When you are old and grey and full of sleep


“When you are old and grey and full of sleep,
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep…”

(W.B. Yeats)

Last year, in this very month of August, a couple of elderly men ‘escaped’ their old age home to attend the world’s largest heavy metal concert in Germany. Many people found this funny. But I was deeply moved by these two men, ‘old men’ still young at heart, who wanted simply an evening out from their own lives.

The first time I ever came to know of elderly people ‘escaping’ from institutional homes was when I read a story in Joanne Harris’s book A Cat, A Hat and a Piece of String. The story was titled Faith and Hope Fly South— Faith and Hope being two elderly women living in Meadowbank Retirement Home in the UK. The story moved me to tears.

Actually, Hope is the one that moved me most. She’s a former Cambridge professor, very dignified, witty and possessing the right ‘airs’ for a cultured lady. Quite the formidable woman. But now, she’s blind.

Faith, on the other hand, is wheelchair bound. What both women share is a feisty spirit and dollops of zest for life.

Hope has a daughter who never turns up to show her face and merely sends her postcards from all over the world—which the mother carefully collects in a box. Faith, though, has a son that visits her every week—but with “petrol-station” flowers and merely stories of the “World Outside.” Never an offer to take her with him.

World Outside.

The words stung me.

The implication of being imprisoned. Not knowing what was on in the world outside the walls that caged you. And this, after having been out in that world for so long, after having partaken of its pleasures and its pains, its wonders and its routines, after having savoured every one of them for decades, you’re suddenly shut off from all of it.

What’s worse was reading that they needed permission slips to join the rare outings that occured.

“I have to say I don’t much like the idea of Tom having to sign a slip,” says Faith. Tom is her son who has to sign her permission slip. “It reminds me so much of the times when he used to bring those forms home from grammar school, wanting permission to go on trips to France, or even skiing in Italy, trips we could barely afford, but paid for anyway,” says Faith. To have your children become your parent. It seems an almost indulgent thought, but it isn’t really—not if it is unaccompanied by the respect that is due to those elder in years. It can carry an edge of humiliation with it, which I realised for the first time.

Worse, far worse is this—which Hope and Faith had to endure. To have people that are half your age tell you that you’ve been ‘naughty’ because you ‘escaped’ for a daytrip of your own- because you dared to claim one day of your life for yourself. To be taunted for expressing your need for independence and dignity as a human being.

“Lorraine (the warden at the old age home) is equally appalled—for a different reason—and often speaks to us in the syrupy tones of a cross nursery teacher, explaining how naughty it was of us to run away, and how worried everyone was on our behalf…”

Cross nursery teacher.

Being addressed like a kindergartener, robbed of all dignity.

Hit me like a punch in the gut.

Hit me with the severity that accompanies guilt.

Do I sometimes speak to my mother this way? Like I know more than her, like I know better? Like I’m the one instructing her on what was best for her? It’s hard to own up to this, but I do. Sometimes I begin talking to her like I’m writing one of my articles, going on and on about a point I’m trying to make.

Having it said straight to my face, even if by a fictional character, dropped me into reality with a painful thud.

Into the truth of what it meant to be a ‘senior citizen’. Especially when your children begin to exercise control over you.

This is common even in societies like ours, despite the fact that we don’t send off our parents to old age homes. The way we look askance at elderly women wanting to wear jewelry and make-up. At elderly women wanting to enjoy life beyond just grandchildren. The way we expect the elderly to have no dreams and desires, no need for enjoyment and revelry— no need for anything more than a prayer room.

Hope and Faith are ‘punished’ by Lorraine, the young warden, for ‘flouting her authority’ and going off on their own. She restricts them to the confines of the Home the next time everyone else is taken on an outing. A greater humiliation, one that hit badly where it hurt. It hit their desire and their one chance to be out in the world, even if for a day.

