All is grist…. Wednesday, Aug 24 2011 

Some people are really talented. They will say the wrong thing at every given opportunity. How can that be possible? How can a normal sane intelligent (or not) person say completely nonsensical things always? This post may have been about me – but I can’t remember too many instances any more when I have wished the earth would swallow me up. I must start making notes and then I can do some reporting. For now, this is about this woman who works in the gym I work out. And she keeps me in splits (no pun here) just recounting her conversations to my family and friends.

So I walk into this brand new branch of a chain of gyms on the day after it was inaugurated (I had arranged previously to have it so – I had been in touch with the head of the chain, her able assistant etc.) This lady, who I happened to already know from someplace else said a bright “Hi! Don’t I know you from somewhere?” I had recollected her name and background immediately to my advantage and proceeded to enlighten her. Only it took really long since she did not even recollect the common friend that we both shared.

Be that as it may, after we had got the introductions out of the way, she came out with her gem. “Coming from a work out?”, she asked, seeing me attired in gym clothes and shoes. Considering that she is an employee of a gym, this was not only totally surprisingly but quite funny. I almost tittered, but her vacant look warned me that not much was going on inside that little head. Instead, I decided to be smart but straightforward. “Coming FOR a workout actually.” “Oh, ok”, she said, thoroughly flustered. I mean, what sort of manager will not even expect a customer even though a person suspiciously and most appropriately attired walks through the door? “Oh, so you’ll be my first customer…ahem…I mean the first person I will explain the concept to..ahem” And immediately, “N, will you take her around?” And she vamoosed! So much for first customer! I decided not to be judgmental – at least not just then. Maybe the first customer bit really did fluster her, it was a new job after all and she had just gotten back to work after a sabbatical.

The next couple times I met her at the gym, she asked me where I lived each time. And then, the next time,  ‘Actually, where do you live?” But surprise, surprise, where I live and where I actually live are one and the same! Similar conversations happened. She would ask the same questions two days in a row and apparently not even listen to the answer. Why ask, then? Just to prove to me that she is something she is not – interested in me, an attentive listener etc.? The better half suggested that I should give her different answers each time just to see if she does remember anything. I was still inclined to give her a chance. Maybe she forgot because she has too much to do at home and at work.

But she proved me wrong. One day I was busy with my workout when she came in to work carrying sundry bags and wearing smart clothes and impossible heels. Passing me, interrupting my thoughts, rhythm and my breath, she asked, “Want the music louder, Supriya?” I went all goggle eyed and uttered a disbelieving “Huh?” – meaning “Did I just hear you ask me the most inane question ever invented by mankind?”. But she simple, repeated her earlier question. I gave up and said “No”. I mean, if I did want it louder, would i not ask? And how is it so important, anyway? Clearly, it was her way of saying,” Look what a caring manager I am. I think about you and even anticipate your needs. ” Oh, please. Give me a break.

Then, I had been complaining of workers being in the vicinity of the gym when I was working out. A couple of times I have seen some of them staring at the exercising women – which I suppose is only natural. The gym has been open for a month now, but the little bits of work remain and are tackled on and off. This is quite common when it comes to the construction business – but there has to be a way for them to manage it. At least I refuse to be ogled at by workmen. And this is a women’s gym. It would surely be better if it were a unisex gym – at least the other men are trainers or are working out. So I verbally complained a couple of times and once when there were just too many men around, I wrote an indignant and upset email to the admirable and awe-inspiring woman who owns the gym (who I happen to know through my better half). She promptly wrote back apologizing as well as promising that the repairs would happen in off hours only and marked a copy to a couple of her managers among whom was my friend.

The next time I met the subject of this post at the gym, about 3-4 days later – again in the middle of my workout, she walks up to me and says a bright,”Hello, angry woman.” By then I did not even remember the context of this conversation. Again, I uttered my favorite word around her, “Huh?” She must be convinced I am quite dumb that I couldn’t even get her joke.🙂 But she continued, regardless with her usual vacant look. “I hope you are ok today? No men around..(with a roll of her eyes – which conveyed at least to me – what a stupid woman you are, afraid of working out in front of a few men). We make them go all around the gym when they come.” Followed by a little tittering laugh. “Oh, ok.” I said and ended the conversation there. Was there any point of saying anything to someone who has clearly no understanding power? Maybe I’m being harsh. But she has proved herself to be a complete ass. Just the sorts who you don’t want anything to do with. And the ironic part is that she is only employee I have met there who is oh so not genuine. Everyone else is very down to earth and up front.

And so, I have decided to put my head down and slink away if I find her approaching. Too much of a good thing and all that. Just how can some people be just so…so….transparently insincere and annoying?

Thank god, at least they are good for a few laughs and entertaining conversations.

After all, all is grist that comes to my mill.

Fitness finds a slot too Thursday, Aug 18 2011 

So I joined a gym.

