Report Cards

March 29, 2010

Summer holidays are here! Luckily, this year the girls are in daycare, so I don’t have to tear my hair out wondering how to keep them busy for two whole months. It’s difficult enough on weekends! Daycare, in retrospect, has a wonderful addition to our lives. They have a good gang of friends, a group of 15 or so, and a nice set of care givers who seem to have no trouble keeping 15 kids under 5 busy and happy. Sometimes, when I leave office a few minutes early, I actually feel bad about pulling them out of daycare when they are having so much fun with all their friends!

On Thursday, we went to their school – leaving them at daycare – to pick up their report cards. Sad to say, report cards come in the shape of computer printouts nowadays. Our girls’ report cards were almost identical – they don’t know their number symbols yet (0-9), and they aren’t interest in writing. But, they’re great conversationalists. They have separate gangs and don’t stick to each other all the time – which was good to know – but they do mimic each other. So, if one is being naughty, the other will be too. And if one can be made to toe the line, the other follows automatically.

None of this was really surprising. What was surprising was to see the art work the kids had done. They had coloured butterflies, caterpillars, and fish – neatly, inside the lines, and even using different shades for eyes, wings, and fins! They had cut out and painted paper christmas trees and stockings. They had made flowers out of coloured paper and ice cream sticks. They had sprinkled glitter onto paper to make the curved shape of a snail’s shell!

Of course I have to say hats off to the teachers for having the patience and inclination to make 30-odd kids do these activities neatly and to completion; but… my kids can do all that!? Wow!? At home, they just scatter the crayons all over the house, tear up their drawing books, fight, and come crying for help! What magic do they wield at school to turn these undisciplined, unfocused balls of energy and frustration into budding artists!?

We also discovered in school that the girls do actually eat their snacks every day. This is surprising because they have insisted on taking bread and marmalade every day for the last three months! If I give them something different, even if it is roti and marmalade, it comes back uneaten. So I wondered if they were really eating their bread everyday, or what. Apparently they not only ate it, they finished it very quickly and then looked for more interesting stuff in their friends’ tiffin boxes. It had become such that one of their friends went home and told his mother everyday, “give more of this, Mrini and Tara will like it; don’t give that, Mrini and Tara don’t like it.” And of course, his doting mother did just that!

So – this manipulation and exploitation of the opposite sex starts at this tender age, does it!

And now there’s no more school for two months. When the girls go back in June, they will no longer be the “babies” of their class. And it’s just the other day that they started school!


March 27, 2010

Marilyn Monroe had it wrong: Chocolates are a girl’s best friend. Diamonds? I don’t know, I’m not well acquainted with them, personally. But chocolates? Now there’s something I can talk about. Cake, ice cream, biscuit, pudding, milk… or just plain slab – whatever form it is, there are times when chocolate is what you need and nothing else is good enough.

You’ve seen all those forwards explaining why beer is better than women? Now here’s my answer to those: Seventeen reasons why chocolates are better than men.

    Chocolates are always there when you need them.
    Chocolates don’t make rude remarks about your appearance.
    In fact, chocolates don’t even care if you’re fat and frumpy.
    Chocolates don’t expect anything from you.
    Chocolates don’t snore.
    Chocolates don’t fall asleep when you’re watching TV together.
    Or when you’re talking to them.
    In fact, chocolates never, ever get tired.
    Chocolates don’t spend the night watching cricket/tennis/football/hockey/wrestling loudly on TV.
    Chocolates don’t spend hours talking about things you can’t understand and don’t care about.
    You can have lots and lots of chocolate and people won’t call you anything worse than fat.
    If you run out of chocolate, you just go to the nearby grocery store and get some.
    You can have lots of different chocolates in your house without losing your sanity (or your reputation).
    Sharing chocolate is uncontroversial.
    Whether you prefer chocolates dark, sweet, nutty, alcoholic, or white, nobody cares.
    If you don’t like chocolate, it doesn’t mean anything.
    Chocolate can be rock hard or soft and squishy, it doesn’t matter.

Comic Books

March 23, 2010

I’ve never been too much into comic books. I went through the Archie comics when I was in my teens, along with everyone else, and I enjoyed them just as much as the next person; I would probably still enjoy reading one, if it came my way; but I’ve never been very deeply into comics. Comics were always a filler, or what is called “time-pass” and never long-term companions like books were.

I’d never taken to Asterix or Tintin, until Amit introduced me to the latter a few years ago and I decided I liked it. I’ve still not taken to Asterix, but Tintin is still good timepass.

So when Christina gifted me a comic book for my birthday, I was a little bemused. Comic book? And I mean, this one was a full-fledged book, not like the flimsy Archie digest or the little less flimsy double digest. This was – to all appearances – a book, but it was full of comics inside.

