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 When the book came off the lending list and on to the withdrawn one, it came home with us!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 folk like me (and people who have poor social networking skills in the real world) it’s a window into the magic which happens elsewhere, in the Otherworlds 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 the promotional poster of the book drawn by Quentin Blake. The title was intriguing. Whoever heard of rights for readers? Weren’t we the supremely privileged and entitled ones? 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 in an under-privileged inner-city school 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, adults push kids away from books in the years that follow.

Pennac’s tip for getting kids 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 — or we think of them as ‘bad habits’ and disallow them. But short cuts are fine. Really. And who're we kidding? We all take 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 Archie 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, Archies and Amar Chitra Kathas and Goosebumps. 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 help create an atmosphere where all knowledge is embraced — and if that knowledge comes from a book, so be it. We need to make our kids literate of course, but whether they grow up to become readers or not is their choice. As Pennac reminds us, ‘while it’s fine for someone to reject reading, it’s totally unacceptable that they should be – or feel that they have been – rejected by reading. To be be excluded from books, even the ones you can do without, is terribly sad: a solitude within a solitude.’ Wise words indeed!

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

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

How corporate practices can shape nations

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

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

Nick Robins 

Orient Longman

(Anita Vachharajani © DNA)

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

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Mommy Maddest

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

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

Wednesday, February 01, 2012

New books mean new joys :)

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

you can see the book on pratham's page here

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Mixed nuts!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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