Thursday, April 26, 2018

Gone with the wind

My daughter, Button is obsessed with Helium balloons. Every trip to a store or supermarket, and she adds to her balloon harem by 1. Disney balloons, random Chinese character balloons, birthday balloons, emoji balloons. As long as they float and bob, they are A-ok in her book.
A couple of months ago, she found a particularly garish looking smiley-emoji balloon. Someone had decided that the basic two eyes+ toothy grin combo wasn't enough for this balloon. NOO, it had to have those extra large eyes and a creepy smile that would impress a serial killer. And for some reason, the artist who designed the balloon had even added a little red nylon tongue extension which happily flapped up and down when the balloon floated. All in all, a pretty macabre toy.But guileless kids, full of innocence loved the damn thing and Button was no exception. So we got it home and my kids spent countless hours playing with it.
Over the next week, the balloon slowly lost some of its helium. When at first, it needed to be weighed down with a small rock; now it sort of floated aimlessly. Even the nylon tongue lay limp, only flapping whenever the balloon happened to float near an air vent. The kids moved on to other toys, and the balloon hung out at odd locations in the house, sinking lower and lower every day.
One Saturday morning, my mom (who's visiting us from India) was up at her usual 5 am and went to the living room to do her Pranayams and Yoga. Mid breath, she spotted something floating near the edge of the kitchen. Squinting in the dark, she recognized the sinister smile. Now my mom is a pretty awesome lady - equally talented at whipping up the perfect dosa and running half marathons without breaking a sweat. She doesn't scare easily. So while the floating balloon made her pause, it didn't really increase her heart rate. Well, at least not until she opened her eyes again and saw the balloon had drifted a couple of steps closer.
The air vents were off and she couldn't really sense a breeze. A mild sense of unease crept into her. She finished her pranayams quickly and decided to take action. Grabbing the floating offender, she pushed it into the hallway bathroom. A few minutes later, she heard a small rustling sound. Looking up, she saw a half leering face smiling at her from the corner of the hallway, tongue lolling out. The balloon's string had somehow escaped the bathroom knob (she still swears she'd tied it securely!) and the stupid thing was now bobbing back to the hall, like the world's slowest zombie.
She turned her back to it and started her stretches. She could sense movement behind her. The balloon kept floating back and forth, back and forth.Bobbing slowly. Simple harmonic motion.... at its scariest.
It then got worse.
Every time she finished a set of Yoga asanas and opened her eyes, the balloon had floated closer. First a foot. Then some more. Now she was properly scared and was half considering waking me up. Then she remembered her brave ancestors who'd fought at weddings for extra vadas and kheer.Channeling their courage and never-give-up spirit, she decided to ignore the balloon. For the next 15 minutes, she stretched and leaned and bent and twisted. Breathing a little harder than usual, she was almost finished when something flitted across her face. The next thing I know, I was woken up from a nice dream by my mother, who looked 90% terrified and 10% embarrassed.
It was dawn pretty soon and feeling smug and heroic; I marched to the living room. The culprit was floating insipidly near the kitchen. I tied the string to one of my old stilettos and put it in the backyard. My mom smiled at me sheepishly and I assured her that it's ok to feel scared, while managing to stifle some giggles. We both sat down for some coffee and banter.
That afternoon, my mom was roused from her nap, by a little squeaky voice singing "Happy birthday". She felt tiny hands tapping her face and upon opening her eyes, she saw my daughter proudly beaming. "Wake up wake up Renu (she calls my mom by her name).It's your birthday today. Look, I got you a shoe".
In my daughter's hand was the stiletto. And suspended 2 feet above that, was a wrinkly old balloon. Smiling and tongue flapping.

Epilogue: Weeks have passed. Renu goes by her day, a stickler for routine. Her face is cheerful, her movements efficient and graceful. But if you look deep into her eyes, you can see the shadows there. Memories of the horrors she has faced. She jumps easily at floating leaves. She avoids the party section aisles of stores. And she refuses to come to birthday parties. She is still brave. But like the bravest of us, she is haunted by her own floating demons.
Based on a true story.The author has somehow managed to write this without bursting into too much laughter. The author's mother is starting to feel seriously annoyed by this. As a result of this, the author may be refused some delicious, piping hot Sambar. If that the price the author must pay for a good story, then so be it. 😂😂😂

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Pocket of happiness.

