Monday, 28 December 2015

God's Christmas Angel

Sometimes I wish I could just see what's written ahead on my own blog. If only I could have seen ahead to what is my 100th post... Maybe then we could prevent such tragedies from happening? But that's not the way God meant us to lead our lives and so we have to take one day at a time...
The little girl I asked you all to pray for yesterday is no more. She has gone to her Maker. Please continue praying for her parents and her three siblings and their extended family in the United States, as they try to cope with their little girl's loss.

God's Christmas Angel
On Christmas afternoon a little girl fell down and hurt her head,
For forty eight hours she lay on a sterile hospital bed.
Inside her brain, she had bled.

God sent Kenya's best neurosurgeon to remove the clot,
For two days, for her life, everyone fought.
The world over thousands of people went down on their knees,
Beseeching the Almighty to save her life, please.

Her parents maintained a vigil round her bed,
Their hearts growing heavier than even lead.
Her brave siblings were the epitome of calm,
I desperately wished I could offer them a balm.

But God had decided he needed his Angel back,
Maybe in heaven even He felt her lack?
She was just eight, not even the much awaited ten,
But her family knows they will meet in heaven again.

The years will fly by, her siblings will grow,
But in their hearts her parents will always know,
Their bubbly eight year old is beyond all sorrow.
And they will see her in God's promised tomorrow.

I will see the little girl in her mother's beautiful smile,
My son will see her in her brother, as together they run the Mile.
I have known them for just two months, not more,
And yet my own heart is terribly sore.

I wish someone or something could help ease their pain,
Actually, I just wish their baby would come to life again...

Sunday, 27 December 2015

In A Fraction Of A Second...

Life can change, in a fraction of a second.
Your whole world can turn upside down, in a fraction of a second.
You and yours and those who hold you dear are never the same again, in a fraction of a second.
This point was brought home to us last month after our personal harrowing, horrifying experience when the river burst its bank just as we were passing by. One minute we were safely ensconced in our  luxurious car, the next minute we were wading through thigh high rising water, fraught with known and unknown dangers. But we were very thankful to God to have escaped safely with life and limb intact. It did NOT matter that the car had to be written off.
The last two days have again brought home the point of just how precious human life is. I never log on to Face Book until after dinner, when I have finished just about every task for the day. I wish people, see and 'like' a few photos and updates and log off in ten minutes. Even if I have written my blog earlier in the day, I share it directly onto Face Book without actually going there. On 25th December, I was about to go down and join my husband for our evening walk when I suddenly had the inexplicable urge to log onto Face Book right then. I followed my instincts and the first update I saw was from my son's school friend's mother who said her second youngest daughter, just eight years old, had had a bad fall in the house and was in hospital in a critical state. She was asking people to pray for her daughter. She needed surgery for a clot in the brain and was not stable enough to be operated on. I knew then why I had urgently felt the need to check Face Book and I began praying then and there...
They stay two minutes driving distance from our house. My son spent last Saturday there and his friend was to come and spend a day in this coming week with us. His mother and I had planned this when we met during the Christmas concert in school exactly two weeks before this tragic accident. The little girl was sitting in the row right in front of me, swaying happily to the music.
They are American and Christians and she teaches in the children's school. The accident happened late in the afternoon on their big day of celebration. One minute the child was playing happily, the next minute she had fallen and had to be rushed to hospital. Life changes in a fraction of a second...
I took my son to their house the next day to see if we could help in any way at all, besides praying hard and mobilising the KenIndian Mothers group from our school to pray. My son's friend was up a tree in their compound, reading a book, the oldest daughter, a ninth grader was taking care of the youngest sister who is just three years old. The parents, of course, were in hospital with their injured baby who had finally had surgery that morning. By the grace of God, Kenya's top neurosurgeon was in Nairobi and had not left town, as is the norm for long weekends here. The kids were calm and collected. The oldest daughter was the epitome of graciousness when I brought them some dinner later in the evening. It was the least I could do and I did not even expect or want a thank you. They had had a terrible twenty four hours that one would not wish on one's worst enemy, their sibling's life was hanging by a thread and they still exhibited impeccable manners. Their parents must be very proud of these wonderful kids. I certainly was...
We are praying that the brain stem shows some activity. People are praying the world over for God's Grace and that this little second grader survives. May God give her family the strength to face whatever He has planned for them in the coming days. May my son be there for his friend in this hour of their need.
I request you all to pray for them, please. It is the only thing we can all do. Life can change for any of us, in just a fraction of a second...

Friday, 18 December 2015

A Double Helping Of Divine Blessing

This morning I got an update on my Times Of India news app. Yes I have downloaded that particular app because I need to know exactly what is happening in MY country and of, course, about the important events taking place around the world. This morning's news brief said that a second miracle performed by Mother Teresa, who passed away in 1997, has been recognized by the Pope and soon sainthood will be conferred on her. India was her adopted country and she lived, served and breathed her last there.
Saints and sainthood are not new for India and Indians. The Hindu religion is absolutely filled with them and it is their devotees of that period who have elevated them to this status, after witnessing many miracles first hand. We have even happily embraced saints of other religions, having understood the basic fact that good people cannot be discriminated against on the basis of religion! The long lines of people, many of them Hindus, outside famous dargahs and churches are a mute testimony to this fact. Whatever and whoever helps you to understand life and its vagrancies and helps you live it to the fullest, teaches you to cope with its heart breaks and tragedies and helps you remain down to earth even at the pinnacle of success, is the one who is a representative of God or a saint for most people.
I, too, visited the holy city of Shirdi last July, where the shrine of a famous siant is located. It is a few hours drive from my home town Pune and every time I meet some one new from India and mention where I am from, the almost standard reply is " Oh yes, we have passed through your city on our way to Shirdi!" Since I had begun visiting the temple of that saint that we have here in Nairobi, I was determined to visit Shirdi in the last holidays and even more determined to drive there myself!
My husband was in Nairobi and he laid down the condition that even if I drove myself, I had to hire a driver to accompany me, in case something went wrong along the way. I agreed ONLY because I cannot change a flat tyre to save my life, an error I am determined to rectify when my children start learning how to drive. I have told them they must learn to change a tyre first, before getting anywhere near the wheel! My older sister in law agreed to accompany me and everything was set for our holy trip.
Since I teach at my academy during the two months that I am at home, I had a class the evening before we were supposed to leave. My car was parked right outside our gate, as I had taken it to top up the fuel tank for the next day's journey. (I say 'my' because it was a gift from my husband to me when we moved back to India from Tanzania and my children call it my 'third' child and I just need an excuse to get into it and take off!) I stepped out of the gate and as I looked up at the heavy black monsoon clouds that laced the sky, the first few fat drops were just beginning to fall. My classrooms are a four minute walking distance from my house but I did not want to risk getting wet as I was travelling the next day.To be honest, getting wet never affects me and I usually prefer to walk to class, as it helps me make the transition between home and work, but, like I said, any excuse to drive! So I slid into the car as I had my key in my hand bag and, well, took off!
As I came onto the main road where my class room is located, I spotted my Yoga teacher. She was just hopping onto her scooter, after buying something from the corner shop. I waved to her and went and parked a bit ahead of my classroom. Since we had not met since I came back to India, and we share a deep friendship and a reciprocal teacher student relationship too, she had followed me and she stopped her scooter to talk to me. Understand that if I had walked to class as I had originally planned, instead of jumping into the car at the last minute, we would have missed each other by a couple of minutes as she would have left by the time I rounded the corner on foot. Miracle no 1.
We share a deep connection on all matters spiritual too and she is responsible to a great extent for my spiritual development through the yoga class I have attended for years and so I excitedly told her about the trip I was taking the next day. She asked me if we had a 'pass' to enter the sanctum sanctorum as the next day was a Sunday and it would be even more crowded than usual. I replied in the negative and said we were leaving really early and were mentally prepared to stand in the queue for as long as it took to reach inside.
Thursdays and Sundays are the two days when the maximum number of devotees throng to this temple from all parts of India. A really busy day could see anywhere between seventy thousand to eighty thousand people in ONE day! My teacher said her husband's cousin was a Shirdi native and could organize VIP passes if told in advance but even he had warned her to avoid asking him for a Thursday/Sunday pass! She said she would call him all the same and she did, standing right there, outside my classroom. He said he would get back to her. I said goodbye and walked into my classroom to start my class. She promised to message me when she heard back from him.
Half an hour later the message on my phone said two passes for the main noon 'Aarti' (the part where the Gods are venerated at a fixed time every day) were waiting for us in the temple office, despite the short notice and for such a super busy day! Getting passes meant not only bypassing huge queues but  getting passes for the Aarti meant that we would get to spend a substantial amount of time in the main temple hall, as a Darshan (blessing/worship) pass would have allowed us just to file past the saint's statue. Miracle no 2.
5:00 am: a cool, rainy, Sunday morning. The driver reported for duty very punctually, was appalled to know he was on stand by and was being paid to NOT drive, but I gave him no choice and soon we had picked up my sister in law from her house and had hit the highway. A few short hours and a coffee and shopping break later, we were in the busy temple town of Shirdi, teaming with people, vehicles and animals. As cell phones and cameras are not allowed in the temple, we left everything with the driver in car park. That's also the reason I do not have a single picture of our trip for this post!
A short queue later we were at the pass counter and our names were checked off the list. My teacher's brother in law had really done the needful! I paid for the passes and soon had the coveted pieces of paper tucked safely inside my purse. We entered the huge temple complex and were told to go towards a particular entrance since we had passes. We could see never ending queues forming on the other side, despite the fact that it was so early in the day. That's where we would have been, had it not been for my 'accidental' meeting the previous evening!
We showed our passes to the policemen guarding that particular entrance and were allowed to enter and join a queue. (Police protection has been granted as this, being one of the most popular and richest temples in India, is under constant threat of a terrorist attack...) Yes, even with the passes there was a huge crowd of similar pass holders!
Our line inched forward, up and then down a flight of stairs, through a corridor, a packet each of 'Prasad' (blessed food) was thrust into our hands and then finally we were in neat lines that crawled forward towards the statue of the saint. I realized why the collective noun says 'a crush of people'! People from all walks of life had merged to worship together. The rich, the poor, the disillusioned, the disheartened and the blessed ones who came to offer thanks with loads of gold! We took a quick Darshan (worship and blessing), said quick prayers and then I realized that everyone was being ushered forward, towards the exit, so how and where were we supposed to wait for the noon Aarti? I showed our passes to an usher and was told we should go back quickly and join the Aarti queue and come in again as it was scheduled to start soon! Our passes were torn in half already but he just told us to explain to the person checking the passes. An 'error' had been made by people who do this job day in and day out! They had 'accidentally' misread our passes...
So we rushed out, joined a much shorter line, as very few people were privileged enough to have been granted Aarti passes and soon we were back inside the main hall! We enjoyed the divine aarti blissfully for the next twenty minutes and worshipped to our heart's content and also got two more packets of Prasad! People plan for days, travel miles, stand in queues all day and get a quick glimpse of the saint's statue before they are asked to move on. My sister in law and I, in a span of a couple of hours, had managed to entered the sacred space not once but twice! Miracle no 3!
What a lovely double helping of divine blessing! And it tastes so much sweeter when you go with no expectations at all and are just willing to accept what God chooses to dole out to you on a particular day. But then, that's true of everything in life, isn't it?

