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.

kovalam

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

trr-father

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.

addams-family-2

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.

wc

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.

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.

Chapter 30: The Olympic Baby


Latest research published in a reputable American journal reveals that babies that start walking as early as 9-10 months are 90% more likely than their peers to be extremely athletic, going on to win World Championships and at least one medal in the Olympic Games in their lifetime.

OB

Image Courtesy: The Times

You didn’t really believe that, did you? Because I just made it up. Though if you did, even for a second, then congratulations! You have already been successfully brainwashed into bringing up The Olympic Baby.

August 2013

Most people tell you that the hardest portion of bringing up a child is the first three months post the birth, before the baby learns to sleep all night through. Don’t you believe them. There’s another part of child-rearing giving this one a run for its money—a very, very close competitor: helping the toddler learn to walk. This has to be the most hair-raising part of the child’s development chart, especially when you live in a home like mine, which must surely be featured in the ‘Good Homes’ Magazine—just to warn everyone else what their home must NEVER look like.

(I haven’t properly introduced you to the Addams Family yet, have I? Well, that is for another time, another post.)

The state of my home has to do with my maternal family’s undying belief that everything must be within arm’s length of wherever you are. So for instance, you don’t have to walk all the way to a water cooler or jug or the fridge for water; every room has its own permanently situated jugs and water coolers. And first aid kits, and little boxes for spices, and little boxes for extra sugar, and salt and pepper shakers, and so on and so forth.

And every little bit of furniture and home décor items—even the broken ones—that we had possessed when our father was with us.

My mother has a bit of a Miss Havisham affliction—refusing to part with old, broken things, setting them up as reminders of an age long gone, an age she refuses to let go—clutching it desperately to her heart, and falling apart even as it all does, too.  It is chaos of the most carefully curated kind, the kind that you can’t change or set right, because someone’s heartbeat connects to it. Because what seems like chaos to you are the salvaged pieces of someone’s once-glorious, now-shattered love story.

But now, place a baby inside this carefully created chaos, a toddler learning to walk and curious about everything that seems so new and amazing—not to mention delicious, for this toddler just needs to put ev-e-ry thing in his mouth—the less it looks like food, the better. And you have a sure-shot recipe for disaster.

So I spend my days running from table to table, spice box to spice box, water jug to water jug, trying to keep my son from wrecking the house—or himself. At night he hollers for milk, and because milk is the only thing you can’t keep right inside the room, I rush out to the fridge to get it. By the time I begin measuring out the milk for rewarming, Hasan is crawling out the bed, and, standing up with the support of mesh-doors that open and shut through a spring, attempting to come out to me. And because he can’t yet handle a spring-door, he pushes it open but doesn’t know how to rush out before it bangs in his face. Which it always does. And so this results in me rushing to pick him up before he gets to the doors, rewarming the milk, measuring it and pouring it in his feeder, all with one hand—while the other hand holds him balanced firmly on my hip. At this rate, I could actually perform in a circus.

You might ask me this: why is he not in a crib? Well, for one, this is India—children sleep in their parents’ beds, and for another, Hasan’s crib has been put away for his own good. Let me explain: this boy is just about 11 months old, can’t walk on his own, only with support, but every single time he is put in the crib, he hoists himself to his full height, perches on his toes, and through some marvellous feat of gymnastics, manages to haul himself right over the edge, landing face down on the ground.

This happened a month ago: I have just had this brainwave and created my blog. I am sitting in the verandah, trying to type while Hasan sits in the crib near me and keeps grabbing at my laptop. I push the crib further away, and now he stretches out to grab the little spice box sitting on the verandah table. (Yes, there’s one here too.) I move the box away from his reach and focus on my writing.

Suddenly, there is silence. Guided by the ominous feeling involving a silent toddler, my head jerks up instinctively— and I dive through the air, just in time to catch him mid-flight over the crib’s edge: upside down with his head on my palm, inches away from that coveted spice box.

Now you know why the crib was discarded. And now you also know why it isn’t just the first three months that top the difficulty level.

November 2013

13 months. Hasan is 13 months old and still not completely able to walk without support. You’d think you’d have known by now the worst parts about the child learning to walk. But you haven’t. After all the running, balancing, diving and retrieving that you do day in and day out, this right here is the worst part of your child learning to walk—and turning out a slow learner:

“One year old and still can’t walk! What? His father was already walking without support at 10 months!”

“Oh his dad was 10 months old when he began to walk!”

“He hasn’t been given proper oil massages.”

“He hasn’t been fed enough eggs.”

“What! 13 months and can’t walk! His father was…..” Yes! Yes! I know! How many more people will inform me about it?

I know that his father was the poster boy of The Olympic Babies. You know, the kind of babies that are so smart they walk, talk, kick, jump, read, write—practically do everything so early they’re sure to win an Olympic Gold in their lifetime—or at least a Nobel Prize. So why don’t they?

We’ve become so accustomed to incentive-linked target achievement on the deadline, we treat our children the same way. Targets to be met on time. But then, this isn’t a recent phenomenon. This race for the Olympic Baby has been on for generations— go back farther and farther in time, and you’d find it intact. The ‘my baby is better than yours’ complex. The subtly malicious way, actually, to make a mother feel bad about her efforts. ‘My mothering is better than yours.’ That’s the real message, from every direction.

The only kind of mothering that’s truly better than the other is the one that creates a happy, confident baby. The baby that feels secure, protected and subconsciously aware of his parents’ belief in him—enough to try new mischiefs; the baby that has ample space to grow as slow or as fast as she likes. For a baby, the world is fascinating, sparkling, jaw-droppingly awesome. The faster the train hurtles along the tracks, the faster the scenery goes crashing past, and you miss out on all the glorious details of the splendid world outside.

Why rush?

The cherub that crawls through the garden finds all the hidden treasures…

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

DSC00111

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

4:00 PM

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

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

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


Fools walk in where angels fear to tread.

Welcome to the All Fools’ Family.

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

Elephant-back in the wild

Elephant-back in the wild :image my own

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

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

Image courtesy corbettnationalpark.in

Image courtesy corbettnationalpark.in

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

Gharial at Dhikala : Image courtesy dailymail.co.uk

Gharial at Dhikala

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

Image courtesy corbettnationalpark.in

Image courtesy corbettnationalpark.in

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

corbett_Safari

Image courtesy corbettnationalpark.in

corbett 4

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

Colonel Hathi

Colonel Hathi

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

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

But all of this is the distant, delicious past.

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

The lovely Radha

The lovely Radha

DSC00047

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

;)

😉 😉 😉