Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Book Review: Tuki's Grand Salon Chase

As an inveterate people watcher, beauty salons have always held a special fascination for me. All my good intentions to get a big chunk of reading done while in the hair stylist’s chair usually go right out of the window. It is so much more fun to watch the patrons and stylists out of the corner of my mind and make up interesting back-stories for them. It doesn’t help that in the last decade or so, the stylists themselves have gotten so much more interesting.

Parul Sharma’s third book Tuki’s Grand Salon Chase was therefore right up my alley. The book starts off in a bustling hair salon in tony Bandra and we get a peek into the workings of the place with a cast of characters (both the staffers and the clients) that keep things interesting and offer loads of fun insights into what makes them tick.

The book follows the adventures of Tuki, a young girl with big dreams of opening her own salon. Her dreams run into many a speed bump along the way and her adventures take her to Goa and London before she finds love and success back in Mumbai.

I have to say that this is my favorite of Parul’s books yet and I really enjoyed it. All the characters are written really well – they are quirky enough to be fun and interesting but stop short of becoming caricatures or stereotypes, which keeps them real and believable. The story itself is written in a witty, fast-paced and engaging style that kept me turning pages well past my bedtime.

It is peppered with witticisms and insights about beauty, love, people and behaviour that make you go ‘Word!’ or ‘Amen!’ My favourite: ‘A girl with a new haircut. Nothing could touch her.’ Word!

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Tarana Says So

Tarana is getting quite a reputation in the family for her retorts and comebacks. It is not unusual for a phone conversation with my mom to begin with her enquiring about the latest mad things Tarana has said. Here are some of the ones that I can still remember from this year:

We have returned from a round grocery shopping and my arms are laden with bags.

MeTarana, can you please call the lift?
TaranaLift! Come!


MeYour eyes are for seeing, your ears are for listening and your nose is for smelling.
TaranaNo, Mama. My nose is for digging.


Tarana has abhorred head baths since she was born and has bawled through almost each one of them since then. At 4, she is still exercising her lungs when it comes to getting her hair washed.

MeTarana, it is time to have a head bath.
TaranaI am going to go and live at Arvind's (school buddy) house and never have a head bath ever again.
MeBut Arvind's Mama washes his hair every day.
Tarana: *is rendered uncharacteristically speechless*

Two days later, her dad is dropping her to school and has managed to get on her wrong side.

TaranaDadda, you are very naughty! I will send you to live in Arvind's house and you will have to have a head bath everyday.


MeI am going to call you Whiny because you are always whining.
TaranaThen I will call you Shouty because you always shout at everyone.


She is conversation with her dad, over the phone.

JaiTarana, what are you doing?
TaranaI am talking to you.


MeTarana, have you washed your hands?
MeCan I smell them?
TaranaI think I will go and wash them again.


TaranaWhere was I before I was born?
MeYou lived in Mama's stomach.
TaranaWhere were you before you were born?
MeI was in Patti's stomach.
TaranaBut you're so big. How did you fit in Patti's stomach?


Jai: Tarana, can you get that book and give it to me?
Tarana: *in a strident tone* You have hands! You have legs!


Monday, December 16, 2013

Books I Have Met Recently

Lately, I have been feeling an urge to pen down my thoughts on the books that I have been reading. I have been sharing tidbits on Facebook and Twitter but I want to record these in a more detailed, consolidated and permanent way. As a reader, I go through a lot of books and I am hoping that this will make them stay in my head more than having just read them and moved on. So, in no particular order, here goes:

Asura: Tale of the Vanquished
Anand Neelakantan

As Winston Churchill famously said, "History is written by the victors", so a book that aims to look at the epic story of the Ramayana from Ravana's perspective definitely makes for an interesting premise. But the idea is so poorly executed in Anand Neelakantan's Asura that one is left feeling sorely disappointed. 

Character development was a big issue. I expected to end this book either hating or loving Ravana as represented on the pages. Instead, all I felt was indifference and supreme relief at having finished the ordeal of reading this book. Even events like the death of children that typically tug at the heartsrings were written in a manner that excited no emotion in me. It did not help matters that Ravana's narration bordered on the schizophrenic. Within the space of a paragraph, he would contradict himself. An example: "I wanted to hug Prahastha's still body and tell him that, more than anyone else, I had respected and loved him. I also wanted to tell him that he had always got on my nerves with his unwarranted advise* and talk about Asura dharma. Suddenly I hated him from deep within." (Page 396) - From love to hate in three sentences! Seriously?

The literary style was very slow and repetitive. I lost count, early on in the book, of the number of the times the same arguments about the caste system were hashed and rehashed. Also, this is supposedly a historical/ mythological piece so it should reflect the period. I found many of the phrases and analogies were quite anachronistic. For an example, terms like 'an efficient time manager' and 'useless jargon and mumbo jumbo' are very 21st century phrases and it jarred me to find them in a book set in the ancient times, especially since the narrators were the characters and not the author himself. It greatly detracted from the authenticity of the book.

Lastly, the editor on this book did a pretty shoddy job. There were multiple errors of spelling and grammar.

To me this book represents the fact that a good idea is not enough and that bad writing can demolish even the best of ideas. I would not recommend this book to any reader with some discretion.

* erroneously spelled in the book

Island of a Thousand Mirrors
Nayomi Munaweera

For a slim book and a fast-paced read, Nayomi Munaweera's debut novel packs a gut-wrenching punch. It is narrated in the voices two young women - one Sinhalese and the other Tamil, on the opposite sides of the brutal civil war that tore the island nation of Sri Lanka asunder in the preceding decades. The conflict, of course, is one that is well known to any South Asian who hasn't been living under a rock but it is one thing to read about a bunch of horrors and statistics in a newspaper and quite another to imagine what it might have been like for two young girls to come of age against this backdrop. More than anything else, it manages to put a human face on the tragedy. 

For a first-time author, I thought the book was fantastically well-written and Nayomi certainly knows how to turn a phrase. With her elegant prose and evocative metaphors, she manages to bring the natural beauty and human tragedy of Sri Lanka's past alive in the most visceral way. 

