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 )

Advertisements

This woman business

So I have been busy. And quiet. And not really the best mommy to this blog. Yes, there have been stray book reviews and reblogs and some guest posts, but you know what I mean.

Well, all I can say is I am sorry, but you – loyal reader of this blog have been on my mind. May be I was conserving. May be I felt depleted. May be I wanted to be one less version of me.

Here’s the good news. I have a book out!

I am quite sure the book will not tell you much about ‘How to be a woman’. I don’t know how to write that sort of thing, as I’m still figuring it out. What I do know is that being a woman is a serious amount of admin. I am sure being a human is too, but if you factor in hair management (everywhere, all the time), ovulation management (once a month for most of us), relationship management (all the time, for all of us), parent management (even if you produce half a dozen kids, your parents will still treat you like a child), pregnancy (at least once in a lifetime for some of us), and marriage (hopefully not more than once in a lifetime) – you know what I am talking about.

We are all born with a daughter tag; the rest get added along the way: sister, cousin, friend, girlfriend, wife, mother, daughter-in-law, sister-in-law, ex-wife, boss, subordinate, grandmother, step-mother and whatnot. With every tag comes more admin and more ways of being.

But no matter what you do, the nagging feeling of something left undone is what constitutes being a woman for the most part. Some of us forget to marry, others forget to have kids, a few marry the wrong guy but forget to tell him that, a few walk away but forget to move on; meanwhile our mothers are still figuring out what we do for a living and asking us to comb our hair. And while filing taxes should be on autopilot by now, we still have trouble finding proof of all our investments.

And so there are always checklists crawling beneath our epidermis,  reminding us of things left undone. This obviously does nothing to assuage our inadequacies, and the stakes continue to be raised every single day, no matter what we do or don’t do.

How does one then get ahead?

Even if you may have wrapped your finger around money, savings, ovulation, fashion and a career you truly belong to, things like hair and love still remain beyond your control. Some of you may have figured out man, marriage, baby, career, home, and a botox and tummy tuck plan. This book is for the rest of you who don’t necessarily believe that marriage and babies are the happily ever after for a woman. For those who are still dealing with imperfections and happy to say “I am enough”.

We all yearn for just that right blend of purpose, independence, common sense and madness and even when we get there, we are never sure we are there really. Our sense of self, which is quite delicate, tends to get into an insidious loop of fragility with the slightest aberration in our plan. To make matters worse, your legs are never waxed the day you bump into an ex and perhaps that’s why you are clad in a tent and can’t appear breezy as you intended to.

One would imagine that with one set of parents, siblings, one marriage, one baby, few books and around a dozen jobs and cats behind me, I must be spiffingly together. Not. And this book will not end with how you can get it all together, because in the end, no matter what you do, you really can’t.

What it could probably do for you is remind you that it’s the same shit everywhere. That thousands, millions of women who you look up to, adore, role model on, have been there, done that and are still figuring it out. Same shit, different place.

(Excerpted from The Whole Shebang.To preorder: http://amzn.to/2xzMpFu )

 

Keeping calm while mommying on

BOOK REVIEW

I have been allergic to How to be a better parent.. kinda books for a while, especially  after realizing that no matter what you do, the universe (read: your child) has another plan. One book that put me off completely was How to talk so kids listen which almost reduced children to a scientific experiment at best. Although I remember I was quite taken in in the early days and even tried to implement bits like: “Would you like to tidy your play area before lunch or after it?”

At some point, I felt like my child wrote the book and had the last laugh.

And then the truth finally dawned on me: Your kids are not listening to your words. They are watching what you do.

So when Duckbill sent me a copy of Keep Calm and Mommy On, by Tanu Shree Singh, I stared at it for a long time, trying to make up my mind whether I really wanted to read (and review) it.

