Here’s a toast to a non-fussy Valentine’s day

Valentines day

Cheesy is as cheesy does.

There are a couple of Valentine’s days that I remember very vividly. Now at 31 it is not a big deal, but there was a time when it did mean a lot.

I was about 12 or 14 when the song ‘Chui Mui Si Tum’ had released. Remember that one with Preeti Jhangiani and Abbas and that weird teddy bear which clung to your tee-shirt with its paws and feet? Yep, it had become a huge craze and all the shops were lined with those teddy bears embroidered with Valentine messages. I was perhaps too young for anyone to give any Valentine’s gift to me, especially since my father was a police inspector then, but I wanted it so badly. And then I remember walking down to that shop with my dad and buying a small off-white teddy bear with a red jacket and black paws with a velcro. I had that one for several years, a Valentine’s gift from my dad. That teddy bear brought in a lot of promises for a youth filled with cheesy indie-pop love songs.

Later as we were growing up, there were countless number of Valentine’s days celebrated with several people. There was a time when my brother and I were such partners in crime that we would bring our gifts home together , remove the personalised messages and say ‘oh, we just got it for each other’. Once a girl gave him a 3 foot tall soft toy and that disgusting thing sat in our bedroom for so long that I still see it in my horror dreams.  I am sure my parents knew exactly what was happening but they played along.

Our first Valentine’s after marriage was a wreck. We were 24, both of us had joined our family business but we were unsure about what exactly to do. After a long drunk dinner on Valentine’s eve, we woke up at 9 am and stumbled into office sometime at 11. My father-in-law gave us a talk that day. We had sure inherited the business but we had no reason to be callous about it. It was time to man-up and take responsibilities. And all this he said to his son for both of us and not directly to me (which is such a relief when you are newly married), but it hurt in the correct way. Now six years later, many times he has to tell us to relax and take it easy, but on some days it feels as if the office has become our Valentine.

I also remember the February of 2008, 10 years back, when I was madly in love with a guy who had promised to take me to the gully wali chai-ki-tapri for a date. It was convenience. He could smoke there and wouldn’t have to fuss over the details. I lit his cigarette for him, may be smoked one myself too. It was the cool thing to do you see, but being young and stupid can make you do the most foolish things and fall in love with the best rogues in town.

Now at 31 all I can see is the commercial mushy side of Valentines day. Just like me, the Shiv Sena seems to be calmer now, they used to create havoc every Valentine’s day when we were in college.

I am not sure what the 20 year olds do on Valentine’s Day now, but for me when you are facing real world problems like your maid falling sick and asking for a 2 month leave, I want to dance around her and woo her so that she comes back sooner and my life returns back to normal. Or when the child is preparing for the annual day at school and keeps singing ‘nanha munha rahi hoon’ all day long, you start humming it even in the bathroom and cannot for the love of god remember any other romantic song to sing to your husband.

The silver lining is that after 6-7 years of marriage the cynicism level of husband and wife has matched and he expects as much (or just as little) from Valentine’s Day as I do.

So cheers to that and a happy Valentine’s day to all of you!

Rutvika

This baby girl, my sous-chef!

Baking with Sara

When my four year old niece Sara came to Mumbai to spend her vacation with us for a month, I was unprepared for the way she would make me fall in love with her. My three year old boy already takes up all of my free time and I was sure that I don’t have room in my mind and my heart for another child, even as an aunt. Work is hectic, we had foreign visitors to entertain, but every evening for the last one week I felt like I should leave work and go back to the kids. Take Arjun and Sara for a ride and get lost in their little world.

For the first day or two after they came, I actively resisted getting drawn in to her magical little being. I felt that I anyway won’t understand her US accent, she doesn’t really know me and would prefer being with her parents and grandparents since she is attached to them much more than me. She speaks only in English and Arjun understands mostly Marathi, I won’t even be able to do anything with them together.

But I was so wrong.

