Once upon a time

Thanks to gifts from various sources (including the National Health Service, where we’d gone for a checkup), Berry has a few books now. Most of them have lots of pictures (the only book we’ve bought for her is simply a collection of animal pictures). Some have text as well. And it is that that is rather underwhelming.

I don’t know the target age group for most of these books, but the stories seem damn lame to Pinky and me. In my opinion, a good children’s book (or show) should not only be interesting for the child, but also for the parents – it is not often that the child uses the book or show alone. And from that perspective, a lot of these books Berry has got don’t pass the muster.

The books I had when I was a kid may not have been particularly optimised for a child. The illustrations weren’t great. The paper quality was underwhelming as well (one thing Berry can’t do with her books is to tear them! A useful quality for sure for children’s books). But the stories were fantastic. And things that I still remember.

Most of these stories came from the Panchatantra, which is a collection that “evolved” over time. This memetic evolution means that the stories that have come till today are “fit”, and fantastic. It’s similar with Aesop’s Fables – their age means that stories have evolved sufficiently to become damn interesting. And of course, this applies to the Ramayana and Mahabharata as well (and NOT to Christian myth, which didn’t get time to evolve and is thus rather boring).

Speaking of myth, I recently read Neil Gaiman’s book on Norse Mythology.  It’s a good book, and I’ll make Berry read it before she is five. But the stories themselves were all rather underwhelming and devoid of complexity. Considering it’s an ancient myth, which had sufficient time to evolve being written down, the simplicity of plots is rather surprising. Or maybe it’s the way Gaiman told the story.

I’m reminded of this “one Shloka Ramayana” that I’d been made to mug up as a kid (I still remember it “by heart”. Maybe Gaiman’s book is the Norse equivalent of this?

Poorvam Rama Thapovanadhi Gamanam
Hatva Mrigam Kanchanam
Vaidehi Haranam, Jataayu Maranam
Sugreeva Sambhashanam

Bali Nigrahanam, Samudra Tharanam
Lankapuri Dahanam,
Paschath Ravana Kumbhakarna Madanam
Ethat Ithi Ramayanam

In any case, considering the lack of plots in “modern” children’s books, we’re seriously exploring the idea of bringing back truckloads of Amar Chitra Katha when we visit India later this year.

How children change your lives

Over the years I’ve developed this fairly elaborate process of eating curd rice. First I serve myself the rice, and then allow it to cool. Then I pour over curds, and then mix it with the rice. I then serve myself pickles, which should be served on TOP of the curd-rice mixture, and then mix it in. Then I serve myself a fried snack (such as spiced groundnuts or bhujia or a mixture) on the side, and vary the quantity of it I take with each spoon.

So I’m at home with Berry today and decided to have curd rice for lunch. I’d just served myself the rice and curd and mixed it when she decided to wake up from her late-morning nap. Realising she was hungry I decided to feed her first, and first fed her rice mixed with a dal I’d made for her. The normal course of action would have been to then feed her curd rice, and then get on with my meal.

But then I was hungry and feeding her curd rice before I ate it would have made me impatient. In any case, I figured that since we were both going to eat the same thing, I might as well feed her off my plate (I’m quite used to sharing utensils with her, though I haven’t been able to ask her what she thinks of it – she doesn’t speak yet). The only problem was that I could mix in the pickle, since that would have made the mixture too spicy for Berry.

So for the first time in I don’t know how long, I mixed my curd and rice and moved it to one side of the plate. At the other end (our rice plates are elliptical), I served myself a little pickle on one side and mixture on the other. As soon as I started eating, Berry made her way to my knees, and we started eating alternate spoons – I’d add pickle and mixture separately to each spoon of mine, and feed her the curd-rice mixture alone when it was her turn.

She ate well enough for me to get myself a second helping! The only downside of this process (feeding her off my plate) was that I couldn’t measure how much she ate, but I’m not too obsessed with that.

When they tell you that you never know the ways in which kids can change you, I’m not sure people were talking about the way they eat curd-rice!

House husbanding

On Friday I spent my first ever full day as a stay-at-home father. It was rather overwhelming. The daughter is now at an age where she’s learnt to both sit and crawl, and wants to try stand up holding whatever support she can find. And on that very day, she found a fascination for sockets, which are at floor level in our house.

