Hulks and Other Interesting Forms of Life

The son is not happy with his lot these days. He goes around with a puzzled, triste, scornful kind of look these days. If he knew the lingo of adolescence, he’d turn around at us and say, ‘You just don’t understand me!’ That is what we were charged with saying in our adolescence. Knowing this generation – not too well, I find – he’s just as likely to say, ‘I don’t understand you guys, you’re so square!’ The problem is he’s not into adolescence yet – at least not in chronological terms. But maybe that’s how it is these days: you’ve barely got them to stop making trees in the bed at night, and they’re raring to tell you, you don’t understand. Well, I don’t.

I remember the time, not too long ago, when the son would race for the door when the door-bell rang. Amma used to warn me direly, ‘One day this boy will open the door to a thief!’ It took a great deal of lung power to wean him from the door, but it seems we were more than successful. For now, after a hard day at work, I find myself opening the door all evening to his friends, who trickle in strictly one by one. If I so much as pause to put on my slippers, the bell goes again, insolently insistent, while the host of this informal gathering shouts from the garden, ‘Can’t someone get that door?’

Informal seems to be the key word, for when I finally open the door, I find this big hulk walking past me, through the house and straight into the garden. Not so much as a ‘Hi Auntie!’ (I gave up expecting the more polite ‘Good Evenings’ we were trained into, the day they learnt to talk.) No one looking on would guess that I’ve known the hulk since he was three, that I’ve dangled him on my knee, and even mopped up his tears when he fell and hurt himself not so many years ago.

Games over for the evening, the four of them will troop in and spread themselves over my sofa, dirty, grimy and exhausted. Amma and I sitting in a corner of the room continue to go unacknowledged, as they discuss the game of the day. Then begins the raid on the fridge. Bottles of cold water disappear down four young male throats faster than Amma can fill them. I don’t mind, really. Water is good for you, as I have stressed repeatedly to the son when he reaches for the cola bottle.

But I do think their social science books should include these little bits of useful information: those interesting looking rectangles outside the door serve a purpose – that of getting the mud off your shoes before you step inside; if you put muddy shoes on the sofa, you can’t expect me to get it re-upholstered the next time your girlfriend visits; rubbing grimy fingerprints off fridge doors needs as much muscle power as playing football; used glasses are better off in the kitchen sink, for otherwise they are liable to become homes to interesting forms of life; fridges work best when they are kept closed; whatever your mother may have told you in a moment of weakness, there is no such thing as a bottle fairy – empty water bottles have to be filled if you want cold water the next day.

Offer them food in a moment of kindness, they seldom want it. The fault could lie in the kind of food that is being offered, but, in general, a bottle of Coke is welcomed more enthusiastically than a plate of halwa. Probably, like their entertainment, they want it all in pap form. Or maybe, after years of total incontinence, they’ve swung right around to total retention and no space for hunger. Many of the son’s friends certainly look retentive, or, as the husband puts it more baldly, constipated.

And if any of you think I can exact appropriate revenge after the party, no sir! Remonstrance, I have learnt through experience, is seldom any use. The son merely looks quizzically at me and says, ‘Okay, okay!’ The next I see of him is at the dinner table. Obviously, no one has told him that his mother’s psyche can be scarred for life if he does not spend quality time with her each evening.

But back to the party. The next session is in the study, before the computer. Much shouting and yelling will occur. As will reams of animated discussion. Yesterday, when I went to check out the scene, I was greeted with total silence. Four pairs of eyeballs stared at me, no recognition whatsoever flickering in them. At last, the son, who does realize once in a while that Amma and I are the only women in his hearth for the next ten years at least, said with politeness dripping like icicles in his voice, ‘Mum, you wanted something?’ I could have danced with joy. At least he recognized me.

First published in The Financial Express.

Of Showmen and Pricks

As a child, I was always scared of injections, well, anything that came with a needle attached. I remember shivering with fear and whimpering when it was time for the annual round of inoculations, but I never had anything like the gumption Amma described in her childhood, when she actually bolted herself into the bathroom to escape an injection. The compounder – in those days injections were delivered by that tribe, the docs preferring to remain the good guys and offer you sugar pills – finally shook his head and left, and Amma lived to tell the tale.

