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…

 

 

 

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Parenting…choices

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Long ago, I dreamt of writing a book about living in China and walking on the Great Wall. And it happened.

I chose not to chase my dream instead I spent majority of my time chasing my sons.

My children came to me in my thirties. By then, they were more than welcome. My longing to be a mother overrode my other dreams. I reveled in my sons and brought them up to what I considered the best of my ability. I read Dr Spock when they were babies and talked to my friends about their babies’ developmental processes. I remember, I was worried about my son’s teething. Our friends’ daughter had many teeth by the time she was one and she loved eating watermelons. My son had few teeth and objected to fruit. He only drank mamma’s milk and half boiled eggs! He hated orange juice and clenched his gums/ few teeth when we tried to feed him solid food. He even spat out the food we tricked him into ‘eating’. My friend argued that all humans had teeth. Hence, so would my son, even if the process happened a little later. And she was right! Every child is unique and develops at an individual pace.

As parents, we can only watch, wait and pray. We do our best but the ultimate call is made by the child and the force that drives all life. As a parent, I discovered that I really enjoyed my children’s childhood and I miss it now that they have become older and have learnt to fend for themselves largely.

The funny thing that happened to me as a parent was that I forgot that I had my own dreams and goals from long before… from my teens and earlier. Perhaps, my dreams underwent a change. The feeling I am left with is these years of my life have been well spent. What could be more important than helping mold the future of mankind? Children are our future and to prioritise them over and above our own needs seemed the most natural thing to do.

I always remember the lines by William Wordsworth about the rainbow, poetic wonder and the child…

My heart leaps up when I behold

A rainbow in the sky:

So was it when my life began;

So is it now I am a man;

So be it when I shall grow old,

Or let me die!

The Child is father of the Man;

And I could wish my days to be

Bound each to each by natural piety.

The wonder that a child feels in discovering not just rainbows but even his father’s oversized shirt or shoes often becomes a source of infinite delight and wonder to the parent too because as an adult we get in touch again with the novelty of things when we watch our child fascinated with what we had started to consider mundane. That is a joy that keeps every parent young at heart. And, thus the child forever continues the ‘ father’ of man. And perhaps that is what happened to me. I lost myself in the wonder of rediscovering life with my children. And on a daily basis, I want to thank God for giving me these bundles of joy and my husband for letting me revel in their childhood, while he slogged to bring home the bacon and help realize our dreams.

Encouraging children to have dreams, goals and ideals from a young age goes a long way. No age is too early and no dream too small or big! It can be a dream of being a princess, dressing up, flying to outer space in a rocket, driving a lorry or a dustbin dump truck, inventing something new, cooking a dream dish, writing a book or drawing a picture.

I know of a mother who helped materialize her son’s dreams by helping him publish a book in elementary school. The child at the age of three told her that he wanted to write a book and have it on a bookshelf in a bookshop. By the time he was eight he had the book. It started with doodles and ended with stories. His mother helped him materialize his dream of being an author. And she used his dreams to help him learn to read, write and develop a love for books!

For my children, the dreams were different but no less important. My elder son was so fascinated by trucks that his first poem in his kindergarten was a list of names of these juggernauts. That gave way to dreams of making robots. I was happy to hear out his dream because he said it was better to have robots clean high rise windows rather than humans as people could fall and get hurt. From then on, his journey started in the quest of making robots to lighten mankind’s burdens and it continues more than a decade and a half down the line. My younger son dreams of animations with music, math and science… I wait eagerly to see how it will concretize to make a rainbow.

Sometimes, we need to work to make our children’s dreams come true. For example, when my younger son wanted a sunshine cake for his fifth birthday, I made it! And the biggest reward I had was when my little one when he said, “Mamma that is exactly what I imagined!”

Children need to sense that dreams can come true without compromises. Let them fly… and you can fly with them. They can help you fly and materialize your own dreams while you watch them grow and soar.

Actually, that is how my book happened too. One day my younger son came back from his school in China and said, “Mamma, you have never been to university.” I contradicted him and said that I had been to two. And then he said, “But my Chinese teacher said that mammas who stayed at home had not been to university!”

I was alarmed. I spoke to the school, which was a well-known international one. Many of the expat wives in China had chosen to be full time mothers, which is something that the world did not comprehend. I had chosen to be a full time mother even when my elder son was in my womb because the doctor had recommended bed rest and I stayed home from then on.

