Thursday, July 03, 2014

An article on Chembur for Timeout, Mumbai...

...From many moons ago, be warned! This article appeared in a Timeout column (June 2011) on why you love a particular suburb. Mine was called 'I love Chembur'. The format needed a short description of the suburb + some stuff it's famous for. Hence the 'gems' :)
Disclaimer: I also wrote an I-Love-Yaari-Road piece for Timeout. What can I do? I'm a sucker for this city!

Chembur has changed so much in three years - and not in nice ways either. Fewer trees, more heritage-category bungalows that have been demolished, more high-rises in their place, and a chintzy, real-estate-market-driven 'Chembur Festival'. It's getting increasingly anodyne, and spiralling home-buying costs mean that more of the terribly-rich come in. And once that happens, there goes the neighbourhood! It feels silly posting this now, so many years later, but the piece has its moments - I think...

I love Chembur

If you don’t know Chembur, then praising it is a bit like trying to sell you a date with a cousin who has halitosis and BO, purely on the basis of their wonderful personality. But if you’ve lived here – or even visited – you’re bound to love Chembur for its inner beauty, and no questions-on-personal-hygiene asked. There are things Chembur does so well: it has a few tree-lined roads, a few remaining old bungalows, and and a sliver of a sense of neighbourhood.

But again, if you’ve never visited here, you’re likely to get all caught up in Chembur's minor infractions yes, there is an atomic reactor near the Turbhe Hills close to us. Oh, and if you must know, there are fertilizer-producing-smoke-spewing factories and refineries around here. And of course the noxious dumping ground further north in Deonar perturbs you? All very bad for health, I’m sure, but like others who live here, I prefer the blissful path of urban denial. Because seriously, if an atom is split behind a verdant hill and I don’t combust, it’s not anything to go nuclear about, is it? 

Unlike the atomic reactor, the Deonar Dumping Ground definitely makes its presence felt – especially if you’re downwind. In fact, garbage is why the city first laid railway lines to the village of Chembur in 1906, bringing its refuse into Deonar, and with it, the start of construction. Goan Catholics came here between the late ’20s and the ’30s, followed by the Sindhis in the late ’40s and South Indians in the ’60s. Hemmed in by the new middle-class settlements, Chembur’s original villages retreated shyly, and only a few still survive as pockets or gaothans. Slowly, neighbourhoods with distinct identities grew – the Marathi, the South Indian, the Sindhi and the Goan – each with a unique ethos. I'm all for urban cross-polination, but it’s wonderful to walk through the localities and get a sense of what it must have felt like to live among people who eat, drink and pray like each other.

But you mustn’t think of Chembur as a bucolic place. We’ve been groped by glamour in our day. Raj Kapoor built the RK Studios here in 1950, and between the ’60s to the ’80s, stars like Ashok Kumar, Nalini Jaiwant, Shivji-ke-filmi-avtar, Trilok Kapoor, the redoubtable Kishore Sahu, and lovable Dhumal lived here. Shilpa Shetty was my junior in school (I personally have no recollection of this, but hey, that was many cosmetic 'interventions' ago!) and so, they tell me, was Vidya Balan. I'm not going to talk about Rishi Kapoor, Anil Kapoor and Shankar Mahadevan going to the boys' school across the maidan, because that would just be name-dropping!

Neighbourhood gems:
Food at the Station: The market at Chembur Station has a powerful pull. Probably because it’s actually a foodcourt disguised as a shopping haven. Satguru Pavbhaji makes the stuff piping hot and you wash it down with sweet, sweet mosambi juice. Exactly the balm you need after you’ve dodged cars, hawkers, and people’s elbows to buy veggies. A particularly tasty Mumbaiyya version of bhel puri, made in disgusting environs, can be had at Gupta Bhel. Across the road, after the sun sets, the mutta dosai guy works some egg magic on the dosa theme. At Hotel Saroj, the Sweet Nazis will order you to queue up for their yummy faraal, and no talking in the line back there. 

Sindhi camp: Morarji Desai, it is said, first looked at the military-requisitioned land next to the golf course and decreed that it should be used to house Sindhi refugees. This was told to me by a resentful Golf Club official who added that but for Mr Desai's intervention, they'd have had a 24-hole course. I mean, the sheer effrontery of putting human need and suffering before golf! Really! The refugee camp meant that the Club was reduced to a 'measly' 18-hole stretch, when it could, sob, have been much larger.
Apart from being a hub of commercial activity, the Sindhi Camp has a ‘food mile’ - a long culinary expression of a nostalgic community. There's chaats at Jhama and Sindh Paani Puri House, the kheema and paya at King’s or Sobhraj, rabri-kulfi in little stalls and much more. The man at the counter in the iconic Jhama is stern, but ask nicely, and he might tell you that Raj Kapoor often took gulab jamuns from their store to Russia.

