Now I know

“Never take ordinary days for granted,” I had read somewhere. “When you look back, those will be the days you will miss most.”

I realise the full meaning of that sentence only now.

Exactly 15 days ago, I fled from home, jumping on to a rescue boat from my first floor balcony. With a back pack with a change of clothes and other immediate essentials. (My son’s bag had a few comics and his sketching kit.)

The boat had hobbled a few feet above my husband’s SUV. Once we jumped in, we zipped and zoomed against the flowing current for the scariest 8 minutes of my life.

A few hours of restless waiting followed as we waited in the rain in somebody’s garage for the boat to bring my husband and sister in law.

I am one of the luckier few. Water did not enter my floor. Some thieves did, a few days later, but thankfully they didn’t take much.

Except for the loss of our cars and the locks on the front door, my family didn’t lose much compared to my ground floor neighbors.

They lost everything, but for some valuables they managed to save in a hurry, as the water level rose inside their homes.

My friend in the next building had just enough time to carry her dogs and cats to the safety of a floor above, that she couldn’t even think of her valuables.

We’ve also been luckier because we had somewhere to go.

Perhaps this was a wake up call to all.

Things can indeed change in a flash.

Homes can go under water.

Prized possessions can be washed away.

As can dear ones.

Your whole life can turn upside down in a matter of hours.

Though I know my home isn’t damaged and I can go back the minute power is restored and my street is clear of debris and damaged cars, a feeling of displacement is difficult to shake off.

A wave of homesickness washes over me when I least expect it.

I suddenly miss my morning cuppa with the day’s crossword, the bustle of breakfast and subsequent school runs, the mid-morning tea breaks when I have the whole house to myself, my bed, my favourite mug, baking the weekly bread, my tv shows, driving alone with my favourite song blaring….

Oh so many small things I took for granted.

If I can feel so much sadness for being away from home for a few weeks, I shudder to think of those who have lost their homes forever.

They will have to start anew. Build new lives. Create new routines. Make fresh memories.

Meanwhile, I will wait it out. Hold my breath a bit longer. Pause my regular life.

Till I can go back home.

And savour my ordinary days.

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The Mother in law – Book review

 

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I picked up this book from the ‘New Arrivals’ section of a popular book store, thinking it’s a tongue-in-cheek account of various anecdotes gathered from interviewing daughters-in-law across the country.

The synopsis at he back of the book proclaims it  a ‘witty, acute and often painfully funny book…’

The introduction is a brief account of the author’s personal experience with her own mom-in-law, followed by an inkling of what to expect from the chapters ahead.

Contrary to my expectations, the book turns out to be a lot more serious. Each chapter deals with a story of a daughter-in-law, who meets up with the author in coffee shops, hotels, taxis and various places to recount their horror stiries.

Horror stories they are. Undoubtedly.

Of course any true-blue Indian will know the Indian mom-in-law is quite different from her counterpart in other countries and cultures. That a desire to wield control over the daughter-in-law is a given. But these 12 stories take that ‘control’ to totally another level.

According to Venugopal, every Indian mom starts planning her son’s wedding,  right from the day he is born. As he grows up, she guilt-trips him with stories of her various sacrifices and how he will break her heart once he gets his wife, thus ensuring his support continues even after he’s out of the nest.

The stories in this book range from a mom-in-law hand picking her daughter-in-law, charming her way into her heart with gifts, movies, etc even before her son comes into the picture. To mom-in-laws who were so affronted that the son chose a bride himself, that she makes it impossible for the girl to find any happiness with him after her marriage.

There’s Rachna, whose mom-in-law courted her for months before introducing her son. Literally taking over her life and grooming her to be the exact daughter-in-law she wants her to be…

Carla, an European bride having to put up with her conservative  ‘Mummyji’, who initially refused to accept her, but when there was no choice, accepts her grudgingly and treats her like an unpaid maid…

Payal, who manages to break away from her domineering ‘Mummyji’ by creating a separate kitchen for herself while still staying in the same joint family…

Keisha, who not only put sup with a nightmare of a mother in law, but also an abusive husband…

Each story tells us the ugly , hidden face of the Indian families without mincing words.

