Chapter 31: Because life never stands still


babysteps

September 1, 2013

Almost every couple I have seen values their first child’s first birthday as one of the most important events in their lives, and it’s fittingly celebrated— perhaps even a little over the top— with great pomp and show. Like the first wedding anniversary, the first birthday of your child is one of those fist-bumping, high-fiving, “we did it!” moments that you share, revelling in the fact that you made it this far through a life-altering change, and did a pretty good job of it, too.

I am, perhaps, the world’s only mother who doesn’t want to celebrate her first child’s first birthday. At all.

I had been waiting for this day. Imagining it. Replaying it in my mind. Over and over again.

“Hasan’s first Birthday!” I had been thinking all this while “It will be so wonderful to celebrate it together in Oman.”

I had been so sure. So full of energy, so full of hopes. And now, slowly, reality was spreading its cold pallor over my heart. I did not want to celebrate anything, leave alone this first birthday that served as a mocking reminder of one whole year of my life just laid waste.

Hasan’s nani, his true mother for all purposes, has her heart set on it, of course. She makes it a point to remind me everyday: “You’re not his mother, I am. You’re just his nanny appointed to take care of him while I’m not at home.” And that statement is one of the high points of my everydays, because it warms my heart to see my mother with this little imp of a boy. He has wound her round his little finger.  And he has a perfectly hilarious name for her. Not nani, nanna, naniammi or any of the names we address our grandmas with. He calls her “Office.” Just that.  Office.

Why? Well, it’s simple, isn’t it: She goes to office everyday, so she’s ‘office’! Can’t argue with a child’s logic, can you?

It actually originated thus: Hasan was all of 10 months and already yakking away. (He may not have inherited his father’s Olympic walking skills, but he’s certainly inherited his mom’s talking ones.) And he began addressing his grandma with the perfectly innocuous ‘Nani.’ During the day, when she would be at work, Hasan would knock at the bolted door of her room, and ask me questioningly: Nani? And I would tell him, “Nani Office gayi hain,” which he interpreted not as NANI office gayi hain, but as NANI OFFICE gayi hain. So from Nani, she became ‘Nani Office’ and then the ‘Nani’ was dropped for convenience, and only ‘Office’ remained.

{Literal translation of the above Hindi lines: “Nani has gone to office” which Hasan interpreted as “Nani Office has gone.” Something to do with the Hindi sentence structure of Subject Object Verb, as opposed to the English structure of Subject Verb Object.}

And ‘Office’ cannot have enough of her little Noddy. He has filled that gaping void, that scary black hole in her heart left behind first by the death of her husband, and then by the death of her father. My grandfather passed away just this year, around the time Hasan was 4 months old.

I can see well that the Lord wanted me to be here for her. It isn’t about me all the time—this is about her sanity, about her shattered heart. I do see that. And yet, I can’t be happy about it.

Hasan’s youngest uncle—my brother in law— serves as a father figure for most of the birthday party, holding Hasan’s hand while cutting the cake, entertaining the kids and joking around. Hasan seems happy, he is intensely attached to his chachu.

And I… I am once again reminded of my childhood.

My sister and me, we often found— in various uncles and grandfathers— new fathers to fill our tiny hearts’ yearning. It was our mother who was doomed to be alone forever.

Oct 9, 2013

Another month, another milestone. Tomorrow is the third anniversary of my marriage.

As the days move ahead, time grows heavy, leaden. Refusing to pass. Hanging heavy upon the ceiling, watching me from the rotating blades of the fan.

Hanging dark and grey upon the sky.

Hope sits quietly in a dark corner.

7:00 pm

My father in law barges into my room, all smiles, and asks Hasan and me to come outside.

“There’s an amazing gift waiting for you outside!” he beams.

For one glorious moment, my spirits surge for I feel that Sajjad has flown down impromptu just to give me this surprise. I rush towards the door, and then a small voice in my head reminds me of all the eager anticipations of previous months that proved to be just huge let-downs. And I don’t want to end up that way again. I take a deep breath, calm myself, and move slowly ahead, hoping to take whatever it is with equanimity, sans extreme emotion of either kind.

