Thursday, July 31, 2008

Who do you mourn for?

Yesterday, I spoke to a very dear friend of mine after nearly a year. We had met when we were neighbours, and despite a difference in age, we’d found in each other a kindred soul. Our friendship never required frequent meetings – whenever we met, we just took off from where we had left off last – so it is natural that after I moved to another city, we just lost touch with each other.
When I got over the initial pleasure of hearing her voice, I was pleasantly surprised to find us picking up the conversation exactly where we had left it off all those many months ago. After exhausting home, family, kids, and the general state of the world, I ventured to ask her how her mother was. Her mother had suffered a stroke that had left her paralysed waist down, but when I’d last heard, her iron will had been pulling her though and she had been responding well to treatment.
My friend’s answer came as a bit of a shock. “You do know that I lost my father in March, don’t you?”, she said.
I didn’t! Had I known I would definitely have called her up, I would have said, instead, I heard myself muttering banal words of condolence, before asking her how it had happened. Her answer sent a chill down my spine, “I think he just gave up on life”, she said. “He kept blaming himself for what happened to his wife, and just didn’t want to go on living. There was nothing wrong with him, and nobody knows why he died.”
“And what about your mother, how is she?”, I asked.
“Much the same,” she sighed. The benefits of the physiotherapy had plateaued out, and the debilitating effects of being bedridden had taken over. She was on adult diapers, unable to utter comprehensible words, barely able to move her hands, and totally dependent on her nurses for all her needs.
No worse fate can befall a strong and independent person than to be reduced to this condition. But it was worse, much worse – she’d lost her fit and active companion of many years, and had no channel for expressing her grief. What could be going on in her mind? Should she curse fate for taking her husband away, or for leaving her behind. Did she even want to go on in her current condition.
And what of the children? One parent taken away, the other present only in shadow form. How impotent they must be feeling about not being able to do anything. How guilty they must feel for praying for an end to the misery of their mother. And yet, what a vacuume would be left if they lost both parents.
At times like this, you do not know who to mourn for – do you mourn for the husband who just gave up on life, do you mourn for the wife who wishes she didn’t have to exist any more, or do you mourn for the children and everything they are going through?
All you can do is say what I did to my friend, “I wish I could say something to you. But all I can say is that I can’t imagine anything worse than what all of you are going through.”

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

an 'n' that looks like an 'n'

A couple of days back, my older one drew a tiger on silts, and after finishing the picture asked me to spell out the word Tiger. Watching him cheerfully label the picture, sign it and date it, I couldn’t help wondering if it was the same kid who three months back could barely recognize the letters of the alphabet.

Two months of hard work during the summer vacation had brought him to speed, but the improvement in his letter-formation after re-joining school had been remarkable. He had learnt more at school in first two weeks in Sr. K.G. than he had during the entire Jr. K.G. year! Not just that, his entire attitude towards studies had undergone a total metamorphosis – he actually looked forward to doing his homework and often finished it even when I was not even in the room.

It had to be his new teacher who was the cause of this miracle, but with a class of 25, how could she possibly find time to work on one child?

When I met her at the Parent-Teacher Meeting, I had the answer. She is the first person I have met who was completely focused on the strengths of the child. Listening to her, I could be forgiven for thinking that my child was a versatile genius – perfect in everything he was asked to undertake. It could not possibly be true, but she was not lying either.

When she said, “Your son communicates so much through his facial expressions. He doesn’t need to say ‘good morning’ – his smile says it”, what she actually meant was, “Your son really should be less diffident and should speak up more.” And she had a solution ready – don’t ASK him to say ‘hello’ or ‘good morning’, say it yourself, so he understands that it is something that should be done.

With that kind of attitude, my son’s teacher could not but succeed.

So when I catch my son humming his favourite song while writing his numbers, almost all of me is bursting with pride and joy. But, there is one dispassionate part of me that is making up its mind to try and focus only on the positives from now on.

The only thing his teacher now wants to accomplish is to get my son to write the small letter ‘n’ the way it should be written, but I’d love it to remain as it is. That pony-tail on top of the ‘n’ somehow reminds me of an innocence I want to preserve forever.
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Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Passiflora

I’ve always dreamt of waking up in the morning with sunlight filtering into the room through a curtain of greenery. So when I finally moved into a house which had (rusty) window grills, and a convenient ledge on which to place plants, one of the first things I did was start looking for an appropriate creeper to grow.
Surprisingly, it took more than six months for me to finally get home a “Krishna Kamal” sapling (some of the delay was perhaps because my gardening Bible, http://www.flowersofindia.net, did not recognize the name, and I was hesitant to ask for a plant that did not actually exist). But it made itself feel at home very fast, and in no time at all crept all the way to the top of the window frame.
I fee in love with the plant immediately, and would often get up a few minutes early just so I could lie in bed and admire the beautiful leaves. The plant still remained a mystery though- the leaves did not seem to resemble those of any other creeper. When the first bud came, I rejoiced for the wrong reason – now I would be able to finally identify the plant.
But when the flower bloomed, all my rational thought processes disappeared.
Breathtaking was the only word that could even start to describe the purple blossom. Breathtaking in more ways than one – the fragrance was something you could cheerfully drown in.

 

I must have taken a 100 photographs of the cheerful model before heading for the Intenet – it was definitely of the genus Passiflora, though the leaves still remained a mystery.
Passion flower! So named, not for the passion it inspires, but because its cruciform shape reminds one of the Passions of Christ.
Krishna Kamal! Because the stamens and petals give the effect of Lord Krishna playing on his flute while the gopikas dance around him.
“What is in a name?” wrote the immortal Bard. I had to agree. My flower was the most exotically beautiful thing I have seen in a very long time.
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Monday, July 28, 2008

One compliment per day

“Hey, that’s a really pretty dress. You look great in it.”
“I’ll kill to have hair like yours. How do you keep it looking so good.”
‘That colour really suits you – I do think peacock blue is a most beautiful colour, don’t you?”
“Where did you get that handbag – I have been looking for something just like that for ages.”


