Serenading My Darlings

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I watch from the front door, the stoop damp from all the snow melt as my children trudge through slushy piles of melting snow and ice. Their backpack hangs heavy from their shoulders. They carry a huge unwieldy  trifold board in their hands struggling to keep it off the ground.

“I love you.”

My voice rings out in the cold air suspended in the tiny drops of moisture between them and I. They appear not to notice until Ammu turns back, the cap of her neon pink winter jacket obscuring her face. She pauses and says the words, clear as ringing bells. They travel to me in waves. I smile as I close the door behind me and hurry to the hot stove.

Last night as Ammu and Pattu bounded up the stairs, I called out “You go up as seven year olds and will come down in the morning as eight year olds.” They disappeared into their rooms before I could figure out if they got the import of my words. I followed them, kissing and tucking them in, lingering in each room as it to savor the last moments before a huge change.

Long past bedtime, with everyone cozy under their sheets, I crept down, dug out the gifts that came in brown boxes over the past week. I set them up on the island, scribbled sticky notes and stuck them on top. I took pictures and turned the lights out on the day.

Birthdays are happy days. I wake up smiling. I love watching their faces as they rip open gifts. I pack treats in their lunch boxes. I dress them up and take a million pictures. Most of all I mutter prayers under my breath, crack my knuckles to ward off the evil eye and when the house is silent, sit for a moment in front of my puja shelf thanking the powers that be for the blessings they have showered on us.

Later in the day, I will boil milk on simmer, add sugar and cardamom, let it thicken to make a payasam Ammu and Pattu love. This evening when they are back from school, I will ask to look at their birthday books. I will sit between them on the sofa, my fingers running through their hair. I will kiss them on impulse and hug them each time I pass them. I will celebrate my children all day long.

Isn’t that what birthdays are all about, serenading people we love, overwhelming them with attention and making them feel like they matter?

The Mothers By Brit Bennett – Stunning Prose, Nuanced Storytelling

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I picked The Mothers by Brit Bennett when it scrolled past me in my library’s newly added digital titles collection. Late one night, I started the book after the kids were in bed and stayed up until past 1:00 AM to finish it. I sat back in my chair letting the feelings wash over me before I finally roused myself to go to bed.

I let the feelings sit for a couple of days before I wanted to review. The book is powerful. I read the book with my hands itching to mark and re-read passages. The clever weaving of words was a treat to read. I let the words swirl in my mouth, swish past my throat and settle in my stomach until satiety overcame me like a well balanced meal.

The story begins with secrets. The use of a collective voice to represent the mothers in the community was novel. By the time you are midway through the book, you are the protagonist, stuck and free in many ways. She escapes the town and its secrets only to return and be enmeshed by it. It is a story of mothers, mothering and being an unmother.

This is a book I will reread, recommend and probably gift other bookish friends. Bennett’s voice is unique, her prose addictive and storytelling stellar. It is an explosive debut.

Highly recommend reading and buying this book.

Birthday Musings

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Ammu nuzzles my cheek with her nose, throws her arms around my neck, kisses me and flits off to do whatever it is she is occupied with at the moment. Today she is working on a school project. There are sticky notes all over the place. She painstakingly colors the first American flag and sketches Betsy Ross in pencil. Her brows are furrowed, her face is a picture of concentration.

“This is so easy!”

“I am having so much fun!”

“This book is awesome!”

Pattu is all superlatives as she writes carefully in between the lines. Fact 1, Fact 2… Her facts are labeled and they are a mix of block letters and cursive. She twirls a lock of her hair with her index finger as she leans back to admire her penmanship. Her picture of Pocahontas is a mix of princess and warrior. She is pleased with what she sees. Another picture is of a tiny figure swinging from a green vine. A blue strip, possibly a stream merrily gurgles as a backdrop.

I survey the scene as a wave of nostalgia and love sweeps over me. Birthdays have a way of making me emotional. They make me take stock. I go over the years in my head. The tiny crawling babies, the brightly dressed toddlers, the still chubby preschoolers, the lanky kindergarteners, the big girls as first graders and now proper little girls as second graders. The years have been good to them, defining features, drawing out peculiarities in each and giving me a peek into the young adults they will grow into.

