Friday, December 08, 2017

Notes to Sparty #13

Dear Sparty, 

Today you are ONE year old! Time, my sweet little boy, has flown by. (you will probably hear this phrase a lot throughout your life and it’s true. Life can seem long but it is also maddeningly fleeting). It seems like just yesterday we were holding you in the west wing of the OLVG West hospital in the west of Amsterdam and yet, here we are, a whole 365 days since that amazing December morning. 

So much has happened in the meantime. For starters, you’ve grown taller and bigger and you’re almost talking now. A few months ago, you said your first word, and these days you have entire conversations with us using that one word. Soon, the rest of the words will come and then you can finally tell us exactly what it was you wanted on those occasions when you sat bolt upright in bed at 1 am and then refused to go back to sleep. I know it must be frustrating to have these two people just stare at you with no idea what you’re saying, but don’t worry- it’s not going to be a problem for much longer. 

What else have you been up to? Well, in the past few weeks you’ve also grown teeth which we now brush every morning and night. Please make sure you’re always doing this; teeth are really important and eating is not much fun if they’re either hurting or missing altogether (and your dad knows a little about both).  

And! you’re now crawling all over the floor at top-speed and you’ve also learned to stand on your own. You’re trying to walk too, but that’s going to take a little more practice. Then there’s the little dances you do when you play your keyboard, the clapping hands when your favourite song comes on, and the laughs and giggles that you leave in your wake as you move from one terribly important task to the next. 

We’ve also been in planes, boats, trains and cars together. We’ve climbed to the top of cathedrals and dipped your toes in the sea. All in all, it’s been an amazing year. Sure, there’s been a few little bumps in the road (and a couple on your head) but all that’s just part of growing up. There’s been some tears too, but if my rough maths is correct, the smiles have outnumbered the tears by 100-1. In this coming year, we’re going to try and improve that ratio even more. 

You’re fast asleep right now, but when you wake up we’re going to sing you ‘Happy birthday!’ and after your breakfast you’ll be off to nursery to see your friends. Your mum has made little gift bags for them, there’ll be a special crown for you to wear, and there’ll probably be more singing there too. Then once you’re home we’re going to have a little party with a few slightly more grown-up friends, all of whom can’t wait to see you. It’s going to be a lot of fun. 

You won’t remember any of it (don’t worry- we’ll have plenty of photos for you to go through when you’re older) but if there’s one thing you must remember, it is this: You have enriched our lives in more ways than you will ever know. I can’t wait for what lies ahead. 

With lots of love on this special day and always. 

Your dad.
Around 20 years ago (which is my new favourite way to introduce an event from the past without betraying my age), I was spending time with my grandparents while on holiday. I was officially staying with my uncle and aunt, but during the day or in the evenings I would make the short trip over to my grandparent's house and hang out with them before my uncle or someone else came along to pick me up. 

This worked out pretty well until one evening when it was time to leave and I started to say goodbye. I hugged my grandmother before turning around to my grandfather to let him know I was heading off. I think I said ‘see you tomorrow?’ (framed as a question) or something to that effect, at which point he looked up, considered it for a second or two, before shaking his head and making a sound that basically said ‘No’. 

It’s worth mentioning here that my grandfather, who I’ve been told was a fairly quiet man his whole life, had by this time suffered a double-stroke that had left him unable to speak altogether. And so for as long as I knew him (which was nowhere near long enough) his modes of communication were sounds, smiles and twinkles in his eyes. We knew when he was saying yes, but this was a firm No; i.e- I don’t want you to leave. 

I asked him again, thinking maybe he hadn’t heard me properly the first time, and added some extra details like the fact that it was nearly dinner time and I should really get going. But again, it was the same shake of the head plus the sound. At this point, my grandmother stepped in to inform (rather than ask) him that I was leaving. Different phrasing, but still the same reaction. After a few more minutes of trying to make a case for my departure, it was clear my grandfather had come to something of a binding decision in his mind: I was to stay the night at their house. 

Is that what it is?’ asked my grandmother, seemingly incredulous that this otherwise somewhat aloof man was suddenly fixated on his grandson’s sleeping arrangements. This time the answer was a vigorous shake of the head and the sound for ‘Yes’. It was done. The man had spoken, in a manner of speaking. 

All these years later, I can still remember sitting back down in my chair and looking over at him as a little smile flashed across his kind face. And I remember feeling a special sort of feeling that I’ve only felt a handful of times since. 

One of those times was a few nights ago when I walked into the room where my son lay sleeping next to his mum. I was there to pick up something and head back out, but before that I leaned in to give the little man a mini-hug. As I did that, his little hand came out from under his own head and made its way around my neck. I could tell he was fast asleep, and yet, the more I pulled away, the tighter his grip got. Finally, as I tried in the dark to pry his hand off, he made a sound that reminded of that same sound all those years ago. Softer, and not quite the same timbre, but similar nonetheless. 

My grandfather had lost his words before I was old enough to talk to him, and my little boy hasn’t found his words just yet. But to be loved and wanted even without words- is there a better feeling than that?

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Right Now

Right now, I have a choice. 
I can choose to tell my nihilistic friend where to stick it. 
I can tell cynicism to get his lazy ass off my couch. And then look up my old friend hope and ask if she wants to grab a drink. 
I can stop asking whether an article is genuine, and start being the genuine article. 
Accountable. Consistent. Morally obliged. 
Right now, I can keep dissecting race, or embrace the reality that even though we might look different, we’re all in the same race against time to avoid oblivion. 
It is no longer a problem for future generations. It is a problem for my generation. 
I can keep hating against the press, or keep pressing against the hate, the prejudice and the not-so-normal normal. 
I can keep reading about the latest X, Y, Z-gate or I can instigate my own little scandal. I could call it ‘Today-I started-giving-a-shit-gate’ 
Right now, I can keep talking about ‘them’ and ‘they’ or I can shift the narrative to the first person 
that needs to change- Me. 
I can acknowledge my indifference. 
I can watch from the sidelines or get some skin in the game. 
Right now, I can choose to make my voice heard. Or zone out and go along with the herd. 
I can keep speculating, pontificating and abdicating responsibility, or I can do something. 
Even a small thing. 
Because Small Things Matter. 
And the Ripple Effect is a thing. 
Right now, I can be steered by fear into a corner, or steer clear of the naysayers, the merchants of misery and the prophets of doom. 
I can sit back and watch the livestream of bile and vitriol gush past me or I can try and dam it, goddammit. 
Preferably before it flows into that ocean of negativity, the one where the levels rise higher with Every. Passing. Day. 
Right now, I can keep counting down to some imaginary moment in some utopian future. 
Or I can make this present, actual moment count. 
Because you see, at this precise moment all I have is this precise moment. 
So I can either choose to make a choice, or keep pretending I don’t have one. 
My life depends on it.
A few weeks ago, I remember being a little down. Things were fine on the personal front, but a few things seemed to be happening in the world that brought over a particularly strong tidal wave of negativity. 

Gauri Lankesh, a well-known journalist and activist had been murdered outside her Bangalore home in gruesome fashion. ‘President’ Trump was threatening to pull out of the Paris Agreement on climate change. North Korea was stepping up the war games. Everywhere I looked, the forces of darkness seemed to be gaining ground. 

At around the same time, I went with some work colleagues to volunteer for a day at the Movement Hotel, a project started by a group of not-for-profit organisations here in Amsterdam. Their plan was to create a pop-up hotel run by refugees and professionals together, on the site of a former prison. The goal was to empower asylum seekers through job training and give them an opportunity of a new beginning in the Netherlands. 

While painting walls (badly) and hearing more stories of the people involved, I had a niggling suspicion that the universe was sending me a message. Here I was, being part of a project that was helping to transform a place of sadness and negativity into one that was open, bright and hopeful- complete with pink walls. 

Fear can hold you prisoner; hope can set you free’, was the tagline of that great film, The Shawshank Redemption. Over the course of those few hours spent with some truly inspiring people, I realised this was something that I needed to tell myself more often. Every day, I could wake up and decide to stay trapped inside the Shawshank of my own mind, or I could decide to be more hopeful. And not just hopeful in a passive, lazy way, but hopeful in a get-up-and-punch-holes-into-the-darkness kind of way. 

And while it can often seem futile, in the end that beautiful verse from the Good Book puts it best. 'The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness can never extinguish it'. 
I’ll take that for now.
I live in constant fear of my worst fears coming to pass. It is not just a mild paranoia or chronic anxiety; it is more like a profound existential dread. The source of this lies not so much in the natural world (though the threats there are by no means insignificant) but rather in the man-made realm. I think about trains, cars and planes, for example, and of elevators, cable-cars and subway systems. I think of bridges and flyovers and underpasses. I even think of boilers and heaters and nuclear reactors, of cranes and pulleys and mechanical levers, and when I think of all these, I mostly think of one thing: catastrophic failure. 

It is a strange obsession, one that I justify to myself as a means to constantly have my guard up- to be prepared at all times like a scout might. And yet, it is at the same time a crippling affliction; a state of mind so negative it is bordering on the macabre. Why does my mind fixate on such things? I’m not really sure. Of course, failure is an inevitability; all systems eventually fail. It is a random event that one plans to perhaps delay, but can never avoid altogether. Everything we make is, in a sense, both fragile and transient just like us, no matter whether it’s brick and mortar, or iron and steel. In the end, cracks appear in everything. 

To live in the midst of these without being at the very least slightly pre-occupied with their decay has always seemed to me a little naive; perhaps even reckless. Of course, to be obsessed to such a degree seems just as foolish, particularly since I can do nothing myself to prevent such eventuality. Still, I continue to spend my time (my fleeting, finite, precious time) seemingly at the edge of imminent destruction. 

My wife reminds me that there’s enough negativity in the world already, and that I should be spending my time spreading goodness, beauty and hope. And instead here I am, casually peddling unfettered panic, blithely tossing the seeds of future phobias into minds that might already be a little frayed just from the compounded exertions of our modern day-to-day existence. For this, I apologise. 

But I hope I have adequately explained my own state of mind. I am actively working on changing it, but I fear there is a core of permanence running through. Perhaps that too might crack eventually; but until then, every time someone tells me about efficiency and built-in redundancy, I remind them about human selfishness and indifference. 

How, I ask them, can we expect our creations to be somehow superior to their creators? No, they are at best merely replicas; at worst, cheap imitations with all our flaws and none of the self-awareness. I remind them also about the story of the King who asked his courtiers to each pour a glass of milk into a large jar over the course of the night and the next morning the jar was full of water because everyone thought everyone else would pour milk and no-one did. This is us. 

And so I think about the things we make; I think about how maybe one more person getting into that lift will cause the cables holding it up to snap, or how one more emergency brake will cause the train to slip off its rails. I imagine myself, in fact, standing and staring at some breathtakingly beautiful thing, maybe like the Eiffel Tower, and thinking just how many more people leaning, climbing, jumping can it take before it keels over. And from there it doesn’t take much for me to imagine myself watching this remarkable human creation come crashing into me and for a few seconds before I am flattened under its weight, I would feel, for maybe the first time in my adult life, complete and utter calm. 
Now that, that would be ironic.

Friday, July 14, 2017

It’s a lazy Saturday afternoon; the sort of afternoon that’s hard to come by these days. It’s also warm, which makes it rarer still. The weather, blackout curtains, and a fan whirring at just the right speed, all make for a heady cocktail. I lie in bed and pretend that the flashing ‘pending’ signs in my head are little mosquitoes and I run around zapping them with one of those electric zappers. They don’t really die, of course, but it’s still a fun exercise. Sort of… 

At some point, the weather outside changes. It’s still warm, but there’s just a bit more stickiness in the air despite the breeze. Someone from a nearby house calls out to their neighbour in Malayalam (despite mobile phones, there’s nothing quite like have a conversation through the window). A scooter of some description is coming down our street, I track its progress by the sound of the engine. The rider honks the horn to announce his identity in advance: it’s the unmistakable sound of the mobile fisherman. If it’s a good catch, that means most likely fried fish for dinner. I can picture it now, golden brown with a dash of lemon and some fresh red onion rings. I marvel at my own capacity to get excited by the smallest things. But then again, fried fish is no small matter. 

