Lessons in motherhood-I

A  Saturday not so long ago, I started for the grocery store with my four year old in tow. He dawdled behind, stopping at the landing window to watch a plane.

“Hurry up!” I urged as I raced past him down the stairs.

“Amma! Look!” He screamed from the landing. I stopped half way. He pointed to the railing beside me.

Expecting to see a lizard or something that caught his fancy, I turned to look.

About six inches from my face, perched on the railing,  was a baby crow.

Before I could stop myself, I ran down screaming on top of my voice.

My son screamed too and promptly burst into tears.

Even his fear-stricken, tearful face did not propel me back to his side past the squeaking
bird.

Thankfully, my neighbor heard our screams, ran towards him and scooped him up before handing him over to me.

After the security guard was summoned to return the baby bird to the safety of its nest, after we were safely in the car,I started to feel really silly.

“Your father’s going to laugh at me!” I told my son, as I drove out of our gate.

“Why?” he asked.

“Because I actually got scared of a baby bird!. Its a baby! What harm can it do?”

I was desperately trying to undo the damage I’d done. What if he grows up getting scared of birds?

“He’s going to laugh!” I laughed too, a bit nervously.

He was very silent.

I took my eyes off the road momentarily too look at him.

He was deep in thought.

“Hey! What are you thinking about?’

“…..”

“Are you still thinking about it?”

“…..”

“Are you still scared?”

“……”

“Hello! I’m talking to you!”

“…..”

“Tell me what you’re thinking!” I bellowed.

“Just dive!” He mumbled, almost inaudibly.

“What did you say?!!” Is he asking me to jump off the car? I wondered.

This time he looked me squarely in the eye.

“Amma, Just dive the car, okay?”

……….

Thinking she’ll find it hilarious, I narrated this to my good friend, a mother of two.

“You did what?!” She thundered.

“As a mother, you have no right to show your true emotions to your child”, she wagged a finger at me.

“What? ….” I stammered.

“You’re supposed to swallow your fear, anger whatever negative emotion you have and put up a brave front for him”

“hmmm… I was actually…”

“Listen to me!” She almost shook me by my sholulder.

“Your son looks up at you. You’re his role model. You’re his protector from all the bad things in his life. You cannot abandon him and run away from something and tell you’re scared of it too. Get it?”

“Promise me you’ll never do this again,”

“Okay,” I agreed sheepishly.

………………………

That night I tried to share this incident with my husband, hoping he’ll symphathise with me.

“You did what?!” He thundered. “You’re turning my son into a pip-squeak! It was a baby bird, for heaven’s sake!”

“Then you can bring him up yourself!” I screamed.

“I’m looking for a full-time job tomorrow!”

“Fine”

“Fine”

I walked out of the room and shut the door taking care not to bang it.

……………….

God! I wish there was a handbook on motherhood.

Book Review – Sea of Poppies

It took me almost three months to finish this latest novel by Amitav Ghosh.

Not in the least because it was boring, but I had no more than ten minutes a day to read it.

Unlike another popular Booker famed book I started reading and abandoned midway, this is a book where you feel the presence of only the characters and not the author.

With no clever words or phrases to showcase the author’s command over the language or his sense of humor, the story does not lose pace even for a single paragraph. (I must admit that I had to run to the dictionary every once in a while!)

Though there are at least eight important characters in the book, Deeti is the hero of this book.

Deeti, a peasant woman in Bihar, single handedly toils in her poppy field, nurses a opium-addicted husband and brings up her child..

How she finds herself in The Ibis, sailing to Mareech (Mauritius) as a coolie with a new husband – an outcaste, leaving her daughter behind is half the story.

How the other characters – a Raja in exile, a Half Chinese/half Parsi ex-addict, a supposedly black second mate, a French woman born & brought up in Calcutta who is more Bengali than French, her foster brother who becomes a lascar, a Bengali goumasta  who fantasises that Ma Taramony – his aunt & love interest, but who was a Swamini is manifesting herself in him after death – all end up in the Ibis for various reasons is the other half.

