Set on Auto Reject

The husband studied in an all boys’ public school, and I believe one of the rites of passage into manhood involved the studying and memorising of the basic facts of life, as laid down by the male order.

The most important of these facts is that ‘all wives are profligate creatures, waiting for a chance to fritter away their husbands’ life’s earnings’. Accordingly, the moment I say I’m going out shopping, the husband begins exhibiting a peculiar set of symptoms. His hands start clenching and unclenching involuntarily, his teeth begin gnashing, and the vein on his forehead starts throbbing in a threatening staccato.

Some years ago, he took to wearing his most tattered shirts whenever I was home. The more tattered the collar, the better. The look in his eye said, ‘If I can manage with six shirts, why do you need your twenty-first salwar-kameez?’ After a few weeks of this treatment, I went out and bought him six new shirts. He collapsed of the shock.

Then he  took to paying the credit card bills himself, instead of leaving them to me, as he used to. This is accompanied by a different display of talent – first he slits the envelope with a roll of his eye, looks at the amount and whistles in shock, draws out his cheque book with a lo-o-o-o-ng sigh and fills out the cheque, then tears the cheque leaf out with a sound as of a breaking heart – but to the same effect, nevertheless: Why are you doing this to my bank balance?

It’s not as if the husband is a miser. Actually, I’ve not managed – in all these years – to figure out what will be a no-no. He’ll take us out to the new restaurant in town even before we’ve discovered it. No occasion at all, and he’ll stump me with a piece of jewellery.

But ask him for a new pair of shoes for me, and he’ll look at me as if I asked for the moon. Tell him to get himself a new pair of trousers, and he’ll grab his purse-strings and wind them tight around his wrist. I think the answer lies in the facts of life we were talking about earlier. Fact number two must have been: ‘If she asks for it, it has to be no.’

Some years ago, the husband took his beloved ‘Mercedes’ out to the workshop for a much needed denting and painting job, unfortunately not as much in vogue then as it is now. I gave him a list of the things I thought the poor thing needed, starting with new seat covers. He promptly put them on his ‘Not Urgent’ list, ending with new seat covers.

When the Mercedes came back, glossy in her new coat of paint – you could actually make out what she was, a 1985 Fiat that had been suffocating under the trials and tribulations of daily life in the metro.

‘Wow!’ I said. ‘You did get the new window glasses.’

‘The guy at the garage lost my list,’ mumbled the husband sheepishly, as I womanfully struggled to conceal my laughter.

‘Let’s go and get some new seat covers and you’ll have a new car,’ I suggested. But that was obviously the wrong psychological moment to have said that. The husband looked at me as if I’d said let’s go put in a bid for the Koh-i-Noor.

A few weeks later, the Ma-in-Law dropped by. ‘Your car looks really good,’ she said. ‘But it needs new seat covers. Here,’ she rolled out a wad of notes, ‘it’s on me. Your anniversary present.’ That was five years ago. The money is still lying in the husband’s socks drawer, as pristine as the day she gave it to us.

Meanwhile, the Merc had begun to rattle and wheeze once more. ‘I think you should get it overhauled,’ I said after it had been to the garage for the fourth time that month. ‘Or, better still, let’s get a new car.’

‘All you can think of doing is spend money,’ came the retort. ‘There’s nothing wrong with her that a little grease will not set right.’

That was Monday. On Wednesday, the Merc lost her floor.  Luckily for the husband, the floor went on the passenger seat side, so we were able to drive her to the garage. The most excited, of course, was the son, who insisted on accompanying the husband there so that ‘he could see the road go by’. From under his feet.

With our combined wallets lighter by about seventy-five thousand rupees, the Merc is back, and I can’t quite suppress my grin as I ask the husband, ‘Shall we get new seat covers?’ I already know what the answer will be.

First published in The Financial Express in July 2000.

I Told You So!

THERE is a long-lived myth in our family that I don’t know the first thing about babies. Amma has drilled this myth into me so often that I used to believe it myself. Till I had a baby of my own. That was when I realized that, being an only child, I’d never come close enough to babies to decipher which end you needed to be more careful with, the bobbing head or the unpredictable rear.

