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.

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Chapter 43 (ii): Letter to my 60-year-old self


(Disclaimer: This post is not supposed to be a comment or judgement on anyone, it is merely a presentation of thoughts on how I’d like to see myself in the future.)

“Perhaps the world progresses not by maturing, but by being in a permanent state of adolescence, of thrilled discovery.”

― Julian Barnes, Levels of Life

About a year ago, when Richard Branson turned 65, he took on 65 challenges given by fans. Those challenges included writing a letter each to his 10, 25, 50 and 65-year-old selves. Interestingly, not one of those challengers asked him to write a letter to his older self—none went beyond 65, his age at the time. But why not?

Penning a letter to your older self would be far more fruitful than penning one to your younger self. Let me explain.

Writing to your younger self is like baking a cake for a dead person on their birthday—they can’t actually enjoy it (though you might feel good about doing it). In effect, it’s just an exercise in self-congratulation. You will never be 25 again—or 10 or 15—so there’s absolutely no point in giving advice to a non-existing person. In truth, these letters are written purely for the benefit of others—younger people, newer generation—so they may benefit from the wisdom of your years and all that you accumulated in experience, which is particularly pertinent when you’re a swashbuckling entrepreneur like Branson.

But as far as your own self goes, the exercise is completely futile. What would be more meaningful, I suppose, is to write a letter to your older self. Assuming that you stay alive till the date, it would be quite a revelation to know how your younger self saw the world, what she or he thought and experienced. Memory is a fickle lover—it plays tricks with your consciousness; it shows you past events coloured in the light that you’d like to see them in right now. But it would be infinitely interesting to know your real experience of that moment, as and when it happened. A few months ago, I happened to come across an email conversation with a friend of my college times, and I could neither recognise my own voice, nor did she recognise hers when I sent it to her. We had both forgotten so much of our younger selves from merely 10 years ago. So what makes you think you’d remember yourself correctly from 30 years ago?

That’s actually what a diary or a journal is for—recording your former self. But a journal is a record, not really advice per se. Giving advice to your older self might open up a whole new perspective. Perhaps, once you reach that age, it might enable you to see things from your children’s perspective—and lessen the inevitable generation gap. The acuity of youth is so badly discounted, and then you let it all slip away, turning into an exact replica of your forefathers and foremothers.

Which brings me back to myself— sitting on the fence, peering into the unknown future, thinking: Someday, I’ll be a mom-in-law too. And though there are numerous reasons for writing a letter to my older self, this one is as good as any. Here then, is my letter to my 60 year old self. 60, because I was 25 when my son was born and hopefully he’ll find himself someone to spend his life with by the time he’s 30, give or take a few. Here then is my strategy for the future. It may turn out to be completely unusable advice by the time I actually reach the said age, but it’s worth a shot anyway:

Romantic girl writing in a diary lying down outdoors

Dear 60-year-old me,

If you’re reading this you’ve managed to stay alive for six decades, which is no mean feat in itself. I’m sure you’re far wiser than me; you’ve experienced the vicissitudes of life in far greater measure. But I’m also quite sure that your memories of me have faded to a point where you see me only in sepia tint.

You’re standing at a great height now and can see a greater expanse. But since I’m standing lower than you, closer to the ground, I can see small things in much greater detail, with a lot more colourful vibrance. And I want you to never, ever lose the colours in your life. I don’t want you, 60-year-old me, to find your colours fading into grey like your hair would be for sure. Grey in the hair is a good thing, actually: it means you’ve got dual-toned hair without spending a dime at the beauty salon. But I’m hoping you would still be visiting the salon when you’re 60—don’t let yourself slide into dreary ‘sainthood’ just because your kid’s all grown up.

The reason I’m writing to you now is to remind you of how you were 30 years ago, and to remind you of what youth is like. So you can understand those who would be ‘new’ then, even as you’re slowly entering the ‘old’. Now, here’s my little secret to remaining close to your child—and especially to the woman that falls in love with your child: Don’t Grow Old.

You heard that right—Stay New.

Don’t you have heirlooms and jewellery and chandeliers and all, which never deteriorate no matter how “old” they technically get? They remain classy— vintage, so to speak. ‘Good as new’, don’t they say? But being vintage and remaining ‘good as new’ requires a lot of effort. And no, I’m not talking about trips to the salon—although those won’t hurt either.

