Love Thy Neighbour

When i was growing up, there came a point in time when i wished there was no neighbour around me - they were so pesky and annoying. Their current affairs was so up-to-date - what rank you got, what food you ate, how thick and healthy was your hair on the head,how many new dresses and pairs of shoes you had, which guy you were seen with and yada-yada. They also resorted to amusing tactics of isolating you out if you didn't accept their seniority and supremacy- they will steal your plants, break your planters or steal clips from the clothes-line and the occasional but cowardly pelting of stones and breaking of windows..Mind you, this has nothing to do with what culture they belong to or their economic standards.Whatever the case, neighbours were the least important in my scheme of things.I preferred friends and family.

And when you settle away from home in a new city, your roomies and colleagues at work who become friends become your lifeline. You have similar fears and strengths before going your own ways. The occasional filtering also happens when you realise a certain roomie and his/her priorities don't gel with yours and you have a choice of letting go, nastily or gracefully. There will be moments when you will feel betrayed,cheated and disgusted - the sense of closure is nowhere. There are no neighbours to run to - you run out of something, or you're in the middle of a mess - you turn to your roomie/friend/colleague to bail you out! They are your actual neighbours within a house or system, if you may. There is clearly no marked space.

When i moved to the US after our wedding, we were in a nice gated community, half of whose occupants i never saw or met.In such a lovely neighbourhood, making friends is tough.I made friends at the bank, the library and the bakery-cum-bistro down Castro Street. Most true-blue Americans that i've come across will work Mon-Fri - work defines their identity. Small talk happens over a drink on a Friday evening and mostly before 9pm. Weekends are fiercely guarded to catch up on sleep, bicycling, trekking in one of the national parks or as mundane as picking up groceries or mall-hopping. Even pot-luck lunches are so timed!Yes, you do say the clipped 'Hi there!' when you're at the pool or taking a walk down the park. But there are no conversations beyond that. I stopped feeling strange - in the US, time is a huge premium.Oh yes, you do have plenty of friends but they live miles away.

Back in India, we lived in a bungalow where you had no choice of a neighbour but your landlord. However well-meaning and sincere our efforts, the visits were formal and the exchange of pleasantries, few and far between. No fret. We had neighbours but the insulated kinds.So, friends were the saviours again.

Here in the new city, we have neighbours within inches and meters. The first day, when we moved in and were monitoring the movers and packers with the unpacking, our next-door neighbour was walking to the lift for her dental appointment. They knocked our door in the evening - offered us potable water for the kid's milk and also, asked us to look them up for any help. That was really sweet! I tried to hide my cynicism - i am usually the cynical types.The next day, i knocked for old newspapers to line the shelves.

Within days, her 4-year old daughter and our son have become best buddies - he eats half his meals there and we have stopped keeping track of whose toys and slippers are lying in which house.It's a new feeling - i actually have a neighbour! I told my husband - hey, we actually have a neighbour who talks and keeps tab about your well-being. They helped us with practically everything - milk, newspaper, bottled water, maids, cooks, car-cleaning, internet, phone - you name it. Both the husband and the wife are thorough responsible professionals at a very reputed MNC. Their daughter is sent to daycare after school. So the kids get to play only after 6 or 7 in the evening for an hour but it's the most awaited ritual in the whole day. And, we, mothers, laugh our stresses away over a cup of tea.

We've shared meals and every festival until now is incomplete if we have not sent a home-made sweetdish across.I have gone out shopping and felt a soul-connect while bargaining deals or choosing an outfit.She's become a good friend, more than a neighbour - we do complain to each other about our respective husband's pet peeves over food or socks and stand by each other in sickness too. 

They didn't get a chance to bond with the previous tenant for whatever reasons - apparently, both the husband and the wife were working professionals. But i would not take that as the reason, working people are not that bad and stay-at-home moms are not that boring.

But yeah, a good neighbour is a blessing. When i will be away, they volunteered to look after my plants. They are already sad they won't see Arjun for such a long time. We had a lovely dinner last evening - a happy send-off for me!