The sense of injustice that begins with Deeti winds itself around all the other characters too. Those days, I suppose, it was all about submission of the weak to brute force.

Deeti, married to an opium addict, is fed the same opium on her wedding night, so her brother-in-law can rape her with the help of his mother and uncle.

Kalua who later becomes her husband is subjected to unspeakable atrocities by the upper class just for entertainment.

Neel, a much respected Zamindar is jailed and sent to exile so that the British can have his land.

Paulette, who becomes an orphan when her father dies, is forced to live with an English family in Calcutta. She breaks free when she’s forced to marry an old judge, who’s hard of hearing.

And the hierarchy in the ship bears the same injustice…

The Ibis provides a strong backdrop for the events to unfold once they’re all at sea.

Where hundreds of coolies are shut in a Dabusa in the lower levels of the ship and let out only during mealtimes.

Many die of either lack of will or disease.

A pregnancy, a wedding, a romance nipped in the bud, Deeti getting caught with the evil uncle – are all the events leading to the climax of the story.

The climax is the one that I feel didn’t gel with the rest of the story. It’s so much like a mythical story where the good conquer the evil in the end.

But then, it really doesn’t matter because, by then you’re so involved with the story, you breathe a sigh of relief that the good people’s sufferings come to an end.

Amitav Ghosh has done extensive research and it shows.

The way he’s crafted the lives of the characters with all the wefts and wafts so that they all serve a common purpose in the end is fabulous.

I specially enjoyed the language spoken throughout the book.

From the colloquial Bhojpuri and Bengali to the very different English spoken by those on board and the English the memsahibs spoke with a liberal dose of Hindi & Bengali – all of them offered us a glimpse of life back then…

To put it in a nutshell, this book is a fabulous read by a master story teller.

And since this is the first of a triology, I eagerly await the next book.

Another wedding – this time, a short story

Mohan was tired.

He was fatigued, irritable, sleepy, and miserable.

And the fun has just begun. He has to survive today, tomorrow and the day after morning.

“God! Give me strength”, he muttered.

He’d been up for most of the previous night. Catching up with long-lost relatives, making sure all their needs were met, smile at people whom he used to hate as a kid…

Well… all the things a responsible brother of a groom-to-be, must do.

He had arrived from Mumbai only the day before, but he already missed his place.

It was a small apartment, agreed. But it was his own pad. He didn’t have to wait for turns to the bathroom, could have the newspaper to himself all morning, do things his own pace.

He’s been trying for a bath all morning, unsuccessfully.

“Mohan!!” His father yelled from the hall.

“Yes!”

“What happened to the cab?” he demanded angrily. “We have to send one to the airport now. Prakash is coming on the 10’O clock flight. Useless fellows!”

“I’ll check up,” said Mohan.

He ran inside to make the call. But his mother was already on the phone, instructing someone about making laddus.

“Ma!” he screamed. “I want the phone!”

“Wait!” said mother. “This is important. After this, I have to call Lalli and see if my saris are ready. I need the phone at least for another half an hour” and shooed him off.

“Mohan!” Thundered his father from the front of the house.

“I’m still checking,” said Mohan, not too amicably.

He knocked on his brother’s door.

The groom.

He had left strict instructions not to wake him up before 9. 30.

But this is desperate. He needed his mobile. He’d forgotten to charge his own mobile, as usual.

His brother’s irritated voice came from inside.

“Who is it?”

“Hey! It’s me. Sorry to wake you up, but I need your mobile.”

“No way, man!” grunted his irate brother. “I am talking to Nitya”

Nitya, his bride.

“But you’re going to see her in the evening and from tomorrow, for the rest of your life! Please, Gopal. Appa is taking my life out!”

After 20 minutes of begging, he finally got the phone.

“The cabs have left, sir. About 40 minutes ago. Should be there any minute,” said the Cabwala. This, he reported to his father, who was waiting impatiently for news.

“Mohan! Can you just run along to Murugan stores? I desperately need sugar,” pleaded his mother.

She was making endless trips to the kitchen to supervise the lunch proceedings and handing out steaming cups of coffee to anybody on her way out from the kitchen.

