Parsley and Thyme

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I think wherefrom I am

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It all begins with practicality, necessity even.

Mom I want a Barbie doll, the little one pleads as we linger at the toys section of the two-storeyed bookstore. A long-time hater of all things Barbie, I react almost instantly.

No, you can’t have a Barbie!

Why mom? He persists.

Taking a moment to assess his ability to comprehend point-blank logic, I decide to give him the quickest answer. One that I desperately hope will nip the whys I see sprouting all around this stubborn four-year old gene of mine.

You are a boy, that’s why!

Crrrr-ack! A big chunk of ice breaks off from my glacier-like resolve to never create stereotypes in his tender brain, and falls into the melted pool of quick-fixes below. The impact of that statement is as evident on me as it is on him. The little one is silenced for now, but my own torture has just begun. The first emotion I feel is guilt for having used such a pathetic short-cut to curtail his demand. But I convince myself – he’s little, he will forget. Besides, however cautious I may be, somebody else will surely introduce him to gender based stereotypes anyway? Momentarily clobbered, my guilt sullenly retreats to a familiar corner and proceeds to sharpen its claws for an opportunity in the future.

And it arrives soon enough. At playtime a few days later, a little girl, my son’s playmate from the neighbourhood, asks for a spanner from his toy tool-set and a question is immediately fired at me.

Mom, I cannot give her the spanner, no?

Why not? I ask.

Girls cannot play with spanners! He giggles and cups his mouth with soft, pint-sized palms.

Now my son has the ability (as I suspect most children do) of delivering knockout punches at the least expected moments. So while I have no clue how the gender associations took off from where I left them at the bookstore earlier that week, I wonder how a careless statement I made – and promptly forgot all about – has become a tool he will use to make sense of the world around him.

The girl looks at me inquiringly. Their play is paused and the silence is almost intimidating. Suddenly, in my head, their make-believe city morphs into a courtroom. My little one, the accused, is smirking at me from within a plastic dock – building blocks in bright yellow, red and green. The timid-looking girl, uncharacteristically so, has become the prosecutor and I, the judge, with a questionable bias toward the accused, hold the crucial verdict on my tongue. Thankfully for her, I am incorruptible.

What nonsense, girls can play with tools too! I declare.

While it seemed a minute ago that the future of their friendship depended on my statement, the children now sport none of my own seriousness once they have heard me. My son gives a momentary acknowledgement with an emphatic ‘no-oo-ooo’ and resumes playing. Perhaps he is confused that I didn’t stand by my statement at the bookstore, I will never know. The girl is silent, almost nonchalant, and for her sake I desperately hope she has taken my word over his.

I am struck by how my son’s personality is quickly being built upon imperceptible layers of influences from the world he interacts with. Looking at this little incident, I wonder how far into our own childhood can some of our likes, dislikes and deep-seated opinions be traced to.

If “personality”, in essence, is nothing more than a bundle of accumulated influences and learned behaviour, imagine the interesting situations that could arise if we were to eliminate the human ability to be influenced, altogether. Imagine a world where your personality would be immune to the thoughts and influences of others and instead be based on your direct experiences alone. Would it result in more open-minded individuals? Or would it lead to chaos?

As a hypothesis, in this case, since my son wouldn’t have built upon the concept of gender-based toys that I unwittingly introduced earlier, he might have shared the toy spanner with his friend. Which is great. But consider the other possibility. Stripped of the ability to “learn” from experiences that are not directly his own, he might not be able recognize the danger from fire, sharp objects etc. when he is warned, as an example. Or he might not consider my screams of disapproval when I catch him bending over the railings of our third floor stairway, for another. Basic safety issues that give me goose flesh every time I think of them.

On a less serious note, take the language learning process in children – when a child goes “A for apple, B for bat” as early as two years, he doesn’t “understand” why he is being made to do it, or that it is a process involved in building vocabulary. A child learns the basics of language simply by an unquestioning faith and an adherence to the learning process. In the same way he absorbs the basic ideas of society – possession (“That’s not yours, ask for permission!”), role-play (father, mother, teacher etc.) and issues relating to space and gender. Imagine a world where, owing to a loss of being able to extend and apply ideas around us into our own lives, critical cognitive abilities such as perception, reasoning and judgement would become so minimal that they might as well vanish.

