Rama

No mother should ever have to bury her child.

Before she turned 60, Radha buried her first born, her precious boy. Before she turned 70, Radha buried her youngest son, her little baby. Her husband stood by her side the first time, and on the other side the second time. Long before that, she lost her youngest one at birth, and almost lost herself with it.

She stood outside her body and watched as her mind slipped in and out of sanity. She watched as daughters-in-law were widowed and grandchildren were left without their father. She watched her two heart-broken children left behind grapple with one hard blow after another. She ached for them, she ached for herself and she ached and she ached.

Then she got up, rearranged the cushions and went to check if dinner was set.

Life tried to break her, and life lost.

No one radiates as much hope and belief in life as Rama does. Her eyes shine with the kind of love that we all crave, all-consuming, fierce and loyal. Her smile has a curiosity and mischief that is unheard of in women her age and situation. Her hands, her bejewelled hands are comforting like that’s their only purpose and purposeful because that’s what comforts her. The food that appears at the end of her magical wand-like hands could solve world peace if only she had the time for it. A heady mixture of Fair & Lovely Fairness Cream and Ponds Talcum Powder announces Radha’s arrival into the room and lingers on long after she leaves. The mattress under her, the clothes on her and the air around her carry the scent like a halo. The halo only a real human can carry. Her superhuman strength is carefully wrapped in delicate silks and diamonds. Her mind is always racing, her feet not far behind.

I must confess, as I write these words, I’m not sure where I’m going with this, but I promise you, I have a story to share.

 

Rama

Her name is Radha, and she lets me call her Rama.

Rama is far from perfect but everything she does is. She makes friends, enemies, memories and mistakes in a minute. She feels love, hate, joy and pain with an unparalleled intensity. She dislikes dirty places, people and words. Her saris are starched and spotless and timeless. If it smells sweet, looks lovely and tastes good, she’ll accept it. She chases a fly out of her home with the same ferocity with which she welcomes a compliment. She is superficial and sincere in the same breath. She’s generous with her time and attention, but her special brand of blind love is reserved only for her siblings, children and grandchildren.

Nothing gives Rama more joy than seeing her family together. She never shushes or restricts kids from running wild. She’ll get us afterwards though, to scrub off the dirt before we step into her heaven (not haven), her home.

The home her husband and children built for her is her everything. The fact that her husband and eldest son never made it past the housewarming only makes her home a heaven more than ever.

She was treated like a princess till the day she wed, and like a queen every day after. Her home is her palace and she rules fairly.

The rooms are cushioned with music and sunlight, kitchen bursting with aromas, veranda decorated with flower pots and backyard with freshly washed clothes. Not a bowl out of place, not a cushion, not even a sound.

Remember how I said she rules fairly? Not if something is out of place. In the event of such monstrosity, there’s a very small chance that she will quietly go about putting it back in order. Rama has a – how do I put this mildly – she’s a control freak, a cleanliness freak and a broken record when it comes to running her home.

If you’re on an overseas call with her, she’ll put you on hold in order to fluff the cushions. She never entrusts anyone else to clean her bathroom, she does it herself every day, and believe me when I say you can eat off the floor in there. A Dettol cloud surrounds everything and the silverware doubles as mirrors. Her little army of housekeepers work with a steadfast loyalty that you can only get from an iron-fist wrapped in duck-down feather and glitter.

It was in this home that Rama taught me my first and only bedtime prayer. Together, we prayed that we would have sweet dreams and wake up early with fresh hopes and dreams for a better day. We prayed that we would be kind and respectful. We prayed for ill relatives and travelling neighbours and the homeless people we couldn’t help. We prayed for peace and happiness and love.

We didn’t pray to a God with a name. We prayed as a reminder to ourselves, to wake up as better versions of who we were that day.

Then I fell asleep, her prayers and arms keeping me safe.

That was when I was a child and she was my fairy grandmother.

A million lifetimes later, she falls asleep safe in my prayers and arms.

I move into an apartment in the city with Rama during college, and she takes about 32 seconds making the place hers. While I was away growing up and figuring out who I was, Rama perfected her unique brand of her-ness.

She brings along her little army of housekeepers and her her-way-or-the-highway-ness. She hates being away from her home, but she is unbreakable in her optimism. Deaths in the family and near-death health scares for herself and her loved ones can’t shake her faith. In rare moments of solitude when she lets herself reminisce, you can see it. You can see it in the way her fingertips touch her face, you can see it in her soft, faraway eyes. Raw, agonising pain.

On nights that I stay up late, I find her asleep with her arm reaching across the empty bed as if to clutch the husband, babies and siblings she lost and the family that’s scattered far and wide.

