Thursday, April 26, 2007

Review: Books by You: Software for Children To Write Their Own Novels

I'm not a big fan of computer programs for little children. I have visions of children turning into zombies, staring at the computer monitor for hours at a time trying to keep up with jumping frogs, crashing cars and other mind-numbing images.

So when I came across Knowledge Adventure software called Books by You for children to craft a novel on their own, I was torn between my fear and the excitement of having found something that seemed to marry technology with creativity and reading. I decided to give it a try - or, rather, let my soon-to-be seven year-old son give it a try. He is a voracious reader and I had a feeling he would love the idea of making a book on his own.

The software arrived, we slid it into the CD drive and suffice to say both my son and I are thrilled.

The program has four plots that the children can choose from, two alien stories and two mysteries involving monkeys. With John Lithgow, the wonderfully talented actor as the "muse", the program draws you into the process of writing with age-appropriate instructions. Books by You is fashioned in such a way that the broad outlines of the story are fixed, but the children get to craft all the details - the names of the characters, the mannerisms (what would a character do if he or she got upset, for instance), the mental make-up and appearance of the characters and so on.

It is fascinating to watch your child go through this process because you get to see how his experiences educate his choice of characterization. When it was time to pick a name for the hero of his novel, The Mystery of the Monkey Palace, my son gravitated towards the names of his favorite cricket players. He was saying them out aloud - Ricky Ponting, Kevin Pietersen, Graeme Smith, Rahul Dravid.... He stopped at Rahul Dravid (the captain of the Indian cricket team) and said he didn't want to pick his name for the main character. Why not, I asked. I was curious. "Because I don't feel Indian in this story, mom!"

The novel my son picked is divided into four chapters and each chapter contains about 30 questions that round out the characters and flesh out the details of the plot. According to Knowledge Adventure, this program is designed for children eight years and above. For children at the lower end of the range, I'd imagine it would take at least two or three sittings before the novel is completed. The first time around, my son sat for a solid hour and a half, engrossed in the story, racking his brains for names and expressions, trying to put himself in the shoes of his characters and imagine what they might do in the situations presented in the plot. Once he finished the first chapter, he eagerly read it, delighting in how his work shaped the story. In the process he added many new words to his vocabulary.

John Lithgow's animated and pitch-perfect presence is a great asset to this program, imparting excitement and enthusiasm to the process. Each question asked of the children comes with helpful hints at the bottom of the screen so the younger novelists are on track. Even I was the beneficiary of one of those hints, "Warning: If you like grammar, don't use a name that ends with the letter 's'."

Once the novel is complete, the program guides the children through the finishing touches - a bio page, a dedication page, customizations to include the children's choice of photographs, images, cover design, and a poster for publicizing their work. At the end of it all, children have the option of even having their novel printed, bound and shipped and have in their hands the product of their imagination and creativity - definitely something to show off to family and friends.

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If your child is into reading and has even the slightest hint of a creative urge, Knowledge Adventure Books by You is a wonderful way to nurture that love of reading and perhaps even spark a desire to write. Even if your child shows no inclination to read, I have a feeling Books by You is a great tool to kick start a reading habit. Knowledge Adventure's website also provides some helpful hints for parents to help children become "better readers."

Books by You is compatible with Windows and Mac and is priced at $19.99.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Greenwood High, Bangalore

Greenwood High is located off of Sarjapur Road near Whitefield on a sprawling campus with wide open spaces and lots of greenery around. It's close to the two international schools - The International School of Bangalore (TISB) and Indus International School - and to Inventure Academy, and is around a hour's drive from Jayanagar. There are only two access roads to the school, one via Sarjapur Road and the other via Airport-Varthur Road.

My son moved from Joshika Montessori in J.P. Nagar to Greenwood High last year for first grade. He had completed 3/4 of the LKG year (pre-K) and the entire UKG year at Joshika. Joshika does not have higher grades.

The most important characteristic I was looking for in his new school was a rounded education with equal emphasis on academics as well as extra-curricular activities. At Joshika, although it was a Montessori school, there was too much emphasis on academics because the kids were being prepared to face entrance tests for first grade in schools such as Kumaran's (note that some parents actually hound the school to pack the curriculum with matter that will help their kids do well in the entrance tests). There was too much emphasis on completing portions and not enough time for anything other than writing reams and reams of paper worth of alphabets, fruit names, animal names, paragraphs on school, friends, family, multiplication tables, number names, and doing subtraction and addition by the time the kids were done with UKG.

Although he was taking piano lessons outside of school while in LKG and UKG, once he moved to first grade there would be no time to drive 45 minutes each way as we did to his teacher's house twice a week. I was looking for a school that would provide ample opportunity for activities such as music within the school curriculum even if it meant him staying back at school a little longer once or twice a week.

