On blogging and commenting…

It’s a funny business – this blogging. Especially our kind of blogging, where we write about general everyday stuff that’s not of earth-shattering importance to anyone.

When I was an active blogger, I used to average a couple of posts a week. That meant spending at least an equal number of hours writing, and many more reading different blogs.  The two usually go hand-in-hand, at least for me. Naturally, many posts I read struck a chord somewhere, or were just so funny or well-written that I had to stop and comment. Commenting on other blogs is the best form of publicity for your own blog I have found. Some call it networking, while a lucky few form genuine friendships on the net. Again, of those who network, some do it intentionally, some inadvertently, and for many it’s a mix of all these (I think), as is the case with yours truly.

Whatever be the reason, when I was an active blogger (and commentator), I had dozens of comments on every post. And now that I rarely find the time to write on my own space, leave alone on others’, I feel happy to get even a couple of comments here. Not that I am blaming anyone. But it’s a vicious cycle, this. The lesser number of comments I get, the worse I feel about my blog and the tougher it gets to feel enthused to work on my writing.

I think it’s time to break the cycle. For that, it’s important I realize exactly why I am doing this.

I blog because I like to write. I am not very good at networking or forming friendships online. Very rarely, I blog to vent out my frustrations or fears here. But mostly I just enjoy playing with words, trying to create something meaningful out of them. And I am particular about my spellings and punctuation and grammar. I re-read my posts multiple times to check these things. Have I repeated a phrase too many times?  This sentence just does not sound right! Is that paragraph too long? I can spend hours polishing a post till it sounds just right.

Does she think she writes all that well, I hear some of you say! Perhaps not, but I do enjoy the process thoroughly. And it’s time I appreciated the simple pleasure I get from creating an honest and well-written post from the jumble of thoughts in my head.

After that, if a kind soul takes the time to comment, well, that’s just the cherry on the cake, isn’t it?

What would you do?

A simple soul from a village in interior Maharashtra. Migrated to Mumbai after marriage. A housewife, literate but not highly educated. The early years of marriage were probably a struggle – to bring up the kids on her husband’s modest income, manage with the mother-in-law who lived with them, as well as play host to sundry other relatives who came to the city for education or work and stayed with the family for extended periods of time. And all this in a small one bedroom flat typical of Mumbai.

The woman is now sixty plus. Life is anything but a struggle now. The flat is larger and far more comfortable, a swanky car and driver await her instructions downstairs.  But the woman’s life seems strangely empty. The husband has done very well in his career and still keeps himself busy with work – his energy and interest is admirable for his age. The children are all married with kids, busy careers and homes of their own. Ditto the relatives who lived with them from time to time. The mother-in-law is no more. What should the woman do all day?

The children and their families visit as often as they can, and are genuinely loving and interested in her happiness. But they have their own interests and commitments now. What more can they do? Ditto the husband. Of course he would like to see her happier, but is it fair to expect him to be home all day when he still has the drive to carry on with his work?

Who has gone wrong and where? Here’s what I think. The woman has lived for her family all her life. For lack of time, or more likely inclination, she was never able to cultivate a hobby, an interest or a social circle of her own. Perhaps that was par for the course in her times, but society has changed a lot since then. Joint families have made way for nuclear ones. And the woman, like many of her generation, has been caught in the midst of this social change.

The past cannot be changed, nor can the external circumstances. But I don’t see why should it be too late to start building a small life of her own? The time and the resources are in place. She could start small. Explore different activities to see what suits her the best. Join a yoga class. Befriend someone. Volunteer time, keeping in mind health constraints of course. Join a library. Learn to sing or paint or even cook a different cuisine. Or simply make it a point to plan a visit somewhere once a week – a movie, a drama, a shopping mall, a relative’s house. The possibilities are immense. But the drive has to come from within.

I see the woman struggle with loneliness and wish she would try making these small changes.  Others can help only up to a point. I know it’s far easier to write about change than implement it, but in the past few years as I’ve struggled to overcome some of my shortcomings, I’ve realized this one truth above all. Most goals can be achieved, difficulties can be overcome and habits can be changed – if you make the effort. No one can help you if you don’t help yourself.

That’s how I see the situation friends. What do you think? Put yourself in the woman’s shoes and tell me – what would you do?

Motherhood makes you judgmental!

