Chapter 37 (ii): Midnight at the beach


The Tides

 

29 March 2014

9:45 pm

The day’s not over yet, folks.

Just as I’m finishing up my dinner alone by the pool, the shuffle of feet makes me look up. The guys are back—the big one and the little one, the latter looking decidedly chastised. Sajjad comes and takes his seat beside me.

“What happened?” I ask, looking from one to the other, for they are both rather sombre.

“Well,” says Sajjad, “Hasan and I had a long chat about how his behaviour was completely unacceptable and why it is very, very bad to keep irritating mummy like that.” He looks sternly, meaningfully at the little boy who hangs his head in shame.

My mouth falls open in amazement and I gape at both of them, father and son. Has he really been having this stern “long chat” with this 15-month old boy, and has the boy really understood? By the looks of it, it seems he has! But then they’ve always shared this bond. When Hasan was only a month or two old, Sajjad would take the crying baby in his arms and speak to him directly, looking him in the eye. He would speak to him, not coochie-cooing like people usually do with babies, but speak gently, wisely, like you explain something important to another person. And the baby would stop crying and gape at his father, wide-eyed at first, and then with rapt attention. They really do understand each other.

And so, finally, we finish the dinner in peace, together at last, all three of us—sans tantrums, sans annoyance, sans bitterness. A moment of beauty is a joy forever.

 

10:30 pm

We’re back at the Suite and the little one is finally asleep. Standing at the terrace, I take in the silver-tinged waves in a frame of swaying palms trees, and I’m hit by an idea: why don’t we take a night stroll on the beach? Why wait till morning?

True, we’ve had a tough and tiring day, true we need to get some rest. But hey, it isn’t every day you come to Kerala, do you, and we have just 2 more days here.

“What are we gonna do with Hasan, though?” Sajjad looks at the boy sleeping on the bed.

“We’re going to put him in the baby stroller and wheel him all the way to the beach.” I smile triumphantly.

There’s a direct path just below our suite leading to The Leela’s private stretch of the beach, a sloping paved route on which we push the stroller now. Well, ‘we’ wouldn’t be the correct term, actually, because I queen it all the way to the beach and Sajjad obliges like a gentleman. Hasan sleeps peacefully, blissfully unaware of his surroundings—blissfully for us, that is!

A gateway leads to the shack-shaped beachside sea-food restaurant of the hotel—The Tides, as it’s called—and beyond that, the beach. We slip off our footwear and leave it at the edge of the sand. But now we have a little problem. It’s impossible to drag the baby stroller over the sand. My plan has just backfired. Nonplussed, I wrack my brains for a solution; we’ve come this far, we’re not going to just sit at the edge and watch from a distance. There’s a whole ocean waiting out there. And then I spot the hotel’s official guard standing nearby—a uniformed guard, because this is a private beach—and I have another idea. Walking over, I ask him if he would please keep an eye on our sleeping baby while we dip our feet in the sea for a bit. Of course, he smiles. No problem at all.

That seems to take care of our little one for a while, but we’re both more than a little apprehensive at leaving our baby there. Nevertheless, he is well within our field of view and we keep casting glances in that direction just to be doubly sure.

And now, the ocean. Dark, mysterious, foaming at the edges and stretching as far as the eye can see.  We stroll over to the edge and let the water cover our feet. Feels like heaven already. A bit of sand gives way from underneath our feet with each wave, shifting and shimmering like silk. We walk in farther until the water swirls around our calves—the waves are boisterous and splash right up to our waists. The shore is absolutely calm except for the ocean’s incessant sighs.

Slowly we walk back onto the sand and park ourselves on the beach chairs. The stars peer at us from every direction. We sit there drinking in the scents, the sounds and I savour the feeling of lying back on these deck chairs in silence, side by side. Silence that marks the ease of togetherness, silence that doesn’t hang heavy in the air. And yet, some part of him feels far away, some part that I can’t really pinpoint. I just hold his hand, and ask him nothing. We all need our spaces and our silences.

Hasan is still asleep when we walk over across the sand, and we thank the guard for his kindness. Casting our gazes back at the shore one last time, we begin the uphill climb.

It’s almost midnight. I look again at the ocean, and make a wish before the clock strikes twelve, before the magic ends.

All I ever wanted is right here before me. The only thing I want is for this to last forever.

Chapter 37: Candles, waves and truffle cakes


March 29, 2014

We’re on a connecting flight to Thiruvananthapuram, and it’s a very long one—6 hours. After the wearing off of the initial excitement at being in a new place with ever newer things to experience, Hasan has dozed off. The first two hours have been mostly peaceful, but now he wakes. We still have 2 more hours to go before we switch flights in Mumbai, and then two hours from there to our destination.

I’d come prepared for this, of course. The baby-bag is filled with new toys and picture books purchased especially to be sprung as surprises at just the right moment. What I hadn’t come prepared for is the level of possessiveness my baby has inherited from me. Not for the toys, no. For his dad.

Boys are usually seen to be more attached to their moms. My boy is an exception. Much before he set his tiny foot in this world, much before his tiny eyes opened to perceive his father’s face, my boy was responding to the sound of his father’s voice.

Scientifically speaking, babies in the womb begin to hear and respond to sounds as early as the second trimester. Initially they only detect low pitched sounds, so the earliest sounds your little one recognises are the grumbling in your belly, the whooshing of air in and out your lungs and yes, your heartbeat. There’s something so warm and gooey about learning that the first thing your baby learns is the sound of his momma’s beating heart.

By the time the little one reaches the third trimester, he can already recognise your voice and begin listening to things you say, read and sing to him. (Hence the recommendations to read out verses from the Holy Book.) But equally important, he can also hear other sounds from the environment, particularly ones that are loud and clear.  Studies of newborn behaviour have shown that babies get used to the sounds they hear often in the womb, and once born, respond more alertly and attentively to those.

But I can solemnly swear that my baby has responded to voices other than mine even before he was born.

