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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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.

 

Death and other difficult conversations with parents

A few weeks ago, my phone rang in the middle of the afternoon. It was my first cousin. I am at an age where such calls are ominous because sadly, we no longer call each other when the going is good. We used to, a long time ago.

I felt a twinge of guilt that I had exited the family Whatsapp group because I could no longer bear the white noise or the cheery forwards.

The call was about my maternal uncle (Amma’s older brother), who had passed away after a prolonged battle with diabetes related complications. He was 77. The eldest brother went the same way a few years ago, and my mother is sure she is next in line. She has two valve replacements on her resume apart from diabetes, the family heirloom.

I don’t know how this sounds but I rehearse this call in my head all the time: making and receiving it. When I bring this up with my siblings, they are in denial. “She’s only 73,” my brother reminds me exasperatedly. He is in California and furthest away from my parents. His optimism is essential for his survival. My sister is in Dubai and into Reiki. Whenever I bring up existential questions she reminds me I should try it too.

I watch Mukti Bhawan and Amour in the same week last month and both movies lead me into the space of talking to my parents about their death. May be when they are both home at the same time, I think. Such conversations need the right ambience I remind myself.

Most of my friends have lost a parent; some have lost both.  I show up for condolences, I call relatives who live far from their children, I flip when my father doesn’t answer the phone (he usually doesn’t. These days he has also learned how to put me on hold while he cooks).

I call my father to tell him about my uncle’s death and book his ticket to Mumbai. For the last six years, Appahas been living by himself on a farm in Zad- Shahapur, a village in Belgaum. It’s been his lifelong dream to be a farmer. He is finally living the dream, although it is inconvenient to all of us.

Appa likes to describe himself as 80, not out. It’s been a long standing joke in the family – referring to death as ‘out’. My uncle (who is no more) and my father used to regularly discuss the geriatrics in the family with their scores:

“ You mean Ramki? 87 not out?”

“No, his older brother. 91 not out.”

“I think you should move back,” I tell my father. You are all alone there, and it’s a jungle. What if there is an emergency? Who will take you to the doctor? What if no one knows you are unwell and your phone is dead as usual?

“My father is with me,” he says. My grandfather passed away when Appa was 14.

I hang up.

I don’t think my parents think as much about their death as I do. They think about life. I think about logistics. I think Belgaum-Bombay- Dubai-Los Angeles and my head spins. Death is a lot about logistics. Who to call? What to do? When to do it?How to do it? I know I will be stuck with the operations. As chief planner and executor of all things in my family, I know this will be my lot too.

I have been visualizing a family home, a sort of halfway house where my parents and all the bereaved members of the family can live together. Perhaps that will help them lean in for each other? I store the idea in my drafts folder.

A year ago, I had the biggest fright.

Appa called one morning, saying he couldn’t see a thing. His cataract had insidiously burgeoned over the last two years to blur out his vision completely and an emergency surgery had to be scheduled. We rushed him through a battery of tests that were routine before the surgery, given his age. His bloodwork was impeccable and my father couldn’t stop beaming. “I have really enjoyed life, doctor!”. However there was an 80% hearing impairment owing to the long time effects of tobacco (my father is a heavy smoker)

He promised he would quit smoking. I sent him a consignment of nicotine gums. When I visited again, the gums were untouched. I was mad at him.

“Don’t you worry about dying?”, I barked.

“What is this dying business all the time? Let me live yaar!”

I imagine a death shower for my father, where he will invite all his friends and family and cook a feast for them.  I think 80 is a good age to do this. If there is one candidate who can throw a death shower, it is Appa. I am scared to suggest it though; my mother would consider it a bad omen.

My mother is on life-long blood thinners. This essentially means that she treads the fine line on a daily basis between bleeding to death or choking to death if her INR (International Normalised Ratio), an indicator of her prothrombin time (essentially the time it takes for human blood to clot) is not adequately managed.

Amma regularly defaults on her INR tests and if I don’t keep tabs on her, weeks go by without her being tested. The last time, her ratio was dangerously high, at 5.2. She was to travel in two days to visit my sister in Dubai. The doctor advised her not to travel until the INR was brought down by monitoring her dosage of warfarin for a few days.

