I’ve Got a Train to Catch

September 24, 2009

We’re leaving today for a short trip to Delhi and Chandigarh, where our immediate families reside. I seem to have a handle on the packing, which just gives me time for a quick update here.

The twins are now old enough to understand where we’re going, whom we’re going to meet, and, most importantly, how we’re going. We’re taking a train, so we have 36 hours of absolute indulgence to look forward to. Yes, indulgence. We go AC First Class, which is still less than half the cost of air fare for four. It takes a while, but who cares? They feed you and water you, and you get to lie in bed all day and watch the countryside roll by. The kids might be a bit restless, but then again – 36 hours of uninterrupted access to mom and dad? I don’t think they’ll be complaining too much.

We will have quite a hectic trip, as usual – two days in Delhi, two-and-a-half days in Chandigarh, another two days in Delhi, and then we’re off to board the train back. But it looks like it will be fun for the kids. Let’s hope everything goes well and nobody falls sick.

Meanwhile, tomorrow is the twins’ second homecoming anniversary. Two whole years have passed. In those early days, I wondered how I (we) would ever survive… but, incredibly, it has gotten easier. It’s difficult to celebrate much in a train, even if it is AC First, but I’ve baked a chocolate cake to carry along, so it won’t be too bad. Only, with our stuff overflowing from every corner of every piece of luggage, the only way to carry the cake might actually be in our bellies. 🙂

I doubt I’ll be blogging much while we’re away, so come back around the 5th or 6th of October for more.

Book Reviews

September 24, 2009

I’ve just re-started my online Archaeology course, with a module on Classical Archaeology, so I don’t know how I’m managing to find time to read anything other than my study material and text books… but… I have managed to read one book and am most of the way through another. The two are about as completely different as two works of fiction can be.

Son of the Black Stallion by Walter Farley

When I was about six years old (give or take a couple of years), I discovered the Black Stallion series. The first book completely captivated me and captured my imagination, as I spent my days with the small boy and the big horse on the deserted island. It is difficult to recall the details 30-odd years later, but I think I read each of the seven books several times over. Of these books was born my fascination with horses, and of course, years later, my almost equal enjoyment of Dick Francis and his horse (racing) (and usually murder-mystery) books.

In those days, for some reason, I believed there were only seven of the Black Stallion books. I had discovered them in a dusty (figuratively speaking; nothing in that house was ever literally dusty, with the bevy of servants fastidiously dusting and cleaning every nook and cranny) book shelf in my maternal grandmother’s house, hidden away between Little Women and Pride and Prejudice, and other such gems (which I also devoured a few years later). They were already old books by then, hard bound, with crumbling and yellowing pages inside. I find now that the copyright for this book is 1947, and those books were quite possibly from the one of the early prints, they seemed that old back then.

Recently, in Landmark, looking for a book appropriate for Amit’s seven or eight year old niece, I happened to spot this book, which I recall being titled back then as Satan: Son of the Black Stallion. It was, I thought, third in the series. It was not my favourite – the first two probably were – but, well, it was one of The Black Stallion series, so I snapped it up. (The niece got Biggles. That’s a whole different story. I wanted to get her Williams, but that’s another story too.)

I read (re-read, technically, but my memory of it was so faint it hardly counted) the book at one sitting. It was still as enchanting and absorbing as ever. It didn’t even, really, make me feel like I was reading a “children’s” book. It was about a 17-18 year old boy, so it wasn’t in that sense like a book about a five-year-old. In any case, it was about the horse, and the problems of taming one that seemed quite wild, and of overcoming various obstacles and of – finally – pursuing a difficult dream and winning. In that sense, it was a time-honoured tale and nothing out of the ordinary – many, many movies have been made which tell essentially the same tale. In the book, though, as in most cases, it was about the way the tale is told, the unfolding of events, the creation of character, the build-up of suspense. It was a happy story, and a satisfying and well-told one. Now I want to go out and look for the other books of the series – apparently there were eventually twenty or more of them, so I have lots of fun to look forward to!

The Good Earth by Pearl S Buck

This is an unusual sort of book, mainly because the writing style is unusual. It is slow, considered, dry, descriptive, even boring, almost. It is not written in comfortable English. Perhaps the language is colloquial as it would be in the vernacular, but when you read it in English, it is unusual and awkward. The repeated use of the term “slave” is unpleasant to me, even though it seems to have nuances different from what it would normally imply to me.

