Kids not allowed

I know I haven’t posted here in a while, but I have posted elsewhere. Here’s a sneak peek -

A few weeks ago, a California restaurant put up a sign saying: ‘No strollers, no high chairs, no booster chairs’. Parents seethed and frothed with outrage on the Internet. How dare their precious progeny be barred from a restaurant? Wasn’t fine dining every family’s right?

No.

Now hop on over and read the rest at Yowoto.

 

A room of my own

When I began freelance writing 9 years ago, I did so, at an ugly plywood computer table, sunk into a papassaan, with the Brat ensconced behind me. As he grew a little bigger he began to hold his head up and sit up and play with my hair, my clothes, as I typed. I’d lift him around to the front to nurse and then prop him back behind me. It was attachment parenting of a kind because he was an absolutely good baby, happy to lie close to his mother and smell her as she worked. I’m convinced it’s one of the reasons he’s grown up very secure and sure of himself, of my presence in his life and absolutely unclingy. I could be wrong, but I’m sticking with this story.

What it did to me as a professional though, is ensure that I never allowed myself to come first. I’ve always let the kids play in the room as I’ve worked and it’s worked out fine. At one point the Brat’s favourite thing to do was crawl up to my UPS and switch it off. I solved that problem by putting the UPS on top of my table.

We moved to Delhi, the Bean was born and soon she crawled around as I worked, too. Never once getting her fingers smashed under the rocking chair that I upgraded to as a work chair. I lost my back to the poor office furniture I had but they doubled up as great places to nurse and rock colicky babies back to sleep.

As the years went by and the babies went to school I got a swivel chair and an escritoire from my parents (remember, I blogged about it here?) and that became the final office set up that I’ve used for years now. For the last five years I’ve been attached to one institution or another on a work from home basis and I spend practically my entire day with my butt glued to the chair.

The OA often says he envies me. I have a dull but well paying day job for the money, freelance work for the joy of creativity, the comfort of working in my tracks, time with the kids when they come home and the flexibility of working while we travel too. I guess when you put it that way it sounds great.

However, my resume is patchy and my biggest grouse is that I don’t get out of the my bedroom. My work table has been there since the kids were born because I’d often lie them down in my bed to sleep, I’d nurse them while I worked, I’d keep an eye out for disturbed sleep and pat them back if I needed to. It was just more convenient.

Even good friends don’t realise I work because I rarely sound stressed about it. And they always see me in my pajamas! I have my inlaws come in and watch TV while I’m trying to work. When I pay for big ticket items people stare in slack jawed surprise because they don’t really imagine I’m earning anything! The worst though, is my own fault. Since the table is in my bedroom I end up taking on more and more work and working late into the night while the OA reads or watches some telly.

But  – it drove me nuts because all I saw were the four walls of my bedroom. I slept there. I worked there. I lay in bed and read at night. The kids, like all kids, insisted on hanging out in our room when they had nothing else to do. I had cabin fever.

And so a couple of weeks ago I told the OA I wanted to convert our formal living room into my office. And turn our house dining cum family room into a dining cum living room. The truth is, no one ever bothered to sit in our formal living room and for some reason it didn’t have any personality. Perhaps because it wasn’t lived in. And being east-facing it’s a comfortable, cool room and ties in with my desire to not use air conditioning unless absolutely necessary. I just needed a room of my own where I could get away from our personal life and bedroom and TV and chaos, and work.

The OA groaned, but agreed readily that it was the need of the hour. And then we shocked ourselves by carrying most of our furniture ourselves. My mum was mad when she heard I’d done that with my bad knee, but I was too eager to get it done right then and I like doing stuff around the house with the OA instead of calling in help.

My new office is fantastic. It looks out into my lush, east facing garden and is quiet, peaceful and cool. I might not win a Booker while working here, but it makes me less cranky. The kids know that when Mama is in her office, she’s really working and they rarely walk in there. It just doesn’t have the informality of my bedroom.

I have a reading corner, a work corner, a put-the-babies-to-sleep-if-they’re-sick corner, an awesome iPod dock, a refrigerator and kettle. I walk out into my little garden if I want a breath of fresh air and it’s great for smoking friends too! All I need is a swing now but the OA will probably put up a fight before he lets me get one.

