Places of learning

I wrote about school tuck shops a while back. Did I write about what happened this year? My son, ever ambitious on my behalf, told his teacher I would be making pizzas for him to bring. And then conveniently forgot to tell me anything about it. When I learnt about these plans through the usual circuitous routes, I was frankly appalled. I had been struggling along at the time with one of these old fashioned ovens and it took me about half an hour to get one pizza done. (We usually order pizzas in like most of the civilised world, of course)


When I pointed this out to Rohan, he gave me a long suffering look and said ‘Don’t worry mummy. I only told them you would send thirty pizzas’. I let out a gasp and a wail but my audience had skipped out on me. I seethed as I waited for my husband to come home and poured my story into his ears. The reaction I got was not quite what I had hoped for. ‘What if we get a new oven?’ he asked. Ignoring the fact that no new oven had been bought while we suffered through slow baked cakes and pizzas at home, I pointed out the obvious to the doting dad. There is NO WAY we will be able to deliver thirty fresh tasting pizzas. And you might as well not deliver cold pizzas at all.

My perfectly reasonable arguments fell on deaf ears and we had a new OTG in our kitchen the next day. I had by then though persuaded Rohan to let me send some pasta instead. On the day of the tuck shop, Rohan’s class teacher asked me to mind the class for a bit while she setup the stalls. I enjoyed this so much I wonder if I have missed my calling. I think I might have made a good teacher. And I would certainly have had fun doing it. I say this inspite of how the entire class wanted to go to the washroom at the mere sight of a substitute teacher. Some many times over!

I had given my son money instead of lunch. When he returned I asked him what he had eaten and he said pasta. I knew that at least one other mom had sent pasta too so I asked if he had eaten that. He looked confused and said, ‘No. I ate what you sent.’ There was a moment’s silence. Then I said it. ‘You spent the money I gave you to eat the pasta I could have packed for you in your tiffin?’ ‘Yes’ replied Rohan slowly and patiently with the look of a boy who had never previously suspected his mother of being so dense.

My son’s class hosted the school assembly this week. Their theme was friendship and parting and they put together a most impressive mix of song, dance and drama. My son was part of a group singing ‘Seasons in the Sun’. I joined him while he was practising the other day, pleased to be familiar with his song for once. When we reached the bit about It’s hard to die my son interrupted to inform me that they would not be singing that part. It made sense – it was not very appropriate. However, that was the end of our musical bonding. I heard the final product during assembly yesterday.

Seasons in the Sun is an adaptation of a French song  called ‘Le Moribond’ which means the Dying Man. In the original, it is quite a sardonic song about a dying man bidding farewell to his wife and her lover – who was also his best friend. Now all this was clearly too much drama for the English speaking world and the song was sentimentalised by Terry Jacks into a dying man’s farewell to his loving friends and family. And then, the primary department of my son’s school stepped in with their version.

This highly censored piece not only omits any mention of death, it also has to factor in the fact that the singer is bidding farewell to his friend that he’s known since he was nine or ten. Now the children in my son’s class actually are nine or ten. So they are in effect saying goodbye to a very current friend. And since they are way too young to have a wife, that bit has been edited out as well. Also, no goodbyes to their dad. In this new narrative, they are leaving town (most likely) with their mom and dad so the goodbyes are only for the trusted friend. And unlike Terry Jacks’ version, they have climbed hills and trees but only learned to love their ABCs.

So overall, I am hugely impressed with the school staff’s ability to make do with any material they have at their disposal. No wonder we manage to shoot off 104 satellites in one go.


Finally, there isn’t much left to say but Goodbye Jacqes Brel, you’re free to cry!

Pongalo Pongal

It is six o clock in the morning. A freezing morning in New Delhi. I don’t want to wake up, much less walk out to the terrace, shivering in my bare feet and crouch down next to a turmeric leaf. Then as my mother coaxes me with a very unmaternal glare in her eyes, I chant ‘Kakapudi vechhai, Kannu pudi vecchai, Kakai kon kuruvi kon kalyanam’ in a loop as I place small scoops of rice in various different hues on the leaf. As my feet start to soak in the cold – or the cold floor starts to drain my heat – I hop from foot to foot and the chanting gets faster. As soon as I am done, I run indoors. My mother follows looking dissatisfied.

I must have been a very unsatisfactory sort of child. But this is my most vivid memory of Pongal from my childhood.

