Sunday, May 17, 2015

Alas! The discord.

Is it that we are blind to our actions-
Or just refuse to see them in the right light?
Any explanation would fall on deaf ears,
Every other compromise reduce to a brawl...

The mask of tolerance that youth taught us to wear
Begins to shed, revealing the truth underneath;
Every attempt to appease tightens the noose
Every effort to break free pulls us back to earth.

That's why we cry when we listen to old songs,
They release old memories of promises, of hope,
Of a time when we entertained dreams, all vain,
Of a world we believed in that no longer is.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

The million-dollar question of the day

“Auntie, why do Moms scold us all the time while Dads don’t scold us at all?”

This question – that has been asked by children since time immemorial – was recently asked of me by a sweet little eight-year-old. I am not facing it for the first time; I have myself wondered the same, and yet, when her innocent question hit me, I was rendered speechless. After a few seconds of ‘er…I think…you know…’ etc., I finally admitted to her that I did not have any insight on the problem. I wasn’t exactly relieved when her mother informed me later that some of the child’s astute queries often leave the universe itself fumbling for answers.

One morning, in the hustle and bustle of getting my son ready for school, he asked me, “Why does my Dad help me get dressed more quietly than you?” Yes, he used the word ‘quietly’. As opposed to his mother making all the noise – ‘get dressed!’ ‘fast!’ ‘your bus is coming!’ ‘my God, didn’t you eat anything yet?’ ‘you are going to be hungry and sick and under-nourished and ill all the time!’.

My reply wasn’t quite dignified, I’m afraid. I muttered under my breath something like ‘Okay, so get your dad to help you’ and walked away. In my defence, no mother in her right mind can bear a comparison like that, especially when she herself feels guilty for every single thing she does and doesn’t do, every single hour of every single day.

At a recent get-together with friends (all mothers), we, naturally, began talking of parenting (how do we always wind up in that topic?), and we had quite a laugh arguing between ourselves about who amongst us was the loudest when it comes to disciplining our children. Some of the comments went like this:

‘When I begin to shout, my neighbours escape to their hometowns. Did you ever wonder why the houses next to mine are always unoccupied?’

‘I suspect my parents-in-law returned to Kerala cutting their vacation short, because of my constant yelling at their grandchildren.’

‘Surely your voice is nothing compared to mine. When I help my son with his homework, the very foundation of this building trembles.’

‘Oh, was that the earthquake scare last week? As for me, I begin with, ‘Dear, please don’t drop your uniform on the floor, throw them in the laundry basket.’ After a few minutes I progress to ‘I told you to put your uniform in the laundry basket!’ and ‘Didn’t you hear what I said?’ Half an hour later, I thunder, ‘For the last time! PUT YOUR FILTHY CLOTHES IN THE STUPID BASKET!’ and all the kids in the colony would have thrown their clothes into their baskets, without knowing what had actually hit them. I mean, we aren’t asking them to wash their darn clothes, are we?’

(Dads who firmly believe that their wives are the only mothers who yell at the kids should be allowed to secretly listen in on this conversation.)

Frankly, hearing from other mothers that we all fall into the same tribe of beasts is very, very comforting and does wonders to salvage our self-worth.

So this little eight-year-old’s mother assured me that she does ask point-blank questions all the time, and that there was nothing to worry about being at a loss to answer. I face it every day, she said. That didn’t console me one bit. She’s only an eight-year-old. She hasn’t begun to question Newton’s third law yet. I can handle eight-year-olds. I probably should have told her that mothers are more responsible for their children – to show them right from wrong, to guide them to be good men and women, to teach them to be kind and behave with courtesy and compassion, and to respect others. I should have told her that it was easy to say ‘teach your child good manners’ but it took constant monitoring and correcting. I should have told her that mothers felt guilty for the slightest lapse from their child, as though she alone were responsible. I should have told her that our society blames the mother for every wrong thing the child does, and that the mother agonises whether she’s spoiling the child with too much attention or ruining the child with too little. This constant pressure – added to anxieties from her own career and aspirations and finances and other daily tensions of life – stresses her out and, unfortunately and unconsciously, she takes it out on her child, even while knowing she shouldn't. It is a clichéd statement (but true, like all clichés) that mothers are never appreciated for what they do. Everything a mother does for her family is ‘after all, her job.’ No one even bothers to see what she is doing, how hard she is managing, how she is shuffling between her varied roles, and whether she is a little sad about the sacrifices she is making. No one realises how much she would love to be told, once in a while, that she is doing a good job. But why don’t Dads react the same way as Moms? Of course they are responsible for raising the child too. I do not know the answer. Maybe it is a Mommy hormone. Or maybe, Dads have Moms to fall back on, but Moms have no one to.

On second thoughts, probably it is good that I did not say all this to her. She would have understood nothing, and she would have thought, ‘Why in the world did I ask this question to Auntie?’ and she might have stopped asking questions.

But I rather hope that twenty or twenty-five years down the line, I will meet her somewhere and I would remind her of her question, and then we will have a good laugh about it – because by then, God willing, she would have found out the painful answer herself. (If the world hasn't changed all that much by then.) I hope, when that day comes, I can hold her hand and reassure her that we've all been there, and there is no need to feel guilty, because she is not the only mother who feels every day that she is a total failure.

Because she isn't. No mother ever is.

Read - Scenes from Mother's Day 2014

Monday, May 4, 2015

Judging

'Why did you do that?!'
'What a foolish decision!'
'You must do this now.'
'Don't you know it will become this-or-that?'
'I could have told you that would happen.'
'Did you do this? Did you do that? Did you do this after that, or did you do that after this? Why?'

The moment we talk about a decision in our lives, or an illness, or a casual daily affair, there are people who respond immediately with comments like the above. They believe that as a responsible citizen of this wonderful country, it is their duty to point out others' errors and to move mountains to fix those errors. They are also convinced that we know nothing about how this world works and it is upon them to teach us a few lessons based on their vast experience. They also like to gloat a wee bit later that 'I told her to fix it this way.'

We flinch, and ask ourselves why in the world we had to start talking about it. Our murmured replies cement their conviction that we are ignorant folks who only add to the woes of the planet.

Those who know us better - even when they may not know the exact circumstances that led to our situation - may give us the benefit of doubt. Their questions - delivered kindly - are at least based on the belief that we can also think like they do, and  that maybe we have considered all options, and that maybe we are intelligent enough to figure things out when the time comes. They take care to put their responses in a certain way so as to make sure that we are not plunging into a mistake out of ignorance. To be fair, if we like them, their queries are okay; if we don't, they aren't. In other words, we like them if they know how to respond kindly; we don't, if they don't.

Yes, everyone is well-meaning in this world, the only difference is how you make yourself appear in the light of a situation.

Why do we talk to those people who make us feel small? Sometimes it is duty. Sometimes we need advice - and those people are experts in their area. Sometimes we have to visit them for the sake of preserving social niceties and such, and one conversation leads to another. There could be many reasons.

Until a few years ago, it had been difficult to explain this feeling. You feel wretched after each dose you receive, but you could never reduce the entire episode into a single word. You could not quite decide whether your attitude and actions were wrong - or did they jump to conclusions?

Until.

Among the many things that the West has bestowed on us in the recent years is a small but significant word that had slipped past us unseen, unnoticed. A word that we hear in movies, shows, talks, everywhere and is increasingly entering our lives and falling out of our mouths. A word that just by its existence tells us that we are not the ones who are wrong; we are not the ones who should feel guilty.

And that word is - judging.
(Often followed by a flood of Unsolicited advice.)

She was judging me.
Why are you judging me?
Don't judge me!

It is a relief to know that that well-known feeling of wretchedness goes by a clear, definite name. In that single word, we can compress the entire episode, and the listener would know what we mean.

We all judge others - openly and secretly. It's in our flesh and blood. At one point in time, I am sure judging helped our species survive subarctic temperatures and such. But it is probably wiser to keep the art of judging to ourselves or to people closest to us. Today it might not quite help the cause of survival. 

