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...!

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