Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Prelude To A New Year

This year has sped by, bringing excitement and unpredictability.
I lost some old friends to illness and accidents.
Discovered a large set of still older friends through the internet.
Brought a new life into this world.
Spent hours in hospital corridors and rooms.
More hours, housebound, joyful, tired, confused and delighted.
Held, nourished and nurtured my baby.
Was nurtured in turn, by loving friends.
Discovered the joys of a mini ipad and kindle.
Relied on internet shopping
Spent time outdoors in long walks
With kites soaring overhead and trees swaying in the breeze.
Learnt not to fear fear
Learnt to give freely of myself
And accept gratefully unexpected gifts
To welcome life as it appears
And not force its pace, nor ask it to slow down for me
And now, just as I thought I had learnt to deal with all possible situations (!)
The new year brings -
Travel, travel and travel, to places familiar and unknown
More people, known and unknown
And other challenges that I wonder if I'm ready to deal with.
I put aside my apprehension
For I know I will only be given what I can handle at any moment
Things that will help me learn and grow
I bid goodbye to a year full of surprises
And welcome a new year, with gratitude and joy.

(And what better way to end the year, than with this little video of Michael Jordan's)!!

Happy New Year!!!

Sunday, December 21, 2014

When The Going Gets Tough

I never realized before how much reading thrillers would come in handy.  Some days, everything that can possibly go wrong does, but then one can always remind oneself that things could be far worse.  Unlike my favourite detectives, I am not being chased down dark alleys, being shunted off to inhospitable cells, being shot at by men on horseback or attacked by ravenous crocodiles...

Today being a prime example.  I awake on this crisp clear Sunday morning to messages on my cell phone from the government teleservices - please change to one of three plans or your connection will be terminated tomorrow.  These messages began arriving at a gentle pace from Saturday afternoon and are coming in a faster, more frenzied way alternately in English and Kannada today.  I would be almost gratified at the trouble someone is taking to ensure my connection doesn't lapse if I didn't know that these are all computer generated, with a delightful programme that increases the frequency of messages as the deadline approaches.

Anyway, there's not much I can do.  The helpline number rings endlessly and no one picks up.  The website is filled with all kinds of details except how (and if) I can change to a new plan instantly online.  But... things could be worse.  I could come down with a migraine...  Well, now that I think of it, I do feel a twinge...

I put on my sneakers and the baby and I head out for our morning walk.  It's a nice day and being Sunday, there are even fewer walkers at this hour than the usual.  The trees are filled with little chattering birds, who are startled by our sudden arrival.  We are the first humans to tread this ground today.  Keeping a sharp eye for predators and spies (we see only one stray dog of a friendly kind, who doesn't really count) and fast moving objects of assault (namely the branches overhead which occasionally crack and fall to the earth), we move with our usual agility and speed, covering several centimetres per second.  We stop to look at the birds and smell the roses (which have no particular smell) and smile happily.  A mission successful.

As the first few other morning walkers straggle in, it's time for us to head home - for breakfast.  All goes well, except for my multiple sprints up and down the staircase to check if the garbage collector has come.  He is supposed to ring a bell when he approaches but strangely forgets to ring outside my house.  Anyway, that is dealt with.  The baby's breakfast is simmering and my tea is ready when I realize the toaster is jammed.  Not a matter of life and death of course, but one thing I hate is cold bread.  So I try and think innovatively - what would my heroes (and heroines) have done under the circs??  And I turn on the oven.  Of course, it's a bit of an overkill, and it takes five times as long before the bread converts into toast, but this mission too has ended satisfactorily.

The washing machine beeps in the background, spewing out some slimy scaly material from its innards onto the clothes and switching itself off.  It doesn't matter.  I reset the power and it is fooled into restarting from where it stopped.  The scales I will scrape off one by one by hand from the clothes (probably equivalent to practicing an ancient Shaolin exercise to focus the mind and develop concentration).

The baby begins to cry and my thoughts turn back to feeding him and myself.  Breakfast is finally dealt with and the baby falls asleep.  Ah!  Time for my bath.  At this moment, the gas delivery truck arrives, the gas man hauling off cylinders and rolling them down the road one by one.  It sounds like cannon balls being thrown on a bowling alley.  Fortunately my baby sleeps through the din.  My maid arrives, throws the cutlery from one end of the kitchen to the other (or that's what it sounds like).  The baby, of course, wakes up.

Meanwhile, I see a spider crawling on his cot.  Time for some quick action - a mug, a nappy, a few swift hand strokes and the spider is tossed into the garden outside.  Whew!

My cell phone beeps again.  My head begins to throb, but it's not a migraine.  Hurrah!  It's only eleven in the morning and there's plenty of time for more action on the front.  I am optimistic.  After all, this is far better than being marooned on an isolated tropical island with sharks for company.


These are a few of the mystery/action books that have sustained me this past year.  Some are gentle, some violent, but all are intriguing... (and all are part of a series) -

1) The Limpopo Academy of Private Detection, by Alexander McCall Smith

2) The Turkish Gambit, by Boris Akunin

3) Come To Grief, by Dick Francis

4) Twice A Spy, by Keith Thomson

5) The Shape Shifter, by Tony Hillerman

6) Inspector Ghote Breaks An Egg, by HRF Keating

Monday, December 15, 2014

Become Yourself

"So, hasn't motherhood changed you?", many people ask, expecting me to say that it has indeed.  In fact, I don't really think it's that easy to change oneself.  Certainly, dealing with a  baby is a different kind of experience from any other, but it brings out what already existed, unused, within me.  Things that lay hidden and latent have surfaced, and old memories of my babyhood sometimes come to mind (especially at trying times, when I remember how patient my mother was with me).

Of course, all new experiences carry with them the potential for growth and change, and I do feel I have grown in certain ways over this past year.

My physical and mental resilience has increased.  I am called upon to wake up at odd hours to comfort or feed my baby.  To leave whatever I have begun if he is excessively restless at moments.  To curtail my phone calls and end suddenly with, "Oh, I have to leave now," and hope that friends understand.  To walk, walk and walk - this is of course because both baby and I like to do so, but I would be happier if I didn't have to do it at 3 a.m.!

The strength for all this comes not so much from physical sources but from my spirit.  The more I draw upon this inner strength and align myself with what is fundamentally "me", the easier and happier all my tasks become (in fact I don't really view them as tasks any more).  This requires a certain mental vigilance and confidence in myself.  It also requires an ability to listen but not necessarily act upon the tons of advice or opinions one gets from well wishers.  It's hard because, after all, I'm a novice parent, but this is what seems to work best for me.

And so I have learnt to accept my own way as the best way for myself; the baby (who doesn't have an option!) doesn't seem to mind.  I have learnt to allow myself to grow (almost!) fearlessly in whatever direction my innermost thoughts and feelings tell me.  To listen and observe, and allow my baby to direct his and my own growth.

As the year comes to a close, I wish my readers a happy new year and hope that the coming year brings peace, joy and self discovery (of a happy kind!) for each of you.  I end with Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young's hauntingly beautiful song,' Teach Your Children'.

"You who are on the road
Must have a code that you can live by
And so become yourself
Because the past is just a goodbye"

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Getting Back To My Garden

My garden has been woefully neglected for many a month.  It's true that it overflows with greenery, for this I have to thank my maid, who has been watering it periodically.  Many onlookers compliment me on this verdant patch in the midst of much concrete.  But I am not particularly happy with the way it looks.

A closer look will show that all the sensitive, delicate plants have long vanished, leaving not even a trace of their existence.  Only the hardy plants (fortunately quite a few of them) remain - those that can withstand two or three days of drought.  In place of the ones that have gone, my maid has planted lush looking stuff, which is reminiscent of tough weeds.  They eagerly and rapidly spread wherever they find a foothold.  Anyway, I don't criticize her, for she is doing her best, and she is not really a gardener.  But while stepping out, I often don't invest much emotion in the garden because after my wave of sadness and indignation passes, I feel like picking up my little spade and digging away - and there is really no time for such an exercise!

Today, having a few minutes to spare, my baby and I went into the garden.  He sat, peacefully (and curiously) surveying the scene while I watered my plants.  I could almost hear my garden heave a sigh of relief.  It felt so good, both to me and to my plants!  There was an air of contentment and tranquility that I had not sensed in a long time.  The cacti were thanking the heavens that they had not been inundated and the bamboo and lemon grass waved about happily, catching all the extra droplets that fell their way.