We sit down as a family for dinner. We pass parathas, dole out rich, creamy home made yogurt and occasionally feed the child next to us. Mostly we are done before the kids and we watch as they lick their plates and fingers clean. This was unimaginable a year or two ago. Dinner time usually meant feeding the children before we sat to savor our meal in peace. The changes have crept up on us. Bath time has gone from fully involved to supervised ones. Occasionally one or both of the twins will help me unload the dishes. They take pride in setting the table. They love emptying the dryer when done. They often sweep crumbs from below the kitchen island. The chores are small. They don’t happen with any regularity. Yet, when they pitch in, it reminds me that they are growing.

On a whim, I look up appropriate age related milestones. This is something I stopped once they left preschool. I nod along as they check all the boxes. It is a sobering reality check especially considering their struggles with reading and math. It gives me perspective, this peek into what is expected of them at this age. It tempers my expectation and gives me reassurance that my children will forge their path at their own pace.

I tuck them in. I watch them lie next to each other in matching pillows, matching monogrammed fleece blankets and a single comforter thrown over them. In the second before I turn the light out, I watch them turn toward each other, hands interlinked and joy lighting up their faces at just being together. My heart swells with feelings. Love, Joy, Gratitude.

My mud room is full of empty boxes. I worked on their birthday invite at the beginning of the month, checking every other day to see if I have all the RSVPs.  I ordered stuff off Amazon. I have gifts hidden away. I debate if I should make birthday cards. I have been browsing for ideas on birthday cakes. The day will arrive and depart without a trace. It is the anticipation. The build up toward the day that I savor. I collate and cherry pick pictures of them. I linger on each going back in time to that day and time. I remember the cake or the lack of one. I remember the dresses they were wearing and the people at the parties. Most of all I remember the gap toothed smiles and the joy of them turning a year older. If the years until now I have reveled in them growing, this year I am torn between wanting them to be bigger, conversational, confrontational and staying the same clueless little children they are. It strikes me that each birthday is a count down to the time they will strike out on their own.

Most of all, each birthday is a week of reminiscing, of keeping score, of measuring how far they have come and how much longer they have to traverse. It is about dresses with ruffles, cakes with magenta and mustard icing and larger gift wrapped packages. It is a day of wishes, make believe and unbridled joy. It is the ultimate celebration of my children, of who they are and who they will be.

Shattered Mirrors And Onions

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For years, this scene from a Tamil movie has been stuck in my head, an early precursor of what families are like. Noisy, complicated and messy. The imagery of a shattered mirror to depict fractured relationships has stuck in my mind rising to the fore each time a relationship falls apart from the weight of expectations and lopsided give and take.

I have quoted this many times trying to explain what when wrong as I dissected the relationship and performed post mortem on the phone with other willing friends. Most have nodded along, adding their own interpretations to this universal theory on heartbreak and grief.

Today however I got off the phone with a friend of mine with whom I have a long and checkered history. We have been the best of friends. We have grown apart, fallen out, extended olive branches and resurrected what could have well been yet another casualty of time, distance and unexpressed expectations. As I hung up, I was reminded of onions.

Sharp, pungent and layered. Each layer protected by a thin film of tissue protecting the fleshy layer from the next. Sometimes I slice it open to find a rotten layer amidst perfectly good ones. I usually split them apart taking care to remove the stinky layer and go ahead and use the rest. It occurred to me that relationships could be like onions too. The good memories of the past sandwiched between unsavory parts, followed by good memories in the making. Each sheathed in layers protecting the spite from seeping into the past. To keep the rot from affecting parts of our earlier selves. Ones that only exist in pictures and the deep recesses of our brain. It is well possible to salvage just the good and leave the bad.

Mirrors or onions, our perception colors what we make of relationships.

Letters To My Daughters: On Religion, Faith, Culture and Rituals

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Dear Ammu, Pattu and Laddu,

Today is Karadaiyan nonbu, a festival dedicated to a woman in Hindu mythology for defying death and saving her husband’s life. As a mother and wife, I probably view this tale differently. Growing up though, all I remember are the yummy adais that my Amma would make and the thin yellow saradu that I would be forced to wear to school the next day. Middle school and later was not kind to this kind of ostentatious celebration of a festival restricted to certain sets of people. Boys would nudge each other and smile. Whispers of ‘thaali’ would circulate and sometime before the end of the day, the sacred thread would come untied and wrap itself around my wrist where it would stay over the next few days turning crimson as the bath soap touched it and eventually turning a pale shadow of its luminescent yellow origin. The ends would fray and come apart.

I pound the chapatti dough with my hands shaping and massaging the mass of flour, ghee, salt and water into a soft springy mass. My mind is racing ahead with what I can make to go with it. Something sans garlic and onion. Midway through my preparation, I stop and wonder what I am trying to prove to myself.

I went to a catholic convent until sixth grade. I was part of a school that prided itself on extensive bhajans on Friday mornings and sanskrit shlokams as morning prayers. I was exposed to Vedanta, the Bhagavad Gita and general tenets of Hinduism. As an adolescent I was curious and I absorbed everything I was exposed to. I also questioned status quo a lot. Why did we have to wash our hair before puja? Why did we have to abstain from eating before the priest did? Why couldn’t I touch my Amma before the puja was over? Why did I have to believe in pictures and lifeless forms of God that adorned our puja shelf? Why did we treat people differently based on their caste? Why did we not pray to the huge Ayyanar statues that dotted the landscape as we wound our way to our ancestral villages? Why did devotees walk on fire? Why did some pierce their tongue and practice kaavadi?

The questions went mostly unanswered. I observed mostly as a curious onlooker. If my cousin (your perima) bent devoutly in front of God, I watched her fervent prayers with surprise. If my Appa (your thatha) prayed at different temples on a schedule so that I could become a mom, I watched gratefully. I participated in many rituals, I willingly bent over surrendering to forces bigger than me in the hope that what Science or my desperation could not help, perhaps the divine force could.

I do not have answers. Not yet anyways.

Mostly I view religion as a quest. Much like men and women looked at the night sky or the expanse of the ocean or the gurgling brook and pondered the meaning of life and the origin of the universe, I do too. I view the many different religions as paths that perhaps lead to understanding. There are others on the path further ahead that seem to have a clue. I also view music the same way. A tool to help me dissociate from my physical being and look at the metaphysical. I read too for the same reason. I am fascinated by the concepts of Maya, Karma and Dharma. I want to believe in reincarnation simply because I believe there is more to our lives than what can fit into one lifetime. I sometimes feel a presence that is not physical and I would like to believe that the ones near and dear to me can touch my life in subtle ways.

A lot of my beliefs are shaped by my upbringing in a mostly Hindu society. You though are exposed to a multicultural society here. As you grow, you will learn and perhaps raise questions other than the ones I had growing up. I hope you will find your way the way I did, through stumbling, reading and identifying things that resonate with you. Perhaps you will shirk religion altogether and prefer to go through life in the moment, holding the experience dear. Perhaps you will find a path very different from the one I am on. I wish you peace and glorious moments of discovery.

It also brings me to the other parts that we often conflate with religion. Culture, rituals and to a certain extent faith. Irrespective of the path you find yourself on, much like me I hope you will turn to food even if not the association with God to bring back memories of your childhood. Even if you end up with a different belief system I do hope the sight of oil lamps or pretty silk clothes will remind you of the festivals we celebrated growing up. I hope one day you will slave over kozhukattais just so your children can savor the intense earthy sweetness of jaggery and coconut as it bursts open their mouth. I hope you will stand over a pan of hot oil frying vadai just so your children make a grab for it before it has cooled down. You see, these rituals are as much a part of growing up part of this family as anything else. These are things that despite their association with God and faith are things that you will own as part of your cultural DNA. These are things I hope you will pass on to the  generations after you.

Faith is the other tricky thing I want to talk to you about. After forty years of trying to figure things out, I realized I have faith. I have faith in a force greater than me. It could be what people call God. It could be the mysterious mind power some people speak of. It could be the voice inside you that acts as your moral compass. The one that watches out for you when there is no living soul around. It is the thing that drives how I live my life. It is the formless thing in my head that has propelled all my life choices. I believe in it like I believe in my Amma’s love for me or my love for you. A solid, unshakeable feeling that just is.

I know not if this will make any sense to you at all but this morning I woke up with a pressing need to put this all down. For you. For me.

Love,

Amma

On Motherhood and Curated Lives

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I woke up to outrage on social media yesterday over the remarks of a minor celeb in India following Women’s Day. My first thought was why amplify one voice over millions of saner ones. I let it be and moved on to other flaming issues. Then again this morning was a slightly smaller, more intimate conversation with a few friends on motherhood and its attendant woes.

Coming up on what will be seven years of being a parent and three years of being a biological parent I have many views on the whole shindig. As a working woman who made the choice to quit, I have thoughts on what it is like to be a working woman and one who stays home to care for her brood full time. I bold full time because working moms take care of their families just as well as moms who stay home do. Staying home full time is a different beast with its implicit biases and guilt.

Two and half years ago when I finally caved into a building crescendo of voices inside me and quit my full time job as a developer at a bank, I heaved a sigh of relief. I transitioned to a full time caregiver of children and keeper of my home without much angst. I expected the regrets would follow and I will one day be raring to go back to a career. The years passed and I am yet to feel anything strong. If any, I have settled into this new routine with aplomb.

The overwhelming physical demands of being a new mother has now given way to one that is needed mainly as a source of food and clean clothes, as an enforcer of mandated homework time and overseer of baths. My children need me intensely in the few hours in the morning and few hours in the afternoon. Other than that they mostly engage themselves. The grunt work in the house which I previously accumulated and dealt with over the weekend, I now spread over the week. I run three rounds of laundry every two days. I fold and stack away clothes while they are still warm. I make dosa batter on demand and make yogurt every other day. My tasks are mundane, repetitive and have become so much a part of me that I do not give it second thought.

Some days when the question of money and being financially involved comes up, I have this fleeting thought about returning to work. I suspect if I tried hard enough, I might find something. I will go back to relegating housekeeping to weekends and slave over the stove at unearthly hours to make sure fresh food is packed each day. I will survive and so will the home.

The biggest difference however will be in how I feel. The stress free lifestyle we now enjoy as a family will be a memory. We will scramble to meet deadlines. Work will bleed into our home lives. We will scour for summer camps in late winter and plan our lives around the school calendar. What I suspect will be missing is the ability to rejuvenate and recoup my energy each afternoon. The tight bands of stress will make a return to the back of my head. I will feel weighed by the weight of responsibility for both home and work.

I go back in time to when I was younger. My mom stayed home. My aunt (almost a surrogate mom) worked. She worked because there was a support system in place to raise her children. All of us children lead similar lives today. I respect my aunt for doing what she had to do. I hold my amma on a pedestal now that I know what her daily life must have been like.

End of day each of us make a choice that is best suited for us. And some times there is no choice at all. We do the things we have to do to survive. To place food on the table. To make sure our children are safe and provided for. Once we decide, we find ways to advocate for our choice. Our choices are self fulfilling prophecies. We pat ourselves on our collective backs for having the foresight to choose the right path when the truth is no matter what, our children and homes will be OK. The decision to work or stay home impacts us the most. Us mothers (and the infrequent SAHD) as people. It defines our interactions with other people and the amount of guilt we carry with us. It defines the quality of our lives as families.

A happy mother makes a happy family. Now, if we all could remember that, that will be a win for women world over.

Womanhood – Then, Now and Later

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“Have you watched this movie…” Amma trailed off trying to remember the name of the movie that was playing on screen back in Chennai. We fell into a discussion on social mores then and now and the position of women in families and in society. As the conversation veered to Women’s Day, I asked if she had seen the list on BuzzingBubs that included me. She hadn’t so I sent the link to her and we continued on to other things.

Social media has been abuzz with wishes, commentary and strident thought on what the point was in celebrating something as Women’s Day. I have engaged online and offline pausing at intervals to gather my thought. I tried compiling a list of women whom I thought exemplified what being a strong woman did. Then I hit rewind and wondered why I included the word strong?

Growing up, I was one of those children who thought the only thing in my future was marriage, being servile and bearing children, a by product no doubt of my mom’s upbringing. Over the years I have evolved into being many things, playing many roles. I consider myself emancipated. I consider myself strong. I consider myself beyond the need for a day to celebrate my personhood.

As I ponder why this day, I realize that perhaps it was meant as a way to recognize that not all women are free of shackles. There are women in our lives who are struggling against patriarchy, against sexism in the workplace and at home.

A lot of posts on my FB feed today sang praises of the men in their lives and how they did not need a day to celebrate their womanhood. It struck me that as far as we have come, I still know of men (and women) who forward sexist jokes everyday. We normalize sexism when we do that. I know of men who regularly berate and abuse women in their lives (wife, domestic help, daughters, daughter(s) in law). I know of men who cheat on their spouses, subject them to physical and mental abuse. I know of women who despite making strides in their careers still defer to their families on whether or not they should take that assignment that involves travel and staying away from their families for months on end.

For each one of us that are truly liberated, there are countless women donning their mangalsutras and taking on the persona of a subservient daughter/daughter in law in front of elders. For each one of us that raise a toast at a girl’s night out, there are many others who look longingly from the sidelines. For each one of us shattering glass ceilings, there are invisible women out there who voluntarily give up upward progress to maintain the ability to work and earn. For each of us that lay the rules in our home, there are many who are bound by the rules the men lay down. For each of us who believe we are rid of misogyny, there are women who wrap their dupatta, lower their heads and scurry home before dark.

We have a long way to go before we can eliminate a day set aside for women. Women’s day perhaps should include the term awareness so we can give up on the applause and spend some time pondering those in our lives who do not have it as easy as we do.

Real Feelings. Real Pain. 

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A couple of days back a friend retweeted this raw, gripping, poignant piece on pregnancy and followed it up with a question asking me what I thought of it. I promptly read, shared and replied that I felt it was powerful. What followed was a sharing of experiences on pregnancy. A few could relate to the essay, few others felt it was much ado about nothing. I read along, demurred and let it go.

The idea however took hold of me and has been circling my conscious for two days now. What did *I* feel about it? Turns out, quite a lot!

Pregnancy in my life came late, a shocker as I edged near the mythical, over the hill age of forty. I was already a parent to twins and therefore a mother by all rights. Pregnancy however changed me in ways I could not have foreseen. For someone who craved this rite of passage for almost a decade and knew through reading everything there was to know about it, the experience was in ways something I could have never anticipated.

Pregnancy at it core centered around me the woman, not the child that was yet to be born. I watched first in shock, then in awe as my body morphed, swelled and grew in size. The child within me took greedily everything I could offer and then some more. My thyroid gave up, my already compromised metabolism took a beating.

Long before pregnancy guidelines suggest a glucose tolerance test, I was shooting myself with insulin, measuring portions by spoons and grazing all through the day. There is something powerful in knowing what I ate and did not eat impacted another being, a minuscule blob inside me that would have a better start in life if only I could control what I put in my mouth.

As I lay spreadeagled on the operation table while professionals took charge of yanking the baby out from within me, I realized even if I did not labor or experience pain the likes of which the original essay references, my body was swollen from head to toe, I smelled different, earthy, pungent and raw. As they allowed me to peek at my newborn I was amazed by the rawness of it all. The blobs of mucus, the blood, the gore and most of all the unvarnished truth of motherhood.

Hours later as my child rooted for food at my breast, I struggled with finding the right hold, the proper way to feed the suckling child. The weeks and months after were a blur, a cacophony of pain, toe-curling pain from trying to breast feed my child. Even as doctors advocated supplementing with formula, I resisted, treating the mastitis and persisting through the pain. Eventually we settled into an uneasy pattern but it was anything but easy.

Three years later, I look at myself everyday in the mirror and notice how I have changed physically. Growing a child inside my body has changed it irrevocably. The organs have shifted, changed positions, expanded in size and resettled in less than optimum ways. My abdomen and thighs are streaked with deep purple veins. The stretch marks mottle my skin, silvery and abhorrent at times. The skin hangs loose as if to remind me each day to let go, to relax and accept the new norm.

If adopting my older daughters made me a parent, the birth of my youngest changed me physically, marked me irrevocably and pushed me past a thin pulsing wall that forever will separate my life as before and after.

On Changes Big And Small

 

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I open the door to Laddu’s class and hear a piercing wail from a boy standing next to his teacher. I freeze and then laugh as I figure out what is happening.

‘I don’t want to go to the other class!” he sobs while his teacher holds him. She is rubbing his back while pressing his sobbing body to her all the while murmuring “Shh! baby”

Laddu joins the small circle forming around the teacher. I put away her water bottle, winter jacket and spare shoes in her cubby and turn. The sobs have quietened. The soothing voice of the teacher is hypnotic.

