Sunday, June 20, 2010

Amazing women in my life - part 2

Today I am going to tell you the story of my cousin  Neelu.  She was born in early 1930s in Rangoon, Burma.  Her parents later settled down in Kolkata and Neelu was largely brought up by her mother.

Neelu's childhood was not very pleasant, she grew up watching her parents fight;  mother struggling to make two ends meet but at the same time trying to give her the best of education and comfort that she could provide. Neelu went to a convent school and had many friends.  She was a gregarious and  lively person, who loved to live!  She loved food, she loved outings, she loved the good things in life, she loved gossiping, she loved meddling in other people's lives, she loved helping others, she loved cooking and most of all, she loved being appreciated, recognised and loved.

In no time Neelu fell in love with a young musician who also happened to be the landlord's son.  Needless to say their union was not looked upon kindly by both sets of parents - to boot, the two families belonged to two sides of Bengal who were  diametrically opposite to each other in their culture, in dialect, in food habits, in their beliefs and values and more importantly in the way they treated their women.

Neelu being the passionate person that she was, followed her heart and married the man of her dreams and they lived in the same house as before, i.e. she continued to live with her parents and her husband moved in with them.  This was not taken very kindly by her in-laws.  However, the husband also being the independent kind, did not join the family business and instead went on to becoming a professional musician and soon became quite famous in Kolkata.

When I came into Neelu's life, she was in her early thirties and I was three years old.  It was her mother K who brought me up.

My earliest recollection of Neelu is warm and fuzzy.  She was this busy big sister who was much older to me, was glamourous and went to work every day.  She had expensive tastes in sarees, jewelleries, perfumes and in make up. Her sarees ranged from gorgeous cotton hand-looms, to fine silks to sophisticated chiffons and such other materials.  She used to import Max Factor make up for herself and to me her make box was a treasure trove of  many hued lipsticks, eye liners and many other unknown lotions and potions.  Every time she would open that black and yellow striped box, I would try and get a whiff of the wonderful odour of the contents of the box.  To me they seemed like a magic box, and she was the magician who created magic with them.  And, she had shoes with heels, the stilettos that I lusted most after the most.  Since we were forbidden to wear her heels lest we fall down, all my experimentation used to be when she was away at work.  During one such time, I also fell down and cracked open my skull, but that is another story!

In that household, apart from me, there was another small girl who had the same status, i.e.  part orphan  as me.  Her name was Tini and she was Neelu's sister-in-law's daughter.  Her mother too passed away suddenly leaving Tini and her other siblings.  In Neelu's eyes, both Tini and I were like to two little kittens who would be pampered or scolded depending on whatever mood she was in.  Intrinsically Neelu was a very generous and affectionate person and whenever she was in the mood, she would offer gifts with both hands to most people.  I remember she used to take Tini and me to a big departmental store in kolkata and send me to the book store while she would wonder off to the jewelry or the saree counters.  I would explore the book racks, bury my nose in the new books to smell th em and then pick up one or two that Neelu would buy for me.  oh, how I loved to smell the new books!

Neelu would do many other things for the two of us; she would use her slightly old silk saree to make dresses for me and for Tini.  She would cut our hair at home and experiment with new styles on us.  She would design our dresses.  The  part that I liked the most was when if we requested her to give us a makeover, she would open her make up box and work on our faces.  I felt like a little princess with my made up eyes and lips and would insist on not washing my face even when it was time to sleep.

As days progressed, Neelu's life started changing.  She had a baby and the baby needed special care for a while, and at the same time Neelu's health started deteriorating.  This was where her mother took charge of looking after the baby, so that Neelu could continue with her work and manage her own life space.

Neelu's married life started developing chinks soon after their child was born.  As she got busy with her work, baby and other paraphernalia of life, her husband got busy with his booming career as well as his female fan club.  Neelu started putting on weight, started having frequent mood swings, had an early hysterectomy and  started relying more and more on her cooking skills to win over her husband's heart.  In all of these, she forgot to look after herself.

During this time, I observed her losing her sense of aliveness and becoming more bitter and more critical of herself and of the entire world.  Her gift of the gab did not help much as it became more of a weapon to lash at people rather than relate to them.  On other hand, her mother was being looked up to as the agony aunt for the whole world and their cousins, and this obvious comparison did not go down well with Neelu.

There is not much to write about the rest of her life as it went downhill rapidly from there, not so much in terms of financial stability as they were very well off, but from her sense of well being with herself.  Her marriage continued but the joy went out of it.  Neelu's only son did not give her much joy either as he turned out to be quite similar to his father, uncaring and insensitive.  Her huge sense of pride never allowed her to share her pain with anyone else and may be that was why she never really found it easy to allow anyone to get too close to her.   Hence she would offer generously but would never ask for help.

