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I originally posted the article below close to two years ago, when I first spent a day at a State Music Teachers’ Association Convention. I’ve spent the last weekend at this year’s convention again. I was surrounded by hundreds of dedicated students of all ages putting their best feet forward. It was a fulfilling weekend, to say the least. So, I thought it only appropriate to re-post this article.

A small note: Below it wasn’t my intention to say that there’s anything wrong with being goal oriented. On the contrary, I believe it’s a necessity to have a target in mind before anyone sets off on a journey. My lament is that adults are rarely able to retain their original enthusiasm and passion for the task, as kids often do, while pursuing their goals.

— ** —

Recently, I’ve had the good fortune to be exposed to some honest determination and old-fashioned faith in human effort. Let me explain.

A few weeks ago I spent a Sunday at a convention held by the state’s Music Teachers’ Association. For the whole day I and six hundred other listeners kept company with children – anywhere from six years old all the way up to seventeen – who enthralled us with their incredible piano playing skills during several different programs.

Again, last weekend, I attended a traditional debut recital of a classical Indian dance form (called Bharatanatyamwhich is believed to have been in existence for over 4,000 years now) of a friend’s daughter. The girl has been practicing the dance form for over ten years tirelessly to get where she is now.

So, what do the two days have in common?

The diligence and determination with which the children practiced the art form (for hours and years on end) they have adopted as their own.

Children are generally not known to be forward-looking. So, how did they happen to get into something so grueling and time-consuming when they very well could have been watching TV or playing video games?

The majority of them probably got into it because their parents suggested it to them or just plain registered them in a class at the beginning. Soon, however, the child got so involved with the art form that he/she made it his/her own crusade.

Do any of these children ever sit down and think about how all those hours of dedication, nervousness before a performance, missed birthday parties convert into something useful for their lives later? Most probably not.

Do they ever mull over what kind of results will be produced from their steadfast effort? Most likely not.

Then why do they do it?

Because they began to love the art form for the sake of itself.

They do it from the blind faith that they are supposed to do what they enjoy the most.

Is there a wiser or more mature outlook in life?

This realization both humbled and inspired me. And it also raised some questions inside me:

  • When do we give up the grounded belief that we need to do what we believe in, basically what we enjoy, and that we need to leave the results to a higher power?
  • At what stage of growing up do we begin to get so goal-oriented and obsessed with results?
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Have you watched these commercials on T.V?

  • Sunny-D Orange juice
  • Fiber One cereal
  • Johnsonville Chicken sausages

What do they all have in common? They claim that the products they are advertising are good for our health.

Not only that, but each of them shows a mom/dad getting the kids used to the product via subterfuge. At the end of the commercial, we see the parent in question say (in more or less similar words): “Will I tell them it’s good for them? Of course, not!”

ARGH! Can you tell these commercials drive me up the wall?

When you think about it, these adverts are only one symptom of a bigger epidemic raging around us right now. This disease is called “I-am-too-cool-to-admit-to-choosing-right-openly.”

Man: Why are you breaking out in hives suddeny?
Woman: I'm allergic to the knowledge that once I enter that store, I'll be surrounded by things that are good for me.

Take Sunny-D, for instance. I doubt that any juice (even if supposedly sugar-free) squeezed a few days ago and made to sit on a refrigerated shelf is as good for health as it is advertised to be. That apart, why con the kids into drinking it? Why not explain to them how it is good for their long-term health and then have them decide whether they wish to drink it or not?

Is it because this option’s considered too nerdy?

Or is it because we, as parents, want to keep our children dependent on us so badly that we won’t teach them to make the right choices consciously?

 We won’t give our children the benefit of open dialogue and conscious choice; we’ll simply coddle them for as long as possible.

The result? When they have to come to their first major decision as an adult, they are more than likely to stumble.

And then we’ll be right there to cluck our collective tongue and label the entire generation “useless.”

Not perverse at all, are we?

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The main character (MC) in my current WIP (Work-In-Progress) loves Mango Lassi. Her dad, who is the better cook in the family and who also happens to be putty in my MC’s hands, makes it for her whenever she craves it.

