It’s true girl power when boys have girl role models

Re and I are reading Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls right now. Every night, we read 2-3 stories and are not allowed to proceed further until we have passed the Rebel Girl exam of the previous night’s stories (which he always does with flying colors, while I goof up quite often). One of the common struggles in all the stories is fighting against limiting beliefs : eg science is not for girls and neither is math or computer technology, being a pirate, astronomer, boxer, orchestra conductor, surfer, primatologist, astrophysicist and whatnot.

Of course he knows what breaking stereotypes and fighting for what you believe in is very well; as an “unboy boy”, he’s often been subjected to scrutiny for doing “girl things” viz: dressing up his dolls, loving glitter and sequins, sewing and wearing purple Dora crocs, amulets (Sofia) and Doc McStuffin bracelets and thinking Hermione Granger is the coolest girl on the planet.

And that’s why I wasn’t surprised when he got hooked onto Project Mc2- featuring teenage spy Mc Keyla who teams with three other super smart girls to become secret agents who use science to save the day, from hackers, villains and other control freaks. “Mamma, they are rebel girls too,” he said. The timing was perfect.

Needless to say, when a hamper with a DIY kit arrived from them, he gave a squeal of delight. Apparently the lipstick and lip balm making DIY kit is an interesting diversion when they are on a mission to stop a hacking device.

And that’s how our DIY project lip balm began: mixing wax base with wax chips, melting, adding flavor, shimmer, pouring into molds and creating our very own name – Melon Swirl

It was nice to have our lip balm and eat it too. We can’t wait to raise the bar now and try something a little more complicated.

Advertisements

All India Radio and what it did for me

When I was a child, Vividh Bharati was my everything. We didn’t have a TV then and we couldn’t afford many books (the school library just allowed you one per week). I woke up to Jharokha (a line up of the day’s program) and then had my coffee listening to Rasvanti (or was it Bhoolein Bisre Geet)? At 7.30, I rushed for my shower during Sangeet Sarita (was totally willing to skip the classical bit) and was back for Rangavali at 7.40, packing my bag, getting ready for school but not quite ready to leave home.

At 8 am, Appa wanted to switch to Radio Ceylon for a bit before he left for work, so I endured (and later learnt to appreciate K.L Saigal, Noorjahan and co. (But Wednesday nights, the entire family would be around the transistor, for Binaca Geetmala, tuning Radio Ceylon to a microfrequency that didn’t squish and gargle, especially for the aakhri paaydaan and the Sartaj Geet!)

At the dot of 8.30 every morning, as Appa left for work, humming a Talat Mahmood song, I would switch back to Vividh Bharati for it was time for Chitralok (the only time of day when they played the latest songs). At 8.45, no matter what song was playing, I had to leave for school. I hated it. Some days, I was late for assembly on account of song greed, but thankfully there were no PTMs in those days (I don’t think my parents would have bothered even if there were)

Evenings were for Amma – there was a total line up of South Indian songs -Tamil, Malayalam and also Telugu and Kannada, some of which she hummed to and the rest of which (the modern ones) she found distasteful. Sometimes I hummed along as I did my homework and Amma was happy I was imbibing some “south Indian culture”

Post dinner and the rituals, I reclaimed my radio back with Hawa Mahal on which I heard some of the most intriguing radio plays and then bed time was Chhaya Geet with golden oldies at 10 pm. Some days, I couldn’t have enough, and sneaked in Bela ke phool at 11 pm, after all the lights in the house were out (I would hide the transistor under my pillow)

There was also the hour-long Jaimala (song requests by soldiers) and once a week, a celebrity anchored this (Vishesh Jaimala)

Years later, post an M.Pharm from UDCT, when I didn’t know what to do with my life, AIR saved me again. I used to moonlight as an interviewer for their Science channel and got paid 275 rupees per interview (I think it may have been my first income). My family would sit around the radio on the day of the telecast, listening to me quiz doctors and scientists on acupuncture, ophthalmology, plastic surgery, effluent treatment, power generation, pesticides, bacteria, viruses and other such.