With 2 under fives and housekeeping duties not diminishing in the least, I have managed to take on one more thing into my super crowded schedule. A 90 minute fitness regimen five days a week. It’s been 4 weeks and  I have so far missed not a single work out. I hope it lasts – since I have signed up for a year.

But it had got to a point where I felt that I simply had to do something by myself for myself. I am writing this post mainly for all those women who just cannot or will not find time to add a serious fitness routine to their lives. Ever since I had my second child a little over 10 months ago, life was beginning to resemble a roller coaster pretty closely. All day and all night was usually filled with activity for one kid or the other, the house or sundry other things. Sleep was sporadic, rest rare, organized exercise nil, meals regular but much after the hunger pangs struck, and a constant feeling of being crushed under the weight of the world, of being constantly breathless and just not strong enough to fulfill all the duties that I seemed to have signed up for. Yes – there is a bit of glory in being the mother of 2 kids – one of them a small baby. But I was becoming more and more unfit to be an able mother or able anything else for that matter. Many days were spent feeling dizzy – for large parts of the day. Sleep was not leading to rest or rejuvenation of any sort. And not just the body but my mind  began to have more and more vacant periods, absent-mindedness became a daily occurrence. It all culminated in my feeling like a victim – someone who is under appreciated, over worked and always needing to be on the defensive for things done/not done/done but not properly/things forgotten and so on. Somewhere I knew that I had to help myself come out of the victim state of mind – but I just kept getting more and more into it.

That is when the better half (Big P) stepped in. He figured that since I was unfit physically, I would likely be unfit mentally and it is becoming a vicious cycle. He pushed me to start an organized fitness routine. My first reaction to it was, ” You must be mad! When can I possibly fit that in – I have too much to do as it is!” But he was inexorable. Having taken up running a couple of years ago after years of sporadic exercising, he is a big one on fitness and the consistent need for it. It took a while for him to get into the right track – but now that he has he is a firm believer. He is a recent convert though – a little over two years ago he was one of those who would gorge on fairly unhealthy food, normal food in larger quantities than he needed and did not see the need to add exercise to his busy schedule. It all changed for him when a close family member was struck by a chronic disease which should ideally strike much later in life if at all. He began by disciplining himself on the quantity of food he would consume – nearly brought it down by a third, in fact. He then joined a group which trains for running and started in right earnest and is currently training for his 3rd or 4th half-marathon. Commendable, I think.

And of course I know he is right. Our lifestyles are setting us up for all sorts of chronic diseases like hypertension, diabetes, heart trouble and what not. Whatever we do, we just cannot eat healthy all the time – there is just too much processed component in our food and just too much available – so no rationing ever is required or practiced. Add to that the high stress that seems to be a part of all our lives and the lack of consistent exercise, it won’t be a surprise if at 40 we are much worse off than our parents were at that age. For me, while all this was true, the fact that I was feeling loaded beyond capacity with my two young children was a wake up call. After all, so many people spend their lives looking after a home and two children and a job and are none the worse for it. If I was not able to handle just half of their responsibilities at 36, then I really did need help fairly quickly.

And I got it. I joined a women’s gym where I am closely guided by qualified physiotherapists working as trainers. I signed up for a year fully cognizant of the fact that fitness is a lifetime affair – not a 3 month package at the end of which you are fit and happy for life (I wish). For the first time, I really know how to use those machines in the right way as well as how much to use them. And also for the first time my progress is being monitored in flexibility levels, stamina and energy levels and co-ordination of limbs apart from the usual inches and kgs. I can actually see my stamina increase and feel so much better about life and everything it offers. It really changes your outlook to life if you are not tired all the time or mostly feel unattractive in your mind. Even big P says that I have become more sprightly. So things really are looking up.

However, I must add a word of caution – it’s just not easy to be regular with your workouts.  I have to literally squeeze every minute that I have in the morning to finish all that I need to before hitting the gym. Some days I am a few minutes too late to pick up my daughter from the bus stop, some days I am little too late to feed my son. And i am fairly dependent on a complex system of family and household help to make me accomplish my goal of remaining fit. But as long as I have support I intend to use it when I need it. I refuse to be a martyr or one of those people who want to be independent and refuse to ask for help at any cost. After all my health is at stake here. And I have had to give up quite a few things – regular chats with my friends and family, blogging, reading etc. But hopefully as time goes by I will be faster at what I do and be able to work all these back in my schedule.

The one thing  – let’s say the two things that have been absolutely priceless for me – my innate sense of commitment and constant aggressive support by big P. Without these I may not have been able to manage even these many days of workouts.

Let’s hope I stay on track. And let’s hope that I am able to inspire a few other women to start off this long postponed critical activity.

Why are Pre-Schools not under the ambit of Education? Friday, Jul 15 2011 

When we had our first child, we imagined ourselves to be very evolved parents – who would work hard at their kids’ upbringing. We zealously made sure that we would nourish her body as well as nourish her mind. Much thought was given to the age when she should start school and which kind of school she should go to. Finally, she started school about a year and half ago. But in this time, we have discovered quite conclusively that the whole pre-school education system is a huge can of worms.

