Tablecloth Days

March 29, 2011

I grew up with tablecloths.

I don’t mean that I had tablecloths for siblings. But my parents had a thing about tablecloths. Actually, not my parents so much as my mother. Her parents originally came from parts of the country that no longer belong to our country (Lahore and Peshawar), but her father wound up in what eventually became the diplomatic service in India soon after Independence. My grandmother adapted very well to the diplomatic life and did her utmost to maintain the diplomatic lifestyle till the end of her days, but my mother, unfortunately, did not pick up any of the “diplomatic” bits. The only thing she learnt from all of it was the art of bedsheets and tablecloths. The way she used to make neat folds and tucks with the bedsheets and blanket with surgical precision has to be seen to be believed – but that’s another post altogether. After I got married and found that my dear husband didn’t actually own a bed, I realized it was much easier to just crumple the bottom sheet up under the mattress, and spread the top sheet at night and fold it up in the morning. So I managed to exorcise the bedsheet folding demon; but the tablecloth demon stayed.

I don’t actually know the rationale behind covering up a beautiful wooden table with a tablecloth. I suppose it has to do with keeping the table clean. We had an interesting table in those days. It must have been teak wood, though it was polished too dark to see much of the grain. It was a rectangular four-seater. In the middle there was a cut running across the width of it. If you pulled both ends of the table apart, this cut would open out and a plank hidden below the table top would unfold to extend the table’s length. It would then comfortably accommodate six people. I wonder if they make tables like that these days.

So maybe we covered the table to cover up the cut. Or maybe we did it to keep it clean. Or maybe we did it because that’s what diplomatic families do. In any case, in my maternal home, every major meal merited a tablecloth. Lunch, which was a minor meal, consisting, for years, of sandwiches and fruit, merited no tablecloth, but even then we used table mats. Dinner merited a tablecloth with a padded blanked underneath, hot-dish mats on top, pretty china plates, and proper cutlery with knife and fork arranged on the right and left of each plate. Only the wine glasses were missing. Breakfast was king as far as laying the table went. It merited not only tablecloth and underlying blanket, but also plates, tea and coffee cups, a tea cosy, a little bowl to lay the sieve in after straining the tea, a plethora of teaspoons and butter knives (actually, ordinary knives used for butter; in my maternal grandmother’s home, they used proper butter knives, sterling silver, no less; and the butter came neatly chopped into little diamond-shaped cuboids, arranged in a butter dish covered with an engraved sterling silver top; oh, yes, it did!) and, for many years, till she grew too old to be of service, the Lazy Susan.

I daresay you haven’t heard of a Lazy Susan. I was surprised to see that you can still buy one of these contraptions in very exceptional shops in Bangalore. Lazy Susan is a round turntable kind of thing, on which you place lots of stuff, like salt, pepper, sugar, jam, pickle, artificial sweeteners, medicines to be had with meals, and whatnot. Then you put Lazy Susan in the middle of the dining table and all these items are in easy reach of every person at the table. Saves you all the effort of “Could you pass me the salt please.”

We made quite a production of breakfast, we did. It’s hardly surprising then that no sooner could my sister and I put together a cake mix, than we found ourselves put to work laying the table for every major meal. My sister, being older and taller than me (both of which she still is), always managed to spread the tablecloth with one enviable flick of the wrist. If I was around, we would both hold it from opposite ends and reverently lower it on to the table, then neatly center it over the blanket below. Then we would rush around ferrying plates, cutlery, and food to the table. It was on one such occasion, that somebody (it may have been my father) was carrying a stack of six of our favourite China plates (Friendly Village, we called it, because there was a fabulous picture of a village scene on each plate) and caught their sleeve on something. The top five plates slithered off the stack and landed on the floor with a crash, amidst a stunned silence from the entire family, including the dogs.

When I set up home, we didn’t use the one set of china that we owned every day. We kept it for special occasions. Which means, we kept it carefully wrapped up and stored in a fairly inaccessible place and almost never made the effort of unwrapping it and using it. Anyway, we never laid the table. Often, we served ourselves in the kitchen and carried our plates to the table. We used cheap stainless steel cutlery. We hardly ever made tea, and certainly never in a teapot with a tea cosy. We didn’t have a Lazy Susan. And our dining table, though it was a nice little round teak table, had cuts all over the top where planks of teak had been stuck together. It accommodated four and could not be expanded. We bought a set of table mats and used them unvaryingly for the next decade or so.

