Everything else is just filler.


14 years I’ve lived with this.
My scars have healed. My messed up insides never will.
There’s pain. Constant and unyielding. Only the degree varies.
I’ve learned to mask it well.
Only your Dada sees. He’s the only one who gets to experience all my ugly.

Then there’s you.
You shouldn’t be here.
All those experts are still scratching their heads over you.
We’re still scratching our heads over you.
The miracle my broken body made.
Our miracle.
Fast asleep in my bed tonight because your Dada is away.
Smiling that gorgeous, gap-toothed smile in your sleep.
You. Are. Here.

It hasn’t been fair to you.
You have to be gentle with me.
No headlong charges for you.
No boisterous tussles.
You’ve already started rolling your eyes at how delicate your Mahm is.
But we make the best of it, don’t we?

You wished today that you could make my pain go away forever.
Your face crumpled when I started to cry.
You thought you’d made me sad.

I wish I could’ve explained how wrong you were.
I wish you were old enough to understand.
I have you, baby.
I have your Dada.
Everything else is just filler.

Grams


My Grams, a stay-at-home mother of seven, found herself a widow when her oldest was barely twelve and her youngest a little over six months old. Far away from her own family, she did something completely unheard of for her day and age – she accepted employment at the ammunition factory my grandfather worked at – their very first female employee. She learnt to ride a bicycle and how to type. She taught herself to manage the family finances. She discovered that even a bone-weary human body could make do with less than 3 hours of sleep a night. That if you left your youngest with an item of clothing you had worn, he wouldn’t cry so much in your absence.

She never spoke much about those days; always brushed our awestruck questions aside saying she had merely done what needed doing. She laughed at us when we called her a pioneer, our hero. There was nothing heroic about the job of a back office clerk, she’d say. That she was only offered the job because of all the goodwill our grandfather had garnered in his lifetime – they were simply being kind to his widow. The little bits and pieces I know of her amazing life come from her daughters and sons, my mum among them, from friends of the family and even random strangers in the street. She was über cool, my Grams.

My favourite memories of her revolve around my college years after she retired. I’d come home to find her waiting for me, excited and impatient. “Watch The Bold and the Beautiful with me”, she’d say. “I have to see what those mad people get up to next.” She knew all the characters like they were her own children – and she could unravel for me in seconds, their bizarre, incestuous, complicated relationships. As we watched the show, she’d keep up this half indignant, half amused tirade at the characters’ ridiculous antics that had me in splits.

Today would have been her 85th birthday. She lived a full life, my Grams – a life that encompassed the complete spectrum of human emotion. She left behind a legacy of strength and determination, a resolute will to beat the odds – a legacy that lives on in her children, her grand children and great grand children.

Life: 0 Grams: 1

Things Thing says


It isn’t the saying ‘no’ that’s hard. Or watching her cry. Or staying firm through a tantrum. Keeping a straight face – that’s the hardest.

“Tell, tell, plicklee tell.”

“Mahm, I am becoming a vegetarian tomorrow.”
“What are you today?”
“Sausages.”

A few of her M&Ms fall to the floor. She picks them up and hands them to me: “You can eat them Mama, itsa 5 second rule.”

“A kite, a manja and a giant loudspeaker were having a tea-party. Princess Thing was invited.”
My favourite weirdo tells a story.

“Please pass the silly sauce.”

“First Lulu started fissing, then Bottle started fissing. Only BrusWen didn’t fiss. He mewrowled at them.”

“You must apologise to this stone. You hurt its feelings.”
“How do you know?”
Thinks for a minute.
“AAAPOLLLLLLAGAISE”

“Aday Yaard, kya kartey tum?”
That’s me. Yaard.

“Where is my best friend everywhere?”
Who’s that?”
“Dada!”
“Who am I then?”
“You’re just a Mama.”

“My name is Lola, call me Lola. I am a pink cwockodile. You have to be scared of me now.”

“I’m done eating my dinner.”
“No you’re not, there’s food left on your plate.”
“I’m sacrafycing that for desserd.”