This past week, our house underwent some fumigation and so we spent 8ish days at our in-laws’ cottage in Monterey, California. For those unfamiliar with that part of the world, Monterey and its surrounding towns are right next to the Pacific Ocean. Miles of beautiful, unspoiled beaches, not too touristy and of course the world-famous Monterey Bay Aquarium. The weather is never too hot; the beaches are set against a backdrop of lush hills and the sand is always perfect. My idea of heaven on earth.

The kids had lots of fun, but because of a sudden increase in downtime (no school) they started having bouts of “I’m so bored/I love the Ocean/I hate the Ocean/I’m angry for no reason”. Typical younger child behavior and something I’d expected would happen. They both thrive on structure, so we tried to keep things as streamlined and predictable as possible. 

Of course, my Zen, earth-mother mood didn’t last too long. Between the cooking and cleaning and general child rearing, I started whining and moping as well, by the 3rd day. “Why can’t I sleep in/why can’t I have a moment of quiet/where’s my ice cream for good behavior”. You know, the usual annoyances, every single one of you has had. 

So my husband, being super attuned to my thought processes, decided to intervene. Kids and I had just settled down after a particularly pointless 3 person tantrum. Husband sat me down and said he was giving me a timeout. (Yes, I did a comical double take on hearing that). He wanted me to take an hour off every day, at a time of my choosing and go sit at the beach. So essentially a break from life and responsibilities! He was wearing an old gym shirt and ratty shorts, but hot damn, the man had never seemed more attractive to me than right then! A long smooch and whispered thanks later, I was off to the ocean, with my trusty laptop and a cold latte.

I soon discovered a sheltered corner, hidden from the highway that runs parallel to the ocean. Because of the sand dunes, this little alcove was partially protected from the wind while still offering a pretty spectacular view of the sea. And that’s where I sat my butt for the next 5 days, breathing in the air and watching the roiling waves.  One particularly cold evening, I took some ice cream with me. I settled down on my beach towel, careful, not to attract the attention of the beady-eyed seagulls, who were pretty liberal about eating anything that will go down their beaks. A couple of bites in and an incredulous voice floated over to me, from the next dune over. “Are you really eating ice cream? In this freezing weather?”. I nodded and smiled at the old man, who then cheekily asked: “Do you have an extra cone?”. 

I went to the beach during different parts of the day, but the sunsets were by far, my favorite. Sunsets anywhere can be incredibly beautiful. But there’s something particularly mesmerizing about watching the sun grow heavier in the sky before slowly shimmering and melting into the heaving ocean.  Seagulls flew across the horizon, skimming the surface of the water before yelping as the cold spray hit their wings. Cars pulled up near the edge of the beach as people got off to take in the end of the day. I heard myself relaxing, each exhalation taking away another ounce of stress and worry. Much like those seagulls, I felt lighter and carefree.Around me were men and women, of all races and ages. Old folk, young lovers, harried parents and squirrelly kids. All staring at the ocean, the sun gloriously reflected a millionfold in their wet eyes. Some people openly cried at the beauty of it all, while the more stoic ones, wiped their eyes and stared straight ahead. We were all literally 20 feet away from the highway, but it felt like a completely different world. For some perfect minutes, we were silent spectators, watching the greatest show on earth.

The ocean represented something different for each of us. Some saw the waves and remembered childhood summers, sepia-toned and magical. Others thought of gravitational currents and riptides, and the sheer vastness of the blue world ahead of them. Me, I thought long and hard about solitude. And calm. As a parent and wife, somehow I had bound every second of my life to someone else. I started getting used to being constantly needed and sometimes, it was so easy to forget myself in all the chaos. So I looked at the ocean and realized that it is ok to have some alone time. No guilt. No regrets. The occasional need for solitude was perfectly valid because every moment doesn’t have to be with or for someone else. I needed to feel the warm sand underneath my toes, both lifting my spirits and grounding my soul.  And I was blessed to have a husband who somehow understood this before me. And just like that, I unclenched my jaw and the last bit of stress flew away.  No matter what curve balls life throws at me, I will always have these evenings with me - crisp memories that I can access anytime I want. 

