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 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Henry_Box_Brown. 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 :)

Sunday, October 02, 2011

Forgiving mom and dad

As a parent, there’s just one thing I’m totally certain of: no matter what you do, you’re wrong. You’re either too strict, or too lenient, or too nice or too nasty, too loving or too emotionally reserved.There’s more good news: you’ll only realise the complete error of your ways about 15 years from now, when you look back with hindsight, and see all the things you did that you shouldn’t have. Don’t ask me to prove this — I just know it the way a flower knows when to bloom, or the way we know that every year, come monsoon, Mumbai’s roads will feel like the surface of the moon.

You always start off with the hope of becoming your ideal of the best-ever parent — the best-pal parent, the pushiest parent, the most-free-spirited parent, etc. I aspired to be a combination of the parents I had plus the sort of parents I wished I had. After seven years of trying, I can freely admit to absolute, humbling failure. I had a wonderful role model in my mother, but turns out I’ve all her few faults and none of her virtues.

One of the things I know I’d love to give my child is the sense of freedom that my mum instinctively gave me. The feeling of total acceptance was the best thing about growing up in my family. I don’t remember mum ever laying down the rules or yelling at us (though her mother — my grandmum — more than made up for that).

But growing up with very few rules unfortunately leaves you unequipped for the harsher realities of life and work. So my totally inspired and unique plan was to raise my child with all the love and freedom my mum gave, plus a sense of discipline.

It didn’t quite work out. Turns out that I have my grandmother’s hissy tongue and temper, and her need for discipline, plus my own inherent laziness and indiscipline. And while I refuse to push my kid hard to succeed, I don’t have my mum’s true sense of laissez-faire either. I do however have her high levels of maternal anxiety. As Himesh Reshammiya once said: It’s Complicated.

As parents are we very different from our own? I think we spoil our kids more — we are wealthier, busier, and it’s easier to buy toys than to give kids time. In 15 or 20 years this will come back and bite us on our butts for sure. Unlike us, our parents were also a lot more secure about their methods. Whether they were beating us up or spoiling us silly, they did it with the firm conviction that they knew what was best for us. Or maybe it just seems that way now.Perhaps each generation of parents has to re-learn the skills of passing on the rules of living.

Sometimes parents succeed and raise happy, well-adjusted people, and others, well, don’t. I remember reading Philip Larkin’s (1922-1985) poem This Be the Verse, and going saucer-eyed at the eff word in it. I didn’t get it then, but now, with more perspective on what it is like to be both a parent and a child, I do.

In three very tight stanzas, Larkin spells out his bitterness:
They **** you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.

The poem becomes kinder towards parents in the second stanza — after all, he writes, they were screwed up by their parents too. The solution? Stop having kids and deepening the ‘coastal shelf’ of misery. Larkin’s advice doesn’t work because nature’s urge to multiply is — thankfully — stronger than good poetry.

Sometimes I think the greatest lesson we can teach our children is how to be kind - so that when they grow up, they can look back at our mistakes with a large measure of forgiveness!

(This article appeared in the DNA of Sunday, Oct 2, 2011, in my column called 'Small Blunders'.)

Monday, September 26, 2011

Interviewed by the Timeout!

Found in Translation
What kind of stories do children find appealing? Strong narratives, arresting visuals and irreverent ideas are crucial, according to children’s writer Anita Vachharajani. Gijubhai Badheka’s Gujarati folk tales not only meet these criteria, but like most folk tales, are also a combination of the absurd, the philosophical and the fun. A contemporary of Mahatma Gandhi, Badheka wrote a variety of children’s stories, which were later retold and illustrated in Hindi by author, painter and cartoonist Aabid Surti. Associated with children’s publishing since 1998 and author of children’s books Amazing India and Nonie’s Magic Quilt, Vachharajani has translated Badheka’s folk tales into English that include a set of two books titled The Phoo-Phoo Baba and other Stories (Volume I) and Uncle Know-All and other Stories (Volume II). She has used both Badheka’s and Surti’s texts for the English version. In an e-mail interview, Vachharajani tells Shinibali Mitra Saigal that folk tales show kids how “sense and nonsense can be tossed together for fun.”
What prompted you to translate Gijubhai’s Gujarati folk tales?
My husband Amit is a Gujarati, and he introduced me to these folk tales. Gijubhai was an educationist who propagated freedom and love as being central to the process of learning. I translated some of Gijubhai’s nonsense verse for The Tenth Rasa: The Penguin Book of Indian Nonsense Verse, edited by Michael Heyman. Later, the editors at Pratham Books asked me to translate Aabid Surti’s Hindi re-tellings of Gijubhai’s stories. I worked with both the Gujarati and the Hindi texts.

Which was your favourite Gijubhai story in the collection and why did you like it? Each one was a discovery. The one I had the most fun with was Uncle Know-All. It's about an old know-it-all who lords over a village of fools and the bizarre nuggets of wisdom he doles out. It had a really weird and completely irreverent feel .

What is more difficult? Writing an original story or translating one? Both are challenging. When one translates, one has to make sure that the text lives and sparkles in the target language as well. In an original story, you can take the narrative where you want to, whereas in a translation, your path is more or less decided for you. Your job is to make that path as rich and joyous as possible.

Can you always retain the subtle nuances of the original? You do lose some nuances. It’s inevitable. But you aim to capture the spirit of the original, without becoming heavy or pedantic. Also, even as you lose one set of nuances, you create others. Since I had both the Hindi and the Gujarati texts to work with, I could see that each version was slightly different. It’s an intuitive process and every re-teller of a story – especially in the folk tradition – makes choices and decisions to suit his or her style. Gijubhai himself was re-telling some of these stories, and you can sense that the language – informal, chatty – is entirely his own.

Do you think knowledge of folk tales will disappear if they are not translated into English? Unless we make a legitimate and viable space for folk art, it will be sidelined with time. As for our stories, we must keep telling and re-inventing them in new contexts to keep them alive. Re-telling a story in multiple languages takes it to a new audience, and that’s an exciting thought, as so many more people can read it.

The Phoo-Phoo Baba and other Stories (Volume I) and Uncle Know-All and other Stories (Volume II), Pratham Books, Rs.40.
Appeared in the Timeout of Sept, 2011

Sunday, September 11, 2011

It takes a village... even to have fun!

