Saturday, 27 December 2014

Hong Kong -Riviera Of The Orient ...With Macau and Schenzhen Thrown In!

I have long been postponing writing about our holiday to Hong Kong and it's environs. It has been more than six months since we visited Hong Kong, Macau and Schenzhen in China but it is only now when the time has come to take a short break in a Kenyan National Park, that I am getting around to writing about it! And there is a good reason. I know if I go to Tsavo without putting down my impressions of the Orient, I will never be able to do it. For Africa will talk to me again, African landscapes will superimpose themselves on my mind, I will forget all the mostly man made beauty that I saw six months ago, in favour of that which has been created by Nature. And, for me, Mother Nature wins hands down every single time!
My curiosity about Hong Kong goes back to the time when I was around five years old. My maternal grandfather had gone there on a business trip and had brought back as a souvenir for us, a small rectangular plate which had a picture of people living in boats on the water, due to the housing shortage! I was fascinated as I could not imagine living in a boat and I remember asking my mother a host of questions about it.
It was a toss up between choosing a holiday in Europe or Hong Kong. Hong Kong won hands down due to the lesser number of days needed and time is one thing we are perpetually short of during our holidays! And so we found ourselves landing at the international airport there - tired, jet lagged but very excited to see a new country, that too a former British colony that was now a specially administered region of China.
The first pleasant surprise was that there is actually a metro style train that takes one from arrivals to immigration! Wow! This was definitely a new one for us. We had taken the Underground from and to London's Heathrow Airport many years ago but an internal underground train just for the airport was something! This is one of the very few countries where Indians get visa on arrival so after crossing that hurdle, we were onto our tour bus, merrily on our way to the hotel.
Hong Kong, small as it is, does have some natural beauty to offer most of which becomes a back drop for tall buildings and humongous bridges, smooth roads and fast cars. A minor shock was the size of the hotel room. Coming from Africa's vast grasslands and comparatively sparse population in the interiors, which translates into very spacious hotel rooms, our tiny room with its extra bed for our daughter, was a revelation that this island has a serious space crunch! Later on our Tour Guide told us she and her husband lived in a flat measuring just 400 square feet and did not even want to have any children as there was just no place for them. That is the size of our master bathroom here. Now that old image of people living on boats began to make sense to me but though I kept my eyes peeled I did not see any house boats. I'm assuming they have been accommodated into tiny flats by their government! I sincerely hope so.
The main attraction for the children was, of course, Disneyland. We spent a whole day there with my husband and children enjoying the most scary of rides while I chickened out for all but the tamest of them! Disney is of course an American brand to the core, but some of the longest lines were for Indian food and we enjoyed a vegetarian Indian Thali for lunch. I loved the Disney castle that has now become their trade mark the world over and come evening it is lit up in the most gloriously coloured lights, with fireworks illuminating it from above. The general effect is the main night of Diwali in India! So if we managed to blank out the castle, it was a kind of deja vu for us, as it would be for all Indians! This was followed by a delicious Indian dinner in a restaurant where my husband's boss was our very gracious host. It was pouring cats and dogs by that time but that did not stop us from marching out to the restaurant.The pull of Indian food is very strong!
Ocean Park is another must see here. Soaring over the wooded hills and deep harbour, perched in a cable car, brings a high like no other. Being vegetarian, we could truly admire all those fish, crabs, squids for what they were, without drooling all over ourselves and imagining them coated in spicy batter and on our plates. Live and let live and it was delicious Indian vegetarian food for lunch.
A view of Hong Kong by night from Victoria Peak (oh yes, that colonial connection!) was fantastic and the tram ride to reach there was the icing on the cake. A boat ride on the harbour afforded more views of sparkly buildings in techno colours and I wondered aloud who footed the light bills! Both India and Kenya have their own power problems and severe shortages and this blatant display of electric power was slightly disconcerting for me.
Dinner was with my cousin who works in Hong Kong and he scouted out a traditional Chinese restaurant for us that served authentic Chinese food that was not only vegetarian but spicy as well. It was a completely new and tongue tingling experience for us and the children had a hay day using their chop sticks! I tried everything (and there were some ten different courses!) but I put my foot down at having white fungus for dessert. We treated him to ice cream later, the only dessert in my rule book! Haagen- Dazs seems to rule the roost and was omnipresent here.
The next day it was off to the Harbour to catch a boat to Macau. Fortunately I had been warned by a student that this is the Mecca of Gambling and we should not book an over night stay here as our only connection to the word Casino being that we can spell it, we would be bored to tears. So it was a quick visit to a lovely, ancient Chinese temple and then to an even more ancient church which was steeped in history. Then they dropped us off to the must see hotel in Macau, the Venetian. The charm of this hotel lies in the fact that it has been designed to replicate the water Canals in Venice, Italy, and the gondolas that float through are an exact replica too! Shops which sell the world's most expensive brands line both sides of the canal and while my daughter was very familiar with each name, I was totally out of my element. Give me an ancient temple any day! On our way back to the meeting point for boarding the bus, we got lost and landed up in the huge casino! The escalator led straight into it and we panicked and took one down to another floor to see if we could spot an exit! There wasn't any so we tried to go back up, which the lady manning the escalator did not allow us to do as my daughter isn't and doesn't look eighteen,the casino being for adults only.( My son had gone with my husband for the Transformers Exhibition on another floor.) My heart was pounding and I was almost in tears by then, for the lady spoke no English and I was sure we would miss our tour bus! Fortunately we met a cleaner who spoke a bit of English and he led us to a lift which took us to the hotel lobby. That was an experience I am in no hurry to repeat!
The very next day was an exciting one for we would be on mainland China for the very first time ever. A short Metro ride later we were in Schenzhen, a clean, well managed city, and off to see 'Window To The World' which showcases all the major wonders of each country in miniature. We saw the Eiffel Tower, the Pyramids, the Taj Mahal, the Niagara Falls, the Leaning Tower Of Pisa and many more. Given an option between a Chinese lunch and an Indian one, every one on the bus voted Indian and we were taken to a great Indian restaurant. Tucking in into Chole (chick peas) and Naan in China is even more appealing to the taste buds than it is when we have the same in India! Don't ask me why, but maybe the thrill of sampling our cuisine in just about every corner of the world gives it an extra delicious edge!
Shopping in Schenzhen is a novel experience, in a building crammed with tiny shops each over flowing with goods, some fake brands, some genuine ones. You name it, they have it! My husband and son buy a telescope and some remote controlled toys (boys!), I stock up on jade lucky charms for family and friends as well as add to my teapot collection by buying a tea pot and tiny cups which have blue dragons on it. Befitting, since I was born in the Chinese Year of the Dragon!
Some jewellery shopping in Hong Kong, mainly by my daughter, who has some advance sixteenth birthday money from my sister to spend and some souvenir shopping as well, rounds up our foray into Oriental China. It was nice to see our closest contender for next Super Power status up close and personal!

                                          Hong Kong by night from Victoria Peak.
                                          Selling the Disney Dream!
                                          Natural beauty and some man made too!
                                          A Chinese meal, not Indo Chinese...
                                                            Clean and green Schenzhen
                                           Blobs of Jelly fish, Ocean Park, Hong Kong
                                          Traditional Chinese Temple in Macau

Tuesday, 23 December 2014

From Russia - With Fear!

I have never really written about our foray into Russia except a stray mention here and there, primarily because there is so much to write about simply by virtue of living in Kenya. Thanks to the Creative Writing Course I took, I was forced to dig a little deeper into the recesses of my  mind. So here's a glimpse of a rare Russian experience! 