It was only when we started serving the kids lunch at the table that the sleeping tablecloth demon suddenly awoke and took charge of our meals. I began to spread the tablecloth for every major meal – lunch, which consisted of dal, rice, veggies, salad, curd, and fruit – and even went so far as to drape it over the chairs the kids sat on. Then when the meal was over and liberal quantities of rice and other things had wound up on the tablecloth and the floor, I shook out the tablecloth on to the floor and then swept the floor. Whether the tablecloth was therefore of any great utility or not I can’t exactly say; but something deeply ingrained in me from my childhood days made me keep on using it.

The girls have been in charge of laying the table for weekend lunches for several months now. (We don’t use china plates anyway – we use family heirloom tired blue melamine plates that are almost fifty years old and appear to be completely imperishable.) But spreading the tablecloth has been much too difficult for them – till today. Today, as I organized (I mean, heated up) lunch in the kitchen, the girls grabbed the tablecloth, knelt on the chairs at opposite ends of the table and delicately lowered the tablecloth on to the table. It’s a different matter that the tablecloth somehow wound in shambles up on the floor – but just to see them doing it brought back a lot of memories. Those were the good old tablecloth days. Maybe someday our girls will look back on this time as “the good old tablecloth days”.


Everybody’s Baby Brother

March 25, 2011

In the car today:

Tara: Next year, for Jathi’s happy birthday, again we’ll go to Jathi’s house?
Me: Yes.
Tara: And next year for my happy birthday Jathi will come?
Me: Yes, I hope so.
Tara: Where?
Me: You tell me.
Tara: To my house.
Me (relieved – so next year’s birthday party will also be at home): Ok.
Tara: All my friends will come?
Me: Yes. Who all would you like to come?
Tara: Vidi will also come?
Me: I hope so.
Mrini: I want Christina Auntie to come. And I want to meet Tim also.
Me: Ok.
Mrini: And Pragya?
Me: Ok.
Tara: And Prakash Uncle?
Me (surprised; I hadn’t realized parents were counted separately): Ok. What about Supriya Auntie?
Tara: Ok. And Pranav also. (Condescendingly) He can be everybody’s baby brother.


It’s Alright to Die

March 23, 2011

I’m not clear on the morality of it. I’m not clear on the legality of it. I’m not sure what would be the “right” thing to do when you look at the bigger picture. But this is ridiculous.

For 37 years, you lie on a bed, comatose and brain dead. If you were to revive, you probably couldn’t speak, and you’d be blind. And you’d have to deal with the vicious assault that left you in this state in the first place. If you revived and decided to live anyway, you’d still be a vegetable. I don’t know how long it would take for muscles that hadn’t been used for 37 years to learn to move again, but if it could be done, then you’d be a moving vegetable. But to what end, anyway? At the age of 62, having been for all practical purposes dead for 37 years, what would you do if you came back to life? You can’t work. You can’t marry the man you were going to marry 37 years ago. You don’t know about TV and the Internet and that Indira Gandhi was assassinated and… so much other stuff that I don’t even know where to start. You would be a ghost, really. And, what’s worse, a vegetative ghost. Waking up wouldn’t be much better than being comatose, not for you.

Wikipedia doesn’t mention it, but one of the newspaper articles recently mentioned that Aruna Shanbaug, the woman I am (and many others are) talking about, is fed by a tube to the stomach, but does not have an enema. If that means what I think it means, it means that what goes in the tube comes out in the form of bowel movements. Since she presumably can’t consciously control the bowel movement, much less ask for a bed pan, she is left to… soil herself?

And yet, the hospital nurses protested against the euthanasia plea and claimed that she is like family to them. She is like a piece of furniture, more likely. How can she be family to people who never even knew her when she was alive? These are not people who were around 37 years ago. These are people to whom she is just a thing, lying there, requiring periodic maintenance, unable to communicate in any way.

There was a news article a while ago that said some comatose people were still able to think and understand in their brain – they just couldn’t communicate it. They did an experiment in which a man was instructed to think of himself walking through his home, visualizing each room. A brain scan showed activity in those areas that would be expected to be activated by this activity. It was a startling report. Did it mean we’d already pulled the plug on so many people whose brains were actually still functioning? People who could hear and think and want to say something but were just unable to actually say it? People who were either desperately afraid or desperately relieved when someone took the decision to put them out of their comatose state.