She lost it.

“What does he know? Has he had his heart opened up twice? Has he given birth to twins when his weight was 40 kilos? Does he know that traveling makes me happy? I need a new doctor. I am going to sack this doctor.”

And that was that.

(I post this on Facebook and it gets 200 likes. Amma has a fan club.)

Back from the clinic, Amma has a chat with our cat Millie. They often chat about this and that, but mostly about who is going to go first. Millie is 16, which makes her 112 in human years and a more likely contender for the first spot.

When Amma speaks, she has Millie’s full attention.

“I am not going to be scared by doctors. If I feel happy visiting my children, what is the doctor’s problem? Wouldn’t you get angry too?I am going to do what I want. But you still have to wait for me, ok?”

Miaaaooww, says Millie, and sashays back into her favorite chair. I let Amma go.

My parents have become my children. I am constantly admonishing them for being careless about their health, diet, exercise, and whatnot. For tempting fate. They are constantly ignoring me like I were an errant child.

Amma sent me quite a few voice notes on this trip. Most of it was about me being a drama queen and that she had a right to live as she pleased. She had a right to enjoy. Needless to say, my sister was on tenterhooks for the time that Amma was with her.

During my mother’s second valve replacement surgery around five years ago, the surgeon had told me that this was a way to buy ten more years, at best, for my mother.

She keeps reminding me that five are down, five to go.

“I want to go like Rangu,” she tells me these days. Mrs. Rangarajan was her closest friend; she died last year and went real quickly. It’s my mother’s dream death. She wakes up some mornings and tells me she dreamt about dying. There’s a sparkle in her eyes. Tell me about it, I say. She does. We both giggle (me nervously).“I don’t want to be in a hospital bed ever again and no doctor will open my heart and make me look like cockroach,” she announces.

Amma was still in Dubai when I had to break the news of her brother’s death. She was quiet. The voice notes stopped.

Last month, Appa called with a sense of urgency. What now, I wondered?

“My passport is expiring. Don’t we have to renew it?”

“Hahahha.You still have a passport?”, I laughed. “But you don’t go anywhere Appa”, I teased him.

It’s true. Appa hardly ever leaves his farm. Except for the bereaved. I don’t know what he says or does but my relatives tell me he knows exactly what is to be done when someone dies.

I visualize myself turning into my father.

He reminds me of his unused US visa. “I have to go now yaar. It’s not correct to get a visa of a country and not go. How they will feel?”

I panic and call my brother. “Dude, we have to make Appa’s trip happen this year before it’s too late.”

“Too late for what?” he asks.

“He is 80,” I remind him.

So?”

Back to square one.

Some days, when I walk into the house after my morning walk and Amma is in shavasana, my heart stops. Is it what I think it is, I wonder? Hell no, because I am not ready yet. I am not even ready to let Millie go. All this rationalizing and ruminating over death hasn’t really made me ready for that call. That call I may have to make.

May be being in denial is not a bad thing after all. Death is all around us, but even that checklist for the death shower may not provide me with the emotional inoculation I need. May be talking about it just buys us time. It buys us another opportunity to have conversations with the one who hasn’t gone yet. It buys us another night of going to bed without having to process grief.Because grief is a certainty in a way that joy can never be.

Till then, let me let my parents live yaar!

 

(An edited version of this post appeared in Arre here )

 

 

Want to make your children better travelers? Start with yourself

travels in new york

It’s a maxim universally marketed that having children kills the traveller in you. It is something often quoted in the “Why not to have kids” bibles and generally nodded to and sighed upon. ‘Herculean task’, ‘nightmare’, ‘horror story’ are commonly used words by people to describe traveling with kids. And then there are pre-boarding facilities and goody bags from airlines, overload of activity timetables at resorts – all aiming to subtly announce that a holiday with children is going to require supreme engineering.

