The Great Noida Tornado, aka the Son

The son used to be a great performer in bed. In fact, if you consider the matter carefully, from all sides, you could say with considered authority that he combined the skills of a contortionist who engages in his craft because he loves it, with that of an intrepid acrobat who, when he finds himself on the thin steel wire with nothing but atmosphere between him and the ground below, merely grits his teeth and continues on his perilous way, saying, ‘The show must go on.’

That the mother is cringing on one side of him and the father waiting bravely on the other for the first blow to fall mattered naught to him. Once asleep, all of life was a battleground, and there was enemy fire coming from all sides.

I put him to bed each night, telling him it was a shame that an eleven-year-old boy, who had a room of his own, should exercise his self-given option to not use that room, but creep into the marital bed instead. None of my proselytisation had the least effect on a personality that combines all the stubbornness of a Libran with all the haughtiness of a Leo.

‘You should feel privileged,’ came the retort, more often than not interspersed with weary yawns that seemed to say ‘must we go through this each night?’, ‘that I am sleeping here with you and not downstairs with Amma.’ And then he would turn over and proceed to snore.

Guilt made me hold back from enforcing his activities to his own bed. After all, I moved straight from my parents’ bed to my husband’s. But let me say this much in my favour: I had good reason to stay put. The only AC in the house happened to be in my parents’ bedroom.

Once asleep, the son’s personality seemed to take on Mr Hydesque tendencies. From a confident, fairly intrepid youngster, he became overcast with doubts and misgivings of all kinds. I could see the questions leap into his mind and befog his judgement. ‘Is this really the head of the bed?’ ‘Are my muscles getting all the stretch their youthful growing state needs?’ ‘Won’t Mum look better — and different — in the morning with a black eye or a fat lip?’ ‘Dad’s working so hard, would a sprained shoulder muscle be the best way to slip him a day’s rest?’

And with just the canny ease that the questions leap into his mind, I could see the answers make their way there. ‘If I shift my legs more to my right, and my head more to the left, I can kick Dad and butt Mum at the same time. What’s more, I can also check how far up Mum’s nostrils my fingers will go. And hang the bed’s head, it’s much more comfy with my head on Mum’s belly, and my feet tucked into Dad’s belly button.’

And thus the daily battle continued to be waged. Needless to say, the husband and I, when not crouching to protect various parts of our bodies, spent the night getting him to snore headboard-wise again. That’s when he pulled off his star turn. Arms up and legs down, he would stretch a stretch that would be the envy of any coy, simpering heroine in a lacy negligee, and manage the otherwise impossible: to sweep off the several dozen breakable objects I keep on my headboard a good two feet higher than the bed.

Don’t keep anything on my headboard, you advise? My dear sir, when a tornado comes a-calling, it seeks something to sweep away, and when it finds nothing to feed its ambitions, it may just sweep away the headboard itself. At least, that’s what I say to console myself when I sweep away the little bits of china strewn all over the floor the next morning.

First published in The Financial Express.

Those #$@&%*! Genes

The son rang up two days ago. This is the real-life, newly hatched corporate lawyer avatar of the son, not the intrepid pre-teen one who enchanted me into writing about him for so many years.

‘You know, you guys really got it all wrong,’ he began. ‘You’ve passed on all the most boring genes to me. I should sue you for this.’ Yes, that’s how lawyer sons talk to their parents. (After his first year in law school, he came home and told us our marriage was illegal. I was worried for two hours till I realized I didn’t really care – the house was half in my name.)

‘Now what have we done?’ I asked. That’s how long-suffering mothers respond to their lawyer sons.

‘I mean, look at the wonderful collection of relatives we have, and look at you – plain boring!’ I briefly contemplated telling him that if he thought we were boring, just look at him – a lawyer? But thoughts of another possible law suit stilled my tongue.

The son had been spending quality time with both his grandmothers, both as strait-laced as they come. But both are at that stage of their lives when the exploits of their youth seem more real than Edward Snowden. And time has wrapped those memories in 3D splendour. Needless to say, the son was entranced.

