Parenting in the time of intolerance

My husband Abhiraj is a Hindu Brahmin and I am a Muslim. This has never been an issue for us, has hardly ever occurred to us, has never, ever played out as a cause for differences in any of our fights. It is in fact something we have great fun with. Abhi has this whole piece that he enacts. He climbs on the bed and prances about with his curls askew, brandishing a makeshift sword (Rumi’s bubble wand!) He waggles his fingers menacingly in my face as he shouts the most absurd stuff such as:  “Tumhi Mughal biryani khaun zhopla hota, aamche Shivaji Raze ani tyanche maule zhunka bhakar khaun ale blah blah blah ani tumchi bota kapli” . (You guys were comatose after a heavy meal of biryani, our army swooped in and brought home the crown jewels). While I’m rolling on the floor with tears of mirth, I have to proceed to remind him of the following: I am not related to the Mughals, he is not related to the great Maratha kingdom, and that he gorges on Biryani a 100 times more than he ever eats Zhunka Bhakar.

But it is still something that surprises a lot of people when they meet me (Oh, Muslim! “Vatala nhavta tujhya kade baghun”: you don’t look like a Muslim). Yeah aunty, cause all Muslim girls wear a Burqa and are accompanied by henna-dyed bearded Abbu or Ammi! This tells me so much about our preconceived notions, our prejudices, the conscious or sub-conscious stereotypes in our mind. We all carry them. We are all guilty of hearing a last name or an area and immediately conjuring up an image in our minds. This is a very natural instinct and that is not at all a problem. The problem arises if this judgment is not accompanied by a mind that is open enough to say “Oh yeah, this person has so much to offer, so many dimensions, I’m really going to enjoy getting to know him.”

I sometimes have great fun listening to some people rant about how all terrorists are Muslims and sometimes, very rarely, I tell them politely after having listened to their rant, that I am a Muslim. The look on their faces is really worth capturing!

My husband is what you would call “a seeker”. He devours texts across different religions, listens to podcasts and watches videos on religion and makes copious notes in his miniscule handwriting. He is hungry for answers, hungry to know more, to learn more and he has all these questions about existence and spirituality and religion that never ever occur to me! “Leap and the net will appear” you say? He will leap but he will want to know exactly how the net is going to appear, what it is made of, how it will possibly carry his weight!

I on the other hand do not need to be asked twice to jump. I believe very simply and easily in things that are told to me and have no problems believing in miracles and magic and enchantment. (Maybe Enid Blyton ODing is to be blamed for this). What I do not enjoy much is religious rituals.

I am all for creating rituals with Rumi, like a bedtime ritual, a weekend ritual and so on. I find that doing things in a set and prescribed order helps reduce daily stress in dealing with her. And I know that religious rituals play an important role in society with the familiarity and continuity they provide and that they help us acknowledge our role in society and identify with our community. What I don’t like is the rigidity of some rituals that we tend to mindlessly adhere to, because of various reasons: a fear of maybe incurring the wrath of God, or inviting bad luck or not being included in a group. I don’t like to follow something without knowing why I have to do it in the first place, be it sitting for a Pooja or fasting during Ramzaan or offering Namaaz. Rituals should be personal; if something gives you a sense of peace, makes you feel better, makes you a better person, then do it. And the God question is very, very personal for me. I pray many times every day and I have my own set of favorite deities that I call out to, because I feel a sense of connection with them and not because someone has asked me to or because it is a certain day of the week.

For example, I like to visit the Ganpati temple on Tuesdays. It gives me great peace and joy. I also visit the Dagdusheth Temple during the Ganesha Festival every year; I have very fond memories of my grandfather taking me there. They would pull little children right up to the big idol and anoint us with Gulal. But I would not like to expect Rumi to continue doing these things without asking me why. If she asked me, I would tell her that it is something I love and find beautiful but that she need not find it as charming as I do. In fact, I would like a question from Rumi every time I or anybody else asks her to do something that is new or unfamiliar. “Why should I offer a white flower today?” “Why should I offer Namaaz five times a day?” “Why should I not go inside a temple if I’m menstruating?” I want her to ask, I want us to be informed about the answers and I want insightful discussions on these topics at our dinner table.

