A Woman Who Knows Her Gift

 

We were in a queue. Queue is a big ‘no’ word for the husband and the son. They will do anything – short of killing me, I hope – to avoid being in a queue. And today, the looks on their faces indicated quite plainly that just the fact that they were standing in a queue for me should have been birthday present enough.

But I was having none of it. I’d just tucked another one under the belly, somewhere below where the belt buckle lurked – another birthday, I mean. And I had emerged from the shock of hitting the half century a harder and more focused woman, even if it had taken me till the next birthday to get there.

The husband and son had got by for many years without having to work at finding me a present. The excuses came in many forms, but the most worn one ran thus: ‘We don’t know what to get you. You’re so particular about what you want.’ And then the hasty addition, if it were the husband: ‘Not that that’s such a bad thing. It’s good that you know your mind.’ The son, more sure of maternal love, is seldom to be moved to such blatherings.

Really, I don’t know what it is with my family. I mean, I’m not such a difficult person to give gifts to, I’m sure. Yes, I did once look askance at the six-inch-long dangling shell earrings, but, seriously, I barely have a neck, they would have looked like epaulettes on me. And what is the point of the son getting me a sari at the behest of girlfriend of the hour, instead of the dupatta he had sensibly chosen, when the last time I wore a sari was at his nursery school interviews?

But I did enjoy that holiday in Istanbul last year, which the husband and son chose to mark my golden jubilee. How could I not, when every inch of it had been planned to cater to my idea of a perfect holiday? So, there was minimal sightseeing and lots of eating and only slightly less of drinking. Sure, walking had been scaled up, while shopping had been scaled down on the itinerary, but then, nobody can be perfect, especially men. It’s really not their fault that I came away wishing for something more tangible as a fiftieth birthday present than a clutch of mobile phone photos and two Turkish spoon rests.

It’s not as if the husband’s all that perfect in the present acceptance department. Three years in a row, he made me buy him shoes (expensive ones!) for his birthday and still lives off the story on the party circuit, finishing off with the line, ‘Mujhe to joote milte hai birthday par.’

What’s particularly disturbing is that the husband’s lament of my being difficult has found a chorus in many places. The Ma-in-Law has handed me so many envelopes stuffed with cash, professing the same sentiment as her son, that I seriously feel I should take pity on her and give her back the envelopes at least so that she can recycle them.

Amma also sings the same tune as her son-in-law when handing me, yes, the ubiquitous envelope of cash. Except that this envelope, thanks to Appa’s obsession with packing and all the spare time he has hanging on his hands after he has watched Saathiya three times each day, is festooned with pictures and messages from whatever scrap of paper has crossed his path.

This year, with my newly hardened self having learnt to focus on what really matters in life, I hadn’t dithered when the annual present question came up. ‘A charm bracelet, that’s what I’d like,’ I said. ‘And this is where you can get me one.’

And, really, it was the one thing that I wanted. And that was the only way I would get it. Ever since I first read about a bracelet onto which you can hang little charms to mark the significant moments of your life, I’d lusted for one. That would have been a good forty years ago and most of the significant moments of my life wore distinctly sepia tones now, but I still wanted a charm bracelet.

The husband looked momentarily relieved till the actuality of it struck him – he would have to do more than get greeting cards and roses and string up balloons this year! ‘We’ll go over the weekend,’ he promised hastily, fending off the inevitable by a couple of days. What he did not take into account was the fact that my birthday falls right in the middle of silly season when the world and its sweetheart(s) are hurriedly seeking tokens of love before that fat red Cupid lurking over their shoulder gets really nasty.

That was the first queue, by the way. When we got out of the shop an hour later, the husband was crimson in the face as he staggered to the nearest coffee shop, while I, equally crimson in the face, was beaming proudly at the silver bangle that now adorned my wrist and the little amethyst (my birthstone!) charm that dangled from it, still tingling from the buzz that overtakes me (a) when we go shopping and (b) especially when we go shopping for jewellery.

Next weekend found us back at the jewellers. The son had left the safe environs of his metropolis to pay his tribute at the maternal shrine. Don’t worry, he visits for his Dad’s birthday too – I’m not fussy like that. In a hasty moment, he told me to buy whatever I wanted as a present. And I had made known my wish – another charm for my newly acquired bangle.

So there we stood in a queue that made the last one seem niggardly in comparison – after all, we were that much closer to Valentine’s Day by now. By the time we got to the counter, the two men in my life were holding their handkerchiefs to their faces, lest they swooned like the Victorian maidens of yore. The salesperson laid out a range of ‘Mother’ charms on the velvet board. And that was only the beginning.

When we got home, the son collapsed into the rocking chair. ‘Can we do you Christmas presents next year?’ he asked weakly, as I gave him a glass of water, the charms tinkling on my bangle.

‘Why’re you complaining?’ came an accusing voice from the depths of the sofa. ‘You did the queue thing only once. I did it twice in one week. And she had the charms all ready and decided for you. I had to stand for her trying on all the possible permutations and combinations that damn shop offered.’

This was a call to battle and the son has ever been quick to pick up the gauntlet. ‘Talking about presents,’ he said, ‘do you remember my eighteenth birthday when you and Mum went and bought yourselves those ridiculously expensive watches as presents to yourselves for having survived me?’

He’s right. We did. I told you we are a bit of a peculiar family when it comes to presents. But with the sun glinting on the charms on my bangle, it was no real hardship to tune out the sounds of the husband and son arguing it out.

First published in Democratic World in March 2016.

The Right Time to Wed

I landed in India to the wailing of Yo Yo Honey Singh and the rustling of crisp currency notes. Ah, I thought, it’s wedding season in Delhi. The son, who had arrived two weeks earlier and, in a weak moment, offered to pick me up from the airport, was nowhere in sight. I hit the Favourites (yes, I am that kind of fond mum) list on my phone and heard a voice that was definitely half asleep at the other end. ‘You’re already here?’ it croaked. I sighed and prepared for a long wait. So much for warm welcomes.