He dropped off the sugar with his mother and ran to the front of the house, where the cabs had arrived. After giving them instructions, he ran in again for a bath.

No luck. He could hear strains of classical music from inside. His mother’s sister.

On his way out he spotted his uncle, with a newspaper.

“So, Mohan,” said he. “You’re next”

“Next? For what?”
”Wedding, stupid! And I know just the girl for you!”

“Please!! Leave me alone!”

He had to bite back the angry retorts bubbling in his mouth.

He suddenly noticed that the bathroom was empty. Hurrah! He ran towards it.

“Mohan!” His mother’s voice.

“Ma! Please, if I don’t have my bath now, I’ll never get a chance again”

He shut the door on her exasperated face.

Finally a few minutes to himself. God! What he would do for a cigarette now.

He made an offhand head count. There were at least 20 people in the house. 20 people. Staying in a 3-bedroom house. With 3 bathrooms. Of which one bedroom and bathroom were off limits. His brother’s.

He knew there were worse scenarios. Like 10 more people in a 2-bedroom house.

“It’s only for 2 days” was his mother’s logic. “We’ll adjust”

Adjust? At the mention of a wedding, what makes perfectly sane, comfortably off people, jump to pack their bags and head to their kins’ places to huddle, and live in total discomfort for days? And his mother has personally called each one of them to come over a week before to help.

“Help with what?” he asked her. She was the one who claimed that they were the groom’s side and all they had to do was land up for the wedding.

“Mohan! She said sternly. “You’ll never understand”

Maybe it’s a bonding thing. They get together over endless cups of tea and coffee and re-live their own younger days. At times like this all past prejudices and insults were forgotten and they seem to remember only the good times.

He occasionally caught a glimpse of his father in a heated discussion with his own brother about the cricketing style of Pataudi.

Or his mother reminiscing her own wedding with her cousin.

“Mohan! They have arrived! Hurry up!” his mother’s frantic voice shook him out of his reverie.

He dressed in haste and was just in time to welcome his uncle getting off the cab.

The entire populace of the house (except for the groom, who had resumed his love-talk with his bride) had gathered in the verandah to welcome Prakash uncle, who was seeing most of them after 10 years.

Living in Delhi, he was a busy bureaucrat, respected by everyone and the apple of grandfather’s eye.

His son followed him, a little dazed.

Mohan felt a surge of pity for the boy.

He stepped forward, took the bag from him and said, “Hi! Come on. I’ll show you to your room”.”

Mohan spotted a pierced ear. His cousin was in a cut off jeans, in tatters just below his knees.

He couldn’t wait to see his father’s face. But he could only discern a raised eyebrow.

********

The wedding hall was chaotic. Prakash uncle and his son sometimes eclipsed even Gopal in getting all the attention. People milled about them, and his cousin was constantly harassed with the standard question, “Let’s see if you remember me. What’s my name?”

And in the ladies’ quarters, the tongues were wagging in hot gossip about them. Mohan heard snatches of it whenever he passed by.

“Heard he has a Russian girlfriend!” his mother stage whispered to Kamala aunty.

Suddenly spotting him, she said, “That’s why I want to get this fellow married off soon. Who knows whom he’ll bring from Bombay?”

If he was not so bogged down with responsibilities and unreasonable requests, he’d have enjoyed scandalizing his mother and aunt.

He’d have told them breezily, “I have no intention to marry now. I already have a live-in girlfriend!” He could just imagine their horrified faces.

“Mohan!” His brother’s panic-stricken voice.

“I can’t find my tie. I think I have lost it!”

“Hey! The function is only 40 minutes away!”

Finally he managed to run out to the nearest store and bought one before anybody knew and created a scene.

*******

It was a relief when the day ended. Mohan opted to go home for the night.

He needed the peace.

The house was strangely empty.

When he lay down to sleep, he could hear the echoes of the voices of the people who had occupied the house for the past week.

He went to his brother’s room. From tomorrow, he’d lose the freedom to walk in as he pleased. He’ll have to be careful about not invading the privacy of its new occupant.

