Friday, June 21, 2013

Learning About Learning

Now that Peanut is almost six, I have finally come to an important conclusion conclusion that can be summed up as - No sirree - parenting don't get no easier as they grow up. 

I've finally stopped brushing off her questions with the kind of answers that Calvin's dad gives him - her curiosity is quite something, but I find myself struggling with the never-ending stream of questions -

- Why does doctor aunty have her clinic on sixth floor?
- How did Kali Ma become Ma Parvati?
- Why is the sky so many colours?
- What do monkeys eat?
- Why are ten hundreds called a thousand?
- What makes a rainbow?
...and so on.

I'm sure there are a lot of parents out there who are thrilled by questions of this sort by their children - they probably sit down patiently, look through Wikipedia and revel in the whole process of imparting education to their kids. But I'm not one of them - I was scarred for life by the 'E' that I got by Mrs. Harpreet Kaur, General Knowledge Teacher when I was in Class 3. She wrote the E in red, to rub in, which frankly, I thought was rather unnecessary. Anyway, Mrs. Kaur ensured that I would never be able to confidently answer the most basic of questions from my own children. To put it another way - I'm a little lazy about Googling these things.

But one thing which I have taken up rather seriously is the whole piano lessons thing. Peanut has been learning from February and she is pretty good by now, although obviously still a beginner. This is primarily because I have been making her practice for half an hour each and every single day. No matter what else is going on with me, I'm very clear that this is one non-compromisable activity - Piano-practice time. It helps that I have a rudimentary understanding of music, being an amateur guitar player who has taken lessons three times in the last ten years ( without any major success at continuity).

In fact, just last year on my sabbatical, I took 3 months of guitar lessons and was struggling with music theory - I gave it up because of lack of time back then. But now, I find that those three months helped a lot when it came to teaching Peanuts the basic of reading music - Treble Clef vs Bass Clef, Crochets vs Minims, 3/4 vs 4/4. I used to read the simpler pieces and play them for her, but already, she's overtaken me - she's using both hands to play and is quicker at recognizing the notes than I am. But the fact that I am about three decades older has to have SOME advantage, right? So I'm able to help in various ways. She's already ahead of where she's supposed to be and I've had to download extra music material for her to give her new stuff to practice, so she stays excited. It's all very Battle Hymns and Tiger Mothers out here. I can be very short and impatient with her, and really have to check myself sometimes - but the fact that she willingly missed half of the birthday party of one of her best friends, allowing me to whisk her away to piano class in between - means there's something we're doing right.

The other thing where she's really doing well is reading. She's always been curious about books - I started reading to her when she was three months old - and it's clearly made a big difference. She is now reading the Magic Faraway Tree Series. I was too tired to read to her last night, so I told her to read one chapter of it by herself - it was the first time she was attempting to undertake such a project, so when she came back to me saying 'Mom...can I read only however much I want?', I had kind of been expecting it - she has a tendency to give up too soon at the beginning - which so many of us do.

I decided to try and be neutral, and hid my irritation, saying 'Go ahead and read as much as you want.'

I thought she would struggle to finish half a chapter - she ended up reading three chapters instead of the one. That's what she had meant - she had wanted to read more. And there have been occasions when I've gone into her room and found her reading quietly to herself - a kind lady at our Library said that she read aloud more confidently at a storytelling session than kids much older than her.

