Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Lost Blogging Mojo

Somehow, for no logical reason that I can arrive at, I really haven't taken to Feedly. In the times of Google Reader, I regularly checked in and stayed on top of my feed, keeping track of what my favourite bloggers had written. When it went bust, I moved my feed over to Feedly but I find that I rarely go there. And when I do, the list of unread posts looks so daunting that I either hurriedly shut the browser tab or guiltily click on 'Mark as Read'. When I do gird my loins and dive into my feed, I realise that one of the things missing is that many of my favourite bloggers either hardly write any more or have given up the ghost entirely.

For me, reading other blogs was always very closely linked with how much I ended up blogging here in my own space and it's no surprise then that the action here has not so much dwindled to a trickle as pretty much dried up at source. There was a sense of community about blogging in those good only days. There was a lot of cross-talk and commenting and connecting going on. Those comments were important to me because they reassured me that I was not just writing into a void. The friendships I formed through this blog were important to me too but it's been a while since I connected with someone new through the blog and the friends I made in the early years are now friends independent of our blog personas.

From its name to its content, this has always been essentially a mommyblog. My first few (and most challenging) years as a mother were rather lonely. I wasn't a particularly young mother but even so, it was almost three years before any of my friends went ahead and had kids. And when they did, they were dealing with infants while I had moved on to making decisions about schooling and dealing with temper tantrums. This blog was a space where I could come and share my experiences and voice my opinions about being a parent. It was a place where I found kindred spirits who offered advice and much-needed validation that I wasn't making a complete hash of this parenting gig. But I've grown up a lot since those days and am quite comfortable now in my skin as far as being a mother goes. I know I am not a perfect mother (far from it) but I also know that I am doing the best I can and in line with my beliefs about raising good human beings.

And there's the beliefs themselves. It's hard to write about my parenting approach without coming off as sanctimonious or judgmental. When I go back and re-read some of my old posts, I often end up wincing at how preachy they sound. Other than the rare ones who can rise about it, most mommyblogs either bore your pants off with the minutiae of their kids' lives or not-so-subtly eulogise their own parenting while raining on the parade of those who chose to do things differently from them.

There is also this whole privacy thing. As they grow, I feel less comfortable with talking about the kids online. I didn't think it was such a big deal before and I don't have any regrets about the stuff I have already written, but now that they are older, I definitely think twice before I put anything up, even on Facebook or Twitter. Articles like this one have definitely been food for thought and I rarely post pictures of the kids themselves on Facebook anymore, though I do still put up posts/ pictures of stuff that they have said or done.

Call these reasons or call them excuses, but they pretty much sum up why I have been AWOL from this space. But I do miss it. There is no doubt that I enjoy writing. People often suggest I write a private journal instead but social media has completely ruined that for me and I need to know that someone is reading what I am writing.

But rationales aside, the blog often calls out to me in much the way a long-forgotten but lingering item on a to-do list does. Like it needs attention or closure or something. So here I am, answering its call. Anyone still reading?

Friday, May 23, 2014

The Year So Far in Books

It has been a great year so far as books go. Six books down and not one yet that I have regretted picking up. I have almost completely stopped randomly browsing for books. Admittedly, it is fun to spend time hanging around in a bookshop without agenda but the books one picks up in this fashion can be quite hit-and-miss. I still do frequent book shop trips but even then, I pick up books that come recommended via friends or social media. I am also completely hooked on to GoodReads. It is a great way to figure out what my friends are reading and saying about books and to keep track of books I want to read. I figured that it also works as a book registry. For my birthday, UTBT gifted me something she saw on my To-Read list (which I had bookmarked thanks to her rating on the site).

The Book Thief
Marcus Zusak

I could not have picked a better book to start the year with. I think I would rate this amongst my top ten books of all time. 

Narrated by Death, the book is a coming of age tale of a young German girl growing into adolescence against the awful backdrop of the Second World War and the Holocaust.

It is a book that turns many established ideas on their head. Most of my reading on the Holocaust so far has been about the Jewish experience or about Hitler and the Nazis. This book takes a look at the average German citizen and blurs the lines between black and white, good and evil and Jew and German somewhat. For me, books and the written word have always been wholly positive concepts but this book turns that on its head by pointing out that words can also be used to do great evil.