The story is set in China, but, for a large part of the narrative and in many respects, it could just as well be India – apart from the names and a few trivial details here and there. It is a straightforward rags to riches story, with no twist in the tale except that the riches, which begin to be acquired rather early on, continue to be acquired almost upto the last page of the book. It covers a period of maybe fifty years or so, from the protagonist’s wedding day, through till almost his dying breath. All along, I keep expecting the twist, or at the very least, the moral, but it never comes. There is a whisper of something on the last page, the last paragraph almost, but it’s just a ghost.

I seem to be saying mostly negative things about it – but it’s not a bad book. It held my interest throughout, although I think it was mainly “waiting for the axe to fall” which never fell. It was interesting in many ways… but partly the style of writing, and partly the narrative style, where almost the entire story is “narrated” to you (not by any character in the book, but by the author from the protagonist’s perspective), rather than developing or unfolding as you watch… these, in my opinion, kept it very far from being a great book. Or even, perhaps, a good book. Having said that, I think that there are many things about the book, or about the context the book is set in, which I will not forget in a hurry, so that’s something of an achievement.

Overall, I’d say it was worth reading, but not something I’d recommend as very high up on the list of stuff to read.

Restaurant Experience: Completely Avoidable

September 23, 2009

Amit decided that it was time we went on another ‘date’, so S&S were called in to babysit last weekend. We planned to watch a movie, but the only one that looked interesting didn’t run at a suitable hour at the movie hall nearest home, so we decided to just do dinner instead. A long, leisurely dinner with drinks, appetizers, main course, and dessert, stretching over three hours or so, we thought, would be nice. So we thought.

I’d never been to Sahib, Sindh and Sulran before, and since it was quite nearby, we decided to go there.

As soon as we walked in, I didn’t like the place. It was dark, crowded, and noisy. There was a row of tables down each side of the hall, and a row of two-seaters squeezed in between. We, naturally, were in the squeezed-in row. The table was so small that once the excessively large plates were in place, there was no space left for the food. Every time they brought a dish, they took away something else. First they took away the complimentary bread platter before we were done with it, and later they actually removed my un-used side plate prior to serving the main course! Maybe they just should have removed the dinner plates altogether and let us eat straight out of the serving dishes. They were keen enough to do so, whipping them away before the last bite had gone down. And I do mean ‘before’ – they almost succeeded in removing my appetizer before I was done with it. Some nifty wrist work on my part saved the day that time, but the bread rolls we really did lose.

Service was so good it was bad. There seemed to be an excess of waiters who were all very quick and eager. Apart from whipping your food away from under your nose, they flourished the menu before you were quite seated, brought each dish almost before you’d ordered it, and generally managed to courteously and efficiently rush you through your meal, apparently in an effort to free up the table for the next taker. And takers, strangely enough, there were plenty of.

The drinks we ordered – Bloody Mary for me and something exotic with vodka for Amit, were completely lacking in alcohol. Amit’s, in fact, seemed to be coloured sugar-syrup. He took a sip, I took a sip, and we both rejected it absolutely and totally. Mine I drank for the tomato juice – though it was an outrageously expensive glass of tomato juice.

The food was ok – not bad, but not good enough for the price tag. Other equally pricey restaurants, and even some less expensive ones, manage to dish up more subtle and exciting flavours in their food. At half the cost, the food could have been conssidered decent.

The only good thing I can say about the place is that, when Amit rejected his drink, some senior person, presumably from the bar counter, was sent over to enquire as to the nature of the complaint. He didn’t react to the charge of their being no alcohol in either of the drinks, but offered Amit some other drink, which he refused. They had the good grace not to bill us for the rejected drink, though, so that was decent of them. Only trouble being, if we had wanted not to be billed for a drink, we wouldn’t have bothered to order it.

In the end, what with the high decibel levels and the too-small table and the over-eager waiters, we skipped the dessert and were out of there in about an hour. So much for our long, leisurely dinner.

So, if you’re considering dinner out at Sahib, Sindh, and Sultan, my advice to you would be: don’t even bother.