I open the door. And there stands Sajjad.

The normal me, the impetuous, impulsive me would have erupted with joy at the sight of his face. Ironically, though, I have calmed myself so well that I am indifferent. I muster a smile broad enough to make him feel I am happy. But I feel angry at myself for ruining this moment.

Sometimes we are so scared of disappointment that we shut ourselves off from extreme joy. You know, that famous line—‘it is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.’ It is. It is indeed. To know a joy so pure, so unadulterated, to know an emotion that springs from the depth of your heart—to have been through all of it is worth the heartbreak.

When you are open to great joy, you are also vulnerable to great pain. But if you shut yourself off, you feel neither joy nor pain. And I, for one, do believe that joy is always worth the pain.

11: 40 pm

“Hey, I left my laptop back in the car,” Sajjad says suddenly. “Just let me get it out.”

“Okay.” I say. I suspect he has something up his sleeve.

And he does. He returns to the room with a beaming smile, a lovely bouquet in his hand.

“Happy Anniversary, sweetheart,” he says.

And it is. It is.

Oct 10, 2013

I’m wondering what Sajjad has planned for today. But generally, knowing him, I haven’t kept my hopes up high. However, he spends the entire morning and afternoon with his parents, and I am nowhere in the picture. I mean I am in the picture, of course, but when you’re meeting your guy after 5 months you want more than just sitting with his parents and listening to them talk.

I know they’re meeting their son after 5 months too. But again, I can’t reconcile myself to it. Over the past one year, I have found myself resenting my in laws more and more. And it is entirely undeserved.

When we were in Delhi, Sajjad and I used to make a trip to Aligarh every fortnight. I knew that was his parent-bonding time, and for those 48 hours we completely detached ourselves from each other. My folks live in the same city, so I used to go spend time with them, too. It was a perfect arrangement. But everything is haywire now.  After 5 months of being away, he has come home to both of us—to his wife and parents—and we’re both vying for his time. And because it’s our anniversary, I sort of expect my share to be larger, just this once.

Afternoon turns to evening and I’m hoping Sajjad will take me out for dinner. We do go out. But guess where? To buy new upholstery fabric for the sofa in my in-laws’ drawing room. Apparently, nothing is special today, it’s just another day.

And then my mom rings me up. “Listen, are you going out somewhere with Sajjad?”

“No mummy.” I tell her briefly.

“Then I’m taking you both out to dinner. To Fazle Kareem, that new restaurant you’ve been wanting to try so much.” She’s super enthusiastic. I feel a wave of warm feeling for my mother. And then go and tell Sajjad.

He nods, but first we need to go buy that sofa-fabric. Because no other day except the anniversary of our wedding is perfectly auspicious for buying upholstery, of course.

After one hour, we’ve bought nothing. Because nobody could come to a consensus.

We head back home. I’m waiting for Sajjad to inform his parents about our plans.

Nothing.

I glare at him. He’s immersed in his smartphone. I nudge his foot. He looks up at me blankly and asks “What?” I grit my teeth. And then my mom in law, who’s been watching this charade out of the corner of her eye, asks me what the matter is.

“Well…” I say hesitantly, “Mummy wants to take us both out to dinner.” And then, because I am super irritated, I blurt out, “But he won’t tell you anything of course. He will make ME say it every time.”

My mother in law laughs. She is a kind woman, generally cool about things. “Is that all?” she says. “Of course you should go. And it makes no difference whether he tells me or you tell me,” she smiles kindly at me. Yes, I know. But if you’re an Indian bahu you know how much easier it is for your husband to communicate things to your in-laws than it is for you. Doesn’t matter if they’re kind, sweet and everything. They’re still unpredictable, and you never know when your words might be met with a cold silence.

We do go out and celebrate… but I am confused.  I cannot fathom this man who has come all the way from another country to spend time with me, to spend with me the day that we were united body and soul, and then finds it absolutely appropriate to spend it buying sofa fabrics and being absorbed in his smartphone. Or maybe, I’m just being a ‘woman’, as men tend to say. Never satisfied.

