June 30, 2011

Mrini and Tara have always been active kids. Amit and I have always encouraged them too. We never make much of it when they hurt themselves and we generally allow and even encourage them to climb and jump. They have done some truly scary things sometimes, and Amit can get really gory with them when they do dangerous things that must be discouraged. But whenever the threat of injury doesn’t seem to be too great (either the threat or the injury) we let them be.

When they were small, they used to climb the window grills and hang from them.

When the discovered the big play area, they experimented with jumping from as many as ten steps up.

And of course, in the Har ki Dun trek, they skipped over rocks and stones, sank calf-depe in snow, went sliding over ice, and splashed in the stream with complete abandon – at least on the way down.

It’s not that they don’t get hurt or that they don’t wail and moan when they do; it’s that they go right back to whatever they were doing as soon as they can.

In recent days, Mrini has been teaching herself cartwheels. Since neither of us can do a cartwheel (the thought of Amit even trying boggles the imagination), we can’t offer much guidance. But we can tell when it looks right and we can give her feedback on that. She has improved dramatically in the last few days. From leaping sideways more-or-less like a frog (albeit a slightly lop-sided frog) she has progressed to occasionally making an almost vertical cartwheel. It’s amazing to see how that child picks a goal and works so diligently and so enthusiastically towards it. Tara tried a few times, but got easily frustrated and has apparently given up – for now. The last time that happened was with somersaults. That time she came back to it months later and did it with unbelievable elan. So with that one, you just can never say.

Mrini’s diligence at cartwheels and their combined eagerness for physical activity persuaded us that gymnastics would be a good option for them. We had thought of it off-and-on over the past several months, but didn’t really know how to go about it. There was supposed to be a very reliable gymnastics association quite far away from home. The timings didn’t suit. But last weekend, after a long and tiring Sunday, at 7.45 p.m. we walked down to a nearby gym and enquired. It turned out they did have gymnastics classes for kids. Our kids weren’t too young – they were, in fact, a bit old. But we could start them, anyway. We got a demo class for free and could pay up after that, if we liked the look of it.

On Tuesday, we both left work early, picked up the kids from daycare (they usually complain loudly if we pick them up too early, but not yesterday!) and went for the demo class. It was great fun. First the kids – there was a batch of eleven, all of them older and taller than our two – got to do all sorts of running and jumping. Then they did sideways rolls and forward rolls (what we call somersaults). Most of the movements our girls were able to do easily – most of them they had already discovered and practiced at home. There was a split leg forward roll that they didn’t quite get and then there was the reverse roll that they didn’t get at all. After that they did splits (which they were quite good at) and the arched back thing that they didn’t get at all. Considering that it was their very first class, they didn’t do too badly, though. Some of the movements were completely new to them, and others (like jumping jack) they have seen but can’t do, yet. Still – at what they did know, they were as good as many of the others. They had to jump over the width of a mattress kept on the floor – this they could do easily. In fact, they are extremely good at the long jump and could probably have done one-and-a-half mattress widths with their eyes closed. Some of the bigger kids couldn’t really clear the mattress. But then, they had to jump and bring their knees to their chest and this they didn’t get at all – they kept bringing their heels to their bottoms instead.

In the end, they all played “dog in the bone”. (If that’s what it’s called – it’s a variant of what we used to call Pitthoo – our version involved a ball and a tiny tower of unstable stones.) The girls haven’t been exposed to this game, so they weren’t very sure what they had to do, but they gave chase with a great deal of excitement, anyway.

It was just one hour, but it must have been tiring at the end of a school day. One thing I can say for sure is that they went through the whole session with a big grin on their faces. It’s lovely to see how tiny kids don’t really bother when they don’t get something. The age will come when they begin to feel self conscious, when they begin to tease each other, or strive to out-do each other. The time will come when they feel bad and don’t want to go back to a class where they feel they can’t keep up. But right now, it’s the early days of laughter and innocence. If they don’t quite get something, nobody cares. They laugh and carry on.