And to quote Ms Woolf, I finally have a room of my own.

Office 2

My work station

 

Office 1

My rest station

Jump Start 2014 – Day 2

Day Two I’d like to say dawned bright and early and I was raring to go for the writer’s masterclass I’d signed up for. Once there I kicked myself for being only one and not three, because I was also dying to attend Sophie’s illustration class and Pratham’s session for teachers. This is the problem with having multiple interests and no focus!

Moderator Samina Mishra had mentioned early on in the event that children’s writers are nice people. I wondered what she’d meant. About ten minutes into the event I understood. Nury Vittachi was to take our master writers’ class and I was surprised to see it being attended by well known and published authors. Which says something about the humility that a lot of Indian writers for children have in common. They’re not ashamed to go back to class.

Nury had us laughing through the class with his trademark sense of humour and I realised how humourless I am when people started writing about pigs falling from the sky and what not. I have a biting sarcasm that I can employ when necessary, but I cannot, absolutely cannot talk nonsense with the abandon that he did.

I met so many interesting people doing so many interesting things and I realised none of them would qualify for the question – Where do you work? This is a question I have learned to ask after having made friends in the corporate world. But I had to put that question away and just sit back and listen to these others talk of the many projects they were working on. It sounded so interesting. A paper on this, a column there, a commitment here. They were not working from home for their kids. They were many-fingers-and-pies people. And then they asked me and I realised with a shock, that..that… I was one too! I don’t work from home for my kids. I work on multiple things at once because that is who I am. I find new reasons not to go back to a full -time job and swipe in and out of office because this fullness suits me.

Nury started by asking us about the common thread that ran through the most famous stories – Harry Potter, Luke Skywalker, Buddha, Jesus, Krishna – they were all men who had a bearded man come up to them and say – You are not an ordinary man, you have a mission. Irreverent though the notion might seem to some, it suited the atheist in me and of course rang completely through. Be it an award winning story or a religious myth, they all have their basis in the same primal story – a man who loses/leaves his parents, makes a journey, either mental or physical and comes into himself. There is something about this story that makes us react to it positively. That makes us bring it into our lives in the form of religion or film and love it.

Every story has a deeper message to it, even if it is a child’s story and one must be alert to that message. Those who think children’s stories can be written without a layer and a depth, are doing themselves and children a disfavour.

He then gave us a writing prompt – write an attention grabbing first line to the story. I racked my brains and came up with a few good ones. But I also heard some fabulous ones that made me wonder how Chetan Bhagat had made it to where he was when some of the most arresting writers were in the same room as I was.

This was followed by a series of writing prompts and a study of the form that stories can take. Throw in an unexpected twist, ensure conflict, resolve it so that the audience is satisfied. Mind you, Nury was here to teach us how to write for an audience, not how to write for ourselves and his plan was to show us what makes a book a hit.

The session ended after lunch and I walked away feeling wiser, yet foolisher. I suddenly realised I didn’t know as much as I needed to know. I also knew that it would only come with experience. And for that, I have my blog and you guys and the years ahead to keep writing, keep trying.

 

Jump Start 2014 – Day 1

The last few days began on a low note  – open the newspaper to read about governors being transferred,  war against ‘love jihad’ and other such absolutely ridiculously demoralising stuff. The kind that makes you swear off the news and the country.

Which is why I was thrilled to attend Jumpstart 2014. It made me upbeat. It made me happy. It made me hopeful about the state of at least something in this country – in this case, children’s literature.

The theme this year is Let’s Play and boy, did we play! The session was inaugurated by Dr Martin Hanz, Deputy Chief of Mission, the German Embassy, New Delhi.  Split across two days, the first day is called Inspiration and the very inspiring Nury Vittachi gave the keynote address. His sense of humour and comic timing is impeccable and even if you’d never read a book of his, it was easy to see why his books are such a hit. He had the audience in splits and it was the perfect note to set for the day. He made some remarkably funny observations about Disney hating mothers, hence killing them all off – from Cinderella to Finding Nemo.