Oct 13, 2013

Indira Gandhi National Airport, New Delhi

This is it. He’s going back. Again. Without us. Without me.

For the past five days, I had been putting it off—you know, thinking about this moment. I had been blindly telling myself that we’d fly off with him this time—happily into the sunset. And now, we’re here. At the airport. And he’s the only one flying off, once again. My father in law is trying to make this a happy farewell like last time; he’s clicking pics of us three together. But a lot has changed since last time. There’s none of the euphoric “it’s almost done!” feeling, none of the anticipatory glee. I can barely smile for the photographs.

Sajjad finally hugs his dad and his youngest brother, kisses Hasan, and for a very brief moment, looks into my eyes and holds my hand. For him to do this in front of his dad means a huge thing, since his family has impossibly strict codes about public displays of affection. You can’t hold your wife’s hand in the presence of elders. But he does that now, and I clutch it as tight as I can, for that one fleeting moment. And then I must let go.

I must let him go. The man who completes ‘us’, the one person who makes me feel like I am home.

I’ve been homeless for a year now.

We head back slowly to the car, and I can’t see where I am stepping. The future has clouded over, the path ahead is darkened, and blankly I step into the darkness, not knowing where I am going.  But go on one must, for this is life. It never stands still.

If you were to read this, Hasan…


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Unplanned.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I hope one day you’d understand this.

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

Till then,

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

Mumma

<3 <3 <3

❤ ❤ ❤

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.

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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

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

;)

😉 😉 😉

Chapter 25: Babe in the woods

Aside


Rock a bye baby

On the tiger’s trail.

When the baby’ s upset,

The baby will wail.

Silence in the jungle,

But baby will bawl

And down will come mommy,

Daddy and all.

 

June 10, 2013

Jim Corbett National Park

The Nirvana Wilds Resort isn’t really a resort in the true sense. As with most ‘resorts’ in India, it resorts (pun intended) to a pretty liberal use of the term. Wikipedia, though, states that a resort is a place of vacation usually near a body of water, and in that sense this one probably got its nomenclature right.

The lazy, muddy Ramganga

The lazy, muddy Ramganga

It is a charming hotel set in serene, sigh-inducing surroundings; quaint, spacious stone cottages dotting the outer edge of the hill atop which it sits gazing thoughtfully, chin in hand, at the lazily swaying, brown-with-mud river Ramganga, emerald-forested hills locking hands round the snaking bends like uniformed sentries, a handful of cattle crossing the bridge connecting its banks and the polished white stones from the dry bed gleaming softly in the moonlight. Yes, you may just forgive Nirvana for calling itself a resort, even without a swimming pool or a spa or a grand entrance or foyer.

Nirvana Wilds

Nirvana Wilds

DSC00051

The Restaurant

This is where we’d be spending the next two days, at the far end of the park zone, beyond Mohaan village; actually quite far from the core park area itself. We chose the place precisely for its picturesque location, but even then it was the second choice. The first choice for any visitor to the Tiger reserve will always be the forest lodges owned by the government, sitting smack in the middle of the wild Dhikala zone— offering ‘just the bare necessities’, as The Jungle Book’s Balloo would say, but satiating you with howls and growls and snarls and roars all night long. Here’s the catch, though: you can’t pre-book them in any way. They’re allotted mainly on a first come first serve basis, and too bad if you arrived late. With a 9 month-old in tow, we didn’t want to take that chance, so we booked the next best alternative— this hotel which, from the uploaded pictures, appeared to be closer to the wilderness than the other, plusher alternatives.

And so, here we are. Our third vacation since our marriage, but this one is a throwback to my single-hood because my mom and sis are accompanying us. Correction. It’s the other way round—it is Sajjad and I who are accompanying my mother and sister, because this is, primarily, their holiday. The summer holiday is a long standing tradition between us three women— my mother, my sister and I. Post- wedding, though, I had a separate life and so separate vacations, and our girl band had disintegrated. But the unexpected turn of events in the past one year has brought us together again. And this time our trio is joined by two guys— one bearded and thirty, the other diapered and not yet one.

