Friday, 3 May 2019

The Vigil

The wait, the long wait for the unknown.
Time passes slowly.
As slowly as thickened molasses
Meanders down a channel,
In a sugar processing factory.

Time passes slowly.
As slowly as the rich, red life giving blood,
Passes so quietly,
Through transparent tubes.

A hot summer's day.
All is still except time,
But that too passes slowly,
Oh so slowly,
As life ebbs away...

The antiseptic smell of the hospital room,
Seems to suck up the very air,
The very hope that remains
Alive in our hearts.
For, we had been taught,
"Where there is life, there is hope..."

Heavy eyelids flutter once,
Bringing a small smile to many a face around,
As grey- green eyes half open,
But then the shutter falls again.

And time passes slowly.
As slowly as the river,
At the delta,
Winds its way to the sea.
Uniting with that vast sparkling body.

And so Time draws one,
Towards one's Maker.
Until the soul blends into infinity....

Saturday, 2 March 2019

To The Woman Who Lost

The last few weeks and especially the last few days have been harrowing for India as a country. From being practically on the brink of war with our neighbour to one of our Air Force pilots landing into their territory, after shooting down their aircraft and being shot down in turn, only to eject and fall on the wrong side of the border...Mercifully the Geneva Convention was by and large adhered to and our pilot smartly marched home across the border last night, even as a country waited with bated breath and many a prayer, for his safe return. But every evening for more than a month now, news channels have been dominated by stories of brave wives who have lost their husbands to terrorism, to gunfire and, just two days ago, to a helicopter crash in the border area. Visuals of these young ladies saying their last good byes to husbands, many carrying young children in their arms are continuously flashing across our television screens...This has also turned the spotlight on the wives of soldiers whose husbands were martyred in years past and many a 'candid' discussion has taken place on Prime Time television. I listened to many strong women, (I refuse to call them widows), outlining the issues and the multiple delays they have faced in getting their dues and in facing the myriad challenges that arise when death occurs suddenly and so tragically, with government officials promising to make things happen soon... The definition of soon is anybody's guess...

To The Woman Who Lost

To the woman who lost a husband to vile terrorism or an act of war,
There is no magic balm for a heart so sore.
Never again will that deep voice emanate,
Asking for a last chappati, straight from your griddle to his plate.
The house that sometimes seemed a trifle small,
Suddenly seems larger than the nearest mall.
No surgeon, no matter how smart,
Can mend that gaping hole in your heart.
Precious memories spread themselves in corners four,
Who knew it was the last time he walked out of your door?

The throat is tight, the grief is red and raw,
Why does it feel like the camel's last straw?
The eyes are gritty with tears yet unshed,
Why were you chosen to be down this particular path led?

Government officials, news reporters, neighbours bombard you with questions galore,
While you wish, you could, like Sita, be swallowed up by the floor.
But life is always harder for those left behind,
To live for your children, yourself, your parents, in laws, you must put your mind.

You have to stand up and claim his posthumous Gallantry Award,
Which, for serving the Nation, is his tangible reward.
At times, the cold, hard metal will offer comfort scant,
At other times you will want to rave and rant.
But remember for the Nation he had pledged his life,
And you, you had signed up to be a Forces Wife.
The grit he showed in death, you will need in life,
One cannot pretend it's not going to be a strife.

For the long struggle to get your due,
You will find yourself a part of a never ending queue,
One would have thought the machinery is better oiled for a soldier's kin,
And making a devastated lady run around would be a sin.
But for the government 'servant' in his cool cabin and the clerk in the plush chair,
By making you visit 'just' ten times, he is being very fair.
"Rest assured, Madam, your work is almost done,"
While the reality is, he's not even begun...
And then, you realize, that the courage you showed when he died,
Needs now a thousand times to be magnified...

As winter turns to summer and summer to rain,
You ask yourself, "Was his sacrifice in vain?"
"Have my countrymen never learned,
That it's not just about the pension he had rightfully earned?"
"This is someone who died for our country,
At least do your job to honour his memory...."

Nearly a billion mouths should apologize and hang their heads in shame,
It's thanks to her husband that it's not you looking down from a dusty frame...

