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 )

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Lessons from a toddler on moving countries

BY GAURI DALVI

Flying with a childLast week we flew all the way from a summery Jo’burg straight into a walk-in freezer, Chicago. Everyone had warned us about this Windy City. I won’t lie, I was a bit nervous. But the adrenalin rush to see a new city, a new country had already taken over.

Little I, like a parrot would rattle off ‘chiiiiicaaagoo!!’ when somebody asked her, ‘where are you going?’. Even when we were actually heading for a supermarket in Jo’burg.

Her excitement for an unknown land made me smile. And I decided that I will only follow her excitement as my cues on what to do next.

Children have no fear of the unknown. Every thing is exciting for them. The staircase, the puddle, the swing and a new country in our case. They are born risk-takers. Because if they didn’t take that risk of standing on the iron rails of a gate and swing how would they ever know what it felt like? This was a lesson learnt: Don’t fear new experiences, new places, new weather conditions. Because as we get older, we begin to fear the unknown.

It was minus12 degrees outside and tons of excitement inside.

I asked little I if she wanted to go for a walk. And she screamed, ‘Let’s go!’.

We were all born with the belief that the world is a beautiful place and there’s a lot of good in it. But as life happened, we stopped believing in the goodness. We began to see the world with a single lens. We forgot about that wonder in our eyes. But children are highly motivated. Their side is the brightest side of life. Everything is awesome there, even that humble spoon.

As we stepped out on the icy cold street, little I stood numb, she held my hand and was ready to walk. And I was reminded of the next lesson. Life will be sometimes sunshine, sometimes biting cold but we must get up, get out and never stop experiencing those wonderful things that await us just around the corner, a beautiful bakery in our case.

 

About the author:

After working for a decade as a writer in advertising in three different countries, Gauri Dalvi is now going back to the start.  When she is not dancing to her two-year old’s tunes, she writes and doodles about their adventures together on Huffington Post (India) and yowoto.com. She also blogs at www.giddymum.wordpress.com.

Home is where the colors are

All it takes is shiny happy things

By the age of 18, I had lived in eight different homes. In the years that followed, there were three more with my parents, two hostels for working women (in which I had to change my room every year, making it six more homes; for me, every new room was a new home), three more as a free-spirited singleton who had moved up in the rent market and who wanted a posh Bandra pin code all to herself, and four more post marriage. And I’m not done yet.

I wasn’t born into real estate. I didn’t marry into it. It’s not that my father was in the services, or had one of those posh government or bank jobs where they transferred you every two years. My parents just never cracked real estate, so we never really owned anything (oh yes, my father did jointly own a home with his brothers when I was four, which they sold for a princely sum of Rs.36000 or some ridiculous amount for their sister’s marriage).

My mother, in an attempt to maintain her work-life balance and provide adequate care for the three of us, moved closer to her place of work every few years and my father followed. While the rest of my family moved up in the real estate ladder, filled their walls with white goods, my father gave us real adventures.

I always dreamed of a place where all our stuff could be found, where we had a room to ourselves. I often pretended to my friends that I did, and that my cats slept in a bunk bed and we wore night suits and that my mother baked scones and gingerbread (she baked other things, but Enid Blyton made scones so exotic!). But I never invited them home, for then my bubble would be busted.

Our real estate was memories.

I remember the home in which my father taught me the famous Jim Reeves song, “But you love me daddy”. My father is not a singer; my mother is a trained one. But the songs I remember from my childhood were mostly sung by my father (my mother was busy just staying afloat with three kids, hard times, the tyranny of her mother-in-law and other travails of the time).

I remember the home where I broke my nose, got my first stitches, the home in which I got hit by a swing while my babysitters (the neighbor’s children) were busy chatting. I remember the home in which my father made pav bhaji for the first time, the home where my mother made coconut cookies with cherry toppings (the cherries had to be cut into neat, square bits and we got to eat the leftover cherry bits that didn’t make the cut).

I remember the home where we walked half a kilometre to the nearest home that owned a television, to watch the Sunday movie. One day, they told us we would have to pay 50 paise for it. I remember then, we found another home, which was further away, where we wouldn’t have to pay, as our friend lived next door to it. I remember someone filched my brand new rainy sandals in that home and I walked home barefoot.

I remember the home in which my brother swallowed a nail, in which my sister fell from a slide and hurt her head, in which the nanny escaped by jumping off the balcony as she couldn’t bear my grandmother’s constant jibes.

I also remember our homes by the cats and other animals who adopted us. So there was one home of Kimi and Kallu and Pushpi, their proud mother, who gave birth to them on my ankles, there was another home where Tipu Sultan (my most handsome cat of all) died in battle and his mother Chinki was bitten by a snake. And where Millie rolled herself in rangoli on Diwali day and came to us, all multi-colored and we had a harrowing time washing her to get the color off.

My father eventually cracked real estate when I was 18 and we had a house with a garden, mango and guava trees, front and back entrances and all of that. But it wasn’t meant to be. That home resulted in a legal battle that took the rest of my father’s youth. That home also broke us as a family.

Meanwhile, I watched friends dating preapproved men on the EMI market, marrying into real estate, divorcing with real estate. I saw them upgrading to house number two just before they had a baby. To house no. 3 before they planned the second one. I saw their homes, immaculate and perfect, their walls adorned with art that never reflected who they were.

When I was pregnant with Re, I wistfully thought of myself as an ill prepared parent. We didn’t have a house, I couldn’t visualize a permanent address; I wondered what kind of security could I possibly offer him. It’s been five going on six years, and things haven’t been bad. Re has moved homes thrice already. He is magically Zen about it. Between home two and three, there was some turmoil, but then help came in the form of a kitten we rescued on the road and our transition got diffused in kitten care and all was well. Home three to four was smoother than I ever thought. It helped that it was on a hill.

