How Do They Do It?

November 30, 2010

It’s so difficult to keep one’s priorities straight in life and not lose sight of them, and, most importantly, to make enough time for the most important of them.

In recent days, I’ve met a couple of amazingly well turned out women. They are working women, and they are moms. Yet they manage to look like they do nothing but sit around and take care of themselves all day long. If you think that sounds catty, let me be absolutely clear: I mean it as an honest and sincere compliment. It’s great to be able to make the time to do that, when you have a job and a family to look after. I wish I could do that.

My priorities are family, work, and self, in that order. Self encompasses: author ambitions; interests such as Archaeology, music, travel, photography, tennis etc; health (a distant third); and of course social life in terms of keeping in touch with friends and family. For all of this to be crammed into the small space left over after the demands of work and kids… means there isn’t a whole lot of time and energy for any of it. And yet, all of it is important.

It’s not that priorities are fixed and unchanging entities. Far from it. They should and often do change from week to week – and sometimes from day to day – depending on circumstances. Tight deadlines? Work is top priority. Kid falls sick? Work is forgotten! I’m fed up to the gills with work, the kids and everything? It’s time for some rest and relaxation, for a day spent with friends, or with a book (or a week spent in Italy!). But once I’m done with the r&r, it’s back to work and family and ‘self’ goes onto the back shelf for a while.

I have managed to do a few things for myself over the years, despite the combined demands of career and family. I have kept up my tennis fairly regularly, though I might not be playing as well as I used to. And I have resumed my online Archaeology course, though in my opinion I’m making a complete hash of it right now.

It’s difficult to know whether it is more important to do something, or to do something well. When I decided to resume and hopefully complete my Archaeology course, I chose to ‘do something’ and practically gave up on ‘doing it well’. I’m now aiming only to complete the course; I know I’m not going to be able to do it justice. That’s not nice, really. Obviously, I want to do it and I want to do it well. But I can’t, I have to choose. So I’ve chosen to just complete it, somehow. If I wait until I can do it well, I will never complete it, because you have a five year period to complete it and four years are up already.

Now, as a consequence of resuming this course, there are, naturally, some other things that I’m not doing. For one thing, I’m neither sleeping nor exercising as much as I’d like. That’s probably also taking a toll on my tennis. So not only am I not doing justice to my studies, I’m also not doing justice to my tennis, nor to myself (by sleeping too little – a crime against nature; I’m a firm believer in the criticality of getting enough sleep).

All of this is fine. My course finishes by Christmas, and then I can reconsider my priority list yet again. But each time I do so, the difficult part is keeping the top priorities balanced and giving each one sufficient attention at the right time. It’s easy (unavoidable, in fact) to let some things slip. And the least “crucial” things are the first to go. In my life, that includes some of my varied “interests”, health (which means diet and exercise), and – top of the list of things to let slip – taking care of myself.

Taking care of myself comes so much lower on the list than everything else, that it usually falls right off the bottom before I even notice it’s being neglected. Looking good, or at least as good as you can, takes time and money, just like anything else. You have to work at it, to be the right weight, dress the right way, use the right creams and stuff, go to the ‘parlour’ every other week or so. I don’t have time for any of that. I’ve never had time for any of that. Heck, I’ve never even had time to sew a button on to a shirt, much less enhance my wardrobe. It’s just never been high enough on the priority list.

And yet, these thoroughly glam women that I’ve happened to meet recently seem to be doing it all… I wonder how they do it. What’s worse is, they make it look so easy!


They don’t always look like this…

November 30, 2010

… and I’m not a great fan of mobile phone photography, but still…

Mrini-Tara being nice


Working Weekend

November 29, 2010

What a weekend! It was so busy that it’s going to be somewhat of a relaxation going back to work this week.

On Saturday morning, I took the cook to the bank and got her to open an account. It felt very good – at last, she could put a little bit of money away and hopefully both save it, and keep it out of the way of materialistic off-spring.

Then I went to buy notebooks for the kids. Their teacher has decided it is time for them to start writing! And they want the notebooks covered in colourful gift-wrapping paper, not in boring brown paper, so I let the girls pick out wrapping paper and labels for their notebooks too. That was fun.

By the time I got home around 12, Amit had come up with the cock-eyed idea of driving all the way to our old home – almost an hour’s drive away – to disconnect our old telephone connection and to transfer the electricity meter to our name (something we should have done years ago but didn’t). These are horribly tedious tasks that are better done by one person alone, but in a moment of madness I suggested that we all tag along and that’s what we did. While Amit went from this office to that, filling forms, writing letters, photocopying papers, and waiting for people to show up and do the needful, I hung around with the girls. We had sandwiches in Café Coffee Day for lunch, then went to a nearby beauty parlour and got the kids’ hair trimmed. Then we drove to our old home to get Supriya to witness something (I have no idea what). Then we went back to the electricity office. Then we went to another electricity office and waited for some elusive operator to turn up. When his “10-15 minutes” hadn’t fructified after half an hour or so, we went to Sukh Sagar to get Amit something to eat. We went back to the electricity office around 5, but the fellow’s 10-15 minutes still wasn’t done, so we decided to give up and start the long drive home. Along the way, Tara was found sucking on the strap of her shoe. This infuriated both of us, but Amit really lost it. He was driving, but he pulled over, rolled down her window, grabbed her shoe and – much to my shock and horror – threw it out! I thought he would relent and allow me to get out and recover the blameless shoe, but nothing doing! He drove off while Mrini and I sat in shocked silence and Tara sobbed.

By the time we got home, it was 6 p.m. – much too late now to go and tackle all the grocery shopping that we needed to get done. The kids hadn’t had their afternoon nap, and I hadn’t had any time to do my studies. And Tara was minus a pair of shoes.

And we had a lunch to prepare for on Sunday.

