Last Days and First Days

Our last day in Calcutta coincided with the Vivekananda Road Flyover disaster. The bridge collapsed and crushed over 20 people, injuring many more. Two days after the event, people are still trapped under rubble. Friends are marking each other and themselves as safe on Facebook and politicians in power are blaming one another.

On a more personal note, we were packed up and ready to go. Earlier that day, we said goodbye to Misty. And then we said goodbye to Kajol and Sudha, our staff.

Kajol came to us three years ago, to look after my son and quickly made herself indispensable in every way. She cooked for us and managed packed lunches, laundry and everything in between. Sudha, we had only known for a very short time, an elderly lady with gappy gums and a warm smile, who cleaned.

Kajol cried and cried. I hugged her and told her to look after herself. Sudha asked whether she could take the vegetable rack. I said no, it belonged to the landlord.

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Eventually we took our 17 pieces of luggage 3 years worth of essentials? (not including the tennis racquets) and headed towards the airport and completed all airport security formalities. Tired and impatient, we finally arrived in Hyderabad and fell into a fitful dreamless sleep.

The next morning, foggy headed and unsure of what we had actually done, I went through the motions. I let my sister-in-law and mother-in-law take over with the children. Ambiguous to the emotions of gladness or relief or something else. I found clothes and toothbrushes and surrendered to the situation.

Limbo is what you make of it, though. And after a cup of coffee, I was determined to make it count. I started researching and planning and forging an imaginary future and then, somehow, just after breakfast, I collapsed. I shutdown mentally and found it difficult to swallow anything much. By the evening, I was lost.

With the setting sun, and the KVR Park closed, we headed to the Jagannath Temple in Banjara Hills. The dark marble floors were hot and gingerly we made our way to various shrines. A mini pilgrimage.

The temple priests were conducting their evening ritual of banging their brass gongs in the hope of frightening away any unwanted energies and creating holy vibrations only for the most ardent and faithful. For the rest of us, the temple steps were close enough to feel the benefits of piety and prayer.

There is something comforting in the space created for the gods. Calm and clean, unrushed in prayer, people emit only light. Priests were unbothered, going about their daily duties and the gods waited patiently to be noticed. The rest of the world continued to spin while inside the temple we sat and moved only as if in slow motion. It was as if we were cocooned and cushioned from what we perceived to be our realities.

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I can see why faith is so powerful. Right now, I wish I could borrow some. I wish I could sit with folded palms and ask the gods to provide us with the best fit solutions for our forthcoming journey. But I can’t. Not quite. I can only look up to the skies beyond the temple roof and hope that in our insignificant microcosm, the answers will reveal themselves in time; that we possess enough strength and stamina and ‘chutzpah’ to carry ourselves through the coming weeks. A different type of faith.

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Owning my Happy Birthday

Since that Misty Morning, not much has happened really. The world of pets in Kolkata is a quiet one. Dogs must be kept on a leash and we must walk them away from civilization. At least for the most part.

With regards to the rest of my life, well I seem to be edging ever closer to mortality. A dull, colourless mortality where I have done nothing much and probably never will.

I hit the ripe old age of 35 last Saturday and it has left me with very mixed emotions, teetering between complete apathy and utter shock. I know, I know, 35 isn’t that old and age is just a number but that number tends to mean something when you realise that you may have hit ‘mid-life’ and gravity and fine lines are winning the war you never even chose to wage.

When I turned 17, it was a form of reinvention, a redefinition of myself. I no longer was the bullied one. I was no longer the lonely one, the awkward one, the sad one, the strange one. I was the independent one, the brazen one, the one who had friends, a part time job, a newly found love for life and music and poetry and all such stuff. I wanted to celebrate. I wanted to celebrate me, because I was finally someone I liked, someone who was happy in their own skin. I bought myself a silver ring, I got my nose pierced and some new clothes from Miss Selfridge’s. My friends and I went out and watched “One Fine Day” (the only movie showing at the cinemas in town on my birthday). And although it was not the best movie I had ever seen, it was good enough, because my friends were there and they partook in my joy, and that’s what we did, before the notion of someone else being responsible for your happiness took form in our brains.

On the day of my 35th birthday, I smiled dutifully, I ate the birthday lunch, I accepted the greetings but inside I felt like screaming. I suppose my very superficial gripe (in every sense of the word) was that I wasn’t actually getting the birthday I believed I deserved. There was no special gift, no cake, no romantic meal, no fuss from the one person I believed would always make a fuss of me. But deep down, it was that reflection in the mirror. Those dark circles, those soft rolls of fat, those marks and wrinkles that will never, ever go away. Why, in my mind, I asked should anyone even want to look in my direction. And…AND to top it all off, I had my hair cut a few weeks ago…a daring, yet disastrous move, in attempt to shake things up a little.

All of this left me feeling spent. I found myself in tears at various points in the day that resulted in guilt at not being able to graciously appreciate what was being done for me.

What was being done for me? Well, from the moment we landed in Hyderabad (my husband thought it might be nice to mix a business trip with familial duty, I guess). My children and their cousins set about planning a surprise birthday party for me. It wasn’t really a secret and consequently, it follows that there would be no real surprise but the preparations were in full swing.

I really was touched by the idea, although cynically believing that two 8 year olds, one 5 year old and 1 four year old would not be able to pull much off without significant adult intervention. The fun lay in the planning and I suppose the gift lay in the thought.

My husband sensing my brooding, building dissatisfaction (I can’t fake happiness very well), took me out for a coffee. I admit, it was a good move. It took me away from the situation, it took me away from the apparent lack of anything…(I realised that the children had stopped planning and started playing or bickering or just doing what cousins do when they are forced to share the same space for more than 24 hours). I was well and truly forgotten.

I took a deep breath and apologised. It seems my husband’s apparent lack of effort is due to the belief that no thought or gift he could choose for me would be good enough. Hard to believe, considering that before we were married, every thought, every gift, from him was perfect. It’s true, I may have shirked at the baby sling on our 2nd anniversary and the accidentally frozen flowers for our 5th anniversary (I think) and the dress which would have looked very fetching on an 80 year old for one of my post 30th birthdays. But I appreciated them all (bar the baby sling). I was really happy and it showed on my face! But I apologised, with all my heart for not appreciating what he envisaged for my birthday this year. Was I really such a demanding bitch?

I needed to salvage the day. Make it more than the black hole of negativity that I had allowed it to become. And so I made my husband call home and speak to one of the children.

“We’ll be home in 10 minutes. Make sure the surprise is ready!” he whispered.

I could hear a gasp of urgency, of action and affirmation coming from the child. It would be done.

I smiled my first real smile that day. My heart felt so much lighter. The kids were so happy.

Just as we entered the front gate, I made my husband call again to tell them that we would be there, in about 5 minutes.

We peered in through the dark window pane, straining to catch a glimpse of what was happening through the gap in the curtains and we were not disappointed. Earnest, happy, busy children skipped to and fro carrying stuffed toys, arranging them along the sofas, filling bowls with chocolate treats, arranging handmade cards on the table. It was lovely to watch. All this for me?

We rang the bell, shrieks of excitement, everyone rushing to their places including all the adults in the house. They opened the door, my husband rushed to the iPod to play the happy birthday music and all yelled “Surprise!”

Beaming smiles and proud faces.

Such achievement.

I will never forget the joy on the children’s faces.

So, I’ve made up my mind. Forget about me receiving from everyone else. Yes, husband, I release you from the torture of wracking your brain for a way to make me happy. From now on, I throw my own birthday surprise, with the kids, if they are so inclined. I buy my own gifts and clothes and jewellery and arrange my own dinner date, spa afternoon and birthday cake.

From this birthday forth, I go back to being that girl who believes she needs only herself to own her happiness. I go back to being comfortable in my own sagging, scarred skin because when the light is just right, when that one song is playing and when the children are doing that thing they do when they’re excited or at peace, that’s when the world I possess and everything in it, becomes truly beautiful.

The Quality of a Raindrop

It was depressingly grey all day today, in Hyderabad, with a persistent rain that fell on and off with varying degrees of intensity throughout the daylight hours.  At first I was joyful, almost jubilant, donning my long lost cardigan that I had left behind on my first stop to my new home. It reminded me of back in the UK, where it would be grey for days at a time. I was filled with a nostalgia that made me smile with longing of fresher climes. But then, something changed, probably when I had to actually go out and brave the weather.

We were on our way to look at some furniture for my father-in-law’s newly built house. That’s normally an activity that I would love; potentially spending large amounts of money on large, pretty but functional objects. But the wind and the rain just got to me. The traffic was tragic and we didn’t buy anything! Maybe that was the root cause of my melancholy; it was a wasted afternoon!

But it made me think of the UK and how I loved the idea of just escaping all that glum ‘greydom’ and exchanging my winter wear for the weather that suited my clothes in my ideal summer. We did leave in December so the weather was pretty dire and daylight seemed to be at a premium, only adding to the urgency of escape.

The rain in Calcutta

First Rains

But it also made me think of the rain in Calcutta.

That is to say, the rain in Calcutta is the stuff of Bollywood Dreams. It falls with purpose and riot. It’s heralded by the wind, who howls and yelps in warning and celebration. The clouds turn broody and dark and thunder roars and rumbles making the earth tremble in anticipation of the coming tumult. And when it comes, there is a release! The earth becomes fresher, women rush out of their homes and dance as the raindrops caress their form. They become heavenly beings, at one with the water, the earth and the air and for those few minutes, Calcutta is a paradise, where everything is turned to mercury and emeralds and rubies and gold.

But just as quickly as it comes, it is gone.

The earth, like Lord Kishna’s Radha, relives her time with her beloved and basks in the afterglow for as long as the memory can satisfy, but that too fades, replaced by longing once again. The land becomes parched, the air becomes oppressive and a dank stillness hangs in the air.

Has it happened then? Have I said that I prefer the rain in Calcutta to anywhere else? I suppose I must have.

They say Calcutta grows on you, it seeps into your bloodstream without you even realising it. I think it has and like the earth, longing for the rain, I’m longing to get back; back to my routine, back to my friends, back to my home and back to the rain that falls with purpose and with riot.

The Eye Doctor

antique-spectacles“To learn to see- to accustom the eye to calmness, to patience, and to allow things to come up to it; to defer judgment, and to acquire the habit of approaching and grasping an individual case from all sides. This is the first preparatory schooling of intellectuality. One must not respond immediately to a stimulus; one must acquire a command of the obstructing and isolating instincts.”

Friedrich Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols

This is something that I must practise. I happen to be one of those people who jump headfirst into an opinion about a person or a situation. I instantly like or dislike. Very rarely do I have a balanced approach to any given situation.

One person I instantly liked, respected and admired was the ‘Eye Doctor’ in Hyderabad. We were referred to him by my father-in-law who used to know him before he retired. My father-in-law, a man whose world seemed to me to be black or white, right or wrong, definitely saw this man as good, not bad.

We were all worried about my son. My little 19 month old suddenly developed a very itchy and irritated eye. It was red and watery and swollen and painful. As a mother I was frantic and I immediately thought that something must have gotten lodged in it. Eventually I was persuaded to visit the Eye Doctor.

Mamaya, my father-in-law made a call to the doctor who told us to get there by half four. He would see my son, after he closed the clinic to the general public so we would not have to wait. We would be his last patients and he would go home straight after. We got in a cab and made our way to the clinic. At first we were on the main roads but after about half an hour the roads began to narrow. The big shops and the shiny cars were behind us and instead we shared the road with bicycles and auto rickshaws. High-risers and mansions were replaced by much smaller clay fronted buildings crammed into a neighbourhood of ‘not much but just enough.’ There were no longer Telugu or English signs atop the shop fronts, at least none that I spotted. Instead the signs were in Urdu and the men out front wore ‘topis’ or hats traditionally worn by Muslims. We were in a minority Muslim neighbourhood.

In my mind, I was confused and little angry! Where had my father-in-law brought us? How could we even hope to treat my son here? What kind of facilities would this so called ‘Eye Doctor’ have in a dump like this?

We reached the clinic, a building much like the others on the outside, except with a tiny plaque telling us that a doctor indeed practises there and a slightly bigger sign in English telling us there was no appointment system. I imagine the same was written in Urdu underneath. Inside were two rooms, a waiting room and the actual clinic. The waiting room was sparsely furnished with a few rickety wooden chairs and a couple of posters on the wall. The doctor was with someone so we waited. My son, on my lap, was uncomfortable and apprehensive. He looked around and would not let me go. He seemed to mirror my own fears as we were finally called inside.

Once inside Mamaya shook hands with the Eye Doctor and they greeted each other in Telugu. He introduced him to his son and then me. Immediately, as soon as the good doctor knew I was not a Telugu speaking person the conversation turned to English. To my surprise this tall rickety octogenarian with his dark grey hair, oiled and parted to one side, was remarkably eloquent. He put me at ease straight away, making a joke about the state of affairs in India and telling me I had a lot to get used to. I smiled and chuckled in all the right places and he proceeded to examine my son.

My little one seemed very happy suddenly, perhaps it was the vibes I was emitting but he trusted the old man without hesitation. The doctor easily distracted my son as he quickly took a look with that funny looking torch that all opticians have and turned to me very matter of factly. “There is nothing to worry about, Amma. This is simply symptomatic of an allergic reaction. I will give you eye drops and that should clear it up.”

The Eye Doctor, with his loose fitting dentures and milk bottle glasses, went onto explain how and when I should administer the drops and I felt happier than I had done for the last few days. And to top it all off he gave my son a little sweet which the happy little patient wanted to munch on immediately!

Whilst in the waiting area, during the course of the examination and in the car I learnt a little more about the Eye Doctor; he was retired and ran this clinic voluntarily with only a little funding from the government and his own pension. He handed out medication for free and charged nothing for an examination. He was a freedom fighter in his youth, much like my father’s father and was appalled by what the politicians had made of the country he and his comrades had fought so hard for. Judging by where he was practising, he had no hatred for Muslims and possibly was saddened when his beloved Bharat was bargained to pieces.

I left Dr Laxmanaswamy Reddy’s clinic reminded of the old addage, “Never judge a book by its cover.” Things are never quite as they seem at first sight.