Chapter 38: Two’s a cuddle, three’s a huddle!


March 30, 2014

Breakfast at The Leela Kovalam is an elaborate, sumptuous affair, their buffet tables absolutely loaded with all kinds of delicacies, making you feel like Asterix and Obelix feasting in their Gaulish village. And you, of course, are not Asterix but Obelix, stuffing yourself silly. Now, I’ve been known for being a picky eater—a trait I annoyingly passed on to my son—but hotel buffet breakfasts trigger a metamorphosis of sorts. And here I am, combining South Indian Idli-Dosa-Sambhar-Vada and regular potato wedges with completely non-Indian croissants, muffins, gingerbread cakes and chocolate Danish pastry, with some mango yogurt thrown in for good measure. All of this finds its way to my plate, and no—I waste none of it. If I could have these breakfasts every day, I’d be twice my current size.

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As for the husband, he used to be a lot more cautious in his food choices. Now he’s more open to experimentation—not least because he inevitably finds himself at the receiving end of the exotic dishes I order on our vacations (halabi kebabs in a Lebanese restaurant on our honeymoon in Malaysia, which he never fails to remind me of), dishes that I invariably push aside after little more than two morsels. Being the kind of guy who can’t stand to see food wasted, he plies through them with utmost perseverance (and a fairly murderous look on his face).

Buffets are perfect in this regard, though. You can sample whatever catches your fancy without having to cope with dishfuls of something whose taste entirely belies its looks. But the buffet table isn’t the only thing taking our breath away at breakfast here. Morning light has drawn back the curtains from what the night had concealed. An endless stretch of the bluest blue, the sea merging with the sky, the waves twinkling merrily with sun-sparkle and the occasional speedboat weaving patterns of white foam on azure fabric. We’re not just having breakfast here; we’re having an entire ocean for breakfast.

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And for the first time since we arrived in Kerala, we’re having an extremely and utterly peaceful meal, without any interruptions and tantrums. The little monarch is still asleep as we’ve wheeled him to the restaurant in the baby stroller. (This stroller has proved to be the best investment of my life!) But once he’s awake—stroller or no stroller—we’re going to have to be at the mercy of the monarch’s whims and fancies. All things said and done, it’s not funny or amusing to have a moral policeman accompanying you all the time on vacation, putting his stern little foot down on each and every public display of affection. Oh, forget PDAs, this policeman stays right inside your freaking bedroom, for heaven’s sake! Talk about inheriting absolute desi genes from his father’s side.

Something needs to be done about this, and pronto.

Meanwhile, there are some other ‘pressing matters’ that need our attention. With breakfast finished, it’s time for us to head out for sightseeing. Only thing is, we’ve both stuffed ourselves so full we’ve got the exact same feeling one might observe in an over-fed, pampered tabby cat—curl up, purr and snooze like there’s no tomorrow. The idyllic, all-blue setting doesn’t help either—it lulls the senses into a hypnotic state of calm, a state where the world seems to have slowed down and paused, where nothing exists except the whispering sound of waves swaying somewhere far below.

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Oh well, we’re on holiday— we get to decide what we’d like to do. Cuddling up in the middle of the day in a super-soft, super squishy hotel bed with fluffy, downy pillows  and a heavenly view of the shoreline directly from the bed—that’s a pretty tantalising option, so we decide to take it. But that brings us back to problem number one: the anti-cupid who won’t let us snuggle or cuddle or get comfy at all.

And then suddenly, just like that, we have a lightbulb moment. We pull the little one close to us. With one hand, we hold his hand, and with the other, we hold each other’s. Mumma loves Hasan, and Mumma loves Baba too. Baba loves Hasan, and Baba loves Mumma too. And Hasan loves both Mumma and Baba. “We are a family,” we tell him slowly, smilingly. And then, very deliberately, we proceed to hug each other—a group hug, like a sportsmen’s huddle. The little one takes to it instantly, and we’re treated to excited, delighted little shrieks and gurgles as he discovers the joys of everyone hugging each other. This is the moment when we all laugh together. It’s also the moment when I realise, painfully, that this little boy has had so few moments with his small family, that he needs to be shown what it’s like—how we can love several people at the same time, in different ways, and it would not take away from our love for each other.

Children have an infinite, unfathomable ability to understand abstract concepts; all they need is to see the context. When they see it, they know it. They see a hug and they understand love, they see you offer a biscuit and they understand sharing. They see you smile and they understand joy, they see your face crumple and they know that is grief. When they see you hit and shout they understand violence, when they see you throw seeds to a bird they understand kindness.

