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

I found the me I lost on a train, but am still looking for malaiyo

photo

Last week, I took a train to Banaras to attend my first teachers’ conference. There is something about train trips that still makes me wildly excited as a child.  I had a skip in my step, I made lists. Lists are always a good sign for me.

Are you travelling alone, someone asked. Unable to contain my excitement at the impending deliciousness of aloneness, I said, “Yes, finally!”.

Being alone is one of the greatest luxuries you can expect after you have a child. Sometimes you get so overwhelmed with tasks on hand or just the autopilotness of your family life that the easiest thing to put on standby is you. The forgetting to love me in the remembering to love them.  I have been there. Yes, you do watch movies and go for pedicures or spa sessions, but it is not the same as going away somewhere, all by yourself.  .

It has been a week of aloneness. Of strange beds in new cities, new schedules, new food, new body clock, even new dreams. Have you noticed how your dreams change when you wear life lightly?

On my onward journey on the train, I had, for company, six children, two sets of parents (I remember thinking about the joy of numbers), one grumpy lady who eventually smiled (the things that extended time can do), and two chatty aunties sharing a berth which actually belonged to an army boy who was too well-mannered to tell them. As I watched assorted legs dangling from berths in front of my eyes, shrieking “mummy!”, “pappa!”, I suddenly missed Re’s voice, but not enough to long for him. This was about me. I was all set to enjoy me.

I slept like a baby, for 11 hours straight. I dived into two books, something that was very me and I hadn’t done it in a while. I started playing match-the-station-with-the-food game in my head.

 My father has etched indelible food memories of places in my head. The places didn’t mean anything without the food. It was always about Bhusaval’s perus or Ratlam’s puri bhaji or Allahabad’s samosas or Mathura’s pedhas or Agra’s pethas. I remember going through train stations and connecting them to memories of my childhood. We had done a huge number of train-trips back then thanks to his wanderlust. Journeys always meant trains. Trains always meant stories for later. No matter how rough the ride, we always had lovely stories to tell.  I made notes of things to tell my father. That’s how it’s supposed to be, right? Our children thinking of us because of things we shared with them, conversations we had with them, and before we knew it, we had fixed our imprints on them.

I gifted myself some small things that gave me big joys. Like watching the sun rise over the Ganga. Eating apple pie at Vatika café on the banks of the river at Assi ghat. Watching the evening aarti from a boat at Dashashwamedh ghat.  Sitting under a 100 year-old banyan tree and wondering how many people would it take for a hug. Spotting a pied kingfisher on my morning walk along the river at Rajghat.  Drinking kulladwali chai. Savouring  a moonlit vocal recital by Suchitra Gupta of the Banarasi gharana on the school lawns, with the scent of dhoop wafting away, awakening every pore in my mind. Going for a moonlit boat ride on the Ganga. Watching the moon smile over the bridge across the river and counting the doors as a train ran through it. Rounding it all off with a Banarasi paan on my last day.

But I returned wistfully, having missed the malaiyo, recommended strongly by my foodie friend in a manner that only one foodie can to another. I realized I was three weeks too early for it and the nip in the air was just not enough for its delicate form. This seasonal Varanasi milk-based dessert foam, full of airy goodness is a part soufflé- part cloud art form that is extremely tedious to make and has an extremely short shelf life. It breaks down at the onset of the first rays of the sun and hence should be had before the crack of dawn as it were.

I haven’t tasted it, but I get the sense that malaiyo doesn’t speak, it only whispers. And it’s exactly the kind of thing that gets shrouded amidst the flamboyant jalebis and the robust rabdis.  And then I realized. There’s a bit of malaiyo in each one of us. We all need to treat it gently, else we will fall apart too. There is nothing wrong with wanting to be in just the right temperature at the right time of day in the right setting once in a while. We have all earned it.

I’m going back for my malaiyo. In the meantime, I am preserving my inner cloud, ever so gently. I owe it to me.

 

(This post first appeared as my column in Pune Mirror on November 3, 2014)