Piggy Bank 3: In Which We Talk About Financial Greenhouse Effect, Teach Math to Kids and Plan a Family Dinner

March 22, 2009

Mid-2008:

I discover one day that coins are scattered all across the house. Some in my wallet, some in my laptop pouch, my wife’s purse, many in the shelves and drawers all around, coins everywhere.

I wonder why there were so many coins and then it strikes me. Coins enter the household via myriad transactions with the sabji-wallah, cigarette seller, grocer etc. A coin by itself these days has no buying power and hence it remains consigned within the house. And it is quite a task to put them together to extract some “collective” purchasing power as it were. And hence they gather over months, even years.

There, my own theory of the financial greenhouse effect: A green house traps heat as the heat which comes in cannot go out as it is “weakened”, something similar too with the humble coin!

In an inspired moment over a weekend, I think I should contribute to the household tidiness by putting these coins together. I summon my kids and we set about unearthing coins from all corners of the house. They ooze out from everywhere, some from even the little medicine box we have, probably a reflection of the second decimal place pricing of medicines and hence the consequent “change” received in each transaction.

“But Papa, why are we collecting all these coins?” asks the younger son.

I fancy myself as a great parent and I proceeded to give him a homily about how each paise counts. “Boond boond sey ghada bharta hai”, etc. I am not sure he understood, but my sons did enjoy inserting the coins, one-by-one, into an innovated piggy bank which I fashion from an empty plastic carton. I seal the sides of the flaps with some sturdy plaster tape and cut open with a knife an aperture on the top of the cube to insert the coins.

“This now is our piggy bank. And we shall ensure that all the coins are placed into this.” I intone.

“But what happens when this box is full?” asks the elder one now.

“We shall see, we shall see”, is my response.

“No, but tell me, what shall we do with these coins when the box gets full”, persists Son the Elder.

Then comes my big brainwave. “A dinner at Hotel Leela’s Jamavar with all the money we collect.” Jamavar is our favourite restaurant. What a motivational device for the kids. And the wife!

Son the younger is incredulous. “Papa, you must be joking.” Poor chap cannot comprehend that a Jamavar meal could be had in exchange for a box full of coins. He has always seen me settling the bill with my credit card!

“But how are you sure that the boxful of coins will be enough to pay for the restaurant bill?” The elder son, ever the objective type, queries.

This has me stumped for a while. Really, how could I ever know this.

Then comes a bigger brainwave. Time now to mix some academics to this exercise!

“How would you calculate the volume of this cube?” I say referring to our piggy bank.

“Simple, it is a cube, so length into breadth into height is the volume. Since all sides are equal…..” the objective one’s voice trails off. “But what has this got to do with the amount of money?” he pipes up again.

The rest of the Math is a bit complicated but suffice it to say that among the 3 of us we agree upon the average size of the coins (the new 50 paise coin), stack up 20 of them together (that’s Rs 10 worth of coins), measure the height and diameter of this pile. And then do a pi-r-squared-h number on this one and reach an approximation of the “volume occupied per rupee” in a manner of speaking. And then it is a simple exercise: divide the volume of the cube with the volume “per rupee” and we have a fairly good approximation of what the amount collected would be like once our piggy bank is full.

I do not remember the amount now but it was more than what we have ever paid at Jamavar during our prior visits. Maybe a few hundred rupees less to account for the gaps between the coins. Afterall, the coins inserted are not expected to slide down into neat cylinders inside the piggy bank.

Elder one is agape with admiration while the younger one cannot comprehend the complexities but is now pretty convinced that Jamavar is not so far, after all! And I, a proud father, preen with glory that not only I am tidying up the house but also inculcating values of small savings in my kids and teaching them applied mensuration. “Waah, waah”, I said to myself.

