Friday, 21 December 2012

Que Sera Sera

A week before school closed for the Christmas break, my son forgot his newest and best jacket in school.Summer in Nairobi merits a jacket in the morning as it is quite cold. Usually things that are left behind in school find their way to the lost property, so I was not overly concerned and asked him to be sure to get it back with him the next day. But he was unable to find it despite a couple of trips to the school office to check.When I went to school to volunteer for one of the three parties that his class had before they closed, I, too, searched high and low for it. My husband had bought it on his last trip to South Africa and it really was a beautiful jacket and warm to boot.But I had no luck either and we were forced to conclude that someone had helped himself to it.
I did not scold my son but I exhorted him to be more careful with his things in future. I was a bit upset but I hoped that it had been taken by someone whose child really needed a warm jacket and did not own one, unlike my son who is fortunate enough to have five jackets and numerous sweaters, besides.And so the last day of school,Friday 14th December, dawned and I waited eagerly for my children to come home.It was a half day and my daughter called up to ask if she could get her friend home for lunch. I agreed, as long as the girl had her own mother's permission to be dropped off at our house instead of her own.
My daughter's classmate is Chinese but she liked all the Indian food that I served for lunch except the custard, which, anyway is a pudding the Kolonialists taught us to eat, so I did not mind in the least!Then the girls began to surf the net (under my watchful eye,of course!) and soon they were exclaiming over which glittery purse or high heeled shoes or designer hand bags each one would want to buy the minute they began earning! One teenager was Indian, the other Chinese, each representing countries both of which are slated to be the next super powers, studying in a school which comes under the system of the current super power, the United States Of America. I looked at them and thought what the future held for each child. Both looked so different from each other and yet were so similar as children are, all over the world... Their countries could become super powers on the sheer strength of their burgeoning populations and the popularity of their take away food alone! As I listened to them discuss their exam marks which had just been handed over that day I was amused. Both girls solemnly agreed that anything less than a ninety four percent was akin to failing the subject! For the record, neither had 'failed' according to their own set standards! Being an Indian mother I know how marks oriented we are and having bought and read the Battle Hymn Of the Tiger Mother I had an inkling of the Chinese system too!But even I thought this was carrying things too far, even as a joke! I did not say anything but idly speculated over their futures in my mind. Any mother will readily admit to trying, at times, to guess what the future holds for her children and their counterparts.Que sera the famous song goes-whatever will be will be,the future's not ours to see...
Come night and I tucked my son  into bed after a short argument as he wanted to read just 'one' chapter more from his story book but I felt it was time to turn off the lights! The day was over for me. I logged in to my face book account, replied to the comments people had put on my status which said 'the joys of Elementary school versus the reality of High school', which referred to exams for high school students and parties for elementary babies and then I signed off.Little did I know then how tragic 'joy' in Elementary school had become that very day... It was time to tune in to the Indian news channel on television as I like to keep pace with all that is happening in my country.And then time stood still for me.
All the news channels were focused only on one news item -the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut.How such a thing could happen, why it should happen was something beyond anyone's comprehension. One sentence that I heard, as soon as I put on the news, stands out in my mind. One of the teachers who was in the school during the incident was quoted as telling the children while rushing them to safety,' just move out,leave everything behind, including your jackets.It does NOT matter.' How glad I was that I had not taken my son to task over a lost jacket. Sooner or later the jackets of those babies who lost their lives that day will be taken from their classrooms, tagged,bagged and returned to the grieving  parents...These parents will never have the pleasure of tucking that child snugly into bed, never try to imagine what the future will bring for that lost innocent soul because, thanks to free access to guns and a disturbed mind that escaped notice, there is no que sera sera for these children.In the song, the child asks his mother, ' Will I be handsome,will I be rich?' Now it seems, children, not just in the States but the world over need to ask 'Will I live? To see teenage and adulthood?'Whatever was to have been in the lives of those six and seven year olds now cannot be.And what has been,should never have been, but for the fact that guns were sold as freely as Christmas  cookies and gun licenses were handed out like Diwali sweets.
I have never been so glad that I come from a country where only law enforcement officials, the armed forces, politicians, the hyper rich, film stars and terrorists have access to guns. Common folks like me cannot even imagine owning a gun, let alone shooting one..If this gory incident does not ensure tight gun control then what else are they waiting for? Honestly, should there even be a debate?

Monday, 26 November 2012

Uganda-The Pearl Of Africa!

Mississippi Masala- My first exposure to a film of cross cultural genre,more than a decade and a half ago. This lovely Mira Nair film starts in Uganda and then moves across the ocean to the West. I had had my first glimpse of Uganda then and I had found it really beautiful. Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine that one day I would get a chance to actually visit this place, for we were in East Europe then and Africa seemed very distant to us.
Well, get a chance to visit I did, and I grabbed this opportunity with both hands, even though it entailed asking the school for permission to let the children leave early for a day, something I am usually completely against doing. Nairobi to Entebbe is just an hour's flight and we got our first glimpse of Lake Victoria long before we landed!My son was especially excited as his class had just finished studying the major land forms of East Africa and he had no trouble identifying this vast water body which can be easily likened to a sea! Applying book knowledge to real life brings with it a thrill like no other...
A torrential rain greeted us as we drove from the airport to Kampala, the capital, where the resort was located. The hilly landscape and the bright red mud brought to mind Assam in India, where I have spent three of my preteen years!Streams of water, the colour of strong Brooke Bond Red Label tea, flowed from the upper levels to join the main road and the already overflowing rain water drains spilled over onto the roads! As the car splashed and sploshed it's way down the extremely narrow roads,visibility was reduced to almost zero but we managed to make it to the resort.
The artistically landscaped five star resort lies right on the banks of Lake Victoria and we were lucky enough to get a room overlooking the lake! We had been invited to attend a function to celebrate twenty years of a particular company in Uganda and so we rushed to freshen up and then presented ourselves at the venue,to the tune of African drums and bongos! It was also time to witness a World Record being created, another first for us! A representative from India's very own Limca Book Of Records was present to declare that the carpet of more than three lakh fifty thousand soaps, was indeed, a new world record! And the best part was that all the soap bars would be donated to school children across Uganda, to promote hygiene amongst them. Philanthropy at it's cleanest!!
A balmy breeze sprung up as we settled down to enjoy the rest of the evening on the shores of the lake.Scrumptious, strictly vegetarian snacks - paneer tikka, aloo samosas, bhajias, veg spring roll along with soft drinks were served. I cannot describe the sheer relief of not having to break open a samosa to check the contents! I have had nasty experiences in the past in restaurants where the veg and non veg samosas or spring rolls 'somehow' got mixed up in the freezer! May more such organizations promote vegetarianism!A sumptuous dinner, followed by fire works which lit up the lake horizon, wound up the day for us.
An absolutely delicious and very Indian breakfast of  dosas, idli and chutney followed by mango lassi brought a sparkle to our day, even before it had barely begun! I thought with satisfaction that the Kolonialists who 'opened  up'  Africa, must be turning over in their graves to see that the descendants of Indians who had been brought as slaves to lay the East African railway line, had completely 'Kolonized' the food scene not just here, but the world over!
The time that we had at our disposal was very short. So going to see the chimpanzees and gorillas that Uganda is known for was, sadly, not an option for us. But we did have time to go to the source of the River Nile at Jinja which is just a couple of hours drive from Kampala.The Nile arises out of Lake Victoria which also happens to be Africa's largest lake and the world's second largest fresh water lake.Though it was difficult to pin point any one spot as the origin, it was clear that a number of underground springs which bubble up to the surface of the lake continue to supply it with fresh water and the Nile arises from there.Unfortunately, the original water falls at this spot were submerged when a dam was built in the middle of the last century. Man has an unparalled record of destroying God's creation for his own selfish purposes!
 My son was curious to know why everything was named 'Victoria' in this part of the world. I had to explain to him that when the first Kolonial explorer came here, it was Queen Victoria who was ruling the Empire.Hence all the African names were swept aside and all the newly 'discovered' locations were rechristened in honour of the queen.It is a sad reality of our Kolonial past that we face these reminders in most places across the world that we visit! No wonder they said the sun never set on the British Empire!
Our guide coaxed us into taking a boat ride on the river and the lake. We saw a plethora of the most beautiful birds we have ever had a chance to see in a natural environment. (Singapore's  Jurong bird park cannot be counted as there the birds have been captured and displayed by man!!). They came in all shapes, colours and sizes and were a sheer delight as they dived into the water for fish or just had a swim!We also caught a quick glimpse of an animal in the water which the guide told us was closely related to the notorious crocodiles of the Nile...We were glad that we were safely perched on the bench in the boat!
This is also the spot where a portion of Mahatma Gandhi's ashes were immersed, according to his wishes, soon after his assassination, in 1948.A bronze bust of Gandhiji marks the peaceful place.It reminded me of my hometown Pune's very own Aga Khan palace where the Father of our Nation was imprisoned for long periods under Kolonial rule.