After having employed a cook for about five years now, I’m sorry to say that my culinary skills have almost entirely rusted beyond redemption. Where earlier I could rustle up at least half a dozen praiseworthy dishes, now I have only three weapons left in my arsenal. But they are potent ones – for the right audience. There’s my mutton curry, my crumb fried fish, and my cakes. My mother was not a great enthusiast when it came to cooking, but I have to thank her for at least two of these skills – cakes, and crumb fried fish. I learnt them from her and I learnt them good. (The mutton curry I learnt from my maternal grandmother’s family-retainer-for-generations cook. The current generation still does a fantastic job of the mutton curry, which I get to eat once in two years or so. Regretfully, I’ve never been able to exactly emulate the outcome, but my mother, sister, and I have all picked up a few salient features of the process and come quite close to the mutton curry heaven that that family has been able to turn out for generations. By now, it must be in their genes.)

On the rare occasions that we call people home for a homemade meal – as opposed to an ordered-in meal, which is much more frequent – I pull out one or more of my three trusty weapons. The same people are invited seldom enough that they never get bored of these dishes – or so I hope! In any case, you can’t really get bored of cake, especially since “cake” is a generic term that encompasses chocolate cake, vanilla cake, lemon-and-raisin cake, cherry-and-walnut cake and whatever-other-combinations-I-can-think-of cake. And you can’t really get bored of crumb fried fish either. As for mutton curry, I only make it about once in three months, and that’s not often enough to ever get bored of it.

Amit had invited an office colleague for lunch. We’d been to their place for lunch some months ago and they’d served up such a feast it would have put many a wedding menu to shame. What’s worse, it was a Bengali family and a thoroughly Bengali feast. I, of course, have absolutely nothing in my arsenal – past, present or future – that can match that. And mutton curry was ruled out due to reasons of rising cholesterol levels in at least two of the four adults amongst us.

What to do?

Our cook came to our rescue – chicken biryani and chicken kebab, she said. Amit was skeptical – we’ve never had her make chicken biryani for us so far; would it be any good? But I was quite convinced that it would be better than anything I could churn out and, with a head cold hanging around and making me feel jaded and sleepy since Friday, I was distinctly lacking in energy and enthusiasm for anything creative. Chicken biryani and kebab it would have to be.

I was supposed to do the shopping on Saturday, but various things got in the way, so it was Sunday morning, 9 a.m. before I got out of the house with an empty shopping bag and a long list. By 10.45 I was back. I frantically started to work on the crumb fried fish and the chocolate walnut cake in parallel, before I realized that I’d better serialize things or I might wind up with a chocolate cake tasting of fish (or, almost as bad, crumb fried fish tasting of chocolate)!

Crumbing fish is an oddly relaxing task. I had only an hour in hand to finish preparing the fish and pop the cake in the oven, but even so, once I started working on the fish, I couldn’t help relaxing. The mechanical process of dusting the fish in flour, dropping it in beaten egg, and then wrapping it with breadcrumbs, occupies just the right volume of brain and frees up the rest to wander at will. It was as relaxing as driving might have been, if only one didn’t have to fend off the homicidal (and sometimes suicidal) tendencies of other lunatics on the road all the time. Luckily, crumbing fish tended never to be a matter of life and death. (Though of course, if you wound up with fish tasting of chocolate, some might consider it almost as bad.)

By 11.40, I was ready to work on the cake. By 12.05, I was done with it. Great – only five minutes behind schedule; the guests had been invited for 12. The cook had been instructed to arrive at 11, to do the biryani and kebab. By the time the cake went into the oven, there was no sign of either guests or cook. I tried the cook’s mobile, but to no avail. We started discussing Plan B and realized we didn’t have one. For me to start making biryani at this late hour was entirely impossible. Luckily, the cook turned up soon, and the guests turned up late, so some sort of order was restored to the world.

This cook was never one to work at the speed of light, but she had a delicious biryani done by 1.30, just as the first glass of beer was going down nicely, helped along with the crumb fried fish that she had promptly fried. From that point on, things proceeded on schedule, with lunch at 2, a short outing to the park at 4, coffee and cake at 4.30, and “It was so nice of you…” “a pleasure” and “we must do this again” around 5. The cook, bless her heart, had spent the intervening hours cooking for Monday, laundry-management, and round after round of washing up, so that by the time everyone left, there was absolutely nothing for me to do, but blog about it!

Oh and, put those colourful gift wrapping sheets around the four notebooks I’d bought yesterday, something I hate doing, and consequently do very badly.

And then stay up till almost 2 a.m. to watch Roger beat Rafa for a change.

It was one hectic weekend, no doubt, made no easier by the head cold that made me feel lethargic and sleepy through it all. And I didn’t study a single word of Archaeology and I have no idea how I’m going to do the slightest bit of justice to this module. And I’m still sleepy and I still have a cold. But at least there’s a little bit of chocolate walnut cake left over… and I can now add chicken biryani and kebab to my culinary arsenal – albeit by proxy.


Planning Our Next Holiday…

November 26, 2010

For our entire married life, Amit and I have not let a holiday opportunity slip by unnoticed. We compare holiday calendars as soon as they appear and note all the three day weekends, four day weekends, and take-a-day-or-two-off-and-make-it-a-five-day (or sometimes a nine-day) weekends. We start to plan holidays six months before the date and our tickets are all booked on the 90th day before the date of travel – the earliest that you can book train tickets in India. Air tickets are booked so far in advance that they actually become a little cheaper a little while after we book them – strange are the ways of air ticket pricing mechanisms. Leave is sanctioned more than a month before the date. And our bags are packed – usually – about a couple of hours before departure. Unless we’re trekking – then we actually start packing a couple of days before, but still manage to leave out various vital equipment – and then find that we can actually get by without it.

