Friday 19 October 2018

Teenager in the house

We have a newly-minted teen now! I started this blog when Ads was around 3 years old, so that also means my blog is about a decade old :) What a decade its been, since this whirlwind came into our lives! The first few days and months after Ads was born were filled with sleepless nights, pain, exhaustion and moments of pure joy as we fell in love with our adorable and exasperating baby. I have to say nothing much has changed since then! I still worry disproportionately about him, no one can frustrate and exasperate me as he does and he still fills me with immense pride and joy at the young man he is turning into.

Methodical, ethical, honest to a fault, puritanical, finicky, intellectual - these are all adjectives that come to mind when I think of Ads. His integrity, well I don't know where he got it from :) Suffice it to say it's very inconvenient at times! His penchant for following rules and his horror at flouting any, is a source of great amusement for all of us at home. He is obsessed with cleanliness and I have to tell him off for washing his hands so many times a day that they are completely dry and cracked with excessive use of soap. He can't stand disorder and untidiness, and used to routinely pick up bits of trash thrown in the common areas in our community in Bangalore. He still does it here :) 

My young man is quite unsocial. "Why do I need friends" he asks. Errr... so far, he seems quite happy in his own company. He loves science (physics and especially quantum physics is his thing), cricket, reading (non-fiction only). He spends a lot of time on Khan academy and has been teaching himself calculus and trigonometry. We keep asking him to work on the social skills (Make eye contact! Be interested in other people!) and hopefully it will make a dent at some point in the future, cos it ain't making a dent now, that's for sure!

As Ads enters a new phase in his childhood, I see in him all my experiments (failed and successful), my own uncertainties and struggles as a new mother. I am sure parenting this particular teen will be harder than parenting this toddler. So bracing myself for a wild eventful ride! 

Thursday 18 October 2018

On creating a village

I feel like I've been the newbie all my life. The new kid in school, the new mom in the group, the new neighbour, the new employee, the wife of the new employee :) When I was in school, often I left after just a year. In the last 18 years of married life, we have moved 8 times. I have studied in 12 schools, held 6 jobs, moved cities and countries and spent vast swathes of time dealing with packing cartons :). 

The physical exertion aside, what has been hardest is to create a network and a community of friends/neighbours wherever we go. People who will have your back. People who will welcome you into their homes, tell their children to make friends with your kids,  provide sage advice on the best places to eat, shop and thread your eyebrows :) People who, as busy and as submerged they are in their own lives, stop you from feeling lonely and adrift. 

In my 30s, I realized I am unlikely to make any more good friends. My best friends know me from an earlier life- school, college, b-school, work. I'm too set in my ways to tolerate the flippant, the flaky, the ignorant, just because they happen to be neighbours or colleagues. In the 40s, most of us realize we don't have to please anybody or be a different version of ourselves in order to be liked. At the same time, we all need a village to call our own. I remember a playdate invitation back when Advaith was a toddler. We drove several miles to a very nice suburb, full of large houses and BMWs/Mercs parked in the driveway, to meet an Indian mom and her kid. I had nothing in common with the mom, but as our kids played and we sat nursing our coffees, I was struck forcibly by how lonely she was in that huge spotless house with no one but her toddler son for company. She seemed to know very few people, unlike me who had joined a large moms club and had plentiful social opportunities. I invited her to be more regular at club outings but she never came. I think she was too introverted to be able to make the effort.

I call myself a "forced extrovert". Years of forcing myself to make the first move, blend in, and make new friends quickly have made me adopt a veneer of confidence when all I like to do most days is sit in a corner with a book and not talk to anyone. I can talk loudly at parties and dance at weddings knowing that the only situation I am truly comfortable is with myself, some family, some close friends. 

