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?

Thursday, 29 March 2018

The Nuances And Nitty-Gritties Of Being Neighbourly

6:05 pm : I am walking in our front garden, free in the evening, on a week day, after many months, as the academic year comes to a close in India and I start winding up my classes online. Our dog and our upstairs neighbour's dog, both run circles around me. (Literally and figuratively!) Just a few minutes ago I had asked my husband to go out to the mall and buy some milk. (Unlike India, there's no friendly neighbourhood grocer here, it's the mall for everything!) We need our fresh packets of milk since I cannot bear to use long life milk and unfortunately, there is no daily delivery of milk in this area, unlike where we lived earlier. My son has accompanied my husband, happy as usual, to push doing his homework by another thirty minutes...
6:15 pm : I notice a thin spiral of smoke curling up from the bungalow which is around 200 metres  across the road from ours. The thick hedge around their house obscures everything else. "The house cannot be on fire, can it?" I half jokingly ask myself. I stop at our gate and stare for a few seconds. The smoke is white and in the cold, crisp, clear Nairobi air, has formed a whitish haze over the top of the house. "No, it's just a garden bonfire," I tell myself. It is Thursday the 15th, the Ides of March and there had been a very rainy start to the day, with buckets of water pouring down from the heavens almost all night and all day long, the reason why I hadn't been able to go to buy the milk myself. So I obviously come to the conclusion that some one had decided to light a fire to beat the cold.
6:30 pm : I decide to head into the house, savouring my free evening, planning to read for a bit before I need to start making dinner. Both the dogs follow me inside. Ours jumps into her basket in our bedroom but the upstairs dog refuses to settle down. She keeps touching me with her wet nose and going out of the bedroom. Soon ours jumps out of the basket too and follows her. Both the dogs now prance in and out of the room. I find it hard to get back to reading my book. I begin to wonder why the two are so restless.
6:54 pm : Our night guard gives me a missed call, the signal that he is at the gate and we should open it. I go out with both the dogs rushing ahead. There is no one at the gate. How strange!
6:59 pm : Hardly had I entered the house, when there's a missed call again. I'm at the gate in a minute and this time, he is there too. " The house opposite is on fire,that's where I had gone," he says.
I find it hard to believe but when I look beyond him, I can see the evidence with my own eyes..The first call is made to my husband, to ask him and my son to rush back home because I can well see that soon the road is going to be blocked with fire trucks and other vehicles. By this time I can see the fiery orange flames blazing up towards a rapidly darkening sky and thick grey-black smoke is beginning to vend it's way towards our house, the direction in which  the wind is blowing. I quickly message my upstairs neighbours who are out with their little baby to give them a heads up of the situation and to ask them to stay away with the baby because by this time the smoke is pouring thick and fast and babies have such delicate lungs...
Then I ask for the Kenya emergency numbers on the school moms group. Lesson no 1 of the evening, keep the general emergency numbers handy, not just those of your own private security provider. A friend provides the number , it's 999, and I make the call. It is answered rather promptly and the dispatcher tells me they are aware of the fire at our location and engines have been dispatched to the site already. Simultaneously, I can hear the loud wails of the sirens coming closer and closer and soon the cacophony is right up our street. My heart skips a beat because until now I had only seen fire engines rushing down roads towards some unknown fire somewhere and made way for them, but never this close to home...

From our front gate:the orange blaze, the thick plumes of smoke, the jets of water hitting the flames.

