The Nest

Summer had spread its warmth and happiness in myriad ways. It had browned the state of California, made children cherish a vacation spent in the warm company of cousins, friends and grandparents. It had also led us to discussing a pair of swallows or robins who had raised their family over a friend’s garage recently. The excitement over this last item was palpable, if second-hand. I have told the children lots of tales before of growing up amidst nature, and their favorites are the ones featuring fauna of various shapes and sizes. The time we ran from a mouse, the time the panther came, and so on.

Amma – have you really seen a nest before?”

“Yes. Of course.” I replied.

They had the look of expectancy about them, and I did not disappoint.

I told them that not only had I seen a bird’s nest before, but was so shocked at having seen it, that I almost toppled off the tree in fright. They guffawed at this, as though nothing amused them more than mothers falling off trees, and I mock-pursed my lips at this misplaced joy. But I had to admit, if I imagined my mother falling off a tree at their age, I would’ve guffawed too, and genetics cannot be helped and all that.

I cleared my throat and continued with the thrilling tale of the nest. They listened with rapture.

We were playing what loosely passes for badminton out in the rushing wind just to see how to play when the gusts of wind took the shuttle askew. One time, the shuttle caught in a tree, and we tried retrieving the thing with hockey sticks,  shouting (our sound waves generate sonic boom to dislodge shuttle – duh), and a myriad other techniques before placing a stool on a chair and hoisting me up to the nearest branch. It was then, I saw the dear home. It looked just like I liked it: haphazardly thrown together, a comfortable haven from a stormy world. Cozy, if a little messy. I stood there for a few seconds delighted at my find, and prudently did not holler the finding to my playmates below.

nest

I have always had a soft spot for babies, and there must have been some being raised there. I almost clambered down without the shuttle-cock in shock.  I kept the information quiet from some of the more cruel children, and expertly diverted our game elsewhere.

The children gave a wistful sigh, “Hmmm…..Wish we could see a nest!”

Every time we go to a wooded area, we look for a nest, but so far we have been unsuccessful in our quest.

A few days later, I was meandering around the lanes, when I spotted something on the floor. The pine trees in the lane had shed plenty of its pines, and the brown pine needles and the pine cones make an interesting scene partly because we are always on the lookout for lovely looking pinecones. It was then I spotted what was unmistakably a nest. There it was – perfectly shaped to house little birds (an ornithologist could probably look at the nest and tell you which birds planned to raise a family in them, but I could not) I picked it up and saw the nest must have fallen a good 10-15 feet even if it were on the lowest branch. Luckily, no eggs were in the vicinity, and I gingerly picked up the nest to show it to the children.

IMG_7055.JPG

After the initial excitement, I was told that I had been heartless in bringing the nest home. Why could I have not put back on the tree? While I admired the sentiment behind this, I felt that expecting me to scramble up that large a tree to put a nest back was a bit much. So, the nest was housed in an adjoining tree whose branch was accessible to my height, and we hoped some bird who had procrastinated nest building would be able to find and use it.

“How will any bird know to look for a nest?”, the children asked. I was doubtful too.

A few days later, I picked up the children’s book, A Nest Is Noisy. The dear book assured me that there were plenty of birds that look for built nests, and the nest I had picked up could one day become a home again.

To find the universal elements enough; to find the air and the water exhilarating; to be refreshed by a morning walk or an evening saunter… to be thrilled by the stars at night; to be elated over a bird’s nest or a wildflower in spring – these are some of the rewards of the simple life. John Burroughs

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The Mystery Of the Blue Hot Box

Weekly once is Trash Night. It is that night of the week when I marvel at humanity’s ability to generate trash. It is that night when I look efficient and bustle, while the children scramble to save their Works Of Art. The husband throws a protective arm around wherever he is sitting and says. “Please! Not now – I will sort it out later. “

“When?” I demand. He treats it as a rhetorical question and wisely refrains from answering.

As I gather the copious amounts of trash we generate from the various dustbins, I ponder: If one household had this much trash, what would happen to the Earth as the population grew? What are the lessons we are learning? I didn’t realize then that the trash was to give me a valuable lesson soon.

