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...

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...