Tuesday, 27 February 2007

The calculus of food

So this is a question I am unable to resolve myself, so here goes.

We teach some school kids for an hour daily. They are from a local municipal school. Under-privileged if I may use the term. Very little parental attention. On many days it’s a most rewarding experience, on some days its damn frustrating. The kids don’t pay attention, they loudly have conversations about all nature of things, one of them starts singing. We use various measures and counter-measures to maintain some level of discipline in the class, and get some progress on the curricular stuff. That’s all cool. We are finding our space.

There is one kid in particular that is lean and hungry. The other day I caught him almost falling asleep at his desk. And I was standing right in front of him. The room is quite small. We are usually two adults so we are sort of all over the children. I decided to give up on the class and just chat with him. He woke up and we talked. Turned out there was no school that day. No school meant no mid-day meal. Really. Though he tried to deny it, he was tired from hunger.

Now I know this is a matter of widespread debate –lets call it “Can multiplication tables be a good substitute for lunch?” That is all fine. Like in any good debate, there is enough to say for both sides. But now here is my quandary. I know its unfair to expect miraculous magical progress when they are hungry (not all of them are hungry, some are constantly chewing, some really nasty coloured candy and what not, and seem to have enough money for another round of it when the class finishes), but if there are a couple of kids that are hungry, that is enough to make it a bad thing.

  • So we could give them food before starting the class. Is that reasonable? Should we consider it time well-spent? (not worried about the money spent). What should we give them? They don’t get milk at home, should we give them a glass of milk? Who will boil it and how to bring it over? Should we give them bananas, they are filling and healthy? Should we give them normal coloured chocolates? They are easy to get and will be loved by the children, and will arguably give them energy.
  • Should we turn a blind eye, maybe change the timings of the class, and continue with original plan of multiplication tables and animal names and composition? After all, that is our strength, you know, Math and English and what not. We can focus our efforts there and let someone else worry about food, hunger, and deficiency of vitamins.

I am very tempted to figure out some healthy snack to give to them at 4 pm. After all, I am also starving at that time, and might be in better mood overall if I ate something. But sometimes feel like in the 15 mins I will spend on this, I can get through some more material, and they are already so behind on the expected material for their class…



Tuesday, 20 February 2007

Special Olympics

I saw her this weekend in the supermarket. It had been a long while. Perhaps six months or so. But then there she was, in front of me, her eyes wide behind the thick glasses, her hands reaching out and caressing the coloured chewing gum wrappers, her little hands picking up and putting back the gum sticks again and again. She was wearing a tiny pink frock, looked relatively new. Her nose was not running much. But other than that, she looked the same as six months ago when I had seen her last.

This was at a time when I used to hang around a lot at the crèche. It was because of a feeling that my child was too young, or perhaps it was because I am over-protective as a mother sometimes. Anyway I used to spend enough time there for someone to remark that I may as well be on the pay-roll there. I used to enjoy it, looking at all the kids and their antics, and only occasionally doing some stuff for my own kid like taking her on a bathroom break or giving her juice to drink.

This child was clearly different. A tiny, wisp of a girl in thick glasses. Her legs sticks emerging out from a faded old frock. She would be absorbed in herself, in a corner of the room, sitting on a mat with her legs sticking out from underneath. No one could convince her to sit cross-legged like the other kids, with their frocks pulled over the knees. No one could convince her to do much, so for the most part they left her alone. She used to have a perpetual cold, and once, when I tried to convince her to walk out to where the other kids were, holding my finger, I realized that she was physically quite strong. She shook my hand off rather impatiently and proceeded to cry, much to my dismay.

Now suddenly she was there in front of me. The same size as all those months ago. The same blank look on her face. Of course she did not recognize me. I don’t even remember her name. But my eyes immediately welled up. I bet she stays home all day, no school, no crèche. I think I have never heard her speak. It got me thinking of a long ago experience.