Anybody read Madam De’s latest post? The furor in the comment space is largely over just one part of the post – the bit about admiring Anjali Tendulkar for giving up her career to be the perfect homemaker, wife and mother. But Ms. De also talks about other stuff – bringing up a hugely popular celebrity’s kids in as normal a manner as possible, staying out of the media glare etc. – that I too find admirable. I wonder why no one’s talking about that!

Anyhow, I don’t agree with the homemaker bit at all. To stay home with the kids, juggle family and work, remain a DINK couple, or even not marry at all – is each individual’s personal preference. What makes you happy could make me miserable! So it’s futile to argue over which is the best choice.

It’s hard to say what Ms. De was thinking when she wrote this post. Was it meant to be a cheeky piece pretending to admire while gently poking fun at the so-called ‘perfect wife’? Was it, as I heard someone suggest, a PR advert? Or was it a genuinely fawning fan-post, never mind the seemingly regressive statements like – “The Perfect Wife, who has understood her position in marriage (secondary)…”? Who knows! Or more importantly, who cares! But her post did get me thinking.

Now that I am myself a mommy-to-be, I find myself forming some strong opinions on child-rearing, a departure from my completely non-judgmental stance before. I still don’t judge those who choose not to have kids, but once you do, these are a couple of no-nos in my books nowadays:

Choosing not to breastfeed because we need to get back to work. I keep reading about the lifelong health benefits of breastfeeding for both mommy and baby and I wonder how could a few month’s pay/seniority/career growth/mental stimulation possibly weigh against all of that? Remember that bit about health being our greatest wealth? We spend nine months trying to eat right and natural for the baby and end up feeding it an artifical food later! Of course, some moms are just not able to breastfeed and that’s a completely different scenario. But wanting to get back to work in a hurry ‘because we need the money’ or ‘I’ll go crazy staying home all day’ – I don’t buy that. In most cases, finances can be adjusted for a few months I think.

In my case, I plan to breastfeed for as long as I can (although those tales of cracked and sore breasts give me nightmares) and everything else will just have to align itself around that!

My former non-judgmental self butts in: A possible solution might be to express breast milk for when you are in office. But a lot of my friends tell me that this does not work for too long and you end up feeding the baby formula anyway. If someone has a different experience, I’d love to hear from you!

Asking grandma and grandpa to stay over and look after baby. Now this is a common occurrence with desi couples in the US and no one seems to find it amiss.  I can understand if you’ve stayed in a joint family all along. In that case, you take the good with the bad. But this is different. Parents and in-laws come over for the delivery and stay back for months on end.  I always wonder how comfortable the grandparents feel with this arrangement? Sure, everyone knows grandparents dote on grandkids, but don’t they have a life of their own back home too? Don’t they get lonely alone all day at home in a strange land? And don’t they sometimes wish they had been invited over before baby came along, just to visit or have a nice time? Finally, how do the new parents manage to bond with the baby if grandma’s always around to take care of everything? Not to mention the practical difficulties – how do you enforce your parenting rules when you are not the ones doing the parenting?

Again, in our case, my mother plans to stay with us for a couple of months when I’ll need her the most, but beyond that I know she’ll be itching to go back home and we wouldn’t ask her to stay back either. Sure, we’ll very likely struggle to handle baby by ourselves for the first few weeks, but hey, baby’s going to be a part of our little family and the three of us will just need to get used to each other!

My former non-judgmental self butts in: Perhaps I am being too harsh here? If the grandparents and parents don’t mind, who am I to complain? But somehow this practice makes me very uneasy. What do you guys think?

And that brings me to the familiar stay-at-home versus work-outside-the-home mommy argument. I am still a fence-sitter on this one. As long as mothers stay home with their babies in the initial few months when babies physically need mommy, I don’t see a reason for women to give up their dreams and ambitions for their kids – unless they wish to do so. After all, kids will grow up and get busy with their own lives someday. What does that leave mommy with?

But yes, younger kids need a lot of time and attention. And after a certain age, a dad can probably meet that need just as well as (and sometimes better than) a mom. Again, each family needs to sit down and work out what suits them best I think. Perhaps one parent can choose to work part-time or from home. Or perhaps you will be amongst the blessed few to find a loving caregiver nearby or a day-care right in the office!

As for me, I am still undecided. I just know my impending motherhood is a great time to re-examine where I am headed. Am I happy doing what I am doing? Would I be just as happy ten years down the  line? Nothing like a baby to jolt you into some major soul-searching!

