To grey or not to grey

Somewhere in Himachal, a riverside picnic I get that look a lot nowadays, especially when I am with child in tow. Perhaps it has to do with my pixie crop and the fact that my greys are in their full nakedness— all there for everyone to comprehend, theorize, extrapolate, hypothesize, whatever – and the look in their eyes seems to say, “How did she manage to wing that?”

They usually look at me, look at Re, look away, and then look at me again, when our eyes meet. And then they look away. Perhaps they are thinking I am too young to have so much grey. I am not. Perhaps they are thinking I waited too long in my marriage, rationalizing the whole baby thing, and then went ahead and adopted Re, which explains the 40-year gap in our ages. Well, I did not, and cleft for cleft, he’s mine. I gave birth to him and wrote a book about it, so it’s well documented. Perhaps they think I am too old to have a six year old child. I can say with full confidence that I am not.

Not that it has ever been a question for me, but going by the looks I always get in public spaces, I am sure this whole greying business is a big deal.

But here is the thing. If you are over 35 and have no greys showing, you are definitely coloring (barring very few exceptions)

My mother started coloring to keep up with various aunts (even uncles) who took to it with much vigor as their daughters and sons were getting married and they wanted to ‘look young’ in photos. They still color, and it looks pathetic, with their sagging skin, warts and tired eyes, but now it will be too sudden to reverse the process, so as they say, ‘they are stuck’. Thankfully my mother stopped coloring when she realized I wasn’t going to. And that I had more visible greys than her.

Many of my friends are ‘stuck’ because it seems (and one of them told me this) if they stop, their children will think they have aged suddenly and are going to die. They color so their children think they are young and cool.

The other day in the pool, a little girl told me, “Aunty, you have so much white hair!’. A part of me wanted to say, “I hope some day your parents tell you the truth about themselves!’. But I didn’t.

There are always reasons to succumb, and they will continue to be there well into your eighties, once you bite the bullet. In the beginning, you color because well, why should everyone know you are greying (read ageing)? Then you color because your family has got used to your dark mane, and now you don’t want to shock. Then you color because you have a child and you want her to think her mother is still young, like ‘all other mothers’. Then you color because you don’t want to look older than your husband or your sister-in-law. Or you color because you want your team to think that you are one of them. Or sometimes simply because ‘you like it’.

But mostly you color so that you can look 35 at 40. Or 60 at 70. Or 70 at 80 (I don’t see the point of it, but there it is)

Friends who went the full monty in displaying their greys also succumbed – either to emotional blackmail by a BFF or a glamorous job, which prescribed they look a certain way. Then there are the halfway house friends – the ones who’ll streak, or highlight, not do a ‘global’ coloring, or the ones that will wear their hair in a way that the least greys show. The point is, if you are not at peace with ageing, there will always be reasons to color. And they will always seem valid.

As a result, in most scenarios, I seem to be the only one wearing my age on my sleeve and I am always happy if I see a fellow parent doing the same. I have enough trouble keeping up with my eyebrow-upperlip-waxing cycles. I don’t need coloring to add to that.

Vanity notwithstanding, I have a fundamental problem with constantly curating oneself so your children or other people think of you in a certain way. When will the real conversations begin? And ageing is a real issue that we are all coping with. Our bodies don’t feel the same, so how long can we pretend we are what we were years ago?

But more than anything else, I love my greys. I have earned it, I am winging it, and in L’Oreal speak, I can say I’m totally worth it.

(A version of this post first appeared as my column in Pune Mirror on 15th June, 2015)

 

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An English teacher’s ode to Bollywood

I am just back from a class excursion with 50 adolescents. We went rappelling, rock-climbing, jungle cooking, bird watching, star-gazing, zip lining, trust-walking, obstacle clearing, bonfire singing and dancing, tree-climbing and strawberry picking, among other things. It was my first excursion as a teacher. The kids’ hormones were on overdrive, their responses to everything was hugely exaggerated and their ability to talk endlessly often tired me out. But what was interesting is despite our age gap, we had plenty of common ground.

On the onward bus journey which lasted five hours, there were the usually medley of jokes, knock- knocks and smart one liners doing the rounds. I watched, curious, not knowing how entertainment in today’s generation would unfold. Eventually they began singing, and in a few minutes, the verdict was clear. Bollywood won. They were singing my songs, although they were singing the remix versions. I was warned about the power of One Direction in today’s adolescents, but I am sorry to report, you-cute-in-a-monochromatic-way-boys, that you are nothing in comparison to Bollywood. Within minutes, One Direction was out and “Badtameez dil” was in.