Born into a family of 9 children, alone was not a common feeling. Married to the eldest among 8, she instantly doubled her family. Then she built her own brood with 3 boys and a girl. Then there were in-laws and their families. She lost count after the 6 grand children; nothing else mattered.

These are the numbers that run through her head when she lies in bed at night. These are the numbers she aches for. These are the numbers that give her strength. She counts and recounts, wondering where so many of the numbers have vanished.

She wakes next morning, full of fresh dreams and hopes for a better day.

These are some of the many memories of Rama deeply cemented in my heart. There’s no obvious storyline here. No moral. Just that no matter how small or short life is, make your mark and leave your scent, so people speak of you as if you never left us 11 years ago.

Back in the day

Remember a time when you had to remember things. Remember that? When you saw a face that you just couldn’t place, you thought about it for a minute or 2 months. It did your head in. You retraced every step, turned every stone, scanned through every photo album (oh photo albums!), re-visited every detail to get to that one face. In the process, you filled your head and heart with long-forgotten memories, conversations and faces. People who made you laugh, moments that made your heart beat outside of its cage and that week when you cried over the rumour of your favourite boy band breaking up. It was a constant flashback playing in the back of your head, even if the goddamn face bugs you to this day.

It was a simpler time, a time before mobile phones and the Internet ruined everything (except for blogging of course, it’s the best part! Yay Internet!).

Snail mail. Oh the excitement when the postman arrived with a letter bearing your name (before bills ruined that). You had a ceremony with each letter, like looking for secret messages on the envelope, reading every single line quickly and then slowly, reading between the lines and finally slipping the letter back into the envelope so you could repeat the process later. And because you waited so long for that one reply, you never took it for granted. In a way, it was like clicking the refresh button on your email every 5 seconds. Except, less desperate.

Getting lost. When you didn’t bring the invite to your friend’s birthday party, featuring a very detailed map done on her parents’ PC (that’s Personal Computer, kids), your dad had to drive around the block in circles till you found a (smarter) friend entering one of the apartments or got to a shop from where you could call someone and ask. Lot of quality conversations were had in those endless circular drives. Mostly about my irresponsibility and complete disregard for other people’s time and being too exhausted after work to drive around in circles just to have to come and pick me up in an hour. Sigh. Such great life lessons!

Getting away with shit. You could’ve had a complete meltdown in the middle of a crowded shopping centre over a fake spider in your bag and taken an embarrassing fall to top it off, but apart from a bruised ego, you didn’t have to worry about going viral within the hour. Or you could sneak out with your friends and get caught the old-fashioned way when you crept back home – and not because you were tagged in a post titled “OMFG I hope my parents don’t see this!! – smiley face – hashtag girlshaveallthefun hashtag BFFs hashtag donttellmyparents – smiley face!”

No selfies.

Watching things with your own eyes. Yep, that was a thing. No giant screen with the best megapixel camera between you and life. You watched concerts and enjoyed parties and watched the sun set. You drank in every second because you wanted to commit it to memory, without cramming it into your phone’s memory.

Spelling mistakes. I was caught for passing a note in class once, and was punished because I spelt ‘because’ wrong. Do kids these days get caught for texting during class? And for abbreviating every-single-word? Or does autocorrect get the blame? I do love me some autocorrect, though.

Fascination levels. You were like a village idiot. Everyone was. If someone had told me then that in 20 years I’d be able to write about all that and share it with people (hey I begged you to just click the button, I signed you up, I even bookmarked it for you, what more do you want me to do for you?!). Sorry I lost my train of thought. Yes, back in the day a story about smart phones would’ve blown my little mind. Now you say Flying Car and no one even looks up from their phones.

Making eye contact while you speak. Because respect.

Patience. You sat through commercial breaks. You read through the encyclopaedia. You sat through excruciatingly long dinners while the adults talked. You waited in queues. You knew where to part the dictionary to get to the letter you were after. You knew your way around an atlas. You waited outside to be picked up by your mum. You made plans and got there 15 minutes early, just in case. You got bored out of your brains. You knew it was either patience or –.

Hugs. Wake up to another glorious day and roll over to the person/pillow/poster next to you, hold them/it and take in the warmth, scents and love. Or you know, force your eyes open to the blaring light of your mobile phone and check who went where with whom while you were sleeping. Who needs hugs and compassion when you can read up on 10 ways to keep cankles at bay.

Throwback

I’m pretty grateful for all the things we have in our lives these days. Every now and again, I even find myself wondering how we got by without some of the technology. But we did. We didn’t miss appointments or parties (even if we were a bit late on account of leaving the map at home). We knew everything that was going on in our friends’ lives because they told us and not because we facebook-stalked them. We listened to every song on the album because we broke the fast-forward button (until we could afford CDs).

