Chapter 44 (ii) Levels of Life: The Meltdown (Part II)


May 12, 2014

I am quietly sitting in the verandah, eating a bowl of home-set curd. My mom’s special home-set curd is one of my top ten favourite foods on earth. And suddenly Hasan comes pattering to my seat, spies the pot of boiled milk sitting on the table, to be cooled before putting in the fridge, and with all the naughtiness of a one-year-old, smacks the entire pot to the ground.

It’s nothing, really. Children do these things all the time. A potful of spilt milk actually means little, except for our belief that all food and drink is sacred sustenance from Allah and must never be wasted. I’m mostly unperturbed and ask the maid to mop it up.

And then who should come barging in but Grandma Bazooka.

Arrey! All the milk! The whole bhagona ! Ye larki ek minute bhi apna bachha nahi dekh sakti!” (This chit of a girl can’t mind her child for even a single minute!)

Like I said, rants such as these are commonplace in Indian homes. They’re not meant unkindly, and you learn to ignore them.

But not this time.

The hollering continues. My mind goes numb.

Each sound, each sentence passes dully through my brain like a buzz of background sounds. White noise rings in my ears. And then one by one, every vein in my brain snaps, gushing blood in the insides of my skull.

My lips don’t move. My eyes don’t cloud over. I see everything move in slow motion.

My hand hurls down the bowl of curd with all the force it can muster, spilling the curd all over the floor.

WIthout a word I get up, put on my abaya, grab my purse and laptop, and leave. Leave my hollering child and hollering grandma behind.

There is no place I want to go to. No friends left in Aligarh. No refuge.

Soon I find myself facing a popular Café. I get in there, switch on my laptop and get a coffee. And then another. And then a third. Shut down my laptop again. Go out on the road. And walk. Just walk. Several kilometres at a stretch.

The other half of the day I walked all over town,” I write later to a close friend. “I’m not a walker. I never walk. Hardly ever. I prefer being driven around. But I had so much rage that day…. I walked and walked and walked….”

It is then that I see it: the name plate on the metal gates of a beautiful house.

Dr P, Psychologist/Counsellor.

And I know. This is what I have to do. This is what I need.

I can’t end up killing myself. Or my son.

I go right up to the door.

Locked. Just my luck.

I walk around some more, unsure of where to go. Home doesn’t seem home anymore.

And then I see the sun casting heavily slanting rays, and realise I haven’t offered my namaz.

Faith is such a funny thing. Some people kill for it. How accursed they are! Because faith is meant to save you.

“Namaz saved me,” I write in my email to the friend.  “I suppose faith saves one from doing a lot of horrible stuff… However, I find no peace in prayers these days. I just pray because I can’t stop believing in God. It’s not a habit. It’s because I know.”

I go back home then, to offer namaz. But cry all through the evening, deep into the night. My eyes hurt for a long time.

Every day I make an agenda to keep myself from destroying myself. That’s not an exaggeration. A hundred times I sit and imagine different ways of killing me. Though I know I won’t. (Faith, again). Some days are better, some are worse. Some days I wake up angry. Some days I wake up crying.”

And then I tell her. “I guess I liked Levels of Life so much for two reasons: one, I can feel the self-centred dark grief in there, the same grief that consumes now. That makes me contemplate suicide all the time. He didn’t do it, though. And neither will I.

But I like it because I can understand how it feels to be lonely and hollow all the time.”

To be in the darkest levels of life.


Chapter 44: Levels of Life: The Meltdown (Part I)

“You put together two people who have not been put together before. Sometimes it is like that first attempt to harness a hydrogen balloon to a fire balloon: do you prefer crash and burn, or burn and crash?

But sometimes it works, and something new is made, and the world is changed. Then, at some point, sooner or later, for this reason or that, one of them is taken away. And what is taken away is greater than the sum of what was there. This may not be mathematically possible; but it is emotionally possible.” 

Julian Barnes, Levels of Life

The Meltdown Part I

May 8, 2014

There are separations, other than death, that might sometimes induce the same kind of grief.

Before we move deeper into this post, let me give my non-Indian readers a little perspective on the (now virtually defunct) proverb “spare the rod and spoil the child.” Though now you might gasp in horror at this, culturally, we’re inclined to not spare the rod at all. I’m quite sure most of us have been slapped, smacked and spanked as kids, and I can say this with deep certitude—hand on heart—that we weren’t even scarred on the skin, let alone scarred for life. Each one of us remembers the spankings more as a joke from the past, like the mischiefs that you fondly recall. And no one hates their parents—absolutely no one, nor do we harbour the slightest resentment against them. If anything, we remember being mollycoddled too much, with all the favourite desserts and picnics and hugs and family banter. The spanking and slapping is part of these memories, if I can ever make you understand.