Was the world a better place when I was growing up? Life was harder, for sure. Mom was an office-goer, grandma was strict, teachers were sticklers, and worst of all, TV had one black-and-white channel where the highlight was aapan yanna pahilat kaa - a show that listed out names and descriptions of missing people. If we were really lucky, we caught the fleeting, animated Amul ad.
My daughter has it easier - freelance, stay-at-home parents; a choice of wildly similar cartoons and reality shows on TV; and apparently, a liberal academic system. What does she lack that I had? I guess the answer is friends. Friends who live nearby and are just one loud, afternoon-nap-ruining yell away. We had this growing up - friends who were always ready for play, fights, trips to the corner shop and sharing comics.
Now we live in a neighbourhood of low-rises, where all the young people have left, following jobs that take them to where other young couples - and their kids - are. We live among retirees and are indisputably the only people of child-bearing age around. Our kid, therefore, has no playmates.
In fact, our neighbourhood is so kid-free that BMC’s Pulse Polio staff took a long time to figure out that we existed and needed reminders and booster doses. This may make no sense to the un-kidded among you, but those with kids know that the Pulse Polio people are the most dedicated sniffer-outers of children under five. It took them time to find us, and that is saying a lot. When they found us, they shook their heads in wonder and said, ‘Kisko maloom tha ki iss building mein bhi bachche hai...’
So we started taking baby to the garden. The few kids who turned up there were a floating population. The only permanent people were the grannies, and though our child loved playing with the arthritic old ladies, it was obvious that she needed peers.
Young couples with kids automatically seem to gravitate towards the newer gated complexes, and since we couldn’t move to one of those, playdates seemed like a solution. But fixing up ‘appointments’ for toddlers is an insanely awkward and pointless exercise. Firstly, it’s not like you’re walking into the neighbour’s place for a game of ‘house-house’. So it’s not casual. The moms and dads have to like and ‘approve of’ each other. Then schedules have to be discussed and tweaked. It all begins to feel way too strained, artificial, and too much like work.
What I wanted was for my kid to have a village of her own. A set of friends to play, fight and gossip with every day. Children need to build relationships outside the comfort zone of families, so that they understand the dynamics of social intercourse. This knowledge is so important that most tribal societies have formal spaces like youth dormitories and age-sets to foster it.
Just when I was about to give up hope, I met an old schoolmate in the garden, who generously said, “Come play in our building, there are many kids.” So I located her building, about eight streets away from us, full of young people, their kids, and their friends’ kids. A small oasis of 25 children! Presto, my daughter had her village, albeit a bit further from home than I liked.
At first, playing with peers was difficult for her. So far her playmates had been obliging adults. Children are instinctively not polite or obliging to one another - with them, you have to, like in the jungle, earn your stripes. So every evening would end in a fight and her howling loudly, and yet, come the next evening, she wanted to go back.
Some time later, in a shop, she picked out a yellow Tantra t-shirt which said: ‘Friends are better than TV’. Maybe she just fancied the colour, but I like to imagine that she was trying to say something.

This article appeared in the DNA dated Aug 28, 2011.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

The Big, Fat Indian Birthday

In the six-odd years that I have been chaperoning my kid to birthday parties, I’ve figured that party-wise, there are broadly two kinds of city parents: those who approach their kids’ birthday parties with the same determination that soldier-ants take to gathering food, and those who, like the grasshopper in the folktale, simply outsource the stress.

The soldier-ant-type of parent (mostly the mother) frets, plans and slogs for the birthday party, tearing out her hair and getting irritable bowel syndrome in the process. Fathers are usually assistant-sloggers, perfect for random running around and sacrificing their pollution-weakened lungs to blow balloons.

The grasshopper-type parent, meanwhile, hands it all over to a new breed of professional — the event manager. Mum and dad make phone calls, sign a few cheques, and go for a film or a pedicure. The event manager gets everything from food and ‘games’ to return gifts.

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It’s weird, but both the grasshoppers and the soldier-ants take pride in their distinct parties. Stoically, the soldiers flaunt their small, home-made, parent-driven parties. The grasshoppers meanwhile take pride in the fact that their kids’ birthdays are large-scale, ‘exciting’ and more importantly, managed by the hired help. I’d like to state here that I’m a soldier-ant-mum, and I have my husband’s fatigued lungs to prove it.

Growing up in the ’70s, for us a birthday party meant paper plates, chips, a sandwich and a slice of lurid-looking cake. It meant money in an envelope pressed into the birthday kid’s hand. It meant some noise, some Rasna, and ok-tata-bye-bye. But in the Noughties, in globalised India, if it doesn’t hurt the wallet, it’s not just worth it.

Five parties out of the 10 we attend have one or more of the following:

  • a bouncy castle which teeters close to the sky and looks downright scary
  • glittery, eco-unfriendly, thermocol banners featuring sundry Disney Princesses/Spiderman/Ben 10 ‘cartoons’ which are supposed to define the party’s theme
  • a young college student with an accent straight out of an Andheri East call centre as the Master of Ceremonies — my daughter calls this person ‘the manager’
  • rehearsed performances by the birthday kid’s older sisters/cousins, featuring highly-sexualised Bollywood numbers — you cringe, but since the parents look like their child has just ended world hunger, you nod and say, ‘Verrrry nice…’
  • a magic show (with frightened rabbits/doves) + a tattoo artist + a caricaturist + a hair braider-and-colourer (horrible chemical colours on your child’s head, but never mind)
  • games that make your toes curl. Like ‘pick the dad with the biggest paunch’ or asking the birthday kid’s father to choose the best dancer among the assembled mummies, who obligingly shimmy for him

Recently, at a 4-year-old boy’s birthday party, after the professional clowns had romped on the stage, we were in for a hitherto unseen treat. The ‘manager’ invited the headmaster of the child’s playschool to ‘say a few words about the birthday boy’. The guests’ jaws dropped in unison. Listening to a speech in praise of someone who has just stepped out of diapers is a mildly surreal experience.

Then there are the return gifts. Caboodles of plastic crap, made in the dark by-lanes of Shenzhen, China. The bags, folders, water-bottles, tiffin-boxes and melamine-laced plate-and-spoon-sets are all given to kids who don’t really need more stuff. A rare, brave parent will sometimes risk popularity and give out potted plants or books.

It’s all meant to feel like a carnival, I guess, a mindless motion of money and ‘enjoyment’. In a perfect world, a birthday party wouldn’t be that, I think. It would mean experiencing something new and life-changing, something that truly celebrates a milestone. Learning about fish or butterflies, going to a farm, a nature walk or a fun session at the museum, or discovering a craft together. Till that happens, let’s aim at less wasteful, more conscious and aware birthday parties.

It’s a dirty job, but some-mum’s got to do it!