The next few days the entire family is busy inserting spare coins into the box. The loose change kept in the car to enable the driver to pay the parking fee is removed by the kids and inserted into the piggy bank. My wife looks forward to receiving more coins from the sabji-wallah’s, in fact she would ask for it. I am happy that the price of a pack of my brand of cigarettes goes up from Rs 80 to Rs 88. That meant I can contribute Rs 2 per packet bought. (When I mention this to my wife, her response is terse: “You could contribute Rs 88 for every packet not smoked if you quit smoking.” I keep quiet about my contribution after this!)

Each day the kids check the amount of coin in the piggy bank. Not a difficult exercise as the carton is made of translucent plastic and they can judge the level of the coin by holding the “bank” up against light.

“Papa, this does not seem to be getting filled up”, says the younger one, one evening when I return from office. “What shall we do?”

Not quite the question one expects after a 10-hour stay at the office. And I snap back, “There is a quicker way. You just have to go around all the 384 apartments in our residential complex with this piggy bank and ask for donations for the Jamavar cause. If all drop in a coin on each visit, the box will be full in maybe 3-4 weeks.”

My proposal has no takers! Not surprisingly, my kids are taken aback at this, what they rightly think, is a stupid suggestion while my wife takes-off on me for my silly Jamavar plan and an even sillier plan of donation seeking.

Cut to last fortnight:

I return home after office one evening and the kids come running to me. “Papa, papa, the coin box is full. We verified it this afternoon. When shall we go to Jamavar?”

“This Saturday”, I said, happy that this project of mine was coming to an end.

“Excellent”, the kids clap, “But how do we pay the Jamavar guy?” This credit card generation cannot bridge the distance between the restaurant bill and the box of coins.

“Very simple! We take the box to the restaurant. We sit down. We place the box on our table. When the steward comes to take the order we just tell him to count all the coins in front of us on the table and then we order a meal for a corresponding value.

I do not notice the incredulous faces of my sons and my wife. They are agape with the thought of the steward spreading the coins on the starched table linen, bunching coins of different denominations together and then proceeding to count them.

I continue cheerfully, “The other alternative is that, we proceed towards the cashier’s counter with the check and ask him to help himself to coins from our box corresponding to the check amount.”

Needless to say my brainwaves are vetoed.

We still have a boxful of coins in our cupboard and a Jamavar to visit. Suggestions, anyone?

Concluded

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Piggy Banks 2: In Which Stray Coins Save the Day

March 22, 2009

Cut to late 1980’s.

I was staying as a paying guest in Bangalore. I was a bachelor then, so I had to fend for myself for my meals. Mercifully I stayed very close to “Queens”, an eatery on Church street, off Brigade Road. In case you have not discovered it yet, it is highly recommended. I would go there every evening for my dinner. The menu was by-and-large fixed; rotis and a sabzi. I would order a non-veg dish or a daal if I felt rich that evening. The meal would cost some Rs 30-35.

One Saturday evening I realized I did not have any cash with me. Maybe some five rupees, enough to buy me that evening’s stock of smokes. But how do I get a dinner? Remember that era had hardly any credit cards, and no ATMs.

And I was terribly hungry!

I could have asked Anil, the proprietor of Queens, to offer me credit and I was sure he would oblige considering I was a long-standing patron. But I was highly embarrassed at this prospect. “What will he think”, I thought to myself. I am sure he would say, “This big executive with that big company does not have enough cash to pay for a paltry dinner!” One adjective at least was not correct, I was a fledgling product manager and not a “big executive”. But to be honest I was earning enough to pay for a Queens dinner.

And then I realized, while I may have been cash-starved, I certainly was coin-abundant! Coins lying in an old unused ash tray in the house, coins lying in the broken glass bowl next to the two-in-one I had, coins in my wallet, coins in an old cigarette pack, coins strewn behind the rows of books. There were coins everywhere in the house!

I promptly collected all the coins and counted them all; Rs 83! Rupees Eighty Three! That was enough to buy me two meals at Queens with at least one of the meals with a side dish of chicken!