My lotus pond with its myriad coloured fish has been disassembled.  Everything had died out, leaving some straggling aquatic plants and I was afraid of breeding mosquitoes.  The pot lies overturned, in a corner, reminding me that in due course, it will need to be revived.  My baby loves looking at plants, feeling their textures, watching the stems quiver and vibrate when shaken.  I'm sure we'll have happy gardening moments together.  Until then, I have resolved to water the garden whenever possible and send happy thoughts and not regretful ones to all my plants, old and new.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

The Magic Of Never-Never

I read 'We of the Never-Never' twenty years ago, and on re-reading this book, find the magic as strong as ever.  It reminds me of all that we must be thankful for in our lives : love, true friends and the sometimes harsh but bewitching beauty of the natural world.  As I read, the rain pelts outside; inside the electricity flickers, candles come on and off  at the whim of the power supply.  Flying ants fill the rooms, little white ants crawl on our tables and mud is splattered all over the floor.  But I remain caught in the spell of the book and these things don't seem like annoyances any more.

Written by Jeannie Gunn in 1908, this is the story of her adventures in the Australian bush as she accompanied her husband, Aeneas Gunn, who had been appointed manager of a large cattle station in 1902.

Her arrival in the bush was unexpected, and unwanted, for this was a land which white women did not inhabit, but once there, she was gradually accepted and eventually befriended.  Her story is eloquently narrated and the charm of her personality, tales of the brave and true bushmen and the pristine beauty of the land come alive through her words.  I quote a few paragraphs from her book, just to give you an idea of its timeless charm.

"And All of Us, and many of this company, shared each other's lives for one bright, sunny year, away Behind the Back of Beyond, in the Land of the Never-Never; in that elusive land with an elusive name - a land of dangers and hardships and privations yet loved as few lands are loved - a land that bewitches her people with strange spells and mysteries, until they call sweet bitter and bitter sweet.  Called the Never-Never, the Maluka (her husband) loved to say, because they who have lived in it and loved it, Never-Never voluntarily leave it."

In the beginning, when the men at the station learned that their boss had gone and got married, and, moreover the Missus was to accompany him, this is what one of them (the Sanguine Scot) said:

"I'll block her yet; see if I don't," he said confidently.  "After all these years on their own, the boys don't want a woman messing round the place."  And when he set out for the railway along the north track, to face the "escorting trick", he repeated his assurances.  "I'll block her chaps, never fear," he said; and glowering at a "quiet" horse that had been sent by the lady at the Telegraph, added savagely, "and I'll begin by losing that brute first turn out."

The Maluka and his Missus, meanwhile, having no inkling of this, were on their way to the end of civilization in a Territorial train:

"It was a delightful train - just a simple-hearted, chivalrous, weather beaten old bush whacker, at the service of the entire Territory.  "There's nothing the least bit officious or stand-offish about it," I was saying, when the Man-in-Charge came in with the first billy of tea.
  "Of course not!" he said, unhooking cups from various crooked-up fingers.  "It's a Territorian, you see."
  "And had all the false veneer of civilization peeled off long ago," the Maluka said, adding, with a sly look at my discarded gloves and gossamer, "It's wonderful how quietly the Territory does its work."...

They left behind the city and town dwellers, all of whom were horrified at the idea of Jeannie going into the bush.  This is what she says, later on, while shuttling from camp to camp:

"Whatever do you do with your time?" asked the townsfolk, sure that life out-bush is stagnation, but forgetting that life is life wherever it may be lived.

Friday, October 3, 2014

A Charming Monte-Story

A true story!

My great aunt, who had been widowed during the second World War, moved to Patiala, to live alone and set up a school (which later became one of the best known in the state).  Needless to say, this was quite unheard of in those days.  She was a fiercely independent and determined character, a combination of the two Wodehousian aunts: "Aunt Dahlia, my good and kindly aunt and Aunt Agatha, the one who chews broken bottles and kills rats with her teeth".  She came to Simla when Maria Montessori visited India, to attend her classes.  In the morning she would attend the classes held in English and in the afternoon she functioned as interpreter, and translated the same lectures into Hindi.

Along with her, came an aunt of mine, a soft, delicate lady; a nervous and timid soul.  She was taking the classes as well.  For some reason she was ill during the examination.  However, she managed to take the exam and afterwards, began nervously pacing the corridor, trying to find out if she had cleared the papers or not.  She was not really paying attention as to where she walked, and in this process she bumped into Montessori's son, Mario (who had accompanied his mother to Simla).

"Oh, I'm sorry, I'm sorry, " my aunt muttered, looking terribly confused and embarrassed.  Mario was unperturbed.  "You are sorry," he said, with a smile, "And I am Montessori." 

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

The Way We Learn

I have been getting loads of advice on how to bring up my baby.  Several women tell me how I must make him interact with more people, not keep him confined to the house, keep talking to him, to develop his social skills and get him ready for school (he's only seven months old and cannot talk yet!).  I try and explain that he has a kind of routine that keeps him satisfied, but people don't really listen.  They mean well but I think they feel that what's good for one baby (rather their approach to babies) is good for all.

Though not directly related to this subject, somehow this incessant stream of conversation got me thinking about the ways in which different people learn.  I am solitary by nature and learn best on my own.  I like activities which allow me to function creatively in solitude and peace.  However, I know many people who feel comfortable learning and tackling problems in groups or pairs.  So I'm sure there are parents who like to mingle with others and take their children along, to socialize or play with other adults or children and perhaps later, organize other activities of common interest.

At this stage I find there is so much to do at home that the only times I step out are for walks.  I am never really sitting (I wonder how that phrase arose) except when I need to.  And I doubt that my baby feels confined; he seems busy every moment trying to work things out for himself until he tires himself out and falls asleep.  Each activity, though apparently simple, poses many challenges for a little baby.  And then there are different levels of exploring the same thing.  One can look at the same problem or situation from different angles or with variable depth and come up with multiple solutions or courses of action.

For example, some weeks ago, my baby began to look at the curtains in the house.  Each set looked and felt different.  Then he realized they could be drawn out, some were easy to do and some were harder.  They also tasted different!  And now he can wrap them around himself, hang upside down from them like a trapeze artist and make them swish around.  Very different from the calendar, which he has also felt and tasted and moved around.  The calendar swings back and forth like a pendulum, it cannot be bent or wrapped around him, and so on.  He does not seem to need any adult intervention while carrying out these activities (other than being held and kept in a secure position).

Each day brings a different perspective to (the same old) things, which is a delight to watch and participate in.  I feel that the best way to channelize my baby's energy is by letting him select what he is interested in and allowing him to proceed the way he wants.  This seems to keep him engrossed and learning; he looks happy and contented at the end of it.  I don't think that simulating future situations (like school or social settings) at this stage will really help in any way.  As long as he's secure and comfortable doing what he's ready for, I think he will be able to tackle any new situation that comes his way.

Quite by chance I began to read 'The Discovery Of The Child' (by Maria Montessori) around this time.  I was intrigued to read about her methods and her insights into how children learn, and how they can be directed to activities and concepts, which they spontaneously and joyously pick up and use.  One aspect which is apparent from her work is how we must not view or judge children from an adult standpoint.  They have different priorities and views of the world from us, and these keep changing as they grow.  I quote from her book:

"Children frequently reveal remarkable powers of observation, noticing things which they had not previously noticed before.  They also seem to compare present objects with those they remember from past experiences.  Their striking judgments show that children have within themselves a kind of touchstone which we ourselves do not possess.  They compare external things with their mental fantasms and show a surprising accuracy in judgment.  Once a workman came into a classroom in Barcelona carrying in his hand a piece of glass which he was going to put into a window in the room.  A five-year-old child said in a loud voice: "You can't use that piece of glass; it's too small."  Only when the workman tried to fit the glass into the frame did he notice that it was about one fourth of an inch too short.
  Two children of five and six were carrying on the following conversation in a Children's House in Berlin: "Do you think the ceiling is ten feet high?"  "No," the other replied, "it is about ten feet nine inches high."  When the height was measured it was found in fact to be somewhat over ten feet.
  A little five-year-old girl, seeing a lady coming into the room said to her: "The color of your dress is just like that of the flower over there."  The lady went into the next room, where she found a flower, which could not be seen from the room she had first entered, and, comparing the flower with her dress, she found that the two colors were surprisingly alike.
  Children have within themselves a touchstone which sets them on a different plane from our own and enables them to do many striking things.  The reason for this seems to be that certain periods of life seem more suited for certain psychic operations than others.  A proof of this may be found in the ability of little children to remember and reproduce the sounds of spoken words.
  Nature has placed an extraordinary sensitivity in a child for fixing words and accents and it is precisely during the period of childhood that a person's language is fixed for life.  There is no going back: what a child's mind assimilates during the sensitive period remains as a permanent acquisition for his whole life, and it can  never be acquired  at another stage.  Thus there are periods in childhood for gaining sense impressions and fixing habits which, if they are neglected, can never be redeemed."

