The Generation Gap

Recently, a neighbour’s house got broken into at night. The burglars were not able to gain access to the main house through the conservatory, and so, she remained safe and oblivious in her bed. Upon finding signs of the break in the following morning, she immediately contacted the police. Through the grapevine, the news filtered down to us. As she is an eighty two year old woman, in indifferent health, living on her own, naturally we were concerned. I rang her. There was no response. My husband went around to see her. No response. He reckoned she was sleeping off the shock.

The next afternoon, there she was- on my doorstep, in her cashmere cardigan and pearls, hair beautifully coiffed, looking like she had not a care in the world.

“Susan”, I gasped, “Are you ok? I heard what happened! Have the police found out anymore? How are you feeling…?”

“My dear”, she answered with perfect equanimity, “I am fine. If I’d had a shotgun, the burglars wouldn’t have been though!!”

She had not been ‘sleeping off the shock’. She had been out till midnight, having a jolly old time with her friends.

I sat back, bemused at the turn of events. Was it that particular generation, I wondered, that were tougher, more resilient, and less likely to collapse at the first sign of trouble? After all, Susan had lived through World War 2, the death of three husbands and the Big C : Cancer.

My thoughts wandered to my grandmother. Orphaned at five, she was brought up by her uncle’s family who didn’t treat her particularly well. She was married young, and while my dad was still a babe in arms, she’d had to leave her hometown of Karachi, and make a treacherous crossing into India, during the horror that was the Partition. From a relatively wealthy background, she was reduced to living like a refugee in one of the many refugee colonies that had sprung up in Delhi at the time. She was then widowed at thirty, and with three boys to bring up and barely any education to speak of, she sewed clothes to make money, scrimped and saved to give her sons a decent living, and was a one woman Mother India of sorts.

She is eighty seven now. She can barely see, she can barely hear, but her hold on life is just as tenacious as ever.

Consider the Queen. Coming up to ninety, she still performs most of her state duties herself. Abdication in favour of her son is a thought she refuses to entertain, and her mantra remains one of duty and servitude to her people and her kingdom. No fluffy slippers and a cosy armchair to retire to for this great grandmother. She forges on, setting an example to her descendants.

Then there is our generation and the generations that have followed. Broadly speaking (for there are always exceptions), we are a soft bellied lot. We have seen neither war, nor deprivation. We haven’t lived through rationing or suffered the ignominy of poverty. Yet we moan and complain and whinge at the slightest provocation. Traffic snafus, a restaurant reservation going missing, the check out girl being rude, an acquaintance ignoring us on the street- our list of trifling woes drives us to that glass of wine every evening. Or to the psychiatrist’s couch to “unburden” ourselves and fatten his/her wallet. Or to the happy pills.

How, I wonder, would we react to a life changing event like war? To something as traumatic as the Holocaust? To something as wrenching and soul crushing as a Partition? Would we have the same reserves of strength, the same tenacity, the same endurance, the same fortitude? I hope we never have to find out.

Yet, it’s important to take a leaf out these ladies’ books. To learn to face life squarely, and with gumption. Let us not make the mistake of becoming too soft, too complacent, too chicken. History has a strange way of repeating itself, and we need to be prepared, for only the fittest will survive and only the strongest will endure.

Disclaimer: This post applies to those of us brought up or living in First World countries. It’s important to recognise that there are huge swathes of poverty stricken/ war ravaged lands where generations of men, women and children gird their loins daily, and set about the business of life with immense courage and fortitude.

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Maybe

Last night I dreamt of Fairfield again. The mist was swirling around the house, shrouding it, trying to reach its tentacles inside. I sensed the figure near my bed, its loathing hitting me in waves. I tried to speak, to explain, but it reached out and covered my face with a pillow. I could not breathe…I could not breathe…..There was smoke all around me, and I crawled to try and reach the front door, but something held me back…my legs would not move….they were caught in a vice like grip…..I knew then that I was going to die….