Fifteen years ago when I first set foot in a mall in the United States, I was awed that this rich country had such vast, sprawling areas set aside for the activity of shopping alone.

This initial awe soon gave way to disappointment. I missed the chaos of bazaars, I missed the joy of finding a treasure in the pile, I missed the call of the vendors beckoning me to take just one look before deciding. I distinctly yearned for the abundance of prints, styles, and fabrics that shopping in the tiny shops in India had accustomed me to.

The last time I visited my family in India therefore, I plumped for a bazaar – no fancy malls for me please. What I wanted was beauty in the seemingly chaotic.

The little bazaar had tiny shops that had the dimensions of a large dining table, but enough merchandise crammed inside them to fit a garage. We were like kids in a china shop. When I paid what was asked for, I was lovingly chided that I had forgotten the crucial step of bargaining. But I was happy. I was not going to haggle with a small business owner, I said. The head shake that greeted us from family and store-owners alike said, ‘These NRIs!’.

bazaar

Among the merchandize that day was a cricket bat, and some lunch boxes. You know those ones that profess to retain the heat? Those ones. They are imaginatively called hot-boxes.

Back home, we displayed all the things we had picked up. We held up the pink and blue hot boxes with pride.

“Why didn’t you tell us that this is what you wanted?” asked the parents-in-law in rare unison. “We are always re-gifting these hot boxes!” they cried.

“In fact, if you buy sarees worth Rs 5,000 in one store, they give you two hot boxes for free!”, cried the mother-in-law stung at being deprived the joy of getting free lunch boxes for the children.“These NRIs!” they said to each other and shook their heads.

Back in the US, after the school year started, I lovingly used the hot-boxes. The daughter is a fussy eater, as has been well documented in these chronicles. What that means is that all things food related completely misses her sonar and radar. If the lunch boxes she has lost, held lids and stood in a line, it would snake around Lake Tahoe. So, every time I put the hot boxes in their lunch bags, I reminded the children to bring back the boxes.

For the first few weeks, things went charmingly well. Slowly, the novelty of the hot box wore off, and soon, the lunch boxes went missing. I put on my investigator’s hat and tried narrowing down possibilities.

Could it be your locker? Or maybe you just forgot it somewhere in your school bag? Did you eat what was in there? I asked. The daughter rammed her foot up and down, like she was practicing how to pump water and pedal a cycle at the same time, and said in response to my accusatory glances that it was not she who had lost them. “I don’t know, but I didn’t lose them, okay?” she said as though she had enough with lunch boxes to last her a decade. The husband, who tries hard not to lose an opportunity to support the daughter,  said I was getting a bit tiresome with the lunch boxes, and told me to cheese it.

lunch_box

So I did.  Till that day when I was doing the little trash musing. I picked up the trash in the kitchen and I felt something heavy in there. Something round and heavy and light blue and moldy. I suppose Sherlock Holmes felt the same way when a breakthrough came in his investigations. I felt a tingling in my nerves. Whether Sherlock Holmes ever solved a case by sticking his hand in the kitchen trash, I do not know, but I confess I gingerly used a straw to poke around. And there it was: The light blue hot-box covered in potato peels, and tea leaves.

I ah-ha-ed! Give me a chance to gloat like this, and I can show you how it is done. I started off with the subtle angle first, “Anyone realize how we pick up skills that we don’t even know we have?”

“NO!”, said the family trooping in to the kitchen for dinner. I avoided gazing at the sink holding the evidence of the moldy blue hot box. It lay there in hot water, soaking, and looking like a little love would not be a bad thing.

I then proceeded to give the closing arguments for the case and summarized how life has taught me various things over decades, sometimes overtly, sometimes subconsciously. Never did I know that I had the ability to wonder why a kitchen trash bag was heavy.

The husband burst out laughing as I explained the mystery, while the daughter looked discomfited. “If you are so proud of yourself because you know how much the kitchen trash weighs amma, that doesn’t sound like a high and promising life does it?” she said.

She had me there.

“Remember, your grandmother sacrificed buying sarees for this lunch box.”, I said, and smartly went out with the trash before she would work that one out.

Of Dinosaurs, Genes & Aliens

The thing about travel is it lets you indulge in conversations that you otherwise may not have: With car drivers (White Tiger, Driver Shiva or Murugan and Driver KillerMan ) for instance.

We were returning from a trip to Chichen Itza by van. The drive is a good three hours, and the husband was chatting amiably with the van driver, while we pulled out our books to read. I settled down with ‘The Gene’, By Siddhartha Mukherjee. The book is one that requires concentration, especially for one who made stout Biology teachers quail. The book is held tight by a web weaving historical context, scientific detail and personal insights. It is a fascinating read, if somewhat heavy going in places.

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Genetics as a discipline had a number of misdirections and key researches almost lost to mankind, like Mendel’s experiment with pea plants, but for a lucky discovery of his article over 50 years after his death. The book touches upon many such instances. It talks about the supposed brilliance of scientists, how scientists are after all human and how their personalities can sometimes thwart and stifle growth. I particularly enjoyed the little quotations at the beginning of every chapter.

Every now and then, I stopped to take in the rustic scenery outside in the Yucatan province. Up in the front, the conversation was flourishing, if in a somewhat one-sided fashion. The van driver liked his audience and his theories grew wilder, and his tales more grandiose.

The man said he was originally from Canada, then moved to US before settling in Mexico. His tales, at any rate, portrayed a colorful life – a trucker, a pop-star, construction, sound recording. We had niggling doubts as to why his life had followed the pattern it had, but did not dig too closely. (He had the power of the van remember?)

‘How is Gene?’ asked the husband turning his head wife-ward. I had gotten past the horrifying section on Eugenics thankfully and said a thing or two about what all mankind is answerable for. Evolution, I said, better have a good reason for cruelty.

’Ah! Evolution. I don’t believe in evolution as a theory. I have a theory’, said the van driver, perking up since he hadn’t spoken for all of three minutes. He bore the look of a man doing a grand flick off some sad sop’s tale from the internet, ‘My theory is that aliens are responsible for life on earth. I think that the aliens had tried to see if life can flourish on Earth with dinosaurs.’
Four second pause.
‘And then they found them too big. The dinosaurs were too big, you know? I think that the asteroid that hit the Earth was nothing but a nuclear bomb sent by aliens. You see it all the time, don’t you?’

‘Eh… What do I see all the time?’ I asked. I have to come clean and admit that I don’t see dinosaurs all the time. Or aliens if you come to think of it, and definitely hope not to see nuclear bombs sent by the unseen aliens to hit the now extinct dinosaurs. I like a quiet life.

Aliens_theory

‘I mean, look at the size of those computers earlier on, and look at them now.’ He stopped here for dramatic effect, like one coming with the argument that clinches all.’ The aliens then got a much better model with humans and current life forms and decided to drop a nuclear bomb on Earth to get rid of the dinosaurs.They were just too big for them.’

The husband and I exchanged significant glances in our minds without once looking at each other. “I will take it that you just consider it a theory.”, said the husband, a man who would have obviously done well in the diplomatic services.

“Well…evolution is a theory no doubt,” said the driver, as though conceding a poorly paid chess move by dim witted opponents. “But aliens is a better concept. You know the supposed asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs fell right here? Yes – right here in the Yucatan desert.” , he said opening his arms wide, and the van jerked alarmingly. I implored him to hold the steering wheel, to which he laughed, ‘Of course, it was a nuclear bomb sent by aliens, and it is funny that centuries later, we are talking about it, and trying to fit in theories like evolution.”

crater
The Chicxulub crater in the Yucatán Peninsula, the site of the impact that decimated the dinosaurs.(Illustration: Detlev van Ravenswaay / National Geographic)

I set out to explain the experiments with pea plants, how the evidence set up the basis for genetics etc, but the man was bored, and said I must open my mind a little and consider the aliens theory. I bridled. I love a tall tale as much as the next one, but… The husband seem to sense my state, and shot me a warning look.

I had to concede that here was a fellow who had obviously educated himself on the Internet, and was proud of it. The Science teachers in his school days had done their best, and I too must learn to accept that he liked his erudition because he understood complex theories like aliens implanting life on earth.

By the end of the trip I needed some time to reflect, and when I did, I realized that travel had once again made sure I met a person so different in ideologies than myself. I hope he thought a little bit about things that could be proven vs things that could not be, when he reflected later on.

I, for my part, was able to understand why it is easy to believe compulsively written theories on the Internet.

http://theoatmeal.com/comics/believe?utm_source=nextdraft&utm_medium=email

Science lessons seem so far off tucked away in the recesses of the childhood brain. What time is left after earning one’s livelihood can easily be spent in the entertainment industry’s efforts to keep us glued: An industry that thrives on blurring the lines between fact and fiction.

As Lisa Randall says in Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs:
The beauty of the scientific method is that it allows us to think about crazy-seeming concepts, but with an eye to identifying the small, logical consequences with which to test them.

https://www.brainpickings.org/2015/11/28/dark-matter-and-the-dinosaurs-lisa-randall/

What we need is to be able to travel more, so we get to see another’s view point every now and then, even if we do not agree. Especially if we do not agree.

After all, we are nothing but star dust.

https://www.brainpickings.org/2017/02/01/we-are-all-stardust-steven-weinberg-interview/

Drones on Kaapi Conspiracy?

The news, is and has been somewhat of a Debbie-Downer and I have kept clear of it. We have instead been listening to heartening material such as Horton Hatches The Egg. This morning, I switched to NPR, and as usual, the news was ready with a bucket of cold water to pour on my head.

The correspondent droned on about how companies in the USA are rethinking employees’ travel plans given that people are made to give up their phones, laptops and even social media usernames and passwords. This was an idea that was floating around in late January:

http://www.nydailynews.com/news/national/white-house-foreign-visitors-social-media-accounts-article-1.2958851

This idea of asking for social media profiles is abhorrent to me, given that we are further enabling algorithms to slice and dice the populace based on one’s likes and dislikes. But I burst out laughing while listening to it, and probably had folks wonder why.

Lexicon: Maama: Uncle; Maami: Aunty; Kaapi: Coffee

Let us assume Kittu Maama is planning to visit his daughter in the Golden Land of the USA to celebrate his 70th birthday with his grandchildren. Kittu Maama has been flagged as having strong opinions on Sasikala, Filter Coffee pronounced Kaapi and Dasavatharam (still baffled whether his views are on the movie or mythology).

In any case, they being the Esteemed and Respected Parents of Silicon Valley Engineers of Indian origin, the administration rubs their hands in glee to data science the heck out of this one.

That’s when the Mannar & Mannar Coffee Conspiracy comes to light.

Kittu Maama and Maami’s social media posts are intriguing.

Day 1: Shared: Good morning – filter coffee is good.

Day 2: Shared: Good morning – filter coffee is the best.

Day 3: Shared: Good morning – filter coffee.

Day 4: Shared: Good morning – filter coffee is very good.

Filter_coffee_South_Indian_style

Riveting as these posts were, investigators are unable to fathom the train of thought here.

(a) The posts are being shared from someone’s feed, and this person does not seem to rank high on Kittu Maama’s or his wife’s list of adored folks. Baffling. Why would they go and share it everyday?

(b) The original photograph on closer examination (after using sufficient zooming techniques), had inscriptions on the coffee cup that translated to, ‘This cup was stolen from Muruga Vilas.

Could Kittu Maama be tipping off gangs on stolen silverware?

A few days later, Kittu Maama’s daughter calls from the USA, and asks how they are doing. “What is with your coffee posts everyday?, “ she asks.

The investigators on the nose of this Mannar & Mannar Coffee conspiracy case pick up the dials on the board: Phone calls being made and substance being discussed. Tap and apply algorithm. Quick.

“You only said that we should share if we like something? I don’t know why he puts coffee out everyday, I know Ambujam Maami does not make filter kaapi like that.”, said Mrs Kittu Maama alias Kittu Maami.

To which Kittu Maama chimed in, “Yes, in fact when I go there, I hastily say no to coffee. I stop at Saravana Bhavan on the way back and have good filter coffee there before heading back. “

The FBI is stumped. There must be something here. Could there really be no conspiracy here? Just daughter-discussing-ditchwater-kaapi? But everyday on Facebook, and on International Phone Calls?

A dial spins in the other room. WhatsApp shared: Helpfully labelled ‘Coffee joke’

Is it worth putting a drone on them?