There was a reason for it, however. There always is, with the son. He’d just got back from a four-day wedding in Goa, where, from the sound of it, he’d spent more time boozing in the hotel pool than actually making use of the new silk kurtas Amma had made him buy.

The son is at that stage of life when he’s constantly at one wedding or the other. He’s older than the husband was when we got married, and younger than both his grandads when they got hitched. For a little boy who had to be dragged forcibly to family weddings, he’s become quite the enthusiastic participant in his friends’ ceremonies. So much so that we’ve temporarily nicknamed him Abdullah – begaani shaadi mein and all that.

For my part, I was entranced by the wedding paraphernalia that was pouring in. The invites were more remarkable for their thickness than their grammatical content in most cases – one inch in height was the thinnest I’ve seen so far. ‘They’re quite laidback,’ was how the son explained the family from which that one came.

The actual invitation cards were the least part of the package. In fact, if you were the hasty kind, you might toss them into the dustbin and not have the slightest inkling of where you were supposed to go and when. The stars of the show were an assortment of mithai that would make Haldiram swoon in envy. Not the best way to go for my waistline, but completely irresistible. Especially the chana dal halwa that came with the last one – mmm!

The flip side of the coin soon made its appearance – and how! We were on a visit to the husband’s side of the family, where, too, wedding invitation cards covered every available surface in the house. It was soon apparent to me that the Ma-in-Law was in a ferment. Was it Salman Khan getting off the hook so easily? I wondered. The Ma-in-Law tends to treat world events on par with the neighbour’s dog getting into her garden. Could it be the climate change conference in Paris? Or was it the huge rally the BJP had organised in Jaipur, which was clogging up all the roads?

Uncharacteristically for the Ma-in-Law, I was left wondering for a whole day. Then she cornered me and whispered urgently, ‘It’s now time He (the son) settled down. He’s earning well and He is of the right age. Does He have a girlfriend?’

I was too shell-shocked to do more than shake my head. Negative: no girlfriend in sight. The son was currently in one of his rare girl-free periods, but I saw little point in enlightening her.

‘Then you find Him a girl.’ Or tell me, I’ll find the perfect bride, the threat hung unsaid between us.

To tell the truth, this was not the first time that the son and marriage have come up in the same sentence. I have been getting proposals ever since he passed out of a premier law school in the country and landed a job in a well-known management consultancy. His itinerant career after that slowed down the rush a bit, but it picked up again once he began working in London. Luckily for both of us, I was never sure whether these inquiries were serious or just people pulling my leg. I mean, I know he’s the best, most handsome baby in the world, but that there were actually people out there seeing him as ‘a suitable boy’ for their own babies was making me split my sides laughing.

I’d had a great time in the summer, when we ran into a classmate of mine at a party. After the initial awkwardness that ensues when you meet someone you haven’t seen in 30 years, came the queries about children.

‘Does he have a girlfriend?’ she asked.

‘No,’ I replied. If the husband had been close by, he would have seen that I was in one of my moods and taken peremptory measures to stop the conversation right there.

‘As if he would tell you if he did,’ came the retort. Well, if she knew that, why did she ask me? But I said pacifically, ‘We are close. I would have known.’

‘He must be shy then. Indian boys often are. They need a little help. You should find him a girlfriend.’

‘Really, you think so?’ I asked meekly. ‘Maybe you’re right, maybe he needs a little help.’ That’s when another classmate, who was listening enrapt to this conversation and who is well acquainted with the son, burst into laughter, spoiling the entire act.

‘So shall I help you find a wife?’ I asked the son once we were back home and laughing our guts out. The son was not laughing, however. ‘Don’t you dare!’ he told me. Then spoilt it all by adding, ‘Unless they’re offering a couple of crores in dowry!’

But back to the Ma-in-Law and the new bee in her bonnet. There were no crores in the offing there. The Ma-in-Law was an overt feminist and ‘dowry’ appeared right below ‘domestic violence’ in her dictionary.

‘Why?’ I mouthed silently at her, terrified at the prospect of her going bride hunting for the son.

‘Look at Him. He cooks all His own meals. He needs companionship. This is the right time for Him to marry. Otherwise, He will be lonely all His life.’ Her words were full of unshed capitals.

I could only nod. I’ve learnt the hard way never to argue with the Ma-in-Law. She is the one truly fixed point in the universe and seldom deviates from her stand. Also, as the mum of two boys, she knows better than me, who’s borne only one. Or so runs the traditional belief in the Jain family. So far, I had been happy to go with the flow.

However, this time, I was up against the other fixed point in my family, the son. Visions of what the son would have to say about her – or me – finding him a wife made me set aside caution and tell the Ma-in-Law abruptly that the son would get married when he was good and ready and neither the husband nor I were keen on compelling him to get married just because ‘it was the right time’. It was not my best moment as a daughter-in-law, but the son flashed me a look of gratitude that more than compensated.

She sniffed and muttered something under her breath. I knew this was not the last I would hear on the subject. I could only hope that her other grandsons would come into the spotlight soon and give the rest of us some breathing space.

Meanwhile, I had a new worry. Why do mobile phones come with torches? I had just been to a movie, where I’d missed the first 15 minutes because of all the torch beams flashing as tardy people sought their seats.

First published in Democratic World in January 2016.

Between the Sheets

I own four bedsheets and four towels. This is the result of years of very vocal admonitions from the son and more circumspect comments from the husband. Yes, it really does take that long for men to learn the meaning of ‘circumspection’. A typical argument during the time the son and I lived together in London would run thus:

Me: ‘I need to change your bedsheet.’

Son (still absently looking at his mobile phone screen): ‘Why? You changed them just last week.’

Me: ‘That’s a whole week’s dirt on that sheet. And your pillow cases are so greasy! I can’t imagine who you get your oily skin from!’

Son (without a blink): ‘From Dad. You said so.’

