Sunday, 25 December 2011

It's That Time Of The Year......

                          Christmas is in the air,
                           Bells are ringing everywhere,
                           There is warmth,there is cheer,
                            It's that time of the year!

Another year is drawing to a close.Christmas Day is almost over and the next celebration will be on new year's eve to welcome 2012.That will be followed by tons of resolutions being made on new year's day, the predominant one on most lists being 'efforts to lose weight'!The last week of the year is also a time when one looks back and remembers the year that has been,the highs,the lows,the pluses,the minuses...What we did,what we did not do and should have done,what we could have done but did not do,what we did and should not have done not and so on and so forth.It is time to take stock...
On a personal front it was a year of big changes for us as a family.We changed cities,shifted to another country and another continent too!We moved from the arid desert that Pune is rapidly(and unfortunately) becoming to the lush green environs of Nairobi.The children faced the biggest change of all.From the Indian school system they leapfrogged into the American system of education!My daughter was preparing to face the ICSE exam in a couple of years,now she has to take  the very American SAT!
The last couple of weeks saw us attending Christmas programs in the children's school before they closed for the holidays.I baked a lot of cookies for bake sales(something new for us Puneites) and the school donated all proceeds for charity.That felt good!We also had to supply snacks for the Christmas parties without which no school anywhere in the world ever closes!
The familiar parts of both the programs were all the hymns and Christmas carols beautifully sung by all the children who were part of the school choir.For all those of us who have studied in Catholic or  Protestant schools across India,carols were an integral part of our school life every year.I do not, even for a minute,think that when Lord Macaulay introduced his Minute on Education in 1835,did he imagine that ultimately it would be the English language,its's literature,it's poems and songs that would enable us to seamlessly integrate anywhere outside India and also make us a power to reckon with in the world today!And thus it was that when the school music teacher here in Nairobi, asked us parents to join them in singing 'Silent Night', I was able to joyfully chime in,awash with memories of my own school days and my own school friends......
My son's teacher had a very nice way of signing off all the notes and mails that we received from her throughout  the month of December.'In Him,the reason for the season!'And believe me in the middle of all that shopping,the hoardings announcing the sales in all those magically decorated malls choc full of toys and clothes,it is very easy to forget the true reason for the celebration.Whether it is Diwali or the Ganesh puja,Durga puja or Laxmi pujan or any other festival, as we chant shlokas or sing hymns,we must keep in mind the reason for the season!
                                 Merry Christmas and a very Happy New Year!

Monday, 19 December 2011

The Great Rift Valley

It happened again!Friends from our Dar days managed to coax and convince(not coerce!) us to come out of the cosy confines of our comfortable home.This time it was not to celebrate any festival but to visit a part of the Great Rift Valley which stretches from Syria in South West Asia to central Mozambique in South East Africa.The place we visited is called Naivasha,a market town which is around a two hour drive from Nairobi.It is bordered by Lake Naivasha,and being at an altitude of 6,222 feet above sea level, is the highest Rift Valley Lake.
Naivasha,being at a higher altitude than Nairobi,meant that we were gradually driving up a slope.But the inclines are so gentle that only the pressure on our ear drums and the stunning view of the valley unfolding before our eyes made us realize that we were on an ascent!Being mentally prepared to face something like the Western Ghats of Maharashtra,the hair pin bends of the Cherrapunji Hills in Meghalaya or the steep slopes of the Usambara mountains in Tanzania,the relief I felt was immeasurable!
The narrow gauge single train track often ran parallel to the road and I spared a thought for the many poor labourers,mainly Indian,who had stuggled hard to lay this line more than a hundred years ago under Kolonial rule,often risking or losing their lives in the process.For remember,this was a time when wild animals like lions,hippos,rhinos,wildebeeste,really ran wild and were not confined to the borders of the National Parks by electric fencing and intense patrolling!
After a six year stint in Tanzania and numerous wildlife safaris,I thought I was immune to the sight of zebras and giraffes.But seeing herds of these beautiful animals grazing by the side of the national highway along with cows,sheep and goats came as a pleasant shock!I was as thrilled as I had been when I caught my first glimpse of a giraffe and then zebras almost ten years ago.I suppose one can never become indifferent to beauty in nature!
We travelled on through a green landscape dotted by gigantic hand-fan shaped cacti and thousands of acacia trees silhouetted against a cloudy sky.The children enjoyed parathas,pulav and samosas enroute to Naivasha.We might have been in  the heart of rural Kenya but that did not stop us from tucking into our very Indian meal!Finally we reached our destination and saw that Naivasha is peppered with lodges,resorts and spas, all ideal for people looking for a quick week end getaway.
We spent the day relaxing in one such lodge with what else but water buck,giraffes and zebras for company.A sign warned us not to venture out for the nature walk towards the Lake unless we were accompanied by securitry personnel as there was danger of being attacked by wild animals!We chose to stick to the safety of the main lodge area.
The children frollicked in the azure blue kidney shaped pool while we unwound in the mild sun surrounded by flocks of the prettiest coloured birds I have ever seen and by wild flowers of varied hues.Gradually,slate gray rain clouds gathered in the sky and we knew it was time to head back.But not before the children had played in the park to their hearts content!We,too,swung on the swings,forgetting for a few minutes that we were adults and children no longer..But,that I guess,is the whole point of a break from the daily routine!
The drive back was to the tune of fat rain drops drumming on the car roof.The rain made the valley view even more enchanting.A fresh, cool breeze accompanied the rain and I opened the car window to breathe in the pristine air and felt truly refreshed and blessed.Broad bands of sunlight filtered out from behind the dense clouds which were pouring out their water load.It looked as if God had crafted pathways of light from heaven to Earth.With a little stretch of imagination,I could easily believe that with Christmas round the corner, God had made these massive slides for Santa to slide down on.....What a lovely end to a gorgeous day!
Sadly,I had to prise away my daughter's I pod nano and my son's PSP in order to draw their attention to this magical phenomena of nature.The new generation is hooked onto technology and it is time we weaned them onto nature!

