Bihu and Homesickness

They don’t call it homeSICK for no reason.

It all started with the Namami Brahmaputra song. Like any other khar-khuwa, bhaat-dali-aloo pitika lover Assamese true to her salt, I too got goosebumps after listening to the voices I grew up with. Admittedly, the video left a lot to be desired, but the vocals struck just the right chord, tugging and pulling at my heartstrings till there was a palpable ache in my heart.

And just like that I wanted to be home. The other videos I watched right after, including Nilotpal Bora’s Majuli and Abhishruti Bezbaruah’s Tok Dekhi Mor Gaa didn’t help much. Majuli reminded me, no accused me, that I hadn’t been to Majuli, the biggest river island in the world in our very own Asom, despite being an Oxomiya, and I had the sudden urge to impulsively pack my bags and just up and leave to be there. Absolutely loved the lyrics and the cinematography, and the video gives me hope for the future of Assamese music.

Tok Dekhi Mor Gaa made me miss Bihu, and the shivers I get down my spine whenever  I hear the dhulor-maat. Something about that sound… I remember one time when I was still studying  in Tezpur University and we’d invited a Bihu troupe to perform at a programme showcasing the culture of North-East India. The troupe consisted of mostly young boys and girls, barely in their tweens, and the moment they started playing I wanted to get up and dance. Except of course I couldn’t because it was an uber formal setting.

It took me decades but I finally understand what they mean when they say “bihu-boliya“. I know the literal meaning of the expression is “mad about Bihu” but I didn’t know until now what exactly it entails. Bihu-boliya is when you would do anything, but anything, to hear the sound of the dhol just once. It is that tingle in your toes that renders you incapable of sitting still the moment you hear it. It is that inexplicable happy song your heart sings whenever spring approaches and each breath of air brings in the smell of togor and kopou phool. It is that feeling of longing, come April, to be home. Because home means getting to feel the drumbeats reverberating in your heart, and dancing with no fear of being deemed crazy with the husori dols.

Funny story: Growing up, our neighbourhood was sandwiched between two “villages”, which basically meant we were a cluster of Assam-type houses in an extended semi-rural area that has only recently graduated to bricks and mortar. It basically meant that even though we passed through the village every single day and knew almost everyone by name, we were never considered one of them. Oh yeah, there was a definite “them” and a definite “us”. This was most apparent during Bihu when the village Bihu troupe would make the rounds of the neighbourhood. I would be envious of the young girls dressed in muga mekhela sadors on top of their red frocks, puffy frilly sleeves peeking under their pinned sador pleats. These young girls got to dance around the neighbourhood, while collecting the symbolic token money, and they definitely didn’t have mothers who thought anytime after dark was too late to be outside.

By a happy twist of fate, I chanced upon an all-girls troupe that was in need of a new member. I must have been around thirteen, that impressionable age when a girl those days was old enough to understand that talking to strange boys was a no-no, yet young enough to be innocently unaware why. It was as though I was given a short-term pass into a world I had  since then only admired from afar. I went for practice religiously, every single day. I tried to laugh at their jokes, although most of the times I didn’t understand them. The girls tried to make me feel comfortable, but I guess even they knew that I wasn’t one of them. Didn’t help that I was the only one who went to an English-medium school. We were practising for the prestigious husori competition that was to be held on the first day of the Assamese new year, and I was only remotely interested in it (mainly because I knew we were terrible) but what made me breathless and sleepless in excitement was the fact that we would be doing the neighbourhood rounds. I would be one of those clumsily dressed girls! I would get to wear a fake kopou phool on my fake bun! Eleven year old me thought it was the heights of popularity I could ever hope to gain. Why, I would practically be a celebrity!

On the highly anticipated day, I could barely make it through breakfast. I fidgeted while Mamma dressed me up in a mekhela sador. I went to pee three times before she did though, just in case. I didn’t want to take any chances. When I walked out of the door, I could feel my palms get clammy. I stumbled in my steps (walking in a mekhela sador can be tricky sometimes) and when I reached the house where we had been practising, I realised I was the first to arrive. I nervously rang the bell. Patiently waited for five minutes and rang the bell again. And because my Mamma had taught me not to be crass I didn’t shout out my “friend’s” name. I must have waited for fifteen minutes, smoothing my pleats and touching my bun for the umpteenth time when a kind neighbour took pity on me and told me the people weren’t home. “Aren’t home?” I stammered, “But… our husori…” She hadn’t had the faintest, of course. She told me maybe they had sudden plans and had to go somewhere. With no other point of contact, I had no option but to stumble my way back home. I was devastated. What shattered me most was admitting to my parents that I wouldn’t get to dance around the neighbourhood after all.

