Letters to Sia: Year Three. Her Words.

Now that I have started speaking in full sentences (my parents and I disagree on the frequency of non-vocal intervals in between), Daddy decided to write this letter in my voice. Most likely because by this time next year I shall have a full vocabulary, and would be able to deny his exaggerated claims outright. So here’s his version of my train of thought (ooh, trains!).

There may be a right hand, but there is no wrong hand. Get over it.

If you ask me to use my words, and then deny my well-worded request for a toy/snack/pick up/outing, you have thereby lost the privilege of communicating with me in words for the next 20 minutes. (It clearly says so in my being-a-toddler manual). Now prepare your brains to translate my high-frequency wailing!

I want my mommy.

What do you mean I cannot wear the pretty princess dress repeatedly every day? I do not understand the logic behind this draconian rule you just made up.

When I say there is a monster in the house, you bet your butt there is a monster in the house. Do not refute my claim until you have personally checked every square inch of my room with a flashlight, microphone, night-vision goggles, infrared camera, electromagnetic field dissonance measuring device, and a Geiger counter.

I want my mommy.

Goldfish crackers is a meal, not a snack. Stop making up silly rules to hinder my joy.

Daddy’s beard hurts. I sometimes wonder if he has enough money to shave more often.

I only asked to go to the park. You’re the idiots who decided to settle down in a wintry region. You know what, forget the park. Let’s go to California!

My grandparents live inside an iPad. One time after a frustratingly long plane ride, they popped out and turned into real people. Boy, that freaked the poop out of me!

I want my mommy.

Whenever my parents look like they are about to doze off while waiting for me to doze off, I say “I need to go to the potty!” It’s pretty hilarious to see how quickly they snap out of it.

This is a very strange world. It’s unbelievable how many women out there are not my mommy.

I like blue and my mommy, so nobody else is allowed to like blue or my mommy.

Grownups are weird. They like phones, rather than playing with toys that can actually dance or play music. You need to make a call first, people! Simply staring at the phone won’t do anything fun! Jeez, how silly.

I feel like I should say ‘I want my mommy’, because it’s been a while since the last time I said ‘I want my mommy’.

My parents, grandparents, uncles and aunties sometimes buy me presents with the most fun boxes ever!

I get to play all day long at school, and yet I sometimes don’t feel like waking up and getting ready. But Mommy and Daddy are always in a hurry to get to their office. I don’t know what that place is, but I really look forward to going there when I grow up!

Sometimes when I wake up after a nap, it’s morning. And sometimes it’s evening. You guys have no idea how confusing my world is.

Mommy and Daddy are really scared of the clock. I have no idea why. At least my fears are reasonable, like the possibility that somebody will break in and eat all the cheese in the fridge when we are not at home.

Enough about me. Is my Mommy here yet?

Eel in the tub

Eels are notoriously slippery creatures. Imagine trying to hold and control one. Now imagine you are also responsible for the darn eel, and you wouldn’t want to see it harmed. So during your futile efforts to subdue the eel in a confined space, your secondary objective is to be cautious against bumping its head, tail or mid-section against dangerous objects strategically placed all around you. This becomes even harder when you are required to calibrate your grip on the uncooperative eel, because you wouldn’t want to choke the life out of it. Of course, the eel doesn’t care about any of this, including its own safety, hence it doesn’t hold back any of its punches when trying to slip out of your grasp.

You may be an adult human and a small creature like an eel might not seem like a formidable foe. If you imagined holding a 3-foot piece of rope, you would be wrong. The eel’s long, slender body is all muscle, allowing it to writhe and wriggle and surprise you with unexpected strength. In close confines, size matters little and the opponent’s will to fight can make a significant difference. Even if you do win against the slippery enemy, it would be a tasteless victory that leaves you exhausted, out of breath, anxious for the creature’s well-being while you check to see if it is still breathing, and in general kills your appetite for physical confrontation.

You could try doing this every single day of your life, and you still wouldn’t have mastered the art of giving a reluctant toddler a bath.

5 Lessons for My Daughter

Inspired by a question from Archana Challa, who was in turn inspired by this article: 5 Lessons I’m Going To Teach My Indian Daughter

 

1. Act Confident. The operative word here being ‘Act’. That’s what the rest of us are doing anyway, even though we don’t have a handle on life. Acting confident might make people think you really are, and that’s the whole point!

2. You are far superior. Men cannot create life. They cannot phathom the pain of childbirth, nor the physical and emotional challenges that follow. They do not undergo visibly embarrassing physical changes during adolescence. They do not know to navigate daily life, while secretly enduring an awful thing like menstruation. Their hormones do not play havoc on their bodies and minds throughout their lives. The worst cards men have ever been dealt are facial hair and itchy privates. No contest here.

