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


Meltdown

May 12, 2014

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

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

And then who should come barging in but Grandma Bazooka.

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

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

But not this time.

The hollering continues. My mind goes numb.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dr P, Psychologist/Counsellor.

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

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

I go right up to the door.

Locked. Just my luck.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To be in the darkest levels of life.

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Chapter 31: Because life never stands still


babysteps

September 1, 2013

Almost every couple I have seen values their first child’s first birthday as one of the most important events in their lives, and it’s fittingly celebrated— perhaps even a little over the top— with great pomp and show. Like the first wedding anniversary, the first birthday of your child is one of those fist-bumping, high-fiving, “we did it!” moments that you share, revelling in the fact that you made it this far through a life-altering change, and did a pretty good job of it, too.

I am, perhaps, the world’s only mother who doesn’t want to celebrate her first child’s first birthday. At all.

I had been waiting for this day. Imagining it. Replaying it in my mind. Over and over again.

“Hasan’s first Birthday!” I had been thinking all this while “It will be so wonderful to celebrate it together in Oman.”

I had been so sure. So full of energy, so full of hopes. And now, slowly, reality was spreading its cold pallor over my heart. I did not want to celebrate anything, leave alone this first birthday that served as a mocking reminder of one whole year of my life just laid waste.

Hasan’s nani, his true mother for all purposes, has her heart set on it, of course. She makes it a point to remind me everyday: “You’re not his mother, I am. You’re just his nanny appointed to take care of him while I’m not at home.” And that statement is one of the high points of my everydays, because it warms my heart to see my mother with this little imp of a boy. He has wound her round his little finger.  And he has a perfectly hilarious name for her. Not nani, nanna, naniammi or any of the names we address our grandmas with. He calls her “Office.” Just that.  Office.

Why? Well, it’s simple, isn’t it: She goes to office everyday, so she’s ‘office’! Can’t argue with a child’s logic, can you?

It actually originated thus: Hasan was all of 10 months and already yakking away. (He may not have inherited his father’s Olympic walking skills, but he’s certainly inherited his mom’s talking ones.) And he began addressing his grandma with the perfectly innocuous ‘Nani.’ During the day, when she would be at work, Hasan would knock at the bolted door of her room, and ask me questioningly: Nani? And I would tell him, “Nani Office gayi hain,” which he interpreted not as NANI office gayi hain, but as NANI OFFICE gayi hain. So from Nani, she became ‘Nani Office’ and then the ‘Nani’ was dropped for convenience, and only ‘Office’ remained.

{Literal translation of the above Hindi lines: “Nani has gone to office” which Hasan interpreted as “Nani Office has gone.” Something to do with the Hindi sentence structure of Subject Object Verb, as opposed to the English structure of Subject Verb Object.}

And ‘Office’ cannot have enough of her little Noddy. He has filled that gaping void, that scary black hole in her heart left behind first by the death of her husband, and then by the death of her father. My grandfather passed away just this year, around the time Hasan was 4 months old.

I can see well that the Lord wanted me to be here for her. It isn’t about me all the time—this is about her sanity, about her shattered heart. I do see that. And yet, I can’t be happy about it.

Hasan’s youngest uncle—my brother in law— serves as a father figure for most of the birthday party, holding Hasan’s hand while cutting the cake, entertaining the kids and joking around. Hasan seems happy, he is intensely attached to his chachu.

And I… I am once again reminded of my childhood.

My sister and me, we often found— in various uncles and grandfathers— new fathers to fill our tiny hearts’ yearning. It was our mother who was doomed to be alone forever.

Oct 9, 2013

Another month, another milestone. Tomorrow is the third anniversary of my marriage.

As the days move ahead, time grows heavy, leaden. Refusing to pass. Hanging heavy upon the ceiling, watching me from the rotating blades of the fan.

Hanging dark and grey upon the sky.

Hope sits quietly in a dark corner.

7:00 pm

My father in law barges into my room, all smiles, and asks Hasan and me to come outside.

“There’s an amazing gift waiting for you outside!” he beams.

For one glorious moment, my spirits surge for I feel that Sajjad has flown down impromptu just to give me this surprise. I rush towards the door, and then a small voice in my head reminds me of all the eager anticipations of previous months that proved to be just huge let-downs. And I don’t want to end up that way again. I take a deep breath, calm myself, and move slowly ahead, hoping to take whatever it is with equanimity, sans extreme emotion of either kind.

I open the door. And there stands Sajjad.

