Sunday, 17 January 2016

How East Africa Got It's First Indian Comissioner: Apa Pant: Guest Post By My Daughter!

Yesterday I got a lovely surprise when I picked up Asian Weekly, the weekly magazine that tells us what's happening in Kenya among the Indian expatriates and the KenIndian community. I saw that the Indian High Commissioner to Kenya, a lady, no less, had held a program in the Indian High Commission's Apa Pant auditorium! I had no clue the auditorium had been named after my mother's oldest maternal uncle, as I've never had occasion to visit it. I excitedly sent a picture of this article to the Pant family group on What's Aap, so that Apa Pant's grandchildren in Singapore and his brothers in India could see it too. Then I remembered that a couple of years ago my daughter had written a story about Apa Pant or Apa Mama (uncle), as we called him, as a school assignment and I was figuring out the best way to share it with the family group. Then it struck me! I could let her be a guest on my own blog and share it right here, with them and everyone who cares for Indian history.
The story guidelines, as given by her 10th grade English teacher, were that it should appeal to the five senses. So she has embellished the background part of the story a bit, for example the smell of flowers, the sound of rain, based on her own imagination, but the factual part is absolutely true. She used various Internet sources to get the facts and also interviewed my mother over the phone. Any errors are my daughter's alone. She was just fifteen when she wrote it. Also, the story is a tad long, due to the word limit requirement for this assignment, but it is interesting and touching, so worth a read. She also sketched him from a photo, as an assignment requirement. I am sharing that too!
Welcome to my blog, dear daughter!