Looks like gymnastics class is going to be the next source of fun in our kids’ lives.

If Ever…

June 27, 2011

I’m not the campaigning sort. Most campaigns feel fake to me – designed more to direct publicity towards the campaigner than to actually achieve anything. People who really want to change something quietly go out and do it. The ones who cry themselves hoarse are not the ones who’re really making a difference. That’s what I believe.


So I’m not the campaigning sort myself. The only time I did it, it still felt fake. But – never say never again, they say. So if I were to ever take up arms for or against anything, it would most likely be one of these things (in increasing order of likelihood):


5. Corruption – Particularly, corruption in those fields that deal with aiding underprivileged people. Charitable organizations, relief work, rural schools, hospitals and the like, the public distribution system… anybody who claims to be helping other people and is  illegally getting rich in the process is on my hate list.


4. Waste – Indifference to scarce resources is criminal. Why leave a tap running when you could just as easily turn it off? Why take more than you can eat and then wash it down the drain? Why turn the pump on and go away and let pure drinking water fall over the side of the building and run into the gutter?


3. Fairness creams – The belief that fair skinned people are somehow better than dark skinned people and that fairness is, therefore, something to aspire or pray for… it’s just a perverted form of racism!


2. Cruelty to animals – From pelting stones at street dogs to shark fin soup. I’m not promoting vegetarianism, but can we at least be humane to the animals we tolerate, love, domesticate, or massacre?


1. Sexual assault – It still shocks me that so many kinds of sexual assaults are committed on (mostly) women and children and are either tolerated, or ignored. Why, for instance, should marital rape not be considered rape?


What are the top five things that you would like to change, if you could?

State Bank of India

June 23, 2011

That’s what I must be looking like, these days. Or maybe I walk around with dollar signs in my eyes, like Richie Rich in the old comic books. I never thought I came across as a particularly sympathetic sort. I thought I’m a pretty callous type, capable of not just saying no, but adding along with it, “That’s your problem, what’s it got to do with me?”


Still, my domestic help always think I’m a soft touch. I’ve noticed that they are particularly prone to think so when Amit is not around. That’s when their sob stories come out, along with the big eyes and mournful faces. This latest domestic help tried to get money out of me back when she was about a week old. I told her “no” in no uncertain terms. Since then, she has behaved admirably well. Today she asked for a thousand bucks. Since it is well over halfway through the month, I agreed. But I really hope she’s not going to make a habit of it, because I wouldn’t want to lose her, but I don’t want to be held to ransom either.


As if this was not bad enough, the security guard at office came up to me and whispered that he could use a thousand bucks. What!? I don’t even know the guy, for pete’s sake. I mean, I say good morning to him most days, and he does collect my couriers for me and even send some couriers for me – but since when is that grounds to ask me for a thousand bucks!? I told him I didn’t have it, which was true, then I decided it was a weak answer and I told him, “no, I don’t do that.”


I’ve been stupid about money in the past. An old faithful domestic help had taken upwards of 15k from me. When we parted, on good terms, she still owed me 10k. She still owes me 10k. What’s worse is, really long ago, in the innocent days, I lent a colleague money. I think I lent him 7k – which, a decade ago, and at my income level in those days, was a small ransom. He didn’t give it back until things got ugly. It was only later that I – and a lot of others – realized that this chap was borrowing money left right and center and never giving it back to anyone. I was one of the lucky few who got it back, and that was only because I threatened him loudly and in public.


Then there was the flower girl in our old apartment complex. I had absolutely no relation with her whatsoever, considering that I don’t even buy flowers. Her only claim on me was that she happened to occupy the pavement two floors below my apartment. She appeared to believe that this made it incumbent upon me to lend her money. She had a story, of course – her son was sick, he needed medicine desperately, she hadn’t sold any flowers yesterday, ergo, no money, and if she didn’t get 500 bucks today, she couldn’t buy flowers for the day. Plausible, of course. Heart-wrenching, of course. Piled on with fast-flowing tears, of course. Amit – who is smarter than me in these things – said, “tell her we’ll buy the medicines for her son.” I didn’t do that, of course. I gave her the money. For months, she kept promising to give it back to me, but she never did.


