Monday, March 25, 2013

Playing Roughhouse

There is a small but elaborate ritual that is played out in our house every time La Niña or El Niño hurt themselves. Perfected by Mamma dearest, this little exercise builds on the kiss-all-booboos-away philosophy that mothers everywhere employ with such telling effect.

In my case, once I hug the children and comfort them, I turn with ferocious anger on the space on the floor where they have fallen or the thing they have tripped over or the piece of furniture that they have grazed their knee against.

Letting out the full force of my anger, I shout at the offending party, “How dare you hurt my baby? You better not try your stunts ever again. Mamma’s watching and if you try something funny, I’ll come back to get you. Now say sorry to El Niño/La Niña.” This done, I say sorry as squeakily as possible and my baby is satisfied that justice has not been denied.

Sometimes as a variation, I survey the room, intently scanning the furniture and warn it not to stray into my children’s path when they are playing or face dire consequences from Angry Mamma.

So much does this game please them that they rush into my arms claiming they are in pain even when they are not really hurt. You would think that children who take such delight in being mollycoddled would shy away from any rough play. But it is quite the contrary.

The moment the Husband returns from work, he rushes to the bathroom for a quick shower in preparation for a session of roughhousing with the kids. It is a time that all three of them enjoy. The Husband lies down on his back, with his knees bent over. Then La Niña and El Niño take turns sitting on his feet, facing him, for the pleasure of being hoisted up into the air, as though they are sitting on a one-sided see-saw. All the while, the Husband mumbles some nonsensical song that goes, “Keeka, batate,” while the kids shout for more.

When the Husband is tired out with the horseplay, all three of them wrestle one another. The Husband tickles them, while they get hoarse laughing. I hover on the fringes, cautioning them to be careful, afraid that the children might get hurt. But I can see how much fun they are having.

Sometimes the Husband carries the children in his arms, their belly down and arms extended above the head, and carries them all around the house while shouting, “Spiderman, Spiderman, Does whatever a spider can. Spins a web, any size, Catches thieves just like flies. Look out! Here comes the Spiderman.” I remind the Husband that this kind of flying pattern is more Superman’s style but no one pays attention to me.

Even as the Husband is engrossed in playing these rough-and-tumble games with the kids, he keeps his head. It is his responsibility as an adult to make sure that the tickling and the tumbling always stay within limits. That they end with the kids asking for more, not with them crying.

When the games get competitive as they sometimes do, with the children competing with their father, he sometimes lets them pin him down. At other times, he declares himself winner. While La Niña and El Niño cheer wildly when they win, celebrating their victory by vigorously punching the air, it heartens me to see the graciousness with which they accept defeat. Most importantly, it is thrilling to see the bond of affection that is forged between the children and their father through the medium of roughhousing.

The Husband never excludes La Niña from the fun, insisting that it is as beneficial for her as it is for El Niño. He’s right. Studies have shown that kids who play at roughhousing with their dads grow up to be more confident. It also helps to release children’s pent-up energy in a controlled environment where having fun is the priority but Safety still comes first.

To ensure safety, there are some unwritten rules that are emphasized: No biting, scratching or kicking, no hitting the eyes or the head, and stopping instantly when the child (or the parent) says, “Stop,” or any other word previously agreed upon as the signal to cease and desist instantly. Also, playing on the carpet or bed, with lots of cushions and pillows around, helps protect the child from any hurts and falls.

Before embarking on these games, parents would do well to keep family heirlooms, Ming vases etc, out of harm’s way. This will ensure that the children have a good time without leaving the house looking like Hurricane Katrina has swept through it.

The advantages of roughhousing is that it teaches kids to have fun but in a sensible manner, reminding them that if they are not careful, it could result in pain. Roughhousing has been known to unleash the creative force in children, enabling them to feel sheer exuberance. It also helps children to understand that each person has the right to set his/her own boundaries, which others must respect.

