In the past few months, we have had many dinner table conversations at home about viruses, ventilators, violence and standing up for victims. Conversations on the need to be eternally vigilant within ourselves – and without – for biases that, like viruses, creep in unheard and unseen. My kids digest these conversations in distinctive ways.

For instance, when I quoted the latest corona virus toll, my high-schooler excitedly squealed, and then spewed out an expression I did not understand (and dared not ask about). Noticing my obvious confusion, she helpfully translated with a broad smile “So sad!” On the other hand, when faced with the information that buildings were being burnt by protestors, my kindergartener nodded gravely and getting straight to the point, asked if our house was going to be burnt also.

If there is one thing tougher than scaling Mt. Everest, it is getting a teen-ager to clean his or her room. How do I know? Simple logic – if climbing Everest had been half as hard as getting a teen-ager to clean up, Mt. Everest’s slopes would not have become the frozen cesspools that they now are.

In normal times, let me tell you how the teenage bedroom cleanup strategy works. You start by letting him or her know that said room needs cleaning. It may seem incredible to normal people, but a teen can be perfectly oblivious to the fact that there is not a single square inch of floor space visible in the room.

Letting a teen know it needs cleaning is of no immediate use. You can rest assured it will not get the job done. Yet, like a landlord sending a notice of rent due to a tenant who hasn’t paid the rent in months, it is a necessary step prior to escalation. This consists of a series of admonitions to do the job, with vague deadlines. This can be called the “sinking-in” phase, and lasts the better part of a month. I have found this to be necessary; otherwise your teen will simply shrug when confronted, saying, “You never told me it needs to be cleaned.”

Now the final strike should be made when opportunity presents itself, usually in the form of a friend’s birthday party or an event at school or a Holi celebration – anything your teen is dying to go to. About a week before said event, let your teen know the room should be cleaned up to your satisfaction before he/she will be permitted to go. This works even better if your teen needs to go shopping for special clothes for the occasion. You refuse to take them shopping until the cleaning is done. This is a surefire way to get the job done in record time.

This worked well until coronavirus came around. With everything moving online, there was no more going to parties or events. So I needed new strikes. I informed my daughter that anything that was lying on the floor, or hadn’t been put in its place by the deadline, would summarily be thrown out. But the shutdown had induced very high levels of inertia. No cleaning ensued. On the day of the deadline, I stood at the door to her room. She was busy peering at her laptop.

Illustration of a room that badly nedds cleaning. There is clutter ...

“Okay, your time is up.”

I got the standard response. “Hmmm……”

“Now I’m going to start throwing this stuff away.”

“Yeah coming…”

I looked for something on the floor with a high attachment-quotient. I spotted one dainty crystal rose earring, picked it up and dangled it from my hand.

“A pity the trash in this country goes to a landfill in sealed plastic bags…. At least the rag-pickers would have been happy to find this had it been in a third-world country.”

“Yeah…” I had to get her eyes off the screen, somehow.

“Separating a pair in death brings bad karma. Where’s the second earring in this pair? They ought to be trashed together.”

I had her this time. “Hmph…. What?!!! What do you mean they are going to be trashed?? That is my favourite earring!”

“Time’s up to clean your room, remember? Everything on this floor is going into the junk bin.”

Her eyes enlarged in horror like a flower blooming in fast-forward mode. She grabbed at the earring as I deftly swung it out of her reach.

“No way! Give that back to me! You can’t do that!”

‘Yes, I can! I had told you a week ago – but you still haven’t cleaned up.”

She looked back at the room in despair – there was no way so much stuff could be sorted through and put away in one evening.

Suddenly, she looked back at me with a gleam of determination in her eye. “I declare my bedroom an Autonomous Zone. Nobody else but I may enter it.”

“What do you mean, an autonomous zone?”

“Precisely that. I have a right to my own mess. #MyMessMatters”

“Don’t be silly. You can’t have autonomous zones in homes. Step aside”, I waved her aside to enter and start clearing her mess.

But she wouldn’t budge. “Yes I can. This is parental oppression.”

Her vocabulary was rapidly getting radicalized. And she remained firmly planted in the doorway.

I retreated – I needed to bring in reinforcements. “A Teen Bedroom Autonomous Zone has been declared in our home,” I reported to my fellow law-enforcer.

When we returned to the scene, we found she had settled down cross-legged at the doorway. She looked up at our approach, defiant.

“It’s time for you to clean this room up, dear,” her Dad began.

“No way! This is an autonomous zone”, and pumping her fist in the air, she yelled “My Mess Matters! My Mess Matters!”

 “Don’t be silly! You don’t want to live in this terrible mess! Let Amma help you clear it up.”

“Nobody may enter my autonomous zone. Or mess with my mess.”

He attempted to physically move her so she was not blocking the doorway, but she burst out, inspired, ”Stop parental brutality! Defund parents!! My mess matters!!!”

He let go of her, taken aback. “If only this hadn’t been real, I would’ve enjoyed watching this comedy show. Hope you know what you’re asking for? Defunding us of course means bye-bye to your college fund.”

“Now that”, she said, “comes from a place of privilege.”

He could take it no more. “Are you going to stop this nonsense right now, or should I?”

She knew her protest was in mortal danger now. So she brought out her deadliest weapon.

“My mess matters! They’re destroying my Autonomous Zone!” she sobbed.

A daughter’s tears bring the bravest of men to his knees. My husband gave up and walked away, shaking his head.

 “Come here, don’t cry,” I held out my arms.

“No, leave me alone!”

Eventually, I had to resort to subterfuge to restore the rule of law. I sent my kindergartener to infiltrate the protestor’s ranks and serve as informer. Next, cookies and juice gradually tamed the anarchy, and their favourite poori-sabji ensured that TBAZ was abandoned by dinner time!

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