the Void

The first book of Murakami I read probably 10 years back was the “wind up bird chronicles”. It was a bizarre ride! Now that I look back, after reading few more of his other books over the years, wasn’t unusual at all.

It is hard to say that he is an all-time favorite author, because I pick his books only when I am sailing in calmer waters after turbulent storms ( its a metaphor, clarifying just in case ). His motifs, if you have read his books, often center wistful protagonists, who have lost or are about to lose something significant; they have surreal encounters of parallel worlds, they dive in lots of classical and jazz melodies, some incomplete sexual encounters and eventually it all comes trickling down; And more often than not, the ending is abrupt, leaving you in the same void the beginning of the book was.

As I get older, I am probably digging deeper into his writing and finding meanings and warming up even more to the weird worlds that are similar and different from the ones we inhabit. But that void, we are all creating and filling constantly, is ever present and to me it seems like thats the only thing Murkami is trying hard to make us see with all his rehashed novels. Or rather that is my take away from his writing!

It is ok if you don’t get it or want to nor ever will; As a 15 year old, I wondered what¬† depth is it that my father found in Gulam ali gazals. The cassettes had filled his car and now in reminiscence, the lyrics spoke of a loss and the songs stemmed from that void.

Because if you see, we are all always losing something or trying to, some of us more than others, and we are constantly striving to fill up that space. Shedding something for a better something or learning to pick up after a known or unexpected loss.

So here I am, in a space I can’t put in a compartment; my mother used to call it “aala kanda samudram”. She would be almost embarrassed at my over-enthusiasm. As a child and teenager, I had so little control over my excitement when surrounded with family and friends I loved; I made up for all the hours spent playing alone with imaginary friends, by totally pandering at a house filled with kids and older cousins. It was like I was on espresso shots the entire time, to fill the voids.

But a few years into adulthood, I learnt to contain it and accept the voids and in many ways even embrace it. But i sporadically fall back; I ramble, I express too many thoughts about favorite topics without a filter or jump topics and it sucks me into that space where I knew I was embarrassing my parents, but I didn’t have control. While I dont do it in person anymore; my online persona resurrects every now and then. Hopefully not a case in point, because blogposts are spaces to ramble, may be? ūüôā

And just like that everytime I realize, i have said or expressed more than my share, which is not so often, I must admit; I retreat. I pick a Murakami. The idiosyncrasies of his protagonist’s experiences start making sense and make mine look less trivial. I slowly spin the cocoon and weave a safety net for my expressions and experiences and thus hack away at the void that needs no filling.

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Weddings – the long and short of it

When you are a single child in a nuclear family, a lot of things are different and some you don’t realise until much later in life. The foremost thing is, you are in the company of adults way more than other kids around you. And that also means you are privy to a lot of adult conversations much earlier on.

Now don’t quote me here, because i clearly have no idea what it means to grow up with a sibling; and in my head, I imagine my parents might have likely said “D, go play with your sister” instead of letting me sit with the uncles and aunts, on all those balmy evenings in the backyard, when anecdotes and yesteryear stories would pour to lots of laughter, way into the night. It was by being a wallflower to many such wonderful conversations that I learnt about my utilitarian grand uncle who was a freedom fighter, of my aunt who had had enough of cops inquiring and declared her husband missing, my mama who blasted a man asking for directions at the tajamahal for being a guide; and of exactly many such absurd tales of yonder, i still quote and laugh with my parents, recalling them.

The stories flowed even when we didn’t have guests. And by the time I was in my early teens, i had heard and reheard, so much about my parents lives, it was comforting and discomfiting. Because now you start having opinions and they would prefer that you don’t.

Of one such is the tale of their wedding, which was dubbed “Paara-kalyanam” ( rock-wedding) in the family circles. I remember my mother saying it with a tinge of regret, but as the years rolled, it gave way to pride. To explain what it meant — my parents were married in Kanyakumari ( hence the paara meaning rock literally ). But it was added to figuratively mean “of no value”, jocularly.