I woke up today to a different Pongal. I have always celebrated Pongal though in a quiet sort of way but I have never involved the kids in it. Perhaps because of my own traumatic memories of the bitter cold only partly assuaged by the delicious chakarai pongal. Anyway, the kids were never involved in Pongal – till today. Today, I woke them up and sat in bed with them and forced them to give me their undivided attention for ten minutes. I told them Pongal stories, asked them Pongal questions and managed to interest them mildly till they left to play badminton with their dad. They are not back yet but our Pongal cooking and prayers are done. I hope they enjoy the food once they are home but I thought it would be nice to tell a few of those stories here.

So Pongal is celebrated over four days. The first is Bhogi and we have never done much on that day. People in North India celebrate the day as Lohri. The custom is pretty much the same – it is the day on which we discard and burn anything that can no longer be used. Clean up and make a fresh start. The bonfire also represents a spiritual cleansing-  destroy all vice and start anew.

Today is Thai Pongal – the first harvest of the year. Unlike people like me who draw a salary month on month, farmers work all year and twice only – the first time being on Thai Pongal – reap the fruits of their labour. It is a time to celebrate, hopefully with a rich and overflowing bounty. It is marked by cooking rice and lentils and allowing them to flow over. The flowing over is what we call Pongal. We cook pongal in sweet and savoury varieties and share with everyone who comes home to visit. It is also a time to visit friends and family and share meals.

Years ago, my mother moved from Madras in South India, to the far north of New Delhi. A young bride of twenty one. After being encouraged to study and never allowed to venture into the kitchen, in a sudden about turn my grandfather decided not to be tardy with his duties any longer and married off his first born, sending her off to new domestic pastures armed only with the trusty ‘Samaithu Paar’ by Meenakshi Ammal. A bit about Meenakshi Ammal. She was born in the early twentieth century and married in her teens as was the norm in those days. As was also common, she was widowed at a young age and left with small children. Not one to bow down to misfortune, she turned her one skill to her advantage and wrote a cookbook. It was not a time when cookbooks were very common. What was especially uncommon was a cookbook that had not fancy, restaurant style recipes but a how-to of everyday fare. A sort of tamil style cooking for dummies. It was just what new housewives like my mother, or young bachelors moving to new shores but desperately craving home food needed. I have a copy with me as well. Much thumbed and dog eared. Not compared to my mother’s tattered old tamil volume of course. It is my most trusted companion in the kitchen. I’m digressing here but only for the purpose of showing the special festival section from the book where Ammal tells her desperate housewives the whats and hows of special day menus.

On Maatu Pongal, farmers thank their best friends – their cattle. There has been a lot of controversy this year over the bull taming ritual of Jallikattu. I must admit the only time I ever saw Jallikattu, I was horrified and called everyone from police to media in an unsuccessful bid to stop what was happening. The Indian Supreme Court has now banned Jallikattu, which is a traditionally carried out on Maatu Pongal but there is little local support and much outrage. People who have practised Jallikattu for generations say that it is how strong bulls are identified. These are the ones that are used for breeding to ensure a strong line of native cows. The rest are used for ploughing the fields and other farm work. This practice keeps our native breeds alive and the hybrid jersey cow out. They might have a point, I don’t know. However, I was chatting with an office colleague who is a first generation city dweller whose dad still farms actively and his maatu pongal stories were much nicer. In his village, this day is when the cattle are allowed to rest. Children go from home to home to visit and feed cattle. Hay is fed and the cows and bulls and especially littles calves pampered like children with much love.

Today the work done by these old friends of men has been taken over by tractors. The leftover of last seasons crops is simply waste to be burnt, and we are left with debilitating pollution and smog.

The last day of Pongal is the Kannu Pongal. Along with leftover pongal, differently coloured rice is made using coconut, turmeric, tomatoes and placed on turmeric leaves for birds to eat. After being warded away all year round, on Pongal, even the birds get their share.

Sharing is a big feature of Pongal. My colleague told me that in his village the pongal cooked by well-to-do families was never eaten by them. Instead, it was sun dried and packed into sealed containers and distributed among the poor who would cook it in water and eat for months to follow.

I am not a farmer but I love harvest festivals. They are the only way for us city people to find our place in the circle of life and the rhythms of nature. Keep us from getting totally lost in the artificialities of our digital world. They may have different names and customs in different parts of India and even the world but they are bound by similar notions of gratitude and sharing of bounty.

Do you have a harvest festival story to share? I would love to hear it!

Turning Ten

My older one turned ten a few days back and my mind churned up a bunch of memories. Is it really ten years ago that all of this happened?

