Forty and fantastic

The OA turned 40 on the 1st of June. Try as I might, I can’t get used to the idea of being married to a man who is 40. Middle aged :D Of course I’m right behind him and will get there in a couple of years.

I finally see what older people mean when they say they feel no different. I feel 22. And to me he still feels like the 26 year old I dated. Except for the odd dressing down I receive, reminding me that the honeymoon is over.

I spent a lot of time mulling over how we could celebrate this big one… Frankly I don’t know why I bought into the hype that this is a big one. I suppose its just nice to pick an occasion, any occasion and fuss over a person.

The OA comes from a rather dry, unemotional, practical family and it’s taken him years to get used to my flights of fancy, my nonstop chatter, my thirst for excitement and the desire to celebrate everything and all the time.

So when I asked him if he wanted a big party or wanted to travel on his birthday, he shrugged. Disinterested. It didn’t really matter to him – we travel and party often enough for his birthday not to require the same. In fact, he gave it some thought and said – No party please. We end up playing host and making drinks and serving people and don’t really get to enjoy their company.

I offered him a bike (mid life crisis alert!), a new TV, a new music system… and finally I gave up. Until I came up with this one – I decided to ask his friends and family to mail in birthday wishes and memories and pictures, and I made a book out of it. Words are my currency and I strongly believe they make the best gifts.

This coincided with my exit from Facebook ( I deactivated because I needed some time to get used to the fact that I was actually friends with right wing voters and supporters. How?!) and I had no way to get in touch with 90% of the people from his life and past – specially since this was to be a surprise.

Suffice to say, I spent days and weeks calling, mailing, following up. My husband is a very easy going, charming man who rarely states opinions to the contrary, rarely speaks on contentious issues, is always helpful, kind and warm. And yet, few people considered it important enough to respond to me and send in their birthday wishes by the deadline I’d set.

Ma says people have their own way of showing affection. Fair enough. But that doesn’t excuse one from showing affection in the ways someone asks for it, once in a while. Like attending a wedding even if you hate crowds, because the groom is a close friend. Like going to a kiddy birthday party even if you hate kids, because it’s your little nephew’s first birthday. And so on.

People might be busy, they may not like to write notes, but these notes were requested to celebrate the 40th birthday of a very charming, kind, warm man – not his rather controversial wife!

Many didn’t bother to even acknowledge the mail, or reply and say that they couldn’t be bothered! Some replied way after my deadline. There were certain people without whom I felt the book would be incomplete and so I harassed them in the most polite way possible, reminders, mails, messages. I’m sure they felt that I was piling on - but all they had to do was say No. And I’d have backed off. Instead I got endless excuses about how they were traveling, or busy, or blah blah.

And I have to admit, if they said No, I’d have thought less of them because they are people who claim to be close to him – friends as well as family. What good are family and friends if they can’t dislodge themselves from their comfort zone to do something for you?

Which is not to say it was all bad. The letters that came in, brought tears to my eyes. Warm, joyful, affectionate, reminiscing and telling me a little more about my old man. Hideous old pictures of him looking like something the cat dragged in.

I got in touch with a friend who was estranged over a rather serious and bitter issue – it’s been many years but he responded promptly and warmly and made my day. Reminded me that old friends truly are the best.

I had planned to print the book online but thanks to all the delays I knew it wouldn’t get done and delivered in time. I asked a friend to help me out and we laid it out across two days and took it to a printer locally.

That was the last day before we were to travel and we had house guests, the book, packing, last minute plans…. I came home with a new row of pimples on my chin. And a shiny beautiful book tucked under my arm.

The Bean and Brat had written to their Dada too and the Bean helpfully told her father – “I know where Mama went, we all know where Mama went – but we can’t tell you.” Cousin J picked her up, put a hand over her mouth and walked out of the room. The rest of us rolled on the floor and laughed helplessly.

The OA’s birthday was on Sunday and we dropped the kids off at my parents’ place on Saturday. That meant spending his birthday on the road. We’d left one car there on our last trip and when we got in to their place we gasped – As his birthday gift, my parents had painted it, changed the tyres, changed the music system, put in blue tooth, shampooed the seats… The works -it was almost brand new. I’m thinking we should accidentally leave our Scorpio aka Uddham Singh there next time.