After the kids came, our holidays have been less exotic and more mundane, but there have still been a few holidays. Trekking trips have largely been replaced by visits to meet family, and, of course, several good opportunities were used up on the multiple trips to Pondicherry. All the same, we have managed – jointly and severally – to work in trips to Lakshadweep, Binsar, Kasauli, Karwar, Cauvery Fishing Camp (twice), Ladakh, Goa, and Italy, quite apart from time spent meeting the family or travelling to Pondicherry. The last three named were done singly, without the kids, but even without those, that’s six holidays in three years, three of them more than a week long. Not bad going, don’t you think?

And now we have another nine day weekend coming up, just a month away – Christmas. You know where we’re going? You’ll never guess!

Nowhere. Precisely nowhere.

We haven’t had the time to book anything!

To put that in perspective, those of you who knew us five odd years ago know that we’d hear of a place on a Wednesday afternoon, book it on Thursday, and carry our luggage to work on Friday, prior to boarding an overnight bus. And we’d catch an overnight bus back on Sunday night and walk into office looking tired but thrilled (I think) on Monday morning!

I really don’t have the energy to do that anymore. But, passing up a nine-day holiday? I can’t, surely, let that happen!

Still, we seem to have. We haven’t booked anything and with only a month to go in the height of holiday season, I don’t think we’re going to get anything now. We’ve thrown around ideas of driving down to Mysore, and we might do that, but that really doesn’t count.

The worst thing is, I’m even actually looking forward to not going anywhere. I’m eyeing those nine days and thinking:

  • I have 3 issues of the National Geographic magazine to catch up on
  • I haven’t filed, sorted, and uploaded photos since May
  • I haven’t read the book on Hadrian’s Villa that I bought in Italy; or any book, come to that, apart from Archaeology text books that are so successful in putting me to sleep
  • I have to run down a couple of cheque payments that went astray and now require the whole stamp-paper-indemnity-letter runaround
  • I haven’t been for a movie since I don’t know when; it would also be nice to get away for a meal or two with Amit without the kids
  • I would love to have more time to play tennis
  • I want to take the kids swimming – they have been asking for the longest time, but there’s never enough time!
  • I could really use a sleep holiday – when I get to sleep right up till the time I wake up naturally

And so on.

Wanderlust has not entirely deserted either of us yet, though. We’re still dreaming of visiting the Serengeti next year, before Tanzania puts a road through it. We still have our eye on Egypt, which we’d almost booked in 2007 when the kids came along and happily destroyed that plan. And there’s still the Trans Siberian train that’s got berths reserved in our names (figuratively speaking). And of course we will have to take the kids trekking next year, or maybe the year after that. We’re not done with Ladakh or the Himalayas yet.

Yes, there are still lots of places to see and I’m sure there are lots of journeys we have yet to take, jointly or severally. But maybe, surprising (or shocking) as it may seem, maybe this time it’s time to take a stay-at-home holiday. After all, you’re never too old to try something new.

My only problem is: why is that blissful holiday still so far away?


Maybe I Don’t Want to Hear This

November 24, 2010

Because we have adopted, people talk to me about adoption. Because we have been through infertility, the adoption topic sometimes goes on into the infertility topic. Sometimes people I don’t even know talk to me about adoption and/or infertility. In almost all cases, this is not a bad thing.

Apart from the fact that we still have not actually got Mrini and Tara’s adoption decree from Pondicherry, the fact that they are adopted makes not the slightest impact on our lives together, or the way we feel or behave with them. We love them, we get irritated with them, we scold them, we sometimes need to get away from them, and then we miss them just the same as we would if they had come to us the “usual” way. The way they came to us really makes no difference now.

Let me repeat this, because it is really important that it should be absolutely clear to anyone reading this: The way they came to us *really* makes no difference now.

What I’m going to say next is going to seem like a flat-out contradiction. The fact that I was never pregnant and never had my own pregnancy and labor-room experience to cherish and share… still pinches, still hurts, just a little.

The reason this is not a contradiction with what I said earlier is that, these are actually two separate things altogether. They exist in watertight compartments. That they happen to share a cause-and-effect relationship is largely incidental. I still have a  slight, niggling regret that I never experienced pregnancy, will never experience pregnancy, but it has nothing to do with the joy, pride and satisfaction I have in my family, now whole, now the way it was meant to be.

Years ago, when we were TTC (trying to conceive), watching, meeting, talking about, even thinking or reading about pregnancy could and often did reduce me to tears. Those days are long gone. These days, I can face all of that without feeling a thing.

*Almost* without feeling a thing.

I don’t grudge people the happiness and expectancy of pregnancy (any more). I don’t blanch at the sight of pregnant women. Why should I – I have my babies already. I don’t have to wonder (any more) when it’s ever going to work out for me, or if, or how; I don’t have to go home and cry – I can just go home and hug my kids and try to tell them how much I love them.

And yet… you can’t take this peace, this equanimity for granted. If you rub my nose in it, it still hurts, just a little. I know that pregnancy is not something I’m going to experience ever in this lifetime, and I have made my peace with that, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt at all. If you pick an old wound hard enough, if you scratch it deep enough, you still can draw a drop or two of blood from it. It’s not completely gone yet.

I think I’m not alone. Many women have a story, a sad, private experience of uncooperative partners, unwilling bodies, unfulfilled desires. We are not the majority, of course; the majority, I hope, are all you lucky women with easy, happy, stories. But when you gather around in a group and start discussing all the joys and pains of pregnancy and labor, just remember that other women have faced different kinds of pain. And if I hear the gory details of your pregnancy and labor-room experiences in graphic detail and instead of responding with sympathy I respond with a tinge of envy; or if I visit you in the maternity ward to congratulate you on your own little bawling bundle of joy and the word “lucky” slips out… understand that I’m not making light of your experience, I’m sure it was really hard for you. It’s just a slight but deep expression of regret for something that I’ll never have.