Like most mothers, I have my shouty days and then I have my super Zen and creative days when the child and I are a magical unit. This book is for the shouty days when I say things like, “Breakfast! Now!” Or “Clean up this mess. Chop chop!” and the child stares at me like I were something the TV spewed out if you changed the source from HDMI2  to Component or some such

The book deals with a variety of issues: diversity, sex education, religion, discipline, sibling rivalry, bullying, lying, exams, money (needs and wants) and of course, a large section on reading, given Tanu Shree’s love for books. I wish there was a chapter about the role of the father or anomalies in households, like single-parent households (since she has otherwise covered most ground, including death, which is a conversation we have to prepare for at some stage with our children)

She illustrates her theories with anecdotes from her life raising two teenage boys. I was also pleased that she looked at a few issues from a boy’s lens, because I’m trying to raise a boy too and I believe that raising decent, sensitive, curious boys is what will redeem the world eventually.

Although it reads like a How to…manual for the most part, you cannot fault her checklists. It takes a lot of work to develop a rationale for things that are so intangible, like parenting. Tanu Shree manages that quite well, without ever getting dull or boring.

It’s written in a manner of an expert (which Tanushree is, with a PhD in Positive Psychology): Outlining strategies, presenting options, evaluating them with their pros and cons and finally coming up with an optimal solution that is largely based on listening to your child.

She had me at  Yours sincerely, Santa Claus, a chapter which describes  email exchanges set up between her kids and Santa, that among other things, encourages them to make gratitude lists for the things they have and having open dialogues about life and their ups and downs, all of which is shared with Santa. The point she is driving at is that gifting (or Christmas) is not just about receiving and if we encourage introspection and sharing in our children at the end of the year, Christmas takes on a whole new meaning. I love how they celebrate the Christmas spirit and how her boys (and she) still believe in Santa, despite all the cynicism of the world around them.

Another thing that got me really excited (and moving from chapter to chapter) is the list of books she recommends to tide through a particular issue: like homosexuality, diversity, etc. If I was not such a book purist, I would have ripped off those pages and stuck them on my book shelf as: “Books to buy. Now!”

I think we all make fairly good mothers (or good enough mothers) for the most part, but what we struggle with most often is consistency. At least I do.  This book is just about how to wing that: through openness, respect, comfort and trust – all two way streets and I could not agree with her more. This is a parenting book that doesn’t make you want to climb walls. That doesn’t make you feel that you have just been fumbling around all this while (even though you think you have)

The bottom line of course is: “Talk to your kids”. So while she’s written the book, it’s still your job to do the talking.

And you don’t have to wait until Christmas, which is my favorite chapter.

 

Scones and other bits of my childhood

I had a fairly happy childhood until it got to that point where I realized I will probably never get to taste scones. And then I lived unhappily ever after.

Because Enid Blyton turned my life upside down.

In her books, people led magical, adventurous lives, always doing things, solving mysteries, bringing bad people to books, rescuing life forms, but mostly packing tea or having tea and eating the most wondrous things. I didn’t particularly care for the sweets, although there was an array of them: the humbugs, bulls-eyes, liquorice candy, barley sugars, from the village shop that was the chief catalyst in most of the Secret Seven’s adventures. I was happy to chew on my Parle Poppins or my five paise orange kidney sweets although I did think liquorice might be a good thing to taste but was afraid it might contain liquor and one would have to be a certain age.

If they were not chewing candy, they were stuffing their face with eclairs, meringues, large slices of chocolate cake, tongue sandwiches, potted meat sandwiches, warm buttered scones, egg and lettuce sandwiches, pork pies, hard boiled eggs, jam tarts, gingerbread, ginger buns and then washing it all down with lemonade, ginger ale and oooh, ginger beer!

It was all too much to take but I made my peace by elimination.Eggs, tongues and meat held no excitement for me. I figured gingerbread was a medicinal bread you had if you were sick , along with haldi doodh, and shortbread biscuits were just leftover bread which was dried and broken into bits (like they do for dogs and fish). Meringue sounded like a cousin of tongue (perhaps an animal part I wasn’t aware of) and eclairs – well Cadbury’s was doing a good job of it, and we always got occasional eclairs as treats. (I had no idea at the time that they could be a giant, gooey mess, like a veritable chocolate volcano).