“It’s OK. All of us have to move someday. You are a big boy now and you will be with other big boys. It will be fun. It’s OK…”

Laddu fixes her teacher with piercing eyes as if wondering if the message was for her as well. As if on cue, her teacher gathers her and repeats the same thing to her.

I leave closing the door gently behind me. The drive home is quick, the radio is on NPR but the news does not register. My mind is busy pondering why we are afraid of change. Or specifically why some people resist change so much.

All my life I have craved change so when I see people intimidated by change, I pause trying to figure it out. Is it the ties we create with things and people around us that makes the idea of tectonic shifts so scary? Is it that we see ourselves floundering in a new setting? Is it perhaps the fear of losing all that is familiar and comforting?

I look back on my life and at least seem to identify the things that shake me. I am moored to certain ideas than things. To me home and comfort are things I carry in my head. I am triggered more by sights and smells rather than homes and neighbors. New things look like adventure (at least initially) that help take the edge off the fear that I should be feeling.

My thoughts are back to the little boy and Laddu who will soon turn a year older and move into a different class. I think of Ammu and Pattu who are progressing to more difficult concepts in math and reading. I think of Saathi who revels in the placid waters of our life. I think of me always searching for the next big adventure. I realize we all eventually reconcile, move on and settle down to new normals until the next wave hits us.

If anything, change seems to be the only constant.

Present And Past

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I absently look at the white board calendar in the mudroom as I pick jackets for the kids from the cedar chest. Pattu is wiping the last of the month with her fingers and dabbing at her sleeve when she thinks I am not looking. I smile and urge her to change into school clothes.

“Amma! It is the last day of February,” she exclaims.

I nod and go back to the island where the lunch bags are in varying stages of being readied. It hits me that this day many, many years ago, Saathi and I got engaged. It has not been an anniversary I keep track of like I do with the day we first met or the day we got married. I mention this casually to the girls and they crowd around me asking questions about how and when and where we got engaged.

“Do you have pictures?” Ammu is reaching for my phone as if all of my past lives in that device. I laugh, grab it from her and remind her that there was an age with no cell phones or cameras in cell phones. The pictures are probably in that orange bag in the study I say and seal Saathi’s lunch box shut with a satisfying click.

Ammu returns a minute later, a slim blue album in her hand. Pattu clutches a slightly larger one. Repeated cries of “Is this it?” rent the air and I indicate the one in Ammu’s hand was probably the one. I eye the now heating pan on the stove and turn the heat down and join them on the sofa. The pictures send a jolt of joy through me. My appa when he was well. My cousins in their younger, innocent versions of themselves, Saathi and I in traditional wear without makeup. Natural, hopeful and happy.

I pull the photo albums from the kids hands and force them to change into their school clothes promising they could look through it as they ate their dosai.

The next twenty minutes went past with me occasionally glancing at the pictures and pointing out people who are now just memories. If I was focusing on people, the twins cried out in joy as they identified the couch now upstairs in the open play area as the one in the pictures of the apartment that the newly wed Saathi and I moved into. They lingered over the pictures of the huge stuffed panda remarking on how white the fur looked in the pictures as against the almost sad looking panda that now sat downstairs in the basement amidst the menagerie of other stuffed toys we have since accumulated. They paused over pictures of our town home, their first home as our children. They pointed out neighbors homes, the now teenagers as then kids and most of all at the younger versions of their grand parents.

Pattu tried to slip in the album into her school bag which I promptly removed and shooed them off to school. Long after they left, I sat on the sofa the maroon and green albums on either side of me marveling at how the present became the past. How innocuous things like faux leather sofas and stuffed bears became markers of time and of a life from a long ago past. I look around the room I am in and notice scuff marks on the tiny minnie mouse table in the corner. I notice the first ever portrait of Saathi and I now gracing the top shelf of the curio cabinet. I linger over my longish tresses, unlined face, youthful face. I notice how young Saathi looked as a newly wed. The pictures in the other shelfs continue our tale. Pictures of my side of the family with my niece the only child in it. Pictures of us with just the twins. There are no pictures yet with Laddu in them.

I tuck away the albums into the orange back and push it back so it lies unobtrusively in a corner only to be dusted again in a few years time when what is present now becomes the past.