Hmmm. Ok. I’ll give it a shot. Some day.

So I started reading it – can you read comics? So much of it is not in the written word. – some days ago and… it was a revelation! There was a proper “story” and proper characters, who even had something of a personality. What’s more, I found, I looked at the drawings, instead of just reading the text, and the drawings spoke volumes. They were really expressive. And these are just pen strokes, they’re not even in colour, and they’re somehow different from the Archie and Tintin style that I’m used to. And yet, those few stylised pen strokes conveyed real emotions and expressions. It was amazing. Thanks, Chris!

The book is called Persepolis, by Marjane Satrapi. It’s the story of a girl and her family, set in Iran in the ’80s. Despite being in comic book format – or should I say, despite my misgivings about the comic book format – the tale at once drew me in and held my interest. That’s more than I can say of some “conventional” books.

Which is why I always say, if you want to gift me something, let it be a book. I’ll attempt almost anything once, and I’m open to being pleasantly surprised. (Of course, the moment I say that, I think of Chetan Bhagat’s Five Point Someone, which was also a gift and not one I particularly enjoyed. But well – at least I read Chetan Bhagat in the bargain and now I know why I’m wary of Indian writers in English.)

Now let me go read another chapter of that comic book.


March 22, 2010

… and not in a nice way.

I don’t know why it is, but ever since we moved house, I’ve not been able to stop and catch my breath. It’s been one thing after another. First, there was the new job. Then then move. Then we had no domestic help. Then we got that sorted, but had no one to iron our clothes and clean our cars. Now even the ironing seems to have been sorted – the cleaning lady says she will take it, get her husband to do it, and bring it back the next day; what could be better, we don’t even have to go anywhere to drop or fetch it – so life is mostly back on track. Other than the bout of viral fever that took three of us down in turns, the kids have been fine. And still…

It’s not so much about running at top speed just to stay in one place… that has eased up with all the domestic help getting sorted out. I even get to watch a couple of hours of TV every week, so it’s not that I never have any leisure hours at all. It’s just that I’m always so tired.

I mean, I’m always. so. tired.

I’ve never been one to have trouble falling asleep at night, so for me to be asleep five minutes after my head hits the pillow is normal. But to be struggling to stay awake that long, every night, for weeks on end… that’s not normal.

Some days, I wake up feeling tired. Not sleepy – most days I get close to 7 hours of sleep, so that’s ok – but physically tired. Yes, I wake up that way. My limbs feel heavy. I feel like I don’t want to get out of bed. For me, that’s not normal. To feel my legs aching, to want to sit down… that’s not normal. That’s the way I usually feel when I get my period – but I don’t get my period every day of the month! (And thank god for that!)

And to not have the energy to go for tennis – time after time after time? That’s just weird.

It takes me longer to recover from things too. It took me weeks to really recover from the viral in February. Admittedly I had it bad, but I’m used to just snapping back to normal in a week or so. Any other exertion – tennis, socialising, my period, a hectic day at work, a late night, or just about anything mildly tiring – wears me out, and again, I take days to recover from it.

I can’t understand why I’m like this. Is it the job? But it’s been three months already! Is it old age? But that should be a gradual process. Is it the functional dyspepsia I was diagnosed with some months ago and which keeps coming back sporadically? Is it the food I’m eating? Or the water I’m drinking? Is it the alignment of the stars?

Whatever it is, I wish it would go away. I’m not used to not having enough energy and I don’t like it.

Wonderful Weekend

March 17, 2010

It might have to do with some news I got last week that made me particularly happy…

Or it might have to do with having completed three months as a working mom… quite a landmark and a feeling at last that I can do this, even if it can be quite tough at times…

Or, most likely, it might have to do with my better half being out of town…

… but it’s been a wonderful weekend.

Since Amit left for a whirlwind trip to Calcutta on Saturday morning, it meant no tennis for me. It’s hard to see this as a good thing, but it did mean that I was done with our breakfast by 8 a.m. The kids ran off to get themselves dressed, while I had a leisurely cup of coffee. Around 9 a.m., all three of us trooped downstairs to clean my car. This should ideally be a weekly ritual, since we haven’t found someone to do the work for us here, but so far I’ve only done it once before. That was last weekend, so my car wasn’t too terribly dirty this weekend. The kids helped me with it, then went off to play while I finished it off. By 10 a.m. I was bathed and ready to start making a cake. Why? Just because. The girls, of course, “helped” me mix it, and by 11.30 it was done. Meanwhile, L had come and done her act, so the house was clean, dishes washed, and laundry sorted. Time to go out.

