Monday, February 28, 2011

The perils of multitasking

Mornings demand multitasking. For most of us, whether we work at home or elsewhere, it's a time when we are rushing to open the door to ten different service providers from the milkman to the newspaperwallah to the trash collector to the next-door neighbour asking for a cup of sugar, while the phone rings to give you the latest on whether the bandh will affect your organization or your child's school or not,  and the other phone, of the mobile variety, beeps insistently with messages ranging from bill alerts to not-to-miss sale alerts. Breathless already? Well that's the reality most of us whizz through every morning--we just don't stop long enough to make that list!

When the morning is complicated by a television turned on and tuned into Oscar fever, things don't get helped much. The milk boils over while you are watching Jake Gyllenhall smile at Amy Adams or trying to not watch Aish and Abhishek sound trite and plastic. The toast burns in the toaster that doesn't pop up (yes, the one you've sworn to fix next weekend) while you wish for the tenth time that you could go watch a movie in a real theatre eating real buttered popcorn instead of on your laptop off a CD that might get you into trouble with the piracy police. 

Before you know it, you have all of half an hour in which to shower, make yourself look presentable, pack the high-energy lunchboxes, wolf down some breakfast, stuff your satchel with every paper and book you are likely to need and some that you just might...and make it to work on time.

It's a rush (and not the pleasurable kind) that gets complicated by the presumed ability to work on many different things at the same time.  It's not just that many things need to get done within a limited amount of time, so you stack them up on the same time slot and handle one with one arm and another with one leg while the other two limbs get ready to handle the next two tasks. It's that all this while, your mind is multitasking too. One track has its eye on the simmering pot but the other is planning the morning's lecture (and not the "to-the-kids" variety) while yet another is thinking about the grocery list and a fourth is thinking you need to get to the phone and make that call before you forget...and as you turn to swear at the boiled-over milk, you forget.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Music on wheels

Anyone who has driven in Hyderabad, or has been a participant of some kind in what passes for traffic here, will empathise with the daily frustrations of dealing with bad road etiquette, the total absence of lane consciousness, the aggressiveness of large and small vehicles, and the absolute belief that one's schedule and need to reach a destination supersedes every other person's.  Until recently, I was able to block out the madness by losing myself in a book, safe in the back seat, while my driver battled the daily cruelties of the city's streets. About a month ago, my driver decided to move to greener pastures (and possibly, a more interesting route to navigate each day) so I was back behind the steering wheel and had to leave my set of unread novels in the back, so I could concentrate on the road ahead (not that I had at any point planned to bring my reading to rest on the dashboard).

I face a fairly long drive each morning. Twenty six kilometers each way, through the thick of the Secunderabad commercial district to the broad Bungalow lined avenues of Jubilee Hills (fast giving way to shopfronts of the haute variety) and the otherworldliness of Hi-Tech City, by the last lung-space of the Botanical Gardens and finally across what used to be a peripheral village now swallowed by the city. When I reach the gates of the University, my odometer has just ticked past the twenty fifth kilometer and I speed past the last one to make it my class on time. 

I distract myself from the traffic and the rude drivers by looking at the screaming signboards along the way, the missing apostrophes and bad spellings on the posters populating the median, and the sale notices that keep popping up in unexpected places. There are also the poor pedestrians, resigned to their fate along the margins of the roads, waiting for the rare motorist who will spare a few seconds to allow them safe passage across the street. But this can't hold my attention long, and besides, I do need to heed the happenings on the road ahead of me and behind me (and of course beside me, as my car has suffered from the closeness of scooters and autorickshaws). 

So I turn on the music.  And the meditation begins. The inside of the car is transformed into sanctuary, a bubble that insulates me from the desperation and the pettiness of the street, from the noise and the rudeness that it seems to inspire. I begin, then, to function at two levels. A part of me keeps in touch with the road, paying attention to the stop and go signs, the switching-lane signals, and the flashing lights that demand that I move aside. Another part of me retreats into the envelope of the music.

What do I listen to in the car? It's an eclectic variety, ranging from the Monkees to Dido, from Lata-Rafi duets to Farhan Akhtar playing the rock star, from Joan Baez to Indian Ocean. And as the songs shuffle across the soundscape, they bring along with them memories, pictures from different segments of my life, occasionally drawing out images that I had given up for lost. The Monkees, for instance, a group from the late sixties (Davy Jones, an idol in my eight-year-old eyes) can take me back to Calgary, Canada, with "Daydream Believer" just as quickly as Simon & Garfunkel can transport me to a football stadium in Atlanta, August 15, 1983, opening their act with "Cecilia", or Joan Baez's Diamonds and Rust recalls the smoky haze of college, the dreams and loves that seemed at the time to hold the promise of forever.

When my iPod switches unexpectedly to a more recent chord, perhaps something put in by my daughters, I am forced back into the present. The shift is not entirely unpleasant, as it allows me to share the aural memories of my children and through these, something of their perspective as well. The Scientist by Coldplay reminds me of Achala's time at Valley School, and her schoolgirl fantasies associated with the song, while Dido takes me to a more contemporary hopescape, one that seems, somehow, to occupy a space in a small seaside cottage in an artists' village. And of course the extravagant aspirations of Iqbal or Chak De give me a little insight into Ananya's sporting ambitions. 

And then I always come back with a smile to the comfort of the Beatles, Moody Blues, and the occasional Springsteen number, reminders of youth and good times. I wonder, sometimes, as I involuntarily break into song and nod my greying head in time to the beat of "Come Together", whether the person in the Honda City in the next lane is just a bit worried about the sanity of his neighbour.

The music is what makes my 52-kilometer trek more than bearable. The parallel journeys into memory and imagination blanket me from the daily struggle with the traffic and the noise and the rudeness. Instead, I find myself in that dark New Jersey bar with the Piano Man, or with Ringo and company in the Octopus' Garden, or better still, somewhere Across the Universe with Lennon....

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

The amazing women in my life. Part 1: Painted bottles and patchwork

I've been thinking of doing this for a while now, as a sort of personal tribute and a series of memoires for those who care. I look at my life and am overwhelmed by the presence of these wonderful people in it. While my life, perhaps like that of most others, has been helped along considerably by both men and women, I now live in a house full of women--until three years ago, it was four generations thick. Each one of these people, and the many women outside my home that I have been fortunate to be touched by, is special, in a different way. And I just need to do this for them. And for myself.

So, about painted bottles and patchwork....

People who walk into our home marvel at the Thanjavur paintings on the walls and the patchwork covered cushions on the divan. And more recently, a walk into the kitchen might reward them with a view of sunlight dancing off the painted glass bottles that hold a variety of dals and spices. My embroidered sarees and block printed duppattas have fetched me several compliments. And I have to deflect them all, saying, "Well, it's my mother in law!" Right from the needlepoint purse I was given as part of my welcome goody bag at my wedding, to the most recent silk saree embellished with the delicacy of kantha work, my mother in law--or Shubamma, as my children call her--has had a hand in making me (and my home) look good.

Whether it is her obsession for order and neatness (something that she has reluctantly had to compromise on given the madness of our everyday lives now), or the amazingly organized way in which she manages not only her beautiful collection of sarees but also the various details of our bank accounts and savings (where would I be without her record keeping?), she has set standards that I find difficult to match.

There's never any rancour in her tone when she talks about how she did not have the opportunity to go to college or to study the things she would have wanted to. Perhaps it is because she married a man who held learning and the life of the mind above most else, or because of her own strong will, she continued to gain an education from life and from her own reading. She is, even today, one of the most well informed persons I know--she watches the news and reads every paper and magazine that enters the home, and does all of this critically.

Subhashini Subhrahmanian was born in Polur, Tamil Nadu, in 1934 as Kamakoti, seventh in a family of eight siblings. Her father was a wealthy landowner and businessman, and the family had the name "Vaidyam" as they were credited with healing knowledge. She lost her mother when she was just six or seven years old and in the large family with several older siblings and their spouses, the irreplaceable vacuum that is created by the loss of a mother was not particularly remarked upon, because the caregiving is ostensibly taken over by the older members of the extended family. Her early years of schooling were in Polur but later moved to stay with her sister's family in Villupuram where she completed her high school. On her marriage to a college teacher, K Subrahmanian, her name was changed (as was the convention in many families at the time) to Subhashini and she moved to Chennai, and to a life of relative simplicity. After having grown up in a wealthy family, with several servants, in a village where the family name drew both respect and awe, this was a big change for her. She had to learn how to live the simple and rather frugal life necessitated by a teacher's salary. But it was also a shift to another kind of lifestyle, one where books and learning were more the subject of discussion than the yield of the paddy fields or the family's contribution to the maintenance of the local temple. By her own admission, it wasn't an easy transition, but she made it--with grace and commitment. A Fulbright scholarship took the family to Indiana University in Bloomington, USA, and that was another major shift in her life, but again, she adapted and learnt, also learning how to type (she typed my father in law's dissertation and later most of his articles) and supplement the graduate student's meagre scholarship. In 1969, the family moved back to India, finally to Hyderabad, where she found her space and created a permanent home. Arts and craft have remained central to her existence, giving her a creative outlet in the middle of these many transitions and adjustments. She's tried practically everything, from doll making to needlepoint and tapestry to Kashmiri and Kutchi embroidery to reverse glass painting and Thanjavur painting. Most recently, she had a young artist come home to teach her "single stroke" floral painting, and this is what she has adapted to the medium of glass.

About a year ago, Subha (as her friends call her) fell and fractured her spine. She was in bed for four excruciating months, unable to even turn on her side. All handwork came to a standstill, and she spent her time listening to music and stilling her mind, willing herself to get back on her feet. Gradually, she improved, and has been able to return to doing some of the things she loves. All through this convalescence, she remained focused and cheerful, never submitting to depression or self pity--actually making herself better because of this attitude.

She's past her three-quarter-century mark but not a day goes by when she has not applied her hand to some craft or art, despite the several setbacks in her health that have affected body but not spirit or mind. She comes across as a super-efficient, somewhat forbidding woman, always impeccably groomed, her keen eye observing the minutest detail. But over the years, we have come to understand each other, and appreciate each other's point of view. Our conversations often go beyond the routine of family and home, venturing into politics and philosophy and society. From her, I have learned that it is possible to build a home and yet be an independent thinker, that it is possible to have an open mind even when possibilities of discovery and exploration have been denied to you.

When I look at those glass bottles on my kitchen shelf, it is not the sunlight that captures my eye, or even the prettiness of the flowers and leaves that adorn it, but it is the reflected image of her hand holding the brush, a fleeting movement of colour against the window that frames a life.