Monday, March 30, 2009

My World: "The Awakening" at National Harbor

The Awakening, a surreal art piece made of five distinct components, dominates a portion of the National Harbor grounds off of the Potomac River. Originally installed in Washington, D.C.'s Hains Point, the sculpture (by artist J. Seward Johnson, Jr.) was moved to National Harbor a couple of years ago. I had never seen the original installation at Hains Point but was thrilled to come upon it at National Harbor.

The ground appears to be barely able to contain the man caught in the act of trying to claw out of the earth. A foot, a palm, an arm and a leg are bursting out of the mud, while the face is contorted - a combination of anger, fierce determination and effort twisting the facial muscles into an evil grimace.

The detail in the musculature, the sinew and the expression is awesome.

Speaking of Hains Point, a dull, dreary and wet Saturday morning found my son, Altoid (a fellow blogger and now friend!) and I making the rounds of the Tidal Basin on foot.

It's easy to miss seeing Washington, D.C. - really seeing it - when you are driving on its congested roads, navigating the countless traffic lights, road blocks and pot holes, when you don't have a choice but to drive in the city for business you need to take care of.

But in the quiet of the morning, with nearly deserted streets, the rain washed monuments standing sentinel over their city and waiting for its denizens to rise, the car riding on slick streets with a whisper of a swish, the street lights casting a halo around themselves and lighting up the misty rain as it fell softly on the ground, in the quiet of that morning, the city was downright handsome, in the tall, dark kind of way.

I leave you with some photographs from the Tidal Basin this past weekend.

This is part of my world. For other My World posts, visit My World Tuesday.

All text and photographs are copyrighted. Please do not copy or use without written permission.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Aksharaabhyaasa (or Vidhyaarambham) - A Prayer for a Milestone

Growing up in India, it is very easy to feel like you're drowning in the frequency and number of rituals in any given year. There are the numerous festivals, there are the special rituals unique to every family, the rituals for every life event, and then there are the pujas held at random times during the year to address specific issues - if someone has been sick for a long time, if someone is having difficulty at work or in finding a bride or groom, or if the family is just grateful for a happy occurrence.

Not only do you celebrate the ones in your own home, but you participate in the ones in relatives' and friends' houses as well - 'participate' meaning you dress up in nice clothes, put on all your jewellery, talk nineteen to the dozen with the gathering of friends and relatives, feast to your heart's content on festival food and go back home deliciously tired. Yes, rituals in other people's houses are almost always more fun. Someone else is doing all the work, you see.

Living in the US, it's a completely different story. We live off of a calendar that makes no mention of any of the festivals, wandering in the desert of no rituals for years. Life runs on a completely different cycle than the one on which we grew up. No, this is not a complaint, just a statement of fact. It is what it is. We each pray in our own way every morning, we get to the temple as often as we can, but festivals come and go unnoticed, unless my parents or in-laws call from India and ask what we did that day.

There are some rituals, though, particularly the ones to do with children that somehow we've managed to keep our sights on. When the future is in plain sight is perhaps when you look carefully at your past, at your roots. So we've been eager beavers when it comes to making sure our kids are up to date on the rituals meant for them. There's the little ritual when the baby comes home for the first time from the hospital; a visit to the temple is the baby's first outing; there's the naming ceremony; there's the ceremony for when the baby graduates from milk to solid foods; a ceremony to make an offering of the child's hair to the family deity (in India, hair would be shaved off completely from the children's heads, whereas here the priest held a few blades of dried grass right next to our son's hair and air-snipped as a stand-in); and there's the ritual before children begin their formal education.

This last one, the ritual for when children are about to start school is a personal favorite. Going off to school is one of the big milestones in the life of a child, his or her first real step as a social being, deserving of proper marking and celebration. The Aksharaabhyaasa is simple, sweet and profound in import, all at the same time.

So this past January, the day before D was to start pre-school, we set up time at the temple to have a priest perform the ceremony for us. The temple's website helpfully provided the list of items we needed to take - flowers, fruits, about a pound of rice, honey, milk, yogurt, ghee, turmeric, kumkum (vermillion), betel nuts, betel nut leaves, a piece of cloth, a book and a pencil, etc., etc. That Sunday, we dressed up D in her long skirt (langa) and blouse that my sister-in-law and brother-in-law had given her as a gift during C's thread ceremony (the Upanayanam, which I wrote about here), C wore his jubba and pyjama and off we went to the temple.

After the initial iteration of our family's antecedents and a small prayer to invoke the goddess of education, Saraswati, the priest had D sit on her father's lap and with his hand guiding hers, her finger serving as a writing implement, she traced the first few alphabets of the Kannada script on a rice-filled plate. Then followed a few letters of the English alphabet and then the numbers. Right on cue, good-natured ribbing followed - are you sure you remember your alphabets, the priest teased the husband; he can't even read my letters anymore, chimed in my mother-in-law. And then it was done.

The next day, Monday, I woke her up gently, telling her she had to go to school. She got up with a start, yelled, "I can hear the school bell. I'm late!" (a dialogue from a Dora book that she found the right moment to apply) and tumbled out of bed. She picked out her outfit - leggings, shirt, frock and boots - slung her backpack over her shoulders (yes, she had filled it with the stuff she wanted to take the night before), said goodbye to her grand-parents and dad, sat in the car with her brother and was off to school.

The next two days were tough. The novelty of the first day wore off mighty quick. She cried on Tuesday and Wednesday. Then Thursday was library day and park day at her school. There has been no looking back since then. Every day she walks in with a wide grin, big arms and a "Hi friends!" for her classmates. I'm not kidding. A couple of them come running and they have a group hug while I stand there taking in all the drama. Oh, yeah. There's plenty of that!

P.S. We'd had C's ceremony at the same temple when he was about three. My in-laws were visiting us then too. We had gone to the Bombay Club across from the White House for dinner then. We decided to replay the episode fully and went to the Bombay Club again. When we got there we found that the entire street and all the streets around the Hay Adams Hotel were cordoned off because then President-elect Obama and his family happened to be housed at that hotel in the days before the inauguration (remember the episode about the Blair House not being available because Bush had the former PM of Australia staying there?).

So we had to park the car a couple of blocks away and we, in our fashionable but flimsy Indian clothes froze by the time we got to the restaurant. We had not expected to stop anywhere after the temple and we were unprepared. Then, the next day we read in the papers that just as we were chowing down on some delicious but bland Indian food, Obama and his family were at the Lincoln Memorial, just a few blocks away, paying homage to the man whose train journey Obama was all set to replicate in a couple of days. One of those so-near-yet-so-far moments that I'm sure will be repeated many times.

The temple does not allow photography within its premises. The one above is from the Aksharaabhyaasa ceremony for my niece in Bangalore a couple of years ago.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Prelude: Composer - Bach; Pianist - C

C just learned to play Bach's Prelude. It's a lovely song, but just looking at the three pages of notes gives me a massive headache. So I stay away from the piano and listen to it from a distance.

The reason for the photographs this time around in the video below, instead of C's fingers flying over the keys, is that this is a two-minute piece and he was not going to let me hover over him for that long. Plus he thinks that the small digital camera's primitive sound doesn't do justice to the song.

So C recorded the song and I tried to download it. The piano (Roland HP-207) records fine, I was able to download the song into a storage device and the song played fine on the computer, but it's not in a format that can be used in a video. I know way more than I want to about this stuff but the lowdown is this - the piano stores the music in MIDI format and it cannot be converted to a WAV or WMA format. So I sent the file to C's piano teacher who played it on his computer, hooked it up to an instrument, had that instrument play it and then saved the result in WAV format.

I used the file that he sent to make a movie using some pictures in my folder. Unfortunately neither the sound nor the pictures retained their original clarity. I wish they had come through better. I'm going to continue to try different ways to download C's performances in a usable format. In the meantime, here's C playing Bach's Prelude.

Updating to add links to related posts:

C playing Beach Buggy Boogie, Mazurka and The Entertainer.

Layover Lessons

With some rather long flights coming up in a few days, my senses have switched into travel mode - my mind breaking down the trip, assessing the possibilities of its various components, remembering discrete episodes from prior trips.

The least desirable component of any long flight has got to be the layover. I am not a huge fan of long layovers, but when presented with one I know there are myriad ways in which to occupy myself and the kids. I am reminded of one particular layover a few years ago when C was about five and a half years old and D wasn't born yet.

C and I were traveling from Bangalore to Prague. The husband had already gone ahead for a meeting. The flight from Bangalore to Frankfurt was uneventful. Once at the Frankfurt airport, though, we were faced with a six-hour layover. Apparently the Bangalore - Frankfurt - Prague route is not very popular. We got in early in the morning and had to wait until early afternoon for our flight, until the airline could pool enough Prague passengers to justify a flight. To their credit, I must say they succeeded in flying a full flight that day.

But back to the layover.

C and I did the usual things - we cleaned up, wandered around, walked into a few shops, pored over magazines, looked at toys and perfumes and chocolates. Around breakfast time we went into a restaurant with large windows offering an unhindered view of the planes taking off and landing. We had just ordered our food, C was waiting for his cup of hot chocolate to cool somewhat and I was sipping on my coffee when C's eyes suddenly widened.

"Mama, look! There, behind you!"

"What? What happened?" I turned my head to look, expecting a minor disaster.

"Don't you see? There's Bill Bryson, right there!"

I turned again, excitedly this time. Wow! Bill Bryson? But I couldn't see anyone even remotely resembling his mug shot on his books. I was about to ask C to point this time (although he's told regularly never to point at people while talking about them, this was obviously an exception) but I saw his hand hiding his face. He was trying to stifle a desperate giggle.

"Tricked you! Ha ha ha!"

The kid had my number.

No matter what the time of day, inside the Frankfurt Am Main airport, it's the shopping hour. The foot traffic is a mall's dream come true, never mind that the feet are tired, the eyes are glazing over and shoulders sagging under jet lag and carry on luggage. An unending stream of people coming and going from all directions. Just as one plane takes off, another lands, replenishing the airport with a fresh supply of potential customers. After a while the crowds got stifling, so when we chanced on an empty lounge near one of the departure/arrival gates, we found a corner and sprawled on the seats. C settled himself down on the floor, opened his backpack and took out his collection of animals and cars.

Soon another mother and her son, about C's age, walked through the gate into the lounge. From her dress, I guessed she was from the Middle East. They found a quiet space a few feet away from us and settled down just as we did.

For a time we stayed separate. Two little units. Two mothers and two boys. Coming from different places, possibly going to different places. Separated by language, culture, and custom. Connected by nothing but chance. For a short while we happened to be in the same boat, both waiting for when it was time to leave.

Soon, the prospect of having a playmate for however brief a time must have tempted the two boys. Both seemed to have the same idea. As both mothers watched, they exchanged sidelong glances, then looked fully at what the other was doing, laughing at each other's antics. Then, wordlessly, they inched closer. C said something to the other boy in English. He shook his head and looked at his mother. "No English," she said. The boys assessed the situation for the briefest of moments and continued right where they left off. Each one imitated the other, gesturing when one wanted the other to do something different.

Cars crashed into each other, animals flew, cars crashed into the animals, animals jumped over cars, cars chased animals, animals chased cars. Eventually they abandoned their toys and chased each other around the chairs and pillars.

The other mother and I looked at each other and smiled, grateful for this interlude for the boys. After a good while, people started filing into the gate. Ticketing agents lined up behind the counter. The lounge was empty no more.