Ever since I remember, I have always wanted two kids, and at-least one daughter. But in a marriage there are two people and eventually the husband and I decided that one child was enough. We should concentrate on Arjun so that we can also focus on the increasing demands of our expanding business. So you see I have a daughter shaped void in my life. I did not know the extent of it till Sara came and snugly fit into it. With her little skirts, and her hair which I love to braid, the quiet understanding way in which she holds my hand when we are in the market, the way in which she sits on my lap and twirls my curls and asks me to paint her toenails and becomes my sous-chef when we are baking cookies, all these little things make up for the lack of a daughter who I always wanted. I love my sonny boy, you know how much I do, but its just different with girls and boys. Your nieces and nephews will always make a special place for themselves in you life.

I have countless memories of me and my younger cousin sitting with my mami, my maternal aunt, while she taught us craftwork, origami, let us play in the mud in the garden for hours and read to us from the Big book of Fairytales every single night before going to bed. She would come home every evening, tired from work, do the house chores and sit with us to satisfy our never ending demands and resolve our squabbles. Last whole week when I sat down with Arjun and Sara sticking pictures in a scrap book or taking them to a restaurant to eat ice-cream, I imagined that I had turned into her. She is miles away, but I felt as if she was standing besides me in the same room and feeling proud of how I had turned out to be. My cousin remembers a different version of our time spent together, a version where the adults in the room were fighting with each other, but my brain has skilfully learnt to mask that story.

When Arjun and Sara grow up, I want them to remember these good times. Remember that they are so loved and that we are always available for them with a hug and unconditional love, no matter where they are. The world is changing like it always does, times are getting stressful, but these kids prevent me from getting drowned in a sea of my cynical worries. And these two little people should also develop a strong connection with each other, to support one another even long after we are gone. Living in two different continents, their backgrounds, cultures will be different. But what hopefully ties them to each other will be the memories. Of the family gathered together, laughing and joking over tea, while they are busy making towers of colourful Lego and learning from each other.

As for Sara and me, we will be best buddies, baking up a storm. Wanna come have a cookie?

A very smitten Aunt,

Rutvika

When we all turn into clouds.

Arjun contemplating

Every time when someone old is sick, I feel this is the final time I am seeing them. Every time my grandmother calls me I hold on to her words, I feel this is the last time I am talking to her. She is healthy as a horse, takes good care of herself, gives unwanted advice to everyone she meets, insists on them following her advice and in general keeps getting in trouble because of all the questions she asks people which she is not supposed to.

But still, every time I see a call from her number, my heart beat quickens till I hear her voice.

It is strange to have this feeling in your head at all times. It is a cycle of life and death. What is born must die, and yet, it feels as if we are all fighting it every minute. For ourselves and for our loved ones.

When Arjun, my 2.5 year old boy asked me where 3 out of 4 of my grandparents are, I pointed at the sky and told him that they have become clouds now. We can’t see them, but they can see us. Now in this monsoon season, when he sees a dark cloud or a soft white cloud against a grey blue sky, he points at it and asks me who that specific cloud is. I make up some stories and he entertains them. One day last weekend he came to me, held my face in both his hands and then very sincerely told me ‘Momma, please don’t become a cloud when you get old”. I squeezed him and said okay, but actually what I wanted to tell him is that ‘Becoming a cloud after you become old is the best thing to happen, honey.’ But may be he is too little to understand that thing happening to his mom.

And kids can be strange. This idea is stuck in his head and when he sees any really old person, he asks them, ‘When do you think you will become a cloud?’ I quickly change the topic before any more questions are asked, but you can imagine me getting a small panic attack when he starts questioning in that direction.

Last month, I asked my 80 year old grandmother who had gone to meet her dying 83 old brother, “What did you say to him?”. “Nothing”, she told me. “I just stroked his hand and his forehead”. “Thats it? No last words of wisdom from you or from him?” “No. We have just been there forever, what else to say?”

Getting old and then leaving this world is perhaps the best form of dying. Of having lived a life, of knowing that your children, their children are all grown up, that they can take care of themselves without you – that is solace. And I believe in re-birth. In same soul, many lives. So all those who have left us will come back in some other form, in some other person. It helps me navigate the everyday. My husband believes that we are all carbon atoms, there is no soul and there is no re-birth. And this belief makes him stay sane. Well, different things work for different people, but I refuse to believe that my grandmother’s unrelenting, unsolicited advice will leave me and not come back. I am sure she will pass on that baton to someone else, for her sake and for mine.