"Yes, the Führer decided that he would rule the world with words. "I will never fire a gun," he said. "I will not have to."... His first plan of attack was to plant the words in as many areas of his homeland as possible. He planted them day and night, and cultivated them. He watched them grow, until eventually, great forests of words had risen throughout Germany. It was a nation of farmed thought."

While it is a book that can be read pretty fast, I found myself wanting to sip it like a glass of good wine, slowly. The language is beautiful and there are many parts in the book that made me want to stop and take the time to absorb and mull over the prose as well as the ideas contained within it.

Maps for Lost Lovers
Nadeem Aslam

We read this book for our book club and the camps were divided on this one. My friend felt that the prose was too ornate and made it hard for her to relate to it. For me, the prose was what really worked. I found it beautiful and evocative and the book managed to paint pictures in my head on almost every page. I can't think of any other book I would say that of.

The book is set in England, in a small town that is home to a Pakistani immigrant community. Chanda and Jugnu, two lovers, have mysteriously disappeared and Chanda's brothers are suspected of murdering them to defend their 'honour' since they were living together outside of wedlock. The story is largely told through the eyes and experiences of the families of the two young lovers, especially Jugnu's brother Shamas and his wife Kaukab.

The book explores the many ways in which traditional Pakistani attitudes and beliefs collide with Western mores and morality, often with tragic consequences. We especially see this in Kaukab's world, her desire to cling desperately to the customs and beliefs of her beloved homeland and the resultant alienation of her three children.

I really enjoyed this book. Again, it is not a quick read. The prose is beautiful but heavy and you need to take the time to savour it and imagine the scene that the author is trying to bring to life with his words.

The Tiger's Wife
Téa Obreht

This one came highly recommended from a friend, who lent me her copy so that I could read it. A lot of people have had a lot of good things to say about this book, so I opened it with pretty high expectations. But I have to say, I just did not get it. I found it a rather strange, disjointed sort of book with three separate threads that did not really come together for me.

The book is about a young doctor called Natalia living in a war-torn Balkan country, who loses her grandfather at the start of the book. As a part of her mourning process, she narrates two life experiences that her grandfather had shared with her. The first one occurs when her grandfather was a boy and involves a tiger living on the outskirts of his village and the tiger's relationship with one of the girls in the village. The second one is from when he is much older and revolves around his multiple encounters with the Deathless Man.

I found the link between these tales and the central story of Natalia herself tenuous at best and I didn't really get the point of the book. If someone asked me what the book was about, I would struggle to explain. It is a beautifully written book and one gets the sense of a country that has been ravaged by war but I found it lacking in a strong plot.

But then again, maybe that's just me. Magical realism has never been my favourite genre.

Aruna Chakravarti

Set against the backdrop of the Bengali Renaissance, Jorasanko is an insightful behind-the-scenes look at the lives of the women in the illustrious Tagore family. I found it charming and very evocative of the times. I can see it translating into a lovely period film.

The author has done a good job of fleshing out each of the key personalities and I finished the book with a pretty clear picture of these ladies in my head. The size of the household and the family was quite mind-blogging and I am grateful for the family tree that the author has thoughtfully provided at the beginning, otherwise I would have got lost in the maze of characters that abound in the book! The most interesting characters were Jnananandidni, Kadambari (Rabindranath's sister-in-law and muse) and Mrinalini (his wife). In fact, when it comes to these three, I was left wanting for more!

It showed how rapidly social mores towards woman changed within the space of a generation. These girls came into the Tagore family as child brides but towards the end of the book, many of their daughters enjoyed freedom and education that they themselves could never even have dreamed of.

I have never read much Tagore myself, but I think this book would be good fun for readers familiar with his work, containing as it does many back stories on what inspired some of his more famous verse. I also wonder what kind of research the author did for the book, where the fact ended and the fiction began and how much of the more controversial stories were based on gossip or hearsay.

This was a book club pick and again, we were quite divided in our views on the book. Some felt that the book was 'time-pass' but nothing special and did not reflect enough of the happenings in the world outside the household and the family. Others, and I am firmly in this camp, felt that the point of this book was to look at the world from the perspective of the Tagore women, who (with the exception of Jnananandini) lived and breathed the life within the four walls of the family mansion. And it has done that well. Looking at broader social and economic themes would have been out of the scope of this book and would have felt forced, had the author felt compelled to include them. Also, I think we tend to undervalue books that tell women's stories. Just because a story focuses on domestic relationships and issues does not make it a lesser book. I think these are important stories to tell as well.

