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A Vishu Story

Leela stepped out in to the cool dusk evening and looked up at the sky. It was a couple of days to Vishu, but the sound of crackers could be heard around the neighborhood. Smoke rose in the distance, and the rat-tat-tat sound of fireworks added a repetitive symphony to the evening. The cicadas and nightjars were temporarily silenced but their faint buzzing and calling continued, unheard by human ears. The kitchen was a bit of a bustle, and she wondered if she needed to go in. She decided to stay out a little longer. Her mother would be already at work, prepping for dinner. And her sister would be helping too. Yes, she could stay out some more. Vishu was a beautiful time of the year. It arrived early April, just as the sun began to turn redder and warmer, but not quite in the “hot-sweaty” range yet. And the nights were breezy and cool. How many days before the searing heat descends, she wondered.

The fireworks continued unabated. But now they sounded harsher, louder. It wasn’t the light rat-tat-tat any more. They were bringing out the “bombs.” She often wondered what the fun and joy was in them. They had no light or drama, just an ugly sound that reverberated through the homes, ears, and hearts. They were ominous, mean-sounding, and cruel. And they got progressively louder. And they lacked the repetition, so one never knew when to cover the ears. Not that covering the ears made a difference. The sound burned its way through, leaving ear drums throbbing and hearts thudding. Each year, someone would invent (or manufacture) a louder contraption that created a sound more awful than the one people enjoyed the year before. And so on it went. This is a guy’s thing, she sighed. Yet another toy that we have to endure for their sake, ugh. She hated to see the house pet Silky on these nights. The little dog would cower under the bed, shivering and whimpering. She wouldn’t be comforted, no matter how hard anyone in the family tried. Even as the kids hugged her, she trembled in their grasp. Fear showed in her eyes and paws and mouth. Leela wondered if she should ask the vet for a light tranquilizer, so she could have Silky fall asleep for a few hours, a brief break from the rat-tat-tat and the nasty bombs.

But Silky wasn’t the only one frightened of loud sounds and fireworks. Leela’s 7-year-old daughter Mini was equally affected. Diwali ended up being the worst time of the year for her. In a small flat in Bombay, there aren’t enough places for a little girl to hide. The bedroom was compact and comfortable, but it had a window that faced the neighboring apartment building. And the teenage boys who lived there spent hundreds of rupees each Diwali on fireworks. So she couldn’t hide in the bedroom for long. The kitchen was a better spot but it was adjacent to the living room which had a large window overlooking the water tank and play ground. Folks congregated out there to burn their hard-earned money, throwing it up in flames. No, it was torture, and it had to be endured, year after year.

But Vishu was somewhat different. For one, the bombs weren’t as fancy or loud, and the sounds never felt as harsh as what one experienced during Diwali. Perhaps it was the surrounding tree cover that muffled the noise, trying to comfort little souls like Mini and Silky. Maybe people didn’t have as much money to spend on pyrotechnic displays. Maybe they were more sensible than their Bombay counterparts.

Leela stepped into the home and walked into the kitchen. Where are the kids, she asked her sister. They are out front, bursting crackers. Madhu got some “flowerpots” and sparklers this morning.

The kids were out in the front yard, using incense sticks to light the “flowerpots” and sparklers and string-style crackers. It was a merry sight, their faces suffused with joy and golden light. She looked around but she couldn’t find Mini. She stepped back into the sitting room, walked through the kitchen, out on to the patio… no Mini to be found. Finally, in the bedroom, she saw her huddled in a corner. Tears were running down Mini’s cheeks, and her little body shook. Her nose was starting to drip, and she sniffled continuously. It was a sad scene, almost pathetic.

Leela closed her eyes. Aargh, she thought inwardly. Why is this child so frightened? Why is she the only one so frightened? Why isn’t she like her sister, her cousins? Enough is enough.

She opened her eyes. Yanked Mini’s arm forward. Come out, everyone is outside. No, Amme, I am scared! There is nothing to be scared, it’s only fireworks. It is just sound. Come out. No, Amme, please!

Leela dragged her little daughter out of her hiding place, as Mini pulled back, frightened. Her sobs gained in intensity, her body wracked with tears and coughing. The crying only served to annoy Leela even further, and she continued to pull her daughter out, on to her feet.

Finally, Leela’s mother stepped out of the kitchen. Stop it, let her be. It’s alright.

So many years later, Mummy apologized to me for that night, tears forming in her eyes. She could hardly believe that she had been so insensitive to my fear, so blind to my pain. I had consigned that incident to a remote corner in my memory where it bothered me no more. I faintly remember the details of that night but it doesn’t plague me at all. Mummy, I think, carried guilt and regret for what she said and did. I assured her that I was fine, no damage done… I am free. And now I hope that she is too.