Out was only grocery shopping. Managing the girls in the shop was the usual chaos, but we got it done without too much bloodshed and tears. By 12.45 or so we were home and the girls went off to play together – without fighting! – while I got some cooking done. Lunch was a beautiful affair – I guess the kids were hungry, so they ate without any fuss and with some good conversation to boot. It might have helped that they’d been promised chocolate cake if they ate “properly”. By 2, I packed them off to bed. Of course they were chattering and playing together, so around 2.30 I put them in separate rooms and they promptly fell asleep. I used the afternoon hours to catch up on my least-hated chore: ironing. (I almost enjoy doing it. Weird, isn’t it?)

In the evening, we walked out and bought some fruit, then we went to the park behind our house where the girls played in the sandpit while I chatted on the phone. Got home, they guzzled their milk and gobbled some grapes, then S&S came and we were all busy socialising till bedtime (9 p.m. for the kids, 1 a.m. for me!) The best part was that I was even well prepared for the evening – I had some crunchies, soft drinks, beer, cake and ice cream. All you could want, apart from the dinner, which was ordered in as usual and came terribly late, as usual. But at least they got the order straight!

Then on Sunday I finally undertook a very brave task, considering I was pitted one against two – I took out all the kids’ toys and ordered them to select the ones they would agree to throwing away (or giving away, since nothing is ever thrown away over here). At first they wanted to keep everything – of course – but I told them that if they didn’t get rid of at least five toys, they wouldn’t get two new ones. Luckily their math isn’t too good right now, so they didn’t argue that they should discard two old toys and get five new ones! Of course they wanted to play with everything I pulled out, even if it has not held any interest for them for the last eighteen months (yes, we still have many of those!)… but I got things under control, again without significant loss of blood or tears.

I’d wanted to leave home by 10 a.m. so we could hit the shop by 11, but we ended up leaving at 10.45 – a pretty standard delay if you’re leaving home with two kids on a Sunday morning and highly laudable, I think, if preceded by a toy-sorting-out exercise. I parked in Central, which, to my horror, cost 50 bucks! So then I had to shop there, to redeem the parking cost. Luckily I found Snakes and Ladders, which might do for the kids right now, though their counting isn’t quite what it should be (typically, it’s one, three, four, five, fourteen, lifteen, seventeen, twenty-one… ending in much giggling), and which gave me back the fifty bucks I’d spent on parking. Then we walked to (or rather, I dragged them to) Crossword, fielding about three hundred and seventeen questions of “where is it” on the way. First things first – a spinach and corn sandwich at Cafe Coffee Day, while Mrini sat like a young girl of 8 years of age at the table, waiting for her meal, and Tara squirmed around like a child of three. She did me proud, however, by throwing her paper plate, ketchup packet, and paper napkin in the dustbin, and some very deft handiwork was called for to prevent her from tossing Mrini’s china plate in the dustbin as well.

We went straight upstairs to the kids’ section. Me and the girls were equally delighted to discover that Crossword very thoughtfully provides a table for kids to sit and play at while parents shop. I have to say that finding games and activities for three-to-four-year-olds is really difficult! For the younger kids, there’s lots of stuff; and for 6+ and upwards, there are a whole lot of board games of various kinds; but for three and four years old, it’s mostly a range of jigsaw puzzles. The problem, of course, is that these kids can’t read – and mine can hardly even count – but they’ve already outgrown the building blocks and picture books and are rapidly outgrowing play dough too. Right now, practically the only thing that keeps them busy is drawing books. Given, of course, that you don’t want to buy any of the of battery-operated toys and that you don’t want them sitting in front of TV or the computer either.

I ended up buying them a sort of miniature basketball hoop – really, really miniature, about as high as my forearm I think. Then we all headed home, without a single meltdown and without even needing to visit the restroom once!

On Sunday evening Christina came and we spent a long time chatting, first with a million interruptions from the kids, then, after they went to bed, with interruptions only for bites of pizza. These evenings are always good for my soul.

Monday was the usual Monday mania. And then came Tuesday… an interrupted extension of the wonderful weekend, since it was a holiday. Amit was back and we took the kids to Monkey Maze. They had lots of fun, and we spent an hour just chatting, relaxing, and watching them from a safe distance. Then we went to Sue’s Food Place (what a name!) for lunch. The food was good, though we were all a little hungry at the end due to “Sue”s suggestion that the kids didn’t need a meal to themselves and could manage by sharing from us. Sue doesn’t know our kids too well – they ate all the chicken and all the garlic bread and we got the gravy and some greasy roti.

Our next stop was FabIndia, where we spent a cool 4k on clothes for all of us. Then, we drove around in the hot sun for a bit looking for the way to what looks – from a distance – like a very pretty little lake on our way home. It turned out, inevitably and disappointingly enough, to be a dirty little lake with the surroundings treated like a massive garbage dump and the shady areas used for shady dealings. But at least we found it.

