Thursday, November 30, 2006

Nostalgia time

Today, a lunchtime conversation with a colleague who had visited the UK started me off on a nostalgic trip of my stay in the country. I always knew I loved the experience of living there, but as I mulled over my memories, I found that there were a lot of moments that I truly treasured, so many experiences that I cherished and held close to my heart.

So I thought I will share some of the things that linger in my mind from my 2-year stay in High Wycombe, a beautiful town in Buckinghamshire, some 45 kms from London. The town was recently in the news for being home to the suspects in the Transatlantic aircraft plot in Aug 2006. But my memories of the place are as a serene, welcoming town that had a huge diversity in its population including Asians and Carribeans. So here is the flashback..

One morning soon after I landed, I decided to walk to the town centre on a Sunday morning. After having been used to the milling crowds in India, I was astonished to see a deserted town centre. I remember Walking on the cobbled pathways in the High Street on that wintry morning, listening to the echo of my own shoes.
There were the long solitary walks I used to take across the park along the river Wye. The grass was such a bright green that it would almost hurt my eye. Sometimes I took bread with me to feed the ducks.

My apartment was half-way up a small, beautiful hill. That area, called Downley, was one of the typical quaint English villages, with beautiful avenue-lined roads that wound up the hill. I would often walk up to the very top of the hill on evenings and watch the sunset. That was one of the most beautiful sights ever and every time I did that, a feeling of calm would descend on me. The beauty of those surroundings was almost therapeutic.

Weekends were lazy times when I did not have much to do (I could really do with one such weekend now!). I would walk to the town centre, sit in a coffee shop that was strategically located at the entrance of the Octagon Centre (the Mall) and watch people. There would be all kinds of people going about their business - fighting couples, dating teenagers, Asian families doing their weekend shopping, old ladies fussing over their pet dogs. And I would sit watching them sipping my cappuccino and a munching on a fresh blueberry muffin, for as long as I pleased.

One Sunday morning, I got up and found I had nothing to do. So I boarded a bus from the starting point in the Town centre and sat on till the end-point.. and came back in the same bus!

Whatever culinary skills I possess, I picked up when I was there. I used to try out new recipes and had a band of good friends who used to invariably land home on Saturday mornings after their weekend shopping. All of them were bachelors and whatever I made, was manna for them. I used to receive adulation even for a simple gobi masala and yes, I lapped up all the praises.

A few of my Indian colleagues decided to learn French and I joined along. We took lessons from a French lady, Martine. She is one of the most warm-hearted and kindly souls I have known. Our classes were early in the morning on weekends. Since Martine knew we would skip breakfast to come to our classes on time, she would always bring a whole lot of French breakfast with her - and we would learn our French while feeding our growling stomachs on petit-pain-au-raisin and the likes. Her warmth and friendliness made my French sessions memorable.

I stayed alone for most part of 2 years in High Wycombe. And the best part of staying alone was perhaps that it left me with more time to be with myself. Looking back, I think it is one of the best periods in my adult life.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Social tribulations

This Sunday, we were invited for a wedding reception. Truth be told, I have never found it very exciting to attend wedding receptions, especially in Chennai. Now, I am definitely no social butterfly, but I am also not one of those lone-wolves who become hostile at the sight of company. Yet, whenever I had to attend a wedding or a reception, I did so with great inhibition and difficulty.

The first problem at hand was selecting the attire. One of the things I dreaded most was draping the sari. Somehow I never mastered the art of wearing a saree neatly and carrying it gracefully. Hats off to Sonia Gandhi, but this was certainly not my cuppa tea. With this handicap, I was not left with much options in attire. I would then have to find out a salwar suit that was sufficiently good for the occasion AND not jaded-looking AND of a size that I have not overgrown AND which matched with my standard sandals. Finding out something that satisfied all the above was a truly Herculean task.

