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)

 

 

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Family and other anomalies

photo(3)

This year has been a year of repairing estrangements for me. In the course of this, Re met an uncle and an aunt, two of his second cousins in New York (they had him at Elsa and Anna), and two long-lost (and I don’t even know why they were lost) second cousins in Bangalore. They bonded instantly and Re was teaching Alvi (the one nearer his age) his ballroom moves while we adults chomped on Tex-Mex and found that we were related in more convoluted ways than we thought. “It’s blood,” said the just-found cousin-by- marriage, looking fondly at the kids bonding. But I feel blood as a currency is overrated. It was definitely more than that.

He also met his chittapata (grand uncle, my father’s younger brother). When he was confused what it meant, I told him it was a junior taatha (Tamil for grandpa). Oh, he said. That’s why his voice is like taatha!

I was visiting my uncle after nine years in his retirement home in Coimbatore. I had, in the meanwhile, grown a husband, a child, two cats, a paunch, greyed all over and switched multiple careers. But my uncle and aunt were arguing about dates and family trees just like they always did and it was as though time had stood still. My welcome meal was chittappa’s famous chinna vengayam (baby onion) sambar and potato podimaas (mashed potato curry). That seemed unaltered in its aroma and taste and something told me all will always be well with this family. Chittappa had Re at his favourite semiya payasam, which he had multiple bowls of and declared his stomach was singing a song. Re had him at you-look-like-that-man-who-comes-in-that-ad (read Amitabh Bachchan)

The baby onion sambar assumes a different varietal with every member of our clan. While chittappa allows the baby onions to flirt freely with capsicum and bhindi, my mother would never allow it. She would of course chop the larger ones to equalize them with the smaller ones. She always has an economic agenda which often camouflages as aesthetic. My father would be more flamboyant about his preparation, given everything else he does. He would sautee the baby onions separately in ghee before releasing them into the ocean of sambar. I do my own thing of adding a chopped spring onion garnish to it, which my father finds interesting, although I always thought he would frown at the lesser onion polluting the higher onion.

Family is people who meet you even when it’s not convenient. They show up, even if you don’t like them very much. They never miss a wedding or a funeral. We all have our own take on things, as long as we are allowed to express them. But we have to meet enough to be able to do that. When I was little, there were always weddings, thread ceremonies, house-warmings and whatnots. There don’t seem to be enough of those now, and we have to manufacture reasons to meet family. But sometimes, desire is enough too. I have 15 first cousins. Re has four. He hasn’t even met two of them. I need to manufacture a lot of family for him.

With friends, it’s different. We meet our friends in airbrushed, manicured, orchestrated settings, the stomach is tucked in, the hair is in place, the food is molecular, the lighting is just perfect for ‘likable’ photos.

With family, we are our jagged, bad-haired, out-of-bed selves

I recently messaged a friend who I had been planning to meet when I was in Bombay. She wrote back saying her parents and sister were over, so could we meet another time? I just felt I was not family enough.

Part of the reason I moved out of the city was that I could never count on friends to be family for Re. They always had something more important to do, like family or activity classes or birthday parties, and I was tired of explaining to Re why he wasn’t priority. Since I moved out of the city, I use every opportunity I have in Bombay to reconnect with old friends. Food always catalyses such  reunions and the higher the possibility of it being involved, the greater the chances of my meeting them. Friends or families that don’t do food enough usually fade off my radar.

My friends know that I always show up. So asking me a lame question like “when do I see you?” is not a good idea, because I always come up with a plan and mean to execute it. I make friends so that I can take them home. I make friends so I can find more people I can be myself with. I make friends so they can feel like family.

I was recently at Delhi, spending a few days with Usha Aunty and Vijay uncle. I do this whenever I get a chance. They are not family. They are my dear friend Reshu’s in-laws. I meet them more than I meet Reshu, since she lives in Dubai. We go back as long as her marriage, which I think is 20 years. We discuss recipes of lauki with kalonji, stuffed baby karelas, apricot and tomato chutney. We recently found connections in our families, and realized what a small world it was.

In the end, we all want friends who feel like family and we want family that we can be friends with. But the key is, you have to show up. Eat a meal. Cook maybe. Talk some. Cry some. And no, clicking ‘like’ on Facebook does not count. So before the year ends, try and locate someone from your family tree or your friendship universe. Go meet them, have a meal with them. Tell me how it felt.