On a tree somewhere, a crow appears to caw at nothing in particular. The curtains are still drawn, but the heat seeps in through every crevice, and tiny droplets of sweat seem to form on my arms in the time it takes for the table fan to swing towards the window and back at me. Somewhere else, a cow appears to moo at nothing in particular. Or maybe it is directed at the crow who decided to shift its perch from the tree to the cow. Crows are like that sometimes. 

In a couple of hours, it will be tea-time and I’ll be sitting on the porch, blowing into my tea while munching on jackfruit chips and banana fritters and all kinds of other magical, sumptuous things. The air would have cooled down a bit by then, and there’ll be the faintest scent of impending rain. My eyelids get a little heavier. Despite the buzzing pending mosquitoes (this imaginary swatter must be defective), I decide to give in and drift off into sun-kissed slumber…. 

When I wake up, my son is trying to clamber over my stomach. I blow into his face and he smiles. His smile has the dazzling quality of a thousand suns. His big eyes seem to look at the world with such hope and optimism, such fierce kindness, it’s almost heartbreaking. Which is not to say it induces sadness; more like a profound sense of gratitude. Such moments are always a reminder of how precious and fleeting life is: a realisation which seems to always be accompanied by a hint of melancholy. 

I lift him to on my stomach and for a few seconds he regards me with the same fascination with which I regard him. And then with another giggle he slides off again; after a brief interlude he is ready to resume his journey through the universe. I close my eyes and listen to his babbling. Outside, the sun sinks slowly into the canals. It’s late evening, the time when the whole of Amsterdam - beautiful, charming little Amsterdam- appears to pose for all the waiting cameras. 

Sometimes dreams seem to offer a glimpse into another reality. At other times, reality itself seems like a dream.

Wednesday, July 05, 2017

I came across this video about Forest Man this week and was reminded of a similar man I knew from when I was growing up in India. I don’t recall all the details, but he was essentially a security guard whose passion seemed to be gardening. And so everywhere he was placed on duty, he would use his time and whatever space was available to plant trees, grow flowers, prune bushes, etc. Every barren landscape he turned his attention to was almost magically transformed into a riot of colour, with plants of every shape and design. 

He was an old man even back then, with unkempt hair and a stubble, but whenever he was gardening he always seemed to be completely at peace with himself and the world. I didn’t know it back then, (and I haven’t quite fully experienced it since) but I guess that’s what finding your passion must look and feel like. 

What if everything we did, we did like that man, and Forest Man, and Menstrual Man, and Mountain Man? What would it do for ourselves and the small corner of the world we occupy? I am always inspired by men and women who give themselves up so completely to something they instinctively recognise as greater than themselves; people who set out not to make a living, but to make a life. 

One day, I hope, I will feel what they feel. I must; for if not, it will all have come to naught.
So if we ended up in an alternative universe where I was able to actually write songs for my son, I think this is what they would look like: 

Exhibit A 

Tether your soul to me,
I will never let go completely 
One day your hands will be 
Strong enough to hold me 
I might not be there for all your battles 
But you'll win them eventually 
I'll pray that I'm giving you all that matters 
So one day you'll say to me - 

I love my life 
I am powerful 
I am beautiful 
I am free… 

I am not my mistakes 
And God knows I've made a few 
I started to question the angels 
And the answer they gave was you 
I cannot promise there won't be sadness 
I wish I could take it from you 
But you'll find the courage to face the madness 
And sing it because it's true… 

Exhibit B 

Don't try to make them love you 
Don't answer every call 
Baby, be a giant 
Let the world be small 
Some of them are deadly 
Some don't let it show 
If they try and hurt you 
Just let your daddy know… 

Now when you go giving your heart make sure they deserve it 
If they haven't earned it, 
keep searching- it's worth it 

For all your days and nights 
I'm gonna be there 
I'm gonna be there, yes I will 
Go gentle through your life 
If you want me I'll be there 
When you need me I'll be there for you 
Go gentle to the light 
I'm gonna be there 
I'm gonna be there, yes I will 
If all your days are nights 
When you want me I'll be there 
Say my name and I'll be there for you 

Robbie Williams. Damn genius.

Conversation with a Deliveroo rider on a bench in Amsterdam Oost

He: [looks up from phone] ‘sup man? 
me: nothing much 
He: all good with you? what you up to? 
me: [wonders whether he means in life in general, or just at this point in time] just, you know, enjoying the sun. you? 
He: pondering the fragility of life. 
me: awesome 
He: not really. I’m just about to submit my coursework 
me: cool. what’s it about? 
He: particle physics 
me: um. 
He: It’s actually about the music of Frank Zappa 
me: I don’t know how to talk to you 
He: [laughs. loudly.] it’s all good man 
me: Life’s pretty fragile though. 
He: It is, man. It is. 
me: Well, I gotta head off.
He: Stay cool, brother. Absurdity is the only reality. 
me: [makes mental note to google that line] (It was Frank Zappa) 

The End
I thought I’d write about bliss, but I wasn’t quite happy enough.
I thought I’d write about loss, but hadn’t quite lost enough.
I thought I’d write about love, but hadn’t quite loved enough. 
I thought I’d write about life, but hadn’t quite lived enough.
I thought I’d write about pain, but it didn’t quite hurt enough. 
I thought I’d write about triumph, but hadn’t quite won enough. 
I thought I’d write about adversity, but hadn’t quite suffered enough.
I thought I’d write about faith, but I wasn’t quite trusting enough.
I thought I’d write about hope, but wasn’t quite hopeful enough.
I thought I’d write about all kinds of things, but wasn’t quite good enough, wise enough, original enough.

