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


Ch 29

January 5, 2013

Sitaram Bhartia Institute of Science and Research

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

August 1, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

But wait, there’s more.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yes, Yes and Yes. And No.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

Chapter 26 (i): All aboard: Nightmare to Nainital


June 12, 2013

2:00 pm

We’re off to the Lake City.

Ideally, we ought to have left several hours ago, but Hasan’s showing signs of an upset stomach and this, coupled with my mom’s sudden desire to take the hotel staff to task over the wrongly charged price of several platefuls of sandwiches, has delayed us quite a bit—and annoyed us just a little more. Hasan, meanwhile is having fun in the car. 20130614_183220

After extracting due apologies and the rightful amount from the management, mom is finally ready to be herded into the car. We’re all a little flustered by now, but the subsequent drive through the hills, alive with gorgeous forests, soothes our nerves and brings us back into the holiday mode.

Starting late has its fair share of disadvantages—a long-drawn-out battle with the traffic in all its honking, zig-zagging glory. It takes two hours for us just to get past the Kosi Barrage of Uttarakhand—which would be a nice enough spot for a picnic and drinking in some sights if not for the endless traffic snailing ahead.

After we’ve got through to the other side, braving a painstakingly long line of queued up cars, we stop at the nearest ATM as we’ve all but run out of cash. I stick my hand under the seat to extract my handbag, wherein lies my Debit card. My hand flails in empty space: no bag underneath. Withdrawing my hand I look around: no bag between myself and Sajjad, none between Mummy and Fatima, not under the back seats, none over and around all other pieces of baggage we have.  Then it hits home: no bag at all.

After having travelled over two hours and entered the second leg of the journey, I realise I have left my handbag—containing all the remaining money, the various debit cards and the multiple ID cards (including my PAN card and my driver’s licence)  48 kms away at Nirvana Wilds.

Forgetfulness is a trait we three Naqvis share ungrudgingly—along with the rather delightful gift of being able to add ‘volcano’ to our middle names: erupting at the slightest provocation. And so we erupt, turning the car into a steaming bowl of lava-on-wheels: squabbling, bickering, blaming lava. Sajjad is normally the voice of sanity in all arguments, but it seems the volcano effect is beginning to rub off on him. So we’re all four absorbed in a hodge-podge of blame-flinging and self-saving arguments, which obviously serve us no good, because there’s nothing to be done but turn back all the way up to Nirvana and retrieve the bag.

7 p.m.

The bag is successfully retrieved. We’ve moved to the lower edges of Ramngar, but now it’s too dark to take on the journey in hilly terrain, and we must look for a hotel nearby to spend the night.

The Corbett Aroma, Ramnagar

The Corbett Aroma, Ramnagar

 

DSC00072The Corbett Aroma is no five-star hotel, but it’s an ok place for one night with tall, flowering bougainvillea trees and pretty good food, as it turns out. Everyone needs rest after a long day of volcanic eruptions.

June 13, 2015

Finally, off to Nainital. Corbett Falls is a short stop on the way— nothing spectacular, but with a little bit of imagination and effort it could easily be made far more picturesque. The walk to the fall is a pleasant experience amid the ferns and the banyan trees with hanging roots, and the little natural pools by the side could be turned into magical faerie pools if only someone had the imagination and the inclination.

Also, you wish everyone had enough civic sense around places of scenic beauty. As it is, wrappers and bits of garbage—however few—flowing down the lower reaches don’t help. A pity.

Even more pitiful is the entry to Nainital in summer, the peak of tourist season. Endless stretches of bumper to bumper traffic, hours and hours of waiting just to get inside the city. Admittedly, the drive offers many a pretty sight with clouds hanging low and terraced hillsides basking in the sun. But all of the sunburnt Indian plain seems to have had the same bright idea.

