Tuesday, 27 December 2016

Last Christmas (Eve) She Gave Them Her Heart....

And the very next day God took her away....
Today marks one whole year since my son's friend lost his then eight year old sister. When we attended the memorial service held here in Nairobi in our school auditorium, before the family left for the funeral in the United States, I was stunned to see how much had been accomplished by their close friends and the Church family, in less than forty eight hours after the beloved child had gone to God.
A collage of beautiful photographs greeted us at the entrance to the auditorium. Pictures of the adorable little girl with her parents, with each sibling and with extended family made it seem so hard to believe she was gone. So lifelike were the pictures that I felt she would pop out of the photos and start bouncing around on an auditorium seat in a minute, which was where I had seen her last, just two and a half weeks earlier, at the school Christmas concert.
Her father had put together a lovely video of shots from her short life of eight years. It truly was a labour of love and did not leave a dry eye in the jam packed auditorium. Her former teacher and family friends shared some anecdotes about her, a couple of which will remain with me forever.
We live within a stone's throw from their house and our houses are very close to the UNHCR- United Nations High Commissioner For Refugees. This means there are always long lines of refugees queueing up outside the office, near the road we all use. I had often spotted a lady with a baby and a toddler on the road that connects two sides of the highway, across the road from UNHCR, that our houses are close to. It's a tricky, steep curve to negotiate and my first thought always was " I hope she keeps a tight hold on that toddler. The last thing we need in this country is to get involved in an accident." And the next thoughts were, " Why do they continue having kids when they don't even have a shelter over their heads and there's no food in their bellies?"
The little girl too spotted this family on her way to and fro from school with her Mom and siblings. And while my thoughts were selfish and irritable ones, hers were far more noble. She asked her mother to pack food for this family, so she could give it to them before Christmas, last year. And so, before school closed or just around a week  before her accident, they distributed packets of food to the refugee mother and children.
The other incident was shared by a church member. The family had attended the Christmas Eve service at their Church on 24th December. All the Sunday School children were given little red soap stone hearts. This little girl, already having received her own, was standing at the door to help distribute the hearts as the children left the church. The lady with her realized that more children than expected had attended the service and they were fast running out of hearts. So she quickly turned to the child beside her and asked, "Anna, can you give me your heart?"
This lady told us during the memorial service, that Anna did not demur and there was not a minute's hesitation. In an instant, Anna had whipped out her soap stone heart and had handed it over to the next child leaving the service. How many eight year olds do you know who would have given away a gift that they had received just minutes ago? In less than twenty four hours, they told us, after her fall, she had cardiac failure, even as she fought for her life. Strange and unbelievable are the ways of life....I salute her parents who inculcated such marvellous values in her, in the short time that God had chosen to grant them with their little girl.
My biggest lesson came from Anna's father. He actually thanked God for having given them forty eight hours to prepare themselves and to say good bye to their darling daughter. He spoke of the two nights spent in hospital, talking to her, singing to her, just willing for her to wake up. But that was not to be.
This lesson stood me in good stead when, last September, my own daughter left for medical college in India but was back in Nairobi within a month because the Supreme Court in India had cancelled all medical admissions of international students, citing a lack of a newly introduced entrance exam, which these students had categorically been told earlier, in writing, was not applicable to them. While we did file cases in the Supreme Court Of India, together with other Non Resident Indian parents, (which we subsequently lost) because the cancellation of a hard and competitively earned admission was truly an unfair decision, no part of me regretted that my daughter was back with me for a few months more. It meant my daughter losing an academic year but what's a year when I know my friends would give anything and everything, in a heart beat, to have their own daughter back...
When I saw Anna's date of birth on the memorial program, I was flabbergasted because on that very day, 17th July, 2007, I had lost a very close and dear school friend, a brilliant doctor, in a horrible road accident in my home town in India. She left behind two very young daughters. Unimaginable are the ways that connect us to people we feel a bond with...
. On the 27th of January 2016, in the evening, as I was walking in my compound with my husband, like I do almost every evening, I saw two deep furrows of brilliant, golden light right above the location of Anna's house, deeply resembling large angel wings. They were clearly visible for around five minutes, before they disappeared. Skeptics will call it a play of the light of the setting sun, of clouds being positioned in a particular way against the light or something on those lines. I know what I saw. I had never seen it earlier and I have not seen it since...
 I knew I had to mark the date of her passing in some way every month. I thought if we could all send good thoughts and wishes and prayers on the 27th of each month to her parents and close family in the States, at least they would know people were thinking about them and their little girl. And so I began sharing a small rhyme each month in the ' Remembering Anna' group that her Aunt had created. I loved her middle name JEWELL so much that I tried to centre the rhymes around it. Both her grandmothers and a grand aunt, heart broken as they were, never failed to thank me for remembering and nor did her father, whenever we met in school. Her Mom gave us a beautiful 'Thank You' card when we had them over at our house, just before school closed for the academic year, last May. It was clear to see where Anna had got her thoughtfulness from and that the apple had not fallen far from the tree..

Twelve Little Rhymes For the Twelve Months Since She Has Been Gone.

It's been a month,
But even God can't keep chirpy little Anna down,
She's already the sparkliest JEWELL in His crown...

Months it's been merely two,
Anna, JEWELL of your parents' hearts,
Not a day goes by when we don't think of you...

Months it's been all of three,
My favourite is her Mom's profile picture,
Of her JEWELL shimmering halfway up a tree!

Be it years forty or, like today, months just four,
Anna, glowing JEWELL,
Will remain firmly embedded in her family's core.

Months it's been already five,
Even as to stem our tears we strive,
A JEWELL'S cupped in His palm,
Well and alive...

Call it half a year,
Or say months six,
Of JEWELL hued memories,tears, photos, videos,
It's been a heart wrenching mix.
Our broken hearts only He can fix.

It's her Mommy Martha's birthday next week,
If, into their home, you will peek,
You will see it's raining down love, hugs and sparkly kisses,
She knows, that's what the most, her Mom misses.
So A JEWELL's sending them to her straight from heaven,
Hard to believe that today it's been months seven...

It was her destiny and her fate,
It was written on His slate,
That months ago today, exactly eight,
He, Himself, opened for A JEWELL, heaven's pearly gate.
In His time, it's never too early or too late,
But our tearful acceptance still remains inchoate..

Two days, plus the number of months it takes for a baby to be born,
Is how long it's been since that last, happy, Christmas morn.
And today it's been months all of nine,
Since A JEWELL'S glowing colours suffused with the Divine...

It was months ago, today, a total of ten,
That we saw tears streaming from the eyes of even grown men.
God's hows and whys are completely beyond our ken,
To see her again the family has a yen.
The rich colours of A beJEWELLED sky give a glimpse, now and then.

Months it's been an excruciating eleven,
And the family's strength, for us, has been an inspiring leaven.
If only they could make a quick call to heaven.
And tell A JEWELL she's being missed twenty four by seven...

It's a time of good will and cheer,
Everyone's wishing folks far and near.
But our thoughts only in one direction veer,
And through our hearts pain does sear,
And our eyes have many an unshed tear.
Today it's been one whole year,
Since we said goodbye to A JEWELL
So precious and dear..

Saturday, 17 December 2016

Elsa's Magnificient Meru, A Lithe Leopard In Samburu!

December is here already, my son's school closed yesterday and this is usually the time of the year when we plan a quick three day getaway in early January to coincide with my birthday, which conveniently coincides with the fractional fall in peak season, super high resort rates, as people start going back to work then... So before we go anywhere again this time, I need to inscribe the last trip taken, before fresh African images get super imposed over the previous ones already in my mind!
My parents had visited us at the end of 2012 and at that time we had covered most of the must see must do places of Kenya. So when my mother started planning her trip for 2016, I knew I had to look for fresher, greener pastures and as she is a huge George, Joy and Elsa Adamson fan, (of Born Free, Living Free, Forever Free fame), I hit upon the perfect vacation spot.
We planned to travel during the children's Spring Break (though it isn't spring in kenya then!), my husband took a couple of days off from work, my Skype students got a week's vacation and so we could visit both Meru and Samburu, of White Masai (both the book and the movie) fame. One thing I don't believe in doing in Kenya and avoided doing in Tanzania too, is flying across the country. I know chances are negligible that I will ever visit those areas again, since these are not my countries. That is why we always choose to travel by road, thereby fully savouring the beauty of the vast countryside, the ever varying landscape, and the versatile shades of green, brown and blue.
                                       Mount Kenya, tall and proud, chose to give us a view!

