Monday, July 30, 2018

Once upon a time.

My Paati (paternal grandmother) was a wonderful storyteller. She had a crisp vocabulary and a genuine knack for engaging story-lines. Her tales were delightful, peppered throughout with excellent wit. She told us stories of all genres - horror, suspense, humor, drama. Some ideas came from books she had read as a child, but most of what she told was from her rich imagination. As kids, we'd gather around her and beg her to keep talking, way past our collective bedtimes. 

I always imagined that every writer should be able to tell a good story. Not on paper, but to a live audience. Regale them, make them gasp at all the right moments; the tale ebbing and flowing with a life of its own. Soon the storyteller disappears but no one notices, because they are immersed, blissful in that make-believe world. And when the story ended -stunned silence! Slightly disoriented, the audience should look at each other and smile foolishly, the echoes of the final words still ringing in their ears.

That! That was what my Paati did. And that's who I wanted to be. A master narrator. But I discovered, (much to my disbelief), that I SUCKED as a storyteller. The first time this happened was when I was 8. My mom was sick and wanted to nap. I was the babysitter on call and I had an afternoon to fill. My 2-year-old baby sister was in her "1000 ways to electrocute myself" phase, so I grabbed her chubby body and sat her down to some good old-fashioned storytelling.
I started strong - in my head, my story had all the signs of being an absolute cliffhanger. But the words that came out of my mouth were so weak and insipid that I was starting to bore myself. I tried inventing new characters ("Ummm the dragon suddenly saw a whale"), new plot lines (" the whale married the Ummm dragon"), shameless exaggerations (the dragon-whale baby had ummm 1000 teeth). But I could see my sister's attention slowly slipping away. I even attempted to channel my grandmother's spirit, but that didn't work (probably because she was still alive and well and on a pilgrimage, no less). As I droned on and on, in a progressively higher voice, the story got worse. More than once, I caught my audience eyeing the closest power socket rather fondly. I half entertained the idea of giving myself an electric shock to impress my sister. But thankfully, relief arrived in the form of my aunt who was bringing some food over.

That day and the stink of failure stayed with me for a long time. I always wanted to be a writer, but my 8-year-old brain kept insisting "You couldn't even keep a toddler interested! Tchh Tchh. Shame!"

It was years before I wrote again. I started to write short, cringe-worthy poems, where I cared more about rhyming "sea" with "tea" than actual content. Then I moved on to short, cringe-worthy stories where I worried about making sure every character had the perfect name and (for some reason) birthdate. And soon, word by word, line by line, the curse lifted. I was actually able to pen half decent stories, some of which I even won prizes for. I was thrilled but secretly angry; because I felt like a phony. Like I wasn't worth the awards because I couldn't verbally narrate a good story to save my life. 

All of that changed with a phone call. My mom, true to her desi genes was excessively proud of my prizes. She decided to share my latest story with the entire extended family via Inland mail. My paati who was roosting with some relatives in Chennai received the letter a week later and I woke up one morning to a phone call. 

"Pavithra", she boomed. I wondered if she was wasting precious money using the phone when her voice was clearly loud enough to reach me across states. 
"Yo Paati, when are you coming back to Bombay?" 
"I'll come, I'll come. Finish up all the kaccheris (concerts), then I'll come. But I wanted to congratulate you. Renu told me you won a prize! For storytelling! Amazing job Kuttyma,".

I paused. I felt suddenly very small. Was she making fun of me? 
"Oh, paati! It wasn't really a stor-"
"What nonsense are you talking? I read the whole thing and it was rather splendid. I always wanted to write, you know! But I was never too good."
"But, paati, you tell the best stories! I can never do somethi-"
"Oh, kuttyma. So what? I tell stories. You write them. Who is to say one is better than the other?" 
And just like that, I understood. There is no one way to do things.  Some of us sing beautifully. Some of us write soulful music. One of my best friends is completely tone deaf, but man, you should hear him reciting verses of you should hear him reciting verses of shayaris. Our beauty lies in how diverse our skills and talents are. Imagine how boring the world would be if all of us were amazing kathak dancers, but no one knew how to break-dance? break-dance? 

So if you have a penchant for writing, then write. Do you like doodling? Go draw those comic books. You paint? Badly? So what? Do it for yourself! 
The world needs all of our slightly broken skills. Maybe none of us will ever become masters in our field. But does it really matter? My paati died a couple of years ago and she certainly didn't become rich and famous. 
But the memories of her sonorous voice, her slightly closed eyes as she weaved a particularly devious twist. The joy she got from the bounties of her own mind? That will live on way past many lifetimes. 

Too long; didn't read? Here's the short version:

You do You! 

Friday, July 27, 2018

Soul sister.