Extroverted or not, creating your own village is important for everyone. A community of acquaintances and friends is critical, catering to different needs. Some friends are great for movie dates. Some great for a cup of coffee and general gossip. Some are walking or fitness buddies only.  Some you only meet at the school bus stop and nowhere else :) 

Often I have felt, walking into a new environment, that I was the one needing company, and help. It took me some years to realize that I needed to be there for others too, to offer help as needed, to be their village. I was needed as much as I needed others. 

In all these years, one thing I am sensitive to, is how can I help the other newbies. I know what it's like to be in those shoes. Being welcoming, helpful, caring to someone new, is rare. People are well-intentioned but their own busy lives and schedules get in the way and oftentimes, that much-needed assistance never comes, remaining just in the form of a few polite words. 

These last few months, I have set about creating my new village here, and have been thinking - "Oh no...not again!" :))

Saturday 15 September 2018

A big change

We are in the second half of 2018, and the year seems to have whizzed by. December 2017 onwards, has been a blur of activity and busy-ness, and somehow, here we are, thousands of miles away from India, calling the United States home again for an unknown period of time. We knew the move was coming, but we didn’t know it was to the US. We had spent months considering a couple of options in Asia and Europe, never thinking the US was a possibility; when it was broached to me, it came as an unpleasant surprise as it had never been in my consideration set but there it was, suddenly popping up like an unwelcome visitor. 
It took a few weeks to come to grips with the decision, and accept it. It took more time for Ads to accept it with some resignation, his biggest concern of course being - How will I play cricket there?? I went through months of second-guessing myself. Did we have to move to the States in the current not-so-immigrant friendly climate? Will my kids do okay in public school? Wouldn’t they be better off in an international school, where the teachers and staff and students alike are all used to transitions? How will Ads fare in middle school (about which I heard nothing but horror stories?). This and a million other questions and anxieties kept buzzing like worried bumblebees in my brain, incessantly.
But decision taken, there is little point in worrying and its time for action not reflection! A whirlwind of activity ensued. Give notice at work, find my replacement, hand over to her. Our house in Chennai needed renovation as my parents were moving back. We had other home renovation/design projects. Research schools and places to live near Washington DC. Talk to people for advice and tips. Pull out the relocation checklist (again!) and start working on each item. For a few months I felt like I was shuttling between Koramangala, North Bangalore and Whitefield every second day, rushing from one project to another. It was sheer chaos and definitely, I could not have held it all together without my parents. In between, the kids finished up the school year, Advaith went off to a hiking and mountain biking camp in Yercaud for a week  and S and I managed a few days in Israel (more on that fantastic trip, later).
At the fag end, as we were rushing towards our departure date, I would have moments of sheer panic. Why were we doing this? Hurtling into the unknown, leaving behind all that is secure and  familiar and wonderful? Why, indeed, have we done these transitions, over and over and over again? The husband would reassure me with the reasons I knew so well, and which I completely agreed with. Yet, even as my head knew the answer, the heart rebelled violently. 
Now that we are settled into our new home, I have to admit that the transition has been hardest on me. Which I am actually glad about, because I worried most about the kids and how they would manage with the new environment in a new country. Fortunately, children are more resilient than their parents! I am very happy that they took hardly any time to settle in, make friends and now go off to school everyday as happy as can be. Y has even taken a Korean classmate, who speaks next to no English, under her wing! I, on the other hand, have done more poorly than expected. 
Everything felt hard. Learning to drive on these roads again, getting a drivers license, setting up the house, getting our life organized…..mostly I just blame the fact that I am older now and simply don’t have the energy to do this any more. I also know, that a few years later, if we get the chance to move to an exciting country, I will be the first person to jump at it!
Yes, replete with contradictions……..but what’s life without  some contrariness, some change and lots of new things to do and learn! One of the senior people I work with said, when I went to say my goodbyes - “I think you guys are very brave to move at this stage.” And I said - “You can call it brave or foolish, sometimes they are one and the same thing!”