Today as I entered the local radio station to arrange a tour for our school kids, so many memories came flashing back and I felt grateful for having grown up in simpler times, when all it took to fill your world with joy was sounds from a transistor. Sometimes it wasn’t even yours.

Netflix and the art of pixie dust

Towards the end of last year, I had a sort of pixie dust experience. A little fairy called Netflix walked into my life and and I began to look at screen time so differently. It was about me time and family time interwoven so well, everybody won!

I was invited to this really cool party to be a part of their core #streamteam (yes, I got a sneak preview of many new shows including Llama llama (and also a pair of red pajamas to go with it. And the book)

With my brand new subscription, the child got a profile all his.

Although the cat is still waiting for his.

Soon it was Christmas and this happened!

And then, I became a true connoisseurBut what they did for Valentine’s Day made me fall head over heels in love

with myself!

It’s Holi and I’m talking consent

For as long as I remember, I haven’t enjoyed Holi. Not that I think it’s wrong that people – big and small, get all rambunctious in their display of affection for each other one day of the year. They also happen to show this affection with generous amounts of color – wet and dry, organic and inorganic, water-soluble and non-water soluble, and in the end, it’s not even about color , but any form of substance including, but not limited to: mud, eggs, paint, tomatoes and other such that rank higher and higher in the vile index.

In all this, no one stops to ask if you are okay being the recipient of such affection. It is assumed that as Indians, we are all lovers of such orgies and affections and would be nincompoops to not partake of this grand gesture of our culture. Saying no is not even an option and even today, as schools and communities set about finding newer, eco-friendly ways to celebrate Holi and discuss at length the harmful effects of “bad colors”, consent is conveniently left out.

I dreaded Holi for the most part of my childhood, when my mother and I hid in the kitchen and bathroom when they came looking for us and sometimes we just gave in, because we feared they would break our doors. But we felt violated nonetheless. To me, it is often an example of bad touch and I wish more people would talk about it.

When I grew older, I found ways of escaping this revelry that usually involved a getaway to somewhere quiet. Once I found myself in the jungles of Dandeli , but turned out I hadn’t run far enough, as some revelers caught me.

I know that ‘consent’ in its various forms is just a recent addition to our vocabulary, and “no means no” somehow goes out the window when Holi arrives. It’s nice to know that hierarchies and boundaries dissolve on this glorious day, but what of people whose voices are not loud enough when they say no? How many times does one have to say no to be taken seriously? What of children too overwhelmed and tongue-tied by the sudden rowdiness of their ilk? What of body language that is often good enough for a no for those are too scared to protest when boundaries are crossed, when space feels violated but tongues are stuck? What of people big and small who cry hoarse but can’t be heard because, hell, who is listening when everyone is screaming “Holi hai”! And what is one child in a mob of children? Or one voice in a melee?

Because it turns out, even today, my kid is as much a minority as I was and feels violated every year on Holi, no matter what we do. Or don’t do.

But I don’t want us to spend the rest of our lives running away – from Holi, from noise, from people who don’t give a shit that other people, animals and plants bear the brunt of their excesses, and their sheer inability to comprehend that enough is enough.

And if that makes me antinational or anti-cultural, so be it.

Chums in the time of #Padman

In the month of February of my fifteenth year on this planet, while studying in my balcony for my class X board exams (we were granted a three-week study leave), I got my period. Got is what they said in those days, and ‘chums’ was the popular euphemism.

It was not supposed to be this way. Where was the audience? My parents were at work, my siblings were at school. I was home alone, studying. I mean, who gets their periods studying? The least that could have happened was I could have got it at Bharatanatyam class or during the goddamn assembly while my all-girls school was still on. PT class would have been even better, on account of the white uniform, hence hard to miss stain. I envied the other girls in my class the drama of the stain. The whispering, the discovery, the shock, the denial, the submission, and finally the whisking away and being allowed to go home early on account of a ‘medical emergency’.