Tuesday evening I took the kids to the park behind our house. In a tiny corner of the park, four swings and a zig-zag slide have been put up just a day or two ago. The kids were dying to try it out, but the area was so crowded and there was such a mad scramble between kids lining up for the slide that I looked safer to avoid the place. I took them to the “sand pit” instead. It is a large, squarish depression in the green grassy park that looks as though it might have been intended as some sort of dump. The ground is uneven – to put it mildly – and it has some coarse-grained “sand” (more like dirt) mixed with an equal proportion of pebbles and other bits of dirt. Since kids in general have a fatal attraction for anything like dirt, there were several kids there already, in spite of the newly-erected swings.

And that brought our interrupted extended weekend to a close. The evening was short and sweet, and then it was back to work again. But for several hours today, the happy feeling of a relaxed and pleasant weekend stayed with me.

Of course, a side-effect of all this shameless pursuit of pleasure was that none of the grocery shopping got done and we are now scrambling to get enough provisions in the house to provide the kids a decent lunch tomorrow. Well, you can never have it all, can you?

Lunchtime Conversation

March 13, 2010

The girls are talking so wonderfully these past few months, it’s almost agonizing to think of all the things they say and to not be able to capture them. But here’s one example.

Mrini: I’m a strong girl. I’m stronger than you!
Me: And you’re bigger than me too!
Mrini: Yes! If I eat all my food, I’ll be big and strong!
Tara: And then I’ll wear a watch. And a bangle too. Like you.
Me: Ooookkkkay (scratching head, figuratively). But you’ll only get the bangle when you get married. (It’s the one that Bengali women wear when they get married.) Do you know what married means?
Tara: Yes, it means I’ll get a bangle, like you!
Me: Yes, but do you know whom I’m married to?
Mrini: To the bangle.
Me: No… see… who is my husband?
Mrini and Tara: Baba!
Me: Yes, and that means I’m married to Baba.
I named some other couples and checked their association of “husband” “wife” and “marriage”. They got it. Ok, now for the next step.
Me: Girls, when you grow up, whom do you want to get married to?
Tara: Me Mrini married.
Me: Mrini is your twin sister, you can’t get married to your twin sister. And she’s a girl. You have to get married to a boy, because you’re a girl.
Mrini: S Uncle!
Me: (trying to hide my amusement and shock) Oh, he’s already married, you have to get married to someone who’s not married yet.
Tara: Baba
Me: No, Baba’s married to me. You have to find someone who is not married. (Preferrably. And in any case, not your dad, please. Forget about Freud.)
Mrini (getting the idea at last): B&B
Me: What, both of them?
Mrini nodded her head happily.
Me: Well, usually you get married to only one person at a time.
Mrini (decisively): Ok, B (the smaller twin).
Me: And you Tara?
Tara: (The other) B.

Hmmm… Pity that B&B just left for distant lands and we have no idea when – if ever – we will see them again. 😦

Eulogy of a Tennis Court*

March 8, 2010

Some things in life seem so much like permanent fixtures. Not people, institutions (though some people can be institutions in themselves!). People come and go – sometimes by choice, sometimes without a choice. Institutions, certain hallowed institutions, are forever. Or so we are lulled into believing.

Amit has played tennis at the same tennis courts for about ten years, or more. The courts have always been there – they’re tennis courts, where can they go? Of late, I‘ve had to realize that they must have come into existence at some fairly recent point in time – say about two decades ago. But as far as I’m concerned, they are timeless, they’ve always been there, they’ll always be there. Tennis Sir has been there for 17 or 18 years, Amit has played there for almost our entire married life, and I’ve been there for a good four years now. I have a lot of good feelings about my tennis and that inevitably extends to the physical space of the courts themselves. It’s been a happy place.

Yes, been. Now, no more.

See, some years ago, the City decided that a flyover in that area would greatly reduce the congestion on the road. Great. So they set to work building the flyover. Great. It took them about… I think… maybe five years. That’s a conservative guess; it could be more. Ok. Having finally built it, they boarded it up and refused to allow traffic to use it. Great. So we waited for the “inauguration” (Inauguration? It took five frigging years to make the flyover and they want to celebrate the opening? Shouldn’t they go hang themselves somewhere? Or at least open the road as inconspicuously as possible so that nobody notices?). The first attempt to inaugurate it was thwarted by the local shopkeepers, who wanted a proper side road made. Again, this is completely bewildering to me. You haven’t had enough of the construction nuisance over the last so many years, you want more of it?? The rationale, apparently, was that once the flyover was inaugurated (pah!) nobody would bother to build the side roads. Possibly true, but still!

So the inauguration (pah!) was put off by another couple of months. Work started on the side road. And an engineer came and dug up our tennis courts.

