Category Archives: childhood

Love letter to my firstborn

My dear Sahar,
You were sitting in my lap in the front seat of our car. Your father was driving. I was crying. “My baby, my baby,” I whispered, holding you tight. We had just found out that we were going to have our second child.
My world with you, my perfect world with you, was going to come apart and I was not ready for it.
There’s a photo of you from that year. You are sitting on the floor with a newspaper, and you look up at me pointing a camera at you. The morning sun reflects in your face. I have captioned that photo in my album with these words: This photo was taken when Sahar and I were still one.
We talked to each other all the time. I would tell you what we would do next. I made up stories about everything we saw together. Someone would look at us and say, “You are talking to the baby like she understands you.”
“Of course she understands me.” There was no other possibility.
We both grew up really fast from that point. Now we are a family of five. You are the nine-year-old BIG sister. I am a BIG mamma. You are not so even-tempered any more. You get crabby, you snap at your sisters. You feel ill and tired and quite frustrated.
So do I.
I had a big brother too, when we were children. I don’t remember him ever being like a child when he was a child. He was always Bhaiya, the elder brother. I didn’t always like that about him. I look at you and realize that this is how we push the first born to grow up too soon.
“Don’t be such a child. You have grown up now.”
“Help me. I cannot help you. Hurry up, stop talking, finish your work.”
“Look, don’t cry. I cannot handle this right now.”
“I cannot believe you made this mistake. You know better, how could you do this?”
“Mamma,” you say sometimes, holding back your tears. “Just like you, I get irritable too.”
I need your rebellion, my little woman. It stops me in my tracks and reassures me. You stand up to me when I push you too far. You challenge your father. You tell him what you think, what you feel, what you want.
I also love your spelling mistakes, Sahar. You are a phonetic speller. You invent spellings. “Sichul,” you wrote, when you wanted to label your drawing of a cycle. “Dilicious,” you write, because that’s how you like your food. “Preety,” is what compliments sound like to you. I love your spellings because they are an expression of baby Sahar. They show me the working of a child’s mind. The child I so often forget you are.
I get unexpectedly lucky some days. You call me on the phone when I’m away. Sometimes you pick up your father’s phone when you read my name flashing on it.
“Hello Mamma,” a little girl’s voice says.
“How are you, jaaneman?” I ask.
“I’m fine, Mamma,” you say. “I have finished the drawing I started. We ate ice cream after lunch. It was A’s turn to choose a film today, so we are watching Balto. N has fallen asleep. When will you come home, Mamma?”
Your voice on the phone presses the reset button in my brain. You are so young, just a child, I am reminded. This is the baby whose diapers we changed at roadside dhabas. The baby I bathed in awkward hotel bathrooms. The one who held my hand at airports as we read signs together. I want my baby back.
Just like that, I figured out the formula one day. Sahar is the key. If Sahar is well and okay, we are all okay. When Papa asks what is the matter and Mamma says nothing is the matter, Sahar knows that something is definitely the matter. You get the sniffles and you have aches and allergies. You offer to tell us a joke from your repertoire of a nine-year-old’s jokes.
In a school essay on our family, you wrote, “One thing I don’t like about my mother is that when she is upset, she doesn’t tell me why she is upset.”
I’ll tell you, Sahar. To be able to tell you, I will tell myself first. When I neglect to pay attention to myself, I neglect you. When I hold my pieces together, stretching to be perfect for everyone else, you can see all those pieces of me separately. Like I could see my mother’s.
After a while, it is just a tedious hobby, this desire to be picture-perfect. There is nothing more perfect than stealing time from everyone and everything and running away with you. Our time together is here again. We’ll hold hands till our conversations come back. And listen to your jokes.
Love, Mamma.

[This was first published here: Love letter to the firstborn ]

Rage, rage against the dying of the light

“That girl, your friend’s niece, she got married?”

It was a really random question I asked my mother. We were finishing dinner, she and I. The children had already eaten, I could hear a music based reality show on the TV in the other room.

“She’s back home, didn’t I tell you,” my mother said with alarm in her voice.

“What happened?”

“Oh, she had a terrible experience. The man she was married to was already in a relationship with someone else. He even had a child with that woman.”


“Yes. He used to go out alone for long walks after dinner to talk to her on the phone. He would lock his new bride in the house, telling her that it was not safe for her. She didn’t even have a cell phone.”

My mother’s friend is a smart, rich, modern Indian woman. She has no children of her own. Her niece lost her father when she was a child. She has been raised by her mother, her grandmother, her aunt and her uncle (her mother’s brother)

One child among 4 adults. One young, pretty, educated, Delhi-born and raised working woman to be married. An arranged marriage is arranged. And botched.

How did they manage to do this? How did they meet and check out a young man and his family and not get a whiff that they were going to be cheated so badly? I want to know.

My mother tells me more. The in-laws had lied about their property and income. They had been greedy about the dowry they expected. There had been rudeness. Now the girl’s uncle has hired a detective who brought the news of his lover and their child.

No, no, no. Don’t tell me this happens all the time in India. Tell me HOW? Tell me how you guys do it. How and why do you betray your own children like this? Answer me.
Who were you trying to please when you acted against your gut and let this arranged marriage go through? The patriarch amongst you guys? The goddam extended family? The in-laws who never were.

What do you do with your brains? What do you do with your love? I know you felt love for your daughter when you were raising her. What did you DO WITH THAT LOVE?

Did you bury it in a shallow grave and pat in down with your shoe? Put it in the back of a drawer and let it die in the darkness? Leave it whimpering in the dark till it lost its voice?
No. I am NOT crying. I am freaking not crying.

My mother tries to calm me down. I ask her, “Mamma, when they could see that the in-laws were being greedy, that the groom was acting rude, then why didn’t they probe deeper then?”

“It’s not easy to tell these things,” she says.

“They hired a detective now, right? Why didn’t they hire one earlier? Oh I know that’s not how these things work.”

“People can’t tell these things,” she says.

“How can they NOT KNOW? People show so many signs, why do we overlook what is OBVIOUS. Or suspicious. I can SEE IT.

“You were like this even when you were a child,” my mother says.

I know I am screaming for me. I am screaming for all daughters. I am screaming to release the muffled voice inside me. Inside my mother.

I also wanted to live, Neeta screams at the end of Megha Dhaka Tara. “Dada, ami baachte chai.” 
Rescue me, she says. Let me live. Give me permission to live. To love.

Imaginary friends never die.

The little girl was very sad. She could not tell why. She made an imaginary friend. He was lovely but he died. Now she knew why she was so sad.

Ah, imaginary friends never die. But this one left the little girl with a reason for her inexplicable, tearful sadness. Now she felt better.

I was 13, then 15. At 16, he died. 
He really was the nicest person who ever lived.  

poetic, lyrical, musical

My FB update: “She’s our Haiku, he said, adjusting Baby on his shoulders. 

My own Comment: Doesn’t make much sense, but she feels good.  Baby played with his hair, woowoo woo”

A friend’s comment: What do you mean makes no sense of course it does. I think ‘haiku’ describes her just perfectly. Just as the other two would completely fit ‘sonnet’ and ‘prog rock’!!

My Silent Brother

Bhai didn’t speak to me for 11 years. From 1984 to 1995.

It was very hurtful but we got used to communicating by not communicating. We were in the same school, same bus-stand, school bus. Even when we went to college, the bus-stand and U-special was the same. We had common teachers in school. Very few people knew we were siblings, from the same family.

Now I feel it was such a smart thing to do. I think we got out of it alive because he decided to shut shop as far as the two of us were concerned.
So that in the small space in which we were temporarily stuck, we could be islands. We could go our own way, be our own selves, grow and explore without having to bite off chunks from each other’s territory.

We were both very troubled teenagers. We needed help. Mum and Dad needed help too. But we did not know how to reach out. There did not seem to be any time and space in which we could.

Between Bhai and me, it was a bloody mess. Neither of us had any grip on it….. we loved each other dearly and hurt each other deeply.
By the time I started college, I began to call him my other brother.
(in the context that Manu was my brother, the one all my friends knew and loved, and Bhai was the other brother. How hurtful that sounds. I made a joke of it. Black black humour.)

Bhai seemed to have the paranoid idea that I was always poking fun at him with my girlfriends. Always trying to get too close to him. Too interested in his friends.

Mum and Dad were out of their depth….. they had no clue about this sibling business. Maybe they did, perhaps there was nothing constructive to do about it at that time. Maybe it was good parenting to just let us be, I don’t know yet.

Everyone could see it, but only once Dadaji brought it up. ‘I never see the two of you talking, what is the matter?’ he asked.

Now Bhai has crossed 40. I am still 3 years younger. He calls me sometimes when he is on his way to work. We are good now, brother and sister, sharing stories, photos, being loving and encouraging to each other. Sometimes sharing our incredulousness at how life as a grown up is a bit of a shock. None of the movies we saw together, silently, prepared us for the confusing, complicated reality of marriage and parenthood.

