Thursday, 22 March 2012

Out Of Africa

'I had a farm in Africa at the foot of the Ngong Hills.'
The minute I heard those lines from the movie 'Out Of Africa' starring Meryl Streep and Robert Redford I was transfixed!As a rule I am not a fan of the woods,neither Holly nor Bolly, but after moving to Kenya I was determined to watch this 1985 winner of seven Academy Awards and I finally did!I resolved then and there to visit the location in Nairobi where the story took place(and the film was shot) and I got my chance this week!The children have their spring break(well,we are nearing the end of a warm Nairobi summer but it is spring in the United States Of America hence 'spring break' for the kids!),my husband was in South Africa and so I bundled the kids into the car and we were on our way to the Karen Blixen museum!
It is a long drive in peak hour Nairobi traffic and I had plenty of time to mull over the lady in question.She was a Dane who,after a failed love affair,entered into a marriage of convenience with Baron Von Blixen and together they came to Kenya to start a dairy farm in 1914.But her husband bought a coffee farm instead and so it was that Karen found herself the possessor of six thousand acres of farmland!Karen was very sick with syphilis soon after coming to Nairobi,thanks to her philandering husband,whom she divorced a few years later.In those pre antibiotic days,the disease ensured that Karen,though cured,could never carry a pregnancy to full term and remained childless all her life.Instead she devoted her remaining years in Africa to educating the children of her farm workers.Her husband moved out,with the result that the burden of running the farm fell on her slender shoulders.
We reached the affluent,residential Nairobi suburb where Karen's beautiful Kolonial bungalow,with it's airy verandah and sloping,tiled roof,is located and that has now been converted into a museum.A cheerful guide escorted us into the old world stone structure and began recounting Karen's story.Unfortunately for Baroness Blixen the soil of her farm was acidic and not conducive to growing coffee.But she was determined to make it a success and struggled on alone taking huge loans from a bank to tide her over.I told the children how hard she must have worked to keep the farm going but my unsentimental daughter was quick to point out that it was the Africans who actually did the back breaking labour!(Not to be left behind,the Indians were simultaneously slogging to lay out railway tracks across East Africa!The Kolonialists certainly knew how to make us work!!)I pointed out to my daughter that Karen alone bore the responsibility of making timely payments to the bank,no small feat for a woman during the early years of the last century.In fact when she published her books later,she initially did so under a pseudonym,as female authors were not well accepted even in Europe!
The guide showed us all the lovely wooden furniture,some of it original,some donated by the crew after the movie was filmed.Karen was a skilled artist as well and some of her originals paintings line the walls of her house.Palm trees that she herself planted survive to this day and their tall fronds embrace the Kenyan skies like Karen did Kenya and her people.It was in this house,too,that she was visited by her paramour Denys Finch Hatton,an Englishman and a big game hunter.He was a pioneer in game hunting and game viewing and Finch Hatton Safaris are the ultimate in luxury in Kenya even today!The guide showed us two lamps that Karen used to signal to Finch Hatton whether her mood was good enough to receive him or not!The green lamp placed in the parlour window and seen from a distance gave him the go ahead to visit her but the red lamp warned him to stay away!Wow,I wish we could use this system in Pune to keep away people who are in the habit of dropping in unannounced despite having more than one phone at their disposal!
The farm began to show some returns but then a major fire broke out and destroyed everything Karen had worked for.She was forced to sell her house,her furniture(most of it was later bought back for the museum) and land to repay the bank loans.Finch Hatton had been killed in a plane crash while flying his Gypsy Moth plane and there was nothing to keep her in Kenya any longer....She returned to Denmark and began a new career writing about her life in Africa.Her books became best sellers,she became famous and the rest,as they say,is history!When the guide explained this,my son turned to me and said,'You write about Africa as well.'I said'Yes I do and I hope I am becoming famous too!'
Her dream was to build a college for her workers but it was not fulfilled in her lifetime.So the Danish government stepped in,provided the  funds and the College Of Nutrition now stands right next to her house!Her government also bought the house and gifted it to the Kenyan Government.Thus we can enjoy the Karen Blixen Museum today and stand in her garden and gaze at the smoky blue Ngong Hills which she loved!The word Ngong means knuckles in Kiswahili and that is exactly how those hills look!Denys Finch Hatton's grave lies at the base of these very hills and lions often came to bask on it....
These are Karen's last lines in the movie and I quote,'If I know a song of Africa,of the giraffe and the African new moon lying on her back,of the plows in the field and the sweaty faces of the coffee pickers,does Africa know a song of me?Will the air over the plain quiver with a colour that I have had on or the children invent a game in which my name is,or the full moon throw a shadow over the gravel of the drive that was like me,or will the eagles of the Ngong Hills look out for me?'Unquote.
I would like to assure Karen Blixen's soul,wherever it may be,that though I do not know if African children have invented a game,there is a beautiful suburb in Nairobi of her name-Karen!There we have the Karen Plaza Shopping Center,the Karen Coffee Gardens Restaurant,the Karen school,the Karen Museum,the list goes on and on...Yes,Karen,Africa remembers you and how!Though you never came back here after you left, you never really went Out Of Africa either!!