Still mute, our words unable to bridge the gap between us, all four of us put our things back in, packed up and walked out the gate. As one. Now we shared a common purpose. We walked towards another empty lounge and set up shop. Just as before. Soon, we, the two mothers, engrossed ourselves in our magazines and the boys promptly turned another lounge into their playground.


Related Posts:

You Really Should Not Read Bill Bryson in Public Places

Prague: A Little City with a Big Heart

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Hey, Paul Krugman: A Song For Our Times

Heard this on NPR's Marketplace this evening.

Song #77 from artist Jonathan Mann who's posting a song a day on his website Rockcookiebottom.

Monday, March 23, 2009

My World: Cherry Blossoms and the Tidal Basin

The Tidal Basin

It's cherry blossom time in Washington, D.C. The forecast is for the blossoms to peak a tad earlier this year. Here are some pics from about this time last year I took for an article I wrote on the annual Cherry Blossom Festival. The focus of all attention - local and tourist alike - is the Tidal Basin, with its ring of cherry blossom trees. The buds are not in full bloom yet in these photographs, but you get a glimpse of what is yet to come.

The Washington Monument

The Jefferson Memorial

A small paragraph about the history of the trees from the article (the entire article is here):

A gift from Mayor Yukio Ozaki of Tokyo to the people of the United States — following a few failed attempts by local residents to transplant and grow cherry trees in the Washington region — that first gesture paved the way for more exchanges between two countries intent on building and solidifying a relationship. World War II promptly put an end to the niceties, but the Festival returned to its rightful place on Washington’s social calendar in 1947. In a poignant twist to the story, Japanese horticulturists arrived in Washington in the early 1980s and returned home with precious cargo — cuttings from the trees that comprised their original gift — to replace their own trees that were lost to a flood.

For more posts from around the world, check out My World.

Saturday, March 21, 2009


Memories of conversations or snippets of conversations come randomly, when I'm going about my day. I replay them in my mind, laughing, smiling, cringing or just shaking my head at the memory. Here are some that have been clamoring for attention lately.

A few weeks ago D and I were cuddling in bed. I reached across, under her head, to hold my husband's hand. D grabbed it, pulled it right back to her and said, "That's my hand!" I said, "D, that's not your hand, that's Mama's hand." She replied, "I know it's your hand. But it's my hand." How do you quarrel with such logic?


When C was about 5 and he had just returned from school we were talking about friends and family. He summed up the conversation this way, "Familyship is more important than friendship."


D wanted some more yogurt. She had already eaten some of the plain variety, so I asked her if she wanted the strawberry yogurt. "No," she said, "pink yogurt is for boys."


Just before she fell asleep one night D said, "Mama, I love you." Then, very slowly, "You. are. my. best. spider. ever."


Two years after we got married, my husband and I still hadn't had children. We were too busy with school, work, play, trying to find our bearings in a new country. In the interim, we fielded numerous weekend calls from India, from parents and in-laws, all wanting to know if there was any "good news." One day, my dad finally scrunched up all his worry into a pithy one-liner and asked, "Is this a personal decision or is this by god's decree?" I had a good laugh before I assured him it was the former. They all had to wait a good six more years after that, which I must say they did admirably.


When he was about 3 C and I were driving back home in the middle of the afternoon. I asked him a question and I did not hear a reply. So I turned back to look and he was nodding off. I didn't want him to fall asleep in the car, so I called out his name and asked him what he was doing. "I'm thinking, Mama. I'm thinking."


I was putting D to sleep one day and she wanted a drink of water.

D: Mama, can I have some water?

Me: Sure, D (not moving to get her some, wanting to see what she would do).

A couple of seconds later.

D: Do we have water here?

Me: Yeah, we do.

D: Can I have some?

Me: Sure (still not moving).

A few more seconds.

D (exasperated): Right now!


D finishes about three-quarters of a rather ripe banana and says she doesn't want anymore because "it's too banany."

Friday, March 20, 2009

When International Adoptions Go Terribly Wrong

Scott Carney traces the journey of one Indian boy snatched from the slums of Chennai and then passed off as a child who'd been given up by his parents to a couple in the American Midwest who eventually adopted him (via).

Ten years later, during which the boy's parents refused to give up their search for their son, they know exactly where their son is but can do nothing about it. Painstakingly recounted, bathed in empathy, Carney's essay makes for a harrowing tale.

It was every parent's worst nightmare. Sivagama and her husband, Nageshwar Rao, a construction painter, spent the next five years scouring southern India for Subash. [...] To finance the search, Nageshwar Rao sold two small huts he'd inherited from his parents and moved the family into a one-room concrete house with a thatched roof in the shadow of a mosque. The couple also pulled their daughter out of school to save money; the ordeal plunged the family from the cusp of lower-middle-class mobility into solid poverty. And none of it brought them any closer to Subash.

Five years after he was kidnapped, the police chanced upon a drunken brawl in a bar at which people were arguing about grabbing children off the streets and selling them to an adoption agency. The police found that the agency then placed these children in homes as far away as Australia, the US and Europe.

The ingredients in this international adoption cocktail cannot but lead to skewed incentives - desperate, childless couples with the ability to bear the cost of international adoptions, abject poverty and millions of disenfranchised parents in developing countries, and most importantly, no rules for how much money can be demanded for placements.

"This is an industry to export children," says Sarah Crowe, unicef's media director for South Asia. "When adoption agencies focus first on profits and not child rights, they open up the door to gross abuses."
The saddest part of this heartbreaking tale is where Subash's parents realize this has gone too far along, that they've lost their son. That even if they know exactly where he is, there is nothing they can do to bring his child back to his family.

When I tell Nageshwar Rao that I'll be traveling to the United States to make contact with the family, he touches my shoulder and eyes me intently. [...] With the few words of English at his disposal, he struggles to convey his hopes. Gesturing into the air, toward America, he says, "Family." He then points back at himself.

"Friends," he says.
Oh my god.