The most important thing that needs to be kept as good as new is your mind, through careful maintenance and refurbishment. If you are to understand the ‘new’ people of your time, you will have to read and watch carefully the thoughts and ideas prevalent among the youth at the time, you’d need to be aware of the things they find entertaining and the things they find enthralling—as well as the evolving thought process— without being dismissive and judgemental of them. I can tell you for sure that they would be miles away from your own value system and interpretation of the world, but being dismissive or disparaging won’t help. In fact, you’d need to keep an open mind, for it may well be that the things you considered acceptable turn out to be truly outrageous—don’t forget that there was a time when slavery or sati or domestic violence all were considered acceptable. It won’t harm you to try and understand where your generation had been wrong, too.

You’d need to read as much contemporary literature of the time as you can, and watch contemporary movies and read/watch the news and be aware of events around you. You’d need, beyond anything, to listen to what your children are saying, analyse the things they say and discuss them along with your own ideas. If you feel they need guidance, discuss your ideas with them based on reason and sensibility, without resorting to the clichéd appeal: “in our times, my son…” or “when I was your age, my son…” I know for a fact that I absolutely resent being presented with these lines, and your son will resent them too—to say nothing of the woman he will share his life with.

The best approach is to find a middle ground— but only when it’s absolutely necessary. In most cases, children that have grown into adults can and should be able to take their own decisions, and the best approach for you as a parent is a hands-off approach. You raised your son to be an independent boy, so let him exercise that independence now, and let him take decisions together with his partner. If at all you need to offer advice, offer it in a positive manner—and preferably to the boy you raised, not to the girl raised in another family with possibly an entirely different set of ideas, values and lifestyles. You may not understand her at all at first, so it would be best to let the man she chose to live with handle all the sticky bits.

How else do you remain new? By adopting the gadgets and technology of the age you live in. I understand it wouldn’t be easy at all, for I can’t imagine what the technology would look like 30 years from now. But I need you to recall now, how difficult it was to first learn to cook. To first learn to drive. To first learn to bring up a baby. To first learn to manage in a big city all alone, after living your overprotected life in a small town. Everything is difficult for the first time, but you’ve mastered bigger things than a new-age gadget, so I’m expecting you to be interested in and using new age gadgets even now, when you’re 60. New age inventions will let you into the fresh world and you won’t feel left out. That’s going to be important, I think, as you get greyer in the hair.

What’s going to be even more important, dear 60-year-old-me, is to have other achievements, involvements and sources of joy than just your kids and grandkids. Believe me, that’s going to be crucial for your own happiness. That’s one of the reasons I find so much joy and pride in my writing—both personal and professional—and in my books and in my travel. If I were to centre my entire life round my son, and make him my only achievement in life, you would be the biggest sufferer, for sure enough that achievement—that son—would no longer need your mothering at 30, and find solace in another woman instead. I want you to be prepared for that, and to not make your son the focus of your life.

I don’t want you to base your entire happiness on events in his life either—his marriage and his kids, because the core of that happiness belongs to him; for you is only the periphery. If you’ll draw your entire happiness from his marriage and his kids or even his professional achievements, you’ll find yourself trying to control all those decisions in a way that makes you happy. If for instance, he chooses a profession or a girl that doesn’t fit your ideal you’ll feel betrayed because that was your only source of happiness. If he chooses to have/not have kids against your wishes, you’ll feel betrayed for you’d have concentrated your happiness only on them. For the sake of your sanity, your happiness and especially that of your son, draw your joy from things in your own life.

Set goals for your own self, goals unrelated to family. Goals for your own achievements, professional or otherwise. Don’t let your only skill be taking care of others, for then you’ll never be able to let your son behave like a grown up. Worse, you’ll even begin expecting your daughter-in-law to act like a ‘mom’ to your son—which is a fatal mistake.

Instead of expecting your kids and grandkids to return the favours you did for them and make you happy, construct your own happiness around you. Stay in touch with friends and visit them. Join a book club or some such community where you have other people to share your days with. Don’t make family the only focus of your life. Make a list of books you’d like to read now, make a bucket list of places you’d like to travel. Yes, I said travel. Just because elderly people in India aren’t expected to travel anywhere except for pilgrimages doesn’t mean that elderly people from other countries don’t pack up their bags and globetrot once they’re retired!

In fact, just imagine how big an opportunity this is, for travel as well as for romance.