We’d planned to have a karaoke party because the OA loves singing. When the local DJ rolled in speakers that reminded me of the Michael Jackson Black or White video, the cat was out of the bag and the OA began to exercise his vocal chords. My parents had rather apologetically asked me who I wanted to invite for his party given that they only had old fogeys in town at that point of town. I have to admit I love all the old fogeys who are great fun, don’t mind shaking a leg, are never disapproving of what the young people are wearing, drinking or doing – so I said lets have them all.

Fortunately some of our friends did end up in town and that changed the atmosphere. After a lot of Blue Bayouing and Jailhouse Rock we ended up raucously screeching out Metallica and finally by the end of the evening, it was my turn. And I only belted out Bollywood cabaret numbers from my childhood. Jawaani Jaaneman, Laila o Laila, Pyaar Do etc. It was crazy because everyone went wild dancing and screaming and the Bean was jumping in a corner going quietly insane with excitement and the Brat rolled his eyes, told me I was an embarrassment and walked away. And all this without me touching a drop of liquor. We wrapped up at 1.30 am and left for Delhi the next morning.

The car decided to give some trouble on the way – I guess they’d messed something up while denting and painting it. By mid noon we were on the hot, dusty highway, wondering what the hell to do. We managed to get it down a dirt track and find a shack where a mechanic opened it up, took one look, told us two cylinders were not working, and fixed them. The OA got a bazillion phone calls and since the kids weren’t with us, we just drove along without stopping, chatting with people we hadn’t spoken to in ages and knocking back sandwiches and brownies.

We got into Gurgaon late at night, had a quiet dinner with the OA’s brother and SIL and called it a night. Starting last night though, we’re back to celebrating. Since we’re child free and footloose, I’ve planned not a birth’day’ surprise, but a birth’week’ surprise for him. Every night after work I’m taking him to do something new/something he hasn’t done in a while. From massages to plays, to live music… the week ahead is packed and the old man is all set to party. As a policy we’re even avoiding material gifts for our kids these days and only giving them new experiences so this works out beautifully.

As someone said to us, with the kids all grown and out of the way, our 40s are over the hill, but then that is where you pick up speed, don’t you?!

 

Edited to add: Yes, of course he loved the book. He spent days poring over it, reading each letter, reminiscing, gasping in shock when he read one from a friend he lost touch with years ago… It now sits by his bed side and he picks it up and flicks through it every little while.

 

 

 

The Brat turns nine

Dear Brat,

This is your last single digit year. Never before has your birthday made me so sentimental. I recall the night before your birth and the terror I felt at the thought of the imminent delivery. And everyone telling me, there’s no point worrying – there’s only one option and that is for the baby to come out! And now as I pointlessly work myself into a froth over you turning nine, all I can do is accept that there is only option and that is for you to grow up and spread your wings and fly away. You will only go further away each year. It’s time I accepted it. For now though, I have no fears. You still come running to share your life with me.

As I write this post you rush up to me with yet another bit of dog related trivia -they’re your latest obsession. I don’t pay attention to a word, smiling at you besottedly and tousling your curls. I am a bad mother to you. Bad, because I find it hard to look beyond my love for you. It’s like wallowing in a bowl of molasses. I am so absorbed with indulging in it, examining it, working my way through it, that I am unable to rouse myself enough to scold or correct you. It helps that you rarely need any correction.

I have lost count of the number of friends who chose to have a baby after they visited me and saw what an easy baby you are. Even today you are my biggest weapon against the child haters. They meet you and all their usual arguments fail. You’re unfailingly polite, quiet, calm, thoughtful and wise like a little Dalai Lama.

I’m glad I didn’t try to ‘toughen you up’, because I’d be going against your nature and turning you into something alien. Everyday you make the world a better place with your gentle smile, your dreamy eyes and your out of the box questions.

A few days ago you came to me with tears in your eyes, saying that you were feeling really bad about something you’d done.

I steeled myself for a broken vase or something, even while knowing that it wasn’t really the sort of high jinks you got up to.

