Somebody’s someone

Have you ever wondered how we ever only remember our life as a part of someone else’s?

I cannot recall my earliest memories without my middle sister featuring in them. Archana and me – my memory draws no distinction. She is six years older. When I was in class 4 she was in class 9. She bossed and bullied me as she pleased. She would catch me eating food from the canteen rather than eating the lunch my mom had packed and would threaten to tell my mother. She blackmailed me into submission. She would interrupt my class to ask for water from my bottle, much to my teachers’ chagrin. She would often grab me after my class and take me to hers where for her friends (older and cooler in my opinion) I, was the entertainment. Her friends fawned over me, I even recall one girl in particular who would stitch little dresses for my dolls. I basked in my sister’s reflected glory. Popular simply because I was Archie’s sister.

We set off every summer to visit our grandparents, a long train ride into the Indian heartland. The anticipation mounted with each passing train station. Archana and I would fight for the window seat and quarrel about the upper berth. My mother and my eldest sister Vandana, who is 11 years older and was always a grown-up, were the peace-keeping forces. Sharing our berth was our constant companion, a large red and white, Milton water-cooler with cold water and Glucose D to keep us hydrated. A red Walkman plugged in my ears. George Michael for company. Bored and happy in equal measure. The parched lands, the rolling hills, the sunsets, the inky blue night, the moonlight casting shadows on trees and the fireflies sparkling before our tired eyes. Little treats marked our progress. Belgaum’s Kunda, Orai’s Gulab Jamuns and Jhansi’s Pethas. From hippy, hedonistic Goa to conformist, conventional Kanpur. After nearly 24 hours of travel, we would arrive smelling of the Indian Railways. That unmistakable smell I can only describe as train-iron. As she stepped off the train, my mother would step out of my father’s shadow. We would see her in a new light in her old home. As girls raised in Goa, we were so obviously ‘western’ in Kanpur. We didn’t wear a salwar kameez or should I say salwar suit. We would refuse to wear a dupatta in Kanpur’s searing heat, but my cousin could never step out without one. My aunt would chide me about calling my sister by their names and not adding a Didi as a mark of respect. We were a constant source of amusement. One morning my mother chuckled when a neighbour remarked, “Neerja tumhari beti toh bilkul Russi hai” i.e “Your daughter is so Russian”. I’m quite certain it was less of a compliment and more of a judgement on my mother’s betrayal of Kanpur’s traditions. That jibe about my carefree nature stayed with me because I was after all Neerja’s daughter.

My father was always encouraging us to read and take-up new hobbies. However, he maintained that our studies always came first. Unfortunately for him, right through school, I didn’t. Perhaps my only talent was that I was chatty, confident and never shy to put on a show. Story-telling, dancing, elocution – I didn’t need a second invitation. I was a little less enthusiastic about equations, formulas and theorems. I recall one hot balmy afternoon in particular when my friend Nandini picked me up on her trusted two-wheeler Scooty. She lived quite far from us but friendships weren’t defined by convenience and kilometers. She wasn’t in ‘my side of town’ but she was in my corner when I decided to address a room full of scientists. The topic was water conservation. These were my father’s colleagues at the National Institute of Oceanography. When my father suggested I participate I gamely agreed, but on the condition that he couldn’t be in the audience. I came first. And what I remember most about this achievement was that the congratulations were for Mr. Bajpai’s daughter.

Daughter, sister, wife. Where’s the I in identity? By the time I was old enough to have that self-awareness to enjoy that individuality, there were already too many demands on my time. Work, family, friends, fitness and fun. And then I found out I was pregnant.

It was almost a year ago. I was in Sydney on a business trip and attributed the disorientation to the jet-lag. I shopped for winter-wear for my soon-to-be postponed holiday to Ladakh, met friends over wine and good food. Inspired by fitness-obsessed Australia, I even gifted myself a Fitbit.