Corbett is really my mom’s choice—she’s the ultimate wildlife buff. Till the time that my father was alive, her vacation choices always centred round National Parks and Wildlife Sanctuaries. We still have pictures of her ‘home hunger strike’ protesting my dad’s apathy to the long overdue trip— I remember him laughing as he clicked pictures of her grumpy protesting face.

Now, almost two decades later, she’s made the same choice. And that, I suppose, is because we now have a ‘man in the family’ to ‘depend upon’. The Man, though, isn’t very keen on Corbett; his ancestral home is a farm house and trips to nearby forests were a commonplace childhood feature. So we negotiate with him, and he agrees to join us in return for two days at Nainital— a hill station that gets its name from the lake it nestles within. Translated, the name means ‘Naini Lake’. I have been there thrice already, but I keep my mouth shut for the sake of successful negotiations.

Peace prevails.

And we’re here.

o——- ————-o

July 11, 2013

Lots of rain on our parade.

The core Dhikala area is supposed to stay open till June 15, but the rains arrived early this year. And so, on the very day that we had planned our jeep safari, Dhikala gets closed for the season. By order of the District Forest Officer. My mom, the erstwhile government officer’s wife and now officer herself, had dashed off across the forest the previous evening to see the DFO and try to wheedle out some ‘official’ concessions for us. It doesn’t work, though, because no concessions can be given where public safety is concerned. We must, therefore, content ourselves with a morning Jeep Safari in the peripheral zone.

Babe in the Woods

Babe in the Woods

The Man and The Family ;)

The Man and The Family 😉

Overlooking the Ramganga

Overlooking the Ramganga

Three generations

Three generations

It isn’t so bad—we do get an eyeful of spotted deer and barking deer, along with a yellow-throated marten.

Barking Deer

Barking Deer

But that’s about all. I mean, everyone who goes to Corbett wants nothing less than a tiger striding majestically across the road. Here at Nirvana, our neighbouring cottage was occupied by a man who’d been coming back every year for the last ten years, determined to spot a tiger through endless safaris both night and day— with zero, absolutely zero success. Talk about persistence.

Amid all this, Hasan has been surprisingly well behaved. Well, by his standards, of course. My initial fears were put to rest by my mother who took him off my hands all the 7 hours from Aligarh to Ramnagar—the fact that he’s bottle-fed now is an added advantage. She even took him into her cottage last night, and I snuggled into my king size downy bed with Sajjad, feeling blissfully calm and all in the mood. Of course, that’s when my son put his tiny little foot down—no more tricking him out of his parents’ company.

In the middle of a deliciously quiet jungle night in a wonderfully romantic old-world cottage, the air is ripped apart by ear-splitting screams emanating from the walls adjoining ours.

I rush to the other cottage to find Fatima, my sister, vigorously wheeling the pram back and forth with all the gentleness of an earthquake, trying helplessly to quiet him down and get him to sleep. Now, before you blame my sister’s lack of technique let me assure you, with Hasan, the more vigorous the rocking, the faster he nods off. Not this time, though, of course not. Never when you really want him to. I sigh, take him in my arms and bundle him back to our bed, where, as sure as daylight, he promptly falls asleep.

All in the job description, darling. All in the job description.

Chapter 23: Dr Jekylletta and Mrs Hyde


How would you know if you had multiple personality disorder? You wouldn’t. Like Norman Bates, Alfred Hitchcock’s famous “Psycho”, you’d just believe it was poor little you.

December 15, 2012

All parenting websites declare that your baby’s sleep problems—and hence your own—would be over by the time he’s four months old. But, as sure as the world goes round, harried and impatient mothers get blessed with the most exaspera…uh….challenging… children. I, of course, fit perfectly into that mould.

My son goes to sleep with me patting him gently… gently… gently…  persistently….for at least about 40 minutes. It does make me smile that he seeks me out every so often, seeking the feel of my skin to reassure himself. But just about an hour later, the bawling starts.

No, it’s not a wet diaper.

No, it’s not colic.

No, it’s not hunger.

He just wants to sleep in mamma’s lap.

I have a bawler in my bed.

Bright idea #1:

I begin putting him to sleep inside the bouncer, rocking him every now and then when the bawling begins. All is fine at first, except that now he expects mom to rock him all night.