Though the book has two very different narrators, Munaweera manages to give both their voices authenticity, without taking sides. My only beef was that Yashodhara, the Sinhalese girl, was by far the primary protagonist of the book - we get to know her family history and her childhood in a fair amount of detail. Saraswathi (the Tamil protagonist) gets the short shrift on this front and I was left wondering if this was a bias of some sort, in its own way.  

That apart, I really enjoyed this book. After a long time, I found myself with a contemporary novel that beautifully written, easy to read and with a gripping storyline. That makes for quite a package!

Jhumpa Lahiri

After reading Unaccustomed Earth (and having already read The Namesake and Interpreter of Maladies), I had resolved to stop reading anything further by Jhumpa Lahiri till she found something new to write about. While there is no denying that she is an accomplished author, I had pretty much had my fill of her much-repeated theme of a displaced diaspora struggling with culture clash, alienation and loneliness. But then someone at my book club happened to mention her new novel and I am never very firm when it comes to resolutions about books (or resolutions of any kind actually) so before I knew it, I had ordered it from Flipkart and was all set to read it.

The book follows the story of two brothers, Udayan and Subhash, who grow up in post-Independence Calcutta. Born within months of each other and inseparable as children, they nonetheless develop into very different individuals and chose dramatically different destinies. Subhash, the good older son, does as is expected and finds a job in America. Udayan, on the other hand, gets sucked into the Naxalite movement. It is a decision that alters not just his, but the destinies of his brother and Gauri, the woman he loves as well.

On the plus, I really enjoyed reading about the roots of the Naxalbari movement. It was fascinating to imagine the Calcutta of old with the revolutionary undercurrents sweeping through it and see the beginnings of the movement that still continues to challenge governmental authority in many parts of the country. 

But other than that, I have to say that it was a rather joyless read. It could have something to do with the cold, bleak Rhode Island landscape against which much of the book is set. It could be that I like my happy endings and this book stops well short of achieving that. But that's not all. It is probably that the book lacks a single, truly happy character. Udayan's actions seem to reach out from beyond the grave to rob all their lives of any joy whatsoever. It makes for very depressing reading. Further, as a central character, I couldn't really get into Subhash's head. He seemed dry, dull and incapable of taking control of his own life and decisions. 

I would say this is a book you should only read if you are an undying Jhumpa fan. Otherwise, just skip it and hope she puts her admittedly substantial talents to better use in her next book (which as of now, I have resolved not to read).

Robert Galbraith (aka J.K. Rowling)

The Cuckoo's Calling is pretty much a case study in the power of a brand. When the world thought it had been written by a new author called Robert Galbraith, it met with limited success. As this article tells it, it had managed to sell just 1500 copies in the UK and achieve a lowly Amazon rank of 5076! And then those stickers appeared on the books in the shops announcing that Galbraith was, in fact, a pseudonym for J.K. Rowling and sales pretty much went through the roof, pushing the book to top rank on Amazon. It was still the same book but suddenly everyone wanted to buy it. I had not even heard of the book till Rowling was outed as its author but even if I had, I am pretty sure I wouldn't have given it a second glance. My constant refrain these days is 'So many books, so little time...' so you won't find me frittering away that precious time on just any book. For me to pick up a book, it has to meet one of two conditions. It either has to be written by an author that I know and like or it has to come highly recommended by a friend or social media acquaintance whose book sense matches mine. The Rowling reveal put the book in the former category, and so I picked it up.

I know it's unfair to compare this novel to her Harry Potter series but how can one not? While one clearly wasn't expecting murder by Avada Kevadra and was adequately primed to expect an entirely Muggle tale, one certainly did expect of the magic of her storytelling on her blockbuster series to carry through to her new work. Unfortunately, that has not happened.

On the plus side, most of the elements of what one would consider an accomplished work of crime fiction are there. It was an interesting plot - Lula Landry, a high profile but troubled super model falls to her death and not everyone is convinced she committed suicide. Cormoron Strike, the private detective who is hired by the victim's brother to investigate her death, makes for an interesting lead character. He is an injured army veteran with an unsettled childhood, struggling to keep his private eye business afloat whilst recovering from a soured relationship. His newly hired secretary Robin is a decent sidekick, with the right mix of efficiency and sex appeal. Like in any mystery novel worth its salt, one is left guessing at the murderer's identity till pretty close to the end.

But but but.... like I said, the magic was missing. I found the pace too slow and while I wouldn't go as far as to say it was plodding, it did get a bit boring in parts. Don't get me wrong, I am all for atmospheric murder mystery novels that give us a peek into the world that they are set in. It totally works for Henning Mankells' Kurt Wallander series. Like Rowling has attempted here, those too manage to bring in socio-economic dynamics like immigration and racism but this never gets dull or compromises the pace of the novels. The Cuckoo's Calling, in my opinion, could not quite achieve that. 

Overall though, I have to say that I did enjoy reading it and have no regrets about picking it up. But it is not a novel in line with what one would expect a writer of Rowling's calibre to produce.

Fyodor Dostoyevsky

In the past, holiday and beach reading was always associated with light, trashy reads. But I have changed my mind on this in recent years. Daily life, with its never-ending cycle of morning madness, school pick-ups, mealtimes and bedtimes, leaves me with only bite-sized pockets to read and that's the worse way to read a heavy book. The beach, on the other hand, makes for a great babysitter and with the husband sharing childcare duty, I find I can really dig my teeth into a meaty book. And what's more meaty than an old Russian classic.

Crime and Punishment follows the inner turmoil of young Rodion Raskolnikov as he considers committing a crime (a murder), actually commits it and then comes to term with it. It is a fascinating look into his mind as he initially starts out believing that some people are above crimes, especially since these crimes benefit humanity. He believes that he falls into this category and that his murder of a usurious pawnbroker is justified. Of course, it doesn't pan out this way and the novel documents his physical and emotional struggles on his path through guilt to redemption

I am not sure that I can say anything about this book that hasn't been said. I really enjoyed the book. I found it a much easier read than I had expected and the language was not overly heavy. It drew me in at the first page and kept me hooked right till the end. Dostoyevsky was obviously incredibly insightful and the book felt real and contemporary in many ways, even though it was written almost a century and a half ago. 

