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

Notes to Sparty #4

So today you are 25 weeks old. And that means you will be out in just over three months. Your scheduled date of arrival is the 29th of November but you could come early or (depending on how much you take after your dad) you could be late as well. 

You’ll soon find out all about birthdays and we will make sure we celebrate every single one of yours. But in the meantime, I can’t help feeling that us humans haven’t quite figured this birthday system out. When you think about it, your first birthday should really be about three months after you arrive, because that’s when it will be one year since you were ‘born’. 

I suppose the logical explanation is that your time here on earth is measured starting from the time you officially arrive on earth, but that doesn’t seem too logical to me. Anyway, I just wanted you to remember that there’s life on either side of this fleeting time we are given here. 

Why fleeting, you ask? Well, when I was younger, it always seemed that time was as vast and limitless as the ocean. However, life has a funny way of getting shorter the older you get. And then all of a sudden, you think about all that you would like to do and see and hear and be, and how you’re never going to be able to get around to it all. This can be either incredibly dispiriting, or motivate you even more to make the most of every moment. My hope for you is that it will be the latter. 

One last thing- when you are little, you might think it’s much nicer to be a grown-up like your mum and dad. I remember thinking that when I was around 6 or 7, especially around 6 or 7 o’clock in the morning when I had to wake up and get ready to go to school. I thought it would be awesome to be an adult and sit in a chair having a coffee like my dad and not worry about scary things like maths homework. 

Of course, I didn’t know back then that soon after I left for school, both my mum and dad left for work and worked hard at their jobs to make sure my brother and I had everything we needed. 

So remember, Sparty, the best age is always the age you are, and every stage of life has both its joys and challenges. They say youth is wasted on the young, but I know this will not be true for you :) 

Love, your Dad

Notes to Sparty #3

Hi Sparty, so you are still reading these? Great! I’ll be honest, I do worry you’re going to find these tedious and eventually switch to the Lord of the Rings (which is totally fine, by the way- Gandalf is a much better storyteller than I am) 

Today, though, I’d like to tell about the first time we ‘saw’ you. It was a sunny 10th of May 2016 when we went to see the midwife. She asked us a few questions, gave us some information, and then she dimmed the lights and placed a scanner on your mummy’s tummy. 

For a few seconds, I couldn’t really make out what I was seeing, but then! There you were. It was our first glimpse of you. You were very tiny then (about 12 weeks) but you were unmistakably Sparty. It was pretty amazing seeing you moving around, a bit like an alien in a snowstorm. If you haven’t seen this already, here’s what you looked like.

In the weeks that followed, we tracked your progress with an app on your mum’s phone and every week we found some new and exciting information about you. Like for example two weeks ago, when we found out you’re already developing memory. Memory! Does this mean you might somehow remember what it was like when you were inside? I definitely don’t remember anything from my time in there, but then I’m reaching the age now where I’m having trouble remembering what happened yesterday. 

About four weeks ago we saw you again on the little screen, and this time you filled the screen a bit more. You were also moving a lot more that time around, and sucking away on your tiny thumb. You would think the second time would be less exciting than the first, but I can assure you it wasn’t. Your mum and I just stared at the screen, and I am sure I had my mouth open the entire time. I remember thinking about what it must be like for you, and whether you somehow knew we were checking in on you. 

Oh, and then there were the weeks in between where we were able to listen to your heartbeat. Your heart was still pretty small but it was beating away happily- it was a beautiful sound, like a little whale call; letting us know you were ok, while you danced in your own way to the gentle rhythms of this unfolding miracle. 

For a few days after I first heard your heartbeat, I kept thinking about it, and the little heart that houses it, and I felt my own heart racing at the thought of finally seeing you in the flesh. 

Life is a beautiful thing, and whatever your life has in store for you, there’s one thing you can be sure of: I will always be there, holding you so close that you can listen to the sound of my heartbeat in the same way I listened to yours. 

Love, your dad.

Notes to Sparty #2

Hello again. I don't know where we will be when you're reading this, but your mum and dad are currently in Amsterdam. We came here in April this year (2016) and then soon after that we got news that you were going to arrive, so, all things considered, this has been a pretty special year.  