 I was born in India and, of course, I was brought up there. But I was not a one city one house person because my Dad was in the Indian Army. So we moved around all over India, lived in different cities across the length and breadth of India and changed so many houses that I have lost count of them! My Dad often used to be away on training exercises and my mother, my sister and I used to be alone many a time in huge, cavernous colonial style bungalows that felt as if they were still haunted by long ago British colonels who must have lived in them. But there was never any real reason for fear as Army Cantonments continue to be some of the safest places to live and grow up in, even today!
All this changed when I got married and we moved to Russia. A new city was not a novel experience but a new country certainly was. We were not stationed in the capital Moscow but in a small city down South, very close to the Black Sea. The Russian people had overturned a communist government just a few years ago and were still tentatively coming to terms with, what was for them, a brand new idea – Capitalism.
My husband’s job entailed that he had to travel across Southern Russia quite often with a few trips to Moscow thrown in for good measure. I usually accompanied him for longer trips and initially for the shorter ones too. Finally one day I declared,’ I am tired of travelling and I think I will be fine in this apartment. It is just for a night anyway.’ He asked me,’ Are you sure? I really don’t mind if you want to come along.’
But I was adamant in my refusal and was confident that I had finally summoned up enough courage to spend the night alone. And so he left for the airport early the next morning and I was alone in a strange city for the very first time in my life. I could not speak Russian at all since it is totally different from the languages I had hitherto studied - English, Hindi, Marathi and French. The script was alien as well since Russian is based on the Cyrillic script and English has a Latin script.
I was not even acquainted with a single neighbour. The post communism scenario in Russia was a wary one. The Indians, unlike the Americans, did not face any hostility, but in keeping with their earlier experiences of spies being everywhere, the Russians preferred to keep a safe distance from us. So I might as well have been marooned on a deserted island for all the good the neighbours could have done me had I needed help or company! I was actually the only Indian girl in the city. It was not a nice thought!
We were already deep in the middle of a harsh winter and darkness fell very early and temperatures dipped well below 0 degree centigrade even during the day. It began snowing hard by early evening and the snowflakes that I had found so pretty up to then, suddenly started looking ominous to me. Visibility was close to zero and I could barely see outside the window. A queer half light filled the house just as the sun was about to set and threw weird shadows around me. I shook myself out of my reverie and said ’Enough! There is no need to get spooked!’ Just when I had convinced myself that there was nothing to fear, the door bell rang!
Unfortunately, apartment blocks in Russia do not have the same system as we have in India, as far as the main door is concerned. In India we have a main wooden front door and an iron grill door which gives a complete view of the landing outside your house. Even if you open your wooden door, the iron one still protects you and if you do not know the person outside, you can just conduct your entire conversation through it or take the letter or courier as the case may be. In the Russian apartment, things were very different. We had our own main door. Then, together with our immediate neighbours, we had another door which was common for the two flats. Then there was another door which was the common main entrance for all the four flats on that floor and only then could you access the landing and the stairs. The door bells for all the four flats were outside this door. The government had built these flats and allotted them to the people since there was no ownership of private property in communist Russia and I must say they really wanted folks to feel safe!
So when my bell rang, I wondered who it could be. I really did not know a soul here. I gathered the bedraggled remains of my courage around me and opened the first door. Of course no one was there in the tiny passage. Then I opened the second door and yet again there was no one. Then I was at the common door to the landing and I opened it a fraction of an inch and stuck my head out, both literally and metaphorically! No one…
I was stumped.’ Who had rung our bell? Was it someone who knew my husband was away for the night? Or was it the little kids who lived in the complex playing a trick on me?’ I had no idea but I was inclined to believe it was the latter. I slowly closed the main common door and went back inside and began closing the second door as well. There was a small curtained alcove to my right and out of the corner of my eye, I caught sight of the curtain fluttering gently as if someone had been hiding there and had hurriedly exited it. I panicked! I became convinced that someone had been hiding in that small storage area and his accomplice had rung the bell in order to lure me out so he could sneak into my open door and hide in the house. I bolted straight into the house, somehow managed to lock my personal main door, shot into the main bedroom and locked myself inside!( In retrospect I believe I should have shot out of the house! But then where could I have gone? The snow was nearly knee deep by then, I did not have any warm clothes on, since all houses are centrally heated and this was before the cell phone era so I could not even call anyone from the office for help!)
Thus began the longest night of my life. My fear was palpable and I could feel its cold, sour, metallic taste on my tongue. I was bathed in sweat and was sure I would never see my husband or my parents, my father in law and my sister again. I did not sleep all night long and just lay on the bed with a quaking heart, waiting for whoever I thought had entered the house to break in into the bedroom and rob and murder me, all for a few dollars!
Finally morning dawned and wonder of wonders it had stopped snowing and a weak sun peeped out from behind a few gray clouds. I realized I was still alive and gradually it dawned on me that the curtain had fluttered only because of the draught that came in when I opened the second door. Nothing and no one had been hiding there and it had just been my mind playing tricks on me! I finally ventured out of the bedroom and went around the entire house. To my great relief I was alone. But to this day it does not take long for ‘intruder alerts’ to start ringing in my head because that night is so firmly etched in my mind..
Who had rung the bell? Well, it was the kids of course and there was no robber or murderer in the house that night! I had gone into ‘intruder alert’ mode in vain!

                          Apartment complexes in Krasnodar looked similar to the ones in this picture
                                                                Krasnodar, Russia

Saturday, 20 December 2014

Why I write and how I write.

A few months ago I completed a Diploma in Creative Writing from a renowned institute in my home town in India. When I joined the course last year, a number of people who are regular readers of my blog told me I did not really need a 'qualification' to write. But I believe there is always scope for improvement and learning and I toiled on with the assignments and the exams that were a part and parcel of the course. 
One of the assignments for the course asked us to detail why we write and how we write. In other words it asked us to define what compels us to put down words and what the whole process is like for us. My three year old blog, which I had started for consumption by my immediate family only, completed ten thousand page views today with readers spanning remote corners of the globe! Thank you all! So here is a peek into my mind and my writing triggers...