Neelu passed away suddenly, one day prior to 9/11, but not a single day goes by when I don't think of her and her passion and zest for life.  She was a kind of woman who was born to live life in its fullness, with vigour, courage,  kindness, passion, possessiveness, envy,  jealousy, generosity,  etc along with the attendant liabilities.  My sense of "joie de vivre" came mostly from her, watching her embrace life in all its positives and negatives with a "never say die' attitude.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Amazing women in my life - part 1 (continued)

As I was saying in the last post that I came into K's life when I was three and she was over fifty years old.  When I look back I think it was a big liability and responsibility for someone who was not young, had ill health, was not financially self sufficient and was dependent on her daughter and son-in-law.   I think K was a kind of woman who acted without any fear of consequence and took criticism with a pinch of salt - for her it was something that had to be done and since no one else was doing it, she would take it up without hesitation.

But the story here is not so much about  K and me, but of K herself.  As I was growing up in that  household, I was also learning to be invisible and to be an acute observer of the goings on around the place.  The person I  observed most was K and the world around her.

K was a hard working person, but more than hard work, she had this amazing ability to pull all the suffering people towards her.  Whenever people felt sad, unhappy, troubled, confused, angry, helpless and victimised, they would seek out K and pour their hearts out to her.  K would listen to them patiently,  offer them her advice or a kind word or just a patient ear, sometimes she would confront them, sometimes she would help them with cash or in kind and sometimes she would just simply hold their hands and cry with them.  She was this  kind and helpful "Chhordi"(middle sister)/"Ma"/"Pishima"(aunt)  to the whole world;  be it to her brothers and sisters, to her nieces and nephews, to her husband's brothers and sisters, to the  dhobi,  the grocer, the neighbourhood rickshaw pullers, the newspaper vendor from Bihar, the annual  shawl seller from Srinagar, the neighbours or friends of friends who had heard about her from someone else.  So much so that even many years after my mother's death, my mother's brothers and sisters kept coming to her to pour their heart out whenever they were in any kind of distress - the absence of their sister did not impact this relationship at all.

K was not a very patient woman; she had asthma, she was short tempered and she was also highly opinionated.  This side of her was more visible to us, people who shared the intimate space with her.  I used to receive an extra special dose of her impatience in terms of the frequent scolding and physical punishment.  At some time I think I got used to this routine but it also taught me to make myself invisible as much as I could and it made it easier for me to observe her without being noticed.

Apart from looking after the household, K's major preoccupation was two fold - one was playing solitaire with her pack of cards and the second was knitting. She could finish making a pullover or a cardigan in four days' time.  Her knitting was so legendary that people from many places would come to learn knitting from her or to learn new designs. My most prominent recollection of her is K sitting on one side of her sprawling double bed either knitting away or playing solitaire and the visitor(s) sitting on the other side, pouring their hearts out to her.

K was also an avid reader; she would keep all the contemporary Bengali magazines and newspapers and would read them in the morning with a cup of tea. Her day used to start early at about four a.m, she would have a bath, start cooking and finish by 8.30 a.m to have the second bath of the day.  Then after seeing her daughter off to work, she would settle down with another cup of tea and her stack of newspapers and magazines and read every article, every story, every poem in them meticulously.  Once in three or four months, she would donate all her magazines to a local library.

She used to treat the domestic help as people whose rights was more than equal as compared to the rest of the household, i.e. our routine was subject to the convenience of the domestic help, e.g. we had to have our baths on time and have lunch on time so that they could have their baths and lunches on time.  We were strictly instructed to address everyone either as elder sister or elder brother and no name calling or disrespectful behaviour was ever allowed. Anybody disobeying that rule was in for  strong disapproval and a dressing down from her. Her simple logic was that these people have left home to come and work here and hence they were entitled to more privileges than us.

The tragedy in K's life was that while on one hand, she was the pillar of strength for people in the larger context, her relationships with her husband, her daughter and her son-in-law were at best tense.   I still remember the day when a woman in her thirties came to see K in a summer afternoon.  I was standing besides K, holding her saree pallu and peering at the stranger woman who was slowing unfolding the tale of betrayal to her.  It seemed that K's husband had married this woman or was living with her and that he had stopped visiting her and paying her any money.  She needed money for survival and hence she came to K to seek help or to look for her "husband".  K listened to the story with a stony expression, handed the woman some money, closed the door and headed straight towards the bathroom.  When she emerged, we were all horrified to see her dressed as a widow; she had taken all signs of marriage off herself.  She then calmly declared to the family that from that day, she did not have any husband and that no one should ever try to talk to her about the man in question as she did not know who he was anymore.