It was probably that incident, more than any other, that made me a cynic. But, cynical or not, I remained stupid. I still gave my old faithful domestic help the loan she needed. And I still threw Rs 500 down the drain with the flower girl. So far I’ve managed not to be taken in by the people who wander around the streets of Bangalore wanting to know if you speak Hindi and then launching into a long litany of woes about lost purses and train tickets and whatnot. But basically, I’m a sucker for a long face and a sad tale.


Nowadays, though, the long face remains but the sad tale seems to be a dying art. The two people who’ve asked me for money in the last two days haven’t bothered with a story of any kind. Earlier, at least I felt they were appealing to some human element in me. Now, I’m apparently nothing more than a walking, talking ATM machine.

Not a Night Owl

June 22, 2011

Anyone who knows me knows that I can’t really keep my eyes open past 10 p.m. On the rare occasions that I do achieve this remarkable feat, I usually need half a dozen people around me, talking to me, to be able to do it. Even then, it’s not easy.

There’s a piece of writing that wants to be written. An idea has been knocking around in my head, wanting to get out for the last several days. It might turn into my next (next) book, or it might not. But it does want to get written down to see how it turns out. I haven’t even started yet. Naturally, there’s no time. From 6 a.m. till 8.30 p.m. every moment of my time is spoken for. Then I have an hour to relax, and then it’s time to pack up and go to bed. The only way to get this beast out of my head, it seems, is to sacrifice my sleep. So yesterday I decided I would pull an all-nighter.

I tucked the kids up in bed (figuratively speaking, of course), sent Amit away to the study to do his own work, and settled down with my computer to write. By 9.45, I had done about a thousand words and the idea was starting to take shape. And I was starting to fall asleep. I thought that tidying up the kitchen and packing lunch for the kids might wake me up, so I went to the kitchen. By force of habit, from the kitchen I went straight to the bedroom. By 10.25, ten minutes later than usual, I was in bed. (I daresay that by 10.26 I was asleep, but I wasn’t awake enough to glance at the time by then.)

So much for the all-nighter.

I don’t regret going to sleep. I know I’m no good when my brain has already shut down and my body is just waiting to follow. I don’t know what kind of gibberish I’ll churn out if I attempt do something creative at that point. But what I’m wondering is, how do all these other brilliant over-achievers do it? How do you work, and keep the house running, and spend time with the family, and get some exercise, and then try to do something extra and do it all without falling asleep? Or how do you get by on a steady diet of five hours of sleep each night? I wish I could. I know it can be done, because other people do it; but I really don’t know how they do it.

God knows how many of my masterpieces the world will be deprived of just because I was too busy sleeping! I’m seriously worried about this! But… as they say… I’m not losing any sleep over it. J

All You Never Wanted to Know About Family Planning

June 16, 2011

Day before yesterday my cook didn’t come. Her husband delivered the message that she wasn’t well. Vomiting and stomach pain, he told Amit. When she came yesterday, I asked her how she was now. “Ok,” she said. “Was it a stomach bug?” I asked (in Hindi, of course). She looked around nervously and asked if Amit (“Sir”) was home. Only when I’d reassured her that he was out of earshot did she explain. I’d expected a mundane female problem like a painful period, but it was worse than that. She said she’d missed her period. Uh-oh. So she’d gone for a urine test at the “dispensary” (I have no idea which dispensary or how reliable it is.) The test was positive.

I was already in the midst of congratulating her and wondering, internally, how many months she’d need off, when she said, “But I didn’t want the child. I asked for a medicine to get rid of it.”

“But why?” I asked in shock.

“I already have one,” she said. “How will I take care of another? And here – I don’t even know which hospital to go to. Even my husband agreed that we should get rid of it.”

