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.


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.

A Tough Call

July 14, 2011

The first time that I was sexually molested – that I can recall, that is – I was maybe 8 years old. Our girls are now 5. Sadly, 5 is not too young to be worrying about this.

Amit thinks I’m paranoid about men. Maybe, to some extent, I am. But it’s only because the varied unpleasant experiences of my early years have made me this way. The impact of that very first incident, when I didn’t even know what exactly was going on, only that it made me feel dirty – that incident had an impact that lasted years.

Decades, actually.

It’s still working away at me, making me doubt every unknown man who comes within a foot of my children. For instance, at their daycare there used to be a security guard. I saw him everyday and I had no reason to think ill of him. All the same, during the summer holidays when we reached daycare early, I wouldn’t leave them at daycare until one of the women staff arrived. It’s not that I don’t trust the security chap; it’s just that he’s male.

One of the reasons I never really considered getting a driver to drive the kids around is because you don’t get any women drivers. And the only reason I’m not too worried about sending them in the school van is because they are never the last kids in the van. I did worry a bit about how much other five-year-olds could be relied upon to help, but then decided they would at least have a deterrent effect on anybody with those ideas. Hopefully.

School and daycare are full of women, so apart from the van, there weren’t any other opportunities for strange men to get their hands on my daughters. I don’t worry about the tennis court at all, not only because there are always plenty of people around of all ages, but also because the tennis coach is a friend and above suspicion.

Then they started gymnastics.

The gymnastics class is at a gym that I have no prior association with. We’ve met the head honcho, and there are at least three competent young women around who seem to know what’s what. I’ve sat through four classes. There is, of course, a lot of physical contact between the instructor and the kids. The instructor is male. There is a female assistant whom I’ve seen at every class. But, the male instructor still does handle all the girls in the class. His hands are on their legs and butts. If there were anything inappropriate? “That assistant wouldn’t say anything,” said Amit. “She wants to keep her job.”

Ok, so I will sit in on every class, I thought. I’ll know if there’s anything shady going on. It’s fine – it’s only an hour twice a week. Besides, it’s hugely entertaining to watch all their antics.

But at the last class, I was told, firmly and absolutely, by one of the women who runs things over there, that parents are not allowed to sit in on classes beyond the first one or two. Why? Because the children then always think of their parents first and aren’t completely “in” the class. They need to focus on the instructor.

It’s a fair comment. It’s true – even when I sit around at the tennis court during their tennis sessions, I’ve seen it. Their eyes always go to us. It makes the instructor’s job more difficult – pulling the kid’s attention away from the parents. It’s true that the kids need to be in their environment without thinking of their parents watching them from the sidelines. And yet…

I discussed it with Amit and we decided to leave them to it. I think I quite like their gymnastics instructor – he brings a lot of energy and enthusiasm to class. I’ve not seen anything in the way he interacts with the kids there that makes me at all uncomfortable. And if the only option is to pull them out of gymnastics class… I can’t lock my girls up in an ivory tower. I can’t deny them all sorts of fun just because of my fears, which may or may not be warranted.

And so – I’ve decided to rely upon my initial, instinctive liking of this particular man. They can stay in the class. I will not sit in. Everything will be ok.

And yet – what if I am wrong?

Seniors (Already)

June 3, 2011

So the kids went back to school on Wednesday. They’ve started their third year now; this year, they are “Seniors”. Cliched though it is, I must say it: How time flies! Wasn’t it just the other day that I put them into the nearby playschool so I could enjoy a brief respite from the constant state of high-alert they kept me on?

They are old enough to get the idea of summer holidays now – at least, they get that summer holidays will end at some point and they will go back to school. It’s nice that in the Montessori system, the class and the teachers remain the same. The “babies” (M0 and M1 kids) are new, and the “seniors” from last year (M3 kids) have moved on to First standard, but the M1 and M2 kids from last year stay on in the same class, so two-thirds of the kids are the same every time school reopens. (Albeit a different two-thirds, if you know what I mean.)

So far, the kids were taking a school van to get from school to daycare. This year, we’ve started to send them by school van for the morning drop from home to school as well. Hats off to the kids that they’ve accepted this step with their usual elan and wait eagerly and impatiently for the school bus every morning. It’s a different van from the one they take to daycare, different driver, attendant, and kids, and this one ferries older kids as well as tiny kids. But they never batted an eyelash at the newness of it, and were thrilled to discover that two of their classmates are on the same van.