And thus ended my husori-dancing career.

I think I have been jinxed to never dance Bihu, I swear there is a jinx. Each time I get remotely close to donning our gorgeous Bihu dancing costume, something or the other happens and I never end up wearing it. Which is why I guess right now one of my deepest desires is to get all dressed up in the costume, big red dot on my forehead, bright red lipstick on my lips (staining my teeth for good measure), grinning ear to ear. And dancing. Forget the fact that I might just be a terrible Bihu dancer. I mean, I have never been complimented on my Bihu dancing anyway so for all I know I could be pathetic. But hey, I am an Oxomiya. Bihu runs in my blood.

Which brings me back to where I started. We haven’t stepped into April yet, and this first wave of homesickness threatens to drown me in misery. Heaven save me when it actually is Bihu.

Leaving this here because the dhol and the pepa sounds the most authentic here:

 

 

 

All rolled into one

I can’t believe it’s been a month since I last wrote. A month! For someone who started blogging because she had too much to say and not enough people willing to (more like having the patience to) listen to her blabber I have seemingly relegated to wannabe sporadic blogger at best. I used to be prolific at one point. I remember a time when I would have to stop myself from posting something online because it had only been an hour since my previous post.

Such were days…

So what have I been up to for the last month? Well, a lot and nothing all rolled into one, to be honest. Good news first, the book has gone into copyediting! When I got to know that the book was in the hands of my editor (as a side, does it mean I am finally, finally an author, now that I have an editor of my own?) I was in tenterhooks. This was the one person who could make or break my book and if she didn’t like it, things would be tough for both of us. I braced myself for rewrites, and had almost started worrying about how I was going to manage time between school and home to set time aside to write. Forget the fact that it has been so long since I finished writing the book that I feel as though a different person had written it. But when she told me that there weren’t any changes that couldn’t be handled during copyediting, I found myself being able to breathe finally. Work on the cover page should start soon, and I can’t wait to share it with the world.

We have already started planning a book-tour of sorts (a woman can dream, eh?) and I am thinking of going all out for my book launch in Guwahati. It is only once in my lifetime that my first book will be launched, and I want to make it big! We’re thinking a posh hotel banquet hall, people crammed into it, fancy high tea in twinkling silver with ridiculously tiny portions of gourmet stuff , the paparazzi (oh wait, I’m not famous yet) and amidst all of this, I’ll be the shining star, a dedicated fan-blower following my footsteps so I look perfect in each photo. A live band singing songs about me is also something we are considering.

Jokes apart, the moment I get to know the tentative release date I am getting my tickets booked for Assam. It’s been a year since I last went home and I am so homesick the pain feels physical. After the book launch in Guwahati, I am planning a few meet-the-author events but I guess everything will be concrete once the dates come in. Exciting times ahead! Can’t wait!

Until my book is launched and I am catapulted into fame, my humble life goes on. The one where I get up every morning to the Moana song because little Miss Munchkin refuses to get up from bed without listening to it. The one in which my getting ready for work routine includes picking up books off my shelves for my colleagues and their kids, because I am the walking talking library (I kid you not, I carry three or fours books every other day and distribute them in the staffroom) The one in which I have adopted the toddler sleep schedule and go to bed at the ridiculously early hour of 9pm because by the time I put Miss Munchkin to sleep I am tuckered out myself. The one in which I am reading young adult fiction more than anything else so I can let my students know which ones are worth reading and which ones they can give a pass. And then wondering if I shouldn’t be reading more enriching stuff better suited for my age, because sad that it is, I am not a young adult anymore.