Apparently, the land the courts are on is leased to the Club by the City. So the City can come and take the land whenever they want. Also, apparently, the Club is not unduly concerned about the tennis courts – they don’t even really want them there. They just keep them, so they can call themselves a Club and continue to focus on their primary business area, which is playing cards and guzzling cheap liquor by the gallon.

So the City came and gobbled up our tennis courts. At first, they said they only needed about a ten-foot strip from the empty space surrounding the second court. There was a fair bit of empty space there, so that seemed ok.
Then they said they’d need all the space right up to the net post. Not so good, but well… at least we’d still have the two courts.
Then they said, oh, hey, we need half of this court as well.
We were all shocked as we watched them (figuratively – I didn’t actually stand there while they did this) move in with earth moving machinery and throw down the wall and dig up the court. The next day, it was gone!
What was worse was that they also announced that they’d need the other court. For what? The “road” was already broader than the broadest road in Bangalore. They seemed to be tearing up our courts just out of sheer malicious pleasure. Parking area, they said. Oh, right. Like we usually have so much parking area bordering every road in town.

Meanwhile, one court and the boundary wall was gone, and a ditch was dug just outside the remaining court. So now when we played, not only did the lights, noise and pollution from the traffic come right at us, we also had our balls getting swallowed by the ditch. Meanwhile, their workmen and machines trampled all over the remaining court and turned it into a particularly vile cricket pitch. Tennis Sir promptly put up a net and re-laid the remaining court. So the next day the fellows said that, hey, you know what? The inauguration is on Monday. So we need to put up the canopy right over here. Yep – they dug that shamiana right into the one remaining, freshly laid court.

And now that the inauguration is over and done with and the flyover is actually open to traffic, we are left wondering how a batch of ten enthusiastic players is going to play on one lousy court. As for the flyover making traffic move more smoothly – apparently it just moves the bottleneck to a different place on the road. And anyway… it’s not of much use to me. How can I drive on that road, knowing that I’m driving over our tennis court?

I feel especially bad for Tennis Sir. He is one of the nicest people I have ever met. He must – at some point – have fancied a career as an ace tennis player himself. Obviously, for whatever reason, he didn’t make it. For at least the last 18 years, as far as I know, he’s been the coach at these courts. It’s a dead-end job if there ever was one. He’s coach to the likes of me – past 30, overweight and under fit, just playing for the fun of it and never going to make anything of it. He’s coach to the likes of Amit, who could (maybe) have been great, but now just play half an hour three times a week with players who don’t challenge them at all. He’s coach to kids who are never going to make it past state-level… if they ever get that far. If any real talent is spotted in any of the kids, they are transferred to another batch and another coach.

You’d think he’d end up being sour, but no. He’s the most cheerful and positive person I’ve ever come across. He knows how to teach without criticizing, how to correct without demoralizing, how to tell you to your face when you’re not playing well, without making you feel bad about it. If that weren’t enough, he also, intuitively I think, knows how people learn. He doesn’t burden a beginner with more goals than they can handle. He identifies one step for the student to learn and doesn’t start another until you have largely mastered the first. He knows how far to push you so that you are stretched, but not unable. He knows how to handle kids, adults, and elders and how to put you at your ease whichever you might be. He makes me forget my self-consciousness – and that’s saying a lot!

The best part is, he seems to genuinely enjoy his work! How he can turn up there and provide insight, encouragement, inspiration to duds like us (mostly duds) and do it day after day, hour after hour and evidently enjoy it… is just beyond me! He plays with the best player and the worst player and seems to enjoy both equally – challenging each according to their abilities. And if a player Is really skilled enough to get a ball past him – or if a player just gets lucky – he has no hang-ups in acknowledging it. He seems to be totally at peace with himself, his work, his path in life. Seems to be – it could be an illusion, there could be some discontent festering under the surface, but it has never been visible to me. And if I take him at face value, then I can only envy him – to have chosen a path and to enjoy it, to love it, to be happy to do it every day for the rest of your life, to have that kind of peace with your choices and the choices life made for you – that is surely to be envied.

And it is to this person, this wonderful, gem of a person, that life serves up this crap. All he needs is for his two tennis courts to be left in peace so he can keep doing what he does and making all of us players happy. And wham! They come and take his little kingdom of joy away from him.

This should just not be allowed to happen.
*PS: The fact is that I’m completely clueless: should it be eulogy for, of, to, on, about, in honour of… or “in eulogy of” like “in memoriam of”? Is even that correct? Why are prepositions so arbitrary and lawless anyway???

This Won’t Last Long, I Suppose?