The school we had chosen was 12 kms away from our house. In the introductory speech given by the principal of the school, I asked him how kids cope with the distance, to which he said causally that they get used to it eventually. The first year one needs to pick up and drop the kids and then they come by the school van when they are all settled in school. But since this was bothering me a bit – it was my first child and I had no idea how kids adjust to circumstances, I asked him again when we went to meet him personally. There was not a flicker of doubt on his face when he said, all that will get settled and i should not worry. The parents are the ones who find it difficult to adapt, the kids will have no issues etc.

Apart from this, the school which had classes till XII, followed the Montessori method of teaching which is what I had wanted for our child. They said that unlike conventional schools where 40 kids were taught by one teacher, here the size of the class (or environment as they called it) was 20 and 2 teachers were responsible for it. This sounded really good to us. I have always been a sufferer of too many kids in class kind of environment and many concepts have flown right above my head because no one explained them properly to me and I was not bright enough to understand them myself. Then there were things like shloka classes, mini tennis, breakfast and lunch provided in school at a price after class 1, the discouraging of distributing chocolates and toffees on birthdays and many such happy things which we were quite pleased with. So the decision was taken. We got her admitted to this school. Which meant that we paid more than half a lakh as one time admission fees and around 35K as fee for the year. A lot of money if you ask me for a two-year old – but then, we were investing for her future. We wouldn’t have to shift her out till she finished her education. Or so we thought.

Soon several issues cropped up. We didn’t think to check the timing of the school. It started at 8.15am – which meant that our 2.3 yr old daughter had to be up at 6.30am , latest – a not so easy task for someone accustomed to waking up at 9. This didn’t seem like such an insurmountable problem. The school did give the kids time to settle down to the early timing by starting later and gradually making the start time earlier and earlier.But for us, our kid just became more and more tired as the days passed by and was not able to go to sleep any earlier either. On the other hand, we were also tired of going to drop her and then going to pick her up again – a round trip of 9-0 minutes each time. Both tasks was done by all of our extended family for a couple of months each over a period of a year. Including our not-so-young-anymore mothers. And one gent driving through peak traffic and then getting to office really late and very tired, one pregnant self, throwing up either on the way back or on the way to school. And so on. Very messy. We hired a driver, then sacked the driver. Then hired another driver. Then sacked him also. All with very valid reasons. But the turmoil in our home kept mounting.

Then came the illnesses – one after the other and our child would never get sorted between one illness and the next. The sleep deprivation and the exhaustion wasn’t helping. The frequent holidays this school gave for the pre-school kids was another deterrent for the kids to adjust to school. All told some 3-4 months of the year would be off – for some reason or the other – much more than any other preschool around. Then we learned that each class (or environment) actually had 60 kids and 3 teachers plus a couple of trainees. Very different from 20 kids and 2 teachers if one considers the noise levels in a room full of such small kids.Our kid was coming back home having learned wrong words sometimes, odd pronunciations at times – none of which again were issues which couldn’t be sorted later. But when one assumes that the child will actually get more attention individually, and it appears that no one is really supervising them, it is truly upsetting.

Finally we compounded our error by paying up for the school bus for one term just for the last three months of the year, that too for just one way – coming back from school. No monthly payment here. We were still dropping her to school. After three – four days of coming back in the bus, our little p1 started crying at odd times saying she didn’t want to come back by school bus, even when the subject under discussion was something completely unrelated. Of course, we know the theory that kids cry to get their work done. But this was a bit different. The school bus took more than hour to reach back to our place. The last 20 minutes of the journey was done alone by our child since everyone else had already got off. And she would feel sleepy and doze off only to hit her head against the metal bar of the seat. No aayah/akka/didi from the school supervised the buses even though such little kids traveled in them. Soon little p1 started saying she didn’t want to go to school itself. That did it. We stopped her coming back in the bus and I started going to pick her up every day, leaving my then 3 month old baby with my Mom.

We had to now take the tough decision of shifting her out of the school to something nearby since nothing seemed to be working out. life had become pretty bleak then.  The principal refused to meet us on this subject. We were referred to the head of Montessori who said that this had never happened. It depends on kids – and most of them get used to the distance and go happily by bus. And hence they couldn’t be blamed for it. Our child was just a unique case. Baloney.

What would this mean? We would have to look for a new school and hope they will admit her after one year of going to another school. We would lose 70K of non-refundable fees. Which was a very big blow. And we would have to research, run around and race other parents for admissions in class 1 two-three years later. But since, it had to be done, we did it. And two months later, I am happy to convey that it was the best decision we ever took. The constant tiredness disappeared since this school has a flexible “in” time – when the child is rested and has eaten something between 9 and 10 – very humane I feel. The illnesses are not so frequent and they get sorted quickly. There is certainly more attention paid to the child – where the classroom is really 20 people strong. We have had to compromise on things like kids distributing chocolates for birthdays and even the school handing out toffees on special occasions but that seems to be a small price to pay when our voices are heard at least. And there were enough chocolates coming from her previous school too from parents who chose to disregard the school’s advice. There are monthly PTMs to discuss a child’s progress and issues. If I have a problem, big or small, the Principal is very approachable and it is easy to pass on a message or even talk personally to her. In our earlier school, the whole thing was a cloak and dagger affair, where “sir” would not be bothered about trivial issues like parents wanting to take a child out of the school in just a year and would not grant a meeting.