                                                                 A Ride On the Nile!

                                                              The Source Of The Nile!

                                                                Lake  Victoria!
Birds of Different Feathers Flock Together!
                                                  I could sit here all day!-At the Resort.
The next day it was time to head back to Nairobi, but not before my son had a ride on the horse of his choice at the resort stables and my daughter spoiled all the horses to her heart's content. In Mississippi Masala, the family of Indian origin is forced to leave Uganda on the orders of the then ruler Idi Amin.The diktat said that anyone not of African origin had to leave the country, way back  in the early seventies. They had to abandon everything and flee with just a suitcase each. As they prepare to board the aircraft, they turn back for a last look at what they, till then, had thought was their motherland.                                                                                                          Coincidentally, there was no aero tunnel on the day we left Uganda and we had to actually walk on the tarmac, hand baggage in hand, prior to boarding our plane.I, too, turned back for a last look, and wondered what the scores of people who, during the course of history, have had to flee from their homeland must have felt like. The Jews under Hitler, the people of  Indian origin under Idi Amin, the Hindus after the partition of India...the list goes on and on.Man,it seems, refuses to learn from History. Is it any wonder then, that history repeats itself?!

Tuesday, 23 October 2012

English Vinglish

I am not a movie buff at all. Give me a good book, a packet of Haldiram's Masala Chips, formerly known as Traditional Indian Chips (sadly available for export only, so you have to leave India if you want to try them!) and a cup of coffee and I am all set.I am more than happy if no one speaks to me for the rest of the day!
But before the kids were born,we used to travel a lot and I firmly believed that to savour the flavour of a new city it was essential to visit the single screen movie theatre. So whichever city in the world we visited, my husband and I made it a point to hunt up the movie hall and catch a movie there.Sometimes the popcorn was stale,the coffee tepid, the fountain Coke very watery..In Indian cities the samosas were bland,or stone cold or had been fried in oil fit for the kitchen drain...But all in all it added to experiencing a new city from a non tourist point of view.
And then it all changed. The multiplexes came in and the multinationals kicked in and the cheese popcorn tasted just the same whether you had it in Pune or Pattaya, the tomato ketchup with the nachos had exactly the same plastic taste,Mars bars became available in Indian theatres too and you could watch a just released Bollywood movie on the same Friday anywhere in the world, as your counterparts in India.
Today, I absolutely refuse to watch a new Bollywood movie till I have read a hundred reviews, till people I know well happen to watch it and give me sound feedback, till I know for sure there is no violence and no foul language and the U/A tag is not a euphemism for what should actually have read as an A! For of course, the children accompany us on the rare occasions that we do go for a movie!
But I flung this cautious behaviour out of the window the minute I saw the previews of the movie English Vinglish when we were in India during the summer vacation. I knew this was one movie I just had to watch on the very day of its release.I am a qualified archaeologist by profession but I ditched that field (pun absolutely unintended!) when I realized that there was no way I could leave my new born daughter and go off on digs for days at a time.So I cleared the exam for lecturers and began teaching History in Pune's top colleges and the University.I could tailor my schedule to suit my toddler's school hours.Then my son was born and there was no way I could juggle a job and two kids without resorting to maids or grandparents for baby sitting or creches or day cares, none of which I believed in. After all my motto is 'they did not ask to be born!'
So when my son started school, and we moved back to India from Tanzania, I did the next best thing. I became my own master, thanks to my husband investing in some real estate for me just two minutes walking distance from the house, so I could set up my classroom.And a whole new world opened up for me as I turned to something I have loved (and been good at!) since my school days-the English language!
The school children came,of course.They came in droves for the creative writing and functional grammar course that I offered.Given the pathetic standard of English in most of India's so called English medium schools,it was fulfilling to see them flourish and acquire a good command over the language and it was gratifying to inculcate a deep love of reading in them.
But the major challenges lay in the classes I began for the adults.Yes, the mothers who had children studying in the best schools in town were desperate to speak the language.The children thumbed their noses at them just because of their inability to converse in the language,conveniently forgetting that they were in those schools as the mothers did not want a repeat of their own sad situation . Other mothers who wanted their kids to get into those very schools wanted to learn the language just to clear the interview, as parents who do not know English are more liable to be refused admission.There were mothers who,during parent teacher meetings, had not understood a word of what the teacher had been saying.When asked if the information could be repeated in Hindi,India's national language,all they got was a rude 'Couldn't you tell me earlier that you don't know English?'I would surely have asked 'Is it a crime not to know the language of the Kolonialists,a language which for all intents and purposes, remains a foreign language in India,a language which the Kolonial masters introduced to create clerks during the Raj?'But then, what do I know of their plight because I know English. So at that point I could only sympathize,not empathize.There were wives who had been categorically told by their husbands that they had refused deputations abroad because the wife was not conversant in English. Don't women from non English speaking countries manage when they leave their homeland and move to England or her former Kolonies, where ironically English still remains the language of the 'classes' with the masses desperate to come to grips with it? So why were Indian women being made to feel humiliated for something that wasn't even their fault to begin with!
Such women, with a handful of men thrown in for good measure,queued up outside my class along with young college students who had been educated in the vernacular medium but who realized English was a crucial qualification to grab a share of the rapidly shrinking job market.And nothing made me happier than having them walk out thirty classes later with a bounce in their step, a glint in their eye,head held high, ready to take on their spouses,their children,insensitive teachers and snobbish colleagues in what else but English?!Yes,it is possible,it is not a con,as a character in the movie English Vinglish feels it might be,only to have the protagonist prove her wrong!
I watched the movie in Nairobi a day after its release.It was everything I had hoped it would be, it captured the emotions of my students and their struggles to master the language perfectly.And by this point I could empathize with the non English speaking people too, not just offer hollow sympathy.For the first time I had found myself clueless about a particular topic.It happened when my son began studying the nitty gritties of American currency as the American school naturally teaches their own currency. The only bills a person who hasn't lived in the United States would be familiar with would be the fifty and hundred dollar ones.What about the pennies,the dimes,the nickles,the quarters? How many cents is each one? Which president is on the head and what's on the tail of that coin?It was mind boggling!I had to resort to the internet to study this, just in order to see if my son was doing his homework correctly.I can only imagine what the mothers go through when their children study Shakespeare, as is the norm in most top schools in India!
English-Vinglish or Dollar-Vollar, our children keep us on our toes! Will Wordsworth said ' Child is father of the man' (and I add, mother of the woman) and how right he was!If the Brits hadn't kolonized us,the French would have! Imagine going through all this agony in French! Good thing I teach French too!
Go out and watch the movie-if you haven't already.It is in Hindi, though the sub titles are in, what else, but English!It will be well worth the effort, assembly line popcorn notwithstanding!