When I threw open the question of how do we make our children better travelers on my blog’s forum, I received the usual formulaic responses, since no one realized it was a trick question: Plan well, involve the child, tell them about where they are going to travel, show them pictures, videos, show them the place on the map, plan their meals (or pack whatever you can),  get them excited about what they will do on the plane , make a list of activities, take their favorite toys, carry board games, carry their favorite food, favorite puzzle, favorite soft toy,  favorite movie.. and so on.

Why travel at all, I wondered? Why bother if you are going to simulate the same kind of life in a different address? When you do the aforementioned, you are raising the opposite of a real traveler. I do realize that holidays need to be planned (especially when kids start formal schooling as there are at best three windows to choose from). But that should be limited to bookings. In my experience, Air BnBs and homestays work better than hotels and if you choose locations you have friends living in – nothing like it.

In my limited experience of seven years and 13 trips with a child, I have come to realize this: The problem, very often, is not the child. It’s the adults. Because you pass on to your child how you have been programmed to travel and if you are the kind who bursts a capillary because you forgot to pack your iPod speakers, chances are, you are already raising a high maintenance child who may prove the cliché right. But this is not a post that tells you what to pack in their bag or how to pacify an irate kid on a plane. Instead I will tell you this:

Don’t behave like you are moving there. You are just travelling.  Stop being so manicured about your travels. Your child will follow suit. On my first travel date with fellow parents, I noticed that they came armed with a suitcases full of toys, dolls, books and games for a three night stay in Matheran. “Why do you need so much?”, I asked.  “Oh, you never know. It’s better to be prepared,” they said. But isn’t that what travel is about? Not knowing?

Don’t oversell the destination and what you will do there. Don’t sell the journey either. Parents have a tendency to do this. This disallows the child any room to have his own her own experiences, and they are forced to look at the entire trip through a readymade lens, which will never allow the real traveller in them to come out.

Allow the place to happen to your child.  Don’t tell them what to expect. This usually means giving at least four to five days in one location to give enough time to experience it, rather than location hopping. Improvise. If things always went as they were planned, it’s not travel. It’s stasis. I think this works better for adults too.

Travel is not about being constantly entertained and your child needs to know that.  And if you in that trap,  you are teaching them that this is how life is – a series of fun-filled, action packed time capsules on loop, where there is no time for recovery, stillness or nothingness – you are in a dangerous place. It’s a slippery slope from there.

Give gadgets a break. Try clouds instead. Or birdsong. Technology is an easy weapon used by most parents – I see it in airports, holiday destinations – each child with a gadget, adults with theirs, swiping away. It’s time to  talk to each other and not our gadgets.

Children have fewer expectations than you. Don’t build it up. The problem I have with checklist-y travel is that it is often more hectic than real life. This whole ‘things to do’, sights to see, monuments to tick off lists, photoboosk to make back home is quite sapping for adults so I wonder what happens when children are subjected to it.

Food is an integral part of the travel experience. Always make your kids try out the local cuisine. They may not like everything they try, but there might be that one thing that calls out to them. Take chances. The first time we traveled post having a child (my son was five months), I was raw, and still blemished from all the negative press traveling with kids seemed to have garnered. I was armed with a small rice cooker and supplies to cook from at the resort we stayed in. But that was the first and last time I traveled with supplies. I decided that when in Rome, we will do as Rome does. So on the next trip, my son and I went to Thailand and happily tucked into mango and sticky rice and fruit platters with prik-kab-klua, the Thai chilli-salt mix. And by the time my son was two, he was trying out gourmet meals at restaurants at every place we traveled to.

Slow down. Linger. You may never look at that selfie again, but you will always remember how it felt on that mountain, with the wind kissing your hair and your child pretending to take off in flight.

Remember you were a kid once. Go on, make that paper boat. Try and put yourself in your kid’s shoes. Remember what you were like as a child and how you liked to travel and be treated and the things you enjoyed doing.

Travel is not an old timetable in a new bottle.  Encourage your child to have a new routine. Shuffle things around. Let them wear what they want. Let them skip baths. Let them eat breakfast for dinner. What is the worst thing that can happen?