“You are such a cartoon!”
sings: “Cartoon ki kidmat me salaam apun ka. Tane din thanda na.. Dada taught me. You can glare at him and shake your head.”

“Must you always get your way, Thing?”
“Yaah. Itsarule.”

“How old are you, girlie?”
“I’m growing 5.”
“5 what?”
“Years Yaard.”
– The last bit enunciated with utter disdain.

“Now how many stories do I have?”
“35.”
“Oh my, my, thutty five.” giggles like Ranjit

She picks up a fruit chunk with her fingers, spears it, pops it into her mouth.
“Why bother with the pick?”, I ask.
“You. Said. To. Use. It.”

Playing a game of alphabets, ‘nowhai’ comes up.
Because ‘nowIknowmyABCs’.
“STOP laughing at me!”

“You’re not allowed to change your mind. You’re a Dada.”

“Play hide and seek with me Dada.”
“After Mama goes.”
“Go plicklee, right now Mama.”

“What did you bring me Mama?”
“Myself.”
“I prefer presents.”

“I’d like to be a lady when I grow up Mama. Who will teach me?”
– 4 years old and already dissing her poor Mum.

“Watermelon or pineapple juice, Thing?”
“Chocolate milkshake.”

“Tell Mama you want peda from Chitale’s”, he prompts her.
“But I want a racing car toy.”

She’s eating ice-cream, relishing every spoon; she stands on her toes:
“See, didn’t I tell you ice-cream makes you taller?”

“I think I want to be Mix’s baby.”
“Should I pack your bags then?”
“Hmph. You must fight for me, Mama.”
– The mind games have begun.

“I’m a grasspopper and I’m going to bug you.”

“ZERO IS NOT NOTHING. YOU ARE MEAN. I WANT ZERO GUMMY BEARS. I WANT ZERO GUMMY BEARS.”

“I’m gonna count to 3 kiddo and y..”
“Count to 6 Mama, it’s so much nicer.”

“Where did you come from, Father?”
“I came from my mama’s womb, baby.”
“Oh.”
“And where did you come from?”
“I came from school.”

I walk in on her peering into the mirror, my lip balm smeared all over her face.
“I didn’t do anything, Mama. The lip balm attacked me.”

Update 28th March 2013: This post was getting way too long, so I’ve given in to my audience of one and moved all our conversations with my mad little Thing here.

Be brave, be amazing.


My darling little big girl,

Today is your first day at big girl school.

Your knapsack is all packed with your water bottle, your wee snack box and raincoat. When your school said you couldn’t have a bag with Baby Goofy, you made sure we got you one with pretty daisies. Bloodthirsty little hellion that you are, I half expected you to demand one with crocodiles and sharks. Wouldn’t it be fun though, if we did get you one, just to see the look on your teacher’s face?

Each time I’ve looked at you these last few weeks, all I’ve been able to think of is the first time we met, you and I, on that beautiful rainy day almost four years ago. You were such a delicious baby; well, mostly because you were mine, but also because you were the most fascinating creature in the world. You had us in splits all the time, even then. We called you Genghis those first few weeks – you were so red, so fierce, so bossy and you took no prisoners. Everyone who encountered you was smitten. Not very different from how you are now, except you aren’t so red anymore.

I’m so excited you’re starting school. Your Dada and I were both very clear about the sort of education we wanted you to have, so we went looking for a school that would give you exactly that. I don’t know which of us was more surprised that we actually found one, right here in Bombay. I’m thrilled you’ll make mud pies and play in the rain instead of sitting in a stuffy classroom and learning rhymes and the ABCs like we did. You’ll play with little dolls and kitchen utensils and listen to your teacher tell you fascinating stories. As you grow, you’ll learn to make things with your hands, paint, sew, cook, sculpt, and make music. You’ll learn how things grow by actually growing them. You’ll learn how stuff works by blowing things up. They’ll nurture your spirit and help your Mama and Dada grow you into an amazing young person. Oh, they’ll teach you how to read and write and add, but it’s the rest of the stuff that’s exciting, isn’t it?