And then, something beautiful happens. Faith’s young friend Chris, who is a helper at the old age home, decides to bring the world ‘in’ if they can’t go out into it. He makes a beach ‘setting’ for them right inside the Home.  He hands them glossy travel magazines with mesmerising pictures and makes them sit with their backs to the window, so that the wind ruffles their hair like it would do on an actual beach. Then he lights scented candles on the sideboard, and all over the walls of the room Chris puts up posters of beautiful islands, “islands seen from the air like flamenco dancers shaking their skirts; bare-chested, beautiful young men standing hip-deep among green vines.”  And then, much to Faith’s surprise, she begins to actually hear the ocean. 

“Now I could hear it; the soft hissh of water with a throatful of stones. Behind it, a burr of crickets, above me, the wind.”

How?

Because Chris has turned on a recording of ocean sounds in the Lounge recorder! He then proceeds to complete their experience by dipping Hope’s feet in a tub of water and pebbles, like one finds on a beach, and Faith’s in a tub of sand, “soft, dry, powdery sand that tickled my toes and made small crunching noises in my insteps.” He brings them tiny bits of “forbidden” delicacies to celebrate, and plays the piano for a long time until they nod off peacefully in their chairs, with the ocean whispering in their ears like Nature’s lullaby.

It’s remarkable what one can do with love and empathy and a little bit of imagination.

The story ends with these lines that tug at your heartstrings long, long after you’ve finished reading. “We went to bed early, Hope to smell the candles that Chris slipped in her bedside drawer, and I to read my brochures and dream of orange groves and strawberry daiquiries and plane rides and yachts,” says Faith. “Next week we can try Greece, I think. Or the Bahamas; Australia; Paris; New York… as Hope always says, travel broadens the mind.”

Faith and Hope never left my heart once I became acquainted with them. They made me see, for the first time, what it was like to grow old and fragile, after you’ve been young and strong. They made me also see how it’s easy, when you’re young and full of self-importance, to be dismissive of the elderly, dismissive of their nostalgia and their longing for a beautiful, familiar world that is now long gone.

The story of Hope and Faith very subtly and beautifully reveals how, in caring for the elderly, what’s important is that we do not grow patronising and high handed. That love cannot be love until it is layered with patience and respect.

And also, that no matter what the body’s age, every person has a child in their heart that deserves to have some fun once in a while, a child in their heart that deserves to have the freedom to whoop with joy.

Who’s watching your mess?


kitchen

Our cosy little two-bedroom flat high up in a tower has an open kitchen, like most others in Delhi/NCR. Whatever goes on in there is visible to everyone else, including the guests.

To the visiting relatives from our respective native towns this is blasphemy.

“Oh! You have an open kitchen! I seriously can’t stand those,” says a visiting lady.

She is one of those relatives on my ‘nice’ list and if this statement had come from anyone but her, I’d have taken it as an insult. This being her though, I laugh amiably.

She continues. “Everyone gets to see the clutter inside the kitchen! It’s so awkward and uncomfortable.” I laugh a bit more, for I am genuinely amused. I’d have contradicted her, but I can’t do it out of the respect I have for her. I know what she means though.

Sajjad looks at me with a meaningful glance. He rarely ever contradicts relatives but every so often he will give me this fleeting glance to let me know he and I are on the same side.

I know he loves open kitchens as much as I do—even more, to be honest. Even better, he will often talk dreamily of us having a home with an island kitchen—you know, the kind with high stools arranged round an ‘island’ countertop right in the centre of the room. He’s had this dream for a long time now, and he will always come up to me holding a magazine or a newspaper supplement in his hand, pointing to an advertisement of a gorgeous designer home with an island kitchen that is to die for. The sheer enthusiasm with which he shows me these glossy pictures, the confidence with which he promises me that one day we’ll have such a kitchen is absolutely endearing. It makes me laugh. But he also knows it’s not a certain kind of home that makes me happy. It’s the people I’m sharing it with.

On the subject of kitchens, though, I’d take an open one any day. I’d take the oneness of the open kitchen that merges it with the rest of the house, bringing it within the fold of family space, as opposed to a restricted, sweaty space where women alone are segregated.