Your son is all grown up and has a family of his own. You finally have the house all to yourself and your man. Isn’t that a delicious thought? You could just take your cue from the grey in your hair: grey is sexy. Don’t believe me? Just ask all those screaming fans of Fifty Shades of Grey.

So go all out and plan vacations, explore the world, try new things and have fun. Age is no bar for adventure—and young people anyway would like more enthusiastic elders around! Plus, when you’re having fun in your own life, you won’t grudge all the fun that your daughter in law would be having in hers.

Yes, you heard me. That’s what generally causes a lot of heartburn to mum in laws: “Hamne to kabhi aisa nahi kiya!”

‘We never used to do this, tsk tsk.’

When in truth what they’re really thinking is: “Kaash hamne bhi aisa kiya hota!”

‘Wish we could have done this too!”

You better believe it.

And yes, when your son becomes a father himself, try and understand that it’s his turn at parenting. You’ve had yours when you were bringing him up. So you let his wife and him bring up their kid their own way. Suggestions are good, but be careful that they are worded positively and don’t turn into taunts of incompetency or laments of “aaj kal ki maaein… (oh, these modern mothers!)” If you want people to benefit from your experiences, try and be helpful instead of judgemental.

Of course, I understand that when you’re 60 you’ll be possessed by a fair bit of nostalgia for the world as you knew it, the life that you’ve lived. It’s only natural, and you’re only human. And it’s perfectly okay to be nostalgic, because youngsters like listening to stories of an age past, stories of a time they never knew. It offers them a doorway into a wondrous ancient world—ancient to them, at least.

It fascinates them, just as 16 year old me was fascinated by the stories of her maternal grandfather who watched the coronation of Queen Elizabeth on a large screen in a London street, or the story of how he defeated King Zahir Shah of Afghanistan in a clay pigeon shooting competition aboard the ship that took him to England.

Remember him, the gentleman that he was—how he quoted Ghalib and Meer and Dard and Iqbal with aplomb, but dearly loved Simba from The Lion King as well!  Remember the things he stood for— always ready with kind advice but never dismissive of the new world.

And yes, there will be so many times your kids will still need you, times when they’ll be at their most vulnerable. In those times, I hope you’ll be like your own mother in law—in the way she stood by 24-year-old you when you were pregnant and a complete mess, how she took care of you when you were struggling with a newborn, how she taught you things you never knew, and especially how she never once gloated on all these favours upon you.

And I also hope that you will possess some fraction of the steel that shows through your own mother’s nerves, in how she coped with a devastating personal tragedy, how she single-handedly brought up two headstrong girls and how she still retained her infinite kindness, humanity and generosity.

Dear 60-year-old me, I’m quite sure you’ll rise to meet all the challenges and responsibilities life brings your way, but I’m also hoping you’ll have fun in the process—finding moments to bathe in the rain, to explore a new land, to steal a kiss.

I’m hoping you’ll stay new forever.

With love,

Your inexperienced, short-tempered, impatient, naïve, idealistic 30-year-old self

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 41: The making and unmaking of lists


Lists

April 10, 2014

To the moon and back. We’ve been out of the stronghold of gravity, floating around in our obscure little patch of space, and now we’re back to the heavy zone, weighed down by the mass of our desires and our fears—pulled down by the gravity of facts.

Sajjad is back to the country that has laid claim upon him, and I—I am back to my state of inertia. Tagged to the end of this inertia, though, is a fresh promise: the visit visa. It’s a consolation prize of sorts, to make up for the dearth of actual victories. Instead of the family visa for all of us to live together in the promised land, this would be a two-month passageway to happiness. The next best thing. For two months, his son and I would get a chance to stay with him in the country that hosted him now. It wasn’t exactly what we’d been trying to get all this while, but it was something. Something to hold on to.

It’s just so doable, there isn’t the faintest edge of doubt attached. Sajjad is very sure of this—one more month of waiting and this time I’ll be with him in Oman. Briefly, yes, but I’ll be there. And so, despite having sworn myself off it, I start making a list.

Now, I’m a compulsive list maker. And I’ve made quite a few lists in the past two years. The first time: when there were no plans to move abroad and we were simply looking at another house to move into. I made an elaborate list of all the furniture and home appliances we’d be buying, because our first home had been a fully furnished one.

Oh, what joy lies in the making of lists!  A little bit of order in the disorderly world, or perhaps just a scatter-brain’s feeble attempt at putting things in one place. That it never bode well for me was a different matter altogether.