This week, we will celebrate her 80th birthday. All her sisters will be there too, in the old-age home where she now stays. Me and mom were trying to convince her that we should all go on a holiday to celebrate her 8oth. But she wants to stay put and wants us all to come there. So thats where we all will be, amongst 30 other grannies and grandpas, some of whom we know and some only she knows. Arjun loves it there, so much open space and trees and flowers, he runs around the whole time.

On the other side of the family, Akshay’s grandma also lives very close to us. Arjun is very attached to her. She is 81. In good health, but ageing. Arjun sees all of this. How fortunate he is to love and be loved by three generations, but he will also miss them the most when they are all no more.

But there is no better thing than to grow old and die. May we all have the same fate.

Cheers,

RC

Finding cues from books to keep calm and carry on

Bookstore in Berlin

On a miraculous note, I have finished reading all the four books that I started reading in the last two months. I call it a miracle because believe it or not, there are 6-7 books on my kindle which I started reading but couldn’t go on. For varied reasons. And then I would give up reading for a while, keep scourging listicles to find a book which will help me get back on track and feel disconcerted all the while because I did not have a book to go back to. Working full time and raising a child leaves very less time to read (or even to take a shower for that matter), but escaping my own life and joining someone else through the books makes it rather bearable to live through the mundane necessities of life. We are so small in this whole universe, that our joys and sorrows, difficulties and breakthroughs are all insignificant and should not be taken too seriously.

Four years back when I was in Paris, I went to Lyon to spend two days with a business associate and his family consisting of his wife and three kids. His youngest daughter Lily (who was 6) and I became very attached. She doesn’t speak a word of English and I cant speak French, but sometimes you don’t need words to feel close to each other. I hadn’t seen her since then. When we were going to Berlin for our annual international meeting, I was going to see her father. I took a little gift for Lily and wondered if she would remember me.

We were in for a rude shock when we saw Lily with her father in Berlin and he told us that his wife had committed suicide a week back. 10 year old Lily accompanied him as there was no one to take care of her at home. I knew her mother, such a warm gentle person. But she suffered from depression for several years and couldn’t take it anymore. I felt the inevitable had happened.  She fought the demons in her head for 20 years, but refused to accept medication. As it often happens in situations like these, I couldn’t bring myself to say anything comforting. We hugged each other and said that we are very sorry to hear that.

I couldn’t focus on anything for the rest of the evening or night. A book came to my rescue. While in Berlin, I wanted to read something about the city and I had Stasiland by Anna Funder. I escaped into that book, The Berlin wall and the attempts to flee, atrocities committed by the Secret police – the Stasi, incessant spying by the East German government on the citizens and so on. Suddenly the bleaker world that I was reading about made my real world seem more cheerful. And the words, how they comfort a soul when troubled. Look at this from the book “I like trains. I like their rhythm, and I like the freedom of being suspended between two places, all anxieties of purpose taken care of: for this moment I know where I am going.” Or this : “We don’t catch hold of an idea, rather the idea catches hold of us and enslaves us and whips into the arena so that we, forced to be gladiators, fight for it.” These are the words that will save the world, one person at a time.

Next day, Lily and I then went to the Stasi museum, the museum of the Secret police of East Germany. We saw a lot of stuff that was described in the book Stasiland. Two people who didn’t speak a common language trapezed through the museums and streets of Berlin, trying to understand the people and the history of the city. Then we sat at a cafe and did what Berliners do. Lunch on salad and sandwiches and some hot chocolate before the whirlwind of 4 days of constant meetings sucked me in. I don’t know what Lily thinks of her mother’s suicide. She doesn’t know what fears I have about Arjun growing up in this world. We don’t have a common language to communicate. But there on that afternoon, we sat besides each other and knew that it will all be okay. In the long run, everything is always okay.

My best friend and I always used to believe in this theory of people coming into your life for a reason, a season or a lifetime. You may not know it at that time, but each person who comes into contact with you leaves a part of them with you. Changes your perspective about something in some way that you didn’t know existed before. So I always believe if anyone asks you if you want to meet for a cup of coffee, say yes. And make the time for it. Something will conspire in that conversation, in that chance meeting and it will give you the energy, the zeal to carry on.

