My mother has been a businesswoman since I was eight. And her job consumes her, unlike the way I treat mine as a hobby. I’ve watched her sit up nights while she saw each business through its teething period. I’ve seen her build them, bore of them the moment the challenge is over and then sell them off to start the thrill again. She has her blackberry on at all times, checking work email and her laptop slung on a backpack when she travels.
And in between this I’ve never seen her sit still. Making wine, cooking jam, embroidering huge tapestries. Her pickles are famous as are her hand-knitted sweaters. I haven’t inherited an iota of her talent or interests and that will always be a regret. Anyway, the point of this post is not to sing paeans to her but to tell you that her hands and brain are always busy.
Also, growing up, our home felt like MTv non-stop party (without the half-naked chicks of course). Upstairs my maama’s (aka Chhota Nana on this blog) room was booming with Modern Talking and Men At Work until the plaster fell off the walls. Downstairs my friends were spilling out of our room onto the verandah and the swings. Come exam time all our friends would be at our place and when we ran short of space they’d slide under the bed and lie there with their books, forcing my grandfather to curse under his breath as he cautiously stepped over prone bodies, making his way to the toilet. At any given point our home would be a shelter for some aunty making her way out of a bad marriage and often we’d have their husbands threatening from the gates. I think we grew up taking this in our stride because this was our life. Being the family home everyone came home to die and one room was the infirmary with someone or the other bed-ridden and needing round the clock care.
Also, for some reason, there were always displaced students staying on and taking advantage of our family’s hositality. The Palestinian who didn’t know if his family was still alive, the Bangladeshi who got into fights and often had to be given a yell by my mother and dragged away, country pistol in hand, the Sri Lankan who broke his foot at least twice a year and would often lie in bed drawing airplanes for the mad sibling and me, the Mallu who took 14 years to graduate and still didn’t. People floated in and out of our house, most often we didn’t know how long they’d stay, a week, a month, a year. And the kitchen always had the kettle on. Food was simple rotis and aloo subji – I guess I lost interest in food around that point. My grandfather couldn’t be expected to provide rich meats and wines for his never-ending stream of guests and I think that is around the time that Tambi and I learned that food was only sustenance. Relationships and family and laughter and cheer and being a helping hand were what really brought joy. Today when the OA opens the door and walks in, he never knows who might be sitting in his living room. He used to crib at some point but now he’s grown used to it and understands where I’m coming from. All this to tell you, that I’ve always had a packed life and much more than me, my parents, who at various points during my growing years were both bedridden and fought their infirmity and got out of it stronger, while the house around them was still full of the sound of strangers frying up sausages and making chutney sandwiches. They are very used to being active and needed and social.
So when I was expecting the Brat in Madras it was understood that I’d go home for the delivery. Some teased me for the old fashioned ‘going home to deliver’ but I had no house help in Madras, was cooking, sweeping, swabbing, sweating buckets in the humidity, friendless and lonely. Certainly not the best situation to give birth in. And most importantly, my mother was working and couldn’t come and stay with me endlessly. So I went home, delivered the Brat, suffered through 45 days of missing the OA and rushed back to the heat, sweeping, swabbing a hundred times a day and loneliness.
By the time the Bean was born I ensured that I was in Delhi, had a part-timer to do the cleaning and a cook who did two meals a day and had found a fantastic hospital. No way was I going home. I was a pro. And so my mother stayed about 8-10 days and then left me and the two kids to my tender mercies and went back to work. It was pretty clear – she had a job and if I wanted to be taken care of, I needed to go there, she certainly couldn’t dump everything and sit at my place endlessly.
And so the moment the mad sibling had a baby and plans were made to leave work and go there, I called her up and gave her some emotional blackmail – Ah ha, so you couldn’t come to your poor daughter who was young and alone and scared. But you can go to your son even though his inlaws have already spent 2-3 months there, they have a support system and are much older and far better equipped, huh? Mother being used to me told me to shut up and I did.
