Book Review: Purple Hibiscus

February 28, 2011

When I started reading this book, I found it too slow and a bit difficult to get into. I was in the mood for something intense and gripping. But I stuck with it and I’m glad I did. I think it’s going to be the kind of book that stays with me for a long time.

It’s a slow story, one that builds up slowly and, after it’s reached the climax, lets you down slowly, so slowly that it’s only a day or two after finishing the book that you realize where exactly the climax was. It’s a thoughtful book, intense in its own slow, descriptive way. The characters are drawn in a few strokes, but they seem real all the same. The most shocking part of the book, deliberately, compellingly, inhumanly shocking, is the domestic violence, which is described objectively, matter-of-factly. It is so extremely matter-of-fact that you can hardly believe it is violence being described. What’s even more difficult to stomach – though I don’t disbelieve it; I just don’t understand it – is how the girl still loves her father so much. And that he also probably really loves her – and the rest of his family – in his horribly twisted, violent way. In that way, it’s a chilling book.

At first the book reminded me of To Kill a Mocking Bird. By the time I’d finished, I could still see some similarity, though obviously the storyline is completely different. The narrative style is similarly simple and direct, without decoration. And the voice is that of a small girl. The difference is that here, the girl is hardly a small girl – she’s 15. The entire time that I was reading, I could not picture a girl of 15. She sounds about 7. That disconnect adds to the impact of the story she’s telling. With a life like that, what would you expect?

Having myself come from a largely “normal” family (whatever “normal” might be) it is very difficult – actually, impossible, maybe – for me to imagine or accept that all around us there are families where these things happen. This book forces me to think about that. While many works of fiction are forgotten soon after you put them down, this one forces me to accept that a different kind of family, a different kind of reality is out there. This book brought that reality to life for me in just one story. Very few books can do that.

Our Best Friends? Not Any More.

February 25, 2011

I never thought I’d say this, but… I used to be a dog lover. I grew up with three dogs. My mother certainly doted on one of them far more than she ever did on her two-legged babies. With my father, it was hard to say – but it was clear that the canines were at least as important as the kids.

You get to know dogs the way you know people. You don’t, after all, know every single person on earth. But you can read the predominant, primeval expressions, on anyone’s face, anywhere in the world. So it is with dogs. Once you know dogs, you can look at any dog and say whether he’s happy, angry, hurt or scared. You can tell whether he’s nipping your heels in play or because he really doesn’t like you. You can often look at a dog and know his approximate age. Sometimes you can look at a dog and know his gender too – and I don’t mean by staring at his genitals, but just by his demeanour or behavior.

Street dogs used to be my friends. We were befriended by an entire gang in one of our former homes. There was a mangy, scabby, timid, mousy haired brown dog who used to lurk outside our front door in those days. He didn’t trouble us and we didn’t trouble him. (We didn’t feed him either.) After a few months had passed, much to our surprise, he suddenly turned into this gorgeous, tall, strong, alpha male with a glossy coat and a jovial manner. We called him Rascal. He became the leader of a pack that included a dog we called Old Fatty Lumpkin (from Tolkein).

In the same neighbourhood and around the same period of time, another dog adopted us. She was a sweet natured, good looking brunette whom we called Boondi. Amit was deeply in love with her and we reluctantly allowed her into the house. Then we threw her out with a hard heart and much grief because she had left fleas all over the house and the fleas loved me more than anyone else!

After we moved out of that neighbourhood, we didn’t get as close to street dogs again. But if you’d asked me, I’d still have called myself a dog lover and I’d still have said the street dogs were my friends.

When the first few reports of dogs mauling small children started rolling in, I shrugged it off as an anomaly. Maybe they were fighting amongst themselves and the kids got in the way. Maybe the kids were teasing them. Maybe they were near food – like a meat shop. The dogs that hang around outside Johnson market, for instance, were always a vicious lot. Johnson market is an enclosed open-air fruit, veg and meat market, the entry to which is marked by a stall hung about with huge shanks of beef. The dogs and the vultures around that area were really quite scary. So maybe it was that kind of a pack that the kids got in the way of.

Those reports are still coming in though, and they’re not so rare any more.