Their wedding was expected to be a grandiose event, with every ritual followed to the T. And hence relatives had flown in all the way from America, entire families with kids ( In the 70s, i am sure this was a bigger deal ), to watch it unfold. But thanks to my dad, who had floored his father-in-law with his principles of keeping it simple; the wedding had been a very short affair, lasting about an hour and my mother didn’t even get to wear the ‘madisaar’ ( traditional 9 yard saree ). Since their handful of black and white pictures dont give away much, that even as i type this, I imagine everyone perched on a Rock in the sweltering heat, wondering why they had taken a 24 hour flight for something that lasted an hour! Or atleast that’s how the story was retold to me.

It was a source of inspiration for me, I must admit and I often declared to nobody in particular that I would only agree to a register marriage ( because kids must always one-up their parents , right? ), if I ever married that is. Well, life had other plans ( you can read about it here) and to put it lightly – I realised, I wasnt as verbose as my dad when it came to convincing the partner’s parents and didn’t belong to the right gender, when it came to having strong opinions that were readily heard. And hence it was a grand affair nonetheless; as if an antidote to my parents’.

My inlaws had planned and executed the wedding completely on their own, yet keeping in mind how to make every event well represented, so that the bride and groom’s sides were equally happy to participate; and it had turned out to the scale of something my side of the family had never witnessed before ( almost 2000 people, live streaming TVs, 4 days of grand feasts ). And just like that the “paara-kalyanam” had retreated into oblivion. My dad, being the eternal optimist, I may never really find out if he felt he was cornered to betray his “keeping it simple” principle!

These tales and events had come flooding back to me, over the last few weeks, when I was forced to close my twitter feeds for days, to stay away from celebrity wedding news, that had overwhelmed me and disinterested me to no end. Not that I care what they do with their money, I was just recoiled into the hard realization that, the more India opened up to accepting cultures and religions to blend into nuptials, the grander the weddings have gotten. My own wedding being a case in point. Or probably, just my ignorance that this has been steadily happening forever! And also may be, because, I had not given up the Utopian idea of that “alaipayuthe” style “register marriage”, in the presence of parents.

As we almost near the 11 year mark, and nearly 13 years of knowing each other; my MIL still quips and tears up at the same time, remembering it as the first day her son held my hand during the “love-but-mostly-arranged” wedding. My reactions have changed over the years from eye-roll to awkward smiles to now scheming if I should add those perfect oxymoron lines as the ending, if and when I narrate our tales to my kids!!

Places, people and everything thereof

A good ten years back, right after our wedding, N and I spent a few days in Chennai; hopping from one restaurant to another. I always had some anecdotes to tell him at every place. But somehow, the “corn florentine” at Eden fell flat and mainland china had taken forever to bring our order. Finally when we got a breather at besi beach, he had quipped that the only experience he was going to get at the end of this was a tummy ache.

Those days my parents lived in the building right next to amma-naana by the boat club road. And one late afternoon, I braved to cross that notorious junction by myself and walked to Anokhi. I was doing it completely wrong i realised. I was trying to resurrect my memories of Chennai with N in it, but there was no place for him there really. It was just me. I soaked it all in, one last time and left a piece of me behind in that sweltering city that gave me lots of good times in my four year stint.

That is the thing about places. Its a time capsule. a parallel universe if you may, of people who inhabit it during that time and whoosh just like that the magic cant be recreated.

Because that is how I am sure we will remember our recent vacation to Greece too. How four families, who have been friends for nearly 11 years now, made a laboriously planned vacation happen, with 7 kids nevertheless. Of not only loving each other’s company, but accepting our idiosyncrasies too. Because, if not for the latter, the world would be devoid of intimacies!

