Monday, February 03, 2014

Yours, Mine and Theirs

Amit and I have very distinct ideas about books and their ownership. I think books must be allowed to roam free. They must be given to friends, so that they can freely mess with other people's minds. I love stumbling into my books in friends’ houses. By equal token, if I borrow a book of yours, I might just forget I did, and I do believe that's not a crime. Because, honestly, if we guard our books too much, how will they ever meet new people? 

Since I also v. much love the act of buying books at random, I have to give them away so that my house doesn't crumble under their weight. And then sometimes, with some books I adore, I really feel that if you’re my friend, I couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t share this piece of literature with you, right here, right now. You may get on with your life; but if I don’t press that book into your (possibly reluctant) hands, I’ll never forgive myself.

Amit, on the other hand, would like to build a stack of lovingly-gathered books. Then he’d like to climb on it and sit there and be watchful, while his friends admire the stack. It’s a healthy enough sense of collector-ship, except he takes too much joy in the sheer possession, I often tell him. Don't get me wrong – he's a lovely, generous man, and he'd give you the shirt off his back; he'll gift friends books, and lend them books, but in his head, unlike in mine, the 'nice distinction between meum and tuum', as P G Wodehouse puts it, hasn't been completely wiped out with a water-soaked sponge.

And then comes the moment when I want a particular book. I miss it, I need it. And I know we have it somewhere. So I indignantly ask Amit where he put it. Gallantly, he looks for it, he doesn’t find it, we dredge our memories, and of course, flashback to scene of the wife forcing book into bashful guest’s bag. I look shame-faced; Amit is pissed off at the wasted time and at my now-what-will-I-do expression. The thing is, when the book’s gone, no one misses it as much as I do.

Between us we've managed to accumulate a decent stack of children’s picture books – old and new. And the pride of the stack is certainly our little trove of vintage picture books (Indian, Western and Russian) that Amit has bought over the years, trawling used bookstores in the cities he visits. The collection is safe and has grown – probably because he has tucked them away in a cabinet way below my limited bending-range. There's no way I can force unwitting children to take them home. Out of my reach, they seem to have bred and had babies.

We love American vintage picture books, but we grew up in India in the 70s. Our childhoods (tragically TV-less) sparkled with Russian picture books. Being a ‘friendly’ country, the Soviet Union pumped the most beautiful children’s books into India. They were meticulously translated and printed. While American books of the '60s and '70s were beautiful, some pictures in the Soviet books bring back visceral memories of being small and entirely fascinated by a specific image. Often it's an image I've clean forgotten – a memory I never knew I had. But when I see it now, in that newly-bought-old-picture-book, it's back. Sudden, sharp, evocative, and smelling of being 7-years-old again.

Two of the books we recently found did that for us – The Live Hat for me, and the The Brave Ant for Amit. Here are images from some lovely old picture books (uploading pics on Blogger is not fun – or satisfying!).

A Live Hat by N NosovTranslated from the Russian by Fainna Glagoleva. Illustrations by I. Semyonov. Progress Publishers, 1977. I had completely forgotten this book, but seeing it had me reeling with memories of a summer evening and mum giving it to me – she'd bought it on the train coming home from work. I took it with no sense of gratitude at all, and lost myself in it immediately. That picture of the crawling hat was genuinely stirring and a bit scary! Lovely, crystal clear images of the entire book here. I love the one of the boys throwing potatoes at the hat – but you'll have to go to the link to see it!
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The Brave Ant by Tatiana Makarova. Illustrated by Gennadi Pavlishin. Translated into English by Fainna Glagoleva. Written circa 1940, English translation: Progress Publishers, 1976. When we found this book, Amit gasped because it brought to mind his many attempts to draw out the luminous pictures as a kid. Truly, my image doesn't do justice to that respectable mosquito and his leaf-letter! Try this page for a few images from the book. You'll have to scroll down, though.

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Life with Grandmother Kandiki (below) by Anna Garf. Illustrated by Victor Duvidov. 0828511829 In wraps. Translated by Joy Jennings. 
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Gallant and Dopey, Pages from a Dog's Scrapbook, by Marjorie Turner. Raphael Tuck & Sons, Tuck Books (more about them and their lovely postcards later!). 1930. Please head to Cyndee Marcoux's page for see some really good quality images of each page. Two below are from her pinterest page.
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The White Deer, (below) a Latvian Folk Tale. Translated from the Russian by Fainna Solasko. Illustrations by Nikolai Kochergin. Progress Publishers, 1973. The most jewel-bright of all the books we have!
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The Wolf who Sang Songs by Boris Zakhoder (below). Illustrated by V Chizhikov and Translated by Avril Ryman. Progress Publishers, 1973. You can see beautiful scans of whole pages of the comically-drawn book here.


And then the most traditional and yet bizarre-looking of them all, Alyonushka, (below) Russian folk tales translated by Irina Zheleznova and Bernard Isaacs. Illustrated by Igor Yershov. Progress Publishers, 1989.

The orange octopus acting as the sea-god's mount is so unusual and so much fun – as lovely as these warriors flying on horses against the sunset!

While hunting for these books online, I ran into another visceral-memory-stirrer-upper. The dusty, yellow-blue drawings for Masha's Awful Pillow. Those pictures of Masha kicking the pillow, her bright blue bed, and Masha sitting next to a kennel are, well, things I didn't know were lurking in my head. Now to find the actual book :) Yay! More book-crawling needed!

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Let's ban longing

A post after so long, and sadly, tis a poetry :) Something I wrote a couple of months back, and didn't immediately set on fire because I sort of liked it... and stewed over and fretted over and hemmed and hawed and backfooted over it. I like it because persistent rain and water pouring in through walls is a peculiarly Bombay experience, where it's like the rain takes over our lives - and our homes and our roads - for a bit. 
I think it's a sad poem, and I rarely write sad, so I like it all the more for that. 
Tell me what you think. 

