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.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Himalayan Highs - Part 2

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 plan to write it in three parts. This is Part 2. (You can read Part 1 here)

Day Three: Gaunap - Dhaulchina

After two nights at Gaunap, it was time to hit the trekking trail again. After an early breakfast, we got started on our trek down to Dhaulchina.

I think this was the hardest trek of our trip - it was about 7 kilometres long, had a few steep climbs and the trail was precariously narrow in parts. We also had to gingerly walk across the site of an old landslide! Some of the kids (and adults, present company included) struggled a bit on this hike but everyone eventually completed it without incident. Ayaan led the trek from the front as usual, while I huffed and puffed in an effort to keep him in my line of sight. Even when we all sat down (or rather collapsed) to take a break, he was bouncing around and exploring. He got some of the other kids involved in a barter game where they had to find things (flowers, pieces of bark, etc.) and then exchange them with each other. He also went around offering to sell his various finds for the unbeatable price of “Buy zero, get one free”. Madcap!

At Dhaulchina, we had lunch at a place called Hill View restaurant. Lunch turned into another birdwatching opportunity since there was a bird’s nest in the restaurant. (We found this quite a common feature in the region with many establishments allowing birds to peacefully co-exist on their premises). The mother bird kept flying in and out with food for her babies, giving us ample opportunity to observe her various colours and characteristics. With the aid of the bird book and some helpful hints from Sundar, we finally identified her as a barn swallow.

After lunch, we headed over to the Maa Anandmayee Guest House. We were utterly delighted to find that the place lived up to its promise of rooms with a view and modern amenities - Electricity! Running water! GEYSERS! Here's a picture clicked from just outside our room.

A full scrubbing was the order of the day and everyone emerged from their rooms, refreshed and sparkling, minus the layers of accumulated dust and grime. The kids spent the rest of the day entertaining themselves - first, they were a family of leopards, then they put up and judged dance shows, and in the middle of all this, they found the time to update their scrapbooks, play Uno and sneak away my camera to take a bunch of photos with funny faces. We were all pretty impressed by how low maintenance they were, with almost no whining or squabbling! The decibel levels were high nonetheless and we totally ruined the peace of the place (its regular clientele are mostly visitors to a nearby ashram).

We ended the day in the usual fashion, with a bonfire. Since this was a proper guest house, Ayaan was quite disappointed that there were no wood collection opportunities, but he did bring out his trusty roasting tin and smoke up the fire by smothering it with dead leaves.

Day Four: Dhaulchina - Shaukiyatal 

The day did not start well. Ayaan woke up and announced that he was feeling grumpy. I thought that he was just being moody and offered to cuddle him out of it. We stayed in bed for a while looking at funny dog pictures and videos on my phone till he perked up. 

But when we started walking, he started feeling physically unwell. He threw up a little and felt very weak after that. He kept complaining that he was tired and that his legs felt wobbly. He felt cold and clammy to the touch as well. We did the entire 7.5 km trek in blocks of 5-10 minutes, stopping to rest and sip Electral. It was a completely different experience to see Ayaan lagging behind at the back instead of hopping along at the front; from being asked to slow down to being exhorted to keep up. And I have to say that I did not enjoy it at all. Twisted ankle and all, I prefer the situations with him running up ahead, with me struggling to keep up! 

Anyway, we somehow made it to Shaukiyatal, our next abode. By this time, Ayaan was running a temperature so I gave him a light lunch, spooned in a dose of paracetamol and bundled him into bed with a book. I was terrified that he was coming down with some awful bug - it would have been such bad timing! But thankfully, that did not come to pass.

In the afternoon, there were a plan for the adults to trek down to Jageshwar. Since I had to stay and tend to Ayaan anyway and none of the kids wanted to go, I offered to watch all of them. In all, I was in charge of 10 kids, ranging from 3.5 to 14 years. This sounds like a bigger deal than it really was - the kids were happy to do their own thing and got along with each other, so I did not have much to do other than take the occasional head count to ensure that nobody had disappeared on my watch. At some point, we had a couple walk off the road to come and check out the property. They took one look at the kids running around under my loose supervision and curiously asked me whether I was running a summer camp! I was most amused.