I brought the son up on the theory that once you had the rear end swathed in a diaper and the front end stopped with a feeding bottle, you were reasonably safe. But Amma continued with her theories on my basic incompatibility with children. Mothers are things you can never change. Even when the son was a mature twelve-plus, I would still offer him a bar of chocolate when he was in tears over his homework. Sometimes, when I dared to, I would even pat his rump.

My second theory on parenting was the sooner independence happened, the happier we’d all be. Add to that the fact that patience has never been my forte. The result was that the son was potty trained by one, and feeding himself soon after. And that’s how I thought most kids were.

Till I met Brat. We were on holiday with Brat’s parents. And they had no notion of parental control. Brat would break a glass, and the father would croon to him, ‘No sweetie, that’s not the way.’ My toes would begin to curl in my shoes. And Brat would pick his way to glass number two.

Brat would poke his finger tentatively at the barbecue coals. The mother would sing to him from her corner of the terrace, ‘Hotty baby!’ The end of the song would be drowned out in Brat’s squalls as he discovered for himself that ‘hotty’ was just another word for ‘burn’ or ‘major pain’. The first time that happened, the son stopped his solitary antics to come and whisper in my ear, ‘Are they mad?’

I continued to be entranced by Brat. I discovered that even diaper swathed rear ends could be dangerous. Especially when the diaper had been left on for a full day, and gravity got to work on them just when the wearer was on your razai. And that mouths seldom remained closed around feeding bottles that had been left overnight with milk in them.

The husband was overtly impatient. ‘You’ve got a thing about that baby…’ I dived to save my body lotion from two sets of prying fingers. ‘That’s how babies are…’ Another dive, this time for my glass of tea. ‘Stop getting hysterical and leave him to his parents…’ There went my knitting from its needles. ‘They don’t like you saying no to him all the time. Hell, where are his parents?’ Brat had made a grab for his after-shave. The son was more sympathetic, especially after he’d had his brand new Game of Life cards crumpled and flung on the floor.

Back home, Amma listened with equal disdain. ‘You are not used to children. You don’t know how to be with them.’ I sighed. It was an old refrain, and I knew it by heart.

Then Brat came over for the weekend. I had a bad back, and was confined to my couch. And defenceless. ‘Don’t say anything to him,’ the husband admonished as we heard the taxi draw up. ‘Don’t be rude,’ hissed Amma.

Brat came, and Brat left. I remained on the couch and stared up at the ceiling all the while. Amma and the husband did all the fetching and carrying. After they left, there was pindrop silence in the house. Amma and the husband were in a trance they came out of only the next morning.

‘A little bit of him goes a long way, doesn’t it?’ the husband began tentatively. I continued to study the ceiling. ‘He broke the pepper mill Mom brought us from England,’ he continued in stronger tones. Aha! I thought. ‘They never say no to him. That’s not how you bring up a child.’

Amma was equally aghast. ‘My Chinese bells! They’re ruined,’ she mourned. ‘He’s never cleaned up, never put on a potty. How can you bring up a child like this?’

The husband again, after reading the first draft of this column, ‘You haven’t told it like it was. You haven’t written about all that he did.’

I grinned up at the ceiling. There is a god up there somewhere.

First published in The Financial Express.

 

‘Sa cool, ain’t it, Mawm?’

I have a strange little creature living in my house. It’s about four feet six inches, weighs about thirty-two kilos, and seems to occupy a lot of space. It also talks in a language I cannot understand. The other day, I was lazing in front of the TV, when in it strode, announcing, ‘AGJ’s the name, cricket’s my game! Sa cool, ain’t it, Mawm?’

I do dimly remember giving birth to a male child some ten or so years ago. He was perfect – aren’t all babies to their mothers? He got his first tooth at six months – a feat I boast of even now. He was eating by himself at one. But at two, people around me were shaking their heads at him, and saying, ‘Two? Why isn’t he talking then?’ I put up a brave front, but honestly, I was worried.