Ever since we started feeling the movements in my belly, Sajjad and I noticed how hyper-active the kid was, kicking away with aplomb. Sometimes I’d feel four simultaneous kicks at once and we’d wonder how he was managing to bang on the “walls” with both hands and both feet. Sajjad would jokingly wonder if he was “constructing something” inside! Over time, though, I began to sense a strange pattern to the hyperactivity. It would occur mostly in the presence of his dad. The little guy’s movements would be steady and rhythmic throughout the day, but come evening and as soon as the big guy entered and greeted me with his deep, gruff baritone, the movements would go into joyous overdrive. Like a playful kitten frisking around with happiness, Little Hasan In The Womb would literally turn summersaults at the sound of his father’s voice.

I do suspect that my own excessive, obsessive attachment to his dad played no small role in this development.

One way or another, Little Hasan In The Womb developed an umbilical connect not just with his momma but with his baba, too. A connect that only grew stronger out of the womb; a connect that enthralled and fascinated me.

And later, also irritated me.

Right now on our plane to Kerala, every time I try to get comfortable and snuggle into his dad’s shoulder, he pushes my head off. When I give up the shoulder approach and content myself with holding his dad’s hand, he pushes my hand away too! We’re amazed at first, and infinitely amused.

Somewhere in my heart I know where he gets this from.

Parents hardly ever realise the things they pass on to their kids. Not just hair colour, eye colour, height or build, not even susceptibility to hereditary diseases. Parents pass on, inherently, unknowingly, traits they wouldn’t perhaps even acknowledge in themselves. Perhaps a bit of strong-headedness, a bit of over-attachment. A bit of greedy loving, with attention-seeking thrown in for good measure.

He may look like his dad, but his stubbornness is all mine.

Ultimately, though, there’s only so much amusement to be had in being prevented from holding your own husband’s hand on a holiday that you created, for your own benefit. But you sure can’t reason with a one-year-old, and I sigh and let him have dad all to himself. And occupy myself with gazing out the window.

Thirty minutes later, Hasan has decided aeroplane time is over. He reaches over to the window, begins feeling it around with his little fists and suddenly demands:

“Darwaza kholo! Baahar jaana hai!”

We chuckle. As do people sitting around us. For the poor kid, though, the situation is far from humorous, and he repeats his plea with increased urgency.

Open the door! Want to go out!

We try, in vain of course, to explain slowly that we’re way up in the sky—showing him clouds up ahead, and trees way down below. Yes, I know, he’s only one year old, for goodness sake, but you always need to try, right? Doesn’t mean trying always works.

The next two hours until we reach Mumbai, and then another two hours till we reach Trivandrum, are peppered with frequent remonstrations and tantrums to open the ‘door’ followed by frenetic efforts to involve him in picture books and musical toys.  It takes quite an effort to remember, as we finally descend from the airplane onto the tarmac, that we’re here on holiday. Seems like a battle mission instead, where you end up dropping dead from sheer exhaustion.

4:30 p.m.

Exhaustion makes way for elation as we descend from the Mercedes Minibus that brought in all of The Leela’s guests from the airport, and make a grand entry into coastal opulence.

The Leela Kovalam, here we are.

Leela 2

I’ve experienced some extremely gorgeous five star hotels and coastal resorts in my life, among them The Marriott at Dead Sea, Jordan,  Movenpick Resort at Aqaba— Jordan again; the Trident at Jaipur, and The Leela’s own luxuriant property at Goa. And yet, I fell for The Leela Kovalam at first sight, and fell hard. The resort possesses all the quaint charm of a mermaid home atop a cliff, elevated from its surroundings and wreathed in the ocean’s embrace.

Leela on the cliff

Our first glimpse of Kerala’s coastline had been on way to the hotel when the ocean suddenly burst into sight with a simple left turn, and welcomed us with rows upon rows of fishing boats rocking gently along the shore.

The Ocean is symphony to my soul. Passionate, unruly waves pull me towards them with all the enigmatic power of a lover from a previous incarnation. Every time I face the ocean its roar reverberates in every pore of my body,creating an inexplicable urge to walk straight ahead into the depths, savouring the feeling of being slowly submerged until I am no more separate from it. Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing suicidal about this. It’s an ancient, primeval mating urge, the desire to be destroyed only to unite with your lover—what the Sufi would term ‘fanaa’.

The ocean accompanies us all the way to the hotel and inside it, because The Leela’s most fascinating trait is its ability to bring the outside in. From the lobby to the restaurant, the infinity pool and everything in between, everywhere you look, the ocean is there for you to behold. You can’t step around in here without being conscious of the ocean’s massive embrace, and to top it all, our accommodation is the gorgeous Beach View Suite with its spectacular view, framed by blooming bougainvillea on the balcony.

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One look outside and I have forgotten the annoyance of the past 6 hours. Most literary descriptions of Heaven and Eden depict mountains, fruit orchards and flowing rivers. But if ever there’s going to be a Paradise for me, it would never be one that lacks an ocean.

———————–

7:00 p.m

After the calm, the storm

Back in Battle. The son decided, within about 30 minutes of arriving in the room, that he was in ‘displeased monarch’ mode, which would be kept on for another hour or so. Tantrums accompanied by non-stop wailing and of course, woe betide the woman that dares come close to his father! (He seems to have completely inherited his grandfather’s dislike for romantic displays.) Had I not got my hair cut right before this vacation, I think I might have pulled it all out in sheer desperation.

My sister in law calls to wish me Happy Birthday, and I am beside myself with indignation. Happy Birthday, indeed!

“Oh come on!”  I rant into the phone. “It’s been a whole 6 hour flight full of wailing and tantrums, and a lot more of it since we arrived. I think I’ve just laid a whole lot of my hard-earned money to waste…!”

She laughs at my comic indignation, while my attention is briefly diverted by the sound of the bell ringing at the door. Sajjad goes ahead to open it. Just as I am opening my mouth to rant further into the phone, a brilliant bouquet of blooming red roses appears before my eyes. Followed by a totally tempting, small but shiny glazed black truffle cake.

Everything else is forgotten.

I had asked for the cake in advance, but the roses are unexpected. I’ve just been given a birthday surprise by the hotel staff. Now that’s a first! I wrap up the call pronto, and we’re ready to celebrate.