At that time for a woman to do this was shocking enough and more so for a woman in her fifties.  The family could not get over it.  The daughter was angry, enraged and sad; her son-in-law thought this was highly immoral and the rest of the relatives gaped in horror and shock. Neelu, her daughter and others tried very hard to change K's mind towards the husband but K remained unmoved.  This status did not change till the man in question died some 15 years later.  K never spoke to him and never saw his face again.

This stubbornness of K earned her a lot of animosity and resentment, specially from her daughter who could not understand her mother's decision of disowning her father.  This slowly deteriorated their relationship to the extent that mother and daughter did not often speak to each other, although they lived in the same house.

K was misunderstood and resented for her righteousness and her stubbornness from her immediate family members (even often from people who received help and support from her) and was loved and revered by people who were part of the distant family, friends and acquaintances.  

The other interesting thing about K was that I never ever saw her praying or doing puja or going to temples or anything remotely religious; but I experienced her as highly spiritual, conscientious, righteous, kind and courageous.  As though the world of religiosity had very little meaning or significance for her; for her, her world was literature, drama, poems, knitting, taking care of people, being fiercely protective of her own, offering help and support when it was most needed and standing her ground like a lioness without fear and most importantly, without shame.

K would often tell me that my only duty towards her was to stand on my own feet and make my father proud.  I knew I wanted her to be proud of me more than anyone else... K passed away suddenly when I was 20 years old, three months before my first job and my first major achievement.  This was one person who would have been happiest for the "ugly duckling" she picked up from nowhere, seeing her spread her wings and turning into a swan in her own right.

I miss you K, I miss you very much.

Monday, June 14, 2010

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Sunday, June 13, 2010

Amazing women in my life - part 1

When I was three years old, I lost my mother - unfortunately I would never know her.  However, what I heard about her from her husband, her brothers and sisters, her in laws and her friends, gave me a picture of the kind of woman she might have been.  The picture was one of a kind, warm and loving person who put others' interest before her and who at times and mostly in private was temperamental, passionate and strong.  This picture was not very helpful to me because people kept comparing me to her as I was growing up and I grew up listening to a continuous lament of "how could you turn out to be like this being her daughter"!  For the life of me, I could not manage the confusion, rage and frustrations that I felt being compared to a person who was not even around for me to even dialogue with  Being the only child, I did not even have siblings around to tell me otherwise.

The second most influential woman I had in my life was my Pishima (Father's elder sister - paternal aunt).  She decided to raise this 3 year old kid when she was in her early fifties, suffering from asthma and a nearly broken marriage.  To top it, she was also living with her daughter and son-in-law, who did not look very kindly upon her endeavour to help others.

As I look back today, I believe this is the single most influential factor in my life which has shaped me into whoever I am today, both positively and negatively.

My pishima was an extra ordinary woman.  Let's call her K.   She was born in the early 20th Century in Dhaka,  Bangladesh and was the 3rd born in a large family of eleven brothers and sisters.  K was very good in her studies, was a gold medalist from Dhaka University and also the apple of her fathers' eyes.  However, while studying there, K fell in love with a  young  man who was her elder brother's friend.  This young man was very good looking and to boot, was a brilliant and talented painter who studied in Shantiniketan.  She fell for him, hook line and sinker, and eloped with him to Rangoon (now Yangon, capita of Burma), thus breaking her father's heart forever and never saw him alive thereafter.

K and her husband S lived in Rangoon for about 3 years before moving back to Kolkata, India.  The relationship which started on a high note of passion and love, was on the wane and was giving way to bitterness and angst between the two of them.  Thus, while they remained married, K was bringing up the children by herself through hardship and struggle while S went on to look at greener pastures of life.  This is when their elder daughter died of Beriberi and K was left only with the younger daughter.

K brought this girl up, provided her with the best possible education within her means and the young girl, my cousin (lets call her Nilu) grew up and took the responsibility of looking after her parents. Meanwhile, she too fell in love with a young artist and got married.

I came into K's life after my mother died and when no one was willing to look after me lest I became a liability.  My father was too unsure of himself to feel confident about looking after a young child.

K decided to bring me up, and I was brought to her house to stay with her, her daughter and son in law.

(Thank you for reading thus far.  If you are interested, keep looking out for the next post, this is to be continued....)

irrational rationality

The other day I was talking to a friend of mine, who is a young talented poet, actor and a writer.  We were talking about a post on FB  and I asked for her views.  Her response was that she felt strongly but she wanted to think before she wrote.  I asked her to write about her feelings and not her thoughts and she said she would try, but never did write.  Another friend of mine, in her early 30s talked to me about how often she struggles with knowing what her feelings are, i.e. is she feeling angry or is she feeling sad and how important is it for her to "know" her feelings before she  responds.

