Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Happy Diwali!

May there be much to celebrate in all our lives...

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Is that how much a kid is worth?

I've been having these series of email exchanges with family lately, and one of them dealt with charity and Indian corporate houses/tycoons. We'd a pretty long 'thread' running at one time on this particular piece that talks about how some of India's finest education and art institutions are in existence because of Parsi beneficiaries. And like many, I believe charity especially that made for education, for children, is of the noblest kind.

I got an e-mail this morning from a leading consumer durables group, titled, bravely in my opinion, 'Invitation to light a Diya and bring a smile on a child's face'. I was all for it even before I read the mail, they've got the perfect catch line there, even if you're nowhere close to being a parent.

'Light a diya online and we will donate Re. 1/- to Child Rights & You (CRY), towards ensuring basic rights of Indian children.'

Wow, I dint know you could get a slice of bread in a rupee, forget basic rights. I mean it's a noble gesture and all, but seriously, a single rupee. But I've spoken long and hard about a single step, one small effort, a single individual's contribution and all that jhaap, so I decide to long on in any case and click till kingdom come, or at least till I've lit at least a thousand 'e-diyas'. Aah, but there's a catch. The company accepts only one click per IP address. Of course, it does invite me to invite the people on my address book, but I doubt even if every single one of them visited the site, we'd be nowhere close to raising a measly grand. There is also no way I can follow up with the company to check the actual contribution my furious clicking and forwarding may have made.

Of course I understand how tough the current market scenario is for this electronics giant. I mean their profit margins dropped a massive 90 per cent to stand at a measly $18.9m (Rs941m). I've been unable to dig out the exact figures, but I'm sure emerging economy India contributes a large amount to this figure. They'll probably buy a full page ad in a national newspaper highlighting their social conscience, building brand value at the cost of the unnamed child whose image springs to your mind when you read their carefully chosen words. Lousy Gasbag.

And yet, I'll ask you to log on and pledge your one rupee. Every small bit does matter.
Told you the other woman in my head is a neurotic, guilt-tripping mum, dint I? But then the first one couldn't resist the title of this post.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

A short story

It’s 9:30am when she drifts out of sleep, panic rising even before the glance at the clock.
She knows she’s late as she realigns her awkwardly sprawled limbs that still hurt from last night.
The ill child is sleeping in the crook of one knee, she curses as she slips the bondage of motherhood, cursing the pain that flows in the inert limb, cursing the many hours of sleep that she has lost over these three years.

He lies asleep on the floor, on the bed made for the child, a gentle snore that today sounds like tin grating on tin.

There’s so much to do before she can get to work, and there he lies, sleeping with no worry in the world, oblivious to her night of mothering and aching joints.

Shouts, word jabs and slamming of doors later, she’s crying in the bathroom, the cigarette soothing her nerves, convincing her conscience that nicotine makes for a better person.
She works hard, brings in the money, raising the child, while he stumbles behind failures, alcohol as salve, playing Age of Mythology long after the woman and child have fallen asleep.
Why, she wails in the bathroom this morning, why does he make it so difficult for me?

It’s a long day at work as always, unrelenting deadlines, the symphony of a brain and fingers that spew five thousands words at random. Mechanical creativity. There’s no joy from doing what she loves: there’s only the means to pay the bills. The bills that refuse to stop piling up, till she’s left feeling marooned, stranded on a tiny surfboard facing the largest wave of her life. Fear is an unrelenting anchor.

That evening she comes home to a quiet house. The child is away at a relative’s home, He has not come home from work yet. There’s a few pleasure still left she thinks: a long shower, some time alone, a newspaper to be read in peace. It’s a bad time for the world, the paper says, and she recounts the killings, the maiming and the lost investments that she’s been reading about.
There’s a tiny anchor story that almost misses her attention: Factory owner commits suicide. There’s a faint alarm in her head, she scans the case quickly. Typical small scale establishment, rising raw material and labour costs, increased credit interest ratios, some payments that never come through. And then the noose tightens, thousands multiply into lakhs and then into crores, and no elephant-head God perched on the entrance deters away the line of creditors that bite into savings, into peace of mind. The factory owner has a wife and two school-going kids. They never knew things were this bad.

