Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Matters of the heart

On Saturday, as I was feeding KB his cereal, my brother called me. I didn't know it was him, but since I could not really talk then, I let it go to the answering machine. I suddenly heard his voice, crying, as he began his message. Those moments are the worst. You wonder what happened and your mind races into all kinds of fearful thoughts. I ran and grabbed the phone. He told me that one of our family friends had suddenly died of a heart attack. Now this is not someone we were actively in touch with. But whenever we all met up at weddings or functions, we talked to each other with that sense of familiarity and liberty that only comes with people who are part of your childhood. Both of us were feeling quite miserable about this news. I hung up with my brother and called out to B and asked him to continue feeding KB. KB would normally refuse but somehow he sensed that I was upset about something and allowed B to take over. I ran upstairs to call the wife of our friend who had passed away. She is one of the sweetest people I know and quite young too - it was heart breaking for me to think she would have to now get on with life without her husband. She has a good job so at least she will be very busy and that will help ease the pain. Nevertheless, this kind of void never goes away.

We (our family) used to stay in a large rented house when I was a little baby. Now, A, the person who passed away in what would be considered midlife in this modern day, has known me since I was a little baby. He had his own business and was a talented Mridangist who played for top artists in his time. He was so casual about it. After many years of not being in touch with him I had some email exchanges with him in 06. So really speaking we hardly had any contact with him directly. But to think he passed away was so painful for both me and my brother - we are the ones who were more in touch with all of them.

Sometimes you don't actively keep in touch with a person, don't think about them often. But when you do think about them, there is so much comfort in knowing they are there, a phone call away if you wanted to talk to them. Sadly, we often don't exercise it. And then they are gone. A sense of order in life is shaken up when the person suddenly is no more. A piece of your childhood is gone. It is not just him. I have had the misfortune of losing two very close friends - one to an impulsive act of anger and frustration a few years after his tumultuous marriage (he survived for a month and passed away), the other friend J, to a brain embolism. J was a physician herself and was supposed to go on her rounds at the research hospital she worked at - when she didn't show up - they went to her room to find her on the floor. She was my very close friend - I had lost touch with her for nearly two years. I thought of her so many many times, yet never picked up the phone to call her. One day I decided I just HAD to call her and looked her name up on the internet when it came up in a website for a funeral home. Everything matched to her name - but I could not believe it at all for I was in utter shock. J? J? J? I was shaking all over. I hit myself (not literally) a thousand times for not having been in touch with her. How could this have happened? She had died a year back and I didn't even know. She was an utterly brilliant student and the apple of her father's eye. The first child amongst three and she made her parents feel so proud of her. She went to top schools and excelled in whatever she took up. She used to tell me that her mother used to take her to so many classes when she was in school and that her life was so busy. She slogged all her life and just when her career had reached a point where she was reaping the fruits of her hard work, she was taken away from this world ruthlessly without warning. And the worst part, I didn't even know. I could not get in touch with any one in her family to know what had happened. No one picked up the phone or replied to my letter. Finally I wrote to her research advisor at the university where she was a fellow and he told me what had happened. Knowing what had happened is the best closure I could get. I never got a chance to tell her how much she meant to me.

Somehow now I feel nervous when I hear a voice breaking up on the answering machine - I fear the worst. Death is so final, an uncompromising phenomenon that those left behind have to contend with and have no choice in the matter. You are left with memories, you know you have to go on. Even in the worst of cases - mother, father, spouse, even the most cruelest of all, death of a child, people find ways to go on. Because they just have to. There is no choice in the matter. But each time I think of some of the people who have gone in the last five years or so, relatives or friends, I wish for one chance to talk to them again...knowing it will never be.

There is more fear in my system now that I am a mother of two children and am so deeply attached to my husband and children. I have forgotten how carefree I used to be as a student, not really thinking much about death. I used to drive between two states, alone, late at night never really afraid of what if I had an accident. Now I think of what my children will do without me and I am more careful about such things. I have now dealt with the loss that comes from losing close ones and I find myself fearing the loss of people I feel I can't even live without. I tell myself I should make more of an effort to be in frequent touch with people, but am also unable to live life thinking that a certain person might be gone, hence I should be in touch. You just take life in stride and you write when you feel like it. I am able to accept the death of people who have had a full life and passed away in the natural cycle that life is supposed to be. But when people die young somehow it is so hard to accept.

Many of you may have followed this news about the death of Tim Russert, the "Meet the press" anchor. He suddenly died of a heart attack. This is someone who could afford and got the best care needed to be in good health. And supposedly he did exercise and did his bit to maintain his health. And there is so much controversy now if his death could have been prevented had they used a defibrillator on time. And as I read this I think to myself that I don't even know how to use a defibrillator. If it is so important to administer it in time to save a life, I should take a CPR course and learn it. Because there are a couple of people I know who are diabetic, have high cholesterol and lead stressful lives. A part of me wants to be fatalistic and think, if this can happen to Tim Russert, it can happen to anyone. But statistics show otherwise. Proper and timely care especially in the cases of stroke and heart attacks have definitely saved lives.