Make it about the journey. Not about the destination. We did our first long train trip when Re was 2.5. It was to a wedding at Chandigarh and the journey was 36 hours. He and I had to share a berth, as the Indian railways doesn’t allot berths to children under 5 years (yes!). In the middle of the night, I almost rolled off, as Re had occupied most of it and I stayed up all night, playing with my phone, as I couldn’t turn on the light to read a book. But it was this trip that Re and I tried pull-ups and swinging off the berth ladders.

Start them young. If you look at traveling with kids as a problem, you will always be finding ways to delay it. Instead if you look at it as an opportunity to see the world with a different lens, you will find ways to make it happen. And it’s never too early to start them. In fact the earlier the better.  

Encourage your child to be a resident, not a tourist, wherever you go. Blend in, be part of a community. Give something back. And that’s how we went gathering achhoos (wild gooseberries) in Himachal with the ladies who worked at the Bhuira Jam factory. Or puppy-sat the neighbours’ pups while they worked in the strawberry fields. Or when Re went about picking garbage in Landour, after having noticed that “humans throw things everywhere else but in dustbins”.

Travel is what you make of it, and if you have an open mind, you never know what will come along. I wouldn’t have chased ducks in the park in Irvine, California. I would have never met a “lady bird’s cousin” if I had been preoccupied with leech-proofing ourselves in our first forest trek in Dandeli when my son was three. Nor would I have enjoyed a ritual dance in the Erawan temple at Bangkok as my son fervently joined his hands in prayer even though I am a non-believer.

Bangkok with kids

Have them know that the world is a safe place. Every place has a story to tell, or it becomes a new story when you are in it. When my child saw images of the Paris bombings and asked me about it, I told him what had happened. He then said “We can still go to Paris no? The bombers must have left by now.” I said yes.

Use public transport: There is so much joy discovering a new world with the locals – these are the people who wear it easily, with whom there can often be meaningful conversations, even if you don’t understand the language.  take trains, buses, tuktuks, skytrains, subways and whatever you can manage.

Encourage them to document it. A travel journal or travel art book for drawing, doodling is far better than a toy or puzzle which has a limited shelf life. It is all we carry on our travels now and is more than enough to keep my son busy. Also there is no such thing as too many crayons.

Always check the weather and pack for it.  When they are dressed right for the weather, children are far happier and make better travelers. (it’s shocking how basic this is and how it is often overlooked)

When you take your child with you, leave your adult self behind. Children teach you the importance of being in the moment when you travel. This is harder to do if you don’t allow yourself to access the child in you

Show them how you can travel without going anywhere.  Sometimes a delayed flight or train may open up another adventure altogether. Like this time Re and his dad were doing hip-hop once in an airport. Or when waiting for a bus at Kasauli led us to an ongoing theatre performance by a group of monkeys.

Travel is about balance, and each trip is about finding something for ‘you’, ‘me’ and ‘us’.  If you look hard enough, you can. Having a kid couldn’t really be the end. In fact it is a whole new beginning. Of looking at the world through a child’s eyes, and that is a brand new, fascinating world with so many more stories to tell. You just have to stop getting in the way.

(A shorter version of this post appeared in Conde Nast Traveller here

parks in california

 

Who said parenting means entertaining your children?

I have often heard this (even among very aware parents): I don’t know how to entertain my child. Or heard them whining when the more active partner is away that they they don’t know how to keep them busy.

I don’t get this.

Why is entertaining your child even a thing?

I got into this trap for a brief while when Re was still in his crib and had a limited geography within which to entertain himself (although my cats helped hugely).

It was boring as shit: Singing. Making faces. Speaking in funny voices. Peekaboo. The hand puppet thing. Yes, Re loved it. But then I realized I am not his playmate. Why should I pretend to be? As soon as he started crawling and then walking, he was on his own. And he found plenty to amuse himself with, mostly in the kitchen. I still have a video of him trying to sort a bunch of cherry tomatoes and talking to himself. And one of him trying to roll a chapati with a rolling pin and board and proceeding to wear the chapati as a mask.

