On a recent flight from Beirut, there was an impeccably dressed young woman, late teens or 20 at the most, who was flying into Doha to visit her uncle. It’s her first flight. And she is excited. She has dressed up for the occasion. Her phone camera at the ready. If I were a nicer person I would have offered to swap my window seat. Instead I offered to film the landing and take off. 

She smiled through a confusing seatbelt buckle, and played around with the inflight entertainment. 

I am closing in on 49. And I realise that those exciting firsts are far and few between. Apart from a new city or country, there are few other firsts that brings joy. 

This year especially had more than a few unwanted firsts. 

The first time I saw death up close

The first time I pondered the ‘peri-menopausal’ word.

The first time I was admitted to a hospital without a baby to take home at the end of my stay.

First time someone my age with black dyed hair thought I was as old as his mum. [Asshole got away with a stinky stare… ]

First time you leave home without a hug or a kiss.

The first time you keep big joys close to your heart because for the first time you don’t know whom to share it with.

My firsts these days are a reminder of my age and gender and my hair and my saggy bits. 

My firsts are now about estrangements and being alone, about coming to an uncomfortable truce with my body. 

All those glorious firsts that I failed to mark or celebrate enough… I crave a redo of some of them.

The people you hoped to have your many firsts with start dwindling, life takes a detour, plans that were not laid but were assumed go off course.

Then a few days after Beirut I was on another journey, and another and another… 

In the midst of all that, a DHL packet lands home – my first Master’s certificate, with an unexpected distinction. 

The firsts maybe far and few between, but I continue to live like I don’t have many left.

In between all the flights and drives, I grabbed hours and minutes of joy wherever I was. 

Middle of a conference, on the road between interviews, in strange countries and stranger terrains, sharing confidences with people I’ve never met and may never again.

Some firsts were reckless and risky, be it a trek I was unfit for but still ventured on to meet gorillas, or putting my trust in people without enough evidence to merit it.

2022 like my life in general has been incredible — spectacularly fulfilling and exciting, even when strangling doubts threatened to take over. Especially then.

Why we mark a year as a milestone, I don’t know. But it gives pause to take stock. I don’t have any expectations of the years to come; just that the adventures continue and my inhibitions are held at bay. And as I noted at the end of the pandemic year, so I will now too. This daughter of no expectations will persist

Remember to remember…

How old was I? 4 or 5? That Burma teapoy and the plastic doll still remain in my Amma’s home. The cane chairs are long gone. My cousin barely in the frame, my constant childhood playmate, I meet now only on occasion. In that glass case is a replica of some fort — Trichy or Tiruchendur, I don’t recall. It was gifted to my father at a conference. The panchaloham vase must be somewhere gathering dust. The red oxide floor remains, chipped and aged. The photographer once a trusted family friend is now banished from our life.

And there I am, in focus. A dress sewn by my Amma. My hair oiled, tamed and tied into small ponytails, most probably by Anjalai – my caretaker, my protector, my safe space when home was becoming less so.

There I am, captured in a frame, as I hold one of the many conversations with my closest friend. It wasn’t until many years later that I realised that the doll was sitting on a potty. As a child I just thought he was sitting on a moda, bare-bummed.

So here I am, some 40+ years later, looking at the little me.

Did she know that the viewfinder saw a prey not a child?

Did she know that just a few years later the hands wielding the camera would move on to her. Groping, pinching, rubbing, scarring her heart and mind, instilling fear and shame…

I look at that photo, and all I can feel is the angst of the years that would follow.

I wish I could recall as quickly the more pleasant memories, because they existed in parallel – choosing the fabric for the dress, being measured by my Amma, playing choppu with the cousins (one of whom is in the frame), long conversations with my bare-bottomed friend, my athai’s tender hugs and loud smacking kisses on the cheek, Anjalai patiently feeding me a meal, watching Rajni films on Sunday evenings with my cousins on their B&W TV.

Those are memories I must remember to remember, and sometimes question.

Because, that little one in the frame had her childhood tainted and stolen…

Kites and memories

Coloured paper left over from the school year (or if we had enough money, new sheets from a neighbourhood market); branches of a coconut frond stripped or sticks stolen from the household broom; homemade glue… all of this in plain sight more or less. 

Then came the sly work. In the narrow dingy space between the neighbour’s home and ours. Glass bangles from my place and old bottles from the trash crushed to powder. Rice or maida (stolen from one of ours homes) and water in an old Dalda can over a crude fire. A spool of thread strung, several times over, between the external plumbing pipe that connected the kitchens on every floor at home, and the window bar of the neighbour’s home. 