In a few years I am sure the little moments will outlive the absolute scenic beauty of our trip that the pictures will tell. They come wrapped in unexpected ways. In the relief I felt knowing, A had a nearly unending supply of theplas I could depend on to feed my kids when I wanted. When someone else could wander away with my little one, in his tantrums while I catch my senses. Of finally mastering the cycle-floating in the swimming pool, thanks to A who taught it to me like a song. The smirk i wear recalling how G is always hungry even after a full meal! How the word “laundry” had turned into a comedy or errors we are sure to retell for years..Of chuckling in the irony of after months of mind-numbing planning and we had to scramble a last minute plan due to ferry-boat-worker strikes on the very same day as our booking ! Of how N revised greece history books, even on the flight back.. And in the unbridled laughter we shared shopping till 2 am in the labyrinths of Mykonos.

And definitely many more that have little to do with Greece but more with comradeship that gets harder to find as we get older. I am but glad, we made that little mark in a time and space, that can span atleast another generation, when our little ones will recall how their parents braved a long journey to celebrate the bonds they have made. Because what good are places without people, and what good are we without friends to call our own!

The stories the pictures don’t tell

Today evening I watched that crimson sunset from our tiny balcony; the perfect orange sun descending in a rush to the depths of the blue sea. It almost brought tears to my eyes. I was so rapt in the moment that a toddler in tow and the five year old asking one question after another, didn’t seem to distract me.

And just like that as the sun vanished, I snapped to reality. We made the restroom breaks and we were off to find a fruit platter to soothe their tummies before the hunger crankiness sets in!

The moments of getting lost in the beauty of this place and finally getting a minute to soak it in have been far removed and in-between. And I have been reminded umpteen times less by my own volition and more by my surroundings that this land or rather the Cyclades are not forgiving of kids being kids.

It comes in gentle incessant reminders at stores to watch them, or someone telling us that kids have a separate pool away from the unwritten “quiet” zone of the bigger pool. Or at the icecream place, where we were asked to take paper cups to-go and not sit there, since ceramics weren’t safe with the kids.

Mind you the positives are aplenty too! The food is fantastic. I can’t think of one bad experience so far. The little coffee and breakfast place in Santorini run by the sweetest lady who made wonderful omelettes and was extremely patient as our children rearranged all her decor. And the weather, is a tease. The equilibrium is so unfair, because of how consistent it is!

But in all, it is already hard to term a vacation with little children “relaxing” and when it is further taxed with having to ask them to “keep it down” because their presence and voices and antics are detrimental to the reputation of this destination, it can wear you down pretty fast.

I say this because not all parents want to camp or make annual Disney trips. It should be conducive or atleast accepting that kids live in the same world as adults. And a toddler throwing a tantrum in the middle of the road shouldn’t make the parent want to cry in ignominy.

My boys have been amazing. They have complained so little and rarely with all the time zone changes, early wakings, packing repacking, bus, ferry, train and hours of walking. But still they have born the brunt of the pressure we have felt at many times that their discipline has failed to match the expectation of this place!

As i hear their gentle snores next to me while they are getting a much needed rest from a long day in the sun, I make a mental note to make tomorrow easier for them and for me. That helping them live in an adult’s world of embracing boredom is important. And so is learning to accept their ubiquity and varied personalities !!

The tragedy of oedipus

I awoke from a deep nap; the one on a moving vehicle that is neither relaxing nor disturbing. As I pulled my toddler closer and patted him back to sleep, I noticed the landscape outside and realized it was nothing like the labyrinths of Athens that we had experienced a day ago. We were in a bus to Delphi and the blue water and green mountains simmering in the golden sun seemed surreal.

The landscape washed over me but not without an aura of sadness, something I felt touched everything in Greece I have seen so far. There was a burden, a pallor that I noticed in her people, on the streets, in the glory they clung to, in the resurrection of archeological marvels, in the remains of a economic downturn, almost like a curse that has taken thousands of years and still hasn’t lifted.

The guide had a mellifluous voice and it paired perfectly with my still subconscious state. I was drawn into her story. Like most legends of Greece, this one too ends in a tragedy. Of an ill fated marriage of mother and son, unable to escape a terrible prophecy and hands of fate. A moral we have often heard but in optimism. “Thalela ezuthu ” as my mother would say. What is destined for you cannot be changed.