The first discussion was by the books panel and they spoke about the idea of game or play in children’s books and their experience of playing with books. Nury spoke about what it takes to write a good book for kids. In a culture of storytelling, your story needs to be better than the ones every mother and grandmother are telling. The message of the story, needs to be one that is international. As he pointed out, it’s easy to be a star within your own community and friends – what shows that your idea is valuable, is international acceptance. The stories that make it, are those that carry deeper messages than what is obvious. Even a simple fairytale like Cinderella says, your mama will die one day, but you’ll survive and eventually it will all be okay.

For those who don’t believe that writing for children is a real job, they need only look at the books that have supported the industry and raked in millions – the Harry Potter series, Hunger Games and most recently, The Fault in Our Stars. Currently, children’s books dominate the industry and one would be have to be blind to miss it. What is interesting is how many other industries are depending on them, from film to chart topping music with Frozen and the FIOS.

It is, however, a pity, that none of this work is coming out of Asia – and leaves us a lot of room for growth.

Author and illustrator of children’s books, Sophie Benini Pietromarchi  (Bangalore folk, you’ll regret missing her so check out these dates and venues) is exactly as I’d imagined someone who wrote such books to be. Very much the artist, she’s more at ease demonstrating than speaking and I was fascinated by the work she’d brought along to display. She points out that children learn to play with colour early in life. From mixing different foods on their plates to exploring their surroundings. To write for children, she says, you need to play all your life. Pick up mundane stuff around your house and create a treasure map around it. Her Colour Book gives you a good idea of what she means.

Asha Nehemiah has written thirteen books for children and is much loved by the Brat and the Bean. Perhaps, because of the way she looks at her audience – children can spot the enchanting in the most mundane she says and one is reminded of her book The Mystery of the Silk Umbrella. She works with schools for marginalised children and her word-a-coaster game requires them to make up entire sentences with each successive letter of the alphabet. Like – A Boy Can Dance Everyday For Good Health. And I picked this up just during that short session with her. She says the children can go through the alphabet twice without stopping and I am not surprised. A child’s imagination is boundless. Children’s writers who can capture that are the successful ones.

After the book/authors panel, the pedagogy panel came on to discuss Play in and as Pedagogy. Amukta Mahapatra, Director, SchoolScape, a centre for educators made a very spare presentation – concise, precise and very interesting. There are certain universal tendencies, she said and one of them is that humans have a tendency to explore from the time they are born. Next, they try to create order, or a pattern in their discoveries. Then they use their intelligence and imagination. And finally, they strive for perfection.

Children do all of this in play. She talked of the Victorian attitude we have towards play, where we dismiss it as diminutive, not recognising that it requires rigour, effort and all of a child’s faculties. Instead we patronise it, because children, like women, have traditionally been dismissed and oppressed. One might not agree entirely with that thought process but it’s food for thought.

She pointed out that our homes and schools no longer have space, nor give children the opportunity to play as much as they need. Very well said. Homes are smaller, schools have no space for outdoor activities and they’re entirely landscaped to prevent accidents during school hours and avoid rousing parental ire. Her presentation was over almost too soon and I realised she’d given me more to think about in those 7 odd minutes than anyone has in a long time.

Years ago I had interviewed EK Shaji and fallen in love with his methods. I picked up all the Jodo Gyan products that I could find at the Jodo Gyan resource centre and the Brat and the Bean learned maths the way he had demonstrated to me. I shop there every couple of months and give the maths aids as birthday gifts.

So it was added joy to see him at work again – he demonstrated a few simple ways to teach children maths based on the montessori method of going from the known to the unknown. What is missing in maths, he said, is purpose. So simple! For instance, why should a child care what 4 + 3 is? How does it affect his life? On the other hand, if you connect in an emotional, physical and intellectual manner, ask him guess how many pears in a bag, show him another, let him count the pears, ask him to divide it among his friends and now you’re connecting. After all, what is so romantic about counting rajma, he asked!

The last on this panel was Sujata Noronha of the Bookworm Trust and Library, Goa. She confessed upfront that she isn’t popular with conventional schools because her classes are noisy! She works with the underserved in the area and helps them connect with the written word in ways that excite them. A story about journeys might involve them forming a train, bumping into other carriages, whistling, hooting and running around. A good children’s book is deceptively light on the surface, but has a strong foundation in the ways that matter, she said. Books that deal with death, moving home, the loss of friendship, legitimise experiences. And then she quoted Cat Stevens and asks – Where do the children play? And no, this isn’t the physical space alone. She asked if we leave them enough space in their mind to play with.  She and Shaji made very similar points about the lack of contemporary stories and material that a child can relate to. Black haired dolls, dark skinned characters in the illustrations.

