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, 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 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 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: