Merry Christmas!

BY Naazish YarKhan

“It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas,” goes the song and yes, with the snow and blustery temperatures finally here, I’m happy to report that we are truly and completely immersed in the holiday spirit. Christmastime is my favorite time of the year. My theory is that those living in these frigid climes make the most of Thanksgiving and Christmas so that we have something to be merry about. It gives us something cheerful to focus on instead of the short days, the lack of sun and the sub-zero temps.

Well, I’m getting ahead of myself. Warmer temperatures have given way to more frigid temperatures and I, for one, was taken by surprise. I had taken my car to have a puncture fixed – apparently I’d driven over a nail – and was asked to come get the car three hours later. Four hours later I arrive, only to see my car frozen within sheets of ice. It was raining … not water… but hard ice.

“I’m so surprised. All this happened so suddenly,” I sputtered to the car repairman who I’d called to my rescue when I discovered my Nissan caked in unbreakable ice.

He looked at me, weirdly. “They’ve been predicting this since Thursday, three days ago,” he said, jamming his ice scraper into the gaps between the car door and the chassis, to free it open.

Once inside, I turned the heat on. We still had to get the ice sheet off my windows and, most importantly, off the windscreen. I had my own ice scraper in the trunk but that too was frozen shut. It took 20 minutes for the heating to kick in, while we hacked the ice off the trunk where it had gotten sealed shut. Next, we attacked my windscreen, until sheets of ice, each at least a foot long and six inches wide, came crashing off.

My friends in India say we’re obsessed with the weather here and are paranoid because we make it a point to listen to the weather reports each and every day. They can’t understand it. Well, duh, if I’d listened to the weather man, I wouldn’t have ended up having to crack ice off my windscreen, now would I? I would have taken in my car a day earlier and avoided the issue altogether! But to stay true to the holiday spirit, let me give the sarcasm a rest.

Later that evening we were expected to go to Farhat’s office party. From my frozen car, I had called him, asking if he thought it wise to drive to this party when the roads were so slippery and driving conditions so nasty. The roads can be mean when icy. While highways get doused with salt to melt the ice, local roads stay slushy and frozen longer. Many times, brakes won’t grip fast enough, leaving your car skidding into whatever is in front of it. Ditto if you go a tad too fast when turning. “It’s winter in Chicago,” he said, unperturbed. “Just drive back safe.”

My fiasco at the store had well and truly set me back an hour. Needless to say, I was late getting dressed. Farhat wasn’t happy. “Look, no one’s going to be on time. The weather is a mess,” I said, sliding into the passenger’s seat, at length. How I could have kicked myself when we got there. Farhat, I saw, wasn’t the only one thinking, “It’s winter in Chicago. Deal with it.” The room was full and we were one of the last ones to arrive.

That was a week ago. Two days ago, we were inundated with our first bout of snow. Lots and lots of it. Last year, our backdoor and front doors had gotten jammed with snow and ice and weren’t opening. For days, we had to use our garage door to get in and out of our home. Taskeen gleefully wished this would happen again – but not to us. Instead she wished her Quran teacher would be snowed it and unable to come to our home.

“Or, maybe she’ll be too afraid to drive in this weather,” Taskeen added with a twinkle in her eye. With all due respect, I think Taskeen may be right. Our Quran teacher is very uncomfortable even driving in the dark be it as early as 4:45 p.m. or 5:30 p.m. Hmmm… and she lives in Chicago, where it’s dark by that time for half the year. ( But bad me, being a bit of a ‘Meow’ and forgetting all about the kinder, gentler disposition required of the holiday spirit.)

With my Muscat trip on the horizon, I’m even shopping all the sales and snapping up Christmas merchandise. A la Santa, there’s gifts to bring, after all. Yousuf has even created a wish list for things he wants from Santa, and I must take him to the local mall to meet the man in red. Yousuf is older but, without fail, all the babies and toddlers begin to cry the moment they have to sit on Mr. Claus’s lap and have their photos taken.

Also in the holiday spirit, Taskeen and Yousuf both had musical productions at their respective schools. Yousuf’s required some dancing and all I saw him do was stomp his feet down, one after the other, as if he were in the middle of a tantrum. He does not enjoy this singing, dancing routine.

Anything I write isn’t quite complete if I don’t focus on lessons I learned from the experience. So here goes. Farhat used to say that I wasn’t quite content with something until it happened exactly the way I pictured it in my head. For instance, my idea of family time together was never watching TV together. Rather, it was eating dinner together. Or, it was a scene where the father read a paper and the mother read a book, while the children happily played a board game on the floor. I’m pretty sure this was part of my own childhood, in some measure and I brought this scene to my marriage and tried to get all the pieces to fit. 13 years later, this newspaper reading scene has never happened in this marriage of mine, and rarely have I sat down to read a book. So I’ve settled for watching movies together, as family time. Once in a way, the kids and I’ll do board games too. What’s that saying about marriage being all about finding a middle ground?

But, apparently this fixation for the right picture isn’t just a fascination I have. That the song “White Christmas” is the most popular of Christmas songs, is testimony to that. It goes, “I'm dreaming of a white Christmas / With every Christmas card I write / May your days be merry and bright / And may all your Christmases be white. Christmas time was meant to be white, with snow caking roof tops and tree branches, while we slowly drove past in our warm toasty car, listening to Christmas songs on the radio. I doubt Christmas in Florida, or Muscat, really feels like Christmas. It’s just too darn warm and sunny. So now you have an open invitation. Come to Chicago in the winter! Until later, Merry Christmas everyone!


It's all so familiar to me. Yet, to my children, it's a world that's new and strange. I'm returning to Muscat, Oman, from my home in Chicago, after a gap of four years. And while a part of me feels as though time has stood still, another part sees it all with fresh eyes, too, because this time I see it as my children are seeing it. The last time I was here, my daughter was a baby, still not weaned. This time, I have an infant boy of about the same age. Strange and new as this place is to them, it's still home because my parents make it so.

If you were to pick a color to describe my parents' home in Muscat, it would be yellow. It is warm and inviting, suffused with love, affection and conversation—a treat for the mind and the soul. This is the first time my parents are meeting my son. My daughter knows them a little from two previous trips and phone calls from Chicago. Yet both children go to them without the least hesitation. Even across the miles the bond exists. My father talks to my daughter, Taskeen, explains passages he has read in the Quran, tells her jokes, explains to her what a desalination plant does, where Oman and Chicago are on the map; Chicago, which now seems so far away. The 5-year-old revels in the attention paid to her. My dad asks her to speak slower so he can understand her American accent. She discovers she enjoys experimenting with spoken Urdu. My mother dotes on the kids. The first day we are here, she takes Taskeen out to buy a pair of goldfish, paints, crayons, a drawing book and other art supplies. Adults can find ways to entertain themselves in a new place, but children need to be made to feel secure, my mother reasons. My mother also gently corrects me when I criticize the kids publicly. It's not good for their self-esteem, she teaches me. Over the next couple of days Taskeen eats better than ever. She is a calmer, better-behaved child than I knew she could be. Could it be this warm air or a dose of my parents' attitude?

I am excited to show Taskeen the country. The rugged mountains, the beaches, the mosques, Sultan Qaboos' palace. I want her to discover its nooks and crannies, its sights and smells, to make these her own, to make them a part of her memory and who she is. I want her to sense them not as a tourist but as someone who lives here. Am I asking for too much, given that we are here for barely two weeks? Am I hoping that a lifetime of memories and associations can be compressed into 14 days? We cope with the heat by staying indoors until daylight ceases around 6 p.m. We venture out for ice cream or coffee, barbecued squid and fish kebab.I've seen it all before. I used to live here, but I still love sightseeing. My daughter sees Sultan Qaboos' palace and thinks it's nothing like the castles she has seen in storybooks. It's like someone's home, she comments. I privately wonder whom she knows who has such a palatial home. At the beach minutes away from my parents' home, she collects shells and I try to explain how the sea is not the same as Lake Michigan back home. She admires Sultan Qaboos' ship and wonders whether we can go see Sinbad's boat too. My mother has told her about his many voyages.We curve up the roadways to Jussa Beach. Somewhere along the road, I discover that what began as an effort to give my children a sense of Muscat has become my personal homecoming, my rediscovery of Oman. A week later we're in India, my grandparents' home. It was mine too, for the first 20 years of my life. We're here to care for and spend time with my ailing, bedridden grandmother who helped my parents raise me when I was a child. She watches my hyper 9-month-old and jokes, "maybe he eats too many hot peppers." Taskeen picks up the language easily and has no problem conversing in Urdu. In America, I have to goad her to talk in our native tongue. We visit with my sister and her family every day. Taskeen and my sister's daughter are instant friends even though they have met after a gap of two years. Perhaps it is wishful thinking, but I would like them to grow as tight-knit as Taskeen is with her friends in America. I ask my American-born-and-raised husband repeatedly, "Do you think we can move here?" There are frequent visitors at my grand-parents home. They arrive unannounced. How inconsiderate these guests are, I often think. What if we wanted private, family time? What if we didn't want company or weren't home, when they decided to 'drop in', I wonder. Suddenly I realize how American I sound. A decade of living in the United States and in some small almost imperceptible way I had changed. Changed from the more "we" centered easterner, to the more individualistic westerner. How had this happened? I always thought of myself as so Indian. In America, we perhaps are too busy running ragged. I manage a home, raise children and earn an income without much of a support system. As I always say, I'm the queen of my home, as well as its cook, cleaner, gardener, plumber, chauffeur and carpenter. Need a fresh coat of paint? Fridge needs replenishing? No dinner ready? Need a wire mesh fixed? Guess who does it? Perhaps that's why we're so particular about how we divvy up our time. Maybe our American lifestyle necessitates that there be a time and place for everything. That each slot, each slice of life, have its own boundaries without one overflowing into the other. If we let the ball drop once too often, perhaps we'll set off chaos. In India, chores are divided between family and paid help. Since no single individual gets spread out too thin, there's time to invest in the lives of others, without it disrupting the smooth functioning of one's own. But aren't I a product of my homeland? Did it take all of ten years to undo everything I had learned and imbibed back home? We always had aunts and uncles and cousins and grandparents around. When did having them participate in our life ever take away from it? Weren't those every day interactions responsible for making our lives richer, more meaningful in the cumulative sense of things? My sister and her husband take us to restaurants, shopping and sightseeing. Not once do they allow me to pick up the tab. They insist on it even though it makes me feel like I am imposing on them. And my children and I aren't the only ones towards whom they extended such hospitality. They have live-in guests who are visiting for a month. I wonder, would Americans be as gracious, or even consider playing hosts for an entire month? Would I? I see, now with eyes of an American, that in India we have relationships, and grow richer because of them, almost on auto-pilot. It's not about scheduling relationships in. Each person plays an active role in so many lives. And I mean all the time, not just on birthdays and holidays. If I lived here, and if extended family lived in the same city, I would have a chance to be and act like a daughter, mother, wife, niece to ones aunts, niece to the friends of ones aunts', grand-daughter to ones direct grand-parents as well as to their siblings and friends, almost all the time! By default, I suppose I'd be more sharing, caring, loving and giving so much so that being that way would become part and parcel of my personality. In India, these traits certainly appear to be a part of the national character! It seems like there is no other way to be. For me, it's not odd that this is how they are; it's odd that I am even noticing that there is such a difference in how people relate to each other. I'm sure there are arguments and misunderstanding in relationships here as well, but how enmeshed in each other's lives everyone is what really strikes me. It makes me see how my life is not quite the same as theirs, and in a way, lacking. 'Indianess', I begin to feel, apparently refers to a state of being helpful or hospitable as a norm. In the months I spend there I don't see actions governed by selfish motives or the 'You scratch my back, I'll scratch yours' philosophy. I am suddenly more aware of the number of times I tell my daughter, "I want you to try to do it yourself," because I am short on time. I decide to change tactics. "Sure," is something I make a point to say more often when she asks for help. I'd rather she grow up to be inter-dependent and empathetic, than independent and self-absorbed. Reaching into my past, I arrive unannounced at my friend Sangita Fernandes' home and though she is away at work, her parents welcome my children and me. They make sure we have a good lunch. A couple I am introduced to and befriend, Mansi and Vikram Reddy, gift me with a Himru shawl that I'd liked but thought too expensive a purchase to make. Friends of my mother (whom I didn't even know) bring my children and me gifts. Time and money are scarce resources in India too, yet what made people here more generous with both? More generous than perhaps I would be? "Use it or lose it." You've probably heard the phrase used for the muscles in your body or your memory. I now speculate if the "use it or lose it" theory also applies to