There are better places to be in than the early morning local train on Mumbai’s Western line. In fact, there are better places to be in than Mumbai.
Get woken up by the ringing of the alarm clock at 7 am, brush your teeth before you are fully awake, stumble into the kitchen, nearly burn your tongue gulping down a scalding cup of tea, shower, change, check that you have your purse, mobile and keys in your hand-bag, pick up the daily paper and tuck it unread under your arm, bang the front door shut, hail three autos before the fourth agrees to take you to Bandra station, fret and fume at the traffic lights, silently curse the pedestrians who prefer walking in front of your auto to being on the pavement, rush onto the over-bridge, grab the last remaining seat on the 8:57 local, catch your breath, open the newspaper to check if the government has fallen or India has lost yet another cricket match.
No wonder then, the only expression you see on people’s faces is a vacant one. Surviving in this City is so tough, who has the time to Live?

Which is where the compliments come in.
The unwritten rules of Mumbai local trains are clear. You avoid eye contact and NEVER speak to someone you do not know. But one day, I found myself standing next to a lady wearing such a pretty dress, I couldn’t but comment on it. She was clearly shocked that a total stranger had complimented her, and barely managed to stammer out a thanks, but five minutes later, I found that a secret smile was still playing around her lips.
Without intending to, I had introduced some colour into an otherwise grey existence, and I was sure that in her current state, she would inadvertently pass her cheer along – a seat given up on the connecting bus, a receptionist greeted with more than a polite nod, perhaps another compliment that made someone else’s day.
I decided then and there to pass one genuine compliment every morning. It had to be sincere – if your nose is red from sneezing, you know the person doesn’t mean it when you are told you are looking great – and it had to be something the person herself believed could be true. To make one person happy per day, everyday.
What is one person in a city of over twenty million? Does one person even matter among the six ten million that uses local trains everyday. Maybe not, but if even some of those people pass the happiness along, and some of the people they pass the message onto pass the message along further… well, you do the maths!
And even if they do not, making one person happier for a couple of minutes is better than nothing at all.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

What's with the scorpions?



The hoarding does look pretty menacing, but I wonder what all those scorpions are doing there. Somehow, I thought it was crabs that were used to denote cancer - though this may be more appropriate considering it is scorpions that can kill humans. All the poor crabs do is pinch people, and get eaten. If I were a crab, I may consider suing humans for all the bad publicity.
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Saturday, July 26, 2008

Five Airlines Toffees

Two years back, the best father anyone could ever hope to have passed away. This is my small tribute to him.



It was always five airlines toffees. Everytime he travelled, my father would bring me five toffees - never four, never six, always five. There may have been some significance to that number, but I suspect, that like most traditions, it just happened.
Sometimes he'd come back from trips loaded with gifts - sweets from the best confectioner in town, pretty cardigans, pearl necklaces, books and toys - sometimes, he would just not have found the time to shop. But he never came home without those five airlines toffees.
I started working around the same time he retired, and the tradition was reversed. Now, I was the one who'd bring five airlines toffees everytime I came to visit, and he was the one who'd gleefully polish them off in one sitting.
Parkinson's started claiming his body, and dementia his mind, but his sweet tooth remained his own. The last few times I visited him, he barely recognised me. But when he saw the toffees, he proudly said, “My daughter gets me these toffees too.”
Last July, I was on a plane winging homewards. I'd just got the news that my father's heart had finally given up. There was Regret (that I missed seeing him by just four days), Remorse (that I would never again watch him watching my son throw a ball at him), Relief (that he'd finally shed the body and mind that constrained him and could go back to being the man he was meant to be) - but, no tears. How does one cry for the passing on of a man who is not really your father, and who your father would have hated becoming?
After settling in the kid, and putting the baby to breast, I buckled my seat belt and was waiting for the plane to take-off, when the stewardess came around with the tray of airlines toffees. My hands automatically reached out for the tray, then pulled back - never again would I pick five airlines toffees from that tray. The dam burst; tears flowed.
Before deplaning, I asked the stewardess for five airlines toffees.
When we journey to the other world, we are not supposed to take anything with us, but as his ashes floated down the river, my father had something clenched in his fists - five airlines toffees to sustain him on the Journey.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Girls wear earrings

“Mamma, why do you wear earrings?”
“Because I like to.”
“But why?”
“Because earrings are pretty.”
“But why, Mamma? Why do you think earrings are pretty?”
“Because they ARE pretty.”
A moment’s respite. Then - “Why does Anurima wear earrings?”
Anurima being all of twenty months old, I could not really tell my son she had much choice in the wearing or not wearing of earrings, so settled for, “Anurima wears earrings because her mother thinks she will look good in them.”
“But Naman will look pretty in earrings. Why doesn’t he wear them?”
The moment I had been hoping to avoid had finally come. “Naman is a boy. He can’t wear earrings.”
“So, Mamma, only girls wear earrings?”, he declared triumphantly.
I thought I was a good debater, but my not yet five year old had maneuvered me into a corner.
I still tried to recover lost ground – “not exactly. Some boys wear earrings too, but not now – only when they are much older. And not all girls wear earrings either.” But I could see that having found one more fundamental difference between girls and boys, he had stopped listening.
*
I don’t really know when my son started this girl-boy stuff.
A year back, one of his two best friends was a girl, and she and my two boys used to spend hours playing all sorts of pretend games. Now, the two never seem to play together, and when I ask him why, he says, “But she is a girl, she wants to play only with girls.”
It does seem to be true – his erstwhile best friend does seem to hang around only with girls, just as my son only runs around with his gang of boys. Sometimes, when neither finds anyone else, and they end up playing together, the old spark is apparent. But the moment either of them spots someone of their own sex, they hastily gravitate towards that person. On rare occasions, the girls and boys play together, but only if there are at least three girls and an equal number of boys.
When did this happen, and how did this happen?
I thought I had taken adequate care in making sure neither of my boys grew up with strange notions of girl-stuff and boy-stuff. In fact, I often denied them Power Ranger guns, but happily bought them Barbie look-alikes.
But I suppose environmental conditioning is too strong to be overcome this easily. Or maybe it is just evolution – I too remember a time when I played exclusively with girls. That was when I was ten, not five, but today’s five year old is exposed to much more than I was at ten.
*
Two days after the earring exchange, I saw him playing with one of the little girls.
“Is Suhani your friend?”
“Suhani is a baby."
“Yes, she is a baby. But is she also your friend?”
“Suhani is a boy!” He chuckled at the joke he was about to crack - “Suhani doesn’t wear earrings.”