The normal me, the impetuous, impulsive me would have erupted with joy at the sight of his face. Ironically, though, I have calmed myself so well that I am indifferent. I muster a smile broad enough to make him feel I am happy. But I feel angry at myself for ruining this moment.

Sometimes we are so scared of disappointment that we shut ourselves off from extreme joy. You know, that famous line—‘it is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.’ It is. It is indeed. To know a joy so pure, so unadulterated, to know an emotion that springs from the depth of your heart—to have been through all of it is worth the heartbreak.

When you are open to great joy, you are also vulnerable to great pain. But if you shut yourself off, you feel neither joy nor pain. And I, for one, do believe that joy is always worth the pain.

11: 40 pm

“Hey, I left my laptop back in the car,” Sajjad says suddenly. “Just let me get it out.”

“Okay.” I say. I suspect he has something up his sleeve.

And he does. He returns to the room with a beaming smile, a lovely bouquet in his hand.

“Happy Anniversary, sweetheart,” he says.

And it is. It is.

Oct 10, 2013

I’m wondering what Sajjad has planned for today. But generally, knowing him, I haven’t kept my hopes up high. However, he spends the entire morning and afternoon with his parents, and I am nowhere in the picture. I mean I am in the picture, of course, but when you’re meeting your guy after 5 months you want more than just sitting with his parents and listening to them talk.

I know they’re meeting their son after 5 months too. But again, I can’t reconcile myself to it. Over the past one year, I have found myself resenting my in laws more and more. And it is entirely undeserved.

When we were in Delhi, Sajjad and I used to make a trip to Aligarh every fortnight. I knew that was his parent-bonding time, and for those 48 hours we completely detached ourselves from each other. My folks live in the same city, so I used to go spend time with them, too. It was a perfect arrangement. But everything is haywire now.  After 5 months of being away, he has come home to both of us—to his wife and parents—and we’re both vying for his time. And because it’s our anniversary, I sort of expect my share to be larger, just this once.

Afternoon turns to evening and I’m hoping Sajjad will take me out for dinner. We do go out. But guess where? To buy new upholstery fabric for the sofa in my in-laws’ drawing room. Apparently, nothing is special today, it’s just another day.

And then my mom rings me up. “Listen, are you going out somewhere with Sajjad?”

“No mummy.” I tell her briefly.

“Then I’m taking you both out to dinner. To Fazle Kareem, that new restaurant you’ve been wanting to try so much.” She’s super enthusiastic. I feel a wave of warm feeling for my mother. And then go and tell Sajjad.

He nods, but first we need to go buy that sofa-fabric. Because no other day except the anniversary of our wedding is perfectly auspicious for buying upholstery, of course.

After one hour, we’ve bought nothing. Because nobody could come to a consensus.

We head back home. I’m waiting for Sajjad to inform his parents about our plans.

Nothing.

I glare at him. He’s immersed in his smartphone. I nudge his foot. He looks up at me blankly and asks “What?” I grit my teeth. And then my mom in law, who’s been watching this charade out of the corner of her eye, asks me what the matter is.

“Well…” I say hesitantly, “Mummy wants to take us both out to dinner.” And then, because I am super irritated, I blurt out, “But he won’t tell you anything of course. He will make ME say it every time.”

My mother in law laughs. She is a kind woman, generally cool about things. “Is that all?” she says. “Of course you should go. And it makes no difference whether he tells me or you tell me,” she smiles kindly at me. Yes, I know. But if you’re an Indian bahu you know how much easier it is for your husband to communicate things to your in-laws than it is for you. Doesn’t matter if they’re kind, sweet and everything. They’re still unpredictable, and you never know when your words might be met with a cold silence.

We do go out and celebrate… but I am confused.  I cannot fathom this man who has come all the way from another country to spend time with me, to spend with me the day that we were united body and soul, and then finds it absolutely appropriate to spend it buying sofa fabrics and being absorbed in his smartphone. Or maybe, I’m just being a ‘woman’, as men tend to say. Never satisfied.

Oct 13, 2013

Indira Gandhi National Airport, New Delhi

This is it. He’s going back. Again. Without us. Without me.

For the past five days, I had been putting it off—you know, thinking about this moment. I had been blindly telling myself that we’d fly off with him this time—happily into the sunset. And now, we’re here. At the airport. And he’s the only one flying off, once again. My father in law is trying to make this a happy farewell like last time; he’s clicking pics of us three together. But a lot has changed since last time. There’s none of the euphoric “it’s almost done!” feeling, none of the anticipatory glee. I can barely smile for the photographs.

