The Art of Monkey Pedaling

A variant of the post below appeared in The Hindu’s Open Page

Every now and then, the productive bug gets the husband, and he sets about trying to improve our lot. Last Saturday morning, he was making a nuisance of himself trying to keep us ‘occupied’ in the home, and handing us tasks meant to enlighten and what-not. He was settling steadily into the listen-to-this-podcast routine, when I realized that this handing-out-tasks is a two way street, and told him to get the son started on riding a bicycle. There was a sigh of relief from all the occupants in the house, and I bowed like a maestro acknowledging a master stroke.

I see you pulling out the old monocle from the pocket and pegging it on your nose-tip to give us the penetrating stare. The one employed to make us feel like our spines just melted into goop. but it won’t work. It is true that we let the toddler beg us into teaching him to ride, shamelessly ignoring the bicycle with training wheels propped behind the dining table. Every time the poor fellow hinted that fellows younger than him were riding the cycle, we shooed him outside to play.

Anyway the point is that the nourish-n-cherish street played witness to several scenes that merit enactments on the Broadway stage. A couple of days later, the son was to be seen wobbling along with copious tears cascading down his cheeks, the husband mildly breaking into a sweat, and the rest of the street muttering soothingly. Children came and told heroic tales of their own learning how to cycle. One fellow said he broke not just his arm, but almost broke his mother’s arm too. Some went for the inspirational angle and said that once he learnt to cycle, the adventures never end: One can fly down from pavements and cycle without holding handle bars.

Every story was worth noting down to sit and devour on a rainy evening.  This learning-how-to-cycle is one thing you can always hope to get good stories out of. Ask anyone how they learnt to cycle and depending on where they hail from, the story is bound to entertain, amuse and sometimes curdle one’s coffee.

Watching the son cycle made me think of dear Mr Bopaiah with a pang. It was Bopaiah Uncle who taught us how to ride a cycle. He may have taught the whole street. He had bought a new one for his son who was a couple of years older than I was. The times were such that cycles were not toys everyone had. In fact, toys were not something everyone had. So, obviously, getting a brand new cycle was gripping stuff, the breaking headlines of the street, that toppled the mildly interesting news that the servant maid had run off with the local vagrant.

Mr Bopaiah graciously let us monkey pedal on it (it was too big for us). On that one cycle, he thought 4 kids how to cycle in one week. One glorious week in which we waited with shining eyes our turn to get on the cycle. Praying that the rains would not dish our efforts come cycling time. Armed with the simple trusting confidence that Bopaiah uncle was holding the cycle and would not let us fall.  The hopeful look on our faces as we glimpsed back every now and then to make sure he was jogging beside us holding the cycle.


Mr Bopaiah was the Physical Education teacher at school, and he probably enjoyed teaching us to ride as much as we enjoyed riding.  It is a knack learning to cycle using the monkey pedaling technique, but we all managed it with his help. I also fondly remembered the delicious, large helpings of tea cake that awaited our labors at the end of the cycling sessions. Mrs Bopaiah made the best cake I have ever eaten – to date it beats all the creamy and Mickey mouse shaped ones hands down (Her butter-making was an equally fascinating act) . Many a happy day have we spent at their house, and all the memories of the dear family came flooding back.

Mr Bopaiah passed away last month, but I could almost see him send an approving nod to the son as he wobbled along on his cycle. When the golden evening sun shone down on the street of excited children, and whoops of victory came from the now over-confident cyclist and his friends, I am sure he smiled down at us. It was the kind of thing he would have liked.

Nature’s Adventures

The son and I read a chapter book together. Hitherto, we watered gardens with Liam in The Curious Garden, or ate cookies out of a tin with Frog and Toad. This time we decided to spend several days with Edward and Avon in ‘The End of the Beginning‘. Avon, the snail wants an adventure and he seeks it with the help of his friend, the ant Edward. Over the next twenty odd chapters, the pair of them meet salamanders and have perilous snail crossings on narrow bridges. The beauty of the whole thing is that they had never really left their tree branch. At the end of their long and arduous journey, the pair of them find themselves facing the end of the branch and turn back. The Beginning of the End. Or does the end signal a new beginning?

The book had many philosophical sayings, and the next time the son and I observe a snail, we shall wonder what goes on in that animal’s brain.  Adventures do not need exotic settings or the need to traverse large oceans. It is all right there on the tree branch.


It also brought back some of the best adventures I had had as a child in the Nilgiri Hills growing up in those wonderful surroundings cradled by Mother Nature. Everyday from our Elementary school a few kilometers away, we took a different route walking home. One day we stuck to the narrow roads laid out by the municipality as an occasional vehicle passed us. Another day, we slid down the hills, picked some berries at the bottom of the hill and found another narrow footpath leading home. There were days when the walk took us twenty minutes, and days when it took us an hour. The whole place was tiny enough to not merit a marking on the map of the state, but it held adventures enough for a lifetime for us.

sultan's life

The toddler son and I enjoy taking a walk in our neighborhood and finding little by lanes within our neighborhood. For us, it is a revelation of sorts. One path leads you to the shaded path with oleander trees sagging with the weight of the summer flowers.


Another path in the neighborhood has an plum tree that shows you how squirrels thrive near that tree. We see clusters of plums flung to the ground with nothing but a bite taken off of them. Every time I see those little eaten plums, I think back to one glorious summer afternoon spent in a friend’s garden. We had a blue quilted comforter laid out on the lawn and were watching the breeze gently ruffle the grass and skim the trees  as the children played. The son was then a baby and sat up in that adorable fashion that made him look and sway like a bowling pin used to prop open a door. Pretty soon, the topic turned to squirrels and fruit trees. Our host then set about plucking plums from his tree before the squirrels got them. We sauntered over to inspect, suggest and generally hinder the fruit picking process when I heard a slurp. Turning around we saw we’d saved the plums from the squirrels, but the baby human squirrel in our midst was looking triumphant: red-lipped, red-cheeked and red-chinned having bitten into the plums himself. Talk about being caught red-handed .

Night Life

There are wonders galore in our own little branch, if only we set out to find them.

9/11 Fifteen Years Hence

On a recent vacation to the Middle East, I chose from my sister’s pile of books, an intriguing book titled, ‘Growing Up Bin Laden’. It is a book about Osama Bin Laden as told to the author, Jean Sasson, by Osama Bin Laden’s fourth son, Omar Bin Laden, and his first wife, Najwa Bin Laden. From accounts of his first wife and fourth son, Osama seems to have been a kind husband to Najwa, and a strict, tyrant of a father to his children.

I have always felt sympathetic towards children of tyrants. Given that tyrants aren’t particularly loved by their subjects, this opens the children to endless persecution not to mention the harrowing experience of living with the tyrant themselves. If one does not agree with any part of their philosophy, how can a young child carve out an ideology for themselves? When it isn’t easy to fall out with a parent as an adult, it must be phenomenal to do so as a teenager, especially in the Arab world where obedience and respect are weaved into the culture for good or for bad.

The Bin Ladens lived a sheltered, rich, privileged existence with little knowledge of Osama bin Laden’s activities in Saudi Arabia. When they moved to Sudan, it was evident his fortunes were waning. By the time they were in Sudan, Osama Bin Laden was banished from Saudi Arabia, and his anger at the West was already seething. It is interesting to see the genesis of Osama Bin Laden’s hatred towards the West. Ironically, it was Saudi’s reluctance to continue to parade him as a war hero (after his efforts against USSR in Afghanistan), and take US help with the Iraq-Kuwait issue that seemed to have finally caused the rift. It was during the period that the family lived in Sudan that Omar bin Laden as a growing teenager first got whiffs of his father’s nefarious activities. The hectic activity, feverish planning and the subsequent euphoria in his father’s camps after the US embassy bombings in 1998 were his first clues.