But the Greek legend had floored me. They were masters of tragedy indeed. They couldn’t have said this moral in a more tragic and dramatic way!

My thoughts raced to the acropolis museum we had been to yesterday and the exorbitant check we had paid for our lunch there. But mainly how underwhelmed the archeological remains of the Parthenon had made me feel. A magic that the history-tellers and touristy places in Italy had so easily spun, completely failed here. The ruins had a shroud that was hard to shake off. Almost like the country couldn’t break out of the concoction that is ” history” told in terms of gods and mortals and not knowing when one is not the other!

The guide was starting to talk about yet another legend of Zeus and how the sanctuary of Apollo had come about. I decided that the only Greek god or demi god I was currently inclined to dream of was brad Pitt in Troy. I zoned out and decided to get lost in the surroundings of the mountains and valleys that had by now engulfed my every view !

The unspoken Slack

NOTE: Written almost 4 years ago. Never published it then.
I had a severe bout of imposter-syndrome, not-doing-enough and waking up everyday with the “i-missed-the-train” feeling for over a month. Somehow this post i never published helped me recoup. And i felt it is something i should share, since it is one of those thing that is not mentioned enough times!!
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To All you slacking young-parents

My husband was laid off today. It was a surprise when only recently his annual review had gone well and he was entitled to a lump sum bonus, which he will still receive, along with a nearly comfortable period of compensation. My husband was always on the call of duty and gave 100% to his work. Even with fatherhood throwing some stressful challenges during the third month of my son’s nursing strike, when getting a few ounces of milk into him just to make sure he survives was a battle. He juggled work, part time MBA and fatherhood at that time. And not to forget be supportive to his wife who was undergoing severe breakdowns from mothering-nursing challenges and encouraging her to keep her job and look for new opportunities, instead of buckling down under pressure.

What was in fact not the surprise was my husband was ONLY giving 100% to his work during this period. the remaining 100% that is expected out of you was given to his family. So when he must have been weighed against a highly performing group which was giving 200% to their work compared to him, he was a logical choice.

In my 7 years of employment in 3 different companies so far, I have watched and learned this trend especially in this competitive economy. The first company my husband and I worked for 4 and 5 years respectively was a medium sized startup. The 2008-2009 time when many were losing jobs and the NYC stock exchange was slumping like never before, our company was in a sweet spot since we were making technology that was in line with the emerging market of data phone usage.

My husband and I had only a mortgage we were committed to. And we were working nearly 70 hour weeks and giving the 200% that is expected. You are always expected to over-perform to keep your job. We also over-performed, because we loved our job and there was nothing else that was pressing for our attention in those years. It helped us keep focus. We rose ladders pretty fast we well!

By the time we inched to 2010, the company’s visions were shifting or lacking and what could have been was starting to look bleak. During these years, we made many good friends and worked with many different colleagues. There were mothers who were spending more time pumping than in front of their PCs. There were pregnant women who were giving 100% but rushing back home in evenings to pick up their older kids from day care. There were dads who had to WFH because their kids were sick and werent available to answer questions I had for them immediately.

I should have made a mental note of these things back then, as a phase of young parenting, but it all comes back to me only now. When the first round of layoffs were announced, the ones giving 100% and a few under-performers were on the list. Back then to me, as the one slogging hours in the lab and continuing to work from home, the mother who completed her tasks on time, but rushed out at 3 pm to pick her son, came across as a slacker to me.

Things began to change soon after. The company was treading towards maintenance mode and work was starting to enter lackadaisical mode. And my husband and I feared the all eggs in one basket situation for us with regards to immigration and I made a jump to a big corporate, while my husband began his part-time MBA.

When I announced that I was resigning, lots of efforts were made to make me stay. There was a minimal financial compensation that was promised and given. There was a different array of projects that I was told I could head or work closely on. It actually felt great that my work was valued, but the decision was made to not wait till the company closed its doors and threw us all out and we are hanging in limbo without a stable work visa.

