What would you do?

A simple soul from a village in interior Maharashtra. Migrated to Mumbai after marriage. A housewife, literate but not highly educated. The early years of marriage were probably a struggle – to bring up the kids on her husband’s modest income, manage with the mother-in-law who lived with them, as well as play host to sundry other relatives who came to the city for education or work and stayed with the family for extended periods of time. And all this in a small one bedroom flat typical of Mumbai.

The woman is now sixty plus. Life is anything but a struggle now. The flat is larger and far more comfortable, a swanky car and driver await her instructions downstairs.  But the woman’s life seems strangely empty. The husband has done very well in his career and still keeps himself busy with work – his energy and interest is admirable for his age. The children are all married with kids, busy careers and homes of their own. Ditto the relatives who lived with them from time to time. The mother-in-law is no more. What should the woman do all day?

The children and their families visit as often as they can, and are genuinely loving and interested in her happiness. But they have their own interests and commitments now. What more can they do? Ditto the husband. Of course he would like to see her happier, but is it fair to expect him to be home all day when he still has the drive to carry on with his work?

Who has gone wrong and where? Here’s what I think. The woman has lived for her family all her life. For lack of time, or more likely inclination, she was never able to cultivate a hobby, an interest or a social circle of her own. Perhaps that was par for the course in her times, but society has changed a lot since then. Joint families have made way for nuclear ones. And the woman, like many of her generation, has been caught in the midst of this social change.

The past cannot be changed, nor can the external circumstances. But I don’t see why should it be too late to start building a small life of her own? The time and the resources are in place. She could start small. Explore different activities to see what suits her the best. Join a yoga class. Befriend someone. Volunteer time, keeping in mind health constraints of course. Join a library. Learn to sing or paint or even cook a different cuisine. Or simply make it a point to plan a visit somewhere once a week – a movie, a drama, a shopping mall, a relative’s house. The possibilities are immense. But the drive has to come from within.

I see the woman struggle with loneliness and wish she would try making these small changes.  Others can help only up to a point. I know it’s far easier to write about change than implement it, but in the past few years as I’ve struggled to overcome some of my shortcomings, I’ve realized this one truth above all. Most goals can be achieved, difficulties can be overcome and habits can be changed – if you make the effort. No one can help you if you don’t help yourself.

That’s how I see the situation friends. What do you think? Put yourself in the woman’s shoes and tell me – what would you do?

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The joys of Indian life – for babies!

“Rolly polly, up, up up!”, a chubby three year old sings, while her  cousin,  a cute little two year old, chortles with glee and a ten-month old Baby M watches them intently, fascinated. He kicks his legs wildly in protest at being held. So what if he can’t walk yet? His friends are running around playing and of course he must join them!

The girls are our neighbors at my parents’ home in Mumbai. Everyday, morning, afternoon and evening, the three get together in the building compound to ‘play’.  Whoever gets down first calls out to the rest until the entire building knows the gang is getting together again! Sometimes a little boy from across the street joins in as well. The older ones sing songs or tell stories (picked up at playschool), while Baby M is usually content to simply watch them, that’s when he’s not looking at the crows and butterflies, trying to grab at flowers and leaves and staring at the neighborhood cat! Sometimes he’ll laugh out aloud or try to imitate the funny sounds his friends make, more often he simply kicks his legs in delight at their antics.

In the morning, when Aaji sets out on her daily rounds of the market and sundry other chores, Baby M sees her pick up her purse and gets all excited. It’s time to go out! Aaji tries in vain to slip out unnoticed, but the ever-alert Baby M lets out a loud wail until she picks him up and takes him out. Perched on Aaji’s shoulder, Baby M roams the lanes of our sleepy suburb, visiting the bank, the fruit seller, the local library, even the school for physically challenged children where Aaji volunteers her time every week.

Every evening, when Aai shuts down her laptop for the day,  she gets herself and Baby M ready and mom and son head out, to the park, to the local bookstore to browse books for Aai, to pick up Aaji from her yoga class or to the market to hunt for some elusive ingredient for Aai’s recipe-of-the-day.

And at night, when Ajoba comes home, Baby M leaps into his arms before he enters the house and demands to be taken out for a walk or a ride in the car. Weekends, he travels to South Bombay to visit his cousin, just a year older to him, or north to the suburb where his paternal grandparents, uncle, cousin and many more of our relatives live.