Me (trying to making a dignified recovery): ‘So, your sheets…’

The son sighed and put down his mobile: ‘Mum, we go through this every week. You don’t have to change the bedsheet every week. Tell you what? We’ll do it in turns…’ My eyes brightened. He was going to offer to change the bedsheets every second week. Oh my son! ‘…we’ll do your bed one week and mine the next. And I’ll even do the pillows for you when you do my bed.’

Six months later, I was changing his bedsheet according to his mandate when the husband walked in. ‘Look at this!’ I moaned dolefully, pointing at his pillow case. ‘He won’t let me change them every week…’

‘Very sensible!’ the husband cut in swiftly. ‘You really don’t need to change bedsheets every week. Especially not in the UK where there’s so little dust.’

Looking back at my life, I find most of it has been lived according to the prescriptions of what other people think I should do with my bed linen. When you think of it, a bedsheet is just a covering for a mattress. You change it when it gets dirty. And that should be it. But no, we seem to have built a whole branch of sociology around it, classifying people according to their beds and how they keep them. Don’t believe me? Just Google ‘How to make a bed’ and see. I guarantee an instant inferiority complex.

A bed was just somewhere to read, and occasionally sleep, before I went to boarding school. Once in the clutches of the nuns at the convent, I learnt about the existence of bedcovers and their importance. Making a bed was a whole chapter in the science of homemaking, as I was taught it. Mitred corners, hospital corners, aligning the creases of the bedcover just so, folding it up just so – the list of dos and don’ts was a long and bewildering one.

Seven years later, by the time I got to Year 2 of college, my inner gypsy had rebelled and decided to hold no more truck with bedcovers. Sheets were changed according to the peripatetic schedule of the dhobi and that was that.

The Ma-in-Law, when she made her appearance in my life, was shocked by this daughter-in-law she had so summarily acquired minus bedcover. Having brought up only sons, she did not know quite how to react to not finding a bedcover with which to make up our bed. Luckily, being a woman wise for her years, she did not seek the answers to her questions in Amma, who’d long ago thrown up her hands at getting me to do anything.

Instead, on our first anniversary, the Ma-in-Law got us a bedcover. She was profusely thanked. A week later, I saw her peering into our room, hope writ large on her face, only to emerge disappointed. The bed still had no cover.

Then the son made an appearance, as did muddy feet and trails of crumbs in the bed. Try as I might, I could not get that child to wear slippers in the house and, sometimes, even when he went out to play.

I sat up in bed suddenly one night, staring at the muddy trails left by little-boy feet on the bedsheet, and cried, ‘We need a bedcover!’ It was a moment of epiphany for me. It was also past midnight and the husband had just settled in for the night. ‘Go to the linen cupboard. Mom has given us at least four, at last count,’ he mumbled before turning his back to me.

Thus began the years of feverish bed covering to make up for all the lost years. I succumbed to an orgy of bedcover shopping as I discovered a whole new world of materials and textures, all of which could be brought home. And then there were the sheets to go with them. I was blown away by thread counts and Egyptian cotton. When we built our own home, the only cupboard I had designed to my specifications was my linen cupboard, which was expanding by the day now, engorged with all the shopping I had done.

When I visited the son’s room in college, I was hit by a strong sense of déjà vu, along with whiffs of other strong smelling things. He was truly my son – his pillow was under the bed, the cover half on, half off, the sheet was crumpled into the foot of the bed, and he was using his blanket as a makeshift pillow.

I rescued the pillow and smoothed the cover back on, then hastily removed it. It had a definite odour about it. ‘Oh that’s where my pillow went!’ said the son walking into his room. ‘Thanks, Ma!’ Needless to say, I was glad to return to Delhi, to the safe haven of my treasured linen cupboard.

Then we moved to the UK. ‘Two sheets and one duvet cover – that’s all!’ warned the husband, threateningly. I knew when discretion was the better part of valour, but managed to smuggle in one thin bedcover nevertheless. Only to have it lie in the suitcase, unclaimed and, well, not forgotten, but definitely unmourned. We were now in a country where duvets were a round-the-year phenomenon and not a seasonal ritual, like they were in Delhi. And there was little sense, even I, the bedcover fanatic, had to admit, in putting two lots of covers on one bed. On following trips to Delhi, however, I did get in two more bedsheets, bravely ignoring the long-suffering sighs that emanated from the husband when I unpacked them.

I had the last laugh though when the son moved to London. ‘See, we have enough bedsheets for all of us now!’ I gloated.

‘And which one of them will you give him? What about his oily skin?’ the husband asked. I was struck dumb, then looked at him hopefully, ‘Maybe a trip to the linen shop?’

The husband was in an amiable mood. After all, we were moving to Swansea in a few months and the son would have to be stocked up before we left. At the linen shop, I discovered fitted sheets. It was love at first sight. And the son ended up with all my Delhi sheets – Egyptian cotton, 300 thread count et al.

A year later, we visited the son in the Big Metropolis. ‘Oh look, he’s made his bed!’ I gushed.

‘Mum, will you stop messing up my room?’ The son glinted fire at me. ‘You can’t spread your stuff all over like that!’

My eyes shone with unshed tears. ‘Our little boy has grown up!’ I whispered to the husband. He pressed my hand tenderly in reply.

First published in Democratic World in November 2015.

 

 

Shift+Del STRESS

‘Your mother!’ Thus began several of Amma’s stories. The recipient was the son, in various stages of growth from toddler to surprisingly-not-angsty teenager to calm-and-collected adult, the family anxiety genes having got misplaced somewhere in biological transit.

This time the story was: ‘Your mother! When the neighbourhood kids came to call her to play, she would hide under the bed and make me tell them she wasn’t at home. As if they would believe me!’

Well, they didn’t. Not too often in the beginning anyway. One particularly sharp memory is of being dragged along by an older girl, my hand tightly clutched in hers (as per Amma’s strictures) along with the string of a kite – you know, the part with the powdered glass stuck to it. My hand was in shreds by the time I got home. Amma was more convincing in her ‘She’s doing her homework’ act after that. Amma’s nice like that. Then again, maybe, that’s why I never did learn to ride a bicycle after that first fall.