Monday, 12 December 2011

Summer Is Here.......Or Is It?

                           Nairobi skies are always gray,
                           The clouds,it seems,are here to stay.
                           Sweaters and jackets rule the day,
                           Summery Pune feels far away.
                           We're near the Equator,so they say,
                           If the sun shines,do make hay!

A Pune summer, that time of the year when the sun scorches the earth,the throat is always parched,your clothes cling to you even as streams of sweat pour down your body,water cuts rule the day,the fan is never switched off and only the thought of the ever increasing electricity bill makes you switch off your air conditioners and coolers.
Summer in Pune also brings with it the sharp tang of mango blossoms which permeate the air everywhere,or at least it used to until about a decade ago, before most of the mango trees in and around Pune were chopped off in the name of development.Our housing colony was surrounded by mango groves and as school children not a day of the summer vacation went by without an early morning walk in the groves,following the silvery trails left by snails sometime during the night.We would rush home to a breakfast of what else,but mangoes,lovingly washed and peeled and chopped by our grandmother!The King of fruits made my sister and me feel like Queens throughout summer.Today,sadly, the space occupied by each mango tree has given way to apartment buildings and that is all my children can see....
When I got married and moved to Russia,I got a taste of a very different summer.After a long and bone chilling winter replete with ice and snow,the first thaw at just a few degrees above zero degree centigrade with a few weak sun rays,was greeted with much joy.People thronged beaches and river banks,stripping down to bare essentials, as they basked in the sun and their long deprived skin soaked up the warmth!All this while my husband and I still shivered under thick overcoats and fur caps to say nothing of fur lined leather boots and gloves.We must have seemed like fools to the local population but what could we do?For us the start of the Russian summer was very much like being in the thick of a severe Pune winter!
 Dar Es Salaam gave us our first taste of a summer in the Southern Hemisphere.What, till then, had just been a Geography lesson drilled into our heads by our school teacher,suddenly became a reality!A really hot December and a Christmas Day on which we drank chilled lime juice and not hot cocoa!Tanzania summers are hot and humid,very different from the ones we had experienced in Pune.The only respite from the heat and the long power cuts was an escape to the beach once in a while where at least we were fanned by cool breezes blowing across the Indian Ocean.The tang of mangoes had been replaced by a salty one!
Cut to Nairobi,we were once again below the Equator and once again a December summer awaited us,or so we thought!Now we are well into the month of December,the school summer break starts this week,but where on earth has summer disappeared?We are still huddling under thick blankets at night,the children still burrow into their jackets each morning as they wait for the school bus and we never leave the house without an umbrella as the heavens might open and pour down on us anytime!
Agreed,Nairobi is a no fan station,as Pune was till the late seventies.Thus we have no fans or air conditioners in our house here but will we even get a glimpse of the ever elusive sun?After all,what's summer without the sun, an icecream cone in your hand and a summer hat on your head?

Thursday, 1 December 2011

Our Askaris,Entrepreneurs Too!

They are the people thanks to whom we sleep peacefully at night,as snug as bugs under our rugs.They are the people thanks to whom our children play without a care in the world in the housing complex compound.They are also the people thanks to whom no visitor can ever arrive unannounced to our house,giving us a crucial five minutes to clear our usually messy living room!They are our Askaris!
The Kamusi ya Kiswahili-Kiingereza(the Swahili-English Dictionary) defines the word 'Askari'as a guard.(Yes,the alphabet K does seem to be predominant here,a la eKta Kapoor,Karan johar and raKesh roshan!But,I assure you the K syndrome is not a Kolonial legacy!)Askaris are ominipresent across East Africa and it is impossible to imagine our lives here without them.
They are a must have in all bungalows,in housing and commercial complexes,at the entrances of embassies and of course,like in India,outside malls, multiplexes and schools.They are outsourced from private security agencies and have smart,up to date uniforms,bringing to mind the guards outside Buckingham Palace,minus of course,the change of guard ceremony!When their shift gets over, they just sign out and leave,a vast improvement over the Kolonial system of marching up and down till even the onlookers start feeling exhausted.
Here,the Askaris are well trained and courteous, always making it a point to greet us even as their eyes expertly scan the interior of our car.They are fearless too and quickly rifle through bags,purses,boxes even the boot of the car,before giving us the all clear to move on in any commercial complex that we might happen to visit.Askaris will always be the first ones to be exposed to the danger,if any,and as they report for work each day,I always wonder what goes through their minds.After all,we live in uncertain and dangerous times,where man is out to get man.
The Askaris of our building have shown great entrepreneurship too as they have started keeping pre paid phone recharge cards,prepaid net recharge cards and even the daily newspaper!So whenever we need to recharge the phone we just need to run down to our front gate!A blessing indeed.And they have the recharge cards of the entire gamut of cell phone and net operators in all the possible denominations!And we,being slaves to modern technology,are really grateful to them.
My husband and I take a brisk walk in our compound every morning.We have two security gates,with a distance of approximately a hundred meters between the two.One day,while walking sedately as usual,we decided on the spur of the moment,to make a quick dash from one gate to another.We started running and when we reached the outer gate,we were surprised to hear loud laughter ringing out from the Askaris at both ends!They found the sight of two huge Indians running so funny that even they could not control themselves!That is when I realized that the people who we place next only to God for protecting us,are human after all!
Who won the race?Well,we both reached the finish line at exactly the same time!