But she had me at scones! Scones I wanted. Scones took me to warm and fuzzy places. Scones made me feel sorry for myself whenever I had my idlis and molagapodi, even when I added a dollop of butter on my warm idlis and pretended they were scones.

Plus, Mr Twiddle had left an image of it which was indelible:

As he passed the cake-shop, a very nice smell of hot scones came out. Twiddle stopped and sniffed. “I think I’ll pop in and have a cup of hot coffee and a scone or two,” he thought. “I really didn’t have much breakfast”

So in he went and chose a table. Soon he was sipping a cup of coffee and eating a whole plate of  warm, buttered scones. Very nice, indeed!

Unlike the Famous Five, Secret Seven and Five Findouters’ teas, of which there were hardly any pictures, this one had a nice illustration that I could stare at. And sigh.

Around that time, my mother was taking baking lessons in the afterhours of her school teacher job. Every Saturday, she would return with baked goodies: coconut cookies, nankhatais, marble cake, sponge cake, pineapple upside down cake and even chocolate cake, exactly like Fatty’s mom used to make. I asked her when they would teach her scones and she gave me this “How greedy are you?” look.

It was clear that scones was not going to be a part of her repertoire. We couldn’t afford cookbooks and this was pre-internet days, so I was sure I couldn’t google the recipe. I blamed Enid Blyton for not having a recipe section in her books.Every time we went out to eat (which was rare), I would ask for scones and I would be offered an icecream cone. (Clearly I was even pronouncing it wrong, like ‘cones’). Scones were now the bane of my existence.

Soon youth and all the trappings of it obliterated the memory of scones. Or so I thought. Twenty years later, I was at Norwood Bungalow in Sri Lanka, writing a travel story about the  Ceylon Tea Trails. The menu for the high tea read: Scones with clotted cream and strawberry compote, lemon tarts, cucumber sandwiches ….”

Finally.

As I stared at the three-tier spread in front of me, I was awash with emotion. It was like they had packed my childhood and put it right there in front of me. I picked up a scone, like it were a jewel, and caressed it. It looked like muddy, dehydrated pao for the most part and tasted unspectacular. It wasn’t warm, like I thought it would be, but then we were in the hills, and the outside air was cold. I slit it gingerly, and dolloped butter on one half and the compote on the other, smiling and crying.

When I got back to Bombay, the first thing I did was look up the recipe. I told my son about this magical thing from my childhood that would melt in your mouth. My first attempt failed miserably; the scones were hard and un-photogenic. No amount of butter or jam could redeem them. I was despondent, but the child said we could pretend they were rock cakes.

And then Cupcake Jemma (a YouTube fairy) entered my life with a really simple recipe with flour, milk, baking powder, sugar and salt.

And my lovely friend Rebecca Vaz showed me how you could be really smart by cutting your scones into squares instead of circles so there’s absolutely no wastage.We made these in the mountains of Himachal, and added dollops of Bhuira Jams‘ Strawberry preserve and had a little picnic in the garden under the deodars.

The scones tasted exactly like my childhood.

 

 

(This piece first appeared in The Hindu here )

Being married to my mother

GUEST POST:

BY ZARA CHOWDHARY

My son’s parents ended their marriage two years ago.

One day his father was there, the next he’d moved out. And suddenly, the scared little child had a cat too depressed to get out from under his bed, and a mother too broken to get off the couch. The boy ached for company, for things to just go back to ‘normal’ as his four year-old memory last remembered it.

And then one day, his grandmother arrived at their door – with a fresh haircut, a spring in her step and a super-sized grin that’s hard to miss. She was everything his slowly crumbling household needed. She spoke in absurd languages that made us laugh even when no one felt like it, she cleaned out the unattended organisms from the fridge, replaced all three forgotten multigrain bread loaves with three kinds of seasonal fruit, threw out the wrinkled packs of frozen fries and packed in fresh meats in separate bags, she put bleach in his uniforms, oil in my scalp, and threatened us if we forgot to turn on the lights around maghrib (our evening prayer time) saying ‘The angels won’t come in’!