This appeared in the DNA of Sunday, July 24, 2011

Saturday, July 09, 2011

New books - published by Pratham!

written in 2001, the idea for this story was suggested by amit. then he worked with me to whet it, and later gouri worked on it a lot (special, special thanks for her editorial genius and patience). i sent it to puffin, where sayoni basu at puffin liked it, and though they didn't publish it finally, sayoni pulled me into a lot of fun projects - like the puffin book of bedtime stories, and the tenth rasa.
ambili is a much-travelled story, and finally, she found her form and her book at pratham, where manisha chaudhary was kind enough to choose to publish her! venkat raman singh shyam drew and painted her, in his lovely, restful style... so here she is, in her own story, ambili meets the king!
i love that the idea came from a gujju, was written by a mallu, illustrated by a pardhan gond artist from madhya pradesh...

giju bhai again, is someone i met thru amit and we worked with his folk nonsense in the tenth rasa too. after translating poetry for the tenth rasa, i really wanted to try some prose. then i met sampurna murti of pratham, and turns out they were thinking of translating giju bhai's stories - thru a hindi re-telling of them illustrated by aabid surti.
it was an exciting project, as i worked with both versions - aabid bhai's and giju bhai's. during this project, amit also chanced upon the gujarati giju bhai version he had read as a child, illustrated by aabid bhai!
so here the two volumes are, full of some of the nicest, cheeriest folk stories. and filled with aabid bhai's funny drawings. hope you find them near you people, or else look up their site. you could order online or find a store near you using their store locator.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Of sleeping and swearing

The eagles who soar through the sky are at rest
And the creatures who crawl, run and creep.
I know you’re not thirsty. That’s bull***t. Stop lying.
Lie the **** down, my darling, and sleep…

Not my lines, but lord, I wish they were. Novelist Adam Mansbach, exhausted with his daughter Vivien’s refusal to sleep, wrote the hilarious, cathartic poem Go the **** to Sleep. While its gentle rhymes and brilliant illustrations (by Ricardo Cortés) make it look like a picture book, it is definitely not to be read to your child. Not unless you want her to grow up with the vocabulary of a truck driver. Because this best-selling ‘children’s book for adults’ is about a father swearing at his child’s reluctance to fall asleep.

I can see your raised eyebrows from here. The thing is, till you have tried to put a reluctant child to sleep, you have NO IDEA how tough it can be. Most young parents learn — the hard, humbling way — that kids have their own body clocks. In two years or so you recognise this, and officially give up hope. You may have dinner plates to wash or a cure for cancer to invent or your limbs may be falling off from sheer exhaustion. But baby won’t fall asleep till he wants to. There are still so many toes and fingers to play with, and so much of your hair to pull. It’s enough to make you want a village to raise your child with!

Sleep patterns vary. Some kids sleep at 8pm and wake up shiny-faced at 6am. Some young debauches bounce off the walls till 12am and then crash, only to come around at about 10am the next day. Mine sleeps late and wakes up early. At 11.45 in the night, when my eyelids droop shut in the middle of some story she is telling me, she pulls them apart so that I can listen to her more attentively. At an obscene 6.45am, she’s up again (only on holidays) having remembered some crucial detail she forgot last night.

I have realised that sleep deprivation is a fairly refined device of torture. A friend’s mother who had two kids in quick succession spent the next few years waking up at night for this one’s feeds and that one’s pee. She thought she would never ever sleep again, that her life would pass by in a miasma of tired un-sleptness. The frustrated sense that Mansbach calls ‘…being in a room with a kid and feeling like you may actually never leave that room again...’ Imagine, then, having twins or triplets.

As kids grow, their exploration of the day’s stimulus becomes more verbal. My kid isn’t obsessed with her toes now; she has questions. How did cavemen have babies — there were no doctors to cut their tummies open? Why we have skin? Why are kids mean in class? Why are you mean to me? Can I be an actress? A dancer? Do taps need electricity? I know that the kind thing to do is to retire early, giving her the time to talk through her thoughts. But life has this way of making bhartha out of my best intentions, and invariably bedtime is a tug-of-war between my ‘Go-to-sleep!’ and her ‘Amma-one-last-thing!’

One of our unforgettable bedtime discussions featured the question ‘What are fathers for?’ To look after you, I say, yours feeds and bathes you, no? Frustrated, she sits up. ‘No, I mean before that — the mummy carries the baby inside her stomach. What is the daddy for?’ So she’s talking biology, I’m talking sociology. And to save myself time, I’m being thick too.

God knows I’m not shy of discussing anatomy. But late at night, sleep and chores tugging at my mind, I want to quote Mansbach, be a bad parent and say, ‘No more questions. This interview’s over…’ Go the bleep to sleep, kid!

This article first appeared in the DNA of Sunday, June 19, 2011

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Swapping stories and postcards!

We took part in Zoe Toft's International Postcard Swap this year. It was a way to get n excited about her drawing and her copious reading - as this vacation had us pretty sadly under-engaged, what with her chicken pox and my bad back. She drew about 7 really lovely postcards (including the 'potatoe monster' who 'eats dishes' above) and had great fun choosing from among her books, and then re-reading all her favourite - and sometimes forgotten - books.

So this was our list:
Ten Apples Up on Top by Dr Seuss, illustrated by Roy McKie. An elegant and hilarious read. N has long given up on picture books and beginner readers, but every now and then, she sneaks back to them, looking inside for fun. We found this one in Pondicherry, and I was going to gift it away till I caught her reading and re-reading it, and chortling into her chin. When we spoke about recommending books, this was one of her first shouts!

The Grey Lady and the Strawberry Snatcher by Molly Bang. another total favourite of n's. just loves loves loves this wordless books, even going back to it repeatedly. Molly bang, wherever you are, you have two hardcore fans in India. More about how we got the book here.

The BFG by Roald Dahl. Her first proper big novel. Finished all 200 pages of it last month, using a bookmark and feeling extremely serious. loves it to madness, esp the bits about how people from different parts of the world taste different! ('people from india taste of ink!') She found the giant's names and their specific 'tastes' in kids too funny. wanted to make a play of it, with herself as sophie (what a surprise, i say!)

Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise brown - a long-forgotten read, was happily pulled out because we got a 2-yr-old and a 3-yr-old in our list. a very sweet, calming read, and used to be our bedtime story for a bit.

Pete's a Pizza by William Steig. It's raining outside, Pete cant go to play. He has these rather elderly parents or grandparents with him, who look at him calmly and proceed to make a pizza out of him, using checkers, paper pieces, talcum powder and liberal amounts of tickling. When the sun comes out, Pete walks off. All very wry and unsentimental and great fun.

Nonie's Magic Quilt by You-know-who. How could n resist recommending a book about herself? We sent Rose, from France, a copy of the book too!

On the Way Home
by Jill Murphy, about a little girl who can't resist telling a reeeeally tall tale. I was surprised to find n wanting to recco it bec its been a while since she last read it. But it's a really mad, lovely book.

The Why-why Girl by Mahashweta Devi. I was insistent that we recco more Indian books, but managed to get only two in. This is one of n's favourites and she has it in marathi and in english. it's a story about a tribal girl and the life she lives, told with an unusual lightness... I do hope the family manages to find a copy!