The next would be to motivate my better(?)-half to budge. My husband believes that weekends are meant to be spent totally at home, and specifically on the couch, with the TV remote in one hand and laptop on his lap (superfluous I know). Any statement from me that calls for a shift in this sofa-spud pose is met with different stages of reactions - his first reaction is I-pretend-to-be-deaf, the next is a frown with a raised eyebrow but still no verbal response or physical shift of position. Hubby dear being an Industrial Engineer by qualification, really believes in economy of movements, you see!. Then finally, when my push comes to the shove and he can no longer ignore it, he lets a loud yawn or shrug and asks me "Now What do you want me to do" with a sacrificial-lamb-being-dragged-to-altar look on his face.

Finally, when we both are ready and dressed, we would start this mad-hunt for the wedding invite, which, by then, would have been buried under the huge pile of mail and bills stacked in our draw. In the event of us finding it, we would then rush to a map to find out the location of some S.K Mahal or A.M.R Kalyana Mandapam in some usually-unexplored part of Chennai. Most of the times, we would have huge arguments in the car as to which road we should take. Hubby's logic is that since he drives, I am supposed to be the navigator and hence, should not only know the way perfectly, but also provide advance instructions to him on when and where to turn. HAA HAA..

And so, after much trials and tribulations, we would arrive at this overcrowded wedding reception, which would be alive with "light music" playing in the background. For the uninitiated among you, this so-called light music is louder and noisier than most of the heavy metal and rock music that you have come across. To say it is deafening would be an under-statement. The one and only good thing about this music is that it enables the guests to shower undivided focus on peoples' dresses and jewellery. Since there is no possibility of conversation, all you do is watch around and see who is wearing what. The looks and glances one sees here is a topic for a separate blog in itself. Hmmphh..

And finally the icing on the cake would be this huge queue to go up the podium to wish the couple and another round of musical chair to secure a place for dinner. Do people really do this so their marriages become a "memorable" occasion and are etched in the guests' minds? Then I think they are right.

Now you know why I am mildly standoffish towards receptions. But what I wanted to say here was this : The one I attended this weekend was a refreshing change. First of all, blessing of blessings, the reception was held at a place closer home. When we got there after an uneventful (read peaceful) journey, we were delighted to find the hall was not overcrowded. For a change, there were no people breathing down our necks for the chairs. And instead of the dreaded "light" music, we had soft instrumental music (carnatic- Veena). To put it mildly, I found this to be uplifting to my spirit. For once, the music did not make my adrenaline levels go high and set my heart racing in frustration. Instead it was relaxing. And oh- there was no queue for dinner, since the number of invitees just equalled the hall's capacity. I could not have asked for more. I came back, having enjoyed my time there and wishing that I'd get invited for only such receptions in future.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Snippets from the past

Yesterday I got home from work a little later than usual. My daughter was sitting in the living room, playing with her toys. She looked up to see me and I was surprised to see that her usual sunny smile was not breaking out on her face. She looked at me for an instant and then continued playing, as if she wanted to ignore my presence. Was she angry that I was late? Was she tired of looking at every single car that went by our apartment, thinking it would be me? There was a big tug in my already-guilty conscience. I went to her, kissed her and called for truce with an offer I knew she couldn't resist - I offered to carry her around as an "uppu chakku" (in which we would pretend that she was a gunny bag of salt that I was carrying for sale). Predictably, she giggled and came running to me. And all was well..

Later, I wondered as I watched her sleep - Was my baby old enough to feel angry at my being late? Or was I imagining things? How much of this would she remember when she grew up? My earliest memories started at around the age of 4 or maybe 5. I can't say I remember a lot, but these are some of the earliest things that I still remember.

I was then staying with my mother at her parents' home. I remember with striking clarity, a day when my aunts (mother's sisters, who were in their teens then) asked me to look at the old grandfather clock in the hall and tell them the time. They knew that I did not know to tell the time, but they just wanted to keep me from pestering them with questions. I went back saying that the little needle of the clock was at X and the big needle at Y. But that was not good enough, they said, and sent me back to stand near the clock till I could read the time properly. I remember standing in front of the clock, full of consternation, my mind filling with a sense of sadness and shame because I knew I wouldn't be able to do it. I'm sure my aunts didn't mean to be cruel or make me feel bad, but the strength of my feeling is proven by the fact that I can close my eyes even now and remember myself standing in front of the clock.