The sight of the flowers and cake have calmed the kid and he watches, fascinated, as his dad lights up the candles. And then we all bask in the warm glow together.

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8 p.m.

Time to head down to the restaurant for dinner. As we step out from the elevator, an incredible sight awaits us: the entire lobby shimmers in whispering fairy light. Corridors, corners, niches all decked with floating candles casting glorious shadows, making you want to talk in hushed tones or just sit and sigh.

In a minute, we find out the reason for the hotel’s innovative lighting: they’re observing Earth Hour tonight. By delicious cosmic coincidence, on my birthday night.

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We move toward the restaurant and take a seat just by the pool, looking over farther onto the ocean, pitch black now. It’s an unbelievably lovely night.

I’m ravenous, and just as we are about to begin eating, the displeased monarch decides he would rather stand in the lobby watching candles. No problem, we tell him, go watch the candles and we’re watching you from here—our seat is at the very entrance and we’d have a good view of him. But wouldn’t you just know it, mumma MUST stand there in the lobby too, he insists. I do stand there with him for a few minutes in the flickering lights. But we can’t stand there endlessly, which is precisely what the little boy has decided. And he unleashes his determined wail, throwing yet another tantrum for mumma to keep standing there with him, watching candles for as long as he wants.

After one whole day of non-stop tantrums, I have reached the edge of my patience. Here I am, all the way from Aligarh, sitting beside a glorious pool in a splendid hotel, with the most scrumptious spread awaiting me in the most romantic ambience possible. And beyond that, much beyond that, I have a chance to share this blissful evening that I’ve fantasised about all my life, with the man I have so desperately yearned for all these months. And it’s being ruined completely.

Sajjad has been trying to assuage the little one, all in vain, and now he takes one look at my clenched teeth and gobbles down whatever’s on his plate, swoops up the bawling boy in his arms, and takes him away from the table. They stay a few moments in the lobby, and then turn a corner, and disappear. I’m left at the table to finish my dinner in peace. At least, I’m sure that’s what Sajjad had in mind by taking the boy away from here. But all of a sudden every morsel is bitter and my mouth is filled with an acrid taste.

I am alone again. After all these months of loneliness, bitterness and coping with a headstrong child, every new second tests my patience, every new moment spent alone pulls at my anger strings. I am suddenly reminded of all the reasons why I didn’t want a baby so soon. I’m reminded of our neighbour whose anniversary dinner was ruined by her bawling son. The bitter Mrs Hyde in me simmers dangerously close to the surface.

I gaze at the candle flickering on my table, at the faintly glimmering pool, and beyond that, at the ocean as black as the sky, flecked by slivers of moonlight.

Suddenly I remember the promise I made to myself: I will make this day fabulous, no matter what.

And I have. I made this day fabulous by deciding to come here, I made it fabulous by bringing my family here—here beside the ocean, here amid the candles. And Sajjad—he made it fabulous, too. He made it fabulous by his very presence.

The universe itself has made this fabulous, by soaking everything in the radiance of a thousand flames dancing together.

No, I will not ruin this by my anger, by the piling up of months of negativity. And if I’m dining alone, I will be happy alone.

I tilt my head back on the chair, close my eyes, take a deep breath. And smile.

“Happy Birthday girl,” I tell myself. “You did it.”

Candle light dinner

Chapter 36 (ii): How to create Happiness— Part II


March 28, 2014

1 p.m.

Gurgaon. The name literally means “jaggery village”, which you could, if you’re so inclined, also interpret as “sweet village.” (Alternative meanings from history make it “village of the teacher” or ‘Gurugram’ as it has recently been renamed—appropriately, if you think about it, because the teacher’s village could definitely give other places a lesson in ‘upgrading’ themselves.) Now, this sweet little village got lucky when the gods of construction (read real estate giants) decided to look kindly upon it. And so from simple desi jaggery (Gur), it went straight to donuts and macaroons and truffle pastry. The place is now recognised by its imposing glass-fronted, imaginatively-designed high-rise office buildings, malls dripping with luscious labels and swanky residences peopled with humans sporting the most perfectly straightened and artificially coloured hair and the most insanely expensive cars.

This is where I am today, and the reason I’m here is that a certain flight from Oman is due to arrive in a little over an hour. Yep, you guessed it. I’m here to receive my man at the airport. And at first light tomorrow, we’ll be heading to the airport again, this time to catch a flight to Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala.

I tell Hasan, all of 15 months, that we’d be seeing ‘Baba’ now. Of course he can say ‘Baba’. All kids can say Ba-ba, and mine is a born chatterer. At 15 months, he can speak rudimentary sentences that use about 4 words. Things like: “Bahar jaana hai.” (Want to go out.) “Khul nahi pa raha” (Can’t open it), “Baby so rahi hai” (the baby is asleep) and so on and so forth. So yes, of course, he can say Baba. But whether he can relate the words to the actual person remains to be seen. It’s been 5 months since he last saw his dad, which had also been for just 5 days after another gap of 5 months. And because we’ve had zero access to video calling, he hasn’t seen the man on screen either. I look at him, and in exactly four words, tell him, “Baba aa rahe hain.”

Baba is coming now.

3 p.m.

Indira Gandhi International Airport, New Delhi

From a long way off, I spot Sajjad in his grey, green and coral panelled t-shirt and dark glares. I cut across the crowds, deliberately moving in from behind. I want to surprise him the way he always surprised me—stepping quietly from behind and poking a finger in my waist. It always worked. I jumped hard each time, caught off-guard, before realising who it was that had “groped” me!

I poke a finger in his side now, and he jumps a little but swivels round and catches me quickly in the crook of his arm, pulling me briskly to his side. We laugh. “Where’s Hasan?” he asks, looking around. Hasan is just a few steps behind me, being carried by our driver.

Greedy woman that I am, I wanted this embrace to be mine first—not my son’s. But now, Sajjad holds his arms out expectantly. I wonder what the little one is going to do. The little one, though, has no such doubts. He wastes not a second in leaning over eagerly into his Baba’s arms, and once there, wraps his tiny arms around him. He remembers.

