How to Win Friends and Influence People: Preschool Edition

All the jacks are out of the school box.

They skip, and hop, and jump, anything, but walk. My hand is getting tugged constantly with all the skipping and hopping and jumping happening at its other end.

I spot her from far. Thankfully she is on her phone. I look down intently, determined to escape another awkward greeting.

Platitudes drain. Platitudes with a competitive mother, drains even more.

But.

One can only hope for invisibility near sparklers.

So.

“HI AUNTIEEEE!!!” the little madeleine attached to my arm has already issued a loud greeting, with enthusiastic double hand waves to boot. Of course all this love neatly cuts across the distance and buzz.

She looks up surprised, gives the phone a pause and waves back with a smile. I grin, resisting the temptation to assure her that; no, we have not yet started on Carnegie. And yes, the friendliness must have definitely come from my side of the family.

Definitely.

Feminist Enough?

This post got me thinking.

I admit I am yet to completely wrap my head around this fascinating movement? …concept? …way of life? …belief system? …club? …ideology?

This post is nothing but a sounding board for some thoughts. I am pretty sure right at the onset that it will not wrap up tidily in the end. Still.

I have always assumed that I was a feminist. An educated professional, from a seemingly progressive family, I could laugh at the slightest suggestion that a woman was any lesser than a man. Further I considered myself a card bearing member of the society of universal sisterhood, wherein I pledged my unwavering support to any fellow woman, by default. I might even have believed, without a trace of doubt or need for a shred of evidence that, women are indeed better than men.

But having been a SAHM for the last 6 years, I had started entertaining doubts on whether I would qualify for the feminist tag. A little more introspection and I wonder if I would have ever qualified.

Don’t get me wrong, I have not found my bliss in domesticity. But I am happy to have the option of being with my young child and not have to grapple with a hundred priorities all at once. I am not cut out for multi tasking, maybe I will manage, I chose not to. I have seen my mother do a life time of juggling and even the memory of it leaves me exhausted. The decision also stemmed from the fact that I had realised that my career is not shaping up the way I want it to, what I wanted was something entirely different and hence needed to take a break to sort out my vague aspirations. I needed a fresh start anyway, so might as well get off the noisy bandwagon and be with my baby in the meantime.

If the above paragraph projects the image of a domestic Buddha, completely at peace with a choice and its bulleted reasons, let me clarify that the decision to stay at home is not a simple one, it is one part awesome, one part ugly and two parts no big deal.

For me, being a financially dependent woman, engaged primarily in ‘womanly’ duties did not qualify for the feminist certification. Those are the ones, I earnestly believed, that needed to be rescued. That is, once upon a time, before I was one of those women myself.

But now I am not so sure. I guess life does that to certainties, it warps them into giant question marks.

No, I am not questioning my belief in the equality of men and women. I still believe that we are completely equal, entitled to same rights and privileges, governed by the same laws, subject to exact same social codes of conducts and mores, to be held responsible for choices made. Any difference in abilities, talents or skills is an individual attribute not a gender specific one. Apart from pregnancy and childbirth every single role can be very satisfactorily handled by both the sexes. I am sure with advances in science even that caveat will no longer apply.

So my confusion is purely regarding my own feminist credentials. Before I am teased for so desperately wanting to be a feminist, it is not the tag but the legacy I want to be worthy of.

Because, there was a time, in an uncomfortably recent past, when a woman was by default considered less than a man. This being a fairly ridiculous proposition the women fought fiercely for the right to be acknowledged as an equal human being with a fully functional adult brain and right and ability to work and choose and own her body and her life.

That war is still on.

Some of those battles have been won.

I am grateful for all their sacrifices and thankful for the victories. I live a better life because of them.

But when I choose to stay back home, am I taking for granted the very privileges that they won for me. The very same privileges many women are still fighting for? But what if that choice gives me a better quality of life?

Is financial independence a pre-requisite for social freedom? Isn’t financial freedom with a supportive partner enough?

