Travel for The National

Travelling with kids: Nile

I have started a new contributing gig, which is right up my alley. I’ve sent a series of essays under the title “Travelling with kids.” Here is the first one.

Travelling with kids: gods, mummies, kings and origami in Egypt
Shoba Narayan

December 19, 2013 Updated: December 19, 2013 17:25:00
We’re at the foot of the Pyramids, discussing gods, mummies, kings and the Arab Spring. Our guide, Ahmed, had driven us through downtown Cairo, pointing out Tahrir Square and other points of protest, all of which interests my husband but not my daughters.

Finally, at the Pyramids, Ahmed tells us about Horus, Isis, Osiris and Ra, all of which is music to the ears of my fifth-grader, who has just finished studying Egyptian history for a term. She comprehends everything that Ahmed says and matches her demons to our guide’s gods.

“Are you sure Anubis didn’t help Osiris and Horus in the battle between Upper Egypt and Lower Egypt?” she asked Ahmed, her eyes shining under the blazing sun. “This is the worst vacation of my life,” moans my teenage daughter.

It’s about to get worse. We’re setting off on a one-week cruise down the Nile. Our guide is travelling with us and will explain every ancient monument and ruin that we come across. What do you do if you have one child who is a history buff and one who wants nothing to do with it?

Egypt is a particularly hard place to confront this conundrum. Most historical holidays offer options that have little to do with history. England, for example, oozes history from every tower and bridge for those inclined, but also offers shopping, as well as food for the soul and for the stomach. Egypt, on the other hand, offers little by way of distraction for people who aren’t engrossed by its gods and demons.

The first day is a mess. The boat docks at a historical monument. We walk amid its sandstone ruins, filling our ears with stories that we’ve already heard.

Our teenager wanders the souvenir shops, but even they offer the same merchandise: toy pyramids, toy hieroglyphics, toy mummies. “What I wouldn’t give for an H&M?” mutters my daughter, trailing after the guide.

We return to the boat to find a beautiful origami made from our towels. The housekeeping staff have artfully crafted three cranes out of three towels. My teenager is immediately drawn to it.

“Don’t move it,” she cries as we attempt to touch it. She examines it carefully, trying to recreate the steps. “Why don’t you just go and ask the housekeepers how to do it?” suggests my husband.

The artist of this particular creation, it turns out, is a charming 21-year-old lad named Omar. His eyes dance with pleasure as we compliment his work. Sure, he says, he’d be glad to teach towel origami to my daughter.

We make a deal: we’ll cut short the history tours by 45 minutes and come back to the boat to learn origami as a family. Each afternoon, we sit on the upper deck, sipping drinks and chatting with Omar about life in small-town Egypt, while fashioning alligators, bears, cranes and snakes out of white towels. It’s the best education that we get, and my teenage daughter doesn’t even know it.


  1. Shoba OK I got to hand it to you, you have guts. Thanks for answering.

    My question was simple (not sure “simplistic”): did kids take to the “Indian” thing. “Hard to say” is a gutsy and truthful answer (though, knowing you a little by now Shoba, I know it was probably very difficult to come out and say so). I get the whole point about “kids as parental choices”, and “do screwed up kids make for better artists or musicians” etc. I don’t know if there is a yardstick to judge this, and if “accomplishment” or “groundedness” is the right yard/s on the yardstick. So OK I get that these are broad and complex questions.

    Lastly this is your house Shoba and I totally respect your personal space. If you remember the very first time I posted on your blog I wrote about my wife (who like you is from Chennai), and she’s still looking for that job. We’re holding off on kids until certain other goals (stability etc) are achieved.

    HTH, Cheers,


    1. Shoba thanks for engaging. This is (again) an interesting debate. My 2 cents

      One, you say below (and in RtI) that you are the prime mover. But as I once asked (here), there is a small contradiction that half of your list of reasons had to do with kids. Your “experiments” (in RtI) are focused completely on your children, and there’s a significant section devoted to the Indian-American (kids point of view) conflict.

      So I think Vinay’s question, which is basically what others asked (in that Motherlode piece), is totally fair, and also sufficiently abstract and “non-sensitive”.

      Also Shoba I don’t think it’s fair of you to quid-pro-quo him. You wrote the book, and it is your professional obligation to respond to your (careful) readers. Privacy is one thing, you can decline to comment on sensitive stuff. But in my humble opinion I don’t think it’s professional or fair to ask your readers to write about their kids as a pre-req.

      (Of course, yahan hum sab apne hain, so I can’t resist saying that I am in the same boat as Vinay, married and no kids yet. Naina I think is single, but that is not for me to say.)

      Two, you did say it is “hard to say” on the absorption question. That wasn’t a big picture parenting question. (Which is a bigger and arguably more complex question.) But what we are rightly curious about are the issues faced by transplant children be it school/life/friends etc in Indian context. This is where you have both the material and the gift of being able to write it. There is a great book here.

      Having said all that I will also say that your kids are fairly normal. It is the natural order of things for every successive generation to push the limits and go beyond what their parents did. Generation gap is a perpetual phenomenon. For us it was rock music and Lehar Pepsi, and dubbed cassette tapes of AC-DC were the social media of our generation. We dived into our walkman every day and today the walkman has become the iPod. Such is life. Your kids are normal, change is change, peers are peers, and India or parenting has zip to do with it.