Friday 2 February 2018

The city of lights

A lot of people were surprised when my friends and I decided to visit Varanasi for a few days. Since I am quite irreligious, it must have seemed odd to many that I would want to visit a city, that more than any other, is so closely associated with Hinduism, religion and temples. But I am a culture-vulture above all else and I knew Varanasi was much more than its temples. It is renowned for its millennia of history and civilization, its music, its food and its textiles to name just a few. To me and my friends, it seemed that it would be India in miniature (which indeed it was). Barring interesting architecture, the city is quintessential India, with its noise, heritage, dirt, cows - the exquisite and the egregious peacefully existing side by side.

(Note 1: I will use the name “Varanasi” and Banaras” interchangeably as the fancy takes me!.
Note 2: This is a practical guide for planning a trip to Varanasi. No paeans here to the merits of travelling with friends - I have written about that here :))

We booked our stay at Granny’s Inn ( which is a well-known homestay. It has 6 guest rooms in an old house in the heart of Varanasi (a 10-minute walk to Dashashwamedh ghat). It is not for those who need a river view because its a 10 minute trek to the ghats, but if you like a nice authentic experience and homely food with locals, this is your place. Plus the grannies are very friendly and have an impish sense of humour! It was really nice when we came back loaded with saree shopping and they followed us into our rooms so that we could lay out the sarees for them to inspect and admire, just like we do in our own homes with our moms and grandmas! 

First - the Banaras orientation. The city is on the western banks of the Ganga as it flows from Allahabad, east towards Patna. All of the main tourist and pilgrim action is concentrated in an approximately 4 km by 1 km stretch along the river, enfolding most of the major ghats among the 84 ghats that have been constructed in the city. The 4 km stretch runs from Assi ghat, the southernmost major ghat upto Manikarnika ghat and beyond. Inland is a narrow and very confusing warren of winding lanes (called gallis)  which are best negotiated with a guide if you only have a couple of days. If you have more time, you can probably get your bearings sooner or later and of course Google maps does help (though it gets fairly confused every now and then!)

The first thing to decide is what you want to do. We had decided to only visit the 3 main temples - Kashi Vishwanath, Sankat Mochan and Kaal Bhairav (a couple others got added later). We wanted to do the Ganga aarti (which happens at 2 ghats - Assi in the early mornings and Dashashwamedh in the evenings). We wanted to sample all of the Banaras culinary specialties (though we underestimated the amount of chai and paan that would get added to the mix) and spend a significant time with handloom weavers. We also wanted to do a walk through the Banaras Hindu University (BHU) and visit Sarnath. So our itinerary revolved around all of these places and our first draft was ready. I also like to do a couple of guided walks in most cities. Roobaroo Walks seemed to have good ratings on tripadvisor and were very prompt in their responses so I booked two of their walks and this is what our itinerary looked like when we landed. 

Day 1 Plan:
4/4.30 pm: Start at Assi Ghat and walk all the way to the end of the ghats (1 hour)
6 pm:  Ganga Aarti at Dashashwamedh Ghat (starts at 6.30 pm)
10.30 pm: Kashi Vishwanath temple "Shayan" aarti

