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.

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.

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.

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.

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.