All the father now wants is at least some contact with his own son, to be his 'friend'. And it looks like even that might be impossible. No matter which way you look at this, every one comes up a loser.

The entire article is a must-read. The Interpol is now involved in the case, trying, with blood samples, to establish and Subash was indeed stolen from his parents. Carney has a blog (Updating (03/23/09) to add a direct link to his blog - The earlier link is to his main website.). I'm sure he'll be posting follow-ups to this story there.

At this point I don't even know what I'm praying for.


Nageshwar Rao's acceptance of what must be reminds me of one of the wise King Solomon tales.

Two women are fighting over a child, both claiming to be the mother. They go to King Solomon and present their case. The King says he'll hold a contest. He draws a line on the ground, tells the women to stand on either side. He gives the child to them, the hands to one woman and the feet to the other. He tells them to pull. Whoever succeeds in pulling the child to her is the mother.

The two women pull. The baby starts crying. Then, one of the women, unable to bear the child's cries, lets go. The other woman triumphantly turns to the King. King Solomon takes the child from the woman and hands it to the one who let go. Only a mother could do what she did, he says. Feel the child's pain.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009


I discovered Frankie Anon's blog, Object Wisdom, quite by accident. A bloghopping binge, incessant clicking, blog after blog, post after post, and then suddenly, one lovely vignette of a great aunt and uncle transplanted from America's hinterland into the Sri Lanka of the 50s and 60s. The part about the bhikku delighting in the forbidden taste of sugar at her grand aunt's dinner table was mesmerizing. I was hooked.

Frankie has stories, the kind I like to read. And she has the wonderful ability to tell them in a way that is objective and loving at the same time.

So I was (and still am!) thrilled that she thought to pass on the Sisterhood Award to me along with four other bloggers. Thank you Frankie!

The award, though, comes with a catch - I must pass it on to five other women bloggers. A catch I'm only too happy to fulfill! So here goes.

Ra - Is a thinker. I admire her passion for social issues and her commitment to righting the wrongs she sees around her on a daily basis. If there were more Ras in this world, we could all rest a little easier. I only wish she would write more!

Curiously Strong - Writes about a wide range of topics, some will throw you for a loop, some will make you nod in recognition. A blogger with incredible heart and love of life. I wish some of that would rub off on me!

Winkie's Way - Mostly writes about the adventures of the growing-up years of her two darling boys. Her posts are bathed in spirituality and have the ability to make you feel connected to her, her boys, and no matter what your belief or faith, to the grand scheme of things.

ChoxBox - Chox and I have such a similar outlook on things - the stuff we do with our kids, our ideas on schooling, on how social issues affect our kids. It's great to be able to read her thoughts.

Last, but not least, Nino's Mum - No matter if she's writing about something very personal or about the goings-on around her, Nino's Mum's writing has that wonderful lyrical quality and a depth of feeling. I know I could never write like that, but it's just lovely to be able to read someone who does it so well.

I am the luckier for having these kindred spirits (and you too Frankie) in my circle. I know I've said this before but I don't mind repeating it - we have all had such different lives, growing up far away from each other in diverse cultures, but it is just so amazing that we recognize so much of ourselves in the other. At the end of the day it's a powerful feeling to know that we're all in the same boat, that none of us is alone. And for that I'm grateful. Thank you.

If you have a few minutes to pass the thought along, here's how to do it:

1. Put the logo on your blog or post.
2. Nominate at least 5 blogs which show great ATTITUDE and/or GRATITUDE.
3. Be sure to link to your nominees within your post.
4. Let them know that they have received this award by commenting on their blog.
5. Share the love and link this post to the person from whom you received your award.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Forgotten Children

A couple of weeks ago Heather wrote a funny post about the time she was driving alone in the car, the first time in a really long while she'd been in the car by herself. She saw a train and proceeded to point out the 'choo choo', quite forgetting that her children were not with her. I had giggled at the image the post produced, reminiscing about the times I'd done some equally silly thing in the car, feeling good, somewhere inside, that our children always seem to be on our minds no matter what we're doing.

Then a few days after that, the Washington Post Sunday Magazine carried an article titled 'Fatal Distraction', a story about the parents who forget their children are in the car and go about their business. Over the past couple of years, particularly during the summer, I'd started noticing news items of such babies. The stories are prevalent in the summer because for a small child locked in a car parked outside, the combination of heat and humidity can prove to be fatal.

It is, as the article says, an 'incomprehensible, modern way' in which children die. Children are put in the back of the car and they are seated facing the back of the car for their safety, because that is the safest position for the mandatory car seats. So a parent getting down from the car and getting ready to go to work or to the grocery store or to the doctor cannot see the baby unless they go round to the back and look for the baby.

Of course, the first reaction to any story such as the ones profiled in the article is one of judgement: "How could they do that? How could they forget their own child? How could they be so careless? They must not care for the child. I would never do such a stupid thing as that. What could be so important in their lives that they forgot their baby?" You try, half-heartedly, to make sense of the how of it all, and are only too willing to give up.

Not so Gene Weingarten.

A humor columnist for the Washington Post, Weingarten turns a gentle, sympathetic, understanding eye toward these tortured souls. And in doing so, tells us our first reaction is to be expected, but that the parents really deserve better than that. They have punished themselves way more than any of us or our judicial system could ever do - they have put themselves under a life sentence of guilt; they have wanted to die themselves; they know what they've done and will live the rest of their lives fitfully reliving the events of that fateful day. And really, there go I but for the grace of god, right?

At one of the trials, the defendant's family took the witness stand in his defense:
From the witness stand, Harrison's mother defiantly declared that Miles had been a fine son and a perfect, loving father. Distraught but composed, Harrison's wife, Carol, described the phone call that her husband had made to her right after he'd discovered what he'd done, the phone call she'd fielded on a bus coming home from work. It was, she said, unintelligible screaming.
The part of the story that resonated with me the most was this: present at the trial of one of the parents were two women not related to the defendant in any way - they were not friends or family or co-workers or part of the court. They were two women who had done the same terrible thing to their children. They did not need to be there, they had no role in the case; they did not want to be there. But they felt compelled to be there. Perhaps no one understood the defendant's state of mind better than those two women.