Sajjad finally hugs his dad and his youngest brother, kisses Hasan, and for a very brief moment, looks into my eyes and holds my hand. For him to do this in front of his dad means a huge thing, since his family has impossibly strict codes about public displays of affection. You can’t hold your wife’s hand in the presence of elders. But he does that now, and I clutch it as tight as I can, for that one fleeting moment. And then I must let go.

I must let him go. The man who completes ‘us’, the one person who makes me feel like I am home.

I’ve been homeless for a year now.

We head back slowly to the car, and I can’t see where I am stepping. The future has clouded over, the path ahead is darkened, and blankly I step into the darkness, not knowing where I am going.  But go on one must, for this is life. It never stands still.

Chapter 30: The Olympic Baby


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

OB

Image Courtesy: The Times

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

August 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

November 2013

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

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

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

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

“He hasn’t been fed enough eggs.”

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

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

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

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

Why rush?

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

Chapter 26(ii):The unChinese curse


“May you live in interesting times.”

That’s a very famous Chinese Curse—famous everywhere except for China, that is.  Quite like the numerous things in which quoting ‘China’ becomes customary, because China is exotic with a mystic eastern air to it—and because ordinary people don’t really pay that much attention to it except for the jawdropping growth rates and bullet trains. And Kung Fu.

Here’s to the un-Chinese curse.

 

June 13, 2013

7 p.m.

Remember where we left off last time? Sajjad and I were sitting at a bench across the road from the lake, waiting for the rain to stop. (And it isn’t remotely as romantic as it sounds: the bench across the road does NOT face the lake, so we have our backs to it. With Hasan in one set of arms and a positively enormous baby-supplies bag in the other set, and two umbrellas balanced precariously between us three, we’re neither of us remotely inclined to crane our necks and gaze at the view behind. )

And now here we are, three hours later: decidedly distressed—barely shielded by an umbrella that seems flimsy as a leaf beside the three-hour-long relentless rain thundering down with palpable anger— standing by a traffic-clogged road waiting for the driver to pick us up, all the while bouncing an increasingly cranky, bawling baby. Mummy and Fatima are nowhere to be seen—probably still shopping at the Mall Road.

Another half hour and the car is here. Hasan has managed to fall asleep in his Baba’s arms, soothed at last by his Mamma’s lullabies. Perhaps that’s the reason why he’d been so irritable all this while: sleep. But a mother’s instinct tells me there’s something else too. A sleepy baby wouldn’t cry for almost all of one hour before he succumbs to rocking arms and lullabies—and refuse to take his bottle, too. The reason becomes clear enough when we reach the hotel. Hasan has a major—and I mean major—nappy rash, all courtesy of a severely runny stomach. His nappy didn’t appear soiled an hour ago, so it was probably stomach ache, or some such general unwell feeling that a poor 9-month-old can only communicate through wails and bawls.

The rain is still pouring down mercilessly. The heavens have flooded over, water crashing over the edges onto the mortal world. Just this corner of the world, that is. Heaven tipped to a side with all that weight.

It’s well past 9 pm, the rain shows no signs of abating, traffic is all choc-a-bloc and we have no clue where to find a doctor or a chemist shop. I call up Hasan’s old paediatrician in Delhi and she doesn’t pick up. There’s a mild probiotic that I’ve brought with me but that’s no match for the severe infection that he seems to have picked up. On hindsight, he was showing signs of a mildly upset stomach even when we’d arrived in Corbett. But it was mostly indiscernible and I’m more the stay-away-from antibiotics mom. Well, so much for that.

2 a.m.

The poor baby is in great pain. It’s the worst rash I’ve ever seen—and it’s only just the second time he’s ever had a rash. We spend a sleepless night full of baby-screams. A sleepless night is bad in itself, but the worst thing ever is to see the helpless little one—for whom you are personally responsible—suffer agonisingly. Am I a bad mother? Could I have done something differently? Was it because of the elephant-n-soother episode? Was I neglectful? Should I have acted on the very first signs?

Experience is only gained through the worst episodes.

June 14, 2016

The final day of our doomed vacation. And it still rains.

The Heavens really have ripped apart. The flow earthwards has slowed but is far from clamping down.

Around mid-day we depart for Aligarh. Hasan is a little better outwardly, though Sajjad and I are more the worse for wear. We have over eight hours of road journey ahead, and with the persistent rain it would take longer.

7: 30 p.m.