By this time my son and husband are back, and my son tells me the house belongs to an American family whose children go to the same school as him, and he knows the boy who is just a year senior to him.. I knew new tenants had moved in a couple of months ago but I had NO clue who they were. The perils of modern living, forget about love thy neighbour, we do not even know who he/ she is...Lesson no 2 of the evening : Make an effort to get to know who lives around you.
My son will rush in to help where angels fear to tread...We spend five minutes arguing in our garden, his point being he needs to go see what he can do for his friend and mine being that since we weren't sure of the source of the fire (and we know everyone got out safely), and there could be explosions in case the kitchen area is engulfed, he should wait for a while. Finally I agree to let him go with my husband and the security guard and I, being the cautious Capricorn that I am, follow only a few minutes later. My son has found his friend in the melee of fire engines, police cars and security vehicles of different companies and has managed to convey to him that our house is open and they are welcome to come there. I convey the same message on the school group so that it can reach the affected family, since I do not know them personally and to my son's friend too, who we find perched on the footpath on our side of the road, against the backdrop of the steady hum of water pumps from fire trucks which are throwing an unwavering stream of water over the flames . As we head back home, my son's succinct words are, "Mom last night he was at home, feeling cozy in his house, listening to the heavy rain pattering on the roof, today he is sitting on the footpath outside his burning house...Lesson number 3 of the evening : Here today, gone can be and often is completely unpredictable...So expect the unexpected, cliched but true.
I also bump into the guards from our private security service and I tell them to pick up cups of tea and biscuits from our house once they can leave the site. They are so genuinely grateful for this small gesture and drop in a few hours later, once the fire site has been secured to keep away scavengers and others.
By this time offers of help are pouring in from many Moms on the school group and the Indian origin Moms group and I promise to convey all the messages once I get to meet the family myself. By now we know that the bedroom where the fire started in completely burnt and the remaining three bedrooms on that floor are smoked out and uninhabitable. The ground floor, by God's grace and timely intervention by the fire department, is practically untouched.The family has moved to another friend's house and have found shelter for the night.
Next morning I drop in into the house to see if there's any way in which we can help. I can still see smoke emanating from one side of the roof. The term 'smouldering embers' suddenly comes to life..The husband and wife are back in the house and going through the cupboards of the smoked out rooms. I introduce myself and offer to help. They are truly brave people and smile cheerfully, even as they explain to me that they need help in washing out the clothes from cupboards and the sheets from the beds in the smoked out rooms. I eagerly carry home three large garbage bags of smoky clothes, some even with scorch marks on them. It brings home to me what a narrow escape the family had and what thin ice we all walk on just by living our day to day lives.. Also their house help confirms that the smoke I had first seen had, indeed, been a garden bonfire lit by her husband and the fire in the house broke out a short while later, due to an electrical short circuit. I am very relived because I had been berating myself over the fact that I should have gone over to investigate that first smoke I had seen...

                                                          Smoked out master bedroom
                                               The older boy's room , where it all started.
                                                               The roof was burnt to cinders....

My house help and I run the clothes in three lots through our machine  and spinner, with extra detergent and baking soda to remove that charred smell, and since the upstairs neighbours have offered help too, their house help runs the clothes through their drier ( I refuse to operate other people's electronic items!) because in this rainy Nairobi weather clothes are taking a long while to dry naturally... I am able to deliver nearly a hundred washed clothes very soon and am glad at least now the family has some fresh clothes to wear. Three more bags are carried off the next day by three other Moms from our school group and I can see firsthand how 'many hands truly make work lighter.'
The following Thursday, exactly a week after the fire, volunteers are invited for Clean Up Day at our neighbours' house. A group of us, some from the school community, others from their church,  assemble at 8:30 am and get to work to empty out the things from three remaining bedrooms and to see what can be salvaged and what needs to be discarded. Their son has lost every material thing he owned and his twin sister's room was affected very badly too and it is heartbreaking to see piles of scorched books, memory books, school texts, memories from their kindergarten years reduced to a half burnt pile.
Their five year old's room is almost untouched but badly smoked out and it is here that I work with a group of other ladies. Wiping out brightly coloured story books, taking out Lego pieces, filling bags with soft toys, pulling out tiny clothes (now permeated with smoke), the little normal things that make up life, that has now been suddenly interrupted...
The family thanked us repeatedly and profusely and as we snacked on croissants and brownies and sipped the coffee and tea  that they had organized for volunteers, as we stared at each other's sooty hands, smudged faces and sniffed at our smoky hair, a warm feeling engulfed me. If neighbours don't help each other, who will?
Living as expatriates in a foreign land today and earlier as army families in far flung cities, with no family close by, it was our neighbours who stood us in good stead, no matter what the occasion or the situation. And we remain in touch with so many of them even today. Being neighbourly has many nuances and nitty-gritties, from helping out with forgotten keys to being invited for meals after coming back from a holiday, to sending each other delicacies on festive days and birthdays, to keeping a watch over their houses when you know they are away, to pretending you never heard the spat, to providing comfort for grieving families...Sadly, it is an art that is now rapidly being forgotten.

            Forty two  soft toys I washed drying on our lawn with our dog being strictly told  "Paws off!"

 Running the smoked out soft toys through our machine and restoring them to a pristine condition again brought me solace. It was the one bright spot in a day of going through and mostly tossing out smoked or charred or water damaged items. It is hard to see a house literally going up in flames...but I know it is MUCH MUCH harder when it's your own home. We are so glad no one was hurt and my daughter's first question over the phone when I told her ? " Did the pets get out in time?" Yes, Coco their Dacshund is fine!

P.S : All the photos of the house were clicked by me with the affected family's permission and I also took permission to post them here. Be considerate of thy neighbour! 

