Category Archives: family

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 ]

Do you know where the tears come from?

When I died that day,
I didn’t die.
I broke many parts but I survived.
All of me didn’t live either.
I carried the dead weight with me for years.

That’s also why I cry.

At funerals where everyone else is dry-eyed.
At weddings,
When the bride begins to walk away.
In school, when children get on stage,
Crying brings me back from my dead.

I cry for grandmothers who didn’t stop to mourn.
For people who were gone before I was born.

I cry for children silenced by abuse.
I close my eyes not knowing where the tears come from.
I cry because no one else did.

Parents who hate and try to pass it off as love.
Learning to be indifferent because feeling hurts too much.
Because we are strong.
We must move on.
We must get up and dust our hands.

I cry because it is an ocean inside.
I didn’t know it.
It surprises me.
Tears come in waves.
I struggle to remember the faces for whom I cry.

I cry because he never did.
I cry because he learned to laugh when he wanted to cry.
I cry because I want to stop him but I cannot.
I cry because it bothers him.
It jolts him.

It might make him cry one day.

Camera fingers at a red light.

I have camera fingers.
We had just left from Dr. Dhama’s clinic in Kotla and were on our way to a CNG station near Nehru stadium.
At the first red light, we saw pigeons. Pigeons, oblivious to the harsh afternoon sun, perched on wires and bars in front of us. I took a photo through the dashboard.

Take a photo of me, said Aliza. She was sitting in my lap. I took a photo of her.
When your children ask you to take a picture, you always agree. But you never take a picture of me, Afzal said. I aimed the iPhone camera at him. Aliza said something from behind me that made him laugh.
Get your yellow teeth whitened, I said to Afzal after taking his photo. Then shuttuped myself. What kind of person am I becoming, I thought to myself.
Naseem was screeching in my ear. Take my photo, take my photo. Of course. The purpose of my life is to take Naseem’s photos. So I did.
That left Sahar. Sahar did not ask me to take a photo of her. She does not behave like a demanding child. She is our first-born. She wants me to be happy. She has heard way too many times that she is not a baby anymore, she is not a child anymore…how will I get anything done unless she helps me out?You’ll tell me I over analyse. I should not think too much. I will nod my head as if I agree with you.

Next, I took a photo of Sahar. She is 9.

I showed this to Afzal on the phone screen. She is the most beautiful of all of us these days, I said. Then we began to joke. Only after you, of course, we all said to Afzal.That’s the family joke. Afzal’s beauty. The children play along with him. You have the longest hair, Papa. It has such volume. We have all inherited our hair from you. Like all good jokes, this one is based on reality too. Afzal is beautiful.The light turned green. We moved on.

Angry and Fragile

One Saturday afternoon, in the summer of 2009, I said to Fr. Os, Aliza is so fragile. The smallest things make her breakdown into extreme reactions. (Like me suggesting a different sandal or offering a pink bottle instead of the leaking red one she wants)

Fr. Os interrupted me sharply and said, Aliza is NOT fragile, its YOUR Child Ego state which is fragile.

I understand that a little bit, but not totally.

It does help me turn the focus back to myself, though. If Ali seems to be in trouble, look into your own state of mind first.

The other question I want to go to Fr. Os with is this: Why is Sahar so angry? Not all the time, in fact when the stress levels are high, she puts up a great Adult performance, sometimes Parent too. But when everything seems to be normal, sometimes without reason, she seems to wake up crabby and return from school angry. And she lets me know by pushing Aliza around, so that Aliza will ring the alarm bells…Sahar is pushing me, she took away my crayon, she called me crazy…..something like that.

So I suppose the question is likely to turn around to me: Why do I think Sahar may be angry or dissatisfied?
Or, what am I angry about?

I think part of the answer may be that Sahar holds up so well under stress and looks out for me and Afzal so much (being the one gifted with extreme empathy) that we tend to take her for granted too much. We forget to appreciate her and cuddle her and thank her in time….which leads to a neglected Child in her who then becomes resentful-deprived Child.

The first year of her life, when I was a somewhat timid, tense new Bahu, holding on to my baby for comfort. The second year of her life, when I was expecting Aliza and frustrated at work. The third year of her life when Ali was born, Afzal had a bad accident, we moved to Greater Noida and I lost myself somewhere.

Baby Sahar, I OWE you.

My Mum

This visit home I understood something a little better.

How she coped with everything putting her best efforts into it, because she tried to give Dad everything like he wants it, she tried to keep things peaceful for us, and she insisted on surviving.

I think her childhood script is: Make the best of it girl, Survive.

Strange that her daughter should have come so close to Giving Up.

She doesn’t cry, she doesn’t protest or complain…she almost never has throughout her life. I wish she would break a little sometimes, we’d hold you, Mama. We’d hold you.

She almost never smiles for photographs anymore…. I took some recently, almost always with a new grandkid in her lap. I ask her to smile. A very feeble movement of the lips that stops too soon. She never looks like that in real life.

Or at least I don’t see that expression.

Dad was showing me some figures on an excel sheet, stating some financial facts, asking me some questions. Savings. What I have, what I don’t.

Tears welled up and started rolling down my eyes. Quietly.

Papa continued to say and show what he had to.
Mum tried to stop the proceedings. What happened? What happened to you? Why are you crying? She expressed as much agitation as sweetly and safely as she could.
“Nothing, Mama, nothing.”

Later she followed me into another room. Explaining.
“Listen, its just the way he talks. You know how loving he really is. What can I do, I’ve coped with it all my life.
You tell me if there is another way.”

“He gives me everything he earns. Then he speaks harshly about what I do with it. But he’ll still hand over everything.
And this big Diwali gift that we’re giving to all three of you this year. Its his own idea. He got it from the bank himself.
Then he’ll say I don’t know what you do with all my money.”

“If I started taking all this to heart, Neeru, where would we all be.”