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Birding with the kids (#LookUpAtTheSky Day)

This morning I woke well before dawn. The streets were quiet, an occasional trio of motorcyclists zooming past in tandem, having a 5 am chat. (Tourists, I said to myself.) The house felt asleep as I walked through the dark corridors, solar lamp in hand. Clean teeth, Coffee, hurried breakfast of buttered poee and cheese. Then, under duress of the ticking clock, I woke M, dragging him out in the semi-darkness once he was ready, to the other side of the road outside, where our ride awaited.

Today, as part of our #summerholiday plan, we were going on an early morning bird walk. Totally kid-friendly.

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Chasing the sun, we arrived at the Chorao ferry. As we waited for the others to arrive, the sun bounced out of the water. One moment it was dark, then the sky turned pink with a deep blush, and then, in a matter of minutes, it was business as usual.

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On the ferry, excitement bounced off the deep blue metal of the boat like the choppy waves below. Adults and kids looked around for birds. And spotted flying fish skimming the water like a smooth stone.

At the Salim Ali Bird Sanctuary, we hired the Forest Department boat to take us around (Rs. 900 for 12 passengers) and it was wonderful. The boat went in and out of inlets around the island, gently slowing down when we spotted a bird or three. An hour or so later, we were back at the Sanctuary, ready to get off the water and do some walking.

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The Salim Ali Bird Sanctuary is a mangrove-bordered haven for local and migratory birds. The narrow path is not smooth and is littered with the occasional dog poop and what looked like cow droppings (but might more likely be mounds of earth diligently excavated by mud crabs).

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Construction work ongoing on the path makes a bit of a mess, but like most things in India, you learn to ignore it and carry on.

The kids ran on the path, ignoring stories of wildlife. They were captivated by the possibilities of crocodiles and make-believe dinosaurs. If you want to do some serious birding, leave the kids at home.

Despite all the excess energy around, we spotted many different kinds of birds including the kingfisher, egrets, koyal, pond heron, white breasted water hen and a couple of Lesser Adjutants.

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The Salim Ali trek is a wonderful activity for families. You can explore the sanctuary, take the boat ride around the island and be back home in a few hours. And if the early morning start prevents you from feeding your tummy, fill it up at the local tea-stall at the ferry point. Fresh pav-bhaji, batata wadas and wonderfully greasy samosas make the perfect ending to an unusual morning.

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September 10: World Suicide Prevention Day

Please click here to go to the main World Suicide Prevention Day Web page

Today is celebrated as World Suicide Prevention Day.  Nearly one million people worldwide die by suicide each year. This corresponds to one death by suicide every 40 seconds. Isn’t that a staggering number?

As a former volunteer with Samaritans Helpline in Mumbai, I have a deep interest in mental health issues and the problem of loneliness. It is vexing, not having anyone to talk to, whether you are well or not. Helplines serve such an important need – just being there for someone in their hour of despair.

Goa has an incredibly high rate of suicides. The daily newspapers have an average of 1-2 reports every day, and that is not an understatement. For a small state like this, this is a crisis that needs to be resolved. Which is why I was so glad to hear of a new helpline that was launched recently. The COOJ (Cause of Our Joy) helpline  0832-2252525 works Mon-Fri 3pm to 7pm. Volunteers are trained to handle calls and are also fluent in the local language to reach a larger audience.

This news of a new helpline in Goa comes shortly after the announcement that the new Mental Health Bill 2013 was introduced in Parliament last month. One significant point in the Bill is that it seeks to decriminalise acts of suicide by linking them to the state of mental health of the person attempting the act. This should come as a huge relief not only to mental health practitioners but to millions of anonymous Indians who have, at some point, attempted to take their own lives, but survived. If they were taken to hospital, the police get involved and a criminal case is registered against them (adding insult to injury). In many cases, the issue is hushed up, the scandal and stigma too much to bear. And life, the pretence of it, continues.

