From a hospital bed…

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And then there was Su Yin.

I never saw her full face. I could only see the eyes and the penciled eyebrows etched above a mask that hid the lower part of her face as her straight thick hair swung while she swept and vigorously mopped the floor. One day she did take off her mask. A pretty young face with pale pink lips perhaps colored artificially, a cheerful face that greets me each morning wishing me good health and offering me a purple orchid as I grapple with post-operative pain.

Su Yin is from Myanmar as are May and My Shine. May and My Shine are nurses. The names are like twittering birds and bring to my mind what I imagine Myanmar would be… green and yellow fields and muddy lanes below the vibrant blue skies. There must be so much sunshine there, enough to light up the whole wide world; only if the Rohingyas did not cry in pain, this time not post operative but of losing their homes and lands again and again.

I always imagine that the rivers in Myanmar will be thick and yellow because once, long before I started flitting in and out of hospitals, I went for a ride along the River Kwai (Mae Klong river) in Kanchenburi, Thailand. The river there ran thick and yellow. The boatman told us that on the other bank of the river was Burma… I like to dream of the people of the two countries meeting and greeting along the river as they do in the wards of Singapore.

There are nurses and caregivers from different countries in Asia, helping heal patients from all over the world. What a multi-cultural exchange it is when a young nurse from Phillipines takes my blog details and discusses Harry Potter with me, or a Malaysian nurse chats with me about travel in India or an Indian one, newly arrived out of her country, takes down the details of the shop selling goat meat in the local Tekka market. I even heard a strange retelling of the Rohingya crisis!

Then there are young girls who cheer one up by their sunshiny smiles and call the older nurses ‘ ate’ (elder sister in Tagalog), exuding a charm of old world courtesy and graciousness in an age where children have started to address their parents by first name, a thing that always bothers me. Some of the ates are so gracious, friendly and yet professional. Each time, you achieve a small target, they make you feel like you have won a Nobel Prize and urge you to take the next step towards total healing. There are some who you feel could have been a friend, especially the ones who are moms and have children in teens and twenties. There is so much you find in common and not in common, things you can talk about. Just having this friendly and optimistic atmosphere around helps lift ones spirits and take one towards feeling well and whole again.

The most important thing is that these women, these unsung heroines, did for me what I would not trust anyone to do and, most of the time, with a smile! They sponge, shower, change and give you endless care, without making you feel belittled, till you are able to totter on your own legs and walk back home. The lady from the pantry found ways of appeasing my appetite when mashed and pureed food were my sole diet! Each day, she found a way that I could eat. And that was definitely a challenge!

The biggest thing I noticed was the cheerful optimism that exuded from the women on a daily basis. As I stepped out of my drowsy stupor and started experiencing extreme pain and, subsequently, lesser pain, I had a word of encouragement from each of these ladies till I was ready to walk out of the hospital.

Sometimes, I wonder what drives these women to their profession, often in a distant land, away from their homes and families? They do for absolute strangers what the patients would not trust their own families to do for them. Could it be only money? I think not and, yet, there is a phobia about foreigners worldwide now!

In the wards of the hospital, you find patients and nurses of varied nationalities and faith, including upbeat, optimistic local Singaporean nurses, weaving an ambience of friendship and harmony to heal the patients back to health.

Perhaps, those who build walls between humans could take a page of these ladies’ book and try to see the world in a more global perspective. There is a world beyond making wealth. There is a world of hope, happiness, twittering birds (not tweets and oil and coal), a world in harmony, where as humans we help each other live.

 

 

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Parenting … love & reassurance

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I remember it snowed in Suzhou, China, in 2008 … the worst in the last fifty years it was said. Roads were closed. Schools were closed. People were advised to work from home. And my elder son, a full twelve years old, was disappointed that exams had been cancelled! I was amazed a child could be sad that exams were cancelled! The only other kid who I knew of that did was fictitious, Hermione Granger from Harry Potter!

What made me really happy was that he enjoyed his childhood with exams or without… both my kids had fun in the snow that year! It was their first exposure to the snow, making snowmen, igloos and forts and having snow fights with friends. The snowbound days were filled with friends and fun.

Childhood should be a time for adventure, happiness, fun and frolic punctured with small doses of minor disappointments and hurdles to strengthen the youngsters — make them sturdier to face the world as adults later. Children need love and reassurance to get over their hurdles and find their own strengths.

These hurdles could be exams or grades, social interactions, minor failures in competitive sports, music, art, dance or drama. In my elder son’s case exams were not a hurdle but competitive sports were as were dance and to an extent social interactions! I am always told by mothers I am lucky that my children are motivated to study themselves… not fully true… they are motivated to study subjects they enjoy and not what they don’t. If I were to hand them Omar Khayyam or T. S. Eliot, two of my favorite poets, they would both fall asleep. My younger son told his art teacher in front of me at the age of fourteen that he thought cubist art could be created by computers while I gasped. That term the art teacher praised his piano performance and he had failing grades in her subject!

Grades come and go but our children remain an integral part of us and we love them without hesitation, without any ulterior motivation. We always want what we consider the best for them. However, some of us forget to convey the love we have and feel for our children. Our children see us only as critical parents who harangue at them every time they fall short of an A or B or whatever grade or sport or art defines the parents’ expectations. As parents, we hurt every time we reprimand our child but the cycle goes on. Perhaps, if were not so anxious about our children’s success in terms of grades and external achievements and instead we taught them good values that would help them achieve their dreams or targets, they would themselves turn their interest to studying and striving to do well in life. The first thing of course would be to distance ourselves from our own dreams and acknowledge that our children have their own paths and respect those. A hard task for any parent!

