Second mothers

My mother was one of nine siblings. As a child, I watched her maternal home in a tiny village in South India,  play host to many, including me. Though the permanent residents were only my grand mother and my youngest uncle, the house was always full of floating population. Cousins posted nearby who used the house as base during week days, daughters who dropped in for short visits, sons and grandsons stopping by on their way to somewhere… and my own mother who used to shuttle between her government job in her hometown and Chennai till she got the much-awaited transfer.

So my brother and I used to stay there for months on end sometimes. Till my mother finally got her transfer when I was about 10.

During my stays, I spent a lot of time with a cousin. Though she’s technically my cousin, she’s only a few years younger than my mom, so she was more like an aunt. She has a bubbly personality, her kohl-rimmed eyes sparkling with mirth all the time. Being a school teacher, she was on to my tricks even before my own mother realised what I was up to. She was my hero. Thanks to her influence early on, I still cannot step out of home without drawing kohl in my eyes.

Once we settled down in Chennai, our meetings were reduced to occasional weddings. She too got married and was soon busy with the throes of raising her children while holding on to a full time job.

After a few more years even I stopped going for weddings due to the pressures of  academia and later, a career. I met her sporadically, may be once in 2 or 3 years.

I met her after a long gap of 8 years at a wedding, a few days ago. And the years just fell away. Except for the fact that she is a grand mother now and looks so frail and old, thanks to her illness, her eyes hold the same sparkle even now. We chatted away as much as we could and reminisced about my childhood and her youth.

Soon, it was time to go & I bid her good bye with a sudden lump in my throat.

On my way home I wondered, ‘Will my son ever have bonds like these?’

As a kid, I had so many mother figures in my life. My grandmothers, aunts, older cousins or sometimes even neighbours. I’ve spent days with and weeks with these women, stayed in their homes, eaten their food, confided in them and worried them to no end with my antics.

Of course, mostly it was because my own mother was so busy working full time & keeping house, she hardly had the luxury of a leisurely chat with me. Though my mother was a rock solid influence in shaping my health, conscience and general happiness, my emotional growth was pretty much dependant on these women who always lent a ear to my make-up queries and troubled teenage woes.

But apart from me and my mother-in-law, my son absolutely has no one else as a mother figure in his life.

True, he has his aunts and my best friends. But he sees them all with me around and only for short periods of time. He can never be close enough to go to them with his problems.

On the other hand, unlike my mother, I’m always around, ready to comfort him and offer him advice 24/7.

So I consoled myself that he does not really have the need for that kind of bonds in his life.

But after nine long years of my mother’s passing, it sure felt nice to look up to someone who cared for you as a child, feel safe and protected and not be the adult for once.

 

 

Best wishes…

All my childhood years, attending a wedding meant tagging behind my mom, behaving myself in front of strangers who were actually related, eating lots of laddus & jangiris & occasionally playing hide and seek with long-lost cousins from distant lands.

But after K’s sister got married, this meaning changed for me. Having just stepped into college, we were all still getting used to being treated like grown-ups.

Now it was all girly fun, where we could all dress up in our mothers’ fineries and prance around, inventing jobs for ourselves or just hang out together, gossip & look around coyly for good-looking boys.

Oh , and it gave us a legit reason to stay out late.

So when K’s cousin’s wedding rolled around a year later, I was all set to have fun. I went across to H’s house the previous day to check out what she was wearing. But she wasn’t attending.

“Why?”

“K did not invite me properly..”

“What? Didn’t she come over to give you an  invite?”

“Yeah, but I felt she did it for formality’s sake. Didn’t say I have to come or anything. After all, we hardly know her cousin.”

“But H! K is sooo close to us! Remember the fun we had at her sister’s wedding? We chatted with this cousin for hours!”

Nothing I said moved her. Now I was in a dilemma. Should I be the patch-up friend here and call K and tell her about this? Or should I just ignore it and go for the wedding with N & B? Or should I call them too and find out if they felt the same? Weren’t we a little too young for such grown up ego-tantrums?