I felt a sense of excitement when I sang the lyrics of the original “Bachna ae haseeno” with Rishi Kapoor while they belted the opening bars of the Ranbir Kapoor version. I thought back and realised our excursions were the same. It’s just that our songs were different, our stars were different. It’s Ranbir, Ranveer, Varun, Arjun, Deepika, Alia, Priyanka, Katrina (they only refer to their ikons by their first name) for them. It was Dharmendra, Amitabh Bachchan, Vinod Khanna, Rishi Kapoor, Neetu Singh, Rekha, Hema Malini, Reena Roy and the gang for us.

But I was overwhelmed that Bollywood music has the same power to unify, irrespective of how the world has changed and how technology has taken over. The more things change, the more they stay the same, I thought to myself, and smiled.

When I was in grade 4, my English teacher, Mrs Ferns asked us to make sentences with a few words she wrote on the board. One of the words was ‘favourite’. I had just watched Chupke Chupke (or was it Charas?) and I wrote, “Dharmendra is my favourite actor.” I knew it was considered ballsy in my time, but I liked him so much, I had to immortalize him on paper. Some of my classmates saw what I was writing and rolled their eyes. “They seemed to say, “I hope you are not going to turn this in!” They were the “good girls” and “good boys”, the ones who were not tarnished by Bollywood. I was the outsider who went for matinees with my dad.

Thankfully, Mrs Ferns didn’t judge me. “Oh, Dharmendra?” she said. “I prefer Vinod Khanna.” It was the first time I realised that liking the movies had nothing to do with doing well at the exams. I always cracked exams, especially English and Math.

For the music vocal exams in grade 4, while most of my class sang bhajans and patriotic songs, I sang “Na jaane kyun” from Chhoti si baat. Thankfully, there was a boy who sang “Maine tere liye” from Anand and so we sort of neutralized each other. I still remember thinking it was cool of him to wear his heart on his sleeve, and the funny thing is, I still like boys who do.

Now I teach kids of grade 7 and 8, and one of my students is high on Bollywood. She told me her role model was Alia Bhat and the only reason she wants to get through school and college is so that she can be more articulate in interviews later in life when she becomes a movie star. To that end, she really wants to get her English right and so that makes her one of my most committed students. I loved her clarity of thought. And thanks to Mrs Ferns, I didn’t judge her.

When I moved to Filmfare magazine as Managing Editor a few years ago, I could sense much speculation about my ‘shocking’ career move among my peers. “Are you sure? Bollywood?”, a few asked. I of course shrugged and said that I would try anything. Now I am a teacher, but my students never wonder about my non-linear career path. They love backstories, and the more I tell them, the more boundaries dissolve in their heads. To them, it’s a big deal that an English teacher comes from a Bollywood lineage, who thinks conversations about the movies and movie stars are also learning. It ups my cool quotient significantly, added to the fact that I have met some of their crushes, even interviewed some.

I think Bollywood is as much a part of our growing up as is Science and Math and the reason it connects with the youth is the possibility that if you are willing to put yourself out, anything can happen. And of course there are other things that Bollywood  teaches you:

  1.  You are only as old as you feel. So yes, you can be in your fifties and shimmy away (and contrary to what you may think, Madhuri Dixit is still a huge hit with the kids as is Shahrukh) if you dare enough.
  2. If there are hobbies or interests that you’ve dismissed as unattainable, it’s time to tackle them head on.
  3. If you can dream big, there is nothing that is truly challenging, scary, or nerve-wracking.
  4. If the boy or the girl rejects you, there is always a song to celebrate your pain.
  5. Thinking out of your league (boy, girl, career, profession, destination) is a risk we must all take.
  6. Never underestimate the power of a great dialog.

(This post first appeared as my column in Pune Mirror on Feb 23, 2015)

Is anyone teaching kindness?

I have been there before. I am at the play area watching Re bake a fresh mudcake, lace it with leaves and petals, when in marches a tiny bully. I almost see an evil gleam in his eye as he stomps all over Re’s creation, kicking some sand in his face. Re doesn’t know whether he is crying because of the sand in his eyes or the fact that his creation has been destroyed. The meltdown that ensues is entirely my problem of course, because the other child’s parent is just looking blank-faced, as if to suggest this is what children do.

Re has always been a softie, he never attacks or hits back, and perhaps his innate gentleness has something to do with growing up around animals. He has however regularly got bullied, from as early as nine months. His kindness seems old-fashioned when I see other kids around him, and I am supposedly living in what one could call utopia. I often feel tempted to ask Re to fight back, but then I realize he would really wonder what was wrong with me.

I have often wondered whether a child is inherently good-natured or whether it is a trait that can be developed. What makes little kids mean, and why are some meaner than others? Is it inherited, is it what they are watching or eating, is it their home environment? I don’t really have the answers, but I do know that kindness needs to be taught as much as survival skills.

