Calcutta Blues… Again

September 30, 2008

In less than a month, we leave for Calcutta. All three of my faithful regular readers know from previous posts how much (or how little) I look forward to these trips. Me and large families – in fact, large gatherings of any description – are just not made for each other.

What’s more, this time we’re not flying – it’s just too expensive, what with two kids over two – we’re taking the train. Two trains, each way, with a night halt at Chennai. The good part is that we’re going AC First Class, so if we’re lucky, we’ll maybe get a coupe to ourselves at least for the long leg from Chennai to Calcutta. The bad part? Well, close to 48 hours in transit with two two-year-olds, twice in ten days – need I say more?

The twins are a good ten months older than on our last visit, so naturally some things have changed.This time, I can carry far fewer diapers, and no milk bottles with the whole troublesome sterilizing business. On the other hand, though, there’s the toilet seat to carry and hundreds of bathroom calls to cope with.

Other apprehensions remain the same: the language barrier, which is now compounded by the fact that, like me, the twins are far more proficient in English and Hindi than Bengali; the problem of maintaining some degree of discipline and some semblance of schedule with the kids; trying, politely, to persuade people that there are other ways of interacting with kids apart from carrying them and feeding them sweet snacks all the time; the dietary temptations I will face on a daily basis, and how to avoid them or minimize the harm; the too-hectic socialising; and the inevitable late dinner and sleep schedule which will combine with the kids’ early sleep-wake cycles to render me a sleepless wreck.

Not that I’m complaining, of course (no, no, not complaining at all, of course not. What, me? Complain?), the in-laws are all very nice people and very warm and accommodating with me. It’s just the usual problems of being in someone else’s house, compounded by my own shyness and awkwardness that makes me worry. I suppose, like last year, it will eventually turn out not so bad, but the apprehensions persist.

Playschool Update

September 29, 2008

Well, the playschool that was closest was the worst imaginable. It was an ordinary apartment with rather better furniture than we have – and lots more of it. The room dedicated for the kids doubled up as a college-going daughter’s bedroom, full of unmade bed, open cupboard with clothes spilling out of it and not an inch of space to move. When we went, there was only one other child, looking quite lonely as she sat at the dining table with some food. This playschool had a total of two kids currently, which I had perceived as a benefit, but after seeing the place I had my doubts.

In fact, I was so disillusioned with this place that I thought about giving up on the playschool idea altogether, but then decided (partly thanks to Siri’s comment that kids really enjoy playschool) to check out a well-reputed playschool-cum-Montessori-cum-daycare place called Vivaa International.

At once, all my doubts were allayed. The place had its own building with a small lawn and driveway. Classes were open and cheerful, seating was on mats on the floor, and all the kids seemed to be immersed in whatever they were doing and looked quite happy. It was informal, but not unruly. Even the kids took to it and wandered off with an attendant while I looked around and spoke to the director, whom I quite liked. Everything was perfect, apart from two little things.

One was distance. The place is a few km away, enough to make it irritating to have to drive to twice every morning. All the same, I was willing to risk it, but for the other little thing: the cost. 25K per child for just five months till the end of the academic year? That made me blanch.

I still hadn’t made up my mind about this place, when I went to look at a third place (it’s been a busy week!) and at last I could breathe easy. This place, also in a flat, dedicated the entire apartment to the playschool. With 20-plus kids, it was crowded, but not too crowded. There was little furniture and it seemed quite neat and safe. I couldn’t see to many toys, though, but the kids looked happy enough, so they must have been busy. The best part is that this place is only a little further than the nearest one I had seen first – I can walk the kids there in 10 minutes or so – and cost-wise it is a fraction of Vivaa, and only slightly more expensive than its nearer rival.

Amit has said he wants to check out the place, and once he does, and provided he approves of it, the twins can start from the middle of next month, after the October break ends.

So it looks like a few weeks from now, the twins will be starting school… complete with school bag, water bottle, tiffin box and all!

Playschool? Already?