Apa Pant: The story of East Africa's First Indian High Commissioner, As Seen Through His Great Grand Niece's Eyes!
The Rani’s screams rent the still, cool air of the night as the pain ripped through her. The Maharaja nervously paced the cool, lofty corridor of the marble palace. The Rani of Aundh, the Raja’s second wife was having her first baby. After an agonizing two hours, what seemed like centuries to the king, a woman nervously ducked through the curtain and said “Maharaja, You have been blessed with a beautiful baby boy.” He let out a heartfelt thanks to Maa Amba and went in to see his newborn son. Just as the baby’s lusty cries filled the air the patter of the soft monsoon rain could be heard in the courtyard. It was on this night of September the eleventh, 1912 that the future king of Aundh, Parshuram Rao Pant aka Apa Sahib Pant was born.
He led a very lavish childhood, one that was expected of a prince. Their palace in Aundh was a beautiful stone structure with soaring rafters and gleaming marble floors. Huge carved, wooden doors that protected the members living inside the courtyard. They were studded with spikes to keep the elephants as far away from them as possible. There was a vast courtyard in the middle of the palace where a sprig of the sacred tulsi (basil) was planted in an ornately carved marble pot and there was a niche where every evening as dusk set, a lamp would be lighted. It was in this court yard that Apa took his first baby steps and toddled around exploring the world. When Apa was around two years old his mother took ill and unfortunately died. The king soon remarried a third time. It was out of this union that the rest of Apa’s eleven siblings were born.
The gardens were acres of lush greenery with every kind of imaginable tree. There were vast orchards of guava, mango, jamun (a kind of berry), custard apple, chiku (a fruit), neem trees, Ashoka trees, gulmohar trees, peepal trees and banyan trees. Lush flowers bloomed in every crevice of the garden, roses and hibiscuses, jasmine and tuberoses, their heady scents wafted through the cool air during the monsoons. There was a beautiful lotus pond crafted out of marble in the centre of the garden. Brilliant pink lotuses floated among the emerald green lily pads and the fish were shimmering darts of iridescence. Scattered around the garden were six beautifully crafted statues, one for each of the king’s daughters`. It was in this fairy tale like ambience that the future king of Aundh was raised in. In the summer he would climb the trees and hang upside down while he ate mangoes and the juice dribbled down or should we say up his nose into his hair. If the taste of the mango wasn’t perfect he’d just throw it down carelessly. The fruit that the parrots had pecked on were the best because they tasted the sweetest. During the monsoon he and his siblings would dance in the rain with the peacocks. Every morning as when he got ready he would gather in a room with the rest of his family and servants would come around bearing huge plates heaped with jewels for the royal family to choose from and wear according to the dress they had on.
             Then one day Apa, too, fell gravely ill when he was only five years old. He was on his deathbed and the king was devastated. He loved his son very much. He stood by his son’s bedside, looked into his eyes and said, “Promise me that if you get well you will always do Surya Namaskars every single day for the rest of your life. After a long battle with his illness, Apa did survive and from that day onward to the day he died Apa did at least a hundred Surya Namaskars every day and this made him very fit. This was one of the many incidents that showed how honourable he was about keeping his word.
As Apa grew older he learned many lessons, some through his own experiences and some at the knee of his beloved father through his paintings or his singing about the Ramayana. Apa loved to sit with his father in the room where he painted   Apa grew up to go to the University of Bombay (BA) and Oxford University (MA); and he did his Barrister-at-Law in Lincoln's Inn. He came back to India in 1937. He then met the beautiful lady doctor, Dr. Nalini Raje. She was the first woman in her state to have an FRCS degree from the United Kingdom. It was a crisp, sunny afternoon when they went to see Nalini and her family. She met them at the door wearing a simple silk sari in a soft, pastel shade of lavender. She was wearing simple gold jewellery and Apa was very impressed by her intelligent looks and her piercing but kind, gentle, eyes. When Dr. Nalini went into the kitchen to get more snacks, she banged straight into the wooden screen in front of the door. It was destined to be love at first sight.  
After Apa returned to Aundh, he helped his father run Aundh and got more and more training each day on his future role as king. Then one day the entire village was abuzz with excitement. Mahatma Gandhi himself was coming to town. It was rumoured that he was coming to talk to the king about a new idea that the king had in mind. He was received at the palace with great pomp and splendour. A huge feast was organized for him, and the entire town was invited. Gandhiji amused everyone by telling them stories of his life. After lunch the crowd dispersed and the king, Apa and Gandhiji moved to the cool shade of the porch where Gandhiji sat with his loom spinning cloth, as was his daily ritual. His wise eyes peered out from behind the round glasses that sat on a bony nose. “Gandhiji”, the king began “We have an idea” he said. “We, as leaders, fighting for a free India, propose