Parochial Bait

It all started with lunch in Ludhiana. With the husband being firmly set on conflict politics, Kashmir was his obvious choice of bread and butter. The good part of this was that he came home with several interesting tales to tell, not least of which was the one where the militants blew off one wing of the hotel in which he and his crew were staying, while they pulled the blankets further up over their heads, thinking this just another bomb blast in the vicinity.

But I am digressing here. Let’s begin at Ludhiana. In the mid-1990s, when Kashmir was enjoying a lull in the proceedings, I got this little idea—we would holiday in style in the Valley. The husband looked at his budget and nodded happily. Kashmir was dirt cheap then. If you were the enterprising sort, you could get a houseboat for as little as Rs 250 per day, with the food thrown in!

We opted to do the trip on our Enfield Bullet. One set of parents spent a minor fortune on STD bills, begging and pleading with us to not do it. The other maintained a tight-lipped silence, which was just as eloquent nevertheless.

D-day was in mid-June, and we set off. The papers that day warned of the monsoon arriving early that year, but we laughed it off. After Ambala, the clouds had stepped out of the newsprint, they were right over our heads and quite business-like, too. By Jalandhar, we were soaked. But we kept on till Ludhiana, warmed by our argument on whether we should go ahead or just return. Over hot aloo parathas and masala chai, we thrashed it out.

I was for carrying on. I mean, how many times has a newspaper got its weather forecast right? And Ludhiana is mid-way between Delhi and Jammu. As much forward as backward, and we’d be nearly there.

The husband begged to differ. Mature, some call it, especially the Ma-in-Law. I called it chicken, but who was listening to me anyway? Night found us in our bed in Noida, with little to show for the day but our sore backsides and the gurgling (in our tummies) of the lunch in Ludhiana.

We set forth in the Merc the next day. As soon as they heard of it, even the tight-lipped set of parents found their voices: “That car will never make it up there!”

But make it, it did. Despite all the rain that I am convinced the heavens sent just so the husband could tell me every ten minutes by the watch, “Aren’t you glad we didn’t bring the bike?”

The next day, trudging up to Srinagar, it poured in sheets every inch of the way, and kilometres per hour were reduced to centimetres per hour. By 4 pm, panic was setting in. We had to reach the Jawahar Tunnel if we even hoped to make it to a dry bed that night.

When the tunnel came into sight, the husband heaved a sigh of relief. “Now we’ll get the army guys at the other end. Just keep quiet, and let me handle it,” he warned, with all the air of a veteran. I closed my mouth mutinously.

On the other side, just as he had described, were two soaked, dilapidated creatures the Indian Army would have been ashamed to own up to. The weather had made them all the more determined to do their duty. All the veteran journalist’s explanations failed to bring forth a wave of the hand.

Finally, the husband succumbed to parochial bait. “Are you from Kerala?” he asked, lighting a soggy cigarette. “My wife is a Malayali, too.”

The usual questions followed, but to me, in rain-sodden Malayalam. Then came the clincher. “Are you really married to this guy?” the soldier asked. I nodded vigorously. “You are a journalist too?” More vigorous nodding. “Your parents agreed?” I stuck in desperately, “We have a son too.”

The soldier shook his head sadly and told the husband, “Okay, you can go.” But he retained his hold on my half-open window glass. As the husband revved up the car, he half shouted at me, “Chechi (didi), were all the men in our state dead? What did you see in this guy?”

The husband eyed me curiously as I doubled up with laughter. Not for all the world would I have told him how he’d gained entry into the Valley Beautiful!

First published in The Financial Express.


Double Checkmate

“Mum,” said the son last Thursday. “I’ve got double teeth.” Out of the corner of my eye, I could see Amma sit up interestedly, even as I shrank into myself. “Show it to Dad,” I said shortly. I was at the end of a nightmare week, and had another of the same waiting for me around the weekend, with four colleagues on leave.

“It’s his milk teeth,” said Amma. “The permanent ones have come, but the milk ones aren’t even shaking. You’ll have to take him to the dentist.” I ignored her. “You show it to Dad,” I repeated to the son.

The son and his teeth have had an exciting history, one in which I’ve always found myself playing a vital, if unwilling, role. He got his first milk tooth at three months. And he yanked off his first permanent tooth when he was barely 11 years old, crashing his skates into his mouth at school. It took me one emergency visit that lasted till 9 pm, an empty purse and four months of waiting in the dentist’s sitting room to get the tooth back on. It now sits in the son’s mouth resplendently black, flanked by yellow on either side, not even worth the toothpaste the son expends on it, except in sheer decorational value, which is also debatable.