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Mistletoe Market

Jingle bells,jingle bells,jingle all the way!
We are going for the Mistletoe Market today,heh!

This was the refrain on our lips as we headed towards the children's school early last Saturday morning.The write up from the school had promised lots of funfilled Thanksgiving and pre Christmas shopping and had boasted that there would be around sixty five stalls!As this was the first time we would be experiencing something like this,I ensured that my purse was full and I was determined to keep an eye out for good bargains!
As we turned into the school lane,we were surprised to see a long queue stretching out as far as the eye could see.Now this, in itself, is an unusual sight in Kenya where we rarely encounter queues of any type, barring the times we are stuck in a jam on Nairobi roads.But,having finally managed to find parking for the car,we joined the tail end of the line of people waiting to get into the school compound.We felt absolutely at home standing there because,after all,we come from India,the country with a population problem.In fact,I was even in a queque outside the labour room in the very exclusive(and expensive) nursing home in Pune where my children were born!And I am not joking!
We flashed our free tickets,(guests had to pay),had our wrists stamped and we were in!The first thing we spotted was a stall selling books and my daughter and I made a beeline for it while my husband and son wandered on.I managed to lay my hands on quite a few books by a number of  famous(now out of print authors) at delightful prices and I was over the moon!
We moved on and came to the African handicrafts stall where my son was thrilled to find a beaded wrist band in the colours of the India national flag,with even a blue  beaded dot to represent the Ashoka Chakra.He patriotically snapped it on and then proceeded to show it to every single teacher of his that we subsequently met!Saare jahaan se accha......
I was astonished to see young teenage girls selling neatly packed Barbie dolls,stuffed toys and exquisite dolls house furniture all of which was obviously not new.Then it dawned on me that these young American girls had found a good way to do away with toys they no longer needed and earn some spending money at the same time!Most surprising of all was the lack of parental interference!A lesson for us Indian parents!The tiny furniture was so well made that despite my aversion for used things, I was tempted to buy it!Then I remembered that my own daughter had outgrown her dolls and  they were now neatly lined up on a shelf in her pretty pink room back home!Yes,we Indians do tend to hoard stuff!Another lesson?!
I participated in a silent auction where themed baskets were being auctioned.I bid for a basket chok full of Indian savouries like Chakli,farsaan,tiny,crisp samosas,banana chips and spicy chevda.It was aptly named 'Snack Attack'!I won that basket at  a price lower than its value and it was a steal!I lost out on the tea basket,the other one that I had bid for!I had thought 'chai and chakli', what more does one need,but it was not to be!The other baskets had chocolates,junk food,cofffee with coffee mugs and even an innovative Fourth of July(American Independance Day)picnic basket.
We took a walk around all the other stalls.They were selling clothes,more books,bone china crockery,someone was selling her old sarees and there were many food stalls.My daughter tried her hand at marble art and painted a pottery vase.I bought some gifts to take back home and some lovely knitted caps,one of which was for a four month old orphan baby that my son's teacher fosters on week ends(that is another story).She was so happy when I gave it to her.The others were for my mother's cause in India through which she and a friend of hers ensure that tribal babies in a certain part of Maharashtra have sufficient clothes the minute they are born!
My daughter bought a bright red T shirt to support the school's Christmas cause.It said 'I made a difference'!They are collecting money to gift cows to a school in a slum so that the children have milk to drink plus they can sell the surplus to support themselves.Some of the money will also go towards growing vegetable gardens with the same aim in mind-to make these less fortunate children self sufficient and simultaneously ensure that they have enough to eat.
We headed home,our pockets lighter,but our hearts happier!
After all,Christmas is the season of giving and not just shopping!Joy in giving!