I’m sad too, baby. Sad your Dada and I will no longer be the only important influences in your life. That you’ve begun to belong to yourself more than you do to us. Sad we won’t be able to shelter you from the big bad world forever. That you have to grow up. If only you could be my Peter Pan.

I know I tell you this a lot; some day in the not so distant future you’re going to roll your eyes at me each time I say it, but baby, you really did change my life. Dada’s too. I love you with every fibre of my being. I always will. Today is the first big girl day of your life and I hope you enjoy every second of it.

When you walk into that room, I’m going to say to you what your Dada taught you to say to me every morning as I leave for work: Be brave Mama, be amazing.

And sweetheart, while I’m going to do my very best not to cry if you do turn around and see tears, always know that they’re happy tears. That your silly Mama has finally discovered she’s brave enough to take her first step towards letting you go.

Well, not really. But I’m going to try.

Be brave my baby, be amazing.

Mama.

11.15 am

I cried. There, I said it. I couldn’t help it – she used to fit into the crook of my arm, this small person, how could I not be overwhelmed? I wasn’t brave today, but my little girl sure was amazing.

Here’s what happened at a little girl’s first big girl day.

It’s controlled chaos as we walk into the school yard. Young people everywhere, in kurtas of many colours. What strikes me immediately is how unique each one of them is, despite the uniform. I notice that not one of the boys has a regular hair cut. I turn to a young lady tugging on my arm. With a big smile, she explains that she’s been asking me to excuse her. I haven’t heard her at all. I apologise and move hurriedly out of her way. She waves her thanks and runs to where the rest of her school mates are gathering for assembly. It isn’t like any assembly I’ve ever been to. There’s singing led by this dumpling of a teacher, a lot of laughing. Some teasing. These kids, they all have personality.

The kindergarten parents all huddle together. Looking around you can immediately tell the newbies from the seasoned pros – parents with older kids in this school. The newbies all have this ‘deer in the headlights’ look, so conditioned are we to fears sending children to a regular school bring.

Her teacher walks over to us, smiling. She says hello to Thing, asks if she’ll help take care of some of the other small people, hold their hands and walk with them to class. The thing is thrilled to be asked for help. Walks off with her new friends, looks back just once, with a look I know so well. She’s apprehensive, but a walking time bomb of suppressed excitement.

Yes, I’m crying. But you knew that already.

We’re asked to stay close today, her first day. We sit on steps that face a paved courtyard. There’s a playground to the left, with a nice big tree a little to the side. Goal posts have been marked on both sides with white chalk. There’s a little wooden tree house in one corner of the courtyard with a plank bridge connecting another wooden tower. What an amazing place to play dungeons and dragons.

It’s been half an hour and it doesn’t seem likely Thing is going to pitch a fit, so we decide to take a stroll. It’s not yet 9 am and a cup of coffee seems like a good idea. Not too many restaurants near this school though, so we settle for Coke and puffs at the local bakery.

We walk back three-quarters of an hour later and the courtyard is transformed. Little people everywhere. One little person has a broom and is diligently sweeping up a square of the courtyard – whirling up a dust storm; another is rolling a small tire. Three of them are jumping in mud puddles, one looks like he’s digging for worms. We look around for our small person, for that signature shock of curly hair. There she is, on top of the tree house, making her way across the bridge to the other side. Fearless. She sees us and breaks into that special smile usually reserved only for her father. “I’m having so much fun Mama”, she yells.

We settle back down on the steps. She won’t be done for another hour. I’m smiling. We both are. I’m still a little sad, and I know the sad will probably never go away completely, but I also know it’s going to be alright. I know my baby will always find her way.

If you’d like to know more about the Rudolf Steiner / Waldorf experience, this video, Why Waldorf is a great place to start.

The Mommy Wars


I am more than a little annoyed as I write this post. Scratch that. I am extremely annoyed.

I came back from work a few hours ago, bone tired. It’s been a long week, and since V is away at a conference and Thing at my sister Mix’s, I was really looking forward to a quiet evening with a couple of DVDs. Getting on to the elevator, I ran into one of the ladies in my apartment complex – she has a little girl too, close to Thing’s age. She’s one of the few people that I’ve interacted with in the four years we’ve been here – just a few minutes in the elevator, every other month or so. She’d always struck me as sensible. Until today. Until she kindly asked me why I needed to work when my husband had such a great job? Didn’t I realise it was more fulfilling to stay home and be a full-time mum to my little girl? That she was sure my child sucks her thumb because I am a working mother!

