August 26, 2011

I’m short of sleep.

On Sunday night, I was up till midnight trying to finish the book.

On Monday night, I was up till I don’t know when, actually finishing it.

On Tuesday night, I was up till 11-ish, baking.

On Wednesday night, I was up till midnight taking photographs.

Last night, I was up till midnight fighting a battle with a small fridge, large quantities of leftovers, and a vast cake.

Yep, it’s that time of year again. The twins turned five yesterday.

Despite it being a weekday and not even a Friday at that, we had their birthday party in the evening. This meant three levels of preparation. Fudge and cookies for school; cakes for daycare; and snacks and dinner for a few friends in the evening. All to be organized on a working day.

I was hoping to do lots of fudge and no cookies for school, but even three cans of condensed milk turned out only 60-odd pieces of fudge. Not enough. So I sighed and started on the cookies at 8.30 on Tuesday evening. All would have been fine if only I’d remembered that the butter paper I had at home was not proper butter paper. I laid out one set of cookies and popped them in the oven and ten minutes later I saw the mess – the “not proper” butter paper had melted into the cookies. Great! Twenty cookies down the drain. They’d have to make do with the remaining 45, which I hastily transferred into greased baking tins. Ten broke while extracting. Now we were down to 35 cookies. It’d have to do. I spent an hour wrapping the fudge and cookies nicely on Wednesday night, in between keeping an eye on the cakes and helping Amit with putting up a nominal amount of decoration.

The kids wanted all sorts of cake for their birthday – Spiderman, Ben10, Winnie-the-pooh, Cars, Mickey Mouse and whatnot. I can’t do that stuff at home. And at 450 per kilo, with a minimum size of 3 kilos, I told them if they wanted a fancy cake like that, they’d have to settle for one cake between the two of them. They agreed and settled for a close-up of the face of Spiderman, 2.5 kilos.

That was for the evening party. We’d also planned to buy two smaller cakes for cutting at daycare. But the daycare co-ordinator told us on Wednesday evening, when we were discussing plans for the kids’ birthday (apparently Mrini had announced at least four or five times that it was her birthday on Thursday, so we know someone was excited about it), that commercial cream cakes were causing illnesses in kids – throat infections and stomach upsets. I don’t really see the connection between cream cakes and throat infections, but on the spur of the moment I said, “Ok, fine, I’ll do the cakes at home myeslf.” Which is why I wound up running out for eggs at 8.30 in the evening and taking the last of the baking out of the oven around 11 p.m. while finishing up wrapping and tying 45 pieces of fudge and 35 cookies.

Decoration was supposed to be Amit’s department, but since when do men know how to do birthday party decorations? Obviously, I was roped in. Once the decorations – such as they were; I don’t know much about birthday party decoration myself – were in place, the cakes were out and cooling, the fudge and cookies were wrapped and the gifts and clothes had been dug out of their hiding place and placed carefully on the dining table, it was time for a photo shoot.

At five, you’d think the kids are too old for stuffed toys, wouldn’t you? So what’s that horrible teddy bear doing there? Well, ever since we can remember, Mrini has had her baby, a stuffed panda called Pranav-the-Panda (though he wasn’t always called that). A long time ago, Tara had a baby which (or rather, who) was a stuffed teddy bear without a name. When the girls started pulling the stuffing out of him by the fistful, we threw him out. This year, when we asked the kids what they’d like for their birthday, they didn’t have any real ideas. Then Tara said, you know Mrini has her baby Pranav-the-Panda? Even I want a baby teddy bear. I don’t have my teddy bear any more.

Here’s a photo of the kids with the panda and the teddy bear from three years ago.

Well, when she says it like that, we don’t have any real choice in the matter, do we? So a teddy bear was duly found and christened Zazu. (I don’t know why – maybe because they’re five years old, that’s why?) Interestingly, he was christened the day he was bought, even though he was “born” only yesterday. Their other gift was a jigsaw puzzle apiece. It’s interesting that though Tara got two gifts – a puzzle and Zazu – and Mrini got only one, Mrini wasn’t in the least put out by this.

For birthday clothes, the kids had a pair of dungarees each with an accompanying T-shirt, and one of those frilly “princess” frocks each. Obviously, I wanted them to wear the frocks to school. Obviously, Amit wanted them to wear the frocks at home in the evening. One girl wanted to wear the frock to school and the other wanted to wear the dungarees. I exercised my powers of persuasion to the utmost, with the result that both girls decided to wear the dungarees to school. I pointed out the difficulty they would have going to the bathroom, but to no avail. They got into their dungarees and put on their new shoes which were completely inappropriate with the dungarees (since they were intended to go with the princess frocks). Since I don’t believe in forcing them to wear something I want them to wear, I cribbed and complained and mumbled under my breath but let it be. They usually take the school van, but out of some vague idea of parental pride (which would have been much better suited to the princess frocks, in my opinion) we had decided to drop them to school, along with their bags of goodies. That done, they were on their own till we picked them up at daycare in the evening.