One day, when I was in kindergarten, my class teacher had told us to memorise a rhyme. I totally forgot and the next day morning, when my cycle-wallah came to pick me up for school, I remember the feeling of terror that flooded me when I realised I had forgotten. I refused to go to school that day, and it took a whole lot of persuasion and assurance from my mother and aunts to make me go. And I felt my feet turning into cold jelly when the teacher asked us to recite the rhyme - thankfully, she asked the entire class to recite together and I got away mumbling some nonsense amidst the noise. That rhyme, still etched in memory, goes "Cock-a-doodle-doo, My dame has lost her shoe.."

I remember all the books my uncle used to buy for me as a child. A most treasured one was a colourful picture book that had photos and names of beautiful fishes. I am in no way interested in fish-rearing and cannot even tell one fish from another. But I still remember that the most beautiful fish in that book was called "The Golden Gourami". I don't have a clue as to why I remember just that fish!

When mom and I moved to a new city to join dad, and I was put a new school, everything changed. I had to get used to a new language and make new friends. On my first day at the new school, I remember waiting after the classes for my mother to pick me up. For some reason, I can still remember the white polyester saree with small blue flowery design she was wearing on that day.

I remember stretching my hand out to mom for round balls of "paruppum chadam" (rice and daal). I have still not grown of it as my comfort food.

I remember being extremely shy till I was 6 or 7. So shy that I wouldn't tell my name or even say hello when we had guests at home. I have no idea what changed that!

And then there are these photo-frame kind of memories - walking down the morning market with my mother, and asking her to buy some plums(I hate them now) for me, sobbing my heart out when my mother insisted on my hair being cut short, the embroidery shop that my mom took me to have a beautiful lacy pink frock stitched on my 4th (or was it 5th?) birthday, the small shop she used to take me to buy "rose-milk" for me..

The pile of memories grew with me, but whenever I delve into the past, I find some of these earliest ones the most comforting.. and I love going back to them.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Xtreme Connectivity

I have never ever been the cool,gadget-loving yuppie - I have always taken a long time to start using/get used to gadgets. My husband, on the other hand, loves gadgets of any kind, right from crazy barking and jumping alarm clocks to the iPod. He can spend hours together fiddling around with his gadgets, searching the internet and resolving problems, leaving his weekend tasks to pile up until I took them up and completed them in desperation. The last 2 weeks, he has been mulling over the idea of buying a smart phone for himself. He had a pretty archaic mobile,the possession of which might have caused many a young yuppie go beet-red with shame. We went shopping on Saturday and he got himself what he wanted - But at the end of it, I was wondering about the wisdom of our purchase - The arrival of his new smart phone meant that he was permanently "connected" - or should I say hooked? - 24 by 7.

When I was growing up, my parents had regular 9-5 jobs. They would be home by 6 PM and then the entire evening was 'family time'. In fact, the telephone was the only "connecting device" in those days and I don't remember that either of my parents got too many work-related calls after their work hours. When I started working, things were pretty much the same. The work timings were extended, but once I got home, I was cut-off from work except in emergecy situations. And then the mobile revolution happened - despite the obvious advantage of always being connected, the disadvantages were also ours to live with. Work almost always came home because anyone could easily reach you at the push of a button. 5 years after they arrived, the mobile phones have made a huge dent in the quality of time spent with the family during evenings and even during weekends. Of course, one might say, it is a choice that we make. But then how many of us make that choice?

Then came the era of sleek laptops, fast internet access and cheap broadband connectivity. With such facilities, how could one not be expected to check emails in the morning, before one starts from home? And so we bade goodbye to tranquil mornings and got "connected" for the updates on work.