Slowly and simply, the smells, the sounds, the sights of one person we’d been used to for five years, were replaced by the noise, the madness, the super-loud, body-jiggling laughter of this other person whom we’d otherwise only seen during the holidays.

And that’s the thing about people when they become habits. It’s important when replacing alcohol or cigarettes (or any other analogy that works for you), to choose a healthier option in its place. Our oats-loving, Abba-singing, paintbrush-wielding Nanoo was better for our well-being than any new pets, friendly neighbours or (God-forbid!) rebound boyfriends could have been!

I’d seen my mother do this so many times in her life: walk into an empty house, set up the kitchen, whip up a meal, fashion sofas out of metal trunks, fill the balconies (and bathrooms!) with plants and make it a home —  all in a matter of hours. I watched her as a 29-year old with the same awe I had at ten, efficiently piecing my life together and putting it safely back in my hands for me.

People in my ever-shrinking social circle kept pointing out, how lucky I was to have my mum around to ‘support’ me. But I don’t think it hit me until I finally got off that couch (thanks to her threatening to throw away or burn my pajamas), found a new job and came back home from my first full day at work.

I opened the door and stepped in at six in the evening, the house was all lit up like we’d become used to by now. The scared four year old now a more confident and chirpy five year old came hurtling out of the room and torpedoed into my navel, the cat lay belly-up and smiling at the fan, and there mum sat at the dining table, art material piled up in a heap, my spare room officially converted to her studio, a new business plan swirling in her head — and I knew. This was mum telling me in not so many words: ‘I’m not here to just support you. You can never crash on me like that again. Looks like you’re doing better now. So I’m going to do what I need to do to keep that spring in my step. And we’ll both be doing the supporting from here on.’ I paused for one second wondering if I should say something about the paint likely to stain my chair covers. But instead I scooped my son up, plonked on the sofa, and started to tell them the story of my first day back in the world. Cheesy as it sounds, it did feel like the angels had finally come home and brought with them a partner for me, someone I’d never thought I’d be living with as I turned 30.

My son now has two parents living with him again, there are two individuals playing tag between what they want for themselves and what they know their family deserves. If you ever heard us squabbling over closet space and what to watch on Netflix, you’d think there was a couple living together here. And some days how we both wish we could have it any other way but this interdependence. Yet it’s been nothing short of amazing being married to my mother this way for the last two and a half years. It has taught me what marriage is supposed to look like. There are the occasional expectations that go unmet and some sulking happens with both parties. There are days when nobody wants to have to care about what’s for dinner. There are days of feeling frustrated and taken for granted, but usually some ice-cream or a drive to town or a movie date when the child visits his dad can sort those out. We take turns playing good cop-bad cop because no one parent should ever have to be just the one. We try to never sleep over a fight. Hugs and cuddles are a daily prescription, though the cat son usually claws his way out of those.

It’s a household that depends on honesty more than anything else — it requires being harsh enough to tell each other when we’ve lain long enough on that couch and need to get off our asses or be nagged to death. It’s a house that acknowledges the two little boys and the two grown women in it, and that no job is too big or too small or too ‘girly’. It’s a home where you will always find food, laughter and lessons in how to give before taking. And it’s a place that will, hopefully, always remind my son of what family is supposed to look like, no matter what marriage it is built on.

Sunflowers, strawberries and other reasons to visit Saj on the Mountain

  1. This chance to be a goofball with your parents
    2. This chance to have your strawberries and eat them too.3. This bright yellow which is your mamma’s favorite color 4. These sunflowers you can use as a muse for watercolor afternoons5. This funky pool to splash in the evenings6. This road to your cottage7. This strawberry butter making session 8. This BFF you made over the strawberry butter making session9. This grand finale to your high tea10. This play area you can be a goofball in all over again