Mrini and the Vaseline Jar*

October 11, 2011

There are a few rules in our home. One of them is, kids don’t touch stuff on the chest of drawers (COD) in our room. The COD is a repository of all sorts of critical and irrelevant things such as – today for instance – a bunch of Vicks cough drops; torn, used bus tickets; a few shop bills; some stones; a watch; a bank statement; a motley assortment of combs; a book, a magazine, and a collection of photographs.

Given the mission critical nature of some of the things that call the COD their home (the book and magazine, for instance), the do-not-touch rule is a very, very old rule. The kids know it and accept it well enough to pass it on to visiting kids. No issues there.

The thing is, certain items that routinely rest on the COD, also routinely get moved around. Prime candidates for this kind of volatility are my cellphone, my book/magazine of the day, and the small jar of Vaseline. This last named usually ends up on the floor next to our bed (mattress, I mean; we sleep on a mattress on the floor), because I often apply it to my feet last thing at night. Sometimes, it gets put back on the COD in the morning, sometimes it doesn’t. Last Sunday, apparently, was one of the days it didn’t. I thought the kids knew well enough not to touch residents of the COD estate even when those residents were temporarily residing elsewhere, but apparently I was mistaken.

Normally, we are generally aware of what the kids are up to and where they are. Last Sunday afternoon was no different. We’d been out shopping and having lunch. We got back and sent the kids off to separate rooms in the hope that they would sleep. Since Tara was in the kids’ room and Mrini was in our room, we took ourselves off to the study to put some distance between them and us and to get some rest. It was at least an hour or so before we roused ourselves. By then, Mrini had vacated our room and gone to their room. Tara was asleep, Mrini was playing quietly with some toys. Since she often doesn’t sleep in the afternoon despite our best efforts, this was not very unusual. I looked in on her and she gave me a “See, I’m being such a good girl, quietly doing my work” look. At that point, I should have guessed, but I just smiled at her and let her be.

It wasn’t until I was in bed at night, reaching for the Vaseline jar that I noticed anything amiss. For one thing, the Vaseline jar wasn’t visible – either on the COD or next to the bed. I picked up the bedsheet and found the jar under it. By this time, I’d already noted a peculiar stain on the bedsheet that looked rather oily. It wasn’t wet, so obviously Mrini hadn’t accidentally wet the bed – she hasn’t done that for years. Besides, then she would have been wet too. Without worrying too much about it, I got into bed, picked up the top sheet, located the Vaseline jar underneath it, picked it up and almost dropped it right away. It was disgustingly oily and slippery. And – there were only microscopic quantities of Vaseline left in the jar – which had been 80% full the night before! Aha! So that was what that look was for. That was why my bedsheet had an oily stain on it. Amit added that that was also why the bathroom tap had had a thick layer of grease on it when he used it earlier in the day.

Vaseline and five-year-olds – made for each other – not.

* I wrote this one some time ago and it was lying in my Drafts – apparently I forgot to post it. It still doesn’t mean that I’m “back” to blogging.

Tara and the Whistling Class

September 26, 2011

I have known how to whistle ever since I was a child. I don’t remember when or how I learnt, but I have the vague impression that I worked at it. Both my parents whistle and even my sister knows how. There was a point when whistling a particular way was “the” way to call one of the dogs. The other two didn’t take to it so well.

I still whistle quite a bit. Despite my best efforts to teach him, Amit never got it. He says his father can, and – what’s even more surprising – that his father tried to teach him when he was small, but he never got it.

Mrini has been trying to teach herself to whistle, off and on. Mrini’s ability to teach herself things, and to work persistently at something till she gets it is quite remarkable, so I expected her to pick it up sooner or later. But the way things turn out it, Tara was the one to get it. She just got it one day, by chance, and having got it, she kept doing it until it was clear that she could whistle at will. Obviously, she was immensely proud of this new accomplishment. Strangely enough, she learnt to whistle in instead of whistling out. Whistling in is not, in my experience, so effective at producing a melody as whistling out is. I showed her how to whistle out but she still hasn’t got it. Mrini, significantly, has stopped trying.