The kitchen in my flat opens into the lobby, with the dining table visible directly from the cooking space. This dining table is more of a watering hole for the family—a place to sit and chat or read or write. So when Sajjad sits there reading the newspaper, or doing nothing but waiting for food to be served, we can chit chat across the kitchen and the lobby and hold entire conversations as the food is cooked. Sometimes he might come and start cooking alongside me. Or when he’s cooking and I’m at the dining table reading a book or writing one of my articles, we still feel like we’re in the same room, close to each other, and cooking becomes a family activity. My son is the one who utilises the open kitchen to its fullest—dragging his little chair close to the counter and standing on it to investigate the recipe every time something is being cooked. He is a regular little chef in the making, and roots ardently for his dad every time he sees the big man cooking.

An open kitchen makes the culinary space gender-neutral and inclusive somehow, welcoming the entire family with its open arms. The closed kitchens I’ve seen all my life, both at my mother’s house and at my in-laws’ place seem somehow designed to keep the kitchen a private, sacrosanct area. My impressions of them alternate between two extremes: sometimes an exclusive club meant for dominance by a few, at other times a ghetto meant for an underprivileged minority.

I’d rather not be in either of those.

As for the mess on display that our relative complained of, I am reminded of a statement by Adil Ahmad, founder of The Palace Collection and one of India’s best interior designers, whom I interviewed last year. His office was a riot of colours and objects as I walked into it, and this is how he described it: “Contrived Clutter.” A meticulous kind of mayhem.

He told me he was put off by homes that looked like showrooms when you entered them—homes that had no personality of their own. What he liked instead, were spaces that were “well lived”, spaces that said you had been on a journey. And journeys, as we all know, aren’t just made by road, rail or air. The kitchen is the living example of culinary maps charted out and journeys undertaken every day.

So if you have guests over today, for instance, and the kitchen is full of sights and smells  that speak of the journey you undertook to create that magic loaded onto the dining table, what’s wrong if they get a glimpse of it?

I suppose it is again connected with the differences in perception between this generation and the previous one. For them, it was very important that the messes and the chaos be pushed behind a curtain, and only a perfect façade put on display. For people like me, life is beautiful regardless of the clutter, for that is an equal part of who we are.

Messes are to be celebrated. They speak of a full life—a chaotic one, perhaps, but a real life. One that is filled with sounds of laughter and shrieks of glee— as opposed to the silence of a morgue. Celebrations, reunions are punctuated with noise and revelry. Loneliness is silent.

What’s a little mess on display compared to all of that shared joy?

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 43 (i): Someday you’ll be a mom-in-law, too


mum in law

Relationships that come as appendices to the main wedding clause are perhaps the trickiest ones on earth. You could argue that professional relationships are equally difficult, but if your boss turns insufferable—no matter how cushy the job—you can stick your tongue out at him/her one day and call it quits. No such exit clause available here.

When a daughter is born, very frequently your mind shifts to that time in the future when she would be taken from you by people who would claim her forever. You often wonder how that new world would treat her—and hence the extremely common blessing for girls: ‘Allah naseeb achha kare’, or ‘Saubhagyavati bhava’. May you be blessed with good fortune forever.

And though it is meant to be a blessing, it is a profoundly sad one. Ever wonder why we do not bless boys this way? Because everyone expects boys to be able to create their destiny. A woman, feeble creature that she is, is bound to her destiny forever.  And so, perhaps, if I had a daughter, I would have blessed her thus: “Allah tumhein apna naseeb banane ki quwwat de.” May you be blessed forever with the strength to make your own fortunes.

In fact, I don’t remember ever hearing my father bless me with a prayer for “achha naseeb”. On the contrary, what he repeatedly quoted to us, me and my sister, were these immortal lines from an Urdu couplet:

Khudi ko kar buland itna

Ki har taqdeer se pehle

Khuda bande se khud puche

Bata teri raza kya hai

(Elevate the self to such a height

That before your destiny is inscribed

Allah himself would ask his slave

What is it you would have me write?)

He would repeat this couplet day and night to hammer into us one single thought: we are the masters of our own destinies.

