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.

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