Tara is a sweet, considerate girl. She often does things just to tease Mrini, but, having teased Mrini sufficiently to draw the first indication of tears, she almost always relents and gives in – which usually involves handing over whatever prized possession she has managed to get hold of. So, pleased though she was to be whistling, she didn’t try to flaunt it in Mrini’s face too much. However, she was soon trying to whistle along with songs that we listen to in the car on our drive home. Mrini hasn’t said anything much, yet. And Tara? You know what she has to say about it?

“Mama, now I know how to whistle, can you put me in a whistling class?”

I even did a Google search, but it is as I feared. It broke my heart to tell her – we don’t actually seem to have whistling classes in Bangalore. But I like the way she thinks.

Not Too Much?

September 21, 2011

As most of you know, we are building a house. Amit is in charge of the project, and I mainly exercise veto power – which I use sparingly (in my opinion). That explains why we’ve ended up with a mud brick construction and just narrowly avoided composting toilets that flush using sawdust instead of water.

The deal is that he’s in charge of the plan and execution, I’m in charge of interiors. Of course, with pale pink mud brick making up in every square inch of every wall in every room, there’s not a lot one can do with the interiors, but I have plans (and I’m not saying a purple sofa won’t feature – anything to liven up the place).

The one thing we’re both fighting over, however, is neither the building itself, nor the interiors – it’s the garden space. When I say “garden” I really mean the little strips of open space at the front, back and sides. We don’t have a farmhouse, after all, or even a mansion – just a small plot hemmed in on all sides by other small plots with big houses. So there’s not a lot left over for the “garden” – so inevitably, what there is, we’re fighting over. Amit, obviously, wants his precious vegetable garden. I’ve promised him the four-foot strip on the west side of the plot. In return, I get the front, the ten-foot driveway on the east, and the 6-foot back yard. Fair and square, don’t you think?

Mud brick is a deadly boring thing, all earthy pale pink and drab as could be. One can’t paint over it, so what I plan to do is to add colour by way of creepers, where possible, and trees. I’m not much into flowers – silly, pretty little things. I like my plants to be big and grand and stately. Amit is pleading for a mango tree, but I also need some colour – apart from green. So here’s what I’ve planned.

Aren’t they gorgeous? It’s going to be Cassia Fistula (yellow), Delonix Regis (orange/red), and Laburnum Mimosaefolia (purple) in front, and at the back, a gigantic Cassia Javanicus (pretty pink).

The laburnum, jacaranda, and gulmohar were no-brainers. The trees are breathtakingly lovely when they flower and they all flower around the same time. They’re all common in Bangalore, so I know they’ll grow well and I know roughly the size and shape they grow to. And I can just see them crowding up the front, right corner of our little plot – a bright burst of colour on the second-floor level and a lovely mosaic of colour on the ground.

The Cassia Javanica is a tree I didn’t know anything about – other than the fact that it grows in Cubbon Park and if you happen to be driving down Cubbon Road at the right time of year and stop at the Minsk Square intersection, it’s quite possible to wish that the light wouldn’t change for a few weeks, just so you can drink in the sight in peace. It’s an absolutely glorious specimen, and the fact that it towers above and delicately frames the statue of King Edward the whatevereth (who I always thought was King George the somethingeth, but was disabused of the notion by this article) doesn’t detract from its charm at all.

Now if you consider the footprint of each tree and then consider the canopy of each tree, I’m not sure that our little plot actually has the space to accommodate all four trees. Remember there is supposed to be a house there as well. But by the time Amit is done with his mud brick construction, I will need a splash of colour to make the place worth living. Orange, yellow, purple, pink, that’s all. That’s really not too much to ask, is it?
Photos from the following websites:

Kept Promises

May 26, 2011

Last weekend was a weekend of kept promises. It started – as a good weekend should – on Friday afternoon. I left office at 3 p.m. and went to daycare to pick up the kids. Then, I brought them back to my office. It has been a long-pending request of theirs to see my office and just before we left for our Himalayan trek, I’d promised them I’d get it done before the summer vacations ended. With the end in sight now, just a week or so away, it was high time I kept my promise.

