Broken Hearts from Hell

The husband ventured into married life with an unshakable set of tenets that he’d expound to me on a regular basis: Wives take over a man’s life, wives distance a man from his family, wives keep a man away from his friends. I was fifteen years younger then and much less experienced in the ways of men and matters – I can think of no other reason why I did not retort, ‘So why didn’t you stick with the family and friends? You shouldn’t have ticked the box that said Marriage.’

Having travelled a bit along the marital road since then, it’s I who seem to have lost all my friends; the husband has every last one intact, if the hours he spends each night on email are to be believed. But the tenets are still with us. Over the years, I have taken his friends to the doctor, taken them shopping, got up at unearthly hours to pick them up or drop them, travelled three figure kilometres to have lunch with them, even tolerated inane conversation from their wives, but I remain the suspicious outsider, always to be watched lest I breach the wall that is boyhood friendship.

Recently, when a friend came to stay, the husband hissed at me, ‘You’d better behave. No clever remarks,’ – the husband’s hissing abilities are truly remarkable – ‘he’s been through a traumatic time.’ I duly warned Amma and, since Amma is no respecter of hisses, explained, ‘The friend’s wife’s just left him. The other guys are coming to provide him moral support.’

Amma and I dusted out our best mournful expressions – and the bedroom upstairs. I came home early on the Saturday as instructed so that the car could go and fetch the Broken Heart. Who arrived wearing pink Bermuda shorts and a T-shirt that read, ‘The World… According To Me’.

On the first day, he looked at the stairs, edged with books the family can’t bear to let out of their vision. ‘Are those books climbing up?’ he asked and cackled. Ha, ha, I thought, as I cleared up the books the next day.

After the second day, Amma took me into a dark corner and said, ‘You’d better take some leave.’ ‘Why?’ I asked. ‘That man keeps going out all day,’ she said brokenly. ‘Yesterday afternoon, when I was trying to rest, I had to get up four times to open the door for him.’ The next day, I opened the door seven times, while the husband remained in office, working blissfully. But I had to keep this friendship – and this marriage – going, right?

The next day, Broken Heart sat me down in another corner and looked earnestly into my eyes, ‘Your husband is working too hard – far too hard. You should give up your job and help him organize his work. He is a creative person, and creative people don’t like to be shackled by routine work. Wives must support their husbands.’ If I hadn’t laughed, I would have cried – and lost a husband. BH looked wounded anyway. So I explained that my job enabled the husband to pick and choose projects and pander to his ‘creative abilities’. There’s little point in explaining to a man – especially one who’s graduated from an IIT – that women have creative needs too, and not just of the nappy and soother kind.

Two days later, the other friends arrived. A week of riotous living followed as the boys’ club in the upstairs bedroom did a ‘regression to college days’ act. The air was thick with smoke. Amma and I sat downstairs trying to lip-read each other, while music and cackles of laughter wafted down to us. It did not help that the cable operators had gone on strike, we felt strangers in our own house.

The son lived his life on the periphery, interrupting his homework to go and gape at the big boys upstairs. Admiration was writ large on his face. Luckily, there was a parent-teacher meeting that week and the maths teacher had asked to see me, or he would have turned to me and asked, ‘Mum who?’

Home after a series of diatribes from the teachers, I was treated to another from Broken Heart, ‘Children have delicate souls. He is expressing himself through his handwriting. If it is bad, then he is expressing a mental trauma. You must find out what is troubling him.’ I threw caution to the winds to reply grimly, ‘He has no mental trauma that won’t be cured by a whack on his backside.’ BH looked pained and withdrew into his shell. The husband glared at me – I could almost see further hisses stored away in his eye for me.

Well, the friends have departed. And I am waiting for the showdown with the husband. They say the great comedian Groucho Marx’s wife left him because he told one joke too many about her. Dear St Groucho, I’ll say ten rosaries, only keep my marriage intact after this piece is published!

First published in The Financial Express in August 2001.

In the Driver’s Seat

The husband was on the phone to the son, and even I was feeling sorry for him – the son, that is. For the topic of the conversation was – for the twenty-seventh time, I swear I’ve counted – the benefits of applying for his UK visa well in time. We had just about survived the excesses of the New Year and the son was to visit us at the end of May.

A little bit of history is warranted here. We have a persistent little gene in the family – that of procrastination. They call it preparation, but Kabir would have wept, for, if it can be done today, the two males in our family will ensure that it happens next month, if then.