So the morning was spent just making sure she wasn’t trying to reach out into a socket (and one of them is right next to the heater), or hurting herself in other ways. Putting her in the middle of her toys didn’t help – those toys, it seems, aren’t half as interesting as the kitchen floor or the sockets. And so I kept running.

Presently it was time for her breakfast. There’s this Heinz porridge we’ve found which she doesn’t seem to mind, and I tried feeding her that. Midway through her breakfast, she refused to open her mouth, and started crying. It was time for her to sleep, I figured, and put her on my chest. She was soon snoring.

That one time, it wasn’t much of a challenge to transfer her from my chest to her crib (it’s usually an issue, and she cries as soon as I move her away from me). And that little time she slept gave me an opportunity to shit, shower, shave and have my breakfast. Presently she woke up, presenting that cute smile of hers, and it was running all over again.

The second third of the day was the hardest. She was sleepy, and I was supposed to make formula milk for her! And making formula milk is a real bitch, in terms of cleaning the bottles, heating water to the right temperature, etc. I somehow managed it with the background noise of a screaming baby. And then she drank and slept. I was only halfway through making my lunch when she woke up crying (I ultimately ate some old rice with curd for my lunch).

There were many points of time during the day I almost gave up, except that there was no bailout – the wife was far away at work in meetings. I cried a couple of times when the daughter wouldn’t sleep. I sometimes screamed back when she screamed. I nearly went mad.

And then, in the final third, she became normal once again. She’d  rediscovered her toys, and sat in the middle of them, playing. She banged out some jazz tunes on the ancient keyboard we’ve set up on the floor for her. And she felt so happy when I carried her on my shoulders, and demanded that I do it, again, and again, and again!

Making her sit on my shoulders makes her so happy!

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Finally the wife returned early from work to provide me a bailout, and then cooked dinner for me, and asked me to go out, in order to compensate me for the troubles during the day!

Suddenly, after that day, my respect for the wife shot up, for having taken care of the daughter mostly by herself for the first five months. My contention back then was that she was on “maternity leave” (though she was yet to start work, and though she was running Marriage Broker Auntie then), so it should be okay for her to take care of the baby. My contention had also been that since it was relatively easy for her to feed the baby (no need to prep bottles, heat water, mix formula, etc.), and comfort her, it was okay to take care of the baby alone.

One day of house-husbanding, however, has changed my perspective on this. Babies demand a LOT of attention, and the only way you can do this job well is if you completely give up on doing anything all all of your own in that time (including cooking or eating your meals). And it can be bloody exhausting – though it’s possible that with experience you learn to manage things!

So yes, massive respect now for the wife for having taken care of the baby all by herself for the first five months, when I’d be mostly out either working or meeting people or other such stuff! She is awesome!

Letters to my Berry #6

So you turn half today. And I’ll let you write this letter yourself, since over the last week or two you’ve been trying to get to the computer and operate it.

So long, bangalore. We're off to wash our arses in the Thames.

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OK I gave you two minutes, but unlike what you’ve been doing over the last one week, you didn’t try to get to the computer today, so I’ll write this myself.

This last month has been one of big change, as you made your first forin trip. It was a mostly peaceful flight from Bangalore to London, via Dubai. You hardly cried, though you kept screaming in excitement through the flight, and through the layover in Dubai. Whenever someone smiled at you, you’d attempt to talk to them. And it would get a bit embarrassing at times!

Anyway, we got to London, and we had to put you in day care. The first day when I left you at the day care for a one-hour settling in session, I cried. Amma was fine, but I had tears in my eyes, and I don’t know why! And after two settling-in sessions, you started “real day care”, and on the first day it seems you were rather upset, and refused to eat.

So I had to bring you home midway through the day and feed you Cerelac. It was a similar story on the second day – you weren’t upset, but you still wouldn’t eat, so I had to get you home and give you Cerelac. It was only on the third day, that is today, that you finally at ate at the nursery!