The next thing would be to tell the children how much we love them, not only for their achievements or the lack of them, but for themselves. It is always easy to confuse love for a person with love for an achievement, as much for an adult as for a child. We often hear talk from teenagers about how their parents are unable to understand them and only look at their grades. They feel themselves distanced by the difference in expectations. Both sides hurt and feel misunderstood.

We are experiencing a generation gap. What is that? A difference in values and perspectives borne of the experiences we have had in our lives. Should generation gap really create barriers between parents and children? Should we be intolerant and not communicate about our futures? Are parents’ futures not linked to their children’s … then should the dreams not sync? Perhaps, if we could find some time to spend talking of these issues with our children, we might find the gap closing. If they could only understand why we say what we do to them…

The other thing that disturbs parenting is the social media. How often I see parents flashing their children’s grades, report cards and university admissions in Facebook! I find it very strange. Have they forgotten they have friends or family whose kids may not have achieved excellent results or admissions? Is it not rather gross to show off thus? Do they want the world to judge their children only for their achievements and not for who they are?

Sometimes, parenting becomes an unpleasant task for a feeling mothers have. They feel motherhood has deprived them of their academic or professional dreams and they have compromised their own career for kids and home. They look at academic or professional acclaim as the only measure of success. But is it? Is not helping mould the future of mankind a more important task and our children are really the future … they will inherit the planet and their outlook will define the future of mankind. What kind of future will they look forward to if the only focus is largely on personal acclaim? Is it only the academically strong who dominate and run the world? Think of names that spring to ones mind… Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates… of course most dropouts don’t make it big! But then, do all toppers in school exam make it big?

One has to see what is it that drives people to succeed? Big dreams, the conviction that they can succeed under all circumstances… so, is it not more important that we help our children move towards these ideals rather than only academic prowess, college admissions and social acceptance? Big dreams mean passion for what they do. Should we then be so focused on their grades and admissions so as to flash them as an achievement above their personality development and their ability to contribute to humankind?

Why do we study? To prepare for our future and develop the right attitudes; to discover our strengths and learn to deal with our weaknesses and to survive in a highly competitive world. Some stick with academics… mostly to teach or to benefit mankind with research. Why then should we be flashing good grades and university admissions, which are merely a means to achieve an end?

As parents, we need to help our children become strong and develop the right attitudes and survival instincts in a world that is dissolving into a rat race. We should not be encouraging them to become a participant rat in the mad race but to rise above it and create a better, more humane world for themselves and the future generations, a world where they can feel happy and fulfilled.

For all children, love, social and emotional acceptance is an integral part of growing up and achieving their dreams… it is time perhaps for parents to reassure the children that they are loved, not for grades, achievements or any other prowess but for themselves. To elucidate what I mean, I would like to quote the last part from a poem of mine that was published two years ago in an anthology of verses:

 

Perhaps,

Mothers need to say…

‘Child of my womb

For me, you are perfection.

You are adoration.

I want to give you

All that I have and more.

I want the world to praise galore

The person I most adore.

My expectations are born of love.

There is nothing below or above

That can match you

Because you are born of me.

A miracle of God.

Matchless you remain,

Loved adored, accepted,

My child…’

 

 

Parenting…dreams

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During my younger son’s eighth grade graduation, the principal gave a fabulous speech. He asked the youngsters to dream big dreams, to reach for the moon and in case they missed landing on the moon, they would fall on the stars. He asked them to ignore laughter and taunts that might come in the way of realizing their dreams. I loved the speech… thought it was one of the most inspiring I had ever heard. It reminded me of something one of the biggest and most imaginative dreamers in the history of mankind, Albert Einstein, said,

“Never give up on what you really want to do. The person with big dreams is more powerful than one with all the facts.”

I have always been a person who believes that having big dreams is the first step to realizing them. And to me the biggest tragedy is when a child or youngster says he or she has no dream. To dream, to believe in a dream is the first thing that I tried to inculcate in my children.

For us, it all started with stories. One of my sons wanted to fly like Peter Pan and have dustbin dump truck birthday cakes. Another wanted a sunshine cake on his birthday and to do so many things together… he is still trying to concretize his dream. My five-year-old niece believes I have fairies and a balloon tree in my house and I can make magic dust to fly to Never-Never Land… she even wants to know how many people I know in Never-Never Land. The little realist in her also longs to read because reading brings her closer to things of which she dreams… fairies, magic dust and happiness. She saw many books in her fourteen-year-old cousin’s room and said, “I cannot read all those now.” Her cousin, brought up to think that all dreams are achievable, told her, “But you can eventually…” And  eventually she will realize her dream and pursue her passions. But the first step the little girl is taking towards growing up is to learn nothing is impossible. No dreams are too big. To dream or to find ones dream is the biggest adventure for a child. Their dreams will not just be a reality but something that will shape their lives, their existence. Of course, my niece will like my sons realise as she grows up, that Peter Pan is a myth but by then other dreams would have replaced the need to fly to Never-Never Land.

