Tuesday, September 30, 2008

A sari state of affairs

Kerala, to me, had always evoked pictures of ladies in gold-bordered white mundus, beautiful backwaters and coconut trees. Reality could not have been more different – Ernakulum was no different from any other dusty Indian town caught in the big town v/s small city identity trap. There were coconut trees, but no more or no fewer than you found anywhere else in India. But, the greatest disappointment was the clothes, or rather the lack of expected clothes. Every single lady I saw, from the secretary of the Chairman of the Port Trust to the lady hawking vegetable under the shade of a tree, was in a brightly coloured synthetic sari.
Synthetic saris in the heat and humidity of Kerala? Utterly ridiculous, right?
Wrong!!! Apparently brightly coloured synthetic saress made sense – they were cheaper than cotton mundus, were much easier to maintain, and did not get crumpled in less than an hour. The argument must have been compelling for so many ladies to have made the sartorial switch from the garments favoured by generations of Malayali women, but I was never convinced. White is a reflective colour, and cotton a material that breathes – nothing makes more sense in a place like Kerala than a white cotton mundu. But I guess nobody really has the time or the inclination to maintain cotton clothes any more.
This happened was a couple of years back.
I noticed a continuation of the same phenomenon during the Ganapathi visarjan processions in Mumbai. There were women attired in colourful saris dancing gaily. But where was the traditional Maharashtrian nine yard sari? Everyone, young, not so young or old was in a single coloured georgette, chiffon, satin or synthetic sari, decorated with sequins and machine embroidery done with gold thread. Kan cholies had given way to heavily embroidered blouses with interesting necklines.
It is the same trend at society weddings – anyone wearing a sari is in a flimsy sari with heavy embroidery. At one time, not too long ago, the only choice a bride made was on whether she wanted to get married in a Benarasi or an Kanjeevaram sari – now, I have actually forgotten the last time I saw a bride wearing something other than a ghaghara choli with very heavy embroidery.
Nobody even seems to want to wear handlooms any more.
Baluchari, paitani, , chanderi, sambalpuri, tangail – even the names are sheer poetry – they are all gradually getting replaced by the saris that have no heritage, no tradition, and no particular merit. Embroiderers are replacing weavers at a rate so fast, I wonder how long weaving traditions will continue.
Again, I understand why people would rather not wear handlooms – they are difficult to maintain, and do not drape as well as the more clingy material. Whether you have a figure to flaunt, or want to pretend you have that figure, handloom saris are not for you. Even the best draped handloom sari always adds a couple of inches to your hipline, and totally smothers your waistline.
But why is nothing being done to save our weaving traditions? People prefer other materials for the saris, but is there any reason why an authentic handloom border and pallav cannot be stitched onto a chiffon or a satin sari? Surely our fashion designers can make it fashionable to flaunt our traditional weaves, if only in the form of a gorgeous pallav?
When it is so obvious to a person like me, why are the people who actually work with weavers not being able to think of it? Two days later, we will be celebrating the Birth Anniversary of Gandhi-ji. Everyone will pay lip service to him, and forget all about him. Along with all that he stood for, we also seem to have forgotten the weavers who’s cause he expounded.
At the rate at which we are going, soon, there would be no weavers left in the country. And that would be a very sari state of affairs indeed.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Circle of Knowledge

At my older son’s school, they put up what they call the ‘Circle of Knowledge’ on the notice board every month – a circle with radiating spokes giving a ‘before’ and ‘after’ snapshot of what the children knew about the topic that was covered the previous month.

Last month’s topic had been plants, and I noted with wry amusement that the net contribution by my son was all of zero comments. A quick count of the number of spokes showed that there were fewer comments than number of kids in the class, so naturally, everyone could not be represented. And since some names appeared more often than others, clearly it was a question of who shouted the fastest and the loudest, not necessarily of who knew the most.


“So, are you going to give your mother the privilege of seeing your name up there at least once before the end of the year?”, I joked.

“Definitely”, the son replied, before we both walked into the classroom.

While coming out, I saw another mother scrutinising the chart, with bored looking son trying to drag her into the classroom. I wondered, as I always do, whether that mother read any of the comments or just checked to see what her son had to contribute. I did not have to wonder too long.

“You are so stupid”, the mother exploded. “Why don’t you participate more in class?”

“But, Mamma, …”, he stammered. All his bravado evaporating in an instant.

“What Mamma-shamma? You are so stupid”, she reiterated. “How many times have I told you to speak more in class?”

“But Mamma, I answered.”

“What answer-shanser? Look, you have said only three things. This boy other boy has said five things. Why do you have to be so stupid.”

To say I was stunned would be a slight understatement. Anyone possessing basic mathematical skills could see that if you divided the number of comments by the number of students in the class, you got a figure of less than one. So if the kid contributed even one comment, the kid had actually fared better than average. And if this child had indeed made three comments, he was something like four times the average. Had I been in that mother’s place, I would have been delirious with happiness. Instead, she was yelling at her child for not being as good as (what she defined was) the best in the class.

I am a very ambitious mother myself, and often yell at my son for not performing as well as I would like him to academically. But I demand from him what I think he is capable of, not what someone else is able to do.

Kids all evolve differently, and at different rates. If the parents and the teachers do not realise that, would any of the kids be able to achieve their full potential? And how can you yell at someone who is doing so well for not doing better?

Come to think of it, was it the fault of the mother or of the school? When a school goes out of its way to announce that it doesn’t believe in competition, and that everyone is a winner in their own way, would it not make more sense for them to put up an anonymous ‘Circle of Knowledge’?


Or am I just overreacting?

Sunday, September 28, 2008

The World Calls him a Terrorist

[A couple of years back, I got into an argument with a bunch of otherwise sensible Americans who seemed to want to brand all were Muslims as terrorists, unless proved otherwise.
Since I had heard this real story from my hubby (who was then traveling within the Arab countries 20 days a month) just a few days before, I had to write it up.

The story is from the PoV of the head of my hubby's firm, and is appropriate to recount during the month of Ramzan.]


He stepped out of the private elevator into the lobby of Kuwait’s tallest building, after an invigorating half-hour session in the gym of the Chairmans’ Club, feeling better than he had for a long time. The work was decent and the pay was good, but to be honest, the Middle East was not Wall Street. And while the people were nice and friendly, they were a long way off from being the scintillating company. Perhaps things would change after his wife joined him after Christmas. But till then, he really should take advantage of the lean season enforced by Ramadhan to work out in the gym more often.

The lobby was empty. It was only the second time he’d seen it this way – the first was when he’d crawled out of the office at 3am, after a gruelling session with the investment bankers in charge of his company’s IPO, and even that time, his colleagues had been with him. It took him a moment to realise why – the faithful were all away breaking the Ramadhan fast. All Kuwait was feasting with their family and friends, and he was all alone, a stranger in an alien land – in all his years, he had never felt as lonely as he did at that moment.

“Sir, would you give me the pleasure of sharing my humble food with me?”, the voice jolted him out of his reverie. He looked around in search of the owner of the voice and found the smiling face of the doorman.

He stopped on his tracks. The doorman! The person he passed every day, without even glancing at him. The person who must have held the door open for him dozens at times, and who he acknowledged automatically, if at all. What was he doing here – why was he not away with the rest? He noticed the neatly rolled up prayer rug and realised that the doorman must have said his prayers right there – made sense, he couldn’t leave his post after all, he had a job to do. He made a mental note to try and find out the man’s name, so he could recommend his name for the next increment.

“Sir, would you partake my food?”, the doorman repeated.

“Me??”, he stared incredulously at the steel container that contained the doorman’s only meal of the day.

“Ji Hazoor. I was going to break my Ramadhan fast, and since you are here, would you do me the honour of having your meal with me?”

He hesitated, and the doorman misunderstood the reason for his uncertainty. “Please Sir. The food is very clean. And my wife is the best cook in Kuwait. Never will you taste biryani as good as hers – not even in your fancy restaurants. Please Sir, share my meal.”

“But, but”, he stammered, and then blurted out the real reason. “But there is not enough there for both of us, and you have been fasting all day. If I share your meal with you, you’ll go hungry.”

“Sir, my religion tells me to share my food. You cannot refuse it.”

“But what about you?”