Emperors of the Peacock Throne
Abraham Eraly

At the book club, we decided to flirt with non-fiction for a change. After some discussion, we voted for Eraly's biography of the Mughal emperors. As experiments go, this one was not terribly successful and we had the lowest record of book completion in our brief history.

Admittedly, it is a monster of a book - 521 pages not including the 20 odd pages of notes at end. It is also missing some key elements that are basic expectations when it comes to a work of history. There are no maps in the book, not one. Considering that a lot of the subject matter revolves around battles over territories and the expansion and collapse of the empire, these would have been invaluable and are sorely missed. Even as a Indian with a Humanities background, I found it hard to get the geography straight in my head, so I can only wonder how an international reader would cope with it. The book would have also greatly benefited from a cast of characters at the beginning - towards the end of book, I was scrambling to place some of the characters that popped up. Lastly, pictures! The author described each of the six featured emperors in a great degree of detail but you know what they say about a picture being worth a thousand words...

But the flaws notwithstanding, I think it is a very well-written book and the meticulous research shines through. It really brought the emperors alive for me as real flesh-and-blood human beings, not just figures from a history textbook. They come across as full-bodied, three-dimensional personalities, each with his own quirks, virtues and frailties. The fact that Eraly has succeeded in doing that without resorting to fiction is really quite commendable. One also gets a bonus look into the Mughal Empire's two main adversaries - Sher Shah and Shivaji.

If you are history buff and interested in the Mughal era, this book is a must-read.

Sorting Out Sid
Yashodhara Lal Sharma

I am pretty embarrassed that I got around to reading this one so late. Yashodahara is a friend and I have been a long-time follower of her blog. I also enjoyed her first book, Just Married, Please Excuse. And so, every time I saw a post related to her new book on Facebook, I mentally winced in embarrassment. But I had some issues with the credit card that is linked to my Kindle, which finally got sorted out only a few weeks ago. I decided that it would be the perfect travel companion for my trek in the Himalayas, so I saved it for my trip and read it up in the mountains. And I am glad I waited because it was a perfect read for the circumstances - light and funny, but with interesting characters and situations that were easy to relate to.

Sorting Out Sid is, not surprising, about a guy called Sid who is caught in a mid-life crisis of sorts. His marriage is falling apart, his best friend appears to have betrayed him, his job sucks and he keeps putting his foot in his mouth when talking to Neha, a cute single mum he meets at a party. Throw in a kooky tarot card reader, a bossy and interfering female friend, a disapproving father and (wait for it) a beanbag that is also a shoulder to cry on, and you can begin to imagine the madness that ensues.

I can imagine that it must be hard to write a character from the opposite gender but Yashodhara manages to do it very convincingly in this book. I could see shades of some of my male friends in Sid and yet she stops short of creating a stereotypical caricature. If you are looking for a book that will bring a smile to your face, this would be a good book to pick up. 

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Himalayan Highs - Part 3

Ayaan and I joined a group of like-minded kids and parents on a 7-day trek and adventure in the Himalayas. This is my attempt to preserve the memories. For readability purposes, I have written it in three parts. This is Part 3. (Click to read Part 1 and Part 2)

Day Six: Shaukiyatal - Jageshwar - Dandeshwar - Naukuchiyatal 
The plan was to drive down to our next pit stop at Naukuchiyatal, stopping at Jageshwar so that those who had not had a chance to visit the temple yet could do so. A couple of us decided that it would be much more fun to repeat the trek down the hill. Of course, it should go without saying that Ayaan wanted to join so we set off early and rewarded ourselves with super-yummy aloo paranthas at the KVMN at Jageshwar. The car-bound gang was running late so we decided to walk the 1-odd kilometre to visit the Dandeshwar temple as well.

At the Dandeshwar temple, Ayaan was delighted to discover a little stream flowing out at the back. Unlike the trash-littered one at Jageshwar, this one was clean enough for me to allow him to frolic in. He was happily splashing about when a mossy rock proved to be his undoing and he took a bad spill, landing on his cheek, with his teeth managing to make a couple of deep gashes in his lip. When he first came howling to me with blood streaming out of his mouth, I was pretty sure he had broken a tooth but thankfully, it was just the lip wound. He was super upset and screamed with pain: “I wish I had never come on this stupid trek! I hate it!