To me it is inconceivable that after being comatose and – in the case of Aruna Shanbaug – vegetative for so many years, one might actually want to prolong that state of being. Would there still be a desire to live, after 37 years of nothingness? Would there still be thoughts to be thought in that vegetative brain? Would there be desire? Would I, for instance, still long to hear voices I once knew, or to touch someone’s hand? Would I still want to eat an ice cream? Would I remember what it felt like to eat, what an ice cream tasted like? Would there still be words in my mind? Images?

What about pain? One report mentioned that she is constantly in pain. Another mentioned that she is not given any pain killers. Another said they haven’t done any scan on her recently. Do scans show whether a patient is in pain? If her brain is severely damaged, how can we know whether she is in pain or not? Does a vegetative brain know how to feel and communicate pain? And if it does, then what does pain feel like after 37 years of unremitting pain? What does hunger feel like? What does loneliness and boredom feel like?

In the absence of stimulus of any kind, does ageing slow down? If it does, Aruna Shanbaug might be expected to live till a hundred and thirty. After all, there’s no stress on any of her systems – why shouldn’t they go on for ever, with a little help from the medical community? They can add bits and pieces of a life support system as each of her internal systems begins to pack up. In the end, you’ll have a leathery skin casing, inside which a bunch of machines all work together to keep the basic metabolic and respiratory functions going. Then death might actually amount to an electrical malfunction between the systems.

I don’t understand what these people are trying to do. If you left this body alone, it would die. If you think that by keeping it alive you are doing it any favours, you are wrong. Dying, after all, is inevitable. You can only defer it, you can’t defeat it. There are things worse than death.

Folks – get a life. Aruna Shanbaug is gone. You should have let her die with dignity years ago and you should have tried her assailant for murder. That might have been of greater consolation to any thinking person than this senseless prolonging of nothingness. Whatever you do with this vegetative brain now is not for her sake, it’s for some complicated (and rather perverted) motive of your own. Find something else to look after – a cat, a dog, a vegetable garden. Let this one go.

PS: If it ever becomes legal to take a person’s conscious, declared desire into account while taking a decision on euthanasia, please consider this to be mine. I don’t want to become a machine-operated vegetable. If you, my friends and family, believe that I will never regain consciousness; if, after everything has been tried, it is clear that I’m either vegetative or permanently comatose, that either way I’m doomed to a life of eternal nothingness; please pull the plug on me. I may be wrong – when I’m in that state, I may not mind so much and I may want to go on living even like that. But that’s a chance I’m willing to take, because the other option is so completely unthinkable. I’m an impatient, restless, active, and most importantly, an expressive, communicative person. I don’t want to spend 37 years imprisoned in my body, alone with my thoughts, waiting, waiting, waiting for someone to realize that it’s ok to let me go.


In Hot Water

March 21, 2011

I grew up in Delhi and Chandigarh, where maximum temperatures in summer soared to 45 Celsius, and in winter the minimum dropped to 4. In summer, the water from the overhead tank was hot enough to poach an egg. In winter… well, it didn’t turn into ice, but it certainly felt like it.

We stayed in 60-year-old government houses, where hot water came from an antiquated storage water heater, otherwise known as a boiler or a geyser. In some houses, there was only a running hot water geyser, which meant that you turned the water on and it ran through the heater from one end and emerged hot-ish from the other end. For many years, we actually used the submersible heating rod – basically a metal coil which you stuck in a bucket of water and plugged in. I suppose the water should therefore have been electrified, but I never tested it by sticking my hand in it. It had been drilled in to us, even at a tender age, that it was a highly dangerous contraption and the most one should do around it was to turn on the switch, check that convection currents were generated in the water, indicating that it was heating up, and then, after ten minutes, turn off the switch.

In my family, I was the last to switch to hot water as winter set in, and the first to abandon it as the days warmed up. It always alarmed my father to know that I was persisting with cold water baths in what he considered unsuitable ambient temperature. I think, being the contrary child that I was, that that was partly why I enjoyed cold water baths so much – just because it alarmed him so much. I was quite proud of my “tolerance” to cold and quite disdainful of my mother, who continued to have a warm bath well into May. Nowadays, I think, she has a hot bath right through the year, even when the mercury does its utmost to explode the thermometer. Huh – parents! Oldies!

In the nasty way that life has of panning out, I’m now a parent myself. And, what’s so much more shocking, is that I have a warm bath for much of the year myself. Granted that Bangalore is not Chandigarh and hot here is something a good ten degrees lower than hot there; but by the same token, there’s no real winter here. Amit, who was brought up tough, used to have a cold bath right through the year even in Delhi. So it was only mildly shocking that he bathed in the stream on his last trek in Ladakh. To luxury-loving me, long inured to the joy of warm or even hot water baths, such a thing would be unthinkable!