Thursday, 27 September 2012

0 Degree Latitude-The Equator!

I can safely say that the Equator forms part and parcel of my earliest memories.In fact,I do not remember a time when I did not know of the Equator!All thanks to my mother who ensured that a huge map of the world covered one wall of the bedroom which I shared with my sister.No matter where the Indian army posted my father and how often,no matter that we were often in temporary housing,given the chronic shortage of houses for officers in those times,that map always adorned a wall.Hence I grew up with countries,their capitals and their locations,latitudes and longitudes,the poles,the tropics of Cancer and Capricorn,the Greenwich Meridian,the International Date Line and of course the Equator firmly embedded in my mind.
That map had a different spin off as well.All the countries were coloured in bright colours,different ones being used to show the various countries.So I still think of India as bright bubblegum pink,the former Soviet Union was a rich cream(yes,I grew up at a time when it was a unified whole!),the United States Of America were a Weikfield vegetarian custard yellow and Mongolia a deep green,to name a few.I wonder how many people of my generation remember such maps and those vivid colours!
Despite having spent six years in Tanzania and flying over the Equator numerous times(friendly airline pilots often announce this fact!),we had never visited it as it does not pass through that country.But when we moved to Kenya I knew it was too good a chance to miss and so when we had family and friends visiting from India last May I was ready with some well laid plans!
The designated day saw us setting off early,as the town called Nanyuki,where the Equator passes through,is a four hour drive from Nairobi.A packed lunch of Aalu(potato) Parathas traveled with us as I thought expecting vegetarian food at the Equator was pushing our luck too far!It was a glorious drive.Gently rolling green hills ran along the smooth highway and cattle grazed in the mild sunshine in the dales.We drove through many small villages as yet untouched by the ravages of modernization,barring the ubiquitous cell phone towers which were as common as zebras are in Africa.It was hard to believe that we were in the Equatorial belt,as the coniferous vegetation was akin to that of the Temperate Zone,all thanks to the high altitude that we were at!There were fields of 'Christmas' trees as far as the eye could see...If William Wordsworth saw daffodils,we saw pines,cedars,bamboos and the like stretched in a never ending line...
The four hours had long passed,Mount Kenya loomed majestically over us,but where was the Equator?Alright,we knew it was an imaginary line,we knew it was not as if it would be marked in white chalk,but could we really have been silly enough to have overshot it?A mild drizzle added to our anxiety and whenever we stopped to ask anyone where the Equator was,we got the standard Kenyan answer 'not far'.But the Indian concept of 'far' differs vastly from the rural Kenyan concept of the same word!What's far for us is near for them,given the long distances they walk to get from one point to another!
Finally,to our unmitigated relief,we reached Nanyuki,a town set up in 1907,by who else but the early Kolonialists.We were actually standing on the Equator,at an equal distance from both the Poles!We had thought that it would be unspeakably hot,the direct rays of the sun would beat down mercilessly on us(remember the Earth bulges at the Equator so we were closer to the Sun than we had ever been) but to our delight,thick white clouds scudded across the sky,it was cold and very windy!A few quick photographs later,it was time to see another phenomenon.
A self designated "professor",after settling on a price that was cheap by Nairobi standards,proceeded to show us something very unique.He put a jug of water down directly on the Equator and then put an ordinary match stick in it.Right before our very eyes the match aligned itself to the Equator,which means it remained in a straight line in an East -West direction.Then we all moved a few paces North(so now we were in the Northern Hemisphere!) where he repeated the same experiment.This time,the matchstick began moving in a clockwise direction!Then we crossed the Equator again and came a few feet into the Southern Hemisphere.Wow!Now when our 'prof''dropped the match in, it began swirling anticlockwise!
The same thing happened when he poured water from one jug into another in both the hemispheres!He helpfully told us that when you flush a toilet bowl in the Northern Hemisphere,the water swirls clockwise and vice-versa in the Southern Hemisphere!And to think we never noticed despite having lived for long in both the hemispheres!We determined then and there never to use a washroom located bang on the Equator!Remember what happened to the matchstick in that position?!
Then it was time for another exciting part of our trip.Shopping!There is a whole cluster of shops located right along the highway at the Equator.I have shopped at many places world wide but surely shopping at this particular location has a charm of it's own.We bought souvenirs for ourselves and gifts for friends and relatives.My son bought a lovely Masai shield for himself,my daughter stuck to buying her usual jewellery  and our guests shopped till they dropped too!And the icing on the cake was that compared to Nairobi,we got bargain prices and the shop owners were thrilled at the amount of business they got that day!I guess the direct rays of the sun have the effect of loosening purse strings!

The other day I overheard my son  learning the definition of the 'Equator' for a Social Studies test."It is an imaginary line that divides the Earth into two equal parts....."I smiled to myself and thought that it was not all that imaginary either!

Monday, 27 August 2012

Back To School And Open House

June in Pune-the month when the schools reopen for a brand new academic year and parents after having enjoyed,suffered and tolerated their children for two whole months cannot honestly deny that they are glad to see the little darlings back in school!It is also a time when parents dig deep into their pockets and shell out money for school fees,for books,for stationery and all the paraphernalia that are associated with going back to school.The rush to cover the books at the last moment,shopping for new uniforms and school bags and since back to school coincides with heavy rains in Pune (or used to) raincoats and umbrellas are a must have too!
And then once school starts we wait for the dreaded time tables to come home.Every day during the first week, the child is diligently asked if he has got 'it'.'It' here refers to the portion and the dates for the unit tests which are such an integral part of our school system back home.The mother grabs it even before it is fully out of the school bag! Planning birthday parties,picnics,outings,visiting friends and family,even watching a movie centers around these dates and children start studying weeks in advance!
Imagine our surprise and relief when,after moving to Nairobi,one of the first notes our children got home from school had nothing to do with portions and exams.It was an invitation to join the staff and students for a picnic on the splendid school grounds.It was a chance to informally mingle with the teachers and Principals,to understand their expectations, an opportunity to soak in the atmosphere our children would be spending a great deal of time in,a chance for new parents to find their way around the campus and to just let our hair down and relax.
This year our daughter started High School and so the school had planned the open house event in such a way that we got a taste of what a typical school day is like for her.We actually followed her time table,rushing from one classroom to another as the bell pealed every ten minutes!Yes,they took pity on us parents and shortened each period!Every teacher gave us a short talk on her particular subject often accompanied by power point presentations!Impressive!They even shared a lot about themselves as people and their own backgrounds.This is something new for us as teachers in India never discuss anything beyond the child's performance!And we were warned against reaching late for any class,our punishment being lunch detention with the high school Principal himself!It brought back memories of my college days in India for that is when we move around for different subjects,unlike in the American system where they start switching classrooms from Middle School itself!
The babies of the Elementary School had to lead their parents to their respective classrooms and show them around.So our son proudly led us to the third grade classroom where we could meet his teacher and admire the way the class was done up.It reminded me of all those Enid Blyton  British school stories which I enjoyed so much,where the parents come in at Half Term and thoroughly explore the school and see what the students have accomplished.Except that we were getting our chance at the beginning of the year!The Americans lead from the front,it seems!Little wonder that they put a man on the Moon (may his soul rest in peace) and a machine on Mars!

Once our classroom duty was done,it was time to party or in this case,picnic!Caterers had set up stalls with an array of food and beverages,the band was playing,the school grounds were a riot of colour with beautiful flowers and blossoming trees.The flags of all nations which have their students here fluttered in the background,adding to the colour.It felt good to see the Indian Tiranga flying high...I had specially asked that vegetarians be catered to as well,as we had gone back hungry the previous year.And so this year we were able to buy vegetarian food which was a major relief,though another parent from India was heard bemoaning the lack of Bhel and Paani Puri!The day had started as a rainy one but the skies cleared,the sun peeped through the clouds,a cool breeze sprung up and the day turned out to be tailor made for a picnic.All was right in our little world and it has been a glorious start to what could be tough times ahead as Kenya heads for the polls this year.For now,it's one day at a time and such sparkling days surely stand out!

