Why am I crying?


 

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“I hate this house!” the 5 year old declares in a huff, right after he is tucked into bed and the lights are turned off. I sigh. This isn’t the first time. I know the reason, but I still have to ask him the customary question.

“Why? Why do you hate this house?”

“There’s nothing here. I can’t have anything. No dogs, no rabbits, no birds, no fish. No garden. I hate it!” he exclaims with visible anger.

It’s the same every time. Each time we return from his grandma’s house, which has an entire family of cats, a garden teeming with birds and chameleons and glorious colourful insects—and two rabbits which are a new addition to the family. In my defence, we did try to keep the rabbit.

We bought the little black and white rabbit for our resident animal-whisperer who is fascinated by every creature in the animal kingdom—from cute, harmless ones like dogs, cats and goats to huge ferocious ones like sharks and crocodiles, and even the extinct kinds (dinosaurs and megalodons, which he often dreams of keeping as pets). And since we’re counting, let’s not forget the insects as well—spiders, crickets, ladybirds, grasshoppers. Whichever little guest happens to occasionally visit our apartment in this high rise tower.

Obviously, there was much joy and revelry when I brought home the rabbit, after persistent teary-eyed complaints of how horrible this house was, and how cruel we were to be inflicting a pet-less life on our offspring. At first, all was good. And then slowly, the charm began to wear off. A rabbit is not an expressive pet. It does not bark and it does not mew. It does not lunge enthusiastically at its owner, and it does not cuddle comfortably in the owner’s lap either. It cannot be allowed to roam around the house for then it would nibble down every single thing that stood in its path. (We had a first-hand experience of this when we became internet-less as the bunny chewed down the wi-fi cable.) And so, slowly, the joy of having a pet gave way to whines of, “What kind of a pet is this? This is a horrible pet! I want a dog!”

Despite this, things would still have worked out had it not been for our semi-nomadic lifestyle, which involves visiting our hometown as often as we can, along with attending every wedding that we can. There’s only so many times that your friends and neighbours would be willing to rabbit-sit for you for days, before it becomes an embarrassment even to ask them. And so we decided to leave the rabbit back at our hometown, at my mother’s house. They already had a menagerie of 7 cats; one little rabbit wouldn’t be a bother. And then my sister decided that the poor thing was lonely, so she got another little rabbit, a female one, for good furry company.

So it came to pass that our boy became pet-less once again. And every so often, just like today, he declares he hates the house. On other days, I remind him of all the reasons we can’t have a pet, I remind him of how cruel it is to imprison birds in a cage and lock up fish in a glass box. I remind him that we have free birds as pets, the pigeons who’ve been using our balcony as their nesting ground since the beginning of this year. On any other day, I would have said all this.

But not today.

Not today, because I’ve spent an angry evening wondering at the constant battle that motherhood is, at the constant fighting, nagging and tug-of-war that is woven inextricably into mealtimes, homework times, teeth brushing times and generally all those times when he is required to actually do something that is good for him. I’m angry and upset.  So when Hasan reiterates, “I hate this house!” I want to snap right back—“I hate motherhood!”

“I hate this thankless job where no matter what I do, it’s never enough. Never quite right. I hate all this non-stop surveillance and negotiation and threats and yelling. I hate having to deal with you.” That’s what I want to say, but I can’t say it aloud. I just lie down silently beside him, simmering within.

“Don’t come close to me!” He sulks some more. “Door hat jaiye.”  Get away! And proceeds to roll to the far end of the bed.

“Fine!” I reply huffily, turning my back to him and sulking in my own corner. “I won’t come near you at all.”

I’m upset. Not by what he said, no. He’s a little boy. His anger means nothing. But I’m upset that no matter what I do, I can’t seem to make my son happy. No matter how hard I try, he always has something to complain about. No matter what I do, I can never get things done on time, no matter what I do, I can never get things done without a fight. I continue to sulk.

Five minutes go by and I feel a hand on my arm.

“Mummy, turn this side, please. Don’t turn your back to me,” a little voice pleads from behind my back. I sigh. Then turn over, putting my arm on his body and holding him close to me.

