In front of the board that says “Please Don’t Feed The Dog”, the dogs of Madhur Vihar are uniting against a lone cow. They have been hungry for days but it has not dampened the will to fight for their territory. “Go Away! This is our home!”, they seem to be shouting in unison. They are clearly unaware of their own minority status in this neighborhood, and the cow too seems to be oblivious of her revered status in the nation. The dogs are tiring out, and the cow has decided to turn and go back to the garbage dump where it has been left by its owner to find some food. The upholders of the respective status of the above mentioned animals are currently busy taking a nap or watching news with ego-maniacs as anchors, their anger interspersed with advertisements of a very happy generation. “You wan’t to get angry, here I’ll break a mug!” says a loving cosmopolitan husband to his wife who seems to be tired of her luxuries…I am wondering how to sneak in the dogs to feed them, and am sorry for the cow who is not alone in facing double standards. Meanwhile the crows have been spared, and my crow friend has just picked up the egg shell I left for it on the stone slab.
On the second shelf in the kitchen are two mugs- orange and yellow. Amma and I bought these together from the neighborhood market some months ago; she wanted to spend time with me over chai.
I have been living with Amma since last summer. It was unplanned.
I had been working in another city for 6 years, when she called me and asked if I would like to move back. I was surprised by that sudden call. But I had been noticing changes in Amma’s voice, she sounded more fragile and lesser of the strong woman who had raised me on her own. I sensed urgency, and feared that leaving this opportunity of time together might be my biggest regret later in life; I started applying for a new job.
A few months later, I packed my bags with great hesitation, said goodbye to the loveliest friends and was home.
Only to realize, home isn’t the same.
My room having served as a space for guests had remnants of their personalities. My books were missing, my memories of an entire childhood had been painted over, and as if to mock at my sense of belonging, a strange wall art had appeared in their place demonstrating dearth of imagination and skill. I was unable to relate with the velvet curtains and their display of fake splendor, and the calendar with models wearing gold jewelry deserved to be hidden.
I felt invaded.
But I decided to curtail my impulses and settle in. I was carrying with me imaginations of a period of bonding, a fresh beginning where the two of us navigate through unforeseen adventures, moments of laughter, nostalgia and exploration. I needed time to slowly initiate this process with her. First, I needed to feel at home. Amma meanwhile had been nurturing her own desires that had been unfolding across time and space. Little did we know that the colourful memories we were hoping to weave, might turn into bitter episodes we both crave to forget.
To give you some context, I have been raised by a feisty single mother, who fought against all conventions to ensure that I have a safe childhood away from her abusive husband, receive good education and appreciate life through all that it has to offer. We had our turbulence and there were times when Amma struggled under mounting pressures, but it would be safe to assume that we managed well. I chose to pursue a career of my choice and consider myself fairly independent. Amma took pride in my achievements and I found consolation in performance. Then I fell in love. After living with my partner for a while, we realized we were happier alone, and I moved in with some friends – the year when Amma stopped being herself.
Having lived her life on her own terms, I had expected Amma to be my biggest support in that phase. On the other hand, I faced an onslaught of unsolicited advice and fears. Her reactions were exaggerated, conventional and seemed alien to me as her child. I wondered who had she been speaking to; can a person’s identity and beliefs change drastically over time? Is this really my mother? I was coping with an estranged partner and also disbelief at my mother’s radical transformation. Things weren’t easy.
Amma’s phone calls kept increasing in their frequency and her tone was always worried. She would call me when I was in office, at the gym, with friends, and her queries were always regarding my future with my partner. He and I were not planning to move back together, yet we cared for one another, how hard was it for her to understand? Things kept boiling between us for a while, I did not want to hurt Amma, but I couldn’t hide my sense of shock at her extreme reactions. My impatience with her was growing, she was disturbing me, I was feeling stressed after her every call, I was borrowing her anxiety, for the first time in my life, I suddenly felt insecure. My friends asked me to avoid talking to her so much.