Let’s ban longing.
No more should it be allowed to seep into the mind like rainwater that comes in from the poorly-built window next to the porous wall.
Use newspaper, quickly, in sheaves, to suck up the water that seeps in without pause,
And hope that the rain, with its delirious smells, will stop.
But rain, like longing, knows how to defeat you into quiet hopefulness.
It knows the power of perfume and persistence,
So that finally, all there is, is abject surrender to the wetness.
Let’s ban longing.
Let’s say no more of this shit.
Let’s stop the clouds from gathering droplets into themselves
And swelling up till they can hold it in no more.
Let’s sit by our feeble selves and protest.
Let’s ban clouds from gathering and letting go of their promise at our windows.

Wednesday, September 04, 2013

Of history, roads, mother and coffee

Taking my mum on an outing is not an easy task. She has a dodgy knee, and in the interests of not getting in the way of frolicking youngsters like Amit and me (both over-40, fairly unfit, and not given to frolics), she refuses to join us. The dogged resistance has lead to such resplendent fireworks between us in the past, that of late, when she says ‘No’, I just nod and move along.

This time, I made her an offer she couldn’t refuse: a trip into South Bombay on the recently-inaugurated Eastern Freeway, a project that she, as a Civil Engineer with the Govt of Maharashtra, had actually been involved with from 1990 to 92, and at different points in her career intermittently. (For the longest time, the GoM had just two women engineers in its employ, and mum was one of them. She’s all kinds of brave, efficient and awesome – and it’s not her fault that she happened to spawn a lazy daughter!)

Anyway, so mum and I and young N set off to South Bombay via the Freeway. I’ve been on it about seven times so far, and each ride is like a trip on a giant wheel for me. I don’t actually stick my head out of the car window and scream ‘Whheeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!’ as we zip along that smooth, smooth road – but that’s only because I don’t want my driver to realize exactly how much of a loon I am. Inside my head, though? That’s exactly what I’m doing.

But why this uncontrollable urge to scream, you ask? Because a trip from our neck of the woods in Chembur to South Bombay by the other route, via Sion and Dadar, takes 60 minutes on a good day, and 90 on a bad. The route is clogged with traffic and is long. Plus, what with the potholes having annoying bits of tarred road still stuck on them, the going is far from smooth. 

The Eastern Freeway ride, miraculously, brings down our travel time (on good days, and during the off-peak hours) to 25 or 30 minutes. And its not just fast, it’s also a spectacular and scenic tour of a stunning, almost steampunk narrative of Bombays recent history. To me, the route's like a visual fossil of everything that was unique about this city once – its robust manufacturing and industrial past, and its varied mini ecosystems  none of which seem relevant anymore. Inevitably, the stretch will be ‘opened up’ to builders, so that we can have one more ugly, anodyne Hiranandani, BKC or Bhakti Park.

But for now, Im in love. I love the tunnel you zip through to enter the Freeway (‘Like in Temple Run!’ N shouts); and I love the patches of mangroves and salt pans that still survive (once such a common sight). But most of all I love the wet, industrial-looking, moss-covered structures of mysterious use and vintage around Sewri and Cotton Green. The giant Mazgaon Dock – which I’d never seen before – has impossibly tall cranes and through them, I love the glimmers I catch of what I’m assuming is the Arabian Sea. Finally, you’re gently lowered on to P D’Mello Road, where of course, reality, potholes and traffic jams await.

Everyone who has been on the Freeway oohs and aahs. I do too. All seven times that I’ve been on it I’ve gushed, and I will, I promise, gush some more in the future. I refuse to let the novelty wear out. ‘There’s Wadala!’ I shout, ‘Sewri!’, ‘Parel!’, ‘Cotton Green!’, ‘Dockyard!’ – it’s like going to Fort on my favourite Harbour Line train, only more dream-like because you’re actually flying over it all, and none of it smells of fish – or bodily functions.

Anyway, back to the beginning of this trip. Mum was strangely silent as we turned the roundabout at Chembur and rode the ramp to the entrance of the tunnel. You must know that my mum is an extremely positive and cheerful soul normally. She's forever the one making people laugh and has made a religion out of spotting silver linings in passing clouds. Just as we rolled up the ramp, I couldn’t stop myself from asking, ‘Amma? So? What d’you think?’ I was expecting her to smile, and to feel, oh, I don’t know? A measure of excitement, perhaps.

But she was strangely grim. She pointed out to a large residential building. ‘That thing wasn’t supposed to be there because it was on the path of the Freeway. We didn’t allow them to go ahead with it. But later, they bribed someone...’ All her work life, mum had dodged the bribe bullets by the simple expedient of not taking any. It sometimes made things awkward at work, but being a gentle, very pragmatic soul, she managed to opt out without ruffling too many feathers. 

We drove on, and mum continued to look stoic. She pointed out the salt pans to N and commented on the boards put up next to the oil storage tankers to block them out. Finally, in an injured tone, she said, ‘This Freeway took too much time to come up. In a developed country, it wouldn’t have taken so long. It should have been ready by the ’80s or the ’90s’. Ah. Professional angst. 

When my brother and I were growing up, mum often told us about the Freeways and East-West link roads that Wilbur Stevenson Smith, the traffic engineer from Harvard, had planned in the ’60s, keeping in mind how Mumbai would grow and what could be done to decongest it. Of course, like all un-dutiful children, we barely registered anything she said, till, now, here we were, riding on a part of that vision. And sensing her frustration – finally. Smith’s ambitious plans are only just coming together, in disjointed bits and pieces, rather like homework being done by a reluctant and stubborn child. (To know more about how the ‘Eastern Island Freeway’ was part of a set of roads planned in the ’60s, read this Mumbai Mirror article.)

All in all, I was feeling a bit deflated by the time we finally descended onto P D’Mello Road, glad, in some ways, to be back on the familiar potholes of Mumbai. We quickly wrapped up the one errand I had to run (yes, with the Freeway being here, that’s how we roll, yo!). And then, much to N’s excitement, we headed – as promised – to the new Starbucks at Horniman Circle.