So now that I’m a warm-water animal myself, of course I can’t imagine bathing my kids in cold water. What!? They’ll catch a chill, obviously. Besides, how can I subject them to water that I find too cold to subject myself to? To some extent, I do have common sense on my side. After all, we bathe them at 8 p.m. – not the best time to expose them to cold water. In beautiful Bangalore, by 8 p.m. these days, the temperature would most likely be around 20 C. Not cold, of course, but not that hot either.

But then – I must also plead guilty of being over-protective. After all, on weekends we bathe them late in the morning, sometimes as late as noon, or later. By that time, the water in the overhead tank has warmed up nicely. Why would anyone need to heat it further? And yet… I do. I do heat the water for myself, and for the kids as well. And what’s worse is, the kids don’t really mind. They like warm water. They giggle and squirm if it’s cold. They enjoy their bath either way. And I really shouldn’t be worrying about a bit of a cold or a bit of a chill. After all, I promised myself I’d be the kind of mother who encourages the kids to go out and play in the rain. And here I am, insisting on a hot bath at noon on a hot summer’s day.

Sigh. What a namby-pamby kind of mom I am. I was such a brat of a child. Where did it all go?


Any Publicity is Good Publicity

March 19, 2011

My interview and a brief excerpt from my book was published in Lounge, today.

Most of the people I know who have read my book have said nice things about it. The few who have offered constructive criticism have actually hit the nail on the head in terms of the weaknesses of this book (if you haven’t noticed, I’m not going to enlighten you). Those who’ve been nice have been so whole-heartedly nice… it makes me feel ten feet tall!

It’s also nice, though, to hear from people I don’t know. And the first and only instance of fan mail I received was so wonderful, so unexpected, that it just took my breath away. It was a letter addressed to me care of my publisher, saying that this person had picked up my book while on his way to somewhere, planning to read it on the plane on the way to somewhere else; but he’d flipped through it and found it too delicious to wait. As if that weren’t thrilling enough, it was even more delightful for me to see that he’d been compelled to write and send off a letter to my publisher in the hope that it would eventually reach me! I mean – I thought that only happens to the likes of JK Rowling. If at all. I actually thought it wasn’t something that happened at all nowadays, in this fast-paced internet/email/facebook world.

Now I wish there would be a few reviews of my book in the big papers. That’s not too much to ask for, is it?


Meltdown!

March 17, 2011

I don’t usually bother myself with current affairs, but this time – how can I not?

The earthquake and the tsunami were devastating enough; but the nuclear horror is unspeakable. I couldn’t keep quiet about it, but I couldn’t assimilate a coherent post either. Some jumbled thoughts:

It is ironic that this peaceful use of nuclear power should be threatening people with this disaster. And it’s tragic that the same country that lost tens (or hundreds) of thousands of civilians in the first ever use of atomic bombs, just 66 years ago, should now be fighting to keep tens (or hundreds) of thousands safe from this new nuclear threat, which originates from a peaceful use of nuclear power – and from implacable forces of nature.

It’s snowing there. This is especially ironic, considering that the nuclear reactor is overheating, catching fire, and heading towards a meltdown.

There’s no power. I mean, in Bangalore we’re used to power-cuts, especially in summer. But in those cities, in those countries, they’re just not equipped to handle it.

Food, water, and fuel are in short supply (according to some reports). People are standing patiently in never-ending queues. Even little children.

They pumped seawater in to cool the reactor. They tried to dump water from a helicopter. They want to use a water cannon. It seems incongruous that they managed to put up and run for decades something as sophisticated as a nuclear power plant, but when things went out of whack, the best they could come up with was these incredibly prehistoric solutions. Is there no fancy chemical wizardry that can be done to cool the whole thing down or stop the radiation from either occurring or escaping? While using and attempting to control such potent forces, is the whole of mankind reduced to nothing more hi-tech than concrete (which we use to build ordinary apartment buildings, for chrissakes) and water?

What must it be like to be living in Tokyo today and looking around you wondering what the radiation level is now, wondering whether your government (and TEPCO) are being honest with you or doing a cover-up job, wondering what is going to happen tomorrow and what the long-term effects of radiation will be like?