But then, what if K was not very keen on me going too?

To end all the endless questions, I dialed K’s number. When I told her, she was horrified.

“I went over to her place & invited her with a kumkum dabba!” she wailed. “Please explain what she means by ‘inviting properly’?  And hey! I invited you over the phone. Are you also going to ditch saying that was not enough? What will I tell my aunt & uncle? They are so keen to see you all at the wedding!”

I assured her I’ll make it with the other 2 and in fact had a great time at the wedding.

I’m sure this is a unique problem we face only in India.

Anywhere else, either you’re invited or you’re not!

No ‘inviting properly’ or any other hidden power-play at work!

But with us, the inviting and the attending has so many subtle nuances. I suppose it’s because, we’re totally caught between the age-old customs and the evolving westernised concept of giving people their ‘space’.

There were times when we used to land up at a friends’ or reatives’ homes unannounced and never doubt for a minute if you’ll not be welcomed with open arms.

Now we have to call beforehand to check if they’re home and if they’re free to receive you. Heck! even I wouldn’t like it if someone lands up with family for a meal while I’m planning on catching a movie or have anther dinner scheduled!

At the other end, we have the custom of ‘visiting’ an ailing person.

When do you know its the best time to visit someone who’s recuperating/has had a baby/has had a surgery/is in the intensive care?

We hear horror stories of someone who’d underwent a minor surgery, but expired because he’d caught an infection from a visiting relative.

Or about a newborn who had to fight for his life for weeks in the neonatal care, because some visiting relative had forced a pinch of sugar into his mouth which had some bacteria?

When one of my own family members was in the ICU, even we, the immediate family, were given only 5 minutes to visit her, twice a day. Reason: she’s recovering from a serious infection and she does not need any fresh ones. And since she was stable and would require a few more days of intensive care, we were asked to go home at other times. “What’s the point in you guys hanging out in the crowded lobby?” we were asked. “She’s doing well and if there’s an emergency, we’ll call you. You’re fifteen minutes away, anyway.” Reasoned the doctor.

So we trooped back home and hoped for the best. But we kept getting calls every evening from relatives who called us from the hospital lobby, demanding to see her. And were horrified by the family’s absence!

One of them said, “Can one of you be in the hospital, so we can at least see you?” It was like marking their attendance. It only got worse after she was shifted to a room. Every evening we were swarmed by visitors and the patient just wanted to sleep!

Ditto when I delivered my son. I was still getting used to the lack of sleep and all the other discomforts only a new-born can give you, and every evening, I had to grit my teeth and be nice to the hoards that wanted to ooh & ahh the baby…

But when I did refrain from visiting a sick person, fearing infection, I was gently reprimanded for not showing my solidarity to a fellow human being!

God! its all sooo confusing!

The line between giving someone their space and giving your moral support when a person needs your presence has been so smudged that we don’t know when we’re wanted and when we’re not.

After my experiences on both sides for years, now I’ve made rules (at least for me) to follow.

When I need to be on my own, like when I’m ill or taking care of someone, I tell people not to bother visiting. I personally find making small talk when ill is all the more draining.

Sometimes its very irritating when people gape at you as you’re lying in bed, trying to memorise every detail, so they can compare notes with a fellow visitor. And don’t even get me started on the ones who just want to cross you off their list of visits that day!

And I never visit a new-born till they’re back home & well-settled. (except for very sensitive folks who keep a tab!)

But best of all, I like this uncle of a friend, who held his son’s upanayanam at home with just him, his wife & son and later sent a card to all relatives & friends which said,

“My son’s Upananyanam ceremony was held at home on ——. I know you’ll want to be informed and your blessings will always be with him”

It really requires lot of guts to something like that. I’m sure none of his relatives forgave him for depriving them their share of elai sappad and all the gossip they’d have caught up on!

tea times…

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A swank new tea lounge had opened up in the neighborhood. A small place, looked cosy from outside.