Saturday, 16 February 2019

Of Martyrs And Torrential Tears

Thursday, 14th February 2019, for us, here in Kenya was a day almost like any other. Though it was Valentine's Day, the fact that it came almost in the middle of the week, did not leave much scope for catching a quick lunch with my husband (like the impromptu one last year!) or ordering in dinner. Plus there was the fact that my neighbour and I spent a lot of time supervising the guys we had called in to clean the water tanks on our compound and the only time I went through the headlines on my on line newspaper from India, was when I had my cup of Kericho Gold tea that morning. Post tank cleaning supervision and lunch, it was time for my classes to begin on Skype and with the Board Exam set to start in India next week, I am taking additional classes for my 10th grade students almost every day, with the result that I was now in class right until dinner time here.
So with eyes burning from staring at the screen, back stiff with sitting for a few hours at a stretch, the brain in a sozzled mess from fielding oh so many last minute doubts from students, I first barely registered what my son was saying, even as I rapidly rolled out chappatis for dinner. "Mom, he repeated, didn't you read the news? A convoy of Indian soldiers was attacked today, when a vehicle laden with explosives rammed into their bus, at a place called Pulwama in India's northern most state, forty men died, Mom, at 3:15 pm India time." I asked him if he was sure he was giving me the latest news and how he knew about it. He patiently repeated it like one talking to a small child, "Mom, people came up to me in school, (we are two and a half hours behind India), to say how sorry they were to hear about the attack, the WhatsApp group that I am in with the boys from our housing society in Pune have been discussing nothing else all evening...." And it was then that I realized that what he was saying had to be true.. members of our armed forces had been treacherously attacked, yet again.
Late on Friday evening, I asked my husband to switch channels to the news from India so I could see what they were all saying on the second day after the attack and to also watch respects being paid to the forty CRPF men whose Tricolour wrapped coffins had been by then, brought to our capital, New Delhi, before being taken to their respective villages, scattered throughout the length and breadth of India, for their last rites. Images of raw, unfettered grief greeted me, mothers and other women wailing, wives on the verge of collapse, (honestly there should be a law against cameras recording these very private moments and against news reporters thrusting mikes into the faces of all and sundry from each devastated family...) children crying, some too young to even comprehend that Daddy was never coming back  and men swearing revenge on the country that was deemed to be responsible for this attack.
The news channels were, as usual, debating the matter to its last fragments, with all kinds of subject experts (some self proclaimed and others genuine) and smarmy politicians who obviously wanted to use the opportunity to squeeze in sympathy votes, (India goes to the polls later this year), dominating the panels. But one lady in particular caught my eye and stood out among the rest. Every other panelist addressed her first, actually listened whenever she said anything and they all expressed condolences on the death of her brave son, who had been martyred in Kashmir just over two years ago. Her name was Mrs. Meghna Girish and she is the wife of a retired Air Force officer and the mother of  Major. Akshay Girish, who had given up his life, while defending the Nagrota camp from heavily armed terrorists, disguised in police uniform, near Jammu, as part of a Quick Response Team. He left behind a very young wife, a then three year old daughter, a twin sister and aging parents and grand parents.
A quick Google search, even as I was watching the news debate, revealed everything I had forgotten about the attack in Nagrota. At that time, when it had happened on 29th November 2016, we had been deeply affected, not only because of precious lives lost at the hands of terrorists but also because my Dad had been posted to Nagrota more than twenty five years ago. And then, on one of the search links, I came across Mrs. Girish's blog. I had already listened to the lady speak with quiet dignity and a face full of genuine sympathy for all the forty families so deeply affected by the latest dastardly attack. I knew I had to read it. And so at 11:00 pm last night, I started reading it, right from her very first entry, made mere days after her son had been killed, while defending a building which had families of fellow soldiers residing in them.
She starts with the birth of her twins in the mid eighties, her son's struggles with his health in the early years, his determination to join the Air force, like his father, and the eye problems which eventually led him to joining the Indian Army instead, where fate had the ultimate sacrifice in store for him. The story is so beautifully chronicled that within a few minutes into the blog, my tears were flowing freely, as she describes their close knit family, the school years, her son's wedding, the birth of a grand daughter and then her daughter's wedding. All the very simple joys of life that all of us take for granted, day in and day out. The final day of her son's life and the way they get the news, after being on tenterhooks all day, is absolutely heart wrenching...Each post ended with her thanking people for the support given to the family and her gratitude to all the strangers who came to show solidarity with the family and she always asks God to bless everyone. Her faith, despite what life dealt out to her, remains tangible, unshakable, unbreakable.....By 2:00 am this morning I had not finished nearly two years worth of posts and my eyes were swollen, my nose was red and running and I knew I had to stop reading and finish it the following morning... If I was so affected just by reading about what a family goes through while facing the death of a martyr and its aftermath, of a three year old daughter crying out loud that she wanted to see her father, of a young wife left to pick up the remains of her life, what about those many, many Forces families that go through this year on year, even as our country tries to continue waging a war on terror?
The Girish family now belongs to an organization that connects all the families whose family member made the supreme sacrifice and as she writes about the Kargil martyrs of 1999, she mentions meeting the family of late Major Padmapani Acharya, who was awarded the Maha Vir Chakra posthumously, ( India's second highest military honour), sending me whizzing down my own memory lane....
The year was 1986. My Dad had just got posted to Gauhati, Assam, and we had all moved from Pune. I was cycling around in our Army - Air Force Housing Area, when a fancy name plate on the terrace parapet wall of a first floor house caught my eye. 'Acharyas', it said in bold brass letters and I could see a plethora of plants around the entire terrace area. I was impressed, as my Dad had an ordinary wooden name plate and we were yet to buy a single plant, having very reluctantly parted from the beautiful garden of our colonial style army bungalow in Pune. Gradually we got to know Acharya Aunty, as we called her and found her to be a lovely, genuine lady who was the Principal of the little Air Force Primary school. Her then eighteen year old son, Padmapani or Babloo 'Bhaiya' (older brother) as we called him, was away at college and came home only for vacations. He was great friends with the daughters of our immediate neighbours who were in college themselves (I was in middle school then!) and that was how we used to often see him in our block....By late 1987, the Acharyas had got posted out and as luck would have it, we were allotted their house! Gone were those lush green plants, gone was that eye catching name plate, we had well and truly moved in...The Armed Forces are perpetually short of housing,so an officer doesn't usually get a house accorded to his rank until it is almost time to move out of that particular city...
Twelve years sped by, we all grew up and then the Kargil war started. Captain Vikram Batra, (he has a twin too), Captain.Saurabh Kalia and many others, both officers and soldiers, gave up their all to defend our nation and became house hold names. And then, I read in the newspaper, early one morning, that Major Padmapani Acharya, son of Wing Commander J Acharya, had been martyred too at Kargil, leaving behind a pregnant wife...This, I told my husband, HAS to be the tall, lanky, Babloo Bhaiya we knew. I was awed that I actually knew a Kargil martyr and that my sister and I had moved into the bedroom that had once been his, all those years ago... As the mother of a then one year old daughter, my heart went out to Babloo's wife, Charulata, who I had read then, delivered a baby girl, Aparajita, (the undefeated one) three months after her husband had breathed his last. Internet searches in later years revealed a family pitching in to bring up the little girl, just as her father had instructed in his last letter home...
Thanks to Mrs. Meghna Girish, I got to know that Aparajita Acharya is today in her second year of law college, plans to follow her late father's and grand father's footsteps in the Armed Forces  and has just penned a coffee table book about the father she never knew, titled, 'Our Babloo, The Hero Of Drass.' It was released on what would have been his 50th birthday, had he but lived...
And so, more than seventy years after independence, India keeps losing her men in uniform. To many of us, it is a face on television, it might bring a quick tear to the eye and then, as we get on with our lives, all is forgotten...What about the shattered families and dreams they leave behind? Many organizations are working to help the families and educate the children, just as their fathers would have wished.. It's not always about money but about showing you care, in your own small way. Reach out if you can, the internet will show you the way, and do read Mrs. Girish's words to feel just a fraction of their pain...We salute our martyrs, they who died, saluting our flag and kept it flying...