3. Be a critical judge of everything. Be aware that a majority of what a man does or says from age 13 to the day he dies is simply yet another attempt to impress the ladies. Do not be easily impressed, or impressionable.

4. Get your hands dirty. Know how to ride a motorcycle and change a tire. Play puzzles and video games. Learn how to administer first aid and build a campfire. Travel by yourself. Work out to be in shape, not shapely. Break out in a full-throated howl when your favorite team wins. Don’t hesitate to curse if they lose. A bad-ass chick is way cooler than a hot girl.

5. You are average. You are not the greatest person in this world. Some are way smarter, sexier, stronger than you are. Do not fear or envy them. Learn a thing or two from them instead. You are not the worst person in this world either. Compared to you, some are lacking in talent, others in tact. Some are downright evil. If you cannot make yourself better than another person, that is okay. Just never become worse than another person.

Letters to Sia: Year Two. Confessions.

  1. I have cried way too many times since you were born. More than I ever did before. Or Mom, for that matter.
  2. I have used you as an excuse to get out of social events, beg for extra chocolate-mints at Olive Garden, and cut in line at the post office.
  3. I have no idea what you say sometimes, but I smile and nod along. Mom doesn’t know.
  4. I once googled “GPS tracker for kids”.
  5. I have occasionally spent a few extra minutes hiding in the bathroom, sometimes wished you would sleep all day, and once dreaded a long weekend because the daycare was closed.
  6. I don’t think anyone else can raise you better than Mom and I can. See #5.
  7. I don’t give Mom enough credit for taking care of you the way she does. Or at least frequently enough.
  8. Whenever someone says you look just like Mom, I cry a little on the inside.
  9. I sometimes wish appadams weren’t your favorite food, just so that I get to finish the bowl.
  10. I always thought you would outsmart me by the age of 10 or 12. You counted to ten in Spanish, long before you turned two. I only know uno, dos, tres, cuatro and cinco.
  11. I deliberately say “I love you” a little too fast for you to understand, just to keep hearing you say “i laa loo”.
  12. I have been repeatedly beaten, bruised, kicked in the groin, and punched in the face. By you.
  13. I think you have gained a little weight.
  14. I am secretly plotting to turn you into a big fan of Batman, video games and zombie fiction.
  15. I spent months trying to keep the color pink out of your life.
  16. I sometimes stood outside your door, listening to you crying. When you finally fell asleep, I ran off to watch Netflix.
  17. I have – against all my will – begun to gradually enjoy shopping. For you. Don’t tell Mom.
  18. I sometimes fell asleep trying to put you to bed. Okay, several times.
  19. Once I went to work with banana smeared on my pants.
  20. ‘Butt’ was among the first 10 words you learned to say. I am responsible.
  21. I almost dropped you once. Just kidding. Twice. Actually, a lot. But I haven’t stopped throwing you into the air and catching you.
  22. You are the person I am most terrified of.
  23. And now for some shocking confessions. My apologies in advance:
    1. The moon doesn’t go to sleep.
    2. We don’t run out of cheese every third day.
    3. The iPhone is in my other pocket.
    4. Papa is not always ‘too tired’ to play. Sometimes he is just lazy.
    5. I use YouTube to entertain you more often than I like to admit.
  24. I love you a teeny-tiny bit more than I love Mom.

Bheeshma

My grandfather once warned my dad that he would shoot him if he married my mom. When they eventually eloped and called home, he simply said “Congratulations on the wedding”. To me, this defined the man for many years. He had a notoriously short temper, and a scary one at that. Yet he also had a distinguished way of showing love and kindness when the situation called for it.

He was the grand patriarch of the family – the oldest of his generation, and a deeply respected man among those who knew him, and people who hadn’t even met him. He personified dedication to a cause one believed in. He spent his entire retired life in philanthropy, and religious and community service. At 79, he frequently rode long miles on his trusty old scooter to deliver groceries to a food shelter that he helped start and run. He cured jaundice in scores of people with a strict diet of cow’s milk and an herbal pill he concocted himself at home. None of us ever recall him being sick or exhausted. He had his shortcomings, but they were all redeeming in one way or another. He watched the TV too loud, but only because he couldn’t hear too well. He swore as a younger man, but never raised his voice on children. He proudly wore the badge of his priestly caste, but he accompanied it with sparkling advice from an exotic personal collection of idioms.

He shouldered the responsibilities for raising his brother and sisters, and supporting his step-mother, distant relatives and every unrelated person who came to him for help. His wife died 25 years earlier, and yet he always had a new fond anecdote to narrate about her. He raised his two sons with tough love, and they grew up to be tough men who showered their own sons with love. He went to great lengths to keep his daughter well-nurtured and cared for, and she transformed into an astonishingly resilient and kind-hearted person. He touched the life of every person he met, and always gave them support or saintly advice. Either way, he left an indelible impression. In my case, he left many lasting memories.