Greenwood seemed perfect and it addressed all the concerns I had with traditional schools - class-strength was a maximum of 24 (18-20 was the norm), extra-curricular activities were worked into the school timetable (there was chess, Indian music, Western music, computers, art and sports), the campus had ample lung space and was great for the kids to run around in, the buildings were built with children in mind with child friendly bathrooms, cubby holes and lockers for their belongings and a nurse's station. And to top it all the fee was less than 1/10th of what the international schools charged.

The management seemed eager to help and we were promised that piano lessons would be arranged for him separately so he could continue at his level. We were also promised that since the class strength was low, the teachers would easily assess where he was and give him additional work as necessary so he would not repeat much of the work he had already completed in UKG.

As far as we were concerned, the only drawback was the distance (although we were told kids came to Greenwood from as far away as Kanakapura Road (at least a two-hour ride by the school bus each way) and were none the worse for it) and the condition of the roads (which is abysmal at best).

Based on the administration's assurances regarding the extra-curricular activities and individual attention, our son moved to Greenwood for first grade. School ended about a month ago and I can safely say that he had a far better experience in first grade at Greenwood than in kindergarten at his previous school. He loved his chess classes, the music classes and sports. He did very well in class with an intimate group of classmates and he loved going off in a bus with his schoolmates every morning.

As the school year wore on, I realized that the administration had promised many things at the initial interview that they perhaps had an intention of fulfilling, but were unable to or did not for reasons best known to them. The school is still a work in progress. Much of the facility is still under construction. The swimming pool, tennis courts and horse riding tracks, which were supposed to be functional by the start of the school year last year, are still not complete.

My son never got his piano lessons at school (which had me scrambling to find a piano teacher outside of school which in turn is another story in itself) although he had the general Western music class along with the rest of the students. Repeated following up only received further assurances and the excuse that the school was still in its teething stages and the facilities would improve in the coming year. Moreover, the teachers came from traditional school environments where class strength above 50 is the norm and they are not able to wrap their minds around the concept of individual attention. The teachers find it easier to offer the same lesson plans to each student no matter what levels the students are at.

My experience at Greenwood is only limited to this past year, but I understand that the promises about superior facilities and offerings at Greenwood have been made for the past two or three years with not much to show for them and fees are not discounted accordingly. In fact, parents are facing an almost 25% increase in fees for the coming academic year. I also understand that the Principal has left to join Indus International School and that a new Principal has been hired for the coming academic year.

If you are looking for a well-rounded curriculum and are coming back to India for good or plan to spend a few years here and are willing to give the school a year or two to get its act together, then Greenwood is a great place for kids. It's thrilling to drive up to the school and walk in through the huge entrance to the fields and class rooms beyond and see kids of all ages pouring out the school buses. My son and his schoolmates like the school and the teachers and the admin staff seem genuinely concerned for the kids and their well-being. The Principal is on hand every morning to greet the children as they get off their buses.

The school takes pride in helping children from other countries and other types of school systems (they are called "third culture kids" - mostly referring to children of R2I parents) integrate quickly and effortlessly (on the children's part at least) into the system here. The school is affiliated with ICSCE.

My take on the schools issue is that each school has its own unique set of problems. No school is going to be perfect. But if the school generally offers what you are looking for, then go with it and work with the school - make sure they know you are watching and press for what you want. All you need is an administration that is willing to listen to and work with the parents. On that front, although the school may be struggling in these initial years and may not fulfill all its promises right away, Greenwood cannot be faulted. Which is way more than I can say for some of the other schools in this city.

My earlier posts on Bangalore schools are here.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Sakkaré Achchu: Sugar Figurines That Hold Memories

Sakkaré Achchu (in Kannada for "sugar moulds") is the mainstay of many a South Karnataka festival. Celebrations of Sankaranthi and Dussera, and family rituals such as weddings and housewarmings are incomplete without the sugar figurines.

Beautiful to look at, the figurines are used to embellish puja displays, are part of the gifts to the guests and are, most importantly, simply delicious to eat.

The ingredients are few and the process is painstaking, but pretty straightforward. The first step is to purify the sugar so that there are no impurities and the figurines turn out white instead of a dull shadow of white. The sugar syrup is boiled with curd and stirred constantly to separate impurities from the sugar. After two or three iterations of this, the resulting sugar syrup is simmered on a slow flame in a round-bottomed steel vessel until the syrup develops a thick consistency.

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Simmering sugar syrup

The moulds need to be soaked in water and must be damp so that the figurines loosen up easily when they are ready to be removed. Moulds are two wooden slabs with various shapes carved into them, each half a mirror reflection of the other.