Wednesday, 13 February 2019

The Hoo-Ha Over Helmets In My Hard Headed Home Town!

From the 1st of January 2019, believe it or not, one of the most parochial towns in India, Pune, was forced to accept a major change in the lives of her two wheeler riding citizens, which basically means anyone and everyone above the age of sixteen....You won't be called a legitimate Puneite if you don't own at least one two wheeler! The citizens were finally told that, after many a court battle and many a long struggle to resist the head gear, (the length and ferocity of which would actually put India's freedom struggle to shame), helmets would become mandatory for all and sundry, no exceptions!
People reading this from other parts of my beloved country and even other countries of the world, are probably blinking at this and shaking their usually helmet protected heads in disbelief...What, a mini metro, a smart city at that, took SO long to implement this very basic self preservation rule? What is wrong with this city? A lot it turns out..but hey, we are trying to modernize as fast as we can....which is a bit tough, given our ultra conservative, 'I know better than you', Brahmanical origins...
In my own case, I began using a 50cc two wheeler at the age of sixteen, a moped, which was just one up on the bicycle, to drive the seven odd kilo meters from home to college. But the first thing my mother did was to take me to the Army canteen, so we could buy a good quality helmet for me, at a reasonable price. This was way back in 1992, twenty seven years before my city FINALLY implemented the helmet rule. And I found nothing odd or unique in this as my mother had always used a helmet and my Dad, being in the Indian Army had no choice but to use one, for the Army made the helmet mandatory for its personnel long before I was even born...
In fact, one of my Mother's favourite stories, to drill the importance of using a helmet into our heads, was this one: It so happened that at one of the places that my Dad was posted to, an officer went out on his motor bike without a helmet. And as bad luck would have it, met with an accident and died on the spot. Army rules, at least in those days, (I do not know about today, since I am referring to an incident that occurred close to forty years ago), made it clear that the proceeds from one of the very few government insurance policies would not be given, in the unfortunate event of the death of a helmet less rider, whether officer or soldier. My Mom used to often relate how a helmet was bought, smashed with a stone, and laid down near the officer's lifeless head, just so the widow and children would get a few lakh rupees more in hand, at a time when faithful and honest officers of the Indian Army were perpetually strapped for cash...Everyone in authority turned a sympathetic blind eye to this farce but to us, as little, impressionable children, it drove home the point that a head, without a helmet, was of no use to anyone...
One of the major rules in my own children's lives is that neither my husband nor I ever took them out on a two wheeler and do not do so, to this day. Before my daughter was old enough to start school, I learnt how to drive a car just to ferry her around and the matter ended there, because India, unfortunately did not even manufacture good quality kids' helmets more than eighteen years ago, let alone pass laws against toddlers dangerously hanging on to two wheelers...I wonder what the scenario in Pune is like today, with the new law in place...I'm quite sure the toddler riding pillion on Mom's lap or strapped to her back, papoose style, in case the modern, liberated woman is driving the vehicle herself, remains without a helmet, but I shall know for sure the next time I go home.
But not allowing my children to sit astride a two wheeler did not prevent me from emphasizing the importance of using helmets to both of them, right since the time they started becoming aware of their surroundings. I discovered just how well I had driven home the point, when during one of our sojourns home, this is what I witnessed my son doing. Since I continue to drive in India, every chance I get, my son and I often end up stuck in heavy traffic. He must have been  nine or ten years old, (he just turned fifteen), when he suddenly lowered the window and yelled at the person on the two wheeler next to us, to start using a helmet immediately, before rolling up the window! I do not know who was more shocked, me or the person whom my usually very polite and impeccably mannered child had just ticked off in public! But when it happened again and again, I had to tell him to stop doing this, because, I explained, he might shock someone so much that he or she would probably fall off the bike, right on to our car, and their helmet free heads would get a really hard knock! While that would probably drum some sense into their heads about using helmets, we couldn't risk getting into trouble...But to this day, when we are back home every June, he feels very tempted to roll down his window and belt out some road safety rules to strangers...I am hoping that next time around, we will see a sea of helmets in our dear but obstinate Pune.
To all those, who for many years, stubbornly refused to use helmets on the grounds that 'we always drive very carefully and slowly', I would just like to say, read up on some Physics laws. Even if you are travelling at ten kilo meters an hour and a car hits your vehicle at fifty kilo meters an hour, guess at what speed you will go flying off your bike?
Despite the law, I read every week without fail, in the on line version of my city's paper, about students dying in road accidents because they thought that since they were travelling at night, no policemen or women would be around to catch them and fine them for lack of a helmet...I can only imagine how much their parents must be wishing today that they had drilled some sense of obedience into those young, hirsute heads, which refused to put on helmets...Sometimes fatal accidents happen even with a helmet on, but at least those you leave behind know you tried your very best to protect yourself, because you cared about them and about yourself too....

Thursday, 17 January 2019

When Terror Struck Nairobi AGAIN....