Tuesday, 24 November 2015

A Harrowing, Horrifying Experience

Last Saturday was a day that is eagerly awaited by us every year. The third Saturday of November is when the Mistletoe Market is held at school and we all look forward to it every year. (For those who want to know more about what Mistletoe Market is all about, read one of my oldest posts with that title. I tried but I'm unable to link it directly here!). My husband joined us after office and we spent more time than usual there as we had bought tickets for the School Play and it was scheduled at 4:00 pm the same evening. My daughter has put together a troupe of high school girls of Indian origin for a Bollywood dance and they have been selected for the school's talent show, to be held this week. So she and the other girls practised while we watched the play.
The rain began around half an hour before the play ended. It drummed hard on the auditorium roof, at times drowning out the voices of the actors. By the time we streamed out of the hall, it had been raining really heavily and my husband, like many other parents, had to make a dash through the rain, when it let up slightly, to get the car inside the school gate. Due to Mistletoe Market held earlier in the day, all cars had to be parked outside. I had brought the children to school in a taxi earlier that morning so we could all go home together in his car that night.
We started driving home slowly through pouring rain in really low visibility. We avoided our usual route through a slightly lonelier inner road since it was rather late (it was almost 8:00 pm) and chose instead to take a road that would be busier at that time of the night. There was a squat, box shaped car just ahead of us and the driver was driving very cautiously and also blocking our view of the road ahead. My husband was joking that this was definitely a woman driver! (Most men I know firmly believe most women don't drive well, but that is a topic for a separate post altogether!) Suddenly at a newly installed roundabout, the driver veered sharply to the right and turned abruptly away from the road we were on. We wondered for a second why and then continued for a minute further down the road we were on, realizing then that it was water logged! The cars further ahead had moved on and just as we were navigating our way through the water, it suddenly became deeper and deeper as it was rising steadily! The car stalled and the engine died out.
In the sudden silence my husband yelled at me to call AAK ( Automobile Association Of Kenya) whose membership we have paid a fortune to take for just such an eventuality, of our car/s stalling in the middle of nowhere, specially at night, in Nairobi. I could barely see the numbers posted in the car through my panic stricken eyes and even as I was fumbling with his phone, our son shouted that water had begun seeping into the car! Once again my husband yelled ( he never yells and is always the epitome of calm ) for us to get out of the car NOW. He knew water could spoil the electronic door/ window system, jamming them, and effectively trapping us in the car. We all simultaneously opened our doors and jumped out, he grabbing the umbrella he keeps on his side.Mine was in the back in my shopping bag but he did not let me stop to retrieve it. He drives a Toyota Harrier Lexus 350, so it's not a small car that would have stalled in a bit of water! Ever jumped into a roiling river directly from your car? Well, I hope you never do!
Sloshing through muddy water that was more than knee deep for us and above my son's thighs already, we crossed to the side of the road, abandoning our car in the water that was still rising. We thought of going towards Westgate Mall which was directly ahead of us. But local Kenyans who were on foot and had been caught in the sudden flash flood and were waiting on slightly higher ground with water raging all around them, shouted to us and we asuumed they were warning us not to go in that direction, as there was an open water draining canal there that we could have fallen into. Electricity wires hung periliously low overhead and my biggest fear at that point was any of them coming into contact with the water, leading to instant electrocution. So we turned around, crossed the road and moved to higher ground which happened to be pieces of dug up road! But not before I had tripped on what I suspect was a huge rock and fallen full face into the water as the ground was very uneven and we could not see where we were going at all. Which once again brings me to the importance of pledging your eyes for donation! It was awful not to be able to SEE where we were putting each foot! Imagine living like that all your life... I must have swallowed a pint of dirty water and I will know soon enough if I have contracted some water borne disease!
As we began scrambling our way over the stones, now walking away from Westgate, it continued raining but the water did not seem to be rising any further. A number of vehicles had lined up at the edge of the water and now they were making U turns to avoid the road after seeing our stranded car. Just then, my husband spotted a tow truck right at the water's edge. Now if this isn't Divine intervention, I do not know what it could be. We had never got through to Automobile Association, repeatedly getting the message that all their agents were busy. We knew that by morning we would find only the skeleton of our car, as once the rain stopped, the notorious car thieves of Nairobi would materialize out of nowhere and strip it systematically to its very bones. Even the act of walking to a safer, drier place was fraught with danger. Though I rarely harp on this in my posts, it is a well known fact that you cannot be Indian and walk safely on most of the streets of Nairobi, even in the day time. Strolling around at night is totally out of question!
So when my husband saw the God sent tow truck, he shouted for us to keep moving ahead and he plunged into the shallower water again to approach the truck, falling into a water filled channel in the process. Remember visibilty was very low and the whole road was under water though the deepest part was where we had been stranded.My daughter screamed that she refused to abandon her Dad and began giving chase across those wet and slippery stones even as my son cried out for his sister to come back! I, too, turned back and told her the children's safety was our priority and to come right back and start walking with me. By this time he had waded through the water, reached the tow truck driver and made him agree to pull out our car. We saw him getting into the tow truck and only then did my daughter consent to walk with us towards safety. Not for nothing is she a Daddy's girl!
Now for the next few minutes we were sitting ducks for an infamous Nairobi mugging. I had my purse with my expensive phone in it, more cash than I would usually have had, the ATM card as I had withdrawn money on the way to  school to shop at Mistletoe Market and hadn't gone home since and my daughter had her exhorbitantly priced lap top (it had the music for the dance they are doing) and her pricey phone.I finally reached the end of the road, kids in tow and we crossed over the remaining water via a convenient plank some one had put there. It would have taken us two minutes to drive across the now flooded road on a normal day and then we crossed a dry, higher road to knock on the closed gates of a serviced appartments complex that is there. Westgate, of the terribly tragic Mall attack fame was diagonally behind us and in full view. Paris, the city of the most recent terror attacks was on our minds as we had just watched the first week rememberance of the attacks on television. But for that day, as we entered the security guards' tiny booth, we were safe. The guards were kindness itself, standing outside with their umbrellas in the pouring rain so we could occupy their booth as we waited. They refused to come in and wait inside with us, just so we could have more space and I tipped them generously with a sopping wet currency note when we finally left! I will always be very grateful to them though I did not even ask them their names...
My husband's phone had become water logged so he could not hear a thing as I called him to tell him where we were. Instant messaging and Whats Aap saved the day, and kept me updated about his whereabouts, as even getting into an unknown tow truck is risky in Nairobi but he had had no choice. The car was out he said and we should go home. I called our trusted cab driver  and he sent a reliable person who was in the area within ten minutes! You cannot get into any random cab in Nairobi. Soon our car came to the head of the road, tied to the tow truck, and we  watched it being towed away and then we were on the way home ourselves.
By the time the three of us had showered and were warm and dry, my husband reached home, having had further adventures along the way, by way of the tow truck stalling due to going into such deep water, then running out of petrol and finally breaking down outside our compound gate! The car had to be pushed into our parking slot by our security guards.
Sunday was spent in drying all that was wet. My purse and everything in it, my son's sack with his market shopping in it and my daughter's bag, her Macbook Air and phone and my husband's wallet, belt and phone. Sadly the Mac, which seemed to have survived on Saturday night, did not start on Sunday morning and has now gone for repairs. My husband's car's engine got water logged and has been hauled away to the garage. I have a gnash on my leg as does my husband on his palm, so tetanus shots had to be taken but by and large we survived unscathed, considering how much more could have gone wrong during that nightmarish hour!
The brands that DID survive what could have been their watery grave are : Samsung phones: both the S4 and the S5, the Lenovo phone, Metro Shoes ( my sandals look better than new!) Titan watches: I was wearing the oldest watch I own, a gift given almost twenty one years ago from my then to be husband and it took a good dunking that night when I fell and Nike: the shoes that  both my husband and son were wearing!
Now for the strangest part, other than the tow truck sent by divine intervention, which gives me the goose bumps. That morning, while browsing through books in one of the stalls at Mistletoe Market, I had come across a copy of the Bhagvad Geeta, our holy book, in English. Since my copy is at home in India, I bought it immediately, thinking I could read out one verse every day to my son. The Geeta, along with the rest of my market shopping was in a bag right at the back of the car. My husband did not allow me to retrieve the two bags from the car boot as water was rising rapidly around us when we got out. No water reached that area of the car! And mind you, unlike in our sedan at home in India, it is not a different part of the car, just an extension behind the rear seats which can be accessed from both sides. So logically, when water seeped in from under our doors, it should have seeped in through the back too or at least traversed there from the front. But when our security guards got those two bags up, they were bone dry, unlike the things scattered in other parts of the car...And yes, for the skeptical among us, the slope of the road there is such that the rear of the car was slightly lower than the front of it.
Now tell me if this was a mere coincidence? (Replace this with the Holy book of your religion, if you are not a Hindu.) But do tell.

