Eight

To Chotto-ma:

You turned eight today. So I’m sitting here trying to draw you a phoenix because I know it’ll make you squeal with joy.

As you grow older, I find myself less willing to write about you. Not about the books you love and the rocks you collect, but about the person you are. Your thoughts, your heart, the way you look at the world – the things that really matter, the things that make you the very unique eight-year-old you are. So if you’re reading the blog some day, when you’re as old as me, and see the silences here, know that I’m keeping you to myself. I’m keeping you to yourself.

When we decide to leave our phones and cameras at home for the day, and then suddenly find ourselves living a moment – like you picking wildflowers in the sunset – and I wish I could take a photograph, you remind me of what I’d once told you, “Ma, we can take a photo with our memory.”

So that’s what we’re doing, Ba and I. We’re taking photos in the privacy of our memories. And telling you, every day, with words and squishes and the occasional phoenix, how much we love you.

You make us believe in magic.

The Day Harry Potter Came Home

Every day, Chotto-ma eats breakfast, lunch and dinner, and a fourth meal which consists of devouring pages and pages of J.K. Rowling’s imagination. The Harry Potter books have been Daily Dietary Requirement for the past year-and-a-half when they first came home. She started book one on her sixth birthday, and I saw her world shift a little. She has been eating steadily through them since. She reads them, re-reads them and then goes back to the first book and starts all over again. Oh there are other authors in between. And there’s a book on Greek mythology weighing as much as she does, which she loves (she can tell you intricate details about every god, from Hera to Cronus, and their dark and twisted lives). But even gods don’t wield the same power as J.K. Rowling.

We tried to space out the Harry Potter books, googled them for age-appropriateness, but after finishing each book, Chotto-ma would sit in front of the bookshelf, quietly, looking up at the set with the mournful eyes of a cocker spaniel. “Wait till you’re eight” was obviously not going to work.

She has the final book left – we’ve managed to keep it for the school summer holidays, which means an excruciating wait of another fifteen days. This holiday incidentally includes a road trip through Scotland and ends with Edinburgh, where we’re going to do the Harry-Potter-walking-tour, and visit the cafe where J. K. Rowling wrote. The seven-year-old goes on her first pilgrimage.

While she waits this Excruciating Wait for the final book, she has decided to redesign the Harry Potter book covers since she doesn’t like the ones they come in. So the books have now been covered with white paper, and yesterday, she finished illustrating the first one – ‘Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.’

For the Muggles amongst you, the cover shows The Forbidden Forest, with a dead unicorn lying on the forest floor dripping silver unicorn blood.

Here it is, from Chotto-ma, to share with you. It made me awfully proud.

You at Seven

I can see the three of us standing under the horse-chestnut by the river. The leaves are brown. They float down softly on our heads and toes, they tickle a little. Above us, squirrels leap from branch to branch making conkers fall around us like stars. And as we stand on the crunchy floor of rusted leaves, you jump, and turn seven.

Seven. Today. 

Seasons are easy to sum up, but not you at seven. I often see your thoughts whirling round and up and up like leaves in the wind. My autumn child. Not summer, not winter, but the in-between. You’re the in-between. There are two of you, so many of you. One, for the people you love: goofy and loving, nonstop-talking. Another for the rest of the world, in which you hold back, observe, keep your thoughts to yourself. I took out my paintbrushes and tried to draw your world today, you at seven, but I didn’t draw your eyes; I can never do them justice. They say so much. You’re deeply independent, unflinchingly honest. You can be positive about the greyest cloud. Never conflicted about what you feel. And when your questions come, they’re as sharp and clear as raindrops on blades of grass.

“Ma, why does extraordinary mean something really special when it’s extra + ordinary?” you asked yesterday.

Happy birthday, our Chotto-ma! You’re seven. That’s seven whole years of making our lives a little less ordinary. We love you more than all the leaves that fall in autumn.

 

It’s own timbre

Yesterday, the sky was a flat-packed grey. Under it, wet roofs, wet roads, damp brick walls, damp people in damp socks, the neighbour’s cat with a sweet squirrel in his mouth. Bleak stuff. It’s August, the prime of summer, but the sky is British you see, it can’t comment on summer. So what if the rest of Europe is laid out on their beach towels like strips of bacon in a frying pan? We’ll just take the old umbrella out for a walk.

Still, the weather doesn’t irk me like it used to.  Maybe it has something to do with a little girl who goes ‘Yay, rain!’ every time it rains. I mean, who says ‘Yay, rain!’ in this country?! She can be positive about anything, this one. A couple of days ago, she hopped and grinned and danced around me saying “Ma, I’m really, really excited about nothing!” So yeah, it could be her; she makes me notice the grey less.

There’s something else I like about days like these. The silver light. Like a snail’s trail that has dried on the ground in slow, shiny loops. This light, even through a bare window, is diffused, discreet. It’s incredible how a land’s people mirror its weather.

I was writing this post when I looked up and saw Chotto-ma engrossed in her book, and realised how utterly quiet the house was. Only the rustle of a page turning, and her foot softly kicking the arm of the sofa, thup thup thup. I picked up my phone quietly and took this photo. Of her and the light and the quiet. There’s a special kind of silence on grey days. It’s different from the silence of a sunny day. Like the difference between synonyms – each with it’s own timbre, its own use.

I’ve been meaning to share a recipe for weeks. It’s for a plum cake that has been baked, eaten, baked in a loop recently. It’s beautiful; soft, sweet, tart and almondy. I’d Instagrammed it, just out of the oven, and now here it is. These photographs are off my phone camera too, because I forget to do any better when this cake is sitting on the table making our rainy-day house smell all kinds of wonderful.

Almond, Plum & Brown Sugar Cake

Ingredients

1 cup plain flour
1 cup ground almond
2 tsp baking powder
3/4 cup coarse demerara (you can use white sugar too, but this gives the cake a rich, roasty flavour)
2 eggs
1 tsp vanilla essence
1 heaped tbsp of butter
1/2 cup oil
1/2 – 3/4 cup milk (as needed)
4-5 plums, halved, then sliced (with peel on)

Preheat oven to 160 degrees C (320 degrees F).
Grease a rectangular baking dish (or a cake tin of your choice) with butter, keep aside.
Mix the dry ingredients together in a large bowl – flour, ground almond, baking powder and sugar.
Make a well in the middle. Crack in the eggs. Add the vanilla essence, the butter and oil.
Start mixing it in a circular motion. Pour the milk a bit at a time as you mix, till you get a nice smooth batter, easy to stir.
Pour batter into cake tin. Top the batter with the sliced plum, laying them on with a gentle hand so they settle into the batter a tiny bit, but not sink in.
Bake for 40 minutes if the baking dish is flat and rectangular, and about 45-50 minutes if it’s deep and round. Slide a knife in to check if done.

A well-meaning soup

The minute I open the windows now: birdsong. They’re in constant and urgent conversation, the birds, from dawn to dusk. Sometimes even after the sun has set. They’re catching up, their chirps like phonecalls bouncing from one branch to another, hey Martin how was Africa, didja have a good flight?

It’s been a long winter of quiet; it’s good to have them back.

We read a springtime book without meaning to. We started reading it to Chotto-ma at the end of winter, and as the pages turned, the season did too. It was timed like a perfectly improvised tune. Season and literature jammed, and we read The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett, ate chicken noodle soup, and willed the weather to get warmer – Chotto-ma’s introduction to unabridged English classics.

Getting a six-year old interested in a book written more than a hundred years ago requires stealthy planning – the language is heavier, the vocabulary unfamiliar, the pace slower, the pleasures quieter. Inspite of that, I wanted Chotto-ma to start with the unabridged version of a great book. Because if you read the abridged first, you often don’t get around to the original. But, I was also sure that I wanted her to enjoy it.

We had almost stopped reading aloud to Chotto-ma, because she was doing so much reading by herself. (The first novel she read on her own this year was ‘The Story of the Blue Planet‘ by Icelandic writer Andri Snaer Magnason, about two children who live on a planet with no adults.) Studies show, quite logically, that even when children become completely independent in their reading, a book read aloud to them by a parent continues to have a special place – there’s a sense of comfort and connection in shared stories – and that need not end when a child becomes a fluent reader; it’s a bond worth keeping as long as you can. We decided to split her books into two categories: she’d read the ones she picked out – like the Roald Dahl she’s reading now – and D and I would read to her the classics, and some poetry.

We chose The Secret Garden to start with. The language is not too challenging, and it’s a book filled with the beauty of nature, a couple of loud, ill-mannered children, and a happy ending. It also has plenty of overt racism, and that’s not a bad thing either – it gave us a chance to talk to Chotto-ma about prejudices and wrongs and rights. She loved the story, looked forward to it every evening, and enjoyed the drama as it unfolded. We also discussed the racist elements of the writing, of how India is portrayed and Indians described as inferior (Mary Lennox, the protagonist, is a little British girl who was born and raised in India till she moved to England to live with her uncle.) It opened up conversations about India’s history, the British Raj.

 
Our next read-out might be E. Nesbit’s The Railway Children. But no matter which classic you choose, I’d highly recommend reading it to your child to begin with instead of handing them a beautiful hardbound copy. Guide them into an older time and an older language, till they find their feet and are comfortable enough to read one by themselves. 

Goodness, I’ll stop right there. I sound far wiser than I am. Ignore this unwanted advice by all means, but I beg you, DO NOT ignore the noodle soup that comes with it. It’s our any-weather soup. It’s a soup to read with, to listen to the birds with. It’s a well-meaning soup, much like this post.


Chicken Noodle Soup

Ma would often make this soup when we were young. She’d throw in scraps of chicken and bits of vegetables left over from the week, and suddenly we’d have the most wonderful smell wafting out of the kitchen. Our Spring is cold and windy still, and I needed this. Like birdsong, it makes everything better.

Ingredients

The vegetables really depend on what you have at home, but these are what works really well. You also won’t find quantities for the vegetables in this recipe – since it’s meant to be made with whatever you have left over, feel free to put more of one, less of another.

4 chicken thighs, skin on
Cabbage, cut in big cubes
Mushrooms, cut in half if small, or quartered
Courgette, diced in thick circles, then halved so you have semi-circles
Carrots, diced diagonally
Cauliflower, cut in small florets
2 cloves of garlic, crushed
A few whole black peppercorns, crushed coarsely (the ready-powered version really doesn’t do it!) 
Spring onion, chopped fine, white part and green part separate
A bayleaf
Salt

In a deep pot, heat 8 cups of water. Add chicken, garlic, white part of spring onion, bayleaf, salt. Simmer on medium heat.
After about 15-18 minutes, start adding the vegetable in order of cooking time. In this case – cabbage, cauliflower and carrots together in first, and after about 6 minutes, mushrooms and courgette.
Add more water if needed, check salt. You want a nice, thin broth, full of flavour.
Once the mushrooms and courgette are in, don’t simmer for more than 1 minute, and take off the heat.
Take the chicken out. Get rid of the skin. Shred the meat in pieces and put it back in the soup.
Serve with pepper and the chopped green part of the spring onion.

COMMENT CAVEAT: Many of you have written to me saying that comments you leave here are often not published. So, a little note: if you don’t see your comments here in 24 hours, please know that they have not reached me at all! Blogger can play up, and I hate to think that words you’ve taken time and care to write down have vanished. So please, email me your comments if you find them missing, at peppercornsinmypocket@gmail.com, and I promise to post them them here, and write back.

 

Stereotypes and cake

I have the week off. I get almost nothing done when I have time off. For the past hour, I’ve sat on the sofa staring at this lion that Chotto-ma drew a few days ago. It’s such a beautiful lion, isn’t it? It has kind eyes. A zebra might have another opinion, but it has kind eyes. It also has a bow on its head, if you peer in closely. What’s a big beast of a lion without a little red bow in his mane, right?

We like breaking stereotypes in this house, and ste-reo-types is a word Chotto-ma learnt early. Because, by lord, we’re surrounded by them outside, we drown in them when we walk out the door!

We went to the John Lewis store to buy pyjamas for Chotto-ma the other day. Chotto-ma loves dinosaurs, and she loves sharks and penguins and anything that moves on all fours or sixes. But no sir, John Lewis begs to differ. Every interesting pyjama with dinosaurs and sharks had a sewn-in tag saying John Lewis For Boys. Wait. What’s wrong with John Lewis For Kids, if you must assume I’m size-blind? I’m sure people can decide if they’d like to buy it for a boy or girl based on the child’s personality and taste rather than sex? Yes, there was one lone dino-print pyjama in the girls’ section, bless their generosity – but no points for guessing its colour. No, it wasn’t pink. It was Very Pink.

And that brings me to the country’s great, unspoken colour-code. Pink and Blue. When you have a baby, don’t you dare confuse those two! Girls must gurgle in their prams in pink, boys in blue. Cover a little girl in a blue blanket only if you want to hear, “Aww, what a handsome little boy!”

And of course, there’s the conversation I had at the hairdresser’s some time ago. There was a lovely girl cutting my hair, and Chotto-ma trying to catch my chopped, wet strands before they fell to the floor. The hairdresser and I were chatting about this and that, as we usually do. She was talking about her job at the salon, so I asked her how she’d gotten into hairdressing. And she said: “You know, I was never much into school, so I did what girls do. I got into beauty.”

And then there’s the fact that Chotto-ma went to a birthday party where all the girls got little purple coin-purses in their party-bags and all the boys got large bugs preserved in glass cubes. And she came home a little sad. She’d really wanted the bug with its black hairy legs and cool shiny green body, but she was a girl, so a purple purse it was.

And there’s the fact that at Chotto-ma’s after-school club, when she and a friend were once playing with a box of Lego from the Star Wars series, an older boy came up to them, took the box away, and reminded them they they had the ‘girl Lego’ to play with, and that these were for the boys.

And there’s the fact that you might know a little boy who loves playing with kitchen sets but you also know that you can never gift him a kitchen set for his birthday, without incurring the shock of his parents. He must be gifted a car, poor child. Or a football at the very least.

And the fact that a local children’s magazine I was leafing through had an article called “Party Ideas for Boys and Girls”, where the page was split in two – Boys / Girls, and the boys’ section had science experiments, pirates, football and space. While the girls’ section had a tutu party, flowers and fairies, cupcake baking, princesses and mermaids. Chotto-ma is obsessed with space and planets and all its galaxies, just as I was when I was young. She loves science experiments, which we often do at home with kitchen ingredients. But never mind all that – let’s just put all the girls in sparkly mermaid costumes, shall we?

It’s hard for children to find their own voice when the world seems to be so organised in their stereotypes. When they’re seen as Boy or Girl, instead of People. Girls, especially, are constantly given subliminal hints about their ‘role’ in life. When you gift a girl a Barbie (I could write an entire post on everything that’s wrong with that doll), and you buy a book called ‘Facts on Fossils’ for a boy, you are sending her a strong message, which will have far deeper repercussions than one might think. [Link to an interesting article on that below]

We do what we can to balance Chotto-ma’s world at home, even if it means breaking the smallest stereotypes. I have a blue toothbrush and D has a pink one. We went out and bought them after telling her how people couldn’t be coded by colour, how no one had to follow any set notion of ‘Obvious’. And when we came back home from the hairdresser’s that day, I showed her a photograph of the scientists who built Mangalyaan, the Mars orbiter. The photo showed a group of Indian scientists, all women, in beautiful silk sarees and flowers in their hair, punching the air as they made history in space technology. They’d probably also packed their child’s lunch before coming in to work to build that rocket.

Chotto-ma sees D cooking as many meals as I do; because dinner is cooked by whoever has the time to cook it that day. And the house is cleaned, and clothes folded, by whoever has the time to clean the house and fold the clothes that day. There’s nothing more to it – apart from the fact that you’ll probably eat a little better if I cook the dinner. And you’ll probably also get a slice of lovely cake after.

Are there stereotypes that bother you? Moments when you have found them frustrating as a parent, grandparent, uncle, aunt? Stereotypes that annoyed you when you were a child? I’d love to hear your stories, for surely I’m not the only one who has them? My stories come from being the parent of a girl, but which ones do you face as the parent of a boy? I’d love to know, and it’d be good to have this discussed – please share the blog link on Facebook and elsewhere if you like.

And in the meantime, I’ll give you a recipe for a mean orange-almond cake, which goes well with good old talk about things that matter. I’ve baked it thrice in three weeks. Well, Chotto-ma and I baked it together, even as we talked about planets, bugs, prehistoric creatures and other so-called ‘boy things’. Because, there might be a set recipe for a cake, but there ain’t no set recipe for a girl. Or a boy.

Added on March 10, 2015: A kind lady emailed me an article yesterday after reading the post. This article is from a US perspective, while mine is from the UK, but they say the same thing. It shows why seemingly small, market-created stereotypes can do deeper damage to our social structure, and handicap girls and women. Here’s an excerpt from the article

“…contributing factors, according to academic experts I interviewed, include a culture that encourages young women to play with dolls rather than robots and pursue traditionally female careers, as well as the self-perpetuating stereotype that a programmer is a white male. Sometimes women can feel like they don’t belong in a technical world dominated by men.
Those stereotypes are based on reality, according to data released by some of the largest tech companies. Among the top employers in Silicon Valley, including Facebook, Google, Twitter and Apple, 70% of the workforce is male. In technical roles, the disparity is even greater. At Twitter, for instance, only 10% of the technical workforce is female.”

You can read the complete article here.

Orange and Almond Cake

Ingredients

1 cup plain flour
1 cup ground almond
2 tsp baking powder
1/2 cup sugar
2 eggs
1 tsp vanilla essence
1 cup freshly squeezed orange juice, pulp in
2 tsp zest of an orange
2 heaped tbsp of butter
2 heaped tbsp yogurt
1/4 cup oil (vegetable or sunflower)

Preheat oven to 160 degrees C (320 degrees F).
Grease cake tin with butter, keep aside. (I like my 6-inch, and deep, cake tin for this)
Mix the dry ingredients together in a large bowl – flour, ground almond, baking powder, sugar, orange zest.
Make a well in the middle. Crack in the eggs. Add the vanilla essence, the butter, oil and yogurt.
Start mixing it in a circular motion. Pour the orange juice a bit at a time as you mix. Till it’s a nice smooth batter, easy to stir.
Pour batter into cake tin. Bake for about 50 minutes, then slide a knife in to check if done. If it’s still a little soft, switch off the oven, and pop the cake back in. Leave it there for 15 more minutes.

This cake has a beautiful crunchy crust when it’s just out of the oven, so you must have a slice warm. But once it’s cooled, wrap the rest in clingfilm and leave it on the table overnight. It’s even better a day later, when the ground almond has released all its lovely natural oil.

You’ll love it!

COMMENT CAVEAT: Many of you have written to me saying that comments you leave here are often not published. So, a little note: if you don’t see your comments here in 24 hours, please know that they have not reached me at all! Blogger can play up, and I hate to think that words you’ve taken time and care to write down have vanished. So please, email me your comments if you find them missing, at peppercornsinmypocket@gmail.com, and I promise to post them them here, and write back.

Love

That’s my kitchen table this morning. There’s the apple cake I baked yesterday. My coffee. A yam I don’t know what to do with. A bowl of oranges. And linen embroidered by my grandmother long before I was born.

I just noticed how many round things I’ve put together there. Circle on circle. Spheres and orbits. I hadn’t realised I’d done that. I have a terrible cold – stayed up the night coughing – so I don’t know what I’m doing anyway, but there might be some subliminal therapy in circular things. Tai chi. Yin yang. Cake.

There’s something else circling around in my head. A poem Chotto-ma wrote yesterday. She’s been writing a lot. Suddenly, fiercely. Writing, writing, writing. Stories, poems, and a movie script called ‘The Blues’ where two lonely girls born with blue hair find each other and becomes friends.

This is her first poem, complete with her spellings. It made my cold better.

LOVE 
by Chotto-ma
Love is our 
own naicher.
Love is our
life.
Love is evrything.
Love is what
we like.

[Glossary: naicher = nature. We like to keep our spellings nacheral.]