We did actually find the perfect house to rent, but right after I made my list, the home-owner just changed his mind and sold off the house instead! The second time I made my list was when my husband got his visa for Oman, and because I was blinded with optimism and expected to join him there in no more than two months—four months tops— very joyously I made a list of all the things I would be needing to take along with me. I should have just heeded the signs from the first time instead.

But after the second time, I’d sworn to myself I’d never make a list again. And yet, 10 months later, here I am, making another list. A small one—fit for a two-month visit. A cheerful list that speaks of hopes rising again, despite themselves, likes winged seeds rising with the wind, knowing well it’s not they who can fly.

And because there’s no stopping me once I get going, I make another list—of all the places we would visit in Muscat during those two months. Wadi Shab, Shatti Beach, Turtle Beach, Muttrah Corniche, Muttrah Souq, Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque… the attractions seem endless and choosing is quite a task. A deliciously thrilling task that reminds me of all those days we spent planning vacations together, fantasy vacations that involved island resorts, water villas, steaming Jacuzzis and reef explorations in Maldives. This was always our little thing, the thing we did together. Planning vacations—real or imagined.

We would get together and chart out every detail—from arrival to departure, accomodations to excursions and everything in between. That it might not materialise any time soon was inconsequential—what mattered was the exhilaration of planning those holidays together. What mattered was the satisfaction of knowing we would, one day, experience and explore the universe with our fingers intertwined. The image alone was heady enough.

But that was then, when we literally, physically had each other—to talk, to touch and hold. The images now are held together by a string of a promise, fragile and frayed, far too delicate for the combined weight of all the expectations banking upon it.

——————————————————

May 1, 2014

It was bound to happen—the weight was far too great. Another promise caves in on itself. Well, not really—it just keeps hanging in the air like all the others, neither here nor there.

“What’s the update, when do we go?” I ask, for the tenth time perhaps.

“The visit visa is still pending…” he replies briefly. “Sweetheart I’m fed up of waiting, too. Believe me, I’m trying…” his voice floats over the phone—weary, frustrated.

I sigh in exasperation. My faith is, at long last, beginning to wane—my unshaking belief that things are exactly as I’m being told. Of all the terrible things to happen to a relationship, the worst is the waning of trust. The slow, serpentine dance of doubt.

I say nothing, but my mind hardens into a resolve to find out the truth. I decide to text the only other person I know in Oman; let’s call him Mr Y, shall we? He’s the one who had first floated this offer to Sajjad, the offer of a new sugar-coated life.

I tell him, in plain words, that I need to know what exactly is going on there.

“Just tell me the truth, okay?” I text him. “Is the visit visa pending for approval still?”

“No. It’s not pending. It hasn’t been applied yet.”

I draw in a sharp breath—of anger, outrage. Calm down, I tell myself. Give the man some credit—he did give you the honest truth.

“Oh.” I text back. “Why?”

“We’ve suffered major losses in the business— a partner committed major fraud and made away with several crores from the coffers.” That wasn’t a surprise to me—I already knew about it. But that was a while ago, hadn’t they recovered from those losses yet, I wonder. Moreover, the promise for the visit visa was made to me after this whole fiasco, not before. I’m perplexed.

“House rents have gone up majorly in the past two years,” comes another text, before I can respond. But this wasn’t something you said two years ago when you invited us, I think. Again, another text hits me before I can reply.

“And any way, even if you were here, you’d be alone at home all day, wouldn’t you.”

Anger blooms in me. These were a far cry from things he said two years ago. My mind clouds over with rage and I think of a hundred stinging things to say. But I keep shut, for my husband’s sake—my confrontation-avoiding, conflict-hating husband.

Another text pops up: “Plus, think of all those women 10-15 years ago, whose husbands lived abroad. Just think how they coped.”

Now this is just a text and I can almost hear a righteous smirk.

This, from the man who promised my husband a gap of just 2-4 months before he could bring his family over permanently. This, from the man who knew that Sajjad’s first and most important condition was that his family would accompany him abroad—take it or leave it.

This is too much.

“Please don’t talk to me of what happened 15 years ago. 15 years ago you didn’t have a laptop and a cell phone. I dare you to spend 15 days without them right now.” I text back, cuttingly enough, I hope.

He backs off, then. “We’re working on it. Just a little more time.”

I fling my phone onto the bed. I don’t want to hear any more platitudes from this hypocrite of a man.