Nevertheless, he was a rare Indian parent, an exception to the norm—because the norm comprises of people wringing their hands in despair at her destiny the moment a daughter is born.

But now, tell me, when a son is born, does your mind wander to the time he’d be taken from you by another? A woman, a rival for his affections, an idol he will worship—much to your chagrin? I’m betting, no. Pardon me for generalising—it’s not a practice I’m fond of —but most Indian moms are so attached to their sons, they place them almost at the pedestal of ‘man in my life’. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not indicating some sort of Oedipal complex here. I’m talking of this—which was more prevalent in the previous generation than it is in ours, but it exists nonetheless:

The husbands were supposed to act superior to their wives—the whole ‘mardon ki shaan’ thing [The Man’s Pride] and not show their emotional side or the wives ‘would get too big for their boots’.  I actually know a person among my relatives who would tell his wife, “If I’m not criticising the dish you’ve cooked, it means you’ve cooked well.” Criticism or silence. Compliments be damned.

The woman, emotionally parched, unable to quench her thirst for approval and admiration, unable to express her physical desires for fear of being considered wanton, unable to find solace in the mere fulfilment of obligations, lives an unspeakable life of bottled frustration. And then, along comes the son. He loves what she cooks. Every son does. (Mine does, too.) And she finds herself showered with compliments. He is a baby. Babies express their love unhindered.

And then, slowly, as he grows up, he starts caring for her—for her happiness and her health. Sees his mother being verbally, emotionally, or even physically abused by either her husband or her in laws, and becomes that Man—the wall of support she always sought.  He becomes the mainstay of her life.

Then, of course, enters the other woman.

His wife. But he’s not the husband his father was.

He compliments his wife’s cooking, has eyes for her, cares about her well-being. And one day, he confronts his mom, taking the side of his wife—much like he had taken the side of his mother not so long ago.  And this woman, who had spent a major portion of her life fussing over her son—considering him her sole achievement, in the absence of all other avenues— feels cheated. Betrayed. For her to grudge the daughter in law’s happiness, then, is quite natural.

If you haven’t already, read Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things, and specifically go through the lines about Mammachi and her son Chacko. You’ll know what I mean.

Granted, all of this is rather dramatic, and not everyone had a life like that. But to varying degrees, most couples—small town, middle class, ‘Indian values’ type— fell within this range.  My father was an exceedingly romantic, mostly liberal guy who fed milk from bottles to his kids, changed their nappies and combed their hair for lice, frequently massaged his wife’s legs and back—something unheard of in his generation— because she suffered from a slipped disc and requested his wife to keep her hair loose down her back and her hands henna-painted at all times, because he loved to gaze at her beautiful self. He would take her out for a stroll by the river, and hire a cameraman to follow them and record their movements like a personalised romantic movie, while a chapraasi (man-servant) trailed behind them, holding the baby (me, one year old).

And this was in the year 1988.

But even then, my mother remembers being fairly intimidated by his quick temper in the early days of marriage, and watching, fascinated and thankful, as his temper completely mellowed down after I arrived:

“He would leave for office in a huff, angry over something, and be sure to not speak to me when he came back. But when you were born, and he came back still angry, he took one look at you and his anger evaporated. And I was so thankful for this angel in my life.”

Now this is a very loaded (offensive, too) statement, but I think this provided a major motivation for women to long for children.

I remember when I was pregnant and not very happy about it, my mum in law would reassure me saying: “Just wait till your son is born (the unborn baby is always a son for in-laws all over India). You will have a great pillar of support!”

What she could not understand, of course, was that I already had a pillar of support—my husband. Relationship dynamics had changed drastically over the previous generation. I already had a complete, fulfilling relationship; I didn’t necessarily need someone else to soften it.

But now, now that I am a mother myself, I often find myself sitting at the fence, wondering what lies on the other side. The side when I’ll be the dreaded law.

So when you are the mother of a son, tell me, do you ever wonder about the time you’ll have a daughter in law? More precisely, do you pause to consider what kind of mother-in-law you would be?

Because, to twist that line immortalised by Ekta Kapoor, the queen of soap operas: Kyunki Bahu Bhi Kabhi Saas Hogi.