I love how the Starbucks there looks. So grown up, unlike, say, a Costa. No peppy reds and forced cheer. All high ceilings, rough floors, mud browns, yummy, faux-outpost-feel. The sort of place where Indiana Jones would go to grab a coffee if he was in the mood for it between crashing a temple or two. That sort of a place  without the bullets, the whips or the Nazis. So we enter, me all set to go weak-in-the-knees once again at the sight of the distressed decor inside the heritage building. I want to point out to the ceiling height and the intricate wooden jaali work on the arches to mum, and I just know she’ll admire them as well...

Or so I imagine. ‘Why is it so... so... old-looking?’ she asks. Suddenly I’m conscious that everything is a slight variation on the same dull shade of brown, that the chairs don’t match, and that the lighting is warm but on the duller side. I pay for the coffees and quiches and am told that I’ll be called soon. In a few minutes, a blood-curdling yell rings out: ‘ANITAAA!’ Startled, I jump out of my seat, and finally, mum cracks a smile; in fact, she laughs out aloud. ‘It’s like how they call out to you when you’re being summoned at the High Court! Hahaha!’

I have the good sense – from previous experience – to hide the bill. And fortunately, our food tastes fresh and good. But a couple of things are still bothering mum. There’s a map of the world in the centre of the room. The map is made of jute and is appliquéd, and is meant to look old and worn. ‘You cant see a thing! Whats the use of it?’ Its just decorative, I suggest. Decorative?’ she asks, utterly gobsmacked that badly-embroidered jute can be a part of someone’s idea of interior decoration. 

Below the pointless map are sacks of coffee. ‘Why are there sacks right in the middle of the room? Is that where they store the coffee?’ No, I think not, I reply. ‘Then why keep them right there in front of everyone?’ I tell her – and cringe as I do so  that it’s part of the look of the place’.

Meanwhile, piqued by all this talk, N gets up and strolls over to the sacks. I watch as she gives them a couple of tentative pokes and then looks puzzled. She ponders over it all for a bit and then runs back to us saying, ‘It isn’t full of coffee! It’s full of pillows!’

Mum turns to stare at me. Pillows?? I start to feel like I’m having a brain freeze, just a little, because I know the world is completely out of whack for this 70-year-old engineer, and how, honestly, do I even begin to not explain but justify the concept of ‘faux’ to her? At that moment, I’m not sure I could explain it to myself. I put out a hand and said, ‘Amma, it’s because they want it to look like they are storing sacks of coffee here, but they don’t want to actually store the coffee in there. Thats why they are stuffed with pillows.’ 

Mum continues to look puzzled. I begin to feel a bit worn around the edges. But miraculously, the interlude seems to have cheered her up enormously. And Im happy to report that we had a smashing, altogether pleasant ride back home. 

Saturday, August 03, 2013

Sssslip into ssssilent sssslumber...

The half-woman-half-beast, scary and yet pathetic somehow, hesitated at the door of a bus. Suddenly, there was the deafening thunder of stampeding cattle. The sun set in a black-and-white sky, and two large, ghostly eyes stared down; bearded goons appeared; there was the helpless pall of death, and I woke up terrified and howling in the dark, inconsolable. I was 7 or 8 years old and most of these mixed-up images were from a movie I’d watched a week ago, called Do Aankhen Barah Haath.

Do Ankhen... was V Shantaram’s 1957 classic on the rehabilitation of criminals. It was visually powerful and dramatic in a grand, pull-out-your-guts-and-roll-in-them way. I’d been raised on the tepid diet of 1970s Indian television, and the film didn’t so much blow my circuits, as it smashed them and danced on the pieces. My Do Ankhen... nightmare continued to terrorise me for a year or two.

My parents were very concerned – and very sleep-deprived. They tried everything – from a gold bracelet with the hair of a temple elephant woven in, to rubbing my head in circles, and asking my friends who told me ghost stories to stop (they didn’t, of course). When nothing else worked, in desperation, my non-religious mom told me the story of the reformed criminal Valmiki, and how hard it was for him to say the word ‘Rama’. Would I like to chant the word to induce sleep? I did, and went a step further: I chanted one ‘Rama’ for myself and one for my grandmother, who, being old, was a poor sleeper too. I bet she slept off faster than me though!

There’s no denying the fact that parents love their children most when they are fast asleep. And they’ll try everything to reach that state of pure love. Including bedtime rituals, which are, really, a sweet way to give someone the bum’s rush into slumber. But like me, most parents also love bedtime rituals, because after the chaos of getting kids changed, there’s that special time when it’s just the two of you, and the deep connection that is created.

Warm milk, stories, read-alouds, chats, prayers – there’s a whole spectrum of things parents try. Of course there are blunders aplenty (what would this column be without those?). My cousin regrets having got his baby addicted to being rocked to sleep. She was heavy, and their backs paid for the indulgence. 

A friend’s baby held his mother’s neck while nursing, and wanted his back patted too. If mom did the patting wrong one night, he’d insist she get it right. The habit persisted and now that he’s 9, the neck-holding-plus-back-patting has his parents annoyed sometimes, and at others, happy to still have a physical connection with their son.

When my daughter was little, we shared the bed with her and a minimum of four dolls. In the middle of the night, one doll would invariably go missing. She’d wake us up to search for Komoika, Patty, Bumble or Kitty, and I’ll say this: it’s not easy telling one idiotic doll from another at 2.48 a.m!

My favourite bedtime-ritual-story features an old friend who, at 4 years, would go up to her great-grandmother at bedtime, and watch admiringly as the old lady rubbed a black nut-like herb on a stone. The resulting paste was applied to the toddler’s eyes, along with a good dose of castor oil. Next morning, the little black-eyed-pea’s eyelids would need a solid wash before they could open, but she refused to stop the practice.

Rituals reassure us and connect us to one another. For a bit, they calm the beasts that rage inside our heads, and serve as a psychological bridge from one state to the next. I love hearing about my daughter’s day and enjoy her questions. But there’s no denying that the moment I love the most is when she pauses mid-sentence and declares peremptorily, ‘Now I’m sleepy!’. And then proceeds to go right off to sleep.