School is five whole hours this year – 8.30 to 1.30. They leave home at 7.15 and get to daycare only at 2.15! They get two snack breaks, but no proper lunch break at school, which means lunch gets pushed out to 2.30 or so, which is pretty late. Breakfast is basically a glass of milk, so the snacks will have to be fairly substantial to keep them going till 2.30. Yesterday we packed two snacks in one box for each girl and apparently they ate both the snacks in the first break and had nothing for the second break. What’s more, Mrini was so tired by the time she got to daycare that she ate very little lunch and went to sleep! Sorting out their meal content and schedule is going to take some work. Already I’m terrified each day that I’ll forget to pack some crucial element of their school bag or their lunch bag which will lead to them being hungry, thirsty, or under-dressed some day. And I’m really worried about how I’m going to come up with ideas for two healthy and substantial snacks per child, per week day (20 snacks per week!) and still keep it interesting.

And there’s another thing that’s worrying me in a “back of the mind” kind of way. Their teacher told me at the end of the first day that I should make Tara do some writing work at home.

This teacher of theirs is an experienced and balanced kind of teacher. She’s not the overly pushy kind. And the nice thing about her in particular and the Montessori system in general is that there is a real effort to understand each child and work with them as individuals. This is as far removed from cookie-cutter education as it is possible to be at least in the Indian context. At the end of the first year, she told me, “They should be able to count to ten by now, but it’s ok. We can work on it next year.” She also said, “Let them eat with their hands and let them do a lot of drawing and colouring. It will improve their fine motor skills and help them to learn to write.” This kind of advice I can work with – anything that is a general recommendation and that, moreover, tends to work around a problem, sounds good to me.

At the end of last year, the teacher said, “Let them do some clay modeling over the holidays. It’s good exercise for their hands.” Well, we didn’t get around to doing clay modeling, but I didn’t worry about it. They did a lot of colouring and crafts at daycare, but I didn’t “work” with them on writing or anything else during the holidays. I’m the irresponsible type of parent who believes that “working” with them is the school’s job and my job is to do lots of other stuff. But when their teacher told me that Tara needs to work on her writing at home (“a little bit, if you can – don’t force her or anything”) I was worried.

The thing is, since this is a generally balanced teacher who has given sensible recommendations in the past, I can’t dismiss this advice out of hand. On the other hand, “working” with Tara at home is not, in my opinion, the right approach. Given that I’m not going to be the kind of mother who holds her child’s hand (literally or otherwise) throughout school, working on handwriting at the tender age of less-than-five is not something I’m going to do. In my opinion, Tara’s handwriting is not the problem. The problem is her attitude. I want her to learn to focus, to learn to take her work seriously, and for her to believe that she can do well and then to want to do well. If I have to teach her anything, it’s motivation first, then discipline, focus, and plain hard work.

I’ve seen other people teaching kids to write – by holding their hands. That’s easy enough – anyone can do that. But how long will you keep holding their hands and teaching them? How long will you, the parent, be responsible for what your child learns? I do want to teach my kids, but what I want is to teach them to teach themselves. That’s not so easy. Some would say that it’s too early for that lesson, but I don’t think so. It’s never too early. The problem is to find the right way to do it.

Motivation, for instance. It’s easy – “Write ten lines, I’ll give you a chocolate.” But that, again, is not the right kind of motivation. The motivation must be to do a thing well, not the rewards that come along with it. Can this kind of external motivation lead to some kind of internal motivation? I think not – why would you need any other source of motivation if your motivation is a chocolate, a book, a cycle or whatever? The motivation I want to see in Tara – Mrini already has it to a surprising extent – is “Write ten lines because you can.” Or “Write ten lines because you want to learn.” Or, what would be best, “Write ten lines because it’s so much fun.” In the absence of that, I’ll even settle for “Write ten lines because you have been told to and then you can go play.” There’s nothing wrong with obedience and plain old discipline if all else fails.

One thing I used to see quite a bit of, but it’s been less evident of late, was a kind of negative competition between the girls. Mrini always wanted to do her work and she got a lot of praise for it. Tara didn’t want to do the work, but she would try to just because she saw Mrini getting attention and praise. Then she would lose interest and start messing around. I think she had begun to feel that “Oh, Mrini is so good at all this, I’m hopeless, there’s no point in even trying.” Nowadays, this has changed a bit. Tara has been uncharacteristically helpful around the house, while Mrini has been irritatingly uncooperative. So Tara gets the brownie points, for now. Amit and I are both consciously trying to notice and praise her when she’s focusing on something, anything. We’re trying to tell her that she can do well at things, if she tries. Trouble is, essentially their personalities are different – Mrini is all eager to please and Tara is devil-may-care. This makes motivation that much more of a challenge for Tara – she will only focus on and work on something for her own sake, not for anybody else’s. And if she’s cut out that way, I don’t think it’s too early to start telling her that she has to focus on her work for the sake of the work itself.