Grandparents, uncles and aunts to pamper him, cousins and neighbors his own age to play with,  older cousins to teach him new tricks, the household help, the driver and  the watchman to entertain him when everyone else is busy, traveling by bus, train and rickshaws, a fruit seller gifting him an orange just because he seemed so fascinated with the color, random girls on the road pinching his cheeks and going ‘so cute!’ at him, the lights of Diwali, band-baaja of Ganpati and kites of Sankrant – could a baby’s life get any richer?

When Baby M first arrived in India, he’d look at a gathering of  two or more people and burst into tears. Guests at home, burst into tears. Enter a strange home, more tears. A stranger picking him up, loud wails and shrieks! Today, he throws himself at anyone who’s standing at the door. An unfamiliar uncle picks him up and all he notices is the pen sticking out of the uncle’s shirt pocket. He’s traveled to Khandala, Pune, Delhi, Agra and Indore over the past couple of months without showing a hint of stranger anxiety.

“Rolly polly, down, down, down!”, Baby M’s friend ends her song and I watch him laugh aloud, my heart bursting with happiness. The decision to move back home never seemed wiser!

A difficult choice – 2

Yeah, sounded too good to be true, didn’t it? Okay, now hear the other side of the story.

I try not to indulge in mommy guilt, but the nagging feeling that I am missing out on a beautiful part of Baby M’s childhood is always there. I hate it when he discovers the fun of splashing around in the bath tub for the first time and it’s my mom who sees it and calls out to me to come watch. Sure, it is a privilege to be able to rush in and watch, but I’d like to be the one to see that first look of delight on his face. Watching him enjoy the bath tub so much, I realize it’s time to take him swimming, but the pool is crowded on weekends and I have no time on weekdays. Little things like that. I took him to the beach (which is a 10 minute drive from our place) for the first time in six months last Monday (when I had a New Year’s day holiday) and he loved it! If I wasn’t working, we could do these fun things every other day, not just on weekends.

Then there’s so much stuff I’d like to do for myself.  My mom’s learning Madhubani painting this month, I’d love to join her. I want to take up gardening seriously. I’d like to learn the basics of home interiors, so I can do up our home myself next year. A neighborhood aunty’s teaching Bollywood dance – it’s no secret that I have two left legs, but I love to dance and I’d like to learn a couple of dance moves at least, so I can stop making a fool of myself dancing in public. And so on and on.

So what? Many women manage home, work, kids and still find time for themselves, I hear you say. But the point is, I don’t want to be one of them. I hate to rush through life. More importantly, I think we are in a good enough place money-wise that I can afford to take it easy for a while. Also, working from home offers me flexibility, but I miss the interaction one enjoys at the workplace.

And to be honest, I was never cut out to be an engineer or a career person. I never was geeky, nor am I terribly ambitious about my career. I just happen to have reasonably good brains and once I take up something, I take pride in doing it well. So I am a software analyst by default you could say. Sure, I mostly enjoy what I do, but my work has never defined me – it’s just something interesting that keeps me busy and stimulated, and the fact that I earn good money for it is like icing on the cake. In contrast, the husband is pretty ambitious and serious about his career. So call it a gender stereotype or whatever, but those are the kind of people we are.

Having said all that, giving up work is still a difficult decision to make. What if the husband takes time to find something good post-MBA? What if staying at home bores me out of my wits? And the biggest of all – what if no one offers me a job ever again?

Tell me, what do you think?

P.S. These thoughts have been churning around at the back of my mind for a while now, but the trigger for this post was my boss offering to try and renegotiate my benefits so I can continue to work from India. The Indian benefits are unlikely to be as good as the US ones, hence this need to re-evaluate my priorities.

Life is precious

We got some shocking news from home last week. My cousin S, just twenty one, passed away in a horrifying train accident in Mumbai. Apparently there was a derailment on the central line that day, and the trains were running late and were packed much more than usual, if that is at all possible. S was in a rush to get to college for his third year engineering exam. Unfortunately, he decided to board a jam-packed train rather than wait and risk running a few minutes late. Less than five minutes later, before the train could even reach the next station, he had struck an electric pole, fractured his skull and passed away.