And I did hide under the bed. Till I discovered the underside of the bed was not quite the safe haven I thought it to be. There were creatures there, spiders and – OMG! – even cockroaches sometimes. Also, the fan’s breeze did not find its way down there.

I’ve always thought anxiety was born with me, issuing out simultaneously from my mother’s womb, angry and red at the indignity of having been forced out with this! It stalked me at every turn, constant companion, albeit a companion I could have done without.

The years passed and anxiety found a new friend to help it along. Stress. Well, it was a fashionable thing to tote around. And I was not too displeased with it tagging along. Really. At 10.30 pm, faced with a news editor telling me to try once more for that elusive headline for a page that was to have been sent off two hours ago, I was stressed. And glad to have a descriptor that fit, even if the headline didn’t.

And so we chugged along, the three of us. A high point was when the son left for college. We really lived it up then.

Earlier this year, I turned 50. I don’t think that was why really, but, hey, who needs an excuse to party? Certainly not my two friends. They painted my mind red. And I finally saw red.

After a lifetime of being anxious and stressed, in July, I decided to do something about it. ‘I shall attend a Stress Alleviation and Mindfulness workshop,’ I announced to the husband. Who grunted, fingers clicking ceaselessly over the Kakuro board on his laptop. Then, ‘Whaaat?! I’m not coming with you.’

‘I can go on my own, you know!’ I said, sniffing self-righteously. As D-day arrived, we compromised. He dropped me at the workshop place and promised to be waiting when I got out. ‘It’ll be all right,’ he said, patting my hand through the car window as he prepared to reverse. I took a deep breath and prepared to enter a room full of strangers, already hyperventilating at the prospect.

As it turned out, it wasn’t too bad, really. The girls conducting the workshop seemed quite nice and most of what they said was being projected on a large screen behind them. [This was more important than you might think. While I always write ‘English’ when asked what my first language is, the UK vies favourably with India in terms of incomprehensible local accents.]

Plus the girls promised there would be no interaction. I sighed in relief at the thought that all I needed to do was listen. For the next two hours. For the next two weeks.

That was before Daphne entered our lives. The lead trainer was called Peggy, the second one, Liz. So who was Daphne and why was she all over the place? It took me till Day 3 to realise Peggy was saying ‘Definitely’ every time I heard Daphne. Gosh, that was stressful!

Several of the examples of stress the girls talked about had people who were afraid to go to the supermarket. I was frankly amazed. Supermarket was major therapy area for me. In fact, it was one of the areas I had come to be mindful about. I could spend weeks in a Tesco Extra. If the family would let me.

The only place I could think of as stressful to go to was the hairdresser. You don’t believe it? Try walking into a salon with my hair! But that stress point, too, had been taken care of in Swansea. I had a hair stylist who cooed over how my skull-hugging hair would suddenly wake up with a no-nonsense curl as the moisture left it.

Back at the workshop, it was time to enter Mindfulness territory. ‘Your mind tells you hurtful things about yourself,’ I was told. True, it did. Then, ‘Ignore what your mind is telling you. Don’t listen to your mind!’ Excuse me, but I thought this was a mindFULness workshop. I hadn’t realised I had to leave my mind back at home. What if I lost it? Stress would be small coin then.

The slides showed various people who were in acute need of mindfulness therapy – Pete, Dave, Sam, Judy, Ellen, all of them laughing at the camera. Why did all these happy, smiling people need mindfulness? It bothered me. In fact, it stressed me.

Then we got a mindfulness CD to take home. And the husband stood over my head and said through gritted teeth: ‘Try it! Now!’ So I did. Whereupon it all kind of fell into place. ‘Cool!’ I said, ‘so that’s what they meant!’ The husband gnashed his teeth. It kind of felt at that moment that the stress had swapped partners. For the moment at least.

The rest of the workshop passed without incident. Some amount of grumbling was offered as token resistance by my two companions, but now I was learning to ignore my mind. I was feeling lighter, and it was a heady feeling. The husband gratefully noted the change and said when I got home on the last day, ‘So it does work!’

He spoke too soon.

The next day, I got an email from AVG Antivirus protection, which I had once downloaded for the tablet, which had since been bequeathed to the son. ‘Was it something we said?’ the email asked me sadly.

‘Now, look, you made them feel bad! How would you feel if someone did that to you?’ scolded Anxiety. Really, it was just like having Amma around.

‘Suppose they refuse to let their app download for you next time?’ asked Stress.

I shuddered.

 Note: The purpose of this article is not to knock mindfulness, which has helped countless people. This is merely the writer’s attempt to help you stave off stress!

First published in Democratic World in September 2015

Fat Women Don’t Dance

 

The British Summer was almost here and, if I didn’t get my act together, it would be gone before I’d had a chance to air my handful of cotton tops. Winter is a good time to ignore all the bulges and sacks that pass muster for your body, but summer is the season of repentance. Some better-fitting inner wear was definitely in order.

Certain physical problems had ensured that I had not indulged myself in that department for some time. No, I cannot give you details; anyway, I spent my Physics class in school writing poetry, so I wouldn’t know how to explain the ergonomics of a bra or why my shoulders ache when I wear one.

Well, the upshot was that I decided to go the whole hog and begin with a fitting. Google, Google Talk, Cortana, et al., were unusually unhelpful. Evidently, Swansea is not London, not in terms of options for higher-end innerwear fitting services anyway. So, I settled for the ubiquitous Marks & Spencer and sent up a prayer. Baring my boobs before an audience is not my idea of recreation, I’d never be able to earn my living as a stripper, no, not even in a blubber fetish club. I was, therefore, reassured when the fitting lady turned out to be elderly and well stacked in the upper shelf herself.

‘It’s a terrible burden, isn’t it?’ she murmured sympathetically, as I poured out my requirements, problems and woes, not necessarily in that order, into her comforting-looking bosom. ‘I used to have heavy ‘uns too.’