It’s past midnight. You’re in bed with your thoughts.  Limbs achy and heart heavy with worries.  Of course, you feel that way, you’re a mother. 
You wish you had someone to talk to. Someone to breathe in sync with. Someone who’ll nod at the right places and tell you, you’re doing your best. Your husband is snoring away, the kids are sleeping and no one awake for miles around. You contemplate calling your mother/sister/bestie. But you don’t. You just lie there in bed, feeling small and lonely and not sure why everything hurts so damn much.

But you’re actually forgetting someone who has been there all along. She’s watching, listening, making sure you’re still breathing. She loves you more than anyone else, even though she never tells you that. She’s your staunchest ally but can also feel like your worst enemy. 
Talk to her. Tell her you’re scared. Show her you’re hurt. She’ll hug you. Maybe yell at you a bit. Even completely distract you and talk about Ranveer Singh’s abs instead. But she’ll be there. She IS there. A warm voice in the cold gloom. As strong as you need her to be. And as strong as she needs to make you. 
A lot of us are surprised to find out that we often discount her presence. When we cry alone, we forget that she’s holding our hand, and putting on her warrior boots. When we hyperventilate, we don’t see her squeezing us tight. We don’t even register her comforting presence, because we’re so busy looking elsewhere. And when she gets ignored time and again, she sometimes loses her nerve. So the next time you call out in anguish, she may take a while before she answers. 

But she does respond. Give her a minute. She’s human too. And you’ll see that she always, always (always) has our backs, whether we’re happy or sad. Especially when we’re sad. 

So who is this mysterious lady I speak of? The one with all the answers? 
Well, she is you. And me. Our inner voice, our beautiful soul, our first, best friend. The warrior goddess that resides inside each and every one of us. If we learn to acknowledge that she exists, if we learn to mindfully seek her out, she will drop everything and come embrace us. And as corny as it sounds, she’s exactly the person we need. 
And so the next time you lie in bed, with your heavy heart and your dark thoughts, try this one! Close your eyes. Take a deep breath. Call out. 

And soon you’ll hear a voice from deep inside you. And it will say, “hey babe. Want to talk?”

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

The scariest man in the world.

I’m talking to you because I heard

the wind whispering in the snow
Let me tell you about the scariest man
The scariest man I know.

He wasn’t the monster under my bed.

Or the shadow by the closet door
He wasn’t the creep who felt me up
He wasn’t the corpse on the floor.

He wasn’t the stranger who stalked me

Nor the who looked deranged
He was the man who kissed me hard
And then just like that, he changed.

He put his hand behind his back

And asked me to be his wife
The glint I saw with my shining eyes
Was the glint of his butcher knife.

He became the man who stabbed me twice

Then he laid me down to die
I begged and bled hot tears of pain
But he couldn’t look me in the eye.

He dug a hole in the stained ground

By rote like he’d done this before
The last thing I saw was a pocket of sky
And then I saw no more.

I waited alone, under the dark mud

In my new home that wasn’t mine
But he spun a tale so simple
And the world moved on just fine.

Come tomorrow you’re to be his wife

It’s the same old story you see
When the music stops; he’ll bring out his knife
And bury you right beside me.

If you’re scared by now, you should be

But the dead don’t care to lie
The ground is stiff and rocky here
Grab your shovel and don’t be shy.

See I’m not scared of the scariest man

I’ve had twenty years to wait
My nails and teeth are yellowed and long
And it’s been a long time since I ate.

Monday, July 16, 2018

Such babies.

*Cough cough*.

I keep typing.

*sniff sniffehkkhu kehkkhu..kehkuu

The guttural coughing sounds are getting louder. I smile inwardly and continue looking at my laptop screen. 


I stop typing. Look over my screen. "Are you ok love?"

From the recesses of the bed, muffled under a few thousand blankets, a tinny voice comes. "I don't feel too good". 

"Aw, baby. Do you want some warm water with honey?"

No response. Just sniffling noises. Then a hoarse "No."

"Ok, how about some creamy tomato soup? You love tomato soup!"

"No, I don't want soup. Tummy hurts now." 

"Look you got to eat something! An empty tummy will make you feel worse. You know that."

Silence. Then more (theatrical) coughing. "Ok, maybe a bit of soup?"

"All right, love. You rest now. I'll go get you some soup."

I get up and stretch. Feel my forehead. Yup, still running a temperature. But because I'm a mother, somehow the fever doesn't impact me much. I still do my daily chores, I still wipe snotty noses, I still kiss crying faces. Illness doesn't mean any time off, really. (My personal theory- somewhere along the line, evolution has armed all mothers with extra strength and reserve. I mean, the original cave woman couldn't really afford to take a sick day off, especially if her cavebabies were coughing/crying up a storm, threatening to attract every predator within a mile. No, she'd have to rock the babies and shush them and blow cool air on their foreheads with palm fronds or whatever. And hope the jungle cat lurking outside would go eat her caveman husband instead.)

