WHAT’S THE WORST THAT COULD HAPPEN?

Lego fun time
Lego fun time

I received a panicked text from F at around 1pm. ‘There’s something we’ve forgotten. I just know it.’

We were planning a joint birthday party for our two sons. We had been living and breathing the party for the past two months. I’d wake up in the morning to a flurry of emails from F, with ideas for party activities, goody bag fillers, decorations and cake recipes. I would reply, telling myself I wouldn’t spend more than ten minutes on the party planning before getting on with my day. There was writing to be done as well as bringing up my two active children. There was no way I was wasting my day in minutiae. Before I knew it though, half my morning would have disappeared. My days became full of plans, of budgets and contingencies. We met a couple of times a week for coffee and planning sessions, and as D-Day loomed, our coffees turned to drinks. We were both all too capable of micro managing – no compliment to either of us – but by the morning of the party, we were sure we had everything in hand. All that needed to be done was to get everyone ready.

‘Relax,’ I replied. ‘We’ve got everything in hand.’

‘I don’t know.’

‘What’s the worst that could happen?’ I asked, and in a moment of premature insouciance suggested that the greatest worry we faced was a catfight between the school’s two feuding mothers.

We arrived at the venue with a quarter of an hour to spare. We had hired out a soft play facility for the first hour of the party, with a room booked at a nearby restaurant for the meal and cakes. We hovered around the management desk, and reconfirmed our booking for the soft play centre.

‘Yes,’ the manager said. ‘You’re booked in from 4-5.’

‘There’s a party in there at the moment.’

‘They’ll be asked to leave before your time will begin,’ he told us confidently.

We nodded, straightened out our children’s hair, and waited for the guests to arrive. A few minutes before four, the manager approached us. ‘I’m sorry,’ he said, ‘but it looks like the party in there has another hour left on its contract.’

‘But we booked the 4-5 slot.’

‘Yes you did,’ he agreed. ‘and we have them down as having booked the 3-4 slot, but they have a contract that says 3-5pm.’

We saw red. A couple of guests had begun to arrive, and we were faced with the prospect of telling them there was no party. That they would just have to loiter for an hour before returning for their meal. We expressed our frustrations to the manager, and he consulted his notes again.

‘And, I said. ‘I called yesterday to reconfirm. You said everything was in order.’

He looked up nervously.

‘You should have flagged up any problems then.’

‘Well …’ he hedged.

As we readied ourselves for battle, he blurted, ‘I will talk to the other party …’

There were at least 10 guests at the door by this time. We greeted them, and as we explained our predicament to them, my phone beeped. A last minute cancellation. F looked up from her phone in exasperation; she had had a cancellation too. We would have to change the table settings at the restaurant. Then we spotted a new problem. There were two unexpected guests in the throng. We had handed out invitations over a month ago, and set a two week deadline for RSVPs. We were providing customised goody bags, and had needed notice to organise all the details. Some guests hadn’t replied, and we had assumed they weren’t attending. Now we saw an unaccounted for mother-son duo happily tripping in.

‘Aren’t we going in?’ asked the mother breezily, pointing towards the queue by the door.

F and I looked at each other. Before we could reply, the manager returned and told us the other party was vacating the soft play facility.

We walked in, and as the children flooded in to play, F turned to me accusingly. ‘What’s the worst that could happen, you asked!’

‘My bad.’

‘The centre was double booked. We almost didn’t have a party. We’ve had cancellations and unexpected guests.’

But there was no time to talk. We had lost time in gaining access to the soft play centre and now we were due at the restaurant to sort out last minute details. We reorganised table arrangements and place settings, rushed to prepare an emergency goody bag for the unexpected guest, and before we knew it, it was time for the children to come in to eat.

‘I hope nothing else goes wrong,’ I said darkly.

The rest of the party passed in a blur. We seated the children and made sure they were fed. We averted seating plan disasters. We made sure the warring mothers were at opposite ends of the room. We spoke to friends and made sure they had drinks. We took photos. We didn’t notice when glasses of prosecco were pressed into our hands. We didn’t notice the children flood to the activity table we had so painstakingly prepared. For a brief, unseeing moment, we didn’t take in their sated smiles, their delight at the Lego and the worksheets and the face painter we had organised. We didn’t see their faces light up to see the Lego themed cupcakes we had baked for them.

Cake time

We did notice with relief that here were no other disasters.  The children were happy and occupied. There were no tears or tantrums. There was no clinging to parents. The parents were happy socialising too. There were no catfights.

And as the guests began to leave, the compliments began to flow. And we finally saw – in spite of the foreseen and unforeseen disasters – that the party had been the happy, relaxed occasion we had hoped it to be. We piled into our cars, the children fell fast asleep, and we realised this was now our moment.

F and I slipped out for a quick meal. ‘What’s the worst that could happen,’ she said to me, and we both laughed. We no longer needed to anticipate catastrophe.  The sun was still out, the weather was mild, and our worries were behind us. A passing child waved to us, and as we smiled back at her, we realised that this was finally our moment to savour the party that had consumed us so entirely and for so long.

My Weekend Away

I could have picked a better time to go away.  The groceries I had ordered hadn’t arrived, and the meals I had planned to leave for them hadn’t been prepared.  My family – husband, 5 year old son, 2 year old daughter – would have to fend for themselves.  I imagined them eating junk all weekend – pizzas, burgers, endless sugar.  And they weren’t in the peak of health either.  My son had a cold, and my daughter was in the middle of potty training.  The cold could be dealt with, but it was the potty training that really worried me.  I was certain my husband would buckle under the pressure of accidents, dirty laundry and our daughter’s tears, and that he would soon have her back in nappies.
‘Don’t worry,’ said my husband, as I packed. ‘We’ll be fine’.
I closed my eyes with dread.  I would have my weekend’s break to write in, but I fretted I would return to baby armegeddon.  I imagined soiled carpets; unwashed dishes; my children noxious from too much sugar and too much TV.
And then I left.  After about an hour, I checked in on things at home.  They were sitting around the kitchen table, eating fruits and reading a story.  So far, so good, I thought.
I got to my station.  My phone reception started waning.  I reached the retreat I was booked in to for three nights, and here too, there was no reception.  There was some internet access, so I could keep in touch with my loved ones, and a landline where they called me once a day, but that was it. No mobile reception; no texts; no endless Twitter updates.  No keeping in touch with everyone.  I grumbled for a while, but in hindsight, this communication blackout was the biggest boon to me.
For better or worse, the members of my family were shackled to each other.  They would survive a few days without me.  In any case, there was nothing I could do about it.
I set to work.  My lovely hosts Deb and Bob at Retreats for You took care of everything.  Forget helping lay the table, we were actively – and assertively – discouraged from even tidying away our dirty plates.  We got three generous meals a day as well as far too many sweet treats.  All food preferences were catered for.  On my stay, there were coeliacs, vegans, and mere eccentrics like me – eating chicken and fish but no red meat – and Deb somehow managed to cater for all our requirements.  There was a roaring fire in the living room; there were hot water bottles in our beds at night.  There was good wine and stimulating company at night, and we were free to have our meal served in our room if the muse proved intractable.  There was a library filled with books, our clothes were washed for us and our jugs of water automatically refilled.  There were bracing walks at our doorstep if we needed inspiration.
All our needs were taken care of, and all we needed to do was to write.  In the beginning, it was hard.  I found I had the attention span of a goldfish, and I suppose our lifestyles – with a million competing demands on our attention – are to blame.  I always thought I was good at multi-tasking, but perhaps I was sacrificing my focus.  Now though, I had no distraction.  No excuse not to work.  Not one single one.
So I wrote.  Haltingly at first, but then with increasing fluency.  I went for walks, I ate too much, and I finally sorted out the plot of a novel that has been inhabiting my consciousness for the best part of a year.  I now know my protagonists’ names.  I know what they look like; I know how they interact with each other.  I know what drives them.
For my new knowledge of this world of my creation, my eternal thanks go to the gracious team of Deb and Bob.  They allowed me space to escape my worries and to inhabit my characters’ worlds.  They let me loose on their house in a dressing gown and slippers, and they let me imagine for four heady, treasured days.
And my children?  They had a blast.  They went to the park, practised their tennis, spent time with their father.  They did eat more junk food than I’d like, but then it was a break for them too.  And my daughter is still out of her nappies.  There have been accidents, but everyone has survived.  And as for me, I’ve been able to breathe in my book’s air, and that is worth more than I can ever express.