And now with the advent of smart phones, you can check emails while on vacations, while you are commuting to work in the mornings or even when you are at dinner with family - WOW! Where has technology taken us?

And we continue to yap on about work-life balance, stress-busters, the benefits of yoga, weekend get-aways, vacations et al, when all we need is probably some "unconnected" time to relax.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Chennai-speak

I thought I should post a little something on the city that has been home to me for most part of the last decade. I cannot provide any authentic new information on Chennai, as it is all already available on the internet. So I have chosen to opine on what I like and dislike about this bustling metro.

7 Things I love about Chennai:
------------------------------
1) Down-to-earth and industrious people - There are exceptions, but most people are willing to help any stranger who asks for a way. They also believe in earning their income. The infamous autowallahs are an exception, I guess.

2) Cost of living - Chennai has an economic flexibility - it offers options for the poor as well as the rich. Right from the roadside Achi idli shop, where a decent and filling breakfast still costs only Rs.10 to the Taj's Coffee Shop, Chennai has it all.

3) Cosmopolitanism - Although it is nowhere near Mumbai, Chennai has moved a lot in this direction in the last 10 years. Frappe is as accepted as Filter Coffee and pizzas sell more than Masala dosa. And yes, the famous "December Music Season", previously dominated by Carnatic Music, has now thrown its doors open to Hindustani, Western Classical, Fusion and other experimental music.

4) Sambar Vadai,Pongal,Podi Dosai from Sangeetha/Saravana Bhavan - We have a friend who has globe-trotted quite a bit and whenever he comes to Chennai, he asks us to take him to Sangeetha for a masala dosa straight from the airport. Such is the dosa magic.

5) The beaches and the hyper-activity surrounding them

6) Many many temples - you name a god and there will be one of His of Her temples in Chennai. Almost every road has a "Pillayar" (Ganesha) and interestingly, some of these "pillayar's" have a prefix denoting what blessing they specialis in providing. REALLY! - "Adi Sankara Santhana Ganapati" (Pray to him for Progeny), "Ishta Siddhi Vinayagar"(General - all desires), "Ananda Ganapati" (Happiness), "Selva Vinayagar" (Wealth) etc.

7) The Adyar/Besant Nagar crowd - Totally biased opinion. You can take it or leave it


7 Things I resent about Chennai:
--------------------------------
1) Haggling with autowallahs who ask for the sky and more

2) The 9 month long summer, consisting of 6 months of intolerably scorching heat

3) The way Chennai's roads cannot handle rains. Storm water drains don't exist and entire areas are inundated at the very onset of monsoon

4) Peak hour traffic - but then which metro doesn't have it ?

5) Some policemen who accept petty bribes

6) Set-top box - Why? Why? Why did Chennai become and stay the guinea-pig?

7) Polygamous politicians

Now, if you are thinking, why 7 - it is because I have to stop before you fall asleep and by the way, 7 also happens to be my favourite number.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Pipe dreams???

I was inside this quaint little cottage with stone walls and tiled roof. It was soothingly warm inside and the delicious smell of hot chocolate pervaded. I was sitting in a cozy chair near the window, my legs stretched out, turning the pages of a book lazily, looking out of the window once in a while. The scene from the window was simply breathtaking – hillocks covered with green pastures, clear blue sky and a small silver stream of water flowing through the meadows. I could ask for nothing more – this was my perfect moment of peace and tranquility. Baaaaaaahhhhhhh… A shrill cry ran through the air and shook me. I struggled up and threw off my sheets. My daughter was bawling next to me in bed from her teething pain. My husband was sleeping peacefully (like a child?) on the other end of the bed. My daughter’s cries don’t normally get him out of Dreamland as easily as they get me. I rocked my daughter back to sleep – thankfully, she fell asleep easily this time. As I tried to settle down to sleep, I recollected my dream fondly and wondered when that would come true, if at all it could come true. A bit of time for myself to laze around, do what I want and worry about nothing else. I guess I have to wait at least for a couple of years – or is it more?