The thing we as parents need to do is to handle the transitioning of dreams with a light touch, with a sense of humor, and not get lost in the intensity and forced materialization of a dream. If a child wants to be an Olympic champion in swimming, but later wants to move on to being a businessman, we need to humor him till he has steadied his own mind and intent and is older. My elder son at a point wanted to be a neuro-surgeon, a space scientist and a bunch of other things… we humored him till he felt he found his dream… and now he pursues it with a passion… though there is still more of it to realize. The concretization started only when he was completing his teens! But he was allowed to dream and dream on the impossible…

As parents, many of us like to push our children towards pragmatic goals, the easily identified and achievable ends which will put bread and butter on the table and bring home enough cash. We urge them to give up their own dreams to come to terms with reality. Our parents might have told us the same when we were trying to find our dream. How many of us gave up our dreams, our romances to settle for the practical and we consider ourselves blessed and happy because we have the mundane; money, career, houses, cars…. or whatever it is that is important to you in your circle… could be clubs, travel, yatchs… However, these are what I would call ‘things’ as opposed to ‘ideas’. To me pursuing ‘ideas’ is more important because that is what makes mankind move forward towards civilization and progress. I would rather have an impractical dreamer who, as he grows up trying to materialize his dreams, moves towards a more pragmatic reality and blends his vision with the needs of mankind, to contribute to a more positive future.

If parents say their children have no dreams, no ambition except for playing online games or partying or watching YouTube videos, maybe they need to know their children better. Perhaps their children’s dreams lie wrapped in the things they are doing and the parents are too wary to acknowledge the unconventionality of their child’s dream. Some children also may take longer to materialize their dreams… but they all get there at some point if you let them be themselves and don’t impose your own fears and insecurities on them, including social acceptance… Of course, everyone will not be a star but at least let them try to be themselves, give them the tools to flourish but the blooming has to be theirs, not the parents…

Often parents talk of bringing up children with good values, make them focus on practicalities and destroy their dreams altogether and the children become part of the faceless workforce that live to earn and earn to live and accept anything that comes their way as long as they have their material comforts. Is this what we look forward to as a bright future? To me a bright future is not a life of ease and plenty but a future where a child feels fulfilled and happy, where a child will feel he has a purposeful life. To this end, it is important that the child pursue his own dreams and not that of his parents. Perhaps it is time to change our mindset, to start believing in the reality of dreaming and letting dreams exist. Perhaps we need to believe in what Einstein said,

“We cannot get to where we dream of being tomorrow unless we change our thinking today.”

Parenting…freedom

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How much freedom does a child need?

This one is always a tough one to answer. Perhaps, Matt Munro says it all in the lyrics of the song, Born Free

Born free, as free as the wind blows

As free as the grass grows

Born free to follow your heart

While I love to see my children free of all shackles to grow and bloom as their dreams dictate, to fly free as the wind blows, we still need to understand the breeze is created by the laws of physics, by rules laid out by a greater power than us.

My sons always talk of freedom in the sense of space to do what they like, make robots, create animations, play the piano, read a Harry Potter for the one thousandth time without being reprimanded! They like to stay at home and do things. They say they need freedom of mind and thought. So, when I told them, turn by turn, they were too young to read an Asimov at thirteen, they both rebelled. They read the books by borrowing from the library. I have learnt to let them read and explore what they like as long as it is within the bounds of decency. Luckily, for me, my sons are like grand dads when it comes to rules and decency. They lay the laws for themselves and the rest of the world. They do not like to wander into the darker zones of internet or play gory games or go out late at night to party, drink and drug. Perhaps, I am plain lucky! Or, did they become my great grand dads because they grew up within certain frameworks of rules and ideals?

Most children, like grown ups, have different concepts of freedom. My elder son’s best friend in the eighth grade needed the freedom to drink as much coke as possible and eat as many chocolates as he could lay his hands on behind his mother’s back. Some need freedom of movement, some of thought and some for things that parents frown on or fear. So, how do parents define how much freedom and what kind of freedom?

I remember, when my son’s school started using internet extensively, caregivers were called in to be educated about parental controls, rules were suggested for internet surfing and how to monitor the child while he explored the internet. While we agreed on the need for filters, a friend of mine and I felt the school was creating an atmosphere of mistrust between the child and his parents. Whereas the school felt they were creating awareness among parents. The bottom-line was all of us wanted the best for the children.

Trust develops with the ability of the child to work within a framework. Children need structures and rules. It gives them a sense of security and helps them develop their capacity to think. The school was trying to create a framework. We as mothers felt the framework was taking on the dimensions of a jail where the parents were warders and the children the prisoners. On the other hand, there are children who wander into the negative side of freedom. They will not study, keep going out and wander into areas of Internet and social media that can get them into trouble. They might even try alcohol, drugs and violate their own or others’ bodies out of curiosity and boredom. So, how do we make sure our kids do not wander into these dark forbidden areas that can wreck their lives?

I had a neighbor whose son got involved with people who were into drug trafficking, though he himself was innocent. This happened in China. The parents had to leave the country with their son who was thrown out of school. Some other expat kids were deported along with parents for abusing the social media to spread false stories about a teacher in another country. They were doing it in fun but it was distressing for the staff. The children were not educated to be within limits. Again the families were deported after the school expelled the children. Why does this happen to only some kids and not to others?