I’m still blown away by the fact that a few minutes of superficial interaction was all it took for this lady to accuse, try, judge, convict and sentence me – all for being a parent who also had a job outside her home. What is a full-time mum by the way? Does anyone know any part-time mums?

She isn’t the only one with this sort of an opinion though. I have lost count of the number of times I have been judged for my choice. You’d think with all the grief women get from everyone else, they’d cut each other a little slack.

It has not been without challenges, my choice. Finding a balance between my job and my family has been extremely difficult at times, but we do ok. Besides, I’d make a terrible stay-at-home Mum. I tried it for a year and a half after she was born and a part of me was absolutely miserable. Maybe it’s because I am the daughter and granddaughter of working mothers. Maybe it’s because I find work outside the home fulfilling and it makes me a better parent. The point is, how does it matter? My Thing is a happy, healthy, well-adjusted, bright, articulate small person who just happens to suck her thumb. Hopefully, she’ll stop someday. If she doesn’t, we’ll end up with an epic bill from the dentist.

And if you want to know what I said to the lady, I have no answer. I spent those brief minutes with her, my mouth open like a fish, looking like an absolute idiot. Not my finest moment. If someone invents a time machine though, I’ll go back and tell her this with a big smile: I sucked my thumb until I was eleven and look how amazing I turned out.

Girls with curls, rue the world.


My sister Mix and I have ridiculously curly hair. Hair we inherited from our Dad, and which I have passed on in full measure and more to my little Thing.

My parents decided early on that the best way to deal with our curls was to get rid of them to the maximum extent possible. So I spent the first fifteen years of my life with hair cut into really short curls. I’d get mistaken for a boy ever so often, but that was only half the fun. I’ve been teased with every name you could possibly think of, from Golliwog to Steel Wool – but then with hair like mine, it isn’t all that surprising to be walking down the road and have someone yell Boney M (then) or Scary Spice (more recently) at you.

Every curly person dreams of waking up with poker straight hair at some point. There’s something about straight hair that makes you look so put together. And no matter how much you try to tame it, curly hair just makes you look all the more dishevelled. I hated all the questions that invariably came with my dark brown skin and curly hair – so, I made up this elaborate story about being an adopted child whose birth parents were Ethiopian. It was enormous fun until my spoilsport mum found out and put a stop to it.

That wasn’t all our hair woes were limited to though. Growing up, Mix and I were probably the only girls who had their hair cut by a barber. Not the fancy hair stylist you run into at salons today, but a true blue, eighties side hero, ustra wielding barber, with greasy hair and an equally greasy smile. It never occurred to either of us to question why we couldn’t just go to the hairdressers with our mum. I’m not sure it ever occurred to our parents either.  This went on, until one evening, my mum inadvertently gave us an out. I was in Class X, ‘the’ school year, the year that missing school even for a day was not an option.

On this unfortunate (for me) Sunday evening as I lolled about with a book, I caught my mum staring intently at me.
“Your hair looks very unruly”, she said, “you need a haircut.”
“Yeah, tell Dad, he’ll call the barber.”
“No, the barber won’t get here before next weekend. It looks really bad. Let me do it.”
“Err, Mum, you don’t really know how to cut hair, you know.”
“Nonsense, I’ve seen it done so many times. And I pay attention when I get a haircut. It’ll be a breeze. Trust me.”

I eyed her warily as she went about setting up a mini salon in our downstairs bathroom. If it weren’t for the fact that it was my hair that was about to be sacrificed to her gods of groom, I probably would have found her arrangements quite cool – the chair, the white sheet, her sewing shears – she made it all look so festive.

By this time you must be wondering why I went along with this. Nothing good could come of this. What sort of an idiot was I? The simple answer is that my Mum was an absolute force of nature. And on those rare occasions you did put your foot down, she still got her way, with this hurt, bewildered look that could melt even the most hardened heart.