"We have clearly shown that a child has a need to observe, to reflect, to learn, to concentrate, to isolate himself and also from time to time to suspend his activities in silence...  The education of even a very small child, therefore, does not aim at preparing him for school but for life."

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Thoughts on Cupboards

Cupboards have been on my mind for several months now.  Ever since we started living out of boxes.  We have boxes overflowing with clothes of all shapes and sizes - things which used to fit me, things which are now too big for me and likewise, for the baby. Boxes of gifts for the baby, some which he is too young to use and some which he has outgrown.  Books piled in unsteady towers, swaying as we brush past them, waiting to go into - yet more boxes everywhere.  They have to be put away, somewhere, sometime…

"We need new cupboards," I think to myself.  But - the obvious question is - where do we put them?  I wish there were special gravity defying designs which could be installed neatly on the ceilings, painted perhaps a sky blue with fluffy, wooly clouds, or a midnight blue with Van Goghian stars and one could gently drift up and store whatever one wished and float back down again…

But as that is unlikely to happen, I come down to earth with a bump.  A gently bump, because I land on piles of clothes instead of a hard floor.

So it was with a sense of anticipation that I visited Raintree's annual furniture exhibition.  This is organised by a very enterprising lady who spruces up and also designs beautiful pieces based on old designs, in teak and marble (and if one is lucky, rosewood as well).  I knew that we had no space for furniture but figured that if there was something big enough or nice enough or practical enough, we could try and replace some piece of existing furniture with a cupboard.

We reached just five minutes before the sale finally ended as we had not been able to spare any time on the previous days.  But experience has taught us that no one else seems to buy the things we like so we were not particularly concerned.  The lady knows us and is a very kind person and relaxed, in the old Bangalore style.  She came up to take the baby from us and engage him in a long, pleasant conversation, which he seemed happy with.  We drifted from room to room, looking at the range of furniture.  Nice chairs, for formal and informal seating, tables of various kinds, beautiful brass objects and other things.  No cupboards!

Of course this did not deter us from shopping; we usually succumb to the charms of old furniture.  And so we bought a round table of an in between size - bigger than a side table and much smaller than a dining table, higher than a coffee table and lower than a writing desk.  What would we do with it?  We had no clue but we liked it and knew we wouldn't get something like this elsewhere.  It was a combination of two old pieces - a beautifully carved base in teak and a teak top with a wonderful natural grain running across - the kind you only see in large, wise trees that no longer exist.

The second piece was a kind of movable bar(!!!).  A most unsuitable object to introduce with a tiny baby in the house.  But we loved it.  It is also a solid, old wooden structure, with beautiful carved doors, a pair of shelves and a set of drawers and is topped with a creamy green kind of marble.  (The marble is new and is polished such that it is stain resistant and it perfectly complements the rest of the structure).  The lady provided us with a beautifully made wooden wine rack, which she said she could not possibly charge us for.

As we were leaving, we also spotted a lovely brass arch, the kind that is traditionally placed behind idols and that people use nowadays as a mirror frame.  It had two of Vishnu's incarnations sculpted on it - the lion at the top and two boars below.  It was a beautiful piece and we succumbed once more.  For good measure, we also bought a pair of brass lamps with peacocks (Diwali is almost round the corner).

And so, we trudged home, deliriously happy.  I gave away a small floor desk, to try and make some space, but that only freed up about four square feet…

The carpenters came and installed the pieces.  As it turned out, the wooden table went in our living room, in between two cane reading chairs. It happened to be the perfect dimension for that space.  We often keep glasses of water, telephones, bookstand other knick knacks there.  In the midst of all this, there is still place for our Mexican jaguar to repose regally and it looks very much at home on the dark teak.

The bar was put in place of our all purpose table and drawer set, which was moved to another room.  The beautiful marble top supports our Ganesha, our telephone and an array of writing material.  The drawers house our chargers. One of the shelves holds our wine bottles along with our laptops and stationery.  The other shelf is empty.  What should we put there?  "Nappies?", my husband suggested.  I shook my head.  I was thinking more along the lines of olives, dark chocolate, roasted almonds…   The bar looks elegant and has added so much character to our room, fitting perfectly against one wall, as if that space was made just for it.

We mounted the brass arch high up on a wall in our dining room.  It needs no idols or mirrors; it stands out on its own.  The mythical figures are filled with a life of their own when the light falls on them.

Our house is now beautiful and perfect, well - almost.  The only thing we need are - some cupboards.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Quick, Satisfying Meals

With very little time on my hands these days, I have simplified my meals considerably.  At the same time, they need to be nutritious, energizing - and (importantly for me!) - tasty!  So I'm using a lot of nuts and fruit, rice and noodles and seafood.  Combinations of these are easy to whip up in half hour periods.  They can also be prepared in stages and actual cooking time is small.  These are some nice combinations:

Cherry tomatoes (always delicious, by themselves or with spring onions or basil and an olive oil dressing, a sprinkling of good feta cheese is a bonus).

Traditional Indian snacks like poha (beaten rice) - instead of just cooking this with chopped potatoes, I add a handful of sprouts and some cashewnuts, a sprinkling of coriander leaves and lime juice.  Similarly with upama (a dry snack or 'tiffin' with roasted semolina - to this I add finely diced carrots and beans or peas, and lightly fried cashewnuts).

Stir fried prawns: in olive oil and garlic or with loads of chopped onion and garlic or just with olive oil and a sprinkling of herbs.  Also small whole fish, marinated and rolled in rice flour and then fried, for the crispiest, lightest coating possible.

Avocadoes with lime, tomato salsa - as we had in Mexico - these go well with almost anything.

Pizza, Pasta, Noodles : I buy some freshly made, half cooked pizzas and add extra vegetables - garlicky spinach or crunchy baby corn or green, red, yellow peppers...
Amongst the sweet quick breads, banana, walnut and cranberry is a delicious combination that takes just about fifteen minutes to put together (before baking).

Wholewheat pasta with a fresh tomato or mushroom sauce is filling and wholesome but what I like even more are rice noodles made the Thai way (Pad Thai), with prawns or chicken (I often use mushrooms and baby corn), spring onions, bean sprouts (when available) and egg and sprinkled with roasted, coarsely pounded peanuts and fresh lime juice.

Mango sticky rice : A traditional Thai dessert.  Sticky rice is drenched in coconut milk and eaten with fresh mango.  Instead of roasted mung beans on the side (which I find too hard when I try and make them at home), I use pine nuts.  This is one of my favourite desserts.  Nothing can beat a good mango, but this would also be nice with caramelized bananas or pineapple, I think.

Friday, August 1, 2014

No Leisure For Babies

A little drastic sounding, nonetheless, this blog comes after a little reading, a few months of observing (only one) baby and a bit of thought.

I have continuously been amazed at the difference between the adult world and the baby world, more so since almost everyday my baby meets people - outside on walks, around our neighbourhood, at home and elsewhere.

Adults seem to want, above all, babies that smile and coo.  Babies are not doves.  And as for smiling, they do plenty of it when they feel like.  But it's hard to smile when you are being prodded or clucked at or when a pair of fingers seems to endlessly appear at close range in front of your face demanding attention.  Under these circumstances, it is prudent to observe and be a little wary, that's what evolution has probably drilled into us, especially while dealing with strangers.  Babies also do not appreciate their thumbs being yanked out of their mouths by an unfamiliar set of hands, just because it is 'better that way' or 'to clearly see baby's face'.  It has taken a tremendous amount of neuromuscular coordination to get the thumb there and then to keep it in place, and it's done for a purpose.  In all fairness, adults are well meaning and feel they are entertaining the baby and trying to befriend it in these ways, but I can see that babies may not view it in the same light.