I work full-time. For those of you who think full-time is morning 9 to evening 6, here is a peek into my routine. After I get back home at 7 (1 hr commute), I spend the remaining time with my daughter. We play peek-a-boo, read the story of “How the caterpillar became a butterfly” together and we even do some silly little jigs to her favorite music. After that is her bed-time. Putting her to bed can take as little as 10 minutes or as much as 90 mts (very rare, but really!), depending on how she has slept during the day. So, on the easy days, after she has slept, I come out and complete some pending chores – putting the ironed clothes back into the closet, putting her toys back in place, writing out cheques for bills and the likes. I have my dinner and by that time, I am ready to crash onto bed. Sometimes I spend a few minutes checking emails or watching headlines on T.V, but then this disciplinarian inner voice tells me to not waste time and get to bed, because sleep is precious. My husband usually works late and is never around in the evenings on working days.
I need at least 7 hours of sleep a day, preferably 8, to keep me energetic and functioning fully well. And since my daughter is an early-riser, I prefer retiring early. And then, the next morning at 6 AM, I either wake up to her chatter or she decides to wake me up by smooching me all over my face. If it has been a good night, with little disruptions in her sleep, I feel fresh. But if she has been unwell, or has had teething troubles or such, I get up but my body is longing for a few hours of uninterrupted sleep. And then the day starts….

Whoever coined the word “working mom” was a bit out of vocabulary I think. We have a choice of adjectives in English to describe this state– How about stressed mom, besieged mom, inundated mom, hassled mom, fraught mom? Does it sound very bad? But any mom-to-a-toddler who works full time would agree with my choice of words.

Gone are those days when I could spend my time lazing through books and magazines. Now, even if I lock myself in for a long bath on weekends, I strain my ear to listen to my daughter’s protests asking for me from outside. And 90 out of 100 times, I hear it clearly 10 minutes into my bath. And so it doesn’t take a Freud to help interpret the above dream of mine. Like Julie Andrews sang in “The Sound of Music” I can list down a few of my “Favorite things” that I long to do. Here are some of my dream things-to-do..
- Have a whole morning lazing around doing nothing - Get up when I want to, make a cup of steaming coffee for myself and read a newspaper fully
- Reading a whole book in one sitting
- Being at home alone for a whole day with the calling bell and telephone disconnected
- Shopping for a full day without a care in the world and without feeling guilty
- Having a late night dinner, without having to worry 15 times every 10 minutes about my daughter waking up and crying for me
- Listening to good music at least 30 minutes a day (without noise disruptions)
- Making this blog of mine more readable - he he he

Like ABBA sing in their beautiful song,
“I have a dream, a fantasy
To help me through reality……
.............................
I believe in angels
When I know the time is right for me
Ill cross the stream - I have a dream”

Thursday, November 09, 2006

The goodness of flaxseed oil

Recently, while browsing, I stumbled upon an article that talked about the wonders of flaxseed and flaxseed oil. I was dumbfounded to say the least - Flaxseed, known as Alivira in Tamil and Muthira in Malayalam, although valued in the past for its medicinal properties, has lost most of its sheen in the recent past. In fact I know families that avoid it conscientiously since it is branded as "the food of the horses". Looks like the horses continue to benefit while we moved on to burgers and pizzas and what not. The article I read pointed out the flaxseeds and flaxseed oil are rich in Omega-3-fatty-acids, which are much needed for the body, and are known to be beneficial for heart diseases, inflammatory bowel diseases, arthritis and according to some studies, even cancer. WOW! And all along, I was under the impression that Omega-3-fatty-acids can be got only from fish! Being a vegetarian by upbringing, and later by choice, I had always felt that I was missing out on these fatty acids. Was I thrilled! More crawling in the internet told me that flaxseed oil is not suitable to be heated for cooking as it loses its properties when heated. There are lots of sites that give recipes using flax seed including some yummy-sounding ones.

For those of you who are in Chennai, cold pressed flaxseed oil is available in ECONUT, the health food shop in Besant Nagar - at least this is what I found from the internet. I am going to check it out soon!