I remember while I grew up in his house, he would beep his motorcycle horn every evening as he turned into the street. I would abandon my toys and run to the porch steps to lay down a long wooden plank for him to wheel his bike up the stairs into the house. I remember he used to sit in front of the TV, wearing a dhoti and an undershirt, legs crossed at the ankles, one arm propped up at the elbow, and wearing a faint smile. I would watch him, an involuntary smile forming on my own face while I did. I remember the entire house reeking of ungodly smells from his druid-quality jaundice pills. I remember he took literally hundreds of photographs of us as a hobby – every single one of them a timeless treasure. I remember my brother once asked him what the greatest form of charity was, and he launched into an hour-long discourse on the virtues of feeding the hungry. I remember he remarked that my father and I had inherited his distinguished nose – ‘the trademark of the clan’, he called it.

I remember he took me a couple of times to a psychic, who I believe hypnotized me into seeing images of Lord Hanuman in an ink stain on my thumbnail. I remember he used to scare me when I was a little boy, that a frog was going inside my legs and it would ‘hatch’ out of my chubby thigh someday soon. I also remember his headphones – the very first pair I ever saw in my life, and I remember the first song I heard on them. I remember he used to take my grandmother and me to watch some unforgettable, classic movies. I remember he used to make all the four boys sit in a circle around him on the floor at dinner time. He would put gigantic balls of rice in our palms and we would hastily gobble them up before he came back around the circle to deliver the next one. I remember he would always answer the phone with a respectful tone, “Satyanarayana speaking…”

I remember the growing distance between us, as I moved away physically and emotionally from my extended family, drawn away by the circumstances of higher education, career and simply the pursuits of youth and life. Yet the few times I said “Hello, grandpa” on the phone, he answered back “Hi, grandpa!” every single time. I remember watching all my other grandparents die one after the other a long time ago, and being constantly reminded of this man’s mortality. In a way, I remember these words forming in my mind for several years now, like a morbid draft of his obituary. I remember hoping he would get to meet his great-granddaughter, as if to scratch that item off of my self-serving to-do list. It remains un-scratched forever.

The first time he fell ill in many years was merely a few months ago. His physical build and his endearing appetite were the first victims of the deadly disease. In the 17 days after his diagnosis, he slowly lost his strength, smile, the booming voice, and eventually his will to endure. But he never lost his mind. Even on the day before the end, he worried about the responsibilities my father and uncle would have to shoulder after he was gone. He politely endured the well-meaning, but increasingly depressing visits from all his relatives, near and distant – all falling over each other to get one last look at him. He became irritable and frustrated with all the pain he had to bear, but he never showed it to anyone who didn’t unconditionally love him.

The Mahabharata tells the story of the grand patriarch Bheeshma – he laid on a bed of arrows for days until the end of the Great Battle of Kurukshetra. He then literally willed Deliverance upon himself, surrounded by his kin. My grandfather endured everything that the cancer could throw at him while his family prayed for his relief, and eventually went to sleep in the loving arms of his three children.

Language fails us at the most unfortunate times, especially when it is desperately summoned. The job of a eulogist is to condense an entire human being and his life – all the memories, quirks, characteristics and events – into a single page. These pitiful lines do no justice to the man who was my father’s father. He was truly grand in several ways, at least to me. I have no pretenses about our relationship. I was not his favorite grandson, and neither was he my favorite grandparent. But I was his first, and he was my last. And that meant a lot to the both of us.

The Chivalrous Chauvinist

Earlier this week, I had to travel to Baltimore from Washington, D.C. (about an hour’s drive), where the missus would pick me up later and we would drive back home together. The original plan was for me to take the car, because I had to make it in time for an early appointment. She would reach later via public transportation: a bus, 4 trains and a couple of medium-distance walks.

I vehemently refused and insisted she take the car instead. And I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it, and about the kind of person that made me.

The missus lived in this country three years longer than I did. She came here on her own, with nobody to give advice, or even directions to the university. She found her way to the bus stop, classrooms, local train stations, her evening workplace, apartment for rent and grocery stores. She figured out how to get a social security number, apply for a telephone line, pay bills, write her thesis and go to the laundromat. She found her first job, bought a car to commute and then learned to drive it. All by herself.

At least three people I know came into the country after she did, but we all had her to show us around and teach us the ways of the new world. She taught all of us to drive, open a bank account, and look up the bus schedule online. I came here on a dependent visa because she was the breadwinner with a job.

And now, four years later, I drive us everywhere, but she still knows the best routes to avoid traffic. I fish out my wallet every time we eat or buy, but she is the one who does the taxes and knows the outstanding balance on each credit card. I pick the restaurant, and she’s the one who knows how much sodium goes into each ingredient. (Answer: too much).