Now this was back in 1997 (or thereabouts), in graduate school, in the US of A. A friend I went to school with walked up to me and said ‘Hey you want to coach a basketball team? Its right here, 20 miles from us. For the Special Olympics.’ I said Ok without thinking much about it. Then set to figure out what on earth was so special about this Olympics, and how would I ever manage to be a coach. Of course I have played years of basketball, and seen my share of coaches, but did not have a strategy of coaching or anything like that. But then Dan was insistent. When I finally found out more about what I was in for, I was really scared. Of course I pretended to be fine with it. After all, I was only going to be Assistant Coach. Dan the main coach, his wife, an occasional Yoga-stretching instructor for the team.

Our team was in Greenfield, Massachusetts. We would drive out once a week after work. Cold and dark. Thankfully Dan would drive to chaotic directions from his wife. I would have changed into gym clothes in the bathroom in the department, taken a candy bar out of the vending machine, filled a bottle with water, and I would be ready.

The Special Olympics has the following as an oath - ‘Let me win. But if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt.’ We did not enforce this oath. We were not certified coaches either. We were just filling in for someone who had moved out. We had to take our team through to the end of the season (about two months away), participate in a local tournament, that’s all. Our team consisted of about eight people, of varied ages, both genders, who came regularly. Many had Down’s syndrome. Roger was a very angry, very surly, forty year old man with limited skills except with his mouth. Lizzie was a most sweet, plump, twelve year old girl who smiled at everything. A few of them could jump. Two could lay-up. We had a nice indoor court in a school that was in their neighborhood. Shiny wooden floor, not too shiny. Fiber glass boards, new, milky, nets. Lots and lots of basketballs at our disposal.

We would start with some stretching. Then a few rounds of running around the court for warm-up. I would lead from the front of the line, and also pace them carefully, especially watching out to make sure Lizzie wouldn’t be too tired at the end of it. Dan would be in the back, disciplining, coaxing. The first few days we tried some passing & dribbling drills, free-throws, set shots. After that as the tournament got closer, we gave up on the basic skills development and just divided into two teams and played. Dan & I would be on opposite teams. We would split up the rest as evenly as possible. They all knew the rules. They were all enthusiastic, some of them occasionally out-running us down the court. I would wince, afraid they may hurt themselves, but they would bounce up. They were all totally charged up a week before the tournament. They had gotten their game tshirts. The few parents that used to show up talked non-stop about it.

I was worried. We were a pretty bad team. Although it is not about winning, I felt it was my responsibility that no one gets hurt. I had had enough of brave stories about how many times one or the other had had a fracture. I could not always understand what they were saying, the lisp, the accent, the weird grammar, a bit too much. But I was worried. A tournament! Severe competition! The other teams probably did not have so many people with so many serious problems. Americans! Why do they have to be so uninhibited? Back home people with disabilities are routinely hidden from public view. They are not paraded in basketball tournaments. I was telling Dan. (I know that is neither entirely true, nor entirely false of course, but hey what chances does Dan have of reading about Special Olympics Bharat or other such efforts?).

Then the day of the tournament. Some of the things are hazy in my mind. But I know it was a large gymnasium set up with lots of basketball courts. Teams in bright t-shirts were milling around everywhere. Everyone was eating a lot of chips and drinking a lot of Coke. I was uncharacteristically quiet. The butterflies that usually show up close to match-time were working double time. Some of the others in the team too appeared a bit stressed out, looking at the good teams playing. We figured out the timings of our games and walked around a bit, waiting. A few minutes before the whistle we warmed up, did some inspirational talk and screams and grunts and strode on to the court. They had announced that the coaches could also play, one at a time, in the teams, so we were a little relieved. At least Dan & I could control the ball, and distribute it around, and make sure no one fought or anything.