I sit upright in the bed, my heart thudding wildly, rivulets of sweat running down my face. My legs are entangled in the sheets. I notice the pale light sneaking through the curtains. I look down next to me. Max isn’t there. I find him sitting on the porch, as I usually do these mornings. He is smoking. I see from the stubs that he has been there a while. I go up behind him, and my slender arms encase his shoulders. He turns and lets me kiss his cheek. The puckered skin is smooth to the touch and I, once again, feel a lurch to see my handsome husband’s face so marred by hatred and jealousy.

“Should we go to the beach today?”, I ask him.

“It’s too hot. Maybe another day. I’ll work on the novel. You carry on….”

I step back inside. The distance between us seems to be increasing. He carries his guilt around like a cross. Nothing I say or do, seems to lighten that burden. I slip my shorts and T shirt off and stand under the cool shower. Tears run down my face, mingling with the water, washing my pain down the drain into the sea, to lap at a different shore. I don’t hear him come in. Then suddenly, he is behind me, and I turn and offer myself to him. We make love, and once again,I feel connected. I feel whole.

It was the start of the dry season, the month of May. The cafés were getting busy again, and in the usual scrum of tourists, he seemed to stand apart. It wasn’t just the crisp white shirt and khakis he wore almost everyday. It was his demeanour. He seemed to be sleepwalking almost. As though life had clubbed him around the head, and he no longer knew or cared where he was. Everyday he would sit at the same table, drink the same cups of coffee and smoke the same cigarettes, staring out into the horizon. Everyday he would leave me a tip of Rp 50,000 – a princely sum. After the third day, I tried to refuse the tip.

“Please…sir….it is not necessary. It is too much. It is my job to serve you. I cannot accept….”

His eyes seemed to register me for the first time.

“No, please. Take it.”

And he thrust the money into my hand, and walked out. That was the first time I noticed his limp.

Afterwards, we sit and eat breakfast together. Our conversation is limited to what I need to buy from the shops.

“I need some more biros. The ink seems to dry up quickly in the hot weather.”

“Max?”

“Yes?”

“Why don’t you use the laptop? Writing longhand must be tiring for you. I can always get Wayan to fix the connection.”

He pushes his plate away, his toast half eaten.

“I prefer writing this way, Dayu.”

Then he is on the porch again, smoking. The pages of his spiral notebook blowing back and forth between the covers, sparse lines etched carelessly within.

When he leaned over and kissed me the first time, the breath seemed to leave my body for a long long time. How deeply I was in love with this man I had scarcely known for two months.

“Marry me.”

“A Bule?”, my mother was shocked. “You cannot marry this white man. And go and live in his cold country? They are all made of ice, these foreigners. He wants to take you back as a maid. Dayu, I cannot permit this.”

Permit she did in the end, albeit reluctantly. I was glad to have her blessings. She was the only immediate member of family I had, and she too died while I was abroad.

I cycle to the shop in Ubud. A distant cousin of my mother’s owns it. Ketut sits there all day, toothlessly grinning at all the young women who come in. They don’t seem to mind. It is a pleasant way to while away the time, although I wonder how he makes any money from the jumble of items he stocks in there.

“More biros? Does that husband of yours do anything at all, but let the ink run dry on these?”

I smile and wander to the back of the store. An old copy of a British society magazine falls on the floor. I pick it up, and casually flick through the pages. There, in full vibrant colour, I come upon her picture. My hands start trembling, but I can’t stop staring at that perfectly chiselled face, that cruel mocking smile, those eyes that seem to bore into me, stripping me of all my secrets, denying me my existence. The world goes dark quite suddenly.

He never promised it would be easy. And it wasn’t. His sudden black moods. The long journey to his country from mine. I stood and shivered in the greyness of it all. His chauffeur was late. I looked around me to see people rushing past. No one smiled. No one exchanged glances.

“Heathrow is one of the busiest airports in the world”, he reassured me. “This is quite normal. Once we’re in the countryside , you won’t feel so out of place.”

I wondered at that. Bali was a pleasant and welcoming place. It greeted you with a genuine warmth. Here I felt lost and alien, my mind and body unable to comprehend the change.

He was silent the entire car journey and my tired eyes drooped as the grey buildings gave way to what he called a motorway, and then to greener vistas. I must have fallen asleep for I felt him shaking me awake gently.

“Dayu, my beautiful one, we’re here. This is home.”

My sharp intake of breath made him grimace. His ‘country pile’ was enormous. He had never told me, never described the wealth he came from. Our tiny home in Bali would have fit into one of his living rooms.

“I did nothing to earn this. We inherited it. It costs an arm and a leg to maintain. I wish I could get rid of it. Especially after….” He stopped abruptly.

There were so many gaps, so many blanks in his story that I wanted him to fill. He wouldn’t and I was too afraid to ask. The one thing I did know was that he had a twin sister. A disabled twin who lived in this grand house, and from whom I was to receive a very frosty reception.

I come to on the floor of the shop. Ketut has rolled up some old material and placed it under my head. He sits there watching me, wordlessly chewing on his tobacco.

“I’m sorry!”, I exclaim sitting up. My head swims once again, and I lie back down.

“What happened there child? Why did you return all fearful, and him like that?” He waves his hand all over his face.

I curl myself into a foetal position and start to sob. I miss my mother. I miss the innocence of the days gone by. He lets me cry, and once I am done, he brings me some water, and waits.

“Bapak Ketut, I cannot repeat what I saw. But we came away because we had to. It was the only way to survive.”

He’s holding the magazine open on the page of her picture. She looks out of the page, her hauteur adding to her ethereal beauty.

“So, who is this then? This woman that made you faint?”

“She’s his ex wife.”

The house was a shrine to her. Not a thing had changed since she died. From the furnishings to the photos of them as a couple, as a family, with friends, with her dogs- everything was intact.

“You have to understand, Dayu. Amelia and Becca were childhood friends. Becca still hasn’t come to terms with her death.”

The elusive Becca had yet to emerge. I dreaded the meeting, especially after our phone conversation, which had been stilted at best. How would she respond to me? Would she view me as the interloper that I was, replacing her beloved sister in law and friend in her brother’s life and bed?

“So this is the little Balinese doll you picked up on your travels, Max?”, she smiled at me coolly. Her wheelchair had made no noise, as she’d snuck up on us. Was it my imagination, or was it a deliberate ploy to wrong foot me, to catch me unawares?

I smiled back at her, leaning down to embrace her. She moved her wheelchair sideways.

“Not so soon, Dayu. That’s your name, isn’t it? We need to get to know one another. Then you may kiss me.”

Hurt, I stepped back.

Max laughed, and pulled me close.

“Don’t mind Becca. She’s as prickly as a hedgehog.”

The tea Ketut brings me is sickly sweet. It is just what I need. I sit and sip at it, letting it calm me, feeling the strength returning to my bones.

“She died a couple of years ago.”, I speak slowly at first, and then the words come out in a gush. “That’s when Max came here. He wanted to get away.You see, Ketut, she disappeared for a very long time. Then they found her body.”

“Murder?”

“Suicide”

He bows his head, thinking. “Was it because of him?”

“No”, I say, “Well, yes….in a way…it’s so complicated.”

“Then tell me child. You cannot bottle this up forever. It is not healthy. I see what it is doing to you.”

I shiver in the heat, and he hurriedly fetches me a shawl to cover myself.

The staff in the house had dwindled to two, a cleaner and a gardener. It took me a few days, but I started to see how the house was slowly falling into disrepair and ruin. Neither brother nor sister seemed too bothered with its upkeep. I tried, and failed to make it appear homely. It was too large, too grand for that. So we stayed confined to the few habitable rooms there were.