                                                 At the entrance of Meru National Park

Meru National Park : Rugged, unspoilt, untouched is how the Kenya Wildlife Service describes it. It is also the least visited National Park in Kenya and I hardly know anyone who has been there. Even our very experienced safari guide cum driver confessed to having been there just once, many years ago... On the map it is 350 kms from Nairobi. In reality it felt like 350 multiplied by ten! We set out very early on a sparkling March morning, for we had a long way to go, to another hemisphere actually, the Northern one! We crossed the Equator in good time and were even fortunate enough to catch a glimpse of Mount Kenya since it was a clear day. We sped on ahead, so far so good as the roads were smooth and not too crowded either. But six hours into our drive and we seemed nowhere near our goal! And then the road changed to a bone jarring, jaw rattling, more pothole, less tar entity. I feel car sick at the best of times, unless I am driving myself, and this was just too much for me. I began wishing myself safely back in Nairobi and, as usual, began asking myself why I plan these practically off the map trips! I've done this in Tanzania and Russia too! Mercifully the National Park gate loomed up just as I was at the end of my tether. But my woes were not over yet.
We were booked into Elsa's Kopje, an award winning, eco friendly lodge, nestled amidst and blended into the 'Kopje' or rocky outcrop, which lies just above George Adamson's original research campsite. When the owner was scounting around for a place in Meru National Park to build the lodge, he began walking up this rocky hill. Barely halfway up, he was charged by a lioness. As he raced downhill, he knew he had found the perfect site for Elsa's Kopje. And so work began for an exclusive resort and famed paleoanthropologist Dr. Richard Leakey inaugurated it in 1999. At precisely that time, I was studying archaeologist Dr.Louis Leakey's work in the University, in my home town Pune, as part of my M.Phil degree. Did I even imagine I would one day stay in a resort his son had visited? Absolutely not! But such is life...
We began barelling down the rough interior roads of Meru. The lodge, if I recall correctly, is a good twenty kilometres away from the gate through which we had entered. But try twenty kilometres on rough, barely in existance roads. It was another hour before we spotted the rocky outcrop of Elsa's Kopje, after we had driven through a shallow but very fast flowing and broad stream of water, with steep banks. When we came back with a ranger for our evening safari and recrossed the stream, he helpfully told us that just a few months earlier, during the short rains, a vehicle had been overturned by the increased force of the water when a few tourists had been attempting to cross it, to get to the resort. Fortunately they had been rescued before they were attacked by lions or swept away by the water. Very reassuring!
Tall, cool, lemony lime drinks to chase away the dust (and in my case the car sickness related bile) clogging our throats, awaited us at the Kopje. A warm welcome by the staff  and by the numerous tree hyraxes snoozing around (little wonder they play a prominent role in Joy's books and paintings!) and we were then shown to our cottages. The entire resort has just twelve cottages and while my mother and the kids were put in a more centrally located one, the one my husband and I shared was really remote.The walls were half of stone and half of netting, affording us a panoramic view of Meru National Park. The hill fell steeply away from the edge of the cottage, which meant it was impossible for humans to loiter around outside the room but sure footed wild life was a different matter.

                                                                  Hello Hyrax!
A continental, vegetarian lunch later, (hardly any Indians or people of Indian origin make it to this park so there's no Indian food like you get just about everywhere else in Kenya), and we  were ready for our first safari. A ranger with a two way radio accompanied us because, unlike the Masai Mara, for example, there really are no tourists around every corner here, and if we were stranded anywhere, it would be hours before anyone would even realize that we were lost...There is barely any mobile phone range. The journey out was uneventful. We saw elephant herds in the distance, giraffes nibbling thorny acacias, different kinds of deer and a variety of birds but no lions. When we realized that we were now making a road with our vehicle tyres where none existed before, we told the driver to turn back. Halfway to Elsa's Kopje, we saw that the huge elephant herd, which we had earlier seen at a distance, was now blocking our path back. We stopped, literally, in our tracks. Suddenly that particular phrase seemed crystal clear! The elephants began moving towards us. Eleven years on the African continent and you can't not encounter an elephant in the wild, but these looked menacing, unlike the ones we had seen in numerous other parks earlier. They clearly were not used to people and cars invading their land. One began moving towards us, very determinedly. It ran a bit to pick up speed to charge then stopped. We began screaming. Now even our veteran driver panicked and was about to reverse the vehicle to flee. Then, the ranger quietly told him to switch off the vehicle, as elephants attack moving targets  and he warned us not to utter a sound, as elephants have extremely sharp ears and react to it, if perceived as threatening. Then there was pin drop silence in the vehicle. I could hear my heart thudding loudly, practically jumping out of my rib cage and the only other sound was that of blood rushing to my ears. We invoked just about every God we could to make the elephant go away because if it charged us, the safari van would be overturned in no time and since the whole herd was milling around the side of the road, we would be trampled without doubt. After an eternity, it was around ten minutes in reality, the elephant lost interest in us and began moving away followed by most of the herd. We shot out of there the minute the road was clear.

                                                  His road or ours? His, of course!

He eyes us from the corner of his eye as he crosses the road to join the herd on the other side. Then decides we are a threat so turns around to charge at us. Heart stopping moments....

Back in the lodge, after freshening up, we entered the common dining area where my Mom found a book she has been searching for for years, but which is sadly currently not available anywhere in India, not even on Amazon.in. Of course Joy Adamson's autobiography 'The Searching Spirit' would be there in Elsa's Kopje! Where else could it be! My mother asked for permission to carry the book to her room and as a consequence spent half the night reading, thereby missing the safari early next morning where my husband and daughter spotted lions and where wild buffaloes blocked their way! I prefered to catch up on my sleep!

                                                          A Blood Bond With Elsa?

                                                                    Buffalo Crossing!
Dinner was by the pool side, which is very unique because it has been carved out completely from the existing rock and is perched right at the edge of the rocky outcrop. There were only a handful of other guests so it was a very personal and quiet experience to dine under the same moon that shone on Elsa when she was released back into the wild by the Adamsons right there in Meru. The same moon under which she prematurely breathed her last, in Meru.

                     The location of George Adamson's original campsite as seen from the pool

Elsa's Kopje is not surrounded by an electric fence like all other African resorts located in the wild, barring Man Eaters in Tsavo. A leopard comes to drink from the swimming pool on most mornings. My daughter actually woke up at the crack of dawn to spot it but had no luck that particular morning. The guard who escorted us back to our far away cottage told us that a few weeks earlier a huge Tusker had been standing right outside that cottage when he reached it with some guests but mercifully did not charge at any of them. I gulped visibly...
Exhausted by our long and unusually scary day, I quickly fell into a deep sleep. Somewhere in the middle of the night, I heard the loud roar of lion, followed by a crashing sound through the undergrowth of some prey it was probably chasing. Somewhere a monkey gave a blood curdling screech. My eyes flew open as I heard the roar coming even closer now. There was no power as generators are turned off between midnight and six in the morning. The room was pitch dark and the only thought in my mind was that there was just a flimsy net between us and an angry, hungry lion as the stony rock would help, not hinder it to rush up... The rate at which the sounds were coming made it seem as if at any moment first the prey and then the lion in hot pursuit would crash into our room. And we had nowhere to hide, as in keeping with the ultimate privacy and luxury concept the lodge offers, the bathroom did not even have a door...There was nothing I could do except pray that the lion and prey turned away... which they did after many agonizing minutes.
The main attraction of Meru is that Elsa's grave lies here. After being hand reared as a cub by the Adamson's after her mother was shot and died, Elsa was released and had cubs too. But when she turned six, she tragically died of tick fever and she is buried here. The grave is deeper into the park and after our elephantine encouter the previous evening, neither our driver nor we were keen to venture further into Meru. So we paid respects mentally to the most famous lioness in the world and, accompanied by the head ranger who wanted a lift until the exit, bid good bye to Elsa's Kopje. A few minutes into our journey and we were waylaid by an elephant herd AGAIN with a repeat of the charging and retreating performance. By now we were trained enough not to move even a muscle, but never have I been as glad as I was to leave a National Park, as I was to depart from Meru. It is only for the really brave hearted. Little wonder then that my daughter has vowed to go back one day in the far future, with friends. They will have my best wishes!
Another long drive, another hot, dusty journey through brilliant African vistas, through Joy Adamson's town Isiolo where she stayed and completed a lot of her work and then we were in Samburu, the home of the famous Samburu tribe, cousins of the even more famous Masai. Immediately upon entering Buffaloe Springs Reserve which adjoins Samburu National Park, we felt as comfortable as we always do in all of Kenya's parks. Our driver was very familiar with this one as it is prominent on the local tourist route and so we were in a happy frame of mind, with the fear we had experienced in the last twenty four hours receding quickly. We spotted other safari vehicles and reached our resort, Ashnil Samburu, well in time for a lunch of chappatis and red beans and rice. This time our cottages were perched on the banks of the Ewaso Nyiro river and besides being within a stone's throw of each other, were also secured by electric fencing. A 'tame' wild elephant was on the other side of the fence, right beside the river, scrounging around for salt, which is probably a part of its daily lunch routine!