Monday, 14 November 2011

Paradise Lost

Last week we got a notice from my son's class teacher informing us that the second grade would be going on a field trip to have a closer look at nature since that was the topic they were pursuing in social studies.She also asked parents to volunteer as chaperones to help with the kids during the picnic.This,in itself,was astonishing as we come from a culture where the parents interact with the teacher only during the bi-annual parent teacher meeting!And who can blame the schools for enforcing this policy when I personally know parents who,on the first day of the new academic year,shout across the gate to the teacher as they pick up their kids,'How is my child doing?'
I was first off the block to volunteer and last Friday saw us hurtling towards our destination with two buses full of second graders.The picnic spot,called'Paradise Lost' was on the outskirts of Nairobi,just a twenty minute bus ride away from the school.It is a fifty four acre private property with a lovely river flowing through it.It is ,indeed,a veritable 'Garden Of  Eden' with just the apple tree missing!As we entered the main gate,we saw that the road,on both sides,was lined with coffee bushes which were laden with coffee berries.The teacher pointed this out to the children and they were thrilled to see coffee actually growing on bushes,as upto now, they had only seen it in a bottle at home and,of course,in the Nescafe advertisement on television!
As we jumped off the bus,I was struck by how peaceful the place was.No kiosks selling 'Biseleri' and 'Cadbury'(yes,sadly,in India,the brand name has become synonymous with the noun!),no hawkers chasing us,as is common back home these days in so called picnic spots and no 'Lays' packets littering the ground....
I was reminded of the many picnics we have had in different parts of India when we were kids.Those were the days when picnics were really picnics,not just an excuse for eating out!I remembered 'Chandubi' near Guwahati in Assam,a mustard field near Amritsar in Punjab,a spot near Jodhpur in Rajasthan whose name I cannot recall as I was in kindergarten,another near Mhow in Madhya Pradesh.Our mothers woke up at the crack of dawn,actually cooked and packed food in steel tiffin carriers and filled 'campers' with water(as bottled water was unheard of in the India of those days) ready for a whole day of picniking!Just as I had done for my son and myself that morning!
The children had a boat ride on the serene river and then we went off to explore the caves which are said to be 2.5 million years old.The entrance to the caves was behind an enchanting waterfall bringing to mind an Enid Blyton book which describes exactly this scenario.We had to bend double to go through the passage until we reached the main cave.Our guide told us this was where the Mau Mau revolutionaries hid when they were fighting the enemy.The kids immidiately wanted to know who the enemy was.Now,since most of the children were white,the guide had no way of knowing their nationality and so was hesitant to say the word.As he was fumbling for a suitable word,a tiny tot helped him out by saying'England'!He was palpably relieved and said yes the nationalists used these caves till Kenya finally became independant in 1963.
Then we had our lunch in rustic,wooden picnic sheds on the banks of the river,followed by horse and camel rides for our enthusiastic second graders.Feeding an ostrich was also on the agenda,but the poor ostrich was indisposed that day!It had probably been overfed by the previous day's merry makers!On the bus ride back home,I mulled over our day and felt this was 'Paradise Gained' while our poor polluted Pune was 'Paradise Lost'.Where have we gone wrong?

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

All About An Accent

Before we relocated to Nairobi,I had discussed the issue of accents with the children.I had helpfully explained to them how most of their new friends would have an 'American Accent',since the school is an American international school.I was reasonably confident that while my son's style of speaking might change soon,my daughter being older, would continue to speak the way she had always done.
Imagine my surprise when one day, after the first few days of school, the minute my son came home,he blurted out that his friends said that he had a British accent!My daughter chimed in to repeat that her friends had been saying the very same thing!
Excuse me?We had an accent?That too a British one?As far as I knew the only people who had an accent in India were usually people who had studied in vernacular schools!And who should know that better than me as I earn my livelihood in India coaching just such people and polishing up their accents!In fact I have set up my own academy for mainly this purpose!
I agree we have studied in the best schools across India which,of course,were set up by the British during the Kolonial raj to educate us poor natives so that we could become efficient clerks for them.We were taught by excellent Anglo Indian teachers who could barely pronounce our very Indian names!My children come from the best school in Pune which,till 1977,was run by Irish nuns.But does all this boil down to a propah British accent?No way!
The minute one lands at Heathrow airport in London one sees 'Indians' everywhere,right from the person mopping the floor to the person suspiciously scrutinizing your visa at the immigration desk.But as soon as they open their mouths,you know they are not Indian at all,but British,as the way they speak is not even remotely the way we Indians,born and brought up in India,do!So why was the children's accent(yes,by this time I had accepted that we had an accent)being mistaken for a British one?
Finally I came to the conclusion that try as we might,we cannot distance ourselves from our Kolonial past!It is inextricably woven in our speech,our system of education,our desserts(bread pudding,caramel custard!)and being an army brat,I have to mention,into the customs and traditions of the Indian army!It took little American kids who had not met too many Indians to date,to point this out.Somewhere,in the way we spoke,lay the ghost of the legacy of the Raj!
Then,when our debate about who has what kind of accent had gone on long enough,I reminded the children about an old Chinese proverb.It says you can crush a person with the weight of your tongue.So I told them that what matters in the final analysis is what you say and how you say it,not which accent you use!I hope they got the message!

Saturday, 29 October 2011

A Dismal Diwali......For Some!

