Category Archives: Life Lessons

Talk To Me

For the past 4 months, Arvind and I have been going out for lunch once a week. I pick him up after school at 1:45 and we drive to his favourite dodgy Chinese restaurant and we ask for the “usual” – Macau fried rice for him and Kung Pao beef for me. The proprietor grins and brings us Coke and water without even asking.

We talk. There is no plan, no agenda and inspite of uncomfortable, highbacked chairs, we relax. We talk about everything that comes to mind – what happened in school, what is in the news, salient features of the Triassic age and the Jurassic age, why I should learn Minesweeper. Our words foxtrot effortlessly without stumbling over each other, without awkwardness.

There is the day Anders Behring Breivik is declared insane.

“Does this mean they won’t kill him, Mamma? Or put him in jail? Because I’m sure he is really really sorry that he did something so stupid. Everyone is sorry afterwards, right?”

“I wish it was that simple, love,” I say “but I think he meant to do it. As awful as it is, I think he meant to hurt people and he believed he was doing the right thing. In many places in the world, he would have faced capital punishment. The death penalty.”

“Death penalty?” he says the words carefully before spooning more rice into his mouth.

“Where you are sentenced to die for the crime you’ve committed.”

“Even if you’re very very sorry?”

“Even then.”

“That doesn’t make sense,” he frowns. “Why would they do that?”

“It has never made sense to me either.” I tell him.

I tell him about the various forms of capital punishment, about execution squads, about my impressions after visiting the Spandau prison in Berlin and as he turns his barrage of questions towards me, the couple next to us look like they really wished they had ordered take away Moo shoo Pork.

From death by capital punishment, we move onto apple pie, religion and afterlife and I might have snuck in that at least once in his life, he should read Catcher in The Rye because Holden Caulfield? He will stay with you forever.

“You’re sad, Mamma,” he says one afternoon. “You’re smiling, but you’re sad.”

“I am.” I say quietly but directly. I am unwilling to explain this darkness, this desperate suffocation I am feeling. The feeling that the already tenuous centre of my life is unravelling at a pace faster than I could keep up with. I don’t know how to tell my son that I don’t know how I got out of bed that morning.

I try to remember being myself at his age, so much like him. The child who sensed discord and discontent, who picked up even minor distress and made it hers. I know that I want to accord him more credit and respect than I was given in those circumstances.

“You know how sometimes, in school, everyone seems to be having a great time except you and even though everyone wants to play with you, something is just not right? You either feel too much or too little? Or somedays you are sad or angry about something that happened some other day?”

He nods, sombre in the moment.

“It’s like that for me sometimes,” I say. “Sometimes being sad and being angry comes from a place you can’t see anymore, that you don’t really understand. But I am trying to understand. I need to understand so that I can be a better mother for you and Armaan.”

“But Mamma..” he begins and stops short as if a little overcome by the moment and I am ready to hurry in with my effortless guilt.

He pulls out a pencil and paper from his bag and writes

DU ER FIN SOM DU ER.

You are fine just as you are. Just as you are.

There is the 1000 volt realization that no-one has ever said that to me. Not in that way or in any other way. And I have known so much love.

In those moments, a gift so huge, so vastly generous that not a single thing in my life could possibly feel unaligned.

Because I am enough. Just as I am.

“Also, you cry easily,” he says, slightly alarmed by this unexpected reaction.

“But of course I do,” I laugh. “Your mother is an emotional woman. I have tears for the happy and tears for the sad. This is really going to annoy you at your graduation.”

He grins. “IF I want to,” he says, “Maybe I’ll just make lots of money playing and making video games.” And we’re off again.

We still clash, we still fight, but something has changed so fundamentally. We are quicker to diffuse, quicker to get it, quicker to laugh.

Today, on the 17th of January, he turned 9. He awoke to music he’d selected the night before, (“Kiss” by Prince. Spell VICTORY for me.), Super Mario Toad cupcakes, candles and presents.

“Soon, I’ll have to fold you in four if you’re going to fit in my lap,” I joke. He grabs a cupcake and brings his shaggy haired self to the sofa, where he contorts his ever-lankening limbs in to my lap, his head contentedly tucked under my neck.

“I want some Us time today” he says quietly, while his brother clamours that he wants a birthday too. NOW.

So I pick him up right after school, we come home, eat more cupcakes and at the stroke of 2:30, the exact time of his birth, I gather him in my lap again to tell him how lucky we are to have him in our lives. To tell him that he should always be himself, true to himself, no matter what, because nothing in life will ever feel quite as amazing.

You are fine just as you are, I say.