This version of the recipe has been customized for my MC’s tastes. Basically, it’s simpler to make, but tastes as good as the original. :=)

Owing to its colorful personality, this drink lends itself very well either for a lazy summer afternoon or a rollicking garden party.

 

Mango Lassi
(Mango Milkshake)

 

Ingredients:

¼ cup Mango pulp (available in tins at specialty Indian grocery stores)
½ cup milk (skim or 1% will do)
½ cup buttermilk
a pinch of salt
a few cubes of ice

 

Mix all of the ingredients thoroughly in a blender. The mango pulp usually comes sweetened in the tins. In case it is not, you can sweeten the milkshake using half-a-tablespoon of sugar.

It is as simple as that and makes about 3 servings.

To make this less heavy and more like a punch, dilute it by adding ½ a cup of Sprite or Club Soda to the milkshake.

 

In case you’re interested, here’s the recipe for Aloo Subzi (Potato Curry), also from my WIP, that I posted last summer.

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I sat in my idling car at the tail end of the school’s carpool line, with an open book in my lap. My mind was elsewhere, mulling over this and that.

I noticed a bright flash of color through the corner of my eye and turned to my left. I saw a little girl, clad in a pale pink blouse and a pink-and-blue plaid skort, streaking down the short flight of steps at the front of her house and down the sidewalk. Where is she going all alone?

As I watched, mildly interested — in that way we do when our mind is engaged somewhere else, but it still registers the sights and sounds around it, with a bemused nonchalance – the girl skipped up the steps of the house next-door. She rang the doorbell twice, pressing it hard. She then turned her back to the door and began to worry the bracelet on her wrist with jerky, little movements. The jaunty, orange imitation of a hibiscus in her wavy-blond hair fluttered in the afternoon’s breeze as if signaling its wearer’s emotions.

A few seconds later, the door cracked open a little and out peeked two identical-looking girls attired in brightly-colored leggings and black t-shirts with messages scrawled across them. The girl in pink turned around tentatively and spoke to them. One of her feet hovered over the threshold and the other was planted firmly outside. They carried a soft conversation, and then the three of them skipped outside and continued their dialogue.

A fourth girl – in a white skirt and a sparkly black blouse, with shiny black pumps to match, no less  :-) — waltzed out of nowhere and joined the little group. She was received by the identical girls with squeals and hugs, while the first girl stood slightly apart, looking uncertain. It was obvious that the girls, all of them, were friends. But, the girl in pink, even though she was part of the circle they all formed now, stretched the circle into a sort of an oval; as if she felt just a bit removed from the situation and her friends.

Curiously, I felt like I was viewing a miniature rendition of the complex mechanics of an adult world. What are they talking about? What is it that made the one girl seem somewhat aloof from the rest?

The carpool line gobbled up a few students at the head and moved on sluggishly. My car, too, slithered ahead, away from the curious happenings in which I was by then fully immersed.

It was not really an incident to write home about. So, I wondered later, what made me pay that much attention to such an everyday, innocent thing?

I realized it must have been because of the book I’d been reading earlier, called “Autumn Street” by Lois Lowry. It’s narrated in the point of view of a precocious six-year-old, who, along with her mother and her sister, has to go live with her grandparents for a year, because her father has gone away to do his bit for the war effort.

The book is all about how that year affects her whole life. It’s one of the more honest and empathetic — though the diction is at times incurably adult even for such a smart girl. I mean, what child uses words like interstitial and viscid? — peeks into the bigger-than-life wonders, joys, and fears of childhood, all colored and outlined by the undercurrents of those times.

The book reminded me of the complicated world that children’s minds reside in, and how indelible an impact the actions and (sometimes careless) words of adults have on them.

I’ll leave you with one beautiful passage that Lowry uses to ‘show’ both the empathy and naughtiness of the main character at the same time. The ‘he’ in the passage is the MC’s grandfather, the head of the family in the real old sense of the word, who has recently suffered a stroke that took away most of his faculties.

Carefully I sprinkled cinnamon on his damp fingertip and lifted it to the wet black shape that had once been his fine proud mouth. It touched his tongue, and with his mouth he shaped what I understood to be a smile. I dried his finger with the hem of my dress, put his hand back into his lap, and crept away. Grandmother never knew.