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Monkey Business

A few days ago, while I was working in the afternoon, there was a movement at the window I was facing. I saw nothing when I looked up. Now, anyone with a ladder can reach my house from the basement level. A few fleeting thoughts about thieves and criminals (and I suspect, even terrorists) crossed my mind. In that fraction of a second I took to rise from my seat, I am sure my heart had reached its maximum pounding rate. I peeked through the window, saw nothing, so I decided to be bold for the sake of appearances, and opened the door. Imagine my surprise when I saw a monkey perching on the rails, looking back at me as though I were the intruder in his (her?) house.

What passed through my mind wasn’t exactly relief, but a close relative of it. It was not a human – that was a consolation, for I had no experience in handling thieves; but it was an animal – that was a worry, for what was it doing on my balcony and how do I get rid of it?

I tried to shoo it away – I was standing at a safe distance, and my foot was in the door so that I could escape at short notice (if the wild animal decided to turn wild). But my shooing clearly conveyed to it that I was one frightened being. It bared its teeth in offense and it was all I could do not to dart inside and slam the door. Then it decided that fun was over, and hopped to the neighbour’s balcony.

Later that evening, I heard of its many adventures from different parts of the apartment. The animal was spotted wandering, idling, searching, and in one place, it had managed to reach the kitchen, from where it was devouring freshly prepared beans fry when the owner of the fry surprised it.

There was an estate nearby, full of trees, and not long ago, we used to have frequent visits from monkeys on our balcony and surrounding areas. They used to soil the clothes on our cloth-line, and leave waste behind. Snakes were also occasionally seen, and many birds and butterflies frequented our neighbourhood. Then more buildings began to appear, and the trees in the estate were cut down – we heard that a posh apartment or a mall was coming up. We groaned, but we were partly thankful when the ‘animal menace’ seemed to reduce. So it was a surprise when a monkey was sighted again, and not just in the vicinity, but right on our doorstep, like in the good old times.

The next morning I found water dripping from my neighbour’s balcony and went to investigate. (The owners were away.) It was obvious that the monkey had left the tap open after taking a swig, the previous evening. It occurred to me for the first time that the animal was here for a purpose. Summer had begun overnight. Just a few days before, we were still in the throes of a severe winter and one fine morning we realised that summer, as dry and hot as you please, was here. No transition, no delay, no pause; no time to catch our breath.

When the maid came into clean my house that day, I told her about the visit, and reminded her to keep our door closed, so that monkeys don’t come in and sneak off our precious meal. She agreed with me that the afternoons are hot and that there is no water to be found for these beings. She lives in a one-room house with her family, at a nearby school. She informed me that they keep a little water outside during the day, for the animals. They see birds and small animals coming to drink, she said. I thought that was good, and I even considered for a moment keeping some water out for the birds. But of course, if the monkeys come to my balcony, I would not be happy – they sure do know how to leave a mess. My dilemma was resolved in a couple of days when the summer showers hit the city. I hoped that wherever they were, the animals and birds got some reprieve from the heat.

Where do these animals, stuck in the urban world, normally find their food and water? Do we even care? We’re just relieved that they aren’t encroaching our space, harming our children and stealing our food. We cannot ‘co-exist’ in the true sense of the word. When nature marches into our lives, we take desperate measures to keep her out. To live a civilised life as humans, we need to keep nature trimmed and well-behaved and on our terms. That isn’t co-existence. If you keep your distance, we may keep ours. If you are hungry, we don’t care. When it comes to us versus animals, we vote for us. Naturally.

The deadlock between man and nature continues.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Lost & Found - and Lost

When I came out of the building, I had this familiar feeling that I had forgotten something. I looked at the items in my hand - a brochure, a leaflet someone had handed me on my way out, what did I miss? Of course. My mobile phone. I must have left it where I was sitting. 

I asked him to wait and went back. I did not expect to find it. No one can resist the sight of an abandoned phone and refrain from stealing it. At least, that has been my experience.

It was new, and it was mine. Everything that I could tell another soul and everything I could not - my phone knew it all. I could wink at it and it would know why. Losing it would be like losing a part of myself. As I walked in past the crowd thronging the building, I was certain it would not be there. I kicked myself for forgetting it.

There were so many staircases in that building - why was there so many of those, everywhere, going up and down, and every where? It was as though I was in a maize of staircases. Which one did I just use on my way out after the meeting?