It might sound like a humdrum existence, but even as I write this, three things come to my mind that I HAVE to let you know about. The first being that my husband and I went on our first couple-only trip a fortnight ago. The Husband dropped Miss Munchkin and Jenny at my sister’s place, I took a cab to the airport straight from work, and before I knew it we were off to Bangkok! The trip was admittedly short. I mean, blink-and-you-miss-it short, and we spent more than half our time getting stuck in Bangkok’s notorious traffic jams, but man was it worth it! Goes to show how far I have come from that woman who had cried her eyeballs out on knowing that she’d have to leave her daughter behind to go to work everyday. I am on the verge of making this an entire post in itself but I will restrain myself. The two day-trip was all about food (gluttony, more like. Thai is hands down my favourite cuisine) and getting relaxing massages and then more food.

I also HAVE to tell you about this adorable table and chair set I got from IKEA for our balcony as a surprise to my husband who was away in Krabi for a sales meet. It was an impulse buy, one of the few I don’t regret at all, and I felt really proud that I could manage to keep it a surprise because I am terrible at giving surprises. The fact that he was on a flight and mostly unavailable during that time doesn’t count, does it? We would keep talking about how our balcony looked too small to do much with it, and keep vaguely planning to maybe get chair or something, but it is only after I got the set that we realised how perfect it is for the morning cup of tea. I got a potted bonsai and a lamp to go with the table, and it has now become a coffee table, dining table, book-reading spot, talking on the phone spot, all in one.

The third and the final thing is this book.

 

There are different kinds of funny. There is your Diary of a Wimpy Kid funny that’s ridiculous beyond belief, your P.G. Wodehouse kind of funny that keeps bubbling simmering on your inside and finally bursts out as peals of laughter, your Sophie Kinsella funny that is well, superficial funny. And then there’s Ellen funny. Ellen funny is what makes you laugh out loud regardless of the fact that you are in public. It is what makes you want to read it out to others but renders you incapable of doing so because you are laughing so hard reading is impossible. I turn to the book when I am too bummed with corrections and deciphering bad handwriting. I turn to it when I am so sleepy I can barely keep my eyes open. I turn to it when I am walking past it and it is lying on the dining table. Best airport bookstore buy, ever.

If this post doesn’t define random, I don’t know what random is. I know being “busy” is never an excuse to not write, or to call your mother for that matter (Mamma, I am so so sorry I haven’t been calling you as often as I should) but I realise now that sleeping at 9 and waking at 5 does have its advantages. Here’s hoping for more early morning writing then. And hoping my creativity gets the memo and adjusts itself to flow during mornings instead of late nights like it is used to.

Note to self: Staying up till two in the morning reading a book *also* has its advantages but doesn’t really lead to much productivity.

On teaching

When I was a child, a wee little tyke, with a flair for striking up conversation with virtual strangers, anytime I was asked that standard “So what do you want to be when you grow up?” question, I would reply without batting an eyelid: “A teacher”. It would make sense of course. With both parents in academics I guess it was taken for granted that I would naturally be drawn to that line.   My parents never read too much into it. They thought it was cute, the way I would clumsily drape Mamma’s saris and pretend to teach an invisible class. Or how I would mark my own old notebooks because the very act of putting a red “tick” mark on paper would fascinate me. How a tiny slate hung up on the wall would be my blackboard and how I would constantly reprimand my particularly noisy invisible class to keep quiet and listen to me, shaking my head in disapproval, rolling my eyes wondering what they could ever amount to if they were this naughty in class.

It’s been decades since then, but in all honesty, I don’t think for once in my life, I thought I could be anything else. A writer, yes. But writing was more like an extension of myself, and not meant to be a profession because truth be told, I never thought I would be good enough to get paid. I still don’t, but that aside, I always knew that if there was a profession, one profession I had to pick, it would be that of a teacher.

How could I not, when one of the first memories I have of my father is him huddled over a table with six-seven students around him, poring over textbooks at our place because college was closed for the holidays and the syllabus hadn’t been completed? My mother would make tea and goodies every evening, and the students would be a constant fixture in that make-shift classroom for over a month. It was much longer before it occured to me that he didn’t do it because he was getting paid for it (he wasn’t) but because he was responsible for the students and their education, and he took it upon himself to complete the syllabus. My father’s students loved him. They became a part of our family, and even now, after all those years, we still know his students as our “brothers” and “sisters”.

