India was everything I expected and more. By which I mean, terrible.

The flight to Bombay was, as expected, not bad. The kids largely slept through. The only hitch was that we didn’t get seats together because there was another couple who needed a bassinet occupying two seats in that row and since our third person was Benji, he couldn’t be seated near an emergency exit. V and Benji were seated a few rows back which wasn’t ideal.

I also thought two babies in bassinets head to head would be a nightmare. But it was okay. Both the mums were okay with their respective babies doing baby stuff. Like playing on the floor, grabbing things, wailing, things that would normally embarrass one if the person in the next seat  was not a parent. I rolled my eyes when I saw the non-parents  in the emergency seats stretching their legs out smugly; they didn’t know what they were in for.

Mumbai airport was ugly and chaotic and hot, though we were whizzed through immigration for which I am grateful. We had a struggle with our bags and babies once we collected our luggage. Outside, I was shocked that Benji ran happily to my dad who he has only ever met in person once for one day when he was five-months-old. Clearly Skype works. I was also pleasantly surprised that the kids let us have a few hours’ sleep that night.

The next day all of us, including my parents, left for Bangalore for Mimi’s christening. The flight was a nightmare. Mimi screamed blue murder for more than half an hour straight. She wanted to sleep but she is not comfortable in confined spaces, even cars. The drive back to V’s house was also painful. But the kids were so tired out they slept really well, giving us the rest we needed.

The next day, Mimi’s christening, was a honeymoon day. There were five babies christened at the same time and the whole ceremony was a blur because Mimi was really restless but in a funny way. There was a large lunch at V’s place after the ceremony and that went well too because I managed to give the kids the slip in the confusion of many faces.

It was all downhill from there. The kids had got colds almost as soon as they first touched down in Bombay and the sniffles worsened as time went by. Mimi’s sleep was disrupted by the cold and the general disorientation. Luckily V’s house is large and we could separate the kids (and ourselves) at night. Mimi was also not eating well, and finally ended up with diarrhoea so I spent a large part of my time washing her butt, washing poo off her clothes, washing bottles and rocking her.

Both the kids also became increasingly clingy. I think it was the sheer number of faces they encountered. My sister-in-law had kindly asked one of her nannies to help us with our kids but Mimi identified her with the person who takes her away from me and refused to go to her. Towards the end, even Benji was screaming “No!” at her.

This meant that they didn’t spend that much time with the grandparents either. I had expected that that would be the case and it was. The good thing about V’s parents though is that while their house is messy and not up to my standards of cleanliness, they are very easygoing about the kids rambling through it. They could see that we were dealing with a handful and I actually heard some sympathetic words from my Mil. V was a thousand times more helpful than the average Indian husband but I found myself snapping at him and him at me. There were times when I thought that this trip would be the end of us.

Probably the best part of the trip was the day we spent at V’s sister’s house. It is a huge, beautifully maintained property with a swimming pool, a trampoline and a treehouse. Also, it is extremely well-run, clean and bright. All of us eased up there, until I got my period and a cold and the exhaustion caught up with me.

The cousins bonded a bit more there. Although I was preoccupied with my own babies, I was glad to spend a little time with my two nieces, especially the eldest who is particularly fond of me. She has her dramas, but at six, I’m impressed by how mature she is when dealing with the wee ones despite expressing her frustration at being “surrounded by babies”.

By the end of the Bangalore week, I had substantially lost weight. One of the few positives of this holiday.

I must confess that having been given a choice to skip Bombay and go back to Hong Kong, I would have done that. We had planned a party for close relatives and friends the day after we got back to celebrate Mimi’s christening. Not a great idea, as the kids actually slept through most of it and then were disoriented to wake up to a houseful of strangers. On the other hand, I got to catch up, briefly at least, with the people I really wanted to meet in Bombay – and all of them were there – which was a good thing in the light of what happened the next day.

Which was that I woke up with a blinding pain that I initially attributed to my tooth, but which a visit to the dentist confirmed was normal. Turned out I had a really bad middle ear infection from flying with a cold. For a day and a half I was catatonic with pain, nevertheless having to take care of Mimi as she wasn’t going to anyone else, and for the rest of the trip doped up on antibiotics.