The daughter-in-law, too, will be a mom-in-law someday.

 

(To be continued…)

Chapter 42 (ii): Village Life


village life

 

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

—- Charles H. Spurgeon

 

May 4, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What I am is desolate, suffocated and utterly trapped.

 

Chapter 42: In-laws and outlaws


May 3, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The worst part is they’re both correct.

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

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

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

A sureshot recipe for disaster.

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

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

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

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

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

I feel it. I feel it again.

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

loneliness

 

Chapter 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 36: How to create happiness —Part I


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

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

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

February 18, 2014

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

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

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

Snip-snip-snip.

And there goes the hair.

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

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

I’m going to gift myself a birthday fiesta.

In Kovalam, Kerala.

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

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

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

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

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

“Hmm..I think so…” he says slowly.

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

There’s a pause.

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

I sigh. It was worth a shot anyway.

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

“Kerala?”

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

“Hmm.” That word again. “I’ll come.”

Despite my demonstrations of indifference, my spirit surges.

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

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

“Okay.”

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

And they say women are hard to figure out.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter 32 (ii) The Addams Family — Train to Delhi


It is easier for a father to have children than for children to have a real father.

–Pope John XXIII

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My father was the kind of man who delighted in the asking of nonsensical questions. By me, of course. It assured him that his offspring was using her mind, probing at the world instead of taking it as given. So questions like, “Why is a mango called a mango?” were never answered with “Well, that’s just how it is.” They were answered with equally nonsensical, hilarious episodes created extempore by his fecund imagination.

“You see, when the British came to India they had no clue what a mango is,” he would begin, with a completely straight face. “And then one of their higher officials received a gift of a bushel of the best quality mangoes, which was brought to his room by a servant. The servant, while setting the bushel down, clumsily dropped a few and they rolled into a far corner. Irritated at the man’s clumsiness, the officer shouted at him, pointing at the dropped fruits: Man—Go!”

And he’d pause, eyes twinkling, to smile at me conspiratorially.

“The servant, of course, took this as the name of the fruit,” he would grin widely, “And so, my dear, ‘Mango’ got its name!”

I would break into squeals of delight, entirely aware of the answer being utter nonsense, but happily satisfied nonetheless— for I knew my question was nonsense, too. But this was two years before Google was even born, so you couldn’t just type in random questions and get perfectly logical answers to them. (In case you do want to know how the Mango got its name, you can just click here: http://www.skymetweather.com/content/lifestyle-and-culture/how-mango-got-its-name-interesting-facts-about-aam/)

But here’s one of his best answers by far, in response to my query: “Why is a ‘naao’ (boat) called a ‘naao’?”

“There were two friends who first made a boat to cross the river. No one had ever wanted to cross the waters before, and so they never knew what the thing was called. When they had reached the middle of the huge, wide river, they were spotted by some villagers on the other shore, who waved frantically at them. The villagers knew there was a storm brewing over the river and wanted to warn the men who’d be caught well before they reached the shore. So they waved vigorously, shouting at the men to stay back.

‘Naa Aaao!’ They shouted. Don’t Come Here!

‘Naa Aaao!’

But the men didn’t speak the same language. And so they inferred that the thing they’d made was a ‘Naao!’ and the villagers were cheering them for having created it!”

And I dissolved into peals of laughter.

The thing about these funny little stories was that they satiated a little heart’s yearning for an answer—any kind of answer, in the absence of the correct one. Far more importantly, though, they taught a curious 7 year old that no question—no matter how strange or nonsensical—ever had to be quashed. Questions were meant to be asked—and answered.

And above all, that life’s nothing without a sense of humour.

———————————————————-

 

Distance makes the heart grow fonder, they say.

Not if you’re running away.

Home was never home enough without my father in it. By the time I was in college, I found myself aching to be away, to cut myself off from the place that had sheltered me all those years. The cage is always safer, but the sky is irresistible.