Film Review – Kabuliwala

September 22, 2009

A while ago, I watched the old classic, Kabuliwala. I wanted to write about it then, but I just couldn’t. The movie really moved me, so I’m going to talk about it a bit here. If you haven’t watched it and you plan to, I might spoil it for you by telling you the story… but really, that’s not going to spoil it, not this movie. It is a Hindi movie – with sub-titles nowadays – so you can watch it even if you don’t follow Hindi. If it doesn’t interest you, skip ahead to the book reviews and see if those do.

The Kabuliwallah is a man from Kabul – a Pashtun Afghan. He’s a strapping, strong fellow, not rich, perhaps not poor either, a rural man and a straightforward and honest person. He’s shown working in the fields and coming home to his daughter, a small, sweet girl whom he absolutely adores. That’s in the first minute or so of the movie. Then, as the credits roll, there’s a caravan across the mountains and a long train journey across the plains, till at last he is in Calcutta. He finds lodgings and trudges around town all day, selling nuts and spices and trying to save up enough money to take home.

Meanwhile, he meets this girl. This is no ordinary love story – the girl he falls in love with is like his daughter, a small child. She lives with her family in a house on his beat. He meets her, it seems, everyday, and a rapport and mutual affection builds up. There’s no sinister twist… he never tries to kidnap her (though there is some suspicion amongst the family servants that he might, and even, at one point, that he has done), and his affection is never anything other than paternal.

What happens instead is that the man gets word – indirectly – that his own daughter is very sick. He decides to leave for home immediately, stopping only to say bye to the other little girl. Just as he is about to leave, he fights with the “landlord” (if you can use such a grand term for this person) of the room where he has been staying. The landlord accuses him of cheating, and, his honour insulted, the Kabuliwallah hits and kills the landlord. Thereafter, he lands in jail – and there, unrepentant, he spends the next fourteen years. There are various developments in the interim, but through it all, the man thinks as much or more of the little girl he met in Calcutta as he does of his own wife and daughter. At last, when he gets out, he goes straight to the girls house. To his shock, she is now all grown up, almost 20 years old, and it is the day of her wedding. She has, of course, forgotten him and is quite put out to have to meet this strange and undignified person.

The man starts to leave in despair, realizing that his own daughter too would have grown up and that he will be a stranger to her as well. But the little girls parents tell him he must go him, and they give him the money to do so, and so he does.

And there the movie ends. We don’t know what he will find when he gets home, but we do know at at last, after almost 15 years or so, the man goes home, to a daughter he does not know or who might not even, after all, be alive any more.

The most poignant parts of the movie are when the man is remembering either his daughter or the other little girl. He cannot read, but there’s a letter from his home where it says that his daughter misses him, and this letter he treasures and looks at fondly and opens and folds and opens and folds until it is all but in tatters, even though he can’t read it. Then, at some point, the other little girl gives him a five-rupee note. He is so touched that he swears never to spend that money, and likewise, he treasures that note as much as the letter from his home. It is these two keepsakes that get him through all his lonely years in jail.

Described as I have describe it, the movie sounds a bit like sentimental mush… and sentimental it is, but done is such a simple and sincere way that it cannot be described. I don’t think I’m too much of a cry-baby when it comes to sentimental movies – at any rate, no more than the next woman – but in this movie, more than once, I just couldn’t hold back my tears.

It’s a movie made in the old style, in the old days (1961) in a slow, relaxed, leisurely manner. It doesn’t drag, but it doesn’t gallop. It starts out with a touch of romance (not in the sense of love-romance, but in the other sense, more like nostalgia, if you know what I mean) and slides gently into something so deeply, profoundly touching and sad that it never has a chance to become maudlin or affected. And perhaps the most haunting thing about it – apart from the thought of the illiterate man ‘reading’ and re-reading a letter he can’t read – is that at the end, you just don’t know what he’s going to find when he gets back home.

A movie I regretted watching – because I really would much rather watch a movie that makes me laugh than cry – but that I’ll never regret having watched and I’ll never forget having been touched by.