Kenyans(of Indian origin),Indians(of Indian origin),the major malls,the small shops,in short everyone connected to India,were all set to celebrate a dazzling  Diwali in Nairobi.Then just a week before D day the bombshell fell!The Kenyan government resolved to flush out a certain militant group in a neighbouring country who had taking to kidnapping tourists from the beautiful beach resorts of Kenya.So the Kenyan army(which,I think,like the Indian army is a Kolonial legacy!) marched forth rapidly into their neighbour's territory.
Thus the action began and the upshot was that the militant group threatened to attack prominent malls and other public places in Nairobi.A couple of grenade attacks took place immidiately in downtown Nairobi and what is more surprising is that one of the perpetuators was caught and sentenced in a matter of seventy two hours!We Indians who are still butchering calves to feed Kasab(the butcher) could only look on in admiration....
To go back to Diwali,my friends had lost no time in telling me about the marvellous firework displays that herald India's festival of lights.These take place in about four different locations and were said to be worth a dekko.I,being of the opinion that we create enough pollution just by existing on this earth,was not really enthusiastic about encouraging even more pollution,but the children were eager to see the display and so we planned to go.
The net result of the grenade attacks was that all firework displays across Nairobi were banned by the government as they did not want to risk someone sneaking in a real bomb in lieu of a faux one!All the pollution enthusiasts were sorely disappointed and a few like me rejoiced!It was indeed a dismal Diwali for some!But,unlike in India,people here actually obey the rules and hence this Diwali was really a silent one.
The other immidiate effect we could see was that all the security personnel at all the malls began scrutinizing our cars,our bags and our purses for bombs,grenades and the like.The reassuring silence of the metal detector as it passed over us made us feel we were back home,where of course thanks to another neighbour,we cannot imagine entering a mall without being sanitized by the security people first!
Yesterday,the children's school had the parent teacher meeting and on the way there we passed the United Nations Africa head quarters.Sniffer dogs were actually entering each car and checking it before allowing it to proceed through the gates!A first for us since we have only seen these noble animals on duty at airports till now!
To top it all,it rained on all the days of Diwali and we got caught in a major traffic jam due to the heavy rains yesterday.It is more fun to write about a jam than to suffer through one.It took us two hours to reach our destination which is just twenty minutes away on a normal day.The kids were hungry and thirsty to say nothing of grumpy by the time we burst out of the car.How dismal can a dismal Diwali get?!

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Preparing For CFS!

'I am going' my daughter declared,the minute she came home from school,in a tone that brooked no argument.Now since this tone is usually my perogative,I was surprised to say the least!'Going where?'I asked with some trepidation.(Trepidation,hesitation,palpitation comes naturally to mothers of children who have just entered their teens and already think they are adults!)Pat came the reply'For CFS!'As I am a complete ignoramus when it comes to the American system of education,she helpfully expanded it for me.'Cultural Field Studies'.
It transpired that the school was taking the 8th grade students to Mt.Suswa Conservancy,a double volcanic crater,which is a few hours drive from Nairobi.The children would be camping out in tents for three days,hiking,walking and exploring the caves formed by lava flow,with Masai guides.They would also be interacting with the local population at a school in the crater.Now I am not the type of mother who blissfully sends the kids hiking,camping,trekking and the like.I prefer them under my nose most of the time,never mind if they are underfoot as well!Hence my daughter's apprehension that she would be forbidden and the firm declaration that she would go!But since this was through the school I,for once,had no objections,nor did my husband,and so we began preparing for the trip.
The first must have on the list was a sleeping bag.We have two in India but I had never imagined we would need them here!So we had to fork out an exhorbitant amount to buy one from the nearest mall.Next on the list was a torch.We have lost count of the number of torches we have back home and  not one of them here!My husband liked a torch which could be clipped onto her cap and I had to remind him that they were going to explore the caves,not mine in them!A hand held one would do just fine!(at half the cost of the miners torch,of course!)
The next issue was that of vegetarian food.Being one of two vegetarians in the whole group of almost eighty students,I was not sure if she would be catered for.So in went Parathas,Mathri-both sweet and spicy,potato wafers and potato sticks,Oreos cookies in two flavours,apples and some sweets.I once read somewhere that Indian mothers just want their children to eat and study and her bulging sack surely proved the first part right!
Finally D day dawned and like typical Indian parents we went to drop her to school-though the regular school bus would have done just as well!The scene in front of our eyes reminded me of days from my cantonment childhood when we would see army units moving out for some military excercise.Huge overlanders were being loaded with everything from tents to ground sheets,massive bottles of water,crates of soft drinks and kitchen equipment,to say nothing of the luggage of so many students!There was no chaos or confusion,just precision.
Ten minutes before the given time of departure,they were ready to roll.Everything and everyone was in place.Our Indian Standard Time will definately not work here!
As I said 'Bye' to her for the upteenth time,I reminded myself of Khalil Gibran's famous verse,
'Your children are not your children,
They are the sons and daughters of life's longing for itself,
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you,they belong not to you.'

Though a DNA test might prove otherwise!!