Point noted!!!

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Who is a Community Worker?

‘Who is a Community Worker?’, was the topic of conversation among the Mothers yesterday.
The school most of the kids I know go to had given its mothers three days to think of an appropriate ‘community worker’ costume for their Senior K.G. kids. The mothers of the girls were reasonably happy – a white pleated skirt and white shirt could approximate a nurse’s uniform, or a saree-spectacles combination would produce a caricature of the typical teacher of imagination.
But what of the boys? Postman, policeman, fire-fighter – all wore specific uniforms. A white coat and stethoscope could produce a decent doctor, but nobody had a white coat that size. “How about a social worker”, I asked – after all, they don’t really have any specific costume. But nobody seemed to know what a social worker really did, and the mothers were hesitant about getting their kids to understand it enough to be able to describe it to the class.
“A politician?”, someone suggested. All they would need is a Gandhi topi (I had one which I was more than willing to lend) and a kurta-pajama combination.
“But are politicians community workers?” The dissent came in a chorus that took me surprise.
“Of course they are. Or at least, they are supposed to be”, I clarified. “In fact, a good politician should be the ultimate community worker, because he is supposed to dedicate his entire life to improving the lot of the community.”
The snigger was almost audible, and I grinned too. “Well, I AM talking about an ideal case”, I said. “We all know that almost the entire current crop of politicians is anything but selfless, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that politicians too are community workers.”
One mother agreed, perhaps because it ended her quest for a costume. But today, her face was a long as it had been the previous day – she had checked with the school and had been categorically told that politicians were NOT community workers.
She is planning send her son dressed as a dabbawalla – the Gandhi topi would serve his as well in that guise – and I had to agree that it was a great choice. After all, dabbawallas hold Mumbai together like few other people do.
But, I can’t help reflecting on the sad state of affairs of a country where politicians are categorically deemed NOT community workers. It is true that the fruit vendor and the gardener at the municipal park serve the community much more than politicians do, but to totally remove politicians from the list of community workers is to snuff out all hope for a better crop of leaders tomorrow.
Or is it?

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Just don't call it Art, please

In Bangalore recently, encountered Raja Ravi Varma in every house and office I entered. It was rather unnerving at first, but then I got used to it, and just stopped noticing the pictures. Something like the way I used to see but not take in the calendars with pictures of sundry gods and goddesses hanging on every pan and vegetable shop. A befitting comparison in some ways, because one was so inspired by the other.

It is not that I have anything against hanging up paintings of Raja Ravi Varma.In fact, truth be said, his paintings are perfect for the purpose of interior d├ęcor – soft, sentimental, very pretty, often depicting a mythological story and perfect for color accessorizing with your curtains or walls.

But, they are not Art – they totally lack character. I would much rather have the vivid colours and primitive lines of a Jamini Roy, or the intricate geometric patters of a Madhubani painting. If a mythological story is to be told, I would rather have it told in weaves on the pallu of a Balucheri saree than in the painting of a beautiful woman with a pensive expression on her face - supposedly Damayanti waiting for her lover.

Defenders of Raja Ravi Varma, my mother among them, talk about the Western influences on his work and how he revolutionalised Indian painting. They choose to ignore the fact that he shunned the revolution taking place in European painting, and copied the style of the Pre-Raphaelites who sought to undo centuries of evolution. He did influence the course of Indian popular art like no painter could hope to do – he, single handedly gave a face to every single Hindu goddess and paintings inspired by his style have hung on practically every Hindu household able at any point of time to afford a calendar.

Raja Ravi Varma is popular, and most things beautiful and sentimental are popular. But please don’t call him a great artist!

And having said that, I have to confess I have a copy of one of his paintings hanging in my dining room wall. A painting gifted by my mother as a house-warming gift, and which my year old describes as “Aunty with a potato”-



Tuesday, July 22, 2008

When you want to stop….speed up

The day after completing the Standard Chartered half marathon, I’d been discussing the Run with a friend, and mentioned how I’d slowed down to a walk at the Peddar Road flyover.

His reaction was instantaneous – “Never do that. When you come to a hill, speed up, don’t slow down.” Either my silence was eloquent, or he saw my jaw drop, because he continued, “don’t tell me you are one of those who slows down when she is tired.”

“But obviously,” I shot back. If I want to finish the run, I have to conserve myself, so when I get really tired and want to stop, I slow down to let my body recover.”

His snort was almost audible. “Don’t know much about running, do you?”, he asked with superior air I found slightly aggravating – after all, hadn’t I just finished the half-marathon in a little over two and a half hours and lived to tell the tale. “Well, unlike you, I am not a runner. I just run because I like to.”

“I can see that”, he said. “Well, the cardinal rule of running is – when you are tired, speed up, don’t slow down. When you come to a hill, run a little faster. And every five or ten minutes, sprint for one minute before slowing down to your normal speed.”

It sounded totally counterintuitive, and I told him so, but his explanation seemed to make sense. When you increase your speed, your protesting body is forced to start working harder, but it soon gets used to it. So when you slow down to the original speed, the body actually starts to feel rested.

Six months to the day after I received the advice, I finally got to try it out, and it actually worked!!! For the first time ever, I ran on a gradient, and did not collapse with the effort.

‘When you want to stop, speed up!’ It works when you are running. I wonder if it will work in real life too?

Monday, July 21, 2008

How young is too young?

My older son was three years and seven months old when he chose to become a photographer. He’d grown up knowing the cameras as intimately as he knew any other member of his family, so it had just been a matter of time before he wanted to get on the other side of the lens.
When I was sure he knew how to handle the camera, I let him take as many pictures as he wanted, provided I was somewhere close enough to catch the camera if it fell. With a digital camera, there were no restrictions on the number of pictures he could click, and his army of soft-toys were happy to model for him whenever he commanded them to.

By the time he was two months short of his fourth birthday, he was a good photographer. Not good for his age, Good!
[picture taken by the older one two months short of his fourth birthday]
Four was perhaps too young to think of getting my son a camera, so I desisted. In any case, he knew he could use my camera whenever he wanted, provided he asked me first.



My younger son loved nothing more than taking the camera out of its case and fiddling with the buttons. I would often try and tell him not to touch it, because I did not want him messing it up. He pretended to listen.

