Friday, May 8, 2009

The beatings will continue

For many years I worked for an IT company, and observing at first hand the rate of evolving technology never failed to make me dizzy. So high was the acceleration that it was clear we must brace ourselves for the day, soon, when there would be new and unexpected gadgets, climate changes, lifestyle options, product markets, means of communication, behaviour patterns (and so on) not just after every few decades – but every year, every month, and even every day.
Now, at an age when women traditionally deal with painful personal change at every level of their existence, I peer into my memory looking for a significant moment that changed me more than any other and I spot that afternoon twenty-two years ago when a tiny, perfect, human being appeared in this world and suddenly – unexpectedly – made a wise and important person of me.
In the years that followed, I was gifted an assortment of life experiences that logically should have belonged to many different people. Of them all, this has been the role I most cherished.
Many complain of postpartum depression but I experienced the opposite – an exhilarating energy that turned me into the most blissfully devoted attendant there could be. I remember that I never left my baby’s side, not even once, for more than a year!
Then came a time when it was necessary for me to garner every latent marketable skill I could invent to draw forth some kind of sustenance for the two of us.
As existence spun some fantastic patterns to make this possible, it also now blessed me with the ability to be nothing but relaxed and patient and friendly even as a storm of unhappiness and despair battled within.
I developed a secret empathy for the young women who stand, palms outstretched at traffic signals, with babies slung against their sides. This fanciful affiliation led me not to tearful flights of self-indulgence but instead lent a parallel poetic vision which came in handy to power my byline.
A few short years later, the adored one was narrowly snatched from the inelegant fate of the overfed by a rapid turn of events which abruptly bestowed on her a brother and a sister.
The three were so close in age that, like a batch of cookies baking together, they marched in faultless step across developmental milestones at easy-to-manage intervals. It was hard work fixing dabbas, helping with homework, administering first aid, and mediating in the occasional gory interpersonal squabble. At work I was encountering Japanese productivity techniques like Kaizen, JIT, and 5S, and coolly adapting them for use at home, to deal with fundamental icons of housework such as leftovers and laundry routines. The children knew nothing of this secret life of mine, though. For it was at this time that I achieved the highest pinnacle of success of my career: I was always there when the school bus brought them home.
We had fun too: Disney videos on Saturdays, summer holidays with mornings in the sandpit and ice lollies after lunch, a healthy (high-fibre, low-fat, low-cholesterol, extra-delicious) chocolate cake that bestowed instant popularity, and kiddie birthdays with bright, fancy-shaped cakes and invitations produced in-house. We travelled round the country by car and survived some nasty battles since only two could have window seats. But sulks could easily turn to giggles when the others pulled faces or pretended to vomit or a lorry passed by with something particularly inventive inscribed at the back.
At this time, I became so presumptuous as to write a column loftily airing my views on motherhood. I had experimented with different parenting formats, and read a few books, and the kids did seem happy, so I quite fancied myself the expert.
What I wrote was based on a belief – innocent, but deep-rooted at the time – that when children are given love, patience, and understanding, and when the responsible adults around them try to look at the world through their eyes, and guide them towards a life that is healthy and balanced, using a well-thought-out mixture of discipline and fun – well, surely they would grow up to be good, sensible, loving people and what more could anyone possibly want?
Years passed in this type of self-complacent haze until one day I noticed that my name had been changed and my smug satisfaction turned to dismay. From the once popular, beloved, and idolized “Mumma” I had now become known in an off-hand and rather patronizing tone, as “Mom”. Certain cute and cuddly people had vanished, to be replaced by lanky individuals who stalked about the house, being witty and laconic and saying “Ya, rright!” to each other with lofty disdain. Fundamental rules, in place for close to two decades, were being carelessly flouted!
At that time I remember we had a poster stuck on the fridge, a circular drawn up in a (rare) attempt at humour. We had been implementing ISO 9001:2000 at the office, and I had mockingly documented my Household Laundry System, listing recommended procedures and schedules for linen maintenance, white-shoe polishing and the like. At the bottom ran the line, “The Beatings Will Continue Until Morale Improves!”
Funny – but was it really?
We never had overt rebellion, as many families do. On the surface we were close-knit and communicative – yet, strange and often frightening events occurred.
It was a confusing time for me, and one of intense reflection. All these years, I had believed that my parenting was sophisticated and effective. Most of the actions I made were painstakingly thought out and carefully implemented. I had exercised the right to express my anger the way I would in any close relationship – having often favoured a healthy, natural, aggressive and potentially destructive reaction over a polite and well-meaning but contrived one. When I encountered areas of guilt and resentment, I had tried to confront, define and resolve them. I had never overworked myself to win their favour in any way that was insincere – cautiously anticipating and sidestepping every trap a stepmother might characteristically embrace.
I now began to wonder whether, in the bargain, I had overdone it and exposed my ugly side once too often. Had I been too domineering? Could I have avoided it? Would we have been happier today if I had taken less trouble to relate, or to guide and monitor in those days? (And had I really been relating, guiding and monitoring – or just messing around with a sledge hammer?) I remembered one occasion when my youngest, an effervescent comedian of age six – now a suave and distant young man of twenty – had earnestly confided that his happiest moment had been the one on which he first met me. The saddest, he added without missing a beat, was when I first whacked him.
Funny – but was it really?
I’d love to pretend that in those days it had been my practice to glide about like a wise Zen master, cleverly concealing a stout staff behind my back and whipping it out occasionally with the express purpose of jolting the little darlings to a higher awareness.
Ya, rright!
As parenthood progresses, supremacy wanes, and now with the wisdom of the powerless I must counsel myself on the responsibility each previous generation has to allow the new one to live life in the new world, its very own special world, on its own terms. After all, I have brought my children up to make their own decisions. How must I react when they choose to do something I don’t want them to? Do I have the courage to watch them make their mistakes and learn what they will without my protective fussing, without charging in to provide perspective, without blatantly insisting they do things my way?
Part of the process of adapting to changes in my physical and mental composition must be the achingly painful realization that I can no longer be the most important person in the lives of those who once, not so long ago, swore me their undying loyalty and devotion in too many unspoken ways to enumerate. When this colossal change comes, will I succumb to the private pain of a spurned lover? To the panicky prospect of loss of occupation and omniscience faced by a corporate boss overthrown in a boardroom coup? Will I resist the urge to metamorphose into that melodramatic Bollywood mother whose anguish and its expression is always a source of mirth?
And will my actions ever reveal the depth of my anxiety at the prospect of regressing to that nameless, shapeless adolescent entity I once was, before I became that most wonderful, powerful, loved and revered of all beings, a mother?
first appeared as Mother Superior in Open magazine on 8 May 2009