March 6, 2010

Me: Girls, we’re going to J’s birthday party today! Who do you think you’re going to meet there?
Tara: J!
Me: Yes, and who else?
Tara: B&B? (Their twin boy friends who recently moved out of the country)
Me: No, B&B have moved to a very far away place. You won’t see them for a long time. When you meet them next, you’ll be six years old!
Tara: I’ll be a big girl?
Me: Yes.
Tara: And B&B will be big boys?
Me: Yes.
Tara: Yuckkkkkkkkkk!

Music Matters

March 5, 2010

Music has been an integral part of my life since I was very young. My mother and I started fiddling around with harmoniums, bamboo flutes and Spanish guitars before I was ten years old. We started picking out basic song tunes, and my mother taught first herself and then me to read music. Soon after I turned ten, I got my first violin and started music lessons that continued for six years.

Sadly, I play very sporadically now and in recent years – once or twice a week for a few months, and then not at all for months, even years at a stretch. It’s not enough to even maintain any kind of standard, let alone improve. But that’s another story.

I’d always thought that my babies would be exposed to music when they were in the womb. Well, we don’t have any idea whether that ever happened, and surely it would not have been my choice of music, but… they have the rest of their lives to catch up, so I’m not too worried about that. I don’t believe that you’re ever too young to enjoy music, but I also don’t believe that you’re ever too old to start listening to and appreciating music.

While the kids were home full time – and so was I – they got to listen to plenty of music, and none of it was of the nursery rhyme variety. As long as we had WorldSpace, they got a lot of Hindi oldies, in addition to the usual mix of pop/rock and a bit of Western Classical. Then school started and there was no time for anything else! And then! I got a car with a built-in music system. Oh, joy! At last I could have music while driving – and I certainly spent enough time driving to justify it, in those days of dropping and picking up the kids. Unfortunately, though, I didn’t have a 6-CD changer.

I started the kids with the Wombles – child-friendly music that adults could enjoy too. The kids loved it, and wanted it every time we were in the car! To avoid swapping discs all the time, I ended up listening to it even when they weren’t actually in the car with me. And I had to make a copy for Amit, otherwise they refused to go in his car because he didn’t have their favourite songs. In a few months, all four of us knew all the words of all the songs. That’s twenty one songs!

So then it was time for a change.

I ran through an album of Dev Anand and followed it up with an album of Kishore Kumar for a month or two. Then I got bored of Hindi Oldies and I switched back to a Pop/Rock CD.

As it happened, they had recently been gifted a frock that said “Vegas Rock and Roll” in big letters on the front, and the day one of them was wearing that frock for the first time, I happened to play Billy Joel’s “It’s Still Rock and Roll to me.” This coincidental match was too much for them – they were thrilled to bits and wanted that song every day for weeks. Soon I’d got them on to some of the Billy Joel songs that came before and after that. Mrini one day got into Amit’s car and said, “I want Pressure.” She also enjoys, “Doing it all for Leyna” and “I don’t want to be alone anymore,” while, “And so it goes” has become known as “Baba’s song” because they hear Amit singing it so often.

One day I was tripping on Doors (Light My Fire) while driving to work after dropping the kids in school. So it was still on Doors when I went to pick them up in the evening. Mrini listened for about 30 seconds, then said, “Mama, I don’t like this, it’s too noisy.” Whaaaaa!? So Billy Joel is ok, Pressure is good, but Doors is too noisy!?

Next, I have to re-introduce them to Western Classical music. They’d listened to a bit of it when they were too young to have an opinion – or at least too young to express it – but not much since then. Whatever little they have heard recently has bored them – and I can’t really blame them, since I listen to mostly “instrumental” music, not so much the songs. Now I’m wondering, should I try some Mozart operas on them? Don Giovanni? The Magic Flute? Or how about Handel’s Messaiah – is that too heavy? We have a long drive to Mysore coming up, that should be a good time to throw something new at them. Any suggestions, anyone?


March 3, 2010

(First, there’s a long post I wrote about a month ago and forgot to post. Following it, is the most recent update on our domestic help situation.)

All of January we had no household help and we drove ourselves to exhaustion just getting on from day to day. Then February came and things got better… sort of.

One day when I had nothing much to do at work, I posted a requirement for a maid/cook on a website just before I left office. I didn’t expect anything to come of it, especially because I was supposed to enter a verification code on the website which I couldn’t do because I hadn’t received it half an hour later when I left office. Strangely enough, though, I got a call from the website asking if my requirement was genuine and promising to pass on my requirement to various agencies. Even more surprising was that before the end of the day I’d got a call from two agencies following up on my requirement. It was a Friday, and one agency said they’d bring somebody the next morning. (The other agency said they didn’t have anybody to work evenings.)