The one day, I found the settings on the camera quite different from what I remember leaving them as. Checked the photographs, and found four that I never clicked – one mis-focused one of my son’s leg, one nice view of the floor of the bedroom, and two studies in light and shade. It had to have been my younger son – not yet two and a half.


How young is too young to create with light.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

The Luxury of Choice

A worse start to the monsoons I hadn’t seen in my nearly ten years in the city. It had rained heavily every day for consecutive seven days, and it had been just my luck that I had to get out every single one of those days. I’d got used to hailing a dozen autos before one would agree to go where I wanted to, so was pleasantly surprised when the first auto I asked agreed to ferry me home.

I would have liked to take off my dripping raincoat, but decided to keep it on – at least it offered some protection against the treacherous breeze. A couple of minutes after I got onto the auto, it started raining, and the driver had to pull down the tarpaulin sheets was the only protection against the shower. Ensconced in my raincoat, I could enjoy the fine mist that made it way around the waterproof sheet and hit my face.

But what of the auto driver? All he had on was his normal uniform, which was collecting its fair share of the rainwater. Unlike me, he did not have the luxury of soon being able to get out of his wet clothes, and downing a mug of some warm beverage. How had he survived seven days of continuous rain? And how was he going to last out the rest of the monsoon?

As it so often did these days, my mind turned to whether or not the man would have chosen the same profession had he had the luxury of choice. If he had been better educated, if he had the initial start-up money to do something else, would he still have chosen to become an auto driver? At the best of times, it was a difficult job –pollution, traffic jams, irate customers – during the monsoons, could there be too many jobs that were worse than this one?

As if reading my thoughts, he spoke up – “Madam, the traffic situation in the city is really bad. Look at the number of cars on the road – it is five times what it must have been when I first came to the city. They have built a few flyovers, but what is the use – we need double the amount of road we have.”

I nodded ascent – “Yes, something drastic has to be done, and done soon. I am not sure how long the city can continue to function the way it now is.” We were on JP Road when I said this. Half the road had been blocked off for the proposed Metro Project. I wondered at the sheer stupidity of the timing of the project – it was scheduled to take 15 months to complete. Would it not have made more sense to start immediately after the monsoons so the road would be taken up only for one monsoon – would a delay of three months have really made such a difference?

Seeing me look at the corrugated sheets marking the boundary of the construction work for the Metro, he continued – “Look at that Project. Someone must have made a lot of money to allow the project to take off. What a waste of money it is. Two thousand crores, the project is costing, and how many people will one train seat – less than two hundred. What is the point of it at all – they may as well have spent the money constructing an elevated road along the same route, with entries and exits on SV Road, the Western Expressway, Powai….”

It was incredible – the man had the whole thing perfectly worked out. He didn’t need any traffic studies or dynamic programming to tell him exactly where the bottlenecks were, and to figure out how to work around them. Had his plan been implemented, traffic would have flowed much more smoothly, at least for the few years it took for the vehicle population to catch up with the increased road network.

I agreed totally with this man’s plan; had often toyed with similar solutions, but not on the scale that he was talking about. But I had to play Devil’s Advocate – “But a road would mean more vehicles using that road. Will it not be better to have people use mass transport?” He was a driver of an auto, but surely even he would realize that the solution to Mumbai’s traffic problem was better mass transportation facilities?

“Madam, what are you saying?”, he responded at once. “Do you think this Metro is going to reduce the number of people using autos? More people are going to take autos to get to the Metro station, and where is the place for an auto stand here? I am telling you Madam, traffic in this area is going to get much worse after this project takes off.”

I had to bow to this guy – he had more foresight than any of the highly paid consultants brought in to solve Mumbai’s traffic woes.

Access to capital had allowed him to purchase his own auto, but what a valuable resource he could have been had education be thrust on him. Maybe economic independence would enable him to educate his children, and maybe they would have inherited their father’s brains.

There must be many more like him, and maybe, just maybe, the next generation would be allowed to grow to their full potential.

Mimosa pudica

“What’s that? Is it new?”, asked the normally stoic husband.
I could have pointed out that ‘It’ had been hanging from roughly the same place for last six months, but that a man who rarely notices even when his wife has had her hair cut had even seen it was something quite out of the ordinary. But, looking at ‘It’ with dispassionate eyes, I had to admit it was hard to miss.
Fern-like leaves of a lovely green, interspaced with fluffy flowers of the palest mauve, cascading down from a hanging basket. Set against the cloudless sky, it could have been passed off as one of those delicately filigreed windows that dot the mosques of old Ahmedabad.
But it wasn’t always so. I still remember the day I had gone to the nursery looking for a ficus plants I could practice my non-existent bonsai skills on. Had almost zeroed in on the prefect plant – thickish stem, healthy leaves, a slight tilt – when I happened to glance down and saw what looked like a thorny twig sporting a few bipinnate leaves.
Long buried memories stirred – “Kya yeah chui mui hai? Is this chui mui?”, I asked in Hindi.
“Yes madam, forget-me-not,” the gardener answered, slightly inaccurately, in English.
*
Touch-me-not, it may be called, instead of the more romantic name attributed to it, but the plant was indeed unforgettable. Three decades after I had last encountered it, just one look at the leaves was enough to revive the thrill of seeing the leaves close the moment my fingers touched them. Would not my four year old love playing with the plant – I could just see the glee on his face when he tapped the leaves and saw them snap shut the first time. I could anticipate the frequent trips he would make to the plant to make sure the leaves closed every single time.

It was silly to buy a plant that was essentially just a weed, and a poor specimen of the plant at that. But at ten rupees a plant, it cost no more than a packet of potato wafers packed with poly-saturated or unsaturated fats and cholesterol.
Back home, the plant was pulled out of the black polythene packet it came in, and planted in a hanging basket that had played host to a moss-rose that had succumbed to a fungal attack. The mimosa was not the most friendly of plants – that first encounter had left deep scratches on both my hands, and its thorns tried to foil my every attempt to water it.
But it loved playing with my son, and never tired of snapping its leaves shut every time he touched it. Soon the younger one learnt to get the leaves to close, and the older one graduated to experimenting with different ways of tapping the stem to make all the leaves snap shut. But the plant never let down its guard, and however friendly it got with the kids, it was still capable of attacking them with its thorns if it felt threatened.