“I love you so much but you don’t love me,” I say quietly, a little sadly.

“No, no! I didn’t mean I hate you! I just meant I hate this house.” He tries, in his 5-year-old way, to undo the damage.  I smile a little and hug him.

“I don’t know why I say these things! I don’t like it when I say them!  Main kyun kehta hun ye sab?” he’s almost agitated at himself.

“It’s okay, honey. Koi baat nahi.” I stroke his hair. “It’s alright. I understand.” And then I tell him, “I don’t like it either, when I hit you. I feel sad when I slap you or spank you in anger. I don’t want to do it at all.” I confess to him, sadly. He hugs me tighter.

A few minutes pass by in silence.

Then a little voice asks, “Mummy, mere aansu kyun nikal rahe hain?” Why do I have tears in my eyes?

Again, I’m not surprised. I am the mother of an emotional boy, and sometimes his eyes brim over without him being able to make sense of what exactly it is that’s making him sad.

This, for instance happened a few days ago: We were sitting together, and as I watched him while he played, I suddenly felt a deep surge of love. “You know Hasan, when you grow up, I’ll remember all these games you used to play, and the things you used to say.”

“Oh, don’t worry, I’ll be saying the same things even then,” he declares without even looking at me, busy in his toys. I burst out laughing at his comical reassurance.  But later that night, as we lie together in the darkness, he says to me quietly, perhaps a little sadly:

“Mummy, when I grow up, you will miss the things I do now?”

I’m surprised. I hadn’t thought he would pay so much attention to my statement, much less be thinking about it many hours later.

“Oh no, honey, I didn’t mean that I’d be thinking about them sadly, I meant I’d be remembering them happily, in a good way,” I hurriedly reassured him. “You know, the way I sometimes tell you about the things you did when you were a tiny baby. They won’t be sad memories, sweetheart. It will make me happy to think of them.”

“Oh,” he says, but his face is still crumpled. I can’t see him properly in the dark though, and now he asks, “Mummy, mere aansu kyun nikal rahe hain?

Mummy, why am I crying?

I’m quite astonished because my simple statement of remembering his childhood wasn’t supposed to carry so much gravity.

I hug him tight. “You tell me, beta. Tell me what’s making you sad. Tell me what are you thinking?”

And I get to hear a fascinating tale.

“Well, I was watching ‘Veer- The Robo Boy’ yesterday, and Veer’s grandfather is attacked by a chemical that reaches his brain. Dadaji (grandpa) faints then, and Veer is not able to wake him up..” he narrates, his voice breaking suddenly as begins to cry.

“Yes, and then?”

“Veer keeps trying to save his Dadaji. And he remembers the things from his childhood, how his Dadaji used to play with him and take care of him when he was a baby,” sobs my boy. “Veer is afraid his Dadaji will die…” The tears fall freely now.

And I understand.

My little boy has figured out the connection between memories and sadness.

How missing someone is an inherent part of grief. How we think of the past most often when we’re sad.  So when he heard his mother talking of ‘missing’ the things he does as a kid, he immediately made the connection to sadness. I had to explain to him then, how memories can make us happy as well, how we can think of the past not just in grief but in joy as well. He needed me to help make sense of all the new things he’d discovered and experienced, among them the newfound experience of empathy—being able to cry for a grief that’s not your own. Making sense of emotions and experiences is not easy even for adults, much less for 5-year-olds.

And so now, when he again asks me the question, “Mummy mere aansu kyun nikal rahe hain?”  he expects me to make sense of his feelings.

But a woman can’t always be just a mother at all times. She’s a human with her own feelings too. She isn’t always the guiding light and comforting cushion, she’s also a person with her own vulnerabilities.

“Mere bhi aansu nikal rahe hain,” I surprise myself by blurting this out to him. “I’m crying too.”

Suddenly, he’s very still. His voice is very alert. “Why? Why are you crying?”

“Because I hate yelling at you and beating you and I wish I never did it.”

He nods, very sagely. “Yes, just like I hate saying horrid things and I don’t wanna do it but I can’t stop myself.”