Thursday, 8 March 2018

From Padmavati To Padman: The Indian Woman's 'Pacey' Progress into the 21st Century!

For those among us who follow Bollywood, the saga of the magnum opus 'Padmaavat', based on the life a of a Hindu Queen of the 13th century, who preferred death by jumping into the fire to dishonour at the hands of the Muslim invaders, has been engraved into our memories, better than our history text books ever could! All thanks to the protests that marked the release of the film by members of the community the late Queen had married into, citing reasons that the movie was an insult to that particular warrior community. While this was far from the truth, as was proved once the movie was allowed to be released, it did result in the postponing of the release of another very socially relevant Bollywood movie, Padman. So from heated discussions about whether 13th century Jauhar (mass self immolation) should have been shown in the movie, it was fast forward to the 21st century and the much more pressing and pertinent problem of the lack of access to feminine hygiene products for a vast majority of Indian women.
Padman, which finally released last month, deals with the forbidden 'P' world of the rather convoluted Indian culture. It actually tackles this natural phenomenon, I refuse to call it a problem, head on. It is a movie based on the life of India's Padman, Mr.Arunachalam Muruganantham. Mr. A belonged to a  lower middle class South Indian family and after he got married in 1998, came face to face with 'Women's Issues', (which had been carefully hidden from him by his mother and sisters until then), when he saw his wife smuggling a filthy rag into the bathroom, to use during her time of the month. She refused to allow him to buy her a packet of sanitary pads, candidly pointing out the economic challenges of this monthly exercise in a household of three menstruating women. And thus began Mr.A's obsession to create a low cost, but highly effective sanitary napkin for women who could not afford to make multinationals any richer than they already are...The rest is history and though labelled a fanatic and a pervert by family and friends alike, he did eventually succeed in his mission and went on to be awarded one of India's highest civilian honours, the Padma Shri, besides winning many prestigious awards for his innovation. He also figured in the Times magazine list for the top 100 most influential people in the world in 2014. The best part of his story is that he chose to sell prototypes of his low cost pad making machine only to women in rural India, thus ensuring that they became economically independent, while simultaneously giving other women a chance to have access to cheap but highly effective pads.
So why the hue and cry over a biological process? Why was he called demented just because he showed an interest in tackling the very relevant challenge that women face as a result of poor menstrual hygiene and exposure to disease? As his own wife puts it, in a dialogue that speaks volumes of the attitude of the majority of rural Indian women, "I'd rather die of disease, than of shame. Please don't mention these things again and especially not in public!" The movie eloquently brings out the general attitude against menstruation in India, with Mr.A's brother in law categorically wondering how he could have been awarded for inventing such a dirty thing, the pad making machine!
For those of us who have been brought up in modern homes in India's vibrant cities, it is very hard to imagine what those from more orthodox urban homes, or rural women or those who live in the urban slums, go through. We, after all, are economically well off, very well educated, as are our parents. We know what a period is all about... So what does it matter to us? And when Proctor and Gamble came to India in the early nineties, post the liberalization of our economy, it truly liberated women who could afford to shell out big bucks for a fancy packet of 'Whisper', as 'Always' is called in India. (See even the name they chose speaks volume of the collective Indian inability to discuss periods!)  The tag line 'No More Stains' suddenly became relevant to pads as well as washing powders, both of which were aggressively marketed by these global companies. They hooked us for the rest of our reproductive lives by showing us videos (pre Power Point days folks!)  to make us feel special, as girls on the brink of womanhood. They distributed samples in our elite schools, knowing our parents had the wherewithal to buy them for us the following month. In retrospect, I wonder if our rural counterparts got the same privileged treatment? As thirteen and fourteen year olds, we honestly did not know nor care, and I doubt most of us had even thought about it. We led insular lives then...We always had access to pads that magically appeared in our cupboards every month, until we got married or moved out for further studies or work, after which we had to buy them ourselves. Big deal! This point is very well brought out by a well educated lady brought up in a metro, who ends up helping Mr. A in the movie. When he asks her for feedback about his pad, she is completely puzzled and says,"A pad is a pad, it's like any other", which were the very words he had been desperately craving to hear, after he started on his tough quest, which had resulted in multiple failed attempts.