I was bewildered. To me, it seems perfectly natural that if you have one child and she’s three, it’s the right time to have another. But ok, maybe finanaces being short, it made sense not to have another. And our country is already overpopulated and I didn’t want to offer any extraneous advice, so I just agreed with her. But then, wasn’t prevention the way to do it?

“I already did this once,” she said. “The other madam took me to a hospital and she picked up the cost of everything.”

I wondered if I would have done so, had I even known. In general, I prefer not to get too involved, but this sort of thing can go terribly wrong if you don’t know what you’re doing.

“The lady at the dispensary gave me five tablets. She said to have them on an empty stomach. I took three, but nothing happened. Then I ate something. Then I had the other two.” After that, she went on to describe the effect. Vomiting, diarrhea (I think) and pain as bad as labor pain. She said the baby aborted, but I don’t know how she knew that. I must confess that I didn’t enquire too closely into the matter.

After all the mess, she ate a bowl of cornflakes and milk (what?!?!?!) and went to bed. And the next day, she was back to normal.

I don’t really know what to make of all this. Obviously, having been in the position of wanting to be pregnant and never being pregnant, I always feel a little sad about people who “waste” their pregnancy this way. But that’s irrelevant. I really wouldn’t want anyone to bring a baby into the world that they didn’t want. Adoption worked for us, but that’s not the reason for women to have unwanted pregnancies. And for many people, it obviously makes sense to raise one child and do it well – especially from the financial perspective – than to have many and not be able to provide for them. But still, I was shocked by the matter-of-fact way in which she took the whole thing. I always thought that personally I could never have an abortion, because I’d already feel that the  developing baby inside me was a person. Clearly, she didn’t feel anything of the sort. “It was only a month or so old,” she said.

But then, there’s the remedy itself. I wonder what on earth was in those pills. Was it legal? I doubt it. Was it safe? I doubt it. Was it effective? Apparently, but at some cost, which I don’t even know.

“How long can you get by like this?” I asked her. “Why don’t you use something?”

She said she wouldn’t mind getting operated on. Apparently they even pay you 2k for the service.

“Ok, when you decide to get that done, tell me. I’ll come along.” At least I’ll see the place, talk to the doctors, read the forms, work out if she knows what she’s getting into. I wouldn’t want her to sign away a kidney or something. You never know!

I don’t want to get involved, but – there’s a limit.

Hot, Dirty, and Full of Men

May 24, 2011

Driving is rapidly becoming an elitist activity. With petrol cost going above Rs 70 per litre, even at a modest 500-odd km per month, commuting to work is costing a fortune. And it’s stupid to keep driving when there is an alternative: bus.

I love travelling by bus when we go on one of our frenetic weekend trips – which are admittedly rare now, but once upon a time they used to be frequent, especially in the winter months. There’s a certain indescribable, undeniable charm in rattling along on a rickety, roadways bus, on bumpy, rural roads heading towards some obscure destination that rarely finds its way onto a tourist map.

But commuting by bus in the city is a different story. I have a stubborn and very deep-seated reluctance to have anything to do with buses in the city. I did a bit of bussing as a teenager in Delhi. In those days, going by bus alone brought the thrill of independence and growing-up-ness, so there was something to like about it. There was, however, much to dislike, and eventually the dislike stayed. If I work very hard at it, I can boil it down to one simple statement: In the city, buses are hot, dirty, and full of men. All three are thoroughly dislikeable and, unfortunately, all-pervasive.

Heat is, in some ways, the least complex of the three dislikes. Especially in the extremes of Delhi’s climate, heat means sweat. Lots of sweat. Being packed into a bus like sardines doesn’t do anything to reduce one’s propensity to sweat. And who wants to be in contact with somebody else’s sweaty, smelly body? The blast of hot air from the windows doesn’t do anything to make matters less unpleasant.