Akshay and I completed 6 years of being married yesterday. We have our good days and the bad days. There are days when I think how awesome he is and the 31 year old me can fall in love with him all over again had we met right now for the first time. And then of course there are days when everything seems to be pointless. Sleeping it out without saying any unnecessarily harsh things to each other works. And as Ann Patchett’s friend asks her in her book  ‘This is the Story of a Happy Marriage’, –

“Does your husband make you a better person?” My answer to this question has been an unfailing yes. And that is all that matters.

IMG_7136Cheers!

Rutvika

Going to school : Mom is more petrified than the child

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Arjun is two years old now. Which means he will soon have to start play school, nursery etc etc and get in the rigamarole of people telling him how to do stuff. Not to say that we don’t, but he barely listens to us and convinces – coaxes, pampers or ignores us and goes his own way. He has also learnt fake crying and does it with eyes wide open to check our reaction. But all of this won’t be tolerated in school. One playgroup teacher in fact even told us that she doesn’t let kids in her class use the toilet except in the designated break time. Kids need to learn discipline. I am not sure how she imposes this on snotty 3 years olds, but we excluded that play school from our (very)short-list.

In the last two weeks, we have visited 5 playschools in our area. And rejected each one of them. For very peculiar reasons. The first one had a “counsellor” on board. They identify what problem your child has and direct them to specialist doctors on their panel. The administrator of that school proudly listed the kids whose problems were identified – ‘A has sensory problem’, ‘B has walking problem’, ‘C has talking problem’ and so on. I am sure they will find some problem with my boy – “not a party-goer, hates loud noise” might be topping the list. And while I understand that adults can sometimes need counselling, the idea to have a counsellor for toddlers rebuffs me. This nursery struck off.

In contrast to this one, we went to a traditional playgroup, the one which has been around in the same place for last 25 years. Replete with leaking taps and paint peeling off the walls. They believed in keeping it simple. And while it ensured that they had no hyper specialised doctors on board, I kept wondering if the carpet was damp with fresh water or umm, otherwise. Those guys need to refurbish to let in a lot more light and make it habitable. Another one neatly erased from the list.

The other two were tiny, looked like covered parking spots. Basically set up in place of shops on the ground floor of residential buildings. They were sparkly and bright with animal murals painted on the walls. A little play area with plastic slides and building blocks.  But I wasn’t comfortable with either of them. I can’t say why other than the fact that it felt I would be leaving my baby in a converted shop.

Perhaps, I am just not ready to let my baby go out into the world. I am wary of public scrutiny. If he is very active, has ten things up his sleeve, he will be labelled ‘hyper-active’, if he sits quietly in the room, he will be termed ‘anti-social’. Whatever he does will not be confirming to the usual standards of normalcy. And with that people will judge me. As a mother. Me and my husband as parents. And even his grand-parents because he spends a lot of time during the day with them when we go to work. Now I have read enough self help books and articles and TED talks to know that I shouldn’t let it matter to me. But how do I protect my boy from all of this?

But finally, this weekend we found a school which prima facie seems to be in line with our beliefs. More focus on books, less on gadgets; a teacher who didn’t squirm when Arjun refused to enter the school, one who wasn’t shouting instructions but talking softly, giving importance to sending at-least one fruit with the tiffin box, etc etc. In isolation these are little things, shouldn’t matter much, but the whole as a belief system matters a lot.

Like most babies, Arjun is a sensitive little dude. Cries when Jack fell down the hill, or Humpty Dumpty had a great fall. We have to make amendments in the song and assure him that Jack and Humpty Dumpty are both okay. He is the one with a lot of hugs, lot of Eskimo kisses and is constantly making us tea, cupcakes, dosa with his plastic kitchen set. He is currently obsessed with mannequins and wants to go and touch all of them outside the shops in the market. Tells us that the mannequins are not real but believes when I say that they sleep at night and we can’t go see them. He is weird that way. But I would go to any length to protect his imagination, his story telling and his firm conviction that his baby cream can cure anything in the world.

And I am sure eventually he will be a master in self-help and give gyaan to us, but for now, it is our responsibility to take care of this little Peppa Pig.

Love,

Rutvika