September 18, 2008

It’s been a difficult and tiring time, the past couple of weeks. Let’s see: first there was my parents’ visit, short and whirlwind; then the trip to Pondicherry, even shorter and just as whirlwind. Then Amit left on the first of many business trips planned for this winter, so I was left to be completely housebound for a week, with the kids hanging on to my apronstrings the whole time; this is never an easy thing. (Yes, I know generations of women have done this effortlessly and uncomplainingly, but all the same, it’s not an easy thing for me.) Then his father was suddenly found to have cancer! It’s in an “incipient” stage, and surgery has been scheduled for Saturday, so Amit left for Delhi today, and we don’t know when he’s going to be back (but we do know that it’ll be in time for his next trip abroad in the first week of October). So it’s back to house-arrest for me with immediate effect. No tennis, I’ve already cancelled various social engagements for the weekend that I was quite looking forward to, and I don’t know how – or if – I can make it for my weekly music session on Sunday.

On top of that, it’s admission application time at various schools (for sessions starting next June!), which means somebody has to be out and about, picking up and dropping off application forms at various places. Not to mention filling them up, writing covering letters explaining why we can’t provide birth certificates, getting (making, actually) passport-size photos of the twins and so on.

Since every outbound activity is contingent on Amit being home with the kids, and since he is therefore finding it tough to keep abreast of his office work, I decided it was high time we bit the bullet and tried some alternative baby-sitting arrangement. So I phoned the nearest Playschool/Daycare/Preschool/Creche that I’d heard of, and if all goes according to plan, the twins will be attending from next week or, at the latest, next month.

It’s a tough decision, not made any easier by the feeling that I’m being forced into it due to Amit’s constant travelling, rather than opting for it because of any conviction that it’ll be good for the kids. I have this nagging feeling that they’re still too young for any kind of school. But I’m also not happy about leaving them in the hands of some ayah – unsupervised – at home. Yet, I do need time to go out and run errands, buy groceries, and, if at all possible, get some exercise while I’m at it, and it’s difficult enough to manage all this even when Amit is in town to hold fort at intermittent intervals, much less when he isn’t.

There have been another couple of recent developments as well. One is that I have, very quietly and rather tentatively, started on the next module of my online archaeology course. Quietly and tentatively because, the last module I did was just after the kids had come home, and I didn’t fare very well in that, obviously. I don’t know whether I can do any better this time, but I feel that finishing what you’ve started is perhaps even more important, if a little less satisfying, than doing well.

So I’m hoping that some of the days when the kids are at Playschool I can use the quiet time for accomplishing something on that front.

The other thing that happened recently was that I got a job offer, an actual, firm offer, not just a vague and airy-fairy suggestion, for a part-time position away from home. In many ways it sounded tailor-made for me, especially as getting out of the house was one of the things that attracted me to going back to work. But I turned it down, because I just couldn’t face the prospect of dumping the kids in daycare for so many hours (about 6) each day. Perhaps, as another mother pointed out to me, the kids adjust quickly enough, it’s only the parents who fret. Still, having them eat and sleep and wake up in a strange place with strange people around them, not being there to hold them when they are all sulky and grumpy after waking up, not being the first to witness each new word and antic, the very first time it occurs…

It made me think really hard about what I wanted and how I proposed to get it. It looks like, with all my conflicting desires, I’ll probably have to settle for a work-from-home job for the next several years. But even for that, I’ll need some form of daycare and I’d really rather not to have an ayah hanging around all day. That would only irritate me and make me itch at all the things I hear her saying and doing that I wish she wouldn’t.

So the playschool/creche arrangement looks like a better option, if it works out and the kids take to it and settle in. Still, it feels like a big step, and I don’t feel that Amit is quite in favour of it and I’m not entirely sure myself… Is there ever a right time for this?

The Narnia Chronicles – Book Review

September 14, 2008

I’m feeling slightly irritated. I just finished reading The Narnia Chronicles, all seven at one shot in the order suggested by the author. I had seen one movie, Prince Caspian (the fourth of the books) on my one and only movie outing in the recent past, and enjoyed it and wanted to know more. Besides, the books came highly recommended (thank you, Doug).

