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The Lala Song

Motherhood on a platter
By Tahiat E Mahboob

I have always been fond of kids. They seem to connect with the child with me. Their antiques, their chortling, their tooth/-less smiles and even their tantrums, wailings and flailing appeals to me immensely. I have no brothers and sisters younger or older. I don't live in a joint family and it's too early to have children of my own. That's why I have never been (ironically) to close to children let alone infants or toddlers.

But all that changed a few months ago. When I was just about thirteen or fourteen, my mother hired a maid who was in her early twenties. She looked after me, did the housework and played with me. Everyone in the family was very fond of her. She called my Maa Mami and my Baba Mama. She was one of those sincere people who did their work honestly and lived honestly. That's why we were all very sad when she left five years later to marry a guy chosen by her mother in her village. After her marriage she kept contact with us on and of. But sometimes there was no trace of her. A couple of months earlier she came to visit us with her daughter who had just turned one. We are in shortage for a helping hand and Romija; the maid had a pathetic, moronic husband who didn't work.

So we convinced her husband and her to come and work for us with her baby Asha. That was when it started.
It was the first time in almost two decades that there was a baby in the house. We adjusted ourselves with glee to the wailings, toddling, and pooping- after all we were baby-thirsty! At first Asha who is now almost eighteen months old didn't like us at all. She was sick and cranky. But as winter wore off so did her crankiness and illness. She started behaving like normal toddlers. She hadn't learned how to walk yet.

With her improved spirit came a new phase: her attachment to me. To young to call me khala all she could muster was lala- and that is how lala I became. From then on it was lalalalalalala. Open the door lama, hear the bell lala, wake up lala and go to bed lala. My grandma named it Asha's lala song. Asha would walk and keep chanting lala like someone chanting on the rosary! She became so attached to me that sometimes she didn't even want to go to her own mother.
With the attachment came responsibilities. While Romija worked I often had to take Putul (my name for her since she so resembled one) to the loo, give her a bath, feed her and sing and put her to bed.

It was hard work but it was fulfilling and not to mention my Putul took the throne in my heart and soul. When I took her to shops people asked who she was and I said that she was my daughter. After all anyone who saw our relationship could call it little less than a mother-daughter bonding. My mother teasingly remarked that it was a good thing- after all I was getting free training for when I really did become a mother!
Putul had not yet learned to walk and it was I who taught her to do so. To see her take those first steps after days of training- my heart just soared. At school I regaled my friends about her stories and when they finally saw her, they too fell in love with her. Naorose started calling her little mama and tried to style her short tresses and locks in the style he wore. And Iffat. Oh dear lord! She just went insane. At first Putul didn't want to go to her but she eventually gave in when she understood that this particular aunty was not going to let go. Iffat bought her chocolates and chips and what not. After that she solely came to my house to see Putul. But then again who could resist.

After a while Putul's attachment to me became fiercer. When I came back from school, I'd hear that she had been on the lala chant searching for me in my room and then the whole house. With penguin steps she ran to me the moment she saw me. With the attachment came possessive ness. If she saw me hugging my parents, she'd wave her hands in contempt and say: Ei jah!

Soon she started calling my Baba Nana and my Maa Nanum. First she'd go O lala and then Nanum Nanum. She's like this living doll and we just can't get enough of her. Grudgingly in the past few weeks she has grown fonder of Baba and tends to cling to his feet. Before that it was my Baji (Grandma). The only person she never befriended was my Dadu (Grandpa). After all who could blame her. Next to Dadu she looked like the lilliputs of Gulliver's travel.

I often wonder whether I'll continue loving her like the way I do now. And then I check myself. How could I not? After all she was my daughter and motherhood had been served to me on a platinum platter.

Yellow notes
By Maliha Bassam

She was a good girl, that Pam. A good person and a good wife. She was the type of girl who always knew what to do; she knew it so well that her life hardly ever varied. There was a certain place on her right bedside where she would keep her gold-plated earrings after coming back from work everyday. She never got up from the dinner table till her glass of water was emptied. She had monthly spells of cold when she would be seen bustling around the house with a napkin in her hand. A perfectly folded napkin, of course.

In our fifteen years of marriage, I had never seen any variation. The glass never had a drop of water left in it after dinner, there were never any crumpled napkins around the house. Every bottle in the house had labels, every three months, toothbrushes were replaced. Pam was a great housekeeper; responsible and punctual. She was never too ambitious or complaining (except for the time I had forgotten to mend the fuse in the bathroom and we needed candles. Needless to say, Pam knew exactly where the candles were, "They are in the corner kitchen cabinet, in the left hand side, wrapped in blue tissue paper"). Pam never screamed and never cried (except for the time when they showed the mother of a 5-year-old kid who died in a subway accident in Oprah). There were never any extremes in Pam's life. She was never too happy or too sad or too angry. She just was.

I suppose the week following the day I left, there was a lot of "why"-s is the minds of those who knew us as a couple. Pam and I almost never fought; we didn't have the time to fight and no reason either. Some people never ran out of reasons to fight about but that never happened with us. Once in a blue moon, when something I did or said annoyed her, she would leave a yellow stick-on on the microwave, saying:
"Hank, Got a bad headache. Gone to bed.
Dinner in refrigerator".

