The eternal desi dilemma

We came here proclaiming we were not here to stay forever, that we would return and repay the debt we owed our families, our society, our country. Our sense of responsibility towards our roots seemed to magnify manifold when we were far away from them. We promised ourselves that we would not stay beyond a certain point in our lives – it could be when we had made a certain amount of money, or our kids reached a certain milestone, or our parents back home were of a certain age.

When people gave us examples of other desis who also resolved to leave before their oldest child started school (so the kids could have an “Indian” upbringing) and how said kids are in college now and they are still very much here – we thought proudly to ourselves that we could never be one of those people. We were way more determined than those people, we knew our priorities, knew what we wanted from our lives. Until we didn’t.

Time passed by and we started getting comfortable. Started enjoying the nice things our new country of residence had to offer – more space, bigger homes, less smog, endless opportunities to indulge ourselves in a world of materialistic pleasures. The list goes on and on.

We constantly make comparisons with our country of origin. We keep telling ourselves that we should stay for the sake of our children. For their better future and well-being. We even give up on the idea of an Indian upbringing. It matters less and less each day that our children do not speak the language we do. They proudly declare who their favorite (US) president is but do not have the slightest idea who was the frail looking old man with a stick and no shirt on whom we called Bapu. Things that matter so much to us, would not mean anything to them. And that would be alright by us. These are the sacrifices we would make for the success of our children. All of these reasons we give others, and ourselves, are completely valid reasons, but they are definitely not the only reasons we want to stay. The complete truth is that we would miss the life of convenience. The idea of waiting in long lines to get our driver’s license renewed, spending insane amount of time stuck in traffic while commuting to and from work, getting home at unearthly hours long after the kids are tucked in for the night scares us now that we know that we have other options.

On the other hand, we hate the feeling of not belonging where we live. And we also know that even if they grow up here, our kids will never belong either. We constantly worry about our folks back home. Phone calls at odd hours from a number with a different international code scare the bejesus out of us. We miss celebrating festivals with our families. We ache for the colors, sounds and smells of a place we once called home. So we start fighting the battle with ourselves. Trying to make the decision that we thought we had made long ago. It is not an easy one to make, we get that now. Definitely not easy to uproot ourselves from a place that has become home in its own way, a place that is the only home our children know,  and make a new home somewhere else. But we need to accept that we cannot have the best of both the worlds. The decision must be made before it is too late, and either way, we must learn to be happy with it and make the best of it.

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Letter to my firstborn

You are the one who first gave me the title of ‘Mommy’. You introduced me to fears I did not know existed within me, the strength I never thought I had. For you, I could do things I would never imagine doing for anyone else (and I’m not just talking about changing smelly diapers here). You were the be all and end all of my life. So much so that when I found out that you were going to have a sibling, I was afraid I would never be able to love anyone as much as I love you. You were you after all, no one else could come close.

Until it happened one day, when the baby came into our lives. We all adored the tiny hands and feet. We loved playfully competing for his attention, trying to make him smile as he grew everyday. Our little world was changed forever. Your little world was changed more than anyone else’s. Your face, your hands, your feet suddenly seemed bigger. You grew up in a matter of hours. Or so it seemed at the time. What we expected from you changed too. Suddenly it felt like you should know better. You were the big boy after all.

My patience started to grow thin. After all, my life had also been shaken from its comfortable, mundane ritual of living each day exactly the same as the previous one. Caring for a newborn took precedence over a five-year old’s requests to play hide and seek. I don’t think I can ever forget the look on your face that day when I was at the end of my rope and yelled at you to stop bothering me and go find something to play. A few months ago, you would have stomped your feet and cried buckets of tears. That day, you just hung your head down and left the room. It was like you had given up on me. I can never think of that look on your face without my heart breaking into a million little pieces.

Every day I woke up with a fresh resolve – to be a better mother to you, to spend more time with you, to just listen to what you had to say without any rush. Some days were good, some not so. It has been an emotional roller-coaster ride, the last few months. Sometimes I feel like you have handled it better than I have. So far, you have not shown an iota of jealousy towards your little brother. You love him, he loves you, it shows in the way you both interact with each other.

The question in my mind is – do you still trust me like you did before? Or do you now look at me as a fault-finding, badgering, no-fun-to-be-around parent? People say kids are much more resilient than we give them credit for. Maybe it is true. Maybe I am beating myself too much for not being who I used to be with you anymore. Maybe a few months down the road, you will not even remember the pain in the neck I used to be. Or maybe in my sleep-deprived, confused state of mind driven by strange hormones, I have changed the dynamics of our relationship forever (hopefully not).

There is one thing that I am sure of though. You are and will be my best little buddy forever. In your own special way. Just like your little brother is too (like you say – “it doesn’t always have to be a race”). I just hope you will forgive me for not sticking up for you, for not being the best listener always, for not giving you as much time as I used to and for being the tantrum-throwing adult sometimes. Thank you for being patient with me and still loving me at times when I don’t even like myself. Slowly but surely, we will find a new normal again.

To Bauji

Bauji and Vivaan

He is the only grandfather I knew, and the only great-grandfather my son will ever have the honour of knowing.

He is no longer with us physically, but he will always be with us.

He passed away 85 days ago and it is still hard for me to refer to him in past tense. I hear his resonant laughter in my head so many times, feel his hand patting my head. Sometimes I want to just call and ask to talk to him, hoping that if I just ask for it and pretend he never left us, all the events will reverse themselves and he will be here.

