Thursday, March 29, 2007

Suddenly, mommy!

Being two-and-a-half means that baby n is now aware that she has her own body, and is free to come and go as she likes. She’s been becoming more aware of that since she learnt how to walk; realizing, slowly, that she is mistress of her will and her legs. That awareness makes her happy, of course, but it also leads to some nervousness. You see, in her pre-walking state of mind, she and mommy were one – in true Hindi-filim style, carved out of one body, attached first at navel and then breast, never to be parted. So now along with the freedom of mobility that she celebrates comes the uncomfortable knowledge that mommy too has the same freedom, and can come and go as she likes.

When you’re three-feet-high and just learning to articulate your feelings (which means yell-storms every 45 minutes and contests of wills), this is a rather overwhelming thought. So n is worried about me in particular and all mommies in general. Does the goose in Jogger’s Park have an amma? Where is she? Does the pigeon have an amma? Where is she? Does Noddy have an amma? Does the child in the picture book? Anything that looks young and vulnerable, must be accompanied by its mother. Then the universe will be a safe place for babies everywhere, and n can relax.

And it’s not enough for the mom to be in the same frame – as in a picture or on tv. She has to be involved, doing whatever it takes to make n feel that the baby is safe. Like we have this xylophone-cum-book in which every page has the notes to a song, which is also illustrated. Sometimes she opens it and ‘plays’ each song, moving briskly and fairly tunelessly from one to the other. Last night I caught her staring worriedly at the picture of a song called Lullaby and good night, thy mother’s delight. It showed a mama bear who had apparently just finished tucking baby bear into his bed and was smiling down at him, affection oozing out of every anthropomorphic line.

So I asked, “What happened?” and she replied, “Where baby bear’s amma?” And I pointed to the ‘amma’ bear and said, “Right there.” So she stares at it some more and then asks, “Where she going to sleep?” Of course. Now I know what’s upsetting her. For someone who sleeps wedged prophylactically between her parents, the thought of a mommy ‘putting’ her baby to bed and then walking away is a crazy, nightmarish one. Especially as we all know that night is the time when 1. it’s dark. 2. bad dreams come, 3. there’s that scary thing called the moon lurking around!

Speaking of co-sleeping – or not – I spent a good year pondering over the Western concept of letting babies sleep alone. I swayed between ‘What a wonderful idea!’ and ‘How completely barbaric!’ It doesn’t work for me, but lucky are those who have the stomach for it!

Saturday, March 24, 2007

City of Fear

Robin, Amit's old friend (and now mine too), has just had a book published! It's called City of Fear and is one of the most sincere, readable and beautiful books I've encountered in a long time. What I like most about it is that though the subject is violence and after, there is no gratuitous show-casing of pain or trauma; no writerly celebration of cruelty. There is just a very clear, journalistic eye that records what it saw - and felt. Balancing all of that is the poetic quality of the writing. More than violence though, City... is about memory, displacement and the very real objects that one clings to in order to live and survive.

Unlike many writers these days, Robin's words don't tumble into one another; they don't become exercises in futile navel-gazing; and they are not there to make you drown in painful conceits. His writing is refreshingly pellucid. In many new Indian writers of English I find a fascination with wordy conceits, and little sincerity of purpose or subject (Sujit Saraf's embarrassing The Peacock Throne is a prime example). Perhaps what sets Robin's work apart is that unlike most of us he can't afford to poeticize violence, simply because he has been viscerally close to it. What a terrible thing to be grateful for.

Now that the book is out and has to be pushed, Robin has gone predictably coy. He's got a blog going at last (after 65,000 reminders). He promises to update regularly, to network and push his book a bit by having readings in other cities than his hometown Ahmedabad. So hopefully, City of Fear will come to a bookstore near you. Accompanied - hopefully again - by its writer. Do catch it if you can...

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Time-Space Conundrum!