So I walk to the kitchen, a little slower, and come back with a hot bowl of delicious soup, on a tray. Avoiding the forest of used and crumpled tissues, I set it on a low table and go to the bed. I can hear video game sounds from under the blankets. Not too sick to play with the iPad, I think snarkily
"Food's here. Come and eat before it gets cold."

"One more level, then I'll eat", says the voice, sounding perfectly and miraculously healthy. Then silence. Then more enthusiastic coughing, a little too forced in my opinion

"I still feel sick, ok?"

"Yeah, I can see that", I say, rolling my eyes. 

Soon the head emerges from under all the fabric and eats the soup. Followed by a lot of manufactured sniffing and coughing and sighing. All the while making sure I'm paying attention. I don't know whether to laugh. So I smile, take a painkiller and keep typing away. I have a deadline to meet and I need to finish my article before my fever spikes.

A little while later - "You're always looking at the laptop. Can you cuddle with me, please?"

The voice sounds sulky. Petulant even. 
I ignore it. That tactic works sometimes. 

Not this time, I guess.

"Please Please Please Please Please", the voice begs in an increasing crescendo. In the excitement of the moment, all pretense at illness has vanished.

I sigh. Finish my final edit and hit send. Done. Deadline met. 

I close my laptop and stretch again. My eyes are burning and my muscles are sore and achy. My throat is hurting. 

"Fine, I'll cuddle with you. But just for five minutes ok?"

The click of the iPad getting locked.

"Ok, five minutes only" agrees the voice, sounding positively healthy. 

So I dim the lights and climb into bed. Find my squishy pillow. Feel hands coming in my general direction. "No!" I say weakly but firmly. "I am really sick, unlike you!"

And as my big baby of a husband pouts and sulks, I curl up into my warm blanket and fall into a dead sleep.

Saturday, July 7, 2018


It’s 1 pm. The 3-year-old little girl refuses to nap. She proclaims she’s isn’t tired (while yawning), she insists that she has to “work” (while digging her nose) and she scampers away leaving a trail of toys in her wake.
Ok fine, I say to myself. She doesn’t really need to sleep. A different part of my brain wants to slap me hard. As a reminder of what usually happens to me at 5 pm when she skips her naps (hint: it rhymes with “Boeing frazy”)

A few suspiciously quiet minutes later,  a squawk emanates from the playroom. “Ammammammammma look what I did!” I rush in and see that she’s scribbled over the wall with a black marker. “Look Amma! I drew you a cow”! 
I don’t have the heart to tell her little face that the “cow” looks like a deranged monster that would rip your eyeballs out given a chance. Oh, and it’s also carrying a fork for some reason.
“It’s so well done, sweetie,” I lie. And now that the compliment has been paid, and her highness appeased, I decide to make this a teachable moment
“Let’s not draw with markers on the wall ok? It’s really hard to wipe off.” 
“But I don’t want you to wipe it off! I want you to have it forever and ever, and for 100 days,”, she whines with perfect toddler logic. Pools of tears appear instantly, her eyes large and reproachful.
I have a quick mental picture of a 90-year-old me shuffling along with my oxygen tank, steering clear of the “cow” on the wall with its insane eyes. “Come a little closer, my pretty”, it hisses. “Let me taste your flesh”. 
I shudder and come back to the present.
My daughter is looking at me, waiting for my response, regarding said cow. The tears are threatening to overflow. For some reason, this "cow" is very important to her.

“You know what would be great?” I say brightly. “If you drew this on paper so I could carry the cow with me everywhere I go!”  
She looks suspicious. Then, because she's 3 and trusting like that, her face brightens and she nods. “Ok. I will draw on a tiny paper for you Amma,”.
Whew! Mischief managed, I walk back to the kitchen.

A few minutes later, I hear some scratchy sounds again. I poke my head in and she is scribbling on the wall again (pink chalk this time)
“Baby! we spoke about this!” 
And as I stood there, semi glaring at her, she looked at me and raised her chalky fingers to the wall again. Not breaking eye contact. Pushing her boundaries, testing her limits.Just so.

I try to practice mindful and respectful parenting. This was one of those moments which tested my patience and ability to see the big picture. So I closed my eyes and counted till 10 to get myself into a reasonably Zen, non-shouty, frame of mind. 
And when I opened them and looked at her, she says, “Amma, it’s ok Amma. I was just writing my name. And look, it’s walking away because you don’t like it,”.
I looked at the wall. She'd thought of everything. True to what she said, her name was indeed written in reverse, “going away” from me. In big pink block letters. A-Y-E-R. 