The other day B went to drop off my niece at her college. On his way back he was stuck in traffic due to a seven vehicle collision on the freeway. It had happened just as he entered the freeway. Probably seconds after. He came home close to midnight. I was annoyed that he got stuck in the traffic delay but mostly I was just thankful he got home. It turned out the two people who died in that accident were rear passengers who had not worn their seat belts and had been ejected and thrown out on the freeway. Two lives lost thanks to not wearing a seat belt. Gives me the shivers if I think about how many of my own family members don't wear their seat belts just because they are sitting in the back seat.

What is the point of this post? I guess there is no real point. But the hope that at least when we read about such things, we will do what we can to prevent needless loss of life. For when a life is lost, it is impossible to get it back. And yes, what prompted this post was the death of our young friend to heart attack and the memories of a few other people I lost in recent years came flooding back. I shall stop here for every day matters beckon me now.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Kutti girl turns one!

B and I woke up to KG calling out to us as she always does from her crib this morning. For a second we forgot that today was her birthday. I nursed her and passed the cozy bundle that she is on to B. He took her downstairs and I went back to sleep. An hour later, B brought her back into the room (this is our usual routine) when KB woke up. As she came crawling to my lap from the edge of the bed, I suddenly exclaimed to B, "Oh my God, it is her first birthday!". My excuse is that I was really sleepy when I woke up at 5.30 am because KG woke up three times unusually last night to nurse and I had to wake up to take KB to the bathroom too.

From that moment on, I have been so aware of this feeling that she is now a one year old. One! Not 3m or 6m - she is one! I can hardly believe it. When KB turned one I felt like I noticed the time passing by. With her, time just flew by. Last year this time, I was in the hospital, just having delivered her. The dramatic, lightning arrival of this little tigress! That's what we call her these days. She is bold, strong willed, confident, playful, affectionate, expressive and utterly delightful to us. And in her own way she is calm, composed and patient. I can hardly believe sometimes how she has a distinct personality at such an early age. I remember how KB's pediatrician told me during his 3m check up, "You try to remember all his infant personality traits...twenty years from now, you will think back and say, yes, he was that way even as an infant". He didn't mean that people don't change, but there is some distinct personality that is so inherent to the person that you can observe at a very early age.

During my second pregnancy, when I was about to go for the ultrasound that would also give me a hint of the gender of the baby, I had no expectations. I was OK with a girl or a boy. If I had any thoughts, it was just that I wanted the baby to be healthy. It was quite the opposite during my first pregnancy, I actually was sure it would be a girl, I only dreamed of a girl and wanted a girl child. And it turned out to be a boy at that time. For the second child, when the doctor told me (it was at 13 weeks I think, very early on) that he is 80% sure that it would be a girl, I had no feelings either way . He was a very experienced and funny Japanese doctor. Later when it was confirmed that it would be a girl baby, I just took it in stride. I didn't think much of it. It was my sister who e-mailed me saying how special it is to have a girl child and how much she enjoys having a daughter (she is now in high school). I would have been very happy had it been another boy. But now that I have kutti girl, I can see why my sister sent me that email. I love both KB and KG just the same. In fact people often tell me I have an extra soft corner for KB. I just think it has to do with his being the first child and how I feel protective towards him just because he is more sensitive compared to KG.

There is a certain bond you feel with a daughter that you just cannot explain. A feeling that comes from the common gender? A feeling that she will understand? That she already does? When I see how much she has helped me cope with the days soon after my mother left, I want to write her a letter now and show it to her later as to how she saved me from agony by being such an angel. Eating fast, sleeping on her own when she was sleepy because I had no choice but to sit and give KB his lunch. I just did not have the time to rock her to sleep the way I did when KB was an infant. She smiles at me as if knowingly and thumps me with her warm palm on my nose and cheeks. She is certainly not an easy child just because of how extremely energetic and fast she is in every thing she does. She cannot sit still for a minute. Our constant gripe is that we cannot hold her long enough to feel her cozy warmth. She asks to be carried only to squirm and jump out of our hands to grab some object that caught her attention from that vantage point. She is demanding because she needs to be watched or she will speed to the stairs and climb with squeals of delight while we come chasing behind her. She is always testing the barricades we put up for weak points and escapes to forbidden zones like the bathroom or the garage or the yard when we are not right next to her. I drop the spoon when I am feeding KB and run behind her screaming, "Oyi....oyi...KG KG KG, no, no no, no stairs" much to KB's delight. He just loves it when she is up to some mischief and I run and stop her.