After some downtime (not to mention the Crocin kicking in), Ayaan’s energy levels rebounded and he was back to regular programming. He, along with the other boys, went down to explore the hill near the homestay. They proceeded to develop an empire-building game, where the entire area was divided into two kingdoms. Ayaan’s kingdom was called Pineholm (like Stockholm, where his favourite aunt lives) and the other boys called their territory Autobot (because they believe in autonomy and democracy, it seems!). The game went on for almost an hour and got increasingly elaborate with wars, treaties, trade, and agreements over water and oil supplies all being part of the game. The Autobot territory even fashioned a flag out of a rag and a stick. It was very fascinating and I could barely focus on my book because it was so much fun watching them! Pictured below is Ayaan, master of all he surveys in Pineholm: 

Since Ayaan had had a fever earlier in the day, I chose to sleep indoors with him instead of the tent. There were a couple of bedrooms but most of us slept dormitory-style in the main hall of the homestay - twelve of us sleeping in a row on mattresses. Experiences like this make you realise that when you are tired enough, comfort and privacy are less important than a place to rest your head and fall almost immediately into dreamland!

Day Five: Shaukiyatal - Chandidhar - Jageshwar

The next day, Ayaan’s mystery bug was a thing of the past and even though most of the other kids had pretty much had their fill of trekking, he was raring to go on the two optional walks planned for the day. The first trek was a short, steep walk up to a viewing point called Chandidhar, where we got another brilliant view of the snow-capped peaks of the Nanda Devi mountain range.  I just loved the views we got of these majestic mountains. In fact, many of the hotels and restaurants had a poster featuring the entire range with the peaks marked out and I really wanted to get one for Ayaan's room but we could not find it for sale anywhere.

Ayaan and one of the girls who had come along had a fun time playing around there. They attempted to start a fire with two stones and plucked the thyme and oregano leaves, which grow wild like weeds in this region. Ayaan also found a huge tree branch that kept him amused for a while. I love this picture of him with it because you have to look really hard to even find him in it. For me, it typifies his deep connect with nature!

Back at the homestay, breakfast was a delightful surprise for the kids since Harish (who had come down from Gaunap to take care of our dietary needs) whipped up some pasta and sheera. After breakfast, there was a 3-km walk planned to the Jageshwar temple. None of the other kids were coming and I tried to talk Ayaan out of it, hoping that he would stay back and recuperate. But he was having none of it. He had clearly recovered his lost trekking mojo and was back to his preferred position at the front of the group through the one and a half hour trek.

The Jageshwar temple complex was quite interesting. It is actually contains 125 Shiva temples, large and small, built between the 7th and 18th centuries. Once we had done the rounds, we headed across to a grocery shop to stock up on some snacks for the kids and hired a cab to drive us back to Shaukiyatal.

After lunch, I managed to catch a small nap while Ayaan lay next to me and read a book. The others got together for a round of Uno and Housie. In the evening, we made our way to a nearby clearing and had a blast playing long-forgotten (for the adults) games like Dog and the Bone, Kho-Kho and Chain Tag. Ayaan preferred to continue his more important business of exploration while we played.

After all our exertions, we came back to a soup and Maggi dinner. It was our last night with the option of sleeping in a tent so Ayaan and I commandeered the 2-people tent and spent a snuggly night within.

Recently, Itchy posted a list of the ways in which her boys made her feel proud on a recent holiday. She called for other mums to do the same. I'd like to tag my trek posts on to the same 'Proudathon' theme. When I think of Ayaan during the trek, I would not be exaggerating to say my heart feels like it could burst from the love and pride. He exceeded my expectations in every way possible.

Firstly, the boy has bottomless reserves of energy. If the Energiser fellows are looking for a new mascot, they need look no further. Other than the one trek when he was under the weather, he hardly ever stopped to catch a breath and would have done the treks without any breaks had it not been for the rest of us, who did need to stop occasionally to gather our resources. Even when he was done with the trek, there was no drop in his levels of activity and he promptly found something else to entertain him, like fetching wood. He never said no to any of the treks, even the optional ones and even accompanied one of the adults to the Dhaulchina bazaar one evening.