It was probably the last time I was ever valued so much for my work.

The first few months in the corporate went well, I was learning new things. The 40 mile drive was brutal. But i managed. And very soon, as this particular corporate is notorious for, a strange bureaucracy set in. There was restructuring, projects came and went. Projects worked on were randomly shelved. It was any employee’s nightmare. There was a general lack of morale. It didnt matter if you worked 200% or 100%. Many times it was even tough to find the opportunity to work 200%. There was work, there was angst that deliveries were not going to meet the date, but there was no proper delegation. there was Chaos and no visibility.

I started to reconsider making a move from this pet-peeve of “not enough work” but ironic chaos of “lots needs to be done”. Only to soon find out that I was pregnant. And like that I made my foray into the ‘supposedly-slacker’ work-life of young parent.

I eased into the feeling. Even till 8th month i drove in because staying home drove me mad. I worked on a project which I had to wrap since it was shelved multiple times in various stages. I bore through it with constant reminders from myself and extended family that all I needed to stress about was my child right now.

By the time my maternity leave began, I was far far away from associating myself as the 70 hour work machine. I wished like so many other mothers that maternity leave was atleast a year long and not the unfair 6 weeks. I remember hearing the story of a distant cousin whose child is a teenager now and she is a vice president of a company; she had skipped hopped and returned to work in 4 weeks after birthing. I couldnt associate myself with that at all, although her story had inspired me before and few months into pregnancy.

I am not saying every mother drops her dreams or will to work as soon she enters motherhood. I am simply stating, young parenting is a really tough phase and it requires 100% of your time. So when you are juggling multiple things, something is sure going to slack or come across as slacking. Like Indra nooyi mentions, there is the guilt and then there is priorities. The balance may take months or years to reach.

I once reveled to a friend on how magnanimous Google is even to new mothers. They offer 6 months of maternity, which is a far off dream for many working mothers in the US. She told me that mothers don’t take more than 4 months, which is like the unwritten accepted time. Mothers who have returned to work even after 6 to 8 weeks of break will tell you, how tough it is to find your bearing. I am not talking about the leaving-your-baby-in-someone-elses-care trouble here. I am talking about finding your worth in your job.

The world works on competitive opportunities and unique skill sets. 6 weeks is more than enough time for someone else to take your spot and limelight. The dependency they once had on your work would have shifted hands very easily¬†in 6 weeks. And many of us go for the 12 weeks maternity leave and I will leave it to you to figure what becomes of her real “requirement” when she returns to work.

I have often noticed mothers change jobs or change teams soon after maternity leave. I did too. In my case, I was long overdue for a change and it was also my attempt to escape a sinking ship. But it mainly stems from the apathy that sets in which seems to say “you are not missed here anymore”, which can very well translate to “you are not needed here anymore”

Unlike what many internet memes and posts will tell you, fathers undergo a slump as young parents too. It is not like for a man, work will always be his first priority. A child burning with fever will always come before his important meeting. even if he manages to make it to the meeting, he may be thinking about how his child is doing

It is amazing we grow our children and our parents grew us fearless to remember that anything is possible and to never set limits to our dreams. It is also easy to state as a non-parent that especially women must not be told that career goals take a backstage when planning a family. I am a mother to a almost 2 year old and believe my dreams are very much intact and achievable.

Although if you had asked me just a year ago, I would have told you that it is impossible to shoot for the stars as a mother. Early parenting (young parenting as i like to term it) will take you on a low if not many, a few times at least. But it gets immensely better after you have found a rhythm to handle the happenings.

Whether it is pumping every 2.5 hours, or staying home too often to care for a sick child, or handling a baby’s transgressions in day care or worrying sick about feeding a picky eater, somewhere in the 0-5 years curve balls will keep coming your way. Most of us manage by hanging there during the lull and looking for a window of opportunity to make the leap.