Of maids and cooks - Part 2

Within a week of Kavitha assuming duties in my house, i asked her to keep an eye for a decent cook. She got Savitha - a shrewd Kannada girl from Mysore, who minced no words about how much premium she commanded in terms of time and money. She refused to come at my preferred timing and the yada-yada. I had little to no options - our little community of families had grown up kids and working mothers - so all the other cooks are engaged. Kavitha also gently cautioned me that Savitha has a history of not lasting beyond a month. I kept a brave face and told myself, if Savitha does not get along with me, she possibly won't find a better employer. Savitha is technically a great cook but will not do anything on her own - she will cook as instructed, she is also lightning fast No, you can't engage in any small talk with her - she finds that micro-management and she gets nervous.But within a week, she started nosing around Kavitha if yours truly will gift her anything for Onam. Heck, what? I just gave her new bangles and sweets for Ganesh Chaturthi.And within a week, she bunked work without informing me. A week later, she wanted leave for 3 days - i didn't ask her why but i green-signalled. She didn't show up for an entire week - no calls, no SMS. I made up my mind to let her go. I put pressure on Kavitha to ask her dear friend to get in touch with me.

I don't know how these conversations happen but Savitha showed up that very evening, dressed in jeans and a smart kurta. She said, she was ready to cook. Something in her tone put me off so badly that i asked her if she was really interested in carrying on in my house. She bluntly blurted out, it was my choice and she is ok with any decision i take. I told her i don't want to eat food cooked in such a grudging manner and that she may come settle her dues immediately the next day. She, of course, went and fought with Kavitha, who in turn was very scared that i might fire her as well  for getting an inefficient person. I told her to relax and to redeem herself, i asked her to get another cook and that's how Bhagyalakshmi happened.

Bhagyalakshmi is a Mudalair Tamil, about 35 years old with 3 grown-up sons. Yes, she also married very young. She has a penchant for 'designer' blouses, speaks broken Hindi and is a very loving person.She's very invested about what she wants to feed you with, loves a little extra salt in all her preparations. So, everyday, she has a nervous time passing the 'salt' test with me. She is very forgetful to a fault and can't fry potatoes to save her life.But, Arjun likes her and they have a fun-session everyday counting granules of pomegranates and she sings to him.But she feeds our entire family and feels rewarded. '

And life goes on.

Of maids and cooks - part 1

I've been meaning to write about these two people who i am very grateful to for embracing me in this new city with all my pet peeves and all that baggage. To the rest of the world, they are not even visible. One is my help - Kavitha and the other is my cook - Bhagyalakhsmi. Both are migrants and not locals. Not like, i had difficulty getting anyone here - instinctively, the frequency should match.

I waited out a month or so, waiting for the reasonable one to come along. I had to endure door-rings, desperate pleas to be hired and all the heart-wrenching games that follow. There were some interesting ones that came along. One of them was an elderly but very street smart woman by the name Salma. She had betel-nut stained teeth and of course, very calloused lips - she walked up to my door and with almost certain divine birthright asked me to 'retain' her as the cook - i usually have a very intense interview with every prospective case. So i asked her why should i hire her? She answered very confidently - because the previous tenant trusted her with the kitchen and she is very comfortable working in my kitchen - she told me she knows more about my kitchen than even i would. She even went to the extent of bullying the younger ones who knocked at my door. That cheesed me off, very badly. I made up mind to ensure she does not enter my house. Fair play, woman. I pulled out my trump card  - when she came with that betel-nut smile to be hired - i told her i am not hiring her and the reason is, she ruined the gas stove burner while in her previous employment and that, i had to shell out quite some dough to get it back to some respectable shape. She never showed her face again.  