“This is your first Christmas tree, isn’t it, my darling?”

Max could sense my excitement as I hung another silver bauble off a branch. With a fire roaring, the cards sitting on the mantlepiece, and the Christmas tree he had helped me put up, I was finally starting to feel a part of this house.

“Heaven knows she’ll get it all wrong. Amelia’s trees were always stunningly beautiful. Remember the time they were featured in Perfect Home magazine?”

Max glared at Becca but said nothing. All at once, I felt deflated. Becca never passed up an opportunity to make me feel inferior to my predecessor. And Max never defended me.

“They had known each other all their lives. Their parents were friends. They belonged to the upper crust of society where you only married one of your own.”

Ketut nods in understanding. “Go on”

“The sad thing was realising that they didn’t love one another after all.”

“Then why not divorce? It is acceptable in white society, no?”

“They wanted to, but Max’s mother fell ill, and then Becca had the accident. Then too much time went by. Oh, it’s all too confusing…..I don’t know why they stayed married. But they did.”

“And they were unhappy?”

“Yes. Max says they were terribly unhappy. He started to travel more for work. She began to have affairs that she didn’t bother hiding. The only person that truly bound them together was Becca.”

“The sister?”

“Yes, the twin. She was in a wheelchair after the accident, and living with them. They both adored her. She was like an extension of them. Breaking up with each other would have meant breaking that bond too.”

“You’re not half the woman she was!”, Becca sneered at me.

Max was out of the country again, and I took to spending my days outside, as far away from his venomous sister as I could. It was clear to me that I would never win her over. No overtures of friendship, no home cooked meals, no head massages or offers to play Monopoly would ever fill that gaping wound she carried around her like a badge.The loss of her confidante, her friend, her sister.

“Can we not make peace Becca? I do not want to quarrel with you. For Max’s sake, please?”

It was getting unbearable. She barely disguised her contempt for me, or her hero worship of Amelia.

“Why did she kill herself? The wife? If she was that beautiful, that talented, that rich?”, Ketut enquires.

“Guilt”

“What sort of guilt?”

A wave of nausea assails me then, and I shakily make my way to the ramshackle toilet at the back. I retch into the bowl, then splash my face with water, feeling hot and cold alternately.

I had come upon the diary by accident during my irregular cleaning forays. I started reading it out of boredom, and then with the ensuing knowledge that it belonged to Amelia. The entries were commonplace to begin with. Hairdresser appointments, fittings at boutiques, dog grooming sessions. Then, almost as though she wanted to spill her most intimate thoughts to me, they became more explicit. Assignations with lovers. Details of what they had done. How long the conquests had lasted before she became bored and moved on. I devoured it all, with a ghoulish fascination.

Then the entry that shook my world.

“Dayu, you are aware aren’t you?”, Ketut asks me gently, handing me a towel.

Shakily I accept. I look at him wonderingly, as he places a wrinkled hand on my stomach, and pats it briefly.

“Oh!”, I gasp, the age old knowledge filling me with a strange happiness.

“Perhaps you have said enough for one day. This is not the moment to live in the past. This is the time to celebrate the future. Go on home child.”

He ushers me out tenderly.

“It was because of you”, I stood before Becca, holding up the diary as proof of my accusation.

She narrowed her eyes, still not following.

“You loved her. But not as a sister. You wanted her for yourself. You could just about share her with Max. But no one else. You drove yourself mad with jealousy over her affairs!”

She laughed then.

“Yes. Yes, I did. She was all I had ever wanted. All my life, I had wanted to possess her. Max had her, and he didn’t care.”

“So you seduced her.”

“It was only a few times, but it was sublime. It was how it should have been.”

“Except she didn’t think so. She wanted out.”

“Is that her diary you’ve been reading, you dirty little spy?”

“Did you blackmail her? Is that what you did? Did you drive her to her suicide?”

