First 5 years of life

The other day while walking by some Caucasian kids, I overheard one of them say, “Oh Glee is the most gay show ever!”

Television is undoubtedly the biggest source of edutainment for children until they get old enough to learn how to use the internet to find answers to anything that television might not have taught them already.

My barely 5 year old niece often leaves us flabbergasted with her worldly wise inquiries and comments. When quizzed about her source of information, she confidently says, “I learn everything from TV baba.”  Right! How stupid of me!

Makes me wonder, what was my most reliable source of information in the first five years? Definitely not TV! For our generation, growing up in the early 80s in India, television was limited to a Sunday evening Hindi movie on Doordarshan apart from Salma Sultan delivering the Hindi news and Usha Albuquerque doing the English version and some agriculture-based shows.

Also not everyone had a television and our B&W EC-TV is still etched in my mind. It came complete with a shiny sunmica plywood box with two doors that opened out, revealing the mysterious talking box inside. After you were done watching, you shut the doors and let the people inside sleep as well. All those who didn’t own a television were welcome to drop in for the Sunday evening movie. It included the bachelor friends of my dad and at time the cycle-rickshaw man who dropped us to school – Dhaniram.

This was in Lucknow, and Dhaniram was by no means dhani, yet every afternoon when dropping us kids home he would treat us to a jalebi here or a sweet paan there. Even the uncles in the neighbourhood store would automatically hand us a few free candies; Melody or a Parle Kissmi or a 5-star on a really good day.  When we moved back to Mumbai, it was disappointing that no amount of little-girl charm would get me any free candies.

Doordarshan’s usual presentation

Between 1980 & 1985, except for the Sunday movie, there wasn’t much children’s entertainment on the television, unless you consider the colorful screensaver. So I remember sitting blankly on dad’s lap and watching the evening news on Doordarshan and then finding creative ways to entertain myself; such as throwing a silly laughing fit on finding out that the Japanese PM’s name was Nakasone (roughly translated in Hindi nose-gold).

On other evenings we had our paan-chewing Bengali music teacher visit us at home when we sisters belted out songs in unison looking like identical twins born 3 years apart with matching frocks, socks, clips, hair, rhyming names and all. All the songs were gibberish in my head because I couldn’t even read.

We definitely didn’t have any flashy toys, just the hand-me-downs, dolls and cooking sets and the simple board games. I did have my eyes on two flashy toys though – one was a massive train-set and another a tall spiral sliding track with little cute penguins. (Note: I’m still willing to accept them as birthday presents.) Toys and games apart, our main source of joy were books and comics, everything possible from Amar Chrita Katha, Chacha Chaudhary, Haatimtai, Chandamama, Tinkle etc. My elder sister read more than me and that helped so that I could simply rely on her as my single biggest source of information. She was and continues to be my encyclopaedia.

With limited books and limited television, the most entertaining times were playing out in the open or enacting strange impromptu drama sequences with my sister. I was always the side-kick, but that also meant I could play many different roles in the same scene…from a sombre post-man to a hyper circus girl. We also flew kites on our terrace and sun-bathed during winters. Our grandmother didn’t particularly like us to be out of her vision, thanks to the Phoolan Devi era in Lucknow. Yes, that was the age of dakoos in the North! So funny and surreal in retrospect.

Family gatherings with cousins, uncles and aunts used to inevitably be a riot! We had a small tape recorder and everybody sang. Today when you listen to it, more than the songs it is the background noises that recreate the magic of the time. Wailing little kids, imitating them – the older kids, false starts, hearty laughter, shy women, raucous men…such fun.

Thankfully my generation (I would like to believe) had an unadulterated childhood full of real live entertainment…not just from the talking box or the computer or the iphone or the tablet.

And yet, who knows may be the new digital age is more fun for the kids than we would like to admit or know!

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On families

If there is any one movie that I believe best captures the essence of what families really stand for then it has got to be Little Miss Sunshine.