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Today is the first day of the new school year here. Just the thought of it brings to my mind a montage of recollections, from when I was a child myself to the present, when I’m a parent…

First day of school is:

  • Sadness that the season of ‘lazing about with no routine’ is past.
  • Newness of unsullied notebooks and textbooks.
  • Exhilaration of swapping summer adventures.
  • Relief at not having to search for meaningful summer camps for another year.
  • Crispness of brown paper book covers with names written on top in neat copperplate.
  • Remembering not to speed in school zones.
  • Bleary-eyed kids peeking from the windows of school buses.
  • Smell of chalk, new shoes, lunch boxes, and glue tins all in a small space.
  • Fatigue from having driven all over town for the obscure items of the school supply list.
  • A pouting child standing in front of you, with minutes to spare for the school bus to arrive, because the lunch bag that was all the rage last year has become tacky and childish this year.
  • Feel of new school uniform – just a tad longer and bigger than necessary to allow for growth spurts – against your skin.
  • Fear that children will come home, each with a new supplementary supply list from individual teachers.
  • Nervousness at who will be assigned as your new bench mate.
  • Anxiety of all the projects that will require umpteen trips to the craft stores, most of them at the very last minute possible.
  • Hope that your best friend will be in your group this year, too.
  • Sight of hundreds of happy, shiny, scrubbed faces lined up in the auditorium.
  • Misgivings that not only will your arch nemesis be in your class, but that she will be your lab partner for the year.
  • Excitement at finding out who will be your homeroom teacher.
  • Phone calls to and fro to firm up carpool plans.
  • Prayers that the mean old math teacher won’t be assigned your class.
  • Secret enthusiasm about what new things you’ll get to learn.
  • Fighting the crowds at Walmart the afternoon before.

What does the first day of school mean to you?

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When I was seven or eight, a children’s club came into existence within the neighborhood (thank God for those adults who had the idea to found it!) in which we lived.  It was called Baal Bhavan, which translates to “The Building for Children.” And very aptly it was named too, because it was a place where children could be whatever they wished to be: an artist, a musician, a sportsperson, a kid having simple fun, a bookworm, or all of the above.

It was actually a bunch of buildings clumped together in a largish area. This compound had a building that housed the Ladies’ Club, and the one adjoining to it was the Children’s Building. These were surrounded by a play area with the usual collection of see-saws, swings, and monkey-bars.

The children’s building also housed one very special room – the library. It was a long rectangular room with brightly colored kid-sized tables and chairs scattered around the room in cheerful disarray. This was where little kids were given mounds of play dough that they could mould into whatever their imaginations could dream up. (I can still smell the moldy, sticky mess of play dough as I write this. The power of association, especially that of smell, is so immediate, but long-lasting at the same time, isn’t it?)

Three walls of this room, from ceiling to floor, were lined with shelves filled to cramming with brand-new books of all kinds: fat and tall, shiny and bright, hard-backed and full of pictures, paperbacked and full of words. There were books of every kind that a kid’s mind could wish for. (I’m not sure if it was done with intentional, if well-meaning, guile on the part of the adults who ran this club, but I don’t think there’s a better way to instill the love of reading in tiny tots than to surround them with the sight and smell of so many books while they played innocently. I’m sure most of them learned to read by Osmosis alone.)

I devoured all the hard-backed picture books pretty fast and stretched my arms towards the thicker paperbacks, which stood a little ways above the shelves that held the picture books. And my hand closed around one book called “The Summer Adventure” by Shashi Deshpande.

Skimming through the contents of the back flap, I surmised that it sounded pretty mysterious.  I’d never heard of that author before, but I was willing to give any and every author a chance, so I took the book home. And thus began my long-standing (still going strong) affair with mysteries.

That book was one among a trilogy of mysteries solved by a bunch of cousins. They keep coming upon crimes, small and big, as they’re innocently navigating through their vacations in ever-changing (with every book) settings. Sound familiar?

Yes, don’t they sound like some of Enid Blyton’s books? I’m not sure to this day if Shashi Deshpande was influenced by Enid Blyton, but I and my siblings grew up referring to her as the Indian Enid Blyton.

She brought a whole new India, which was very familiar and yet was just out of reach, to us. We couldn’t have enough of this adventurous foursome and their exploits in both rural and cosmopolitan India.