that Aundh becomes one of the first self ruled kingdoms of the future free India. “Oh!?” Gandhiji said looking mildly curious. This was a totally foreign concept and no king in his right sense would ever give up his authority to the common people. “We have come to you”, the king continued seriously, “because you have the power and influence to support us in this decision and in carrying it out.” “Please consider our proposal.” “We feel it would be a big achievement in taking  one of the first steps that would lead to Swaraj, which is self rule in the nation, free from the British. “We would be most honoured Gandhiji”, they said respectfully, “if we can have your blessings in this course of government we have decided to adopt” “Yes of course! Gandhiji said. “This is an excellent idea and I applaud you for taking this step and contributing to the history of India working its way towards freedom. And so the noble idea of self rule was imposed upon the people and the king gave up his rightful position in all but name and the people were allowed to make decisions for themselves. The small kingdom of Aundh flourished tremendously under the king’s expert guidance and support. He was a just ruler and even though his subjects were allowed to make decisions they looked to him for advice. He gave out interest free loans and helped his subjects develop companies so they could earn a livelihood and make a name for themselves amongst society. He introduced the concept of bar ‘free’ jails where convicts were kept in door less cells and trusted enough so that they never had to be chained. They were also taught crafts that would help them make a living after they were released from jail. It is told that not one of his convicts ever even thought of making a dash from the jail even though they were given a free reign. He was not only a successful ruler but also a beautiful human being.
Then one day in 1947, the glorious news came that India had been freed from the British. Everyone in the kingdom of Aundh was exhilarated. After a few days, a second piece of news was delivered that all the kingdoms in India had been dissolved and the rulers would only be allowed to keep privy purses and their palaces, everything else would be annexed by the new government. When Apa heard this news he was shocked. “I will never be the monarch of all I survey” he thought dazedly. Apa’s ego was severely wounded. They had done all they could to support the Swaraj movement and now that Nehru was the Prime Minister the least he could do was acknowledge that and reward them in a special way. Suddenly all the years of training and the effort spent on this little kingdom of Aundh seemed like a waste. The future looked empty and bleak. Although he was trained to be a lawyer, he had never considered the possibility of giving up the control of his kingdom. He still expected to be the head patriarch of the town, regardless of the fact the people had a government; ultimately they looked to the king for instruction. He felt lost, like a lamb that had strayed from its flock. His father was also sorely disappointed at the callous action from the side of the government. Soon the hours turned into days, the days turned into weeks and the weeks into months yet there was no ray of hope breaking through the dark clouds that hovered over his personal horizon. Never before had he felt so strongly the sense of ‘the little lost prince’. The government, Nehru, Gandhi they had all forgotten about him. He had been so sure he would follow in his father’s footsteps and leave a legacy for his children but his hopes and aspirations had been snatched out from under his feet like a carpet both literary and metaphorically as even the handmade, hand woven, hand embroidered Kashmiri carpets no longer technically belonged to him but to the government of India.
As the days went by Apa sank deeper into depression and was most dejected with the way things had turned out for such patriots like his father and himself. Then one day he received a missive from the Indian Prime Minister Nehru himself to come and meet him in Bombay (now Mumbai). So he travelled to Pune and then caught the train to Bombay, all this done mechanically, with no passion or enthusiasm. There he met Mr. Nehru and to his great surprise Nehru offered him an amazing position. “We would love for you to be the first Ambassador of free India to East Africa. It was amazing! Suddenly where there had been only doom and gloom there were thousands of possibilities. He immediately agreed to this fabulous offer. Although he was thrilled to be of use in such an important position he also had several conflicting emotions. Despite the fact that this job had given the rulers of Aundh back their honour he did not want to leave when his father was so old and frail. Also his wife, as the wife of a diplomat had to sacrifice her own career and henceforth would have to set her medical qualifications aside and could only play the role of supporting her husband’s endeavours.
But no father would ever stand in his child’s way and so it was with the erstwhile Raja of Aundh. He encouraged his son to take up this plum posting and to use the gifts that God had seen fit to bestow on him, albeit in another land. And so with the blessings of his parents and the people of Aundh, with wife and tiny tots in tow, he boarded the ship which would take him across the stormy Indian Ocean into unknown territory. As they chartered the seas he turned his face towards the new land and said to himself “I will write a new chapter in the history of both India and East Africa……..” Which he surely did!