And they went. For a month. And while she hasn’t said a word, I speak to her everyday and I can’t imagine how the woman of the non-stop working hands and hectic social life is managing. My dad left a few days ago and got back but until then the two of them were in the quiet suburbs with my brother, taking care of the baby and completely out of their element. When they come to Delhi (they come every couple of months) they know their way around, take my car and driver or get a cab or drive themselves and go shopping, meeting friends, exploring the city…
But once in the US they were different people. My dad can watch TV for a while but my mother isn’t a TV watcher. Like me she’d rather be online and after a while even that begins to pale. The days are spent in the relative quiet of the house, doing a few household chores (something my parents haven’t done in years but that’s okay since there’s really not much work there) and they eagerly await the evening when they might step out for a break. Unused to driving on the wrong side of the road my dad already dented my brother’s car (*koff koff* , maybe now I can start learning on dad’s car ) and they pretty much refused to drive anywhere. Each day when they were off baby-duty they’d go for a long walk, sometimes walking an hour and a half at times… Chatting, admiring the beauty around them.
But this is so not my parents. They’re dynamic, young, energetic and this semi-retired lifestyle is not for them. They were dying to see their beloved grandson and that is the only thing that kept them there for over a week. Even a Delhi visit that lasts longer than 3 days is a little too much for them to be sitting still and they’re champing at the bit to go back to their own environment and businesses. The month took its toll on my dad for sure because he got back here and was ordering us all around to make up for lost time! I had to finally bundle him on to the train and send him home to get some peace! As for ma, she’s a ma. She won’t complain and yet the whole thing reminds me of those Jhumpa Lahiri stories of displaced Indians sitting on park benches that I hate. Thankfully my mother hasn’t worn sneakers with her salwar suit or a bindi with her jeans yet or else she’d complete the picture of the tormented desi Aunty who doesn’t know whether she is coming or going.
It’s only a 6 week trip and I shudder to think of what it would be like for them if it were 6 months. To say nothing of what it is like for the couple who need to include them in any plan or then leave them home while they go out to party, wallowing in guilt. As of now most of our friends are in the US and they’ve been picking my mum up for lunches, she’s met up with a couple of their mothers and they’ve had their own granny lunches. But none of this makes up for the fact that she is getting bored out of her skull. She’s not the kind of grandmother who can only change diapers and cook meals, so once she’s done with those she is at a loose end. Baby goes for a walk in his stroller, plays with her for hours on end and no doubt any grandparent would love that but as she said, all the grandparents there are missing home.
Makes me wonder how much longer and how often they will be able to do this. Travelling abroad is expensive and you go there to help your kids out, not to party or see the country. Also, being expensive, it’s not something you can do once every two months like you would within the country – it needs to be a substantially long trip to be worth the money. But even those who are retired in India and have nothing better to do, feel so out of place and that seems to make up the bulk of the conversation when they do catch up. They want to help their children but it comes at a high cost. My dad loves the Gurgaon complex we live in and this time he caught me saying once or twice (I have no idea why I said it) that it would be nice once they retire and move here to be with us. And he got really mad at me (it didn’t help that he’d just spent one jobless month with one child and broken his journey here) saying that he would only retire to his grave and never before or to any other place.
I appreciate the way they feel. They are frightfully independent people (and that is their personality and would not change even if they were retired folks) and I wonder what they will do when old age actually slows them down. A friend wants to move back to India because the grandparents find it tough to travel to the US. My SIL’s mother who has had a lot of health problems was most unhappy at having to travel for 23 hours in a little cramped seat in a steel tube so that she could be there for the delivery and the first two months. And even though my parents are much younger and fitter, the truth is that the jet lag kept my dad out for the count for 4 days on his return to India.
There are times when the OA gets job offers that might require us to move abroad and this is the one thing that bothers me. What will we do so far away from our families? They love visiting us, they are dying to see their grandchildren, but the long journey, the strange country, the inability to roam around as they could in India (jumping on to an auto or rickshaw) and the structured lifestyle is just not for them. I’ve always wondered how other old folks do it and seeing my parents do it for the first time it’s like a punch to the solar plexus. What are their choices? That they don’t see their grandchildren until they visit India? That they bite the bullet and go there anyway and brave the unfamiliarity? So tell me wise internetz who live abroad, how do you and your parents manage this? What do they do all day while you are at work, other than changing diapers and reading? How else do you suggest they build a bond with a child if not by being physically present over extended periods of time or often? What about active, unretired, not-so-old couples who are suddenly landed with a lap full of gurgly babies by their over-enthusiastic children procreating at the speed of lightning with no thought to the youth and social life of the grandparents? Or what do you do if they’re old and ailing and need help? Do you take them there? Do you move back? What?
No seriously, how many of you moved back to India because of this? How many of you are finding this a problem? And what do your parents have to say about this?