Talk to me about adoption all you want – it’s my happy story. Talk to me about infertility, if you want – I’ve been there and I’ve survived. But when you talk to me about pregnancy, tread lightly – there’s a tiny corner in my heart where a little bit of pain still lives.

——————

Having said all this, I also don’t want people to start walking on eggshells around me when it comes to pregnancy. Remember, I said I’m almost entirely ok about it? I am. All I want is for you to think, when you start recounting your labor-room story in excruciating detail, just to think whether this is something the other person really wants to hear. Chances are, it’s ok; but more often than you realise, it might not be ok. So just think about it, that’s all.


Blame It On Adoption

November 22, 2010

The other day, a friend was talking about someone she knew who was having trouble conceiving, but didn’t want to adopt. Her reason for being very convinced that she didn’t want to adopt was that she knew someone else who had adopted a boy who had grown up to be a “delinquent” and was “criminally-minded”.

But wait.

My friend and I went on to talk of other things, so I don’t know what exactly the delinquency and criminal mindedness involved, what were the possible causes of it, and whether there was any possible resolution… but unless it was behavior that had a clearly psychiatric root (like schizophrenia, or OCD, or multiple personality disorder or somesuch*) it couldn’t possibly be blamed on the misguided boy’s genes, could it? You couldn’t possibly say, “Oh, he’s adopted, he has petty thievery, or arson or whatever in his genes. That’s why he’s like this.”

I’m not even saying that adoption itself could not have influenced the boy’s behavior in any way. Perhaps there were complex psychological reasons that drove him to “delinquency” that were somehow tangled up with the fact of his adoption (assuming he knew; or worse, suspected). As far as I know, he was not adopted at an older age, when he might have seen, understood, and been affected by many things in his former life; I think he was adopted as an infant, so the adoption was prior to his earliest conscious memories and experiences. There are those who argue that the scars of abandonment and subsequent adoption are terrible and permanent even on very young infants, and this might be true, but certainly they wouldn’t be conscious scars that could lead to certain types of thoughts and actions in that boy. After all, not all, nor even (as far as I know) many or most, of adopted children turn “delinquent”.

And besides. When you blame the adopted child’s unknown genetic ancestry, you are basically saying, “my genes are better than your biological parents’ genes.” But that’s crap. You might say, my social standing or my house of my job or my education or my pay package or my ethics or even (most controversially) my religion are better than those I suspect your biological parents might have had (since we know practically nothing about an adopted child’s birth parents in most cases in India); but to say that my genes are better than theirs is utter nonsense. Even if you knew everything about your adopted child’s birth parents, you still could not win an argument based on “my genes are better than theirs”. Look wide enough and deep enough into your family tree and you’ll find plenty there to shake your belief in the superiority of your genes – and everything else. That’s my bet. (At least you will find cancer, diabetes, heart disease, psychiatric disorders of some kind, a criminal tendency of some kind, alcoholism, and some degree of illicit relationships; family trees are almost without exception absolutely fascinating in this regard.)

So, if your adopted child turns out to be “delinquent” or “criminally-minded” then it’s either not due to his genes, or, if it is, you can’t be sure that your own genes would have done a better job.

It’s unfair, on the other hand, to place the blame entirely on his adoptive family for his delinquency or criminal mindedness. After all, anyone who adopts a child does so with every intention of loving that baby and making it their own. (That might be a naïve assumption, but let’s assume it is true for this particular family.) This family, like any other family, presumably gave their son all the love, attention, and material needs to help him grow into a normal, happy, successful person. In my experience, when your adopted child has been with you for only a few months, much less for many years, he is just as much your child as if he had been your biological child. If so, then when you see your child going astray, surely you wouldn’t blame it on the adoption, or on his genes, and quickly wash your hands of it. Surely you’d step in and try to take charge of the boy, try to help him, try to understand him, without ever feeling “oh, he’s adopted, it’s in his genes, nothing to do with me.”

I mean, we’re adopted parents. I can’t imagine any kind of eventuality with my girls where I would react at all differently than I would with biological children. Any medical, behavioural, or psychiatric problem would be our problem to face and figure out. Even if they eventually turn out to have some sort of genetic or congenital problem that has not manifested itself yet, we could still not shrug it off saying, “oh, that’s from their biological parents, nothing to do with us.” When we did the medical tests before we adopted them, we might have not gone ahead with the adoption if any serious medical problem (especially HIV) had surfaced. But that was before. They are now no less to us than our own biological children would be. And if your biological child turned out to have a medical problem, or turned out to be “delinquent” or “criminally-minded” – what would you do? Would you disown him, saying, “I don’t know where he got that from but it’s not from me”?

It’s not as if biological children never go wrong. It’s not as if every biological child is an angel for life. There are plenty of misguided kids out there, so-called “delinquent” and “criminally-minded,” and most of them are biological. Has that stopped anyone from having biological kids? Does anyone say, “I know so-and-so, such a nice family, such decent, respectable people, but their son turned out to be a thief and their daughter ran away with the car cleaner when she was 13, so that’s why I don’t want to have kids.”

Maybe there are people who say that – but not too many, given the rate at which the global (and Indian) population is growing. More often, I believe (or hope) the reaction would be “my children will never turn out to be like that”; or at least, “I hope my children never turn out like that.”

So it upsets me that when an adopted child goes wrong, people blame it on adoption.

Some aspects of a person’s character and destiny are determined by their genes. There are some twin studies to show that identical twins brought up separately might grow up to look identical, have similar hairstyles, similar preferences, similar careers, similar illnesses, even similar names for their kids and dogs. They live similar and parallel lives, even though they’ve been subject to quite different environments. This is the “nature” part of the Nature-Nurture argument.