“Sir, if I do my duty, Allah will take care of me. Please, sir, share my food with me. It would give me immense pleasure if you do. Please, sir, please.”

The aroma of the cooked meat and exotic spices was wafting up, and he could not resist any longer. Rolling up his sleeves, he sat down awkwardly next to the doorman, and had the best meal of his life.

The World calls him a terrorist, but he is the hungry man who happily shares his food with a stranger.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

That horrid A-word

Most people claim they became an ‘Aunty’ the day they got married - a carefree girl one day, a universal ‘Aunty’ the next. Strangely, I avoided that fate for a very long time. The first time I was called “Aunty” was when I took my six week old baby out for an evening stroll. Revelling in the bliss of being “Mamma” to my kid, I don’t think the fact that I was finally being called “Aunty” even registered in my mind.
To be honest, unlike a lot of other women, I have absolutely no issues about being called “Aunty”, provided I am being called “Aunty” by someone who’s mother is likely to be roughly the same age as me. I don’t mind being called “Aunty” by the twelve-year old who lives on the floor below mine, even though she is nine inches taller than I, and carries herself with infinitely more sophistication – after all, many of my school mates have kids her age.
But I saw red when the college-going brother of one of the residents of my apartment block called me “Aunty” in the gym the other day. I knew he was innocent of wilfully causing offence, and that if he had any inclination of the cauldron of resentment he was stirring up, he would not have used that word. But somehow, knowing that only made things seem worse than they already were.
That pipsqueak actually considered me an antediluvian specimen fit only for a museum, which is why the word slipped out of his lips so effortlessly. The word was a challenge and I did not shy away from picking up the gimlet.
“Aunty, can you please use this treadmill, and let me have that one?”
“ ‘fraid not. I prefer this treadmill because the full blast of the AC is on the other one.”
“But Aunty, I can direct the AC to the ceiling. I prefer the other treadmill because I am planning to jog and that is better for jogging.”
“I’m jogging too, so I’d rather be on this treadmill.”
He gave me a look that clearly said that he did not consider anything I was capable of doing worth dignifying by the word ‘jogging’, but since he could not physically claim the machine I was on, he started his warm-ups.
To say I was stung was an understatement. Bad enough being repeatedly referred to as “Aunty” by someone just about a decade and a half younger than me, but worse yet when he makes snap judgements on my physical fitness or lack of it. I knew someone like him would run much faster than I do, but I was determined to outlast him on time and distance covered – and I knew I could.
He started off at a speed far from prudent, and in less than a minute was forced to reduce his speed considerably. Meanwhile, I gradually increased my speed as I always do, and got into a groove at a speed not very much lower than his. Ten minutes later, he was starting to pant, and it was with nothing short of sheer glee that I accelerated for the first of my short bursts of speed. He had no choice but to try and match my speed, but before he could, I slowed down again. By now he was totally confused, and reduced his pace too to match mine.
Ten mintues later, he was panting so hard, I was starting to get worried about him. Five minutes after that, when I was seriously contemplating calling the instructor the get him off the machine, he finally gave up. He could barely keep himself standing during the cool down phase, and the moment the treadmill stopped, he stumbled off and collapsed onto the nearest bench.
On the way back home, I found him sitting near the steps presumably waiting for someone. I could not resist the chance to rub the indignity of losing to an ‘Aunty’ in.
“Hi, you haven’t jogged before, have you?”
“Erm, erm, no. Not really. Long time ago in school, I used to take part in sports, but I started jogged on a treadmill only recently.”
“Don’t give up just because you are not able to do it now. Take it from me - building up stamina takes some doing. Last year this time, I could barely job five minutes, and look at me now. Just keep at it. I am sure you will be able to do it too.”
I know it was a really cheap shot. But then ‘Aunties’ are known to be nosey and to give unsolicited advice, aren’t they?

Friday, September 26, 2008

Plumbago

The first time I saw a Plumbago flower was at the nursery when I was stocking up on plants after moving to Mumbai. It was love at first sight, and within a week of getting the plants home, a generous splash of violet added a much needed colour accent to my window-sill.

Strangely, after bringing the plant home, I started spotting it everywhere – outside a swanky showroom near Andheri market, on the window sill of a house I passed everytime I went to the market, outside the photo studio. How the plant had managed to disguise itself so thoroughly till I came under its spell is one of those mysteries unlikely ever to be solved.

Finding out what the plant was called took some doing – I had to look through dozens of thumbnails of blue/ violet coloured flowerers before locating this one – but once I had the name, there was a mine of information to be found.

Did you know that Cape Leadworth, as it is commonly known, was introduced to the capital city of Greece as a part of the beautification plan of the city prior to the Olympic Games, and that the flowers and the city are now almost synonymous with each other? I did not know that either, and finding that out did elevate the status of blue jasmine from that of a prolific bloomer to that of a semi-exotic import.

My Plumbago plants flowered faithfully all year round – I would go for weeks without any other flower, but blue jasmine I never had to do without.

Then, in March, almost without warning, the plants both dried up – the leaves turned a brittle brown and the shoots became little more than just twigs. I kept trimming off the dead branches, but even though I knew the plants had no life left in them, I could not bring myself to pull them out and re-use the pot for something else.

Two weeks later, while plucking off the dead leaves, I sighted a speck of green. I tried not to get too excited about it, but couldn’t help myself. Barely a couple of weeks later, the resurrected plant gave me its first flower.

One plant has passed on, but the other one has filled up the entire pot, and my window sill is once again alive to the dash of colour.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Emperor gets new clothes for the Carnival

I had been curious when I saw two days blocked off on my older ones’ time-table for ‘Children’s Carnival’. A normal person would have just waited for a few days to find out what it was, but when did anyone ever accuse me of being even close to normal?


So one day, the inquisition started –

“Does your teacher talk about the Cranival in class?”

“No!”

“Are you sure she has never mentioned it?”

“Yes (and will you quit asking me questions and get on with watching TV?)”


I should have stopped at that, but I made one last attempt at milking him for information –

“What do you think this Carnival thing is?”

“Dunno. Maybe it has something to do with carnivorous animals.” With that dismissal, he turned his back towards me, so I would not ask him any more silly questions.


To say I was amused would be slight understatement.

And I was also astounded by the kind of mental leaps the untrained mind was capable of. Sure there was nothing in common between a celebration and meat eating mammals, but to even make that connection was joining dots at its more elemental form. We train ourselves to do that when we are much older and wiser – how much better it would be if we never forgot the skill.

I told the story about carnivals having something to do with carnivorous animals to practically everyone I met (in real life, or online). Most were, like me, were a mixture of amazed and amused.


Then, someone told me that my son had actually nailed it on the head. ‘Carnival’ and ‘carnivorous’ both had as their root, the Italian word ‘carne’ (or the Greek word ‘carn’ – depending on which account you believe) which means ‘meat’. ‘Carne vale’, or ‘farewell to meat’ refers to the fact that those were the last days when one could gorge on meat before giving it up for Lent. In hindsight it was perfectly obvious – the connection between the two words had been starting at me all this while and I had failed to see it.

I never knew that, but then nobody is expected to know everything. What irked me slightly was the fact that with all my superior education and knowledge, I had not been able to correlate the two words.


But was my failure all that surprising? Not at all – the educated brain has been trained not to be fooled by superficial similarity, and I fell prey to that conditioning.


Why is the Emperor not wearing clothes?

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Old friends

I did my high school and undergraduation in Calcutta, and after moving out the city lost touch with practically all my school and college buddies. Some I would unexpectedly run into them at strange places, and would trade often outdated information about classmates, to hoard it till I bumped into the next person.

Then, I discovered social networking sites, and started rediscovering old friends. It started with one friend, her friend list led me to two more names, and those friends to still more. Once started, the flood could not be contained, and I literally found dozens of people I had even forgotten existed.

I met a friend when she was in Mumbai, and serendipitously, there was another friend having lunch with her son at the adjacent table. We got her into Facebook, and she got her friends.

Google did its bit too – a familiar face in the newspaper, a google search for a familiar name with a less familiar surname. She was on Facebook too, and was in touch with a whole new bunch of people.

Chance meetings in photo-studios. Invites sent to long forgotten e-mail addresses. How did we ever exist before social networking?