The games are a blur, but the result is not. We were in a group of three teams, which means we played two games in all. We lost both. Not too badly, but then lose we did. Some of the smaller ones surprised us with some good baskets. Roger managed to hold in his temper. No one got hurt, no blood, no fractures. All good things, but then we lost. Sitting outside with our brown bags of cold sandwiches, the mood was somber. Dan & I made a speech about how it was a very rewarding experience for us, and we wished them the very best, and hoped to be back next season. Then the prize ceremony started. We dragged ourselves in, sore in more ways than one. Then, surprise surprise! We were all given medals! Bronze medals with the Special Olympics logo and everything, we were after all in third place! So what if there were only three teams? I was so happy I could have cried. Lizzie was still smiling so I hugged her tight, and then we were off on our way back.

Wednesday, 14 February 2007

Rice & Potatoes

Walking along one afternoon. You could say dragging feet along one afternoon, right after a real hurried lunch where I shoved some food into the mouth, using a spoon, so as to allow me to read stuff on the computer as I ate. In any case, walking along after a fairly unsatisfactory lunch, alone, in my office. Was going to the lab where I was expecting lots of people to present lots of their dissatisfaction and general cribs, even as they measured and titrated and stirred and generally learned lot of cool concepts.

So there is this construction work going on around here. Everything is being broken and everything is being built again. Indications are that this activity, despite the seeming feverish-ness of it, will go on for, well at least till I retire. Construction work means construction workers. I met a gang of them hammering at some things in order to break them. That was the activity of the day.

Objective: Break wall

Materials: Hammers; Towels; Pans; Hands

1. See wall
2. Hammer wall
3. Wipe sweat on towel
4. Collect rubble in pans
5. Throw rubble in designated place

& so on the worker bees (or ants for that matter) were at the task.

And here I was, armloads of degrees, monthly pay-checks; provident fund; life insurance, car, house, laptop, mobile, and so on. And there they were, red checked towel on their heads. Saris and pants covered in cement dust. Some of them were hammering. A group was settling down to lunch. A family. Mother, father, two children. Aluminium plates were brought out. Rice, red in colour from the pickle it was mixed with, was ladled out deftly. Another box was taken out. Chunks of roasted potatoes were handed out. They sat under a tree. Talking little, concentrating on the food. Hands washed. They mixed the rice. Rolled it, and one - two - three into the mouth. A bite of the potato. Mastication. Looks of satisfaction on the faces. Enjoying a yummy lunch together as a family after a tiring mornings work of hammering.

Did I mention that I opened up my sorry looking plastic box of rice and dhal with a slice of pickle in my office? Was in front of the computer. Ate with a spoon so I could still operate the keyboard as I ate. All alone in my office. While my husband, probably missed lunch as there were 'back-to-back' meetings (as there always are). While my child was fed her lunch (same as mine minus the pickle) in her creche. But at least she ate with a whole gang of boisterous kids who are her friends, and, when the mood strikes them, they share their food.

Anyway although I have dragged my feet and my mouth has watered at the pickle rice and especially the roasted potato, I am a few paces ahead of the eating family, who are on my left. I glance right. There, curled up, and oblivious to the world are two men taking their afternoon nap. The weather is pleasant, that sort of dull sky threatening a light rain, the sun a benevolent source of light and not much heat. Ideal for a short afternoon nap.

I went to the lab. Tried to make the best of the experience. Labeled bottles. Asked penetrating questions, made a list in my head of all the coloured substances there, and found many of them are violet, indigo, blue. Like my mood. A feeling of having lost my way somewhere along the way still persists.

Sunday, 11 February 2007

Work Week

In the past week although many things have tried to infiltrate my brain, I have resisted the temptation to go on my forays into the fictional world, and actually got down and worked. And discovered some things.

