Shaba-Aunty’s daughter, H, is down with chicken pox. She’s maybe 7 or 8 years old. She became symptomatic last Saturday, with high fever, vomiting, and of course, the pox itself. So naturally, this whole week, Shaba-Aunty has not been coming.
Shaba-Aunty became more than my “cleaning girl” in February, when I started working from home, and she started managing the kids in the mornings, while I worked. She dropped them to playschool, picked them up, gave them lunch, and put them to bed, apart from the usual domestic chores like washing dishes, putting out or picking up the clothes, sweeping, swabbing, dusting the house and so on. I’ve written about Shaba-Aunty’s immense value in my life in an earlier post. After two plus months of life with the enhanced Shaba-Aunty services, I’ve been sent back to the dark ages in the past one week and life has been pretty bleak indeed.
Right after breakfast, I’m deluged with house work. I don’t even attempt to do as thorough a job of cleaning the house as Shaba-Aunty does, but at least I have to make a modicum of effort to sweep most areas of the house. Then there’s always a mountain of dishes to wash, and all the rest of the housework. Meanwhile, there are the two pesky devils, demanding to be entertained and threatening to turn the house upside down unless I cooperate pronto.
Way back in the dark ages when Shaba-Aunty just did the house cleaning and buzzed off in less than an hour, I was used to handling the kids solo all day long. Besides, I wasn’t working then. Now, I’m ostensibly working – at least, I have been getting paid, so I should be working – but with two pesky devils and no Shaba-Aunty, I might as well attempt to climb Mount Everest without oxygen, so futile is any attempt to work while the kids are awake. Luckily, work has been going easy on me, so I manage to squeeze every inch out of the two hours when the kids sleep in the afternoon and make do with that… but it isn’t easy.
The simplest way to keep the kids occupied in these long, lonely days of no school and no Shaba-Aunty, has been to get them out of the house. I’ve taken them swimming three days this week, and it has them happily engaged and physically stretched, so that they eat well and go straight to sleep afterwards. Oh, and their swimming skills are improving too.
But all in all, it’s true what they say: once you get used to having household help, you can’t manage without them. I’m just waiting for poor H to get better so that Shaba-Aunty can relieve me from the drudgery of housework around the clock.
I asked her about vaccinations against chicken pox, she said that when H was small, the doctor told her that this one vaccination alone would set her back by Rs2,000, so they just didn’t do it. I wonder whether she regrets that decision now. At least her own health is not at risk, as she says she already went through her bout of chicken pox when she was young. Hopefully the girls won’t get it now… that would be a disaster.
It’s one of the many things – not all good – that start at an age when we’re too young to know what the word means, and keep on cropping up at inopportune moments till the ends of our lives: sad goodbyes.
When their biological mother left the twins in the hospital, when they were barely a day old, it must have been a tough, even a heart-rending goodbye. I don’t think – whatever the circumstances might have been – that it could have been an easy decision for any mother. But the twins were too young to know.
When we arrived in their lives, and uprooted them from the only home they had ever known and tore them out of the only arms that had ever cared for them, it was yet another momentous goodbye. Maybe they knew, maybe they understood goodbye by then. But several months later, when we took them back there, they showed no signs of recognizing either the place or the people. It was already a forgotten goodbye.
More recently, when their playschool closed for summer holidays, it was just the end of another day of school, for them. Again, though we told them, they didn’t really understand that it was a goodbye; that they would never meet all those kids, those teachers, in that happy environment, ever again. Even now, if asked, they will rattle off the names of some of their “school friends” and till a few days ago, they still asked rather plaintively for school. I know that there are bigger and better things in store for them, come June, but they don’t know that what they thought was an integral part of their lives just came to an end one fine day. Nobody asked them about it, nor about any of the previous goodbyes.
And so it goes. You leave a city, or a country; you leave a preschool, a school, or a college; you leave a workplace; or you stay, but other people leave. Or you stay and they stay but your paths just don’t cross that often any more. So many goodbyes come and go, some sudden, some so gradual you don’t even realise until much later. Saddest are those that you never asked for nor wanted; that you couldn’t avoid; that you’d give anything to reverse; but they come and go just the same.
You don’t know what exactly I’m talking about? Neither do I. I’m just saying… goodbye is a sad lesson that we start to learn too early in life, and keep learning, right until the last goodbye.
The twins have turned into absolute rascals. They cannot be left unattended for even a few seconds. Our house is as childproof as can be, but, unless you live on a ship, some things just can’t be nailed down or set in concrete. For example, the dining table. It’s not made to be pushed around, right? Well, the kids got sick of being reprimanded for pushing the chairs around, so they decided to push the table around, instead! They also love to rip the bedsheet off the mattress (absolutely infuriating for me, having to tuck it all back in neatly); throw the top trunk off the bottom one in their bedroom (dangerous if they get caught under it); incessantly slam shut doors and drawers that they can both open and close; turn on the tap in the bathroom basin and turn off the tap that fills the toilet flush tank; take out all the clothes from the laundry basket, drag them all over the house, and put on as many of them as they can; throw clean and dry clothes into a bucket full of dirty, wet clothes; and generally drive me mad in short order.
They now know how to get into and out of their high chairs without any assistance whatsoever. They can’t yet undo the clasps that buckle them in place, so they simply stand up in the chair and the belt falls off their feet and then they scramble off with utter delight.
There’s no longer a single horizontal surface in the house that is safe from their grasping hands. I’m not exaggerating. It’s not as though they’ve attained my height – short enough as that is – it’s more to do with the fact that I don’t usually stand on the chairs to put things away, but they, merrily and without a second thought, will pull up a chair, or cushion, or whatever else is required to reach things they want to reach. The kitchen counter is an area that sees constant skirmishes. They have to grab every single thing they see there, most of which I don’t want them to grab – sharp knives, electric starter for the gas stove, glass glasses, mugs of hot coffee, and plastic boxes full of hot and/or fluid food that can be easily opened and spilt.
Before we bought this new fridge, which is about 6 feet tall, I used to use the fridge top of our old, small fridge, as a convenient dumping ground safe from the kids’ reach. Now, I can dump things on top of the new, tall fridge; it’s just that, having done so, I literally lose sight of the object and can never find it again. The top of the washing machine has long since been swept clean, as has the top of the chest of drawers, which was formerly sacrosanct. The only spaces which are safe are those which are physically locked – the study, and both verandahs. These, therefore, specially the study, now resemble municipal dumping grounds – every single object which is required but to be kept out of reach of kids winds up in the study, except the particularly offensive ones such as old, spare tyres, half used cans of paint, and half sacks of cement. (You really don’t want to know!)
The other day, I turned my back on the kids for two seconds – yes, two whole seconds – and they made a beeline for their latest obsession – the wires dangling in the living room. We have wires dangling all over the house, most of them up near the ceiling where Amit can’t get entangled in them. (It’s ugly, but it’s nothing compared to the paint flaking off the walls.) The wires in the living room connect the speakers to the music system. They’re draped way high up on the wall, well out of my reach. The kids grab one wire simply by climbing up on to the sofa. Not on to the seat of the sofa, mind you, on to the back of the sofa. Then they stand up there. That brings the wire within arm’s reach. They almost brought a large framed painting down in the process.
Meanwhile, their verbal skills are improving in leaps and bounds. They now know they name of their new school, though they sometimes get it mixed up with quite different matters. Mrini went to the bathroom and said, “Mama, new school, sussu kiya,” (=I peed). I guess their new school name sounds a bit similar. Another salient bathroom observation, after she does the big job: “Mama, aloo (potato).” Well, it does look a bit like one, I suppose, but must she point it out to me?
The other day we came back from a long, hot morning outing. It was time for their afternoon nap, but they were both thirsty. I gave them water somewhat warily, since I didn’t want their new school (or sussu kiya) happening on the bed during their nap. But Tara wanted more and more water. When she’d had about 200 ml, I told her to stop. Then she pulled out her trump card: “Mama, little bit”. So I filled a little bit of water in her bottle and handed it to her. Immediately she gave me an outraged look and said in an accusatory tone: “That’s all?”