This article first appeared in the DNA of March 24, 2013.

Saturday, May 04, 2013

Losing my tongue

In Hindi films from the ‘70s till the late ‘80s, the new-bahu-of-the-house made it her job to dismiss traditions. She refused to breastfeed her children for ‘the sake of her figure’ (SHUDDER!); went to parties; taught her kids the twist and the rumba; threw out her weeping in-laws, and, significantly, foretold a switch from the matrubhasha to English.

My cousins and I watched these films enthralled. They wept; being younger, I just gaped. Somewhere these films mirrored our lives, because in the ‘70s, as second-generation immigrants of a certain class in Mumbai, we were already losing crucial links with our mother tongue, Malayalam. We went to English medium schools, spoke Malayalam only with older people, and parodied the ‘Mallu’ accent. We weren’t taught to read and write Malayalam because we already had English, Hindi, Marathi, and later, French, to deal with.

This shedding of the mother tongue would return to fascinate me years later when I studied Linguistics and learnt about language loss and language ‘death’. When individuals and communities slowly let go of their mother tongues, a point may be reached when no one speaks the language any more. Many Indian and world languages have ‘died’ for socio-political or economic reasons.

In 2010, Boa Senior — the only surviving speaker of one of the Great Andamanese group of languages called Bo — passed away. With her death, her ancient language, full of stories, songs and myths, is now extinct. With every language that dies, we lose a part of our shared history.

Today, fewer people in cities teach kids their mother tongues - their reasons range from the socio-economic, to the psychological and the political. I’m often asked why parents should teach a child Marathi, Punjabi, Kannada or Oriya when they have to go to school and study English or Hindi. It’s a perfectly valid question. I am a Malayalee who reads, writes and thinks in English. My husband is a Gujarati, who is literate in his language. My mom and I speak good Marathi, and both of us read it too. Hindi is all around us — in films, songs and casual conversations.

But we still screwed up. We just couldn’t keep up with the simple rule of teaching babies multiple languages: one person talks to the baby in one language exclusively. This way there is no confusion; the child knows that this specific ‘code’ or structure will work in this ‘domain’. And, miraculously, most children can learn multiple codes and structures. Since ours was a mixed marriage where we also worked together from home, English became our lingua franca, and unfortunately, by default, our child’s mother tongue.

Teaching kids multiple languages does not impair their intellectual growth. In most cases, the more ‘codes’ and structures you impart to kids — without confusing them — the sharper they tend to be. Being multilingual can delay age-related mental decline, gives you a better ‘ear’ for languages and better communication skills. Most importantly, it fosters linguistic diversity and gives children a deeper understanding of different worldviews.

But as a parent, I firmly believe in going with your child’s specific developmental needs. If your environment has many languages and your child is coping well, that’s great. But if there is a problem and the doctor suggests you to stick to one language only, please follow that advice. To get our kid past a speech hurdle when she was two-and-a-half, we were asked to use just one common language: in our case, English. Today I’m sad she doesn’t speak Gujarati or Malayalam, but I’m relieved we got past that logjam.

To preserve the world’s fragile linguistic diversity, UNESCO celebrates February 21 as International Mother Languages Day. Do your bit for linguistic diversity — talk to your kid in your mother tongue a little. You’re not just teaching her words — you’re sharing a whole history and a unique worldview!

This article appeared in the DNA of Sunday, May 6, 2012.

Friday, December 28, 2012

A day in the life of...

When the British Council had a proper library in Bombay, with a proper (and delightful) children's room, we made a trip once a month. And joyously let N play with the various (germ-filled, no doubt) soft toys and big books there. There was this one picture book I spotted, which was drawn like a comic book, with panels, that were close, neat, busy, and overwhelmingly red-pale-yellow-and-black in tones. It didn't look like any of the other white-space-filled picture books we'd seen, and I took a look. It was Father Christmas (1973) by Raymond Briggs.

Now normally, sentimentality tends to sicken me, and so I keep away from books full of silly tropes on festivals. But this one seemed strange, with a grim, definitely unsentimental Father Christmas (and from now on, I'll just call him FC) on the cover. I think what got me was the thermos in the satchel. When the book came off the lending list and on to the withdrawn one, it came home with us!
Full of what a critic called a 'gloomy magic' the book begins with FC waking up from a dream of a sunny beach, slamming his alarm clock which shatters the warm dream, and realising that 'bloomin' christmas' is here again. He is a curmudgeon, and sets about doing his chores carefully, grumpily, sincerely. Feeding his pets - a cat, a dog, a few reindeer, making his tea and his breakfast, packing sandwiches and coffee in a thermos for the journey. 

 He flies over all sorts of weather (mostly Western) and lands in odd places like sloping roofs with inconvenient chimneys (from the sleigh-parking point of view) and small vans with no chimneys (from the entering point of view). And igloos ('At least there are no chimneys!'). Not to mention the pain of getting gifts into a lighthouse.

The details in the book are what get you - the small things, the large, the ordinary, the quotidien. Like FC sitting on a roof, eating his sandwiches and listening to the weather forecast. Like him getting caught among bloomin' TV aerials (remember it was written in 1973 :)) and tripping on bloomin' cats.  He gets a cold, has to climb stairs, stairs, stairs, and finally, someone has the brains to leave him some alcohol.

When he is nearly done, he runs into a milkman. The milkman was Briggs' tribute to his own father, a milkman, who had a similar duty - one of waking up early, and setting off to make deliveries - every day, come rain, shine or snow. All of FC's troubles with snow - even his morning chore-doing - were Briggs' father's too.

When he gets back homes, finally, FC is a sooty, cold, tired man. But he does his chores - feeds the animals, keeps them warm, then bathes, puts on some talc, curls up with travel brochures featuring warm places, cribs about his presents and finally, makes himself dinner!
Then he gets to bed, gives his dog and his cat wrapped gifts and looks at the reader and barks out a 'Happy Blooming Christmas to you, too!'
I'm not always a great fan of Briggs' work, and often, the palette leaves me cold - perhaps because the colours and treatment belong to such a different cultural context. But Father Christmas is unique. It's warm, it's detailed, it talks of a working-class life. It is like a stubborn little bubble squeezed into a hard day - all the realities of a working-class day, with a little dream inside it - of warmer places, other joys, and of course, of present comforts...