The blessed sound of whining

We have all known weeks that drag on forever. Ones where the Mondays seep slowly into endless Tuesdays, which refuse in turn to give way to the promise of mid-week. By the time Friday rolls around, we’re ready to throw our hands up and give into the powers that be. Let it end, we cry, desperate for the relief that a brand new week will bring.

The past two weeks have been a bit like that for me. For my entire family, in fact. Torrid, never-ending.

There I was, still basking in the newness of the year. Still firmly sticking to my resolutions. I was disciplined with my writing. The edits I had struggled with at the end of last year now seemed under control, and I hoped to have the next draft of my novel ready by the end of the month. And I was sticking to my plans of posting fortnightly on this, my fledgling blog.

That’s when my husband (we’ll call him H, shall we?) fell ill. The kind of ill that stops you in your tracks. Nothing serious, no, just your seasonal ailment fraught with misery and self-pity. He coughed through the night, he monopolised the living room – colonising the sofa and the TV – so we had to step around him while feeling guilty for invading his space.

Work was impossible. Suddenly the complete burden of childcare fell on my shoulders. I undertook the school drop-offs and pick-ups, took the children to the playground. I did all the cooking, all the cleaning around home while H lay on the sofa and complained how exhausted he was.

And then, just as he was beginning to recover his health and equanimity, our two children came down with the flu.

At the same time.

They had been running around the place, clamouring to be taken out to the playground. We’d fetched their woollens; it being early February in London and all. And as I reached to lower my son’s jumper over his head, I felt something as comforting as a hot water bottle in bed at the end of a cold, gruelling day. Except, the comfort of this touch was fleeting. It was my son placing a burning hot palm on my face.

I turned to H. “I think,” I said, “he has a fever.”

H felt our daughter’s forehead. He nodded grimly. “She does too.”

Out came the thermometers. Both children registered a temperature of 40 degrees. Ignoring the genius of their synchronisation, this put paid to any hopes of our family outing. For the day, and for several to follow.

We gave up our work for a near fortnight. I forgot about my writing, forgot to check in on the world. We abandoned all hope of personal hygiene and routine. Instead we became soothing machines. We sang lullabies. We made puzzles. We read books. We cooked soups by the gallon. We fed them water, sip by slow cajoling sip. And in a move that saved our sanity, we let them watch TV.

It was bad, worryingly bad before it got better. And most worrying was seeing them listless at home. There was no clamouring to go out, to meet their friends. There was no stubborn insistence on doing things their own way.

They were too tired by their flu, and that, more than anything else, brought home to us how poorly they really were.

And then, one morning, my son woke up ready to return to school. “Not today,” I reasoned. “Wait till you’re better.”

And to my delight, he argued. He whined. He unleashed the dreaded ‘but I’m bored’. And I was thrilled. Finally, after the fortnight when time stopped for us, my son became conscious of how still things had really become.

My daughter was on the mend too. Her energy returned as suddenly as it had disappeared, and all at once, her toddler demands resurfaced. Instead of TV, it was now park, or blocks. She wanted to be on the move.