On the other hand, so many things are also influenced by environment, specially family and home. Our children are presumably Tamilian by birth, but they speak primarily English, eat the mixed up cuisine we make at home, listen to western classical music along with Hindi Oldies, and watch primarily tennis on TV. They are going to grow up a very confused, cosmopolitan mish-mash. This is what “nurture” is going to give them.

They might still turn “delinquent”. Or they might turn out to be geniuses at something quite unexpected – like bharatnatyam, or marine biology. Their character and their destiny can’t possibly be derived directly either from their genes or from their environment. Every person is a complicated outcome of both nature and nurture, along with a little something extra that they bring to the table which nobody can say where it comes from.

Then how – how? – can you point to a boy who was adopted and is now apparently “delinquent” and say, “See, adopted boys become delinquent, that’s why I don’t want to adopt.”

How?

There are many reasons that people might choose not to go for adoption. Some I can sympathise with, others I can understand even if I am not in sympathy with those. But this? I simply cannot comprehend. The only way I can make sense of this is to conclude that this person essentially does not want to adopt and is looking for a way to rationalise/justify it.

But it’s sad.

——————-

* On re-reading this (yes, sometimes I read my own posts…) I realise it sounds like these psychiatric conditions can be justifiably blamed on genes. This, as far as I know, is only partly true. As with most things, the causes here are partly genetic, partly environmental. But at least these are demonstrably partly genetic or congenital – as opposed to behaviour which is not caused by psychiatric factors and has no discernible genetic cause.

——————-

Postscript (27 Nov 2010): Today’s paper, strangely enough, had an article about the genetic origins of criminality as demonstrated by a study of criminal tendencies in adopted children. If the new article is taken at face value, it is indeed correct to say that adopted children whose biological parents had criminal tendencies are more likely to have criminal tendencies. I still think that at the moment this study shows only a correlation, and not cause-and-effect relationship demonstrating that criminality is in the genes, but I could be wrong. It’s a bitter pill to swallow, though.


Home Visit

November 19, 2010

Another nice thing that the kids’ school has, is this concept of a home visit. Once a year (I think) the Montessori kids get to drop in to a classmate’s home. I don’t think the youngest kids (M1) get to go – at least, I don’t remember Mrini and Tara going for this last year – but this year their home visit happened yesterday.

I must admit it gave me a bit of a heartattack to start with. I’d just driven in to my office parking lot and was walking to the elevator when my phone rang. It was their class teacher. I immediately stopped in my tracks and started thinking how long it would take to get to their school and also wondering what could possibly have gone wrong in the ten minutes or so since Amit dropped them in school. It was such a relief to know that I was just being informed that they would be going on a home visit and that the teacher and forgotten to tell Amit, so she decided to call me! At that point, I would have agreed to a home visit at the ends of the earth. (When did I become such a panicky mom? But, in my defense, an unexpected call from the class teacher can only ever be bad news, right?)

As it happened, I’d made chocolate cake on Wednesday and the kids were carrying the remains of it in their snack boxes that day. That was a pity. We usually give them such terribly boring (I mean, healthy) snacks that I can only imagine they are not exactly the cynosure of all eyes when they open their snack boxes in school. I routinely took two biscuits – and the same two biscuits – to school for almost my entire school life. Even back then, Krackjack was not something kids got excited about. There was usually a crowd around those kids who brought parathas, sometimes smothered in jam and sugar. So I’ve had plenty of experience of being the kid with the least exciting snack box. While I can’t give my girls exciting (sugary, fried, or otherwise unhealthy) snacks everyday, I can at least give them a bit of cake once a year or so. I’d even give them homemade cake more often, except I usually bake on the weekend so there’s nothing left by the time school comes around again.

Amit told me that when he went to drop them at school yesterday evening, there was a boy standing at the door of their class. Apparently Tara went straight to him and said, “I brought cake. I won’t give you.” To which the boy, without missing a beat, replied, “I got sauce. I won’t give you.”

I wonder what eventually came of that little verbal exchange!

When I met the girls at daycare yesterday evening, another entertaining exchange took place.

T: I finished my snack! I ate it in the van.

Me: Did you share it with your friends?

T: I only shared it with Ayodhana (it must be Arodhana, or maybe even Aradhana, but Ayodhana is what both the kids say).

M: I didn’t eat my snack. I’ll eat it when I get home.

At this point, Mrini, who had been in my arms, gave an indignant shout and jumped out of my arms. Tara had made a beeline for Mrini’s school bag and was now quickly opening Mrini’s snack box! Mrini raced over, grabbed her snack box, went and showed off the cake to the daycare coordinator, offered her a piece, then packed it up quickly before she could take any. Tara pulled a small box of shiny stuff out of her school bag.

T: I got toys! You didn’t get toys! Sivam threw your toys out of the window.

M: I got cake. I won’t share with you.

T: I don’t want! I got toys.

At this point, I have to explain that my girls are not really as selfish as these verbal duets make them seem. Tara usually happily gives away upto 80% of her kingdom, even if it is chocolate cake and even if it is to Mrini (and Amit and me) and even if her recipients have already finished their own share of the cake. Mrini is a little more measured in the quantities she gives, but, with a little persuasion, she does give almost as cheerfully as Tara. But of course, nothing beats the sheer childish delight of the chant: “I got cake. I won’t give you.”

A little later, we managed to all get in the car and start the drive home. Slowly, they disclosed various disjointed bits of information about their home visit.

  • We went in a yellow van. There were lots of kids. (They proceeded to name several classmates. They also told me which teachers accompanied them.)
  • The seniors didn’t come. They went to (another kid’s) home. (Seniors refers to M3 kids.)
  • Na didn’t come. He was absent.
  • Ni didn’t come, she’s a baby. (Baby refers to the M1 kids; so apparently M1 kids don’t get to go.)