Proper roughhousing enables young children up to the age of 10 or 11 to perceive physical contact in a positive manner. It teaches children to understand concepts like how best to balance oneself, how to judge spaces between two individuals, how to coordinate, how much force to exert etc. It makes kids more resilient and tells them that they have to keep their wits about them as they counter the challenges that come their way.

Kids learn to think on their feet, in the throes of the action. They learn to interpret and decipher non-verbal gestures, read body language and attune their responses to external stimuli, all in quick time. Roughhousing also promotes brain development, by triggering activity in multiple areas of the brain, including the cerebellum, the area responsible for motor development, and the cortex, which is in charge of problem solving, memory, language- and number-based skills, and houses memories.

While roughhousing is good for children, it is especially good for dads too. Nature has designed nurturing in such a way as to make the mother the primary care-giver for her little ones. Roughhousing allows dads to get a piece of the nurturing action. It allows both adults and children to get a hormonal rush. Not only do you experience the endorphin rush that athletes get, you also get a rush of oxytocin, better known as the love hormone, the one that is released when a child is nursed or made to feel loved.

For best results, it is better to start slow, then do some vigorous yet enjoyable roughhousing, then begin to go easy. The Husband often winds down by assisting the children with some building block activity or chatting with La Niña about her day.

That’s all there is to it. The important thing to remember is that children should never get an impression that they are not safe. Nor should the hahaheehee ever turn into a cry of pain.

There are times when I see them having so much fun, that I almost feel tempted to join them. But then I change my mind. If I start playing rough-and-tumble too, who will mollycoddle them?

After all, La Niña and El Niño need someone to turn to when the furniture needs to be forced to apologise.

This article was written for Parentous, an online community for parenting-related issues. You can read the original HERE.


Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Get Up And Dance

I’ve always been a wallflower by choice. At Catholic weddings and parties, I’d hope and pray that no one would ask me to dance. Uncles and cousins would try to pull me into the fun, but I would politely and, when required, even tearfully decline. If someone tried to pull me to the dance floor forcefully, I would stiffen up as though I were made of lead, refusing to part from the chair.

Once a childhood friend of mine, who had perhaps let Bollywood do the thinking for her, asked me, “How can you not enjoy dancing? All Catholics dance; Helen dances.”

Often I was asked, “You don’t dance? But you’re a Catholic, no?” As if Thou shalt dance was one of the Ten Commandments handed by God to Moses.

How could I explain to them? That I was a great dancer – in my head. That when I heard a great piece of music, I always stood up and swayed to its rhythm, performing the most intricate and elaborate steps, leaving watchers spellbound – all in my imagination.

In real life, I would stiffen and freeze, my movements would get jerky and wobbly. I would stress about how stupid I would look dancing. I would worry that I was not as good as the others on the floor, that I would make mistakes and that my two left feet would become the laughing stock of the gathering.

I was like Johnny Depp that way. At the premiere of Dark Shadows, a gothic horror film in which he starred, a reporter asked Depp to reveal what scared him the most. Was it witches, vampires or werewolves? Dancing, he replied, I’d rather fight a buzzsaw than dance.

And then the children came along and changed me. Now I jiggle and swivel, under their guidance. And what great guides they’ve turned out to be!

  No matter what music is playing on TV, whether it is a music video or the jingle of an ad, or even if I make up an impromptu song or their grandfather claps to the beat of some rhythm of his own, they both get into action. To them, everything is music worth dancing to. They get to their feet, shaking their bodies with abandon. It is the best way to dance, I’ve realised, not caring who’s watching. They take over the living room, and I hasten to pick up any stray toys, or other odds and ends, strewn around, lest they trip over them.

Sometimes we waltz, La Niña and I. She, standing on the bed or the sofa, in order to account for the difference in height, me on the floor. And we twirl. As we dance, we lose the grasp of our hands, and we crumble in helpless laughter.

I wonder where my children’s dancing talent comes from. It isn’t the TV, the usual suspect in such cases, since they don’t watch so much TV anyway. It can’t be inherited, because the Husband is as shy about shaking a leg, unless he is with friends with whom he might let down his guard.

These days, I find myself giving in to their pleas that I join them. Just two days ago, when La Niña and El Niño reached out their arms to me, mid-step, I jumped in as though I’d only been waiting to be asked. My mother-in-law was sitting on the sofa watching TV. I don’t know if she was surprised to see me dance with the kids. I know I was. Surprised. And deliriously happy.

  There is nothing adult about the way La Niña dances. I see little children shimmying and strutting about for the benefit of the camera on dance-based reality shows on TV. The children are clearly playing to the gallery, egged on by parents who want their 15 seconds of fame at the cost of their children’s childhoods. The kids themselves gyrate and do pelvic thrusts and other obscene gestures, while looking smoulderingly into the camera the way they’ve seen Chikni Chameli or the Zandu Balm and Fevicol item ladies do. They thrive on the hoots and catcalls that the audience bestows on their every move.

La Niña is in a world of her own. Sometimes she takes your breath away with a particularly beautiful flourish, but for the most part, it is a child’s dance. Childlike in its imperfections.

There’s more than a hint of silliness in her dance, as though all she’s doing is goofing off, having a great time, but doing it with a seriousness of purpose that suggests that dancing this way is the most significant thing that she can do under the circumstances.

  As for El Niño, he didn’t have far to traverse from the tottering steps he took as he learned to walk to the shaky steps he took as he sought to dance. He seemed to realise that either way, he was going to fall once in a while, so why not have fun anyway. Sometimes he would stumble, but he would pick himself up and laugh uproariously as though it wasn’t a mistake, but part of his delicate choreography. Today, his feet are sure of themselves, and he apes his big sister as far as he can, and improvises where he can’t.

Together, their dancing is nothing short of poetry in motion. The free verse of dance it is. It follows no set rhythms. There is no coordination between the two. But what matters is that just looking at them fills me with an overwhelming joy.

At the beginning of this year, we attended the First Holy Communion of my nephew. At the party later in the afternoon, La Niña and El Niño, and another child, continued to dance, long after everyone else sat down to eat.

La Niña and El Niño were at their dancing best, oblivious to those of us who were watching them. If La Niña happened to notice us watching, she would suddenly get bashful. Those of us in the audience quickly learned that the best way to keep her going was to pretend to ignore her. We watched her in delight and quickly looked away nonchalantly if she happened to glance in our direction.

In the midst of the dance, a child came running into the dance area, chased by another. They were playing a game of their own, and as they ran, they knocked El Niño down. He plonked on the floor, in a sitting position. He bawled for a minute or two, protesting at the unexpectedness of the disturbance. His Baba (paternal grandfather) picked him up and tried to soothe him, walking away from the dance floor as he did so.

The DJ who had stopped the music for a while, out of sympathy for the mishap that had befallen one of the three little people who were responding so enthusiastically to his brand of music, got going again once Baba walked away with El Niño. Hearing the music, El Niño immediately wriggled out of Baba’s arms in his haste to hit the dance floor again.

Watching them that day and every time they dance, I have learned some valuable lessons. Do what you enjoy doing. Who cares what the spectators think? And so what if you make a fool of yourself or they think you are an embarrassment? Why should their views matter to you?

  My children remind me, by their actions, that dancing is all about trusting your instincts, about letting go, about not needing to look at the ground below before taking your next step, about giving in to the joy of the moment.

American country music singer Lee Ann Womack once sang, When you get the choice to sit out or dance, I hope you dance.

Thank you, my darling children, for teaching your too-structured mother to get up and dance.

This article was written for Parentous, an online community for parenting-related issues. You can read the original HERE.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Special 26: Con Banega Karodpati

Special 26 has received rave reviews for being a good thriller. But not much is being said about the skewed sense of right and wrong that the film is unintentionally reinforcing.

The film shows four cheats, Ajay (Akshay Kumar) from Bombay, PK Sharma (Anupam Kher) from Chandigarh, Iqbal (Kishor Kadam) from Jaipur, and Joginder (Rajesh Sharma) from Old Delhi, who pose as CBI or Income Tax officials and raid corrupt politicians and very rich businessmen to steal their ill-gotten gains. For a raid at a minister’s house, they take the help of sub-inspector Ranveer Singh (Jimmy Shergill) and lady constable Shanti Yadav (Divya Dutta). The heist yields them a rich haul.

Leaving Ranveer and Shanti at the minister’s house, the four make a quick getaway. Unwilling to talk about his black money, the minister refuses to file an FIR and is content with the suspension of Ranveer and Shanti.

Bristling with indignation, Ranveer is determined to bring the criminals to book. He makes some investigations of his own and appeals to the Central Bureau of Investigation for help. Waseem Khan (Manoj Bajpayee), an upright officer, is assigned to help him.

Khan makes it his personal mission to catch the four red-handed, even as they are determined to pull off one last big heist, their 50th and biggest, before they can retire. In order to pull off their most outrageous caper, they recruit 22 graduates ostensibly for a “top-secret raid.” The four chors, along with the 22 recruits, are supposed to be the Special 26. Keen on catching them red-handed, Wasim Khan succeeds in infiltrating two policemen into the roster of new recruits.

But will the good guy outwit the thieves or will they retire in style?

The film does a very good job of portraying urban India of the mid ’80s. Ah, the glorious days, when they could not tap your phone through remote access but had to send a telephone linesman to your home. The props are all there, including the rotary phones, scooters, Maruti 800s, Premier Padminis and Ambassadors on the roads, the old currency notes, no-colour newspaper, the lack of skyscrapers, the lack of crowds outside the airport and the hoarding for Thril on a Best bus stop (Wouldn’t it have been more thrilling with the second ‘l’?)

We were planning to loot Rs 2 crore in 30 minutes, says Sharma. It didn't seem like all that much until I remembered that the film was set in 1987 when Rs 1000 meant a fortune, average salaries were in the 100s and the 4 anna was in its element. Sigh! The reality shows on TV have really spoiled us.

Special 26 gains much from the thin layer of dry humour that coats it. The sequence where Waseem asks his boss if he should start accepting bribes since his promotion and increment are taking too long and running the home front running is proving to be tough. In another sequence in which the four interview some potential candidates for their final scam, the candidates, when questioned, say that they want to join the Central Bank of India, because they are very honest and want to rid the country of corruption. One guy, told to speak English, answers, “I want to do India.” Another girl tells Ajay, “Milke ukhadenge.”

Unlike some of their recruits, our four chors have no larger-than-life motivation for what they do. It's just the means by which they earn a living. There is no guilt attached to their actions. Even though Ajay tells his ladylove that she makes him want to be a better man, the truth is that the said lady never really mounts any sincere protest against his method of making money.
Robin Hoods they are not. While they steal from the rich, they do not give the money to the poor. On the other hand, they do not splurge on themselves either. So where does the money go?
Nor was there any heavy-speak about why they did what they did, except for a wishy-washy explanation about how Ajay was keen on working for the CBI but failed the interview and the test.

The visual narrative goes out of its way to invest the four thieves with a sense of grandeur. The walks towards the camera in slow-mo, the corporate attire and the air of confidence and flamboyance, all key weapons in the tricksters' armoury.

The film begins well with a high-energy raid on the home of a minister. In fact, the heist sequences are the most watchable.

The director ruined his own show with the love track between Ajay and his bland love interest, Kajal Aggarwal. In fact, Divya Dutta with her cameo makes a better impression. She has very little dialogue in the film, but there is one line that she repeats thrice, each time underlying a different significance.

The romance totally marred the story. I guess they felt compelled to put it in, given star Akshay Kumar's lover boy image, but the cat-and-mouse chor-police game was far more interesting, and would have been even more potent without the baggage of the love story and the Punjabi wedding with the mandatory gidda.

Kher is outstanding, one moment playing the part of a law enforcement official to the hilt, secure in the righteousness of his duty, fearing no one, the next moment suffering nervousness and slouching for fear of being caught.

The four actors complement one another well. Unfortunately, Joginder and Iqbal have nothing much to do, except blend into the background and provide able support. Interestingly, not one of the four suffers any doubts or regrets in relation to the work they do.

Unnecessary time and footage is devoted to showing the modes of transport by which the four escape to their respective homes after the heist. Do these irrelevant pieces of information help the story?

How did the four, hailing from four distant regions, meet for the first time and decide to team up to pull off these con jobs? How did they go about their first illegal raid? That would have helped flesh out the characters and their motivations far better than Ajay’s insipid love story, Joginder’s joint family sleeping in the yard, Iqbal washing clothes while his wife nags, and Sharmaji’s hum do hamare chhe family with one more in the making. Unfortunately, the only thing known about their interpersonal relationships is that Sharma and Ajay share a warm father-son kind of rapport.

While the plot of the film, loosely based on the Tribhovandas Bhimji Zaveri robbery in the mid-1980s, works, there are a lot of goofups that ruin the total effect.

For instance, the mantri seemed completely shaken by one raid. I found that hard to stomach. What a blot on the high standards of our elected ministers! Had he no Swiss account? Was he so stupid as to keep everything stashed at home, in such obvious places as cupboards, false ceilings, car seats, in a niche beneath the deity and behind the book case?

Also, when we know that mantris care little about transferring senior police officers for their honesty and ineptitude alike, it was strange to discover that this mantri did not even know the commissioner of police looked like.

Also, the visual effects shriek ‘fake’ and Opera House seems to have shifted to Fountain.

I didn’t like the impression the film conveyed, that crime pays and how, and that the good guys, played by Manoj Vajpayee, are just a bunch of smart fools. Had the cops been corrupt, one would not have felt so guilty about cheering the thieves on.

I certainly resented being arm-twisted into rooting for the sheer audacity of the four chors, when my sympathy should very clearly have gone to the good guys, who had been gypped in spite of their hard work and intelligence.

I wondered, is our moral compass so off that when Ajay sends Rs 100 back to Waseem, saying that he will not take the earnings of an honest man, he seemed to rise in our estimation. So much so that he nearly dwarfed Waseem whose sense of honour and honesty is actually beyond question.

Unfortunately, everyone comes out of the cinema hall having a good time, not questioning the four phonies for outraging our morality. It just goes to show how willing we are to adjust our morals to suit the occasion, in a world in which the disclosure of yet another scam leaves us blasé.

Director Neeraj Pandey's debut film, A Wednesday, raised high expectations, which he let down here somewhat. The film is an above average thriller, hampered by the love story, but it missed out on the opportunity to take a moral stance. Today we are sufficiently deluded and disillusioned with the moral realities of today. We don't need our films to emphasise the rewards that await those who choose to muffle their conscience.

Monday, March 04, 2013

Three Little Words

My parents never told us that they loved us. I don’t remember a single occasion when they said, I love you, to me or my brothers. Neither in English, nor in our mother tongue Konkani, which we spoke at home.

And yet I grew up feeling solidly confident about my abilities and realistically sensible about my weaknesses. There was an air of affection that cocooned and sheltered us, even in the absence of those three words.

After La Niña was born, I suddenly metamorphosed into someone who wanted the comfort of saying those words out loud, not caring who heard them. I won’t say it was an overnight transformation, because that wouldn’t be true. It was more instantaneous.

It was after we had brought La Niña home from the hospital. I had just nursed her and she had fallen asleep mid-feed. I looked at her sweet, wrinkly five-day-old face and said, “I love you, my darling” to her, willing her to respond. She smiled in her sleep, as newborns do. Emboldened, I repeated the words. I remember still how refreshingly liberated I felt.

Over the next month or two, I invented a new method of reinforcing those words, hoping for some reciprocity. I would hold my hand to my heart and say, “I,” then touch my lips while saying, “love” and finally touch her chest, while saying a resounding “you.”

When she was about 9 or 10 months old, she began to mimic my actions, whenever we performed our little ritual which was twice or thrice a day. When she grew old enough to speak small sentences, she began to participate more fully. My mother-heart would swell with pride when she would do the gestures, and add, “I yove oo.”

El Niño was equally responsive to the declaration of love. “Avoo” surfaced concurrently with words such as Mamma, mum-mum and paa (short for paani or water). To demystify Avoo, the A comes from the ‘a’ sound that precedes the I and the ‘v’ from the tail end of love, followed by ‘oo.’ No matter how many times I say, I love you, to him, I am always rewarded by the reciprocal declaration, Avoo. Repeated hearings have not dulled the charm and sentiment of all that is contained in that one word.

Over the last 4+ years of motherhood, I have come to strongly believe that hearing the three words, “I love you,” and their equivalents in other languages, are important for a child’s growth and development. This is not to say that not hearing these words is detrimental to a child’s well being. Our parents’ generation did its parenting at a time when actions spoke louder than words, and parents were so busy raising multiple children on the strength of a few resources, that they rarely had the time or the inclination to speak their love. We turned out well, of course, and had happy childhoods, in spite of not hearing those words.

Saying, and repeating, those words, however, serves as positive reinforcement to a child that he/she is loved unconditionally. Of course, if we keep mouthing those words, without showing much for it, our children, who are equipped with a super-advanced radar for ferreting out any fake emotion, will call our bluff.

While it is easy to say, I love you, when my kids are gracious and well-behaved, I must admit I do struggle with feelings of anger and irritation when they aren’t. At such times I have to mentally shake myself in order to remember that I am correcting them because I love them. I also need to remind La Niña that just because I correct her does not mean I have stopped loving her. La Niña, of course, doesn’t see it quite that way, and is quick to tell me, “I don’t like/love you.”

I was devastated when she first put the word, don’t, before the word, love. Since then, I have rallied around, and have come to realise that children are too young to understand the full meaning of the words they bandy about so freely. The more-informed me no longer takes it as a personal affront now when La Niña shouts, I don’t like you. Instead, I counter back with the words, “But I love you.” Sometimes the corners of her mouth tilt downwards in a barely-there smile that she vainly struggles against. At other times, she gives way and we giggle wildly and hug each other.

Once she came to me and said, “Mamma, I know you don’t love me.” I began to protest at this, but she interrupted and re-phrased, “You’re just saying it. I know you love me very little, as much as the namak (salt) we put in our food.” I was reminded of that famous story, which incidentally La Niña does not know, in which a king asks his three daughters how much they love him. Often mistaken as the plot of Shakespeare’s King Lear, this story sees the older two speak of their love in glowing terms, while the youngest tells her father that she loves him as much as salt. Furious at being compared to a kitchen ingredient, the king disinherits her. It is only when the sympathetic cook stops adding salt to the food that the king understands the worth of his daughter’s love.

I replied to her, “That’s not true. I love you very, very much, and just to prove that, next time I will add 100-million-ek-lakh-one-thousand-and-twenty (La Niña’s understanding of an infinite number) grains of salt into your food.”

I love you isn’t the only thing our kids need to hear from us. They also need to hear from us that we are proud of them when they say or do something good. Approval is as intrinsic to a child’s sense of self-worth as love is.

With every positive expression, we are building up our children’s self-image. The easiest bricks available for this laudable task are the three little words that ought to be some of the most overused in every parent’s vocabulary.

This article was written for Parentous, an online community for parenting-related issues. You can read the original HERE. 


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