September 17, 2009

The twins’ school has this concept of “observation” where the parent(s) can go and sit in on the class for a short while once in a way. I thought it was a great idea. School, especially in these early days, is so much of a black box for the parents. Your kids go in, and some hours later, they come out. What goes on in there, nobody knows. The kids know, but they ain’t talking. Mrini and Tara have enough of a vocabulary and they can talk a dog’s hind legs off, but when it comes to school, they are less than forthcoming. “I played with toys” (or “tawys,” as Tara says) alternates with “I played with Navnit.” Sometimes, they volunteer alarming information like “Diya scolded me”. “Why?” I ask. “Because I cried.” This sounds like the outcome, not the cause, so I ask “why” again. “Because I bite Diya,” is the next attempt.

I think the twins are not very clear on the difference between fact and faction. To any question their answer is just as likely to be true, or completely made-up. Plausible, mind you, but not true. I don’t think they are actually lying right now… I prefer to think that it’s more like they don’t really get the difference between truth and telling stories.

So anyway, since I haven’t heard from their teachers yet that either of them has bitten anyone, I tend to ignore that part of the proceedings. But, apart from this sensational news, they don’t have much to offer. They sit through the drive home in silence, only occasionally speaking to demand to know the entire sequence of 21 songs on their favourite audio CD which has to be playing whenever they are in the car.

So, observation seemed like a good way to find out what they were up to in school. Not that we parents really need to know – as long as they are off my hands, and somebody else is handling them for a while, why do I need to know what, exactly, they’re up to? But, of course, we parents are a nosey, interfering bunch, so of course, even though we want our kids off our hands for a while, we do want to know what, exactly, they’re up to in our absence.

I spoke to the class teachers, and they said that Amit and I could both sit in for a half-hour or so one morning right after school starts. When all four of us got into the car to go to school that morning, they girls were quite happy, but puzzled. We explained that we were going to be with them in school for a while and they looked even more puzzled.

When we finally settled down in their classroom, seated on the floor near them, they both sat down to do their “work” quite self-consciously. The teacher told Amit that they were being on their best behaviour just because we were there to watch.

To be honest, I didn’t watch our girls that much. I was busy watching the other kids. Because the Montessori environment has kids of ages varying between two-and-a-half and six, you get to see what the older kids are up to and what your kids will, hopefully, be able to do, in a couple of years. I saw some of the kids working on spelling activities, another one working on a set of wooden blocks. Most of the kids were focusing on their work, though they also spent time looking around and interacting with their friends. I liked the fact that kids could choose what they wanted to do, and do it at their own pace. I saw one girl tell another that she (the first girl) wanted to do the wooden blocks, once she (the second girl) was done with them. I saw the second girl nod, continue her work, and, after some time, put the pieces back in their box and hand them to the other girl.

At one point, a boy came to the teacher and said he wanted his snack. It was still quite early, just after nine, but the teacher told him to go get his bag and sit at one of the tables in the corner of the room. A few minutes later, the boy was back, saying he didn’t want it after all. But I liked the fact that he was allowed to go and have his snack when he wanted it.

When I had sat in on the class in the early days, when the twins had just joined and all the kids were getting settled in class, it had been a much more chaotic environment. Now, it was generally silent, organized, and not restrictive. The kids all seemed somehow responsible for maintaining their environment. They pulled out chairs and tables, and put them away when they were done with them. Activities were restored to the appropriate places. Mats were rolled up and put back in place. It was good to see that the kids were aware enough and trusted enough to do these things themselves.

When we left, we said bye to both the girls and I told them I’d be back to pick them up as usual. Mrini smiled, waved, and continued to do her work. Tara waved cheerfully enough, but a moment later came out of the class in tears. The teacher asked if I’d like to take them home, but I thought Tara would be fine in a couple of minutes, and Mrini was happy enough, so I decided not to. Later on, Tara told me, “Because baba going that’s why I cried.”

Just when you think they are growing up, you realize how much they are still babies.

Health. Food.

September 9, 2009

First of all, I’m not going to crib about my diet and talk about how much I love everything that’s sinful, including food. Let’s just take that as a given.

The point is, if there’s one thing in which I don’t want the twins to end up like me, it’s my attitude to food. I want them to grow up to have a balanced and healthy attitude to food. I want them to be unfussy eaters, who will try anything once, will like most things, will have stomachs lined with lead, will thrive on bland, homemade, stale food as much as on oily, spicy, toxic street food, and through it all will achieve a balanced diet with a good proportion of dal, carb, fruit ‘n’ veg, dairy and non-veg.