                                                              At a safe, electric fence distance!

My daughter was determined to see a leopard on this safari and what she wants she usually gets. So while my son chose a nature walk and lesson on the resort grounds and I chose to sleep, she, my mother and my husband set off very early the next morning for a safari and the driver drove them towards an area more than forty kilometeres away, where leopards are usually spotted in Samburu. And they spied a magnificent one whose pictures speak volumes about its non chalant attitude! It seems to have adopted Tennyson's words and is disdainfully saying 'For (Wo)Men may come and (Wo)Men may go, but the lithe leopards of Samburu go on forever...

This was, by far, our most adventurous safari yet, because we truly ventured off the cliched, beaten track. If you want a truly adrenaline pumping, pulse boosting Kenyan Safari, be sure to visit Elsa's Meru. Don't worry, she will watch over you....After all, the Lion, not the elephant, is the King of the jungle!

Saturday, 26 November 2016

Stranger In MY City

Eighteen days ago, the one thousand rupee and the five hundred rupee notes were declared invalid in India, by our honourable Prime Minister, from the stroke of midnight, on that day itself. While the world woke to a mundane Wednesday morning, we woke up to worthless pieces of paper in our pockets and purses. In order to flush out Black Money from the bank lockers, bedrooms and boudoirs of unscrupulous businessmen and women, these two denominations of notes had been demonetized, that is, they were no longer legal tender. This meant that all those fake notes floating around, (it is said our various neighbours print more of our currency than we do), were suddenly worthless too. So it was the proverbial killing of two birds with one stone, a master stroke indeed.
Anyone who has bought or sold property in India knows that we have two components while paying for property, the Black and the White. A lower value is shown on documents and the difference between the actual higher value and the on paper value changes hands in cold, hard, cash. Or, if you are a Non Resident Indian and do not have Black cash lying around, the builder asks you to issue a 'Self' cheque, so his henchman can go and withdraw the money from your perfectly legal Non Resident Account and pocket it, without paying a paisa in tax. Now, of course, all such unscrupulously earned money isn't worth the paper it is printed on. The government and the banks are asking some hard questions to those depositing unaccounted for, high amounts, overnight in their accounts.
A predictable fallout of all this is that real estate prices are set to come down in most major cities of India, as builders can no longer bank on Black cash coming in. This, in turn, means that there is a barrage of mails in my mail box from builders I have contacted in the past, while scouting around for property. And my city, Pune, is being touted as one of the destinations to invest in, as it is already on the government's list of 'Smart City' development plan.
From being a cliched pensioner's paradise just a couple of decades ago to a software hub, my city has come a long way. Real estate prices have already hit the very costly roof and there seems to be no limit to development, which is a euphemism for construction and more construction. I go home once a year, after nine months, and so I am always particularly struck by the ever changing landscape of the city, more so than my parents, for example, who live there all year round.
Even my own micro environment in Pune is changing. Our bungalow society is now around fifty years old and every time I go back, I am informed of yet another bungalow being purchased by a super rich entity, (I'm even told about the black and white components!), then demolished and an ostentatious monstrosity being constructed, where once a simple, middle class bungalow stood. These were houses where we spent large parts of our childhood. Summer days were spent playing cards on the carpet of a no longer in existence living room, those were the kitchens we raided for chilly powder to go with the staple summer snack of raw mango, those bookshelves that were pulled down were the ones we ransacked in our search for that one unread book, after our grandmothers and mothers had chased us away to borrow books, because we had finished reading everything we had!
We no longer even know the names of the new inhabitants. This point was driven home to me last June, when the business manager of the folks we rented out my husband's office space to, on seeing our residential address, asked if we knew Mr.X, who was his friend and lived in our society. I was forced to say no as I  really had no clue about this family... Time was when I could recite every inhabitant's name, from the ancient great grand father to the new born babe, birth dates included!
The mails from builders are now pushing what were once far flung areas of my city as well connected, centralized locations! It actually makes me laugh. Those narrow highways, which are now being miraculously transformed into multi lane ring roads, are the ones where my driving instructor took me to practice highway driving, when I learned to drive nearly seventeen years ago. We would be surrounded by rolling green fields and ancient trees, by deep, stone ringed wells, with the labourers, farmers and their wives actually stopping work, to stare askance, at what was then a novelty for them, a car and a girl behind the wheel. Today, less than twenty years later, those same farmers have sold all those fields to builders and yes, cash, both black and white, has changed hands, and they now own cars flashier and much more expensive than my own Mercedes. And as far as the eye can see, there are buildings and more buildings, with scarcely an ancient tree in sight. One might see some saplings planted as mere tokenism...
I belong to a Pune Moms FaceBook group. It amuses me to read about Mothers who have just moved to Pune and who ask each other about the best creche or the best pre school in that particular area and then they share the name of their area. I feel like telling them, "I knew your area when it was scrub land!" Or, I feel like saying, "We used to picnic every weekend where your flashy river side residence now stands..." Time was when there were only a handful of reputed preschools in Pune and another handful of regular schools, which we would even consider getting our children admitted to. Today, a pre school mushrooms in every lane and by lane of the city and beyond and international schools sell themselves through their websites, to folks the world over who might be considering making Pune their home. For, where builders build, schools follow.
At times, I feel slightly resentful of these strangers invading my city and changing its horizons beyond belief. Where once water pumped by the Municipal Corporation gushed right up to our third floor water tank, today it cannot reach our first floor bathroom, without the aid of a pump. Where once a visit to Main Street in Cantonment Area or a food halt at Vaishali on Ferguson College road, meant bumping into at least a dozen people you knew, today unknown people brush past you or unknown faces stare at you, as you wait impatiently for a free table...
What ARE all these strangers doing in my city?...Or wait a minute. Is it that now I am a Stranger in MY city?

                             May be we don't want a smart city? Maybe we were happy with what we had? But who's asking us? Progress, relentlessly marches on...aided by money, both black and white. 

Wednesday, 16 November 2016

Ae Deal Hai Mushkil (This is a difficult deal!)