Presently, Rumi enjoys all festivals, traditions and rituals. She loves (as I’m sure most kids do) everything to do with festivals and religious rituals; the tinkling of the ghanti (bell), the aarti, the incense sticks, the flowers, the food and of course the sweet prasad. She also loves dressing up on Eid and pretending to kneel on the floor and offer Namaaz. We are also more motivated and enthusiastic about these celebrations for her sake.

But I often get nagging doubts at the back of my head about what gets passed down to or taught to her, although she is still very small. This thought first occurred to me when she was asked to do “Namaskar” to (touch the feet of) a distant relative. This concept was quite alien to me before marriage. I have hardly ever touched my parents’ feet. Even when we visited my Ajji or other relatives, we were hardly ever asked to touch their feet. At my husband’s however, this is a phenomenon that takes places with great frequency: whenever we go out of town (even for a day-trip), whenever anyone older than us (everyone in the family!) goes out of town (even for a day), whenever there’s a pooja at home (again, quite regular!) and on all birthdays, anniversaries and festivals (and there are so many in the Hindu calendar!). I acquiesced in this habit with no (ok, minimum) resistance and derived my own ritual out of it (while touching anybody’s feet, I ask to learn one positive trait from that person that I lack), but I’m not sure I so much like my daughter to do it all the time.

I once asked my husband about it. We had a long discussion on the sociological aspect of these rituals (how stepping out of the house in those days meant so much uncertainty that it was always better to take the elders’ blessings, how menstruating women sat in separate chambers for reasons of hygiene and rest etc etc). It is always so interesting and enlightening to have these talks and our conclusion after all of these discussions is the same: logic and reason and rationality and self-will over rituals and traditions, every time. Which means again, asking questions and demanding, and relentlessly searching for satisfactory answers. Also, more than rituals and the way things are done (so very differently in both our families), we think about the different values that the two sets of families bring in that we want to pass on to our daughter.

I, for instance, want Rumi to experience the relaxed, loving, peaceful atmosphere that Aai brings into the family. This side of the family is very, very calm and grounded. Getting late for a family event? No worries. Missing the Muhurat (auspicious timing) for bringing Ganpati home? No problem at all, do it whenever everyone is ready! Just so stress-free compared to my parents where Abbu becomes a red-faced monster if we are running even a minute late! On the other hand, my parents bring their strengths to the table: generosity and warmth and those ‘big’ memorable celebrations that form such important memories growing up.

Sometime back, Abhi and I had a very depressing discussion after attending a funeral. I asked him about the different rites and rituals and then solemnly told him that I would like to be buried and not cremated. He in turn expressed his wish to be cremated. Almost nauseously, I thought of our child.  If ever we had to live through such a terrible day, would we agree on what we would like for them or would we argue about cremation vs. burial? Immediately, I was filled with shame and repulsion at my own thoughts and superstitiously chanted a prayer for Rumi’s well-being. We know that these discussions are important but naturally, we avoid them like the plague out of the fear of uttering unwanted, negative words. When the kids turn eighteen they can decide, we conclude and leave it at that.

 

An Ode to Aunts

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Last week, I had my Phuppi (my dad’s sister) staying with us for a few days. Phuppi completely matches the description of the stereotypical Aunts I read about growing up, like Aunt Alexandra in To Kill a Mocking Bird or Aunt Izzie in What Katy Did: she is formidable, sharp-tongued and very spick and span and proper, and she has the biggest heart in the world. I grew up in a joint family with my cousins and Phuppi pretty much took over our childhood. She bought us clothes (and matching socks and shoes and clips and even matching underwear!), she cut our hair, she planned our birthday parties, she entered us into fancy-dress shows and she took us to the ‘poshest’ places in town like Sagar Plaza and Ashoka Executive (which is the Pride Hotel now). That woman was a cracker, there was nothing she could not do. She cooked amazingly well (made us doughnuts in the 90s when we hadn’t ever heard of them!) she dressed like a style icon with that stylish bob and those dark lipsticks and ‘goggles’, she set off alone on shopping expeditions with the driver and three kids in tow and made us participate in a cat-walking course (yes, really!) She was just so cool! We were petrified of her and simply adored her.