A mostly-uneventful journey has turned eventful as the rain-soaked universe stops us midway. The road is almost flooded and we see a huge SUV stuck in the water ahead. A ditch? Probably. Dead engine? Perhaps. No one can make out on the water-puffed road. The driver is apprehensive of taking our vehicle into the literally murky waters. But we can’t keep waiting there forever—and forever is what the rain-bearers seem to be aiming for.

Mummy’s lips start moving with fervently pronounced though inaudible Quranic verses. She’s the most devout of us all, her lips the very first that break open in prayer, no matter what the occasion.  I suppose Sajjad would get the distinction of being more of the sticking-to-the-religious-rule-book type, but when it comes to impromptu prayers spoken from the heart, mom tops us all. Well, here we are, engines revved up and sloshing through the muddy pool, with the odds stacked high in favour of our vehicle getting stranded right in the middle.

We beat the odds.

And reach Aligarh around 10 p.m.

Sigh of relief gets a whole new meaning.

 

June 15, 2016

Sajjad leaves for Delhi the next morning. (We’re still living in that weekend arrangement, in case you’ve forgotten.) Mom joins office too. There’s an extremely unwell little baby with me. And rather bizarrely, it’s still raining.

My grandmother, who lives with my mom, swears she has never heard a baby scream quite so agonisingly as this—and she’s brought up two of her own along with two of my mom’s.  The paediatrician from Delhi refuses to prescribe antibiotics until the stool test reports are here, which basically means two more days of this.

Panic.

Hasan’s cries are ripping my heart apart.

Panic. Lots of panic.

Rush to the local paediatrician, shielding Hasan from the unbelievably obstinate rain.

Doctor’s out of town. There’s a replacement doctor seeing his patients instead, who does prescribe an anti-biotic along with a local application ointment with much higher potency than the regular diaper-rash cream I’d been applying.

Every time the ointment makes contact with Hasan’s little bum, he lets out the most gut-wrenching, ear-splitting wail you could imagine. Wait—you can’t imagine. Another day of this and I take him to our family homeopath.

Turns out the painful skin-burning ointment was actually a treatment for piles. How wonderful.

It never rains but it pours.

 

June 16 2013

It never rains but it pours.

But this downpour is phenomenal. The entire mountainous region of Uttarakhand has been deluged by the most devastating flood in the country—“the country’s worst natural disaster since the Tsunami of 2004”, to quote Wikipedia. The North India Flood of June 2013. Attributed to cloudburst, and to the debris of the “building of dams upstream”, causing rivers to block up and then overflow.

“From 14 to 17 June 2013, the Indian state of Uttarakhand and adjoining areas received heavy rainfall, which was about 375% more than the benchmark rainfall during a normal monsoon.”

Don’t I know it—oh, don’t I know it.

“The main day of the flood is said to be on 16 June 2013.”

Exactly two days from when we left the ill-fated Uttarakhand mountainside.

For days the newspapers and news channels are crammed with reports of over 100,000 trapped tourists as well as pilgrims, as three of the four sacred Hindu Chhota Char Dhams fall in the lower ranges of the Himalayas.

Houses fall over. Bridges collapse. People die. The Indian Army, Air Force and Paramilitary forces put in all they have to get people out of the water’s wrath.

The nation is besieged.

My family and I all pray for the victims and survivors as well as the armed forces at each Namaz time each day.

And I, petty human that I am, can’t help thinking over and over: we’d been there two days ago.

My mother, my husband, my sister, my son. A handpicked selection of the crown jewels of my life.

Escaped by the skin of their teeth the ire of the great North India flood.

INTERESTING times indeed.

flood

 

 

 

 

Mothers are born first


This post is a break in the narration of my story. It is for a friend’s anguish, for the blurry little face of her dreams. For the baby-shaped hole in her universe.

B, my friend, was seven months pregnant when her baby’s heart stopped beating. Just like that. After carrying the little dream within her body for 7 whole months, after nurturing it with her blood and her flesh, after pouring her life force into that little heart, it just stopped beating.

And now, instead of the bump that she gave all her energy to—every living moment—there is a little baby-shaped hole in her heart.

“It seems all like a dream now, Zehra,” I can hear the anguish in her voice. Like a cloud, she means to say, a cool shadow that passed slowly by. “My baby was here… and now…”

I cannot tell her I understand. I do not know how it feels, because grief is like pain, you cannot know it until you’ve felt it yourself. And like pain, every sorrow—big or small—is different from the other. But I can hear her, and I know how that feels. I feel anguished just hearing her wounded voice. She doesn’t cry. It’s a tattered, distressed sound, like a silent wail. It’s the words. The tone of her voice.

