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Friday, December 25, 2009

Christmas Cheer

A Prayer for Family Togetherness

It’s the most wonderful time of the year. As the Yuletide dawned, two things happened: our married daughter moved in with us to spend the Christmas holiday and together, we went to the airport to receive our younger daughter who came to visit us from New York City. We were a family again, together after long. It is magical: the years drop away and we indulge in the same madness we did years ago when both our daughters lived with us

You say yes, I say no.
You say stop and I say go go go, oh no.
You say goodbye and I say hello
Hello hello
I don't know why you say goodbye, I say hello

For the moment, we’ve said our hellos. We know full well that in a matter of days, it will be time to say goodbye. That is inevitable; what’s important is to stretch the days to enjoy every single moment we spend with our daughters. It isn’t easy because they’re twenty-somethings and strew a few hours around to spend with us. We lap it up and try to make them feel at home with Christmas music, decor and comfort food.

Sometimes I wonder whether ten or 15 years down the line, when we are older, that we can still work the magic for them. These are fleeting thoughts as we try to spend every single moment we can with them. Our love for them is unconditional, not sentimental because we are hugely aware they can be a great pain in the derriere, much as they remind us we can no longer assume they will spend time with us

We take time off from work and bring our social life to a standstill only to find they have their own plans that exclude us totally. Their mother is more sensible about this and while catering to them, she still has her own life. I am a sucker for my daughters and will give up the world to spend a few hours with them and sit on my hands until the next time they deign to spend some with me.

My wife’s approach is a lot more pragmatic. As such, they don’t take her for granted. She makes the most divine food for them which they beg for and lap up. On the other hand, the father has very little to offer. There is a sense of being bereft. When they were younger, I introduced them to the computer, Inspector Clouseau and the music of divinity. I realize with some chagrin, I have very little to offer them now.

It’s easy to get depressed about the situation. But my spirits are uplifted when I listen to them hold forth. They are fearless and opinionated. In those qualities, I see my contribution, especially when it comes to political correctness. But that is hardly the basis of a relationship. We clash increasingly about intellectual issues. They see me as some right wing mastodon.

This is the worst indictment for a liberal soul like me. I wonder if I had been sterner, would my daughters have imbibed the values I hold dear: of dissent and activism? Our daughters are in many ways traditionalist and conservative. The 60s word "groovy" comes to mind; they come unfailingly to midnight mass, for example. They dress for church and ask me to play the wonderful "Jingle Bell Jazz" compact disc through the season. They play in the same groove and seem to resist any change.

In the end, I’m happy we share Christmas together. as a family. Of course, I don't hide and shake a tambourine at midnight to announce the arrival of Santa or leave milk and cookies out for the jolly fellow. Those were magical days when they were still babies; today the charm is about being together.

It is increasingly difficult to believe, as we get older, that things will be the same. They have their own lives now and I'm grateful they find time to spend time with us. They think I'm passe; I think they are uber cool. They have things to do, places to go, people to meet. and as such, less time to spend with me That doesn’t mean they love me less or I them; it is simply an anticipation of the future. Loneliness is writ large on that parchment

When the hurly burly’s done, I will have to look in the mirror and ask myself: were you a good father?

Having said that, it’s Christmas and my immediate goal is enjoy it with my girls in whatever way I can. The music’s on all day at home; the wondrous scent of good food wafts through the house and the togetherness is a great Christmas present. What happens in later years is a cross I must bear on my own. "One" could indeed be a lonely number.

Growing older, or being of “non-traditional age” as a friend’s daughter told me, is to lose hope in the future because of the inevitability of death.. But that's not the point: in the use of that new-fangled phrase, however, our children and their friends firmly place themselves in the "traditional" category. Call it the Woodstock revenge. My Yuletide wish is for the family to be close forever.

Happy Christmas!

Copyright Rajiv Desai 2009

Thursday, December 17, 2009

My Friend, Rajiv Badlani

Too Young To Die

On Sunday December 13, I sat with him, drinking coffee, listening to music and laughing about something I cannot now recall. With Rajiv, it was always that…laughter and joy. His mother walked in, put her hand on his head with an infinite sadness in her eyes. She said something to which he responded, “Mother, I have peritoneal cancer. My life expectancy is between eight to eleven months, of which four are already gone. So let’s not pretend I’m going to get better.”