Is it that the children were born evil or is it that the parents missed out on something? Perhaps, the children needed a little less freedom than what the parents gave them. Perhaps, they needed parents who prioritized their children’s needs over their desires. Perhaps the youngsters could have done with a little more guidance. Perhaps, they needed rules. Sometimes we think giving financial support is the most important thing for  kids. While money does pay the bills, keeps the child in school, well clothed, well fed, it does not teach the youngster manners or values. However, a clear set of dos and don’ts practiced by parents themselves can do the trick along with plenty of love.

A child has to learn to distinguish right from wrong.

Sometimes, one needs to be firm and stick to the rules. I often see parents buy their children toys or gifts to avoid conflict. One mother told me that every time she bought a birthday present for another child, she had to buy one for hers! It reminded me of an incident where my four year son howled for a toy in a mall and refused to move. People turned and looked. It was embarrassing but I was meaner than my friend. I ignored his demand and waited till he calmed down and walked home with me. I had been embarrassed but I won a battle. My child learnt that everything could not be had for asking.

An early access to excess wealth and over indulgence can be as bad for the development of a child as the inability of the parent to foot bills to meet basic needs of a child. However, there is an age for everything. If you force rules on a baby who does not understand, the disciplining will be pointless and abusive. Recently, I was visiting some relatives in India. They had a young toddler — all of two and a half or three years old. He had just started play school. Everyday when his mother dropped him to school, he cried. The staff asked her to wait for him whereas her friends told her to leave and let him be. She asked me what would be the right thing to do.

I told her two stories. The first one was about my younger one. When he started his playgroup in China, he would start crying minutes after I left him in class. I was told to hide in the school office for a month. To me the answer was obvious. The child’s sense of security was tied to my presence and he needed the reassurance that he would be safe in the school. Eventually, he adjusted and I could just drop him off. And he survived his days with happiness and friendships.

The second story was about my elder son. The first day I took him to the Tumble Tots play school when he was two years and four months, he reiterated, “Mama outside, I inside.” I was allowed to sit in for a week but my son did not need me to be with him. I had been waiting outside for a couple of hours, when an exhausted looking assistant opened the door to let the kids out. She called me aside to tell me my son had been to the toilet seven times… We were both concerned!

On the way back home, I asked my son why he went so frequently to the toilet.

He perked up, “Mamma, they have blue water coming out of the flush. At home why don’t we have blue water?” So, I bought toilet blues and we had blue water in the flush. I showed and explained the process to him and he stopped visiting the bathroom seven times in two and a half hours. I was happy that my son was confident and independent enough to be in school on his own. But he had known the trainers from eighteen months of age as he had been attending their playgroup from that age and really enjoyed it. So, play school became just an extension of the playgroup.

For my younger son, it was a brand new environment in China and a new school. Each child faced different circumstances and each child reacted differently. It does not do to compare their reactions and ignore their needs.

A child needs emotional grounding to be given freedom. And this emotional grounding is created by responsible parenting. If a child feels reassured that his parents care for him and will be there, he will himself start giving a framework to his sense of freedom. He will not react in rebellion by doing or exploring the negatives of social interactions, media, drugs or alcohol. If you can spare the time to be there for your child and listen to him, chances are he will listen to you and grow up to be a man devoid of chains and yet living within a framework.

After all the wind flows and the grass grows because of rules laid by the laws of nature… and even animals need frameworks laid by their kind to survive…

 

Parenting…individuality

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When my elder son was a baby, we could not make him eat. When my younger son was a toddler, we could not stop him from eating. He would not only finish his food but also check out his bowl by turning it upside down, and occasionally, especially when he had fish porridge for lunch, he would express his delight by wearing his bowl like a hat. Of course, that would call for a bath and his curls needed to be shampooed as we did not want him to stink of fish the rest of the day! My elder son could not be made to eat any rice through his babyhood. But, my younger one loved rice. We tried to give them the same things to make our lives simpler but it did not work. It never works. Babies are born distinct. They are already individuals when they take their first sip of milk. And to treat them as a homogenized unit because they cannot communicate efficiently with you is unfair. To be a parent, means to revel in each child individually.

Comparing the two is natural but can hurt the children as the one critiqued could loose his self-esteem and start being envious of the role model, who in his turn would have fair chances of becoming a conceited prig.

Life for me rolls out spontaneously. You can only do so much for

“‘Tis all a Chequered-board of nights and days

Where Destiny with men for Pieces plays:

Hither and thither moves, and mates, and slays,

And one by one back in the closet lays.”

When old Khayyam wrote this in the eleventh century, he hardly would have seen this being put to use in a blog on parenting, but I picked these lines because they explain how I view life as a parent. Children come with their own destinies and all we can do is to try our best by them. Each one has an individual baggage that he lugs through life. Environment, parenting and schooling can only play a part in bringing them up.

If you spend a lifetime training your child to be a prodigy in any subject, don’t you feel it would be unfair to him? Think of Mozart. He was a child prodigy, much toasted and feasted about in royal courts of Europe. Did he have a happy life? Did he have a full life? Then why would we want our children to excel before they are ready? Why not let them enjoy childhood as a time when they can experiment and have fun? Why would we want them to be the child who scores one hundred per cent every time? Does that put him at any advantage? Why the panic?

Are all adults geniuses? There is no one who will send an adult to a coaching school to train him to be a genius at work. That is why perhaps developing the skill to be a lifelong learner is necessary to survive in the real world.