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A banana-bunch shaped mould

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A bird-shaped mould

Just before the sugar syrup reaches the right consistency, moulds are readied by tightly tying together the matching pairs with rubber bands.

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Various moulds ready for the syrup

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Syrup being poured into the moulds

In a couple of minutes, the moulds are ready to be opened.

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Half-open moulds

And this is when you hope and pray that the figurine is weak in some spot and breaks apart so you get to eat the broken one hot off the mould. If you're desperate enough, you try to jinx it by rubbing your index finger the floor, counter-top or your grandma's hand. Trust me (and my gut), it works.

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Fresh and still warm figurines. Yummmm

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Homemade sugar figurines (with my grandma's and now my aunt's recipe) are the best. The purification process imparts a slightly tangy flavor and balances out the sweetness of the sugar and the constant stirring of the syrup turns out soft figurines that literally melt in your mouth.

No matter how delicious the end result is, the best part of the whole process is the family getting together to make them. Usually one member of the family takes on the onus of making the figurines for the entire family. My grandmother made it for all her daughters and shipped them off to wherever they lived in the years they were not with her to make them. Now, my aunt, my mother's younger sister is the family sugar goddess. She uses the same moulds that my grandmother did (some of them are losing the sharp outlines and so we have figurines that look like elephant shapes, only sort of).

Yesterday, as we made the figurines for a family function this weekend, much of the talk revolved round my grandmother and how she used to make them and how we used to pester her for the broken pieces (ever the frugal lady, she used to put the broken pieces back in the simmering syrup when we kids weren't looking). I'd asked my aunt to come over to my house to make them so my son could see how they are made. Every Sankaranthi I remember the sakkaré achchus and am glad that my son has some idea of what they are all about.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Time to End the Mommy Wars

There comes a time in every working mother's life when she has to consider the vexing question of whether she'll return to work once her maternity leave ends or if she will continue to stay home to take care of her child.

Let me say right off the bat that although there are a few fathers who now grapple with this question, the onus of deciding whether to quit work and stay home or continue working and arrange for child care still falls overwhelmingly on the mother.

Aggravatingly called the "Mommy Wars" (no better way to trivialize the issue than to give it an oh! so cute name, right?), the battle lines are well-marked in this debate. On one side of the line of scrimmage are the mothers who can see no way other than to stay home and take care of their children (the Stay at Home Moms or the SAHMs) and on the other side are the mothers who return to work and find alternative childcare arrangements (the Working Mothers).

SAHMs are convinced that Working Mothers do a disservice to their children by leaving their children in daycare while they go to work; they declare that women who want to go back to work after having children should not have children in the first place; Working Mothers look down on SAHMs for not being ambitious enough, for wasting their education and feel they themselves are not depriving their children of anything by going to work - that their children are brought up to be more resilient and socially adept by spending time in daycare. Both sets of mothers co-opt various sociological and psychological studies to argue their position.

Mothers on both sides have their arguments sharpened and at the ready to jab at the slightest hint of a disagreement with their point of view. Not only do they defend their respective decisions to the hilt, but they also have no qualms about declaring that their way is the right way - for everyone.

If you think this post is going one way or the other, no. I'm not going to come down on any one side of the debate. My take on this issue is this - I say, live and let live.

And there are at least three reasons for this.

First, only individuals and the families they belong to know what is best for them. They are the only ones who know their mental make-up and what the circumstances are under which they toil. So how can anyone, particularly strangers, even begin to think they know what is good for the other family? There is no one size fits all solution to this problem.

What do you say to families who need that second income - to care for an ailing parent, to pay for a sibling's education, whatever? Don't have kids? Is having children the domain of only the well-off? Even if a family does not need a second income, then are mothers bad for going back to work? What if a mother feels that she has something of value to contribute to society at large and wants to do it? Is she not allowed to bear a child?

By the same token, is a well-educated woman, thriving in a professional career, not allowed to stay home once she has a child? Why is she accused of wasting her education? Don't children deserve well-educated mothers?

Second, this is an area where quality definitely trumps quantity. A mother who spends all of the 24 hours seven days a week with her children does not automatically make her good, neither are her children guaranteed to be well-adjusted or well-rounded. By the same token, the children of mothers who work are not sad, lonely, ill-adjusted brats.

Third, and this I feel is the most important, whatever arguments mothers advance in support of their positions are defensive and reactionary. Working Mothers are attacked and therefore they go on the defensive about going to work, purportedly neglecting their children and churning out children who will, down the line, turn into aggressive misfits. SAHMs are attacked and therefore go on the defensive about staying home, purportedly wasting a professional education, ditching a job, purportedly stealing seats in professional schools from deserving men (who will not abandon careers and stay home to take care of the children, so the argument goes) and churning out children, who will, down the line, turn into clingy misfits.