I got a small glimpse into the world of a woman who does not have immediate and unrestricted  access to menstrual hygiene products, shortly after I moved to Russia, after I got married, more than two decades ago. Russia, in the mid and late nineties, was still grappling with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the cold war effect. Their industries had collapsed, the economy was in ruins, American imports were still not allowed and they had to depend upon imports from Europe or the Middle East and Turkey to stock their shelves. I had a month's stock with me but then what? I did not know Russian then and hardly anybody in South Russia where we were based, spoke English. I had no idea which shops to visit because there were no supermarkets like there were in Moscow and I could not spot any pharmacies, as many enterprises were still under government control. Finally, I had to tell my husband, who had to tell his English language interpreter, who took me to the open air market, where Russia's new breed of business men and women used to set up stalls with goods they had flown in with from neighbouring Non Soviet countries! She had to even tell me which brand to buy because remember Proctor  and Gamble and Johnson and Johnson, the only brands I knew and was familiar with, are both American companies and so were conspicuous by their absence... Embarrassing to say the least, but it did give me an insight into what a large number of Indian women go through, month after month....
The aftermath of the movie was a slew of young girls holding sanitary napkins and clicking selfies, under the hashtag PadmanChallenge. While this does generate some awareness among the younger generation and creates a momentary thrill, I believe a better and more long lasting way would be to donate a packet every month to your house help's daughter in India (or Kenya!). Just put it on your list! It does not have to be the most expensive or terribly fancy brand that you use yourself, but it should be adequate enough to serve the purpose because remember, sanitary napkins still remain out of reach for a vast majority of women who live below the poverty line in India and, I assume, Africa. I haven't done this myself yet, but I guess it is never too late to start.
Coincidentally, the weekend Padman released in Nairobi, was also the time my fourteen year old son was looking for an Arts and Entertainment topic for his Headline News presentation in his 8th grade Social Studies class. I suggested using either Padmavaat or Padman, as both threw up socially relevant issues with regard to women, via the medium of entertainment. Kudos to the American system of education, that he chose Padman, as he had watched the movie with my husband the previous Sunday. In the course of his research, he came across the fact that Padman had been banned by India's largest neighbour on the grounds of going against their traditions and culture and because it dealt with a topic that was taboo in that country! So he showed the trailer in his class to a bunch of thirteen and fourteen year old boys and girls and used it to point out that a culture and social taboos that allowed a woman to die because of lack of access to hygiene products definitely needed looking into.. He said such movies make people aware of important issues and they should be promoted, not suppressed! This was followed by an intense discussion among all the class mates. They liked his choice of news and there were no sniggers or giggles in class. His spiritual learning was that God created Men and Women equal and both should take care of each other! (I know this because I found his research paper when I was clearing up the clutter on his desk.)
And that for me, as a mother, a wife and an Indian woman, is my progress into the 21st century... If those of us who have sons, can bring them up to be empathetic, sympathetic and aware of the needs of people around them, I would confidently say, on this International Women's Day, we have made pacey progress, ladies!