By choosing to be at home, all my verbal assurances to the contrary not withstanding, am I showing my daughter that this is a woman’s domain, her work?

Doesn’t every movement mature beyond the collective to the individual? Isn’t it when individual woman gets to choose within her personal context, that feminism makes sense, rather than when we as a group start to prop up a stereotype of the empowered woman?

The knowledge of the past struggle, awareness that there is a long way to go for equality, willingness to pitch in for struggling peers, ability and willingness to fight own battles isn’t that feminist enough?

EM and the big HOOM

Just finished reading this black jacketed book, with charcoal edged pages and a cryptic title.

It is like having spent a long night in the wilderness, under a pitch black sky and the stars, when they appear briefly but often, are tiny confetti coloured bits. It is achingly beautiful. But mostly there is vulnerability and this damning sense of helplessness, because there are no rules that govern wild animals or a sick human mind. One doesn’t know what is around the corner, but there is no escape, because this is home, and you are young. And the beast on the prowl is a desperate mother’s bipolar mind, where the hunted and the hunter are equally damned.

How do you tell such a story, especially when loosely based on your own life, with so much restraint and grace?

Apparently it took Jerry Pinto, the author, 20 years and 27 drafts and in its final form, it is pitch perfect. For such an onerous subject it is an amazingly compelling read. It soothes even as it disturbs and vice versa.

Set in a tiny flat in Mahim, Bombay in the 1980s, this is the story of the Mendes family. Augustine, the stoic father, is the ‘Hoom’, Imelda – the beedi smoking, tea guzzling, heart jabbing –  bipolar mother is the ‘Em’, then there is Susan the sister and the protagonist brother.

The author pieces their story bit by bit, over the years, through the eyes of the protagonist and Imelda’s life through her own letters and diaries. What emerges is a raw and human portrayal of their struggle with this raging disease, the pain, the desperation, the unexpected pockets of frivolity, stunning insights, biting humor, the resignation, the fear and the wretchedness.

How does a self sacrificing, loving, innocent girl, descend those slippery steps of insanity? Her children’s need for answers and escape, her husband’s unflinching love and devotion to her and the family, their own love story…But not once in all these does the prose even hint at sentimentality or even worse romanticise a condition. Neither is it a detached portrayal, it is as personal as it gets, but completely devoid of self-pity

I am still reeling under the impact.

Where’d you go, Bernadette

The first impulse is to label the book ‘clever’ and leave it at that. Of course there is a lot more to it, just that I expected a whole lot more.

Thanks to the book, I now know that Abbey Road is the last recorded Beatles album. There are way too many intersections and Canadians in Seattle. Penguins live in Antartica and Polar bears in the Artic. And a boatload of other odds and ends I (alarmingly) had no idea about.

It is funny and quirky. Set in the urban here and now that most of us inhabit- similar routines, dilemmas and reference points. It is very engaging, and initially with each turn of page, my head kept chanting – and then? But half way through the book it was somehow replaced by – Oh well.

The structure of the book is smart. A bunch of crisscrossing notes and emails, threaded together make the bulk of story.  The gaps are filled in by Bee, for me, the undisputed hero of the story.

Bee Branch is the kind of teenage daughter every mother dreams of. She sits at the head of a motley bunch of characters. Audrey Griffin, who turns out to be the ultimate rock star. Soo Lin Legal makes you chuckle sadly and often. Elgie Branch inspite all his goodness, kept getting me irritated! Bernadette, even as one sympathises with the agony of misplaced genius and all that jazz, seems to have such a highbrow that the ordinary mortals would look down, too intimidated to meet her eye. And, Manjula of course takes the cake, the whole cake, almost.

Most of the action is set in Seattle and the rest in H&H Allegra a cruise ship to Antartica. An engaging narrative, a bunch of memorable characters, sense popping trips to Antartica, an author who knows her craft, all in all it should add up to a fun ride.  And it does, in parts.

It is like being served thinly sliced toast with a hint of butter at the breakfast table, when you were getting ready to sink your teeth into thick slices of soft white bread nestling wads of cold salted butter.