However, teaching children to care about others is not simple. Kindness also needs practice. It doesn’t come from nowhere. Kindness is more show than tell. Our children are always watching us, and most of what they learn is by observing. I realize I need to pay special attention to how I interact with family members, friends, the invisible people and the world at large. Re is quick to point at my “angry voice” or “shouty voice” from time to time. I guess I am the shrew he was born to tame.

If you linger long enough around kids, inevitably someone ends up being teased, left out of a game, or bossed around. It’s as if children are constantly testing out being nice, mean, or silly to see how their peers react. Preschool, the stage where Re is at, is a time when kids begin to figure out group dynamics. When I watch them, it’s obvious that a lot of the insults, grabbing, and put-downs are part of this experimentation. If I do x, will my friend do y? And if a child gets his way by intimidating, he/she may just raise the bar.

Very often, children display complete disregard for the feelings of others and unless the other person displays overt signs of hurt, don’t even notice it. On the other hand, I often see parents monitoring their kids’ moods all the time. Why are you sad today? Are you upset about something? This obsession with their feelings makes children think about themselves constantly, and not about that new kid in their class who is lonely, or that one who is being bullied.

When we focus too much on our children’s feelings and too little on their behavior towards others, we are also telling them that we value their feelings over others’ and that is a dangerous situation.

There has been a steady but palpable bullying movement in the school where I teach. Yes, things are still camouflaged as groupism and not very overt or malignant, but there are sure signs. Whenever I meet student parents, they are all eager to know about their children – how well they are doing, how much have they progressed, what can they do to get even better at their work. No one is asking about their behaviour. I recently met the mother of a bully who was in complete denial that her son could even be one. It’s as though everything right about him was his doing and everything wrong with him was always someone else’s fault.

Parenting is a long ride and each of our kids will encounter (sometimes even be) the meanies of the world. It’s tempting to jump in and save our kids from every negative encounter. But if we even vaguely understand where the meanness is coming from, maybe we can make sense of it in our own minds, treat it as a part of growing up, and ultimately help them to be kind and compassionate people.

Last week, Re came to me with yet another dilemma:

“Mamma, sometimes M hugs me so tight, I feel I am going to fall.”

“So tell her not to.”

“I did, but she doesn’t listen.”

“So try and push her away gently.”

“But pushing is not a nice thing, no?”

The beautiful thing about parenting is that sometimes, your children show you how to be the person you wish you were.

(This post first appeared as my column in Pune Mirror on 19th January, 2015. You can email me on mommygolightly@gmail.com if you wish to share your thoughts)

Absolute imperfect: Why I’m like dad

IMG_1622.JPGA few weeks ago, I was bitten by wanderlust, a disease I have inherited from my father, and duly passed on to the son. Just the words “choo choo train” or “let’s pack a suitcase” is enough to send Re into a frenzy. So we took off to a Himalayan village under the pretext of watching documentaries for three days. Two trains later, we were at Kathgodam, filing into private taxis that would take us on the three-hour ride to Sonapani, our destination. As the signs for Ranikhet, Nainital, Corbett, Bhimtal and Almora flashed past, I had a sense of dejavu. I had been on the exact same road with my father over three decades ago. And almost in the tradition of my father, I was abandoning the known for the unknown. My father never told us where we were going. “You will see,” he would tell us. We would end up at Ramnagar or Kausani or Dhanolti or some such and my mother would always ask why we never went to Kulu-Manali or Darjeeling or at least some place people had heard of. My father would say, “Everybody goes to Darjeeling!”

I feel grateful to my father. For a childhood full of journeys, never mind if some of them never made it to the destinations. Our means were limited, but our hearts were full and our lungs always had more oxygen than they could handle. My father got off platforms and missed trains, he had a tough time keeping track of three children, he forgot to confirm reservations, he showed up at Lucknow in winter at 1 am without a hotel booking and didn’t blink an eyelid when the porter suggested a dormitory, he made us ride back from Dhanolti to Dehradun on a truck laden with peas, as we missed the only bus for the day (we ate a lot of peas on that ride). He lent money to a co-traveller in Pondicherry who pretended to be robbed even as my mother was muttering through her breath that he was faking it. He ended up broke at the end of that journey, still optimistic that the man who duped him would show up. We went without food on that train-trip and ate Horlicks.

In our quest to be the perfect parent, we often realise that it’s the imperfect one who leaves a mark. I always wished my dad could somewhat fit in, be like my friend’s dad, ask the right questions, nod at the right places. But secretly, I was happy that he allowed me to be the person I was trying to be. My father never read us books or told stories or gave us advice on money or careers. He took us to markets, nurseries, made us work in the garden, taught us bridge and cricket, travelled and trekked with us, and helped facilitate my life-long affair with food. He was hardly around at annual day functions; he couldn’t deal with the sham of small talk with other parents. I never missed him. He encouraged me to bunk school so we could watch test matches together. I was allowed to buy him ciggies from the local paan shop, till the paanwala and my mother collectively conspired not to sell cigarettes to a ten year-old.

