Saturday, 17 January 2015

The Ghost And The Darkness: Man Eaters Of Tsavo

We strolled into the tourism fair in a mall close to our house just to have a look. We really had no plans to take a break during the December holidays primarily because our daughter is in the 11th grade and it is a very important year for her. She has been very busy studying for  a number of exams that are coming up that will determine her academic future to a great extent. I knew she would be studying during the holidays too and any time not spent with her books would be a complete waste from my typically Indian perspective.
But then my husband happened to discover a very reasonable deal to holiday in the one major Kenyan National Park that we had not yet visited - Tsavo. I got excited too, as one of the lodges on their list was one that I had really wanted to visit ever since I first heard about it. It was called' Man Eaters' and I gave in almost immediately to his persuasion, acknowledging that our daughter could do with a four day break and it would not really affect her near perfect GPA (Grade Point Average). The historian in me overpowered the anxious- about- grades Indian mother and I knew I could give the children a lesson in 'Living History' simply by visiting this place.
And so we set off on a cool, Nairobi summer morning. I took a week's holiday from my on line classes (I'm sure my students were very glad!), my husband asked for a couple of days off and the children were ecstatic to get away from their text books and last, but not least the house help was happy to get an unexpected break!
Our first halt was at the tiny market town of Makindu which houses a ninety year old Gurudwara - a Sikh place of worship. Coming from secular India, we are comfortable in just about every place of worship.My paternal grandfather served in the Sikh Regiment of the Indian Army so I guess I feel genetically at home in Gurudwaras. This Sikh Temple came up during the laying down of the East African Railway and like every Gurudwara in the world, serves free food, snacks and tea to anyone who needs it, no matter to which religion one may belong to, the premise being we are all equal in the eyes of God, call Him by any name.
Refreshed by the delicious tea and steaming Parathas and spicy pickle, we continued on our way and soon found ourselves in the precincts of Tsavo National Park which is so large that it was divided into East and West by the British. We kept our eyes peeled for the Man Eaters Lodge sign and soon enough it was time to turn off the smooth highway onto a rough, stony road which wound it's way through scraggly, viciously thorny Acacia bushes.
 A short drive later we were at Tsavo Railway Station a once busy, buzzing and active place. Today it is a collection of a few abandoned buildings, a broken telegraph pole and a functional  railway track on which goods trains still run. To me, it was a pathetic remnant of the ambitious East African Railway Project conceived by the British, as a means to colonize East Africa, from Mombassa on the Kenyan coast to Kampala in Uganda, on the shores of Lake Victoria. It was aptly called the 'Lunatic Line' for the sheer scale of wastage of man power and material and the costs that were incurred. We crossed the unmanned junction and continued on to Man Eaters.
We were now firmly into the territory of the Ghost and the Darkness, the two maneless man eating lions that had taken so many lives during the construction of the line in this area in 1898, a hundred plus years ago. More than thirty Indian labourers had been killed by the lions and countless native Kenyans as well, in the span of just a few months. In fact construction had come to a complete halt here as terror stricken labourers began to flee from here. This has been portrayed perfectly in the Hollywood movie of the same name and we had watched it, enthralled, when we first arrived in Kenya.
As preparation for our 'going back in time trip', I borrowed the book 'Man Eaters Of Tsavo' by Colonel. J.H. Patterson from the school library. Even our ten year old son read it from cover to cover! Patterson was an engineer with the British Army and his first task in Kenya was to construct a bridge across the River Tsavo so that the railway line could be laid across it. He found his plans thwarted by the two lions and took it upon himself to hunt them down and kill them, which he succeeded in doing after numerous failed attempts, almost losing his own life in the process. The Africans believed that the lions had the Spirits of long dead tribe Chiefs who could not bear to see their land being ripped apart by the steam belching iron monster. The Indians believed the same and the lions proved to be virtually indestructible, defying all logic, for a long period of time. Finally the first lion was shot and killed. The second man eating lion had been killed on the grounds of Man Eaters Lodge and this fact gave us an extra delicious thrill as we watched the movie again on the little television in the open hotel lobby, before the generators were switched off and Tsavo plunged into completely impenetrable, inky darkness again, just as it had been in Patterson's time!
After being lulled to sleep by the soothing murmur of the Tsavo river, we were up early the next morning, eager to visit Patterson's bridge that he had written so proudly about in his book. We set off for our 'bush walk' accompanied by an armed guard, courtesy of the lodge. We were in lion land and who knew what lurked behind an Acacia tree.. I have often wondered how celebrities felt when they had armed protection. Well, now I knew first hand! We felt really special! We walked to Tsavo Railway Station and then followed the line up to the bridge. We went down the embankment and saw those huge stone pillars that Patterson had designed and our Indian labourers had worked so hard to construct, risking their lives in the process! This lunatic line had, of course, paved the way for the advent of Indians mostly from the state of Gujarat into Kenya. We saw first hand the hard rock that he describes in his book that he found so difficult to drill into. Crocodiles and hippos were in the river but the heat meant they were deeply submerged and we could not spot them. It has been a hundred and seventeen years since this bridge was made but it still stands upright and trains still run over it, as one did when we were there. Patterson says in his book, it was an enormous task to accomplish and future generations might just see it as 'some bridge'. Thanks to his book published in 1907 and the subsequent movie we know exactly what blood, gore and toil went into making the 'Bridge Across The River Tsavo'. Colonel Patterson, we certainly did not see your bridge in an ordinary light, though your book did make me take many deep breaths to calm myself, thanks to your derogatory references to Indians and your needless and heartless shooting of innocent animals on the African plains, just because you wanted a particular one for your endless collection...
If you want to see the Ghost and Darkness today, do visit the Chicago Field Museum in the United States where both the lions are on permanent display. They were sold to the Museum after Patterson had used the skins as foot rugs for twenty five years!