Today, six of us met over lunch.

I had been looking forward to this all week, but was still slightly apprehensive before the meeting.

Sure we had all interacted on Facebook - had seen pictures of each other’s kids, vaguely knew what the other had done and who they had married. But how would it be when we actually met? Would we have anything to talk about, or would there be awkward silences? Surely we had all taken radically different paths post college – would we at all have anything in common except the fact that we studied at the same school a few lifetimes ago and now live in the same city?

I think we subconsciously picked the restaurant that we did was because we knew the food there was really good, and could compensate for a slightly strained atmosphere.

But all that apprehensive lasted till I met two of my friends outside the restaurant, and did a group hug. The years dropped away, and we were communicating like we had probably never done even in school.

Six spouses, ten kids, dozens of jobs, numerous cities and countless experiences later, we were still the same people that we had been all those many years back.

Actually not! We had all gone our separate ways – banking, flying, journalism, consulting, fashion designing – somewhere along the line we had all got married and had kids. We had evolved as human beings. And at the end of the evolution, we had ended up as very similar people. Surprisingly , we had similar values, and we agreed on a lot of points that we normally do not agree with too many people on.

Nearly two decades after passing out of school, we each realised that it may have been a shared history that brought us together, but it was something else that made us friends.

I don’t remember ever having spent so much time over a lunch, and we would have cheerfully spent a lot more time if we hadn’t been thrown out of the restaurant because they had to shut down for the afternoon. We chatted outside the restaurant for another half an hour, and very reluctantly tore ourselves away. But only after promising to meet again very soon.

After all, we are old friends. And real friends can easily pick-up right where they left off.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Somethings never make sense

On Sunday, for the first time in years, I was not able to finish the Sudoko puzzle carried by the newspaper. Yesterday, I caught myself a nanosecond before adding a carefully measured teaspoon of salt to my coffee. Today, I polished off three packets of chocolate biscuits without tasting a single one of them.
Professionally, I’ve managed to function normally, but personally, I was a mess till I went for a run, and did not stop till I notched up 10 kms. I could have done more, but I knew that 60 minutes is adequate – the first 20 minutes of monotonous pounding to convince the brain to suspend thinking, 30 minutes of Zen like existence, and the remaining time to get back into shape mentally. Running is normally cathartic and it worked this time too. And proof of that is the fact that I have been able to sit and the computer and start typing this out.

On Sunday, I got to know that my mother’s cousin’s daughter had a cardiac arrest and passed away. It took awhile for the news to sink in – a nineteen year old does not die of natural causes - but when it did, I went into denial – such things do not happen, they cannot happen.

I have never met the girl, and the mother I barely know – it was not proximity that upset me so much. It was the fact that children do not die, they cannot die, and they should not die. It is bad enough when parents pass on, or cousins, or friends, but how can the next generation go even before they have properly started the journey called Life?

Nineteen is just too young an age to go – how can you possibly go of natural causes at that age? If a fit and healthy nineteen year old can have a cardiac arrest, is anyone immune? This weekend, it was my second cousin, could it not be just anyone else this week?

A year back, a boy my son used to play with lost his father. The wife I was merely on nodding terms with, the man I had never put a face to, but I obsessed over that death for almost a month. That family was no different from mine – what could happen to them could happen to anyone.

But this is worse, much worse. This is a bud plucked while it is in the processes of opening – it is a flower that has never been able to show its beauty to the world.

After my run, I am able to function normally. But I do know that for many weeks to come, I am going to hug my kids everytime I want to shout at them.

And understand this, I never will be able to make sense of this. Something can never make sense.
.

Monday, September 22, 2008

When life gives you lemons...

When life gives you lemons, ...
... take a picture of them.

Or, take two ...



I am totally in love with the manual focus setting of my camera.
The lemons were placed on the windowsill, and navy blue chart paper was used as a background to bring out the hues of the lemons.
Both pictures were taken on an overcast day in natural light, and no touching-up was done in the lightroom.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Splashing through puddles

Splashing through puddles -



I've been wanting to get this picture for a very long time - the red shoes, the water splashing, the hint of a reflection in the puddle. I would have preferred natural light, and a puddle less muddy, but you can't have everything.

The red shoes did not stand out in the muddy water, so I desaturated the rest of the picture and tinted it blue. Also sharpened the picture, and increased contrast to give the splashing water that static edge.

The photograph is heavily edited, but the exhuberance is real. There is another photograph from the same series here .
Posted by Picasa

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Linked with LinkedIn

I was in my early teens when I first heard about the ‘Six Degrees of Seperation’ – every individual on the planet is connected to every other individual by a maximum of six people.

I tried playing the game with the names of as many famous people as I could think of, and I ended up finding most of them on the third or fourth step itself. But then I had a trump card up my sleeve – Tatha. Tatha had been on first name terms with many of the top scientists of the day, so that took care of anyone I could think of in the field of science (Dr. XYZ was a biologist, so he must be known to Francis Crick, who was known to my Tatha). Tatha had also met most of political leaders of India, and one could presume that between them, they knew practically everyone in the field of politics. Sports and Entertainment were more difficult, but my mother had gone to school with one of the leading Bollywood actresses, and to college with two cricket stars, so connections could be made.

I soon tired of the game, and was reminded of it only the other day when I was searching for someone on LinkedIn. A google search for Sarah Palin found its way into my LinkedIn search, and I found that eight people I know, know someone who is known to Sarah Palin. Sarah Palin led me to John McCain – 36 people I am connected to are connected to someone who is connected to John McCain. By now I was hooked – 109 people I know, know someone known to Barack Obama, and the number is a dismal 10 for Hillary Clinton. I was heartbroken to find that neither Bill Clinton nor Bill Gates is on my personal network – but since both of them are likely to known to Hillary Clinton, I am one additional step away from them both.

The 253 people that I know, between them know over 25,600 people, and they know a further 1,518,700 people. Which means there are more than 15 million people on my LinkedIn network alone. None of these are casual acquaintances – a LinkedIn connection is made only when one person invites another to be a connection, and the other person accepts. You may not have found all the people who you know, and who are on LinkedIn, and not everyone is on LinkedIn – my husband, for instance, refuses to sign-up because he thinks all networking sites are a waste of time – which makes your network much larger than it appears to be on LinkedIn.

Which means that I may well be connected – connected, as in actually connected – to everyone on the planet with less than the mandatory six steps.

The world IS much smaller than I ever imagined it to be. And social networking sites are just making it smaller still.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Something I love doing

“Please do not forget to give my teacher a picture of me doing something that I love most”, said the note supposedly written by my son that he got home from school.

A seemingly simple request – after all, how hard can it be to pick a single picture out of the many that we have clicked – but on closer thought, one almost impossible to fulfill.

What is it that my not yet five year old loves most?

He loves jigsaw puzzles and is excellent at them – he could put together 25 piece puzzles just a couple of months after his third birthday. But is that what he enjoys most? Perhaps not – at one time, he definitely loved puzzles, but he no longer seems as fond of them as he once was. Not a picture of him putting together a jigsaw puzzle then.

There is a gorgeous picture of hanging down with his legs tucked into the climbing bars of the slide in the playground. And another of his exalting as he slides down the same slide. Few photographs capture as much sheer joy and exuberance as those two pictures do. But is that what he loves most – not really. He enjoys himself whenever he is taken to the playground, but if it were something he loved doing most, he would be pestering me to take him down to the playground a lot more than he actually does.

My son loves being read to, and even more he loves reading to his younger brother. There are some gorgeous pictures of the two boys lying on the bed, reading a book. That would definitely qualify as one of his favorite pastimes, but perhaps not the one he loves most of all.

Truth be told, the one thing my son loves doing, seemingly more than anything else, is watching TV. I am sure I must have a picture of him watching TV somewhere, or I could click a picture anytime. But is that an accurate portrait of my son? Sure he watches more TV than I would like him to, but I personally feel that TV is more a habit with him than a passion.

He loves fighting with his brother – kicking, pushing, pulling his hair, having all that done to him and wailing his guts off when it starts hurting. The amount I have to yell at him for getting physical with his brother, I would think that is his favorite pastime. But to be fair to him, he just sees it as a part of the big picture of loving his brother and to call it something he loves doing to do him a great injustice.