My mother, on the other hand, was the science teacher everyone was scared of. She had built a reputation of being strict, and she was one of those teachers who could silence a class with one glance. Despite the fact that her belly laugh could be heard from the staffroom loud and clear even four classrooms away, the girls (ours was an all-girls school) were terrified of her. And yet, I have heard her have hour-long conversations, counselling teenage girls, being compassionate and understanding, crying for them and laughing with them and being their best friend. I have seen her hold a student in a tight embrace and tell her everything was going to be okay. I have seen her defend her students in front of demanding parents.

Times changed, like everything else. My father went into administration and moaned about how students took to coming to his office only when there was trouble. My mother became the principal of a school which, at that point, only offered classes till Grade 3, and became the motherly figure who would give company to little ones who refused to walk into class. My father became that ominous figure who walked through the campus every evening and refused to let latecomers appear for repeat exams. My mother once let a four year-old pat her tummy because he thought it was cute and cuddly. The tables had turned, and my perspective changed. Not for once though, did I ever think that I could find better teachers than my parents even if I scoured the entire world.

I’ve been blessed with amazing teachers who left an indelible impression on my life. Like my science teacher who taught me the importance of spelling regardless of the subject and made sure I never, ever forget the spelling of balloon. Or my English teacher who lent us P.G.Wodehouse and introduced us to the delicious feeling of having our bellies ache in laughter. Or the coolest professor I came across in university, the one who made being in class feel like the most fun thing to do, ever.

Which is why when I prepared myself to become a teacher, I told myself that this was my one chance at living my dream. Having made one dream come true, it was time to focus on the second one. J.K. Rowling, I reminded myself, was a teacher when she started writing Harry Potter. I could definitely wing it, this being writer and teacher at the same time. It simply felt right.

Everything I knew about teaching told me that your students make their first impression in the very first class, which is why you go in as an authoritative figure, or they’ll never take you seriously.

Me, I ended up humming notes from Closer in my first class, right after discussing the summary of The Solitary Reaper.

From that day started this brilliant roller coaster ride that I call teaching. Each day I walk into class I feel the same enthusiasm pulsing through my veins that I used to feel as a kid playing pretend “teacher-teacher”. With the younger ones, I tell them stories that used to fascinate me and I listen with all attentiveness to theirs. I learn their ways, whether it be “doing the dab” or teaching myself the steps to “Juju on that beat” or hear declarations about the most successful bottle flips in a row. With the older ones I talk about the songs on my playlist and the books I want them to read. I even started a so-called “class library” where I lend out books on the condition they keep them intact. I find myself aspiring to be the teacher they talk about years down the line. I want to be to them what my English teacher was, and still is, to me. I want them to fall in love with words, and for them to find out that there is nothing in this world, no sorrows or tragedies that can’t be cured with words. I find myself laughing along with them at inside jokes, wondering the very next moment if I am crossing that invisible line that separates teachers from students. Which is when I realise that sometimes, being a teacher and being a friend are not mutually exclusive. You could very well be both.

To close the circle of life, I offered to lend a student a P.G.Wodehouse today. And I find myself thinking of Mrs. Gopalan. Thank you, Ma’am, for starting it all.

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On letting go

The first time I left my daughter’s side to go outside was when she was all of two weeks old. My parents-in-law kindly suggested I take a break from the marathon nursing sessions cooped inside the room, and my husband offered to give me company for a walk in the park. Ten minutes of fresh air and I decided I’d had enough to last me some time, thank you very much. I’d rather go back to my wee little miss who might have woken up from her nap and screaming for me for all I know. When we reached home, my Ma-in-law joked about how the little one had been napping so deeply I could have easily taken an hour long break. No sooner had she said this than a sharp wail reached my ears. Almost as if she’d known her Mamma was home, Miss Munchkin demanded my presence and attention. How dare I leave her alone!

To say I had issues with letting go would be an understatement. If I don’t count random five minutes that I stole now and then (and honestly, I don’t, because they actually don’t count) the next time I left her with her Dadda for a longer stretch of time was when she was over a year old. When we were in Dubai, thanks to The Husband, I gradually wrapped my head around the fact that she would be okay without me around, that she didn’t need me every second of her life. Even then, having devoted all of my time and energy and attention to her for over two and a half years, it took me a long time to get used to  leaving her and going to work. Broke my heart a little each time I walked out of the door, knowing it would be afternoon when I saw her again.  Sadness made way for guilt when I realised I wasn’t even giving her the time I ought to because I would either be too tired once I reached home, or because I had pending work I needed to finish before the next day. But like everything else, sadly, I got used to the guilt too. Tomorrow I’ll devote all my time to her, I would say. Sometimes tomorrow happened. Sometimes it didn’t. I learned to make my peace with it.