‘Look at Aunt A,’ he grumbled. ‘Did you know she’d had an affair with her husband’s boss?’ I dug up a distant memory – I’m still young enough to not remember my youth all that clearly. ‘Possibly,’ I conceded.

‘Did you know Aunt B threatened to jump off the roof because her parents said they would not pay the dowry her boyfriend’s parents were demanding?’ ‘No, no, beta, that couldn’t be,’ I tried to play it placid. ‘She told me!’ he accused, referring to the relevant grandmother, not Aunt B.

‘Did you know Uncle C is famous for the number of affairs he’s had?’ Yes, I had heard rumours from time to time, but, well, look at what he was married to! Anybody would have had affairs.

The husband looked up briefly from his laptop at this point and threw a foul at me, ‘All your family, I presume. This is what happens when communities in-breed.’

‘Yours isn’t much better,’ retorted the son. ‘Do you know Cousin D ran away with the driver? That she had to have an abortion?’ My eyebrows searched vainly for my receding hairline. This was the elderly cousin who frowned at me when my dupatta slipped off my head at a funeral.

‘Did you know Uncle E’s wife was first his brother’s wife and that the brother caught them at it?’ ‘Was she?’ I sotto voced to the husband. We were on speaker phone and I was not giving away points for free. Luckily, the son was in full courtroom mode and didn’t notice.

‘Did you know Aunts F and G had a yell-out-loud fight and that they pulled out each other’s hair because they wore the same outfit to a family wedding?’ Fashion fiends, yes, but hair pulling? Both ladies had had their usual quota of hair last time I met them, I mused.

The husband was looking as grey as the extended family skeletons that were tumbling out. I would have looked at him triumphantly, but this was a common cause we had to fight. Instead, I did a hasty calculation. How many more letters were there left in the alphabet? The son’s lawyerly instincts would not let him back off before Relation S.

The husband, the braver one, rallied and asked the son, ‘What exactly is your point? You want to have two affairs at the same time? Go ahead.’

There was static and the sound of the son spluttering. Like I said, he’s a dull and boring lawyer. The most adventurous thing he’s probably done in his adult years is apply for a course in bartending.

‘You could have pulled in some of this exotic stuff into my gene pool,’ he said when he found his voice again. ‘Look at our family, so dull and boring, and look at the extended family, enough material there for several bodice rippers!’

My turn to splutter – what did he know about bodice rippers? ‘Beta,’ I said, ‘it’s all about keeping on the right side of the law. And, as a lawyer, surely you know that?’

‘Besides,’ I said, pushing home my advantage. ‘Dad and I just gave up our jobs and moved to London so that Dad could do his PhD. Don’t you think that was adventurous? And we’ve paid three traffic fines in the three years that we’ve been here!’

The husband took over. ‘And you never know,’ he said. ‘If I don’t finish writing my thesis on time, we may have to move in with you and you’ll have to support us. No one in our family – extended or otherwise – has ever done that!’

There was a longer silence at the other end. The son was probably contemplating how much he could claim in terms of damages for mental torture.

Anniversary Games

It was in May that I first caught sight of the anklets. Initially, I stopped to look because you seldom see anklets displayed in a jeweller’s window. But then I fell in love. They were so prettily worked, so unlike the usual South Indian patterns with which I’d grown up. I did a hasty calculation. If I played my cards right, I could get the husband to get me those for our anniversary in July. There was enough time.

And so there was, but I hadn’t calculated on the joker in the hand I’d dealt myself. The husband. Who belongs to that tribe of men that seldom thinks of anniversaries, and birthdays, till they loom large in front much as the iceberg must have done before the Titanic. Fourteen anniversaries have gone by since I married the man, and I still thought each year, ‘This year will be different.’ There’s no limit to a woman’s optimism.