This of course implied that by some subtle private club code, they were thereby initiated into womanhood. I also felt that the girls in a co-ed school would have been a lot less mean, as they would have to fake solidarity in front of the boys. But in a high-estrogen all-girls convent, all fangs were out at all times. If you hadn’t got your period, you didn’t count. I didn’t, clearly, despite being a top-ranker and all that.

Even the flat-chested front benchers were crossing over to the other side, one by one. All except Annie and I (although she told me she got hers, I knew she was lying). I was close to nervous wreckage. Of course there were tiny eruptions in the name of breasts (and they hurt). And hair was sprouting in places other than my head. So I knew my body was up to something. Yet, there was no visible evidence. The constant barbs about ‘gender unknown’ by the back-benchers in my class, the constant looking at me in a “Serves you right, you show-offy, always-doing-your-homework-on-time first bencher”! The speaking in code about ‘downs’ and ‘my sister’ and ‘that time of the month’ as if I didn’t know what they were talking about. It was as though I was paying a price for my academic excellence. “Let her know what it means to win a consolation prize,” the signs seemed to say.

My mother had always been mysterious about ‘the period’, as though saying the word would start the taps; she never gave me the birds and the bees talk. Neither did my friends, although one neighbour who was eleven and ‘chumming’ made it a point to tell me all the gory details, in the manner of “well, I got there before you, see!” Being the first-born didn’t help at all. So I was left to figuring it all on my own, reading subtext and often reading what was not written.

I had however dragged my mother to buy me a bra and the best they could do at the shop was a 28A, for my chest pimples. Since college life was looming large, I was concerned about being the first girl to go to college without a period (I was already planning on faking it by spilling sanitary napkins every time I took out my wallet, in case the blasted red river never showed up). And the bigger concern was about actually being a man in disguise, although my mother always hushed me when I spoke such unmentionables. I truly needed an assurance that I was ready for bearing children which I never wanted to have. “Give me this day my fertile ovaries” was my prayer.

In the light of all this, the ‘no audience’ thing upon arrival of the red river was a real bummer. I would never get to tell my class girls that I (finally!) got my period. That I was them, just a late bloomer is all.

I made a mental note of announcing it to my class when the board results were declared two months later (and I topped, again, and it meant nothing, again), but then girls were just running helter skelter, collecting marksheets, bonafide certificates and rushing to stand in queues for college admissions and whatnot and who would be interested in my period? So my little celebration never really happened with the ones who really mattered.

When my mother came home that afternoon, after I had wallowed sufficiently in my red river and the cramps thereafter (and had run out of fabric wads to stuff my panties with) I announced to her that I was a woman. She said, Thank god. Or something to that effect.

I liked the fact that finally I got to pick a side (I could tick ‘female’ in all boxes now) and could now be officially in on all the sex talk at school.

From that day on, the red river was a loyalist, and I was constantly assured that it would never fail me, always knocking on my door in 28 days exactly. (Years later, my ob-gyn told me that my regular-as-clockwork menstrual cycle was what made conceiving at 40 easy as pie for me. “You are lucky,” he said.)

With periods came period paraphernalia. In my time, you bought these Comfit sanitary napkins, whose ads always featured women (or was it a man and a woman?) running in slow motion, hugging trees and suchlike. This was pre-Whisper days, but even then, girls always ran in slow motion during their period. Then came the Carefree era which was Comfit with two long tails and a plastic sheath. This was followed by the revolutionary peel off pads – Stayfree, Whisper and the gang. And what do you know? Very soon, pads had wings. (I am sure this was trying to say something about the women’s movement.)

Comfit pads looked like fluffy white sausages with tiny ears. These ears had to be looped with utmost dexterity in between the white and the red plastic loops pre-strung through an elastic ring/band which they proudly called ‘the belt’. This was very complicated and involved too much technique, especially in your most vulnerable and therefore clutzy days. My series of unfortunate incidents involving Comfit often featured the plastic loops in the front shooting off just as I wore the band and was ready to get padded and me frantically looking for them in the bathroom when someone had to ‘go’ really urgently. Sometimes, I just shoved a few sausages into my underwear and couldn’t be bothered about the loops and it never really mattered, unless of course, your underwear wasn’t well fitted.

