Saturday, September 29, 2012

A Necklace for Nicholas

When I was about 11 years old, I came home one day all vexed about a teacher, Mrs. Grover, who had scolded me for no reason. My dad had a simple solution. "Every time she scolds you, think of her as Mrs. Gobur!", he said. Gobur in hindi means cow shit. That was it. I was never ever scared of that teacher again. 

When Atreya and I moved to Singapore, we had a tough time remembering people's names because they were so unfamiliar to our Indian ears. For instance, there was this neighborhood shop owner called Li Hui, whose name we could never remember. Then one day, we figured out a way- we visualized her as a shaky woman- hili hui. After that, I would greet her loudly and confidently every day! 

So, a play on names served as a stress buster on one occasion and a mnemonic on another. It serves others purposes too- that of helping me become part of Aloka's school life and introducing her to the art of punning! 

Aloka and I started punning on people's names sometime this year. It's one of our bed-time fun games. Without my telling her explicitly, she seems to know people are sticky about their names, so we don't use the pun names outside of our home. It's our secret game. Well, secret as long as they don't read this post!

It started with two sisters in her class, Carol and Charmaine. Carol became Carrot. For Charmaine, I suggested Champagne, but this didn't make sense to Aloka, who suggested Shampoo instead. Over the months, our list has grown long, with some name alternatives coming from me, but most suggested by her. While we started with words that sounded similar (e.g. Necklace for Nicholas), the game has now evolved to finding alternate words that represent other similarities as well. Here they are. 

Aloo ka parantha
Alokie (Mallika's name for her)
Chicken (she loves chicken too)
Bishan (the town the school is in)
Twisting (he is an active naughty boy too)
Honey (Aloka likes him a lot too)
Magnet (She sticks to Aloka )
Syrup (she is super sweet)
Teacher Leana
Teacher Lioness (she is indeed fierce)
Teacher Aileen
Teacher Violin (she sings very well)

This punning is an organic thing. The other day, when I told Aloka that a friend called Kian-Peng had dropped me home, she said "I am sure he loves to go camping"! 

Friday, September 28, 2012


Not knowing how Atreya is doing, not being able to contact him, not being able to relax even for a second, living with fear that doesn't listen to reason, not being able to get rid of this knot in the stomach even when sharing a laugh with Aloka- this is the most trying time for me. I don't like it one bit. It is not good.

Even though he is a peace-time and temporary soldier, I now understand what all the mothers and fathers of soldiers go through when their sons are away in the battlefield. 

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Nothing Beats Funny

Of all the qualities in a person, nothing beats sense of humor. There are many gifts people have, but the ability to make others laugh is the greatest gift of all. It is the ability to be a little weird, to see the world from a different angle, to not take everything personally or seriously, to clearly see one's own faults and therefore others', and to relieve people of their preoccupations, even if momentarily.

Nothing beats funny. 

Monday, September 24, 2012

Mother and Son

Atreya is off to a jungle mission for nine days in Brunei. In this mission, a group of seven soldiers are left to themselves to find their way to civilization. They have limited rations and are expected to hunt for food if they run out of the rations.

Stressed and worried about him, I am eating for the two of us. Somebody stop me! 

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Because I am Greedy

Everyone is greedy and hungry- it is what you are hungry or greedy for that makes you appear good or bad. One person's greed makes him a loser, while another's hunger makes her a saint. The underlying feeling, state, is the same, but the outcome is so different. Strange but true.

Right now, I am mostly hungry for my mother's attention, greedy for my kids' well being, and thirsty for appreciation for what I write. I don't care for men or money. It makes me no less greedier than others, but if what I yearn for makes me look like a better person, I'll take it happily.

Because I am greedy for that too!  

The little peanut and the big hula hoop!

This is what happens when you give an adult-sized hula hoop to an energetic persistent 4-year old!

Monday, September 17, 2012

Powered by Genes

The other day I was sharing with a friend how strange I sometimes feel because Atreya now looks so much like his father. I sometimes react to his mannerism simply because they remind me of his father- I am overcome with feelings that come rushing out from the past. It's the power of genes that a son's looks and even mannerism can be so similar to his father's who's not been a part of his life for 12 years!

It is not all in my mind. Last weekend, Aloka insisted on seeing Atreya's baby pictures. I took out the album, and pointing to the tiny baby, said "This is baby Atta". After that, she began pointing to the baby in every picture saying "Baby Atta". Then, on the fifth picture, she points to his father's photo and says "How come baby Atta has grown so big here?"

Point proven. 

Don't Go Looking

Darling, don't go looking for a father in every half-decent man you meet.

He walked out, the loser, his loss
What made you think it was your defeat?
Don't go looking for a father in every half-decent man you meet.

No doubt he was one half of your small world
But having two halves hasn't stopped so many from feeling incomplete
No point looking for a father in every half-decent man you meet.

There are many things we all lack, much taken away from everyone
But you gotta know that only you can make yourself complete
It's no use looking for a father in every half-decent man you meet.

I could tell you fatherhood is overrated, but would you believe?
This mother's love is all that you need...
Son, don't go looking for a father in every half-decent man you meet.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Watermelon Life

It doesn't cease to amaze me that a thin weak creeper like watermelon spends all its energy and resources to develop a big huge fruit to house its seeds. All its energy, all its resources, not used to stand up tall, but diverted to progeny. Nothing else matters to it.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Roller Fuckoaster!

Before anything else, I want to make one statement that everyone not fond of roller coasters should remember always- there is nothing like a gentle roller coaster. If there is any oxymoron in this world, this is it.

I thought I had learned my lesson many years ago when I got in a harmless-looking roller coaster in London just because I wanted to do a "dad thing" with my son (you see, I was newly divorced). The nightmare that followed is indescribable, best captured in a photograph taken during the ride that showed me with teeth clenched and terror written all over my face. I promised myself I will never get into a roller coaster again- the hell with the single parent guilt! But as I learned over a weekend last month, 10 years is a long time to forget even the most painful lessons.

It so happened that I took Nishu, Atta and Aloka to Universal Studios one Saturday in August. We started by watching some street shows and getting body art done for Aloka. We also did a couple of easy rides meant for Aloka. Then Nishu became bolder- she wanted to do the grown-up rides. Atreya and Nishu went for one of the tougher rides and came out quite OK. Nishu wanted more, but everywhere we went, there were long queues and waiting times of up to 60 minutes. By then, we had stopped being choosy, and started going for every ride that had a short waiting time. These were mainly kiddy rides- that's why they weren't full of waiting crowds.

Photo: What an amazing day, with Puja Anand, Atreya Shankar and Alo.
Monster Roller Coaster visible at the back
Right at the start, we had noticed a huge roller coaster. It was a monster. You could hear the shrieks of riders from a mile away as they were flung in all directions at super speed. There was almost no waiting time for this ride because it wasn't everyone's cup of tea. This is the kind of thing I don't even look at because just seeing it gives me vertigo. No wonder even Atreya refused point blank to accompany Nishu to it, and she wasn't bold enough to go alone. Lo and behold, my guilt kicked in.

No, I didn't agree to go with her. What kind of an idiot do you take me for? (The answer to that is "just the worst kind", but you will get to it when you read further.) 

Further down from the monster roller coaster was another smaller one. We had watched it a couple of times. There were hardly any screams- in fact people seemed to be laughing and cooing as they cruised by. We saw none of the upside-down turns that were rampant in the monster and compared to it, this little one looked positively gentle. There was hardly any wait time either. So this guilty aunt decided to do the right thing and took everyone for the gentle roller coaster ride. To confirm that it was indeed easy, I asked the ride attendant if Aloka could do the ride and he said "Sure, it's a very short ride, OK for her".

Atreya, the protective brother, wanted to sit with Aloka, but she was sticking to Nishu, so I got to sit with him instead. Within seconds of starting, I knew something was wrong- the darn thing was going up and up and up... which meant it was about to go down and down and down. Did I mention that I am terrified of heights? I felt myself shutting down- power off. My eyes were shut tightly and went into a self-induced semi-trance. But some senses are not in my control- I heard everything Atreya said during the ride with absolute clarity. It went something like this (and pardon my French, there is no way to write about the F word without writing it dammit!):

Mom look down, look down! Fuck, look how high we are going! Fuck, hold her tight Nishu, just look down mom. Oh fuck, Aloka will fly off, are you holding her tight Nishu? Fuck, this is bad, is it over? Fuck!

When the darn thing finally came to a stop, Aloka started crying. People seated in front of her began consoling her. I was quite useless as a mother at  because all I wanted to do at that time was to cry with her!

OK story over now repeat after me- A gentle roller coaster is an oxymoron. 

Thursday, September 6, 2012

It is I Who Must Begin- by Vaclav Havel

I read this poem today and it touched me deeply. It was as if written for me.

For it is I who must begin and persist, without grand speeches and ostentatious gestures. It is I who must listen to the voice and live in harmony with it. There are no excuses. It would not be easier anywhere else or any other time. Courage and honesty- both have to come from me. Whether all is really lost or not depends entirely on whether or not I am lost. 

It is I Who Must Begin

It is I who must begin.
Once I begin, once I try --
here and now,
right where I am,
not excusing myself
by saying things
would be easier elsewhere,
without grand speeches and
ostentatious gestures,
but all the more persistently
-- to live in harmony
with the "voice of Being," as I
understand it within myself
-- as soon as I begin that,
I suddenly discover,
to my surprise, that
I am neither the only one,
nor the first,
nor the most important one
to have set out
upon that road.

Whether all is really lost
or not depends entirely on
whether or not I am lost.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Happy Anymore

Things don't make me happy

Those clothes from M&S that fit me, praise thee Lord!
Do bring on a sense of lightness
But that lightness is gone soon.
The new set of shiny kitchen tools
Chatter for a while about great food I should cook
But then fall silent.
The chrysanthemums from the wet market
Smile and wink at me at first
But then turn away and become indifferent.

These things don't make me happy

I heard the other day of an army recruiter
Who put a value to his family...
"1 Million dollars of investment" he said
"Per child per lifetime!"
"What is the return on your investment?" he asked!
I want to ask this self-assured all-knowing gentleman
How to compute the valuation of my daughter's sweet smile?
Or the profit margin from my son's growing sensibility?
Or the cumulative interest on my mother's unconditional love?

For these are the only things that make me happy

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Can we bring them together?

The other day, someone asked me to look at an e-learning course on aviation in order to estimate the effort for developing similar courses. I had less than an hour of access to the course. As usual, my brain went into a hyper mode, absorbing and analyzing everything I saw.

My first reaction was sheer pleasure. The illustrations of the airport and planes were done fabulously. There not an element out of place. Layouts were varied and polished. Text holders were contextual, derived from the aviation world- some in the shape of a display screen at airports, some others in the form of tickets and so on. Animations were short, sweet and well executed. Just the kind of stuff I love to see. (I wish I could share some screenshots but I don't have the rights to).

Not only me, I thought to myself, this will also be the first impression that any lay person will form upon seeing the course. But I am no lay person in this context, so I started to check what the content was really about. The topics included history of aviation, agencies involved, key functions/parts of airports and the type of staff needed to operate airports- a strange mix indeed. I began to wonder who the audience was. Who would need this information, which seemed too superficial for airport staff and too detailed for general public?

I dug deeper. Why wasn't I getting hooked to the content? I noticed that the contextual text holders occupied only about 50% of the screen area available. The rest of the screen was used to hold absolutely unimportant (though contextual) illustrations and animations, like some passengers standing around inside the airport, a plane taking off at the back, some clouds moving across the skies etc. The limited space inside the text holders meant that all the content was cramped inside them, making it difficult to read. This was especially a problem when the content talked about logos of various aviation agencies. The space was so limited that the logos were quite minuscule and I never really could differentiate one from another. The other text holders like the airplane ticket posed similar problems but had an additional issue of navigation. Every time I clicked a ticket, another one popped out in front of it, but there was no way to go back to view the previous roles.

I went through the pages several times to "get" what I was expected to understand from the content, but each time I only got bits and pieces. There was no connection between the pieces and no attempt was made to connect them even artificially. I had no reason to learn anything specifically because it seemed like an information dump. I became aware of this problem acutely when I found myself struggling to answer the most basic recollection-type quizzes!

I have to mention that the quizzes that tested me on stuff I never really got to learn were done very cutely- an airplane would carry the options to the placed I selected! Misplaced efforts? But who am I to say that? From what I knew, the customer was very happy with the course and wanted more of the same type.

At that moment, I had this sense of helplessness. After years (16-17 years) of dealing with this issue, here it is again, just in another form. On one end of the spectrum are arrogant designers who defend PowerPoint-like (and ineffective) courses by pontificating about the deep instructional value of the work they do, and the insignificance of aesthetics and visual design to their work. On the other end are clueless designers who hide poor instructional material behind flashy layouts and cute animations.

I am left with questions that linger on even today, weeks after I saw this course.
  • Is it so hard to bring the best of the two worlds together? 
  • Why can't good instructional and visual designers collaborate to create learning material that actually helps people learn? 
  • Why do people in the industry continue to struggle with this issue after years of working at it? 
  • I know it can be solved- after all I had seen it solved in KP when I was there, but is it sustainable or is it linked to specific people and their skills?
  • Will our industry elevate itself out of this rut one day or is it the nature of the beast?