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The edge of Nainital

We, however, haven’t been bright enough and unlike Corbett, our hotel isn’t booked in advance. There’s many a reason for that, not the least being our uncertain programme, the lack of unanimity in vacation choices, and hotel rooms being sold out by the minute. So here we are, smack in the middle of a sea of fellow tourists with tariffs shooting through the roof and touts having a field day all around us. A combination of poor planning, stretched resources and unbelievable over-crowding has landed us at the Moon Hotel, which in itself is a decent place for a short stay and wouldn’t be bad at all, if not for the fact that we’ve been idiotic enough to opt for the lowest category of rooms.  As it is, we’re now not-so-comfortably lodged into the budget rooms of a two-star hotel, absolutely not my preferred style for spending a precious annual vacation.

Oh well, it’s only for two nights. And right now, we’re focussed on the lake ahead.

Naini Lake--that's about the only good moment we got

Naini Lake–about as close as we got, and no more

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Notice the lo-o-o-ng line of cars, please

4:00 PM

I’ve probably never disliked rain so much. Light drizzle has transformed into loud patters and if it were not for the little monkey clinging to us, Sajjad and I would have loved the Mallital-Tallital walk. But it’s cold enough already and getting the baby wet wouldn’t be helpful at all. We decide to split up: The shopping ones—Mummy and Fatima, and the sitting-on-the-bench-with-an-umbrella-and-a-baby ones— Sajjad and me. We try to sit out the rain, hoping for it to stop soon enough so we can go boating at the lake or try some other kind of fun; something to remember this place by.

Little did we know that this was destined to be an always-remembered, never forgotten holiday with Hasan—unforgettable in the way that most nightmares are…

Chapter 25 (ii) : Tiger’s meal on an elephant platter


Fools walk in where angels fear to tread.

Welcome to the All Fools’ Family.

Since there isn’t much to do now that the core reserve area of Dhikala has been closed down early, we scrounge around for options. Turns out there is still an interesting activity available in the buffer zone forest of Durga Devi—follow the tiger’s trail on elephant back.

Elephant-back in the wild

Elephant-back in the wild :image my own

I’d done this many, many years ago with MY father when I was 8—and we’d spotted a glorious, majestic orange tigress that time. So of course, our expectations were raised.

But that ride had been in Dhikala, a ‘proper’ forest, the kind you see on Discovery and Animal Planet—all golden-green grassland with herds and herds of thousands of cheetal—the spotted deer—shifting around as one big, hazy golden-brown-and-white-spotted cloud…

Image courtesy corbettnationalpark.in

Image courtesy corbettnationalpark.in

The gharial—critically endangered fresh water crocodiles— lazing around the Ramganga tricking you into taking them for slow creatures until one of them zips into the water.

Gharial at Dhikala : Image courtesy dailymail.co.uk

Gharial at Dhikala

Monkey shrieks rip the air in there, and wild boars appear right on the mud track. Ahh… it brings back scenes from my childhood: watching langurs fall splat-splat-splat from trees, actually a signal of a tiger being nearby; swaying in tune to the elephant’s gait as we approached the little clearing, watching the orange and black-striped tigress stand up warningly and gaze directly into our eyes. What a moment of pure awe and elation! A little guttural growl warns us off from treading too close into the territory of the Queen.

Image courtesy corbettnationalpark.in

Image courtesy corbettnationalpark.in

But this queen has competition from another species in the award for Most Menacing Mammal of the jungle. Tuskers— wild Asian bull elephants— are arguably the most hot-headed mafias of the forest—deceptively calm from a distance. I see that surprised look on your face—most dangerous? In the territory of the Royal Bengal Tiger? Well… let’s just say if the Tusker spies you ogling at his kin, you’d better make tracks or watch your vehicles turn to pulp—with yourself inside them.

corbett_Safari

Image courtesy corbettnationalpark.in

corbett 4

I kid you not—my mom almost didn’t make it back in one piece. She, along with some family friends, had been watching from a safe distance an elephant herd frolicking in the water. When they’d had their fill of elephant watching and turned to leave, they found their path blocked by a very irate Tusker, deliberately stopping their jeep from escaping.