Monday, 13 August 2012


Slightly more than two months ago we left Nairobi and went back home for a couple of months as the kids had summer holidays.Well,it was the dead of winter in Nairobi as it is below the Equator,but as it was summer in the United States Of America,the school naturally terms the holidays as such!Patriotic Indian,proud holder of the beautiful blue passport that I am,I would still be the first to admit that it was a wrench to leave Nairobi's naturally air conditioned environs.But the pull from home is always strong and so we said Kwaheri to Nairobi as we drove to the airport.
The word 'Kwaheri' in Kiswahili means 'Goodbye'!It is,indeed,a beautiful word,one that almost,by itself, brings a lump to the throat as one says it.Little did I know when I said Kwaheri to our temporary home,that I would be repeating it multiple times in my own town.
We landed in Mumbai in the early hours of the morning and then began our journey by road to my hometown Pune.It usually takes around four hours to reach home from Mumbai.One needs to cross the once formidable Western Ghats.But a decade ago a new road termed as the Expressway,was carved out from these very hills and today this journey is a breeze!'But at what cost?'I asked myself.Bare,brown,denuded hills,mercilessly hacked to carve the new road,stared down at us as we zipped along.They had been encompassed in ugly nets to prevent landslides,something that trees naturally do.I have been seeing them for the past ten years of course but they did come as a rude shock after Nairobi's green garbed hills.Then I remembered that as children we had travelled through these very hills and as the road used to climb towards the famous hill stations of Lonavala and Khandala,the very air used to take on a new,cool life.Not anymore.If we wanted a cooler temperature,all we had to do was to turn on the car's air conditioner.The convenience afforded by the new expressway had made me push this memory to the back of my mind.I said a silent Kwaheri to these sentinels of time,as they had been,not what we had reduced them to.....
When one lives in a particular city,one accepts the changes that occur on a day to day basis without really being pedantic about it.After all,the only thing constant in life is change!But when one has been away for ten months,and has to gulp down all those changes in one dose,it does come as a bit of a shock!In my case,it was the malls that left me dumbstruck!They had sprung up all over the city like mushrooms do after a refreshing shower of rain.And the sheer size of each one was intimidating.I have seen malls in some of the best and biggest cities of the world but never in my wildest dreams had I thought that this malaise would plague my hometown too.Of course it made my shopping that much easier,of course all the top brands were available under one roof,of course they had the most amazing sales and we landed up spending more than we ever would have had we visited our regular shops!But I had to say 'Kwaheri' to the personalized service,to the genuine smile on the owner's face when we came in to buy something and to asking,hopefully, for a discount,not having to make do with whatever was on offer!However well trained a mall's staff might be,the service remains impersonal!
Just a few decades ago Pune was a horse cart and bicycle city.In fact, even today most of our old roads are suitable only for these means of transport.Till even a couple of decades back,owning a car was unthinkable for most people.Today,the world's top car makers have moved home and hearth to Pune and are busy churning out monstrous cars which our roads are simply incapable of handling.The nouveau riche no longer drop names of  famous people,they drop cars names and are wont to declare that since their car is such and such make,they absolutely could not find a parking space big enough for it!Kwaheri to simple living and of course,to good manners too!
My biggest regret to date is the tearing down of Pune's beautiful bungalows.Though this process has been going on for the last many years,the pace suddenly appears to have accelerated,what with property prices in Pune being the highest ever recorded.Unscrupulous middlemen do not hesitate to con even their own kith and kin and convince them to sell ancestral property,all to make a fast buck!High rise buildings spring up almost overnight,where once a sprawling bungalow lay.In the process they have torn to shreds Pune's heritage and have destroyed it's old world charm.Kwaheri to those old stone bungalows which enshrined a thousand memories and whose walls had witnessed the lives of so many generations....
Roads are being widened to accommodate an ever growing population the world over.But it is only in my city that trees were relentlessly chopped down to broaden roads,without new ones ever being planted as replacements.Where once I could hear the shrill sounds of birds as they returned to their nests in the ancient tamarind and banyan trees at dusk,today the only sound is the cacophony of horns.Kwaheri to the lungs of a polluted city.How will we breathe now?
Come June and sure enough we would start hearing the pitter patter,not of little feet but of raindrops!Yes,once upon a time this month would herald the Monsoon.After a long,hot,dry summer a dehydrated city would eagerly wait to quench it's thirst.And never did the rain Gods disappoint us.For a city that depends on this life-giving rain to fill its dams and to have enough water supply for the whole year,the Monsoon is,indeed a lifeline.Heavy,steel grey clouds would descend on the city,just waiting to shed their load.Our old,Kolonial era classrooms would become terribly dark,giving us the perfect excuse to slam our books shut and declare loudly to the teacher that we could not see a thing!For of course the power supply was shut off at the first hint of rain!This year,it was Kwaheri to the rains as well!The Monsoon bypassed our city.Maybe the rain Gods do not bestow their favour on a city which has no trees and no old houses, where concrete buildings abound and humongous cars speed on the roads,each one larger than the last.Maybe the Gods,like me,prefer a time when things were simpler...
Kwaheri to the city I once knew or thought I did!It is a city,which,with it's burgeoning McDonald's and Pizza Huts,with it's Converse and Pepe outlets,fits my children like a glove but I remain an anachronism...
                                           A sight for sore eyes!
                                          These havens still exist!But for how long?
                                          All gone!
                                           Where are the birds?

Wednesday, 30 May 2012

A Crash Of Rhino,A Flock Of Flamingos!

Ever since we first moved to Nairobi,I have been eagerly waiting for relatives and friends to visit us!The city is so green and beautiful that one feels compelled to share it's scenic vistas with all and sundry!My wish came true  when my sister in law and nephew announced that they had bought their tickets!A school friend of mine and her daughter joined them as well and excitement ran sky high in our house at the prospect of so many visitors.The guest room was scrubbed,rubbed and dusted,it's cupboards aired,every nook and cranny was swept clean,the entire house was given a once over,so much so that when my daughter came home from school one day,she declared that she thought she had walked into the wrong house!
Well organized,methodical,typical Linda Goodman Capricorn that I am,I drew up lists of places to see,things to do,stuff to buy!I wanted to ensure that our guests did not miss out on anything and tried to cram in as much as I could in the limited time that they had.Since the children had school,we could plan out of town visits only on the week ends.And so the first Sunday after their arrival saw us heading towards Lake Nakuru in a hired safari vehicle.
The Great Rift Valley has ensured that Kenya has been gifted with beautiful natural salt water lakes.And where there is water there is life,where there are fish in the water there are birds and they were the ones we were eager to see.We passed Lake Naivasha,then Lake Elementaita and finally touched Nakuru town which borders Lake Nakuru,on the banks of which lies the Nakuru Game Park.Park entrance fees for East Africa residents are different from those of tourists and as we segregated ourselves while paying,our guests were amused to be termed as 'foreigners'!
Then we entered the park with our fingers tightly crossed as we hoped we would be able to view the white rhino that this game park is famous for.Unlike the Maasai Mara which is a Savanna grassland,this park has a dense growth of trees resembling an equatorial rain forest,most of them Acacias.So animal spotting which is so easy in the Mara becomes a bit of a challenge here!Well,we prayed for a rhino,we got a crash of them!We came across six of them fast asleep under a tree right beside the track!They were snuggled against each other, oblivious to the world,as sunlight dappled their leathery skin and tiny birds pecked off insects from their crevices!We gazed in wonder as rhino usually shy away and prefer to stay off the beaten track.We had had a very distant glimpse of one while on safari in the Ngorongoro Crater in Tanzania and my daughter had seen one in the Mara but we had not been that lucky!Half an hour later,my friend who had wished aloud to see a standing rhino got her wish as we saw not one but two of them,munching the lush grass hungrily some distance away from the car track.!Then she said she wanted to see a standing rhino,up close and personal and I had to remind her that this was not a zoo!But that desire was fulfilled as well when one came within nose,sorry,horn rubbing distance of the car!Was this our lucky day or what?!
Quote.When Alice goes to Wonderland,the Flamingos hide,I understand!Unquote.Well,Alice used them as a mallet for a game of croquet,but though we had no such intentions,only a handful of flamingos made an appearance at the lake,as this is the time when they have actually migrated from here!So though Lake Nakuru is famous for turning pink with flamingos covering it's surface,we had to content ourselves with the hundreds of snow white pelicans that thronged it's shores.I was thrilled since I have a special affinity for pelicans,my first pull along toy being a perky pelican!Years later,worn and old though it was,my daughter played with it as well and so she was delighted with the majestic pelicans too!
A lovely lunch,Indian to boot,at the Sarova resort in the middle of the park where we were surrounded by the most gloriously coloured nesting birds and flowers that looked as if each one had been personally painted by the Creator,a hot cup of postprandial coffee and we were ready to leave for Nairobi though,of course,reluctantly.A more serene place than Nakuru I have yet to see,a place where a person can just be!

Tuesday, 8 May 2012

The Sound Of Music!

A few months ago when I was at the children's school,(I am usually found there,either in the library or volunteering wherever help is needed!),I happened to see colourful posters put up everywhere.They were announcing auditions for the cast and crew for a play based on the beloved musical 'The Sound Of Music'. I was terribly excited and urged my daughter to go for the audition.After all she had won a 'best actress' award at a summer camp in Pune a few years ago!And since I put up with her histrionics on a daily basis ,I know first hand how good she is!
She was not convinced and she said the von Trapp children were blonde!I was equally insistent that no where was it written that they had to continue to be blonde,the school certainly did not say so and there was no harm in trying!But she was adamant in her refusal and so I had to be content with waiting for the play to be showcased,instead of being a 'Drama Mamma'.That's how mothers of cast and crew are termed here!
Finally the sale of the tickets for the play was announced and I managed to secure four precious tickets!For those of us who grew up in the Pune of the sixties,seventies,eighties and nineties,the 1965 movie'The Sound Of Music'starring Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer,was an integral part of our lives!My earliest memories are of watching this movie with my mother and sister at one of Pune's oldest cinema halls.This,of course,was ages before the advent of multiplexes.All schools offering a propah British education also ensured that the songs from this movie formed the core of our music education.So we always had each song right at the tips of our tongues and a cassette to sing along with or just listen to!Compact discs,of course were not even invented then!
Our mothers never had to entertain us at any family reunion as all of us cousins used to commandeer a room for ourselves and immediately start enacting our favourite scenes from the movie!A basket with a handle was brought out,a satchel was unearthed from somewhere,a dusty carpet bag found,and there was cut throat competition for the role of Maria!Finally we had to take turns to be her.We used to wish hard that our mothers would,one day,make dresses out of the same curtain cloth for all of us!In fact when the school mailed us asking for props to be used in the play,I regretted not being in India!I,single handed,could have supplied all of them,old bicycle included!Fortunately,I have not accumulated that much junk in Nairobi yet!
Though I have watched the movie umpteen number of times,(my mother recently bought us the DVD the minute it was released in the market),I had never seen the play!Ironically it was the play by Rodgers and Hammerstein based on Maria von Trapp's book,that became a hit first!So I was very eager for this new experience and it surpassed my wildest expectations!I could not believe we were watching school children!They were amazing and the entire effort was so well coordinated that,patriotic Indian and as true to my beautiful blue passport that I am,I realized why Hollywood is so many many notches above Bollywood!The live orchestra,which consisted of children playing all the instruments made each note come alive.Every change of scene ensured that they played the music of the song that had been sung in the previous scene!They were so good that I could not believe if I was watching the play or the movie!All those familiar dialogues were effortlessly spouted,the curtain cloth dresses were enchanting and the music and drama department had cast each student so perfectly that there was no jarring note anywhere,pun intended,since all those high pitched songs were sung live for us!The art department had painted the scenes so well that it was easy to imagine we were in an Austrian villa of the Second World War era!It was a treat,indeed!I cannot even begin to fathom the hours and hours of practice the children and the staff had put in.
By the time the von Trapps fled Austria,I am sure there wasn't a dry eye in the jam packed hall.They deserved every bit of the standing ovation they got!The hills in Nairobi were alive with the sound of music that night and I hope these songs are sung for the next thousand years. The movie and now the play remains at the top of my list of a 'few of my favourite things'!

Thursday, 26 April 2012

Feed A Giraffe....Or Pet An Elephant Calf!

When we came to have a look at Nairobi last May,we did not know whether we would be relocating here or not.I was not sure if we would find a school that would match our expectations and also be worth leaving Pune for and the other major factor was that my husband's work permit had not come through and there was no guarantee it would before the start of the new academic year in Nairobi!So,keeping in mind the fact that we might not get another opportunity,I had two places on my list of 'must-sees' which we simply had to visit!
One was the Giraffe Center and the other was the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust Elephant Orphanage.We had been listening to people talk about the amazing experience they had had in the former throughout our stay in Tanzania!The latter was my widely read mother's discovery.She had been collecting articles about the elephant orphanage for years and so we were determined to visit it despite the fact that we paid the entrance fees charged to 'foreigners'which are huge compared to what we would have paid today as residents of East Africa!But that did not deter us for who knew if we would get such a chance again!
A typical,cold,cloudy,Nairobi morning found us speeding(well,as much as you can speed in peak hour Nairobi traffic!)in a taxi(we were tourists,then,remember?)towards the giraffe park.A quick stop to purchase tickets as soon as we reached and then we were set to do something unique!The Giraffe Center was set up in 1979 in a bid to save the endangered Rothschild Giraffe and has been hugely successful in doing the same.The best part of visiting the center is that you get a chance to personally feed a giraffe!I backed out at the last moment and was content to watch the children who very enthusiastically fed a number of giraffes.The giraffes,with their thick,leathery tongues couldn't wait to gobble up the treat offered and slobbered saliva all over the children's hands!They did not mind in the least but the guide must have seen my look of disgust because she was quick to inform me that giraffe saliva has antiseptic properties!Thank you but give me Dettol or Savlon any day!
Then we read a lot of information that was displayed about this elegant animal.My son solved the huge wooden giraffe body parts puzzle kept right there,we purchased a few souvenirs of this delightful place,I made the kids scrub their hands raw and we were set to visit the next place on our agenda!
The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust was founded in memory of David Sheldrick,the founder warden of one of Kenya's most famous National Parks-Tsavo East,by his wife Dr.Dame Daphne Sheldrick in 1977.Among their many commendable projects is the one in which orphaned baby elephants are reared by hand by a team of handlers till they are old enough to be released into the wild again.At 11:00 a.m every morning these babies are fed by hand from milk bottles in front of an adoring crowd and that is what we had come to watch!
The elephant calves trotted out behind their handlers and came and stood in the roped off area,at the stroke of the hour!The gigantic milk bottles were already in place!The mothers of most of these calves had been shot by poachers for ivory(yes,the tragedy of the African elephant is that even the female has tusks,unlike the Asian female elephants) and they had been too young to survive on their own in the wild.Luckily for them they had been rescued and brought to Sheldrick's orphanage before it was too late for them.It was a treat to watch these calves guzzling down the feed and nuzzling their handlers with their trunks.Sadly these calves would never know their mothers and were showing affection towards each handler in the same manner as they would have shown to their own mothers.Some of them were so young when found that they have no memories of their elephant mother.And that,knowing the phenomenal memory that an elephant has,is saying something!I wish people would realize that only elephants should wear ivory!
Once their hunger was appeased,the calves became frisky!They began overturning the buckets of water,they enjoyed squirting muddy water on themselves and began rolling in the little ponds built for this purpose!The tiniest ones had blankets to protect them from the cold and all of them came to the edge of the ring to be petted by adults and children alike!They were too sweet for words!
The Trust gives people all over the world a chance to adopt elephants,which means that you can choose to pay an amount towards the upkeep of a calf for a year and you will be regularly updated about it's progress.It is no easy task to feed an elephant whether calf or adult!

On the way out my son,who is as frisky as an elephant calf,almost had a head on collision with a wart hog!Yes,wart hogs run freely around the orphanage!It was really hilarious to see both him and the wart hog take off in opposite directions!I don't know who was more scared but I suspect it was the wart hog!A fitting end to a fulfilling day!It happens only in Africa!

Thursday, 12 April 2012

Kontagious Kricket

They gave us the system of telegraphs.They gave us our first railway line.They gave us the postal system too.They gave the Penal Code and the Indian Military Academy.They gave us missionary schools.They gave us our first cricket bat and cork ball.Then they divided us and gave us independence but enslaved us to cricket for generations to come!
Cricket in India was an unknown entity before the advent of British rule in India.The closest we came to it was our game of Gilli Danda.The Gilli is a small oval shaped wooden structure.The Danda is a stick which is used to  flip the Gilli into the air and then hit it as far as possible,with the player running a certain distance while the Gilli is retrieved.This game has been played in India since ancient times.In fact,some scholars believe that the early Europeans who came to trade in India took back the idea of this game with them,which subsequently evolved into Cricket in England and Baseball in America!The Gilli was transformed into the ball and the Danda became the bat!Whatever the origins of cricket,the fact remains that while Gilli Danda is almost obscure in the India of today,it is indeed,cricket which rules the roost!The new twenty twenty format and the million dollar babies of the Indian Premier League(IPL) only appear to have fueled cricketing passions further!
It is also interesting to note that the top cricket playing nations of today are England herself and all the former British colonies-India,Pakistan,Bangladesh,Sri Lanka,Kenya,South Africa,Zimbabwe,West Indies,Australia and Canada.So for those of us who are not Kricket Krazy it is easy to know whom to blame!The game has spread as rapidly as a contagion and the best time to go for a drive in any city in India is when the final of any major cricket tournament is being played.The streets,the malls,the multiplexes are all empty with every Tom,Dick,Harry and their wives being glued to the television screen!The only downside of shopping during this time is that all the sales people in your favourite store will be clustered around the tiny television set at the reception!If you dare to ask for help you will be given the most disgusted look possible for daring to disturb them as they worship the new Gods -the cricket players!
When we moved to Nairobi and into our beautiful apartment,it was obvious after a glance at the landscaped grounds that the builder had to be a person of Indian origin and a cricket lover to boot!He had ensured that the wide strip of lush green lawn on one side of the parking area was big enough to double up as a cricket pitch!And sure enough a fellow resident of the complex was quick to inform me that all the children played cricket on week ends and from morn till night during vacations!
The nationality dominating our complex is Kenyan-with a twist!They are all of Indian or Pakistani origin with most of them being third or fourth generation Kenyans which means their grandfathers or great grandfathers had moved to Kenya from India or what is today Pakistan,during British rule here.Many of the children have never visited their country of origin,have no ties whatsoever there and naturally consider themselves Kenyan.
So I was astonished,to say the least,when my new acquaintance informed me that when people have guests from overseas and there are lots of kids and adults playing cricket,the teams are divided on the lines of India and Pakistan!
When Sir.Cyril Radcliffe who was the Chairman of the Border Commission,drew up the Radcliffe line in 1947,dividing India into two countries,(often dividing a house into two,with some rooms in one country and a few rooms in another!I am surprised they did not demand  that people standing on the border be sawn into two as well!),I do not for a moment think he realized that it's repercussions would,one day, be felt across the Indian Ocean in another former colony.That too by little children playing cricket,a game they had introduced in their colonies for their own amusement,children who had seen neither India nor Pakistan and probably never would!The binding link,cricket,is of British origin,the divisive link too has the same roots!It is a delicious irony.Or is it a pathetic one?