Friday, November 29, 2013

The Snack Buffet Lunchbox

Last week, Ayaan's school announced an outing-cum-picnic to a nearby deer park. This is pretty much the event of the year in the school calendar as far as he is concerned and to say that he was excited would be an understatement. He was also bursting with ideas for a 'special' lunchbox for the special day. He requested that he get a variety of snacks rather than his regular lunch, or as he put it 'a kind of snack buffet'. 

I could see that some fantasies of junk food like chips and store-bought cookies were flitting around in his head. Now, I have cracked down on processed foods in a big way over the last couple of years and I wasn't about to go back on this. So while I agreed that his idea was good, we negotiated on the actual elements of this 'snack buffet'. After a quick brainstorming session, we arrived at a plan that we were both happy with. 

This is what a delighted not-so-little boy finally got to take on his picnic:

  1. Baby carrots with sunflower sprouts (I get the sprouts bi-weekly from here)
  2. Fresh strawberries, cut and sprinkled with a wee bit of icing sugar
  3. Cookie jam sandwiches, with extra to share with friends (cookie recipe from here)
  4. Peanut butter mini-sandwich in sunflower seed bread (bread recipe from here)
  5. Sundal made with small chickpeas (from this recipe)
  6. Boiled egg wedges arranged around a cherry tomato to look like a flower
  7. Mixed nuts and dried fruit
He also wanted to carry a big bottle of home-made lemonade to share with his friends. He was keen to make this himself and was up at 6.30 a.m. and down in the kitchen to do the needful. This is the same boy that I have to drag out of bed kicking and screaming (or grumbling and groaning, depending on the mood of the moment) at 7 a.m!

The only real cooking that I had to do that morning was the boiled egg and the sundal. The bread and the cookies had been made earlier that week and all the other fruits and vegetables were foraged out of my refrigerator. Overall, I think I managed to meet his brief while still giving him a healthy, fresh and mostly homemade array of food. It was actually easier to assemble than his regular lunch and I am actively thinking about making this a fortnightly affair. 

Monday, November 25, 2013

Toy Review: Hello Kitty Market Stall

Disclaimer: The toy reviewed in this post was sent to me gratis with the expectation that I would review it on the blog. To that extent, I guess you could consider this a sponsored post. But the views I shall express, I would like to think, are objective and my own.

The other day, I was asked if I would be interested in receiving and reviewing a toy, the Hello Kitty Market Stall set. I have never done this sort of thing on this blog before so I was in two minds about it. But after checking that they would be okay with me posting my honest opinion, be it negative and positive, I decided to go for it.

I decided to open it when Ayaan was still at school so that I could let Tarana enjoy it for a while before the inevitable sibling turf wars began. She insisted on opening it herself and was all set to start playing with it when she realised it required installations and Mama's help would need to be solicited.

There was no manual inside the box so we assembled it via the trusted but time-consuming trial-and-error method only to realise later that pictorial instructions were printed on one of the flaps of the box it came in. Grrrrr... how was I supposed to know to look there?! Anyway, here is what it looked like when it was just set up. It was missing a couple of pieces compared to the picture on the box but most of the crucial stuff was there, so we are not complaining.

Given that most of her toys tend to be shared with her brother or are his hand-me-downs, Tarana was absolutely thrilled to have this to call her own. It was practically her third limb for the first few days. Here's a picture from later that day, where madam insisted that she would only go to sleep if her shop was parked next to her bed!

It has been almost three weeks since we got it and she continues to enjoy playing with it. She is constantly on the lookout for people to play customer to her shopkeeper. Just yesterday, she found a captive audience in her aunt and grandmother on Skype. She tried to get her brother to play with her but since his idea of fun was to have an earthquake hit the shop, she soon gave that up.

Overall, it is a nice, well-designed toy. The plastic is good quality which makes a good change from the made-in-China stuff that seems to be the norm these days. It has a decent range of produce, a calculator panel, weighing scales and a shopping basket. I like that it is self-contained and compact and takes up very little space in the toy room. For kids into pretend play, it is a source of hours of fun and entertainment.

My only major complaint with it was the colour. I am not a big fan of the pink overdose that seems to be swamping the girls' toys aisle. I guess one can't entirely blame the manufacturers - I am pretty sure the chances of being picked up by a girl must be substantially higher when the toy in question is pink. But still... Also, I suspect that is one of the big reasons why Ayaan won't play with it, because 'Mama, pink is for girls.' Grrr...

Another thing that is missing from this set is play money. It's a shop so it would have been a logical conclusion to have some to go around. I gave Tarana some coins and that really upped the fun quotient. It is also a sneaky way to build early Math skills :-)

Saturday, November 09, 2013

Meeting Ranganna

Last month, Ranganna came to town. The book, written by friend and blogger Arthi Anand Navaneeth and published by Tulika, was launched in Hyderabad by the team at Treasure House.

The event was great fun for the kids. In addition to the book being read out in English, Hindi and Telugu, there was lots to keep the kids entertained and engaged. They talked about elephants and favourite colours. They did a Ranganna-inspired elephant dance and a maze puzzle. There were also some optional Rangana-themed craft activities and Tarana had fun painting her very own elephant. (Ayaan, of course, thinks libraries are strictly for reading and settled down with a stack of books to entertain himself while his sister painted.)

The book itself is very cute. It narrated the story of a colour-loving elephant who lives in a dhobi ghat and loves to seek out colours in his surroundings. When he meets two girls sporting nail polish, he naturally wants some for himself and is thrilled when they oblige. It is just right for the 3-5 age group with an easy-to-follow yet engaging plot and eye-catching illustrations on every page. Tarana enjoyed it very much.

Like most Tulika books, Ranganna has been published in English and also in multiple Indian languages. I bought the English one for Tarana and the Hindi one for Ayaan since he can now read the language independently but needs to build his vocabulary. Thanks to books like Ranganna and many others published by Tulika, our kids have the opportunity to explore beyond Blyton and Dahl and read books written in familiar settings and languages.