I had to prop up my jaw with my hand. Used to? Then gathered myself to ask, ‘So have you lost a lot of weight?’ You may think you’ve seen all the possible renderings of obese Auntyjis in Delhi, but the UK can take ‘obese’, in both Auntyji and Uncleji avatars, to a whole new dimension when it puts its mind to it. And, oh, it does!

‘I had to have a mastectomy,’ came the reply. Needless to say, that was the conversation stopper of the century. And definitely not the moment to chip in with my ideas about retractable breasts and how they would transform the world forever.

I went home with the first bra she offered me and lived to regret it, in between bursts of brooding on the unfairness of it all. For within me lived this sylph of a girl who wanted airy little confections of lace and silk, with straps and without. And innerwear that would not pass for decent street wear on a bright, sunny day in Swansea. Was this too much to ask?

When in India, I had got used to the salesgirl telling me dismissively, ‘Madam, aapka size to nahin milega, your size is not available.’ Also to grapple with innerwear that Christian Grey and Anastasia Steele would have commandeered without a second thought for their S&M boudoir.

I’d had great hopes of the UK. And, yes, well, they did have stuff in my size, whatever that was, since the one offering I’d brought home was already giving me shoulder pain. But lace? No. Froth? Not a wee bit. Silk? Forget it. I gazed at the aisles and aisles of lingerie on display at various stores. Teal, apricot, blueberry, heather, lime, evergreen, sunset – just the names of the hues promised instant glamour. French lace, Jacquard lace, push up, balcony, plunge, memory foam, okay that’s stretching it now, I definitely did not need padding. But wasn’t there one out there that would fit both me and my dreams?

After one visit to the store, the husband was quick to bring me down to size. ‘You wear it inside, right?’ he demanded, wiping his brow, which was slick with sweat. You could die of heat stroke in a British store in January. It has been known to happen. ‘How the hell does it matter?’ What would he know? He gets me to order his boxers online. Even those that show under his fashionably threadbare jeans.

I had a friend who, when a relative got her her first M&S bra, jumped up and down shrieking, ‘I wish I could wear it outside my shirt!’ But that was India in the 1980s. This was the UK after Victoria had bared all her secrets. Evidently not for the plus sizes though.

It was around this time that Bollywood decided to take on the weight of obesity in a film that, curiously enough, did pretty well at the box office. It had a young man who is forced to abandon his dreams of a slim bride and obey the family and marry an overweight woman. Needless to say, the suhaag raat is a distant shore for that particular bride. But she is evidently made of more ballast than you would think. So she goes to what looked to be the equivalent of the local ‘cut-piece’ store and asks for a filmi nighty. The salesman squirms in embarrassment, but not because he will now have to say, ‘Aapka size to nahin milega, madam!’ Said bride is successful and goes home with said seductory garment wrapped in brown paper.

I was stunned into silence by this extravagant flight of the imagination. ‘Howwww?’ was all that emerged. In a country where you can barely get a DD bra, how was this woman even daring to think she could get gauzy night apparel that would ensure a happy culmination of her wedding vows? That too in Haridwar, for God’s sake!

Well, that’s Bollywood, nobody said it was known for its realism. And this is my story, so we shall return to it now.

It was the husband who finally had the brainwave. ‘Why don’t you try a sports bra?’ he said. ‘You need more support, right? And those are supposed to do just that?’ I was still feeling sulky after his lack of cooperation at our infructuous store visit, so I did not deign to grace his idea with a reply. But it took root in my mind.

And, so, I paid the lingerie department another visit, this time ignoring all the temptations that were laid out in my way, making a beeline, instead, for the sports section. Success! I finally had a bra I could wear without every muscle in the region groaning a protest. And my body profile no longer looked as if the mammaries had slipped into the region of my belly.

As for lace? What lace? I’m too mature to want frivolous come-hither stuff like that. Aren’t I?

First published in Democratic World in July 2015

The wrong generation for FB? I don’t think so

Keeping up with the Joneses? Or the Sharmas ? Or the Guptas? Been there, done that. And discarded it as a notion of no value. But life knows when you are sitting back, fully satisfied with all that it has sent your way, complacent in your loose Fabindia salwar-kameez when most of your over-40 generation is trying to pour themselves into slim-fit jeans and tight dresses. It then sends you a googly – a grown-up son and Facebook.

Last week, I got hit upon by a stranger on Facebook. Don’t look at me like that. It happens to me. Don’t ask me why. I myself would like to know. And it happens despite the fact that a lot of my personal details, including photos and most of the bulges, are out there on record. And I don’t dye my hair. Worse, this is not the first time it has happened to me. Years ago, I learnt the absolute wisdom of changing my FB settings to receive friend requests from only friends of friends.

But this request was from a friend of a very dear friend of mine, so I hit Accept immediately. Then the young man told he could tell me more about me than I had ever known myself. Really?! I sent a quick message to the mutual friend and got back an immediate reply. ‘No idea who he is. Must have accepted by mistake.’ By that time, my new FB friend was asking about my hobbies, interests, errr… passions. Dear FB God, if you must send such ‘things’ my way, please teach them better pick-up lines?

I did some quick thinking. That’s a rare event for me, as the son will tell you. In his more magnanimous moments, he says, ‘You and Dad are so joined at the hip, you have to ask each other before you take your next breath.’ I refuse to tell you what he says in his less magnanimous moments because it could be interpreted as parental abuse, and not the more popular version of it. And, despite all his lawyerly condescension, like a good mother, I love the son. He looks like me, for God’s sake!

Well, I actually unfriended my ham-handed FB admirer without consulting my husband, right there, on the spot. Next step was to send an email to the son and the husband, crowing over my feat of independent thinking. The husband predictably and immediately sent a ‘Well done!’ in reply. I have a theory that the husband has a stock set of email replies that he reserves for me, rather like those pre-formatted SMSes you found on your mobile before Swype.

Six hours later – didn’t you know lawyers talk in terms of billable hours? – came the son’s reply. ‘You are a textbook example of how not to behave on Facebook,’ he said ponderously.