The pain came before the pleasure. Applying manja on the thread with bare hands, leaving behind fine cuts on our tender hands that stung for days. As the manja thread dried crisp in the Madras heat, the paper was cut to shape and size, the curved stick holding the breadth, the straight one holding the length. A long colourful tail designed from leftover bits.

Resident and visiting cousins, friends from the colony ~ all little boys except me and on occasions another girl cousin. The girls were tasked with the decorations, the stealing of glass bangles, the distracting of parents. Then up the ladder to the mottai maadi on the 3rd floor, in the hot Madras afternoons, when the adults at home napped. 

One little boy held the spool, one reined the manja thread, and a third jumped high giving the kite lift. Then as the lone boy flew the kite, the rest of us gave direction. Several more kites took to the skies. Other groups of cousins and friends from other streets. Other little girls standing by without protest?

Today, a few decades after my own summers on the periphery of kite flying, I watched this boy. He threw me a cursory glance before struggling to give his store-bought kite a lift.

The Daughter of No Expectations

To be noticed was to be criticised; for being too messy, too indisciplined, too lagging behind in studies, too busty, too mouthy, too big, too much of all things undesirable.

But as long as I could fly low, at a pace that did not disturb peace, with noiseless stealth, I could do what I want, be who I want. A blur. The lack of gaze was my armour.

Kashmir 1984

So I flew low.

The youngest of four children, everything I could say and be was already done. Between the three they had been prettier, naughtier, fairer, smarter, weaker, sicker. A penis would have been the only thing that set me apart, favourably, or so I was told repeatedly, when the gaze did fall on me. 

So I grew steady wings that helped me fly low.

Amma, me, my imaginary friends

There was no expectation of me except that I inconvenience no one by being called to school over a bad report or falling ill or be needy of attention in any way. It did happen a few times. But by and large, I flew low.

You see, flying low was my superpower.

To go undetected into spaces that allowed me to discover things about myself and others that a constant gaze on me would have disallowed. I became the aggregator of people’s ticks and twitches. An expert at spotting the weird uncle and nasty aunt, through their smiles and gifts and overtures. A keeper of secrets I stumbled upon.

Couple of years ago, a handsome, lovely, impossibly youthful nonagenarian uncle (‘nana’) visited me, and while browsing my bookshelves, asked, “when did you change ma? You were so ordinary when you were a child.”

I took no offence, because what he meant by ordinary was the fuel to fly low.

I did not change as much as I imbibed. From friends who loved me, the ‘maid/nanny’ who adored me and cousins who enjoyed my company, and equally from those who preferred me invisible, absent or in the margins, giving me the power to observe without being observed.

I wanted to tell nana I was still ordinary, but just ordinary in a way he didn’t expect me to be. 

Because, I am the daughter of no expectations. 

Not enough has been researched about lack of expectations. That it can be exhilarating for many.

As an adult, and many years after the fact, my firstborn helping me clear the shelves of my childhood room asked my mother, “ammamma you must have been so proud, all these certificates, all these prizes, all these things she wrote when she was young, the college magazine and the youth tabloid.”

Path of least attention…

Amma, whose lack of expectation was truly wrapped in love and not to deflect disappointment, looked sad. “I never knew, she never told us.”

So, not speaking of what I failed or passed in was me flying low.

You see, wins left mementos. The no-wins only left impressions.

Then suddenly, what I did, my ordinary, every day work, was not mine to hide. My name sneaked up on them in the newspaper they subscribed to speaking of corruption, malaria, sex, sexuality, STDs amongst other taboo subjects. Just my double-barrelled name, no surname, no initial – bald, devoid of strings that attached me to other identifies, other people. An ordinary name.

There I was, the core of me, stripped of expectations and all things burdensome. More ordinary than ever, I thought. But the silent disavowing of even a glint of expectations only drew more attention.

But, I was still flying low.

I left my hometown, my country, and the periodical family dos and dramas. When I wanted to fly higher, I did so where no one knew me.

I was once again occupying spaces no one expected me to be in, the conspicuousness fleeting enough, I could go back to flying low. 

What can be expected from the only woman in a room full of older men, the brown one in a meeting full of white people, comfortable in a field full of the fashionable? So everything I said and did, the most mundane of stuff, was not seen as ordinary simply because…

As a wife, and then a mother to children considered not fully ordinary by their aunts and uncles and grandparents… My very being and doing was enough.

You see, the power of having no expectations being foisted on me, gave me a lightness of being. A freedom of movement. An uninhibited desire to relish my life. To parent without judgement.

2009. My strength and my weakness, my whole heart and some more…

I will be 47 soon, and then 50 and 55 and 60… or maybe not. Who knows! No expectations beyond the now.