I told the kids they’d have to be very quiet in my office – no shouting and no running around. They were all excited as we entered the office and Mrini saw a laptop case at somebody’s cube that looked like mine and she went scooting off in that direction. When I’d retrieved her, we found our way to my desk, where they were happy to note their photos on my pin board. My colleagues had very sweetly gone out and bought a few things for the kids, which they were thrilled with. After five minutes hanging around near my cube, I took them to the cafeteria. Five minutes later, Amit walked in. Security had seen him hanging around the lift lobby, seen the kids come in with me and head to the cafeteria, and had very kindly let Amit in and directed him to the cafeteria. These are the joys of a small office; such a thing would never have happened in the larger and more formal organizations I have worked at in the past.

Amit took the kids off to give them the grand tour of his office, while I went down to the car to fetch our stuff. This, after all, was no ordinary weekend. This was the weekend of kept promises and that meant, we were finally going to Mysore. We had initially promised to take the kids to Mysore a whole year ago. For one reason and another, it just hadn’t materialized, even as most of our friends wound up taking their kids there and (mostly) reporting that it was a great experience. On the spur of the moment, we had planned a trip together with S&P and their kids, and before anyone could raise too many objections, we had booked the train tickets and eventually even filled out an exhaustive online booking form for the hotel. On Friday morning, we left home with a few extra bags. Apart from the usual set – laptops for Amit and me; lunch bags for Amit and the kids; snack boxes for me and the kids; and a handbag for me – there were school bags for the kids, in which they’d very enthusiastically packed just as many clothes as they would need for the short trip; a large laptop case full of clothes for Amit and me; and a camera bag.

We parked our laptops and the car in the office and set out with just the clothes bags and the camera bag. Amit being Amit, we were getting to the train station by bus. We left office at 4 sharp, and despite dire predictions to the contrary from well-meaning colleagues, reached the train station at 5.30 – so early, in fact, that we stopped for dosa at Platform No. 1. Consequently, by the time we got to our platform, walked all the way up the train looking for our coach, didn’t find it, and walked all the way in the other direction, it was getting rather close to ETD. In the end, though, we didn’t need to hop into a moving train – we got into our coach and were well settled before the train got rolling.

The trip to Mysore zoo went pretty much as expected. I felt less upset than I’d expected at the plight of animals in cages and small enclosures. Thankfully, many of the large animals were in open enclosures surrounded by deep ditches, so it didn’t feel as much like a cage as a cage does. That the animals were bored is beyond doubt, but there was still some excitement in it for us. The tiger paced up and down and snarled. The giraffes stretched their long necks for gulmohar leaves that were just out of reach and waited patiently for the breeze to bend the bough. The rhino made a tour of his periphery, passing a couple of feet in front of us on the way. The elephants stood together at the front of their enclosure and returned our gazes. The crocs lay as still as rocks, mouths gaping in the sun. The gorilla sauntered through his front lawn, picking fruit of some kind off the ground and eating it. The chimpanzee sat hunched over looking exactly like a grey old man. The lions and the cheetah panted in the scant shade of a tree. There were high wire fences around their enclosures. Right at the end, we saw emus and an ostrich. The beginning was full of birds.

The whole tour was a 3-km circuit. We left the hotel – a half km away – at 10 a.m. and returned shortly after 2 p.m. It wasn’t as hot as we’d expected, thanks to the lovely canopy of trees all along, but we’d stopped for various cooling drinks throughout the morning and we ended the outing with a tall glass of sugarcane juice each. After lunch at the hotel, we all retired to bed and it was 6.30 before the kids were awake again.