It’s an unsettling feeling, one that she has avoided thinking of. She has seen him avoid calls, come back home with a look that is more defeated than fatigued, speak lesser than the monosyllables he usually grunts in. These days he doesn’t even fight back, taking his dinners in the dead of the night, when neither man nor machine can claim his space. There are no arguments, there are only one woman’s opinions as he listens on, flicking channels on a tv that’s on mute.

She walks out to the terrace, feeling strangely frightened about her tenth-floor skyline. She’s seen him stand there nights in a row, staring at the mighty night sky, willing it to attack him as well, his cigarette going up in smoke without touching his lips.

She wonders how it must feel, the weight of the scion’s mantle, the weight of a family’s expectations, of dreams that are decaying. The son who they reared to turn around fortunes, who now fights every day refusing to give in to the fatality of the erring planet on his horoscope. What powers him, day in and day out, he who believes in no god, for whom faith is what he puts into his everyday actions, very unlike her definition of a spiritual lifejacket?

She wonders whether he dreads coming home to her nagging, the constant fights over alcohol, the news of hiked fees at the child’s school. She remembers the carefree boy she fell in love with, the one who could sleep for days, cocooned by his dreams.

That night he walks home later than usual, finding his way in the dark to the bed where the woman and child sleep together, protruding limbs interlinked with blankets and a teddy. He stares at them, sleeping peacefully, unaware of the storm raging in his heart and soul, protected from a fate that caught him unawares, dragged him into an alley and socked him hard, leaving him on the ground with the taste of defeat in his mouth, bitter and burnt like a mixture of blood, sweat and dirt.

He wants to awaken her and say so much, grab her hard and will her touch to scrub away the fear that clings to his lungs, making it difficult to breathe, to talk. He kisses the child, his sweet-smell bringing a faint smile, a smile of love that’s truly unconditional. But there is no space for him on that bed tonight. No space to fit in his 30 years of lessons learnt and unlearnt.

He heads out to the terrace, the night moon waiting for their everyday rendezvous. The sky is unblemished, clear of clouds, a gigantic mirror that makes his tiny errors seem larger than life. There, on the edge, he pauses, gasping for breath in the still night. He knows he can’t abandon them, but it’s so easy to just close his eyes and fly away, seek understanding in his last remaining refuge. Sleep like he’s not slept in months, healing his wounds in those hours of blank mind and sound.

She watches him from behind, a hand clutched on her neck, too afraid to scream. She calls him back, but no sound emanates from her throat, and yet she calls out to him, willing him to hear her, willing him to see their love as it once was, unscarred by time and circumstance and jaded words.

His closed eyes carry her image, a laughing care-free girl who swamped him with her love, her life dotted with daises and books. There’s another face juxtaposed on that slim girl, it’s her, but harried, chin propped up with hands, threatening her gloom with smoke spirals in the bathroom.
His eyes flutter awake, pushing his last refuge away. There’s much to do before he sleeps.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Taming of the shrew

An extract from Paulo Coelho's newsletter, Warrior of the Light on the virtue of Justice.

'When he was young, Cosroes (later on Cosroes I) had a master who managed to make him an outstanding student in all the subjects he learned.

One afternoon, for no apparent reason, the master punished him very severely.

Years later, Cosroes succeeded to the throne. One of the first measures he took was to send for his childhood master and demand an explanation for the injustice he had committed.

“Why did you punish me without my having deserved it?” he asked.

“When I saw your intelligence, I realized right away that you would inherit your father’s throne,” answered the master. “And so I decided to show you how injustice is capable of marking a man for the rest of his life. I hope that you will never chastise anyone without reason.”

- According to the tutor of the King of Persia'

Monday, October 13, 2008

What do you want to be when you grow up?

It's the proverbial question that's popped to you right through life - at age 3, in kindergarten, middle school, high school and then college. It comes barbed with the certainty that the asker knows you have no real clue, or rather, that you're delusional.

Why else do we have ads on national tv that show six-year-olds professing to want to be beauty queens, astronauts or engineers, followed by a discreet message to parents: what stopped your dreams was a little more than lack-of-talent - it was money/opportunity. Make sure that doesn't happen to your kids. It’s a familiar tale, all through time – remember the much-thumbed-through Great Expectations?