These discussions provoked me to write this post about how I come across people, both men and women, who are very cautious about coming across to others as sentimental or mushy.  It is as though, expressions of passion, of anger, of love, of irritation, of reactivity, of loss, of joy, of desire, of longing, of disgust, of lust, etc, must always be moderated, thought through, considered, and then expressed cautiously like squeezed out portions of toothpaste from a tube!

What is interesting about this game is that it is never ending, the more you play, the more lost you are, because feelings don't come with meanings, they gush out without any barrier, flood your inner world.  Feelings make you feel alive, make you feel at one with yourself, they are the key to your inner world.  It is the world of feelings that also holds the key to our creativity, our passion, our zest for life and our will to live.  The more we try to understand our feelings before we act, the more are we operating from our need to control our world of future action and positioning ourselves firmly only in the world of consequences,   In the world of consequence, there is no present, only past and future and both are beyond our control.   The present is the only reality we live in and that can be experienced through our feelings.

Hence I wonder why do we keep playing a losing game with ourselves?

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Child Man - The Selfless Narcissist - a book by Ashok Malhotra

There is a part of us which neither listens to the voice of reason, nor easily submits to social and moral conventions. Like a child, it relentlessly pursues whatever catches it’s fancy and keeps playing with fire. This energy can, equally, help us actualize our heroic potential or set us on the path to self-destruction. The key to making this energy positive lies in what we do with the emotional and psychic wounds, which are a necessary part of our growth.

The book is published by Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group.

Facebook link:

Child Man - Part 1 of 3 Concept and Origin Interview with author Ashok M...

Thursday, June 03, 2010

Mothers and Daughters

My daughter is nearly 26 years old ... though to me she still is a pre-teenager, sometimes a baby and sometimes a grown woman.  One would say, what is new, all mothers would say the same thing about their daughters?  That's true, and I would not disagree!  The point of mentioning her age here is that I gave birth to her on my 26th birthday and if I look back, I certainly did not think of myself as a young person, nor did I have anyone doting on me like I dote on her.  This however, does not deter me from trying to control her life at times, albeit unsuccessfully and is met with grave resistance from the other side!

That said, there was an interesting mix of tele-con and txt that happened between us this evening. Since she lives in Delhi pursuing her higher studies, our connecting mediums are mostly the mobile phone and occasionally the internet and often the distance created by such mediums are difficult to manage, specially in awkward moments.   

Anyway, to come back to the point of discussion - She is supposed to submit her dissertation by a certain date this month and my understanding was that only after that can she come home.  Therefore, when I called her this evening to enquire the progress obviously due to my vested interest, she responded quite gallantly that she may not even finish the paper before she came and that she has organised herself accordingly.  My response to that one was one of "what are you saying, isn't this why you postponed your trip home? And now you would not even finish that, etc, etc"  I guess my tone of voice touched a higher pitch bordering on panic and irritation which said "how can you be so irresponsible?" without actually saying it!  My daughter responded exactly as expected, with counter irritation and annoyance and advised me to not think too much about things and that she would manage what belonged to her.  "Fair enough", I thought, but some small voices were still screaming inside my head, conjuring up images of my daughter standing in a school dress being scolded by her stern teachers for not finishing her homework on time (which actually never  happened during her school days - She was a straight A student), etc, etc.  I mumbled something about her dinner and then, there was silence ...absolute silence ...  neither of us had anything to say to each other ...  After a while, I mumbled some other inanities and disconnected the phone and started wondering what just happened.

After a while, I received a txt from her apologising for "snapping" at me and how she ought to learn to control her temper, etc and how much she loved me.  I felt very good that she wrote that but also felt a little guilty about making her feel bad about herself.  This was not the first time that things like this happened between us, but every time this happens, I ask myself what could I have done differently.  I am sure, she asks herself the same question every time.

The whole relationship between mothers and daughters are so very different from the relationship between fathers and daughters.  I am of course generalising here and  looking at my life history and comparing the two.  For me it is easier to compare as I grew up only with my father around and no mother, and in my daughter's case, her bonding has been stronger with me than her father especially since she stepped into her pre-teen period.  

I guess daughters find it difficult to move away from their mothers even in their moments of deep anguish as being members of the same gendered world may make it quite difficult to not empathise with the other.   As for mothers, apart from responsibility weighing heavy on their shoulders, both affection and anxiety mixed with "I know her more than she knows herself" would make it difficult to just let the daughter go on her own adventure of life.