Some might say there’s nothing new to be said. 
And yet, there are stories all around us, waiting to be told. 
And to tell them all, one life isn’t quite enough. 
Best get started.

Friday, February 17, 2017

To love. To be loved. To never forget your own insignificance. To never get used to the unspeakable violence and the vulgar disparity of life around you. To seek joy in the saddest places. To pursue beauty to its lair. To never simplify what is complicated or complicate what is simple. To respect strength, never power. Above all, to watch. To try and understand. To never look away. And never, never to forget.

- Arundhati Roy

People have been asking me how it feels to be a dad. I am not sure how to answer. Those who have experienced it before will know already, but for others I am not sure I have the words. 

How, for example, do I describe the fact that when I look at this little person who extends only as far as my arm, my love for him seems to extend to the farthest reaches of the universe? Or verbalise the feeling when his bottom lip quivers and lonely tear drops appear in the corners of his hopeful, curious eyes? 

How can I explain that every time he exhales through his little heart-shaped nostrils, I feel like there’s a bit more love in this ravaged world? That when he smiles it’s the closest thing to pure happiness I’ve ever had the privilege to encounter? That when his eyelids slowly get heavier and eventually fall across those beautiful eyes, it’s like watching a sunset in slow motion? 

No, these things are inexplicable. They are to be merely stored and treasured in that little corner of the mind where magic resides.  

And there they will be for the rest of my life, on the top shelf where gratitude and awe jostle for space. And the cup of joy always flows over.

Tuesday, December 06, 2016

Notes to Sparty #12

Dear Sparty, 

Today you are 41 weeks old. To be honest, I was sure you’d have arrived out into the world by now. But of course, you are still waiting for the perfect time and who are we to guess at when that might be? People don’t understand miracles; they are just grateful that they happen. And so here I am- cold, slightly impatient and more than a little sleepy; but mostly just grateful. 

The past couple of weeks have been challenging, particularly for your mum. She’s not been getting much sleep; and, as the days go by, the anticipation seems to take on a weight of its own. This is not your fault, obviously, it’s just the way this whole thing works, and we are just figuring it all out as well. 

Besides, it’s not been all bad— we’ve been getting through a fair number of films, listening to music, and talking about what the world’s going to be like once you are in it. We’ve also put up some Christmas decorations, friends and family have been checking in on you, and some of them have already booked tickets to come and see you! So even though you are not here yet, you’ve still been part of things.

One of your grandparents (yes, you have four in total- how lucky are you?) even recorded his own little letter to you. It’s in Malayalam which I think I’ve already mentioned is your mothertongue, so if you’re having trouble understanding any of it, don’t worry- your veliya appachan or one us will be on hand to help.

As for the day when you finally arrive, well, given that all my predictions so far have resolutely refused to come true, maybe it’s best I don’t make any more. At some point this month (December 2016) you will be here, and that’ll do for me. 

They say that life is a journey, Sparty, but I guess it’s made up of several sub-journeys, and you are about to undertake the first and maybe most important one of all. You will have no recollection of it, but one day you will understand just how amazing it is. It is also the only journey you will make entirely on your own, because for every journey after this one, you will have us either travelling alongside you or cheering you on as you find your way through the world. 

Speaking of the world, did you know that an estimated 350,000 babies are born every single day? So, no matter when your birthday is, you will share it with all these little people. How amazing is that? All of you will grow up and become scientists, musicians, actors, doctors, race-car drivers, and all manner of other things, and you will make the world amazing in ways we cannot even begin to imagine today. 

You won’t meet all of them, but it’s still nice to know that someone in another corner of the planet is blowing out the same number of candles on a cake at the same time as you. It’s just one of many ways we’re all connected, and maybe if all us who shared birthdays pooled our individual birthday wishes into one giant wish, we’d not only have a big party every day, we’d also probably end up doing stuff that benefits more people than just the ones we see. 

[Anyway, this is turning into another long letter. I think I’m struggling to find an appropriate way to end it because I know it will be the last one I write to you before you are born.

In a few days (or maybe even in a few hours), something I’ve only ever imagined will suddenly be a reality — a live person with an adorable face and a beautiful smile. You will be here, and you will have a name and it won’t be Sparty (not officially, anyway) The next chapter of your story — one that started approximately 41 weeks ago, or maybe further back when the first living thing appeared on our planet, or maybe further still when the first stars twinkled in the inky black canvas of the universe — will be ready to be written. So what can I say when confronted with such magic and wonder? 

Maybe all I can say is this: Bon voyage, little one. See you on the other side. 

Love, your dad.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Notes to Sparty #11

Dear Sparty, 

You wouldn't have guessed from within the confines of your little temporary home, but it’s been a pretty interesting week here on the outside. I’d like to tell you about a couple of world events in particular because I hope you’ll find them interesting, but also because I’ve found that writing about stuff helps me process them in my own mind as well. 

Come to think of it, it’s probably why I started writing in the first place; to try and understand rather than attempt to explain. Will these events still be significant when you are reading this? I don’t know. Are millions of people affected by them now as I write this? Most certainly. So, let’s begin, shall we? 

On the 7th of November this year, on the west coast of the United States of America, a singer named Leonard Cohen passed away at the age of 82; the latest in a fairly long list of famous musicians for whom 2016 was the final curtain call. 

To be honest, I was never a big fan of his music, but Cohen was first and foremost a poet, which I think is why he appealed to me. He was up there, not as great as the great Bob Dylan (in my opinion, of course) but a formidable songwriter nevertheless; someone who could wrap a melody around melancholy and somehow make it strangely uplifting. 

Funnily enough, when I first started up this blog ten years ago, I put a line at the top of the page (which is still there) and it said: Blessed are the cracked, for it is they that let in the light. I didn’t realise this at the time, but it turns out that this is actually a variation of one of Cohen’s lyrics: There is a crack in everything; that’s how the light gets in. 