I have to be honest and admit that his boundless energy is not always a source of pride back at sea level. It often gets him (and me, by association) into trouble and oftentimes, I don't have the patience to keep up. But up in the mountains, I had a sort of an epiphany. His energy is not something to rue, but rather something to be proud of. And when he has ways to expend it that appeal to him (nature walks - yes; organised sports - no), his energy levels and general enthusiasm are huge assets and something to be super proud of. (Hopefully, I will remember to hold on to this thought on a day when he is bouncing off the walls at home). As always, Calvin says it best:

Secondly, there is his connect with nature. I think he probably gets it from his Grandma, because he certainly does not get it from me. Left to my own devices, I'd like to holiday in a bug-free, luxury beach resort but then our kids raison d'être is to push us out of our comfort zones, so I find myself in eco-resorts and on Himalayan treks instead. His bird and snake reference guides are not mere ornaments but well-thumbed copies and he is fascinated by the various species featured in his book. At Shaukiyatal, a moth came and sat right next to us while we were playing cards. Before I could descend into panic-mode, Ayaan calmly scooped it up in his palm and walked over to the door and set it free! Like I said, he certainly does not get it from me!

Thirdly, and this applies for all our holidays, there is a special joy in travelling with a child who reads. It makes the inevitable slow patches and waiting times a breeze. Ayaan did not once whine about boredom, only asking for one or the other of his books to be fished out from the main backpack. (Needless to say, the books accounted for a significant portion of the bulk and weight of our backpacks).

Last but not least, he normally does not deal well with sleep deprivation. But even with a rapidly increasing sleep deficit, he continued to be cheerful and energetic on this trip. By the last day, he did start to get slightly crabby, but there were no full-on meltdowns or temper tantrums.

This trek lifted the veil of the everyday hustle-bustle to get the kids fed, dressed and out of the door and showed me a clear view of the wonderful and unique boy that I am lucky to call my son. And now, before I ruin my unsentimental image with more maudlin stuff, I shall conclude this second instalment of my trek memoirs. Stay tuned for the next (and last) post on the same. 

Monday, May 05, 2014

Himalayan Highs - Part 1

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 plan to write it in three parts. This is Part 1. 

Getting Ready and Getting There
A couple months ago, I received a forward from a friend about an upcoming beginner’s trek in the Himalayas, designed for 8-12 year olds. I was immediately interested because this sort of thing is exactly Ayaan’s scene. And I was sold when I found out that the person organising it was someone I already know - Shyam, an experienced trekker and the man behind Jiva Organics, my chief source of organic goodies in Hyderabad. Jai could not get time off in April and Tarana was too young to come along, so I signed up Ayaan and myself.

Over the next few weeks, we used the 5-km track around KBR park to train up for the trek. Any niggling doubts I might have had about Ayaan’s readiness were quickly dispelled. Though it meant waking up at the crack of dawn (almost an hour before the usual weekday wake-up-for-school drama), he was quick to leap out of bed and get dressed. Before I could so much as say the words ‘Let’s go’ he was ready with his container of birdseed and his backpack with a water bottle and his handy reference guides (Birds of the Indian Subcontinent and Snakes of India), because he wanted get used to carrying their weight. Once there, he was able to do the walks effortlessly and thoroughly enjoyed climbing the rocks and checking out the local flora and fauna. He even found a discarded snake skin on one of the walks that I had to tolerate in my car for a few days till the car cleaner mercifully threw it out.

The KBR park walks weren’t our only prep walks. We also went on two rock walks with the Society to Save The Rocks. These are organised on the third Sunday of every month and we went for the Durgam Cheruvu walk in March and the Gachibowli University Campus walk in April. Again, Ayaan had a fabulous time on both walks and managed to keep up with the adults easily. I think I needed these so-called 'prep' walks more than he did!

The other bit of groundwork that need to be done was the shopping for gear and clothes. This was much more up my alley than mucking about amongst rocks. We went to the mega sports store, Decathlon. We bought a ridiculous amount of stuff - backpacks, sleeping bags, shoes, quick-dry pants and tees, jackets, rainwear, and torches - in the end, the shopping cost us more than the trek! We will have to go for more treks just to justify the expense...