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Discovering Toronto with Smita

The low red-bricked houses and neatly-marked streets looked familiar, and with dal and alu-bhindi for dinner, how could anyone blame me for thinking that this was just another suburb of London?
My first clue to the contrary was when I tried to get into the driver’s seat – ambitious, considering I can’t drive even back at home – and Smita gently showed me around to the other side. Still, it took a long while of staring at the maple tree outside my window before I could coax out that “Oh wow, I am actually here in Canada!” feeling.
Canada, eclipsed as it is by a bossy neighbour, tends to have an unglamorous branding. And with those supposedly never-ending winters, who in their right mind would go? I myself was only visiting a beloved friend, something we had wanted to do for so long that when it finally happened, it didn’t matter even remotely which country it was.
Years ago I’d read Margaret Atwood’s description in Cat’s Eye, of Toronto as “a world-class city” and I remember thinking, “how wannabe is that!” So when Toronto began to unfold before me, I felt like Columbus discovering a new land.
Toronto is a multi-cultural city and the diversity is such that on a visit to the Royal Ontario Museum we saw children of every imaginable skin colour. Of twenty-five, only about two were white. Canada has welcomed immigrants over centuries, the biggest wave of which arrived in the late 1840s from Ireland, fleeing the Irish Potato Famine and numbering twice the Toronto population of the time.
Over the years, settlers from different European, Asian, African and South American countries carved out sections of the city for themselves. You can browse in the ubiquitous China Town, but also eat spanakopita in caf├ęs next to Greek street signs just as easily as crisp fresh dosais in restaurants with large nameboards in Tamil. With so many different ethnic groups mingling easily, racism is really just interpersonal friction. There are infinite varieties of the English accent, with an Indian who grew up in Kampala speaking a quite different idiom from one who grew up in Trinidad. The immigrants I met were proudly, passionately Canadian, grateful to the country that had given them lives of comfort, opportunity and pleasant stimulation.
It was only in the early years of the Twentieth Century that citizens began to work actively towards the creation of a strong Canadian national identity. One of these was a community of landscape painters that came to be known as The Group of Seven, and Smita introduced me to their work at the National Gallery, later driving me into the country to visit the McMichael Collection, located in the woodland setting that inspired them, and even buying me a beautiful art book representing their work.
Toronto’s vibrant cultural life made me feel that under-hyped Toronto is surely one of the world’s best-kept secrets. Friends took me to the National Ballet of Toronto and the Toronto Symphony Orchestra where the high-quality infrastructure and appreciative audience added to my experience of the performances.
Smita and I had always shared our books, right from the days when we both lived in Bandra and she would drop in to visit on her way back from college nearly every day. I now enjoyed discovering her favourite Canadian authors. Clara Callan by Richard B. Wright is told through letters and narrative and depicts the dramatic lives of two sisters who grew up in small-town Canada. One, a schoolteacher, remains a spinster, while the other becomes a radio star in New York. The Divine Ryans by Wayne Johnston is told by a young boy whose father has recently died and has the mixture of humour and tragedy characteristic of the Irish writers. No New Land by M.G. Vassanji is a hard-core immigrant story filled with struggle, humiliation, misunderstanding, alienation from offspring, and crisply told.
I knew I was in Toronto when, at the shortlist readings of the Griffin Poetry Prize at the MacMillan Theatre, Margaret Atwood was right behind Smita in the queue for the toilet.
Our weekend visit to Ottawa, Canada’s capital, happened to be on Doors Open, a day on which public buildings welcome visitors. So we dropped by at the Supreme Court, Houses of Parliament, and even the Governor General’s home. Security arrangements were in place but there was no trace of paranoia or hatred. This complete lack of fear was for me the most refreshing aspect of this country, and doubtless a consequence of the thanks-to-big-brother-you-can’t-see-me syndrome. The streets of Ottawa are wide and clean. Coming from a land of teeming millions, there arose within me a very loud question, namely: “Where IS everybody?” which made Smita laugh. Toronto by contrast can get crowded – but I found it a relaxed place with the screaming inner-city adrenalin absent.
On our last day we drove out to Niagara Falls where we enjoyed looking across the gorge and gloating at those standing on the American side, peering over but unable quite to see all that we could. As we headed home, Smita’s formidable, internationally-acknowledged organizational ability had two rainbows arranging themselves over the falls, and we rode into a magnificent pink-and-purple Toronto sunset, Lake Ontario rolling alongside, and the deep-throated Canadian genius Leonard Cohen belting out his soulful ballads all the way home.
parts of this first appeared as Steeped in a maple world in Sunday Mid-day on 6 Sep 2009