Being a Puppy

There is an inherent disadvantage of being your father’s pet, especially as a daughter [AND only child]: there is very little I can say that he takes seriously.

Yesterday, Facebook threw up a memory for me:

Every time my father had to go to a doctor, guess who had to trot along? If you guessed me, you’re right. My mother is hopelessly squeamish, and once ran out of the room when I was at a dentist’s. So in order that my father have some level of moral support, I went along.

However, I soon realised that my father couldn’t be trusted to go to a doctor on his own. Because the doctor would ask: “Hello. How are you?” reasonably expecting a list of symptoms, and my absolute pest of a father would answer: “Very well, thank you. And you?” After a major facepalm and much rolling of eyes, I would interject, listing his actual symptoms, adding for good measure: “We wouldn’t be here, if he was fine!”

Anyway, it became a thing: I attended all doctors’ appointments henceforth. Mainly to ensure that he communicated his symptoms clearly, he asked the right questions, and got the information we needed.

Now, my father was a cartoon character, but he looked quite venerable and distinguished, with a shock of silvery hair and an elegant French beard. So it was understandably hard for doctors to lecture him. So I was the de facto target for all the lectures: “He has to lose weight! On a war footing!” and “You must be more careful with his diet!” and more along those lines. As though he wasn’t an autonomous adult with decision-making abilities, and I was force-feeding him.

My father sat back and listened to these tirades [directed at me] with the utmost serenity. Even secret glee, if truth be told. He was incorrigible.

We usually left these appointments with me swelling with annoyance and seething with unexpressed resentment, and waiting just to get back home to my lone sympathiser [mom] to ream him out.

Except none of my lectures had the tiniest effect. My father just stood there, looking seraphically at me, not taking in a word of my tirade. Somewhere in the middle [sometimes the middle of a sentence] he would turn to my mother and say: “She’s so grown up now. She was such a baby! She IS such a baby. She’s so cute.”

I mean, I was hardly ever angry with him, but hearing this, even the mild annoyance and sense of ill-usage used to fade away. It is endearing to be a 30-something year old, and still have your father look at you as his little girl. A little girl with pigtails and an upturned face with big eyes.

And then he used to say to me: “You’re my puppy, OK? Don’t try to become my grandmother!”

Well. Yeah.

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Book Review: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time

I read A Spot of Bother by the same author before reading this one, which is arguably the more critically acclaimed of the two. As I mentioned in the other’s review, a friend had recommended this book to me many years ago, but I never got around to reading it. There were many reasons, but chiefly it was because the opening scene is one of a dog murder.

I wouldn’t say I have an appetite for violence in stories – quite the opposite in fact – but I am able to reasonably hold myself together when the casualties are human. The trembling and wavering starts with violence against children and infants, but really gets unbearable when dogs and animals are victims. The helplessness and mute terror do me in. So this book stayed on the shelf, unread, for a long time.

Author: Mark Haddon

Story: Christopher is a 15-year old teenager with Asperger’s. He sees that his neighbour’s dog has been killed with a pitchfork one night, and sets out to investigate. He lives with his father and attends a school for children with special needs.

His investigation into the dog’s murder reveals a lot of hidden secrets in his life, forces him to deal with situations he finds very difficult, and finally sends him on a journey that changes everything.

Writing: The story is told in first-person narrative from Christopher’s point of view. As with all first-person narratives, it is intended to reveal more about the narrator than the scenes they describe. And in that, the writing really shines through.

I have never encountered anyone with autism, let alone with Asperger’s syndrome. Or if I have, I didn’t realise it. For me, the book provided extraordinary insight into the workings of a mind not quite like everyone else’s. I didn’t know that autistic people feel pain when they are overwhelmed. It was quite revelatory and shocking.

Therefore, I found the writing to be exquisite. Surprising, since I didn’t quite like the other book.

