Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Do Mice wear shoes?

The woman hitched up her skirt and continued kneading the dough. Her kids ran around, chasing each other in a quiet pantomime of the real game. They knew too well about bruises and broken bones - presents from their father if they were too loud. The woman cast a sour glance at her husband, asleep in the corner of their shack, his skinny chicken legs peeking out from under his discolored Long Johns. 
Outside, the snowstorm raged on, driving the sky to an ugly gray color. 
Rather like one of my bruises, the woman thought, with a little flash of anger. She rubbed the small of her  back (which still hadn’t recovered from the “rearrangement” her husband had done two winters ago). 

“Mama Mama”, a little voice squeaked next to her. 

“Da, my little printsessa?”

“Do mice wear shoes?” 

The woman didn’t know what to make of that. Mice? In this Russian winter? Her first thought was the beating her husband would give her if he noticed any holes in his sweaters. Ivan didn’t care about clothes, but when the days were dark and the air was cold, he was quick to anger and quicker with his hands.
She was pulled out of her reverie, by fingers tugging on her skirt. 

“Mama. Mama!!! Do mice wear shoes?” 

“Yes, they do. They wear thick shoes, made of wool felt. How else will they walk on the snow, printsessa?”

Mila stared at her and then nodded thoughtfully. Then she padded away silently, to share this information with her 2 younger brothers. 

That evening, Ivan woke up with a small smile on his face. And just like day follows night, the woman got one of the worst beatings of her young life. There had been no warning signs, this time - no anger, no yelling. He sat smiling like that throughout dinner and when she'd cleared the last plate away; he had spoken with his bony fists. The smacking sounds reverberated through the small shack as the toddler boys mumbled in their sleep and their big sister whimpered under her sheets. No warning at all. Because when the days were dark, and the air was cold, Ivan didn't need a reason.

The next morning, she woke up before she meant to. She'd dreamt of Mila running through lush prairie fields, holding a tiny mouse. The mouse was wearing a pair of wool felt boots. There had been no fear in Mila's face, as she giggled and kissed the little creature.
Smiling at that quickly fading image, the woman got up with a groan and limped to the window. The snow had stopped, and the world outside looked beautiful and pristine. Like one of those postcards she'd seen at the railway station. 

The children were still sleeping, so she set off to work. She didn't bother with spades or digging; the ground was far too frozen for that. She limped to her backyard, where Ivan's father had drilled an artesian well, (that had long gone dry). She lifted the cover and peered inside. Nothing except some rustling and chittering. Maybe mice, she thought and a dark giggle escaped her bruised throat. 

An hour later, she was finished. Almost all of Ivan's body had been dumped into the well. His head had taken longer to move because she had gone a little crazy the night before. "Like being kicked in the face, Ivan? Answer me, my dear dead man" she hummed. Another fit of giggles and she had to sit down, so she wouldn't scream. 

She was cleaning her shoes when Mila woke up. She watched her mom sing and smile, her face both tired and radiant under the scars of last night. She looked around and couldn't see her father. And her first emotion was relief.

The woman looked at Mila and held out her hand. 

"Printsessa, do you want breakfast? It'll just be us and your brothers today."

A pause ensued.

"Papa?" asked Mila, in a tremulous voice, as her fingers traced the lattice of scars on her legs. 

"Papa has gone to the snow, Mila. And I've told him not to come back."

For a moment, the woman worried. Would Mila hate her for this? Would the boys miss their father? 

A hug so big answered her, it broke her heart and mended it all over again. 

That evening, Mila sat by her window kneading the dough again. The children played around noisily, easily. The house seemed cozy, yet somehow larger. The woman heard herself laugh out loud many times, a sound both warm and foreign to her. She leaned back and cried a few tears too. And by bedtime, as she tucked the kids in, she felt the first glimmer of hope.

"Mama. Mama. Mama!"

"Da, my Mila. What is it?", she answered drowsily. 