Thursday, 13 October 2011

A Kenyan Dussehra

Early in the morning on Dussehra day,a friend of mine from Dar Es Salaam days,now a long time resident of Nairobi,called me up to wish me.She told me that Dussehra is celebrated in a big way at one of the huge temples in Nairobi and urged us to take the kids there.I demurred,since as children in India we had always heard horror stories of how a half burnt effigy of Ravan invariably topples towards the crowd resulting in chaos and a stampede!So I had never seen one being burnt nor had the children.In fact,all my previous memories of Dussehra are centred around studies!October is the time we have the terminal(half yearly)exams in most Indian schools and they literally terminate the parents and children,what with the vast portions and the stress they generate!
But she managed to convince me and evening found us on our way to the temple.Even though we went quite early the temple parking was chok full and a steady stream of people were making their way behind the temple where all the action was.The Asian FM radio channel was actually covering the event live for their listeners!
Then we saw a huge,extremely well made effigy of Ravan in the middle of the lush green,well manicured lawn.A huge circle around it had been cordoned off putting to rest my fears of a burning Ravan avenging us Ram Bhakts by falling on us!The atmosphere was truly carnival like and reminded me of a village mela(fair)albeit a sophisticated one!There were stalls all around the place selling everything from bhel and paani puri to chole and Kacchi dabeli!Scores of people were milling around, most having already started on the chaat and steadily working their way through all the tempting fare!
There were merry go round rides for the children,a toy stall was doing a brisk trade,mehendi artists were busy decorating hands and the queue for nail art was so long that they ran out of nail paint before my daughter's turn came,much to her disappointment!A troupe of monkeys passed by,led by Hanuman complete with their tails hanging behind them,reminding me of Ramanand Sagar's Ramayana,in the Doordarshan era.How avidly we used to watch it!
We met one of our neighbours and he offered us hot,crisp,saffron coloured(and saffron flavoured)jalebi.It was delicious but my seven year old son was truly puzzled to find the family there.When I asked him why he was surprised,he answered that they are Kenyans so why were they celebrating Dussehra?Then I had to explain to him that one might be a Kenyan by birth,the last three generations might have lived in Kenya with most of them never having visited India,but being of Indian origin,they will always celebrate all the Indian festivals in a big way!The British brought Indians out of India to work on laying  the railway line in East Africa but they could not take India out of them!
As dusk turned to dark,the Ravan was set afire and blazed magnificently across the Kenyan horizon.Simultaneously,beautiful fireworks lit the sky!We were a long way from India and even further from Sri Lanka where the original story took place but I don't think I have ever felt closer to my roots, surrounded by Indians who have never even seen India,recreating an epic!Hats off to a Kenyan Dussehra!!

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

Mamma Boga

The intercom buzzes discreetly and when I answer a voice asks me if I need 'Boga'(vegetables)in Kiswahili,the local language of Kenya and the rest of East Africa.I answer in the affirmative and then wait for Mamma Boga,the itinerant vegetable seller,to trudge up to our third floor flat since we do not have an elevator.Such is the use of modern technology!She ensures that the effort of climbing the steps will not be in vain by using the intercom!
As Mamma Boga comes into sight I am reminded of our tea pickers of Assam.She has a huge basket slung on her back but going by the smile on her face one would never guess that she is lugging around at least ten kilos of vegetables.All married women are called Mamma in this part of the continent hence the name Mamma Boga!
She sets down the basket on the floor and begins to display the wares.Thanks to Kenya's cool weather and frequent showers even the vegetables thrive here!The tomatoes are farm fresh,a bright red with green sepals still clinging to them.She offers me tender,light green lady's finger,which she calls 'bhindi'(yes,they know all the Indian names of vegetables,we Asians being their biggest customers).It's just begging to be stuffed and I buy it immidiately!Then I turn my attention to the well polished brinjal which she assures me will be good for 'bharta'!Putting aside my inherent dislike for the blameless 'baingan' I buy it for my husband.Milky white garlic pearls and ginger rhizomes are a must have,though the garlic packet carries a 'Made In China' tag!
But though Mamma Boga assures me that the knobbly 'karela'(bitter gourd) is not bitter at all,I refuse to be persuaded!I snap up the  fragile french beans and the creamy cauliflower.Knowing the weakness we Indians have for pickles she hopefully holds up a bag full of raw mangoes and says for 'achaar'.I ignore the mangoes(who wants to ingest extra salt and oil!)but then she pulls out a packet of big,vermillion red chillies like a magician pulling a rabbit out of a hat!And I am smitten.I love stuffed red chilly pickle and so in go the chillies!A litre of mustard oil imported from India,costs the same amount as three litres of locally manufactured sunflower oil and so is the case with the amchoor(dry mango powder) that I need for this achaar!But that is another story and will not deter me from making it!
I see a mellow yellow pumpkin jostling for space with crunchy carrots and cool cucumbers.A few laukis(bottle gourds)lie languidly in another corner,sure to be sold before the day is over.After all,who cooks lauki the way we do?Sabji,raita,kofta,halwa,you name it,we make it!Pale pink,papery skinned onions smirk confidently at me,knowing they will be in almost every dish that is churned out in my kitchen!A pile of dusty potatoes peers out of the basket looking very humble,despite being a staple in almost all the major cuisines of the world!Of course I need a kilo of those!
Dark green spinach,grass green coriander and some fine fenugreek(methi) ensures enough iron in the children's diet and rounds off my vegetable shopping.A little bit of bargaining,(how can I digest these veggies unless I know for sure I have got my money's worth!) and we are through.
As I stock up my fridge with the vegetables,I know that after just a few days the intercom  will buzz again and I will hear a voice say,'Boga,Mamma?'

Thursday, 29 September 2011

Maid In Kenya.