Just a few hours after news of his death, the first results of the US presidential election started coming in, and it was clear that something big was happening. Hillary Clinton, the first ever female candidate and a vastly experienced and accomplished politician, was starting to look like she might be beaten by Donald Trump, a controversial, supposed billionaire who had never held public office before. 

By the morning of 9th November, as Americans woke up to confirmation of this monumental upset, the eyes of the rest of the world turned to them as well, and mostly blinked in disbelief. Then came the deluge of news, analyses, editorials, opinion pieces, etc. etc. Some people were elated, some were distraught. Many, like me, were just stunned. 

In the hours and days since the result, I kept thinking about the Leonard Cohen line- there is a crack in everything. As an outsider looking at the US, it seemed like the cracks and splinters had grown into a full-fledged chasm. This had been a bitter, bruising campaign; a bloody slugfest rather than a virtuous democratic exercise. 

In the end, after Hillary got around 3 million more popular votes but Trump winning by virtue of the electoral collage (I will explain this one when I understand it fully myself), the world’s most powerful country appeared to be a nation divided, each side fuelled by hatred and mistrust for the other, and revelling in their differences rather than all the things they had in common. Could this be a microcosm of the whole of humanity?

I suppose it is easy to wallow in despair in the aftermath of a perceived tragedy, however big or small it might be, and I will admit to doing this for a few days. But then I forced myself to focus on the second part of the Cohen quote: that’s how the light gets in

Yes, there are a great many things to dislike about Trump, but there are also a great many things wrong with the way things are, not just in the US but around the world. Many of us are scared and concerned and confused, and when things are in tumult we turn to people who we think we can help us. It is a normal human reaction. 

So rather than judging the people who supported, endorsed, or voted for Trump, maybe our time will be infinitely better spent by thinking about what we do next, and how we can continue to combine forces to help solve problems that are bigger than one single country. 

Yes, people can be mean and petty and unreasonable, but the same people can be kind and fair and hopeful. People can judge you based on the colour of your skin, but people can also get together to help a Dad find the right coloured sippy cup for his autistic son. People can drop bombs on unarmed civilians in Syria, but people wearing White Helmets can also put their own lives on the line every day to help drag survivors out of the rubble. 

Perhaps this is the biggest challenge of them all, Sparty. To see the cracks for what they are, but to also look beyond them to the light. To recognise that there is always hope, and that as long as we are alive, we can help make a positive change. Once we realise that, maybe, just maybe, no problem will be too big. This is something I struggle with on a daily basis. I look at the crack and, unlike your mum, I get stuck. I don’t believe I can make a difference. I sometimes even think it’s not worth trying. But somewhere inside, I know it is. And I hope you will know it is too. Some weeks, like this last one, will be tough and dispiriting. But other weeks will be great and inspiring. And every day, we get to start work again. 

As for the US election, well, here’s what I wrote the day after, mostly as a reminder to myself:

Dear friends, welcome to the morning after the night before. As the outgoing President said, the sun did rise again. Our planet, this pale blue dot on a vast black canvas, still throbs with the same beautiful energy as it did yesterday. We still have the same choices we always did- to be kind, to live out our days as better versions of ourselves, to dream, and stretch the moments of magic and imagination. 

There will be turbulence along the way, but still we travel together with the fierce certainty that there is a place in the future, yet unseen, where we will lock hands and celebrate our shared humanity. And from that glorious vantage point, we will look back and reflect on how far we have come, despite seemingly insurmountable odds. 

So today, even though the smog of confusion and despair threaten to momentarily shroud the sun, let us keep moving forward, one tentative step at a time, until the final destination of our destiny comes into view. 

See you soon, Sparty. This beautiful world is waiting to welcome you. 

Love, your dad.

Sunday, November 06, 2016

Notes to Sparty #10

Hey there little Sparty, 

Today you are one week closer to coming out, and so as a celebration I thought I would tell you a little story. It’s actually a true story, and the events I’m about to describe took place when I was about twenty-one years old. 

Back then, I was in college in a city named Bangalore, which is a twenty-four-hour train ride from where my parents were living at the time. So, every time I got more than a weeks’ holiday, I would catch a train and head home- yes, home sweet home, home where mum was, home where yummy food was, where everything seemed just right, even when it wasn’t (you will know exactly what I mean soon enough) 

Anyway, because this is your Dad we are talking about it, the build-up to any sort of travel involved a frenzy of last-minute packing, handing in assignments, missing the bus to the station, the auto breaking down on the way, panicking over whether I’d remembered the ticket, etc., etc. (and this was just on a good day) You better make sure this is one area you don’t take after me- all this unnecessary stress isn’t good for anybody, as your mum will be only too happy to confirm. 

When I finally got to the station on this particular occasion, I think there were about 6-7 minutes before the train was due to depart. Now, you might be thinking- that’s plenty of time; but! try and picture the scene, little Sparty: 

The Indian railway is one of the world’s largest railway networks, and is said to transport more than 22 million(!) passengers a day. And so, to step onto the concourse of one of the many hundred major stations spread across the length and breadth of our country is to experience something almost supernatural. The sheer spectacle of people, trains, vendors, taxis, autos, ticket inspectors, luggage porters and all manner of other people racing across your field of vision is enough to take your breath away. I have seen many stations around the world, and while some may be grander in size and design, none will match the human drama of Indian railway stations. 

So there I was, with three items of luggage (one heavy suitcase, one smaller holdall, and a backpack) and no idea which platform I needed to be on. I needed help- and I needed it quick. As soon as I paid the auto driver, I called out to a porter to help with the bags. The first one to respond looked like an old man; and I had Thought Number 1 I’m Ashamed Of - "this isn’t going to help."

Before I could try and signal for a different one, however, he had already reached the auto. Years of this kind of work makes you sprightly, I suppose. I remember looking at him to see if he might be able to carry the cases, but I needn’t have worried. With one swift move, he hoisted the suitcase onto his head, and then bent down to slip his arm through the handles of the holdall. 

