Walking a fine line

Was reading this article about a Harvard psychologist talking about raising nice kids and it triggered a memory of  an incident, years ago when my parents were visiting and we took them out to dinner.

The Brat (he must have been about 2.5 years old) wanted to go to the toilet and the OA and G’Pa took him to the toilet where he kept up a constant chatter. Basically he was reiterating all that I told him when I was toilet training him.

Wait your turn. Don’t open up your pants until you reach the toilet. Make sure you aim into the toilet – don’t want to leave it dirty for the next person using. Be careful when you zip your jeans so that you don’t get any important bits caught in it. Wash your hands nicely. With soap. Again. Dry them.

This had his father and grandfather in splits and they didn’t notice that they had an audience. Then he thanked his father and grandfather for helping him to use the toilet. When they were done, the gentleman (a foreigner) walked up to my son and gravely shook hands and introduced himself, as though he was talking to a grown up. And then he gave him some money (I forget – probably Rs 50 or something) and said he had never seen such a well mannered child, so to please buy him some candy with it.

The OA and G’Pa of course protested and said money was not required, the praise was enough. The gentleman must have been worried that he was giving offence in a foreign land and the OA and my dad didn’t want him to think he’d breached some form of etiquette when the poor man was trying to do something nice. They kept refusing it and then he made a winning argument. He said there are very few well behaved kids these days. And good behaviour, even among adults, rarely gets rewarded. In fact, most often, your good manners, your civility, they are you’d undoing. They are the reason someone pushes ahead of you in a queue, someone cuts you off on the road and so on. So he’d like my son to know, that once in a while, people do notice and good behaviour doesn’t go unnoticed.

They let the Brat accept the money.

One of the issues with letting kids accept money/ gifts from strangers is that it goes directly against our teachings of not accepting candy from smiling strangers. And I keep telling them kids day in and day out, not to take sweets from strangers. Not to follow someone who says Mama is calling them. And so on.

This also bother me because it means we’re bringing up our kids to be inherently distrustful. That the default setting is that a stranger is untrustworthy, dangerous. This goes against my grain because I’m a rather trusting person myself. I’ve let all sorts of people into my home, readers who don’t blog and so on. I’ve had good experiences and bad, but I wouldn’t change that for the world.

I realise this is yet another reason I hang around working from home when my babies are soon to be 7 and 9. Because I want them to be independent and I want to watch them make decisions, while I watch from afar.

They know that they’re not to open the door if Mama is in the toilet. Not to answer the phone and say that Mama is not home. But if I am home, they answer the door while I stand a few feet away and watch them engage with strangers. I watch them cross the road. I let them buy groceries from the neighbourhood store and bring home correct change. And I know I can only do this because I am watching them with a hawk’s eye. Ready to swoop in, in case of danger.

Had I left them at a daycare, they’d not be allowed this engaging with strangers. Had I left them home with a maid I’d give very strict instructions that they’re not to answer the door, mess around in the kitchen, or do anything that required the maid’s judgment and quick thinking. I just would not be able to trust anyone else to make that judgment call.

As the years go by and examine by choices and parenting, the layers peel away and I realise things that I haven’t been able to articulate earlier. For now, this small simple act of letting them trust others while their mother watches on, is an important one for me.

A week or two ago the Bean accepted and signed for a courier for me. I watched her run her finger down the sheet, find my name and sign carefully.  The delivery guy looked at me in puzzlement, wondering why I hadn’t bothered to do anything, leaving the child to painstakingly drag a chair to the door, ask who he was, open the latch, climb down and sign and then climb up to lock up again.

I think teaching them nuance was important. You can talk to people, you can get to know them, as long as Mama or Dada is close by. We’re such a generation of harried, helicopter parents, hovering around and not giving our kids room to grow and build their  own equations with the world around them. It’s a delicate balance and I can’t claim to have found it, but for now, this works for me.

 

And I turn 36

… otherwise known as the Oh fuck, now I really won’t be having any more babies year.

But on a more serious note, this year I feel every one of my 36 years. In the last year I’ve had family suffer and I’ve been there for them and realised that they needed me. In fact I was in hospital all of my birthday last year and didn’t even take any calls. Chhota Nana’s leg, Ma breaking her foot in the midst of a busy year… construction, business, everything came to a head and I looked in the mirror and saw age spots, tired eyes, tired skin and I realised that I could no longer think I was 24. This is it. I now know that some of the best years healthwise have passed me by.

This is also the first year I learnt what it means to struggle with weight. I’ve always been slim so to finally look in the mirror and see your thighs dimpling is a shocker. I walked, I restructured my diet and while I am not thin by any standards, I am back to normal and feeling good and healthy. But yes, I finally know what it means to feel desperation and know jeans that won’t button.

My driving is still crappy but I can get from A to B in a crisis and that is all I really wanted. I had planned to learn to swim well this year and surprise you guys (hah!) but I chickened out. Actually I think I just had too much on my plate so it was an easy one to evade. Perhaps next year.

This year also, for the first time, I am making more money than I have in many years, all while sitting home. This is something I feel an insane amount of pride in because I’ve worked from home for years, accepted a pittance and held my tongue when treated badly as a professional. But then something snapped this year and I’ve said no to pieces that go against my belief system, turned down poor paymasters even if they are big names and written stinkers to people who haven’t paid up, pulled out contacts, taken to Facebook to name and shame… and generally reached a stage where I might not be doing a lot of creative work but I am earning well, established and no longer have to take shit from anyone.

On the family front, the kids have a far better idea of what Mama does professionally and in fact push me to go back to full time work so that they can ‘watch TV without anyone objecting’. Of course on days that I am out on a shoot they regret every word and cling to me like limpets when I return, the Bean calling me every hour or two to talk to me. Fortunately I am my own master and can take a little break and soak in the pleasure of hearing her voice. Unfortunately though, I am now too hooked on working at my own pace and in my pajamas to do that. Also, new office!

It’s been more than a year in this house and we have no intentions of moving out and are finally settling in. We’re friends with some neighbours, the kids have made friends and settled into their various classes. For now, we’re home.

I’ve also spent the year balancing a lot of relationships, watching them slide downhill, pick and recover. I think it would be fair to say that in spite of not having given birth this year, it’s been crazy!

My resolutions for this year are to take myself less seriously, to have more of a sense of humour, to ignore those who thrive on being annoying and provocative, to stop thinking about others all the time and for a while focus only on myself and my little family.

So wish me luck!

A little give and take

Took the Bean for a haircut today and the lady at the parlour asked me if I’d like to get something done. I didn’t want the Bean to sit there getting bored while I got my stuff done so I said that I’d come back another day. I also didn’t want her sitting there absorbing in that way children do, that ladies need every bit of them polished and shined before they consider themselves socially acceptable.
Sitting all alone on a chair, hanging on to a big handbag was a girl only slightly older than the Bean, dressed very shabbily and definitely from a poorer background. She sat there nervously and quietly, giving no trouble, making no sound.
And then her mother came out of one of the facial rooms. Shabbily dressed, definitely not well off, maybe household help. But she was glowing with happiness. The little girl lit up when her mother came out and asked in Hindi – Ma, did you enjoy the facial? Was it nice? Are you feeling good?
The mother grinned girlishly – Yes, it was such a treat.
They paid up and left.
And I wondered why we are so protective of our kids and their time. Why am I so reluctant to let my child sit for an hour and wait while I get a facial? Will they ever learn to be so considerate? Do our privileged kids care about how their parents feel and would they suffer an hour of boredom, sans TVs and tablets and books, while their parents get a rare treat?
Food for thought and maybe time for some change.

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.