And they were suddenly hungry again. They turned away from soup now, from the lentil and rice khichdi that has always brought me succour when ill. They wanted pasta. The wanted cake. They wanted something different.

And as they discovered their resistance, as their voices grew plaintive and then high pitched, H and I discovered that after the weeks of bated breath, of sleepless nights and endless worry, time was starting to move forward for us again. Tomorrow I’ll worry about my missed deadlines, but today, while the clamour of bored, healthy, childish whining builds to its inevitable crescendo, I’m grateful for its noise.

My Partition Inheritance

My latest blog post on Indianaccents.wordpress.com …

Indian | Accents

I begin this – my brand, sparkling new entry for this brand, sparkling new blog, with a memory of old.

A memory so old, in fact, that it predates me. It predates my father too, through whom I claim kinship with the event. It begins, for my family at least, with my grandparents’ wedding, on the 8th of August, 1947, in Lyallpur, West Punjab.

It was a traditional Hindu Punjabi arranged marriage, carried out in some style as it celebrated the union of two firstborns. There was some concern locally over rising Hindu-Muslim tensions. The date of India’s Independence from British rule approached, and in the midst of the excitement, communal tempers were inflamed. There were calls for a separate country to be carved out for Muslims, but there was no indication of where the new borders might lie.

Besides, Punjab was different. There had always been Hindus in…

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The importance of listening to myself

I was a good girl as a child.  Obedient.  Well behaved.  I listened.

And I wrote.  I kept diaries.  I wrote stories I placed in the most volatile setting I could think of.  The first Gulf War, which was then playing out several thousand kilometers away from my protected middle class life in India.  My family read all I produced, then advised me to avoid unfamiliar settings.  I listened.

As I grew, I was advised to study Economics at university, and to try for a career in Investment Banking.  That’s what a lot of cousins were doing, and they were making tons of money.  They were working long hours too, but we never saw the unglamorous side of their lives.  Banking seemed the sensible option.  I listened.

I read Economics at university, joined a bulge bracket investment bank.  I worked late, made money.  And then, as I spent a birthday at an anonymous Private Equity conference in an anonymous Frankfurt, I had an epiphany.  I hated banking.  Absolutely loathed it.  The poring over accounts, the painstaking projecting cashflows years into the future, the constant touting for business.  I looked around me at the sea of grey – men and women, all bright, well educated, well turned out, and now all uniformly consumed with the acquisition of money – and I realised that I wasn’t one of them.

And that birthday evening, as I sat alone in my anonymous hotel room, I wrote.  It was all forgettable and formulaic, but I finally felt like I was doing something I wanted to.  It felt like I was listening to myself.  It felt like coming home.

I wrote around work for a while.  Between meetings, during my commute.  On weekends.

And then I decided to leave finance.  I told my husband, and though the loss of one income would hit us, he was supportive.  I called my parents, and they panicked.  It was a perilous life I was about to choose.  Who knew if – and when – success would come.  In the meantime, it would be better, both for my equanimity and my solvency, if I continued to work.  I didn’t listen.  I was past it now.  My own voice sang loud and clear.

I quit my job.  I set up our spare room as a study, filled the bookcases with my favourite books, our music system with my favourite music.  Everything was set up for me to write.  Except I didn’t.  I couldn’t.  Days stretched before me, inspiration refused to strike.  I found distractions.  Coffees with friends, long walks, daytime TV.  Books I had never before had the time for.  And suddenly time turned unyielding.  I’d end my weekend with good intentions.  On Monday I would work.  But there was always an excuse, a handy distraction.  By the time Wednesday came around, I’d feel like it was nearly the weekend.  It would be better putting things off till the next week.  As I was starting to realise, a surfeit of time is sometimes as, no, more debilitating than a lack of it.  My folks worried about me.  ‘Go back to work’, they said.  I didn’t listen.  I was going to begin my magnus opus.  I was.  Just as soon as the weekend was over.