I remember my father always kept a cane atop his almirah, and the cane was named ‘S.S. Verma’ short for Samjhavan Singh Verma.  Loosely translated to Mr Make-it-clear Jones. The cane never got an opportunity to be taken down—it was more of a psychological rod than a physical one—the mere mention of it was enough to get me to behave! Almost a decade later when we happened to get hold of it, there was much oohing and aahing between me and my sister, like we just discovered an old haunted relic.

But times have changed now, and everyone strictly reprimands you for beating children—even the older generation who dished it out with aplomb in their day. But even their dishing had been sparse and far between, and girls were hardly at the receiving end. The boys bore most of the ‘rod’, and never violently or frequently.

Nothing like the violence that had grabbed hold of me now.

My son was just about 19 months old and I had begun hitting him.

Shaking him. Slapping. My mother used to whisk him away immediately when these violent fits came upon me. “She will kill him!” She used to wail and lament—a tad dramatically. And what I really wanted to do was kill myself.

I wanted to be killed for slapping my 19 month old baby. I wanted to scream in agony, to scratch my own hands. I hated myself. If this had been another country, perhaps I would be behind bars. Which would be quite justified. I was turning into a potential danger to my own offspring.

At my in laws place: Late into the night, I’m trying in vain to talk to Sajjad on the phone — our calls are always so few and far between– but Hasan just won’t let me, grabbing the phone or making a fuss. I yank him up and almost dump him down in his walker, in the other room. He is shocked for a second and then starts wailing. Sajjad’s mom rushes to pick him up and soothe him.

In my mother’s house: I am trying to write—my refuge from the world— and Hasan is playing happily, toys all strewn around the floor. Grandma Bazooka barges in.

Now Grandma Bazooka is an Amazonian Woman species— the kind of person who’s the best ally to have in a war. She’s the best person to have your back, to bite down anyone who tries to chew you off. Her sense of justice, straight as an arrow, causes her to draw out her quiver every time she so much as whiffs any kind of unfairness—particularly to her loved ones.

The downside of this battle-readiness, of course, is the excess emphasis on discipline and things being just right all the time, like a military general.

Which means that she enters the room hollering.

“Oh this girl is useless! She can’t handle anything! She can’t handle her own child! All the toys are strewn round the floor! Why can’t you keep the room clean for heaven’s sake!”

This isn’t really a big deal. Yelling at your kids and grandkids is a routine occurrence in Indian homes—we all take it for granted and nobody bats an eyelid. Nobody who’s in their normal frame of mind, that is. And that’s not me right now.

I fly into a rage and shake the child, and shake him, and shake him. “Why! Why why why can’t you stop throwing toys around! Why!!” I yell and shake with anger. My mom rushes in from the other room and sweeps him away from my wrath.

I hide my face in my knees, rocking back and forth, sobbing uncontrollably.

At night in my bed: Hasan went to sleep at 8 pm. Relief, right? Exactly at 9pm, he wakes up. Fresh as a daisy. At 11 pm my eyes are heavy with sleep, and he is pushing his little fingers all the way up my nose, poking them into my eyes, doing his best to keep me awake. I am dying of exhaustion, having been at his beck and call all day. I sing him a lullaby, desperate to be free. Doesn’t work. I pat him again and again on the back, trying to induce sleep. I try and try and try for another half-hour. Nothing.

And then I imagine smashing his head into the wall.

And I slap him.

For some reason, this works like a charm. He cries at first and then nods off.

And then I lie awake in bed, watching the revolving blades of the fan. Round and round and round and round. And I see me.

Hair strewn over the face, neck in a looped rope, feet dangling limp.

I see myself hanging from the fan, eyes blank and bulging with the stare of death. Round and round and round and round and round.

I cannot sleep.

Daytime on my rooftop: Trees sway around in the cool breeze, and I’m here to breathe deep and relax. Nature is always such a refuge. And I look down casually from the third floor.

I see me there, down below.

I see my body, skull cracked open. Fallen from the top, plastered on the earth.

Blood oozing in a puddle.

Slowly I turn, and heavily climb down.

There is no refuge.

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.”


“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.”


And that is Mrs Hyde.