I’m surprised at my little boy and how much he understands.

“I’m sorry.” I say to him.

“I’m sorry, too.” He says, and we hug each other tight, before he drifts off to sleep.

I suppose we may be doing a good job together after all.

We’ll do just fine.

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It takes a village to raise a Mother


 

Recently, on a mothers’ group, someone posted an anonymous post, and it was a very distressed mother from the looks of it.

The mother was extremely upset—to the point of hitting her child, locking him up in the room and letting him cry himself to sleep—and the reason was that he “preferred” her mom-in-law over her. He followed his grandma around wherever she went but he didn’t do the same for his mom. The kid even followed his grandfather—her father in law—but just didn’t seem to care about his mom. It made her so furious that she refused to breast feed her child that day. And then she also spoke about how she had left a high paying job for the kid and she is not back in shape after having had a baby.

At first look people would judge this mother, calling her horrible and irresponsible and all sorts of insensitive things. Almost everyone was on the ‘side’ of the baby, little realising that the mother and the baby are always on the same side. When one is angry and hurt, the other cannot remain happy.

This post was a cry for help. This lady needs a lot of love and tons of hand holding and hugging—and more importantly, empathy.

Having been there myself—hitting my son and unintentionally taking my frustrations out on him—I truly, deeply feel for mothers who are so distressed.

The problem in the above case, the way it appears to be, is that the lady in question has many frustrations piling up one upon another. She is hurt and upset by the fact that she had to let go of a successful career, and she probably has major differences with her in-laws, so the idea of her son—whom she considers a part of her soul, and for whom she made major sacrifices—preferring those people over her, people whom she probably dislikes intensely, makes her feel unloved and defeated.

The lady didn’t speak of her husband, but I’m guessing there’s a lot of frustration there as well. If the husband were supportive and affectionate, she would find the love that she craved from him and not feel quite so possessive of her son. The boy in question is merely 2 years old.

This mother is perhaps a quintessential example of distressed moms in our society, who suffer intensely on account of a lack of love and appreciation. Lack of love makes us lonely and angry. Lack of love makes us bitter.

In addition this is also a showcase of the problem that ails women by and large, even unconsciously: having to let go of all your dreams for the sake of motherhood, and then attaching all those unfinished goals and unfulfilled expectations with your child.

People expect the mother to be mature, grown up and sacrificing and able to handle every problem even at the cost of her own wellness. That is too much pressure on a young woman, especially a first time mother, and especially one who had to let go of a successful career. People forget that the world of parenting is as new to a young mother as the world of people is new to the baby. The child and mother are both growing together, both learning to navigate in and make sense of an unknown environment, facing stresses they never faced before, coping in a high pressure world. The new mother is almost as vulnerable as the newborn. She needs to be taken care of and soothed and loved as much as the little baby—and yet she is the one responsible for the rearing and nurturing and keeping alive of one whole human being, while no one pays the scantest attention to her needs.

Inevitably, her pent up frustration pours out on the child. And then the world shames the mother for being cruel to her child, the world shames her for being incompetent, the world shames her for not being “mother enough”.

What’s to be done in this scenario?

Let me hark back to the famous statement: it takes a village to raise a child.

Now let me twist it a bit: It takes a village to raise a mother.

What we are used to is the idea of insta-mothers served up in 9 months with garnish on top. Mothers, on the contrary, are created over years and years; they grow and evolve and learn on the job. A mother is a human being first. She is an individual first. She has her own needs and desires and dreams and problems and expecting them to put everything aside and just focus on being a mother is downright cruel. It takes a village to raise a mother because when everyone chips in to ease the burden on her, only then can she be a happy woman and, by consequence, a happy mother.

Unhappy women do not make happy mothers. How can they? You can only give what you have in the first place, and if you have no joy in your heart, how can you share it with others?

It is the imperative therefore, of the entire village—the new age village that includes not just spouse, in laws, parents, friends but also bosses, co-workers and flexible workplaces—to raise the child and also raise the mother. Raise her happiness levels, raise her self-esteem and her self-worth so she does not have to live her life bearing only the burden of sacrifices.