I thought calmly, did it really matter to me? It was not my job to educate a confused ‘educator’ who looked down on child rearing as the task of an uneducated person but it was my need to be respected and seen as a role model by my son. I wanted to show my child that one can dream big and materialize them under any circumstances, even while indulging in the most daunting and time consuming adventure of bringing up children. So, I wrote a book, one and a half books actually within a couple of years. The half was a compilation of recipes from thirty countries by well-respected professionals, including chefs, writers, school teachers, principals done in collaboration with a German friend, who is an engineer and dreamt of writing a cookbook while in China as a homemaker; and the other, was my own book, a humorous retelling of living, travelling and bringing up non-Chinese children in China in a society where borders no longer were a truth. That was my individual solution.

But, it made me think… why would a mother with university degrees not want to bring up her child? Is bringing up children really a job to be relegated to a substitute with values and education at variance with your own? Do you want your child to feel closest to you or to the person who has substituted for you as a full time caregiver?

These are choices you need to make when you think of child rearing. You have to decide who to prioritise, yourself or your child?

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Waiting for the revolution…

 

 

It was the year 1989, a month after the Tianamen Square protests rocked the world.

Moyna’s uncle was angry.

“Does your father know that you are going to a mafia infested area to do your report?” Boro Pishe asked.

“It is a newspaper report,” Moyna explained for the umpteenth time. “My father knows I am doing the report. The Socialist will pay for the car I hire to go to the coal workers’ settlement and all other costs. You don’t need to worry!”

The Socialist was a major national newspaper. Moyna worked in the Delhi office as a reporter. She was taking a break to visit her aunt and uncle in Dhanbad. When Shyam Nagra, the assistant editor, heard she was going to Dhanbad, he asked her to do a follow-up story on a documentary that had focused on how a Harijan coal slurry worker had overcome the corrupt security forces to help improve the remuneration given to them.

Moyna was excited about it. But her uncle was not.

Boro Pishe said, “Nothing doing young lady. I will go with you to meet B. L. Sen. I am responsible for your safety while you are in Dhanbad. There is a whole mafia around this area that can finish you up. I will come with you this evening.”

Moyna and Boro Pishe went to BL Sen’s office. BL Sen was the local Marxist MP. The office was crowded but BL Sen made room for them.

“You see, the film was made a few years ago. The situation has reverted,” BLSen said. “The workers have again been subdued by the security forces. Not just that the mafia has become stronger and now takes a larger part of their income. The security also takes a share. So, the miners are left with less than one third of their daily wages.”

Moyna asked, “Is it possible for me to visit the settlement?”

“We will take you to where the workers live and the trade Union office. But be warned young lady, you can visit them only once for an hour or two and never return there again. You must collect all the information you need within that time. You can never go back because once the mafia knows; they will finish you, your camera and tape recorder. Also you must dress simply to blend in,” concluded BL Sen. He arranged to have Moyna escorted by one of his men two days later. They arranged a lunch for her with the trade union leaders.

Boro Pishe was dissatisfied with the development. He said, “You will not hire a car. I will use a rickshaw that day to go to work and my driver will take you and BL Sen’s men to the site.”

Moyna had no choice. She went with Mukund, the driver, and BL Sen’s escort, Babulal.

Moyna got off at the settlement from the car. Both Mukund and Babulal came with her. Boro Pishe had instructed Mukund not to leave her side for a minute.

Moyna  stared spellbound at the diorama that unfolded before her eyes.

Everything was black with coal dust, even the puddles and ponds of water around. Mal-nourished children with potbellies and scanty, torn clothing seemed to solidify out of the coal dust. They stared at her as she approached the settlement. Moyna was wearing a simple cotton saree and rubber slippers. But she felt overdressed. People here were in tatters and rags of the indistinct color of poverty. There were no voices or sounds in the settlement, only the eerie silence of spineless, abject sub-human existence. People lived only to breath, and eat if fortunate…

Babulal allowed her to pause and take pictures of a man taking out coal slurry from a black pond. She looked at her surroundings. She had never in her life seen anything like this.

Everything was black and shades of black, coloured by the fine grains of coal from deep within the bowels of Earth. People had no houses. They lived in shelters made with tarpaulin stretched on sticks. There were not even thatched huts. Children stared at her, as did men and women.

“Is this how the workers live?”

“Yes. They come from a number of villages to work here.” responded Babulal.

“Do they have electricity and water?”

Babulal looked at her amused.

“No. They do not have water and electricity where they stay. They lead a hand to mouth existence.”

“Then what do they drink?”

“There is a tube well a little further on.”

“Do they not fall sick?”