I stay home sick, and she juggles work, daycare, feeding-bathing-diapering the little one, laundry, cooking and cleaning – all in a single day.

And yet I find it hard to let her take a bus at 8:30am, switch a few trains, and walk a few blocks in downtown Baltimore in broad daylight. I still can’t figure out if I’m treating her like a Lady, or as a Woman.

There’s a world of difference between the two, and that’s the problem.

Batman No More: A True Story

The room was dark except for the bleak glow from outdoors, sneaking in through the curtains. He knew the room quite well, but had never really observed his surroundings before, especially in this alien light. He had all the time in the world now to take it all in, as he lay waiting in the shadows.

10:09 PM. The clock ticked away on the wall, almost too loud for the absolute silence around it. He could see the faint outlines of the pictures on the wall, the smiling faces in them eerie and unsettling. The people in those pictures intended to be appreciated and adored in the warmth of daylight, not stared at this other-worldly bluish glow. He stared at them for lack of anything else to do with his time. Waiting was his primary objective at this point. Waiting for the right moment. And it was finally here.

He had settled himself into a state of complete relaxation. It was an important part of the wait. Perhaps the most important part. Now he had to practically summon his muscles to wakefulness, but without moving the tiniest bit. It took a while before his body was fully alert and ready to spring on command. The transformation was completely oblivious to his immediate surroundings. It was a valuable skill he had developed all by himself over several hundred nights of training.

The first step was the most dangerous part of the whole plan. The slightest miscalculation would certainly set him back by several valuable hours and possibly put the entire mission at risk. He could not afford to repeat that failure. Pretty soon he would be too old for these missions and he was fully aware of it. If his body didn’t give up first, his family would certainly see to it that he was no longer fit to do this. They never protested what he did, and they never really knew what really happened on the missions. But he could see it in their hearts that they weren’t completely on board with his night-time adventures.

10:23 PM. It was time to set things in motion. Still unmoving, he scanned the room one last time to visualize his escape. He almost had it down to a science – every single step, the angle of his foot-fall, the pressure on his feet. He had memorized the ‘creakiness’ of nearly every floorboard. With extreme caution, he began shifting from his position at a near-glacial pace. His environment was highly sensitive to the slightest change in pressure – something he learned from several failed attempts in the past. Every few seconds he would pause, observe with all his senses on high alert, recalibrate and start moving again. He began sweating from the effort, a new dangerous ingredient in this game.

When he finally broke his left arm free, he began looking for objects he could use to speed up his escape. A cushion! Not the ideal candidate for a switch-and-bait, but he could definitely work with it. After a few tense minutes, his legs were free as well. So far, so good. And now was the time to free his right arm, pinned down in the most impossible manner. This is where the cushion could come in useful. Over the next half hour, he carefully wedged his arm out while replacing it with the cushion. He knew it wouldn’t really compensate for the texture and density of his body, but if he was lucky he just might be able to make a break for it.

After what seemed like an eternity, he was physically free to move about. The next step was quite unlike the first – he had to be quicker than he ever was in his life. With feline skill, he dropped to the floor on all fours without making so much as a soft thud. Brilliant work! He was farther along than he ever got in the last few weeks, but he knew freedom has not been won yet. He slowly stood up, took a silent step towards the door and heard a loud crack.

DAMN! Was this a new floorboard, or one he missed before? How could he have, for all those past months? He waited for the inevitable shrill, painful sound of failure, but it never came. The clock ticked on incessantly. The night was still his, after all. He cautiously stepped towards the door, careful not to repeat his last mistake. Or any of his mistakes from the past few weeks. It was like a deadly version of a lab experiment with a mouse in a maze. The mouse would make it out this time. He owed it to himself.

The thought of liberty was too distracting to the task at hand. He forced himself to concentrate, carefully edged his way across the room and finally reached the door. He put his hand around the knob and turned around one last time before he left, to look at the only other occupant in the room. His captor.

The sweat on his skin cooled off rapidly, perhaps from the temperature outside, or from the rush of adrenaline. He felt lighter with each step as he made his way downstairs, still trying to avoid making a sound. He could now afford the luxury of carelessness. He had planted a bug in the room, and he held the listening device. He finally reached the place he was trying to find for weeks. And sitting there in plain sight was the disk. He smiled at how light it felt in his hand, and how he nearly broke his back trying to get a hold of it. Breathing freely now, he first got himself a drink of water, popped the disk into a player and turned on the listening device for his bug. Silence.

11:17 PM. He knew the mission was a failure even before it began: the listening device cracked to life just as the words “Batman: Arkham City” appeared on the screen. A shriek pierced through the night, paralyzing his body and mind. WAAAAHH!! He turned off the baby monitor, switched off his Xbox, and silently walked up the stairs with a bottle of milk. Not tonight, Batman.