“Please don’t make me look weird”, I begged, as I sat down in her mini salon, her spring lamb.
“Stop being a baby.”

With all opposition effectively silenced, she set about cutting my hair. I grumbled softly to myself, but it was more for form’s sake than anything else. The naive idiot that I was, I really believed she knew what she was doing.

I could feel her grab chunks of my hair and lop it off, but didn’t really think anything was amiss.
Mix wandered in at this point, “Mum, I think you’re supposed to comb it out and then cut the ends.”
“That’s just for straight hair like mine, with your hair, this is the way to do it.”
“Are you sure?” I asked, still not worried.
“Of course I am, I can already tell how much neater it is. Everyone is going to ask who did your hair. You’ll be thanking me Monday. There I’m done.”

She was utterly proud of her work until she heard Mix howling sometime later. I’d just gotten out of the bath, you see, and the full force of her handiwork was now apparent. My hair was all over the place, long squiggly strands in parts, cut close to the scalp in others, one bit looked like hairy mushrooms on a mound; I could go on, but you get the picture. Mix, unable to stop laughing, just kept pointing at me and then at Mum in turns. I don’t know who was more horrified, Mum or I. Mix just kept laughing. I think we both sat down, Mum and I, and had a good cry. I couldn’t stay mad at her, she was so mortified.

I did go to school the next day, looking like Marlon Fraggle, wishing all the while we lived in a country where hats were a mandatory accessory. I don’t really remember much of that day; I don’t think it was easy though. Teenagers were just as cruel then as they are now. I did get a proper haircut that evening, the shortest I’ve ever had and embarrassing as hell.

Before you go all “poor baby” on me, it wasn’t so bad. I’ve experimented a whole lot with my hair in the years since (stop shaking your head, Dad) and a lot of my choices were fairly dubious. And I’ve survived every decision, they were mine after all. I’ve learnt to embrace my curly and ignore the world’s multiple opinions on what my hair should be like.

Today with Thing, we know it would probably be easier to get her a short crop – bath time tantrums would definitely reduce. But then I think back to my infamous homemade haircut, and I know it’s not our choice to make. She needs to embrace her curly, and she needs to do it her way.

My child’s spirit is just as important as her physical health.


My little Thing has been unwell.

Turns out what seemed to be an innocuous summer stomach bug is actually a pretty awful bout of food poisoning. The last couple of days have been high drama – a little girl who’s thrown up more than 3 times her body weight, petrified parents and a mad dash to the ER. (Have we thanked you yet, Jazz?)

She’s better now, exhausted, a poster child for ‘Feed the starving in a third world country’, not yet fully recovered, but getting there. Well, at least her sense of humour is. “My puke smells like you, Mama”, she deadpanned this morning. Oh, quiet down my pounding heart.

The thing about kids is, when they fall sick they instantly look a lot worse for wear. The flesh just melts off their bones. Every morsel of food or sip of water is a victory lap that calls for loud, boisterous cheering in the stands. As a parent, you feel an impotence that cannot be described. All you want to do is dive into your kid’s body, sort of like a Ninja Florence Nightingale, and decimate whatever is hurting them. You want to contribute. Do something. Feel like a worthy parent. Be a parent. And then your little person will hug you and smile, comfort and reassure you, and it’s all you can do to keep from sitting right where you are and bawling like there is no tomorrow.

She’s asleep at my shoulder right now, clutching her tiger YouTell by the neck and clinging to me. Yeah, I’m writing this with my child tied to me with a shawl – it’s the only way she’ll sleep. Which brings me to why I’m writing this post – my Thing spent her first birthday in a hospital.

Before she was born we did what the book said, and looked for a paediatrician we liked and who we thought would be the best person to take her through her childhood aches and pains. We like her doctor. He’s kind, gentle, very approachable and available for even a 3 am phone call. And let me tell you, when you have a kid with allergies, that 3 am phone call can be a life saver. The only question we never thought to ask is which children’s hospital he was affiliated with. You know, just in case. Looking back, I think that’s why we never asked that question – you never want to think of any scenario that involves your child being hospitalised.