A little strip in a little bathroom confirmed in three little seconds that I would have a little one soon. All of a sudden I began to consider known facts in a new way. Could I have tea? Are mushrooms okay for lunch? I was tempted to break the news to my husband in person to truly enjoy the moment together. But I had another few days in Sydney followed by a business stopover in Hong Kong. And surely this couldn’t wait? I was wary of calling him at work and listening to his usual officious tone. Maybe I could wait till he’s back home to break the news? The time difference hardly mattered because I could barely sleep with excitement. But I just HAD to hear his voice and yet, give myself the option of not sharing this news over the phone. So I found a novel solution. I decided to Face-time him in a face mask! He quizzed me about why I chose a video call when clearly a hydrating mask was more important. The pretense didn’t last and I told him. His response was that I must have had one too many glasses of wine and that I should take the test again in the morning.

I braved the next few days in Hong Kong. It was very difficult to lie to my friends and attend my business meetings. Passing on the glass of wine is a tell-tale sign in today’s times so I would priggishly order a mocktail that could pass off as a Cosmopolitan. I landed in Mumbai on June 1st 2016 and headed straight to my gynecologist who confirmed that  I was six weeks pregnant. On June 2nd, I gifted the scan report to my parents as their 49th wedding anniversary present.

Over the next few  months I enthusiastically committed myself to project Pregnancy. Our baby boy was born on January 5th, 2017. Perfect in every way. Never before have I loved anyone so intensely, deeply and completely. It gives me an extraordinary sense of purpose each morning. Motherhood means there are so many unaccounted hours in the day but it’s in those hours that I find everything. The purest joy. The finest moments of my life as he coos and babbles. The little one lords over the daily chores and I’m at his service.

That said, I try to reclaim myself from time to time. Snatching some time to think, read, exercise, shop and write. All in an attempt to remind myself of who I once was. Not the individualistic, self-gratifying nature of singledom which is now a distant memory. But a more realistic endeavor in which I remind myself that I perhaps can’t go back to my old self but to become a newer version of myself.

Last week as I sat slumped in my chair exhausted with the effort of love that is feeding, I got a phone call from the paediatrician’s clinic to confirm our appointment. “Is this Neev’s mom?” asked the receptionist. I was caught off-guard. And just like that I had a new identity. But this time someone belonged to me.

“Yes”, I said, sitting up a little straighter.

Happy Father’s Day

I was half asleep until half an hour ago, that in between state of sleep and wakefulness. When my mind stirred and the thoughts started warming up although my eyes stayed firmly shut and body remained still and limp with sleep. But a thought crept in, about Father’s Day and that I should have bought a present for my dad. Should have sent a little surprise perhaps? I’m the only member in my family who believes in them. The others are shockingly bad with surprises or spontaneity.

Instead I decided to write this post, not because I will publish it and my father via Facebook will like it and so will my extended family. No. My dad’s mercifully not on Facebook and my sisters aren’t very savvy either. This note is just a recognition. Mother’s shouldn’t be celebrated over a day, it’s a lifelong gratitude. You say the word mother and it warms the cockles of your heart. They are just as sacrificing now then they were before. But our fathers, deserve a special mention today simply because they’ve stopped making men like them.

We’ve all heard that term before. Our rich history with selfless visionaries can’t be compared to the current crop of pathetic politicians. The thieving ministers and thugs that are elected to lead us. We get melancholic listening to Kishore Kumar, RD Burman or Dylan. Plenty of good talent now but hardly exceptional. Actors like Harrison Ford, Clint Eastwod, Richard Gere, Amitabh Bachchan. They were men not boys.

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Our fathers were our teachers, our handymen, our accountants, our drivers, our mechanics and our doctors. They were everything rolled into one without making it seem like it was extraordinary. That generation of men lived a disciplined life. I wonder if our fathers ever slept in, nursed a hangover or chilled at home. It seems to me they were up before the alarm went off even in their twenties.