Similarities and Differences

A North Indian friend with two kids and a packed schedule offers to drive fifteen miles out of her way to pick me up for a movie outing. She knows I am itching to join the movie plans but cannot drive myself over. Didn’t she hear Raj Thackeray was hounding Northies like herself in my hometown of Mumbai?

A Muslim friend from Tamil Nadu brings over an extra helping of kheer for us over Eid. She knows the husband has a sweet tooth and would love to take some kheer home. Did she forget Babri Masjid and Godhra?

All our other Indian Hindu friends are horrified to hear of this same friend’s daughter suffering a nasty head injury while playing at her babysitter’s. Each one of us can imagine the mother’s pain and offers to help in any way we can. Why didn’t we think instead of the several terrorist attacks that take place with alarming regularity back home in India these days?

Our Pakistani friend is constantly beseiged at lunch with requests for his wife’s sumptuous gajar halwa and other Punjabi delicacies. The sociable and generous soul that he is, he promptly obliges. Didn’t someone tell him Indians and Pakistanis were supposed to be fighting each other?

Living outside India, one comes across South Asians of different cultures and nationalities. Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis and Sri Lankans, Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs and Christians, people from Delhi, U.P., M.P. and Mumbai. And then there are the Americans whose country we live in of course.

But thousands of miles away from home and our loved ones, the barriers seem to melt away. It is no longer important that my Muslim friend celebrates Eid, not Diwali, or that our North Indian friends do not understand Marathi. It is enough instead that we can share some laughs over the new Bollywood comedy. It is comfort enough that a group of ladies from these diverse backgrounds can come together to host a baby shower for a pregnant woman whose own mother cannot be with her during this special time.

Even as the barriers fall, the cliche of celebrating our differences becomes true too. Be it the variety of cuisines at the office potluck, our American friend taking us hiking in the mountains he’s been scaling since childhood and which we’d never know how to explore on our own otherwise, or our lengthy lunch-time discussions on South Asian politics with each nationality bringing a fresh perspective to the table, differences are good, they open up our minds, we realize.

Most importantly though, sifting through the differences, we understand how similar we all really are. That a mother will always grieve over her child’s pain, be she a Hindu or a Muslim. And that kheer will taste just as sweet, whether it is prepared by a Hindu for Dussehra, by a Muslim for Eid or as a Christmas pudding by a Christian.

Living and working next to each other, going on picnics and for movies together, celebrating our festivals and caring for each other’s kids, past wounds hardly seem to matter. And with the understanding and empathy built from such interactions, it becomes easier to accept our troubled history and move beyond it towards a more harmonious future. Yes, terrorist attacks are ruthless and hurt us all, partition was horrible, 1984 was shameful, the Babri Masjid and Godhra riots were horrific, forced conversions and violent methods used to protest against them are both wrong and if one chooses to go all the way back in history, the Mughal destruction of Hindu temples was wrong too.

But the bottomline is that we are all good people despite all this, we are all human beings with hopes and fears and loved ones and dreams just like each other – this is the understand we gain living in such close proximity with one another. It’s not as if diverse communities do not interact in India, but the interactions are becoming rare and increasingly fraught with suspicion these days I hear. Which is what saddens me the most. If we can all live together as friends, as a community and even as a surrogate family in this strange land, why can it not happen in our own countries I wonder?

A Thanksgiving Tale

There is this sweet old lady in our office who’s one of the most talkative and friendly Americans I know. She must be over sixty years old, but she’s the one greeting us all first thing in the morning with a smile and a chirpy ‘Good morning’, she asks after our weekends and remembers all our birthdays. A warm grandmotherly sort of person is how I always think of her.

The Tuesday before Thanksgiving, I got chatting with her about our holiday plans. She was planning to go over to her daughter’s place. ‘No more cooking for me, I’ve done it for so many years, let the daughter do it now!’, she declared. And then she wanted to know our plans. ‘We are going to Vegas’, I told her.

She seemed slightly shocked. ‘Do you have family in Vegas? Thanksgiving is supposed to be family time!’, she told me, a somewhat disapproving look on her face. It would have been rude to tell her I didn’t know what Thanksgiving was until I came to America two years ago and that it wasn’t exactly the most important festival on my social calendar.

So I did the next best thing and told her our family was in India and we had no family here, so we thought we might as well take advantage of the long weekend and have some fun instead. She seemed to get it, I think, for the frown gave way to her usual smile once again as she piped up, ‘Oh yes, enjoy while you can dearie!’