My first baby memory is going shopping for a birthday gift for a friend and then feeling too ill to go to the party. Then eating Maggi as we had given the cook the day off. Having crazy pregnant feeling and finding unconvinced spouse at the other end feeling particularly foul after the party miss and Maggi dinner and being very unimpressed by my symptoms – real and imaginary. Going to the hospital the next day and being given the unbelievable-after-all news. A baby was coming!

Then my sister (already a mother) giving me advice on finding an ob-gyn and telling me to chuck the doctor I was seeing at the time on account of her name (what doctor has a name like that? Please ditch and find someone proper) and after a few iterations, closing in on the wonderful Dr. Fatema Poonawaala.

Going for the first club outing (a weekly thing at that time of life) and finding friend rounding on self with the whole ‘family’s putting pressure, wait till he comes home!’ spiel. That last bit being about her clueless hubby who was travelling at the time.

And then listening to above friend’s husband complain a few months later about being taken in by peer pressure as a third friend’s husband smiled sheepishly. We knew, but the complaining one did not, that a third baby had been signed on board in less than six months so peer pressure was certainly through the roof!

I remember the last days and feeling really fed up and plotting with my husband on how to convince our doctor to ditch the normal delivery and go for a c-section since I really could not take it any more. And then going to the doctor and hearing her say the same thing herself.

Going to Lalita’s parathas for one last rout before I was put on the lauki-tori new mom diet and eating up a storm.

Checking in to the hospital with half our earthly belongings. Some useful, as suggested by sister. Some completely bizarre as mined from what to expect and the net – including Friends DVDs to keep me calm and happy!

I remember we had the bassinet ready to welcome our new addition. We had some sort of idea of a warm cute little thing coming home while the rest of our life continued as before. Well, ha!

We were in the hospital for the better part of a week while our friends dropped by to cut cakes, drink copious amounts of tea, sit on the driveway wall and marvel at how grown up we were getting as I struggled with feeding, burping, picking, calming and staying sane.

In a week or so it was clear that our baby was colicky. I remember sitting up all night holding the baby, who would scream if put down. And I remember my mother in law coming in the morning to take him so I could get an hour or so of rest. Then brushing my teeth before turning in even as the neighbours began amping up their Venkatesh Suprabhathams and feeling like my life had upended.

And then the milestones. The first vaccinations. The first laugh. The first sitting up. The first meal. The first steps. The first word. And things slowly getting back right way up before I knew how!

More milestones! The first major getting-hurt episode. My chitti telling me it was a badge of honour to show me I had raised a child. Playschool. The strange disappointment when he didn’t cry. The end of playschool when I cried. Big school. Prizes. Sports days. Notebooks. An increasing blur of teachers. Learning. Discovering talents. Nurturing talents. Tantrums. Playground fights. Making close friends. Discovering the term arch-enemies! Birthday parties. Dinosaurs. Sharks. Discovering a shared love of books. Finding music. Going to the mall and recognising the song because it is on his playlist. Getting dismayed by early glimpses of teenage rebellion.

And then there’s the stuff I can’t remember.

When did weekends become less about well dressed dinners and more about art classes and badminton? How did my reflexes get so cool I could catch a baby falling of the bed in mid-air – while half asleep!? When did Kung Fu Panda and Toy Story become movie classics? How did my library get colonised by Geronimo Stilton? At what point did my career become a job?

Ten years is a long time, how can it be so short?  My boy’s ten! But also, it is ten years now since we stopped being Vikas and Somya. Since we became, like we introduce ourselves to doctors, teachers, librarians – oh a bunch of people – ‘Hi, we are Rohan’s parents.’


Bad Times

It’s been a while since I’ve been here and I’ve missed it. I had been on holiday but that’s not why. This summer we went to Switzerland and then France and then later in June we went to Coonoor and I wrote up a bunch of posts but then the terrible thing happened and those posts are tainted forever with that and they will never be published.

Because a very close friend who has had asthma for the longest time had a bad attack which did not respond to nebulizer or puff. After trying to find someone to take care of the kids that time of night, her husband and she gave up and banged the doors of the neighbours saying they had an emergency and to mind the kids while they left for the hospital. In the lift, she said she was dying. And then she had a cardiac arrest and collapsed. It took her seven minutes to get to the hospital. They revived her heart and lungs at once but the seven minutes was four minutes too many. She has been in a coma for over a month now.