“A long time ago, last year, the Bean came home from a playdate and late in the night said to Dada that she hadn’t done her homework. He scolded her and told her that she should have done it before going out to play.  And I thought – serves her right.”

Alright, I said, waiting for the punch line.

‘That’s it. I was happy that she got a scolding and now I’m feeling really bad that I was happy when she was sad.’

Who said the diapers are the tough part?

What do you do with a child who reprimands himself for every mean thought even before you do? Who holds himself up to such impossibly high standards?

What will the world do to a gentle soul like this?

I took my troubles not to the Heavenly Father, but to your very earthly father, the OA, that night.

He hugged me and in a rare moment of wisdom (!) said – Yes, but why not look at it this way. What will a gentle soul like him do for the world? Wouldn’t it be amazing if he spread this gentleness?

I still soak up the softness of your cheeks, I hug you in my arms and love how substantial you feel. Your feet are almost the same size as mine and I run my fingers through your rough but perfect curls. I can barely lift you anymore so you obligingly spread yourself over me like butter.

But mostly you just ignore me and my fussing over your hair or cheeks and keep your nose buried in your book. When you’re not reading, you’re writing a little book, creating a fantasy world, writing stories in verse and making up the most sublime (not!) of rhymes – ‘If we don’t listen to the swimming teacher when he says jump, he kicks us in the rump!’

You’ve learnt to hold your own against your sister and I think that is one of the most important lessons in life. Not to let those we love, rule us.

You’ve picked up from your father and my attitude and the Gods across all mythologies are equal to you. The one above them though, is science. We couldn’t be happier or prouder, even though we’ve introduced you randomly to most religion and let you learn in school and from grandparents. There are moments you sniff disdainfully at a ritual or a religious more and your father and I grin at each other delightedly.

You have a few good friends and a very clear sense of the time you want to spend with them. You come back from school, give me a kiss and then inform me that you will now find a quiet spot for some ‘me time’. I’ve learnt to put aside my excitement and chatter and wait for you to collect and regroup your energy before you come back to us, ready to join the family in our boisterousness.

Which is not to say that you’re entirely vague. You’re the only one who will look at your father running around the house frantically throwing his luggage together and say- Dada, do you have everything you need? Can I help? Your sister and I are meanwhile chatting up a storm with someone, unconcerned that the man might miss a train (nothing new there – we missed the train before our Easter holidays again). Of course while we planned the drive down for our vacation you were the only one who read us the riot act for being haphazard and careless. In our defence – we were stuck in two jams caused by accidents and you know it! :p

The long drives are no longer hated and you’ve learnt exactly what we wanted you to learn on them. To be still. You look out for hours and do mental maths, find shapes within the clouds and spot tiny birds that we seem to miss. Every time you do that, I remember our long peaceful afternoons spent lying out in our beautiful Delhi balcony, me with my huge pregnant belly, you with your baby cuddliness. I’d point out shapes in the clouds, at other times lie in silence and wonder if I should instead be teaching you alphabets and using flash cards or sending you for some class that promised to turn you into a genius. I’m glad I didn’t because you’ve ended up so restful, so self sufficient and so low maintenance. I’ve never heard you say those dreaded words  - I’m bored.

You love hearing your birth story and every time I give you a little more detail. This time I told you how your cord was wrapped around your neck, you were suffering from IUGR, and you had no soft spot on your head. You listen and absorb and never forget a word.

You’ve been the ideal grandson this last year with your maternal grandparents, being quiet as they rest, watchful of their injuries, never shuddering when you see maimed limbs or blood. Instead offering them love and nonjudgmental conversation. Your paternal parents spend a lot of time trying to speak to you in their language but you haven’t a head for languages and don’t care for such things, simply making it up to them with - ‘Mama, I’m going to sleep with them because they must be lonely.’ Always fair, my little King Solomon.

I have no advice for you, my little Buddha. I’m going to sit at your feet, look up adoringly and hopefully learn from you.

I love you,

Mama

photo

His latest obsession – the Rubik’s cube. Geek alert!

 

As we wrap up eleven years…

Today we complete eleven years of marriage.

I look back on the last 11 years and I’m at a bit of a loss for once. How does one encapsulate them?

I gained a husband but he came by himself. No family. No baggage. Not the desi way.