"Do mice really wear shoes?"

The woman thought before answering. Her children, peered at her from under their bedcovers, their eyes large and filled with wonder. 

She looked down. At her rather delicate feet, covered in ancient, thick boots. 
Boots made of warm wool felt. 

And as she stared at the faint red stain on her left sole, she murmured,

“When the days are dark and the air is cold, all the mice wear shoes. Shoes of warm wool felt. How else will they run on the snow, printsessa?


The moonlight gently hit the sloping roof of the house and then popped inside the open window. The bedroom attached to the window was rather average. A dresser, a closet, a door leading off to the en suite bathroom. Nothing special. Standard pictures of happy smiles adorned the walls. A large bed took up a corner of the room where 2 shapes lay sleeping. An adventurous moon beam glided over the man’s face. He mumbled something and rolled over, pulling the smaller figure of the woman closer to him.
Nothing much happened for a while after that. The moonlight danced around; touching this and that, illuminating corners and dust bunnies and the lone earring that had fallen behind the bed. It was a rather peaceful scene, a quiet night punctuated by the soft snores of the woman (who would deny any such thing, when awake).
A sudden furtive movement showed two shadowy figures at the open door of the bedroom. They were huddled together, not touching anything. Just standing there. And watching. Watching the man and woman sleeping on the bed. They breathed in tandem with the sleepers, waiting for the right moment to change the night.
“Him or her?” whispered one.
“Her”, said the other, nodding a head in the direction of the sleeping woman.
“Why not him? He’s the bigger one. Stronger?”, said the first voice.
“He may be bigger, but she’s scarier. We should choose her.”
A pause and then two sets of brighter-than-normal eyes looked at each other. Then they glanced down at the sword, gleaming in the borrowed moonlight.
“Is that really necessary?” asked the first voice. Contrary to his size, he wasn’t the leader of their twosome.
“Of course it is! What if I have to fight more demons when we’re here?”
The first voice thought about that for a while then nodded. He knew better than to argue with his boss.
“We don’t have to do this you know. We could just go back,” he ventured.
“Shush! Listen!” she hissed.
A long spell of silence followed. Then something thudded one floor below them. A muted sound, easy to miss if you weren’t paying attention. A noise that could be attributed to the settling down of an old house. But equally likely to be coming from the footsteps of a monster, taking the stairs two at a time.
The figures looked at each other. Still rooted to the doorway. Still clutching the gleaming sword.
Another thud followed the first one. Louder. Maybe Closer.
That decided matters for them. In a surprisingly noiseless whoosh, they slipped into the room and closed the door shut. Tiptoed to the bed. Made their way to the sleeping woman. The larger of the two figures, placed a hand over the woman’s mouth, while the smaller figure raised her sword and waited for her cue.
The woman opened her eyes, disoriented by the sudden pressure of a sweaty palm on her face. She blinked then stared. Confusion and fear clouded her features as she scrambled to sit up. The larger figure shook his head, admonishing her for making all this noise. The woman looked down at her husband sleeping beside her. Then at the raised sword glinting and gleaming wickedly.
She took a deep breath. Thought about screaming then decided against it.
Moving the hand away, she asked in a patient voice.
“What’s up kiddos? Couldn’t sleep? And Lena, why do you have your toy sword with you?”
The little girl looked both embarrassed and annoyed. Her brother whispered.
“Mama, we heard noises. We didn’t want to wake you up. I told her not to but-Lena-was-scared,” he finished in a hurry.
“I was not! I have my sword, see? It can kill all monsters!”
The woman looked at her two kids and sighed. That was the last time she was doing laundry at night - the damn dryer was just too noisy and rickety.
“Mama can we sleep here tonight? Please mama. Please, mama?”
“Well ok. Let me wake up daddy and he ca-”
“No!! You go check the house mama. We’ll keep daddy safe here. You’re scarier to monsters, anyway,”.
Ten minutes later, the house checked and curtains drawn, four figures cuddled in the warm, big bed. The man, slept on, dreaming of a large car that suddenly seemed very stuffy and small inside.
The boy snuggled and burrowed into his dad’s warmth; the girl did the same with her mom. The woman blinked and tried hard to fall asleep. She was slipping into a dreamlike state when she heard a noise. Was she dreaming? She was too tired to decide. So she did what any sane person would do. She kept a firm grip on Lena’s sword, snuggled into a fragrant mop of curls and fell into a deep sleep.
Disclaimer: this isn’t supposed to be a suspenseful story. Not beyond a certain point anyway. Most of you will guess it’s the kids because you have been woken up this way countless times. Countless, tiring, humorous times.
It’s just my attempt at narrating one of those “OMG there are no monsters, just let me sleep already” stories, with a small twist.