Yesterday afternoon, around 5, I went in to wake the girls up. I don’t usually do this, but they usually get up around 3. Yesterday, they had gone to sleep late, and I didn’t want them sleeping too late and then not being sleepy at night, so I went to wake them up. I knelt on the bed to give Mrini a wake-up kiss. In a sleepy, grumpy, disgusted (and very adult) tone, she said to me: “Mama, go away.”
Tara loves to converse. Every so often, she’ll pull up her chair (whatever that happens to be at the moment), sit down next to me and say, “Mama, let’s talk.” If I agree (which I usually do), she’ll set the ball rolling: “Mama, how are you?” Then she follows it up by asking my name, “baba’s” name, “this girl’s” name (Mrini, that is) her own name, the table’s name, the sofa’s name, my jeans’ name… on and on, till she runs out of objects and starts over.
Yesterday evening, a new word was added to the family vocabulary when Mrini came to me and said, “Mama, all fetty-fetty.” I thought she was merely being rude (or factual; in this case it amounts to the same thing) and calling me fat, but I was puzzled, because “fatty” is not a word we have used with them. Then she rubbed her head and said, “fetty-fetty” again. Oh, right. Sweaty-sweaty.
Their pronunciation is often interesting. The other day, we fed them some rusk at dinner time. They can’t say rusk, of course, so they called it “rocks”. Today, they wanted rocks for breakfast, so I gave them some. Later on, somebody asked them what they had for breakfast! My heart sank – if they said “rocks”, I’d probably be imprisoned for child abuse or neglect or something. At the very least, I’d be impaled by a dreadfully dirty look. Thankfully, they simply replied “milk”.
Despite our best efforts, a couple of vulgarities have entered their vocabularies as well. They know that we look at the clock and comment on the time, so they look at the clock and go, “Ten o’clock.” Except, they can’t say the “l” in clock.
Then, once in a way, their frock gets entangled with their underwear. Tara coined a word to describe this: “frock-in”. Again, they haven’t mastered “r” yet, so… Next time that particular four letter word escapes me, I’ll have to hastily pretend it was their frock I was referring to.
Building a metro is a good thing, I suppose. Maybe it will actually make it easier to get around in the city and reduce traffic congestion and pollution. But there must be some other way of doing it. This is just heartbreaking. Is there no voice in this whole city powerful enough to prevent this?
I have written before, long, long ago, of my own personal Garden of Eden. It was the idyllic garden of my childhood, where every conceivable kind of fruit tree stood, and none was forbidden. I must have spent at most six years of my childhood in that house, with that garden, but it defined the way I relate to trees – and by extension to nature – for good. I remember once, running a fever of 103, bundled up in my warmest sweater on a mild day, clamouring to be let out; and when I was finally let out, I headed straight for the shady depths of the litchi tree. I remember sitting under the angular, white-barked guava trees, slicing green guavas with a blunt knife and rubbing them with black salt and gobbling them up fresh, without even the benefit of a quick wash first. It was the Garden of Eden – why wash the fruit?
Trees are friendly people. Before I knew anything about photosynthesis and carbon dioxide and oxygen levels in the atmosphere, I knew that trees were good to have around. They provided a cosy, leafy, shady haven in any kind of weather; and at the right time, they provided various types of delicious, sweet, juicy, cool fruit. They were wise and cool and steady as grandparents, warm and inviting and loyal as best friends. They never disagreed with you or scolded you or laughed at you. They were, in fact, almost as valuable as the imaginary friends I shared them with.
But now I’m all grown up; and though it still feels like murder, I force myself to accept that at times it is necessary to cut down trees, in the interests of our selfish, modern, urban lives. In the usual greedy way of the human race, we need more space for our roads, our houses, our offices, our hotels. But Lalbagh is THE botanical garden of Bangalore. Is there really no other way to create our precious metro by going around it. Do we really have to take one thousand eight hundred trees down for this? With all our science, technology, creativity, and every other kind of skill available to us today, can we find no way around this small, tiny island of greenery, nature, beauty? Really?
The girls have, in their vast hoard of playthings, a pair of hockey sticks, a couple of tennis rackets, a shuttlecock, a couple of old tennis balls, a small golf ball, a green plastic ball and a yellow smiley ball. They don’t, strangely enough, possess a single cricket bat, but it doesn’t seem to matter, because they play reverse sweeps quite effectively with the hockey sticks.