Not just yet.

Note: While the scenario above was light-hearted and frivolous, it is useful for us to know exactly how our social media profiles have been used, and can be used in the future.

Excerpt from Nextdraft (http://nextdraft.com/archives/n20161123/turkey-shoot/)

Cambridge Analytica worked on the Trump campaign. They also worked for those in favor or Brexit. Now they’re in talks to score a couple new big contracts.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cambridge_Analytica

Dodo, Dragon, Dinosaur Dis-apparitions

We just got back from the Inyo Forests nestled in the Sierra Nevada mountains. This time, the mountains were explored by the children with a friend who was just the right companion for both of them. He is aged smack in between the daughter’s age and the toddler’s age, and is an amiable, interesting fellow, thereby providing ample company to both of them. The toddler son thought him a hero and the daughter found in him another quirky little brother. He was obviously pleased with this state of things, and settled down to the hero-slash-honorary-little-brother role with aplomb.

It was quiet, and the darkness in the mountains was unreal. We could see Venus glowing brightly like a torch up in the sky. Inside the car,  it was toasty and warm, and the game of Twenty Questions was thriving: it is a sophisticated game in which you think of an animal and everyone can ask questions to guess the animal you thought of.  Animals were chosen and guessed at with hilarity.

“Amma! This little bobbicles knows nothing about his animal and expects us to guess it. How can you not know whether it is a carnivore or not?” The toddler said something like, maybe it likes to eat meat, but maybe it doesn’t, I don’t know. He then laughed raucously at his sister’s disbelief. He seemed to think that these trivial things should not stop a zoo-linguist-to-be from guessing the animal. (That reminds me that I have to get down to writing a blog on how the toddler plays games.)

Inyo_20Q.jpg

His friend-slash-hero agreed and took the car for a spin with mythical creatures from shows we had never seen. As the going got tough, the rules got tougher – “Hey! Mythical creatures only restricted to Greek mythology or Harry Potter or till level 10 of Pokemon Go!”. The hero-slash-lil-bro was something of a Pokemon expert and went on about zilletoes and monekchoes or things that sounded like them, with glee.

“How about Hanuman?” asked the toddler in a matter-of-fact tone.

Before Spiderman and Batman were added to the mix, the husband and I swooped in with some impressive peacekeeping efforts that folks in the United Nations could learn from.

After several minutes of quiet, the conversation started up again with the daughter asking a question: If you could bring one animal back from extinction, which one would it be and why?

As the conversation gathered fervor, the surrounding Inyo Forests resounded with the spirits of animals long gone. Sabre tooth tigers romped along side mammoths, T-rexes chased Brontosauruses. A short pause later, dragons and phoenixes joined them too. If the conversation were being animated real-time, I’d have liked to see the reactions of the various spirits as they made their mystical apparitions from the dead.

“You do know that phoenixes and dragons are mythical creatures right? They aren’t exactly extinct because we don’t know whether they really existed, “, said the daughter laughing to split.

“Okay – then Pidgeot”

“No! pidgies and pidgeottos! Before you ask, chargats don’t count either. Pokemon Go is not the real world you know?”

I could hear the gears spinning in the boys’ brains. This was one tough game, they thought.

After an intense argument that examined the merit of mythical creatures in the extinct category, and the virtual creatures in the ethereal category, the conversation slowed down again and landed softly near the dawdling dodo birds. We waddled by them, and the daughter explained that she felt the dodo birds deserved to be back because those poor creatures were extinct purely because of man’s greed.  The children smiled as though her goodwill towards the dodo could truly summon it back from the extinct category.

inyo_canyon

“Anyway, which animal would you bring back?”, asked the daughter.

“I want to bring back the Titanis bird.”  said the hero-slash-hon-b.

We exchanged glances. It was difficult to figure out whether there really was a bird  called Titanis which was extinct, or one that appeared in the fellow’s video games.

“Really, there is a bird called Titanis. They are so beautiful. I want to bring them back. “ He sounded so sincere that the daughter’s heart melted. It often happens this way. The daughter is a softie underneath the bossy exterior and coo-ed.

“Oh! That is so sweet. Why do you want them back?”