I sat down and laughed till my sides hurt. She soon joined me. After a good while, she got a wipe and started to clean the wall. But not before I got a picture first. Because I’m going to need something to smile about when the “whacko cow” finally kills me.

Friday, July 6, 2018

Sun and sand. And stories of sisters.

"It will be ok. I will not compare. It will be ok. I will not compare". I close my eyes and mutter this repeatedly. It almost becomes a prayer. Repeat the mantra 101 times and your wish will be granted. 
Nothing of the sort happens. There’s really no magical power to my words because an hour later, I find myself caring and comparing, thank you very much. 
 See, we’re at the beach. We’ve been here a million times. We possibly have walked on every grain of sand here. We’ve likely had our food stolen by every seagull with a good business eye. This is supposed to be our happy place. The place where we come to get away from everything else. Happy, red-faced kids run around us, screeching as they dip their toes in the cold ocean. This beautiful beach, just begging to be enjoyed and captioned on Instagram.
Since this isn’t PerfectWorld where I’m rocking a stunning bikini and a taut tummy, nothing close to perfect happens. I’m wearing my old drab swimsuit. One of my boobs is threatening to escape if I take a deep breath. I forgot to shave my arms so hello 5-day-old Stubble! And my "makeup" is a work of art - somehow highlighting every single wrinkle and pore on my tired face. I’m a walking billboard for 'Effects of aging and 2 kids on woman who often forgets to use moisturizer'.
And all of this would be okay if my son was actually enjoying himself.
Instead, he’s crying his eyes out. He’s been asking and begging to come to the beach. But once he’s here, he’s suddenly unhappy about it. I’m not sure why and I’m not sure there’s even a reason. The sand annoys him; the water makes him mad and even the seagulls know to leave a wide circle around his angry little head. This is autism at its worst. He is hurting so much inside, in that deep dark place where I cannot see what ghosts haunt him. I try to hug/hold him; let him know in some feeble way I’m right there. He howls in my general direction and his skinny little arms punch the air. He’s so upset that none of the usual distractions work. Deciding to give up and ride this one out, I hitch up my swimsuit and settle down.
There’s almost a shrill buzzing in my ear as I take deep breaths and remember that I’m the adult here. I’m supposed to be the one in charge. Nobody can rescue him but me, but I still look around hopefully. Squinting, praying that someone will rescue me. 
And just like that, when I’m least expecting it, the tide turns. 

The boy's doing a full body shimmy on the ground and inadvertently he sends a small tuft of sand into his sister’s eyes. This one small action marks a new player entering the arena. 
Full of that fury seen only in feral cats and four-year-olds, my daughter stamps her stubby little feet, throws her head back and screams bloody murder. “Owieeeee,” she yells as I try to pull her face closer to check her eyes. I narrowly miss a tiny elbow in my face, but I’ve seen enough to know that evolution and her eyelids have worked to protect her eyeballs from any actual damage. I rub her back and whisper soothingly over her tearful complaints. She's having none of it. Fully committed to giving a long performance, she cries even louder. “He didn’t mean to do that sweetheart,” I plead.  And that’s when I perceive the complete absence of sound from my boy.
Oh Crap! I jerk back my head comically, half expecting to find he's gone somewhere else. But he's sitting there, right where he was. Placid, poking his toes into the sand and stealing furtive glances in his sister’s direction. He looks relatively calm. Possibly even worried about the escalating sounds from his sister who is now openly relishing the attention she’s getting as the resident family screamer. A few more minutes; then she decides that it is 'Intermission' time and quietly goes back to building a lumpy sand castle. 
He looks relieved and a tad shamefaced. His sister's outburst has accomplished what an hour of my useless bleating and 'parenting' couldn't. Blissful silence ensues. I don’t dare move a muscle, lest one of my offspring considers going for an encore performance. I am not entirely sure what just happened and how we got to this new zone of almost normalcy where the biggest worry is whether I need to apply more sunblock.
And so we sat like that for a long time - a stiff-backed figure flanked on either side by a busy, sandy child. We went on to have a rather wonderful day at the beach. We made and toppled various structures, dipped our toes in the water and ate obnoxious amounts of cheap ice cream. The kids chased each other, giggling and spraying sand all over me while I pretended to shoo them away. 
That evening, on our way back home, I looked in the rearview mirror. Two content faces yawned in coordination. I saw my daughter crinkle her nose at my son, and that made him burst into laughter. I don't know why and I didn't really care. It was their secret, their shared experience. 

So I adjusted my mirror and drove on. And I whispered a new mantra - Thank God for sisters. Thank God for sisters”.