Sunday, August 30, 2009

On being a mother in law.

Young girls aspiring to marry a TDH guy of your choice are advised to stay away from this post. You may read it at the risk of being subjected to some leg pulling exercise from me so be warned. No malice intended. Just some harmless fun at your expense.

There was a time some 30 years back when the boys family decided on the qualities possessed by their would be daughter in law. My mother in law expected me to be able to cook for 50 people if the situation so demanded. "Ellunna ennaiya nikkanum". This roughly translates as " One should be ready with sesame oil when the word sesame is uttered." I did not fit the bill and she had to manage with a DIL who could barely manage to cook for 5 persons. Forget the stipulated 50. But we got on pretty well. She'd teach me to stand up for my rights as a woman so what if it was my husband who was acting difficult. As for my father in law - the poor man could not even say that there was less salt in rasam or something as simple as that. My mother in law would take up for me like a mother hen and ask him to get used to eating less salt. "It is good for your health" she'd announce. Those were days that I always cherish.

Fast forward by 36 years. I hear that it is the girls who set conditions for marriage to a guy. Like some girl who said that she wanted her MIL to be able to speak good English and I've started worrying. 'Will my english be good enough for my DIL?' I wonder. Don't go by what I write. Years and years of life spent in Bihar/Jharkhand and that too in a town like Jamshedpur I cannot speak a complete sentence in any one language. Being close to Kolkata our Hindi is Bengali mixed and unique to our town. Tamil being my mother tongue I tend to add a few words of Tamil when I speak to my children. So it is Hinglish/Benglish/Taminglish all in one. Like when my daughter calls I may say something like

"Sollumma, kaisi ho? yeh week end me kya ki? Teri mamiyar kaisey manage kar rahi hai?"

This means " Tell me, how do you do? What did you do this week end? How is your mother in law managing?"

The ease with which I blend the three languages would baffle any DIL who did not know all of them and if she expected me to speak any one language I'd have a lot of unlearning to do. I think I should start practising. Who knows which language she'd want me to talk to her. Let me at least be fluent in the three that I claim to know.

My DIL may herself be a Hinglish speaking girl or even otherwise she may not be a talkative person so the language issue may get automatically resolved. I may only have to say 'yes', 'No' and okay. But she may have other conditions. What if she is a towering personality and my less than 5 feet of height puts her off? I don't blame her. If she wants to see my face I'd have to lift it up or else she'd only see the top of my head. Constantly lifting up my head would aggravate my spondilytis and my shoulders would take turns to freeze. I'd trouble her to open doors and pick out stuff from shelves and the poor girl would also have to close doors and put back stuff. You see, even with the best intentions I can be a pain and it is only my husband who can pamper me 'cos he has no other option.

I am crazy about my cross word and sudoku. I read the head lines and check out university news and get started with my crossword. Not the cryptic one - just the quick one. I know of a 90 year old greatgrandpa who'd fight with his 70 year old son for the days newspaper. They'd buy 'The Hindu', Deccan Chronicle as well as Economic Times all in duplicate. Both would want all three papers for themselves. A fold here or a crease there would not be tolerated. It was the grandson who solved the problem by ordering two sets of all three newpapers. So, should my DIL want a crisp new newspaper to read I think I'll do the same. One set for her and another for me. As of now my husband waits for me to be done with my crossword before he even casts an eye or lays a hand on it. No, don't start imagining that he's an absolute angel. He is not. This is one area in which he is not in competition with me.

When I am pensive I tend to put a hand on my hip. My daughter keeps pulling it off. She says it makes me look formidable. I'd often wonder why I shouldn't look formidable? But now I feel that my DIL like my daughter would also object to a MIL with hands on her hips. She may prefer one with fingers on the lips. I think I'll try to get rid of the habit.

So you see our generation of mothers and mothers in law are rather accomodative. One has to just specify and we'd adapt. I invite my readers to let me know if there are any more specifications to qualify for the degree of a MIL.