Given that music and reading have played such an important role in my own life, I'm glad I've at least been able to get her to make a good start in these two areas. I think the key learnings for me so far are -

* It helps to focus. So what if I can't turn her into a Science or Mathematics Genius. I'll focus on the things I'm good at. Besides, what the heck is my husband for?
* The things to focus on have to come from what naturally appeals to your child. I was advised percussion instruments to start with by one teacher - my own leaning was towards the guitar - but I had seen her enjoying fooling around on a banged up old keyboard at home - I took the cue from that, and the piano turned out to be the right instrument.
* It ain't nothin' without reinforcement - I read a quote once that really struck me - I forget the source now and the exact words, but it went something like ''Every day that you don't play, is a day you're getting worse'' - I believe in this thoroughly. Daily practice time of 30 minutes at anything that you really want to get good at is a must - that's one of the reasons I chucked guitar lessons. I couldn't do it myself - but I'm glad I'm motivated enough to ensure Peanut does it.
* If you don't taken an interest, they may lose theirs. A kid, especially a six year old, will happily play and while away the whole of her day. But the fact that I'm keen on music and reading and build it into our daily routine means that she is now used to it and looks forward to her daily practice time herself.
* A little knowledge isn't necessarily a dangerous thing - her piano teacher had initially told me that he didn't allow parents in the class. He said he was just letting me sit in for the first few lessons so that she would get comfortable. Well, it's been over four months now and he hasn't yet kicked me out - I suppose it's because he's seen that I understand the basics of music and I understand more than the basics of Peanut - so interpreting things that he says for her is something I'm well-positioned to do and really helps her progress.
* Challenges are important - I found if something comes too easy to Peanut, she doesn't really value it. So the trickier pieces are the ones that frustrate her in the beginning but give her the biggest kick in the end, once she's conquered them. Being able to identify those pieces and make sure enough practice time is spent on them is important. In fact, her teacher has said that we may put her up for an examination by December if she progresses at a good rate. The word Exam, which filled me with terror as a kid, now takes on a more positive connotation, especially because she's unperturbed by the word currently ( largely because she doesn't yet understand the implications.) But I think it's important to work towards a goal and assess where she is in a slightly formal manner. My sister doesn't want Peanut to ever have to take an exam in her life, but I tell her - and myself - we'll all go out for ice-cream later, so it's okay.
* Finally - and this is the toughest one for me - if you don't let them have fun, they will rebel - there are loads of times when Peanut will deliberately go off-beat and start making the strangest sounds on her keyboard that grate on my nerves. When I ask her what the heck she thinks she's doing, she answers blithely, 'Oh just having fun, Mama.' I grit my teeth and bear it for as long as I could, which isn't always too long. But I'm working on it. After all, on the whole, it's something that's got to bring pleasure to her - why else would we even do it?

So that's it, at this stage. Some learning about learning.

Like I said - no, it don't get easier as they grow up. But then, things that don't challenge us don't bring much satisfaction either, right? No wonder parenting is the most satisfying thing ever.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Why Poetic Licenses Should Be Revoked

( I came across this poem in a diary that I wrote in school. To my credit - I was only 15 at the time.
On the other hand, I'm pretty sure it made it to the School Magazine that year!)

To me, it seems like the work of Satan
To let people write poems so irritatin'
Some have rhyme schemes so very rotten,
The people who write them should be shot'n
Let us not forget that scoundrel
Who manipulates like hell to get the right sound, well,
I, for one, just don't understand it,
Poetic licensing was the worst thing man did,
Because it just encourages people now,
To make their sentences, completely regardless of the fact that one may exceed the other in length rhyme somehow,
But what's most annoying is that after all this,
Some sodding sentences may not even rhyme.

(*Shamefaced Disclaimer* I may have been editor of the school magazine that year. I hope you'll still buy my next book.)

Sunday, June 9, 2013

One thing at a time, please.

One of the things that I figured on my sabbatical was about my tendency - like many of us - to do too many things at one time.

So it wouldn't be unnatural for me, at one point, to be trying to hold a conversation with my husband while flipping between work emails on my phone and a chat on google-talk, with various other windows open and trying to keep an ear out for the children fighting in the other room.

However, it is much clearer that this was burning me out - it wasn't just trying to manage a whole lot of things, it was trying to do them all at the same time. I'm still fighting this tendency, but of late I've realized that you can actually focus on one thing at a time while actually achieving multiple objectives.