The other Briggs N really took to was Fungus the Bogeyman (1974), so full of dirt and grime and boils and slime, that I wonder what appealed to her. But appeal it did. Again an amazing book, drawn with so much love and detail and colour, that it seeps into your mind (yes) and makes you smile! 
If you want to see all the pages of Father Christmas, go to Michael Sporn's page, though I strongly recommend finding the book in a library first. Or buy it here (I don't like this cover though!) . To read more on Fungus, click here

Monday, September 24, 2012

Of Readers and their Rights

For those of us who work from home, Facebook is the sort of space that gives us the feeling that we don’t. It’s like the office canteen: we go there to see who is ‘wearing’ what today; we smile at how pretentious our colleagues are; and we flaunt our flashy new phones, pens, cars, cats and children’s first prizes. It’s the 15-minutes-in-the-sun that Andy Warhol promised us — outside of TV.

And every now and then, things of beauty and innate value pop up on Facebook. For stay-at-home moms like me (and non-moms as well) it’s a window into magic which happens elsewhere in the world of art and technology. Thanks to Facebook shares, I’ve seen lots of lovely films, art, craft, writing – and cakes! One of the nicest finds recently has been a 20-year-old book called The Rights Of A Reader by Daniel Pennac. A friend shared a link to a hilarious promotional poster of the book drawn by Quentin Blake. The title was intriguing. Whoever heard of rights for readers? I ordered the book to find out.

A writer of children’s books, Pennac is also a parent and a teacher. And The Rights… grew from his experience of trying to inspire a bunch of not-so-bright teenagers to read. Pennac examines three fundamental issues: how much small children love hearing stories; how wonderful it is when they discover they can put letters together and actually read; and how between parents and schools, we push kids away from books in the years that follow.

Pennac’s tip for getting kids — of all ages — to read is simple: read to them. If you are a reader, chances are someone read to you when you were small. This is instinctive with most parents. Present reading to the child as an engaging activity that you love, and the child will grow to love it too. I know this is true because my mom patiently read to me till the day I took the book out of her hands.

There are habits that foster reading — we all evolve these instinctively for ourselves as readers. Pennac calls these ‘reader’s rights’. It’s just that when we become parents and teachers, we forget them. Readers, for instance, have the right to skip pages. We all do this, but not many of us like our kids doing so. Also, readers have the right to not read and the right to read anything – anywhere. Even comics while sitting on the pot.

There are many parental habits vis-à-vis reading that Pennac disapproves of. Monitoring children’s reading is one, as is the need to test kids and ask them to ‘describe’ what they just read. I’m guilty of both. Because I want to be a part of her life, I often ask my daughter what happened in the book she just read. She loves telling me about them on some days, and on others, she does not, probably because as Pennac observes, ‘Reading is a retreat into silence… it is about sharing, but a deferred and fiercely selective kind of sharing’.

I love my kid reading Horrid Henry, Judy Moody and Junie B Jones. I never insist on ‘the classics’ or even Enid Blyton. But she wants to read Harry Potter — which her father and I think is too emotionally sophisticated for her. Growing up, our parents never ‘curated’ our reading. I find it odd that we should so instinctively want to control hers. I read James Hadley Chase, Nick Carter, Sidney Sheldon alongside the classics — one kind of book only sharpening my appreciation of the other.

To some of us reading is a special kind of oxygen. We need it. Others don’t. As parents and educators, our job is simply to enable kids to read. Whether they read later or not is their choice. As Pennac reminds us, while it’s fine for a child to grow up and reject reading, ‘it’s totally unacceptable for someone to feel that they have been rejected by reading’. Wise words indeed!

This post first appeared in the DNA of June 10, 2012.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

How corporate practices can shape nations

I’ve noticed that historical books written about India during the seventeenth and the twentieth centuries fall, perforce, into one of two categories: either they are mind-bendingly dull text books or they are lyrical post-modern takes on how ‘cool’ the Companywallas really were. I looked at my review copy of Nick Robins' The Corporation that Changed the World, with its crowded text, its maps and graphs, and winced: dull text book, it was.
I couldn’t have been more wrong. This is one of those rare things in non-fiction: an Unputdownable. Robins’ account of the East India Company’s business practices in India is a riveting blend of crisp, almost thriller-like writing with a great amount of intelligence and passion. While we all pretty much know the broad outlines of what happened, Robins looks at that time in Indian and British history so closely, and with such a unique perspective, that you can’t help but be swept along on his fascinating journey.
Robins’ aim through this book is to examine the East India Company – the world’s first multi-national corporation – in the light of its business practices. He finds insider trading, exploitation and greed – pretty much the basic template for multinational corporations of our times. Though the Company operated nearly 400 years back, its methods are uncannily familiar. There was the same hunger for monopoly, the same irresponsibility, and shockingly, nearly the same amount of unaccountability.
And as Robins gently unfolds page after page of the Company’s history, you see his point. As it gained more monopoly over Indian trade, the Company became a policy-maker by default. Placing the fate of an entire people in the hands of a few businessmen who were driven by ‘persistent share holders’ led to the inevitable: famine and the destruction of a thriving textile industry. India, as he puts it trenchantly, was basically screwed over by the Company.
Robins slides the reader smoothly into the historical, always pegging his narration on individuals and not mere dates. To this end, he harnesses Victorian ‘corporate’ art, cartoons and poetry; Ghalib’s verse; local legends and stories of real people. There are some amazing accounts of people who history books rarely have time for. Like Rajah Nabakrishna, the Indian merchant, and his interaction with Hastings; the Armenian traders based in India who actually managed to take the Company to court in 1777; and the miserable conditions of lascars, Indian sailors who made up a quarter of the Company’s sailors, and were later abandoned on the streets of London in the 1700s.
Robins links the various forms of the Company’s cruelty to ‘geographical morality’, a frighteningly hypocritical belief system. It condoned everything from slavery to drug-trafficking and undemocratic practices so long as it happened in a different region, to people of a different religious persuasion or colour. Cornelius Walford, writing in 1877, observed that in the 120 years of British rule in India, there had been 34 famines, as opposed only 17 in the entire two millennia that went before. When famine struck, traditional rulers like the Mughals would punish hoarders and give away grain for free. This is contrasted with the Company’s response, which was to do some of the hoarding itself!
To learn from history, one must first acknowledge it. So Robins feels that the Company’s seamier practices (like that of growing opium in Bihar instead of food and smuggling it into China in exchange of tea) should be discussed fully. He is critical of exhibitions which present the Company’s history as a mutually beneficial and fascinating exchange of goods. He is also critical of fellow historians who romanticize individual Company executives like Warren Hastings and their cultural pursuits, while turning a blind eye to their corporate malpractices.
The book is a clear indictment of what can go wrong if corporations are given the right to determine policies. There are parallels between the Company and contemporary corporations like Union Carbide and Enron; with the American and British presence in Iraq; with Shell’s human rights violations in Nigeria; and with Wall Mart’s malpractices in China.
The Corporation… has honestly upped the bar for historians who want to write sound but eminently enjoyable, relevant and accessible history books. Robins’s success lies in the fact that in presenting history, he has created a spanking good read as well. More importantly, there are many evocative reminders for a world that is rapidly decreasing corporate accountability. Not always is the profit motive good; almost never does it seek the larger good of society.