So my question at the end of my long sad tale  is why did we have to lose nearly a lakh to learn what a school is, how it is run and is it okay for our child? Why must we take that decision when the child is merely 1.8yrs old and we have no idea what sort of toddlers they will grow up to be? Specially, in the case of first time parents, one just doesn’t know enough about kids. This situation would have been so for a lot of kids – I don’t think p1 is unique in that sense.

Why should children who clearly live too far away be admitted at all to the school? Shouldn’t they be refused admission on the basis of geographical proximity – at least where it concerns very young children? Shouldn’t the Principal have the interest of the child in mind rather than just  collect admission fees from all the people who can give them?

Shockingly, such was the case with several more parents that we spoke with – not just in our city but in others too. Parents losing more than a lakh in the first year of their child’s education seems to be more and more common. So why exactly are parents the ones to be penalized? Having higher disposable income does not really mean that any one has that kind of money to throw away. Why should the schools be the ones to profit from all the vacant seats which they can rush to fill the following year? Why should the cost of learning be only of the parents’? Why is nobody regulating the kind of education, the environment offered by pre-schools and the kind of fees charged by them all of which are non-refundable?

In a contest between an institution and an individual, will the latter be the loser all the time?

This or That? Wednesday, Jul 13 2011 

It all started with the toothpaste.

In anticipation of assured felicity in our mutual choice of life partner, my better half and I were complacent. After all, we were both Tam Brams, both from Delhi – even West Delhi, spoke a lot of Hindi, had several common friends and connections, were born in the same year and hence had undergone largely the same experiences growing up, had similar families (2 siblings each) and one set of parents etc.

However, we hadn’t realized that the world (or at least Delhi – which in our view was a fair representation of the world) was split right in the middle and he occupied one part and I, the other. We began to see it with the toothpaste. When I saw him pick up Colgate from the shelf of a super market, I casually asked him if he had used Colgate while growing up. His equally casual “Yes” had me dismayed. “But we used Forhans!”, I exclaimed.

“So did you get Times of India at home back then?”, I asked, casually. “No, we were always the Hindustan Time types”, he replied. Shocking! What had I got myself into?

See, the thing is most things then were available in only two brands. You would be one or the other – hardly ever a third. This was quite puzzling really. Why only two main brands? Possibly because at first there was just one and as soon as people had some disposable income there came another brand just to give them a cursory choice. And so there were people who used Forhans and the Colgate users were “them”. The people who read HT were also them to the TOI readers, just like the TOI readers were “them” to HT readers.

So milk could be bought from Mother Dairy by buying tokens and inserting them in slots for the milk to be poured into your vessel from a receptacle. But there was also DMS or Delhi Milk Scheme which came in packs. We never bought the packets. Firstly, for some reason they were more expensive. Secondly, they were only available in the morning or something. We were the Mother Dairy types.

Bicycles – at least one of which each family had, to be shared among all sundry children, would be either Hero or Atlas.

Biscuits would be Britannia or Parle. Scooters would be Bajaj or LML Vespa. Motor bikes would be Hero Honda or Yamaha. Some were even Kawasaki Bajaj – I guess the one thing of which there were three. Cola drinks would be either Thums Up or Campa Cola. In school one would write in royal blue ink or blue-black ink. (using leaky fountain pens, I must add.) Bread could be either Britannia or Modern. And all bread was white bread. Cars would be either Ambassadors or Fiats. This was of course, before the Maruti 800 days. After that there was just that car everywhere. Batteries used in electronic appliances would be Nippo or Ever ready.

I am sure there are so many more examples which I cannot recollect. Our life so far has been an interesting discovery of whether we are this or that. Which one are you?

Little Techies Tuesday, Jul 5 2011 

I often hear proud parents tell me how their son/daughter is so naughty that not a single remote control in their house is in working order. Their cordless phones have been bashed up and are hanging on to dear life by the dint of scotch tape. They have regressed to using the early man mobile handsets which are cheap and hardy, have none of the fancy functions of the latest touch phones and are hence, less prone to quick disintegration.