                                                 Barrister Apa Pant

                Sketch by my daughter. She has improved as an artist since then!

Monday, 11 January 2016

Minding their P's And T's

My third article has been published on the parenting site!

In one of my favourite books by Enid Blyton, ‘The Children At Green Meadows’, the little girl’s grandmother tells her of the time when she, herself, was a child. She says every time she forgot to say P or T, her Nanny would pin a cut out of the alphabet to her dress. Every time she remembered to use the P and T words, an alphabet would be taken off from her dress! The girl listening to the story is absolutely thrilled with this idea and begs her grandmother to implement the same. The old lady is completely horror struck with this attitude and says it was a punishment, not a privilege!

To continue reading please go to Parentous -

Thursday, 7 January 2016

A Footnote In History, An Enigmatic 'Mist'ery: Bajirao's Mastani

I have never done a movie review on my blog unless you count my post titled 'English Vinglish' where I drew parallels between teaching my adult students and the situations that have been perfectly portrayed in the movie and exhorted everyone I knew to watch this beautiful Bollywood film, which in itself, is a rarity...Yes, I just realized 'beautiful Bollywood film' sounds like an alliterative oxymoron, in the current day scenario!
My daughter had been eagerly waiting for two Bollywood films that were to release on the Friday a week before Christmas. After a hard semester, she wanted to unwind by watching not just one but both these films. And so, on the day school closed, we watched the really tacky and completely unbelievable movie starring India's reigning superstar and I was bored to tears and honestly wanted to walk out half way. Two days later we were back in the same theatre to watch the other big banner film, this one based on historical events and my expectations were at an all time low, after the fiasco of the first film.
I was spellbound from the first shot and that's saying a lot because I'd rather read at any time of the day or night, than watch a movie. I come from the state of Maharashtra in India and this movie is based on the life of a Konkanastha Chitpavan Brahmin Prime Minister or 'Peshwa' to the King, who was also the greatest General of his time. He lived in my home town Pune, belonged to exactly the same caste that I do, spoke my mother tongue and represented an era that I have studied in great detail at the under graduate and the post graduate level. So how could I not be interested, except for the fact that Bollywood can massacre any event or situation? Mercifully, we were in for a treat this time!
Peshwa Bajirao is played by a young and upcoming Bollywood hero and he has done a marvellous job. What was specially endearing was the Marathi accent that underlines his Hindi, the language used in the movie. Marathi is my mother tongue, Hindi our national language and usually when people who speak Marathi on a daily basis try to speak Hindi, you just want to stop short of throttling them, so terrible is their accent. This particular Bollywood hero is a hard core north Indian so it is apparent that a lot of effort has been made in tempering the national language with underlying tones of the mother tongue!
His first wife, Kashi, has been played by a leading Bollywood actress and what stands out the most is the attention paid to detail. If you are Indian or of Indian origin, you will know that every region has different facial expressions for approval, disapproval, pride, disgust and so on. As her husband comes home victorious from a battle, ( he won forty battles in a row in his short but illustrious career!), she is watching him from the balcony and the way she twists her face in approval and acknowledgement of his feat is classic! It is so Maharashtrian. I have seen this expression on the faces on countless aunts, my grandmothers, great aunts and elderly neighbours and even my own mother...It made me feel at home instantly!
Though the Hindu Marriage Act, by virtue of which our men can have only ONE legal wife, was passed more than two hundred and fifty years after the time frame that the movie is based in, most Brahmin men of the period had just one wife. Peshwa Bajirao is content too till he comes across the half Muslim Mastani in the course of one of his campaigns in another part of India, where he helps her father to fight against the Mughal army. In gratitude, the father gives lots of war booty to the Peshwa along with his stunning daughter, who is already enamoured of the handsome young Peshwa. That's the version of the story as portrayed in the movie.