A friend called me. She was back in town for a holiday and wanted to meet up with the gang for tea. I suggested the new place.

A few days later, I walked in with my pals.

All of us collapsed on the comfy sofas and looked around appreciatively.

“This place is  so much like the Central Perk in ‘Friends’, I said.

“Wow!” S said. “Why didn’t we have places like these when we were in college?”

“Like we would have been able to afford it!” quipped N. “Dei, you still owe me money for your college binges!” he laughed.

The afternoon saw us relaxed and catching-up on each others’ lives. The ones returning home sat reminiscing with the rest of us who were definitely not going anywhere outside our charmed city.

The ambience of the place added to to our sense of  bonhomie. Dim lights, tastefully done interiors, a book shelf crammed with a wide variety of books, a lone waiter who was in no hurry…

…it was bliss.

A few weeks later, I wanted to go there again. So I dragged a cousin to the place and told her this is a must-see place for her if she wants a cool hang-out for her friends.

She was in college and was reluctantly plodding through a course in, lets just say more scintifically oriented.

“I’m just waiting to complete college, so I  never have to look at a science book in my life again!” she told me on our way. “You know, I’m so much more interested in Arts.”

“Then why did you take this up?” I asked.

“Oh Akka! I thought this was my calling in life when I was in school,  and Arts was only a hobby. But now I realise there are so many avenues open to Arts..” She said.

Her jaw dropped opened when she saw the place.

“Oh wow!” She gushed. “What a place!”

She was alll charged up by the time we were seated. 

“Once I go back home after my college, I am going to start a place, just like this in my city!” She enthused.

“I’ll speak to mom and we can look for a place closeby…” 

As she was plotting the opening of her own restaurant, I lazily looked around.

Not many people on a Sunday afternoon, I mused.

The place was empty, but for a table on the other end.

The door opened and a couple walked in. They were holding hands and she was leaning on his shoulder. They took the table directly in front of us.

She was a PYT, pencil thin, in a tight-fitting lime-green Tee and tight denims. He was more the studious type, with a book in hand.

She looked vaguely familiar. But I just couldn’t place her.

After we placed our orders, I was still trying to place the PYT. “I think I know her..” I told my cousin, trying not stare.

I thought I was getting somewhere. Just when my brain found the last piece of the puzzle, I heard a pretty loud click.

My cousin just had to show the place to her mom. So she had clicked a pictuere on her mobile phone.

“She’s my friend’s cousin’s wife!” I said. I had been to his wedding last year.

The lovey-dovey couple, looked in our direction, startled.

“Is that her husband?” my cousin asked, not aware of the little storm she had created in their cuppa.

“No..” I replied as the girl hurriedly packed her things.

Then she walked to the door as fast as possible and let herself out.

“What have you done?!” I asked my cousin.

“That girl thinks we were spying on her and have taken a picture of them together to show her folks!”

“My god! Akka, I’m so sorry!”

But then the situation was so unreal, I burst out laughing.

The man still sat at the table, unmindful of anything, as he slowly sipped his coffee and read his book.

“Will you tell your friend?” my cousin wanted to know.

“No way!” I replied. “This is strictly none of our business. If this woman wants to cheat on her husband, its her prerogative. I hate meddling with other people’s marriages.”

“But you know Akka, these things happen in my college all the time,” She said.

“In my own class there are 2 or 3 cases. But if you’d rather not know, the righteous type you are, we’ll talk about something else.” She added cautiously.

“No, no! I”m ever ready for gossip!” I reassured her and I was greatly enlightened about a married professor living with a student and girls two-timing their class boys and so on and so forth.

And true to my words, I never mentioned my friend’s cousin’s wife to anyone at all.

And thank god I didn’t! Imagine my shock when I bumped into them in a wedding the following week. My frind’s cousin was just the same, but his wife was triple her size. I think she was definitely pregnant!!!

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.