The biggest challenge for us after bringing you to London has been to keep you warm, since you refuse to get the concept of warm clothes, and refuse to wear them. And so for the last 10 days you’ve not only got a cold and cough for yourself, but you’ve also transmitted it to both Amma and me 🙁

London has also meant that you’ve started travelling by pram regularly, though after one attempt we stopped taking it on the Underground since it was difficult to negotiate steps. When we have to take the train, I thus carry you in your baby carrier, like a baby Kangaroo!

In the last one month, you’ve also made significant motor improvements. You still can’t sit, but you try to stand now! It seems like you’ve taken after Amma and me in terms of wanting to take the easy way out – you want to stand without working hard for it, and sometimes scream until we hold you up in a standing position.

Your babbles have also increased this month, and we think you said “Appa” a few times in the last one week in the course of the last one week! Maybe I like to imagine that you say it, and maybe you actually call me that! It’s too early to say!

Finally, one note of disappointment – on Monday when you were all crying and upset and refusing to eat at the nursery, I rushed to pick you up, and hoped to see you be very happy when you saw me. As it turned out, you gave me a “K dear, you are here” kind of expression and just came home! Yesterday you actually cried when I came to pick you up!

It seems like you’re becoming a teenager already! And you’re just half!!

Letters to my Berry #5

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Your biggest milestone in your fifth month is that you started to eat. Beyond the milk that Amma directly provided you, and the formula milk that we had started you on after the doctor’s advice, the fifth month was when we started giving you what I called as “real food”.

You started with this thing called “ragi cherry” which I personally didn’t like too much – it was made out of a flour made by mixing ragi and other cereals with some nuts, etc. We would make a porridge out of this with some sweet element, and the first time I ate it, I said it tasted like soapnut powder.

Initially you made a fuss eating the ragi cherry, but to my utmost happiness, you seem to be yet another banana lover. After only two or three times of my feeding you bananas, all I had to do was to take your silver bowl and spoon and make mashing noises – and you’d immediately start salivating.

This was also the month where you started implementing Amma’s old company’s slogan “moving forward”. Given the size of your head you had trouble holding it up, but you invented your own way of moving forward while still keeping your head to the ground. I tried without success to draw an animal analogy – sometimes it seemed like you were like an ostrich with its head buried in the sand. Ranga said you were like an Aardvark, moving forward with your head on the ground.

One night I’d left you on the carpet with my house slippers at the other end of the carpet. I hadn’t been gone for a couple of minutes when I saw that you’d somehow traversed the length of the carpet and was about to eat my slippers! Yet another day, we had left you in your bouncer and gone somewhere, and you were trying to slide down. Amma stopped you, but the next time you attempted it, we let you slide. And we were amazed with the poise with which you got down to the carpet, never once worrying us that you would hurt yourself!

This was also the month when you attended your first wedding – your aunt Barbie’s. You were such a centre of attraction during some of the pre-wedding festivities that you were tired and slept through most of the wedding. Halfway through both the wedding ceremony and the reception, we sent you home so you didn’t tire further. So apart from the photos taken at the beginning of each session, you unfortunately don’t appear in any photos!

And of course, the biggest event in your fifth month was that you got named. While you had been named even before you were born, and your official name had been submitted to the municipality when you were a day old, we did a small naming ceremony for you. There, the family priest Nagabhushana Sharma made us give you several names.

So there was the maasa naama (month name) which the priest himself decided. You were “Shachi”. Then there was the nakshatra naama (star name), which we had to come up with on the spot with the given starting letter. The starting letter for you was “Go” and Amma quickly came up with “Goda”, which she later elongated to “Godavari”.

And there was the vyavahara naama (trade name) which was supposed to represent one of your ancestors. The day I first met Amma in 2009, she had told me that she wanted to name her daughter Rukmini, after her grandmother. So there was no doubt about this one.

And then there was the nija naama (real name), which of course had to be Abheri. I had to shout it loud three times, and I did that with my mouth close to your ear. Thankfully you didn’t get startled – suggesting you like your name, and you won’t hate us later in life for it!

This is a monthly series that ordinarily runs on my wife’s blog, but since I wrote it this time (for the first time), I’m putting it here. 