Tuesday, 15th January 2019 was not a day on which we were following our regular routine. School had just reopened the day before, after Christmas break, and tragedy had struck the school community the same afternoon, when a teacher's husband collapsed, while watching his son play after school sports and passed away, despite huge efforts to resuscitate him. The teacher and her family lay heavily on my mind as I hurriedly packed my son's lunch and I remarked to my husband that, at that time, the previous morning, they must have all been having breakfast too, little knowing it would be their last meal together. And I had no inkling then, that the day which had started on a somber note, would end on a horrifying one...
It was not a regular day because my husband, our daughter and I were rushing around getting ready to visit 'Nyayo House', which houses the immigration department and where we trek faithfully every couple of years to get our passports stamped and to get new foreigner cards issued. I personally dread this trip every single time because we need to get through choc a bloc traffic and Nairobi's central business district is not one of my favourite places to visit here. I feel like the proverbial fish out of water there, cocooned as we usually are in our 'golden tower', (only elephants use ivory), from where everything we need is at a stone's throw and where we feel 'safe'.
After an hour's driving in heavy traffic, and narrowly missing being crushed by the public transport buses: the ubiquitous 'Matatus', which were going even faster and more recklessly than usual, given the morning rush hour, we reached our destination by 9:30 am. A couple of hours later, our passports had been stamped and we had been fingerprinted for the 5th time in more than seven years! There were huge sighs of relief all around, even as we wiped off the black ink from our hands! We had just validated our existence in Kenya, God willing, for the next couple of years.
We dropped off my husband to his office on our way home and began discussing our plans for the day. My daughter wanted to visit a couple of restaurants and I agreed, as she had just a few days of her break remaining and I had a rare week day off from teaching online, as students from three of the four schools scheduled for classes that day were in the middle of exams. But, one of the rules we live by is that we never gallivant around with our passports! If we were to, God forbid, lose our passports, between the four of us, we would have had to visit the High Commission Of India, Nairobi, for new passports (one visit would NEVER suffice, make that four trips!), Nyayo House for the Kenyan residence stamp (not AGAIN!), the Embassy of the United States Of American for our American visas which are on our current passports (that's next door to the house but the visas are EXPENSIVE) and last but not least, the Embassy of the United Arab Emirates for my daughter's student visa, as she studies there (and college begins THIS Sunday!). It was simply not worth the risk. And so we asked my husband's driver to take us home first, and this decision prevented my daughter and me from being in a restaurant on the very road, Riverside Drive, where terrorists attacked a five star hotel just a couple of hours later....
Once the passports were under lock and key, we were about to head out, first for coffee at 'The Wasp and Sprout' (which my daughter has been wanting to visit for the last couple of years) and then for lunch at 'Le Grenier A Pain' (The Bread Attic) which is a couple of minutes from DusitD2 Hotel, where tragedy would unfold very soon....But our canine kid refused to let go of my daughter and so we decided to take her for coffee with us. By this time, it was very close to lunch time and we decided to combine lunch and coffee at Wasp and Sprout and not visit Riverside Drive at all, which also happens to be in our old neighbourhood of Westlands and subsequently my former neighbours told me that, like during the Westgate Attack, they could hear the explosions and the exchange of gun fire and see the smoke curling up, from our former building... Had we gone on to have lunch as planned, we would have been in the immediate vicinity and who knows when we would have managed to make it back home, since the road was shut down immediately and people were asked to evacuate every building around the hotel, on foot , as at that point they did not know if it was a single attack or a multi pronged one, like the 26/11 attacks in Mumbai in 2008...
 Just the previous evening, (before we got the news of the death in our school community), we had broken a strict rule of 'not going out when there is school the next day' and taken our daughter and son bowling in a mall very close to our house. Since she is here for a very short time and we will not see her for the next five months, we were trying to cram everything possible in this short visit. In retrospect, we realized that we had visited almost every single place in the previous two weeks that are likely to be on a terrorist organization's radar... At the mall entry check point, the guard opened the boot of the car and gave a cursory glance inside, before waving us in...My son remarked that he had not even bothered to check properly... I jokingly told him that that was probably because we did not 'fit' the classic profile of terrorists, given that we had two 'children' (who are adult size) in tow. My son disagreed and this led to a discussion of children being used as suicide bombers by some organizations...Twenty hours later a suicide bomber blew himself up in DusitD2's Secret Garden restaurant, where my daughter has met friends and had lunch a few times, when she lived in Kenya...Terror is most terrifying when it hits close to home, until then, it just remains another statistic on the news....