He does love his brother a lot, and loves just being with him. Sometimes they are chummy and hug and kiss each other, at times one wants a public display of affection while the other pushes him away, and most of the time they just sit together till one pinches the other and starts off a dogfight. They both love doing it, or do they?

The last couple of weeks, my son has started loving his homework. He feels this tremendous sense of achievement when he manages to write a three letter word in joined handwriting, and he really looks forward to those moments of triumph. I could stick a picture of him writing, but that would seem like sucking upto the teacher, and we wouldn’t want that, would we?

He loves watering plants, loves making sprouts, loves hunting for pretty and not so pretty stones, loves squashing insects, loves making complicated clipo structures, loves shooing away pigeons, loves pretending to be a Power Ranger, loves making up stories about Spiderman, loves eating pomegranates, loves talking about carnivorous animals, loves singing his favourite BoneyM songs, loves the idea of going on coffee meets, loves playing with babies, loves helping people, loves drawing dragons, loves ….. The list is endless, which one should I pick?

My son probably loves running more than anything else. Just running – not running to get anywhere, not running in a race, not running as a part of some game – just plain and simple running. Should I then send in a picture of him running?

He also loves sitting in quiet contemplation – “kabhi, kabhi mujhe chup rehna accha lagta hai”, he once told me. Is that the picture that I should send?

Forty-eight hours of thinking about it, and I still do not know which picture to pick. And I know I never shall – the only sensible thing to do would be to pick a picture with my eyes closed and send that to the teacher.

Isn’t childhood a wonderful time – there are so many things you love doing, and you don’t have enough time to do them all. Why can’t life be a bit more equitable – why can’t adults continue to do the things they loved doing when they were children, and continue to love doing those things?

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Hibiscus


Every garden I grew up with in Jharkhand had a profusion of hibiscus plants. Not sure if it was because the soil there was conclusive to hibiscus or because the maalis liked having relatively low maintenance plants in their gardens, or simply because the memsahibs liked the stereotypical tropical flower - but hibiscus was one flower we never ran out of.


There was not too much you could do with hibiscus flowers - you could string them into garlands, but you rarely did that because the flowers were were so sticky you had to wash the needles before you could use them again. And besides, what do you do with garlands that are too large to pin to your hair?

The multiple hues of the flowers held great promise - you could perhaps use the flowers to colour the chalk drawings you made on the cement driveway. You never tried that except that once - the colours that looked so beautiful on the flowers turned out to be an ugly black when you tried painting with them.

Hibiscus flowers were pretty, but they were rather pointless. Or so I thought, till I discovered that it was possible to peel the 'stalk' away, and expose the entire reproductive system of the flower. Many are the hours I spent laboriously peeling the flower to expose the pistil - the style curving gently upwards to meet the anter and the filament.

How many flowers I destroyed in my quest for the perfect specimen, I do not even care to remember, but what I do know is that when we finally learnt about stamens and pistils in school, there was nothing the diagrams could teach me that I did not already know.



Any wonder then that my hibiscus plant is one of my favourites. It is a grafted variety where the flowers last only for a day, but I given the fact that I am rarely without hibiscus blooms, I am not complaining.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

The Large Hardon Rap

I am sure there is nobody in the planet with access to an e-mail account that hasn’t’ yet seen the ‘Hardon Rap’ video. Till the video came out, everyone who was talking about the Large Hardon Collidor was taking about how the world would end the moment it was switched on.

It didn’t seem to matter to anybody that it would take weeks for actual data to come in. Or that the black holes that would be created would be too small to affect anything except the experimental readings. Fed on a staple diet of science fiction, and science fiction that is not very high on the science part of it either, people could only think mad scientists creating the LHC so they could unwittingly annihilate the known Universe.

And then Kate McAlpine’s rap video started doing the rounds and pretty soon people were hooked -



The music was catchy, the lyrics accessible and, most importantly, the science bang on.

So much of Particle Physics is pure mathematics, that even most science graduates struggle to grasp it. Writers of popular science have always suffered from either of two problems – simplify so the concepts are accessible and you run the risk of oversimplification, or try to keep it accurate and not reach the desired audience. It is a tightrope walk, and most people have chosen the former part. But few have done so as effectively as the 23 year old science communicator who penned the lines -

You see particles flying, in jets they spray

But you notice there ain’t nothin’, goin’ the other way

You say, “My law has just been violated – it don’t make sense!

There’s gotta be another particle to make this balance.”

And it might be dark matter, and for first

Time we catch a glimpse of what must fill most of the known ‘Verse.”

or

Antimatter is sort of like matter’s evil twin

Because except for charge and handedness of spin

They’re the same for a particle and its anti-self

But you can’t store an antiparticle on any shelf

Cuz when it meets its normal twin, they both annihilate

Matter turns to energy and then it dissipates

With lyrics so simple, it is hard to not get the basic message. Naturally, therefore, nobody is talking about the world coming to an end anymore – they are busy rapping away.

I would always be skeptical when I heard stories of how one song changed the course of human thought. I now believe those stories – Kate McAlpine’s slightly quirkily named Hardon Rap can take its place along with Bob Dylan’s Blowing in the Wind.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Space and colour

Normally, I stay away from poster colours, unless it is finger painting or potato printing that we are doing. Yesterday, however, the kids managed to locate the box of paints that I had taken out of its hiding place while cleaning, and I just had to give in to their demands.

The younger one went quite wild – splashing first one colour, then another on the sheet, not minding at all that the colours were running into each other and making a worse mess than what is on their plates when they eat.
The older one was just the opposite – he asked for one colour at a time, and took his time deciding where to make the rectangle and how much of the rectangle to fill with colour. He stuck to the three primary colours and black, and I was much impressed by the final result.



Abstract though it was, there was a certain balance in the composition. The painting may not have told me a story, but it did communicate with me. It told me of how the painter had carefully used space, and of how every stroke and every colour was carefully planned before being put in.


The painting seemed slightly familiar, but it was only much later that I realized that it reminded me of the works of Piet Mondrian. Mondrian simplified the visual world by breaking colour and form to its most basics.

In his own way, my son had done no different. But I am not sure how long he is going to continue painting such delightfully balanced compositions. When he is old enough to know better, he is going to be taught how to draw and paint so as to replicate photographs on canvas. He will have to learn the entire history of painting, before he will be allowed to take a path that would lead him back to the paintings he is now creating.

The journey is inevitable. I just hope he completes the journey instead of giving up midway as most of us did.
____
Piet Mondrian, Composition II in Red, Blue, and Yellow, 1930

Monday, September 15, 2008

Delicious Happiness

Today, while throwing out the garbage that routinely accumulates over the weekend, I came across what looked like a Coke bottle with lettering in a script I have never encountered. ‘In Mandarin, Coca-cola means “Delicious Happiness”’, went the tagline and the coloured rings looping around the lettering could either have been the Olympic rings, or the number 08-08-08. You didn’t have to read the Olympic trivia, or turn the bottle to catch the Olympic logo to deduce that must have been a part of a commemorative mega branding exercise for the cola giant.

Was I impressed by the strategy? Strangely, no. For me, the brand identify of Coca-Cola has been intimately linked to the logo. Some people swear by the patented hourglass shape of the Coke bottle, others recall the red and white colours – but for me, it has always been the logo. And the logo in Mandarin, looks nothing like the English one!

Even so, my obvious distaste for the commemorative packaging was slightly inexplicable – I normally enjoy the novelty of such experiments, even if I do not particularly take to the idea. Why then this revulsion to this the Olympic logo?

Perhaps it has something to do with the way people all over Mumbai are being forced to defile their shopfronts by adding the name in Marathi. I have nothing against signboards that are bilingual because the owners choose to have it that way. I personally like some of the more aesthatically executed bilingual signboards – the signs announcing the names of the stations on the Western line immediately spring to mind. What I object to people being forced to adopt bilingual signboards to avoid mob violence.

I was at the Food Court of a suburban mall the day the stalls were adding names in Marathi to the existing signboards. The operation took less than five minutes per stall – a man climbed onto a stool, took measurements, placed a sticker, checked the alignment and peeled the backing paper – voilá, another signboard defaced!