No such luck for me, not even when the doctor decided to call the bluff of a huge tennis ball sized bubo I grew in my armpit when I was fourteen. He shook his head at anaesthetic – ‘too close to the head’ – and, instead, choosing an evil-looking crochet hook from the array of tools on his desk, plunged it in. That opened a new dimension in pain for me, one that competed successfully even with childbirth some years later.

It also taught me the magic of showmanship. Even as I shrieked, Amma slid gracefully to the floor with the shock of the experience, and Appa and the four doctors that were hovering around me much like Torquemada’s assistants, vanished to her side, trying to revive her, while I gazed blankly at the pus from my arm dripping into the small bowl they had thoughtfully put under it. They clean forgot about me!

As I advanced in years, the occasions that warranted needles on various parts of my anatomy grew with me. Huge with the son, I was put on a daily course of Penidure injections purported to help my asthma during the pregnancy. Unbelievably painful, the needle site would throb till the next day, when the new one would take over. It was like a relay race in pain. The Ma-in-Law would shake her head at the tears in my eyes, ‘You’ve got to be brave. There are worse things ahead of you.’ The husband would scoff, ‘It’s only an injection. You’re such a fuss-pot, always whining.’

Till the day he himself developed a wheeze, and the doc – bless his soul! – decided to try the Penidure formula on him. He got home just in time to collapse on the couch in the drawing room. The Ma-in-Law fussed over him all evening, and even got me to take him his dinner in bed. I didn’t mind, not even that the showman had won again. I’d got my revenge. The husband never ragged me about those injections ever again.

More than a decade later, I suffered a slipped disc. It was excruciatingly painful, especially since the disc, for no reason that I can fathom, chose to slip on to the sciatic nerves in both my legs. It would take me fifteen minutes to get from my bed to the bathroom, while the husband hovered impatiently around me, ‘Can I go now?’ The doctor suggested a spate of tests and MRIs, all of which would take at least two days. This when even twitching my big toe would have me whimpering with pain.

That’s when the husband had his big idea: ‘Let’s try acupuncture.’ He’d just completed a set of documentaries on alternative healing therapies. ‘Anything,’ I muttered from the haze of pain that enveloped me, ignoring the squawk that emanated from Amma’s direction, ‘Do you know how many needles that will mean?’ At that point, I couldn’t care less.

And initially, believe me, it didn’t hurt, maybe because it hurt so much more to just be. In four days, I was walking upright, with the help of just a stick. That was when it struck me – I had committed myself to this daily torture session for the next six months!

The husband was pleased as punch. ‘It was my idea,’ he told everyone who asked, and some who didn’t. The torture sessions continued, and I would spend the thirty minutes that I was reduced to a pin cushion every day calling the husband every name in the dictionary and some I’d invented since.

Not that it bothered the husband. Every time, someone asked me how my back was doing, he would chirp in, ‘I’d recommend acupuncture to everyone. She’s much better, and there’s a fringe benefit. I can’t tell you how satisfying it is to see your wife lying back totally incapacitated, fifty needles poking out of her. It’s great, man!’ This round, too, to the showman.

First published in The Financial Express.

I, the Domestic Tyrant

I have always wondered why women opted for marriage. After all, post the saat phere, it is as if the script writer had suffered a quick change of heart while everyone was engrossed in the mantras being read. Then came days spent talking to the washing machine (who else would talk to a wife?), evenings spent watching Cartoon Network (by the time the baby graduates to Nickelodeon, you’re hooked), seeing your future in a pan of boiling tindas (they seem destined for a more interesting end – at least they’ll get to know the inside of a man) and studying the future of the world in the dust mites making a home on your sofa. All this for the dubious pleasure of sex when you don’t want it? Nope, it seemed like a bad deal. So, I opted for what I thought was the quick and easy way out – the career woman’s role. Living with either my mother-in-law or my mother and letting them rule the dust, while I meandered on the fringes of housewifery, stoutly resisting any attempts to enrol in the club, but offering my advice whenever I could see it was urgently required.

And so life rolled by. Till recently, when my mother went off on a long, seven-week holiday and left me – for the first time in my life – in charge of my own house! I was a little overwhelmed by the responsibility and she, very patently worried, was shouting instructions even as the train pulled out of the station.