To know about the book, its author and her inspiration, check out Arthi's interview on the Saffron Tree blog.

If you are interested in purchasing a copy of the book, you can buy here over at the Tulika website.

*Event pictures courtesy the Treasure House Facebook Page

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Book Review: Lean In

After dragging my feet for ages, I finally gave in and read Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In to find out what the fuss was all about. Truth be told, I was kind of nudged into reading it by my brother, who sent it to me as a present for Rakshabandhan this year. If I had had any doubts about my family's opinion of my decision to exit the rat race (I did not), this would have laid rest to them!

As is always the case when I come late to the party over a much-talked about book or movie, I was quite underwhelmed. I didn't hate the book and I definitely found it thought-provoking in parts, but I certainly did not think it deserving of the paeans being sung over the world about it and its author.

The statistics and anecdotes quoted in the book confirm what women in the workforce have known for a long while - that there are nowhere near enough of us, that we tend to be more hesitant about putting ourselves forward and blowing our own trumpets than our male counterparts, that successful women are often branded as bossy and unlikeable, that we have to shoulder a majority of housekeeping and childrearing responsibilities in addition to holding down full-time jobs. We KNOW this stuff already so she is not telling us anything new, but it is useful and eye-opening to see it all together in the same place. Also, it is kind of hard to hate a book if you are nodding along with everything the author is saying.

Some have complained that this book and its advice applies only to a microscopic group of privileged and highly qualified women and does not adequately represent the average Jane. Factually, that might be correct and Sandberg herself admits it in the course of the book. But I don't necessarily get why that is a bad thing. Every book is written with a certain audience in mind and very few target (and even less achieve) universal appeal. This is a book for women, largely in the corporate world, that attempts to shed some light on what might be holding women back in the workplace and how to fix or work around these obstacles. Expecting it to fulfill some broader feminist cause is akin to expecting a rabbit to roar.

Another criticism commonly leveled at the book is that it doesn't really deal with the institutional setbacks, obstacles and lack of support that women face when they seek to 'lean in'.  Again, changes like affordable daycare, office creches, longer maternity (and paternity) leave and even spousal equality are not going to happen overnight. Does that mean that women as a group should put their careers on hold or just blame institutions for our inability to succeed? Clearly, a lot needs to happen on that front and as one the female industry leaders, one would hope that Sandberg is doing her bit to play influencer. But that falls into the gambit of lobbying and reform and is beyond the scope of this book. Here, she focusses on what women can and should do for themselves, instead of waiting around for people and organisations to change. Valid enough, I say. 

While I wasn't quite as blown away with the book as I had expected to be, I am glad I read it. I wish it had been around a few years earlier because it does a pretty good job of listing some of the career mistakes that I made and maybe I would have avoided them if I could have read it earlier.

'Don't leave before you leave', Sandberg says. This was the chapter that especially resonated with me. The following paragraph might well have been written to describe my experiences around the time that Tarana was born, which eventually led to my quitting the organisation I had worked at for almost 11 years:

"When she returns to the workplace after her child is born, she is likely to feel less fulfilled, underutilized, or unappreciated.... At this point, she probably scales her ambitions back even further since she no longer believes that she can get to the top. And if she has the financial resources to leave her job, she is more likely to do so.... Choosing to leave a child in someone's care is a difficult decision. Any parent who has done this, myself included, knows how heart-wrenching this can be. Only a compelling, challenging, and rewarding job will begin to make that choice a fair contest"

BINGO! I remember that when I did decide to quit, my oft-used phrase about my options back at work was: 'It's not worth my time away from my kids'. After two pregnancies and two maternity breaks, I was not happy with what was available to me. I believed (and still do) that I deserved more but I also have to accept responsibilty for the fact that I should have pushed much harder, instead of expecting the world to give me what I felt was due to me. Which brings me to my next point.

"Women are often reluctant to apply for promotions even when deserved, often believing that good job performance will naturally lead to rewards.... Hard work and results should be recognized by the others, but when they aren't, advocating for oneself becomes necessary."

Again, she could be talking about me here. I worked hard, did a good job and expected that to be enough. When I had good bosses who were tuned in and invested in their subordinates, it was. But that was not the case when I left for my second maternity break and I lost out because I hadn't pushed myself forward as much as I could have and there was nobody to do it for me. I clearly remember an appraisal discussion many years ago. My boss at the time went through my self-appraisal and actually expressed shock at some of things I had achieved that year. Because he had never noticed during the year and I had not gone out of my way to bring them to his attention...

I am also glad she made the point that children of working moms are not worse off. One of my pet peeves is stay-at-home moms who walk around with a self-righteous halo because they believe what they are doing is the best (and only) way to raise healthy, happy kids. I have always believed that this is not true but it counts for more when someone of Sandberg's stature says it, backed by data. I am self-aware enough to know that I am currently at home more because it is something that I need to do rather than something that my kids need me to do. Sandberg's friend quotes her therapist as saying: "Separation anxiety is actually more about the mom than the kids." Amen.

Overall, the book is well-written and cleverly packaged. It's a quick and easy read, liberally peppered by witty and often charmingly self-deprecating anecdotes. It also doesn't talk fluff - most of the points Sandberg makes in the book are backed by hard data from reputable studies and institutions.

I also think men should pick up this read it, especially if they want to do more than lip service to recruiting and retaining more women in their organisations. Sandberg used the terms 'benevolent sexists' and 'nice guy misogynists' and I think that is bang on. I think most men, despite their best intentions, continue to perpetuate the attitudes and stereotypes that hold women back. Just becoming conscious of this fact would be the first step in the right direction.

That being said, I have to say that the book left me wanting. To start with, a reasonable large chunk of material in the book has already been covered in Sandberg's TED talk. Having seen the talk on YouTube months ago, I felt somewhat cheated at finding much of it repeated in the book.

My disappointment also was a function of my heightened expectations, given the number of people I had heard praising and recommending it. I think it is important to be clear about what this book is, and what it is not. It is not the new feminist manifesto. It is not a book likely to appeal to people in non-corporate, non-mainstream jobs. It is not a self-help book - it includes some helpful advice and tips that can help women overcome issues and obstacles but it is definitely not a 'How to hit the C-suite in 10 years or less' guide. And, like I said above, it does not offer answers or solutions to the systemic and institutional problems women face or aim to change established attitudes and stereotypes that often plague women in the workplace.

