Nothing For Something

We were listening to the audio books of the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy over the numerous trips we took during the holidays. There is a section where the Earthlings manage to meet the creative team that designed Earth. The designer walks out very proud of his latest fjords in a section resembling current-day Africa, and I remember being awed. How marvelous would it be to think up new concepts, new colors and new landscapes. What shades to give the acacia tree bark? How about the Palm tree bark? Rustic brown or brown acacia sparkle? How about hay? Should hay’s shade be different from the dried grass bundles?


I suppose it will be a salutary task for everyone to create something beautiful from scratch just to see the myriad choices and decisions one is faced with. There is beauty in creationism. Much more than in consumerism.

Henry David Thoreau would have been pleased indeed that his words about the world being a canvas to the imagination, was taken to heart.

The activity we had chalked out for New Year was painting the daughter’s room, and talk of shades of colors was ripe. I never knew that this many shades of light blue existed with such exotic sounding names.

If somebody had given me the list of colors from the paint section of the hardware store, I could have stumped my audience in Crocodile-Crocodile. Those of you who have not had the pleasure of playing Crocodile-Crocodile should do so at least once to experience the joy of looking up new colors. “Crocodile Crocodile, may we cross the golden river?” is a stellar game in which the crocodile has to catch a person who is attempting to run across the river (strip of land) if they don’t have the color on their persons.

Crocodile, crocodile, may we cross the golden river?

Yes you may. If you have Turquoise Blue.

What is Turquoise Blue? Is it the color of a turquoise? Is a turquoise a turtle or a tortoise or a porpoise or just a turquoise who is blue?


Anyway, once the paints were in, the smell of fresh paint along with the envisioned end product of a beautiful, clean wall was enough to get us going. There we were, looking ebullient and hanging off the walls at various angles and heights with rollers in our hand. Music played in the background and talk turned to various topics, including the dumb painter, Randy Pausch’s Last Lecture, Tom Brown’s School Days, the Asian Paints advertisement featuring a boy who looked remarkably like a cross between Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer and R.K.Narayan’s Swami which of course led to Mark Twain’s short story of Tom Sawyer and his friends painting a fence.

After a few hours, I noticed that the toddler son had taken a break from painting. I asked him what he was doing. ‘Nothing.’, he said. ‘Just sitting and seeing you paint,’ . There he was sitting criss-cross-apple-sauce on the floor with his cheeks cupped in his hands looking enamored with the soothing aura of activity around him and content to absorb.

It is an answer I love to get from children. In their world, it is okay to say they were sitting, and doing nothing. It is those of us who have bought into this idea of being busy who loathe the term.  Sometimes, nothing is good. Maybe we all need to carve out worthwhile moments of doing nothing, so we can do something worthwhile.

“I soon realized that what I really wanted was time to ruminate, time to observe, and often time to be alone.”

Miss Read, Early Days

It reminds me of this drawing that occurs often in Brain Pickings articles : Everybody should sit quietly near a stream and listen.

Everybody should sit by a little stream and listen
Everybody should sit by a little stream and listen

In fact, I think it would be phenomenally better for our current President to do nothing at all. That will be something, and something is better than nothing.

The Mute Painter

A version of this post, The Colour Blue, appeared in The Hindu dated 30th January.

I had written in an earlier post about how the daughters room looked like the Flying Zoos of Babylon. It was time for a radical change.

Multiple trips to the hardware store had yielded one decision: the room was to be painted in shades of blue. It is funny how an unassuming speech-impaired mute painter influenced our choices three decades on, on the opposite side of the world.

Years ago, when I was about the daughter’s current age, we were having our house painted. Regular readers know that I lived in a small mountain village nestled in the Nilgiri Hills. One of the advantages of a small place like that was that everybody knew everybody else. The local barber came home to cut hair, the tailor stopped by our place on his way home from work. The maid knew the milkman’s wife. The train driver waved to my mother and waited while she skated down the slopes to catch the train. When the postman’s daughter wanted to marry the station master’s son, the mediating talks for the cross religious marriage were willingly handled by all of the above people.

Therefore a matter such as painting the house was just handed over to a genial pair of fellows who everyone knew did a good job. One of whom was mute – not being able to speak hardly deterred him however, and he used guttural sounds, shakes of his head and hand gestures to communicate. And when we finally got the import of what he was trying to say, he gave us one of his beaming, innocent smiles that made you want to smile too.

My father, always had a soft spot for those less abled, partly because he was hard of hearing himself, and used a hearing aid. Consequently, all of us have developed somewhat loud voices in the house: When we ask for the cereal to be passed across the table, cereals are passed across tables in all houses in the neighborhood.

When the  painter and his assistant showed up to paint the house, they asked us the colors to use to paint the house.