Of course one constantly hears about the power-struggles between mother-in-law and daughter-in-law and various petty fights over the years, but I haven’t heard of such nasty stories since the 80s…

Even then, as a child, I never personally knew the vile mothers-in-law, whose stories I eavesdropped during family gatherings… It is shocking such people still exist, fueling the TRP rates of soaps like Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi…

Veena Venugopal goes to an extent of saying her campaign is to save the Indian daughters-in-law from this mother-in-law menace, which is rampant in this country.

Once I started reading the book, I just could not put it down till I finished the last page…

Though it really saddens me to read these heart-rending stories, I cannot help remembering sad stories of meek mothers-in-law who are really a rare breed.

I’ve come across a few who cook, clean and take care of the grand children while the ‘modern’ daughters-in-law is always traveling and skypes them with hundred instructions on everyday chores. These are the moms-in-law who meticulously organise the daughters-in-law’ wardrobe for her next trip, sit outside play schools to pick up their grandchild while running the household successfully.

Of course, like I said earlier, these are a very rare breed.

Most of them, I guess are the ones in this book – The mother in law – The other woman in your marriage…

 

The crazy cook!

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I grew up hating the way my mom treated hired help. She was always suspicious of them and was very frugal. When I visited my grand mom during the holidays, I was aghast at the way she treated them too. I vowed I would never, ever be like them.

In all the years of running my own home, many a  unique character has tested that resolve.

But none to equal this really crazy lady!

On a November afternoon, two years ago, I answered the doorbell to find a woman grinning at me.

“You’d asked for someone for top-work, Amma?” She enquired enthusiastically.

‘Yes,” I replied.

She literally pushed past me and surveyed my house.  And declared she can start that very minute.

She agreed to all my terms concerning timings & salary.

I was thrilled. I had fired my previous hired help 3 weeks ago. After 6 years, I’d realised that she had been siphoning off my valuables very slowly… Had to let her go after my new gold bangles & a gold chain vanished within weeks of each other.

I had been struggling with all the chores from then on.  I couldn’t remember a time when I had relaxed with a nice cup of tea.

On her first day, the new help fished out a wallet and showed me passport pictures of three surly young men.

“My sons!” she announced. “I know, I look too young to be a mother of 3 grown boys, but what to do, they got me married at 14 and I had my first one at 16. Now he’s 21…” She paused, perhaps, waiting for me to calculate her age. I nodded and got on with my cooking.

After a couple of days, I found the new help wanting in every area of housework. Dishes weren’t all that clean, the floor was still dusty & I had to literally follow her around to point out dusty surfaces.

To top it all she kept up non-stop chatter on how she has to get away from her mentally ill husband everyday since it depresses her and all the events taking place in her extended family and neighbors. If she was not doing that, she was on her mobile phone, complaining about her life to god knows whom.

On the third day I told her I was just not happy with her services.

She was very apologetic and admitted to never having done housework before. ‘I was a cook for 13 years, Amma.. But I’ll buck up and learn. I have lots of financial trouble… please don’t sack me…”

I gave in. Having starved of his non-vegetarian diet all these days with my tambrahm cooking, my husband asked if we should check out her culinary skills.

He was blown over by her cooking that we paid her extra to come again in the evening to cook our dinner.

After three days of cooking us sumptuous meals, she asked me if she can finish both cleaning & cooking at one shot. “My sons are complaining that I’m not home in the evenings Amma,  ” she said.

I agreed. But after a week, I noticed a perceptible change. She walked in at 10 am, finished her cooking & proceeded to do a whirlwind cleaning & was out by 2 pm. After a month of pleading with her to do justice to her cleaning, I put my foot down & asked her to do only the cooking. A friend sent someone for top work.