The tricky bit was finding this belt in that newspaper wrapped Comfit packet. The belt was usually knotted into a tiny ball and placed delicately amid the bundle of pads and you almost always couldn’t find it until you had spilled all the pads on the floor and ruined a few in the process.  The pack announced ‘free belt inside’, but they should have had a contest for finding it in less than five minutes. Once the belt was found and you could go about your business, the tricky part was figuring out how to minimize the lag time between discarding a used pad and adding a new one (no one talks about this either).

And then someone invented the horror called the period panty. And every mother bought one for her daughter. If you remember what it was like to be an infant, to always have your genitals covered and smothered in a diaper (cloth or otherwise) and never be able to come up for air, well, that’s how a period panty felt. Every girl must have tried them at least once, because they were advertised as ‘stain-proof’  and  ‘secure protection’ and ‘no more accidents’ and everything unsubtle. These were made of two layers – an outer nylon or rayon or whatever material produces the maximum irritation to your skin and an inner – hold your breath – plastic sheath. In case you were a nincompoop who still hadn’t learned how to use a pad, there were two elastic bands on the inside of the panty to hold your sanitary pad in place.

‘Changing a pad’ was some sort of expedition or conquest, with girls constantly exchanging notes on how often they changed. In some circles, not changing often was looked at with awe, in others, with pity, as if secretly passing judgment that the ovaries were perhaps not healthy enough or not doing a good job of getting rid of the unfertilized egg. But whatever the pronouncement, there was always a thrill about knowing that if you had a period, you had just about missed a pregnancy. That you were almost pregnant. For a little girl, that information can be huge.

When I grew up, I realised that there were two kinds of women: those who make a big deal of their period and those who pretend it doesn’t exist and look at you in askance when you bring it up. Why did they do that, I wondered. I was veering dangerously to the other side and I didn’t know why. Perhaps because I always saw my mother slumped and gloomy during hers and I was determined that I was not going to let my period get in the way of fun.

Balancing your period with the rest of your life was what the rest of your life was going to be. So you had to plan waxing cycles, treks, beach fun, sex, presentations, dates, travels, even your own wedding, around your period.

I was, at the time of onset (of the period of course), a follower of tennis and constantly in awe of Martina Navratilova, Chris Evert Lloyd and Steffi Graf for how they ‘managed’ their period with their tournaments while my mother had programmed me to be nervous even about a train trip during ‘those days’. They were always so poised in their short, white skirts with their underwear showing, and when I asked why I could never see the bulge of the pad ever, my friends whispered, ‘tampons’. Like it was some code for big girl talk. My friends also told me they took ‘pills’ to control the period, but then I wondered how they could take pills all the time? And would that not make their ovaries totally nuts, never knowing when they could gush.

Soon as I managed to shove a tampon into my vagina, I did, because wrapping the pad and walking eternally to the other end of the college/hostel/office was unbearable, what with you feeling that you had been marked and were off to an unexciting expedition. I later learned that girls who wore tampons were marked as ‘those’ type of girls – the ones who always get a lot of action down there, so their vaginas are like butter to slide the tampons in and out. No one actually compared the size of a tampon to an average penis, but never mind. I found it odd that most girls associated tampons with loss of virginity.

At some stage you reached a point where you could talk to men (at least some of them) freely about your period and they pretended to understand, perhaps having been trained by previous girlfriends or able sisters or mothers. But I still wonder whether they really, truly get it and can feel empathy in this regard. Yes even the one who tested sanitary pads by actually wearing them.

I used to often wonder about period waste and how much it must be contributing to landfills and feeling less guilty that my three decade tampon usage must have contributed far less. Now I hear women talking about how the menstrual cup has set them free. The period revolution is finally here! Can you believe not having to ever change a pad or a tampon, but just inserting this silicon wonder into your vagina, allowing the menstrual blood to drain into it and then just rinsing it and reinserting. I am trying to imagine how much money I may have spent on pads and tampons in the years since my period, and it’s scary. That is one math I don’t want to do. But I have decided to give the menstrual cup a miss nevertheless. I don’t want to shock my uterus at this stage of my life.