                                             That's the original date of release! P.C : The Net.

Wednesday, 14 February 2018

How I got An Impromptu Valentine Lunch

During my self allotted, strictly ten minutes only, of FaceBook time earlier this evening, I came across scores of pictures of couples, liberally splashed upon FB walls, in honour of Valentine's Day. It is always nice to see happy couples, no matter what the occasion. Whatever the origins of this day, in its current avtaar, it smacks of blatant commercialization and seems to consist solely of clever marketing gimmicks by multinationals, on line retailers and restaurants. The number of 'Valentine's Day Special Offers' I have had this past week on my India sim card from my favourite restaurants in my home town Pune, would put St.Valentine himself to shame... And they have served no greater purpose, besides making my craving for home and food from those restaurants worse...And the older I grow, the more abhorrent the occidentalization of oriental sensibilities and  norms seems to me...Not that I have anything against chocolates and cards and bears... Go figure that one out! But if you live or have ever lived in India, you will know what I mean. So how did I get to have lunch with my husband on Valentine's Day? That too on a smack, bang, middle of the week, Wednesday?
When you've been submerged in taking classes on line, busier than ever, because many of your students are, in the next two weeks, facing the all important board exam in India, and a constant stream of solved papers vend their way across WhatsApp for correction, thanks to conscientious students, your house keeping abilities take a definite hit. Yesterday after four consecutive hours of teaching online, my brain was whirling..My house help had bid a quick goodbye in between my sessions on Skype and had left by the time I finished. She is still new and under training because my previous two decided they wanted to increase world population statistics...I did remind her (obviously after muting the Skype microphone!) that she had been making a lower quantity of chappati dough than needed, so she should make more than she had made the previous day. But, presuming that my instructions had been followed, obviously I had not checked, until I began making chappattis for dinner.. And I finished the dough! By this time exhaustion had seeped in and I just decided to make more the next morning. (One of our favourite, friendly house hold arguments is who gets more exhausted, my husband in his glass cabin or me in my virtual class room! We haven't established a clear winner yet...)
Hardly had dinner got over, when I remembered that our electric fence alarm had gone off during class and I had turned it off, intending to see to it later. By the time I fed the dog, cleared the kitchen, served  and had dinner, it was late. With my husband and son already asleep, it was left up to the security guard and me to try to figure out what had triggered the alarm... the garage was opened, the ladder was dragged out, the shears were taken out to cut off a few slender branches that were too close to the electric fence and every inch of the perimeter was scanned to see if we could figure out the issue. I had to turn it on every ten minutes to see if he had found the problem  and then hurriedly turn it off when it began wailing, since it was close to midnight by this point...All these tedious efforts were in vain and finally I just turned it off and decided to deal with it the next morning when the gardener came in...
This morning my brain was still frazzled as I opened the fridge for making breakfast and lunch for the tiffins and half of it was focused on an impending India trip, wondering whether I needed to fly out soon to see my Dad, who is home after a fortnight's stay in the hospital, or if I could wait until spring break in March or stick to my regular India schedule and travel in June. New tests are being ordered, old ones being repeated, he says he is fine, his symptoms tell a slightly different story, so it's not a very clear picture! A quarter of my brain was focused on my daughter in college, like it is when I am in the kitchen because she doesn't get her choice of food there... She is dancing in a talent show in college and I was wondering whether she is taking in enough calories, as she is certainly expending a lot of them, judging by the dance practice videos she sends us. The child centric part of the brain was also yelling out to my son to be sure to pack the clothes he needed for the drama dress rehearsal post school...So with only a quarter of brain power trained on the task in hand, I went through three steel tins in the fridge without comprehending that none of them contained chappatti dough! During a repeat perusal, I realized that one had peas, another had mint leaves, the third chopped tomatoes...Then it hit me like a ton of bricks, that in all the melee of the previous night, I had completely forgotten that I had used up all the dough. I had rice and daal (lentils) ready for my son, who, being half a Maharastrian Brahmin, (we are known for our proclivity towards rice!) would happily slurp them up for lunch. My husband was a different matter, as all North Indian Brahmins ( actually all north Indians per se!) crave the glutenous carbohydrates in chappati and though he wouldn't say no to rice and daal only, I knew it wouldn't hit the spot! I stood there wondering whether I had time to make dough, then roll out chapattis and then deciding I didn't, because a late start of even five minutes makes a horrendous difference to travel time in early morning Nairobi traffic.
I tentatively asked him if he could send the driver to collect the lunch.. This is something we NEVER do, firstly because, being a capable Capricorn (Linda Goodman said it , I only quote!),  I am rarely caught on the wrong foot in the kitchen and usually have back ups lined up for everything and secondly because a twenty four kilometre round trip just to collect lunch, sounded like sacrilege to my carbon foot print conscious Capricornian mind... And that is when he surprised me! "Since it's Valentine's Day, why don't you join me for lunch?", he asked, "I will send the car and driver." (Looks like Librans aren't too hung up on carbon footprints!). Obviously he knows my low slung Mercedes will hit every single one of those extra large speed bumps they have put up for no rhyme or reason in the entire area where his office is located. Besides I rarely have time to visit his office and I'm not sure of the route. Also as the 'Boss's wife', I become the cynosure of all eyes and I dislike that. I am happy as an independent entity in my own academic world... I had a busy day ahead.I had to make Pulav (a rice and spiced vegetable dish) to feed forty people at my son's after school drama rehearsal dinner, I had a morning class and an evening class to teach, I had papers to go through but I said yes! After all, it's not every day that I run out of chappatti dough...or get invited out for lunch by my husband!
And that was how I got an impromptu lunch in the mall close to his office.. It felt SO much like playing truant, like being where you are not supposed to be, it felt like fun after a tough month, it felt like he had to sneak out of his own office to have lunch (not really!)... And then my son called up, as we were on our way back, saying he had forgotten the belt he needed as part of his costume and asked if I could please drop it off to school. I had to tell him I wasn't home, as I had gone out for lunch with his Dad. He couldn't believe his ears.."Lunch with oh it's Valentine's Day! Mom, I really don't want to know what you are doing in the middle of the day with Dad", he said, ("It's just lunch!" I interjected.) "just get my belt across, please, by 3:30 pm!"
And that one statement of his was a perfect example of the occidental thought process super imposing itself on the more traditional oriental one...!! But it certainly was one of the best Valentine's Days I have had in close to a quarter of a century, (yes it's been nearly that long since we first met!), completely unpremeditated, unplanned, unexpected and all thanks to no dough!