Characters: Another thing I learned: just because someone is differently abled doesn’t automatically make them a likeable person. Yes, there needs to be compassion and understanding when dealing with them, but they don’t need to become your best friend. Because I didn’t warm to Christopher. At all.

Nor the others for that matter. Each of the so-called adults in Christopher’s life, barring Siobhan, are selfish and struggling to cope with his condition. The struggle is real, because his eccentricities are difficult to comprehend or to consider. But honestly, none of them are the major sufferer, so can they please just get over themselves? There is very little about triumph of character in this book. Can’t there be a single person who can rise to the occasion and be, well, awesome? Well, in Mark Haddon’s books, the answer is a resounding NO.

Pace: Amazingly well paced. It isn’t an eventful book, but traversing the mind of Christopher is an adventure in itself. Utterly fascinating.

Conclusion: I’m glad I swallowed my inhibitions and read this one. It was eye-opening for me, and will help me become a little more empathetic in my dealings with people. I would say that is a successful outcome, even if I didn’t enjoy the book. Which I absolutely did. The book is amazing: easy to read, intriguing premise, well narrated, and unusual. All excellent ingredients for a book. Good read.

Rating: ✩✩✩✩

16 Years Later

Today is my grandfather’s death anniversary. It has been 16 years since he passed away. And I’m just now starting to understand why today is a monumental day for me. I was 18 years old at the time, and well able to process the idea of death. However, we were stuck in Dubai, and my grandfather was in Mumbai. So we didn’t actually see him at the end.

My grandfather first fell seriously ill in 1995, when I was 11 years old. So I didn’t get much of an opportunity to really get to know him. All I knew of him was that he was a kind man, gentle and mild, accompanied by stories from my mum about his heydays as a corporate head honcho.

We couldn’t attend his funeral, because we were, as I said before, stuck in Dubai. It was devastating for my mother, as she adored her father, and was very close to him. At the time, I didn’t realise understand the loss that she was facing. Her grief was absolute. It poured out of her in inconsolable waves, and my father and I became hapless and mute spectators, attempting to keep the family together as far as possible.

It was my first experience with losing a close loved one. The only major death before my grandfather’s was my dog’s [an Alsatian we had in Dubai], and she sickened and passed away in front of my eyes. I was somewhat prepared, even though grief-stricken.

14 years later, I lost my own father. There are few parallels with my grandfather’s passing, but it still served to put my mother’s loss into perspective. I finally really understood the grief she experienced, even though my grief is lodged somewhere in my system still; I haven’t been able to really let it air.

One day I will write my grandfather’s stories here too, because he was a truly remarkable soul. Till then, I will think of him with fondness because there is so much of him in my little mother, and she is a pretty kickass specimen overall.

Missed Connection?

I have asked myself why I am a magnet for married/otherwise committed men on a number of occasions. Do I look like the kind of person that condones cheating? Because I really do not. There is a strong streak of family bonding that runs deep in my psyche, as I come from a closely knit household. There is conviction in the sanctity of relationships, and trust that builds between people.

However, don’t we all know that nothing remains static? So yes, in the past I have been accommodating of dating a man who was in the middle of a divorce. [I was not the cause of this divorce; I came into his life much later.] But ultimately, it creeps me out when someone flirts with me, or worse propositions me, when they are in a relationship. It feels degrading and cheapening. I hate it.

Which is why the following incident had me in a tizzy for a while. But let’s start at the beginning.

One fine day, many years ago, a guy pinged me on Facebook. He had read some tech articles on a website I wrote for back then, and was pleasantly surprised to find out that the author was an Indian chick. We ended up chatting a bit, and we followed each other on Twitter. Twitter, being Twitter, is a great place to get to know strangers. In a sense, there is less of a privacy concern than on Facebook, so it is more relaxed overall.

He and I became friends, and we exchanged phone numbers. We messaged occasionally on Whatsapp, and met a couple of times in Bangalore [where he stays] and in Goa [where I stayed]. We were not romantically involved at all, although we were both single when we met.