What must it be like to be one of the 50 workers in the power plant now, still struggling to make things right, wondering how much the safe suit is doing to protect you, wondering if your insides are being fried every minute you stay there, wondering if you can get the power supply back, get the water pumps to work, and save the world; or whether you will achieve nothing and die young in the process and what is to become of your family if you do?

What happened to the four trains that disappeared in the tsunami? What happened to the two workmen who disappeared in the power plant?

How long will it take for the global warning alarmists to pin this catastrophe on global warming?

If a nuclear power plant were to come up 20 km outside of Bangalore, would I continue to live here? (What are the supplies of boric powder and iodine like in India?)


What a Weekend!

March 13, 2011

The kids are not ok.

It looked like the regular pediatrician’s medicines were working, but then we disregarded her advice – actually, her warning. Keep them away from the dust, she said. Keep them indoors, don’t let them play outside, especially not in the sandpit. Preferably not even in the balcony. If you can, keep them home on Friday and throughout the weekend.

That’s a tall order. Our kids are either playing outdoors in daycare, or up on our terrace, or running around the terrace court. If we are home, they invariably find their way out on to the balcony sooner or later. Keeping them indoors meant we’d practically have to sedate them to make it workable. So we decided to largely ignore this advice and sent them not only to school, but also to daycare on Friday. Mind you, in school, Friday is sandpit day. Their teacher asked if I wanted them to not go to the sandpit. But they obviously love the sandpit. How can I expect them to stay indoors when the rest of the class is in the sandpit?

On Saturday I was supposed to attend a conference, but Mrini was looking much the worse for wear, and Amit, who has the adult version of the same cough and congestion, was looking quite worried, so I decided to skip it. And just as well! By afternoon, Mrini had a raging fever and was struggling to breathe. It had to be a Saturday – if we waited, we’d find it difficult to get a doctor on Sunday. So we rushed off to the hospital on Saturday evening. The doc, thankfully, said it wasn’t an infection yet, and she asked whether we’d been keeping them indoors and gave us a stern look at our reply.

Kids are so amazingly resilient, that by the time we actually got to see the doctor around 5.20 or so, Mrini was looking almost cheerful again. All the same, we both felt terribly guilty. The doc had told us to keep the kids home and we hadn’t done it.

What do you do with sick kids and a guilty conscience? You feed them, of course. So we stopped at Breadworks on our way home from the hospital. None of us had eaten much for lunch (because the cook played hookie (or hookey, if you prefer) on Friday evening, of course), so we were all quite hungry. Only, there’s absolutely nothing I can eat at a bakery (or even a boulangerie) so I got to watch while the three of them gorged on chocolate chip muffins, banana muffins, apple strudel and other goodies. I got an iced tea which turned out to be more tea and less lemon and sugar, so was not much to my liking. That entire session was sheer cruelty.

Saturday is the cook’s day off, so I got to slog over dinner when we got home. And then I had to catch up with the ironing, which is also one of the cook’s duties that she has been shirking.

There is no way to end such a stressful and gastronomically deprived day except by getting drunk. I sent Amit off in search of beer and he returned with a small can of Kingfisher Premium. That went down in less than five minutes, so after that we resorted to gin and orange juice – a strange combination, but I wasn’t in the mood to be fussy.

(Oh, didn’t I mention? Well, I tried beer on our anniversary at the end of Feb, and though I only had a few sips, it didn’t seem to cause the slightest problem, much to my relief. My sister says beer is ok with her too. So maybe I have at least one lifeline in this barren landscape of a gluten-free, lactose free diet.)

The next day got off to a good start when we all slept till 7.30 without interruption – no tennis for the kids, of course. After we got up, it was all downhill. The kids were better, but the cook was still missing in action. I got to serve up breakfast, wash up, cook lunch, sweep and mop the whole damn house (Amit did 75% of it, but still), bathe the kids, get myself dressed, serve up lunch, wash up again, go out for the weekly grocery shopping, put out the laundry, and possibly, cook dinner too. The cook said she’ll show, but she hasn’t shown yet, so there’s no telling.

It’s been a day of the unbroken mindnumbing tedium of housework and it’s not over yet. Apart from doing dinner, there’s another whole lot of clothes for ironing.

And we’re keeping the kids home tomorrow. Which means, there’s every possibility that I might have to repeat this whole rigmarole tomorrow. Sigh!

The only silver lining to this cloud is that when I went out grocery shopping, I brought home a nice, big, chilled bottle of beer. It’s not enough to get drunk on, but it’s miles better than Limca.


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