Café Coffe Day, Salsa, Subway – they all got the treatment in front of my eyes, and the logos looked equally stupid in Marathi. Even the Marathi logo of Kailash Parbat looked weird – maybe because we associate the logo more with the font of the letters than with what it spells out.

I do not like what the Marathi brigade is doing to my adopted city, and that resentment must be spilling over to the Coke logo in Mandarin. After all, though the logo in Mandarin looks nothing like what I am used to, the flow of the characters retains the flavour of the original. And, it is a limited edition commemorative packaging after all – the first time something like this has been attempted in 150 countries globally.

The magpie in me had prevented the bottle from being chucked into the garbage can – I think I will keep it with me a bit longer. After all, it is not often that bilingualism spells ‘Delicious Happiness’ in Mumbai.


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Sunday, September 14, 2008

Pomegranate - A Symphony in Red

I have yet to meet anyone who does not like Pomegranates. There is just something about the fruit that appeals to everyone - maybe it is the vivid ruby red hues, or the feel of pomegranate juice dribbling down your chin, or suspense - will this fruit be sweet, or will it be tart?
I rarely bought pomegranates because taking the seed casings out was too much of a bother, but after someone told me it stimulates appetite in small children, I've made sure the kids had at least one fruit each every week.
The older one likes it with a pinch of salt, the younger merely insists on having a spoon to scoop it up with.

This picture was taken to test out the manual focus function of my camera. The fruit was placed on a window ledge where there was adequate natural light, and the photograph was taken in the close-up setting using normal lens. The photograph was not touched up at all (only cropped) - that is how beautiful the fruit is when seen close up.


Saturday, September 13, 2008

Our National Symbols

A couple of days back a friend blogged about how she nearly disrupted the screening of a movie because a man did not pay due respect to the national anthem when it was being played at the theater. Things did almost get sticky, but my friend’s stand was vindicated when the person who had not stood up while the national anthem was being played was asked to leave the hall.
Did I agree with what my friend did? Absolutely!
Would I do it myself? Unlikely.
Too many times in the past, I have stood up for what I thought was right, only to have people react so adversely that I have been left with no option but strategic retreat.
When you ask a person sitting on a seat reserved for women to get up so an elderly woman can sit down, you expect that the person would not even question you. If the person pretends not to have heard you, the conductor ignores you, you are subject to baleful looks for daring to attempt to upset the natural balance, and the person you are fighting for pretends not to be around, there are only so many options open to you.
People jump queues and when you complain, the rest of the people in the queue tell you to shut up because they would rather have a few extra people before them, than have the line held up because of an altercation.
I have learnt the hard way not to interfere, and I would not have dared take the stand that my friend did. And yet, I know she was absolutely right in doing so.

One of the biggest problems among Indians is that we just do not respect our national symbols. The national anthem is not a collection of words set to a catchy tune – the national anthem IS India.
I may personally prefer Iqbal’s ‘Sare Jahan se Accha’ to Tagore’s ‘Jana Gana Mana’, but I am moved to tears almost everytime I hear the song. When I sing the national anthem, I think of the Indians who have stood on victory podiums while the song is played, I think of Indians who have excelled in various fields and brought honour to the country, I also think of the millions of Indians who toil so hard just to make ends meet, but do it with a smile on their face. For the few minutes it takes for the song to be sung, I am proud to be an Indian.
It is that sense of pride that is so sadly absent in most people. Forget about average citizens who rarely need to examine their patriotic quotient, I have seen cricketers who are paid princely sums for representing their country chewing gum while the anthem is being played. Is it just a coincidence that the one cricketer who never fails to sing the anthem is also the most successful batsman in the history of the game?

You just have to mention the US invasion to Iraq for the average American to harangue you about not respecting ‘our brave boys fighting for cause of freedom’. Would any Indian do the same? Why talk about average citizens when none of the august leaders of the nation could make time to attend the funeral of the greatest Army Chief the nation has ever seen.

I can never be as brave as my friend and risk causing a riot for something that I believe in but which doesn’t directly concern me. But I do wish that we as a nation start giving ourselves the respect that we deserve.

Friday, September 12, 2008

When is the right age?

When my son informed me that he wanted a Batman gun for his fifth birthday, I tried to discourage him from choosing such violent gifts. But that was till I discovered that a girl in his daycare centre had been given a mobile phone for hers.

Not any old mobile phone, either, a top of the line model which plays songs, has FM radio and can double up as a camera. A phone I would not buy for myself because I would not want it to be destroyed by my kids flinging it around.

After hearing about that, even an entire Batman kit doesn’t sound as bad any more.

But why does a girl that young need a mobile phone? Ostensibly, it is so the mother can keep tabs on the kid while she is at work. But why get a phone for the kid? A maid puts the kid on the school bus, then picks her up and drops her off at the daycare centre, where she is till she is picked up in the evening. Is it so difficult for the mother to ask the maid to give her a call after dropping the child off and picking her up again?

If the mother wants to hear her daughter’s voice, why can’t she just call up the daycare centre and ask to speak to her child? If the Centre authorities allow the child to carry her own phone, they would definitely not prevent cosy mother-daughter chats on the centre’s phone.

I can perhaps stretch a point and agree that it may be prudent to give a child a phone if the child comes home to an empty house and stays there till the mother returns late in the evening. Even though there would be a landphone at home, a mobile would ensure that the child can be reached even when she has gone down to play.

But when a child is looked after by responsible adults why should the child be given a phone? Even if the system breaks down, and the child is not picked up on time, the mobile phone is not a help. Any child who is calm enough to be able to dial her mother’s number would also be able to climb the seventeen odd steps to reach the daycare centre on her own.

When I asked the mother why she felt her five year old daughter needed a mobile phone, she told me that her daughter was very reserved and that she did not like asking the ladies at the daycare centre for anything. If she was hungry, for instance, she remained hungry till the ladies offered her food. With a mobile phone, she could call up her mother and tell her what she wanted, so the mother could speak to the ladies at the daycare centre and arrange it.

Two months after I had that conversation with the mother, I am yet to understand the psychology behind it. By encouraging your child to come to you with all their petty grievances, are you not fostering their dependence on you?

For a long time, my son did not do potty at the daycare centre because he did not like anyone except his mother cleaning him up. Two accidents later, I managed to convince him not to try holding it till he was home – he still doesn’t like asking the ladies at the daycare centre to clean him up, but he does because he realizes he has to do so.

Though younger than the five-year old with a mobile phone, my son is learning to be far more independent than she is.

I know I cannot indefinitely postpone buying the kids a mobile phone. Once they start using public transport, I will want to be able to get in touch with them whenever I want. But not now.

I am not at all sure what the right age for buying the kids a mobile phone is. But I do know for sure that it is not five.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

On the Treadmill

[I had written this about a year back - when I look back, I almost marvel at how far I have come in my running.]


White sneakers pounding the treadmill. 8 kmph. Left foot, then right. Left. Right.
Relentless. Ever-moving. Pushing forward; getting nowhere. Seconds tick by – 600 to go, 599, 598.

Lungs bursting, legs about to give way. 300 seconds to go. How did I get myself into this mess? Should I just get off? Lead a normal life? Run only to get someplace?

I just *cannot* go on. 120 seconds to go, 119, 118. Count down. It has to be done- somehow.

The machine beeps. Cool down. Another session survived.

Never again! Never, never again.

But, tomorrow, I know I will be back.