Most of the gang left Hyderabad the day before we did, travelling to Delhi by train. We took the flight to Delhi and were to join them on the train from Delhi to Kathgodam. In a nail-biting finish, our train tickets showed as wait-listed right up to the time when we took off from Hyderabad in the morning. This would have meant taking an alternate train, reaching Kathgodam the night before the others and spending the night at the local Kumaon Mandal Vikas Nigam (KMVN) guest house with just Ayaan for company, something that seemed somewhat unsafe and scary. Thankfully, our tickets got confirmed while we were airborne and my phone beeped with the good news upon landing. Phew!

We had half a day to spare in Delhi and we went around to meet my paternal grandmother, aunts and uncles before making our way over to the Old Delhi Railway Station to board the Ranikhet Express. To make up for the wait-list drama, we found that our seats were right next to some of our trek buddies. We went to sleep pretty much as the train pulled out of the station and woke up at 5 a.m. to find ourselves in Kathgodam.

Day One: Kathgodam - Binsar - Gaunap

The bathroom facilities at the station were predictably awful so we headed over to the KMVN rest house to freshen up. Then we piled into a couple of SUVs and headed up the mountain. We stopped for breakfast at Mohan’s Restaurant near Kainchi Dham. The kids were delighted to find that Maggi was on the menu, while the rest of us enjoyed hot aloo paranthas. But the highlight of the breakfast was a delicious spicy shikanji (lemonade).

After breakfast, we drove up to the Binsar sanctuary and halted near the KMVN tourist rest house at the top. At over 2400 metres, this was the highest point in the Himalayas that we touched in the course of the trek. (FYI, we were in the Kumaon region in Uttarakhand and this part of the mighty region is referred to as the Lesser Himalayas)

We had a quick snack and got an introduction to the upcoming trek and the ground rules. Then we handed over our backpacks to be carried down on ponies, keeping only a light backpack with trek necessities like water, snacks, cameras and first aid (and in Ayaan’s case, his birdwatching book and binoculars). And then, we started walking. Our first trek was a relatively steep 3-km downhill walk down from the Binsar rest house to a village called Gaunap. From a viewpoint much later in the trek, I was able to click this picture, which gives some idea of the distance and incline of the trek we undertook that day:

Ayaan did the trek with ease, walking right up in front throughout the way. I had a single point agenda, on that day and throughout the trek, to have eyes on him on any given point. This meant having to keep up with him, which was easier said than done. I managed to twist my ankle in the process. It hurt terribly for about 5 minutes but I walked through the pain and it seemed to be alright. However, in the evening, the pain came back with a vengeance and I could hardly bear to put weight on the foot. I applied a balm and propped my foot up when I went to bed, and it was much better the next day. It continued to be tender for the rest of the trip but I was able to walk with only the occasional twinge - quite a relief!

Gaunap is a tiny hamlet. The primary school for the village (meant for kids aged 5 and below) has just two kids. The older kids have to attend school in Dhaulchina, a 2-hour trek one way. While there, we met Asha who had recently completed her schooling and she was so casual about the fact that she had to make this daily journey just to get an education. And here I am, stressing about the fact that my children might have to spend half an hour in the bus to school! I think all the kids on the trek got some idea of how easy they have it. Of course, expecting this to have any long-term impact on schoolday morning whining would be asking for too much! They also got a taste of life in a place without electricity, mobile connectivity, or roads.

Our digs at Gaunap were at a rustic homestay called Idyllic Haven. We got there just in time for a simple, filling and delicious meal, home-cooked over a wood stove by the resident cook and caretaker, Harish. The most interesting thing on the menu was an unusual chutney made with bhaang (cannabis) seeds - apparently it is the leaves that can get you high, while the seeds are harmless. The trek and the mountain air ensured a ravenous appetite and the kids ate without any complaint. After lunch, we just hung out and relaxed, recovering from the drive and the trek. The adults chatted and played some Dumb Charades. Some of the kids (the girls) got out their art supplies and scrapbooks. Our youngest group member, a 3.5-year old boy, got busy with his favourite activity - collecting pebbles. Ayaan asked me if he could explore and I set up a 15-minute rule for him to check in with me. It worked pretty well - he was happy to do his own thing and as long as I could see him or hear him every once in a while, I didn’t worry. At some point, he realised that there was going to be a bonfire and got busy with collecting all the twigs he could find.