My kind neighbour offered me her help and cook and i was really relieved. One, i don't have to worry about security and trust, given the fact the mother-daughter duo were working in her house for the last 8 months.The only rider being - the mother will work if the daughter is hired. My neighbour's reasonable caution being - the daughter's husband is dying from his drinking adventures and she takes off unannounced but the mother always covered for the day - so no pay deductions and it worked well for both parties. So, the mother cooked and the daughter took care of the cleaning and they come two times a day, seven days a week. What luck, i thought! We had that friendly negotiation that i would stop looking around and they will start from today. That today never came. Because young and perky Pramila would not turn up, elderly Rama would not start cooking. This drama went on for a week, see how patient i have become. I got bizarre reasons when i asked about Pramila's absence - she forgot to come because she slept through and blah.I gave her exactly a week plus 3 days bonus for her to show up. She didn't show up and trust my bizarre luck, i had no options - all knocks and enquiries stopped (thanks to old and wily Salma's bullying of the younger lot).The day Pramila showed up, my husband opened the door - she instructed him to summon Didi (that's me). The summoning bit irked me.My husband was visibly amused. I went to meet her. She was like yeah, she's supposed to start work. I looked at her and told her i am not hiring her. She was stunned - why? because i don't want to hire you -you slept through the day when the deal was made 10 days ago. I will hire anyone but you. She asked me if someone has replaced her - i said, already. She asked me - who? None of your business. 

So, i was without a help, and without a cook as well. I was resisting hiring a cook for sentimentally silly reasons. But with a hyperactive toddler and another on the way and, our bigger mission to eat healthy, home-cooked food at work, my energies and resources were getting poorly divided. And, i am not a champion in cooking, i am reasonably good.So, we had those really volatile days.Oh!eating out? forget it - this part of the city is poorly blessed with quality and service in the culinary department. Flashy joints and sub-standard food -we had very disappointing trips.

Then one day, Kavitha came by. She is tiny, wiry and frail - left me wondering how will she work? Some routine police-kind of questions and the more important, background check. I had grown paranoid reading reports of daylight murders and robberies in the city - i feel vulnerable at all levels, especially with a toddler who can't even speak a word for himself except his endearing babble. With loads of cynicism i told her of my rules - that i would not be monitoring her at any point but one fine day if i discover a missing spoon (symbolic),that will be her last day in the house. Also, she should not cut corners - do less work but do it well. And, she would not demand hikes,gifts, money and the jazz unreasonably. I told her, she will never get an occasion to ask - because,i am generally mindful of such occasions. Her face braved all of that - and she shot back, very politely - stealing a spoon or anything for that matter won't send her to the grave rich. Ok, you're hired. 

So, Kavitha is not literate. She is about 28 years. She eloped when she was 13.She has 2 daughters, one 14 and another 9.Both of them attend a private 'English-medium' school.She is a Chennai-based Telugu.She works in 4 homes to pay for her kids' fees and to keep the kitchen hearth going. Her husband's contribution is zero - he is the personal driver for some big-shot and, is a perennial drunk and chicken-consumer. She told me her story on my asking - I usually dismiss this as a routine sob-story that all maids use to milk some guilt and sympathy. She is fond of Arjun and is caring towards him. She is not fussy, keeps to her work and there are days, when we share breakfast and some tea.She's scared of taking leaves, lest her pay gets cut.

Of late, she is not keeping well - every third day, she has 'fever' (any sickness is fever). Today, we had a long chat over breakfast - the actual reason of her 'fever'. Her daughter is in class 8 in a private school.The fees are getting higher - she opted to send her to a, the daughter refused to shift, saying all her friends are in this school. Her husband asked her to discontinue the daughter's education from the next academic session. Kavitha does not know how to cope with this tension.I heard her out, I told her worrying so much won't solve the problem as much as working her gut off in so many homes.She does not want any charity but she wants her girls to have some legacy of being educated at least, until the 10th standard.Her husband is callous. Her girls, however innocent, are unaware of the travails she has to go through to keep the house functional. She tells me their demands are endless. They want new dresses for every festival, they also want similar crayons and all that blah. She obviously, cannot afford every desire of theirs. She has stopped feeling guilty. She does not blame them.

Back in the day, i thought, we were such tolerant kids - if our mother told us, she could get just a dress each for a certain festival, we were ok. And, father assured us, that we would look very beautiful in that one dress even if we wore it for 5 consecutive days, we believed him. There were also many festivals, where we gave up small luxuries of buying a new dress or toy because the computer fees had to be paid.Such innocent times!I don't remember feeling threatened or small if my neighbour had more dresses and toys - i feel hugely blessed to have had such a secure childhood of contentment with whatever we had. I wish to pass that to our children even if we are economically slightly better off. 