I was crushed. I rang him up, billable hours be damned. ‘Mum,’ he said with exaggerated patience. ‘You do not befriend any and everyone who sends you a friend request on FB.’

My defence was ready. Oh come on, you don’t want to hear it again, do you? But back to the Sharmas and the Guptas. I find I have successfully suppressed any desire to be one up on my contemporaries. But the son’s generation is another matter.

The son was not always like this. Six years ago, he was quite enthusiastic about introducing me to Facebook. He even befriended me.

The fun started when, some months later, I found out how to update my personal details and marked ‘Married’ against my status. I was immediately flooded with congratulatory messages. Ditto for the exasperated son, who did not think being congratulated on his parents getting married nineteen years after he was born worth the effort of replying. It was definitely worth the effort to tell me off, however.

Soon after, the nephew came visiting. He had just turned 18 and was hoovering down liquor like a new dust bag. The husband and I, responsible people that we are, told him no hard liquor and plied him instead with all the liqueurs we had in the house. The husband having sworn off ‘rotting fruit’, it was left to me address his avuncular concerns by matching the nephew drink for drink so that we would know how much was too much. The match finished 17:20 in my favour, I am pleased to add, but not before much merriment had been had and many photos clicked.

The next day, the son called us from Bangalore. ‘Have you seen his FB post?’ he shrieked at me. ‘How could you?’

I was speechless. This from the boy who had, just two weeks ago, confessed to having lost two whole days because his breakfast on Saturday morning was beef fry with coconut and a bottle of tequila with more than a dozen beer chasers.

I found out six months later that that was the day he unfriended me on FB. Yes, it took me that long to find out. And it was a shock. Not least because I didn’t know till then you could ‘unfriend’ people on FB.

The husband and I were headed to the UK three years later, when, in a rare moment of filial love, the son reinstated my status as his FB friend, but only after extracting a slew of promises. I would not comment on any of his posts. I would not send friend requests to any of his friends, especially girlfriends. ‘What if they send me a friend request?’ I wailed. Quite a few of them did, I was considered such a riot act. ‘Ask me first,’ he said, his mouth set in a straight line. It was tough, but I was pathetically grateful to be allowed back into his world and look at photos of his college revelry, especially the one of him wearing pink chaddis on his head.

I kept on the straight and narrow for three whole years. No easy feat, let me tell you, so it was not surprising when meltdown finally happened. At Christmas, we invited some friends over. One of them was a friend of the son. One of the group was camera-happy and took photos, which she then kamikazed on FB – where else? I genuinely thought it a pity the son’s friend would never get to see those photos, so I tagged her in them.

All hell broke loose. ‘Mum!’ thundered the son when he got home from work. ‘What have you been up to?’ I will not go into details of that conversation lest one of you call the Society of Prevention of Cruelty to Parents. Let me just explain that neither he nor his friend took kindly to being romantically linked with each other in the barrage of comments that ensued from that simple act of tagging some group photos.

Three days later, the son smiled at me. ‘Mum,’ he said benignly. ‘Guess what? Both Amma and Ammi have joined FB!’ I fell into a dead faint.

That’s the problem with having a lawyer in the family. They get to make the concluding remarks. Always.

The Revenge of the Diwali Shopper

Diwali usually arouses mixed emotions in me, rather of the kind the husband assures me the man must have felt when he saw his ma-in-law drive off the cliff in his brand new Merc.

I am a naturally acquisitive person, and the natural corollary of that, as per the husband, is the bouts of shopping fever I experience from time to time. People get repeat attacks of malaria, I get repeat attacks of shopping mania, again so says the husband. The result – over the years – has been that the husband must hold the distinction of being the only man in the metropolis who knows how to steer his way right across the city in practically any direction without passing by a shopping centre.

Except at Diwali. And that’s an important exception. For that is when the husband wants to – sorry, make that needs to – go shopping. The placation begins weeks in advance, and the wheedling begins in right earnest once Dussehra is over. ‘I have to get all these gifts for my professional contacts and staff,’ he began imploringly.

After months of deprivation of my favourite fix, I am not so easily won over. Nevertheless, it is my fix and there’s no way I am going to pass up on a shopping trip. Even if I am shopping for people I’ve never met. ‘Okay,’ I said briskly. ‘Start making your lists and we’ll decide what markets we need to visit.’

‘Kaju badam? Sadar Bazar, of course.’

‘No way,’ said the husband in true horror. ‘You can’t get in there!’

‘Well, what have you to lose? That car of yours would hardly notice another dent or two,’ I sneered. But mocking at THE car was going too far even if the husband needed my help in a hurry. I could see the shopping trip vanish into the clouds. ‘Okay, Bengali Market then.’ The husband whimpered his compliance. Bengali Market is better than Sadar Bazar, but at Diwali, there’s not much to choose between the two.

The dry fruit safely on the back-seat, the husband looked considerably more cheerful. ‘Now for bowls to put these into,’ I said, running a practised eye over his list, which always looks impossibly short to me. I just know that there are several people and destinations missing from the list, but this is not the time to say so.

‘Silver,’ he said brightly.

‘Silver is passé. Besides, they don’t have any new designs. Let’s try crystal,’ I said, steering him away from the jewellery shop.

The husband always prefers silver, even though it’s more expensive, because he knows I’m wary of overextending myself in a jewellery shop. Think I’m crazy? Well, look at it this way, if you cart home a gold necklace, there’s no way you can explain it away as a genuine necessity once cold reason strikes the husband. But a set of plates or mugs, well, he can’t put that down to an overdose!

So to the home accessories shop we went. And I had myself a ball of a time, popping things into the huge basket the shop had provided me. The husband followed, calculator in hand, muttering, ‘Are you sure you need that large a basket?’

‘I’m only following your list, dear,’ I said, popping in a rice plate I had been coveting for a long time.

When we reached home, I proudly displayed my spoils of war. Amma and the son eyed my loot dispassionately, Amma less so than the son. After all, I get the shopping mania from somewhere. Finally, the son looked up and said sternly, ‘Mum, most of this seems to be for our house. Where are Dad’s gifts?’