_____
Drabble (n) - an extremely short work exactly one hundred words in length. The purpose of the drabble is brevity and to test the author's ability to express interesting and meaningful ideas in an extremely confined space.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

E-mail to a friend on Pluto

My not yet five-year old had to write an e-mail to his friend on Pluto telling him all about plants. I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to tell him what to write or to ask him to do so himself, but he seemed to know exactly what had to go into that e-mail. Since he had already written two pages of three-letter words, I asked him to dictate the letter to me.
‘Plants can breathe’, he began. ‘Sure, plants can breathe’, I thought to myself while writing that down, ‘but would someone on Pluto know what the act of breathing involves. Should we not go into much greater detail on how plants breathe, and what happens when they do?’
‘Plants are green in colour’, he continued. ‘Most plants are green in colour’, I corrected mentally. At least this was a descriptive sentence someone in Pluto could understand.
‘Plants have leaves’, he said. ‘Sure they do’, I thought to myself, ‘but anyone who knows what leaves are would not need to be told about plants.’ This assignment seemed to be getting nowhere, or maybe I was just taking it too literally. Maybe the point of the assignment was not about educating a mythical friend on Pluto – maybe all they were testing was my son’s ability to dictate an essay to his mother.
‘Plants….’ began my son, when I indicated I was done, but he was cut short by a disemboweled voice from under the table. ‘Plants give us oxygen’, intoned the voice that I now recognized as belonging to my two and a half year old son.
To say that I was struck dumb would be a slight bit of an understatement. My mind was in limbo for a couple of minutes, before I recovered enough to even react to that statement.
I had thought the teachers were being over-optimistic when they sent my older son a flash card saying ‘Plants give us oxygen’ – would a five year old even be able to pronounce the word, much less remember it or understand what it means? What was the point of teaching him such complicated stuff when he might be better off learning something like ‘Cats eat fish and milk’?
But to hear his younger brother repeat the phase made me realise that the barriers we place on the knowledge our kids acquire are barriers of our own creation.
I am sure neither of my kids has any idea what oxygen is, or how plants give them oxygen, but I am not sure how many of their parents would know that either. But what they do seem to be able to do is retain a random statement, and pull it out in the correct context.
Is that not the first step to acquiring knowledge?
While I would definitely like them to know a little more than just the bland statement that ‘plants give us oxygen’, I am pleased that they do know that.
‘Leaves have chlorophyll’ says another of my son’s flash cards. That is the easy one – I just need to tell the kids that chlorophyll is the kitchen where plants cook their food when they are not ordering takeaway.
But I still wish he had been asked to write an essay instead of an e-mail to a friend on Pluto.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Mystery Visitor

When I eat an apple, I dump the core in one of my potted plants , not so much because I think it would germinate, but because I do not want to deny it that right if it so chooses. No points for guessing where the bulk of the stuff goes when I am cutting a papaya, a melon or a watermelon. When I sprout moong, I always sprinkle a handful on the nearest pot, and the kids have taken to disposing old uncooked vegetables in my window garden.

So, when I found a creeper with rough, circular leaves sharing space with my plumeria, I had absolutely no idea how to go about identifying it. Within a week of my discovering the plant, it had taken over a huge portion of the window grill – the plant looked lovely, but I was no closer to identifying the visitor.

Buds sprouted, then opened into bright yellow flowers. The flowers reminded me of brinjal flowers or potato flowers, but whoever heard of either plant being such determined creepers? My mother and I debated the taxonomy for a couple of days. We concluded it may be some kind of melon, and decided to wait till the fruits came to know for sure. Unfortunately, none of the copious flowers seemed to get pollinated adequately – there were no fruits, not even the whiff of any.


Now, the plant has all but dried up – only one tenacious branch continues to cling on and let forth a shoot or two every week to let me know it still has life left in it – but the mystery remains.

Will I ever know who my temporary visitor was?

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Monday, September 8, 2008

Silly, sillier, silliest

Rare is the Children’s book that has not made me want to re-write. Rarer by far is the Children’s book that treats children like the intelligent people that they are, without making itself far too complicated for the child to get anything out of it.
For some years, I tried working around the books that were available, but now I have stopped altogether. Stories, I have stopped reading out – I merely hold the books up and help the children make up their own stories. And reference books, I just use the pictures of.
But sometimes, you find a book so terribly terrible, it makes you stop on your tracks and wonder if capital punishment should not meted out to people who take such liberties.

My younger son is all of thirty months old. He’s in the process of articulating the concepts of big-small, tall-short, thick-thin, and the book he got home from the Class Library was to help him do just that.
The book opened nicely with a friendly introduction for the parents, and three yellow duckies called Dib, Dab and Dob asking you to point out the big dog and the small dog. ‘Hey, this is a pretty decent book’, you thought to yourself, ‘even kids who have no idea of sizes can understand the concept.’
You praised the book too soon.
On turning the page, you were confronted with a picture of three giraffes striding along a savannah grassland. Big, bigger, biggest is what Dib (or maybe it was Dab) wanted you to get the kid to point out. It was not even, as my mother pointed out, the technical mistake of calling giraffes ‘big’ rather than ‘tall’. It was something much more fundamental – when the kid is just about learning to tell ‘big’ from ‘small’, why then should you have to complicate things further by telling him that ‘small’ is actually ‘big’ and ‘big’ is in fact ‘biggest’. My five year old can perhaps understand that, not so the child who the book is meant for.
It only got worse –

Can you point to the tallest flowers?
Can you point to the shortest flowers?

Forget either of my kids, can you?
The flower of the sunflower plant is the biggest, and the plant is also the tallest, so you could safely point to that and say, ‘this is the tallest’.
But the smallest flower is that of the fox glove, while the tulip plant is the shortest. Which of them is meant to be the shortest flower? Don’t ask me for answers, I did not write the book. And neither did the author think to provide answers at the end of the book.

I did the most sensible thing I could think of – I used the book to teach the son colours – violet, ochre, peach, olive – the book was just brimming with the colours that both the kids are now obsessed with.

But, I wonder if it is too much to ask of the author of a Children’s book to test it on a single intelligent child before offering it for publication.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Schrödinger's Cat

Am I alive or dead? I do not know.
They tell me that till they verify if I am alive or dead, I am simultaneously alive and dead.
How could that be?
I can either be alive, or dead. I cannot be both!
Or can I?
I am alive now! I may soon be dead, but right now I am alive, even if nobody knows it but me.
What matters more – my being something, or their knowing it?
I am confused?
Why did it have to be me? Why could Uncle Erwin not have picked Rover for his thought experiment?




_____
Drabble (n) - an extremely short work exactly one hundred words in length. The purpose of the drabble is brevity and to test the author's ability to express interesting and meaningful ideas in an extremely confined space.


Painting by Russel Baker - take from his site

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Remembering Leaders who deserve to be remembered



“Don’t the kids have school today?”
“No. Holiday. Teachers’ Day.”
“Wonder why the celebrate Teachers’ Day today?”
“Birthday of Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan. You know who he was, don’t you? Eminent Philosopher and India’s second President.”
“Oh really? Wonder why they celebrate his birthday as Teachers’ Day – maybe he taught at a high school or something. Would be interesting to find out.”
“Actually, he was a Professor at Oxford. Maybe you can try googling his name?”

I wasn’t to know it then, but that early morning conversation with the husband was going to me my most intelligent Teachers’ Day related conversation of the day.

In the evening, the Mothers were talking about how it would have been better if a "real holiday", and not Teachers' Day, had fallen on a Friday.
“At least it is good that Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan had the consideration not to be born on a Saturday”, I suggested mischievously. “It would have been such a waste to have to go to school to wish the teachers during the weekend.”
The blank looks I got proved that nobody had any idea what I was talking about. “You know, S. Radhakrishnan, the person who’s birthday we celebrate as Teachers’ Day.”
“Oh, so that who it was, was it?”, said someone when the silence started getting a bit uncomfortable. “I knew it was someone’s birthday. But I didn’t know his name.”
“Didn’t know, or don’t care?”, I wanted to ask, instead contented myself with saying. “S. Radhakrishnan. The second President of India, you know.”

By then, people had turned away. Nobody cared two hoots about the second President of India. Not that I blamed them. If the current incumbent was anything to go by, the office of the President of the Republic of India deserved no more respect than the lowest of a municipality officer. But that was not the point. The point was that nobody seemed to care about the degradation of the office either, or about anything else that they should be caring about.
“Forget S. Radhakrishnan, one of the most distinguished scholars India has produced”, I wanted to shout.  “Do you even know who the first President of the country was? Or who wrote the Indian Constitution? Or anything at all about the history that your grandparents lived through?”
Apathy may be very fashionable at the moment, but how could anyone flaunt ignorance?
My parents’ generation may well be the last one that remembers the stalwarts who gave voice to the newly independent India and made her the power she became in the Non-aligned Movement. My generation just does not care.

I went to bed a disgruntled person.