I asked if they went to a house or an apartment. Unsurprisingly, the girls didn’t know the difference. I asked if there was a garden, like we had. Tara said, “We have a garden? Where?” So then I asked if they went in a lift.

  • T: No.
  • M: Yes, we went in a lift. The number was 8. (I presume this means that R’s home is on the eighth floor.)
  • R’s sister was home. She opened the door.
  • T: Then R said a big Hiiiiiiiiiiiii. Like that.
  • R’s Mama and Papa and Didi were there.

(I tried to ask about R’s home – living room, dining room, verandah, the furniture and so on, but I didn’t get much. Tara made a funny face and asked “What’s that?” when I asked about a dining room! I gather R has a TV, which was off, and there was a pink cycle and a multicoloured car in the veranda, which Mrini drove “of course”.)

  • We had juice!
  • And there was pani puri.
  • And bread and Maggi.
  • And halwa. (But maybe not sooji halwa.)
  • So many plates were on the floor.
  • T: I picked up a plate because somebody dropped her halwa. But I didn’t help to clean up the halwa.
  • We didn’t eat anything.
  • T: I didn’t take a plate because Na didn’t have a plate also.
  • When we got back to school, we took our bags and went in the blue van (to daycare).

Well, they seem to have had fun. I’m sure they ate something, despite their loud disclaimers. And we all got a bite of the surviving chocolate cake at home yesterday evening, despite Mrini’s loud protestations earlier. And they both played with Tara’s toy for all of five minutes before losing interest in it completely and totally. And I got something to write about, albeit vicariously.


Living with Temporary Insanity

November 15, 2010

I didn’t know it thirteen-odd years ago when I contemplated getting married to Amit and decided It wouldn’t be all that bad a thing to do, but apparently marriage involves coming to grips with all sorts of things, not the least of which is various bouts of temporary insanity in one’s better half.

There have already been several such episodes to contend with that I can recall offhand. There was the conviction that the two of us could manage our careers and still do ALL the household work between us without needing any domestic help of any sort. We started busting that myth five years ago and have gone from strength to strength in that area. There was the insistence that all the cooking for two people could be done in less than half a litre of oil per month, and that a kilo of salt should last us for the rest of our natural lives. (Yeah, I was laughing out loud at the time, too.) There was the philosophy that we should eat two non-vegetarian meals every day, followed by the philosophy that we should convert to vegetarianism (and teetotaler-ism to boot!). There was the uncontrollable urge to buy a huge, gleaming, spanking new, sexy car, only to keep it parked in the garage day after day because Bangalore roads are too broken and messed up for a beauty like that (and it’s not even an Audi, only a Honda Civic). There was the extramarital affair with the plumber, which I’ve complained about at great length earlier and which my darling husband has often threatened to repeat. There was the adamant refusal to shave or go for a haircut for months on end, which resulted in thick, free-flowing locks that made my better half look like some kind of sham holy-man. (How big a sham that would be – he’s a confirmed atheist!)

And others, which are now lost in the sands of time.

Needless to say, though I’ve necessarily had to endure most of these episodes with my customary fortitude, I have done my utmost to distance myself from both the implementation as well as the underlying philosophy. Imagine – me, avoid alcohol and turn vegetarian!? I’ve only managed to endure one month of such unnecessary and traumatic abstinence once in my entire adult life and then I was quite starved by the end of that month. And as for cars – I bought the biggest one I could in my budget, I’ve driven it mercilessly and ruthlessly for a little over a year, and I’ve acquired enough battle scars to show for it. Keep it parked at home covered in six inches of dust and take a bus to work? Are you crazy???

My no longer “better” half’s latest manifestation of mental imbalance is to do with garbage. He has been avidly collecting all our food scraps for the past two-and-a-half months and storing them in a large, three-tiered compost pot in a veranda just next to our living room. We keep the door firmly closed, so mostly the wonderful aromas don’t make it into the house, but that doesn’t hold for the maggots. If I find less than half a dozen of them crawling around next to our shoe rack (we don’t actually have a shoe rack, but I mean the place where the shoe rack would be if we had one) then I can count myself lucky. At their worst, we’ve had infestations that must have numbered over a hundred individuals in a period of 24 hours. And if you’re thinking that maggots give birth to maggots, so killing off (or at least sterilizing) some of them will stem the tide, let me disillusion you. Black soldier flies lay eggs that turn into maggots. And black soldier flies love decomposing garbage. (it’s amazing the variety of useless information you can get from 30 seconds spent on the Internet.)

To add to the décor of the veranda, we also have a nice little brown bat that likes to hang itself out to dry under the tiles of that veranda’s ceiling. Its droppings make a nice little mosaic pattern on the veranda’s floor, much to our landlord’s alarm. I did another 30 seconds of research on the Net and found that bats can be expected to live for anything from 10-30 years (depending on the species; I couldn’t determine the species of our bat in those 30 seconds). Charming – so there’s no hope of it dying in the next couple of weeks. And it doesn’t seem to eat black soldier flies. Or maggots. Useless.

Anyhow, after collecting garbage and sweeping up maggots for a little over two months, my darling husband spent the weekend making love to his compost pot. He thinks it’s a blooming miracle; I think it’s just one of many natural processes and it’s fairly gross, and why must it be given pride of place right outside my living room? On Saturday, this poor, besotted man sat down on the guano-covered veranda floor to spend a few hours with his latest passion. He sieved the garbage, separating whole chicken bones out of the coffee-powder-ish compost, and then sat for an hour or two just letting the powdery compost run through his fingers, a goofy smile on his face and a strange, dreamy look in his eyes. When the kids came to see what he was up to, he made them fondle the compost as well! (Supriya, are you reading this???) What’s worse, when we went for our friend V’s birthday party on Saturday, he took him a sample of compost rolled up in a newspaper as a birthday gift! (Other people brought flowers…)

This compost mess didn’t stop with the compost, however. Amit also managed to spot a “natural” clothes-washing soap at the compost-pot shop. It was a bag of what looked like dried and very crumbly apricots, but which was actually a seed of a tree and is commonly known as soap nut. A friend identified it for us as what is known as “Ritha” in Hindi (or something like it). Instead of using this to just wash clothes, as instructed, Amit removed all other forms of cleaning solutions and bars from the house and replaced it with the solution made from boiling this nut – for washing clothes, dishes, hands, face, body, and hair. And anything else you’d want to wash.