This daughter of no expectations will continue to surprise others with the ordinary things no one thought she could manage to do as a child.

It is this ordinariness of being, that nothing is expected of me, which has taught me implicit lessons in parenting I would not have learnt if I had tried.

It also helped me through the curveball this year has been.

I wish you all a year and lifetime of flying low!

The home that need built and love shaped

The house has many doors. Almost as if there were an infinite supply of wood and not enough bricks. The ground floor can be accessed from five different rooms — one in the front, two on the side and two at the back.

A narrow flight of stairs branches into two, providing two different accesses to the first floor. One at the front and one at the back.

Up another narrow flight of stairs from there, there is a small terrace and four doors leading to the five rooms. Inexplicably, one of the doors gives access to the bathroom from the outside.

In the narrow buffer between house and compound wall motorcycles and potted plants jostle for space.

There are two gates, where one would have sufficed, providing entrance to the house from the street. 

All this is not to say this is a mansion. It is a very modest house, on a tiny plot of land, framed by two coconut palms and very little by way of a garden, but every free space had a plant or a sapling, the moringa and papaya trees, and nithyamalli creeping up over the gate and the sunshade.

Every single room in the house connected to two other rooms at the minimum. Sometimes even three. On the walls with no doors windows flourished.

At the peak of its occupancy this haphazard building housed four different families, 22 people little and big, and four active kitchens vying with each other to offer delicacies at every meal (my Amma’s was the best), but just one telephone (at my home) and one television (at my uncle’s) and lots of gossip all around. It hosted a few funerals, some engagement parties, countless gatherings, a handful of bride-viewings, several births and one marriage (my own).

But it didn’t start off that way. 

It was a little less chaotic and better planned as a dwelling when 46 years ago my parents and grandparents moved in with four young girls  – my three sisters and aunt. I was still the embryonic hope of a boy, resting inside my heavily pregnant mother. This house was primarily her dream, to own the roof she lived under, as her husband was almost averse to wealth-accumulation.

In the beginning, it had a ground floor with two columns of three rooms each and a second storey with a scattering of rooms, not one of which had a designated purpose – including the kitchen that shape-shifted based on the residents.  

The rooms were tiny, it could either take a comfortable-sized cot or a proper almirah. So if the almirah was too big, the cot had to be tiny, or be done away with altogether and replaced with coir mats.

As the family grew, and with it the expenses, the single income had to be supplemented with rent, so rooms were added, new doorways incorporated, and an extra floor built. When I left home and our pet had to be moved out of my room, a small kennel was built for him near the well and the hand pump.

In my rented apartment now I hesitate to even drive a tiny nail into the wall, and I think often of what went through my parents’ mind to constantly tear down walls or put new ones in, and none of that to enhance the appearance of the house but merely to make it accommodate more. 

More people. More aspirations. Just more of whatever was needed that month, that year…

That house, with more doors than rooms, has never been without people or bolted up. It carries some bitter memories, as all homes do. But more importantly it carries freedom, warmth, and an unbridled ambition of the numbers it can accommodate.

And the kitchen in its tiniest avatar, when the house was at its modest, always had enough to feed surprise guests of whom there was a steady stream. From relatives and friends of relatives, to cousins from far away towns coming to Madras to study, and all the buddies we accumulated over the years… those badly planned rooms hold many secrets and laughs and tears, securely held by doors made of wood so flimsy that one shove could break the bolts. Those doors were never meant to keep people out, just to protect us from the vagaries of Madras weather, the nesting sparrows (which still would sneak in) and the stray cats.

Over the decades the house had gained a few monickers, only one of which endures. Like No 10, this home is simply called 83 by all who know and love the place.

Affluence over the years meant that some of the changes were better planned. The sit-out added to the first floor about 18 years ago, for my mother, has now been taken over by my 87-year-old father who can’t go down as frequently to his office. Yes, part of the ground floor now has a new purpose – his law offices. Another little balcony, off the tiniest and busiest room of the house, was built last year so my 80-year-old mother can still sit outside, enjoy the cool neem shade courtesy a tree next door, watch the street, chat with the neighbours, admire her plants and haggle with the street vendors as she dangled the basket tied to a long rope. 

There are just six people in the house now. My ageing parents and the tenants below who are almost family. There are too many doors and too few people to mind it, so many of these often remain absent-mindedly ajar through the night. The creaky doors await the arrival of guests…  it’s been five months.

It was a house that need (and my father) built, and a home that love (and my Amma) shaped.

Edited: Last visit home I realised there is a fifth door on the ground floor, edited to reflect that.