On raising a grandparent

I am quite sure, like many of her kind all over the world, my mother is chuffed about her grandparent status. She was the first person to hold Re in her arms when he was born, she is always the first grandparent to wish him on his birthday and on every other occasion (and she never runs out of them). She is now also the one he meets when he gets back home from school, the only one he will discuss homework with, or take instructions on grooming from. On his part, he will remind his grandmother about taking her medicines or “not watching shouty channels”, because “she has a new heart and has to look after it” (Re was four when my mother had her second valve replacement surgery). I want Re to make the most of it now, as I know he doesn’t have too many grandparent years left, as all four of his are in their seventies already. I had my both my grandmothers until my twenties; I don’t know if my son will be that lucky. Susanna Schrobsdorff, who is Managing Editor at TIME magazine calls it the grandparent deficit.

Every Tuesday, my mother takes Re to the local Ganesha temple and he willingly accompanies her, because he likes the elephant god, and of course the modaks that come as part of the prasad. The one time that I went along, he told me to do three pradakshinas and that I had to sit quietly on the floor for some time before I made a beeline for the prasad. “Otherwise, ganpati will think you only came for the prasad,” he explained.

My mother has had a hectic social life post her retirement and she is happy to have an arm candy for most of it. She tags Re along to her various chanting groups of fellow grandmothers: Vishnu and Lakshmi sahasranamams, haldi kumkums and various other things that ladies of a certain age congregate to do. “Will there be prasad? Then I will come,” he tells her. Re has also begun to evaluate various prasads, like “M aunty’s sheera is better than P aunty’s sheera”, and “Can I have two of these laddoos, because I really like it when it is beige and not brown like R aunty’s”

He in turn, teaches her ballroom dancing, how to walk like a princess, how to turn her saree into a gown, and all those things I could never dream of teaching her.

How a grandparent keeps it real

All around me, I constantly sense a dilution of all things traditional or ritualistic, and so it really moves me to see this grandmother-grandson duo, lighting diyas, collecting flowers to make garlands for deities, bowing down and joining hands in prayer whenever they pass by a shrine. These are things that never came naturally to me, but I am glad that it is an important part of Re’s relationship with his grandmother.

I don’t know where I stand on deities and worship. My mother is a believer, but I have always been passive about all her rituals. Although the thing about rituals is that they bring you closer to who you are and where you come from — roots that we have to try harder to hold on to than our parents did. In a mixed-culture marriage such as ours, sometimes the rituals multiply. But sometimes they divide too. And sometimes we end up culturally bankrupt, because we didn’t want to do the work. But now, with Re being integrated into it all, I feel a sense of belonging, a feeling that I have something to hold on to when things feel hopeless.

He is lucky. After all, he does get her all to himself, because she has no other grandchildren and so no one else vying for her attention. I had to compete at least with 12 other cousins for my favorite grandmother and seldom got her to myself, one-on-one. ‘Grandmother’ was always a community thing, as were grandmother stories, grandmother delicacies and grandmother lullabies. I grew up in a time when grandmothers were the default caregivers of young children, and with families multiplying ever so rapidly, my poor grandmother was always being shunted from one home to the other every few years, and I can imagine what it must have done to her. But she raised us all with the same amount of love, the same stories and the same sense of rootedness.

There is something about grandparents. And I don’t mean it in that warm, fuzzy, sepia-toned kind of way. There is all of that for sure, and some. Something also changes in the equation between you and your mother when you have a child. She becomes the equaliser in your life. And not just because she is (usually) the most non-grouchy caregiver. But more importantly, she is someone who never trivialises your troubles by saying “this too shall pass”. She may not have the answers to your convoluted problems, but she is an antidote to your pain nonetheless. And so is her rasam, in my case.

The odd thing is that my mother is still as much a mother to me, as she is grandmother to Re. She is still the one who senses from my voice on the phone when all is not well. She is still the only one who knows when I need to be left alone. Although we have our share of fights ever so often, she is still the one who gets me more than anyone else. I know that in a few years, she will be the one needing the care and I will be the caregiver and hopefully, so will Re. I didn’t choose to marry late; it’s just that it took me really long to meet a man I wanted to make a baby with. I know there are so many conflicting factors when planning a baby, but I just want to say that it’s good to take into account how much grandparent time your children will have.

And age 71, my mother is still not tired of playing mom. But I already am, and I can’t even imagine myself getting to the grandmother stage. I am constantly torn between my mother and my child trying to parent me. In fleeting moments, I do forget that I am a parent to both of them. But I am nicer to my mother now. I find myself asking her, “What else?”, “Have you eaten?” and “Did you sleep well?” I find a calming reassurance in inanities. I am becoming my mother.