If I look at my daughter, I think that she looks at me both as a hero for the courage, hard work, grit and competence as well as perhaps the only person who she believes would love her unconditionally no matter what, the only person with whom she finds a sense of "home".   On the other hand, I can also see how she at the same time looks at me with slight doubt, irritation and anxiety of "she just might lose her marbles if she is not all put together the way she ought to be".  And the swing of this pendulum is what makes our relationship very interesting. 

Therefore on one hand I try hard to be put together (and not be my "mad mad" self) and make things worse as she can be friends with the "mad mad" self only and not the "sane" mother and yet when we are friends, I am continuously wondering whether there is a line that we ought to draw and go back to being parent and child and I can never really figure that one out.  

We are great friends at one level, there are very few secrets between us, except may be what we intensely dislike about each other but that too comes out quite freely on our moments of anger and outbursts (we both have mastered the arts for that one).  On the other hand, there are moments when I need to put on my Mommy face and be there for her especially when she is intensely unhappy and tensed with herself.  

Having had almost zero experience of being mothered, I sometimes desperately search for a role model to emulate and at other times accept quite sagaciously to myself that I need to make this role and if I have not yet in 26 odd years, then I may never do it and why bother, etc, etc.  My daughter on the other hand, believes in post modern thoughts and being a thinker and a feminist, her logic is "you are what you are and there is no point of comparing oneself to any parameters since all parameters would stink of one dated politics or the other".  Fair enough ... I think, suitably chastised like a good student, this is where I learn from her.  But, but, but ..... what about her expectation of being mothered?  Am I being a good mother to her at all times when she needs me to be there?  Am I?   And  when I look at the good mommies around me who are trotting around like proud mother hens, talking about or fixing  marriages, buying jewelleries  and "securing" the future of their daughters, I seem to be like a crane sitting among proverbial swans wondering "how come those are not my priorities"?  The only priority I can think of is what would make her life meaningful and what would make her content and I seem to be going by whatever choices she is making for herself as of now.  Is that necessarily good or necessarily bad, or is there something in between?  I wish there was a mommy somewhere for me to answer all these complicated questions!

I know if my daughter reads this post, she will laugh and then will tell me "again you are thinking rubbish thoughts !!!"  But I guess I would never really know.  Does any mother ever know?  

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

lovers and a third person

somebody came over today to spend some time and talk about herself. She had been wanting to do this for sometime now and today she did find the time to come over. She said she was feeling confused about herself and her relationship and did not know what was she looking for. I listened to her as she continued to talk about her doubts, her confusions, her questions, her thoughts about herself and her world.

I offered some thoughts, shared snippets of my life and relationships and suggested that may be there are many ways to look at the same thing and to examine the parameters she was using to look at her relationship and herself.

She talked some more, in a shy kind of way, eyes darting here and there, smiling a little, hesitating a little, feeling doubtful of how much would any one want to hear about herself, but really wishing to say more than she already had. I kept wondering whether i was coming across more as an affectionate mother figure rather than a friend.

She then stayed back and shared some more - things that she was afraid of, was ashamed of and was afraid of being ridiculed by others - things that seemed perfectly normal to me but obviously it was not all that normal to her.

then she left - quite peaceful and happy.

In the evening i get txt messages from her complaining about her lover - that apparently he has been saying all kinds of things about me having confused her and how angry was she feeling about all these.

i would not know how to react or whether to feel angry or sad. actually i feel nothing of that sort .... except to look at the world of lovers and relationships - of fights and make ups, of desire and longing, of hate and venom, of indifference and silence, of love and passion ....

where is the place for any third person here?

Poor Facebook

I am holding out a candle for FB here. I keep hearing from many people, especially people who like to take themselves very seriously, comments about FB and such other sites, which are often evaluative, judgemental and dismissive. I then notice that most of the these people are not even regular user of the site, although all of them have their account in it and despite their negative perceptions, have not checked out of the site.

I have been in Facebook since the last two years and i do enjoy the occasional tomfoolery, sharing of light moments, sharing of photographs, thoughts, opinions, and many other such things. But what i most enjoy and like about FB is that there are many others who are using this tool to spread their message about deeply held beliefs, political stances, seeking support, sharing other people's ideas by re posting their ideas, causes, videos, poems, articles,etc. Also it is a great place to connect with people from long forgotten past, keeping track of people and exchanging news with many people at one go.

The number of responses that i have received from my notes posted on FB are far more than any postings in my blog or in other e-gruops.

Lastly, it is an effective tool and the utility of the tool depends upon how we use it and not define it by how others are using it - that I think is a very "frivolous" thought.