That opened another can of worms. She was so miffed by this and regarded the new top-work as her mortal enemy. After a week of listening to her scream at the poor unsuspecting woman & refusing to give her a cup of tea when she asked, I gave her a piece of mind. I told her if she is going to be nasty & unpleasant, she could just leave.

She created a big scene, accusing me of favouritism & being rude to her.

I was at the end of my tether and announced to my husband that I’ll have to let her go. Horrified that he’ll miss out on all his fish & chicken, he would not hear of it. “Learn to handle her,” He admonished. “How many cooks & maids will you fire just because you get irritated with them? “

So I gritted my teeth and put up with it for a year. I dreaded her time at my home, listening to her narrating one domestic drama or another to who ever was in the kitchen. In a loud voice, with occasional wailing. Once I stormed in and asked her to put a lid on it. The wailing stopped, but her tales continued. Even I could make out that none of it was true, from whatever little bit I heard. Her husband was now a drunkard who beat her up everyday and refused to give her any money for the upkeep of her kids. One day she’d talk about her eldest son who was an undergrad student aspiring to do an MBA. After a few weeks she’ll seek counsel with the top work if she should get him married since he’s been at home for the past 2 years doing nothing.

Soon, she was a proud owner of a scooter and was zipping by to and from work. She’d upgraded her mobile phone and stories of TV soaps started dominating her monologues.

Despite being so irritated with her, I was quite glad to see the improvements in her life.

Her second son was suddenly in the hospital for an emergency appendix surgery. Feeling very sorry for her, I asked her to take time off as long as he was in the hospital. After 2 weeks, she came back to work and said he’d been discharged the previous day. All was well for a couple of days. Out of the blue, she was wailing again that blood is sprouting non-stop from her son’s surgery site. Shocked, I asked her what the doctor said. “We’re yet to take him,” she replied. Outraged at her carelessness, I packed her off that minute to take him to the hospital. She was off for the next few days. She came back to tell me he was admitted again for a corrective procedure. I asked her to take care of him and not to come to work till he was discharged.  A few weeks later she was back to work. I asked to see the discharge report just to check what had gone wrong.

But the report only said that he had been admitted for an emergency appendix surgery and was discharged after full recovery. Puzzled, I told her the report did not speak about any second admission or a corrective procedure.

Pat came her reply. “I know, Amma.. I asked a nurse living next door the same thing and she says in government hospitals, they never keep record of their mistakes…”

Another year went by punctuated with various dramas like her son falling ill with jaundice, her sister losing her husband, her husband losing his sister, etc… Of course all of them demanded her presence so she had to take leave from work.

One fine day, I ticked her off for some thing. She huffed up and said, “you can look out for another cook. I’m quitting by the 1st of next month”.

I was immensely relieved! I sent a silent thank you to God Almighty for sparing me the unpleasant business of firing her.

The following week, I asked her if I’d heard the date correctly. Because the cook downstairs was bringing his friend to see if we wanted to try him out. And I’d asked him to start next month.

“No!” she wailed. “I changed my mind. I’m not leaving you. I’ll work for you forever!”

Forever?! Alarm bells started ringing furiously in my head.

“Excuse me! If I remember right, you were the one who wanted to quit & even gave me a date! I’ve asked someone else to take your place and that’s that!”

“But Amma! Where will I go? I have 3 children and a blind husband to support…”

I was flabberghasted. When she started working, her hubby was supposedly mentally ill. A few months later he was a drunkard. Now he’s blind?

Did she think I was really that stupid?

We were traveling for the next few days and I’d asked her to come back the following week. “But there’s really nothing I can do. My husband has asked someone to start work from the first and he’ll be very angry with me!” I said, using my husband’s name to wriggle out of another scene.

She came back the following week, finished her cooking and meekly stood before me when I was frantically finishing up some pending work at my comp.

“Amma, did you check with Sir if I can continue here?” she asked in a sugary tone.

“Yes, I did. “ I replied solemnly. “He says the other person is starting tomorrow.”