(A version of this post first appeared as my column in Pune Mirror on 24th August, 2015)

Parenting lessons from burnt cookies

It has been one of those weeks when three generations were coexisting under one roof in my house – my mother, Re and I have been bonding and sharing space and food. Talk is a necessary byproduct of both.Yes, we have been talking a lot.

Grandparents are amazing things. When they walk in, parenting looks easier. My mother can access the parts of Re that I can’t. My father can be the crockey (a game he invented combining cricket and hockey) buddy I can’t.

And it’s often not because of what they do; it is their mere presence that seems to dilute the tedium of parenting. You perhaps realize that you were shaped by them, so it can’t get much worse. They also silently seem to applaud you for everything that you do, even the small things, so it seems worth the while (admit it, you are all looking for points!)

In the true spirit of our family, cooking (and eating) is what mostly brings us together. Every once in a while, my mother gets to watch me play mom and she is intrigued. While she was visiting last week, Re and I got down and dirty with a few baking expeditions (it somehow seemed like better weather for baking) and we made cookies and baked a cake. Unlike my mother who let me in at age eight, Re has been at it since age four.

The thing about baking is that even the most seasoned baker often waits with bated breath to see if the cake has risen. Even if you have a manual, you are never sure you will get it right, much like parenting. I have a few baking buddies. Some give me recipes, others give ideas. The ideas are far more valuable, much like they are in parenting. I have never taken to recipes.

Re stands in front of the oven asking me every microsecond, ‘Is it ready yet?” I have found a way around it. “When you smell the right smell, it’s ready!”

The other day, when it was cookie time, I handed Re the dough and asked him to roll his own cookies. What shape should it be, he asked.

It can be any shape you want, it’s your cookie, I replied.

We made assorted shapes together and no two cookies looked alike.

When we were done, he licked the cookie dough and declared, “Mmmmm, delicious!”

I know how to take a compliment and I egg him on. He has always been generous with compliments and never been hard to please in the culinary space. That somehow makes me want to try harder, however convoluted it might sound. We hungrily devour the entire tray of cookies, and don’t bother with any kind of decorum. (Not even taking the mandatory photo, hence can’t show you our excitingly imperfect cookies)

My mother watches this. She sighs. “You are so free with your child, I wish I had been like you. I was always so caught up with getting it right.”

I am glad she said it and I didn’t.

I remember when my mother let me in on her baking expeditions. There were too many boundaries.  All the cookies had to be the same size and shape, rolled not into a disc, but more of a tetrahedron, and my mother’s watchful eye often made me nervous. When we embellished it, the cherry had to be right at the centre. The baking tin had to be grease-proofed up to every micro square cm. Everything had to be mixed in geometric proportion.

Everyone loves the perfect cookie. But I have learnt that there is no such thing as a bad cookie. That even the hard ones can be redeemed with icecream or some such palliative. And even the really mushy ones have the power to put a smile on your face.  I learnt how not to judge a cookie by its cover. Burnt cookies are my best friends. I learnt that if the cake doesn’t rise, we can always have a crumble.

I see this whole attraction for wholeness and perfection among my students at too. At the school meals, every child wants the perfectly shaped pooris, omelettes, dosas. The rest are rejected. I look at the pile of broken bits and something shifts inside me. Give me the broken bits, I tell the person on duty.

I wanted my parents to understand my broken bits. They just pretended it didn’t exist. They were too focused on my perfections. I spent most of my youth nurturing my broken bits. I am still working on them, as I believe it is never too late. They will always have a special place in my heart. Re gets this, and I’m grateful.

Sometimes I feel like asking my mother for my childhood back. At other times, I am grateful to her for letting me grow up soon. I have significantly lowered the bar for Re, but in doing so, I have lowered the bar for myself too. I am allowed to have bad days and burnt cookies. I am allowed to bake cakes that don’t rise. Or make custard that doesn’t set.

I inherited my mother’s oven and a few of her baking tins. It was an equaliser between her and me. And when I baked my first date and walnut cake in 40 minutes including prep time, my mother asked in amazement, ‘How did you manage that?”

I knew we had made a fresh start.

 

(This post first appeared as my column in Pune Mirror on 15th December, 2014)

 

 

Of theme-park families, digital love and Karan Johar

I think Karan Johar is to blame.