Tuesday, 3 April 2012

Of Guns And ...Not Roses!

I am an avid reader.Let's say I am a compulsive reader.If I am alone at home having a meal and have run out of fresh things to read I study the label of the pickle bottle on the dining table.Else I read all the ingredients listed on the packet of chutney in the (vain) hope that I might make it some day!When the children are at home my role changes from that of a reader to a raconteur and I relive my childhood and then their babyhood for them in the form of various true stories as they tuck in into their food!
So when we learnt that we were expecting our first baby it was a chance for me to do what I love most-read!Though,as children,my sister and I had often dipped into my mother's huge collection on childcare (after we had read through everything else in the house for the tenth time),this was a chance for me to update my knowledge!Violence in the modern world had increased a hundred fold since we had been children and there was a lot of new material available on this topic.So I read  up on it and the general view seemed to be that while there should be no discrimination between a boy and a girl while buying toys (or even otherwise!),guns were to be strictly avoided!Guns,it was concluded,seemed to spawn a desire for violence in young children!So be it!
Hence my daughter had the usual teddy bears,dolls and their clothes,tea sets,tiny kitchen ware,a tent,a dolls house full of minute furniture,a cricket bat,a basket ball hoop and we also bought her a host of trucks-a digger,a dumper,a tractor,a road roller,cars,helicopters,airplanes,all of which she, being the sunny and cheerful child that she is,happily played with.
Then my son was born and he inherited huge collections of everything!Everything,that is,barring guns!Keeping in mind what I had read I followed the same philosophy(rather psychology!) for him.As he reached the kindergarten stage,on the very rare occasions that I served bread(yes I had read a lot on how harmful white bread can be,although that had been our staple breakfast for years and we are still alive and kicking!)I noticed that he often nibbled it into the shape of a gun and pretended to shoot!I ignored him as I felt that he would outgrow this soon.But when he began twisting and contorting my daughter's beautiful Barbie dolls' limbs into gun shapes I knew a little boy instinctively wants to play with a gun and I finally gave in on the condition that he should never,ever aim a toy gun at a person.He was smart enough to agree and still sticks faithfully to his promise!
Thus began our collection of  what I call 'weapons of mass destruction'!Plastic swords,daggers and bows and arrows soon followed,along with every kind of gun imaginable and all was right with our little boy's world.Then we moved to Kenya.
Kenya is a country which does not sell any kind of toy gun.Only water guns which look faker than fake are available here.I had not allowed him to carry any of his guns from India as I knew I would be questioned at the airport.So we hunted for toy guns in Kenya but to no avail.Not a single shop or mall stocked them.He was really sad and had to make do with brightly coloured plastic water guns which were an insult to his eight year old sensitivities!
When my husband went to South Africa last month he decided to buy a toy gun as that was our son's only demand!He found a very realistic metal toy gun which the Jo'burg authorities found so suspicious that they forced open the suitcase after it had been checked in to see!Once they were satisfied that it was not the real thing they allowed the suitcase to pass and later informed my husband that they had opened his luggage!
When he landed at Nairobi,the suitcase was not even loaded onto the conveyor belt!It was placed at one end.When he went and asked them what the issue was,they said it had a gun in it!Then the airport security came and asked him to open the bag.They said they were sorry but the gun had to be destroyed then and there as Kenya does not allow toy guns even in personal baggage!
In the meantime the kids and I were waiting in the arrivals lounge wondering about the delay,when my husband called and explained the situation.My son burst into tears and said that he did not care about the gun but just wanted his father back quickly!Wow!We have not failed as parents yet!Our son chose his Dad over something he had been waiting for for more than a fortnight!Considering how materialistic most kids are these days I was impressed,specially as he had been practically drooling over laying his hands on a gun after so many months!
The gun was destroyed at last and the pieces had to be chucked into a dustbin under the watchful eyes of the security!My husband walked out with just the metal nozzle which he handed to my son!I am hoping the child's ardor for guns has cooled a bit,as this is something none of us will forget in a hurry!Maybe we should try roses next time!Oops!Live flora cannot be checked in either!

Thursday, 22 March 2012

Out Of Africa

'I had a farm in Africa at the foot of the Ngong Hills.'
The minute I heard those lines from the movie 'Out Of Africa' starring Meryl Streep and Robert Redford I was transfixed!As a rule I am not a fan of the woods,neither Holly nor Bolly, but after moving to Kenya I was determined to watch this 1985 winner of seven Academy Awards and I finally did!I resolved then and there to visit the location in Nairobi where the story took place(and the film was shot) and I got my chance this week!The children have their spring break(well,we are nearing the end of a warm Nairobi summer but it is spring in the United States Of America hence 'spring break' for the kids!),my husband was in South Africa and so I bundled the kids into the car and we were on our way to the Karen Blixen museum!
It is a long drive in peak hour Nairobi traffic and I had plenty of time to mull over the lady in question.She was a Dane who,after a failed love affair,entered into a marriage of convenience with Baron Von Blixen and together they came to Kenya to start a dairy farm in 1914.But her husband bought a coffee farm instead and so it was that Karen found herself the possessor of six thousand acres of farmland!Karen was very sick with syphilis soon after coming to Nairobi,thanks to her philandering husband,whom she divorced a few years later.In those pre antibiotic days,the disease ensured that Karen,though cured,could never carry a pregnancy to full term and remained childless all her life.Instead she devoted her remaining years in Africa to educating the children of her farm workers.Her husband moved out,with the result that the burden of running the farm fell on her slender shoulders.
We reached the affluent,residential Nairobi suburb where Karen's beautiful Kolonial bungalow,with it's airy verandah and sloping,tiled roof,is located and that has now been converted into a museum.A cheerful guide escorted us into the old world stone structure and began recounting Karen's story.Unfortunately for Baroness Blixen the soil of her farm was acidic and not conducive to growing coffee.But she was determined to make it a success and struggled on alone taking huge loans from a bank to tide her over.I told the children how hard she must have worked to keep the farm going but my unsentimental daughter was quick to point out that it was the Africans who actually did the back breaking labour!(Not to be left behind,the Indians were simultaneously slogging to lay out railway tracks across East Africa!The Kolonialists certainly knew how to make us work!!)I pointed out to my daughter that Karen alone bore the responsibility of making timely payments to the bank,no small feat for a woman during the early years of the last century.In fact when she published her books later,she initially did so under a pseudonym,as female authors were not well accepted even in Europe!
The guide showed us all the lovely wooden furniture,some of it original,some donated by the crew after the movie was filmed.Karen was a skilled artist as well and some of her originals paintings line the walls of her house.Palm trees that she herself planted survive to this day and their tall fronds embrace the Kenyan skies like Karen did Kenya and her people.It was in this house,too,that she was visited by her paramour Denys Finch Hatton,an Englishman and a big game hunter.He was a pioneer in game hunting and game viewing and Finch Hatton Safaris are the ultimate in luxury in Kenya even today!The guide showed us two lamps that Karen used to signal to Finch Hatton whether her mood was good enough to receive him or not!The green lamp placed in the parlour window and seen from a distance gave him the go ahead to visit her but the red lamp warned him to stay away!Wow,I wish we could use this system in Pune to keep away people who are in the habit of dropping in unannounced despite having more than one phone at their disposal!
The farm began to show some returns but then a major fire broke out and destroyed everything Karen had worked for.She was forced to sell her house,her furniture(most of it was later bought back for the museum) and land to repay the bank loans.Finch Hatton had been killed in a plane crash while flying his Gypsy Moth plane and there was nothing to keep her in Kenya any longer....She returned to Denmark and began a new career writing about her life in Africa.Her books became best sellers,she became famous and the rest,as they say,is history!When the guide explained this,my son turned to me and said,'You write about Africa as well.'I said'Yes I do and I hope I am becoming famous too!'
Her dream was to build a college for her workers but it was not fulfilled in her lifetime.So the Danish government stepped in,provided the  funds and the College Of Nutrition now stands right next to her house!Her government also bought the house and gifted it to the Kenyan Government.Thus we can enjoy the Karen Blixen Museum today and stand in her garden and gaze at the smoky blue Ngong Hills which she loved!The word Ngong means knuckles in Kiswahili and that is exactly how those hills look!Denys Finch Hatton's grave lies at the base of these very hills and lions often came to bask on it....
These are Karen's last lines in the movie and I quote,'If I know a song of Africa,of the giraffe and the African new moon lying on her back,of the plows in the field and the sweaty faces of the coffee pickers,does Africa know a song of me?Will the air over the plain quiver with a colour that I have had on or the children invent a game in which my name is,or the full moon throw a shadow over the gravel of the drive that was like me,or will the eagles of the Ngong Hills look out for me?'Unquote.
I would like to assure Karen Blixen's soul,wherever it may be,that though I do not know if African children have invented a game,there is a beautiful suburb in Nairobi of her name-Karen!There we have the Karen Plaza Shopping Center,the Karen Coffee Gardens Restaurant,the Karen school,the Karen Museum,the list goes on and on...Yes,Karen,Africa remembers you and how!Though you never came back here after you left, you never really went Out Of Africa either!!