Then, a couple of months ago, there was a report that a number of stray dogs were found dead in one locality. They had been poisoned. That report made my blood run cold. How could anyone do such a thing?

Our own immediate neighbourhood – say ten houses down the road and another ten houses behind us, with a lane on either side – is home to at least 20 stray dogs. I know only two or three of them by sight. I used to be indifferent to them, but now I hate them. Over the last several months either their numbers have exploded, or their vocal capacity has. They set up the most awful barking and screaming at night and will keep at it for 45 minutes straight without tiring or relenting. At first, I ignored them. Then, when I was really, really tired and they kept me awake for ages at night, I gathered together a good number of small stones and when things went beyond endurance, I would go out into the balcony and fling stones at them. I don’t think I ever hit any of them and in any case the stones were too small to hurt – my intention was just to send them away, so they could go elsewhere and bark and spoil somebody else’s beauty sleep.

Matters reached a head when I was working on my Archaeology assignment one weekend and I couldn’t concentrate because of the yowling of the dogs. After several attempts to chase them away, I decided that if I couldn’t change the world around me, what I’d have to do was to change myself. I decided to ignore the dogs. It wasn’t easy and I’m still working on it, but it did help.

Then the other day, I’d ventured out for an evening walk. A couple of strays came up behind me, sniffing inquiringly. Since I don’t like strays anymore, I turned around and raised my arm at that. Immediately, half a dozen other dogs ran up behind them, barking and snarling angrily. One fellow who was behind a fence ran along shouting furiously at me. I’m too big (I think) for even a big pack of stray dogs to take on, so I hunted around for a large stone, threw it, and walked away. But it was a mildly alarming experience. So that was the kind of pack that attacked small children.

The March issue of National Geographic has a cover story about the domestication of the dog over a period of generations and millennia (but I haven’t read it yet). I wonder whether the reverse can also happen. Can there be a process of “un-domestication” of a domesticated animal? The “re-wildening” of man’s best friend? I can envisage a horror movie along those lines already. (Or has it already been done?)

I still like pet dogs, the good natured, good looking ones. But when I see the street packs, I wish they were dead. Or at least that they were someplace else. I haven’t taught the twins to make friends with them and feed them. I haven’t adopted them or even given them names. And I’m sorry to say that I can’t consider myself to be a dog lover any more.

Daycare is Our Village

February 23, 2011

It takes a village to raise a child, they say. I think they knew what they were talking about.

Sending the kids to daycare was never what I intended to do. No, I planned to keep them at home, like most other kids, while I went back to work. I had Shaba-aunty who I thought would be happy to look after them. She was already in charge of giving them lunch and putting them to bed for their afternoon nap. And if she couldn’t oblige, there was her sister, our cook, NJ. Both were women who’d worked with us a long time. They were trusted, dependable, sensible, honest, and clean. What more could anyone want?

As it turned out, neither of them could oblige – they both had too many other things to look after. So we reluctantly gave up on homecare and looked for a suitable daycare. I’m so glad we did. The truth is, one single, solitary nuclear family is too little for a child, even for two children, even for twins. I’m in no way advocating a joint family as the solution. I’ve seen what happens when our kids get thrown in with a bunch of family members. Discipline goes out the window. They think they can get away with murder and they can. There’s always someone who’ll take their side. And Mom and Dad become the only two who are at all interested in trying to impose some kind of discipline, some kind of schedule. We end up being the ones always trying to get things done. On time. Properly. And we – at least, I – end up screaming and losing my temper (and my mind) over it.

Don’t be under the impression that I often have to deal with this situation. It’s very rare. But it’s enough to give me a glimpse of how it could be.

Homecare that involves paid domestic help is better, because you, the employers, get to call the shots. It doesn’t mean that things will always be done the way you want them to be, but at least you can try. You can unplug the TV. You can ban chocolates and biscuits. Paid domestic help will not, presumably, spend too much of their hard-earned cash buying sweet things for their charges and thereby risk earning their employers’ wrath. The same cannot be said of grandparents. Or even uncles and aunts.