My moment of freedom—a brief one—came for a month during my internship at one of India’s leading news dailies. I remember waking up that first day in my dank hostel room and whispering a prayer of thankfulness that I was here and not back home.

Later, when I started my first regular job as a journalist, it was always a thrill to go back , to the koel on the neem tree, the hibiscus flowers in the garden, the pink walls of my room and the bookshelves lining those walls. It was a pleasure to be back with family and catch up on all that we’d missed in each other’s lives. Sometimes I even ached for home, for the feeling of just flinging my shoes over with abandon. But it never ran so deep as to make me wish to go back. Delhi was my destiny, my ticket to freedom.

Every time Gomti, that ever-so-dependable train to Delhi, began slowing on the outers of New Delhi Railway Station, my mind switched on its background music.

“Yeh Dilli hai mere yaar… Bas Ishq Mohabbat Pyaar…”

And this is Delhi, my dear. Longing, Love, Amour…

And it was. Delhi was my amour.

India’s most polluted city, queen of traffic jams, rape capital of the country—call it what you may. To millions of small-town cage-breakers like me, Delhi is the place where dreams come true. Yes, you’d have heard that more often about Mumbai—the one with the glamour and star power. But Delhi is, shall we say, more inclined to the intellectual side. Of course, since I’ve never so much as smelt the Bombay air, I cannot really compare. But I will defend Delhi to the last of my pollution-plagued breath. Every time I sat in the women’s compartment of the Delhi Metro, I couldn’t help but smile incessantly, much to the astonishment of fellow commuters. But that’s exactly what I was — happy for no ostensible reason, except that here I was, sitting alone in a Delhi Metro compartment, like a stray cloud that can drift in any direction that catches its fancy.

And directions there were many —the bookshops that beckoned like Aladdin’s Cave, where you could sip on a lime soda, sprawl back on the couch and read one of those seductively beckoning paperbacks for as long as you pleased. Or just ogle at them lustfully and never have your fill. You could spend endless weekends exploring themed restaurants and actually have stuff like ‘Pizza-Parantha’. You could find a monument right around the corner—no matter which corner you turned, and you could sit in the gardens round India Gate doing nothing but sighing at the night sky.

I felt one with Delhi— enfolded in her embrace. The proverbial monarch of all I surveyed.

A cloud floating over the Qutub Minar.

Every day before I entered the gates of the newspaper office where I worked, songs from the adjoining music shop would gently waft their way over to me.

“Yaaron—Jee bhar ke jee le pal

Lagta hai aajkal

Daur apna aaega….

Yaaron—jo khud pe ho yaqeen

To zindagi haseen

Tujhe kal bulaega….

Hai Junoon.… hai junoon sa jeeney mein…

Hai junoon… hai junoon sa seeney mein….!”

 

“Hey mates! Live this moment now

For the day will be ours

And this era will bow down to us…

Hey mates! When you believe in yourself

The world is beautiful

And tomorrow beckons.

Let the passion rule your life!

Let the passion overflow your heart!”

[And may the force be with you, ahem.]

It would give me infinite pleasure, like the office building had clandestinely winked at me, as if the world were leading one grand cheer for me. It was my moment. The era that would belong to me. The passion overflowed my heart.

My mother would miss me immensely every time the song came on air, for it reminded her of me. But years later, the song would make her weep as she watched my battered, broken, bitter self— submerged in self-pity and pining for the life I’d loved. She would gaze helplessly at the shards of my soul sticking out at the edges, without the faintest idea what to do about it.

I had tasted one large slice of utopia before the pie had rudely been snatched from under my nose. Unable to cope, I kept reeling under shock, dumped right back into the bickering, boiling, rancid swamp of ceaseless family drama.

I was right back where I’d escaped from.

 

Chapter 32: The Addams Family – Part I


addams-family

In the 1990’s, when Cartoon Network was all the rage, one of my favourite TV shows was The Addams Family. They’re a quintessential horror family:

Gothic mother with an octopus-like slithering gait;
Super enthusiastic but crazy gothic father (eternally and passionately in love with his wife);
Poker -faced crazy daughter and horribly annoying monster son— both with a penchant for torture;
Frankenstein style butler;
Sneaky, explosive, shark-toothed Uncle; and
Motorcycle-riding, eerily-cackling, spell casting Granny.
Oh, and a dismembered walking hand for a pet.