I began writing as an eight year old, way back when I was in third grade, in school. No one told me to do it, no one forced me to do it but I still did it! We had not even begun writing compositions in school but one fine day, I picked up a blank single lined note book, and just started my first story titled ‘Mummy’s Promise.’ I was hooked! Throughout third grade and subsequently in fourth grade, I churned out stories with unfailing regularity. Anything could set me off. It could be a beautiful party frock that seemed out of reach price wise in that particular month or it could be brilliantly coloured medicinal tablets lying carelessly within reach of children. It could be a precisely laid out and landscaped garden with flowers in a multitude of hues or it could be someone as mundane as the class bully. My eight or nine year old eyes took it all in and sent signals to my brain and then I had to open my notebook, make up a lovely title for the new story and I just had to start writing!
I write because I have a deep seated desire to write. I also write because the words bubble up in me and I need to vent forth on paper. Personally I believe I have always wished to write because I have always been reading! The reading habit was inculcated in me by my mother. She began reading aloud to me when I was six months old and she continued doing that right up to the time I came to upper kindergarten and was able to read quite fluently on my own! My personal motto is ‘one can write only if one reads.’ Words have fascinated me for as long as I can remember. I remember a time during my early elementary school years when I could not even perfectly pronounce the words that I was already well acquainted with. My pronunciation of those new words, while speaking to myself, was atrocious but I knew the meanings of those words and I was using them in my stories. I finally learnt how to pronounce many of those words when the teacher came across them while reading out chapters to us or when I overheard my mother reading out loud to my younger sister. A word that clearly stands out in my mind from this time is ‘anxious’. Another one is ‘exhausted’. In retrospect, I wonder why I simply did not point to the word in the book and ask! I did not even need to utter my own version of its pronunciation!
Today, nature is a huge trigger for me as far as my writing is concerned. Anything can set me off. It could be a beautiful sunset that lights up the sky in myriad colours, it could a tiny bird that is just a splash of deep colour against a verdant bush, it could be the gorgeous melange of the blue and green waters of the Indian Ocean or it could be a rainbow painted across an azure sky, bathed in golden sunlight. Yes, my heart leaps up too, just like William Wordsworth’s did! Whenever I am travelling to a new city or country for work or for pleasure, it is as if my mind begins to take rapid snapshots of all that my eyes are taking in. I do not need to put pen to paper. The words that describe the scene pour in, right into my mind and simply get stored there. I know when I am back home and want to update my blog, it will all start flowing out exactly like I had seen it on a particular day.
I am driven to write by situations too and by events that I might be invited to, usually in my children’s school. My mind rapidly draws parallels to other, similar scenarios, my brain notes the similarities and the differences of two particular events I might have been party to and by the time I am back home, I am ready to write about it! A case in point here would be Sports Day in the present day as compared to the Sports Days that we had when we were in school which were tarred more by the colonial brush. Stories of human tragedies become another driving factor for me. I am very easily able to imagine myself in the affected person’s place and as I write I start feeling what he or she might be feeling and I feel as if I am undergoing or have undergone that particular experience. Over active lachrymal glands do not help in the least and when I am writing about horrifying experiences sometimes I can barely see the lap top screen, as rapidly flowing tears blur everything for me.
A major author who has influenced my writing is the legendary Alfred Wight who wrote under the pen name of James Herriot. He was a British veterinary surgeon and author who wrote about his practice in Yorkshire, England. His gentle self deprecatory humour, his love and his concern for his animal patients and for their owners as well, stand out in all his books. He loved the country side with its dry stone walls, its rolling hills, its wheat fields and has given vivid descriptions of the panoramic vistas of his beloved countryside. This is something that I have tried to emulate in all my writing so far. I feel it is important because it immediately gives the reader the sense that he belongs to that particular place and then he is better able to identify with and appreciate your story. I also love Herriot’s ability to laugh at himself and give the impression that his cures were mostly accidental. Since all his books are semi autobiographical in nature, this prevents them from coming across as being only about Herriot and he never cuts a figure that is too full of himself. In the process he endears himself to us and we find ourselves going back time and again to dip into his stories.
Since I always write about things that have actually occurred in my life or around me I find that this method works perfectly for me. An example would be that I always acknowledge the fact that Indian mothers do tend to be overbearing as compared to mothers from other races. All the Indian mothers who read my blog immediately identify themselves right then and there and can laugh at themselves along with me. A couple of them might even step back and take a good hard look at themselves. That is exactly what James Herriot makes me do every single time I read his books and I always come away feeling humbled by his attitude. Not only was he an extremely successful vet, but he was also a world renowned author who was a multi millionaire! And yet he remained simple to the core and human values shine through his writings. I try to lay a lot of emphasis on human values too through my writing, though, of course, I am nowhere in the league of my favourite author! His death due to cancer left me deeply saddened because I never met him in person and now there would be no more James Herriot books. But his world lives on in each and every one of his stories.
My biggest block as far as my writing is concerned is that I do not like to write sheer fiction. I like to base my writing on real events and I can embellish them with amazing words but what I write is almost always the gospel truth. I do not create events that never happened nor do I embroider facts. I tell it like it is along with its impression on me or its impact on my life or the lives of those around me. My skill lies in drawing parallels, in painting a picture with words for my readers and in imagining consequences or repercussions and presenting them to the reader to savour or deplore as the case may be. Often my readers travel round the world without having stepped out of their houses! So the single largest factor that curbs my writing is my inability to use my vivid imagination to create scenarios that have never occurred. In other words I do not think I am capable of ever writing a full fledged novel solely based on events that have taken place only in my mind!
The way forward to improving my writing conditions would be to try and force myself to write a short story that is completely fictitious and has no resemblance to any person dead or living. I should gradually get into the groove of writing complete fiction and try to overcome that mental block, which, is this case is also turning out to be a writer’s block! I also need to overcome the fact that I need complete peace to write. If there is any kind of work pending I am unable to write till I have tied all the loose ends.For example that pending electricity bill definitely needs to be paid off online before I come anywhere within writing distance of my blog! I need to discipline myself to write no matter what has happened or what needs to be done! Here I can certainly use lessons from my all time favourite James Herriot who ran a huge veterinary practice by day (and often by night!) and still managed to churn out best sellers in between!

Wednesday, 17 December 2014

Dear God


Dear God,
                 At the outset let me thank you for giving us our precious darlings. Till you gave them to us, we really did not know what we were missing in life. From the moment we held them in our arms, we made it our life's mission to protect them till our last breath. It started with cradling their little wobbly necks with one hand upright, almost all the time, so much so that we developed muscles we never knew we had, doing just that.
Car seats became an immediate and urgent need. Then we bought a baby cot so they would not flip themselves out onto the floor the minute they began turning over. It wouldn't do to hurt those soft, fragile little skulls you know. The minute they showed the first signs of crawling, we baby proofed the house. Out went anything the least bit dangerous like tables with sharp edges, flimsy side tables just made to topple over onto a curious baby, glass knick knacks and the like. Never mind if our house began to look as if we were packed and ready to move out the next day or that we had gone bankrupt and had been forced to pawn all our belongings! We also sincerely plugged in all the open sockets. We didn't want them to get the first  jolt of their young  lives the minute they put those itching- to- explore fingers into plug holes.
Those first shaky steps had either parent following close behind. And when they started climbing up and down the stairs, our hearts were in our mouths, God, those first few times. We could not understand if we should help them by trailing them from behind or we should go ahead of them and guide them up. A fall ahead might just knock off those two newly minted pearls in their pink gums but a backward fall could injure a tender back or give the back of the head a good whack. It was a difficult dilema for sure.
When they started solid food we mashed up the food as best as we could and banned all the foods that had made it to the choking list, for many years to come. We certainly did not what our adorable darlings to choke to death on pop corn or hard boiled sweets.
Then they started school and we understood first hand, what it was like to have our hearts wandering around, out of sight, anywhere they might please, doing who knew what dangerous things like hanging upside down from gym bars or creeping backwards up the slide and this when they were barely out of diapers. We did the next best thing we could, monitoring who they spent their time with, which parties they attended (oh yes, toddlers are socially much in demand!) and really tried to protect them from physical, sexual and verbal abuse to the best of our ability.
Badly scraped, bleeding knees, banged up elbows, deep wounds requiring a stich or two (okay five!) broken arms and legs while playing games, brought tears to our eyes and theirs. But we braved it out, God, we really did.We cooked the best,freshest and most nutricious food that we could afford to build up their immunity to its utmost, to help them grow into healthy adults.
And the vaccines! From the day they were born we shelled out hefty amounts of money to protect them from all the killer diseases of the last century. Month in and month out we lugged our growing- heavier- by- the- day tots to the paediatrician. They took shots for Hepatitis B and yes we didn't forget A either, for diptheria, tetanus, whooping cough, measles, mumps, chicken pox, Haemophilus influenzae B,typhoid, yellow fever and who knows how many other diseases. We dribbled tasteless polio drops down their throats till they began protesting out loud and we sincerely took them for all the booster shots too. We avoided holidaying in bird flu, swine flu and ebola stricken countries and we spent nights mopping them with cool cloths whenever they had fever due to a viral infection.
God, it was you who gave Edward Jenner, Louis Pasteur, Jonas Salk and their brilliant ilk the wisdom to develop so many life saving vaccines. Now we have one more request. Please God, make someone develop a vaccine that will make our children immune to death by gun toting, bomb throwing entities.(We refuse to call them people or animals). That way, no matter where they are, be it at a railway station in Mumbai,in a mall in Nairobi, on the subway in new York, in a cafe in Sydney or in a school in Pakistan, they will not die. Their precious lives cannot and should not be snuffed out like candles. And oh yes, and while you are at it, make a limited quantity of the anti bullet and bomb vaccine for mothers with dependant children too. Much as we would give our lives for them in a heart beat, we would like to live for them too, at least as long as they still need us!
Mothers who are at their wits' end on how to keep children safe in a terrifying world.

