Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Whip Them Into Shape

There's always one kid in every class. The one who won't pay attention. The one who distracts the others with his clowning and silly behaviour. The one the teacher feels like slapping "for his own good."

There are some who insist on showing off, taking risks, leading others into dangerous situations.

And then there are the ones who are just plain trouble. Up to no good, full of mischief and eager to create a problem. Mostly boys, but plenty of girls too:

These are the children just crying out to be brought into line.


Corporal punishment is rampant in Indian schools, as it is in most of the world.

In honor of Mahatma Gandhi’s birthday, internationally celebrated as Non-Violence Day, Parents Action Group on Education (PAGE), an initiative of the Latika Roy Foundation, has issued a Call to Action to Dehradun schools.

According to the 2007 national report on child abuse by the Ministry of Women and Child Development, two out of three children in India are abused in school. Some of these cases have resulted in children’s deaths, either directly through the violence itself, or indirectly by driving children to commit suicide. Although the Constitution of India specifically prohibits any kind of violence - either physical or mental - against children, corporal punishment is still rampant throughout the country.

While many defend the practice as necessary for children’s training and development, the same acts, if done to an adult, would constitute an unlawful assault and be punishable with jail.

Here in Dehradun, almost every school child has either been beaten by a teacher or principal or has witnessed classmates being hit. Most children do not report the abuse to their parents for fear of further punishment and many parents are afraid to confront school authorities on the issue.

PAGE members, all of whom are parents whose children have studied or are studying in local schools, want the practice to stop. In a letter to the principals of all area schools, we have asked that the school publicly pledge to end violence of all kinds in their classrooms and to promise that no child will be physically or emotionally abused.

The pledge is as follows:

As Principal of XYZ School in Dehradun, I hereby pledge that no child of this school shall be subjected to corporal punishment of any kind. This includes slapping, beating, ear pulling, pinching or being forced to stand in the sun or in painful positions. Furthermore, no child shall be verbally humiliated or attacked for any reason.

XYZ School shall practice positive, child-centred discipline which nurtures and empowers children while still establishing the necessary boundaries that allow them to develop to their fullest potential.

After circulating the letter, PAGE will publish the names of all schools who have taken the pledge.

Our vision is of a world where adults respect and honor children, where the joy of childhood is not insulted or invaded by violence,

and where the natural curiosity of children is encouraged and nurtured by the adults lucky enough to be with them:

Take the pledge!

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Mr Happy Spray Painting Saves The Day

Of all the objects in our kitchen this blue oven is by far my favorite. We've had it for 25 years now and the story of how it came to be in our kitchen is unlikely and wonderful.
When we first came to India, we were bone poor. We had sold everything we owned to buy our air tickets and once we had settled into our first flat and set it up with the most basic of furnishings, there was very little left.

Ravi's salary was Rs 2500 a month and I didn't have a work permit. So the oven I dreamed of having  was out of the realm of possibility. Just for fun, we had gone around pricing various options, but there was nothing available for less than Rs 3000 and spending more than a month's salary just didn't make sense (to Ravi). 

Some friends had an oven exactly like the one above and occasionally I would borrow it for a special occasion. I would then "forget" to return it (they only used it a few times a year so they hardly even noticed) for months.  But eventually it would always go back, leaving me sad and somewhat stymied, as so much of my cooking is oven-based and so much comfort derives from food when one is a stranger in a strange land.

Two years later, we were living in another flat, Ravi had gotten a small raise and we had our first child. An oven was still out of the question, but living in Delhi, with temps of up to 115, a fridge was an absolute necessity. Unable to afford much, however, we had decided to rent one. I went to the rental place (called "Happy Spray Painting" for some unknown reason), selected the smallest model, gave the address to the owner and was just turning to leave when I saw the oven of my dreams sitting off to one side. It was obviously a second-hand piece, and exactly the same model as the one I borrowed from my friends.
"Is that for sale?" I asked casually, trying not to sound too excited.

"Yes it is," the man answered briskly.

With Anand perched on my hip, I did some rapid mental calculations. We could do without a few things, I reasoned. I could write an article and make a few extra bucks. "Even if he says 1000 rupees," I said to myself, "I'm going to get it."

"How much are you selling it for?" (Calmly, Jo. Don't show your hand.)

"400 rupees," he said firmly. "I don't bargain."

Did God send me to this place? Did this man sense my desperate desire for an oven? "I'll take it." The words burst out of my mouth even though I only had ten rupees in my pocket. "Can you wait fifteen minutes? I'll be right back. PLEASE don't sell it to anyone else."

I rushed to a friend's house and borrowed the 400 rupees, dashed back to the shop and arranged for both fridge and oven to be delivered that evening. I didn't even bother to check that it was in working order.

It was, however. In fact, it was perfect, the best investment in any equipment I have ever made in my life: 25 years of dependable performance, 25 years of breads, pies, cakes, lasagne, baked potatoes, grilled eggplant, quiche, scones, muffins - the lot. I didn't know any of that at the time, of course. All I knew was that at last our kitchen was a real one and that I could make anything I wanted now. 

The first thing I made was a cake for Mr Happy Spray Painting and I took it down to his shop as one might take the first fruits of the harvest to the church: in grateful thanks, staggering, the golden sheaves in my arms.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Musical Train Compartments

One of the best things about taking the train from Dehradun to Delhi is the 20 minute halt in Saharanpur. ( I love the announcements at each station. They all say "The scheduled stop at XYZ station will be for two minutes only." At Saharanpur, they keep to the set formula but the number changes: "The scheduled stop at Saharanpur Station will be for 20 minutes only.")

20 minutes only.

20 minutes is all I need to walk a quick mile and a half, and since my day prior to catching the train is always too hectic for exercise, I never fail to make use of the opportunity. The moment we stop, I am out on the platform, headphones in place, striding.

It's a very interesting experience. Lots of men get off, but I haven't noticed anyone else walking. They all stand in clumps around their compartments, smoking and chatting. The Ticket Collectors confer importantly with each other, consulting their clipboards and fending off anxious passengers if it happens to be an overbooked day, the waiters fly back and forth from the food carts which stand waiting with dinner for the whole train and passengers arrive in varying degrees of haste, increasing as the departure time grows closer.

I just walk. Back and forth, back and forth, from the engine to the brake van and back again. Four rounds, five if I walk fast. Enough to take note of individual scenes - the sadhus in one corner, the children who seem to know the place as if it is their home.

There are whole worlds on the platform. People create their own little spaces in full public view and temporary inhabitants like me, who are literally passing by, feel small and insignificant in the face of a universe we can only observe from the outside.

But as fascinating as the world of the platform is, the train has its own logic. It's running on schedule; it's about to depart.  I become more conscious of my 20 minutes only. Now my solitary walk up and down the platform takes on a sense of urgency and the door to each compartment begins to feel like part of a game of Musical Chairs: can I make it from one entrance to another before the train starts to move? I hurry the length of each compartment and slow to a crawl by the doors, straining for a glimpse of that green light at the far end of the platform, the visual equivalent of the music coming to a stop, signaling the end of the game.

The light changes, the whistle blows, I clamber on to whichever compartment I am standing beside and make my way back or forward to my seat. My world is moving on. The platform remains.

Sunday, September 19, 2010


The electricity went out this evening at 8:45. No lights in the house and no street lights either. But I still wanted to go for my usual post-dinner walk. I put Moy Moy to bed, strapped on my glow-in-the-dark reflectors (a gift from my friend Anne Bruce) and strode out into the night.

It was pitch dark. Feeling a little creeped out and apprehensive, I was just about to give up and return home when two men on a motor bike pulled up beside me and said "Police chowki kahan hai?" (Where is the Police Station?)

No one asks me for directions. No one. Not ever.

How do I explain how much this bothers me?

Once when I was a little girl I was walking to the store with my Aunt Sheila, who was from New York City. Talk about glamor! A passing car slowed, then stopped and the driver rolled down his window and asked her if she knew the way to Arlan's - a store I had been to more times than I could count. Aunt Sheila started to say that she was from out of town when I eagerly pushed forward and said "I know the way!" I found, however, when I tried to give the directions, I actually had no idea. I could have walked there myself, but I couldn't explain it satisfactorily to another person. Aunt Sheila let me try for a while, then gently suggested that we let him go on and ask someone else.

I realized then that giving directions is an art. A vague idea of where something is isn't good enough. You have to know exactly.  And more important, you have to be able to convey that knowledge to someone who hasn't got your experience. So landmarks are important - both the ones that tell you this is the turn and the ones that you will see only if you missed it (If you see the fire station, you've gone too far!).

Giving good directions became a little hobby for me. I liked the feeling of belonging that being able to get a stranger from Point A to Point B implies. So it has always bothered me that here in Dehradun, a place I have lived for over twenty years and which I feel I know very well indeed, nobody ever approaches me for help.

I can't blame them, of course. If I were lost in a strange city, I don't think I would choose the foreign looking lady to set me straight either. But still. Try it some day! She knows the way! She really does!

So when the man on the motorcycle suddenly stopped beside me last night in the pitch dark looking for the police chowki, I smiled (even though I caught the look of disappointment when he saw my face and realized there was no chance I would know anything) and pointed him in exactly the right direction. ("Turn around, go straight for fifty yards, and there it is.") So simple.

I walked on, now not creeped out by the dark at all anymore but feeling instead like a powerful resident of the neighborhood. Imagine my surprise when 15 minutes later, two different men, also on a motorcycle, stopped to ask if I knew where the Barista Coffeeshop was.

They , too, realized their mistake almost immediately but, emboldened by my earlier success, I asked them in Hindi if it was just coffee they were after or was it specifically the Barista - because (OK, I was showing off) there's a Cafe Coffee Day which is much closer.

No, it was the Barista, they said, slowly, laughing a little. They were meeting friends there.

Well, then. Straight ahead to the gol chakka, take a left. Straight on to the Anurag Chowk, take a right. Follow the road as it winds to the right and the Barista is on your right just ahead.

"Thanks, Ma'am!" they said, laughing out loud now. "Can we bring you a cup of coffee back?"

Right neighborly of them, I think!

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Lessons from Mom: Pins and Needles

I am an ardent admirer of safety pins. I love the small ones especially, for their sweet look and elegant design, but these large diaper pins are amazing too. I have any number of clothes which would fall off me without safety pins. Mostly, this is sheer laziness of course, because I can never find a BUTTON when I need one (unlike the ladies at i made it so, or Magpie's Nest who are true connoisseurs and artists of the BUTTON world).  Then there are some outfits are so bizarrely constructed that without safety pins, all dignity and decorum, by which I set great store, would be lost (SARI, all you Indian ladies, but it's true).

The other day I was hurriedly wearing a skirt whose waist is too large for me. I keep a pin permanently attached to the waistband for this reason, but this morning, I couldn't push it through the cloth.  In fact, I pushed so hard with no effect but to bend the pin into a useless little mangle. And then I remembered a visual image which I don't think I have thought of since my childhood.

We were a large family (five girls, two boys) and as one of the oldest, I saw a parade of babies growing up. It was cloth diapers all the way (I'm talking ancient history) and there was always a set of pins stuck in the bar of soap by the kitchen sink, close to the changing table. Mom had two sets and they were constantly circulating - out of the soap, they glided through the cloth as easily as a skiff through the sea.

My daughter, Moy Moy, uses disposables, but the lesson remains: sharp points are necessary to accomplish anything in life, but soap, like courtesy, kindness and the odd sincere smile, softens the passage and cleanses the soul.

Of course, it was Ivory Soap Mom used: 99.44% pure.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Book World

A funny thing. Life has been so busy lately (facebook, free cell, you know - important stuff) I've not been reading as much as usual. 

But then Rachel arrived in town and I orchestrated my trips to Delhi to coincide with whatever free time she had. Though she was also reading less than usual, for her that meant only one book a week instead of three. She gave me a few recommendations and it was off to the races.

Through her, I discovered Richard Russo and I went out and bought the first one I could find in a Delhi bookstore - That Old Cape Magic. I loved it!

When I finished that, I found I needed another immediately but none of the stores I visited had anything else by Russo. So I branched out and bought one by Colm Toibin - a novel called Brooklyn.

Also wonderful!

I gulped them both down like a thirsty wanderer at an oasis in the desert and I realized how I had been depriving myself (Freecell??? Facebook???).

But it was only later in the week that I really understood what I had been missing. My mind was humming again. One evening, I was going through the usual after-dinner chores and thinking about the day's events. Those events included something Griffin had said and how it had upset Joy; They included Eilys's mother and how she was coping alone in her house in Ireland. I felt as if I had just had dinner with old friends, people I had known for years, and my head was all full of them and their stories and their worries and the new dresses they were thinking of buying. and the cost of a third-class berth on a steam ship home.

I had returned to the world of books.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Generosity, Part II

A few weeks ago, I wrote a post about Generosity and How It Happens. I talked about the citizens of Delhi who seemed to have a more highly developed spirit of generosity than we do here in Dehradun.

I’m afraid I have to withdraw that impression.

I had based my judgment on the ubiquitous presence of little cards on Delhi restaurant tables informing customers that 10 rupees was being added to their bill as a voluntary contribution to a charity – in this case one devoted to the welfare of stray animals. When we tried to do something similar in Dehradun, our proposal was rejected in every restaurant we approached as their owners said they would lose their customers if they instituted such a policy.

This seemed too pathetic to believe (ten rupees!) and we concluded that Delhi must just be more evolved than Dehradun.


This week, I visited some of those same restaurants in Delhi again. In Khan Market, reportedly Asia’s 3rd most expensive shopping area and home to some of the world’s most exclusive brands (almost without exception non-essential luxury items), the restaurant where I had first seen the cards no longer had them. My friend, Rachel, and I questioned our waitress who explained that too many people had objected, saying they didn’t want to donate to a fund for animals when children were hungry and living on the streets. (Implying that since they only had ten rupees to donate – those Khan Market shoppers are hard up, after all – they preferred it should go to the charity of their choice.)

In a further conversation with the manager, he said dealing with irate customers (one even threatened to sue him) got to be such a hassle they preferred to put an end to the experiment and just keep a box by the register for voluntary contributions.

Predictably, the box is fairly empty.

Rachel told me she had been to an even posher restaurant a few nights earlier where, for a party of four, the bill came to Rs 7500. While waiting for her receipt, she had noticed the same People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals card on the table and picked it up to show her colleagues. Immediately, the waitress rushed over to reassure her: “Madame, it’s only ten rupees, and it’s a voluntary contribution,” as if she knew, from bitter experience, that people paying a bill of Rs 7500 often found an extra ten too much to deal with.

Later, wandering around in the market, I happened to overhear a woman on the phone making arrangements to have her driver take an amount of cash to a mall in Gurgaon where he would collect whatever it was she was buying. After explaining the details to the person at the other end, she said, almost as an afterthought: “So how much is it? 60K? Oh, one lakh. Teek hai. Byeeeee.”

From 60,000 to 100,000 without batting an eyelid, but an extra ten rupees on a restaurant bill and suddenly, it’s a matter of principle.

Several people commented on my earlier post saying that they didn’t like the practice of adding ten rupees to the bill because they couldn’t be sure the money was actually going to the NGO in question. And that even if it was, they couldn’t be sure the money would be well spent.

True. There are no guarantees. Some things we have to take on trust. But it is interesting that these are the things we choose to quibble over and cast doubt upon. The people who balk at the ten rupees are the same people who argue with the coolie who just carried three heavy bags from the Pahar Ganj side to Track 16 at Ajmeri Gate, loaded them all up onto the luggage rack and made sure they were comfortably seated before asking for the cost of his labor. I watched a man I later found out was an IAS officer heading to Mussoorie for a 25th year reunion hand the coolie 20 rupees and then, grudgingly, when he protested, another 10.

But serve this fellow a cup of tea in a five-star restaurant, give him a bill for Rs 250 and see if he argues with the waiter and insist that all he will pay is what HE thinks the price should be. Ironically, he could actually make himself a cup of tea at home for a tiny fraction of what a hotel charges. In a million years, he couldn’t achieve what the bone-thin coolie did when he carried his bags from one end of the station to the other. But who does he argue with?

Objecting on principle (um, what principle was it again?) to ten rupees being added to a restaurant bill in a decent restaurant whose owners have no reason to be suspected of dishonesty and when the money is going to a known charity seems like a red herring.

But the fact that people DO object, when the amount really is so tiny, leads one to wonder how small their lives might be, and to consider whether they are the ones to feel sorry for rather than the charity which doesn’t get their money. Is this really their idea of “standing on principle”? Could they really have felt a moral victory had been achieved when those cards were removed from all the restaurant tables?

Open-handed generosity is a joy and a blessing which must be practiced to be understood. And I, for one, have lost track of the number of times I have been prodded into giving to a beggar on the side of the road because of seeing my auto driver dig into his pocket (far less lined than mine) to give a coin or two.

If, occasionally, “our” money goes into the wrong hands, so be it. Consider it a tax for all that has come to us unearned, undeserved. Living large, sharing freely from the abundance one has been freely given makes for a kinder heart and a sweeter life, and creates the channel through which even more blessings will flow through the world in an endless cascade of goodness.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Try This

Train travel is what you make it. In the old days, when we first came to India, one of the best parts of travelling was planning for the journey: the food we would prepare, the entertainment we would carry, the small comforts we would pack.

In those days, a journey meant a predictable amount of discomfort, occasionally verging into squalor and misery. Overcrowded compartments, no AC, dust and grit, filthy loos, children (our own) who would throw up on the floor, and children (other people’s) who would pee on them – it was all expected and endured.

The baskets full of aloo-poori, karelas, fruit, chips and biscuits, the travel games, the singing sessions, the long novels, the aimless staring out the window at worlds unfamiliar and strange – made up for the suffering (I love that the Hindi for journey is safar!).

Now we have Shatabdis and Rajdhanis, air-conditioned and reasonably clean. We still bring our own entertainment, mostly I-pods and laptops, and train travel is still great fun - but I do think we’re selling ourselves short by accepting the food. The fact that it comes with the ticket isn’t reason enough to eat it.

I do the Dehradun-Delhi Shatabdi two or three times a month and I can no longer choke down the same meal they have been serving for the past fifteen years.

So here are a few quick tips for a happy journey.

1. Make friends with the waiters on the train. They are hard-working and bored. They do the same thing every single day. If I, who travel this route three times a month, am tired of Veg/Non-Veg, imagine how they must feel, doing it twice a day, six days a week. They enjoy oddness and variety and they will help you in many unexpected ways.

2. Bring your own cold milk for the tea/coffee ritual. That powdered stuff (or Goat’s Dandruff) really should be banned. Once or twice we had only warm milk at home as I was rushing out the door and you know what that means.

3. That means malai. To avoid such a catastrophe (unless of course you are a Punjabi and you LIKE malai), pack a small strainer as well.

4. Unless you are travelling in Executive Class, you will be given a thick blue plastic cup to drink your tea from. This should be avoided. Pack a small teacup from home. Now don’t make a fuss. It’s only one more small thing to pack, not such a big deal.

5. Pack your own dinner. Be creative. This evening for example (I am writing this on the train) I brought soup (I did have to spring for a little stainless steel flask, but I consider it a lifetime investment). When they handed out the blue plastic cups (same as for the tea! GROSS!!!), I asked for an empty bowl from the Executive Class compartment (see point #1) and my waiter was only too happy to oblige. While everyone else drank that red, insipid, chemically liquid, I sipped my curried pumpkin soup and munched on a piece of homemade bread. For dinners in the past, I have brought leftover eggplant parmesan, hummus and baba ganoush, and once, memorably, quiche, sliced tomatoes and green beans sautéed with toasted almonds. Usually, I admit, I just pack a sandwich, but always on homemade bread and usually with a salad on the side.

6. Extras. Consider a glass of wine. Strictly forbidden by the authorities, of course, so this is best done only if travelling with a companion (and then only in stainless steel glasses like all those furtive men at the back of the wedding shamiana). Drinking nonchalantly alone is hard to pull off with waiters (however friendly) and Ticket Takers constantly striding about.

7. Special chocolates. A bright red apple. A little katori full of pomegranate. Some roasted cashew nuts.

Everything tastes better, seems more interesting and feels more uplifting on a train. Share with the person beside you. Tip the waiters. Look out the window. Life is beautiful.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010


Many years ago, I studied to become a midwife. Most of the teachers were old hippies and their teaching style was predictably loose and relaxed. One, however, in addition to being a midwife, was also a nurse. She took pride in her fierce, rigid pedagogy. She forced us to memorize definitions and procedures verbatim without caring whether we had understood at all.

"Understanding comes later," she would bark. "First get the facts."

I will never forget the day she taught us how to wash our hands. The previous class she had handed out a sheet of instructions. The first one read:

Approach the sink.

It went on like this, in what seemed like an extremely anal and obsessive attention to detail which was completely unnecessary given that we were all adults with basic common sense:

Scrub palm to palm
Right palm over left dorsum and left palm over right dorsum
Palm to palm fingers interlaced
Backs of fingers to opposing palms with fingers interlocked

And so on. Every detail. Nothing too trivial to be mentioned.

I was 24 years old at the time and I had great faith in my intelligence, my memory and that same old common sense I referred to earlier. I knew hands needed to be washed to avoid infection. I knew how to do it. I didn't need lessons. I certainly didn't need a checklist.

Now I am 52. My once sharp memory is frayed at the edges and increasingly unreliable. "Approaching the sink" to wash my hands, I am just as likely to remember that plant I've been meaning to water and to veer off in another direction entirely.

So now I like protocols. I like checklists and unalterable routines. When I walk into the house, I put my keys on the key rack mindlessly, without thought, because that's the only way it happens. If I change that crucial routine - open the door, approach key rack, hang keys - by even an inch, the keys end up in the laundry basket or the fridge.

After I broke my camera because I forgot to close the zipper on its case, allowing it to tumble out and crash onto the floor,  I realized that protocols not only save time and frustration, they also save life and limb.

Put milk to boil. Turn gas down to sim.

Get in the car. Put on seatbelt.

Help Moy Moy into bed, drag heavy chair up beside it to prevent her rolling out.

Protocols. I love them because they remind us that we are human and forgetful and well-intentioned but sometimes stupid.