But how would I carry so many coins in my pocket? My pocket would jingle all the way to Queens! As I was wearing my shoes to leave, an idea struck me. A shoe sock to carry the coins, that was the answer! I quickly located an old shoe sock and put all the coins in them. This formed a nice little bundle which I rather sheepishly carried with me. Imagine me walking on Rest House Road (that is where I stayed) and then across Church Street to Queens. Me and my sock-ful of coins.

Upon reaching Queens I looked around furtively for known faces. Mercifully there were none that time. I placed the sock (thankfully washed) in front of Anil. I am sure Anil was totally bewildered by this. I inched closer to him and explained my predicament. I requested him to use this to recover the due for that evening’s meal and the balance for the following evening’s!

Anil, being the polite guy he is, he swept aside the coin thaili without even counting the coins. “Enjoy your dinner”, he said.

Enjoy my dinner I did. Thank you Queens, and thank you coins!

To be concluded


Piggy Banks 1: In Which We Discover the Joys of Micro-Finance

March 19, 2009

I wonder why they call it a piggy bank, that repository of loose change lying around the house.

In my days there were no piggies, though coin collection was a pretty wide-spread habit. Perhaps those were the days when there was an abundance of coins, right from one naya paisa, two naye paise, three, five, ten, twenty, twenty-five, and fifty naye paise. The one rupee coin was not in currency then. These were called “nayapaisa as it was only recently in 1960 India moved to the decimal currency. Prior to this was the (old) paisa and anna regime. Six paise made an anna and sixteen annas made a rupee. You may have heard of the phrase “solah anna sach”. This is still in use and means full truth, cent per cent truth.

The abundance of coin denominations was not to keep the mints busy, but those days you could actually buy tangible stuff with each of these coins. The one paisa coin could get you some chooran, two paise would get you some chooran of a better variety or a peppermint, the three paise coin would get you the basic ice-cream lolly while the five paise coin would get you the lolly and the superior chooran; the lolly was dipped in the chooran which was sucked off the icy substrate before the lolly was bitten into!

Like most kids, even I was into coin collection. But this was a habit and not a hobby (as different from the then popular kiddies’ hobby, stamp collection). Coins were available in abundance. If you went to a shop with a twenty five paise coin and bought a fifteen paise pencil and a five paise eraser, with some persuasion your mother may allow you to retain the balance five paise. Or a visiting uncle, while leaving the house, would pass you a twenty five paise coin as a token of love. Or you would sometimes find a coin on the road. All these would find their way into our piggy bank.

No fancy piggy banks for us. We had our own version, typically a sealed oil tin can, emptied of its contents. In our household, Tata’s Coconut Oil was the preferred brand. (Shalimar too was a popular brand). Coconut hair oil was something we used to apply to our hair after a bath. Ostensibly for hair nourishment, but actually to keep straying hair strands in place! We would eagerly wait for the can to get empty, sometimes even increasing consumption to hasten the emptying. Once empty, the top was the can was “operated” upon with a hammer and a sharp tool (typically some gardening implement) to get an aperture wide and long enough to enable insertion of coins into the can.

This was not enough, though, to start the coin collection process. The residual oil in the can had to be washed away lest the coins blacken while in storage. The oil was washed away by boiling some water and Surf powder in the can. This was followed by drying the can for days in the sun. And then our piggy bank was ready to receive its occupants, the humble coins.

The metallic tinkle as the coin hit the bottom of the can was music to our ears. And the jangle of the can after a few coins found their way in was a symphony! Plans would be made as our coin collection grew: a new book, a new toy, a dosa at the nearby eatery. The options were endless. We could hardly wait for the collection to grow!

But in this love story enters a villain, the local “ice-cream” vendor! He would come rolling his cartful of enticing goodies. And he would time his visits just when we would return from our schools. After agonizing minutes of denial, we would succumb to the ice-cream wallah’s call. But where was the money? In the piggy bank of course! A deft manoeuver with the sharp end of the school compass into the aperture of the can held facing down and a coin would tumble down, and then the other, and then another. Some kids would have mastery over the esoteric art of removing coins from the can with some dexterous shakes and turns of the upturned can. I could never do it!