As time progressed, he told me about being forced into an arranged marriage with a girl his family. Clearly he was very unhappy with this situation, but he was afraid of hurting/breaking ties with his family, so he expostulated only to a certain extent. The rest of the time, he moaned to his friends, got drunk with them, and then moaned to me. [He also tried to get the girl to dump him, but she refused.]

Messaging me when he was drunk should have been a red flag for me, but I disregarded it most of the time. The second red flag should’ve been the fact that he admitted talking about me to his friends. I disregarded that too. Frankly, he never made any overtures to me whatsoever. So these were minor behavioural outliers for me.

And then he fell headlong in love with a girl in Bangalore, who was – wait for it – also engaged to someone else. They continued on a torrid affair, and were really in love with each other. But family pressures being what they are, they split up, and she married her fiance. His fiancee finally did dump him, much to his joy, and he was “saved from the scaffold”.

I heard most of this saga in real time. And then somehow life carried us away from each other, me with a relationship that took much of my time, familial responsibilities, a move to Mumbai, and a new job. Him, I don’t know much, except he did eventually get married. Perhaps my life events kept him from messaging me too much.

That is until last week. When, completely out of the blue, I get this message. [The screenshot also has my responses.]

I suppose it goes without saying that I was scrambling for a response. So I went with: 1) A deflecting joke. 2) Micro-admission. 3) Change of subject.

It didn’t work.

It took me a good 10 hours to figure out what to say to his second and third message. I could have shut him down, saying he was being inappropriate, but did I want to be so harsh? I wasn’t sure.

If I was in a relationship, would this have happened? It could go either way. Having been with jealous boyfriends, they would not understand that I didn’t want to write off a friendship based on this level of inappropriateness. It isn’t a lot. But then it could have escalated, and I would have been in a soup. I’m not the type of person who hides these sorts of messages from my significant other, because transparency is important.

Basically, my mind was going around in circles because of all the variables, and I finally decided to laugh it off. It was a dismissal, but not a relationship-ending dismissal. Sigh. What treacherous waters we are forced to tread in human interaction.

This was the extent of the interaction, by the way. He has historically thought of me when he is drunk, and I cannot fathom why. And in the middle of the night. Again, red flag. He has never ever flirted with me, or hit on me, so I do not understand the workings of his mind. But I wish that these people, who I enjoy interacting with and whom I do not want to have to jettison from my life, would realise what a sticky position they put me in.

Imagine his wife saw this message. What would that poor soul think? He might mean nothing by it, but why put someone through that? Why put me through this?

If someone who is in a relationship already wants something more from me, they cannot rest in the security of their existing relationship to see if things work out here. That’s unfair. I’m not hedging my bets. They don’t get to hedge theirs.

It is all so very tiring. Sigh.

PS: I don’t even know what he means by “flow”.

Embarrassment Max

Ah. This is a tale I don’t even know WHY I remembered today. But, lest I forget it again, I am typing it out.

Back in 1992, I was all of 8 years old. We were living in Sharjah, having moved there the previous year from Dubai. I was a tiny slip of a thing, with stick-like limbs, huge eyes, and long ratty hair. Oh and buck teeth. Let’s not forget the buck teeth. I didn’t care what I looked like, since I was 8. My mother told me often enough that I was beautiful, but it never registered.

The previous year, my folks and I had gone to Kenya for a holiday. My father was working with Dubai Hilton, and therefore we stayed in Nairobi Hilton. There is not much I remember from the trip, except the safaris and the heady rush of the markets in Nairobi. We have a stack of albums somewhere filled with pictures of lions, gazelles, and gnu.

We didn’t know anyone in Nairobi, except for one family. Again, I don’t know how we knew them. Perhaps they lived in Dubai first, and then shifted to Kenya after. They were a small family like us: parents and one kid, a son. We visited when we were in town. The son and I clicked instantly, and we had a grand time playing together.