Or maybe I am just greedy.

The Happiness Project

The first step, of course, is to find an excuse for the outrageous delay in reading this book. It has been eons, in byte time, since its release. The average surfer would have come across at least a dozen or more references to it, across platforms. I have myself enjoyed reading many a pithy blog post by the author. Moreover I am a self-help aficionado and even have the superpower to dig out profound insights on bettering life, from perfectly neutral text.

Yet….I just got around to reading the book, and I have nothing to offer but a baffled shrug in my defence.

The premise of this bestselling book is how the author undertakes a yearlong project to up her happiness quotient. She is a happily married, mother of two, with feet firmly planted on the ground – in New York, and no radical plans to run off to the Himalayas in quest of happiness. What is more, by her own admission, she is a reasonably happy person, leading a successful life. Even then, she feels a need to take charge and acknowledge her happiness.

She takes up pursuit of happiness as a project, and approaches it with resolutions chart and commandments and comes out happier, armed with a happiness manifesto.

Each month is dedicated to a specific area of life ranging from vitality and marriage all the way to money and mindfulness. The final month is the boot camp, where the objective is to try to keep all of the previous months’ resolutions.

The book is buoyed by erudite references from previous literary and scientific works on happiness. There are no attempts to reinvent the wheel, only a sincere effort at taking it for a spin.

For all the thought, planning and earnestness, that obviously seems to have gone into the project, she has not really stepped far out of her comfort zone. She has tweaked her boundaries and that seems to have been enough. This can be a source of further inspiration or boredom for the average seeker, for the exercise seems surprisingly doable, within the mundane realities.

But what makes this book tick, is the clarity with which she delineates the workings of her own mind and life. The simple honesty and humor with which she examines herself and her family is disarming. Whatever reservations I had about approaching happiness with a stack of charts and a tower of books vanished, just a few pages into the first chapter. It was a fascinating read and her enthusiasm, in all its first world naiveté, is contagious.

Then there are the nuggets of wisdom that stick to the psyche like little glow worms, throwing a little light and magic around. Those nuggets are scattered across the pages of the book. What can I say; I am a sucker for those…

An Ode to the Rain… Sort of

Rains and I go back a long way.

4-5 months in a given year is reserved for rains, in what was once my part of the world. And nothing makes me feel alive – with all its primitive, heady, gloriousness – like petrichor.

The very first showers of the monsoon in the subcontinent would show up at our doorsteps, often on the first day of school, every year.

And then, they would escort us to school.

All day long they drummed steadily on rooftops and strung glittering curtains outside the windows and their wayward droplets found the way in, sopping the long corridors.

In the damp, jam – packed school bus, heading back home, it was the thought of those delicious puddles, that the rain gods would have so generously filled, that sustained us.

Since good impressions had been made and managed for the day and even the stiff collars had drunk up all the moisture and gone limp, it was finally safe to bring the imp out. So we splashed every single luscious puddle that dotted the roads, and often went back and did it all over again. Once the imp had had its full, we opened the doors and went in.

Mild, relatively well-behaved and riding the tail of hot summers and summer holidays, this first instalment of rains or the South-west monsoon was a welcome refreshing presence.

But then came the other kind, from the North-east, with a beguiling moniker of – 4’O Clock rains. They hit the skies out of nowhere during the last quarter of the year.

I still remember the dread as we waited for the deafening thunder to follow chilling bolts of lightning. One after the other the pyrotechnics would go on, in the background of angry rains. Legs off the floor, mirrors covered, curtains drawn, the wait continued in semi-darkness, as the electricity would have gone on its own merry way for the night. Even amidst the bewilderment of a docile canvas that stretched from one of end our world to the other suddenly losing its cool and spitting fire and growling, there was the fiendish childhood fascination for all things monstrous.

Of course as one grows older, the magic does make way for a little, legitimate (one feels!) irritation.