A little girl was once asked by her teacher what she wanted to be when she grew up.The little girl immediately replied that she wanted to be a maid!The teacher was shocked and wanted to know why she had this ambition.The girl answered that she had never seen her mother as happy as she looked every day when she opened the door for the maid!So she,too,wanted to make her mother that happy!
This happiness is true of women all over the world  if they employ daily help,no matter how educated or efficient they might be otherwise.And this joyous feeling becomes multiplied when you have a maid or a 'house girl' as they are called here in Kenya or anywhere in East Africa.
In Kenya,unlike in India,being a house girl is like any other full time job.They come in at 8 o clock sharp in the morning and leave around 5.30 in the evening which are regular office hours.They don their crisp checked uniforms,put a scarf around their head,roll up their sleeves and set to work to transform your house!Paying the minimum wage set by the government is compulsory,else you might be paid a surprise visit by the labour officer!The employer has to give them breakfast and lunch.Sundays are a paid holiday,they get a whole months paid leave once a year and if you call them on public holidays you have to pay them extra for that day!And of course you have to contribute to their social security fund which they get when they leave your employ!In fact,these women hire babysitters for their own children,while they wash and scrub,dust and rub,chop vegetables exquisitely,iron and even shop for you.To say nothing of rolling out the mountains of rotis without which any Indian meal is incomplete!They are as good as the London chars(Flowers for Mrs.Harris,anyone?) except that they work in just one house at a time.Scarlett O'Hara's Mamie often comes to mind as you watch them go placidly about their work.
Now imagine if you offered all these benefits to your poor overworked Laxmi Bai back home in India.She would smell something fishy and run away immidiately,if she didn't faint first!Not only that,she would warn the entire army of maids to keep away from your house painting you as a dubious character who wants to trap maids for nefarious activities!But all said and done,dealing as they have to with a drunken,abusive husband,a brood of children,the pressure to produce a male child,scrimping and scrounging to save to buy a tola of gold for a daughter's wedding and a witch in the guise of a mother in law,while working for a pittence,I feel our maid in India is truly a soni kudiya!(with apologies to Alisha Chinai!)

Saturday, 24 September 2011

It's a jam!

Anyone who has ever visited Nairobi in the last few years has surely experienced the one thing it offers without fail-a traffic jam!You might have been caught in one on your way home from the airport or on your way to the airport-at the risk of missing your flight,as my husband did once!
The line of cars and matatus(the mini buses which are the sole mode of public transport) stretches on the road as far as the eye can see merging into the far horizon as you stew in your car.You slowly inch your way forward through the never ending line,glancing at your watch every few minutes.But what is most astonishing is the silence!Apart from the smooth purring of your Toyota(yes,Africa is total Toyota country!)there is no other sound on the road as the car creeps forward.Where is the cacaphony of horns,the drivers shouting abuse at each other,people almost coming to blows due to road rage?We,from India cannot imagine a traffic jam without all these!But here the people patiently accept these jams as part of their daily life and just build their schedules taking into account the time wasted in the jam.Wow!
The biggest culprits responsible for these jams,I thought,were the huge roundabouts that you see in Nairobi.They occupy a large area and seem to be the epicenter of all jams!They appear to be a Kolonial legacy as I remember that Pune too had these huge roundabouts at all the major junctions,the most prominent one being the one at the Pune University circle!Then,as the city grew and our roads were widened,all of these were demolished and replaced by token dividers.Therein lies the solution,I feel,for the Nairobi jams too.Though the roundabouts have such beautiful flowers and shrubs that they almost make up for the discomfort of being caught in a jam!
It is worse when it rains!Nairobi old timers love to recount horror stories of the jams on rainy days when it takes seven hours for what would ordinarily be a forty minute journey!And if you are low on fuel,as a friend of ours was,during such a jam,only God can help you.Specially as chances are high that the petrol pump you manage to reach will be bone dry too!Why?The tanker coming to replenish the fuel is caught in the jam somewhere miles behind you!Thats a Nairobi jam in a nutshell for you!

Monday, 19 September 2011

A garden as British as British can be!

Last week end my son was invited to a school friend's birthday party.The area where his friend stays is near the United Nations building in Nairobi and has lots of embassies too.There were lovely bungalows all around and we located his and the security guard let us in at the gate.As we followed the trail of balloons to the rear of the house,we stepped into the back garden!And we were transported to a Kolonial era of over fifty,maybe even a hundred years ago....we felt as if we had stepped into a garden that Rudyard Kipling,Agatha Christie,Ruskin Bond and of course our beloved Enid blyton have described over the course of so many books.A garden tailor made for children of all ages where they could amuse themselves from morn to dusk and still be reluctant to come into the house!
There was an absolutely enchanting tree house that just seemed  made for children to clamber into and the way out of the house was over a precariously swaying wooden bridge that would surely thrill any child and make the supervising adult's heart race too!
There was a massive rubber tree which was at least three floors high and threw shade over a large part of the garden.The rest of the area was dappled with sunlight.So a child could choose to bask in the sun with a book in hand or snooze in the shade!
There was a pole in the centre of the garden on which an adventurous child could shin up and then slide down and a glassed in porch to take your high tea while watching the antics of the children.A rustic wooden see saw filled our hearts with delight!Once upon a time a pond existed too but it had been sanded over.I suppose too many frisky children had tumbled into it!Masses of lillies,bunches of peonies,clumps of maiden hair fern,rambler roses of varied hues,a large hibiscus bush with bright red hibiscus flowers,a sprawling lawn,other ancient trees that looked as if they had watched over generatons of children playing in that garden.....
That Nairobi garden belongs to another time,another era.An age when children did not need play stations,game boys,an X box...A time when mothers never heard the words 'Mom I am bored,what should I do?'No chance!Such a  magical garden took care of every need any child ever had!

