Friday, 7 July 2017

Hairy Legs, Brussels and ‘I think she likes me’

The hair on my arms is the length of my toes. The hair on my legs has reached my toes. I wouldn’t say it is a completely new experience, but it is certainly most novel to experience it when a country is celebrating, yes celebrating, all 13 degrees of its summers with skin and sunshine. On the cobbled streets of Brussels I am probably the only one wearing stretch denims while the world is sprinting ahead of me in airy, breezy and frivolously delicious summer clothes. The moment I spot a pair of smooth legs enjoying the sunshine, it is as if the jeans grow four sizes smaller to kill me with asphyxiation, or whatever the hell tight jeans can do to your health when the heart burns green. 

But my hands are tied. 

I am thousands of kilometres away from a long-trusted tin of Shabnam Cold Wax (Rs 70) and a packet of disposable white waxing strips (Rs 25). Are there no salons in Brussels, you ask? There’s one in every Rue, but with my level of fluency in French I believe I might as well discuss foreign policy with a plant, and succeed in having a path-breaking dialogue, than explain to la fille successfully that I need a wax. Um, there is another reason why I have been Google translating salon menus but not garnering the courage to enter and ask for a pure and simple wax. 

It seems to me to be a secret kind of … something. It caught me by surprise. And I have been trying to unravel it as much as I have been my overgrown eyebrows from my lashes. 

When you shift to a foreign country for the first time, complete with lock, stock and barrels of homemade ghee, you are ready and raring for the new life ahead. You are confident that it’ll be a great experience. So happy you are that it’s not wind under the wings of the airplane but actually your excited panting which floats your craft ahead, right till you land. 

Then a few days later you land again, with a minor splash into the pool of reality that surrounds you. It is different!

There is newness at every step of the way. This is not that kind of newness which tourists make happy selfies or informative photographs out of. Their tryst with newness is temporary. It happens with a bang and begins to fizzle once the trip is done, all #nofilters dusted and suitcases of fridge magnets unpacked. I talk of a more permanent interface between you and The Foreign – a kind where from bread and beer to office and school, everything has to integrate harmoniously and seamlessly into the language of your everyday life. Much has to be done, made possible, understood and learnt. And this includes ideas about your sense of self. Very basic and visible ideas too, I do sheepishly confess.

Like my hairy legs. 

‘Gosh! No one has body hair here, unless it’s golden and invisible! Were they dipped in bleach before being sent to Earth?’ and  ‘Can I really walk my legs into the salon without having the ladies there run out scared of King Kong?’ … just two of the many thoughts which rattle my mind as my caddy rattles behind the French and Dutch ones at supermarkets. During one such musing, with a twang that a thread on an in-growth feels like, I heard a loud ‘What will they think?’ inside my head.

The loudness echoed inside me. I caught it lingering longer than the smell of tadka in an 8-storied building. What will they think? What will they say? It stalked me all over the park, walked behind me right to my building, went up the same elevator and even entered my flat. It is only later that the stress shifted itself, and thank Gouda that it did! What will they think? Hold on! When before have I been so conscious of what people think? Have I not managed to live and let live most of the 34 years of my life confidently and sans self-consciousness? So why am I now eager to theorize ‘A comparative study of hair growth between French and Indian legs’? 

More importantly, who is this ‘they’ that I talk about? Who is this … Oh Crêpe!

I realized how, rather easily, I created an entity. I attributed to a whole population homogenous characteristics and in doing so created an absolute ‘other’. In my head! Simultaneously, I ‘othered’ myself in the process. A kind of alienation, where I was alienating not just the others from me but my own self from them too. Hello wall, I built you for free. And now I’m wondering why…

It felt odd. It felt wrong and unfair. Especially so when I looked back on my few weeks here only to realize the locals never made me into a ‘they’. If anything, they had been kinder to me than many of “my own”. Be it book shops or tram stops, Carrefour queues or bars, nowhere and not once did I get a feeling that I am being seen as different. Forget a second look, even a first look doesn’t come your way. You’re just going about your day, like everyone else. At first it feels unflattering, as if everyone else is invisible to everyone else and it’s a very self-centered life out here. But gradually, you realize how it also means you’re being taken as a part and parcel of everyday life here. You’re being integrated as a ‘resident’, a person among others, and not an ‘exotic import’ who ended up guilty of training a magnifying glass on her own Indian identity when no one else cared. 

And yet, there continues an acknowledgement that we are new and may need assistance. Where language was a barrier, the toy shop owner drew a map on a napkin to show us the mobile recharge kiosk. Where language wasn’t a problem, people made sure to tell us with pride that they’ve seen the Taj Mahal! If Shakespearean Mercy droppeth from heaven above, then this is Merci heaven itself. It’s what you hear for the smallest of gestures. It is also what you feel right back. 

To even linger on the border of a limited world which propagates difference and divisiveness, of any kind, is but missing out on the vast expanse of a very warm and welcoming world, around the world. But then it is easier to commit this crime, than to not commit it at all. I confess guilty to that.  

A few moments before I wrote this my son and I bumped into our concierge in the elevator. She only understands French, while I am yet to not pronounce oui as oye! Lots of animated gestures and smiles and words (without comprehension) were shared. She kept pointing at my son, kept circling her face with her hand. Her eyes wide and happy. I have no idea what we spoke but felt good anyway after our “introductions”. There was something more than looks, language and identity at play. And as if to confirm it all my son beamingly chimed soon as we entered our home - ‘I think she likes me’. 

Recently, we were given a very old copy of ‘The Little Prince’ by Antoine de Saint-Exupery. We have been reading it aloud, together. This precious copy has lived more than half a century, with a handwritten note that is older than me. This personal note to an ‘Auro’ quotes from the book and says:

It’s only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.

It is with this thought that we begin our short stint in Brussels. It is this that I hope my child learns. And as we go about acquainting ourselves with a new world which is our home now, something tells me he already understands that. [Apart from believing what the little boy in this book staunchly does - ‘Grown-ups never understand anything by themselves, and it is so tiresome for children to be always and forever explaining things to them.’ Oh well!] 

As for my legs, I’m sure this social media addict will update you with a picture soon. But in case I don’t, you know where they’re headed, don’t you?  

Thursday, 9 February 2017

A lovelier world

Everybody has their own definition of Indulgence. For some, it’s busying themselves with their hobbies, and for others it’s about exploring the world and finding their true selves. You know, long drives in their beloved cars! I must confess, though, that there are moments when Indulgence seems like the very reason I wait for the 1st of every month. Pay cheque time! And food, (good food) served at beautiful places brings out the best in me. The best black dress to wear, a limited edition car to transport me, and a most exclusive culinary experience at the end of it. Sigh. Somehow, the mundane makes way for a lovelier world when you accept how divine indulging yourself can be. Here are five fine food places in Delhi for finding it!

1. Tamra, at Shangri-La’s Eros Hotel - Tamra is a ‘world in your platter’ place, offering Asian, Japanese, International and Indian fare, straight out of its five interactive live kitchens. It's fun and vibrant.

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2. West View, at ITC Maurya –The exquisite view and the fine variety of mouthwatering delicacies make West View a must-go. But better be a proper meat-eater if you’re coming here. The European style menu is focused on meat dishes and all you need to do is pick your meat cut and how you want it cooked. For the rest, get here in style lay back and enjoy the scenic Delhi range. 

3. Dakshin, at Sheraton – This one’s for the lovers of authentic South Indian cuisine, and I mean way beyond dosas and idlis. The dishes served are uncommon and from Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Kerala. Some exclusive traditional dishes which usually don’t make restaurant appearances will make way to your table here!

4. Spice Route, The Imperial Hotel – It’s not just the exotic Thai and Asian cuisine here which will grab your attention. Imagine sitting in a restaurant designed to reflect the journey of spices from the Malabar Coast in Kerala through Sri Lanka, Malaysia, and Indonesia to Thailand and Vietnam. Yes! This is an architectural marvel made over 7 years and now serving an exclusive menu crafted by the President’s Awardee Thai national, Chef Veena Arora.

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5. On the Waterfront (OTW), Lodhi – This place is great for lunches and lavish Sunday brunches. The menu is vast and includes kebabs, sushi, cold cuts, curries, grills, soups, stirs, biryani, pastas…yes, exclusively vast. There’s also a jetty here, by the way. 

You know how the finer things are always limited. So I’m wondering if I do manage to get two of them – free time and good food, I may also go a step further in my indulgence and need a car like the recently launched limited edition Dzire Allure, to take me places I desire to go. I hear that its stylish exteriors are equipped with a chrome bumper corner protector, lower lid garnish, stylish body graphics and side skirts. These features add an elegant touch to this beautiful car. Hm. Now that completes the picture of a lovelier world.

Payday, I’m waiting for you!  

Wednesday, 1 February 2017

'Oh! My Name' is fabulous

Children love to own things. (So do adults I know, but let’s not go there!) The little ones want to be proud possessors of things they enjoy, can boast about and later stack and add to their burgeoning numbers. There is always a wish-list on display under the fridge magnet and another one ready to be scribbled after the best friend’s birthday gifts are opened or inadvertently an advert for the latest in children’s goodies watched. (You should have caught the TV remote in time!)

They just want! They know what they want and how they want it. Only sometimes they may know why they want it. Nonetheless, they want and that’s explanation enough. And you, loving parents, need to give, or to put it in the blackmailer’s language, provide. But wanting and getting isn’t always so bad. As a parent nothing makes me happier than my child asking me for books to read, for instance. It is a “demand” I love to meet and never argue against because I always feel like I’m pandering to my childhood love too as I cater to my child’s. Plus, it’s a great first love to have. Books! So be it book fairs or book shops, jumble sales or Children’s Day coupons, this mother hunts for good books with a zeal which she doesn’t even show for good food. Ahem.

So, what is a good Children’s book according to me? One which excites them, frees their imaginations, makes them feel, makes them question and maybe makes them learn a thing or two about their world, about gentle manners, values like team work and Quantum Physics, why not? They grow up so fast! And these days, academic pressure... Sorry. But you get the idea. That’s a good book there for me, minus the Physics, that is.

What is an even better book? A uniquely personalized book. No, not one which simply copy-pastes your child’s name in place of Prince Charming but something like ‘Oh! My Name’ by Nikhil Mittal, which takes personalization to a level beyond mere labeling. It’s a concept which instantly caught my attention and later my appreciation for how it involves tiny readers. 

When I ordered the book online, I was asked to write a Dedication which would actually be printed in my copy of the book.  You could write anything under the sun and over the moon, addressed to your child and signed off with your role of ‘Papa and Mama’, or whatever your relationship is with the kid you are ordering the book for. I thought it was a great opportunity for me to give him my list of Life’s 10 Most Important Lessons but his father disagreed. So a sweet little wish for his dreams to come true it was to be. This idea of creating a dedication not just personalized the book but also added an emotion to the giving of the present itself. The printed words making owning this book even more special. 

But it doesn’t end there, the promotion of a lovely ‘this is my book!’ sentiment. 

Oh! My Name’ makes your child a part of the book. Literally. 

‘I didn’t forget my way, but my name.’

This is the story of a boy/girl who has forgotten his/her name and is looking for it. The name is put together letter-after-letter and page-after-page in an adventurous tale. The wonderful twist is, your child is the protagonist of the story and it is he/she looking for the name. No surprise then that it is his name spelled bold and bright in white at the end of the tale! 

The boy in my book, with a unibrow and wearing a red cape, meets different creatures as he journeys ahead. His friend and ‘ally’ Dabi goes along; a favourite toy magically turned real. With expressions of bewilderment and wonder, he meets some animals that he knows and some fantastical creatures like Ila Pika who he is happy to now know. Everyone gives him a letter to take along, in return for what goes on. What goes on is a secret I’m keeping!       

The story is brought alive with big and beautiful illustrations in a book which is printed on a wide landscape format and is super easy to hold. The story is brought home in a child’s mind with its rhyming sentences and simple expressions. Invented sound words like ‘Ho Ho Hokeya’ make reading aloud fun and some conversations are bold and big to be read even louder, perhaps. 

There are lessons and messages gently tucked inside the story, without making it sound like school curriculum. Each tiny episode of meeting a different creature makes the boy in my book make the boy reading it learn something. Take help when you need it, but don’t forget to lend your helping hand when another needs it more. So if in the first part it’s the boy taking help, in the second he has learnt to help back. Both appreciation and gratitude abound, along with thank yous and awards. Dabi, the magical toy, stands for that magic which shows itself when you most need it. It tells children that friends help. Strangers become companions. The universe comes together to lead you on to happiness. Even a snake can give you something that ‘will help you make progress.’ The important bit is to move onwards. And even more, to know yourself. But for now, your name would be enough.

Oh! My Name’ is great for pre-schoolers who are just jumping into the sea of phonetics as well as early-readers. This book will certainly make them identify the letters of their name, in the correct sequence at that. Of course, adults will have to help them read the rest of the book. It can make for a good first introduction to many animals too! Words like ‘Organic’ and a picture of Shakespeare made my reading session with my five-year-old digress into unchartered territory. Even more fun! The mystery keeps them hooked, even if the older clever clogs realize the spelling of the name rings a bell. So if by the time NIS have been found and Nishad guesses it’s his name, how the rest of the letters will appear in the story keeps him reading on. For those who don’t make an effort to start putting the letters together as they read, well, the book holds a bigger surprise then! Who says being lazy is bad, huh? 

There was one thing though, in NISHAD’s story that caught my eye. The transition from I to S, only, seemed like a jump. If the book is created by stringing letter-episodes together, it should be seamless. ‘The boy was looking at a creature’ could begin ‘Just a few steps ahead…’ for example. That would help maintain a continuity to the journey. However, such nuances are for the adults to notice in their boring grown-up critical worlds. Children don’t have time to waste on such nitty-gritties. All mine had to say when I asked him about it was ‘I don’t know what you mean. I only wish my name were very loooooong’. Request denied, of course.

While ordering the book online I could read the complete thing with just a ‘tap to open’. Just a sample page as preview would have been enough, or it takes away the charm for adult readers who love tales written for children. (Pssk! It did make me create one in my name to read.) I also found out that the same letters in two different names have same episodes in both books. But repeat letters in the same name have different episodes. Which means multiple stories have been created for the many letter combinations. Which also means siblings with common letters in the name will share a little more than just their parents.

What if siblings could become characters in the same book, looking for letters of their names appearing all jumbled up? Fighting to own the first shared ‘A’ or ‘I’? Oops. Sorry. I digress there.   

Oh! My Name’ is a lovely book created with much thought.  It came along with a muppet of Dabi, who has now occupied pride of place in my child’s bed. He felt immense surprise followed by interest and joy on receiving and reading this story which brings together the real and the magical. A real him in a magical story! The tiny adventure in this good-looking book is very personal and at the same time very important too. Because what’s in a name? A lot, especially if it belongs to a child.

'Oh! My Name'  by Nikhil Mittal is self-published (2017)

[Review was commissioned by the author. Views are my own.]
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