Dirt is a much more subjective matter. I come from a family where my mother and her mother both turned up their snooty noses at people of lower social classes. “Poor people are dirty. Poor people travel by public bus. We, the wealthy aristocrats, have nothing to do with such matters. Most of the time, we pretend like such things don’t exist.” My grandmother was so extremely snobbish in her attitude to people and so driven by the need to keep herself clean that she eventually made an obsession out of it. When she was well into her nineties, she would spend hours picking “dirt” from her hands and face. My mother is much less concerned about dirt, but some of the old attitude has passed on to her and a little of it has trickled down to me. I do my best to fight it, but when I’m dressed in my smart office clothes, carrying my office laptop and nice leather handbag, trying to keep my hair neat, and my shoes shiny, I’m a different person from the backpack toting, cargo-pants wearing, rarely bathing, happy-go-lucky traveler who hops onto a roadways bus and cheerfully shares a seat with a bag full of chickens. As a traveler, I’m fascinated by the long, dirty and unruly nails that a person uses to pick their nose with; as a working woman, I’m revolted by the thought of what they might have done with those pickings while sitting in the seat I’m on now.

And then, there are men. When you’re female, and 16-ish, and you’re on a bus, and you’re in Delhi, there is not a good word to be said about men. Men are perverts – all of them. And there may be some sixteen-year-olds who are capable to handling perverts, but I was not one of them. I was not the one who would turn around and scream, spit, stamp on, jab, hit or in any way make a scene or protest. I’d just stand there, grit my teeth, and wish them dead – and by ‘them’, I mean all men. It took me a long time, and it took Amit a lot of hard work, to begin to believe that not all men are bad. By the time I finally changed my mind, I was no longer 16, and I was no longer commuting by bus.

Amit has been putting in quite a bit of (subtle) hard work in getting me to believe that buses are not all bad either. I’ve allowed myself to be persuaded to take a bus on a few occasions in recent weeks, but rarely have I gone on my own. The last time we took a bus together, the driver was eminently certifiable. Initially, he was quite sane and sober. Then, another Volvo of the same route number turned up next to us and all hell broke loose. The two monolithic monsters began to race each other on a road that had only two narrow lanes. At one point, there was only a couple of inches separating the vehicles as they hurtled down the road. I couldn’t tear my eyes away from the swaying giants, but Amit held Tara tightly and looked away. In front of our bus was a humble Santro, bumbling along at 35 kmph, holding up our progress and allowing the other bus to snarl ahead. Our driver mowed down that Santro with a furious blast from his horn. If the car hadn’t been blasted out of his way with the sheer power of sound waves (and the driver’s insane fury), he might have been blasted out of the way in quite another fashion. Luckily, our stop came soon, and I staggered off the bus with a silent prayer of thanks. Amit often claims that being in the bus is safer than being outside it. He may be right, but (as long as you’re not the unfortunate insect holding up the bus) it can certainly be a lot more scary inside.

All of which notwithstanding, Amit persuaded me to do the morning commute to office by bus this morning. We left home quite late and when we got to the bus stop, there were several buses coming, but none of them was an air-conditioned Volvo. I would not be persuaded. I still have my three pet dislikes. I can’t do much about the men and my aversion to “dirt” might be largely neurotic, but at least I don’t have to tolerate the heat and sweat any more. There are air-conditioned buses, so there’s no reason I should reach office in a less than well-preserved condition.

The Volvo came and we got on. It was crowded, but only about 140%, not 200% or 250% like the buses of my memory. The front part of the bus was largely the preserve of women. I parked the twins next to two strange women (strangers, I mean; not that there was anything particularly strange about them) and did not worry about them being molested. (The twins are not yet five, but five is not too young for some men. But I have not heard of too many women molesting small girls. I’m not saying it doesn’t happen, but there’s only so much I can worry about, so I’ll just worry about the men for now.) I didn’t have to worry about myself anymore – not because I would be any more able to deal with being molested, but because at 37+, I probably don’t attract the wrong kind of attention any more. Besides, at least I had my personal bodyguard, Amit, on the bus.