Long after our conversation was over, her words and her reaction stayed with me. And made me re-think my views on Thanksgiving. Why were we so disassociated from the festivities? I couldn’t think of a good reason except that we had never really given a thought to it!

Thanksgiving isn’t a religious festival at all. So there’s no reason we cannot celebrate it. And we don’t believe in any such religious restrictions anyhow. Even for Christmas, which is a religious festival, I learnt Christmas carols for the office luncheon and we brought home a tree and decorated it in our amateurish desi way and had great fun in the process.

The problem was in our perception, I realized. Here was an American treating us as fellow Americans while we thought of ourselves as Indians after all. In our minds, we were still living in India.

Was it time to assimilate a little more? At least for the time we are here? We could have vegetarian Thanksgiving dinners, couldn’t we? Call over friends, if not family. Maybe we wouldn’t want to it every year, but trying it once in a while wouldn’t be a bad idea either, would it?

I am still thinking about this. Perhaps it will never make much of a difference to us either way, but if we decide to bring up our kids in this country, we’ll need to be much more participative in this whole Thanksgiving/Christmas scene, I feel. Do you folks agree?

What’s a drink between friends? Part II

So we were pretty overwhelmed with this girl’s hospitality and made it a point to let her know how much we appreciated it. But there was one small thing I did NOT appreciate and unfortunately could not discuss with her, considering I barely know her and she was our host and a very nice person otherwise AND I hate confrontations and all! Naturally then, I had to vent myself here.

So we were in North Carolina for the weekend and Sunday night found us wandering about downtown Chapel Hill, a beautiful little town, by the way. Tired from the day’s sightseeing and wanting to rest our aching limbs, we chanced upon a Chipotle, one of the few non-desi places we desis can get good wholesome but spicy food in America. Their burrito bowl is as good as rajma-chawal I think!

So the husband was having his fajitas, I was enjoying my burrito bowl and our friends were nursing a glass of margarita each. Now I was raised to be a teetotaler, in a family where alcohol, tobacco and meat are all considered the original sins, next to drugs, fraud and murder probably! I am pretty sure my mother has never sat next to a person enjoying a glass of wine and will not be doing it anytime soon either. Me, I am not that fanatical at all but I stick to my teetotaler upbringing out of choice. I don’t think alcohol is a sin but I am not a great fan of the effect it sometimes has on people.

Let me clarify. Most people I know are social drinkers and they’ll be up in arms against me for clubbing them with drunks and alcoholics. I understand the difference, you know. I just don’t like the idea of indulging in something that can turn so ugly when over-indulged in. Maybe there’s nothing wrong in having a social drink from time to time if I can stay within my limits. But what if I forget them? Or worse, what if I am just not able to stick to them? Why even go down a road whose end is so ugly? Sure, I can always turn back but what if lose my way instead?

And then there is this weird concept that says you cannot let go and enjoy yourself completely without a drink or two. Which is basically what our friend’s wife kept saying once the first margarita gave way to the second. And which irritated me no end. I had absolutely no issues when she was sitting next to me, enjoying her drink and all of us enjoying our conversation. But then she wanted to know why the husband and I weren’t drinking. Didn’t we like to have fun? Didn’t we wish to experience the lightheadedness and total abandon that can only came with a drink?

This idea that I couldn’t enjoy myself as much as she would just because I wasn’t drinking made me see red. I didn’t try and foist my morals upon her, did I? Why, then, was she trying to impose her concept of fun on me? I might have had more *fun* than any other person at that table. Or I might be a total loser. What does that have to do with drinking?

I prefer to have my share of fun without the aid of a drink. Basically, I hate the idea of losing control, the very idea that was being advocated as the biggest joy of drinking in the first place. I prefer to be in my senses all the time. Call me a control freak or whatever, but that’s the way I am.

I wish I could have said all this to her but then I’d be violating my own rules. Which basically say – to each his or her own. As long as you aren’t throwing up on me or insisting on driving us straight down a cliff, I don’t mind you drinking. So as long as I’m not playing moral police and spoiling your fun, why not let me be? I’ll jump up and down and crack silly jokes and giggle like crazy in the spirit of the occasion and I’ll do it even though I’m not drunk and I’ll still have as much fun as you and not spoil your fun, promise! Just let me do it in my own way, will you?