But homecare is essentially boring for kids, especially for kids of this age. Every day, day after day, it’s just the two kids and the one care giver. There’s just a small selection of games and activities that two kids and one adult can enjoy. There’s only a small selection of books and toys. Anyone would be bored after a week or two.

Daycare, on the other hand, is a good combination of the two strategies. We haven’t been able to completely eliminate TV and sweet nothings from the twins’ diet with daycare. But it’s not too much of either. And discipline is not an issue. There are several aunties who give the instructions, and they don’t brook any nonsense. There are more toys and activities than you’d normally have at home, and with so many children and adults around, the possibilities are infinite. Besides, unlike in a house, in daycare, every child is one of many and nobody gets excessive attention. This is good. The kids get to play together a lot with other kids of slightly varying ages. It teaches them to work out a lot of things on their own – taking turns, order, fairness, discipline. But there’s always help at hand should adult intervention or organization be required. Another wonderful thing about daycare is that, you don’t have to depend on just one person. With homecare, if your care giver calls in sick, goes out of town, or has any other reason for being unable to come, you’re stuck. With daycare, there are always helpers around. It doesn’t matter if one or even two of them are absent on any given day. Daycare goes on.

So daycare is sort of the village that raises our kids. And they’re doing a good job of it. When our girls went to Calcutta with Amit and without me for several days last week, by all accounts they were absolutely comfortable, self-assured, confident, and easy-going. It helps that they already know the people there, of course – but just to keep that in perspective, they are only four-and-a-half now and their last visit to Calcutta was more than a year ago, in December 2009. Still, they handled all the ups and downs of travel, the bor jatri (baraat – a five hour bus journey to Durgapur; overnight halt; and five-hour drive back), the festivities, the lots of new faces, new food, changes in meal and nap schedule, and everything else that goes along with such a trip – they handled it all with elan and without the slightest sign of missing mama.

In retrospect, putting the kids in daycare was the best thing to do. The time will come when we will have to take them out of daycare, as school hours get extended and the girls get involved in various classes and activities. But for as long as we have it, it’s a godsend. I wonder why I ever felt reluctant, unsure, or guilty about it?

Worth Every Gasp: Book Reading

February 21, 2011

As you all know, I’m the shy type. I may not hesitate to reveal the inner workings of my life and mind to all and sundry here on this blog, but that’s just my online persona. In real life, I’m comfortable only with close friends, and if I must meet strangers, I’d prefer to take them on one at a time. Any situation which threatens to swamp me with more new names and faces than I can remember (one or two, at most), is to be avoided.

Add to that a generous measure of stage fright and you’ll understand why I wasn’t exactly upset that my book did not get any kind of launch event.

However Sandhya, my friend, erstwhile boss, and one of the facilitators of the escapade that became my first book, has enthusiastically declared that my book shall have a book reading session, organised by the Varnika Book Club. It is obviously intended for members of the privileged club, of course, but she did say I could invite a couple of people. Consider yourselves invited, people. It’s at Boca Grande in Koramangala (conveniently close to Sapna Book House, where those who don’t have it yet can purchase a copy of my book) on Saturday, 26th Feb, 3-4.30 p.m. Block your calendars.

Some folks have complained that my book doesn’t have pictures – and what’s a travel book without pictures? I’ll do what little I can to make up for this by bringing along a selection of photographs as well.

If you’d like to attend, leave a comment on my blog or respond on FaceBook.

And if I don’t recognise you when I meet you, for pete’s sake don’t be offended. I’m not being rude, I’m like that only.

Black (As in Not Green)

February 20, 2011

That’s the colour of my thumb.

When I was something less than ten years old, for some strange reason I remember trying to plant something in the garden of the house we were then living in, in Chandigarh. It must have been some strange reason, because my parents were not particularly gardening-inclined. My mother vaguely taught my sister and me to do some weeding, but the garden we had was so vast that our sporadic efforts has not the slightest impact on it. But one summer, we did plant something. I don’t, of course, recall what it was – probably some kind of flower – or how it fared. But I do know that we tried.

In the same garden, around the same age, I also tried to plant a loquat tree. That was probably the first time the colour of my thumb began to reveal itself. I don’t know whether loquat is a hardy tree or a fussy one – I have neither seen the tree nor ever eaten the fruit since we moved out of that house back in ’84 – but my effort to grow it bore no fruit, literally or otherwise.

