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!

Motherhood makes you judgmental!

Anybody read Madam De’s latest post? The furor in the comment space is largely over just one part of the post – the bit about admiring Anjali Tendulkar for giving up her career to be the perfect homemaker, wife and mother. But Ms. De also talks about other stuff – bringing up a hugely popular celebrity’s kids in as normal a manner as possible, staying out of the media glare etc. – that I too find admirable. I wonder why no one’s talking about that!

Anyhow, I don’t agree with the homemaker bit at all. To stay home with the kids, juggle family and work, remain a DINK couple, or even not marry at all – is each individual’s personal preference. What makes you happy could make me miserable! So it’s futile to argue over which is the best choice.

It’s hard to say what Ms. De was thinking when she wrote this post. Was it meant to be a cheeky piece pretending to admire while gently poking fun at the so-called ‘perfect wife’? Was it, as I heard someone suggest, a PR advert? Or was it a genuinely fawning fan-post, never mind the seemingly regressive statements like – “The Perfect Wife, who has understood her position in marriage (secondary)…”? Who knows! Or more importantly, who cares! But her post did get me thinking.

Now that I am myself a mommy-to-be, I find myself forming some strong opinions on child-rearing, a departure from my completely non-judgmental stance before. I still don’t judge those who choose not to have kids, but once you do, these are a couple of no-nos in my books nowadays:

Choosing not to breastfeed because we need to get back to work. I keep reading about the lifelong health benefits of breastfeeding for both mommy and baby and I wonder how could a few month’s pay/seniority/career growth/mental stimulation possibly weigh against all of that? Remember that bit about health being our greatest wealth? We spend nine months trying to eat right and natural for the baby and end up feeding it an artifical food later! Of course, some moms are just not able to breastfeed and that’s a completely different scenario. But wanting to get back to work in a hurry ‘because we need the money’ or ‘I’ll go crazy staying home all day’ – I don’t buy that. In most cases, finances can be adjusted for a few months I think.

In my case, I plan to breastfeed for as long as I can (although those tales of cracked and sore breasts give me nightmares) and everything else will just have to align itself around that!

My former non-judgmental self butts in: A possible solution might be to express breast milk for when you are in office. But a lot of my friends tell me that this does not work for too long and you end up feeding the baby formula anyway. If someone has a different experience, I’d love to hear from you!

Asking grandma and grandpa to stay over and look after baby. Now this is a common occurrence with desi couples in the US and no one seems to find it amiss.  I can understand if you’ve stayed in a joint family all along. In that case, you take the good with the bad. But this is different. Parents and in-laws come over for the delivery and stay back for months on end.  I always wonder how comfortable the grandparents feel with this arrangement? Sure, everyone knows grandparents dote on grandkids, but don’t they have a life of their own back home too? Don’t they get lonely alone all day at home in a strange land? And don’t they sometimes wish they had been invited over before baby came along, just to visit or have a nice time? Finally, how do the new parents manage to bond with the baby if grandma’s always around to take care of everything? Not to mention the practical difficulties – how do you enforce your parenting rules when you are not the ones doing the parenting?

Again, in our case, my mother plans to stay with us for a couple of months when I’ll need her the most, but beyond that I know she’ll be itching to go back home and we wouldn’t ask her to stay back either. Sure, we’ll very likely struggle to handle baby by ourselves for the first few weeks, but hey, baby’s going to be a part of our little family and the three of us will just need to get used to each other!

My former non-judgmental self butts in: Perhaps I am being too harsh here? If the grandparents and parents don’t mind, who am I to complain? But somehow this practice makes me very uneasy. What do you guys think?

And that brings me to the familiar stay-at-home versus work-outside-the-home mommy argument. I am still a fence-sitter on this one. As long as mothers stay home with their babies in the initial few months when babies physically need mommy, I don’t see a reason for women to give up their dreams and ambitions for their kids – unless they wish to do so. After all, kids will grow up and get busy with their own lives someday. What does that leave mommy with?

But yes, younger kids need a lot of time and attention. And after a certain age, a dad can probably meet that need just as well as (and sometimes better than) a mom. Again, each family needs to sit down and work out what suits them best I think. Perhaps one parent can choose to work part-time or from home. Or perhaps you will be amongst the blessed few to find a loving caregiver nearby or a day-care right in the office!