And it was closer than we could have imagined. One of my daughter's closest school friends, an Ethiopian girl, who had moved to the United States five years ago, was back in Nairobi this month to meet all her old friends. She had been staying at the luxurious DusitD2 and had checked out to go back home just four days before the attack...What if she had been here last Tuesday? What if my daughter had been visiting her at the hotel that day?
These girls were not there but what about the  people who were? Innocent people who were going about their own business or just trying to earn an honest living? They leave behind heart broken families and loved ones, many of whom are still trying to identify bodies, at the mortuary located, ironically, just down the road from Dusit. Our hearts go out to them. What about the members of the security forces, one of whom lost his life and many others who are grievously wounded? We salute them all for the stellar role they played in rescuing people and in securing the hotel in a comparatively short period of time.
When will we see a peaceful world? What are we doing to each other? Who knows when and how it will all end... All we can do is to have faith in God, live each day as constructively as we can, keep our phones handy and carry identification on our person at all times. (Many people messaged their location from inside the besieged hotel to family members, enabling police to search for and rescue them in record time. A few bodies did not have any identification on them, making the task so much harder than it already is...). These, then are the new 'rules' for living in an unruly and ruthless world.

 DO VISIT KENYA. One swallow doth not a summer make.... Don't give up and don't give in. Together we stand!

Monday, 7 January 2019

A Kenyan Wedding

It has been exactly a year since I attended the wedding of the daughter of very close family friends of my parents, which was held in Guwahati, Assam, a place where I spent three of my pre teen years. To go back to a city you once lived in, after nearly thirty long years and to meet old school friends, is emotional beyond belief and probably the reason why I still haven't been able to write about it....But I will, very soon... A number of people sent me messages on my birthday last week, urging me to keep writing and keep inspiring, which made me realize that my output for 2018 has been my lowest since I first began blogging way back in 2011, after moving to Nairobi. So that is something I definitely need to rectify in 2019. A major reason why I did not write much was also that a dear friend here went through a major upheaval in her life and since the blog is all about things that actually happen around me and always contains the unadulterated truth, as I see it, I had to curb myself, since the matter was and remains subjudice....One more reason to start afresh in 2019 and utilize each day to its utmost, as one does not know what lies around the next bend on the hard and some times rocky road of life.
In the mean time, an exciting thing happened last month! We got invited to a Kenyan wedding! While I have attended a few KenIndian weddings here in the past, courtesy of the Indian origin business community my husband works with, I had never, ever, attended a truly Kenyan wedding. I love weddings, so you can imagine how excited I was...The bride is a security guard in my son's school and I felt truly privileged to be one of the handful of school parents whom she had invited to grace her big day. I have tremendous respect for security guards in the malls, government offices and educational institutions of both India and Kenya, because, in the unfortunate event of an attack, they are always in the direct line of fire, which is exactly what had happened during the terrorist attack at Westgate Mall.
I happily assured her that I wasn't travelling on the Saturday of her wedding. She was worried whether I would be there or not,since the school holidays would have just begun and I told her I would definitely attend the post church wedding reception in our school gymnasium. I was touched that the school had offered the space to host the function for one their staff members. I spent a long time shopping for the perfect wedding gift for her, as a mark of gratitude, for keeping our children safe at school. I wanted something pretty and yet functional and I finally found it and then splurged some more on choosing wedding appropriate wrapping paper. Wrapping paper in Kenya, unlike in India, does not automatically come free with the gift, but has to be bought separately, a fact that irks me to this day! 'Free' habits die hard....
Since the church was rather far from the reception venue, I was in touch with another security guard from our school and my son and I left home only when he assured me that the bridal party was on their way from church. We still ended up being the first ones at the beautifully decorated and colour coordinated venue but were soon joined by another parent I knew from school, who had come straight from the wedding ceremony. It was to be another hour before the family and friends of the bride and groom would arrive and THREE more hours before the couple du jour would show up, since they had a two hour photo session in between the wedding ceremony and the reception! Wow! This was certainly a new experience for me.