Considering the plant was little more than a weed, it was fussy - very,very fussy. It wanted to be watered every day, and if I ever forgot, it was quick to pull its leaves in and sulk. In no time at all, the routine got set – the mimosa got watered even before I had my morning cuppa.

I never realized when the plant metamorphosised from thorny twig to lush shrub, but one day, when I was standing at the window, I felt something flutter across my cheek. It was a pale green mimosa shoot which had swayed towards me, and was shyly pulling in at the touch.
The mimosa, now, is the prettiest of my hanging plants – its beautiful shoots forming a virtual curtain at my window. It has thrown out more flowers than I care to remember, and I have seen its seeds get dispersed by the breeze.

A gentle plant that asks for just a bit of attention before giving its all to you. A plant not too different from you or me.
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Friday, July 18, 2008

To Know when to Let Go

The largest birthday gift I ever received was the shiny red Hero bicycle I got my for tenth birthday. Hilda, for that is what I named her, actually came home two weekends after my birthday, but despite the delay, she was meant to be my birthday gift.
She came home on a Saturday, and on Sunday morning, my cycling lessons began. Pops would hold the handlebars steady, as a practiced pedaling. It took me quite a few days to get the hang of it, and the driveway was more than adequate for our practice, but once I mastered the trick of not allowing my feel to slide off the pedal, we graduated to the road outside our house.
Pops would patiently push the cycle for hours, while I pedaled. I think the next thing I was supposed to learn was to balance myself, but when someone is holding the cycle steady, there is no way of knowing if you can balance yourself or not. We went on like that for days – Pops walking beside me not relinquishing his hold on the handlebars, and me dutifully pedaling along. The other kids who had got cycles around the same time as I had were cycling, but I was still being pushed along – too scared to allow Pops to let go, and not being encouraged to try it out on my own either.
Then one day, I decided I wanted more. I wanted to pedal faster. I tried picking up speed, but Pops couldn’t keep up, and asked me to slow down. I did. But the very next day, I tried it again, and again. On the fourth day, my need for speed got the better of me, and I refused to slow down when Pops asked me to. Huffing beside me, he asked me to slow down again, and when I did not, he uttered the only threat I ever remember him making to me – “Slow down, or I will leave you.”
My answer was to push down harder on the pedals. I never expected Pops to actually let go, but the freedom of cycling down the road entirely on my own was incredible. Flying down the road, I was only vaguely conscious of a very practical problem – I did not know how to get off or even to slow down and turn around. But I was not to bothered – I knew that Pops would do something, he would never let his little girl get hurt.
The inevitable happened. I went till the end of the road, then off the road and towards the forest. Perhaps some silly part of my brain was telling me to keep cycling down the footpath and to the river, but long before I could reach it, I went over a rock, and fell.
As far as cycling injuries go, the cuts I got were minor – nothing some Dettol, a sprinkling of Nebasulph and a couple of kisses couldn’t cure. But the ramifications were major. The next day, Pops started teaching me to slow down and dismount, and by the end of the week, I had learnt to turn around.
It is important to protect your children. But it is equally important to know when to let go.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

When Things Just Fall into Place

At the pool yesterday, there were two beginning swimmers struggling to cross the breadth of the pool. They were doing everything right, but it was just not falling into place, and seeing me effortlessly do my laps, one of them asked the instructor, “How long before I can swim like that?”

Before he could reply, I burst out, “Just one day!”

I could tell by the fact that she did not ask how, that my answer had left her speechless. But that IS the answer – ONE DAY. One day, you are doing everything the way it is to be done and struggling, the next day, everything just falls into place, and you are doing it right!

*

How well I remembered my first swimming lessons.

Holding onto the bar, I could keep doing the circular leg movements till the instructor asked me to stop. I could quite effortlessly glide the breadth of the pool, and quite enjoyed being able to do so. Holding my breath underwater was less of a problem than I’d anticipated.

I could do everything right, but when it came to actual swimming, I could manage barely six strokes before either going under, or having my feet touch the bottom. Once, just once, I managed to touch the opposite wall, but the very next time I tried it, I barely reached the half-way mark.

How could everyone else swim so well, and me struggle so much? Was there something fundamentally wrong with me? Was it that I was intrinsically badly co-ordinated, and I should give up all dreams of ever learning to swim? At thirty-six, was I too old to learn something new. I despaired of ever learning to swim, but being the stubborn creature that I was, refused to give up, and kept pegging away.

And then, one day, it all just fell into place. I kicked off from one wall, did exactly what I had been doing the last couple of days, and before I knew it touched the opposite wall. The next day, I was swimming the length of the pool, and before I knew it, the arm floats were off, and I was a veteran.

Two weeks later – backstroke. Kicking was hardly an issue, but floating proved impossible. This time I knew exactly what to expect, and just waited for that Eureka moment. And sure enough, it arrived. One day I was going under, the next day I hurt my hand when I unexpectedly touched the other wall with the force of the initial kick not totally dissipated.

*

“Just One Day!!!”, was the answer I gave the lady in the pool.

“Just One Day!”, is the answer I keep giving myself everyday.

Setting up a new business is not easy – you are being pulled in all directions, you are stretching yourself to the utmost, you are firefighting all the time, and yet, you don’t seem to be going anywhere. But, I know it is all just going to fall into place one of these days. Waiting it out till that Eureka moment is the tough, but knowing that the moment will arrive, that the moment has to arrive makes the wait a bit easier.

Today, that lady WAS swimming!!!!

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Are Snakes Dangerous?

“Mamma, are snakes very dangerous?”, the four year old asked with a most serious expression on his face.

Simple answer – “Yes” – he knows they are dangerous, and merely wants confirmation. Just say it and just be done with it, but you don’t really want your son growing up hating snakes , so ….

… reasoned-out answer – “Some snakes are dangerous and others are not. But you don’t know which snake is dangerous, and which is not, so just leave all snakes alone.” – that should cover all flanks. But will it?

If he is told to leave all snakes alone, how long before his mind makes logical deductions – “leave them alone” means “dangerous” means “the world will be a better place without them” means “practice the latest Power Ranger moves on snakes”. He may not be able to add 5 + 4, but his mind can reason out things much faster than people ten times his age. So, ….