(This is an essay from my book The Whole Shebang, published by Bloomsbury. You can order the book here.)

Life in an unLinkedin universe

I think I was nine when my father came home one day and announced he was buying a buffalo. Yes, you heard that right. Appa then had a regular office job; he diligently went to work every day, although his mind was always wandering into all the things he could do other than his job. This time it was dairy farming.

Of course it was just one of many ideas he acted on.  The buffalo didn’t happen, but that’s another story. My dad then tried being an organic fruit and vegetable supplier, a landscape gardener, a horticulturist. Once he nearly started his brand of pickles and chutneys. He also tried being a builder, but that didn’t end well.

People labeled him a maverick , perhaps too old to take these risks and wander off, like he did, into the unknown. Family members would advise him to hold on to his job and stop trying things he knew nothing about.

I don’t think it bothered him.

“I can do wonders,” he would say. They would laugh. We laughed too.

My father is now 80 years old and is a farmer. He grows things on a little patch of land in Zhadshapur, a small village in Belgaum. He says he’s finally happy waking up every morning and going to work. He also says he sleeps well and has beautiful dreams. And whenever he visits Mumbai, my friends get bright orange pumpkin wedges and red plantains as return presents.

The red plantains are his specialty, by the way. They are hard to grow, he says, and they can fetch a good price in the market, at least twenty rupees a piece when he last did the rounds. His last harvest was 100 plantains, and it thrilled him no end. Every member of the family has heard the story.

I have no clue what will happen when my dad learns to Whatsapp. We might get hourly updates on ladyfingers, custard apples, aubergines, and of course, red plantains!

Last year he made a trip to the dairy institute in Coimbatore. We knew something is brewing. Perhaps the dairy baron dream has awoken again. You never know. He will try anything.

When I was a child, I remember reading a book “Why I’m like Dad”. I found it on our book shelf and maybe I was too young to read it – it was mostly about genetics and stuff, but somehow the title stuck.

And years later, when I abandoned a safe and bankable career in the pharmaceutical industry to try a career in writing, I remembered that again.

I remember what motivated me was boredom. I could not imagine working in a Glaxo or some such, doing things on loop, where one day would be exactly the same as another. Not that Glaxo offered me a job, but you know what I mean. I then became a copywriter, and for a long time, my family couldn’t make sense of me. My spotless academic life now had a permanent blot.

I remember being a sales person for Time-Life Books when I was still figuring out what to do with my life. I sold a few books too, so maybe I wasn’t bad. I also graded papers for a coaching institute, teamed with a friend to design clothes for children from textile waste, tried being a yoga assistant, a tutor, proofreader, a research assistant. I managed a helpline for stray dogs and an NGO store. I worked in a placement firm, trying to sell dream jobs to people.  I wasn’t very convincing. And oh, I also co-founded a content management company and watched it go bust in a year. I wrote resumes, presentations and speeches for other people.  I designed visual aids for pharma companies. I later worked as a journalist, an editor, a teacher. It got me closer to who I was, but it wasn’t necessarily what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.

Was I trying to find my passion? I don’t think so. I was just trying to do a good job of whatever came my way.

Every once in a while, someone would say, “But why did you do an M.Pharm then? You wasted a seat!”

No I didn’t waste a seat. I opened a window. I couldn’t say this then. But I can say it now.

 For the longest time, I have been trying to construct the perfect answer to “What do you do?” The reason people ask this is to figure out who you are. But what if you are not just what you do? What if you there are so many other facets to you that you are unable to showcase in your job?

May be I just have an incredible amount of activation energy. I think this “find your passion” thing is unnerving. But I do know that I love beginning things. I am a great beginner. I have begun so many things so many times. Plus I know I am adaptable and curious; I can learn pretty much anything on the job. But when something is not working for me, I am incredibly good at letting it go. I finally know that it is a talent. In effect, I believe I am eminently hirable.