Ice-cream eaten, coin stock depleted and then the wait to insert more coins. This would go on-and-on in an endless loop.

The coconut oil can would continue to be our treasure chest.

(To be continued)


Vignettes of a (North) Indian Baraat

March 10, 2009

It was perhaps after decades that I participated in a baraat. For those uninitiated, let me explain what a baraat is.

A baraat is the procession accompanying the groom on his way from the janwaasa (the groom’s camping site) to the bride’s place. But the imagery suffused in this activity is replete with symbolism. Like do you know that the baraat, or the wedding procession, symbolizes an army accompanying the chief warrior (the groom, of course) out to wage war with the bride’s “side” to “win” the girl? This kind-of explains the war-like readiness of the wedding procession and the accompanying musical instruments (Band-baaja in local parlance).

And in case you are not aware, there is a “small” groom, called –Seh-baala– who accompanies the groom in the same vehicle. This kid, is the surrogate groom. Should the real one die while fighting the bride’s side, the “small” groom would fill in for the real one!

The baraat comprises of the foot-soldiers of this army, also called baraatis.

So there I was, in Patna after nearly a whole day travel from Bangalore. First a flight to Kolkata, then a six hour layover at Kolkata airport and then a flight to Patna. I would normally not take such arduous journeys across the country to attend a relative’s wedding. But the groom was special, my favourite cousin. And I am fond of the groom’s parents- my mama and maami– as well. So this was a journey I had to make.

The baraatis were mostly my relatives from Jamshedpur. They had traveled by train through the night and were lodged in a building virtually next door to the bride’s house. This is called the janwaasa, the camping site of the baraatis.

The timing of the baraat was fixed between 6pm and 8 pm. This had nothing to do with any auspicious muhurat or anything. The determinant of the baraat timing was the availability of the brass band. I understood that the particular day was a very busy one for weddings. The band had parceled out the evening in 3 shifts. 6-8 pm, 8-10 pm, 10-12 midnight. So this brass band was to play in 3 different baraats, all the way till midnight!

I was not staying at the janwaasa; I was staying at my in-law’s place, a few minutes drive from the janwaasa. (I was visiting my in-laws after nearly 4 years!). After all the pampering I had at my sasural (in-law’s place) by my mother-in-law and sister-in-law, I had to drag myself out to the baraat. I had to remind myself that I had come all the way to be a baraati and not just to be pampered by the in-laws!

I reach the venue at 5.45 pm, dressed in my best suit and tie. I thought the baraatis would be all set to leave. Nothing of the sort. They were still lolling around, bantering and gossiping, awaiting their clothes to be pressed and shoes to be polished. Some were taking a last minute shave. After all, it is only a well-groomed army which wins the battle!

Boot Polish, anyone...?

Boot Polish, anyone...?

6 pm: Still no signs of action, I was getting restless. What about the 6-8 pm timing? Someone quickly reassured me, timing is only a figure of speech. It just divides the evening/ night into 3 portions, nothing more, nothing less. So, I was advised, to relax!

6.15 pm: Sudden cacophony at the door. The brass band had started! Some of the youngsters rushed out to advise them on what songs to play. It always is a Hindi or Bhojpuri film song! And as always, the clarinet player is the leader of the band. He is the only guy who dresses differently. Not in the brass band’s, well, brassy costume, but a jacket. I love these brass bands and this Musa Band as good as any I have heard before!

Musa Band in attendance

Musa Band in attendance

The Clarinet guy

The Clarinet guy

6.45 pm: I see some stirrings among the baraatis. We are now ready to go, I think.

7.00 pm: I was wrong. The groom, who has been holed up in a hotel room along with a chosen few has not turned up yet. Poor chap is stuck in a traffic jam somewhere on the way. No baraat without the groom. How can an army leave without its commander? A flower bedecked car waits at the janwaasa for its most important passenger, the groom.