Colonel Hathi

Colonel Hathi

Since I wasn’t inside that jeep, I can only imagine what the occupants of the vehicle would have been thinking. Saying their prayers, proabably? Imagining last words left unsaid and wills left unmade?

Well, they managed to get out of it alive, thanks to the driver who knew his way round the jungle as good as any animal; he zipped away in reverse— tires screeching— out-maneuvered colonel hathi, found an alternate route, and scrunched his foot down on the pedal!

But all of this is the distant, delicious past.

Right now, my mother, sister, husband, nine-month-old son and I are all set on the back of a tamed she-elephant who will take us inside the jungles of Durga Devi Buffer Zone.

The lovely Radha

The lovely Radha

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We have two bottles of water tucked under mine and sis’s arm, baby tucked securely in his Baba’s lap, soother firmly and thankfully stuck in baby’s mouth. Radha, the elephant, takes off into the wild, as the mahout chooses a horrible, uneven path to get there— right in the middle of a broad, shallow, uncovered drain-cum-trench, close to the homes of the tribes that live in the National Park’s buffer zone. He points to a dog-like creature sitting close to the homes: a jackal that’s been partly domesticated and now has a litter of three pups playing with the villagers’ kids.

I am unimpressed, though, because a) the memory of this morning’s rather fruitless jeep ride lays thick on my brain and b) I have done a little too much research and found warnings saying the mahouts will rip you off or fool you into believing you saw something that you really didn’t.

Finally we cross the disgusting drain and come out onto the river bed. Goodness, that snaking brown sludge of a river has shed years off her age! She’s a gushing little enchantress here, and the view on both sides is gloriously spectacular. The elephant moves right into the river, and the water comes up almost to the beast’s stomach!

Hills to the left, frothing river to the right, lean-muscled young boys with shiny brown skin swimming joyously around, and us perched on top of Radha, standing patiently in the middle of the river.

And then Radha decides she can’t resist the water, and as we were, after all, her guests, she had to ensure we didn’t miss the fun. So we are almost treated to the luxury of a priceless elephant-trunk-bath as Radha begins spraying herself cheerfully.

One cracking order from her master, with a sharp nudge of his feet, and the lady is back on duty.

Soon as we cross into the jungle, it is clear that this one is different— not the Animal Planet variety, but Jurassic Park. Literally.

At the edge of Durga Devi, venturing into the thickets. Pic my own

At the edge of Durga Devi, venturing into the thickets. Pic my own

Ferns and moss and thickets and huge grass—not golden but tropical green—growing haphazardly and eerily.

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The jungle, as viewed from elephant back

The vegetation is sparser at the edges, where we spot our first animals: couple of spotted deer. Farther ahead, there’s a ‘sambar’duo—the larger sized, unspotted species of deer in those parts.

The Sambhar

The Sambar

Cheetal--spotted deer

Cheetal — spotted deer

My mom, who’d probably live in a jungle given a chance, is clicking away happily. And the other one clicking away, to my surprise, is Silent Sajjad. He wasn’t very keen on the whole wildlife thing, but now he’s having a blast. I’m still unmoved, though. Just goes to show too much research isn’t always good.

“Keep your eyes open; I tell you there’s a tiger in here. It’s been dragging off cattle for a couple of days now. I guarantee it. You’ll get your tiger here,” the Mahout keeps assuring us.

Yeah, right, I think. Sure there is.

The elephant turns left, heading deeper into the jungle, and suddenly, underneath a bush, we see it—the half eaten carcass of a cow.

Holy cow.

There really is a tiger in here, and it really has been dragging cattle off.

Now we’re all really alert, little shivers of excitement running down our backs. We get deeper and deeper, the bushes get greener, thicker, higher, the trees clumpier until we’re being attacked by the jungle: tree branches coming at us from every possible angle, so we hold our arms stretched out in defence as they do their best to whack us to the ground.