How complex the world must be for a baby! That's something anyone with any baby experience can sense, of course. But if you live with a toddler, you sense this allatime! Like when baby n loves a new place - jogger's park, goa, imax, anyplace nice - she often lies in repose back at home and remembers it. Then she turns to me and says, 'Where jogger's park gone?' I've never tried telling her that she has moved away and that jogger's park is where it always has been. So I tell her it's in Bandra, leading to the next inevitable question: 'Where Bandra gone?' And so on. It must be so tough to understand that the universe does not centre around you; that life is not an ever-changing parade of places and images arranged with you as the pivot!
The same goes for language. If walk is walked in the past tense, then send must be sended, draw must be drawed, and go must be wented. When people - and babies - learn a language (or acquire it in the case of babies) they tend to observe a rule, learn it and then overuse it. It is not a mistake, it is just them sussing out the language's rules and trying to see what works. In a while, they figure out things like 'exceptions to rules' and then get the required discretion to become perfect speakers! When n makes these mistakes, I just love it! I mean, how long before she throws a complicated new coinage at me and sneers when I say, "Huh? What's it mean?"
Speaking of nice places, why is it a nightmare to be able to access a nice public space in this city? Whole families are congregating in malls these days for lack of anywhere else to go. The parks that remain - like Diamond Garden in Chembur - are bizarrely anti-poor and anti-people. Recently renovated with corporate help, Diamond Garden actually doesn't allow people to sit on its lawns! Of course, there is no proportionate increase in the number of benches, and so you have people trying to sit on the park's play equipment (which is no great shakes, but let's not go there).
Try asking the people in charge why this is so and the biases start becoming clear. 'Arre, if you let them sit on the lawns, then they will get food here!' I don't see how that can happen because the guards don't let you bring in food anyway. Probe further, and you hear the words them and they used so vehemently and so often that you soon figure out who they are referring to - poor Muslim families from nearby Shivaji Park and Govandi, of course! They 'dirty' the space and 'annoy' the 'rest of us' so that around big holidays, the garden conveniently shuts itself down! We are also told that they have their own garden given them by the BMC; can they not stick there? Talk about wanting to ghettoize people!
Suggest that there are other alternatives than this sort of apartheid, that hygiene can be taught to the poor - Hindu and Muslim alike - that the middle class is equally messy and irresponsible, and that the city owes its people public spaces, and all you get is a big fat fight. In which prejudice takes top spot, I'm afraid.
In a city that is slowly cutting off itself from this responsibility, I wonder what options we have left. Where do the poor go for an evening out? To a mall? To an incredibly-expensive multiplex? As a parent I know how restless n gets with the same spaces. But where's the variety of open spaces in this city; what can you access without having to travel in killing traffic? If you don't live in a gated township with an enclosed park and pool, are you not entitled to these simple, inexpensive joys?
Between prejudice and the monstrous greed of the powers that be, the future looks bleak. Very bleak.

(Sorry, the post started with baby's sense of space and ended in public spaces - bit of wandering happened! But it's something I feel strongly about, so am not going to cut away and put in elsewhere!)

Thursday, March 15, 2007

The laughter in her lines

Revathy Gopal - poet, friend, bearer of smiles and cheer and wonderful words - passed away earlier this month. I'd lost touch of late, though we'd been friends - good friends - years back when we both worked for a magazine. Rev was amazingly youthful. That, and her writing, and her laugh and her fondness for everyone in sight, drew me to her. It seems awfully trite when I put it that way. But truly, Rev was a sheer delight to be around. She could always make you laugh, always say something that quite took your breath away with its generosity.

It's hard to think of her as having suffered physically, of having died. But if anyone had a capacity for life, an understanding of it and a love for all the sensations it could offer, it was her. I wish I'd picked up the phone and called when I first heard about the cancer from Sampurna. I wish I hadn't given in to awkwardness; had called and said, 'Rev, I heard; I'm so sorry.' She wouldn't have gone all awkward on me. She'd have smiled that generous smile of hers and said something wonderfully affectionate.

Among poets, she was one of the best. And among the most underrated. Though she was such a genuinely cheerful person, her poems were sometimes astoundingly sad. But they also had a quiet sort of laughter in them, so that while reading them, you could almost see her smile growing slowly till it filled her face and made her eyes shine.

Here is one that I found online. Not my favourite or anything, but just such a lovely piece of writing.

Picnic at the zoo

Most of the cages are empty, now;
once there were civet cats, panther and jaguar,
even a family of white tigers from the Sunderbans
that made a splash of light in the infernal dark;
a black bear and a binturong
I remember particularly,
because of its droll name.
They died or were moved
to kinder climes, perhaps.
But when the kangaroos (strange import!)
died, one by one,
the local paper said they
probably pined away.

Somewhere between the orang-otan
and the peanut vendor,
she lies stricken in the dust,
Victoria, Queen Empress,
head averted in clotted rage
as pigeons strut
and cheeky boys clamber
on that capacious lap
from which once flowed,
the long tedium of empire,
the unending reproach
of widowhood, somewhere
a haemophilic grandson;
and the men who walked away,
father, husband,
a recalcitrant son.

Rev used to write for Chowk, a column called Free for All.

I wish I had met her before she died. Wish I had called. Wish I had made a trip to meet her - back and baby notwithstanding...

Perhaps the most wonderful thing about Rev was how much other people loved her. I hope she knew that, knew how many people would miss her and treasure her memory.

More tributes - by Todd Swift the poetry editor of nthposition and by another friend.