“Shut up! Shut up!!!!”, she screamed at me, wheeling her chair around in fury. “No one will ever understand. No one!”

I stood there, suddenly emptied of all rage. The diary dropped out of my hand. I made my way up to bed.

I cycle back slowly, the biros jangling together in the plastic bag that hangs off the handlebar. I’ve always wondered if Max read the diary when he returned unexpectedly that night. Or perhaps, he didn’t get a chance. I hope he didn’t. What he saw has filled him with enough horror for a lifetime.

The mist was swirling around the house, shrouding it, trying to reach its tentacles inside. I sensed the figure near my bed, its loathing hitting me in waves. I tried to speak, to explain, but it reached out and covered my face with a pillow. I could not breathe…I could not breathe…..

Her arms had a superhuman amount of strength, as she tried to suffocate me. I struggled vainly, my feet kicking out, till they connected with flesh. I heard her grunt of pain, and the brief respite was all I needed to wriggle out of bed, and crawl towards the door, my ravaged neck stinging.

Somewhere I could smell smoke. But uppermost on my mind was escape. I could hear the whirring of her wheels not far behind me, and I sent up a desperate prayer. “Save me….God, save me”

She threw herself upon me. Her arms were a vice around my legs. Then Max’s voice, “Bloody Hell Becca….what are you doing?!”

He tried to save us both. He went back inside for her. His seared face was a legacy of that futile attempt. Nothing would assuage the guilt of his failure.

I stop to pluck a Jepun flower. Frangipani. They are in bloom everywhere. A riot of colours that sings out a summer song. I place it in my hair.

It is the month of May again. It was May, a year ago, when I first met him.

Perhaps, just perhaps, we could begin afresh. Maybe we could start our story from this point. With a growing certainty, I pedal home faster. To my husband, to my love, and to a future I will not allow to be blighted by the past.

©Poornima Manco 2014

A tribute to, and a twist on, Daphne Du Maurier’s ‘Rebecca’.

Should I stay or should I go

She trips over her son’s shoe as she enters the house. With a muttered oath she places it next to its twin. She unloads and loads the dishwasher quickly. Vacuums and dusts. Makes the beds. Tidies her daughter’s cuddly toys, placing them exactly in the order she’s been instructed in. Then she takes her packed valise, checks for her passport and ticket. Puts on her lipstick. Places her goodbye note next to their wedding picture. Her heart skips a beat as she thinks of what lies ahead. The phone rings just as she opens the front door. She pauses mid-step.

The IT factor

“You’ve got to have wit to be ‘it’ “, my daughter pronounced sagely a few days ago. “Whatever do you mean?”, I queried.

Her explanation was brief and went along the lines of: if you weren’t extraordinarily pretty, or sporty, (or rich even- swimming pool in the back garden, rich) then the only thing that gained you admission into the ranks of the ‘cool girls’ was your sense of humour. Now admittedly, a GSOH is seen as a very admirable quality in both men and women. And wit, more or less, is the best form of humour, particularly if its a self deprecating one. So,my daughter developing this particular trait (plus an ability to be an excellent mimic) did not worry me in the least. What bothered me was this unspoken desire to be seen as one of the flock.

Why?

This need for social acceptance transcends age, gender, class and cultures. We need to be a part of the fabric of society. So we look for our particular niches, and aspire to those that seem superior. In trying to fit in, we often cut out that which makes us who we are.

I remember watching ‘Grease’ the movie with John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John when I was a very young girl. It perplexed me no end that it took a complete makeover of Sandy for her to win the affections of the Brylcreamed, snake hipped hero. Out went the swing skirts and the pony tail, and in came the skin tight trousers (that she was purportedly sewn into), artfully blow dried hair and a cigarette dangling from the freshly painted lips. Sandy, the effervescent, lovely heroine was replaced by her ‘cool/hot’ alter-ego who bore little resemblance to a plain Jane, thus sending out the message that to grab a man, you needed to upgrade yourself to a femme fatale.