And when the family came, it was not pleasant. But then one doesn’t really expect pleasantness when the resistance to the marriage lead to one party having to leave home.

I’ve cried on your virtual shoulders and said things in public that I wish I hadn’t.

But what’s done can’t be undone.

This year I finally gained the family he was born into. It’s been gradual and I’ve mentioned it to you. But only now am I confident enough to say the words out loud.

It’s been a tough march.

We started off with daggers drawn and things only got worse. Accusations, counter accusations, unpleasant public scenes, harsh words.

We made up and broke up. And then again. It was like the ebb and flow of the tide.

But over the last couple of years we’ve patched things up and done a fair job of it. The patchwork isn’t ugly – it’s like an old handmade quilt. Ratty, but comfortable.

We have our off days, we sort things out.

My FIL falls asleep while watching TV and I quietly get a blanket to tuck around him. We go to attend a family wedding and he looks around at the other ladies and then suddenly turns and looks at me with pride and does something no one has done in years – pinches my cheek.

He makes a rather patriarchal statement regarding the babies and I fight him tooth and nail. One of us usually relents. More often than not, it’s him.

My MIL, on the other hand has grown into a friend. We chat quietly over a cup of tea, exchange family gossip. Plan the dinner menu. Well, she plans while I battle deadlines at work. She has tears in her eyes when she’s leaving and she hugs me, not letting go until the OA gently pushes her towards the car with a reminder that she’s getting late. I love you, sweetheart, she says.

I grin. And we send each other flying kisses at the exact same moment.

The OA says I’m an approval seeker. He’s right. I don’t like it when people don’t like me. I’m Monica.

To know me, is to love me, I say with teeth clenched. And I get back to figuring out what I have to do to make things better. To smooth over the rough edges. To.Make.It.Work.

The last eleven years have not brought professional recognition or accolades. They’ve not brought money.

But I’ve invested a lot of time in this little family of mine. And a lot of effort. It wasn’t easy. Sometimes I chose to fake it until I could make it, but it worked.

I often wish I’d had their blessings when we got married. It would have been so much easier on a young couple who anyway had to make the many other adjustments that marriage demands. I wish the OA had not felt alone and vulnerable. I wonder if he questioned his decision as he signed the dotted line. I wonder how it must have hurt to have my parents stand by us at a receiving line, but not his.

But I’m glad we’re here today. I’m glad I didn’t start off as a welcomed, accepted bride and grow to hate them as is often the case.

I’m glad we started at the lowest point in our relationship because the only way from there was up. Expectations were rock bottom and anything we get from each other today, is a bonus.

People always say the grandchildren bring change. But I think that is unfair to the hard work that goes into making things work. Change comes only when both sides want it and yes, the grandchildren are a good incentive.

But the look in my husband’s eyes when he walks in from work and finds his parents, kids and wife crowded in on his bed, having tea and laughing, is one I’ll not forget in a hurry. For once he doesn’t even chastise us for the biscuit crumbs on the counterpane.

I don’t want to jinx it, but I couldn’t not share this with you, could I?

I’m sure we’ll have our rough moments again, but I finally know what it is to be accepted by them. And this time I’ll have the incentive to work and bring things back to this point.

My eleventh anniversary gift to the OA?

A complete family and peace.

Which is a good thing, because I’m too broke to give him much else this year.

Of Susu Pals and Unboy boys and a reading Bean

The Bean has decided she’d like to join the rest of her reading family. The Brat did this too. Made me wait months and years to see him read. And then began to read like it was going out of fashion (it is in some parts of the world!).

To me it was unthinkable that my children should not breathe and live the written word the way I do. Except that you can’t really force a love for the written word, can you?

When we were growing up, there were few alternatives to reading if you weren’t a sporty  kid. And while I loved the outdoors, small town UP in those days wasn’t really the place for a lone girl to be wandering around observing nature and watching birds. Still isn’t.

So I read and read and read, everything I got my hands on. But kids these days have options. Distracting options. Options that don’t require them to exert themselves. iPads, twenty cartoon channels, toys and games, malls (!). I try and restrict everything in that list, except the toys and games. And I read to them. And read. And read.