Although not much convinced about this solution to dirt and germs, I agreed to try. The most disconcerting thing about this “soap” is that it doesn’t lather. On dishes it doesn’t remove the oil and grease. On hands it has no discernible effect. Likewise on clothes. I refused to use it while bathing and dug out an old bar of bath soap for me and the kids; but I did try to shampoo with it and found that it left my hair looking dank and feeling stiff, as though it hadn’t been washed for a couple of weeks. I persisted for more than ten days, but when I found my hair falling out in handfuls, I quickly discontinued and returned to the cocktail of chemicals that my hair is used to.

Despite all my protests, however, Amit insisted on using this soap-substitute to shampoo the kids’ hair yesterday. Yesterday, after a long time, I’d oiled their hair nicely with coconut oil. Obviously, coconut oil + soap nut = more coconut oil. The girls have gone off to school with oily hair plastered to their skulls and pulled into two tight pigtails apiece – looking like traditional Indian “good girls”. Ugh. I’ll have to shampoo them with Johnson’s baby shampoo tonight to fix this. Sigh.

My litany of complaints does not end here, though. I’ve not started on the fruit flies yet. Fruit flies, in case you haven’t met them personally, are these tiny flying things that look like infant mosquitoes. They don’t buzz and I don’t think they bite, but they irritate the hell out of me. I equate them with dirty and unhygienic places, probably because they love squishy and rotting fruit. Ugh. Over the years, I’ve learned to keep fruit flies at bay by putting all raw fruit and veg into the fridge – and that includes onions, potatoes, bananas, and other improbable stuff. I also try not to keep dirty dishes in the kitchen unwashed for more than half an hour.

I’ve been largely successful at not harbouring too many fruit flies, but when Amit’s father visited us in September, we had vast quantities of vegetables lying around on the kitchen counter all day long attracting all the fruit flies in the neighbourhood. I’ve not managed to completely eradicate them since. In the past few days, though, the fruit fly population has really exploded and I was becoming really rattled by them. Another 30 seconds on the Net disclosed the reason – they like fruit juice. Our new soap-substitute – saponin, soap nut, Ritha, or whatever you like to call it – is essentially fruit juice. Using it in the kitchen and all the bathrooms is like setting out a buffet for all the fruit flies in the neighbourhood and their extended family. The fruit juice appears to be here to stay (not that I’m a fan, but who’s asking me) so yesterday morning, I took out the cockroach-killer spray and – after removing the dishes – sprayed the kitchen sink, which seems to be the most popular hangout for the blasted fruit flies. An hour later, Amit woke up, smelt the insecticide and went ballistic. Apparently, the sight of all those poor little fruit flies lying dead in the sink was really tragic. Seriously? I mean, come on – they’re fruit flies! Do they even have a central nervous system. (Besides, isn’t this some kind of hypocrisy coming from a confirmed carnivore?)

Anyway, given the fruit fly situation and my life partner’s sensitivity to the sanctity of all life, no matter how repellent, I dare not even think along the lines of trying to get rid of that brown bat that isn’t doing anything about eating the black soldier flies that lay the eggs that turn into maggots that crawl all over our shoe rack and give me nightmares on a daily basis (waking nightmares, if you know what I mean).

Yes, I agreed to stand by him through thick and thin and all that, but isn’t this just a little too thick???


15 Authors I Love to Read

November 12, 2010

Chris tagged me on Facebook, apparently knowing very well that this would end up on my blog. The idea was to list my top 15 authors, without spending too much time mulling over the list – which I’ve done; and to tag others to do the same – which I’ve obviously not done. But don’t let that stop you – go ahead and create your own list, if you want to.

Meanwhile, here’s my list of my top 15 authors.

  1. Enid Blyton
  2. A A Milne
  3. Walter Farley
  4. Agatha Christie
  5. Gerald Durrell
  6. P G Wodehouse
  7. Charles Dickens
  8. James Hadley Chase
  9. Erle Stanley Gardner
  10. Georgette Heyer
  11. Dick Francis
  12. JRR Tolkein
  13. JK Rowling

This makes me realize some weird things about myself

  • I love murder mysteries! This is a surprise – I never realized I love murder mysteries this much. I seem to have grown up on a diet of murder mysteries! I’ve only listed five authors here, but I’ve left out Raymond Chandler, GK Chesterton (not exactly murder mysteries, but detective stories anyway), Ruth Rendell, the Nancy Drew author (the original author, not the proxy you get nowadays) and probably a few others. Oh, and if you think that Georgette Heyer in there is a nod at romances, think again – I’ve collected all 13 of her murder mysteries that hopefully still occupy pride of place in my mother’s house.
  • I like Brit writers. (Not really a surprise.)
  • I’ve read a lot of non-fiction in recent years, but I can’t recall any of the authors. (Weird.) There’s only one non-fiction author on that list.
  • Some of the authors from my childhood days still rate as my favourite authors.
  • I could only think of 13 authors. (Were you thinking I can’t count? I can, but it doesn’t matter because all these little icon thingies actually do the counting for you nowadays. No wonder human brain capacity is decreasing.) Initially I put Bill Bryson on the list as a nod at travel writing, but then I realized he’s not in the same class as the other authors in my list (probably because he doesn’t do murder mysteries), so I took him off. (Poor Bill – what a slap in the face!)
  • In my mind, Enid Blyton is actually two or three authors – the author of Noddy, who taught me to read; the author of the house in the tree series, was it called the Faraway Tree or something like that?; the author of the Famous Five and the Secret Seven series; and the author of St Clairs, which was a series like no other. Oh, that’s actually four different authors. So does that make my list of 15 complete?
  • There are lots of individual books I’ve loved, which would probably make it to my list of top 15 books, but very few authors that I’ve gone back to time and time again. (And not all the authors listed above would have a book features on the list of top 15 books. Weird.)