I see the smile of complete satisfaction on the young father’s face, and I am struck by how little thought I’ve given to what this man is facing out there. It’s not just me who’s been left alone. He is all alone out there, too. No wife, no child. No family. He has fathered a beautiful little boy just about a year ago, and all this time he’s been deprived of the chance to witness the baby’s milestones. The chance to hear his baby’s first word, to watch his baby’s first step, to hear those little squeals of delight and laugh at his innocent mischief.

I am struck by the realisation of this loneliness. But then I remember all those pictures of him dipping in hot water springs, walking along silver shores, feeding turtles and riding water scooters, and I can’t help but wonder why I must be the one carrying sole responsibility of childcare while he leads the “bachelor life”. I feel my own loneliness more deeply, more bitterly than any other. Light fades, darkness closes in.

As the car meanders through the lanes I glance sideways at his face, and it seems to be the face of a stranger, a man I do not know.

This is when I’m supposed to feel happy. This is when I usually feel happy. What I feel now, though, is just this: indifferent. Numb, the way your tongue is when the dentist injects anaesthesia in the gums. You can move it around but you can’t feel a thing.

7 p.m.

“Sajjad is unusually quiet…” observes my aunt, at whose place we’re staying right now. “No jokes, meagre conversation… he’s quite cheerful normally. What’s wrong?”

If only. If only I could know what on earth was going wrong. Even though the man is generally more of an introvert, he’s unusually morose today. Not in a persistently sulking kind of way, but in an absorbed-in-thought manner, feigning cheerfulness when asked. After all these years I have come to associate this with “something on his mind, but he’ll never tell you what.” Sigh.

What is it with husbands and their absolute fear of transparency? You never share your actual problems with your wife because you don’t want to “burden” her or make her “worry”, when in truth she would be more than happy to lend you a sympathetic ear and more than eager to help out in whatever way possible. What worries her more, ironically, is that you don’t trust the relationship enough to be frank and open about your problems, that you don’t consider her competent enough to support you or help you out. Most husbands think they’re protecting their wives this way, when in truth they’re just isolating them. If you’re a man reading this, know that in most cases, the biggest thing your wife wants is your time—and more than that, your trust.

If only. If only it were this easy to explain.

There is a pattern to this pre-occupied, intermittent gloom. He’s trying. He’s trying very hard to stay cheerful—and often succeeds, because after all, he’s back where he belongs. But then there are those tell-tale intervals of vacant, abrupt silence. Most markedly, the complete absence of his trademark quirky humour, his dry wit and the crazy imagination that would rival JK Rowling’s. All those quirks, the most endearing of his qualities, are missing. There’s no roughness in his demeanour; he’s more tender and loving than ever. But there’s a pensive edge to it all, like he can see something profoundly sad that you cannot see, and because you can’t see it, he can’t tell you what it is.

A terrible burden to bear alone.

But he’s not the only one with a burden. The piling up of days and nights has left me with more frayed edges than tolerable, and I am beginning to unravel at the seams. Inevitably, the eruption occurs.

10:30 pm

I’m in the guest room, putting our son to bed. Sajjad is upstairs, conversing with my uncle, and I stay awake a long time, waiting for him to come down. I can’t leave Hasan alone, for this room is two floors down, and if he woke up and cried, we wouldn’t even be able to hear him. The clock ticks steadily. I wait. And wait. The magma rises.

After five whole months we finally have alone time together, and all this man wants is casual chit-chat. The magma rises further.

I pick the sleeping kid (who promptly wakes) up in my arms, march up two flights of stairs, barge into the room, and blurt out something curt and snappish. My uncle is appalled and clueless. Sajjad looks blank and baffled. He has no idea what I’m going on about. The reason is simple: Earlier in the day, it had been decided we’d be sleeping in the room on the top floor, but post-dinner, the guest room on the lower floor had been cleared for us. The guy had somehow missed the post-dinner development, and even as I waited for him downstairs, he was actually waiting for me to get back upstairs.

Of course, within a minute my uncle realises what is actually going on, and speaks to me kindly, soothingly—at which point I just burst into tears.

Tears are cathartic. The rest of the night proceeds in harmony.

March 29, 2014

8 a.m.

It’s my birthday and we’re at the airport, all set to fly off to the coast.

As we enter through the glass gates, there’s a palpable change in the air. It gets lighter, fresher, easier to breathe — with a whole load of emotional magma suddenly cooling, crusting up and falling off both our shoulders. We’ve left the world, the real world with its punches and whiplashes somewhere behind, and entered a happier sphere, a sphere of airplanes and sand beaches and lighthouses and cliff-top resorts. A sphere with just the three of us, a happy little soap bubble so fragile yet so glorious with its kaleidoscopic shimmers. We hold each other’s hand and savour the bubble.

Sometimes, that’s how you create happiness— purposefully, when it’s not naturally abundant. That’s just one of the ways.

 

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Chapter 35: Lands without Lines


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A line: A straight continuous extent of zero thickness, that extends infinitely in both directions.

That’s what we were taught when we first learnt geometry. But the line in its pure form is always an abstraction, because the human existence is bound by beginnings and endings. Infinite, limitless existences confuse the human mind. The line segment and not the line therefore, is what suits human nature better. But given our expertise at aligning abstractions with everyday concreteness, we turn all line segments into a line. So you have telephone lines, electric lines, notebook lines, scratch lines, laugh lines, and the horrible bank lines. The humble, every day ‘line’ carries no semblance of infinity whatsoever, but we refuse to add the word segment to it. Doing so makes us feel better about our own segmented existence—makes us feel infinite as a line.

Despite that, the line segment is an enormously more productive entity than the limitless line itself. Why? Because the line segment connects two specific, finite points. Hundreds and thousands and millions of line segments connecting countless points. Connection is the greatest boon of life; it turns the planet into a network of heart and breath.

Like interconnected arteries, we pump blood into each other. Disconnected, the planet is a morgue.

And that’s why life itself needs a line— lifeline.

January 27, 2014

The worst part about someone you love being in a separate country on the planet is that you know so little about it.