As for Najwa Bin Laden, I must say that she sounds like a phenomenal lady. Her calm and un-quavering mind seems to have been the one place of security for the children. Probably the reason that none of them as adults sought to follow their infamous father in his footsteps. Hers is a sheltered and domestic life that few can imagine. A mother to 11 children of Osama, she was also his first cousin and first wife. Osama went on to marry 5 times in his lifetime, one ended in divorce. As the eldest wife, it was Najwa’s lot to maintain harmony: between wives, between her children and between the children of the various wives. She seems to have done so with her characteristic grace and charm. Osama went on to have 23 children, and towards the end of the book the author tries to figure out the fate of each of them. It was thanks to the persistent Omar bin Laden who had broken away from his father at 19, that Najwa left him mere weeks before the 9/11 attacks with her last three. Neither of them had any idea as to what was planned, just that something bad was going to happen.

The book does not condone any act nor do I. The truth is extremism has no rationale. Why do certain buy into extremism? No one knows.

It is a common malady of the West to try to bring everyone to their view of thinking. Often times, it is done with little understanding of the cultural forces in these places and that results in enmity and animosity that is quite baffling to the West. It is why I find it fascinating to read about other cultures. Diversity in reading. The conviction that different people bring to their way of life, the belief that works for them.


I am now following up with two books that offer food for thought:

  • Al Qaeda, The Jihadist State and the Islamist State by Daniel Byman &
  • The Audacity of Hope by Barack Obama.

The Audacity of Hope was written by Barack Obama when he was a Senator in 2006. While some of the chapters are pedagogical, one chapter that is worth reading is the one titled ‘The World Beyond Our Borders’.

There are some questions that are worth pondering about through they are not the mainstay of the chapter. Why did US invade Iraq and not North Korea? Why intervene in Bosnia but not in Darfur? What about countries that are liberalizing economically but not politically like China?

Daniel Byman is an academic with a focus on Middle Eastern policies and his book analyzes the organization Al Qaeda to see how the organization profiles its recruits. But it is baffling to the point of no coherence. Students in western universities who feel alienated are just as good candidates as a rich businessman’s son in Europe. How this ideology appeals to people no one knows. How they drift towards extremism, no one knows.

The truth is that our actions are too complex. The ripples of our action interweave too intricately with other ripples to determine one cause and one action. Having the humility to know that we know not what the consequences are is worth cultivating.

The Dalai Lama’s world view in this article could possibly help us.

Quoted from the article: Book by Pico Iyer on The Dalai Lama and how he erupts so often into his famous giggles:
Seen from the vantage point of one who meditates several hours a day, traveling to the place where everything is connected, much of our fascination with surface or with division seems truly hilarious.

The O-Fish-Al Hats

School has reopened after a blissfully long and action packed summer holidays for the children. Some children went to summer camps, some others enjoyed the true gift of leisure lolling around, some others managed exotic vacations. All in all, they seemed to agree that it was about time they headed back into the rigors of school.

The week leading up to the school reopening was one fraught with excitement, nostalgia at the summer, and some anxiety as to who they would draw as their teachers this year. The neighborhood is abuzz with talks of teachers and their personalities. The blameless, innocent children wonder why there are so many rules not just in the classroom but the play area as well. After all, the play structures are there for the children to play in. Sometimes adults can be baffling.

The teachers, I have to admit, are remarkably upbeat and optimistic about having to handle this many children in the school.  The kindergartener in the house is talking non-stop about all the things happening in a big school. Finally, he gets to understand what his older and wiser sister was saying about Elementary school, and it makes him feel important.

The first week brought back glowing hats and art work that would put a craftsman to shame. I must say I was truly baffled to see a line of fish bobbing out on two feet in a squiggly line after the first day of school. The teacher, bless her enthusiasm, made them all spend time cutting and pasting their own hat, and decked them up in it before sending them out into the late summer sunshine.  This hat apparently made them o-fish-al kindergarteners, and silly as it might seem, the children seemed to be very proud of their work.


Here is wishing all parents, teachers, children, after-school program teachers, school drivers, and administrators a wonderful year ahead.

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