Cream was boring, and it showed dirt. Maybe the living room could have cream, but all other rooms could use a different color, the father said in his stentorian tones. The  painter nodded indicating that it was sound logic and that he approved of it.

Yellow for one bedroom (nod from painter.)

Light brown (beige) for another room (nod from painter)

Light pink for girl’s room (vigorous head shaking and bah-bah sounds with his hands gesturing NO)

Clearly, he did not approve of pink for my room.

‘Why?’, said the father and I in unison.

Gesturing and loud interpretations followed. Anyone who did not want to listen to what the other man had to say could simply have wrung his hands and given up. The easiest route would have been for the father to say ‘Pink it is!’ since the choice had been mine in the first place, and for the painter to just shrug and paint it since that is the way we wanted it. But all of us wanted to hear the other’s viewpoint, and even though it was difficult and somewhat hilarious to a casual observer, it was well worth it.


The father was wearing his favorite Navy blue striped suit. The painter used that for starters. Bah – bah, he said pointing to the dress.

‘Navy blue? Too dark pa. We want the child’s room to be bright.’ , shouted the father.

More frustrated nods greeted us at this, and the painter went and brought in a tin of white paint which he carried with him at all times by the looks of it.

He took the paint and indicated painting white over my father’s navy blue suit. I can’t say that pleased my father very much, but he managed to leap back from the paintbrush and crack a joke.

He tried several other things to make us see reason. It took a while but the painter finally huffed out towards the door, and we quizzically followed him. It was not like the good-natured fellow to huff off like that. He opened the door, braving the pouring rain outside, and he pointed up at the grey, cloudy sky and the wall and then me.

‘Sky blue?’,  I asked.

He stopped, look at me and gave me one of his beaming smiles that blessed my intelligence when it should have been doing just the opposite.

Sky blue it was. Ever since, almost every house we moved to within the campus had at least one room in light blue.

I noticed that as we were looking out color choices for the daughter’s room, I was gravitating towards the light blue, and maybe I managed to convince the daughter too, for she too was leaning towards that. In today’s world, the painter would whip out an app and show us the room in light blue, and we would have nodded our assent, the whole thing from start to finish taking less than a minute.  But, I am glad we didn’t have an app. That smile he bestowed on us would not have been half as wide had we not tried that hard to understand each other, nor would the sight of a light blue wall have any meaning.

Sometimes, hard is good. Life is after all a string of memories held together by strands of time, and the strength of the emotions in our interpretations and recollections.


I do not know whether the painter remembers this, but I remembered him in the room that day as I regaled the tale to the family. We dabbed on the first stroke of sky blue paint to test the color, and smiled at each other, as wholeheartedly as if the silent speech-impaired painter had convinced us.

The Flying Zoos of Babylon

A few years ago – about the time when I could stroke the daughter’s hair without lifting my hands, or standing up on a stool, we let her paint things on her room walls. Fresh from reading The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch, we were the cool-parents who let her draw on the walls.

Within Our 4 Walls

Her friends trooped into her room with longing looks on their happy faces, and said their parents would never let them do that.  The daughter glowed when she heard that and she painted some more. ‘Sistine Chapel may have a dome, I have a wall’, being the general sentiment. Fat blue unicorns ran from multi-colored balloons that flew at the same height as the lampposts in saffron. Ice-cream cones sparkled under rainbows and Some other pictures that I cannot classify into shapes also dotted the walls. The effect was quite endearing once you got over the shock of it all.

Then, one of her doting aunts got her wall murals for the remaining walls. One wall was a beautiful wildlife themed one. It had wild grass, and in there were rabbits, squirrels, deer and a large tree on which birds sat. Looking down upon this forest floor teeming with flora and fauna was a monkey shaped clock faithfully ticking away. One wall boasted of a height chart with Winnie-The-Pooh themes. I cannot deny that the room looked beautiful. These DIY blogs and Instragram feeds are always showing off that kind of thing. I have seen pictures of rooms like that taken up from multiple angles, at different times of the day, used and reused in multiple posts, with an alarming number of people liking them. We forgot to take pictures. I salvaged a few from the scraps.


Then, the intervening years mulched the room somewhat.  Santa came in one Christmas morning with a large white board to be mounted on the wall containing the wildlife murals. The monkey clock faithfully counted the days as they passed. One fine day, the deer peeled off.

Interior design has never been her grandfather’s strong suit.  In a stroke of brilliance, he decided to save the remaining animal murals. The rabbit took a giant leap for rabbit kind and landed up above the white board cruising at the same altitude as the birds.  It became legend and I am sure he is much bandied about in rabbit-lore similar to that rabbit,El-ahrairah, in the charming Watership Down series written by Richard Adams.


