Of Childhood, Chicken Pox, and Camaraderie

Falling sick is the most miserable feeling ever. I recently had a nasty bout of cold, along with a sore throat and fever. It wasn’t debilitating in the least, but highly annoying and inconvenient. After spending a whole day in bed, making myself hot tea and soup, fetching medicine, and gargling with salt water (ugh!) – I was sick of being sick, and promptly resumed my daily activities, to hell with the illness.

But while I was complaining about how awful it is to feel sick, and how I’ve always hated it when my body has let me down, I realized that this wasn’t exactly true. Illness is only horrid when you’re a strong, independent woman living alone, and have nobody to fuss over you, plump your pillows, and feed you soup. Sure, I have people who’d fuss over me over text and chat, but unfortunately almost all of them are far away. The worst part of being sick isn’t the illness itself, but the fact that you’re in charge of dealing with it, treating it, and fixing it. Nobody else will set up your doctor’s appointments. Nobody else will check your temperature every few hours. Nobody will ruffle your hair and bring you hot khichadi from the kitchen, unless you specifically decide to swallow your pride and ask your friends to come over and babysit you. Being a sick adult is horrid, however – as far as I can recall, being a sick child was rather enjoyable. My memories might be tinged with nostalgia, but childhood sicknesses always seemed to involve happy events such as getting time off from school, and being taken care of by mom.

One of my fondest memories of being sick is from the summer of 2002. I’d just finished class 6, and was all set to enjoy my two-month-long summer vacation. Two whole months of lazy afternoons in front of the water cooler, eating juicy mangoes, reading a ton of books, and playing Boggle with my friends. This particular summer was made even more thrilling by the fact that two of my favorite cousins were coming over to stay. My kid brother and I were wildly excited. When our visitors finally arrived, we made a happy foursome – Kiddo and I, and both cousins. One of the cousins was a total bookworm, and she and I engaged in friendly competition to read the maximum number of books per day. We drove my parents nuts by talking about Harry Potter day in and day out – after a point we were banned from talking any more about it. Our creative workaround was coming up with a whole lexicon of code words for every single character, location and event at Hogwarts (yes, my Pottermania started quite early). The other, more gregarious cousin, got along fantastically well with Kiddo, who was just 6 years old at that point. Together, we all laughed and teased, took turns at playing non-stop RoadRash on the computer, went to parks, and even had a midnight feast in the middle of the night, Enid Blyton-style, which was super fun to do in secret, but in retrospect I’m fairly sure my parents were aware of all the whispered giggles and clanging of steel utensils in the night!

This idyllic nature of our summer was sorely tested by a sudden and unexpected rash of chicken pox. One of the cousins developed it, presumably after having being exposed to the virus on her train journey, and exactly two weeks after that, my brother and I fell prey to it. The other cousin had enviable immunity, having already had it as a baby. While chicken pox certainly threw a wrench in the proceedings, that summer still went on to be one of the most memorable vacations I have ever had. Yes, the rashes were gross and painful, and quickly transitioned to itchy. Yes, we had to drink a horrible concoction of some herbal remedy, which was supposed to help generate more poxes, and develop lifetime immunity. Yes, we were all quarantined and restricted to the house, and couldn’t see any of our friends. And yes, my poor mother had to take care of sick kid after sick kid all summer. But honestly? For us kids, we had all the companionship we needed, and after the initial fever and shock wore off, we would try to out-compete each other – with who had the weirdest-shaped rashes, and what was the most effective way to lessen the gag reflex after a dose of foul-tasting medicine (crunching a giant spoonful of sugar right after gulping down the medicine seemed to work best).

Eventually my cousin stopped being contagious, and they both left – leaving Kiddo and I alone and still quarantined. Now of course until this point the two of us had gotten along well – we had our occasional brother-sister spats, but were quite fond of each other. However, that month, that summer – was when we transitioned from mere siblings to good friends. Chicken pox left us solely in each other’s company – we couldn’t see any of our friends who were steadily returning from their own vacations at grandparents’ and other assorted relatives’ homes. School wasn’t in session yet, and even if it had, we’d probably have to stay home to prevent infecting our classmates anyway. So it ended up being just Kiddo and I, all day, every day – and it was all kinds of fun. I read out books to him (not surprisingly, a lot of Harry Potter), we played all kinds of games together, and we ended up becoming really close companions. Not to say that we weren’t absolutely thrilled to finally be declared non-contagious, and to get out to see other people – but that was the transition point in our relationship.

