Saturday, July 20, 2013

The Story of Me

It was not exactly the easy or the usual way I came into this world and so I thought I’d tell you a story about how it happened. Here we go.

I am the only child of my parents; a very precious child, born thirteen years after they got married. My mother has repeated the story of my birth to me and to unbelieving friends and family who gape at her, mouth hanging open, eyebrows shooting up in amazement, bordering onto disbelief, numerous times, but I never mind. I love listening to her, savouring the pride in her voice as she tells people she gave birth to a “normal” child at the age of forty seven.

My parents were trying to have a baby for years after they got married, but nothing happened, absolutely nothing. Tests were performed, on both my parents and it turned out my mother had a cyst in one of her fallopian tubes. Doctors said it was still possible for my mother to get pregnant despite the cyst, but when nothing happened for the longest time, doctors suggested a surgery to remove the cyst. My mother underwent the surgery, which lasted hours, but still, nothing.

Being devout Catholics, my parents fasted and prayed, went to churches and chapels and even went as far as France to a place of pilgrimage called Lourdes, dedicated to the Virgin Mary. There my parents made a promise to Mary, (It had to be Mary and no one else- Mary the giver of life, Mary from whose womb Jesus came), if they had a child, preferably a girl, they would bring her back with them the next time. My mother also promised the Virgin that if she had a girl she would name her Bernadette Lourdes, after the girl who sighted the Virgin Mary numerous times in that little village of Lourdes.

Eight years after the surgery, my parents who were still trying, finally gave up (it’s hard to believe them giving up, but I guess they were just tired) and decided to adopt a baby. The pair of them went to an orphanage and fell in love with a little baby girl who had a terrible rash all over her body. The baby took an immediate fancy to my father and was soon at home in his lap, dipping her hand into his shirt pocket and pulling out his glasses. It was decided, this little baby covered in rash and who had taken a fancy to my fathers reading glasses would be their daughter.

A lawyer was hired to get the adoption process going and on the day my parents were supposed to meet the lawyer my mother fell terribly ill. The appointment with the lawyer was postponed and my father suggested they go to a doctor instead. My mother being phobic of doctors decided they wait for a few days. But instead of getting better she got worse. It was Christmas time and relatives were over, pots of food were bubbling over the stove, the house was buzzing with uncles and aunts and in one corner of the house my mother was huddled over a toilet retching into it claiming she couldn't stand the smell of chicken anymore. By this point she was convinced she was terminally ill and was going to die.

Finally when she progressively got worse by the day, my father dragged her to a doctor, kicking and screaming. The doctor felt my mothers pulse and proclaimed she was pregnant! My father’s first reaction was “Doctor, please don’t joke”, but he wasn't, a quick urine test then and there confirmed I was finally on my way! And just like that, my mother’s womb came to life.

But that’s when my parents’ real challenge began, no gynecologist wanted to touch my mother when they found out how old she was. Desperate to be seen by a doctor, my mother ended up at a quack who unsuccessfully tried to perform an abortion on her, my mother realised something was wrong and fled the moment she got her feet back on the ground. Each time they went to a doctor they heard the same set of words again and again and again: “deformed”, “abnormal”, and “have an abortion”. My father finally snapped at one doctor “Are you a doctor or a criminal?”

In her fourth month my mother developed a bad case of mumps, her face swelled up to twice its size and she couldn’t eat anything and that’s when I began kicking. In her last hope she went to a nursing home and met a gynecologist whose first reaction to her was “You’re forty seven, four months pregnant and have mumps?” I’ll take you on, but I can’t guarantee anything”.

It was during the last few weeks of her pregnancy that my mother had a dream, she dreamt of a lady with a blue veil covering her face and a baby in her arms, she gave the baby to my mother and said “This is your daughter, name her Mary Theresa”. My mother woke up and discussed the dream with her mother, who suggested Ann be added after the Mary since it was a family tradition of sorts and so it was decided. Sorry Bernadette Lourdes, but it’s going to have to be Maryann Theresa. She hadn't even thought of a boy’s name, that how confident my mother was. She was used to having her way, even with the Gods, it would have to be a girl and nothing else would do.