When Sajjad calls me next I come straight to the point and tell him I spoke to the guy. I give him a word by word record of the entire conversation. “There’s no visa pending.” I almost growl. “It hasn’t been applied at all.”

Silence.

Then: “But he told me it had been applied for…”

“Well, he lied to you,” I bark out.

Either that or he is lying to you now… the serpent raises its hood, venom dripping lustily, drop by drop. You can’t really tell, can you

I hold my head in my hands. My jaw hardens. My gaze falls at the list lying on one corner of the bed—the list of things I was supposed to be taking on my two-month trip. I snatch it up and rend it to pieces… strip by strip… square by square. Gather up the pieces and chuck them in the dustbin.

Not for the first time, I wonder when this will end.

Chapter 40: If life were made of moments


March 31, 2014

Another day of lazing in the beach view suite and feasting on the irresistible buffets.  Our travels, though, are being thoroughly affected by the lack of foresight in planning—we’ve booked all three meals at the resort: buffet breakfast, buffet lunch and buffet dinner. So by the time you’re through with breakfast and you think of going somewhere far for sightseeing, you start worrying about getting back in time for lunch. I mean—my man here starts worrying about it. The intriguing part is, he’s not one of those food obsessed guys that give their wives a tough time on a daily basis—we’ve never ever had ‘food issues’ in our home. But every time we finish breakfast and I talk about us getting out of the resort and actually exploring Kovalam and its periphery, I’m greeted by the same reply: “but we won’t be back in time for lunch then!” And when we’ve finished lunch, it’s pretty much the same again.

I’m beginning to suspect this has less to do with his overflowing love for the resort buffet than it has to do with his general weary, morose, dampened mood that I’m observing for the last 3 days. Despite the fact that he’s trying to be the good husband in every way possible, he still feels distant, closed.  I’m trying not to create a fuss about it, but I’m well aware that something’s definitely wrong. There’s a huge build-up of stress inside him, a mental fatigue that transfers to his body and makes him want to just relax and do nothing—find some semblance of peace and calm.

So it’s the beach again for us—and I really can’t complain.

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The waves are incredible today—far more than last evening. I wade into the shallows and sink down to my knees, letting the water envelop me. Wave after wave crashes upon me, sometimes right over my head!

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Hasan sits on one of the beach chairs, gazing at us nonplussed—his mom being buffeted by waves and his dad clicking away happily.  The little one isn’t so keen on the ocean himself—though he loves water, he’s not familiar with this strange kind: the one that’s alive and thrashing around, making a wild din. It scares him. But I don’t want him to be scared, I want him to get closer to the ocean, to touch and feel and smell and explore it. It’s just that parental instinct to have your children love the things that you love—they might not, but you at least want to try.

I walk over to my little boy, pick him up and propping him on my hip, get back into the waves. Since I’m standing with him in my arms, he can observe the ocean at a safe distance: surrounded but not engulfed.

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He’s still not very thrilled, but at least he’s interested and not bawling to get back to the shore. By and by, I put him down on the beach at the edge of the waves. He’s still weary of what perhaps seems to him a watery monster, and I try to distract him with the sand.

He is intrigued. Scoops up a fistful and looks at it with a frown of concentration.

Sajjad joins us, and soon we’re all making little sand hills. It’s a moment I couldn’t let slip away, and I pick up the camera to preserve it forever—this  moment of father-son bonding so precious to me and so utterly gratifying.

Sitting at the shore reminds you how much moments resemble grains of sand. You can gather them in your fists or gather them into little hills, but sure as daylight they’ll slip away. The tides of life reclaim them, leaving a blank canvas behind—just so you don’t stay caught up in one, just so you can create another.

Like the Baker’s Wife sings in Into The Woods:

“..Let the moment go

Don’t forget it for a moment though

Just remembering you’ve had an ‘and’

When you’re back to ‘or’

Makes the ‘or’ mean more

Than it did before…”

————————————————————–

After lunch we go up to the Skybar—which is just an open terrace during the day—and gaze down into the azure waters that turn an emerald green just where the cliffs jut out. The cliffs! They are an amazing sight, and you can just picture the mermaids coming up at night to sing their ocean songs.

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We stay there a long time, watching the waves crash over the cliffs, the rays of the sun on the vast blue further beyond, and the stray speedboat creating a path of foam. I peer out to the right and see a path straight from our section of the beach that leads to some more gorgeous cliffs that we could actually climb. “Hey, let’s go there!” I point enthusiastically. “It’s not far, and we could have a lovely walk all the way along the beach.”