As his body straightened, his shirt sleeves rolled down his arm and I could see the outline of his veins. Under his red uniform shirt, he wore a frayed vest, and his sandals were close to falling apart. Before I could say anything, he turned to me and asked me which train I needed. As soon I answered, there was a flash of surprise/shock, and then a faint smile travelled across his ragged face. I smiled weakly back, and remember thinking how when he smiled he suddenly looked a lot younger. 

And then he was off. I had to take bigger and bigger steps to keep up with him; and then had to break into a little jog as he bounded up the stairs to get to the footbridge connecting the platforms. We both got to the top together, and from there I could look down at the train about halfway down the platform. I had about one minute left. I glanced across, and could see him grimacing. Beads of sweat had formed across his brow. In Kannada (the main language people speak in Bangalore) he said one word to me- “Run”. My Kannada wasn’t great, but I did know what that word meant, and so I started running. 

I dashed across the bridge, reached the bottom of the stairs and looked back up again: he was about half-way down, obviously struggling under the weight. As I started to climb back up the stairs to offer to help, he shouted that one word again- Run! I looked down along the platform and estimated that there was still another 40-50 yards of ground to cover. The train was now making about-to-leave sounds; doors were being closed, flags were being readied, last-minute transactions were being completed at the little makeshift shops. 

I finally reached an open door just as the whistle blew to signal departure. I clambered up the two steps and then stood in the doorway as the porter kept running towards me. He was visibly starting to tire, but I could see him almost willing himself to make one more push to try and reach me. The whistle blew once more, and the train began to pull away.

It was at this point that I had Thought Number 2 I’m Ashamed Of: "He's going to steal my luggage". It was just a momentary thought which flashed across my brain like silent lightning, but I thought it all the same. When I next looked up, he had arrived alongside the door. I bent down and helped him slide the suitcase off his head and into the compartment. As the train began to pick up speed, he slipped the holdall off his shoulder and pushed that through the door as well. And then he heaved a huge sigh- I still remember that sigh- a sort of exhausted sigh, but also one of relief, maybe even victory. 

As I stood at the door and watched that porter recede into the distance, two more thoughts entered my brain: 1. I didn’t know his name. 2. I hadn’t paid him. My heart sank as I waved at him from the doorway and watched this amazing man, with his frayed vest and torn sandals, smile and wave back at me. 

I often think of that man, Sparty, and I can still picture him like all this happened yesterday. I never saw him again (even though I looked out for him every time I went back to that station) so I suppose now he only exists in my memory. But every time I do think of him, he inspires me to be better, and kinder; not just to people I love, but to strangers I may never see again. He also reminds me to try - even though it seems to get harder with each passing day- to see the good in people, because when you do you’ll often be pleasantly surprised. 

At some point on your journey to Adulthood, you might find yourself faced with two contrasting approaches to life: expect nothing, or very little, and then everything seems like a bonus; or, go at everything expecting nothing but the very best, and maybe it will end up as a self-fulfilling prophecy. This will of course be your choice to make, Sparty, but my hope for you is that you will have enough success with the latter for it to be your preferred choice. 

Yes, there will be times when you might feel silly for trusting people, and that’s ok. But when you find your natural instinct is becoming one of mistrust, I hope you will remember this story featuring your crazy, disorganised dad and his highly comedic travel (mis)adventures; but more importantly - a nameless, selfless old man who helped me just because he could.

Love, Your dad

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Notes to Sparty #9

Sparty! How’s everything going? I hope you are enjoying yourself wherever we are at this point in time and whatever age you are. 

Today I am going to get straight to the point of this particular post. I am sure you have been wondering for a while now why on earth these are addressed to Sparty when you are clearly not called Sparty. Well, the short answer would be that Sparty is a nickname, but I suppose in the interest of clarity and in the service of storytelling, we should probably go into the long answer. In hindsight, this should have been one of the first posts, but better late than never, right? *sheepish grin* 

Basically, the first time we saw you in a scan you were about 12 weeks old and although you were super-cute (see Note #3) it was too early to tell if you were a boy or a girl. A couple of months later, at about 20 weeks, you were big enough, but at some point around 17-18 weeks your mum and dad decided we were going to wait until after you arrived to find out. 

So here we are, at about 33 weeks and it is still a surprise! Are you surprised to hear this? Aha, so lots of surprising surprises all around then. Good, good. 

Now that we have covered the surprise element, let’s talk about the name itself. Sparty is essentially a gender-neutral derivation of the Greek word Spartacus, which was the name of a famous gladiator who kicked some serious butt many hundreds of years ago. 

The original idea for the name came from me because I took the task of looking for unique and uncommon names very seriously and I certainly hadn’t met anyone named Spartacus. But then, for reasons that are still somewhat unclear to me, it was mutually decided that this was not at all suitable as an 'official' name. 

Of course, the fact that there was a 50 per cent chance that you were a girl made the name even more unsuitable and so your sensible mum came up with the name Sparty. And since we are going to have to stick with gender-neutral for a little bit longer, it made sense to keep addressing these posts to Sparty.  

Needless to say, there’s a high likelihood that because we have both become used to the name, we might keep using it for you as a nickname, but only if you like it. If you don’t, that’s fine, it will just be confined to this blog and you can come here every once in a while and be reminded of your little epic Greek alter-ego :) 

So now that you know the origins of Sparty, let’s get to the official names. By the time you are reading this, you will be named one of the two names we came up with. (obviously, we needed one boy’s name and one girl’s name) Both of us put a lot of thought into picking the names because we wanted one that would fit just right. 

You might think that’s quite a lot of pressure on one word, and actually you are right. While it’s true that a name is very important, it’s also true that you will never be summed up, described or defined by it. It’s also highly unlikely that a name has any real predictive powers; for example if we did go with Spartacus it wouldn’t somehow increase the likelihood of you turning into some sort of warrior, you might be just as likely to become a painter or a pilot. 