But four of the seven weeks later, things are beginning to fall into place. And I am beginning to see why women get married and, more specifically, why my mother was so worried about leaving me to my own devices.

Let me explain this simply: A housewife’s job is like that of the CEO of a really big company – power without responsibility, well too much anyway. As a housewife, you wield power – huge amounts of it. And over the years (weeks in my case), as you discover more and more ways to wield that power and make it grow, you get addicted to it.

The power lies in the simpler things of life. Like rules. “No burgers unless you finish off that milk,” I told the husband and son – aka the Deadly Duo – one day soon after my mother left. And to my eternal surprise, the milk was meekly polished off.

The Deadly Duo are willing to do anything – almost – for an unvaried fare of ice cream, burgers, Tandoori chicken and pizzas, I found. And once I’d discovered the magic karela could work, I was even enjoying my new role. “If you don’t get your clothes cleared, I’ll make karela for dinner” was enough to make the son’s room look like land where no man had been before.

There are problems, but not without compensations. The cook, or princess as the son calls her in a rather feeble attempt at wit because her name is Rajkumari, is rapidly getting miffed. Used as she is to my mother’s two sabzis-one dal-twelve rotis, twice daily, prescription, these long bouts of just rotis or just dal or, even worse, no cooking at all are beginning to sting her professional pride. She has cleaned up my entire kitchen twice to her satisfaction. And a dust-storm last week had her in raptures, practically cooing at the dish-cloth, as she brandished it energetically all over again.

When my mother comes back, she’s going to be astounded at how my, oops!, her kitchen shines. Another round to me!

But last week came the piece de resistance. I came home from work to find the parathas, made for the Deadly Duo’s lunch, wilting in the summer heat. The husband wriggled his way out, saying he’d had appointments all day, and the son, saying it had been too hot to eat.

I entered the bedroom to find the bed littered with chocolate wrappers, an empty one-litre bottle of Coke, plus an empty tiffin box with the remnants of the egg sandwich the son had taken to school that day. It didn’t need Sherlock Holmes to decipher why it had been too hot for him to eat his legitimate lunch. In addition, I’d had a bad day in office, and the prospect of eating stale parathas for dinner was not even remotely tempting. So I did what all CEOs do when the subordinates act up: let loose.

For a whole week since, the whole house has been spick and span, the Deadly Duo jumping to attention whenever I even turn their way. The son, who’s normally a major fan of Maneka Gandhi, has not offered one reason why he should not drink two glasses of milk a day. Tiffin box is punctually in the sink before I enter the house. He even comes shopping for veggies so he can carry the basket for me. As for the husband, he got up at 6.30 am two days in a row to pack the brat off to school. “You sleep,” he murmured solicitously. And, miracle of miracles, the day after the great outburst, he was home on time and didn’t touch the printed word all evening.

No wonder my mother was worried. So much power cannot be handed over carelessly. In fact, I’m fairly certain that now, when she gets back, I am not handing back the reins to her. This is one trip I’m hooked on!

First published in The Financial Express.

Sex and the Modern Mother

No one can accuse me of not being a conscientious mother. And I had determined right when my pregnancy test was confirmed that my child – my daughter, as I then thought – would not lack about knowledge of sex and all its implications, for shyness on my part.

Seven months later, the daughter was a son, but my determination had not waned the slightest. My big moment came when he was four years old, or so I thought. ‘Mamma,’ came the childish treble, ‘where did you get me?’

I took a deep breath and launched into what I truly believed was a simple version of the bag in the tummy, the umbilical cord as a fast food take-out, and a sanitised version of labour. The little face before me considered my tale carefully, then crumpled into tears. ‘Mamma, you pottied me out?’

It took me an hour to pacify the son – and days to pacify the husband. It was weeks before the household returned to normal and, at the end of it, I tended to agree with the psychologists: men cannot take the reality of labour.

Needless to say, my determination to do the right thing by the son took a vicious downswing after that. I dared not volunteer any more information and, thankfully, there was no provocation either. Well, not for the next four years or so. I restricted myself to vetting all TV material, so much so that when a PG scene was impending, the son would hand me the remote and say, ‘Here, you can change the channel.’

By the time he was eight, I had resigned myself to the role of enemy of state by daytime and mother confessor by night, when the little soul was too tired for hostilities and the events of the day weighed heavily on his conscience.