But more than that, I read to myself and they saw. They saw that mama was transported to another world in her book and could be remarkably grumpy when called away from it. Clearly there was something to it. And then the Brat began to read and wild horses couldn’t drag him out of a book until he was good and ready.

The Bean is a sprite… light on her feet, running up vertical surfaces, gracefully skimming across the tops of things, almost as light as cotton candy. I didn’t think she’d ever  take to reading. It required too much effort and why expend that when she had so much else to do?

Her progress has been slow too. And after the experience I had with the Brat’s slow start I was patient. I’d like to think!  But no dice.

And then she fell really ill a few days ago. Ten days during which she had viral fever, a terrible cough, a boil on her cheek, one in her nostril, a rash around her eye and then to top it all, a gastro infection that had her puking for three hours straight, ending up in the hospital emergency. She was so weak that she didn’t even jerk when they gave her the shot, didn’t shed a tear, just looked up at my face with betrayal and exhaustion writ large on her face.

I cradled her all the way home and wondered why she was being made to suffer so. In no small measure because of her constant playing in mud, climbing trees, petting strays and feeding cats, no doubt.

But she’d been so ill, that I had kept her home from school, refused to allow her TV for the strain on her eyes and had nothing to do but to lie next to her and read to her. And Her Highness had finally deigned to begin reading with me. Oh she could spell the words and read them out, she just hadn’t any desire to go through a book.

But she slowly regained health and chose to spend more and more time reading. Reading aloud first, then to herself as she got more comfortable. And then tonight, sweet revenge I made her read the book she’d made me read over and over again, until I was ready to slit my wrists. Richa Jha’s The Susu Pals is the book she loved enough to finally sit down and read to herself.

The Susu Pals

Don’t let the name put you off. I know there are purists who believe that there is a certain form literature must take. I have nothing to say to them. I’m all for reading everything, anything and having no boundaries on what one can read or write about. The Bean, like all girls, is constantly seeking that one best friend to bond with. We’ve moved thrice in the last four years, making that a little difficult. And then one of her closest friends moved to Colombo, ruining our last effort.

This book, about two best friends, Rhea and Dia, who do everything together. Even do susu together. I can’t tell you how happy this makes me because when I was a child I always envied the way men stood at the urinals and continued a conversation they’d started outside the loo, no sign of embarrassment. So while I’m not sure the Bean and any of her friends will end up sharing a toilet seat, I am blown away by the fact that Richa thought of it and used it. The ultimate test of friendship!

I also love the games the girls play together – robbing banks, slaying dragons, raiding tombs, sailing the seas as pirates. None of the stereotypical waiting for princes and making cups of tea. No sirree. Hear that crash? That’s Richa’s book bringing down the second taboo in as many pages.

And then one day Isha enters the picture and their friendship is not the same. Isha and Dia hook up, leaving Rhea out in the cold. Dia now finds her games silly, her ideas boring, and her company is unwanted.

Do Dia and Rhea get back together? Yes, they do. Read the book to figure out how. And there’s a surprise element towards the end that I won’t give away.

The Unboy Boy, seems to have been written for the Brat and I shook my head in surprise when I read it. It’s almost as though Richa visited our home and chose to write a book to that each of my children could relate to.

The Unboy Boy

As the name suggests, Gagan isn’t your average boy. He loves ants, he says good morning to the sun and eschews violence to the extent of not enjoying war stories (here I must digress, the Brat is taking a keen interest in history and wars!). His classmates tease him mercilessly and even his grandfather unkindly calls him a chooha (mouse).

And then one day while at camp, a pet cat disappears and there might just be a ghost around the corner. It’s up to Gagan to save the day now.

The illustrations by Gautam Benegal and Alicia Souza are simply fantastic. I’m sorry to lump the work of individual artists together, but both have a keen eye for detail and the little asides are fantastic.

Please buy. Please gift. And also read Art’s review of the books at Saffron Tree.

 

The Bean turns seven

My darling little menace,

I don’t know what I thought you’d grow into. But I had no idea it would be this. Filthy, fearless, funny. You have a fantastic sense of humour and a belly laugh to rival the best. You have the grace of a mountain goat (you get that from dada) and there’s no tree you haven’t climbed, no hedge you haven’t crawled through, no puddle you haven’t stepped in.

