Can Llamas Use Zebra’s Mascara?

‘What can I do to help you for your play? Can I help you rehearse or give you some tips on how to render your lines?’, I asked the daughter one night. She is starring in ‘The Lion King’ musical in her school and I wanted to show my support. An act she was quite keen to avoid. We were fiddling about when I offered help, and she bucked alarmingly at this train of thought. She can diagnose an enthusiastic helper when she sees one, and she did not like it one bit.

‘No! Thanks.’, she said. Frosty and a tad too vehement perhaps, but I let it go.

‘How about ..?’

‘Amma – no! How about this? Apparently, we need to put on some make-up for the play… ’

I tchah-ed her and said, ‘We already have stuff from past years – I am sure the powder and the lipstick can be used – so what if it is a year or two or three old?’

‘Amma – there is an expiry date!’

‘Fine – we’ll check it. What else?’

‘Apparently, we need mascara – I am a hyena this time remember, so why don’t you go to the store and get me mascara? That’s help right?’, she said, and I agreed. She will make a good robotic manager one day.

Please stop me if you have heard me babble about my demented fashion sense or crocodile-crocodile before. One of the things I would have said, had I been a cosmetologist going about designing these moistening creams and so on,  was that there were so many different shades of people in the world. I mean, how do you come up with a cream that suits every complexion type? That is why the great cosmetic industry has given me a miss thus far and has prospered without my help.

Drop me in a cosmetic store and I bumble famously. Mascara, unlike facial creams, is easy. One color – black. I strode into the store with confidence. I surveyed the area and located the cosmetics section. Once in there, I balked at the lipsticks and sneered at the nail polishes and went straight to the section that has eye-stuff. Golly beans!

I mean, I had no idea, which just goes to prove that confident strides mean nothing if you don’t know the different types of eye make-up available in the eye cosmetic department. I stared limply at the multi-colored eyebrow pencils, eye pencils (they are different apparently, and I had no idea green eye liner was a thing), liquid eye liners, eye shadows, and I had not even touched the eyelid section. By the time I crawled to the eyelash section, my eyes looked like it could do with a dash of all the above to make it look peppy.


Finally, I saw what I was looking for: extra voluminous mascara, the label screamed and one confident that mascara and eye lashes go together, picked up one number. Back in the confines of the home, I gave it to the daughter proudly, and we opened it.

‘Gee – thanks Amma – Good job!’, she said and patted me in a puppy-dog-good-doggie manner. We tore open the packaging like lions tearing their prey apart.

Something was amiss. The product we had in hand may have suited a zebra, but they certainly did not seem to be for the human eye. It was white. Do you know of any person whose eye lashes are white? So, why was this white?  Curious. Very Curious.

We pieced together the ripped apart packaging like piecing a puzzle together and it seemed that this white colored voluminizer was meant to fluff up your eyelashes till they look like a chihuahua’s tail, and then you put the actual mascara on top to get the real effect.

This of course led to an interesting discussion in which the daughter insisted that zebras have black eyelashes, while I said they could be white in one eye and black in the other. The zebra, wherever it was, decided it was better to meditate than listen to this hypothesis.


It turns out that zebras have black eyelashes. Humble pie tastes marvelous.

Llamas, on the other hand, have beautiful white eye lashes. But the last time, a meditating zebra checked with a llama, it did not want our mascara. Plus, the Lion King play has no place for llamas, and it is too late to change the script.

I am heading back to the store. Let me know if you’d like anything.

Of Hailstones & Laundry Baskets

“I have a great idea! “, said the kindergartener. His face was shining with excitement. I braced myself and nodded for him to go on. I had between my teeth, a clip that threatened to tie my tongue together, my hands were yanking a large unruly mess of hair into a pony-tail for the daughter, and the stove was hissing ominously.

“Why don’t I wear the red laundry basket to school?” said the kindergartener. That tied my tongue, the daughter yelped because I pulled on the hair making her pony tail look like a sausage through a tree, and the stove boiled over.

The past week has been a whimsical one. It was ‘Read Across America’ week to honor Theodore Seuss Geisel’s birthday and the little world around us lit up. In Elementary schools, everyday of the week, it seemed, was a special one, and fliers exhorted all of us to jump in. I love the Elementary school age-group when the human mind is at its most creative, supple and fertile and is bursting at its seams with curiosity and enthusiasm.

Wear As Many Colors As You Can Day
Crazy Hat Day (the red laundry basket is always being worn as a hat by the toddler at home, and he thought it was a marvelous idea to go like that to school)
Favorite Story Book Character Day
What Do You Want To Become Day (What do you want to be?)
Mismatched Fox in Socks Day

Somewhere along the line, we lose that element of fun, and I admire how children can help us tap into it at times. The past week was a hectic one, but I must say that I enjoyed wearing mismatched socks on purpose just as much as the children did. There were times during the stern day when I smiled to myself thinking of my striped sock and my polka dotted mismatched socks that had resulted in so such mirth in the morning rush.

I had with all good intentions gotten a biography of Dr Seuss to read before his birthday, but in my typical feather brained inefficiency had not so much as moved past the Prelude to the Introduction (why do books do that?) So, the Dr Seuss post would just have to wait.

Dr Seuss was very much on our minds as we stepped out for a walk by a river to wrap up the week. There we were, ambling along a roaring river with the backdrop of the mountains in the distance. It was also a deceptively cold day(I am too cold), for there were patches of sun(I am too hot), patches of dark grey clouds scudded past the cumulonimbus clouds and the wind whooshing at times knocked off our hats (not laundry baskets.)


Minutes into the walk, we were stringing together nonsense Seuss-ian style and cackling:
I am too cold
I am too hot
Why are you always too something?
I thought you were five
No I am not five cold
I am not five hot
I am too cold
I am not two but too
I thought you were five

And so it went….

You know how they tell you in these be-calm lessons not to do anything suddenly? Ignore it. For suddenly, the rain pelted down, and not just that, it pelted down with hail stones. Silly or not, being pelted with hailstones is amusing and annoying especially when the good intentioned mother did not bring an umbrella on a walk. But the toddler tackled the problem with a whining grace. He ducked under his jacket and we raced to a tree, and stood under the tree sticking our tongues and hands out to catch the hailstones.

“Eat it”, I said as I popped a hailstone into my mouth.
“What? No! Amma! You cannot do that. “
“Yes you can – you may like it. Try it Try it if you may.”
“Say! I like Green Eggs and Ham”, finished the toddler and popped in the hailstone looking amused.


It is perfectly normal to be mistaken for normal if you wear laundry baskets and eat hailstones, thanks to Dr Seuss.

The Boy Who Harnessed The Wind

Every now and then, there arrives a book that is designed to knock the sails out of your windpipe. William Kamkwamba’s journey to build a windmill and uplift his community is one such. It is the true story of a poor boy in Malawi.


I bought the book a while ago, and it lay languishing on my tsundoku pile. Maybe, there was a purpose to the book. The book needed to be read at a time when I most wanted to reassure myself on human potential if only we choose to apply it for good.

The only son, among eight children, of a poor Malawian farmer in Wimbe near Kasungu, Malawi, this is a true story of William Kamkwamba.

The book started off slowly talking about tales of magic, witchcraft and sorcery in Africa. As you read about William and his journey, you cannot help getting absorbed into the life around him with good natured understanding. You like his dog, Khambe, and his friends, Geoffrey and Gilbert, who show themselves to be the kind of stalwart friends you wish your children will grow up to be. Kind hearted, supportive, fun and ready to lend a hand, always.

When, famine hits Malawi, William Kamkwamba is forced to drop out of school, it is crushing to read how his father felt and I wish no parent should have to face that in their life.He writes about how his family struggled for months with nothing but a few nsima cakes between them to eat everyday. Everything we tell our children about starving children in Africa is true.

During those long hours of working in the fields to do their best to see if they can fortify themselves against another famine, it is William’s dream to build a windmill that keeps him going. William had seen pictures of a windmill, and given that his little village is always blessed with wind, he wants to build one, so that water and electricity can mitigate another famine. He is called misala (crazy) for haunting the trash piles to find something reusable to build his windmill.

After months, of scouring trash piles and junkyards, using tools that would not pass any safety standards laid out in the West, it is a proud moment indeed when finally he connects his rickety windmill to a tiny light bulb.


The windmill is noticed by a school official who notifies a professor and a blogger. From there to TED Fellow in 2007 is a remarkable journey for a boy who had never set foot outside his little village in Wimbe.

When William is finally called upon to talk at the TED conference, he is justifiably nervous. His English is poor among other things, and to make it easier for him, his host on stage, Chris, prefers to ask him a few questions that he can answer instead:

My heart beat fast like a mganga drum as I climbed the steps to face the audience, which totaled 450: inventors, scientists and doctors who’d stood on that stage in the previous days.