But this isn’t to say that we do not possess a certain amount – however miniscule – of our own innate reasoning even when we were less than five years of age. Called the ‘formative’ years, many of the influences we were subjected to in our early childhood were weighed, readjusted or rejected based on our own experiences. For instance, how many of us believed as children that a visit to the doctor would turn out to be pleasant? And don’t we remember being repeatedly convinced by our parents that it would? But no one could convince us that visiting a doctor was essential or pleasurable. Cut across to adult life. If you have ever been wheeled into an operation theatre for surgery, you know you have taught yourself to believe that a roomful of masked strangers with sharp objects is your ticket to get healthy and whole again. Does it not seem ridiculous? So what happened to us along the way? And how the hell did those of us who screamed and kicked as children while being carted to a doctor end up meekly submitting and in some cases even taking the role of our own parents in offering false consolation? So it seems that in some situations such as this one, it is easier to influence adults than children.

Then there are those subtle influences that have held on to us like lifetime hypnotic spells. What is your first thought when you see a fox on TV? How does it change if, for example, you see a goat? If you answered cunning and innocent respectively, blame it on the bedtime stories we were exposed to as children. The fox perennially clever, the goat perennially gullible. Encounters between the two always crafted to ensure that the goat ended up nursing a raw deal. And to subtly aid the cementing of such perception within our brains, phrases like ‘sly old fox’, ‘foxy scheme’, ‘poor goat’, ‘stubborn mule’ etc. are abundant in colloquial language.

Okay being a child is not so gloriously easy afterall. But what about us adults? Don’t we have to struggle with those million opinions creating little pockets of judgement in vacuum every second? And thanks to social networks, as the ease of accessing them grows, the population of capricious individuals too varies in direct proportion. I have had the displeasure of conversing with many more people now than I did five years ago whose opinions on everything from nuclear power plants to parenting – heck even the bath soap they use – are gleaned off social networking sites swarming with self-anointed subject-does-not-matter experts. So while cow-urine therapy starts off as an undiscovered panacea for all afflictions on a Monday morning, by afternoon same day we have a thousand recommendations (courtesy Facebook, Twitter) from friends and foes advocating its greatness. By the end of the week, a bottle of the same on my mother’s medicine shelf is a possibility not to be discarded thanks to an overzealous internet-addict relative or friend. Excluding me, that is.

So is it fair to use quantifiers such as ‘too much’, ‘too little’ or ‘just right’ when it comes to being influenced by external entities? Is it fair to say, for example, “Oh lady so-and-so absolutely lacks originality, all she says or does is borrowed from her Page3 community” or “I respect Mr.X so much for his independent thinking!”? Then if it is impossible to lead a life without imbibing external influences, the consequent battle against settling into a monochromatic world is one that needs to be fought continually. How? Examine minutely your greatest likes, greatest dislikes, deep fears, idiosyncrasies and you will be surprised to see how many of them were not even ‘yours’ when you first sheltered them. Relinquish a few that threaten to make your view of the world that much myopic and feel the freedom I felt when I added a Barbie doll into my shopping list for that week.

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Written by Kanchana

November 26, 2012 at 8:07 am

Living Lives, Seducing Memories

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I have often wondered why certain sensory perceptions from my past have been indelibly (perhaps) inked into this fascinating fertile ground called ‘memory’. And why memories, seemingly involuntarily but ever-accurately, stir-up the exact original feelings that prevailed when the event occurred, irrespective of its time-stamp.

I must explain. Seeing a picture, video or word that says ‘Alps’ or any other remotely connected mountain range brings a deep sense of loneliness in me, even when am I with superlatively interesting company (a.k.a husband). This is where the theory that I put forth in the first paragraph comes into effect. The background behind the making of this particular memory hereby follows.

Jungfraujoch at 11,332ft, the highest point accessible by railway in Europe, is a strip of the Alps mountain range that belongs to Switzerland. On a sincere summer morning, fluid-smooth, pristine white glaciers flow endlessly among the mountains while grand Alpine peaks rise up like freshly sharpened pencils pointing at the blue skies, making the entire surroundings a visual spectacle. I know, I was there. And it was on one such summer morning, almost a decade ago. I rummage through my memory now and recall admiring the vista which seemed to me then, newly exposed as I was to original European art, like one giant Medieval painting. I was on the trip with two colleagues from office, one of whom I barely got along with, and the other, recently married, returned the same feeling with ease as his whole world started and ended at the daintily-colored chubby feet of his lady love. I was single, and the only people who persisted in communicating with me (a.k.a parents) were several thousand miles away. Yes, such sadness can be precipitated in a world that was yet ignorant of mobile telephony.