(This post first appeared as my column in Pune Mirror on 17th November, 2014) 

Festivals and other reminders of family

photoMy mother is always the first one to wish me on Diwali. My aunt is next. In their innocent questioning — have you taken a bath, have you lit the deeyas, what sweet did you make — lies the reminder of my childhood, how we grew up and what we shared as a family. It was a lot. Somehow I always felt they were subtly reminding me to never forget to be myself, no matter who I married. After all, there are two things that can happen in mixed marriages. Rituals either multiply or cancel out.

I am good with the motions, and I have been going through them diligently, even after leaving my parental home, long before I got married. I have tried to make each festival special, and even invented new ones for Re. But sometimes, motions create fatigue, and when you succumb to that, it’s a slippery slope for our children, because they have nothing to hold on to and it’s a long way clambering back.

Diwalis of our childhood were about being rudely woken up at 4 am, doused in oil, and asked to take a bath with homemade exfoliants. It was usually cold that time of year and the bath hurt and left us even more bleary eyed. Sometimes, cousins were over and they followed the same ritual. Then we were given new clothes (sometimes we had a say in what was bought, but usually they were home-stitched). There are no photos and that’s perhaps that’s why the memories are so vivid.

Each year, the money allotted to firecrackers began to buy us less and less and we often measured the fun we had in minutes. Sometimes we even managed to make them last by taking them apart. I remember my brother and I would spend hours over separating the laal ladis, and lavangis which we would ignite as singles than as a bunch to make it last. It was fun. Soon our cousins picked up and did the same. Even when money could buy us less, we still had more.

When we were growing up, cousins were people you met because of the grandparent connection — you had to share them (the grandparents), whether you liked it or not. Now that the grandparents are no more, the cousins are more or less redundant. They show up randomly on Facebook, want to be added as your ‘relative’, they post comments on your photos, and make fleeting plans to ‘meet up.’

When you have a child, festivals become indicators of a family that was. And cousins’ children become more important than the cousins ever were. You look through their albums, you ask if their children are crawling or teething, you find bits of them in their children — the bond is renewed.

A strange thing happens when the festive season sets in. Families begin to coalesce. They begin to feel grateful that they are still families. Friends begin to remember they can’t take friendship for granted. Couples begin to find joy in their coupleness.

And colleagues, whose kids you yet don’t know the names of, send you a text and put a smile on your face. They say that when you say something positive long and loud and repeated enough, it becomes a truism. May be that’s why even couples in dysfunctional relationships send out messages and cards in the festive season that end with Mr, Mrs and Master/Miss. I get them all the time and they still put a smile on my face.

And it’s addictive. Soon, you begin to Whatsapp or e-card people who you have never thought about in the past year. You text numbers from your phonebook that have been never texted or called before. You even call. You begin to add instead of subtracting.

Festivals remind me that despite all our virtual connectedness and real disconnectedness, we are still not bankrupt as a people. Yes, we do click ‘likes’ on online rangolis and diyas and pretend we’ve made our own. We raise a toast to goodies people have pre-ordered and a small corner of our heads says we should have tried harder.

Family has various meanings, but it’s in festivals that it reveals itself the most. It’s a connectedness that is palpably real, a camaraderie that no selfie can capture, a boisterousness that cannot be contained, a memory that age cannot wipe out.

There was a time we weren’t even aware we were making memories. Now, if we don’t manufacture them, we will have none. Next year, I’m going to wake up Re on Diwali and douse him with oil and exfoliants. He may not like it, but he will have a story to tell.

 

(This piece first appeared as my column in Pune Mirror on 27th October 2014) 

Yours, mine and theirs: How children add new meaning to festivals

A strange thing has been happening in my household for the past few months. Re pulls out a shrine, usually a Ganesha figurine or a framed deity (duly inherited from my mother), joins his palms, closes his eyes and recites an incantation. Sometimes he asks me to join in, sometimes the cats are asked too. Very often, playdates join in too.

One day he noticed that my three-legged cat Bravo had a leg missing, and came up to me with a problem.

– “Mamma, Bravo cannot join hands.”

