Wednesday, July 28, 2010


It's over, my period of penury is now over. I had been living the last fortnight with a self-imposed tightened belt. When I say self-imposed by the way, I am not implying a stunt of some sort, but merely referring to the combination of too little financial planning and too much misplaced pride that left me with Rs. 240/- for fifteen days. This requires considerable ingenuity, but if I have been able to do it at all, it was because of those that love me rather than because of any thought on my part. There were many things I could not do, but I was not hungry. I might have eyed the cooking oil anxiously dreading the time it ran out, but the putting of meals on the table was not just possible, but pleasurable.

And this is where my loved ones come in. Not that they gave me emergency packages, but I benefited from the continuous loving concern and giving that I am blessed with. I have not really had to buy too much food in this period. My mum had, over the last year, sent me enough dried fish and masalas to feed an army. My Mian had stockpiled the house with enough flours and yeast to start a bakery. Maybe more important, they had taught me enough of their cooking skills for me to use this food. I had not just the raw materials, but also the culturally diverse techniques to allow me to wonder if I wanted pesarattu or buckwheat noodles for dinner.

I hate to admit that I had bickered as they loaded up the kitchen, "we can buy more anytime! It's clutter!". No, sometimes we can't buy more. It's food.

I have also been thinking. This was a cash flow hiccup, nothing more. These rupees were only meant to top up food stocks. I have all the necessities- a properly set up household, a job that punctually pays me a salary. I even had an adequate and liquid emergency fund in the shape of a $50 note. Not only would any of my friends and family have helped me, but the two who knew the state of affairs were actively insisting that I allow them to do so. If I did not accept, it was because I was never in distress, just uncomfortable. Even this mild level of discomfort occupied my thoughts to a large degree.

And that is why the Arjun Sengupta report made me ashamed of my complaining. 836 million Indians live with 20 Rs a day for ALL their needs- food, shelter, clothing, medicine, life. 20 Rs a day. Always. Not for a fortnight till the next cheque comes in. Always. For far too many people all over the world, the state of affairs I was in is wasteful affluence.

I am ashamed that I have not given thought beyond the occasional 'tut-tut' to this; I have never done anything to alleviate their real distress. I will now keep my eyes open to help someone out in a real way- not the occasional five-rupee charity, but something more reliable.

How can I end my tale of the last fortnight without sharing the way the multi-verse stepped in too? One day, pretty early on, I gloomily held the last coffee bean on my palm and resigned myself to a fortnight without the soul-satisfying and pleasurable mornings that are my one 'habit'. That same evening M stopped by with a request. She was going away soon and her family were all tea drinkers. Would I mind taking a pound of coffee?

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Teaching English

The little girl who visits me on alternate evenings. She is now becoming more comfortable coming home, and opening up wonderfully. She has begun going to a children's activity center and the question "what did you do today?" opens up a flood that I need to stop with a stern call to studies. She paints excellently, has an astounding grasp of mathematics and a keen interest in the world around her. She is also exceedingly generous and often brings me little gifts like this flower she made.

The problem is, I feel like a fraud when I coach her. I have bitten off far more than I can chew, and it is sheer bloody-mindedness and the reluctance to withdraw what little help I am without offering a better alternative that is making me continue.

I am supposed to be helping her with Maths and English. The Maths she only needs the slightest help with, and the English she needs far more than I can give her. It is not her intelligence that is at fault. It is the education system. Its emphasis on focusing on the exams means that children like her get by with concealing the real state of their knowledge till they are suddenly thrown into the world.

She reads her English text well including words like 'attended', and 'jealous', and 'regularly'. She translates each paragraph correctly into Hindi. All this made me think that she is competent in English. No, she isn't. She has simply memorized the textbook.

Trying to converse with her in English made me realize that she actually has an extremely poor vocabulary. She did not know the meaning of 'you' or 'me'. This has me stumped, because I cannot conquer the large gap between what she knows and what she has learnt by heart. Getting her to translate a simple new sentence,"what is the time?" is impossible, because she tries to translate each word. We end up tied into knots because not only do Hindi and English have their subjects and predicates at different ends, but they also split verbs in a maddening manner.

For a while, I said goodbye to the school curriculum and focused on language games. The BBC games were a little out-of-context, but she had good fun with the graphics and would actually listen and try to understand the instructions. And making words with scrabble tiles was fun too, though that game usually ended with us building a house instead.This starting from scratch would probably yield results given time

But now exams are around the corner. I know that her parents expect that she'll do better because of the time she spends here, and the only way to do that is by dropping this and 'doing her lessons' which is learning the questions and answers by rote..knowing that if the question is worded even a little differently, she does not have the language skills to know what is being asked of her.

I have no idea what to do..should I sit down with her father and explain matters to him? Tell him that it is important she develop basic language skills now, before the gap between her curriculum and her skills is unbridgable? And even if I do, will I still be able to teach her, knowing that she has an utter phobia towards the language? I want her to know that English has an applicability outside the classroom, that there is pleasure in the written word. I show her my books- the few with pictures in them- and plan on buying some appropriate for her soon, but will that be enough? Is it any surprise that I feel like a fraud?