Then again, there are only a certain number of words that work as names. It's not like I could call you jackfruit just because I happen to like jackfruit a lot. And so it is tempting to name children after famous men and women. But then I was thinking who were these famous people named after? What was the reason for Spartacus’s mother naming him that? And did he make the name famous or was he maybe somehow destined to be famous because of his epic-sounding name? 

These are important questions, but I will not dwell on them any longer because you are probably already a little bored and it is most likely past your bedtime. 

To conclude, there are only two things I wanted to tell you through this post. First, I hope you like the name we picked for you. And second, I hope you will be the best you can be, at whatever you choose to do. That way, whatever it is your parents named you (or, in the case of Spartacus, almost named you) you will end up just making a name for yourself anyway. And that, little Sparty, will be the greatest name of all. 

Love, Your dad

Notes to Sparty #8

Sparty! It’s been a few weeks since I wrote anything to you, and we are now just a few weeks away from your arrival! Needless to say, both your mum and I are super-excited and we are slowly working on getting things ready to make your first few days and weeks as comfortable as possible. 

I hope things are ok inside; we have been told that you now have eyebrows and can also open your eyes to check out your surroundings. It’s probably also getting a little cramped in there, which is one of the reasons we can feel you every time you do a little stretch or baby cartwheel. 

Here on the outside, summer has now made way for autumn, and this means that the days are slowly getting shorter, the leaves are changing colour, and the thicker coats are slowly being dragged out from the back of the cupboard. 

When you arrive it’s going to be almost the start of winter, but as much as we are tropical and don’t really hang out and go to the movies with Miss Winter (I've always found her a little frosty- maybe its a personality thing), this one is going to be awesome for many reasons. 

First of all, it will be our first winter with you around and that warms my cold little heart already. Also, it’s going to be our first winter in Amsterdam, this beautiful city that we currently call home. And of course a few short weeks after you arrive it will be Christmas. You will probably see lots of photos of yourself in festive gear in due course, but for now just know that this Christmas in particular, the fairy lights will seem just that little bit brighter as we celebrate both your arrival and the birth of another very special baby two thousand years ago. 

Speaking of festivities, a few weeks ago it was Onam. Again, you will find out more about this soon, but this is a harvest festival that is celebrated in Kerala and is the one time people all over this magical, diverse state come together to celebrate as one. 

Of course, celebrating anywhere outside of Kerala isn’t quite the same as actually being there, but your mum made some flower arrangements- see pic. (when you read this, come and ask us what ‘athappu’ is) and we went to a restaurant to have some South Indian food so we did our best to get in the festive spirit :)

It feels like lots more has happened in the weeks between now and my last post, but I’m going to stop now because I have some more preparation to do. I am coming to terms with the fact that writing is going to be harder from now on because as the day approaches I feel like I have more to say, but then it also means that I have less time to do everything else. 

So I’m sorry if these posts seem more rushed and haphazard than usual, but it’s only because I’m dazzled to distraction by the sheer mind-exploding excitement of it all. 

Love, Your dad

Follow-up to Note #7

Dear Sparty, I have written about this before elsewhere on this blog, but the following is a passage from Carl Sagan's "Pale Blue Dot". He was inspired by the photo you see below of our planet, taken by the the NASA Voyager Project from a vantage point 3.7 billion miles away. 

I am reproducing it here because I think it fits in nicely with the theme of the last post I wrote to you, and is way better than anything I could come up with myself. I hope you enjoy it. Love, your Dad.


“Consider again at that dot. That's here. That's home. That's us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilisation, ever king and peasant, every young couple in love, every moth and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every "superstar,” every "supreme leader," every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there—on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam. 

The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Our posturing, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. 

Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves. 

The Earth is the only world known so far to harbour life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand. 

It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we've ever known."

Wednesday, September 07, 2016

Notes to Sparty #7

Hi, Sparty! How’s it going? Another week has gone by, and we have learned that you are currently the size of a tropical coconut. (I'm not sure if there’s such a thing as a non-tropical coconut, but let’s set that one aside for now) 

You’ve also started dreaming, and are having REM sleep. REM is my favourite kind of sleep, and also one of my favourite rock bands. But you will find out more about the latter in due course. 

So now that you can dream and also have memory, does that mean you will you have some vague recollection of those dreams once you arrive? That would be awesome, especially because when I have dreams, they are set almost entirely within the physical world we live in. And since you do not yet know what that world looks like, I wonder what your dreams consist of? Perhaps adults dream of their childhoods and children dream of an imagined adulthood? Wow, I have so many questions right now! 

Anyway, speaking of the physical world, are you ten years old when you’re reading this? If so, it is the year 2026 and you have most likely heard of this: 

The Mars project is currently being described as the greatest human journey into space since the moon landing which happened in the 1960s - way before your mum and dad were born. So your generation is likely to witness the first humans landing on another planet, in this case, Earth’s nearest neighbour - Mars. 

As amazing as that is, the thought of a permanent settlement on Mars does raise some interesting issues. For example, it’s slightly ironic how we make movies about aliens invading our planet to plunder our resources, and then we spend millions to do the same thing. 

Sure, if we do happen to come across some form of alien life on Mars, we could probably try to explain that we come in peace, but given our track record back on Earth, I’m not sure any even slightly intelligent life form will actually believe us. 

Also, there are people who argue that we could, and should, use the same money we are spending to actually fix the problems currently facing our own little blue planet. 

The flip-side of that argument, of course, is the theory that, regardless of what we do to prevent it, Earth will eventually self-destruct and therefore having humans somewhere else in the universe is crucial to guaranteeing the long term survival of our species. Of course, the inevitable destruction of the planet is just a theory; surely people who can’t fully explain how the earth was formed cannot know for sure how it will end? 

I for one hope that Earth won’t be going anywhere for the whole of your lifetime, and for many future generations to come. This is home, Sparty, and it’s important that we look after it; because, regardless of how this whole Mars experiment goes, for now this is the only home we have. 