In 1984, we moved out of the house with the garden and spent the next six years or so in an apartment. We weren’t a potted plants kind of family, so the next time we had an opportunity to grow anything was in a smaller house Panchkula, where salvia bloomed blood red in the front lawn and portulaca opened and closed in the porch. I was never much interested in flowers, though. My maternal grandmother’s house in Chandigarh had a beautifully manicured back lawn with flowers planted artistically in various places. An army of gardeners made sure sweetpeas appeared and were removed at the appropriate time of year; pansies, petunias, snap dragons, salvia, and various other colourful adornments also appeared regularly each year. An ice cream creeper (or is it a vanilla creeper – I never could remember – something with pretty pink flowers, at any rate) grew in an orderly profusion of colour in strategic places.

But my own taste ran to rambling wild rose bushes and untamed bougainvillea. Since we had the wild rose already, I decided to grow a bougainvillea – boug for convenience. I don’t remember actually planting the sprig – though I think I did – but I do remember watching with maternal pride as it grew and took over our gatepost and spread along the adjacent wall. There was a gardener who attempted to tame it periodically, but it grew too fast for his shears to keep pace, and I was happy about that. This was my one experiment with the plant kingdom that did not end in death, desolation, and despair. I was sorry to leave that boug behind when we eventually moved out.

We moved to a ground floor house in Delhi, where the front lawn had rose bushes, a jacaranda tree, and a red hibiscus tree next to a guava tree; and the back lawn had neem, drumstick, a massive mango, and a small curry-patta tree. Somehow, from somewhere, without really realizing it, a tomato plant appeared next to the rose bushes and we got one or two tomatoes from it. I don’t know what happened to it after that. I watched the curry-patta and the tomato plants grow with some satisfaction and thrilled in plucking the mangos from the huge tree before the birds and thunderstorms got to them and wrapping them in newspaper to wait for them to ripen, but that was the sum and substance of my involvement with the garden in those years. I lived there from the age of 18 to 24 and I had much more important things to think about in those days.

I got married in the front lawn of that house – and it was the most simple and wonderful wedding ceremony my Spartan soul could have dreamt of. Then I moved to various apartments in Bangalore and didn’t attempt to grow anything for years. There was a short-lived attempt to grow a boug in a pot; and Amit’s father kindly gifted us some flowers in various pots; and during our stint of a few short months in the US we were given a Poinsettia to look after (I think it was a Christmas gift) but all these attempts were doomed to failure. Even the Poinsettia, a hardy plant that thrives in the indoor, artificially lit environment of shopping malls in the US, looked greenish-yellow and sickly (it should look bright red) under my care.

You wouldn’t think taking care of plants was a very difficult business. There are basically two ways to kill a plant – too much water; or too little water. I discovered a third – me. Regardless of whether I watered a plant or not; regardless of whether I talked to it, looked at it, deliberately ignored it, fed it tea leaves, put it in the sun, put it in the shade, or just forgot all about it – all the plants under my care suffered a similar fate. They stopped growing, their leaves fell off, sometimes they were reduced to a single twig, the twig went from green to brown, then there were no further signs of life.

Soon after Amit got his compost project going, he decided to start a kitchen garden. The way he saw it, it made sense. You grow your own veggies, put the waste in the compost pot, put the compost in the kitchen garden, eliminating both household waste and the need to go to the market. I, of course, saw it as a whole lot of work and declared that I would have nothing whatsoever to do with this new crazy initiative. Despite that, he went right ahead and now we have 88 (I think) square feet of our terrace given over to greens of various hues, shapes, and sizes. Radish and beetroot have been harvested; lettuce is appearing at a pace much faster than it can be consumed; some coriander has gone yellow; methi has been harvested and consumed in a slightly desperate attempt to finish it before it dried up, and spinach now seems to be headed the same way; cabbage is still waiting to make an appearance; one of six cauliflowers has appeared and looks lovely; green beans and tomatoes have begun to appear; a baby carrot was pulled out and found to be nice, though still too small; and bottle gourd and green chillies have completely failed.