…. a more specific answer – “only some snakes are dangerous. But they will bite you only if you disturb them. So just stay away from all snakes.”. Should work, if not for Steve Irwin and his like. Must not speak ill of the dead, and Steve was a wonderful guy, but did he really have to catch snakes and display them on prime time TV? Wouldn’t kids too young to know better want to do the same, without any of his skill? How about …

… a long winded but totally accurate answer – “Some snakes are dangerous, but not all. And even the dangerous snakes only bite you if they are frightened. So don’t go anywhere near snakes. Some people do, but that is only after they become friends with snakes.” But, what if he decides he wants to become friends with snakes – how would one go about tackling that?

Decisions, decisions, decisions! Why not just agree with him that snakes are dangerous and leave it at that. Time enough to correct his misconceptions when he is older, and more likely to understand subtleties.

*

You hear your son’s voice at the edge of your brain. “What was it you said, baccha?”, you ask.

“Ma’am told me snakes are dangerous,” he informs you. “But I told her that snakes are dangerous only if you trouble them. If you leave them alone, snakes do not bother you.”

“And who told you that?” You are intrigued. You know you have never discussed snakes with your kid, and you know his father is too terrified of snakes to have ever been able to come up with something like that.

“Nobody”, he says confidently. “I just know it. Dogs bite when you trouble them, and cats scratch when you trouble them. But dogs and cats are not dangerous if you leave them alone. Snakes must be the same.”

You could have asked him what his teacher’s reaction to his statement was, but you don’t. You just give him a huge hug and tell him, “Dead right! No animal is dangerous. They become dangerous only if they feel threatened or frightened, but since you do not know what is going to frighten them, the best thing to do is to just leave them alone.”

“Even lions?”, he asks.

“Even lions?”, you tell him.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Pigeons, eggs .... and chicks

This morning, once again, on my balcony I found two white pigeon eggs reposing in a rough circle of twigs. By now I knew the drill – shut the door so the kids don’t get to see it, after they are safely out of the house, pick the eggs up with a scrap of newspaper to prevent direct contact with the shell, place the eggs on the ledge outside the stair wall, and hope that the birds get the message and do not come near my balcony again.

All this had to be done when the kids were out of the house, or I would be bombarded with questions- “Mamma, why are you picking up the eggs?”, “Can I hold the eggs too?”, “Mammma, if you put the eggs there, will the mamma bird be able to find them?”, “When will the egg break and a baby chicken come out?”, “Mamma, why can’t we keep the egg at home – I want to see the baby chicken coming out?”

How could I explain to a four year old, much less to a two year old that I did not want a nest in my house. That while it was fun watching the birds hatch their young, I could do without the filth that the birds left behind. That I needed the balcony to dry clothes in and could do without pigeon poo on my freshly laundered clothes.

*

A year back, I had not been a lot more tenderhearted and a lot less experienced. When the pigeon made her crude approximation of a nest on my balcony, I was pleased that she had chosen my balcony to lay her eggs in.

The kids and I spent many hours watching her sit patiently on the eggs. We used the time to talk about how birds laid eggs, and of how chickens came out of the eggs, and gradually grew into big birds. The kids had wanted to know if those were the same chickens they ate, and had to be reassured their chickens were something quite different. When the first egg hatched, it was all I could do to stop the kids from picking up that ugly bald chick and cuddling it. When the second one came – uglier and balder than the first – I had to physically drag the kids away to stop them from each claiming their own baby chicks. We watched the chicks take their first tentative hops, and were around when they first learnt to fly. Less than a week after they were born, the birds were off, but it took weeks for the smell of pigeon poo to be washed clean from the balcony.

**

No, I definitely did not want the pigeons again. Especially not after they started plucking off the tender buds of my plants, and left droppings all over my window ledge. I disliked them with a vehemence bordering on hatred, when they laid eggs in one of my pots, and while sitting over them crushed my entire lot of carefully nurtured muskmelon seedlings.

But how do you make two kids realize that pigeons can be quite a pest? You can tell them pigeons mess up the house, but when the little one says, “Dirty pigeon potty karta hai.”, the older one is quick to tell him, “Karne do. Let him.”

The best thing to do is to do what I do. Allow the kids to talk all about eggs, and chicks, and birds, and when they are not around just pick the eggs up and put them someplace else. They don’t even make pretty nests after all.

***

Monday, July 14, 2008

Yeah meri Mummy hai

Yeah meri Mummy hai. Yeah teri Mummy nahin !", said my younger one pushing his brother off my lap। "This is my Mummy. This is not your Mummy."

I was astounded, not so much because till a couple of weeks back his verbal skills hadn’t gone beyond half a dozen single words uttered most grudgingly, but because I had never thought him capable of such possessiveness.

It was my older son who was the clingy one, the one who demanded constant reassurance. The younger one, I had always thought, was totally self-contained – happy to be on his own, making few emotional demands, never craving for attention the way his brother always did.

I used to marvel at his detachment. Wonder how he could get by with so few spontaneous displays of affection. Ask myself if I was to blame for his unnatural lack of craving for hugs and kisses. Out of sheer guilt, I used to try and hug him a little more, only to have him push me away.

He was a cheerful and affectionate child, but I often wondered if such aloofness was natural for his age. Then out of the blue, the other side of him surfaced – the insanely jealous side – “Yeah meri Mummy hai. Yeah teri Mummy nahin ."

Like at everything else he attempted, he was good at this – for two weeks, he did not once allow his brother to come anywhere near me. He still doesn’t allow his brother to lie down next to me at night. When his brother complained, he would be quick to retort, “Yeah meri Mummy hai. Yeah teri Mummy nahin ."

*

He had been all of twenty six months old when this new Him had surfaced - exactly as old as his brother had been when from being an only child, he was forced to become an older brother. If he, who has always had to share everything, could get so possessive, how much worse it must have been for his older brother who had never had to share anything till a new baby came along.

I had always been extra soft with the older one because I did not want him to resent his brother for taking away something that he regarded as rightfully his. There were times when I used to feel guilty about neglecting the younger one, about not giving him as much of myself as I had to the older one. There were times, when in sheer exasperation, I yelled at my older one – “why do you have to be so possessive? You had your mother exclusively for two years. Your younger brother has always had to share his mother with you.”