The next morning Amit took the girls up to the terrace for breakfast. We were all coming down and entering the house via the front door (one of two ways to reach the terrace is through the front door; the other is through the study) when a couple of women wandered tentatively in our direction. I knew what they wanted: they wanted work. It was the same women I’d had a garbled discussion with earlier. Garbled, because they spoke only Tamil and I spoke rudimentary Kannada and fluent but useless Hindi. A similarly garbled discussion ensued as Amit and the kids looked on. I wanted to know what work the women could do, and where they had worked so far and whether I could get any references. Amit felt they looked particularly dirty and uncivilized and didn’t like the idea of having them in the house. I saw the next door neighbours – one vacant plot removed – standing outside so I went to ask them if they could act as interpreters. It turned out that their household help was also standing there and she spoke Kannada. She also looked a lot cleaner and more civilized than the women I was speaking to. And she worked in that house, so was to some extent vouched-for by the neighbours. So what with that and the language barrier, I ended up negotiating a deal with her, with the neighbor acting as interpreter, and cutting out the two Tamil-speaking women altogether. This woman, P, agreed to come in the evening, cook, clean, and wash dishes, all for a rate that was less than I was mentally prepared to shell out. It sounded too good to be true.

So that afternoon the agency chap turned up with the other woman. This woman, K, spoke Hindi and bits of English, had a very decent and honest appearance, and I intuitively had a good feeling about her. She, however, was no replacement for P. She would cook, but not clean, and would only wash those dishes she used for cooking. She was, of course, somewhat more expensive than P. Plus, her agency wanted a cool 3k just for introducing her to us. They had told me their fee up front and – desperate as I was – I had agreed.

So after a quick “interview” I told K that I had another option and I’d get back to her in a couple of days.

A couple of days was all it took for me to assess P. It became evident right away that she had a complete disregard for punctuality of any kind, and that she was a total “kaam chor” (shirker, not hard working) to boot. She came late, worked slowly and inefficiently, accomplished little, and then was surprised at how late it was and said she had to go! Her cooking was edible, though not great, but overall she was just too slow. The way she wasted water was just unbelievable, and when she took to throwing dirty water down the toilet (and risking clogging it right away) I completely lost it with her.

So after I’d given her a couple of days, I called the agency and told them to send K along. They came, punctually, at the appointed hour, I discussed a few things with K, then we got down to nitty-gritties with the agency fellow. We’d already got a reference name and number out of K, along with photo ID and residence proof. Now, Amit wanted to know, what service would the agency provide for the cool 3 k they were charging us? If K absconded, would they replace her? If she stole our valuables (such as they are), would they reimburse us the value? No? Then of what exact use were they? He offered to pay the 3 k staggered at monthly intervals; the agency fellow got on the phone with some bigger agency fellow, who got on the phone with Amit. At the end of ten minutes’ talk, they were at a stalemate. The agency fellow took K in tow and stormed out!

This was terrible, because by now I’d grown very fond of K. She looked to me, purely on instinct, as a potential replacement for Shaba-Aunty. I thought she could eventually become a long term, faithful family retainer. She appeared to be somewhat literate, a bit cultured, clean, respectable, spoke a smattering of English, and generally seemed like the sort of person I wouldn’t entirely mind leaving my kids in charge of. She was – going by her CV – 6 years older than me and had grandchildren Mrini and Tara’s age. What’s more, she’d been in the employ of some Canadian Chinese doctor woman for the past nine years, so she might even have picked up some halfway decent cooking skills, I hoped. She seemed just about right – we even had two languages in common. What more could anyone ask for?

We eyed each other sadly as the agency fellow stormed out. We conveyed to each other, silently, that we had met with each other’s approval and that this would not be the end of the line for us.

The next day, I called up the agency and re-opened negotiations as if Amit’s interlude with the big boss had never happened. I agreed to pay half their fee up front and the balance after 5 days. Five! It could so easily be a con – just turn up, get someone to do some cooking for five days, pocket 3 k and disappear. Of course, zero days was better than five days from the conman’s perspective, but five days was basically nothing. If they disappeared with our cash, I’d be left with a big, fat, stinky egg all over my face, especially since Amit was not very convinced about the deal at all. I reposed all my trust in K’s open and honest face and paid up.

It’s not been five days yet, but K is the kind of worker I can deal with. Yesterday I told her to make cauliflower. She did what I asked her to the way I asked her to, then, on her own initiative, kept apart some of it and made it in a different style, so that I could taste her style of cooking. It was good – but even if it hadn’t been, I’d have been impressed with this eagerness to take the initiative. She is not a particularly fast worker, but she’s not slow in an inefficient, lazy way – she’s slow in a systematic and careful way, which is a different thing altogether. She’s neat and cleans up nicely when she’s done and – most importantly – she’s punctual. So far she has exhibited a slight tendency to involve me in the details of her personal life, but at least she has not – unlike P – asked me for any monetary handouts yet. Much to my irritation, P asked me for a hundred bucks before she’d been at work for three days! And I had to give it to her, because I didn’t know how to say “manage your expenses and wait for your salary” in Kannada! And that irritated me no end!