Tuesday by David Wiesner - surreal and scary, it's a wonder that most kids love this book as much as adults do. a quiet swamp, floating frogs, puzzled fish and hardboiled detectives. what more could a kid ask for in a book?

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Thinking Thepla, Eating Idli

If you marry someone from another ethnic group in India, two things could happen. Either your parents never talk to you again, or, if they are nice, normal people, they mutter hopeful homilies like, ‘Children from inter-caste-marriages are always very clever…’ Luckily, it’s a while before you learn about the realities of living with differences. As a Malayalee married to a Gujarati, I could tell you a bit about this.

As with all things in India, finally, it all comes down to food and drink. Mallus believe that drinking hot water boiled with jeera, dhania or ginger in summer actually cools the body down. I never drank ice-cold, fridge-water at home, growing up. Once, around 5, I mistook a small bottle of white vinegar for water, grabbed it and drank deep before anyone could stop me. If they saw me, they'd take away the bottle, I knew. My lips turned blue, mom says, but I refused to let go of that bottle.

Somehow, in Kerala, anyone wanting to drink ice-cold-water is morally suspect, and is just asking for a sore throat. And a sore throat, as we all know, is the end of the world. For the first year of our marriage, the fridge was a silent war zone. He would put in bottles of water, I would take them out. It seemed wrong somehow, to be serving cold water at home, you know; to wantonly tempt the tonsil-gods thus? I mean, whatever next? Surely, drinking cold water at home is just a pit stop on the putrid path to gambling and alcoholism? My mum still doesn’t get why her son-in-law — such a fan of Mallu food otherwise — blanches at the Malayalee idea of a summer cooler: hot, pale-yellow, jeera-infused water.

Perhaps it’s because he’s from Kathiawad, where drinking cold water in summer feels like a minor religious experience. In summer, my mother-in-law freezes little steel katoris or bowls of filtered water. When they are frozen, they are slipped slurpily into into a large vessel of drinking water. And then — here's the best part — people drink it! I watched her do this the first time I visited with with a mix of horror and delight. Guiltily, I drank glassfuls, looking around furtively for a yelling adult. The fridge wars have hence ceased.

But others have taken their place. Breakfast in a Mallu house is serious business, with idli, dosha (yes, not dosa, with the hard /d/ and the snaky /s/), upma or appam. In a Gujju house, breakfast is the time you kill, munching homemade naasta before a delicious hing-and-gur-tinged lunch. When the sun sets, you want to eat light, and it’s time for a ‘prograam’. A bhel, bhajiya, dhokla or paani-puri no prograam. I watched, awe-struck, as the elderly polished off fried snacks for dinner — pav bhaji, pani puri, batata vada and / or bhajiyas. If I gave a Mallu father-in-law bhajiyas for a meal, Chernobyl, to put it mildly, would happen. Cardiac health! Diabetes! Acidity! Filial brutality! Murder! Stuffing my face, I worried about being able to conjure up similar whatnots when the in-laws visited us in Mumbai. Obviously, a square meal would just not do.

Then there are the specific food-group-related hysterias. Featuring — in our case — rice and proteins. We Mallus like our proteins caught, killed, cooked in kilos of cokennut and served with red rice. To most Gujjus, proteins = dals, which are eaten with rotlis, and not with rice (simply too starchy, no? Not healthy — say the people who mainline deep-fried food at breakfast).

The thinner half and I found all of it hilarious — till baby arrived. Then battles-lines were clearly drawn. Methi as a lactational prompt versus wheat. Oil baths versus just baths. Ragi versus rava. Rice-kanji versus dal-paani. Yellow bananas versus green bananas. Picking-a-name-off-the-top-of-your-head versus naming by the horoscope or rashi. Rubbing a stick made of scented herbs with a bit of gold inside it and giving the baby a drop of the paste (Mallu colic cure) versus fainting at the suggestion (Gujju reaction).

And food-group hysteria again. As baby grew, my mother-in-law implored, ‘Dal is the best protein, it's all that the baby needs! No need to give her non-veg!’ And then, seeing that I was determined to raise an omnivore, the poor lady got to her specific fear. ‘At least don’t give her pig-meat!’ My mother, meanwhile, felt duty bound to inquire, ‘Why haven’t you started fish-chicken for this child still?’ Meanwhile, the fruit of my womb calmly refused Mallu staples like chicken, fish, steamed yellow bananas, jackfruit and rice kanji. She seemed predisposed to sev-gaanthiya, pasta, paneer, pijja, noodles, and still needs her daily Gujju staple: dal-bhaat-shaak-rotli.

Growing older makes you hanker for the ways of your childhood. It makes you want to reclaim some of the past by teaching your children things you picked up unconsciously from your parents. I sometimes imagine a family where everybody drinks warm jeera-water and enjoys dried-fish pickle. My husband probably dreams of a home where chhunda is made in summer and methi theplas are lovingly roasted by the wife in winter. However, despite our occasional longings for the familiar, it is with the unknown, the different, that we are charting a course. It’s a bit rocky, but it’s fun too.

Our mixed-up ‘Gujyalee’ or ‘Mallurati’ kid will, hopefully, find her own path through the minefield of her parents’ combined nostalgia. If she ever marries, though, I hope she goes all out on a limb. Brings home a son-in-law* who grew up eating boiled whale blubber or pickled goat intestines.

The more different the better, I say.

A shorter version of this article appeared in the
DNA of Sunday, May 15, 2011

* I should actually be PC and say person-in-law maybe, but let's get to that bridge when we see it, shall we?

Friday, May 06, 2011

Drop me a Postcard!

Described as the Best British Children’s Literature Blog by the School Library Journal, a pre-eminent online magazine for American Libraries, Playingbythebook.net is written by Zoe Toft. The 37-year-old mother from the UK is a trained linguist and a self-confessed lover of dictionaries. She reviews picture books with her children, and, interestingly, builds each review around an activity inspired by the book. For instance, when Toft reviewed my book, Nonie’s Magic Quilt, she merged it with a description of making a quilt for her daughter.

In 2010, Toft had an unusual idea. “We love receiving ‘proper’ mail, and wanted to participate in an online postcard swap,” she says. “There were many swaps, but none that the kids could enjoy. So I thought up a swap where every postcard would include a children’s book recommendation, because sharing a favourite book is a concrete way of making a connection. I hope to hold the swap every year. I don’t want to make the world any smaller, but I think it’s important we feel connected to each other.”

The swap is structured so that each family sends postcards to five families across the world. In turn, they receive postcards from five different families (not the same ones that they sent postcards to). The postcard can be printed or drawn, with a note recommending a favourite book. Effectively, the families find a window into each other’s lives, and share about 10 book suggestions among them. Toft says, “You can suggest the same book to all the families or – ideally – a different book to each. People often tailor their suggestions keeping in mind the recipient’s age.”