A lot of drama preceded my birth. My mother who was convinced she would have the baby any minute now, dragged my grandmother into a crowded bus, suitcase in tow, to get to the nursing home. A few minutes into the journey and after they realised they were on the wrong bus, my seventy one year old grandmother and nine months pregnant mother jumped off the bus at the next traffic signal and walked the rest of the way to the nursing home.In the meanwhile my father, who had gone searching for a taxi came home and was bewildered to find that his fully pregnant wife had disappeared, but not before having swept and mopped the entire house.

Early on a Tuesday morning on August the 7th my mother was wheeled into the operation theatre; before she went in she nervously told my father “If I have a boy and I die, name him Anthony” (Tuesday being St. Anthony’s day). But I beat Anthony to it, I was born at 7:15 am, cheeks as red and round as plums (just like the baby in my dream, my mother exclaimed) and ten fingers and ten toes in place, a “normal” little baby girl, just what my mother wanted. The doctors proclaimed me a “miracle” and my overjoyed father proceeded to distribute sweets to all the doctors and nurses. Sorry little baby girl with rash, lover of my fathers spectacles and sorry Anthony, baby boy never to be, but I guess it was always meant to be me.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Of Poetry and Prose and the Pain it Comes From

Collected short stories by Manto

I have only very recently become acquainted with the works of Saadat Hasan Manto and Shiv Kumar Batalvi and I regret not having discovered them earlier. For those who may not be familiar, Manto was an extremely prolific Urdu short story writer, famous for his writings on partition and its aftermath and Batalvi, a famous Punjabi poet, known for his passionate poetry on love, longing and loss. While reading both Manto and Batalvi, what struck me were the similar experiences of both men, even though they were each lamented by two completely different aches; Manto mourning a nation broken into two and Batalvi nursing a broken heart. 

Both men wrote about completely different matters, but highlighting the same pathos and pain. Manto chose the medium of the short story to convey his grief about the rabid hatred and bestiality that had taken over people during partition. A landmark moment in history, brimming with hope and promise, where a new nation had been carved out of India to create a safe homeland for Indian Muslims, was marred by violence, rioting, looting, killing and rape. In Manto’s writing one can identify a sense of detachment where you almost feel that he’s laughing at the madness and absurdity of it all. I think it was the confusion and later the pain of being identified as a “Muslim” in post Partition India which drove Manto to write powerful satires, brimming with dark humour, such as Toba Tek Singh and The Dog of Titwal, which are still widely read and quoted till this day. His writing, especially towards the end was a portrayal of prevailing social conditions and his own financial difficulties. 

Reading Manto, there are times I want to close the book and cry, just cry noisy and remorseful tears for what happened after a line was drawn across a map in the summer of 1947.

By early 1948 Manto had moved to Lahore from Bombay. He was by then a popular film writer, who was making good money and many of his friends, who were also popular film actors tried to stop him from migrating. By then Manto had already sent his family to Lahore and was keen to join the. Upon reaching Lahore, Manto discovered that the film industry in the city was pretty much non-existent, since most Hindu film makers and studio owners had left for India. Racked by financial troubles and the responsibility of a family, he started writing articles for newspapers and eventually took to drinking excessively, which led to his death by liver cirrhosis in 1955. He was 42 at the time of his death.

Shiv Kumar Batalvi (Photo credit: Wikipedia Commons)

Shiv Kumar Batalvi is one of the most popular modern Punjabi poets whose work is appreciated on both sides of the border. Batalvi was pained by the fact that he could not marry the girl he was in love with and turned to alcohol for comfort. He eventually married a girl his parents chose for him, but only because she bore a striking resemblance to his lost love. It was during this period of longing for his lost love that Batalvi wrote some of his most celebrated works, including the famous "Ajj Din Chhadeya Tere Rang Varga", which has been adapted as a popular song in the Bollywood film Love Aaj Kal. Batalvi too eventually developed liver cirrhosis due to excessive drinking and succumbed to it in 1973 at the age of 36. 