                                                Karen's House-now the museum.
                                                 The Ngong Hills

Thursday, 8 March 2012

A Doctor We Call 'Mami'

A new country means exposure to a host of new viruses.So one of the first things that I did as soon as we relocated to Nairobi was to scout out the best paediatrician for the children.After asking friends who are long time Nairobi residents and cross checking from others,I had a name.Even though both the children usually have a hundred percent school attendance in India,I knew that sooner or later they would come down with a bug here and I was prepared!Well,the day dawned sooner than later and a shivery cold morning found us at the clinic as both the kids had the sniffles,fever and throat and body ache.
We introduced ourselves to the doctor and as he began examining my daughter,he casually mentioned that he had moved from India to Nairobi almost forty years ago and had had the good fortune of being the paediatrician for the children and grandchildren of Kenya's Presidents and Prime Ministers for three generations!When he found out which school the children were from,he added for good measure that all his VIP patients are from that school.My daughter immediately began fancying herself as a 'VIP' though she has not done anything remotely important in life yet!
His words took me back to my own childhood and into our very own paediatrician's clinic on one of Pune's busiest roads,right in the heart of the city.All my childhood memories of being ill are enmeshed with those quaint,wood paneled walls,the wooden seats,the ancient refrigerator and the immunization chart on the wall.Being Army brats,we did not live in Pune during our early years but each vacation was spent with our grandparents there.And I seemed to have developed a penchant for having either one contagious disease or a broken bone every summer!One year it was a cracked collar bone,closely followed by chicken pox,then it was jaundice,another year it was measles,the next year I had mumps,then severe tonsillitis,then a broken toe,an appendectomy and I finally finished off with German measles at seventeen!Maybe I subconsciously knew where I would get the best care!Unlike today,when a new born baby's vaccinations start even before it has properly opened it's eyes after birth,we had a very limited number of vaccines and our bodies became immune the hard way!
The word 'Mami',both in my mother tongue Marathi and in India's national language Hindi,means your mother's brother's wife.In our case,our beloved child specialist was not our own 'Mami' but my mother's maternal uncle's wife!And my grandmother(from the royal family of Aundh,near Satara) was not her only sister in law!She had five more but both she and my mother's uncle,a top vascular surgeon,(who also happens to be the younger brother of Nairobi's first Indian High Commissioner)went out of their way for all of us.Most of us can barely manage one sister in law or two(and I am sure the feeling is mutual!) so hat's off to her!And all this while raising her own family of two young children.The relation was once removed but the warmth and the excellent medical care we got was not!Right from the day I was born,my mother made it a point to consult her about all kid care matters.And our doctor's technique is such that her advice is always in the form of gentle suggestions,something we can all learn from,as people giving unasked for advice are rampant in India!She is never 'a know it all',despite having studied medicine in London and is the daughter of a very high ranking former Reserve Bank official.Her late mother was an extremely soft spoken and talented lady.'Mami' has traversed the world but has maintained such strong bonds with the entire extended family that her care is not limited just to prescribing drugs but often extends to a home cooked meal followed by gallons of ice cream!And a bag of garden fresh mangoes to take home during the season!And my mother's uncle,being as skilled a photographer as he is a surgeon,clicks enough pictures of all of us to launch our own portfolios!
When my children were born I demanded that Mami come and examine them,though they had been pronounced hale and hearty by the hospital's resident paediatrician!And on her way home from her own clinic she honoured my request,nay 'demand',and each time both of them dropped by to see the baby despite their busy schedules.Only when she declared that all was well,did I breathe a sigh of relief!Such are the levels of trust that a good doctor and an amazing human being inspires!
When we were in Dar Es Salaam,my mother called us with the sad news that her uncle and aunt were closing down the clinic where we had been so lovingly tended to and henceforth would only operate from home.After all,they were getting on in years too.My son who was three then and my daughter who was eight,were up in arms as soon as they heard the news and stoutly declared that they would not 'change' their paediatrician in Pune!I assured them that I,myself, would drive them across town so they could be examined (or injected!) by Mami at her own house!And that is exactly what I still do!Never has a paisa changed hands  nor can we ever repay all they have done for us!
Our Nairobi doctor's prognosis brought my thoughts back into the room and as I smiled and thanked and paid him I realized that though my sister and I and all our cousins were not the children of hot shot politicians nor were we very important people but that is exactly how we were treated,pun intended,by our,sorry my mother's, 'Mami' who had become our own!