One seemed familiar, and I went up. Yes, they were all there, the smiling adults and the playing children. The balloons, the toys, the noise. The phone was still there in my seat. It was not stolen! Of course, if you leave a mobile phone among children, it will not be lost. On the contrary, the children who find it would go out of their way to hand it back to you. Between childhood and adulthood springs the first inkling of dishonesty.

It was such a relief to find it again. It was not gone. Thank God. It would have been tragic. Wonder why emotions are so heightened in dreams. The immense fear of losing the phone, the overwhelming relief of finding it - but those were nothing compared to what was coming.

It was time to get out of the building, and the maize confronted me again. Which way had I come up? Are these staircases moving like those in Harry Potter stories? Why were there so many of them? Which way should I go? Why was I so confused? I don't usually lose my way. Today I feel so muddled.

I tried to remember the way I had come up. Those set of steps, then the turn - to the right or left? I had to choose one at random and trust my instincts. 

Wrong. I ended up on the other exit at the far side of the building. What was this - a mall? Vehicles were flowing out the gate. I looked back. I could see the numerous staircases all the way to the other side. I had to get there. He was waiting. That was where I should be. But I could not just go straight. I had to choose the steps.

I closed my eyes and tried to picture the location and the route. How did one get to the other exit? What did I have to do to go home? No one was paying any attention. Who can show me the way? Why were there no directions to the Exit? Why was I feeling so scared?

I was lost. I was LOST. It was just a damn building with infinite rows of staircases. And I was stuck in them. Helpless.

I opened my eyes. Daylight was streaming in. A faint sense of relief washed over me. I wasn't really lost. I was safe in my bed. But I was trembling. The magnitude of that fear remained in my mind for the most part of the morning...

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Two-way mirror

There is this school bus that shrieks to a halt in front of our apartment every morning. You could hear it groan as it approaches, as the driver gently steps on the brakes. Some days I would be outside when it arrives, watering my plants or putting out clothes to dry or consuming Vitamin-D from my east-facing balcony with my cup of tea. I see the faces at the window, of sleepy, dreamy or bored children, having who knows what kind of thoughts about school and what lies ahead. There is this girl I see - she wears glasses with a black frame. She is probably in high school. I noticed her because I caught her watching me, many times. Sometimes she doesn't. I don't know if she actually sees me, or if that is a blank, half-asleep morning stare. Her chin is raised when she looks this side, suggesting that she actually sees what she is looking at.

Children are the mirrors into our past. When we look at them, we see our own past staring back at us.

When I see that girl, I remember a window through which, one day every week, we used to observe a man washing clothes and putting them out to dry in the clothes line. We called him Uthaman - because he seemed like the ideal husband. Yes, a man who helps with the laundry was well within our definition of 'ideal'. That was not the pre-WW II era, of course, but those were still the days when men and chores were considered strangers. A husband helping with kitchen, washing, etc. was a rare enough sight (or, concept) for us to drool over.

I wonder what this girl in the shrieking school bus would be thinking, if at all she is conscious of the woman with the steaming cup of tea, leaning on her balcony rails, squinting against the sun, watching the hustle and bustle of morning school time. Does the girl think about what I am doing, and does she wonder about herself? Does she see me as a mirror into her own future? Does the sight excite her or cause her dread? Does she wish that her difficult school days would be over so that she can also lounge in some balcony and sip hot tea? Or does she fear that her days ahead consist of washing and drying clothes and hanging them out to dry, and watering plants and keeping the house?
Does she wonder, at all?

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Time has passed

They may say there are no accidents
But there was something in the way we met.
It just happened, all seemed normal;
But looking back, I do wonder.

Was it meant to be? Was it a wise act of destiny?
We had discovered the highway, together,
Learning the ride, making mistakes,
And ultimately paying the price.

It wasn't all fun, of course; it never is.
But a co-traveller makes it worthwhile.
Through twists and turns, ups and downs,
The journey has been rough.

Now we travel at the ends of the street
Not holding hands, out of reach.
Wasn't it narrower when we started?
Time has passed, the roads have widened.

We're not who we were, we've grown;
Dragging ourselves like tramps, up and down,
Shoving forward, though exhausted, beaten;
With only one purpose: the end, the end.