Sunday, July 18, 2010


Remember these guys?
 Well, they have been drinking in sunshine and water in the month I was away, just so they could welcome me in their full splendour:

 and tonight, they fed me.

Buckwheat noodles with pesto.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Back home. Sort of

I am back, in our bone-white bedroom with the pink furnishings. For the rest of the week at least, I will be busy enough cleaning the house and setting it to rights. But no matter, I've had a bath and I've brewed coffee, and all is right with the world.

Not quite. I miss my mum and sis. And my phone mysteriously died even as I plugged it in and rejoiced at the dial tone. So I wont be chatting online with Mian today- which is really, really sad. And I have not brought back half enough gifties for all the people I will meet..

Overriding everything though, is my missing of mum and sis. My niece shouldn't bridle, because I miss her too, but what I am referring to here is a specific missing of the family of my childhood. Partly, it's the weather. The summer-monsoon period is where all my happy childhood memories are. My sis would be home for the study prep- when we would study all day and mum would take us off to a picnic in the evening. In the holidays we would run pretty wild. It was a small town in a safer time, and I would be out either in the garden or in the woods all day long. Later, when summer turned to monsoon, the new year truly began with school and all the associated excitement.

Monsoons along the coast create plenty of stories. We had a super-tall television aerial to 'catch' the broadcast all the way from Panaji. It was like a mast, and in every storm it fancied it had sails. The wind would catch it and rotate it so that it was no longer aligned correctly. If a favourite program was going to be aired, my sis and I would go up to the attic to rotate it again. This meant the untying of it, which meant the removal of the plastic around it, which meant that we would be standing in the rain grappling with a huge, huge, metal pole that was fighting for liberty while my mum would watch the TV and give us directions from below. And always, always, some part of the house or the other would be was a 100 year old earth and wood structure, what do you expect? We loved it.

Monsoons were warmth, too. I would walk or cycle back from school and invariably get soaked. But coming home in a storm was lovely, because I knew exactly what I was coming home to. I would lug my cycle up to the verandah, walk up the dark wood staircase, and enter the kitchen. Amma would be standing there at the gas heating a wad of cloth on a tava. This she would proceed to apply to my head and -after an unceremonious stripping- to my back and chest. I squealed my way through the entire process, but it was a good thing to come home to.

And another good thing was Amma's ovachi amti. A wonderfully warming and tasty curry made of some seeds I can't remember. It's so warming that over-indulgence leads to skin breakouts, but that didn't prevent my sis and me from clamouring for it every cloudy day. I am shocked at myself for not knowing the recipe, but I will ask her today, and I will learn to make it.

But will it matter? Even if I learn the curry, even if I manage to make our home smell like the monsoon of my childhood, it still wont be the same. I want the whole package. I want my sis and I sitting at the table and waiting for mum to come with the curry. I want the three of us to sit and eat it together with mounds of red rice while it thunders outside and we worry about how our plants are faring and whether the jackfruit tree will lose a branch yet again. I want that even if for a little while. And now I've made myself cry.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Of gifts

If things had gone according to plan, I would have now been sitting moping in an airport fingering the chocolate Mian had given me last night. Instead, I am sitting at home watching the bees hovering over the lavender.

The flight out of SEA was delayed, which would have meant me missing my connection and spending a lonesome night in Newark. And so the airlines rebooked me for the next day.

They say it was because of weather, but it was the multiverse acting on my behalf, of course. Just last night Mian and I were lamenting. There was the grief of saying goodbye, of it never being enough time together. For me, there was the usual regret of not having made the most of what time we had. In addition, there were things we needed to do that we hadn't. We still had thank you cards to write, coffee and sweets to buy, bookstores to visit.

Back in Dun, our plants, our landlady, and my office all wait for me. They will wait one more day.

Today, we make the most of this gift we've been given. In two hours, instead of fighting for elbow space on a plane, I will stretch out in the sun and have a picnic lunch with my Mian. Later, as we did three years ago, we will take the bus home with our hands clasped together.

Thanks to Joe Mabel for the wikiphoto

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Two parks

I have been gadding about the last fortnight. The places I visited and the things I did could not be more different and yet, they were very similar.
In reverse chronological order, there was this:

And there was this:

Different, as you can see. And as for the beach, I have many stories to tell, and photographs to share. When it comes to Disney, I need to confess that I went there bristling with cynicism. I am crusty that way, and far too environment-impact-conscious to simply allow myself to relax and take it all in. They air-condition open areas, I griped. The entire tree is plastic, I yelped. There's plastic sheeting under the lawn, I groused.

Thankfully though, the people I went there with loaned me their points of view. One of them was unabashedly enthralled by the whole experience in a way that Walt would have loved. Like a one-woman Disney survival pack, she told us about the various rides, helped us navigate, showed us parts we would have missed, and by simply being with us, helped me look beyond the glitter and  see the magic.

And above all, a small pack of little cousins reminded me that irrespective of the authenticity of an island, the simple pleasure of looking at water with someone you love remains the same.