We went down like dominoes, each of us. Mimi was diagnosed with an infected cold and prescribed antibiotics, in addition to her iffy tummy. Benji had a general cold which the doctor said to ignore. Then V got a cold and body ache and finally my mum came down with a severe cough.  In between we did short forays to the local park, Bandstand, and Carter Road. We ordered in Indian Chinese and Tandoori food. Curly was nice enough to brave the storm and drop by at my request. That was it.

Having experienced both Bombay and Bangalore, I have reversed my opinion on their relative beauty. Bangalore now looks horrible. Even V conceded that it’s not the city he grew up in. It is like a construction site filled with dust and higgly-piggly small ugly structures. Bombay seems to have settled down and although it wins no aesthetic medals, the bylanes of Bandra and the two seafaces there at least offer some respite to the general decrepitude.

I was totally stressed out about the flight back. The doctor advised me not to fly because my ear was still bad. I risked extreme pain at best and my ear drum bursting at worst. But because I was on no-pay leave, something I will never do again (I should’ve listened to the Signs), I didn’t feel I could call work and say I wasn’t coming. I prayed like a maniac, made mad deals with God, and doped myself with medication some more. Thankfully, my ear is intact – by which I mean still blocked but not excruciating. I will know for sure tomorrow when I meet an ENT specialist.

The flight back was also okay. Mumbai airport is really a dump. Unlike Bangalore airport which has a very nice baby care room (sponsored by Himalaya which has products in that room which are very nice. Shout out to them for providing a boon for mommies!), in Mumbai we had to use the disabled toilet, of questionable hygiene, and there was no bin to throw the diaper in. The area near Gate 13 smelled like a toilet and to add to the impression of a swamp, it was mosquito infested. The irony would be getting malaria on your way out of the country. There were even two mosquitoes on the Jet aeroplane, one of which I am happy to say I slayed with my own hand.

We managed to get seats in the same row, and I put Mimi to sleep before we boarded so we could put her down in the bassinet without tantrums.  Benji fell asleep during take-off. Unfortunately, his feet kept slipping off the seat and the armrest couldn’t be moved so that he could lie across me resulting in him waking  up and having a meltdown (“I want to get off!”). Then Mimi woke up, and both the kids wanted me at the same time, finally resolved by me holding Mimi while Benji stood at my feet with his head on my lap and me patting them both to sleep simultaneously. Benji thereafter slept the rest of the flight on top of me and Mimi on V.

The seamlessness and calm when we arrived back in Hong Kong was amazing. When we reached home, Benji spotted our helper from the cab and shouted “I want to get out” and leapt into her arms. Mimi gave her nanny a more taciturn reception. But although they are still clingy with me, they are both so much more peaceful. We found ourselves actually able to catch a breath, watch TV, and eat a meal at a decent pace after ages.

Lessons learned during this trip:

  1. We are so accustomed to certain technology we forget how unnatural it is. Increasingly I have begun to find any flight longer than 2.5 hours torture (this without an earache). So I can imagine what it’s like for a child. Don’t make your children fly unless you really have to. It revalidates my resolve not to live further away from India at least while the kids are young. Unless you have parents who can travel, you would feel obliged to make a trip. It is not easy on anybody. Ditto long car journeys and very young children. Unless you have a child that loves that sort of thing, it’s perfectly natural for any human being not to want to sit in a confined space for hours on end. Even Benji, who is a total car fanatic, has a one-hour limit, after which we hear a refrain of “want to get out”.
  2. New places and lack of routines are disorienting for children. Unlike many, I do not believe that when they are very young, throwing them into chaotic new situations helps them adapt. I believe that children who adapt are the adaptable kind. In this, babies cannot be trained. If the number of times I heard “yeah, new place, too many new faces” is anything to go by, children being angsty in these adhoc situations is common. So why do we drag our kids into them? We act like it is perfectly normal to be dragging kids halfway around the world for short stints just because holidaying abroad has become the norm nowadays. But it’s not normal for kids and their abnormal behaviour tells you so. Of course, as a parent, if you enjoy the holiday regardless then there might be some value in it but if both parents and kids are stressed and tired, what’s the point?
  3. With regard to India specifically, there are health concerns. I heard “let them build their immunity” a lot, which I think is ridiculous because what kids are exposed to in India is beyond the usual “let kids get dirty” dictum. Moreover, I don’t think two weeks is going to have a lasting impact on their immunity even if that dictum made any sense. Having nearly died of malaria myself and after the tragic death of IHM’s daughter, mosquitoes scare the hell out of me and there are many of them in the two cities I visited even in non-monsoon season.
  4. The winter is the best time to visit. I have visited in summer and the sweat just adds one more thing to be irritable about. We were lucky to have great weather in both cities.
  5. Caring for your kid fulltime is an exercise routine. Taking the stairs multiple times with a 10kg lump of human in my arms, jogging in place to lull said lump to sleep, squatting and rising with this weight, etc does wonders for one’s figure if not one’s morale. One also develops unusual talents, such as being able to straighten out the sheets on mattresses on the floor purely with one’s toes, including tucking sheets into corners etc.