Little Hasan was only a year old when he understood what ‘brave’ meant: it is to get up when you fall down and not worry about a small bruise. And now little Hasan has to slowly understand what ‘family’ means: it means more than just one person to love, more than just one person to hug. It means that love could be shared among everyone in a family, and it wouldn’t divide—only multiply.

And I, I have learnt something too. I have learnt that when you’re two, you cuddle. But when you’re three, you huddle.

Sometimes the best way to solve a problem is not to go through it, but around. Literally.

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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.

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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 28: Labours of Love


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Official trip to Jordan, April 2011–my work, my love

One of the major casualties of becoming a mother had been my work. The work that didn’t just mean money and prestige for me, it meant the world because it was my passion—an affair de coeur. I don’t write just because I get paid for it, I write because it is essential to my existence.

Like breathing. Like blinking.

Or even like taking a leak—because if you’re forced to hold it in for far too long, you might just die. And prisoners have actually been tortured to death that way—‘holding it in.’

This is exactly the same—I can’t hold it in…  I’d die. I write because once a thought, an idea has its hold upon my mind, I can neither eat nor sleep until I’ve committed it to pen and paper—or laptop, as the case may be. I remember sleeping beside my mom, huddled inside a quilt with a torch in the left hand, writing down poems that would snatch at my sleep and wouldn’t let go… like unruly sylphs that demanded to be put where they belonged… and well past midnight. This was when I was 12.

Now imagine loving something so entirely, so naturally—and then being paid to do it. Like a chocolate addict being paid to taste chocolates. But that’s not even the best part. The best part is that unlike writing privately in your diary, you write in a newspaper—a medium that’s being read and absorbed by hundreds and thousands. You have your name marked on top of what you write, smartly etched out in print, made eternal and exhibited for the world to see. You cannot imagine what that feels like…

Like the rush of first love, every single day.

And then to have this love wrenched from your grasp.

If you’ve been following this blog, you know that I had to let go of my job around the time I was three months pregnant. That took a pretty big toll on my mental well-being. A job like mine isn’t just a paycheck. It means eight hours of doing something just for your own satisfaction, eight hours of time spent with like-minded people, a circle of friends that have things in common with you. It means going out of the house every day, seeing the world and its minute changes every passing morrow. Meeting diverse people from diverse disciplines—not to mention star achievers in their respective fields— acquiring new knowledge every day. Travelling far and wide on official trips, seeing the world without spending a dime.  It also, emphatically, means having other people to have a good time with than just your husband.

Having no job means being cooped up at home, which puts unnecessary strain on your relationship with your partner, as you begin clamouring desperately for his attention. And that can’t be reciprocated because he has a job and other occupations of the mind, while the only company you have around are women whose conversation centres around either daily soaps or the daily maid—none of which are remotely interesting to the thinking woman. I felt utterly and completely alone, and then I realised I had to be involved in something constructive to stop myself slipping into actual depression. One of my friends suggested joining an MPhil programme in the Jamia Milia University, which was then just a 15-minute drive from my place. But the near-constant retching and throwing up had left me in absolutely no condition to go anywhere on a daily basis. Which was when I remembered the thing called National Eligibility Test. You qualify the NET and you’re eligible to be selected as a lecturer in any Central University in India. When I’d completed my Masters in Mass Communication I’d been advised about a hundred times by well-meaning people to take that test, but that’s not because they thought it would be a great and fitting career option; it was because of the age-old belief that “teaching is the best profession for women.” And then, too, not because it is a noble and honourable choice, but because it’s a ‘safe profession’ with ‘undemanding timings’—basically being a woman you oughtn’t venture into anything too adventurous.

No offense to educators and academicians anywhere in the world—I mean where would I be without all those amazing teachers that shaped me? But here’s the thing: teaching can be the best profession for anyone—not just women—only if they have the aptitude and the inclination for it, not to mention the skill set. It can’t be a career choice based only on your gender, just because it’s stamped as safe.

I remember interviewing Margaret Atwood once, and she mentioned how during her time there were only about five choices open to women as careers: Nurse, secretary, airline flight attendant, school teacher and home economist. She said she opted for the secretarial sciences, because, in her cryptically witty manner, “I thought that if I had to have a job I didn’t want to have, it should be the one that pays the most.”

I remember musing, even then, how far we’d gotten from there in terms of choices available—but not so very far in terms of mental mathematics—mental growth. The safest, staidest choices were still considered ideal for women—and of course the best job for anyone had to be the one that paid the most—aptitude and passion be damned.

To come back to where I left off, I hadn’t the slightest inclination for teaching nor was I ever bothered in the least by social norms or what people thought of me. I had decided to be a journalist—that’s what I’d studied Mass Communication for—and that’s what I eventually became. But in this period of absolute indecision, where the future was mired in obscurity, I grasped at the one straw in my sight—‘teaching’ which was safe for any time, and which, I thought, would certainly save me from the fatal boredom and mental vegetation that accompanies being a lonely woman at home. It would occupy me in the pursuit of knowledge rather than brooding over the turn of my fortunes.