All that being said, I have to say that I am glad that I read this book. While we can nod our heads along and say that we knew much of this before, the fact is that it is not really out there. I think it is great that someone put it out there and made it part of our conversations. Calling it 'inspiring' would be going a step too far, but it definitely got me thinking and that can only be a good thing.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

The Resident Chefling and his Cookbook Collection

It's over two years since I wrote this post about my early forays into the kitchen. In my journey from culinary disaster to tolerable cook, Ayaan has been my constant, pint-sized companion.

I think it started with the kitchen being the centre of our existence in the days when it used to take me hours to cook meals and clean up after them. The kids and I literally spent most of our waking, non-school hours there. On any given day, you could have walked in to find the floor liberally cluttered with toys and my Bose Sound Dock (which had been relocated to the kitchen) pumping out nursery rhymes.

Since we were in the kitchen a lot, it was only natural that he wanted to help. He asked to stir whatever was in the cooking pot, helped me mix batter for cookies or cakes and even wanted to wash the dishes! But it has grown from there and mushroomed into a passion for everything culinary. He is often found poring over my recipe books and trying to convince me that something or the other must be attempted right away.

He now has a small collection of cookbooks of his own as well. The other day, I posted something on Facebook about his chefly pursuits and had a few people asking me which cookbooks he uses. I thought I might as well make a post out of it.

The cookbook that is his favourite by far is The Everything Kids Cookbook. Like any self-respecting cookbook, Ayaan's copy of this one shows its wear and tear with its well-thumbed pages and random food stains. It is a neat little book, with relatively simple recipes (with difficulty levels clearly specified) and straightforward directions. Everything that we have cooked together from this book has come out well. There are some recipes with ingredients not easily available in India but most of the stuff is procurable or substitutable. It is designed with kids in mind, with a bunch of fun facts and puzzles thrown in. What one really misses in this book is photographs of the food to be cooked, but I find that to be a common thread across most kids' cookbooks. I guess they think cartoons are more likely to hit the mark with the younger set, but good food pictures are an integral part of a recipe book, irrespective of its target audience. Overall though, it is a great starter cookbook for the under-10 set.

This book - Better Homes and Gardens New Junior Cook Book - was presented to him along with the one above by his aunt (my brother's wife) for his seventh birthday. But somehow, this has not been his go-to cookbook when he wants to convince me to help him whip up something. Unlike the black-and-white aesthetic of the previous book, this one is bursting with colour. But I personally find it graphic style very cluttered and loud. However, it ticks all the boxes in terms of providing all the essential information for a young, novice cook and easy-to-follow directions. The dish names - Deep Sea Subs and Eye Popping Popcorn, for example - are corny but cute. I can't remember when we last tried cooking something from this one, so I cannot vouch for the quality of the recipes.

If you were to ask Ayaan to name his favourite authors, he will rattle off the names of Roald Dahl, E. Nesbit and Enid Blyton - in that very order. The other day, he was telling me that he wished Dahl was still alive because then he could have written some more books. So when I came across a book titled Roald Dahl's Completely Revolting Recipes, I knew I had to get it for him. Technically, Dahl did not write this book - the recipes were compiled by his wife after this death - but the recipes link back to the food mentioned in his books and the trademark Quentin Blake illustrations make it Dahlian like nothing else possibly could. Many of the recipes could sound appetising only to a hard-core Dahl fan - Hot Frogs, A Plate of Soil with Engine Oil and Hornets Stewed in Tar, to name our few. On the downside, our success with the recipes in this book has been mixed. Overall, this is less of a must-have cookbook for kids and more of a must-have addition to Ayaan's comprehensive Roald Dahl library. 

Of course, he considers my cookbook collection to be an extension of his. It is not uncommon for me to search high and low for a particular cookbook, only to find it nestled comfortably in his bookshelf. He has also called eternal dibs on the Good Food magazine we get every month - he has to be the first one to read it and he often marks out recipes for me to try...

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Playing Solo

Tarana: Mama, can you play Snakes & Ladders with me?
Me: Not right now, baby.
Tarana: (with a long-suffering sigh) Ohhh-kay. I will play with one peoples and that peoples is me.

Ah, the pathos of a three year old who can't get her mother to submit to her every whim...

What she needs is an adoring grandparent or two to melt at her fake-mournful expression.

(Also, if there is anything cuter than early childhood grammar, I cannot presently call it to mind)

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Acres Wild

I was talking to a friend this morning about how we go about selecting our holiday destinations. Of course, we have our bucket list - Egypt, Australia, Alaska and Peru amongst other dream travel destinations - but most of these preclude traveling with a very young child. I am sure Ayaan could keep up with us both in terms of interest and stamina but Tarana, not so much. So for now, we look for recommendations from friends, bloggers and Twitter pals who suffer the same travel constraints that we do.

In the last year or so, one place came up in multiple conversations in the real and virtual world - Acres Wild, an organic cheese-making farmstay in Coonoor. So for the kids' mid-term break at the end of March, we decided to go and check it out.

We got there somewhat travel-weary after a morning flight to Coimbatore, followed by a tedious and winding drive up the Nilgiris but with relaxation as our only agenda and this the perfect place to achieve it in, we soon found our groove. Once we had settled into our  cottage (named Haloumi - the other two cottages are equally appropriately named Colby and Cheddar), we set about exploring our environs. We made two discoveries that were to make our stay extra-special.

The first was discovering a treasure trove of books in the cupboards and cabinets of the recreation room. I found a stack of Georgette Heyer novels - the perfect holiday read! - and Ayaan was delighted discover three whole shelves of children's books. Even Jai, a World War II buff, found some weighty tome about the Third Reich.

The second discovery was that there was another young guest there, a girl just a little younger than Ayaan. From that moment till when the other family left (a day before we did), the two were absolutely inseparable. They mucked around, fed the ducks, played with the resident cows, set up a barter economy involving leaves, rocks, lemongrass stalks and other such precious cargo and generally got along like a house on fire.