Toft’s first postcard swap in 2010 brought together over 250 families from far-flung places: Alaska, Argentina, Brunei, Bulgaria, Israel, Marshall Islands, Pakistan and Poland. “The toughest part is pairing up people, making sure everyone receives families from five different countries, with children of similar ages. The reward is hearing about the little connections they make. People who come back every year will be paired with different families.” After the 2010 swap, many families went on to become penpals.

During the swap, Toft “met” many people, including Sandhya L., a Bangalore-based writer for Saffrontree.org. Sandhya’s family sent cards to the UK, US, Singapore and Spain. Her daughter “was delighted to receive letters addressed to her. One came from the Republic of the Marshall Islands in the Pacific Ocean! In these days of instant communication, it was exciting to get post.”

Another new friend was homeschooling mom Bronwyn Lavery of Christchurch, New Zealand. Lavery says, “I set up a world map, marking the locations of families we connected with. I told my kids about the great distance each card would travel. We loved sharing our favourite books and searched for books that others recommended.”

And connections had indeed been made. When Christchurch had a 6.3-magnitude earthquake in April 2011, Toft got in touch with Lavery and heard that many families had lost their homes. Together, they paired families around the world with those in Christchurch, and, “Thanks to the kindness of strangers, we sent 565 books into welfare centres and care packages as well, so that the families would have something to enjoy as they rebuilt their lives.”

Click here to find out more about the International Postcard Swap for Families. Or email zoe.toft@kuvik.net. The last date to register is May 17.

A shorter version of this article appeared in The Mint of Friday, May 6, 2011, to see it on the page, click here: http://www.livemint.com/2011/05/05220037/Drop-me-a-postcard.html?h=C

Friday, April 29, 2011

Art, within and without lines

In the long-forgotten past, I worked in a publishing house. With actual adults, politics, a cafeteria, and real gossip. But before I start weeping at those fond memories, let me move on to the one that inspired this article. Colouring books. Full of perfect, pre-drawn pictures, colouring books were our main money-spinners, and their status as such was sacrosanct.

Once, feeling a bit wild — or unwell maybe — I suggested doing an open-ended sort of art-and-activity book for children. Not the kind where the kid colours a smiling mouse, but one where she is encouraged to apply her mind as well. So you have, say, a tiger with a thought bubble, and the child has to figure out — and doodle — what the tiger might want to eat. Shooting Nazar-suraksha-kavach-type rays of condescension my way, the boss said, ‘Why parents buy activity and colouring books? So that children will do timepass. Not so that children will ask them what to draw.’ Point noted. I shut my gob.

Ten years later, working with kids has shown me that art can and should be seen only as a method of self-expression in children. Any adult intervention should be at the level of acting as a facilitator or trigger — and nothing more. To take joy in colours and explore materials should be the primary focus, rather than acquiring the ‘skills’ associated with making perfect pictures. Skill-based art classes — madly popular right now — teach kids 4 to 6-years-old how to draw and colour ‘well’. They come out making pretty pictures no doubt, but their natural and delightful uninhibitedness is pretty much ironed out of them.

Try saying the words ‘colouring books’ to my otherwise mild-mannered-artist husband, and he will break into a taandav and rip your head off. These seemingly-innocent books — or the spawn of Satan as he calls them — meet two key parental desires: perfection in the child’s ‘performance’, and secondly, quiet engagement, or ‘timepass’. Like the classes, they leave no room for open-endedness, imagination and self-expression. They also pass on a subtle signal to kids: drawing is grown-up’s work, and should not be attempted by you. You just colour. Neatly and within the lines.

So as a toddler, our kid was only given paper, paints, water and brushes. She messed around like Jackson Pollock on steroids. Skills, her father said, could be taught later. We were entirely smug about this till she returned bawling one day from pre-school. Colouring a printed picture within the lines had her flummoxed. Given colours and paper, she scribbled, rubbed, crushed, had fun. Unlike most kids in her class, she had never seen a colouring book and didn’t know that you couldn’t — at 4 — let your crayons stray. We were actually saddened when she came home one day with her enthusiastic-but-totally-formless colouring of a teddy bear. When the teacher shouted / reprimanded her (I'm not sure which it was), our madam told her, 'But that's how Jackson Pollock paints!' The father of the child laughed, but I simply cringed. There was a huge mis-match between what we were doing at home and what was being done at school.

Colouring within the lines may be an artistically pointless pursuit, but to most teachers, colouring with fat crayons is a good way to help children gain better finger-control. Sighing at our reluctance / inability to shift her school (lack of choice, huge distances, etc.), we quietly went out and bought colouring books. Gradually — with her kind teacher’s help — our child ‘caught up’ with her friends. Humble pie is delicious when the alternative is a teary child.

Now that she’s older, like others her age she draws stuff and builds stories around it. Silly, strange vignettes that probably pop into the head as the hands move (and her artistic tantrums are part of the package too, her friends’ mothers tell me). We’ve also discovered the Japanese artist Taro Gomi’s delightful doodling books. Open-ended and thought-provoking, they don’t just make time pass, they make it fly like Rajnikant on 3G.

It’s cruelly ironic that though we don’t send her to art tuitions, she shamelessly picks up colouring tips like ‘shading’ from the art-tuition-going-kids at school. As an adult she’ll probably write about her kanjoos, oppressive parents who wouldn’t send her to art class at 4 and how deprived she felt about it.

Too bad. We’ll survive that, I hope!

(this article first appeared in the DNA of April 17, 2011)

Monday, April 18, 2011

Passing on the book bug

When I tell people that I write children’s books they usually imagine that I am:
1.As rich as Croesus from all the royalties my kindly publishers send me.

2.If not, then at least as rich as J K Rowling. I mean, at least.

3.If not rich, then surely living in a world full of sweet peppermint twists, where unicorns of joy regularly gambol at my feet.
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It’s fun to disabuse people of these charming notions.

They blanch on hearing about some of the ogres in publishing, and when I tell the average Shining Indian Yuppie how much children’s writing actually pays, the silence is deafening.

There’s a fourth notion that some people — mostly mums with streaked hair and big bags — have about people who write books for children. This is the one where they imagine that writers must know enough practical magic to be able to whiz a video-game-and-mall-obsessed child into an avid reader — overnight, at the age of say 9 or 10 years. Easily done, no? Well, er, no.

When parents tell me ‘My kid doesn’t read, what to do?’ I usually ask them if they read. Some laugh out aloud at the quaint notion of themselves as readers, while others look thoughtful and ask if I meant Chicken Soup for the Parent’s Soul. When I say ‘No,’ they reply cheerfully, ‘Then no, I don’t read. But I’d reeeallly like my kid to read!’