That is human connection at a level so raw, so fundamental and so refined - all at the same time.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Footloose Friday - VI

Anoop Desai's rather disastrous performance of Michael Jackson's Beat It! on American Idol transported me to the living rooms of my growing up years. Our single-speaker Two-in-One (it had a radio and a cassette player) spewed out a tinny Michael Jackson - venomous in Beat It!, regretful (was that what it was? not really sure now) in Billie Jean, scary in Thriller. We danced and sang (much like Anoop, and I know we were nothing short of silly) and generally drove our parents nuts.

It also made me want to watch this video at once - Suleiman Mirza and Madhu Singh channeling Michael Jackson.


The video has become unavailable. Here's a link to it instead.

Earlier Footloose Friday posts available by clicking on the label below. Enjoy!

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

War on War

A few months ago, C had to interpret the theme of 'WOW' and create art or compose music or write poetry based on his interpretation. He chose to write an essay and he interpreted the theme to mean 'War on War'. I produce his composition below.

As background, we had visited Arlington Cemetery in Virginia just a few days before he started writing. The tender ages of the soldiers buried there is just shocking. It apparently made an impression on C as well.

Formatting the essay was at the forefront of his mind when he started writing. He remembered what his teacher had told him about how to organize an essay ('tell them what you're going to tell them, tell them and tell them what you just told them'). He gave me a lecture about it first, then wrote down the format on a separate page and diligently tried to follow it. He may not have succeeded in adhering to it to the letter, but I was thrilled that he had thought about it at all.

Since he wrote it down in pencil, it's not as clear as I'd like it to be. I do hope you don't have too much trouble reading it.

Thank you for reading.

Monday, March 09, 2009

My World: Vietnam War Memorial, Washington, D.C.

When you first approach Washington, D.C. from Virginia, from across the Potomac river, your eyes cannot but marvel at the monuments in your line of sight - the Lincoln Memorial, the Washington Monument, the Kennedy Center. Monuments you may have never seen before but are likely instantly familiar to you.

Tucked away in one corner of the Mall, just beyond the Lincoln Memorial, just below your line of sight, so un-ostentatious that you will miss it if you are not looking for it, is the Vietnam War Memorial.

Vietnam Memorial

It is one of the more popular tourist attractions in Washington, D.C. In fact it is the hordes of people that first give you an inkling that there is something worth looking at in that part of the Mall.

For many of the people milling around the monument, however, this is a pilgrimage, not a "must-see" stop on a tour.

On any given day, you will find children, wives, brothers and sisters, comrades and friends, pencil and paper in hand, walking along the wall, squinting, trying to find that one name they've come from all corners of the country looking for. They also come with old black and white photographs, year books, flowers, war medals, anything that once belonged to a loved one whose name has now been etched onto that wall.

The Washington Monument reflected in the Wall

They make etchings of their own. They slide their fingers along the names, the feeling at the tips of their fingers more concrete, perhaps, than anything they've been able to recall in a long time. They take photographs. They bow their heads and lean against the cold of the granite. They stand and stare. Lost, I imagine, in the memories of a time long gone.

To check out more MyWorld posts, visit That's My World.

Related post: My essay on Washington, D.C., Power Point.

Saturday, March 07, 2009

Gender and nature vs. nurture

Back in college, one of the more fascinating chapters in our hopelessly outdated Psychology text book was the one about whether nature trumped nurture in shaping personalities. We read about cross-sectional studies and longitudinal studies on identical twins, fraternal twins and plain old siblings to pinpoint which factors influenced how kids turned out. The cross-sectional studies picked relevant subjects (i.e., children) at a point in time while the longitudinal ones followed the same subjects over a period of years.

Exceptions abound, of course, but do girls naturally gravitate towards dolls and kitchen play sets or do we, as a society, subtly influence their preferences by plying them with the toys we think girls will/should like? Are boys hardwired to like trucks and cricket (or baseball) and motor car racing and science and math or do we expose them to these activities because they're boys?

Now that I am the mother of a son and a daughter, I'm observing my own little experiment take shape. Every day provides ample data to test either hypothesis - is it nature over nurture or is it nurture over nature?

Just the fact that they are two different people accounts for a lot of differences to begin with. Those of you with children of the same gender could attest to this too, I'm sure. Although I never fail to be amazed by it - how can children of the same two people be so different from each other?

But of late, I've been watching D, my two and a half year old daughter, doing things that I cannot attribute to anything other than gender. We have not bought her dolls, we have not bought her cooking sets. We don't buy her overly frilly clothes.

First, there's the need to comfort all manner of objects around the house. The huge wall mirror in the dining room is sad. Why? Because he's missing his mommy mirror and wants to see his mommy. So she goes and stands next to the mirror and pats it in an attempt to make it feel better. A few minutes later, "He's feeling better, mommy! I made him feel all better!" It's the same story with her blankie, her Clifford toy, a book. They're all missing their mommies and feeling sad.

Then there's the babying. She has a toy walk-along dog that one day I found her putting baby lotion on. She squeezed little bits on to her palm and smeared it all over the toy. Then she laid him on her lap and tried to pat him to sleep. With a lullaby.

When she's trying to make me feel better, she's fully involved, unlike my son who feels terrible and awkward at the same time. I can see him wishing I'd feel better already. D, on the other hand, acts like she's found her calling. She sidles up to me, holds my hand, says "awwww, feel better, Mommy," and proceeds to ask me how I'm feeling in a gentle voice. And she's a great - and constant - assessor of facial expressions. She wants to know if I'm sad, angry, happy, feeling better, all from looking at my face. And goes off in a huff and sulks, "You're angry. I don't like you anymore." My son just says, "Mom, stop being angry with me," fully meaning it and expecting me to stop being angry that minute.