character traits. Maybe I lost some of the 'good' traits I originally had. Or at least lost them to some degree. America is a society segregated by sameness. We are segregated by economic status, so may not have the "instinctive desire" to share. Our neighbors' lives are filled, more or less, with just as many 'things' as ours. If they were much richer, they wouldn't be in this neighborhood. They'd move to a bigger house, in a fancier suburb and even better trimmed lawns. If they were much poorer, they would never be able to afford a house in my area. In America, when I have talked of giving to the poor, Taskeen asks me, "Where are the poor? We have to go and look for poor people." I, now, make a mental list of the places I can have the children volunteer. It could be old people's homes, it could be soup kitchens. The idea is to get my kids to recognize and work at resolving despair and misfortune in any small way. My intent is to consciously 'sow' these qualities into my children versus imagining they are simply going to pick it up from the air. I must carve into existence the experiences I want them to have, so they can have the character traits I'd ideally like them to possess. In America, this conscious effort is more necessary than in India where disparity hits you in the face. Someone once asked, "If God is all powerful why did He make suffering or poverty or disease?" I was reading some Taoist philosophy and chanced upon the answer there. It is only in contrast that we can know the intrinsic quality of the other. We know beauty because there is ugliness. We know ease and relish it because we know suffering. We seek love because we know the pain of rejection and loss.To know is one thing. Yes, we "know" poverty happens. Yes, we "know" being generous is a good thing. But to understand and internalize that knowledge through personal experience is what ultimately influences our subsequent actions and our behavior, I realize. Human faces will bring the lessons to life. We sign-up our children for extra-curricular art, music and sports, why not for volunteering too? It teaches a very valuable lifelong skill—compassion 101. I wonder whether as parents we are even conscious of how much we impact the way our kids think. I respect much that is America. It's efficiencies, its opportunities. But I tend to miss 'desi' values and the richness of relationships. I could speculate and analyze what makes Indians back home the way they are. At the end of the day it would perhaps leave me wiser but not any happier. What would make me feel richer was if I found a way to replicate the eastern values I so love, in my adopted home.For no reason, my grandmother blows me kisses or kisses my hand when I sit beside her. I wonder how I can ever duplicate, in my Chicago life, this same feeling of complete love, warmth and affection that surrounds me here. My grand-mother is loved so much and by so many because she takes an active interest in the lives of everyone she knows. Whenever an article of mine was published, her joy and pride equaled what she felt the first time she saw my name in print. When she was in better health she'd cut recipes out from magazines and newspapers and compile them for me. Another cousin of mine remembers how g'ma kept interesting articles from the youth section of various newspapers for her. My grand-mother remembered all our birthdays, anniversaries and achievements. She wrote us regular letters. She gently corrected our waywardness. She stayed abreast of the happenings in our lives, she cared to share our goings-on even as we married and went our own ways. That is what made her so well loved. Maybe that is one ingredient that makes for feelings of connectedness and love. Maybe that is one component I can duplicate in my relationships in my new homeland. In some small way, I have begun setting the foundation for relationships that will, I hope, last a lifetime in America. I've begun the work of chiseling into existence relationships as I remember them. Strong, supportive, invaluable, many hands making light work. Piece by piece, one friend at a time, I have created a larger extended family in Chicago. There are the Hammers, an elderly couple, whom my daughter loves to bits, and who shower me with much affection. There is Evelyn Skala, who is my grandmother's age and yet a very good friend to me. And of course, there are my best friends; my confidants, my group of stay-home moms. And if my parents, siblings and my grandparents were with us … ah, that would be heavenly. Still, there are days I struggle emotionally. No matter how good I have it, no matter how many close friends I've made since moving here, I still miss the comfort of immediacy, cultural-shorthand and shared history. When a ninth grade friend of mine started a blog for that batch of class-mates, I hungrily reached out for camaraderie. 'They knew me when I was a kid," I found myself saying as I tried to bridge the 20 year gap in our friendship. Ditto when I visit with relatives who've moved from the middle-east to Canada. "They remember me as a eleven year old. They mother me and I love it," I say. A college friend, Vaishalli, and I recently connected after more than a decade. I call her every week now. I once did a commentary for NPR about my summers as a child in India. I talked about the memory of my mother drawing the drapes shut, the fan on full, a radio softly churning out an old Hindi song as we lived in hot, humid Bombay by the Arabian Sea. But Hyderabad, where my parents lived, with its power outages and water-shortages always took the cake. I recalled how my grandfather would soak his garden, and the walls of their house, much to my grand-ma's dismay. There wouldn't be water left to cook with, she'd moan. Her protests fell on deaf ears ( literally). The intoxicating smell of wet earth on those hot days still lingers. I remember those details vividly, as if they'd happened yesterday. While visiting Fort Meyers Beach in Florida recently, it felt like a homecoming of sorts. I was reminded of the muggy days in Bombay. The sharpness of the sun, the clear blue skies and pedestrians all over the place, were all too familiar. It felt like home even though this was my first visit ever. That is when I realized that for me, home isn't about brick and mortar. It isn't about physical spaces or familiar streets, nooks and crannies. To me, home and homeland is a sense of belonging to strong, loving, supportive relationships. It's about feeling loved and valued. It's about living with the values I respect and want to adhere to. And it's also about smells, sounds, textures and feelings. To some re-creating home is about recreating meals. To me, it's about re-creating sensations. I miss home, but I can try to re-create home too. I guess at the end of the day, I have my work cut out for me. But it starts with just a few well-intentioned steps and then destiny takes over. I've begun the journey and will persist in its path. My intended destination will, no doubt, appear.