Which brings us to the question of entertainment and leisure.  I don't feel there is any word for 'leisure' in baby lingo.  This is because there is no word for 'work' either.  Life seems to be a series of experiences driven largely by instinct, the desire for comfort and curiosity.  At least that's the way it appears to me, as I watch this early stage of my baby's development.  He is not keen to play with toys except those he can use to coordinate his movements - things he can sling over his arm or kick at different angles or insert his fingers to varying degrees into.  He learns incredibly fast from 'mistakes' i.e. times that he is in uncomfortable situations (like putting his hand into crevices where his fingers get momentarily stuck), I have never seen him repeat such actions.  He spends most of his time trying to turn, move, explore his surroundings and talking in his own language (far more complex than the way most adults talk to him- in fact most adults are so busy talking to him that they forget to listen while he sits patiently waiting for them to finish so he can begin).

People also seem very keen to push babies into beginning solid food.  I have read about this terrific social pressure existing almost everywhere (i.e. in many parts of the world) and on many days I am asked by someone or the other when I am going to introduce my baby to the joys of baby cereals.  This includes doctors who feel the baby may want more.  I tell them that my  baby doesn't seem to be asking for more.  Nor does he seem to be nutritionally deprived (calorie for calorie, human milk is naturally more efficiently taken up by babies than any other food anyway.  Apart from which, breast milk changes composition to suit the baby's requirements and has a host of other incredible benefits, like passing on antibodies, gut bacteria and just a good feeling to the baby).  I did buy a packet of popular baby rice cereal but after reading the composition, returned it (to our immensely understanding chemist.  He actually brought out several baby food cereals but they all contained sugar, something doctors have forbidden for the first year of baby's diet.  Something seems to be very wrong here...).  This particular baby cereal contained 10% sucrose, a large number of vitamins and minerals, ash (??!) and other things.  (I learnt subsequently that animal studies have shown that high ash content provides immunity to babies.  But then, my baby is not a guinea piglet and anyway, he has been managing with my own transferred immunity very well so far).  So, if I don't have a problem and neither does my baby, why mess with his food (which is an important part of his life)?

Sleep is one argument most people give, in favour of introducing other foods (and drinks).  Right from the beginning people told me that the simplest way to keep the baby asleep was to feed him lots of water.  The mind boggles!  Is one's priority to keep the baby asleep or to keep him nutritionally healthy?  It is the same with babies who are given 'top feed' (additional, processed milk generally through bottles) - they generally cry less and sleep better (what is not told to parents is that the babies often go off breast milk, because sucking the bottle is easier for their muscles and also because there is a feedback mechanism in the mother's body - the less milk a baby sucks, the less is produced).  'Crying' is a little baby's only means of communication, it's important not to view it as undesirable - shrill and disturbing though it may sound.  As for sleep, there is an evolutionary drive for light and fitful sleep - it has helped babies survive for millions of years.  It's much easier to dope babies with foods their little stomachs cannot handle, with stimuli that daze them momentarily and to invent adult-designed toys to keep them from exploring their surroundings.  But babies don't really need any of this, busy adults do.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

The Regular Irregularities Of Monkeys

The monkeys are back!  They visit periodically, wreaking havoc all around the house (fortunately the house itself has been monkey proofed and they cannot enter.  This, of course doesn't prevent them from persistently attempting to do so!)

They clamber onto the clothes line, swing from the telephone wires, sit on the terrace and throw plants and stones down below.  They chatter, fight, play, mess up and more...

As a result, our phone line goes dead.  This is a periodic event, so we put in the usual complaint.  The phone repair man comes promptly; he too knows that this is a one minute job (though he refuses to tell me how to do it).  He climbs onto the terrace where the wires hang in a series of loops, picks out the phone line, probably does a cut and paste job and trundles down to my house.  Rings the bell and I open the door.

"Is your phone working?"

The question is always the same and I know he has fixed it but hasn't told me yet.  So, I am not supposed to know.  My answer, also, is the usual -"No".

"What is the problem?"

"The monkeys had come."

He looks impassively at me.  There is no need for explanations and I know what his next statement will be.

"Try it now."

I walk over to the telephone.

"One minute, madam," the repair man says.  "I will dial your number."

He does so and, raucously, the phone begins to ring.  It is the most joyous sound I have heard even though it wakes up my baby.

Through the corridor of air between my house and doorstep, the phone man and I look at each other.  I lift the receiver.

"Hello," I whisper.  There is no need for muted tones because the baby is now wide awake and surveying the situation with interest.

"Is it working, madam?", the repair man's voice rings through the phone and also directly through the corridor of air, in my ear.

"Yes.  Yes", I reply, to both sets of voices.  We look at each other.  He stares impassively once more.

"Thank you," I say into the receiver.


I wait for him to say "Over and out," or some such thing, but he promptly disconnects and leaves.  He knows as well as I do that he will visit again, when the monkeys reappear.  Until then, all is well.

The baby senses that all the action is over.  He begins to howl.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Baby Bliss

I was a little concerned on the day that I had to take my baby for his vaccination.  This was a new doctor- how would the baby react (now that he was old enough to recognise faces)?  And this was a particularly nasty shot, being a difficult combination of five vaccines.  Moreover, how could I make things pleasanter for him afterwards?  He is too young to indulge in ice creams, toys or games.  He has no friends whose homes he can visit.  It's a completely different baby world of his.

Of course, I didn't realize that his view of the doctor's clinic might be different from mine.  He seemed to view it as just another social encounter with yet another adult.  A person who looks at you and says a few things.  The doctor didn't say much and didn't prod and peer as much as many other adults might.  There was none of the clicking, clucking or tickling that often happens in these encounters.

Instead, the doctor bustled in, made a brief examination.  He then muttered a polite, "Sorry," to the baby and gave a careful jab as I held the baby's leg straight.  My baby stared at us as if this was a strange new game.  He didn't cry.  It was almost as if he was  thinking, "What will these grown ups do next?  And when will they really grow up?"

This afternoon, as he was asleep, he began smiling- a little smile that turned into a grin.  Sometimes he chortles with delight in his sleep.  Whatever does he dream of, that gives him so much joy?  I can only make a vague guess.  Warmth?  Comfort?  Food?

Extra long walks, a snug little bed, being close to loved ones.  Being held and carried, talked to and played with  - all day long.  Feeling secure, with a belly full of milk and a heart full of love.  Perhaps that is what baby bliss is about.  

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Simple Pleasures

The rains are finally here!  The much awaited monsoons that sustain our country.  Of course, the north still blazes with heat, but even there, in the hills, the clouds are gathering and showers are beginning.  Let's hope they continue.

Here, it has been raining the whole day.  It's lush and green outside, the air is fresh and cool and even the birds sound overjoyed.  In due course one will miss the sun, but the beginning of the rains is always a special moment.

Inside, I spend a few moments in thanksgiving for simple pleasures - the rain, the freshly drenched earth which releases all kinds of delicious smells, the life giving air, and the comfort of my home.

I bake an apple tart - delicately caramelised apples covered with a crisp, buttery pastry.  Make a wholesome soup with broth and noodles, topped with a sprinkling of fresh coriander and lime juice.  There is fresh fish to be fried and a cherry tomato and basil salad to be made, with lashings of olive oil and feta.  Now that the summer heat has dissipated, fresh herbs and greens will begin to fill the market.  Right now, avocadoes and mangoes are plentiful.  We eat them everyday, to our hearts' content.  This reminds me that I have not yet begun my Mexican cooking.  I must open those bottles of mole and get to work on the salsa and stir up some thick drinking chocolate...

My list is endless, so many simple pleasures abound!

Friday, July 11, 2014

Karma, Kairos, Fate...

Karma (often used in the context of 'fate') is a much used and sometimes misunderstood word. It is also generally considered a very oriental concept.  Hence I was surprised to be reading about it in a book on Greek mythology written by the French philosopher Luc Ferry.  His overview of Greek myths is interspersed with thought provoking snippets of philosophy.