The trouble is, K is not willing to sweep and swab. P is – in fact, I sensed that she was more willing to sweep and swab than she was eager to cook. So logically I should employ both of them and then the work gets nicely divided up between them. Trouble is that I don’t like P for a number of reasons already enumerated, and I also don’t like her because she stands in the kitchen and brews trouble with K, who can’t escape because her work confines her to the kitchen. As a result, both of them hang around and chat and none of the work gets done. And since P does a lousy job anyway and is always waiting to be scolded by me before doing something, naturally she’s the one I’m itching to get rid of. That I can do a better – though less frequent – job of cleaning the house myself is something I don’t doubt in the least.

But then… I’m not too eager to go back to sweeping and swabbing right now, so I suppose I’ll keep her for as long as I can.

It Gets Better

Three weeks on I can venture to say that our cook, K, has turned out to be a gem. She’s punctual, polite, speaks enough of a cocktail of English and Hindi so we can usually get by, and… she’s a good cook! I might even go so far as to say she’s a great cook! She does fairly unconventional cooking, from sambhar with cauliflower, to chicken stew, to Chinese-style steamed vegetables and prawn fried rice. She makes rajma the way I like it, without masala and with lots of tomato; she leaves veggies slightly undercooked and crunchy; and she uses permissible quantities of salt and oil even by Amit’s impossible stringent standards. I disapprove of her using ketchup in her cooking, but I must admit she does it to good effect. Her only flaw is that her rotis are about as perfectly round as Australia. Some even look a bit like Africa. But what the heck – they are soft and thin and I’m not too particular about the shape if everything else is perfect.

The best part is that she’s cheerful and willing – she doesn’t make a grumpy face if you ask her for a little extra, like a spur-of-the-moment omelette or dosa or custard. She takes initiative in suggesting the menu and deviating from plan. She even takes stock of stuff that is running low and tells us to get replenishments. She is matter-of-fact in a nice way with the kids. She’s – dare I say it – the answer to a prayer! I just hope that this is the start of a long and beautiful relationship.

I must also say, of course, that everything that she is, is what I had suspected from my first glance at her. Only the excellence of her culinary skill took me by surprise – but I instinctively guessed she would be a nice person and that seems to have been a correct assessment. I only hope she doesn’t do something nasty now and prove all my crowing wrong.

It’s another story with P, whom we had employed at the start of Feb to come and clean for us. From the start, it was clear that P was not the kind of person I could tolerate for long. She did as little work as she could, as imperfectly as possible. She came at arbitrary hours – once she said she’d come at 10 a.m. on a Saturday and finally turned up at 8 p.m.! – willfully disregarded my instructions, gossiped with K (which I wouldn’t have minded, except K did – ‘what is your salary?’ on day one! ), and generally was more trouble than she was worth. I sacked her after suffering her for two weeks, but she told me – using K as interpreter – that she’d do a better job, that she’d clean the house as if it were her own. Of course, nothing changed, so a few days later I sacked her again and she went off without fussing. I paid her, of course, so hopefully she will not return with a knife on some dark and lonely night.

K promptly said she knew someone who would do the work. A walk-in interview was conducted yesterday. L is plump and cheerful. She looks like she might or might not be much better at her work than P, but might be less irritating about it. She understands bits of Hindi, so hopefully I can at least attempt to have a direct conversation with her whenever required. L of course demanded way more by way of salary than I was expecting to pay. I reluctantly agreed, but the next day K came extra early to catch me before L turned up and to tell me that I didn’t know what I was doing. “L really needs the work,” she said, “and you are paying way more than you should be. You tell her you will not pay so much, I already told her, that Sir (Amit) will discuss terms with her, not you.” What!? Did she just undermine my authority with my new recruit? Did she just go above my head to middle management!? And would L even believe that I – I! – was not capable of negotiating terms with her? That I needed to get approval from “Sir”?

L was opportunistic and I didn’t grudge her that, but that K should be so involved on my behalf was… unexpectedly sweet. So we played it that way and when Amit took the “Sir” role with her, L meekly agreed to a slightly lower salary.

Between the two of them, as of yesterday, cooking, cleaning, washing dishes, and laundry management is taken care of. Phew! If they both settle down to this work and I can depend on them to get it done without having to watch over them and instruct them every day – and K is past that stage already – then my life really will be back on track. And not a moment too soon. January was one of the toughest months in recent memory – I don’t want to go back to that situation anytime soon. Or ever.

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