Amsterdam is a beautiful little city in the Netherlands. When you first arrive, you might not think much of it because it's going to be cold, and most likely dark for most of the day. But, after a few short months I can promise you it will get warmer and brighter and we will take you exploring. You'll then be able to see, hear and taste all the things Amsterdam is famous for- the picture-postcard canals, the parks, people on cycles, beautiful music in the squares, old buildings, cheese, waffles, and all kinds of other magical things. There's also little rabbits, parrots and ducks to show you. I am sure you will love it as much as we do.

   I have already locked you away in a corner of my heart

Of course, Amsterdam is just one city out of hundreds of cities on this beautiful planet. Your mum and I have been to some of them, but there is so much more left to see. So we can explore new places together! Every time you think you've seen it all, you'll see something else that will take your breath away all over again. 

There's also a few special places you're going to be going to very soon. One of them is Hong Kong where your mum grew up, and where you currently have an uncle and an aunty; the other is London where you have grandparents, grand-uncles, uncles, cousins and all manner of people excitedly waiting to see you. You would probably have seen all of them before you read this, but it's possible you don't yet know who they all are and that's fine. For now, just know that they all love you, just as we do.  

And then there's India. I'll need a few hundred blog posts to tell you about India, and even that won't be enough. One day you will experience it yourself, and your life will never be the same again. 

Love, your dad

Notes to Sparty #1

Before we begin (and I hope you are beginning at the beginning) I guess a little introduction is in order. Welcome to this blog. I first started it up in 2006, and here we are in 2016.  For ten years, I've lovingly tended to it and grown kind of attached to it. I suppose it's been like my baby; but now, an actual, real-life baby is on the way (yep, that means you)  

Of course, that doesn't mean I'm going to just abandon this little blog, but, like a lot of things in your mum and dad's life right now, this is going to change a little. From now on, and for the foreseeable future, this blog will primarily be a place where I write these little notes to you.  

A word of warning- these will often be rambling (I always use five words when one will do) and are likely to contain more wit than wisdom. There'll be some lame jokes. Maybe some photos. I don't know, I haven't really thought through the details, except that it might be a good way to tell you what was going on out here while you were there getting bigger and cuter and ready to come out and meet us.  

So, on the one hand, there's the crazy, I-don't-know-what-to-do-with-myself type of excitement that we're both feeling right now; but, on the other hand, there's also the sometimes dull monotony of our daily routines. I hope to convey both, but most of all I hope to show you that even though life isn't always super-exciting, it is always beautiful. 

I did spend some time thinking about who to address this to. I mean, obviously this is to you, but seeing as you’re only going to be reading this in a few years’ time, perhaps it should really be addressed to your ten-year-old self? 

But then again, since most of what I’m writing about is set in the present time, maybe they should be addressed to your current self and this way it will be more interesting to read for you since it will be about a distant past? Perhaps i’m over-thinking this. I guess I should just write these the way they come, and we will figure out the space-time continuum stuff later. Deal?

Anyway, enough with the intro (see what I mean about rambling?) I'll finish with this vaguely appropriate quote by the great Bob Dylan (by the time you've read this, I’d have told you all about Bob Dylan) 'Stick with me, baby, stick with me anyhow; Things should start to get interestin' right about now.' 

love, your Dad

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

As strange as it is to be pondering the possible loss of your faculties while still in your mid-thirties, it is exactly what I have been doing lately. Perhaps it has something to do with another birthday appearing on the horizon, slowly coming into sharper focus with each passing day. Youth, time, strength, speed- the diminishing of all these seem to roll into one at this time of year, gathering pace as this annual bitter-sweet milestone approaches.

But this time seems a little different. Something strange is happening. Once-familiar names and places take longer to get plucked out from the ever-deepening fog of my memory, witty come-backs now come just a couple of seconds too late, and I’ve noticed I can’t watch a movie nowadays without going online to remember the name of at least one of its major stars.

It’s not just the mental side, of course. Physical transformations are taking place as well. They grey hairs are appearing with greater regularity; laugh lines are politely making way for wrinkles. Creaking sounds that I once could safely assume came from the chair I was sitting on, now are just as likely to originate from a part of my body. Mysterious patches appear on my skin, and when I try and investigate further, Google helpfully points to articles on ‘ageing spots’. And I find I involuntarily reach for the subtitles button on videos, because I just don’t hear so good anymore.

Even writing is harder now; words that once seemed to flow and slot into place on the page (or screen) now shuffle about like naughty schoolchildren refusing to get in line. Ironically, I seem to expend more energy on things that used to come easily, at a time when I seem to have less energy overall. All the evidence points to a loss of a spark; a blunting of an edge.

Could it be this is all in my head? Is it just fatigue? Or is this the beginning of the end? Is it possible that the well is running dry, things are in steady decline, and the window of opportunity afforded to me is slowly closing? These are the questions that have been plaguing me over the past few weeks. The questions have fermented into doubts; the doubts have begun to crystallise into belief.

And yet, and yet - of all the years I’ve had on this beautiful planet, 2016 has been one of the best. And somewhere in the back of this ragged, tentative mind, is the lingering feeling that the best is yet to come. Happiness is still a legitimate choice, loving and being loved is still an everyday reality. I am where I need to be. Yes, life is still fragile and oh-so-fleeting, but maybe I am more conscious of it now because I have never been more aware of its beauty.

So if things now take a little longer than usual, then so be it. The world will keep turning, and I will keep learning. Life is short enough even without my spending time thinking about how short it is. Now if I only I can remember where I left that anti-ageing cream…

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

I love my iPod. I love it all the time, but rarely as much as on the morning commute, as the Tube trundles from one station to the next, carrying with it a heaving mass of humanity, each of us taking comfort in community while craving solitude at the same time. 

I love my iPod; because without it, I would end up listening to one half of telephone conversations and therefore know more than I need to about Maureen’s surgery, and Jason’s dodgy knee, and how the chicken in most burgers isn’t chicken. 

These things are interesting, to a degree. But most of the time, I prefer Bob Dylan and every time I ask my iPod for him, it politely and willingly obliges. No questions asked; no judgements passed.

New Country

our life should be magic 
we should live in a new and ever- 
changing world there should 
be wonders 
unexplored villages 
with small golden people 
our clothing simple 
a foreign language 
which we speak 
and just understand.
-- Richard Donnelly

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Bullets and Stars

We have felled the final forests, 
and picked the last few flowers; 
We’ve run blades across our bodies, 
and marvelled at the scars; 
We've sold our souls for pennies,
maxed out our credit cards, 
The guns will soon be going off, 
we’re just counting down the hours. 

But for every bullet that is fired, 
there are still a thousand stars. 
For every bullet that is fired, 
there are still a thousand stars. 

We’ve made heroes of our monsters, 
and put justice behind bars; 
We’re heading towards the precipice, 
in new self-driving cars, 
We’ve constructed a bloody future, 
with the hollow bones of our past; 
And when the wars on earth have ended, 
we will move our guns to Mars. 

But still for every bullet that is fired, 
there will be a thousand stars. 
For every bullet that is fired, 
there are still a thousand stars.

Mountain Man

You're only given a little spark of madness. You mustn't lose it- Robin Williams 

Released in August 2015, Manjhi tells the incredible story of Dashrath Manhji, a labourer who used just a hammer and a chisel to forge a path through a hillock that blocked access from his village to the nearest town. Nawazuddin Siddiqui plays the titular role and he takes to the task with the same gusto with which Manjhi took to the mountain. 

The inherent appeal of Mountain Man, like that other remarkable ‘maverick’, Menstrual Man, lies in the fact that he is an everyman; someone who is extraordinary precisely because he doesn’t regard what he’s doing as extraordinary. For Manjhi, breaking down the mountain he held solely responsible for a personal tragedy (no spoilers!) was just a normal thing to do, and he seems genuinely baffled when people don’t agree with him. 

He is portrayed as somewhat of an oddball even before he takes on this ‘little’ project, but is soon suspected of having even more serious mental issues, long before the sheer physical and mental strain takes him to the very edge of sanity. Still Manjhi perseveres for 22 years and carves a path 365 feet long, eventually reducing a 55 km journey to just 15 km. 

For me, the story has shades of Shawshank Redemption (in terms of the near-impossibility of the task at hand), and also of Forrest Gump- particularly the one sequence in which he sets off on foot from his village to the national capital, Delhi, cultivating both impressive facial hair and a small crew of followers along the way. 

Mostly, though, it seems like a metaphor for the lives of millions of common men and women of our great land. Every day, they pick up whatever tools they have to hand, and go up against a system that’s at best indifferent, and at worst, oppressive. The odds must seem insurmountable, but there they are, standing in the shadow of the mountain, hammering away in the hope that one day, just maybe, a glimmer of light will shine through. 

Here’s to the renegades.

Thursday, February 04, 2016

The process of losing a grandparent is a strange and mystifying experience. On the one hand you grow up with the inevitability of their passing; and yet, when the time finally approaches, it leaves you reeling. 

It is a unique bond, the one between a child and a grandparent. Time and circumstances can sometimes combine to make it a very special relationship, one in which - oddly, given the invariable age difference- you are in a sort of kinship with each other. Perhaps the one-generation gap affords some unexpected common ground; or maybe it is to do with the fact that if life is a circle, then children and their grandparents both exist on the same minor arc: one at the start of their journey, the other approaching the end. This was brought home to me in poignant fashion every July for the past several years, when Ammachy and I would cut the same cake for birthdays that were three days apart. 

Ammachy's was certainly a life well lived. Uprooted from happy, familiar surroundings in Kerala and arriving in the alien land of Singapore, bringing up five children in the post-war years while barely out of her teens herself, then moving to England and starting up all over again, battling and overcoming the odds, caring for her beloved ‘pappa' after he was struck down by a stroke; this is the sort of thing some of us in my generation read about in books or see in films, with no awareness that such everyday heroes are in our own families. We walk around with the confidence of youth, forgetting that we stand on the shoulders of giants. 

While her tough life made her tough, her heart was forever seeking out opportunities to show kindness. This kindness and generosity of spirit characterised her 88 years, and there are countless stories of how she has touched the lives of complete strangers, many of whom are now part of our extended family.

In my own life, I have been a constant beneficiary of this kindness. Although I was born on the other side of the world, Ammachy nevertheless features in some of my earliest memories. There we were, my cousin and I, conspiring to wreak some fresh havoc in her living room or back garden, an exercise that invariably ended up with one of us getting hurt and both of us re-acquainting ourselves with the wooden spoon. As I grew older, I was fortunate to be able to spend more time with her, first by way of occasional summer visits (during which I occupied the famous box room), and then eventually moving to within a few minutes' drive away. 

Sometimes when she had not seen or heard from me for a few days, she would call on the phone and the conversation would almost always begin with her asking "nee evide aada, ninte annakum onnum illalo." (Where have you been, I haven’t heard from you in a while.) I would proceed to offer up some feeble excuse for not visiting her and she would listen patiently, eventually saying "Sherri. Njan orthu nee enne marannu poyi ennu" (Ok. I thought you forgot about me) 

In recent months, with Ammachy increasingly home-bound, I had become used to walking in to her always-warm house, and seeing the top of her head sticking out above her chair as she sat watching the tv or reading a book. As soon as she saw me, she would stop whatever she was doing and smile. She would ask me how I was, and the next question was usually "have you eaten?" at which point I would always say no, even if I had eaten just a short while ago. Anyone who has tasted Ammachy’s chicken will understand.

We would then talk about her health, the latest developments in Kerala politics, and the private lives of the birds she had been watching through her window. But the overriding themes were what she considered the two most important things in life: faith and family. For as long as I live, I will treasure these conversations and the wisdom she imparted through them. 

Ammachy’s was an all-encompassing love; she cared as much for people’s emotional and spiritual well-being as for their physical. In between spoonfuls of chicken, she would ask if I was praying and reading my Bible, and give me advice on how to be strong when dealing with difficult situations. Even now, if she could, she would be telling me to keep it together. But this was what made Ammachy the special person she was- her genuine love and selfless concern for everyone she came into contact with, even her consultant at the hospital. 

Now, as she lies in a side room of West Middlesex hospital, on the verge of departing to a place to which I don’t have my own key and where I can no longer visit anytime I want, I find myself replaying some of these memories over and over again in my head as a defence against the waves of sadness. 

I will sorely miss Ammachy but I believe that if there is a heaven she will be there, with a full head of hair and a twinkle in her eye. And I will live the rest of my days in the hope that one day I will be able to go there too, and watch as she stops doing whatever she was doing and smiles at me. And when she asks “Where were you; I thought you forgot me?” I will finally be able to say - Never, Ammachy. I never forgot you.

Update: Ammachy breathed her last on Monday 8th Feb at 10:15 am.