The Corporation that Changed the World: How the East India Company Shaped the Modern Multinational  

Nick Robins 

Orient Longman

(Anita Vachharajani © DNA)

I reviewed this book for the DNA a long time back... found among some old files in a bout of hard disk spring cleaning!

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Mommy Maddest

To people who don’t have kids, all parents appear the same — a large, quivering mass of dementia. Loopy adults who hover around small human beings, cooing, muttering, and fussing. I mean, who in their right minds and over the age of 25 would obsess over tiffin boxes, water bottles, medicines and fussy, large bags full of sanitisers and safety pins?
People who have kids, that’s who.
Certainly, we can be broadly classified under the title of Parentis Lunaticus, but if you were to look at us carefully, you would see subtle differences. And the best place to spot these differences is outside the average well-heeled school. This is where parents of a certain class gather in large numbers at regular intervals — and gravitate towards others who are a little more like themselves. (When I say ‘parents’, I really mean mothers; because despite my best efforts to not think in stereotypes, rarely do I see dads in these primitive huddles!)
Waiting to give their kids dabbas or to pick them up, are armies of mommies. Some are exquisitely coiffeured, perfumed and designer-kurta-clad; others are in the JLo/Beyonce mould, bumble-bee-glares, skin-fit jeans and all. Then there are those who wear leopard-print stilettos to match leopard-print capris in the exact same colour as their recently-gone-blonde hair. The rest are a broad swathe of well-dressed women, with a few stragglers, like yours truly, who look like they barely managed to pull on something before leaving home.But the real difference between us moms is not how well-groomed we are. It is the level of naked ambition we feel on behalf of our kids. Everything we wept at during Taare Zameen Par is quickly forgotten once inside the bubble of naked ambition and hysteria that exists around schools. This is Comparison Central, where certificates for extracurricular activities won by kids are shown off, gifts for teachers are secretly planned, and next year’s classes are discussed.
Generally, you can spot the really ambitious moms easily. Firstly, they talk non-stop in glowing terms about their kids and the classes they go to, and secondly, they flatter teachers and sidle around them on occasions like Teacher’s Day, Christmas and Divali, coaxing them to accept cakes, gifts and bouquets.
Each school has its own demographic, and in ours, the most ambitious moms huddle in two large and mututally-exclusive clusters. The larger, chattier cluster is made up of Gujarati moms. The smaller is made up of equally driven South-Indian moms (being a Malayalee married to a Gujarati, I scuttle around the fringes of the Southie cluster).
Each cluster has its own mores and manners. The Gujju moms have all the hottest tuition teachers and classes on speed dial. They know everyone who matters on the PTA; have direct access to the teachers, and can tell you the best places to eat, play or study. Nothing can come between their kids and success or happiness, because all’s fair in love, dhando and education. But refreshingly, they also believe in the ‘everyone’s invited’ approach, and are generous when it comes to sharing information. In fact, with them it's the-more-the-merrier - heard of Groupon, anyone?
In our tribe, made up largely of Tam-Brahm moms, information is power and is rarely shared. Tam-Brahm moms, incidentally, are India’s original ‘Chinese Mothers’ — driven, determined and definitely very secretive. Their kids never study enough (patently false); their kids never take part in any competitions (actually, they take part only to win). With them, you get the feeling that the next milestone is an IIT seat, and seriously, dude, you're just in the bloody way, aren't you?
Luckily, there’s a mini-cluster of sensible moms. Moms who recognise that education is a means to understand the world and refuse to send their kids to random classes; who refuse to suck up to teachers (which the school specifically asks us not to); and are secure enough to love their kids no matter what.
Some of them are, interestingly, Tam-Brahms and Gujjus; a couple are Punjabi, some are Goan and a few are Maharashtrians. Thank you, ladies — you keep me sane!

A slightly different version of this article, with a different title, appeared in the DNA of Sunday, Feb 26th.

Wednesday, February 01, 2012

New books mean new joys :)

and bringing joy into my life on an otherwise dull day was this new book, drawn by the wonderfully talented shilpa ranade :)
it was written three years back and has been two years in the making, but what a louliness!
more strength to pratham, the guys who have created this space for affordable picture books that are pulished in english but are also translated into 5 other indian languages. i'm waiting for my language copies - hindi, kannada, mallu, marathi etc :)

you can see the book on pratham's page here

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Mixed nuts!

as a boyfriend-starved college student, I knew one thing for a fact: the dreary Sahara desert of my lovelife was made more wretched by the fact that I had grown up going to an all-girls’ school. Boys were exotic creatures for us. We only met them inside the pages of books. In college, where they appeared in human form, we had no idea what to say to them.