      I hope you write that next book Shoba. I actually think you’re beginning to do it with gentle steps, in these articles about how your life,kids etc is coming along. Kudos. We are always with you.


      1. RG: I agree, which is why I am engaging. How easy would it be to fob you all off with a non-reply or to be rude? But anyone who comes to this “house” is treated courteously. My rule. So in spite of the kicking and screaming, I agree.
        I am superstitious about the “Life’s great. My kids are great,” bit. So I will do the Chennai thing and say “Paarkalaam,” which means, “Let us see.” Or “It ain’t over till the fat lady sings,” whatever that means. What does that mean anyway?
        But the short answer to your question is– and you know it takes a lot for me to say this– I am satisfied with the results of moving my kids to India. For my kids; for my parents and for myself. Fingers crossed. Russian “thoo, thoo thoo.”


        1. Hello Hello All…

          Shoba I agree with RG here, and also with Vinay. (Vinay’s approach may have softened but his mind I think is still sharp as ever.) You really can’t quid-pro-quo your readers. Also I don’t think any question here is crossing “personal” space — we’re all grown ups here.

          I don’t get what “parkalaam” means. (I know the word, but I don’t get the meaning in this context.) The Big Question (Vinay’s, RG’s) was “it doesn’t look like India has taken hold, right?”, to which, after some back-and-forth, you said “hard to say”. Maybe that is a satisfactory salve under the circumstances. “How satisfied are you” is a different question which is easy to answer, “very”. However I do agree there are a lot of learning here, per RG, so I hope you write that other book/story soon.

          NS I don’t agree with your reply, but I agree with your sentiment – pragmatic as always – that we should be respectful. You will surely agree that the level of absorption (in your IOUs) is down which is a question by itself. Back to RG’s point about the factors.

          RG I am not “single” but “attached” to a wonderful fellow in the city and loving every bit of it. No kids. But if there’s ever a thread about relationships I’ll be the first to speak up.

          I guess beyond all this my concern, in a sense, is that Shoba your writing career appears to have sort of stalled. I’ve been following your travel blog on National and Mint — there are the onesy-twosy odd commissions to visit vacations/destinations, but I was sort of hoping your RtI will evolve into a series of books on Indian/American parenting, or maybe a fiction series, or something else. You *are* a firebrand, girl, so it’s time to kick off the hiatus and get back to work. I am your big champion and little sister and, business manager if ever that position opens up.


    2. Vinay: where is the angry young man who pissed me off with that first post of yours??? 🙂
      You have softened and I have– after visits to a Bangalore therapist– learned to be firm, something that growing up in Chennai doesn’t teach you. Or certainly me.


  2. Vinay and Naina, my God, you are both relentless. But it’s all good fun as you add some perspectives to the discussion.

    First of all Vinay I live in the US and my teenage daughter is probably no different from Shoba’s e.g. all the youtube & twitter effect. Parenting and India have very little to do with this. Whoever moves back now (Shoba, myself, our peers) with teenage children with the longing hope that children should enjoy family and culture the way we did is probably going to get a different and unexpected result.

    That doesn’t mean the India experiment failed. (I know you don’t believe this, but just hang with me a second.) Point 1, is that you, Vinay, and I remember India for all the visceral stuff the sights and sounds that were embedded in us when we were children/teenagers. These memories are inextricably embedded in us, and we can recall those memories (fondly), and this “thing” is not possible for children that grew up elsewhere. Point 2 is that even though the “thing” is in us we do not indulge it everyday and that is part of the charm. OK I like to drink filter coffee over Starbucks and like that my children have developed an affection for similar “things”. But they’ve also developed tastes for everything else, the youtube/twitter and all that, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Think about this. Your parents may have wanted you to for example go to temple, do sandyavandanam etc., which was their way of “Indian culture”, but you don’t do all that regularly, do you? Does that mean your parents “experiment” failed? Life changes. That’s how it is. Don’t judge a book by its cover.

    You will probably reply that the “degree of absorption”, measured in (my) Indian Osmotic Units (IOU), is lower than expected, but as I wrote elsewhere, it only kicks in later and carries uncertainty whenever it is measured. So again you can’t really assess this reliably until kids have grown up.

    I really think maybe you guys should focus your questions on the learnings and not pointed counter-factual observations, because as you can see, nobody likes to be put on the spot even inadvertently, and it’s a tad bit unfair for Shoba who has continued to be frank and candid about her life. Don’t piss off the barista and then blame the coffee.



  3. I’m back! Shoba this post (and the other one about college process) sort of drives me to re-ask this question. You had previously replied (here) that your kids unhesitatingly replied “Indian”, and yet your older child is not really into culture and history (even Egyptian history) and is out looking for a mall and H&M. (That, btw, was the point I made even back then.) I guess you had replied that “identity is a complex thing” etc., which in that context then I sort of bought it, and thought perhaps the long standing effects of Indian “culture” poojas and saris and whatnot would really wear in. Rather they appear to have worn off.