When I did finally begin to write, I was told to think commercially.  Not to write short stories, as it was hard to sell a debut collection.  Novels were more marketable.  I didn’t listen.  I wrote story upon story, submitted them to agents.  They didn’t sell.

I was told not to write a novella.  Was told they were even harder to place than short story collections.  And of course, I didn’t listen.  Again, I clogged up the inboxes of agents with no joy.

I was counselled to write, then put my work away for six months before returning to appraise it.  I didn’t listen.  I didn’t have the patience, or the required distance from my work to give me objectivity.

Do something, my parents implored.  ‘You’re losing your self-esteem’,  And they were right.  Now a mother of two children, I was starting to lose my sense of self.  When asked what I did, I furtively told people I was an unpublished author.  They nodded pityingly before changing subjects.  I was guilty of that social sin; giving an unanswerable reply to a casual question.  I killed conversations.

Still, I didn’t listen.

I was determined to write.  I wasn’t going to work in finance, and I would have to start at the bottom in any other field.  I was in my thirties now, and just didn’t have the will to graft for something I didn’t believe in.  I was going to write.  Only now, time had become a rare commodity again.  I had two very young children.  A three year old son, and a six month old daughter.

Not now, I was told.  It will be too hard.  Wait till both the kids are in school.  But I didn’t listen.

I wrote.  The story came to me, and after years of rejections, I found an agent.  Measured success.

There is still a mountain to climb.  A publisher to find.  And if I look at the years that have passed since I stopped listening, since I stopped working in banking, I find myself financially poorer.  I find myself more emotionally fragile, more defensive about work.  But I’m happier.  I’m fulfilled.  I love my family, and I love my work.  I’m happy to wake up at three in the morning to write in a way I never uncomplainingly did when I worked in banking.  And the mistakes I made, writing unsaleable stories and that early impossible novella, pressing the send button months too soon, well, they allowed me to hone my craft.

And so, despite the setbacks, despite the blows to my confidence, I’m glad, thrillingly, worshipfully grateful that I stopped listening.   That I let myself do what I always was meant to do.  That I’ve finally come home.

My Simple Manifesto

The first bite you take – from the flakiest croissant, the moistest cake, or from the most succulent burger – is the tastiest. The following bites are pleasing too, but – in the language of a lapsed economist – they suffer from a diminishing marginal return. So the bites that follow the first delirious, sensational bites are no less tasty, but you have altered. You’re a little less hungry, a bit more used to the taste of the sublime. The next bite is that little bit less satisfying, and the one after that is even less so.

The same must apply to life. That first tweet that connects you to the rest of the day, and to your universe is life affirming, the hundredth a little less so. My aim with the blog, as with my life, then is:

  • To declutter my life in much the same way I have my career. I’m no longer working corporate hours but writing. This brings me infinitely more pleasure than my past job of valuing cash flows did, and it allows me to work to my schedule. I can work 100 hour weeks if I’m in the midst of writing something, or I can take days, even weeks off while I wait for the next story to come to me.
  • To engage with social media in as much as it encourages discipline and conversation, but not so much that it distracts me from work, or that necessity, life.
  • To spend quality time with my children, family and friends, but not to the extent that I lose sight of myself. I work for myself, and believe me, it is all too easy to get sidetracked.
  • To take long walks, to go to more museums, to sit in cafes with pads of paper – or its modern day avatar, the tablet. To report all that delights me, and to remember there is still much around me that delights.

This then is my plan. I’m a writer, a mother, a wife, and an Indian in London. A Lindian, if you will. I will write about writing (as long as that’s not too tedious to read – I sat in front of a blinking cursor for an entire day, ugh!). I will write about my children, and my many joys and occasional struggles with them. I’ll write about London, and about an India I’m in equal parts proud and wary of. Those interested in socio-political and economic commentary on a changing India can find it on Indianaccents.wordpress.com. I’ll write about myself, and hope there’s something in it to delight more than just myself.