Like someone once said, how much sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have an ungrateful child. But then again, I get to go on another shopping trip!  And after that is done, I will of course remind the husband that he’s left several people out of his list! You see, since I get my fix only once a year, I’ve got to ensure the dose is enough to carry me through for a while.

First published in The Financial Express.

Stress and the Latch-Key Kid

The son is a trifle stressed these days. His world has turned, as he terms it, ‘higgledy piggledy’. Definitely Enid Blyton, but that’s as far olde-world as my twelve-year-old son will admit to being. In all other aspects, he is self-assuredly ‘ultra def rad mega whiz cool’. Before you begin to think he’s hearing impaired, let me clarify that that’s just his language for saying he’s a ‘real cool cat’.

The higgledy-piggledy factor’s come about because Amma is out in Kerala for a fortnight. I guess she got tired of waiting for Delhi to decide between fog-laden mornings and sunny, breezy afternoons. Or maybe she just got sick of fetching and carrying for a largely unappreciative family. As a consequence, I find myself manning the home front. It’s been some months since I did this – long enough for me to have been actually looking forward to the experience. But the son is perturbed. ‘Aren’t you going to work today, Mum?’ he asked the day after we waved Amma off in her train.

‘No sweetie, I’ve taken a couple of weeks off from work,’ I said absently, leafing through knitting patterns. Two weeks of knitting in the sun, swigging beer in the garden, afternoon naps, oh what luxury! The son begged to differ. First came the subtle hints. ‘Have you seen this week’s edition – they have a spelling mistake on page one.’

‘That’s how you spell metamorphosis, son,’ I replied automatically. ‘Besides, I was there for this edition, remember?’

‘You won’t get your allowance na, if you take so much leave?’

‘I can always get the money when I go back to office,’ I replied, feeling all my tense back muscles unwind and relax in the warmth of the sun.

‘But how will we run the house till then?’

I ignored that one. After all, the husband was not at home to hear this slur on his role as family patriarch.

‘Suppose they hire someone else instead of you, and then find he’s much, much better than you?’

I sat up. Enough was enough. ‘Okay, son, get me your English book. Since you seem to have a lot of spare time, you might as well do a comprehension exercise!’ The hints stopped abruptly. For the time being.

But his bosom pal of nine years’ standing took over. ‘Auntie, how do they let you take so much leave in your office? My mother’s office says if she goes on leave, the magazine will come to a stop.’ That galled, but I grit my teeth and reminded him that if he didn’t quit on the pester act, there’d be one less Christmas present under his tree this year.

But the son was not frightened off so easily. He merely shifted tack. ‘Mum, you know there was this article in today’s paper on latch-key children. It said latch-key kids grow up to be very independent. They make strong leaders and strong decision-makers.’

‘It also says they are lonely and insecure,’ I returned evenly. After all, I did have twelve years’ practice in deflecting such arguments.

‘That’s a small risk to take for developing all those leadership skills,’ he returned with equanimity. ‘Anyway, last year, you let me have my own key when Amma was away. What’s so different this year? After all, I’m a year older.’

‘Also a year more careless and impulsive! I had no choice last year. And we made sure Dad’s Man Friday was always here when you got home, and he stayed with you till one of us got home. So what leadership skills?’ I asked smugly, sure that I had outwitted him finally.

‘That’s what you think, Mum,’ he riposted with perfect timing. If it hadn’t been me at the receiving end, I might have been consumed with admiration. ‘Jagat Singh would go off to sleep in his chair after he’d given me lunch. Then Shantanu would climb over the gate and we’d take out the telephone directory and call up all the people we found in it with strange names. I was the one who decided what we’d say to them.’ Shantanu, of course, was the abovementioned friend.

I stared at him in horror. Well, at least, it explained the huge phone bills we’d got that month. The husband had transformed into a shrieking banshee right before our eyes. At the time, the buck – as always – had stopped at me. Now I knew where it had belonged.

‘Too bad, buddy,’ I said as firmly as I could. ‘If that’s the best example of leadership training you can give me, you’ve lost this round. I had thought of popping into office for a while tomorrow. But now I’m here to stay – till Amma gets back.’

It’s not very often that I can get to best the son in a battle of wits. And though I’d won this round, I am not so sure of the next one. After all, leave is not so easy to come by in a newspaper office!

First published in The Financial Express in January 2001.

The Path of True Love

The son is currently involved in a swim versus basketball imbroglio. And after three weeks of ignoring his whines and moans, this morning, I found myself actually cursing a fellow basketballer with vim and vigour… but I am digressing here.

The son’s school offers several sports options in the summer holidays and, most years, the son manfully declines all but the swimming, which I insist on. But this year, there’s a little curly haired girl on his horizon and his thoughts have been wandering to muscles and tight stomachs. And, of course, inches. He’s going to hate me all his life for this, but since he takes after me in most things, he’s unlikely to grow more than the average Indian male. But he doesn’t believe in giving up without a fight. Hence, the basketball.

The family took one look at the timings on the circular and snickered. Basketball at 6.30 am? ‘You’ll have to get up at six for that,’ Amma said sadly, ‘and I thought I’d get a few late mornings during your holidays.’

‘He won’t get up,’ said a voice from behind the newspaper that we’ve all come to know and respect as the head of our family, the husband.

‘Why don’t you sleep with Amma?’ I suggested brightly. ‘I have enough trouble waking you up at 6.30 am during school-time.’

But, as we discovered later, the little curly haired girl too learns basketball and, three weeks later, the son’s still getting up clockwork at one call from Amma, missing only two days so far. Obviously, the pull of true love is just as strong at twelve years as it is at sixteen.

The hitch lay elsewhere. The swimming class came bang in the middle of the basketball lesson. The sports teacher suggested the son change his swimming class to the one after his allotted one. A day of that and he switched back. ‘I got to do all the exercises in the basketball class and none of the matches,’ he complained.