Sunday, August 19, 2018

To err is human

There is a force on earth as strong as gravity. It holds us ransom, much like gravity does. But it unlike gravity, this force transcends time and generations, casting its dark shadow on entire family trees right from the root to the tips of unborn buds.
This force - if it had a physical form; would be black and pulsating, knotted and hideous. It would scar everything it saw and ruin everything it touched.
But despite existing solely in our hearts, it causes the same destruction.
I’m not talking about a mythological force or a supernatural one.
I’m talking about the real and very complex human emotion of prejudice. Or in simpler terms - hatred.
Hatred starts innocuously. A passing remark by a parent/ a lazy comment by a teacher. A skewed TV show, a cruel act witnessed. But the child is listening, and the child is watching. And the seeds are growing into ugly saplings, birthing prejudices and intolerance.
To an extent, this is unavoidable. And honestly, impossible to prevent. Mankind has evolved by grouping together because of sameness and that’s ok. Form cliques and tribes all you want. That’s human nature.
It’s the shunning of those different that is problematic. Seeking those that disagree and lashing out at them. Fearing dissent and criticism, so taking the first step to offend and hurt someone else.
We’re all so flawed. Me probably more than you. We’ve been raised with these set ideas, and while some of us can detach from prejudice, most of us still carry forth those deep emotions. Rich people are bad and poor people are good. Or vice versa. Old people are correct and the younger generation is rude. Or vice versa. Joint families vs Nuclear, love marriage vs arranged. Screen time is bad/ formula feeding is wrong/ Hindus vs Muslims/ white people vs black vs Brown.
The list is endless. Sometimes we look at each other as absolutes, forgetting that just like us, everyone else is a complex, layered being.
We judge each other for being different instead of loving those differences. Imagine how boring and static life would be if all of us dressed in blue or liked the same music. Instead, we have this evolving and every changing world where so many colors catch our eye and so many songs make us fall in love!
So embrace each other’s differences. Observe but don’t judge. Don’t shame people for choices they have made. We don’t know their journey and their challenges. Ask questions if you’re curious. Offer help if they will have it.
Don’t give advice, hoping to convert someone’s perfectly balanced existence. Take a breath before speaking/typing. Take two if you’re angry. Ask yourself if this is a problem worth breaking a heart over. Ruining someone’s day with incessant arguing? Would you stand for it if the roles were reversed? Or would it break you?
Don’t be a keyboard warrior, be a real one. Disagree but fight for someone else’s right to state their opinion. Allow them to mess up. If you are truly interested, be there to help them put the pieces together. But most importantly, allow Yourself to make mistakes and stumble, as long as you are going on the right path.
Prejudice will always be there. But maybe if we as a unit, as a generation took a collective decision to stop propagating negativity, that would be such a wonderful service to our kids and theirs. As moms and parents, we have so much power to nurture this family tree. Water it from the right can and teach our kids to do the same.
A wise man said “To err is human. But to forgive is divine.”
So let’s be human. But also, let’s be a bit more than that.
Disclaimer: I'm sorry if this post comes across as me doling out advice from my high horse. Trust me, I'm so deeply imperfect myself, and I legit fear horses. This was inspired by a dear, dear friend of mine who asked me to share this point of view.