For the next three weeks, I raved about the anklets, talking of them to Amma in safe hearing distance of the husband. A few minutes later, I’d sigh and say, ‘We’ve been married almost fourteen years. Can you believe it?’ Not the slightest flicker would light up in those brown eyes I’d once swooned over. The man had obviously never played word association games in his life.

At the end of June, I asked the husband lightly, ‘Darling, what shall I get you for our anniversary?’ If that didn’t provide the cue to talk anklets, nothing would, I thought to myself. But the husband looked up from his newspaper and frowned at me, ‘I rather think we should not waste money this year on anniversary presents. The house we are building is getting to be quite expensive, a little sacrifice wouldn’t hurt.’ I was in despair. I wanted those anklets.

Ten days later, he was in a better mood. ‘Shall we go out for dinner on our anniversary?’ he asked, abandoning his Free Cell game on the computer. He’d just had ten straight wins and set himself a new record, so I plucked up my courage. ‘I saw these lovely anklets,’ I began. ‘Would you like them as an anniversary present?’ he asked. I heaved a sigh of relief and nodded vigorously. Battle won, I thought to myself.

The countdown to the anniversary began. Every day, I asked the husband his schedule in the morning. Two day before the anniversary, he replied, ‘I’m really busy today, I wish you’d help me more with the house.’ I hastily abandoned the conversation — it was taking too uncomfortable a turn.

Anniversary day came around. No flowers, no cards, no presents. ‘Another one gone,’ I thought bitterly to myself, looking at the husband opening his presents. But then he looked up and said, ‘Shall we meet for lunch and go and do your shopping?’ The smile returned to my face. But half-way through lunch, the husband’s mobile phone beeped. It was the son, wailing, ‘Dad, my debate has been rescheduled for tomorrow, and I haven’t even got it written.’ The husband looked at me. Feeling expansive after a huge meal, I said, ‘Let’s go back to him. We can do the anklets another day.’

By the time we’d heard the son go through his thoughts about whether teachers were better or computers for the eleventh time, it was almost ten o’clock at night and my expansiveness had worn off. No dinner too, I thought resentfully, as we got into the car to take the son to his teacher, who was waiting to hear his debate speech.

While he was there, the husband took me to the local flower wala, and said, ‘Why don’t you choose yourself some flowers?’ I was spoiling for a fight by then. ‘Can’t you do even that much by yourself?’ I asked. ‘Well, how do I know what flowers you like?’ he asked in his most reasonable tone. Fourteen years, I muttered to myself, as I picked out the best of the drooping rajnigandha at the stall. The husband came up with six red roses. I looked at him scornfully. He knows I hate red roses.

Two weeks later, we went to Jaipur. It was the husband’s brother’s birthday, and we were helping the sister-in-law choose a present for him. We passed a silversmith’s shop, and I asked her airily, ‘Isn’t that where we got that necklace for you?’ and glanced at the husband. He was busy fiddling around with the car stereo.

At the next halt, I asked the sister-in-law again, ‘Where can you get anklets here?’ The husband came to life with a start. But the sister-in-law intervened, ‘Oh, I have a very pretty pair that I don’t wear. I’ll give them to you.’ And when we got home, she did. They were very pretty, but a nice South Indian pattern that I’ve worn all my life. The husband grinned at me, ‘Well, you’ve got your anklets, haven’t you?’ I should have known when I married a Jain!

First published in The Financial Express in August 2001.

No More for the Road

Demographers and social scientists put India’s ever-burgeoning population down to poverty, lack of education and adequate health care and, more basically, plain ignorance. I beg to differ, not drastically, for in essence, they are quite right in their own way. But there are several other little things that are at play here, which they, perched as they are on the isolated peaks of academia, may not have deigned to notice.

I have myself contributed a mite to India’s population, but I think I may be forgiven that one lapse. For it was only the once, and one mistake even God forgives. Or doesn’t he? You wouldn’t think so if you saw the state of my home!

Once the son was a year old, I was besieged on all sides, even by the old lady who sits in my local kirana store. ‘A son must have a sister. It will develop his personality,’ she told me sternly, while weighing out my dal, and scooping out just that little bit that assures her she has not been cheated.