While the co-educated girls seemed to make male friends easily, our little gang of girls-schooled late-bloomers found ourselves in fairly splendid isolation. We weren’t sad about it, of course, but we did conclude eventually that all-girls’ and all-boys’ schools were the earthly representations of hell. It was weird, because unlike the co-ed girls, we were actually very uninhibited, we laughed loudly, talked a lot; were witty, uncensored and hilarious. What we were not able to do, though, was have normal, relaxed friendships with boys. We swayed from being arch and flirtatious to completely stern and reproving.

My little girl goes to a mixed-sex or a co-ed school. One day, in Senior KG, she came home and told me that a boy had put his head on her lap and kissed her. Images flashed through my mind: Silsila. Rekha’s head on Amitabh’s lap. Mist. Flowers touching. Bees buzzing. Major coochie-cooing. I sat up with a start and asked my husband if I should go talk to the teacher about this Emraan-Hashmi-in-the-making. ‘No!’ replied the co-ed schooled man, ‘You’ll just traumatise the poor boy!’

Feeling traumatised myself I remembered my mother’s utter terror of co-eds and her dire warnings against sending her granddaughter to one. Mom went to a convent school and then studied engineering while staying in a girls’ hostel run by nuns. The Mother Superior there often warned them with these wise — and rather poetic — Malayalam words: ‘Whether a thorn falls on a grape, or a grape falls on a thorn, the grape is the one that gets hurt. So STAY AWAY from college boys.’ The story usually sent me into peals of laughter, but that day the thought of soft fruits and sharp objects terrified me.

Post that, there have been no romantic adventures so far and we have reached Class 2 without any need for major hysterics on my part. But I’m slowly beginning to wonder if mixed-sex education is the solution to the world’s ills that I had imagined it to be.

Studies show that co-education makes children conform to gender stereotypes — in the UK, for instance, girls in same-sex schools did better in Maths and Science, just as boys in same-sex schools did better in Languages. I personally feel that same-sex schools allow you to grow up without being sexualised too early.

We live in fairly frenzied times. The films and adverts our kids see are full of highly sexualised images of picture-perfect girls and women. Even on children’s channels, ads talk about milky, age-defying skin and tangle-free hair. I fear — perhaps without reason — that when you grow up in a co-ed, there’s going to be the added peer pressure of always appearing attractive to the opposite sex. Can you be yourself, gender-unstereotyped and, perhaps, un-cool?

Once when my daughter complained about a boy hitting her in class, I told her that I went to a school with no boys in it. Her eyes widened. ‘Reallllly??’ she squealed, ‘But WHY?’ Umm. Just. Then I asked her if she’d like to go to a school with only girls in it. Wouldn’t it be nice? No, she shook her head vehemently. ‘Boys are fun. Only girls would be boring.’ Interestingly, many studies show that overall, children in co-eds are under a lot less stress than their counterparts in same-sex schools. That must explain the ‘fun’ bit!

Less stress for the kids, no doubt, but probably much more for the parents! I know what I’m going to do for the next 10 years: sit in a corner, close my eyes and hold my breath till my kid finishes her ‘co-education’. Wake me up when it’s all over, dude.

This article appeared in the DNA of Sunday, Jan 15, 2012.

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Magic by Any Other Name

December. That time of the year when my little daughter’s sense of magic fights with her awareness of the real world – and loses. She comes from two generations of fairly laidback, irreligious, non-ritual-practicing people on both sides of the family, and is probably hard-wired to grow into a non-believer.
But all children need some magic in their lives. And by magic I mean that basic human urge to try and explain natural phenomena. Life. Death. How people were made. How the sun and moon were born. Or why cutting onions makes you cry. This need to explain – to basically create a beginning and an end for ourselves and our experiences – is a very human one. And perhaps it is the fount of all religious thought.
Both the thinner half and I had fairly non-religious childhoods. Our irrational cravings, therefore, are those inspired by the popular culture of our youth. Thanks to Linda Goodman, I can’t begin my day without reading my horoscope in three newspapers. The man saw E.T. in his childhood (an experience he is unlikely to let me forget) and probably because of that believes firmly in life on other planets.
But religion and ritual do offer great comfort. Ursula LeGuin nailed it when she wrote, ‘In our loss and fear we crave the acts of religion, the ceremonies that allow us to admit our helplessness, our dependence on the great forces we do not understand.’ When I am calmer, when someone I love isn’t unwell, I’m all scientific and agnostic. But it doesn’t take much to bring on that helpless feeling – a minor fall or an eye infection can terrify me. And then I’ll leap frantically across to the other side, promising coconuts, Saturday temple visits and Hail Marys.
Every now and then, I worry about my daughter not having a framework of belief to reach out to in times of distress. Then I drag her off to the temple. But since I can’t sustain the momentum, it falls slightly flat. She remains curious and watchful, but I can tell there’s very little real, emotional connect.
My mother, who life has badgered into non-belief, worries about this. Don’t ask me why. ‘Your child doesn’t believe in god!’ she says frantically, ‘Do something!’ I try not to remind her that she was the one who told the girl, at 4 years of age, that god didn’t exist, that temples and churches were just full of statues and pictures. At that time, my 26-year-old brother had just met with a fatal accident, leaving us hurt and bitter. It’s hard to always watch what you’re teaching a child.
When my kid lost her first tooth, I suggested the tooth fairy. She laughed at me. So I threw away all subsequent teeth. A year later, her friend lost her first tooth and got a gift from the tooth fairy. ‘There’s no such thing as the tooth fairy,’ mine declaimed. ‘I’ve lost so many teeth and never got a gift!’ The friend replied, ‘That’s because you don’t believe in the fairy!’
And that’s how she learnt, at 6, that sometimes it just pays to suspend disbelief, and hold out your hand. So the next tooth was saved, and the tooth fairy visited us. But Doubting Thomasina re-surfaced. Our long, hair-splitting discussions always ended with me saying helplessly, ‘Well, yes, she doesn’t exist, but if you want, you can think she does. And anyway, you got a gift, na?!’ Like my friend Hansa says, finally, chances are the only deity she'll believe in will be the tooth fairy!
Now it’s Christmas again, that time of the year when she scoffs, ‘There’s no Santa! I know it’s you only giving me gifts.’ This year, she said the same thing, but added with a smile, ‘Though, I don’t mind being a baby and believing in Santa for some time!’ She holds out a list of what she wants – four Secrets of Droon books, four Tintins, and, she adds, ‘a few surprises’.
Obviously there’s a Santa Claus. It’s just that she’s called ‘Mummy’!
This article appeared in the DNA of Sunday, Dec 4, 2011.
Just as an aside, the Santa Claus legend has its origins in Germanic and Dutch pagan lore. The pagan Sinterklaas became - via Odin (see b&w pic) and St Nicholas (see sepia-tone pic) - first the British Father Christmas (shown riding a goat) and then the American Santa Claus [thank you, wikipedia: In the British colonies of North America and later the United States, British and Dutch versions of the gift-giver merged further. For example, in Washington Irving's History of New York, (1809), Sinterklaas was Americanized into "Santa Claus" (a name first used in the American press in 1773)[23] but lost his bishop’s apparel, and was at first pictured as a thick-bellied Dutch sailor with a pipe in a green winter coat. Irving’s book was a lampoon of the Dutch culture of New York, and much of this portrait is his joking invention.
The idea taken in by - what else - advertising and given a lovely, rotund, cheery image in a series of Coke advts from 1931 to the 1950s. Click on the link for more!