Five years ago, you had an idea”, Chris said, “What was that?”
“I want to made a windmill”. Wrong again. Chris smiled.
“So what did you, how did you realize that?”
I took a deep breath and gave it my best. “After I drop out of school, I went to library…and I get information about windmill…”
Keep going, keep going…”And I try and, I made it.”

The problem with reading a book like The Boy Who Harnessed The Wind on public transport is that it is takes phenomenal effort to keep from tearing up. You can manage a silent tear that just needs to come out, and one that you can unobtrusively wipe away as if some dirt got in there. But if the book goes on to make you want to weep not out of despair or sadness, but out of pride, joy and the eternal good-ness of mankind despite everything, that is hard to do.

Some pictures from the book: The image of his prototypes, his big windmill and one of his parents after he was able to harness the energy generated from the windmill to provide clean drinking water and electricity in his village.

Unfortunately, for every William who is outstanding in perseverance, grit and intelligence, there are thousands of williams who flounder in the stormy tempests of life. Every time I am caressed by the wind during this Thanksgiving break, I will know what to give thanks for. Thanks to William Kamkwamba.

I try, and I made it.

Please watch the TED talks, even if you are unable to get to the book:

TED Fellow William Kamkwamba

The Sun Shall Rise Again

I wish I could have captured the toddler son’s reaction to the election results. He burst out crying and sobbed that he did not want President Obama to go. “He has been the President my whole life!” he sobbed. That is true. The little fellow has since picked up a book on Barack Obama from the library and has had it read to him every night.

“Amma – stop over-reacting. Why are you so sad? It is fine.”, said the daughter, seeing me mope around with drooping shoulders. I was reading a Children’s book called ‘Night World’ by Mordicai Geistein, and my mood matched the illustrations in the book.

I am not able to shrug it off in my usual manner, because this time it feels personal.

What I am about to tell you happened all of 20 years ago. I was selected to become the first female General Secretary of the Department in my college in my final year. It was not exactly an earth shattering position, but enough to cause a stir in the conservative community.

I took my responsibilities seriously and went out of my way to find someone note worthy in the industry to come and give us a talk for kicking off the year. I myself prepared a speech simply dripping with quotations and positivity, exhorting us all to Dream Big, Achieve High, Reach For Stars and so on. Einstein jostled with Jawaharlal Nehru, Ramanujan and C V Raman.

Some stalwart friends (both boys and girls) helped me with the various tasks associated with this event. A large auditorium was booked, flowers procured for chief guests and professors, some of the folks with the best singing voices were to ring in the August Assembly and wrap up with a hearty chorus of the National Anthem. It seemed to me that it was going to be a function fit enough to ring in a new year of hard work, and success.

What I neglected to do was order sufficient food for the gathering, and here I accept full responsibility. The truth is that I had simply under-estimated teenage appetites. I assumed everyone will be content with half a biscuit and a whiff of tea. But that apart, time and venue were printed out and sufficiently publicized in the college, professors reminded their students in the classes and smiled at me when they told me that they had told their respective classes to attend, and how they themselves will be there with their bells and whistles on. The Principal himself came out for the event. All very noteworthy.

I must say everything went well except for one glitch: Not a single boy turned up for the event. Minutes before the Chief Guest was to arrive, a boy in the first year came and told me that he had been told to inform me that all boys were boycotting the event because they were biffed that the ‘prestigious’ position of General Secretary of the Association had gone to me, a girl.

My crest fallen face evoked sympathy from the poor fellow and he left looking miserable and determined. That boy went on to become a friend in time, but then I could not bear his looks of sympathy. Tears stung my eyes. I turned away from him. I told myself that I must brace myself and got on stage. Great leaders instead of romping on stage with their inspirational quotes simply waddled up there like dispirited ducks on sewage water.

When the Chief Guest was speech-ing away about Networks and Protocols, a few of the more decent fellows made an appearance and lurked at the back entrance so it would look like they came but also would not look like they had overtly supported me. Obviously, that boy must have told the other boys how crushed I looked.

Twenty years on, the humiliation still rankles. What I wanted to do most was to take off the next day, week or month, and possibly burrow myself in a hole. But of course, I knew I had to face this problem head on. So, I made my way to college the next day determined to find out what the problem was. Had I done something to upset all the boys? Were all the boys upset with all the girls? Or just me?