I cleaned him up and calmed him down and then five minutes later, fall, pain and anger forgotten, he was back in the stream and protested mightily when it was time to leave. About half an hour later, he gave me a sheepish grin and said: “I regret saying that the trek is stupid. It is not. I had a lot of fun.”

Soon, the rest of the gang arrived with the cars. We piled in and after a quick stop at Jageshwar (where Ayaan found another stream to explore), we headed towards Naukuchiyatal. After five days of being out and about, it was quite a trial to be cooped up in a cramped vehicle. We all agreed that we found the 4-hour drive more exhausting than any of the treks! It didn’t help that it was hot and it had been three days since our last bath. Finding this sign painted on roadside was truly a case of adding insult to injury: (It reads 'Roz Snan Karein', which translates into an exhortation to bathe daily!)

We were in a for a rude shock when we arrived at Naukuchiyatal. All through the trip, we had been looking forward to our stay at Camp Lagoon as our return to civilisation and relative luxury. This place had a 4.5 TripAdvisor rating and promised, amongst other things, ‘luxury chalets’ with ‘attached western toilets with running water and basic comforts’ and a ‘swimming pool with heart shape’. Hah! They clearly need to look up the meaning of luxury in a dictionary. Only two of the so-called ‘chalets’ had attached loos, and these barely had enough space to stand. Hot water was available, but by the kettle. The bathrooms also had a major design flaw - they were elevated above the level of the room hence one had to bathe s-lo-w-l-y to ensure that the water did not flow out into the rooms. The heart-shaped pool was very much in evidence but I have seen cleaner puddles so swimming in them was clearly out! And there’s more. One of the huts did not have a latch on the door while another hut’s door and doorway were misaligned so it did not even shut all the way!And do not even get me started on the linen - there weren’t enough pillows and the quilts had clearly not seen water or sunlight for quite a while.

Anyhow, once we had moved past disappointment to acceptance and towards hysterical laughter, we got along just fine. I gave Ayaan his shortest bath ever with just 4 mugs of water and used just half a bucket for myself. Dinner was another mad affair as the staff (read two boys) seemed to have a ‘from the scratch’ approach to cooking. Once they discussed the menu with us on our arrival, they then disappeared to the market to source the necessary ingredients! Needless to say, dinner was very late (and under-cooked) and we had to deal with a bunch of tired and cranky kids while they got their act together. Thankfully, there was a bonfire and a fun Antakshari session to keep the hunger pangs at bay. 

While we were waiting for dinner, there was a little awards ceremony where each of the kids got a certificate of completion. It was extra special because they said something apt and encouraging about each of the kids and their maiden trekking experience. For Ayaan, they said: "The explorer was in his element. For him, it was definitely the first of many, many treks to come." Bingo!

Day Seven: Naukuchiyatal - Kathgodam 
Our last morning on the trip! Whatever the faults of Camp Lagoon, it cannot be faulted on its location. Located amongst dense foliage, it is a great for a spot of early morning bird-watching. The high point was a sighting of some Asian Paradise Flycatchers - strange and beautiful at once, these were probably the most exotic birds we saw on our trip. We also saw an Ashy Drongo and a bunch of crows, doves and swallows.

Not wanting to get delayed by the slow service, some of us took to the kitchen to prepare poha. The hotel staff cut some fruits and made what they called ‘pahadi toast’ (bread toasted on a tawa). The manager of the property finally deigned to pick up the phone, but refused to make himself physically available for either feedback or to improve the level of service. Giving it up for a lost cause, we decided to spend as much of the day away from the depressing property and headed out to do some paragliding. Ayaan said he didn’t want to do it because he thought it was ‘unnecessary’. Er… right. Because roasting nuts in a sweets tin is a totally essential activity. Anyway, I decided not to push him and went up with those of the gang who were planning to make the leap. He was quite happy to potter around, especially when he discovered a mulberry bush to gorge on.

Thrill-seeking is not really my scene so I was in two minds about taking the plunge. But it was a tandem flight with a pilot in control and since the 3.5-year old in our group did it safely and fearlessly, I decided to go for it. It was simultaneously scary and exhilarating. Overall, I enjoyed it but you won’t catch me signing up for more adventurous activities like bungee-jumping or sky diving. I am rather fond of having my feet planted on solid ground, thankyouverymuch. 

