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 37 (ii): Midnight at the beach


The Tides

 

29 March 2014

9:45 pm

The day’s not over yet, folks.

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

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

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

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

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

 

10:30 pm

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter 37: Candles, waves and truffle cakes


March 29, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And later, also irritated me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Darwaza kholo! Baahar jaana hai!”

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

Open the door! Want to go out!

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

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

4:30 p.m.

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

The Leela Kovalam, here we are.

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

Leela on the cliff

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

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

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

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

———————–

7:00 p.m

After the calm, the storm

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

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

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

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

Everything else is forgotten.

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

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

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8 p.m.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Candle light dinner

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


March 28, 2014

1 p.m.

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

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

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

Baba is coming now.

3 p.m.

Indira Gandhi International Airport, New Delhi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

7 p.m.

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

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

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

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

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

A terrible burden to bear alone.

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

10:30 pm

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

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

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

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

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

March 29, 2014

8 a.m.

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

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

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

 

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Chapter 36: How to create happiness —Part I


Kathi Ostrom, one of my favorite bloggers, makes an incredible statement in one of her posts, and in a very offhand manner. 

“In the past, knowing I couldn’t change my home, my job, my husband or my kids, I’d typically cut my hair… Cutting my hair might not have always been the best way to…shake things up but at least it felt like I’d done a little something.”

I wonder, Kathi, if it’s just you and me?

February 18, 2014

In a little over a month now, I’ll be completing another year on this planet. No matter how indifferent you might claim to be, growing a year older—a year wiser, a year deeper into life—definitely calls for some celebration. But as you might have guessed, I’m in no celebratory mood.

I’m getting way too predictable, aren’t I—and tiring too, because I’ve hit the pause button on life and there’s only so much that can be said about being stuck.

And so, like Kathi, I have decided to change the one thing that I can surely change right now.

Snip-snip-snip.

And there goes the hair.

From all the way down my back to merely brushing my arms, I’ve decimated my treasure by half, trading length for a fresh and fancy style. But it worked. I feel better already, newer and different somehow. Seems like a weight has been lifted off my shoulders—quite literally—and I feel happy.

Suddenly, I know what I want for my birthday. And I don’t need a fairy godmother to get it.

I’m going to gift myself a birthday fiesta.

In Kovalam, Kerala.

kovalam

A trip to Coastal Kerala has been my dream vacation for a long time now. Actually, make that one of the many, many dream vacations I keep conjuring in my travel-crazed head. In a world that seems a lifetime away now, Sajjad and I had been saving up for a really fancy holiday in Kerala, at the super expensive The Leela Kovalam. That dream trickled far down the garden path, though, as the world in all its wickedness tipped up and drained the savings away. But that was almost two years ago.  I’m earning my own money again and a quick calculation reveals that I have saved more than enough to gift myself a birthday vacation. I wanted to see the Kovalam Beach, and see it I will. With or without Sajjad. I can take my mom and sister with me, just the way we used to go in the early days.

But even as I think this last thought, the smile in my head droops at the corners…

In truth what I want more than anything is for us to do this together. But alright, I’m not going to get hung up on this. If we can’t be together, then I’ll do it for myself and myself alone.

I do know, though, that Sajjad would have plans of flying over to India for my birthday. He is the kind of man, that rare species of male, who doesn’t have to be reminded about birthdays and anniversaries.

“Are you coming over in March?” I ask him during one of our phone calls.

“Hmm..I think so…” he says slowly.

“Well, you’re going to take us with you THIS time. If you can’t, don’t come over at all.”

There’s a pause.

“Okay then…” slowly, sighing wearily, “I won’t come over at all.” His voice sounds far away, tired.

I sigh. It was worth a shot anyway.

“So… I have decided to go to Kerala for my birthday. You want to come?”

“Kerala?”

“Yes— Kovalam. Like we had planned, you remember? You can come with me if you want to.” I’m giving him a choice. Asking. Not begging, not insisting. I want to show him I can be happy alone. Not that he was the one who wanted me to be alone in the first place. But he is the one who left me alone, and I have had enough. “I’ll pay for the trip, of course,” I add breezily, pointing out, again, that I was self-sufficient.

“Hmm.” That word again. “I’ll come.”

Despite my demonstrations of indifference, my spirit surges.

“We can split the bill, you know.” He suggests.

“Okay…” I chew my lip. “You take the airfare; I’ll take the hotel tariff.” I keep the larger share for myself because the choice of super-expensive hotel has been mine.

“Okay.”

His words are slow, quiet, not entirely… how shall I put it… enthusiastic? For years upon years, I have spent many a day and night trying to fathom this man’s mind, trying to work out the complexities and contradictions residing within him, and failed a million times. For all the intimacy, the friendship and the warmth we share, so much of him is still a stranger to me.

And they say women are hard to figure out.

I spend a few moments wondering about his moroseness, recalling the wonderful moments in the past that were ruined by his unexplained brooding where he withdrew into his shell and refused to let anyone in. Or even to let them know what it was about.

And then I make a decision. I will not let any brooding, any anger, any moroseness ruin this one. This is for me and me alone. I will go out there and enjoy myself, the whole world be damned. And if this makes me selfish, so be it.

And so, after a long while, I begin to feel excited again. And straightaway get to work. Planning the trip, booking the hotel, marking out activities to be done and sights to be enjoyed. And when I book our room at The Leela Kovalam, I choose the gorgeous beach-view suite, giving them special instructions to arrange for a cake on the 29th of March.

“Not a big one, of course, just for the three of us,” I request the amiable lady on the phone. “It’s my birthday.” Suddenly I’m grinning from ear to ear.

“Oh sure, Ma’m!” she says enthusiastically. “We hope you have a great one.”

“Thank you,” I smile.  And swear inwardly to make the day a great one, no matter what.

Enough with the moping. I’ll make my own happiness now.

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: 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.