Cut to a much more recent teen flick- ‘Mean Girls’, it once again highlights the disturbing trend of denying your true identity in order to conform. Lindsay Lohan’s character infiltrates the cool gang at school, only to find herself slowly shedding her uncool persona and remodelling herself at the behest of the queen bee. As it was a Tina Fey film (a quirky modern day feminist who uses humour as her arsenal), Lohan’s victory lay in the defeat of the ubiquitous social hierarchy and a re establishment of her own off beat identity.

Progress? Yes. But a long way to go yet.

If conformity= acceptance, then do all non conformists become social pariahs? What message must I give to my daughters? Try and fit in, or stand out and risk being a leper?

To be happy, truly happy, you can only serve one master. That master has to be your own self. In being true to yourself, you may alienate those who do not agree with your vision, or those who want you to follow theirs, but you are also likely to align yourself with those who share a similar philosophy. Being a slave to groups or trends takes you away from living your life in an honest manner.

This is a message that I hope my daughters can live by. It is a message that I hope other mothers are imparting to their sons and daughters as well. Our only true legacy to our children is the sense of self-worth we imbue them with.

mean-girls-october-3

Public meltdowns and all such beasts

A while ago I had occasion to witness a very public rant by a lady I had hitherto considered a sensible,level headed and mature individual. The provocation was slight and the incident a little spat between school girls. As the mother of one, she took her rage to a social media platform, and proceeded to vilify the other. Needless to say, there were plenty of supportive messages, with people giving her the sort of feedback she desired. That it ultimately led to a breakdown of friendship between the two girls, and a loss of face and private dressing down for her, seemed to almost be an aside to the main story.

Which got me wondering about the nature of public meltdowns.

In recent years, we have seen plenty of celebrity debacles played out in the public domain. Be it an Amanda Bynes on Twitter to a Tom Cruise on Oprah to a Britney in the tabloids, there has been a train wreck fascination in watching them destroy their reputations. More often than not “exhaustion” (read drugs/overwork/tipping into insanity/failing careers) is blamed and they are whisked into a facility, and the PR machine has gone into overdrive.

But what propels the ordinary person to follow suit?

Social media is a relatively new phenomenon. Our Warholesque 15 minutes of fame is nearly always guaranteed through the platform of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and all such avatars.Where previously, we would have raved and ranted and blown off steam within the privacy of our homes, or amongst our group of friends, we can now take it to a wider audience. From a previous Facebook poster (who is now MIA) who played out the breakdown of her marriage- “I think he’s having an affair”, “I am going to hire a private detective”, “She was sitting at the next table, and exchanging looks with my husband”, “That’s it! I’m filing for divorce” to the achingly, boringly mundane postings of another- “I think I’ll have Weetabix for breakfast today”, “Green dress or blue dress peeps?”, “What a sunny day! I love my life!!”, “Off to Malaga. Woo Hoo!” – Facebook is privy to all sorts, and by extension, so are we.

The above may still be read and dismissed, but the underbelly is harder to ignore. The new breed of Internet bullies that hide behind their screens and take potshots at unsuspecting victims. The Internet trolls who have taken hectoring and intimidation to another level. Much like the lady I first mentioned, these people are too lily livered to confront someone face to face and air their grievances. So they choose to attack guerrilla style, safe from any valid justifications or arguments that may counter their narrow view of the world.

So, what is the etiquette of social media? Where does one draw the line? What is appropriate and what’s not? And who deems which is which?

A simple rule of the thumb applies here. If you wouldn’t do it in person, do not do it electronically either.

As an inveterate social media user, it’s a lesson I have learnt the hard way. I now choose to keep my private life private. It is nobody’s business, and quite frankly, no one is that interested either. Let’s enjoy Facebook, Twitter etc for what they are. A frivolous distraction. They are not for airing our dirty laundry. And they are certainly not launch pads for silly vendettas.