As for me, I am still undecided. I just know my impending motherhood is a great time to re-examine where I am headed. Am I happy doing what I am doing? Would I be just as happy ten years down the  line? Nothing like a baby to jolt you into some major soul-searching!

Foot in the mouth disease…

…happens to all of us at times, but a cousin of mine, by an unfortunate coincidence both uncommonly innocent and fearless for her age, suffered especially from the dreadful malady. She’s been known to have asked the most insensitive of questions with the sweetest of smiles and the most angelic expression ever in the good old days of childhood. For her sake (and her husband’s sanity) I hope she’s recovered by now.

Her infamous exploits were many, but this one takes the cake. During a family function at a temple, we cousins spotted an elderly hunchbacked lady doing her ‘pradakshinas’. Now we had never seen a hunchbacked person before and naturally all of us were curious. The question in every mind was the same – how does ajji (grandma/old lady) manage to sleep on her back? Do her legs go up as soon as she lies down?

We were all curious of course, but young as we were, there was this vague suspicion that any questions in that direction might not be taken very kindly. So we kept mum. Except for this cousin, who was fearless, remember? Before anyone could stop her, she went right ahead and popped the question to the lady herself. You can imagine the talking-to we all received later that day!

In my cousin’s defence though, she was just six or seven at that time. I wonder what these folks’ excuse is?

Obama and the N word

“Congratulations! Your President’s a N…!”

A seemingly drunk man threw this cheery greeting our way as he stumbled past us late on Saturday night. We were about to enter a restaurant and I almost ran to the door in my hurry to get away from him. The husband, walking a few steps behind me, did not catch the words right the first time.

He later told me he heard something like ‘Your President’s a nagger’ and remembered thinking it didn’t make much sense. He could very well imagine the First Lady complaining about it, but how does this guy on the road know so much about Presidential squabbles, he wondered.

So my dear husband proceeded to ask our friend to repeat his words while I almost died of fright and shock! The cheerful proclamation having been repeated in an even louder voice, the husband seemed to finally get it and followed me into the restaurant pronto!

Was our friend on the road bitter about Obama’s ‘historic election’, as the television networks have been reminding us every two minutes for the past six months? Was this his affectionate way of celebrating ‘the first African-American President of the United States’? Or was he just plain drunk?

Whatever the reasons, his words helped put this election into perspective for us. A lot of it may be media sensationalism, but if a random person on the street still addresses his President-elect this way, in jest or otherwise, Obama surely has climbed a very big mountain to get where he is today!

Similarities and Differences

A North Indian friend with two kids and a packed schedule offers to drive fifteen miles out of her way to pick me up for a movie outing. She knows I am itching to join the movie plans but cannot drive myself over. Didn’t she hear Raj Thackeray was hounding Northies like herself in my hometown of Mumbai?

A Muslim friend from Tamil Nadu brings over an extra helping of kheer for us over Eid. She knows the husband has a sweet tooth and would love to take some kheer home. Did she forget Babri Masjid and Godhra?

All our other Indian Hindu friends are horrified to hear of this same friend’s daughter suffering a nasty head injury while playing at her babysitter’s. Each one of us can imagine the mother’s pain and offers to help in any way we can. Why didn’t we think instead of the several terrorist attacks that take place with alarming regularity back home in India these days?

Our Pakistani friend is constantly beseiged at lunch with requests for his wife’s sumptuous gajar halwa and other Punjabi delicacies. The sociable and generous soul that he is, he promptly obliges. Didn’t someone tell him Indians and Pakistanis were supposed to be fighting each other?

Living outside India, one comes across South Asians of different cultures and nationalities. Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis and Sri Lankans, Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs and Christians, people from Delhi, U.P., M.P. and Mumbai. And then there are the Americans whose country we live in of course.

But thousands of miles away from home and our loved ones, the barriers seem to melt away. It is no longer important that my Muslim friend celebrates Eid, not Diwali, or that our North Indian friends do not understand Marathi. It is enough instead that we can share some laughs over the new Bollywood comedy. It is comfort enough that a group of ladies from these diverse backgrounds can come together to host a baby shower for a pregnant woman whose own mother cannot be with her during this special time.