For one, there is the real possibility of having to start, spend and end the day dripping wet. Now, add to that the complication of logistics, specifically the public transportation kind. It is like being a small sardine, in a tin of sardines, packed in brine and gently warmed up. In the interest of keeping it real, the stench should ideally be dialed back a notch or two, and also factor in that this particular bunch of sardines moved and shoved and shouted, unlike their usually droopy counterparts.

Laundry woes would be a close second. I have witnessed the panic wet laundry used to send my parents in, during monsoon, exactly half an hour before the school bus leaves. Suffice to say that one stubbornly damp pair of white canvas shoe, was once inadvertently burned on stove top, by a very well meaning and generally peace loving mother. Yes, white-canvas-shoes-during-rains!

A little older and one finally realises that rains can indeed hamper one’s ‘style’. Especially since the one style that had been adopted, involved strapping platforms to the soles of one’s feet and lugging them around. What in normal circumstances is a minor inconvenience that gives major vertical boost can soon become an intense and perilous introduction to stilt walking, through water and slippery roads. Besides, those monstrosities weighed a ton when wet.

These minor gripes apart, I have always looked forward to rains.

The air in Kerala is anyway different (not that any claims to objectivity would hold much water); anyway, I remember overnight train journeys, and knowing for sure even before opening my sleepy eyes that I have crossed over to Kerala, the air feels more filling, as though every gasp somehow has just a little more life in it. And the greens! The number of shades of green in that tiny state, itself would need more words than Eskimos have for snow. Rains give the landscape a good wash, so that the colours sparkle, and while at it, makes the air even more hearty.

Celebrating Gratitude

A few thousand miles away, some good folks are neck deep in the preparation of one happy meal. Like all things American, the rest of us end up watching as the big bird is stuffed, roasted and devoured. Wait around long enough, and one gets to hear them whining about the leftovers!

Half the world generally insists on following Uncle Sam around, in all things great and small, right and wrong. And with good reason, some might say. For even in these shaky times, the sheer ubiquity, scale and theatre of their presence on the world stage remains, for the most part, unrivalled. No wonder even 5 year olds on the other side of the globe are conversant in the quaint traditions of Halloween and insist on trooping around on their brooms.

Blame a complete lack of the macabre brand of humour; I am yet to wrap my head around Halloween. But Thanksgiving; I totally understand. For what can be better than enjoying a meal with your loved ones and counting the blessings, that too around a table groaning with food. I would order a slice of that heaven, any day.

Provided, of course, that I did not have to spent the better part of the day – wrestling a Turkey, blitzing berries and bashing tubers. Also, there should be the option of either plucking off pesky relatives from the guest list, or of seating them at the kids table. Thankfully, all these options are available to me.

Borrowing festivities from another culture has its advantages, we gets to customise it to our will, with no strings attached. So even if we were to do away with the pilgrims and pies, if a moment is taken to notice all the good things that seem to have found its way into our lives, it would still be Thanksgiving. And if science is to be believed gratitude is a bona fide miracle worker.

For Thanksgiving in my book is not a tradition; it is just a celebration – a long overdue celebration of gratitude. It could be a list of blessings scribbled on a scrap of paper or a long overdue word of appreciation to a loved one or a simple ‘thank you’ murmured into the ears of the universe.

But these days with our mile long wishlists and even longer working hours to tick off those wishes, there just isn’t enough time to feel grateful.  So Thanksgiving, is as good an excuse as any to let the warm fuzzies of contentment wash over. While at it, if you are enjoying a scrumptious spread with family and friends – good for you! Even if you are alone at home, nibbling at the bird a certain colonel lovingly fried and watching telly, despair not. Shoot a ‘Thank You’ for the TV and the colonel, and there you have your very own thanksgiving.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Roseanna

On the other side of 1965, in a country called Sweden, a crime series – The Story of a Crime -was born. Per Wahlöö and Maj Sjöwall, a husband and wife team, wrote a set of ten novels, one each year till 1975, with Martin Beck, a detective of the National Homicide Bureau, as the chief protagonist. The impact and success of these novels were so phenomenal, that the authors came to be regarded as the godfathers of Scandinavian crime fiction.