Today I consider my brother to be one of my closest friends. He’s an incredibly funny and sarcastic narrator, and our stockpile of inside jokes grows by the day. But aside from all the hilarity, I am routinely surprised at how thoughtful he can be, and at the impassioned discussions we end up having. His perspective and his thoughts are well-articulated, and I sometimes have to do a double-take because all my interactions with him are also superimposed by memories of him as a naughty 3-year old child hiding all my school supplies when I was running late. Kiddo as a child was great, but Kiddo as an adult is pretty awesome as well. This is the one person I have known since the day he was born, and I know that no matter where I am or what I’m doing, he’s got my back – and I’ve got his. Here’s to you, Kiddo – my brother, my confidant, my friend. I’m so proud of you!


In the driver’s seat

So you see, the honest answer to that is yes, I can. I CAN drive a car, you know, just as long as I’m barefoot, it’s a manual, someone is barking rapid-fire instructions at me, and I’m allowed to drive on the left side of the road.

I don’t drive. While I was growing up in Indore, I’d take my bicycle or my mom’s scooter to travel short distances, and Dad would drive me if I wanted to go beyond a certain radius. When I moved to Pune, I promptly adapted to elbowing my way into overcrowded buses and haggling over ‘meter’ charges with rickshaw-wallas. After moving to the States, I have been lucky enough to live in Manhattan which has a pretty great public transport system. Conveniently, parking is criminally expensive, so nobody expects me to have a car to drive anyway.

If anyone ever asks me if I can drive, I usually say no. That isn’t completely true, but the truthful answer requires a long-winded and rather ridiculous backstory.

I did learn to drive in India. During one of my winter breaks from college, I attended fifteen days of driving classes in Indore. I was taught by a female retired police officer, who was proportioned like Madame Maxime and behaved like Mad-Eye Moody. She was brisk and efficient, but wouldn’t let me rest my feet against the brake or accelerator unless I kicked off my shoes first. She assumed all women wear wedges and heels while driving, and claimed that that wouldn’t give me a real feel of just how much pressure I’d have to apply for the car to respond. So now every time I get into the driver’s seat, my first few moves are to pull my seat up close to the dashboard (otherwise I’m this short-legged child whose feet dangle and don’t touch the pedals), adjust the mirrors, and then kick off my shoes before putting on my seat belt.

Madame Maxime’s next tactic was to drive me right into the middle of the crowded, traffic rule-flouting city, and then plop me in the driver’s seat. Me, an utter novice, who wasn’t mentally prepared to drive before I’d learnt the exact name and function of every single thingamajig of the car. But nope, I had to learn by diving into the deep end – so middle of the city it was. The parts of the city where there isn’t unidirectional or bidirectional flow of traffic, but pretty much two-, three-, and four-wheelers driving in whichever direction they pleased, in bumper-to-bumper traffic, amidst the ear-splitting din of annoyingly-pitched truck horns. While this experience taught me how to change gears instantly, and swerve to avoid stray cows plodding along the street, potholes, idiotic cyclists, and dogs who streak past the front of my car at the last possible second – it’s still a rather limiting skill set. Sure, I am fairly confident I will never crash into anyone, I have relatively fast reflexes, and have learnt to expect everything short of a UFO landing on the road in front of me. But on the other hand, I freak out the moment I have to go above third gear, simply because I have never had to. I can be the safest driver on the planet, but am probably also the slowest. I’m quite unsettled by empty roads and highways – what, am I expected to drive really fast, and own the whole road? That’s too much open space. Where is all the traffic?!

The third thing I learnt in driving school was how to obey orders instantly and without question. If Madame Maxime said stop, I slammed on the brakes with all my might. If she said switch to second gear, I did it instantly, before comprehending why. If she said I have to lean on the horn and press for several deafening seconds, that is exactly what I would do. While all this worked well for us in those two weeks, I never learnt how to drive without instruction. So the first time I drove without her by my side, it was incredibly unnerving. All of a sudden, I was expected to make all these decisions on my own. When exactly do I switch to second gear? How much do I slow down on my turns? Nobody else was looking out to estimate the size of the pothole coming up, and deciding if my wheel track was significantly wider than the pothole diameter, so I could safely drive over it instead of swerving to avoid it. That’s a lot of pressure, I tell you! What if I decide wrong? What if I switch to third gear, without anticipating giant orange construction barrels which suddenly materialize in front of me, and I panic and have to downshift to first, accidentally stalling the car in the process? (This happened while I was trying to impress my dad with my new-found driving skills in his new car. He was not impressed.)

After finishing up driving school, I got my driver’s license. There was a written multiple choice test, which I aced, because if there’s one thing I can do well, it’s prepping for theoretical exams. There was no actual driving test, which is quite alarming now that I think about it. Is this how all Indian driving licenses are handed out? Because that might explain a lot.