Now, I realize that I had intuitively done the right thing. It was the older one who needed my affection more. He was the one who needed to be reassured that his mother did not love him any less just because there was someone else to claim her attention and her love. The older one had to be shown that just because his mother loved someone else, she did not love him any less.

*

The other day, my younger one was throwing a tantrum. I was busy ignoring him. The battle of who will give in first was on.

Enter the older one. “Mamma, my brother is crying. He wants his Mamma. Pick him up.”

“Your younger brother is just being stubborn. Ask him to stop crying and I will pick him up.”

“Don’t cry. Mamma will pick you up. I will tell her to hug you. Don’t worry.”

“I will not pick him up till he stops crying.”

“But he wants his Mamma. You have to pick him up. He is crying.”

My older one now knows how to share. My younger one will learn soon too.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Clouds and Sand

 

This photograph was taken during our last trip to Goa in June 2007.

Was trying hard to follow the 1/3rd rule while framing the picture, but just couldn’t decide whether to focus on the texture of the sand or on the cloud formations. Ultimately settled for something that appealed merely to my aesthetic sense!

The photograph has been photoshopped - reduced the saturation and increased the contrast to better bring out the texture of the sand.
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Saturday, July 12, 2008

In My Element?

I love running, have always loved running, and will, hopefully, continue to always love running. Mostly I run for fitness, occasionally as a challenge, and sometimes to just leave everything behind and wallow in the connection between me and my body.

It was to put the last couple of weeks behind me that I hit the treadmill on Thursday, and though I got into rhythm without much effort, at the end of 5 kilometers, I felt as disenchanted as I did before the run. Hot and sweaty, going home, the blue pool beckoned. It seemed utter foolishness to even think of entering the cold waters with the treacherous monsoon breeze blowing round me, but five minutes later, I was at the edge of the pool, shivering at the thought of diving in. I took a deep breath, leant forward, and before I knew it, I was In!

I felt sure I had forgotten my strokes – after all, I hadn’t gone anywhere near the pool for nearly two months, and had only just learnt to swim before that. I may have been sure I had forgotten how to swim, but my limbs suffered from no such confusion. The hands and legs worked in unison, and I found myself being pulled along. The break seemed to have smoothened my strokes – I was cutting through the water more powerfully than I remembered.

Had it been only a 100 days back that I had my first swimming lesson? The water felt like home. It was all around me, caressing me, washing away the tiredness, filling me with positive energy. Filling my lungs with air, I put my head under water, and glided to the wall – I felt a strange peace that I have felt nowhere but in the pool.

I may have taken to the pool only in my thirty-seventh year, but like all good Cancerians, I am a Water Baby. This Is My Element!

Friday, July 11, 2008

Lemons and Chillies - the two sides of Juhu

In auto, at the Juhu Link Road traffic light, a splash of green and yellow on the pavement caught my eye.
Normally, I rarely looked at the pavement – the hoardings of SRK selling practically everything infinitely more attractive that stray dogs napping while the world rushed about around them. But today was not a normal day – today was a Friday, and seven people were sitting around this huge pile of lemons and chilles stringing them together along with a piece of coal. By Saturday night, all those green and yellow garlands would be hanging from vehicles and on shopfronts, the tang of lemon and the hotness of the chili combining to ward off the evil eye.
I’ve seen these garlands being hawked at traffic lights on Saturdays and Tuesdays. The garlands are normally sold by young boys, presumably the same boys who sell tissue paper and Chinese toys on other days. But the people making the garlands were all adults – five men, two women, all of whom looked eminently employable. And yet, here they were, stringing lemons and chillis!
The traffic light changed, and the auto moved on. Past the flimsy shelters where these people lived – waterproof material strung between iron rods. An old woman was sleeping under one, with two little boys sitting near her, munching fly encrusted bread. Those kids must have been the same age as mine. If mine kids, living in a dry house, eating well-balanced meals, drinking chemically treated boiled water, and having access to the best doctors could remain almost permanently ill the last few weeks, what must be the fate of these children who do not even have a place where they can keep dry in the monsoons?
Traffic can never move fast on Mumbai roads, so I had lots of time to see the houses on the “other side of Juhu” – the non-Bacchan side. Calling them houses was no different from to calling a bullock cart a BMW – many of the waterproof sheets had been repeatedly darned, and you could barely see the pavement for the flies.
Two dogs sleeping in one of the shelters – the people barely had enough space to put down their bodies, but didn’t seem to mind sharing that little space with the canine friends who guarded them at night.
A lady trying desperately to get the pile of damp wood in her stove to burn and succeeding only in filling the interior with smoke.
We turned off at the junction, and the “real Juhu” took over. But the mind continued to dwell on the pile of lemons and chillies and the people working around it.
The garlands were normally sold at Rs. 5 each. A single lemon costs one rupee at the vegetable stall where I buy my stuff, and you can get a handful of green chilli for the same price. Bought in the wholesale market, the raw-materials would perhaps cost a little over a rupee. I estimated there must have been about 400 lemons in the pile. Assuming the kid who does the selling is paid a rupee per unit sold, it would mean each of the seven persons stringing lemons and chillis would make less that Rs. 200 for their effort.
An income of Rs. 200 twice a week! Is that enough to feed a family? To clothe them, if just in rags? To have a bit left over for medicines when people fall ill?
Is this just the supplementary income? But if it is, why do they continue to live where they cannot put a foot down without stepping on flies? The rains are a delight to watch, but not when everything you touch is as damp as you are.
We speak so glibly about poverty alleviation. About access to capital, and sustainable livelihood options. Will a microloan make any difference to the lives of these people? Would they want to buy more lemons and chillies, and if they do, would they be able to sell them. The population of Mumbai is increasing, and so, presumably, is the population of superstitious people willing to buy the good luck charms. But so, too, the number of people wanting to make the garlands is increasing.
Is there an end to the poverty that is India? Is the reservation of seats at institutions of higher education of any relevance when it comes to solving the real problems of the real India? Are there any answers? Can there be any answers?
Juhu is the people who need to hang lemons and chillies from each of their many vehicles to ward off the evil eye that always follows prosperity. Juhu is also the people who sit in the drizzle stringing together lemons and chillies, and dreaming of someday perhaps being able to season their food with some of them.
Juhu is both. So is India.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Plumeria champa