I said she is a close friend. I could say that’s so because she was my senior in college and partner in crime through the best time of my life. Or that when I moved to Bangalore she was the one waiting for me at the airport. Or that she taught me how to cook. And our kids were born in the same hospital and have grown up together. She has been a part of my past, there in my present and assumed to be around in the future. Here on this blog she is probably the friend  I have spoken of the most. She went with me to watch OKK. I spoke about the projects she makes for her kids while complaining about Tuck Shops. We launched her into the air while in Goa. That friend.

But I am not sure why I am spelling all this out here with such painful attempt at clarity and accuracy. I am past the stage of denial. I know the stages of dealing with grief because I’ve been there. It always starts with denial. The first week she was in ICU I couldn’t shake off the feeling that if I picked my phone and called her, she would respond with a ‘Hi’ in her voice and in her style. That I would open the door one day and she’d be there with her family and this would all be a nightmare that we could forget about. But it’s been a month and more and I don’t think like that anymore.

Maybe it is because I have realised the importance of CPR. Unfortunately not enough to actually learn. I enquired about a course and found a youtube video but in an emergency I am quite sure I would not know how much to press to be effective and not break someone’s sternum.

Maybe I am campaigning for some more prayers on her behalf. But how can I do that? When my car stops at a traffic signal on my way back from the hospital, my thoughts wander to how unfair all this is and then my eyes spy a small child who has never known a parent’s care begging for food and my thoughts come back to mock me – unfair? But does one person’s grief make another’s any less?

Or maybe because this month has been all kinds of stress to all her family and friends and I am trying to deal with it.  I can’t even think about her two little kids. We spent the first month taking them out and distracting them but it is not what they need anymore.

I won’t think about her husband. Every conversation with him finds it’s way to a memory involving her and why would it not be that way? We are such self absorbed people, we think we and our stories are at the centre of the world and it is with a bit of a shock that the realisation hits – He loves her. Would it be less sad if he did not?

It is not much easier to think about the rest of us. One friend developed breathing trouble soon after this happened. Another fainted during a hospital visit and was admitted for a possible heart attack. I started having chest pains soon after the first MRI came out and doctors began asking her family questions about how long they would let a loved one suffer.

It could be that I am just trying to deal with the idea of mortality. It is not an alien thought. Like I mentioned, I have had my brushes in the past. But this cuts a little close. Which might be the age thing – this sort of thing is not supposed to happen yet. There is the fear of unfinished responsibilities.

I had a health check up done the other day and the doctor in charge of the treadmill test handed me a doctor’s reference to Apollo Heart Clinic and asked me about whether insurance would cover an angiogram. I ran as fast as I could for a second opinion which was reassuring but when my child came to my room coughing in the middle of the night the other night, I couldn’t stop thinking of these things as I gave him his medicine and rubbed Vicks onto his chest, staying awake long after he had fallen asleep. All this is too soon. I thought I had forever and now I think I need twelve more years.

While my friend and I would chat on whatsapp every other day, we used to meet maybe three times a month. Now I visit the hospital at least three times a week and sit there talking to her, not sure if she can even hear me. I don’t want to preach sermons about valuing life while we have it and all that. That sort of talk from people who care less has been annoying me since all this happened.

Some of this is overreaction and quite natural given the enormity of what has happened. So writing all this down is sort of taking stock.

I plan to take time off from work later this month. Both to be with her and to spend some more time at home with the kids and myself and think about things. What has happened has happened. It will take months now to bring her back. I believe she will come back. And meanwhile, it is time to go back to life. Stress plays a role in CAD. If I want to live long and healthy, I need to stop brooding too and go on with life.

So I have put all this down and will now take a deep breath and move on. I won’t stop visiting her and praying for her. But it is time to get back to the living as well.



The anti-national debate

If you don’t know what I’m going to speak about, you must have been living under a rock. For the past few weeks (it might be less, it just feels like forever), we have been swamped by the JNU protests and the aftermath and everyone’s opinions and views and doctored tapes! I have been very careful to not talk about this or comment on Facebook or anything. But when at lunchtime my colleagues started about how the students these days are so anti-national and why are they supporting JNU and so on, I could not shut up. I naturally regretted it minutes later and thankfully I did not say too much. If I had, it would have gone something like this.

If the students of JNU did in fact call Afzal Guru a martyr and asked for the destruction of India, I can hardly say I see eye to eye with them. I would hope for my own children to have more moderation in their views and better behaviour. And justice and common sense. I say this while understanding that there are different points of view. There are those that would look on Guru as we see Bhagat Singh – though he never killed anyone. But having said all that, what is freedom of speech if not the right to disagree? Offend even. If we are all free to speak only as long as we say nice things about each other, well even the greatest dictatorships have that sort of freedom. I could dislike the JNU folks wholeheartedly, disagree with them completely, but if I do not allow for their right to express themselves, as long as those views are not criminal(which is where the sedition laws become significant), saying I support freedom of speech is rather meaningless.

