A Run of Luck

My mother’s large collection of superstitions is a well-known fact in the family, one that is exasperating, secretly scoffed at, and even argued hotly over, but true, and there, nevertheless.

Umpteen instances of deliberately continuing to walk on when a black cat ran across the road in front of me – and suffering no particular bad luck – had not inured her to the horror of the situation. She still shrieked.

And many long years of coming back daily to pick up something I had forgotten, when I had just set out for office, still drew the same comment: ‘Not one morning passes without your coming back!’ I still shrieked.

Amma’s blind beliefs have become a family joke over the years. When she comes up in the morning with ‘I know something bad is going to happen today. I saw three black crows in my dream last night’, most of us exchange knowing looks, hide a smirk and get on with life as usual. The son used to be fascinated by Amma’s predictive powers and wait morbidly all day for disaster to strike. But that was many years ago. Now he, too, has joined the hide-a-smirk brigade.

But then, I began to notice the husband set off on the superstition route as well. It began when the Ma-in-Law was travelling to South Africa and I wanted to wash my hair. He put his foot down. ‘You don’t wash your hair when someone in the family is travelling,’ he told me firmly. ‘Oh yes, I do,’ I told him equally firmly, and proceeded.

Unhappily for me, the Ma-in-Law suffered a medical problem during her trip and even had to be hospitalized. It took me a year to convince the husband that it was not my clean hair that had made her ill. Defiantly, but not without a little trepidation, I still wash my hair every day, whether people are travelling or not, and then keep my fingers crossed. After all, one cannot give way to blind beliefs just like that.

To my amazement, the husband then began reading the weekly, daily, monthly horoscopes churned out by the print media, and worse, believing in them. To keep pace with him, I began reading them, too. I lost all faith in ‘man’kind the day I asked him whether he realized that those forecasts were being recycled on a periodic basis, and he said he did, but continued reading them nevertheless. And I had believed all these years that I had married a logical, no-nonsense engineer.

All that horoscope reading was bound to show results. And it did. On Monday, the husband needed a yellow shirt. We managed. On Tuesday, he demanded a black on blue colour scheme. At my wit’s end, I unearthed an old college shirt. The cuffs reached just below his elbows, and the buttons just about held together across his chest, but he went off as pleased as, well, a college boy. Wednesday brought red, but I was prepared – I had already bought him a red shirt on Tuesday. Thursday was blue, easily solved.

But Friday brought a shock – it demanded a pink shirt. I watched the husband swallow his discomfiture in no small triumph. This was the man who had refused to let me dress his one-month-old son in pink because ‘pink was not for boys’. But the pull of astrology was strong. As soon as the shops opened, the husband’s wardrobe witnessed the addition of a spanking new ‘pink’ shirt.

But the fun really began when we started looking for a plot of land to buy. That was the day a force bigger than astrology – Vaastu – entered our lives! This piece of land would not do, it faced due south. That one was West-facing, it was inauspicious. This one was Sher-Mukha – meaning the frontage was larger than the backyard. A Gau-Mukha – the opposite – was preferable. All very well, but we just could not afford those delectable plots of land that were absolutely correct Vaastu-wise. And what we could afford would not do for my husband. So we dithered for over two years, while property prices climbed and climbed.

Then one day, when I was almost despairing of finding that just-right piece of land and dreading spending every Sunday – as I had done for as long as I could remember now – chasing brokers and gazing at overgrown properties, the husband announced that he had found a plot. We went to look at it, and I could not stop laughing. It was a Sher-Mukha, facing south-west. No two sides were equal and the angles were crazy. Worse, we must have been the only people in the country to own a five-sided property!

‘Why?’ I asked the husband. ‘It was so inauspicious, it was a good four thousand bucks cheaper per square metre than anything around it. Isn’t that a saving?’ Well, suffice it to say that I’d back bania instincts to win against the stars any day.

First published in The Financial Express.

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Check, Mate, and Rakhi!

Considering that I have no brother and the husband and son have no sister, Rakhi is a rather exciting time in our house. Or at least it was while the son was at school.

The first year was a quiet one. The school sent a request for rakhis from the girls and sweets from the boys. ‘Yuk!’ said the son. ‘Girls! What a waste of sweets!’

I prepared in style, keeping chocolate bars ready to send with the son on the big day. My little one, I vowed, should not feel deprived of siblings on a day when everyone went around flaunting their parents’ fertility.

But here was a googly. ‘Not chocolates, Mamma,’ explained the son patiently. (Those were the days – when we had not graduated to the execrably American Mom!) ‘My teacher said sweets, and only two each. Girls don’t need more than that.’

Sweets it was, and the chocs settled comfortably in yet another layer on my waist. The son came back with four rakhis. ‘Milind got fourteen,’ he told me excitedly.

‘It was because you didn’t take the chocolates,’ I scolded, And secretly despaired. Milind, at three plus, was already blossoming into the kind of chocolate box hero girls would slit their wrists for. What hopes did the son, who is a clone of me, have of getting more than a look-see?

The husband couldn’t see why I was worried. ‘Twelve years from now, he (and you) will be groaning that even four girls found him only brother material,’ he said with an amused leer at the son, who met it with the stolid look he keeps for just such occasions.

Some years later, the son’s naturally masterful personality asserted itself. And the result was there for all to see on his wrist. ‘Fifteen rakhis, see?’ He couldn’t even remember the names of all the girls who had tied him rakhis. The sweets had run out long before the rakhis stopped coming, and I had to pack an extra lot for him the next day.

This time, it was the husband who was in despair. ‘Can you believe it?’ he asked in visible consternation. ‘Fifteen of the twenty-three girls in his class consider him their brother. At this rate, who’ll he marry? What hope does he have of settling down?’

Well, if nothing else, the paediatrician was there, I consoled him. She’d been alternately cajoling and threatening to marry the son ever since he engagingly presented his posterior to her for an injection when he was one.

In any case, I reasoned with him, the rakhis will naturally disappear as they grow up. Right now, they were a symbol of his popularity. By the time he was twelve, the girls would be looking at him differently, and vice versa, I hoped. The lack of rakhis on his wrist would be a symbol of his popularity then. And if Milind’s parents got dissatisfied with the curriculum and decided to change schools for their still wondrously blossoming progeny, well, that would be the icing on the cake.

Well, the years went by, and the son turned twelve. He still got mistaken for me. And he still actively – and vocally – believed that girls were, well, ugh!

Far from being dissatisfied, Milind’s parents were still sending him to school. And he’d grown even more like a chocolate box hero, tall and tanned and handsome. The son looked like a baby beside him.

Looking at him, it was I who was beginning to grow doubtful now. For that year, once again, the son sprouted an arm full of rakhis. And he came home and told me Milind had had only two rakhis tied on his wrist.

The son tried to console me. ‘You know, Mom, Pooja told me the girls were checking on who had brought what for them before tying rakhis. And Milind’s mother was out of town, so he’d got nothing.’ But he was visibly smirking.

My antennae shot up. If Milind’s mother had forgotten the mandatory sweets, so had I. Rakhi had coincided with Independence Day that year, and the school had decided to make a long weekend of it. And like I said, with no sibling anywhere on the horizon, Rakhi occupies low priority in my mind – till the son came home from school on the day, that is. So I’d completely forgotten it was that time of the year once again, and that sweets were in order on the Saturday before.

Despite my oversight, the son had come home with a fistful of rakhis! There was something fishy here, and I was going to reel it in.

When I went to bed that night, my not so little bundle of joy trailed behind me in a sulk because he did not consider it time yet to go to bed – he did have a holiday the next day, he told me defiantly.

I was not fooled. Bedtime is that time of the day when my one and only confesses all his sins, and makes his peace with mother and God, in that order. I waited patiently. Sure enough, he piped up, ‘You know, Mom, I’ve been thinking. (When the son starts thinking, there’s usually trouble ahead.) We were discussing in class today – everyone has a collection of some kind. So I told them I did, too.’

‘You do?’ I tried not to sound too eager. His stamp collection had been relegated to a dusty cupboard years ago.

‘Well, yes, I told them I collect burps. (Burps? Burps??? For God’s sake, how did you collect burps?) I have twenty different ones, you know. And I showed them how I can burp forty times in a row, without stopping even once.’

I groaned and sat up. ‘Was this before or after the girls tied the rakhis on your wrist?’

‘Well, that was during assembly. The teacher asked them for their rakhis only in the English period.’

He did not need to say any more.

First published in The Financial Express on 20 August 2000.

Fan Unlimited: A Mature Love Story

Star-struck at 36? Sounds silly? But it’s true – I’ve been hopelessly star-mad ever since I can remember. It may have had something to do with Amma, who’d regale me with stories of how she met Madhubala and Dilip Kumar on the sets of Mughal-e-Azam while we dashed from one movie hall to the other. Of how she’d had an outfit exactly like the one Nargis wore in Chori Chori. I was sick with envy, waiting for the time when I could match her story for story.

When I was fourteen, my uncle arranged for me to visit a film set. Okay, the star was only Sharmila Tagore, whom, in callous adolescent fashion, I had already relegated to ‘mother’ status. But it was the first time I was getting to see a film being shot. I was breathless with excitement.

When we tiptoed into Ms Tagore’s make-up room, she was on the phone, asking her housekeeper whether the kids had eaten and how was Saif baba’s throat now? I was shaken. Okay, she was looking very pretty. But where were all the glitter and ostrich feathers I’d seen on screen? Then Amma got into the act and the two spent ten whole minutes discussing the vexations of bringing up teenage girls. I could have wept. How utterly, utterly banal!

My star mania was part of the reason I chose to become a journalist, and yet, after toying with the idea of joining a film magazine, I decided against it because I just could not see myself standing in front of, say, Shah Rukh Khan, my crush of the moment, and asking him mundane questions without swooning straight into his arms.

But being a journalist paid its dividends some years later, when I was presented with passes to the muhurat of Shikhar. The husband looked visibly daunted at the prospect, but I was treading air. ‘Shah Rukh!’ I breathed. ‘And Jackie. And Madhuri. And Manisha Koirala. Oh, I hope they’ll let us in!’

‘You mean to say there’s a chance we won’t be allowed in?’ The husband looked instantly brighter.

Nevertheless, when we reached the muhurat venue, I was waved in cheerily. When we moved inside, I understood why. The place was jam-packed. ‘How will we see anything?’ I wailed. ‘See, they’ve got those huge screens up,’ pointed out the husband. ‘Let’s find our seats.’ The seats, when we finally found them, turned out to be behind one of the huge screens. ‘Now what?’ I was querulous by this time. This was not my idea of a film muhurat. ‘You look at the other screen,’ said the husband, his outwardly patient air barely concealing his inner glee.

And that’s how I saw the muhurat of Shikhar. The screen crackled when Madhuri and Manisha made their entrance on stage, and not because of their sex appeal, but because both were wearing red. And Shah Rukh, well, he never appeared at all. I read in the papers the next day that much after we left, he descended onto the stage from a helicopter. As for the film, Subhash Ghai apparently spent so much money on the muhurat that he didn’t have any left to make the movie!

I had another go at meeting Shah Rukh Khan some years later, son in tow this time. It was a press conference for his first production and I’d told the person in charge that I was bringing the son, an equally avid fan then, with me. But I was still stopped at the door. ‘No children, madam.’ I argued in vain that I’d sought permission. Finally, when it got nasty, I decided to exit the scene altogether. But the son and I’ve never felt quite the same again about SRK.

Then, I got to go to the National Film Awards function. I could hardly believe my luck. It was only Anil Kapoor and Raveena Tandon, but what the hell! When I came down all dressed up, the husband eyed me quizzically. ‘Are you planning on going up on stage?’ he asked drily. I ignored him, I was already shaking hands with Javed Akhtar in my mind, and Raveena was looking enviously at my outfit.

As it happened, the only person who looked at me was Anu Malik, who actually stopped in his tracks when I congratulated him in the lobby, and said huskily to me, ‘Have I met you before, ma’am?’ But even he wilted when I said, ‘Hold on a minute, my son needs your autograph.’ At my side, the husband hooted derisively, but I tossed my head dismissively. My star-struck self had finally made contact with a star. Who needed Shah Rukh?

First published in The Financial Express.

It’s The Early Worm That Gets Caught

‘It’s only six days,’ Amma said as she left. I nodded dumbly. Six days of getting up at 6.30 am, when the mercury was plunging below 4 degrees in Delhi. Rolling out of a warm duvet to put together breakfast, tiffin, water bottle and pack a sleepy, mutinous twelve-year-old off to school.

Only six days? Day surfaced for me usually around 9 am, when the sun was safely out, and no monsters lurked in the form of fog, wind or cloud. The only other times I’d seen dawn was when the editor had ordered me to Mumbai on the early morning shuttle. But there I was, committed to the job ahead of me and, despite the odd curse for school principals who thought such drastic measures necessary for the improvement of the wee souls at their mercy, determined to do my best.

Day one passed, and the fact that I’d survived the ordeal unscathed made me deliriously triumphant. I even made the husband his morning cuppa without any of the usual sexist rancour.  Plus, it was Friday, I told myself, so I had a whole weekend in which to catch up on my sleep.

I should have known better than to tempt the fates. There was just no excuse. I’d studied Greek tragedy in college. I reckon Oedipus had nothing to complain about when I considered the maelstrom that hit me that afternoon when the son returned from school.

‘Extra German from today,’ the son announced, as I mechanically followed in his wake, picking up all the various bits of clothing he was strewing in my path as if they were roses. The extra German was a bit of a prestige issue. After all, the teacher had told us our boy was good.

‘What time?’ I asked, my tryst with the early bird beginning to numb my faculties.

‘8 to 12 Saturdays,  8 to 9.30 Sundays. I’ll have to get up early, Mum!’ I was there listening to him, but it was almost as if I was floating somewhere up there. He didn’t know the half of it, I thought, the horror of it overcoming me – this couldn’t be happening to me!

I lived through the weekend, I lived through, let’s see, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday. Wednesday afternoon, I collapsed. Mentally shattered, physically exhausted. The husband lifted me tenderly in his arms. ‘I can’t do this any more,’ I sobbed into his newly dry-cleaned blazer. ‘You’ll have to do it tomorrow. I don’t even know what I’m putting into his sandwiches any more. I could poison him.’ Did I fancy it, or was the husband a little less tender in putting me down on the bed and arranging the duvet around me?

Thursday morning. 6.30 am. The alarm rang. I stirred, moved one leg out of the duvet. Then remembered, it was the husband’s turn. It was a wonderful thought. The husband didn’t budge. The son did, took one look at the husband and said, ‘It’s his turn, isn’t it?’, before snoring off again.

It was seven o’clock before the two of them got up. And switched on all the lights in the room. I pulled the duvet over my face. I was going to get some sleep that day, even if it killed me. It nearly did.

First I heard the son scuffling around. ‘Where’s my long-sleeved shirt?’ he was muttering to himself. ‘Second shelf from bottom, right hand side,’ I called from the depths of the duvet. ‘Don’t forget your cap and gloves.’ I swear I heard him swear. The son sets great store by his latest hairstyle – his peers call him Cactus because of it – and would give his left arm to be allowed to skip the mandatory cap.

Enter the husband. ‘Do you want your milk hot or…er…or…er…or lukewarm?’ he ended weakly. I sympathized. At 7 am, it is difficult to think of anything but ‘hot’.

Enter the husband again. ‘Do you take water in your bottle?’ I sighed. What else would he take?

Enter the husband, for the third time. ‘Cheese spread on your sandwich?’ I could feel my toes curling as the tension built up. What did the man think the child took in his sandwich, for God’s sake, butter? I’d briefed him fully the night before.

Funnily enough, that was the point, I think, at which I fell asleep. When I resurfaced at noon, I found the husband grumpily nursing his tea. ‘Hi love,’ I chirped brightly. He grunted. ‘I think you did great today,’ I continued in my best all’s well with the world voice. ‘I’ve had a marvellous rest. Another night like that, and I’ll be back on track.’

There was a sinister whistling sound. It was the husband falling in a heap at my feet.

First published in The Financial Express.