Every time the other parental unit came home laden with games/toys, I arched my eyebrow. It was excessive and unnecessary. Collaborative games which assume the parent who’s around more often is stuck with playing them with the kid get me worried.

On the few travel dates that I had with fellow parents, I always noticed that they come armed with suitcases full of toys, gadgets, books, games. I found myself saying: but it’s just two nights. Why do you need so much? And they replied: Oh, if we keep them entertained, we can get more time for ourselves.

It never made sense.

Traveling alone with Re was much more satisfying. It still is.

Why is constantly being entertained a way of living? Why is it a norm? It is as though one is teaching children that this is how life is – a series of fun-filled, action packed time capsules on loop, where there is no time for recovery, stillness or nothingness.

If you are doing this, you are in a dangerous place. It’s a slippery slope from there.

Yes, we all want our children to have a happy childhood with a variety of experiences. We just have to stop curating it for them. I have seen friends plan reading lists for their kids, populate their schedules with every activity that looks good on paper and that they can tick off an imaginary list. It’s like every hour of their waking life has to be accounted for.

I feel like telling them: It’s your life, it’s not a pinterest board.

Yes it’s important to engage in fun with them occasionally, listen to them, keep conversations going, but by not allowing their imagination and creativity to come up with something on their own, you are actually hampering play.

We have to provide for our kids, nurture them, look after their basic needs – clothing, food shelter. I signed up for these when I became a parent, not for being his entertainer. And if I do play with my kid, it will be when I am having fun doing that. Not because of some boringass article that said, “Imaginative play with your child helps nurture their soul”. And who started this anyway? I am sure they didn’t think it through. It’s not sustainable for sure. Besides life is all about a lot of mundane things on loop and our kids need to know that and be a part of that too.

For a year now, Re has been assigned the task of arranging the utensils daily after they have dried in their rack, folding and arranging his own clothes in his shelves, feeding the cats in the evening and refilling their water bowls, making his bed, and helping us put the house in order before going to bed every night.

When I was 10, my mother handed me the keys to our house. Until then, we went to school together and returned together (I studied in the school she taught in). I now had a three hour lag from the time she left. In these three hours, I had to help Appa finish the cooking, pack his lunch dabba, pack snack dabbas for me and my twin siblings, wake them up, get them ready (this involved detangling and tying my sister’s unruly hair into two tight plaits, which took the longest time), send them to school (which was an hour earlier to mine), help Appa staple his shirt sometimes, when a button was off and he had to rush for work, and finally, get ready (which involved tying own long, unruly hair into two tight plaits) and go to school myself.

We were poor, we never had help, we all had chores to do, but we never needed to be entertained.  We also didn’t have money to afford toys. Books and play were all we had. We came home from school, ate a snack, did our homework and went out to play (I usually did my homework in school so I had more time to play). Sometimes we played physical games that involved running, jumping, getting dirty in the mud. Sometimes we played “school” and “office” and “restaurant” and “home”. Our parents never asked us what we played. They never played with us. Except Appa teaching us bridge. And Amma who taught us some fun board games from when she was a child, like pallankuzhi.

I was the queen of imaginative play and Enid Blyton with her scones and ginger ale and meringue descriptions hugely helped my childhood. I always imagined myself as an only child who had a secret room in which she hosted midnight feasts. Each time one of us announced we were bored, another chore was handed to us. I learnt to cook at age 10 because I was bored on Thursdays (our convent school day off) and since I was already souz chef to Appa, I started trying things on my own, and one day, I put a meal together and surprised Amma. Vacations were full of jam, pickle, karuvadam and sun-dried fruit projects. And then we traveled.

When I remember my childhood, I remember the cooking, I remember the baking and knitting and crosstitch and embroidery that I did as my mother’s apprentice. I remember making papercuttings of things my mom learned in her sewing class and making them to scale for my only doll, Neetu (who was named after Neetu Singh)

Most afternoons, Re is engaged in active theatre with his dolls: giving them makeovers, tattoos, braiding them, making houses for them with blocks or Lego, sometimes turning them into mermaids, having car rallies with mermaids driving cars, cooking, baking in his play kitchen, making paper clothes for them (now that he can use scissors, he often asks me for fabric swatches), and more such. Or he is sketching or painting. Hours pass by.