Having been blessed with a daughter who is amenable to receiving and following instructions, the control freak in me has had a very easy time so far. Just by telling her that toys are for playing and other things are for uncle aunties to use, I have managed to save all our remote controls, cordless/corded phones, cell phones, sundry music players etc. from premature destruction. p1 has been a most easy child to bring up in that sense. However, little p2, by virtue of his gender or DNA or something has already shown a remarkable predilection for all things gadgety/”electronicy”/”wirey” etc. He examines dinky cars closely for several minutes at a time and gives them a couple of thumps to see what happens. Remotes, cordless handsets, mobile phones, our laptop, its external mouse – all are fair game to him. He loves to pull wires, press all the buttons on the phones, drop the remote from a height to see what happens. Not for a second can I watch television without fighting him off for the possession of the remote. Every phone call I make or take appears to be for him since he comes running (crawling really fast, I mean) each time the phone rings saying ka, ka, ka and wants to pull off the said object from my hand. All this is very wearying and also very worrying. I can manage to fight him off when he is just 9 months old. But what happens when he is a bit older and stronger or starts to do these things surreptitiously? I guess, I can only hope that better sense prevails by then and he leaves these things alone.

On the other hand, it is only now that p1 is nearly 4 years old that she is beginning to handle gadgets with ease as well as frequency. She still does not know much of remote controls – and requests us to switch on the TV for her. She can however, use the home theater – she can switch it on, take out a CD, put in a fresh CD and reverse the process when she’s done watching. Of course, her small hands cannot efficiently handle the CDs without damaging them sometimes. But she is quite at home with the phones. She can dial numbers when we say them aloud slowly. She can have a half way coherent conversation with her grand parents when they pick up the phone.  She runs to pick up the phone when it rings and annoyingly, doesn’t transmit the message to us sometimes – simply because she forgets. She can scroll using the mouse and routinely views old pictures on our laptop. She is just days away from learning to click and select items using the mouse. She expertly, unlocks our cell phones with a swipe of her tiny finger and goes to the required menu item by swiping again and again until she reaches the right page. She can choose the talking tom app or the talking babsy baby app and play all the moves. Sometimes, she goes into a tangent by opening a webpage but we quickly step in and stop the process. She knows how to come out the app by pressing the back key. Phew.

I have seen 6 – 8 year olds use iPods, iPads, PSPs with great alacrity. Their parents, like a lot of others,  believe that exposure to technology is good for kids. We should progress with the times. Now it is no longer admirable to hear that one’s child does not identify television characters or cannot use the computer or any video games.

Even though I am no technophobe, somehow I find it hard to agree with them. Even my p1’s 4 years is much too early for the kind of corruption that can result from gadgets. I can’t help feeling that this is a tender age indeed for this loss of innocence. I really wish she’d play with balls and dolls and balloons and puzzles and toys and skipping ropes and read and colour books, draw, or write. She does all this, no doubt. But technology is also a big part of what she wants to do. Needless to add, she takes a cue from us. A large part of our lives are devoted to technology. Thankfully we still read. Real books. She just emulates us as much as she can.

Sad but true. Technology is here to take over our lives. And it is drawing us in earlier and earlier.

A New Friend Saturday, Jun 25 2011 

One of the things I never learnt as a child, teenager, young adult, full adult etc. is cooking. I always thought I will be able to make something when I really need to. And being the youngest child in a family of 5 where all the others were useful in the kitchen does not translate to my being able to even lift a spoon. I remember a memorable occasion when Mom and Dad left me in-charge of dinner and went somewhere. My grandmom was with me, but she chose not to get involved. All I had to do was make potato curry. They even left step by step instructions. Or so I thought. On following them, I realized that whatever I do, the potatoes remained uncooked. I tried cooking them for a long, long time – but they were as stone. Later my Mom explained that water may have been an obvious addition to the mix – which she forgot to mention specifically imagining that any idiot would know it. This idiot certainly did not – and both mom and daughter realized the true state of affairs as far as cooking skills in the youngest offspring of the family were concerned.

Over the years, I managed to pick up little tidbits, a few recipes, some tricks and today I get by. Incidents like where I make idlis with the whistle on the pressure cooker, or burn the jeera etc. are few and far between. My repertoire has also broadened beyond potato curry ( which I can now cook ok). I can now make a fair variety of curries – mainly south indian and a few north indian things. I can also follow recipes intelligently. Somewhere along the line, I managed to pick up making chapathis (from my brother) and parathas (from my sister’s sisters-in-law) etc. But mainly, my cooking consists of the dishes that my mother (and some my father) dictated to me on my request just before I got married and I noted down in a note-book. Of course, I added a few recipes from my sister and a few friends as I went along, I bought a few cook books, I photo copied a few recipes, I downloaded some off the net. Now, slowly but surely, I manage to hold my own in the kitchen.

However, it is very clear to the discerning eye that I am not a cook by choice. I’d much rather be reading, writing or catching up with a long-lost friend on phone or spending time with the kids. It is now a necessity that I must cook. And hence I do. Also, one very huge reason I do, is the better half. You see, P is passionate about cooking and eating. He loves to experiment with new recipes, with his own take of recipes, loves variety in food – wants something different every Friday evening (and his requirement peaks by Sunday evening when he takes matters into his own hands :-)) Not only must food be tasty, it should be nutritious and spicy. Clearly, I could not get by with this gent by being a shirker in the kitchen. And so I pulled up my socks. I even learnt a couple of Indian sweet dishes which I make decently so that some festivals see us hogging on sweets made by my own lily white hands.