At different stages parents are always hanging in there by giving their 100% at work and exhausting the remaining 100% reserve to their family. The mothers I knew who ran to pick their kids early, are now back in the groove working long hours in startups, while their now grown up kids dont demand as much time like few years back. Or the mother who decided to pursue her MBA with three to care for. And also the one who quit her job to complete her family with 2 kids and then went back to work.

Their stories tell me that it is okay that I am not exactly pursuing to be the next marissa meyers right now. Even if I am, i will get there in time, when I have found that space and balance with my family. It is an important parenting lesson that is rarely told to us. It is the phase that is very often panned as the bane of choosing motherhood over career. Or allow me to be bold to say parenthood, since it is no longer only about the mother anymore.

My husband was in the aggressively looking to make his leap after a period of lull, which stemmed from immigration and parenthood, when the lay offs caught him. Unfortunately that is how the system works.

Even if so much noise is made about leaning-in and making work places conducive for new mothers, it may take away a few discomforts, but doesnt exactly save one from losing or missing opportunities the economy and competition creates. But that is only the immediate effect. If you havent lost focus of your goals lulling in the lull, you will always find a time later on to make the leap.

And probably that is the message we have to impart to young parents. That a setback may happen. That it may be imminent for the situation. It may look like the world is racing ahead of us. But it is always possible to rebuild. There will be a time the chaos will settle. You will find your opportunity and at that time my friend, is when you make your leap without a doubt!

To my unbeknownst childhood hero

The year short of the 90s, appa was transferred to Patna. We left the comfort of my paternal home in Trivandrum, leaving behind thatha, thathi and periappa, on a glorious monsoon day. It was not their first time; my parents had spent a good many years before I arrived, in the foothills of Janjira-murud and later Pune. So going to unknown lands with unfamiliar tongues wasn’t new to them.

Like all of appa’s transfers, I went from “shattered and heartbroken, I hate this place” to “this is my (2nd) home” in the 3 years i spent there. We lived in a typical middle class apartment complex, all families like ours, most of the dads in government jobs. The kids did the whole “games at twilight” scenes in the evenings, went to same schools, the women had each others backs when the men traveled for work. It was a close knit group. Everyone knew everyone.

It was a time when telephone and television weren’t necessities and nevertheless to say we didn’t own either. One of the families with two daughters had a TV and VCR. And it was at their place we kids gathered to watch a movie every weekend. Sometimes we would love a movie so much (like Mr. India) that we would forgo the evening playtime to catch few snippets, if the video cassette wasn’t due to be returned, that is!

The kids who hosted the movie time were from Madras. And unlike in my case, their parents had not learnt hindi at all; so the kids were on their own to figure out the second language which was compulsory in our school. The older daughter almost in her pre-teens once quipped that, if Sridevi could rule Bollywood without any formal training in hindi, it can’t be that hard, could it?

That was the first time i learnt that Sridevi was a already a superstar in the south, I had not known about, but those details didnt matter to me much back then. I simply looked forward to the movie nights on weekends. And probably because the hosts were fans of Sridevi, it was mostly her movies that we watched most of the time.

And just like that through her acting prowess, flamboyance and seamless panache with wit, she had won the hearts of us kids. I clearly remember laughing till my tummy ached, watching her in chalbaaz! We also did a terribly co-ordinated dance routine with “hawa-hawai” ; And so when recently vidya Balan had revived that magical number for us, I played it to my kids over and over till they asked me to stop!

And just like that, without even realising or declaring, Sridevi had become a huge part of those years for me. In the years that followed and during the time I lived in Chennai, I caught on a lot of her yesteryear tamil hits too and remember weeping like a child after moondram-pirai ( sadma ). Gravitating to her movies had seemed so natural that I hadnt put a tag to it all these years. It is just that easy to love talent like hers, i suppose!

But when the news floated in and the judgments followed since last saturday, these memories had come flooding back. I didnt expect it to impact me as much as it did. May be because I wasn’t ready to feel like I lost a part of my childhood so soon. And may be with her comeback since English-Vinglish, I was looking forward to many more years of awesomeness to come. And for many like me, we may never get to find out!