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My father was born in a small village in UP and given his background I think it’s remarkable the life he’s made for himself and the life he provided us. He does manage to surprise us sometimes with his choices. Like moving to Goa or painting his scooter a bright canary yellow. The head of the family was ahead of his times.

My father pressed his own clothes as well as ours. He is never too busy for us. Recently an old childhood friend who I lost touch over the years added me on Facebook and told me how grateful he was that my dad helped him with his practical exams. I had no idea that they had such an arrangement. In the evenings my father turned part teacher part monster. Let’s just say Maths was never my strong point. It never quite added up in my head.

On the weekends too he works with clockwork regularity. Washing the scooter and the car. Cleaning the blades of all the fans, dusting and finishing other domestic duties. They were fixers. Whereas the guys I now meet have to be told, gently persuaded, reminded, begged and yelled at until they get-up from the couch or look up from the TV or an iPhone etc. Then they have the audacity to call us nags.

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Being domesticated didn’t mean that they weren’t worldly and wise. He can engage in a discussion about history, politics, science and is more knowledgeable than most guys I know.

My neighbour recalls how dad would yell at anybody trying to steal mangoes from her tree. My father and mangoes are not to be messed with. This summer his voice on the phone was almost deliriously happy because he had received his first batch of mangoes. What I admire is this conscientious attitude. Nowadays who gives a damn about what’s happening in your neighbours life?

Now that he’s retired he’s still equally busy. The red tapism in India keeps him suitably busy and largely frustrated. During one his walks, he noticed a pipe was leaking and of course my chagrined father went to the local MLA to tell him a thing or two about wasting water.

He’s a Doer. He’s the ideal candidate for a Power of Attorney. My sister entrusts him with her investments. He walks over to her house and attends to her garden. He recently fixed her washing machine using an old vegetable tray. On another occasion my sister was complaining that her sunglasses have become loose so my father used a hair dryer to heat the plastic until it worked. We would have purchased another pair. We’re the infamous use and throw generation. My dad on the other hand was from the mend and save generation.

When any of us have a work related problem, my dad always assures us by saying ‘Don’t worry about losing a job. I can’t provide you with the luxuries you’re used to but I can still take care of my children’s necessities’

My intention here is not to extol about my dad. It’s just a salute to our dads. The rare breed of men who make it all possible. One might argue that they were not hands-on daddies like we find today and I agree. But life is all about trade offs. The relationship with my father wasn’t based on friendship. Papa wasn’t playful but was respected. Feared more than he was loved.

Sadly he is also taken for granted. Until now.

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Role reversal

This September I was informed that I would be making my annual trip to Cannes via London. To meet the higher echelons in the head office. Seizing this opportunity I asked my parents if they would like to join me in London. My parents, and father in particular, has always had a deep-seated desire to visit London. The history and the availability of curry being the top two reasons. Vegetarians are very pragmatic about their holiday destinations.

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I warned them about the infamous English weather. But that was insignificant, as long as I was going to be in London it would be the best time to visit. Although I’ve visited London quite a few times, I’m by no means a local. But at 70 it’s more of an emotional support they seek rather than a physical or financial one. Sorry MasterCard.
Weather warnings forgotten, plans were made rapidly.

I trawled through my cupboards for winter wear for my mother. I bought age-appropriate sweaters and T-shirts for my father. After his retirement, his wardrobe is restricted to exercise clothes, traditional kurtas and a few (but not forgotten) safari suits. Adding to this neatly pressed, starched, and crisp pile of clothes were the T-shirts I’ve passed on to him. Gifts from business partners. So, he naively adversities Comedy Central or Radio One with clever by-lines and zany collegiate appeal!

We had swung into action. Shopping-check. Tickets-check. Hotel booking check. Visas-check. Forex- check. My family undeterred even as the rupee plummeted 1 GBP= 100 INR.