What we actually did:
We were late in starting out so we went to a neighbouring chaat place for tamatar chaat which was okay but maybe not the best place to sample this Banaras delicacy (we never managed to sample this anywhere else). From here we walked to Dashashwamedh Ghat, for the first time understanding why dodging cow dung in Banaras is a fine art requiring speed, agility and grace! The evening Ganga aarti gets really crowded so get there early for a good spot. People view this from the water (on boats) or from the ghat itself (standing room only if you reach late). We reached at 6.30 pm and got seats on a boat so we saw the aarti from the front (as the acolyte priests face the river). It’s a theatrical production lacking in spirituality but very high on aesthetics, hence a photographer’s delight (they pray for world peace and the aarti has been going on only for the last 15-20 years). The aarti ends by 7.30 pm.
After the aarti our guide for the day (the major-domo at Granny’s inn, a young and super-efficient chap called Mayur) led us through the gallis, giving us a quick overview of the lay of the land and suggested a rooftop restaurant for dinner before the 10.30 pm aarti at Kashi Vishwanath temple. What we were told is that there are 5 aartis at the temple. The last one, the “Shayan aarti” is done before the Lord goes to sleep and the temple closes at 11 pm. It opens again at 3 am for the “Mangala aarti”.  All the aartis require a fee except for the Shayan aarti which is free and also attended largely by locals, so the most authentic. I wasn’t expecting much from the aarti but it was the most surreal and goosebumps-inducing experience of our stay in Banaras. For starters, it begins very abruptly. There is a sudden loud cry of “Har har mahadev” and then the songs start, with the powerful voices of the mostly male devotees rising up in perfect sync. My friend Suchi said it was a bit like a flash mob as latecomers entered the temple and joined into the singing without missing a beat. Bhaang being so omnipresent in Banaras, it seemed as though many of the devotees had imbibed this heady narcotic as they almost head-banged to their rockstar God. Whatever be the reason, the atmosphere was charged with utter devotion and infectious energy. Our Day 1 ended on a high note, being one of the unmissable experiences in Banaras.

Day 2 Plan: 
Roobaroo Walks
6:30 am - 9:30 am - South Walk description as below.
Starting at Assi ghat with a live performance of Indian Classical Music and witnessing an open air Yoga session, at Subah-e-Banaras for 15 mins each, we then set out to explore the ghats and gallis in the calmer part of Varanasi whose serene settings have inspired philosophers and poets for centuries. The walk includes visits to a memorial of a notable woman icon, a Wrestling Akhara of traditional Indian style, a 17th century house of a phenomenal poet, an Ancient step well, bathing ghats, and a neighbourhood replete with handloom workshops. 
Connecting the dots along this quirky mix of venues, the walk leaves you with a deep understanding of this oldest continuously living city in the world. Along the way we would stop for a chai (and witness the famous baithaks that happen over chai!), and have a breakfast of Kachori-sabzi and Jalebi - Varanasi's favourite!  

2:30 pm - 5:30 pm - North Walk description as below.
The walk includes a 3 hour exploration of the oldest living part of the city wherein walking through the markets and the gallis we understand life in the city - people's value systems, beliefs and elements of Hindu philosophy. At the ghats, sitting by the Ganga - we discuss the story of Varanasi's growing up - major historical events and people which have led to Varanasi becoming the spiritual and cultural capital of India. And then walking along the ghats, we then discuss some of their stories and at Manikarnika (the burning ghat) - the compelling take that the city has on death, and her association with Moksha. Weaving in and out of bustling streets, peaceful temples and traditional Indian houses the walk perfectly emulates the eccentricities of Varanasi and offers a great insight into the city's unique culture, history and its people. 

What we actually did:
The walks stuck to their script to the T. We were a little concerned whether we would be rushing through all these places without having time to stop and soak it all in, but the pace was just perfect for our group and both the guides were extremely knowledgeable. I would highly recommend a couple of walks in Varanasi to capture the real flavour of this fascinating city.  Among the highlights - the visit to the akhada, visit to Tulsidas' home (where the original Ramcharita Manas is kept) and Lohark Kund stepwell.

Day 3 Plan: 
5.30 am- 9 am: Sunrise boat ride (start from Dashashwamedh Ghat)
11 am onwards: Sarnath 
Evening: walk through BHU