A few days ago, I made the mistake of going for a movie that had been released the preceding Friday. My daughter had been waiting to watch it for many months, as she is a huge fan of the director and he has just one release every four or five years! As per the original plan, she was supposed to watch it in India with her brand new college friends but as luck and the Supreme Court Of India (one judge in particular) would have it, medical admissions of international students were arbitrarily cancelled, citing a lack of an exam they were not supposed to give in the first place and so she had to come back to Nairobi, just like a hundred plus medical college students had to go back to their countries of residence. Which meant that I had to go with her for the movie.
Ten minutes into the movie and I knew I had made a gross error. This particular movie had been in the news for the past few weeks because one of the actors was from our neighbouring country. Relations between our neighbour and India recently took a turn for the worse and so a particular political outfit had threatened to disallow the screening of the movie. The matter was resolved with the powers that be meeting with the directors and producers who apologized and promised to check passports before casting actors in future and the movie was released on time.Well I just wish they had succeeded in blocking the release...
If I wanted to watch scenes from blockbuster movies of yesteryears, I would simply watch them online or I would wait for the movies to be screened on television, which they are, with unfailing regularity. Why would I pay good money to watch two silly people with too much money and too much time on their hands trying to recreate those scenes? And not that the scenes are much to speak of in the first place, as they mostly involve women in chiffon sarees prancing around trees in Europe and looking ridiculous. People in Bollywood seem to have over flowing bank accounts but have a complete paucity of ideas at times...
Twenty five years ago when I was a teenager and in high school, the concepts of living in, multiple relationships, same sex relationships, divorce et al, even malls of the Sweet Valley High series, were all completely alien to us. We were very clear back then that such issues were 'American' in nature (with sincere apologies to my American friends here, all of whom have rock solid values) and we had nothing to do with it. Well, well, the shoe is on the other foot now. A post liberalization India is grappling with all this and more today, leading to an irrevocable break in what old fashioned people like me call basic decency, core values and some semblance of culture.
Even then we, as upper middle class, middle class (and below) parents do try our best to inculcate basic moral dos and don'ts in our children and we still hope that once they are financially independent and no longer answerable to us, they will lead reasonably decent and upright lives and not turn into home wreckers and adulterers. And then this kind of a movie comes along which is so completely divorced from the reality in India. We have only a hand full of Metros and maybe another fistful of large cities. The rest of India is a combination of small town and rural life. Open any newspaper and you will read about many of the social and ethical issues that are raising their heads there, leading to Panchayats and parents often taking the law in their own hands, generally with tragic results. And very often, these new age couples are inspired by Bollywood, which they think is the new reality. Nothing could be farther from the truth.
When this kind of a movie comes along, teenagers and young adults think if the lead actors and actresses can hop from one bed to another, from one relationship to another, get into a physical relationship with a person he or she  met TWO hours ago, then why can't they do the same? If the reel life heroes and heroines can puff cigarette after cigarette, down vodka shot after shot in a bar (this seems to be a favourite scene in EVERY movie these days) then surely it's the right thing to do? Instead of emulating people who have made something more of their lives than simply increasing alcohol and contraceptive bills, our youngsters seem to be getting caught in this vicious cycle of a lifestyle that doesn't seem to serve any higher purpose or calling.
Such movies, if at all there is a need to make them, surely need to come with an A for Adult tag. Then at least, younger, tender, minds will not be exposed to what can be termed as a complete breakdown of our traditional Indian society on the screen and a complete aberration of the way most of us choose to lead our lives. Life, even on the straight and narrow path, is not easy and if complicated by jumbled up ideas and no clear delineation between right and wrong, is only going to become more tumultuous.
Another completely irritating feature of the movie was the way the hero came across as a clingy, needy, guy ready to burst into tears at the smallest possible provocation. While I am ready to break most gender stereo types ( and have broken quite a few of them) and have NEVER said to my son 'Don't cry like a girl' (and will never say it either), how many of us want husbands/ boy friends who spout tears like a leaky faucet every few minutes? No, honestly, think about it. Tears are genetically a woman's prerogative and let's keep it so or else, as a compromise, let neither sex cry on screen!
The hero discloses that his mother abandoned the house and him along with it, when he was a two year old toddler, leaving him to the mercy of his billionaire father. Even that is insensitively treated as a joke by the leading lady. Well, it certainly explains a lot about his behaviour...
That's about the only lesson you can learn from this skewed movie. Leave your marital home if, compelled by circumstances, you have to, but NOT without your kids. Else one day a girl is going to have a soggy, weepy guy on her hands, craving the attention and affection denied to him by his mother, and she will drop him like a hot, sorry, soaked in salty tears potato...
P.S : My daughter remains loyal to the aforementioned director and found nothing much wrong with movie, save the twist at the end. But then, her ideas of busting gender stereotypes involve letting grown up guys wear pink dresses if they want to! The less said about this, the better. And yes, she's refused to go and watch a movie with me ever again, after I tore this one to shreds! See what I mean about Bollywood destroying family traditions?!! I've been taking her for an occasional movie since before she was born...

Monday, 31 October 2016

31st October 1984

Ten days ago a movie was released in India called 31st October 1984. I read the review in the newspaper we order from India. ( Reading on line doesn't satisfy the urge to have newsprint smudged fingers!) The movie is about a family caught in the riots that were the aftermath of one of the bloodiest days in Indian political history. The review set me thinking about that long ago day, 31st October 1984.
I've often read that when John F Kennedy was assassinated, people asked each other "Where were you when you heard the news? What were you doing? Who told you?"  31st October 1984, thirty two long years ago, was the day when India's first and only female Prime Minister to date was assassinated by her own body guards, at her residence in New Delhi. The day stands out very starkly in my mind and all that followed is clearly embedded there too, so I'm putting it down here and I hope others will feel free to share their memories too.
31st October 1984, Wednesday morning: My dad was in the Indian army and had been recently  posted to our home town, Pune. We had not been allotted our authorised accommodation yet and so we lived in a palace! Yes, a palace had been converted into an Officer's Mess and the temporary accommodation for officers and their families was on the first and second floor. Though we did not have a huge area to live in, what we had was the epitome of luxury! Black and white marble tiles in the bathroom and a marble bath tub! A smooth. red and black tiled floor in the living area and a large terrace whose floor was inlaid with multi coloured china chips was part of our domain and it overlooked an immaculately maintained garden. A steep, spiral wrought iron staircase led to our house. It was actually Sethna Palace's fire escape but that was what we had access to, in order to reach our house, as the main staircase was part of the Officer's Mess and therefore forbidden to us. And so it was from this grand and very secure environment that my sister and I left for school that day in 1984.
I was in third grade, one of the class toppers and the apple of my teacher's eye. ( I was the only student invited for her wedding a few months later!)  Most of us, in turn, adored her, bright, bubbly young thing that she was, yet to be bogged down by the toll that a career in teaching takes from most great teachers. Our Prime Minister was shot down at around 9:15 am that morning and the news was kept under wraps for a while, until a chain of command could be established at the centre.
Those were the days of very poor communication in India and most people did not even have land lines while cell phones, obviously, were unheard of.  We were in the middle of a regular working day and maybe around noon the news trickled in into school. The teacher from the neighbouring classroom rushed into our class and quickly whispered the news into our teacher's ear. Our ever smiling teacher burst into tears and began sobbing. When we loudly chorused " What happened, Miss?", we were told straightaway that the Prime Minister had been shot. ( We did not even know the word assassination then!). When you are eight or nine years old, there are few things more upsetting in your life than the adult in charge losing control and panicking. Our teacher then began feeling faint. ( Did she actually faint, fellow Helenites who were in my class?) . She was led out by the other teacher and we heard the unmistakable sound of the latch being shot into the bolt from outside! For the first time in our young lives, we had been locked inside the classroom...
Then there was complete mayhem. Most of us began crying and someone mentioned India would go to war with our neighbouring country. Note that we had NO clue who had taken responsibility for the assassination but sadly even as kids we were quick to conclude our dear neighbour was somehow involved. (They were NOT involved !). When I heard the word war I began sobbing even louder as it was immediately obvious to me that my Dad would have to go and fight at the border. There was absolutely no logic to this conversation but a little knowledge is a dangerous thing and we had all turned into a bunch of cry babies at the very thought of those unheard shots in far away Delhi. Young though we were, we were smart enough to understand even then, that there would be repercussions of this dastardly deed and none of them would be good.
School was let out early leading to even more chaos as there had been no time to inform all the parents about the early dismissal. No handy WhatsApp groups in those days... Fortunately for us, our army truck which was our school bus, was waiting to pick us up. We had been told that a few days of holidays had been declared by the government and so school would remain closed indefinitely.
Finally we reached home safely through rapidly emptying streets That evening my parents went out to Main Street in Army cantonment area ( In retrospect couldn't they have just stayed at home? Was it even safe to go out?) and bought lots of books for us to read from our favourite second hand book store, which exists to this day and which I make a point to visit during my annual sojourn to my home town. So though it was a very dark and sad period for my country, I have memories of long, languorous, slightly chilly November mornings where I lay in bed, snuggled up under a quilt and read to my heart's content. I always associate this period with Enid Blyton's St.Clare's school stories, as one of the books my mother bought on 31st October was from that series and which was to become a hot favourite with me. The human mind is so funny when faced with trauma, no matter how far removed,  that today I cannot think of Indira Gandhi without thinking of the O' Sullivan twins, Pat and Isabel, the main characters of the series. They were my escape from the reality that the Northern part of my country was burning and innocent Sikh families were being slaughtered, just because the body guards responsible were from that community. It was hard for our mother to shield us from the dire news pouring in day in and day out, more so because we were surrounded by army officers who had their own, efficient communication channels.
We went back to school after a ten day holiday, this time under armed escort. The orders had come from above that all army vehicles could move around only with at least one armed soldier and so our bus too had its own gun bearer, with bullets in his pocket, to be loaded at a moment's notice, if needed. We all touched the unloaded gun and fingered the shining bullets. By this time, all thoughts of war had fled from our flighty minds and we looked upon the gun as a new and exciting development and we felt special... How many others could boast their school transport had an armed body guard?
So if you were living in India then, do tell me  where you were on 31st October 1984. I'd love to read about your memories of that day, which changed the course of Indian history, destroyed and shattered many lives and forced many people of a particular community to immigrate from India. For many of them, it was 1947 all over again...