So for example - when I'm helping my daughter with her piano lessons, I'm also getting to spend more solo time with her than ever before.

When I'm reinforcing her lessons and helping her read music, I'm also in a way revising what my own excellent guitar teacher tried to drill into my head last year.

It may be unusual to have two little boys climbing all over you when you're doing Yoga - so I just switch it to a little weight-lifting and voila - the twins get to laugh and play Superman while I strengthen my arms.

That rare early morning walk with Vijay means that the two of us get in some much-needed exercise and fresh air while having a quiet conversation.

Conversation over evening tea with my father-in-law engages him and always teaches me something new.

The pro bono Zumba class I have started taking for the kids here in my community gives me my third workout of the week.

You get the picture, right?

But today, I was proud of myself.

It was one of those days where all the to-do lists in my head were making me listless. Some work to finish, an idea to work on, some thoughts on a couple of writing projects, attempts to learn cooking, getting my daughter to practise for her piano class, home-related repairs, and so on. I was especially annoyed about discovering that there was a whole lot more of Peanut's holiday homework left than I had imagined, with half the holidays down.

Served me right for ignoring that email from her teacher till now. Still, I just couldn't bring myself to actually play some math-related guessing game with her. I had successfully procrastinated it till the evening, and while I felt bad about it, I was still resisting actually doing it.

My eye fell upon a pile of socks on my bed and this depressed me further. A whole bunch of socks that needed matching, sorting and putting away. This little task was another of the things that I had been putting off. Every cell in my body was rebelling against getting down to it.

Peanut wandered into the room, humming to herself brightly. I saw her, glanced at her homework email and then at the unappealing pile of socks on the bed. When I turned back to her, I had a glint in my eye.


'Yes, Mama?'

'Shall we have a game?'

Ten minutes later, when Vijay walked in, he saw me sitting smugly at my desk. My expression was indulgent as I watched little Peanut assiduously sorting our socks, making pairs and then guessing the number of socks in the pile, and additionally, learning a little math by further dividing them into Mama's socks and Daddy's socks and guessing the numbers in those piles, and so on.

I glanced up at Vijay and saw that various emotions were flitting across his face - he settled on one that I found familiar and satisfactory - grudging admiration.

Of course, theoretically, this wasn't actually doing one thing to achieve two objectives - it was doing nothing and yet achieving two objectives. But it wasn't as if I wasn't involved - after all, when Peanut said Thirty plus Four equals Fourteen, I had to step in, right?

Still. This kind of thing could save me a whole lot of time and energy.For now, I turn my attention back to making my presentation for work tomorrow.

Cackling at the thought that soon, it will be time for Peanut to learn some serious computer skills.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Taking Peanut Places

This weekend, I got adventurous again.

Since I'm now back at work in a way - consulting project for half-days - I find myself a little stretched again. I also had a busy time last month with some last minute changes on my upcoming book 'Sorting Out Sid' - and so hadn't really been hanging out with the kids too much.

While I had been looking forward to a relaxed Sunday at home, I had received a couple of invites during the week. And while I'm usually pretty good at slithering out of social commitments,  these were different. The first was the 40th day of one of my old school friend Abhi's new little baby boy - and as he put it ( Abhi, not the 40-day old baby) - it was just a little celebration for close friends and family. I still hadn't seen the baby, and I wouldn't miss this one for the world. And if you read this old post from wayyyy back in 2007, you'll know why.

The other invite was that from a much newer friend - a lady called Shefali, who I had been practising music with a while back. She's a trained classical singer and a big fan of Faiz and his poetry - so we were doing something interesting a while back with my accompanying her on guitar as she sang. However, I had to back out of that because it was all getting too much towards the end of my sabbatical. Still, Shefali was performing at the Kunzum Travel Cafe in Hauz Khas and had called, asking me to be there.

