A visit to the neighborhood mall the other day with hubby and my toddler son for lunch at our favorite eatery had me in quite a tizzy.  Mind you, being a seasoned journo, there is not much that gets my goat, so to speak.  But after a long, long time, there was something that had begun to distinctly bother me.  For want of sounding prudish or even (heaven forbid!) puritanical I just needed to share this.

Now, I am no fashionista. Far from it. But when I see gawky ten something -year-olds wearing 3-inch wedge heels, or seven-year-olds in sequined halter dresses (looking decidedly uncomfortable), or a twenty something year olds in blingy chiffon/velvet gowns and five-inch heels to a mall (or rather, any public space) it makes me cringe.

The way I see it, there are two sides to it. One is about an inherent sartorial sense, or the apparent lack of it, leading to a blatant disregard for propriety. There, I’ve said it.  The dreaded word, I know.  Most of my teen years were spent questioning it. But today, ironically, it makes perfect sense.  We are all an intrinsic part of a society.  And where there is a society there are codes, sartorial ones notwithstanding. Take the mall, for instance. A mall is a mall is a mall. Let’s face it. It serves the basic function of catering to your shopping and at times, entertainment needs (with a movie hall, a kids play area, or a skating rink thrown in). Period. It is NOT a clubhouse, or a discotheque, or an exclusive eatery (even these have a fine, albeit unwritten dress code) or the imaginary red carpet even.

Living in a city (Gurgaon) that has been in the news for all the wrong reasons in the recent past this blatant disregard for propriety is a cause for concern. Why, even alpha-woman Kim Cattrall (as Samantha) in the sassy Sex and the City 2 was forced to cover up her bare arms and back in public places in Abu Dhabi. It was, as her friend Cynthia Nixon (as Miranda) kept reminding her, the proper thing to do, out of sheer respect for the customs of the land.  But Samantha’s subsequent disregard for propriety eventually landed her in big trouble, when she and her friends were evicted from the hotel.  That of course, was reel life.  No doubt, the message was real enough.

The other side is what has me far more worried. WHY would a ten-year old wear three-inch wedge heels in the first place, and WHY to a mall at all? WHY dress up an eight-year-old in a halter dress? WHY paint a sixteen-year-old ‘s face to make her look twenty? Or is that it? Are we in a hurry to push our children into adulthood? Are we so worried about competition that we are willing to go to any lengths to parade our daughters, hoping that somebody will notice? Or are we so caught up in the frenzy of being hip, and trendy that anything goes?  Even worse, are we mindlessly aping celebs in the hope having some of the stardust fall on our children?

Maybe it is none of my business. I am all for girls having their bit of fun, living it up a little.  Dressing like grown-ups, experimenting with make-up; we’ve all done it.  But not as public display. After all, the moment we dress up and step out of our homes, we become socially responsible for what we say, how we behave, and what we wear. In the public realm, it DOES become my business.

As I couldn’t help but stare at this ten-something year old in her wedge heels, and loud make-up, (who was accompanied by her mother by the way) it dawned on me.  If the idea was to grab as many eyeballs as possible, the girl (and many others like her) was doing a very good job, indeed.  And that was worrisome. It was not that she was dressed inappropriately in as much the attention she was drawing.  Was she even capable of handling the attention?

Call me paranoid. Call me archaic even.  (Yes, yes, I know all the feminists will be waiting to rip me apart on this one; what with all their talk of  ‘what I wear is no one’s business’) But it’s the brutal truth.  Look around. And then, take a good, hard look at the mirror.  Do you see your little girl? Don’t be in such a hurry to make her a woman.

I’m fifteen for a moment

Caught between ten and twenty….

Fifteen there’s still time for you

Time to buy and time to lose

Fifteen, there’s never a wish better than this

When you only got hundred years to live 

–Lyrics of ‘100 years’ by Five for Fighting

A matter of faith

I was filling up my son’s pre-school admission form when I came upon a pertinent question often asked by educational institutions: religion of father? Religion of mother?   While filling up the appropriate responses (Hindu and Christian, respectively),  I was a tad nervous. Would this in any way affect his chances of securing admission? My friends assured me it wouldn’t. Apparently, some schools give points for intercommunity and intercaste marriage. I was relieved. But the entire episode transported me back a couple of decades when during my first job interview, I was actually asked about my religious preferences. (Fresh out of college and pretty naïve when it came to matters of the corporate world, I did find the question quite out of place). Nevertheless, I went on to answer: Christian. The interviewer looked at me closely and chose to pry further: how come? Your name doesn’t indicate that! (At that point I actually started to wonder where the interview was headed, while mentally venting my angst at my poor parents for not naming me appropriately, whatever that meant). Feeling rather downcast, I answered quietly: Well, my father’s a Hindu. Obviously. So why didn’t you choose to follow Hinduism, asked the interviewer. (By now, I was visibly worried. What IS it with this gentleman? With as much dignity I could muster, I said firmly: It’s a personal choice, sir. Very personal. The gentleman, thankfully, got the hint and gave up.

Little did I realize that this was only the beginning. My family’s background (my parents interreligious marriage) would eventually become a matter of great curiosity in subsequent workplaces and social events. What was commonplace for me was seen as something extraordinary by some. Others actually began to view me as some sort of exotic and rare bird, to be poked and prodded and scrutinized. I was happy to oblige. (Deep down, I was quite proud of my lineage). What was the big deal anyway? Yes, so my parents had different faiths. And to add to that, they also came from two starkly different communities (For those of you who have seen the recent Bollywood blockbuster Vicky Donor, you’ll get the drift. My father is quite the Bengali bhadralok, while my mother draws her lineage from the hardy Punjab immigrants who migrated from Pakistan and subsequently converted to Christianity). A heady mix, some would say. Ironically, it was this very diversity that made our home a truly exciting and enriching place to be.

From Christmas and Easter to Diwali and Durga Puja the festivities were never-ending. Ilish maach, aloo posto, begun bhajja and scrumptious rosogullas were devoured with as much gusto as plum puddings, chocolate Easter bunnies and Christmas cakes. The putting up of the Christmas tree was just as sacramental as the lighting up of the Diwali lamps or a visit to the Puja pandal. Rabindra Sangeet and Bengali folk songs were heard with as much devotion as carols during midnight mass.

The excitement, the passion, the fervour, and the fun were incomparable. The lessons learnt: priceless. I learned to be accepting and tolerant of not just different faiths, but cultures, languages (by age 5, I was speaking Bengali, Hindi, and English) , and people. I learned to be patient. I learned to explore and question. I learned to respect the choices I had and the freedom that followed.

Of course, much of this may not hold much relevance today (after all, I am talking about the seventies when inter-religion and inter-communal marriages were nothing short of sacrilege. My parents’ marriage in 1973 caused quite a furor in the two families!)  But, if media reports and a popular celebrity talk show are to be believed, things are not radically different today. Intercommunity, inter caste marriages are still frowned upon. The instances of such marriages may have gone up but the intense reactions that stem from it haven’t changed much over the decades. Sad, but true. It makes me wonder: will my son (also a product of an inter-religion, intercommunity marriage) too be subject to the same scrutiny? I fervently hope not. While I cannot give him any guarantees about what will come his way I CAN only give him this:

  • An enriching and fun environment laden with experiences, stories (about his lineage), and discoveries.
  • A celebration that lasts through the year (in fact, my three-year-old is luckier than me as he gets to celebrate all Assamese festivals in addition to Bengali and Christian ones. He is also learning 4 languages simultaneously – English, Hindi, Bengali, and Assamese.)
  • Openness of thought
  • A will to accept and be tolerant
  • A kaleidoscope of cultures, beliefs, and practices
  • And most of all, the freedom to make his choice.

Summer camp

As you proceed to read this post, you may at some point begin to wonder why I chose to name it so. After all, it does NOT talk about the dime-a-dozen summer camps that seem to have mushroomed overnight in Gurgaon. It does NOT talk about how summer camps have become a rage with suburban parents. And it certainly does NOT talk about all the ‘fun’ activities that summer camps offer. Ostensibly to keep your children ‘creatively engaged’ lest they ‘dream away the summer holidays’.

What it DOES talk about is summer camp of another kind – the kind most of us went to when we were little – @home. Call me old-fashioned (you can even accuse me of not keeping up with the times) but I see little sense in sending my three-year-old (some camps even enrol one-and-half year olds!) in the searing heat for art and craft or gym activities. I’d rather let my three-year-old just be.

Do we really need to tailor –make his days? I’d rather let him enjoy the whole idea of a summer holiday – with complete abandon, no structure, no timetables. Only then will he learn discipline. I’d rather given him time and space to do whatever he wants to do away from his school environment. Only then will he value school life and the simple pleasures that come with it – riding on the school bus, sharing his lunch box with friends, or playing in the sand pit.  I’d rather let him create his own activities in the confines of his cool room (or as cool as I can make it with the summe

pooltime@summercamp
Nothing like a dip to beat the heat!

r sun pushing up the mercury to 45 degrees!) Only then will he learn to manage his time. Let him even stare into space, if he wants to. Only then will he learn to use his imagination and explore the wonderful world of make-believe.

Let him feel the intensity of hot summer days, the stillness in the air, and the idleness of each passing hour. Let him yearn for the setting sun and the promise it brings; of a game of ball in the park, taking a dip in the splash pool, cycling with friends or feeding a stray dog. Only then will he appreciate the camaraderie between friends, the joy of getting dirty, even a sense of pride in showing of his latest injury (a scraped knee) or something as inane as enjoying a glass of cold milk.

art@summercamp
Just discovered poster paints & finger paints…what fun!

After all, weren’t most of our childhood days filled with inane, simple joys? Just regular stuff that any childhood is made of. Hide and seek. Playing house. Playing pretend. Climbing trees. Sharing glasses of cold lemonade with friends. Hosing down the garden, the dog, and oneself. Gobbling homemade mango ice-cream. Plucking raw mangoes from the neighbour’s prized tree. Topped off with a visit to the grandparents where other aunts, uncles, and cousins would join the summer fiesta. Just ordinary, regular stuff. Simple, pure fun. Most of us lived it. And were none the worse for it.

Music time@summercamp
My three-year-old just loves the casio…can play for an hour without distractions!

These were summer camps of another kind. The kind that lived on in our memories long after they were over. The kind that showed us that just as there are lessons to be learned in school, or a gym class, or a hobby class, there are equally valuable lessons to be learned from the ordinary, simple things in life.

Maybe few years down the line, when my son turns seven or even eight, I’d probably start thinking of channelizing his energies, so to say. When he is better able to understand the words he can spell, maybe summer camp would make better sense. Till then, I’d rather just let him be what he is – a happy, active, regular, three-year-old!

A perfect Assamese bride?

Ool guthibo Jaane-ne Nejaane.. This popular number from an Assamese film was one of the first songs I heard just after I had got married. Ironically, it symbolized my transition to becoming a quintessential Assamese buari (bride) even before I knew it. How, you may ask? Read on…
Many years ago, having recently married into an Assamese family, I was scouring recipe books for the quintessential maasor tenga (tangy fish curry cooked with tomatoes) that I had decided to cook for one Sunday lunch. I stumbled upon the late Sabina Sehgal Saikia’s recipe for Bilaahi maasor tenga, which to date remains one of my favourites. Why Maasor tenga, you’d ask? Well, the answer is simple. The Assamese love their tenga (literally meaning sour), I was told. And so, it is with great trepidation that I went on to cook the popular dish. Needless to say, my rendition of Sabina’s recipe was well, a hit, and I was duly and proudly anointed the good Axomiya buari!
This marked the beginning of my love affair with everything Assamese. Over time, and after many recipes of tenga, and a loo pitika (potatoes mashed with onions and green chillies) and other delectable items of Assamese cuisine, I started acquainting myself with other aspects of Assamese life. My transition to an Assamese began with the mastery of the Axomiya language. Unlike my experiments in the culinary department, this proved to be more difficult to accomplish; despite my understanding of Bengali. In fact, even to this day, I just can’t seem to roll my Rs with the same flourish!
The urge to master the language actually had humble beginnings. It started with those raised eyebrows, a bemused look, or those of utter confusion on the face of my domestic help, who bore the brunt of many a slip. One particular incident comes to my mind; even till this day my husband doesn’t miss an opportunity to tease me about it. I remember asking my new domestic help (of course, an Assamese lady) to serve some jolopias. The poor thing spent a good twenty minutes rummaging the kitchen before my hubby realized that I had made another faux pas. With laughter in his eyes he asked the maidservant to get green chillies or jolokias as they are correctly pronounced. I don’t know who was more relieved, the maidservant or me!
My eventual mastery of the language opened up a whole new world. Thanks to my music-mad hubby and culturally active in-laws, I spent many a lazy Sunday afternoon listening to Assamese music. Be it the soulful timbre of Bhupen Hazarika’s voice or the folk renditions of Zubin Garg , amongst his other popular songs or the foot-tapping numbers of Joy Baruah – the music of Assam has always warmed our hearts and home with its lilting and beautiful melodies. I must admit, the joie the vivre, so intrinsic to the social fabric of Assam, was infectious.
Before I knew it, I began to embrace all aspects of Assamese culture – from the gorgeous and graceful mekhala chadors, to the mesmerizing beat of the Dhul and the gentle sway of the Bihu dancers, to the fascinating stories of its glorious past, and most of all, a gaiety and exuberance that seemed to exude from all facets of their lives.
This gaiety is perhaps what personifies the land, coupled with a gentleness of spirit and the grace of its people. It is something that they carry with them wherever they go. It is something that I have tried to weave into our lives. It is something that I hope my three- year-old son learns as he begins his journey into boyhood. As for my part, it is something that has helped my transition to an Axomiya buari be a pleasurable one. After nearly a decade of marriage, I have – in more ways than one – mastered the art of Bhat Randha (cooking rice)… while Ool Gutha (knitting wool) can wait till my little boy goes to school. For now, I am proud to say that I am a born-again Assamese, truly!