Interestingly, one aspect that Luc Ferry brings out is the concept of 'seizing the moment' or completely being in tune with the present and all that it offers, for a harmonious and balanced life.  The goal of a life well lived is not measured in its achievements, physical or moral, but in how true to oneself one has been.

This thought, though woven into myths, is certainly the crux of many eastern spiritual texts (not to be confused with the religious ones, where symbolism, social and 'moral' connotations intervene).

In the Indian system of philosophy, karma (in the context of fate) is not something to be accepted with submission or fear, rather it is something to be wholeheartedly embraced and positively accepted as a part of one's evolution.  Karma yoga (there are broadly four paths or ways of doing yoga, depending on a person's inclination or temperament; the ultimate aim of all yoga being an understanding of one's true self) describes karma as being the right action (rather than a mysterious and often unwanted endowment called fate).

This kind of thought is also glimpsed in Chinese philosophy.  There is a saying by Lao Tzu which I particularly like : "The Master is ready to use all situations and doesn't waste anything.  This is called embodying the light."

Greek myths, speaking as they did of great gods and forces of nature, also reminded men of their role in the cosmos and the need to play out their part without fear, remorse or desire for other realms.  If this did not happen, cosmic harmony was bound to be affected as each element (and individual) was connected to the other.  This is emphasized in the telling of the story of Odysseus and his adventures on his way back home.  He is offered everything that might appeal to a mortal by Calypso - immortality and youth at the expense of going back 'home', but he chooses to return to where he belongs rather than hover forever in an unreal world.

Interestingly, this kind of thought does not end here but finds its way to modern philosophy, as Luc Ferry points out:

"Nietzsche was to reiterate this, long after the Greeks - which proves in passing that their message preserves an actuality such as can still be found in modern philosophy: the "love of one's fate."  To embrace everything that is the case, our destiny - which, in essence, means the present moment, considered as the highest form of wisdom, and the only form that can rid us of what Spinoza (whom Nietzsche regarded as "a brother") named, equally memorably, the "sad passions": fear, hatred, guilt, remorse, those corrupters of the soul that  bog us down in mirages of the past or of the future.  Only our reconciliations to the present, to the present moment - in Greek, the kairos - can, for Nietzsche, as for Greek culture as a whole, lead to proper serenity, to the "innocence of becoming," in other words to salvation, understood not in its religious meaning but in the sense of discovering ourselves as saved, finally from those fears that diminish existence, stunting and shriveling it."

This, of course, is just one point of view, but I have tried it and find that it works very well for myself (when I am able to put it into practice).

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Going Solo

I reached Bangalore, bag and baggage in tow and the baby in my arms.  Happy to be heading home but a little apprehensive as well.  Apprehensive, because it was a new beginning and I wasn't sure how I would manage as my plans had gone slightly askew.  The reason being that one day before leaving, I had decided not to bring the maid along.

"No maid?" asked many well wishers.  "Are you sure?  When you get there, look for someone as soon as you can".

"All right," I replied hesitantly, "I'll do my best."

The maid situation had been pretty grim in Delhi.  Even in the large space that I had, maids and I seemed to be rubbing each other the wrong way.  So, in a confined little apartment with no private space, I wasn't sure what would happen.

As it turned out, I couldn't find someone I liked anyway: someone who was gentle, intelligent and professional and didn't come with loads of emotional baggage, advice and opinions.

As it turns out, I find after a month that I'm doing fine without a maid (though I'm functioning quite differently from many Indian homes, where either maids or parents are called upon to babysit).

Small though our apartment is, it is utterly peaceful.  The baby and I roam freely from room to room, looking out upon the trees that surround our house, listening to bird song (which initially startled him, he had never heard it so close or loud before!), insect hums and so on.  We watch the sun rise through our bedroom window and set through the one in our living room.  We walk outside whenever we want, listen to music and crawl on the floor.

I'm learning how to prioritize, how to break up tasks into small steps which take very little time when done gradually, how to put all my gadgets to the best possible use. 

The baby is learning how to entertain himself in the time intervals when I can't be with him.

It's not always easy, it's strenuous for sure, but it's also very satisfying.

Yesterday I baked my first bread.  Today I'm writing my blog.  It's raining outside.  My baby is snug in a rug and I'm spending a few happy moments typing.

What more could one ask for?

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Baby Blues

(A song in be flat)

Oh my baby's got the blues
And I watch him, and I sigh
I just don't know what to do
I wait and hope as time goes by.

Sometimes he lies and smiles at me
As if he needed nothing more.
But he's as blue as blue can be
Just 'coz of the baby store.

All I see there is pink or blue
Apparently that's all they sell.
Everything looks nice and new,
But the colors aren't that swell.

So my baby's swathed in blue,
And it's blowing out my mind
But I don't know what to do,
No other colours can I find.

No sunset peach, no grassy green,
No earthy shade, no gentle hue
No weave, no texture and no sheen -
Just a flat landscape of blue.

So my baby's got the blues
Though he doesn't seem to care.
He's fancy free and he's footloose
His world is far away, elsewhere.

Monday, May 19, 2014

From Home To Home

Time has come for us to head from my father's home back to my own.  Three months, as is the custom in India - and it's a wise one (if one wants to move at all), for babies seem to settle down remarkably when they hit this age.  After this, moves are likely to be more unsettling for them as they look around, recognize and begin to communicate with everyone they meet.

It's quite a different set up from some months ago, for the baby and myself.  My father and I had plenty of time to set up the baby's room - a table of the right dimensions converted into a changing table, a wonderful little rocking cradle just right for his small size, enough empty cupboards for all the knick knacks that inevitably go with babies.  Everything in sight was scrubbed, dusted; shelves were lined with fresh paper.  At that time, I planned everything (with some help of course) but didn't know quite what to expect.

Now, there is no time to plan anything, nor am I physically in my own house yet.  It's a house that has long been lived in by two busy adults - shelves packed with books and music, cupboards full of baking equipment and crockery, kitchen filled with spices, herbs and foods gathered lovingly from all my travels.  Nothing remotely resembling baby stuff.  Lots of dust, a few insects...We have a lot of work ahead! 

There's no space for a changing table so I will make do with a bed.  We need a room for the maid, who accompanies us, so I will have to share the office room.  Our gift cupboard (yes! we actually had the luxury of buying gifts for lots of known and unknown people in advance, whenever we saw something nice) will be emptied for the baby.  Some books will be transferred to cardboard containers.  And this, I know, is just the tip of the iceberg (rather hurricane)...

On the other hand, the baby and I know each other intimately now and we manage to function as a comfortable unit instead of a bewildered mother and a desperate baby (of course, things keep changing and each day brings it challenges, but we are more settled now).  I feel more comfortable in subjecting the baby to all these changes than I would have just a month or two ago.  It's a good feeling (and I hope it lasts!).

Nice (and comfortable) as it has been in my old home, I am now ready to head to my regular home and settle in amidst the chaos!

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Moms Need Moms Too

All kinds of lists are made out during and after pregnancy about people's requirements - things the mother and baby need.  While all these can be gathered from books and well wishers and bought in shops, I'd like to add a very important part to nurturing - having one or more loving person whom one can connect with.

This doesn't need to be your own parent or even a relative.  It just means having someone to communicate with - someone warm, understanding and supportive and (preferably) who has gone through one (or more) generation(s) of babies and pregnancies.  There are so many questions to be asked, so much reassurance required and so many helpful hints to be gathered which cannot come from any other source.

I'm lucky to have a long distance, wise and wonderful friend who has seen (and experienced) several pregnancies and a much younger relative (around my age) close by who has been supplying me with all the things I needed (that I didn't even know I needed).

The first few months go by in a daze, and one forgets to eat, tries to sleep (but can't), tries to squeeze in luxuries (like bathing!) and essentials (drinking water!) - I can see my old self looking on sardonically and saying, "Get a life, girl!"  But that's what happens while trying to cope with baby on one's own.

Time goes by and you realize that while you are there for the baby, there has to be someone there for you - especially when you're trying to keep the baby comfortable against all odds and fighting sleep deprivation!