“Yes, they do and they die also but they have no alternative.”

“What is their average life expectancy?”

“We have never done a survey… but most of them die before they turn thirty because of the coal dust they inhale. Come let us move forward to the trade union office.”

The three intruders moved ahead.

Moyna wanted to help but had no idea how and dared not ask. “My god, how lucky am I,” she thought. “And how sad that people had to live like this in the twentieth century! How can people tolerate others living like this?”

The trade union office was a shabby brick building. They sat on the floor and ate half cooked lamb with Moyna. She was the VIP visitor and they showered their warmth on her. Moyna was touched.

She interviewed the people identified by BLSen’s workers and recorded their statements. She had to leave within an hour and a half as Babulal pointed out that the mafia or security forces would soon be coming around.

As Moyna lay down in the air-conditioned comfort of her uncle’s guest room that night, she was thinking that today she had seen another world, a world perhaps that she would never had known existed…Her Boro Pishe had been very solicitous towards her welfare, she knew. But the reality remained that the India of the coal slurry workers was different from any other India she knew…

Their protest had been subdued. They had been quenched to become subservient commodities for their masters, thought Moyna ruefully. Their life expectancy continued at less than thirty years as opposed to India’s 57.47 years in 1989. And people just accepted it! Most of the workers were illiterate. Educated Indians spoke of the need for freedom of speech in her world and protested everything possible but in the settlement, where a revolution might have helped them survive decently, the workers’ voices had been silenced, their spines broken. Some of them did not even want to speak.

Perhaps, it was the year of quenched protests… Tianamen and then these coal workers,  Moyna cogitated as she turned off her bedside lamp. She wondered how many of these workers understood independence and freedom and had benefitted by it…yet they voted? Could they even think about freedom as they were driven to battle for survival on a daily basis? Was living like these workers better than dying? Why did the workers not protest? Why did people tolerate the mafia? Why did the government give in? Moyna slowly drifted off to sleep thinking on these issues.

It was 2017, the year when China had surged ahead. The Tianamen incident had been forgotten and forgiven. It had drifted to an insignificant corner of the past…

Moyna woke from her afternoon siesta and her housekeeper asked, “Tea, madam?”

Moyna nodded in affirmation.

Moyna lived in Singapore now. She was over fifty and had two children. Her sons had seen more of the rest of the world and less of India…

Her younger son came and said, “ Mamma do you have a spare earphone? I ripped mine again today.”

Moyna went inside to rummage her desk for an earphone. Her old portfolio got dislodged and fell out. The article on the coal mine workers fell to the floor. Moyna picked it up and looked at it. She showed it to her son. She told him how this article had won her kudos and a scholarship to a postgraduate course in a European university. The university had kept the article as part of their resource material in their library.

“Mamma why did the university keep it as their resource material?” asked her thirteen-year-old son.

Moyna said, “I don’t know… I wonder too.” She replaced the article in her portfolio. Her son wanted to read her old articles. She gave him her portfolio and walked to her balcony and sat down as her housekeeper brought in her tea. Moyna took a sip and started thinking of what had been.

She recalled how she had found it difficult to stomach the attitude of the professor at the European university. He insisted that their way was the best for third world countries to step out of poverty. Moyna had not agreed. Firstly, she hated the term third world. They were developing countries…there were so many differences she had… Moyna felt the best way to move forward was defined by the indigenous people themselves and their needs and not by the needs defined by other people. The need to move forward had to come from within. That could only come when the basic needs hunger, shelter and education were resolved…

Moyna had returned after she completed her course on Economic Development Studies and continued working for the newspaper till she fell in love, tied the knot with her husband and moved out of India.

Today as she stood watching the waves ripple across the water body in front of her home, she wondered, had she done the right thing submitting that report for her scholarship? Why did the university need a resource material like that…? She had never understood the reason…

She wondered did the settlement still exist? What were the worker’s living conditions? She googled the name of the settlement on  her mobile but drew a blank…

The needs of those workers were so different from hers. She remembered that

Moyna could not bear to look at beggars and poverty but what was she doing about it?

Moyna fell into a reverie.

Could she ever do anything for the poor? Could anyone do anything for them? Why did most people in India accept the state of things, including poverty and lack of education, as they were? Why is it all people did not still have access to housing, food, clean water, electricity and good roads?

What was this apathy?

Why were the basic needs so hard to meet for some countries and so easy for others?

Her husband’s voice jerked her back to the present reality. “A penny for your thoughts. What are you thinking?”