Her sugary tone vanished in a second and in a harsh voice she screamed, “How could you do this to me? You know very well I have a blind husband and 3 children to take care of.. I cannot work anywhere else. Your place is the only place I feel comfortable…”

I calmly told her to cut the drama and reminded her it was her decision and she had had a lot of time to look for another job.

“I know you’re talking like this because of that wretch, the top work! She’s been feeding you with rubbish about me! She hates me and wants to get rid of me!”

I assured her nobody had anything to do with this. And it was she who wanted to quit and gave her the last salary and showed her the door.

I was dreading her landing up to create another scene the next morning. Till 11 am there was no sign of her. After almost 2 years, my house was so peaceful!

I was humming to myself when my phone rang. A very distraught friend called to inform me that the crazy cook had paid her a visit just then. She had sat in her living room and wailed for an hour, accusing my friend of ruining her life..

“What?????” I sputtered. “Why would she blame you? “

“Apparently she found out that it was me who had sent you the top-work. So she cried and screamed ‘how can you send someone when I was working there? Now she’s poisoned madam’s mind and I’m on the streets!’ She left only after I assured her that I’ll speak to you.”

Both of just couldn’t figure out how she connected her to the top work and more importantly how she traced her home.

It got really scary. ‘What a psycho!” said my husband when I told him.

I ignored her constant calls and they stopped after a few days. My friend alerted her security and so did I. Between us we warned other friends and relatives too. And that was that.

My top work reported that she met her in a shop a few weeks later, looking as cheerful as ever but came to her & bellowed, ‘You! You cost me my job and don’t think you’ll get away with that!” and flounced off.

Now I have a man coming in to do the cooking. He’s a focused, silent presence in my kitchen for 2 hours every morning and whips up meal after fantastic meal.

And without the drama.

Its raining, its pouring…

My father used to be paranoid about sending us to school when it rained. My brother was very happy with this arrangement and would proceed to spend the day with gay abandon, but I’d usually start to fret. To me, going to school used to be the sole purpose of my day. If  you take that away from me, I just wouldn’t know what to do. There was always some friend to whom I’d promised something or a test which had to be written or a teacher waiting for an assignment.

Once,  I must have been in class 6. My grandparents were visiting. As usual, my grandmother took over the kitchen and went about cooking all our favourite foods and griped about how we never get to eat properly, thanks to the working mother we had.

Since the school I went to was about three streets away, I decided to come home for lunch.

And by the time I set off to school again, lo and behold, it started pouring cats and dogs. Since my father was also expected to come home for lunch, I hurriedly put on my long Duckback raincoat, ensured my school bag was protected against the downpour and stepped into the pouring rain amidst loud protests from my grandparents.

We’s just moved back into town, so the school we went to was a transit one, while waiting for admissions from a bigger school.

It was actually a small house converted into a school, with hardly ten students per class. And since we were only four of us in class 6, we were seated in a long bench with a long desk in the verandah. The teacher normally walked to & fro or perched on the broad parapet  while teaching.

I had hardly settled into my corner of the bench after removing my raincoat and set my bag beside me, when I heard a screech of brakes. There was my father, as angry as ever, driving right into the open gates of the school and stopped right in front of my class, the verandah. He lowered the window and barked at me, “Get in!”

Totally  taken aback, I looked at the teacher’s face. Equally shocked, she gestured me to ‘just go’.

We rode back home with me sniffing into my hanky at the humiliation and my dad listing all kinds of mishaps that could have finished off my life enroute to school. (Open manholes, falling trees, to name a few).

I was surprised to learn none of my friends’ parents shared this strange paranoia. Most of them ensured their kids never used the rain as an excuse to bunk school.

Later, being in a bigger school never discouraged my father to keep us home during a shower.

In grade 10,  I had to write a model exam. (A preliminary internal exam before the actual board exam). I woke up with a raging fever and it was raining. I begged and pleaded with my father to let me go to school for just an hour. Of course he didn’t let me.

“This is not an IAS exam, you know. ” He told me sternly. After giving me a grossly exaggerated account of what would happen if I risk stepping out even for a minute in the rain, (“There’s this nerve in your brain which will explode when you go in the rain with fever. Instant death!”) he ordered me to go back to bed.

Even now I’m queasy to step out in the rain. But I never shy away from driving my son to school when it pours. We both kind of enjoy the drive, except for splashing water on an unsuspecting pedastrian on a cyclist. (I always mouth an apology)

Now my father calls me when it is raining, ” So, you’ve dropped him off at school in the pouring rain?” He asks accusingly.

“Yes, and he’ll not melt you know..” I retort cheekily.

But last week, I made an exception. My son was just recovering from a viral fever. He was all set to go to school after two days of driving me crazy with all his unspent energy (yes, even with his raging fever and lack-lustre eyes, he had to be up and about), when I noticed it was raining heavily. Old fears reared their ugly heads back . “You cannot go to school in this rain,” I told him. “What if you get your fever again?”

My husband raised an eyebrow. “Stop making him a sissy!” He growled.

“He’s not exactly studying for the IAS, you know. Its only class 1” I informed him. “And I’m the one who stays with him when he has fever. ”

My husband shrugged and went back to his newspaper.

My son has been watching our exchange with great excitement. He looked at me questioningly.

“You go to bed, baby!” I told him.

“Yippee!” he did a jig and ran back to bed to sleep some more. Fortunately or unfortunately, he takes after my brother in such issues. Didn’t fret a bit like me.

My father was extremely pleased with me when he called later.

I know creatures like my father and I are slowly getting extinct in this rat-race, but once in a while, it’s nice to take a break when it rains and chill with a hot cuppa and pakodas and just watch the rain from the window…

Food for thought…

A newly-married friend walked in to my place with her husband. I was feeding my son.

The couple looked at each other and burst out laughing.

“We’re sorry!” they said. “But whenever we see you, you’re always feeding your son! Why are you so obsessed?!”

Her husband asked me, “I’m just a bit curious. Will you become very depressed when he grows up and start eating on his own?”

I looked at them perplexed. Am I really so obsessed? I wondered. Maybe a little…

Come on, who am I kidding?

Of course, I am.

In the big book of maternal guilt, feeding your child is the opening chapter! Right from the day he was born, I worried if he was getting enough nutrition. I don’t know about others, but I just didn’t think I was competent enough to be responsible for a little person’s well-being…

I still remember the day I took him to the pediatrician for his first month review. He was only 2.6 kilos at birth. I waited with bated breath as she placed him on the weighing scale. It was like waiting for an exam result for me.

“4 kilos!” He’s almost doubled his birth weight!” She announced. I collapsed with relief.

Now I realise, I haven’t grown out of that phase yet. My son being a fussy eater and being so skinny does not help either.

Veiled comments from elderly relatives send me automatically to monster-mom mode. I bully, rave and rant till my son finishes his last morsel that day.

I suppose this is a very Indian trait. I don’t see this abroad at all.

From what I hear, nobody spoon feeds a baby after a year in the west. They let him/her make a mess, but the baby feeds itself. And if they go hungry, well, they just eat better the next day.

Someone even told me the best way to train my son is to leave the food in front of him for 20 minutes. And remove it after that, regardless of whether the child has eaten or not.

He may not lick the plate clean on the first day, but will soon realise that the meal will have to be over in 20 minutes.

Can you imagine an Indian mom doing that?!!

She’ll be the centre of all bitching sessions in her entire clan…

Can I bring myself to do that?

On good days, I cajole him, run behind him, switch on the TV, do anything for him to open his mouth during meal time…

And on bad days, I’m a monster-mom!

Forget me.

Even days before her death, my mother’s first question to me when I enter her hospital room was, ‘Have you eaten?’ Regardless of the time of the day! I had to tell her what I’d eaten and only then she’ll relax.

Maybe Indian mothers are wired that way!

A friend told me that undue importance is given to food in India.