Packing-There were various facets to this packing, starting with food packing. Vegetarians are also a tad paranoid.
Surprisingly, they also packed tea bags! I pointed to them that we’re going to the land of tea lovers but they weren’t going to settle for Bergamot Earl Grey or a mild English Breakfast. They need a stronger brew, a proper builders tea.

Being a seasoned traveller, I shared my tips and checklist before they boarded their flight. Cross-body handbags, adapters, international roaming on their phones, to tag their luggage for easy identification etc. The trip hadn’t even started but I could feel the beginnings of anxiety.

So here we were, smiling and hugging at London Heathrow. We made our way to the waiting car as they relaxed and silently approved the perks of my business travel. The hotel apartment had proficiently kept a welcome message addressed to my father and he took out his little Nokia phone to capture the screen. He’s not on any social media so clearly this was for his own private memory.

After a power nap we made our way to Liberty and thus began a holiday full of discoveries. I saw a side to my father I didn’t know existed. After shopping we had almost joined the throngs of people on Oxford street but he wanted to retrace his steps so we could get a picture outside Liberty. I now know who to thank for my limitless capacity to pose for pictures.

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Over dinner, I realized that my mostly teetotaller father quite enjoys a glass of wine (or three). I was thrilled. I was having a larky dinner with my parents. I could show them new things whilst they happily embraced each experience. I felt a new emotion, a sense of wonder. You can spend your life with people, with the tinnitus of familiarity and then one day in a strange land, you see them in a new light.

As I gathered our coats and searched for our keys, I overheard my father tell my mom that they should go to a traditional British pub next door. Wow, will wonders ever cease?

The rest of the trip saw us trundling together. I was their map and their go-to App. All pre-holiday worries gone as they expertly hopped off and hopped on.

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One night, I had a severe stomach ache and had to wake my parents because I had stupidly forgotten my medicines.Except that incident the trip was a roaring success. Right through the seven days I had three overriding thoughts:

1) When your family is with you in a foreign land, it ceases to be one.

2) Your parents are perhaps cooler than you think or imagine.

3) The roles were reversed. When I visit them in India, I automatically lapse into the I’m-your-daughter-and-therefore-in-your-care mode.
Now, I was the parent. The one in control. The one in charge. Protecting them in the tube stations and from the marching pedestrians. Guarding them against pickpockets and the world at large.

The end of the holiday arrived all too quickly. I put them in a cab and off they went to Paris. Even though I’m not a mother, I felt a longing. As if I was seeing them off for a summer camp. Pushing these thoughts aside, I got into back- to- business avatar and returned to the apartment to finish my packing for Cannes.

There it lay , innocently, a small bag in my suitcase with some medicines and a handwritten note from my father describing the different uses and doses.

With tears stinging my eyes I realised, I was wrong. They’d been parents all along.

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HOW R U. GOT COLD. CONTACT AT CONVENIENCE.

This is the text I received from my father. For those of you wondering why daddy dearest sounds so brusque it’s simply because texting to him is a modified version of the telegram. He continues to be frugal with words as if every letter is charged.

It would appear that technology and warmth can’t be juxtaposed. I send my father a text saying I’ve landed in Hong Kong and ask him to wish me luck because I start a new job from tomorrow. His response is GOOD. SLEEP WELL. FACE CHALLENGES FROM TOMORROW.
His fixation for uppercase beats me. Maybe it’s him trying to be VERY clear. I imagine his tired eyes scanning his small screen, not so smart phone and all’s forgiven.

I sometimes marvel at his single minded-ness. It wouldn’t surprise me if he makes bullet-points about the topics to be discussed during our weekly Sunday calls (no mid-week calls unless it’s an emergency). Although there is usually a pattern .Get information on my health, awkwardly inquire about my happiness, quiz me about work and an inquisition on my savings (and the lack thereof). What quickly follows is a lecture on how I squander it away before the phone is handed to my mom for peace talks.