I admit there are days I look at clean little girls in neatly turned up shorts, glossy hair tied back in pigtails and then I look at you mournfully – in your brother’s hand me down tracks, sagging at the knees, your hair escaping it’s dozen clips, your tee shirt covered in paint, and I wonder if you’ll look back at your pictures when you grow up and wonder if I neglected you.

But then you’ll see the thousands of pictures I click – you standing on dada’s shoulders, his hands, hanging from his exercise bar and flipping over, balancing on a beam, swirling a hula hoop, chasing a puppy around a park, and you’ll know why you never looked as shiny as the rest.

You wield your tongue like a rapier. I find it tough to win an argument with you and shamefully often resort to the old – Because I’m your mother card. Your father, poor man, doesn’t know what he did to deserve two like us. On good days he smiles and says – Hah, I can’t wait to see the poor fool that falls for her and discovers her sharp tongue. He insists I didn’t show him the rough edge on mine until we were wed. You know I’m incapable of holding it for that long!

You haven’t met a rule you don’t want to break and I’ve had to pull you out of an empty home (you got in through the gap they’d left to fit an AC) and give you the dressing down of your life. You’ve argued and made me justify every bit of discipline I’ve tried to inculcate. But why? Many a time I’ve changed my mind because I realise that I’m merely trying to force you into a certain way because ‘we did it when we were young’. Barring some good manners, there’s little else I enforce now.

I don’t need to. You have your heart in the right place and are a fiery little creature, always ready to fight for the underdog.

But under the muck and grime and paint, you’re still tiny, like a baby bird. A delicate frame that I worry will snap, when I see you throw yourself off a tree. Long fingers that create wonderful works of art. Ugly little toes that I will never forgive your father for.

You’re unbelievably observant and I often send you to fetch and carry because your brother and father only stare blankly at me if I ask for cello tape, measuring tape, my black shoes or a roll of toilet paper.

You love dogs and I’m giving up all hope of ever having any grandchildren through you. You’re the one that will adopt dogs and refer to them as your kids. A thought that breaks my heart I have to admit!

I love the way you take pride in our home, painting little pots and appointing them in the most unstable corners. I love how you pat the Brat’s curls adoringly and say – ‘My anna is so handsome. Even strangers like to play with his curls.’ All this while your ‘anna’ growls at you in mock anger and very real embarrassment.

Your father’s parents have been won over by you. A fairly conservative couple who voted for a boy the moment they heard I was expecting your brother, they are in awe of your wit, your charm, your way with words, your sunny personality, your quick thinking. This is a huge victory of personality over tradition. It’s amusing too, because these very qualities in your mother, they find abrasive! But that’s a battle for another day. For now, I like how the female, skinny, dark, grubby little underdog took all her grandparents’ preconceived notions and flung them out the window, wrapping the old couple around her little finger. Your paternal grandpa called to wish you this morning, singing happy birthday on the phone and ending with an I love you – a phrase he’s never offered your father.

Your father and I have got used to you waving to the guard, the shopkeepers, the old gentlemen who brings his grandson down to play everyday. They all know us only as your parents. You’re our celebrity.

And just like that, I know someday you will grow up and win over everyone who ever crosses your path. You tire me, frustrate me, drive me nuts – and yet, I’m your biggest fan.

I love you,

Mama

Edited to add: You’ve been sick for the last 2 weeks now. Fever, cough, cold, gastro-enteritis, boils on your face, in your eye, nostril, and the final injury – urticaria. We had to cancel the party after weeks of running to the hospital every second day.

This morning I oiled your hair and  you sit there with your hair up in a clip, in your pajamas, your skinny limbs gracefully yet carelessly arranged. You’re engrossed in that very rare treat, the iPad, tapping your sock clad feet in time to the music and all of a sudden you’re not 7, you’re 17 and I feel my eyes shining with tears. This is it. It’s over. I had just this much time to be mother to babies. And I’m only 35 and it’s almost over. You’re growing so fast. I spend more and more time with you, clinging to what it is that I seek from motherhood, but it slips through my fingers and rushes on. I have no complaints. I have received more than I ever thought I would.