After weeks of silence, once in a while, the son would come up with these perfectly pronounced words – even those special male words my husband taught him. We took him to Mussoorie, where my father was working on a dam site. He was spoilt rotten by the all-male hostel team there, who were obviously missing their own little creations back home.

The son would beam happily in their arms, pat their faces fondly with one chubby little hand, and mouth ‘F-f-f-f-f!’ ‘Kitna pyara hai!’ the guys would go glassy-eyed, while my husband went red, blue and green, and my mother and I desperately stuffed hankies in our mouths to stop laughing. But proper talk, oh no!

Just as we were preparing to take him to a speech therapist, the outflow started (frankly, it hasn’t stopped since – maybe those two and a half years were my compensation period), and it was in a perfect, well-balanced mixture of Hindi, English and Malayalam. Fine with me, but the son’s father, whose Malayalam is restricted to Amma and Appa, has held it against me ever since.

And that was not the first of our communication problems. Life was fine till school happened. After that, it was all ‘Mom, hey Mawm!’ Mom? Mom? After I had spent three years teaching him to say Mamma?

Then came cable TV. Hours were spent watching the Ninja Turtles. He’s learning to develop his own choice of programming, I thought proudly. Soon, everything, including his latest class teacher, was ‘Just awesome, man!’ I must stress here that I am not naturally a feminist, but some primitive instinct in me rebels against being labelled ‘man’, when I am obviously ‘woman’ to outward view. But I hadn’t heard anything yet. From Ninja Turtles, we moved on to WWF Wrestling. Snatches from the son’s conversation with his peer group came to my ear one day. ‘Suck it, man!’ I heard one day. I called him inside in my best doomsday voice and read him a stern lecture. Two days later, I told him to put away his shoes and he said, ‘Go suck an egg, Mom.’

Some months later, we took him to Geneva. We were there for ten days and, each day, he insisted on returning home to the hotel by 5 pm, so that he could play football in the neighbouring playground. Not one of those children knew a word of English, and the son, not a natural linguist at all, knew not a word of French. But play they did and, at the end of the trip, even exchanged addresses! Amazing communication that.

Then we took him to England – my little 100 per cent American, bred-only-on-TNT son let loose among the oh-so-propah British. I was not looking forward to that at all. But I had reckoned without his primal imitative genes. Within twenty-four hours, I was transformed from ‘Mom,chalein kya?’ to ‘Mother, shall we go then?’ in the best British accent I heard in London during my two weeks there. When I was not hit by a fit of giggles, I was relieved – at least he was speaking English as she was meant to be spoke. Obviously, it was too good to last. Back home, he was hit once again by the American cousins of his best friend. Everything became ‘Oh man, yeah, sa cool.’

Then recently, they telecast Hyderabad Blues. The next day I was eating my breakfast, not gargantuan by any standards, when the son sidled up to me and let forth: ‘Hey Mawm! That thing looks like it’s got a zillion caaalories. What’s it ganna do to your 80 per centbaady fat?’ Not cool at all, man!

First published in The Financial Express on 4 July 1999.

Loo Blues and Anal Quirks

What’s in a toilet? After all, it’s just another shallow victory of civilization over primal instinct. You cannot expel body fluids as and when Mother Nature calls, you have to find the appropriate place. And the appropriate place is a toilet. Now put that in perspective with a person like me, who did not need to deliver a baby to get a weak bladder, and a toilet becomes a torture chamber of the most gruesome proportions.

I have always envied all those cast iron bladdered women who could sit guzzling cold drinks on an eight hour bus journey to Amritsar without even thinking loo. If I have to travel from Delhi to Meerut (forty-five minutes in the hands of a seasoned DTC driver in the old days), I have to stop all fluid intake from the night before. Even so, I just about make it to the Meerut bus depot.

But the real test for the bladder lay in Europe. Firstly, I realized that answering Mother Nature’s call was not just a question of finding an appropriate place. You had to (a) pay and (b) manoeuvre the most intricate turnstiles and coin-operated doors.

