Wednesday, 28 October 2015

Women With Wings

Women in India just breached a whole new frontier. They not only broke the proverbial glass ceiling but absolutely smashed, shattered and scrunched it in the bargain. The powers that be in India, in this case read, ironically, the men, have finally decided that women will now be inducted as fighter pilots into the Indian Air Force. They will no longer serve as just arm candy for the men flying those mean machines, but will now actually fly into combat zones themselves, in those million dollar air crafts. One of the reasons that the men in command had given for many years for inducting women only in the non combative wings of the Air Force was that they shuddered at what the women's fate would be, if their planes were brought down into enemy territory. Considering the fact that our country's capital has been infamously dubbed as the rape capital of the world, I would have thought our neighbours should have had such apprehensions, not us! Turns out, unlike us, they do trust us with their women in, God forbid, such an eventuality, because we are the last people on the sub continent to strap our women into those bombers and allow them to let all hell break loose... Well, better late than never!
I like lady pilots. I trust them. A couple of years ago, a really tiny air craft brought us back from the coastal town of Mombassa. I was petrified! Then I saw that we had not one, but two lady pilots, and all my fears melted away, even as I acknowledged that we were in not just good, but great hands! Maybe this almost instinctive trust and faith has its roots in having met a girl who was training to be a pilot, well she was a mere girl then, when I was in my early teens. Here's the story of how we were fortunate enough to have met her and the role we, or rather my mother, played in her journey towards acquiring her wings!
My father was posted to the city of Guwahati in Assam, in the North Eastern part of India. He was away on a course for a few months and so it was just my mother, my sister and me, going about our daily routine. My mother was teaching in the same school that my sister and I were in. We left together each day and came back together in the Army 'Bus'. One evening my mother got a phone call that a certain gentleman was looking for a place to board his daughter as she wanted to complete a certain number of hours on a particular type of air craft, as part of her training to be a pilot. She had come all the way from Mumbai but no one was willing to offer her room and board and to take responsibility for her, as the general consensus among all the Army and Air Force wives was 'Girls have affairs', affairs being the Indian euphemism for getting physically involved with a member of the opposite sex, same sex relationships not even being euphemistically acknowledged in India! My mother's rage, when she heard this, knew no bounds and she sharply retorted that if this girl wanted to have affairs she could have done so in Mumbai itself, where she would have had a better choice than the one in our smaller corner of India! She asked those catty women to give the girl a chance before questioning and labelling her motives!
And so my mother called up the number that had been passed onto her, spoke to the girl's father who turned out to be a pilot himself with what was India's one and only domestic airline then, and arranged to go and meet him and his daughter at the airport. He offered to pay for her room and food for the one month that she would be there but my mother absolutely and firmly refused to accept a paisa and said his daughter would stay in our house in exactly the same way that her two daughters did! My sister and I helped tidy up our guest room and cleaned out the cupboard for her to keep her things and then she was dropped off at our house that very evening by the people who had put her up for a few days. We had a house guest!
Once the ice was broken, we chatted with her. We had never met a lady pilot earlier though we lived in the Air Force colony and almost all our neighbours were male pilots! Twenty six years ago women were not inducted into any of the three services in India, and being fighter pilots was a very distant dream then! Petite, with green eyes, wavy hair and impeccable manners, she was a constant source of amazement during those first few days for my sister and me because she actually flew a plane! We had never flown at that point in our lives.Indian Railways, not Indian Airlines, thrived on Army brats like us! Her father and both her brothers were pilots! Her sisters had opted out of what seemed to have become a family profession and one of them is a doctor, the other a dentist. Their mother, a very sweet lady, whom we met many years later, had the important job of keeping all these high fliers firmly grounded and she has succeeded admirably! I have never met a family that remains so humble, despite their numerous achievements.
The next morning my mother confidently gave her a spare set of house keys as we all left for school, since she was to leave for her training after we did. Imagine giving your entire set of keys to a perfect stranger! She was even given my sister's bicycle key, so she could cycle to the airport! Yes, she had to cycle so she could fly...Later when we got to know each other well, my mother admitted that she did entertain the thought while teaching in school that day, that the whole thing could be an elaborate scam and we might come home to find that the house was completely empty and we had been royally robbed by a trickster father and daughter pair! Our flying lady, in turn, confessed that she was wondering why my mother seemed so keen to house her for free and the fleeting thought had crossed her mind that my mother might be the 'Madame' of some unsavoury establishment! She had recently watched a movie on those lines, she said! Everyone's fears were soon laid to rest and we all got along famously. She became family, even rushing to get my mother's house slippers every morning and making her put them on, so that my mother would not have to stand on the cold floor as she made and packed lunch for all four of us. She even lent me her trousers and top to wear for a party I had to attend, just the way a sister or cousin would! She offered to take us for a joy ride in the little training air craft but that was the one thing that my mother firmly put her foot down about! My sister and I were really angry and sulked for ages but she did not give in... Today with two kids of my own, I understand her sentiments perfectly!
Her father was flying the Calcutta, now Kolkatta, Guwahati route and every Friday he would get fresh vegetables for us from Calcutta and she would pick them up from the airport and get them home. He also sent the most delectable Bengali sweets that came in little earthern pots and lots of 'free' airline sweets that my sister and I enjoyed to the hilt! We were enjoying having our pilot guest stay with us and these little treats, sent by her kind father, were like icing on a delicious cake!
All too soon she had flown the requisite hours and the month was up. She was slated to go to the States for the next part of her training. When she finished that, she sent word that she had applied for the job of a pilot for India's international airline! She cleared every test with flying colours and managed a record of sorts by becoming Air India's FIRST lady pilot to clear even all the medical tests, all those years ago! How proud we were of her and were so glad that my mother had done what she has always been doing, encouraged and helped a young girl to do what she really wanted to. This had allowed her to finish that part of her training well in time to apply for this coveted job and open up a new frontier for women in India, for many women are now pilots with Air India. I have often flown with them, though never with our own special lady pilot! I am sure that day will come sooner or later.