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

The Art of Parenting

Last week was a real hectic week – My husband’s sister, her husband and 4 year old son were with us on the last leg of their vacation before they returned to the U.S. With 2 kids at home, it was complete pandemonium. The kids were playing together, fighting for the same toy, stepping on each other and shrieking, all at once. Till now, I was under the impression that the most difficult and trying part of parenting was till age 3. Logically, I thought, this was the age by which most kids could at least communicate their basic needs. From infancy to this point, whenever a child cries for something, we parents respond to it through their guesses, which at times may not be quite intelligent. So the ability to express themselves, one would assume, would liberate the children from most of their problems. This last week cleared away all such delusions as I saw my nephew’s tussles with his parents.

For the first 2-3 years, the problems are because we don’t know what the kid wants, and after that I guess it is because we know precisely what they want :-).Strange are the ways of nature! I have heard lots of people say “After you have kids, life is never the same again” with a note of finality in their voices.It was one of the clich├ęs that you kept hearing, I thought when I was young. Like many mothers of my generation, I am an “Internet mom” – from the early days of pregnancy, I was constantly reading up on the baby, its development stages and the do’s and the don’ts, trying to equip myself fully for any challenge that parenting would throw. But little did I realize what I was in for, until I came face to face with it. At times, I have found parenting to be trying, frustrating and even daunting experience. A little bit of introspection would probably reveal that parenting is one of the ways we fulfill this need within us to grow, to become better human beings. For most of us, the entire experience reshapes us and moulds us into better individuals. Parenting, in that sense,is as much about our growth as it is about that of our children’s.

After my daughter was born, I don’t remember taking a single step, be it giving her a medicine or buying a nappy rash cream, without checking it up on the internet. But there were times when the soundest logic does not work with your child, the seemingly sure-to-work steps will backfire. This, I think, is one of the most beautiful aspects of parenting. It has taught me humility and acceptance. A year ago, I would have guffawed at any mom who would have told me that something doesn’t work with her child. Today, I know that there are some things that you cannot change, some things that cannot be controlled.
Another great thing about parenting is the emotional security that it provides. Here is this small person, who loves you unconditionally, who doesn’t care a whit as to whether you are clad in rags or dressed to kill, and loves you the same either way. Here is one person who reserves for you the sunniest of her smiles and the tightest of her hugs. Who would not want to come home to that kind of love?
And yes, parenting has definitely changed the way I look at the world – when I hear the word “child abuse” and read about how some of the young children are exploited, my eyes well up with tears because I see my child in them. And I am moved to do something for them.
There are so many other small changes in me after I became a mom – parenting tinkers around with you, toughens you up a bit here and softens you a bit there and makes you laugh and cry in this process.

Reams and reams of paper have been dedicated to the topic of parenting and a Google search would throw up a plethora of writing in this area. But there are 2 pieces of writing that I like best.
One of them is what the great Kahlil Gibran wrote in his book “The Prophet” – this I think is the best-written guide to parenthood:

“Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life's longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you, yet they belong not to you.
You may give them your love but not your thoughts.
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.
You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth.
The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite, and He bends you with His might that His arrows may go swift and far.
Let your bending in the archer's hand be for gladness;
For even as He loves the arrow that flies, so He loves also the bow that is stable”

The other piece, although not comparable to the first in any way, is something that I really love for its succinct expression of how a child would remember a good parent. This is Arundhati Roy’s dedication of her book, “The God of Small Things” (which went on to win the Booker Prize) to her mother, Mary Roy. It goes thus:
“For Mary Roy who grew me up. Who taught me to say 'excuse me' before interrupting her in public. Who loved me enough to let me go"

If my daughter would grow up and think of me thus, I would believe I have lived up to the role of being a mother. The most poignant statement here is the last one, that talks about letting go – It takes a lot of love to bring up a child well, but I believe it takes more love to let them go on their way, to make their follies and learn from it. That, I believe, is the litmus test of good parenting.