The discussion was thrown open to the audience and was extremely lively. Some of the points that came up were – The stories you tell needn’t necessarily be your own, you need to learn to harvest them. And it’s not always school that can engage your child in play – flip the question around  – how much time are you spending with your child, just playing? Does the current schooling system give children time to play? While telling a child a story, do you impose your morals on them? Do you suggest that this character was ‘naughty’ or ‘bad’ for making the choice he did?

Post lunch, Mr Appadurai of Hewlett Packard spoke briefly about the innovations in print and the advantage that digital printing gives you, of personalising content for your reader. Of printing it on synthetic paper so that a child can take it to the bath, to the pool, drag a favourite story around the world without fear of ruining the book.

Author, game designer and screenwriter Anshumani Ruddra then came on, divided the audience into two and had a bunch of until then rather well behaved adults, screaming and clapping as he divided the room in half and turned us against each other as the Knights of Order and the Crusaders of Chaos. And this, he pointed out triumphantly is how a game builds a story and allows you to be a part of the decision making. Much like the Nancy Drews and Hardy Boys we grew up with that allowed us multiple choices and endings.

Books are 600 year old technology, he said. Whereas games are as old as time and were played across every society. They were about rules, consequences and interesting choices. Which is precisely what a book requires too. Put it like that and even a purist like me finds it hard to object! While in a book the writer makes the choice for you, in games, you make your own choices. And a game offers you hours and hours of content. It’s up to a parent to decide how much time a child should spend gaming, just as its unhealthy for a child to read all the time. This one hit rather close home. The Brat is a voracious reader and I find myself loathe to push him to play outdoor games. Because you know.. reading is good! But then I remind myself that I’m the adult here, that giving him some balance is my job and so no matter how overjoyed I am that he reads, I shove him out for some fresh air.

Anshumani addressed that fear that many have and said it out loud – Books will not disappear, it is just the channels of distribution that will change. A book may not work in the same format on a screen and that is perfectly fine. It will be reworked by experts to fit the medium it is shifting to.

The final session for the day was Transmedia Storytelling: From Life to Books to Movies to Games to Apps. This began with Padmini Ray Murray, Digital Humanities expert spoke on transmedia tales and how to tell them. I took a special pride in this because 15 years ago we shared a college bench and here she was, giving us a talk that I had paid to attend! She broke down story telling into its main features – form, content, story and character, and the importance of each one in making a successful story. She also spoke of this being the golden age of writing. Of instant feedback (for instance, I write a bad post, you readers tell me so within minutes!) and so on. Of prosumers – consumers who create content around their favourite games and books, fan fiction on blogs and forums, getting instant feedback, and re-writing to suit their audience.

Publishers are the gatekeepers she said, but their role is being eroded. And as content moves from one form to the other, as your book becomes a film, it is only wise to work with those who are converting it to ensure that one form does not cannibalise another. So that the books continue to sell after the film is released. That the game does not kill interest in the film. The one sound bit of advice she offers finally is that as authors, just writing a book is no longer good enough. If you want to see it through all its avatars, you need to come to your publisher with a sound transmedia strategy.

Ralph Mollers, owner and publisher of Terzio Verlag, Munich spoke next. Terzio publishes children’s software, music and books and he spoke about his initial experiments with CD Roms and the beginning of the interactive experience.

The session was rounded up with Jiggy George. No medium is bad, Jiggy pointed out, while I argued that in my head – they’re all just different ways to engage. Be it the Eric Carle museum that gets you to engage more deeply with the Hungry Caterpillar or the fact that the Cat in the Hat is a book, a movie and an app. Digital media should be seen as an extension of the form of storytelling, not a substitute, or competition. Don’t try and do the domain expert’s job, he warns, do your bit and let it go. If you’ve written a game and want to see it converted to a book, give it to a writer to do, as in the case of the Angry Birds. A gamer knows what a game requires to be a hit and a cartoonist knows his turf best. As a creator, give your blessing and lay off. Every product should stand on its own merit, so an Angry Bird app will need to fulfill different criterion.