48 years later, I am just getting acquainted with Martin Beck, thanks to this post. My first taste of a ‘police procedural’ – Roseanna – the opening book in the series, was a distinctive read.

I am used to super sleuths who solve crimes with élan and in good time. And here we have Martin Beck, who cannot even have one coffee too many without it affecting his stomach or one worry too many without it affecting his sleep. An indifferent family man, with a penchant for brooding, he is an unlikely hero. Add to that the procedural delay intrinsic to any institutionalised investigation, that too in a pre-facsimile, pre-cell phone and pre- internet age. The book saunters along, there is no galloping here.

The people and the settings are revealed with brisk minimalistic strokes, like a charcoal drawing. So much so, that even Christmas in snow covered Sweden, ends up looking grey. There are no lengthy deliberations or explanations and the reader’s presence is barely acknowledged. The assumption seems to be that, she would be smart enough to trundle along, without any superfluous signposts to decode the characters, their thought processes or motivations. It is not all laconic grimness though; it also has genuinely funny bits – a brilliant contradiction of sorts.

Apparently it is this stark realism that set these books apart, and in many ways, set the tone for the Scandinavian crime writing that was to follow. The plot revolves around the body of a young woman found in the Göta Canal, during a dredging operation. Over the next 6 months, the police piece together the puzzle of her death, one scattered bit at a time. Starting from establishing her identity, to the unconventional staging of an episode that finally leads to the arrest of the killer, the investigation moves in fits and starts. Inspite of a lot of leg work, dead ends and long periods when the enquiry seems to have come to a complete standstill, the story surprisingly does not stagnate. But one does start empathising with the group of policemen as they plod on without an end in sight.

But what is as intriguing as the plot, is how a husband and wife team managed to collaborate, on such a project and executed it so brilliantly, working on alternate chapters at night, after putting their sons to sleep. As an American writer asked, very succinctly, “I don’t see how you do it. My wife and I can’t even collaborate on boiling an egg.”

I admit the book was unfamiliar territory for me, right from the umlauts, to frostiness of the land and terseness of the people. Maybe, this genre would be an acquired taste, like espresso. I will give it another shot; maybe those taste buds will mature in time.

Cut Like Wound

I generally like my mysteries cosy, ideally with tea and a side of scones.

The latest book by Anita Nair is a gritty crime thriller set in Bangalore. It chronicles a murder spree, lasting one month and eight days, using glass dust coated thread as ligature – a cunning contraption that strangles even as it cuts.

Set in the underbelly of the city, home to the despised and displaced, transsexuals and transvestites, corrupt corporators and counterfeiters, and trips to the crime scene and autopsy table, there is nothing remotely cosy about this book.

Even then I enjoyed it.

Having read two of her previous novels (Ladies Coupe and Mistress), I got exactly what I was expecting and some more. Intense and earthy colours stain her stories and Cut Like Wound was no exception. If anything, the fact that it is a foray into the realm of crime, intensifies the rawness.

She also draws effortlessly from the wonder trove of Indian myths and seamlessly weaves them into the fabric of an urban tale. This particular story happens in the holy month of Ramadan, draws from the Hindu rituals of goddess worship and the climax is set during the annual feast and procession at St. Mary’s Basilica.

The minor gripe I had with the previous novels is that somehow the motivations that pulled the characters along seemed a little tenuous or a little too common. I say minor because in the larger scheme of a well told story, the ‘whys’ tend to pale in significance. But in Cut Like Wound, even that gripe has been addressed.

At the end of the day what stays with me is the character that is Inspector Borei Gowda. Bitter like good coffee, bike lover, rum downer, disillusioned and middle aged, a shadow of the hunk and star he was, father, husband, lover, reluctant mentor. His shoulders are broad enough and tattooed arm hip enough to carry a crime series, and if rumors are to be believed this is the first of hopefully many.

I am ready for a desi P.D. James, and for me, Gowda would beat Dalgliesh any day.

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