Sigh! We are traveling to Vegas with these friends and another couple (more college friends) for Thanksgiving next weekend. So I thought I’d get this rant out of my system before then. They are all great people and very good friends, but I know many more such remarks are going to come our way in Vegas. I think I’ll manage to laugh them off now that I’ve ranted here in advance!

Living within our means

The scary economic times we are living through make me think about our finances more than usual these days. Each time I panic, I run through a mental checklist – jobs, expenditure, savings – are we doing something wrong? Is there some way we can be more prudent? I think not. We were pretty conservative in our lifestyle much before all this happened anyway. But what about the people around me?

Most folks I know here live in five bedroom houses and own two or more cars including the mandatory gas-guzzling SUV. The homes are usually mortgaged, the cars are often leased. The husband and I live in a one bedroom loft apartment and drive a second-hand Honda sedan. Everything we own is fully paid for. One of our friends with four kids spent thousands of dollars at a swanky Disney resort last year. He was worrying over paying for his kids’ education when we spoke with him last. We have no kids yet but we preferred to stay in a decent hotel outside Disney at half the price when we visited Florida last year.

I often read articles on personal finance that advise Americans to consolidate credit card debt and urge them to pay off a little more than the minimum balance every month. A credit card is a mere convenience to us, a better option than carrying around paper money. We pay all our bills at the end of the month, without giving a moment’s thought to the deferred payment or minimum balance options. They might as well not exist, that’s how much they figure in our scheme of things.

It’s common practice here, I am told, to borrow money against one’s home equity, ‘unlocking’ the wealth ‘tied up’ in the home. The borrowed money is supposed to be used for important expenses like paying for college education but sometimes more frivolous indulgences pop up as well, I’ve heard.

Just before we came to America, the husband and I invested our savings in a modest two-bedroom home in India. The bank was surprised with the loan amount we applied for. ‘We’ll give you five times that’, they offered. ‘No, thank you, this is all we need and can afford right now’, we countered. Besides, why do two people need a bigger house anyway? We’ll get a bigger and better home when we need one and can afford to pay for it, we figured.

There are several more examples, but I’m sure you get the picture. So are the husband and I both saints? No! This is simply the way we were brought up to think. I don’t mean to be sanctimonious and go on about how wise I am. Fact is, I am no different from most people I know back home in India.

When I opened my first bank account in the US, the bank executive offered us a savings plan that would automatically transfer the cents left off from my transactions to the savings account. ‘This way, you’ll have some savings at the end of the month’, the guy very sincerely told us. ‘Thanks, but no thanks!’, we told him, struggling to control our smiles. One of the things the husband and I fought over the most when we landed here were my penny-pinching habits. I didn’t need to save cents while I watched and fretted over every dollar I parted with!

This is a complete shift in culture and perspective we are talking about here. Like two people who see the same glass as half full and half empty, one of us looks at a paid-for home and rushes to unlock and spend the wealth in it while the other sees an outstanding home loan as debt and strives to repay it. It’s difficult to say who’s right and who’s wrong when confronted with such a clash of cultures. After all the glass IS both half full and half empty. Economists, who obviously understand these things better than I do, tell us it’s American consumers who fuel the world’s economy. And most folks would think I am a worrier who doesn’t know how to enjoy life.

Perhaps they are right. It all depends on one’s perspective, I guess, but I feel happier choosing the more prudent option for myself. And I don’t think I’m missing out on life’s pleasures at all! Is living in a two-bedroom condo all that bad? Both the husband and I lived in one-bedroom homes all through our childhood. We were four of us in my family while his had over ten people living in the same 500 square feet of space at one point of time. Despite that, or perhaps because of it, all our memories from this period are of laughter and games and sharing and warmth and togetherness.

Perhaps neither of us can imagine going back to living that way again, but we definitely can imagine bringing up our kids (when we have them!) in our cozy two-bedroom home in Pune, we are deliriously happy in our tiny condo right now, and we sure had loads of fun during our trip to Cape Cod last summer! Sure, I go berserk each time I see a glossy travel ad or one of those gorgeous remodeled homes on HGTV. I’d love to indulge in a five-star spa or decorate my home like that someday, but I’ll do it when I can afford to pay for it. And not have to worry about the kids’ education fund a few months later!

What about you? Do you think we are forgotting the art of living simply and within our means? Do we need a jolt like this recession to remind us of the simple and fun things in life?

Disclaimer: I am not an economist or a financial expert. This post is a collection of my thoughts and impressions from the news articles I read and the people I speak with. I mean absolutely no disrespect to anybody.