“So, I can take a gun and shoot them! “, said the h-s-h-b.

I wonder whether you have played ping-pong. Just when you think the ball went, back it comes to you again. Right at your face. It was a bit like that. Just when you got the sweet daughter version, an outraged cry left her lips. The sweet dodo apparitions were gone. The dragons poof-ed themselves out, and titanis was gone too.

“Oh! How could you? “ she cried, the animal activist in her flaring up.

“Why? They have beautiful feathers. “

“Exactly! So admire the birds with their feathers!”

“But if we shoot them, we can collect their feathers.”

“Why bring them back if you want to shoot them?”

“How else will we get those beautiful feathers?”

The three of them played in our car till the toddler son fell asleep in the gathering darkness as we drove up to our destination.

I am not sure whether the dodo or the titanis will want to come back if it means holding a conversation with the specimens in our car.  Maybe we should give them a choice, what do you think?

More (मोर) on Sherbat Gula

This post was also published on May 30th 2017 in India Currents Magazine.

Let’s take it easy and go eat at some place nice for a change, I said one lazy Saturday morning. You know, just spend a relaxed, agenda-less morning. Some place I can wear this to. I was fondly looking at my new dupatta, carefully embroidered with dancing peacocks.

The kerfuffle just to spending a relaxed morning doing nothing I tell you! There was hectic activity everywhere: feverishly looking for things, toddler shoes worn on wrong feet, missing cell phones, cell phones without charge all needing urgent handling in a 10 minute interval.

I ignored the daughter as she took charge while throwing me a disdainful look . The little fellow was bossed around, the big fellow was bossed around, the bosser and bossees felt the charges of love and tension squirt back and forth.

Appa! What are you doing? That’s it!

Time for me to take charge around here, she said. Amma, stop dancing! Why are you wearing this fancy dupatta-thing-y now anyway?

Because I can! Dance! Dance! More! I said in a smart repartee and chuckled. Completely lost on them of course. (For the Hindi challenged ones: ‘More’ (मोर )means Peacock in Hindi)

peacock_dupatta

The husband meekly looked up from his game of chess and sighed yet again.  I heard him murmur something about Men’s Freedom as we headed out.

Pretty soon, we found ourselves in an Afghani restaurant sitting quietly. I turned the menu card over and the back of the menu had a picture of the girl taken by National Geographic magazine and became famously one of the pictures that defined the turmoil of war world over. It was the cover picture of National Geographic magazine in 1985

http://www.nationalgeographic.com/magazine/2002/04/afghan-girl-revealed/

the-afghan-girl-730x410

Sharbat Gula (meaning sweetwater flower girl in Pashtun)

That was enough. The husband and I got a professorial gleam in our eyes and we tripped over ourselves trying to open the daughter’s eyes to the plight of women the world over.

Not everywhere can women boss men around like it happens in our home, said the husband. The daughter and I chuckled.

We had not even started on the political turmoil with the Russian occupation of Afghanistan when the pesky waiter came and took the menu cards away. I tchaa-ed with feeling at this tendency of waiters to hoard the menus. The restaurant is empty – what do they want to do with the menus? I am sure they don’t have to read it!

’You finished ordering and what are you doing reading the mutton and chicken section anyway? You are a vegetarian!’, the daughter said in what she thought was a scorching debate point. She thought I would fumble and drop my eyes in repentance, like a puppy told to snuff it while trying to oil the moth eaten rag doll through the door. But she under-estimated my power of repartee: She was talking to the author of the (why-are-you-dancing-now? Because I can! ) response (scroll up).

I caught her eye and took her on a wild ride through the streets of Kabul selling spices and the perils of grocery shopping in times of turmoil, past the beautiful poppy fields and the orchards of apricot, gasping through the crevices of  the Tora Bora mountains and finished with a comparison of Indian, Pakistani and Afghani cuisines.

I got to admit, I like to traipse through the menu even after I’ve ordered. Especially after I’ve ordered. I enjoy reading all the entrees and getting a feel of the cuisine, the culture, the spices and a dip into life in the normal households in the area. I like to imagine their grocery lists, their dinner tables, their lunch boxes and so much more.

The daughter rolled her eyes. I rolled mine.