I reduced our interaction; I would only take her calls on weekends and make sure the conversation is short. Seeing her missed calls during the week made me feel nauseous with guilt, but I needed to do this for myself, or this is how I justified it. Every passing weekend, I felt Amma seemed even more anxious than before, her questions ranging from my roommates’ personal lives to my ex’s future plans. Once she asked me invasively about my sex-life, at that point I could just not take it anymore. And I burst out. I do not remember what I said; I just know that I was in great anger and that she fell completely silent. I had hurt her, and hurt my own self. After that she stopped calling me. I cried my heart out, overwhelmed with guilt and anger- frustrated at having lost the mother she was and at my own incapacity to be more responsible towards her growing insecurities. I wish I knew how to deal better. Because I could not find a solution, I started escaping my reality. I also did not call Amma. That year, we did not go for a holiday together, our annual treat. I too did not present the idea; I felt it was better for me to keep distance lest I lash out at her.
It was tough to imagine Amma as this weak person who had allowed me to disrespect her. She had been most loving but also a very strict mother. Raising a child on your own in a society as ours has never been easy, and to run your own organization along with it is even tougher. Amma had several moments of extreme stress when I was growing up, and often she would direct her resentment at me in some form or the other. It wasn’t deliberate, she needed attention, care and love, but all she got was endless nagging, judgement and criticism. However she never broke. She held her head high and taught me to do so. As a child I developed an ocean of empathy for her, I could sense what she was going through, I could ignore her angry remarks and focus on her deep love for me. We were a team. This team was breaking now.
After a phase of discomfort in silence, I began calling Amma on my own. She would always take my call, irrespective of the time. She would tell me about the neighbors, the problems at office, some news of my childhood friends who still lived in the city, but never about her health. I used to feel restless speaking to her, I wanted those conversations to end sooner to avoid possible confrontations. She regularly asked about my meals and I wonder why it never occurred to me, is she eating properly?
Time flew by, next year I could not offer to go on the trip because I had to finish some work. Amma came over to see me. This time she was weaker, fidgety with her luggage, nervous in the taxi and fell sick on eating ice-cream. She was worried about my life. How long will I live with flatmates? Two of them are already married and have moved out; will I always keep working like this? Is this all that I want? I was surprised at her questions, isn’t she the one who told me in school that if I do not work hard, I’ll waste my life? That it is better to focus on Math than on boys? So why is it now important for me to forget my priorities and instead hunt for a husband? Amma did not persist much; she would just bring it up feebly, listen to my response, and take deep breaths. I wanted to embrace her and tell her gently that I love her, but I couldn’t, I just told her that her views are not aligned with mine.
The year after that is when Amma called me to ask if we can stay together, and I landed home.
She had become quieter, thinner and would often cough. She refused to take medicines or to reduce her workload. She still washed her own clothes and preferred to not have a cook. I on the other hand had gotten used to a different lifestyle. I liked being in control at home, so did Amma, and this has been her home forever. With Amma, life revolves around her rituals and schedule. Her priorities started becoming mine, and I found myself in constant conflict. I felt stranded in my own house and challenged her authority.
In the past year we have fought over our culinary desires, wardrobe, choice of toothpaste, frequency of oiling hair, desire or lack of desire for a pet, selection of news channel, re-purposing of furniture, watering of plants, and of course my marriage. Every time Amma brought it up, I put up one question- I thought she wanted me to live with her, why is she not letting me do that and asking me to get married? Amma refused to respond.