Thursday, August 20, 2009


Sometime back I read an article in 'Prabhat Khabar' discussing the pathetic condition of colleges and universities in Jharkhand/Bihar. The topic was in fact covered in a series of 5 to 6 articles and were authored by a professor from IIT, Madras.He, who had been a product of schools and colleges in Bihar knew what he was talking about. He laments that the colleges in the region are just shadows of what they were when he was a student. He is ofcourse right.The college that my husband studied was one of the best in the state and students who were his batch mates have made it to prestigious universities abroad in times when parents hardly aspired to send their children abroad and most were happy to see them graduate in local colleges and take up jobs in and around the town where they were raised.

Truth is bitter and I found it difficult to swallow it. After all I am being paid by the tax payer's money and hope to draw a decent pension on retirement. But I needed to do some introspection and acknowledge how far and how much was I responsible for the situation and defend myself if possible. It really didn't require a professor from far off Chennai to tell us to our face that the functioning of colleges in our part of India is bad. It may be worse elsewhere but I am not accountable for all colleges and universities. I just want to find out through my analysis if there is still some hope and scope for our system to improve.

Anyone can come to our college at around 2.30 PM in the afternoon and find the campus deserted except for a handful of students who are either waiting for their company buses to ferry them back home or attending practical classes. The time table indicates that the college functions till 4.00 PM. Where have all the students gone one may wonder. They are either busy attending tuition classes/coaching classes or buying little trinklets at the local market a stone's throw away from the college. Teachers have to remain in college till 4 in the evening since they are being paid. Students pay a pittance as college fee. Their parents pay at least 10 times more as tuition fees in tutorials and coaching centres and one does not have to be a genius to understand where their priorities lie. Our Principal tried locking the gate one day. The press came, student union leaders came, there were frantic phone calls being made to the Principal. The students shouted slogans from within and the brothers joined them from outside. On the very day 2 programmes to celebrate the Science Month were going on and the students wanted to be let out rather than sit through these lectures. Not a single parent seemed to have questioned his/her ward. The general feeling is that classes are never held as per schedule in the college. How can classes be held in the absence of students? If anyone has an answer please let me know. Gates were finally opened and haven't been locked since then. No student union leader comes to advise his fellow students to attend classes regularly or to arrange for tuitions after college hours.

Was this always so?? No, it wasn't. When I first joined college we had students who came from their theory class discussing the topic taken up. They'd account for the number of ATP molecules formed in the course of a cycle of reactions in biochemistry or the bonding of atoms in a particular molecule and I'd have to ask them to stop their discussion and get on with their practical work. We still remember our old students. Arunima for the diagrams she made and Manisha for her perseverance and so many others who may not have been bright sparks but were keen to learn and made a sincere effort towards aquiring knowledge. This is what I find missing in my current batch of students. I had mentioned about a batch of students in an earlier post. In my department they were perhaps the last batch of dedicated students. Students wanting to study basic science have decreased in number. Another women's college in town offers Biotechnology and Environmemt and Water management as Honours courses. Students seem to find those courses more appealing. But a post graduate in Water management may be good for the industry but may not necessarily be a good Biology teacher in school. And not all of them are absorbed in industries. Some do take up teaching not having anything else to do. As a result the very foundation may be wobbly and it is these students that come to college and are unable to cope with the speed at which education is imparted in college. With coaching classes mushrooming all over town they prefer to go there rather than stay on in college. The college is reduced to a mere examination centre. They do not realize that tuitions can supplement or compliment class room coaching. They can never replace the teacher who draws figures on the board or explains the portion in detail.

It is the future of our children I worry about. The process of imparting and aquiring knowledge should be enjoyed to the core. Parental ambition sees to it that children handle the computer even before they learn to talk. Is it any wonder that we have robots instead of children and the curiosity of an entire generation is being stifled? A reputed preparatory/play school in town holds entrance tests for two year old kids and parents keep their fingers crossed for their ward's admission. It is a kind of prestige issue to have your child coached in the school.