The Volvo buses, unlike the non-air-conditioned buses, cater to a white collar audience. And all my backpacking on rickety public transport to places of dubious repute has done me a bit of good after all – given the kinds of places I’ve slept in, it’s futile to be worrying about dirt in a Volvo bus. So on all counts, I must admit that bussing it today was not as bad as it used to be all those years ago.

And yet…

Amit was at the back of the bus, squashed in among the men. I was standing in front, with the women, keeping a hawk’s eye on the kids. The kids were on separate seats, looking out of their windows. They couldn’t talk to me or to each other, and I couldn’t talk to them or to Amit. We were being blasted by a stream of nonsense from the radio. Thankfully, the spoken bits were in Kannada, so I could easily tune it out, but it was more difficult to tune out the raucous music. Most of the time, I had my little shield of personal space around me, whole and unbreached. But every so often somebody would want to get past me and even in these Volvo buses, the aisle is not designed for two people to pass with personal spaces intact. And by the time I had dropped the kids at daycare, reached office, crossed the hot and dusty road and actually got up to my desk, I was hot, sweaty, dusty, and generally frazzled.

Call me what you like, but I still don’t like commuting by bus. I want my car, my little bubble of sanity in a crowded, crazy world. I want to be able to talk to Amit and the kids, whoever is with me. If I’m on my own, I want my own physical and mental space. I don’t want strangers squeezing past me every couple of minutes. And most importantly , I want to choose the music I listen to, and to be able to drive in silence if I wish to.

Unless, of course, I’m wearing my cargo pants and my trusty backpack and heading for a remote destination on a bumpy country road.

What Was That!?

May 20, 2011

The kids have certainly inherited my genes in one respect (metaphorically speaking, of course): They like to dress sloppy. Some would of course turn that around and say it’s nothing of the sort, that I like to dress them sloppy. That may be partly true, but the fact remains that even when I get them pretty stuff, or try to get them to wear it, they aren’t really interested. Getting them to look like pretty little girls is quite an uphill task. Naturally, I don’t try often. At home and at daycare, they wear a tiny subset of very stained T-shirts and very short jeans or pants (and not in a fashionable way, either). The stains on the T-shirts are due in equal measure to spilling food and sprawling on the floor. The length (or deficit thereof) of the pants is due to the kids growing up faster than their wardrobe is replaced.

Although the kids are now convinced that they have lovely hair (because we audibly admire it so often) and although they now know that this lovely hair must be combed and tied up regularly, they still are happiest with it flying all over the face, theoretically (but not factually) restricted only by a hapless hairband. They occasionally go so far as to admire each other’s silken tresses. But apart from that, as far as their personal appearance goes, they couldn’t care less. They still do sometimes ask me if a particular shirt and pant is a “good combination” – but they are usually unaffected by my answer. Even when Tara regularly combines a pea green shirt with a light blue trouser (to very visually disturbing effect) she is unmoved by our desperate appeals to her to improve her sense of colour and fashion. The only thing that excites them about their appearance is when they get new clothes – and even then, the items they find most exciting are “Dora panties”, shoes, and socks, in increasing order. I kid you not!

Then, it must be said that I’m not the preening sort of person either. Amit does a lot more preening than me. (He may violently disagree in the comments section, but it’s true – he does.) I’m the throw-on-some-clothes-and-make-sure-nothing-is-too-badly-stained-or-torn-and-let’s-go sort of person. On week days, I get ready in 10 minutes flat. On weekends, 12 minutes. For weddings and other rare occasions requiring a sari, it takes a good half an hour or more, but that’s mostly logistics and very little preening.

So it was completely inexplicable and a total shock when Tara asked in the car today, “Mummy, how do I look? Am I looking nice?”

What? WHAT!? When did Tara – Tara! Of all people – acquire a sense of social propriety or self consciousness or even a hint of vanity? My girls are growing up! Can this be true?

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