Oman, apparently, is a country that rather detests visual lines. Don’t get me wrong, from what I’ve seen of the pictures Sajjad keeps sending me, Oman has breathtaking shore lines, steep hill lines, and impressively historical architecture lines. Nope, that’s not what I mean. What it blocks are video-calling lines. Skype, Viber, and rather ironically, Line.

Essentially, what I’m saying here is that for long-distance marriages (ugh, that word!) Oman likes to severe the lifeline. We’re scrounging around for life-support. WhatsApp chats and clicks, and very brief international calls. It’s never enough. How can it be, when you’ve loved, lived, breathed and for heaven’s sake made a baby together! Thoughts lose their tone in short messaging, time slows you down in typing—and don’t forget the bawling/snatching baby while you’re calling. Essentially, to be able to talk 10 minutes in peace, you should be sitting in the loo—and even then the baby’s bawling incessantly outside the door.

But that, perhaps, isn’t the biggest gulf in these conversations. There’s a continental gulf— a gulf of disillusion, a dread sea, a bay of delay.

“What’s the update on the family visa?” my favourite question.

“There are some… issues with the paperwork.” Always the same vague reply. “And I’m still struggling with the super tough driving test here.”

Considering that this guy has been driving cars—and I don’t mean remote controlled ones—since he was barely out of his shorts, this seems completely inconceivable.

You’re struggling with a driving test?”

“This isn’t India! The smallest wrong move gets you flunked. You have to change the gear precisely at the indicated speed, you have to remember who has the right of way, you cannot go slower than a certain speed, certain lanes are meant to be kept free for ambulances, certain lanes designated only for trucks and so on and so forth. We’re so used to lack of traffic laws here that the brain has to be completely reprogrammed. You have to unlearn everything you’ve learned.” He pauses, adding, “And importantly—this is a right hand traffic country—the steering wheel’s on the left.”

Uh-oh. That’s bad, really bad. Completely reconfiguring your driving sense.

“Oh…” I chew my lip. That still doesn’t explain why a driving licence is so crucial to me being there. I voice my doubts.

“Well,” he explains, “Oman has very limited public transport options. To be able to get around, you most definitely need a car. And with you and Hasan there, I don’t want to take any chances in case there’s an emergency.”

Hmm. That makes some sense, I reluctantly agree. But my Oman dreams are getting steadily replaced by apprehensions of all sorts— a land with blocked video calling, meagre public transport and a pronounced car culture. My heart gushes afresh with love for the Delhi Metro. Forget the Delhi Metro, my heart gushes afresh with love for the humble Aligarh Rickshaw too.

Sajjad is quick to assuage my fears. “You’re going to love it here,” he soothes me “Every place I go, everything I do, I just imagine you here with me, imagine us experiencing it together. Everything here is so pure and pollution free—I haven’t experienced the slightest ill health since I came. The food is absolutely unadulterated—and you should just taste the milk!”

Now that is a clever line, because adulterated food—milk in particular—has been a common concern for both of us ever since Hasan was born. Additionally, since the period from October to December each year is when Sajjad is plagued by bouts of seasonal asthma in India, the ‘not-falling-ill’ part is a masterstroke. I feel better already.

“And it’s really safe out here. People put up barbecues in the middle of nowhere—completely barren hillsides, even—and there’s not the slightest danger of being mugged or robbed or, you know, women’s safety concerns. I’m already dreaming of us having a barbecue once you’re here.”

Easier and easier. Better and better. The man has gained serious expertise in calming me down.

February 10, 2014

And finally, the day arrives. The man just cleared his driving test. We can officially drive around in Oman when I get there. There’s only one little problem, though. Nobody knows when I’m actually going to get there.

I cannot understand, for the life of me, what exactly is going on up there.

The company’s project for building culverts under a highway has gone down the drain—quite literally. The “vaadi”—valley—came down in a landslide halfway through the construction. Have they ever even heard of insurance, I ask? Apparently there’s been some tiny loop-hole in the policy that prevents it from covering this terrible setback. The company has been struck a major blow.

There’s only so much communication, and no more. Broken, dotted line segments that refuse to be entirely linked. Like a drawing in a children’s book that keeps asking you to join the dotted lines— without numbering them or ordering them in any way. So you keep trying and trying randomly with meaningless strokes to make sense of it and get the whole picture.

I see other, long distance couples, and they’re always—always—on the phone with each other, video calling, talking face to face. With no video calling available here, I am frustrated, unable to connect statements with expressions, unable to look him in the eye and get him down to explaining it all.

I’m beginning to wonder, now, if it’s really even worth it. Is it really worth sitting around, like the princess locked up in the farthest room of the tallest tower, waiting to be rescued? How long can one wait for a line to be cast, a line to grab on to when you’re drowning?

Isn’t there some way to cast your own line?

I can take other people’s advice and join Research at the University, working for my PhD. But that’s not the line taking me in a direction I want. It’s a line that keeps me right here, just “productively employed”. But there’s another line, pulling me in another direction. The one-year-old who’s completely dependent on me.

Shabnam, my godsend maid, has already escaped from the mad house—and who can blame her? I’ve been trying since years to escape this place myself. My mom’s already working full time, so if I opt to work full time too, who do I leave my son with? There’s always my firebrand Grandma Bazooka, of course, but a hyper-energetic, super-attention-seeking boy is too much for a septuagenarian to cope with all day—heck, I’m not even 30 and he drains the life out of me too. I could send him to his other grandparents’ home each day, but every time that happens he comes back with a completely soot-smudged face and blackened hands and I cannot stand the idea of him playing amid soot and cobwebs all day and then nobody caring a fig about washing his hands either. Paranoid mom syndrome. Inherited from my own mom, of course.

But then there’s another, equally important line segment, attached in another direction. My newspaper articles. From writing one column every week, I’ve gone up to writing two. That’s about eight to ten articles a month, and when you’re writing, researching is implicit. The work suits me perfectly; it’s what I find joy in. It fulfils me creatively, and I do not want to pursue any other thing professionally if it means letting this go.