Thursday, 1 March 2012

Wild Encounters At.....The Maasai Mara

You know you are in Maasai Land when you see the cattle grazing peacefully across the vast plains!They are accompanied by the Maasai tribesmen clad in bright red 'shukas'or sheets.It is said the colour red keeps the lions away!In fact,in the earlier days,killing a lion was a rite of passage from boyhood to manhood for Maasai men!Today,of course,both the Tanzanian and Kenyan governments have banned this practice.
A group of twenty of us set off for Mara,bright and early from Nairobi,and a four hour drive saw us at the gates of the Maasai Mara game reserve.We were headed for the Sarova Mara tented camp which is right in the heart of the reserve.A sumptuous buffet lunch of twenty different main dishes awaited us, not the least of which were Mattar Paneer and Mixed Daal(lentils) with hot,buttery Naan!There was also an array of soups,salads and fruits.The desserts comprised of cakes,puddings,ice cream and mousse.I thought it was sinful even to look at these but that did not stop me from tucking into them!There is many a slip between what a person thinks and actually does!And believe you me ,it was the same for every single meal!Never was a dish repeated in the three days that we were there and nor did we have to relish the same desserts!I had never thought a day would dawn when I would savour perfectly spiced methi-aalu(fenugreek and potatoes), bhendi chi bhaaji(lady finger),'upama' and 'bhajias'(fritters) in the middle of the African grassland!(Our earlier wild life sojourns in Tanzania had yielded only continental food!)Times change and how!
We lingered over lunch till it was time to leave for our game drive-the first of four.The animals which have now become'common' for us were spotted immediately!The gazelles,the impalas,the haartbeestes(they have antlers shaped like hearts!),the topis,zebras with adorable babies,giraffes,lots of elephants,a protective mummy with her fortnight old calf among them,wild buffalo,wart hogs and hyenas.Fifteen minutes into the drive and we crossed our fingers!We have been a bit disappointed in a couple of game reserves in Tanzania where lions were concerned!(Friends from Dar will remember searching for lions in vain all day at Ruaha and on another day peering from the train into every bush in Seleous!)But this was to be our lucky weekend!
We came upon a pair of magnificent males sleeping back to back near a bush.And they were to be the first of more than thirty lions and lionesses that we saw in a span of thirty six hours!Sometimes they were ambling near our vehicles,sniffing at the tyres,staring at the many cameras that were clicking.At other times they were ignoring us royally and grooming themselves just like your pet cat at home would!If they moved into the grass and lay down,it became the perfect camouflage for them.A pride of twenty was sun bathing in the mild morning sun right in the middle of the road,like the cows in Pune are so fond of doing!
And then on our second evening we came across six lions devouring a Maasai cow they had just killed!It was a gruesome sight as the cow had been completely disemboweled and the lions were tearing into the flesh with little roars of contentment.Our guide told us they know they are not supposed to kill cattle and so are feeling guilty about it!This was proved two minutes later when another tourist's camera made an extra loud click and two lionesses ran a few meters away from the kill!Earlier,when they had been innocently lying around,the cameras had not affected them at all!Understandably,the Maasais were upset about their cow and we heard that the bush officials had to intervene to cool tempers.
A few hopeful hyenas and jackals hovered around the site,awaiting their turn once the kings of the Savanna had had their fill.Bald headed vultures patiently sat on a tree to scavenge the last remains of the ill fated cow.
We were also fortunate to have seen three cheetahs,an animal  that has become extinct in India.We spotted a leopard(pun intended!),a rhino strolled by marking his territory,countless hippos splashed around in the river,a large family of banded otters gambolled nearby.The crocodiles refused to show themselves!




As we drove back to our camp on our last evening,heavy rain-clouds covered a part of the sky,turning it into a deep blue-gray colour.On the western side,we could see the golden orb of the setting sun- it's last brilliant rays turning the yellow Savanna grass into spun gold!As the first fat rain drops began falling,the fragrance of wet earth wafted over the plains and a beautiful rainbow appeared across the sky.It was nature at it's best and most vivid!Never have I felt more like a blip on the horizon,as we all are,as I did then!Only Mother Nature has the power to make us feel insignificant when we least expect it and it will do us good to remember it,now and always....

From My Desk: Tales Out Of School

                                               My Alma Mater, St.Helena's School, Pune. As we went back and forth on the Core ...