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?

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!

Breaking the ‘mamu’ stereotype

Think of a traffic policeman, fondly known as ‘mamu’ or ‘pandu’ in Bombay slang, and what comes to mind is a pan-chewing, pot-bellied old man hiding in the clump of trees just beyond the traffic signal, harassing you for ‘chai-pani’ or else…!

Baby M and I had a very different experience this weekend. A cousin’s husband was treating and the whole gang landed up at New Yorker’s, Chowpatty, Baby M (on his first restaurant outing) included. The interesting-looking food on the table, the sparkling cutlery and the colorful menu cards – all this was too much for the poor child to take though – he lunged this way and that, spoiled for choice and unsure what to attack next. Mom and baby thus made an early exit from the restaurant, mom having gulped down her yummy lasagna in a record five minutes!

The rest of the evening, we strolled along Marine Drive, mom trying to walk off the lasagna and baby taking in the interesting sights and sounds, while the party continued inside. As we neared Nariman Point, a balloon-seller walked past us. Baby M, fearless and single-minded as always, threw himself in the direction of the balloons as soon as he spotted them.

The balloon-seller ran to us, spotting a potential customer in Baby M. (More like potential destroyer if you ask me, but never mind!) Fumbling around for my purse, I realized I had forgotten it back in the restaurant.  ‘Nahi re, balloon ghyaycha nahi ahe, khoop lahaan ahe na baby!’, I tried to tell the little boy. (The baby’s too small, we don’t want to buy the balloon.)

A young traffic policeman standing next to us, smartly dressed and fit as a fiddle,  was keenly following our conversation. To my great surprise, he walked up to us, handed a ten rupee note to the boy, placed a balloon in Baby M’s gleeful hands, gave us a shy smile and quietly walked away. Talk of  breaking all stereotypes in a single shot!

The time and place for assertiveness

7:30 AM. I am about to finish my fourth and last loop around our apartment community. It’s a beautiful morning, with a lovely cool breeze and bright warm sunshine. Add to it our community’s green lawns, twittering birds and gorgeous terrace gardens in every other apartment and I’m in seventh heaven. I feel fresh and chirpy, ready to take on the world. Except the canine variety, as I am about to find out.

Despite my cheery state of mind, I’ve been walking for a half hour now, at a fairly brisk pace I must add, and am somewhat tired and distracted as a result. So I fail to spot the friendly neighborhood puppy, unleashed as usual, still at a safe distance from me. And I walk on, without a care in the world, entering the puppy’s ‘territory’ with my next few steps I suppose.

Said puppy bounds over playfully to greet me. She’s a friendly sort I’m sure, her little yelps and barks meaning ‘Good morning! What a pleasant day!’ in doggie-speak no doubt. Unfortunately for me, I don’t understand doggie-speak. So I stop dead in my tracks. And look around helplessly for the puppy’s owner. Said owner, flirting with the next-door neighbor, takes her own sweet time to amble over. Still, she’s nice enough to throw a lazy ‘She doesn’t bite!’ my way, halfway through her stroll.

Notice how every dog-owner earnestly believes this about their dog? ‘Maybe not, but I don’t want to be the first to find out you’re wrong!’, I want to yell back. A thousand different retorts rush through my mind. One of which goes – ‘Isn’t it a community rule to have your dog on leash at all times? I stay here too. Can’t I take my morning walk in peace?’ Now don’t get me wrong. I love doggies! I’ll even take your word for it if you insist they are adorable creatures. All I ask for is they stay outside a 10 foot radius around me. Is that too much to wish for, tell me?

But the best time to argue with a dog-owner is not when their dog is itching to throw herself on you and is being held back only by the owner’s smartly barked commands, I ruefully realize. And go home to lick my wounds. There are better ways to practice my assertiveness skills, I tell myself. I can always call up the community manager to make an anonymous complaint in the evening. From the safety of my home preferably.