“Disco lights,” his friends tease him, every time he opens his mouth. Amma frowned at them the other day, and caught hold of me soon after. “He needs to have that tooth capped.” “Well, he can wait,” I replied tartly. “I have neither time nor money at the moment. And it isn’t exactly what I’d call an emergency.”

Since then, the cap factor has entered our lives several times, but so far, I’ve held firm. Till now. Friday evening, Amma caught me again. “His teeth have to be extracted. And while you’re about it, he might as well get that cap.” “Amma,” I said emphatically. “Milk teeth can’t hang in there forever. So we’ll wait till they decide to leave.”

Amma was equally emphatic. “If we had brought up our children the way you guys treat that little boy, what would have happened to you? Do you remember how many times I have taken you to the dentist…” I switched off, but the splinter of guilt had struck deep. And it refused to be dislodged.

The husband was called in. “Those teeth have to be extracted,” he pronounced. “Yup, take him,” I barely looked up from my computer. “Not today,” said the son firmly, “I have a birthday party to attend.” The husband looked relieved. I softened. “Let’s do it together on Sunday.”

“Do you mind?” asked the son, arms akimbo. “I have a Science test on Monday.” “That’s your problem,” said the husband. “We are free on Sunday.” “But the doctor’s not,” Amma threw in the googly with great glee.

Monday morning, while I was rushing out of the bathroom and the husband was rushing in, I asked, “You’re fixing that appointment, aren’t you?” “Yes,” he replied, adding before I could exhale in relief, “but you’ll have to take him. I don’t have the time.” “What makes you think I’m sitting around free? I have a lunch appointment, two people coming to meet me, plus two pages to finalise.” “Well, I’m doing two jobs,” retorted the husband. “Looking after the house and editing my film. You don’t even come there to take a look…”

I stomped off to office in a fury, and it didn’t help that Amma looked accusingly at me as I passed within her line of vision. By noon, I was willing to do anything to stem the guilt flow. I rang up the husband. “Have you got an appointment?” “No, he’s not there right now. But I’ll get it done. And I’ll take him.” “No, I’ll come home early, I’ve cancelled the lunch.” “Don’t worry about it, I’ll take him.”

At 5 pm, I was in the husband’s office, dialling the doctor’s number. “He isn’t there yet,” the husband explained patiently. Just then, as I got through, he took the phone from me and got the appointment. At home, I climbed back into the car with them. “Are you coming with us?” asked the husband politely. “Well, yes, since I have come home early,” I offered.

At the clinic, two milk teeth safely in a paper bag, the dentist asked, “Next appointment on Wednesday?”

“Wednesday okay with you?” asked the husband solicitously. Bewildered, I nodded.

Later, he enquired casually, “You’ll be able to manage the visit on Wednesday, won’t you? After all, I did do this round.”

Well, what was the point of arguing? I had been checkmated yet again. And I thought it was only Amma who manipulated me.

First published in The Financial Express in August 2001

And To Dust We Shall Return

Not even my best friends can accuse me of being a good housekeeper. Let’s put it this way, my one talent in life is for spotting spelling and grammar mistakes, not dust. That is why, if you come to my home, you can graffiti practically any surface that is not vertical. That is also why I have a prominent sticker on my refrigerator, which reads: “You can look at the dust, but not write in it.”

My apathy to dust began in my early childhood, when I was diagnosed by a doctor as being “allergic to dust”. Amma began a huge campaign to keep the house dust-free. Long after I had escaped to the dust of the school hostel, she was still up each morning with her duster. To be fair to her, maybe she was dusting well before my allergy surfaced. Maybe I was too young to have noticed. But then again, if she had been dusting, where did the dust that I was apparently allergic to, come from?

I, too, was taught to dust in the convent hostel where I spent the next ten years. In fact, Sister would conduct surprise checks. Swiftly she would swoop down on to my towel stand, run a finger along the wooden bar, and then hold a finger up for a critical examination. I soon learnt to choose the rooms that didn’t get direct sunlight in the mornings. The critical examination was more likely to fail that way.

But more often than not, in those years, I would dust. There were only the towel stand, my desk and the rack shelf where I kept my books, after all. But as I grew up, life became more complicated. Three surfaces yielded to a hundred more, and I gave up the battle soon enough. It seemed plain stupid to dust a surface that, three hours later, looked very “undusted”. It continues to seem stupid.

The fun began when I got married. I was back to the “just my room” formula. With a vital difference. While in school, I had been responsible only for my half of the room, here I was responsible for the other occupant’s half as well. A very messy other occupant, too, I must say. Also, no redressal systems were in place. Amma would look at me with a glare and accuse: “Your room looks like a pigsty. You must remember that you are married now.” As if marriage were a metamorphosis wherein housekeeping bloomed!