In the evening, we walked past the palace. We didn’t go in, but admired it from outside, beautifully lit up with golden fairy lights. There was a mela in what must have been the palace grounds. P and little p went on some of the rides, which it doesn’t seem either of them liked; while I explained to Mrini and Tara why it would be no fun for them whatsoever. But there was one more promise that I had to keep this weekend – cotton candy. I have probably had cotton candy only once or twice in my entire life. If you ask me, once or twice is enough. Cotton candy is a good experience for a kid – you have to know what it is, after all – but it’s not fun enough to repeat too often. For some time now, the kids had been asking me for cotton candy and I’d been telling them I’d get it for them on a “fun day”. I didn’t really mean anything by it – only, cotton candy is not your normal everyday kind of experience, especially not the first time. Well, this trip the Mysore zoo certainly counted as a fun day – considering they’d started with Chocos, continued with biscuits, and go on to ice cream (to say nothing of sugarcane juice), it had all the trimmings of a fun day – so cotton candy was in order. Moreover, it was available. I got them one whole stick each and I’m happy to report that they didn’t finish it – though Tara made good progress on hers. It’s going to be a long time before they get cotton candy again. Luckily, I’m not sure they really liked it. With all the thinking and reading that we do around health and dietary matters these days, for kids to be taking in this quantity of sugar in one day… shudder! It’s not good for my health to even think about it.

We ended the day with dinner at Das Prakash (Paradise), which was good.

The next morning, we got up at 5.30 and headed out to Ranganthittu. We’d booked an auto to get us there, and by 6.30-ish we were there. It was too early, of course, and we were told that the boat rides would not get going until 8.30 or so. We knew that, anyway – but sometimes, if you are lucky, you can find someone to take you out on a boat even in the early morning hours and it was certainly worth the chance. As it turned out, we were told that one boat had left at 6.15 and wouldn’t be back anytime soon. All the same, we spent a pleasant hour or so wandering around the edge of the water and then went back to the hotel for breakfast.

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The rest of the morning was spent at the hotel and was marred by an accident. The kids – Mrini, Tara, and little p – were playing with one of those luggage trolleys that you normally find at airports. After pushing each other around in it for a bit, Tara had discovered that you could climb into the top part and sit there like a monkey. Soon, Mrini wanted to climb up too. Little p, who is smarter than these two, kept her distance. It was most unfair that when the trolley toppled, it was little p who got hurt. The entire nail of the first finger of her left hand popped out. She had to be rushed to a nearby hospital for a dressing. It put a damper on the rest of the day and was a sad end to an otherwise happy outing.

We got back to Bangalore by 4.15 and it took us another two hours to find our way back home from the station. And then it was Sunday evening, the next week was around the corner and we were nowhere near prepared for it.

Three kept promises in one weekend is… fun but tiring. We’re still recovering from the ill effects of not having done grocery shopping last weekend. And next weekend is just around the corner. It’s the last weekend before school re-opens, which means it’s time to assess the wardrobe situation, check that existing stuff works, throw out some stuff, buy new stuff, and generally try to get organised. All the kids’ pants are stopping at their knees now, so I know it’s time to get them a whole new set of pants. And shoes. And some t-shirts as well. There’s obviously a lot of shopping to do. But… I’m not making any promises!

You May Be Right – I May Be Crazy

April 8, 2011

…but that’s ok with me. It’s not such a bad thing, being a little bit crazy. Especially if one is crazy about the right thing.

In this particular instance, it is about trekking.

Most people know us well enough not to bother calling us crazy if they hear that we’re going off on another trek. But when they hear that our soon-to-be-five year old daughters are coming along on their first Himalayan trek ever, eyebrows (at the very least) do tend to go up.

Maybe it is a little bit crazy. But it’s probably not as crazy as you think. First, this is only a short trek – two days up, one day at the top, and two days down. Of course, we also spend two days getting there and two days getting back, but that’s on wheels, rails, and wings, so that (probably) doesn’t count as crazy. The altitude is not all that high. We start at about 6,000 ft, and the highest point is a little under 12,000 ft. The walking itself is only 5 days, one of which is a rest day. Also, on most days we won’t have to tent because there are lodges all along this route. Only on one night, we didn’t get a reservation at the lodge, so we might end up tenting for just one night. So it’s not all that crazy, see?

Of course, there’s the small matter of walking 13 km per day. And gaining 5,000 ft in two days. Are you asking me if the kids can do that? I haven’t the slightest idea – I don’t even know if I can do that. After all, it’s been four years since my last trek. This might come as something of a shock to you (especially if you’ve read my book; have you?) but I’m actually very scared of trekking. I mean, I get scared while trekking – when the dry, slippery pebbles start sliding under foot, I get terrified. I also get phobic about steep slopes and narrow paths. And heights. And descents. And boulders. And whatever else you can think of. It took me lots of practice to get my various fears under control, but now it’s been a gap of four years and I have no idea how much I might have regressed.

