I found the me I lost on a train, but am still looking for malaiyo


Last week, I took a train to Banaras to attend my first teachers’ conference. There is something about train trips that still makes me wildly excited as a child.  I had a skip in my step, I made lists. Lists are always a good sign for me.

Are you travelling alone, someone asked. Unable to contain my excitement at the impending deliciousness of aloneness, I said, “Yes, finally!”.

Being alone is one of the greatest luxuries you can expect after you have a child. Sometimes you get so overwhelmed with tasks on hand or just the autopilotness of your family life that the easiest thing to put on standby is you. The forgetting to love me in the remembering to love them.  I have been there. Yes, you do watch movies and go for pedicures or spa sessions, but it is not the same as going away somewhere, all by yourself.  .

It has been a week of aloneness. Of strange beds in new cities, new schedules, new food, new body clock, even new dreams. Have you noticed how your dreams change when you wear life lightly?

On my onward journey on the train, I had, for company, six children, two sets of parents (I remember thinking about the joy of numbers), one grumpy lady who eventually smiled (the things that extended time can do), and two chatty aunties sharing a berth which actually belonged to an army boy who was too well-mannered to tell them. As I watched assorted legs dangling from berths in front of my eyes, shrieking “mummy!”, “pappa!”, I suddenly missed Re’s voice, but not enough to long for him. This was about me. I was all set to enjoy me.

I slept like a baby, for 11 hours straight. I dived into two books, something that was very me and I hadn’t done it in a while. I started playing match-the-station-with-the-food game in my head.

 My father has etched indelible food memories of places in my head. The places didn’t mean anything without the food. It was always about Bhusaval’s perus or Ratlam’s puri bhaji or Allahabad’s samosas or Mathura’s pedhas or Agra’s pethas. I remember going through train stations and connecting them to memories of my childhood. We had done a huge number of train-trips back then thanks to his wanderlust. Journeys always meant trains. Trains always meant stories for later. No matter how rough the ride, we always had lovely stories to tell.  I made notes of things to tell my father. That’s how it’s supposed to be, right? Our children thinking of us because of things we shared with them, conversations we had with them, and before we knew it, we had fixed our imprints on them.

I gifted myself some small things that gave me big joys. Like watching the sun rise over the Ganga. Eating apple pie at Vatika café on the banks of the river at Assi ghat. Watching the evening aarti from a boat at Dashashwamedh ghat.  Sitting under a 100 year-old banyan tree and wondering how many people would it take for a hug. Spotting a pied kingfisher on my morning walk along the river at Rajghat.  Drinking kulladwali chai. Savouring  a moonlit vocal recital by Suchitra Gupta of the Banarasi gharana on the school lawns, with the scent of dhoop wafting away, awakening every pore in my mind. Going for a moonlit boat ride on the Ganga. Watching the moon smile over the bridge across the river and counting the doors as a train ran through it. Rounding it all off with a Banarasi paan on my last day.

But I returned wistfully, having missed the malaiyo, recommended strongly by my foodie friend in a manner that only one foodie can to another. I realized I was three weeks too early for it and the nip in the air was just not enough for its delicate form. This seasonal Varanasi milk-based dessert foam, full of airy goodness is a part soufflé- part cloud art form that is extremely tedious to make and has an extremely short shelf life. It breaks down at the onset of the first rays of the sun and hence should be had before the crack of dawn as it were.

I haven’t tasted it, but I get the sense that malaiyo doesn’t speak, it only whispers. And it’s exactly the kind of thing that gets shrouded amidst the flamboyant jalebis and the robust rabdis.  And then I realized. There’s a bit of malaiyo in each one of us. We all need to treat it gently, else we will fall apart too. There is nothing wrong with wanting to be in just the right temperature at the right time of day in the right setting once in a while. We have all earned it.

I’m going back for my malaiyo. In the meantime, I am preserving my inner cloud, ever so gently. I owe it to me.


(This post first appeared as my column in Pune Mirror on November 3, 2014)


Absolute imperfect: Why I’m like dad

IMG_1622.JPGA few weeks ago, I was bitten by wanderlust, a disease I have inherited from my father, and duly passed on to the son. Just the words “choo choo train” or “let’s pack a suitcase” is enough to send Re into a frenzy. So we took off to a Himalayan village under the pretext of watching documentaries for three days. Two trains later, we were at Kathgodam, filing into private taxis that would take us on the three-hour ride to Sonapani, our destination. As the signs for Ranikhet, Nainital, Corbett, Bhimtal and Almora flashed past, I had a sense of dejavu. I had been on the exact same road with my father over three decades ago. And almost in the tradition of my father, I was abandoning the known for the unknown. My father never told us where we were going. “You will see,” he would tell us. We would end up at Ramnagar or Kausani or Dhanolti or some such and my mother would always ask why we never went to Kulu-Manali or Darjeeling or at least some place people had heard of. My father would say, “Everybody goes to Darjeeling!”

I feel grateful to my father. For a childhood full of journeys, never mind if some of them never made it to the destinations. Our means were limited, but our hearts were full and our lungs always had more oxygen than they could handle. My father got off platforms and missed trains, he had a tough time keeping track of three children, he forgot to confirm reservations, he showed up at Lucknow in winter at 1 am without a hotel booking and didn’t blink an eyelid when the porter suggested a dormitory, he made us ride back from Dhanolti to Dehradun on a truck laden with peas, as we missed the only bus for the day (we ate a lot of peas on that ride). He lent money to a co-traveller in Pondicherry who pretended to be robbed even as my mother was muttering through her breath that he was faking it. He ended up broke at the end of that journey, still optimistic that the man who duped him would show up. We went without food on that train-trip and ate Horlicks.

In our quest to be the perfect parent, we often realise that it’s the imperfect one who leaves a mark. I always wished my dad could somewhat fit in, be like my friend’s dad, ask the right questions, nod at the right places. But secretly, I was happy that he allowed me to be the person I was trying to be. My father never read us books or told stories or gave us advice on money or careers. He took us to markets, nurseries, made us work in the garden, taught us bridge and cricket, travelled and trekked with us, and helped facilitate my life-long affair with food. He was hardly around at annual day functions; he couldn’t deal with the sham of small talk with other parents. I never missed him. He encouraged me to bunk school so we could watch test matches together. I was allowed to buy him ciggies from the local paan shop, till the paanwala and my mother collectively conspired not to sell cigarettes to a ten year-old.

He is 74 and mostly on a farm somewhere in Belgaum, hoping his green thumb will make him a millionaire. He is a maverick, but he is the maverick I aspire to be. He is the parent who set me free.

The perfect parent messes you up. I am still trying to outdo my mother. I can never be as non-controversial as her, never reach a state where I am blessed by an absolute lack of cynicism like her, never do things with the same consistency of purpose as her. She woke up early, kept a good house, baked, cooked, sewed, knitted, worked, was hugely respected by her students and colleagues, managed finances, did family, friends and synchronised her life beautifully and is the mascot for “nice”.

The thing about having a child is that it makes you love everything about you and hate it in equal measure.  I looked at parenting as my chance to redeem myself. The childhood I wished I had. The mother and father I wished mine had been. It was unfair and stupid of me and it took its toll on my sanity. But I couldn’t have been half the parent I am if my childhood had been any different. We end up who we are because we are more than what our parents made us out to be. And no one gets points for a bad childhood.

As I pointed the snow-capped peaks to Re from our cottage in Sonapani, he stood in attention and started singing the national anthem. My father would have so laughed out loud, I could almost hear him reverberate in the mountains. I felt grateful again.

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.