Thursday, 11 December 2014

' I Sent A Letter To My....'

One night last week my husband and I were listening to the news on television. He was alternating between two Indian news channels.Well, I was actually reading ( could I be doing anything else?! Sometimes I feel I fit the rest of my busy life around reading...) but I had an ear out for the news from India. He soon got aggravated with the two popular news anchors from rival leading channels who were shouting themselves hoarse and began flicking through a few other Indian channels.
Suddenly I heard one of my favourite songs from a Bollywood movie. He had moved on but I asked him to go back to that channel as I really wanted to listen to that particular song. He obliged and the song was from a block buster movie called 'Border'. The movie was released seventeen years ago and is based on the life of the soldiers and officers stationed at the Indian border and the subsequent outbreak of war with our neighbouring country.
The lyrics said, ''Sandese aate hai, hume tadpate hai,
                           Ki chitti aati hai, pooche jaati hai,
                           Ki ghar kab aaoge? Likho kab aao ge!
They mean that the soldiers are saying 'We get messages from home that torture us.The letter comes and it asks, When will you come home? Write when will you be back!'
The reason why this song always strikes a chord with me is that I spent most of my childhood waiting for letters too! Given that my Dad was in the Indian Army, we were away from our grandparents and all of our close and extended family most of the time. In those pre Internet, no email, only snail mail days, we relied heavily on letters for news on what was happening back home. Also my Dad used to often be away for months at a time on Army exercises, or for training or for courses. Letters used to be our lifeline and many a time our only link to him.
For remember I am talking about days when even long distance phone call booths were unknown in India. If you wanted to call, you had to pre book it and then after hours you might get through if you were lucky enough! Another issue was that our phone, no matter in which city we were stationed, was routed through the Army telephone exchange. So even if our family tried to call us from our home town, they would end up speaking to army operators most of the time and spend a fortune in the process! So letters were the key to communication.
In these days of instant communication, it is hard to imagine that we had to wait at least a month to hear about any major event that might have happened back home. These days we often communicate with our parents and siblings in real time, which means we are updating them about what is going on even as the event is unfolding, be it a child's concert performance or cutting a birthday cake while doing live face time. Not so with us!
A few letters stand out in my mind. One was the one we received the minute we got home from school one day. My mother taught at the same school that my sister and I attended and we came back together in the Army Bus every day. My mother opened the letter which was from her mother and we got the news that her very young first cousin who had been suffering from kidney failure had passed away after a failed transplant operation. This had happened more than three weeks earlier but we were getting the news only then. The pure, sheer, unadulterated, unfettered grief that that letter brought to my mother stands out starkly in my mind even today, twenty six years after the tragedy.
Another letter was the one that told of my mother's maternal grandmother's death. She had been the erstwhile Rani Of Aundh before India became independent, but death lays its icy hands on kings and queens too, and we got the sad news through an inland letter that cost may be less than fifty paise in those days. That letter left its mark on my mind because it underlined the fact to me at a very young age, that we all have to go empty handed from this Earth, no matter who we may have been at the prime of our lives...and we are finally reduced to a few lines on a piece of paper. Today, of course, we would be reduced to a Facebook status update...
One thing that my mother had always emphasized was that we never, ever, open a letter that has been addressed to someone else. It is a nasty, sneaky thing to do! So when, one day, a letter came along for my Dad written by his first cousin and my mother immediately began opening it, I was really surprised. She explained that the very fact that he had written, meant something was wrong at home! And sure enough. the letter explained how my paternal grand mother had slipped down a few steps and had fractured her arm. So my Dad's cousin had whisked her away to his house as there was no way she could manage alone at home. Of course, by the time we got this letter, my grandmother's arm had already healed and she was probably back in her own house too!
Birthday cards were another, very attractive and colourful form of letters, since most people managed to put in lots of news on the blank side as well! With no Face Book and Linked In to remind us of birthdays of near and dear ones, we depended solely on our memories and took into account the number of days it took for cards to reach, thus buying them and posting them well in advance. A lot of thought went into choosing those cards and come January our house used to be flooded with them since we had three prominent occasions in a row in that month! And add new year's cards to those! We certainly kept the Indian Postal System buzzing! Cards are surely an extinct species now unless you count E-Cards.
As we moved around the country, we bid good bye to school friends every three years. We used to fervently promise each other to write frequently and most of us kept those promises and letters flew back and forth across the country right till the time email began becoming popular. I recently destroyed a few kilo grams of letters that had accumulated through almost three decades of writing. And no, it was not as easy as pressing the delete button. A few tears were definitely shed.
More than a decade ago, when my daughter was in kindergarten in Pune, I was waiting to pick her up and I saw the little girls sitting in a circle on the ground. They were playing the popular game 'I sent a letter to my father, on the way I lost it. Someone came and picked it up and put it in his pocket.' We had played the same game in school as had lakhs of school girls in my daughter's very old and elite school under those very trees, some of them a hundred plus years old. I did not know it then, but I was actually watching a generation for whom saying 'I sent a letter' would be just a game. Writing a letter in your English Language Exam does not count and even that will change to 'write an email to' soon!They were never to know the art of letter writing and the pleasure that comes from it, for the Internet boom was about to begin. I am so glad I got to enjoy both worlds.

                              Do they even sell these any more?! My son has never even seen one. And to think there was a time when we used to devour their content...

Wednesday, 26 November 2014

26/11 and the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, Mumbai.

When I woke up this morning, there was a slew of unread messages across various What's Aap groups on my phone. This is a routine occurence as I stay in Kenya and most of the people I wheel and deal with are in India, which is a good two and a half hours ahead of Kenyan time. So by the time I wake up, my phone has been blinking crazily for quite some time! Today, though, many of the messages were reminding people that the date was 26/11, the day Mumbai had been attacked by terrorists six long years ago, and it was time to remember both the victims and the heroes, heroines and martyrs of this day.
I honestly did not need a reminder. I have been blessed with what I call a 'Date encoding brain.' This means that once you mention any significant date to me I will never, ever, forget it for the rest of my life. This inherent skill was further honed by my core educational background of History and Archaeology, and try as I might, I cannot even forget dates on which the most mundane of things may have happened. So there was no way I could have forgotten that today was the 26th of November, a day when Mumbai, the city of my birth had come under a vicious, violent, senseless and dastardly attack.
There was another reason why memories of the Mumbai attack were fresh in my mind. Last June, my husband and I had finally managed to make a cherished dream come true. We, along with our kids had stayed at the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, Mumbai over a long weekend. Having providentially escaped the terrorist attack in Nairobi last September by the skin of our teeth, we thought this would be a good time to point out to the children that, terrorism can be defeated, Phoenix can rise from the ashes and there are enough good people in this world who can, together, override the bad. That was exactly what, in my mind, the newly refurbished and recently reopened Taj Hotel stood for.
 Although multiple locations in Mumbai had been attacked that day, it was The Taj Mahal Palace Hotel that had become the face and symbol of the attack as it came under siege for three days and many heart rending deaths took place here. Also the Taj is an iconic Mumbai landmark, rubbing shoulders with the other famous monument, the Gateway Of India, which, for many years, was the route of entry into India for British colonialists. The terrorists had set fire to one of the wings of this hundred plus year old hotel and the candid television news shots of the blaze against the backdrop of South Mumbai's skyline remain emblazoned on my mind.
On arrival at the hotel, garlands of fragrant tuberoses were put around our necks and our foreheads were dabbed with vermillion, which is the traditional Indian way of greeting honoured and esteemeed guests! I had often watched celebrities on television being heralded this way but had never imagined it would happen to me one day! We have stayed in other Taj properties across India but this special welcome was a first! As we stepped into the lobby, pictures I had seen of the devastation after the attacks clicked through my mind. But all was calm, smooth and serene. Every single trace of that dreadful day had been completely obliterated and the Taj Palace was once again ready to receive her guests. 'Welcome Home Again' was what their advertisement said when they reopened in August 2010, nearly two years after the attack, having spent twenty four million pounds to restore the hotel to its former pristine glory.
And surprisingly, in the span of time that we stayed there, it did become a second home to us, which was strange since neither my husband nor I were born to this kind of ultimate luxury. Our kids lapped it up as if they had been accustomed to this all their lives! In fact, we got so much of special treatment that for a time we actually thought they had mistaken us for some really rich and well known family! Gradually we realized that this was the hospitality the Taj Palace Hotel was famous for and it was exactly this spirit and attitude of the staff that had saved so many guests on 26/11 and some of them had even laid down their lives, going far beyond the call of duty.
I thought this was a good time to buy the book 'The Siege- The Attack On The Taj' by Adrian Levy and Cathy Scott- Clark. I slipped out to Colaba Causeway, old hunting grounds for my husband and me, and did just that. Cosily ensconced in bed at night, in the very hotel where it happened and reading about the attack gave me the goosebumps. It also gave me an inexplicable sense of deja vu. As I read about the counter attacks by our very own Indian Army's tremendously brave Black Cats, I only had to get up and peep out into the corridor to look at the battleground. Discretely placed diffusers sent out bursts of a tangy orange fragrance. There was no smoke, no gun fire, no screams rent the air. The tastefully done up walls stood mute witnesses. The famous dome, once ablaze, now restored by experts, gazed unwinkingly down at me, as I craned my neck to look up at it.Only memories of what must have happened that day remained. I silently went back to bed, praying not just for the ones who died but also for the loved ones they left behind...
Since it is just across the road from the Gateway, we were able to watch the masses of people that thronged to this tourist spot, straight from our room windows. We felt cocooned in the marbled and air conditioned interiors of this hotel. At the risk of sounding elitist I can say we felt blissfully safe. This, I am sure, is exactly what all those well heeled Taj regulars must have felt that evening before they heard the first gun shots and everything came tumbling down like a pack of cards on 26th November 2008.