His clarity in thought makes me wonder just how many words, texts, calls and years I have wasted on small talk. I reason by saying it’s the price of popularity.
Yet, I look at my dad sending letters and postcards to his retired friends , receiving calendars which are probably meant as corporate gifts and I have to respect how they actually took time out to keep in touch. We,the instant-gratification loving Gen Y with our synthetic SMS’es, hashtag tweets, Insta love on instagram and Facebook likes and pokes are plain lazy. The world is getting smaller but the distance between us is increasing. I’ve been toying with a social experiment of removing my birthday from my Facebook profile. Would people remember without a reminder?

Not too long ago, I tried to teach my parents the joys of Skype. Much excitement ensued before the video call except for a tiny technicality, they forgot to put on their webcam! When they figured it out, I had a better view of the wall than them. The maiden call was going swimmingly but after the basic pleasantries were exchanged my dad wanted to hang-up. I reiterated it’s free but that didn’t change his mind. He says he doesn’t understand the Skype revenue model. Admittedly neither do I.

I realize that I’m heading in the same direction. I shy away from leaving voice messages and blithely ignore the marvels of modern-day technology like voice memos and audio notes, much to the chagrin of my friends.

In school, after spending the day together, my friend would ring me and we would chat for hours as if we hadn’t met in years
In college my friends and I would discuss every boy, every dream and any remote possibility of how our lives could change
When I reached my 20’s I was full of existential angst
I wanted to be anyone but me and live anywhere but here

Then we grew up and couldn’t ignore the gradual changes as technology seeped into our lives. Staying in-touch meant texting, g talking, what’s app’ing, BBM’ing and on very rare occasions, a phone call. The call is usually to make a plan. I can’t remember the last time I got a call when a person just wanted to ..talk.

With more number of years under our belt, are fewer words spoken?
With the customary ping of ‘let’s catch-up’ just how many promises are broken?
Technology is efficient but it’s also crippling our communication skill
My father is a man of few words with an old-fashioned way of expressing them
But I treasure his messages because not too far from now I too will feel like an ossified fossil

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Staying true to form

For someone who is keen to chat and quick to write, I feel a distinct discomfort when presented with the task of filling forms (and writing on cards. My indelible writing sullying several hallmark creations over the years)
Something about BLOCK letters, limited space, blue ink requests, renders me speechless and panic-stricken. Paralyzed with fear, filled with dread, knowing as you’re telling yourself not to make a mistake, you almost always will.

Recently, I had the misfortune of filling forms. Several forms. New passport application, visa forms, tax form, loan application, credit card application etc.
Intimidating, blank little boxes looking up at me. Challenging me.

What makes this task infinitely worse is the questions they pose. I’m not referring to :
The sensitive ones – Married, Single or Other
The arguably irrelevant ones – Ethnicity
Positively embarrassing ones – Birth marks
Morbidly depressing Emergency contact

The most delicate and perhaps the most thought-provoking is that of a permanent address.
I’m embarrassed that for everything permanent, I’ve directed people, banks and institutions to my parents. Reiterating the fact that as long as they’re around I have a permanent solution.

It could be the timing of these questions that led me to this feeling of dislocation. My office had relocated and a few weeks later I was moving out of my apartment
Brushing aside this overwhelming sense of displacement I decided to give it a good thought. Existential questions crept into my mind and I’m happy to report, have lodged themselves in some corner of my brain.

Permanence is so sought after
This desirous be-all-end-all feeling of settling down
Is it overrated?
Sure it would free me of most form-filling worries but why isn’t, here-for-now enough?

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What or who offers permanence? Parents, spouse, kids?
We live in a world where memories outlive relationships. Sometimes only just.

Is it an address, an ID card, a driver’s license?
Why objectify permanence?

For me, permanence is revered and rarefied. It’s importance indisputable.
We all have a firm presence, our own place in this world

I’m partially impermanent but wholly happy
To be drifting and discovering
Advancing through trial and error
One form at a time…