                                                              Our submerged car.
                       The road became a river beacuse I found out later this is a Riparian area
                                    We blindly sloshed through this! Who says there is no God?

(Picture credits my husband, who actually had the presence of mind to take these photos, in case they were needed for insurance purposes!) Well, they are serving my blog purposes just fine!

Saturday, 14 November 2015

Paris- Gay No More

Last night as we slept snug in bed,
In Paris there rolled many a head.
Once again, the innocents are dead...
Blasts, not cheers, greeted the goal in football,
Bullets, not applause, ripped through the concert hall.
There were bombs and gun fire,
There is angst, there is ire.

Once again, a city came under siege,
Again, a country was brought down to its knees.
The blood drenched sites have bouquets blooming,
The agonising areas have candles burning,
The television visuals have left many a stomach churning.
The French Flag at half mast is unfurling.
L'Arc De Triomphe is bowed down in sorrow,
For many in Paris there is no tomorrow.

Mickey and Minnie in France's Disneyland squeal no more,
There is an unheard of lock on Cinderella's castle door...
No children can enter for Snow White to greet,
No tourists can under Tour D' Eiffel meet...
But humanity, as usual, stands strong and tall,
As all emergency personnel urgently respond to the call.
Family, leave, sleep, forgetting all,
They report for duties, big and small.

The common man has joined ' Ouvre La Porte',
Paris has shown her people are her forte.
People have thrown open their doors,
There are strangers sleeping on their floors.
The Mumbai and the Nairobi attacks come to mind,
Where people helped each other in cash or kind.
I long for those long gone days when my knowledge of Paris,
Came through the wonderful book 'Flowers for Mrs. Harris'.

Thursday, 12 November 2015

Chocolate Chitter Chatter

I am being bombarded from all sides. It feels like there's no escape. If I open the newspaper from India, I almost drown in my own drool when I see those full page advertisements. Even when my husband turns on the television to watch the news from back home, there is no respite. The bottom corner of the screen is monopolized by the advertisement, teasing, tempting, tantalizing poor me! Honestly, the makers of these adverts need to be prosecuted and the photographers of these delicacies, that make you want to bite straight into the newspaper itself, should be locked up without even a trial! Diwali, the most important festival in India is here and India's leading brand is making a no holds barred attempt to woo the Indian consumer away from traditional, festive Indian sweets to brown, melt in your mouth bars of, what else, CHOCOLATE, of course!
Not that I need any wooing. I am a die hard fan of chocolate anyway. Give me a plain milk chocolate bar, fine make it a hazelnut bar, over any other sweet any day. I was chocolate deprived in my childhood and so now I lay the whole and sole blame for my chocolate cravings squarely on my mother! She had this weird idea that chocolate spoils teeth...( Honestly, where did she get this idea from? Maybe from Dr. Benjamin Spock, America's celebrity paediatrician-author?) I mean, what are dentists for then? She allowed my sister and me just one measly bar of chocolate each, on the first of every month. And then, nothing, not one tiny cube even, for the rest of the month! So you can imagine how much we looked forward to visitors who gifted chocolate, but sadly they were few and far in between... Most people stuck to giving us healthy, edible gifts! Call it a coincidence, but it is a fact that neither my sister nor me ever needed dental treatment throughout our childhood. So along with my own feelings of deprivation, our dentist must have felt severely deprived too!
On a more sobering note, we really were privileged to have even that one bar of chocolate. The Indian Army assigns one soldier as a helper to each officer. The helpers make sure the uniform is in ship shape, clean and polish those army boots and run errands to make the officer's (and his family's) life easier. Usually my sister and I went to buy our own chocolates but in a particular month we were busy studying for our exams and so my mother sent my father's helper to the shopping centre with money and instructions to buy two chocolate bars. Even as we waited in anticipation and could barely focus on our studies, he came back within ten minutes, empty handed! When asked by my mother why he hadn't bought them, his answer was 'Madam, each cost ten rupees,(less than one sixth of an American dollar today), they were too expensive, so I did not buy them.' We were humbled and speechless at the same time and I don't think I complained too vociferously about getting just one a month since that day.
When I got married, my husband was working for the Schwepps part of Cadbury's- Schwepps in Russia. So the Cadbury's distribution office was just one floor below his, plus he got an employee's discount whenever he bought anything. Even before I landed in Russia for the first time, he had bought every single variety they had on offer and had stocked up our fridge, turning it into a chocolate haven! Not hard to believe that I felt as if I had landed straight into chocolate heaven! And my age and metabolism in those days ensured I could pig out on the chocolates to my heart's content and never gain a kilo or bloat an extra inch. In those days, a newly liberalised India had only a couple of chocolate brands and you could count the variants on the fingers of one hand. So this sudden exposure to different varieties of chocolate, trying out world renowned brands and the freedom of starting my day with chocolate gave me a high like no other! While it did go to my head, I'm so glad it didn't go to my waist then!
Since I was brought up on the Indian Cadbury's chocolate with an occasional lesser known Amul chocolate thrown in, it remains my favourite brand to date. Nestle, with its mooing Swiss cow, launched its chocolates in India as late as when I was in high school! So, unlike my children, I don't feel naturally bonded to Nestle, the way I feel completely connected to Cadbury's. I adore people who gift us chocolates when we are in India for the holidays and we often joke that Cadbury's India sees a sudden dip in sales after we come back to Kenya because either we are buying chocolates for ourselves (we have a fantastic variety to choose from now) or someone is buying them for us! Our friendly neighbourhood grocer does see a drop in his earnings when we leave and has been known to actually say so...
The reason why I feel persecuted when I see these advertisements nowadays or when I go to the supermarket for grocery shopping and those chocolates seem to greet me around just every corner is that today, a bar of chocolate, when I have it, unlike the days of yore, goes straight to my ever hungry fat cells. Hard to believe? Listen to this story!
Last month my husband had gone on a business trip to Dar Es Salam, Tanzania. Our dear neighbours, way back from when we lived there, invited him for dinner and my friend sent a TIN of chocolates for me. Well, maybe she sent them for my kids, but I always assume all chocolates are mine alone. My daughter, who recently certified herself as a chocolate addict in her psychology class, would strongly disagree with my assumptions! Anyway I ate most of the chocolates from that tin, leaving only the ones filled with gooey orange, strawberry, raspberry syrup and the coconut ones which I cannot abide at all, for the others in the house. Then I messaged my friend to thank her for this lovely gift and confidently predicted that I would have gained half a kilo by the next day. Sure enough, the scales did show an increase of exactly 500 grams the next morning...
So now, sadly, I am back to the pattern that I was brought up with, much to my mother's delight! One and only one bar of chocolate when I go grocery shopping at the beginning of the month. And no going grocery shopping for things you don't really need that urgently, just so you can buy chocolate.It's not permitted! If people choose to gift me (us) chocolate in between, it doesn't count! Though my weighing scales will keep an accurate tally of it of course...

                                                          This magnet is on my fridge!

                                             If this was real, only those crumbs would be left!

Wednesday, 11 November 2015

Pocket Money Matters

Who doesn't like money in their pockets? Everyone loves the feel of crisp, fresh from the mint, currency notes and the cheerful jingle of a pocket full of coins! Yes, having change, (of coins), too, comes with its own particular pleasure....

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I've been selected to write for a parenting blog back home in India and my first article was published last week! If you haven't read it yet, please do so. Thanks to the more than a hundred people who did read it, sent me lovely feedback and to those who said they will start giving their kids pocket money now! A few of those who do give their kids pocket money already, did say they feel completely validated after reading this post... Tell me which side you are on!Pocket money matters

Wednesday, 28 October 2015

Women With Wings

Women in India just breached a whole new frontier. They not only broke the proverbial glass ceiling but absolutely smashed, shattered and scrunched it in the bargain. The powers that be in India, in this case read, ironically, the men, have finally decided that women will now be inducted as fighter pilots into the Indian Air Force. They will no longer serve as just arm candy for the men flying those mean machines, but will now actually fly into combat zones themselves, in those million dollar air crafts. One of the reasons that the men in command had given for many years for inducting women only in the non combative wings of the Air Force was that they shuddered at what the women's fate would be, if their planes were brought down into enemy territory. Considering the fact that our country's capital has been infamously dubbed as the rape capital of the world, I would have thought our neighbours should have had such apprehensions, not us! Turns out, unlike us, they do trust us with their women in, God forbid, such an eventuality, because we are the last people on the sub continent to strap our women into those bombers and allow them to let all hell break loose... Well, better late than never!
I like lady pilots. I trust them. A couple of years ago, a really tiny air craft brought us back from the coastal town of Mombassa. I was petrified! Then I saw that we had not one, but two lady pilots, and all my fears melted away, even as I acknowledged that we were in not just good, but great hands! Maybe this almost instinctive trust and faith has its roots in having met a girl who was training to be a pilot, well she was a mere girl then, when I was in my early teens. Here's the story of how we were fortunate enough to have met her and the role we, or rather my mother, played in her journey towards acquiring her wings!
My father was posted to the city of Guwahati in Assam, in the North Eastern part of India. He was away on a course for a few months and so it was just my mother, my sister and me, going about our daily routine. My mother was teaching in the same school that my sister and I were in. We left together each day and came back together in the Army 'Bus'. One evening my mother got a phone call that a certain gentleman was looking for a place to board his daughter as she wanted to complete a certain number of hours on a particular type of air craft, as part of her training to be a pilot. She had come all the way from Mumbai but no one was willing to offer her room and board and to take responsibility for her, as the general consensus among all the Army and Air Force wives was 'Girls have affairs', affairs being the Indian euphemism for getting physically involved with a member of the opposite sex, same sex relationships not even being euphemistically acknowledged in India! My mother's rage, when she heard this, knew no bounds and she sharply retorted that if this girl wanted to have affairs she could have done so in Mumbai itself, where she would have had a better choice than the one in our smaller corner of India! She asked those catty women to give the girl a chance before questioning and labelling her motives!
And so my mother called up the number that had been passed onto her, spoke to the girl's father who turned out to be a pilot himself with what was India's one and only domestic airline then, and arranged to go and meet him and his daughter at the airport. He offered to pay for her room and food for the one month that she would be there but my mother absolutely and firmly refused to accept a paisa and said his daughter would stay in our house in exactly the same way that her two daughters did! My sister and I helped tidy up our guest room and cleaned out the cupboard for her to keep her things and then she was dropped off at our house that very evening by the people who had put her up for a few days. We had a house guest!
Once the ice was broken, we chatted with her. We had never met a lady pilot earlier though we lived in the Air Force colony and almost all our neighbours were male pilots! Twenty six years ago women were not inducted into any of the three services in India, and being fighter pilots was a very distant dream then! Petite, with green eyes, wavy hair and impeccable manners, she was a constant source of amazement during those first few days for my sister and me because she actually flew a plane! We had never flown at that point in our lives.Indian Railways, not Indian Airlines, thrived on Army brats like us! Her father and both her brothers were pilots! Her sisters had opted out of what seemed to have become a family profession and one of them is a doctor, the other a dentist. Their mother, a very sweet lady, whom we met many years later, had the important job of keeping all these high fliers firmly grounded and she has succeeded admirably! I have never met a family that remains so humble, despite their numerous achievements.
The next morning my mother confidently gave her a spare set of house keys as we all left for school, since she was to leave for her training after we did. Imagine giving your entire set of keys to a perfect stranger! She was even given my sister's bicycle key, so she could cycle to the airport! Yes, she had to cycle so she could fly...Later when we got to know each other well, my mother admitted that she did entertain the thought while teaching in school that day, that the whole thing could be an elaborate scam and we might come home to find that the house was completely empty and we had been royally robbed by a trickster father and daughter pair! Our flying lady, in turn, confessed that she was wondering why my mother seemed so keen to house her for free and the fleeting thought had crossed her mind that my mother might be the 'Madame' of some unsavoury establishment! She had recently watched a movie on those lines, she said! Everyone's fears were soon laid to rest and we all got along famously. She became family, even rushing to get my mother's house slippers every morning and making her put them on, so that my mother would not have to stand on the cold floor as she made and packed lunch for all four of us. She even lent me her trousers and top to wear for a party I had to attend, just the way a sister or cousin would! She offered to take us for a joy ride in the little training air craft but that was the one thing that my mother firmly put her foot down about! My sister and I were really angry and sulked for ages but she did not give in... Today with two kids of my own, I understand her sentiments perfectly!
Her father was flying the Calcutta, now Kolkatta, Guwahati route and every Friday he would get fresh vegetables for us from Calcutta and she would pick them up from the airport and get them home. He also sent the most delectable Bengali sweets that came in little earthern pots and lots of 'free' airline sweets that my sister and I enjoyed to the hilt! We were enjoying having our pilot guest stay with us and these little treats, sent by her kind father, were like icing on a delicious cake!
All too soon she had flown the requisite hours and the month was up. She was slated to go to the States for the next part of her training. When she finished that, she sent word that she had applied for the job of a pilot for India's international airline! She cleared every test with flying colours and managed a record of sorts by becoming Air India's FIRST lady pilot to clear even all the medical tests, all those years ago! How proud we were of her and were so glad that my mother had done what she has always been doing, encouraged and helped a young girl to do what she really wanted to. This had allowed her to finish that part of her training well in time to apply for this coveted job and open up a new frontier for women in India, for many women are now pilots with Air India. I have often flown with them, though never with our own special lady pilot! I am sure that day will come sooner or later.