Earning your bread is important. But do you think that marks or results are directly proportional to how successful a child will be in his adult life? Robert Kiyosaki’s book, Why do A students work for C students, springs to mind as one muses on this issue as does the Bollywood blockbuster, The three Idiots. Guiding your child towards developing the right attitude will help him make choices for himself that will be smart and best for him, prepare him most to deal with the baggage he was born with. The question is “how” would you do this? Perhaps by being supportive and by teaching him to be a good human being…to learn to accept a fall, get up and march along cheerfully despite the cut. The important lesson he needs to learn is how not to injure himself or others when he falls and how not to be scared of the fall. Learning to lose and build again is important. We keep reiterating the story of Thomas Alva Edison who failed but saw his failures differently and finally lighted up our lives with his bulb. He is known to have said,

“I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

And

“Many of life’s failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up.”

Such an attitude is difficult to imbibe, but takes you a long way in your journey through life. And that is what we try to prepare our children for… a journey through life as a good human being.

Again the definition of a good human being has altered over time. Now, it is all about power and money, isn’t it? But, does that make you happy? Do you feel better living as an unhappy individual? Think about it carefully when you make a choice for your child.

Bad behavior had historically given way to good behavior and civilization. If we choose bad behavior as the norm along with a caveman diet, we are perhaps moving in a reverse gear towards the collapse of civilization. Is that what you want your child to inherit? Or, a gracious forward moving society, which is optimistic, filled with love, honesty and tolerance? Keep the options in mind every time you allow a swear word to pass through your lips. My kids keep reminding me not to lose my dignity by getting angry and losing control. Anger disarms us and makes us the slave of bad behavior. And unless, we make our children and ourselves conscious of this, we could very well fall into a trap of bad behavior and a hostile world. Do you want others to swear at your child when he swears at them in a world full of animosity, hatred, mistrust and anger? The first step, as my Italian friend said to parenting, is leading by example and then supporting the choices the children make. Educate them to make good choices and not bad ones. Let them rise above failure, anger, repentance, hatred, greed and all negative emotions and watch them soar. Let them choose their own path, their own courses, their own lives as they will equipped with a sound system of values and the ability to accept failure and move on to a new success.

And feel rejuvenated as you watch them explore a wonderful new world at their own pace and in their own terms…

 

 

 

Parenting

 

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Mother and Child… Kruger, South Africa

 

When I was in my early twenties, my grandmother threw a gauntlet at me. She said, “You have grown so used to studying, working and being out that you will never be able to live as a fulltime homemaker or mom!” I was twenty-three then. A little over two and a half decades down the line that is who I am… a full time homemaker and mom.

As I review my life after completing more than half a century, I have no regrets over the choices I made.

Parenting has been the most daunting and challenging experience in my life and continues to be so. I grew up in a home where all the mothers had careers. My grandmother was my chief caregiver. She was the most unusual woman I have ever known. In the early twentieth century, she was a gold medalist in math and art, an unusual thing in our country then. She completed her schooling and then she married a man to who she remained devoted for life. My grandfather also loved her to distraction till he died. She said she could not die because I held her back by my needs. My sense of security and wellbeing was linked to her. And I think she died proud of me more than a decade ago, telling me, “You proved me wrong and I am happy to see you as a wife and mother.”

I had my children when I was touching the third decade and through my third decade. After more than two decades of parenting, I will say that this has been a more challenging and satisfying experience than interviewing miners in mafia areas in Bihar or winning awards or publishing books.

While I see young women around me revel in their careers and grow beyond the confines of their homes, I have a fleeting sense of regret for what they are missing out with the choices they make. Two decades ago when my friends and I were entering motherhood, we were jubilant about the babies we had. I have friends who were very successful professionals, like economists, teachers, journalists, engineers and management personnel, and opted to be full time mothers. For most of us, mothering meant a better future for our children. We were lucky to be married to men who supported our decision. Maybe, we would have been monetarily better off if we worked and had careers full time. But does money make love grow?

Does money make children grow?

To an extent money is necessary to put your children through a good education and a good life. But ‘how much’ is what parents get to define. How much money does fulfil your child’s needs and how much is used to fulfil your own needs? Do you need the kind of money and fame Bill Gates has to bring up a child well? As a parent, one has to put a hold on ones needs and discipline oneself before one starts to discipline a child.

My learning as a parent has been immense. My children have been my true educators. I found that I learnt to control my temper because my children were upset every time I got angry and shouted. They felt they did not want to see me demean myself. I have learnt to restrain my temper to some extent. They also taught me to be above biases. If I exhibited biases and made any statements that reeked of race, religion or nationality, they would be at my throat. Two huge learnings as an adult and for which, I am truly grateful to my two young men.

I had discovered parents need to work as a team through first hand experiences as a child. Otherwise, the child gets torn between the two. And it has served me well in my years as a parent. Though, I had a funny experience based on this learning. We had told my four-year-old son that his father’s word was the law in our home. One day he asked me,  “When can I be a father?” I asked him why he wanted to be a father that early in life, and he replied, “Because fathers are most powerful.” Of course, there will be those who will refer to biases created about male domination but, to me, it was an effective tool for enforcing rules. As parents, one really needs to transcend the male- female battle. You could have mom laying the rules. In our home, daddy laid the laws after discussions with mamma; mamma and son followed the law. But the ultimate decision was basically based on our child’s welfare needs. It was easier this way because daddy was working and not around to discuss the rules with the child. Persuasions by the young gentlemen were pointless. Whereas mummy was always around and, therefore, more open to persuasion.

