Stress and the Latch-Key Kid

The son is a trifle stressed these days. His world has turned, as he terms it, ‘higgledy piggledy’. Definitely Enid Blyton, but that’s as far olde-world as my twelve-year-old son will admit to being. In all other aspects, he is self-assuredly ‘ultra def rad mega whiz cool’. Before you begin to think he’s hearing impaired, let me clarify that that’s just his language for saying he’s a ‘real cool cat’.

The higgledy-piggledy factor’s come about because Amma is out in Kerala for a fortnight. I guess she got tired of waiting for Delhi to decide between fog-laden mornings and sunny, breezy afternoons. Or maybe she just got sick of fetching and carrying for a largely unappreciative family. As a consequence, I find myself manning the home front. It’s been some months since I did this – long enough for me to have been actually looking forward to the experience. But the son is perturbed. ‘Aren’t you going to work today, Mum?’ he asked the day after we waved Amma off in her train.

‘No sweetie, I’ve taken a couple of weeks off from work,’ I said absently, leafing through knitting patterns. Two weeks of knitting in the sun, swigging beer in the garden, afternoon naps, oh what luxury! The son begged to differ. First came the subtle hints. ‘Have you seen this week’s edition – they have a spelling mistake on page one.’

‘That’s how you spell metamorphosis, son,’ I replied automatically. ‘Besides, I was there for this edition, remember?’

‘You won’t get your allowance na, if you take so much leave?’

‘I can always get the money when I go back to office,’ I replied, feeling all my tense back muscles unwind and relax in the warmth of the sun.

‘But how will we run the house till then?’

I ignored that one. After all, the husband was not at home to hear this slur on his role as family patriarch.

‘Suppose they hire someone else instead of you, and then find he’s much, much better than you?’

I sat up. Enough was enough. ‘Okay, son, get me your English book. Since you seem to have a lot of spare time, you might as well do a comprehension exercise!’ The hints stopped abruptly. For the time being.

But his bosom pal of nine years’ standing took over. ‘Auntie, how do they let you take so much leave in your office? My mother’s office says if she goes on leave, the magazine will come to a stop.’ That galled, but I grit my teeth and reminded him that if he didn’t quit on the pester act, there’d be one less Christmas present under his tree this year.

But the son was not frightened off so easily. He merely shifted tack. ‘Mum, you know there was this article in today’s paper on latch-key children. It said latch-key kids grow up to be very independent. They make strong leaders and strong decision-makers.’

‘It also says they are lonely and insecure,’ I returned evenly. After all, I did have twelve years’ practice in deflecting such arguments.

‘That’s a small risk to take for developing all those leadership skills,’ he returned with equanimity. ‘Anyway, last year, you let me have my own key when Amma was away. What’s so different this year? After all, I’m a year older.’

‘Also a year more careless and impulsive! I had no choice last year. And we made sure Dad’s Man Friday was always here when you got home, and he stayed with you till one of us got home. So what leadership skills?’ I asked smugly, sure that I had outwitted him finally.

‘That’s what you think, Mum,’ he riposted with perfect timing. If it hadn’t been me at the receiving end, I might have been consumed with admiration. ‘Jagat Singh would go off to sleep in his chair after he’d given me lunch. Then Shantanu would climb over the gate and we’d take out the telephone directory and call up all the people we found in it with strange names. I was the one who decided what we’d say to them.’ Shantanu, of course, was the abovementioned friend.

I stared at him in horror. Well, at least, it explained the huge phone bills we’d got that month. The husband had transformed into a shrieking banshee right before our eyes. At the time, the buck – as always – had stopped at me. Now I knew where it had belonged.

‘Too bad, buddy,’ I said as firmly as I could. ‘If that’s the best example of leadership training you can give me, you’ve lost this round. I had thought of popping into office for a while tomorrow. But now I’m here to stay – till Amma gets back.’

It’s not very often that I can get to best the son in a battle of wits. And though I’d won this round, I am not so sure of the next one. After all, leave is not so easy to come by in a newspaper office!

First published in The Financial Express in January 2001.

The Path of True Love

The son is currently involved in a swim versus basketball imbroglio. And after three weeks of ignoring his whines and moans, this morning, I found myself actually cursing a fellow basketballer with vim and vigour… but I am digressing here.

The son’s school offers several sports options in the summer holidays and, most years, the son manfully declines all but the swimming, which I insist on. But this year, there’s a little curly haired girl on his horizon and his thoughts have been wandering to muscles and tight stomachs. And, of course, inches. He’s going to hate me all his life for this, but since he takes after me in most things, he’s unlikely to grow more than the average Indian male. But he doesn’t believe in giving up without a fight. Hence, the basketball.

The family took one look at the timings on the circular and snickered. Basketball at 6.30 am? ‘You’ll have to get up at six for that,’ Amma said sadly, ‘and I thought I’d get a few late mornings during your holidays.’

‘He won’t get up,’ said a voice from behind the newspaper that we’ve all come to know and respect as the head of our family, the husband.

‘Why don’t you sleep with Amma?’ I suggested brightly. ‘I have enough trouble waking you up at 6.30 am during school-time.’

But, as we discovered later, the little curly haired girl too learns basketball and, three weeks later, the son’s still getting up clockwork at one call from Amma, missing only two days so far. Obviously, the pull of true love is just as strong at twelve years as it is at sixteen.

The hitch lay elsewhere. The swimming class came bang in the middle of the basketball lesson. The sports teacher suggested the son change his swimming class to the one after his allotted one. A day of that and he switched back. ‘I got to do all the exercises in the basketball class and none of the matches,’ he complained.

‘Try the one in the first half then,’ I suggested. ‘But that’s the advanced class,’ he moaned. ‘Well, it’s got to be the one or the other. Sort it out for yourself,’ said the oracle from behind the newspaper.

What was left unsaid was that the son’s efforts in swimming are mostly energy and very little style, and the little curly haired girl was part of the advanced swimming class. Not the best way to progress on the path of true love.

So he reverted back to a little bit of basketball, a swim, and then again a little bit of basketball. And that’s how things were when he trooped into the house yesterday morning just as I was rubbing the sleep from my eyes. ‘Why so early?’ I enquired.

‘I couldn’t play basketball today,’ he said gloomily. ‘The match had already started and, though there was one person less in Ketan’s team, he ordered me off the court.’

‘But… but… how dare he?’ I said, the fond mother in me roused at this injustice. ‘He has no right to do that!’ ‘You should have complained to the teacher,’ said Amma, equally indignant. ‘You’ve paid for the basketball coaching, so he can’t do that,’ said the voice, but since the newspapers had not yet arrived, we paid it no notice.

‘I’ll sort it out tomorrow. If he orders me off the court, I’ll just punch him,’ said the son.

I was puzzled. If he could force Ketan to let him into the game the next day, why hadn’t he done it today? The son’s regular intake of Hindi movies ensures that he takes punches and brawls as a necessary part of his life. So he couldn’t be getting squeamish about it.

The mystery was solved in the evening when the son’s friend dropped in for a chat. I was reading, with half a ear on their conversation. ‘Shefali didn’t come for swimming today, did she?’ asked the friend. Shefali being the star swimmer with curly hair, who’s setting half the class’ hearts – those of the male half at least – aflutter.

‘She didn’t come for basketball either,’ muttered the son gloomily. ‘And that ass, Ketan, was throwing his weight around. He saw her smile at me yesterday. I decided to come home and read my book.’

I smiled to myself. And wondered, would Shefali come for basketball tomorrow?

PS: Thirteen years and many curly haired girls later, I am happy to report that the son’s growth spurt gave the lie to the in-laws’ dire predictions to the contrary – he now stands a good inch taller than the husband.

First published in The Financial Express.

A Nation of Insomniacs

Have you ever considered how we, as a nation, make a virtue out of insomnia, regarding it as a gift bestowed by the gods on the truly worthy? Ask me, I have been particularly afflicted most of my life by the ‘Sleep and Be Damned Syndrome’, which I am convinced is peculiar to the Indian subcontinent.

Don’t believe me? Just look around you. People vie with each other in recounting tales of how early they get up each morning. There are those who actually get up in the middle of the night, as early as 3.30 am, just to be out on a morning walk before the rest. Get up one day at 4.30 am and check the roads – you’ll find office rush-hour a walkover in comparison. I have a colleague who boasts she gets up at 3 am to polish her fridge door!

All my life, I have been admonished by grandparents, parents and aunts, even stray women who wandered in to pick some kari-patta from our garden, on how ‘good’ girls – those who grow up into model wives and then model mothers, I assumed at that impressionable age – get up early, don’t sleep in the afternoon and don’t yawn before 11 pm, or till the last person in the house is snoring, whichever is later!

As a result, till I actually met my husband, I never once entertained the thought of marriage as playing a role in my life. I seemed so patently unsuited to it. If ‘normal’ people needed six hours of sleep and people who worked hard, eight, I never felt rested till I’d got my full ten hours.

In hostel, the nuns hit upon a novel way of making sure I got up when they wanted me to. Playing upon my abnormal sense of responsibility (even this post is a manifestation of decades of guilt, I confess), they entrusted me with the task of getting up first and waking up everyone else. I’d totter out of bed (at 5 am in summer, 6 am in winter), walk all the way to our common study to grab the bell and sleep-walk up and down the corridor, clanging it for all I was worth. It is sure proof of my stupor that till today, I don’t remember what that bell sounded like.

Needless to say, like poles don’t always repel, and I got married to the one man in the world who could sleep more than me. When the son got to school-going age, we cast our eyes around and chose a school that started class at a sensible time, in our opinion. 10.30 am for Junior School – what more could a parent want?

A whole lot more, we realized two years later, when a host of busybody parents – the kind that you see jogging on the roads at 4.30 am – decided that the kids were coming back home too late. How on earth do you define ‘too late’, I wondered. Have you ever heard a wife complain the husband was ‘too late’ when he walked in from work at 7 pm? Do you think the corporate he worked for would listen to her and let him off at 5 pm instead? Unfortunately, corporates are corporates, and schools are not. This school obligingly held a referendum. Our emphatic ‘No’ did not even register in the clamour of the Early Risers. An hour was knocked off our night’s sleep in the next session.

Worse was to follow. A change at the top in school came about last year, and the new principal belonged to the same school (of thought) as my parents, aunts and grandparents. One of the first things she did was start school at 7.30 am. Which meant that though we live a hop, skip and jump away from school, the latest I dare wake the son up is 6.30 am. We wander around bleary-eyed, he getting ready and I getting his lunch ready. After he leaves, I settle down to a day of feeling guilty, trying to remember what exactly I put into his lunch-box and wondering whether he would survive it.

These days, I have a mission in life: eliciting opinion on why schools – and people in general – propagate so earnestly this equation of ‘early’ = ‘successful’. After all, no corporate house expects work to start before 9 am. And that is where, I presume, most of our bright young sparks are headed. On the other hand, the only people who get up for 7.30 shifts are assembly line workers and domestic labour. Not exactly your conventional definition of ‘successful in life’.

Meanwhile, I look upon it as my life’s work to convince my mother that two extra hours of sleep are not evidence of debauchery. Just once, I want her to look kindly at me when I stumble down the stairs at 10 am and say, ‘Poor dear, shall I get you some coffee?’

When you consider that my mother, if and when she succumbs to an afternoon nap, sleeps with her feet sticking out of the bed so that ‘I won’t sleep more than ten minutes’, you’ll realize that I have my work cut out for me!

First published in The Financial Express in May 2000.

Birthday Googly

Okay, I’m no longer at the age when I’m supposed to get excited over birthdays. Maybe I’m no longer at the age when I’m even supposed to remember my birthday’s round the corner, and soon I’ll hit the age when I’m no longer supposed to remember I was ever born. I’ll just groan and say it’s no point remembering birthdays when you have one foot in the grave. Amma does, and I have a hunch these things are hereditary.

But for now, for me, a birthday is a thing of joy, a day I look forward to months before the actual event. As always, the family has different theories about my unholy anticipation. ‘You’ve never really grown up. No sense of responsibility. If you were running your own house and doing everything in it, you wouldn’t have the time for all this nonsense,’ says Amma, shaking her head, when, in the beginning of October, just before his own birthday, I tell the son there are only 123 days left for my birthday. If she’s really in a bad mood, she’ll add, ‘What is all this birthday-shirthday? You forget your son is almost a teenager now.’

‘You just want to show me down,’ says the husband accusingly. ‘You know how bad I am at remembering birthdays and anniversaries, and you use your birthday to score points against me.’ Well, it’s not my fault I got to choose the only man in the world who fits the male stereotype for forgetting family events down to a T. It’s quite a nightmare, for not only does he forget my birthday, but I can’t even write a column on his forgetfulness and work it out of my system. My readers would think it just another article on the Indian male psyche.

The son is the only one who wisely keeps his counsel. For he knows that only a mum who gets excited over her own birthday will get excited over his birthday. And he understands that maternal excitement is usually in direct correlation to the number of gifts he tots up on his big day. Of course, the gene factor works here too: he remembers my birthday, but he seldom remembers a gift.

And for me, birthdays mean gaily wrapped, mysterious packages that I can open slowly, every nerve tingling in anticipation. Creamy pineapple cakes. Big bunches of flowers. All impossible dreams when you consider the husband thinks flowers are a convenient present for other people’s wives when you’ve been invited to a party at the last minute. And for both him and the son, cakes are chocolate truffle or not visible at all.

We had a major debacle last year. Despite my hints, the family scored 0 on all three fronts: gifts, flowers and cake. Amma produced an envelope with money in it, saying weakly, ‘You’re so fussy, it’s better you choose your own gift.’ I threw a major tantrum and spent most of last year reminding my family what I thought of their weak-kneed-ness.

Frankly, I didn’t expect the family response to get any better the next year, but surprise! Of course, Amma gave me the ubiquitous envelope, but there were flowers to match. The equally ubiquitous chocolate cake was there, but then so was the pineapple cake I coveted. There were dozens of cards. The son had actually broken his piggy bank to get me a stuffed toy. He even let me choose it, so I didn’t end up with a pink elephant.

But the best googly I’ve ever seen in my life came from the husband, who gave me a badge that proclaimed me the ‘World’s Greatest Woman’. Well! I don’t want to sound ungrateful, and the badge was kinda cute. But I had underestimated its power.

A couple of days later, we spent the evening with some old friends, and I pinned the badge on to my jacket. Everyone declared it was the most romantic thing they’d ever seen, and then the conversation moved to other topics. But by the end of the evening, I noticed every woman in the room had patted the seat next to her invitingly and engaged the husband in meaningful conversation. Obviously, his stock had hit an all-time high. And equally obviously, he wasn’t the only stereotypical Indian male in the room.

Well, I’ll never be able to convince anyone now that the husband never remembers my birthday.

First published in The Financial Express.