And, of course, I hope they will always enjoy cakes and ice creams, but will never be cursed with an insatiable sweet tooth.

Is that too much to ask???

While the twins were at home full time, we made sure they got only healthy food. Their milk, curd, butter, and cheese came out of a packet of some kind, as did bread and cornflakes, but just about everything else they ate was fresh. They got fresh fruit and vegetables and enjoyed most of it; and fresh meat and chicken as well. They got no soups or juices out of a packet. They got no chocolates, no sweet except for what I sometimes made at home, no biscuits, no chips, practically no packaged foods at all. I did give them frozen peas, but they never liked them, though they loved fresh peas. Smart kids.

(Of course, I must clarify, to quell those rising eyebrows, that when I say ‘fresh’ food, I mean the ingredients are fresh as opposed to frozen or preserved. The food they get cannot not always be described as fresh, but I do usually impose a 48-hour limit; anything cooked more than 48 hours ago lands up in the trash can. That would be me.)

So right up until they joined ‘big’ school this June, they rarely had access to junk food like biscuits, chips, soft drinks, chocolates, toffees and the like. In playschool, they sometimes got a chocolate, but it wasn’t very often, and, back then, sometimes I just grabbed it from them and distracted them for a few minutes and they’d forget all about it (after shedding a few indignant tears).

Now, of course, it’s a different story. If they get goodies at school, they usually eat them before I get there (smart kids), but if they still have them on hand, it’s not as if I can just take them away, distract the kids and they’ll forget all about them. Oh no!

For one thing, they have my number. They don’t trust me at all when it comes to chocolate – and with good reason; if only they knew how many of the chocolates intended for them have landed up in the dustbin (me)! Now, if I tell them to put their sweets in their bags, they protest loudly, and when they finally comply, they keep a sharp eye on their bags. The whole way home, a small part of their memories are dedicated to the stored chocolate. As soon as we reach home, they start to ransack their bags looking for their chocolate. At which point, I usually take it away from them and keep it on top of the microwave – within eyesight, but, mercifully, still out of their reach. The deal is that if they eat their lunch like good girls (without throwing their food around and generally driving me crazy), then they will get chocolate. They don’t yet know that they shouldn’t have to negotiate for something that’s rightfully theirs… But that day is not far off.

One day Tara was too sleepy to gracefully complete her lunch, so I put her to bed sans chocolate. Mrini, however, said to me assertively, “I don’t want sabzi, I don’t want chicken, I don’t want dahi, I want only chocolate.” So I gave her hers.

Three hours later, Tara woke from her afternoon nap, and, still groggy and rubbing her eyes with both fists, said to me, “Mama, I want my chocolate.”

Well, I gave it to her – with Mrini looking on and saying “Taya, ha-piece-ha-piece,” as sweetly as she could. I told Tara that Mrini had already had hers, but she promptly broke her chocolate in half and gave it to Mrini regardless. It’s absolutely heart-warming to see her do that without any hesitation or prompting… especially considering that Mrini rarely returns the favour.

So distracting them and hoping they’ll forget about it just won’t work any more.

Still, they do get quite a lot of chocolate in school some days. It kills their appetite for lunch, and I doubt it does their teeth any good. And I really don’t want them to develop as much of a sweet tooth as I have. I don’t know whether not getting a lot of sweet at this age actually helps to develop a sweet tooth, or whether being denied it helps to avoid getting a sweet tooth; but it just seems like in this respect less must be better. So whenever I can, I still surreptitiously reduce the quantity of sweet that they actually get. Very sneaky and mean of me, no doubt, but that’s what parenting is all about, isn’t it?

What I really started out writing about though, is, why do all school birthday treats have to be packaged foods? I know that not all parents have time to bake up a storm like I did – and it is a lot of work – but can’t you do something simple and homemade? Or else send fruit? Or something that’s not food?

I’m a great fan of eating out and even of eating packaged food, but for these tiny tots, I still feel that the less packaged foods they get, the better. At least with homemade stuff, you have a better idea of what’s gone in it and how much of what and whether it is likely to be allergenic or not; and also, you have better control over the hygiene conditions. But most importantly, it’s the only way to minimise kids’ exposure to chemicals like preservatives, flavouring agents, and the like. Shouldn’t we be thinking of that for at least a few years?