‘Try the one in the first half then,’ I suggested. ‘But that’s the advanced class,’ he moaned. ‘Well, it’s got to be the one or the other. Sort it out for yourself,’ said the oracle from behind the newspaper.

What was left unsaid was that the son’s efforts in swimming are mostly energy and very little style, and the little curly haired girl was part of the advanced swimming class. Not the best way to progress on the path of true love.

So he reverted back to a little bit of basketball, a swim, and then again a little bit of basketball. And that’s how things were when he trooped into the house yesterday morning just as I was rubbing the sleep from my eyes. ‘Why so early?’ I enquired.

‘I couldn’t play basketball today,’ he said gloomily. ‘The match had already started and, though there was one person less in Ketan’s team, he ordered me off the court.’

‘But… but… how dare he?’ I said, the fond mother in me roused at this injustice. ‘He has no right to do that!’ ‘You should have complained to the teacher,’ said Amma, equally indignant. ‘You’ve paid for the basketball coaching, so he can’t do that,’ said the voice, but since the newspapers had not yet arrived, we paid it no notice.

‘I’ll sort it out tomorrow. If he orders me off the court, I’ll just punch him,’ said the son.

I was puzzled. If he could force Ketan to let him into the game the next day, why hadn’t he done it today? The son’s regular intake of Hindi movies ensures that he takes punches and brawls as a necessary part of his life. So he couldn’t be getting squeamish about it.

The mystery was solved in the evening when the son’s friend dropped in for a chat. I was reading, with half a ear on their conversation. ‘Shefali didn’t come for swimming today, did she?’ asked the friend. Shefali being the star swimmer with curly hair, who’s setting half the class’ hearts – those of the male half at least – aflutter.

‘She didn’t come for basketball either,’ muttered the son gloomily. ‘And that ass, Ketan, was throwing his weight around. He saw her smile at me yesterday. I decided to come home and read my book.’

I smiled to myself. And wondered, would Shefali come for basketball tomorrow?

PS: Thirteen years and many curly haired girls later, I am happy to report that the son’s growth spurt gave the lie to the in-laws’ dire predictions to the contrary – he now stands a good inch taller than the husband.

First published in The Financial Express.

A Nation of Insomniacs

Have you ever considered how we, as a nation, make a virtue out of insomnia, regarding it as a gift bestowed by the gods on the truly worthy? Ask me, I have been particularly afflicted most of my life by the ‘Sleep and Be Damned Syndrome’, which I am convinced is peculiar to the Indian subcontinent.

Don’t believe me? Just look around you. People vie with each other in recounting tales of how early they get up each morning. There are those who actually get up in the middle of the night, as early as 3.30 am, just to be out on a morning walk before the rest. Get up one day at 4.30 am and check the roads – you’ll find office rush-hour a walkover in comparison. I have a colleague who boasts she gets up at 3 am to polish her fridge door!

All my life, I have been admonished by grandparents, parents and aunts, even stray women who wandered in to pick some kari-patta from our garden, on how ‘good’ girls – those who grow up into model wives and then model mothers, I assumed at that impressionable age – get up early, don’t sleep in the afternoon and don’t yawn before 11 pm, or till the last person in the house is snoring, whichever is later!

As a result, till I actually met my husband, I never once entertained the thought of marriage as playing a role in my life. I seemed so patently unsuited to it. If ‘normal’ people needed six hours of sleep and people who worked hard, eight, I never felt rested till I’d got my full ten hours.

In hostel, the nuns hit upon a novel way of making sure I got up when they wanted me to. Playing upon my abnormal sense of responsibility (even this post is a manifestation of decades of guilt, I confess), they entrusted me with the task of getting up first and waking up everyone else. I’d totter out of bed (at 5 am in summer, 6 am in winter), walk all the way to our common study to grab the bell and sleep-walk up and down the corridor, clanging it for all I was worth. It is sure proof of my stupor that till today, I don’t remember what that bell sounded like.

Needless to say, like poles don’t always repel, and I got married to the one man in the world who could sleep more than me. When the son got to school-going age, we cast our eyes around and chose a school that started class at a sensible time, in our opinion. 10.30 am for Junior School – what more could a parent want?

A whole lot more, we realized two years later, when a host of busybody parents – the kind that you see jogging on the roads at 4.30 am – decided that the kids were coming back home too late. How on earth do you define ‘too late’, I wondered. Have you ever heard a wife complain the husband was ‘too late’ when he walked in from work at 7 pm? Do you think the corporate he worked for would listen to her and let him off at 5 pm instead? Unfortunately, corporates are corporates, and schools are not. This school obligingly held a referendum. Our emphatic ‘No’ did not even register in the clamour of the Early Risers. An hour was knocked off our night’s sleep in the next session.

Worse was to follow. A change at the top in school came about last year, and the new principal belonged to the same school (of thought) as my parents, aunts and grandparents. One of the first things she did was start school at 7.30 am. Which meant that though we live a hop, skip and jump away from school, the latest I dare wake the son up is 6.30 am. We wander around bleary-eyed, he getting ready and I getting his lunch ready. After he leaves, I settle down to a day of feeling guilty, trying to remember what exactly I put into his lunch-box and wondering whether he would survive it.

These days, I have a mission in life: eliciting opinion on why schools – and people in general – propagate so earnestly this equation of ‘early’ = ‘successful’. After all, no corporate house expects work to start before 9 am. And that is where, I presume, most of our bright young sparks are headed. On the other hand, the only people who get up for 7.30 shifts are assembly line workers and domestic labour. Not exactly your conventional definition of ‘successful in life’.

Meanwhile, I look upon it as my life’s work to convince my mother that two extra hours of sleep are not evidence of debauchery. Just once, I want her to look kindly at me when I stumble down the stairs at 10 am and say, ‘Poor dear, shall I get you some coffee?’

When you consider that my mother, if and when she succumbs to an afternoon nap, sleeps with her feet sticking out of the bed so that ‘I won’t sleep more than ten minutes’, you’ll realize that I have my work cut out for me!

First published in The Financial Express in May 2000.