Saturday, 24 October 2015

The Taste Of An Empty Nest

A few weeks ago I was alone at home. Now this NEVER happens unless you count those fifteen odd minutes in the morning after my kids rush for the bus and the house help comes in. My husband leaves thirty whole minutes before the kids do! I sit down with my first cup of tea and the previous week end's newspapers from India and just spend those few minutes recovering from making and packing three lunches of chapati and vegetables, snacks for short break, salad to accompany the lunches, fruit to munch on in between, water bottles and a 'healthy' dessert for my son who needs a little sweet something and of course from having served all three of them a hot breakfast. No packaged cereal breakfasts for us except as a Saturday morning treat for my son and the odd Sunday morning muesli with yogurt for my daughter. If I happen to have an early morning class that I volunteer for, I rush out fifteen minutes after my children. In Kenya the house help does an eight to five job, so the chances of it just being me, all by myself, are indeed remote, as the kids come home before she leaves!
That day I happened to be on my ownsome lonesome as my son had gone for a birthday party straight from school, my daughter called up to say she would finish a biology lab after school and I could pick her up when we picked up our son, and my husband was still in office. The house help left at her usual time. I had no classes scheduled on line that day and so, suddenly, incredibly, I was alone at home, minus even the company of my students in my virtual class room!
The house was silent. There was no pre teen to say 'I'm still hungry', even after gorging on the hot snack I make for them after school, each day. No girlish, 'I'm almost an adult' voice asking her brother to get out of her room. Since we are in the middle of applying for colleges for our daughter and mentally preparing for her departure in a few months time, I was struck by the fact that this is how our house would be like when, in a few years time, our son left for college too, unless, of course, we move back to our home town and he joins a college right there!
Just a couple of days earlier I had received one of those Whats Aap forwards which had a story about how the wife does absolutely nothing at home, or so the husband thinks, till he realizes how busy she is, from morning till night, and then takes back his words! It talked about doing dishes, laundry, cooking, ensuring utility bills are paid on time, buying groceries and vegetables, fetching the kids from school, helping with home work, scheduling their activities and doctor and dentist appointments and of course, play dates.
Since Indians seem to have suddenly become the most active people on What's Aap in the world, I was struck by how incongruous this particular post was, even in the context of the lower middle class and middle middle class in India. We have plenty of house help, unlike our counter parts in the States, Europe and Australia and we do not have to be super rich to be able to afford it. When was the last time an average Indian woman washed dishes or clothes unless it was her job or she lives in the slums or she was just cutting corners for a financial reason?  Most of us have wisened up to the fact that our house help in India takes a holiday without any prior intimation whatsoever and so many of us have not one, but at least three different women coming in for different chores. So if one doesn't turn up you just tell the other one to do what urgently needs to be done! The favour is reciprocated by the absent lady when the one that did her job that day takes an unexpected off! The laundry fellow, the 'Dhobi', comes in to pick up the clothes for ironing and delivers them back to you all neat and crisp. All taxes and bills are now paid on line or are directly debited from your burgeoning bank account, unlike just ten years ago when we had to stand in long queues many times a month for different utility providers. Our groceries and veggies, yes, even organic ones, are delivered straight home after being ordered on line, often at a price lesser than you would have paid, had you gone shopping yourself. The spices and pickles our grandmothers spent hours pounding and making are now bought straight off the shelf. The Diwali snacks, both sweet and savoury, have gone much the same way!
 If you are fortunate enough to have a garden, you never have to get your hands dirty. What's the gardener for? Little boys come in at an unearthly hour every morning to wash your car or cars for a pittance. Sorry, just how does one wash a car? Ask the Americans because the Indians just don't know!