Of course, when kids enter the picture, the whole game changes. You need to make things which are both healthy and acceptable to their palates. You need to be able to offer one offs which may not be exactly healthy, but are at least fresh and home-made and hence you know they do not contain chemicals or preservatives or msg or any number of harmful ingredients. All of which I strive (largely unsuccessfully) to do. That’s where cakes made an entrance. It started with us being regular sharers of cakes that my friend Anamika makes. She has been making cakes since she was 4 years old (so she says) and now makes delicious cakes each time we meet for dinner or when there are any birthdays or anniversaries in the family. Of course, it will take years of practice to get that good – but a niggling thought that maybe I can try it began to germinate in my mind. But then, I would have needed an oven – which I refused to buy on the assumption that I would be baking cakes all my life. The micro-wave could have been used for this purpose, but I had no idea then that it could and neither was I much interested to inquire about the matter.

Then I met the mother of my daughter’s twin classmates. One thing led to another and I got to know that a) she could make cakes and even takes people’s orders for cakes. b) she is planning to take classes on baking and c) One can make cakes in a pressure cooker using it as a hot chamber!! This last really interested me and prompted me to think further on this matter. I ordered cakes from her for a couple of birthdays in my family in the next two months. I was so impressed by them (they were delicious, they tasted and looked exactly as if they were made by a large bakery, they did not cost the earth for having been home-made and they were eggless) that I immediately decided to enroll myself into her baking classes – or at least one of them.

Three months later (you see, I am a quick worker, I don’t let grass grow under my feet – at least not much) I did just such a thing after making elaborate back-up plans at home for the family. I emerged 5 hours later with little confidence that I would be able to use my newly acquired knowledge. Over the course of the next couple of weeks I tried to follow the instructions in class and made a couple of cakes. The first one was bordering on intolerable – but could be eaten. The second was quite decent. But both had charred sides and bottom probably due to high heat inside the cooker. But the second cake itself were pretty good and today I went to my second baking class to learn eggless tea-cakes. I also finally learnt how to use the microwave as a convection oven – which is such a shame considering that I have a hi-tech implement in my kitchen for the last 8 years which is mainly used to heat up left over food. I also learnt a few other things like –

a) You need to form a relationship with your baking device, know its moods and mood swings which comes from using it repeatedly in different circumstances.

b) In baking like in most other things in the world, you plan to fail, if you fail to plan. Every ingredient required in the correct form and temperature should be ready before you start the process.

c) You need to be really quick about the whole things if you don’t want to risk any damage to the cake. No place to stand stare, this.

d) Last, which a lot of experienced lot will not agree with, stick to the recipe like glue. At least for the first 25 times. Each step, every quantity, every degree centigrade. It leaves little room for experiments – yes. But it makes for a delicious tasting cake each and every time.

Will I try every one of the cakes that I was taught today, will they come out well, will I be able to make them public – that is send little cup-cakes for my daughter’s birthday to all her classmates which is something that I really want to do( thank the lord that her birthday is 4 months away), or even offer cake as a dessert to friends when they come for dinner – I don’t know.

But I do know that I have found a new friend. And it feels really nice to have someone new and interesting in life.🙂

The Plan Executed Wednesday, Jun 15 2011 

And so several lives have changed forever in the space of a few hours. Not ours – at least not significantly. But of all the parties mentioned in the previous post. My cook and her vast extended family managed to marry their daughter in a little temple near their home in the presence of 50 of their friends and relatives – in fact the whole community living in that area.

That the whole thing will go through was something that I seriously doubted. I mean – what a fantasy land kind of plan. But, that it would take place, and take place so quickly after my first hearing about it was something that came like a bolt from the blue.

When my cook didn’t show today till 45 minutes past her usual arrival time, I called her with half a premonition. It turned out that since the groom elect boy had been warned by someone of his probable fate, he had planned to leave town on Saturday. Poor guy, he left it too late. The entire bunch of people pounced on him today and this boy – who had actually come to the city to do his “inter” (XI, I think) – is now a married man. My cook and all her family are treating this as a very happy occasion – and are even planning to host a dinner tomorrow to celebrate the nuptials to which I have been particularly invited.

An eyewitness said that all the rituals like women singing, all relatives welcoming the newly weds one by one everything was as per a usual marriage. Even the bride (or should I say, the child? – remember she is 14) was crying and refused to come when called – exactly like a real wedding where a girl is sad to leave her mom after her wedding. Everyone was decked up in finery and there was a photographer and videographer to record the event. Well why not? It was a wedding – which is usually the most important event in any community.

All done. All well.

That’s the way the cookie crumbles.