Any description of our homestay would be incomplete without a mention of the two gorgeous Himalayan Shepherd mix dogs on the premises - Johnny and Ginger - and most of the kids spent a lot of time petting them and I have to say they bore it with a lot of good humour and patience. One of the girls drew this picture of our time in Gaunap - the boy is supposed to be Ayaan!

Night comes early to Gaunap, especially since the village is not on the electricity grid. As soon as it got dark and cold, we huddled around the bonfire and the kids entertained us by singing. The clear night sky was also a wondrous sight to behold - it had been a while since we had seen that many stars! After another hearty meal, it was time to turn in. There were a few rooms available, but Ayaan was very keen to sleep in the tents so that is what we did. We were in a 4-person tent and learnt first-hand the meaning of ‘packed like sardines’. But once we got used to it, it made for cozy sleeping quarters and it was a beautiful experience waking up to the sunrise and birdsong. I clicked this photograph minutes after stepping out of our tent:

Day Two: Gaunap and Around

After a 5.30 wake-up call and some much-needed tea, we set out on a bird-watching walk. We were led by Sundar, the owner of Idyllic Haven and a trained guide. He is very knowledgeable about the birds in the region and we got to see and identify many interesting specimens. For Ayaan, the thrill was in whipping out his bird book and finding the said bird in there. Some of the birds we spotted that morning included some Oriental Turtle Doves, a Russet Sparrow, a Red-billed Blue Magpie, a Grey Bushchat and a few swallows and drongos. We hiked up to a small temple and viewpoint nearby, and got our first proper panoramic view of the Nanda Devi range.

After breakfast back at the homestay, we went for another small walk that took us to a patch of woods where the children could play. They were organised into teams for a treasure hunt and had to collect a variety of items like pine cones, simple and compound leaves, twigs, feathers, seeds and different kinds of grasses. All this was too structured for Ayaan and he went off to explore the surroundings. He enjoyed scaling a huge fallen tree and then, to his delight, discovered a tiny stream nearby. This gave him the opportunity to try out two things he had been wanting to test. The first were his convertible pants from Decathlon, which were quickly unzipped for a fuss-free wading experience. He also filled our purifier bottle directly from the stream, thus putting the filter to good use.

After lunch, the kitchen staff boiled water by the kettle for those of us who wanted to bathe. Since the bathrooms were small and without much light, I decided to skip giving Ayaan a bath but I opted to have one. It is amazing how good even a quick bath can make one feel after a couple of days of going without!

The remaining daylight hours were spent sitting about, chatting and reading. Ayaan went back to his favourite evening activity - collecting wood for the bonfire - and even got a couple of the other kids interested in helping. This was before he noticed that one of the ladies of the house was collecting fodder for the cattle. He quickly joined her and so did most of the other kids.

Ayaan was rather disappointed to discover that we had not thought to carry marshmallows when he discovered that there were to be daily bonfires. His next idea was to roast potatoes, but we did not have aluminium foil on hand either. He finally hit upon a solution - he generously offered his sweets around till the metal tin they came in was empty. Then he filled the box with nuts and Krackjack biscuits and put them under the burning logs for a few minutes. And voila! We were all served some roasted biscuits and nuts. I have to say they tasted pretty good. Here’s what the tin looked like after three rounds in the fire over the course of the trek. I have kept it as a souvenir…

Day Two ended much in the same away as Day 1. With a bonfire, some singing and a rustic but yummy dinner before we retired to our respective rooms and tents.

This post is getting lengthy so I am going to stop for now. Watch this space for Part 2.

Friday, April 18, 2014

An Entrepreneurial Debut

We have been regular visitors to the monthly organic bazaar at Saptaparini. Ayaan loves to come along with me and potters around spending his meagre stockpile of money on stuff like organic millet laddoos, jowar crisps and oddly shaped tomatoes. In addition to vegetables and staples, they also have stalls of homemade goodies. When we were at the February bazaar, Ayaan suddenly perked up and asked whether he could have his own lemonade stall at the market. I answered in the affirmative. Since we were travelling on the date of the March bazaar, we decided we would aim for the April bazaar. Over the next couple of months, the plan evolved to include bakes goodies.