Such accidents probably happen everyday in Mumbai but only when it happens to one of your own do you stop and think about it. Otherwise, where’s the time? There’s a train to catch, a destination to be reached, an entire day’s work to be done. Train’s crowded? Never mind, surely I can squeeze in? Can’t get past the door? No problem, I can get some fresh air hanging outside. Train’s announced on the next platform? Let me cross the tracks just this once. If I use the overbridge, I’ll miss it.

Most folks who’ve used Mumbai’s local trains would be guilty of some or all of the above at some point of time. In my four years of college traveling by train in Mumbai, I was no exception. Except that we are lucky and get away with it. Others, like S, are not. I can picture him right now, hanging on to the doorway, barely managing to place a foot inside the crowded compartment, enjoying the cool breeze on his face, his mind intent on revising the syllabus one last time. If he knew what was coming, surely he would have waited, never mind the exam. The exam could have been cleared next semester.

Aside from Mumbai, I have used suburban trains in Southeast Asia, Australia, Europe and North America. Every other city has this wonderful PA system announcing the doors are closing, please step off. And when some idiots still manage to wedge themselves into the doorway despite the warning, the doors stay open and the train does not move. Even Delhi has the metro now. But in Mumbai, as far as I am aware, we still use the same basic train system designed by the British in 1853.

If you are reading this and use the Mumbai local trains, I hope you’ll stop and rethink your choice the next time you are running late and feel tempted to take such a risk. Your life is precious. Everything else can be worked out.

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The first thing that came to my mind when I heard the news was a baby-faced S. My mother and I had brought him and his mommy home from the hospital the week after he was born. I also clutched my tummy in an instinctively protective gesture. Becoming a mother does that to you I guess. Every sad story becomes personalized in your mind. Let this never happen to my baby is the overriding thought. Selfish but true.

It seems my mother was hesitant to share the news with me given my pregnant status. She worried it would upset me too much. Fortunately, I chose to take it in a positive sense. Sure, I grieved for my cousin and his family. Especially the parents who have to cope with the loss. It is a terrible tragedy for them, one they will take months or perhaps even years to recover from. They have no choice but to grieve.

As for me, such shocking incidents only serve as a wake-up call to me. I must have surprised the husband with my extra loving demeanour that day, I chatted with my baby just a little bit more that night. When life is so precious and unpredictable, I want to make the most of it. Perhaps it sounds hard-hearted, but that’s genuinely the way I feel. What do you think?

Am I really happy? – 1

Yes, such weighty matters have been crossing my normally carefree mind quite often lately. Perhaps this is exactly how twenty-somethings are supposed to react to their approaching thirties? In that case, it’s nice to know I am sticking to the script, thank you very much! But if you ask me, I blame our generation’s favorite obsession – facebook – instead.

Last week, a couple we know from our college days posted pictures of their Memorial Day weekend camping trip. Two dozen bright smiling faces, all seemingly ecstatic in each other’s company. How nice! Except that I don’t have that big a group of friends, forget going on a camping trip with them, I thought wistfully.

‘My husband’s joining an elite leadership grooming program in XYZ bluechip MNC!’, someone I barely knew in college wrote in yesterday. And proceeded to post pictures of her swanky new BMW a few minutes later. Hmmph!

And then I came across another long-lost friend. With a happy-family-portrait (handsome husband, lovely wife, cherubic kid and gorgeous mansion in the background) as her profile picture. Now this was the last straw!

Was everyone I knew becoming rich, successful, pretty and popular overnight? Why this sudden rush to buy houses and BMWs and announce pregnancies? Was I getting left behind somehow?

Now regular readers of this blog would (hopefully) agree I am not usually this jealous, insecure or petty. But its tough to think rationally (and nicely) all the time. So rather than mope around or dismiss my feelings and pretend I’m above it all, I thought I’d sit down and analyze a few things instead. Find out if I am really happy. And if there are things I could do to be happier?

On second thoughts, I don’t think true happiness can be relative anyhow. The momentary flash of joy that comes with a diamond ring or that long sought-after promotion perhaps. But not the real sort of happiness that one feels from deep within. And I always thought I was happy that way. So why am I panicking now?

But more on that later…

P.S. In the meanwhile, I’d love to hear from you friends – how happy do you think you really are? Do you feel envious of others at times? Go on, be honest. I promise not to judge!

P.P.S. Why do people feel compelled to share every detail of their life on facebook do you think? Everything from ‘I got a fantastic review at work yesterday’ to ‘my husband was mean to me last night’? Someone let me in on the secret please!