I may not be the ‘engaged parent’ but I know when my kid is having fun.

I often get this from people when I visit them with Re or when they come over: He is really good at entertaining himself. My response to that is: well, shouldn’t we all be?

Once in a while if Re does come up to me and say he is bored, I tell him: be bored. It’s good. Boredom is fertile.

What is fertile?

It’s a place where new things can grow.

You mean things can grow in my head? he asks.

Yes, they can. Of course they can.

Lessons from a pigeon

BY DEEPA KALYAN

You get to learn life’s most important lessons in the most unlikely of places. I did not imagine I would find one in my balcony.

Pigeons – I have never had a great relationship with them because they always messed with the few plants that managed to survive our humid balcony. A few years back, a couple of them managed to build a nest atop the A/C outdoor unit. When there was a water leak in the room, the mechanics told us it was due to a hole in the duct, thanks to the ever-gurgling pigeons. Sometime later, when we had to replace the A/C, moving the new outdoor unit to the terrace was the only safe option. Its pipe had to go through the balcony railing, and so a part of the shutter was open always. One particular pigeon pair made good use of this opening to build their nest in one of the potted plants. Thankful for even the smallest sapling that ever sprouted in our humid balcony, I was at my agnostic best whenever I spotted them on the railing. No matter what, they kept coming back through the small space and trampled all my plants.

Days went by without any respite. And then, one day, I found an egg in one of the recently bought jasmine pot. A pair of pigeons sat on the railing waiting for me to go away, so they can hop in and warm the egg. Not again – was my reaction. This time, I acted as if it was a real war. I would be on the lookout for even the faintest gurgling sound and rush to shoo them away. They would flutter and create a total ruckus – bringing down, at least, one weak branch down, every time.

One day, I secretly noticed the way they behaved when I was not around. While one of them stayed on the railing to watch over the egg, the other, the mom I presume, kept it warm and cozy. They did not mess with my plants – much to my disbelief. They stayed calm – no gurgling, just the silence of the sunny balcony to keep them company. It hit me so hard that day – I realized, it was me, who was making all the fuss.

With a change of heart, I approached them the next day. The mom sensed my calmness, or so I liked to assume. She simply gave me a timid gurgle as a sign of acceptance. It has been a month since then – we are good friends now; she never gets perturbed seeing me, neither do I. I check her out when I go to dry the clothes. She smartly hops on to the railing until I finish watering the pots.

She’s the most silent mom I’ve ever seen. She takes off to the opposite compound to ruffle her feathers and doesn’t mess my balcony with her droppings. A few weeks later, I found another egg. And, what a delight it was to see a new life waiting to come into the world in the comfort of our small balcony. Another few weeks down the line, the eggs cracked and two little pigeons came out. I can’t say they looked beautiful, but the way she cared for them, it warmed my heart so much.

The baby pigeons turned out exactly like human babies. While the mom was neat and tidy all through her nesting period, the babies messed up the whole place again. The plant was suffering and the place was smelly with their droppings. She didn’t seem to mind, though. She covered them during the crow visits and keenly watched over them – all the while.

Two weeks down the line, I was surprised to find her missing in action most of the time – to get them food, I assumed. She was not around when the crow flew in, or when the babies were trying to stand up by themselves. I was angry with her – how could she leave her two-week-old young ones to fend themselves?

Occasionally, I found her in the opposite balcony trying to avoid my angry glare. I brought it upon myself to shoo the crows and check the babies out, every hour. Each time I went near them to place some grains or a bowl of water, they moved away from me. When I heard the familiar gurgle in the balcony, I was at peace to know that she was back to look after them. The babies, for their part, were making good progress. In two weeks, they moved from being tiny, hairy creatures, to well shaped, independent beauties.