“And it was a girl, Zehra. It was a girl!” she kept repeating. “Girls are supposed to be genetically stronger… they always have a better chance of making it out into the world…my little girl…”

Yes, I’ve studied that in my ‘abnormal psychology’ classes. And heard that in news reports. Female foetuses have a higher survival percentage than males. They have less chance of developing defects before birth. Less chance of the foetus getting aborted. There are numerous explanations for this, and many researches indicating this. We’ve known that for a long time; we read that and we gloated over how we girls were tougher.

But I never imagined this question to hang so in a broken heart.

It is a strange kind of loss… because you haven’t “known” the baby. You’ve not held her in your arms. You’ve not fed her, you’ve not bathed her, not crooned her to sleep. She never smiled or gurgled at you. And you still loved her with all your heart. Perhaps I can’t fathom the grief of losing one loved like that, but I know how it feels to love like that. To carry a heavy bag of dreams with you.

A child, as they say, gives birth to a mother… And yet, the child is only born when she takes her first breath. But a mother is born the moment a little speck begins pulsating in her body—a speck surrounded by her vital organs, a speck she protects where no one could. She is born the moment there is a swell of love inside her heart: a bulge that takes shape much before the outer one.

Mothers are born first.

And B, my dear, you will receive in much greater measure. That is our faith, and our prayer.

Chapter 22: Love in the Time of Nappies and Yowls


Make love not war, sang John Lennon. If only…

The world abounds with scare-mongers. Doomsday prophesies a la Nostradamus and shrieking banshees shocking the lights out of you a la Pan the Greek Goat-God. Everyone’s ready, hands crossed across chest, to let you know how terrible a place this world is, and how things just get worse as you get deeper. Have I been turning into one of those banshees here? I hope not, because here are some great things that do happen, and most people don’t mention them at all:

During my pregnancy, I read up a lot about the growing foetus, about beneficial exercises, about how to manage depressing thoughts. But I also read a lot of this: “Enjoy the romantic moments with your partner, because this is the last of your exclusive moments together…” and “You won’t have much physical desire left after the baby” and “Romance definitely takes a back seat as kids come into the picture.” Being the die-hard romantic that I am, the words sucked the life out of me, creating an ever-more-grudging mother.

Perhaps I grew up on too many fairy tales, but the essence of my being is love.

My editor, a colleague and I were once discussing a theory that humans are all driven by the desire for immortality: if not their own selves, then their name must live on forever. We were talking about the things that are most important to people, and my editor, who was of the opinion that it’s either money or family, claimed he could guess what mine was: Family.

Nope, I said, you’re wrong. Close, but wrong.

He was quite surprised, because he’s often heard me speaking of my mother.

“Then it must be God,” he said triumphantly, because he knew for sure that it wasn’t money.

“Wrong again,” I grinned, though I could understand why he made that assumption: I’m a spiritual preacher of sorts.

“Yourself!” exclaimed Kumar (my colleague), like he just hit the nail on the head.

“Hmm… close… you could say that,” I mused, “but not exactly.”

“Then what is it?” Kumar insisted, exasperated. “You must tell us!”

I became all secretive, smiling mysteriously.

“No, really. Tell us.”

“Okay,” I said. “It’s love.”

Haan, so that’s family,” the editor interjected immediately.

“No… It’s not family per se. It’s the man I love.”

“So then it’s children,” he insisted

“No. Definitely not children. Just the man I love.” I repeated emphatically.

“Just you and your man?” Kumar echoed, genuinely perplexed. “Like Adam and Eve?”

That made me laugh. “Yes, somewhat like that. Just love. Everything else comes second.”

(Folks back home might consider me selfish and amoral for this: considering your parents and family second to anyone or anything is almost a crime in our culture. But, this is the truth—laid bare for all your judgement, come who may.)

Cotton candy, hearts and candles. Dark clouds, sea-storm and thunder. Conquering the world together.

To not have romance in my life is to be sucked clean of blood, zombie-fied into blank bitterness.

And that’s why, when those banshees proclaimed the end of romance, I felt I was close to death. But here’s the thing: like all good things in life, love must also be worked upon; you need to work hard for romance too.