We also discovered as parents we had to do what we wanted our children to do or emulate. I learnt that my children loved to ape my husband or me. After all we are from the extended ape family! One day, my sons pointed out to me that as my husband and I had a sedentary life style, it was unfair to expect the two them to be into sports and have an active lifestyle. We tried to be more active after that but it was already too late, I felt. I have an Italian friend who wanted her sons to avoid fizzy drinks, sugared juices and alcohol! So, she and her spouse took to drinking only water at mealtimes. If you want teetotaler children, perhaps you need to lead by example…My friend firmly believed children learn by example, not by advice.

In my years as a mother bringing up her children in varied cultures and countries, every now and then a parent in my children’s schools would ask me, “ How is it your child loves to read and study on his own?” I would respond by shrugging and smiling to be polite and to avoid sounding didactic. But the reality was we tried to create an atmosphere conducive for studying and dreaming. And believe me the dreaming and playing part is very important. It develops the child’s ability to think for himself or herself, to learn by themselves. If you have tutored play, it develops a child’s ability to follow instructions but not his ability to think. Some amount of both is necessary.

To create an atmosphere conducive to studying, we read ourselves at home. We stayed home on weekends. Luckily, we all love reading and dreaming. We held ourselves responsible for what our children did, critiqued our own parenting and made sure that the environment at home was relaxed and happy. Working and studying were not relegated as chores to be completed but as a way of life to be enjoyed, a part of relaxation. This was something my helper could not be asked to do. We also stayed more at home to do things we liked. When we did travel once or twice a year, it was with children and most of the time, we tried to include activities of their interest.

Our children today do refer to us as supportive parents… to me that is a big praise. Of course in their more fun filled moments, they remind me that my personality type matches that of Hitler! But, I take it that they can make the comparison only because   they feel free with me.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Mona Lisa Smile

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Sanjana was like a sunflower that bloomed in the light of love and approval. She could do so much more if he only approved. But all she heard was criticism from her spouse.

“Sanjana, you spend too much on useless things.”

“Perhaps you should do something more than just socializing. There are things called books and reading, you know…”

“You should work.”

“You should cook yourself and not keep a full time maid. You are growing fat doing nothing.”

“What do you do the whole day in the house?”

Sanjana had been married for more than two decades. She had been an accomplished dancer. But, her mother-in-law did not want her to perform on stage. At 22, when she married, she had wept to give up her bells. Her heart had split into two. But her mother explained, “You will now have to shift your focus to your home and family. Dancing may ruin your chances of having a child.”

“But that has been my life, Ma,” wept Sanjana.

“It cannot be helped. At least, they agreed to the marriage. The boy is back from USA with a degree in law. They do not want a dowry. The last match broke. That boy had a girl friend in New York. We cannot turn down this one.”

Sanjana’s heart was breaking with sorrow, fear and apprehension. She did not want to marry the boy. She loved another, but her parents refused to listen. “Abhishek is not worthy of you,” her father said.

And Abhishek’s mother said, “The beggars! They have set that witch on my Abhishek… they are of a lower caste. How dare they set their eyes on my son?”

Abhishek had proposed to Sanjana.

“Let us elope,” he said. Abhishek was a young doctor with a bright future. Sanjana was not sure what to do. She refused.

She had thought Abhishek would propose again with an eye to winning her parents approval. Instead, he eloped with a minister’s daughter who was willing…

Sanjana was left in the cold.

Her parents really mattered to her. She had wanted to keep them happy. She gave up her dancing bells for a lawyer who married her under duress from his family. He did not love her either.

After twenty-one years of marriage and a child, Sanjana sat in front of a sheaf of papers and, with trembling hands, signed on them. Suresh, her husband, was leaving her. He had had enough! He was going to marry his secretary who understood law and was smart and pretty.

Sanjana had started to put on weight after she stopped dancing. A few more kilos were added on after childbirth. Her legs and back ached as she walked. Often, she needed pain killers. Her son was in hostel in Berkley.

Suresh was what they called ‘a stud’ when he married Sanjana. He wanted a docile bride but not an unsmart one. Sanjana did not quiet make the cut. Her English was not that great. She did not read much. It was an embarrassment to take her for his client’s parties. She did not drink and sat quietly in a corner.

Suresh had married her at his mother’s insistence. Now, his mother was no more. He did not need her. He had never taken her out on his own. She was always curled and quiet. Sonia, his secretary understood his every need and loved him passionately. Suresh did the decent thing in his opinion and promised to pay for her upkeep and that of his son. Sanjana could continue to stay in their old home. Suresh and Sonia would move into a new condominium with fantastic club facilities.

Sanjana nodded quietly. She accepted everything that came her way as a docile and a good wife should…even the shame she experienced at being rejected.

But what would she do in a huge home alone with a gardener, maid and driver?

A month after Suresh left, she invited her old school friend Romila to spend the day with her.

Romila had married and gone off to USA with her husband. She returned a widow with no children after five years. Her husband, a high-end tycoon, had succumbed to a massive heart attack. Romila was initially very sad and depressed. Over time, she picked up the pieces and built a life for herself. Money was not an issue for her either. She established herself as a trainer and image builder with a chain of beauty stores. Sanjana and she met accidentally at the Shiva temple one day. Sanjana recognized her and called out. Romila took a while to recognize her.