Mothers on both sides of the debate make their arguments from a position of weakness, of not being comfortable with their own choices, of feeling guilty about whatever choice they make. These arguments are defensive because mothers are constantly harangued on this issue - by other mothers, by their families, by their employers, by friends who don't have children of their own (and so don't and cannot know or understand even an iota of the agony mothers go through when faced with this choice), by the media that mines this issue for all its worth.

When SAHMs put down Working Mothers or vice versa, it is a sign of the battle and doubt that are raging within their own minds. What should I do? Is what I am doing the right thing? How come she goes to work and still manages to have happy, smiling kids? She must have her priorities all wrong, or else how can she have a child and go off to work? She must like her paycheck more than her children. Her house is so beautiful and well-kept all the time and her children look so healthy and well-adjusted, but look at her, she's so dowdy! She must not have a good education, or else how could she be so happy staying at home? She must be rich, or else how can she afford to stay home (without for a minute countenancing the numerous sacrifices in terms of life style many such families make before or after the child is born in order to be able to afford the mother not working)?

None of this means that Working Mothers who escape the rigors of parenting so they can have extra pocket money to buy the latest Fendi do not exist. Nor does this mean there are no SAHMs who don't have the first clue about running a household let alone parenting. But the vast majority of mothers do not fall into either of these categories. For the most part Working Mothers put in an honest, hard day's work, rush to daycare to pick up their children, pick up grocery on the way, make dinner, help with homework, and try to snatch a few precious moments with their kids before putting them to bed; SAHMs work their butts off running a household, most times on a tight budget, keeping up with their children, trying to figure out imaginative ways to teach their children, and sincerely take pride in being their 24/7 for their children. Believe me, many of the SAHMs too dream about going back to work, to their friends, to the gossip, to the promotions and being thought of as a productive member of society (when, really, what could be better than trying to produce hale, healthy, well-adjusted citizens?). Only they have this desire to devote themselves to their kids in their growing years.

So I say it's time we got comfortable in our own skins. Let's make the choices that work for us and be happy with them. Let us not point fingers at the other mother and say, She's wrong, I'm right; I'm a better mother, she's not. God knows we have enough problems - finding good schools or daycare, dealing with a crabby boss, rising costs, a lackadaisical government, terrible infrastructure - without having to feel like we have to justify our choices to anyone, least of all to people who don't even know us. Let us give the other mother the benefit of the doubt and understand that whatever decisions families make, they must have arrived at it after a lot of thought, guilt-ridden internal debate and hand-wringing, and let us support them whatever they choose to do. Let's not judge.

The last thing either group needs is finger-pointing or blame for their choices.

Friday, April 13, 2007

My grand-aunt, the feminist?

My grand-aunt wore a wrist-watch with the dial on her inner wrist and the buckle on top. Her grey hair was always neatly combed back and held together at the back of her head, a few inches above the nape of her neck. Whenever she headed out she would always wear a neatly starched saree and carry a functional purse.

The reason this image of my grand-aunt is so strong in my head more than a decade after she died is that among all the women I knew of her generation growing up, she was the only one who went off to work every morning. She was an Education Officer in the Karnataka Government.

Her life could have gone so horribly wrong. It had all the ingredients for the making of a disaster. She was married at seven to a 42 year-old man. Following the marriage he disappeared, never to be heard from again. A few years later, he was legally presumed dead and my grand-aunt had her whole life ahead of her - as a widow. She would be at the mercy of relatives for food and a roof over her head. However well meaning the relatives would be initially, it was more than likely that she would have been nothing more than a useful hand around the house.

Contrast that with how her life actually shaped out. An older female relative offered to pay for my grand-aunt's education. The relative herself was very well educated - she was the first female graduate of Mysore University and the recipient of a scholarship from the Maharaja of Mysore. She put my grand-aunt through school, steered her towards a vocation (teaching) and was single-handedly responsible for my grand-aunt standing on her own two feet. By the time my grand-aunt passed away, she had been the proud owner of a nice house in a quiet, leafy neighborhood in Bangalore for very many years.

My grand-aunt's life and that of her relative were shaped by their own ability and that of their family to view their lives as having value outside the then prevalent social framework. My grand-aunt's life did not cease to have meaning just because she became a widow.

I have no idea if my grand-aunt (or her relative) had heard of feminism or feminists, but her life was saved from ruination because in the eyes of the people that supported her, she was a human being - with potential, with hopes, with ideas as to how to live her life.