I had come back with a desire to amend things with Amma. To express and resolve the resentment we had built up in the past and to go back to the relationship we shared, but our dynamics grew worse. Neither did we enjoy anything together nor were we particularly helpful to each other. In fact I stopped seeing Amma as my ageing mother, I stopped being gentle, I could sense a rising insensitivity within me which was alarming yet overpowering. Be it on walks or at dinner I would avoid talking to her, or make calls to friends and ignore her worries. Amma on the other hand refused to let go of this opportunity to influence me, she would quote examples from neighbourhood, and warn me of dire consequences in future. In retrospect I think Amma being the protective mother she has always been wants to ensure that I do not face the hardships she went through, she wants an easier life for me, and she sees matrimony as a solution having witnessed happier marriages of her cousins and extended family. What Amma refused to acknowledge was the fact that I am an adult and responsible for my choices and future, it is no more her duty and she can choose to enjoy this time with me, knowing ourselves better. I had hoped that in all these years Amma’s determination to solve my personal crisis would have mellowed; instead it now haunted us day and night.
Amma also had her new-found misery to deal with. A daughter she had nurtured with much love was now being arrogant, defiant and denying her a role with dignity. Over each cup of tea, we fought. With time we became more hurtful, brought out monsters from the closet and delved in self-pity. To aggravate her further, I forced her to follow a new diet advised by a doctor and suffered paranoia regarding all possible illnesses that could divest her of her vitality. She became irritable and stubborn, and I acted like an impatient parent.
I thought this would go nowhere and was on the verge of giving up. I had started looking for jobs again and wanted to move out. Unable to solve our crisis I wanted to flee. Amma on the other hand chose to go into her shell on learning that I might leave again. I was openly voicing my regret at having moved in with her and she started living with the resentment of not having solved my life’s problems.
It was in order to save our relationship and collective sanity that I decided to take at least a break and went back to stay with my friends. I wasn’t running away, or perhaps I was being a coward. I was seeking refuge to be able to soothe my frayed nerves and find a solution to our daily upheavals. The first few days were relaxing; I followed all advice- from Yoga class to Green Tea and then evening by the river. I was supposed to find peace and I was ready to embrace it wholeheartedly. Just that it was hidden deep within.
On one of my walks in the park, an elderly gentleman who had been greeting me regularly waved at me. I went up to him. He was warm and welcoming and we struck a conversation around purpose and meaning in life. As if he could read my distress, he remarked, just by meditating in this park here you will not find your answers. I felt annoyed and chose to ignore his advice. I continued to live with my friends and worked from distance.
After a few weeks, I could not resist an overwhelming guilt. I decided that maybe Amma too could benefit from this change. I booked her tickets and invited her to stay with me. We spent a week together wherein we watched theater, used our favorite recipes for cooking, sat in the park and read passages from books we had read together long ago. None of us brought up the topic of marriage. She did not ask me when or if I would come back. I was too scared of my inability to control my reaction and she had been silenced. On this trip I realized that Amma had a flair for cards, and she enjoyed drinking mocktails. My friends took her out for a movie and had a wonderful time with her over coffee. Amma laughed easily, music to my ears, yet I found her to be hiding her hurt.
While leaving, she did not say anything; she just squeezed my palms, hugged me tight and kissed me as she always does. When I saw her walk with the trolley, I noticed she was slower, her shoulders drooped slightly. I held back a fierce wave of tears, and shouted, “Amma! I’ll be back soon!” On my way, I recalled, Amma had been petrified on flying alone earlier, how did she manage this time?
That evening as I sat in the room, I could feel Amma. In all her little things- the box with laddoos, the hand towel, my old comics and new pajamas, she had left behind her essence. She called to let me know she had reached safely, her phone had been off and she forgot to switch it on. She mentioned that a very kind young woman held her hand when the plane took off. She thanked me and my friends for the wonderful time she had, and that she misses me terribly. Before ending the call she shared that after a very long time, she felt as if she was with her friend. I wanted to be that young woman, hold her hand and sleep.
A few mornings later, I sat in the park, anxious if he would be there. The gentleman who had remarked on my search for solutions arrived. I waved at him, he walked towards me beaming with kindness. I apologized to him for having been rude and told him that I am going back to where the problem is, the solution resides there itself. He patted me on my back, smiled and walked away.
I went back to Amma again. She was ecstatic. I had not informed her of my arrival, yet I found that my study room had been re-arranged to suit my needs, my books were back on the shelves, and my wardrobe was left empty for me. I prepared a chart offering to cook one meal every day and we agreed to get a washing machine, two news papers and use separate tooth pastes.
It has been a few months, and it is my birthday today; Amma kept a letter on my table while leaving for work. A hand-written letter, her beautiful cursives reminding me of the time I spent at her office desk, following her words and framing mine. She used to work till evening but would ensure that I come back to her from school, have my lunch and complete homework. Prior to my examinations she would prepare test sheets for me to sit and practice. I do not know when she took out time to manage all of this. Being a single parent is a huge responsibility, and one that comes with endless criticism and scrutiny from those around. She never faltered. I do not remember her ever crying, I just remember that she would smile a little less. And that is why, her smile has always been the most beautiful sight for me.
I read through the simplicity of her words, the depth of her experiences. She expresses why I matter so much to her, some funny memories that she cherishes and how she would like me to have friends over as I used to in my teenage years. She even remembers the bands whose music we would listen to! It is a long letter. She has traced my life from her eyes. She writes that with my permission she would like to invite some people who matter a lot to me- my uncle, my favourite class teacher, friends from school and university, and my cousin for dinner on the weekend. Then she adds as a separate note that she’ll come home late because she has to go out with our neighbour for some shopping. She requests me to not worry about her medicines and that she would be back by 7. As an afterthought she confides, “I think your neighbour aunty has very good choice. I have seen her bedsheets when she hangs them after a wash. That is why I will go with her to select a new table cloth. It will look good when we invite people for dinner. I know you are busy and you don’t like this market, don’t worry, be happy, we will also be enjoying. ”
I immediately re-read the letter, cried, laughed, and kissed it.
In the past year, I have at times been brutally hurt; I have at times inflicted immense pain. For a while I have battled with my wounds and guilt, and have found myself sinking in quicksand. Amma’s letter instantly pulled me out. In her moment of reflection, she released both of us from roles that had outlived their relevance. Amma has made space for me once again in the house, but more than that, Amma and I have made space for one another in our lives. Our time apart and together has made us realize how complete and capable we are as individuals, yet how important is our bond, and we must relish this in our renewed togetherness.
I’ll go for a haircut and call Amrita aunty. It would be great if she can also join us on the weekend, after all she is Amma’s dearest friend. It is 6:45 pm and knowing Amma, I have left the door open. Adrak Chai is ready, ready to be served in our mugs.
Hope this letter finds you well. I thought of writing to you because I like to write and I like the thought that you , with that calm on your face, would be reading it. That the depth in those eyes would scan across the length of it, and probably lead to a knowing smile.
In a way it is like a conversation, just that your response would be delayed, thoughtful or probably silent.
That actually does not matter, not over the years, not when we shall meet again after travelling across the skies, the oceans, the moons.
It is a letter, a letter which makes you realize that the response does not matter, what matters is the process of writing the letter itself, to feel the words appear before you as an inner voice dictates your fingers. It is almost cathartic, or perhaps I wish for it to be so, we all do things with a selfish purpose indeed. I think I look for happiness through expression, I also look for you.
Then maybe- I am just voicing a random thought- maybe those Communication Models are to be blamed, to be blamed for building that desire of a tangible response. Such cunning strategy forcing us to surround ourselves with that which can give us a conspicuous nod.
Even when we travel, we travel with the hope of re-connecting with what we are born connected with. Are you not connected with the tree whose branches sway above you, are you not connected to the squirrel that darts across the road? We are all connected, shall always be.
At times, I accept that loneliness is a myth, no one is alone ever, it is just a make-believe so that the societal structures would sustain. But then, don’t we work so hard, put in conscious efforts to be lonely? To live, to eat, to sleep, to travel in cabins, in boxes, that separate us even from our soul. To live in an isolated luxury, a poisonous privilege indeed. We seem to have forgotten the company of the insects, the birds, the clouds, Oh yes, the clouds! The clouds do tell us much, so many stories, so much that is beyond and hidden from the naked eye.
The clouds, my friend, reveal bit-by-bit, but we do not wish for this ethereal company, neither of the leaves, nor the water. Do you ever hear the ocean as you stand in the midst of great noise? I do, it tells me of the vastness of that which I don’t understand but am a minute part of it nevertheless, I influence it as much as it influences me.
I just wanted to remind you, that you are freer than you think you are, so am I, and even if you never write back, I would know your response, I would hear it without your having uttered a word. For if we wish to be connected, we stay connected, I choose to have you in my life still.
I have reached a point where I don’t know why I am writing this, primarily because I thought of you.
You might not want to understand this and dismiss this, you must, no one is to be forced to have an accurate understanding of another’s rant.
Unlike my childhood hero Rusty, I never exactly had the room on the roof, I did however move from room to room.
Some of them are recalled here:
Balcony mein room:
It was the funniest setting ever; basically we were to now live in an extended balcony covered with boards and asbestos, only to freeze in the winters. If it wasn’t for the bread omelette and momos, and of course innumerable cups of chai, I don’t think we would have managed.
The fan rested not too far from our heads and forbade us from standing on the rickety bed. The lizard on the ceiling was not a very welcoming sight, considering the proximity, but in due course of time became our third roommate. She was extremely considerate and managed to stay behind Sai Baba’s huge framed photograph- most of the time.
We had shifted to this room with a sense of urgency; we had been dying to vacate our former pg accommodation where the landlady seemed to have gone to the dark side, well I’ll elaborate some other time.
Through our new room passed the staircase to the terrace, so basically we were residents in the passage to the terrace, which was used only by the landlady and her daughter, who otherwise kept it locked, lest we create havoc on the terrace, the ferocious nature of which (havoc) can only be described by those two, who imagined it in the first place, we would only fantasize about life on the terrace, apart from the view it wouldn’t be much different, we were anyway just as exposed to the elements.
In the initial days I pretended to be Heidi, but for how long can one eat watery daal and pretend that the bathroom does not stink. Soon enough we realized that it was time to vacate, yet again, and moved on to spend a year or so in a flat in ruins. It was at the top of a building which could be leaning, or maybe floating, or maybe…
Khandahar mein room:
We were on the fifth floor, and our much revered balcony would often be flooded with overflowing tankiyan which belonged to our MANY neighbours-all (tankis) mounted on the top of our flat- they (neighbours) were generous with their motor usage.
As if the ghostly charm of the broken window frames and the cobwebs in kitchen wasn’t enough, our balcony also had a peepal tree. Not those to be dissuaded easily we left no stone unturned in making it our home. For some inexplicable reason we also got a huge letter box, which sheltered air and maybe insects with passage of time. We even cleaned the refrigerator frothing with fungus, and made it usable all over again. Now when I look back at it, I did work hard then. However, things did turn incredulous, and it causes me much discomfort to recall the events in the latter part of our stay- including a heartfelt prayer one fearful night (to Obama’s photograph) to save us from an invisible thief-so I jump across to my next stop, another PG Accommodation. (The tone gets serious from here onward)
Prithvi ki gahraiyon mein room:
“It is the smallest room we have, but then this is the only one with single occupancy”
Even though it seemed only slightly more than an enlarged closet, I paid the rent and moved in.
This was to be my room from now, my own room, an underground hole, with light coming in through a small window at the top. This very window would let the moonlight in when there was a power cut. In either case, I was grateful for its existence in the months to come.