                            When you can't get Indian vegetarian food, Italian comes a close second..

Sunday, 28 January 2018

Glimpses Of History: Of A Piquant Padmavati And A Kafkaesque Khilji

Rajasthan: The only state among India's twenty nine states that is completely a desert. I went to Rajasthan as a four year old when my Dad was posted there by the Indian Army and we left very abruptly when I had just turned seven, because my paternal grandfather was on his death bed and we had to rush to be with him and my grandmother. I have never been back to Rajasthan since then but the memories are crystal clear to this day...Acres and acres of sand, as far as the eye could see, strong hot winds that blew periodically, whipping up the dry as dust sand into a mad frenzy, getting into our hair and our eyes, into the pores of our skin, settling down on our tongues, making us feel as if we had had grit for lunch! Awe inspiring forts and palaces, designed to allow the strong breeze to waft over deep pools of precious water, in an attempt to bring respite from the intense day time heat. Women in brightly coloured cotton clothes, very carefully placing the ends of their odhnis (a long piece of cloth draped on the upper body) over their hair and allowing them to fall halfway across their faces, especially if there happened to be men around. They were very cheerful women though and I recollect that they used sand to scrub their kitchen utensils in what, I know today, was an eco friendly bid to save water...

Today I went back to a Rajasthan on celluloid, after exactly thirty five years, almost to the day, courtesy of renowned Bollywood director Sanjay Leela Bhansali's film 'Padmaavat', which has been mired in controversy practically since the hour of its inception, but which finally got to see the light of the day last Thursday. The movie is based on the life and death of the famous Queen Padmavati of Chittod, which is in the province of Mewar, in Rajasthan. While there are multiple versions of the story and there is a dispute about the place Rani Padmavati originally came from, the movie is based on the poem, 'Padmavat' written in 1540 AD, by medieval Indian poet Mallik Muhammed Jayasi, more than two and a half centuries after the Queen's death. He claims she came from Sinhal, modern day Sri Lanka and was married to the Rajput King of Chittod, Raja Ratan Sen. Colonialist historian Col. James Tod, in his book 'Annals And Antiquities Of Rajasthan', written in 1832 AD, has her married to a completely different king altogether! 
A certain Rajput caste group has been up in arms ever since Bhansali announced his magnum opus. We were horrified to read of sets being destroyed while the movie was being filmed, we read of the lead actors and the director being threatened with dire consequences if they continued filming, we were appalled to hear of absurd amounts being bandied about to cut off the leading lady's well chiselled nose or worse to slice her head off her slender neck, and all because the said outfit thought the director would show their revered (and long dead!) queen romancing her husband's arch enemy, Allaudin Khilji, who at that time, was the ruling Sultan at Delhi. 
After much yoyoing, a couple of cuts and a slight change of name, the censor board of India allowed the producers to release the movie. Not without destruction and drama though. Movie theatres were trashed and malls were attacked on the first day by members of that particular group, highways were blocked, effigies of the main cast were burnt, worst of all a school bus carrying very young children was attacked in Delhi, with the result that four states in India have not released the movie, in direct contravention of the orders of India's apex court. But it is enjoying a very successful run in the rest of the country and the world, as was proved by the packed theatre in Nairobi today!
The whole story revolves around the fact that  Khilji is enamoured by the description he hears of Padmavati's unparalleled beauty and is determined to add her to his harem. That she is already another man's wife, is of no consequence to him. India's leading Bollywood hero does a marvellous job in the role of Allauddin Khilji and is evil personified! You do not want to be alone in a room with this man...Every time he and his coterie come on screen, it is as if darkness descends upon Earth. I do not know if this is a clever play of lights by Bhansali or it is the evil that emanates from Khilji that sucks out light and happiness from the screen...No morals, no scruples, no principles, he is the complete antithesis of Padmavati's husband.
Bollywood's leading lady glows as Rani Padmavati and the external trappings (and in my mind unimportant) of designer clothes and jewellery from one of India's leading jewellery houses only help to enhance her ethereally regal aura. But her real strength lies in her intelligence and that is how she rescues her husband once from the clutches of Khilji. Her highly principled husband is finally killed treacherously by Khilji's slave and the enemy is about to descend upon the Chittod  fort and Khilji can barely wait to finally lay his hands on Padmavati.
Now comes the part, which, those of us who have studied in India, had only read about in history books. Padmavati exhorts all the women in the fort to commit Jauhar. Jauhar is mass self immolation by women to avoid falling into the hands of the invaders to avoid capture, rape or death at their hands. It embodies the Rajput motto of 'Death Before Dishonour'. Jauhar was outlawed by the British in the 19th century and is obviously no longer practised in modern day India. But this did not stop a few hundred foolish women from promising to commit Jauhar if the movie was released...
Now comes the second part of the controversy being fuelled mainly via FaceBook, by India's intellectually elite women. They say the movie glorifies Jauhar. They say it feels like they have been reduced to a certain part of a woman's anatomy. They say there is life after rape. They are angry that she took her husband's permission to perform Jauhar, if the need arose. They are absolutely right but in the context of the modern world! It is important to watch this movie in the correct context. Rajasthan lay in the route of all invaders from central Asia and Europe. Battered and buffeted by constant invasions, women and children resorted to Jauhar as a last resort after all the men folk had been butchered. And the director has not made up this part of the story, it is a sacred part of Rajput history and folk lore and the site of Padmavati's Jauhar nearly seven hundred years ago can be viewed in Chittod even today. Let it remain in the past and do not even think of applying it to any aspect of our lives today...
Protest if you must but do it against female foeticide and female infanticide in Rajasthan and other states in the same belt. Protest against people grieving when a daughter is born, protest when a home maker needs her husband's 'permission' to spend money and does not even have an ATM card, let alone a credit card...despite India going cashless and digital. Padmavati proudly proclaims in the movie that there is as much strength in a Rajput woman's bangle as there is in a Rajput man's sword. So maybe with the spotlight sharply on Rajasthan, thanks to the movie, it is time to use that strength to protect fellow women, instead of using it to shove a grain of rice up a new born female's nostril?
The state that has one of the worst child sex ratios in India needs help. Instead of wasting time over what may or may not have occurred many centuries ago, folks need to wake up and prevent evil from spreading now. Go watch the movie if you so desire, do not be cowed down by protestors who have nothing better to do. Don't buy popcorn though, the Kafkaesque Khilji's shenanigans will dry up your mouth and throat and it will be that much harder to swallow! If you do choose to buy it, the very piquant Padmavati's character will add enough spice to it...Enjoy the movie for what it is, a slice of history delivered for the small price of a movie ticket. And be thankful you are a woman of today...