The Plumeria plants came home within a month of our moving to Mumbai. With just a window projection to keep pots on, one wanted something that had height, and the Plumeria was an automatic choice.
The chap at Bhavans’ Nursery informed me that they were called Plumeria champa, and a couple of days after getting them home, the gardening section of the Saturday newspaper informed me they were known as frangipani. But to me they were plain “nooraloo poo” plants. My father had introduced me to plants when I was a kid ,and he knew either the Tamil name for the plant or the Latin name – never anything in-between.
In Mumbai, Plumerias are a semi-exotic species, but the nooraloo poos I knew were just another tree growing wild in the garden. Looking back, I realize they must have been carefully cultivated in the gardens of the mining colony where I grew up, but to me, they had always been just a part of the landscape.
My plants were prone to every conceivable disease known to plantkind. There were the black spores that sprung up, and which cleared up in a week after I started a daily routine of cleaning the leaves with ice-water. Then nearly all the leaves turned yellow and dropped off one by one – a herbal pesticide sprayed on the leaves arrested that one. They needed fertilizers and just the right amount of water, and lots and lots of affection.
Not like the nooraloo tree that had grown outside my bedroom. The branches had been low and sturdy, and I’d spent hours sitting there with a badge pinned to my frock, pretending I was a member of one of Enid Blyton’s secret societies. I can still see the tree as it was then – a slender black trunk, rough dark branches, few leaves and numerous white utterly unremarkable flowers.
Would my Plumeria plants ever flower? As I nursed them through one crisis after another, I I thought not, but was quite content with the foliage and the support the branches gave to other plants. Then, almost a year to the day after they came home, I was rewarded by a whole clutch of buds. For a month, they remained on the plant - growing steadily bigger and resisting the attack of two crows that had made a nest close by and considered everything their enemy.
 


Almost a month later, they flowered. Just a couple of flowers at a time, the flowers never lasting more than a day or two each. But they were flowers, and they were beautiful. And how come I had never before noticed their heady fragrance?
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Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Did I kill Creativity?

On June 15, 2008, the four and a half year old decided he wanted to draw a jungle.

"Mamma, how to draw a jungle?", he asked, and I told him how he could go about drawing a tree.
Fruits grow on tree, so of course, all trees have to have fruits. He drew four apples - "One for Papa, one for Mamma, one for me and one for my brother".
I asked him to draw a couple more trees, but he wailed - "But Mamma, I want to draw a jungle. I don't want to draw trees."
"Many trees make up a jungle," I explained patiently, hoping he would not then start thinking the neighbourhood park was a jungle, "so if you want to draw a jungle, you need to draw many trees."
He snorted. "Jungles don't have trees. Jungles have lions, and tigers, and cheetahs, and zebras, and monkeys, and jaguars, and elephants, and giraffes."
Inwardly grinning at the thought of all those animals coexisting in the same area, I told him how he could draw a lion - "first draw a circle, then ..."
"... then the hair," he interjected, "lions have lots of hair."
"Mamma, lions use what shampoo?", he asked seriously while giving his lion a smiley face...
When the lion was done, he wanted to colour him purple, but I insisted that all lions were a particular shade of yellow found in his box of crayons. We argued, and with my 'superior knowledge', I won.
His lion got its tawny coat, but the tigers and zebras remained undrawn. Did I end up killing Creativity that day?




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Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Questions Never Cease

With the four-year old, questions never cease.

On the way to school – “Why do people make so many buildings?”

Watching TV – “Are zebras and tigers the same? Both have stripes.”

In the playground – “Why do swings go up and slides come down?”

In the kitchen fixing a sandwich –“Why do pigeons not have bathrooms?”

While being bathed – “Lions use which shampoo?”

At midnight when you are trying to get him to sleep – “Why do dolphins not have ears?”

You can answer some of them, but some leave you totally speechless - “Why do birds poo, but not pee?” – how on earth did he even notice that?

*

Sometimes, the questions start off being factual – “Is Hanuman a God or a Superhero?”…

… then get slightly combative – “But Hanuman can fly – why do you say he is not a Superhero?” …

… before settling for the purely philosophical – “But why does Hanuman not want to be a Superhero?

*

They say two years is too young an age to start asking meaningful questions. Not!

Your two-year old isn’t too far behind his brother – “Why is the moon so thin?”

Before you can say anything, the older brother pipes up – “Because the moon goes to the gym.”

Not good enough for the two-year old – “but why is the moon sometimes thin and sometimes fat?”

The brother explains with all the patience of a four-year old – “The moon sometimes eats KitKat and becomes fat, and then it goes to the gym and becomes thin again.”

You realize that you really should be more careful what you say in front of these kids!

*

You can never shut them up with generalities –

“Why are elephants so big?

“Because God made them that way.”

“But why did God make elephants so big?”

He would prefer you tell him, “Elephants are big because all animals cannot be the same size. Some animals should be small and some big. Elephants are big.”, but he is willing to settle for a “I really don’t know. Can I look it up and tell you?”

*

You know you should not be encouraging him to ask so many questions. You know you are just setting him up for future disappointment. How many teachers will have the patience not to snap at him when he comes up with a “Why do cheetahs run so fast?”, and follows it up with a “But then, why do the deer run so fast?” because the answer to the first questions begets another? Or would a teacher really be able to answer him when he asks, "Why to birds have feathers and not hair?"

*

You know you can’t win either way – encourage him now and he will be in for a disappointment later, curb him now and he may forget what it is to be inquisitive.

*
He comes up to you with a variegated leaf - “Why is this leaf not green?”

You remember last week’s question - “Why are leaves green?”, and an answer that included something about leaves being the kitchen of the plant, and the green colour the gas-stove on which food was cooked. You sigh and try to decide whether to tell him about chlorophyll and chromophyll, or whether to just ask him to shut up. You know you have decide fast, but before you can say something to buy time, he triumphantly pipes up, “this leaf is not green because the plant orders takeaway and heats it on the microwave.”

You look into his gleaming eyes, and hug him. Perhaps he will survive even in this big bad world that discourages independent thought.

***

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