1. My decision to get busy with my hands is yielding good results. People respond better to you when you get down and do things yourself. Delegating work is all cool stuff but a half hour doing the stuff yourself, along with whoever your are delegating to, works wonders.
2. Clear delineation of responsibilities (and not calling them duties), is awesome.
3. Exercise rocks, even if means waking up before the crows and walking to the gym when its still dark and cold and the watchman is still curled up and asleep.
4. Restaurant food sucks big time. The same old paneer and peas and red thingammy sauce with cauliflower and what not floating in it, naan, roti, all bleaaah. My Rs.20 Roti-Subji deal at the local NGO run canteen wins hands down. Of course today's kuzhambu, paruppu thuvaiyal, and kovakka fry is bound to be dreamy, but that is for Sunday.
5. Although this was last week, it is here in this list. Voting was a wonderful feeling. Although she did not finally win. All that checklist stuff was helpful, at least for me.
5. I am possibly Scarlett O'Hara; minus the green eyes. But that is the matter of a long discourse best reserved for later when I don't need to run behind the child and get her bathed.

Tuesday, 6 February 2007

Watching mindless TV with legs stretched out

After a long-ish hiatus, Kenny is back here as Kenny, and not as the voice of this or that person based in a sprawling old house filled with family in the sleepy town of Mysore. Back to 2007, back to Mumbai.

We have some real good friends. The kinds we have spent talking to for hours on end, through the night. The thought of them gives a warm and fuzzy feeling inside. Makes us remember wonderful songs, ideas, discussions, food, drink and trips we have shared. The we is the general collective I use to talk about my husband and me together. Not that we are shadows of each other, do not possess individual selves or anything like that, just that after our (nearly) fifteen years together, it is getting hard to separate things out and say I and you, yours and mine.

Thanks to moving around so much, we have left back some really solid, gold friends at various places. Some friends moved too, leaving us back. But then, in our younger years we somehow managed to bounce right back and make some more friends in the new places. It did not take long, did not take much, to connect with people at all. Suddenly now that skill seems to be lost to us. I suspect it is just age catching up, nothing particularly to do with the kid, or longer work hours or the horrid traffic or anything like that.

Into this not-so-rosy life of ours entered this person. Sure, we had some common threads of college and what not. But was it going to stick? We felt diffident, a strange and rare emotion for us. Were we too old, too married, too tied down with family things to make real friends? There was that period when the kid would bawl her head off at the sight of any new people in the house and we would be at our wits end trying to be good hosts and parents simultaneously. We survived that phase and entered the phase where she was so happy when this friend of ours visited that she would go completely ballistic. We survived that phase too, as we survived all sorts of changes in our lives and homes.

We were at home on January 1. The new year. Portents of wonderful new things to come. The three of us. Kid asleep in the other room. We were in front of the TV watching something ridiculous and really mindless. Legs stretched out. Conversation in the form of occasional grunts. Periodic forays into kitchen for breakfast or coffee or water or snacks. No discussions, songs, trips, ideas, ideals, parties, none of that. Just a companionable silence. Something got built that day. I think we have a friend now, we are OK.

Monday, 5 February 2007


They happened in rapid sequence. Not one, not two, but three deaths. Well, four if you count the dog. All in the same house! Neighbours could be heard clicking their tongues in pity (or was it superstition that said clicking at someone else’s misery protects you from experiencing a similar one yourself?) The neighbourhood was a typical middle-class one with a few small houses with tiny gardens, a couple of hutments where the maidservant families lived, and a bunch of garishly red nouveau rich ones that seemed to be bursting concrete on to the tar road. Nothing spectacular about it, really. If you sat and thought about it, last year, just last year, everyone was participating joyously in festivals and celebrations, and no care in the world they had, no pall of gloom or anything.

That is what shook us all up so much. The suddenness of it. Imagine, one minute in silk veshtis and saris and singing slokams and vilakkus lit all over the house. Laughter, gaiety, scores of visitors and relatives. Ruddy-cheeked children running around smiling, prosperous looking (and therefore pot bellied/big hipped) adults. The next minute - all gone, poof! Just like that! As a close observer, and if only in my own mind, a superior thinking sentient being, I could not have foreseen what befell our household.