I happened to visit the school attended by my grand daughter in Maryland, USA. The school charges no fees or may be a nominal amount. Parents don't go hunting for the most expensive scools. In fact the school authorized by your county is the only one you can send your child to. Children have an hour or two of systematic learning to do followed by an hour of any activity of the child's choice. The child can draw or paint, read a book or organise cutlery and crockery on a dining table. The child learns a lot when she/he is left to choose an activity of her/his interest. I also saw volunteers reading out stories to children in a local library and this was perhaps to help weak students and others who don't speak English at home to pick up language and grammar. In another day care I saw flower pots with children's name on it. Three year olds are encouraged to sow seeds and watch a seedling develop into a full grown plant. What a relaxing way to learn things. I really felt that our children were missing out on their childhood for no fault of theirs.

I may seem to have gone off the topic. No, not at all. I am coming to the point I wish to make. If one inculcated a love for learning in children and allowed them to do it at their own pace they may not peak before their time and will join college with their quest for knowledge in tact. As of now, we have a group that is so ambitious that they want short cuts to success and another group who are so weak that they lack even the will to try. The middle group to which most of us belong is perhaps missing. As a result no one wants to put their hearts into what they learn unless it translates into a five digit salary right from day one.

Sorry to sound pessimistic. But it is the future of India that is at stake. I've discussed only one aspect that bothers me. There are more angles that need to be explored and debated. I should consider the student's point of view and also accomodate the plight of parents who want the best for their wards. Somewhere in between the two, the role of politicians who want the masses to remain ignorant also needs to be included.

Sunday, August 09, 2009

Happy Janmashtami.

Janmashtami is approaching and the time for churning out Gokulashtami delicacies is here. We Tamilians treat Baby Krishna to sweets and savories - yummy crispies like murukku, cheedai both the sweet and salty variety and anything that one felt like offering him - the explanation being that since Gokulashtami denoted his birth he could be given things that children relish. Not that older people like me don't relish them but these are supposed to be children's favorites and we could have a bite if we felt like it. Now my good friend Meera found this very funny.

"The Lord is an infant and should be offered milk, curd and a generous amount of butter. He has no teeth so how will he eat all these deep fired hard stuff?" she'd ask.

Not to be outsmarted I'd ask her if a new born could be treated to butter and curd and the question would remain unresolved.

I always feel that festivals in India are unique. It is during these festivals that good, wholesome home made delicacies were served. Sweets were exchanged and ladies socialized with others in the neighborhood. Whether it is Ramnavami, Navaratri, Deepavali or Sankaranthi all Hindus mark out the day and special items are carefully prepared and distributed after having been duly offered to God. Id-ul-fitr and the sewai one gets to eat from our Muslim friends or the cakes distributed during X'mas, Easter and New Year were also looked forward to with equal zest. I notice that I keep going into the past tense while I type out this piece. And why not? Making sweets at home has now become an onerous task and it seems easier to order them from the nearest sweet - mart. I won't be surprised if I tell my grandchildren some 5 years from now that when their parents were children I actually made sweets at home.

No, I am not blaming anyone. It is just that times have changed. Joint families have become a thing of the past and with both husband and wife working no one has the time. Moreover with machines taking over, even simple tasks like washing one's own clothes or pounding a little 'masala' seem impossible. When the body does not exercise it starts rejecting food that it cannot process and one starts gaining weight - me included. Believe me I've hand washed clothes as long as the children were in Jamshedpur and used the manual wet grinder till I was nearly 50 years of age. I'd return from college around 2 in the afternoon and soak a bucketful of clothes. I'd wash them at 4 in the evening and let the water drip while I went to fetch milk and when others picked up clothes that had dried I'd spread out clothes for drying.

"it is not good to dry out clothes when birds return to their nests. It is just not done at odd hours."- someone or the other would point out.

I had no choice. If I washed clothes in the morning I'd be late for work and/or my husband and children would have gone hungry. Ask me to do it now and I may get panic attacks. BTW my washing machine is out of order and I am deliberately not getting it fixed so that I may wash my own clothes if not that of the entire family. I may give in when winter sets in but this little task gives me immense pleasure. Clothes seem to be cleaner and my walking speed has indeed increased. When I really lose some 5 kgs of weight I'll let you know!!