                                          The Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, Mumbai
                                          Gateway Of India, door for British colonists!
                                            Impeccably refurbished room, just one of many
                                          The masses from whom we fled!

Thursday, 20 November 2014

A Child Without A Mother

This poem was written keeping in mind my son's friend and many other children who lost their Mothers in the Westgate Mall attack in Nairobi.Tomorrow it will be a year and two months... It is also written for those children whose Mothers died in last week's botched sterilizations in India. My heart goes out to all these children...
If you are a Mother and you are reading this, I hope it reinforces how important you are in your child's life.

A Child without a Mother
Is like a piece of flotsam floating and floundering in the sea
Of his own agony.

A Child without a Mother
Has too much, too soon, on his plate,
But often goes hungry because Daddy often forgets to buy groceries, of late.

A Child without a Mother
Has a nightmare and wakes up at night.
Only to realize he is alone in this fight.

A Child without a Mother
Struggles on with a broken heart,
And wishes a Motherless life came with a ready reckoner chart.

A Child without a Mother
Does not have the luxury of a tantrum or two,
Not for him the usual teenage plaint of 'Mommy, I'm feeling a bit blue!'

A Child without a Mother
Has quickly mastered life's learning curve
And knows first hand how fast life's smooth road can swerve.

This Child without a Mother
Has moved beyond teenage angst and ire,
He lost his Mother to gun fire.

He and my son have a play day.
'Should I pack you some dinner?', I say.
He looks me squarely in the eye,
(No, I will not, I dare not cry.)
Well, maybe my eyes are wet, just a little bit.
He shakes his head and says,'This is life, get used to it!'

Friday, 14 November 2014

Fragrances Of Childhood

Nostalgia seems to be in the air! If, a few days ago it was an ice cream cart that triggered off a host of childhood memories, this time around, it was the whiff of an ayurvedic cosmetic cream. Today, 14th November is celebrated as Children's Day in India. All morning I have been bombarded with messages on social media about how it's time to celebrate the child in you even if you are an adult. I thought the best way to be a child again was to write about the many fragrances that take me right back there specially as I experienced a powerful trigger just a few days ago!
My daughter is in the last couple of years of teenage and her complexion has turned a bit spotty. So I suggested a cream that I used throughout my preteens and teens but she didn't really like it so back it came to me! Waste not, want not! Last week I squeezed out the pale yellow cream to use and the first whiff of sandal wood and turmeric took me back by more than twenty five years... Rubbing this cream across my face was an unfailing morning ritual and then rushing to catch the Army One Ton truck turned School Bus for the thirteen kilometre ride to school! Seemed like yesterday, thanks to that orange and yellow tube in my hand...
A chocolate cake baking in an oven is guaranteed to bring hunger pangs to my stomach no matter that I may have just finished a meal! It takes me back to the time when my mother would bake a birthday cake for me a day before the actual day and we would gobble it up saying 'This was the trial cake! Now bake the final one!'
The fragrance of fresh, crushed ginger brings back memories of my grandmother's ginger tea, her personal panacea for everything from fatigue to fever! As yet, unmatched!
The wholesome smell of freshly baked buns takes me back to the many small bakeries my mother took us to when we were really tiny tots to show us the entire commercial baking process. She also treated all the seven or eight kids in our bus to fresh buns on every pay day so that was an added incentive!
The strong scent of mustard oil takes me back to many a lunch hour in school in Rajasthan where every single child brought pickles and parathas to school, barring me who always had vegetables and chapatis painstakingly cooked by my mother every morning! Many a bone have I picked with her on this issue because I wanted pickle every day too!
Coffee beans being roasted in my mother's gas tandoor (oven). The rich, slightly pungent aroma made our house smell like a coffee shop on those days, though, of course, the concept of a coffee shop was an alien one in the India of then!
The strong tang of fresh mango leaves while taking down raw mangoes from the tree in our garden every summer. Mango sap with it's unique smell and the anticipation that I could almost taste, of gorging on those very mangoes the minute they ripened, still bring to mind long lazy summer vacations of childhood...
The spicy, almost tangible smell of Easter (March) lillies takes me right into a favourite childhood garden even as the pollen laden stamens make me sneeze every single time I bury my nose into a bunch of them...
Mysore Sandal Soap! This was easily available in the Army Canteen (Dry Goods Store) and was a great value for money deal. So we used it throughout childhood. This was the lingering fragrance in all our bathrooms, and just a whiff makes me feel cleansed and bathed even today.
The smell of printing ink in a new book reminds me of opening and sniffing school text books at the start of each academic year when everything was new and clean and fresh...
The eye watering smell of petrol, (another favourite incidentally), while refuelling the car also takes me back in time. But sadly this time it is for monetary reasons when fuel was so cheap that I used to put in a litre of petrol in  my moped for a mere twenty rupees ( around thirty three cents!).
What are the olfactory triggers to YOUR childhood?
It could be a whiff that reminds you of the fragrant flowers that used to be strewn all over the courtyard of your ancestral home or it could be the crisp smell of your favourite snack being deep fried in oil or it could be something as mundane as the smell of black shoe polish that you used on your school shoes for years and years! Be sure to let me know!
 It does not really take much to go back over the years and it can be quite a cathartic process...!