Of course, I enjoyed the books. They lie somewhere between those Great Masters, J R R Tolkien and Enid Blyton, and I suppose I must now add J K Rowling to the cloud.

Cloud, not crowd – because there’s not a lot of similarity between these writers. You could loosely call the genre Fantasy (I’m talking more about Enid Blyton’s Faraway Tree, Noddy, and those books, not so much the Famous Five, Five Find-Outers, Secret Seven, and the boarding school books); and you could loosely – but only very loosely – call all of them children’s literature in that they were purportedly written for children. (I don’t doubt Enid Blyton on this, but I’m very much less certain about the others.)

So, if you consider these authors together and add C S Lewis’ Narnia Chronicles to the picture, it’s certainly quite a cloud you get, in my opinion.

The Narnia Chronicles differ from Tolkien’s world and Rowling’s mainly in that there is less continuity between the various books. The principal characters are not always the same or do not always play a key role from one book to the next; they might feature, but only in passing; or they might not feature at all.

Of course, there’s a lot of suspense and excitement in each story, and I could hardly wait to get to the end of each; and of course good always prevails over evil; but there’s more to these books than that.

When I re-read all of J K Rowling at a stretch, I commented upon various Christian undertones in the series. But there, those undertones were really under the fabric – she was clearly just spinning a really good (if slightly long) yarn.

With Narnia, it is like that most of the time… But not always. Too often for my liking, the story is less of a story and too much of an allegory for Christianity. In the first book, there’s Eve tempting Adam with an apple; then in the second book, there’s the martyrdom of Aslan to save the life of the repentant sinner and traitor, Edmund; and his (Aslan’s) subsequent resurrection; complete with two loyal female “disciples” to witness it. There’s more, but these are the most obvious parallels to the Bible.

Still, the books are enjoyable despite these explicitly Christian overtones. So why am I irritated?

I’m irritated with the seventh book – the much acclaimed and award- (Carnegie Medal) winning book, The Last Battle. The trouble is that I still want to read an adventure-fantasy, even if it has an obvious religious message. But in this last book, I feel that there is too little adventure fantasy. Just when things should be hotting up and coming to a thrilling climax (you’ve gone through six whole books already, leading to this) the whole thing dissolves into a lengthy allegory of the day of reckoning, with the faithful going into Paradise on the right hand and the others being cast out on the left hand of Aslan. Can you believe that almost 70-odd pages are given over to this allegory? It is sickening sweet and it is unrelenting. There’s some tying up of loose ends, but for the most part, it’s just mush. Ugh. It’s like having a perfectly nice dinner and then being served a dessert that is so thick and gluey and oversweet that it just doesn’t slide down your throat.

That’s why I’m irritated. I want to call C S Lewis back from the grave (or from Aslan’s country or wherever he went after he left this earth) and tell him: you set out to write adventure fantasy. Now finish it.

Nice. Dirty.

September 12, 2008

I know what you’re thinking, but it isn’t like that at all.

Last week when my parents were visiting (for three days, to renew their bonds with the kids), we all went out to dinner. Seeing that I’ve actually lost some weight at last (a whole quarter kg, don’t laugh!) I put on an old black full-length skirt and a deep purple silky/shimmery blouse that used to be a favourite of mine before it started showing all the tyres.

As soon as I came out of my room, Mrini took one look at me, her face lit up and she uttered a loud, enthusiastic and completely spontaneous “Nice!”

That made me feel like a million dollars, quite apart from the astonishment that the two-year-old pipsqueak is even starting to notice such things.

She did it again today – unfortunately, not to me, but to the pillow, which was wearing a never-worn-before pillow cover. It didn’t have quite the same effect on me, but maybe that old pillow felt like a million dollars.

I haven’t bothered with teaching the kids the concept of dirty, much. If they want to put their hands in something dirty, I usually just stop them (if it’s really dirty, that is; common, garden variety of dirt never hurt anyone) but I don’t tell them something is dirty – I don’t want to put adult notions of dirty into their little heads right now.