The next day was spent in making the room mine, in adjusting my belongings in the tiny space, decorating it, stamping my existence, my ownership. Old photographs, posters, test prints of artwork, magazine cut-outs, and souvenirs. After a long but troubled stay in a flat bustling with people, decay and fear, this was the greatest comfort to my tired self.
I had rented a room in a paying guest accommodation, the room had a bed in which I did not completely fit, a table and chair adjacent to the bed, one slim but elongated cupboard, and for some reason, as if to magnify the room by its reflection, a huge mirror. The room was painted white to further elaborate on the illusion of space, it did not help, but the room did not dampen my spirits, only my clothes, in the rainy season.
I allowed my fatigued nerves to relax, for me to be one with the space, where there would be no intruders, not even the mouse troubling my neighbours, not even the loud music from the room separated merely by a board, this is my space, I would tell myself until sleep would take over my frayed senses.
In the months to come, I found myself thriving in the smallness of the room; it was cosy, warm and personal. I cut my hair short and thanked my stars for the mirror; I even learnt to work on 3d Max software! What else do you want out of life!
It was close to my institute and there was a park right across, the tiff in they gave did not suck, the tea in the evenings was not bad either. So what if at times there was long term water shortage, it was my room, my room under, much under, the roof.
If you haven’t used a scissor made in Meerut, you have missed out on an excellent cutting experience my friend.
Its only when I moved out of Meerut for my Graduation, that I learnt of Meerut’s Scissors.
I gifted one to a friend who used it for preparing garments, and he was pleasantly surprised with the tool’s efficiency. That made me wonder, how much I took our amazing Kainchis for granted.
In fact my mother had been gifted a large beautiful scissor by her patient, with her name tastefully etched on it, it has been our companion for years. They are the most long lasting scissors ever.
The smoothness of their functioning is literally orgasmic. Trust me, I have been in Design Schools, and have used many scissors, but the ones from Meerut, you can never forget the exhilaration of that perfect sharpness, that deft movement, that sound (khich, khach) which is almost music to my ears.
Just in case, you ain’t aware, Meerut’s Scissors may get Geographical Indication Mark : http://articles.timesofindia.indiatimes.com/2013-01-17/lucknow/36393076_1_geographical-indication-scissors-gi-certification
To express my gratitude and love for the craftsmen and their wonderful creation, scissors:
Ok yes, i took some liberty and let aesthetics go for a toss 😉
Shall be posting more on this, pretty soon!
I was born and brought up in Meerut. But to be really honest, I don’t think I ever lived as a part of Meerut, I never tried to connect with my city, never tried to learn of its history or be a part of its future.
I feel that this apathy that many like me live with is also one of the reasons that the place deteriorates and its stories are lost unheard.
I now have decided to slowly begin to listen to those stories, to document them. For what, you ask.
Well, for nostalgia a bit, but more so for reclaiming the space, reclaiming my role in its larger narrative and for others who have lived as disconnected and sans sense of belonging as I did.
I begin with nostalgia though.
We used to go to study in a tuition centre called Auora Classes. Vinod Sir is one of the most interesting and passionate Physics teachers you would ever come across. Now this centre was in a locality known as the Bakri Mohalla, and the one question I guess each one of us must have joked about, is , Yeh bakriyan buffalos kaise ban gayin? So the place was a hub for buffalos and scooties belonging to students. What I wonder now is why did we never try to find out what got this place its name?
So thats my next agenda.
In the meantime enjoy this quick piece made in the honour of Bakri Mohalla!
In case you are confused:
These are buffalos made here because the colony though named after goats was visually a buffalo haven
So what do you do when you feel that the world has come to an end?
What do you do when you delve in self-pity and misery, as if there is no tomorrow?
You remind yourself of the many stories around you, the wide variety of emotions, facts and fiction which surround you, there is much more in the world beyond you and its great!
To counter troublesome thoughts- create art
To feel good- create art
To share joy- create art
SO here’s one for stories, stories we all are, stories we live with.