Me, Liberated? I Think So

January 22, 2009

I was having a conversation with sup33 the other day about names: maiden names and marital names (if that’s the name for the name of a woman who changes her name to her husband’s name after marriage – if you know what I mean).

I changed my name after marriage; sup33 didn’t. “Well you were only 24,” she said consolingly, implying that at that tender age I perhaps hadn’t quite thought things through.

But I had.

It’s true that I didn’t demand that Amit change his surname to mine; in fact, I didn’t even ask hypothetically if he would if I asked him to. I think he probably would have refused, and probably would have also said that I didn’t have to change my name if I didn’t want to.

But I wanted to.

For me, it wasn’t about bowing to tradition, or to Amit, or being subservient to his family, or to the laws of society in general. It was simply out of love for Amit, a sense of joy in my commitment to him by way of marriage, and a desire to proclaim to the world at large that we were man and wife. The fact that I felt no pressure or expectation from his side, that I felt quite sure I needn’t change my name if I didn’t want to, ensured that I had no qualms about doing so. And now, 11 years on, my maiden name is just a memory, while my marital name is who I am.

I did another little thing along with this change of name which, to anyone who knows me, might appear quite out of character.

Bengalis don’t have a mangal sutra; they have a ring, but it’s not the most important symbol of marriage. What they have is kacha-shaka – the traditional bangles, one red, one white, worn on each hand – that is, two of each, four in all. Well, my white ones got busted on our first night (symbolic, that, but not in the way it is intended to be) and were never replaced. The red ones lie neglected in some corner of some drawer at home. This, I’m sure, is not at all surprising to anyone who knows me.

But what might be surprising is what comes next. You see, Bengalis also have this metal bracelet thingy, sometimes decorated with a thin layer of gold, which is worn at the wedding and thereafter is never to be taken off until death do you part. This I do have. And, for some reason, I made a promise to myself when I got married that I would honour this tradition, and I have. I have never, ever taken it off since that day.

Of course I don’t know what superstitions are attached to taking it off prematurely, nor do I want to know, far less believe such things. Neither do I know or care to consider what I will do in the event that death do us part. But I took that bracelet as symbolic of my commitment, my marriage, and I chose to wear it always. It’s a part of me now, just as much as my hair, my glasses, and my marital name.

My point is that, if women’s lib dictates that I should automatically reject such customs, then I think that women’s lib is as restrictive as the very restrictions it sets out to free women from. For me, being liberated means being free to decide to do something, or not do something, purely based on my own choice. If I am secure about my equality and freedom in my relationship, then I don’t have to question whether taking my husband’s name or wearing a bracelet somehow makes me subservient to him or makes me his possession.

Does women’s lib mean that I have to shy away from doing something that I actually want to do, or don’t mind doing, just because it’s what I’m expected to do? If I am really liberated, can’t I choose to do something not because society ordains it, but inspite of that?


On Losing Someone – 2

May 28, 2008

People, people, everywhere
They smile, you smile… it’s a mask you wear
Underneath there’s loneliness and pain
The thought of someone you might never see again

It’s been so long… months, maybe years
You’ve quite run out of your stock of tears
Besides, how long can you mourn
For someone who’s not dead – just gone

You hope he’s happy… but then, again
You hope he feels that sharp stab of pain
Something that reminds him of you
And everything he’s put you through

Of course you can smile, of course you’re strong
After all, you did no wrong
And who’s to know, since that fateful day
The song in your heart quite went away

But, how can it be? Can it be true?
That he didn’t stop to think of you?
Or maybe, it’s plain to see,
Some things were just not meant to be.

One day, some day, if fate ordains,
You’ll run into him again
And then, perhaps, maybe, you’ll know
What made him want to leave and go

Until then, you wait, you hope,
You know you’ll get along, you’ll cope.
There’s only one thing you could ask:
The strength to keep on wearing that mask


On Losing Someone – 1

May 28, 2008

Do you know what it’s like to lose someone
A friend, a love, a daughter or son
To turn around and find they’ve gone?

Do you know how it feels, on that terrible day,
When you say something so wrong, that you send them away,
Or you can’t find the words to make them stay?

Do you know how it hurts to lose a friend,
To have something you cherished come to an end,
To not be able to make amends?

Do you know what it means to feel so sad
Full of regret for what you might have had
But lost, though you did nothing bad?

And what can you do, once they are gone?
Once whatever happened can’t be undone?
What use are those tears? Life goes on…


I Still Prefer Nuclear

December 30, 2007

Man, it’s good to be home.