Feminism has made enormous strides over the last few decades in the areas of employment, education, voting rights, sports, etc. If, however, feminism is to succeed in the realm of human interaction and relationships, women must be viewed as human beings first, as thinking, feeling entities with a voice of their own.

Women are not chattel; they are not objects of sexual desire to be plundered at will; they are not available to be harassed and molested as they are walking on the streets; they are not vehicles for dowry; they are not the keepers of culture or tradition or a family's honor; they are not slaves; they are not punching bags; their health is not secondary to that of the menfolk; their maternal families are not second-class citizens; their work - whether they choose to stay at home and take care of the children or work outside of their homes - is as valuable as the men's and merits recognition as such.

[Amrita wrote a post on what feminism means in the Indian context and asked me to pitch in. DesiGirl tagged me for the same effort. Apu is putting up links to all bloggers who are joining in. Thanks to all of them for triggering some forgotten memories.]


The Hindu carries an interview with Baby Halder, author of A Life Less Ordinary in its magazine section today (April 15, 2007). Please read.

Baby Halder, hailed as a star for her life-story A Life Less Ordinary, broke the tradition of silence that shackles women's lives in India. She's worked out the trajectory between the bitterness of bearing the burden and the need to turn the tragic into a reservoir of learning.

Her story is the story of the marginalised. Being a woman is in itself a form of abuse. "Why can't people think of her first as a human being and then a woman? We have the same limbs, eyes and a mind and can live our lives just like everyone else. We should stop depending on men — that they will earn and we will cook and serve. If they step out to work, we also work at home." She still has the 10 paise coin Baby's mother left in her palm before walking away from her children.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

On Visiting Mysore Again, Two Decades Later

Mysore is many things to me. It's the city I associate most with my maternal grandparents, ajji and thatha; it's the city we lived in twice for two years at a time, the first time in elementary school and later in high school and college; it's the city of summer vacations; it's the city of my childhood, in which my aunts and uncles were young, unmarried teenagers or young adults.

My grandmother's house was on a busy main road that intersected 5th main in Saraswathipuram. Buses hurtled down the main artery from a slope to the right of the house and zoomed their way up to the fringes of Saraswathipuram, to Kuvempunagar and beyond. Jataka gaadis assumed a more stately pace, the clip clop of the horses' hooves early in the morning, mixed with a lash of the whip and the clucking sound of the jatakawallah heralding a gaadi full of children being taken to school.

The flour mill a few buildings up the road was busiest in the afternoons, when housewives had a break between lunchtime and preparations for dinner, the high pitch of the motor mingling with the high-speed flapping of the belt that went around the machines. Depending on which of the two mills in the shop was running, we would smell the warm spicy aromas of sambhar or rasam powders or rice, roasted wheat or ragi. The aroma of coffee from a shop that sold coffee powder was a permanent fixture, as was the sound from the tailor's sewing machines across the street from the house.

Her garden was her pride. She took great care of the myriad plants and trees in her garden. The sampige tree, well-grown and in full bloom in the summer was a favorite hangout and I would be her flower picker, climbing higher and higher on the tree at her direction, standing at the base of her tree, her pallu filling up with the flowers I dropped from my perch. The scent of the flower and the beautiful golden yellow of their petals are stuff of nostalgic reveries.

The sampige tree was flanked on both sides by two mature coconut trees. My grandparents would watch them carefully, trying to assess the correct time to call the gardener who would climb up the tree and pluck the coconuts and dead branches for them. The garden also had a papaya tree, a curry leaves tree and assorted flowering plants, such as rose and hibiscus and daria, all lovingly tended to first thing in the morning by my grandmother.

Her favorite hangout in the evenings was the Rama Mandira, across the street and off to the side of the house. It was a gathering place for her friends, to listen to hari kathes (I remember one I went to in which the gentleman giving the discourse went on and on about how the planet Shani (Saturn), was in fact, not a bad planet) and Carnatic music concerts, to gossip about goings on among their friends (who got married, who's still available among the younger generation), and to exchange craft ideas and recipes. I was a faithful tagger along, an able factotum to my busy bee of a grandmother.

When I visited Mysore a couple of months ago on the way to Kabini, the road was busier than ever with way more autorickshaws and two-wheelers than I remembered,

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the flour mill and the coffee shop were gone, and, sadly, so was my grandmother's house as it looked in my mind. Someone else lived there, the garden was taken over by a building, and along with it went the sampige tree and the rest of the plants and trees.

The Rama Mandira, on the other hand, remained unchanged. The entire coconut grove as I remembered it was intact, while the temple itself occupied one far end of the plot.