 

The Extraordinary Plan of an Ordinary Woman Monday, Jun 13 2011 

There’s a plan afoot. And I am not sure what to make of it.

My cook came in today and announced that she is thinking of getting her second daughter married. This is a lady (the cook that is) who at 35 is the grandmother of 2 children by her eldest child who is 18. She is also a widow. The daughter in question is 14 years old. I looked at her aghast. You are getting her married so early? She had her answer ready – “We don’t send the girls to her husband’s house now. We will send her after 5 years. (That’s a consolation – she will be middle-aged by then, I suppose, I thought). This will be just the ceremony so that all is fixed.” “But who is the boy?”, I asked. (Like that mattered.) It turned out that she had just given out the tip of the iceberg.

“A couple of boys from my village (in Bihar) have just come here to find work – I like one of them very much. We have all gone one by one and seen him last night without him knowing.”

Now, wait a minute. What was that? Why without him knowing?

“Well, we can’t tell him, we are interested in him marrying our daughter,” she said.

“How old is he?”, I asked suspiciously.

“Must be 17 or so. Just two years older than my daughter. They are perfect for each other,” she replied.

“17? But will his parents agree to get him married?”

“No, they won’t, but we can’t really tell them,” she said with a smile. “If we tell them, I will have to pay at least 2.5 lakhs for the marriage. Otherwise, I can manage the whole thing by paying just 1 lakh. Then, my headache is over.”

In fact, my head was just beginning to ache by listening to her elaborate plan. Another question struck me. “But why will the boy agree to marry without telling his parents? And he is only 17 – he will still have ties to them, surely?” I was proud of an angle she probably hadn’t thought about, the poor woman.

It turned out that I was the one who had been had.

“He won’t agree,” she said, sheepishly. “That’s why we won’t tell him.”

“Then!!?, I asked shocked.

“We’ll just have to take him by force, marry them in a temple and then leave him. Once they are married no one can do anything. His parents will also agree and he will also be okay.”

I sat down quickly before my spinning head completely did me in.

Did I just hear a complete plan of kidnapping a minor, coercing two minors to get married illegally and giving and receiving dowry? Any sane person can find at least 3 instances of breaking the law here. And several more instances of breaking trust, a complete lack of integrity and anything decent that we believe in. But why would this woman – who is otherwise a very nice and wise lady, a good cook, someone whose head is screwed on tight to her shoulders, contemplate such a thing?

I can guess why. Her daughter is pretty (she said – but what she meant was she is fair). She is probably worrying each day about leaving her alone at home while she works long arduous hours cooking in people’s homes. The house they live in, the society and company they keep, though largely made up of people from their own village, still cannot be trusted to leave her daughter unscathed. And she happens to have saved some money – which if not used now, could be frittered away on something before the said girl reaches the age of consent. And she is saving money by marrying without anyone’s consent. (which she doesn’t really have at this point – not 2.5 lakhs, that is).

I know the theory that we live in our own cocoon of safety, hygiene and relative happiness and constant cribs. But what is actually seething in the cauldron that is the world occupied by economically weaker sections of our society is quite startling.

To me, it sounds like the story of a Hindi movie which I have often scoffed at for not being in touch with reality. Maybe, just maybe they are actually based on some people’s real life stories.

Like the story of this desperate mother’s desperate plan to save the honor of her daughter and secure her future happiness.

 

Food Fetish Friday, Jun 10 2011 

“Do you always think about eating?”, asked my boss, N. I was 22, it was my first job straight out of a hotshot management school and my boss had just announced that there will be a meeting at 1.30 – which meant that we would have to leave office at 12.45pm and when is there ever time to have lunch before 12.45 in the afternoon when everyone is really super busy in the buzzing ad agency I worked in? But the time was set by the client – conveniently for he would finish his lunch by then and he just has to step into another room for the meeting. So, this was N’s counter question to me when I exclaimed in dismay,”But when will we have lunch?”. It stopped me in my tracks. I realized that day that I really do think about eating a lot. (not eating a lot, but think about eating a lot :-)) I accepted the fact that the stomach will get empty from time to time and must be filled at the very moment it requests to be attended to, not three hours later or the following day. There was a valid reason for this kind of mature thinking. There were a couple of days when my boss and the client would fix meetings which would be nothing short of cruel. Annual marketing plans would be all day meetings – one would assume with food thrown in. But here were people who would expect you in their office at 9am after having breakfast presumably, and stop for lunch but order no lunch for you, but go into cubicles to eat from their tiffin boxes leaving you to fend for yourself in the best possible way and finish the meeting at 6.30 – so that all you’ve had the whole day would be a couple of teas or coffees. Actually, you are not even hungry after such a day. You forget to feel anything. And hence, I decided to organize my life around meal times. I would never accept meetings which were bang in the middle of lunch, or so early in the morning that breakfast would be impossible for a hostler and a long commuter.