“What have you done to yourself?” Romila asked. “You were so pretty and such a great dancer. What happened to you?”

“Aging,” responded Sanjana.

“That even I have aged. But you are looking old and sad. What’s up sweetheart?”

“Nothing.”

“I thought you were happily married…”

“No more. My husband left me.”

“What?!”

“He divorced me last month… I live alone and my son is in hostel in USA!” And Sanjana broke down and cried. With her pallu stuffed into her mouth she wept as if her heart would burst.

Romila put her arms around her shoulder and said, “Calm down… I am sorry I asked… I remember your wedding. It was so grand! Calm down… I am really so sorry… come with me to my house and we will sit and talk. I am alone too… Have been alone for long… Come…come.”

Romila led a weeping Sanjana into her car, gave her address to the driver and asked him to drive to her home, which was nearby. Romila had walked to the temple as she did every morning. Sanjana had come to seek spiritual solace in what she felt was her hour of shame and rejection.

She had not been able to eat and sleep properly from the day her husband left her. She thought it was all her fault… she was not good enough for him. He was in the right and had been decent, he had said.

Her son was twenty and studying engineering in Berkley. He was the result of the carnal pleasures of her wedding night. She was so lovely that Suresh had no hesitation asserting his conjugal rights. Sanjana was in a state of shock! But, like a docile bride, she had complied. He continued asserting his conjugal rights every night till her pregnancy was confirmed. During the day, he treated her with disdain. He did not even talk to her properly.

Her mother-in-law, Lata, was pleased with the state of things.

“You are a good daughter-in-law. A woman’s relationship is always best maintained with her husband behind the closed doors of the bedroom at night. And now you will give us an heir.”

And that is exactly what happened. Sanjana had a son. Her mother-in-law named him Sourabh. She had no say in choosing the name of her son. She did not mind.

Her husband had grown even more detached towards her as during her pregnancy as the doctor had warned him not to assert his conjugal rights till after the birth of the child. It could endanger the life of the child he had been warned. He started working late and often came home after dinner as he said he was busy. Sometimes, he came home reeking of alcohol because he had to drink in parties, he said.

He never took Sanjana with him after the first time. She had proven that she could not fit in into a party right after their marriage. He had taken her for a party organized by his friends for the newly weds. She wore a saree, sat in a corner and refused to drink or dance with his friends to western music. He found her behavior unacceptable.

His mother was very sympathetic towards Suresh.

She told Sanjana, “You must look after all his needs. Remember, he is your lord and master and women are but servants of their husbands.”

Sanjana kept her head covered with the pallu of her saree and complied with all these injunctions. Lata praised her to her neighbors and friends.

“My daughter-in-law is truly a Lakshmi and Sita. She is so docile and good. She follows all the rules, does all the work and never disturbs my son. His income has also gone up. Sometimes, he even goes to London on work.”

Suresh and his secretary had gone to London for two weeks. Suresh told them he was going on tour to London, but omitted the fact that Sonia would accompany him.

Saurabh grew up, nurtured by his grandmother and mother. He loved both very much, maybe Sanjana a little more. Sanjana helped him with his schoolwork. She had a good head for maths and science. He excelled in both. When he came in the merit list in his grade twelve exam, his father was very proud of him. “He is just like me,” he declared. “I will send him to USA for further studies.”

No one asked the women who brought him up or the boy what he wanted.

The boy had learnt compliance to his father’s wishes was the accepted way of life. He was a good boy. He complied.

That his mother and grandmother missed him and were heartbroken when he left for Berkley with his dad to settle him in was not a major issue. Sonia flew down after a few days because she needed to ‘help’ Suresh attend a lawyer’s conference in Los Angeles. When he came back, he found his mother sick. She was sore for missing her grandson.

Saurabh came home the next year in June. His grandmother was bed ridden and he was sad to see her as such. After he returned in September, she became more sick. At last, she left Sanjana all alone. Lata had departed for her heavenly abode. Suresh could not fathom the emptiness in Sanjana’s life. She had become fatter, quieter and greyer. With his mother dead and his son in university, Suresh felt the time had come to assert his freedom. He was ready for the next step… divorce.

It came as a shock to Sanjana. Saurabh was not informed. Suresh had told Sanjana to refrain from expressing their separation to him. “It might disturb him,” he reasoned. “ And in any case, he calls you up at home. You are going to continue here. Only I will move out. I will pay all your and his bills. But I think since we have nothing in common, it will be best this way.”

Sanjana had accepted her sad luck with a guilty, downcast face.

She could not figure out what went wrong, why she had to face such dishonor? She did not even tell her sister who lived in London. Her brother had moved to Cape Town in South Africa and her parents went with him. She did not tell them either.

Then, why this sudden breakdown before a friend?

Romila was very kind and sympathetic. She had heard Sanjana’s story and shared her own saga. “My husband was kind and caring and I was heartbroken. I also knew he would hate to see me sad and broken. So, I pulled myself together and made a life for myself back home. The love he cherished on me and his memories has sustained me for the rest of my journey in life,” she concluded with a sad smile.

Sanjana said, “You were lucky to have his love.”

“You are lucky to have had a son and your child’s love. And you must pull yourself together for your son’s sake,” retorted Romila. “ I will come over to your house tomorrow. And we will spend the day together, mapping out a new start for you.”

When Sanjana returned home, her heart felt lighter and she could even watch a dance performance on television without crying once…something she had not been able to do since Suresh announced his decision to leave her.