“I was thinking of the past… wondering what good did I do by going to the coal mines and writing about it…?” Moyna replied.

“The exposure taught you many things and you have brought up compassionate children… is that a small thing?”

“But I could do nothing to help improve their lot….”

“How do you know your article did not help the people who were trying to bring a positive change in the condition of the workers? At least it raised awareness about the plight of the workers among the readers…”

Moyna smiled. “You are trying to placate me. Come let us eat dinner.”

 

 

To shave or not to shave?

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Many hundreds of years ago, the fictitious Hamlet was given these famed lines to cogitate over by the bard that gave him life, Shakespeare,

 

To be, or not to be: that is the question:

Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer

The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,

Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,

And by opposing end them?

 

Hamlet was agitated over his fate. And I stand agitated over the fuzz I see growing on my son’s face. So, these are lines I dedicate to all the men who think the unkempt, unshaven look makes them appear macho… or men who are just too lazy to shave!

 

To shave or not shave… that is the question…

Whether it is nobler in the face to suffer

The pricks of fuzzy growth,

Or to take arms against a sea of hair,

And by shaving end them?

 

It has become my sorrow to see my twenty-year-old son’s handsome face concealed by a hairy outcropping most days of the week. When I tell him to shave, he grunts, and it rarely gets done…

And yet, I remember a long, long time ago, when my son was three-years-old and he had lovely smooth skin, he jumped with delight to see his father shave. He wanted so much to shave on a daily basis that he tried it on his own soft cheeks… luckily we caught him before any disaster struck. I occasionally try to revive his interest in shaving by recalling this incident. But, he just walks out saying,” Mamma!” in a tone laced with embarrassment and reprimand!

My friend had better luck with her seventeen-year-old. She whispered to him that he looked like an unkempt terrorist with his fungal growth. He went to the bathroom and came back clean-shaven.

I tried the same with my son…It failed.

When he was a child, I remember reading to him from a book called the Thingummajigs Book of Manners. In that book Thingummajigs were described as creatures with beards and long hair who rarely bathed and had very bad manners. It was in verse with colourful pictures of these creatures. He even enjoyed reading it himself. And he was so convinced by the book that he used to wonder if every long haired and unshaven man was a Thingummajig. We had to keep telling him they were not.

Then, there were the Twits, created by Roald Dahl, where the husband has mice, stale food and all kinds of filthy things in his unkempt facial hirsute outcropping! A book which all of us enjoyed and I would have thought it would have impacted my son for life…to shave regularly…But in vain!

And now he talks of Movember. That has become a reason not to shave… in May?! I googled Movember…It happens only every November… Actually Movember is about growing a nice, neat, trimmed, well-shaped moustache in the month of November to “change the face of men’s health”.

I, personally, cannot empathize with a moustache either…

I, like Tennyson, would like to mourn. He mourned the loss of his friend, Arthur Hallum, and I weep for the loss of the smooth, clean cheeks of my twenty-year-old. With due apologies to Tennyson’s poetic genius, I adapt his famous concluding lines from Break, Break, Break to express the sorrow of parting with my son’s smooth cheeks…

 

Shave, shave, shave

         At the root of thy beard, O Son!

But the tender face of the past that is gone

         Will never come back to me.

 

 

The Stepmother

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Shweta washed her hands repeatedly. Yet, she could not rinse off the stench of death. She had helped straighten the body, the body no one seemed to want to touch…the body of her great grandmother, Shamaboti…

Shamaboti had in her own way loved Shweta very much. She always encouraged Shweta to be an independent and free entity… ready to launch out on her own at any point. And that is exactly what Shweta had done. She had just started working as a journalist and did not want to marry or have a boy friend. She had big dreams, encouraged most of all by Shamaboti. Her dreams included walking on the Great Wall and writing a book on it! Perhaps, she would do a book on many ancient wonders of the world… go to Easter Island, check out the pyramids in Egypt, maybe also Macchu Pichhu… travel to the Arctic… And all the time she would write.

Shweta loved her great grandmother but not enough to weep broken-heartedly. Probably, out of all the great grandchildren, she loved Shamaboti the most. What most amazed her was Shamaboti’s life! Perhaps she could research and write about it eventually…

Shamaboti Devi was born just before the turn of the twentieth century into a Kulin Brahmin family, the creme-de-la- creme of the chosen ones, the most prized of all castes. Her father was a Kulin Brahmin. He had had more than a dozen wives and made a living by marrying as many women as were willing with a fees. Shamaboti saw her father once every two years, when he came to visit her mother, one of his umpteen wives. His job as a high caste Kulin Brahmin was to impregnate as many women as he could marry with seeds of high caste Brahminism to further propagate his clan and collect money from his in-laws for saving their daughters from the misfortune of spinsterhood. Her father never bought his wife or daughter a present but was always given presents by his in-laws, who maintained his wife and daughter for him.