– “Yes, he lost one of his legs when he was a baby. But he has three good legs, and he can do anything he wants,” I tell him.

– “I am going to buy a new leg for him. A pink leg.”

Re loves to pray. It’s a thing he has perhaps inherited from my mother. It’s something he has brought back into my life. It’s something the husband, the resolute atheist, has also begun to accept, and I often find him and Re crosslegged, palms joined, eyes closed on the sofa, praying to a sometimes imaginary, sometimes real idol.

I don’t remember when I stopped enjoying festivals. Perhaps it had something to do with my never-ending singledom. Or the fact that I never had any “good news” to share with the extended family, other than the work I was doing or the places I had been to. Perhaps it was because every ritual or festival was tangentially intended towards finding a good husband or keeping the one you had, or at best, creating more wealth.

But since I had a child, I have begun to look out for, and often find new meaning in rituals. Why do we light diyas during diwali? Why does Ganesha have to be immersed? Why do we draw Krishna’s footprints on Janmashtami? Why do we play with colour on Holi? I need the answers, because Re asks the questions.

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 ever since I became a parent, I wanted it all. Okay, as long as it didn’t involve fasting. I want Diwali, I want Christmas, I want Baisakhi, I want Holi. I want everything that Re wants. Children make you want to add the things you’ve been carefully subtracting from your life. Children give us a chance to be what we once were and have forgotten how to be. Rituals add texture. Traditions give you a back story. Festivals become you.

I am a conditioned believer. I believe in my mother who in turn believes in rituals and worship. If she tells me to tie a thread on a particular day and if I don’t find it particularly offensive or sexist, I do it.

And now, Re’s enthusiasm for “Gammati pappa” and “Dilawi” and “Kissmass” has rubbed off onto me. It has made me want to become whole all over again. A me that’s not just me but about everything around me.

Which is why this year, on perhaps my first Diwali away from my mother, far away from the noise of crackers on the beaches of Goa, the one thing I really missed was being hoisted out of bed at 4 am for the ritual oil bath. Even though my mother stopped doing it a long time ago.

 

(This post first appeared in my column in the Indian Express on 25th November 2012. The link to it is here: http://www.indianexpress.com/news/true-to-form/1034925/0)

Like a little prayer

The nicest thing about having children is that they break it down. They keep it simple. You feel you are losing control, that you haven’t been able to adhere, that you are so all over the place that you can’t really find yourself, or your silences. Sometimes, even a simple ritual like lighting a diya or joining your hands in prayer seems like a formidable task.

It did, to me. And one day, I gave up praying. I packed all my gods and goddesses in a trunk and returned my little mandir to my mother, telling her that it deserved more love than I could possibly offer it. I couldn’t bear that it stared at me every day, and I stared back, not willing or able to do much to engage with it .

And then Re reminded me how simple it all was.

We were in Bangkok, the same time last year. My enthusiastic friend Shilpa had made a list of things to do and sights to see and whipped out a list. “So what would you like to do?”

“Take me to a temple. A really small one,” I said.

So there we were, at the local Erawan temple. Girls and boys with purple hair and blue highlights waltzed in and out. Adorned dancers performed in the background and someone played a really nice looking musical intrument. People offered candles and coconuts, some chatted, some sat on benches, the white noise was reassuring.

I turned around to look for Re who had unhooked himself from my hand. He stood there, praying fervently.
And then I realised how simple it all was. Prayer isn’t thought, and it cannot be taught. It can only be felt, and here was my child, feeling it.

Right now, we are at a friend’s place in Gurgaon, and every morning, as my friend Anu chants, Re quietly sidles up next to her, joins his hands and closes his eyes. He used to do the same thing at my mother’s place too, during her morning pooja. Sometimes, he even asked me to join my hands, close my eyes and sing, “Om jai jagdish”.

Although nowadays, the national anthem is his favourite incantation.

Gods of small things

Last week, I was at my mother’s, getting some much needed TLC. You know how important that is when you are spending a great part of your day practising to be a clown, a singer, a dancer, an acrobat, a ventriloquist and some, hoping that your toddler will be amused.

On day two at mom’s, I saw something that moved me.  Now, mine is an old world mommy and her days are incomplete without lighting the customary diya in the morning, saying her prayers, lighting some camphor, doing an aarti, and then prostrating before her shiny happy gods and goddesses sitting pretty in her little mandir.