When is it that we forget that ‘what we want to be when we grow up’ is not necessarily definable in terms of a career?

I don't really remember what I wanted to be always. When I read Anne Frank's diary, I wanted to be a famous writer, but not necessarily a dead one. Although I promised my then diary, that I would never spill the beans on who I kissed. Then I wanted to be a open-heart surgeon or a neurosurgeon, or maybe both. I was reasonably good at math, but squeamish when it came to blood, but I'd read a major article in that monthly bible of the bourgeois - the Reader's Digest -about how rare it was to find a doctor like that (at least then it was!) and how I would be saving so many countless lives. I remember I quite felt like Joan of Arc as I told my dad about my chosen profession. In college, of course, I wanted to be a rebel, but telling it like it is, is hardly the hallmark of a good rebel. So I grunted in response to the question, sometimes quoting existentialists such as Sartre to say 'I want to be me'.

During my masters, I chose to major in documentary film-making, because well everyone else had chosen commercial cinema, and well, like, how commercial was that, huh? It was all about comrade days, khadi-hued and marijuana flavoured. I worked on six films, four saw the light of the day, if 4:00 am telecasts on Doordarshan can be called day-time prime time. I gave it my best, than I gave it all up for love and moved to the city where Nino's Dad lived, because well, I wanted to be 'whole and happy', and a broken heart is a lousy excuse of a career.

So what am I doing now that I'm grown up? Well, I write, which I kinda knew I always would in some form or the other, and I'm a mother. That last bit, I did not expect, nor did I hold it in the same esteem, as say, neurosurgeon. Of course, I now know better. I am also happy.

I trudged along with life, fighting the small battles, giving in gently to the big ones, shaping it as much as it shaped me. A few milestones achieved, a few that slipped by and a few that made way for a few others I did not anticipate.

Some guys, aren't however, willing to let life or destiny or pure laziness get in the way. Sean Aiken has chosen to try 52 careers in 52 weeks, all because his dad asked him to choose 'a career he felt passionate about'. So he's tried his hand at being 'bungee-jump operator to talk-show intern to snowshoe guide to florist to yoga instructor to dairy farmer (the stinky job). Marketer, caregiver, framer, talent broker, storekeeper, brewmaster, cancer fund-raiser, bartender, exterminator. He hasn’t been a butcher, but he’s been a baker and a pizza maker. Stock trader. Hollywood producer. Advertising exec. Fashion buyer. Firefighter, Air Force recruit, and cowboy.' He hasn't found his passion for life yet, but he's sure made some money for a few charities. Read more about him here.

I wonder if Sean represents what is referred to as the ‘now generation’, whether he represents me. I've quite a few passions - words, art, music, food - but none drive me, intensely, separately. All of these, jointly define me, mingling and merging with the other roles that have also come to be a passion of sorts. Are we more likely to answer the 'so, what do you want to be question' by saying one of these: Rich or Happy?. And does that splinch us into two categories - the end-means-more ones and the-journey-means-more others? And what about wanting them both – aren’t they interchangeable?


I’m glad no one asks me that question these days. But I did pop it to Nino the other day, despite promising myself I would never ever ask him the loaded wish that it is. I mean I want him to be successful, and happy, and a good human being, and a non-chauvinistic male, and a well-read person, and kind, and gentle and a good singer, someone who can cook with a smile, has great taste in music, films, knows his art from the trends… But of course, I’m a democratic parent, I would never tell him about my great expectations!

‘So baby, what do want to be when you grow up?’

He’s still stubbornly weeding out the imaginary plants in the moneyplant pot.

‘You know, like mumma is a journalist, S aunty is an artist, Foi (bua) is a designer, Maharaj is a cook….’ I added what I thought were his coolest professions to the list - driver, mechanic, fireman, engine-driver.

Met with unrelenting silence, I give up thinking I’m not getting through, that he’s not yet looking at role-playing as keenly as a choice-making procedure yet.

Maare Karanbhai jetla thavu che.’ Roughly translated into, ‘I want be as old as, or like, Karan bhai.’