Ayaan was pretty determined to sell only organic stuff, in line with the philosophy of the bazaar. So, we had to look for recipes that could be made with the organic ingredients available in Hyderabad. This ruled out two of his favourite recipes - brownies and chocochip cookies - since we could not find organic cocoa and chocolate. After much debate, we narrowed it down to 4 recipes to test and of those, chose two to make for the final day: Wholewheat Banana Muffins and Peanut Butter Cookies.

The day before the market, we went to the Saturday organic market to close the deal with the organisers. They blocked a stall for us and kindly agreed to charge us a deeply discounted rate of Rs. 250 instead of the standard Rs. 750 (they finally waived even this nominal amount). We also used the opportunity to pick up some last-minute ingredients (read 50 limes) and note down the prices of all our ingredients for costing purposes.

We sat and made cost sheets for each of the things that he was planning to make and sell. Even though I did not plan it as such, it became a sneaky teaching opportunity. Not only did he have to practice his multiplication and division, we also ended up discussing concepts like the relationship between price and demand, overheads and profitability. The final sheets looked something like this:

We first got started on the lemonade. After googling a bit, I figured that making sugar syrup would be less labour intensive than stirring the sugar into the water. So, Ayaan measured out the necessary proportions of water and sugar and patiently stirred it over the gas till all the sugar dissolved. For the lemons themselves, Tarana was recruited and was super excited because she was allowed to cut some lemons into half (with a knife!) and assist with the squeezing. (It's no surprise then that she was least impressed by the classroom lemonade making activity the next week where the kids watched rather than made). 

For the baked goods, Ayaan did most of the measuring and mixing, while I manned the oven. Once everything was done, we packed the cookies and cupcakes into boxes, poured the lemonade into a large dispenser, picked up the remaining supplies and headed over to the market. Oh, and we made this simple poster on PowerPoint. (We had grand plans of making it by hand but we ran out of time and I got realistic about our art skills):

The organisers (Dharti Organics) were nice enough to give us a stall right near the entrance and we got started with setting it up. Tarana hung around and pretended to be helpful for a while but then my friend arrived with her son, who is also Tarana's classmate, and we barely saw her after that.

Business was slow to start with. But then as people started arriving and the mercury began to rise, the lemonade started calling out to people. About an hour into the bazaar, our lemonade container had run dry. Then Ayaan had a brainwave and went over to one of the vegetable stalls and managed to unearth and buy some more lemons. We sent Jai home for supplies and then made lemonade on the fly so that we could keep selling it.

The baked goods were slower to sell. But then they started going too and eventually we were all sold out on everything. We were helped along by some supportive friends who showed up and bought in multiples. 

Ayaan totally exceeded my expectations. Despite the fact that temperatures were virtually at melting point, he was bursting with boundless energy and optimism throughout. When sales were slow to start with, my heart was breaking a little for him but his spirits never sagged. At one point, he took one of the box lids, arranged a selection of his goodies on it and walked up to potential customers and asked them to buy. That is something that I am not comfortable doing even as an adult but he had no qualms, even when many people politely said no. I think I was more upset about the people who said no than he was! He was also extremely sharp and business-minded. He resolutely refused to give discounts to friends and family and promptly asked Jai to cough up cash for the lemonade and cookie that Tarana consumed!

In the end, we sold about 35 glasses of lemonade, 28 cupcakes and 32 cookies. We came home and did the math. I decided not to make him pay for the overheads this time, so he just had to pay me for the ingredients. He also offered to pay Jai and me a salary for our help. I told him that I wanted my salary in kind - three days of being nice to his sister. His response: "Mama! Can't I just give you money?!" Sigh. I guess you can't win them all...

Like the calculation above says, he made just over a thousand rupees out of the whole exercise and is feeling very rich. The money has been carefully put in a pouch and deposited into our safe. He also wants to look into opening a bank account in his own name.

To be honest, my instant reaction to his request to run a stall was to say no - it seemed like too much work (and it was!). But I am so glad that I managed to bite it back and say yes instead. I think he got so much more out of it than either of us put into it. In addition to the money and the experience, he got a lot of compliments and positive strokes from everyone he interacted with and he was on cloud nine for days after. Overall, it was an experience that fostered learning, confidence and joy in equal measure. And if he does go on to fulfil his current ambition to be a chef, I guess this counts as his first  bit of work experience.  