He suddenly saw a photo of Gopal and himself, taken about 15 years ago. With their arms around each other, they smiled at the camera with bright eyes.

He realized they’d gradually grown apart over the years.

Now they had their own separate circles of friends, jobs, opposite preferences and totally separate lives.

His own move to Mumbai added to that. Both were pathetic in keeping touch. He got news about Gopal from their mother’s mails. He was sure she was also Gopal’s source of information about his life.

Now, the wedding will only widen the gap between them. Gopal will become busy with matrimony. Then maybe children. His life will be filled with his wife’s world as well. Her siblings, parents, friends.

He imagined himself 30 years from now. Will he be so eager and enthusiastic like his uncle to pack his bags and come down for Gopal’s son’s wedding with his family in tow?

Or will he simply send him a gift cheque and get on with his life?

Maybe he’ll come back.

After all, it’s a bonding thing.

A wedding to remember – A flashback

“Hey, guess what?’ K’s voice screamed in my ear.

Rudely awakened by the phone, I was far from enthusiastic.

“What?” I asked groggily.

“B is getting married!”

That woke me up more effectively than a strong cup of tea.

“Really? What? When? Where? Whom?” I stammered.

Last we heard, she had just completed her course in Fashion Design in one of the leading fashion schools in the country and was all set to hit the fashion world, being the star of her class in the finals.

Why would she give it all up for matrimony?

K & me had just finished graduation and were enjoying one last lazy summer before working on a career for ourselves.

Of course not everyone wanted the same thing.

N and H were all gearing up to be married and keep home from when we were in class 10, giving graduation a total miss.

M was planning on post grad to buy her more time before she succumbed to joining her dad in his business.

Anyway, this being the first wedding in our group and all that, we’d worked up tremendous enthusiasm by the time it came around.

B coming back to town just to invite us was a major push to persuade our parents to send us to another state to attend the wedding.

This was going to be the first trip we’d take as young adults without supervision of either parents or teachers. So they were apprehensive.

With great gusto, all of us assembled at K’s place the previous night so we can catch the train early next morning.

The artistic and beautiful N was drawing mehendi in all our palms.

Everyone was going over everyone’s clothes and accessories.

Finally at around midnight, K’s older sis poked her head in and ordered us to bed, so we can get a goodnight’s sleep.

We reluctantly switched off the lights and settled into bed. N hadn’t finished with most of us.

“Never mind,” she said. “We’ll have a lot of time to kill in the train. I’ll continue then”

********

The next morning K’s dad drove us to the station, deposited us and the luggage in the appropriate seats and took his leave.

“Yippee! The fun has begun” We screamed with delight.

After a few small fights with fellow passengers for making too much noise, we settled around N for the promised mehendi.

The train stopped in a major station for 15 minutes. K was getting her mehendi done. The rest of us strolled out to stretch our legs, had chai and climbed back in. By the time we were back, K had made friends with a beggar who also seemed a little challenged. He’d been watching the process of Mehendi from the platform outside the window. She grinned at him periodically and showed her palm to reveal the design which was taking shape.

N saw me and rolled her eyes heavenward. Why does K get friendly with all the wrong people? This is the question we’ve been asking her for a long time. She befriends shop keepers, Bus Conductors… Anyone who smiles at her becomes her friend.

“They’ll probably think you’re looking for a lay” B used to tell her bluntly.

“Just shut up, you snobs!” K used to fume. ‘You guys are so stuck-up!”

The train started to move. K put both her palms up towards the window and asked ‘Nice?” to the beggar.

He smiled broadly nodding his assent.

Then he looked at her squarely as the train picked up speed, winked and made an obscene gesture with his hand.

We quickly brought the shutters down.

****

“Hi guys! Welcome! Let me introduce you to my Fiancé”

A six foot, handsome man with a rakish smile waited for us at the end of the corridor.

‘Hello!” he said in a deep voice.

Flustered, all of us muttered our quick hellos.

Back in the room, we collapsed in a fit of giggles.

“My god!” K gasped. “What a hulk!” “So handsome!” M sighed. ‘When my turn comes, I’m sure may dad’ll get me married to a fat, pan-chewing guy with yellow T-shirt and jeans saying ‘Disco Disco!’ She moaned.