The interesting thing is: I haven’t been professionally trained for a single job that I have done so far.

May be I was not passionate about all the jobs I have tried, but I was curious enough to want to know how to do them. And once I knew that, I was restless and wanted to move on. I did worry that I had commitment issues, no clear goals, and all of that.

But maybe, just maybe, for some of us, there is no one calling. Isn’t it a relief to know that? Those of you whose hearts are singing right now, just hold on to that thought.

I am sure most of you were asked when you were a child, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I was too. My answers varied from veterinary surgeon, lawyer, forensic scientist, dancer, film critic, singer, author.

Right now, I am a teacher and a mentor. I have written a few books, I tell stories and talk about finding your path. But it still doesn’t help me fully answer the “What do you do?” question.

I still wonder what to put in the “Occupation” box, but it doesn’t bother me anymore.

At some point, I stopped tailoring my resume to sound consistent.  I stopped explaining gaps in my career. I stopped apologizing for my spontaneous travels. If people didn’t want to take a chance on me, they were not my type anyway. Jobs and relationships were similar in that way.

The point is:  What’s the harm in not knowing what you want to do? Why is it so defining? Why are parents in such a hurry to put their children in boxes? As a teacher and mother, I meet parents all the time, and they annoy me, most of the time. Parents of teenagers are especially a worried lot. “She has no idea what she wants to do”. Or “He is so confused, please give him some advice”. These are the things parents often ask me.

I love my students, especially the ones who don’t know, because I don’t believe ‘chasing your passion’ or ‘knowing what you want to be’ means anything. What will really get them far is knowing how to do a job, any job, really well. It’s amazing how rare that is. It’s like those red plantains my father grows. Of course, even as I say this, parents have this glazed expression on their face. And then I tell them, “I am 49, and I’m still figuring it out.”

We all know there are things we are good at. There are things the world will pay us for. And there are things we love doing. Sometimes the three intersect. But even if you get one of the three right, you are on your way somewhere.

Recently a journalist asked me in an interview about my new book: “How would it have been if things in your life had stuck — jobs, careers, companions?”

The question made me sad and annoyed in equal measure. We still believe that stuck is an aspirational state. That it is the default setting. That each one of us has to choose one thing we want to do with our life and stay married to it ever after. The next time someone asks me what I do, I am going to say Professional Dilettante. Hmmm, I kinda like the sound of it.

I am sure there is not a single person in this world who hasn’t had the urge to “try something different”. No matter what your life stage, no matter how much on track you think you are, no matter how much your job pays you. Sometimes, your inner voice urges you to go ahead, just try it and see.

And just as quickly, your inner pause button stops you. “Are you crazy? That’s not even a real job!”

I have been lucky, because I think over a period of time, my inner voice and I have become best friends. But for every chance you get to try something new, there is always someone who is willing to let you try it:

Someone who hires you for that magazine job despite you having no experience in journalism.

Someone who hires you to write ads for oxygen analyzers or mutual funds.

Someone who is willing to take a chance on you while you are ready to take a chance on yourself.

Someone who can see what’s not in the box.

I want to thank all those someones today who saw me beyond my resume.

But imagine for a minute! What if we all had a chance to try as many careers in our lifetime without being judged? Without being labeled, like I was?

Very often, our rational mind can make some mind-blowingly irrational decisions. We just have to stop getting in the way.  Sometimes life also puts you in situations when you make courageous or fearless decisions. Like the time I quit a high profile magazine job to go teach at a school on a hill. It took off a zero from my pay check, yes. But it added zeroes to my emotional quotient and gave me a rent-free and bill-free life for a year while I figured what to do with my marriage. To me, it was the most practical decision I ever made.

But what if we can make such decisions even when we are not in extreme situations?  What if we let ourselves try new things, even if we are afraid of failure?

Statistics say that 8 in 10 people don’ t like what they do.  Why do you still do it? What if you tried something else? What is the worst thing that can happen?

Yes, that’s probably what my father would say. If he can try something new at 80, anyone can. At the end of the day, half-hearted careers means half-hearted people. That means half-hearted relationships, half-hearted marriages, and eventually, half-hearted kids.  And all it would have taken to not make this happen was to try something else.