So no, it isn’t that I don’t have anything “productive” to do—though heaven knows bringing up a tiny human being is productive enough in itself. No, it’s not that. The thing is that for me, as for countless other people in the universe, work cannot be a substitute for love. Creative fulfilment is separate from, despite being as important as, emotional fulfilment. Those who’re acquainted with Abraham Maslow’s Pyramid of Need know that the need for achievement is a separate part of self-actualisation than the need for affection, and the need for affection definitely comes first. The very basic needs occupy the base of the pyramid—so unless you have food, water, shelter and safety, you cannot really dream of achievements and freedom. And so too, unless your needs of love and belonging are met, you cannot completely rise to the phase of self-actualisation.

People who drown themselves in work often do it as a refuge from the feeling of being unloved. They seek refuge from a harsh world that perhaps refused them the love they deserved. But I’m not of those. I can’t ever stop seeking love.

And so amid all the line segments that keep pulling me in different directions, the one I seek is the one that most eludes me. Like the proverbial line of zero thickness stretching till infinity, the line carrying me to Oman has become an abstract geometric concept, one that can endlessly be visualised and theorised, but never morphs into an actual, tangible entity, a reality to be experienced.

My present, my future, my life as I know it, has all been turned into Pi.

An “irrational” quanity, whose “decimal representation never ends and never settles into a permanent repeating pattern.”

Infinitesimally approximated, never exact.

A life, quite literally, of Pi.

Do women want it less?


(Disclaimer: The following post contains views that might perhaps be offensive to you. Please proceed at your own risk. You are welcome to vent your disagreements at the bottom of the post.)

trr-twilight-2

I read a line, a perfectly innocuous, irrelevant line, inside the pages of the Samuel Johnson Prize winning H is for Hawk, which unintentionally set free a question bubbling in the cauldron of my mind— popping up, fizz-like, every now and then.  

The book is Helen’s memoir but also partly chronicles the life of T.H. White, author of the famous Arthurian Novels. In one place, Helen explains why White’s parents’ marriage went haywire: Constance Aston, Terence White’s mother, married Garrick White, British District Commissioner of Police in Bombay, not out of love but to escape her own mother’s jibes about how difficult it was getting, financially, to keep her with them. And then, writes Helen:

“The newly-weds travelled to India, and as soon as Terence was born, Constance refused to sleep with her husband any more. He took to drink and the marriage toppled into violence.”

 

Why do women want it less? When I say ‘it’, you immediately know what I’m talking about, because everyone knows it can’t be clothes, shoes or chocolates and flowers. It’s that other great thing that women have been accused of avoiding, losing interest in—and which men have been accused of being obsessed with and thinking about all day. And for the life of me, I couldn’t fathom why, because I could never relate to it. If you’ve been following this blog you’d remember when I was being wheeled out of the labour room after childbirth, my first thought was concern over how I’d be able to ‘do it’, now that my case-relevant body parts were significantly mauled. And heavens be praised, I’m not an exception. A vast number of women I know—close friends, acquaintances, neighbours and such– complain of the unfair categorisation of women’s libidos. And before we go any further, I’d like you to do a general Google search—like I did— for women frustrated with their husbands’ lack of libido; the unequal balance of desire where Women would like to have more. You’d be surprised by the number of complaints you’d find.

So where, how and why are there women who would like to avoid getting busy in bed? Plenty, it would seem, surprisingly to me.  Part of the answer I discovered while skimming through aforementioned chat groups of women who wanted more but didn’t get enough from their husbands. Sample this: A man engaged in one of those discussions rather proudly declared that married life isn’t all about sex, that bringing up children is the most important part of marriage, and his wife was ‘cured’ of her ‘abnormally high’ libido once she had children—after that she was okay with just having it twice or thrice a month.

How wonderful, Mr Pathetic.

I wanted to box that jerk’s ears. Buddy, did you ever give thought to the fact that child-rearing is becoming too taxing for your wife, so much so that exhaustion and frustration are killing her libido? Did you ever consider that you might help her in bringing up your children so she could relax a bit and get her desire back? Oh, I’m sorry I forgot—you thought it was ‘bad’ and ‘abnormal’ in the first place so you’re obviously glad she got rid of it. Congratulations.

As you can see, that’s part of the reason—overwork and exhaustion which, I can tell you with the absolute certainness of experience, murders a man’s libido too. But that’s not all. Let’s come back to Helen MacDonald’s mentioned-in-passing sentence from H is for Hawk, which hit me like a lightning bolt.

“The newly-weds travelled to India, and as soon as Terence was born, Constance refused to sleep with her husband any more. He took to drink and the marriage toppled into violence.”

Let me highlight the significant bit in case you missed it: As soon as Terence was born

Now, I’m no historian and know nearly nothing about Britain—or India—in the nineteenth century, but I do know that even now, hordes of women in the world have no access to fairly easily available birth control options—blame ignorance or patriarchy or both.

Constance Aston might or might not have had contraceptive option around her, but here’s my theory: Imagine a world where every time you had sex you were sure of getting pregnant. You’d soon develop an increasing aversion to the former for fear of the latter.

Even the highest libido would evaporate like morning dew in scorching June daylight.

You bet we’d be very, very sparing in partaking of the pleasures of a man if every single portion of pleasure would mean nine months of horrendous vomiting, killing backache, sometimes high blood pressure and high blood sugar—and in my case, thigh-aches and head-aches too—fainting spells and a super-horrid culmination into the unspeakable torture of ripping a human being out of your body

NO.THANK. YOU.

And that, obviously, is why men are always high on the ‘stuff’: they’d never have to worry about any of the above-mentioned consequences. Do it, forget it. And leave the woman to deal with it. Yes, I do know most men have to pay for the child’s upbringing. But not everyone does that either. And then again, a super wealthy man could bring up, oh say, 6 kids just fine. The super-wealthy woman would still have to rip them out of her body, one at a time.

So before I say a word more, let me glorify the universe for birth control. It just threw our fears out the window.

There. Now we can get back to where we were.

That, in a nutshell, is where I guess all of this comes from. The fear of the after-effects. But I’m forgetting one very crucial aspect here—the women who’re actually eager for motherhood but ironically not rooting so much for intimacy. The kind of women who don’t fear pregnancy but fear the act itself.