Once this Bill becomes law, might it be too much to hope that suicide survivors will be treated with compassion? Or that more helplines and counselling centres spring up in our cities and villages? One can only hope. And keep that candle burning.

If you live in a city where there’s a helpline, please consider volunteering. It only takes an hour or two a week of your time and in return, you impact so many lives teetering on the edge. A partial list of suicide prevention helplines in India is here.

Even more important, help publicise helpline numbers. So when someone needs a friendly voice, they don’t have to think twice.

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In my home: Two things

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There are two things always present in our 200-year old home: Books and Dust. We can’t do much about the dust (a tiled roof, thin window panes, busy road outside and hardwood floors make it a mammoth task to clean), except to,  well, dust occasionally. The books, though, are another story altogether. This home currently hosts four generations-worth of books. We have hundreds of books tucked away in cupboards, trunks and stacked on top of cabinets. Seven cupboards filled with antique and vintage books in Portuguese, German, French and English line the kitchen corridor. Three cupboards in the entrance host fiction, books on Goa and music. Other cupboards hold medical textbooks going back to the late 1800s until the 1990s. And all of this is just what my in-laws have. My own modest collection is still lying at my mother’s house (sorry, mum) and I dare not bring it here yet because we’ve run out of shelf space.

Despite the daunting dust situation, I’ve taken to displaying a few books here and there. The trio above is in our formal living room. Three different styles of art, completely at home. In the dining room, a quartet of hard-bound books on ballet sit on an antique laundry basket, now re-caned and re-purposed as a cabinet of sorts. The books are accompanied by a brass leaf and a wooden elephant rattle.

Read the rest of this post on my other blog

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The joys of fundraising

One of the things I really enjoy doing is fundraising for charities. Don’t expect me to go door-to-door chugging people for their change. But give me a target and a grant to apply and I can hug my Excel sheet all day. I’ve been fundraising for many years now, and with much success (especially during my years in England).

I now raise funds for our own little music charity. I successfully put in an application for FCRA which went through without any bribes commissions being paid to any agents (which is apparently unusual). And I’m trying to figure out how to be an ethical ‘professional’ fundraiser in India (both apparently don’t go together here).

I was reminded of all this while catching up with Sasha Dichter’s blog today. In one post, Sasha says “there is something different about being a (good) fundraiser.  It means that at any day, at any moment, on some level you’re thinking about that revenue line, thinking about where you are in the year, how much time you have left, and what it’s going to take to get there.”

That’s how things are with me. I’m constantly looking for a possible funder, a call for grant applications, that elusive programme that will support us for a year (or three). Just this morning, I’ve made appeals on Facebook asking friends to donate a little to help us bring in teachers for our kids.

During this July-August, we have had ten lovely musicians from the University of Seville, Spain working with our kids and with the larger public in Goa. There have been concerts, lectures, masterclasses and individual teaching. It has been a tiring time, busy with a fair bout of illnesses all around. And around all that music making comes the administrative jobs, the filing of income-tax returns, the running of a home.

The musicians have a wider experience of teaching that we have been grateful to learn from. To put their inputs into practice, though, requires funds. We’re looking for a place to hire that will work as a music school, bringing together our core target of disadvantaged children, and also opening our doors to other children. We need to hire teachers from foreign countries, either as volunteers or paid teachers.

Finding funding for the arts is never easy. And especially so in countries like India where survival takes precedence over making music. Yet, the money is there. I know because every now and then we are surprised by a hefty donation or by someone pledging support for a year, or a bunch of musicians donating their concert fees to us. When people see and understand what you are trying to do, they put in their mite.

Fundraisers need to ask for this slice of pie without shame or embarrassment.  I have never felt awkward asking for money for charity, even when it is my own. And an ask should never be, by the way. 

If you would like to donate to help us bring music teachers to our kids, please hop over here and give what you can. We’ve just launched an ‘Endow a Chair’ programme, so if you are looking for a long-term commitment or want to leave a legacy, please consider us.