It was almost sundown. I saw lots of phones and cameras out. Trying to capture the beauty before us. Uncharacteristically, I didn’t feel the need to reach for my own. No picture or video could ever capture the beauty of what I was seeing and somehow I didn’t want to dilute this splendor with a picture. So I leaned back and listened to the haunting roar of the waves. I felt peaceful, almost hypnotized, cleansed and recalibrated. 
A smattering of applause and I realized the show was over. The sun was now a liquid pool of golden on the horizon. Cars were already revving their engines, ready to leave. United by Mother Nature, for a long moment, a hundred different people now departed on their separate journeys. Each of us would take home a different memory of this evening. As I walked back to my car, a twinge of stress crept back in. Did I remember to cook the macaroni? Was the trash taken out? Had the kids gone completely feral
But now, instead of denying that anxiety or wishing it away, I embraced it fully. You see, your entire day doesn’t have to be this constant parade of successes. It is unrealistic and frankly tiring to expect perpetual happiness. Instead, I would treasure the little pockets of joy that came my way. Like my son who learned to ask Wh-questions for the first time.  Like my daughter who told me that I was ‘her favorite goose’ (?). Like my husband, who somehow knew how to fix me. And like that blue, hypnotic ocean that fixed me. 

My cell phone buzzed- Husband checking in to see if I was ok. 

And I was. I actually was.

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Car Wash

Photo by Yogi Purnama on Unsplash

I have a membership at a car wash.It's a small business that does a pretty good job of clearing my car of grime and every single piece of random detritus my kids have decided to dump into the car. Old Lego pieces (son), stickers (daughter), ketchup packets (again daughter), fast food paper towels (me).The car goes in, looking tired and a tad shamefaced.
From the point of view of the human vacuum cleaner, constantly whooshing behind my kids, I am so elated to hand over the cleaning to someone else for a change.I practically throw the keys in the carwash staff’s faces, before scurrying away to the cool, dark lobby, where I nurse an iced latte.
An hour later, I pick it up - bright, shiny and smelling of God’s nectar (cinnamon spice flavor, for those interested).I tip generously as the cleaning attendant and I exchange rueful glances and marvel at the Pile of Crap they fished out of my car. And finally, I drive away, with the rooftop visor down (mom version of that convertible glamor) and music blaring from the tinny speakers.

I think about that Pile of Crap.Memories and moments looking at me through the clear plastic of the trash bag.That cheap slinky my daughter insisted she couldn’t live without. The Lego airplane my son built painstakingly on a long drive to the speech therapist.Random artwork, done with passion and forgotten about in that huge valley between the booster seats.Lollipops and paper boats, French fries and empty cups. All momentarily a part of our day, forgotten once their purpose has been served. Beautiful, perfect minutes, now lying, unloved, in someone else’s trash.Its both ordinary and tragic, the speed at which we fly through life, writing new experiences over the same pages.
So I take a deep breath and turn the car around.At the car wash, the salespeople look at me like I’m crazy. I don’t blame them; I feel particularly eccentric too.But finally, the attendant who cleaned my car takes me to the cleaning floor.I look around worriedly and I spot it with relief.The big trash bag, sitting forlornly with a dozen of its siblings.And as he smiles, I reach in and grab what I came for.I walk away hurriedly, leaving behind some very amused employees.
Pulling into my driveway, I start crying. Then laughing.My shiny car regards me with some concern.I reassure it that actually, I’m feeling quite marvelous.I walk inside, the misshapen slinky, the Lego airplane clutched tightly in my hands.Maybe tomorrow’s trash.But tonight, for a few long hours, they're precious again.

Monday, April 9, 2018

Night shift

Roy mopped the floor, back and forth. Back and forth. The dullness of the process soothed his frayed nerves. He hated working at night when the whole building was silent and he could hear his own labored breathing. But he'd promised to cover tonight's shift, and he was a man of his word. Not like there was anyone waiting for him back home. Sighing, he lifted his mop and rinsed it in the murky pail. Squeezed and plopped it on the ground. Back and forth. Back and forth. The rhythmic motion lulled him into a state of semi-hypnosis. His mind drifted away, jumping from thought to thought. Soon he was reminiscing about his own school days. His jaw opened slightly, his wrinkled face serene with a dreamy smile. Back and forth. Back and forth. The mop kept moving.

He passed an open lab door. At first, he didn't hear the sound, still engrossed in his own thoughts. Then some primitive part of his brain slowly woke up and started ringing alarm bells. Something that sounded like a moan reached his ears.He looked around warily. Shit. What on earth could be making that noise? Ashamed to be this scared at the ripe old age of 73, he shook his head clear and stood still. Listening. First nothing. And then came a guttural sound. "Uhnnn Uhnnnn". Followed by rustling. 
Shit.Shit.Shit. It was coming from the open lab. He stood there, paralyzed, staring at the lab door.From where he stood, he could only see a thin sliver of what was inside. 
A clanking sound, like something metallic hitting the floor.Roy jumped, his old heart pounding. 
Again, "Uhnnn Uhnnn Uhnnnnn". Louder, more urgent. 
An unexplained feeling of dread rose inside his chest. He glimpsed around, irrationally hoping for somebody else to appear - a teacher, a staff member. He'd even take those lanky older boys, who always smelled of weed and cigarettes. But it was past midnight and even those deadbeat kids would be safe in their beds. 