We seem to have been better off without the TV. Ignorance was bliss indeed. We have News channels reporting the use of synthetic milk to prepare sweets and this in turn is made up of urea and detergent. Synthetic paneer and Khoya (Paal gova for Tamilians) with carcinogenic additives are being sold or so they say. I'd really like to know if News channels are exaggerating information to improve their TRP or if it is indeed so. Last week I had invited a friend's family for dinner and my husband made me prepare some mysore pak at home citing all kinds of examples of adulteration sending shivers down my spine. My friend was bringing her son and 77 year old mother along and I just could not take the risk.

Coming to adulteration, my husband had gone to grind some Sambhar powder and he saw a man grinding some 50 kgs of turmeric. The man added atleast 20 kgs of cheap quality rice and 10 small bottles of some chemical that gave the turmeric powder a rich yellow color. He was shocked but there was more to come. The same man ground a very poor quality of throw away red chillies and again added a chemical that gave it a bright red color. The laborer who did the grinding confided to my husband that this was a regular practise but could not tell him what chemical was being added and whether it was safe for human consumption. He paid the man extra money to clean up the machine before putting our stuff into it. I wonder if all the branded masalas in attractive colours are prepared this way. Luckily or unluckily my husband does not like the packaged masala availble in the market and we prepare our own. I would not know if pepper corns and papaya seeds were mixed but at least I see to it that no chemicals are added to our masala. Nowadays he packs masala and gives it among friends for a nominal price and even without any advertisement I notice that the masalas are in great demand even though some products are a little costlier because he does not buy at wholesale rates and is therefore not cost efficient.

I seem to be drifting from one topic to another. But I do feel like talking about all such problems that are hazardous to the physical and mental health of society. The front page of any newspaper contains all kinds of negative reports. Swine flu seems to be spreading in most places. I hope each one of you and all your friends and relatives are taking utmost precaution. Those with little children should be extra careful not to take them to crowded places.

I can go on and on. But let me sign off with a story.

A woman went to the doctor and said that she wanted to reduce her weight. The doctor asked her to go for brisk walks in the morning and she refused saying that she had arthritis and could not take the risk. More over she was prone to cold and cough and the chill morning weather would aggravate the problem.

He asked her to exercise at home using the tread mill or stepper. She refused saying that her enlarged heart which would pop out if she over strained it.

He asked her to do aerobics at home. She vetoed the idea saying that the marble floor in her bedroom may cause her to slip and fall.

In a similar vein she rejected every suggestion made by the doctor. She could not survive on a high protein diet since she had gas problem, boiled vegetables were out because she hated bland food etc. etc.....

Finally after exhausting every possible solution the doctor said-

"Sit on a comfortable sofa right in front of the TV, take a remote in your hand, surf channels and watch TV all day."

She said -

"That is exactly what I do and my weight keeps increasing."

Happy Janmashtami to all of you!!

Saturday, August 01, 2009

36 years of togetherness.

I've just completed 36 years of marriage and we are a unique couple who were born on Indian Independance and Republic days respectively and tied the knot on July 4th that happens to be United States of America's Independance day. I am sure both of us were freedom fighters in our previous births or perhaps scheming politicians who were sent again to lead simple lives - far from the madding crowd - one may say. I am indeed surprised how naive (read stupid) both of us could be and I think it is this quality that holds us together. I am planning to share some of the major goof ups we were involved in and leave it to you readers to tell me whether as a 'Ram milaye Jodi' we are entitled to celebrate our years of togetherness.