Thursday, 30 October 2014

Ice Cream Memories

A few days ago I saw an ice cream cart right outside our building complex in Nairobi. One rarely gets to see an ice cream cart nowadays in India, what with the mushrooming of ice cream parlours in the  nooks and crannies of cities and even villages. But ice cream carts were common in my childhood and the sight of this one triggered off a spate of ice cream memories.
The love of ice cream runs in my blood, my mother being a phenomenal ice cream eater too and I seem to have bequeathed it to my son! The big difference is that he generously doles out ice cream scoops to everyone including the house help whereas I, given a choice, would begrudge my own children ice cream, lest it reduce my own share!
My earliest memories of eating ice cream, well its Indian version 'Kulfi' actually, are in India's largest state Madhya Pradesh, in the tiny Army town of Mhow. I remember eating deliciously cold Kulfi made by the traditional method of boiling whole milk and sugar for hours and then flavouring it with dry fruits and saffron. It was served in eco friendly bowls made of leaves stitched by hand. Memories of a three year old me scarfing down Kulfi every week are engraved on my mind as clearly as those tiny stitches were etched out on those leaves...
Then the scene in my mind shifts to India's desert state (pun unintended!) Rajasthan. Hot days and cool nights meant we were free to indulge ourselves with ice cream at all odd hours. Here I remember frequenting the factory outlet of a local ice cream brand in the royal city of Jodhpur. Floors that were continuously washed to maintain a high level of hygiene and were always wet as a result, no matter when we visited, stand out in my mind. I remember literally inhaling chocobars almost every week!
As a five year old I was once greedy enough to steal a bite from my three year old sister's bowl, having rapidly finished mine, only to receive a stinging slap from her! Her logic? 'Well, you should have asked me first!' Just goes to show we even get physically violent to protect our share of ice cream and yes, the love of it does run in the family!
Ice cream carts used to stand outside my school there. My mother had forbidden me from having this ice cream as it was a cheap, flavoured water candy and the origins of the water were highly suspect. One day, while counting the coins in my piggy bank, the temptation became too strong to resist. I sneaked a ten paise coin (yes things were cheap in the India of yore) into my pencil box and rushed to the nearest ice cream cart after school the next day. I bit into and slurped up a ghastly yellow candy bar made all the more delicious by the underlying flavour of pure guilt! Then I ran and got into our Army school bus.
A fellow first grader, who was also a neighbour, dropped in to play with me that very evening and let the cat out of the bag to my mother. I was ready to sink through the floor and flavoured candy ice cream is the least favourite one since then! I also came down with jaundice a few days later and turned exactly the same shade as that forbidden candy bar.
Cut to Pune where my Dad subsequently got transferred and my sister and I discovered the joys of digging into ice cream cups with tiny wooden spoons. Kwality ice cream cups came in just two flavours then - Vanilla and Strawberry. Today the plethora of flavours that Kwality, (who later tied up with Walls), offers would make even Baskin '31' Robbins blush a very berry strawberry pink!
Every Saturday morning I would eagerly cycle down to a newly opened shop run by a 'Sindhi' couple and buy our weekly quota of ice cream - two cups of Vanilla and two of strawberry for the two of us. Kwality was running a promotion where they gave away tiny molded plastic animals of myriad hues for each cup bought. Over the next two years we built up quite a collection!
Then came our highlight of the week. We would settle down with the current Enid Blyton books that we would be reading and as the Famous Five and the Five Find Outers (their dogs too!) wolfed down 'ices' on a hot summer's day in faraway England, we would let our own ice cream trickle slowly down our throats, while ensconced comfortably in the shady garden that surrounded our colonial bungalow. Idyllic bliss!
Surprisingly I have no ice cream memories of Guwahati in Assam, where we moved next.Piping hot 'Samosas' seem to dominate my memories of this time. I guess Assam, with its rainy climes, was not conducive, weather wise, to have ice cream and so my parents did not buy enough of it and there is no indelible ice cream mark left on my mind!
Ice cream became my personal comfort food when I moved back to Pune for high school and discovered the temptations offered by ice cream parlours in their newly evolved forms, for they now offered multiple flavours and cup/cone options plus bars in mind boggling flavours! Dinshaw's ice cream became my new favourite and I became a die hard fan of their best selling flavour 'Premium Scotch'! Close friends of mine from this time will remember my Friday evening after school ice cream fix! This was also the time when I had every single ice cream brand advert jingle on the tip of my tongue..India was just entering the post liberalization era and a slew of multi national icecream brands suddenly hit the market. Gone were the days of one brand with just two flavours!
The 'India' ice cream man stood under the huge shady tree with his ice cream cart, in our school premises. A hard day with tough tests would have us scrounging around for hidden emergency money and then we would pool it together to buy some vanilla bars or orange candy for those who preferred it. Another favourite time was when a mother from our particular group came visiting during lunch hours. The poor lady in question was given no choice and was hounded for cash so that all five or six of us could indulge in an unexpected treat of ice cream!
Another favourite memory is when I bet a school friend that I would eat ten ice cream cones at her birthday party. Her smart mother ensured that I ate the main course too and so I landed up eating only six ice creams and losing the bet. I had to treat the winner to, what else, but ice cream in school the very next day!
The state of Punjab in India has its own unique ice cream made from fresh whole milk that is put into an ice cream machine and is then churned out by the gallons. The only flavour that our favourite shop in Jallundhar Cantonment had was Pineapple and every summer each meal was followed by going there and filling up a huge thermos flask with ice cream. Then we enjoyed it at leisure at home. It was the creamiest and freshest ice cream I ever tasted but I could never figure out why the flavour was termed pineapple as it did not taste even remotely of pineapples. The colour was a pretty yellow though!
I believe I inherited my deep love of this frozen dish from my mother's maternal side of the family. They gave up their princely State when India became independent in 1947 but refused to give up their love of ice cream! So all my memories of family get togethers with my mother's uncles and cousins centre around huge ice cream pots. They added milk, sugar and flavouring in the inner pot and ice and salt in the outer one and then we all took turns churning it till the ice cream hardened and set. Then we formed queues and were served huge dollops of ice cream in humongous bowls. Each uncle manned a different flavoured pot and we could take our pick or, as in my case, have all of them! Mango and chocolate were all time favourites and we called these gatherings 'Icecream Parties' as befitted them.
Life as an adult took me to many different countries all around the world. I have tasted some of the best flavours made by top international ice cream brands. But honestly nothing could ever match up to the good old very vanilla and simply strawberry flavoured ice creams of my carefree childhood...

Wednesday, 15 October 2014

Close Your Eyes And You Will See.