Friday, 16 September 2011

The Masai Markets

You cannot be in Nairobi and not visit the Masai market!Unlike Tanzania where there is a whole village of ebony carvers,tinga tinga artists,bead makers and so on,the one in Nairobi is a roving one.They move from one shopping mall to another and have fixed days of the week for each mall!So if it's at Westgate on Tuesday,it's at the Village Supermarket on Friday,a musical one at that and its at the Yaya Centre on Sundays.
And it is a thing to behold!Whether you are shopping for souvenirs to take back home for family and friends or looking for little knick knacks to brighten up your house in Nairobi,this is the place to visit.Your budget could be just a dollar or it could be a thousand dollars you will find what you want at the right price right here!And bargain you must else where is the fun in shopping in a Masai market?!
The first thing that strikes a person entering the venue is the riot of colours!From the black and brown of the ebony statues to the bright reds and oranges of the Masai shukas(sheets/blankets)to the carved bowls of green malachite,the blues,pinks,yellows of the beads in beautiful necklaces to the glint of silver coloured bangles,the gleam of an Africa shaped brass pendant,the burnished gold of the giraffe shaped earrings,it is dazzling to say the least!
A variety of masks frown or glare or smile,as the case may be,on you and many are painted in enchanting colours.It is indeed a tempting array.A mask can be as small as your palm or it can cover half the wall in your living room,you can take your pick!Then there are the Kangas and the Kitenges,the traditional African cloths which are of pure cotton with block prints on them and proverbs printed on them too.Though these are to be worn on the body they double  up as unusual diwan covers too and really brighten up a room!
The Masai Market is a paradise for young girls who love jewellery as there is an amazing range available here.From the traditional Masai beaded designs to the more modern pieces as well,you will get what you are looking for!In fact the little boys feel a bit left out while shopping here unless you indulge them with a Masai spear and a good,old fashioned catapult!Then see them smile!
Intricately carved bowls and plates with animal designs,matching trays,water glasses with animal etchings,you truly feel you are in Africa!And if nothing else,at least buy a fabulously carved chess set before you leave.It will give you hours of brain excercise and,who knows,might be a family heirloom a hundred years down the line!

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Its colder when it rains!

Another cold rainy morning in Nairobi!It becomes even cooler when it rains but the house remains snug and cozy.The house is huge and it makes me feel that our match box makers,sorry builders,from aapla Pune should learn some lessons from their counter parts in Kenya!All the houses that I have seen so far are really spacious.They are flats but give the feel of being in a bungalow.Could it be part of the Kolonial hangover?!After all the British had made Nairobi their East African headquarters for many years and some old Kolonial bungalows are still seen in and around Nairobi.
And the greenery!The children and I go into raptures just looking at the beautiful green trees,the myraid shades,shapes and colours of the flowers!Be it the humble bougainvillea or the stately lobster claw, the colours and the variety is mindboggling!I am sure no  top notch designer of textiles or cosmetics can match the shade of blood red bogainvillea we see here!The cactus plants grow so much that you can pick cactus flowers ,which again are beautiful beyond words,from the first floor balconey if not the second floor!
Just outside the house we can see a quaint banana grove,some beautiful Christmas trees and lots of tall flame of the forest trees.If it had'nt been for our daily routine we could have almost forgotten that we live here and are not holidaying in some hill resort!
What is this life,so full of care,if we have no time to stand and stare?We are doing a lot of standing and staring as we drink in the green sights of Nairobi.She really walks in beauty!!

Thursday, 8 September 2011

Its been a month....

Yes,today its actually been a month since we left our dear hometown Pune to begin our adventures in the Kenyan kapital Nairobi and I thought its a good day to take stock.If there is one thing that stands out about Nairobi ,its the cold!It seeps into your bones,wracks your throat,creeps in under your blankets and makes you feel your age!Specially for us Punekars for whom a severe winter is the equivalent of a hot Russian summer.Africa and cold?Its the usual incredulous reaction but yes it is!
The children like children around the world have been able to adapt and adjust(the favourite Indian word specially when it comes to scounting for a good daughter in law!)since day one.They have taken to Nairobi like a parched throat takes in water.To look at them it seems as if they have been living here all their lives never mind the cold!
The location of their school is on the outskirts of the main city and it was once a coffee estate!Its beautiful,open,green and cold!!The drive to their school is even more lovely as it takes them through a wooded valley,thousands of flowers and some of the most beautiful bungalows and villas we have ever seen.I hope they remember this sight all their lives and if ever, God forbid, they are feeling down and low this scenic beauty should leap up before their eyes and, like Wordsworths daffodils, their hearts with pleasure fill!

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, lib...