Back to school

My kids are finally back in school after their summer break. Well, my daughter has been in preschool all along and just switched from her Summer- complete timepass schedule to “Academic” timepass schedule. She’s 4 and therefore legally allowed to have all the fun in the world.

My son went back to school today as well. 3rd grade and all that cool gangsta life. He was anxious, excited, worried, hyper excited, sleepless, sleepy, OMGexcited about his first day back. We’ve been up since dawn, choosing outfits and eating the world’s slowest breakfast.

So finally the kids are inside their classrooms and I drive home in a dreamlike state. Feeling light as a feather, eyes full of stars and house devoid of kids. For someone who’s always either had a child attached to my hip/boob or following me all the time for the past 8 years, this is such a pleasant change. I’m feeling adventurous. Damn, do I actually get to sit down and drink coffee like a human being rather than chase kids and reheat the mug a few dozen times? Wow, I’m living the life aren’t I?

I spend a lazy morning, pottering around - cooking, singing (badly), writing. I rediscover the joys of having a full five minutes in the bathroom without small hands banging on the door. I even put on a shiny dress, knowing fully well, I’ll regret it come laundry day. The AC is on, Siri is belting out some sweet tunes and the smell of Paneer Butter Masala is making me feel positively giddy.

I sit down to eat a nice, quiet lunch by myself - I even read a few pages of the new Stephen King novel. The house has settled nicely after making its usual comforting creaking noises. It's peaceful and quiet. Mmmm.


So quiet.


TOO quiet!

Radio silence from Siri because my phone has run out of charge. The house is silent too, possibly taking a much-deserved nap. My plate has been licked clean (shut up), I’ve already consumed an extra glass of juice and feeling slightly bloated I change into yoga pants and do some laundry.

A busy 10 minutes later, the washing machine is humming, the dishwasher is gurgling and I’m fighting a fresh wave of loneliness. I try to write and the words don’t sound good. I try to dictate notes and my voice sounds like I have a head cold. I click around on Facebook but it looks like everyone else is asleep.

Then I suddenly get this bizarre urge to watch Peppa Pig on repeat.

So I do that. Watch Peppa for a whole hour. ONE WHOLE HOUR!

Then my phone alarm buzzes. I get this happy lilt in my heart as I get up. I brush my hair and put on some lipstick. Change into my pretty dress again.

And as I rush to school to pick up the kids, I try to stop this big, stupid smile from spreading all over my face. I come across a fellow mom in the school parking lot.

“Wow, Pavi, first day, huh! I had so much free time suddenly. I missed this re! Thank God, school started right?”

And I nodded eagerly, fingers crossed behind my back.

Thank God indeed.

crap, me too.