When I heard she was coming, I was really happy but really nervous too. I wanted to show off to her, for her to see that I’m managing my house pretty smoothly. I kind of wanted to make her proud. It is so strange, no matter how much we grow and evolve, there are certain people from our childhood, that make us turn into children again, with all our old insecurities and petty fears. No matter how many people say it to me, no matter how well I know it from within, I just wanted to hear the words “you’re doing well” from her. I also mentally prepared myself for all the chiding, nudging and corrections that were going to come my way (that woman is so loving but so demanding!). I knew enough to expect comments on the following issues: Rumi’s thinness, the quality of cooking, my low-maintenance T-shirt-salwar-ponytail look at home and the lack of servitude towards my husband (like Abhi wakes up and makes his own tea or sometimes serves me dinner too (Oh God, must warn him before she comes!)

When she came, I was amazed to see her. Gone was that spry, active woman from my childhood. Her face was lined with anxiety, the hair greying. She was exhausted from the Rickshaw trip and was carrying a big bag of food items on her shoulder as a gift. I felt stupid at my surprise, obviously she was expected to age. But I had simply lost track of all the years that had flown by. In my mind she was still that intimidating, sharp woman in the bright yellow nylon dresses.

It was wonderful to catch up. We spent hours talking and laughing and looking at old pictures and shrieking with laughter (“Oh my goodness, is that really us?”) Our relationship dynamic had completely changed and she was able to talk to me about all her problems and longings. I told her all my wonderful “business ideas” and unlike my Mom who only snorts when I get a new idea and doesn’t really get taken in unless I actually do something, Phuppi listened with a lot of patience and even gave some really awesome advice. I made her cook all my favorite dishes and she even taught me a few tricks. I watched Pakistani soaps on TV with her. We were heartbroken when she left for home and the house just felt empty.

I feel so lucky to have an Aunt like her growing up and I am overjoyed that Rumi too has an amazing playmate and confidante in her adored Smita Kaku.  Smita Kaku is fun and glamorous and fearless. She paints Rumi’s toenails neon. She takes Rumi for bike rides and they come back windswept and flushed and laughing. She takes Rumi into the kitchen and deftly swings her on one hip as she cooks and introduces her to the different spices. She massages Rumi’s head with warm oil. Whenever we are all together, Rumi is Smita’s faithful shadow, trailing after her, wanting to open her purse, play with her hair and climb all over her. If Smita disappears from her line of vision for even a minute, Rumi’s eyes well up and her lips quiver with separation anxiety as she asks “Kuthe geli Smita Kaku?” (Where is Aunt Smita?)

 

Seeing them together is a delight. It is as if I don’t need to be there at all; they do everything together. In fact Rumi cries if I interrupt them and likes to sleep in Kaka-Kaku’s bedroom. When she is away from Kaku, she tells me stories that her Kaku tells her about a good blue fish called “Rumi” and a naughty red fish called “Tumi” and waits impatiently to meet Kaku again. Their bond is heartwarming and I love to watch them play and reminisce about all the times I spent with Phuppi.

What is it about Aunts and little nephews and nieces? I think it is nicely summed up in the quote “Only an Aunt can give hugs like a mother, keep secrets like a sister, and share love like a friend”. In the book “Committed”, Elizabeth Gilbert talks of how authors like Leo Tolstoy and the Bronte sisters were raised and influenced by their aunts. John Lennon’s aunt told him he would be an important artist someday and it was Coco Chanel’s aunt who taught her how to sew!

It is these amazing aunts who bandage our knees and kiss our tears. They spoil us silly with ice-creams and cuddles. They are our stylists and fashion icons. They keep all our secrets and partner us in our crimes. They are the joke-tellers and shoppers and great cooks. Thank God for the “Aunty Brigade”, without whom childhood would have lacked its magic and charm. Thank God for Aunts.

When I’m a Mean Mommy, here’s what I need to remember

It is our usual Saturday afternoon ritual: I pack a little bag with a few clothes, diapers and of course, Matilda and then drop Rumi off to my parents’ place. Mum teaches Kindergarten, Abba has his classes and they are generally quite busy during the week so this works as a win-win situation for the grandparents as well as us: they can enjoy with Rumi to their heart’s content and Abhi and I can watch TV and read and write and talk and relax. We enjoy indulgent dinners, silly movies and great conversations and pick Rumi up the next day with a fresh and relaxed mind for the week to come.