Books do help.  They offer wise words, laughter, spiritual remedies and more - if one lays one's hands on the right sources.  While there are many pregnancy books (I find the 'What To Expect' series handy), I would like to mention two that are the equivalent of wise mothers' words, which have helped me through this period.  The most useful and reassuring book on pregnancy I have read has been 'The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding' by La Leche League International.  This doesn't just deal with breastfeeding (though this is an important component of the book, more so because (as the book itself says, and I have experienced it too): so many people including doctors keep saying, "This isn't working is it?  You had better stop") but also deals with aspects of bringing up a baby from a natural, baby point of view (not in terms of time or milestones or other things that most books talk about).  Similarly, 'The Secret of Childhood' by Maria Montessori is an old classic that I find has given me a different perspective of bringing up infants : how to try and see things from their viewpoint not from an adult's.  Apart from this - my yoga books and murder mysteries prop me along and help switch my thoughts when I am tired.

But most of all it is emails going to and fro and small phone calls and little bits of time spent talking and being with a small set of warm, loving, caring people that have really helped me in these last few months.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Having Faith

A new direction to one's life requires one to have a lot of faith - both in oneself and in the process of life itself.  I don't mean to be didactic but am writing this partly to air my thoughts and partly in case it is of help to anyone who finds themselves in unfamiliar situations, on the brink of uncertainty or nervousness.

Babies are meant to be bundles of joy.  But they are huge responsibilities as well.  Especially when all the literature tells you how vulnerable they are and how many infections they are likely to catch and so on.  What they don't tell you (and what you need someone else to - in this case I am fortunate to have an old friend, Nora, who I send frantic emails to in times of distress) is that babies are natural fighters and things are usually not as bad as they seem.  But people at hand often love to tell you how you can do things better or differently.  Well - listen if you like and think it over, but don't be overwhelmed - and don't lose heart!  Things have a funny way of straightening themselves out - it may not be the usual way or someone else's way, but that is of no importance.

My baby had a badly given vaccination that turned into an abscess.  The doctor I went to made various noises, "Has he been crying more than usual?" and so on.  More than usual?  Crying peaks when a baby is two months old.  How do I know what is more than usual??  I said he had no pain or fever and that she had told me there would be swelling on the leg.  "Yes, but only for 24 hours."  How does one know that?  The first vaccination (for tuberculosis) caused a boil that stayed for weeks, which is apparently normal.  "First time parent," she muttered and I felt terrible, as if I had missed something very important.  She squeezed the abscess and the baby started howling.  She suggested I go to some place two hours away from home, carry my feed, put him into surgery immediately and get the abscess out, however long it took.

I just went home, close to tears.  Fortunately there was a highly recommended paediatrician very close to my house.  I went to him.  "Just relax," he said and lightly touched the abscess.  The baby didn't stir.  He explained that this could only have arisen due to bad vaccination techniques and said I could go anywhere to get it removed.  Also that I was not a professional and hence couldn't judge abscesses - sometimes there was no fever or pain but they were infected, as this was.  Fortunately there was surgeon in the same clinic who was experienced and good.  I went to him and he bandaged the abscess saying it was too hard to open unless the baby was made unconscious, which he didn't want to do.  So the bandage stayed, the antibiotics began and we returned the next day, apprehensively.  The bandage was opened.  The abscess look a teeny bit better.  So it was re-dressed and this procedure was repeated for two weeks until the body took over and it began healing by itself.

Through all this, I had many moments of self doubt, of worry and concern, fear about the future and how I would handle the situation.  Many onlookers said this could never be a reaction to an injection, especially babysitters (babysitters are the hardest to deal with because they seem to have much more experience with babies than me!). Nora was the only one who said, "Don't worry.  This will all work out.  Babies are tough and it won't hurt him in the long run."

Everything has worked out.  I am still nervous each time I go to the clinic but it is close by and the baby seems to accept this routine, so we don't have a terrible time of it.  Now, the only thing I try and remember of this episode is to have faith in myself, in my ability to tackle new situations and be on unfamiliar terrain - because that's how life is.  And not look back to complain or criticize.

P.S.  Soon after I wrote this blog, I got a call from the original paediatrician, saying the next dose of the vaccination was due.  I told her I had not got the surgery done and it was healing.  She said, "In that case, it was not a real abscess.  I have recently had other children with such reactions but not as bad as your child's.  But this time we can give him the modified vaccine, which has just come in stock, because this is clearly a reaction to the vaccination (this is known to be a difficult vaccination for children, which is why two versions of varying efficacy are available)."

Well, life comes full circle.  I think the take home message really is that we can rarely say what is right or wrong, we can just do the best possible with the information and instinct we have and let life lead us on.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

An Introduction To Babies

This blog, as many others that follow, are being typed on a tiny computer, when I have a few minutes to spare from my sleep deprived life!  Therefore, please excuse my grammatical errors and typos.

I grew up with books, bicycles, swimming pools, ovens, dogs and rocky stretches of isolation.  Therefore I was completely unprepared  for this new event that occurred in my life - a few weeks ago when my baby boy was handed to me after surgery in hospital.

This tiny creature, swaddled in an old soft sari of my mother's, lying inert and helpless before exploding into a mass of loud cries.  What was I supposed to do with it?

First things first.  I was to begin to think of it as "him" and not "it".  The next thing, of course, was to feed him.  That thought got me on my feet a couple of hours  after surgery and as I sat up in bed, a nurse placed him in the crook of my arm and showed me how to feed him.  This process continued, every couple of hours, all the time that I was in hospital.  My main concern then was how I would ever manage to lift him and place him on my arm for a feed.  Seems laughable now, but back then it drove me to tears.  As did most innocuous things for a new mom.

The next thing, of course, was  to change him- but how?  My husband and I poured over the diaper packet instructions (which don't say anything  about how to get the thing under him in the first place).    A crying bundle with a wet diaper is a tricky object.

"Lift up his legs," a well meaning passer by said.  That's the other thing about having babies - people are always freely venting their views on how small or thin or undernourished or cranky your kid is and throwing oodles of advice at you, which is hard to completely ignore.  Only a small fraction is useful, and, fortunately, this bit of advice came in that category.  But one really must follow one's instincts when the books and doctors (and passers by!) fail, for normal everyday matters.  That is what I am learning, the hard way.

Lift up his legs- but how?  A nurse came and showed us. By unceremoniously hauling his bottom off the table.  I wondered if his little body would take all that.  But I learnt that babies are flexible and strong.  My heart would almost break when I saw various people thumping the life out of him (or so I thought) in order to elicit  a burp.  But he survived.

And so have I.  And with these three fundamental things in place, I managed for a few days till new, other challenging things had to be dealt with.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Farewell, Farooq

Farooq Sheikh- the gentle, versatile actor died recently of a heart attack while holidaying in Dubai.  I did not pay too much attention to the news when it broke, last December.  I had seen his films in the late seventies and eighties- and enjoyed them tremendously.  He had worked with top directors of Indian parallel cinema at the time - Satyajit Ray, Hrishikesh Mukherjee, Muzaffar Ali, MS Sathyu and others.  I always assumed that the impression these films left on me was largely because I was then at an impressionable age myself!  Seeing Farooq in recent years, playing minor roles in Bollywood films - overweight, with an unflattering hairstyle and glasses, I felt he had just let himself go.  Theatre lovers thought otherwise; his performance with Shabana Azmi in the two-character play 'Tumhari Amrita' ran for 21 years and people still wanted more.

A few days ago, quite by chance, I happened to watch an old movie of his and was startled by the quality of his performance.  I glimpsed a naturalness that made me feel that he was not acting at all, that in reality he was the character.  After watching some snippets of his other films on the computer, I realized that this aspect of his performance was his style and strength - and perhaps something that led him away from mainstream cinema towards more complex, subtle or unusual films.  At a time when angry young men and raucous songs filled gigantic screens, Farooq Sheikh was content to express different kinds of qualities - gentleness mingled with firmness, an innocent vulnerability and a sensitivity that could be effortlessly tuned to comedy or pathos.  He is remembered most for some of his romances and comedies with his natural on-screen partner Deepti Naval, who could match him, expression for expression and mood for mood.  He was also known for some of his television shows including 'Ji Mantriji', a Hindi version of the British show 'Yes Minister'.

