Wednesday, September 04, 2013

Of history, roads, mother and coffee

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, August 03, 2013

Sssslip into ssssilent sssslumber...

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, May 04, 2013

Losing my tongue

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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