In the case mentioned above, the mother is plagued with extreme insecurity related to her child, she is stressed by feelings of rejection that arise from her child following his grandparent about, “preferring” them over her.

Herein lies another major problem that I’ve talked about on several previous occasions: making your child your only source of joy and love in life, attaching all your dreams to him/her. It has happened for decades in previous generations— when women were deprived of love from every other source, focusing solely on the child—and still happens when women give up all their dreams for motherhood.

The child was not born to fulfil your expectations or fill the gaps in your soul. Every child is born with a destiny of his/her own, with a purpose in life to be fulfilled by him/her alone. Your children will not remain attached to you forever, they will—and they need to—become independent and find their way in life and find other attachments and people to love. It is important for them to have healthy relationships not just with grandparents but also siblings, friends, classmates, teachers, girlfriends/boyfriends, spouses, co-workers and so on. With each new relationship their circle will get bigger and you will naturally have to share more and more. How then will you find the strength to let go?

It is extremely important, therefore, for a mother to have other people to bond with—spouse, siblings, friends, co-workers, neighbours. Other sources of love and joy in life. And also to keep following one’s own dreams, perhaps a little more slowly than before, perhaps with some breaks, but keep following them nevertheless—to keep a sense of purpose and direction in life. To have other sources of achievements and fulfilment than just ‘parenting’.  Not only does it ease the misery of your heart, it will greatly ease the debilitating burden of expectations upon your child.

Lastly, but most importantly, when you’re under extreme stress, get help. Get professional help from a therapist or counsellor, or at least approach your closest friends and confidantes. You mental wellness is paramount, and approaching a psychologist/counsellor does not mean you are ‘mad’, any more than approaching a doctor means that you are disabled for life. (No offence to differently abled people.) It merely means that you’re facing a health issue at a certain point in time, and proper care and treatment will lead you to wellness once again.

To the lady who was facing those issues, if you happen to be reading this, let me first hug you. One big, squishy hug to let you know you are not alone. We’ve all been there, and it’s terrible, but trust me you’ll come out of this, and both you and your baby will be happy. You are loved, my dear, especially by all of us mothers out here. One big solidarity bump.

But one word of advice to you—and to all those mothers reading this.

Mothers, please put yourself first.

Yes, you heard that right. The world will tell you to put your baby first, put your family first, and some people will go to the lengths of calling you selfish if you dare to voice your own desires and any kind of ambition for yourself.

Don’t pay any attention to them.

Tune them out like static and ugly sounds from a bad radio. Turn them off like that hollering news anchor on TV (you know who I mean). Shut them down like the gaping smelly mouth of a toilet seat.

The child does not come first. The Mother comes first.

Mothers, please learn to value your sanity, your happiness and your dreams as well. And most of all learn to focus on your health and wellness, because that is crucial to happiness.

Relatives and family members, stop pressurising the woman to sacrifice everything for her child. Stop putting a halo atop the heads of mothers and turning them into martyrs.

Stop worshipping the kind of mom for whom ‘nothing is more important than her child’.

Everything has its due importance in life. Friends, family, work, ambition, children and yes, the self. The mother must not be pressurised to give up all of them and keep just one.

And yes, I’ll say it again to you— the mother must come first. Before you think of what’s best for the child, think of what’s best for the mother. Because unless she is in the best state of mental, physical and emotional wellness, the child cannot thrive.

Think of it this way: the mother is most important for the child’s well-being, and if anything bad were to happen to her, who would be most affected? The child. If you would not be functioning one hundred per cent healthy and happy, who would be most affected? Your child. So, for the sake of your child, put yourself first. Treat your health, wellness and happiness as paramount. That’s what I always tell my mother. If you don’t take care of yourself, who’s going to be there for us? Who will we turn to whenever we are down and out?

And that’s what I say to all mothers out there: For the sake of your children at least, take care of your own self.

For you must always remember, you can only give what you have.

Mom n Child

 

 

 

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.

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 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.