Karan is Nino’s Dad’s nephew. He is also six years old, has a big bike and runs faster.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

You've changed

It's a refrain I hear very often: 'You've changed.'

Old friends drop in and I shoo them out quickly on school nights - on weekends they smoke alone in the balcony and talk softer on the dining table, our conversations interrupted now and again as I perk a ear to check on a sleeping child. 'You've changed.' I know, I don't drink with abandon anymore - I nurse my one drink all evening, end up with two if the debates are getting a little too hot. I'd love to listen to the women/men you've supposedly bedded, but I'm wondering how I'll cope with a late night, an early morning and a killer day at work.

Sometimes the refrain is garbed in the 'you look different' phrase. I know. A body I was once proud of for its perfect curves, is now hidden under layers of stubborn fat and stretch marks that make me seem like a shark-bite survivor. Sometimes they say 'the weight suits you', and I know they are not merely being nice. They now view me as I have always viewed them - a sum total of their opinions, not merely as the body that houses them. That's why I increasingly resemble a fugly cotton kurta with a large ketchup stain these days. I'm thinking of ways to make Nino's life more organic and ofcourse, about getting some fat on his bones.

The husband holds my hand in the night - and I plead an aching back and worn soles. What happened to the woman who seduced him into this relationship, who expressed her love so freely and physically? 'You've changed.' I know. I'm looking for nothing more than a helping hand in the house these days. A shoulder-rub is also welcome.

I read the headlines in the paper every morning in the loo, timed in minutes before I jump in the shower and head to work. I read Eric Carle to bed every night, having replaced my mighty tomes of love, wit, wisdom and philosophy with stories of the Bear, Beaver and Moose.
I dread visit social networking sites where peers and contemporaries talk with such variety about trips, opinions and relationship statuses. I don't travel. My opinions are limited by an over-exposure to parenting and an under-exposure to pretty much everything else that is cool/trendy/current. FB/Orkut don't have enough options for my relationship statuses: Married, Happily Married, Vaguely Unsettled in Marriage, or often-don't-know-what-I'm-doing-or-heading-to in Marriage - all with one guy. There's nothing that's current in my frame of mind - it's all weeks/months/years/lifetimes. Alanis feels like an angsty teenager - Ghalib and Faiz feel like brethren. Pain has become band-aids and icepacks when it once used to be about life, love, want, hope and despair. Happiness used to be impulsive shopping, romantic dates, Rushdie's books, mutton curry. Happiness now is timing my ride home with Nino's playtime in the garden, so I can sneak up on him and hear him squeal with delight till we both collapse laughing, unmindful of the dirt. I've changed.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Breakfast Mahabharat

I dressed Nino this morning in a lovely cream Bengali cotton jhubba and red dhoti for a garba programme at his school. He was very excited about the dhoti and I loved the jhubba for its soft, transparent look and beautiful green ikkat border.

As we walked down to the dinning room, I told him to be extra careful with the jhubba while eating his breakfast. We managed through boiled egg and ketchup just fine, till the doorbell rang and I got up to answer it. There was a bite left, and I told him to take care that the ketchup doesn't stain his jhubba.

The man at the door was haggling for some unpaid bills, and just at that moment Nino ran to me saying something about ketchup, jhubba - I didn't pay attention, but when I finally turned, I saw two perfect oval stains on the cream fabric. I snapped, yanked him hard to the washbasin and screamed at how often I've told him to use a napkin instead of his clothes.

Nino looked at me, dazed for a second, till tears pooled in his eyes, and he began to cry in earnest. I was unable to stop yelling - but when I did finally calm down, he told me how he had reached for the water and the plate stained the jhubba and that he came running to tell me, but when I did not listen, he wiped it with his fingers.

As I walked him to the lift, I said sorry. He turned to me and said, very simply, 'It's okay mama, but I was trying to clean the jhubba.' I wanted to sink to my knees and cry, and apologise for transferring my irritation over unpaid bills to him. But I waited till he was gone and then locked myself in the bathroom and cried, unable to forget how betrayed he looked when I hurt him - with my words, and my touch.