Woe unto me if my hand falls limp in a state of drop-dead sleep.  And so my hand moves of its own accord.

Bright idea #2:

Enter the pacifier.

My good ol’ country-dwellin’, traditional-medicine lovin’, all-righteous in laws abhor pacifiers. Oh, and generally all child-rearing practices modern. Normally, I find their advice useful—it’s pretty comforting homey stuff that helps build the child’s (and the mother’s) immunity without over-dependence on antibiotics and doctors. But the barbs about the pacifier are never-ending:

It’s an addictive I’m exposing my son to.

It’s a lazy mother’s crutch .

And best of all: “our kids never needed these contraptions to fall asleep!”

My mom has been watching me struggle for the past 4 months. She has suggested the pacifier several times– she’d put me on it when I was 2 months old–but I’ve been resisting, primarily with my in laws’ advice in mind. For four months I have resisted. But the bawling echoes ceaselessly, and now I cave in.

When I was six, my then young adult uncle had a poster on his wall, where Dennis the Menace declared:

“If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.

Then give up. It’s no use being a fool about it.”

MEANWHILE…. ( Somewhere around November 2012)

Me: What’s the news about your visa?

Sajjad: The company is facing some paperwork issues. They say next month for sure.

Next Month

Me: Any news?

Sajjad: The x,y,z, has not been cleared (some new problem cooked up by the employer). Just about a fortnight more.

A fortnight later

Sajjad: Some more legal hassles. Next month, I’m positive.

Me: Let’s rent a house in Delhi again, and just drop this idea.

Sajjad: We’re so close, it’s just a month. Just one more month, baby, please.

And so on…

…and so forth.

He visits every weekend, arriving Friday nights and leaving Monday mornings. A strange behavioural pattern emerges in a mostly consistent form: instead of feeling lighter and happier in anticipation of him arriving on Friday, by Thursday I find myself completely spiralling into violent derangement. Boiling over at the drop of a hat, erupting at the slightest provocation, and looking at the baby with hatred and loathing—the projected self-loathing of a woman unhappy with life.

And then the weekend is here, and Mrs Hyde disappears— leaving behind grinning, civilised, loving Dr Jekylletta.

January 14, 2013

3 a.m.

We’re in the little room to one side of the backyard, a cosy sanctum for domesticated lovers— a place where virtually no sounds would carry from the main house and…erm…vice versa.

This room was built upon my mom’s orders when her brother got married and brought his new bride into the house. My mother is quite the patron saint of romance; she would have done St Valentine proud. It was her desire for the couple to have the utmost privacy from us ever-intruding pests—a ten year old and a four year old.

I suppose my mother’s great sensitivity to lovers fuels my own romantic inclination, and I suppose her being widowed at 34 fuels my frenzied longing to make every romantic second count.

And so we’re snuggled into the folds of our super heavy quilts on a teeth-chattering winter night. The room has served its true purpose well; we’re sated and relaxed from all the heat we just generated.

Sajjad is fast asleep—his ‘insta-sleep switch’ has been the object of both my envy and my wrath. I usually didn’t fall asleep that easily anyway, but this time there’s a definite reason for my insomnia.

“Hey,” I nudge him. “Hey, I can’t sleep.”

“Mmmm…?” he mumbles “What’s the matter?”

“It’s been two hours.”

“Huh?”

“It’s been over two hours since I fed the baby. He must be hungry.” The room is pitch dark and there’s no way to know the time.

“Has it? Been that long? It couldn’t be— the baby isn’t crying, or mummy would have called us up to come and get him.”

Our sometimes- arrangement with mummy works this way: she keeps Hasan until he gets hungry and starts crying, and then she rings us up to come and get him (we’re just across the courtyard in the back room.)

Now anyone who hasn’t been to India doesn’t have a clue that we don’t have central heating in our homes. Well, we don’t. We beat the biting cold by putting on several layers of thermal inners and sweaters and socks, and at night by switching on room heaters and tucking quilts tightly—under our feet and the sides of our legs and on top of our heads. And that, precisely, is how the baby is transferred from mummy’s room to ours—across the open courtyard— tucked in his bouncer with several layers of thick quilts below him, and several layers above.