Then school started. I remember sitting outside her kindergarten writing about that second day of school and how her face looking at me accusingly, as though I had abandoned her, haunted me. When I started work after the winter holidays this time and had to ask my live-in helper to go pick her up from school, a part of me couldn’t get over the fact that she, and not I, would be the one to see Miss Munchkin’s face peeking through that small window when she came out of school. I wanted to be there, standing with the other mothers, talking about school and what our kids ate and when they slept at night. I wanted my face to be the first one she saw through that window. I wanted to see that smile light up her face as she told me everything about school and her day and what she did and what she learned. I had to make do with the watered-down, distracted description of her day as I chased after her asking questions while she ran around, too busy to answer me. I learned to make my peace with it too.

And then last weekend, because it was a long one, we decided to go to my sister’s and stay overnight. Everything was planned out. We would go to my sister’s on Friday night and from there to our friends’ place on Saturday night and come back home on Sunday. Saturday night, watching Miss Munchkin have a conversation with my nephew while they played with their toy trucks and airplanes and what not, I wondered out loud if she’d be okay for the night without me. My sister and husband were all for it. “Try it out!” they said, while I already regretted saying the words out loud. We asked Miss Munchkin if she wanted to stay at her aunt’s, and if she’d be okay without her Mamma and Dadda around. Without batting an eyelid she said yes, with the condition that she would be allowed to sleep with her cousin. I kissed her goodnight, said bye to her and sat in the cab taking all of it in, telling myself the other alternative was listening to her wail as she refused to say bye to her cousin. My daughter was grown up enough to spend the night away from her mother. For the first time in over three years, I slept without my daughter in bed, and had disturbing dreams all night.

The next morning, when we reached my sister’s, Miss Munchkin looked happy to see us but that was it. No complaints, no “I missed you”s. Said “Hi!” and ran away to play with her cousin. I plonked on the sofa while my sister told me how well behaved Miss Munchkin had been, and how not once she’d asked about us. I know my first reaction should have been something in the lines of “Huzzah to weekend getaways!” but all I did was… well, cry. I had complained for so long that my daughter was clingy and it was getting to not have any time for myself, that this sudden freedom came as a shock. My sister consoled me, saying the only reason Miss Munchkin was independent was because I had made her feel so secure that she knew Mamma would be with her always, that even if I left her it was a temporary situation and that I would be back. I suddenly felt redundant. Did she not need me anymore, then? Was I just another fixture in her gradually growing world of friends? I know, I know, okay? But all I’m saying is that was what I had felt at that moment. Empty and clueless. All mothered-out.

As if that were not enough, Miss Munchkin started taking the school bus since yesterday, and today, when I waved her goodbye, I remarked to my husband how easy it had become, this saying bye to her. I wish I could reach out to myself two years ago and told that harried woman to take it easy because it won’t be like this always. I wish I could take back all those times when I lost my patience with Miss Munchkin because she insisted on being fed by only me, or being bathed by only me, because I miss those moments now. Miss Munchkin has a mind of her own, is very vehement about how she wants things done and sometimes actually prefers my helper over me.

But like my sister said, nothing can change the fact that I am her mother, and most of what she’s learned over these years she’s learned through me. I should be proud she’s independent, because it means I have done my job well. I should tell myself she will never not need me, but her needs will change over time. So for now I will let her decide who she wants to spend time with, and when Her Royal Highness decides to bestow some attention to her boring mother who won’t even let her watch television, I will cherish it, and read those books to her with those funny voices because it makes her happy. I will tell her stories of the purple dragon and burnt grapes and the Sorting Hat and Hogwarts (her personal favourite) and let her sleep with my arm as her pillow because who knows when she outgrows my arms as well?

Being a mother, well, is not piece of cake. You wear your heart on your sleeve, let a piece of your soul walk and run around with danger seemingly lurking everywhere, and when time comes, relinquish all rights over that soul and set it free. Being a mother is difficult. Letting go even more so.