Farooq Sheikh was born into a wealthy family of zamindars and trained in law, so he could join his father, a successful lawyer in Mumbai.  But his heart was in acting and, as it turned out, he never practiced law.  He had no formal training in theatre or films and there was no particular style that he emulated.  Yet he left a mark on Indian films and theatre through the handful of films and the unforgettable characters that he brought to life.  They will never die.

Off screen, he displayed a gentle but spontaneous sense of humour.  His speech was impeccable - a mix of Hindi and Urdu that is not often heard in Mumbai.  He will also be remembered for his unassuming nature, his generosity and philanthropy- much of which came to light only after his death.

Unfortunately there are almost no trailers or snippets of his films available online right now (full length films are available) and none with English subtitles.  I am attaching a link to one of his songs with Deepti Naval, from the film Saath Saath ('Together').  It is a song they sing about how beautiful their house is.  Should anyone wish to see the house, they first need to borrow the young couple's vision (in order to truly appreciate it).

Here one sees how two skilled and expressive actors can elevate a pleasant sounding song to something more meaningful and heartwarming. 

Monday, February 3, 2014

Now We Are Two : Thoughts On Pregnancy

As I dwell on my advanced state of pregnancy, I wonder whether to put down my thoughts in a blog.  The pregnancy began suddenly, seemed to stretch on forever and now I wonder where all the time has gone.  I have decided to write a little, just in case it is of help to anyone, especially in India.

"Any time now," the older women around me say.  But I think the baby will wait for a few weeks, if not days, to emerge.  Let us see.

Pregnancy is very much a social affair in India, as perhaps it is everywhere.  Given our gigantic (and ever increasing) population, I am always amazed that every new baby or baby-to-be causes such a flutter.  Evolution, I suppose.  "Give me dogs any day," I used to think while watching people fussing over babies (and in some recess of my heart, perhaps I still do).

I grew up with dogs.  Large numbers of them, bounding in and out of our house and garden.  They were my favourite companions and I spent many hours with them - seeing them being born (our dogs were comfortable with my presence at all times), helping them grow up - bathing them as they wriggled and flew from my arms, teaching them how to climb up and descend stairs, playing "catch the lizard" with them and helping them through teething.  Everything was effortless and executed without any fuss or bother.  Bliss, in retrospect.  Not so with humans.  The noise begins as soon as those pregnancy strips turn positive, and it apparently never really ends.  All of it is not unwelcome of course.  I am moved by how many people have come up to me and said they were praying for my well being, in their own ways.  Many offers of baby sitters have arrived, surprisingly the most fervent ones coming from elderly retired professors, who I thought had only science on their minds.  Babies certainly bring out a different aspect of people, a part one never really perceives as an adult.  This I am learning everyday.

As Indian cities change, lifestyles (including issues like pregnancy) change accordingly.  A mix of old and new is found and one must tread with care.  Active birthing techniques and complete empowerment of women are still to come, but many more facilities and options are offered to pregnant women in big cities.  I ask for very little at this stage; just for minimal medical intervention intelligently applied and for the presence of my husband during crucial periods, and the Delhi doctor seems to share my views on these aspects.  It has been a struggle though, to keep the medical intervention to the minimum.  My doctors in Bangalore were very concerned and believed in taking steps beforehand to prevent future potential problems; they would therefore prescribe supplements by the dozen.  Supplements are not as innocuous as they are made out to be.  Any chemical in large regular doses is bound to affect metabolism.  And some of the supplements - hormones or hormone triggers, affect the endocrine system as well, causing large changes with very small doses.  Fortunately, I did not take any of these and none of the dire predictions have come true.  One important aspect to keep in mind during pregnancy is that each person is different - the range of "normal values" is huge while measuring levels of blood parameters, minerals, vitamins (and certain hormones as well).  What's normal for one woman may never be seen in another.  This is where the internet is very helpful as technical sites provide lists of acceptable ranges of numbers churned out through blood tests.  Over-interpretation of data (especially with inadequate knowledge of metabolism) is a common problem encountered with doctors today.

Other programmes are also on offer - pregnancy classes, exercises and, in India, things are often marketed as "packages" - one free scan, one free consultation, discount on room tariff etc. with pregnancy classes.  It took me a while to decide whether or not to attend these classes.  I asked a few people for input, called up some of the teachers and finally asked myself what exactly I wanted to achieve.  Many people like the feeling of bonding and interacting with others who are in the same state; I had no such desire.  Besides, I hate commuting- dealing with traffic jams, potholes and pollution - things that are common in Indian cities.  These days, due to excessive or poor air conditioning, lifestyle changes and other factors, I find some fraction of sick people everywhere I go, at all times.  For this reason as well, I wanted to avoid being indoors with large groups on a regular basis.  (This also meant a drastic reduction in the number of cultural events I could attend but there are many other ways to occupy oneself).  Of course, the main deciding factor was my existing lifestyle - I was practicing Yoga everyday and also going for long walks.  I did not think I needed too much more, except for some inputs on the process of labour and birthing, which were explained in a wonderful fashion to me by my acupuncturist friend, Nora.  My Yoga teacher, who continues to check on my health from afar, told me right in the beginning that he had no special instructions for me.  I had read the Yoga books that dealt with pregnancy (and there is very little literature on this) and had several questions, which he answered.  But he stressed that it is a very individual experience and I would know what to do and how to proceed, from within.  He also stressed that I should not compare myself to any of the models in the pregnancy books (a very useful tip)!  I would not recommend this for beginners but for advanced Yoga students who have had individual training, I think it is a good way to proceed.  I am still comfortably able to do an hour of stretching and I have not had any backaches or major strains.

The other aspect to think about was clothes!  I was surprised at how little was on offer for maternity wear (especially for winter), given the large numbers of women who are pregnant each year.  New shops have opened recently; they have some kinds of clothes to offer but nothing elegant or particularly well designed.  The materials are sometimes not very comfortable and are often synthetic or gaudy - this for a country overflowing with textiles, craftsmen and designers, is shocking.  Mothercare (an international outlet) has opened and this seems to be where many pregnant women shop.  It is relatively better but completely western in concept.  Almost everything has been made in China for the U.K. and marketed in India.  Good for track bottoms, jeans and western baby things.  Not a chance of finding Indian cottons, loose kurtas or any local products.  Oh well, could be worse.  The one problem I immediately find is that the sizes and shapes seem a little off.  Certainly my baby (on the ultrasound screen) looks too tiny to immediately be able to wear the 0 month size.  This is where family helps.  One of my sisters in law has taken me firmly in hand and ignored all arguments about waiting till I am sure my baby will actually emerge before taking action.  She marches in with a tailor, who takes my bundle of old clothes and rapidly converts them into little vests and nappies in three sizes.  Exquisitely soft cotton, having been washed hundreds of times over is now ready to cover the baby in different ways.  Not just as clothes, but sheets to sleep in, sheets for changing, sheets for covering.  My mother's softest saree - an old fine Bengal cotton is converted into a little wrapping cover for when the baby is just delivered.  The belief is that the blessings of the ancestors pass on to the baby.  More involved than Mothercare but more personal as well.  In between trips to see her terminally ill mother, she knits tiny baby vests that will be perfect for small Indian babies.  She has already ordered sheets, quilts and bigger clothes which will be stitched and hand embroidered as our clothes were when we were young (my grandmother set up a small organization where women learned to embroider and sew in order to be financially independent).  These are of course some perks of being in India.

As for myself, I do find a few clothes but I am living in track pants with hand me down pregnancy sweaters.  Women - don't fall for that "Wear your husband's sweaters," line.  In the third trimester, maternity clothing becomes essential especially in the winter.  Men's sweaters end up dangling over your arms, exposing half your chest (with those V-necks) and so on.  Sarees are a relatively elegant option but the accessories need to be re-stitched each month for comfort.  I call the tailor home again, not for maternity clothes this time but for nursing clothes.  Yes!  In a few weeks, all these clothes will be of no use and an entirely new set will be required.  Do keep this in mind while planning your wardrobe.  Shoes - problematic again.  I visit malls, which have rows of branded shoe shops lined up but find nothing other than sports shoes which fit.  These are good for walking but tying and untying laces gets trickier over time.  The slip-ons available are tight fitting or hideously coloured and, of course, fancily priced.  I return empty handed, visit a small neighbourhood shop.  I explain all my requirements to the owner and within a few minutes I have a set of comfortable shoes and non skid slippers at one third the price I would have paid in the malls.  My shoes are a wonderful shade of purple (my first ever purple shoes!) which, strangely enough, go well with my track pants and my slippers are candy striped, in white and pink.  These are a local brand which apparently are very popular with the hill people; they are soft and easy to walk in.