“It’s been more than two hours. I’m telling you, my baby is hungry. I know it. I just can’t sleep…I…I tried…but… I keep getting this feeling that he is hungry.”

“Maa… maa… maa….” chants Sajjad, sighing, smiling and getting up.

Mother, mother, mother. A mother can’t sleep when her baby’s hungry.

Truth be told, I’m more annoyed than pleased at this sudden ‘Mother India’ characterisation of myself. I dislike being a martyr. Or a saint.

Nevertheless. The baby’s needs do come before my own.

Dr Jekylletta at your service.

Jan 22, 2013

Ahmer, my friend from college, idea machine and eternally red-bull-charged, calls me up one day:

“So what’s up?”

“Same ol’, Ahmer, same ol’. Hateful life of feeding soothing changing diapers. Ugh.”

“Come on Zehra, it’s been a long time now. You can’t still be in that phase… four months already!”

And then, in wisecrack, essential Ahmer mode, “in case you didn’t realise…this is what happens after marriage. People usually have babies… and then get on with their lives!”

There has been many a moment in college when I felt the urge to box the ears of this particular guy. We are not in college anymore and the urge has resurfaced.

“So I’m not people. I thought you knew that for a long time.”

“My dear girl, there was a time when we debated about politics, religion, gender equality, when we bounced ideas off each other… and now all one can get out of you is this never-ending rant about having had a baby! “

“That’s because all of that has been kicked out of my brains by this creature kicking me in the gut for nine months.”

“Oh, c’mon! Who keeps sulking after having a baby—for so long?”momzilla

“I wish I could throw this baby out of the house.”

“What!”

And that is Mrs Hyde. 

Mothers are born first


This post is a break in the narration of my story. It is for a friend’s anguish, for the blurry little face of her dreams. For the baby-shaped hole in her universe.

B, my friend, was seven months pregnant when her baby’s heart stopped beating. Just like that. After carrying the little dream within her body for 7 whole months, after nurturing it with her blood and her flesh, after pouring her life force into that little heart, it just stopped beating.

And now, instead of the bump that she gave all her energy to—every living moment—there is a little baby-shaped hole in her heart.

“It seems all like a dream now, Zehra,” I can hear the anguish in her voice. Like a cloud, she means to say, a cool shadow that passed slowly by. “My baby was here… and now…”

I cannot tell her I understand. I do not know how it feels, because grief is like pain, you cannot know it until you’ve felt it yourself. And like pain, every sorrow—big or small—is different from the other. But I can hear her, and I know how that feels. I feel anguished just hearing her wounded voice. She doesn’t cry. It’s a tattered, distressed sound, like a silent wail. It’s the words. The tone of her voice.

“And it was a girl, Zehra. It was a girl!” she kept repeating. “Girls are supposed to be genetically stronger… they always have a better chance of making it out into the world…my little girl…”

Yes, I’ve studied that in my ‘abnormal psychology’ classes. And heard that in news reports. Female foetuses have a higher survival percentage than males. They have less chance of developing defects before birth. Less chance of the foetus getting aborted. There are numerous explanations for this, and many researches indicating this. We’ve known that for a long time; we read that and we gloated over how we girls were tougher.

But I never imagined this question to hang so in a broken heart.

It is a strange kind of loss… because you haven’t “known” the baby. You’ve not held her in your arms. You’ve not fed her, you’ve not bathed her, not crooned her to sleep. She never smiled or gurgled at you. And you still loved her with all your heart. Perhaps I can’t fathom the grief of losing one loved like that, but I know how it feels to love like that. To carry a heavy bag of dreams with you.

A child, as they say, gives birth to a mother… And yet, the child is only born when she takes her first breath. But a mother is born the moment a little speck begins pulsating in her body—a speck surrounded by her vital organs, a speck she protects where no one could. She is born the moment there is a swell of love inside her heart: a bulge that takes shape much before the outer one.

Mothers are born first.

And B, my dear, you will receive in much greater measure. That is our faith, and our prayer.