The conversation came to an abrupt end after roughly fifteen minutes when the husband realized there was no real response from the US end, not even the sound of breathing. ‘Sorry,’ came a breathless voice after a few seconds, ‘I thought I’d get myself some coffee. Now what were you saying?’ Every detail audible to me thanks to the speaker phone, I winced and prepared mentally for the diatribe that was sure to follow.

But the husband was made of sterner stuff. He prepared to begin all over again on what we’ve now come to call the ‘get it done on time’ lecture (the visa version), when the son cut in, ‘Achha Dad, what happened about your driving licence? Come on, Dad, you’re from IIT Kanpur, you can do it!’

Silence ensued, this time from the UK end. ‘It’s happening,’ said the husband shortly. ‘What about your dissertation draft? Don’t you have to submit it this Wednesday?’

After the phone had finally been put down, I looked at the husband. ‘He’s got a point, you know. The car insurance is due soon. We might get a better rate if you’ve passed your test and have a full licence by then.’ The husband gave me one of his looks. After twenty-five years of marriage, I know when not to trouble trouble, so I left it at that.

January passed uneventfully. In the first week of February, we got a call from the insurance company, saying they were putting up the rates this year by eighty pounds. The husband retreated to his favourite bubble – the information labyrinth of the Internet. Preparation time, you see! By the end of the month, he had downloaded five e-books on passing the UK driving test. We had ransacked the borough libraries for several more volumes. Our tiny little flat had come to resemble a DVLA (Driving and Vehicle Licensing Agency) centre.

And, oh, let me not forget, he’d passed the written test with flying colours, though he swore that the hazard question – the only one he’d tripped up on – had been a set-up to make him repeat the test. He’d already shelled out fifty pounds for the provisional driving licence the year before and the Jain in him had been shaken to the core by the realization that each written test cost thirty-one pounds, while the next step, the practical driving test, would cost another sixty-two pounds. And, possibly, several more batches of sixty-two pounds each, for, as we’d gleaned from our library pickings, the average UK resident takes the DVLA test at least four times before they get the coveted licence.

Not that you would think so, if you listened to all the people we knew who’d passed their driving test the very first time they took it. The husband was given tips by everyone who had ever checked their makeup in a wing mirror.

‘You’ve got to do the seven-point chicken necking act,’ said one. ‘You know, bob your head up and down and look through the rear screen, then the back windows, then the front windows.’

‘But I have mirrors for all that!’ said a visibly exasperated husband.

‘Yes, but you’ve got to show that you’ve got safety uppermost in your mind.’

Another gem was to use the hand brake every time you stopped at a traffic light – in case you hit a pedestrian? I was soon spending my evenings massaging the husband’s left shoulder, which had obviously not been told that so much extra work was coming the way of its muscles.

Meanwhile, March had come in like the proverbial lion. One day, the husband’s brother called for a long, well, brotherly, chat. ‘By the way,’ he said as he signed off, ‘your Indian licence’s probably expired – have you checked?’ There was a shocked silence. Indian driving licences have to be renewed when you turn fifty, which was one thing the husband had managed to do successfully a few months ago.

Extreme times call for extreme measures and the husband finally decided to book himself in for a driving test. After all, there were still a couple of weeks before the insurance expired. That’s when he discovered that tickets to a new James Bond premiere were probably easier to obtain than a driving test slot in London. There were no slots available till April! However, there was one available just three days away – in Bristol.

So Bristol it was. We made a quick detour to Halford’s as we set out two days before D-Day. Additional rear view mirror (seven pounds ninety-nine): check. Magnetic ‘L’ plates (four ninety-nine):  check. The husband looked woefully at his wallet, muttering, ‘If I don’t pass that test…’

Well, he didn’t. Yes, you heard me right – he didn’t pass his driving test.

‘How… what?’ I stuttered, as he strode into the room with the news. This was most unexpected. Not only has the husband been driving for the last thirty-five years, he is also an IIT graduate (aren’t they supposed to be the gods of the universe? They definitely think so). As you can see, there’s a bit of a thing in the family about the husband’s IIT status.

He is also, according to the Ma-in-Law, SuperSon, SuperHusband, SuperDad all rolled into one – Superman, in short. She thinks he is a sensitive man, for God’s sake! I mean everyone knows that is an oxymoron, if there ever was one! But let’s keep that aside for the moment, there were more pressing matters at hand here.

