It's 6 a.m. on Saturday and my head is buried under a pillow in the still-dark room. Of course. You'd think you get to sleep in, given the tough week at work.
You'd be wrong.
The door bangs open and a skinny little figure skips in, 'Mama, I know it's only 6, but it's my BURDAY and I can't sleep anymore!'
I crack open one eye a slit and try to croak out something. Can't get mad at her, I remind myself. It's her birthday. I murmur Happy Birthday and I'm not sure she heard me. But the way in which she screams. 'THANKS MOM' in my ear makes me think it must have registered. I'm wondering what on earth to tell her to keep her busy for the next two hours, but she comes up with a brilliant idea herself. 'I'm gonna see if Daddy's awake yet!' And she runs out towards my dad-in-law's room where Vijay camps late nights and early mornings these days.
I groan and pull the pillow back over my head.
Two hours later, I'm feeling relatively human and contemplating the rest of the day over a cup of tea. My goodness. My first-born turns 8. How amazing it is, how fast time flies. And also, am I frickin' NUTS?
The reason that Peanut is so excited is that I have agreed to take her and a few special friends to Hangout. That haven of fun for young children, which leaves parents like me completely bewildered. So many games, so little time! There are bumper car rides, a play area, and arcade games of all sorts, enough to send any regular warm-blooded kid into a tizzy. I recall taking Pickle, Papad and Peanut there in earlier years and immediately losing them in the first 30 seconds as they run about wild-eyed, darting this way and that - what will I play first, what will I play first!
And I've agreed to do that with ten kids today.
Why did I agree to this? Why? There's a whatsapp group created for the purpose, and I'm frantically reminding the parents that they have to drop off their wards by 12 because I've booked the gaming from 1 p.m. onwards but of course this is not going to go according to plan because this is India and nobody is ever on time and even my buffering of 30 minutes may not be enough because I first have to somehow get the kids to eat and cut the cake before heading out there.
So why? Why? Because we just had Pickle-Papad's fifth birthday party at home a few weeks earlier - all my kids are July born. This can be very convenient when you combine their birthdays into one party but then one of them grows up enough to put her foot down and insist on having her own separate one. Damn. So I just didn't want to go ahead and do the exact same party-at-home thing for Peanut, and when it struck me that she might enjoy going to Hangout and I made the mistake of asking her, that pretty much sealed the plan.
The kids trickle in and miraculously, it appears that by 12.45 p.m., there are ten full kids in the house, including of course, my three. Peanut is now borderline delirious, having greeted each new arrival with something along the lines of 'Hi! You've come. Hahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahaha.'
Vijay, who I've persuaded to wake up from his mid-morning nap, observes her for a while and remarks drily. 'She seems happy.'
Peanut is happy. This is a different sort of birthday party from the ones she's accustomed to. Largely because I've craftily kept her from going to most parties. Ah yes, the bad mother. I politely decline most invitations that come in on email and whatsapp because I simply do not have the bandwidth to start taking all three of them to all their friends' parties, especially given that Pickle and Papad are now in different sections and do not even have a common set of friends. But young Peanut deserves this, I think - bright and helpful, occasionally of course as sullen as a cross teenager, but overall a wonderful, sensible kid.
'Peanut, will you PLEASE stop hula-hooping on the sofa!!' I swallow and try to change my tone mid-sentence. 'Er, it's almost time to go.'
The kids are all milling about, even the ones from school who are unfamiliar with some of the colony kids now having all lost their inhibitions. The excitement is infectious. Each and every one of these kids may have a tenuous understanding of who Mahatma Gandhi was, but they all know every nook and cranny of Hangout.
The cake is cut. It has been especially chosen by Peanut who is increasingly clear about these things.
'It must have white icing, and a picture of a girl playing the piano. And oh, it should say Happy Birthday to our Talented Peanut.' She instructs us at Binge, and we haplessly do the needful to arrange the same.
It's turned out exactly like the image I got off the internet. Those folks at Binge do a great job. I peer a little closer and note the word 'Shutterstock' written across the endearing little image of a girl in a red dress playing the piano. Wonderful. But Peanut and her friends don't notice - they're too busy ooh-ing and aah-ing over the overall design. Peanut beams.
Only Papad curiously points to the 'Shutterstock' and says 'Mama, what is dis written?'
I think on my feet and pretend to read aloud 'It says ''Papad is also a good boy''.'
We're in the car now. One being driven by our driver, and the other by Vijay. It's taken me a while to get the kids in because there's been a lot of fighting about who gets to go in whose car and the permutations and combinations take a while to sort themselves out. Eventually there are five kids in each car and we're off.
There's a lot of unnerving screaming taking place in the back of both cars, as the children assume that we're in a race. Each time one car overtakes the other on the Gurgaon roads, the kids fall over each other to scramble to the relevant window and give each other the kiddy-version of the Finger. This is very, very annoying for me who realizes I've never been responsible for this many kids -even though my own house is often full of strange kids, they're usually mostly mine. And now, so many parents have trusted the notable goof-ups that are me and my husband with their own flesh and blood. How foolish of them. How foolish of me. And so much screaming. Luckily, Kamal tactfully chooses to take a different - longer route - and we lose sight of Vijay and the other kids temporarily. I am able to breathe the rest of the way in the car, even though a fight promptly ensues in the seat behind me between the younger boys and the older girls.