Those notes were the only times when Pam spoke in incomplete sentences. She was one of those people who followed grammar rules as if they were part of the constitution. She didn't do it on purpose; it just came naturally. In the first few years of our marriage, it amused me to imagine Pam scratching her head and going through great trouble to break away from this old habit at times when she would write the yellow notes. Later it dawned to me that her habit of writing incomplete sentences when she was irritated was just as innate as her habit of speaking in full sentences every other time.

I had saved every one of those yellow notes.
So people decided that basically, I was just another unsatisfied middle-aged man, the ones who would jump off from the thirteenth floor of their offices in broad daylight or leave for the Himalayas in the name of a philosophical exodus without telling anyone and never come back. They dug deep in their memories and brought back some interesting examples of the time I seemed rather quiet in the reunion of '86 or the time I had to be told twice to pass the potatoes at the dinner table at Adam's house. People decided that I always had something else on my mind and termed me with words such "distracted" and "different".

They are people, after all. I really didn't expect anything "different" from them. I knew how each and every person would react, including Pam.

Pam would notice the note as soon as she comes back from work. It was on the coffee-table, with the keys kept on top. She would bend and pick it up, read it and hold it for a second or two afterwards. She would fold it and walk into the bedroom. She would come out without the letter and pick up the telephone. She would dial me at work and then go back to the room to get the telephone directory, return and dial my colleagues, my sister and may be even Adam. When she's done calling, she would get up from the couch, suddenly realizing that she hasn't searched the entire apartment yet.

I did not want my note to conceal anything so I made no effort to make it sound like anything that might give her some hope.

Fifteen years of life with Pam had made me somewhat practical. I had my passport, other important documents, personal savings, clothes and all the other travel necessities with me. All these had come from no list but from spontaneous calculations in my head. I had enjoyed the thrill of packing on my own without Pam standing behind me and ticking off items from a list in her hand. I had enjoyed forgetting to take my towel and having to open the bag again to put it in. There was something different about not having everything right the first time.

I had initially thought of going north thought I didn't know for sure once I started the journey. I had made no promises and therefore had no obligations to the handful of maps I had in the front pocket of my bag. I had never been a big eater but that night I stopped at a drive-on and I ate more than I had eaten in a dinner in the recent years. SI drove at a stretch for days, stopping only for fuel, food and sleep. I listened to the oldies on the radio and surprisingly remembered the words of some of them well enough to sing along.

During the months that passed while I was on the road, I stopped in motels for a couple of days. The cheap furniture of the motels somehow reminded me of home and when I thought of home, I thought of Pam and her yellow notes.
Contrary to what people liked to believe, I didn't hate Pam. I wasn't spiteful towards her nor did I blame her or accuse her of anything. Pam never meant bad and so I never complained. Everything was fine; yet I had so much leftover space in my life that it felt empty. Pam and I never knew how it feels to fight and make up. We never knew how it feels to have a daughter who hogs the telephone or a son who wants to get a tattoo. Everything in my life with Pam was a little too predictable and some days felt like reruns of old tapes. I needed to break away from the cycle that I had been trapped in. I needed to stop running around in what seemed like an eternal circle. Hence, the journey.

After a while, however, even my journey got to be predictable. I guess, no matter how hard you try to shift from one circle, you just end up running around in another circle. I faced the truth, I had to return, I had to go back to Pam.
As I parked the car, I looked up at the bedroom window of my apartment where the curtains were drawn as usual. I tried not to think of what to say to Pam. I could start with a simple, "How was work, Pam?" and see how she would react. She would probably not say a word and who knows, there might be a whole month of yellow notes on the microwave.
My sister opened the door, took a good look at me and placed her hand on my arm. She slowly withdrew her hand and quietly said, "I told them I'd empty the apartment by Saturday." I looked behind her and something from the way the boxes were packed told me they were not done by Pam.
My sister unpacked the few boxes that very evening. She wanted to help me but I told her I would arrange them myself later. There was no warmth in her voice, no sympathy as she told me everything that happened_ the accident, the hospital, the funeral, the will. She tried to be polite but I knew that that's where she would stop, at politeness and not go on to show any compassion for her brother. The sister I used to tease about being fat, about burning cookies in the oven, about failing in maths was gone and in her place, stood a cold, steely woman with a deep hatred in her eyes. As I led her to the door, she turned around all of a sudden and whispered, "She couldn't forgive you, Hank," and for a fraction of a second, I thought I saw a momentary look of pity shadow her dark eyes. Then she turned around and walked away as quickly as possible.

I guess Pam and I did have our fight but we never got the chance to make up. I checked the microwave to make sure but there were no yellow notes.

That night, when I went to bed, I rolled over to the right side of the bed where Pam used to sleep. In the darkness, I felt for her gold-plated earrings on the right bedside table. My cold hand could only feel one earring and then it suddenly sank in and I broke down_ Pam had lost an earring.






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