I know – they’re three years old, I should just let go. We do the best we can at home and I should just let go of what’s beyond my control. And I will. But, when they come home with three or four different bits of chocolate and a commercially made cup-cake each, I just wonder.

Shopping Blues (Again)

September 7, 2009

I’ve said it before but I’ve just got to say it again: There’s nothing more depressing, deflating, and demoralizing than going clothes shopping. There’s all these lovely shirts, blouses and tops all over the place, but nothing seems to fit!

I know I’ve put on a bit of weight, but it’s not like I’m really obese right now. It’s just the T-shirts I’m looking at, they don’t even need to be figure-hugging or anything. Any standard size should do – you should be able to tell by just holding it up and looking at it. But no… even when something looks ok, it turns out to be so ingeniously designed and cut that only a 16-year-old would look good in it. And a slim, sexy 16-year-old at that.

I’m convinced they’ve shrunk the sizes. Medium used to be a safe bet, but now even XL doesn’t always work. When I finally found something that fit, and it was a Medium size… in the Plus category! Plus!? I used to be called petite – when and how did I get from over there to over here?!

As if that weren’t bad enough, there’s the changing-room ordeal. Why do all change room mirrors make one look so much more wobbly and blubbery than the more familiar mirrors at home? You’d think the shops would fix the mirrors to work the other way – unless they want to frighten their customers away.

And this entire traumatic experience is just for the shirts. When it comes to jeans and trousers, it gets even worse. Everything that looks so stylish and glamorous on the racks looks so disastrous when you put them on – and that’s only the ones that you can actually squeeze in to. Most of them won’t even come all the way up, forget about the two-inch gap at the button hole.

In the end I came home with three really loose and baggy T-shirts in bright colours, and a good serving of profound depression. Is everybody else on the planet really that slim and trim these days? Really, it doesn’t look like it, if you just look around you. So where are the clothes for all the ‘normal’ women to be found? Or are we all doomed to wear salwar-kameez and saris for ever?

Feeling Foolish

September 2, 2009

Today, after the usual rush to get out of the house on time, I drove the kids to school. I felt very pleased with myself, because I made it in a record 20 minutes. Watch out Schumacher! (Oh, that’s right, he’s retired. Well, whatever.)

Then at the gate, I was turned away by the guard. “Why?” I asked indignantly.

“It’s a holiday for Onam,” he said.

“But I didn’t get any message!” I exclaimed, even more indignantly.

“It’s in the holiday list,” he retorted.

As I walked away, I realized that there was only one other idiotic kid who had turned up at school. The parking lot was empty. The roads were surprisingly peaceful. No wonder I’d made it in record time – everyone else was blissfully asleep! Arrrrrrrrrrrrrrgh!

I felt extremely foolish when I reached home and checked the holiday list, which clearly listed today as a holiday.

The girls were quite puzzled, too. They prefer school, of course, but since they had been shuttled back home, they settled down and demolished the tiffin I had packed for them early morning – fresh, layered parathas with jam. Lucky kids.

Keeping them occupied and happy at home is no longer an easy task. Luckily, I have a good yield of toys garnered at their birthday parties, so I started doling them out with a free hand. It didn’t work – they flung everything in every direction and started fighting with each other and whining to me. The joys of having twins…

They generally do enjoy their birthday gifts, and even tend to favour clothes that they receive as gifts over clothes that I buy them. But one thing which is currently top of their list is the cycles we bought them. They’ve only taken the cycles out four or five times yet, but they’ve already got the hang of it. They know that they have to wear their helmets or they won’t be allowed on the cycles. They know that I’ll carry their cycles down one at a time, and they love to run back upstairs with me for the second trip. They know how to get on, ring the bell, turn, and brake on their cycles. Mrini also knows how to pedal…. but with Tara, it is, as ever, a different story. She only pedals half a turn forwards, half a turn backwards. Despite being shown and told how to do it, she insists on doing it her way. How will this girl ever get anywhere?

I don’t have much to do as long as they are cycling in the common area downstairs, but when they’re ready to cycle to the park nearby is when the fun will start. I can hardly wait.

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