And so, just to keep myself constructively occupied, I sat for the NET during the seventh month of my pregnancy. The results came out about six months later—I had qualified not just the NET but also got selected for Junior Research Fellowship, offered to the top scorers in the exam, which would get me into Aligarh Muslim University’s research programme quite easily, without a written test.

The JRF-NET is a big deal in the world of academics, and I was accordingly hailed by every one of my family, friends, acquaintances—and former teachers.

But here’s the little difference between love and convenience. To use my favourite metaphor, it’s the difference between a marriage of love and a marriage of convenience. You might get a match that is, for all practical purposes, a source of envy for the entire world. You might get beauty, wealth, and resources beyond your imagination. But there’s one little thing on which all the taste depends… the ‘salt’ of life.

It’s love. Love alone brings elation. You cannot settle for something and be elated about it.

This wasn’t my love. I could scarcely revel in it.

In any case, I couldn’t join the research programme that year, because the dates had already passed by when the results were declared. That was just as well, for my baby was far too small and helpless. I had one more year to decide, for I could join the next year, or even the year after, since the JRF is valid for two years post the declaration of the result. But I didn’t care much either way—we were far more focused at that point on Sajjad getting his visa and moving to Oman, after which, so would I.

A big part of me didn’t even want to seek admission, because I didn’t want to end up stuck in Aligarh with a research programme to complete, while the life I had chosen for myself—my love, my marriage and my happiness slowly crept farther and farther away from me—a continental shift, so to speak.

No, this wasn’t what I wanted. I’ve always been pretty clear about what I want, and when. All I wanted was to create my cosy little nest again, for us to be reunited. I would not create any fresh entanglements here. All I wanted was to join my man in Oman, to pick up the broken pieces of that dream we shared and make a shiny new rainbow for us. To redesign those rose-tinted glasses to view the world with: so we see only beauty, only joy. Three glasses this time—an additional smaller, rosier one. Yes, that’s what I’d be doing, and that’s where I’d be going.

Soon, very soon now.

Or so I thought.

Chapter 24: The Absurdity of Hope


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When Pandora’s curiosity got the better of her, setting free heaps of troubles upon this world, by great good fortune the worst of the lot managed to remain locked up: foreboding. Knowledge of future events, mostly ones you’d really not like to know about.

There’s a good reason people can’t see the future— it makes you believe you can change it. (And then again, if you could see your future, perhaps you really could change it. Who knows?) Most of us don’t consider the future as given—no matter what our beliefs and value systems.  Most people are obstinate in thinking they can change the track of their lives and can lead better ones than those who went ahead of them. You and I are no different. But sometimes, just sometimes, you wish that hope wouldn’t be so darn tenacious; that you’d know when was the right moment to let go. You wish you wouldn’t keep holding on for far too long. But that, precisely, was what we were doing.

Beginning October 2012, when I shifted to Aligarh, month after month passed with the Omani company holding our little family on tenterhooks; no visa in sight. Several times I urged Sajjad to just get us back to Delhi so we could go on living like we had, and we’d move when the time came. But here’s the thing: they never postponed the date by more than a fortnight or a month, so we couldn’t  plan ahead. Each time I reminded Sajjad of getting a house, he’d remind me back that a rent agreement would legally require us to stay in Delhi for at least a year. And then what would we do when the time came to move?

To be fair, though, he wasn’t the only one to blame for this. Mea Culpa as well.

I, too, was eager to taste the pure, fresh air of a distant land, a country with better roads, better houses, better facilities, stronger currency and all the promise of a better life. Most of all, I was just holding my breath to set foot into the port town of Muscat, that I imagined would be my home for the next several years. The sea speaks to my soul like nothing else, and to spend every weekend by the sea was a glorious dream that was just about to come true… Plus, look up Muscat and you’d see it is a city with pleasures galore—turtle beaches, whale watching, magical underwater caves, ancient forts, hot water springs….who wouldn’t want to be there?

And then again, that little mentioned but all-important reason: distant lands mean heavenly distance from pokey, nosey relatives and those people forever wanting to know what you were up to. They also mean that over-grown momma’s boys can’t keep rushing to their mommas three cities away every weekend or fortnight. Oh well.

Whatever the reasons, the dream kept dangling itself before our noses, just a little beyond our reach—not far enough to make us forget it  and not near enough to make us grab it. Meanwhile, the carefully woven tapestry of our marriage kept unravelling, one thread at a time.

Sometimes I wonder if letting foreboding escape might not have been such a bad idea after all.