If you think I’m nitpicking, how about budgeting Rs 200 per day in forex on toilet expenses? From twenty pence a go in England to up to a euro in Germany, I soon found I had calculated my budget without consulting the bladder! Also, I had to plan ahead of schedule in time to make it past the turnstiles with the exact change.

Apart from the twenty pence, England was fine. WCs and Toilets. Ladies and Gentlemen. But one Tube station stumped me. It had no words on the doors, which, by the way, were side by side – just little plaques depicting a shepherd/shepherdess straight from Marie Antoinette’s Petit Trianon. Have you ever thought of how like each other the Versailles courtiers dressed? I was just about to toss a coin, when a man emerged from the left door. Whew! That was close.

York was more friendly. They had public toilets all over the place, coin-operated, of course, but most users stuffed a wad of toilet paper in the door to prevent it locking after they left. The next person, who got in free, was supposed to return the favour, as I discovered to my consternation from the glares I got when I let my door snap shut unconcernedly.

Wales was a nightmare – quite literally all Welsh to me. Suddenly, the Toilets all became Toiledaus. It took me half a day to figure that one out. Then it clicked. What else do you do but toil to get in there? As for Ladies and Gentlemen, I stuck to the signs. Luckily, Marie Antoinette never made it past the Welsh border.

As an aside, do you know that in Geneva, if you disturb your neighbours by pulling the flush or having a shower after nine at night, you can have the cops called in on you? That was a tough week, believe me. Still, restaurant owners in Geneva take pity on bladder sufferers. For the price of a cup of coffee, you can use the rest room and drink the coffee, too. A much better bargain than 20p for just a pee. Public toilets are few and far between, but what there are, are free.

Amsterdam has eco-toilets, little green kiosks that sprout up suddenly on street corners and disappear just as suddenly. Not so clean, the flushes are as whimsical as the kiosks in which they stand, but eco-friendly, I guess, does have its disadvantages. The bladder, well trained in India, frankly did not care.

But where Holland really rose to the occasion was on the motorway. Every gas station had a toilet. Proclamations of the fact started a good kilometre in advance, so one could actually live in anticipation. The toilets themselves were sumptuous, beautifully appointed, smelling of citrus and pine – I’m sure the bladder thought it had died and gone to heaven.

Cross two international borders and enter Germany, and the bladder came into its own version of hell. Well, you have to take the good with the bad! And Germany really was bad. The autobahns would promise a toilet, but when you made it gasping to the door, it would be ominously and uncompromisingly locked. The doors that were open yielded to sparse little cubicles, not particularly obvious in cleanliness. Quite basic, to tell the truth. And aptly named – Damen and Herren!

My woes didn’t end with a lighter wallet every time I used a public loo. Each toilet I visited had a different flush system and a unique tap. I know the West is far advanced technologically, but it seems to me that their advances appear targeted specifically at toilets. A truly anal society!

During the course of my various visits to the loo, I have stamped, pressed, pushed and clicked buttons, even waved my hand before one, to get the flush going. Even so, I had one flush going off under me before I was quite through. The sensor that worked the flush automatically had gone haywire, I guess, but to a Third Worlder like me, it was a mystical experience.

Another wonder loo was the one I encountered in a London suburb, in a poky little restaurant that served the most marvellous falafel. After the job was done, and I was up, I found the toilet seat rising up at me. How did it know I was a brown skin? I wondered miserably. Then I noticed a wee sponge coming out from the flush tank area. The toilet seat went around twice to be wiped clean by the sponge. I felt terribly guilty for having caused it so much work.

However, I had the final satisfaction on the way back. Just as I had worked myself into a tizzy at Heathrow about whether I had the time to make it for that one, final trip to the toilet and was worrying about what fresh horrors this one would hold, I noticed a massive ad panel. ‘Suffering from incontinence?’ it asked. ‘Try our extra heavy duty pads. You’ll never have to worry again about reaching the loo on time!’ Leaky bladders were not a uniquely Third World phenomenon, after all!

First published in The Financial Express in September 1999.