Tarana, on the other hand, was clearly not considered part of this gang of two and though she followed them around like a little lost puppy, they weren't always keen to include her. Ah, the tragedy of being the second-born... (Sue, are you listening?) But she managed to keep herself fairly well entertained and continued her staring contests with cows.

Given that this a cheese-making farm, interacting with the cows was definitely high on the agenda. While Tarana preferred to keep them at a distance, Ayaan went the whole hog. He learnt how to milk a cow and insisted on landing up at the daily feeding hour so that he could do the honours. He also found a few willing calves who were happy enough to receive his affectionate pats.

We spent most of our time at the farm itself though we did step out for a tea plantation trek and lunch outing with the other family I mentioned above. We ate at McIver, a charming restaurant in a colonial villa repurposed as a hotel. The food itself was nothing to write home about but it made for a nice change from the home-style cooking over at Acres Wild. The trek through the tea plantation was nice enough but got boring after a while. We hope to do a forest walk the next time we go there.

No account of a visit to this trip would be complete without a mention of the charming hosts. The farm is owned and managed by Mansoor Khan (of Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak  fame) and his wife Tina. Both of them are warm, chatty and fun to be around. Tina conducts a cheese-making course (which I felt too lazy to sign up for this time - maybe on our next visit) and Mansoor is happy to give interested visitors lessons in baking bread and making soap. He is also passionate about sustainability and is the author of a book called The Third Curve, which revolves around Peak Oil and its economic implications. Also, in one of those amazing 'it's a small world moments', we discovered that Tina and my mother-in-law's families pretty much grew up in each other's backyards!

Overall, it was a fantastic break. The almost obscene greenery was a sight for sore eyes, the fresh air was restorative, and a holiday where we could all just put our feet up, curl up with a book or potter around depending on our mood or inclination was just what the doctor ordered. It's the kind of place that bears re-visiting when the trappings of city seem a tad overwhelming.

Monday, July 08, 2013

Definitely not in the Running for Parent of the Year

I have been meaning to get back to this neglected space ever since my frazzled nerves started recovering from the recently concluded summer vacation. And then yesterday, I read this article and really wanted to pen down my two bits on it.

10 Things You Should Never Say To Your Kids

The title just begs to be clicked. You just have to know what these terrible, unmentionable statements might be, all the while hoping that none of them have ever left your lips. A quick look at the article dashed any such hopes. Let's see how I did.

  1. "I know you can try harder." Check
  2. "Are you sure you need that second cupcake?" Check
  3. "You always…" or "You never…" Check
  4. "Why can’t you be more like your sister/brother? Check
  5. "I told you waiting until the last minute was a mistake!" Check
  6. "You’re the best at soccer!" Check
  7. "Don’t worry—the first day of school will be fine." Check
  8. "Because I said so!" Check 
  9. "I wish you didn’t hang out with Jack; I don’t like that kid." Check
  10. "That’s not how you do it! Here, let me." Check
Ladies and gentleman, that is a perfect ten! Now, if only, this weren't one of those things where a lower score, preferably a zero, is better... If I am to take this evaluation of my parenting seriously, I should probably just zip my lips and stop talking to my kids altogether. Or even better, start saving for the therapy they will clearly need after I am done with them.

But seriously though, am I the only one who thinks there's nothing wrong with saying most of these things to your kids? If our kids' self esteem is made of such flimsy glass that such harmless statements can shatter it, surely we have a bigger problem on our hands?

The only one I can sort of buy into is No. 8: constant comparison between siblings can't be advisable, especially when it comes to things the child has no control over - like intelligence or athletic ability - but I see no harm in asking them to model each other's behaviour when it comes to stuff like table manners or keeping their toy room neat. 

Don't even get me started on 'Because I said so', a statement that you might notice is suspiciously indistinguishable from this blog's name. There are times when I will painstakingly explain to my kids why something has to be done but there are other times I may not have the time, energy or patience to do so. And they have to be okay with knowing that sometimes they just have to follow my lead, without explanations, justifications or rewards on my part. This article does a better job of explaining this element of my parenting philosophy that I possibly could. 

Other than the sibling rivalry one, I simply don't agree that any of these statements could be seriously detrimental to a child's emotional health or well-being. They are not rude, they are not mean, they do not shame. Most of them are actually positive statements intended to guide, encourage or reassure children. Walking on eggshells around kids can't be good for them either.  

What do you think?

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Farmers for a Day

After Wildernest, the next great find of the year was Dirty Feet. I was on the verge of confirming us for their Birds and Bunnies day trip when an enterprising mum from Tarana's class got them to organise a customised farm trip for our little ones. I said yes before the question was fully out of her mouth :-)

Last Saturday morning saw us getting up uncharacteristically early (read: an hour earlier than the obscene hour the kids usually get up) to make our way to the designated pick-up point. Once all the kids, with their accompanying moms and siblings, had been picked up, we were served our breakfast of home-made sandwiches and set our course towards our destination.

After an hour in the bus (where none of my kids deigned to sleep a wink despite the early start) and 15 minutes in a tractor, we made our first stop at a sunflower farm, where we got to feast our eyes on some beautiful, not to mention huge, sunflowers. I am not kidding about the huge part - most of them were taller than my kids and had larger faces. Presenting evidence:

Ayaan's foraging instincts were instantly activated and he asked for a bag for his 'collections' and inaugurated it with some sunflower seeds and some lemons.

While Ayaan was getting up close and personal with the lemon tree, Tarana chose to have a staring contest with a rather baleful looking cow. Thankfully, it was tied and since looks have been firmly established as non-murderous, it was all good.

Our next stop was at the potato farm. Ayaan required no encouragement to fling his shoes and socks off and jump into the mud and start collecting potatoes.

While Ayaan had already filled his first basket to the brim, Tarana chose to be all princess-ey and baulked at having to take her shoes off. ('But the mud is so dirty, Mama'). Finally, I had to take my shoes off and clamber into the potato patch before she would even consider it. Once she was in, she was quite a happy camper though. Here you can see her 'harvesting' potatoes from a pile that someone has already collected :-)

When she was suitably involved, I was able to sneak off with Ayaan and get a taste of handling the plough.