It’s all about loving your family” was his promotional line for  Kabhie Khushi Kabhi Gham, a Bollywood blockbuster in 2001. The line touched a chord and soon became a mantra that bombarded our collective conscience, begging to be adopted. The movie came in much before family selfies were in vogue, but it did set the ground for it, ever so slightly. I don’t know how much it contributed to us loving our family, but it certainly made photo-shopped and airbrushed families the next best thing to have, if you weren’t lucky or hard-working enough to have a real one.

If KJo’s mantra didn’t do the trick, the ‘like’ button did. Sons and daughters have become more effusive in their love, ever since it was invented. Now they don’t even have to make that trip or pick up the phone to show their parents they care. All they have to do is click ‘like’. And there, the love business has been simplified. Grandparents are back too. They are reclaiming their space in the family tree digitally, if not otherwise. Either they are liking, or they are being liked.

Something changes irreversibly in people in when they have children. They begin to feel grateful for their childhood, however chaotic and overpopulated it seemed at the time. They suddenly want their families back. Families look good in pictures. They lend ambience, texture, rough edges. They neutralise your gloss or your ineptness. Families make you feel empowered, they have a Botox effect on the lonely island that is a couple. Give or take a child even. People from families that were fragmented often seem to marry into close-knit families because it provides the togetherness they long for. And when we have our own children, we want them to benefit from the whole family experience – cousins, nieces, nephews, uncles and aunts, the works. A child does not add the equity you think it does unless it is backed by aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents. And pictures with all of them.

But then, most people start manufacturing family. They engineer confluences, adding touches so it comes closest to their image of a theme-park family. Because “It’s good for the children.” Some over-mixed couples go as far as to say, “Our daughter speaks four languages. I am half- Gujarati, half-Punjabi and my husband is half south-Indian, half Bengali.” How much of the osmosis is real and how much is fodder for social media, one will never know. As people become more hospitable on their timelines, we see less of their homes. As for me, the taste of a well-knit family is the food they share. It’s always the food. But who’s eating these days?

A friend of mine, M orchestrated her pregnancy after landing a job in Bangalore where her parents lived. She ensured her husband got a transfer too.They have a child and a dog now and lots of family pictures and willing babysitters. It’s exactly what she wanted.

K is an amazingly successful, bright intelligent Indian woman who lives in Chicago. She is married to an American and has three kids who look anything but Indian. Every year, she flies down to India for exactly three weeks, in which she fits in work meetings, something cultural for the kids (throw in a palace resort here, or a wedding, or Diwali, whichever promises great backdrops for pictures), and rounds it off with something by the sea (of course bubble-wrapped). She also manages to track down enough photogenic people from her family tree and captures them into her smart phone. She makes a photobook a year and they all stand proud in her bookshelf.

She also flies her parents to the US every other year, or whenever she is nanny-less. “The kids have to do grandparents,” she says. Except the grandparents don’t really know what to do with them as neither of them speaks much English and the kids don’t speak Bengali. So it’s six weeks of parents watching desi TV while the kids are on their iPads, with a theme-park or a ski trip thrown in for good measure. But there are always pictures.

When I see these theme-park families, I always long for shiny, happy family pictures from my childhood. There are none. We don’t take family pictures or hug or kiss or say ‘I love you” or celebrate Mother’s day or Father’s day. But we cook and eat a lot together. We fight, we laugh and we cry. We are just an ordinary family I guess.

The closest I ever got to taking a family selfie was a recent picture of the brother, the mother, the child and me at a park in California when we went visiting him. It took a lot of effort and it didn’t feel like us.

I think I’m going to alter the mantra to “It’s all about keeping it real.” Sorry, Karan Johar.

famselfie

 

(This post first appeared as my column on parenting in Pune Mirror on 4th August, 2014)

Memory Bank: How to organise baby photos, videos, and other stuff

So you remembered to record your baby’s first yawn. And her first flip. And her sitting up. And the time she walked.  And her first words. Chances are, more than a few of these photo/video records are actually sitting somewhere  on your hard-disk or your camera or worse, your phone. I have come to realise as the mother of a child who just turned three that while the actual moments are actually overwhelming, tracking them down, say ten years from now can be a challenge.

There are two sides to baby documentation. The first is the creative aspect and the second is the administrative aspect. Yes, this might sound formidable to some, but when you know that there are people who have years and years of recorded data still waiting to be collated, you will see what I mean.

One of the things you realise when you have a baby is that while on one hand, you want to document every memory, moment or milestone, on the other hand, it’s just one of those items on the list of things to do.  And the longer you wait, the more arduous the task becomes. I waited three years and ended up working incessantly for three months to get upto speed with my child. After all, collating and organising photos, videos, memorabilia, important bits of paper here and there (the first piece of school work, the first scribble/doodle/painting, the first boarding pass/railway ticket.. the list is endless). And while we are all good at collecting and hoarding, we take our own time to ‘organise’. So here are some tips to get you started.