Mallu joints: Built in the ’60s for the employees of Burmah Shell, the buildings of ‘Shell Colony’ didn’t meet the company’s high standards. So the flats were sold in the open market to working-class families – mostly Malayalee. With time, some phenomenal Mallu eating joints grew around the area – like ‘Jose’ under the railway bridge, which served marvelous shark-fin curry and hot jeera water (it’s shut now). Pradeep near Sawan Bazaar, which makes a phenomenal beef fry, and Sunny’s (opposite ‘Hot Baby’ Rasila Bar) where fish is conjured into a mean ‘meen curry’. Mallus who miss authentic Kerala spices - and  the salty tang of the Thrissur dialect of Malayalam - head to the 'Kerala Shop' in the middle of the sabji mandi, under the flyover. They are purveyors of lovely fish-curry-tamarind, banana chips, tapioca fritters, dried fish, large, yellow plantains and hot parippu vadas. The serving of the sassy Thrissur lip is on the house!

Deity watch: In Chembur you could pray up a multi-faith storm. Apart from the many dargahs and the Turbhe mosque (one of the city’s oldest), Chembur has the stately Catholic OLPS Church, and many Syrian Christian churches. The most interesting among its temples is the 400-year-old Bhoolingeshwara Temple near the Fine Arts Hall (and now the Monorail Station). It is chief among Chembur’s six or seven gaondevs or village temples which once stood at the ‘borders’ of the smaller villages here. Chembraayi, the gaondevi of Chembur, a shapeless stone form, wears a benign smile and presides over mortals from a really small, ceramic-tiled room in Charai village, right inside Sindhi Camp.

Green memories: Chembur, I read somewhere, was named for the large Chimboree crabs that lived in its marshes. Just like Kurla was named for the Kurli crabs. The marshes have sadly been stamped out.  Isaac Kehimkar, the butterflies-and-flowers man who trained with Dr Salim Ali, and actually grew up in Deonar remembers a place that had streams with clean water in them! He caught snakes and crabs in the marshes. 
Deonar and Chembur are horrifyingly different now, but there’s still a small tree cover. It's being systematically destroyed, though the few trees still draw some birds. According to The Times of India, a green patch with 1200 trees is going to lose 600 of them soon. Just another case of the state giving land away to a private builder. But more of that later.
There are still parts of Deonar and Chembur, where you can sit in your balcony and watch golden orioles, crow pheasants, magpie robbins, red-vented bulbuls and owls. Industrial development around Mahul has meant that not too many residential buildings came up there, leaving the mangroves for aquatic birds. Take a fishing boat from the Mahul Jetty to the few existing marshes, and get up close and personal with Mumbai’s annual pink visitors, the flamingos. 

Sunday, April 20, 2014

In which the Springs are Cleaned!

In an an ideal world, I’d have had not one but two kids. And we’d live in a house by the sea, with a dog, and I’d be writing picture books and teaching college kids for a living. And I’d cook like a dream, be clear-skinned and willowy, with a musical laugh. But the genie from the magic lamp just called, and he’d rather stay indoors and work on world peace.

Why do I miss having more kids? I grew up an only child till I was 10, and there’s a small shard of loneliness in my heart that just won’t go away. I blame it on being sibling-less for a large part of my childood. Besides, once you figure out that you can make your own human beings, why stop at just one? Having one kid means that there is no learning curve – there are just big, giant learning potholes, where you, spouse and kid all come away feeling quite jarred. Every challenge, every idiosyncrasy of every age is new to us parents-of-only-kids. No wonder second-borns are chilled-out. Their parents are past this overweening curiosity. First-borns and only kids probably feel like they live in a fish bowl, with bloated parental fingers pointing at them all the time.

One such puzzle was that we could never, ever, ever start a project without N jumping in to ‘help’. But ask her to do the same thing on her own, and she’ll baulk. For example, N is learning to play the guitar. Tell her to practice and the moan is so loud and long that you’d think the siren in the nuclear reactor nearby had gone off. But if Amit were to pick up the guitar and attempt to play it, whoosh, she’ll be there like the Road Runner, whisking it out of his hands and hitting those chords.

Want to entice her to paint? All I have to do is pick up a brush, and shell abandon her book and charge right up. I guess something deep inside children’s reptilian brains responds to the sight of their parents attempting to enjoy themselves with a rousing cry of ‘How DARE they!?’ 

Our vacations and holidays are usually spent in a morass of waking up late, eating too much, reading all day, heading out for an evening of play, and then coming home to read some more. This year though, weve had to rethink our non-plans. Recent eye issues had the doc telling me that N ought to do fewer tasks that involve potential eye strain – less of reading, sewing, braiding scoobies, iPad-ing, etc., and more of what, I dont know! Since there are no sibs and no ‘building kids’ this translates into howls of ‘WHAT should I do?’

Painting and art are big talking points in our house. Amit is an obsessive doodler and N loves to paint  if you dontell her to. I love looking at art, but its been about 20 years since I last messed with paints. I decided on a summer project that would involve less reading, more doing: I’d do one piece of art every day for the next 30 days. Interestingly, N refuses to stand for any teaching from Amit, the trained artist, because seriously? Isnt she already better than him? I suspect she feels annoyance at his expert status with all his published books and whatnot, and no soft-peddling of his skills helps. So hopefully, watching me  the clumsy, non-artist – take a risk and attemot to paint, she would be nudged to do so too.

And its not just my usual Evil Parental Outreach Program. Ive been toying with this idea for a while now, and an inspirational prod came from this article sent to me by my friend Alka Hingorani, an art historian, lover of learning, art and potatoes, a teacher and scholar. Unlike Clark Kellogg, though, I cant imagine committing myself for 365 days. I’m all for low-hanging fruit, thank you, and think Ill aim for 30 days – sounds more like something Ill manage to do by the skin of my teeth.

I’m hoping this will sweep away some of my mental cobwebs. I love the internet  it is, quite frankly, the reason why I stay sane. But there are days when I feel like a consumer of words and visuals, and not a maker of them, which is what I really want to be. The discipline of clearing my head to paint every day might help me steer myself back to writing amid the white noise of life  I hope!

The other inspiration has been my friend Hansa Thapliyal, filmmaker, sewer of wonky dolls, builder of cardboard houses, and writer of incomprehensible letters. 
Earrings Hansa once made me

Bike-riding girl wends her way
thru the cityscape
Most adults I know would not bother with so much whimsical, hands-on creating for its own sake. But Hansa builds little cityscapes with girls riding bicycles, makes photo boxes with newspaper cuttings of her friends’ favourite artists and attempts small animations where she frickin’ makes every prop and character. 
The great thing is that while she is skilled and imaginative, she isn’t always neat. But the joy in her making is infectious – and best of all, it isn’t intimidating. I’m not as industrious as her – with any luck, I hope never to be :) but a little attempting to draw/paint/collage might, possibly, trigger the writing finger! (Please do click on the thumbnails for better views.)

Shoebox house with driftwood tree
Detail from shoebox house

We’re four days down now in our summer art project, N and I, and I can already sense my internal discomfort, a restless shifting-of-the-feet. I don’t know what to paint. What I want to paint, I dont know how to. The last time I held a brush (and was just as useless) was about 20 years back. Kellogg said he reached the ‘what next’ point at the end of three weeks. Guess who got there on Day 3?

The Fragrant Ant is mine and
the chalk pastel Waterfall is N's
Do I look up the thousands of sites devoted to art projects? Do I think up quick wet-on-wet watercolour projects that are easy and please me (because I somehow imagine that they have a Monet-esque haziness)? Do I try collage? How do I start to draw – something I definitely cant do  and then paint? Do papers speak to amateur artists, and if they do, am I stone deaf? 
Working with N is educative. Kids have this way of demanding a lot out of every experience. They are not cheap dates. Everything they do, eat, hear, watch or play must satisfy them. It may not look great to adult eyes, but at a very deep level they know what works for them and what does not. 
I paint to put something on paper, to fill it up somehow. I struggle with colour and poor brush technique and inhibitions. But Im done surprisingly quickly – mainly because my standards for myself are delightfully low. 
Then I look up and see N at work. Her engagement is complete. At 9, shes still uninhibited compared to me. Shes going through a phase of wanting desperately to draw realistically, and is a hard task master to herself. Her absorption is a lesson to me.
Painting 1.5, wet butterflies
Painting 2, Day 2, a dragon in the making
It may be an uphill task to get her to start, but like all kids, when shes in the zone, she won’t stop at one painting. If something’s ‘not coming out right’, she’ll work herself into a hissy fit of exhaustion and anger. Expeditiously, I suggest short cuts and quick fixes. I get such snappy answers, that I’m reminded of working on books with Amit. He draws delightfully but would rather be unhappy and sulky than accept what he thinks is lesser work from himself. 

Of course there is no issue of artistic ownership where my art is concerned. What is mine is most definitely hers. And I dont have much of a say in the matter. So the owl I was working on today  in my mind a mix of watercolour and collage – got thick grey brush lines on its wing when I walked off to make myself a cup of tea. I smiled at that. The next time I left the painting alone, splashes of green paint filled up portions of the wing. Well, I could live with that, I said to myself.

On my way to dinner, though, I nearly fainted. There was my elegant grey-and-yellow-and-now-also-dull-green owl, with weird puddles of watery red inside its large eyes. Reddish watery streaks had leeched all over the painting, and there was no debating the fact that it was messed up beyond rescue. 

Seeing my crestfallen face, N rushed up and said, I was painting red zigzag angry lines in its eyes... Its an image we once had on her cake – an alien with angry red, thunderbolt type lines in its eyes – and we had loved it. I kind of looked blank for a few seconds, my disappointment evident. She immediately said, Im sorry! Ill make you a painting just like this one tomorrow, ok? Later at night, I told her it was ok for her to paint on my paintings, because it was, well, just ok. She didnt have to feel bad. 

As I write this, four precious days into my ‘project, I can see my poor departed grandmother shaking her head. She wouldnt approve of talking about a task before its all done and dusted. You just do not do that. Not if youre a good, god-fearing, risk-averse South Indian. Already I can see N reaching the point when she loses interest in the proceedings, and I know Ive fallen off more wagons than Id care to count! Ah well, lets see how it all turns out, shall we? If I do get around to completing it, watch this space for an update!

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.