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The Rama Mandira

The other thing that remained unchanged that I discovered joyfully, was my school, Christ the King Convent near Ballal Circle (behind Ganesha talkies, which was dilapidated and buried under miles of brush - the result of a family feud I was told). The kho kho field remained exactly the same,

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The Kho Kho Field

and on the day I visited, the school band was practising, just as we did - rat a tat a tat, rat a tat a tat, rat a tat a tat a tat a tat a tat a tat! On a hunch, I walked down to the Staff Room and discovered that my Kannada teacher still taught there! It was a strange experience to see someone who belonged in such familiar surroundings while I was going back there almost a stranger after being away for so long.

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She carried my daughter (talk about surreal!), we chatted for a while, reminiscing about my classmates, the fun fair we had (boys were allowed to come in and they did, seizing the only legit opportunity they had to come into an all-girls school and the teachers still talked about the amount of money we collected that year), the other teachers, some of whom had retired and the others had passed away. On our way out, I also met my art and craft teacher and we chatted some more.

School had ended and the teachers and students headed home. I carried my daughter back to the car, rode on the same streets I had walked on and ridden in a bus on all those years ago.

On our way out of the city next day, on a lark, we visited the Mysore Palace,

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and that Mysore institution, Dasaprakash, where the prices seem to have frozen on the menu all these years.

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Our waiter was an elderly gentleman who waited on us patiently as we tried to figure out what to eat just after eating a full breakfast at our hotel. We settled on a couple of dishes and a round of South Indian filter coffee for all. We were not disappointed.

Saturday, April 07, 2007

Bored? Go Spelunking!

This cave was nothing like the caves of my imagination. My idea of a cave was pretty straightforward and straight out of children's books - it had an enormous mouth for an entrance into which once would walk upright, bright at the entrance, becoming darker and darker as one walked farther and farther back into its recesses.

After driving about an hour and a half west of Washington, D.C. to the Virginia/West Virginia border to do some spelunking, we parked the car in a wide expanse of pavement just above an embankment that fell away from the Interstate. We got out, slung our backpacks on our shoulders and gingerly walked down the embankment a few meters. We made a sharp right and S, our guide - who was my collegemate and also ran an adventure company - said, "Here we are."

This "cave" we came to was a rather slim, elongated, hole in the wall.

D, another collegemate and my adventurer-in-arms for the day, and I looked at each other, "Where?" There was no big mouth, no rounded arch, nothing that looked like it might be the entrance to the cave. "I'll show you how to get it and you follow me, ok?" S plonked his backpack on the ground, removed three miner's lamps, gave one to each of us and strapped his own around his forehead. He slung his backpack back on, walked two steps to the hold, turned to face us and got down on his haunches. He stuck is lower legs into the hole, felt his way around with his feet and slowly lowered himself down with the help of the tiny ledges on the rock wall. Soon his entire body disappeared and all we saw was his face. "Come on in," he called out.

It had seemed like a great idea when I first heard about it. Now I was not so sure. I had all sorts of doubts about being able to get out of there, about snakes crawling in the bowels of the earth, about being able to breathe in there, about even fitting inside the cave. What if it was too small and there was no place to turn. Would I get claustrophobic?

Of course, I kept all of this to myself. Having driven this far, I didn't want to chicken out. I mentally ran through the contents of my backpack just trying to reassure myself that I wouldn't be stuck rotting in a cave where no one would find me (this was the age of no cell phones, to boot) - there were snacks, water, a packet of mint rolls (S had asked us to pack some, we had no idea for what) and a flashlight. Not too reassuring.

But I turned around anyway, getting ready to wiggle myself down the hole. I handed my backpack to S down the hole and inched my way down. It was a tight fit - with my sweatshirt, jeans and tennis shoes bulking up my frame - but finally I was standing on my feet. I took a quick look around. It was spacious to say the least. There was enough headroom, enough space to dance around in even and the cave streched very far back into the distance and trailed off into darkness.

D make her way down as well and we headed off into the inside of the cave. The floor was damp in places; in others puddles had formed on the floor. As we walked in S pointed to the ceiling silently - bats were hanging upside down, fast asleep. The walls were pockmarked with tiny fossils of fish and other sea life. Two hours west of Washington, D.C. was apparently where the Atlantic Ocean lapped at the shores of America many, many years ago.

It was amazing just how huge the cave was, right underneath an Interstate. I must have driven on that road at least five or six times, on the way to the Shenandoah Mountains, but I would have never guessed that there were these huge caves right underneath. The main cave, where we entered, branched off into separate chambers. S had a specific route in mind and eventually we came to a very narrow slit above our heads. By this time, our clothes were muddied as were our hands and shoes.