‘I didn’t drive in the bus lane!’ said the peeved husband. ‘And that’s a major fault, so he struck me off at once.’

‘But you aren’t supposed to drive in the bus lane, are you?’ I asked tentatively. When the husband was in this mood, one never knew what would set him off.

He looked at me with exaggerated patience. ‘You are not supposed to drive in the bus lane during certain hours,’ he said, a menacing syrup lacing his voice. ‘At other times, you have to drive in the bus lane, at least for the test.’ Needless to say, the exaggerated patience continued all evening, so much so that the friend with whom we’d been camping in Bristol looked distinctly relieved as we backed our car out of his driveway, stopping only to put the hand brake on when a pedestrian appeared at the end of the road.

The Ma-in-Law called the next morning. There was a shocked silence as she digested the news. ‘The examiner must have been in a bad mood,’ she said finally. ‘Sometimes, they fail you just because they got out of the wrong side of their beds in the morning!’

Back we went to the Internet, trawling the DVLA site for any possible cancellations. Insurance renewal date was looming on our horizon, much like the black clouds that we could see outside our window. We struck gold finally four days before the insurance expiry. The husband was in top gear. He must have pushed global warming up a notch as he burned fuel trying out the test routes and checking for problem points en route, with me reluctantly in tow! My spine still reverberates from the shock of hours spent in the car, reading ‘third left on Cuckoo Hill Road’ on a fast disintegrating sheet of instructions.

This time, the deed was done – the test was passed. I heaved a sigh of relief. And we went out and ordered steaks to celebrate.

The next day, the husband called the insurance company and told them, chest puffed out, that he was now the proud owner of a UK driving licence. There was a short conversation, punctuated with splutters from the husband.

‘What happened?’ I asked curiously, when he finally put the phone down. The man looked as if he’d seen a ghost.

‘They charge more for a new licence,’ he said brokenly. ‘As a provisional licence holder, you have a trained driver beside you all the time, so the insurance is less. Our car insurance has just gone up by three hundred pounds!’

‘You Don’t Get It, Mum!’

WHEN I was in school, tuition was a bad word. Only the really dumb and brainless resorted to extra classes not set up by the school. And we made sure they knew it.

My own time came when I was in class nine. Hitherto, I had spent most of my Physics classes writing poems about the giant mango trees that grew just outside our lab windows. Somehow, velocity and magnetic fields seemed inconsequential on a hot summer afternoon when you could gaze out at the trees and imagine their shade engulfing you.

The teacher too seemed in sympathy, or so I thought. He would ask questions row by row, but when my turn came, just skip me. Till, like I said, I reached class nine, and he warned my parents that unless I achieved a dramatic makeover in Physics, I might well spend the next several summers writing poems to the mango trees outside.

And so an extra coaching class in Physics was arranged for me. It was a great horror, those classes. I remember slinking past my classmates’ houses on my way to the tuition teacher’s house, transmogrified by the fear that one of them would catch me out in my dreadful secret.

However, even in those days, Maths tuition was perfectly acceptable. In class ten, the entire lot of us, even those who were good in the subject, would troop off for extra maths. The teacher was, well, a designer teacher. He was what I learnt later from my husband to be IAS – invisible after sunset. And he wore startlingly white clothes, no doubt so that the chalk dust would not show, for all Mr Innocent did from morning till night was teach maths. That really was his name and he had been teaching batches of class ten children for most of his life. Nobody would dream of taking Maths tuition from anyone else.

I survived both sets of tuition without becoming much wiser in the process. But the dread that everyone knew about my Physics classes continued to lurk in my mind. The other day, when I was speaking with an old school-friend, the matter came up. She exclaimed, ‘You used to go for Physics classes? But when was this? I never knew!’ I heaved a sigh of relief, and adroitly changed the subject. That was one ghost laid to rest.

Or so I thought, till I fast-forwarded to the twenty-first century and the day the son came home from school with a glum face. ‘Please, Mum, can I go for tuition in Hindi?’

The old panic engulfed me, but I looped my yarn over my knitting needle and surveyed him carefully. ‘Whatever for, beta?’ I asked. ‘You’re doing fine – you got 92 per cent in the last exam.’

‘You don’t understand, Mum,’ he replied, woefully. ‘Everybody in my class goes for tuition. They tell me their parents can afford to send them for tuition. Is it because you can’t afford tuition that you don’t send me?’

I abandoned my knitting. This was serious enough to require full concentration. ‘Babe,’ I said, ‘you’re only in class seven. Nobody, but nobody, goes for tuition in class seven. Besides, look at your last year’s report card. You’ve topped your section, and also your class in at least three subjects.’

‘That isn’t the point, Mum,’ he replied, dumping his bag in a corner of the room. ‘Every day in the Break, all of us sit around and chat. All my friends brag about what their tuition teacher said and did. I just eat my tiffin. Mohit told me today his parents spend five thousand rupees a month on his tuition teacher. Atul’s teacher charges Rs 2,500, but she helps him only with Maths and Hindi. Mohit goes for all the subjects. Rahul said his teacher charges Rs 250 per session. Then Mohit asked me how much we paid my tuition teacher, and I had to say I don’t have a tuition teacher at all. It was very humiliating, Mum. Can’t I go for tuition? Please?’

Then as an afterthought, ‘It would give me something to do in the evenings, after I’ve finished my homework.’

I tore myself out of my stupor at this to interject, ‘But they go there to do their homework, beta, because they can’t do it themselves. What would you do with a tuition teacher after you’ve finished your homework?’

‘You don’t understand, do you?’ he exclaimed bitterly, rushing up to his room and locking his door.

Well, really, I didn’t. All I did understand was that the wheel had turned quite a bit since my time. Meanwhile, the tuition battle rages. The son hasn’t won yet, but I’m not too sure how long I can hold out.

First published in The Financial Express in November 2000: http://www.financialexpress.com/old/fe/daily/20001115/fec15071.html

I Love Exams!

On Monday afternoon, I lost the remote control for the TV. I’d had it for eighteen whole days, exercised total control over it, and watched all that I wanted, when I wanted.

But that afternoon, the son’s exams finished, and his life resumed its round of Harry Potters, 1.5 litre bottles of Coke, bottomless bags of Kurkure – and unlimited STAR Movies. The school’s conspiring with him – it’s given him three weeks off and I can see that remote is going to remain out of my hands for the rest of the month. That’s why I like exam time. Not only is the TV wholly mine, but the son is in marked contrast to his normal, cheeky self for a whole two weeks.

It wasn’t always like that. Of course, that first year in Class 5, when he encountered exams for the first time, he was nervous, but once the first paper was over, he was whistling once again. ‘Is that all there is to it?’ he demanded when he got back home.

The next three rounds of exams were equally uneventful. ‘I’ve done it all, Mum. Don’t nag. It only makes me feel even less like studying,’ he’d say. He’d got that straight out of his father’s mouth, and it made my lips curl. But the report cards, when they came, were more than satisfactory, and my pride in him usually snuffed out the desire to box his smug little face.

But between last year and this, the son has been spending more time with the husband. The result has been requests for after-shave, a before-its-time avuncular attitude towards me (he even patted my head and murmured ‘It will be all right’ when I’d had had a particularly bad spat with the boss!!), and a maniacal fetish for the newspapers in the morning. (I am now convinced about my theory that reaching out for the newspapers is a male–female thing.)

The first two exams passed uneventfully. Computer Science ‘doesn’t count’. And German? ‘I know it backwards,’ boasted the son, over-confident as ever.

Then the newspapers started writing about exam trauma, the stress inflicted on children. The son read it all, storing away every word printed on exams and schools in a memory that we’ve often compared to a 2 TB disk.

I started noticing the change in him before the Science exam. He was actually cramming from his books from day one, though there was a gap of three days. That wasn’t like my son, I thought. He began shadowing the husband for help. He even asked me to teach him to draw the evolution of a butterfly. Most Science exam eves, he scoffs at me, ‘How can anyone who never learnt any chemical formulae say they’ve learnt Science?’ This was a turnaround.

The day before the exam, the son’s adrenalin levels had peaked and all his primeval aggressive instincts were boosting his hysteria levels to fighting pitch. When Amma refused him a second kebab, he burst into tears and rushed into the loo. For once, the family was struck dumb. Nobody had anything to say till Amma came up with the understatement of the year, ‘I think he’s tense.’

After that, nobody talked to the son about exams. He spent the nights before each paper in close conference with the husband, even over Social Science. The husband displayed amazing patience, I must say, much more than the sum total he has shown towards me in the last fourteen years. Amma and I also showed a lot of patience. We let the son’s droning about temperate climate regions drown out  our favourite TV serials without even glaring at him. I personally kept his lifeline of Coke flowing twenty-four hours a day.

