WonderBa: Small but mighty

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says the beaded ‘toran’- a traditional banner- which hung over the doorway of Ba and Bapuji’s home. It now sits on my bedroom mantlepiece, and I glance guiltily at it when I walk past; my ‘To Do’ list is longer than any of my limbs and framing the toran has migrated to my ‘This Can Wait’ list. What is astounding is that Ba created this toran. It is astounding not only because of its intricate and accomplished beadwork but because Ba was mothering at least seven children while she made it. I admire my friends who have three children, and am in awe of those that manage four. Seven falls outside the scope of my imagination.

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Usha was born a year after Ba joined Bapuji in Africa. She had little time with her first-born, however. There were no cosy coffee dates with other new mothers, no daytime naps to alleviate the exhaustion. Bapuji was, at the time, two steps up from errand boy in a local grocery shop, and busily trying to make connections. Within a few short weeks of arriving in Gilgil Ba received a message from Bapuji one morning, informing her that he would bring some customers home for lunch, urging her to provide a suitable spread. This became a regular- almost daily- occurrence, and one which was assumed would continue during pregnancy and beyond. Ba complains bitterly about this now, regretting her acquiescence. She is rightfully aggrieved, but I suspect that she also quite enjoys the reaction of the listener as she tells of her tribulations.

Very soon, Ba’s workload increased. Just 16 months after Usha came Vasant, and barely two years later Indira was born. By this time the family had moved to the city, the narrow, dusty, bustling roads making the daily trip to the market with three wayward toddlers a mission impossible. Bags full of fresh-from-field vegetables bumping against her legs, Ba herded the children back to the apartment. She sorted and washed, chopped and rolled, sautéed and simmered, filling the tiny kitchen with the aroma of cumin and coriander, fennel and cardamom. The family were seldom alone for lunch: Bapuji might bring home other traders or there may be visitors arriving from the port, staying for a few hours or a few days. One particular guest remained a little longer, Ba recalls. Babu was the eleven year old son of an old friend from Gilgil; a few days after his arrival, Ba, growing concerned that he should not miss the start of the new school term, enquired how long he was due to stay. ‘Bapuji had agreed, without my knowledge, that Babu could live with us for all of his secondary school years!’ Ba exclaims, brimming with indignation. I am incredulous. Gobsmacked. Bapuji had failed to discuss the arrangement with Ba, and his sometimes wonderful, sometimes infuriating mixture of pride, generosity and stubbornness meant that he would never renege on his promise. Babu stayed for seven years.

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Nor had Ba and Bapuji completed their own family. Anil was born next, family life folding and fitting around the requirements of his disability. Asvin, Ila and Kailash followed in fairly quick succession, and two other children joined the family for a few years, meaning that Ba brought up no fewer than ten children. ‘I used to stay up late, preparing everything for the next day- I sorted through the sacks of dried lentils and rice, soaking some overnight. I made sure the clothes for school were laid out. I never sat down!’ explains Ba. ‘I wish’ she continues with a chuckle ‘that someone had explained contraception to me!’

It’s a rush, sometimes, making sure that my children are appropriately dressed, fed and vaguely awake before they are ushered out of the door by 7.30am. I feel a certain sense of achievement when I remember my daughter’s book bag (with books hastily read the previous evening), her PE bag (often with something clean inside) and a filled consent slip for the school trip, all on the same morning. ‘Ordered chaos…’ I mutter as I wipe crumbs of toast from my son’s chin at the nursery door. It is difficult to comprehend how, amidst the pandemonium of her life, Ba could possibly find the hours to create the toran that sits on my mantlepiece. I have moved ‘frame the toran’ back to my ‘To Do’ list- it will hang in my kitchen and act as inspiration, reminding me that there could be many more balls to juggle. Ba was a SuperWoman then and is a SuperGran now.

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Papa

I have been watching my children unleash their creativity on their Father’s Day cards, brows furrowed in concentration, requesting felt-tip pens and glue with surgeon-like authority. Yes, Father’s Day is loved by makers of greetings cards and socks, novelty bottle openers and mugs emblazoned with ‘World’s Best Dad’, but it also encourages appreciation of fathers from an early age. I wish now that it had been celebrated when I was younger.

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Despite working six and a half days a week Papa seemed always to be present in our lives. He often helped my mother get us ready for school, and squeezed multiple drop-offs and pick-ups into his already packed work day. He was my homework buddy every evening after dinner, coaxing me to complete the last two or three sums while I protested in exhaustion. He was my personal champion, cheering on my small triumphs. He was my school project hero, collecting pictures from magazines and travel brochures. I remember him late one evening, bent over my model ship, cardboard box and glue in hand. I was so proud of that ship. Papa was a softie, especially when we were unwell- he took his turn applying cold compresses during fever, and when worried, scooped us up and drove us over to consult a paediatrician friend- in contrast to my own ‘have some Calpol and you’ll be fine’ approach. He loved mischief and chocolate in equal measure. Oh, and Knight Rider and the A-Team. Every Saturday morning he would take us to the video store to pick out one VHS tape, to be watched and returned by the next day, and although the adults would have their own video to watch later that evening he would still join us after work for a few minutes of Mr Knight or Mr T.