The rate at which kids evolve these days is frightening at times.And, if we are not able to give them a feeling of security (not to be read as wants and desires) in such highly-paced consumerist times, what are we leaving them with? I know of two 3-yr old kids in the block who refuse to read books, they would read it from the Kindle.Okay, point taken. Their parents beam with pride at their gadget-savvy behaviour but i really don't know.

Okay so back to Kavitha. I calmed her down and told her to keep faith and, that help will come in some or the other form. No problem in this world goes unattended.And, it's time she asserted herself a little more firmly.Instead of discontinuing the education of the girls in private schools, she may choose the option of sending them to a govt-aided school. Her girls will benefit from a lot of schemes and scholarships. Of course, the veneer of a is not all that appealing with the kind of facilities outside education, that public, private and international schools provide.At the end of the day, she has to make up her mind. 

All I could tell her is, she should operate within her means and not promise the moon to her girls. Disappointment is a bigger problem to deal with than reality. The reality is, by the time the girls turn 18, they would have to be married off and given their economic and social strata, too much of a flashy lifestyle or education can be a disadvantage at times in terms of adjustment. And, they have no assets in terms of gold, silver or even some plot of land. Kavitha was in for a rude shock. I told her to start saving up some of her earnings - like try and make ends meet by not claiming her pay from one house out of the four for a period of six months. See how difficult and manageable it is. With that corpus, she could invest in silver anklets for both her girls and lock them away in the bank. 

I have not told her but I plan to open a savings account for her this coming New Year.At the end of the day, I realised both of us are no different. We  all work our souls off to care for our families.

The transition

About a month away from Arjun's birthday, my landlord decides to throw a tantrum.The timing couldn't have been more perfect.My million dollar maid was on vacation for a month and i had 2 young cousins of V coming home for the school summer break. So yeah, back to the landlord. He wants to come home for an inspection, we happily obliged. He didn't seem to have a problem with the way we have been maintaining his house, he admitted it's better kept than his - and also,dropped a nugget or two of his late father's wisdom that a clean kitchen and a cleaner bathroom is an indication of a well maintained house. In other words, we qualified for his late father's praise and compliment. 

We also maintained a lovely green patch and a mini pond. We had about some 50 potted plants and some lovely fish swimming in the gleaming sunlight reflected water.He looked around and then, he just lost it that his 15-yr old well maintained tiles are rusty and spoiled.Of course, the color of mud that spills from the pots while watering is the 'rust' and the water scales have done his tiles in. We were both taken aback, he orders us to keep just 10 pots and the rest can be moved to his bland garden downstairs and we should continue maintaining them there and the mini-pond, apparently is bending his concrete roof and cracks are showing up. I was very flustered, i didn't wait to negotiate - i just confronted him that he was complaining after 18 months and if at all, he had problems with keeping plants at home, he should have objected in the very beginning and that portico-stretch was meant for plants and those cracks existed even before we moved in. He stopped short and then mumbled something. He said if at all we loved plants, we should enjoy the coconut and gulmohar trees around, see there is so much of green cover around.But, those rust stains should go and asked us for a timeline. We  were like ok. Give us 2 days and mind you, we cannot use chemicals, we should use soap and water.

The jolt was so sudden that we both didn't know how to react. So many mornings and evenings, we have had our cuppa there, spent quiet moments of reading and listening to the chirps of our feathered friends and enjoyed the blossoms. Suddenly, the love and comfort that sanctuary provided just slipped by. I felt disdain and pity for this old grumpy Reddy.He comes from a generation where his father worked hard to put him into a REC and got him some privileged land in Jubilee Hills while he landed a civil engineer'post in the State Govt. Everything came easy with the babu-giri. Appreciation of finer things seemed a distant thing for this old man.

His nagging got worse, we didn't get affected anymore. He was not happy that the stains went away, he finds the tiles duller and the shine gone.Ok, after 15 years definitely.We asked him pointblank, what he wanted.I told him, i will remove all the pots and the pond within a week.He gave me a smug look of satisfaction, he still tried to be reasonable and asked us to shift the pots to his garden and we could continue to look after them there. I conveyed to him that i'd give away the plants for free to anyone but not shift to his garden.Sorry.

Thankfully, i had enough and more friends willing to adopt my plants and fishes and, in record time, got them moved to their new happy homes. 