Fortunately, I was working from home yesterday. Most things had been organized, but I did have a dozen or so balloons to blow up. If you go to one of these commercial birthday party venues, you’ll find hundreds and thousands of balloons but they’ve got it all wrong. Balloons are not meant to be strung up to look pretty. That’s ok for about five minutes. After that, they should be pulled down for the kids to play with till they burst. And for that you don’t need hundreds of balloons – something between 10 and 20 will do. At least, that’s what I thought while blowing up the balloons the hard way.

At 4, I left home and picked up paper plates and bowls, salty snacks from Nilgiri’s and the Spiderman cake from Sweet Chariot, and deposited everything at home. Then I raced off to pick up the kids from daycare. Getting them dressed for the party was the usual chaos. Then our friends turned up and for several hours there was even greater chaos. The biryani we ordered at 7.15 turned up spectacularly late at 8.45, prompting some people to leave almost without eating. Apart from that, things went according to plan without any significant spillages or breakages. It’s true that it took us an hour and a half to get things sorted out and put away after the party was over, and that we collapsed in bed around midnight… but it’s also true that – at some point of the day – we looked and felt like this.

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest – Book Review

August 22, 2011

My eyes are hurting. I took up the book at 7 a.m. on Sunday morning and was compelled to put it down when Amit told me it was midnight on Sunday night. I’d begun the book a couple of days earlier, I don’t recall exactly when. It would not be incorrect to say that the days have passed in a blur since then, with all time not spent with the book being spent waiting to get back to the book. Husband and kids have been given short shrift.

It’s a long, long time since a book had me hooked this way. To put it another way, this is probably one of the best – if not the best – action-thriller books I have ever read. Not that I’ve read much of this genre in recent years, but there was a time 20-something years ago when I read them faster than they were churned out. In those days, I was very well acquainted with the works of Robert Ludlum, Frederick Forsyth and the rest of their ilk. I recently read and complained at great length about Frederick Forsyth’s recent attempt to write a book – The Cobra. At that time, I was wondering if I’d forgotten what this genre was like, or if I was wrong to have a completely different level of expectation from what The Cobra provided. This book proves that I wasn’t wrong and I hadn’t forgotten.

It has everything that Cobra doesn’t. It draws you in quickly. It has a vastly complicated plot with many different aspects, but all the threads are drawn together and tightened and then unraveled in an absolutely masterful way. There are as many or possibly even more characters than in Cobra, but the key characters are well defined and even some of the bit-part players are more memorable and human than the key characters of Cobra. You know, as you read the book, that each character was a person to the author – with a complete history, context, and three-dimensional personality, only a fraction of which is actually specified in the writing. That’s something completely lacking in Cobra – each character was just a pawn on a chessboard in an immensely boring and low-skill version of the game.

The book has an incredible pace – 740-odd pages of non-stop – not action, but development. All the time, there’s something going on. There’s never a dull moment, never a pause. You get to see a piece of everybody’s picture, so that often you know things that another actor in the plot doesn’t know. It makes you wonder how on earth the author managed to keep it all straight in his mind and get it down on paper without stumbling all over the hundred tangled threads of the plot. What’s more, each change in perspective, each shift in scene or setting, is done smoothly, flawlessly. Despite the number of people and perspectives, the reader is rarely confused.

One of the things I found fascinating was the ethical norms implicit in the book. There are the bad guys who should have been the good guys (and thought of themselves as such but kind of got carried away). There are the good guys who are law-enforcement guys and tread very, very carefully, always considering which laws they are over-stepping and why and by how much. There are the good rogue guys – the journalists, who play by completely different rules from the law-enforcement guys, twist and bend a lot of laws, but still attempt to be largely ethical. And then there’s the victim – victimized, vengeful, violent, and not afraid to break any law that comes in her way.

I’ve never read a book with so many women in it, many of them in quite significant roles both in the plot and in their society. And so much openness about matters sexual. There’s no explicit sex scene, but sex is treated in such a matter-of-fact way that for me it was completely surprising. Very early in the book, there’s reference to a man and his partner – his male partner – which is mentioned so casually I actually had to rub my eyes and check that both people were male. (Their names are confusing.) Later on, a woman takes our hero to bed in a very brazen way (multiple times, I might add) and another woman seems to have an interesting marriage which not only has involved a threesome at least once, but also allows the woman to have a lover on the side that her husband knows and doesn’t bother about. Then our victim, who is not at all the passive, helpless kind, propositions a man on one occasion and a woman on another. The man accepts, the woman doesn’t, and both of them are only slightly taken aback by it. All this is very strange not just to my not-very-conservative Indian way of thinking, but also in the context of so many other books mostly by American authors, where sex is usually not such an extremely casual matter. One thing that does come out, because of this or regardless of it, is the position of equality and strength of women. It is tempting to say that this is reflective of Swedish society, but, who knows, it might just be this particular author, or this particular work of fiction.

The conversation in the book is fun. A lot of it is very terse and snappy and some parts are breathtakingly rude. Again, I don’t know whether this is reflective of Swedish society in general, or just the way people in this particular book talk. Either way, it was enjoyable and subtly added another dimension of racy action to the book.