  1. Delete.This may sound harsh, but at the rate at which we are accumulating albums thanks to digital photography, it is really important to keep weeding out what is really important. The parameters for deciding this are many. Sometimes a really good moment, for instance three or four generations of parents in a frame may not be the best quality picture, but it is still worth keeping. And sometimes you may have several shots of your child in a pony farm , all of which delight you, but you still have to trim it down. Always remember that every picture is data, and data piles up and eats into your computer or hard-disk’s memory. So, edit at every stage. I would say while editing, ask yourself. How many of the same do I need?

    Three generations – priceless

  2. Try and include yourself in the frame from time to time. The thing about parents is that we get so overwhelmed taking pictures of our tots that there are somehow no pictures of us. So don’t be modest. Ask your friends/spouse to click you. And make sure you have at least a few pictures every year which feature the entire family. And don’t leave the pets out please!

    Pic By Bajirao Pawar

    Before it all began: My pregnancy photoshoot for Mother & Baby magazine

  3. Print. Now we may think that with facebook and instagram and picassa and so many cool online apps, printing photos may have become redundant, but there is nothing like a real photo that you can touch and feel. So every year, take stock and choose 15-20 photos that you absolutely must print for posterity’s sake. Also because grandparents enjoy real touchy-feely pictures much more than looking at them on the computer. You could even blow up a few and get them framed for the wall, but be really choosy because there is only so much wall.
  4. Have a great family photo taken by a real photographer (you will always find one in your friend circle) that captures the mirth of your family once in  a while. And no, I am not talking about the  posed,aseptic, dry, lifeless pictures they take at studios, but a real live one, may be in your own home. I took one recently and it’s already made it to the wall.

    Pic By Bajirao Pawar

  5. Chase the school for pictures from school activity/concerts/sports days. Very often, photography is not allowed at such events and the pictures are taken by appointed photographers and you can request them to give it to you or pay for them. Sometimes we forget to collect our class photographs and years later, regret it. Always follow up. Also, sometimes friends tend to click you and your child at random outings like brunches or  birthdays, and very often they have an eye for things you don’t. Always make sure you get the pictures mailed to you and save them in your folder.

    Pic By Radhika Anand

  6. People: Sometimes we get so carried away by our child that we forget to include the people in his universe in the pictures. So playdates, park friends, building friends, grandparents, cousins, all deserve a place in your memory bank.
  7. Contact sheets: Sometimes, it is worth the while if you have a series of images telling a story, to put them all together as a collage or what they call contact-sheet in photo parlance. You can do it with apps on Picassa or Shutterfly, but even your local studio can do a collage for you.

    Pic: Rahul De Cunha

  8. Labeling. Now while we are all prone to creative labelling, such labels are not helpful years later when you are trying to search for a particular photo or video. For example, instead of calling an album Zoolander or the Aliens or something like that, always start with the year/date and then add whatever tag you wish to, so that, years later, when you have volumes and volumes of pictures and videos, you can still track down something just by looking for it under that particular year.

And here are a few devices and tools that make documenting and displaying far easier:

Documenting :

  1. Digiframe: These are like live slideshows of photos and usually have 1GB to 4 GB memory, although now there would be higher end models too. The nice thing about them are that they are small and compact and look like a photo-frame, and can play a series of photos off a pendrive or the memory card like a slideshow. A nice thing to have on your desk or gift to family members with loaded photos. This is also a great option to photo-frames, since more often than not, it is difficult to choose what to frame.
  2. Photobooks: These are the best things  to happen to the conventional albums which wear out with time and often have issues of plastic sticking to the photos and ruining them, photos getting discoloured and other such. The photobook allows you to make magazine like prints of your photos and renders them on a page, binding them together like a book. You could even do it like a collage, mixing random photos on every page, blowing up a few , like I did. There are many online options like itasveer.com, snapfish.com and zoomin.com, but I found zoomin to be most user-friendly with simple yet elegant templates, and their paper quality and service is excellent.
  3. Media players – These are external hard disks that come with large memories , as much as 1 TB or 2 TB. The great thing about them is that they can be connected to your television and you can play photos, videos and music off them. They also come with a remote control device, so it’s really convenient to choose from the menu and play. For my son’s birthday party this year, I actually played an entire slide-show of his photos from birth to age three set to a background of his favourite baby music. It was great fun and really appreciated. You could also play baby videos this way. Also, it is a great place to save and play your child’s favourite animation movies if you don’t want to be stuck with too many DVDs.
  4. Memorabilia: Sometimes, a really good picture can be printed on a mug /clock/calendar and given to family or friends as a memoir. Most of the larger photo studios offer this service.
  5. DVDs: are a good place to back up videos, but make sure you optimise their usage. For instance, a DVD can take 4.7 GB of data, and once you write it, you cannot overwrite it. So make sure you compile enough videos (I would go six-monthly or yearly, depending on how much you shoot ) and then burn them on a DVD so that the burning process (sometimes it could take about an hour) is justified. Also, if you don’t have an external hard-disk, a DVD is a good backup, but make sure you get one sooner than later.