The next few spanners were even more bewildering.Sonny boy had just learnt how to stand and wobble around. The two young cousins loved to play with him, so some thuds and tapping of feet.Old man sends us a warning not to walk around with heavy sounds.Ok. Then, the use-water-within-rations, despite us paying 700 bucks every moment and there being a borewell, not like we waste rivers. But he won't repair the leaking cistern and the taps that have given away.He expects us to adjust despite the handsome rent we pay.It was getting very annoying. We asked him if he wanted us to leave the house, he said no.Then, i recollected, he had wanted an untimely rent hike within the 1st one year in the name of inflation though our rental agreement stated the 10 percent hike would happen in 2 years. And, i had put my foot down strongly that if i had to accommodate his out of agreement demands, god alone knows what all i should be prepared for,going forward.So, the agreement was a farce? He withdrew then. So, the growing and annoying menace was part of his getting back at us for refusing him his untimely hike. 

I stopped feeling harassed. I felt really sorry for him for all the petty tricks he was trying. His poor wife with severe varicose veins wanted to learn how to bake cookies at my place, i was polite. His elder son still addressed me warmly as Bhabhi.To make matters more annoying, these two young cousins took great delight in plucking raw mangoes from his backyard on those sleepy summer afternoons. How can you ask young teenagers not to? One can't keep count of the number of mangoes but he definitely counted his pomegranates which reached our long running corridor. 

I let go, asked V to let go and not feel provoked. We had the best memories in this house - we had just moved from the US, couldn't have been happier with such a spacious old world house, high ceilings, a European bath-tub and such amazing foliage.The ornate book-shelves, the amount of open space Sonny boy had to feel his feet, the number of slumber parties and sleepovers of our friends, the unending movie-sessions.

It was only a matter of time before we picked up the cosmic signals. Destiny wanted us to move to a newer pasture,to newer opportunities and to a new city. We had gotten way too comfortable with our beloved city and why not- the city where i was born, the city where V moved in as a child with his parents, the city which brought V and me together, the city where our Sonny boy was born, a city special for so many reasons.

Time to move on, time to pack our bags, time to be ready for change.Always.

No one asked me

Crime Patrol on Sony Entertainment TV is kinda interesting at times. Deals with the staple - murders, thefts, drugs, social crimes across age-groups, from every possible remote corner of India and gives the viewer details of the case, matter-of-fact with all its challenges and all.

This one particular episode was around dowry harassment cum-murder.A wife, with 95 percent burns in the ICU and  indifferent in-laws absconding. We hear of such stories in North India on an everyday basis - we cringe and condemn, feel bad and forget about it, with a silent thank god - our daughters are safe or this has not happened to me.Dowry is no longer a North Indian thing now, it is so widespread and has social and religious sanction in some or the other twisted form.

Part of the reason why my folks resented my marriage into a North Indian household is the fear of dowry. As much as I am thankful to my parents for a golden childhood despite economic constraints, I am deeply upset with my father for doubting his middle class upbringing, his child of being incapable to hold on her own and for not being there for me, even now. Only, if he trusted the way he has raised me and that, V is an awesome person, without any trappings. 

The true meaning and original intent of dowry is lost thanks to the whims and manipulations of those empowered. In a faraway hamlet in Mawlynnong in Meghalaya, it is still the norm of the village and community to help a newly married young man and woman to start house. The community takes pride and responsibility to build a house, give them some fowl, household needs and life starts. This, in my understanding is dowry. And, good dowry at that.

MIL often goes nostalgic, that "all things" used to come from the girl's house and that, the girl's family used to bear all expenses and relatives from the boy's side were given "expensive" gifts at weddings, post weddings, even at childbirth, WTH..I also make no bones about the fact that our community is totally against dowry in plainspeak and no showering of unnecessary gifts happen and wedding expenses are always shared.There are those Tom and Jerry moments.