One of my sharpest memory with him is in a dark room in the middle of the night. We used to quietly watch late night films together on Doordarshan on friday nights. Parents, Dadaji, Manu sleeping. The two of us sitting close to the TV on very low volume, lights off, reading subtitles off the Polish, Chinese, Russian and Indian film classics. This memory is from watching Meghe Dhaka Tara together, the scream in the end piercing through our hearts. Both of us crying in the dark. Separately. I986

How did he come back to being my Bhai?
He called me one day from NY. I was in a hotel room in Mumbai, at work. June1995, we were filming the pilot episodes of Chhupa Rustam.
He said he had met someone. Would I write to her and tell her what a good sort of a lad he was? He wanted her to know his family, where he was coming from.

I had sworn many times till then that when he was going to get ready to marry someone, I’d write to her and warn her off. His rejection of me hurt a lot and I masked my pain with smart alecky plans. And words.

And now this request from across the seas, after 11 years of silence.

I did write that letter, I’m sure my sister-in-law still has it somewhere. I took 3 days off from work and went to stay at an Aunt’s place. Her kids had grown up, the house was quiet and empty. There were lots of comics around. Asterix, Tintin, Mandrake, Archie, shared bits of our childhood together.

I wrote a testimonial for my silent brother from that space.

(that’s Bhai with Ananti, his 6 month old daughter. I look at this photo and the line in my head goes, that’s Bhai with a new Neeru in his arms)

Lunch with Manu

Manu is my little Bhaiya.
We grew up together.

Sheetal and Manu have 2 year old twins. Busy, busy.
I am an angel attendant in my own right.

2 Sundays ago, by some twist of events, we found ourselves, Manu and I, having lunch together in a coffee shop. Just us. Rare event.

On a table nearby were a family we know. Couple and two beautiful teenage kids. (media celebrity couple, our colleagues)

Manu made some comment about their marriage being not so good. Too much public display of not-love.

The boy had a beautiful shy innocent half smile on his face. I had just embarrassed him a bit by telling him that I had shot an Ad with him when he was a precocious 4 year old.

N: He’s so beautiful, it hurts a little when I look at kids like him.

M: What?

N: You know kids whose parents are not good to each other. The pain shows on their faces. And then the over-compensation to hide/drown that pain.

M: Hmmm

N: I think something breaks inside you.
I feel that I have many broken bits inside me.

M: (looking down at his plate)

N: That’s what I am doing these days. Finding the pieces, putting them back together…… sticking them with fevicol and putting them in the sun to dry.

Manu nods slightly, looking down.
I don’t make eye contact, either.
Both of us pick up our phones and check mail. He office mail, me Facebook.

Its a very happy moment for me. Having lunch with Manu.

(Later he told me many blood-curdling inside stories from 26/11 Mumbai while we were stuck in traffic together. Manu works for news television.
I used to as well, but now I can afford to nurture my weak heart, short temper and high standards. So I almost never watch TV)

Connecting the dots

I saw a film called Khamosh Pani once. I was pregnant with Aliza, our second born. We probably had two more weeks to go. January 2005.

At some point during the film my identification with the central character became very deep.
In a flashback in the film, we saw her as a teenaged girl. Her Punjabi father and younger brother were trying to drag her towards a well and make her jump into it. Asking a 12 year old daughter to jump to her death because they would not be able to protect her from dishonour, as they themselves left home to face violence as they crossed the border from Pakistan to India.
Horror story from Partition. She escaped from her father’s grip and ran back to the village. Her family abandoned her in Pakistan and crossed the border to India.

She survives, marries a Muslim man and we see her as a middle-aged widow with an 17 year old son. She now has a Muslim identity. She never goes to the village well to get water. A young girl brings her pots of water everyday.

Towards the end of the film, General Zia-ul-Haq is in power, her ignorant fundamentalist son is likely to reject and betray her, her Sikh brother will return to claim her allegiance to the family that abandoned her as a child. Thereby exposing her original Hindu identity in the village.

In the end, the spirit of the brave valiant woman breaks, she jumps to her death in the same well.

By this time my hormones and other melodramatic parts of my brain had completely taken over. I was holding my belly with Aliza inside me, I became aware that I was carrying a daughter. My entire body had become very tight, there was a horrible scream stuck in my throat……. I was crying from very deep inside me and on the whole I felt that I was just going to die. From the tightness in my heart and lungs.

5 years have passed since then.

In 2008, following some incredible sense of intuition I managed to organize a creative Screenwriting Workshop with the writer of the film, Paromita Vohra. In Goa, I sat in class as Paromita spoke to young writers about the process of screenwriting. I heard that one needs to zero in to the central philosophical question being asked in every story…. right in the beginning of the writing process.

Three days later, the connection poured out on paper. Why was I holding Aliza in my belly, choking from crying and feeling like I was going to die…… just from watching a film in PVR?

The central philosophical question of Khamosh Pani is the same as was the central philosophical question in my life when I was 12.

If you feel that your family/parents have given up on you and would rather see you dead than disgraced…… would you agree to kill yourself?