Hair, There And Everywhere

The son’s always had a fetish about his hair. It must always be combed just so, usually completely contrary to what anyone above eighteen suggests. I remember when we’d gone for a long weekend to Corbett National Park. He was only three, but we missed every early morning elephant safari because he couldn’t get his hair parted where he wanted it – 5.68 inches from the left.

It was really no surprise, therefore, when one day, he announced his intention to get himself a Mohawk. It must have been the exams – I firmly believe they make your hair grow like only pregnancy can. The day the last exam got over, the son called the husband, ‘Dad, I want you to come with me to the barber.’ Dad was eye-deep in work, editing and cutting and pasting. Maybe that was what made him tell the son peremptorily, ‘I’ll do it for you when I get back. Leave me alone now.’ Or maybe he just thought the son wouldn’t be able to sit up that long. If so, he’d reckoned without STAR Movies.

Well, that was how one night, at 2 am, the husband and I found ourselves up to the elbow in hair, shaving off the sides of the son’s head, and fashioning a long spiky trail from forehead to neck. At the end of it, I looked at the sorry mess in front of me and said to the husband, ‘I don’t know what your mother is going to say!’ The husband looked crest-fallen. ‘Why didn’t you remind me she was going to be here this weekend?’ he asked. The son meanwhile had pranced off to admire his Mohawk and himself in a full-length mirror. ‘Isn’t it coool?’ he demanded. ‘I love it! Thanks guys!’

Amma was in her room when he rolled in in the morning. ‘Hey, Ams baby, isn’t this coool?’ Amma yelped – not at the ‘baby’, she’s used to that and worse – but at the sight before her. After that, you couldn’t get a word out of her for half an hour, nor all through breakfast. That’s a first for Amma. But she pounced on me as soon as he was safely away: ‘How could you do this to your only son?’ I did my best to look injured: ‘I didn’t do anything. I merely washed the razor, changed the water, and swept up afterwards. See how clean the floor is?’ I knew I was safe after that. Amma never ever says anything to the husband. He can do no wrong in her eyes.

Next step was the outside world. The son was pleased as punch with the reactions he got. He noted each one meticulously in his slam book, including the one where a man stopped him on the street and asked, ‘Are you okay in the head?’ The question that he loved best was, ‘Do your parents know about this?’

His friends, at least the male ones, were not sure whether they should laugh at him for a freak or blackmail their parents into allowing them similar haircuts. That’s one thing about the son: his swagger ensures a following, however motley. His female friends were more decided. The love of his life made clear her preference for his best friend. The son was undaunted, however. ‘She’ll get used to it,’ he said with a maturity beyond his years – or maybe a leaf borrowed from the husband’s book.

At school, harried by his seniors, the son came up with, ‘Well, y’see, there was this mad dog, and he bit me, and that made me kind of mad like, and then next morning, when I woke up, I found my hair had growed all wrong, like this. The doctor says I have rabies.’ Well, he meant to be sarcastic, but the seniors loved every word and spent the rest of the morning showing him off everywhere. He came home that day, complaining loudly, ‘It’s all because you don’t let me watch WWF Wrestling any more. Otherwise, I could’ve thrown a few punches at them.’

One teacher kissed him loudly, leaving red lips painted on his shaved head, and said, ‘You look so cute. Now go and show yourself to the Principal.’ Needless to say, he did no such thing. Another one said, ‘Well, his father has long hair, I guess it runs in the family. But not in school, son.’

The final straw came when I took him to office. When we reached home that day, he was fuming, ‘I always thought journalists were more intelligent. But you should have heard the silly questions they asked me. I’m sick and tired of answering questions. Can I get this cut off now?’

A little later, the deed was done. The son now sported a glitteringly clean scalp. Later, from the shower, we heard a wail, ‘Mum, Dad, c’mere! Do I shampoo this or soap it?’

First published in The Financial Express.

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A Quiver Full Of Guile

The family is a shaken lot these days. Especially since it got all shook up out of bed on the morning of Republic Day. But I would say the husband is quite the most shaken of us all.

Friday morning 9 am found us all bounding out of bed, strictly out of sync with the graceful sway of the fans above us. It was only when we found ourselves outside in the garden, standing on an earth that had stopped quivering, that we realized we had no sweaters, no shawls, no chappals and, in the case of the son, no pyjamas. Four days later, he’s still unable to explain how he got minus pyjamas.

While Amma trembled on the verge of hysteria, the son shivered in the morning cold, and I yawned, the husband looked at us all sternly and said, ‘Do you realize how badly prepared we are for an earthquake? If the building had collapsed, we wouldn’t even have a glass of water to drink.’ I groaned. The last time the husband got a bee in his metaphorical bonnet, we’d hoarded Tetracycline pills for two years after the Surat plague.

Since then, the newspapers have been full of doomsday prophets warning of more quakes to come. Since then, we’ve come to know that Delhi sits on the Ballabgarh fault-line. Since then, we’ve got to know that Delhi will definitely experience a fairly strong quake before April. Since then, we’ve also got to know that the husband is the strong, but not necessarily silent, type, and knows how to look after his family.

Last evening, the conversation ran thus. The son: ‘Mum, I have this form to fill out. I’ve been chosen to be profiled as a Young Achiever in our school magazine.’

Amma: ‘I need an appointment with the dentist.’

Me: ‘I need a yellow blouse for this sari. (To the husband) Do you realize we need to be there by 8 pm at least? (To nobody in particular) Where is the phone?’

Son: ‘Mum, what is your profession?’

Amma: ‘You have to come with me to the dentist, I cannot go alone.’

Me: ‘Hallo, Dr Mitra? I need an appointment for my mother. (To the husband) If I’m delayed at work, will you go with Amma?’

Son: ‘What should I put down in the Inspirational Advice column?’

Me: ‘Does anyone have any safety pins? I need this sari to stay up.’

8 pm. The reception started at 7.30 pm. The sari is half-tied, the form half-filled, and Amma in a state of shock already at the thought of the dental appointment the next day. The husband rouses from his trance. ‘Okay everybody, we need to do an earthquake drill. The wires say there’ll be another quake before Thursday.’

‘They don’t say specifically located in India,’ I said in exasperation. I’d just got the sari pleats right. He didn’t bat an eyelid. ‘Everyone, out in the garden.’

‘I’ve got to put in this safety pin,’ I cried. ‘It’ll all come off otherwise.’

The husband eyed me sternly. ‘What if it were a real earthquake? They’d just bury you in your expertly tied sari.’ The son guffawed in the background. He was only too glad to get away from his form.

The husband cleared his throat. ‘No standing under beams. This, this, and this are all beams. You feel even the slightest suspicion of an earthquake, just move out into the garden. Immediately. Amma, no waiting for Abhi.’

‘Wouldn’t it be easier to go out of the front door?’ asked the son. He can’t help it, he’s a Libran. The next ten minutes were spent counting the paces on both routes to earthquake survival. The verdict was the garden. Accordingly, we all stood in the garden, my sari more on my arm than around my waist.

‘Okay,’ said the husband, ‘if you can’t get out by any chance, please stand in a corner. Corners are safer than the rest of the house. (To me) We need to keep some food and water in the car. That’s what they do in California.’

I looked surreptitiously at my watch and fixed on a strategy. The son’s antipathy for forms is inherited. ‘More importantly,’ I said, ‘we need to get some household insurance, and a policy for the house. Shall I get you the forms tomorrow?’

There was dead silence. Then, ‘Aren’t we getting late for that wedding?’ asked the husband.

First published in The Financial Express.

Driving Me Crazy

In the midst of a commute argument one day, a colleague flung at me, ‘What do you know about it? You have a car and a driver!’ All I did in reply was remind her that I hadn’t always had the two; I didn’t have the heart to tell her that problems don’t end with acquiring a driver. They merely begin.

My first driver hailed from Bihar. He was incessantly social. Not only would he chatter every minute that I had my feet in the car, he would also chat with everyone in sight. Within weeks, he was running an unofficial employment agency for drivers from my office. But he was unflappable. Even when I caught him selling my cast-off tyres from my own car boot, all he did was grin cheerfully and inform me accusingly that he hadn’t made as much out of that deal as he should have!

We thought he was happy with us, but one day, he came to the husband and said, ‘Much as my heart dreads being parted from you (that was the kind of hyperbole he would talk in), I have found another job.’ When we had removed the flowery phrases from the matter, we found that the problem was we were not paying him overtime. And here I was congratulating myself for not having made him stay beyond his duty hours even once in the eleven months or so he was with us.

But I was soon to learn with the wisdom of hindsight that he had been the best of the bunch. For there followed a spate of drivers all armed with official looking driving licences from the wilds of East India, but few driving skills to speak of. One we sacked in two minutes flat because we found he did not know how to start the car; another in ten minutes because he couldn’t reverse it.

One specimen that stayed with us for two whole months took Appa to fetch the son from school and reversed neatly into a car in the parking lot, the car of a teacher. Appa watched in mute horror as students of all shapes and sizes gathered around, vowing vengeance on the driver. Luckily, the teacher herself was more placable. She was also the son’s English teacher. Appa came home and declared wrathfully, ‘Either he stays or I do!’ That wasn’t a choice really.

The next number was also from the state of Bihar, and he belonged to the same ilk as an honourable cabinet minister. He provided me with privileged insights into why that ministry is run the way it is. For he was bone lazy. He was usually to be found snoring in someone else’s car. It used to be my car till the stereo conked out. Since it was never the same car two days in running, I had two options: Either I waited endlessly in the sun — one day it was a full twenty minutes — or I begged the parking attendant for help. Ever since the parking attendant told me in a superior way that I should get myself a new driver, I preferred the first option. Maybe I should have just got a new car stereo.

Plus, the driver believed vehemently in an egalitarian society. Thus, while I struggled down the office steps with my arms full of bags and bottles, he would sit on the parapet and consider my descent ruminatively. The point at which I touched base at the car is when he would start putting on his shoes and socks, and begin ambling leisurely towards me. Then he would unfurl himself into the driving seat and reach out to open my door, while I waited outside, my arms aching. I barely had time to close my door before he would be ODing on the accelerator.

In the process, he reversed the car into an uncharacteristically gentle stop one momentous week — on my big toe. My yells were of no avail. He smiled his big, gentle beam and got out of the car to examine the truth of the matter. Amma, who was in the car at the time, was horrified, and that evening, when I got home, read me a lecture on how I had to make the driver maintain the proprieties. Accordingly, I have begun my drill. In the mornings, I swing my arms and walk towards the car and ask the driver to get my bags. Then I wait outside the car till he gets the stuff. When I get inside, he hands me my stuff most unceremoniously. Reaching office, I get out by myself, while he drums impatiently on the steering wheel, and tell him to carry in my bags.

I also look longingly when other drivers hand their passengers lovingly into cars, personally supervising the shutting of the door and the arranging of bags. Then I remind myself that at least I’m better off than an unmarried friend, who, fed up with the driver she had personally hired and was paying every month, sacked him. He just glared at her and said, ‘I won’t go till Saab (her father) says I am sacked!’

First published in The Financial Express.

Hoist on His Own Petard

Last week was a trifle busy for the son. So busy that he had little time to proffer his customary snide asides to Amma and me. The family had a peaceful week, evidence of which, I am told by my colleagues, was there to see on my face, which beamed all six days.

The beginning of the week found the son puffing home from school. ‘I have to write a play. I’ve been chosen for What’s The Good Word, and I have a creative essay writing competition on Thursday,’ he told me over the phone. I could hear the crackle of pride in his voice even from that distance. For the son, being chosen for a competition – any competition – is a vindication of his deep conviction that he is the best. His teachers tell us every year that they barely have to say ‘Who’d like to take part…?’ and up goes his hand, waving more furiously than that of any self-respecting KBC contestant.

The computer was duly commissioned, the dictionary pored over, spelling lists prepared. The son was more blasé about the creative writing. With two parents who are journalists, he thinks creative writing is his birthright. Not so, but I don’t want to tell him that till he’s out his teens. Don’t want an ABC murderer in my part of town!

It was the husband who threw the googly this time. He puffed home on Wednesday, looking for the son, who was curled up around the computer keyboard, making his characters talk. ‘Julian Powers is coming tomorrow. I hope you’ve read that book he got you last time.’

I’ve seldom seen the son look so deflated. ‘But,’ he protested, ‘I’ve hardly had the time, Dad.’ ‘Well, see that you have it done by Saturday. We’re having dinner with him and you’re invited, too,’ ordered the ruthless parent.

We need a little bit of history here. Mr Powers is a friend of the husband, who is usually to be found in the UK, but comes over for a taste of India once in a while. He was once part of the RAF and still retains nostalgic memories of his flying years. Early in their relationship, he’d considered the son to be a bit of a fly on the wall, spoiling the look of his wallpaper. Till the day, he casually asked him something about World War II. The son, who’d ooze Commando comics if you pricked him, responded by rattling off details and minutae about planes and flights. You could actually see Mr Powers sit up in his seat, as he re-slotted ‘the little tyke’ into a more respectable category.

On his last visit, the big man – literally, for he’s way past six feet tall – got the son a book. A big glossy book on the planes used in World War II. ‘Coooool!’ said the son, suitably awed for once. ‘Mum, it costs 25 pounds!’ the mercenary in him whispered to me in the car. ‘Well, you’ll have to read it now,’ I whispered back. His face fell. For, notwithstanding all his rattling off, the real World War aficionado in the family is his cousin in Jaipur. This one merely shows off.

And now, according to the husband, Mr Powers was visiting again. And he’d be sure to ask the son if he’d enjoyed the book. And the son, truthful little being that he is, would have to confess he’d not once touched the book since it was deposited on his book-shelf. Worse still, the husband would take the rod to him, for he believes firmly in what we in the family privately call ‘white’ etiquette. This means that you have to appreciate whatever a visitor from abroad gets you, and be able to discourse wisely on it at any given time later on.

‘I’m in big trouble, Mum,’ the son said gravely on Saturday morning. I could see that. The play had required two rewrites. The essay competition had been postponed twice. In short, it had been an awful week. And there was Julian Powers still left on the itinerary. In the evening, the son marched out with us, almost as if he were heading for the guillotine, the book under his arms. ‘Why’re you taking that?’ I hissed at him. He smiled angelically.

After dinner, as we were lingering over our coffee, the son pulled out the book. ‘Please, Mr Powers, will you inscribe it for me?’ he asked, putting every bit of Libran charm he possessed into the smile that accompanied the request. ‘Why certainly, Little General!’ beamed Mr Powers. ‘And did you enjoy that book?’ he asked, benevolent after a good meal.

‘It was lovely!’ said the son fervently and allowed himself to be patted on the head. And there the matter ended. I couldn’t believe it. ‘Well, I didn’t lie, did I?’ defended the son, later in the car. ‘I thought the pictures were out of this world!’

First published in The Financial Express.

A Bit Of Forced Jugglery

The other day, a colleague, enquiring about the progress of our house, told us about her uncle who had started building two months after us and was now ready to move in. ‘When will you get around to moving in?’ she asked. I was stumped for an answer, for we, well, we were still juggling dates.

When we broke soil in July, I was definite we’d move in by Diwali. Every contractor we’d interviewed said three months at the utmost. For the structure, was what was left unsaid at the time. In my ignorance, I believed and was happy. Two weeks of pouring rain later, my more practical half took a look at the huge swimming pool that was our future basement and sighed. ‘Maybe New Year?’ I asked hopefully. He sighed again, meaningfully I’m sure.

By the time the swimming pool had been drained, the supervisor had developed malaria from the mosquitoes who’d taken it over as their happy hunting ground. Instead, the contractor sent his partner, who took up semi-permanent residence with us.

New Year came around, and we’d got the structure up, as promised. My hopes were high and I was looking forward to a birthday-cum-grihapravesh. Till the husband’s brother, and also the architect of the whole, came to take a look and said, ‘Well, congratulations! That’s half the house done.’

Half? I swallowed my chewing gum in my surprise. ‘Well, you have to get all the wiring, plumbing, underground tank, PoP, fittings, flooring done now. That’s a lot of work,’ he explained kindly. Whenever I profess ignorance, people are wont to treat me kindly. I’ve noticed the trend in office, too. But I ignored that for the moment and asked, ‘By Holi?’ He shrugged his shoulders. I think he forgot momentarily that he was talking to family – that shrug had to be how he dealt with over-eager clients. I persevered, ‘Can I start planting trees?’

The sister-in-law, also an architect, took over: ‘I think you should wait till you move in.’ And soon I saw why. My front garden, already a size that it would disappear completely if I spread my handkerchief over it, was dug up to accommodate two sewerage tanks, one each in two of its three corners. I shrieked silently. ‘You can put pots over it,’ said the husband hesitantly. He’d probably understood the silent shriek. And after fourteen years, he should. But how was I to grow trees in a pot?

The backyard was worse. I’d had a mind to cover the boring wall there with a fancy façade, but the husband had already scotched that idea with a meaningful look at his wallet. I was familiar with that look, having encountered it many times during the building of the house. But I continued to hope that we would move in around Holi. I even planned for a family ceremony after Holi, for I didn’t want my nice new tiles getting marauded with colour.

Two weeks before Holi, the carpenter threw in his hammer. The wood that had been perfect in the timber yard, when he was still anticipating a fat commission, was useless and needed to be dried for at least a month. Meanwhile, he, being a secular citizen of a secular country, was taking two weeks off for Eid and Holi. What he got was a boot – right out of the house.

Two days before Holi, the contractor’s partner discovered he had a problem with his kidneys and needed to go home for treatment. The contractor rang up urgently to say there was a wedding in his family and he too could not come down just now, would we please supervise the work ourselves? The husband, who was immersed in an extended editing session, decided it would be simpler to just let them take off for a couple of weeks.

Holi came and went. The new carpenter came. Naturally, nothing his predecessor had done was as it should have been. He immersed himself in redoing it all, even the door frames that had already been stuck into the walls. Meanwhile, the tile-layer has discovered he has appendicitis and taken off with the basement floor half-done.

That was where we were now, and that was why I was staring bemused at my colleague. She was still looking at me enquiringly. ‘Maybe the Fourth of July?’ I offered weakly. I personally suspect that we may well have to wait for the next – Indian – round of fireworks, Diwali, to get into that house.

PS: We did move in, some months after Diwali, at the end of March the next year!

First published in The Financial Express.