So I explain that to inspire their kids to read, they need to get excited about reading themselves. They look shattered. Obviously I should have said something sensible like ‘Soak three newspapers overnight, blend and pour into a purple glass and then pour into your child’s mouth while holding his nose shut and praying to the sun. You can be sure that he will begin reading on the sixth day!’

Unfortunately, human beings are essentially apes, and we learn by imitation. Little apes watch grown-up apes to figure out what is edible and what is not, what is to be loved and what is not. So if parents value shopping, video games and trips to the mall above all other activities, chances are their kids will too. If parents love football and hiking, chances are their kids will too. And typically, if parents read, chances are, their kids will read too.

I personally worry that reading too much makes kids introverted. Sometimes I feel it lets them get their life-experiences second-hand. But that’s probably because my kid reads. I would rather she were sporty and physical, but she has grown up watching her mother read while lounging around, cooking, eating, and even while trying to fall asleep. Father is same-to-same, with the added feature that he also reads on the pot. It would be pointless for me to despair at the fact that she doesn’t run or swim fantastically well, and regards the act of climbing trees with suspicion. But she reads everything, everywhere — all sorts of books, in the car and on the pot. Apples have this nasty habit of falling close to their trees.

So yes, mums-and-dads, the only thing that will get your kid excited about books is you getting excited about them. If you don’t read but genuinely want your kid to, here are some suggestions: buy interesting, age-appropriate books, and read them out to your child. If he or she is too young to get the ‘reading’, then tell the tale. Dramatically, with a sense of fun. While keeping a watch out for signs of engagement and/or boredom. Talk about books, spend money on buying them (yes, that is key) — you could, like us, also trawl through secondhand stores. While your jaw might lock with boredom, chances are your kid might get into a reading habit.

And who knows, maybe it’ll make a happy reader out of you too!

(this article first appeared in the
DNA of Mar 27, 2011)

Saturday, March 05, 2011

Pressure-Cooked Kids

Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, which I reviewed for the DNA some weeks back, is causing a sharp intake of breath among educationists everywhere. The book is about her life as a hysterical over-ambitious parent, and what disturbed me, personally, is that she is not the only one out there.

Whether it’s Ms Chua in America, or Mrs Rao in Matunga, pushing kids to ‘reach their potential’ begins much earlier these days. Moms I meet at school look at me like I just crawled in from under a particularly grimy rock when I tell them that my 6-year-old has only just begun to learn basketball and music. I can see their antennae quivering: Neglectful Mom Alert!

One lady has been ‘showing’ her kid books of maths tables from the time he was 3; put him in Abacus classes by 4; ‘piano’ or keyboard classes (yes, it’s not just the humble ‘Casio’ anymore) by 4.5; and of course, chess by 5. Another, the mom of a 7-year-old musically gifted child, takes him for Hindustani, Carnatic, and ‘piano’ classes on alternative days, after he’s done seven hours at school. Being excessively liberal, she says, ‘If he finds it too much, I have told him to tell me.’ Yeah, right. See, kids live to please the adults in their lives. Practically everything is acceptable because they don’t know of alternatives. That’s why we, as parents, need to calm the heck down.

Among the favoured classes these days are ‘phonetics’ (doesn’t matter that the term is wrongly used), grammar, tuition, dance, music, Abacus, Vedic Maths, story-telling, creativity, taekwondo and chess. Having shoved their clueless kids into strangers’ homes, mummies enjoy a bit of that precious commodity – free time. And they’ve earned it by paying to have their kids ‘build their potential’ and ‘increase their confidence’, no? It doesn’t matter that being pressurized to do too much early in life can actually lead to anxiety and diffidence in kids.

Increasingly, psychologists tell us that unstructured time – when children hang about with friends or figure out ways to engage themselves – is important. Between school hours and various classes, what about this generation’s unstructured time? Most of us grew up with time which we were allowed to cheerfully waste. Turns out, that ‘wasted’ time – when we could do what we liked – is actually an important tool to de-stress and to build creativity.

The real risk with parents who ‘work so hard’ is that they start expecting rewards. If Aryaman doesn’t make the building aunties swoon at a ‘society function’, then why did we send him to all those Hindustani Music classes, yaar? And if he does sweep ’em off their feet, then, you know, how about Indian Idol next? Alarmingly, The Guardian’s Terri Apter notes that over-parented kids often grow up to be ‘compliant and devious’, ‘obsessed with grades and lacking interest in their subjects’.

Every generation gets the sort of writing on education which reflects its beliefs and aspirations. In the last century Maria Montessori, Rabindranath Tagore, Waldorf Steiner, Aurobindo, Gijubhai Badheka and others propagated a humanistic, benevolent approach to learning. The 70s had John Holt, who advocated homeschooling. It would be truly sad but telling if Amy Chua – who slaps and stresses-out her kids – were to write our generation’s educational classic!

A longer and duller version of this article appeared in the DNA of Sunday Mar 6. They printed an earlier version by mistake :( and they also used a different title!

That lovely pic was drawn by Yuko Shimizu for the Time mag. See more of his brilliant work here.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Bookstores by the Bay

Cities–like the people in them–do not live by bread alone. They need mind and soul food to grow into the vibrant entities that they become. Mumbai has been given its mind food–in the form of stories, novels, pamphlets, athletic rule books, comics and other literary whatnots–by a small band of dedicated bookshops which have been around for 50 years and more. Growing organically with the city, these bookshops have seen it all, and with time, become landmarks in themselves.

A smoky corner of the world 
The wonderful, timeless Smoker’s Corner is cleverly laid out in the foyer of Botawala Mansion just outside Ballard Estate, the city’s heritage business district. Suleiman Botawala (76) says, “I bought Smoker’s in 1959 from the original British owners who sold tobacco. Since I loved reading, I slowly changed to books. In those days, P M Road was a two-way street, and it was washed clean regularly.”
There is a clean-cut, spare sort of elegance to the shop, with the display arranged neatly in shelves of lovely, rich teak. A piece of string holds the flap of each book shut – to prevent the covers from getting dog-eared, Botawala explains.

Where are his rarest books, I ask. “All in my house!” he replies with a chuckle. “The moment I spot a rare or unique book, I hold on to it till a customer comes and asks for it. Then I usually gift it to them.” Gift it? Whatever happened to the economics of book selling?
“I’ve sold a lot, and besides, sharing books is the greatest joy in life. Here I’ve met some of the most interesting people in the city and I’ve learned so much from each of them. This is my way of giving back something.” One of his customers in the ’80s, a learned, unassuming man, turned out to be Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. He was then the Governor of the nearby Reserve Bank of India.
Botawala is never in your face, making it a policy ‘not to interfere’ with customers. However, he also knows his regulars’ tastes, and always has a treat saved for them. Knowing my fondness for obscure Russian children’s books, he gets me a stack of his oldest.
Botawala is genuinely delighted by the new books stores. “They will surely click, because reading is popular once again. Only their prices are forbidding.”
He shows me a thick, aged book of quotations called Noble Thoughts in Noble Languages and smiles, “New shops may have a mind-boggling range of best-sellers, but they don’t have real treasures like these!” [Mr Botawala passed away in 2009. His son Zubair now manages the shop.]