What I really want for the future is an alternate universe to linkedin.  Where you can look at the unlinkedin profiles of people. Where things don’t add up. Where people will share their failures instead of their successes.

What if every opportunity that comes your way is you? It’s just that you didn’t know it yet?

Home is where the cats are

I live in Bombay.

It was Bombay when I was growing up. It was Bombay when my mother gave me the keys to our home and said I was now old enough to let myself in after school (I was 10). It was Bombay when I first visited South Bombay and saw that people boarding taxis looked quite posh and that Bombay was as sexy as they made it appear in the movies.  It was Bombay when I had my first kiss, the first time a man (other than my father) cooked for me, my first heartbreak, the first time I dumped someone.

It was Bombay when the glass window at my work desk at my first job reverberated. We were told there was an explosion at the Express Towers next door.

In a few months, it became Mumbai.

But whenever I am filling a form, I still find myself writing ‘Bombay’. I guess it will always be Bombay to me. I still look for the things that were rather than things that are. I have that thing with my city. I am fiercely defensive about it. The longest I have ever lived away from it was when I went to teach English for a year in a school on a hill called Tiwai. It made me feel better that it wasn’t another city, so technically, I wasn’t cheating on Bombay. When I returned, although it was just a year later, my city seemed to have changed its configuration. May be it was me too. I didn’t feel at home anymore like I used to.

I have moved nearly 20 homes since my childhood. In my marriage alone, I moved homes four times. I think every time you move, you raise the bar of a relationship.  Moving house is a great way to measure your thresholds for each other, to test each other’s adversity barometer. It is stressful to fit your life in boxes and then painstakingly set it up all over again only to take it apart a few years later. In a marriage, it helps you figure out how much of him and how much of you do you really want in a space that is ‘us’.

Moving is also a great way to reinvent space. And since part of that space has you in the continuum, it means reinventing you. We always rented, and no place was home for more than two years, and a change in pin code was a rite of passage.

A new flat is like a new relationship. There is a level of familiarity, and yes, there is love, but there is also intrigue. Nooks and crevices you haven’t explored. Surfaces you haven’t touched. Parts you haven’t felt or smelt.  Sometimes a house feels like home because of mosaic. Or imperfect walls, friendly nooks, a bookshelf just where you need it, a random hook on the wall, a hallway full of surprises, alcoves full of mystery, old-fashioned geysers, naked pipes and wires, book cases laden with World Books (an inheritance that a landlady once forced on me)

Suddenly, you could be kissing the evening sun instead of the sharp morning one. Or gazing at a mango tree instead of a concrete jungle. Or taking the stairs instead of a posh elevator that talks to you.

My father’s dodgy financial status and his pipe projects (which he always abandoned) ensured we were constantly moving house through my childhood. I was 18 by the time we had something close to a permanent home address. Even that didn’t last more than six years. When I think of my childhood home, so many images spring to mind, because there were so many. My mother never  kept any of our books and diaries as we never knew where we would move to next. I mourned the loss of Black Beauty and other books from my childhood for the first time when my son was born.

The words ‘permanent home address’ which appeared in almost every form you filled – whether it was a bank, a visa, your tax papers, a mobile connection, a job interview – made me nervous. I never knew what I was rooted to. There was no job or man that made me feel ‘happily ever after’. My pen always hovered around those ominous blanks, not knowing quite what to fill. The only thing permanent in my life was my parents. I promptly directed all enquires of permanence to them, and filled in their address.

My friends often said I had the knack of turning any place into a home, even my hostel room that I inhabited for three years. I had a trunk that travelled with me everywhere; it was full of knick knacks, artefacts, lamps, and other things that I was collecting for my real home. It didn’t take me long to turn a room or a space into home. A lamp here, some cushions there, happy curtains, some art on the wall, and every place I inhabited (and there have been far too many) became home effortlessly. They all had their issues, but each one had redeeming qualities that made them dependable. Moving house – that thing which makes many people queasy, unsettled, anxious – was always the most natural thing for me. I got attached to places and apartments but never enough to miss them. I think this survival instinct kicked in pretty early in my life. I found change to be my most reliable companion. My mother kept reminding me it was a sign I had to settle down. She meant marriage of course.