He is 74 and mostly on a farm somewhere in Belgaum, hoping his green thumb will make him a millionaire. He is a maverick, but he is the maverick I aspire to be. He is the parent who set me free.

The perfect parent messes you up. I am still trying to outdo my mother. I can never be as non-controversial as her, never reach a state where I am blessed by an absolute lack of cynicism like her, never do things with the same consistency of purpose as her. She woke up early, kept a good house, baked, cooked, sewed, knitted, worked, was hugely respected by her students and colleagues, managed finances, did family, friends and synchronised her life beautifully and is the mascot for “nice”.

The thing about having a child is that it makes you love everything about you and hate it in equal measure.  I looked at parenting as my chance to redeem myself. The childhood I wished I had. The mother and father I wished mine had been. It was unfair and stupid of me and it took its toll on my sanity. But I couldn’t have been half the parent I am if my childhood had been any different. We end up who we are because we are more than what our parents made us out to be. And no one gets points for a bad childhood.

As I pointed the snow-capped peaks to Re from our cottage in Sonapani, he stood in attention and started singing the national anthem. My father would have so laughed out loud, I could almost hear him reverberate in the mountains. I felt grateful again.

The curious case of daddydom

daddyIn a strange sequence of events, the man I married came up for scrutiny every single day after we made a baby together. He still does. It is a fact that has crept into my head in an insidious way particularly after I read one of his comments on Facebook which said something like “Interesting how most of marriage is spent plotting how not to get screamed at by the wife.”

This needs damage control, I thought. The husband believes that he has the unique power to annoy me even when he’s not in the room, and I think he may have a point. In my overwhelming pursuit of being a good mother, I had clearly lost out on being the good wife.

I married a man who doesn’t cook, walk or exercise. Someone who always thinks of vegetables as the dressing for something more succulent, preferably with legs. One who hates trains. One who wields an electric racket to kill mosquitoes (yes!). One who was gifted a Nintendo by his father at age 14. One who may skip a bath but never forget his hat. One who could easily declare someone he met three weeks ago as his best friend. One who doesn’t read or play any sport, unless it involves a controller. One who is still afraid to pull over a T-shirt around the boy’s head, thinking it might hurt him.

After a child, everything that a man used to do semi-okay is now wrong. Women feel that men were already stupid to start with, and after producing a child, the last brain cell also vanishes. And so we are often guilty of trying to fix our men through our children. ‘Re is so perfect, his father better match up,’ is what I am thinking most of the time.

As for the men, well, one day they are the sperm, and the next day they are the parent who knows zilch about parenting. At least, women have the hormones that make motherhood a little more organic than it’s purported to be.

Some men beatifically fake the holding of the baby in the first few weeks and change a total of six diapers before they realise that this is not really their calling. And there begins the War of the Roses.

Women raise the bar for men after having mothered their children. Men are so overwhelmed by the complexity of post-partum behaviour that the only thing they are looking for is a place to hide. Since most of us didn’t marry with checklists and did it for larger causes like love and hormones, it might be a tad shocking that the product of our conjugation is very often greater than the sum of parts. I think if we have rigid ideas about how we should raise our children (bathing and brushing is sacrosanct, eating junk is sacrilege) we should have these conversations before our libidos get into a blur and the baby is already made.

And so I plead guilty on the following counts:

1. Maybe, when I expect you to take the ball and run, I should at least tell you where the ball is. Or what it looks like.

2. If I was so averse to technology, I should have told you right at the start, before our remote controls produced babies and grandchildren.

3. Somewhere, I fear that your tech toys may have a greater power of seduction on the boy than my books. Or cupcakes. Or salads.

4. I suck at drawing so I was hoping that you would doodle for the child and make dogs look like dogs and lions not look like hyenas. It was presumptuous.

5. I thought your OCD for orderliness would also translate into organising the child’s toys, clothes and books.

6. I celebrated your transition from PS2 to PS3 to Xbox360. Why now am I mortified by the PS4?

7. Someday, I decided that television was not okay. I should have told you then.

8. I know you don’t do parks and playgrounds but I was not counting on building Lego parks on the iPhone as outdoor stimulation.

9. I thought having a chirpy morning child would turn you into a morning person. I was wrong.

10. Sometimes, I am angry with you just because you can switch off. Maybe, I should find my switch-off button too.

Yes, I admit, we have never fought as much before as we did after the baby. But we never wanted to make up as much either. Maybe Re has helped us grow. A wee bit at least.

 

This post first appeared as my column in the Indian Express on 3rd March, 2013