Mastani, the daughter of a Muslim mother and a Hindu father, played by another very talented Bollywood leading lady, is not acccepted in the ultra conservative Brahmin society of my home town. It is made clear to the Peshawa by his own mother that it is fine to consort with Mastani as a 'Mistress' but there is no way that she can be given the legal status accorded to a wife. Bajirao, in turn makes it clear to all and sundry that Mastani is not just an amorous indulgence on his part but his true love! His palatial home, Pune's famous 'Shaniwar Wada', built at an astronomical cost of Rs.16,000 (USD 250) in 1732 AD, has no place for the ostracised Mastani and so he builds her another palace, a few miles from Pune. A part of that palace has been dismantled and reconstructed in one of Pune's most famous museums and gives us an idea of its former glory.
The person to suffer most in this 'menage a trois' is, of course, the first wife, Kashibai, known by the sobriquet 'Laadubai' or the 'loved one', which she was, till Mastani materialized on the scene. She finds herself ignored and neglected, even as her husband finds solace elsewhere. She is forced to put on a brave face and live with the situation, as women of that era did not have the option of living an independent life and nor were they welcome in their father's house, if the husband was still living. She tells him ' I would have given you my life had you but asked, but you snatched away my pride...' Nearly three hundred years have passed since then but this will strike a chord with the faithful wife of any adulterous husband even today.
The Peshwa is away at a battle when Mastani is imprisoned by his oldest son and given the ultimatum of returning to her father's house which she refuses, outright, to do. It ends with the Peshwa dying of a disease far away from his home state, and Mastani either commits suicide or dies of heart break soon after. Her young son is raised by Kashibai who turned to religion, went on pilgrimages and comissioned a huge temple which still stands in her home town, a few hours drive away from mine.
Mastani, who had remained but a foot note in History, gets a new identity with the release of this magnum opus. We had all dismissed her as the 'other' woman, a marriage breaker and a home wrecker but here we see she was an accomplished warrior princess in her own right. In her part of the country, second marriages were common and accepted. Sadly for her, in my part of the country and in my caste they were not and so she was doomed, even before she tied the knot with the already spoken for Peshwa.
The movie has given rise to a lot of controversy with people asking how a Brahmin woman of that era could dance, as Kashi does, in the foot-tapping, chartbusting song 'Pinga'. My point is she is dancing in her residence, there is not a man in sight and Maharashtrian women do have this 'women only' function where women are encouraged to let their hair down, dance, play games and sing songs, most of which talk about how nasty one's in laws are! The tradition harks back to an era where girls as young as eight were married off, as Kashibai herself was and then rarely allowed to go back to their maternal home. Other historians have pointed out that Kashi suffered from a form of arthritis, so would have been unable to dance the way she has, but what's a Bollywood blockbuster without song, dance and controversy? She is very decently clad in a traditional nine yards rich silk saree, as is Mastani, whom she invites for this function, in an attempt to offer an olive branch to her husband's muse. The song where the Peshwa himself dances and uses a cheap Marathi word to say he annihilated the enemy is much harder to swallow but one has to take that with a pinch of salt and understand that the Director needs to cater to the 'front benches' too and not just high brow intellectuals and looking at those magnificent and opulent sets, he definitely needs to recover the amount that has been spent on this epic historical film!
I enjoyed the movie here in Nairobi in a packed cinema hall. When the titles rolled, there was a stunned silence in the theatre and everyone was frozen for about a whole minute, as if they were unwilling to come back to the 21st century. I was hit by a huge wave of home sickness and I wanted to fly home the next day itself, go to Shaniwar Wada again with my children and also buy some gorgeous 18th century traditional gold jewellery! It did not help in the least that my jeweller, P N Gadgil, in my home town, was the official jeweller for the movie and I was being bombarded with messages on my India cell phone number, telling me that the exclusive Bajirao Mastani Collection was now available at their many branches!
I also desperately wanted to drink the cold milk shake named in honour of Mastani. We have enjoyed it since we were children and it is available only in Pune. It comes in various flavours like mango, chocolate, saffron and pista and is a sinful concoction of creamy milk and huge dollops of ice cream, served in a tall mug, topped with dry fruits. One feels slightly decadent and guilty while indulging in it, as it is absolutely loaded with sugar and calories. After watching the movie, I feel that is exactly how Peshwa Bajirao Ballad must have felt every time he was with Mastani, knowing the entire Brahmin community, including his own mother, son and brother, were against his antics. You know you are making a mistake but you can't help going back for another Mastani, time and again...As I will, come June, when I go home...