                                              Our late Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi.
                                                                 (Pic from the net.)

Monday, 24 October 2016

Catching Up With Friends (Or Their Kids) From Three Countries!

We have had guests popping in and out of our house for the last couple of weeks! Call it a coincidence or call it God's plan to distract us from the admission issue, look beyond our own problems and spend some time away from the second and final legal fight we, a huge group of affected parents, put up in India in the Supreme Court (and lost!). The Chief Justice of India assigned the writ petition hearing to the same judge who had thrown out the colleges case the first time around and who had been instrumental in pushing the national level medical entrance exam exam through at the last possible minute. And this despite numerous warnings from the education industry that it would lead to chaos and a huge mess. The result was that he refused to even admit the Non Resident Indians/ Foreign Nationals case, despite one of India's top Supreme Court lawyers, whom we had hired, pleading for our children. Does one stab one's own baby by admitting an error was made where the genuine NRI's were concerned? Obviously not! And so all the affected children, hundreds of them, have been forced to reconcile to the fact that they have lost a year and have hit their books again. The medical application process will soon start for next year in various countries, barring a few for which it is already over for 2017...
Our first guest was from Dar Es Salam, the son of my husband's former colleague. His mother and I are great friends and though it has been eight years since we have met, we have been in constant touch throughout. Their family faced immense tragedy last May and it was only by God's grace that this young man survived the car crash. His older brother was not so fortunate.. (My post: It's over in a heart beat and then a mother's heart bleeds...). The boy I last remembered as a high schooler in his Indian School uniform  in Tanzania from eight years ago was now a young man! Though he declined to stay with us, he did drop in a couple of times during his three day stay in Nairobi and I took him shopping for some entrance exam books he needed (is every one plagued by them?!!)  and it was a sheer delight to interact with him. As we chatted with him, I was struck by how much we all begin resembling our parents, as we grow older. His speech, his expressions, a faint almost unnoticeable south Indian tinge in his accent, all brought his own Dad strongly to my mind and a couple of times I felt as if I had gone back eight years in time and was chatting with my husband's colleague and morning walk partner...His large, animated eyes made me feel as if I was looking at my own friend, his mother. I had to pull myself back into the present and remind myself we were in Nairobi, not Dar, and I no longer had a toddler and an elementary schooler around me! But yes, like it or not, whether biological children or adopted, we seem to become mirror images of our parents, at least in mannerisms and physical appearance, if not in attitudes and behaviour!
Our next guest was my son's Dutch friend who had come all the way from the Netherlands. He and my son along with two other friends had been close friends in school in grade 2, 3 and 4, before he had to move back home as his parents' jobs here ended. Two and a half years ago it had been a very tearful goodbye for all four of the boys, at the farewell party organized by his parents. I remember the boys sitting together on the lawn at the venue, their backs to us all, loathe to say a final goodbye! Frequent Skype chats helped all the boys to keep in touch with their friend in Europe and as a thirteenth birthday gift, he chose to come to Kenya with his mother, who comes here annually as part of her job, so that he could briefly reunite with his friends! Another friend's mother hosted a birthday party for him in the Ethiopian restaurant because he loves the food there and the four friends were over the moon to be together again! His twin sister, on the other hand, chose an Iphone as her birthday gift and stayed back in the Netherlands with her Dad!
It was a delight to have this charming, freshly minted teenager who I've known since he was about to turn eight, come and stay overnight with us. It was as if the intervening two and a half years had never happened and he was still in school with the other boys! He candidly told me he had no friends in the Netherlands yet and I really hope this trip will make him feel more settled in his native land. Making new friends does not mean giving up your old ones, a lesson we all learn if we are expatriates on the go!
As I listened to the boys chattering away nineteen to the dozen, I was struck by how much my son's friend sounded like his Mother! If I closed my eyes, I could believe I was listening to her speak. After two plus years in Holland, a trace of a Dutch accent has definitely crept into the speech of a boy, who when I knew him, had only attended the American school in Nairobi and spoke with an American accent! The boys played cricket,gorged on the Indian lunch and Italian dinner I had made, snacked on junk food, drank hot chocolate and had a Hobbit movie marathon or tried to, till I chased them away to bed at 1:00 am in the morning! A very hard part of expatriate life is saying good bye and it was good bye again the next morning... But we were so glad this child had made this short trip especially to meet his friends and we hope they keep getting such opportunities to meet.
Our American friends who moved to Uganda from Kenya over two years ago came to visit the next day and completed our trio of guests from other countries! Our kids were in the same school though in different grades and had it not been for a bicyle my son had overgrown that I was selling through the school reporter. it is doubtful that we would have met during the short year that they were here. But it was destined that we did meet, became good friends and since we still live on the same continent and the entire family comes to Nairobi when they can, and our husbands travel for work to Nairobi and Kampala, we do manage to meet every few months. We plan to visit each other's native countries when time and funds permit!!
It is hard for people who are firmly rooted in one place to understand what we go through, year in and year out.  While farewells are not easy, technology does make things seem less dismal and the advantage is no matter where in the world you choose to travel, you willl have good friends waiting there for you, just as you will await them in your own country, current and native both....
So who is coming to visit us in Kenya/ India next?

Thursday, 6 October 2016

A NEET Mess! (And Did I Just Create A Homophonic Oxymoron?!)

