Monday, March 24, 2008

A Wild Weekend

Usually, long weekends just seem to creep on us and we are never left with enough time to plan anything. This year, I have started marking the holidays in my planner so I knew in advance that I had Thursday and Friday off last week, giving us a nice 4-day stretch to plan something exciting. After some discussion with my mom (who was to join us for the trip), we froze on Sawai Madhopur, which is home to the tiger sanctuary of Ranthambore.

We arrived in Jaipur on Wednesday evening and left for Sawai Madhopur by car after breakfast on Thursday. The car journey was almost three and a half hours long and Ayaan surprised us by being reasonably manageable through the drive. He slept through the first hour or so but even when he woke up, he was chatty rather than hyperactive.

We reached our hotel just in time for lunch and figured out that there was a safari planned for 5 in the evening and signed up to go for it. But Ayaan was pretty pooped after the morning excitement and come 5 o’clock, he was still fast asleep. We decided to let him sleep and by the time he woke up, it was already getting dark so we decided to save the sanctuary visits for the next couple of days. So the evening panned out into a relaxed affair over drinks and dinner.

On Friday morning, we wasted no time in getting bundled into the jeep to head out to the sanctuary. We had been warned that the tiger sightings can be a matter of chance so we had kept our expectations low. And the first 45 minutes seemed to be in line with those expectations – we saw deer, peacocks and monkeys but no signs of the elusive tiger.

We decided to catch breakfast at this lovely little jungle lodge but before we could settle down to eat, the jeep driver told us that a sighting had been reported not too far from where we were. So off we went in the direction where the sighting had been reported.

After driving for about ten minutes, the driver suddenly screeched to a halt and pointed deep into the foliage. We looked and looked and then finally were able to make out the head of the tiger through the dense foliage. It was amazing that the driver had managed to see it while he was driving! He also told us that it would pass right by us since it seemed to be taking a break on its way to the watering hole, which was just beyond us.

And sure enough, it soon got up and ambled by our jeep, barely three feet away. And just when we got over the shock of that, three more tigers proceeded to do the same! The forest official with us told us that this bunch was a tigress with her three fully grown cubs and that’s why they were all together. But it seems the kids are just about ready to leave the nest so there have been a lot of fights in the family. And we were witness to one such fight when the tigress walked up to one of her kids, reared up, roared and then swatted him across his face! Here's a picture from just before she did that:

And then one of the other cubs decided to take a break and sat himself down just two feet away from where we were parked:

We made it back to the hotel well before lunch time so my mom and Jai took Ayaan to the swimming pool at the hotel. But the intrepid tiger-watcher was having none of it and refused to get into the pool. So other than when my mom carried him around the pool, he had a fun time playing on the edge of the pool.

After lunch and Ayaan’s afternoon nap, we headed off to another part of the sanctuary, where a baby panther is being bred in captivity. She was found wounded and abandoned by her mother when she was just a few days old and the forest officials have adopted her. There was a lot of discussion on whether this was the right thing to do. Because her chances of being able to survive in the wild are slim and her most likely fate will involve the caged walls of a zoo. There was some talk about how this current solution interfered with the way of the jungle and that the panther cub would have otherwise ended up as jackal food, which is how it should be. Cruel though it may be, I am inclined to agree.

Our Saturday morning trip to the sanctuary was also fruitful but it paled in comparison to the previous day. We saw a tiger cross our path just as we entered the sanctuary but after that we spent a back-breaking, bone-rattling hour on a wild goose chase for another sighting before giving up and heading back to the jungle lodge for another sumptuous breakfast. But you know what they say about the mountain coming to Mohammed and while we were eating, the staff there picked up some distress calls and told us that there was a tiger in the vicinity. And when we went on to the porch, we saw a tiger sitting at the edge of the grounds, peacefully sunning itself!