Squirrels (live ones) peeked through windows and confirmed the tale to the animals. It was true – this rabbit (maybe he was El-ahraihrah) was flying at the same altitude as the birds even without wings. The raccoon felt sad at this and though he lost a toe during the process, made the leap too and sat atop the white board. So, the stumps of grass languished below the white board, while the rabbit, raccoon and birds flew above the white board. It truly looked like the Flying Zoos of Babylon.

Monkeys, whatever you may say, have a dignity they like to maintain when it comes to mingling with rabbits and raccoons. They like to taunt and tease and then scramble up to the top. But there was no top to go to now. The status quo had changed. Darwin had not prepared monkeys for this eventuality, and the monkey clock’s life ebbed out. Time stood still as the decor of the room deteriorated. Only magic could save the room now.


Enter Moonshine and Sundrop. A large unicorn mural, featuring 2 unicorns lovingly christened Moon-s. and Sun-d. were mounted to hide the now-hideous drawings.

For some time atleast, peace was restored. The room continued to host hordes of friends.

You know these time lapse videos that show the changes on Earth over the last million years? Something similar would do justice to the changes in the daughters room over the past few years. Poster boards came, photo frames went, wall hangings came, murals went, bunk beds came, bunk beds went,  desks and bookcases came, much larger ones took their place. All under the benign twinkling of the glow-in-the-dark stars on the roof fading with the ravages of time.

There was one thing that was evident. It was time for a change.

That is why you saw the whole family hanging off the walls at various heights on New Years Day. (Part 2)

Would You Rather?

On a recent trip, we were caught up in a snow storm. Fresh from the battering of the storms, as we drove through the pouring rain in the gathering darkness, I sat looking out the window when the husband turned and looked at me.  Have I told you about the husband giving me work to do? I must have. It is a common enough gripe in the car. If you peer into the car as we tootle along somewhere, you will see the daughter lolling around in the back seat with a pillow, several books, a quilt in the winter etc – (Queens in their palanquins could not have lolled in such comfort), the son looking out the window unnecessarily excited by those trucks carrying precariously perched cars, and self trying to soak in the passing scenery if the husband is driving.

The husband, far from contenting himself to driving, feels the need ‘occupy’ our time. We have tried telling him that we don’t need to be entertained, and that we are quite happy left to our own muses during the car-ride, but that does not seem to deter him.  You see, I do not enjoy checking the route to see whether the road ahead shows a red stretch on the Google maps app. If there is heavy traffic, it will be red being my sagacious view of the thing. What can one do about it? But the husband demurs. He wants me to check if there is red ahead, what alternate routes we could take if there is a red ahead, for how long does the red stretch – is it like a quick spot of kumkum worn to appease a priest or the devout kind that streaks the entire span of the forehead parting like in Tamil serials? Is there also a touch of the turmeric before and after the red? (Baboons in Tamil Serials)


The skies had turned into an inky blue and the dark grey clouds hung heavily over us as the rain pelted down at us. The traffic ahead slowed down a little bit and the brake lights glowed red against the dark skies. The husband looked at me, I avoided his gaze and said with aplomb. How about we all play the Would-You-Rather game? We had just learned of the game from our friends and this seemed as good a time as any to try.

Would-You-Rather check the traffic or play a game?

Would-You-Rather is a sterling game in which one asks questions such as :

Would-You-Rather be (Rich & Unknown) or (Poor & Famous)?

Would-You-Rather be Hunted or be a Hunter?

Would-You-Rather be a Teacup or the Tea?

When played with the right set of questions, it can be quite a stimulating game, since it really makes one think.  Some of the questions were creative and some humdrum, but it was interesting to see the range of questions.

The daughter’s were creative and sometimes invoked magic.

Would-You-Rather  be a famous scientist who invented the most powerful thing that can destroy life, or be an unknown scientist who increased food production?

Just when you beamed at her and felt like it was a good-question, she’d say:

Would-You-Rather  be on a hill with unicorns or in a city with pixies?

Since we had been crawling through snow and getting through mountain passes, the bulk of the little son’s questions had cars, snow, super-heroes (super-heroes are always there!)

Would-You-Rather  be a car or a snowflake?

Would-You-Rather  be Spiderman or Lightning McQueen?

Would-You-Rather be a car in the snow or a car in the rain?

Parents true to form can never really pass up any opportunity, and so ours had science, history, economics or magic:

Would-You-Rather  be a windmill or a solar panel?

Would-You-Rather  be Tinker Bell or Fawn (Engineer or Zoologist basically)

Would-You-Rather  be a Woman in Today’s Age or a Man in the Golden Age of the Gupta period?