I haven’t learnt how to drive in the States yet, and have no immediate plans to do so. I’ve gotten by quite nicely in the last four years, and the whole process of buying or renting a car, getting a teacher, learning to drive in Manhattan traffic, and relearning all my driving coordinates (the left side of the road is NOT the right side to drive in this country!) seems a lot more hassle than it’s worth. I might do it at some point, once I find a reason more convincing than having to answer – ‘wait, you can’t drive?!’

So you see, the honest answer to that is yes, I can. I CAN drive a car, you know, just as long as I’m barefoot, it’s a manual, someone is barking rapid-fire instructions at me, and I’m allowed to drive on the left side of the road. I can totally drive! 😛 But for mine and everyone else’s sake, I’d really rather not!

Of tooth troubles and darling daughters

When I was about seven, my baby teeth started falling out. I was exceptionally proud of this fact, because I was the first kid in my class to start losing my milk teeth and getting my permanent ones, Those were also the days when kids used to excitedly show off their new erasers, pencils, pencil boxes and assorted paraphernalia in school. I was quite keen to start a new trend by showing off my teeth – not just the resulting gap in my mouth, but the actual tooth in a box.

Love isn’t what you say, it’s what you do. My dad is not the most expressive person – he won’t be the parent who calls me every night so I can prattle on about all my doings, but he will be the person who asks my mom about those said doings on a daily basis without fail, and is always updated on all my activities, mundane or otherwise. My dad has more interesting ways of showing how much he cares.

When I was about seven, my baby teeth started falling out. I was exceptionally proud of this fact, because I was the first kid in my class to start losing my baby teeth and getting my permanent ones. Those were also the days when kids used to excitedly show off their new erasers, pencils, pencil boxes and assorted paraphernalia in school. I was quite keen to start a new trend by showing off my teeth – not just the resulting gap in my mouth, but the actual tooth in a box.  Anyway, my front lower tooth had been loose for about a week, and while I couldn’t wait for it to fall off, I was much too scared of potential pain and blood. I refused to physically yank it out, or tie it with a string to a door so it could be pulled out Tom Sawyer style (much to my regret – that does seem like a pretty cool technique). After a whole week of nursing my tooth so carefully that not a crumb of food could come close, one fine afternoon while I was rinsing out my mouth over the sink, the tooth finally detached and fell off. Except of course it got washed down the sink and swirled right out of sight before my horrified eyes.

Seven-year-old me stood frozen for a few seconds, then turned around and dashed over to my parents in a flood of tears. I don’t remember what all they said to console me, because clearly none of it was effective. I’m sure I was told that I had 19 other teeth that would fall out, ergo 19 more chances to show off to all my classmates and teachers (also, in retrospect, which teacher actually wants to see a tooth in a box?!). While I continued crying and hiccuping, my mother redoubled her efforts to console me, and my dad eventually walked away. This was not a surprising turn of events, even at that age, because my mom has always had a lot more patience with my more irrational moods and demands, while my dad is prone to offer a slew of logical solutions to my problem, or even worse, laugh – such a clever strategy; what a surprise that I didn’t immediately wipe my eyes and smile a watery smile of gratitude at being jolted back into rationality.

Anyway, after my mom had administered enough hugs and sympathy, the waterworks did relent a bit. This is when I became aware of distant bangs and clangs, and mom and I went to investigate. There was my dad, with his toolbox, taking apart the pipes under the sink into which my tooth has vanished. He calmly dismantled the whole thing, and I kid you not, he went in and retrieved my lost tooth. After the hullabaloo subsided, the tooth was washed quite thoroughly, put in a box and shown off at school – minus the backstory of its eventful journey. Quite a satisfactory ending!

At that time, this event did not strike me as anything out of the ordinary: I was upset, I wanted something, and so my dad got it for me. Of course he did. But now when I look back, I am shocked, grossed out, but mostly filled with awe. Because you see, that is what love is. It’s not just words, chocolates and flowers – it’s not just the cliches I read about in my stash of romance novels. This is the one true example of love that comes to mind – doing something icky and unnecessary, just to make your kid happy. It’s the kind of love I have always got from my dad: solid and reliable, the sort of love you can rely on unconditionally. It doesn’t matter that we don’t talk every day, it doesn’t matter that he isn’t my primary sounding board, it doesn’t matter that we don’t express our feelings to each other on a regular basis – because whenever I have actually needed anything, he’s always there for me,  he’s got my back and I know he always will. And that is what unconditional love is.

While my dad’s medium is actions rather than words, I choose the written word to express all my sentiments, both simple or convoluted, heartfelt or plain cheesy. I would much rather spell out my feelings – because mild embarrassment and potential non-reciprocation is something I can live with, and words unsaid I cannot. So while I know it, and he knows it, and anyone who knows us knows it, I still want to say it out loud and clear … and not on any special occasion, birthday or anniversary, I want to say it just because: I love you, Papa! My first hero, my forever hero.