Saturday, 7 March 2015

W Is For Women, R Is For A Reality Check.

Three nights ago I cried myself to sleep.This happens only on two rare occasions. One is if I am reading a terribly sad book, which was not the case this time since I was in the middle of reading Condi: The Condolezza Rice Story and there is nothing remotely sad about that book. If anything, I was deeply amused by the fact that her mother, herself the product of a southern State of America that had been one of the most prejudiced ones against the Black community, reminded me of every single Indian mother I know, me included. The way she pushed her to excel and be 'twice as good' is a mirror of the way most middle class Indians, no matter where they may be in the world, push their kids, with shades of Amy Chua, of the Tiger Mother fame thrown in for good measure! There is no doubt about it, strong women raise even stronger girls...
The other far more devastating event that makes me weep buckets is when a young child or children lose their mother and if I know them personally it is a thousand times worse. At such times my God given gift of complete empathy becomes a curse and I am left completely ravaged.
She and I could have been two sides of a similar coin. Not in our outlook or in our attitude towards life, not at all, but in the circumstances of our lives. We were the Golden Girls of the late nineties and the early two thousands. Daughters of fathers who were class one officers in government establishments, brought up as 'privileged' children. Our parents may not have had too much cash to throw around, typical of government employees of those days, but we enjoyed the perks that came with our Dads' jobs. We had smart, sophisticated mothers, we had attended English medium schools, we had the choice to do what we wanted with our lives and the fact that we could chart our own course in life were all part of the super deal meted out to us.
Then we got married and our husbands actually earned in American Dollars - the most coveted currency in the world! While most Indians we knew then did not even have passports, both she and I had already seen a fair bit of the world, courtesy of our husbands' jobs. We were the Queens of their hearts, the guardians of their heavy wallets. Life couldn't get any better, right? Wrong! It could and it did. We popped out perfect little baby girls within two months of each other and soon had a baby boy each, she a couple of years before I did.
Our pretty little ladies were growing up, as were our rambunctious little boys. They played together and since we always happened to be in India during her kids' birthdays, they attended the most glorious of birthday parties where she served exotic food and imported chocolates,even joining in in their party games and from where my children had to be dragged home...In my daughter's words, "She was a chilled out Mom"
We were the new breed of upper middle class Indian women. Educated, rich, articulate and opinionated and not afraid to express those opinions. When we spoke, people listened. Together we took up many pressing issues that our housing society had faced a few years ago, we strove to make a difference and we did! She chose to focus on home and hearth since her husband's job kept him away from India most of the time. I chose to work part time and we both kept upgrading our educational qualifications, never content to rest on past laurels.
Life, we thought, was great. We had it made.We would watch our smart and beautiful daughters get Ivy League educations (or their Indian equivalents!), start earning their own living and become glamorous brides one day. We would even throw them a big fat Indian wedding! Our sons, we hoped, would pull their socks up soon and get an education! And then, hopefully, there would still be girls left in India to come as brides into our homes and we would never, ever, pressurise those girls to have sons! Our paths seemed crystal clear.
Then reality struck. She was diagnosed with cancer a year ago. Still she fought back and fought with a vengeance. Since her husband was still away a lot this brave lady managed her chemo therapy on her own while her mother took care of her kids. Her in laws, like mine, had passed away a few years ago. My son remembers her at his friend's birthday party last July."She was laughing, Mom, and clicking lots of pictures of us." Yes she was recording, what would be the last birthday of her son's that she would attend, for posterity. A picture of beautifully lit lamps on her face book page stand testimony to the enthusiasm and the indomitable spirit with which she celebrated her last Diwali, despite the disease wrecking havoc within her.
Today she is gone. A life where she had so much to look forward to has been brutally cut short. Her just into his teens son and soon to finish teens daughter are left asking "Why? Why us? Why our Mom?" Her beautiful garden is a mute witness to her green fingers. Her face book page showcases her skill with the camera. There is no solace for her bereft family and her daughter says "She is an angel in heaven and she will guide me from there when and if I ever begin to stray."
My son unknowingly echoed the same thought when my tears refused to stem the day I got the news of this tragedy. He philosophically told me " Now she will be focused only on her children and will watch over them and take care of them from heaven." When did he get so wise?
Today is International Women's Day. Let it be a reality check and a wake up call for all of us.Get up, get out and exercise, eat as healthy as you can, get those annual check ups done. You owe it to your children and to yourself too. Learn that new skill , that new craft, language or sport that you always wanted to, but haven't so far.
I am sure my friend did all these things and may be more. The biggest reality check is that life is not perfect and there can be new twists when you least expect them. So live it to the fullest with your children till they leave your nest. Who knows how much time God has granted each one of us? Who knows if tomorrow will come?
 I cannot blithely say 'Rest in peace'. A mother's soul can rest only when her children no longer have need of her.