I haven't started applying more make up since D was born nor do I spend any more time grooming myself, but she's fascinated by every little detail. She must apply chap stick before heading out (I have to remind my son every single time and sometimes do it by force); she stands patiently while I apply baby lotion; she loves hair clips and walks around with hair bands for bracelets; she loves my bangles and will play with them for hours; the look of absolute delight on her face when I wear traditional Indian clothes is to die for; she gravitates towards frocks (one day after she put on a pant and a turtleneck - the hallmark of a winter wardrobe - she looked at herself in the mirror and declared, "I look like a man. I want my frock."); she's partial to soft material; she loves her flowery shoes; I can tell she cannot wait for the day she can start using eye-liner and perfume and deodorant spray (she stands next to me and lifts her arm and pretend sprays into her armpit, in unison with me); she has strong opinions on what she'd like to wear on any particular day, taking her time to assess the possibilities and finally picking one.

My son, on the other hand, will wear the clothes in the topmost layer of his drawer. If he puts something back into his drawer after using it for a short while one day, the next day he appears in the same set of clothes.

As you might have guessed, I am gravitating towards the opinion that nature trumps nurture. But we're not complaining. My husband is the eldest of four brothers and I was not too much into make up and dressing up when I was young, so it is delightful as it is fascinating for both of us to watch D. We're not in any hurry to nurture her natural instincts out of her any time soon. Very likely never.

Update (October 12, 2009): Emily Bazelon reviews Lise Eliot's Pink Brain Blue Brain:

"Sex differences in the brain are sexy," Eliot writes. And so we tend to notice them everywhere. "But there's enormous danger," she says, in our exaggeration. It leads us to see gender, beginning at an early age, only in terms of what we expect to see, and to assume that sex differences are innate and immutable. We forget that the differences within each sex -- among girls and among boys -- are usually greater than the gaps between the two.


... Eliot's trump card is the brain's plasticity. Our brains are works in progress. They change based on experience, especially in early childhood. So a child's environment matters in terms of the skills and interests he or she develops. That doesn't mean pushing trucks on the 3-year-old girl who wants dolls -- we've all seen that experiment fail. But how about giving her a Lego set, sidewalk chalk or even a doll stroller, to encourage her to move around and think in spatial terms?

The first time I walked down this road...

Yes, my very firm resolution was that I would not do tags. But this one, tagged by Tharini, I'd already done before on FB for Deej, so it was just a matter of copying and pasting! Is that a valid excuse?



Delight and relief!



I had a very strong inkling at work. Even though we'd been disappointed many times before, I left work early to get home and do the test.

The husband, my partner in crime.

April 24.


No cravings.

Nothing, really. Except may be for the heartburn towards the end when the baby was pushing up into my lungs.


The first time it really did not matter. All we wanted was a healthy baby.


Yes! It was a delightful affair. We had so much fun with all sorts of games my friends had planned.

I knew. I went armed with idlis and chutney for a friend who wanted some.


At a hospital. I loved the birthing room. It was spacious and did not at all feel like a hospital.


The husband. My mom came along, but she went back home after a couple of hours.

The husband, the doc and a nurse. We went back a few weeks later to give the nurse a box of chocolates, but unfortunately she'd left the hospital. Her presence was very soothing. I held on to her hand for dear life, my nails bearing down and gashing her skin. But she never told me to let go.



8 lbs 4 oz.

A few days after his due date.

We already knew it would be a boy.

Couldn't wait to meet this ...thing... that had been inside me for 9 months! I knew everything - the shape of his head, nose, mouth, the poke of his knees, his elbows, his tush, the sugar rush he got every time I ate cake. But I really didn't know him at all.

Nope. The husband did, as he cut the umbilical cord.

Big N!

8 going on 9.

Updating to change the title to the one in the tag.

Updating to add a link to a relevant post: Labor of Love.

If winter is here can spring be far behind?

The Cardinal, Virginia's state bird, made an appearance a few days ago. I finally caught one through a window (that has a slight tint, hence the dark shade of the photo). Since I hadn't seen one all winter, I shall take this to be a sign of the approaching spring. No matter that the Cardinal is called the Winter Redbird because that's the only red bird that you can spot in the winter.

If you refocus your eyes to the front of the pic, you can see the icicles hanging on the window frame from last week's winter storm. Each time one fell, it made a terrible racket. I wondered what would happen if it fell on someone. This thought reminded me of an Agatha Christie (?) mystery in which the murder weapon is an icicle.

Thursday, March 05, 2009

A known memory

We heard the cow mooing angrily and galloping down the dusty path long before we saw it. A hysterical female voice shrieked at us to get out of the way. We flung our heads around wildly, trying to locate where the cow was coming from and ran helter-skelter away from the dust cloud.

We were a gaggle of seven-year-olds on the way back home from school and for a few minutes the connoisseurs of pure, unadulterated panic. We regrouped in the middle of the path in the wake of the errant cow and her frantic owner. Still shaking, we looked around uncertainly, mutely debating whether to continue on or wait for evidence of the all-clear.

The rest of the details are lost in the recesses of my memory, but suffice to say we all made it back home safely that evening.

The two years we spent in Kuppam, in Andhra's Chitoor district, could well belong to someone else. It all seems so far away in distance and time. Except that while large patches are missing from my memory bank, certain memories still clamor for attention. They just come and wait until I deal with them. There is no pattern or time table. But it is also the distance of time and space, and conscious effort, that makes the memories malleable, amenable to being organized.

During our time in Kuppam, I was six and seven, my brother was two and three, my dad was a bank manager and my mother was the underpinning that held our itinerant life together. We moved every two years, following my dad wherever his job postings took him.