Image result for Padmaavat new poster

                                                        PC: Wikipedia.

Beatific Bedtime Basics

Bedtime for kids! It’s that time of the day that parents of young children really look forward to while it evokes an equally opposite reaction from most children. They are loathe to go to bed for fear of missing out on exciting things happening around the house or they may dislike their play time being cut short. But like all good habits, a smooth transition into bed at the end of a busy day, has to be inculcated from the time they are very young. Or else, be prepared for a battle royale every night…
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Tuesday, 26 December 2017

Of Wasted Wedding Wishes And Cruel Condolences....

                         The traditional North Indian Bridal Chura (red and white bridal bangle set)
                                                      Picture Credit: The Inter Net

A little more than two months ago, I woke up rather early for a Sunday morning. Diwali had just got over and I was feeling languorous. Five days of festivities, coupled with my husband's office and son's school routines on in full force, does not leave much time for leisure. The only saving grace was that since my students in India had Diwali holidays, I, too, had the week off from on line classes. But I had invited our former neighbours for brunch on that particular Sunday, since their daughter was leaving for college in Singapore at the end of October, and I wanted to say good bye to her. I switched on the net, as I waited for the water to boil for my tea. The first group I always check is the security group on WhatsApp and a solitary message had popped in. 'Asian male shot dead in the early hours of Sunday, on XYZ road.' At first I mentally dismissed the message, sorry as I felt for the unknown victim, even as I thought that Asian males should know better than to be out on Nairobi streets at pre dawn hours. I'm ashamed to admit that my second thought was 'must be a young guy coming home from a drinking binge, and probably feeling invincible, as a result of all that alcohol floating around in the blood stream.' (Those who know me well, know that I am puritanical in my dislike of alcohol and tobacco and cannot understand to this day why men and women need to down a couple of pegs or ingest smoke to enjoy life, but I rarely air my views on this particular subject.). I could not have been more wrong about the circumstances of the death, as the next set of messages, which were rapidly pouring in, proved...
In what was later explained away as a bungled police operation and a case of 'mistaken identity', one of Nairobi's richest young businessmen had been shot in his own bungalow. The armoured vehicles had allegedly entered his compound by breaking down his gate and when he tried to retaliate from his bed room window, he was gunned down. Soon his identity was freely being shared on all the Nairobi groups and I was horror struck when I realized I had met his young wife, (who had recently had their baby), a couple of times, a few years ago, because she is very close to friends of ours from our Dar Es Salaam days. She also works for one of the Asian Radio channels as a Radio Jockey and is a celebrity of sorts in Nairobi. And we had heard all about the impending wedding on radio too, at that time...
Brunch menu forgotten, I sat down with my cup of tea and tried to process what the steady stream of messages was saying. I remembered our common friend flying down from India for one of the biggest weddings Nairobi has seen in the last few years. I went onto to Face Book to look at pictures. When you have common friends tagged in pictures, you can usually view them on Face Book. And there she was in all her bridal glory, wearing bangles very similar to the ones in the picture I have shared above, her proud, brand new husband by her side and our mutual friend grinning broadly, especially as she had made a special trip from India to bless the happy couple.... It was hard, SO hard to believe the young man was no more..