You've always been gracious with forgiveness Nino - quick to say sorry, quicker to say 'It's okay'. It can't be easy saying sorry to this shrieking woman who towers over you, bellowing about something that you did not set out to do in the first place. And yet, you do, with more grace than me. I have more of what constitutes wisdom under my belt than you do - years, education, fat - but it is you who embrace me with my faults and uncompromising temper and quick-on-the-move hand. Even if I leave you smarting, hurt, unhappy and vulnerable.

I know when I come to pick you up at school today, you will run out into my arms, talking excitedly about school, pulling me towards the car. I know you will ask me as my office approaches, as you do everyday, 'Mama, are you going to office?' And I know your smile will falter and then pick up again when I say yes. You have already forgiven my trespass this morning, you forgive my abandonment of you everyday. And I know I will add this story to my guilt collection, promising to myself as I toss and turn in the night, never to yell at you again for a stained piece of cloth.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Towards sweeter mouths and hearts

I went to Nino's school today to share a small chat with the children about Eid-ul-Fitr. Years of winning inter-school and then inter-college debates have left me with a laid back attitude about speaking in front of a crowd, a very matter-of-fact confidence that comes from having bellowed your opinions on stage (then) and on paper (now).

I was surprised therefore to feel actual qualms that kept me up at night, had me hyperventilating in the morning and generally made paisa-vasool of my deo. It was not just because I wondered how to explain the significance of the festival to kids between two and six years - it was also because of the various hyperboles this festival has come to be associated with.

When Nino's teacher had asked if any parent wanted to speak about Eid to the kids - I saw grown women shuffling feet and looking at each other. I volunteered, and one mother remarked that maybe I could teach them about the festival as well. Unlike its currently socio-political image, Ahmedabad was founded by a Muslim king, and his dynasty ruled over it for generations. Most of the city's famous landmarks are Islamic in nature or design or origin, and old city was once home to the kind of diversity that inspirational books are made of.

Today, Ahmedabad is a twin-city. Majority-dominated and economically-affluent western suburbs and Minority-dominated eastern suburbs. Deepening the divide is the Sabarmati that splits the two suburbs - the same river, on the banks of which, Mahatma Gandhi launched his satyagraha movement for a free, but united India. Most schools in the western suburbs are dominated by Hindu students, and our children have fewer, and more often none, Muslim friends. It's a sharp cry from my own childhood - my best friend in the early years was Nazia who later migrated to Saudi Arabia. Eid in college was marked by sharing yummy biryani from one massive plate at friends' homes. It was even better when Eid and Diwali were celebrated almost together - the lights, the smiles, the joy, the hopes - all were the same.

As I walked into the class area, armed with sewaiyan, I hoped to talk about a festival that's also called Methi Eid, where hearts and stomachs are made sweeter by the joys of bonding with family and friends. Nino was pleasantly surprised, but all grown up, and he let me talk with all his friends, smiling smugly as they called out my name and told me their favourite sweets: strawberry ice-cream topping the list.

I talked about the crescent moon, celebrating Chand Raat with mehendi and shopping, and warm hugs to be shared. Eid Mubaarak, I said, and the words echoed back, dented in a few places by small tongues using new syllables. I smiled, hopeful that I had managed to give them a peek into a religion that many of them are likely to grow up to fear or hate. Someday, I hope to read to Nino Faiz and Ghalib, as we soak in the setting sun on Sarkhej Roza, stop by the Siddi Syed Jali with the words of Iqbal echoing... Mazhab nahin sikhata apas men bair rakhna, Hindi hain ham, watan hai Hindustan hamara! (Faith does not teach us hatered, we are all the people of the Indus valley, and our nation is the land of the Indus, India!)

Sweetened mouths and fuller tummies later, we parted ways at the gate as the kids streamed out to greet mothers/grandmothers/fathers. 'Why are you here?' one mother asked. 'To talk about Eid.' 'But you are not Muslim, are you?' she said. 'No,' I said. 'Eid Mubaarak to you as well.'


I've just come to know that Nino has reportedly embarked on a hugging-spree. Frantic calls from the mother-in-law, whose concern over sewaiyan-stained tapestry has reached Valium-prescription levels, say Nino has hugged the living room furniture, the plants in the balcony and the puritan brahmin cook with single-minded dedication: 'Eid Mudaarak - kheer aapone' (Eid Mubarak, give me kheer!)