For the first time and really the only time in all the years we moved from town to town, our home was right on top of my father's office. The entire ground floor was the bank and the entire top floor was our home. As you can imagine the house was massive. Certainly larger than anything we had lived in up to that point. Huge bedrooms, a large living room, a separate dining room, a fantastic kitchen and sprawling terraces in the front and in the back. There were two problems as far as I can remember. One, the fact that we were right on top of my father's workplace and two, the monkeys.

First, the house. In those days there were no mixer-grinders. My mom ground batter and made masala powders the old-fashioned way - with stone grinders by hand. The first few times she tried it, an office boy from the bank would come bounding up the stairs, quaking in his bare feet, probably cursing his fate at having to convey an angry message from his boss, the "Saar", to the boss' wife. The grinding made a godawful noise downstairs. Plus my dad could not have relished the thought of everyone knowing what was cooking upstairs.

Second, the monkeys. They were everywhere. They were bold. Sometimes they were aggressive. It was a delight to watch them go about their life - taking care of the babies, grooming each other (although it was slightly gross when they ate the lice. Ugh!), fighting, playing. But you could never tell when they would get aggressive. So when the monkeys came out, we stayed in.

And for the only time ever in all my academic life, I went to school for two years in the servants' quarters, stables and barns of one of the lesser known palaces of India.

To my seven-year-old eyes, the front of the palace was an awesome sight although years of neglect had rendered the edifice a mere shadow of a palace - with pock-marked walls, broken doors, crumbling steps - whose former glories could only be imagined. Countless small arches in the deep yellow exterior walls offered a peep into mystifying darkness. It was made very attractive by the fact that we were forbidden from setting foot in the palace. It was still occupied by a lone man, a descendant of royalty we were told, and he hated having the kids mess up his space with food crumbs. So we reluctantly stuck to the back of the palace, which I must say was pretty memorable on its own.

The Yvonne Douglas Primary English School (which we pronounced as Why One Douglas...) was started in the memory of the wife of Mr. Douglas (I cannot remember his first name). The only English-medium school in town, it was run by Mr. Douglas' two children. As far as I knew, all Mr. Douglas did was walk around the school with a fly swatter in his hand, swinging it wildly at insects big and small, real and imagined.

Ms. Douglas spent ten minutes every day during assembly teaching us the difference in pronunciation between words starting with 'v' and 'w'. She taught us to bite our lower lip for the 'v' and pucker our lips into a circle for the 'w'.

One day, she noticed a boy wearing all black. The boys were supposed to wear khaki colored shirts and shorts. So she called him out and asked him why he was wearing black. The boy looked confused and said, "I am wearing khaki colored clothes." Back and forth they went, she asking why and he repeating his assertion. Then it finally dawned on one of the Indian teachers - 'khaki' means 'crow' in Telugu. So the boy's family thought they had to get him black colored clothes.

During the first Christmas I was there, the school decided to put up a play about the birth of Jesus. Someone had the bright idea of including live goats in the play. During one of the rehearsals, the goats got so scared they pooped on stage. As you can imagine, that idea was scrapped in a hurry.

The most excruciating part about school was having to learn a new language from scratch. I had studied English and Kannada before, but now I had to learn to read and write Telugu. And because we moved in the middle of the school year, I had to get all my subject notes up to date, which meant pages and pages of writing. I remember just putting my heard down in my arms at the dining table and having a good bawl, with all my notes spread around me, my mother holding me and trying to comfort a tired soul.

Also for the first time I remember lying to and manipulating my parents.

The town had one big cinema tent. The entire town - rich or poor - congregated under that one tent for movies big, small, super hits, also-rans and everything in between. One day a friend asked if I wanted to go with her to watch a movie the whole town was buzzing about. To a seven-year-old it was mighty tempting. I ran up to ask my mother. She said no. So the friend suggested I ask my dad. My dad, who never involved himself in any of these sorts of decisions, absent-mindedly nodded his head and I was off. I wish I could tell you that I was influenced, nay corrupted, by my friend, but that would not be the entire story. All I could see at that moment was me in that movie tent. I did not think about obedience or consequences.

When I returned home later that evening, my parents were waiting for me. Their eyes brimmed with disappointment and sadness. I remember very clearly being stood there in the living room and handed down THE RULE. If one of them said no, I was not to go running to the other. I was to simply assume that the other would say no too. And they stuck to it. They never played one against the other. As far as the children were concerned they were one.

Most of all, those two years are memorable for that idyllic small-town life that is the stuff of sepia-toned novels - the weekly village fair ("santha") was a big to-do when farmers and traders from the near-by villages congregated in town; when my brother became ill, we had to get him on a train and take him to Bangalore because there was no one in Kuppam who could tell why his fever wasn't going down; a carpenter who lived and worked across the street from our house just took it upon himself to make a toy bullock cart for my brother; summer nights were spent under the stars on the terrace or whatever open space you had around your house; festivals were a communal affair - everyone had their little rituals at home, but mostly everyone congregated in a central place to celebrate them together; bicycles and mopeds were popular, four-wheelers rare - everyone just walked wherever they needed to get to.

We moved to a lot of other cities and towns after Kuppam and each comes packaged with its own memories. But for me our time in that town signifies the beginning of the memories of me as a being separate from my parents, as someone who experienced a set of events distinct from anyone else in my family, and was able to recall them years later.

A playset on the White House grounds

For the first time in a long time, young children are ruling the White House grounds. The caption to this photograph on the Time White House Photo Blog says the swing set sits outside the Oval Office.

There's something very soothing about this picture. The burden and awesomeness of the job tempered by the sweet ordinariness of being the father of two young children. More power to the man (and his wife) who find comfort in this ordinariness and are not shy about seeking it.