So yeah, the 95 percent burns wife lying in a ventilator on TV. I was educating P about the evils of the dowry system and all.The TV suddenly faded and P tells me she saw her mother burning like this. I was taken aback. No one in the family knows what actually happened. The blame game is still on for the last so many years. I also don't believe in digging up a painful past. In whatever graphic detail she told me, it left me shaken and strangely enough,P felt liberated after so many years. She has become numb to the taunts and humiliation that come with being a semi-orphan. I asked her what made her tell this to me. She told me she has not shared this with anyone and she still does not know why she shared with me. She said she felt overwhelmed after hearing those words on TV - 95 percent burns. What triggered after that, I know. 

Factually, P is the sole witness to the entire thing but the police never recorded her statement. She feels she was too young - 9 years to be precise. The elders also never bothered to ask her - they have been bullshitting around the matter till date. She does not remember her mother so much these days, it's been 7 years now. Anger comes and goes when old familiar spots are visited. She remembers her mother scrubbing her hard during baths and caning when she was naughty. That is all. Her mother fought for a week and wanted to speak to her. When P was taken to the ICU to meet her, she got so frightened at the blackened sight of her mother, she ran away.Does she regret that? She does not know. 

I told her she should never ever resort to the kind of thing her mother did. P told me,she won't and that she loves her life and that there are enough people in the family  who keep reminding her that her life is worthless and that she might end up like her mother. So she wants to prove a point. 

Right now, P is in boarding school and in the 8th standard. Her annual exams are just a month away. She is not the brightest but she is sort of hardworking. Life has distracted her pretty much. I promised to her that we'd learn driving in the vacation and how to operate a computer. I just hope and pray she clears her papers safely.

A good year gone by and a great year ahead!

So 2012 was very,very good. Arjun arrived in style.No hassle,no fuss - more on that later. He was this little heavyweight who knew what he is here for. He was watching movies with us from day 4 of his arrival and what a movie to introduce him to - Rowdy Rathore!

After my nice ManFriday decided to leave for Bombay, i ran into help/maid worries in the peak of my pregnancy and post-delivery.But then, babies bring their own luck come what may. Touchwood, i have a million-dollar angel, ready to mould in whatever way i wanted her to be. She knew nothing when i took her in but she was willing to learn and took care of me, post that. Family and relatives come and go, but she remains.You get the drift.When hubby dear and i have those rare arguments,she ends up crying. She has one landmark statement for me - "Didi, you are serious when you speak to Saab in English." Serious meaning sad,tensed or angry.

Hubby dear got our favourite big car, we have done 3 road-trips already - one by ourselves,one with family and one with friends. And, the list of 'where next?' is getting longer!

I have a learner's licence now!I know how to drive, technically and practically. I still need to practise to be a pro.Hubby says, it will take a year and i believe him.

2 weddings in the family - and babies already on the way! Isn't that awesome?

Arjun continued to regale us. When he was just a month old, he had his first flight and he was very chilled out, no mid-air drama!And, he was equally comfortable in the Mumbai locals.

Time for Arjun's passport. And thus, photo time!The very decent passport photo that we have is the result of 20 minutes of struggle at the studio. A point came when the very patient photographer nearly lost it - 15 takes and 15 expressions and none of them Passport-worthy! Finally,hubby alone knows what magic he did, the 16th take was okayed! And, oh yes! His passport arrived in good time.

His mundan ceremony took us to MP, the land of his father and forefathers- very calm and imposing.It was heartbreaking to see him give up those lovely silken locks which i took care for months since his birth. It was also our long due meet-the-relatives trip. We had a gala time!

And, in all these, our very dear friends were not far behind. A very dear friend about my age has adopted a big grown-up girl. And, both of them want to study! A few fell in love and also, moved on. Two got engaged.Yet another fought through work stress to be a super fit person. Some of my lovelies are raising  beautiful children and spreading so much cheer. We don't get time to speak everyday but we don't forget to remember them in our prayers and join them in their celebrations and victories and be there in times of difficulty.

Personal goals got mashed a little here and there. I couldn't devote much time to fitness but thanks to my Arjun, he makes me run, sometimes crib. I promise to read a little this year.

Yes, wanted to end this on a super-high note.I went berserk talking to weavers of Chanderi and Maheshwari saris and came home with 9 breathtakingly gorgeous saris,4 lovely dovely dupattas and  plenty of other knick-knacks.And,i didn't make hubby go bankrupt.

By the way, 2013 has just begun.