Ok, so, remember how we had a camera? Every dad was a camera fiend back then [much like we are right now tbh]. Tim [the dad] also had a camera, and since it was the 90s, it was the done thing to click pictures of events as mundane as having guests from overseas over. To be honest, I don’t remember any of this. At all. I remember what I wore, because I had that outfit well into my teens. [A bit of a tangent, and not really worth exploring.]

Cut back to our home in Sharjah, and Tim had come to visit us. He sat in the living room with my parents, and I skipped in to say hi.

And then he told us a little story. [There will be excessive use of the word ‘apparently’ in the following paragraphs. This is by design to showcase my incredulity.]

Tim developed the photographs he had taken, and they had turned out really well. There were a few shots of me, apparently, that were exceptionally nice. Apparently. He put them neatly into an album, and away into a drawer. Then, he was slated to come to Dubai, and he thought about bringing some of these photos along, in case we would like mementos of our trip.

He went to the drawer and pulled out the album. And was apparently quite taken aback to find a few gaps. After pondering this for a while, he realised they were all pictures of me. He asked his wife about it, but she didn’t know anything about it. The matter was closed as a mystery.

A few weeks later, his wife had occasion to open their son’s cupboard to put away some clothes or something. She opened the doors and, to her surprise, saw the pictures of me taped to the inside of the cupboard doors. She called her husband, and he looked too.

I don’t remember exactly what transpired in their home after that, because I flushed deeply to the roots of my hair and pelted up the stairs to my room, chased by indulgent parental laughter.

I was only 8 years old, and Struan [Tim’s son] wasn’t much older. Boys were the furthest thing from my mind at the time. There were a bunch of critters I used to roughhouse with in school, but that was the extent of my interest in them. Romance wasn’t a word that had invaded my vocabulary quite yet.

But. I was plenty old enough to understand that this was not normal behaviour. A boy doesn’t tape up pictures of a girl in his cupboard, unless she is more than just a friend.

At 34 years of age, this story is darling. I get why the parents were laughing softly at the darling-ness of it all. It is sweet. I totally get it. At the time I was so embarrassed that it never occurred to me what poor Struan would have felt, had he known that other people had heard this story. And not just any other people, the girl herself.

Poor, poor guy.

PS: I don’t remember ever meeting this family again. Probably best for dude’s future therapy.

Bird Brain

Earlier this year, in winter, I started hearing the high-pitched cries of predatory birds near our home. This was new for me, because in the few years we have been here in Mumbai, I’ve only ever seen crows, pigeons, and sparrows in our area, with the occasional common myna and magpie making an appearance. Not exactly a smorgasbord in terms of avian life.

I’ve always been rather fascinated by birds and other flora and fauna, thanks to having grown up in a desert country. The books I read [Enid Blyton mostly] described leafy green trees, and birds with gorgeous plumage, but these didn’t translate into everyday life in Dubai. Perhaps that’s the reason our home was filled with living creatures: dogs, birds, fish, rabbits, and so on. This interest – and it is purely a mere interest – led me to take a somewhat keen if untrained look at my surroundings.

So when I heard these cries, I knew that a different type of bird had taken up residence in the area. Added to that, we saw fewer crows and pigeons in the area, and air was conspicuously lacking in their caws and coos. And then I saw it one day, perched precariously atop a tree: a brown kite.

Now, brown kites are not rare in the city. They are quite prolific in many areas, especially ones where there is an abundance of rats. I couldn’t fathom what had changed to make them come to our area, even though it was a mere few blocks away from their other habitats.

The kites didn’t stay for very long though. I think the summer proved too daunting for them here. But, nonetheless, it was tremendously thrilling to see one sailing around on its broad wings.

A few weeks ago, I was looking out the window and I saw a tiny bird hopping on the leaves of the tree outside the bedroom window. I’d never seen the bird before, and it was smaller than a sparrow. Its back was a greenish yellow colour, and it has a white belly. I wasn’t able to discern much more because it soon hopped off, and I didn’t have my glasses on.