DhaDHa is how she calls her brother. She came up with it on her own. That he is DHaDHa. She stresses on the DH and screams loudly for him when she hears his voice on the monitor downstairs as soon as he wakes up. She is usually awake an hour before him and is downstairs with B. Her eyes twinkle with delight when she sees him in the morning or when B comes back from work. She shows her love for people in the most expressive and outright manner. She squeals so loudly as if to welcome them. She loves playing with KB and pulling his hair and laughs with innocent abandon that makes my heart feel so full with joy. She fights with him like an equal when she wants what he has in hand. Which is usually all that she wants. The moment he loses interest, she does too. She is very aware of what his things are it seems like. If she sees his hat, she crawls to him and gives it to him. She stands freely and cruises holding on to furniture. She took one step a couple of times but has not walked yet.

She recognizes some tunes - especially "Twinkle twinkle little star". If she is eating and suddenly she hears that tune on one of KB's toys, she starts swaying her head side to side. She loves to imitate my facial expressions. If I smile and close my mouth and again smile and repeat that really fast, she does the same thing really fast. She loves fake coughs. If I notice her coughing, she gives me a smile and gives me fake coughs again and again. She loves to hide in the school bus tent and play peekaboo. After a long day when she is ready for bed, even if I am cooking or sitting at the high chair feeding KB she just drops what she is doing and comes and clings to my legs. Her silent and calm communication at that moment just makes me feel so at peace. The feeling that she knows to communicate with me knowing that I will understand her need at that moment. KB is most gracious at such times (when B is not home) and doesn't mind the interruption to his feeding. I take her upstairs and change her diaper, turn down the blinds, turn on the music and leave her in her crib. And off she goes to sleep.

I am glad to have been blessed with a daughter and like my sister wrote to me, I can already feel how special this relationship is going to be. Like different ragas, they both bring me joy and delight in their own special ways. I wonder how it was when she was not around for us, for KB, before she came into our lives last year. As I write this, I think of the time when B was trying to convince me that we should go for a second child. Providence was on my side and I am so thankful that I didn't stick to my original refusal to go for a second. All that I have had to give up for the sake of having KG, I would do so again if I had to. She really does make the family feel complete. Knock on wood. God please keep them both healthy, happy and safe.

Edited to add: I was giving KB his dinner this evening when she came and stood next to me looking at KB. As if to give me a gift on her birthday, she turned towards B who had just come back from work and took her first steps. She herself looked thrilled at her feat! Just two steps a couple of times and that was our sneak preview into her next big milestone!

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Getting the story out...

I sit in our cozy office room that gets converted into the nap room for KB as I write my posts each time. He sleeps on a fold out couch so I can be near him since he is a restless sleeper. If I pat him when he is restless, he just goes back to sleep so he gets a good couple of hours to nap. KG sleeps in her crib in our master bedroom. In the comfort of a cool room I sit and wander into the lives of others through their blog posts. I often have comments and responses composed in my mind as I read along - be it their posts or email to a group list. I sometimes get to write it down. At other times, I just let it pass since many others have already commented or responded already.

There is a feeling of camaraderie even without overt communication between all of us in the written medium when you read tales about people. At the end of it, at some level, we feel a common bond. Universal emotions that we all relate to. I suppose it is this feeling that makes it worthwhile to communicate a story to the rest of the world. That the reader will feel possibly enlightened and will relate to the words in your story.

A few days back, I sat down to eat my dinner after the rest of the family had had theirs. I picked up a recent issue of National Geographic to read as I ate my food. As I read the story about "The Sahel", I found myself in awe of the dedication of some journalists who are willing to put their lives at stake in order to get the story out to us. Not just the journalists but the entire coterie that works on a story - the translator, the photographer, the driver, every one of them. It is one thing to work on a story when you know you are going back to the comfort of your own home at the end of the day. But to willingly go into dangerous territory just because the people there deserve to have their story heard by the rest of the world is commendable. You can see the passion and dedication of the journalist shining through in such a story. And when it is about the human condition, you feel it at a deeper level - that universality of some emotions no matter how removed we are culturally.

Each time I think we don't have enough time to read all the articles in National Geographic and may be we should cancel our subscription, I find myself unable to stop it. It is a fantastic magazine that lets you travel to all corners of the world with it's brilliant articles and phenomenal photographs. They choose from nearly 20,000 photos and pick a few shots for every story. I leave you with an interesting excerpt from the story of the Sahel that I read the other day. The interview with the writer, Mr.Salopek was very interesting to read as well - his perspective on life and reporting was so full of wisdom and spoke of someone who had matured from having witnessed the world and having written about it.