Amit does all the work – watering, fussing over, harvesting, spraying with organic pesticide and all that. I go up to visit the plants once a week or so, usually on Saturday or Sunday morning with a cup of coffee after taking the kids for tennis. It’s not a bad way to spend a lazy hour on a weekend morning. It does bring a smile to my face to see all that greenery waving at me happily in the pleasant sunshine. But that’s as far as my attachment to the project goes. I don’t even make any commitment to eating the veggies. I took one bite of beetroot and decided that just because it was growing on my terrace didn’t make it one of the few veggies I’d actually eat. And lettuce is all very well in a burger or sandwich, but since I’m gluten free now, there’s practically no way to allow it in my diet.

Then, for a whole six days, the better half went out of town leaving me to water the plants. There is a drip irrigation system installed, so it is only a matter of turning on a tap and turning it off 20 minutes later. But Amit was very worried. My impeccable record at burning rice bears testimony to my ability to turn something on and forget about it altogether. My tendency to treat light switches the same way was also not very reassuring. It was only a matter of time before I turn the water on to water the plants and forget to turn it off, he said. Not only would it drown the plants, it would also empty all the water from our overhead tank. We would have water flooding our terrace and flowing down the steps. It would be a complete disaster.

All of that was worrying enough, but even if I did manage to turn the tap on (and off) punctually every day for six whole days, there was still the other little problem – the problem of my black thumb. Could it possibly turn a light shade of green before Amit returned to look after his precious plants?

So far, it’s turned out ok. I didn’t drown anybody on our terrace and I didn’t neglect them either. I’m not sure whether they were happy under my care, but at least nobody’s died – yet. I even harvested one cauliflower, which had reached the end of its growth cycle and was looking ready to start its decay cycle. The rest of the plants are pretty much as they were a week ago, still alive, still green. And their master is back tomorrow – with a big sigh of relief from everybody.

Now I’d better go and turn off that tap, before I forget.

Negotiation Skills (and other stuff about the twins)

February 18, 2011

Kids are very dumb. But also very smart. And quite sweet.

Take Tara. First, she would provoke Mrini to the point of no return. Then Mrini would bite her or commit some such other atrocity upon her. Then, regardless of the severity of the offense, Tara would go howling blue murder to seek retribution (or vengeance) in the shape of an irate parent. I soon opted out of the fray by telling her to work it out herself. Moms tend to be callous that way. Dads are a softer sell. Amit would step in at once to redress all wrongs – real as well as exaggerated. It became such a pattern that one day when Tara came running to me for help and I gave her the cold shoulder, she told me indignantly through her sobs, “Wait till Baba comes home. I’ll tell Baba. Baba will scold Mrini.”

I’d already realized that she was playing Amit like a piano, but hearing her think it out like that was a bit of a shock. And she did it too – when Amit came home 15-20 minutes later, she ran to him straightaway with her tearful tale of woes. So Amit and I had a long talk and though he wasn’t really convinced by me, he agreed to “try” to keep out of the kids’ battles, no matter what. It was immensely difficult for him, because he was convinced that the girls would and could do real damage to each other. I, on the other hand, thought they wouldn’t.

For a couple of days, it was a toss-up. Tara found, to her dismay that she could no longer co-opt her beloved Baba into her battles and she didn’t have any other weapon in her armory. Mrini found that she no longer had to worry about being hauled up by Amit and she, obviously, wanted to test the limits of this new situation to see how far she could go. It was, in fact, tough to stay with the strategy and trust her to set her limits herself. But somehow the three of them worked things out and it’s been maybe three weekends since we put this new strategy in place and things seem to have settled down now. I don’t know how Tara is managing to hold her own against Mrini’s bullying, but I suspect that it is some combination of various factors: Tara is less provocative now that her guardian doesn’t get involved; Mrini is less violent, now that it doesn’t get her any negative attention; and perhaps Tara is just opting out of situations before they become very sticky.

That’s the smart part.

This part is dumb.