Saturday, 24 October 2015

The Taste Of An Empty Nest

A few weeks ago I was alone at home. Now this NEVER happens unless you count those fifteen odd minutes in the morning after my kids rush for the bus and the house help comes in. My husband leaves thirty whole minutes before the kids do! I sit down with my first cup of tea and the previous week end's newspapers from India and just spend those few minutes recovering from making and packing three lunches of chapati and vegetables, snacks for short break, salad to accompany the lunches, fruit to munch on in between, water bottles and a 'healthy' dessert for my son who needs a little sweet something and of course from having served all three of them a hot breakfast. No packaged cereal breakfasts for us except as a Saturday morning treat for my son and the odd Sunday morning muesli with yogurt for my daughter. If I happen to have an early morning class that I volunteer for, I rush out fifteen minutes after my children. In Kenya the house help does an eight to five job, so the chances of it just being me, all by myself, are indeed remote, as the kids come home before she leaves!
That day I happened to be on my ownsome lonesome as my son had gone for a birthday party straight from school, my daughter called up to say she would finish a biology lab after school and I could pick her up when we picked up our son, and my husband was still in office. The house help left at her usual time. I had no classes scheduled on line that day and so, suddenly, incredibly, I was alone at home, minus even the company of my students in my virtual class room!
The house was silent. There was no pre teen to say 'I'm still hungry', even after gorging on the hot snack I make for them after school, each day. No girlish, 'I'm almost an adult' voice asking her brother to get out of her room. Since we are in the middle of applying for colleges for our daughter and mentally preparing for her departure in a few months time, I was struck by the fact that this is how our house would be like when, in a few years time, our son left for college too, unless, of course, we move back to our home town and he joins a college right there!
Just a couple of days earlier I had received one of those Whats Aap forwards which had a story about how the wife does absolutely nothing at home, or so the husband thinks, till he realizes how busy she is, from morning till night, and then takes back his words! It talked about doing dishes, laundry, cooking, ensuring utility bills are paid on time, buying groceries and vegetables, fetching the kids from school, helping with home work, scheduling their activities and doctor and dentist appointments and of course, play dates.
Since Indians seem to have suddenly become the most active people on What's Aap in the world, I was struck by how incongruous this particular post was, even in the context of the lower middle class and middle middle class in India. We have plenty of house help, unlike our counter parts in the States, Europe and Australia and we do not have to be super rich to be able to afford it. When was the last time an average Indian woman washed dishes or clothes unless it was her job or she lives in the slums or she was just cutting corners for a financial reason?  Most of us have wisened up to the fact that our house help in India takes a holiday without any prior intimation whatsoever and so many of us have not one, but at least three different women coming in for different chores. So if one doesn't turn up you just tell the other one to do what urgently needs to be done! The favour is reciprocated by the absent lady when the one that did her job that day takes an unexpected off! The laundry fellow, the 'Dhobi', comes in to pick up the clothes for ironing and delivers them back to you all neat and crisp. All taxes and bills are now paid on line or are directly debited from your burgeoning bank account, unlike just ten years ago when we had to stand in long queues many times a month for different utility providers. Our groceries and veggies, yes, even organic ones, are delivered straight home after being ordered on line, often at a price lesser than you would have paid, had you gone shopping yourself. The spices and pickles our grandmothers spent hours pounding and making are now bought straight off the shelf. The Diwali snacks, both sweet and savoury, have gone much the same way!
 If you are fortunate enough to have a garden, you never have to get your hands dirty. What's the gardener for? Little boys come in at an unearthly hour every morning to wash your car or cars for a pittance. Sorry, just how does one wash a car? Ask the Americans because the Indians just don't know!
The cook comes in before your children leave for school in case you want to send a packed lunch with them . You want them to have a hot lunch in school? Not a problem. The cook will finish cooking thirty minutes before the lunch break and the driver will deliver the lunch for those little darlings, hot on the dot, the minute the bell for lunch goes. Or like me, if you prefer to cook yourself, the house help will have the vegetables perfectly chopped, the rice and lentils washed and soaked and the dough ready for chapatis, just the way you like it....
Most (not all) mothers I know have outsourced home work guidance for their kids from as early as first grade! As they grow older, whole subjects are outsourced and tutors even make the kids learn each answer and then ask them. I remember doing this with my mother throughout my school life, even as she made dinner from scratch in our kitchen or washed the utensils, in case our one and only house help hadn't turned up!
All of the above is fine because we are generating employment after all by giving all the people mentioned above a ton of work. So what do you do with yourself other than being on Whats Aap and Face Book and shopping for clothes you don't really need? Before long your kids will move out and you won't have so many people to supervise once you have an empty nest. So if your kids are already in school for a good number of hours, I suggest get moving now. Find something that you like to do and like many of my mother's protegees, see if you can set about making it generate a little extra income for you. It could be stitching, knitting or embroidery. There is always a market for these rapidly disappearing skills. Who wouldn't want to gift a new born baby a hand made, soft, woollen sweater instead of an itchy, machine made one? Or a hand embroidered pastel cotton baby sheet? Your forte could even be selling hand made art and craft, jewellery or ethnic, eco friendly bags and purses at less than retail prices! Look for your niche and slide in!
Have a talent for teaching? Lots of kids needs extra help that mothers, specially if they work full time, are unable to provide. Brush up on your qualifications and start your own classes. Very skilled in the kitchen? Lots of mothers like to buy home made snacks for their kids preferring them to packaged, preservative laden ones. So what if they are made in someone else's home! Remember all those multiple Whats Aap groups you belong to? Now is the time to advertise your skills or your little businesses there! Want to study further? No time like the present. Kids find it very exciting to study along side mothers who are studying for exams and love to reprimand them for not being focused or for not getting good marks! Love to paint or click pictures? See how you can enhance these skills or see how you can train others in them. Great with computers and websites? Tell others you are willing to train them for a small fee!
Don't really need the extra cash? Fine. There are lots of social organizations there who are looking for volunteers in multiple fields. Giving the gift of your time and skills is really the best gift you can give to the less blessed in our society. They need people skilled in accounting, computers, teaching, supervising and organizing. A whole world exists out there that is trying to make a difference and they are just waiting for you to pitch in with whatever you have, in which ever way you can!
A Sunday Times Of India article I read just after I had tasted my empty nest (for just a couple of hours), talked about the Empty Nest Syndrome and how it is hitting mothers of Indian students who leave for colleges outside India, usually for their masters degree. It talked about the fact that Indian mothers are so bound up in their kids that they are going into depression the minute the children leave. Well don't say I didn't warn you and get moving right now if you can! Children don't stay dependant forever...
As a friend of mine in Dar Es Salaam, whose older son had just left for college then and the younger one would soon follow suit, very succinctly put it , 'How long will I go on cleaning cupboards?' She joined an accounting and a computer course to prepare for her soon to be empty nest!
And for those mothers who are putting in twelve to fourteen hours a day outside the home and have kids who are still in the nest, I would say the same, 'Think, you will have an empty nest before you know it!' Funny how the Empty Nest Warning can have two entirely different connotations...
After all, as the Father in the award winning movie 'Cheaper By The Dozen' says ' Whatever you may achieve in life will amount to nothing if you have messed up raising your kids!' I couldn't agree more!
So make them your first priority without doubt, but put carving out your own identity somewhere on that never ending 'to do' list too!

Sunday, 27 September 2015

Murder She Wrote...