                                             Tsavo Station with the lunatic line!
                                             Today only goods trains run up and down
                                      The unmanned crossing and an obsolete telegraph pole. Only the surrounding Taita Hills remain unchanged...
                                       The Bridge That Patterson built and was so proud of!
                                               Rocky bed of the Tsavo River
                                                                  On the Bridge!
                                 The exact spot where the second lion was killed! Today it's a bar overlooking the Man Eaters lodge pool. It is named in honour of the lion though. Simba Mbili which means the second lion in Kiswahili.
My sister had the book and my brother in law sent me a pic!

Monday, 12 January 2015

The Story Of A Dolls' House

Last week I read in the newspaper that a certain western celebrity had purchased a Dolls' House for her daughter which cost 35,000 British Pounds or 54,000 American Dollars. This works out to around 34,00,000 Indian rupees. Now that kind of money would buy a one bedroom hall kitchen bathroom apartment in the mini metro that I come from in India. It would even buy a small bungalow in a tier three small town in India. The aforementioned Dolls' House comes complete with a marble bathroom with a bathtub that has its little owner's initials encrusted in gold!
While the kids began discussing what this dream house must be like and should parents spend that kind of money (no matter how much they may have!), I was taken back in time to the Dolls' House that my mother had specially got made for my sister and me exactly thirty one years ago. She had showed the design that she had found in an old American magazine to my Dad's friend who ran his own wood working business. He was confident his carpenters could replicate the house to a T and so she ordered it. Today, any toy shop in any city in India would sell you a Dolls' House and you could even choose from many types but in the India of yore it was an almost unheard of concept. Our Dolls' House cost all of 300 rupees (for both material and labour) which would be less than 5 American Dollars at today's conversion rate! But Rs.300 was a princely sum in India then. Our monthly grocery bill used to be just half that amount. But my mother was determined that we have one at any cost and soon it was time to pick up our gift from the workshop!
That day is as clearly etched in my mind as if it was yesterday. The house was sitting on a table in my Dad's friend's living room and my mother made me go up to it and open it.The whole of the front door opened on tiny hinges giving access to the three rooms on the ground floor. Then the entire roof opened up showing two bedrooms and a bathroom on the first floor and the huge attic on the top most floor. The sloping roof even had an exquisitely made dormer window! The garage had its own entrance and there was a balcony on the first floor. They told me to check if the height was enough to accommodate our tiny dolls. I remembering doing that too and pronouncing it just perfect...
And so we brought 'our' house home. Then came the fun part of furnishing it. Since we were in our home town then, the place to go to was 'Tulsi Baag' in the heart of the city which sold all kinds of things for the most reasonable prices. We bought a sofa set for the living room, a red velvet covered dining table and matching chairs, cunning little easy chairs for the balcony, a cupboard with tiny hangers and even tinier buckets and mugs for the dolls to have a bath with! My mother commissioned yet another carpenter to make two tiny wooden beds and then she hand stitched mattresses, sheets, made pillows and pillow covers. She bought nursery print flannel and made blankets. It was only later that my Dad gifted her a sewing machine but I think that she enjoyed making all the bed linen by hand as much as we enjoyed making those little beds! We had more than enough tiny kitchen utensils to outfit our kitchen, fridge, gas stove and plastic fruits included! Then our dolls moved in and the fun began!
That Dolls' House became the focal point of play when we had friends over. It was such a unique piece that no one ever got tired of playing with it. At a later stage I even cut out curtains and stuck them onto the windows! When my Dad got his marching orders from the Army Headquarters and we moved to a new city, our house moved with us and a whole new set of friends got to play with it!
When I was a child, my mother was careful not to create gender stereotypes, long before most women of her age had even heard of the term. So if she ordered the Dolls' House for us, we also had a tools set, dumper trucks, excavators, cars and a jeep which I promptly parked in the garage of the Dolls' House.
Almost two decades later my daughter inherited that house which now had antique value! My sister sent her brand new furnishings from Singapore and then we had fun doing up the house all over again. We even painted it with some left over paint that we had! I never had to spend a rupee on a Dolls' House at all and I knew exactly how to play with it and share it with my daughter, all because my mother had invested so wisely in one all those years ago...
My parents may not have had 54,000 USD to buy a Dolls' House with. But they made the most of what they did have and what they could afford, to the best of their ability. Today I feel it was not the Rs.300 that was spent that holds the most value for me. Rather it is the time and energy that they both put in, right from my Dad driving us a long distance to order the house after a day spent earning a living, to my mother spending hours putting tiny stitches in those little bed sheets of long ago, even as she taught at the local orphanage.
May the little girl who received the expensive Dolls' House from her parents enjoy it as much as I did ours and may her dolls have fun splashing around in that marble bathroom!


                                     The furnishings aren't the original ones but the house is!


                                                          Look at that dormer window!
                                                              In all its ancient glory!

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