What I saw, and it’s an image which will linger in my mind forever is Re prostrating with her, and then sitting up, joining his hands in prayer, looking completely one with the whole ritual.

I am not a religious person, but rituals give me calm, a sense of rootedness and peace. Lighting incense, a diya, a candle does it for me when my mind is at its most turbulent. On happy days, it adds a bounce to my step.

I did try to carry a bit of my mother into my marriage when I set up a little shelf to do my morning pooja and light my diya and incense. But somehow, I lacked consistency of purpose, or perhaps the commitment and sincerity of my mother and somewhere along the way, I stopped doing it. It made me feel empty and slightly naked, but it didn’t bother me much.

Re made me start all over again. And that is what I love about motherhood –how a child can manage to point you in a direction you never thought you’d go.  And how it can open your eyes to the simplest of joys. And in an age of ipads and  newborn facebook profiles, this return to innocence was important to me.

Post our morning bath,  Re and I now assemble in our little temple corner where he beckons me with the aarti bell. “Mamma, sit!,” he orders. And hands me the aarti bell and the box of camphor to do my bit. We sit together, separated in years, but united in feeling. I feel bonded to him in the strangest way now.  In a way perhaps that I feel bonded to my mother.

Both of us have changed just a wee bit in the last week. Mostly for the better.

circle of life

my little buddha

To mundan or not to mundan

So.

She made an appearance. Stark raving bald.

Re’s I-like-you-but-can’t-help-snatching-your-toy friend just had one of those.

Okay. I will say the word. Mundan.  Even though her mommy pretended it was just a summer crop to beat the heat.

I gave a blank stare. Beat the heat? You must be kidding? You have destroyed whatever insulation she had, and how all the follicles are lying exposed to Mr Sun. Unless she wears a cap all the time.

She went on to admit that yes it was one of those. But it was done at home, without much hoo-ha, with just close family. The pundit did his thing. And all was over in half in hour.

I frowned.

She quickly went on to add that her daughter was really nice about it and actually enjoyed it. And also confessed that since she and her husband were not thriving in the ‘mane’ area, this would be a good chance for the daughter to reinvent her follicles.

Here was my chance to burst the bubble. No such luck, I told her. One thing babies are good at is following the gene pool. So if you have slim-pickings, so will the child, no matter how many times you shave his head. Besides, it is scientifically proven that the follicles don’t really multiply when the head is shaven. Don’t believe me? Read up.

I realised I had no trouble with Re in the hair department since my family is a tropical evergreen forest as far as hair goes and unless I married an extremely bald man (which I didn’t), my progeny was safe. Hair wise at least.

I don’t know about you, but I am not a fan of bald babies. Unless of course they were born that way. Now why would you shave the baby’s head just to keep a few geriatrics happy is beyond me.

My mother tried too. I put my foot down. No way was I going to shave Re’s gorgeous curly locks! I am all for tradition, but only when it suits me. Like I had a traditional godbharai, with women dropping all sorts of goodies in my lap, making me fish for modaks and appams, playing the boy or girl guessing game, trying on bangles of every colour and texture. I also did Vishu at home this morning, where you heap up whole fruit and vegetables on a tray and look into it through a mirror the minute you wake up. Plus you also get some baksheesh. I still do from my mom. And Re got his first vishukanni from me. But mundan? Clearly not for me.

I once was party to a friend’s daughter’s mundan, with all the traditional finery and I didn’t like what I saw. There was too much smoke, too much fire, too much chanting, and the baby was in ‘just-get-me-the-hell-outta-here’ mode. Wonder what they feel when they look at themselves in the mirror post the act?

Considering that I know just one hair salon that is exclusively for babies in my city, I find even haircuts totally unnecessary. May be one in  a year is good enough at least until they go to school. What’s with the over-grooming?

But I notice that moms are quite proud about their mundan feats. Like it were some milestone. Like they ran the marathon or something. One told me she did her son’s at L’Oreal, and he didn’t even know what was happening. Another said she just shaved it herself and the baby thought it was some game. Basically it is an item in the tradition list that they seem quite happy to tick off. And wait for results. Only to find that it’s usually more of the same.

Re gets ready for his first haircut at Watermelon