Earlier editions:

Letters to my Berry – Month#1

Letters to my Berry – Month#2

Letters to my Berry – Prelogue

Letters to my Berry#4


Relative size of hand and mouth

So the daughter and I are playing a game where she makes a gesture and I try to imitate it (this blogpost is not part of the game, of course). Like me, and my mother before me, she’s an expert in contorting her face in all kinds of ways. So it is a fun game, to try and imitate each other in the way we contort faces.

One thing she does which I’m thoroughly incapable of replicating, however, is putting hands in mouth. She seems well capable of inserting her whole hand inside her mouth. On the other hand I struggle to even put in a finger or two.

This makes me wonder about the relative growth patterns in hands and mouths. As a baby, we are born with big heads and faces, and consequently big mouths. Limbs are tiny in comparison. As we grow, though, our limbs grow much faster than our heads, to the effect that soon we become incapable of putting hands in our mouths, and at best, can just suck on a thumb!

Another thing I’ve noticed in my daughter’s growing up is that she seems thoroughly incapable of putting her big toes in her mouth. It’s a well documented fact (with photos) that I used to do a fair amount of this as a baby. Even now, with some effort I can bring around my big toe and can suck on it if I want to. The daughter, however, seems thoroughly incapable of doing that.

Conventional wisdom is that as we grow older our bodies become less flexible. I wonder if it’s actually a curve that first increases, hits a maximum and then decreases slowly through life. So maybe my daughter can’t suck on her big toe because she’s too small for it (she’s three months old now)!

Whatever it is, it’s fascinating to watch babies grow!

Damming the Nile and diapers

One of the greatest engineering problems in the last century was to determine the patterns in the flow of the Nile. It had been clear for at least a couple of millennia that the flow of the river was not regular, and the annual flow did not follow something like a normal distribution.

The matter gained importance in the late 1800s when the British colonial government decided to dam the Nile. Understanding accurately the pattern of flows of the river was important to determine the capacity of the reservoir being built, so that both floods and droughts could be contained.

The problem was solved by Harold Edwin Hurst, a British hydrologist who was posted in Egypt for over 60 years in the 20th Century. Hurst defined his model as one of “long-range dependence”, and managed to accurately predict the variation in the flow of the river. In recognition of his services, Egyptians gave him the moniker “Abu Nil” (father of the Nile). Later on, Benoit Mandelbrot named a quantity that determines the long-range dependence of a time series after Hurst.

I’ve written about Hurst once before, in the context of financial markets, but I invoke him here with respect to a problem closer to me – the pattern of my daughter’s poop.

It is rather well known that poop, even among babies, is not a continuous process. If someone were to poop 100ml of poop a day (easier to use volume rather than weight in the context of babies), it doesn’t mean they poop 4ml every hour. Poop happens in discrete bursts, and the number of such bursts per day depends upon age, decreasing over time into adulthood.

One might think that a reasonable way to model poop is to assume that the amount of poop in each burst follows a normal distribution, and each burst is independent of the ones around it. However, based on a little over two months’ experience of changing my daughter’s diapers, I declare this kind of a model to be wholly inaccurate.

For, what I’ve determined is that far from being normal, pooping patterns follow long-range dependence. There are long time periods (spanning a few diaper changes) when there is no, or very little, poop. Then there are times when it flows at such a high rate that we need to change diapers at a far higher frequency than normal. And such periods are usually followed by other high-poop periods. And so on.

In other words, the amount of poop has positive serial correlation. And to use the index that Mandelbrot lovingly constructed and named in honour of Hurst, the Hurst exponent of my daughter’s (and other babies’) poop is much higher than 0.5.

This makes me wonder if diaper manufacturers have taken this long-range dependence into account while determining diaper capacity. Or I wonder if, instead, they simply assume that parents will take care of this by adjusting the inter-diaper-change time period.

As Mandelbrot describes towards the end of his excellent Misbehaviour of markets , you can  use so-called “multifractal models” which combine normal price increments with irregular time increments to get an accurate (fractal) representation of the movement of stock prices.

PS: Apologies to those who got disgusted by the post. Until a massive burst a few minutes ago I’d never imagined I’d be comparing the flows of poop and the Nile!