Roy looked down at his shoes. Drops of sweat had landed on the old leather. His chest wheezed painfully. He placed the mop against the wall, careful not to make a sound. Then leaned against the same wall and slid slowly to the edge of the laboratory door.  He moved fast, pivoting around the edge of the open door. 

The room was lit, but not by the overhead fluorescent lights. There was a dim yellow glow coming from under the large table in the middle of the room. He stepped closer. There was a large sheet draped over something on the table. He frowned, unsure of what he was seeing. "Unnhhh Unhhh".It was coming from the table.

Roy was a fan of cinema. He had watched enough movies, and he knew better than to go closer to that table. 
But his feet wouldn't listen. So he got closer. And closer. The faded yellow sheet was still. Minutes passed. 
And then the sheet rustled. And moved down the table. A stiff, rigid corpse lay on the table.
Before Roy's brain could process that, the cadaver turned its neck and looked at him with dulled, sunken eyes. Its mouth opened, toothless, decomposed. A pungent odor of formaldehyde hit his nostrils. His breath seized in his mouth and his bladder voided involuntarily.

Then three things happened in rapid succession. First, the corpse stumbled off the table with surprising agility.
Then, Roy's already overburdened heart gave one last terrified thrust and died on him. Finally, the corpse scampered to his still body and took blind, hungry bites out of his still warm flesh.

The rest of the night passed quietly. Punctuated by moaning and slurping sounds. Then more silence. 

At five in the morning, the other Janitor walked into the building. Accompanied by two lanky boys, who smelled of weed and cigarettes. They tiptoed, quietly to the lab door. Peeked in and saw the remains. The dissection table was empty. Following the trail of blood, they found the cadaver in the back room. They stared long and hard at it. No movement. Still and dead.The only noticeable change was a slight bulge in the abdominal cavity. 
The Janitor let out a stifled curse. The two boys gaped. After a few minutes, they wordlessly resumed their routine. They picked up the slightly heavier corpse and carefully placed it in the assigned drawer. Locked and double checked the lock. IT wouldn't need to feed for a week more.

Then the boys picked up the mangled skeleton in the main lab and stuffed it into the large incinerator, eyes red-rimmed with weary fear. 

And the Janitor got out his cleaning supplies and started mopping the blood. Back and forth. Back and forth.

Sunday, April 1, 2018


We’ve been on this road for 6 years now. It is no longer that dark, scary trail, with unpleasant surprises at every turn. No, the road is much easier now, with beautiful vistas and stunning foliage. Most days, we don’t even notice the uphill climb or how we still keep stumbling on those random, gnarly roots. We just dust off our hands and keep walking. Maybe because we’ve got you as our Trail Guide. You tell us when we can take a break, and when we need to get up and move already. Most times you use words (long, beautiful, articulate sentences). Sometimes when you’re particularly upset, you emote with sounds and tears. We still understand you perfectly and accept you as you are. Because you’re exactly who you’re supposed to be.

Some days, you want to keep walking, keep exploring, running ahead and marveling at every funny shaped rock you see. We try hard to keep up, our faces red with sweet exertion. These are wonderful days, laced with laughter and silliness. There’s no stopping you and your appetite for life. You learn so much, easily jumping from one success to another, collecting skills and smarts like points in a video game.

And then, out of nowhere dawns the other kind of day. You dawdle. You look unhappy. You drag your feet because it just doesn’t seem like a good time to hike. We coax you and tickle you, but you need a break. From us and our dreams, and from everything you carry on your young shoulders. Ironically you’re stronger right now, fighting so many invisible battles just to keep standing.

So we carry you, the best we can. Because we want you to be snug in our love and breathe in that fresh air of life around you. But sometimes, when the wind around you is too strong, we set up camp, and bring out the ice cream. We give you a quiet corner and learn the power of silence and acceptance. We wait for you to tell us you’re ready. We don’t ever leave you behind, not even for a step because we would be so lost without our guide.

After a good while, you get up, rested and stronger. A few iffy steps — look, you’re skipping and giggling now. So we pick up our stuff and follow you, hearts full and lighter at the same time. And as you look back at us and beam, your cape flies high and proud behind you.

Happy Autism awareness day my baby boy! We’re beyond blessed that you chose us!

Photo by Liv Bruce on Unsplash