A teen-age son on a vow of silence as a follower of Nietzsche; A grandfather who dotes on his grand-daughter while finding relief in the whiff of dope, a father who is essentially a loser but is trying to find success at pep-talk and self-help; A mother who is acutely aware of being disorganized despite her best efforts; A suicidal uncle; And a little 7 year old girl, the darling of the family, who has just one dream – winning the Little Miss Sunshine beauty pageant.

That was Little Miss Sunshine. While it might seem to exaggerate the eccentricities of nuclear families, think again. What about your family?

Take a moment to think of all the individuals in your family, including your good self and you may see what I am driving at. There is a lot of humour in real life and we miss it because we are inside the frame. Step out of the frame, especially when things get rough to be able to appreciate how unconditional love keeps such a motley of people together.

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Back in Mumbai

One of my new year resolutions for 2011 was to return to my roots – to India, to the peace in the mayhem, to the patience in the rush. Returning after six years,I’ve found myself getting happy about the littlest things, whether it is a masala cutting chai in the office or a surprise bunch of red roses in the traffic light. From spotting the occassional elephant on the road to a ram peeping out of a taxi… I confess I have been as excited as a tourist about Incredible India.

And then of course getting married meant being surrounded by family, chatter, culture, traditions, colors, jewellery, love, food, friends, fun and lots of emotions.

A new job in a true blue Indian company also meant a very rough induction into a completely different kind of (work) culture! Took me some time to adjust to the decibel levels, the emotions on the sleeves and the new title of ‘madam’. When kids at work start addressing you as ‘madam’, the pressure to act and look like one is quite palpable!  If only I found enough time in the morning to drape a saree, that’d be half the battle won.

And so my wardrobe looks like nothing it did in Singapore. Sigh. Of course it has also changed for the worse to adjust to the expanding girth. I singularly blame the salwar-kameez (or ‘punjabi suit’ if that helps) for hiding the inconvenient truth from Indian women. You see, you just cannot fit into your old trousers and fitted shirt if you start gaining inches. But the chudidar-kurti (now also available in lycra) will never give you a problem until you have gained may be 10kgs. By then it will be too late.

Who cares though! I am still excited about all the home-cooked Indian food that I missed in Singapore and am exploring Bengali cuisine as much as I can. Cheers to being back!

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I am smack in the middle of my most coveted dream
A dreamy reality
I am a speck in the dream of this universe
A reality check

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Qing Ming festival

This month is the Qing Ming festival, translated as ‘Clear and Bright’ and also known as ‘All Souls Day’ or ‘Tomb Sweeping Day’. It is the time when Chinese families go to cemeteries to clean the graves of their dear ones. Families come together from far and wide to visit their home-town for this purpose and give homage to the departed souls.

The one very interesting aspect of this ‘festival’ (reeks of tourism) or tradition (real deal) is that apart from burning joss sticks, incense paper and lighting candles, families also burn paper replicas of anything they believe their ancestors might want. For example, perhaps my grandmother appeared in my dream and said she would like to have an Ipad. Then I will wake up and feel very happy that my grandmom is in step with time, and I’ll go buy a paper-replica of the latest Ipad and burn it as an offering to her. Her wish fulfilled.

Ok jokes apart (although I wasn’t joking about the Ipad story …read here on shortage of the paper replicas during Qing Ming)…I think the original tradition must have been quite beautiful and meaningful. For families to come together and share old memories of those who have moved on. Of what we could learn from the way our ancestors lived their lives, of their joys and struggles and what they left behind. Perhaps it would also encourage everyone to look at the bigger picture of our life and the meaning we attach to it.

Nevertheless, if somebody’s deceased soul is wanting an Ipad, I sure hope the soul was part of a Chinese family in one of its many lives. Happy Qing Ming to all.

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Emily of Emerald Hill

Where men and women struggle to empathize with each-other, here comes an actor who holds your attention and keeps you entertained for more than two hours and all the while playing the character of a typical Chinese Peranakan woman from the post-world-war era.

Emily of Emerald Hill, by Wild Rice Productions (Singapore) is a one-woman play, enacted by a man, about a Nonya matriarch whose difficult childhood influences her need to ensure she keeps control over everything that matters in her adult life. She goes all out to be an extremely loving mother and a devoted wife. Ironically the same dedication distances her eldest son and her husband from her.  All she ever wanted was to love and receive love, and she perfected her role to a point where she forgot to look beyond it.

The play goes back and forth in time, Emily takes us through her life as a child, as a new young bride, as a cunning sister-in-law, as a busy mother of three, as a flattering daughter-in-law, as a newborn socialite, as a fine cook making pineapple tarts, as an ambitious mother of a grown-up son, as a distraught wife of a cheating husband, as a woman with a wicked sense of humour and above all a lonely one. When the audience least expected, Emily started to interact with them, independently zeroing in on people in the front rows to become a part of her story, which added roars of laughter and applause.

Now in case you have forgotten, yes, all of the above was played to perfection by a man, Ivan Heng. No fake falsetto here to imitate a woman, just the emotions and beautiful embodiment of female qualities. Slightly uncouth at times but it added a touch of wild-child element beneath the forced sophistication of Emily.

The only companions Emily had on stage were the lights, visual projections and a constantly evolving set that provided the perfect backdrop for each of her narration.  A one (wo)man show supported by a team of very talented backstage artists.

At the end of the play, the applause lasted for more than 10 minutes, echoing the respect each one of us felt for Ivan Heng. It must take a genius to deliver such a live performance and make it look effortless.

A must-watch if you ever get the chance.

PS: In the end, always remember, when a Bengali friend asks you to join for a drama and says he has heard lots of good things about it, one should never turn down the offer. :-)

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Food that moves

“I love cooking because it is so relaxing and you also get to eat it in the end”, giggles an 8 year old Australian boy on Junior Masterchef.

“Why do you want to win Masterchef?”… “Because I like to be around people who cook as well”

Watching those little munchkins cook live on television is quite moving.  When they stand there with their beautiful creations, it is hard to keep your eyes on the food because the creators look so much more cute. Then they go ahead and describe with utmost panache what exactly they have doled out. Their cooking vocabulary is so delectable and esoteric that at times the little chefs themselves forget what exactly they made, “…it comes with, uh I can’t remember what its called…oh yes a tiny lemon reduction.”

Some people look at cooking as an utter waste of time. I know some feminists (really!) who refuse to cook at home and if they do, then as a matter of principle, there will be a timetable where the husband shall cook on pre-determined days as well. Other people eat to live, not fussy, like an apple a day, a sandwich and some cereals can keep them happy, day in and day out. Some others have maids or in Singapore they live close to food-courts so that every meal is a da-bao (takeaway). Those who live to eat can be found in every restaurant around town, if they have enough money and no cooking skills.

And then there are those who would rather cook anything, from scratch, than do a take-away or eat instant food. That is me. And it is not easy because on most days there is no time, so one gets forced to eat instant noodles or ice-cream for dinner which can be depressing. So when I have time, I disover myself making elaborate meals or trying out new cakes or marinating 2kgs of chicken for an impromptu BBQ. And even while I’m doing it, I dread all the mess I’ll have to clean up in the end, but nevetheless I enjoy thinking of the end-result. Of course when cooking you can’t be too spiritual about it and say the ‘result does not matter’.

As they say, beauty can be found in anything well done (in the case of steak it could be rare or medium too). That said, I haven’t even scratched the surface of culinary art but yet it is definitely worth dabbling in. Think about it…it is an art that can literally be consumed, that can feed your body and soul, that can open up hearts, that can bring on smiles, that can remind you of long lost memories and one that can definitely leave a wonderful after-taste. So where is your apron?

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