Where the price is always right
Just further down the road from Smoker’s, is Strand Book Stall, another treasure-trove. Here they pride themselves on their consistently low pricing. “We keep the thinnest of margins,” says P M Shenvi (60), the ever-smiling manager. “That’s how we sell many books at less than half their prices, and give 20% off on others. Our aim is to be affordable and we curtail all other expenses towards that. No fancy décor for us!” Despite that, Strand’s book-lined walls have a distinctive ambience. It’s a combination of courtesy, efficiency and the lingering smell of new books.
Strand’s founder, T N Shanbag [who passed away in February 2009], was perhaps the only bookseller to have won a UNESCO award and a Padmashri. “As a young graduate,” Shenvi recounts, “Shanbag was once asked to stop browsing in a bookshop and leave unless he bought something. He dreamt of setting up a bookshop someday that would keep its doors open to browsers – even those without the money to buy.”
Shanbag eventually set up a bookstall with a capital of Rs 450/- in 1948. He rented a small space inside Strand Cinema with the permission of K K Modi, its owner. Shenvi adds, “Later in 1954 we moved here, thanks in part to Justice M C Chagla’s help.” The roster of Strand’s patrons includes names like Jawaharlal Nehru, Sir Ambalal Sarabhai, R K Narayan, Graham Greene, J R D Tata and Nani Palkiwala.
Things have changed with time. “Before, people preferred classics, but now management and self-help books are popular… And back then, our biggest landmarks were Flora Fountain, Handloom House and Khadi Gramudyog,” Shenvi observes.
Does he consider the new chain bookshops competition? “They are good, but you find the same stocks everywhere. I feel that we are really different. Our interest lies more in encouraging reading, in promoting books.”
And as someone who has spent hours browsing at Strand without buying anything at all, I can certainly vouch for that!

Up next, some sporting action
Mumbai is also home to one of the three bookshops in the world that are exclusively devoted to books on sports. Marine Sports, currently located in Dadar, was started on Marine Drive in 1946 by Bruno Braganza. His son Theo Braganza (58) says, “Dad sold sporting goods, but found the cut-throat competition too much.”
So how did the idea for the switch come up? “He used to love reading, and used to go to sports meets. There he found a demand for rule books, and began importing them. By 1956 we had shifted to Dadar and converted to exclusively selling books on sports. Dadar was something of a cricket hub then,” says the genial Braganza.
Though he was trained to be an engineer, Braganza joined Marine Sports in 1972, when his father grew unwell. He also did a course in publishing, combining his interests in books and sports. “Cricketers and other sportsmen have always come to Marine... Gavaskar was a regular. Before any match he would read up on his opponents. Once, before leaving for Australia, he asked me for a book which was sold out. Dad refused to order just one copy. But I insisted because I felt it would make a positive contribution to Gavaskar’s growth. That’s when I realized that what we were really more than just another business.”
And Marine Sports had indeed created mindspace for a whole generation of sports fans, players, young journalists and officials. Braganza says, “Till the ’80s, sports lovers used to buy all kinds of sports books. But after that, with the rising prices, they became selective.” Currently, Braganza reprints and distributes books to institutes and dealers; and buys and sells rare sports books.
What does Braganza miss about the old Mumbai? “Every weekend, Kalbadevi used to have a sprawling book market. We should to revive it, because there is enough interest. If it can happen in Daryaganj in Delhi, then why not here?”
Why not, indeed. Anyone listening?

The grand-daddy of them all
For sheer age and volume of books though, there’s nothing quite like the New and Second Hand Book Store. Shelves and racks in the medium-sized shop are lined with obscure, fascinating old books. Firoze Vishram (65), the owner Sultan Vishram’s brother, takes out a meticulously-written list of their really rare books. A 1711 edition of The Lucubrations by Sir Isaac Bickerstaff is the oldest.
Outside the shop is a wall display of old books for 10/- and 20/-. You’re sure to find a gem or two here. “People sometimes tell us that we sell our books too cheap,” says Vishram. “But we are not interested in huge profits. We buy low and sell low. My grandfather Jamalbhai Rattansey began this business in 1905. He bought books by weight and sold them very cheap. One client, Magistrate Oscar Brown, would sift through the books and correct the pricing, suggesting that some were worth more.”
Currently, the shop is owned by Rattansey’s grandson Sultan Vishram (67). But over the years, the one constant in the shop has been Chandrakant Mankame, its manager of 60 years. Retired now, Vishram recommends that I meet him.
At 75, Mankame is energetic and alert. “I joined the shop as a cleaner in 1944, when my father died. I was 9. One day when the salesman was absent I helped a customer find a book. The owner spotted my interest in books, and encouraged me. Later he put me in charge. I took the responsibility very seriously till I retired in 2005.”
Mankame also developed an eye for rare books. “I felt that books spoke to me when I opened them. I bought up people’s old collections till the walls were completely filled. My guides were people like H S Mardhani (one of the previous owners) and Arun Tikekar.”
Even as we talk, a lady walks in asking for an old book. She has heard that any book in the world can be found here. It’s a formidable reputation to have. Not for nothing, I guess, have Rajneesh, V K Krishna Menon, Babasaheb Ambedkar and Ali Yavar Jang all stopped to browse here.
(The New and Secondhand Bookshop has just shut down. Putting this piece here in memory…)

This was written in Dec 2007 for the Mumbai International Airport’s magazine. Coordinated by Bijal at the Paprika Media Team. 

Saturday, February 12, 2011

A Tigress for a Mother...

It’s probably the toughest job in the world, but there’s no training for it. There are no degrees you can get, or papers you could write before they feel you can come on board. Seriously, all it takes to become a parent is the correct set of anatomical parts and a functioning hormonal make-up. And the ‘job’ in concern is a small human being who you have to care for and nurture for the next 20 years. That bit in italics is the scariest thing about parenting.

All you bring to the table, really, are your own emotional baggage and your set of highly idiosyncratic notions on what sort of person your kid should grow up to be. Battle Hymn Of The Tiger Mother is Amy Chua’s description of how she raised her children, bringing her own unique and mildly demented ideas to the process — often, in the face of her American husband Jed Rubenfeld’s quiet anger and disapproval.

A daughter of Chinese immigrants, a professor of law at Yale, and a renowned writer on ethnicity and foreign affairs, Chua is the epitome of the successful, driven, Asian mom. Brought up in the hard, Chinese way, she is determined not to raise her child like Western parents do — with kindness, quick appreciation and indulgence. Much that she sees wrong in the people around her — neuroses, dysfunctional families, entitled kids with no drive or ambition — she attributes to the Western model of parenting, where parents readily accept their children’s under-achievement and laziness. Western parents let children enjoy their childhood; but Chinese parents, she says, prepare children for the future.