There was no way to climb up through the slit other than to wriggle up on our tummies. S went up first as did our backpacks. With the uneven serrations on the wall for toe holds and the ledge about the slit for leverage, I struggled up the narrow opening. As my head came out the other side, I saw that there was nothing but a narrow tunnel. No more standing spaces. We would be on our tummies on damp floor from then on, crawling forward on hands and knees.

Inching forward like a three bogie train, we suddenly came to a small room of sorts with enough space for three of us to comfortably sit but not stand. And here we understood what "pitch black" was. If I thought I had any idea was pitch black was, I was sadly mistaken. Here, in this tiny space deep inside one of the caves of Virginia, I could not see my own hand even if I held it up one centimeter in front of my face. There was absolutely no source of light for this part of the cave.

S asked us to take out our mint rolls and told us to pop one in our mouth and chew. We did, and surprise of surprises, sparks flew out of our mouths and very briefly, we could make out each other's shapes. D and I were mighty tickled.

Our little rest came to an end and we made our way back down the same tunnel and down the narrow opening to the wider part of the cave. There were no museums to see, no fancy buildings, metro systems or monuments, no fountains or sculptures down in that cave. But it was nothing short of amazing and satisfying, just to see a part of nature I had never seen before.

P.S. In India, I hear there's very good spelunking to be had in the caves at Edakkal in Kerala. If you go, do share your experiences.

Friday, April 06, 2007

Bangalore Children's Theater Workshops

The Bangalore theater scene has always been vibrant, but the buzz has steadily increased over the last few years with the opening of Rangashankara, Arundhati Nag's theater space in South Bangalore and with the impending opening of Jagriti, an enterprise of Jagdish and Arundhati Raja in Whitefield.

Along with these increase in theater activity also comes a myriad opportunities for children to learn basic drama skills. In some of the camps, the training culminates in a production to be put up by the children and directed by the workshop organizers.

If your child is interested in theater, then do investigate these four options I've come across. One of them might be right for your child.

I. Logos Theater:

What: Logos Theatre's "Let's Play," a theatre workshop
Children's Age Limit: Eight to thirteen years
Where: Pitter Patter Preschool, 9th Main, 3rd Cross, Koramangala 3rd Block
When: From 16 April to 30 April, between four and six in the evening

An e-mail from Logos Theater says that the workshop "will explore and foster creativity through playful means such as gestures, movement, voice-work, mime, working with objects, etc. It is aimed at improving the child's narrative, communication and interpersonal skills."

For more information, and registration, you can contact Logos Theatre at No. 126, 3rd Main Road, Jayamahal Extension, Bangalore - 560046. Tel: 9880966313, or e-mail:

II. Artistes' Repertory Theatre (ART):

ART's Jagriti-Kids and Jagriti-Youth are conducting two separate summer workshops in the theater arts in April and May this year.

What: Jagriti Kids
Children's Age Limit: Seven to twelve years;
Where: Neev Playschool, Whitefield Main Road
When: 16 April to 01 May (excluding Sundays)
Fee: Rs. 1,200

What: Jagriti Youth
Children's Age Limit: Thirteen to eighteen years
Where: Neev Playschool, Whitefield Main Road
When: 14 May to 29 May (excluding Sundays)
Fee: Rs. 1,500

For more information, visit ART's blog or e-mail for a registration form.

III. Benaka Makkala Nataka Kendra:

Mrs. Prema Karanth, a well-known theater artiste, will conduct a month and a half-long theater workshop for children that will put up a Kannada musical based on The Merchant of Venice with elements drawn from Nagananda and Jimutha Vahana among others.

Children's Age Limit: Ten to eighteen years
When: 20 April to 08 June
Fee: Rs. 500
Register by: April 15

For further information and for registering, you can contact Mrs. Karanth on 26720672.

IV. Rangashankara:

Rangashankara's worshop has already begun! Hurry up if you are interested and give them a call at 2659 2777.

Children's Age Limit: Nine to twelve years (as of 1 April 2007)
When: 02 April to 11 April (both days inclusive); two batches - 8:30 am to 10:30 am and 11:30 am to 1:30 pm
Where: Rangashankara, J.P. Nagar
Fee: Rs. 1,000

If there are other summer theater workshops you know about in Bangalore, please do leave a comment and I'll update this post to include that information.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Monday, April 02, 2007

Bangalore Restaurant Saigon

My husband and I were running some errands a couple of weekends ago (read loitering) and found ourselves on Church Street around lunchtime. None of the usual suspects - Mainland China, Sunny's, Ruby Tuesday's - sounded appetizing. We were walking back to the car parked near Amoeba when we spied a restaurant nameplate that said Saigon. We did not remember ever having seen it before and went closer to investigate. The menu exhibited outside advertized pan Asian cuisine with Thai, Vietnamese, Indonesian, Singaporean, Malaysian, Philippino and Chinese dishes.