Of course I should be doing something to prepare. I should be working on my leg muscles. I should be improving my cardio-vascular fitness. I’m not really doing anything. I’m going to be in so much trouble. And, on top of everything else, I’m going to starve! Because I can’t eat most of the emergency food that we carry – biscuits, cake, bread, Maggi – and my lactose intolerance is also at its most intolerant in the mountains, so I can’t even have coffee, or even a good dose of ghee in my khichadi – not unless I want to risk diarrhea, which is not the best thing to have when on a trek.

And then I have to worry about the kids. I honestly have no idea if they will take to it – the whole wilderness experience. Will they enjoy doing nothing but walking the whole day long? They love to talk and they love to get the undiluted attention of their parents and they are very active all day long. At least I can be sure they won’t miss TV or battery-operated toys (they don’t have any). But will they enjoy the walk? How much will they be able to walk? Will they last the entire trek or will we have to abort after day 1? Will they be enthralled by the views and the sheer novelty of being in the mountains? Or will they start whining “I’m bored; I’m hungry; I’m tired; you carry me…” within the first 20 minutes and keep it up the whole damn day?

If they do get tired, will they agree to be carried? By a porter? In a sack? Will they (horrors!) both want to hang on to my hand and walk – on a narrow, slippery path with a steep fall on one side???

Worse still, what if I get petrified along the way and one of the kids has to come and hold my hand and pull me along? What kind of role model is that?

Sigh. Problems, problems…

But at least we are going back to the mountains. At one point, I doubted I ever would. If this works… there could be so much more to look forward to in the coming years. 🙂

Everything A Long Weekend Should Not Be

April 4, 2011

My cook has been absconding, again. Remember I promoted her to an all-in-one solution – come, clean, do the laundry, iron clothes, cook, wash dishes, and generally keep my life housework-free? It’s always a bad idea, this all-in-one solution. The moment people begin to think they are indispensible, they start to take advantage of the situation. But on the other hand, if you have two (or more) employees, you have politics. Since my cook seemed like a genuine and straightforward person, reasonably reliable and hard working, I opted out of the politics and put all my eggs in one basket.

My cook always has a good reason for her various absences. To hear her tell it, her life is one long saga of unrelieved misery, tension, and tragedy. Her husband beat her with a broken bottle, dragged her to the police station and abandoned her there accusing her of having AIDS. Her children steal money from her and publicly accuse her of sleeping around. Her landlord abuses her, molests her, and never returns her cash advance (every landlord she gets – and she has been through many). Her purse gets lost or stolen in the bus. Her daughter, who never got married, wants to get divorced and abandon her two small children, one of whom, at any point in time, either is or should be in the Emergency Room with some mysterious and life-threatening ailment. She has a knee problem that can only be fixed with an expensive operation. And, of course, she wants to sell a kidney so she can get all her gold back from various unscrupulous pawn brokers, if only she could find a way of doing so without winding up dead.

Shocking, no? And if I sound cynical and cruel and stone-hearted… well, chances are, so would you if you had to listen to such unrelieved tedium week after week and month after month. I’ll soon be writing depressing and horrid Thomas Hardy type novels if this goes on much longer.

The last time I lent my cook money – my previous cook, not this one – we never got it back. So now Amit has completely forbidden me from giving any employee any money apart from a cash advance on work already done. I hate to say so, but in my head I agree with him. My heart usually goes out to these people, but if my money follows, I know it will never come back. You might say I have enough, why should I grudge it, but I do grudge it, especially with the current cook. She’s not just naïve, she’s downright stupid. Let me illustrate with an example.

One day, she came to me and said she wanted to buy a car. Yes, that’s right – she usually doesn’t know where the next kilo of rice is coming from at the end of the month (and I pay her an extravagant salary; and her son earns quite a bit too) – but she wants to buy a car. When I stared at her blankly and asked, “But why?” she said, “It will be so much easier for me to get to work and back, these buses are unpredictable,” etc etc. So I tried to break it to her gently that petrol wasn’t exactly free nowadays, and she said, “Oh, I won’t use it, of course, I’ll give it to some taxi company and they will run it and they will give me money for it, with which I will pay back the loan and the balance is my income, see?”