Because traditionally women had little access to information about physical intimacy, and men weren’t really taught to be considerate in bed, the entire experience would turn one-sided and unpleasant. And you wouldn’t be fool enough to keep wanting something that brought either pain or vacant numbness with it, rather than mindboggling ecstasy. The whole thing about having a high libido is that you enjoy the act, not go through the motions just for duty’s sake.

If you know anything of Carl Jung’s analytical psychology, you’d know that mental concepts—fear, mother, God and such—are passed on to future generations, brain cells to brain cells, much like inherited skin colour or hereditary disease.  It’s called the collective unconscious. So we have entire female generations inheriting the fear of sex, which is only countered if they live in an environment where women’s sexuality isn’t frowned upon. For the most part, that kind of environment is extremely hard to come by. Good girls don’t have naughty thoughts—that’s what you’re always taught.

The more you deny your sexuality, the better the good girl you are.

But you can stop thinking that— right now. The good girl and the naughty can merge miraculously in bed, with every good girl’s ‘naughty’ desperate to rip out and let the hair blow in the wind.

If you’re one of the guys who wishes his partner had a higher libido, darling, go check if she’s exhausted or overworked or generally unhappy with the way you’re doing it.

To put it bluntly, before you blame your partner for being frigid, consider the fact that you might be plain incompetent.

And if you’re a woman who thinks her libido is lower than a man’s—baby, think again. Are you still trying to be the good girl? There’s a whole multitude of places to be a good girl —just not your bedroom. That’s your space to let the naughty go wild.

And remember—birth control’s always freely available.

 

{IMPORTANT DECLARATION: This post absolutely does NOT endorse pre-marital—or extramarital— sex. All of the above refers to making love with your sacred wedded partner. Yep, you guessed it–that’s why Edward and Bella feature right at the top of this post.
And before you say it—no, this has nothing to do with concerns of women’s virginity; this applies equally to men. Yes, let me say it again. I don’t advocate premarital/extramarital sex for either MEN or women. 
(On hindsight, though, that sounds like a ridiculous kind of statement, because if you think all women should be virgins before marriage, but not all men, are you saying all men should be gay? Just askin’.)
To get to the point, though, the reason I don’t endorse either of the above stated acts of intimacy is that making love should be special. It’s the ultimate expression of self, the culmination of emotional and physical bonding. When you save nothing for your marriage, how do you experience the sacredness of it?  When lovemaking becomes casual, love itself becomes casual. Don’t do that to something so tender, so divine.
}

So now that we’ve got that out of the way, ladies what’re you waiting for?

Make like Nike and JUST DO IT!  😉

Chapter 33: Love vs Marriage


love-vs-marriage-pic

Dec 15, 2013

Nobody really understands.

The advice flows thick and fast; consoling words with all the soothing quality of Dettol burning on your wound—without the disinfectant effect. You are an aberration, a freak, a phenomenon unfathomable. They cannot figure you out. Why do you pine so for your husband? You have your child, after all. Isn’t that amazing?

And you cannot for a single moment understand why these are the very people who most vehemently advocate marriage. I mean, by the same logic, why was there even the need of a husband in the first place—you had your parents after all.

The idea of ‘at least you have your child’ is entirely baffling. Is the child a replacement of your life partner? Is one person ever a replacement of another? Is one relationship ever a replacement of another? Each person, each relationship holds its own unique place in the carefully stacked-up pyramid of life. You cannot extricate a single one from the structure without causing all others to trip over each other and come tumbling down in a heap.

But far worse are the annoyed, accusatory voices jabbing at you from all corners.

“Why do you need to keep harping on this?”

“Get a job, get something to occupy you, get your mind on other stuff.”

“These things happen.”

And to quote a relative: “Well, this is entirely normal. It’s been happening since the ages. Men go away for work and women stay at home and bring up the kids.” And these aren’t even the words of an old man (so you could pass them off as generation gap) but a young man, about my age.

It hurts.

Your pain, your anger, your rankling hollow loneliness. All of that is normal.

Because why should love be of any importance once you’re married?

Let me illustrate: why don’t you ever laugh at or feel annoyed with Romeo and Juliet? Shirin and Farhad? Even Elizabeth Bennett and Fitzwilliam Darcy? Why does the world find joy in eternal romances, why does your heart weep for star crossed lovers that couldn’t unite?

If this were a typical, pre-marriage love story, no-one would bat an eyelid over the self-destructive obsessiveness brought on by separation. Nobody questions Devdas and Paro, nobody questions Laila and Majnu. Come to think of it, nobody even questions Bella and Edward.  Because we all believe it’s quite alright to push the world aside and fight a desperate battle for love—as long as you’re not married to that love, of course.

Marriage is supposed to work as sanitiser, disinfectant, anti-inflammatory and anti-allergic combined. Whatever was in your system ought to be cleansed by now, and you must be engaged in a power tussle:  sharing lame husband/wife jokes with other friends, pining for singlehood and regretting the knot. So, of course, it becomes difficult to digest that a married couple could be immune to the anti-inflammatory shots and remain pulsating in a whirlwind of classically romantic madness.

No, I cannot just ‘let go and walk ahead’, ‘shake off the past and move into the future’. I cannot ‘find something else to focus upon’, to accept this as ‘part of life’ and just get on with it.

I refuse to focus on anything that declares this as an acceptable way to live. Refuse to settle for second best.

You might call me obstinate. But the world needs to know that it isn’t okay. That it is not supposed to be “what’s done.” That it shouldn’t be what’s done.

That I won’t ever consider it normal and buckle down to it. I would dig my heels in and refuse to budge. This was my protest.

It almost killed me.

Chapter 29: “You don’t need a husband, darling. You need a maid.”


Ch 29

January 5, 2013

Sitaram Bhartia Institute of Science and Research

Every three months after Hasan’s birth, I used to come to Delhi for a couple of days to get his vaccination done at the hospital where he was born. During my pregnancy we’d volunteered to be part of a research in which babies’ growth charts were tracked over the period of one year. So until Hasan turned one, every three months they assessed him for mental and physical development. Usually, Sajjad always accompanied me for vaccinations and such, but this one time he had an important meeting in office which he couldn’t skip. I had to go alone with the baby—and I was perfectly ok with that. (I don’t consider myself a damsel in distress, remember?)