Before coming to Aligarh, for the first month of Hasan’s life—in Delhi—this is what I used to do: our baby slept in two hour bursts at night,and generally, exhausted moms are advised to use this time for catching up on their own sleep. I found a better use for that time, though: Sajjad and I watched movies on weekend nights—like we used to before the baby came along. It made life seem a little more continuous. I couldn’t make love yet—too injured for that— so we used to talk love. And then those little things that taste like love…

Aligarh was a lot more difficult, because the move upset the tiny tot, disrupted his routine and turned life into a general nightmare… compounded by the fact that Sajjad and I were together for only about a day and a half every week. But thank goodness for mothers that play cupid ! My mom ensured that she babysat Hasan a lot—especially during the weekends, so we could go out together. Half the nights she would keep him in her room, rocking him in the bouncer, giving us that silver lining…the moonlight behind the clouds…

One of my favourite post-baby-love episodes goes thus:

Sajjad and I are sitting in a restaurant, talking, laughing and holding hands. The waiter suddenly comes close to us, and beckoning to a private table in a dimly-lit corner of the restaurant, asks in a low voice if we’d like to sit there? Considering that in small-town India, the only people who ever sit in dimly-lit corners of any place are college love-birds, we were both left grinning from ear to ear!

But over and above any of this, we realised what makes love work when there’s three of you: You take the baby inside the two curves of the heart. ❤

We made caring for him an act of bonding; we made kissing him and cuddling him an extension of our love. The burps and gurgles became a reason to look at each other with joy. We took him along on our outings, even visiting the Qutub Minar once, with Hasan tucked securely in a ‘baby basket’– photographed by all tourists in the complex!

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The Baby-Basket: 10-day-old Hasan

The Baby-Basket: 10-day-old Hasan

Tucked in !

Peace!

Our baby isn’t an intrusion on our exclusivity; he just turns our love a richer shade of red. Yes, we do have to work harder to keep the colour from fading, but, as Jim’s dad tells Michelle in American Wedding, “It’s called making love ‘cause you have to make love work.”

And so you make love work amid nappies and yowls.

Chapter 21: Losing me


That love and hate can co-exist in the same place seems such a strange thing. But truth, as they say, is stranger than fiction.

December 2012

You would think that a couple of months would be enough for the body to recover from all the damage done during childbirth. But that’s the thing: Recovery requires rest. Loads and loads of rest, after the body has literally transformed into a live volcano. But, ironically, that is the one thing you never get.  The entire cycle of feeding, burping, changing nappy repeated over and over and over again; waking, sleeping, waking , sleeping ten times a night, night after night after night, is not just too much for the body but also quite enough to numb the mind.

I have depleted my stores of energy. The mere act of bathing my baby and then taking a bath exhausts me so much I just can’t step out of the house for the rest of the day. This sounds like an exaggeration, but it’s not. (Right now, two years down the line, it seems unreal to me too.) But then delivering a baby is as unreal a process as can be…

Unreality, thy name is motherhood.

And then, of course, the added burden of being with a baby but without a husband. On hindsight, I think that was my prime burden, because it made a parody of my marriage. I’d like to believe that the joy of having children is to have a real, live proof of the love you share with your significant other. It’s because you married someone and wanted a family with them that you decided to have babies. Not that because you wanted to have babies and bring them up that you got married. What was I doing here with this baby anyway, when the very reason for his existence wasn’t here?

There’s that sinking feeling of being trapped—in a role you never fancied much anyway. Of feeling exactly like a bonded laborer who has no life of her own… doing nothing that I really want to, unable to go out and have a social life, unable to be with the man I love, unable to spare a moment for my own self.

The more I think about it, the more I blame the baby.

At the risk of disgusting all my readers, I do admit that there were nights when after hours and hours of unsuccessful attempts to soothe the baby or get him to sleep, I wanted to slap him hard—yes, the three month-old—and hit him bad for turning my life into a living hell.

I didn’t, of course. Of that I can assure you.

I knew he was innocent, but more than anything else I knew that I could never ever face God if I hurt a little baby for things he didn’t even know of, let alone be responsible for.

There are times when fear of God is good for the sanity.

And love of God for responsibility.

From the start, to this day, I do feel that my role as a mother is a duty given by God. A baby given to me is not ‘for me’, really. He’s just an individual born into this world to fulfill his own special destiny and purpose. I am just the channel. I am the person entrusted with the task of showing him how to reach that potential; showing him how to differentiate good from bad and right from wrong. I am the one who has to prepare him for his own journey. His journey isn’t mine. Nor is he mine to claim later.

Whatever I did –or do—for him, was not for him—it was a fulfillment of my task as set by God. I just have to do my bit, in good faith.

Faith is a wonderful anchor when you risk losing you.