An Ode To My Maternal Grandmother

This poem, too, was written close to a decade ago when we were in Tanzania and I had gifted it to my maternal grand father on one of his birthdays, a few years after my grandmother's death. They had been married for fifty five years when she passed away and theirs had been a 'love' marriage, quite unheard of in the pre independence India of the early forties. Tears rolled down his eyes when he read it. Through the poem, I have tried to bring forth all the aspects of my grandmother that stood out for me. I have used my mother tongue Marathi to talk about some of the things that she cooked which were my favourites! Since my grandparents were in Mumbai during my early years, we always visited them there and the Mumbai bus ,on the lines of the Red London Bus, absolutely fascinated a four year old me. That is where my poem begins. Today would have been my grandmother's ninety second birthday, had she lived! We called her 'Mothi Ma' which can be loosely translated as 'big' or 'elder' mother. We called our grandfather 'Bhaiya Saheb' which can be translated as 'elder brother/sir'. I have used these words in the poem. I refer to present day 'Mumbai' as 'Bombay' because it still was Bombay in the late seventies!


My earliest memories of Mothi Ma,
 Are atop a Bombay double decker bus,
Which to catch we would rush.
Car and chauffeur I would disdain,
Riding a bus was my only aim!
With my wish, she always complied,
With never a look nor word implied,
As we caught the bus at a run,
That it wasn't, exactly, her idea of fun!

Pink, blue, red, green, yellow sweaters she knitted,
And , oh, how how perfectly they all fitted!
Her love of embroidery, she bequeathed to me,
Bhaiyasaheb's eyes light up when they see,
Her skills passed down the family tree.

No birthday was ever complete,
Without a cake from her with chocolate replete.
No examination worth an attempt,
Unless she her best wishes sent!

Her home made chocolate was divine,
Never have I tasted anything so fine.
Her bhakri, thalipeeth, alawadi, I still can taste,
How I gobbled them up with haste.

Mangoes and ice cream were her favourites great,
She could finish off plate after plate.
I always heard her silk saree rustle,
As she moved around with a busy bustle.

When we were sick, her presence seemed heaven sent,
It was, as if, to us, her strength she lent.
Nothing could Bhaiyasaheb find without her aid,
They truly seemed for each other made.

She had a sickly yellow smocked gown,
Which always made me at her frown!
But she laughed off my displeasure,
And since it was a gift from my mother,
She wore it like a costly treasure!

Her room was always neat as a pin,
Dust and dirt there, to her, were a sin.
Her cupboards were immaculately kept,
Her room she often herself swept.

She loved plants and all life green,
Her Bonsais were a thing to be seen.
She gave Bhaiyasaheb insulin injections for thirty years and more,
And never once thought of it as a chore.

Her love of books my mother imbibed,
For with those, she often her children bribed!
A visit to the dentist was worth the pain,
For at the end there was often a book to gain!

If, at times, she seemed haughty and proud, snobbish and standoffish,
It was not her fault, you see.
For she came from a premier family - the Pant Pratinidhi.
From Princess Royale, to a commoner's wife,
It must have been, for her, quite a strife.

A family legend I'll quote, if I may,
"Is there any more jewellery you need?"
She was asked on her wedding day.
"Yes, diamond ear studs I don't see,
Could you please buy them for me?"

Her in laws soon the 'error' rectified,
But in thinking, must have been quite petrified,
"Was this, then, their son's 'shy' bride?"

But she proved her critics wrong.
And soon to her they began to throng.
For help, advice, or just company,
She became the rock of the family.
Calm, competent, and so very strong.
With her at the helm no crisis ever lasted long!

After fifty five years of married life,
Bhaiyasaheb admitted with great pride,
"His blessings had multiplied,
His choice had been justified!"










Thursday, 5 March 2015

Ladies : Are You Global Girlfriends?