Tara: Mrini, why every day you open the car? Every single day you open the car. Today I will open the car.
Mrini: No, yesterday you opened the car.
Tara: No, no, yesterday you only opened the car. Today can I open the car? Please?
Mrini: Ok, today you open the car in the morning. I’ll open the car at daycare.
Tara: Yes, ok Mrini. Today I’ll open the car and you open the car in the evening.
Mrini: Tara, no, Tara, ok, Tara, I’ll tell you something. Today I’ll open the car in the morning and you open the car in the evening. Ok, Tara?
Tara: Ok. Ok, Mrini. That is a good idea. You open the car in the morning, I’ll open the car in the evening.

And that’s what they do. Every single day.

Tara does this time and again – challenges the status quo and then, when victory is her, relinquishes it in favour of status quo. She does this for selecting music for the drive; for deciding who gets to read the Winnie-the-Pooh book first (it accompanies the CD we play in the car and whoever reads it second only gets a few minutes because then we reach school; whoever reads it first gets the whole first story – 11 minutes); even for deciding which colour of shirt, shorts, toothbrushes, or shoes they will pick from two that are identical apart from colour. This girl really needs to work on her negotiation skills (and maybe on her logical thinking skills as well).

Then there’s the sweet part.

I hadn’t realized the extent to which the kids pick up things from us – like values and attitudes. They have realized, of late, that there are a whole lot of things I can’t eat. Mrini, in particular, often asks very solicitously whether the doctor has allowed me to eat this or that and whether it has maida in it. This is touching.

Now our home has a small patch of lawn running around two sides. It’s a very very small patch – a couple of feet wide on one side, and maybe six feet or so in front. It also has not been tended to in living memory, so it is basically an overgrown patch of weeds and three small and unruly trees. Our landlord, who comes by every month to pick up the rent cheque in person (he’s the old-fashioned type, doesn’t believe in net banking) asked us why we hadn’t had the garden cleaned up. I just shrugged – it wasn’t, by my standards, messy. Well, maybe, only a little. Apparently, he asked our downstairs neighbours too and apparently they took him seriously. When I went down on Sunday evening, I found, to my shock, that our unruly undergrowth had been crudely and completely removed. Now, instead of walking over a green bed of weeds, we walked over hard, dry earth. What’s more, the trees were gone. They’d been butchered down to bare trunks, about my height. They hadn’t been very large trees in any case, but they formed a nice arch of greenery over my head and provided a bit of screening from the road. Now our home looked undressed, naked.

On Monday morning, the kids saw it. They were shocked. “That’s so sad!” said Mrini, looking hurt. “That’s so sad!” She wasn’t parroting our words; she wasn’t parroting our thoughts. This was a thought of her own – she was genuinely shocked and sad to see our garden stripped of its greenery. Tara informed me that she had seen the “uncle” doing the work yesterday, from our bedroom window. “I didn’t ask his name because he wasn’t a nice uncle because he took away the pants,” she said. It took me a moment to figure out she meant “plants”.

And then Mrini’s excitement over going to Calcutta. She’s not excited about attending a wedding for the first time ever. She’s not very excited about meeting all the family members that she remembers. What she’s really excited about is:

Mrini: Mama, today is a school day? (while we were driving to school)
Me: Yes, it’s Monday.
Mrini: Tomorrow also we have to go to school?
Me: Tomorrow you’re going to Calcutta!
Mrini: But N has to go to school? (Her long-standing best-friend, boyfriend)
Me: yes.
Mrini: It’s a holiday for me but not for N. N has to go to school. N will miss me.

Hmmm… Never too young to want to be missed!

Worth Every Gasp: Now in Over a Hundred Bookstores in 23 Cities…

February 16, 2011

My publisher finally sent me the entire list of stores that will stock my book! Just as I was beginning to think that maybe they didn’t plan to put it in any brick and mortar shops at all. I’m thrilled to see the whole list!

Ok, the bad news – in Bangalore, Gangarams doesn’t figure. Also, my publisher being mainly north-centric, Crossword and Landmark don’t figure. At least Strand is in the list. (And Sapna, of course.) Also sad to see that Calcutta doesn’t figure at all – and this book would generate a lot of interest there.

But the initial report I have just received indicates that 750 copies of my book have been placed in 102 book shops in 23 cities in India. Wow! Now I feel like an author.

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