“Sure, and how does that solve your bus problem?” I asked. “Besides, have you thought about what you are going to do when the taxi company crashes the car?” I didn’t mention insurance to her – the taxi company will probably keep the insurance money. “Do you think the company who gives you the loan will say, ‘oh, you poor thing, the taxi company crashed the car? Ok, then, we’ll waive the rest of the loan for you.’”

And so it goes. She always has a naïve and extremely stupid scheme up her sleeve that will make her rich and it never works because people are neither so stupid nor so magnanimous as she believes. The number of ways she has discovered to lose money is just incredible. Like a stray pup, she will trust just anybody if they talk nicely to her; and she’s only too willing to shell out money in the pathetic belief that it will come back double.

So anyway, in the last month or so, her absence has become much more the norm than her actual presence. Around the middle of the month, when the house had not been cleaned for several days running, I confronted her and said, “This is unacceptable. If you can’t manage the work, I’ll get someone else.” This, obviously, was the cue for her to say, “oh, please, madam, don’t do that, I’ll be regular from tomorrow, I promise, only please don’t do that,” but instead she coolly said, “Ok.”

After that, she became even more erratic and the kind of food she churned out sometimes made Amit wish that she hadn’t even come. And she’s a good cook – the sort who can make eminently edible food without even trying. It began to look as if she was actually trying to get fired. But I wasn’t ready to fire her yet, so I gritted my teeth and said nothing. We got another woman to come and take over the cleaning, laundry, ironing, and washing of dishes, so that the cook just had to cook. On day two of this other woman joining, the cook apparently told her, “Can you cook too? Because I’m not planning to stick around past the end of this month.”

To me, she continued her extended sob story and I pretended to accept it. Now the other woman has been around for a couple of weeks and her work looks ok. But since around Wednesday last week, we haven’t seen hair nor hide of the cook.

Which brings me to the crux of the matter. On Wednesday evening, we ate leftovers for dinner, then I left the kids to their own devices and cooked for Thursday’s lunch. On Thursday evening, when Amit had just come back from a business trip, I ignored him and the kids and cooked for dinner and Friday’s lunch. It wasn’t quite enough, though, so we supplemented it by ordering in. On Friday evening, I only had to worry about that day’s dinner, so I put together masala dosa. After about ten dosas, it felt like a half-holiday. But later in the evening, Amit was starving and had to make do with stale and mouldy bread. On Saturday, I got down to business and put together a delicious mutton curry and veg for lunch. I did atta and made a dozen rotis. Thankfully, we had a dinner invitation, so that saved me having to do one more meal.

Then on Sunday I woke up sick. Unfortunately I wasn’t sick enough to get royal treatment, but I had a sore throat and a back ache and was generally low on energy, so we went out for lunch. On Sunday evening we did barbecue chicken with fresh rotis and stale veg.

On Monday, I was better, unfortunately. So I spent from 9 a.m. practically till 2 p.m. in the kitchen (with a short interval for bathing the kids and self). I made dal, channa, baigan (eggplant – which I don’t even like), cabbage-and-carrot, boiled chicken (scraps left over from the barbecue night), rice, and more atta for more rotis (which I can’t even eat… sigh). And it’s still only barely enough for Tuesday’s lunch. When I get back from work on Tuesday evening, I’m going to have to whip up dinner and Wednesday’s lunch without missing a beat.

I’m just not cut out for this. I can cook once a week and make something hopefully nice and hopefully non-veg. But having to do dal-chawal-roti-sabzi every day of the week? I don’t think I can survive even a week like this.

I know there are women who do this every day – cheerfully, effortlessly, and most importantly without complaining. There are even women who make an art form of it. All I can say is… hats off to you! I don’t know how you do it and I can’t even remotely fathom why. You deserve an award. I? I deserve a day off – or at least a litre of ice cream and two cans of cold beer.

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”.

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?

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!

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