Back in the day we got told off for more real-world teen problems. Get off the phone, get off the couch, get off the computer. Turn down the volume down, take the headphones off, look at me when I talk to you. You’re lazy, you’ll go blind, you’ll go deaf. What does that even mean, how can you like that, why would you waste your time on it? Stop eating junk, stop talking nonsense, stop listening to trash. Your pants are too low, top too high and skirts too tight. You have too much of everything, too less of respect, too many choices.

Hmm.

Gimme a second with this, I swear I had a point. Maybe I’ll take a magical journey and try to remember.

To pray or not to pray

Pray for Paris. Don’t pray for Paris. Pray for Beirut. No, pray for Iraq. Pray for Syria. Don’t pray for Paris, Beirut, Iraq or Syria. Pray for the families. Pray for the victims. Pray for the misguided. Don’t just pray for the white man. Pray for the end of racism. Pray for the world. Don’t pray, do. Don’t talk, pray.

How about we let each other grieve the way we want to?

We mustn’t stop voicing our opinions, no; we’re the ones who can make any change in this world. But let’s choose to be supportive, not destructive. Let’s allow ourselves the time and space to mourn for lives lost in vain, parents who’ve lost their children, children who’ve lost their parents and strangers across the globe who are reluctantly crippled with fear.

I get it. We’re dealing with the frustration of our absolute helplessness in the face of these atrocities. We’re shouting at the world leaders to do something, but we don’t trust them to get it right. We know that these monsters only want to propagate fear, so we put on a brave face. We’re already guilty about when this angst is replaced with one for the next big tragedy. We hate ourselves for having the premonition of the next big tragedy.

It’s not your fault and it’s not mine.

We’re all in the same boat, and that’s where we need to stay – together. So far, terrorist wanted to hurt you for a reason. Religion, nationality, history. We couldn’t change that. Now they hurt us for fear, and we have a choice – we don’t have to give in to them. We need to be united against them, show them they can’t scare us.

Nobody can hurt me without my permission.

                                               – Mahatma Gandhi

While the country heads sharpen their weapons and stare menacingly in no particular direction, the survivors of these appalling acts of hatred profess love and kindness and a contagious hope in mankind. If they were there and yet they refuse to cave, why can’t we?

Pray if you will, don’t if you won’t – but please don’t give up on humanity.

This is our world and we will not let them break us.

The refugee crisis within

Refugee

We’ve been in transit for seven months now, in search of our next big adventure. I keep trying to document my feelings about it, and I keep coming back to the same thought.

Imagine stepping out of your comfort zone, away from all that is familiar and routine. Every morning, you wake up not knowing what’s in store for the day; whether this is the day you fulfil your dreams and live to tell the tale.

While we’re venturing out into the unknown to live out our dreams, it’s gut-wrenching to see people forced to run away from their homes in search of life. Not a better life, but life.

Now re-read the second paragraph.

I’ve been moving around so much it’s been hard for me to follow the refugee crisis on the news, but I follow Humans of New York and somehow HONY’s stories of the refugees is all that I needed to see. No political games, no war machines, no power struggles. Just people like you and me, real and unedited, scared and lost.

We were labelled refugees once. When we fled from Kuwait during the gulf war.

I was born and raised in Kuwait, it was the only home I had ever known. It was my normal. My parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins. My friends, teachers and home. All mine. All tossed aside like some inconsequential childish fantasy.

Two months into our 3-month summer break, I remember waking up to see my family standing outside the apartment, staring and pointing into the distance. We’re not a quiet bunch, my family, and yet that morning you could hear the smoke rising in the distance.

After that, everything was a haze. Spending nights together with family and friends couped up in a deserted top-storey apartment. Playing cards and board games, watching movies, reading books and eating junk – it was a week of slumber parties. It was the only place my parents could find to hide their little girls.

I remember my last glance into the home I was born into. The soft brown carpet, the cream wallpaper and my Barbie refrigerator filled with Barbie shoes that didn’t make it into any bag. There was a big warm glow in the middle of the living room, like sunlight that got trapped inside when the windows were sealed shut. To me it was a ball of pure happiness and that didn’t make it into any bag, either.

Too young to grasp the weight of what was happening around us, this was an adventurous road trip. The men with guns along the roadside were there because something serious was happening further up. The vacated apartment complex we stayed at overnight was just a break from the long drive. Its long, empty corridors were perfect for roller-skating with the cousins. The hoards of people lined up along the border just didn’t get hotel reservations yet and would probably pass through within the next few hours.

We drove from Kuwait, through Iraq to Jordan in a convoy of 3 cars; 3 children, 2 women (1 pregnant) and 4 men. We were some of the lucky ones who knew someone who knew someone else who could help us out with a work permit of sorts. The little piece of paper made all the difference. Our own car instead of a bus. A room instead of a tent. Canned food instead of handouts. A bathroom instead of a hole. (Except for those few times we went on the side of the road in No Man’s Land between the borders. Not a person, not a light as far as the eye could see. Just a billion stars and eight frightened refugees.)

At every checkpoint (or soldier-with-a-gun point), my sister and I pretended to be asleep as a game, and maybe as a defence mechanism to avoid having to look a man with a gun in the eye. Not like they were looking for our approval or for our consent.

I always imagined that the hardest part for my parents in all this was getting us to safety. But now I see that that wasn’t the hardest part, that was the prayer.

Imagine getting in a car or a bus with your family – your world – and driving into a war because it’s the only way out. There’s no guarantee that you’ll get out, but if you stay, you’re in the war. You become collateral damage.

What if the only way out is by a rickety old boat? Stay and hope for a painless death or leave and give your children a chance. Even if it’s a slim chance.

But what do I know? We were going back to our motherland; our parents were taking us back home. To our families, ancestral homes and open doors. To India. And there she stood, strong and loving as the day when we left her for a better life. Now we were back, running for our lives, and she welcomed us with a kindness only a mother can have.

Not the refugees of today, they’re not running back home, they’re running from it. Begging someone to show a little kindness, to make the world a safer place for their children.

It’s not boats that arrive at our borders, it’s lives. Daughters who were saved from rape, sons who were shielded from mutilation. Men and women, desperate to breathe and love and sleep one more time.

I remember my parents knocking on a stranger’s door somewhere in the middle of war and peace. The kids needed a glass of water and to use the toilet and to get out of the car that was now a portable oven. I can only imagine their relief when the woman who opened the door greeted us with compassion.

I now know that there was a government order to not entertain refugees. It was a punishable offence.

That day the Iraqi woman, in her floral dress and loving home, gave us bread, water and a lesson in kindness.

Yet we find it hard to trust these men, women and children knocking at our shores. To open our borders, to share a meal, some space and maybe a kind word. We worry that maybe war changes even the good people. Creates monsters out of men.

I’m not a monster, but war did change me.

I learnt about rape before I learnt about sex. I knew what torture was before I knew what bullying was. I feared smoke rising from a distance more than a monster under my bed.

We found our way to safety soon. Parents tried to shield us from pain and horror as best as they could, but these things have a way of seeping into your very fibre. Through ashes in the air and fear on the faces around you.

I wasn’t a child anymore, but I was frightened like one.

Of things I couldn’t fathom, couldn’t believe and couldn’t even spell.

And I was one of the lucky ones.

Fireworks

I’ll rise early and happy tomorrow and have a nice long shower. I’ll wash my blue-blue hair and pick my bright-bright clothes. Then I’ll sit down to eat, and finish around 12 hours later. It’s Diwali tomorrow!

For those of you who don’t know what Diwali is, it’s the gift giving and feasting of Christmas + the togetherness and feasting of Eid + the noise and feasting of a very large-scale New Year/birthday/anniversary/wedding party.

In school essays, we wrote that it is the day we celebrate the victory of good over evil, of light over dark. But mostly, feasting.

But this isn’t a food post – at least that’s my intention so far.

But the food, man.

Samosa and dhokla and pakoda. Puri and pulav and chaat. Lassi and daroo and daroo. Green chutney sandwiches and chole batura and paneer tikka.

Kaju katli, motichur ki ladoo, rasgulla, gulab jamun, jeelebi, rasmalai, I’m dying.

And fire crackers! Before the implications of bursting crackers were known – child labour, air & noise pollution and animal-safety – every child and adult was outside their home holding a sparkler, watching the sky light up with rockets, jumping around the swirling chakras and exploding flower pots. When poisonous fumes and deafening fireworks didn’t bother anyone, conscience never stood a chance. (It’s getting better, but I’m not getting into that just now!)

Photo Credit: The man, M

Photo Credit: The man, M

Oh Diwali, Diwali, Diwali; there’s just something about this time of the year that just doesn’t do it for me.

Yep. I’ve started writing a post about a festival I’m not even crazy about. Diwali and I have had an unspoken standoff that’s lasted a few years now. I am hoping it goes away soon, because year after year I stand in the sidelines admiring it from a distance and hoping it’ll let me in with all the other happy cool kids.