So while Vijay lay about in his shorts, flashing his long hairy brown legs rather mockingly at me, I bravely decided that I would indeed dress up and go out to not one, but both of these places - and that too in Faraway Delhi, all the way from the remote suburb of Gurgaon. I had called our trusty driver along, who, for all the overtime that he charges us, has never once refused to land up when asked for in four years. So I was all set.

In going to meet Abhi's baby, I was rather ambitious. I thought I'd take Peanut, Pickle and Papad along - after all, it was in the middle of the day, they've been a little bored at home during the summer holidays and so on. I figured I'd give my maid a bit of a break too, so I told her to stay at home. Vijay asked me mildly if the heat had perhaps gotten to my head, but I ignored him and piled all three kids into the car and we were off.

'Hum kahan jayenge?' that was Papad's query.
'To see a new baby.'
'Kyooon?' asked Pickle.
' Because...he's a friend's baby.'
'Kaunsa Friend?'
'Abhi Mamu?' piped in Peanut, surprised.
'No, Abhi uncle.'
'Who's THAT?' she wrinkled her nose.
'You've met Abhi uncle a few times.' I prodded. 'Don't you remember?'
'No!' she was very clear on this point. I knew Abhi would be a little hurt by this, given his fondness for Peanut as a baby. But it was true. After your friends get married, they disappear from your life for a while. I've long learned to live with this fact.

We rode along in silence for a while and Peanut then asked 'How old is that new baby?'
'40 days.'
'Mama.' Peanut had barely heard my answer. 'Pickle-Papad are 3, right? And I'm 6?'
'Yes, Peanut.'
'So.' She said with an air of self-importance 'When Pickle-Papad are 5, I will be 10, right?'
'Errr....Noooo....' I sighed and launched into an explanation of how these things worked, recalling vaguely that Joey of Friends had once made a similar calculation - I shuddered at the thought that Peanut might have any resemblance to Joey in the mental department and was lost in my own reverie for a while until I was snapped out of it by Papad's earnest enquiry.
'Hum Kahan Jayenge?'
And so the conversation went around in circles two or three times. So did we, because between me and my driver and Google Maps, we have an  uncanny ability to get lost and take approximately twice as long as required by normal human beings on any given day to get anywhere at all.

We burst through the door to the hall where the little party was taking place, and immediately found Abhi, his wife and the new baby, amidst a crowd of other people - who were all family and therefore unknown to me. The next hour and a half was very pleasantly spent catching up with Abhi, who I hadn't seen in ages, admiring his new baby from a safe distance given my cold, and watching Pickle-Peanut-Papad increasingly lose their shyness in these new surroundings and beginning to bounce off the walls.
It was towards the end of lunch when I noticed the new parents staring at our boys and saying 'Aha. Now we're getting a sense as to what to expect.' I looked over and saw that both Pickle and Papad were in the process of licking their plates of vanilla-ice-cream-with-chocolate-sauce clean, getting it all over their faces and clothes.

'Stop that' I hissed, embarrassed but knowing fully well they wouldn't give a passing thought to listening to me, when in the midst of such an important activity.

'Oh it's all right.' said Abhi's wife 'These plates won't need washing after they're done.'

I glowered at them, thankful I had at least one well-behaved little girl. I don't need to outline what I saw when I turned towards Peanut half a second later, right? At least she was careful about not getting her favorite pink dress dirty.

The kids fell asleep in the car on the way back, all strapped up in their seat belts or lolling about in my arms, long limbs all over the place. But not before Papad spent a cranky ten minutes complaining 'Cake nahin khaaya....waapas chalo!' I tried to explain to him it wasn't the baby's birthday, but he didn't buy it. Thankfully, he was out, along with the others soon enough.

You'd think that I would have learnt my lesson from this afternoon episode, wouldn't you? Well, you'd be wrong. When I thought about going to Shefali's musical performance, I managed to convince myself that Peanut would like to come along. After all, she likes music and is coming along rather well on the piano. So what if she'd never heard a Ghazal before in her life and is more the Gangnam Style variety at this stage in her life?