The day ended sooner than I wanted it to, leaving me with a hundred thoughts buzzing around in my head. Some I agreed with entirely, some I felt conflicted over and some absolutely new and needing a lot more time to mull over. But I have another day at Jump Start to go and I’ll be sure to come back and share it with you.

 

 

Looking forward to Jump Start 2014

If you live in Delhi/NCR, are interested in children’s literature, and haven’t heard of Jump Start, you must get out from under that rock. Organised by the German Book Office, it is in its sixth year and I knew I wouldn’t forgive myself if I didn’t attend it this time.

What originally began as a series of workshops for children’s book writers and illustrators is a much anticipated two day festival now (25th and 26th August at the India International Centre).  Jump Start 2014 includes designers, artists, educators, publishers, book-sellers and story-tellers.

This year’s theme is Play. Children engage with their world through play. And if you’re going to write for them, you can’t afford to lose touch with that simple concept. So writers, illustrators, designers, educators and many more will get together to explore the concept of play and how that translates that into better content for children.

I find it very interesting that Jumpstart will be venturing into new territory by exploring new media such as games and animation. For someone who has always been a bit of a purist, I’m looking forward to breaking down those mental barriers.

I am most excited about Nury Vittachi being one of the speakers – I have long been a fan and am carrying along a book to be signed. Asha Nehemiah is another favourite and I can’t wait to finally meet her. I’ve interviewed E.K. Shaji, one of the founders of Jodo Gyan and have used only Jodo Gyan methods to teach my kids mathematics – hats off to their system. Padmini Ray Murray went to college with me and it’s going to be a moment of pride to hear her speak at such a prestigious event. I’ve also worked with the very talented and enterprising Anita Roy and Samina Mishra in the past who make up two thirds of the programme team. The rest of the list is equally illustrious and I am sure its going to be a fantabulous event.

Although this is short notice, I hope some of you will make it there. In case you plan to, be sure to register by 9 am sharp on the morning of 25th August at the India International Centre. And you lucky Bangalore folk, you – there’s also a Bangalore edition this year on the 28th of Aug at the Max Mueller Bhavan.

 

The Brat @ gmail.com

A few days after the Brat was born, I was saying his name to myself, thinking random thoughts… and suddenly I hit upon a great joke. An inside joke that involved his name and it struck me that were he older, he could have used it as his email id. And then I realised it was something that anyone else with the same name could have used already. A quick check on gmail told me that it was still unused and so without much thought I created an email id for him and blocked it. And after sharing the joke with the OA and my family, forgot about it. I also made an email did for the Bean when she was born, but that was nothing particularly fancy – I just wanted to ensure we didn’t lose the name.

The Brat’s love for animals is well known and often the family and friends send me an animal related forward telling me to make sure he sees it. For years he’s sat in my lap and looked at dolphins caught in mid leap, piglets wrapped in a tiger’s skin and so on. At times he’d have something to say about it and I’d reply to the sender with his comment.

When he turned 9 I realised his conversations with my dad, more than anyone else, were getting longer and longer. This was not just G’pa-G’son prattle, it was intelligent conversation. He’s way ahead of us in his knowledge of animals and my dad has begun to read up and research in order to keep up with him.

This is also the age by which we were all writing to our cousins and pen pals, polishing our letter writing skills. But this generation does neither.

Now everyone knows I have some firm views on the screen time that kids should be allowed and I was loathe to let him start mailing people, but of all the screen time that kids these days have the opportunity to use, this seemed the most innocuous. The other option is to make him hand write letters and then go hunting all over Gurgaon for a post box and hope that it makes it to the receiver.

Finally (actually it wasn’t as fraught a decision as it comes across as!) I decided to let him use his email id and mail his grandparents. He’s thrilled of course, but being the Brat, he expresses rapture with a gentle smile and nod.

Chhota Nana has really got into the mood of things and writes him long chatty letters in the style of our old times. Talking of the weather, what interesting things were cooked for dinner, update on his leg and how he is slowly walking more and will take the Brat out for a drive in an automatic car when he next visits, etc. He’s already got a pretty independent relationship with most of the family and being able to respond to them individually is bringing out a whole other side to him.

I opened his account on the iPad so that we can monitor it and he hasn’t even considered asking for privacy and it just lies open to view. I’ve only shared the email id with family so that he doesn’t get overwhelmed with the usual flood of information most of us deal with. I had anticipated a lot of to-do over it and I was right. The Bean threw a fit asking why she couldn’t have one and I pointed out that her brother was older and would get his privileges before she did. She needed to get to the same age to get access to hers. She griped for a day or so and then got involved in her Lego and the storm passed.

The Brat keeps his mails brief and surprisingly articulate. I had meant to teach him to thank people for writing to him, respond to a couple of statements they’d made in the mail etc, but he picked it up himself and has been corresponding beautifully. I had intended to tell him not to hand it out to friends yet but he didn’t even ask if he could and is happy to keep it restricted. Like a lot of other quiet people he pours his thoughts out in his emails and I hold back tears when I see a thought expressed in a particularly beautiful manner. It hasn’t occurred to him to demand privacy yet even though he and the Bean know that they aren’t supposed to read mail over my shoulder.

This email business also resurrected a few old issues with the in-laws who refuse to accept that I’ve retained my maiden name and that the children carry it in the hyphenated form. After much debate I had just begun to ignore the fact that the in-laws referred to me by their surname, addressed me as such in their cards and letters and so on. But when they began to do it with the children too, it bothered me hugely. The OA and I have chosen to give our kids both surnames and that needs to be respected by everyone, as our choice. Particularly since they are children and don’t need to be confused.

The OA firmly told his father that we monitor the email account and until he re-saved the email correctly, we’d not allow the Brat access to it. That was an unpleasant 24 hours but we got through and now the emails are flowing smoothly!

The Brat loves checking his mail sitting by my side and laughing over notes, sharing an image or two,  asking me if he’s worded something correctly. It’s yet another thing we’ve found to bond over and in the years to come I know he’ll want his password and is privacy. Until then… I’ll enjoy this.

The swing

I have a secret. Every night after the kids are tucked into bed, I tell the OA that I am going for a walk and I slip out into the dark. And after a few minutes of walking I hit the park and swing. I listen to music on my phone or I call up a friend who doesn’t mind being called that late, and I swing.

It’s not that the swings are off limits to adults (they’ve sturdy and take kids who are heavier than me and also parents who swing with their kids in their laps). It’s just that the swings are busy in the evenings and I am busy in the morning.

Oh what the hell… I guess I just feel foolish swinging at this age, which is why I wait until night falls. The darkness frees me from social constructs of what is age appropriate. As I fly high into the air I find myself free from everything earthly, everything that binds me. The simple motion of bending my legs, kicking, holding tight, bending backwards, moving forward… it calls for you to be conscious of your body. And maybe as adults we forget how to do that.  To put our thoughts away for a while and to be in the here and the now and in the physical body.

On the swing I am taken back to my childhood. To the tyre on the mango tree, the huge swing that seats five, the little wooden planks on chains… My childhood was spent leaping from one to the other.

A few days ago I read a piece on free play, outdoor play and unstructured time. Funny. When I was growing up, we just called it play. When did it take on so many labels? What have we done to our kids with the piano classes and the tennis lessons that makes it necessary for the qualifier – ‘free’ play?

People complain about kids these days. Hell, have we taken the time off to see what kind of parents we are? Our parents were more relaxed, less obsessed with buying a flat before thirty, less stressed about making CEO, less concerned with being the first to say it on twitter and so on.

More and more adults have taken to running, cycling, trekking and so on. We need to get away from our lives precisely because our daily lives are so awful. Our parents could afford to unwind at home because home was a relaxing place. Now with the endless screens and connectivity, and hectic social lives and long work hours it’s no longer a relaxing place.

I got off the swing last night and went for a quick walk around the complex. As I took the corner I saw another mother on the swing. Head thrown back, long hair flying in the breeze, cares thrown to the wind. She saw me coming and slipped off in one quick motion and walked away guiltily. I wanted to tell her I was in on the secret. That I shared her addiction. But the moment passed and I headed home.