                                                Karen's House-now the museum.
                                                 The Ngong Hills

Thursday, 8 March 2012

A Doctor We Call 'Mami'

A new country means exposure to a host of new viruses.So one of the first things that I did as soon as we relocated to Nairobi was to scout out the best paediatrician for the children.After asking friends who are long time Nairobi residents and cross checking from others,I had a name.Even though both the children usually have a hundred percent school attendance in India,I knew that sooner or later they would come down with a bug here and I was prepared!Well,the day dawned sooner than later and a shivery cold morning found us at the clinic as both the kids had the sniffles,fever and throat and body ache.
We introduced ourselves to the doctor and as he began examining my daughter,he casually mentioned that he had moved from India to Nairobi almost forty years ago and had had the good fortune of being the paediatrician for the children and grandchildren of Kenya's Presidents and Prime Ministers for three generations!When he found out which school the children were from,he added for good measure that all his VIP patients are from that school.My daughter immediately began fancying herself as a 'VIP' though she has not done anything remotely important in life yet!
His words took me back to my own childhood and into our very own paediatrician's clinic on one of Pune's busiest roads,right in the heart of the city.All my childhood memories of being ill are enmeshed with those quaint,wood paneled walls,the wooden seats,the ancient refrigerator and the immunization chart on the wall.Being Army brats,we did not live in Pune during our early years but each vacation was spent with our grandparents there.And I seemed to have developed a penchant for having either one contagious disease or a broken bone every summer!One year it was a cracked collar bone,closely followed by chicken pox,then it was jaundice,another year it was measles,the next year I had mumps,then severe tonsillitis,then a broken toe,an appendectomy and I finally finished off with German measles at seventeen!Maybe I subconsciously knew where I would get the best care!Unlike today,when a new born baby's vaccinations start even before it has properly opened it's eyes after birth,we had a very limited number of vaccines and our bodies became immune the hard way!
The word 'Mami',both in my mother tongue Marathi and in India's national language Hindi,means your mother's brother's wife.In our case,our beloved child specialist was not our own 'Mami' but my mother's maternal uncle's wife!And my grandmother(from the royal family of Aundh,near Satara) was not her only sister in law!She had five more but both she and my mother's uncle,a top vascular surgeon,(who also happens to be the younger brother of Nairobi's first Indian High Commissioner)went out of their way for all of us.Most of us can barely manage one sister in law or two(and I am sure the feeling is mutual!) so hat's off to her!And all this while raising her own family of two young children.The relation was once removed but the warmth and the excellent medical care we got was not!Right from the day I was born,my mother made it a point to consult her about all kid care matters.And our doctor's technique is such that her advice is always in the form of gentle suggestions,something we can all learn from,as people giving unasked for advice are rampant in India!She is never 'a know it all',despite having studied medicine in London and is the daughter of a very high ranking former Reserve Bank official.Her late mother was an extremely soft spoken and talented lady.'Mami' has traversed the world but has maintained such strong bonds with the entire extended family that her care is not limited just to prescribing drugs but often extends to a home cooked meal followed by gallons of ice cream!And a bag of garden fresh mangoes to take home during the season!And my mother's uncle,being as skilled a photographer as he is a surgeon,clicks enough pictures of all of us to launch our own portfolios!
When my children were born I demanded that Mami come and examine them,though they had been pronounced hale and hearty by the hospital's resident paediatrician!And on her way home from her own clinic she honoured my request,nay 'demand',and each time both of them dropped by to see the baby despite their busy schedules.Only when she declared that all was well,did I breathe a sigh of relief!Such are the levels of trust that a good doctor and an amazing human being inspires!
When we were in Dar Es Salaam,my mother called us with the sad news that her uncle and aunt were closing down the clinic where we had been so lovingly tended to and henceforth would only operate from home.After all,they were getting on in years too.My son who was three then and my daughter who was eight,were up in arms as soon as they heard the news and stoutly declared that they would not 'change' their paediatrician in Pune!I assured them that I,myself, would drive them across town so they could be examined (or injected!) by Mami at her own house!And that is exactly what I still do!Never has a paisa changed hands  nor can we ever repay all they have done for us!
Our Nairobi doctor's prognosis brought my thoughts back into the room and as I smiled and thanked and paid him I realized that though my sister and I and all our cousins were not the children of hot shot politicians nor were we very important people but that is exactly how we were treated,pun intended,by our,sorry my mother's, 'Mami' who had become our own!

Thursday, 1 March 2012

Wild Encounters At.....The Maasai Mara

You know you are in Maasai Land when you see the cattle grazing peacefully across the vast plains!They are accompanied by the Maasai tribesmen clad in bright red 'shukas'or sheets.It is said the colour red keeps the lions away!In fact,in the earlier days,killing a lion was a rite of passage from boyhood to manhood for Maasai men!Today,of course,both the Tanzanian and Kenyan governments have banned this practice.
A group of twenty of us set off for Mara,bright and early from Nairobi,and a four hour drive saw us at the gates of the Maasai Mara game reserve.We were headed for the Sarova Mara tented camp which is right in the heart of the reserve.A sumptuous buffet lunch of twenty different main dishes awaited us, not the least of which were Mattar Paneer and Mixed Daal(lentils) with hot,buttery Naan!There was also an array of soups,salads and fruits.The desserts comprised of cakes,puddings,ice cream and mousse.I thought it was sinful even to look at these but that did not stop me from tucking into them!There is many a slip between what a person thinks and actually does!And believe you me ,it was the same for every single meal!Never was a dish repeated in the three days that we were there and nor did we have to relish the same desserts!I had never thought a day would dawn when I would savour perfectly spiced methi-aalu(fenugreek and potatoes), bhendi chi bhaaji(lady finger),'upama' and 'bhajias'(fritters) in the middle of the African grassland!(Our earlier wild life sojourns in Tanzania had yielded only continental food!)Times change and how!
We lingered over lunch till it was time to leave for our game drive-the first of four.The animals which have now become'common' for us were spotted immediately!The gazelles,the impalas,the haartbeestes(they have antlers shaped like hearts!),the topis,zebras with adorable babies,giraffes,lots of elephants,a protective mummy with her fortnight old calf among them,wild buffalo,wart hogs and hyenas.Fifteen minutes into the drive and we crossed our fingers!We have been a bit disappointed in a couple of game reserves in Tanzania where lions were concerned!(Friends from Dar will remember searching for lions in vain all day at Ruaha and on another day peering from the train into every bush in Seleous!)But this was to be our lucky weekend!
We came upon a pair of magnificent males sleeping back to back near a bush.And they were to be the first of more than thirty lions and lionesses that we saw in a span of thirty six hours!Sometimes they were ambling near our vehicles,sniffing at the tyres,staring at the many cameras that were clicking.At other times they were ignoring us royally and grooming themselves just like your pet cat at home would!If they moved into the grass and lay down,it became the perfect camouflage for them.A pride of twenty was sun bathing in the mild morning sun right in the middle of the road,like the cows in Pune are so fond of doing!
And then on our second evening we came across six lions devouring a Maasai cow they had just killed!It was a gruesome sight as the cow had been completely disemboweled and the lions were tearing into the flesh with little roars of contentment.Our guide told us they know they are not supposed to kill cattle and so are feeling guilty about it!This was proved two minutes later when another tourist's camera made an extra loud click and two lionesses ran a few meters away from the kill!Earlier,when they had been innocently lying around,the cameras had not affected them at all!Understandably,the Maasais were upset about their cow and we heard that the bush officials had to intervene to cool tempers.
A few hopeful hyenas and jackals hovered around the site,awaiting their turn once the kings of the Savanna had had their fill.Bald headed vultures patiently sat on a tree to scavenge the last remains of the ill fated cow.
We were also fortunate to have seen three cheetahs,an animal  that has become extinct in India.We spotted a leopard(pun intended!),a rhino strolled by marking his territory,countless hippos splashed around in the river,a large family of banded otters gambolled nearby.The crocodiles refused to show themselves!