By the time you are reading this, you will probably already have experienced the magic of a thousand sunsets, the breathtaking beauty of a bird in flight, the majesty of mighty mountains and the sheer poetry of a mighty wave dissolving into gentle foam on a golden beach. I don’t know too much about Mars, but I am almost certain none of these things exist there. 

And yet, every year, our planet gets a little hotter, more polar icecaps melt, the ocean levels slowly rise. We keep taking more than we give back, and that can only end badly, for us and everything else that lives here. I will let you make your own mind up about man-made global warming; all I will say for now is that a lot of research suggests that we face some serious environmental challenges, and I look forward to seeing how you and others of your generation come up with new solutions to some of these problems before it's too late. Sorry to sign you up for a job before you’ve even got here, but we need all the help we can get! 

Right, I better stop now. I can’t wait for you to arrive so we can show you around. I know you will love this planet, Sparty, and the more you love it, the more it will love you back. 

Love, Your dad

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Notes to Sparty #6

So last week, we met up with a friend of your mum and dad’s named Udi. We first met Udi about a year ago, in 2015, in a place called Malta. It is a beautiful little island in the Mediterranean Sea and is one of your mum’s favourite places, so I am almost certain we will be going again so that you can see it too. But for now, back to Udi. 

I don’t remember the precise chain of events that led to him being on the same bus as us, I am just happy that it happened. I suppose this is the beauty of serendipity, these seemingly random occurrences that result in your gaining of something that you were not really seeking in the first place. In this case, what we gained was a beautiful friendship. 

We are still really only getting to know Udi and his pretty amazing story, but here’s a little summary of what we know so far: He is from Israel, he has a sister, he is a passionate, lifelong supporter of his local basketball and football teams, and he travels the world as a photographer, mostly to the games of his beloved teams, but also of some other sports as well. 

Oh, and another thing- Udi is almost completely deaf. But he doesn’t care. 

That first time we met him, we ended up spending the whole day chatting with him, with him reading our lips, and with us hearing about all the places he’d travelled, watching him jump off the top deck of our boat and into the sea, then jumping into a motor boat to get a tour of some nearby caves, all while almost involuntarily getting everyone around him to smile while he clicked away on his camera. 

We then spent some more time with him over the remainder of our holiday, and when eventually it was time to say goodbye, we both felt like we’d known him for years. Of course we promised we would be in touch, but we didn’t really know whether we would see him again. Life has a way of getting in the way, people always get busier, and besides, Udi seemed like the kind of guy who had a million friends. 

But then! Last week he messaged saying he was coming to Amsterdam, and we finally had the chance to meet up again and hear all his latest interesting stories and talk about how we first met all those months ago. We told him that you’re going to be arriving soon, and he told us he has a nephew arriving soon too, so one day maybe when you meet uncle Udi, you may also meet another little person who’s around the same age as you! 

Good friendships are precious, Sparty, whether they arrive by accident or by design, so make sure you try your best to maintain them. It can sometimes feel like hard work, but for the right friends it is always worth it. 

As for Udi, we are both glad he is our friend. He is remarkable in many ways, and is an inspiration to me personally. He may not be able to hear as well as most other people, and yet he listens. He is kind and thoughtful, and he always somehow leaves you happier than you were before you saw him. 

He might have a million friends, but for us, Udi is one in a million :) 

Love, Your dad

Notes to Sparty #5

Hoi Sparty! hoe gaat je? Your dad has been taking Dutch lessons for a few weeks now, and so far this is one of the few bits of conversation he can employ with a reasonable degree of confidence. It’s possible that by the time you are reading this you will be quite fluent in Dutch, and maybe by then your dad will know a few more questions as well, so I can try and have a conversation that lasts longer than 30 seconds. wat denk je? 

Anyway, today I thought I’d tell you a little bit about the Olympics since that’s been the main thing on television for the past two weeks. 

The Olympic Games can be traced back to ancient Greece, where competitions were held in honour of Zeus, the great god of the sky. The modern games were revived just over 100 years ago and since then, the world’s best athletes gather in a different city every four years to compete for the supreme honour of being an Olympic champion. 

The 2016 edition took place in Rio de Janeiro, a stunning city in Brazil which one day we will hopefully visit. 207 nations took part, and the United States ended up at the top of the table with 121 medals. 

‘How many did India get’, you ask? I am glad you brought that up, little Sparty. India, our weird, wonderful and utterly incredible India, the second-most-populous-country-in-the-world-with-1.2 billion-people India; well, we won a grand total of 2 medals. That’s right. 2 medals. One silver and one bronze. In the meantime, countries like Fiji, Kosovo, Puerto Rico, Singapore and Tajikistan- countries with less inhabitants than some mid-size Indian towns, actually won gold medals. 

Now, this is a tricky subject because it is difficult to be critical of India’s performance without somehow undermining the effort put in by our athletes just to be there in the first place. It is impossible to fully know their stories, or appreciate the sacrifices involved in the professional pursuit of pretty much any sport in India apart from cricket. (Cricket isn’t exactly easy either, when you consider the number of kids playing it and the fact that only 11 will walk out onto a field wearing the India jersey at any given time. The road to the national team is littered with the bitter remains of broken dreams.) 

It is true that India doesn’t spend a fraction of the amounts other richer countries spend on sports, and yes we have more pressing problems like figuring out how to feed the shockingly high numbers of people that go hungry in our country every day. 

Nevertheless, it is all by all accounts, a pretty dismal showing. I have been thinking about it quite a bit in the part few days since the games ended, and while it is fairly easy to figure out what we didn’t do, I think it’s more important to try and figure out what we can do in the future to improve things. It is obvious that a lack of talent is not the issue. 

By the time you are reading this, you may have an interest in pursuing a sport. Or maybe you won’t. Either way, you will probably have an opinion or some ideas to help improve the way sport is run, funded, and managed in india. I, for one, would love to hear them :) 

For now, though, here’s an ad for you to watch. Just because.

Always chase your dreams, Sparty. Even if it doesn’t end with you wearing a gold medal around your neck. 

Love, Your Dad