Most questions segued (segwayed) into interesting discussions and we were rather enjoying ourselves. Maybe I looked too relaxed in the passenger seat, for the husband’s angel tapped him on the shoulder and reminded him of his stern duty to give me work. He glanced at me in that swift appraising fashion that I know spells trouble for me. ‘Look up some questions on the internet to see what they’ve got.’  he said, and I moaned.

“What is wrong with the set of questions we have now eh?’ I asked heatedly. ‘Here we are having a perfectly good time and you want me to see what the great folks on the internet with their bulbous brains have for the game.’

‘Just check – maybe there are some really good ones in there.’

So, I checked and this is what I got.


Would you rather snort into toilet-paper or tissues – my foot! That should teach us that the internet is only as good as our weakest link.

The Would-You-Rather is a jolly good game to play in the New Year as we are being pressured into taking New Year resolutions.

Would-You-Rather try to fix some aspect of your personality that is bothering you, or learn something new?

Would-You-Rather resolve to exercise more or improve your well-being

Would-You-Rather Dance or Run?

Would-You-Rather learn to entertain yourself or be entertained?

What Would You Rather Do or Not Do?

Scoff at Coffee Or Chess With a Super-Hero?

This winter has been a time of amazing road trips:

Dodo, Dragon, Dinosaur Dis-apparitions
In Boysenberry Jelly & Mistletoe Jam
The Wind, The Snow & The Rain – Part 1
Weaving The Sequins Of Time
The Curious Curvy Trees
The Salons of Bodie

With all the excitement of the trips and the experiences therein, there is also the time in the car. Audio books and songs compete for time with games in the car. Playing games with children is an experience unto itself. Peacekeeping forces are deployed every now and then, council meetings to determine rules and regulations, are required. Who said the family isn’t a mini-government unto itself? In spite of all this, hiccups arise in the most unexpected quarters.

I remember the time we were playing hangman. I was wondering what the words were and how I was getting them all wrong before I realized that for playing hangman properly one needs to know the spelling of the words, and foneticaly speaking, that is a very different game for kindergarteners.

‘Let me give you a hint’, the toddler son said one day as I was waiting for a cup of coffee en-route to somewhere. He was trying his best to mask his frustration, since my A, E, S and I, had all gone to nearly hang the man. He then coughed and sputtered and then beamed up at me expectantly. Could that be C-O-U-G-H?


‘Yes! Very good amma,’ he said and added O at the second place. I was frazzled. He had 4 dashes laid out. What could mean ‘Cough’, but be spelt with 4 letters?

C? I got another very-good, and after that nothing. The G finally got the man’s throat and he gasped and croaked. After another few trying minutes, in which the brain felt fairly rattled, the fellow wrote C-O-F-F.  Cough, see? He beamed rather freely at this, and the doting tween sister of his scoffed and ruffled his hair.

‘Scoff all you want, but cough up the dough for my coffee. ‘, I said to my unappreciative audience as I went to get my fortifying cup of coffee.

‘Would You Rather Coff Or Have Coffee? Get it?’,  said the daughter and I rolled my eyes.

I was reminded yet again of a charming book written by Miss Read. The book, Farewell to Fairacre,  written by Dora Saint,  is based in the imaginary village of Fairacre in the English countryside. The protagonist and narrator, Miss Read, taught at the village school, and said of her children.

‘More worldly children require computers and video games to occupy themselves, but the children of Fairacre are quite happily engaged with paper and pencils’


I am glad we are able to derive our pleasures in simple ways still.

Then of course, if ever anyone wants to see how Rajinikanth plays Chess, you can come by and watch the toddler play chess with his imaginary friend when bored. If one has watched the old Tamil movies, one knows how villains attack Cinema heroes. The villains would stand around the hero. Cornered. See? Then, they’d go on to scowl, growl, grimace and crack their knuckles on the sidelines, touching their bald heads, caressing their unshaven beards and glaring like tigers given melons for lunch.

The hero stands there sizing them up and then one fellow comes and aah! He gets beaten up in a giffy. You’d think that would knock some sense into the remaining goonda pakodas, but it doesn’t. They all roar and then send another huge guy into the rink. Thulped. Another grimace and still no learning here. All fourteen idiots would go one at a time and get beaten up.

All known laws of Physics are also massacred in the process. Thermodynamics, laws of motion are all left begging for reprieve along with the band the villains.

Apply the same principle to the Chess board and you have the game: Every pawn comes one at a time and gets beaten up by the toddler’s side of the chess set. His shining knight battles on destroying his opponent’s pawns and his brave army thinks nothing of thumping Queens and locking bishops in with his own pawns.

Would You Rather be a Villain in a Tamil movie set or a pawn in Rajinikanth’s Chess? Get it?

Which brings us to the stimulating Would-You-Rather game (Part 2)

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