Sajjad and I hold Hasan with one arm each crossed round him, because we need our other arms stretched before his face— or he’d be flying across the jungle. The mood between me and Sajjad is a little tense… he’s feeling more and more protective towards little Hasan, and is beginning to regret bringing our little one here. And since he can do nothing about it now, he gets grumpier and grumpier.

And then it happens.

The baby’s pacifier falls out of his mouth and onto the forest floor.

All four of us gaze at each other in dismay and horror. Who the heck is now going to climb down to retrieve it?

“Stoppp!” we shout in unison to the mahout.

“What? What is it?”

“Bachhe ki chusni gir gayi bhaiya…” The baby has dropped his soother… I whine stupidly.

“Oh, itni si baat?”

Is that all?

“Watch my Radha here,” he says proudly, and making a sound like ‘hek, hek’, he nudges her with his foot again, and presto! The elephant holds out Hasan’s soother, neatly folded in the end of her trunk.

Amazing.

Now we just have one little problem: This is an elephant holding the soother in her trunk, her trunk full of germs and dirt and what-have-you, and this soother is supposed to go inside the mouth of my nine-month-old. And no, we have no sanitizer, no soap—nothing except a bottle of mineral water, with which my mom proceeds to ‘thoroughly’ and ‘diligently’ wash the thing.

Super.

“I can’t put this inside his mouth!” I gaze at the others, appalled. “The ELEPHANT held it, for goodness’ sake!”

“But baby, I’ve washed it very nicely and thoroughly,” my mom attempts to placate me.

“Seriously mummy, this is not going to happen!” I’m still livid.

“Oh yes it will!” My mom flares up now. “You will jolly well put the darn thing in his mouth before he begins to bawl his head off!”

Silent Sajjad is horrified and disgusted too, but he seems to think it better to keep the baby’s mouth shut, if only to keep him from drawing the attention of wild animals.

And the pacifier goes into the baby’s mouth.

Yes, yes, I know, I know! It’s disgusting, irresponsible, totally insane! Yes, I hear you, I hear you all! (cover my ears and clench my eyes shut.)Yes, I’m a terrible mother. Yes, I should have just hung the soother round his neck with a piece of ribbon. How could I not? Yes, I should have carried sanitizer. How could I not? And how could we let him suck that thing???

Well, we did.

The elephant resumes its trail. We find what looks like a little tortoise in a water-filled ditch, and the mahout stops for us to take a picture. (Though in all probability it’s just a stone. )

Tortoise of stone?

Tortoise or stone?

No clue

No clue

And then promptly moves the elephant onto the ditch. “What! Have you killed the tortoise?” I almost scream at him in disbelief. “Mar gaya kya?”

Arre mar jaane do, hamein kya!” Who cares if it’s dead, he says in the most scornful tone possible. (Which sort of makes the stone assumption stronger– he was too nonchalant about it.) But I just cannot believe he said that. I am about to say something curt and preachy, when he suddenly, urgently swivels the elephant in a semi-circle and moves to the right.

“He’s here! The tiger is here!” And the elephant circles another bush. The mahout goads her on. But this time Radha refuses to comply. She is scared. (At least, it appears so— you have to assume that in the absence of knowing elephantese).

The Mahout shouts at her: Arre kya ho gaya pagla gayi hai kya?” What’s wrong with you, you crazy wench? (loosely translated, and a lot funnier in Hindi.)

Several things happen all at once:

Hasan begins to cry. Sajjad and I desperately begin shushing him. “Make him quiet!” Orders the mahout. “Be quiet!” he throws in for our benefit, then gives Radha several blows with his wooden stick. Abruptly, he draws out an iron goading hook—a “bhaala”—and brings it down sharply on her back.

“Arrriii  b*#@#&#@**  chal CHAL !”