Darfur—Towé village

On our first night in Darfur the gunmen forced Idriss and Daoud into a pickup truck and drove them off into the moonlight. They tortured them out there, tied to a thorn tree for three days. Me they pummeled without enthusiasm inside an abandoned hut in the burned-out village of Towé. Between sessions, I lay trussed on my belly, breathing hard against a dirt floor that smelled of rancid butter. I squinted out a brilliant doorway at two women.

They were planting sorghum in a dry wadi.

The women’s work appeared rudderless. They planted their seeds in lines that wriggled across the field, nudged here and there by whims of conversation. The older woman swerved whenever she told jokes, and her seed rows lurched like cardiograms. She giggled into her hands often, and I decided she must be mad. The younger one was more solemn. She toiled briskly, with a sense of purpose, as if engaged in a race, and her planting was much straighter. A tiny child crawled at her side, trying to eat the seed grain. The women labored like this all day. Then, late in the afternoon, they quarreled, and their plantings veered apart in rancor.

It occurred to me that the women were doing more than growing food. They were sowing their autobiographies.

Sex jokes, village gossip, little wisps of song, rebukes to children—all of it lay scribbled in the eccentric lines of their crops.

Women have been singled out for maximum violence in Darfur. Mass rapes by the janjaweed are systematic and well documented. As part of a Sudanese campaign of ethnic cleansing, women have been burned alive, shot, bayoneted, and dumped down wells. These stories, too, would be recorded in their fields. Lying in the hut, I imagined flying low over the savannas of Darfur and reading the women’s lives inscribed in plots of millet, peanuts, and sorghum. (See that row of melons ending abruptly at midfield? A Fur grandmother dropped her seed bucket and ran at the sound of approaching hoofbeats.)

In Towé the women were Zaghawa seminomads. The laughing one was named Fatim Yousif Zaite. She wasn’t crazy. She was 40, with the burning, clairvoyant gaze of the starving, and a smile that transmitted the innocence of her heart. She brought me gourds of asida, a yellow lentil paste she could hardly afford to share. Once, while untied to eat, I grabbed both her dusty hands in mine. She sprang back in fear.

But I only wanted to thank you, Fatim. You will always be with me. The janjaweed may toss your kids into vats of boiling water as they had done to children in another village, and the Sudanese Air Force may bomb your wretched fields as they had before, killing five of your family members. But for three days in Darfur you were my mother.

Here's a part of the interview with the writer Paul Salopek:

What goes through your mind now when you're asked about the experience?

You know, I've been asked a lot about the experience, and what I have to tell readers, colleagues, and friends is that what we experienced pales in comparison to what the people of Darfur live with every day they wake up. And in a sense, the experience made us truly Sahelian for about 34 days. We penetrated that bubble of being a journalist-observer and suddenly became participants in our own story. So if you want to look on the bright side, it gave us maybe a little more understanding about the plight of the people of the Sahel that we otherwise would not have had.

You became, as you say, truly Sahelian for 34 days. Given this experience, how do you think that people in these war zones exist in this constant state of fear and uncertainty?

I think the answer is simply because there's no alternative. You survive. And what it tells me is that we're tough—as a species we're tough. Men, women, children come out of these experiences scarred, often, but in some ways stronger. They use muscles that we all have, but that we who live in the peaceful corners of the world don't even realize we have and that we rarely use. But they're there. And if this had happened in North America, or if it happened as it did in Europe not so long ago, people do survive through the horrors, and I think that's a good lesson to take away.

So why place yourself at risk, given the increasing level of danger?

The risk of danger in covering war is the risk of being captured, being wounded or being killed—like a soldier, like a combatant. It has a very interesting clarifying effect on the reasons for why you do what you do, and you do have to ask yourself, Why am I doing this?

My answer is twofold. It's for the people who I cover whose stories I feel are not getting out, and to bear witness to darker corners of the world that the rest of the world chooses, for a variety of reasons, to avert its gaze from. And it's also for my readers, to be the vehicle for conveying that information as objectively as possible. I am not an activist—I am a journalist, a reporter. The moment I start taking on one cause or another and become an activist, that puts me in even more danger. So the only shred, the only fig leaf of protection that I have is the tiny claim to the man whose finger is on the trigger that I will be neutral.

So I do it for my readers, and I do it for my sources, who are ordinary people on both ends. I don't write for policymakers. I don't write for the people inside the beltway in Washington. I write for plumbers in Indiana and schoolteachers in California—the ordinary bloke on the street. And those are the kind of people that I cover too. I don't cover politicians, I don't cover kings or presidents. I cover people who live in huts or who live in houses or shantytowns, or who partake of the most common lifestyle in Africa, which is often pretty poor but on many levels very, very rich. Sometimes when I go to a fisherman's village in Nigeria, even though he's financially very poor, his family life is wonderful, and it's our task to convey all of that in its entirety and not just focus on the bad.