The next day Romila came in her jogging suit with a gift for Sanjana. When Santana unwrapped the gift, she found a jogging suit and sneakers! Romila had remembered that they could fit into each other’s shoes and slippers.

“ I cannot jog! I am too old and fat. I have a backache!” said Santana.

“It is triple XL. You can fit in. We will not jog. We will walk, “said Romila.

“What is the use of losing weight now?”

“ Why not? We are still not old… get back to dancing!”

“ I can’t anymore.”

“Why not? You are only in 43… you can open a dance school. I will help you. Actually, it would help my trade too!”

Sanjana was still not convinced.

“Please you could be the big story in my career. I have nothing else except that to live by… you know that,” asserted Romila.

Romila went on till Sanjana agreed to walk with her twice a day.

Three months passed by. Every morning Romila took Sanjana out. They had started jogging now. Sanjana was regaining her shape and her aches and pains had reduced. Romila had put her on a low carb diet, taken her to a beautician and had her hair cut and colored. Sanjana had started dancing a little now. She sought out her guru again, acquired a pair of bells and went for regular classes in kathak.

All this while, Suresh had paid her bills and talked on phone when absolutely necessary. He and Sonia had gone on a tour of Europe to celebrate the start of their life together. He had never been on a honeymoon with Sanjana. They had always stayed at home. Suresh travelled alone or with Sonia while he was married to Sanjana. Sanjana had never lived anywhere else except for her mother-in-law’s home for all the twenty-one years of her married life… and now she continued in the same place. Suresh went to USA on a business meet with Sonia and met Suarabh. He had still not told Saurabh about his divorce. Saurabh wanted to do a summer internship in Berkley during the holidays. Suresh encouraged him and promised to visit him with his mother.

Back in India, he called up Sanjana, “Saurabh will not come to India this year. We will visit him. I have not yet told him about our divorce. There is no need to disturb him. We will get your passport made and visit him in August.”

Sanjana complied as always.

By now, the fruits of Romila’s and her hardwork had started blossoming. Sanjana was looking good and younger than her age. She had started helping her old guru teach dancing. She was happier than she had ever been in the last two decades.

Suresh told her to get her passport photograph taken. He wanted her to send it to his office with the driver. She complied. The completed form was sent to her and she signed. The efficient Sonia had overseen all the details. Suresh was not bothered by such small details.

Her passport was ready.

July… Sanjana went shopping with Romila. She was looking very good now. Sanjana was more confident than she had ever been in her life. She was dancing, even though not on stage.

Finally, Sanjana was in the car on the way to the airport. The car stopped in front of Suresh’s house. Sonia was not coming this time.

Suresh stepped into the car and closed the door. He had not turned to look at Sanjana, who was seated in the corner in the dark.

Then he saw her.

“Sanjana?!” Suresh exclaimed with surprise.

He looked at her spell bound.

Sanjana smiled at him and said, “Yes?”

“You are looking good! What have you done to yourself?”

“Nothing.”

“You cut your hair.”

“Yes.”

“You look good. You are wearing pants…I have never seen you in anything except sarees!”

“Jeans. They are convenient for travel. You have never taken me anywhere with you till now.”

Suresh stared at her open-mouthed.

Earlier she would keep quiet and nod shyly. Now she spoke.

In the brightly lit airport, he could see she had make up on and looked very good. Young men turned to look at her as she pushed her trolley.

Suresh was stunned!

She had got her figure back.

“You have lost weight and your hair is brown!” Suresh stuttered.

“Yes. I am dancing and I color my hair,” smiled Sanjana.

When they went to the counter, Suresh asked for two seats together.

He kept looking at her as if to make sure everything was all right. When Sanjana took out a Dan Brown to read, Suresh blurted out, “So, you are reading too…”

“Yes. I never figured out how much fun it is to read thrillers. A friend introduced me to Dan Brown and I cannot stop reading his books!”

Suresh watched her asleep. How beautiful she looked, prettier than when he had married her. He would have loved to touch her, to have her as his wife again. He had been a bit peeved with Sonia of late…She was always nagging him for things the way Sanjana never had… maybe they could get back together. He had never married Sonia… Sonia wanted him to formalize their relationship with a wedding ring. He had pleaded Saurabh’s reaction… Sonia still nagged…

Maybe, he could ask her when she woke up… meanwhile, he gazed at her and then tried to read.

Sanjana’s eyes fluttered and she sat up.

Suresh looked at her and smiled. She had always been putty in his hands. Maybe, he would ask her soon…

She would surely agree! She had always agreed to anything he said… even the divorce…

Suresh waited for Sanjana to be fully awake.

Then, he smiled at her.

She smiled back.

“Feeling refreshed?” he asked.

Sanjana nodded.

“I have been thinking things through while you slept. Saurabh does not know we have separated. If we get back together, he will never know of the rift.”

“What do you mean?” asked Sanjana.

“I mean we can terminate our divorce and stay married forever.”

“Really?”

“Yes. Sanjana we could go back to being together and, if you want, we can remarry when we return.”

“Why?”

Suresh could not believe his ears.

“What are you saying? You do not want to stay married to me?”

“I am not married to you any more. I am having too good a time now to think of tying a knot.”

“Are you saying you do not want me?”

Sanjana looked at him and gave an enigmatic smile in the tradition of Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa.