Having a conversation with a child is undoubtedly one of my favourite pastimes. Children are naturally innocent and artless, and listening to their views as they try to connect things that they see and hear around themselves to their limited knowledge of the world, is illuminating and unwittingly funny.
A few months ago, my mother was unwell, and had to be hospitalized. Her doctors thought that she might have a small stone in one of her kidneys that would have to be surgically removed. When I relayed this information to my daughter, her eight year old daughter, Apsara, was nearby, and the little girl overheard the conversation. It was quite clear that my grand-daughter had thought about this unusual piece of information long and hard, because she later had a few questions for her mother.
She asked her mother, “Who threw those stones that went into gaminny’s (that’s what she calls my mother who is her great –grandmother) tummy? Was it one of her friends who did it? What kind of friends does she have, anyway?”
My daughter was nonplussed by these questions. This intriguing matter, however, did not end there. Apsara told her classmates at school about the stone in her great grandmother’s tummy. It was evident that this was a very newsworthy event indeed, because one little boy came back the next day, having gathered some additional information on the matter from discussions in his own home. His grandfather, who was a doctor, had informed him that the stone in Apsara’s great grandmother’s tummy had not been thrown at her by anyone – it had actually grown in her belly! Apsara did not seem at all convinced by this rather unbelievable statement. When my mother was recovering and Apsara spoke to her on the phone, her first question, asked in a conspiratorial whisper was, “So, did you find out who did it? Who threw the stone that went into your tummy?”
One day, just before Diwali, when Apsara came from school, she ran straight to the puppy’s dog bed, and lifted the bedding, and peered under the puppy’s little pink blanket.
“What are you doing?” her mother asked curiously.
“I’m making sure that Phoebe’s bed is neat and tidy,” she said seriously, well aware of Phoebe’s habit of storing half chewed up things, spirited away from various corners of the house, under her bed.
“My friend told me that the goddess will not come to our house during Diwali if it’s not clean.” (Her friend must have referred to the common belief that Goddess Lakshmi, the Goddess of wealth and fortune, visits only clean and well decorated homes during Diwali) “I want to make sure that Phoebe’s bed is neat so that the Goddess will not forget to bless her.”
At the recently concluded Bangalore Literature Festival, (27th -28th October, 2018) one of my story-telling and activity sessions, for children aged 4-9 years was called ‘Fun with the Clouds.’ I read from one of my picture books ‘The Anger of Apsu’* which tells the story of a baby dragon, Apsu, who lived with his mother atop a tall mountain. One day, Apsu climbed onto a fluffy white cloud, and when the cloud floated away, Apsu was separated from his mother forever. Eventually, Apsu grew up to be a big, fire breathing dragon by eating starlight and moon beams, but as he wanders through the clouds in the sky to this very day, he still remembers his mother sometimes. Then he roars, and cries, and that is the sound of thunder that we hear sometimes rumbling in the sky. When I read this story out to the children, I explained that the next time they hear a clap of thunder, they should not be afraid, because they know that it’s only the sound of a lonely dragon called Apsu, remembering the mother he lost when he floated away on a cloud! The children in my audience immediately connected with my story, and seemed deeply sympathetic when they heard that the loud thunder claps that sometime unnerve them are nothing more than the sorrowful sobs of a dragon called Apsu.
On the day of my session at the Literature Festival, there was a clear blue sky above, and I told the children in my audience that I had plucked all the clouds in the sky, and stuffed them into my bag. (Later in the session, I found some little ones peering curiously into my bag – perhaps they were hoping to catch sight of a cloud peeping out?)Then, I asked the children to tell me where they thought the clouds went, when they were not in the sky. The answers I got were so interesting. When they are not in the sky, the children explained that the clouds…
go on a picnic
go to play with their friends
But the most engaging answer came from a thoughtful and obviously practical little boy who told me that when the clouds are not in sky, he thinks they must all have gone to ‘the washroom.’
From now on, whenever, I look up at a cloudless, blue sky above, a picture of a row of fluffy clouds lined up patiently outside a washroom will always flash into my mind…
This poem is inspired by my seven year old grand-daughter Apsara who lives and breathes dragons, and hopes to meet one someday!
What language do dragons speak?
The answer to this important question I must find out,
For if ever I meet a dragon,
I’ll want to speak to him without a doubt.
I must find out in which language I must ask,
A dragon all the things that I want to know –
And I hope the dragon will understand my accent;
I’ll make sure of course, that my words come out slow.
Will the dragon speak English, Hindi, French, or Greek?
If you have ever spoken to a dragon, will you please tell me,
How did you communicate with the dragon?
In which language did you speak to him? Then, I'll get ready.
If I have to learn a new language, I must prepare
And it's better that I start learning it right away -
Because in case I ever meet a dragon,
I must be quite sure of what to say!
GRANDPA, LET’S RACE!
“Come grandpa,” I shout. “Let’s have a race!
I know of course, that you can’t match my pace.
But I’ll slow down just a bit – (not enough to let you win though)
But we can see just how fast we can go.
What’s that you’re saying? You’re too old to run?
I don’t agree, grandpa dear – running is so much fun.
I love to pound the driveway with my feet, and feel the wind blow,
And mama says running helps me to grow.
Grandpa, why don’t you just turn off the switch in your head that makes you feel old?
Then, start running with all your might – be fearless and bold!
I’m sure you’ll have such great fun, grandpa, all you have to do is agree,
To forget you’re old, and have a running race with me!”
The venerable Oxford English Dictionary, (OED) with its database of more than 600,000 words is considered to be a comprehensive and authoritative record of the English language. In 2013, the OED’s word of the year was ‘selfie’ - a photograph taken of oneself with a smart phone or webcam, and uploaded onto a social media website. In 2015, OED’s word of the year was, unusually, not a word, but a pictograph or emoji, showing a face shedding tears of joy. OED’s word of the year for 2016 has still not been revealed, but I wonder if a word that has quietly crept into the august Oxford Dictionary in September 2016, will come up trumps. The word is ubiquitous and engaging. It’s a word that’s as effective when it’s whispered, as when it’s shouted. Keralites and Tamilians are familiar with it, because their conversations are peppered liberally with this handy, expressive, and versatile word – aiyo.
The OED defines ‘aiyo’ as a word that’s used to express distress, regret, or grief like ‘Oh no!’ or ‘Oh dear!’ This rather succinct and concise definition fails to adequately express the dramatic power of a word that can convey many different emotions, depending on how it’s used, and most importantly, how it’s pronounced. When you cut your finger accidentally with a kitchen knife, no word can express your pain and dismay like a loud howl followed by a long ‘aiyo!’ When something’s wrong, when you are ill, or have forgotten something important, the power of an ‘aiyo’ to convey woe is unmatched – “Aiyo! I have such a terrible headache,” or “Aiyo, I think I left my mobile phone in the taxi!” Aiyo is an elegant, chatty (and sometimes catty) word that does not cause offence since it’s not abusive, or considered foul language –“Aiyo! That colour does not suit you at all,” or “Aiyo! Why did you buy that coat? It makes you look so fat!”
When aiyo is used as a swear or curse word, it conveys so much more emotion and feeling than a mere ‘drat’ or a terse ‘damn’ - “Aiyo! The ATM is not working again!” or “Aiyo! This is the third time this month that the maid has bunked work.”
A polite exclamation of surprise like ‘oh my god,” or ‘gosh!” cannot pack the powerful emotions that an “Aiyo! What’s going on here?” can. Aiyo, a universal expression used everywhere, can be used as a question, or an exclamation to convey fear, worry, and distress – “Aiyo, I wonder –will my plane leave on time?” and “Aiyo! I’m afraid to go past that house at dusk- they say it’s haunted.” In situations that require more sound effects and louder laments, ‘aiyo’ easily converts itself to the more powerful and theatric ‘ayyayyo’.
Aiyo is a great word for expressing sympathy or commiserating with another’s loss. “Aiyo, I’m so sorry to hear that your father passed away,” and “Aiyo, I heard that you were unwell. Hope you are feeling better now.” An aiyo can express exasperation - “Aiyo, this is the third time this week that I’ve lost my specs,” and concern - “Aiyo, did you get hurt when you fell down?”
As a word to show irritation, peevishness, and annoyance, aiyo, (which lends itself superbly to voice modulation) is brilliant -“Aiyo, why do you keep nagging me to get the cistern fixed? I’ve told you I’ll do it!” Aiyo is a harmless enough word, but when used as a prefix before a gossipy statement, it becomes charged with innuendo - “Aiyo, did you hear about what happened last week to Mrs. So and So? Isn’t it unfortunate?”
Despite its many levels and shades of meaning, it was a surprise when aiyo, long considered colloquial, slang language in South India, became a pukka word that’s officially part of the Queen’s English. Aiyo, I never thought it would happen. If aiyo has been deemed fit for inclusion in the Oxford English dictionary, can another popular slang word ‘poda’ (get lost) be far behind? You never know. Aiyo, English is such a crazy language.
TIME FOR A NEW CLOCK
“I want to buy a clock,” the husband announced one day at breakfast. “A clock with a large face, and perhaps one that chimes the hour.” I looked at him incredulously, and shuddered at the image his words conjured up, of a hideous plastic clock whirring loudly and harshly every sixty minutes, as it chimed the hour.
“We have a clock in every room of our house,”I said in outrage. I’ve chosen them all myself. So why do we need one more?”
“To know the time,” came the prompt reply.“We can’t look at a single one of your clocks and know what the time is.”
I was speechless when I heard this. “What do you mean?” I asked crossly. All our clocks are working perfectly.”
“They may be, but you can’t tell the correct time by looking at a single one. Take that one for example,” the husband said testily, pointing to the round, British winding clock encased in an oak wood frame that hangs above our bedroom door. “I fail to understand why it’s kept there. It never keeps the correct time.”
“It’s more than a hundred years old,” I snapped. “It’s a valuable antique. So what if it loses a few minutes every week? I know its cycle well, and have got used to adding a few minutes when I look at it, to roughly calculate the time. I think we must give it a little leeway for being over a hundred years old. Do you think we’d be as efficient if we live to be a hundred? I saw a similar clock in the movie ‘Titanic’, and the Titanic sank in 1912. Sometimes I try to imagine all the adventures the clock must have had before it came to us, all the way from London…”
“I don’t want to imagine the clock’s adventures! I just want the correct time! If it’s such a valuable antique, why don’t you just sell it? Then we can put a good, new clock in its place.”
“No,” I said firmly. “I’m not selling my century old Smiths Enfield clock. If you don’t like it, you can look at the time in one of our other clocks.”
“Show me one in which I can see the time clearly.”
I quickly looked around. Our dining room is adorned with a pink glass clock, digitally printed with a traditional kalamkari design of peacocks and flowering trees. I had spotted it on a website, and had been so captivated by it, that I had bought it immediately. When the clock arrived, I was delighted. I felt that its beautiful and delicate finish added much to the ambience of our dining room. But I had to admit that the clock’s gold hands merged so seamlessly into the pink forest on its face, that it was rather difficult to read the time.
Next, my eye fell on an exquisite blue ceramic clock from Turkey that I’ve placed in a corner of our living room. Though the clock is small, it is hand painted in the shining jewel colours prized by the erstwhile Ottoman sultans. The Turkish clock’s radiant colours never fail to please me, and I smiled as I remarked, “that clock is part of a 700 year old tradition of Iznik ceramics.”
“But no one can read the time on it! It’s just another of your useless clocks. Show me one on which I can see the time at one glance.”
In my mind, I quickly thought of the other clocks that I had carefully selected for my home. My kitchen boasts of a wine bottle clock, made from a champagne coloured wine bottle, melted flat in a kiln. I liked the idea that a bottle that once held the finest Chardonnay wine had got a new lease of life as a clock. I consider my kitchen clock a unique work of art, and believe that it makes a fabulous statement on the wall. But it doesn’t have any numbers on it, and I’ve noticed that my cook, and my maids never even glance at it – they look at the time on their cell phones.
The clock in my study is one that I found in a supermarket in the US. A charming bird clock, it presents a different bird’s song to announce the arrival of each hour. The various bird songs include songs from cardinals, jays, mockingbirds, and chickadees. After I had installed this unusual clock, our cat Indy went crazy, running from room to room, hunting for the birds that he could hear. He soon figured out however, that the sound was not coming from live birds, and went back to his favourite daytime pastime of snoozing. But the maid who dusts our house was not so bright. She came to me worriedly several days later, and told me that she thought that there was a rat hiding in the bookshelf. She could hear it make funny sounds and squeaks occasionally.
Another of my clocks that I especially like is a wooden clock decorated with hand painted tribal art. I bought it directly from the artist who created it, at an art mela. It’s eye-catching, but I have to admit that it’s not a clock that shows you the time at one glance. Neither is my small porcelain mantle clock, festooned with plump cherubs.
I sighed. “Maybe you’re right,” I conceded grudgingly to the husband. “Perhaps none of my clocks are that practical. So we’ll buy another one. I think I know just the one that we need. I’ve had my eye on it for a while. It’s a beautiful antique railway station clock, but you’ll like it because it has a large, easy to read face….
CONNECTING TO MY CELLPHONE
When cellular phones were introduced in India, they quickly became the ultimate status symbol. They were astronomically priced, so only to a few ‘movers and shakers’ in society owned them. My first ‘close-up’ with one of those early cell phones in Mumbai happened one night when I had gone to watch a play with a friend. As we were filing into the theatre with a crowd, a strident ring broke the silence. A man standing just ahead of me pulled a cell phone out of his pocket with a flourish, and boomed an excited ‘hello’ into it. After looking around at his hapless audience with a satisfied smile, he began a conversation in a loud, stentorian tone. As his glib tongue tossed off references to urgent business deals worth millions, he gestured energetically with his free hand.
“ I’m sure this is not a genuine call,” I muttered angrily to my friend.
“Of course it’s not!” she whispered back. “Don’t you know that there are people who will call you, for a fee, if you want to be seen talking on your new cell phone?” I didn’t know, of course, but my aversion to cell phones began right there. I decided firmly that I would never own one. So, when my own eager offspring eventually acquired their own cell phones, I ignored them pointedly.
Then, as the telecom revolution swept through India during the next few years, cell phones became inexpensive and common. Every cab driver and panwallah possessed one, and even our plumber stuffed one jauntily in his pocket. People began to ask me regularly, “apka mobile number kya hai?” My haughty reply that I did not own a mobile because I didn’t believe in them, was always greeted with stares of utter amazement that quickly turned into embarrassed looks of sympathy. Everyone knew that the only people who did not own cell phones were those who were too poor to buy one, or those too stupid to know how to use one. Whichever category I fell into, I merited a pitying stare!
It was my maternal instinct of wanting to communicate more with my teenaged children (or hound them, as they put it succinctly) that made me finally decide to own a cell phone. I broached the topic gingerly one night at dinner. My daughter was absolutely delighted at this change of heart. She offered, rather uncharacteristically, to accompany me and her father, to buy my first cell phone. At the store, I was goggle eyed at the variety of cell phones displayed. As the salesman prattled on about the features of each model, I eyed the thick instruction manuals that accompanied each phone nervously, and shrank back, dismayed. When my daughter saw my hesitation, she unveiled what was obviously a well thought out plan.
“I think all these phones are too complicated for someone like mummy who’s mentally challenged as far as technology goes,” she said earnestly to her father. “ She’ll be better off using my phone. It’s a very simple model that they don’t make any more. She’ll be comfortable with it. I can have the new phone.” I agreed to this idea without demur, and my daughter happily chose a tiny new cell phone equipped with a bewildering array of buttons and features.
My education in using a cell phone seemed to start swimmingly. I memorized my new ten-digit number diligently, and picked out a favourite tune, ‘Waltzing Matilda’ as my ring tone. After I learnt how to make and receive a call on my phone, I became rather complacent. Perhaps I had been mistaken in thinking that using a cell phone was beyond me – maybe the complicated instructions were all just hype? My snugness soon received a jolt when I made blunder after blunder while using my phone. My mistakes ranged from common ones like forgetting to charge my phone, and setting off happily on an overnight a trip minus my charger, to sublime ones caused by my utter ignorance. I did not realize, for example, that the keypad of my phone had to be locked before I stuffed it into my bulging handbag. As I moved around, I was supremely unaware that my phone, sandwiched between numerous odds and ends, was merrily dialing away the numbers stored on it. Since in those days, most of the numbers stored on my phone were those of my children and their friends, this caused uproar at home. My offspring were enraged at the inconvenience that my ignorance caused them, and mortified at the embarrassment of having to explain to their startled friends why their mother was ringing them repeatedly without uttering a word!
I quickly learned to lock the keypad of my phone, but other blunders continued. Once, when I came home, I was surprised to be confronted by an angry family.
“Why didn’t you answer your phone?” they chorused furiously.
“But you didn’t call me,” I replied, truly puzzled. My daughter dug into my handbag immediately and pulled out my cell phone.
“Look!” she exclaimed, “Six missed calls!” As I stared at my cell phone in bewilderment, it rang, and I listened to it, completely stupefied. It sounded completely different from usual!
“Why does my phone sound so different?” I asked worriedly.
“Because I changed your ring tone,” my daughter explained brightly. “Everyone changes their ring tone regularly. I change mine every week. Now yours is the theme from Titanic! Didn’t you recognize it?” she asked me.
“Why did you change my ring tone?” I shrieked in outrage. “I didn’t answer my phone because I didn’t even realize that it was my phone that was ringing. I thought it was someone else’s phone! Change it back at once!” My daughter obliged with a resigned shrug, and years on, my ring tone is still Waltzing Matilda! But sometimes, even Waltzing Matilda wasn’t enough to catch my attention, so my daughter decided to switch my phone to ‘vibrate’ mode. I was delighted with this idea – when my handbag began to writhe like a live thing, it was a signal for me to dive into it and holler a triumphant hello.
The advent of SMS’s brought me fresh challenges. My children were determined that I should learn how to SMS them, so that they could hide from their friends the ignominious fact that the numerous calls they received were not from eager admirers but only from their anxious mother! My daughter was my SMS teacher, and we got off to a disastrous start. She wrote a few ‘sample’ SMS’s for me to see first. I read,
K B DER AT 7
HI HW R U 2DAY?
“What on earth is this?” I asked staring at the paper, completely nonplussed.
“These are SMS messages,” my daughter said, in the slow deliberate tones she might adopt when speaking to a moron.
“What do they mean?” I asked, my voice rising shrilly in anxiety at the thought of having to puzzle out more incomprehensible instructions.
“Read them, and you’ll understand,” my daughter replied calmly. “The first one says ‘I’m good’. The next one says, ‘OK, be there at seven’. The last one says ‘Hi! How are you today?’ Aren’t they short and sweet?”
“Short and sweet?” I exploded. “Why they’re simply atrocious!”
“No one bothers about spelling, punctuation and grammar when sending SMS’s,” my daughter explained. “But if you want, you can specialize in ones with perfect spellings and grammar,” she added sarcastically.
“ I will,” I replied grimly.
My early attempts at sending SMS’s soon ran into trouble. One day, I tried to send my daughter a message asking her to stop off at the dhobi’s shop on her way home. But instead of the word ‘dhobi’, the word ‘finch’ kept appearing on my screen instead. After several tries, I gave up in rage, and stomped off to the errant dhobi’s shop myself.
I confronted my SMS teacher angrily later.
“There’s something wrong with my phone,” I whined. “I’m just not able to type the word dhobi on my phone.”
My daughter giggled. “That’s because your phone has an inbuilt dictionary in it,” she said and the word dhobi is not in it!”
“But I need it to be there,” I retorted indignantly. “So what do we do now?”
“Switch off the dictionary,” she replied with a laugh.
I’m still learning to use many of the features on my cell phone, and bloopers are still plentiful. But all in all, we’re partners now, even though it’s not a perfect fit! During my son’s first trip to Europe, my cell helped me keep tabs on him, and bark out instructions as he backpacked from one city to another.
“I remember the days before Mummy had a cell phone,” he reminisced later. “We didn’t realize then that we were living in utter bliss!”
This piece was written over fifteen years ago, when India was just on the cusp of the mobile revolution. Though I've changed my cell phone several times during the past decade, not much has changed for me. I am still 'technologically challenged', as I've explained in this poem I wrote last year.
MY SMART PHONE IS SMARTER THAN ME
My old mobile phone stopped working a few weeks ago.
Clutching it in my hands, to the repair shop I did go.
The repairman shook his head, and told me with a sigh,
“This mobile phone’s life is over – a new one you must buy.
A smart phone is undoubtedly the best one for you –
There’s just nothing that a smart phone can’t do!”
But when I tried eagerly, to make my first call,
I found that I couldn’t work my smart phone at all.
Its touch screen was locked, and I couldn’t remember the key,
To open my smart phone which was so user unfriendly.
I couldn’t figure out how to send sms and e-mails too,
I was so dismayed that I didn’t know what to do.
My snazzy new smart phone seemed to be,
Determined to confuse and confound me.
As I struggled to use it, I let out a mournful cry,
“Why did my dear, old faithful mobile phone have to die?”
This poem was published in 'The English Marvel' Coursebook 4, (2015) published by
Madhubun Educational Books, a division of Vikas Publishing House, New Delhi.
Please do not reprint this poem without getting prior permission from the publisher.
ANI MEETS HER SHADOW
ANI MEETS HER SHADOW
Ani, all of eight months old,
Had just learnt how to crawl.
She set out happily on all fours;
Eagerly propelling forward her body so small.
But as she set out speedily to explore,
Some of the interesting things she could see,
Ani suddenly stopped, sat down on the floor,
And looked around, rather worriedly.
After a moment, she decided to set off once more,
Crawling along on her chubby little hands and knees,
But once again, she stopped, and stared at the floor –
A strange black object was following her, she could see.
It moved when she did, and stopped when she did,
And loomed menacingly over her little head.
Ani’s face puckered – she was ready to cry;
Something was chasing her, and it filled her with dread.
But suddenly, in a burst of bravery, she stuck out her tiny foot,
And tried to kick the black object firmly away,
But alas! It didn’t budge, and instead, Ani’s mama began to smile;
Ani bawled – couldn’t mama see the fearful, black thing in her way?
Why was mama laughing? Ani just couldn’t understand.
Ani was frightened – something was definitely amiss;
Then mama came forward, her arms outstretched,
“The black monster will disappear if I give you a kiss….”
© Santhini Govindan
Please do not reprint/publish this poem without getting prior permission from the author.
DELVING DEEP INTO THE INTERNET
Though I cannot imagine living without the Internet, I sometimes feel, like many of its users, that I am drowning in a sea of information. Many of the stories, and most of the facts that are conveniently placed on my social media pages will never be useful to me, but I am still riveted to them anyway. Over the last month, for example, apart from seeing numerous pictures of the various places my friends have visited, and the food they have eaten, I have learnt that Egyptian Queen Nefertiti’s final resting place might have been discovered, that there is a snake infested uninhabited island off the coast of Brazil, and an orange zinnia flower has become the first flower grown in space. I was captivated by the story of how four friends from France completed a year and a half journey between their country and Asia on a bright green tuk-tuk, or auto rickshaw! I’m not quite sure how any of this knowledge will benefit me, but when I read these stories, I was completely engrossed in them. And of course, these are not the only stories that have caught my attention.
My social media pages often throw up useful tips on health and well being. So, now I know that wakame, a kind of seaweed used in Japanese cuisine helps in weight loss, lowers cholesterol, boosts heart health and energy, prevents cancer, and is one of the main contributors to the smooth, youthful, and flawless skin the Japanese are famous for. I set out optimistically to look for wakame, but none of the various grocery stores I visited had even heard of this magic food. So, I had to content myself with munching sunflower and pumpkin seeds instead. Stories published widely on the Internet inform me that these humble seeds offer ‘incredible health benefits’ so, how can I be so foolish to bypass them?
Four thousand years ago, the Incas built a mighty empire amidst the lofty Andes Mountains of South America. The staple food of the Incas, who had amazing stamina and endurance, was a sacred grain called quinoa. The Incas called it the ‘mother of all grains.’ Through the Internet, I discovered that this nutritious ‘super food’ has numerous health benefits. Though I had no ambitions of building up the stamina of a fearless Inca warrior, I hoped that small doses of quinoa might soothe my aches and pains, and help my occasional forgetfulness. I set out once again to hunt for the sacred seed (after learning to pronounce it correctly as ‘keen wah’) and to my astonishment, my grocer did not say ‘eh?’ and scratch his head in puzzlement when I asked for quinoa. Instead, he asked me if I wanted white or red quinoa. I was stumped, and hurried back home to fall back on the Internet, the fount of all wisdom, for more information. After much googling, I unearthed reams of information on quinoa, including the fact that it sometimes causes severe allergies. Alas! This last sentence sounded the death knell of my hopes of enriching my health with quinoa. But I need not have worried. I soon discovered, via the Internet of course, that quinoa, the super food of 2015 was actually passé, and the new health foods of 2016 are even more ‘super’ than quinoa. I’ll soon be setting out to see if my local grocers have heard of teff grains, kohlrabi, and lupin beans.
If it hadn’t been for hours spent browsing the Internet however, I would never have learnt how to clean my silverware naturally using just aluminum foil, salt and baking soda. Following boards on cleaning on Pinterest gave me tips on how to make bathroom faucets shine with vinegar, and I learnt that things do go better when Coca-Cola is used as a cleaning agent! The Internet has endless ideas for anyone interested in DIY and crafts, and I have happily followed tutorials on YouTube to create masterpieces with my own hands. I’ve made planters from empty Pepsi Cola bottles, angels from wooden ice-cream spoons, and toys from old socks. A few weeks ago, a post on my Facebook page showed me how to cut up an old t-shirt and make a shopping bag without sewing a single stitch. I was captivated by this idea, and showed it excitedly to my mother. She looked decidedly unenthusiastic about it. “We have enough bags lying around the house to carry half the supplies of the Indian army,” she said dourly. “And anyway, where exactly are you proposing to go, carrying a bag made from an old cut up t-shirt?” As I looked again at the photograph of the no stitch bag made from an old t-shirt, I had to admit that she had made a relevant point.
However, when I saw pictures of ‘fairy gardens’ made from broken terracotta flower pots, a few days later, I was completely enchanted. I did not have a broken flower pot, but I bought one the next time I went out, and carefully broke it with a hammer. Then, I spent an entire afternoon landscaping my fairy garden. I was quite pleased with the finished product – complete with tiny plants, miniature steps, and a tiny fairy sleeping on a toadstool. I proudly whatsapped a photograph of my original creation to my daughter, an accomplished gardener, and was delighted when she praised my efforts, and gave me some suggestions on how to improve my fairy garden. I placed my fairy garden in a prominent place on my window sill, well content with my own talent and artistry. The next morning, my maid Suneeta who helps to clean our home, suddenly came up to me, looking worried.
“There’s a broken pot on the window sill,” she said, sounding somewhat confused. It took me a moment to figure out that she was referring to my painstakingly crafted fairy garden.
“Well, what about it?” I asked, after a small pause.
“I just wanted to tell you that I did not break it. I found it that way…”
Small children are one of the greatest sources of inspiration for writers of children’s literature. When my own children were little, they were my first critics, and they were extremely frank ones at that. When I would read out something that I had written to them, I would know at once if it had made the cut or not. Their short attention span meant that they would start to fidget if the first few lines of a story or poem had not caught their attention, and within a few moments, they would run away, but not before telling me the bald truth that my work was ‘so boring.’ I always paid heed to these first, in house critics because I know that little children are usually forthright and candid when expressing their opinions. When they clapped or giggled in delight when I was reading a new story to them, I would be pleased that I had written something that struck a chord with my listeners. When my son was about six or seven, and saw a turtle up close for the first time, he crept near it and lay down on the ground beside it. The turtle immediately withdrew into his shell, but my son, with one eye closed, kept trying to peer into the turtle’s shell.
“What are you doing?” I asked him in surprise.
“I want to see what the turtle’s house looks like inside,” he explained earnestly. Then he asked me, “What kind of furniture do you think the turtle has in his house?” I was astonished, and enchanted too, with this unusual question that I would never have thought of. Later, it became the topic for a poem that appeared in ‘Just Imagine - Stories and Poems,’ published by Vikas Publishing House Pvt. Ltd., in 2002.
MR. TURTLE’S HOME
Though Mr. Turtle often opens his front door and peers out,
He never sets a foot outside his little home.
In fact, wherever he goes, he carries it about –
A little brown shell, shaped like a dome.
Since he’s always at home, I’m sure Mr. Turtle’s home must be,
A really cosy and comfortable place.
How I wish I could just peep in and see,
How he has filled up his own little space!
I wonder if he has an armchair, snug and deep,
And perhaps a small table and chair on which to dine.
Maybe he reads in the armchair before he falls asleep,
In a soft bed, lined with sheets so fine.
I wonder if Mr. Turtle has hung paintings on his walls,
And if he’s got curtains to shut away the glare of the Sun.
But I guess this is something I will never know at all -
For Mr. Turtle’s house has got room for just one!
© Santhini Govindan
My children have since grown up, joined the rat race, and quite forgotten what it’s like to live in the magical land of make believe. But small grandchildren have arrived, and they have begun to provide me with new ideas. My older granddaughter, five going on six, is currently captivated by dinosaurs, dragons, and monsters. Her conversation is dotted with references to them, and one of her interesting questions to her mother inspired me to write this poem…
DO MONSTERS HAVE MOMMIES?
I know that monsters are scary creatures,
Who can terrify and frighten people so,
But there’s something about little monsters
That I really want to know.
I wonder if monsters have mommies,
Just like my friends and I do?
And what are monsters’ mommies like?
How I wish I knew!
I wonder if monsters’ mommies wake little monsters up,
In the morning, when they want to sleep on,
Do monsters’ mommies holler, “Hurry up! Hurry up!”
When their small monsters stretch lazily, and yawn?
Do monsters’ mommies help out with homework?
When there are pages and pages to complete?
And when the homework is finally finished,
Do monsters’ mommies give their little monsters a treat?
Do monsters’ mommies read bedtime stories to little monsters,
Before the lights are put off?
And I wonder, do monsters’ mommies give them nasty medicine,
When they have fever, or a cough?
I know that monsters, being monsters,
Are supposed to be brave, and without fear,
But do little monsters sometimes feel afraid,
And want their mommies to be near?
Do monsters’ mommies scold their little ones,
When they say things that are quite untrue?
And do monsters’ mommies make cakes and sweets
For little monsters’ birthdays, just like our mommies do?
Do monsters’ mommies sometimes give little monsters,
A kiss and a cuddle too,
When monsters’ mommies want to tell little monsters
Those magic words - ‘I love you.’
© Santhini Govindan
Please do not reprint/publish this poem without getting prior permission from the author.
Since I write children’s literature, I am often invited to judge competitions in which children have to submit their original stories or poems.
This is usually an interesting exercise, because children are amazingly bright, and think very creatively. After years of teaching creative writing to children, and reading stories and poems written by them, I have developed an unerring eye for differentiating a child’s original work from one written by, or dictated by a parent who desperately wants his or her child to win a prize at any cost. When I read a poem or a story written by a child, I always try to hear the writer’s voice, rather than concentrating on squiggly handwriting that’s hard to read, spelling mistakes, and errors in grammar and punctuation. This is not to say that I ignore carelessly written pages, but when one is six or seven years old, one’s thoughts unusually tend to race, and a pen or pencil gripped in a small hand has a hard time keeping up with the flow of words tumbling out from an imaginative mind. So, inevitably, a few vowels get dropped here and there, not to mention full stops. Commas are usually non-existent in a young child’s work! This style of ‘judging’ has inevitably led me into some rather uncomfortable situations.
On one occasion, an extremely resourceful parent managed, to not only find out that I had judged a competition, but came to confront me with her child’s entry, which she exclaimed loudly and aggressively ‘was far superior’ to the winning entry that she had unearthed, and carefully evaluated herself! I tried to soothe her ruffled ego by trying to tell her that her child’s entry had its merits too, but I soon discovered that this was definitely the wrong thing to say.
“Then why did you not give her a prize?” she asked me belligerently. The lesson I learnt from this encounter with a fierce, tiger mom was never to try and explain decisions made while judging a contest. Most contests always add in fine print that ‘the decisions of the judges are final.’ Parents of children competing in competitions would do well to remember, and respect this. They should not find fault with, and criticize the judges if their child does not win a prize in a competition. Instead of wailing and showing their disappointment to the child, and criticizing the efforts of other contestants, a parent should commend his or her child’s efforts in competing, and encourage him or her to try again.
In my creative writing classes, I always try to teach children the importance and the value of doing one’s own work, rather than getting someone else to do it, or copying someone else’s work so that they can ‘win’. I tell my students that I want to see them write about their own thoughts and ideas. This always elicits imaginative responses. I have not been so successful in getting small children to edit their own work.
On numerous occasions, after a story has been handed into me, I have suggested gently to a small writer, “Why don’t you read your story again and see if you can change anything, and make it better?”
“But I’ve finished it.” This answer, which I’ve heard countless times, is uttered in a tone of finality that I know I cannot challenge. A few of the more confident writers have even told me disarmingly, “but how can I make my story better? It’s already perfect!”
Judging writing contests means I get to read children’s original ideas. Some of these are so hilarious that they linger in my mind. Years ago, I judged an essay competition in which children had to write about what they wanted to be when they grew up. The essays listed many occupations that had caught the children’s fancy – doctor, astronaut, fireman, movie star, and engine driver. But one young boy, obviously world-weary despite his tender age, and tired of the burden of never ending school work, homework, and extracurricular activities wrote truthfully, ‘When I grow up, I want to be RETIRED!’