There were many like him that progressives, such as Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, the Tagore family and others, among them some belonging to Kulin clans too, were trying their best to oppose and reform. What had started as a mechanism to retain cultural integrity had been reduced to a corrupt ritual where a sixty-year-old man could be paid to marry a six-year-old girl!

Shamaboti’s mother was married a little late…when she was already past puberty and she had her daughter about four years later. Her father was of an undefined age, which was accepted, as he was a man.

Shamaboti was considered a pretty young girl. She was plump and fair. Youth had loaned her a supple grace.

Shamaboti didnot know her exact age or birthdate, which is why no one knew what her age was when she died. They estimated it was over ninety.

Shamaboti told her great (step) grandchildren stories of her childhood. Most of her stories were centered around how she had fun climbing trees but got scolded for ruining her sarees in the process. She also spoke of hiding raw mangoes in the folds of her saree and eating them on the sly.

When she related these stories, all her great grand children, with the exception of Shweta, reacted with giggles! They could not dream of climbing trees in sarees as such wear was old fashioned and cumbersome. It was the age of hot pants!

Shweta, always a dreamer, wondered what life was like then…a century ago…

Shamaboti played with her cousins till she reached the ripe old age of five or six. Then she was channeled to learn household chores and to work like a spare maid in her uncle’s home. She did wander off to climb trees and pluck a fruit or read a Bengali book hidden behind some furniture, when she had time. She used to read on the sly because it was given out by her aunts that if you read, you would lose your feminity and no man wanted a clever wife!

Shamaboti loved to hear or read a good story… She had learnt to read and write from her cousin and playmate, Dulal.

Life jogged on till one day she heard she was getting married. She thought it was a wonderful thing because at last she would leave her uncle’s home to go to that of her husband! She was so much luckier than her mother as her husband would be only hers and no other woman’s! She had never gone out of the village… now, she would live in Calcutta, the big city…

Oh what dreams the young girl had! She heard Anirvan was handsome and dashing.

At last, she would be a queen in her own home. How delighted was Shamaboti!

Anirvan married Shamaboti and brought her home. On the boat that took them away from her village, Anirvan told her that she had two step sons to care for and he expected her to be a good mother. Shamaboti merely inclined her head and accepted… She said nothing.

When they alighted at his home, he showed her a painting of a woman on a horse and said , “ That is your elder sister Ambalika. She had two sons. The boys lost their mother at a young age.”

Then he said, “Come I will show you the kitchen and your sons.”

He took her to an adjoining room where two young boys were playing with toy soldiers. “Come here boys,”said the father. “This is your new mother. And this is Rajkrishna and this is Shyamol. Look after them well.”Rajkrishna being the elder of the two came forward and paid his respects by touching her feet. Shyamol followed. But they did not smile at her once! She smiled but there was no response…

Anirvan turned to her and said, “I will stay in my room and pray. My prayers should not be disturbed. You can sleep with the children.”

Shamaboti was stunned. But she said nothing. She just accepted. It was a woman’s job to adapt to every situation, she had been taught well by her mother. She spent her wedding night with her two step sons. The boys were not too friendly. She spread a mat on the floor and slept.

What Shamaboti had not been told was Anirvan had a past and that is what he lived by…

His past was the delightful Ambalika, his first wife. Ambalika was a beautiful, talented woman who at the turn of the century rode horses and spoke, read and wrote in seven languages.

Anirvan was besotted by the clever Ambalika the first day he saw her riding with her father. Her father was a well-known intellectual who had leanings towards Brahmoism, a Hindu reformist movement started by Rammohan Roy in the eighteenth century. Ambalika played the piano and sang like a lark. She knew English ballads taught by her British governess.

Anirvan, an orphan but still a rich father’s son, had no difficulty in marrying the woman of his dreams. Ambalika’s father was liberal enough to overlook the fact that Anirvan was not a Brahmo. And Anirvan didnot care what the Hindu pundits said about marrying a Brahmo. Their married life was idyllic. The social ostracism they faced from the more conventional Brahmos and Hindus drew them closer to each other. They had more than enough to live like kings and have a wonderful life. Money rubbed away the edges of social criticism. After two idyllic years, Ambalika gave birth to a son, Rajkrishna.