Tense Wait for the Groom

Tense Wait for the Groom

7.30 pm: The baraat starts its march. But wait a minute, the bride’s place is just a 300 meters away. What is the point of the baraat if the journey concludes in 5 minutes. No, the baraat proceeds in the completely direction. No amount of convincing from others that the alternate route culminates in a cul de sac deters the baraatis.

7.45 pm: The baraat is wending its way in the reverse direction. The gaudily-dressed band players in the middle led by the nattily dressed clarinet-wallah. The grubbily- dressed light carriers with the generator-set trolley trailing behind. The large truck-like vehicle with a humongous-sized loud-speakers and the solitary male singer blaring away unmindful that his voice was getting drowned in the brass band cacophony. And then the baraatis. All dressed in their best.

8.00 pm: The baraatis hit the cul de sac. Time now for an about turn! Imagine 50 odd baraatis, a dozen or so band-wallahs, the gen-set trolley, the aforementioned truck, the light-wallahs complete with loosely-hanging electric wires emanating from the gen-set trolley threading the head-borne lighting fixtures together all taking a U –turn. This nearly impossible task made even more difficult thanks to a dozen odd cows and their minders walking in the opposite direction in that narrow lane!

Musa Band and the Lights

Musa Band and the Lights

8.15 pm: The baraat has finally turned around and heading back to where it started from. The walk should now be short and simple, but some of the younger baraatis have different ideas.

Two highly enthusiastic youngsters are dancing right in the front of the car. The car moves a meter or so and then is stopped by the dancers who by now have pulled in more and more people. Yours truly included!

Oh, those dancers!

Oh, those dancers!

Someone decides to add to the celebratory mood and uncorks the bubbly! Not champagne, as you would imagine but bottles of Sprite, Mirinda and Coke! We are all dancing now in our sodden jackets and suits.

Some more of the Dancers

Some more of the Dancers

Just as I thought the dancing was done with and we would finally move ahead, comes the burst of fire-crackers. A 5000 lari right in the middle of the road. Some more crawling of the baraat, some more dancing, some more firecrackers. And then some more of the same.

8.45 pm: We are now back exactly to the point where we started from! The bride’s family is getting a bit worried at this delay and one of them walks into the melee of the dancers requesting them to make haste. And this poor chap is promptly pulled into the group to shake a leg or two! One of the baraatis, a venerable old man dressed in a dhoti and kurta is pulled into the dancing party. He is angry, ANGRY! He pulls himself away threatening dire consequences for the revelers.

8.45pm to 9.15 pm: Dancing, firecrackers, dancing, firecrackers…. Distance moved 200 m. The bride’s family getting more and more restless. And so are most of the baraatis. They are tired now after nearly two hours of walking!

9.15 pm: Someone from the bride’s family has bribed the driver of the car carrying the groom to dodge the dancers and reach the bride’s place. The band strikes the famous “Yeh desh hai veer jawanon ka”. (I wonder why this is the chosen song bands play, including in my wedding some 17 years ago, when the groom reaches the bride’s place. To instill some confidence in the groom?) The revelers surround the car and take to some final ultra-vigorous dancing as the pundits from either side start the “dwaar puja” which is the traditional welcome to the groom.

9.30 pm: I am tired now. Really tired! My Sprite-sodden suit does not help the cause. The marriage ceremony will take place only after midnight.

I am dying now for my dinner and a return back to my in-law’s place for a night’s rest!

My baraat act is over!

The Grooms' Headgear atop the Car

The Grooms' Headgear atop the Car


List-o-Mania

March 6, 2009

I am a compulsive list-maker. From things-to-do-at-office, to things-to-buy-before-a-family vacation, books-to-read, movies-to-watch. Even things to do on a weekend: balance my cheque books, get a hair cut, write a letter, list of calls to make etc.

The “list-of-lists” is endless.

Sample this: List of Enid Blyton’s “Famous Five” books not read when I was a kid. This graduated into list of James Hadley Chase books I read. And then into list of Harold Robbins novels I had read.