In fact, that last point there got me thinking: Why not a list of top 15 books as well?

  1. Waiting for Godot (TS Eliot)
  2. The Lord of the Rings (JRR Tolkein)
  3. Born Free (Joy Adamson)
  4. To Kill a Mockingbird (Harper Lee)
  5. Seven Years in Tibet (Heinrich Harrer)
  6. Where the Indus is Young (Dervla Murphy)
  7. My Family and Other Animals (Gerald Durrell)
  8. Harry Potter series (JK Rowling)
  9. A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (a trilogy in four parts) (Douglas Adams)
  10. Congo Journey (Redmond O’Hanlon)
  11. As far as my feet will carry me (Josef Martin Bauer, Clemens Forrell)
  12. The Black Stallion (Walter Farley)
  13. Wuthering Heights (Emily Bronte)
  14. The Pillars of the Earth (Ken Follett)
  15. The Selfish Gene (Richard Dawkins)

There you have it. I bet you haven’t ever heard of half these authors (to be honest, I had to search on Google to find out some of the authors), and yet… there’s not a single Enid Blyton book on this list! (And seven non-fiction books – not counting the Hitchhiker’s Guide…)


Barbecued

November 11, 2010

Our friends V&V made the big mistake of buying a coal-fired barbecue (or Barbie-cute, as Tara calls it) about a year ago. It was a mistake because V&V are almost entirely vegetarian, and vegetarian + barbecue just doesn’t add up. I know, I know, you get babycorn barbecue and cauliflower barbecue and especially paneer tikka and so on in so many restaurants, but really, honestly, the plain truth is, it doesn’t add up to much. If you want to barbecue, you need meat. And the redder the better.

So V&V offered us the barbecue a couple of weekends ago (actually, they asked us if we knew anyone who wanted it, but that’s tantamount to offering it to us anyway) and we jumped at it. Amit had on-and-off expressed a desire to buy one, now that we have a large terrace upstairs, so it seemed fairly opportune. We took it home that night, rigged it up the  next morning, and marinated the chicken that afternoon. At 6.30, we loaded up some of the coal that V&V had thoughtfully given us, surrounded it with newspaper and dried leaves, dripped some coconut oil (hair oil, actually) on top and threw in a match. Then we waited for it to light.

Now we knew, of course, that the recommended method for lighting coal involves kerosene. But we didn’t happen to have any kerosene at home, and didn’t intend this minor detail to deter us. Besides, kerosene doesn’t smell so good. Any oil should do, we reasoned, as we added some more coconut oil. When the coconut oil had no discernible effect, we switched to cooking oil, dousing the coal liberally with almost half a litre.  The newspaper caught and burned merrily for several minutes, before it died out, spewing ash all over the veranda. The coal remained impassive. I blew on it with gusto and fanned it with a folded newspaper like a mini desert storm, but all to no avail.

By 7.30, after we had burned a distinctly unhealthy (not to mention environmentally-unfriendly) quantity of newspaper and cooking oil without having lit so much as a single piece of coal, I was ready to give up. Amit persevered, however, and eventually a few pieces of coal were made to reluctantly smolder a dull red. It didn’t look like it would toast a slice of bread let alone cook substantial pieces of chicken, but Amit decided to give it a try. We placed two metal racks with holes in them over the smoldering coal and within minutes… every sign of life went out of the fire.

In the end, I stuffed half the marinated chicken into the electric grill and put the other half in the fridge. The kids had got tired of waiting for chicken and gone to bed. We were too tired to eat much anyway. And I had a lung full of newspaper ash. Plus we had a massive damage control operation on our hands now.

Last Saturday, it being the day after Diwali, I made mutton curry and rolled out 20 rotis for lunch. This would normally have been Diwali lunch, had we been able to get everything together in time, which, of course, we hadn’t. Thus fortified, we called S&S home for a barbecue evening. “Bring a bottle,” we told them. Not drinks – we had vodka at home already. What we really needed, to get the evening rolling, was kerosene, of course.

I marinated a kilo of chicken and waited for the guests and the kerosene to arrive. Again, we started at 6.30, putting the same coal (which I had meticulously picked out of the ashes and stored in a plastic bag) back in the grill and sprinkling a capful of kerosene over it. We left S in charge of the barbecue and in less than half an hour, the coal was burning a cheerful red, the flames had died down and the kerosene fumes were gone. We placed the chicken pieces on top and twenty minutes later, we were wolfing them down faster than they could cook. It was delicious.

In fact, it was so delicious that one kilo of chicken went short and we had to raid the freezer and resort to putting first chicken sausages and later fish cutlets over the coal. And there was hardly any ash to clean up the next morning.

Morals of the story:

  • Life’s good when you have friends like V&V to give away stuff they don’t need.
  • And friends like S&S who bring the kerosene and the technical know-how to light coal.
  • And vodka – which might or might not have helped to get the coal going, but most certainly acted as an appetite-enhancer.
  • And a four-day weekend in which to put it all together (and then to sleep it all off)!

Pity this happy combination of circumstances doesn’t happen more often.


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