But some concept of dirty seems to come in-built. There was a dead cockroach lying in the verandah yesterday (a horrible, big one, ewwww), and Mrini saw it. She crumpled her face up into her disgusted+scared look, pointed at it and complained to me: dirty.

Other than that, their verbal abilities don’t seem to be going anywhere beyond telling me to sit down, get up, and pick it up. Oh and their stock favourites, of course: “how-are-you-fine-thank-you; bless-you-thank-you-welcome; happy-birthday-to-you; give-me-please; ok-see-you-bye.”

I’m just waiting for the day when I’ll be able to have an actual conversation with them.

Till then I can make do with the “nice” very nicely, thank you.

Walking in the Rain

September 1, 2008

I hadn’t had an afternoon off for a while; I was supposed to get one every weekend, but it doesn’t always work out that way. So this weekend, I was determined to get away, at least for a couple of hours. Saturday didn’t work out for various complicated reasons, so it had to be Sunday.

Lunch at Eden Park is not really conducive to anything other than an afternoon snooze, but I made a Herculean effort after getting home and left before the sleep managed to ensnare me. Ostensibly, my goal was to buy a large number of ring folders so I could spend the next several weeks filing away my papers methodically and systematically, as the income tax audit had revealed that they were anything but. But that was more of an excuse than a just cause for leaving the house; the real reason, of course, was, as always, just to get a break from home and kids for a bit.

It’s just as well that I had decided that hell and high water would not deter me, because high water was descending soon enough and hell pretty much described the state of the roads as the water level rose.
Umbrella in one hand and ring folders in the other, I trudged through the downpour, without much hope of staying dry for long. I was thinking of a previous and most memorable experience of walking in the rain. That was in Ladakh.

One day, we spent about 8 hours and 15 km in a steady downpour. I would hardly describe it as beautiful; and Amit was not in good spirits, so I had a task on my hands just keeping him going; but looking back, I have to admit it was one hell of an experience. (Of course, it was a terrible year in Ladakh, with unprecedented floods, and our trek ended with Amit’s father sending out the Army and the CBI to search for us… but that’s another story, and a very long one.)

And there were other memories – of rain and slush and mud mixed with dung, calf-deep and black as night and more slippery than an oiled eel; of solitude and companionship and nights alone in my tent at high altitudes and cold places; of nights spent awake and shivering and hoping the rain would not find a leak in my tent, and knowing that even if I stayed dry, others in neighbouring tents would not be so lucky; of wet shoes and cold feet and a fresh set of warm and dry socks and a cozy sleeping bag that has somehow avoided getting soaked; and so much more.

Repeatedly, over the course of many wet treks, I came to realize how important it is to keep one’s feet and crotch dry. And how much effort one is willing to expend towards this end. And, most importantly, how life becomes so much easier and less worrying once you give up on this and resign yourself to even these all-important regions of your body being cold and wet.

Sure enough, in the brief Bangalore downpour, my shoes were soon soaked through and I stopped stepping carefully to avoid the fast-flowing streams by the edges of the road. My jeans were wet at the bottom and I could feel the dampness inching up, so I stopped worrying about the passing vehicles splashing me. My upper body was still dry, thanks to the variety of bags I had saddled and draped around me and the umbrella held low over my head. But by far the more important function of the umbrella was to hide my face from the masses of people crowding under bus stops or squeezing flat against walls in an effort to stay dry – if they had seen the broad grin plastered on my face, they might have thought that I was completely crazy.

As I turned into the apartment complex, just for a moment a complete calm descended on the universe. There was no traffic on the road, not another person in sight, the trees and buildings were absolutely still and even the dogs and birds were in hiding, so there was no movement at all except the steady falling of the rain, and no sound other than that of the falling rain. Just for a moment, I felt that wonderful sense of alone-ness and calm that’s normally so impossible to find in the city and that repeatedly lures me to the remoter parts of the Himalayas. Now, with the twins, I wonder when – or whether – I’ll ever have a chance to find those quiet places again.

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