I am still grieving, and always will, because how can you ever get over the loss of a lifetime of love?

This picture was taken in April of 2008, just a couple of months before we moved to Indianapolis. Our little guy was barely 3 months old and I wanted to visit my grandparents so that they could see him and he could meet them before the move. The moment when this picture was taken is still clear in my mind as yesterday. Bauji was singing Vivaan a lullaby. He used to sing with all his heart, everything in him – all the pain, all the happiness, pouring out in his words. I was watching them. And before he could even finish, I had to leave the room, too overcome by the rock in my throat. “Why are you going away from this?”, I thought to myself. “Can you imagine how many such moments you are going to miss? What if you never see them again?”.

But then reason prevailed, and I convinced myself that Bauji would not leave us anytime soon. He was after all healthy and active and still working more than I did, at his 74 years of age. Before I knew it, we would be back and then we would have all the time in the world to be with our families. Unfortunately, he could not wait long enough for that to happen.

There are a lot of things one feels when one loses a close family member. Disbelief and denial – I spent the first night when we found out, telling myself that this could not have happened. That this was a big mistake or a really bad dream that will be over soon. Anger – at him, for ignoring the signs his body must have given him, but more at myself for not being there to stop this from happening. Regret – for not being there for my mom and my grandma and the whole family. Gratitude – that it was sudden and he did not suffer a lot, and that he was home with his loved ones and not travelling alone (something he did frequently for business and for his social pursuits). Gratitude, for a husband and a five-year old who wept with me when they found out, and for a strong grandmother who is always worried more about my well-being than her own loss and sorrow. Gratitude also for being a part of Bauji’s life and his family. I couldn’t have asked for more.

Most of all, I feel hope, that all the talk about the afterlife is true, and I will hear that laughter again on the other side, one day.

Homage to a great lady

Big Naani (12 Apr 1929 – 15 Jan 2012)

Her grandsons teased her by addressing her by her first name Santosh ji. My son calls her Badi Naani (big grandma) because she is his great grandmother. I have known her since last 9 years or so, ever since I have known Chetan, and she is one of the youngest 82 year olds I have ever known.

She has always been particularly fond of Chetan and Chetan is so much like her that it makes you think he is her son and not her grandson. From the way he sticks his tongue out while concentrating on something, to being a cleanliness freak and a perfectionist in everything he does.

Ever since we moved away from India, one of my biggest fears has been that something wrong might happen to one of our loved ones in our absence and we might not be able to make it back in time. That fear became reality today. Santosh ji left us after suffering a major stroke a couple of days ago. But it seems like she had it planned all along.

As soon as we reached India for our 5 week visit in Nov-Dec last year, she fell really sick and had to be brought to Delhi for treatment and to stay at home till she got better. We went to pick her up from her home town about 10 hours drive from Delhi. We all went. She was in a hospital, unable to comprehend a lot of stuff, even unable to recognize some people she used to meet every day. Still she was concerned about whether there was enough food for us at her home. She still smiled and shook her head when she saw I was wearing jeans and not a traditional dress with enough jewelry. These are the things we all love about her and will miss beyond words.

There is comfort in the fact that we got to spend time with her before this happened. That her great grandson got to know her and she got to see him. That she did not suffer and departed gracefully.

Her husband, Chetan’s grandfather, passed away about 20 years ago. I have always heard her talk about Chowdhary Saab (that’s how she addressed him) with great nostalgia and admiration. I hope she will get to meet him and be with him soon. Free from the limitations and pains of an aging body. Young like she has always been.

Rest in peace Santosh ji. You will always be missed.

What’s in the color

My little boy is getting bigger. He is almost four but sometimes the things he says make me stop in my tracks and wonder if I should start taking him more seriously and treat him like an older kid.

Just the other day, I told him that a friend of mine would be visiting us for dinner. His first question was: “Is your friend like this (touching my face) or like this (touching his own face)?”. The question came as a little surprise to me because he has never asked anything like this before. So this is how the conversation went.

Me: Are you trying to ask if my friend is a boy or a girl?
Viv: No! I’m asking if she is like this or like this (repeating the gesture).
Me: What do you mean by that?
Viv: I’m talking about color.
Me (thinking WHAT THE !?@! and trying to come up with the right answer): It doesn’t matter what color she is, because everyone is the same from the inside.
Viv: But I’m talking about her face!

Luckily for me, he got distracted by something else because I would have hated to answer that question. For some reason, I find it hard to use colors to describe people. It is just weird calling someone white or black or brown. I would rather use nationality or race because I think using skin color to identify someone undermines everything else that they are and brings the focus on just one thing – the color of their skin.

Anyway, just a day later, we had to visit another friend and I was telling him about it when he asked “does your friend speak Hindi?”. Chetan and I gave each other a WOW look, sharing the same feeling, that our little boy is growing up. Maybe, after this recent trip to India, he has realized that the people around him are diverse, that he is different from others, or that his parents are different from others (hence the question: is she like you or like me!).

Whatever it is that goes through his head, it is probably the start of a confusing, but interesting journey for him. In the meantime, we can take comfort in the fact that it is still a while before he will start getting embarrassed by his parents’ accent, and enjoy every moment of growing up with him!