Photo credit: Brooks Craft / Corbis for Time

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

My World: Winter Wonderland and Guntapanganalu

The city and its suburbs crawl at a snail's pace in the face of snow storms, much to the amusement of a certain Chicago native who has taken up temporary residence in the city. The last time the city shut down in January due to a heavy snow fall and his two daughters stayed home from school, he did not hide his disdain for us wimps.

There is just no comparison, however, between DC and Chicago when it comes to extreme winter weather. We may get a handful of winter storms a year - just enough to keep the kids happy, and the parents and schools from pulling their hair out. So this area just does not see the wisdom in spending millions of dollars on preemptive management of snow storms.

Perhaps that criticism, however undeserved, stung - DC schools decided to open late rather than shut down completely yesterday. Schools in the suburbs felt no such compunction. The snow day alert went out to the parents even before the first snow flake floated down to the ground.

By the time morning rolled around, that decision certainly appeared wise. The Washington area had its first real winter storm of the season. Thick, powdery snow hung heavily on the evergreens and formed neat beds on the deck, patio, railings and steps.

The sun came out a little while later. While it made no dent in the piles of snow all around, it did make interesting patterns.

A woman walked her dog in the woods, stopping occasionally to take pictures. The dog saw its chance and gamboled away out of shot. The woman had intended to continue on, but when there was no sign of her dog, she retraced her steps in the direction from which she came.

A snow day, lots of shoveling and the cold weather all pointed to a hot, spicy brunch. So guntapanganalu it was, with coconut chutney. For those who don't know, guntapanganalu are small, round, roasted puffs made of dosa batter to which finely chopped onions, green chillies and coriander leaves (cilantro) have been added. They are made in a special cast iron pan, usually with about seven pits (in Telugu, guntalu - hence the name for the dish), placed directly over the flame.

My mother, who is on a perpetual quest to make my life easier, had purchased a non-stick version before I went to India the last time around. They are infinitely easier to handle.

Dipped in spicy chutney, they are delicious. The problem with these, unlike the regular dosas, is that you lose count of how many you eat!

If you live in the US and don't have one of those pans, kitchen equipment stores sell pans for making sweet pancake puffs. From what I've seen, it seems like you could use that pan to make guntapanganalus. Now I've taken to making pancake puffs in my own non-stick pan too. They turn out great and the kids have a blast pouring syrup over the puffs.

All in all, a good snow day.

To check out more MyWorld posts, visit That's My World.

Monday, March 02, 2009

Blogging, Following and Being Followed

In the real world being followed is creepy. In the blogosphere and in twitter land, it is apparently an occurrence to be welcomed. I thought a blogroll served the purpose wonderfully - I have a list of blogs I read regularly in my sidebar. The list was by no means exhaustive, but it was where I would start out when I wanted to read blogs.

A few months away from blogging and the landscape changed on me. Now it's not enough to blogroll, you must follow.

I must admit that following is easy. You just click on the 'Follow' button and the blog automatically shows up on a list on your blog. And if the blog being followed chooses to do so, your profile pic shows up in their sidebar, making it easy for them to keep track and read their followers' blogs if they are so inclined.

For weeks I resisted following. I had my list and tweaked it every now and then, adding blogs I'd left out while I changed my template and I saw no reason to change.

Then this past weekend, I went on a bloghopping binge. I threw my sights far and wide and came upon blog after blog that I wanted to read and ... er .... follow. So I clicked away with abandon, feeling like a kid in a candy store. It was so much easier to do it right there, rather than keep track of where I'd been, come back to my blog, and then go through all the steps to add to my blogroll.

So now I have my blogroll, which I fully intend to keep (as of today, anyway) and I have a list of blogs I follow.

If you'd like to follow this blog (and I hope you do!), click away! The box is up on the side bar. Very convenient, eh?*


The weekend bloghopping journey was an eye-opener in more ways than one. A long time ago, my father shared with me a letter that his oldest brother had written to him from Egypt back in the 50s. In that letter, my uncle narrated his experiences and ended with the thought that human nature was the same everywhere, that people are essentially the same no matter where they live.

The stories I read this past weekend bore testimonial to that statement. We, who live in the far corners of the world and are separated not just by distance, but by age, race, culture, upbringing, gender and experiences, are more alike than we can fathom. Of all the posts I read about the anxieties and the joy and pain about being a mother, about aunts and uncles and family dynamics, about being a grandparent, about love and loss, about local communities and about the amazing perspectives we human beings bring to life and its hardships, the two that astounded me were the ones written by two women, one in California, the other in Mumbai. Go read for yourself and be amazed!

* Thank you to all those already in the box!

Slumdog kids return home to life as usual

But what did we expect? Did we really expect their lives to be changed? For good or for worse? Are they worse off for having caught a glimpse, however fleeting, of the Other Side?

I've been feeling terrible ever since I saw photographs of Azhar, one of the younger actors in Slumdog, being smacked around by his father (via Solilo's blog). Then this morning I found that Amrita had written about this as well and her thoughts echoed many of mine. Her wonderfully thorough, analytical post is definitely worth a read.
Lesson Every Poor Must Learn: bitching about white filmmaker establishing trust funds for your kid, okay; disciplining your kid the way you’ve always disciplined him, big no-no!

Out went the old, poverty-stricken, living in a shack, Azhar’s TB-ridden dad who needs justice now - in came horrible, physically abusive, illiterate, Muslim, third-world Azhar’s dad who wants to make a fast buck off his little kid because he’s too lazy to go out there and get a job for himself.

Far be it from me to shield a man who beats his child, but maybe the lesson to be learned from this is to leave the kids alone. They’ve had a rollercoaster ride of it, they’ve seen things and experienced events that most kids their age, whatever their family’s circumstances, would never undergo in a million years, and now they’ve got to get back to life as it’s usually lived.

There are people who think taking kids like Azhar and Rubina to L.A. was a cruel thing to do, exposing them to a world so far removed from their own, one that they have very little hope of touching ever again - I think it was a wonderful thing to do.

The whole thing here.