I was brought up to respect meal times – all meals at the prescribed time on holidays and on school days – all meals at the same time everyday as per school schedule and all meals at home where the whole family was present and would eat together. Always. No exceptions. If nothing else, I have carried with me this legacy as well as a robust digestive system. So when I grew up it was obvious that I would be married into a family of fairly food obsessed individuals, populated by an MIL who finishes making breakfast and lunch by 9am, dinner by 4pm, an FIL who will ask what’s for dinner while having lunch – not because of any desire to eat, but more to get the job over and a better half who will ask what’s for the next 6 meals while having the present one.

And old habits die hard. To this day, all our outings are fixed around meal times, with elaborate plans of where we will eat and when and what if anything will the kids get to eat there. We are so obsessed with food that we have been known sometimes to plan even what we will order at a restaurant or which snacks we will choose when the vendors pass us by during our infrequent train journeys.🙂

Our children are turning out the same. At least our older daughter is. It is easy to improve her mood – just give her something to eat. She has been known to claim, “Ammaaa, I feeling ungry.”, about half an hour after the last meal. She fills a tiffin box full of goodies for any car journeys we undertake – be it a 5 minute journey to a nearby vegetable shop. And starts eating from it, 2 minutes after we start from home.

So it didn’t surprise me much when the other day, the better half said, just after a heavy lunch, ” I’ll leave in 15 minutes and when I get back at 4.30pm, I’ll have my coffee.”

What can I say. We live to eat, no two ways about it.

Book Review: “Worth Every Gasp” by Anamika Mukherjee Thursday, May 19 2011 

I am not really a traveler. I mean, not really a traveler who wants to embrace all the inconveniences that traveling to unknown, uncomfortable places affords. In that sense, I am a pampered traveler at best – going by flight or train and sometimes by car (when I am thoroughly car sick), staying at places which at the very least have all creature comforts and at the most will have much luxury. So reading about a three-month solo travel to the mountains by the author would not have been my first choice. However, I simply had to read “Worth Every Gasp” by Anamika Mukherjee for a lot of reasons which I won’t go into now. The best reason was that I usually enjoyed reading what she writes and the way she writes it. Reason enough to seek the sustained entertainment offered by a book.

And I was not disappointed. The publishers, Prakash Books, have done a good job of the synopsis at the back and it had me hooked from the word go. I was keen to start off right away and I did – and read the book in about a week even though it was a trifle short as books go, at 165 pages. (mainly because I could manage only about 4 tranches of 10 minutes each in a day.)

The book, for those who came in late (like me) is about a ‘lone woman’s journey in the Himalayas’. It starts with how the author gets seriously sick at her first attempt at trekking and does not let that deter her from trekking alone as previously planned by her when she was hale and hearty. We are taken from Leh to Manali and back several times in the book which is divided largely into two parts – the lone trek from Leh and the group trek from Manali with a couple of short treks thrown in. All through, the descriptions of the journey are alternately filled with humor of a self-deprecating variety, the stark reality of the treatment of women in our dear country and an almost poetic account of the beauty of the Himalayas. The endless energy of the author in seeking maximum pleasure out of her journey is also evident and surprising for someone who is clearly not in her teens.

Some parts are really hilarious – I loved her description of her relationship with Ballu, her account of the bear conversation with a passing shepherd, the bus journey peppered with discussions of the scatological kind – specially the rescue of her beloved maglite, her outrage over Kunfun, the porter and his antics through the trek they hired him for and each of her “What do you want two rooms for” conversations at various hotels. But my favourite was the fireside conversation with the group of trekkers where she explains that she was seriously ill just a couple of weeks ago and is now in the middle of a trek all alone without her friends or family. Her basking in the glow of her heroic comeback describes accurately what I would have done in her position and laughed secretly over it all.🙂 Good fun to read.

When I first read the book, I was left a little dissatisfied with her all too brief account of pulmonary oedema and her tryst with it. I needed more details. But the details did come – a bit later when she recollects the trek and the illness when she goes back to the same place a second time around. This makes for a nice dramatic interlude.

What I really liked about the book was the emotional skein running through the book – of the author’s need to get out of the city and figure out the mountains, by herself if need be (or maybe preferably), her burning desire to face her fears and not give up in the face of any adversity however extreme. Not for a moment does she deny that she is not as blase about her previous trek ending in an illness as it appears at first glance. This very human-ness of the author touches the reader in me – sitting miles away in the comfort of my home. It is this that many authors miss infusing their book with. It gets the readers to identify with the protagonist, aspire to be like her and also really enjoy her experiences.

I must mention one downside here though – the very conversational style of her writing. It makes the book a little low-key at several places. Almost like – you have to know the author to really understand what she’s going through. Perhaps when she writes books which do not star her own self, she will be able to do this. But maybe, she doesn’t really want to write stories which are not her own.

Bottom line – travel enthusiast or not, read this book to enjoy it and get to know the Himalayas better – whether you intend to go yourself or not.

As for me, two things were very evident once I finished this book. Himalayan treks are so so not for me. And that I am awaiting this author’s next eagerly.

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