5

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.

0

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.

—–

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.

#BeingAModernIndiaWoman

3

10 Things They Don’t Teach You in Pregnancy School

Knowledge sharing on Motherhood is unfairly tilted on the side of pregnancy-related information (maybe because there’s a giant woman on that side of the scale). Very little is said about what really goes on behind unbolted doors and open parking lots. Here’s my contribution to the What-To-Expect-When-The-Baby-Is-Outside-Your-Body section of the library.

1. There is no such thing as ‘private space’.

Prepare to be watched (touched, kissed even) while you’re trying to unload body junk in YOUR bathroom. No you cannot lock the door. Yes it’ll happen everyday.

2. Remember the days when you slept without a care in the world.

History, in this case, will not repeat itself. And there’s a new alarm to boot. Foot-in-mouth.

3. Put on your thinking caps, all the time.

You have to say something when your little girl points to a bra (or even what-lies-beneath) and asks “Mommy, what’s that?” Undergarment. Chest. In case you’re wondering.

4. Learn to say “Fudge”.

Its a 5 letter replacement for an oft needed 4 letter word.

5. Bid Adieu to Moaning Rights

Sex, at the odd chance that you get to indulge in it, must be carried out in stealth, like teenagers sneaking a smoke break. You could say there’s a unique adventure in that. Many wouldn’t agree. But you could say it.

6. Master the Deep Breath

Projectile Vomit on your face, Nosy Strangers telling you how to hold your baby, Chocolate hands on your linen pants. A deep breath tells you there’s a good life across the river.

7. Hide the Caffeine

If you love coffee (you don’t? seriously? let’s pretend this never happened) then you must consume it like sex (#5 above). A toddler will take to coffee like a cat jumping off the ledge chasing a pigeon. Them cuckoo. And with caffeine in their system, them the sort of young-wild-free you don’t want in your house. No Ma’am.

8. Watch the Baby Talk

Male colleagues, Twenty-something juniors, Unmarried friends might smile but frankly no one wants to hear what your little one said or did or ate or spilled. Everyday. That conversation is best had with always eager grandparents, the other parent of aforementioned baby and the baby.

9. Forget Television (or Beer/or Beer in front on the Television)

You can’t enforce No-TV rules and then put your feet up and watch Suits. If you must, there’s humping tigers on Discovery. And who needs television when life with a child resembles most features on ‘America’s Funniest Videos’. Go make your own TV. Better still, READ.

10. Get Flexible

You must have seen the cute little picture of a baby in a mother’s lap as she works from the comfort of her home.

And you thought, “Aww. I want that!”

Well, that picture is a lie.

Reality looks more like a toddler dancing in your lap pressing random keys on your laptop. As long as she doesn’t hit send, we’re safe. Learn magic maneuvers that involve arms (and legs) going around said toddler. Practice hard. Also, Proust must now be devoured under lamp-light after baby is asleep. So, (10a) Get a lamp.