The cook comes in before your children leave for school in case you want to send a packed lunch with them . You want them to have a hot lunch in school? Not a problem. The cook will finish cooking thirty minutes before the lunch break and the driver will deliver the lunch for those little darlings, hot on the dot, the minute the bell for lunch goes. Or like me, if you prefer to cook yourself, the house help will have the vegetables perfectly chopped, the rice and lentils washed and soaked and the dough ready for chapatis, just the way you like it....
Most (not all) mothers I know have outsourced home work guidance for their kids from as early as first grade! As they grow older, whole subjects are outsourced and tutors even make the kids learn each answer and then ask them. I remember doing this with my mother throughout my school life, even as she made dinner from scratch in our kitchen or washed the utensils, in case our one and only house help hadn't turned up!
All of the above is fine because we are generating employment after all by giving all the people mentioned above a ton of work. So what do you do with yourself other than being on Whats Aap and Face Book and shopping for clothes you don't really need? Before long your kids will move out and you won't have so many people to supervise once you have an empty nest. So if your kids are already in school for a good number of hours, I suggest get moving now. Find something that you like to do and like many of my mother's protegees, see if you can set about making it generate a little extra income for you. It could be stitching, knitting or embroidery. There is always a market for these rapidly disappearing skills. Who wouldn't want to gift a new born baby a hand made, soft, woollen sweater instead of an itchy, machine made one? Or a hand embroidered pastel cotton baby sheet? Your forte could even be selling hand made art and craft, jewellery or ethnic, eco friendly bags and purses at less than retail prices! Look for your niche and slide in!
Have a talent for teaching? Lots of kids needs extra help that mothers, specially if they work full time, are unable to provide. Brush up on your qualifications and start your own classes. Very skilled in the kitchen? Lots of mothers like to buy home made snacks for their kids preferring them to packaged, preservative laden ones. So what if they are made in someone else's home! Remember all those multiple Whats Aap groups you belong to? Now is the time to advertise your skills or your little businesses there! Want to study further? No time like the present. Kids find it very exciting to study along side mothers who are studying for exams and love to reprimand them for not being focused or for not getting good marks! Love to paint or click pictures? See how you can enhance these skills or see how you can train others in them. Great with computers and websites? Tell others you are willing to train them for a small fee!
Don't really need the extra cash? Fine. There are lots of social organizations there who are looking for volunteers in multiple fields. Giving the gift of your time and skills is really the best gift you can give to the less blessed in our society. They need people skilled in accounting, computers, teaching, supervising and organizing. A whole world exists out there that is trying to make a difference and they are just waiting for you to pitch in with whatever you have, in which ever way you can!
A Sunday Times Of India article I read just after I had tasted my empty nest (for just a couple of hours), talked about the Empty Nest Syndrome and how it is hitting mothers of Indian students who leave for colleges outside India, usually for their masters degree. It talked about the fact that Indian mothers are so bound up in their kids that they are going into depression the minute the children leave. Well don't say I didn't warn you and get moving right now if you can! Children don't stay dependant forever...
As a friend of mine in Dar Es Salaam, whose older son had just left for college then and the younger one would soon follow suit, very succinctly put it , 'How long will I go on cleaning cupboards?' She joined an accounting and a computer course to prepare for her soon to be empty nest!
And for those mothers who are putting in twelve to fourteen hours a day outside the home and have kids who are still in the nest, I would say the same, 'Think, you will have an empty nest before you know it!' Funny how the Empty Nest Warning can have two entirely different connotations...
After all, as the Father in the award winning movie 'Cheaper By The Dozen' says ' Whatever you may achieve in life will amount to nothing if you have messed up raising your kids!' I couldn't agree more!
So make them your first priority without doubt, but put carving out your own identity somewhere on that never ending 'to do' list too!

From My Desk: Tales Out Of School

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