Equal and Separate

One of my nieces is a high-school teacher. She was asked by a student, “Do you have a favorite student?” She responded, “Do you have a favorite teacher?” Her point was, yes, of course. She had some students who were absolute darlings, and then there were others that she wished would stay home more often. But as a teacher, she was clear that her personal feelings about the students were separate from how she treated and evaluated them.

Perhaps it is the same for a parent?

As an adult, I often reflect on my own childhood. It was perfect. Or was it? Well, what is perfect? Perfect does not exist. We are groomed to put a positive spin on every experience. Perhaps it is a technique to stave off pain, to prevent an emotional setback. So we layer the prettiest colors over all our experiences, refusing to see the blacks and dark greys underneath.

Who’d relish knowing that perhaps, they were the less favorite (or less favored) child?

I think each parent relates to each of their offspring in a different way. Maybe you share a passion with one of your children. Or maybe both of you have similar aspirations. And then it could be that you share nothing in common with the other child. Or maybe s/he is so similar to you that it becomes a bit of an irritant, a sad reminder of some sort. Perhaps you have a dream that one of them looks poised to fulfill. Perhaps there is a natural reserve in one of the relationships that simply cannot be overcome, despite your best intentions. Maybe one of the children is a natural attention magnet, and all of it flows in their direction.

After all, parents are human too.

I know it is common to evoke compassion at this point. To encourage adult children to forgive and forget, to focus on the present, to let go.

Perhaps these actions, if undertaken in a spirit of sincerity and empathy, serve their purpose. Perhaps they bring closure and peace. Or maybe they take a lot of effort and energy, and you end up empty-handed, right where you started.

I think truthfulness can help. By not pretending, not hiding ugly emotions behind positive affirmations, by not prettifying unpleasantness… we may hope to gain closure. It sometimes feels long and arduous, but it will ultimately heal hearts and minds, I think.

A Strong Case for Children

A long time ago, I wrote a post making a strong case for marriage. Well, I am qualified to write/talk about marriage… but kids? No experience, I agree… but insights, I do have. Here is my inexperienced and somewhat intuitive take on why kids can be a good idea.

Daddy, me

Daddy, me

Parents are likely the most unselfish people on the planet. A somewhat easy way to experience unconditional love is to birth/raise a child (The other easy/difficult way is to attain enlightenment, I jest not). The child-parent relationship is beyond logic and reason. Parents can move mountains, walk through fire, swim across an ocean… give up their life for sake of their child. Yet these very parents sometimes become the most obnoxious individuals ever. They lose perspective completely… yes, on account of their little ones.

Part of the problem lies with conflating love and attachment. Attachment is binding and restrictive, while love is utterly freeing. Children cannot be bound to their parents against their will. That, in a nutshell, explains the parent’s dilemma. Learning to love without attachment is probably the lesson every parent has to learn.

(Read Gibran’s “On Children” where you can read a fluid and poetic version of my awfully clumsy and cumbersome explanation.)

Yet, children can be a medium for the lesson that Life wants parents to learn. To give without expectation, to understand the meaning of love, to let go – every second, again and again.

Children have the capacity to bring innocence and freshness into our lives. A parent gets the opportunity to view the world anew through the eyes of their child. Children can grant purpose and meaning to a dull, boring existence. They shake up the mundane/banal elements in a relationship.

And for those among us who are not parents? No fear, we get our lessons through other means.

Blessed I am that I have parents who have always granted me love, freedom, space and independence…

Amaram, A Father’s Love

Amaram is a poignant tale of a widowed fisherman who raises his daughter with much love and devotion. She is a bright kid, and he dreams that she would be a doctor one day, saving the lives of women like her own late mother who died giving birth. Sadly for him, life has other plans in store for the family. The girl falls in love with the son of another fisherman, causing much distress to her father. He sees a bright future in store for her, but she only sees her lover. Nature takes a turn for the worse as a storm hits the seas, causing the lover to be lost at sea. The girl is distraught, she blames her father for everything. Finally, all loose ends are tied up although the ending is no typical happy one.

The film does not make for happy viewing but it has its beautiful moments. One of my favorite songs ever is ‘Azhake Nin Mizhineer Maniyil,‘ sung by Yesudas and Chithra in their golden voices, laden with meaning and emotion.

To me, this song is simply about the love of a father for his daughter. It is unconditional; it cannot but be otherwise. Yet, expectations weigh it down, causing the love to distort and lose its freedom and capacity for joy. A child can show us what it means to be totally and truly free, completely dispassionate and live in the moment. In a way, a child is an adult’s gateway to seeing enlightenment in action. Yet the parent’s love for his child can serve to bring him down, dejected and lost. That’s where knowledge comes in use. Yes, they are our children, but didn’t Gibran say that they are ultimately the children of God? By setting them free, we can experience freedom ourselves.

Easier said than done and no, I am not a parent. But I know parents who have walked this tightrope of love and freedom gracefully. Like my own.