Unfortunately, without realising it, I picked the third in a set of three books – because this was the title I’d heard most about. I am sure I’m going to read the first two books in the series as well – but I’d better not do it right away or my family will disown me (not that I’d notice it). My greatest regret is that the author, Steig Larsson, unfortunately died unexpectedly after having completed only 3 books – apparently, he intended a series of 10. What a tragedy. But, when they turn this into a movie, as I’m sure they will sooner or later, I’ll be standing in line.


August 11, 2011

(I’m not saying I’m resuming blogging. But this one I had to share.)

Yesterday when we were walking out of daycare, Mrini kept protesting when I held her hand. She had a small scratch on the back of her hand and it was hurting. I took her other hand and it was all fine.

By the end of the day, Mrini was end-tethered – which expression is my personal shorthand to say that she was at the end of her tether. “Mrini is crying because she didn’t sleep in the afternoon,” explained Tara, helpfully. Amit gave her a bath and she came out howling even more loudly than she had been when she went in.

“What’s the matter?” I asked.

The scratch on her hand was hurting. In an attempt to get her to stop wailing and start talking, I asked her how she got hurt. “Daycare Auntie pinched me,” she wailed.

I was shocked. I’d expected her to say some kid did something to her and then I’d have told her these things happen and that would have been that. The girls don’t normally come home with cuts and scrapes from school and daycare, but a few war wounds in the cut and thrust of life are to be expected. I don’t worry too much. Kids learn to sort these things out themselves.

But an “aunty” inflicting an injury was a different matter altogether! Adults just can’t do that – especially not adults entrusted with the care of little children. At least my kids can talk – and even then, we almost didn’t find out about this. What about pre-verbal kids?

It wasn’t any too easy to get any coherent information out of Mrini, but it gradually emerged that the Aunty had been angry because Mrini wasn’t sleeping. I asked her if the Aunty meant it or if it happened by mistake, and she said quite clearly that the Aunty meant it. We promised her that the Aunty would be spoken to and that she needn’t feel scared if she didn’t want to sleep at daycare, nobody was going to hurt her for that. And that she should tell us if any such thing happens again. Then we let her sleep.

The Aunty named by Mrini was not, of course, the main daycare coordinator, but one of the staff. We called the coordinator and spoke to her. If I’d spoken, I’d have certainly been quite cold and stern (even though I like the daycare coordinator a lot) but Amit spoke and he was much too mild. All the same, she got the message. She will look into the matter, she said.

It’s difficult to know what to make of the whole episode. On the one hand, I want to take my kids right out of that daycare. On the other hand, that would be over-reacting. The place is generally good and I’m sure the coordinator will take up the matter with the Aunty in question. Hopefully, the Aunty will realize that she can’t get away with such things. At least some kids can talk.

On the one hand, it’s such a small, tiny little thing. On the other hand – it must have really hurt, to have someone pinch your hand hard enough to break the skin. Poor Mrini – she must have wailed!

And there’s the sheer injustice of it. We have instructed daycare clearly that while it is desirable for our kids to sleep in the afternoon, if they don’t want to, they don’t want to, and they are not to force them. Mrini has not wanted her afternoon nap for several months already. Sometimes she does, sometimes she doesn’t. So the staff just have to handle it. Usually, I think, she lies in her bed and probably babbles to herself – that’s what she does at home, at any rate. If she is disruptive with other sleeping kids, the staff have to deal with it. Pinching her, hurting her – is just not acceptable. For an adult and a caregiver to resort to these kinds of means… I just don’t know what to say.

But then – when kids think they have been punished, they don’t want to talk about it. In a way, it’s understandable – you want to hide your misdeeds from your parents and only tom-tom your achievements. The trouble is, these silly little things can’t evaluate when the punishment is way out of proportion to the purported mistake. This is how so many abusers get away – the child always thinks they did something wrong and are ashamed to talk about their “punishment”. Who can tell them that certain kinds of punishment are never, ever appropriate? Luckily for us, we have twins. If one gets into trouble, the other always reports on it. But this time, for instance, Tara was asleep when it happened. All she knew was that Mrini didn’t sleep.

There’s one other aspect that is a little worrying. Children do make up things. Mrini was extremely tired and cranky when this story came out. Tara couldn’t validate it. It is possible that Mrini made it up. I don’t think she did. Not because she can’t – she can – but because it just didn’t look like she was making it up. She wasn’t joking, she wasn’t playing around, she wasn’t even making a play for sympathy. In fact, she had no reason to expect sympathy for a story like this, this being a first. Normally, we’re very, “ok, come on, get over it” about minor injuries. So it’s probably difficult to pinpoint any precise factor and say, this is why she isn’t making it up. I just feel she isn’t. But I can’t say 100% for sure that she isn’t.

Now what? I’m certainly going to follow up with the daycare coordinator. And I’m going to tell both girls (again) that if any of the Aunties intentionally hurts them in any way, they are to tell us right away. And beyond that, I think we may not do anything. We probably aren’t going to take them out of this daycare tomorrow. But we will be keeping a very sharp eye on the kids.

And so begins the paranoid-psychotic cycle of parenting. The end of innocence. Sigh.

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