Remember in my last post I had said tough times were on but I would surely share at a later date as the matter was sub judice? Here's the unfolding of the nightmarish events...
My daughter, along with with many other Non Resident Indian and Foreign National students, was admitted to Kasturba Medical College, Manipal in the state of Karnataka in India, through the 15% quota reserved for students coming in from overseas. When they finally reported for the orientation program and started college, we all heaved a huge sigh of relief because the last few months had been marked by delay, stress and uncertainty regarding medical admissions in India. This was due to a National Eligibility cum Entrance Test, NEET, which had been introduced at literally the last minute, by an order of the Honourable Supreme Court Of India, after a Charitable Trust filed a case to fight corruption in private medical colleges vis a vis medical admissions. Sounds complicated? Wait! It gets worse!
This happened at the very end of April when the All India Medical Entrance Exam, renamed NEET 1, was but a day away. Students and private colleges pressed the panic button and filed counter suits. State governments went ahead with their government college entrance exams but all private colleges were forced to cancel their exams. While this was happening in India, all international students (the International Baccalaureate, the Senior Cambridge, The American High School Diploma with AP) were busy with their own board exams, blissfully unaware of the fate awaiting them, other than the Indian curriculum schools abroad, the CBSE students, who had finished in March 2016 itself, as is the pattern in India and were watching events unfold back home. These kids were virtually the only overseas NRIs who gave the exam because their schools. being CBSE ones, instructed them to.
The private colleges and a few private petitioners lost the suit but many Chief Ministers went and met the President Of India and explained to him that the State Board students would find it impossible to study for this exam as it was to be especially held again within just two months, since the syllabus differed vastly from the Central syllabus, on which this exam is based. The result of these high level meetings was that an Ordinance was passed by the President, allowing State government colleges to admit students via their own exams just for this year, 2016. In this mad jamboree, no one thought of the Non Resident Indians and Foreign Nationals who were coming from totally different systems and weren't preparing for ANY entrance exam in India, as their admission was based solely on their 12th standard marks.
In keeping with the international pattern for medical admissions, our admission procedure too started way back in December 2015, when we mailed semester one transcripts to medical colleges of our choice back home in India. By April 2015, my daughter had secured provisional admission in all the three medical colleges that she had applied to. It was all a clean, transparent on line procedure, based on merit and within the stimulated frame of time. Confirmed admission would be given after obtaining the prescribed grades in the board exams and paying the fees and after getting the Equivalence certificate from The Association Of Indian Universities in New Delhi, which ensures that they come from recognized schools the world over and equate their results to the Indian CBSE board.
After the NEET became compulsory by May 2016, there were absolutely no instructions given whether it was applicable to students who had done their 12th from outside India. By the end of May 2016, when my daughter finally graduated from school, I called up the college we had originally chosen for my daughter. I was categorically told NO NEET is needed for NRIS but we will not give confirmed admission now but in August 2016, after the NEET results. The second college where she had secured provisional admission too, ten minutes away from my house, did not even bother to reply to my mail dated 2nd June, seeking a clarification regarding NEET. After collecting all her documents from school and getting them endorsed from the Indian High Commission Nairobi, the Ministry Of Education, Nairobi and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Nairobi, procedures that took ten days, we travelled to India in the second week of June. The NEET exam was now just five weeks away.
Since none of the websites had updated information regarding NEET for genuine international students and though the colleges kept saying verbally NO NEET, we decided to fill the form. Then Manipal, the college ranked in the top three in India, mailed us again though we had refused admission there way back in April 2016, since I wanted my daughter to be closer to our home town.
Since colleges in Maharashtra were not ready to commit to us anymore, we started the process for taking admission there. They categorically told us the exam is NOT needed for genuine Non resident students and Foreign Nationals. Many students had confirmed admissions from April 2016 itself and still others had not even finished their board exams which went on until the end of June. And so we submitted all the documents they asked for, transferred the fees in American Dollars, as is the government rule for these seats and received the CONFIRMED admission letter on 20th July, four days before NEET 2 on 24th July. And which fool gives an entrance exam they aren't prepared for due a completely different system of education and no warning that it's needed, when they have a confirmed admission letter in hand from a top institute? We, like many others, assumed that this sixty plus year old college had properly examined and correctly interpreted the rules for international admissions, which was the case till then, because no clarification had come from any quarters at that point in time.And an earlier judgement had given exemption to the minority quota. Our original choice of college mailed us on 14th July, still insisting there was NO clarity regarding NRIS and the one near the house mailed us on 2nd July, saying they presumed we had filled the form, though they had no instructions yet! Both these mails came after the NEET form filling date was over!
On 4th August, ten days after NEET 2 the Medical Council of India, sent circulars to all the private colleges saying that being NEET qualified was mandatory for ALL admissions, no matter which category. And so the colleges went to their State High Court but kept students and  parents from sixteen different colleges in Karnataka in the dark!
And so we bid farewell to our flesh and blood in September and these bright young minds began college. The colleges lost the case in the High Court on 15th September itself, when orientation was still on, and the parents had not even left the campus. We were infomed by email on 17th September at the end of day, that the HC case had been lost ( we had never been informed there was a case!) and though the HC was sympathetic to the genuine International students, only the Supreme Court of India could take a decision and colleges were directed to approach it. The students admissions were protected only till 30th September 2016.
Then began the mad scramble to save the futures of these children! We are all scattered in different parts of the world. There were students from The United States Of America, Canada, Nigeria, Uganda, Kenya, Eithiopia, the UAE, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Malaysia, Indonesia and Australia! And that's just my daughter's college. There were students from fifteen other colleges in that state alone, with many others scatttered all over India. We formed a Whats App group and began brain storming. We had barely a few days before the case would come up before the Honourable Apex court in Delhi.
We decided to join together for an impleadment along with the Special Leave Petition of the Colleges as we wanted to point out that our admisssions had been based on merit and our kids were genuinely from other systems of education. We were not the ones who had 'bought' the left over NRI seats without giving the NEET exam, despite studying in India, as is the norm in Medical colleges. These 'Management seats' are sold for astronomical sums.
We, a core group of ten parents, pooled in our money, hired lawyers, put together an appeal and prayed really really hard. The cost ran into lakhs of rupees. What stood out the most was that seven out of these ten students were girls and I LOVED the way their Dads FOUGHT for their daughters. These are all super successful, busy men, Directors and CEOs of global companies, but everything was put aside for their girls! If we had more such fathers in India, female foeticide would be a thing of the past! We had Gold Honour students, a winner of President Obama's award for academic excellence, AP scholars with distinction, school toppers all with super high GPAs and all had had other offers which they had turned down to study in India! We put together all these documents to present to the esteemed court, including the ones from the colleges which said no NEET was needed for this category of admissions. A couple of parents flew back to India to attend the hearing, when they had just got back home after settling their kids...
On 28th September 2016, the Colleges lost the case and along with them, we did too. Our children were asked to leave college after spending two glorious weeks there. These heart broken teenagers who had been very brave till then, believing the system would give them justice, were completely crushed! Parents had to fly back to India to pick up their kids and my mother travelled from our home town to pick up my daughter. Hostel rooms that had been brightly decorated, had to be packed up, white coats that had been barely worn had to be discarded, books that they had just started studying from had to be bundled up and put away, may be for ever...It was the end of a dream for absolutely NO fault of theirs. They had become the latest victims of a system that was confused about the way forward after hastily implementing an exam. This does happen in incredible India!!
What the people in power do not realize is that medical admission applications, even for 2017 are already over in most countries that have good colleges! The UKCAT for medical admission is over and applications for NEXT August will close next week. The South African Entrance medical college applications and the Australian ones for February 2017 closed by 30th June 2016! Our children now have simply no where to go and are looking at losing a year with no idea where they will get in next year..America does not offer a direct medical college entry. They want to be where the best are and do not want the Russian and Chinese colleges. They want what they had! India, this year.
We have tried very hard to reach our own government but have had NO success. That is our only hope now. We know we are not vote banks since we cannot vote from outside the country, but we do believe in this government and did entrust our children to our country, only to have it all thrown back in our face. The colleges quickly replaced our children by converting our NRI/ FN seats to NRI sponsored with NEET, which means you have someone from out side the country pay your fees in dollars. In fact, they started the process even before the case came up for hearing by placing adverts in national newspapers. In this war, should our children be the sacrificial lambs?
If anyone can put us in touch with the powers that be in Delhi, we will be very grateful. Our children did not even get a fair hearing and were summarily dismissed by the law as well as by the colleges.
If a Foreign National living in India on a visa can be given a seat by the Government because she is not eligible to appear for the NEET, why not extend the same courtesy to students from over seas with those beautiful blue passports and to those with OCI cards, who were told NEET is not needed, until it was applied in retrospect?
Please share my post if you can. I STILL believe in my government and that it will intervene for it's future citizens.

                                How clearly all of us were told NEET does not apply to our category!

While I'm happy for this girl and wish her the very best, we want the NRI/FN case to be looked into too by our Honourable Minister and Prime Minister.

Tuesday, 27 September 2016

Ice Cream In the Breakfast Buffet And Other Myriad Memories Of Misty, Magical Mahabaleshwar.