But I never flinch whenever there is a “permanent address’ column in any form that I have to fill (and I still end up filling a few of them). I just smile and write my mother’s address. It’s a place I still go to when I feel impermanent.

And it no longer bothers me when I have to move. I just gather my best art, curtains, a few cushions and Re’s castle. I put them up. And it becomes home, so effortlessly.

 

(The above post first appeared as my column in Pune Mirror on 16th March 2015)

A lost home, a found home, and a kitten that made the difference

I think Re has had a whiff of the last post. Driving him is now easier, since now, instead of directing our energies at each other, we collaborate against the traffic.  So now, when we venture onto the road, it’s us against the world. “Bad traffic, go away,” we scream in unison. “You are a bad boy,” I declare, at no one in particular. And then Re corrects me. “Mamma, traffic jam is not a bad boy. Traffic jam is a bad car.” True that. Lateral, but true. I am already excited about deeper conversations I am going to have with him in the future.

But there’s been too much else happening in our lives, which I wanted to process before sharing with you.( I think I am somewhat ready now, but I am still unsure).

It has been a tough month. We moved house a few weeks ago and I think Re’s world fell apart. It was his first real move (the last time we moved, he was barely seven months old).  I did prepare him weeks in advance by pointing him to the peeling walls, and that we needed to move so that someone could put ‘stickytape’ on it.  It tore me to say this to him about a house that I introduced to him as ‘the one with our own mango tree’. He seemed to nod in agreement. I thought I was making progress.

I worked slowly, but steadily on the transition. Every evening , for a week before the move, Re and I would walk across the road to the new building, climb three flights of stairs with his pick of toys for the day, spread them all out, play with them, while I talked to him about the new windows, new birds that would come visiting (we spotted a sparrow on day one, that made my heart sing with joy) the new coconut tree that peeped into the house, new corners Nadia and Bravo (his feline siblings) could hide in, new cupboards to keep his toys, and new friends he was on the verge of making (a little girl who sat by the window on the ground floor and waved to him every day helped). Also the new building had a park with a ‘baby slide’ and a ‘dadda slide’ as Re referred to them, and that, to me was a huge draw.

Soon, his trampoline was re-homed as was his car track and kitchen and he didn’t seem ruffled by the thought of leaving them behind, knowing he would come back to them soon.

The move happened over a weekend, and things seemed okay on the outside. The OPU and I orchestrated it well enough to not cause a carton overdose, the unpacking was not too chaotic, the cats didn’t seem visibly traumatised, and Re looked happy that his world was replicated in a new setting.

Or so we thought.

The school week began. The OPU went to work. I dropped him to school as usual. I picked him up, parked the car and walked him to the new building. He dragged me to the old one.

“Mamma, I want to go home.”

“But this is our new house, Re. Your toys are here. Nadia and Bravo are here. Your books are here. Mamma and Dadda also live here now.”

“No mamma. I don’t want to go to the new house. I want to go home.”

And he bawled his heart out.

My world came crashing. My child was displaying a deep sadness about being uprooted from his home. And I hadn’t seen it coming.  Perhaps I should have done something differently. Perhaps we didn’t say our goodbyes well enough to the old house. Perhaps there was no closure as far as he was concerned.

I took him to the empty flat, showed him the empty rooms, the missing cats, TV, food, music, clothes, furniture. He still wouldn’t yield. “I want to stay here mamma,” he said. “I don’t want to go to the new house.”

This continued until day 10. And then, Vinci walked into our lives.

She was a little kitten, smaller than my palm, scurrying across the road in peak traffic. I screamed in fright, anticipating a run-over, picked her up and placed her on the pavement. She made a dash for the road again. I had to take a call quickly.  We had just moved house, things were still work-in-progress, my child was unsettled by the move, we already had two cats, and now this.

I called the OPU. He gave me the nod I needed. “Bring her,” he said.  “We are ready for child 4,” he said.

Something changed in Re in the next few days. He became an older sibling to someone. A kitten.He picked her up, petted her, cleaned her with cotton swabs, lined her litter basket with paper, was in charge of guarding her pellet tray, so the older cats wouldn’t eat from it, and he also made her bed by lining a small cane basket with an old towel. Vinci, spunky as she was, milked all the attention she got from Re. He also played a little game by placing her on the top of his curly mop and letting her slide down his neck, something that seemed to give both of them intense joy.

Coming home from school was now about finding out “What must Vinci be doing now?” Would she be sleeping or playing? Where would she be hiding today? Would Bravo be licking her? Would Nadia and she have finally become friends?

Suddenly, the new house became a house of belonging. A promise of new beginnings. A house of hope and love.  A house he could make his own.

Drives back from school now ended with, “Mamma, there is nothing in the old house. We haff to go to the new house because Vinci is waiting for us. Vinci haff to eat kuku” (Re’s expression for food).

And just like that, a kitten helped me through one of life’s tough transitions. But it was as though she was sent to do just that. Within a week of her moving with us, Vinci died. Of a cardiac arrest. In her sleep. It’s all still a mystery, but it appears that her deworming medicine had an adverse effect on her heart.

The OPU was shattered.  The cats were confused. I had to be in control, and not let Re know about my grief.  My tears had to be muted. Vinci was quietly buried in the garden and Re was told that her mamma had come to get her, and since she was a baby, we had to give her to her mamma. He seemed convinced. “Oh, Vinci haff to go with her mamma, yes!”

Perhaps someday, we will talk about love and longing. About suffering and pain. About finding and losing.  But until then, I will have to protect him, or hope that life does.

But amid all this grief, the new house had become home. He still talks about Vinci,  but now, the new house is not just about her. It’s also about what he wants it to be.