So, here we are. With a bunch of free speakers we disagree with. A bully state that ruthlessly crushes dissent. An opportunistic opposition that sees it’s chance and stirs things up, regardless of the consequences. And a gullible public that preens over it’s own nationalistic fervour – which only translates to calling the other guy anti national.

I’m starting to hate that word, but if you are a true patriot, a true ‘national’, how about trying some nation building for a change? You could, I don’t know:

  • Generate employment
  • Pay someone a fair wage – think of that next time you bargain with your maid or the vegetable seller
  • Teach a child. Help your’s house help’s children with their homework. Remember their parents probably can’t.
  • Pay someone’s fees. An educated India is a better India
  • Buy someone food. Or a blanket. A little charity never hurt anyone.
  • Plant a tree. Car pool. Clean up the air.
  • Plant a fruit tree – there are drives to help farmers self sustain.
  • Compost – keep your waste out of those illegal village landfills
  • Stop using plastic. Save our planet for our kids.
  • Save water

That was a quick list. I’m sure there are many places to go to prove your patriotism that are probably better than beating someone up. Oh and patriotism and jingoism? Totally different concepts.

The Development

I am Miss Marple.

Yes it is true. I had a moment of epiphany the other day while getting my hair cut and it all came to me just like that. Consider this:

How kind people were, Miss Marple thought, especially when they’d known you practically all their lives. Mrs Jameson, after long years of running a hairdressing parlour had steeled herself to going as far in the cause of progress as to repaint her sign and call herself ‘DIANE. Hair Stylist.’ Otherwise the shop remained much as before and catered in much the same way to the needs of its clients. It turned you out with a nice firm perm: it accepted the task of shaping and cutting for the younger generation and the resultant mess was accepted without too much recrimination. But the bulk of Mrs Jameson’s clientele was a bunch of solid, stick in the mud middle-aged ladies who found it extremely hard to get their hair done the way they wanted it anywhere else.

In the age of unisex salons, I resolutely and stubbornly continue to patronize Margaret’s Beauty Parlour. That shrine with the sanctum sanctorum edified with a blown up photograph of Margaret herself styling the hair of one of the late nineties Miss India contestants has been my go-to fixup place for years now. The youngest employee here has been around for a mere ten years or so and is bullied by the older ones as befits her junior status.

As I chatted with her the other day about work hours, holidays and general unburdening on both sides, I wondered about this. I buy groceries at the Rice Traders and whatever cannot be sourced there, at the local Mahalaxmi. I think Iyengar bakeries make the softest Pav buns. I buy my veggies at Madiwala mandi. Is it a desperate outsider’s attempt to fit in in an increasingly insular city? Or a way to dissociate myself from the other johnny come latelys – because newness must always be despised? Neither I think.

I came to this city long before it spontaneously exploded into an IT megapolis. I have cycled on roads before they were turned into one ways in a futile attempt to manage the growing car population. I have shopped at Commercial Street and Brigade Road before they became uncool. I have – old lady confession coming up (gulp) – seen Forum mall come up from nothing. I have wrung my hands over the cutting of trees and over the loss of heritage bungalows. At a much younger age than Ms. Marple in the book from which the aforementioned extract was taken, I have reached a stage of too much change. Bangalore has had it’s date with ‘The Development’ and left behind scores of bewildered mes. Having been left with nothing else to hold on to, I and others like me, hold on to the remembered past.

How sad is that? When I had moved to Bangalore many years back, there was the murder on St. Mark’s road that made everyone sit up. Everyone suspected land grabbers of brutally stabbing a defenceless old lady to death. It was years actually before any construction would begin on that site as it was reputed to be haunted, but I had argued vociferously with friends over how foolish the two old ladies were in not moving out before. What could they possibly want with the crumbling old bungalow, too big for them to maintain? Wouldn’t it be much smarter to sell the house and move to a shiny new flat instead? And in hindsight much safer as well. And now, thirteen years later, I am them! I feel for them now and pity them. But I pity myself a little too. It is TOO soon for me to become them. Become so attached to a way of life and all the symbols of that life to allow for any change. I think I need to shake myself up a bit.

But as I leave Margaret’s the fleeting glimpse I get in the mirror is reassuringly chic. Margaret has not yet lost her touch and maybe the old Bangalore hasn’t either. Who knows but a comeback might be around the corner?