Anyway, we left for Jaipur on the Saturday afternoon train. It was Ayaan’s first train journey and it was a bit chaotic since Ayaan threw a tantrum, pushed another kid and then topped it all by peeing through his pull-up diaper all over the berth (requiring not only a change but a complete scrubbing down of the berth with some sanitiser ). All in all, a journey I was happy to be done with!

We spent the night in Jaipur and Sunday afternoon saw us back home in Mumbai. Overall, it was a great trip. I think Ayaan had a ball and had a lot of new experiences – jeep rides through the jungle, wild animals, a train journey, and a starlit sky the likes of which he will never get to see in Mumbai! Here's to more mini-breaks!

Back to the tigers, funnily enough, the only moment when I actually got scared was when the tigress got aggressive with her cub on the first day because otherwise they seem to be so habituated to the jeeps and didn’t bother to throw more than a passing glance our way. Also, the forest guys accompanying us were so chilled out about our proximity to these wild beasts that one could not be blamed for thinking that we were watching some perfectly harmless jungle fauna! But the enormity of it all struck me when I saw the shock on the faces of my colleagues at work today when I told them that I was in an open jeep less than five feet away from a dangerous, wild animal!

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

The School Saga

I mentioned in an earlier post that Ayaan will be going to a new school this year. This basically means that he will move from his current playschool to a playgroup section in a big school, where he will stay till Class X, if we stay in Mumbai. This post is about my experience with the whole process, my final decisions and my current (though constantly evolving) views on the subject of schooling.

A good place to start is always the beginning and in my typical wannabe-supermom style, I began by making a detailed excel sheet which covered all the schools that I could possibly consider sending Ayaan to and then proceeded to populate said sheet with all the necessary details for each school like the address and contact number, board of education, whether it was co-ed, starting age and application dates. After talking to friends, colleagues and a random selection of friendly mothers at the park, I narrowed my shortlist down to three schools (with a couple of back-ups in case none of those worked out).

The funny thing with the schools on my ‘Wanted’ list is that they were all very different from each other, the only common thing tying them together being the universal feedback that these were ‘good’ schools. At one extreme, there was School A, founded and run by one of the premier industrialist families in India and that came with all the frills of the IB curriculum, air-conditioned classrooms and international school trips in the later years. Then there was School B that was supposed to be really good but notoriously hard to get into, unless you knew someone on the board of trustees or a well-placed politician at the very least – and as a consequence, ended up with a fairly large percentage of students from rich and celebrity families. It’s also known for a very high emphasis on academics right from the very early years (read: lots of homework from kindergarten onwards). And finally, there was School C - which was probably at the bottom of my consideration set when I started out because in general, it is a more old-fashioned, simple sort of a school and, I am a little ashamed to admit this, ‘less famous’ (for want of a better word).

Now the real twist to the story came when I realised that School C accepts kids a whole year before the other two do. This put me into quite a quandary because:

  • If I applied to School C and Ayaan got in and went there for a year, it would make his chances of getting into the other (and at this point more desirable) schools pretty slim since they prefer not to take in kids who have already been admitted to another school.
  • But the flip side was that both Schools A & B are really hard to get into so I would be taking a pretty big risk by not trying School A at all because then it would mean that I would have to go for one of my back-up schools instead.

So when the registration process for School C was announced, we decided to postpone the decision by a couple of months by applying anyway and taking a call on whether to send him there closer to time, if he got in.

Anyway, we applied, he got through and we will be finally sending him there. And we won’t apply to the other schools at all. As you can see, it was quite an about turn and it’s something that grew on me gradually as I went through the process of applying and admitting Ayaan into this school. The tipping point was an interesting chat with a colleague at work about his decision to send both his daughters to this school. And he was very clear that his reason for it was peer group. He didn’t want them going to a school where even the ‘keeping up with the Jones’ on birthday presents and parties could threaten to bankrupt him. This is something that I never thought about before since it’s not an issue I faced in my schooling years but various conversations with other parents added to my belief that this is something that is becoming a big part of how your kid relates to his friends and feels about himself... Here are some examples that I have heard in the last couple of months:

  • About a kid telling his parents that he felt embarrassed that his mother dropped him to school in a small car while his friends came in big cars
  • About another kid who actually went up to the birthday girl’s mum and gave the return gift (a set of crayons and a colouring book) back because ‘she didn’t like it’
  • And while on the subject of return gifts/ party favours, anecdotes of kids getting iPods and remote-controlled cars to bring back from the parties they attended (and if this sounds like a stretch, Ayaan went to a birthday party last month and came home with a Build-a-Bear teddy, and those are definitely not cheap!)
  • Of birthday parties at 5-star hotels (even for two-year olds), organised by professional party planners and replete with magicians, fire-eaters, DJs and pony rides.

After this conversation, I suddenly started looking at this school decision from a completely different lens and School C slowly started moving from being at the bottom on my list to the top. And what I have been seeing of the school and its approach crystalised my thoughts in the same direction. Stuff like:

  • When we went to pay the fees and also at the first parent meeting, we ran into atleast 7 people whom we knew from work/ college. It generally gave us a sense that we were amongst ‘people like us’.
  • The school itself is very down-to-earth and by that I mean very like the schools I went to when I was growing up. The classrooms are simple. They allow the kids to distribute no more than two boiled sweets on their birthdays and when I went to buy the uniform from the authorised shop, we spent a princely amount of Rs. 1100 for four sets of shirts and shorts, 5 pairs of socks, 1 pair of shoes and 10 identity cards – Jai was understandably bugged with me for making him go to the ATM to withdraw cash before we went...
  • There was no interview as a part of the admission process – there’s nothing I find more ridiculous than this practice of evaluating three and four-year olds on their ability to communicate with a bunch of complete strangers, something that kids at that age are actually quite averse to doing. So I liked the fact that this school hadn’t fallen prey to that particular temptation. In fact, their first criteria of selection is your pin code because they don’t want kids commuting, followed by the parents’ backgrounds (I have heard that they give preference to kids of professionals).
  • This also reflects in approach they take to education in the primary school. There is no homework, no tests or exams and in general a very relaxed and play-based approach to teaching for atleast the first 2-3 years.

But there were some pretty significant downsides as well:

  • Lack of space: this school is basically just a building with barely any space for kids to play. But that’s Bombay schools for you. The other schools are a little more spacious but you can forget about the basketball courts and football fields we grew up with in other towns and cities.
  • This is a religious school, unlike the others which are more or less secular. Given Ayaan’s mixed parentage, I think I would have been much more comfortable with a school that did not have overt religious communication as a part of their curriculum. But then I thought about it and realised that a lot of my (Hindu) friends went to convent schools and could mouth hymns and portions of the Bible with practised ease but it was just something that they learnt and not necessarily internalised as a belief. In any case, I do want Ayaan to know as much as he can about both our religions and the school is making it easier for me by atleast telling him about one of them.
  • My last niggling concern (which is also a source of comfort) is that Ayaan will have a pretty traditional kind of education – the kind that most Indian kids in my generation had. On the one hand, it is reassuring because I know what it’s all about and we all did turn out fine. But having been part of the same system, I also know how the approach (especially in the later years) sa lot more on learning by rote rather than interacting with and internalising the knowledge. And also how it can be quite restrictive and can stifle the creativity/ edge out of the mavericks. I did consider this school for a bit but in the end, it all boils down to this – I don’t have the guts. The temptation and the comfort of sticking to the tried and tested path is too high.

Just one last point (in case, any of you are still awake after that endless, meandering account). There have been a lot of words flying around the blogosphere on what kind of education is best for kids. I think we often post-rationalise these things. Three months ago, I was just as likely to have chosen one of the other schools I mentioned and then, I suspect this would have been a very different kind of post. And that too would have been a good and valid decision... so I think we should stop being so hard on ourselves and on others for the choices we/ they make. We are all doing what we believe is best for our kids and like it or not, circumstances and luck have a pretty big role to play in the whole thing.