During one such confession, I was suddenly jerked out of my habitual stupor. ‘And then Mom, we played rape-rape.’

‘What do you mean, beta, rape-rape?’ I eased myself into the question as cautiously as I would have approached a flaring stick of dynamite.

‘Well, you know, how they do it in the movies. First we do pyjama-pulling. Then we try to tear each other’s clothes off and then fight to be on top. It’s great fun.’

‘And where, sweetheart, did you get to know about this game?’

‘At Nishant’s house, on the TV. His maid lets us watch whatever we want.’

I steeled myself to wait till he had fallen asleep before I went rushing to the husband. ‘I can’t handle this. You’ve got to tell him all about sex!’ I shrieked as I wound up my tale. The husband was not impressed. ‘Of course,’ he answered from the depths of STAR Movies, ‘we’ll do that. Meanwhile, why don’t you find a book on the subject for him?’

It took the husband weeks to get around to telling the son the facts of life, and then too because I seized the moment when we were waiting at the McDonald’s drive-in, and neither son nor husband could escape. (I am convinced now that whatever else he does, the son will never think of homosexuality – it will remind him too much of a Maharaja Mac with fries.) However, back to the moment.

The son digested the information that was provided him, but did not ask any questions. So the husband, at a loss for words, launched into issues of respect for women and the dangers of irresponsible sex (and games that impersonated the act), and AIDS.

The clincher came when the son asked woefully, ‘The game I played with Nishant? Am I going to die of AIDS now?’ We had reached the counter by then, and the husband missed the very triumphant look I shot at him. Who had overextended now?

The flood of questions hit us a couple of days later. That is to say, it hit me, the husband being away in the editing studio all day and most of the night. What was left of my enthusiasm for the truth faded as I slowly realized that I knew very little about the working of the adolescent male, oh okay, soon-to-be adolescent male body, myself. Desperately, I began to scour the book shops for a book that would redress all the questions I had no answer to.

Two years later, I was disheartened and not a little dusty. There were all kinds of books on how to make a marriage work, sex for the teenager, responsible sex, and as much more on the mysteries of the wedding night itself. But a simple explanation, preferably with pictures, on how it works for an eight-year-old? No sir!

The shopkeepers eyed me warily as if I were some weird creature from outer space. I could almost see their brains ticking away: ‘Nine years old, and she wants to tell him the facts of life? No wonder the country is in the mess it is in now!’

By the time the son was ten years old, I was sufficiently disillusioned with the state of affairs within the country to resolve to look Westwards. After all, they were much more advanced about such matters there. During a trip to London, I set aside an entire day for the single-minded pursuit of a book that would explain the facts of life to the not-yet-teenager. The first thing that struck me at Borders was the number of books there on the subject written by, guess what?, Indian authors!! Aha! I thought, this was where they all went!

I browsed through the entire shelf of books they had there, while the son hung around sheepishly at the next counter, which, luckily for him, was comics. An hour and thirty sterling pounds later, I emerged triumphant, clutching at my hardily won prize. I had it at last – the answers to all those questions that were leaving me sleepless at night. The husband was less enthusiastic. ‘Thirty pounds?’ he asked incredulously. ‘Twenty-five hundred bucks for teaching him what will come naturally to him anyway? If you’d waited another couple of  years, he would have learnt it all himself.’ Well, it wasn’t him that was getting hit by question rapidfire each night!

One day, I took out my precious packet and brandished it at the son: ‘Here, you can do a bit more holiday homework – for me this time. All those things you were asking me, remember? Well, you can read this before the holidays finish. They are very good books and should tell you all you wish to know.’

A week later, I enquired brightly, ‘Well, have you finished the first one yet? Shall we go through it together?’ A blank look from behind a lurid covered Goosebumps met my query.

The summer holidays passed and soon the Dussehra break came around. On the son’s book-shelf one day, I found the two sex education books, new as the day they were printed under the two inches of dust that shrouded them. The son had obviously not even touched them. But the questions had stopped and I had been sleeping tranquilly for months now.

I was puzzled, but also a lot wiser. Let sleeping children be. After all, look at it this way – that dust is the best return I’ve had on any similar investment I’ve made in my life!

First published in The Financial Express in October 1999.