What I hadn’t realised, though, was that it’s one thing to be an independent woman doing your stuff and travelling alone, and quite another to be a woman with a child travelling alone. To top it all, I was carrying Hasan in my arms with a hospital folder clutched in one hand. No baby stroller or anything to help me out. More fool me.
Things went pretty well until I dropped the folder while getting up from my seat and the jerk sitting next to me wouldn’t even pick it up. His wife who was nursing a baby in her lap nudged him twice, but he was way too busy with his cell phone to respond. I somehow managed to balance the baby against my shoulder, supported with one hand, and picked the folder up. The wife smiled apologetically at me. I smiled back. Not her fault that her husband was a total jerk.

After I got Hasan vaccinated, I had to get myself vaccinated too—against cervical cancer. Sonia, my doctor, had prescribed vaccination for it soon after Hasan’s birth. She, however, wasn’t available that day and a nurse came to inject me. Now let me remind you all that this was winter and getting a shot meant pulling up several layers of clothing—in my case an extra one because of my Abaya. So far, so good. But pulling all the sleeves down proved quite a challenge, and the baby who’d been lying quietly by the side so far just decided it’s time to start bawling. Amid all the pulling and the bawling, my hand smacked the folder from the table top onto the floor—with all its contents splattering out.

The door whooshed open and another woman entered the room with her baby—and a maid in tow. She took one look and rushed to help me out.

“Thanks so much,” I murmured gratefully. “It’s tough handling a little one alone! You see my husband had an important meeting today and he couldn’t accompany me here…” I was ashamed at being so flustered and clumsy.

The woman, cool as cucumber in her elegant dress and perfect hair, smiled at me sagely and pronounced a line I’ll never forget:

“You don’t need a husband, darling. You need a maid.”

 

August 1, 2013

It’s been about a fortnight since Sajjad left for Oman and now my mother has managed to arrange for me a ‘maid’. She isn’t really a maid but a live-in babysitter of sorts and a total godsend.

Respite had already reached me around the time Hasan turned 6 months old—the editor of the newspaper I was earlier working with had rang me up to ask if I’d like to write freelance for them.

Would a bee like honey? You wouldn’t have to ask, but if somebody’s asking I guess nothing could be better. So I had my Shelf Life column back, and I was doing literary reviews and criticisms once again. Ah, the relief. Like being submerged for so long you’re just about to give up…and then your head breaks surface and your lungs swell and sputter at the sheer ecstasy of taking in gulpfuls of air. Ahhhh…………..

But then writing a column every week, and the reading of book after book which the column required brought its own set of problems—not the least of which was a super-attention seeking baby.

Hasan has been born with the will, stubbornness and attention-seeking tactics of no other child I’ve seen. Let me elaborate.

Most mothers like to cover up with a dupatta or a piece of cloth while they’re nursing the baby, and I’ve seen them comfortably chatting up other family members while the baby suckles. Not little Highness Hasan. He will bawl his head off if I try to cover his face while feeding, he will kick up an awful fuss if I do not maintain absolute eye contact with him ALLL through the feeding, and he will petulantly refuse to drink altogether if I start conversing with someone else. When His Highness Hasan feeds, his mom dare not engage with someone else. Phew!

But wait, there’s more.

You cannot leave him alone for even a minute. Even when he was two months old, he would keep waking during his sleep and look around to ensure he wasn’t alone. If he was—woe unto the entire household. I was harrowed to the extent of not being able to even go to the loo in peace. If he was in a cradle he would show the least bit of interest in a toy—2 minutes tops, before bawling his head off on realising there was no one sitting by the side. The outcome of all this was that I spent all day sitting with him, totally at the mercy of his whims. His Royal Highness Hasan.

Several people advised me to let him cry for some time, and then he’d grow used to being alone. And I did try it—I went for a bath leaving him in his pram in the room. And he cried non-stop for 20 minutes flat, and was still crying when I came out.

After that, every time I was alone and had to take a bath I would wheel his pram right into the bathroom.

But at least I was having a bath—if I was at my in laws place I used to just pour water all over myself and rush out.

Is there any wonder I hated motherhood more times than I loved it?

And now I have this chance to write once again and I couldn’t let this baby walk all over this too. I try writing with him lying close-by, but  after six months a baby starts belly-crawling and rolling over and—wouldn’t you just know it—all that he wants is the laptop mommy is working on. Or the book she is reading. Or the pen she is writing with. And it has to be that very thing and no other.

And so I wanted to kiss Shabnam’s hands when she arrived. Yes, the maid.

Suddenly life feels so much lighter. I can read in peace, I can write in peace. I can bathe in peace; I can urinate and defecate in peace.

I have someone to alternate the nappy changing with. Or the bottle feeding with. And most of all, if I am unwell or dead tired, I have someone to call out groggily at, “Please make Hasan’s bottle this time… I’m dead”

I can go out now with Shabnam sharing the handling of Hasan. I can visit friends without Hasan bawling for attention, I can go shopping without wondering how on earth to do it with a baby in my arms. She has taken half the load off.

That half which is supposed to be shared by the baby’s father. My husband.

Somewhere in my head a voice echoes: “You don’t need a husband, darling. You need a maid.”

Yes, Yes and Yes. And No.

Yes you need a maid. But you don’t need a husband?

Yes, you only need a maid if all you require is a load-sharing caregiver for the child. Yes, you only need a maid if the child’s emotional, mental and physical development is not in the least bit affected by the near-constant absence of one parent.

And yes, you most certainly only need that maid if you’re a lesbian—assuming that the maid is one too, and she completely reciprocates your feelings.

Because if you’re just a heterosexual woman with a heterosexual woman’s needs and desires—including those pertaining to close companionship and emotional as well as physical warmth—you most definitely need that darned husband.

Or if you do not believe in the institution of marriage and are not dependent upon the marital bond for the fulfilment of your desires then I say, thumbs up to you. Go ahead, darling, you just need a maid.