Rajkrishna was Shweta’s grandfather. He had an affluent start in life but when he was four-years-old, not only was his mother expecting a new baby but his father’s fortunes collapsed. The two ships owned by him sank at sea with expensive cargo on board. He had to repay the traders. He lost a lot of money and had a tough time running his home. He had to sell off his horses and the expensive paintings from his walls. Lot of his staff who ran his home had to go. They were left with only an old man and the woman who looked after Rajkrishna. No one knows if it was the shock of becoming penurious or the travails of childbirth that took Ambalika to her heavenly abode two days after the birth of her younger son.

Anirvan was stunned with grief. He took to locking himself up in his room and praying all the time. He turned to religious rituals and the Almighty in his sorrow and forgot he had two little children to rear. For sometime, the two servants took care of the household and children but when money wore itself thin, they started finding it difficult to manage. The woman left. Anirvan hired a new man.

Anirvan’s distant cousin who saw his state of finances and inability to make ends meet or bring up children, recommended he rent out rooms to tenants to have enough to put food on the table and the children, through schooling. He also recommended a second marriage as a last resort. The wife could run the house, supervise the servants, cook and look after the children. Then, he could stay with his prayers all the time. For sometime, Anirvan refused to think of marriage. He just rented out some rooms to three families in his enormous family mansion. He found it trying to associate with these families, to collect rentals and to keep an eye on the children. Finally, irritated by having to interact with tenants, children and the needs of the new inefficient manservant, he realized the house needed managing. He agreed to marry.

He had not even seen Shamaboti once before the marriage. He was not interested in having a wife. He only needed someone to keep the house in order and to bring up his children.

Shamaboti’s husband hardly spoke to her. Eventually, after a few years, he faded to death. Shamaboti, in her twenties, wore the garb of a widow, managed the finances of the house, looked after the two boys and had a passion for books and cards. She played cards with the tenants’ wives every afternoon and bought a few books. She was there for the boys, though they resented the fact that she was their stepmother. Eventually, the boys completed their university, started working and got married.

Rajkrishna did well and had four children, two daughter and two sons. He sold his ancestral mansion and split the money with his brother and built a beautiful house in New Delhi, where he worked as a senior director in The Reserve Bank. His brother worked and built a house in Bombay.

Rajkrishna’s eldest son was Shweta’s father.

Rajkrishna took charge of looking after his stepmother though he did not like her much. Shyamol did not want to take charge as his wife hated the old woman. Everytime Shamaboti visited Bombay, her younger daughter-in-law would be rude and she returned early to Rajkrishna. Rajkrishna’s wife, Preeti, was loving and kind and felt sorry for the old woman, who for no fault of hers was criticised by others for being a stepmother… Preeti loved her husband very much and understood his obligations to his stepmother. But, for most others, Shamaboti remained quintessentially the stepmother, who was never loved by her husband or stepsons. She was criticised for being unloved!

That was the part Shweta could not figure out, had she been given a chance to be anything else other than an unwanted stepmother? Would anyone in the current day ever accept the role as placidly as Shamaboti had?

Shamaboti Devi grew old and started withering in front of Shweta’s eyes after her stepsons died of cancer and heart attack, respectively. She did not weep for her stepsons but just started shrinking… She lay on her bed, had to be fed and bathed. A nurse was maintained for her by Shweta’s father. Shamaboti did not want to die. She could still read. She was in the middle of an exciting new thriller and there were more to come… She hung on. She grew frailer and wheezed while breathing. She found it difficult to read. The nurse, Shweta and her mother took turns to read to her.

One day, she died while listening to a story.

Shweta helped straighten her corpse and could not forget the sensation. It was cold and rigid. The smell of death haunted her nostrils for days.

Her relatives had no time for the funeral.

Her father, grandmother, mother and Shweta conducted the rituals for the dead. It was all rather muted. No one had the time to mourn.

After a fortnight, Shweta was told by the family lawyer that Shamaboti had left behind a will of which she was the sole beneficiary. Everyone was amazed, except Preeti who had helped call in the lawyer and witnessed the will that was made. In it, Shamaboti had left behind all her jewellery and a diary that she maintained when she got married and while she was bringing up the boys for Shweta! Her heavy gold jewellery was worth more than twenty lakhs… Shweta had no use for it but she kept it in a locker in the bank for sentimental reasons…

The diary was a real gem for her. She sat and read the diary of the woman who was mourned by none… In it she found a woman of passions who, despite all her docile training, yearned to explore the world outside as much as her step great grand daughter…Here was a woman who had fallen in love , even if the love was never requited, a woman who did her best for her step sons and a woman who married her elder step son to an educated girl… one who had finished higher secondary in days when girls were married, having passed just grade eight. Preeti confirmed she finished school before she married and her mother-in-law had insisted on that!