Another TV cult classic, Quantum Leap, taught us that changing the past would result in irrevocable changes to the present, and although I don’t wish to risk any change to my wonderful life I would do anything to have Papa back. Failing that, I would settle for spending a short amount of time with him- just long enough to say thank you for all of the things that he did without recognition. Those things that meant that we were safe, loved and given the opportunities that we needed, both while he was here and when he was gone. Speaking to my mother about him, I would have loved to have known Papa in my adult life. He sounds like the type of man that I would call a friend as well as my father.

Into love

At approximately 10 a.m. on a hot July morning, in a small house in the district of Makupa, Anil was hauled into the world. Ba’s pregnancy had been uneventful, so it came as a surprise when the progress of labour stalled. The attending Dr Kurve (koor-vay) was compelled to fetch his bag of instruments, using forceps to deliver the 10lb baby boy. It was fortunate that the good doctor had been present: Ba’s other children had been born only with the assistance of neighbours. I am anxious just thinking about a pregnancy without the comfort of screening and checks, followed by a labour managed only by friends, no matter how many babies they may have helped to deliver in the past. Yes, there is something to be said about trusting instinct and experience rather than relying on modern medical techniques and knowledge but I would certainly take an ultrasound scan and a midwife over Sonia next door.

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Initially all appeared to be well; Anil was thriving, putting on weight and smiling. He was almost six months old when someone noticed that he could not yet hold up his head. Anil failed to reach all of his other milestones at the appropriate times, and finally, one of the many doctors that the family consulted concluded that he has cerebral palsy. Definition of cerebral palsy: ‘Cerebral palsy describes a group of disorders of the development of movement and posture….’ (Bax et al from International Workshop on Definition and Classification of Cerebral Palsy, 2004). Translation into reality: Anil first sat unsupported at four years of age, learnt to speak at seven and has never stood upright. Ba massaged the tense muscles of his body every day, hoping to reduce the stiffness. The contractures, Indira remembers, did not seem to be as severe during his early years, but Anil gradually developed deformities due to the spasticity of his muscles: his hands are doubled over at his wrists, with some of the fingers twisted or curled in, his legs are bent at the hip and knee and he is unable to straighten them. A wheelchair would have been impractical in the apartment, and in any case, Anil’s hands were never capable of propelling one effectively. He learnt to move around on his wrists and knees, swinging himself forward. This works surprisingly well, but has left him prone to multiple infections which leave him bed bound while the antibiotics work their magic. Speech, too, is a real effort, and it is only by spending time with Anil and becoming used to the rhythm and pattern of sound as he articulates that we can easily understand him.

Anil was and is a constant in the family’s lives. He would wait for his siblings to get home from school, laughing along and joining in their chatter. He learnt to read with them, poring over their homework, and his arithmetic remains in daily use. His siblings sailed off to university and returned home. In their absence he had undergone the last of his nine operations. The family had found a German orthopaedic surgeon who had been confident that he could help. Each time the unspoken wishes hovered, a red balloon filled with hope: his legs would be straighter, he would be in less pain, he might be able to hold a spoon.  Anil spent two years with his legs in plaster casts. In the end the red balloon drifted away, into the vast African sky.

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Anil has always walked the tightrope between not wanting to be troublesome and fighting for his wants and wishes- the latter, I suppose, stemming from being one of seven children.  In 1964 Anil’s dream of going on safari was made reality: he travelled to Voi, carried from lodge to safari van on the shoulders of a family friend. This was a highlight, excitement still apparent as he talks about the trip. In past times, Vasant and Anil’s evening visits to the lighthouse were set in stone, and if Anil expressed a wish to go to the toy shop or the beach then efforts would be made to arrange this. Ba not only takes care of his numerous daily needs but if Anil occasionally expresses a preference, for example, for a particular meal then she will readily cook it for him. Anil has his own part to play in this family: his is often the voice of reason, and his ability to think logically has stood them all in good stead.

But he grows older and weaker. ‘I have to go….’ said Indira, mid-sentence, during a recent telephone conversation. Anil had been sitting in his usual position on the terrace and he had fallen sideways. This has started to happen more frequently, apparently. He cannot manage what he used to; his need for care grows. Ba, at 91, remains his main carer, although Indira shares the work- mighty women, both of them. In spite of all their efforts, Ba can see her son gradually decline. Occasionally, in frustration, Ba says ‘We must have done something terrible in a previous life, to be punished like this- all of us’. Usually, however, she says ‘God gave us Anil and that was our luck. We must look after him.’ He was born into love.

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