This is a retrospective post. Like the order that seems to have been retrospectively applied to medical college admissions of Foreign Nationals and genuine Non Resident Indian students in India and is now a sub judice matter, this post too is not in its correct chronological order. But as usual so much was going on when I actually wanted to write this that I just shelved it, to be taken out and dusted off for more peaceful times. But if God wanted us to have peace twenty four by seven, he would have just kept us with Him in heaven and not bothered to send us down to Mother Earth at all! So despite the stressful, chaotic, financially draining time we are going through right now, I just decided to go ahead and write. And yes, details about these tough times later, not now...
Mahabaleshwar: One hundred and twenty kilometres from my home town Pune, the very name conjures up verdant valleys, high hills, cool breezes, languid lakes, rapid rivers and roads with hair pin bends. Pune, then known as Poona, was a cantonment of the British army, under colonial rule. When the summer heat became too much for these uninvited and unwanted British rulers, they escaped to the much cooler climes of Mahabaleshwar.( And probably imagined they were back home in Britain and it's even more probable that they thought they actually were there after a few sun downers!). Even after India got independence in 1947, Mahabaleshwar continued to attract the elite among the natives who definitely seemed to have learnt a thing or too from their erstwhile 'masters'. And many of them built huge bungalows there, where they could escape from the hoi polloi and the heat to which genetically they should have been immune, of course!
Today Mahabaleshwar caters to just about everybody and every budget. From dubious lodges offering rooms to shady college kids to comfortable 'pure veg' resorts that accommodate joint families holidaying together, to sparkling five star hotels which make you feel for a few days that it's all about you and only you exist. A mirage of course, and one that you shell out thousands of rupees (or hundreds of dollars) for!
I first visited Mahabaleshwar on a school trip in 8th grade. Until then, I had just heard about it whenever we flitted in and out of Pune because, of course, thanks to the Indian Army, we lived  just about all over India. This trip, conducted by our Geography teacher, was an overnight one and the high light of our high school years. This was no ordinary school trip like the ones common nowadays, where the parents fork out exorbitant amounts, the children have fun, the school makes a profit and the teachers get a fully paid for trip free. Ours was completely Geographical. From plotting out the elevation of Mahabaleshwar on a contour map, to studying which rivers originate there and which ones we would cross on the way, to which planet we would see at sunrise to the name of the one we would see at sun set, we had to know it all before we left or even paid for the trip! Little wonder then that I can still rattle off all the facts mentioned above, more than twenty six years after the event! Teachers taught in those days and students learnt...
A much awaited event of the 'Mahaby' ( as we refered to it then, feeling very hip and cool and anglicized) trip was the bonfire at the cheap lodge the school had booked. (The beds only had sheets, no bed covers, anathema in my book!). We all sat round the fire late into the night, singing all the songs we had learnt during our singing period in school...The best part of going with school friends is, up to a certain age, you all, more or less, know the same things and have shared so many experiences as part of your school life that the bond is very strong and it is easy to reconnect from where you left off, even if you meet after a couple of decades! I was introduced to 'Paani Puri' a spicy, savoury, street food at a food stall, at a popular view point in Mahabaleshwar,by a persuasive friend whose mother is a paediatrician and whose dad was a pathologist. I wonder if her parents knew that their darling, only daughter was feasting from a stall with questionable, very dubious hygiene levels, if any! As for me, that was the first and last time I ate off a food cart, though home made Paani Puri is a very popular snack with my kids and one that I make often, always remembering the dingy bucket of Paani (water) at Mahabaleshwar!
Little did I know then that I would be visiting Mahabaleshwar next only after sixteen long years,despite living just a two hour drive away, mother, husband and children in tow. We stayed in a family friendly resort. My four year old son, used to the hot, humid, Dar Es Salaam weather, kept urging us to turn off the air conditioner as we went out and about! We had to keep telling him there was no AC, that was the cold weather! He had never experienced this earlier as December is summer in the Southern hemisphere and when we visited home for the holidays in late March, it used to be the start of summer in Pune too, as it falls in the Northern hemisphere! A hands on geography lesson my old school teacher would have been proud of! Mahabaleshwar, in March, being at a higher altitude, was freezing for my little boy. Mahabaleshwar is home to many ancient temples too and we religiously did the rounds of these as well as all the view points and the lake that Mahabaleshwar is famous for. The children feasted on the luscious strawberries that Mahabaleshwar is so well known for and which are found in abundance here.
Nine long years passed by before I went to Mahabaleshwar again, with just my husband this time and we stayed at Le Meridien, Mahabaleshwar's sinfully expensive and utterly luxurious spanking new five star property, built on twenty seven acres of tree covered land. It was our gift to ourselves for having raised a daughter who had just become an official adult and who we left in charge of the house and her brother, with my parents just a floor below to keep an eye, of course! (She told me later that neither brother nor sister bothered with breakfast, got up directly at 1 :00 pm in time for lunch, ate packaged junk all the time in between and never bothered to put away their washed clothes. Honestly what kind of an adult have we raised?!) This time it was the Monsoon season and it did not just rain, it poured! It was as if buckets upon buckets of water were being emptied from up above. I drove there from my home town and by the time we were on the outskirts of Mahabaleshwar, visibility was zero due to rain! All the vehicles had their head lights on despite the fact that it was early afternoon and those treacherous hair pin bends had to negotiated very carefully... It added a new aspect to my driving repertoire, so I was thrilled of course!
Despite steep prices this hotel is worth a visit. A limited number of exclusive rooms means all you see are trees and, in our case, incessant rain of course! Paths with crazy paving zick zack through the trees and the golf carts that transport you to your room from the main areas skilfully manouver their way on these, even as you hold on for dear life! Swimming, billiards, ping pong tables, a well stocked library and a spa all await your pleasure. It is easy to lose yourself here and bask in the epitome of luxury, while you forget that there is a world outside too. All the view points are closed during Monsoons but the hotel has enough to keep you and your children entertained for the days you choose to stay here with treasure hunts, nature walks and games.
At breakfast the next morning, I could not believe my eyes. I had to blink twice to check that I wasn't seeing things... Then I had to ask my husband to see if he saw what I had seen. ICE CREAM served in the breakfast buffet? Not just one but FOUR different flavours? And no staff member guarding it, giving you the evil eye when you piled scoop upon scoop? This was too good to be true!  Never in my years and years of staying in five star hotels across the world had I ever seen this! Not even the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel in Mumbai had served us ice cream for breakfast... Le Meridien is an American chain and they had certainly got this one right and how! I dug into it blissfully, while contemplating that the children were missing this.... but never fear I, being the ice cream fanatic I am, would more than make up for them.
A couple of days ago, I read that the stockholders of Le Meridien, Starwood Resorts, have merged with the Marriott chain. Please, please continue with that delicious ice cream! We are coming there again with our children, if you do!

                                        Ice cream - Unlimited: No better way to start your day!

                                       (But only on a holiday!)

                                                      Paths amidst thick woods

                                           Green Mahabaleshwar as seen from Le Meridien

                                                          An ode to a strawberry seller!

Thursday, 15 September 2016

Crumbs Of Comfort

                       An Aalu Paratha (chapati stuffed with spicy boiled potato) sizzling on my griddle.

This was the picture I sent to my daughter yesterday on her What's App. She has just finished her admission formalities in India, followed by two days of orientation and has her first day of college tomorrow. So she's had a really hectic week and as I called my son for dinner, I remembered this is one of her favourite foods and she wasn't there to eat it! When she's been studying really hard, staying up nights, she enjoys this carb laden food item, along with stuffed red chilly pickle. It is one of her comfort foods! So I thought of sending it to her virtually...It's funny how you sorely miss them at the dinner table...Even though for the last two years she's been carrying her food to her room and continued studying while eating!
And that's when it struck me that each one of us has our own particular comfort foods. We can't help it really. It is a habit formed in childhood and stays with us almost throughout our adult years. While I had made aalu paratha for my son I'd made some basic khichadi for myself with a bit of spice. A khichadi is a pressure cooked lentil and rice concoction and it is the ultimate comfort food! ALL Indian mothers/ grandmothers, no matter from which state in India they come from, give it to their kids/grandkids as a panacea for everything from high fever to an upset stomach to jaundice or even during a really bad cold! It is also made on days when you have had a really heavy lunch and want a light meal at night. Steaming hot khichadi with a dollop of ghee (clarified butter) on it, accompanied by poha papads (pressed rice poppadums) and home made green chilly pickle, bring my own grandmother clearly to mind. When I stayed with her in Pune during my high school years, there were days when I used to reject absolutely every suggestion she made for dinner. Yes, Indian kids are really spoiled for choice due to the vast variety our cuisine offers and the high level of expertise most Indian women have in the kitchen.I didn't really enjoy food then like I do now! (It showed then and it shows now!) Finally at the end of her long tether, she would suggest khichadi and I would readily agree, as I love this most basic, staple and healthy comfort food...Over the years I have tailor made it to suit my taste, adding spices of my choice and playing around with varying flavours and consistencies on different occassions and my kids have developed a liking for it too. Only my husband turns up his nose at it because he associates it with being ill!
Since I've been feeling nostalgic this week with my daughter's departure, even as I sent her the picture, I remembered another long ago occassion when I, myself, had desperately missed hot, home cooked food. I had just moved from India to join my husband in Krasnodar, in South Russia and we were in the middle of buying things for our house. The system there was that the office had hired people with cars to chauffeur us around. So we never had a car parked outside our house but it was always available for our use, along with the owner who doubled up as our driver. Remember this was in the mid nineties and the country was in economic turmoil after the collapse of the Soviet Union and people were glad to get just any kind of employment.
We had gone to buy a music system and we had told our driver to wait in the parking for us. We planned to pick up pizza on the way home as it was getting late, since I had picked up my husband after his office closed. We took our time looking at systems, finally bought one and sauntered out to the parking. We were already ravenously hungry by then, as the cold weather in Russia gives hunger a sharper, almost unbearable edge. I could just see myself biting into the pizza... The car and driver were nowhere to be seen! We spent a lot of time searching in and around the parking but to no avail! It was dark by then and getting even colder and I was faint with hunger...We realized he had misunderstood our instructions and thought we had told him to go, instead of wait.. The language barrier was a reality in Russia, as we had just found out! This was in the pre mobile era, my husband got his first cell phone in Russia two years later, so there was no way we coud call up the driver!
Finally my husband suggested we hail a cab, not a very safe thing to do, and head home as we really had no alternative. And so we managed to get home safely and I rushed into the kitchen, to put together a quick comfort meal of daal (lentils) and chawal (rice) even as my hunger pangs worsened. But even this took half an hour to cook and I realized that for the first time in my life, I was ready to eat, but the food wasn't... Hitherto, my parents and grandmother had always ensured that the food was on the table much before we were at the table...
As I spooned the self made piping hot daal and chawal into my mouth, tears actually ran down my face because these morsels were offering me crumbs of comfort that reminded me of home and the first bite itself made me feel magically better.