So while fellow tourists ooh-ed and aah-ed at the ethereal view the summit presented, my eyes kept wandering to a small stone slab embedded within the snow. The slab had the word ‘Delhi’ inscribed on it, along with the distance to Delhi from where we stood on the joch. That there were names and distances to a few other major cities in the world on the same slab, is a point of low significance to this incident and apparently to my memory as well, as the only name I recall from the slab in focus, is ‘Delhi’. My mood ? I was literally on top of the world, but felt utterly lonely.

And interestingly, neither my parents nor anyone I knew at that time, lived in Delhi. Hmmm.

Written by Kanchana

November 3, 2011 at 3:14 am

Go green, now!

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“Go Green!” screams the envelope containing my credit card statement from a prominent Indian bank, all in honest leafy green to highlight the urgency of the situation. Or so it seems. Until I take a closer look. Okay, lemme explain.

Feeling somewhat elated at my choice of an environment friendly bank (for I am a lover of all causes that support Nature), I tear open the envelope to extract the statement that lies inside. Out comes a sheaf of papers – first a neatly folded two page printed booklet, which, being the only legitimate member of its family, conveys to me the amount I owe to the bank in less than a tenth of  A4 space allotted. The rest of the area in the booklet is usurped by the bank’s “offers” in a blatantly exaggerated typeface, and promise to somehow make my life better in ways that I could never imagine, given my insufficient business acumen. Life insurance, accident insurance, phone banking, internet banking, home loan, you name it.

Then there are more sheets of glossy, printed paper containing color photographs of electronics, home products and jewellery; their prices in boldly quoted monthly EMIs. It makes me momentarily euphoric, for it seems like the bank may have finally placed my account balance on the better side of a national lottery, if they think that I might be able to afford the highly over-priced items on sale. But then, this is only the credit card division. And it is perhaps their job to see that you have no bank(able) balance in the long run. So I toss out all the excesses into the bin, while retaining only the paper that details my card expenses.

Then again, as I see the words “Go Green” staring dolefully at me from the bin, I sheepishly fish out the papers and place them on the bundle that has to be handed over to the local “recycling man” or “raddiwalla”, feeling a tad less guilty once I am done. Oh well, I am no saint. I am only doing just what the bank ordered.

Written by Kanchana

June 6, 2009 at 8:26 pm

Posted in Life in General

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Toys from trash

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Though we Indians have recycling built into our blood, there are so many simple and meaningful ways to recycle that can SO escape our eyes – especially mine.

Proof. I just stumbled on this small-but-amazing Indian project called “Toys from Trash” which so beautifully details how you can use household trash to create toys for children. Something that we were so accustomed with during our own childhood due to the rarity of branded toys, but something that I have so totally forgotten to introduce my own son to.

Just look inside this site and you will see that the range of imagination is enormous – you can make LEDs glow by rigging up a circuitry with potato (!), build a “balloon helicopter” that actually flies, or work a cool little trick with some strands of wool and a matchbox. Browsing through this site brought back my own childhood memories – of how a group of us friends would gather discarded “Liv 52” bottles, string them together across the length with a gaint needle and thread (“borrowed” from my mother’s precious sewing kit that I never had official access to), and pretend that it was a train that would take us along to undiscovered lands. What fun that was! More than a million “Fischer Price” or “Funskool” toys could ever give, for it was built with pairs of grubby little hands always looking to create something new. 

I am rekindled. Though Chikoo is going to get his fair share of toys-on-the-shelf (well, what choice do “modern” parents have?), we will surely teach him to build a few of his own. And witness simple pleasures again.

Written by Kanchana

February 12, 2009 at 11:29 am

Posted in Life in General

They “rose” to the occasion

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While the Sri Rama Sene activists are still enjoying their five minutes of fame, I was just tempted to add my two cents to all the discussion that’s been going on, and on, and on… Last week, I came upon this news item from the Times of India on what Pramod Muthalik had to say to Mrs Renuka Chowdhury’s verbal emesis regarding his V day ultimatum :

” Being a bachelor does not mean that I do not know anything about love. I am born in a cultured family. I love my parents, sisters and brothers. I welcome her to Bangalore on February 14, as she intends to come here.” 