Novelist Margaret Atwood writes :
“Why do men feel threatened by women?’ I asked a male friend of mine.
“’They are afraid women will laugh at them’, he said, ‘undercut their worldview.’
Then I asked some women students, ‘Why do women feel threatened by men?’ ”’They are afraid men will kill them"
I read this a long while ago, and somehow among the millions of other similar stories, this one stuck with me.
Every day we read about violence against women, against children (girls and boys), against the elderly. Most of the perpetrators are men. Maybe it's centuries of patriarchy, maybe its raw physical superiority, maybe its the knowledge that they CAN get away with it. But it never stops.
Remember the Bollywood/Indian movies of the 70s/80s/90s? If a woman was raped, her best outcome was to have the rapist marry her. Today thankfully, we recognize that no woman deserves to be hurt in that way. Today we march/protest/write so that every woman knows her true worth. I've had friends from India tell me they are afraid to raise their children there. I don't blame them. It's a valid fear, especially since you hear the horror stories of infants being raped. Mothers are afraid of every unknown male - the neighborhood dhobiwala, the watchman, the postman, the bus conductor.
When I was 14, I was molested. I was young enough to not be scarred by it but old enough to be horrified. I was sitting in a BEST bus, on my way to Marathi classes. It was the monsoon season. Gentle rivulets of rain were streaming down the bus windows. I was a hormonal teenager, so I had my Walkman on my lap and a soulful tune in my year. Chandrachur Singh was crooning "Tere Mere Sapne Khile" in my ear and I was smiling dreamily. Possibly idiotically imagining that he was singing to me. I was barely aware of the Bus around me. I remember seeing a young guy, with a buzz-cut that suggested he was possibly military? My subconscious mind dismissed him and the other 20 passengers and I settled in for my long commute. People got on and off and soon somebody slipped into the empty seat next to me.
The bus bounced along the road, wheezing noisily, catching every pothole and spraying water back at the sky. I slipped into a blissful, almost-stupor when I felt the Walkman move on my lap. I looked down to readjust it when I spotted long fingers. Under the Walkman. On my lap. I blinked stupidly, not quite understanding. Then those fingers moved and dug deeper into my lap. A red bell started ringing in my head, but I didn't move. Didn't or couldn't. I looked up and saw the buzz-cut man sitting next to me. His eyes were glassy, his mouth open and his other free hand was fondling his crotch. I felt urgent fingers touch me again. The red bell got louder. I was paralyzed, stuck in that nether zone, unable to believe this was happening. I didn't know if the wetness on my face were some stray raindrops or tears of shock. Chandrachur kept singing in my ear, the bus kept rolling on; the earth kept spinning, and he kept touching me, poking, prodding. Hurting.
The bus lurched to a sudden stop. I jerked forward and hit my head on the seat in front. That broke the spell.
Before I knew what I was doing, I had grabbed his hand and pulled it away from me. But I didn't let go. I stood up. I can still remember the Walkman falling away and a part of my teenage brain wondering "oh no oh no please don't be broken." (HE TOUCHED ME)
I looked at my molester. He had a remarkably handsome face, a hint of scalp showing under his short hair. He stared up at my pincer grip on his wrist, surprised, confused, possibly even scared? (HE TOUCHED ME!)
"Madam, wh-".
I didn't let him finish. (HE.TOUCHED.ME!!!)
With all my strength, all my fear, all my shame, I reached down and slapped him hard across the face. My palm stung but my eyes stung more. I screamed loudly, nonsensical words mixed with expletives. And then I slapped him again. The bus conductor came running and took one look at us and understood. But he had to ask.
"Madam, kya hua?"
"HE TOUCHED ME", I shrieked and slapped the man again.
Because this was the 90s and public awareness wasn't great, I didn't go to a police station. The buzz -cut man stumbled away and got off at the next stop. No one stopped him or even attempted to. They focused on sitting me down because I probably looked murderous. I looked around at kind, concerned faces. Someone handed me my Walkman (unbroken). An older woman sat next to me and stroked my back soothingly. The bus conductor hovered, like a worried nurse. I took a few minutes before I breathed normally. And then I broke down and cried the rest of the way.
Looking back, I know that I haven't had it as bad as other women. Women who were raped. Brutually assaulted. Groped every day on their way to work. No, those women have it way way worse.
So when does it stop? When do men realize that they have the choice to keep their hands, their eyes to themselves? When do they decide that a woman is worth respecting, no matter how she talks or how she dresses?
Not because she's somebody's daughter. Not because she's somebody's sister.
Because she's Somebody. Shouldn't that be reason enough?
I don't believe in violence. I don't believe in revenge. But I believe that every woman's body is hers to protect. So the next time a man even thinks about touching you inappropriately, don't walk away. Don't glance away. Give him a look, say something, show him you're not afraid to kill him.
And maybe then it will stop.

