Just one day out of life

We have joined the ranks of parents tied and bound by the school holiday system. Having cancelled a vacation in France we assumed – naively, it turns out – that we could book a last minute flight away. No. Not unless we sell our car, or some non-essential organs, it seems. The holidays that were available for this coming week were in near-identical resorts, the children’s clubs and swimming pools attempting to make up for mediocre food and lack of individuality, all for prices which bring a tear to the eye. We face a week in the UK, and our cases contain sunglasses and Wellies, shorts and waterproofs. The school holidays of my childhood in Africa were a different kettle of zebra altogether.

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Most of our breaks from school were spent playing at home, playing with cousins visiting from the Capital. Older cousins-exciting cousins- with their knowledge of card games, Top of the Pops and the world in general. On Sundays the excitement was palpable: there was a flurry of activity as fresh curries and warm parathas were scooped into metal tiffins, buckets and spades hastily dug out and then we were off, clattering down the stone steps from the apartment. The brown Toyota was the can, we the sardines as we made our way towards the shimmering sea. Once at the beach we did what children do, stopping only when the aroma of a freshly cooked lunch emanating from the tiffins drove us back to the compound under the palm trees.

To Bapuji and Ba, with their impoverished childhoods, the concept of a holiday was alien. Bapuji’s enviable work ethic and the sheer size of the family prevented any change of scene – even day trips were a rarity – and an overnight sojourn was deemed impossible. It was only when the children were grown that they ventured to these famous white sand beaches just a short ride away from town. The beaches, which today are strewn with seaweed, hawkers of jewellery made from seashells and hordes of local folk were then empty and idyllic.

Then there was Safari. Waking at dawn for an early trip into the savannah. Heads bumping the ceiling of the Safari van as it bounces along a pothole-heavy red earth road. Nothing.. nothing.. nothing.. zebra! More zebra. Tired of zebra. A baby elephant holding onto its mother’s tail as they walk in single-file towards a distant drinking hole. The chase: the urgent voice on the radio, vans speeding up, racing towards a common point, creeping finally towards sleeping lions. Thousands and thousands of stars in the night sky. We did not go on Safari often, despite living in a country that stated tourism and Safari as its main industry. It was special, a rare holiday, saved for those times when we had foreign visitors.

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Here, today, the cold wind is blowing. I feel a trip to the aquarium coming on, but first I must hide the buckets and spades before the children see them.

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Play like a girl

I admit it, I was a toddler geek. A small nerd. I preferred books to toys, initially lining up pages of photographs from baby magazines, then moving on to print. Perhaps my ambivalence towards toys was due to having easy access to them: I spent afternoons playing in Bapuji’s toy shop, surrounded by planes and dolls, bears and balls, noisy nee-nahs and plastic tea sets. Despite the book-obsession I had a few favourite toys that made the transition from shop to home. As a baby I loved a soft, squeezable rubber cat, similar to Sophie, the French giraffe carried by almost every infant in North London. Toddler photographs picture me with a metal car and plastic rings. I remember wooden block puzzles and Meccano, rainy afternoons playing on our terrace. I remember metal wind-up zebras. Like my daughter, I had a menagerie of soft animals whom I endowed with characteristics and voices. 

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I wonder if you have noticed yet: in my toy world there was an absence of playthings marked as being ‘for girls’. Oh, there was a presumption that girls played with dolls and boys with cars but most toys were fair game for any child that could use their imagination and create play. To parents of both boys and girls Bapuji would point out the bright colours, the buttons that would cause lights to flash and sirens to wail. It was a far cry from the gendered toy marketing that my children face. Visits to the toy department in many stores (despite the recent campaigns against gender-specific toys) are disconcerting: aisles of pink, soft and fluffy, sparkles, bows and frills; aisles of blue and brown, hard and shiny. I see dolls with exaggerated feminine features lounging in shops and restaurants, hairdressers and ballet studios with the word ‘VAPID’ printed in invisible writing on their foreheads. So this is how marketers want girls to play. Princess culture is everywhere and Barbie is big again. It makes my heart sink. 

It’s not that I’m against princesses. It’s just that I would prefer the fantasy princesses to be more rounded: not the passive princess who sings to birds and waits to be rescued, nor the feisty one that wields a sword and saves the day but one that is just a little bit more complicated. Hurray and whoop whoop for Elsa and Anna, then. Frozen is the first princess film that my five year old girl has agreed to watch: until now she has been resolutely anti-princess. I can remember her, aged three, looking cross: ‘I am NOT a princess. I am a DRAGON!’ I am certain that she loves the film because it is a musical rather than for its portrayal of the complexity of humanity; in any case, she’s hooked, and that’s great, because the leading ladies reflect real people and real emotion better than the average Disney royal. As for pink, it is welcome in our house, just as long as all the other colours are there too. We actively chose to limit the pink-my daughter has a blue bicycle and a rainbow-coloured rucksack- because I would like her, and not a toy manufacturer, to decide which colour she prefers. She operates a rotation policy when it comes to favourite colour, and so far green and orange have spent longest at the top of the list.