Maybe if I had kept a record of my lists through the years it would make a great input for my future biographers!

I was a book maniac but a bigger a movie maniac. My movie lists went thus: List of Amitabh and Rekha movies not seen (very few), list of MKD’s movie (MKD= Manmohan Desai of Amar Akbar Anthony fame), list of Filmfare awards won by Laxmikant Pyarelal. Etc. etc.

Lists have their uses. An obvious ones is the famous “dhobi list”; 3 shirts, 4 trousers, 2 kurtas etc. How else will you trace the errors of omission by your iron-wallah? Or the list of items you may give to your maid servant/ driver/friendly-neighborhood guy in case you yourself are not in a position to visit a store.

And the famous new year’s resolutions list. Famously made by most of us at the end of the year, and promptly forgotten in the second week of the new year. I have placed quitting smoking as a top priority in each of my New Year lists. And I failed. And failed in some others as well. So much so that I have stopped making these new year lists now.

So by now you can see there are two kinds of lists. One type which pulls information pieces together, all scattered strands of information coalesce together to form a whole unit by itself. And the other type is the to-do or the action list.

Lists have this way of delivering life to you in small packages, small digestible morsels. “Here is a list, these are the things you ought to be doing. These are important.” And your life for the moment/day/week is done.

Lists by definition have a sense of exactitude about them. THESE are the things a need to do in THAT finite time. No less, and more importantly no more. The precise compass to navigate the day-to-day uncertainties of life. A list says, “Look here old chap, if you do all these contained within me, you job is done”. But the flip side is, the list might even bite back at you; “Look here silly old chap, you goofed up!! You have not done things which you were supposed to”!

Lists do place their demands on you but those who negotiate their way through feel right on top of the world!

Long time ago, when I was a bachelor staying at Bangalore, I would go to a small restaurant (eminently recommended Queens on Church Street) for my dinners. Being sick of making decisions about what to order each evening, I once made a list of the dishes I would have for each day of the week and handed it over to the steward. He was a bit taken aback initially. But he soon realized that this arrangement worked perfectly fine.

When my kids were growing up, they would come up with a barrage of demands.

“I want this game CD.”
“I need a new pair of sneakers.”
“I want to watch this movie.”
“I want to go out for pizzas.”
“What about panipuris?”

Etc., etc., etc.

I did not want to get into instant gratification mode and buy all what the kids wanted immediately. And it felt cruel to keep on saying no to them whenever they would come up with their demands.

So one weekend I sat them down and began asking them what all they want. They started instantly. “book”, “new pencil”, “Pokemon cards”, “New Beyblade”. And a lot many more. I kept encouraging them to add more to the list which I was neatly writing down on a sheet of paper. Once in a while I would include some of my own agenda. “Clean-up your desks”, “clip your finger nails”, “polish your shoes”. They were only too happy to have these as well on the agenda. I called this activity “brain-storming” exercise and the kids were absolutely fascinated.

The list was affixed to the fridge door with a magnet.

The week passed and some of the stuff in the list was done, some were not. Whenever something was done, the kids would strike it off themselves.

Come the next weekend, I sat with the kids again and we reviewed the list together. The done things were rechecked and new agenda points were added. The kids were satisfied that there was progression. And over the next few weeks much progress happened while many “demands” appeared silly to them, so these were dropped out of the list with consensus.

What this achieved for me as a parent was avoiding pressure from the kids for instant gratification. The kids on the other hand saw that their wants were met, though over a period of time. And they were pretty OK with that.

This process of “brain storming” continued for a few years and it slowly died a natural death. We still joke about the “brain storming” days within our family even after so many years!

PS: Taking a cue from the “Queens” experience, I once tried to be helpful to my wife who one weekend morning complained about the humdrum nature of her work and that she had to figure out each day what to cook for the family. Helpful guy that I am, I promptly offered to make her a list of dishes to prepare for a fortnight. It was not surprising when she ticked me off and asked me to mind my own business! I do not remember whether I got my meals that weekend or not!