The house itself belonged to no particular category of houses of the neighbourhood. I would say it sat plumb in the middle. Not too shabby or run down. Not too new or expensive or garish looking. To my eye, possibly because of having lived there for so many decades now (we could never agree upon a new colour so always stuck to the beige and brick red; through all the repaintings), the appearance of the house was soothing. It looked well-lived in, cozy, comfortable. Of course possibly people commented that I had become ‘part of the woodwork’ of the house myself, no surprise I thought it cozy. Not that there was that much wood work to speak of really. Mostly reinforced cement concrete, a lot of metal grills and meshes on windows and doors (mosquitoes found our house a comfortable abode too), even the massive door of the olden days was now hidden by giant iron bars criss-crossing (for additional protection from thieves and marauders and the like).

To get back to the deaths, first it was the boy, I can never remember his name. It was a bit gory, to say the least. A big truck trundling down the road, the boy on his bicycle. They say he was on his way back from school. I find that a bit fishy. I mean it was nearly dark by that time, which was why, the lorry with no lights on, was not very visible to the poor boy, I guess. In my recollection school must have finished at least a few hours before. I cannot of course say anything much about this, people would look askance if I said my own grandson was a loiterer, I mean it may have been okay before but now that everyone believes Vishnu took him to away to make him a god, my opinions about his various activities are best kept out of their hearing.

Anyway, I am not saying I don’t miss him. He was good to me, frank and honest as I like people to be. When he needed money for cigarettes, he asked me and told me about his experiences too. The first time I coughed like crazy, now I’m fine he said. One day a pesky neighbour spied on the boy and reported back. The women went crazy. There was much crying and wailing and yelling and screaming. Is this what I sacrificed my whole life for type of dialogue. The poor boy had no idea what hit him. I was promptly assigned the task of ‘putting the boy back on track.’ I took him away from the noise, sat him down near the river, in the shade and said ‘Well boy, it’s a bad habit. Hurts your health and some such. Don’t let anyone force you into it. It smells too, I can tell when you come in, and I am sure so can the women. You cannot really hide it. Try reading a book instead, worked for me when I was your age.’ He was quiet. I was not really sure if he really quit smoking them or found some other source for cigarette money (I admit, unashamedly, that that would hurt me a little), and a secret remedy for the smell that used to linger on his clothes.

This line of thought is ‘worthless’, as my family would be quick to point out to me. The boy is gone, I am sure he is in a better place than the rest of us. Look at me, I am as old as the jasmine tree in the garden that sprouts wildly out every summer. I am as old as the hills you can see from the window upstairs (from the cave like little room that no one dares enter any more). The boy, well he was just a little baby, one of those little coriander saplings the daughter-in-law planted last week. I miss him incredibly just like everyone in the house. Only my memories of him are more realistic than theirs.

The next to go was his mother. She was heart-broken of course after the event. She blamed herself totally for the boy’s death. I must say I definitely did blame her, at least a little bit. On the one hand she was intent on spoiling the boy with sweetmeats and so on at every possible moment. On the other hand she would never listen to him when he talked about his friends or school or anything. She would also insist on his doing the Sandhyavandanam and saying the Gayathri Manthram every day. He definitely saw no compelling reason to believe in these things, and when he questioned them, instead of explaining it in a way that would appeal to him, she would throw a fit and hit her head against the kitchen wall and wail and scream and go on about asking god (aloud of course) what crime she had committed in her previous life to get such a son. What choice did the boy have but to misbehave and stay out late and so on?

Of course her husband, that good for nothing son of mine, was absolutely no use in such matters. He was too involved in himself. It was his job the whole day and when he came back it was his friends at the sports club. He could care less to be involved in settling any disputes between his son and wife. In fact I don’t think he ever even talked to his son. No wonder then that the boy roamed about at all times of day and night on the streets. No wonder then the mother started getting crazier by the day with her prayers and so on.