The mother-in-law was a mite more sympathetic, I guess because she had lived with my roommate for 25 years. The sympathy grew as she discovered me sneezing and choking after a valiant attempt at a Dust Free Zone. The husband was asked to take over. He did, for a couple of months. Whereupon, the mother-in-law took over. That was when she realised how much of the dust was due to my high esinophils count and how much to plain bone laziness. Needless to say, the sympathy vanished, and Amma and she joined forces against me.

But I must say a word in my defence here, well several, actually. Firstly, it’s no point dusting anything half-way up the wall. If you want to dust the whole length and breadth of a room, you have to be tall enough. That means that at five feet nine inches, the husband is more the dusting prototype than I who occupy space a good nine-and-a-half inches below him. If god had intended me to dust, he would have given me the requisite inches. The flip side of the argument is that the husband does not think his extra inches were intended to make him the perfect “duster”.

Secondly, the allergy does exist. Put me close to flying dust for more than two seconds, and I can break any record in the world for continuous sneezes. On a good day, I can go up to 80 sneezes in about three hours. The mothers point out that a strong anti-histamine tablet, coupled with a wet cloth around the nose and mouth, is all it would take to keep my house dust-free.

But look at it my way, do I really want to look like the Masked Ranger, stalking the Dust Monster around my own house? Why, a sudden glimpse of me might cause a deep wound in the son’s psyche. Maybe in that of his friends as well. Would it be worthwhile to cause such severe childhood trauma in the cause of a dust-free house? I would not want to beg guilty when, some 20 years later, one of them is hauled in for a series of gory murders.

Thirdly, I genuinely cannot spot dust. I can sit by the dustiest furniture and sew or watch TV or knit without the least inkling that there lurks all around me the Dust Monster. I can’t help it. Some people are colour blind, the husband is, and everybody forgives him. I have even been accused of being cruel when I asked him once how he knew when the traffic light was green, ha, ha! But the moment I tell someone I am dust blind, the expression changes to pure scoffing. Oh really?

However, the Dust Monster, the husband and I have reached a compromise over the years. When we have guests, we dust. That is, I dust all the places where I can spot dust, and then the husband takes over for a ruthless clean-or-die effort. Result: When we have expected guests, I am sneezing all over them, but the house looks pretty good. If you care to drop over without an invite, I figure you can’t complain.

Last month, I realised that a quick spruce up before the guest puts his finger on the doorbell was very much part of Indian tradition. Even while President Clinton stopped to lay down his bags and made a quick dash to Dhaka, the Delhi government was still painting the road dividers and removing cigarette stalls from the pavements so that everything could be spick and span for his stay. So there, mothers!

First published in The Financial Express in April 2000:

The Luckiest Woman in the World

If my very Malayali, Syrian Christian grandmother had been told that come the new century, her grand-daughter would be keeping the fast for Karva Chauth, she’d have roared, “Eh? What is this Kadva Chauth? We have our Lent, and take good care you remember that, my girl!”

But I am pre-empting things a bit here. I am contrary by nature. Amma says I was born contrary. Well, what did she expect? After all, it was she who had me baptised Mary. Amma learnt to work her way around my contrariness. All she had to do was tell me she liked the pink dress, and I would promptly plump for the blue, while she hid a self-satisfied smirk.

The crunch came when I was getting married. Unfortunately, I chose a man from a family with definitely progressive ideas. The choosing itself was further evidence of my contrary nature. After a childhood spent acquiescing to everything the parents decreed for me (even in those days, I reserved the right to revolt for the more serious issues in life – like whether I was going to choose the blue dress or the pink), they were just about to begin casting around for the ubiquitous suitable boy, when I presented the husband to them. They were too dazed to do anything but agree.

Then came the in-laws. Like I said, the Ma-in-Law is one progressive lady, and determined to boot. But when she discussed modern court marriages, I turned the pages of a mehndi design booklet. When she said lehngas, I pointed derisively at my five-foot-nothing frame and hooted, “Lehngas? Me? I want a zari sari.” Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge was still a flicker in Aditya Chopra’s eye then.

She got the message. I had a traditional, full ceremonial marriage, with mehndi, shehnai and the works. The only heart’s desire I didn’t get was a groom on a mare. But there, the husband put his foot down. Well, I was sufficiently new to love to think his masterful assertion romantic.

Some days after the wedding, the Ma-in-Law turned to me and said, “Beta, don’t make the mistake I did. These are modern times. We don’t expect you to change your surname. A woman should have her own identity.” Like I said, she should have known better. It took me an extra week to get that passport with my new name, and I had to leave almost a month after the husband as a result. At the time, I believed it was love; now I realise it was just Mary being contrary again.

A year later, practically on the verge of giving birth, came Karva Chauth. A lifetime of watching Hindi movies had given me ideas. All that group singing and dancing, all those flickering lamps, all that dressing up, and the look of utter devotion in the husband’s eyes. After weeks spent feeling like a rolling stone that had actually gathered a lot of moss, it was a very tempting prospect. But this time, the Ma-in-Law put her foot down very firmly. “Nothing doing,” she said. “You have to think of the baby. I have never kept the Karva Chauth and I don’t expect you to either.” An ideal mother-in-law, you would think, but I wept tears of frustration into my pillow.

Some years later, DDLJ had moved out of Aditya’s eye and captured the Indian mind space, reviving the Karwa Chauth idea in my head, too, as the ultimate symbol of romance. I was once again rolling along gathering moss – only this time there was no expected date of delivery – and I wanted to see a spark of interest in the husband’s eyes. The results were unimaginable. He fussed over me, rang me up in office every hour, and drove me for miles in the evening so that we could see the moon before the rest of the world! The bombshell fell the next year. Firstly, my abstinence had become passé.

Even the son declared I was cuckoo. And the unkindest cut of them all, the husband announced he too would keep the fast – for me. Everyone who heard of it told me I was the luckiest woman in the world. The fuss that was made over him, oh, it would have made you sick. Amma hovered around him anxiously all day, offering him nimbu pani and black coffee. And finally when the moon was sighted, she served him first, while I waited in the sidelines, nursing my wounded soul.

This year, I had learnt my lesson. I told him firmly to lay off. After all, this was my territory, and there was no way I was having him steal my thunder!

First published in The Financial Express in October 2000

All in a Day’s Work

Not being the driving kind, I have had to rely on the husband and other strange creatures to get around town. As a result, I have had more adventures than any thriller writer could think of in my daily attempt to trek to work and back.

In the early days of our marriage, the husband was quite obliging. Not only would he fetch me to and from office, he would even bring me home for lunch and take me back. But then we lived ten minutes away from the office, and we were on our best behaviour then.

One-and-a-half years and a baby later, we moved to the big bad Capital. Husband continued to be obliging. After all, we were working in the same office, and he didn’t want the image of a brute monster, leaving the poor little woman to fend her way homewards to a wailing baby and all the household chores.

But then came the parting of professional ways, and that was when things started happening. And how!

The day came when I stumbled over a step in office and sprained my ankle. Having never had the experience before, I did not even know I had sprained it, and hobbled my way to my seat. Half an hour later, the boss beckoned from his cabin, and I stood up, only to immediately keel over. That was when I looked at my ankle, and almost fainted from the shock. The last time I had seen it that swollen was when I was eight months pregnant!

An obliging friend rang up the husband for me and he rushed over, to exclaim indignantly at me, “I told you I had an interview fixed for today morning. I’ve had to ring and tell the guy I’ll be half an hour late. So you’d better hurry.”

Half-an-hour? It would take us 45 minutes to get home, and I still had three flights of stairs to negotiate with or without marital support.

Mercifully, the stairs soon became a painful blur in my memory, with the only thing I remember being my husband whispering fiercely, “Can you look a little less as if we were newly married?”

The time puzzle soon resolved itself. After clambering painfully on to the scooter, I found myself clambering off it ten minutes later, at the nearest auto-rickshaw stand. “Do you have enough money?” the husband enquired, hauling me into the vehicle much as he would have done a bulky sack of potatoes. Some of my mute desperation must have commuted itself to him, for he told the auto-rickshaw to drive with a care for my injured limb, and told me to go and see the doctor pronto.

The less I say about that drive the better. It is sufficient to say that the auto-rickshaw driver was so moved at my state when we reached home, that he hauled me up, my chappal in one hand, rang the doorbell, and deposited me on my bed inside. Come to think of it, he must have been a young relation of Hercules. Lifting me, with my 70-odd kilos, was not a feat for the faint-hearted. Amma, who usually swoons first whenever I need any medical procedure, was wringing her hands silently in one corner.

The next bridge to cross was the doctor. I was exhausted enough by this time to not care whether I ever walked again. Luckily, Amma had recovered enough to go and seek the doctor next door. Yet another miracle. The doc was home and rushed over with the required liniment and bandages, and I was soon as comfortable as any woman can be with one incapacitated foot and a two-year-old baby.

When the husband came home that night, it was to a cosy family scene. I was prostrate on the bed, with my well-swathed ankle resting on a pillow. The son was beside me, chewing away on his nursery rhyme book, and my mother was on a chair nearby, watching television.

“I told you it would be no great shakes,” he said, eyeing my unfortunate limb with great satisfaction. “It was just a sprain. See how well you have managed for yourself?”

First published in The Financial Express in October 1999: