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How to pack your life in a bag and other moving tales

Maciej Frankiewicz - The SuitcaseMy life is at it again.

You would think a child would settle it, make a homebody out of a nomad, fix my feet in the city where family and only some remaining friends were. When my daughter began pre-school two years ago, I thought this was it. We had signed on the dotted line to be Delhi dwellers forever, or at least till she graduated. Then past fifty I would become a farmer and live in the mountains, again. But forever is a tricky thing. It’s laughing behind your back as you make plans for love and life.

So here we are, on a 14th floor apartment in chilly (if you’re sitting at home) Dubai, overlooking yachts go by in one direction and an unmanned metro crossing buildings that The Jetsons swung their hovercraft around many years ago on the telly. And I’ve been cooking every single day of the one week we’ve been here, me of the never-step-in-the-kitchen syndrome. I’ve already begun an uncertain relationship with the stove. We had our first spat today. It screamed, I shut it down. Soon enough we were okay. I’m also doing the evening slides round with the girl, something we never had time for in the almost four years she’s been around.

I’m the person all the “I’m not going to do that…” things happen to. Never not going to work (current status screams ‘Not allowed to work’ on a stamped paper in case I didn’t hear it clear enough). Not leaving the country now. Not packing like a fool. One week before departure I told everyone how I had finished packing everything and things would be smooth hereon. I wasn’t going to get sentimental and try to take everything. Instead I would take the high road, not clutter our new apartment with non-essential items. Till a few hours before leaving for the airport, I was on Round 7 of the packing-unpacking routine. “I can’t live without Rebecca West’s Black Lamb Grey Falcon or the 75th Anniversary edition of Joy of Cooking. I don’t care if they weigh 3 kilos!”

I couldn’t carry everything (except those books of course). Does it matter? Can you really ever pack your life in bags? For the most part just getting up and leaving works too. We can build it here, piece by piece, not in things we buy and hang but memories of that-time-we-lived-here, however long it lasts. My last night in Delhi, I was suddenly overwhelmed by the “Why?” Why were we leaving? Our girl has seen both sets of grandparents around her from the time she was born. And isn’t family all that really matters. Why move to another city now. A better job perhaps but is it really. What if I sit on that white desk in the new apartment and can’t write at all? What if Delhi is where all the words will be? And then I slept, not fighting it anymore. This is what we’re doing right now. This is where we will be. Virtually present with families, physically present in a trio. Learning to live by ourselves, not starting out anew but moving forward.

I went to five different schools growing up. I never have a good enough answer to “Where are you from?” I am from here and everywhere else I’ve been. I am from the people I’ve met, the books I’ve read, the stories I’ve heard about strangers. I am from the places I’ve seen and those that mark my dreams. This life can never be packed in enough suitcases and would do just fine without it. It is to be lived and kept in open jars. May it always spill over.

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Rote Beete Suppe (Beet Root Soup)

It was 1975. Two Indian friends were visiting a common German friend in East Berlin, then capital of the German Democratic Republic. That friend’s parents had years ago left their Nazi occupied country and settled along the Polish-Ukraine border. She had found her way back to divided Germany. That evening she served them a pink, sour soup. It was something she’d learned from her mother.

It had enticed the taste buds of my Father-in-law, one of the visitors, so much that he learnt the recipe from her. Making it several times during his stay in the country, he eventually forgot all about it when he returned to India in the early 80s. That is, until recently, when the sight of Saure Sahne (sour cream), leftover from my mushroom soup experiment, brought back the unique flavour of the beetroot soup and he delighted us with blending it all together again.

The dish is a popular soup in Eastern Europe, finding its way into Poland and Germany, through people carrying stories and special recipes along as the settled in newer parts in the region, in the aftermath of the war. The elaborate version of this soup, with many vegetables and even meat, is referred to as borscht (in Russian) and by differing names as dialects change across borders. This is a red hot (or pink depending on how much sour cream you like in it) soup not only in its form but also in the debates surrounding its origin.

This dish has now travelled to me, sans borders and the limits names and places often impose on people, travelled like all good things do, free as stories from life should be. And now I’m sharing it with you.

Rote Beete Suppe (Beet Root Soup)

This recipe serves two.

Ingredients:

1 big bulb (or 2 medium or 3 small) of Beetroot

200 gm Saure Sahne (Sour Cream)

2 tsp Butter

Salt to taste

Method:

Peel, wash and clean the beetroot bulb. Chop it into small pieces, preferably squares.

In a grinder mix the chopped beet root and sour cream to make a paste.

In a pan heat 2 tsp butter, add a little salt to taste, add the beetroot & sour cream paste.

Stir for a minute and add water according to the consistency you want.

Once boiled, cool it.

Add Black pepper as per taste and coriander as garnish.

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Parents Say ‘What!’: Q and A with Me

Beginning with me, the empress of the Eggfacemomhead kingdom, we’re going to ask parents to sleep a little less, think a little more and answer some questions about their almost always fun and never ever dull lives. Stay right here will you.

#mom #sketch #toddler #art

A post shared by Manika Dhama (@manikadhama) on

 

In one word, life as a parent is

Irreparable

The easiest thing about parenting

Nap Time

3 things that make you want to pull your hair out

The Amazing Race at meal time

Strangers telling you what’s what about YOUR kid

“When are you having the second?”

Something you’ve lied about to your kid(s)

How she was born. “We wanted a baby, we had a baby.”

Most embarrassing moment as a parent

Calling up room service during vacation to report room keys thrown inside toilet

One thing you’ve learnt from your kid(s)

Dogged determination

A pre-parenting thing you miss the most

Tuesdays with Morrie. Wait, “pre-parenting”? I thought we were born this way.

An unforgettable thing your child said or did

“No F*** That” at two. I blame the other parent.

You laugh out loud when

(Laugh inside my head) when I’m presented with a seemingly logical argument for something that was broken, spilled, done to the cat.

A tip (or two) for new parents

Scarlett O’Hara was right. ‘Tomorrow is another day’. You’ll get better with time

All kids tell everyone about everything. Speak less, listen more.

If you’d like to participate in this series or nominate a friend, holler on Twitter or Facebook and I’ll be saying ‘Hi’ very soon!

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10 Lessons from 15 Years of Love

Jacqueline Roque by Pablo PicassoLast month, we turned 15. “We” meaning the husband & I before we were the husband and I, including the time we didn’t feel very “we” if you ask me. We’ve known each other too long you’d think, for there to be any surprises. But surprise each other we do, every now and then, with the serenades, the same yet different notes in each other we’ve come to recognise and love and with how colossal fights can be (the frequency is 1 almost-tear-us-apart sort every 5 years).

Like all things in life should do, we’ve accumulated lessons (which I dole out to love newbies every other day) and which hopefully he and I will remember each day, particularly when the next big war is due.

1. You’re a team

As easy as it sounds, this one gets lost in the melewe of the daily grind, resembling You vs Me most often. Life (spent together) will take enough rough shots at us, and our ability to fight them will always be determined by whether we add each other to the enemy line or stand beside each other (with the gloves on) and take ’em down.

2. Simplify Simplify Simplify

For the sake of arguing, there’s a whole lot to pick up on. But very little of that is truly important. So before you start building ammunition to take each other down, stop and think if it’s really that important. Because some arguments are important and deserve to be shared. Do them justice by leaving out the riff raff.

3. When it comes to each other’s families, play a good guide

You know your respective families the best. So guide each other on some basics on what might be within respectful behaviour lines. Each family is different (don’t have the which is better argument EVER) so just follow each other’s lead and you’ll be fine, as long as you respect the guidance and follow through. (Corollary to #3: Never begin a sentence with “Your mother…”)

4. Go for Core Competencies

It’s amazing how we’re so happy to delegate responsibility in accordance with core competencies at work but in personal relationships we’re often hoarders, refusing to budge from ‘our terrain’. The home world is a happier place if you share work. And avoid a postmortem analysis!

5. Don’t Sleep on an Argument

Unlike other problems that seem to improve when you revisit them the next day, it actually helps to sleep on a clean slate when it comes to things bothering you about your relationship. If your concern passes the test in #2 then it’s better to say it now rather than later. Collecting only results in avalanches much later and are certainly more damaging.

6. The Little Things are the Big things

Vacation romances and weekly/fortnightly dates are important, but the morning hug, the random email during the day (because it feels more like a letter than an SMS), the smile at dinner are markers of the “we” you chose to become. It’s the reason you wanted to wake up to and with this person every day of your life.

7. Don’t let the humour die

Jean Luc Goddard said a couple that doesn’t enjoy the same films will eventually divorce. I like to believe a couple that doesn’t laugh at atleast some of the same things will grow apart. A common language of humour is the pillar that holds it all together. Because if you can’t let out guffaws with each other, life will resemble a silent motion picture that isn’t even cool.

8. Introspect

To become better versions of the “we”, you need to make time to look within the “you”. We’re always so busy telling the world what is wrong with it that we hardly have time to know ourselves. Don’t lose out on a wonderful opportunity to understand what you’re all about. Then every relationship will not be reactive, but rather a conscious, living action of who and what you want to be.

9. Don’t Compare

We all know that couple who always posts happy pictures from countless holidays or their always – perfect home. Sometimes we play that couple too. But it helps to remember that everyone is fighting some or the other battle, even if they’re doing a wonderful job cloaking it. Holidays are for leaving the phone behind, life is for the relentless pursuit of your version of happiness. Do it your way, carry along the people that truly matter and focus your energy on the living, not necessarily the way – it – looks – on – Instagram variety.

10. Give Thanks

How often have you said thank you to your partner? Yes there are things you think is their duty but it certainly doesn’t hurt to show love and gratitude, especially when our daily lives resemble a chihuahua on a sugar high & roller skates going downhill. Stop, take notice and let them (your partner, not the imaginary chihuahua) know why they’re extra special & why you feel butterflies-in-your-stomach excited when you spot them in the crowd.

Have any lessons from your (im)perfect love and life to share? I’m all ears!

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The Week That Was: How I (Almost) Lost My Mojo

You know how, when your parents are doctors, they make you take an annual full-body scan (around your birthday). What? Yours don’t? (Too late in the day to call child services. Oh wait, we don’t live in Canada).

So where were we? Ah yes, body scans (that don’t involve hot Polish flight stewards). There’s this hoopla around my birthday each year (because that’s the only way I’ll remember it) involving blood letting followed by numerical shame. So far it’s been sane. But this time I flunked, miserably. Having prided myself over being a non-fainter, a fever-avenger who only discovered what a body temperature rise feels like at boarding school flu epidemic, age 10 (Oh, so that’s what a fever is), my blood count in the recent test has fallen below borderline, causing much eyeball widening action by the medicine man & woman. Truth is, I wasn’t surprised.

For the first time, perhaps ever in the history of my life, I was sapped of energy, of mental faculties, of interest in everything, for a whole week. It was like my body was begging me to stop, catch a breath, lay still. It was unpleasant. It was not me. I knew I wasn’t eating too well, working out or even breathing normal. Work, by nature, is always frantic. Toddlers are always unpredictable. And yet after going through the motions for months, I was suddenly losing steam.

And after all the promises of doing something about it, “making time for myself” was not on the to-do list. Until the numbers came.

Single digit haemoglobin counts are not my thing, me of the floating above average on the body tests. But suddenly, with the enemy being real and writ in ink, I seemed to be jolted out of running through the day on high speed rails. I was forced to acknowledge each breath, to make it count, to slow the heck down. After weeks I stopped to look at the sunset (without & through my camera lens), to flip through the bedside poetry book, to hear my heart settle, without scrambling ahead.

IMG_20150427_234313

Numbers will stay below (blood) poverty line for a while. Routines will follow the clock I often lose to. But I’m hoping I won’t forget to keep my promises, to me.

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When I Grow Up…

ny cartoon

It is past 11:30pm, the room is dark from the curtains being drawn all the way to the end, the lights have been switched off for over half an hour, we’ve been silent all this time. And then she says this, without turning towards me.

“When I grow up, I want to be a journalist.”

Frankly, I’m surprised, and a little miffed. Ever since she learned the concept of growing-up-to-be-something, my now three year old girl has wanted to be a doctor. We have all played the hapless patient, had our blood tests done, received express instructions on when and how many medicines to take, even received change for the consultation fee. So we harbored dreams of Harvard educated at-home health care in our old age.

But it all ended last night.

“I want to be a journalist, like Baba.”

It wasn’t the worst thing she could have chosen. From one set of grandparents who had charmed her into following them into a medical calling, she was now leaning towards the other. No freebies to be had but surely we can live with that.

“Why do you want to be a journalist?”

I waited, while acknowledging (silently) that it was wonderful she had learned a new word, had pronounced it perfectly, was curious about things, was going to…

“Because then I will come on TV.”

No. No. No. No. No. No. NO.

This was all going downhill, and nearing midnight, which is never a good sign on weekdays.

“But you always wanted to be a doctor.”

“No! I want to be a journalist.”

Hello, I’m the adult here. I can win this.

“You can be what you want honey. No matter what you choose, you will have to study very hard for it.”

That settled it.

She was quiet after that, with dreams of TV stardom I presume. Meanwhile I wondered why she hadn’t taken a fancy to following in Mamma or Papa’s footsteps. Though she thinks adulthood is one giant party with free-flowing makeup and coffee or wine (depending on what Mamma is caught drinking), her ‘job’ choices so far are grandparent stamped.

Who can blame her. Mamma and Papa just go to ‘office’, take two whole paragraphs to explain what they ‘really’ do, are not ballet dancers and are never on TV.

Advantage: Toddler

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One Love, Two (and more) Questions Asked

Peppa and George from Peppa PigPeppa Pig, my daughter’s many-a-dinner-time cartoon friend has a little brother George who’s answer to “What do you want?” is always “A Dinosaur”. He has a green toy dinosaur that accompanies him everywhere. This among other things, is the usual playground conversation between the little brother and sister.

After having seen several episodes of their harmlessly sweet adventures for months, my little girl turned to me a few days ago and asked, “Mamma, Peppa and George are two babies. But you have only one baby. Why is that?”

She’s three and I’m not stupid, so I knew this question was going to come soon. I smiled and told her that people could choose the number of babies they wanted, this could range from zero to four (it’s 2015, lets get real) and I had chosen to have one special little her.

Nothing happened for a few days. Then, there it was again, yesterday, hiding beside the conversation of a party invitation from a friend with twin girls.

“Mamma, A_ & A_ are two babies and you have only one baby. When you were getting me, couldn’t you ask for one more?”

“Honey, I didn’t exactly buy you at the supermarket.”

“Yes I know. But when I was a shiny star and you chose me, you could have picked one more.”

That children are curious and ask countless questions is common knowledge. That you must be prepared with ingenious retorts is a given. That you can lie through your teeth is just parenting privilege.

So why didn’t I pick two stars? (“we”? There is the husband and his wishes & whatnot to be acknowledged, not necessarily considered).

Well, we’re just about getting used to being adults, with jobs and school fees and drastically reduced frequency of sex in our lives. And then there’s this little person who joins all our couple (+1) hugs, berates the arguing party in couple-only heated conversations and makes us laugh silly…at her antics, at the wild, white skirt moves that made her, at our neat little party of three. And it ‘feels’ complete, in defiance of the sibling childhoods we come from and the “but two are perfect” noise around us. If there is a second child ‘star’ somewhere, the hubby and I aren’t looking for it right now. Perhaps we never will. Making her a playmate or a true blood companion after we croak, aren’t good enough reasons to have a second one.

In our own little, possibly flawed way, we try and teach her what ‘sharing’ means when she’s around friends, cousins or even little things like giving away balloons to stranger babies coming after her. The night activities are incomplete without wild jostling and pushing her down on padded bedding. Uncontrollable peals of laughter accompany the hubby’s “She doesn’t have a sibling, someone needs to push her around” in explanation to wild throw-offs.

Most children in my daughter’s class are already part of a pair and as the years go by, she will continue to question us on this point. Many of our friends are single children and are glowing examples of all that’s ‘normal’ and ‘well-adjusted’, the epitome of accepted adult behavior (for the most part). There will never be a right answer or the perfect number, but the ‘not-somethings’ will have to explain their choice that strays from the ‘norm’, established though it is by people whose lives have no bearing on that of others.The zeros and ones will come under the scanner and their lives will be used as examples for or against the motion.

Like all ‘good’ parents, we probably will not admit to our girl just yet that we don’t have all the answers. We will continue to believe, and tell her that we’re capable of crafting a well-functioning adult without a sibling partner (there’s no harm trying). And we won’t let her in to the big parenting secret (until it’s time to spill it): we learn as we go, build our own rules, stumble and rise. Somewhere along the way we will have built our version of an (im)perfect everything.

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In Memoriam

Twelve years ago, my brother and I walked out into the sun with a shoe box for company. We were on a mission, to fulfill my brother’s wish, which he had etched in blue pen on the wall in our room.

“I want doggy with big ears.”

I had never quite understood his fascination with canines. He had had his flesh torn out twice over but his desire for a furry pet was relentless.

We had kept pet dogs ever since I can remember.  First there was Salma, the Indian breed lady with whom we played ring-a-ring-a-roses. She wasn’t exactly our pet, but since we fed her she hung around in our garden in that remote place in Himachal. She had pups, among whom I can only recall the black brute who answered to the everyman dog-name Tommy. And the only thing I remember about him was how he licked my feet all through a fancy dress rehearsal in the kitchen. When we left town Salma followed the truck for a long time after. I don’t remember that part. It is from the parent-to-child folklore about the times you were too young to remember.

The new town was where my brother’s adventure streak really found wings. He was the ring-leader and roamed the streets with his humble followers in tow. This bunch of five year olds had an exciting life building thatched structures in the jungle and parading dead crows about town. Huckleberry Finn would have been proud.

In keeping with his interest areas at the time, my brother brought home a raggedy, stinky dog that looked every bit the part of his potential sidekick. This canine ragamuffin was christened Jacky, for no fault of his. He stayed with us for a few months, just enough time to find himself in festival pictures and be forever named among the beloved four-legged family members. You could say it was in his eyes the day he was brought in, but I guess we (everyone except my brother) knew this dog was no house pet. So Jacky left his two-legged companion one day without notice and continued on in search of possibly adventurous pursuits.

My brother was hurt, as all five year olds whose dogs run away, will be. My parents decided to fill that void by searching high and low for the perfect pet for my brother. We found him hiding under a chair in Gwalior. Blacky (for that was his mane and his name) was a beautiful hybrid with uncertain genealogy but a wild streak that only masked my brother’s ever so slightly. They were perfect for each other. If you came by the house you could catch them lying arm in arm on the porch. Blacky also saved my mother twice from deadly snakes. On both occasions it was a dark rainy night and as my mother bent forward in the porch to place the food bowl before him, Blacky barked away and forced her back in. In a little while my mother knew why, as she saw a snake wriggle past near the bowl. When we found ourselves back to packing and moving, it was time to decide whether taking Blacky along to what was going to be a small apartment in the city was a good idea. Finally he came along, the fox-sized giant in the car with his little companion.

Soon enough it became clear that keeping him locked up in a small space was a bad idea so he was sent to live on a farm, which in this case was not a euphemism for ‘he passed away’. He did go to a farm and lived happily (I presume) till it was time to say goodbye, several years later.

You would think this was it, but you’re oh so wrong. What followed next was the opposite of Blacky, in colour and size. My father went back to where we had moved from and came back with a little white ball inside his coat pocket. This was Rusty. Why a pearly white dog was called Rusty is beyond me. But that was his name when my father got him and we didn’t bother to make him unlearn it. Rusty was a spitz with remarkable self-confidence. This dog would stand in front of a bull, measuring just about the size of the bull’s face, and the bark like there was no tomorrow. Perhaps he was a reincarnation of Napolean.

I distinctly remember this one night when he swallowed a chicken leg piece whole. We weren’t sure if his stomach was that big and my parents said he might die because he couldn’t possibly digest that big a thing. My brother and I cried and cried all night and when morning came Rusty just pranced around the house wondering what all the fuss was about.

I can’t remember why that happened, but after a few years it was decided that Rusty must be taken back to where he came from. I think it was because we had all become tied up in a lot of things and couldn’t care too well for him. Or perhaps it was the usual scenario where kids demand pets saying they’ll do all the related work and when the pet comes he’ll all toy and no work for them, while mummy darling has an additional family member to care for. Once again our four-legged friend left us just as we were getting used to him. This time my brother went with dad, probably to check whether these farms in parent folklore were indeed that. My father told us later that brother darling was crying on his way back. Little boys and their dreams.

For a few years nothing happened. But soon enough the writing was on the wall. Literally.

That is how we found ourselves standing before a golden retriever mother who probably knew we were going to take one of her kids away. We brought Mischief home on the day before my brother was leaving for boarding school. It was probably not the best timing, especially since he was technically being brought home for my brother. I love dogs too but I’m not the sibling who wrote that on the wall.

On the first night we placed newspapers all over our room for him to pee on. When the lights were off we could hear him trying to find his way around. The next day my brother said goodbye with a heavy heart and Mischief had found his caretaker in mommy. During that time whenever we went to meet my brother, we took Mischief with us. All our dogs till then had been wild ones so we considered getting Mischief trained. For about a month Mischief spent time with a trainer and he learnt to sit, stand and roll over. It was all very cute but soon he lost interest and we let him be.

All our pets before Mischief had been more one person’s pet than everyone’s. But that changed with Mischief. All of us cleaned the poo, took him for walks, tick-picked and fed him. He became the true family pet.

As with any pet, the funny moments abound, whether it was the time he sat in the middle of the road in front of the vet’s clinic, as my brother and I struggled to pull him to the side. Or the time he ate one kilogram freshly prepared gajar-ka-halwa right out of the kadai. Coming home meant preparing to be thrown back by the force that was Mischief in his heyday. There were rules to be followed around the house – keep your slippers out of reach, keep fancy food at high places, close your bedroom door if you don’t want it to resemble a tornado hit space.

These rules have become second nature to all of us and it was extremely difficult to imagine that this fiery furry one could ever be sober. But your body plays these tricks on you. Four years ago he contracted tick fever, which was followed by a significant drop in platelet count. This was followed by a bout of nose bleeding that refused to end and signalled the end. I was miles away at the time and the description of his troubles set me crying for what might happen. The vet took one look at him and said, “this dog is not going anywhere. His body language shows he’s too high on life to give up just yet.” He was right. Circumstances that would have spelt the end for many left Mischief weak in limb but fiery in spirit as always.

Since then several close encounters followed and a couple of times the vet stated “you might lose him”. Mischief’s resolve was far too strong for all that was going wrong inside his system. His special food for kidneys and blood continued alongside several doses of medicines. Frequent visits to the vet, more nose bleeding episodes and countless other problems alternated with glimpses of the erstwhile naughty behaviour. But everything had slowed down.

Till September 2012, we were keeping the bedroom doors closed as per the usual rule. Soon it became unnecessary. Mischief had to be carried to the vet in hand and would lie for hours at the exact spot we left him, getting up only for water and food. Then came the first weekend in October. The vet pronounced his judgement. The kidneys had failed and the end was near. He suggested we put Mischief to sleep. We debated and decided to let nature take its course.

Today, two years ago, when I got back from work, I could hear Mischief moaning. His breathing was hurried and he was visibly discomfited. My mother said he was probably going to be with us for two days or so. He had stopped eating for a few days and the only water he had was whatever little we were able to put in through a dropper. In humans this sort of condition usually marks the beginning of the end. Watching him troubled, my mother said we should all pray for his smooth passing. She had been sitting beside him for the most part of the day for almost a week and she decided to sit beside him and pray.

At 9:45pm on 9th October 2012, Mischief the Magnificent passed away right after my mother had sounded the bell three times and begun to pray. She continued her prayers and informed the rest of us when those were over.

As my brother and I drove to the burial ground two years ago, I travelled back to the day we had walked home with Mischief in our arms. The three of us were travelling together again and just like that day twelve years ago, I will never forget this one.

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Feasting on Friendship

Last Sunday, a dear friend and I met for lunch. Although we live less than ten kilometers from each other, we meet less than five times a year. Our last rendezvous was at a breakfast event earlier this year, which she was hosting. In between entertaining others and keeping things in check, we hardly got the time to ‘catch up’.

So this time, there was a lot we had to fill each other on, mostly her trials at running her own business, interpreting mixed signals from a certain gentleman of interest, dealing with her supportive but anxious parents with regard to her 30-year-old unmarried status and mutual exclamations at the horrors being inflicted by our ex-boss at a company we began working for right out of graduate school.

If I had to pick a best friend (among women), she would be it. In addition to being classmates at college, we had found a common interest, namely, commuting from the same location to our classroom nearly 20 kilometers away. When I wasn’t playing (and praying for) the empty bus lottery, I would hitch a ride in her cantankerous white car. Our adventures in that disheveled beast included water puddles at our feet from the leaky roof, lizards resting behind the steering wheel and a disruption in our philosophical ramblings by the sudden demise of the engine on a highway stretch with no help. The final straw was the shocking disappearance of that crippled metal mass from outside the office where we had begun our journey together into paid labor. The car was finally retrieved but by then my friend had fallen out of love with it. She gave it away to the plumber and got a swifter ride. And it has been so long since the fateful day that even the second car is being done in for a fancier ride this October.

Lunch at Cafe LotaShe and I were born in the same year, nineteen days apart. Being zodiac twins meant that over the years we had shared horoscope defined drivel that was supposed to explain our lives. To no one’s surprise, it never did. As we dug into a steaming Vegetable Stew with Appam and an aubergine curd dish with parathas, the conversation veered towards our present lives that couldn’t have been more dissimilar. Even though we spent two years at our first job together, the ensuing joys and sorrows have been uniquely our own. And yet we have been few dialed numbers away, hers being among the few that have been imprinted in my mind, unmarred by memories going digital.

Even though we haven’t been very regular with our correspondence, we ease into it when we do meet. There are no shields, pretenses or hidden cobwebs. It’s confession closet and more.

Nothing compares of course to the one time she called, nearly three years ago after a very long gap.

“Heyyyy (the long drawl is a must for our greeting)! How’ve you been? Lets meet soon. It’s been forever.”

The usual drill is for us to decide time and place, dependent mostly on which new restaurant we want to try, and then we meet soon after. This one time however, when she called I was lying flat on my back having given birth to my little girl a few hours before.

“Dude, you are not going to believe this, but I’ve just had a baby. So, yeah let’s meet soon. Come to the hospital maybe?”

And then we laughed and laughed.

Apple Jalebi at Cafe LotaSince then we’ve met several times, always with the little girl who addresses my friend as her own while distinct aromas pepper our ramblings. This time they posed and paired and shared a meal. And we parted having amassed stories until next time and after discovering that I could enjoy a sugary apple treat (with the right company) even if I’d never given it half a chance before.

For all our feelings of sisterhood, when we meet or call each other to spill all, there are portions of each other’s lives we’ve narrowly missed. That is the shape of things with us and this is how I know we’ll always be; without ceremonious chatter or forced smiles, but almost always with savory bites and hungry ears, waiting to devour the tales of lost time.

4

Let Her Find Her Voice and Sing

“It’s a girl”.

Immediately after I heard her first cry the doctor informed me that I had given birth to a girl. Perhaps I was just imagining their lack of enthusiasm at the news, but while they ran customary checks on her, I wondered how people usually broke the news of a baby boy’s birth and whether it was as solemn. A little while later they handed her over saying “Here’s your daughter.” I had to stop smiling and purse my lips into a pout so that I could kiss her cheek. Truth be told, I followed the kiss with trying to check if she had my eyes. She didn’t, and I thought, “Ah well, perhaps it is better if she has her own version of everything.”

She was born in 2011, the year the Census in India came out with a grim statistic – the sex ratio in the country had declined to its lowest since Independence, at 914 females to 1000 males (the final population figures since put out by the Registrar General’s office have been significantly upwardly revised to 918). Infant mortality plays truant across the country but so does active silencing of the female voice before and after birth. Countless female foetuses do not get a chance to open their eyes and look at the world. Some who do grace the air with their first cry are forced into darkness, sometimes by helpless mothers but most often by ‘family’ who ask the mother to “look away” and forget all about it. And forget we do, because our collective consciousness has learnt to look the other way.

Nearly three decades before that census, an old woman drove through the summer night in an Ambassador car in central India. Her daughter-in-law was in labour after having laughed her heart out at a humour classic earlier that evening and had to be taken to the hospital. The father had not been granted leave by his (Government) employers. So the two women rode alone hoping to see a healthy, possibly laughter-loving baby soon.

The baby was born in the early afternoon the next day and was immediately diagnosed with infantile jaundice, which is a common ailment among newborns. However, this affliction was severe and the infant was placed in the nursery for nearly ten days with photo therapy that required the eyes to be shielded. The mother, a paediatrician, knew the range of symptoms and how bad things could get if the baby’s condition worsened. She may have cried thinking about all the bad things that could happen to the child. But ten days later, her little girl, was ready to see the world.

My early years were spent around the gorgeous hills in the north Indian state of Himachal. While I created childhood memories of river stream picnics, devoured years later through scenic photographs, my mother worried some more about her shy girl and how life would treat such a quiet child. It didn’t help that relatives did their bit comparing cousins and suggesting that the feisty tomboyish one would grow up to ride a bike and wipe the tears of the wailer. That image, like most other plans hatched too early, didn’t quite play out that way. But I found myself being encouraged to search for my voice, irrespective of the form it came through. Slowly I learnt that your voice that pushed forth your will was the strongest tool a person had, not by trampling on the sounds of others but by ensuring that you made yourself heard. Instead of looking the other way, I learnt that you had to jump right in the centre of the ring and fight; because there were things that needed to be verbalized and others that were waiting for just a little support. It also became amply clear that most people (women included) found nothing more fearsome than a woman with an opinion.