I smiled weakly. The son already had enough personality, and far too much for me.

The Ma-in-Law was next, but she is a practical lady. ‘Beta,’ she said, choosing her moment, ‘if you want another child, this would be the best time.’ I smiled even more weakly. This was not the time to point out that even the government advises a three-year rest period between children. After all, the kirana lady is not such an important person in my life. But this was a lifelong bond. And there were just thirteen months between my husband and his brother. I had to be very careful. Luckily, the Ma-in-Law, in her wisdom, saw fit to change the topic, and I lived to tell the tale.

The son was soon two. One winter evening, sitting huddled cosily in a razai that, luckily, had not yet been wet by the snoring baby between us, the husband said dreamily, ‘You know, I’d like a full football team. Think how nice it would be?’

I looked at him in horror. Of course, I did not know then that I would spend the next eight years of my life on borrowed sleep, but even so, the two years I’d just been through had quite convinced me that one was quite enough.

By the time the son was four, my family had resigned themselves to the fact that we had grown as much as we were ever going to. There were occasional mutterings from the husband on ‘at least a basketball team, then’, but he soon learnt to mutter to himself in the bathroom. The Ma-in-Law beamed ecstatically at my sister-in-law, who was round as a tub with her second, but learnt to leave me alone.

The next assault came from a totally unexpected quarter. Suddenly, the parent-teacher meetings at school became abnormally populated with the fathers of the species, who had hitherto kept well away from the classrooms. Obviously, other mothers of my generation had not learnt their lesson as well as I had. The first babe having been toothed, toilet trained and deposited in school, they were bravely embarking on a second nightmare. And the results were showing. Even the fathers were looking bleary-eyed at noon on a Sunday.

One day, I went to visit a neighbour who’d been advised total bed-rest through her second pregnancy. Sympathy was not uppermost on my mind when I took the mandatory magazines and soup, but the sight of her – swollen belly, puffy ankles, splotchy skin, and utterly miserable – awoke some latent feeling within me. ‘Why?’ I asked her. ‘You had a tough time the first time, so why go through this again?’

She looked cautiously at her first production and my son’s classmate, playing noisily at the other end of the room, and said, ‘Oh, you know, Deepa has been insisting on having someone to play with. She feels so lonely. I have been putting it off, but she has been praying every night to God for a baby sister. She looked so cute, I couldn’t deny her.’

I choked into my tea. Find me one four–five year old who does not look endearingly cute when they are after something they have set their hearts on. And, well, a prayer to God must be answered by God. We human beings had no right to play God, albeit on God’s behalf.

‘Anyway,’ said the mother-to-be, looking dubiously at my ill-concealed mirth, ‘it’s not good for children to be only children. Siblings teach them sharing, adjusting, and then, there’s always someone there for them all their lives. Your son will have nobody. Soon he’ll be sitting on your head, begging constantly to be entertained. If you have two children, at least, you can leave them to amuse each other.’

I beat a hasty retreat. There was no politically correct answer to that one. But, if and when I want a circus, I’d rather buy tickets for one, than have a twenty-four-hour one in my own home.

However, the neighbour’s words were prophetic. When most of his classmates began cooing triumphantly over their siblings, the son felt he was lacking something in life. ‘Mamma,’ he began plaintively, ‘why can’t we have a baby also? A nice, little baby brother?’

My entire life passed before my eyes in one swift, dark moment. This was an emergency, and I had to act quickly. ‘Sweetie,’ I began, pulling him into my lap and cuddling him. ‘You know, all your friends, their parents were probably disappointed in them. So they felt they had to try again to get what they wanted. Whereas Dadda and I think you are the most perfect baby in the world, and you are everything we ever wanted, so why would we want another child?’ The son, being of a particularly vainglorious breed, swallowed that hook, line and sinker. I pushed my advantage home. ‘How would you like a little puppy for your birthday next month?’

I passed my test, but how many women do?

First published in The Financial Express.