When we emigrated to the UK I was given the task of choosing two or three toys to take with me. I picked a metal car (one with flaws: the driver’s arms are too short to reach the steering wheel and he appears to be embedded in his seat), my horse Dobbin and, because she was very soft with eyes that code when she was tilted, a doll called Josephine. Another doll was later brought over from Bapuji’s toy shop, but has lain untouched- surely I am not the only one who finds this child mother a little creepy (when the key is wound she turns her head to look at you):

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My daughter shares my doll aversion, preferring dinosaurs, Lego and all things pirate. It was not intentional but our enthusiasm for this type of toy, rather than the ones typically targeted at young girls, has resulted in our five year old developing similar preferences. In Africa there was little children’s television to influence toy selection but upon arrival here I acquired storm troopers and Skeletor, My Little Pony and Wuzzles, Smurfs and Transformers. Judging from my children’s Octonauts and Spiderman collection TV and film are also influencing their toy choices, and I am looking forward to them watching Star Wars. My children also play with tea sets and balls, fire engines and mini feather boas. I don’t want my daughter to play like a girl. I don’t want my son to play like a boy. I would like them to play like children, not limited by anything but their imagination. I would love my children to see Bapuji’s toy shop, with it’s riot of colour and textures piled into a tiny space, just to watch their eyes widen with excitement.

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Hi ho, Hi ho

It’s off to work we go. Three mornings a week I drop the children off at school and nursery breakfast clubs, my mind turning towards the work day ahead. I enjoy my job, and am lucky to have found something which keeps me interested, but despite this I harbour thoughts of giving up the career that I have worked so hard for. After a day of fairly incessant mental effort and the sprint to collect the children on time, the extra push required to feed, bath and bed the exhausted smalls leaves me ready for little more than an evening on the sofa. If I wasn’t at work I would be capable of so much more, I sometimes think. My children would be immaculately presented to school, and sun hats and wellies would never be forgotten; I would sashay around my sparklingly clean home, wearing an ironed apron while I made healthy, nutritious and delicious meals for the family; I would watch supportively as my son perfects his fingerprinting and my daughter practices guitar. I would devour books, listen to live music, hold intelligent conversations with interesting people. Something like that, anyway.

IMG_2987Attitudes to work vary so enormously: a fit and healthy eighteen year old once requested from me a medical certificate for an indefinite absence from work, whereas Bapuji…well, Bapuji is a different beast altogether. He rises before dawn each day of the week bar one, and follows a morning routine that has remained unchanged for most of his 98 years. In the newly emerging light of day he performs his breathing and stretching exercises on the terrace, readying himself for another day. By seven o’clock Bapuji is dressed in one of his light, short-sleeved suits; memories of my early childhood paint him in a pale blue one, a khaki one and one which is taupe, with neat lapels, buttoned up, no shirt. They are his uniform, part of his self-identity as much as the garb of any soldier. In fact, I can barely picture Bapuji wearing anything else, so infrequently has he given himself time away from work. Arriving at the toy shop, he opens the padlocked metal grille with the flaking paint which bars the entrance. He sets up his position by the door, an upright figure perching on a stool, waiting for the store-room boy to arrive. In the past his mind would be full of plans: launching new toys recently imported from Hong Kong, arrangements for a stall at the local fair and trade with shops across the land. The shop is quiet now, and he has little to plan. Still, Bapuji insists that he must work. The toy shop is his life’s work, more hours and effort poured into it than anything else. A symbiosis exists, Bapuji attending to the toy shop and the shop, in turn, breathing life into him.

IMG_2996I am certain, too, that the daily routine and the regular mental activity necessitated by being at work has kept Bapuji alert and mentally able. When he fractured his hip last year and the orthopaedic surgeons mooted the idea of keeping Bapuji in bed, in traction, for three months we feared that he would die- not from complications of his fracture but from boredom, if such a thing were possible. A unanimous decision was made, and Bapuji had surgery on his hip. Of course, he insisted on returning to work as soon as he possibly could afterwards. During the past few years Indira has taken on the burden of administration, so that Bapuji can be front of house, the proprietor and salesman. Yet Bapuji is starting to forget. It has crept slowly, this loss of memory, and not predictably; sometimes he will remember things in great detail, and at other times he appears vague or slightly confused. At times he is cantankerous- Victor Meldrew personified- and perfectly amiable at others. Bapuji’s deafness makes it harder to settle on the diagnosis: perhaps it is not that he has forgotten but that he does not hear in the first instance. Certainly, speaking with him on the telephone is challenging and could easily lead to misinterpretation. Could the symptoms be those of depression alone and not dementia? Possibly, but it is far more likely that he has a little of both. Bapuji is 98, after all, so it is not unreasonable that he should have dementia, but I have seen how the disease treats people; having reached this ripe old age, I cannot bear to think of Bapuji losing himself, the person that he is and was. Bapuji and the toy shop have work to do: they must delay the decline.

Hi ho, hi ho, got to make your troubles go, we keep on singing all day long, hi ho, hi ho.IMG_1464