Shweta, the inheritor of the diary, wrote a book and published it with the help of her editor. It became a prize winning best seller.

As Shweta stepped down from the dias after receiving the Sahitya Akademi award, she pondered over the strange life of her great grandmother…

She wondered if she would have got this award or would she herself  have existed if Shamaboti did not come into her great grandfather’s life…Was it a life wasted, thrown away or lived to the full? Did anyone ever love her? Did she ever feel the lack of love in her life?

A tear formed at the edge of Shweta’s eyes.

 

 

Wanderlust

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New Delhi… the magical city of dreams… New Delhi the maker or breaker of dreams…

Into New Delhi, came a young man with a bundle of dreams under his arms, literally.

He had a manuscript, a book and a laptop in a bag that he held under his arms. He hoped to make it big and become a reputed writer. On his back was a rucksack with some of his belongings. He got off the train from Dhanbad, a small town in Bihar blackened by soot from coalmines…

It was not that he was without contacts or was visiting the city for the first time… No, he had friends and family with who he could stay and the invitation to meet a television director who had said he was interested in staging his story.

Dinesh and Manish had met in Calcutta at Dinesh’s friend’s sister’s wedding. Dinesh was a dreamer who a few years earlier had dreamt of marrying the bride and then, when he found, the young girl preferred her fiancé, he started writing poetry, dipping a fountain pen in his own blood, which he spilt from a cut he made on his arm. The girl rejected the blood drenched poetry… and the poet. Dinesh started writing a story… a sad story of rejection, this time on his laptop, not with blood. Then he wrote another story and then another till he started having fun with stories in his head.

Dinesh went for the wedding not only because he was the bride’s brother’s best friend but to prove to the world and himself that he had completely got over his puppy love.

In the process of getting over his first crush, he had found another love… this time, it was not a woman but the sound of words. He wrote his heart out, poetry and prose. He started carrying his life in a few files in his laptop. At the wedding, when this affluent but jobless youth met Manish, a young dynamic director from New Delhi, who wrote and produced plays on television, he showed him some of his own stories. Manish saw potential for teleplays and asked him if he could come to Delhi with his work in three months time, when he would start looking for a new story. At that point, he had a serial going on on national television that was a hit all over India.

Now, Dinesh had started to dream of becoming a playwright. He had already started to dramatise his stories when he landed in Delhi. He got off the train in the New Delhi Railway Station and started looking for an auto rickshaw that would take him to his aunt’s house in Greater Kailash.

Dinesh’s aunt, Mallika, lived in a huge ancestral home all alone. She had never married because for her, career came before all else. She was very happy to have Dinesh over. He was close family…her nephew (her elder sister’s youngest).

Dinesh liked his aunt. She had always been always kind to him.

Dinesh reached her home on Sunday afternoon and on Monday, he went to Manish’s office with his manuscript and his laptop.

Manish asked him to summarize his stories and tell them to him. He selected one of the summaries and asked for the manuscript of the story. Dinesh sent the story and the script that he had written of the play to Manish. Manish of course had the script and story modified by the professional scriptwriter.

Dinesh’s job was done and he was given a cheque. Dinesh was a bit disappointed. He had dreamt of becoming the Shakespeare of India. When the opportunity slid out of his reach, he started grasping around for a new dream, for here was a young dreamer… New Delhi was the perfect city for this young man, a city where dreams can be broken, altered or made… Without his dreams, Dinesh felt like an empty egg shell!

He moved around the house listlessly. Mallika was the editor-in- chief of a newspaper. She knew things had not worked out the way Dinesh dreamt. Dinesh was just a average student from Calcutta University. He had done a management course in a private institute. He could not find a job anywhere, Delhi or Calcutta… yet, he needed his dreams. Was he an unusual young man in as much as what mattered most to him were his dreams, not the realization of them? Perhaps, he did not have the stamina to work for them or struggle for them. Yet, he could not do what his family wanted him to do… join in their family business…

Mallika asked him if he wanted to try his hand at journalism… he was not sure… All he knew was that he wanted to get away from it all… he decided he wanted to travel. His father refused to pay for his adventures and told him to expect no support from him if he did not join the prosperous family business.