                                                               Shaniwar Wada, Pune
                                                     The main door of Shaniwar Wada

Sunday, 3 January 2016

Fit Not Fat, Fabulous Not Fatuous At Forty!

Self praise is no praise, self recommendation is no recommendation and self admiration is absolutely more than I, myself, can stomach! What, then, does the title of my post today mean? I have a big milestone birthday today, so whom am I talking about, if not myself?
I am simply referring to the goals that I had set for myself a couple of years before I reached this milestone. In 2013, the Westgate terror attack in Nairobi had just taken place. From a couple of kilos above the upper weight limit for my height, I shot up to a few more extra kilos, as a result of cocooning ourselves in our own house and ordering too much food to be delivered at home, with threats and warnings of more attacks preventing us from moving out too much. Around this time I read a quote in a book where the protagonist said " I don't want to be fair, fat, forty and flatulent!"
This struck a chord with me! It is a fact where Indian women are concerned, that the fatter you become, the more your skin stretches and the fairer you look and the wrong diet of course plays havoc with your digestion! Forty would come around anyway, as the months passed...I could see myself fitting this description to a T soon, if I did not act fast. There is little doubt that fat is a major health hazard today.
And so, as discussed in my post Of Weight Loss and Weighty Woes, I took stringent action against myself. I lost the excess weight in three months and doubled the amount of time I spent walking each day and have managed to keep most of it off since. I know the fight, oh yes, it is a FIGHT, is going to get harder as, God willing, I move through the next few years and the Hormonal factor kicks in but so be it...
Today my husband and I spent the afternoon walking for an astounding 18.65 kilometres at a stretch in Nairobi's beautiful Karura Forest and not a muscle ached nor were we out of breath in the least, even though we talked non stop for the three and a half hours that we walked! We were totally in tune with Mother Nature. Monkeys romped in the trees overhead, the soothing sound of the cascading waterfall could be heard at regular intervals, the sun played hide and seek with us through the trees and we felt truly at peace.
By fabulous I do not mean in external appearance but that's how I would like my brains to be described. Vacuous, vacant, making inane conversation, superfluous, fatuous is not how I want to be, more so as I have many students from my Academy back home hanging on to every word I say, questioning me, challenging me, which is exactly how I want it to be. With this goal in view I have completed two diploma courses in the last couple of years and am in the middle of another Post Graduate Diploma course even now. Ideally I should have finished it this year but with my daughter's college admission being on the top of my to do list, this particular goal is currently simmering on the back burner. Never fear, I will surely get there next year...Better late than never. And once the children are 'educated' I can hope to start my Ph.D, a goal that's been on the shelf for the last decade and a half! It must be gathering mold there by now... I will dust it off and get back on track with it.I am humbled that I share my birthday with Savitri Bai Phule, a pioneer of Women's education in my State and I continue to be inspired by her, even as I continue expanding the scope and ambit of my educational Academy, on ground as well as virtually!
This decade of my life that started today promises to be the most exciting one yet, if God wants it to be. I hope to see my daughter get a couple of degrees and start working. Can we hope a big fat Indian wedding will be on the cards too, closer to the end of the decade?!!  My son, too, will finish college and get his first degree in the next ten years. When we were out walking in the forest, he solved forty five maths sums at home and gifted them to me when we got back, so I have hope!!  My husband is already looking forward to retirement at the end of this decade once the children are 'settled', in a cosy farm house we plan to construct soon. We hope and pray we continue to remain healthy, as this is the age when diseases often strike. As my parents age, I hope to be around for them too.
And so we take each day at a time and soldier on. The wonderful wishes that I have got today via the social media and the surprise visit that our KenIndian friends paid me yesterday, as they knew I had had a very long and difficult week, as we faced tragedy in our school community, has gone a long way in uplifting me and making me feel fit and fabulous. Thank you every one from the bottom of my heart. And no, I am not being fatuous!

                                                The surprise cake our friends got me.
                                                    Karura Forest, where we walked today.

                                 An astounding, amazing 18.65 kilometre walk with my husband.

A Spoonful Of Sugar

My second article was published on the parentimg site last week but with all that's been going on here, I never got around to posting the link on my blog. So here it is now!

I hope the link works!

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...