Remember the book All I Really Needed To Know I Learned in Kindergarten?

Well, Robert Fulghum, you were wrong. Or maybe my Kindergarten was just lousy.

All I Really Need To Know I Keep Learning From My Sons.

When Macau met Kung Pao

Nine. Going on sixteen. Occasionally 46.

Because he wouldn't approve of a post without Luigi

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Filed under Arvind, Life Lessons, Parenting, Self, Togetherness

Sink or Swim

I was eight years old. My teeth spilt wantonly out of my mouth, refuting order and containment. I had legs all the way up to my armpits.

“You have beautiful legs. So shapely.” says a strange lady at the swimming pool. I blush, completely unaware of my body, unaware of how it’s all pinned together. Many years later I think, “What an odd thing to say to an eight year old.”

I love the water, the element of my dreams. Underwater dreams, enveloped in a thrumming quiet and staring at a soluble spot of light somewhere far, far above me. Dreams of swirling in indigo, cyan and azure.

I was eight years old when I learnt to swim.

I was seven years old when I actually learnt to swim, but I spent a year convincing myself that I couldn’t swim without armbands.

My obsessive, elemental love for water warred with the fear that it would not let me come up for air. The fear that I might not be embraced back.

I feared sinking like a miserable, unworthy pebble.

“You can swim!” My uncle’s hearty, commanding, teacher’s voice booms at me. I ignore him, wading sullenly in the shallow end, desperately concealing my need to believe him. I float, infatuated by the lightness of my body against the gentle ripples. I want this so badly. Almost an entire summer vacation spent in longing, fighting diffidence and knowing that this need consumed me.

“Of course you can swim!” he boomed again.

In retrospect, I blame my waterlogged ears. My ears were practising being a mermaid’s ears that summer. I didn’t register the waves, the discreet splash created by his legs as they powered through to me in my shallow end sanctuary.

In a sharp, unmeditated move, I was wrenched from my safe, aquatic quiet and flung through the air.

I recall with masochistic clarity, the brutality of my limbs crashing through the glassiness, plummeting like a pebblestonerock, heavy, stubborn and unmoving. Water within. Water without. Wide open eyes. The beauty in murky green.

I was here. I was here. I had always known that I would be here. I had seen this all before.

No breath. No breath. No breath.

Panic and movement in oneness. I kick. I slice. I punch with my arms all the way to the soluble spot. I splutter in the sunlight and my indignant rage fuels these now familiar motions. Push, heave, kick and lift. Furious, powerful arms and aqualungs.

I manage to swim to the other side of the pond. I drag myself up to my full height, a few inches immediately added on by wrath; by exhiliration.

“You BASTARD! You awful brute!” I splutter.

I will never forget the absolute glee on his face, the unrestrained heart in his laugh and the droplets clinging to his beard.

What I have forgotten over time is the force of  that untiring faith.

I’m still there, on that diffident edge, dying to be brave. So brave that I’m willing to fail. Waiting for that push from the arms that won’t let me drown. Yet, at 35, I’m too old to be thrown into the deep.

A woman of a certain age, she needs to learn to propel herself.

And jump.

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Guilttripping

Last year my brother got married. First in Kerala and then in Patiala, where his lovely wife is from. Not ones to miss out on this chance, the Mallu bunch, ably accompanied by a Norwegian, German or two, decided to make a Punjab trip of it – Amritsar, Waga border and then Patiala.

On a balmy April night, we were waiting at Nizamuddin railway station for our train to Amritsar. We grabbed some snacks, chatted, people-watched and waited patiently. There are few places on this planet that lend themselves to awesome people-watching like Indian railway stations. Soon enough, a beggar came along. A beggar with severely deformed legs, ankles and arms who partly crawled and rolled his way across the platform. He rolled around our bags and beseeched us. We politely declined.

Arvind went completely still. The shock of seeing someone in such a misfortunate state so up close and personal had gotten to him. I had never seen him look so appalled, so horrified.

“Pappa,” he anxiously pulled at the Viking’s T-shirt. “Do something. Give him something. Do something.

Giving him money will not help darling, we explain patiently. We try and explain in a way that is not too Slumdog Millionaire, not too awful.

The man rolls away.

Our son turns to us, tearful and furious and begins to hammer us with his little fists.

You did NOTHING! YOU LET HIM GO. YOU DID NOT HELP HIM.

It is possible that I don’t have the talent to adequately express the terrible heartache of that moment. His judgement back to back with my cold judgement of self.

The train came along and we climbed in; he curled himself up on his berth and sobbed even as I rubbed his back and whispered comfort.

The important background to this story is Arvind’s own deformity, his left arm, and how it was around that this time that he truly became aware of his difference. Of things that he either could not do or struggled to do. Of the way his arm would drag ever so slightly when he ran. Of his heartbreak over not being able to do his self-defence classes properly. Of struggling to tie his shoelaces. We had seen a lot of frustration and anger, yet somehow,  the grief had yet to find its vent.

On the train that night, my son’s long pent up grief  juxtaposed seamlessly with his grief for the plight of a complete stranger.

I hesitated with my words knowing well the deviousness of guilt. How easily it sneaks in and stays there. Yet at the same time, how do children or young adults develop empathy and compassion if they are never acknowledge how fortunate they are? And is acknowledging our good fortune possible without some guilt?

I struggled. To find the words that would make him aware of his good fortune. We are blessed in so many ways that we cannot take for granted.

Arvind, in particular,  is a remarkably blessed child. From the minute everything went to hell, we have never once seen a hospital bill. The severity of his injury was such that there were simply no neurosurgeons in Norway who could surgically deal with this. My father scoured google and mailed doctors the world over and finally found an Indian surgeon in Texas and a Swedish surgeon in London, who were familiar with the procedure. Our entire family was flown to London, all expenses paid by the Norwegian government, so that Arvind could be operated upon by one of the best surgeons in the world at the Princess Grace Hospital – the kind of hospital which offers patients five course gourmet menus for the likes of British royalty and Victoria Beckham. If we had lived in the U.S. the collective cost of his two cutting edge surgeries would have amounted to about $250,000. (The kind of people who knock public healthcare could do with keeping these kind of figures in mind.)

There is no way to receive a blessing like that and not feel an obligation to pay it back or pay it forward.

Since that day in Delhi, we have talked a lot about poverty and injustice. How unfairly the cards of life are dealt and how there is no real explanation for that. To everyone who sympathetically clucked, “Why this lovely boy?” we have consistently answered, “Why not? Why were we, in particular, to be spared in this entirely random game?” We have talked a lot about the things we can do to help. About spending some vacations travelling with mission groups to build homes and schools in communities. About volunteering more locally, getting involved in our own community. About speaking out when see injustice – even if it is schoolyard bullying.

Most of all, I have told him as much as I could about Raksha –  a wonderful school for children with special needs that was started in Kochi by my late Grand uncle and his wife. It is difficult to come across finer people and for me they are the ultimate example of how to walk the talk. And keep walking for 26 years. It is an institution that I am happy to brag about for all the fantastic work it has done and continues to do. This couple were not only a constant source of inspiration, but stand-in parents and guides with an open home and heart for so many confused souls, like me. I can safely say that my life, in its present form, would be impossible without their nurturing guidance back then. (Yes, we need another post about that village needed to raise a child).

We sponsor a child there, but Arvind has decided that he would like to sponsor a child himself. Someone whom he can visit and follow up on his trips to India. He wants to share his physiotherapy equipment and show his exercises. He wants to help, because his 8 year old mind has reluctantly comprehended that there was little we could have done to help the poor man at the railway station. Because he comprehends somewhat that knowledge, experience and stamina are important resources to share as well.

It’s time to pay it forward.

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Fight Club

Ever heard this one?

“Fighting is a sign of a healthy couple. Its good to fight – and make up.” *snigger snigger*

I am just going to flat out disagree with this one. And I will take it a step further and say, “Maybe for you. But it will never work for me.” And by making it personal and SUPER SUBJECTIVE, I am going to disallow your disagreement. Because I’m all Mein Führer like that.

35 years of living have allow me to admit that I am an Unadulterated Harmony Junkie. Don’t get me wrong, I am still a pain in the ass and if I am having a bad day, you can bet your bottom dollar that I will try and pick a fight with you, but really, ALL I REALLY WANT, as Alanis sung so angstily, is to be held and soothed and told, “There there. Its just a bad day. This too shall pass.”

And then I want you to shut up. Not diagnose me or patch me up.

Back to the fighting.

The first years of a relationship can be awesome and still be turbulent. And in the midst of all the gelling and the cooing and the “OMIGOD, YOU TOO??? Fries with MUSTARD?”, you may find yourself  flipping your lid, sleeping back to back and trying to find a way to carve your your space, your identity, something in the shape of you in the Newly Baptised Blob of Us. Pretty legit, that.

However, 5 or 10 years down the line, if constant bickering is still the best you can do for foreplay, then it might just be time to step back and look at how much you really enjoy this life together. Maybe it is just that I have seen some really happy couples and really – they do not fight that much or take cheap potshots at each other constantly. I have envied their quietude, their sunny outlook, their obvious pleasure in each other’s company.

I can already hear that “opposites attract” arguments for the passionate, volatile relationship. And again, good for you. Check’s in the mail. Having been there and done him and his best friend, I can only say that I never want THAT much valium in my life ever again.

For years, I equated the loving, stable relationship with the death of all that is exciting. For years, I did myself in, trying to reach some unattainable high, like a junkie who is sure that the next great hit is right around the corner. I shipwrecked myself repeatedly without much thought or respect.

The problem in mindlessly seeking the passionate, the volatile and the good fight is manifold in my eyes.

a) I like to connect with the people I really like and I love to get along. Nothing makes quite as happy as getting under someone’s skin and knowing that its warm there. There is snuggling, there are footrubs and backrubs, notes stuck on the mirror, spooning, good food and the world is your chocolate whore. Now, if you’re spending a good 50% of this time wanting to tell the other person to f%&$ off, I’m guessing you didn’t like your footrub. Or he didn’t shave his legs before spooning, the bastard.

b) Its not so much about whether you fight so much as HOW you fight. I have not really learnt the art of fighting right. I get impossibly aggressive, I yell, I say many things I shamefully regret a nanosecond later and I will feel like toilet paper that has been used multiple times for DAYS. I am so wound up before a good yell and so despondent afterwards, that I will literally take to my bed like any decent Victorian biddy. I will get NOTHING done, because my mind will auto-replay the Awfulness of Me.

At the theatre near you.

Step two is the classic over-compensation, the mad apologizing and the desperate need to get that backrub routine back on track.

Now this can be read as a sign of insecurity or fear of abandonment, but nope.

c) I am pretty secure that I am just happier being happy with someone. I am much happier saying, “This is going nowhere good. This is not a good time for me. Can we do this later?” I am happier diffusing a fight than I am fighting it. I am happy to be understood without having to yell and nag. It would be very difficult to be with a person you couldn’t hug spontaneously, because I NEVER want to sponto-hug a snappy person.

Funny, that.

Ultimately, we are talking about communication breakdown.

That is DRAMA. Not to be confused with passion.

It is a failure to try to understand the other’s reaction /overreaction. Often, even an attempt to pervert innocent remarks to slake your fight thirst. OVER SOMETHING COMPLETELY unrelated. Sometimes I have had an overwhelming urge to step out of my furious self and just say, “Why can’t you just tell him what this is REALLY about?”

I hate that. The feeling that this fight in not about “this” fight, but something deeper, darker, something you cannot let go, some awful, fundamental way in which you feel you have been betrayed. I hate the way past mistakes will always reclaim a fight, despite best intentions. How the you you were many years ago can still be on trial. How the desire to be right and win overpowers the desire to play nice.

Whenever we have a hit a bad patch, with fighting /tundra treatment, I’ve felt like it shaved years off my life. I feel old, exhausted, restless, sleepless and all ways suddenly lead to evil CARBS. (And maybe its just me, but if you were equating the significant other in your life with an err.. body appendage, would you really be shocked when no choco-cupcakes are coming your way? No. This is why you are up at 2 a.m. making them yourself.)

Where does this myth come from that secure couples fight? (almost as mystical as the “couples who never disagree must be super happy” theory) I have never felt anything but horribly insecure, when we have been fighting. Not so much “Will he leave me?” as much as “Who am I? And when did I become this person? In this relationship?”

Misery in longevity. Why won’t more people aim for that, you wonder.

The years are going to take their toll. It will get tough before it gets easy. At several points, we will all hopefully springclean and de-clutter our emotional spheres. And when we do, we should probably be checking the box for really liking the person we’re spending our lives with. Liking the person we are when we are with them. Liking that we talk more and fight less. Understanding who they are and respecting their choices. Wanting to sit on a porch swing with them, swinging aimlessly, being perfectly boring, dreaming of places we will go (if only in your head), while that cup of coffee goes cold in your hands.

And he looks at you with ill-concealed affection as if to say, “Typical!”

We should all let ourselves want some of that.

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Thoughtful Giving

On Monday evening, Arvind and I had an arts and crafts date. We were going to paint porcelain and make special presents for two people who have meant a lot to him over the past three years. Anita, his school therapist, and V, the physical therapist who came once a week to supervise his overall progress and take him for pool training.