At this point I would like to clarify that I do not speak or understand Punjabi and my exposure to Batalvi has solely been through English translation, which I understand is not the “real thing”. Though the beautiful thing about Batalvi’s writing, is that his anguish about his lost love transcends the borders of language and is hence not entirely lost in translation. Such is the magic he wove through his words, which is true for Manto as well. 

I may have chosen to write about both Manto and Batalvi a little too early, since I’m only just discovering them and this post may not have done complete justice to their craft, but let that not stop you from discovering these two greats. 

Monday, July 15, 2013

30's Girl

Last week my mother sent me a bag full of stuff I had left behind at home and in it I found this. The massive dial of a really, really old wristwatch (given to me by a cousin) and which I wore all throughout college. I loved the watch because a) It had Clark Gable all over it, b) Was different from  regular watches, c) And in most cases was a great conversation starter. The strap is all mouldy which I have pulled off and was wondering what I could do with it, considering I don't want it to be lying at the bottom of the bag forever. Any cool ideas? 

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Bangkok: Trying to Tell the Ladies from the Boys

It was the last week of June and the husband and I got on a plane (got upgraded to business class) and went on holiday to Thailand. I was enormously excited about Thailand because I have NEVER been to South East Asia before. I can imagine you looking at me with raised eyebrows and exclaiming “Never, really?” So yes, even thought the Far East has always been a popular holiday choice for a lot of Indian travellers (being closer, cheaper than other destinations, ease of getting visas etc), I have really never been to South East Asia before. Even though I’ve had the good fortune of extensive world travel (perks of my father’s airline job), the Far East never made it on our itinerary, because the airline my father worked with was based out of London and so Europe, North America and even Africa were places we travelled to most.

Back to Thailand and oh my goodness I love Bangkok! The city is relatively clean (most of it, though some bits were really, really squalid) and shiny and fast paced, the air conditioning cooler, the trains faster, the malls bigger and the shorts girls wore shorter. We were staying in a neat little service apartment (in what I would like to believe was in downtown Bangkok), with a lovely little balcony, right on the top floor, which was perfect for sitting and watching fat, grey clouds hurriedly crowd over the city’s skyline.

It would drizzle on and off and the air was heavy with humidity and the pungent aromas of Thai street food. Talking about food, there was all kinds of it- from fish balls to some dodgy looking bits of meat, to chicken bum. Food was everywhere, from crowded streets thronging with people, to noisy food courts in malls, to lovely restaurants serving some of the best Sushi and Pad Thai I have ever eaten, which made me realise why Thailand is a food lover’s wet dream come true (I’m sorry, but the city’s sleaze had begun to rub off on me).  Sleaze was everywhere too, provided you knew where to look and frankly we didn’t! What I also saw, were a lot of older white men with younger Thai women and even older white men with younger Thai guys. Whatever makes you happy and which is also what I loved about Bangkok, there’s a lot of acceptance in this city. Women (a lot of who own and run businesses in the city) are respected. Even the lady boys, whom we sighted frequently, seem to be well accepted by society and the best part, nobody was leering at girls (coming from Delhi, you can imagine how much of a relief that must’ve been).

We did the usual tourist-y things, took a lot of pictures (I discovered Instagram over this holiday and it is FANTASTIC), rode the sky train, shopped (oh my goodness so many pretty things!), got onto a boat and wandered into the Wat Pho temple (the reclining Buddha temple) by complete accident and which was lovely and completely worth the 100 baht per person we paid to get in. This was also my first visit to a Buddhist temple and I could have stayed there for hours. In front of an enormous golden statue of a heavy lidded Buddha there was a board which said we must pray to the Buddha for success and prosperity, which was odd considering here was a man who abandoned it all. But I prayed for peace and for love and I’m sure the Buddha would approve of that.

(Look out for my post on Phuket later)