With nothing to lose (well, hopefully our hunger), we decided to go in. The entrance to the restaurant is to the left side of Amoeba through a corridor, up three flights of stairs (or the elevator) to a cozy space with a bar in front and the restaurant at the back.

We walked in and saw one empty table. The restaurant was packed. There were about 15 tables laid out in the horizontal space and the place was hopping with couples, groups of friends and about three or four families, some with young children. The decor was pleasing and not too loud with muted lighting and a subdued color scheme; the music seemed to lull and rise with the pitch of the myriad conversations around us.

It was Sunday brunch and there was a buffet, but we decided to stick with the menu. Buffets are great when you are with a large group - it's a pain to order for that many people. Moreover, even if you ordered from the menu, it becomes like a buffet anyway, with each person getting only a taste of a myriad dishes. With fewer people, we like ordering from the menu mainly because we end up eating less than we would at the buffet and we don't have to keep getting up from the table.

OK, let's cut to the chase. The food was excellent. We ordered Thai crispy fried prawns with golden fried garlic, chicken marinated and wrapped in Pandan leaves and deep fried, Thai vegetables stir fried with chilli, garlic and basil and Thai chicken stir fried with bell peppers and cashew nuts. All the dishes came in the right portion sizes, tasted wonderful and were beautifully presented (the dishes range from about Rs. 85 to Rs. 400). And my mojito was cool, refreshing and delicious.

The service was even better, though the waiters were a tad over zealous in clearing the plates or piling on second servings. The waiters actually waited on us rather than us having to flag one down every time we needed something. The manager, Tony, even offered to "outsource" some mango ice cream for us which was not on the menu.

Saigon is a new restaurant and the people operating it seemed genuinely excited about being there. We got a tour of their party hall downstairs which had a view of Church Street through wall-length windows. It seemed like a good space to entertain a reasonable sized crowd.

All in all it was a very good experience and we promised ourselves we would be back.

Pan Asian Cuisine
#20, Church Street, Bangalore
Tel: 4112 2855

Washington, D.C. in Spring and Summer

It's springtime in Washington, D.C. The roller coaster of a winter has, at least according to the calendar, given way to spring. It's that glorious period of transition from this:

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to this:

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For a precious few days there'll be no shovelling snow, no scraping ice off the windshield, no salting the driveway or the sidewalks, no raking leaves and stuffing bags by the dozens, no mowing the lawn, no pruning the hedges. It's the time to order mulch, sink your hands (gloved though they may be) into the wet compost, inhale the fresh smell of damp bark (or not) and feed your plants and trees to sustain them through the hot summer. It's the time to say say goodbye to branches bereft of leaves and welcome the bright green of the first new leaves of the season. Cherry blossoms burst out of their buds and birds come back home for the rest of the season and the summer.

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Cherry Blossoms

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It's also time to prepare for the invasion of the tourists into Washington. The metro trains that are usually packed with suited and booted professionals or uniformed military personnel now have to make space for T-shirted and sandalled tourists, complete with digital cameras in fanny packs and video cameras slung on their shoulders. The monuments are the primary attraction in DC, of course. The Mall is a great place to hang out to go museum and monument hopping.

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The Washington Monument aka The Needle

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The World War II Memorial

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The Vietnam Veterans' Memorial

The metro stations are conveniently located and during the peak tourist season even offer discounted fare during non-rush hour to encourage tourists to stay off the metros during rush hour.

A very popular springtime ritual on the Mall is the Kite Festival. Area residents and tourists alike head out to the Mall with family and friends with picnic baskets, blankets, footballs and kites. If you're lucky you'll get a bright blue, clear sky as a backdrop to show off your kite-flying skills.

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An eagle-shaped kite aims for the top of the Washington monument

Springtime also heralds the Cherry Blossom festival, a period of parades, cookouts and just plain enjoying the cherry blossoms around the tidal basin near the Jefferson Monument. It pervades news coverage - television cameras and reporters camp out at the basin; the history of the trees' journey from Japan is reiterated every season; there are interviews with park personnel who predict peak blossom days and bemoan the squirrels who ravage the trees - all in one breath; and inteviews with meteorologists who predict peak pollen counts and therefore the worst days for allergy sufferers (unfortunately, of whom I am the flag bearer).

The craziness ends and life heads back to normal, somewhat, when the trees shed all the blossoms, the petals float away to settle on the water in the tidal basin and all you're left with is body of water that looks like a big bowl of strawberry smoothie.