Under-graduate studies took me to an all-women’s college in Delhi, the nation’s capital, where I’ve been based ever since. During the daily commute by bus (living in the suburbs meant I needed to change two), I encountered molestation of the butt-pinching, breast-grabbing, hand-on-crotch variety, where only the degree varied over time. The more comfortable Delhi Metro had not begun then and there was no “women’s coach” to get pushed into. Like all other things a woman must “learn to live with”, we used elbows, safety pins and loudly shaming the culprit to get by.

This was also the time I was exposed to countless stories from around the world detailing the trials and triumphs of women through the ages. The suffrage movement in U.S. and Europe, the closeted yet brilliant lives of gifted women writers and harsher realities closer home that showed up in newspapers every day, and continue to, with increasing viciousness, today.

Rape, acid attacks, domestic violence, female foeticide, all stem from the base desire to silence and force into submission the valiant voice within a woman’s heart. This is the voice that often threatens established ‘norms’ and seeks an alternative life not crafted entirely by others. She questions, admonishes, refuses to accept all that women before her were ‘supposed to do’. This refusal to ‘conform’ and be ‘tamed’ creates conflicts, which unfortunately do not lead to questioning their relevance as much as it does to the silencing of the ‘aberrant’ voice of the woman.

~

Even as I write this piece, I receive a message from a female friend about having been accosted by two men on a bike at a crowded parking lot in Delhi in broad daylight. She was walking from the metro station, tagging along with the daily crowd, when these two men first started making lewd comments from a distance and then they pulled up closer. Before she had time to react, the rider pulled out a bottle and threw the contents on her face. In those fifteen minutes of chaos she was certain she had been attacked with acid. It turned out to be hot water. She lost her balance and collided with the pillion rider and they both fell. Her left arm was bruised and while she tried to get back up on her feet, the attackers had fled. The crowd that had by now gathered around her was full of people some of whom tried to help, while others simply stared or worse still, laughed at her. She could hear murmurs of “these things keep happening to girls”. Luckily a nearby vendor had noted the number on the bike and armed with that my friend went to the nearby police station to lodge a complaint. The officer on duty looked at her and said she probably invited the boys’ attention because of her clothes, which revealed her legs. He went on to suggest that since nothing was going to happen to the case anyway, she should just get out of the mess and FORGET ABOUT IT. She went on to lodge a complaint against the boys and the police officer. Based on the bike number plate, the boys were rounded up the next day and turned out to be local hawkers. My friend identified them and they were taken into custody.

I relate this incident here to remind us that it is not alright to find reasons for a crime against women in the clothes she wore, the things she said or how she behaved. And it is not alright to pretend like these things happen in a faraway universe outside of our lives. Or that these are everyday occurrences so we must all forget about it. For then we’re teaching our girls to ALWAYS BE AFRAID (or silent) and telling our boys that they can get away with ANYTHING. Neither of those reflects the true meaning of freedom.

Every year we proudly celebrate the decades since India became a free state. And yet it remains unfair to joyously proclaim this freedom when one half of the country’s citizens are denied the right to life with dignity. Why must a woman have to ‘fight’ to survive, thrive and lead a life on her own terms? Why doesn’t it bother enough people’s consciousness to do something about it, in their own, small way? Why must we close our eyes to the reality of discrimination, abuse and inequality and answer it not by punishing perpetrators but by forcing the female voice into submission or silence?

~

My life has had more in common with many women and most men from a similar socio-economic background than with countless other women across the country. This life has been unhindered by struggles that scores of women face everyday. My education, marriage, motherhood, profession have not been dictated by those around me. I continue to enjoy (or falter at!) the fruits of my labour, with support of those around me. This ‘privileged’ existence has come most significantly from the social milieu of the family I was born into, but it has also come from the uninhibited sky under which I was left free to dream.

As my daughter turns three, I continue to celebrate the things she says and does, to feed her curiosity of all the new things she encounters, to lead the way till she wants to walk alone. In all the things she and I will share over time, I wish we never have to talk about “learning to live with” being a woman in India. And when we do, I hope these words conjure up images of a carefree life, bound only by her will and not by externalities that force her actions.

~

Every child is born with a song in her heart, one that she polishes over time, humming and setting it to tune. It is for us to let her sing to her heart’s content, without erecting walls that trap her voice within.

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This article is part of the #BeingaModernIndianWoman archive, which is being launched on 15th August on Indian Independence Day. This storytelling initiative celebrates womanhood and freedom of (responsible) expression, and it’s a stepping stone to further economic opportunities for women in India. Please visit facebook.com/beingamodernindianwoman for more information.

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