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Downtime

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Like last year, I took time off this May too, to recuperate, rejuvenate and restore some semblance of sanity in my life. We were lucky this year to finally make a return trip to the UK, five years after we relocated from that island. It was a trip not bereft of nostalgia, but the presence of our four-year old (on his first foreign trip)  kept us from going overboard with the waterworks.

Because we were travelling with a child, we did a lot of child-friendly things. Like visiting dinosaurs, going on lots (and lots) of train rides, picnicking in Hyde Park on a beautiful sunny Bank Holiday and of course, making a special trip to see the real, the fabulous, the very blue, Thomas the Tank Engine. I had very little occasion to shop, though, sadly. It is not easy to spend time in stores with a cold and cranky kid begging to be carried home.

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So I came back home with souvenirs of creamy magnolia petals, cherry blossoms in impossible pinks, Pooh books from charity shops and vivid memories of a red fox who came visiting every evening.

A fortnight later, we are back, thrilled at having accomplished this planned-for-ages trip.

It’s still only the middle of May and I’m not yet back to writing full-time. How can I, with this lovely child at my feet, singing tunes from the ZingZillas, making up adventures with his trains and asking me constantly, “What did he say?”, where ‘he’ is the train or bus in question and the dialogues are mine to fill.

So I’ve been catching up on my reading, mostly online and with a few magazines for “research”. Writing is never far away, though. I’ve got an assignment to hand in before the end of the month, but most of the work has already been done on that, so working on it will not break my languorous mood. I’ve been working on ideas, making lists for next-month’s pitches, tidying up spreadsheets (have I told you how much I love Excel?) and most gratifyingly, painting. Both M and I are deep in primer and acrylics and are glad to have quiet, paint-splattered quality time together. 

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I’m rather loving this downtime. I’m in bed by 10 these days, catching up on sleep, filling the reservoir for the coming weeks, when life will go back to the work-until-1-am routine. I wish we could tank up on sleep and call upon our reserves when we are worn out.

For now, we watch the sky and pray the rains don’t show up before our pre-monsoon preparations are in place. Hot and humid it may be, but solace can be had in darkened rooms, tall glasses with something chilled in it and a table full of only fruit for lunch.

When it is mango season, it seems like a waste of time to eat anything else.

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Blue Pianos and the heartache of being the last

Earlier tonight, while M was having his bath before bedtime, we were discussing Oscar and his cahoots (from Oscar’s Orchestra, the BBC series for children). Oscar is a blue piano who is trying to save the world from an evil dictator who has banned music. M is mildly obsessed with the series and mumbles the dialogues to himself all day long and hums the tunes ranging from 1812 to the William Tell Overture. I think he even dreams of Oscar.

The conversation tonight meandered to pianos and blue pianos, specifically.

Me: Have you seen a blue piano?

M : Of course.

Me : Where?

M : When I was born.

Me: Really? I don’t remember that. Who else was there? Was I there?

M : The whole world was there! You were there too.

Me: Oh. Maybe I forgot.

M: That’s because you were the last person to see me when I was born.

 

That stopped me in my tracks. Because it is true. And it is a hurt I carried with me for a long time. I was indeed the last person to see him. He was born and they took him away to clean him up without the courtesy of showing him to me. Everybody saw him – his father, his granny, the nurses and the helpers. Minutes, hours later, I was taken to my room where I waited wondering where this child was. Then they brought him to me grinning and asking, joking, if I wanted my son. I was so furious by then, already fuming with my doctor’s refusal to give me an epidural, the pain and humiliation of that perceived betrayal (we had discussed epidurals before and he had agreed, yet he didn’t call the anaesthetist). I kept that hurt in my heart for a long time and have never said anything to M (he’s 4, for God’s sake, why would I say anything to him?).

So why did he say this?

Today’s eerie moment reminded me of a poem that Samantha of Bentlily wrote recently and although M was talking of this life, it was one of those moments that makes you stop and forget to breathe. M does this so often; he comes up names and places that he has certainly never heard of before or talks about things “before I was born” with such certainty that I don’t know whether to laugh or question my sanity. 

Just when you think you have forgotten and laid the ghosts to rest, they come back with such a ferocity that the shards come unglued once again.

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Taking children to concerts

With M turning four earlier this year, Mr. R thought it was the right time to introduce him to the magic of live concerts. Of course, we are not idiots, and are familiar with children making complete nuisances of themselves disturbing other patrons in auditoriums and causing great embarrassment to their parents.

M, of course, would not be like that. He would be quiet, charming, attentive. At the most, he would swing his little legs in time to the music.

M’s first public concert was to Old Goa to see the famed Jesus College Cambridge Choir perform a Sacred Music Concert for Holy Week. Intense.  Because we were involved with the organising, we roped in M to help distribute the programmes. There, he was, at the entrance to the Basilica of Bom Jesus, dressed in his long pants and shirt, looking incredibly handsome and serious as he gave a programme to everyone who came in. My heart burst with pride, of course, but I had to keep an eye on him because he tends to lose his temper when people get too friendly, especially the women (don’t ask).

He soon tired of being polite and asked to go sit with his granny, while I continued to stay at the back distributing programmes. He stayed there quietly through the first half, through all the incomprehensible Latin and the high notes. He clapped enthusiastically when everyone else did and seemed to be having a good time. He began to get a little fidgety after about 45 minutes and I had to take him to the back where we sat quietly, away from the audience. We made it through the long concert without a tantrum, or noise. Score one for classical music.

The next week, we took M to a fundraising concert in aid of our charity Child’s Play. The Bager Trio, a flute-bassoon-piano trio from London were performing that evening. M was already familiar with the flute and bassoon from his favourite ‘Peter and the Wolf’ and we have a keyboard at home which he enjoys very much. At the door, he checked tickets, gave programmes and asked to go in when everyone else did. He sat through the first two works and then began sliding up and down his seat. And he began humming to himself. I had to take him out.

This humming thing has begun ever since Mr. L brought him ‘Oscar’s Orchestra’ a BBC cartoon series that introduces children to classical music through the story of a rebel piano who fights against an evil dictator who has banned all music. The classics form the background music and while M enjoys the action and the story, he has also imbibed the tunes of 1812, Holst’s Planets, Handel’s Messiah and a host of other significant music.

And he hums this ALL the time now.

We tried the concert thing again yesterday, where the Hungarian-French pianist Maraoun Benabdallah was performing at the Maquinez Palace in Panjim. M is showing an inclination to the piano so we thought it would be nice for him to see a world-class pianist in action. He was prepped, coached, sworn to silence. The first work went off without a hitch. M craned his neck into the aisle trying to get a good view of the piano (one of the problems of being so small is that you can’t see too well, especially if you’re sitting way back, hoping to make a quiet getaway should you need to). After the second work began, he began to get a little fidgety. He drank some water, swung his legs (quietly) and then, began to hum. I shushed him a couple of times and said we’d leave, but he said he wanted to stay.

And then hummed a little quieter. It was almost as if he couldn’t stop himself or didn’t realise he was doing it.

He’s only four, I told myself. Go easy.

So I said we’d get something to eat and got him to leave the auditorium. A rickshaw ride later, we were back home, enjoying the safety of familiar surroundings. And what did M do? He asked to see a little bit of Oscar.

And life goes on.

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We’re taking a little break from concerts until the public humming stops (he does it even at meal times and when he’s alone and when there’s company). The music isn’t going anywhere – his heart overflows with it already.

I wish there were concerts specifically for young children. How do you introduce them to the beauty of live music otherwise?

Have you taken a young child to a classical concert? 

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