The lady at the counter at Hangout greets me with a warm smile, not entirely devoid of sympathy. It's the kind of caring welcome you'd get at a hospital, particularly one for the mentally disturbed. The woman is all in control, and issues ten cards for unlimited gaming to us, and even manages to gather up the troops for an announcement about how it all works. They half listen to her, and the minute the cards are in my hand, they descend upon me, shouting 'Mine, Mine, Aunty, Mama, Mama, Aunty, Mine!' and within a few seconds I am alone and de-carded and dishevelled, clutching only my bag and water-bottle for dear life. They're all gone.
Another moment of panic now sets in. I told the moms that me and Vijay will keep an eye on them. But they've all disappeared into different corners of the huge space. How on earth am I supposed to watch them all if they're going to behave like this? But there they are - oh, there's Pickle, that's fine. And what's Papad doing there, swiping his card - he's doing it upside down and almost breaking the card-reader in the process. And the others? Ah, there's Akriti. No, that's some other random kid. Where are the girls? I spin around and can't see anything except bright flashing lights everywhere. And then my eyes adjust to the setting and I see the girls are congregated in a large Tea-cup ride, except for young Peanut who has gone straight to the basketball game which will give her the most Tickets.
Ah, the Tickets. The real reason that Peanut loves Hangout. Her inherently competitive streak ( I wonder where she gets that from) propels her each time to beat her previous score in the collection of those little prized pieces of paper, which can later be exchanged for treasures such as pencils, fancy erasers, princess crowns or other trinkets that so fascinate kids of that age for short bursts of time. Some games naturally allow you to earn more tickets than others, and young Peanut is all about gaming the system. The games which are actually there only for fun - well, what's the point of THAT, young Peanut seems to think? This is entirely opposite from the thinking of her younger brothers who hang off motorbike games and cars with flashing lights, even when they're not on ( I'm guilty of encouraging them to believe that's how it's meant to be) - but now everyone's got their own cards and they seem to be trying to make the most of it.
There are certain games which take a while to load, or do not work. The staff is particularly helpful, and the lady who greeted us at the reception walks around, handling issues with a seasoned air, helping to calm everyone down, including me. Peanut has now moved to playing a particular sort of game whose name I forget entirely but basically involves violently hitting a puck into the opposing team member's goal across the table. She beats her friend and punches her fist in the air, going 'Hah! I win another point' - she then clicks her heel together and goes 'hahahahahahaahaha' while her ''friend'' watches her reaction with bewilderment and slight dismay. Politeness and the knowledge that Peanut's parents are their ride home prevents the kids from severing all ties with Peanut on her special day.
I am now watching the proceedings with a beatific smile and wishing I had remembered to down a glass of wine. I now recall this is what kept me going through Pickle and Papad's birthday party - a nice big glass of port wine, handed out to all the adults, and a particularly generous helping for me had made the whole thing very pleasant. But here I must be alert and awake to the various dangers that an outside environment represents.
Vijay is loping about the place like a benevolent giraffe, mostly keeping an eye on the little boys. I have lost my water bottle and now go looking for it. The calm nice lady rescues me, by pointing out that Vijay is carrying it. Just then, one of the kids comes running up to me.
'Aunty can you hold my bag?'
Why, of course, I can. I take her bag.
Suddenly, there are three more kids who want me to hold their bags. And one small one comes up to say 'Aunty, keep these toffees for me?'. And then Pickle lands up, holding up two tickets 'Mama, look, I won TIKKITS, you keep for me.' My pockets are getting full, as are my hands and of course my purse. Very quickly, I realize that I've mixed each and every single thing up and this is recipe for a meltdown at the end of this party.
Peanut was composed enough to bring her own purse. She has already stuffed it full of tickets. Oh my goodness. She has about a hundred of those already, her bag is bursting to the seams. Everything is getting very heavy now for me, I feel like I'm bursting at the seams. Surely time is up? But no, we're only halfway down.
It is only with the promise of ice-cream that I manage to get the kids out of there. I do a quick head-count - yes, there's ten of them although I'm not altogether 100% sure whether they're the same ten that we walked in with - I'm trusting Peanut to raise an alarm if we end up with a replacement kid although I vaguely suspect she might not care today, given the glee with which she clutches her prizes. My eyes bulge as I note the time. It's almost 3.30! I had told the parents to come and pick the kids up at 3. They're all piled now into our trusty innova, ten squealing and squalling and excited kids. Luckily for me, the smaller ones all seem to have forgotten about the toffees and the tickets that are stuffed in the recesses of my bag. We reach the Ice-cream wallah - I've actually called up the colony gate and instructed the guard to tell that guy not to take his butt anywhere or I'll track him down and kill him later.
A very confused young boy is manning the Kwality Walls stall. The kids all shout out their preferences - and then immediately change their minds when they hear another kid mention a more delightful sounding flavour. In desperation I get them all to pile out of the car and they descend upon the ice-cream seller who has no idea how many of what flavour have gone, but simply guesses a number as the total, asking for Rs. One Hundred and Twenty which I pityingly hand over to him.
And then we're finally home, and the parents of various kids arrive to pick them up, all looking very relaxed and happy. I'm told on the whatsapp group that the blessings of various moms are with me for having done this brave and wonderful thing.
See, I've always maintained there's a fine line between bravery and stupidity. I am fairly certain that me and Vijay were bordering on that fine dividing line.
I hear Peanut recounting her tales to one remnant friend, whose parents are still apparently enjoying their afternoon nap, and she's describing the prizes that she won as well as part-revealing her ticket-winning strategies and she punctuates the story with 'hahahahahahahahahahahahaha'.
Therefore, I decide, it was all worth it.
I quietly escape to my room for a well-deserved nap.