Once everyone was done, we headed over to the local KMVN for lunch, followed by a touristy ride on the lake in a shikara. Then we headed back to Camp Lagoon to pack up. The drive down to Kathgodam was quick and uneventful and after a quick dinner at the IRCTC restaurant close to the station, we boarded the Ranikhet Express back to Delhi. Ayaan and I had a First AC coupe to ourselves so we finally got a taste of the luxury that had eluded us in Camp Lagoon. Ayaan was out for the count within five minutes of the train leaving the station!

We arrived at Old Delhi Railway Station at the obscenely early hour of 4 a.m. One of the moms on the trek had booked a couple of rooms in a guest house and I took up her offer to join her there to freshen up before heading for the airport. The ultra-modern Delhi airport felt strange after all the days spent in the wilderness. I whipped out my credit card for the first time in more than a week and had to push my grey cells to remember the PIN!

We flew to Jaipur and were picked up my my mother. It was good to be home! By lunch time, we had washed the trek dust off ourselves but the memories we made will stay for a lifetime.

In the last post, I talked about how amazing Ayaan was on the trek. Given our previous outdoors experiences, albeit less intense, this was stating the obvious. I always knew he was going to revel in it. Myself, not so much. I like my creature comforts and if anybody had to accompany Ayaan on a journey like this, I always assumed that Jai would do it. However, he could not take time off at the time, so I girded up my loins and put myself up for the job. To be completely honest, I saw myself somewhat in the light of a sacrificial lamb and the upcoming trek as a definite contender for my growing list of items that I am storing for the inventible 'After All I Have Done For You' conversation. 

But I quickly lost this attitude once we were there and had proceeded to have a fantastic time! The things that I thought would bother me - dirty and rudimentary toilets, infrequent baths, uncomfortable sleeping quarters, creepy-crawlies and so on - were barely a blip on my radar. I throughly enjoyed being in the outdoors, up in the clean mountain air. I would do it again in a heartbeat and I am hoping Shyam plans something next year, because I am definitely going and Jai will have to fight me for the privilege of being Ayaan's trekking partner.

In fact, on the last weekend, I was in Hyderabad without the kids and even though there was no Ayaan factor to motivate me, I got up early on a Sunday morning and went for a Save The Rocks Society walk. I am also thinking about taking up amateur bird-watching, along with Ayaan. 

The trek was a great way to cement my bond with Ayaan. Daily life with kids can get pretty transactional and mundane and it was a refreshing break from all of that. During the entire week, I did not yell at Ayaan even once, which has got to be some kind of new record for me. To be honest, I can't take any credit for this because he didn't give me an ounce of trouble. He was easy to wake even at the crack of dawn, ate everything without complaint and got along well with the other kids. I think it was also good for us to get some solo mother-son time, away from all the sibling quarrels and jealousies. I feel so much closer to him and I can sense that it goes both ways. For the first time ever, he actually cried when I left him in Jaipur to head back to Hyderabad. He has never done that!

Watching Ayaan frolic about in the mountainside was also a validation for my approach of letting my kids navigate the world without coddling them over-much. I have written about this before as well, and I honestly believe in letting them experience and attempt to stretch their physical limitations, rather than deciding their boundaries for them. Even on this trek, Ayaan was the cause of many a gasp from the other adults but I was mostly unflappable and was able to continue to trust in his instincts. 

Other than the fall in the stream, he never really put himself in serious harm's way. I would like to say that this was benign neglect but really it is not. Like most parents, I live in dread of my kids hurting themselves. But over time, I have learnt to internalise it rather than letting it get in the way of the kids figuring out things on their own. I watch them like a hawk but unless I see a truly dangerous situation developing, I try to keep my lips zipped. I say this trip was a validation on this front because I saw how comfortable and confident Ayaan was on the trek. I don't regret his fall in the stream either. There is no way I could have predicted that or prevented it, short of banning him from playing there (and that I would rather not do) and I think he learnt a valuable lesson about the dangers of mossy rocks that no amount of lecturing could have driven home. Overall, I think both of us a lot more fun on the trip because I was relaxed (or at least tried to be) and let him just be.

And that brings me to the end of my trek chronicles. Thanks for reading.