I have been feeling deeply satisfied as I have watched my son this past week. He has finally succeeded in doing something that he had been trying to do for the last two years. He is now immersed in an Agatha Christie book! He is in 6th grade and is eleven years old. That's how old I  was when I read my first Christie book in Guwahati, Assam but surrounded by voracious readers in the house and knowing the fact that she is one of my favourite authors, he tried early but could not proceed beyond the first few pages. He has finished all the Harry Potter books and the entire Percy Jackson series before he turned ten, though! I guess Rowling is an easier read than Christie! But he is half way through the book already during this attempt and a few days ago, when I went to turn off his room light at bed time, he said," Mom, please. Just five minutes more, the murder has just happened." I knew right then and there that Dame Agatha had got her claws in him and I felt totally content! I actually smirked, so pleased was I!
And then, last Friday I opened last Sunday's Times Of India. It is delivered to us every Tuesday as it comes from Mumbai, India, but I got around to it only then, such is my schedule these days...My on line students have all but taken over my life and the kids and my husband claim the remaining bits. A chunk of this goes in telling my son to START studying and my daughter to STOP studying and go to bed! # IndianMothersAreNeverSatisfied! Believe me, I am one of them and I deal with scores more in my classrooms, both concrete and virtual! But who's complaining? I'm savouring this phase in my life to the hilt!
But I am digressing from the core topic of the day! I read in the paper that Agatha Christie just had what would have been her 125th birthday, on 15th September 2015. My son had borrowed his book from the school library but I , of course, have almost all the sixty six murder mysteries and some of the short story collections that she wrote in her life time, lining my book shelf back home in Pune. I also have most of the books that she wrote under the pseudonym Mary Westmacott and these are rather autobiographical in nature. This fact comes to light when one reads Christie's autobiography, titled just that! I remember I had bought that particular book just before my then four year old daughter and I embarked on our journey to Dar Es Salaam, where my husband was based. I like to have a thick book in hand while travelling. Then the many waits and the delays that are inevitable during a journey cease to affect me because I am too busy reading!
On this occasion, when we reached Dar, my immediate neighbour kindly offered to send lunch so I could recoup after a night of travelling with a young child. I eagerly and gratefully accepted, not because I was too tired to cook, but because it meant uninterrupted Christie Autobiography time! I spent the rest of the day immersed in her life of more than a hundred years ago and finally finished it by evening! The delicious lunch my neighbour sent us went well with the book!
Agatha was born to a British mother and an American father. Was that the reason, I wondered, that the American school library has so many of her books? They certainly don't seem to patronize other British authors! Or is it because she is in the Guinness Book Of World Records as the world's best selling author? Her works are at number three in the most widely published books list, coming in behind only the Bible and William Shakespeare. She is also the author of the longest running play ever, the Mousetrap.
Two years ago the High School Drama group had performed one of her plays in the children's school. It was the first time I had ever seen a Christie play being performed. This one was based on her book 'An Appointment With Death' and I was enthralled. Agatha was clever to tweak the endings of the plays that were based on her books so that her fans had to go out and watch the play even if they had read the book because the murderer was a different person altogether! The drama sets transported us to Petra near Jordan and we rapidly forgot that it was school children that we were watching, as they enacted and brought to life Christie's well fleshed out characters. I wanted to write about her and the play then, hard core fan that I am. I wrote it out in my head but never got around to putting it into cyber space. I am doing it now, two years after the play , triggered by the book in my son's hand and the article in the paper! May be, deep down, I believed it would be terrible presumptuous of me to write about this widely acclaimed, record breaking author who was made a Dame of the British Empire in 1971.
I have lovely memories of staying up till 4:00 am in the school holidays, reading a new Christie book, simply because I could not bear to sleep till I found out 'who done it'! I have memories of buying her books at railway stations scattered across the length and breadth of India from A.H Wheeler book stalls! The Times Of India article says these book stalls still sell her books!  Like a plane journey, what's a train journey without a good book in your hand?
Her books take us back to a long forgotten era of trains that ran on time, (4:50 from Paddington), of elderly women shopping at the Army And Navy Stores in London and gardening on their knees in well laid out gardens, all the while keeping a sharp watch on the neighbourhood,(Miss.Jane Marple), of lavishly served ten course meals,( Dead Man's Folly), Of Christmas being celebrated the old fashioned way,(Adventure Of A Christmas Pudding), and an era when affairs and pregnancies were very discreetly hinted at , unlike the throw everything in your face attitude, seen today.
Hercule Poirot, her most famous Belgian detective is treated as a 'foreigner' in old fashioned England and keeps lapsing into French! This was influenced, perhaps, by Agatha having to leave her childhood home at a young age and travel and live in France with her parents. Her father's income from America had drastically reduced and so it made financial sense for them to lease out their sea side home and stay in France, Staying on the continent then , it is apparent, was cheaper than living in England! Her au pair was a French girl and little Agatha soon became as proficient in French as she was in English.
During the First World War she did her bit for her country by working in the hospital pharmacy and this was when her quick brain absorbed all that knowledge about poisons and chemicals that years later would spew out onto the pages of her books! Agatha Miller, for that was her maiden name, says in her autobiography that she almost ended up marrying the son of close family friends but at the last minute was swept off her feet by dashing Archibald, 'Archie' Christie, whose surname she would later make so famous and who would be the father of her only offspring, her daughter, Rosalind.
Here is an extract from her autobiography where she meets her husband in an attempt to reconcile with him, after he has left her. It is followed by my own take on it, as part of a Creative Writing project I did for a diploma, a couple of years ago.
 "Archie and I met by appointment. He looked ill and tired. We talked of ordinary things and the people we knew. Then I asked him what he felt now; whether he was quite sure that he could not come back to live with Rosalind and me. I said once again that he knew how fond of him she was and how puzzled she had been over his absence."
By the time her husband decided to leave her for another woman, Agatha had already published a few mysteries. Here she indicates her willingness to take her husband back mostly for the sake of her daughter but Archie Christie was too besotted by the other woman to take heed of Agatha’s words. So Agatha began living the life of a single mother and soon began to become more and more successful! I often wonder if Archie would have left her had he known how wildly popular Agatha Christie would become and how much financial success she would enjoy! Agatha Miller, being married, wrote under the name of Agatha Christie as was the norm in those days, but the man who gave her his name, by his own early wrong choice, would never enjoy the fruits of her labour! She, to me, proves you do not need a man’s blessings to succeed in life!
Agatha did  remarry a few years later. Her second husband Max Mallowan, like me, was an archaeologist and many of her subsequent books were based in archaeological excavation sites and around middle eastern towns most of which, unfortunately, today, are in the throes of violent civil war. As a school girl, my already deep interest in this field was further fuelled by all I read in her books! 
This "Grande Dame" of murder died the year I was born and I am so glad I can say I walked or rather crawled, on Earth at the same time as her for a few months at least!
And the book that got my son Addicted to Agatha? 'The Murder At The Vicarge', one of my personal favourites. Well, actually, I just love them all!

                                                (source visual via The Times Of India)

Monday, 14 September 2015

An Elephant In The Backyard And Other Tiny Tales From Aundh

The trip had been long in coming.We had taken the children there once nine years ago but the museum was undergoing extensive expansion and renovation so it was shut then. Besides, the children had been only eight and two years old so they did not really have any memories. And it was very important for me to take them to see the sleepy little hamlet of Aundh, where a part of their roots lay entrenched. I wanted them to see first hand and understand the legacy left by their great great grandfather, the erstwhile ruler of Aundh, in Satara district, one fifty odd kilometres from our home town, Pune, India.
The children have lived abroad for a large portion of their lives. They are true global citizens, fitting perfectly where you place them, like a well done jig saw puzzle. But I also wanted them to see for themselves the place where one part of their very existence began. I mentioned this to one of my mother's maternal uncles and his son, asking them to let me know if they were planning a trip while I was in India, so I could tail them in my car. To my delight, they were planning a trip soon and after juggling around my tight schedule and my daughter's even tighter one, we managed to free ourselves for a day, as did my grand uncle's family and we were off!
It was a lovely drive, interspersed by rainy squalls, cloudy skies and a cool breeze. We sped down the highway with just a short halt for breakfast and soon found ourselves turning off the main road onto a narrow country road. Here, the trees had grown so high on both sides of the road that the branches had actually merged above the road, forming a verdant, cool canopy. I wondered how long it would be before local politicians took it into their heads to widen this road (to make an extra buck or rather, many extra bucks) and then these glorious trees would be mercilessly chopped down.
A last hilly stretch and we were at our destination, ready to explore and more than ready to let the kids soak in a part of their heritage, visually, aurally and physically. Our first halt was the huge house where my maternal grandmother had grown up. We were truly blessed to have my mother's maternal uncle with us that day as this was the house he had been born in, lived in, grown up in, and who better than him to explain to us the nitty gritties of their life then and to relate long forgotten tales?
The one thing I truly envy my mother are her maternal uncles and I always tell her so! She had six of them, three are no more but each one is/was a gem and we have really fond memories, even as we continue to further strengthen our bonds with them and their families. They actually care about us, though their sister, my maternal grandmother, passed away more than seventeen years ago... Their love and concern for us is tangible. A rarity these days for sure!
The lady who is the current occupant of the house, as per inheritance laws, has built herself a plush bungalow behind the heritage structure, leaving us free to walk into 'my grandmother's house' as we still think of it. An open courtyard, as was the style in those days, greets us and has life size marble statues, one of them being my great, great grand mother's! The children are thrilled to explore the hundred year old structure, though some of it is crumbling and a large part of it has been struck by lightning.
My grand uncle points to a wooden staircase going up to his parents bed room on the third floor. Now the entire structure is too unstable to venture climbing up those steps. He names the various 'halls' that they had. 'Ajanta Hall' is named so because it had replicas of paintings found in the Ajanta caves. My great grandfather had actually camped out at Ajanta with his retinue and did the preliminary sketches there itself, before coming back home to complete the paintings. Next comes 'Ram Hall' as it has paintings from the Ramayana, our famous epic, all painted by my great grandfather, an artiste par excellence in his own right. Those genes speak to me today through my daughter who says, 'Painting makes me happy.'
We move on through the house and come out of the back door. Grand uncle points to our left and says this was where the marble sculptures workshop used to be. His father had trained skilled stone masons to become sculptors, so enamoured was he by the breathtaking statues he had seen when he had visited Europe. He even had an artist in residence and his studio was right next to the marble workshop, though neither structure exists any more. Then, he continues, was the cattle shed, where all the twelve kids used to line up for a glass of fresh milk every morning, straight from the cow! The remaining milk used to be carted off to the kitchen where his mother, the Ranisahiba, aided by the kitchen staff, would immerse herself in creating the most delectable of 'barfis'(Indian sweet meats). Wow, I could almost taste them then and there! And all because her husband liked fresh barfi. Royal indulgences! But he also worked it off by performing a 108 Sun Salutations every single day. The proof lies on one of the tiles in the room where he did these. The tile has worn away and has a slight dip where his forehead used to rest during a particular pose in each salutation or 'namaskar'.
We wander out into the vast grounds and stumble onto a pathetic, shackled elephant in the backyard. No Indian Royal would be caught without an elephant in the India of yore but today we wonder why this poor creature still remains. I recall the story of one of my mother's uncles crawling towards the elephant they had then and even as his horrified care giver followed rapidly, the child reached the elephant. Instead of crushing the child underfoot, the elephant calmly lifted each huge foot in turn so that the baby could crawl on unabated! Another elephant tale was that my own maternal grandfather sat on the royal elephant which then brought him to the temple where the marriage between him and my grandmother was solemnized. It was one of his favourite wedding memories... Later my mother's eldest sister, as a two year old, visited her grandparents and refused to go home without the elephant! Her artist grandfather, on being told the reason for the tantrum , rapidly sketched her an elephant and she happily went home clutching the drawing! And now we were looking at the last of the family elephants and my daughter had tears in her eyes as she witnessed this atrocity of chaining an animal. We silently apologized to it.
As we re entered through the back door, grand uncle looked up and said there used to be lizards around this light and we boys used to try to whack them with cricket bats as we came home at sunset, after a game of cricket in the field behind the house. It underlined the fact that royal or not, today or seventy odd years ago, boys will be boys. He then asked the kids to count the tiles in the smaller, inner courtyard. Eight eights are sixty four! Yes, it was a huge chess board and great grand dad and his chess partner would sit in the balconey above and house help would move huge chessmen on the board down below as per their commands. That's called not lifting a royal finger!
We finally walk out of the house and I wonder what the experience must have been like for grand uncle. In his mind's eye did he still see his parents there, his siblings and his friends? It must be painful to re visit a pale shadow of your once vibrant childhood home...We then walk in into the huge temple that adjourns the house. The government runs a play school in the temple yard and the clamour of little kids spells out clearly that life goes on, though the original inhabitants of these environs are almost all gone. The huge temple hall is dominated by large glass chandeliers and the walls are lined with great grand father's paintings, depicting stories from our great epics. This was the hall where my grand parents got married, where, grand uncle says they all, as children, played on rainy days. He points to mismatched floor tiles and says they were replaced more than seventy five years ago during a great flood when water got into the temple foundations and uprooted the original tiles. Small vignettes that only original inhabitants can recollect!
We seek blessings from the temple Goddess and move out into the main courtyard. Grand uncle takes a last look at 'his' house and points to the first floor. He tells us he toppled down from there while flying a paper aeroplane as a mere four year old! Then they raised the level of the balconey iron grill to prevent further mishaps! He escaped unscathed and lives to tell the tale and it is these fleeting memories that warm the cockles of one's heart.
We drive up to the main temple perched upon a hillock with a bird's eye view for miles around. As family we are given special permission to enter the 'sanctum sanctorum' of the much venerated Deity and we feel divinely blessed. A few steps down the hill is the family tree, etched on a block of marble. I am thrilled to find my grandmother's name there. It's the clarion call of the roots!
At the bottom of the hill is the famous museum. Imagine this small village housing so many precious artifacts and art work from different periods, all thanks to my great grand father's extraordinary vision, artistic talent, fondness for buying and collecting antiques and curiosities. He built it in 1936 at a cost of Rs.70,000 which is slightly more than a thousand American dollars today. It was an astronomical sum in pre British India. He wanted to house the collection that he had acquired mainly during his European tour, his own art work and the art work that he had commissioned other artists to do and this was some thing he was absolutely passionate about!
We wandered, wide eyed, around the museum, dazzled by the paintings, sculptures and great grand mother's exquisite embroidery. It's clear why I adore embroidery myself and am able to flawlessly execute complex patterns. Genes show up, some day, some where, some how! My mother's cousin had arranged for the Curator of all the museums in the district to meet us there. So after a finger licking lunch from one of the local households, we finally entered the 'Strong Room' where the most precious items from the collection are securely displayed.
Sadly, ivory wasn't banned in those days so we see a lot of carved ivory. There are delightful cameos of my grandmother and her five sisters, gold coins which are a few centuries old and ornately carved gigantic silver platters. An unusual item is a pretty, bottle green poison pot with a matching tumbler. The King's food was first placed here. If it changed colour, it was obvious it had poison in it! Court intrigues were common in India and those in power had to take steps to safe guard themselves. Another attraction is what is purported to be Mughal Emperor Jehangir's walking stick. Made of gold, encrusted with deep red rubies, it evokes medieval Indian history at a glance!
I covet a chess board with silver chessmen. But every thing now belongs to the Government of India and not to the family. Even if it did, my aunt helpfully points out, there are far too many claimants! True, so I leave 'my' chessboard behind! Then a lovely Ganesha, our elephant headed God, carved from a humongous ruby catches my eye and I marvel at its detailed features. 'Mother and Child' carved by the famous British sculptor Henry Moore dominates the room and is worth millions of pounds today. Great Grandfather acquired it for just a few pounds!
As we exit this room full of precious antiques that are worth a fortune today, a huge, pure white marble 'chowranga' , ( a squat, flat, four legged table) in the corridor catches my eye. Grand uncle notices me staring at it and quips, 'That was in Ajanta Hall. My mother's marble bust used to stand on it. That is in my younger brother's house now.' I wonder aloud why he didn't carry away this grand piece too!
The sight of that massive 'chowranga', sitting forlornly in that dusty corner, poignantly brings home to me like nothing else did, that we had just spent the last few hours exploring a bygone era. Time had never stopped, India's royals had ceased to exist at the stroke of midnight, on 15th August 1947, when we awoke to life and freedom and all that remained were memories, of people, of places and of things. It was time for us to move on too. We had a long drive back home.

                                          A lovely day for a drive!
                                          Temple chandeliers!
                                          Courtyard of marble statues.
                                           An elephant in the backyard.
                                         The temple adjoins the more than a 100 years old house.
                                           The family tree in Devnagari script
The Grand Patriarch- from my maternal side.

                                                                     Aundh Museum
                                          Temple Hall where my grandparents tied the knot
Temple on the hillock

Thanks to my Dad for sharing the last three pictures with me so I could use them here! He was the 'Royal' Photographer of the day!

Thursday, 10 September 2015

Oh Africa !

This particular poem was not written this morning but thirteen long years ago on my first visit to Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania. It is my first piece of writing on African soil and all I had written till then was a few stories in third and fourth grade in school, school and junior college essays and my M.Phil thesis, which was more factual than creative ! I wrote this when I had been in Africa for a mere three weeks but then, there certainly IS something about this land that compels you to write. Just ask Ernest Hemingway and the countless authors who have produced best sellers after having visited or lived in this vast continent. I had a little four year old daughter playing by my side when I penned this and my son wasn't even thought of !
This year we have completed ten whole years of living in Africa (we had a three year stint in India in between, hence it has been thirteen years since I first put foot on this continent) and so I am sharing the poem as a tribute to this land which has been so kind to us. I am reproducing it from memory as my original copy is locked up in my cupboard at home in Pune. I hope I've got it right! Today, in the cool, crisp Nairobi air, my sentiments remain the same as they were on a hot, muggy morning in Dar so long ago...

 Oh Africa !

Oh Africa, you are beautiful,
Warm, wild and wonderful,
Untamed, dark and bountiful!
Land of forests, mountains ,deserts, plains, valleys too,
Whatever God created, He gifted you!

Here came David Livingstone,
Changing the African equation.
It must have been, I presume, quite a sight,
When, for the first time, Black met White.
Then began colonial rule,
And African children started school.