The reason, he says is that we were a famine-ridden country for many centuries before the agricultural & Industrial revolutions.

Here, in any communal gathering, food plays the most important part. Even now with all the affluence, I see people running to the dining hall whether the muhurtham is over or not. Some one just has to say “Sappadu Ready!”

The first Pandhi is always the most coveted.

And when someone drops in unannounced during meal time, people get annoyed. ‘Vandhuttan par, sapadra nerathile’ This, my friend tells me is because centuries ago, we did not have food to share with others.

I read somewhere that food was medicine in those days. They had different food for different seasons, a particular order to consume the food and even specific food for specific times of the day.

The food they ate kept our ancestors healthy. When someone fell ill, the medicine was from his/her own kitchen. Kashayams, otthadam, patthhu, etc took care of the various aches and pains.

A friend even told me each of us should stick to the food we’ve been eating for generations.

“Look at the Keralites.” She said. “If we consume coconut oil like them, our cholestral levels would hit the ceiling. But their genes are programmed to handle it”

And once I was on a salad diet (For exactly 5 hours! I was so hungry by 3 pm, I had to order in a masala dosa!) she said, “Your genes are not wired to handle a salad diet,” she lectured. “That’s for people from very cold climates”.

So now whenever my husband starts bugging me to stop eating rice at nights to stop my burgeoning waistline, I tell him, “Sorry, I have to eat rice. My genes are not programmed to digest anything else!”

Oops! its 11 pm! I lost track of time! Have to go for that steaming hot rice with a dollop of ghee with avarakkai sambhar!

Goodnight!!

working from home

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I work from home. Which has its perks. Especially with a small child.

When I was young, working moms were rare. Most of my pals from school had moms waiting at home with a snack for the evening. After which they supervised their homeworks.

I think I was the only one with a working mom in my class.

My brother & I opened the lock and entered an empty house, made some jam sandwiches or simply changed out of our uniforms and walked to a nearby bakery to have Gold spot, cake & Fivestar. After which we went on to play & came home only when we saw our mom walking home from the bus stop.

Most of my friends envied us for our freedom.

But sometimes I used to nag my mom to resign, so she could be home when we get back from school.

She always reasoned softly that she was in a government job (which was difficult to come by those days) and she just cannot throw it away…

Later on, when I was a trainee, I saw a senior colleague give up her full-time job to be with her kids. Since I stayed close to her, I was entrusted the job of dropping off work at her place on my way home and picking it up on my way to office. (This was the pre-email era) We had strict instructions never to call her between 2 and 4.30 pm, because it was nap time for her kids.

All this put together, I decided to be a work-at-home mom too when it was my turn.

Fortunately for me its much easier with the world wide web.

But I soon realised working from home is not for the faint-hearted.

The boundaries between work and home are so blurred…

Its pretty stressful to hear a client briefing you on a new job, while your baby’s howling away in the crib.

I’m terrified of sounding unprofessional, so I once spoke to a client in a full-fledged business-like tone, pretending to take notes while I was in fact wiping my son’s derriere!

I try not to ignore him while I’m working, so often I work after he sleeps at night. Sometimes from 12 at night to the wee hours in the morning!

And as Murphy’s law will have it, the child always falls sick when there’s a short deadline.

Sometimes the child choses to be most difficult when all you need is ten minutes of peace to finish some work which was actually needed yesterday.

Of course, there are some understanding colleagues & clients who’ll ask “Is this a good time to talk?” the minute they hear a whimper in the background.

But I don’t miss working in an office.

No mad rush to beat the traffic to reach office on time…

No attendance register to give me a red line when I arrive 10 minutes late for work…

No layers of hierarchy for anything…

No twiddling of thumbs and getting bored when there’s no work…

No guilt trips if I check personal mail during working hours…

The list is endless.

But I do miss the general camaraderie and of course the lunchtime gossip-sessions.

But they seem a small price to pay for the freedom otherwise!

For starters, I can blog as and when I please!