Woohoo! ”

 

Yes, we love it when women throw the punches and absolutely decimate the baddies.

I remember whooping with joy many years ago when Keira Knightley clashed swords with cursed pirates and sea-demons in Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End. And I can never have enough of the way she and Will got married right in the middle of slashing up the baddies together!

Keira fight

But I was severely and utterly disappointed by the post-credits scene in the very same movie—where Will returns after 10 years on the Flying Dutchman, and Elizabeth has been waiting for him, bringing up their son all this while. I swear I felt my heart sink right into my shoes.

All that spunk—all that valour—all the sword fighting and dealing with pirates, demons and sea –monsters—all of that for nothing? No, don’t get me wrong. It’s not the child-rearing part that I had a problem with. Nope.

She got married, she had a kid, great —but nobody said she had to stay right there and give him a super traditional upbringing, did they? His dad was Captain of the Flying Dutchman, for cryin’ out loud! And his mom was King of the Brethren Court, lest we forget! She could just have brought up the boy on a ship, having adventures of her own and being the remarkable, doughty woman that she was! But the message we got instead was that once you’re married and have a baby, you really needn’t involve yourself with anything other than said baby.

But now I am beginning to digress. Where were we? Yes, women in ‘action’.

Women enjoy it when women protagonists ‘do the stuff’. When my husband introduced to me the popular TV series “The Arrow”, my favourite protagonists almost all the time were the fighting females —Sarah Lance aka the Canary, Laurel Lance aka the Black Canary, and most of all Nyssa Al Ghul — the daughter of Raas Al Ghul, Chief of the League of Assassins — but above all a shockingly lethal fighter if there ever was one. It was a real delight to watch these women in action. (Of course, Felicity was a great character too, but her fight was more of mental and digital warfare rather than throwing actual punches.)

Among my favourite kick-ass women characters though, right at the top stands the character of Teresa Lisbon from the hugely successful HBO series The Mentalist. Even though she’s not the central character—which is a man, Patrick Jane, The Mentalist himself—yet she’s not reduced to the status of merely a love interest. She’s a super tough cop—the Chief of the California Bureau of Investigation, a smart, fearless character who knows how to fight like a woman. Yeah, I said fight like a woman, because “fight like a man” kind of defeats this whole post—it indicates that only men can fight.

Again, the remarkable thing about this series was that they didn’t have to show the hero Patrick Jane as a super-macho guy, just because his leading lady was a tough-as-diamonds (why don’t they use that phrase, though? Diamonds are the toughest substance on earth!) cop who really knew how to use a gun. He, on the other hand, never even carried a gun. His super strength was his mind– the punching, shooting and capturing part was well taken care of by the lady.

Eventually, of course, Patrick Jane and Teresa Lisbon declare their love—and then comes the part where, for the first time, I felt really annoyed and angry at Jane, because he suddenly begins asking Lisbon to quit her job as an FBI agent—which she had by then become. No, of course, it wasn’t because of some kind of inherent chauvinism. He kept saying he didn’t want to ‘lose her’ given her high risk job and the fact that he’d already lost once a woman he dearly loved. Which felt entirely pathetic to me, because she had been a cop and a detective long before he even met her. And all these years that he’d been hunting the psychopath serial killer who murdered his family, she had been his partner and closest friend, always taking the lead in this high risk job. And now suddenly when he declares his love for her, he wants her to throw away all she has built up in life just because he’s insecure about losing her? It made me hopping mad.

Thankfully though, Lisbon was a woman after my own heart and she refused to budge. My most favourite, absolutely cherished scene from this series—and in fact my most cherished scene from any series or movie ever, period—is that of Lisbon in her wedding gown, in typical law-enforcement posture and fearlessly holding a gun at another serial killer.

lisbon gun

A smart man isn’t scared of loving a strong woman

That moment, to me, symbolises the very essence of being a woman: she doesn’t say no to love, she doesn’t say no to marriage, she doesn’t say no to femininity either—but she refuses to let go of her passions, of things that are important to her; refuses to let go of who she truly is. She dons the intensely feminine, sleek and classy wedding gown, but as soon as the baddies appear, she gets all-out in cop mode—whipping out her gun and confronting the psychopath. Even though there’s a whole law enforcement team there, she doesn’t sit it out just because it’s her wedding day. She remains true to herself and her work, her duty.

That one moment will forever be the essence of femininity to me. Femininity is not about being a damsel in distress—it’s about being a damsel that can remove distress.

And that’s who we fantasise about being when we find doughty women in action onscreen.

This reminds me of exactly what I felt when I watched Jean’s character blast out her mutant powers with full force in the climax of X-Men: Apocalypse. Every pore of my body felt like that woman who is trying hard but frustratingly failing to harness her true powers, that somewhere in me those forces are all accumulating to rip out in one great explosion of fearsome power.

X-Men_Jean_Phoenix

Whether it’s saving your home or saving the world, we vicariously fulfil all our dreams of superhuman strength and fighting power through these characters. But when those characters are only men, we can just salivate or drool over them as fantasy love interests! (Or just appreciate them as interesting characters.) We can’t actually identify with them —obviously.

So here’s my last word on the subject.

Movie makers, you’ll be opening up a whole new demographic if you just create more intrepid, fearless ‘women in action’ characters. That way, you’ll know that it’s not just the romances that draw women in. We love action too— only you’ve got to have the right person doing it.

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…”

————————————————————–

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.

poovar_island_and_backwater

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…”

—————————————————————-

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.