Land of snakes and of great lakes,
Land of the Nile and of the crocodile.
Land where the Masai their cattle herd,
Land of lion and of leopard.
Your wild life you have preserved,
The evidence lies in your game reserves.

Land of the Pyramids and of Kilimanjaro,
Today your cup is full of sorrow.
Poverty, corruption, HIV and malaria abound,
Where, once, Louis Leakey hand axes found!

Land of diamonds and the Tanzanite,
Awake, arise, fight with all your might.
Use the resources which to you do belong,
And, one day, other nations to you for aid will throng!

*Dr.David Livingstone was a pioneer European explorer who came to Africa.
**Dr.Louis Leakey was a famous archaeologist who did extensive excavation work in East Africa. Hand axes are stone tools made by early humans.

Wednesday, 2 September 2015

A Vegetarian's Guide To Survival In A Non Vegetarian World...

A couple of weeks ago we had 'Open House' at school. For the uninitiated and for those who may not have read my post about it a few years ago, it is a day when teachers and parents mingle in school over tea, coffee and snacks, and then we follow a mini version of our children's daily schedule. The teachers in each class talk about the syllabus, their rules and expectations and yes, Indian/ Indian origin parents are forbidden from asking 'How is my child doing?' !! ( Translation : Will he/she be the next Satya Nadella/ Sundar Pichai/ Indira Nooyi. Please understand it's an American school so we Indians are willing to give references they would comprehend immediately!) Jokes apart, Open House takes place when school has been going on for less than ten days!
This Open House had one major change! The number of Indian/Kenindian parents has gone up in the last few years and the number of vegetarians has dramatically increased. The school seems to have taken cognisance of this and we actually had 'pure' vegetarian snacks laid out for us on pretty platters! I remember many a day when the only thing I could pick from the whole array was a sorry looking cookie which probably had egg in it...Times had changed and how!
Times change but Indians don't! Even as I stood in queue for the veg samosas each 'pure' vegetarian was frantically confirming from the other. "Are you sure it's veg?' 'What is in it?' "Potatoes, peas, carrots?' 'Are you SURE?' 'Double check!' Most of us neatly dissected the Samosa the minute we plopped it onto our plates. The biology teacher would have been proud of us! We trawled through the stuffing the way those foraging for gold in rivers sift through silt. Once we were completely satisfied that there was 'nothing' in it, did it find its way into our mouths, 'nothing' being a euphemism among vegetarian Indians for chicken, fish, meat and often eggs too.
And so I thought this was a good time to put into writing a guide that has been bubbling through my mind for many years, especially as many vegetarian Indian students are leaving home and hearth for the first time to go and study abroad, notwithstanding the fact that the Indian Rupee stands at an all time high with respect to the American dollar. I know I am laying my head on my non vegetarian friends' well scrubbed chopping boards but so be it! This survival guide is based on lessons learnt during the thirteen years that I have lived outside India, out of my twenty vegetarian ones. Yes, I know I just opened up a can of worms right there but I will not elaborate on that here!

1. The Samosa and/or the Spring Roll. The Samosa, a deliciously sinful creation of carbohydrates stuffed in fried refined flour dough, is available on every street corner in India and can be eaten there without undergoing the ritual I described earlier. However the world outside India has come up with their own non vegetarian version which has chicken/meat and may be fish at times. So you will say you will order a vegetarian one and be done with it! No! Hotel freezers are chaotic places and the two versions often get badly mixed up because they look exactly the same from outside! This happened to me on a pristine beach in a popular resort in Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania. But cautious me had broken it into two first, only to find that it was the meat version! Back it went where it had come from and I refused to accept a replacement because obviously their veggie and meat ones were jostling next to each other somewhere in their kitchen!
Ditto for spring rolls! These Chinese creations, now comfortable in their spicy Indian Avtaar, come in the chicken variant too and get mixed up with the veg version. It happened to me during a late, lazy Sunday lunch in a tranquil garden restaurant in Nairobi, Kenya. But clever me had cut it into two first to check and sure enough slivers of chicken flesh burst onto my plate in all their stringy glory...I did not go back to that particular restaurant for the next two years!
 Moral: Chop and examine thoroughly before consumption!

2. Pizza. That tempting creation of the Italians now trademarked by the Americans! Pizza Hut came to India and the eating out part of life, as we knew it, was never the same again! Indianized Pizzas with spice and all that's nice soon began rolling out of those customised ovens and every kid wanted a birthday party in a Pizza Hut outlet. We took our four year old daughter to one such brand new place for her first 'not made at home' pizza and ordered one choc full of veggies. The one that landed up at our table turned out to be choc full of chicken instead! The lady in Pune, India, had messed up our order! I was VERY suspicious when I looked at it  but still took a tentative bite against my instincts, only to spit out the tiny morsel. My poor daughter was so traumatised that she did not eat pizza, unless it was home made, for the next four years! Had this happened in the United States, I've been told, we could have sued them for sure!
Moral: Dissect your pizza too. Yes, even lift the puddle of melted cheese and see if anything that was once living, is lurking beneath!

3.Burger. Mcdonald's outlets in India are, by and large, quite careful and other than Indianizing the menu to sooth our hot and fiery palates, also have a green dot on the box to indicate vegetarian items. But once you step out of India, you better watch out! On a crisp,cold summer morning nineteen years ago, my husband and I set out to visit the Tzar's Summer Palace. We decided to have breakfast in a Mcdonald's outlet and poor, ignorant me, ordered a cheeseburger. The sight of the warm, brown burger bun stoked my appetite and young, hungry me took a giant bite! The next moment all hell broke loose in St.Petersburg, Russia as it turned out there was a meat cutlet in a CHEESE burger and I spat it out as fast and as thoroughly as I could, without caring a fig for my table manners!
Moral: Lift the top portion of the bun, scrutinise the innards with a magnifying glass, replace the top, consume if satisfied.

4.Ice cream, jellies, custard and cheese. If we have lived in India all our lives we assume ice cream is vegetarian as are jelly and cheese. Sadly, outside India one has to look for ice cream which says suitable for vegetarians which means no animal fat has been used by that particular brand to make it creamy. It's the same case with cheese so look for ones that are made without animal rennet and be sure to ask your pizza/burger place which cheese they use, if you, like me, are extremely particular about what you pop in into your mouth. Vegetarian jelly crystals and custard powder are not always available and most imported brands use gelatin derived from animal sources. So I simply pack a few packets of various flavours and get them with me.They are available at your neighbourhood grocer in India! And yes, don't give your kids gummy bears or other sweets that contain gelatin.

5. Miscellaneous: Oil! Oil that has been used to fry non veg food items imparts a fishy odour to the veg items that might have been fried in it later. So make it clear to who ever is in charge to use fresh oil to fry your food! It happened to me at an Indian "acquaintance's" house in Dar Es Salaam. No, my friends would never make such an error! I forced down that tiny veg cutlet with great difficulty and said NO to seconds!
Pasta sauce: It looks like tomato sauce but often has a meat base! So call for the chef and ask if you are eating at a buffet table. Don't assume it is vegetarian because it 'looks' vegetarian!
If you are a vegetarian and are invited to someone's home for a meal, please specify before hand what you DON'T eat! It's not rude. It's even worse to say no after they have taken the trouble of cooking for you! It happened to me in Nairobi where two of the three dishes had egg as the main ingredient and I landed up eating only the boiled squash! I had assumed they knew I did not eat eggs, unless invisible in a cake!
Beware of dimly lit 'romantic' restaurants! A pricey Indian one in Nairobi nearly turned out to be my undoing as they served us chicken tikka in a gravy instead of the paneer (cottage cheese)  tikka we had ordered. Only my paranoia of being served non veg saved me as I asked for another candle to examine the dish before I served the kids! And sure enough I had to return the item!
Once in a foreign land, specify what vegetarian means! Spell it out by saying no chicken, no meat of ANY kind, no fish and no eggs, if applicable to you. Soup from which those floating chicken pieces have been removed, is not classified as vegetarian. Nor is rice from which the meat has been picked out. So open your mouth and ask/ tell, else who knows what you might unwittingly put in! There are no helpful green for vegetarian /red for not dots made compulsory by the Indian government for all packaged food items, once you leave your native shore. So use your brain, if in doubt just refrain!

Disclaimer: This is not intended to hurt any sentiments but is a genuine attempt to help fellow vegetarians, specially the students with their brand new passports and matching Louis Vuitton luggage, as colleges reopen the world over! So my non vegetarian readers, do take this with a spoon of salty vegetables!

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