The previous year, I had been the first Associate Secretary, and that time there did not seem to be dissent of any kind. So, this was truly baffling. Had I done something wrong? When I holed some fellows in my class, who were decent enough to look abashed the next day for staying away, and then making a half hearted appearance, they told me, that the Boys did not really mind me being the Associate Secretary because that involves a lot of work, and not much recognition. But the General Secretary was quite something else, I was told. There was recognition here, and that was what they could not bear. They felt recognition should not go to a girl.

Who could not bear? I asked. But all I got out of them was that ‘They’ felt that way.

I pushed on. Can you not bear?

‘No no’, – they quickly assured me. ‘We like you, but we were told by Them not to go. You understand? ‘

I told them I didn’t.

Twenty years later, America has done the same thing to Hillary Clinton, and I still do not understand it. The pain is raw. The wound still stings. I am sure there are plenty of women out there who have things in their past that hurts the same way, and for those people I offer solidarity.

I sighed a bit and continued reading. I turned the book over to the last page, and like President Obama said, The Sun Did Rise Again. In the book at least.


The Noetic Touch to the Poetic Muse

A Version of this article appeared in India Currents Mar 2017 issue titled ‘Muse, Tweens & Teens’

The husband may not be able to carry a tune to get the car parked, but you can’t fault him with lyrics. In fact, he once won a singing competition.  The judges pleaded with him to not sing, but to simply recite the beautiful words in the song, and their team sailed home with the cup (or whatever it is these college competitions have the budget to give).  He won it solely on the strength of his lyrics. For being able to appreciate the beauty of the poetry in the lyrics. The husband’s Antakshiri prize is rather like Bertie Wooster’s Scripture prize, and is much bandied about in our home.

It is also the husband who stops a song from lilting and mesmerizing and repeats the words – his eyes shining with the hidden meaning in the rhythmic poetic delights of the verse. I must admit some of the songs have such a beautiful lyrical quality about them, that had he not stopped and replayed them, I would have been completely lost in the melody of the piece. When your breath produces a rainbow or the mists clear to reveal your innermost thoughts or whatever it is, it makes you smile a little at the metaphor. Things you would not ordinarily stop to think and appreciate.

முன் அந்திச் சாரல் நீ
முன் ஜென்மத் தேடல் நீ
நான் தூங்கும் நேரத்தில்
தொலைதூரத்தில் வரும் பாடல் நீ
பூ பூத்த சாலை நீ
புலராத காலை நீ
விடிந்தாலும் தூக்கத்தில்
விழி ஓரத்தில்
வரும் கனவு நீ..

Incidentally, the guy who waxes lyrical at hidden meanings in poetic songs is also the guy who listens to ‘Why this kolaveri kolaveri dee?’ and introduced me to what is known as ‘Gaana’ songs. Viz. stuff that makes you want to sit down and pull out each strand of hair one at a time.

One day the daughter set out to make me listen to some of the songs that their generation listens to. You know the cool stuff?  So, we did, and I was wondering when the husband who usually listens with her, will stop the song to appreciate and discern inner meanings and things, but he did not find the need to:

Won’t you have a cup of coffee with me? We used to drink coffee together, but don’t anymore. I miss you when I drink coffee these days.

There was no hidden meaning – could the coffee refer to life? But still there was no building on the coffee theme. Hardly the kind of stuff that needs the brain cells to stir.

“Are there any other songs that we can listen to – you know where it is not a guy yearning for a girl, or vice-versa”, I asked. “Or with those wonderful hidden meanings like in poems?”

The daughter shook the head. “Well, teenagers mostly listen to stuff about love”, she said rolling her eyes. “Especially famous songs ma – it is like you are just talking with a guitar strumming in the background.”, said the daughter scornfully.


I am not a teenager anymore, so I can’t say whether the teens today are happy with the fare laid out in front of them, but I would have liked some variety. Sure, it is the time for the stirrings of the teenage hormones and what-not, but that is not the only awakening one finds in the teenage body and mind is it?

It is also the time for confusion about life and career choices, the time when it truly feels like you can tap into your reserves and see how well you can perform in that game, or how competitive you can get on that track. It is the time the mind is grappling trigonometry and unraveling the beautiful complexity of organic chemistry, the time you are surprised at the lucidity with which artists can tap into their inner stamina and creativity and unleash things on canvas or on stage. It is the time for broadening of our intellectual horizons, and the time to goof off and make questionable choices with friends. It is the time you freak out after lighting candles on the Ouija board.