Just like a movie

Love. Boy meets girl. Sparks fly, they fall hard for each other. A predictable crisis, which they overcome with their six-pack abs and hot burning eyes. Exchange rings/vows. Promise to honor and cherish. For better or for worse. A lilting tune, some clich├ęd gyaan and they waltz into the sunset, leaving us sitting in the audience, wishing we all had a love like that.
A lot of movies/books are written keeping the female audience in mind. They make the heroine deliberately bland so that we can mentally insert ourselves onto that empty canvass and imagine that Ranbir is speaking those burning words of passion into our ears. Filmmakers want us to buy their drivel and what sells better than fantastical and grandiose expressions of love and sex. We come out of the cinema halls smiling because just for a moment, we actually had a different, far more exciting life.
So here's the bad news.
That kind of love? DOES NOT EXIST. And even if it did, you would be so tired of singing in different Sabyasachi sarees every 30 minutes, that you would shut that sh** down yesterday.
True love is real. No doubts about that. But it isn't beautiful and dreamy. At least not all the time. And especially not if you're past the honeymoon first year. Add kids+sleep deprivation+financial woes+work issues and all of you deserve a medal for waking up every morning not wanting to kill your husband.
And just like that, a couple of years pass by. You're busier and angrier. Starving for some attention from him, but reluctant to take the first step. You think the man you're sleeping next to isn't the same hot guy you loved and married. He doesn't look the same, doesn't smell the same and OMG must he snore so loudly? You're so busy making your family- your small, fragile family, that you stop believing in love. It's convenient. You tell yourself that this is natural. Hey, you're a mother now. Who has time for impromptu dates and sneaky sex when there're kitchens to be cleaned and Parent-teacher meetings to attend? You're stuck at Point A. Busy, harried, on the move. But stuck, still the same.
So what's next?
Well, here's the good news. IT GETS BETTER! There's light at the end of the tunnel. And you know why?
Because it isn't always going to be this way.
Kids grow up and don't need you to wipe their butts and clean their noses. You figure out how to balance family and work. You decide that you're done with your in-law issues and move out of the ancestral home. You're saving some money and retirement doesn't seem so scary after all. Maybe even a yearly trip out of the country? That seems possible. You're finally at point B and you look down in surprise and see yourself holding your spouse's hand.
But how do you get from Point A to Point B? Is there a magical road you can take? A quick fix?
Well, no. Nothing important in life is ever simple. On the contrary, love is hard. And married love is harder.
But somewhere along the line, somewhere in those middle years of marriage, a Light Bulb goes off in your head. Maybe it's a book you come across. Maybe it's the shock of seeing a friend going through a divorce. Maybe it's the death of a loved relative. Maybe it's these words you're reading right now.
But suddenly, you decide that enough is enough. You WANT to fix your issues and your challenges. You WANT to stop being miserable. You WANT to fall in love with your husband all over again. And when you make that decision missy- that's when your marriage is born again.
So get there already. Move those mountains. No shame in asking for love. No stigma in fighting for your marriage. Hard work never hurt anybody. And you're stronger than you know.
Look at your husband. No really, look at him. See the man who bought you a dozen roses. See the man who changed 3 buses to meet you for a few minutes. See the man who fought with his family to marry you. The man who cried happiness when your child was born. The man whose hair is graying, whose waistline is expanding and whose life is passing by while his wife cries herself to sleep. He's not perfect, but at least he's still here. A hundred challenges in his day and he's still here. So fight for him and his beautiful wife who deserves so much more than the cheap thrills of sappy movies.
Love. Not the shiny, glamorous, type. That kind is brittle and will break at the first sign of trouble.
But the gritty, scarred, taped together love that will survive earthquakes and storms. This kind of love isn't pretty to look at. It doesn’t come easy. But, if you're lucky enough to fight for it and find it, it will last you till the end of your days. And then outlive you a million times over. For better or for worse.
Boy meets girl. Sparks fly and they get married. They kiss, they hurt, they cry, they lose.
Until that light bulb goes off.
And that. That is when the movie really begins.