Even as the barriers fall, the cliche of celebrating our differences becomes true too. Be it the variety of cuisines at the office potluck, our American friend taking us hiking in the mountains he’s been scaling since childhood and which we’d never know how to explore on our own otherwise, or our lengthy lunch-time discussions on South Asian politics with each nationality bringing a fresh perspective to the table, differences are good, they open up our minds, we realize.

Most importantly though, sifting through the differences, we understand how similar we all really are. That a mother will always grieve over her child’s pain, be she a Hindu or a Muslim. And that kheer will taste just as sweet, whether it is prepared by a Hindu for Dussehra, by a Muslim for Eid or as a Christmas pudding by a Christian.

Living and working next to each other, going on picnics and for movies together, celebrating our festivals and caring for each other’s kids, past wounds hardly seem to matter. And with the understanding and empathy built from such interactions, it becomes easier to accept our troubled history and move beyond it towards a more harmonious future. Yes, terrorist attacks are ruthless and hurt us all, partition was horrible, 1984 was shameful, the Babri Masjid and Godhra riots were horrific, forced conversions and violent methods used to protest against them are both wrong and if one chooses to go all the way back in history, the Mughal destruction of Hindu temples was wrong too.

But the bottomline is that we are all good people despite all this, we are all human beings with hopes and fears and loved ones and dreams just like each other – this is the understand we gain living in such close proximity with one another. It’s not as if diverse communities do not interact in India, but the interactions are becoming rare and increasingly fraught with suspicion these days I hear. Which is what saddens me the most. If we can all live together as friends, as a community and even as a surrogate family in this strange land, why can it not happen in our own countries I wonder?

The loss of innocence

Death, fear, torture, executions, hostage situations, loss of loved ones, panic, helplessness, hatred – this was stuff we were supposed to watch on a television screen I thought. So after a point, when things would get too dark or depressing, one could switch off the movie, read a comic book and go to bed with a smile again. Except that the nightmares have now spilled on to our streets and trains and buses and hotels and markets and homes, leaving us floundering for a remote to switch it all off somehow.

I vividly remember my first ever brush with terror as a kid, when I happened to read an article on the plague epidemic in Surat. It was an India Today article, I think, with the story suitably sensationalized to scare a twelve-year old with no prior exposure to the gory side of life right out of her wits. I came home sobbing uncontrollably. ‘Are we all going to die?’, I wanted to know. ‘Don’t worry darling, nothing will happen to us, I’ll keep you safe’, Aai promised me, enveloping me in a bear hug. All problems solved and my fears melting away in a flash, I ran off with a hop, skip and a jump to play outside with my friends.

Today, I watch my parents struggle to reassure themselves. Baba sounds listless even a week after the Mumbai carnage. ‘Is something wrong?’, I ask, half-knowing the answer. ‘What happened in Bombay is troubling me’, he answers, simple and straightforward. I have no idea how to respond to this.

My mother is far more resilient, embodying the famed spirit of Mumbai perhaps. She and my mausi were out shopping in a crowded South Bombay market this weekend. ‘Aren’t you scared?’, I want to know. ‘How do I live my life if I sit at home scared?’, she counters. And cites the example of a non-Mumbaikar who missed his train and died on his way to spend the night with his relatives in Mumbai, a few minutes away from our home. ‘I will go when my time has come!’, she says and truly seems to believe in it. Yet what other choice does she have?

Does Aai actually feel safe, I wonder? As long as she doesn’t think about the dangers, she probably does. After all, South Bombay is where she grew up and went to school and college and shopped and laughed and lived life. It is where my parents met and fell in love. It must be tough to think of such a place as anything but a warm and loving home. So her resilience and spirit, as that of most other Mumbaikars, is more a strange combination of escapism, fatalism and harsh ground realities than anything else I think.

My father and I, on the other hand, think too much, which is our biggest problem, my mother and the husband would say. I, for one, am terrified to board a flight to Mumbai a couple of months from now. ‘Isn’t the city your home? Will you stop going home because of these incidents?’, the husband asks, dismissing my fears with his characteristic nonchalance. How do I explain to him the hopelessness and sense of doom engulfing me?

Are these feelings a part of growing up? Surely each generation must face their own difficulties? For my parents, it would have been the Emergency, for my grandparents, the struggle for independence. Yet we all think of our problems as the most troubling. No doubt the times we face are more violent than most. But surely there is an end to this too? I fervently hope so. How else will I reassure my kids the way Aai reassured me that scary summer day?