Deshpande is known to have written this series for her two young sons originally, and boy, am I glad that she did! Only much later did I learn that she has only written four books for children, while she has written several short stories, novels, and thought-provoking essays for adults.

Recently, thanks to a wonderful friend (thanks, SK!) living in India, I got my hands on one of Deshpande’s collections of short stories (sadly, her books are not easily available any more even in India).

Deshpande seems to seamlessly vary her voice depending on the audience at hand. (I’m in awe of those authors who tread both adult and children’s literary worlds with seeming nonchalance. I know for a fact that it’s not easy to do.) No wonder she has been awarded some of the highest awards in Indian literature.

Here are a couple of passages from my favorite from the trilogy, The Hidden Treasure:

There was a steady stream of carts on the road. Some had whole families in them, some were full of baskets, pots and all kinds of odds and ends. There were also many people walking, women carrying pots and baskets on their heads, or babies on their hips, with older children walking, or skipping, by their sides. And all the bells around the necks of the animals and the creaking wheels of the carts sang a kind of gay little song. The children exclaimed in pleasure at the sights and sounds.

                “Nothing to what it used to be,” Fakira told them. “Now they all want to go by bus. Nobody wants to walk. My own grandson wants to waste his money on the bus. Even now, I can walk all the way and back very easily,” he boasted.

Growing up, I used to dream about what I’d say if ever I had the chance to come face to face with Shashi Deshpande. I have drafted numerous letters to her, all in my head, which I never put down on paper.

Come to think of it, maybe that’s what I should do: write to her now and tell how she, along with Enid Blyton, has been instrumental in my finally taking the first plunge into my dream-world of writing for children.

Who has influenced you into taking the first step towards the goal you’re currently working or the one you have already achieved?

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A few months ago, I posted an excerpt from my current WIP (Work-In-Progress), a  middle grade (multicultural) historical fantasy. That snippet had been a dialogue, an active exchange, among several characters in the novel.

This time, I thought I’d post a piece of narrative.

Opinions, critiques, suggestions? Please send them my way!

***

          I looked out the window and saw the sky still gathered close in an inky, dark cloak. A soft breeze entered into my room stealthily, and the sheer curtains at the windows billowed in response. The calming scent of raat ki rani – Night Queen – filled the room. Nani had planted that shrub underneath this bedroom’s window when Mom was a child.  

          Taking a deep breath, I began to plump up my pillow getting ready to go back to sleep, but my hands stopped in mid-air. I knew I was alone in the room, but I sensed another presence. Driving away the perfume of the Night Queen, a bitter, oily unpleasantness pervaded the room. Taking shallow breaths, I slowly turned.

          I could barely make out its form, leaning leisurely against the wall next to one of the bookshelves. I scrambled up to the head of my bed, and screamed. Only, no sound came out.

          Clutching the bed sheet to my chin, I waited, unable to peel my eyes away from my shadowed companion. Run! The more intelligent side of my instinct prodded, but my body couldn’t seem to obey. A soft whimper escaped my parted lips.

          A soft glow crept out of nowhere, joining me to the specter in a soft pool of light. It was as if the two of us were on stage in an eerie production and were being spotlighted for an unseen audience crouching in the gloom around us.

          A man, I realized, short and dark-skinned, stood leaning against the wall, arms folded against his chest and ankles crossed loosely. He seemed so much at ease, I wondered for a moment if I were the trespasser. My eyes took in the details, almost unwillingly, as if they had no control.

          He had a trim beard and a shaved upper lip. His hair was rolled into a bun at the nape of his neck and held in place by a small polished wooden stick. He was wearing a white dhoti – a long cloth wrapped around the waist that covers up the legs too – while a light robe, dyed a deep indigo, draped over his left shoulder, leaving his right one bare. He wore shiny beads in his ears. In short, he was dressed as if for a costume party, the theme being ancient India. The sense that I was starring in a drama intensified.

          The man’s body and hair were shining, as if they were oiled. He didn’t look bulky; in fact he was rather small. But one look at his shoulders and hands, with ropes of muscles sticking out, and I knew he could crush me like an empty coke can if he so wished.

***

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