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The Second Day of School 

A child’s first day at school is a big deal, and for good reason. It’s a major milestone after all. This is the day they leave the familiar cocoon of their own homes and venture out into the big wide world. After this day, as they say, there’s no looking back. First it is preschool, then primary, then middle school and before you know it they’re packing their bags and leaving for a college and you’ll get to see them once a year if you’re lucky. 

But until we get there, there’s this tiny little thing called the second day of school. And while it is the first day of school that gets all the attention, truth be told it is the second day that takes the cake. And I’ll tell you why. 

On the first day of school, the little one doesn’t know what to expect. They are excited at the prospect of a new place, more so because the parent builds it up, talking about new friends, and all the games they are going to play and all the fun (oh so much FUN!) they’re going to have. Then they reach school and realise that Mamma isn’t going to stay with them while they have all this fun they are supposed to be having. And hell breaks loose. Cue tear-works and screaming and holding on to Mamma and refusing to let go because why on earth does Mamma have to leave? When school gets over and they rush into Mamma’s arms, still sobbing, still accusing Mamma of leaving them in lurch, little do they know that they have to do it all over again the next day, and the day after and so on. So you see, on the second day, they know exactly what is going to happen. And they know it is not going to be pleasant after all. Which is why the tear-works start from the moment they start getting dressed. 

I would know. I’m writing this from the waiting area of Miss Munchkin’s kindergarten, and it’s been exactly thirty minutes since I left her in her classroom. This is our second day, and if I thought that my being a working Mom by now would make it easier on me, I was wrong. I’ll admit I had high hopes. Little Miss is a friendly kid who loves to talk and meet new people, which is why I hoped that getting adjusted in school would be easy for her. That, and the fact that she was already used to spending time away from me. I anticipated the separation anxiety, but I didn’t anticipate that look on her face when she saw me at the end of school. She was still sobbing, wiping her own tears, and while she was happy to see me it was as if the sight of me reminded her that I had left her, and she started crying more. It was heartbreaking, specially since she would start sobbing every now and then, even at night, saying she didn’t want to come to school. 

Her teachers are amazing, and I trust them absolutely. I know all about getting used to a new place, I have read up on how to prepare your child for school, and how this is normal. I also know that in a few weeks’ time she would be the one jumping in joy to come to school. I love her classroom, and I know that the moment she stops missing her Mamma she would feel right at home. There’s a play kitchen and a washing machine for pretend play and loads of blocks and legos and puzzles and oh I know I know this is natural but god do I just want to hug her and hold her and not let her go ever. You silly goof, I tell my heart, for once will you just let the mind take over? 

Sigh. That look on her face though. 

But that’s okay, I tell myself. The second day is about to get over soon. This too, shall pass. She might need more time than others, but that’s okay too. She might scream even louder tomorrow, and vehemently refuse to come, but we’ll deal with that. One day at a time, right? I keep thinking about the day my happy daughter rushes to my arms after a fun day at school and tells me all about it, and I’ll think to myself “Remember how she used to hate that place once?” That’s all I can do right now anyway. 

Look at me, turning a rite of passage into a sob story of my own. Moms, right? Maybe I’ll wallow in it just a little bit and then snap out of it. Just a tiny little bit, and then I’m done. 

Sigh. 

There. Done. Now off to drown myself in The Handmaid’s Tale. Thank heaven for books. 

P.S. The picture is from our holiday to Hanoi. Just because. 

Gone…

This last year started with fireworks, a vague sense of desperation and a strong resolution to read better (note how I talk about the year as though it has already ended). The fireworks fizzled out, leaving nothing but a dull ringing in our ears in its wake, desperation quietly sneaked out the back door the moment we decided to come back to Singapore, and I slowly and steadily made my way through book after book. This was to be the year I amended mistakes of the past and read all the classics I had missed out on. This turned out to be the year I bought an embarrassingly large number of books and made through thirty-something books out of the fifty I had assigned myself. Much as I hate to admit it, among those thirty-something books were some classics, some good reads, and the inevitable fluff that I turn to like a kid craving candy.