Most of us are so focused on our next goal, on our next achievement, on our future targets, we are just basically focused on ourselves, often to the extent that we fail to see our blessings and count them! Yes, we fail to open our eyes and observe what is important in life, we cannot see what is right under our noses and above all to be grateful for just having the five basic senses which, in itself,is no small feat.
Twelve years ago, a person came into our lives and just by observing the way he lived his life, taught me to open my own eyes wide and to just take in the many visual delights that this world and Mother Nature have to offer. He is blind but he taught me to actually see my blessings, not just enjoy them. I was introduced to him through my mother. With her penchant for always finding ways and means to help those who may not be as blessed as we have been, she stumbled upon a group of people who recorded text books for visually handicapped students. She soon brought a pile of books home to transfer to cassettes. Compact discs had just been introduced but were exorbitantly priced and so audio cassettes were still in vogue. Not all books for all the subjects post 12th grade have been translated into Braille so these students suffered a lot unless they could find people to record for them.
With my own penchant for education, both my own and that of my students, it wasn't long before I took away most of the pile to my own house and diligently began recording material, often for two hours at a stretch, despite holding a job in a college and having a toddler underfoot! My daughter's eyes were opened at an early age to putting others before self. She often used to get thirsty while playing next to me when I was recording but even as a three year old knew enough not to speak till one side of the cassette was over. Then she would ask sotto vocce for water as she wasn't old enough to reach the filtered water!
We were fortunate to have a brilliant student as our protege. He had topped the tenth standard board exams from his district not just in the handicapped category, but even in the open category! I could not marvel enough at him! He held a minor government job then and had finished his graduation and had just begun his post graduation. I used to even fill out the exam forms for him. Yes, the sad reality is that visually handicapped people have to rely on others for this most basic thing that all of  us do, year in and year our, first for ourselves and then for our children. His aim was to become a lecturer and teach English at the University. With this lofty aspiration in mind, he prepared for the NET and SET exams which are a prerequisite for lecturer ship in colleges and universities in India. I filled out those forms too, recorded even more material and even persuaded an under graduate student of mine to be his writer. Yes, a blind person has the knowledge and the skills but has to depend on a third person to transfer it all to paper. Another reality that I had to contend with...
He passed both exams at the first stroke which is a staggering achievement considering that the average pass percentage for these exams is a meagre three percent! But this is not really about his academic endeavours. It's about his attitude. No light passed through his eyes but he still managed to fill his life with light.
He had been blinded as a two year old due to an eye infection that went untreated. And yet he bore no grudge whatsoever against his parents. He accepted his lot with equanimity and even kept a photograph of his parents in his wallet! My mother had accompanied him to the university once for some paper work and when he opened his wallet to pay the auto rickshaw person (oh yes he preferred to pay his way through, though my mother would have gladly paid!) she spotted the photograph. She was touched, specially as so many people we know hold grudges against their loved ones for the most absurd of reasons. And he had reason enough, but that is just not his way!
He faced every problem that came his way very calmly. I used to often get frustrated by the attitude of the government towards those whom they term ' Handicapped' but I learnt then that it is the government which is handicapped! Physically challenged people have come a long way in rebuilding their lives and have become independent but it is those in power who remain blind to their needs..
He would laugh and say it is fine, it happens, whenever there was an inordinate delay in results or from hearing back from people about a job for him or when people treated him like a five year old forgetting that he was visually not mentally handicapped and his I.Q was much higher than the majority of the people we were dealing with!
He finally got the job he deserved. All those hours of my mother and me recording book after book paid off and his hard work and sincerity reaped rich dividends He was selected as a lecturer in a top university in our state in India and has recently completed his Ph.D and has now begun guiding doctoral students! I tell him that the tables have now turned and I would want him for my guide when I begin my own Ph.D!
Today is International Blind Day. To be politically correct, it should be termed as International Visually Handicapped Day. For it is not they who are blind, but it is us! We need to open our eyes wide and pledge to donate them after our death. All of us should make it a point to tell our children and our grandchildren and a few close friends that we wish to donate our eyes. Then in the grief and confusion that follows the death of a loved one, at least one person will remember to phone the eye bank. We have one shot at giving someone this fantastic gift and dispelling the darkness from that person's life for ever. Let's not waste it. Let's pledge now.
Not taken the pledge yet? Of what use can spectacles be, if a person just doesn't want to see?
Close your eyes tight and walk around your room and you will see...

Sunday, 12 October 2014

It's A Girl!

“It’s a girl!” Why, very often, do these words ring a death knell in an Indian maternity clinic? The baby girl is perfectly formed, she is in excellent health, her APGAR score is fine, her birth weight could not be better and yet, a pall of gloom descends around the labour room when these words leave the attending doctor’s mouth. This is the reaction of the average Indian couple and more so if it is their second child after having had a daughter earlier. If, after two daughters, it is their third attempt at procreation, then it is as if someone has died and everyone goes into mourning because the whole aim of having a third child after two daughters was to have a son!
Indian history is full of instances where the mid wife was paid extra to quietly get rid of an unwanted baby girl either by burying her alive or by inserting a tiny grain of raw rice into an even tinier nostril or by literally drenching and drowning her in cow’s milk. This, of course, was much before the advent of sophisticated tests which tell you the sex of your child when it is just a three month old foetus. When amniocentesis came into the picture, around the late seventies or early eighties, it was meant as a diagnostic tool to detect Down’s Syndrome and give the parents a chance to terminate the pregnancy if they felt they would be unable to care for a ‘special’ child.
Indian couples began thinking of an amniotic test as their personal tool to get rid of female foetuses. For a while all was well in female foeticide land and mothers and mothers in law, fathers and fathers in law gleefully welcomed male child after male child into their families while the souls of all the female foetuses that the daughters and daughters in law and the sons and sons in law had terminated hung like ghostly spectres around their houses. Not that they even noticed! They were too busy rejoicing over that ultimate pinnacle of human achievement in Indian psyche: that of having produced a male child, by hook or by crook!
Then the government stepped in, albeit too late for many never to be born baby girls, and amniotic tests were strictly banned in India unless there was a very real fear that the unborn baby might test positive for Down’s syndrome. This, of course, was left at the doctor’s discretion and certain doctors in India were paid to be very discreet! Still, by and large, baby girls began to be born again.
But the joy and sanctity of maintaining a balanced sex ratio as intended by Mother Nature, (yes we call her ‘Mother’ though few people want a daughter!) was short lived because technology brought to the fore the sonography or the ultra sound machine! Gone was the need for inserting long needles into the uterus to extract amniotic fluid, gone was the slight chance that the doctor had wrongly diagnosed the sex of the unborn babe and a male foetus had been terminated by mistake. Horror of horrors! Now the mother to be had to just lie down and relax while the radiologist smeared cool gel over her abdomen, followed by the smooth head of the ultra sound machine. The babe was exposed on the screen monitor in all its naked glory, blissfully unaware that its sex would decide, in the next few minutes, whether it would live or die.
Again female foetuses began to be aborted as fast as an ultra sound could be done, the ratio kept getting worse and worse until one fine day the government woke up and banned doctors from disclosing the sex of the child after performing an ultra sound and from agreeing to terminate a pregnancy if it happened to be a girl child. But clandestine operations to murder our unborn girl children continued and the portable ultra sound machine came as a blessing in disguise to greedy individuals who began making a good living solely by going from hospital to hospital or home to home guaranteeing to bid good riddance to the female foetus. Sadly this continues even today despite a massive clamp down on this abhorrent practice by the government. Everywhere else in the world, couples happily find out the sex of their child, if they want to, and begin planning the nursery and the baby wardrobe based on pink or blue, as it may be. In Africa, the sex is disclosed to all but the vast Asian community that is based there. The hospitals and doctors have become wise to the fact that very often pink means terminate, as far as people from the sub continent are concerned.
The question is: ‘Why?’ Why would anyone want to hanker so desperately for a male child? Why is the need to have a son so deeply rooted in the Indian mind? Why are girls in many Indian families still being given a lower status as compared to the boys?
We can go back to our mythologies and our folk tales and we realize the blessing given to a married woman was always ‘may you have eight sons’, ‘may you never be widowed’! This clearly points to the fact that the importance of the male was continuously reinforced whether as a son or as a husband. Women were automatically given the second rung of the ladder to stand on. Women got married, took their share of ‘stree dhan’, now termed as dowry, and moved away to their husbands’ house. The sons remained with their parents and became the way to economic and spiritual salvation. Old parents could depend on their son to earn and feed them and after their death the son ensured that all the elaborate last rites were performed in the correct manner. The parents died happy knowing their son had worked hard to guarantee the liberation of their souls! Ah Moksh! What utter bliss!
That was then. Why this regressive attitude in today’s day and age? Why, when the girl can be given an equally good education, when she is proving herself to be more than capable of earning? Why, when a good pension plan and adequate hospital insurance is the only economic crutch one needs in old age? Why, when an electronic button ensures your cremation and subsequent liberation? As the daughter of parents who very happily had two daughters in the mid seventies and declared their family complete, I am still looking for these answers.
Here are some ‘first hand’ examples to prove that women may have gone to the moon, to outer space and back but it has not made an iota of difference to the archetypal Indian mentality.
When my younger sister was born and my delighted Dad distributed ‘Jalebis’ to his colleagues in the army mess, he was met with incredulous looks! A few officers even went so far as to say,’ Sorry we had heard you just had a second daughter. Obviously we got the wrong news. You seem to have had a son since you are giving us sweet meats!’ My Dad happily corrected them saying he had, indeed been blessed with another daughter but she was healthy, hale and hearty and his wife was alive! What more could he ask God for!
When my daughter was born, a nurse hesitantly ventured to say that I should have had a son. I assume she was hesitant because since it was my first child it did not matter all that much as we still had a ‘second chance’ as per the stereotypical way of thinking. I scolded her roundly and told her I did not want to hear such nonsense. My answer remains etched on my mind even sixteen years after that momentous day.” India needs her girls! Look at our skewed sex ratio. Please do not say such things.” The lady in question did not dare to say a word to me after that!
Only after my son was born,( we would have welcomed a second daughter just as happily), did the old lady who bathed both my new borns and had bathed me as a baby too, disclose that she and my grandmother had hoped that the child born after me would be a son! In fact they had just assumed it would be one and were surprised when another girl, my sister, was churned out! She was a simple, uneducated, poverty stricken lady but her thinking and my educated, rich grandmother’s thinking were completely aligned in this matter of being son centric.
And till we have laws in place where the girl and the boy share the wedding expenses equally, where the girl can economically support her parents if the need arises even after she gets married, where girls are encouraged to retain their maiden name if they so choose, till stringent laws are made to punish those that commit the heinous crime of  female foeticide, till people change their mindset, black clouds of disappointment  will continue to hover in labour rooms across India when the doctor announces:
It’s A Girl!
Stark Facts
70 districts in 16 states in India had a 50 + decline in the Child Sex Ratio.
50 million girls and women are missing from India’s population as a result of gender discrimination.
10 million female foetuses were aborted in India over the past twenty years.

