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.

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 #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


Working women, maternity and all that

As I write this, my wife is at work. Though her official gainful fulltime employment starts only a few months later (her employers have deferred her joining date thanks to the baby), she is continuing with her work as Marriage Broker Auntie (which she is now pivoting into something like a “Love Training School“).

In fact, our daughter was barely a week old when my wife decided to get back to business, in her quest to get more people “settled down” and “find partners” (she even brokered a deal from her hospital bed as they tried to induce labour in her). And so I’ve been able to observe, at reasonably close quarters, what it’s like to work while having a tiny baby.

Some times, you think it just doesn’t matter. That she works mainly from home means that she’s always with the baby. There are always sufficiently long periods of time when the baby sleeps when she can do her emails and writing. While sleep is definitely disturbed (by at least two hour-long feeding sessions each night), that she doesn’t engage in other strenuous work means she can handle the work stress.

But then there are the minor irritants. Meetings are a no-no, for example, since she can’t go out, and it doesn’t always make sense to call business acquaintances home. She’s been trying to substitute it with Skype/Facetime calls, but the challenge has been in terms of timing.

Given that some of the people she works with are fairly busy, she needs to pre-schedule calls, and with the baby’s feeding and sleeping schedule being rather uncertain, this is not an easy task. And then there is the problem of having someone take care of the baby during the call, which means the call has to take place at a time when I’m at home.

And so she is on a Skype call now. As she went in for the call, she asked me to handle the baby until it was done, promising that it would be a short call. As it usually happens in such situations, Abheri decided to start crying some two minutes after Priyanka went in for the call.

I tried all my usual tricks. I lay her down on my chest, a technique that usually comforts her in no time, but to no avail (I’ve read about the merits of skin-to-skin contact with the baby but given up on it after she decided to eat my chest hair). I then tried this face-down neck-hold (that I’ve nicknamed “choke slam”), which again usually works in calming her. Again no luck.

Then I smelt shit and thought she was crying because she needed a change of diapers. That didn’t help either. Rocking and singing and swaying and talking – all usually have an immediate effect but none whatsoever today. It was obvious that Abheri was hungry.

So I had to call emergency. Thankfully Priyanka’s Skype call is voice only (or maybe she switched, since she typically prefers video), so she managed to take a little break from the call to take Abheri from my hands. She (Abheri) immediately calmed down – food wasn’t far away.

Priyanka is still on her call, cradling Abheri with one hand against her breast, as Abheri feeds. And Priyanka continues to work.

Major level up in respect for her to see her work this way.

And major envy as well – that she can hold the baby and simultaneously work – nearly four weeks in and I’ve still not mastered the art of holding the baby with one hand, so I can’t work while carrying her!

PS: As for the new law that increases maternity leave, I’m sceptical, since I believe that full-time employment is something that will soon be history. More importantly, the law raises the cost of hiring women, so I’m not sure it will have its intended consequences. Read Priyanka’s excellent analysis here.

Bayesian recognition in baby similarity

When people come to see small babies, it’s almost like they’re obliged to offer their opinions on who the child looks like. Most of the time it’s an immediate ancestor – either a parent or grandparent. Sometimes it could be a cousin or aunt or uncle as well. Thankfully it’s uncommon to compare babies’ looks to those who they don’t share genes with.

So as people have come up and offered their opinions on who our daughter looks like (I’m top seed, I must mention), I’ve been trying to analyse how they come up with their predictions. And as I observe the connections between people making the observations, and who they mention, I realise that this too follows some kind of Bayesian Recognition.

Basically different people who come to see the baby have different amounts of information on how each of the baby’s ancestors looked like. A recent friend of mine, for example, will only know how my wife and I look. An older friend might have some idea of how my parents looked. A relative might have a better judgment of how one of my parents looked than how I looked.

So based on their experiences in recognising different people in and around the baby’s immediate ancestry, they effectively start with a prior distribution of who the baby looks like. And then when they see the baby, they update their priors, and then mention the person with the highest posterior probability of matching the baby’s face and features.

Given that posterior probability is a function of prior probability, there is no surprise that different people will disagree on who the baby looks like. After all, each of their private knowledge of the baby’s ancestry’s idiosyncratic faces, and thus their priors, will be different!

Unrelated, but staying on Bayesian reasoning, I recently read this fairly stud piece in Aeon on why stereotyping is not necessarily a bad thing. The article argues that in the absence of further information, stereotypes help us form a good first prior, and that stereotypes only become a problem if we fail to update our priors with any additional information we get.

The one bit machine

My daughter is two weeks old today and she continues to be a “one bit machine”. The extent of her outward communication is restricted to a maximum of one bit of information. There are basically two states her outward communication can fall under – “cry” and “not cry”, and given that the two are not equally probable, the amount of information she gives out is strictly less than one bit.

I had planned to write this post two weeks back, the day she was born, and wanted to speculate how long it would take for her to expand her repertoire of communication and provide us with more information on what she wants. Two weeks in, I hereby report that the complexity of communication hasn’t improved.

Soon (I don’t know how soon) I expect her to start providing us more information – maybe there will be one kind of cry when she’s hungry, and another when she wants her diaper changed. Maybe she’ll start displaying other methods of outward communication – using her facial muscles, for example (right now, while she contorts her face in a zillion ways, there is absolutely no information conveyed), and we can figure out with greater certainty what she wants to convey.

I’m thinking about drawing a graph with age of the person on the X axis, and the complexity of outward information on the Y axis. It starts off with X = 0 and Y = 1 (I haven’t bothered measuring the frequency of cry/no-cry responses so let’s assume it’s equiprobable and she conveys one bit). It goes on to X = 14 days and Y = 1 (today’s state). And then increases with time (I’m hoping).

While I’m sure research exists some place on the information content per syllable in adult communication, I hope to draw this graph sometime based on personal observation of my specimen (though that would limit it to one data point).

Right now, though, I speculate what kind of shape this graph might take. Considering it has so far failed to take off at all, I hope that it’ll be either an exponential (short-term good but long-term I don’t know ) or a sigmoid (more likely I’d think).

Let’s wait and see.