But with the year coming to an end, I sure am glad that the last book (or so it looks like, given how I have a New Year Eve party to plan and what not in the remaining days) that I read was Gone With The Wind. I know, right? How have I lived for this long not having read this book? Because it was one of those start-stop books. You know, the ones you start and leave and then leave for so long that you have to go back to the beginning when you take it up again and never make any progress because you’re rereading the same bits over and over again? Anyway. This January, I ended up befriending a “fan” of my blog (her word, not mine) and when we started talking books I basically begged her to read Anne of Green Gables and she said she would if only I took up Gone With The Wind. I said yes, started reading the first page, got distracted and gave up.

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Cut to last month when I heard two colleagues talk about the book. They were in raptures, going on and on about how no other book could even come close to Gone With The Wind, and I almost refuted saying it was a matter of opinion because I still swore by Pride and Prejudice as the best book ever. But then I suddenly remembered my fan-friend telling me about the book, and on an impulse, downloaded the ebook and started reading it on my phone there and then. My colleague looked devastated. “A book like this deserves more respect,” she said, “Please go home and read it in leisure and give it the due attention it demands.” So I came home and started reading it on my Kindle (oh yes, I succumbed and had my husband gift me one). I read it on my flight to Hanoi, and on the flight back. I read scattered pages in minutes I had sneaked out from my busy hours. I lost sleep so I could read some more, and then lost more sleep thinking about it. I got furious and fanatic in turns, and gladly succumbed to that pleasant feeling of being sucked into a book. And yet, when I finished reading it today, all I could feel was confusion and a weird sense of unsettlement. I am hungover alright, but I find myself seething a bit.

First things first, I am almost ashamed at my ignorance. I started reading the book without knowing a single thing about it. Had I known it had a war in it and deaths, I would definitely have stayed away. Reading about wars gives me nightmares, literally, and I get so affected I spend my next few days in a morose funk. I love how vivid the images were of the war that affected so many, and I hated it for its vividness. There were times when I felt like shaking Scarlett O’ Hara by her shoulders, and times when I wanted to go give her a hug because she is so headstrong. Rhett Butler is a brute no doubt, but at least he redeems himself. I could have killed him for abandoning Scarlett with Melanie and the newborn baby when they were trying to get to Tara but I love him for the unabashedly honest man he is. I would have still made my peace with the book had it not been for its bitter ending.

Bonnie dead, Melanie dead, Rhett all out of love and Scarlett finally realising that she was in love with him instead of that spineless Ashley. “You fools!” I felt like saying, “Why couldn’t you just tell each other what you felt when you felt it?” The ending left me huffing and puffing, because it was as dissatisfying an ending as ever, and the worst part of it was how intensely I felt about it. I tried hard to make my peace with Scarlett but I couldn’t. Melanie was the only character I truly loved but she’s almost too good to be true. Rhett Butler is the “bad boy” women love to hate and hate to love but fall over anyway. The die-hard romantic that I am, I guess I would have loved my sugar-coated happy ending, where Scarlett and Rhett passionately admit to their love for each other and Melanie and Ashley get to spend the rest of their lives together. For once I wanted my ending to be neatly wrapped with a satin ribbon and a flourishing bow and all I got was… well, irreparable cracks on my fragile China.

When my friend told me she’d read it multiple times the only thing I asked her was why she returned to a book without a happy ending. Everyone knows the only reason we keep rereading Harry Potters is because we know Voldemort finally dies. If the book had been only about all those deaths (Lily, James, Sirius, Dumbledore, oh dear Fred, and even Hedwig…) and left Harry alone with only vague words of consolation and no straightforward triumph do you think we’d keep reading them again and again? (Some people might, just not me I guess) So yeah, now that I have put that tick along yet another classic I should have read a long time ago but finally got around to reading just now, I am done with my good read of the year. Send me rainbows and endings that include  riding into the sunset together and some chocolate, stat.

Hullo again, Hanoi! 

It is almost 11pm of a long day and I’m lying awake on a hotel bed with the husband and the little one fast asleep next to me. The low hum of the AC is the only sound to give me company. That, and the buzz in my ear from the sudden silence after an evening of being subjected to loud noises. My legs ache as does my back from carrying Miss Munchkin for most of the evening. By all rights I should have been dead tired. By all rights I should have fallen asleep the moment my head hit the pillow (although I have never had that happen to me, ever). But I am on a high I rarely feel. I’m so used to feeling tired all the time that this weird feeling of wanting to go on and on and wishing the day never ended is a novelty.