A couple of days before her first birthday she developed a viral fever, a fever so high her doctor worried it could be meningitis. What made it worse was that she wasn’t eating or drinking. Infants who don’t drink get dehydrated very quickly and have to be hospitalised so they can be fed intravenously. We didn’t think twice; if it was meningitis, it was definitely not something to be messed with. The hospital her doctor was affiliated with is a well known and respected one in suburban Bombay, and we took her straight there, just like he suggested.

Her doctor had called ahead, so while V was getting the admission paperwork sorted, the doctor on call suggested we get started and insert an IV line. “But you can’t stay in the room”, he said. “Mothers turn into nervous wrecks and don’t let us do our jobs”. I explained wryly that I was used to being cut open and wouldn’t scream or faint at the sight of an IV insertion – that I would be able to handle whatever they threw at me. They wouldn’t budge. All they seemed to see was a ‘hysterical’ parent. So I gave in and waited outside the room for three-quarters of an hour while an intern and two nurses held my screaming one-year-old down and prodded her tiny body until they found a vein. Through it all, not one of them thought to comfort my little girl. Instead, they gossiped about their colleagues. I could hear them through the door, these women who ignored my child crying, and my pleas to open up and let me hold her while they looked for a vein. We tracked down the doctor on call and the paediatrician in charge, both of whom insisted that we let the staff do their jobs and not interfere as our child’s well-being depended on it. Only when I finally lost my temper did they agree to come take a look, but by then they were done with Thing.

Transferring her to another hospital made little sense as her doctor was only affiliated with this one. We were promised action against the staff in question, but we all knew they were just making the right noises. The next few days can only be described as a nightmare. We were the difficult parents who asked too many questions. We got answers to all our questions alright, but they were given grudgingly, and with a level of condescension I have come to believe is unique to interns and residents.

Then came the best bit. Most big hospitals insist that home food isn’t as nutritious as anything they cater, so patients must only eat hospital food. Which is fine. Unless you’re being fed a nice, fat, juicy, white caterpillar-like bug as the non-vegetarian section of your supposedly pure vegetarian, nutritious meal. That was the last straw. By then meningitis had been ruled out so we spoke to her pediatrician, who poor man looked like he wanted to start bawling himself and worked out how to care for her at home.

I have never forgiven myself for those forty-five minutes when I let someone tell me that being a mother made me inadequate for a particular situation. It was an excellent lesson though, one that now makes me rabid about every single detail of my child’s care. I no longer accept everything her doctor says. I question everything now. When we went in for a follow-up, the first thing we asked him was – if the need ever arose again would he consider us taking her to another hospital. He agreed. He even helped us with names of doctors in other hospitals whom we could meet with and decide on. See why we like him?

In the weeks that followed, a lot of well-meaning people told us that we shouldn’t have gone to that hospital in the first place, that it had a bad reputation; but I think that’s not really true. I’m sure for every person who spoke ill of the hospital, there must be many others who like the place and have been helped by the staff there. What happened to us could have happened anywhere.

What is my point then? My point is this: the doctors, nurses and support staff who work in the children’s wing of any hospital have an obligation to their little charges, same as the parents, to make sure their spirits make it intact through whatever the hospital and treatments throw at them. And if it seems like your child’s doctors couldn’t be bothered, then you stand up for your child, and make sure you fight for her spirit. I’ve found that what works for me is standing firm. If you stand your ground and insist, doctors are willing to work with you instead of treating you like a nervous wreck. Doesn’t mean they’ll like you, but it’s not like you’re there to win Popular Parent of the year.

It was weeks before Thing stopped being frightened of anyone wearing a light blue shirt. It took her doctor a whole year to rebuild her trust. But the man kept at it, valiantly. And as for Thing and I – we’ve blocked out whole chunks of that first birthday she spent screaming in a closed room with no familiar face to comfort her. The one memory I have that I will carry with me forever is when my sister Mix came to the hospital a few hours later. Thing pitifully held out the hand that had the IV to Mix and said, “Miti booboo”.