Welcome, everyone, to The Addams Family.

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Grandma Bazooka is the Border Security Force in our household. Navy, Army, Air Force all rolled into one— no external power, no matter how strong or sneaky, can ever attack us and get away with it. She has her guns, missiles and bazookas forever directed at anyone who so much as wishes to harm a hair on our bodies. And her intelligence bureau is highly trained to keep an eye on all intruders.

Inside those borders, however, she can wreak major havoc. Military rule, so to speak.

Benevolent General of sorts, for you will be lavished with sumptuous delicacies, spoilt with beautiful gifts and tantalisingly exhibited—and promised— the heirlooms she would hand you at your wedding. But make no mistake, you will bear the brunt of that love in no small measure. You will be judged for every step you take, the tiniest of mistake you make, and though you will be encouraged to find your path, that path shall be strictly and unreservedly laid out for you—brick by brick, direction by direction. If she could have her own way—which she mostly doesn’t.

Ours was never an authoritarian household, so she couldn’t technically be a matriarch. To be honest, there’s no ‘Arch’ in our family—Patri, Matri or otherwise. We’re quite close to the definition of anarchy. Rebels all, to the core.

It wasn’t always so.

Before Papa died, mom was just a sweet, loving homemaker—well-read and intellectual but an ‘Indian woman’ nonetheless. I was a timid girl, brilliant in academics but quite a bit of a sissy. My sister was only two—so she just was. And my grandmother was an external force herself, encountered merely on occasions like birthdays and vacations.

And then the world as we knew it was no more.

In the beginning, our uncle—mother’s brother— lived with us. And then he got married and his wife was there, too. For us, it was like a normal, happy family again.

Like I’ve said before, our loss though greater in absolute terms—loss of a parent—was nothing compared to the loss experienced by our mom. We could create new fathers in our uncles, grandpas and whatever male relative that looked kindly upon us. For our mother, love was lost forever.

And then a few years down the line, my uncle’s family increased to four, and our house wasn’t big enough for everyone to fit in. They had to shift to another place—not too far off, yes, but then it was a separation, yet again.

Without a Patriarch to head the family, we escaped the trappings of the traditional Indian home structure, where the man’s word is final, and no one dare question it. And so we grew up quite like a crazy democracy—with the right to protest and the inalienable right to freedom of speech and expression—but squabbling all the way with progress often stuck in first gear.

We’re closer in the sense that we don’t feel obliged to maintain a persona in front of each other —as I’ve seen so often in small town families around me. But we also have significantly less peace and less direction. The best outcome of all this is that we have developed the faculty to think for ourselves and not blindly follow our forefathers and foremothers. The worst, of course, is that compromise never comes easily to us, with no semblance of sanity to our dawns and our dusks.

Into this kaleidoscope of crazies entered this man—this quiet unassuming man with his droll, Jughead-style sense of humour— like a sliver of sunlight in an unceasing storm.

There’s a huge Banyan tree right at the back of the auditorium in AMU Women’s College, underneath which I used to sit and read out poetry on the phone to him. Rabindra Nath Tagore. Gitanjali, Lover’s Gift, Crossing. Narrate to him stories of the books I was reading. Time Machine, Chitra, The God of Small Things. And sometimes, couplets from Ghalib. Or Mir.

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Women’s College, AMU: Front lawns

Ever wonder why trees are so often used in the backdrop of romances? Because trees are the poetry of the earth. They are the welling up and bubbling out of love from the earth’s heart— as shade and fruit and breath. Guardians and protectors. Preservers of love.

The weary heart always seeks refuge from the unending buffets of life . Asylum from the onslaught of accusatory screams and peristent, unresolved emotional clutter. And though I was an equally crazy member of the Addams Family, I desperately sought refuge from it too.

This man became my refuge. Noah’s Ark, with just me on it. And the promise of safer lands.