Whatever tools you choose, make sure you always have a copy of everything in your computer or hard-disk for emergency. The point is,  if you haven’t done an inventory of baby photos and videos, the time to start is now. And most importantly, have fun doing it. I looked at it not as ‘work to be done’ but as a journey back in time. It worked.

 This article was first published in the Aug 2012 issue of Mother & Baby magazine.

Yours, genetically

There is something about grandparents. And I don’t mean it in that warm, fuzzy, sepia-toned kind of way. There is all of that for sure, and some.

Something certainly changes in the equation between you and your parents when you have a child. Your parents become the equalisers in your life. And not just because they are (usually) the most non-grouchy caregivers. More importantly, they are the people who never trivialise your trauma by saying, “This is the best part. You will miss it when it goes away.” They may not have the answers to your convoluted problems, but they are antidotes to your pain nonetheless, in their mostly quiet but always soothing way. I don’t think I could be half a mother without my mother. Or half a father without my father (my homeopath told me I have too much testosterone).

My mother and I became womb equals the day I gave birth to Re. Until then, it was always, “You will never know until you become a mother.” I felt like telling her, “Bring it on now, I am a mother too.” With my dad, there was never any of these power dynamics. Men would rather not be reminded that they are husband/father/son. It just takes them away from being men. My father was just happy being the grandparent who could still carry his grandson on his shoulders. That he was still my father was just incidental.

Strange that what I got from my parents, Re got it too. From my mom, Re’s got a wide-eyed wonder in little things and a love for rituals. From dad, Re’s got that sense of abandon, a complete lack of fear. And yes, a palate that knows when you have been messing around, diluting his bhindi with capsicum. Ironically, the very things that annoy you about a child are actually you.

In my single days of living on my own (which I did for a long time), I was the kind of person who told her mother (who called every day) to give me the 30-second edit instead of the two-minute one of whatever she had to say to me. And when she was done with that, I’d say, “So is that all you called four times about?”

I am nicer now. I find myself asking my mother, “What else?”, “Have you eaten?” and “Did you sleep well?” I find a calming reassurance in inanities. I am becoming my mother.

I am also tender towards my dad, more generous with my compliments, less critical, and always make it a point to ask him about the secret ingredient in his pachadi, even though I am seasoned enough to figure it out. It always makes his day. So, in a sense, having children makes you a parent twice over.

The odd thing is, my parents are still not tired of being parents. But in year three of parenting, I am already ready to tear my hair out on most days. I am often found wailing to the OPU that I want to go on a holiday with me and just me. That I want a break from the people who bind me (which refers primarily to him and the child; the cats are not too particular). That I want to be free. He, being the totally-into-me person that he is, takes no offence. “I understand. It must be taking its toll on you. How about I buy you a gift? A reward for being a great mom?” And then I bark some more about wasting money and not planning for the future and we continue living ‘happily ever after’.

Perhaps, our parents had better temperaments for being parents than us. Their wallets were lighter, but their lives fuller, freer of parenting clichés. They lived; we are constantly thinking about living better. I sometimes wonder if it’s as simple as the fact that we grew up in a non-Facebook, non-Twitter, non-club-y, non-brunch-y, non-texty era. Now, we have somehow messed things up. Too much crap. Too little time.

On a good day, I am glad I got some writing done. On a bad day, my jaw hurts from answering all of Re’s questions and my temples twitch from being polite and nice. I can’t do nice. Not for long. And every time I forget how to do it (which is often), I come running back to my parents. Then my body and soul get fortified over two or three days — the body with food and much needed rest (“You sleep, we will manage”) and the soul with the assurance that I am doing something right. That mine is a happy child, and it shows in his eyes.

I realise then that the grandparents and the babies are fine. It’s the ones in between that are really messed up.

 

This post originally appeared as my column in the Sunday EYE of the Indian Express on 6th May 2012