She was undoubtedly the hippest of us, who wore designer clothes even to bed.

N & H looked most envious. A, who was relatively new to the group who’d joined us in the last year of school looked a bit uncertain.

“Who’s talking about the groom?” K snapped. “I meant the driver who picked us up from the station.”

“What!!” We gasped.

“Yup!” She said dreamily. “Did you check out his aquiline nose? His piercing eyes?”

All of us were upon her like a bunch of hungry dogs on a bone.

***

That holiday, if you may call it that, was a revelation to me. There was a big surprise waiting for me the second day.

H called me for a walk after lunch. I hopped along, marveling at the lush greenery around us.

“I have something to tell you.” She began. “Don’t be shocked”

She then proceeded to undo the top button of her shirt.

“Hey! What are you doing?” I screamed.

Impatiently she pulled a frayed yellow thread, which magically appeared around her neck. She had artfully hidden in it her bra all the while.

I stared at her blankly.

“I’m married.” She stated.

“When?” I gasped.

She’d been seeing this guy for sometime now. I knew they faced a little resistance from his side, but marrying him secretly like that?!

“Everyone in our group knows” she explained. “Except A.” So you better not open your mouth to her.”

With that stiff warning, she strode off not waiting to hear the lecture I was planning.

“What the…..?” I asked K when I reached the room. “How come you never told me?”

“Ah! Like you’ll approve!” She scoffed. “Who wants another lecture on morality from an uptight a** like you?”

Suddenly A emerged from a corner.

“I have something to confess.” She said meekly.

“I couldn’t help hearing what you were saying. Actually, even I got married last month.”

“What?!” Both of us gasped.

She was apparently in love with a boy in her neighborhood. Her mom was dead against it and was arranging a marriage as soon as possible. Hence the quiet wedding on the sly. “Nobody knows at both our homes. So please don’t tell anyone.” She pleaded.

I collapsed in the bed with the weight of those secrets.

“Maybe I’ll elope with the driver dude too..” Whispered K conspiratorially. “You handle my parents!”

I threw a pillow at her.

****

I couldn’t sleep that night.

Two of my friends had been married for months now and I didn’t even know? And here we were celebrating the so-called first wedding in our group.

K seemed to have problems sleeping too.

I could just about see her suppressing a giggle in the dark.

“What?” I whispered.

She pointed to the corner of the room where the rest had managed to tie a rope from one end to another to hang their laundry. Under garments, to be precise.

Straining my eyes, I found the reason for her mirth.

A huge, over-sized panty was hanging smack in the middle. Its elastic worn out, the owner had fastened it with a safety pin.

For some strange reason, it tickled us both to no end.

“It has to be H’s” stated K. “She’s the fattest of us all” She said unkindly.

After wiping my eyes, I suggested, “Maybe it’s A’s. She’s the one who’s so fashion-challenged,” We dissolved in a fit of giggles again.

Slowly almost all of us were giggling on the sly trying to guess the owner.

Suddenly the lights came on.

M strode up purposefully towards the offensive garment.

Her face burning, she said, ‘its mine, ok? If it hurts your eyes so much, I shall remove it!”

A stony silence ensued until all of us screamed with laughter.

****

We couldn’t take our eyes off the groom during the ceremony. God! He was really handsome.

The best part is he knew it and was checking us all out in a sidelong glance, once in a while.

We could almost feel the bride’s piercing eyes on us.

I was freshening up after breakfast when K dragged me off to a corner window. Not minding my protest, she pointed to the bride’s room where H & A were set about stringing some black beads.

“Ask B’s mom what’s it for,” urged K. “Why?” “Just do it!” She grinned mischievously.

“Oh that!” aunty told me when I did ask. “We need two unmarried kanya girls to string the beads for the mangal sutra dear,” she explained before she was called on to the stage again.

When K & I peeped in the room again with mocking grins, they looked away guiltily.

That was the last memory I have of that memorable wedding.

And did I tell you that was the last we saw of the bride?!