Sunday, 24 August 2014

A Difficult Decision

                                          In the light of Pepsi CEO Indira Nooyi's comment that 'Women cannot have it all' and after having watched the debate on NDTV last night about men sharing responsibilities at home and women working long hours and achieving a home work 'balance', it is time to share my story. 

                                                       A Difficult Decision.
Imagine if you had decided to do something at a very young age. You had decided to do that particular thing when you were as young as nine and just in fourth grade. You have spent a large part of your school life just focused on that particular goal. Your college and university education also gears you up towards achieving your dream. And then something happens, you find yourself at a cross road, you have to take a decision where you might just have to give up your goal and set fresh targets. Your life, as a result of that decision might take a new direction altogether and you may have to cross completely uncharted territory. How? Why? Well, it happened to me and this is my story.
I have wanted to be an archaeologist for so long that I cannot even remember how and when I decided to be one. I suspect it is because of something I must have read about the subject and had been fascinated by it. Since I have been reading a lot from a very young age this is the only explanation that I can come up with. So at an age when most children cannot even spell archaeology, I had already made up my mind to be an archaeologist! My mother never ever discouraged me and tried to get me as much reading material as possible so I could completely understand what I was going to get into. My ever growing collection of history books occupied a special place on my book shelf and I was always on the lookout for more books to add to it! Here, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru’s ‘Letters From A Father To His Daughter’ and ‘Glimpses Of World History’ come to mind. I remember spending a huge chunk of saved up pocket money on these two books! In school, English was a subject that I naturally excelled at, but it was History that I was passionate about. It was History where I thought my future lay! Though that does sound like an oxymoron!
Choosing the Science stream or the Commerce stream in Junior College was never an option for me though I had the required percentage. I chose Arts because I knew that was the first stepping stone towards studying archaeology. Mumbai University offered a Bachelor Of Arts degree where you could just study the History of various periods. I was delighted to drop other subjects and focus only on studying history through the ages in many countries around the world. A post graduate degree in History from Pune University followed and finally after twelve years of having relentlessly pursued my goal, I was just a step away from it. I enrolled for a Master of Philosophy in Ancient Indian History and Culture and Archaeology. The fact that I had got married and had had a baby in the interim did not deter me in the least! I was ready to do what I had set out to do so many years ago- I was about to become an archaeologist.
The year sped smoothly by. I enjoyed delving deep into archaeological realms. As we studied the various ages, I figured out which period of history interested me specially and what I wanted to study in detail about that particular period. Yes, though I was yet to complete my M.Phil, I had already begun making big plans for a PH.D in archaeology. We, as a class, grumbled and groaned as one of our professors made it compulsory for us to study the Brahmi and the Kharoshti scripts! But secretly I was thrilled. Once we had mastered the two scripts, we could actually decipher the Ashokan Pillar Inscriptions! We handled stone tools made by early man, we studied charred remains of grains that were hundreds of years old under a microscope and we handled skulls to see how the shape had evolved over millions of years! This was hands on archaeology and this was what I had spent more than half my life waiting for!
At home, my husband, who had adjusted his work hours as per my university hours, was babysitting our daughter just so that I could inch closer to my lifelong ambition. I used to take over her care when I returned from the university and then I used to be up till all odd hours, catching up on my studies after my baby had gone to sleep! By this time I was grossly underweight because coping with full time university, research, exams and an active toddler was not an easy task. But I persevered because I had my goal firmly in sight!
Then it was time for our annual field trip which was compulsory for all archaeology students. My Head of Department was kind enough to assign a shorter trip to me considering the fact that I had a not yet two year old at home. So there I was all set to travel to a remote village in Karnataka and finally be part of an actual dig for four whole days! I was excited as I said good bye to husband and baby daughter and then my fellow students and I were on our way.
After driving for the better part of the day, we were finally at our destination. This was the time when cell phones had just been introduced in India and most of us did not own one. Not that it mattered because the roaming facility had not yet been introduced and so a mobile from the Maharashtra Circle would not work in Karnataka anyway. We had a briefing session, our work was outlined for the next day and then we were told we could walk down to the village in case we wanted to call home. I was the first off the block because by this time I had not spoken to my daughter for over twelve hours!
A classmate and I walked down to the nearest PCO booth (yes, a PCO has, in itself, become a relic today!) and she courteously told me to go first because everyone knew I had a baby at home who, by that time, must have been wondering where her mother had disappeared. Before I could walk into the booth the person manning it informed me that all the lines were down and no calls were going through. He told us to come the next day. I was absolutely crushed! I walked back to camp dejectedly and tomorrow could not come soon enough for me!
After an exciting day at the dig where we uncovered a number of artefacts, I rushed to the booth once more only to be told that the lines had not been restored yet. I had no idea whether my baby was hale and hearty, I had no clue if she was coping well without me and I could not even imagine what must be going through her mind as I had been a constant hands on factor in her life till then, except for the few hours that I was in college, four times a week. The phone lines were finally restored on the fourth day just before we left!
That night, as we sat around our camp, I looked up at the million stars that lit the sky and I mentally prepared myself to make the most difficult decision of my life. I asked myself what I was doing here, miles away from civilization, when I had a baby girl at home who depended on me. She had not asked to be born. We had chosen to give birth to her. It was not possible for me to work as an archaeologist because I knew I could not leave her for days and go on digs. I wanted to be there for her every single day, for as long as she needed me. It was time to make the most difficult decision of my life. I decided that I would not work as an archaeologist and I would not immediately pursue a doctorate. I gave up a lifelong ambition without a qualm or a second thought, without consulting anybody. Archaeology was an amazing field but it was not for me at least for the next many years!
When I finally got home and my daughter clung to me as if she would never let go, I knew I had made the right decision! I decided to appear for the SET exam to qualify as a lecturer and I managed to clear it even before I finished my M.Phil. I received my post graduate degree in archaeology but I chose to pursue a career in teaching History. I was recruited by a top Pune college and I began a brand new career where I could be with my daughter by the time she came home from school. It suited both me and her perfectly.
Even today, I wonder if the phone lines had not been down, if I had been able to get regular updates about my daughter from my husband, my mother and my father in law, would I have realized that I needed to take a tough decision?  Would I have been goaded into taking the most difficult decision of my life? Was it God’s way of telling me I had to rethink my life’s goal? I do not know. I can only say my decision felt absolutely right and I was at peace with myself once more. And I have not regretted it even once, from that day to this!

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...