As we drove back to our camp on our last evening,heavy rain-clouds covered a part of the sky,turning it into a deep blue-gray colour.On the western side,we could see the golden orb of the setting sun- it's last brilliant rays turning the yellow Savanna grass into spun gold!As the first fat rain drops began falling,the fragrance of wet earth wafted over the plains and a beautiful rainbow appeared across the sky.It was nature at it's best and most vivid!Never have I felt more like a blip on the horizon,as we all are,as I did then!Only Mother Nature has the power to make us feel insignificant when we least expect it and it will do us good to remember it,now and always....

Thursday, 23 February 2012

About Books And.....More Books!

Before we actually relocated to Nairobi last August,I had been here with the kids last May as well to have a dekko at the schools and to do a recce of the system of education here.My dear friend from Dar Es Salaam, who had relocated here earlier,took me around to a different school everyday and we managed to cover the top eight schools this way!
We finally discovered that the American school was one of two which offered the ten plus two system of education(the same system is currently being followed in India) as opposed to the British curriculum schools in Nairobi that follow the eleven plus two system.We had to zero in on one of them to avoid an extra academic year for the children in the long run.
So a crisp,cold,cloudy Nairobi morning found us shepherding the two children to face the ogre of an entrance exam for the coming academic year.My daughter was specially disgruntled as she had just finished a gruelling school year,topped by the dreaded 'final' exam which signifies the end of an academic year in the Indian system and was in no mood to appear for yet another one!We handed over our lambs to the teacher who was going to administer the test and were asked to go and wait in the Middle and High school Library.
Both my husband and I were deep in our own thoughts.The thought uppermost in my mind was whether we were taking the right decision by shifting home and hearth to an alien land just when our daughter was entering her teens.Africa was not new to us but earlier she had studied in the Indian School in Tanzania and the transition to and fro had been very smooth.Now she was growing up and would be uprooted and transplanted into a third culture,the American one,albeit in Kenya.It was enough to send shivers up my spine!
Then we entered the library and book lover plus book worm that I am,I automatically began scanning the shelves.To my unabashed delight,all my favourite American and Canadian authors,whose books I had grown up with,were on those shelves!Of course our daughter,a voracious reader, loved them too!From Louisa M Alcott's Little Women  to Susan Coolidge's Katy series,from Jean Webster to Laura Ingalls Wilder,from Beverly Cleary's Ramona to L.M Montogomery's Anne Of Green Gables,from Ann Martin's Baby Sitters to Nancy Drew,every possible book I had painstakingly collected over the years(with help in raiding book shops from my mother and sister) was lined up on those shelves!I later discovered my son's favourites(the Berenstain Bears top his list!) in the Elementary Library.Suddenly my spirits lifted.Our children would not look like most of their counterparts(Indians can never be natural blondes!),they would not speak in the same way(at least to begin with),they would not eat the same kind of food(we are hard core vegetarians),but they had read the same books!They had such a solid link to connect them to this system that I was immediately reassured that they would feel at home from day one.This was surely a more tangible link than Mcdonald's and Pizza Hut,Reebok and Nike!This was the one legacy we had given them that would not change or diminish!
And so it was with deep regret that I read the news that one of Pune's oldest book stores,Manney's,would be downing shutters this month.It is from this very book store that my first memories of choosing a book for myself when I was scarcely higher than my mother's knee stem,here that I spent my school academics prize vouchers every year,only here that I found so many out of print authors-both British and American.I hunted for the newest edition of Dr.Spock here(my mother's dog eared copy was more than two decades out of date!)before my daughter was born and here that I led first my daughter and then my son to pick their own books and to initiate them into the delights of buying and savouring a book!
My husband has been repeatedly asking me if he should buy me a Kindle.I am steadfast in my refusal.The school library is currently more than fulfilling all my book needs.Can you snuggle up in bed with a Kindle?Can you breathe in the incomparable aroma of a newly minted book with it?Will you have memories of when and where you bought a particular book with it?And what about the joy that comes from spotting a long searched for book in a used book store?There are certain delights that only a book can offer!

Wednesday, 15 February 2012

The Taste Of India

This week has been about food!I mean it always is about food for Indians but as it happens we have been eating out a lot this week!One day it was because no one wanted to go home for dinner after watching the latest Bollywood Blockbuster at the nearest multiplex,another day it was because we had been invited for a 'puja' followed by dinner,Valentine's day came this week as well and on another day we just could not resist dropping in into our favourite Indian restaurant in Nairobi, after shopping for our atta(wheat flour), masalas (spices) and sundries.It is as if we squeezed in a couple of months of eating out in one short week!Is it any wonder that we (my husband and I,the children are too active to be affected by extra calories!) can barely squeeze into our respective jeans?!
When I first landed in Africa a decade ago I was thrilled to see a plethora of Indian restaurants offering the entire gamut of cuisine from all the different regions of India.I was even happier to see every single ingredient we need to cook our food at all the small grocery shops as well as in all the supermarkets.'At least our palates,attuned as they are to the flavours of our land, would not suffer here' was the first thought that had jumped into my mind then!
Suffered I certainly had!More than a decade and a half ago when we first moved to Russia where my husband was working,Moscow had only a couple of Indian restaurants!And St.Petersburg had just one!Every time we were in these two cities,we queued up there for lunch and dinner.Sadly they did not open for breakfast!Before flying back to our base near the Black Sea,we would stock up on whatever groceries were available in the tiny Indian store which was based in the Indian students hostel building.This was the solitary place in Moscow which could fulfill at least some of our needs.And we could lay our hands on papads,pickles,Haldiram namkeens and mundane stuff like lentils and rice only if we were really lucky.In those days everything used to be imported from the United Kingdom and if the ships were stuck at the port at that particular time,we were doomed and had to go back home empty handed!
As a vegetarian and a finicky one at that (I do not eat eggs and mushrooms and just about manage paneer) the  food,though of the highest standard,that I had to eat as I toured other cities in Russia with my husband, was too bland for me and often reduced me to tears.The first thing I used to do after reaching home was to dig into my bottle of red stuffed chilly pickle which I used to bring from India and guard closely.Yes,my Russian maid  had also become a pickle addict!By the time we left Russia,her daughters refused to eat vegetables unless they had been spiced!I am afraid I have spoiled them for life by supplying her with spices from my own limited stock!
So imagine my delight and immense relief when I found that first Tanzania and then Kenya offered us everything from spicy samosas to crisp bhajias,from succulent paneer tikka to crunchy pani puri,great garlic naan to tender tandoori roti no matter where we travelled or which city we visited!Every single mall here has an Indian restaurant with exhaustive menus.If I choose to make it at home,everything under the sun is at hand for me,be it Churmuras(puffed rice) for Bhel,Puris for Shev Batata Dahi Puri,Jowar flour for Bhakris,Dhokla flour or Idli flour.Or we can pick up the phone and any dish of our choosing will be delivered home in ten minutes!Yes,even Makki ki Roti and Sarso ka saag,Masala Dosa and Dahi Wada!What utter bliss!
If Indian food is so widely available can our desserts be far behind?Kool Kulfis in numerous flavours,Faludas,melt in the mouth Rasmalai,soft Gulabjamuns, to name but a few!And you can round off your meal by a paan (betelnut leaf) of your choice-Mitha,Benarasi,Gulkand!You will be spoiled for choice.
When I accompanied my son's class on their picnic,I had taken Aalu tikki (potato cakes) for his teacher.I explained to her that I had toned down the spices so she could eat it easily.She was quick to reply that she loved spicy Indian food,often ate Indian cuisine back home in the States and named one of Nairobi's top Indian restaurants as her favourite which she visits frequently.Talk about reverse Kolonization!

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...