                                                The multiple cakes matched the decor colours!

In the meantime, the two hundred odd guests began queueing up to help themselves to the buffet lunch. Waiting for the 'couple of the day' was not part of the custom. One of the hostesses urged those around my table to get up and help themselves. After a while, she observed that my son and I had no plates in front of us. She cut through the queue and brought us two plates heaped with food. I was touched by her kind gesture but had to explain to her that we could not eat anything since we are strict vegetarians...She was puzzled but accepted my explanation. I urged my son to go and help himself to a soft drink since I felt that it would seem rather rude if neither of us had absolutely nothing! (This was a huge concession on my part, since I am always urging my son to stay away from the pure poison that I feel these bottles contain, and don't even get me started on my thoughts about alcohol! Mercifully, the school is a drug, alcohol and tobacco free campus....) My son shot off like a bullet to grab his bottle of Stoney, the famous ginger flavoured drink of East Africa!
Meanwhile, where were the bride and groom? No matter! The guests had happily feasted and the uncles, aunts and cousins were called by the Master Of Ceremonies, to join the line, that was already snaking around the tables and chairs. Traditional African music began being played and the entire wedding party began doing a line dance, weaving themselves between the tables and chairs. The sheer joie de vivre on their faces would put the guests at the recent mega Bollywood weddings that we had been forcefully subjected to, by the Indian media, to shame! My son, after having been very patient for three whole hours of basically doing and eating nothing, was ready to go home and so I sent him off ( oh the advantages of residing just outside the school gate!) but I was not ready to budge until I had seen the bride.
Finally there was an announcement that the much awaited moment had come and the couple was outside. All the ladies were asked to come outside to welcome them in and so we walked out of the gym. I found this custom really nice as I am sure the bride and groom, followed by the brides maids and groomsmen, felt very special as they danced into the gym, to the beat of traditional Kenyan chants and songs. Once again the entire line danced around the periphery of the hall, this time led by the new couple, until they reached the decorated table at the head of the hall, where their lunch had been kept warm for them. Everyone's happiness was palpable and again brought home the fact that one does not really need much to enjoy life....

                                    The beautiful and glowing bride dances her way in, into the hall

Unlike in India, the presents were not handed over directly to the bride or the groom. A chief usher sat at a large table and the gifts had to be deposited there. She put a number on a sticker which was then stuck to the gift. The same number was then entered into a little ledger which also had the giver's name against it. For those who wanted to gift cash, little brown envelopes were handed around long before the couple made an appearance. This, I thought, certainly saved the mad scramble I have experienced many, many times, while leaving home to attend a wedding, when the fancy gift envelope I had so carefully kept, absolutely refuses to be found, necessitating a stop on the way to the venue, to purchase an envelope! The little brown envelopes were then popped into a box with a small slit, which would be handed over to the couple later, with all the cash safe and sound inside. What an ingenious idea!
Once the couple and their immediate entourage were seated, the few other parents and I decided it was time to leave. But, as another guest told us when she saw us leaving, the fun had just begun! As we waved to the bride and smiled at everyone and walked out, we knew the guests would dance and sing and eat cake late into the evening....It seemed a perfect metaphor for the new couple's life together that had begun that day and actually seemed like a good mantra for the rest of us to follow too....

                          The wedding gift we gave, I loved those red roses on the paper I chose!
                          Any guesses for what's inside? It's functional but fragile!

Sunday, 16 September 2018

When 2004 Met 1947

Disclaimer: This post isn't about the stories my son recorded. Those narratives belong to the people who related them and now to the 1947 Partition Archive too. To hear those very interesting stories you have to visit where they will be put up very soon.
This is about the whole process of a teen age boy taking up a challenge, some of the interesting situations we encountered, the difficulties, our emotions and the joy of successfully reaching a goal that seemed elusive once too often during the whole process!