Two years back, I had mentioned Teachers’ Day to a Polish friend of mine, and when she asked why we celebrated it when we did, I’d said – “Birthday of S. Radhakrishnan. Eminent philosopher and our second President.”
She’d immediately shot back – “I know that guy. He’s the one who wrote The Indian Philosophy, the book I consulted when I wanted to understand why you and E had such differing views on karma.”
We should be ashamed that a 25-year old student of International Relations in Warsaw knows more about one of our great leaders than we do. Or maybe we should just be happy that someone remembers him after all.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Would Practically Perfect Do?

On Teachers' Day, for the best teacher I had, and I had several really good ones....


Would Practically Perfect Do?

I was seven. I had missed six weeks of the previous term because of measles followed by jaundice. I had still topped in class. I was excited.

“Amma, I got my report card today. I stood first.”, I shouted, as I jumped off the school bus and ran up the drive.

My mother took the blue booklet I thrust into her hands. I looked at her with anticipation as she scanned the report card, waiting for the hug I knew would follow.
Instead she looked up and asked – “Where did those five marks go in arithmetic?”

I hardly knew what to say. “Amma, I topped in class,” I told her. “And I got the highest marks in arithmetic”, I added, thinking she hadn’t noticed that.

“I don’t care how the others did”, she clarified. “I want to know why you lost five marks. Why can’t you be more careful and not make so many careless mistakes?”

~

Growing up with a teacher for a mother was not easy. She always strove for perfection. And I? I was just a kid, and a distractable one at that. I could never concentrate the way my mother would have wanted me to, and I rarely did as well as I should have been able to do.

By the time I reached my teens, I stopped trying. Topping the class was no longer something I aspired towards, and if I got full marks in any subject, it was more an accident than anything else.

It was not that I did not care about learning – I was passionate about that – it was just that I grew indifferent towards the formal system of evaluation. As I reasoned it out to myself, as long as I knew what I was learning, and understood it well, it did not matter how I performed in the examinations. While my classmates were cramming guidebooks that taught them how to write “perfect” answers, I was busy solving esoteric mathematical problems which anyone could tell you would never be asked in examinations.

If my mother was upset by my sliding grades, she did not express it openly. Perhaps she put it down to rebellion, and thought that if she ignored it, it would go away and I would once again become the topper she knew I could be if I tried. Or perhaps she had resigned herself to the fact while her organized mind craved perfection in her only child, the fact that her daughter still voraciously sought knowledge was good enough.

Years passed. I was never academically brilliant, but was reasonably satisfied with my performance. My mother never, in my hearing, mentioned my studies or grades.

~

A week back, I came across a bumper sticker.

“I may not be better than you, but I am better than I was last week.”

I nodded my head when I saw it. That was exactly what I believed in – to know a little more, to be a little better, to have grown a little at the end of the week than I had at the beginning.

Unwittingly, my thoughts turned to my mother, and her obsession with my grades. In her quest for perfection, would she ever understand my desire to just strive to be a little better than I was the previous week?

Then Epiphany!

After all these years, I finally realised that what my mother sought was no different from what I did myself. She was never happy with anything short of perfection, because she knew I was capable of something close to it. All those years of what I thought were disgruntled silence were perhaps years when she was not unhappy with the fact that I sought knowledge for its own sake.

I wanted to rush to my mother and thank her for teaching me to constantly strive to be better then I was. Instead, I wrote this. For her.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Friendship and betrayal – my son’s “Coming of Age” story

On Sunday, my son had a ‘Coming of Age’ experience.
He saw his ‘best friend’ from the Daycare playing downstairs, and wanted to join her right away. Even though I told him I would take a couple of minutes, he put on his shoes, ran outside, and stood patiently at the landing with an expectant look on his face. He was not trying to pressurize me to hurry up – he just wanted to make sure he was ready to leave the moment I was.
I melted at the sight of his eager face, and told him he could go down on his own – he was a big boy, and did not have to wait for me to take him down. He looked at me once to make sure I was not being sarcastic, then called the lift and scampered away.
Three months short of his fifth birthday, my little baby was learning to be independent.

Half an hour later, he had another ‘Coming of Age’ experience. A more meaningful one, even if a lot less pleasant.
Four of them were in the playground. One plonked himself on the see-saw, my son and another scrambled to get on the other side. They fought, each pushed the other, called the each other names. My son did not ask me to intervene, but the other boy did. I stayed neutral – let them sort out their own disputes.
When it seemed as though my son would win, the other boy abruptly changed gears. He stuck his little finger out at my son and said, “katti”. “Katti”, responded my son – they were now officially sworn enemies till each forgot the incident – but it did not stop there. The other kid dragged the first one off the see-saw, made him “katti” my son, then the three of them linked hands and ran off.

I could not bear to look at my son’s face. He didn’t cry in anger, sorrow or frustration, as I would have thought he would – he was beyond tears. He just stared at the retreating backs of his erstwhile friends, with a half wistful, half-uncomprehending look on his face. Had all emotion been drained out of his face, he could not have looked worse.
“Why did my ‘best friend’ go with them?”, he kept repeating. That he had an argument with one kid, he knew. That the kid would take away another one, he was willing to accept. What he just couldn’t understand was how his ‘best friend’ could get swayed by the other two and just walk off leaving him behind.
His heart was no longer in the game. We came back home. Watched some Spiderman. Ate some popcorn. He cheered up. But he did not forget. “Dirty ‘best friend’”, he would mutter periodically. “I will never play with her again.”

I wished there was something I could do to ease his pain. Some lie I could employ to convince him that his ‘best friend’ did not betray him as he thought she had done.
But there was no escaping reality. The reality was that his ‘best friend’ had just let herself be led by the mob. The reality was that his ‘best friend’ had deserted him without even being aware of the facts of the case. The reality was that this was neither fair nor just, but that life was not either fair or just. The reality was that this had happened to him once, and it would keep happening to him again and again. No, there was no escaping reality.
All I could do was to arm him, so it would hurt less the next time it happened. I gathered him in my arms. “Darling, just remember there are five people in the world who will always love you – Papa, Mamma, Dada, Patti and your little brother. Your friends may come and go. They may hurt you, say bad things about you. But as long as the five people who are most dear to you love you, nothing else matters. Okay?”
He nodded. “But I will never play with my ‘best friend’ again”, he announced emphatically.
“She made a mistake, darling. She did not mean to hurt you. Tomorrow, you will forgive her and start playing with her again. Okay?”
It took some doing, but he finally agreed however reluctantly. I know he did not understand most of it. And neither did I expect him to – five is too young an age to confront treachery and betrayal.
There is a lot he has to learn – that friends will hurt you without realizing it, that friends will make other friends and deliberately shun you, that friends will sell you out for personal gain, that you should never call someone your friend till they have proved themselves worthy of it, and even after that, not to have too many expectations of them.
We all experienced this, we all learnt this the hard way, some of us are still in the process of learning it. I do not wish to shield my son from any of this – just wish the first lessons hadn’t happened quite so soon.
That night, my son showed me he is not as fragile as I through he was. He will learn these lessons. He will survive. And he knows that come what may, his Family will always love him.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

The Festivals I celebrate and why I do

Any one who knows me would know that I am not a “God- person” in the conventional sense of the word. The last time I voluntarily stepped into a temple to pray was before my teens, and I think that asking God to bless you is a little demeaning – surely God is not going to do something merely to get one pathetic individual to chant his name in a particular way. To me, God is something that exists, something that you know will look after you, and something that doesn’t want or need any of offerings people thrust on it.

Yet, for the past five years, come rain, shine, illness or injury, I have celebrated Gokulashtami by drawing Baby Krishna’s feet exactly the same way as my mother does, and her mother used to before her. I do use white paint and a brush, instead of the traditional rice paste, but the kolam pattern is exactly the same one that has been handed down in my family for generations.
Diwali is a twin celebration for us – we bathe, put on new clothes and eat sweets in the morning (no pre-dawn Ganga snanam for the kids – I have yet to completely forgive my parents for making me go through that ordeal year after year), and perform a Lakshmi-Ganesh Puja in the North Indian tradition in the evening.
Last year was the first year we were in Mumbai after the birth of my kids, and we got a Ganapathi idol home (we celebrated Ganesh Chaturti when we were in Delhi too, but without the idol). And we are doing the same this year too.
During Durga Puja, I make it a point to take the kids to a Puja Pandal whenever I can – a tribute to my pseudo-Bong heritage acquired during all those years in Calcutta.
On Tamil (and Punjabi) New Year’s Day, we make it a point to go to a temple, and have the kids do the pradakshinai.