Three weeks back my husband brought home some toovar dal for half the market price from a roadside vendor who sold his stuff on Sunday mornings. The dal cooked really well and the flavor was also very good. We got worried if it was smuggled stuff or what. How else could a person be able to sell good quality dal for such a throw away price. I promptly asked him to get 2kgs. of dal each for two of my colleagues who were supporting large families. He gladly obliged. My colleagues were thankful for my concern and reported that the dal was indeed very good. The following week I decided my ex and current maid servants should benefit by the reduced price and my husband heartily agreed with me. He went in the scorching sun and although the man had increased the price by Rs. 5/- and he had sold most of it, my husband bought whatever he had and came home with 4.5 kgs. of dal. This time however the dal was not of very good quality with small insects creeping out. The two of us sat and cleaned it up - each one duly blaming the other and finally decided that it could not be given to anyone including my servants. I suggested that we roast it lightly to prevent it from being fully eaten up by the insects and we are now stuck with a container full of dal in addition to the amount we bought the previous week and the normal quota purchased from the market. We may have to consume it for the next 4-5 months. However I did give my servant 1 kg of the dal (good quality) purchased the previous week. She was the one who enlightened me on why the price quoted was so low.

"Didi, this is not toovar dal at all. This is called 'kussi' dal and is consumed by tribals in and around Chota Nagpur plateau. It is not very popular among people from the city. It tastes like toovar dal but is available at very cheap rates in the village side."

We felt like fools but were relieved that it was not smuggled or black market stuff. For all you know the person who sold it may not be seen again and we may end up being questioned. I request all of you to pass on recipes that involve the inclusion of a sizeable proportion of dal in it - ofcourse 'adai and vadai' excluded.

We went for the foundation day celebration at a local Sai Baba temple. My husband is a Sai devotee and I am a devotee of a lesser degree. We donated generously and bought two tickets for 'Bhog'. Later one of the volunteers who recognizes us said that we could eat bhog there for free and take back bhog for others at home in packed containers for which tickets were needed. Since there was no one at home we decided that we could use 1 ticket and give away the other one to someone else. I suggested that the ticket be returned to the volunteer who would in turn give it to someone in need. From a distance I saw my husband return the ticket and take out some money that he gave to the volunteer. 'He should know what he is doing' I thought and said nothing. The next day he asks me why I asked him to return the ticket and pay him money for a bhog coupon already paid for. I was apalled. I had said nothing of the sort. In fact I had told him not to take a refund for the coupon and in the din he thought that I had asked him to pay for it. You can imagine the 'tu,tu - main, main' that followed. It would have been better to have brought back more bhog and distributed it among our neighbors. The volunteer must have thought that we stupidly naive or naively stupid to return a coupon and also pay for it.

Looking back I realize that we are two of a kind but like the 'man in black' depicted by Goldsmith we like to pose as people who cannot be taken for a ride. But let me tell you we can be taken for a ride not in a bullock cart but in Rajdhani express. I realized how gullible we appeared to be when my ex servants daughter in law rang up from Chennai and asked me to lend her Rs. 50,000/- for the purchase of a flat (part of booking money). I really believed that her MIL would have no knowledge of her phone call when my ex servant surprised me by saying that the DIL had asked her to approach me but she was the one who suggested that since the amount involved was heavy, she should approach me herself. I made it clear that I was no Tata or Birla and being a bank employee she'd get a home loan for nominal interest. Within 2 months the son rings up for 1 lakh this time. I had to tell his mother to ask them not to pester me or else the 2 or 5 thousand I had planned to give them when their daughter joined college would also be withdrawn. The phone calls have stopped since and I hate myself for having had to say so.

There are many more such instances but I stop right here lest I sound repetitive. We are usually prudent spenders or so we like to believe but whatever we save is only to be squandered for nothing. I for one feel that I may as well spend the money with careless abandon. But how? I love Ice creams but I have blood sugar and tend to put on weight. My closet is full of clothes that I can carry over for for years to come. Medicines are all I need and I cannot over eat them. So I suppose I can continue to goof up with the full support of my husband and feel happy about it. I really wish I were naive enough not to recognize an act that could be called goofy!

Tell me now whether the following song could apply to us and even if we are a compatible couple for wrong reasons, should we not celebrate our 36 years of togetherness??

'Once a cock eye met a squint eye under the coconut tree.
Said the cock eye to the squint eye - will you marry me?'