Arvind was born with a brachial plexus injury (the most severe grade of avulsion) which, in his case, meant that he had an entirely paralysed left arm at birth. (Awful story that I don’t have the stomach to narrate.) It has taken two major, dollar-chomping operations (free medical care. socialism. remember?) and a tremendous amount of loving, patient and innovative training by Anita and V to give him a functional arm. By innovative, I mean just downright clever. It takes cunning to make a 3 or 4 year old like working out everyday. These two spectacular women have also taken the weight almost entirely off our guilt-free shoulders, allowing us to be just his goofball parents instead of parents and part-time therapists.

So back to Monday night. We are at our dining table, making initial sketches before we transfer our ideas onto the porcelain. Arvind comes up with some good ideas and we get started. Ten minutes into it, he is borrrreeed and begins to muck around.

“This pen is too slippery on the cup. Oops. Slipped. Harhar. That flower looks like a NOSE. Or a big bum.”

More hilarity follows and all the while, I sit there with my jaws clenched in irritation, bone-tired after a long day with office work and housework.

Predictably, I snap. And I come down on him like a ton of bricks. “Fine. We’re done here now! If this is how you want to do it, we might as well not do it. I can’t be arsed to waste my time. Go to bed!”

I begin gathering up the pens and after glaring at me balefully for two minutes, Arvind’s eyes fill with tears and he runs down to his room.

“C’mon, ” says the Viking, taking time out from surfing iphone waves, “Do you have to be so hard on him? He’s just six. So he fooled around a bit,so what? Its his present. Let him do what he wants with it. Its not like it has to be artistically perfect. Its a kiddie gift for crying out loud.”

By this point, I’m not far from tears myself.

“Its not because its not perfect,” I say, “Its because it’s a gift to people who have given him a lot of love and I want this gift from him to mean something to him and them. I don’t want it to be something that has been done in a goofy, half-hearted way. Thats just no way to repay them for all that they have done for him. I just want him to put his concentration and effort into making this as nice as he can. I want his appreciation of them to come through in it. Nothing to do with my standards of good art.”

I don’t like thoughtless gifts. Or thoughtless work for that matter.

If it doesn’t matter that much, then for heavens sake, cease and desist.

Its not really perfectionism, because as much as I would like that, its not there and I can’t beat myself with the stick of constant improvement. But it is all about knowing that you poured yourself into acknowledging someone. That you thought about them enough to come up with something that would move them. That you made it personal.

I go down to Arvind and he is huddled on the bed improving his sketches. He looks up briefly just to let me know that he is still upset and goes on drawing.

I apologise for snapping at him and ask him if he’d allow me to explain. One of the lovely things about him so far – he will give you a fair, but tough hearing.

So I explain. And I remind him about how much they have cared for him over the years. I remind him how weak his arm was before Anita made it strong, push-up able and Superman-like. I remind him of how often she has held him when he was very sad some days. How she always a chocolate biscuit in her bag that appears magically when he most needs it. How much fun they have had and how much they laugh when they work out/play/shoot hoops together.

He is eerily still in my arms till he turns his face towards me, utterly crestfallen.

“I wish Anita could come with me to the big school.” he says.

“So do I,” I say. “But she can’t. Thats why this is important. So how about you make the most kickass present ever to show her what you think of her?”

He stayed up till half past 9 that night, talking idly to me, squinting and sticking his tongue out in concentration as he thoughtfully created a gift. I loved the result, imperfect as the lines were, only because he had grasped the spirit of the process.

Was I too harsh on him? Most probably, I was. Maybe I could have gotten to point B without a minor explosion at point A. Still, life isn’t perfect and aren’t there things we should fight to instil in our children? Like putting effort and soul into one’s work – hobby or otherwise?

I know that I am willing to struggle to teach them that cost does not necessarily equate with value. If there is no thought, no effort behind it, its just bling – but it won’t make me sing:-)

When are we demanding and when are we doing the right thing by kids? I won’t even demand a college education from mine. They can be carpenters or mechanics or whatever makes their day. But I know that I will be disappointed if I see them living without spirit, without a sincere effort. Whatever you do, make it count, will be all I really expect.

Naive? Whats your take on this? And while you think, check out some tableware:-)

Cup and saucer

Cup and saucer

Another angle to satisfy my obsessive nature at 2.a.m

Another angle to satisfy my obsessive nature at 2.a.m

Kawfee Kupp - my favourite

Kawfee Kupp - my favourite

p.s. Porcelain is from Ikea. Painting is done with special pens. Check out your nearest hobby shop. Let the paint dry for 24 hours and then bake in the oven for 35 minutes at 150 degrees celsius – and voila! You’re dishwasher-friendly:-)

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