Well, that was last week. This week, all the hysteria is gone, so is the submissive little boy we’ve never seen before. He’ll be back, I know, unless his school continues with its wise policy of setting some of its exams at least before other schools. Now it’s back to ‘Yes, Mum, I know my room’s in a mess. I’ve just finished my exams, for God’s sake. I’ll do it!’ before he slams out of the house.

As an aside, the boy must get his genes from sources other than me. I have never thought either the Science or Maths book ever worthy of more attention than writing my name on it the day I got it. For that matter, how does one read aloud from a Maths book?

First published in The Financial Express.

Budgeting for the Budget

THE most important event in our family after Valentine’s Day is Budget Day. Valentine’s Day because that’s when the husband saves a lot of money, and Budget Day because that’s when he spends a lot of it.

As a child, the Budget never made much of a dent in my mind. Appa would generally grumble about how his income-tax had shot up, but then, he was always grumbling about income-tax.

But life smooths all the odds into evens, and vice versa. One day, I, who’d never thought of 28 February as anything other than the day before 1 March, found myself signing on the contract form in a financial daily. That was the year I discovered the Union Budget. And as with most of my passions, the entire family has caught it, too.

I realized it when Amma came demanding more money on 5 February. While the husband beat a strategic retreat to the loo, I stared at her perplexed. ‘Well, the Budget is coming, prices are going to go up. I need to stock up on a whole lot of things,’ she declared belligerently. I paid up meekly.

The son was more street-wise. ‘It’s Valentine’s Day tomorrow. I need some money,’ he declared on 13 February.

‘What about your pocket money?’ I demanded, my empty pockets giving my courage a much needed boost. ‘It’s meant to take care of such needs.’

‘I’m saving that for a stereo system for my room, for when we move into our new house. And now with the Budget coming, I’ll have to allow for inflation rates, too. I can’t afford Valentine’s Day treats just now.’

A wiser mother would have transformed that into a lesson on budgeting, but I’ve never managed to balance my own pluses and minuses and, frankly, it never occurred to me, I must admit. But the sight of a twelve-year-old talking about inflation adjustments on stereo prices was so fascinating, it made me reach for my much depleted wallet. ‘Okay, how many girlfriends?’

‘Ten,’ he said.

‘Ten?’ I asked. I think my son’s the most handsome boy in the world, but even I was unable to swallow ten girlfriends.

‘I can’t take them all by themselves, everyone would tease me about it. So I’ll take Shantanu, Rizvaan, Sourav, Kshitij, Apoorv, Rishabh, Mohul, Sanchit and Atul with me,’ he said, grabbing the money from my hand.

It took me till the next day to work out that there was not one girl among the ten he wanted to treat on Valentine’s Day. The husband says he’ll grow out of it, but I’m seriously worried.

On 27 February, we were sitting around in the living room, when the son asked idly, ‘Why do we have a grey durrie?’ That was when I decided the said durrie needed a quick trip to the dry-cleaner. As far as I remembered, it had had jewel-like colours when we bought it, I needed to check that out. I was just rolling up the durrie, when the husband burst in on the scene.

‘What are you doing?’ he asked genially.

I bit back the retort, Getting ready to whack you one, and said instead, ‘Can you take me to the dry-cleaner?’

‘You’re going to get that dry-cleaned?’ he asked with more interest than he usually displays in such household inanities. ‘D’you know what it will cost you? At least a hundred bucks. And with the Budget tomorrow, I need to stock up on cigarettes and Pan Parag. Can’t we wash it at home?’

‘I can’t, not with my back,’ I said.

‘I’ll wash it,’ he said. ‘I’ll be able to get another forty cigarettes for that kind of money.’

Budget Day came and went. Groceries remained largely untouched, Amma is distracted silly trying to find place for all the extra stuff she bought. Stereo prices are also untouched. The son’s chest is puffed up with pride at the good investment risk he took. As for the husband, the extra cigarettes are now grey spots on his lungs and he’s spent a whole morning wringing the soap and dirt out of the durrie. It now lies on the lawn, sparkling in the middle, and distinctly mottled at the sides.

‘At least the centre’s clean,’ the husband said defensively. I refrained from pointing out that the centre was clean because that’s where the centre table is usually. After all the budgeting the family has done, a trip to the dry-cleaner was no longer within my budget.

First published in The Financial Express.