“But the sun’s already on its way westward and by the time we actually reach the spot, it’ll almost be sunset. We won’t be able to take any decent pictures,” says he.

I’m beginning to get irritated now. “Oh, drat those pictures!” I fume, but then mellow down.  “Honey, who cares? Even if we don’t get one single decent photo, we’d at least have seen that beautiful place, we’d have experienced a magnificent sunset, we’d have been on those cliffs for real instead of just watching them from afar. I don’t care one bit about the pictures— let’s just take some memories instead.”

“Hmm…” he says, and that’s all.

The sun goes down into the sea as Sajjad, Hasan and I sit upon the small cliffs and the waves crash all around us. As the light wanes, the tide rises. We head back reluctantly, walking along the water but avoiding the now boisterous waves. The farther we inch to the side, the more the waves reach out to touch us. I laugh in delight. “Hey look!” I tell Sajjad. “The sea loves me as much as I love her! Every time I move my feet away from her, she leaps out to reach them again.”

Sajjad smiles a little. “Hmm…” he says again.

Not for the first time, I feel a sharp stab of annoyance at this extreme taciturnity.

I won’t get angry, I remind myself for the umpteenth time this vacation. I will not spend my time fighting. I’ll just be happy we’re here—all three of us.

I slip my hand into his and he holds it tightly. Perhaps some things just have to be understood without being said.

April 1, 2014

The day of departure dawns. And in the manner of all things whose realisation hits only when they’ve reached crisis point, I’m suddenly gripped by the fact that we’ve spent three days in Kerala without so much as a glimpse of the famed backwaters! Who goes to Paris and returns without visiting the Eiffel Tower? Who goes to Egypt and doesn’t see the Pyramids? Who returns from Agra without a sight of the Taj Mahal? Only the stupidest and laziest of people, like the ones that go to Kerala and return without experiencing the backwaters. Nope, I certainly wasn’t going to be one of them.

And so, after three days of just lazing around the beach and the suite, I decide I’m not leaving without a backwater cruise. As soon as we’re dressed I go up to the concierge and ask them about backwater cruises available. The cruises extend for two hours but we don’t have enough time. If we set off at 10 am, we reach the backwaters by 11, which leaves just enough time for a one hour cruise so we can get back to the hotel by 1 pm, and reach the airport by 1:30. Our flight departs at 3 p.m. Unsurprisingly, Sajjad isn’t charged up at all for the plan—he says that’s cutting it too close. But I’m adamant. Of all things that I’m guilty of being in my life, stupid I will not be.

So here we are in the backwaters of Poovar— aboard a small, covered motorboat, in the greenest of canals fenced in by lush, tall coconut palm and banana trees.

poovar_island_and_backwater

Image from keralatravelpal.com

As the boat chugs slowly across the mangroves into ever narrower meandering streams, even the sunlight turns emerald green, slipping in through the sieve of dense green foliage and reflected by the mysterious, somewhat intimidating murky green of the water. Fishing boats lie moored along the edges, and a coconut-selling boat passes us by.

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We take a left turn and enter a very narrow gully, hemmed in by emerald shrubs on both sides, the foliage almost cutting off the sunlight. The boatman abruptly cuts the motor, indicating that it’s the perfect spot for pictures.

I’m rather fed up, though, of this constant touristy fixation with clicking. We’re not there, it seems, to look and feel and drink it all in; everyone just appears to be travelling for the sole purpose of clicking pictures. Nope, not me.

We just get one customary click, and then ask the boatman to stay put.

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What we’d like more is to revel in the thrill of it all.

Complete silence envelops us except for the incessant cawing of crows and the calls of birds we can’t recognise. It’s a scene straight out of a Discovery Channel documentary on the Amazon River. Delicious thrills run up and down my spine, because I feel exactly like an explorer of the wild. Eyes wide with wonder and mouth agape in smiling fascination, I drink in my surroundings entirely.

Then my gaze falls on the man beside me, and for once, I am utterly satisfied.

Sajjad is as fascinated and mesmerised by it all as I am. Being too much the ‘Man’ though, his mouth isn’t open in amazement —but you can see he’s relishing it to the core.

“Isn’t this exactly like a documentary of the Amazon? Perhaps there’s an Anaconda slinking in the foliage all around,” I whisper conspiratorially to him, “…or maybe a huge croc just lurking under the boat…” I narrow my eyes dramatically for effect.

“Don’t you ever put your hand out to touch the water, then…” he replies with a wicked grin, playing along. We laugh.

The boatman turns on the engine again and the boat purrs out into a wider stream. That’s where we spot a Snake bird and a Brahminy Kite, and I regret not having a professional guide around for bird watching. These backwaters are definite bird-heaven of all sorts.

The stream widens, the boat turns and suddenly we’re into an estuary, where fresh water merges with salty waves. Up ahead the wide shoreline comes into view—we’ve reached another beach: The Golden Sands Beach.

True to its name, the sand here is an arresting shade of pure gold. But even more arresting are the absolutely gigantic waves smashing upon the shore. This is one beach with no gradual undulation into the depths; the earth just sinks abruptly into the ocean’s arms, like the exhausted lover seeking the comfort of familiar embrace. The dance of the ocean is an absolute delight to watch and though we’re standing far off to be very safe for our little one, the waves just close the distance with one mighty leap. The foam swirls around my ankles.

I could just stay here forever.

However, the very pragmatic man beside me reminds me that we’ve a flight due in a couple hours, so I must quit thinking of forever. Sigh.

We head back to the motorboat. The boatman takes us a little further, and presents us with a scene that can only be described as a microcosmic representation of the cultural and spiritual beauty of India. Up ahead is a statue of Jesus & Mary, standing majestically upon a cliff. And just a little beyond that, stands what is called the ‘Elephant Rock’—a natural rock jutting out of the estuary, looking remarkably like the outline of an elephant, which is a particularly revered and sacred animal among the Hindus of South India. Jesus and Mary, in the company of the Elephant Rock—particularly in an estuary— beautifully mirror the ethos of India. In a divinely beautiful spot on earth, where salt water and fresh water mix with utter ease, we find these symbols of the confluence of cultures and subcultures, religions and quests of faith. Can it get any more poetic than that?

“We have an hour and a half more of sights ahead of us. But I was instructed to take you back after the first hour. Do you want to move ahead, or would you like to turn back?” the boatman enquires.

I can’t believe how foolish I’ve been to wait for the last day before booking this cruise. Who knows what sights lay ahead of us? Who knows what paradise awaits us? But then something’s better than nothing I suppose—and if I hadn’t been a fair bit stubborn, we’d never have seen this little slice of heaven either. I feel pretty contented as we head back, from a different route this time, even as the boatman points out floating resort cabins at a distance and quite a few floating restaurants. How I longed to have lunch in one of these!

Driving back to the Leela takes us across the unbelievably green tropical paradise that is South Kerala, the rows upon rows of palm trees with their fringed tops framing the sky. All you can do is sit back and sigh or gape in wonder and delight. On the way we stop at a souvenir shop and I find something just perfect for my mantelpiece back home—a model of a typical ‘Snake Boat’ – a paddled war canoe used in the famous canoe boat races of Kerala—complete with tiny rowers all ready to zip to the finish line.

The rest of the hours slip by in mad frenzy as we race to make it in time for the flight—with a very annoyed and vexed man beside me, who detests nothing more in this world than being late.

As our flight from Thirvananthapuram takes off, we catch our last glimpse of the palm trees spreading out in a frilly emerald carpet beneath us, and a little off to the side the foamy blue of the Arabian Sea. God’s Own Country, as the tagline goes.

And now everything is obscured under a layer of clouds tinged golden with sunlight.

Ascent, descent. Isn’t life always like a plane journey? For a moment you’re soaring in the sky, and before you know it, you are back on earth. We’ve been soaring high for the past three days, between the sand and the sky, in a shimmering bubble of raptures and delight. And the time for descent has come at last. Time to return to the solid ground of everyday life, time to tread the earth complete with its rocks and thorns. But the fact that we’ve had these ‘moments’, that we experienced this bit of untouched bliss, lends a beam of light to whatever darkness that may lie ahead. It presents images of joy to relish, and hold onto, in all those moments when the mind clouds over with doubt, and grief and despair.

 

“Oh, if life were made of moments

Even now and then a bad one!

But if life were only moments

Then you’d never know you had one…

 

..Let the moment go

Don’t forget it for a moment though

Just remembering you’ve had an ‘and’

When you’re back to ‘or’

Makes the ‘or’ mean more

Than it did before…”

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