One morning, Dinesh woke up, packed his rucksack and left the house… no one knew where he had gone…

Dinesh left home, cashed his cheque and caught the first train to Haridwar. He sent a message to his aunt telling him he was safe. He got into a cheap third class compartment. This was the time of the Kumbh Mela, a festival that collects millions in the holy cities of Haridwar, Varanasi and Nasik. Each city hosts the festival by turns, every three years. Mendicants, swamis, believers and viewers gather in throngs to bathe in the Ganges and wash away their sins.

On the train, Dinesh sat next to a young man, Hari. During the journey, Hari told him his sad story… he had married the ravishing Kalyani, chosen by his parents from a pure vegetarian family. He himself was a pure vegetarian, who could not stand the stench of eggs, meat and fish. Kalyani had lived in a hostel in New Delhi for five years, through her graduation and post graduation. There she had developed a taste for non-vegetarian cuisine. Hari saw her eat non-vegetarian for the first time during his honeymoon. He was horrified when she ordered mutton. They had not been allowed to talk before they married. Now, Hari felt cheated… he was in a dilemma. He could not tolerate non- vegetarian food and his wife loved her meats and eggs. She did not cook it at home but could not give up on these foods… he had asked her to choose between chicken and goat meat and his heart, home and hearth… She had not responded. After a few months, she went to visit her parents in Haridwar and had continued staying there for more than a month. She also informed him that she wanted to pursue her PhD on her return to Delhi. Hari was very confused and sad. Would his wife choose goat and chicken meat over him? Would she look for a career outside the home?

Hari felt lost and did not know what to do… his family, who lived in Roorkee, of course knew none of this.

Dinesh found Hari’s concerns a trifle amusing and petty as he believed in tolerance and his aunt had chosen career over marriage a couple of decades ago… So, Hari’s concerns seemed a bit weird… there was more to life than just family, marriage and home and that is what he had set out to discover!

When they reached Haridwar, Dinesh found his own way… he went to a dharmashala and got himself boarding. Then he went down to the Kumbh Mela on the banks of the Ganges.

The Ganges flowed down from the Himalayas in all her glory…swirling and beating against the shores, contained in it’s bed by the cemented ghats. There were chains and poles built into the shallow reaches of the river to help the devotees hold and bathe as otherwise, the swift current could sweep away the swimmer far beyond the reaches of helping hands.

Dinesh watched the river fascinated…

A group of ash smeared Naga sadhus walked past him. Dinesh took a picture with his mobile. Touts for helping him offer prayers and bathe surrounded him. Dinesh made a break and ran away from the growing circle of middlemen who offered various services. He saw beggars lined along the walls that led to the shore…

At last, Dinesh found a spot free of touts. There were Naga sadhus praying… Dinesh sat in peace and watched them. He took pictures. When one of the sadhus got up, Dinesh bowed down to him. He blessed him and went off into the river for his ritualistic bath. Dinesh went back to the same spot daily till he could get some stories of the naga sadhus. They were a rare sight and came down from the Himalayas only for the Kumbh Mela. He interviewed some of them and wrote a piece. Then he emailed his story to his aunt. His aunt was excited and printed the story. From Haridwar, when Dinesh returned to his Aunt’s home, she showed him the story in print and promised him a handsome cheque. She suggested he do a column for them, travelling to remote places in India and writing for her newspaper. His interview with the Nagas caused quite a stir and a couple of other newspapers approached him too.

Dinesh had got his break. He travelled and wrote till he became a very well known travel writer. He went to the northeast, visited tribes in Nagaland, saw the borderless existence people led between Burma and India, to Bengal where the haunting rhythms and the simplicity of the Santhals brought tears to his eyes. He travelled to the central India and met Gonds in their natural habitat, to the south and to the west of India… He also found time to do a couple of degrees in Anthropology as it aided him in his work. From the confines of his country’s borders, he moved to rarer tribes in the jungles of Africa, Amazon and, even, Eskimos in the frozen Arctic.

Though his family harangued him to settle down on his occasional visits home, he never found time to marry… He said he was married to his work!

After almost three decades, the young man who wrote poetry in blood and came to Delhi with a rucksack in search of his dreams stood on the podium before the President of the country receiving an award for his outstanding contribution in bringing home to the city dwellers stories about worlds beyond laptops, electricity and roadways, where people lived out their dreams in their own way… their dreams were different from those of a city dwellers just like his had been different from that of his parents or many other men who had not been struck by wanderlust!