April- May 2018, Nairobi, Kenya. It was around the end of April 2018 that I saw the advertisement during my self allotted ten minutes on FaceBook, from the 1947 Partition Archive, asking for applications from college students for a six week paid summer internship, which involved interviewing twenty four people who remembered the partition of India. I messaged one of my oldest friends who is the founder and brain behind the Archive, asking her if students just entering High School could apply too. "Yes", she said, "they could apply with parental permission".
Next I asked my son if he was interested. The process, I explained, was very long. He had to attend a webinar, answer the questions that followed, then fill in the internship application, then there would be a couple of interviews to test his suitability for this rather massive task and last, but not least, he would have to work for six out of the eight weeks of his summer vacation. He loves India, adores History, ( a true chip off the old block!) and has been collecting comics of Indian Freedom Fighters and other historical figures since the time he was very young, pouring over them time and again, when he has run out of books to read...His first true test, I warned him, would be waking up at 5:00 am Kenya time to attend the webinar at 5:30 am, that too on a day when he had to go to another school for a tennis tournament. Wake up he did, even shooing me away once the webinar began, telling me to go back to sleep. After two intense hours and successfully answering the required number of questions, he rushed to catch the bus to go for the tournament. Phase one was done and then he decided he wanted to apply for the internship, as completing the webinar had been a prerequisite. Conducting one interview was essential, as it was a part of the application process. Thus began a massive hunt for someone who had migrated during 1947 and was currently living in Kenya! Time was short, the school year was coming to an end, he was very busy already and I was travelling to Mombassa with my sister in law just on the day he had to wrap up the interview....! But old neighbours from Tanzania days, who have been very good friends, often rise up to various occasions and a dear Sindhi friend came through for me. She told me to go off to Mombassa without a care and she would take my son for interviewing an old Sindhi lady she knew who had been displaced in 1947. And so the first interview was canned and submitted just before the deadline ended. (But not before a little adventure with the tripod that broke when my son was laying out his equipment, ready for the interview the next day. Father and son made it to the nearest mall just before it closed and came home with a new tripod!)  We were taking 'cutting it close' to newer heights!
In the meantime, my son, during his desperate hunt for a suitable person to interview, had also contacted the archive to see if they knew anyone in Kenya who had expressed a desire to be interviewed. The archive sent us a name and number of a lady who had waited for FIVE years to be interviewed and it turned out that two of my friends knew the lady's son very well and I had met him too! ( By this time, since my son had successfully finished the webinar and submitted an interview which met all the requirements of the Archive, and he had become a Citizen Historian and could officially conduct interviews, though he hadn't become an intern yet). And so we fixed a day and time as per their convenience. But the day suitable for them turned out to be the day before we were to leave for India! So instead of packing and winding up, we were rushing across town so he could conduct the interview. Little did we know then that this would become the story of our entire summer...
June-July 2018, Pune, Maharashtra, India. The next two rounds consisted of telephonic interviews with people who work for the archive and dates and times were set for my son's interviews. I was listening to him confidently answer questions that were asked and I realized that he is a natural when it comes to talking to people. It was nice to discover this as I believe this is a very basic skill and something that technology can never replace...One answer struck me deeply. He was on speakerphone and was asked why he wanted to do the internship. He said he loved History, liked talking to people and wanted to know more about the partition of India. Then he added that my mother was very interested in this but we were small, so she could not leave us to go and interview people, so now I want to do it...He knew that I had loved the idea of the archive when my friend had first told me about her brain wave when she visited us in Pune in 2010. He had been just six years old then and my daughter had been twelve. He had surmised so correctly the reason I could never be involved with the archive, despite being a historian and archaeologist, before I switched to a different field. It left me stunned. Children perceive so much more than we realize.
He finally got a mail that he had been selected for the internship and was told on the phone that, at the age of fourteen, he had become the Archive's youngest paid intern in the world! Sending documents, signing contracts, sending his bank details, attending a summary writing workshop on line, suddenly everything became very official...
And then began the rush to scout for people who had memories of 1947. This essentially meant he had to look for people who were more than eighty years old in 2018. They need not necessarily have migrated but should have been old enough in 1947 to speak about it. Now this is much harder than it sounds. Some old people we knew had dementia so had to be struck off the list, others could not hear at all, some were not physically well enough to talk for an hour or more, some did not live in Pune and we had no time to travel and others refused to give the interview for reasons best known to them!
Here, WhatsApp groups came to our rescue and friends shared messages rapidly across various groups, asking for folks in the required age bracket. People who were complete strangers to us responded on behalf of their old parents and in laws and set up dates and times for us to visit. Relatives and friends truly came to our aid, as did neighbours and parents of my students who happily welcomed my son into their homes.