The question is: How can I get her to understand and accept that?

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?

A Panda Called Pranav

May 10, 2011

A very, very long time ago, Amit went to Finland and brought back a panda for the kids. Naturally, it was a stuffed toy panda. It was an FAO Schwarz panda – hideously expensive.

At first the kids were not very enthusiastic about the panda. They were a little bit scared of him. He wasn’t very big and he was quite soft and fluffy, but they didn’t really take to him.

Then, after a few days, Mrini slowly started to get fond of him. Meanwhile, Tara had befriended a horrendous orange teddy bear of the common or pavement variety and in short order they had torn an ear off the said teddy bear. What’s more, they proceeded to open various seams in the teddy bear which, since Tara had become quite attached to it, and since she also showed a strong inclination to stone-heartedly and systematically disembowel it, I had to sew up on various occasions. Why you would want to disembowel a teddy bear that you professedly love I don’t understand, but kids are like that.

For a while, the panda and the teddy bear became siblings for our twins. They even went so far as to feed them and sing them to sleep and were only just about dissuaded from actually giving them a bath. I thought, at the time, that it was like having another baby (or two) but I had no idea what lay in store.

Tara’s teddy bear made the transition to our new home last year, but some time after that, when I found them ignoring him for weeks at a stretch, I asked Tara if we could give him away to a tiny girl who lived in the under-construction house next door. Her parents were labourers, so her toys tended to be gravel, cement, and bits of string. Tara, thankfully, agreed.

The panda never really went out of use, but it was only when one of their favourite friends had a baby brother who was eventually named Pranav, that the panda was christened Pranav-the-Panda. I think the girls decided that since they weren’t going to get a younger sibling they might as well adopt Pranav-the-Panda and initiate him into the role. It didn’t take long for Pranav-the-Panda to transition from “baby brother” to “baby”. We can even now hear them saying, “Now I’m the Papa, you’re the Mama,” and running off to fetch the baby.

Apart from spending many happy hours “taking Pranav to school” and “going to office” and “picking Pranav up from school” and “going to the market with Pranav” and “putting Pranav to sleep” (the current favourite) they also started taking Pranav downstairs with them when leaving for school or daycare in the morning. They would seat him (or sometimes throw him – so heartless are they with their baby) on the steps so that they could be reunited with him the moment they got back home.

Then Mrini asked whether she could take Pranav in the car with us when we went out. Well… why not? So Pranav began to occupy the middle of the back seat on our drives and often Amit and I would be summarily instructed to “Stop talking! Pranav is sleeping!” On other occasions, we’d hear them saying, “Pranav is crying for you,” and passing the baby from Papa to Mama in the back seat.

In all of this, it was impossible not to become quite fond of Pranav. Not that I had anything against him to start with – it’s just that he was, after all, a stuffed toy. Moreover, he was a stuffed toy who’d been thoroughly slathered with Vaseline on one memorable occasion when I happened to be busy elsewhere and consequently he had managed to pick up a good measure of dirt and was beginning to look less like a toy and more like a wild animal in need of a bath. So I’d kept my distance from him, at least emotionally. But gradually, unsuspectingly, I too grew fond of the creature.

And then we went on the trek. It was the longest that Mrini and Tara have ever been away from home. They’ve never shown any signs of anxiety at being away from home in the past. But this time, Mrini was at times concerned, worried, and outright sad. Pranav was alone at home. She was missing him. More importantly, he was missing her. I told her he was happy watching TV and playing with her toys, but she wasn’t buying it. I said, when we get back to Delhi, you can talk to him on the phone. “Pranav can’t talk,” she told me scornfully. “He has a lock on his mouth.” (He has a sprig of greenery in his mouth; the “lock on his mouth” bit comes from Mozart’s Magic Flute, where some poor fellow does have a lock on his mouth.)

When I got back home, alone on Monday evening, the first thing I did was to check on Pranav. He was lying alone in the living room, in front of TV (which was switched off). He did look a bit forlorn. I took him back to the kids’ room and kept him with the rest of the toys. I told Amit to tell Mrini that I was home and that Pranav was fine. I don’t know if she felt any happier that the poor fellow wasn’t all alone any more, but I certainly did. How can I be completely indifferent to him? After all, he is my first grandchild.

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”.

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