Boring relatives are boring

I have an astoundingly large number of stupid people in my life. Its the reason I appear so calm.

I can stay calm or I can auto-combust. Most of the time I choose calm. Sometimes I write.

“What time did you get back home today,” she asks me over the phone from another city. She knows that I have been away today. There are house-guests in my home (from the village) and I was not home to receive the children from school either. My husband handled the home front today.


“I reached Noida by 7:30pm in the Metro,” I say. “Then Af came and picked me up from there.”

“It must be so convenient for you to have the car,” she says.

“Yes, that’s true,” I say. I have no clue what she means.

“Do you have to go tomorrow again?”

“No, tomorrow I have to write my column so I will be behind my computer at home.”

“Hmmm. That’s the same as not being home,” she says. “If you have to write that means you are not really at home.”

In case I had become delusional that she might be interested in my life and work, she clarifies that all she is doing is counting the no. of hours I am “not available” in my primary role as bechari, susheel, pareshan nari whose life must be dedicated to suffering boring guests, husband and children. So that I can be a bonafide card-carrying member of the bechari, susheel, pareshan naris of India and hold meaningful conversations (exchange sorry notes) with others who are my type of bechari bitches.

Hoo haa. This is why I don’t use the phone to call family. I don’t take calls, I don’t return calls, I don’t whatsapp-facebook-tweet with the relatives.

Cos what to do baby, I got the agency! I’m in love with myself. I’m even in love with her and if she had been my mother, I would have given her an impromptu scolding for the loaded way in which she was framing all her questions. Followed by a big badass hug!


But she ain’t my mother, so I expressed my bhadaas right here, right now.
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An Imposter’s Dream

I had two ideas in my mind for the Mint Lounge column this week: One was the story of inconsequential, unknown drivers in the interiors of India who people like me (my FB friends, peers and readers) don’t like to think of for longer than 1 minute. We also like to casually suggest that you never know whether they are lying and trying to victimize us poor (rich), soft-hearted (cynical) souls. Sniff. Steer back all our attention and resources to ourselves.

The other was a deeply personal story titled: “The difference between Afzal and me” …which is a document of how differently we react when he faces racial profiling, i.e. when he is rejected/insulted/excluded/denied reservations because of his name. It makes him look better than me… but again I worried about a general reader reaction that would go… “of course Muslims must put up with this everyday discrimination because people like us are the real victims… we have to put up with terror…then our news channels’ breathless reaction to terror and whatnot. And all Muslims are terrorists, so please excuse.”

As usual, just when the time comes to actually type the column, I become utterly unconvinced that my thoughts-words-ideas matter to anyone. And I feel cynical about the response and expectations of readers.

Jisko kahte hain: I was in the throes of IMPOSTER SYNDROME : Nobody wants to read the nonsense you write, Natasha.

I knew my column was due, then my distraction brain brought to the notice of my writing brain that Sanjukta had not asked for the column this week like she usually does. I sent her an email.

A couple of hours later I remembered that she was on leave. No one else had asked, either. I didn’t remember who I was supposed to email… Rudraneil, the Editor in her absence, is not visible on social media and I have no real interaction with Lounge staffers… so I couldn’t remember him.

To type or to sleep? So I began to sleep through the night in fitful instalments… in between which I would check my phone to see whether there was any email. Sanjukta wrote back saying you would co-ordinate… but no mail from Rudraneil.

Finally it was early hours…and I dreamt this dream. An Imposter’s Dream.

Rudraneil really didn’t care for my column… his thoughts are, “now that Sanjukta is not here, I will get rid of this useless piece!”

He said to me, “You know the relevance of what you have been writing is now over. You need to reinvent yourself. You should get over yourself.”

In the dream, he took me on a tour of the Lounge office…which was a decrepit, run-down place in the basement of some old building… maybe in Daryaganj, to give me an idea of how little the Lounge office cared for whether I filed my column or not. No one looked up from their desks. I didn’t belong here.

He showed me some kind of prize the column had won a couple of years ago. I said, “Really, no one told me.”

He said, “See, we don’t care a damn!”

This is what it was: All my deep, inner child-person fears of not belonging, not being valued, not being of any consequence came out and USED him to enact this impromptu theatre in my head.

It’s really quite funny when I wake up and slap myself a couple of times for playing this macabre game with myself.

 

 

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Poems of love and loss

I love my hair.

He loves my face.

You look better with your glasses on, he says.  
What is this way of loving my face, I say. 

He takes back my hair behind my ears with both his hands and says,
I love your mind.
His eyes are green.

***************

Inside my mouth is a battleground. 

My teeth are fallen soldiers.
Injured. Amputees.
Guilt is embedded in my molars.
My teeth have PTSD. 
They grind against each other in my sleep.

My dentist is my best friend.
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HEAVEN IS WHERE THE FRUIT TREES ARE


Ammi loved trees. She talked about them like many of us love and care for our pets.
The first thing I noticed about Ammi’s home when I began to visit her regularly was how the house faced both ways. There is no back, the home has a front on both sides. On one side we would park the car and enter the home and on the other side we would sit, read, play and eat, facing the garden. It is called a haata and I have not yet found an English word for this garden that is at the back of the house.
Ammi spent her day in the inner courtyard, looking out at the flowers, fruits and birds. Occasionally, a langur would visit and create excitement. There are mango, papaya and pomegranate trees and many flowering shrubs. There are vegetable patches and a fragrant mehndi plant. The tallest and most majestic is a jamun tree.
A few days after Ammi, my mother-in-law, died, I went up to her trees to feel her presence. It had been raining and thejamun tree was laden with ripe fruit.
We organized the children in the house and got Muzammil to shake the upper branches with a bamboo stick. It rainedjamun all around us. It was voluptuous in our mouth. I wrote about the jamun tree. I took photos of it. It was a celebration of life. 

Later, I was sitting at the dining table with my six-year-old daughter, Naseem.
Will you die before me, Mamma? She asked me.
Yes, Naseem, I said.
Will you be there when I reach heaven?
Yes, I will.
Will you tell God that I really like jamun?
Yes.
Then he can make sure there is always some jamun for me, she said, putting another one in her mouth.

Keep it simple, I said to myself, taking a cue from the child.


A friend sent me an email with a photo of a sunflower from her garden in Canada. Sunflowers seem like people to me. Tall, with an expressive face, always commenting on the weather and waving at everyone who passes by.
“You know, sometimes I wonder how people cope with the death of a loved one without a bit of faith in the world after and the power of prayer?” Shazi wrote to me. “Prayer and faith help me in difficult times, in times of sorrow and grief.”
“I wish I was more religious,” said another friend, Sabrina, whose husband, Steve, died suddenly two years ago. “I can’t bring myself to believe in the afterlife,” she said. “People tell me to imagine him looking out for our son and me. I feel that if Steve can really see us, he must be miserable, because there is nowhere else he’d want to be except with his son.”
I listened to them and wondered if I am religious or not. I don’t say prayers. I don’t fast or read religious texts. But I believe. I have faith. I know where it comes from and that’s a long story, but for now, I hold on to my faith.
I’m thinking of my mother a lot. For years, when she would remember her parents and the homes in which she grew up, I could barely connect with her stories. She needs to remember where she comes from to feel alive in her present.
Our 10-year-old daughter, Aliza, went to school for a day after we returned from Ammi’s home and refused to go again. She was not ill. She would wake up agitated and remain like that till we agreed to let her stay at home. After that Aliza would be perfectly fine and well-adjusted for the day. She stayed close to me, sitting in a corner of a 5-hour work meeting one day and accompanying me to shops on another day.
On the third day, Aliza asked me if I knew why she couldn’t bring herself to go to school. I had a clue. Everything was so normal and routine in school. Aliza was hurting. She needed permission and space to grieve.
We experienced the same thing. When we are in spaces where we can talk about Ammi and her death, we feel better than when we are out there in the world where it doesn’t matter. We seek conversations with people who knew her essential self. There will be a time to move on. We will know when it comes.
It was my birthday exactly two weeks after we lost Ammi. I thought I was ready to celebrate and be happy, because I knew she would want us to do that. But it felt very sad to be happy without her.
I could have written about so many other topics today. I want to talk about the film, Inside Out. I want to write about Sania Mirza and Serena Williams. In this space, however, I could not bring myself to pretend that this is not foremost on my mind.


[This was first published here: http://www.livemint.com/Leisure/j0qS6ra7CarKpNAI3X6wGP/Heaven-is-where-the-fruit-trees-are.html ]

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Ammi : the feminist and romantic

As soon as our plane landed in Varanasi, the first thing to do was to switch on our phones and call Ammi. Ammi, we have landed. Mothers hate it when they dial you and your phone is switched off. It triggers a black hole of anxiety in them.
We stopped for dinner on the highway instead of driving straight to our village because she would have called us many times and told us to eat. Take a break and get fresh. Make sure the children eat something they like.
We noted what we ate because she would have asked us in detail what we had eaten. Mothers always want to know what you have eaten.
“I’m glad you ate, but the food must have been terrible,” she would say.
“No, Ammi, it was quite all right,” I would say.
“How can it be? Do you know how they keep their kitchens?”
“The bhindi ki sabzi was quite nice actually. It looked like a clean place, Ammi.”
“A dhaba on the highway?”
“They can be pretty decent, Ammi. You only asked us to eat on the way.”
“That’s how you pick up stomach bugs when you visit.”
“Ammi, last time I got a stomach infection after the big feast in the haveli in Ghazipur…”
“Agree with your mother-in-law,” Father Os had said to me in one of his group therapy sessions.
“What?”
“Just agree with whatever she says.”
“How can I do that, Father Os? She says contrary things.”
“Just agree with her,” he had said to me. “Try it. You won’t cease to exist.”
“How was the food?” Ammi would ask.
“It was quite all right, Ammi.”
“It must have been terrible.”
“Yes actually, the rotis were like cold leather and the bhindiwas dripping with oil.”
“What did you expect? It can’t be like home food.”
“That’s true.”
“They do the best they can.”
“True, Ammi.”
“You are too delicate.”
“That’s true.” I would smile.
“You can get a stomach bug from eating at home too.”
“That’s also true. Last time I did!”
“I’m glad you ate and I am glad you are home.”
Ammi will laugh. The smallest things made Ammi laugh. Like me unexpectedly agreeing with her. Like the sight of a baby. Anyone’s baby.
On the way to the airport, I had turned to my children and said, “Ammi was one of the nicest mothers ever.”
They nodded solemnly.
“Your father is a very lucky man. And we are very lucky too.” 
Just that morning, I had read Sohaila Abdulali’s column inMint Lounge, in which she remembered that it had been almost six years since her father had died. Six years of being a person with a dead father. She called it good grief, the bittersweet memories of the good times they had had together.
I went up to Afzal and read the article out aloud to him. He held back tears as he listened. We are all preparing ourselves for the inevitability of the death of our parents.
He called his mother right after I put down the newspaper. She said she was feeling drowsy. She wanted to reduce the medication she was on. Three hours later, Afzal’s sister called and told him that Ammi had fallen asleep and passed on in her sleep. Their mother was dead. Our Ammi was no more.
He handed his phone to me and asked me to take his calls. He went up to his room to pray.
“Tell all my friends to call me a week later.”
I called my mother. I texted my brothers. Our children were having lunch. They got up and started crying spontaneously. I held them close.
“You are Piku,” I had said to Afzal after we had recently watched the Shoojit Sircar movie starring Deepika Padukone as Amitabh Bachchan’s daughter. “You are always driving cross country with or for your parents. And discussing their ablutions.”
I stepped forward and held Ammi’s hand when her body was being prepared for burial. It was as soft as usual. She had asked Noorie to create a mehndi pattern on her palm two days ago. She hadn’t done that for years. The dark beauty of the henna design was startling.
Ammi’s small hands, white with blue veins, balancing a large papaya or watermelon as she sliced it neatly at the breakfast table. Why do we remember our parents’ hands so much? The hands that had held us when we were babies. Balancing our bottom in their palm as we grow into independence.
“Your daughter-in-law seems like she is your daughter. No one can tell that there is a new bahu in this house.” It was meant to be a taunt.
“That sounds like a nice thing,” Ammi answered. She repeated it to me later. “People say that my daughter-in-law doesn’t behave like a bahuand I tell them that’s how I want it. This is your home. Everything here belongs to you now.”
Here I am behaving like a daughter all over again. I am sitting on her bed typing into my phone while others handle the logisti




cs outside.

“Your mother is a feminist,” I often say to Afzal. “You don’t know anything about your mother.” He used to fear that there would be nothing common between his mother and me.
Ammi negotiated complex patriarchal systems every day. And she ruled. Ammi was not afraid to be unpopular. She took charge and got things done. She spoke her mind fearlessly, sometimes sounding very harsh. She loved openly and with confidence. Ammi was a romantic. She recognized love when she saw it. She enabled her son and me to make our marriage work. “There’s no way you and I would have survived together on our own,” I tell Afzal.
She would have given me a copy of the Quran in English to read with everyone else right now. I don’t know where she keeps it. I don’t even need it this time. Writing about her is my prayer. It soothes me. It keeps her alive for me.
She would also have sent me a glass of chocolate milk. She was alert to everyone’s needs. How do mothers do that?
We ache to belong to places. It is always people who make us belong. When those people are gone, the place doesn’t recognize us any more. We have to build relationships from scratch again. Ammi and I both love the same man. This is our solidarity. Her family is my family.

Ammi was the home I was trying to give my children. She is the roots, the spring-well we come to replenish ourselves at.

[This was first published here: http://www.livemint.com/Leisure/v2IyEQ80XVHM6UuNWp9MzH/Ammi-the-feminist-and-romantic.html

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Ammi is no more

My Ammi passed away.

My mother tells me that Ammi had the ideal death. Mummy’s sister died when she was in her early 20s. Her father died in his 50s, battling with adiction. Her mother, my Nani died ill and heart-broken. My Dadi died, exhausted and sad.

Ammi received her daughter and grandchild in her home at Adilabad in the morning that day. She supervised breakfast and gave directiond for what was to be cooked for lunch. She made place for her daughter’s luggage to be kept neatly.




Her son called her from Delhi and they chatted. Her other daughters also spoke to her on the phone. She lay down on her bed for a mid-morning rest. Her daughter was resting next to her. 

 Ammi fell asleep. When someone came to wake her up for lunch time, she didn’t wake up. Ammi had passed on.

I saw Ammi lying on ice slabs when we reached Adilabad. I saw her being washed, cleaned, dressed…ready to be buried. She was peaceful. Beautiful and kind.

My mother tells me that Ammi had the ideal death.






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Say Goodbye to Success

This was a morning in my life in June, 2015

4:00am: Write column for Mint Lounge

Naseem is up by 5am. She takes photos of me as I type
Make Ochre Sky saree collages in Picasa
Upload on FB page (bad timing)
7:00am Wake up kids for school
7:20am Send column to Lounge
Send copies of column to brothers for approval
8:00am Send kids to school after helping Aliza write a poem on the glory of a summer morning 
Sahar takes her meds. Naseem eats cucumber
Return to whatsapp chat with Bhai about column and zindagi
Make PPT. for IIMC presentation. A success story of RTE implementation in UP 

Kanta arrives at home
Ashok arrives

Send saree photos to Atiya 
Eat mango and drink tea for breakfast 
Read my Hamirpur notes for IIMC presentation
Receive payment from Sneha ochre sky customer in bank account. Send her message
Send mail to Lounge editor about image for column
Get ready. Saree bindi lipstick comb my hair
Deal with hostile customer who won’t pay 

Get book deal offer on FB Messenger
Answer politely 
Get call from IIMC confirming talk

Get crank call from slimy man telling me my ATM cards have been cancelled by the govt of India and I need to verify my details again
Hang up on him
Send screenshots to Shikha about pixelation crisis in the film we are editing for Oxfam

Leave home
Call mom from car
Call Shikha to co-ordinate about changes in film
Call IIMC to tell them I am late

It’s 10:45am
Traffic at Shaheen Bagh
I need to sleep. 

Left home without taking saree selfie. But earrings are nice
Forgot to wear large blue ring
Carrying 2 paranthas and mango to eat breakfast in car
Also a towel to wipe hands afterwards
Did not pick up call from unknown number for fear of slimy ATM fraud guy

Car is in reserve
Need to stop for petrol
Afzal did not receive my call
Must be in court. Allahabad 

Afzal called back
Reassured me that the crazy caller was a hoax. I gloated that I had seen through him. 
Went to sleep
Ran to Shikha in Alakananda to give her the hard drives to fix the glitches in the edit of film 
More traffic
Reached IIMC
Screened film and discussion
Superb audience with Indian Information Officers 
Went to Shikha’s home to fix Oxfam films
I am hungry for lunch
3:00pm Left Shikha to pick up children from school 
Spoke to Afzal on way. He is on a bus from Allahabad to Benaras. 
4:00pm Reached school to receive kids 


How come you manage to do so many things, he asked me. 
I don’t put myself in a box, I said. And I politely said goodbye to success a long time ago. 
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