Move MOVE you bloody sister-f*****!

A monkey suddenly splatters onto the ground. Mummy and Fatima cry out in unison:

“There, move there! That’s where the tiger is!”

“Oh, Be Quiet, everyone!” Sajjad almost hollers uncharacteristically, making my eyes pop.

The Mahout, instead of taking the elephant in the direction of the monkey, turns her completely around.

“What? We’re going back? Why? Why?”

“He was here. He’s gone now. You were making too much noise.” he declares decisively.

“But the tiger is there—in that direction! Why won’t you take us there?”

The mahout remains obstinate. That’s that.

“It’s the baby! You couldn’t shut the baby up!” my mom is livid.

“What! You both started screaming noisily! The baby had stopped crying!” I furiously defend my little one.

A sullen silence accompanies us as we slowly rock back to the edge of the forest. As we cross the river again, it gradually dawns on us that the mahout deliberately refrained from following the tiger—which was definitely there; the monkey’s frantic fall confirmed as much.

Later, we realise how much more of a blessing this was, how close we were to becoming tiger dinner—with a nine-month-old side dish thrown in for good measure. Yes, you can shudder.

Here’s a link to a video that shows how you can transform from pursuer to pursued in the wink of an eye: Tiger chases Jeep in Ranthambhor

And here’s a link to a video that shows how high a tigress can actually jump: she can take off the hand of a mahout sitting on top of a huge elephant—in one lightning leap: Tigress attack in Kaziranga . Admittedly, it’s not from Corbett, and the full story behind this video is here.

So is it a foolish thing to go looking for tigers on elephant back? Well… not really. Hordes and hordes of tourists do it all the time. It’s all about the thrill, and where there’s a thrill there’s a way.

But is it a foolish thing to take ready-to-bawl nine-month-olds on a tiger hunt in a dense Jurassic-esque forest? You shouldn’t have to ask.

Fools most definitely walk in where elephants fear to tread.

;)

😉 😉 😉

Chapter 25: Babe in the woods

Aside


Rock a bye baby

On the tiger’s trail.

When the baby’ s upset,

The baby will wail.

Silence in the jungle,

But baby will bawl

And down will come mommy,

Daddy and all.

 

June 10, 2013

Jim Corbett National Park

The Nirvana Wilds Resort isn’t really a resort in the true sense. As with most ‘resorts’ in India, it resorts (pun intended) to a pretty liberal use of the term. Wikipedia, though, states that a resort is a place of vacation usually near a body of water, and in that sense this one probably got its nomenclature right.

The lazy, muddy Ramganga

The lazy, muddy Ramganga

It is a charming hotel set in serene, sigh-inducing surroundings; quaint, spacious stone cottages dotting the outer edge of the hill atop which it sits gazing thoughtfully, chin in hand, at the lazily swaying, brown-with-mud river Ramganga, emerald-forested hills locking hands round the snaking bends like uniformed sentries, a handful of cattle crossing the bridge connecting its banks and the polished white stones from the dry bed gleaming softly in the moonlight. Yes, you may just forgive Nirvana for calling itself a resort, even without a swimming pool or a spa or a grand entrance or foyer.

Nirvana Wilds

Nirvana Wilds

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The Restaurant

This is where we’d be spending the next two days, at the far end of the park zone, beyond Mohaan village; actually quite far from the core park area itself. We chose the place precisely for its picturesque location, but even then it was the second choice. The first choice for any visitor to the Tiger reserve will always be the forest lodges owned by the government, sitting smack in the middle of the wild Dhikala zone— offering ‘just the bare necessities’, as The Jungle Book’s Balloo would say, but satiating you with howls and growls and snarls and roars all night long. Here’s the catch, though: you can’t pre-book them in any way. They’re allotted mainly on a first come first serve basis, and too bad if you arrived late. With a 9 month-old in tow, we didn’t want to take that chance, so we booked the next best alternative— this hotel which, from the uploaded pictures, appeared to be closer to the wilderness than the other, plusher alternatives.