I tried to Google the name of this tiny little creature, with a silver-toned voice. But no dice. Google evaded all attempts to discover its name.

Then, on Monday, I was applying makeup at the window, and I happened to have my contacts in. I suddenly heard musical chirps, and I looked out to see this beautiful little creature sitting a mere foot in front of me. It had an orange beak, and a grey head. It was adorable, and I figured I finally had enough information to locate it on Google.

However, that afternoon, I happened to chance upon a book about Indian birds. I pounced on it, and quickly flipped through to the urban birds section. And there it was: the common tailor bird.

There is nothing extraordinary about any of this, and honestly I will end up forgetting it happened altogether. But there was a great deal of simple joy at discovering something new about my environment.

Book Review: The Girl on the Train

I hadn’t heard of this book, until the movie came out. There was this whole phase of my life where I stopped reading books, buying books, or reading about books. I was so preoccupied with life that I let go of this intrinsic part of my nature.

As always with movies, I often try to read the book before watching the movie. There are some notable exceptions to this: Stardust [unfortunately] and Game of Thrones [fortunately].

Author: Paula Hawkins

Story: Rachel travels to work on the train every day. Her personal life is in shambles, as her marriage to the perfect man has fallen apart. He has moved on, marrying another woman and having a baby, in her old house, whereas she is slowing spiralling into alcoholism. She gets drunk and experiences black outs, where she does things she can’t remember, and which later come to haunt her.

Rachel’s train passes by her old house every morning, and the train happens to halt there for a few minutes. As a result, she sees the new tenants of a house, a few doors down from her former home. A striking couple, man and wife, in whose lives she becomes invested, as an onlooker.

One day she sees something in their house. The next day, she reads something in the newspaper. And everything unravels.

Writing: The narrative is in first-person, and shuttles between the female characters in this book. It is a master stroke of ingenuity to have done this, because the suspense remains taut with the lack of complete information. Each voice changes dramatically from the alternately self-pitying and self-loathing Rachel, to the self-justifying Anna, and lastly the mentally unstable Megan.

There is very little kindness in the writing, and it didn’t surprise me to find out that Hawkins was a journalist before writing fiction. There is a baldness to the writing that lays out the facts with unrelenting scrutiny of the weaknesses and nastiness of people. It is what it is; deal with it.

Characters: Not a single one of these characters – not the 5 main ones, nor any of the supporting ones – have a shred of likeability. Perhaps Dr. Kamal Abdic isn’t so bad, but even Rachel’s landlady is said to be “overpoweringly and suffocatingly nice”, as though being nice is a terrible thing. Surprisingly, the characters being unlikeable didn’t detract from my enjoyment of the story. Generally it does. In fact, I have often panned a book because a horrible protagonist wins at everything.

That being said, each character was developed extremely well, with their foibles being exploited to push the narrative forward. Each one does nasty things, and each one struggles with their perception of right and wrong and what is an acceptable wrong. It is a riveting exploration of character.

Pace: I was often tempted to read the end of this book, because I desperately wanted to know what the ending was. The reason was not because the pace was slow – far from it – but because the switching viewpoints and steady unravelling of the story was tantalising good. There is not a single moment of boredom in this book, although a reader might feel other negative emotions, like disgust or shame [for the character].

Conclusion: I didn’t guess the architect of all the misery till well past the middle point, because that is how masterfully Hawkins has written this book. It is brilliant. I am only deducting a star for the number of times I thought: “Oh Rachel!” in utter exasperation. A must-read.

Rating: ✩✩✩✩

PS: I posted my rating of this book on Goodreads, and I was amused to see that someone commented on it saying: “Since you like this book, I think you may enjoy mine. Here is the link to buy it!”

Whattodo. Being an author is tough.

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