    I also detect a sort of wistfulness on your part as a mother of teenagers – you had rightly yearned for your children to love India like [you] do, the depth of family relationships, the proximity to extended family etc. But how do you feel now that your own child has cut you off? (BTW I will certainly add that you have written elsewhere about your kids performing well in school, and participating in Indian plays and such, and even doing mentoring etc – all that is really good.)

    Would you still say your kid is “Indian”? Would she/they?


      1. Whoa Vinay! It looks like you’ve touched a sore spot again…. I don’t think Shoba’s ready to go back into this again. Besides, remember Vinay that the role of the Speaker of the (Lok Sabha!) is to preside over the House, not to provide informed commentary or debate. Don’t see the point of barking up the wrong tree 🙂

        And yes, Happy New 2014, all!


        1. I think Vinay is trying to draw engineering like causalities with parenting and phases of life. If this, then that. I am tired of defending myself when I am not even sure anymore what I am defending.


          1. RG, gosh, man, show a little heart.

            Shoba I think Vinay makes a logical point. (“Engineering point” not so sure.) I don’t think he intends to put you on the defensive. (After all these months I think we sort of understand each other a little bit, and Vinay, despite his style, has certainly been appreciative of yours.)

            I also think his question is important in light of your work Shoba. You had a list of objectives (yearning, elders, family, all that), but now your child appears to be a fairly normal teenager. (Gosh I was once that too.) I guess that goes for a teenager anywhere in the world, not just India. I also don’t think it depends on parenting – certainly Vinay wasn’t pointing specifically to that I don’t think, so I don’t know if (why) it calls to be defensive. But it still is a significant question, did the whole India experience (of which your parenting, Shoba, is one piece of the puzzle) really take hold? My 2 cents is that perhaps as a mother you (subconsciously) wanted to bond more closely with your daughters and maybe your love of Indian cooking and saris and the cow and all that stuff would have made that possible. But if your child cuts you off a very important decision, then that certainly raises a question mark.

            I guess it’s also OK to admit it didn’t work out as planned exactly. Hey, even the Nano still is a good Indian car. Maybe there are other lessons, other perspectives that would benefit us. I think Vinay and RG are married and (perhaps?) expecting .. so these lessons are valuable in their own right.

            I guess ultimately this is your blog and your house Shoba, and it is up to you what you do or say on it. I can’t speak for others, but I certainly get a lot out of your candid comments, more than the narratives and pictures, and I (like the other regulars) don’t ever mean to offend or bother you.



          2. Thanks Naina! That was my point exactly.

            Gosh Shoba, I really didn’t mean to put you on the defensive or anything. Honest.
            It’s also OK to say it didn’t all work out the way you wanted. Kids these days are very different from you or I, with peers and expectations all youtubed and twittered and iPod-ed to fever pitch. That’s nobody’s fault really – it’s the way of the world. So OK kids don’t care about the stuff you or I used to care about, maybe that’s it, one misses a “shift”. Maybe our parents missed it too — they thought it was sugarcane juice and 5-star chocolates, and simply didn’t get what the fizzy throat-scratching Lehar Pepsi was all about. Such is life.

            Anyway, it’s your house, I totally respect that, and I’d never want to offend you.



            1. Vinay and Naina and NS:
              I guess this is to be expected because I write about my kids. But what you don’t know is that I “use” only certain examples for effect when writing. To answer your question.

              I think I have been fairly clear in my book, Return to India, that the India-move was for me. Not my kids or my husband. The prime mover was me. There is a whole section where I say that kids everywhere will turn out okay. But I wanted to try it. So I don’t think it is fair to hold up my kids (or any kids) as examples for parental choices. Kids in Silicon Valley grow up in a mini-India. The son of a Mumbai mother and Swedish father is one of the most respected names in perfume (Ben Gorham of Byredo). So what standard are you using to measure this– global success or personal groundedness? These are complicated issues and I think, Vinay, your questions are simplistic. Fucked up people are often the best artists– so do you wish for that for your children? Or do you wish for the “enough” sentiment that is so Indian– and offers contentment and grounding?

              Lastly, I am complicated with respect to personal space. That’s just me. I will write about my kids, but I never post anything about them on Facebook. I am off FB anyhow this year. I can share info about my kids, if you give me the same courtesy. I do that with local friends/book clubs/salons, etc. So Vinay, you can either tune off my parenting posts 🙂
              Or you can share some of your parenting philosophy and your kids in this space and I’ll do the same.

              Since you asked, and since you are a careful reader, I owe you an answer to your questions: My daughters are still here in India and I am loathe to say whether the India-experiment with respect to them has succeeded or failed. Do they have a visceral feel for India? Yes. Do they love “India the country”? Hard to say. They love Bangalore. They love the building that we live in. They love their friends. And they laugh at the comedy of Indian life. That’s it.


  4. Shoba I get what you meant about the “shut out of college process”. I don’t have any easy answers except to say that it is a phase (really). I once asked my teenager what, specifically, she was rebelling against, so to say, and it helped reframe the matter temporarily.

    The crow is indeed black everywhere 🙂


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