And then there were cats. Cats made their homes in our transient homes, they loved us unconditionally, they slept on our tummies, in the nooks of our arms, they gave birth on our ankles, we looked after their babies and one day they grew up and new cats found us. Cats have seen me through love, heartbreaks, moving homes, marriage and baby. If there was a strong memory of a house, there was sure to be a cat that went with it.

Through most of my twenties, when love was elusive, it was always an apartment that made me feel loved. Every time I got derailed, it was always four walls that reclaimed me, that hugged me back, no matter what. I had to agree, I was a homemaker in disguise.

Right from my hostel room to my twin-sharing pad in Bandra which is now an opulent high rise, to the little studio in Khar to the doll-house with secret cupboards, secret ironing boards and not-so-secret views – I loved them and they always loved me back. Book cases, ironing boards, dining tables, kitchen shelves, a nook here, a tree there, a frond of a palm that actually broke into my window, disallowing me from ever shutting it, and allowing me to make friends with a squirrel as he lived in the halfway house between the tree and my home. Of course, the cats were back in my life.

I thought marriage meant home, or permanence: that be-all, end-all feeling of settling down, of casting anchor.  It meant that one stopped running and stood still. And one day, I gave birth and truly realized the meaning of standing still.

My Cancerian husband was always averse to change while the Gemini in me celebrated it (it came from my nomadic childhood, with my father having trained us to fit into any space within 24 hours). Before our impending moves, he spent days gazing at familiar piles of wires, controllers, chargers coated in dust grime sighing that it will not be the same anymore. It was clear we had totally different fixations.

I usually made a deal with him and used the new flat as an excuse to buy us something I knew meant a lot to him. So that it becomes a metaphor for happy change, rather than a melancholic one. So he got his PS3, his XBox 360, his 42 inch LCD (and then 50, and 72), and I got to do up a house all over again.

In all the years of my marriage, the one place I always had the best dreams in was my mother’s house. It was the one place I felt protected, nurtured, off-duty. It was the place that continued to feature as ‘permanent home address’ in all the documents that one needs to define one’s residence in a country.

Ironically, around the time my marriage fell apart, I won an allotment in a government-subsidized housing scheme and finally had a permanent home address, all my own. It was what rescued me, because I really needed to belong to something and nurture it all over again. I was invested enough in a piece of real estate to get utility bills in my name. I was no longer a tenant, I was an owner. It doesn’t change the way I belong to Bombay but it just makes the relationship more complicated.  It was like being married all over again. I bought a tea pot, some nice trays, shower curtains, table mats. I painted my ceilings bright yellow and leaf green. I got fairy wall paper for my son’s room. I was home.  Every square inch of space here is chronicling my life and that of my child’s. Yes, the father is missing from the picture, but there is always someone or something missing, isn’t there? They say art is in the negative space.

May be a home is like a marriage. You have to be invested in it for the long haul for all of it to come together, make sense. There was nothing magical or transformative about the apartment I ended up buying. It didn’t have the magical view of a park like my mother’s house, nor did it have an amaltas tree in full bloom like my house on the hill. It didn’t have sparrows visiting or cosy nooks and alcoves like my mosaic floored apartment. It didn’t smell of the ocean like my hostel room with rice paper lamps. But bit by bit, it came together.

I feel a sense of belonging and rootedness all over again. I didn’t realize real estate could have that effect on me that a person I loved couldn’t. I don’t flinch anymore when asked to fill my permanent home address and it’s not because I own a few hundred square feet. It’s because I finally feel I’m home each time I walk into my apartment and draw open the drapes and find the exact same cookie cutter lives around me. Except the sun and moon have a different story to tell every day.

 

 

(This is an excerpt from my book, The Whole Shebang, published by Bloomsbury. To read more such essays, order it here )