She opts to be a ‘Chinese Mother’, which she explains early on, is not a racial identity but a personality type. ‘Chinese Mothers’ are parents who are ambitious for their children and will steamroll their kids’ immediate desires to ensure their future success. Nothing is fun, she says, till you master it. It’s not enough to be ‘good’ at an instrument; you have to be playing at the Carnegie Hall or performing for international audiences to be acceptable.

Chua’s non-acceptance of mediocrity is across-the-board. She rejects the sloppy birthday cards her kids make her because — with her Confucian wisdom — she knows they can do better. The speeches they write for the funeral of their dead paternal grandmother are moving, simply because Chua wouldn’t accept their first ‘Hallmark-card-type’ efforts. Every success is a direct result of her slave-driving.

In Chua’s view, being a hard-to-please parent will ensure that you raise obedient, devoted, focussed kids who excel at classical music, never become neurotic, and best of all, will look after you in your dotage. Well, her older daughter is just 15 or 16 years old, so let’s not start setting off the fireworks of success yet. Will there be a Guess How My Tiger Mother Scarred Me by one of her kids in the future? Let’s wait and see.

Battle Hymn…
is engaging because it makes you cringe and laugh at the same time. Chua’s determination to make a genius out of the family’s dog is funny, while her daughter’s stress-induced biting of the piano’s legs, is not. Working within the cruel-to-be-kind school of parenting, she admits that reprimanding her kids is exhausting, heart-wrenching work. So slapping her daughter in Barcelona — for not kicking her fingers high enough while playing the piano — is the price she pays for giving the child the opportunity to play for an audience ‘in a glass-windowed room, overlooking the Mediterranean’. That she shares these instances in horrifyingly naked detail, is chilling.

Each time Chua goads one of her kids into a stellar public performance, she rests and gloats for a brief moment — usually in the last four lines of the chapter. Then it’s back to nagging them on to another euphoric accolade-drawing effort. Just as this starts getting dull, Battle Hymn… takes a turn for, I’m tempted to say, the human. Her sister’s grave illness becomes a pivot for the story. It is followed by a meltdown of sorts, which brings her the realisation that the Chinese Mother must transmogrify into what she really is — a Western parent. Ironically, the advice that prods her into doing so comes from her mother who raised her the hard, Chinese way.

Battle Hymn…
is about choices we make — for ourselves and our children. It is a frightening book in parts, and in others, it nudges us to question our own assumptions. Watching her point out the obvious failures of Western parenting is interesting. But then, just reading about Chua’s horrible excesses — throwing a three-year-old out into the winter evening because she refuses to play one note on the piano — is enough to stamp out all admiration. It makes you want to have her certified.

What works for the book is the close-to-the-bones feeling that Chua brings to her words. She pulls no punches. When her relationship with her second daughter sours, her descriptions of their encounters are as graphic as her writing on her ‘triumphs’. The book is destined to become a bestseller in the chick-lit-for-grown-ups genre. It has that crucial mix of ingredients: clever, glib writing; humour; pretty, successful people with tiny, self-created problems; and a dramatic twist where the angry maverick turns back to the fold of the Western way. All one hopes for is that the book doesn’t become a self-help-type bestseller, with mothers being inspired by its methods.

Now that would be truly scary.

This book review first appeared in the DNA of Feb 6, 2011 with a different title.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

No shame or what?

An old friend from Delhi visited us recently — a really great guy who is stylish in the way that only men from Delhi can be. One evening, I asked him to carry a perfectly good, purple coloured, non-crackly (crucial detail) plastic bag. Nothing prepared me for his shocked yelp. “A plastic bag you want me to hold? It crackles and it’s pink! No way! It just won’t go with me.” He shuddered.

I took it back, muttering something like, “Wait-till-you-have-a-kid-bugger.” See, the last six years have changed us. Pista-green candy-striped cloth bags, ugly red-and-yellow umbrellas, Tinkerbell raincoats, sky-blue potty seats and the like have been lugged by us.We have, in many ways, lost our sense of style — and, truly, lost our sense of shame too.

I blame it all on the process of becoming parents. The loss of one’s coolth begins with the woman getting pregnant. As a guy, once your woman’s bump starts to show, and there’s that civilised and public acknowledgement of your sex life by neighbours and parents, you change in crucial ways. Don’t ask me how or why, but it happens. I had fertility issues at one point, and I remember the doctor — a respectable, middle-aged, mom-type — asking us to ‘have relations as many times as possible’ on a particular date. I stared at her for five whole seconds, eyes narrowed, wondering what in heck she was saying. And suddenly I realised that she was asking us to have sex. When we recovered from the acute nails-on-the-wall-feeling induced by her euphemism, we knew that nothing would be the same any more; least of all, the act itself.

As for women — do I really need to elaborate? Somehow, having a child is equivalent to being in a reality show inside a goldfish bowl in your neighbourhood. Because once you’re pregnant, the human race at large suddenly begins to take an active interest in you. This is probably an atavistic thing, dating back to centuries of being concerned about she-who-bears-life. Apart from being prodded by the doctor and his/her team, the world and its cousin will advise you. The best nugget I got was a vital tip on human anatomy from an elderly Punjabi uncle on my morning walk. "Eat  ghee-rich ‘panjeeri,’" he said, "It will ‘make your insides smooth’ so that the baby ‘comes out easily’." Between incomprehension and shock, there is a small space called parenthood.

Inevitably and slowly, you will relax into the state, wantonly discussing vomiting, acidity and bowel movements with strangers.

One of the most painful tasks in the final weeks of pregnancy was something i take for granted now - the security of my salwar. No matter where i tied the salwar string, and no matter where, the salwar would slip down the parabola of my belly, and I would keep hitching it up. Pull up that salwar in full public view often enough, and you realise that dignity-wise, it’s all the way south from here. (Why did I continue wearing falling-naada salwars? Because this was deep, dark 2003, when only aerobics instructors and male dancers wore tights. Respectable pregnant women were either looking like ducks in frocks, or seahorses in saris, or were wearing ‘punjabi dresses’.)

Once you have the baby, the change is irreversible. You talk about food, poop, milk and breast pumps with a quiet insouciance. You used to be angsty, reserved, cool people. Now you’re loud, hustling parents, who have no qualms asking stern pediatricians daft questions, or doling out free advice to pregnant women and new moms. Yeah, and you stop being so darn particular about things like bags.

Between losing her senses of style, shame and sanity, Anita Vachharajani raises a child and writes children’s books

This article appeared in the DNA of Sunday, Jan 30, 2011