The next order of business was the ultra-important task of climbing on to a haystack and frockling there. And you thought farming was all work and no play...

After checking out some cotton fields, we headed over to a nearby farmhouse for lunch. The organisers had brought lunch from Hyderabad and we all feasted on a child-friendly and relatively mess-free meal of theplas and puranpoli.

After lunch, the kids got to feed an assortment of bird and chicks hanging around the farm before boarding the bus to head back home.

Just when we thought we were done with the fun part of the day, we happened to cross a herd of goats and stopped to give them some loving, which they did not particularly appreciate.

Finally, some napping was done by one and all on the return bus journey and before we knew it, we were back home.

But the day was far from done, as far as Ayaan was concerned. He was keen to use up all the stuff he had collected during the day so he announced that we would have a 'farm party' in the evening and made a suitable banner to give the event even more weight. (If the comic above doesn't make any sense to you, you are not the only one. If does make sense to you, kindly explain :-p)

The party itself involved the following:

  • Sunflower seeds were snacked upon.
  • A minuscule quantity of lemonade was made
  • There was a failed attempt at popping the corn and we were prevailed upon to crunch on hard, burnt corn kernels.
  • The cotton was kept aside for a future project that involves making a pillow for a soft toy
  • The potato was kept for the making of mashed potatoes some other day.
All in all, it was a fantastic experience. If you happen to have young kids and live in Hyderabad, you really ought to give the Dirty Feet experience a try.

Sunday, February 03, 2013

The Mummification of a Car

Even if you can't spot its harried driver, you can tell a car belongs to a mother and is frequently used to ferry kids around when...

... there are dirty kid-sized socks in the coffee holder...

... and a  peek under the armrest reveals a lost Dora slipper that has been the cause of much whining in the recent past.

Of course, the car seats are a dead giveaway too.

On a related note: If you're hitching a ride with me and bringing your own coffee, you're probably better off hanging on it because the coffee holders have seen better days and often play host to a variety of suspect, not to mention smelly, objects.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Holidaying on the Wild Side

A few months ago, we found a long weekend looming large with no travel plans or plans of any other kind. Given that it was just around the corner, we were are at a loss to come up with something interesting that did not require advance planning or flight and hotel reservations. This had been the case for most of the long weekends that had flown by in the last few years and we decided that it was time we got more proactive about planning our mini-breaks. We opened the kids school almanacs and pinpointed the ideal dates, chose travel destinations, made all the necessary bookings and felt mighty pleased with ourselves.

The other factor we wanted to keep in mind was the nature of these holidays. Most of the holidays we have taken in the recent past have either been abroad or cookie-cutter trips like to a beach resort in Goa. We wanted to do something a little different, something that allowed us to give the children new experiences and given that we were looking at breaks of 3-5 days each, they had to be in India.

The Pongal weekend saw us embarking on the first of these planned trips of ours. The destination of choice was Wildnernest, an eco-tourism destination. Reaching their was less than fun - it was a long, winding two-hour drive from the Goa airport, followed by a bone-rattling 10-minute jeep drive off the highway and into the residential part of the property.

It was evening when we got there and we were first taken to our cottage. It was lovely. The cottages are spread out across the property so it almost feels like you are in the woods by yourself. The rooms (we took a 2-room cottage) have large glass windows and when you keep the blinds up, you just have a suffusion of light and greenery. Though fairly rustic and spartan, the rooms were well-appointed, clean and functional - most importantly, a clean toilet with running hot water. This was the view from our deck, just as the sun had set.

After settling in to our digs, we were taken for a brief tour of the property and then we headed to the restaurant where they were airing a wildlife film about the tigers of Bandhavgarh, which Ayaan was entranced by. Dinner followed soon after and it was fantastic. It was a simple buffet comprised of fresh, local ingredients cooked home style but it was some of the best food I have eaten in a while.

The next day, we were went on a boat cruise with these guys in the Goan backwaters. The crew was reasonably knowledgable about the avian life in the area and we managed to see quite a few birds with our binoculars.

The boat ride was quite a novel experience for Tarana who wanted to know why there was soap coming out of the boat (thus revealing herself to be a full-on city kid). She was also  especially taken with the binoculars and spent much of the boat ride in this position:

We also got to see two ends of the technology spectrum in riverine commerce. At one end, we saw these huge coal barges being unloaded with a mechanised life. Just a few metres away, we sailed past teams of boats hard at work at the incredibly labour intensive business of dredging mud from the bottom of the river. Ayaan was equally fascinated by both.

We docked and were driven to the spice plantation in a pick-up. This was one of my cribs with the cruise. There was a typically Indian approach to travel safety - there were no life jackets on the boat and the road travel was all in jeeps and pick-ups. The kids thought it was all wildly adventurous though and expecting western standards of safety precautions would just limit us in our exploration of our own country. So, we followed the age-old advice, kept calm and carried on.

The spice plantation was fun. We went for a guided stroll around the verdant woods and were introduced to a variety of spices in their natural form including cinnamon, vanilla, cardamom, allspice, ginger, and a whole host of other stuff. Ayaan was quite engaged but Tarana wasn't too interested in a botany lesson and generally spent her time trampling around, splashing in puddles and trying her luck at convincing us to carry her.

The guided tour was followed by lunch which was a huge spread of delicacies from the Saraswat cuisine. Organic ingredients, fresh seafood and faultless preparation - it all added up to a fantastic meal and despite my resolution to eat light (given the impending return by boat), I stuffed myself to the gills.

The heavy lunch, combined with the harsh afternoon sun, made return journey far less fun. And we were all feeling something like this halfway through:

The clever crew, probably having dealt with this in the past, had kept the best for the last though - the crocodile sightings! Energy levels immediately spiked when the first croc was spotted. It was amazing that the crew was able to see them at all, given how they seemed to blend into the twigs and rocks in their surroundings but I guess these guys have years of experience. Even after they pointed out the crocodile to us, it took us a few minutes to spot it.