Most of this motley collection of ‘bats’ and balls is reserved for using in the park only, as the confined space indoors guarantees severe damage to person and property, should they be allowed to swing these various sticks and rackets around freely.
So, for indoors cricket, they have made their own arrangements. Usually, it’s just the two of them, byt today they roped me in as well. I, armed with a tweety-bird-yellow plastic pencil box, and seated at the dining table, was the batsman; Mrini, armed with a tennis ball was the bowler. She demonstrated Newton’s third law of motion (for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction) beautifully; every time she let go of the ball, it went flying off wildly in some unpredictable direction, while she tumbled over equally wildly in some other, equally unpredictable direction.
Sometimes, the ball arrived somewhere in the vicinity of the pencil box (I mean, the bat), and I lunged at it, also rather wildly. Even armed with a pencil box, it is not easy to hit a missile hurled with a good deal of determination and no clear direction from about two feet away.
On the rare occasion when the bat made contact with the unguided missile, the result was that the said missile went careening off in a new and still highly unpredictable manner. Once it missed the moving blades of the fan by a couple of inches. Had it made contact, it would have been interesting.
Tara had the unenviable task of fielding. According to me, it is the worst job in the world, but some dogs like it too, so I suppose there’s no accounting for tastes. Egged on by Mrini, she went chasing off after every ball, tracked it down (usually by crawling under some furniture), retrieved it, and very sweetly handed it over to Mrini.
After the game had progressed in this organised and disciplined manner for one entire over, Tara, the fielder, took the ball and ran off. Mrini squealed and ran after her. She got the ball back after a bit of a struggle, but she had learned her first major neighbourhood-cricket lesson: if you want to be the bowler, you’d better be ready to do the fielding too.
Four or five years behind the times, Amit and I finally sat down to watch this movie. It’s been lying in the movie collection for ages, gathering dust, while we passed it over time and again, or just turned on TV and watched rubbish before turning in for the night. We thought it would be kind of grim and depressing, and it was. Grim, actually, more than depressing. But it’s a movie that every single person needs to see, at least once.
The movie speaks largely to an American audience, but its message is relevant all over the world. In India, our per capita carbon footprint is mercifully small – tiny, in fact, compared with the per capita carbon footprint in the US. But there’s no reason for people like us – the affluent 5% of Indian society – to feel smug about that. It’s not an active choice made by millions of Indians, but the exigencies of life in a “developing” (poor) country that does that. If we could, we’d have a carbon footprint just as big as any in the world, but, unfortunately or otherwise, most of us here just can’t afford it. And so those who can, people like us – with our two cars, three or four computers, microwaves, TVs, fridges, frozen food, bottled water and whatnot – indulge in all the luxuries the world has to offer, without worrying too much about the size or impact of our carbon footprint.
But what can we do, or what are we doing to save the planet?
Practically nothing. Amit very zealously turns off every light he can, but of course they are those CFL (or whatever) bulbs, so it doesn’t save much. We’ve been talking since forever about installing solar power at home, even though it is exorbitantly expensive compared to line power… but we haven’t actually done it yet. And talking doesn’t save any fossil fuel, does it? Ok, so we don’t have any “climate control” (air-conditioning or heating) at home, just fans. But that’s only thanks to Bangalore’s (mostly) marvelous weather. If we were in Delhi, we’d have an air-conditioner in every room, just like everyone else we know who lives there. And probably electric blankets in the winter too.
Somehow this drop-by-drop approach makes no sense to me. We are simply not going to save the planet drop by drop. We need way more than that, and it’s not something that you and I can do at our individual level. I don’t mean this as an excuse for not making an effort – I do want to make every little effort that I can at an individual level, and I think you should too – but I just think it is futile. And, where do you draw the line? Do you give away your fridge, throw away your TV, sell your car and settle yourself down to a rural lifestyle where you only get as far as your feet, your cycle, or the public bus can take you, and news is what the guy next door found out from the guy down the road? How realistic is that?
Global warming is real and depressing and it’s a problem we can no longer wish away. But is there really anything worthwhile that just one person can do? (If you’re not Al Gore, I mean.)