My son lost nearly a week of his precious six weeks as I was appearing for twelve exams and finished only by the third week of June. He was relying on me to drive him around and when we finally started visiting people, we scheduled so many in the first couple of weeks itself, that my right knee seized up, as I was driving up to fifty kilometres a day in choc a bloc Pune traffic, unable to proceed beyond the second gear! After too much of switching between accelerator and clutch (my car in India is not an automatic one) and also standing for long hours teaching students in my classroom, my knee got itself a fancy name 'chondromalacia patella' or, in layman's terms, runners knee (though how driving can cause it, is beyond me!), and swelled to thrice its usually bony size, leaving me hobbling in sheer agony. Again, a student's mom came to my aid and dropped off poultices of herbs to heat and apply, along with some medicinal oil. This brought me much relief and the interviews were then able to proceed, though I began using cabs and autos to take him around town and, much to my dismay, had to stop driving for a while. My mother too helped out by taking him for a couple of interviews.
As part of his pre internship briefing, my son had been told that old people tend to offer food to the interviewer and declining it would be considered disrespectful. And that turned out to be exactly the case. Relatives and neighbours, of course, fed us delicious snacks, (which was a blessing because the whole process from leaving home to wrapping up the interview usually took around three hours and my son would be starving at the end of that period) but even complete strangers used to keep food ready for us! In some homes, old ladies would be rushing around making coffee for us and it brought tears to my eyes. Time had dulled their senses, gnarled their fingers, knocked off a few teeth, but they had not forgotten the basic lessons of hospitality learnt at their mothers' knees, at least seven decades ago! In other homes, busy men and women took time to chat with us after he had finished interviewing their mother or father or in laws. Even the old age home administrator, where he conducted three interviews, offered us lunch. People were so kind to us that we did not feel awkward or out of place at all. Trust me, it is not an easy task to walk into a stranger's home and start firing off questions and recording the whole process, but I am so glad my son did it and did it rather well. Sometimes he forgot to get the forms signed, once he forgot to click photos of the interviewee but everyone was really gracious in accommodating him and ensuring he got everything he needed.
The Internet! Once my son had uploaded the day's interview or interviews on to the computer, it was time to upload them on to the archive website. And this is where all his struggles and woes (and mine by default) began...Each file was at least nine gigabytes and it was a task to find super fast unlimited internet in India. After trying two providers, buying new modems and just struggling every night and falling behind in the uploads, I finally discovered a provider who was able to give us the speed and the bytes we desperately needed! Then it was smooth sailing and quick transferring but not before the main cable broke on the very day we got our connection! Again we met some amazing people at their office and they allowed my son and me to take turns to sit in their office and transfer files while they worked at repairing the fault.
The highlights of this time for my son were meeting at least three people who had interacted with Mahatma Gandhi's assassin Nathuram Godse, and many others who had met or seen Gandhi, Nehru, Tilak and other freedom fighters. Equally impressive was meeting the daughter of an Indian judge who heard Bhagat Singh's and his fellow patriots' case in a Lahore High Court. Did he pass judgement against them for killing a Britisher? Watch the interview to find out!
For me, the highlight was meeting a lady doctor who belonged to my Alma Mater, St.Helena's High School. For a woman to become a doctor in the 1940s in India was a rarity in itself and the fact that she was from my school made it all the more special. We bonded fondly over school memories and history, though she had finished high school nearly fifty years before I had...She also answered all my son's interview questions in fluent English and I did not need to interpret anything at all. But then, I expected nothing less from an alumnus of my beloved school...
An old lady at the old age home who refused to sign the release form after her interview was over, touched my heart. She wanted to share so much more about her life and she knew we would leave once she signed it. My son decided then and there that he would be back the following year and teach the old people to become more tech savvy (they all had smart phones!) so they would feel less lonely. He even helped an old man, who had migrated from Karachi, to search for his old school's pictures on Google and he actually found them for him!
It was also a revelation to know what the staple diet in most homes was in those times and it was heart wrenching to hear how Brahmin homes in Pune and many other cities were burnt down after Gandhi's assassination all because Nathuram Godse was a Brahmin. Even more gut wrenching were the tales told by the handful of people my son interviewed who had actually migrated from what is modern day Pakistan. It just made me even more thankful for all that we are blessed with today...
We are so, so grateful to all the staff at the 1947 Partition Archives, both in the United States and in New Delhi and Pune. They were so patient with my son and the errors he made in the beginning, sometimes while uploading files or naming them and at times while interviewing folks. It was only when they were talking about their youngest intern and happened to say his name out loud during a meeting, that my friend discovered that he had been selected. She was so happy and proud of him!
This past summer has taught my son what it actually means to earn a living. To have to get out of bed each day and do the tasks that have to be done. To meet deadlines and to work on a schedule that may not necessarily be to your liking.
Actually, history and 1947 taught him about life!

                                                                   At What Cost?

The Vigil

The wait, the long wait for the unknown. Time passes slowly. As slowly as thickened molasses Meanders down a channel, In a sugar proces...