Last month I saw this book perched on the 'new books' shelf in the High School library and the blurb below the title riveted me." Global Girlfriends : How one Mom made it her business to help women in poverty worldwide". I thought of my own mother immediately and I pulled down the book for a closer look. What I read in the synopsis interested me enough to get the book home. Call it a coincidence, but a few days after I had finished reading this book and was mulling over writing about it, I got a message from an adult lady student of mine from India. Someone had posted an update on What's Aap' about Mother's Day and she wanted to know whether this occasion was around the corner. If it was so, she said, she wanted me to write about my mother who had taken her under her wing and was helping her to stand on her feet and use her innate talents to be her own person. She said she wanted to write herself but could not find the words! I assured her Mother's Day was on the second Sunday in May and thought no more about it, though, of course, finding words is never an issue with me!
Gradually the idea dawned on me that since the first person who had come to mind while just catching a glimpse of this book was my mother, this was a good way to link and broadcast what she does to a wider audience with the fond hope that at least a couple of people would feel like emulating her and strive to make a difference in the lives of those less fortunate. This way I could fulfil her protegee's wish as well as make people aware of how the concept of 'Global Girlfriends' works, as outlined in the book.
The author Stacy Edgar talks about how she started a retailing business in the United States where she purchases and imports goods made by women and ONLY women in poor or developing countries, at a fair price and then urges well off women to choose to buy these items as gifts or for personal use, instead of making the rich brand owners simply richer. She makes no bones of the fact that hers is a commercial enterprise but by buying these goods you are surely making a difference to someone, somewhere around the world while giving in to your own baser instincts of shop, shop, shop, till you drop! Her idea is that money in a women's pocket ALWAYS means food in her child's belly, books in his or her school bag, clothes on their backs and shoes on their feet. The same cannot be said for men from the lower economic strata, who, specially in India, are known to squander the whole fortnight's salary on locally brewed liquor, while the starving children wait patiently at home and finally doze off on an empty stomach.
My mother, in her own, almost all adulthood long personal crusade, to empower women and improve their lives, has made no commercial gains but has managed, nevertheless,to make a difference in the lives of many women, not globally of course, but surely and steadily, in her own ambit. The roots of this desire to help women lie in what she saw her own father do, when she herself was very young. With a freshly minted Master Of Business Administration degree from the United States Of America, he returned to India and landed a job to manage a huge coffee plantation in the southern part of India in the very early 1950s. He saw labourers drinking away their weekly wages and then stipulated that all women coffee pickers would be paid their own wages as well as a part of their husband's wages. The women would then make a weekly trip to the nearest small town to stock up on groceries with all that money, so that their children need not go to bed hungry at night, He would even organize a vehicle to take them back and forth, often leaving the drunken husbands with their teeth gnashing. But he remained firm and this soon became a standard policy on the estate.
And so my mother always taught us to buy vegetables and fruits only from a lady vendor in the market while pointing out clearly how the profits would surely be used, every single house help has had her own personal savings account opened the minute she started working for us and all those lady sales women who used to frequent housing societies in those days of a Mall (and mall rats) free India never left without at least a small purchase being made by her. The daughters of all the house helps we have had over the years have been coached for free by my mother and have been encouraged to go to college by my parents and they have often chipped in financially and still do, all because educating a women means empowering her for life. Then she is no longer dependant on a drunk man who thinks nothing of thrashing her up.
My mother used to hunt out organizations which sold goods made solely by destitute and dependant women and then buy things and food items from those shops and spread the word too while gifting that particular item, so that others, like me, could follow suit. Every drop in the ocean counts and what seems like a negligible amount to the more fortunate among us, often means a month's supply of food on the table for a poor family. To get a clearer idea of what I am trying to say, just compare your own grocery bill with the salary you pay your house help if you live in Asia or Africa.
 On a wider scale, she passes on her own puppet and cloth toy making skills by partnering with  various organizations which help women. She teaches these women free of cost so that they can make such goods and sell them to schools and other institutions and thus ensures that they have some money to meet their own and their children's basic needs. She has even roped in many of her friends to collect scraps of cloth from sympathetic tailors, which are then sent off to these women so that they do not even have to invest in cloth to make puppets, patchwork baby sheets and soft toys. Tribal women in a rural part of my home state walk out with a fully clothed new born baby thanks to my mother and her group of friends painstakingly stitching baby clothes and baby sheets and dispatching them in copious quantities because they believe having clothes on your back is a necessity, not a luxury, right from the time you are born! No global reach, but an urban / rural one for sure!
For my own part, I, too, try my best to buy only from women vendors at the Masai Markets in Nairobi and all the gifts that I carry home to India are completely Kenyan and preferably made by women, which is exactly the premise of the book 'global Girlfriends'. My vegetable lady and my fruit lady are women who are sending children and grandchildren to school. I am buying what I need but at the same time it is also helping to feed a tiny mouth! When I buy gifts in India to get back to Kenya, I ensure I do it from small women entrepreneurs, who in turn, are buying from women who are making many of those things at home to supplement the family income! Now my children's teachers know why they get so many different types on purses and bags made of rich Indian fabric every year during teacher appreciation week!  So now you can see why the book 'Global Girlfriends'  struck a deep chord within me! You don't have to be a global girlfriend, start by being the friendly neighbourhood one... If we do not stand up for our own ilk, who will? Not the men, that's for sure! (With apologies to my husband and to my father who have supported us in every endeavour of ours, no matter how crazy it may have seemed to begin with!)


My latest purchases from the Masai Market here will go to Singapore as gifts for my niece's teachers. So my sister ended up making a global girlfriend in Kenya by asking me to buy these! The joy on the lady's face when I bought not just a couple, but a handful.... One small raindrop starts a flood! So Global Girlfriends, let's begin now.

From My Desk: Tales Out Of School

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