Thursday, October 20, 2011

What Ramesh found...

For years now, Ramesh has had my loyal custom. Back in the '80s, when I first spotted him outside Ambedkar Udyan, I was a humongously fat teenager, and he was a really thin young man in his 20s. He had strangely 'new' looking books. Unlike most street book sellers, he wasn't selling used books. His were all new, all titles that would - for sure - excite my young reluctant reader of a brother. I didn't know then that what he was doing then was selling the West's inventoried books - or books that are 'remaindered' in the warehouses, and are later auctioned off to distributors. Everyone in Mumbai has a favourite book guy. Ramesh, in Chembur, happens to be mine.

So The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, Isaac Asimov's Futuredays (cigarette card representations of what people in fin de siecle France - 1899 - thought life held in store for the world in 2000; each card was wondrously illustrated and juxtaposed with a brief discussion of why it was plausible or not by Asimov. The best part - this me panting with excitement - was how he found the set of cards in a toy shop in Paris); the book of the movie Young Sherlock Holmes; and many more that I've forgotten about - and regrettably, lost.

Cut to 2001, Chakala, in deep dark Andheri East, walking around with Amit. I'm a lot less humungous, and we are crawling the lanes of our new-found suburb, trying to find something other than shops full of Chinese-made figurines to stare at. I see a book seller with books like The Animal of Farthing Wood and a series that has English being taught using Asterix comics. Delighted I look up at the seller, and whatdjaknow. It's Ramesh, plumper, older. We both grin and laugh and get down to the business of books.

2004, Chembur, and there's Ramesh again suddenly at his usual spot near Ambedkar Udyan. Friendship reaffirmed, we buy tons of books from him, and finally, give him lots of our pulp crime novels. We find copies of Hoot with him, and colouring books, and more novels, and more vintage children's books. Last week was a bonanza though. Look at all that he had for us!

The Keeping Quilt by Patricia Polacco, the story of a Russian migrant whose mother and extended family make a quilt using old clothes belonging to relatives.
The quilt sees many generations of her family thru many rites of passage. Incidentally, this is a signed copy! Colour is used discretely - only to make the quilt sparkle. The b&w people are beautifully detailed.

Stone Soup by Jonathan Muth, an interpretation of the European folk trickster story. Muth sets it in China, and gives us some unforgettably minimal images.
Three monks reach a village. It seems sullen somehow. We are told that this is a village that often faces famine. The villagers are weary and wary. The adults keep to themselves. We meet the Scholar, the Seamstress, the Doctor, the Carpenter.
The tricksters attract a curious little girl in bright yellow, who follows them and is a via media to reach the villagers. She is a quiet and insidious counterpoint to the adults. Untouched by the knowledge of famine -and deprivation, she helps the strangers fetch more and more to throw into the pot.
And finally, that night, a grand celebration, where the soup is eaten.

Two of the books were on the American Civil Rights movement. The first is How four friends stood up by sitting down by Andrea Davis Pinkney and Brian Pinkney
Four American college students went to the counter of Woolworths on February 1, 1960, and ordered coffee and a doughnut. They were never served. Integration and how it must have felt when it was still a churning, disturbing process make up the book's narrative. It's stirring because it resonates with so many other struggles - with Gandhi, Ambedkar, and how much the Dalit movement in our society still has to achieve in terms of equality of perception.

Henry's freedom Box by Ellen Levine is a story with positively luminous pictures. you can read more about the real Henry Brown here Strangely, though I didn't particularly want n to read the book, she curled up with it one afternoon. After reading it, her eyes twinkled when she described the underground train and how it wasn't really an underground train, just a train full of conductors and people who helped slaves escape. The illustrations are just incredible - rich, realistic, and lit with a strong, sad inner light.

The incredible book eating boy! by Oliver Jeffers about a boy who develops an apetite for books. He starts eating them accidentally - a pooping cat might have distracted him. Soon he becomes the smartest kid in sight with all those words inside him, and then, one day, he simply falls ill from eating too many books. He has to 'clean' himself up and takes to reading books, which, as the author says, is SO good. But sometimes, he falls off the wagon, so to say, and our lovely copy has bite taken off on the back cover to show you what happens when he regresses!

Coming soon - if our camera works - a picture of Ramesh :)