I’m not sure if I miss the way it used to be before a few untimely deaths in the family shook us all up and turned every family celebration into a massive if-only fest. Or if I subconsciously connected a lot of personal trials to that time of the year. Or if taking fire crackers out of the equation was like taking chocolate out of Easter? I don’t know why, but it bugs me and needs to go.

So this year, I’m making a Diwali resolution. Out with the dark, in with the light. Tomorrow, I’m going to pick positive over negative. I’m going to laugh and sing and dress up. I’ll make it so Diwali will beg to be my friend! Aha! Who’s the boss now?

And if I can do it tomorrow, I can do it again day after. And the day after that and the one after that. Maybe I’ll take a dark day off every now and then, but I’ll find my way up again.

After all, this Diwali isn’t just about the food. I’m with family again and I love my family (near and far, in-laws and in-loves) with Godfather-esque loyalty and passion. We laugh and we cry, we love and we fight, we push and we pull. And we do it all together at the same time.

They’re all the fireworks I need in my life.

Here’s wishing that all of you rise happy today, and find your true love and light!

Got some change?

For those of you who’ve been following my blog (Babe? Are you still reading? Ma? Chechi? Is that an echo?) you’ll know that I’m back home with the parents as a pit stop to our next big adventure. When I say pit stop, what I really mean is ‘time to check the map again’. Either way, being here has brought back an avalanche of memories.

I claim to have a photographic memory. I claim it and this is my blog, so I won’t refute it. When I manage to drag myself off the couch and get on a treadmill, I ease the trauma by visualising the streets that I walked through while growing up. Now that I’m back on the streets (not literally! Ok, maybe a little literally), I can see that everything has changed. Where our old home stood is an ugly multi-storey apartment, our little corner store is now a slick car rental outlet and my favourite shopping haunt is now a deserted street half in ruins.

Our new home is better by a mile, the new corner store is a lot like the old one and the new popular shopping mall is an exercise in extravagance. Two out of three, I guess change is not all bad.

In a previous post I wrote about catching up with my friends from high school. On our last day at school, we hugged and wept and promised to never change.

The Backstreet Boys were performing in Melbourne a week after I was flying out; If I hadn’t changed, I would’ve gladly swapped my life adventure for 3 hours of screaming and weeping for 5 gorgeous middle-aged men. Yeah, I’m not entirely convinced about that choice.

Aaaaannyway…

For a very long time after school, I clung on to who I was in the hopes of drawing confidence from the memory. I waited patiently for the right moment to reveal my old self to my new world. It never came, and I found a new self in the process. I instantly hated her. After a few dozen pity parties, I found validation in the form of friendship from the unlikeliest and coolest bunch of people I know, and more importantly, from myself.

That was only the first of many versions of me. Now I’m like Voldermort, looking to save memories of myself in different phases in a bid to live forever. Minus all the killing and soul-splitting.

The main reason I feared change was that I equated it with compromise. To me, I had life sorted out when I was 16. I knew what I wanted to do, where I wanted to live and the kind of person I wanted to be with. Today, I’m not doing what I thought I wanted to do, not living anywhere in particular and not married to a cool dude wearing low-slung jeans and a dog-tag chain, with a catch phrase to reassert coolness. Dogged that one!

The other reason is that I didn’t want to grow up. And sometimes I still say that I haven’t grown up, but come on, 16-year-old me wouldn’t know what to do with a double shot of vodka and Kahlua, and I’m never going back to that! (Drink it all up. That’s the correct answer. Drink it all up.)

When I first heard ‘More than words’ by Extreme, I loved it. I loved the sound and the voices. I loved that it meant love is more than words. That was before I hated it. I hated that it meant you can say you love me till the cows come home, but it don’t mean shit until you take your pants off. Now I love it. I love how prophetic it is about being affectionate and passionate, and not robotically uttering the words.

Cool story bro, right? I have a point, I promise. How we see things – wait, I’m not Deepak Chopra – how I see things is a perception based on my knowledge of the world around me and my acceptance of it. So I now see change as widening my horizons, learning more and living more.

My dreams and aspirations have changed. How I love and want to be loved changes all the time. I’m not flaky, just discovering more about myself every day and making this little ride a lot more fun. I will always love the people I loved, and I may love many more. I’m sure of what I stand for, but they may be enhanced further as I learn more. I still want to be happy, but the how may keep changing.

Now I’ve accepted that change is inevitable, and thank heavens for it. I only need to stay calm and take it as a new happy memory in the making. Slow and easy, awkward stages and all. Somewhere in the middle, I know I’ll find me again.

Change