 
Note to self: refrain from drinking coffee, specially the potent Vietnamese stuff, after four in the afternoon.

 
I can’t stop grinning. We are in Hanoi, the city that has given me so much happiness my heart still swells each time I think about it. We landed yesterday, and checked in to the Hilton, my in-laws and little one all huddled together in a cab, the Husband and I annoyingly saying out loud the street names that we recognised. From the moment the good officer in the airport ushered us to the front of the immigration line because I was carrying the little one, it has been nothing but pleasant. Five years is a long time to be away from a place and a lot has changed but I love the fact that the people are still the same. 


After a breakfast of steamed buns and banh cuons today morning, we sent my in-laws, including my Brother-in-law on a day tour around Hanoi and leisurely made our way to Nguyễn Thi Dinh, the street where we used to live. Choked up on emotions, we walked around that wet market where we used to buy our fresh produce from. The Husband stopped for a cup of coffee in a quaint little cafe and we relished the calm. I wanted to visit each and every place we’d frequented, including that small supermarket where I used to shop for groceries. We had our lunch at our favourite restaurant, the one where we used to order our Friday pizza from. After a customary afternoon siesta we went for a cup of coffee at the Highlands Coffee and then to Vincom Tower, where we used to go for movies every Friday. 


Keeping up with the literal walk down memory lane we dined at the restaurant near the centre where I got my CELTA training in, and sending the Husband with the little one back to the hotel, the Brother-in-law and I went to the famous Night Market by Hoan Kiem Lake. 
The driver dropped us nearly two blocks away from Hoan Kiem, pointing to the barricade in front, yelling at us for not giving him small change. Thus unceremoniously dismissed, and shamelessly giggling at being yelled at, we took in the crowd. There’s just one word for it: festive. With the wide streets being dedicated to only pedestrians and the buildings all around decked up in their Christmas best, it looked like all of Hanoi had come out to celebrate. Families with young kids lazily walked around, toddlers holding bunches of balloons clumsily waddling next to their parents, puffy jackets squeaking as they walked. Babies wrapped in layers took in the lights with eyes wide open from their mother’s arms. Somewhere someone played Jingle Bells on the flute. 

 

A massive tug of war took place bang in the middle of the street, with kids holding on to their Dad’s jackets as they too did their part and pulled with all their might. A group of teenagers sat on the street in a circle with a speaker in the centre, holding sheafs of paper with songs written on them. Crowds gathered here and there as street performers performed their shows, music blaring from speakers, loud cheers and claps filling the air. Someone even brought a long skipping rope and at least ten people skipped in sync as another crowd watched them. 
And in the midst of all that noise and chaos, my beloved Hoan Kiem lake glittered and shimmered in the dark, the branches of the trees still bent low like I remembered them, the fairy lights as gorgeous as I saw in my dreams. 


Bracing myself for the crowd, telling my claustrophobia to kindly stay away, I plunged in, holding tight on to my brother’s arms to keep myself from being drifted away in the crowd. The same stalls, the same smells, the familiar language… it was like being transported to five years ago. I forgot that this was not an ordinary Saturday, that this time round I was technically a tourist, that instead of going back to our apartment I’d have to come back to the hotel. I felt right in place. I conversed in Vietnamese, haggling just like I was taught to by Ms. Thao five years ago. I smiled at strangers, stopped to caress little babies’ cheeks, took my time to tell their proud Momma just how cute their baby was. I hummed to myself, and even as we aimlessly walked onto unknown streets, not for a moment did I feel like I was on a strange land. 
This is what Hanoi does to me. It makes me want to stop and smell the flowers. Literally. It makes me want to go on long walks on the streets, taking in all the hustle and bustle. I realise I am way more “chilled” when I am here, as though I am one with the place. Today, as we walked all over the place, stopping to ask for directions now and then, and I realised that I had not forgotten my Vietnamese after all, I was reminded yet again that I had left a huge piece of my heart here when we left five years ago. 
Here’s to Hanoi, once again. I could keep singing her praise for my whole life, and to people who know me it would seem like I have been doing just that, but then again, it is not everyday you come back to your soul place. I have one whole day with this city before we have to say bye and I intend to make the most of it. Which reminds me I should probably try and get some sleep.