I wanted to ask him how he felt being on death’s door. Was he scared? Did he sleep well? Wonder about the after life? But I held myself in check. “So,” I said to him, “do you read, watch television?” His eyes were bad, he said, plus he had attention deficit disorder.

We changed the subject and talked of nothing. I was just happy to spend a few hours with him on my trip to Ahmedabad. The previous day when I saw him, he told me to come the next morning at eleven. I showed up and he was taking a massage. “Ah, the good life,” I said. “Well, it feels good, the firm touch on my body,” he replied. He finished his massage, went to the bathroom and showed up in his den and ordered coffee for both of us.

Aside of the fact that his body was ravaged by the brutal assault of cancer, it felt like old times again. He kept asking if instead of coffee, I wanted to have a Black Russian. “Yo, it’s noon on a Sunday. The Lord frowns on people who drink on His morning, when He rests,” I told him.

A half hour later, I grasped his hand in the solidarity handshake. I wanted to hug him. I didn’t for two reasons: we had a waspish relationship that discouraged touchy-feely stuff; plus he looked so frail, I felt he would be physically uncomfortable if I hugged him. So the handshake was all. “See ya next month,’ I said in farewell. “Come back soon, it’s good to see you always,” he said. I left reluctantly and made a mental note to come back to visit mid-January.

On Monday, his wife Manini told me, he was going to the hospital for his chemotherapy and returning home only on Tuesday evening. I made a mental note to call Wednesday morning to see how he handled the latest bout of a cure that is worse than the disease. Early Wednesday at about 1.30 am, my phone rang. He was gone.

Our relationship was nearing 50 years. We were just twelve when we met in the ninth grade. A handsome lad, he made his presence felt, much to the consternation of our class teacher. Asked about his antecedents, he told the teacher he stood second in the eighth grade. “How many students in your class?” the teacher asked him firmly. “Well Sir, there were two,” he announced. The class broke into a spasm of laughter.

Later during the lunch break I sought him out and complimented him on his sense of humor. I also warned him the teacher could make his life miserable for making a fool of him. “True,” he said, “but he will also find out that my father is the education director for the government of Gujarat. That should give him pause.”

Since that day of June 1962, we became good friends. We discovered the Beatles together and Helen Shapiro and the Jarmels and the Cascades of “Rhythm of the Rain” fame. We navigated P G Wodehouse and James Hadley Chase and let our pre-teen hormones run riot, panting after any woman or schoolgirl who merely looked in our direction. Mostly, we built a world of our own, far removed from the moffusil sophistication of Ahmedabad.

Despite his friendship, I hated it in Ahmedabad. I wanted to leave home and after we finished the tenth grade, I left to go back to Bombay. We met subsequently during the holidays and we met again on the campus of Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda. We lived in the same dorm but plowed different furrows; him in Commerce, me in Engineering. I was put off by Baroda in the first few days and decided I would quit and return to Bombay. As I lugged my bag to the railway station, I bumped into him.

“Hello, where are you off to?”

“I’ve had it with this place. I’m going back to Bombay.”

“Don’t be stupid,” he admonished me and grabbed my bag and steered me back to the dorm. He came and sat with me in my room and then told me to get dressed. “I’m gonna show you the magic of Baroda.” I went with him meekly that evening. We walked to the women’s campus where he introduced me to his cousin Sharda and her friends. From that moment, I never looked back and made Baroda my home.

Over the years we drifted apart. He finished college and went to the Bajaj Institute of Management for an MBA. I stuck around in Baroda to finish my course and then escaped to America. We stayed in touch and I made it a point to see him each time I visited India. He visited me too in Chicago. Our friendship survived the test of time and distance. After I relocated to India in the late 1980s, I visited Ahmedabad frequently to visit with my parents and my in-laws. An evening with him was always on top of my agenda.

Now he’s gone. And the Clapton song comes to mind:

Would you know my name
If I saw you in heaven
Will it be the same
If I saw you in heaven

That’s the tragedy. “Beyond the door,” the place that Clapton sang about, is a whole new game. I wonder: is there a ninth grade there, where we can start all over again?

Copyright Rajiv Desai 2009