It is the time you read Dostoevsky and ponder upon life. It is the time you make fun of soppy love stories, but secretly hope for your own Prince Charming one day. It is a time of intense moral learnings and the time when crushes are a part of life.

You know how we see these caricatures in cartoons, with an abnormal potato sized head tottering on pea sized bodies? It seems the song industry is like that when it comes to love. Sure love is a potent force, but is all love of the sexual kind? Surely not. Why not write a beautiful song about friendship, why not write about abrasive teachers and the camaraderie that goes on with the children while dealing with it? Or a funny song about goofing off PE.

Teenage angst is a whole package, it does not just mean broken hearts and tears when people fall apart. If song lyrics are stuck in teen brains all day long, why not give it some work and smile inwardly when you get that hard metaphor?

Here is a call to all you smart teenagers, pre-teens out there. Dazzle us with your breadth and depth of your making sense of the world. For as adults, we still don’t know, but most of us have given in to the familiarity of routine and the rigmarole of paying bills. What we need is the thirst and energy of youth, and that you can gift to us with your poetic lyrics, your songs and your view of the troubled world.

How do you solve a problem like Maria?
 How do you catch a cloud and pin it down?
 How do you find a word that means Maria?
 A flibbertigibbet! A will-o'-the wisp! A clown!

Many a thing you know you'd like to tell her
 Many a thing she ought to understand
 But how do you make her stay
 And listen to all you say
 How do you keep a wave upon the sand?

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.


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.

The Efficient Baxter Takes a Break

One morning, when the husband was away, the daughter sighed wistfully, as we piled into the car to get to her school on time, and said, “I miss Appa. I miss the action before going to school.”

“What do you mean?” I asked guardedly. This is the sort of conversation that will lead to promises involving television time, chocolates or extended bed-times, and drama about broken promises for things that should not have been promises at all in the first place.

“Well…you know how you get things ready the previous night and then we come in the morning and take everything and leave?”
“Well..we’d never do that if Appa was around would we? We’d run, and you’d run and there is more, I don’t know, FUN!” said the daughter.

I could not deny this allegation.

School-going time is one packed with drama, hilarity, perplexity, action and yawns. Feathers ruffled at this time smoothen themselves out before we get to our various institutions and good humor and charm overtake the retelling of it in the evenings and the family hums along with its customary cheer once more.

We also have strange customs and rules such as ‘Check the rear-view mirror till the car gets to the main road.’  I have run after the car on several occasions looking like a windmill flailing my arms, waving the latest piece of homework, or some paper that is required to be handed in. It is very hard to do that. Windmills function beautifully because they don’t run.


One time, I was charging behind the snorting car, looking like a pumped up rhinoceres because the daughter forgot her shoes. Her SHOES! I ask you. She explained that she likes to relax in the car and put on her shoes, so she can chill at home. When I told my friends this, they didn’t bat an eyelid. They said they always have an extra pair of shoes in the car for just such emergencies.

One time, I had to take her shoes into school because she wore two left shoes to school. (

The time when the check-rear-view mirror became a rule was on a particularly cold day in the Winter. The temperature gauge was mercilessly pointing at sub-zero and the daughter forgot her lunch-box. The house inside was toasty and warm, and I had forgotten how cold Californian winters could get. I charged after the car barefoot, running a sprint, with a lunch bag in my hand. My athletic coaches in high school always thought I performed best when I had a dog chasing me causing my heart to pump like it was powered by an industrial pump, but I wish to tell them that I perform pretty well when barefoot on sub-zero roads as well. The car, already late, was doing its best to keep the distance between us level. I was running and creating such a ruckus, some geese stopped their flight mid-air to see who the dickens was rivaling their squawking.

Luckily, the car’s merge into the main road was somewhat delayed because of the traffic and I managed to bang the car from behind and cause the husband to turn around. The sheepish daughter took her lunch box,  had the sense to thank me for the food later that evening, and all was laughed at, but it is now a rule. Everyone has to look at the rear view mirror before going ANYwhere.

When the husband travels, I throw my lackadaisical side aside and step into the role of The Efficient Baxter. Since I am rarely the Efficient-Person, I do a sincere job at it when I do step up, and I cannot deny, it snuffs the joy out of the process.

With the husband back, The Efficient Baxter has taken a break again, and we scrambled most satisfactorily this morning. I threw a well-aimed jacket through the open car window as it left, and received a beaming smile and a Thumbs-Up from the occupants.