Having said that, I must add that the eight days of eternity were not that bad… or at least, not as bad as I thought it might have been. Some of the battles were lost, it’s true; some were won; and some were never fought. The “fishes” were not quite as troublesome as I had anticipated; I was very happy to see that nobody fed the kids anything that we said was on the list of banned substances; the twins’ daily schedule was adhered to fairly regularly, with some variations; the language seemed more comprehenisble to me than ever before and I even attempted some genuine communication from time to time; and I managed to get away with only one sari-day.

Amit and I even managed to leave the kids alone and go out for walks together a few times. True, it was mostly when the twins were in bed and fast asleep, but once we left them when they were wide awake in the evening. According to subsequent reports, they were not exactly happy about seeing both parents walk out the door, but they did not cry while we were away. When we returned after about half an hour, though, Tara immediately came to me, took my finger in her hand and promptly burst into a flood of tears! Strange…

Anyway, considering we have never left the kids alone with anyone else till now, it was a landmark of sorts. We aren’t really considering baby-sitter arrangements till they are a bit older and able to talk, so it was good to get even those stolen half-hour walks together.

Being in Calcutta with kids was a different experience for me. It forced me to drop many reservations, just playing with the kids and being my usual goofy self in front of the Family. I didn’t feel the need to get away from people and find some space for myself the way I usually do – I could do much the same thing just by getting engrossed in the kids. Plus, of course, the usual activities in keeping the kids fed, bathed, and rested gave me enough time to do “my own thing”.

I, of course, came in for a certain amount of indirect criticism and a certain amount of indirect praise. Everyone seemed to think that the kids were completely under-dressed and that they ought to have been swaddled in sheathes of warm clothing from head to foot. Since Amit and I were in summer clothes, I completely ignored this advice, even though Tara had a cold and Mrini developed one towards the end. They must think I’m the most callous mother ever, but I simply don’t see why I should shroud my kids in warm clothes simply because everyone else thinks it is cold. And runny noses are a normal part of toddlerhood, to be endured and largely ignored, if you ask me. I refuse to be one of those paranoid, hypochondriac parents, or let my kids become that way.

The praise was for a rather unexpected reason. Apparently, it is highly commendable to quit your job and be a full-time mom without an ayah (maid to look after the kids), as opposed to being a working mom, or even a full-time mom with an ayah. And not just “an” ayah, but one per kid. I’m not sure why, but having opted to bathe, dress, feed, and play with my kids seems to have earned me serious brownie points in the Family.

The kids, for the most part, enjoyed the trip. They didn’t get unduly upset by the flight, the change of location, the presence of so many new people, or the frequent outings and exposure to yet more people. They ate well, slept a lot, and were generally happy – with a couple of notable exceptions.

On the day of the big function, the kids’ feet never touched the ground, they were passed around from person to person like cushions in Pass the Parcel. Of course, they mostly enjoy being picked up, so it shouldn’t have been a bad thing, but they also do need to run around and do their own thing after a while – which they absolutely couldn’t. By late afternoon, they were grumpy… and then there was a photo shoot. These photo shoots are those formal affairs where everyone is made to line up and say cheese. With 40-50 adults and several children to arrange, these tend to be noisy and time-consuming affairs. Naturally, the twins were squirming like snakes and demanding to get away after five minutes.

But then, that was only one day. The bigger problem was that on the other days too, there were simply too many people always picking up the kids. I was frankly surprised to see how people will insist on picking up the kids even when the kids make it quite clear that they don’t want to be picked up right then. And then, of course, they mostly do want to be picked up, which only adds to the problem. In just a few days, Mrini became unbearably clingy and whiny, always wanting to be picked up by anyone, but preferrably by me. Over the last few days, this manifested in her clinging to me like a limpet. She howls even if Amit holds her. Thankfully, though she was whining in the taxi on the way home, when we got home, she and Tara plunged into their toy box in utter delight and proceeded to create chaos and pandemonium in the house in their usual manner – so that was a relief.

Naturally, I can see the benefits of having a large family when you’re handling two small kids. Having lots of people around not only lets us get some time to go out together, but also means there are always people willing to feed, play with, or otherwise look after the kids, leaving only the diaper-changing activities to the hapless parents. But, if the flip side is that the kids are going to become whiny and indisciplined… well, I think I’ll stick with nuclear.


What Have I Let Myself In For?

December 19, 2007

To think that I actually agreed to this! What was I thinking?

I’m talking about the upcoming eight days in Calcutta, of course. As the travel date approaches, the very thought is giving me the heebie-jeebies. I have written before of how I am decidedly NOT a joint-family type of person. But, in those happy days, I reckoned without the twins. Twins add hitherto unconceivable complications to the situation.

There is, first, the usual matter of logistics: where do we sleep, when do we sleep, till when do we sleep, how and with whom do we sleep… and so on down the line, substituting “eat” “bathe” “use the bathroom” etc for “sleep” (try it, you;ll get a better idea of what I mean.) To this, we need only add the various considerations of keeping the twins safe (from staircases, for instance) and keeping the house relatively intact (glass-fronted cabinets, TVs in various rooms at various heights and so on).

Then, there’s the matter of various minor battles. Foremost, is the battle of the fishes. I say fishes, because there are so many of them that simply using “fish” just seems plain insufficient. For me, as for the twins, one small, boneless piece of fish is about the maximum one can stomach. The battle begins at the second piece and lasts all the way up to the fifth piece. Then there’s the matter of the million bones per piece – I will, no doubt, have the pleasure of removing the bones for not just my own benefit, but worse, for the twins. Worse, because for them, every tiny mistake could cause a crisis.

Another battle is of time. My preferred timings for meals is roughly 8 – 1 – 8; for the twins, it is 8 – 11.30 – 4.30 – 7.30. In Calcutta, the default is something like 9.30 – 2.30 – 10.30. Naturally, sleeping and waking hours get pushed out accordingly. This absolutely wrecks my biological clock and now with the twins to cater to, it is going to wreck my central nervous system as well. I hate being so, but the fact remains that I am an extremely time-oriented person and it is quite (inordinately) important for me, where it concerns the twins, to adhere to some sort of schedule in the interests of health (theirs) and sanity (mine).

Horror of horrors, we will also have to face the sweet battle. I, of course, have 32 sweet teeth, so it shouldn’t have been a problem for me – except that 31 of my 32 teeth seem to prefer cakes and ice creams over mishti. Mercifully, my lactose intolerance provides a handy excuse to get me out of the 823 sweet-eating opportunities per day that I would rather avoid. Unfortunately, it also means that the 215 opportunities for yummy sweets like gulab jamun and mishti doi must also be passed up with an expression of stoic regret. The twins, who have not been fed much sweet by us thus far, will also have ~1000 types of sweet thrust down their little gullets. Doubtless, they will love it… and therefore refuse to eat anything that’s not sweet not only for the eight days there, but also for the next two months back home.

Dressing is another battle I am bound to encounter. Of course, the entire immediate family (only about 20 people) knows that I wear jeans about 95% of the time. The extended family (the other ~60 people) have seen me only on formal occasions, when I’m dutifully bound up in a sari. This was just about manageable for special occasions when we didn’t have kids – now, with two, it is almost entirely out of the question. I mean, just imagine diaper-changing with a sari flowing all over the place for the twins to play with… Luckily, there’s to be only one function which involves the entire extended family, and I’m considering giving in and actually wrapping a sari around myself for that day (or half-day, if I have my way); but for the other 7.5 days, I’m hoping to get away with jeans, or at worst, a couple of salwar-kameez. This is sure to ruffle some feathers, as we’re going to have to make a few social calls, which ideally should not be done with the smiling mother wearing jeans… but it really is beyond me to manage two small kids and a sari (all the while conversing fluently in Bengali) – something’s bound to come undone!

The biggest problem, which, as of yesterday evening is causing me seriously sleepless nights, is of the relative-naming convention. I have, of course, faced this problem on many occasions already, and have just about come to grips with who’s who to whom… but that was before the advent of the next generation. Now, everything’s changed – not for me, but for how each uncle, aunt, cousin, grandparent and their sisters, brothers, parents and children should be addressed by the twins. Inevitably, there will be situations when somebody is calling the twins, and I am expected to tell them, “Go on, your such-and-such uncle/auntie/whatever is calling you, go to your uncle/auntie/whatever…”

Yesterday, I spent an hour after dinner quizzing Amit on the manner in which each type of relation would transform into something else for our kids – for example, all older brothers (about 43 of them if you count only first cousins) become jethus and all younger brothers become kakus; except for an older brother-in-law, who becomes a pishimoshai, despite being habitually addressed as brother. You’d think that someone who’s been brought up in this system would have all the answers down pat – it is the same set of transitions for every new generation, after all – but no; Amit actually had to have a 15 minute discourse with his father to clear up some of the finer points. Then, what hope is there for me, who’s not yet got past first base even after ten years of marriage???

