The Great Panic is upon us. And has the Jain family firmly in its grip. Amma has been seen muttering over the sambhar pot, ‘How can I fit the aloe vera into a book to press it?’ She considers every moment spent away from a leaf a waste of time. Even when she visits the Madras Store, which is fifty steps away from our house – and, yes, I have measured it – she comes back with a motley collection of branches and leaves.
At last count, the husband could manage a full ten minutes at a stretch without haranguing me about my obvious lack of effort in the house. That’s because he’s busy rifling through trunkloads of old papers, looking for that one paper he wrote on the fifth generation of computers while at IIT Kanpur.
As for me, I can proudly say that I now know most of the Hindi dictionary by heart, that I know now the intricacies of bank locker operation as I never do when I’m actually operating a locker, and that Mangal Pandey is no longer a patriot I revere – he’s a pain in the you know where, whom I frankly detest. And this was years before Aamir Khan made a movie about the guy, curing my insomnia of years in the space of three hours.
You see, it’s only twelve days to school reopening day, and the family is caught up in the flood of the son’s holiday homework. Yes, I know homework keeps them busy the way no self-respecting parent can. (Especially if you announce that they’ll get grades for their work when they get back to school.) But I do object to the extension of that line of thought to ‘What keeps a child busy keeps his parents busy’. After all, I don’t get six weeks of paid leave every summer.
So, at the beginning of every holiday, the son and I have this little ritual. We sit down, and he listens patiently while I tell him of all the exciting trips and excursions I have planned for him during June, so will he please get the homework out of his way by the end of May? He acquiesces so earnestly, my mother’s heart gets moved. We chart out schedules for the work at hand, and go back to watching TV, well pleased with ourselves.
By mid-June, neither the excursions nor the homework has happened. I am swamped by guilt that yet another holiday has gone by without my doing anything constructive with the child – you know, the kind of thing he’ll remember nostalgically when he’s forty and tell his kids about. And the son’s chewing off his nails in panic because all his project work remains, pristinely undone.
‘Shall we go and see Lagaan?’ I asked him. ‘No, I’ve got to go to the bank with Amma to complete my Maths project,’ he said, then wistfully, ‘I would have loved to see Lagaan.’ So, dammit, why do I feel guilty?
Luckily, Mangal Pandey has come and gone from our lives. Unable to find more than three sentences on the guy, even on the Net, when he had to do a page on him, the son whooped with joy when he found a picture of him. Then proceeded to blow it up 200 per cent on the neighbourhood photocopier.
The sea cliff almost tore our family apart. Amma began the task bravely with a bagful of plaster of Paris and three children. A week later, their creation still looked like a lump of PoP on a greasy cake tray. The husband, who’s awfully good at hindsight, sniffed at it: ‘Doesn’t look like any cliff I’ve ever seen. The walls should have been more sheer. You’d better do something about it, boy!’ Amma fumed in reply, overlooking for once her life’s guiding principle that sons-in-law are celestial beings, never to be crossed: ‘How come he’s never there to do the work? It’s easy to talk when someone else is doing all the work.’ The son looked at me in despair, while I stood torn between mother and husband.
The call of maternity was the strongest, so after two days of wringing my hands, I stepped in and managed the sheer cliff, but it still looked a lump of PoP, albeit a lump of PoP with one sheer side. That was the point at which one of the collaborators’ mothers took over. She’s a trained artist and, well, need I say more? Oh well, I did the actual shaping.
It was with that experience in mind that I looked at a colleague enviously the other day and said, ‘You’re so lucky, you’re an artist. You probably have no problems with holiday homework.’
‘I have never had any problems,’ he declared blandly and, I thought, a trifle pompously. ‘The first time my daughter was asked to write ten lines on Mahatma Gandhi, I gave her a earful on how that old man ruined this country. Ever since then, my wife does all her work. I am not even allowed near her pencil box!’
First published in The Financial Express in 2001.