Part of my experience relates to the fact that I am not the healthiest soul, nor the strongest, and I am not used to running after my kids 24/7. Nevertheless, I am their primary carer on weekends and know they are much more peaceful normally than they were on this holiday.

V disagrees, but I would not recommend holidays abroad for kids younger than 2, unless both parents and kids are especially healthy and adaptable. For one, I don’t think the kids register or will remember much if any of this before they are 2. Even at 2, it’s a toss-up how much Benji is going to recall. No lasting relationships are going to be forged. The kids become more clingy to the parents, resulting in not that much time being spent with the relatives they are there to see. My kids are not stranger-friendly on a good day but I have seen this same pattern with other kids who are slightly older and used to new faces when on holiday too. The kids inevitably fall sick, hopefully not seriously so (I am still crossing my fingers about the mosquito bites on my kids). The parents are harried and end up falling sick too. Not much of a holiday for anyone, including the grandparents who so wanted to see the kids. A better option, if possible, is to have the grandparents visit so that the kids are in their comfort zone and will bond with them. I have seen this first-hand.

At the end of all this whining, I have to record some happy memories:

  1. Benji fully indulged his love of anything vehicular. He would have spent every waking minute in his appapen’s car parked outside if he could. “I want to go for a drive” was a regular whine that was often indulged by hapless relatives. No sooner had he stepped out of the vehicle than he would start again. Part of it was the general restlessness but there is a genuine passion for anything on wheels.
  2. Both kids are crazy about animals, something that seems to have been bred into them directly from me. Mimi, in particular, didn’t let our family spaniel Zo have a moment’s peace. Towards the end, her behaviour bordered on harassment and we had to physically remove her, a challenge with a dog right there in the house. V’s parents have a dog, two cats and parrot all of which are outside in the yard so Mimi would drive us batty wanting to be out there every minute.
  3. The cousins did not immediately bond but it was lovely to see them playing together when they did. Even Ani, used to being the youngest, finally warmed to Mimi and voluntarily shared a toy with her. Benji and Mimi were besotted with Lala and could be persuaded to go anywhere if she was there.
  4. A couple of days Benji went down to my building compound and had a great time with the kids playing there. I love that kids are screaming at 7 pm even now, just as we did growing up, and that my babies experience a bit of that.

Although I still feel some vestigial trauma from this holiday, and told V I won’t be going back for a visit anytime soon, I appreciate and miss the warmth from people I experienced in India. It lives up to the cliché and just may be worth returning for (or rationalising a non-choice to return). One is surrounded by an extended clan of people who care. This is an intangible that becomes almost tangible when you don’t have it. There were always relatives trying to make overtures to the kids, however shortlived. One couldn’t walk a few paces from either of our houses without being stopped by people one knew. This traumatised the hell out of Benji, but I appreciate the genuine affection behind those small conversations. On the day I was flying out one of my mom’s cousins called specifically to render medical advice about my ear. So many people brought gifts for my kids, and while I grumble about the incessant obligation to give gifts in India, I have no doubt about the sentiment behind them. In the parks, on the street, wherever we went, there were people willing to engage with us and our kids in an open and friendly way.

For now though, it is so good to be back. And for those of you who read this extended whine, some happy photos of the trip:

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1. Entertaining themselves with a box in Bombay

2. Mimi harassing Zo

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3. Drawn irresistibly to the kitchen.

4. Mimi demonstrating her first word “hello”.

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5. On a swing, in probably the dream house for kids in Bangalore

6. Benji being hissed at by a harried mother goose at Appapen’s farm

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7. Feeding fish that never showed up

8. Taking in a decrepit duck in a park

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