What are YOUR comfort foods? What brings your mother or father or paternal or maternal grandmother to mind? What is it, that for you, tastes of your childhood home? I would love to know and who knows, maybe I'll ask you for the recipe too!

Saturday, 10 September 2016

Goodbye Golden Girl!

Why have tears seeped into my pillow?
Why have I turned into a weeping (not whomping*) willow?

It's time for my daughter to fly away from me,
It's time for her to cross the length of the Arabian Sea.
It's time for her to enter unknown water,
It's time for her to new territory charter.

Her college will open this coming week,
Into an exciting future she will take a peek.
Hard to believe but eighteen years have flown by,
And tomorrow, all too soon, it will be time to say goodbye.

We hope we have taught her to be a caring, successful adult,
She's entering a world so full of tumult.
We're praying a place for herself, she will carve,
And, for lack of time, won't let herself starve!

She's chosen medicine which is truly tough,
The next five and a half years will be really rough.
We pray she will remain covered by God's grace,
And He will help her to all challenges face.
As we well know, life in not an easy race,
And her course is a tough one to ace!

Her bubbly, sunshiny presence we will miss, no doubt,
She, in turn, may have a homesick bout!
But that's the way God meant it to be,
My mother and grandmothers have faced it before me!

Now I need to focus my time and energy on my son,
And, like her, help him get into a college ranked close to number one!
Right now, he honestly cares two hoots,
He'd rather pull on his football boots!

His sister has left big shoes to fill,
And currently the task seems completely uphill!

*only Harry Potter Fans will get this one!!

Friday, 9 September 2016

Bested By A Virus: Busted Joints!

Date: 7th August 2016
Time: 1:45 am
We are to leave our home town Pune in India and go back to Nairobi in a matter of hours. Our 'Home Leave' is over and my son's school will reopen in a couple of days. It feels strange to say 'my son's' instead of 'the children's school', but my daughter has graduated and is heading to college soon.
Our luggage is scattered all over the hall floor. I kneel down, with one knee pressing against the cool marble floor of our living room and the other knee pushing down the rough plastic lid of an overflowing suitcase, even as my daughter firmly snaps the locks in place. We are finally ready to leave, having made use of every single kilo gram that the air line allows us.
Time: 2:15 am
A quick shower later, I finally hit my bed in India for what would be the last time for a few months at least. It has been a long and tiring day with last minute shopping, packing, visitors dropping in to say bye and then I had to go and clear up my classroom. Barely fifteen minutes later I start shivering. At first I attribute it to fatigue and the fact that I have to be up in less than four hours to get ready for the drive to Mumbai airport, through heavy rain and crumbling hills.
Time: 2:30 am
My knees start to lock completely, even as I am lying down. My first thought is that maybe I pressed down on the suitcase too hard, damaging a knee part in the process! Then I think I have been infected with the Chikungunya virus that has been doing the rounds of my city, thanks to much needed heavy monsoon showers which have resulted in an increase in the population of mosquitoes that spread this disease. My next thought is about how I am going to sit through a four hour car journey, a long wait and a longer walk at the humongous airport and then a six hour flight. I fall into an uneasy doze...
Time: 6:00 am
I am up and barely about. I am only able to hobble around. I wake the kids and then have a quick shower. ( Indians brought up in India will NEVER travel without showering first!)  The warm water brings temporary respite to my rapidly swelling knees.
I stumble down to my parents' house, unable to even eat any breakfast. Our taxi driver has been kind enough to come up and get every suitcase down to load into the car, as I am completely helpless. We depart. A quick call to my mother's aunt, who is our family doctor, results in her giving a couple of medicine names which I stop and buy from our neighbourhood pharmacy, limping through puddles... My children, observing me from the taxi, tell me they cannot bear to see me like this because usually I walk so fast that they have to run to catch up with me!
Somehow we make it to Mumbai. I'm downing anti fever medication every five hours because I know I have high fever. The children ask if I need a wheel chair but I staunchly refuse, saying it has to be booked beforehand. The flight is uneventful and I weave in and out of sleep brought on by fever and knee pain. We make it to Nairobi, luggage and all, and yet another shower later I am finally in bed by midnight, Kenya time. I have very high fever.
The next morning brings with it another revelation. ALL my joints, not just my knees, especially the smaller ones in the hands and feet are swollen and horrible painful. My sister in law calls to tell me that she just read an article in the newspaper about a virus affecting people in Pune which mimics the symptoms of Chikungunya. I definitely seem to have caught it! The fever ranges high, unabated.  I am completely bedridden for the first time in my life. ( I was up and about even on the days my children were born, but that's another story altogether!)
My son has school the next day and for the FIRST time since my daughter started school fifteen years ago, I do not get out of bed. I cannot.... My daughter and husband manage to send him off to school. Mercifully it's a half day so he will be home for lunch that my daughter cooks with instructions from my sister in law over a Whats App call! I fade in and out of sleep, clutching a hot water bottle to painful joints.. For the first time in my fourteen years overseas, my house help makes and serves me a cup of tea...Yes, I prefer doing everything on my own but now I am immobile and totally dependant! To make matters worse I break out in a bad rash and in a couple of places my skin looks as if it has been burnt. It begins to feel as if there's no end in sight.
I never realized we had so many joints in our body and that they could hurt so much. A task as simple as clambering out of bed every morning takes on a new meaning that spells agony. Every step causes shooting, jolting pain and it does not end there. The bathroom presents newer challenges. Joints are needed to turn on the faucet, to twist open the toothpaste cap, to squeeze the tooth paste tube, joints that suddenly refuse to cooperate and cause severe pain if they do...
My respect for senior citizens goes up a hundred fold. As someone who never even comes down with a cold, I have always been slightly impatient with other peoples' ailments, though I've never expressed it out loud, of course! Suddenly Assisted Living, Full Time Nurse, terms that I have only heard, begin to make sense. They have to, when you are unable to hold your own tea cup, because that too, needs those tiny finger joints!
The fact that my daughter's college opening day got postponed and she came back with us, seems like a blessing in disguise. She is a huge help especially as we have visitors from overseas and for the first two weeks I am even unable to stand without support, much less walk. I do make it to the Open House in school though, as I am determined to meet my son's teachers at the start of the new academic year. I pay the price by spending the next two days in debilitating pain.
I start cooking in the second week. Every day, within thirty minutes, my feet joints begin to burn and stabbing pain means I rush back into bed as soon as I finish, leaving my daughter to clear up. This pain brought on by prolonged standing continues for a number of days till it finally recedes a bit. But I was determined to cook myself and so I do it. This way I ensure my husband and son have fresh, home made food for their tiffins.
My Skype students too are waiting for classes to begin and I postpone it by a week and then crawl out of bed every day long enough to sit and teach and then I'm flat again, nursing my knees and ankles. Driving the car seems like a distant dream and my wrists and feet are in such a bad shape that I feel as if I will never be able to drive again. I idly contemplate selling the car, like an eighty year old would.. But in the third week, I need to take my daughter to the clinic for a test that is mandatory for admission to college. It is a five minute drive and despite a super smooth power steering, my left wrist protests loudly and painfully..Result: A crepe bandage has to be wound around my wrist for the next twenty four hours.. My husband asks me to sign a cheque but I have to refuse because I am unable to even grip a pen and the bank will surely say the signature does not match! I feel a hundred years old.
A dear friend sends me an article from the newspaper that talks in detail about this weird virus and I read that this virus targets only upper class, upper middle class and middle class women and working professionals! A virus that checks your bank balance before it attacks?!! Wow!
Recovery is not complete yet. Stiff knees, shooting, shifting pain in various joints, still characterize the fact that I am not back to normal yet. But life must go on...hobbling, stumbling, with the least bit of exertion causing set backs...It will be a while yet until I go back to walking eight kilometres every day but  that day will dawn too...

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...