After the boy’s passing, our house was never the same. There was a gloomy atmosphere. People would forget to switch on the verandah light when the sun went down. The mother would be praying almost non-stop in the puja room. The house would reverberate with the sound of the bells being rung and the scent of incense would pervade all the rooms. Initially I thought the incense smell a welcome change from the slightly musty smell of the house. But after a few days, it started getting oppressive. I tried talking to the woman, but every time I entered the Puja room it was as if she was in a trance or something. Constantly muttering slokams with her eyes closed. When I did question her about it once when she was serving me my dinner, she mumbled something about how a man could never understand the ties between mother and son.

It was all very depressing. I tried to stay away more and more, visiting the one or two friends of mine that still remained. I got constantly yelled at for walking around by myself at ‘my age.’ I started my vow of silence around that time because I was afraid of what I may say to them if I spoke. It would not have been pleasant. And there was enough happening in our household without my stirring things up by speaking up about what was on my mind.

She died as she would have wished, in the puja room, eyes closed in prayer. The quack doctor that visited after said she died from grief, as if that is a real medical condition. He had that air about him, as if he was omniscient. I bet he discussed his patients over whisky with his quack pals. I bet he philosophised about it. It must have been cardiac arrest. Of course I said nothing. What does it matter if I was a qualified medical doctor, my days of ministering were over, and besides, I was not speaking at that time.

I have been reading these modern novels of late. The stuff that comes out of New York and San Francisco and so on. The language is not good in a classical sense but it seems to be very free, not so constrained by rules like the English that we were taught in high school. In a way it seems straight from the heart. I really like it. I think I have picked up some of it as well. In case you were wondering, I thought the time was right to clarify why a ninety-year old man would speak in such casual tones. It’s a whim, a fancy, a fad, possibly the very last one I can indulge in.

We were talking of deaths were we not? The next one was the dog. He was old, he was frail, he was coughing and had lost his appetite. He passed on and was not even grieved much. The house was still reeking of wood-smoke – that inevitable part of death ceremonies. In my youth I used to, foolishly, romantically, think of this smell as the smell of death itself. I would resent the happenings on these days but was obligated, ordered, to participate. The food would be excellent but the pervasive smell and the round bellies of the priests usually made me lose my appetite. I would manage to lose my mother in the crowd. It was usually distinctly unpleasant around the ladies, with the loud bawling, the inevitable breaking of the bangles (if the husband dies first, the bangles of the surviving wife are rudely broken, presumably to lift her out of the shock to the reality of a life alone), and repeated recriminations flung at god. I cannot recall whose death we were lamenting that day (first there is the initial fourteen day period of mourning through ceremonies. And after that, once a month, for a year, there are ceremonies performed on a smaller scale, after the first year, they are done once a year), the boy or the mother. The dog died that day. Needless to say, he received little attention even in his last days. The poor soul had found the worst day ever to breathe his last.

Evenings were the most awful times in the house. The lights, when someone remembered to switch them on, were dim and dusty. Cobwebs hung menacingly in every corner, casting gloomy shadows all around. The television was played only occasionally and that too only at very low volume and that too only for news. It was considered improper to watch a movie or Chitrahaar or even the funny serials. FOR HOW LONG I would wonder but not ask. The food had also become terrible. It was as if the women were rebelling. Bland, watery rasams and semi-cooked beans curry most days. They routinely forgot to make the curd the previous day and had to water down what was left over and make thin buttermilk. Ah if only I had the strength to go down the road to the café and eat my fill. I don’t dare do that any more of course, thanks to the bout of dysentery I suffered the last time (nothing against the café, I am just not young enough for such excesses any more).

I’ll end of vow of silence today. I will call my son, that strapping young lad of fifty years (and no teeth) and ask him to take me to the hospital as I have decided to die today. The wood-smoke that you will smell tomorrow in this house will be in my honour.