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Not That Kind of Horror Movie

Nothing resurrects lost blogging mojo like the need to rant about something. And I have had this rant building up since Sunday when I went to see a night show of Queen with a friend.

Digression: I absolutely loved the movie. Kangana Ranaut totally rocked the role and pretty much carried the movie on her shoulders. Having also caught Hasee Toh Phasee a couple of weeks ago, I am delighted that Bollywood is finally turning out some films that break the stereotypical mould of a conventional Bollywood heroine and I hope that this is a trend that is here to say. Go see both movies!

Now, back to aforementioned rant. Clearly, the movie seat gods are not in favour of yours truly because we found ourselves sitting right next to a couple with a toddler and right in front of another couple with an infant-going-on-toddler.

And these were by no means the only kids in the cinema hall. The place was teeming with little ones of every conceivable age. I am surprised none of the advertisements were targeted to kids – there were enough of them around to make it a viable proposition for an interested marketer. Also, did I mention that this was a night show? It started around the time my kids are usually tucked into bed for the night and extended to a time that was past even my usual bedtime. Yet here were ALL these kids, when they should have been in bed instead.

Sure, I get that not everyone has a meltdown (and I mean me, not my kids) if bedtime routines are meddled with. But what about the age appropriateness of the content? This movie was definitely not a kids movie – there was drunken behaviour, a visit to the famous red light district in Amsterdam and some talk about condoms amongst other things. How is it okay for young, impressionable minds to be watching this?

I remember my mother covering my eyes when anything even remotely steamy came on the screen and this was when I was in my early teens! The mother of the little girl next to us had no such qualms. During a song that revolved around pole dancing, this lady actually had her daughter’s hands up in the air while she made her jiggle and sway in time to the music. It was just so wrong on so many levels.

I have been pretty clear on this from the start. In the last 9 odd years of being a parent, there has not been a single movie that I was desperate to enough see in a cinema hall that I would consider taking the kid/s along. Even for the kiddie movies that we go to, I usually vet online reviews to ensure that there is nothing that I deem objectionable in them. (FYI: For Hollywood cinematic fare, Common Sense Media is a great source of age ratings and reviews for children’s movies).

But while I don’t get why anyone would want to bring their kids to a late night show of a movie with inappropriate content, that is me and my personal parenting philosophy. To each their own, I guess. But I do have a problem when their decision to do so gets in the way of my enjoyment of a film that I paid good money to see. Like they say, your freedom ends where my nose begins. And my nose, to put it quite mildly, was put out of joint last weekend.

First, there was the pole-dance enthusiast next to me who, in all her wisdom, decided to let her toddler have solo control of her sippy cup. And while mom was absorbed in the movie, the resourceful little girl managed to get the lid off and empty the contents of the bottle onto the floor. It was just water thankfully but my idea of an ideal movie-going experience does not include a soggy carpet beneath my feet. Two years old at the most, the little girl was also understandably unfamiliar with movie-watching etiquette and kept trying to engage her mother in conversation, quite loudly might I add.

The parents at the back let their kid stand in front of them for the first half of the movie. This was all very fine for them but the kid was holding on to the back of my seat for support and more than once, managed to grab and yank a fistful of my hair. Ouch! But that was nothing compared to what happened after the interval. The poor kid totally lost it and started shrieking at the top of his voice. At this point, common courtesy would have dictated that at least one of the parents step out and calm him down. But, no. They just sat on their butts while their kid brought the house down. This was despite many pointed glares from me (Note to self: my glare clearly needs some work; must practice it on the kids some more). They also added to the fun by occasionally berating the little fellow with useless remarks like ‘Ab bas bhi kar’ and ‘Chup ho ja’. Real effective, as you can probably imagine. Anyway, the kid finally gave up on his parents and self-soothed himself into a semi-sleepy state.

So, yeah. If you think it is ok to bring your kid with you, that is really your choice. But please at least make some attempt to ensure that this doesn’t ruin the movie for all of us. I left my kids at home with their dad and came to watch this movie. I didn’t do this to have my evening ruined by YOUR kids and YOUR inability to keep them quiet and comfortable. Wait for the DVD!

Phew! That felt good. Better out than in, as the saying goes.