Just a week or so before this terribly tragic incident, one of my school friends, who had been keeping vigil outside the Intensive Care Unit in a Pune hospital where her mother had been admitted, shared a couple of stories with me, during her weekly telephonic updates about her mother's condition. She told me about a young girl, from a small town near Pune, who she met outside the critical care unit, who had just lost her husband to dengue. That day, she told my friend, through a flood of tears, was to have been their six month wedding anniversary... "How will I live without my husband?" she plaintively asked my friend. "The way I do.." was my brave friend's reply, even as she showed that young stranger her own husband's picture, whom she had lost to brain tumour very early in their married life. Another young bride, my friend said, had just lost her husband to a massive heart attack and was busy trying to make her new in laws eat a few morsels in the hospital corridor, in the midst of tragedy..
So what happened to all those wedding wishes? Did they never reach these couples? If not, where did they go? You know, all those 'congratulations and best wishes and long and happy married life' ones that we dutifully spout at weddings,( but genuinely mean), just before we systematically attack the lunch or dinner buffet?
I like to believe they float around everywhere and though they may not always be of use to the couples that they were intended for, they do sometimes reach those who were, may be, meant to have them....All those young husbands and wives who were saved by a whisker from an accident, those who survived a life threatening disease, or a terrorist attack (like the young couple who was caught in the Taj hotel just before their own wedding reception, during the 26/11 attacks in Mumbai, but miraculously made it out alive) definitely benefited from their own wedding wishes, and those 'wasted wishes' still circulating around in the Universe too...That's what, they say, spreading positivity is all about, after all.
The tail end of November brought more terrible news. My school music teacher's ten year old son passed away suddenly in his school, in my home town Pune. He succumbed to heart problems and could not be revived... Besides being my former teacher's son he was also my son's classmate's first cousin and before we moved to Nairobi, I had often met the boy, who was a mere toddler then, while waiting to pick my own son up from outside the school. So when my cousin from Pune , who was my classmate in school, messaged me the news, I literally had no words left...
I lost a former student too, a few days ago, the victim of a road accident in my home town. He was fifteen years old and soon to appear for his tenth standard board exams.. I have his mother's number in my phone, but I do not have the words to express my grief and sorrow...Many of his classmates and friends are currently my students on Skype and the day after we got the news, every one of them made mistake after mistake in class. All I could say to console them was, 'I know you are upset,don't worry about your errors now. You will do well in the exam...'
When a mother has lost a child, offering condolences seems so trite, it seems as if one is being deliberately cruel. How can you condole pre mature death? Nearly three decades ago, I read an article about facing loss in Reader's Digest which has stayed with me to this day. Never, ever, tell a grieving parent, 'Oh I know exactly how you feel.' NO, you cannot know what a person who has lost their baby in a particular set of circumstances is going through, so do not even bother to try. Instead, send a hot meal, send a prayer, send a warm NOT send condolences.
Why did I choose to write about this when almost the whole world is on holiday and on vacation in exotic locations around the world and in a relaxed 'end of the year' mood?
My former teacher's Face Book post from a couple of days ago compelled me to put down what has been on my mind for a while. She said there is a word for a woman or a man who has lost a life partner :widow/widower. There is a word for a child who has lost both parents: an orphan. (And also for a child who has lost either parent: motherless/ fatherless). But there is NO word in the English language for a parent who has lost a child... She has requested everyone to remember those parents who have lost children and to say a prayer for them..even as you go about enjoying and living your own life, as you should and you must...
Today it's also been two years since my son's friend lost his little sister. A few hours from now, I will plant a tree in her name in a location in our garden, where, when it grows after a few years, it will be seen from the road this child took to school every day. A school she left too soon...That's my way of passing on my condolences, to all I know who have lost a child. I know it's not enough, it never will be, but it is all I can do...

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 19...