Monday, March 03, 2008

The Big Boy Bed

Sometime towards the end of last year, I started thinking about moving Ayaan out of his cot to a regular bed. To start with, he was getting a little big for the cot, especially since it had to accommodate his pillow (for the adenoids) and four soft toys (two Noddys and two Teletubbies). Secondly, I was worried about him climbing out and injuring himself - he has been tall enough to climb out for a while but just hasn’t realised it. Lastly, I had read somewhere that the longer you wait, the more habituated they get to the cot and the harder it is to move them out.

So I started looking for a toddler bed – or actually any adult-sized bed that already had or could be modified to have in-built toy storage capacity and some contraption that would keep Ayaan from rolling off during his sleep. I could have asked a carpenter to do it but I have been pretty disappointed with the finish these freelance guys churn out. Moreover, I have neither the creativity to imagine/ design stuff nor the bandwidth to ensure quality control on the wood and other supplies. So it had to be store bought.

I was not averse to kiddy designs (in fact, I was rather in favour of them) and so my search took me to a newly opened store called Big Red Bus, which promised to meet the heretofore unmet need for high quality kids' furniture. They had lovely designs and colours – however, the design I liked (a simple bed in yellow with built-in ) was going for a pricey Rs. 45,000 – almost double of what I paid for the bed we sleep in! And while it was beautifully made, I was not about to spring that much money for a piece of furniture that was likely to be covered with crayon marks and scratches before the year was out...

Since I had really (and I mean REALLY) liked the pricey bed, it took me some time to get over with wanting it and the bed plan went into cold storage for a couple of months. Till a friend at work told me about another kid’s furniture store with more reasonable prices. So one weekend in January, we decided to go and check it out. And found just what we were looking for – simple beds with clean lines and options of storage drawers. Also, the proprietor was open to customisation – he agreed to make the laminate on the toy drawers yellow to match the theme of Ayaan’s room and put in a wooden railing that ran half-way along the length of the bed – keeping Ayaan from rolling off while leaving enough space at the bottom of the bed to let him get out when he wanted to. Tis what we ended up with:

I wanted this to be a one-way street so I prepared Ayaan well for it. We took him with us to choose the bed and kept talking to him about the fact that his NEW! BIG! bed would be coming soon – this ensured that he was pretty excited about its impending arrival. And then on the day it arrived, we dismantled his cot and told him that it was broken. And it worked! He took to his new bed like a duck to water. It's been about three weeks and I think he has forgotten he ever slept in a cot...

There’s just one problem though. It has to do with the fact that he can get out of bed on his own. This leads to some rather funny or frustrating (depending on my mood and perspective) situations. Here’s a sampler:

  • He comes to our bed when he wakes up in the mornings. Which is mostly nice except for the elaborate ritual of first coming himself and lying down, then getting up to go back every few minutes to fetch his ‘cubber’ (cover in Ayaanspeak), pillow, Noddys and Teletubbies, one at a time. And then everything has to be arranged just so to suit his highness’s sensibilities or it all ends up in an early morning meltdown of epic proportions – not something you’d want to wake up to, I assure you!
  • A few days ago, we heard him get out of his bed and open his door but then there was no sight or sound of him for the next five minutes. As all mothers of toddlers know, silence is never a good sign so Jai was despatched to investigate – only to find that Ayaan had headed over to the kitchen, opened the fridge and had happily helped himself to an early morning treat – some leftover brownies from the previous night!
  • Afternoon naps have become unpredictable. And investigations of strange sounds on the baby monitor often turn up sights of Ayaan, having collected some of his toys on his bed, merrily playing away instead of sleeping.
  • And this one from today afternoon – he picked up the Vicks from the shelf in his bedroom and proceeded to liberally apply the stuff on to his pillow and sheets!

But overall, I have to say that I am terribly proud of him for making the transition so comfortably (for him and for me). And the vacated cot is probably a sign that I should start thinking of ways to fill it again... :-)