By the time the food had arrived, we had sent a prayer for World Peace and a goodwill message to Sherbat Gula and hoped her daughters would have a chance at peace and happiness in a strife ridden world.

I read yesterday that Sherbat Gula is now married with three living daughters and is facing deportation from Pakistan back to Afghanistan:

https://www.hrw.org/news/2016/10/26/national-geographics-afghan-girl-faces-deportation-pakistan

That evening, I casually left a copy of the book : Because I Am a Girl: I can change the world, in her room. A book that tells the story of girls from different parts of the world, and how we as women can and should play a part in changing lives for the better.

screen-shot-2016-10-27-at-10-32-30-am

Subtle as a peacock.

The Art of Monkey Pedaling

A variant of the post below appeared in The Hindu’s Open Page

Every now and then, the productive bug gets the husband, and he sets about trying to improve our lot. Last Saturday morning, he was making a nuisance of himself trying to keep us ‘occupied’ in the home, and handing us tasks meant to enlighten and what-not. He was settling steadily into the listen-to-this-podcast routine, when I realized that this handing-out-tasks is a two way street, and told him to get the son started on riding a bicycle. There was a sigh of relief from all the occupants in the house, and I bowed like a maestro acknowledging a master stroke.

I see you pulling out the old monocle from the pocket and pegging it on your nose-tip to give us the penetrating stare. The one employed to make us feel like our spines just melted into goop. but it won’t work. It is true that we let the toddler beg us into teaching him to ride, shamelessly ignoring the bicycle with training wheels propped behind the dining table. Every time the poor fellow hinted that fellows younger than him were riding the cycle, we shooed him outside to play.

Anyway the point is that the nourish-n-cherish street played witness to several scenes that merit enactments on the Broadway stage. A couple of days later, the son was to be seen wobbling along with copious tears cascading down his cheeks, the husband mildly breaking into a sweat, and the rest of the street muttering soothingly. Children came and told heroic tales of their own learning how to cycle. One fellow said he broke not just his arm, but almost broke his mother’s arm too. Some went for the inspirational angle and said that once he learnt to cycle, the adventures never end: One can fly down from pavements and cycle without holding handle bars.

Every story was worth noting down to sit and devour on a rainy evening.  This learning-how-to-cycle is one thing you can always hope to get good stories out of. Ask anyone how they learnt to cycle and depending on where they hail from, the story is bound to entertain, amuse and sometimes curdle one’s coffee.

Watching the son cycle made me think of dear Mr Bopaiah with a pang. It was Bopaiah Uncle who taught us how to ride a cycle. He may have taught the whole street. He had bought a new one for his son who was a couple of years older than I was. The times were such that cycles were not toys everyone had. In fact, toys were not something everyone had. So, obviously, getting a brand new cycle was gripping stuff, the breaking headlines of the street, that toppled the mildly interesting news that the servant maid had run off with the local vagrant.

Mr Bopaiah graciously let us monkey pedal on it (it was too big for us). On that one cycle, he thought 4 kids how to cycle in one week. One glorious week in which we waited with shining eyes our turn to get on the cycle. Praying that the rains would not dish our efforts come cycling time. Armed with the simple trusting confidence that Bopaiah uncle was holding the cycle and would not let us fall.  The hopeful look on our faces as we glimpsed back every now and then to make sure he was jogging beside us holding the cycle.

bike

Mr Bopaiah was the Physical Education teacher at school, and he probably enjoyed teaching us to ride as much as we enjoyed riding.  It is a knack learning to cycle using the monkey pedaling technique, but we all managed it with his help. I also fondly remembered the delicious, large helpings of tea cake that awaited our labors at the end of the cycling sessions. Mrs Bopaiah made the best cake I have ever eaten – to date it beats all the creamy and Mickey mouse shaped ones hands down (Her butter-making was an equally fascinating act) . Many a happy day have we spent at their house, and all the memories of the dear family came flooding back.

Mr Bopaiah passed away last month, but I could almost see him send an approving nod to the son as he wobbled along on his cycle. When the golden evening sun shone down on the street of excited children, and whoops of victory came from the now over-confident cyclist and his friends, I am sure he smiled down at us. It was the kind of thing he would have liked.