So naturally, we set out, got late, got lost and eventually found our way to the Hauz Khas Village. Now, most people underestimate my level of ignorance about the city of Delhi but I must tell you - I'd never been there and was rather fascinated by the look of the place.

They made Kamal drop us outside - the sign said 'Park your car outside for a Walking Village.' How charming, I thought! I stepped inside with Peanut and we almost got run over by a belligerent auto-wallah.

I didn't quite understand the concept. They said it was a Walking Village. It was really a Walk-at-your-own-risk-because-there-are-crazy-drivers-here-called-the-Villagers Village. Peanut had a minor meltdown because she seemed to be under the impression I had brought her here to do her in - did I tell you I hate those Snow-white-and-evil-Stepmother stories?

'Why do you want me to DIE?' She implored at one point.

I assured her that I didn't, and was explaining that nothing was going to happen to her while she was with me- she pulled me out of another car's way in the nick of time, thereby saving my life.

Somehow we stumbled and found our way to the Kunzum Travel Cafe. And man, was it crowded. We squeezed into the back - it was hot and uncomfortable. And Peanut said 'Is this the Cafe?'

I replied that indeed it was, and she said brightly 'I'll have a chocolate brownie, Mama.'

I looked around apprehensively. My fears proved correct. This part of the Cafe wasn't really a cafe at all - it was just a little performance hall kind of thing - there was no food or drink anywhere in sight and the place was so crowded that we could barely move. And a serious Ghazal performance was about to start, and here I had a 6 year old who was hungry, irritated by the traffic that had almost maimed us, and now wondering where the Brownie was.

I took a deep breath and whispered to Peanut. We compromised that after four songs of Aunty, we would leave. She agreed. But the preamble on Faiz, given by an elderly gentleman was rather long, and Peanut kept punctuating it with 'What's he saying, Mama?' Frankly, I didn't know myself - I couldn't hear him and I doubt I would have understood more than the basic gist of each paragraph. I was waiting for her to start singing. Thankfully, she soon did.

Shefali is a very good singer with an impressive range, and an even more impressive love for Faiz that shows up in her body language when she sings. First Peanut complained that she couldn't see the Aunty, and then, when I positioned her more suitably, she kept asking me 'Why is Aunty closing her eyes and moving her arms like that?' I didn't bother to answer. I was listening very carefully. I noted that her throat seemed not to be in the best of shape - as she herself said between two songs - but she more than made up for it with her passion for the ghazals, and soon had the place applauding whole-heartedly.

Eventually, after just 'Bahar Aayi' ( Tina Sani) and Mujhe Se Pehli Si Mohabbat (Noor Jahan) , I decided it was time to leave. Peanut had been fairly good till now, but it was already seven and my battery was running out - in a while I wouldn't be able to call my driver to meet us where he had dropped us. We sneaked out, but I knew Shefali had seen me, given her excited wave in my direction before I left. As we exited, I saw the lifesaving sign of a Bagel shop - Peanut soon had her chocolate brownie and all good humor was restored. I resolved that I'd be back to check out the rest of this interesting place very soon. Maybe, I thought rather evilly, I need another sabbatical now.

We were back in our car shortly, and driving home. Peanut chomped on her brownie, refusing to share more than two bites with me - rather ungratefully, I felt.

Still, I watched her and realized that she's now at an age where I really enjoy her company. It used to be a challenge taking her places, but now, she helps me so much - for example when I go to the Happy School - and as today, proved - she's really about as good as any little kid can be. I suddenly found myself getting rather excited at the prospect of our first holiday together sometime soon- just the two of us girls. I quashed this thought fairly quickly, given the fact that I still have trouble finding my way to her school to drop her sometimes.

But I figure that once she's about twelve ( and I'm about sixty six, by her mathematical logic), she'll certainly know a lot about geography - taught to her by Vijay, not me. So we'll be all set to go.

I'm so looking forward to it.