It only took another two weeks for the babies to look like adult pigeons, except that their feet were not completely pink, yet. They slowly started to move – I soon found them both outside the pot, exploring my balcony. One of them slowly started hoping on to the railing, attempting to fly. On a sunny Friday morning, one baby went missing. Panic struck, I wondered if it fell from our second-floor balcony. I could not spot the little one anywhere around, and the one left behind was now trying to flutter its wings.

Seeing me in tears, when the first baby pigeon went missing, my younger son consoled me saying, “They grow faster than us, Ma. And, they would learn to fly by themselves. ”

How true, is all I managed to reply.

As I write this, I know that the next kiddo will fly away soon. And, that’s exactly why I’m winding up at this juncture. I don’t want to wait for the eventuality to happen and then stop making notes. I close it with hope. I hope they become like their mother – she taught me the value of patience, persistence, and more importantly, that life can be nurtured, no matter what – all you need is a little love.

 

About the author: Deepa Kalyan is mom to a tween and a teen and this is her maiden attempt at writing. After all these years, she has just found the time to pursue two of her long-time passions – veena and gardening.

Confessions of a I-don’t-give-a-shit mom

tiger momSo the other day, Re came back from school, sulking. I asked him what the matter was. He said he was the only child in school that day to come dressed in a uniform when the whole school was dressed in traditional clothes. I had no idea what he was talking about. “But why didn’t anyone tell me?,” I asked, pained that he felt left out, but annoyed that the Whatsapp psychos hadn’t told me.

“You are supposed to check e-campus everyday mamma! It seems it was written on it!’. He was referring to the school website of course, which totally intimidates me. Now, given the time I waste on the internet every day, you might say what’s the harm checking a school website to find out what’s going on? But I find it painfully boring, I really do.

That’s when I realized that I don’t really care; I am just happy that he goes to school every day. When people are holding forth about tiger moms and camel moms and lamb moms, I smile beatifically. Because no one is talking about the I-don’t-give-a-shit moms. So I thought I will share a list things that I don’t give a shit about:

I don’t care what he learns in school. I chose the school only because it has a good arts program and they teach the kids how to swim and songs about science. It was one thing I wouldn’t have to do. Also I look at school as an extended form of daycare, so I am happy with the basics. The more I expect from it, the more I have to do. And I won’t do THAT.

I don’t know the difference between ICSE, CBSE, IG, IB, IGCSE any new boards that may have been invented without my knowledge and frankly,  I don’t care. I don’t think learning comes prefixed with labels. I am still learning although I may have some labels.

I hate homework. Okay let me correct it. I hate that I may have to help with homework. So I pretend it doesn’t exist. My time with my kid is my time with my kid. It cannot be an extension of school time. I have enough trouble being a mother. I don’t want to be a tutor. Besides I would suck at it. Having been a teacher doesn’t help.

I hate it when other moms on Whatsapp discuss homework. I think they are all losers. I really do. I mean what kind of person would triple check what a child says is homework just in order to ascertain that it indeed is? Your kid knows what to do. It’s just that you don’t trust him/her. Losers.

I am constantly nervous that the child will come with a note in his almanac or some circular will be issued from the school that parents have to do a project/make some costume/ prop. I don’t want to be a part of it.

I am really bored of listening to people talking about their kids’ achievements. Like really really bored. Do something yourself and tell me, for Christ’s sake.

I love it when my kid plays with dolls, puts on makeup for them, paints shoes on them, does their hair, adds sequins to their clothes. If you have a problem with it, it’s your problem.

Sometimes I forget the difference between my outside voice and my inside voice. My kid calls me shouty. But then it’s okay, because he forgets it too. So we are even.

I sometimes make feeble attempts to ask him whether he would like to learn ballet, the piano, or tennis maybe, knowing fully well that I will have to sacrifice more hours of writing or doing what I want for it, but then he says no; he already knows ballet. And the piano. I don’t argue. I am relieved and let him be.

I try and redeem myself from time to time by posing as a tree for a play that the child is a part of and wants to practice at home. But that is the exception more than the rule. So don’t typecast me. It may look like I am winging motherhood, but six years down, and I still don’t know what I am doing.

 

( A version of this post appeared as my column in Pune Mirror on 19th October, 2015)