This Saturday however, when Rumi left, I said goodbye to her with a very heavy heart. I have been scolding her very frequently in the past few days but this morning, I was particularly harsh. I was sending an “important message” from my phone and Rumi kept trying to yank it from my hands, begging me to play her favorite video. I was talking to her and trying to reason with her but then she started pummeling me and my phone slid from my grasp and fell to the ground. I really lost my cool and held both her fists tight. “Stop it” I said firmly. She looked at me defiantly and started hitting me again. “Just stop it!” I shouted louder. She continued to try and yank my hair with her little fists and climb over me and I really lost it and started exaggerating (You ‘always’ do this! You ‘never’ let me sit even for a minute!). She looked to Abhi for support but even he was firm and stern with her. She cried, we scolded, I sulked, but it was all forgotten a few minutes later when Nana-Nani arrived to pick her up. She cheerfully changed into her best blue frock, let me tame those gorgeous brown curls with a wet comb and kissed me and waved goodbye. She was looking so beautiful, so angelic! My heart just filled with remorse. How could I have used such a harsh shouty voice with this wonderful little child, full of love and light?

I can think of plenty of reasons and excuses to justify my behavior: I had already lost a phone to this kind of grabbing by Rumi, where it had ricocheted off every step in our house and crashed to the bottom in a worthless pile of shards. Plus I was tired out with my allergies that caused me to sneeze incessantly and my eyes to swell up and itch. Plus, we had had several sleepless nights because Abhi was so unwell with the flu. Plus, I was kind of annoyed that Rumi was watching more TV and eating more chocolates than ever, which made her a hyper-bunny. There were so many reasons but which one was really her fault? She doesn’t know how expensive my phone really is. She doesn’t know that incessant video watching or chocolate with every meal is bad. She doesn’t know that when she begs me for a story, I can’t talk because my throat itches so bad.

It is so paradoxical that the angrier she makes us, the more love and acceptance she needs. The easiest way to calm her down is to hug her and kiss her and reassure her that we “love her forever”, that we’re not mad at her. And the worst thing we can possibly do is to alienate her and say “No, you’ve been bad, you need to sit on that chair for a few minutes”. It is easier said than done because sometimes I really need some time before I can speak lovingly to her, especially if I have been hurt physically by her punches or hair-pulling. But even in this time, all she does is rub herself against my legs or bury her face in my lap like a little helpless kitten.

What I need to do is be gentle, be loving, be kind. As far as possible, as often as possible. With Rumi as well as with myself because she forgets and bounces back easily, whereas I tend to judge myself very harshly after such episodes.

I have also been thinking a lot about why I am getting so irritable and angry in the first place. It is not that Rumi is behaving worse than usual, but somehow I am getting more upset than ever at these minor skirmishes.  After a lot of careful introspection, what I think is causing me distress is a lack of self-care. And self-care not in the form of lying on the couch and mindlessly consuming daily soaps or newsfeeds on my phone, but self-care in the form of expressing myself in some way, of creating something, of making something. Whenever I do that in the form of a doodle or a baked cake or a sketch or a blog post, I get enough energy to pull through the day with a smile on my face, no matter what the situation is. The art of creating something, anything, is therapeutic and magical. And I have learnt that there need not be pressure for me to create anything ‘perfect’ or ‘worthy of sharing’. It can be a silly story I make up. It can be a few photos taken from the balcony. It can be knitting, sewing, gardening anything. Just that, for a half an hour a day is like an elixir that keeps me brimming with energy. And skipping that or missing it for a few days at a stretch causes a wave of restlessness inside, something that is very small and hard to notice at first but snowballs into a destructive Tsunami at alarming speed.

My husband told me a wonderful quote by Alanis Morrissette: ‘When I’m not ex-pressed, I’m de-pressed’. And depressed Mommies make angry and tired and sulky Mommies. So I need to remember this very simple truth (which like all things simple is the hardest to follow!): time for self-care and expression every single day, and love, gentleness and kindness, always.