Have I suddenly got religious? Is the fact that I have two little ones making me superstitious about not turning my back on organized religion?
Not at all – my Belief remains as strong as ever. My God doesn’t need to be appeased with rituals. My God is good to me, because he wants to, not because I remember him a couple of times a year. But my kids are not old enough to know that.
I celebrate festivals at home, because I want my kids to grow up with a conventional God, till they are able to establish a relationship with a God of their choosing and definition.
I also celebrate festivals at home, because I want my children to grow up with strong traditions. In a cross-cultural marriage like ours, it is very easy for the kids to grow up knowing neither culture. I want them to be aware of both – hence the Tamilian rituals on Gokulashtami and the Punjabi ones during Lakshmi Puja.
The choices my children make are their own – I cannot and do not want to interfere with them. But what I do want to do, and what I am trying to do is to make sure the foundation they build those choices on are as solid as I can possibly make them.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

I had a maid

I had a maid.
Tall dark and ugly. She could have carved a niche for herself on TV enacting Surpanaka, Hidimbi and Putana. Instead she chose to come to work for me. She looked so menacing, I cringed, but I convinced myself that appearances could be deceptive and let her into my house and my life.

She was not just efficient. She was super efficient. Whether she did the things I told her to or not, she definitely did things I did not ask her to.
She watered my plants every day, even the ones that did not need watering daily. When I told her not to do so, she took to watering them before I woke up. She stopped only when I laid a trap for her, caught her in the act, and all but told her that I would dock her pay if any of my plants died.
She claimed to be an excellent cook, but the food was always cooked to her taste. She never seemed to remember to put fewer chilies, and happily polished off all the food that we left because it was too hot for our taste.
She would stuff my children with junk food when they were not hungry, and use that as an excuse if they did not eat at mealtimes. When I told her to stop letting them snack, she was still not able to feed them their meals and I often found half eaten rotis and dal-sabji mix in the garbage bin.
When I sent her shopping for vegetables, she always claimed there was only one bunch of methi leaves left at the stall. It took me three weeks to figure out that she did not get two bunches as I asked her to because she did not want to clean all those leaves.

She spoke about the kids she had taken care of in her previous jobs so often, I was sure I would burst if I heard another word about either of them. I often wondered why, when she seemed to care for them so much, she did not show any sign of affection towards my kids? I continued to hope – maybe she would grow to love them with time.
She would often be brewing her third tumbler of tea while the husband was heating his only cup in the microwave. The poor man never complained – he knew how dependent I was on her.
Sometimes I just wanted to press the mute button- get her to stop up, tell her I was not interested in her mundane thoughts and commonplace experiences. But I pretended to be interested – far from perfect though she was, I did not want her to leave.

Then my older son had to be hospitalized the day before she was to take her monthly break if two days. I asked her to postpone it, even offered to give her an extra day off if she did, but she would not budge. She had planned to leave in the evening, and in the evening she would leave – she was not even willing to see the night through and leave in the morning. The only concession she made was to agree to stay home with the younger one till the husband reached home – so grudging was she in agreeing to that, I wondered if she had been planning to just abandon him at home so she could leave when planned.
We survived the crisis, as we always do. She had a whole bunch of stories to explain why she had to leave when she did, and I pretended to believe them only to avoid a conflict. A week later, she informed me that her mother was ill and that she would take a four to five days off the following month after her payday. More than two days off in a month was not a part of the deal, and if she hadn’t been willing to compromise on her leave, neither would I.
I asked her to leave.
~
The next one was as different from the first as could be.
Thirty-five years old, either widowed or abandoned – I never found out which – she seemed to be fond of the kids. She established herself as an important member of the family from the day she arrived. I was told exactly which vegetables she liked and disliked and was encouraged to buy the ones she liked even if none of us would be caught dead eating those. When she fell ill, which was pretty often, I had to rush out whatever the time of the day to get her the particular brand of medicine that she said would make her well again.
My blood would boil when I saw her lounging on the sofa in her sleeveless nighties, but I never said anything because she would have the kids on her lap. She claimed never to sleep in the afternoons – she spent them on the sofa, with her feet up, the radio on her mobile turned so loud she never heard the children if they cried out in their sleep.
She ironed precisely when it told her not to, took decisions on whether we should have roti or rice for dinner depending on what was in the fridge (I never have rice, the husband never has rotis), and insisted that aloo paranthas should only be made her way (by mashing the potatos into the flour before making the dough).
She as plain lazy, and desperate though I was, I knew she could not last. When I called up the agency to demand a replacement, I was told that she would work better if I fed her more than just two rotis a meal. I felt like telling the agency about how I was fool enough to buy karelas solely for her consumption, but contented myself with informing them about how in the last several generations nobody in either my family or my husband’s had been stingy about food for the domestic help.
Two days after that, she left my younger kid alone at home when she went down to pick up the older one. Rudeness I was willing to put up with, lies I could pretend to ignore, but I would not someone negligent looking after my kids. An hour later, she was out of the house.
~
I now manage without full-time help. It is not easy. Sometimes I do not dust for days. Often, the bed gets made only at noon. I seem to be either hanging out clothes, or folding them, or ironing them, or putting them away all day long. But I do not mind – my home is my own, I can do anything I want to.
It is only when I am ill that I miss not having someone take care of me. Someone who can make me a cup of warm soup, when I can barely drag myself out of bed. Someone who can keep the kids entertained when I sleep it off. Then I remind myself of how my maid took off when my son was in hospital, and I tell myself I am much better off without a maid.

But when they invent a robo-maid that does what you tell it to, and shuts itself off when not needed, you can bet I would be queuing up to acquire one.

Monday, September 1, 2008

The Quest for a non PoP Ganapathy idol

After three years in Catholic/ cosmopolitan Bandra, it was wonderful to be in Shivaji Park during the Ganapathy Celebrations. We didn’t visit any of the pandals, but when every store in the market seems to be selling colourful festival related paraphernalia, and everywhere you look you see hoards of people moving around in their festive best, it is hard not to get caught up in all the excitement.
Till we’d moved to that flat overlooking Dadar Chowpathy, I had only seen the Ganapathy visarjan on TV and in movies. I had never imagined I would ever have a ringside view of the third most popular spot for visarjans in Mumbai. I stayed awake all night watching people wading far into the sea with the idols. It was one of the most memorable nights of my life.
The next morning, reality made me weep – the beach was strewn with the faded and broken remains of the previous night’s visarjan. Ganapathy heads looking desperately for bodies they have long lost. Pieces of trunk, still glittering pink in the morning sun. Broken portions of well rounded torsos. Pieces of dhotis, garlands and mukuts sharing space with the early morning faeces.
I am not surprised newspapers never publish photographs of the day after – people would make public bonfires of the publication, burn effigies of the editor and stone the office building.

Anybody with an iota of imagination can imagine what must be happening to the idols after immersion when they are brought back to shore by the tide. I am sure no true lover of Ganapathy would want that to happen to their favourite deity.
Every year, newspapers cautiously publish reports of how the population of aquatic life has gone down in the ponds where visarjans take place. At the start of summer, when water bodies start drying out, people take photographs of disemboweled idols languishing at the bottom of ponds and lakes – Plaster of Paris idols look beautiful, but they just do not dissolve.

Ecosensitive citizens speak of going back to clay idols. You read about organizations that make idols out of paper machie. There was talk of implementing a bill to make it mandatory to buy only biodegradable idols.

But, do you know how difficult it is to locate a idol not made of PoP? I searched every store, stall, and pushcart in the market next to Andheri station and found not one idol that was eco-friendly. You find PoP idols coloured to resemble terracotta ones, but a genuine clay idol is not a rarity – it just doesn’t exist.

The kids wanted a big idol for Ganapathy, and I could not disappoint. But the size makes it impossible for me to do what I normally do with idols – place them under one of my potted plants in lieu of a visarjan. I do not want my idol to face the indignity of being smashed to pieces in the sea and have marine effluents giving them additional coats of colour. After a ceremonial dunking, perhaps I will just place it under one of the trees in the compound and hope that people give it the deference it deserves.

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