The more I think of it, the more the eight days seem to stretch into eternity. Perhaps it would be easier to break a leg and call off the entire trip.


Never Say Yes

March 27, 2007
On Monday, Amit, who was recuperating from home, and I, who was working from home, sat down to a simple homemade meal at lunchtime, when the phone rang.

There was absolutely nothing noteworthy about this, because the phones – all four of ‘em – had been ringing off the hook with worried family members demanding hourly updates on his health. On this particular occasion, it was his Calcutta Aunt, who, yesterday, had wanted to know why our household hadn’t a thermometer to its name and had made it plain that this was a shortcoming to be rectified at the earliest opportunity. He therefore hastened to assure her that a thermometer (a digital one, with read-outs in both C and F) had indeed been procured, and, what’s more, had shown him (to my utter disbelief) to have no fever.

The Aunt, thereupon, suggested that a distant (not very distant “relatively” speaking – nor, unfortunately, geographically speaking) branch of the family resident in Bangalore be informed of the situation, so that they could provide succour – or something like it.

The thought so scared Amit that he immediately resolved to get well without further delay.

The situation with these rellies is such that when DDB visited Bangalore, though he is equally related to them and to us, he not only didn’t stay with them, he went to great lengths to stay away as much as possible. A great deal of energy went into plotting, scheming, and strategizing devious ways and means of encountering them for the minimum possible period of time. The main intention was to “drop in” without notice, create a lot of noise and confusion, and escape quickly before arrangements for a meal could be made. This escapade would also have to be carried out at the last possible moment in his stay, to avoid invitations to subsequent meals together that would inevitably ensue should they be given any advance notice of his presence in town.

In these endeavors, Amit was a willing and active participant. Though he sometimes agrees that we “should” be more sociable with this branch of the family, he never goes so far as to actually act according to this good intention. On the rare occasions that he is called upon to explain this reluctance, he says that developing any kind of warm relationship here would upset the delicate balance between various other factions of the family, including incurring the wrath of his father – something to be avoided at any cost as it always results in great damage to the phone bill and the ear drums.

So, he vehemently assured the Aunt that he would doubtless survive the day and it was only merely a small, tiny little passing flu and there was no need whatsoever to call in the heavy artillery and that he would call and tell her the moment he felt better or worse or just the same, so why bother these other folks.

The Aunt, who has learnt a few tricks to justify her white hair, demanded to speak to me.

The problem with my conversing with any member of Amit’s family is that they thoroughly overestimate my language skills and assume that I understand everything they say, when in fact my comprehension consists of 10% understanding, 80% inspired guesswork, and 10% non-committal replies to mask a total lack of comprehension. So, when the Aunt admonished me to keep her updated on the situation (or that’s what I thought she said, using inspired guesswork), I readily agreed. Only after a few moments did I realize that what she was actually asking me was whether I would update the distant rellies on the situation – and I had agreed!

I hastily recanted, and handed the phone back to Amit to do further damage control.

Moral of the story: Inspired guesswork is all very well, but never agree to do anything!


Surviving…

January 29, 2007
…but only just.

The family came and went. The computer workstation finally arrived in a nail-biting climax minutes before I left for the airport. Amit was sitting (dharna) at the shop in Comm Street threatening dire consequences if the damn thing, which was supposedly sent by auto ages ago, did not land up at our house in very very short order.

That apart, the weekend went off peacefully, with only

  • two sessions of waterworks (three women under practically the same roof for three days, what do you expect?)
  • three meals out
  • four trips to the malls and MG Road (each lasting about 5 hours; with cumulative damages somewhere in the range of a million dollars, or so it seemed)
  • half-a-dozen squabbles about picking up the bill (my father’s totally pig-headed, and so am I)
  • about a dozen bottles of alcohol down the collective hatch (beer, wine, vodka, whisky, and occasionally a mad mix of all of the above with a dash of orange juice!)

Unfortunately, despite my best efforts at forcing it down everyone’s ungrateful gullet, only half the frozen meat was consumed, which leaves my fridge still overloaded with two giant boxes of roast turkey and leg of lamb.

We dropped them to the airport yesterday morning and now, a scant 24 hours later, the house is back to its usual state of controlled chaos, the guest bedroom is as messy as ever and its little luxuries have been carted back to their rightful abodes in our bedroom. The washing machine is chock-full of bedsheets, as usual. All’s well with the world.


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