And so, here we are. Our third vacation since our marriage, but this one is a throwback to my single-hood because my mom and sis are accompanying us. Correction. It’s the other way round—it is Sajjad and I who are accompanying my mother and sister, because this is, primarily, their holiday. The summer holiday is a long standing tradition between us three women— my mother, my sister and I. Post- wedding, though, I had a separate life and so separate vacations, and our girl band had disintegrated. But the unexpected turn of events in the past one year has brought us together again. And this time our trio is joined by two guys— one bearded and thirty, the other diapered and not yet one.

Corbett is really my mom’s choice—she’s the ultimate wildlife buff. Till the time that my father was alive, her vacation choices always centred round National Parks and Wildlife Sanctuaries. We still have pictures of her ‘home hunger strike’ protesting my dad’s apathy to the long overdue trip— I remember him laughing as he clicked pictures of her grumpy protesting face.

Now, almost two decades later, she’s made the same choice. And that, I suppose, is because we now have a ‘man in the family’ to ‘depend upon’. The Man, though, isn’t very keen on Corbett; his ancestral home is a farm house and trips to nearby forests were a commonplace childhood feature. So we negotiate with him, and he agrees to join us in return for two days at Nainital— a hill station that gets its name from the lake it nestles within. Translated, the name means ‘Naini Lake’. I have been there thrice already, but I keep my mouth shut for the sake of successful negotiations.

Peace prevails.

And we’re here.

o——- ————-o

July 11, 2013

Lots of rain on our parade.

The core Dhikala area is supposed to stay open till June 15, but the rains arrived early this year. And so, on the very day that we had planned our jeep safari, Dhikala gets closed for the season. By order of the District Forest Officer. My mom, the erstwhile government officer’s wife and now officer herself, had dashed off across the forest the previous evening to see the DFO and try to wheedle out some ‘official’ concessions for us. It doesn’t work, though, because no concessions can be given where public safety is concerned. We must, therefore, content ourselves with a morning Jeep Safari in the peripheral zone.

Babe in the Woods

Babe in the Woods

The Man and The Family ;)

The Man and The Family 😉

Overlooking the Ramganga

Overlooking the Ramganga

Three generations

Three generations

It isn’t so bad—we do get an eyeful of spotted deer and barking deer, along with a yellow-throated marten.

Barking Deer

Barking Deer

But that’s about all. I mean, everyone who goes to Corbett wants nothing less than a tiger striding majestically across the road. Here at Nirvana, our neighbouring cottage was occupied by a man who’d been coming back every year for the last ten years, determined to spot a tiger through endless safaris both night and day— with zero, absolutely zero success. Talk about persistence.

Amid all this, Hasan has been surprisingly well behaved. Well, by his standards, of course. My initial fears were put to rest by my mother who took him off my hands all the 7 hours from Aligarh to Ramnagar—the fact that he’s bottle-fed now is an added advantage. She even took him into her cottage last night, and I snuggled into my king size downy bed with Sajjad, feeling blissfully calm and all in the mood. Of course, that’s when my son put his tiny little foot down—no more tricking him out of his parents’ company.

In the middle of a deliciously quiet jungle night in a wonderfully romantic old-world cottage, the air is ripped apart by ear-splitting screams emanating from the walls adjoining ours.

I rush to the other cottage to find Fatima, my sister, vigorously wheeling the pram back and forth with all the gentleness of an earthquake, trying helplessly to quiet him down and get him to sleep. Now, before you blame my sister’s lack of technique let me assure you, with Hasan, the more vigorous the rocking, the faster he nods off. Not this time, though, of course not. Never when you really want him to. I sigh, take him in my arms and bundle him back to our bed, where, as sure as daylight, he promptly falls asleep.

All in the job description, darling. All in the job description.