Food!  Keep in mind that the average Indian woman has a much lower hemoglobin level as compared to her Western counterpart.  Don't be alarmed at your blood reports but do try and keep the levels up.  Many people give many suggestions.  I am just taking the middle path - having as much iron in tablet form as I can (I can only take it on alternate days), drinking my own recipe of juice - carrot, beetroot, pomegranate and a squeeze of lemon or fermented black carrot juice, taking a small bit of meat occasionally (I don't feel like eating too much meat) and having fresh greens, salads, soaked prunes etc.  Some of these iron building foods are cooked by my aunt and sent to me in little boxes every week.  Indian food can aggravate or soothe nausea, as I discovered after talking to many people. Fortunately I did not suffer much from morning sickness but people who do can barely enter the kitchen.  I find that some of the spices - cloves, black cardamom and cinnamon are quite soothing especially when used in sweet and savoury stews.

Well, I think this covers most of the basic aspects that I have been dealing with these last few months.  I don't know if my baby agrees with me.  It began as a tiny part of me but now there are definitely two of us.  I can see its outline as it moves, pushing my abdomen outwards to an impossible extent.  It is wide awake when I want to sleep and quietens down as soon as I begin my morning Yoga.  It kicks when I indulge in desserts and stays silent when I eat my salads.  Never seems to mind the potholes and speed breakers, which I absolutely detest.  Perhaps it takes after my husband...  

Friday, January 24, 2014

A Time For Eating

Delhi's grey damp days do not deter me from walking - the air is fresh and icy and the damp gets into every crevice it can find.  But at the end of long walks I come home and help myself to a little bit (or more!) of the wonderful food that winter brings.  Everything is so plentiful right now that I can't imagine that it will all be gone in just another month, when spring brings its own special things.

Right now we are eating carrots in all forms - deep red, sweet winter carrots in salads as we bask in the occasional sunshine (along with this we have white or red radishes, which are particularly mild at this time).  Carrots with peas, carrots with methi (fenugreek greens), carrot juice and delicious carrot halwa (which is never the same when made with regular orange carrots - in fact it is never really made at any other time of the year except in restaurants).  Black carrots, fermented to make a unique winter drink - kanji- which gets its zing from the fermentation and a heady flavour from the carrots to which rock salt and pounded mustard have been added.  It begins as a deep blue liquid and gradually turns deep pink as the acid builds up.  Beetroots, which are also plentiful now, are sometimes used when black carrots are not available.

Winter is always good for greens - an endless variety that can be stir fried (on their own or with potatoes or paneer), kneaded into a dough and used to make rotis.  They can also be made into pullaos with rice, added to lentils and more.  Spinach, fenugreek greens and others which have no English names that I know of.  The mustard greens are now losing their sweetness as they mature and flower; the seeds will later be crushed for oil.  We have the last of them this week, cooked thick and served with thin flat corn bread (makki ki roti), lots of chopped ginger and butter on the side.  A hearty meal.

Peas are especially sweet and tender and are thrown into almost any conceivable dish -  pullaos, curries, dry vegetables. stuffings for breads that are pan fried or deep fried.  My favourite is mattar paneer - peas and cubes of paneer (a kind of homemade lemony cheese) in a light curry.  They also go well with mushrooms, which are plentiful in the winter.

This is also the season for palm jaggery (an eastern Indian specialty) that is freshly tapped and concentrated by boiling the juices.  This imparts a distinct dark colour and delicious flavour to sweets.  I just like to scrape off a little bit and add it to homemade curd.  Apart from this, many other sweets are made, ostensibly to keep off the winter cold - piping hot halwas oozing with ghee (clarified butter) and nuts, thick milky concoctions with saffron, pista or almonds sprinkled in, sheets of peanuts or sesame seeds bound together with sugar or jaggery syrup - crisp and crackly or soft and flaky depending on the consistency.  And when one is tired of all the sweetness, there are always the savouries - roasted nuts, vegetables dipped in gram flour and fried, little salted and spiced snacks made with different kinds of flour and fried till they are crisp and samosas stuffed with potatoes and peas - to be consumed with hot milky tea and much gossip on the side!  Perfect for those dark winter evenings.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

A Year Of Change

I'd like to begin by wishing my readers and friends a wonderful new year.  Annus mirabilis, a year of wonders, miracles and more.  I'd like to thank you for continuing to read my blog, considerably infrequent though it has been these last few months.  I have been taken over by a flurry of events at home and hospitals and have been unable to do justice to my blogging.  This situation may continue for a few months but I hope the blog will eventually pick up again, at least I will try (one of this year's resolutions!).

One of the reasons the blog is going so slow, as I explained to a friend, is that my life is currently submerged in trivia.  Not that I mind but I wouldn't want to inflict it on my readers.  "Write about the pursuit of trivia then", he suggested.  I turned this over in my mind for several weeks but it did not seem satisfactory enough.  This week, however, I realized I had to make some kind of change in the contents because my activities are more restricted for the time being.  To keep the blog going, I realized, that I would have to shift from fact based blogs to thought based ones (or a mix of the two).  This may test my writing skills and your patience, but let's see how it goes!

I am in Delhi for a few months.  It is supposedly a cold winter, a few degrees lower than usual.  The smog descended, as it does, but only for a few days.  Now it is sunny; winter holidays are still on, and parks are full of families and the ubiquitous couples.

I am staying in our family house, a mix of old and new structures.  I am staying in the room that my grandmother used to occupy, the oldest part of the house.  It looks onto a large verandah in front and a sunny strip of balcony behind.  A charming room, but there has been much work to do to make it comfortable and practical for me.  Wires are always a problem; we have been fixing the old wires in the bathroom to get enough light, working out a way of fixing night lights, reading lights and more.  The telephones in the room screech and crackle - more wires to be taped and fixed!  The room is quite cold in the winter; fortunately we now have new heaters which are perfect for gently heating rooms without drying the air out.

The problem with too comfortable a room temperature is- mosquitoes!  Yes!  Those days of mosquito-free winters is long gone.  Once the digging for the commonwealth games began (a couple of years ago I think), mosquitoes have filled this city, never to leave.  Now they linger outside and rush in wherever they find a warm spot.  Fortunately there are no epidemics these days but I know it is just a matter of time especially as the weather warms up.  Normally we use chemical repellents but I am trying to find natural means of keeping them out.  I begin with the chemicals, then clear the room of the sprayed air.  End up by lighting large sticks of citronella incense.  This works, but only some of the time.  Often, one or two remain - and one is enough to cause havoc at night.  Next week I plan to buy a local mix of camphor and herbs - the Bengali dhuno (which is used to create a dramatic smoky effect in the pujas) - and smoke the rooms every evening, the way it was done in our grandparents' time.

I spend time opening out drawers filled with old memories - many papers and scribbled notes lying forgotten for decades, which are no longer required.  Make a separate space for photographs, which are fluttering everywhere and spilling out of envelopes.  Air out the cupboards, line them with fresh paper and begin to unpack and stop living out of suitcases.  Make some changes so I can easily take care of my food requirements - buy a small juicer and some microwavable crockery (in this process I end up buying a porcelain dinner set for six - utterly useless for now but I hope to use it sometime in the unpredictable future.  Ah! the perils of shopping!).

The house is filled with workers as well - we are installing some new soundproof windows.  Noise levels in Delhi have risen tremendously and one can no longer open any window that faces the main road.  Fortunately one side of our house faces a park, but this year planes seem to fly overhead periodically.  These are loud but not too frequent.  Certainly nothing compared to the explosions from trucks when their tyres burst in front of our house - like bombs!

Well, we have been working away, my father and I, and I think in a week's time everything should be dealt with.  It's a pleasant way to begin the year - by scrubbing clean unwanted remnants of the past, mending and buttressing existing structures - and waiting for the new to step in!
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