What we actually did:
Our boat ride started only around 9 am as Mayur told us it would be too cold and foggy in the early morning (as it turned out he was wrong; we did a early morning boat ride the next day and it was just perfect). After a leisurely boat ride from Dashashwamedh to Assi ghat (expect to pay around 500 for 4 people, though it could be more if you arrange it beforehand and get someone to escort you from your place of stay to the ghat etc) and some lemon chai at Assi, we found our taxicab. Our driver suggested we go to Sankat Mochan first. Since it was a Saturday, the temple was extremely crowded and we only managed a quick glimpse at the idol before deciding to leave and head to Sarnath. BHU was a lower priority for us so even though it was close to Sankat Mochan we decided to come back to it if we had time after Sarnath. 
The Sarnath complex has 3 main attractions: the excavated ruins, the museum, and the temples constructed by various Buddhist countries. Obviously each of these are worth seeing but we focused on the excavated ruins as being the most interesting. This part of Sarnath is really serene and one felt like parking oneself onto the grass and doing nothing else. While there are a lot of guides wandering around, with a little prior reading you can manage the tour all by yourself. We parked ourselves for a bit near Dhamek stupa and just chatted until we got hungry and it was time to leave. We didn’t spend much time in Sarnath but you could potentially spend an entire day wandering around here. 
We stopped for lunch at a place called “Baati Chokha” which serves the traditional meal known as Litti with Chokha. Litti is a complete meal popular in Indian states of Bihar, Jharkhand and parts of Eastern Uttar Pradesh. It is a dough ball made up of whole wheat flour and stuffed with Sattu (roasted chickpea flour), potato, or paneer, mixed with herbs and spices and then roasted over a cow dung fire. The Chokha could be made of brinjal or potato (maybe some other veggies as well) and the whole combination is eaten with lots of ghee. It is a complete and very heavy meal and we were unable to eat anything much for the rest of the day!
Our next stop was the most exciting - saree shopping! I won’t bore you with the details of the exquisite weaves we saw and learnt about, suffice to say we oohed and aahed aplenty and came away with our wallets noticeably lighter!
We skipped dinner that day in favour of sweets and lassi at the Blue Lassi Bar, a Varanasi institution. It was tough to decide between the 60 or so Lassi flavours on offer (many seasonal). The lassi is really thick and creamy and the toppings/flavours are all fresh (no pulp) and the whole concoction needs to be eaten with a spoon. My only regret is that we only got to go once to this place.

Day 4 Plan: 
We had allocated this day for weavers and shopping.

What we actually did:
We went to Assi ghat for the 5.30 am Ganga aarti (similar to the evening Ganga aarti at Dashashwamedh but with far fewer crowds). We took a boat back to Dashashwamedh ghat and the views of the fog lifting away from the river, ghostly shapes on the water and the sunrise, were captivating. Back at the homestay, we got ready (after a breakfast of kachoris and jalebi) and set off to Madanpura which is a large weaving colony. We spent a few wonderful hours with the master weaver and his family who patiently explained the multiple processes of weaving a Banarasi saree - from the dyeing of the yarn, to the final weave (both handloom and powerloom). The hospitality of these people was endless. No conversation in Banaras is complete without copious amounts of chai and paan and this was no different.  We sat on the floor, admiring the cute kids who wandered in and out, drinking awesome chai and not knowing how to chew paan properly! The conversation wandered from Govt policy towards weavers, to the ancestors of the master weavers family, to the economics of the business, to Amazon! My moment of thrill came when I realised that the saree I had bought the previous day had been woven in this very workshop and I had one of the weavers pointed out to me as the creator of my saree! It just makes my purchase that much more cherished to see the person who wove it so exquisitely. 
We rushed back home after a much-needed break at Vatika Cafe (where I for one was happy to sample some blander Italian fare). We had decided to dress up in sarees for a fancy dinner at a place called Guleria Kothi  but first we went to Dashashwamedh again for the evening aarti. If we stood out during previous days, we must have looked quite a sight negotiating those narrow lanes in our “city” sarees, all hitched up to avoid any contact with the cow dung! We took a boat to Guleria Kothi and had a wonderful Banarasi thali, overlooking the river and ghats. It was a leisurely meal and we still had not run out of conversation. It brought to mind my son who always says - Why do girls talk so much?!!! 

A fitting end to our Banaras getaway!

Some unique "Banarasi" traits that we observed: 
- People love to talk and are friendly (sometimes too much so!). Try and strike up conversations and they meet you halfway very easily. Maybe being an all-women group helped but we came away with the impression of a city whose people are born storytellers. 
- When I tried to describe the city to others who have not visited, I struggled to find the words. It’s not a beautiful city, it has no striking buildings, the Ganga is there but it doesn’t have the majesty of say, the Narmada or the Brahmaputra.  Everything looks old and dilapidated. It is certainly dirty and extremely noisy and crowded. But there is a palpable energy and aura (call it religious/spiritual), indescribable but palpable, that lends the city a totally unique character. The sense of history is very strong in this city, the world’s oldest living city which has been destroyed completely a couple of times before arising in its present avatar. I think it is this very tangible sense of history and spirituality that beckons even the non-religious into its folds again and again. 
-At Manikarnika ghat, I was taken aback to see life going on as usual on the sidelines. Near to the several burning pyres, were multiple tea stalls doing brisk business. Behind us, strobe lights blinked as loud music played (devotional songs set to film music). It all seemed a bit distasteful. Our guide assured us that neither morbid curiosity nor nonchalance in the face of death, was the least bit unsuitable. Varanasi knows that death is an integral part of life and we don’t separate the two, she said. Earlier, she had talked about the four elements of Varanasi or the four purusharthas (proper goals or aims of a human life)  - moksh, arth, dharm and kaam. The well-balanced pursuit of Dharm (duties, rights, laws, conduct, virtues and "right way of living”), Arth (commerce, prosperity), Kaam (the pursuit of earthly desires, pleasure and the fine arts)and Moksh (salvation, spiritual pursuits) leads to self-actualisation and fulfilment of your life’s purpose (I instantly remembered Maslow’s hierarchy!). 

On our last day, we were sitting at Assi imbibing our daily dose of lemon chai. I look up and see 2 women, heads covered with saree pallus walking down the steps with lamps in their hands. A solitary boat sails past as someone sings snatches of a Hindustani raga in the background. The horizon is shot with pink and orange as the sun rises and suddenly I am filled with an unreasonable happiness for being there at that exact spot, in that exact moment in time. It was my perfect Banaras moment!

Winding up with a quick list of places to eat. You will most likely run out of meals and time in the few days you spend in the city. Pace yourself and some meals may have to be only sweets (or lassi!)
      • Tamatar and chaat at Dina Nath Chat Bhandar (Assi ghat)
      • Blue lassi bar
      • Vatika Cafe at Assi ghat for thin crust pizza and apple strudel (very good!)
      • Mallaio (made from milk froth) available in multiple places but only during winter 
      • Kachori galli 
      • Pappu chai wale 
      • Chaurasia paan near Chowk 

Thursday 18 January 2018

It gets easier, but...

Ever so often, when we meet with parents who have cute babies or toddlers, I watch the husband playing happily with them and my one treacherous thought is - "Well thank God I'm done with THAT"! Don't get me wrong. I miss my babies, the sweet smell of them, their toothy smiles, their cuddly squishy bodies and their unbearable adorable-ness. When I look at old photos, my hurt turns over at how small and cute they were. Those days were precious and they will never come back. But I enjoy my almost-teenager and my almost-tween so much more.  

They grew up, and I grew up with them.

Different folks, different strokes. Some people like the baby phase, some prefer babies just turn into adults straightaway :) And I've always enjoyed the in-betweens. My sweet spot is between age 7 and 13 (I won't venture farther than that because I don't have the experience!). Young enough to still think the world of their mum, old enough to be sassy with her. Oh yeah!

Around this age, they still haven't turned into gawky adolescents, who (face it) can be unattractive and smelly. Atleast the fond mother can still see shades of the babies they grew from. I've spent the last several years telling the kids we won't celebrate their birthdays because I don't want them a year older!

You can have a real conversation with them. They have interesting viewpoints, largely unencumbered by stereotypes. And because they are malleable, you can express an opinion and have them consider it seriously and without prejudice (which is often a challenge with adults!). However, the downside....fully expect to not have your opinion treated as the Holy Word. They will challenge you and make you admit your own irrationality/unreasonableness/judgements. I for one always get pulled up by both kids on being inconsistent (laying down different sets of rules for different situations and often forgetting my own rules) and not keeping my word. It's not fun to be told you are wrong!

They can amuse themselves, bathe themselves, dress themselves and basically give you a lot of TIME. The most scarce resource in any parent's life, and suddenly you find you have oodles of it. My kids handle homework and studying on their own so I have very little supervisory activity in the evenings. They read on their own, and we have often spent hours just lying in bed and reading, with occasional diversions and discussions into what the other person is reading. 

We spend years thinking about when they will start full-time school so that we get some free time, and suddenly you have to count the years before he goes off to college (6 years in my case). Mild panic sets in (so soon! how could this have happened?) followed by a new-found appreciation of the time you do have right now (never mind we just finished a shouting match ending with a banged door). 
The teens are clearly around the corner. There are tears for no obvious reason, heightened sensitivity to parental or grandparental criticism, a lot of "You always do this Amma! You can never be happy with me!" and so on and so forth. I am sure this walking-on-eggshells routine is going to be more frequent over the years. S often tells me not to provide "constructive" criticism when Ads is in a bad mood. I should also not provide feedback when Ads is in a good mood! Because then he'll fall into a bad mood again! I laugh at this absurdity. When am I supposed to give feedback then? When he's sleeping?

Spousal differences come to the fore when parenting older kids in the way they never appeared in earlier years. Physical care is largely binary - something is either right or wrong. When it comes to emotional care, you can fall anywhere on a long continuum and that's when your individual values and viewpoints get exposed, sometimes even to your own self. I've often found myself giving the "right" answer to my kids and silently questioning myself "But is this what I really believe in? Do I practice this?"

This thoughtful parenting gig is hard!

Monday 15 January 2018

The year of learning

2017 has been a landmark year for the husband and me. The year that a lot of things that we had been pondering on or seeking solutions for, just began to come together in a sort of masterplan for life, seemingly disparate pieces all joining up, not making complete sense at the moment, but somehow giving one a bizarre and perhaps misplaced confidence that someday soon the complete picture may be revealed : ) I often feel this when I am baking. I tend to be a fairly haphazard baker, with the vaguest understanding of the chemical principles involved. I happily substitute milk and yogurt for eggs, and forego the yeast even when the recipe pleads for it, with the happy optimism that a mixture of flour, vanilla essence, sugar and egg/curd can rarely go wrong (at the very least you can eat the batter which is always yummy!). Baking also made me realise that I am the sort of person who enjoys the process of doing something more than the achievement of actually accomplishing the task. This realisation has been incredibly liberating over the last year as both the husband and I have embarked on our learning journeys, sometimes together (as in our quest for “hacking happiness - read here or in the pursuit of mindfulness), or separately (as in our pursuit of learning to play musical instruments, which has so far achieved dramatically different results!)

As the husband and I grow older and more importantly see parents ageing, we have had a natural curiosity insights around how to age “well” (specifically how to become a super-ager), and an interest in reading a lot of literature on the subject including how to remain healthy and mentally alert into old age. The research all says that in order to stay mentally healthy into old age, we need to rewire our brains and make it stronger and more agile through regular sessions of vigorous effort, whether physical or mental. Pleasantly puzzling activities like Sudoku or the crossword don’t help, nor does a leisurely daily amble through the park. The effort of the mental or physical activity must take one beyond the comfort zone and must be intense enough to be slightly, or more than slightly, unpleasant. In other words, “do it until it hurts”.

At the beginning of the year, I started going to a Zumba class in our community, for no reason other than the fact that I like my fitness routine to have a mix of many different things and Zumba seemed like an interesting addition to the walking/yoga/biking routine I already had. A year later, I have become stronger and fitter than I have ever been in my life. What really worked was being consistent (show up for the class every single day - no excuses other than early meetings or being sick) and being pushed out of my comfort zone (with weights, functional training, and far more cardio than I was used to). For example- my bugbear, the plank pose. We only do a plank for 30-60 seconds at a stretch, so nothing very extreme. Those are truly the longest 30 seconds of my life. I can hold poses that are harder than a plank, but for some reason the latter defeats me every single time. After 15 seconds, the mind takes over and says - You can't do this. Sink down! And I want to! But I have to keep going, because I know my body can. Every breath and sinew is focused on keeping the back straight, the arms steady, and the breathing even. Pushing past the discomfort of the moment is something I am still learning to do. There is also one functional training class in the week that causes simultaneous panic and exultation because it is so hard. 20 minutes in, I am looking at the clock, wondering when the class will end. But the high at the end of the every class is what keeps me coming back every week. This year of fitness has been an exercise (pun intended) in discipline, determination and mindfulness. 

I also started learning how to play the guitar during the school summer holidays. I can say with supreme confidence that it has been the hardest thing I’ve ever had to learn. One of the things that no one ever tells you about playing a musical instrument is how physically taxing it can be. For the first few months, my entire left arm would be on fire with the unaccustomed posture. My fingers would hurt as I twisted them into unnatural shapes. My guitar teacher unhelpfully suggested that I might have early arthritis! I realised I have very low agility in my fingers. I bemoaned the fact that I had not learnt an instrument when my extremities were supple and nimble like my daughter’s.

It takes me forever to learn to play a song. Scratch that, it takes me forever to string together a few chords so that they actually sound like a melody, or fairly close. My brain is slow and my fingers are slower. I do not remember the last time I broke down a task into so many sub-tasks. I literally speak to my brain silently telling my fingers what to do. Ok- when this finger goes to the third string, put that finger THERE….ok? More than three fingers, I am hopelessly confused. Playing a song properly in this lifetime seems unimaginable. At this point, I am gunning for recognisable melodies in the distant future. Competence and expertise is not even on the horizon.

The husband, on the other hand, has taken to his flute like a fish to water. And that’s a far more difficult instrument to play! Can I blamed for feeling resentful towards his superior abilities when he had started learning a couple of months after me? But I have made my peace with it. Like I said earlier, the process is really what keeps it interesting for me and in a strange way, I thrive on the difficulty of it all. Frustration aside, I know I improve with every class and practice session. I still find it miraculous that simply by doing something over and over you get better at it. Of course that’s obvious, but I’d forgotten. Most of the complicated physical tasks I perform—rolling out chapathi dough, writing, or folding a saree —I’ve performed for so many years I forgot what it’s like to acquire a motor skill. It’s frustrating, but it’s a joy when you finally get it. Is this how a toddler feels when, after months of trying, she finally starts to walk?!!

It is incredible when from one practice session to the next, the chords sound smoother and smoother and my finger movements become less and less conscious. Playing is also one of the few times in the day when I am at my most mindful. The beneficial effect of doing something hard is that I am unable to think of nothing else other than just getting the fingers in place and the sound right. Feeling incompetent for a chunk of time every day is also good - it builds patience in other areas and a new-found appreciation of what motor skills I already have :)

I also learnt something else. The more you do, the more you can do. Being more mindful has allowed me to focus on things I really care about, and drop things that are superfluous. House-proud me has started ignoring the untidy chaos that often prevails at home, although my family believes I could be far more relaxed about a lot of things! Even while it seemed like I didn’t have the time to add more activities to my schedule, counter -intuitively I was able to pack in more. Paradoxically this was also the first time in years I felt that I was doing a good job as a parent. By that, I don’t mean the “hygiene“ stuff that I always managed well. I meant the other important stuff - like discussing books and movies, having honest deep conversations, often just cuddling and talking about their day. Maybe they’ve just grown up, or all this mindfulness jazz is actually working!   

It’s been a good year.