Ummm… Mrs. Chowdhury’s comments on his bachelorhood and consequent ignorance of some matters of the heart seems to have really dug into the gentleman’s self-esteem. Though I think Mrs.Chowdhury is going so ballistic with this one that she often gives the impression of an offended school bully, I thank her for the amusement that she has provided me with her statements on otherwise routine mornings.

And I am totally amused by the fact that of all the statements that the Hon’ble Minister has made against the Muthalik man, the one that he chose to reply to seems to be so strongly connected with his sense of self. I mean, what are the odds that a happily married man with say, seven children, would organize an army of uncouth and presumably jobless youth into revolting against PDA ? Funny huh ?

Though I possess no great affection for the mathematical angles of probablity that this previous question may invoke, my feminine intuition goads me to say “Absolutely nought”. And this next statement on the news piece left me in greater splits than the entire explanation of righteousness given by Mr. Muthalik :

However, he did not comment on whether he would accept a rose given by Renuka with sisterly affection, if she were to.

Now, nobody confirmed with Mrs. Chowdhury first, but I guess the joke was lost on this magnanimous man. If she would indeed like to experience what it feels like to have an absurdly protective brother who roams around town ready to marry his sister off to the first guy that he spots her with on Valentine’s Day, I daresay she will find no other man like Mr Muthalik. Ever.

Written by Kanchana

February 11, 2009 at 11:27 am

Posted in Humor, Life in General

Fresh Pearls

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Ours is an apartment block nestled in the midst of upcoming apartment blocks, in a very well known part of North-Western Bangalore. Inspite of being situated right off one of the most busiest roads of Bangalore, one could label our neighbourhood as an almost “private” enclave, completely insulated from the infamous vehicle pollution that is rapidly stripping away the city’s “Garden City” title. Nevertheless, what I wanted to write about today is something I got to witness because of the aforementioned construction activity – an incident that allowed me to witness the pristine beauty and innocence every child is gifted with.

During my daily evening “walk” with Chikoo, I have to pass by a mushroom of shacks – temporary houses of construction workers – before we hit the main road from the apartment. Now forgive the usage of the word “walk” in my previous statement because in reality Chikoo cannot walk as yet and has to be ferried around on a slow carriage called “mother”.

Anyways, on one such evening, my eyes fell upon a little girl who was playing outside a particular shack. She looked just over a year old, with shaggy hair that loooked totally uncared for and clothes that could be best described as ragged finery helping her blend into an equally dusty background. She was sitting on the muddy ground in front of the shack and was so completely engrossed in entertaining herself that I couldn’t help but observe her brazenly.

The object of her unadulterated affection ? A superlatively ragged doll, which perhaps had been in great shape while it still held some interest for the original owner. As I was painfully reminded of the many wonderful toys that Chikoo himself has at his disposition (and incidentally – is totally disinterested in everyone of them), I suddenly realized that the girl was looking back at me intently. And as she looked up, I saw that there was anything but dissatisfaction on her face – she seemed to radiate bliss inspite of the abject poverty surrounding her. She smiled at me shyly for a moment as our eyes met, and the next moment continued with her game as if I had melted into the dusty neighborhood. For the next half an hour that I was there with Chikoo, the girl brought out all her other toys and was totally immersed in her beautiful play world. Her companions were a rusted tin can, an used paper plate and cup, the ragged doll and a couple of smaller “playthings” that I could not really distinguish because of our distance. From time to time she would repeat the earlier exercise of looking up at me, smiling and getting back to her recreation. When she completed her play, she got up, did a lovely jig, and ran back to join her bother and sister who were themselves running around the piles of concrete lying nearby.

And I stopped pitying her “condition”. Because it occurred to me that children don’t really value things in the same superficial way that we “adults” do. Their happiness is not based on “things” outside of themselves. Hence it really didn’t matter to this young lady that her toy was in reality, a non-functioning discard from a rich neighbour, or, that her parents could barely afford to have two fine meals a day.

Children are like fresh pearls – dazzling with beauty and innocence irrespective of the “circumstances” they are in. Laughing without a reason, dancing without inhibition, participating in life completely and having a blast all the way.

They make you realize that life is really, unconditionally beautiful when you don’t have any expectations from it.

Written by Kanchana

March 8, 2008 at 1:52 am

Posted in Chikoo, Life in General

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