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!

Wednesday, 8 February 2012

An Optical Illusion?

Wild horses cannot drag me out of our 'awesome'(it's the top word used in the children's school!) abode and I am specially reluctant to leave the house on Sundays.But a few months ago we had heard about a remarkable phenomenon that occurs in a place which is around an hour's drive from Nairobi.Friends from our Dar Es Salaam days had told us about it and since then we had been agog to view it ourselves.So when they invited us to join them last Sunday, we were more than ready.
We had heard that there is a spot on a hill called Kituluni Hill a few kilometers from the market town of Machakos,which was a Kolonial administrative center and is a few years older than Nairobi.It is also called 'Magic Hill' and this particular stretch of a few meters is said to defy the rules of gravity!We were finally getting a chance to test it ourselves and become eye witnesses to what is termed as a miraculous sight!
We set off from Nairobi by mid morning and this time we were going in the direction opposite to the one we had taken to go to the Great Rift Valley.As we left the outskirts of Nairobi, gradually, the landscape began changing.The hilly contours of the city that is our current home gave way to flat,arid land.All we could see were small,stunted Acacia tress and,sometimes,scraggly Eucalyptus trees that still managed to look stately!Even the maize in the fields we passed had turned yellow in the hot summer sun.
We are now so accustomed to seeing green everywhere,dappled with bright splashes of Nairobi's beautiful flowers,that I began feeling strange even before we had reached the 'strange' spot!And there were no giraffes or zebras grazing casually by the roadside as there had been on our last trip out of Nairobi!Puffy white Cumulus  clouds stretched across the sky.A few grey clouds hovered over the horizon but it did not seem as if it would rain that day!
As we entered Machakos town,we could see green,terraced hills once again and soon enough we started going up a gentle incline.The car climbed steadily up for some time and then around half way up the hill we were at our destination.We parked by the side and were surrounded by the local people who were eager to demonstrate the weird phenomenon.They took a plastic bottle,filled it with water and gave it a push to make it roll down hill.Instead,before our very eyes,the bottle began rolling uphill!We had to blink twice to reassure ourselves that we were not seeing things!My son,being the typical analytical Aquarian that he is,insisted that the strong breeze was pushing the bottle in the wrong direction!So one of the men opened the bottle and poured the water out on the slope.As per all known laws,it should have flowed down the incline.It began snaking it's way upwards!My son was dumbfounded!I had finally found something that shut him up!!
Then they asked us to get into our car and put it into neutral gear and release the brake.Logically we should have begun rolling backwards,something that makes me panic even today after a bad experience we had on the old Mumbai Pune road when I was a child.Today,however,I had nothing to fear as our car began climbing up the slope in neutral!Wow!
There are many legends surrounding this place,one of which says that a woman who had two husbands lived here and the husband who lived uphill had a stronger attraction towards her and so pulls things towards him!Polyandry seems to have funny repercussions here!Another story says there are certain minerals buried deep in the hill which are exerting this pull.There is a similar spot in Ladakh in North India which is manned by the Indian Army and has been termed Magnetic Hill.The same phenomenon has been observed here though magnetic compasses show nothing unusual.
 Scientists in other parts of the world insist that this is an optical illusion and what we see as a road going uphill actually has a downward direction.Only the surrounding topography gives us the illusion that the road is curving up.I only know that what I saw with my own eyes defies what I have studied and I would not have missed it for the world!

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

A Kadogo Economy

A few days ago my husband was listening to the local Kenyan news on television.I was reading, as is usual for me, when I heard the words 'kadogo economy'.(Yes,it's a 'K' word again!)It immediately caught my attention as these days all one hears is how the economy is slowing down if not crashing all together and how even once bustling economies will be showing a degrowth in the coming year.So I was curious about this new kind of economy and I tuned in to the program.
I knew that the word 'dogo' means small in Kiswahili.The Kenyan person doing the documentary explained that a kadogo economy is one in which the focus is on business generated in the small shops and kiosks.The huge,glittering malls do not enter the picture at all.It throws light on the buying habits of the people who literally survive on two if not on one meal a day.These small kiosks,here in Kenya,stock the most basic items which are essential for day to day living.The examples he gave were the ubiquitous 'ugali' or maize flour, which is the staple food here,beans,rice,oil,margarine,sugar,tea,soap and the like.
He said that these people buy the food in very small quantities as they do not have the wherewith all to buy huge amounts at a time.An example would be a prosperous person buying groceries from a food store in a swanky mall stocks up on ten kilos of rice at a time.He gets a good deal.But those few shillings saved do not really matter to him!It is just a matter of convenience and comfort!The person buying at a tiny store also buys ten kilos over a period of time but a cost analysis shows that he ends up paying more for the same ten kilos!And does not even get to save the few shillings which might have helped with the last meal before pay day.So it is a not a win win situation for him!This,in a nut shell,is a kadogo economy.The only advantage is that usually the owner of the store knows him as a neighbour or fellow church goer and might extend some credit in a really tight situation!
This set me thinking.These small shops are like our small 'kirana'(grocery)stores in India.We all shopped here before the Food Bazaars,Spencers,Mores,etc opened up.In fact,even today many of the last minute needs are met by our friendly neighbourhood grocer.Just the other day I called up our grocer in Pune from Nairobi and asked him to deliver cake and Srikhand(a dessert made of curds,saffron and sugar) to my parents house for their anniversary as a surprise for them.He did it without a second thought!He knew I would make arrangements to pay him as,of course,I did not want my parents to foot the bill!
Now these are the people who are running the kadogo economy in India.We have actually seen a daily wage construction labourer in Pune buying one stick from a matchbox!One sole stick!The entire match box was beyond his reach that day.I have seen many kids from households below the poverty line running to the corner shop to buy a handful of rice for that day's dinner!They are least concerned about any economy whether kadogo or not,surviving from meal to meal is what matters.Contrast this with a young teenage Indian girl who turned up her nose at the regular rice my mother had served and sweetly informed her that she ate only Basmati(which is a long grained,fragrant, flavourful and expensive variety of rice!)
So what can we do?I have started by making sure my kids serve themselves as much food as they need,then finish what is on their plates,learn to be grateful and appreciative of the food and share what they have with the people around them,be it a piece of chocolate for the maid in the house or a slice of pizza for the driver in the car.
Economies around the world may be shrinking and becoming 'kadogo' but at least we can start making our hearts bigger!Let us learn to empathize so we can do more than just sympathize!

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...