Once we got back, the kids were keen to explore the swimming pool. The water was freezing cold though so they spent most of their time dipping their toes in and generally fooling around at the pool side. It was a great place to unwind after a long, tiring day and the pool itself was a gorgeous infinity pool, with a small waterfall at one end and surrounded by trees and greenery on all sides.

The next day, we signed up for the waterfall trek. This was somewhat brave of us since we had been told that it was a 45-minute trek either way over hilly, rocky terrain. I was worried that both the children would have trouble going the distance. As it turned out, I needn't have worried about Ayaan, who turned out to be quite the champion trekker and managed to keep pace with the leader throughout the trek, while we lagged behind the group with Tarana. It was expectedly a bit too much for Tarana and she spent at least half the trek in my arms or on Jai's shoulders.

The waterfall itself was more of a trickle but it was novelty enough for my city-bred kids who were thrilled to bits. There was also a coracle at the bank and we all took turns boating to the waterfall and back. The kids 'helped'.

Not ones to let one trek with a reluctant toddler in tow discourage us, we signed up for another, albeit easier, trek in the evening. After an afternoon nap (Jai and Tarana) and some more poolside chilling (Ayaan and myself), we set out for a short trek up a hill to watch the sunset. Tarana was on Jai's shoulders most of the way, but Ayaan did the brief hike effortlessly. The spot they had picked was lovely and allowed us a bird's eye view of the property, one of its unique features being that it spans three states - Goa, Karnataka and Maharashtra.

As we spent our last evening there, my body reminded me just how unfit I am. I might have lost all the pregnancy weight thanks to the extended maid-less stint I suffered, but my stamina and fitness levels are pretty much at rock bottom. Tarana was carried most of the way so she was unaffected and Jai has been gymming regularly. But even on Ayaan, the only notable effect was a longer and deeper sleep that night. I, on the other hand, had achy thighs for days after. It really brought home to me the need for me to sign up for an organised fitness regimen of some sort.

The next day, it was time to bid goodbye to Wildernest. We said goodbye to the folks we had befriended there. It's amazing how much more you end up interacting with fellow travelers when you don't have television or internet connectivity. Of course, there were some ugly Indian types who blasted their stereo at the poolside and threw one of my kids' toys over the edge of the pool (and did not even bother to apologise - and these were adults). But by and large, our fellow guests were an interesting lot. We even ran into and send some fun hours with the homeopathy doctor we had consulted with back in Mumbai!

Overall, it was a fantastic break and I hope to do this sort of thing much more often. Some time away from this over-connected, over-stimulating city life of ours is just what the doctor ordered.  

Wednesday, January 09, 2013

In Memoriam: Buddy

Yesterday was not a good day. We got news that Buddy passed away. He had been successfully recovering from a virulent urinary tract infection that had plagued him for the last month or so, but yesterday, his heart suddenly gave way and he collapsed. (For those of you who haven't been reading this blog for a long time, Buddy and Beanz were two miniature dachshunds who came to us a couple of years before Ayaan was born. They later went to live with my mother.)

My first memory of Buddy is from when I went to pick him up from the breeder's place in Ajmer. I was just sitting down when a red-haired bundle of energy came charging into the room, bounded up to me and put his front paws up on my thigh. He tried to clamber on but his diminutive stature failed him and he was soon stranded mid-air - his front paws still on my leg, his back paws hanging. That was Buddy in a nutshell. If there was food or affection to be had, he'd rush in regardless of whether his innate abilities would support him in the situation.

He was a beautiful dog. He had a gorgeous reddish-brown coat that looked especially stunning when he was soaking up the sun, which happened to be one of his favourite pastimes. Even my vet in Mumbai never failed to mention his lovely colour. As he grew older, his appetite, combined with his ability to stare down the most hardened soul into feeding him some scraps, ensured that he lost the lean look he has in this early picture but his roly-poly avatar only served to make him more adorable than before.

Both he and Beanz were quick to settle down in my mother's house in Jaipur but Buddy is the one who really came into his element. Living up to his name, he charmed and befriended everyone who came his way - the maids, the gardener, the driver - they all fell prey to his charm and put aside at least some time to give him the loving pats he craved. My mother tells me the current gardener would first spend some quality time petting him every morning before he got on with his duties for the day.

He was a beggar by heart. It was unthinkable that any human being in the house should get to eat anything without sharing at least part of the bounty with him. He would stare, whine and even bark to get their attention. His favourite human foods were makhana and papad, though he was game for pretty much anything that came out of a human's plate - his own food, not so much. Here's a really old picture of Buddy and Beanz begging for food.

But for all his eagerness for food and love, he was an old lazy bones at heart. As I look through all the pictures I have of him, he is lying flat on a bed, sofa or mat in a majority of them. This one is pretty typical, not to mention cute.

Much before we got Angel, my kids got to practice on Buddy. Beanz is not the most child-friendly dog and he would snap at them if they got too near. But Buddy meekly tolerated their attentions, often with a pained expression on his face. We often joked that he bore a faintly traumatised look by the end of our visit. If you think I might be exaggerating, here's a picture of a long-suffering Buddy decked up by Ayaan using Tarana's bonnet and a few well-placed rose petals. 

He didn't have much of a thing for chew toys but he had this well-worn, much-loved sheet that he liked to play with. Every night, he would clamber on to the bed with it and expect a rambunctious game of tug of war. Ayaan was more than happy to oblige.

One of my big regrets is that I don't have many photographs of Tarana with Buddy. I did have a few pictures from my last couple of visits to Jaipur, along with an adorable video of the two of them playing, but I lost them all when I dropped my iPhone recently. All I can find is this disappointing picture from two years ago.

Buddy lived with us for just two short years and spend eight years, the vast majority of his life, with my mother. So obviously, she is far more upset that I am but I have walked around with a weight on my heart since I heard the news yesterday. My mother was in Hyderabad when it happened and she left last night to go back to Jaipur to complete his last rites, so I feel doubly bereft. Mostly, I dread the thought of going to Jaipur and walking into a Buddy-less house.

Goodbye, Buddy. You have, and will always have, a special place in my heart. You will be missed.