Tuesday, 26 December 2017

Of Wasted Wedding Wishes And Cruel Condolences....

                         The traditional North Indian Bridal Chura (red and white bridal bangle set)
                                                      Picture Credit: The Inter Net

A little more than two months ago, I woke up rather early for a Sunday morning. Diwali had just got over and I was feeling languorous. Five days of festivities, coupled with my husband's office and son's school routines on in full force, does not leave much time for leisure. The only saving grace was that since my students in India had Diwali holidays, I, too, had the week off from on line classes. But I had invited our former neighbours for brunch on that particular Sunday, since their daughter was leaving for college in Singapore at the end of October, and I wanted to say good bye to her. I switched on the net, as I waited for the water to boil for my tea. The first group I always check is the security group on WhatsApp and a solitary message had popped in. 'Asian male shot dead in the early hours of Sunday, on XYZ road.' At first I mentally dismissed the message, sorry as I felt for the unknown victim, even as I thought that Asian males should know better than to be out on Nairobi streets at pre dawn hours. I'm ashamed to admit that my second thought was 'must be a young guy coming home from a drinking binge, and probably feeling invincible, as a result of all that alcohol floating around in the blood stream.' (Those who know me well, know that I am puritanical in my dislike of alcohol and tobacco and cannot understand to this day why men and women need to down a couple of pegs or ingest smoke to enjoy life, but I rarely air my views on this particular subject.). I could not have been more wrong about the circumstances of the death, as the next set of messages, which were rapidly pouring in, proved...
In what was later explained away as a bungled police operation and a case of 'mistaken identity', one of Nairobi's richest young businessmen had been shot in his own bungalow. The armoured vehicles had allegedly entered his compound by breaking down his gate and when he tried to retaliate from his bed room window, he was gunned down. Soon his identity was freely being shared on all the Nairobi groups and I was horror struck when I realized I had met his young wife, (who had recently had their baby), a couple of times, a few years ago, because she is very close to friends of ours from our Dar Es Salaam days. She also works for one of the Asian Radio channels as a Radio Jockey and is a celebrity of sorts in Nairobi. And we had heard all about the impending wedding on radio too, at that time...
Brunch menu forgotten, I sat down with my cup of tea and tried to process what the steady stream of messages was saying. I remembered our common friend flying down from India for one of the biggest weddings Nairobi has seen in the last few years. I went onto to Face Book to look at pictures. When you have common friends tagged in pictures, you can usually view them on Face Book. And there she was in all her bridal glory, wearing bangles very similar to the ones in the picture I have shared above, her proud, brand new husband by her side and our mutual friend grinning broadly, especially as she had made a special trip from India to bless the happy couple.... It was hard, SO hard to believe the young man was no more..
Just a week or so before this terribly tragic incident, one of my school friends, who had been keeping vigil outside the Intensive Care Unit in a Pune hospital where her mother had been admitted, shared a couple of stories with me, during her weekly telephonic updates about her mother's condition. She told me about a young girl, from a small town near Pune, who she met outside the critical care unit, who had just lost her husband to dengue. That day, she told my friend, through a flood of tears, was to have been their six month wedding anniversary... "How will I live without my husband?" she plaintively asked my friend. "The way I do.." was my brave friend's reply, even as she showed that young stranger her own husband's picture, whom she had lost to brain tumour very early in their married life. Another young bride, my friend said, had just lost her husband to a massive heart attack and was busy trying to make her new in laws eat a few morsels in the hospital corridor, in the midst of tragedy..
So what happened to all those wedding wishes? Did they never reach these couples? If not, where did they go? You know, all those 'congratulations and best wishes and long and happy married life' ones that we dutifully spout at weddings,( but genuinely mean), just before we systematically attack the lunch or dinner buffet?
I like to believe they float around everywhere and though they may not always be of use to the couples that they were intended for, they do sometimes reach those who were, may be, meant to have them....All those young husbands and wives who were saved by a whisker from an accident, those who survived a life threatening disease, or a terrorist attack (like the young couple who was caught in the Taj hotel just before their own wedding reception, during the 26/11 attacks in Mumbai, but miraculously made it out alive) definitely benefited from their own wedding wishes, and those 'wasted wishes' still circulating around in the Universe too...That's what, they say, spreading positivity is all about, after all.
The tail end of November brought more terrible news. My school music teacher's ten year old son passed away suddenly in his school, in my home town Pune. He succumbed to heart problems and could not be revived... Besides being my former teacher's son he was also my son's classmate's first cousin and before we moved to Nairobi, I had often met the boy, who was a mere toddler then, while waiting to pick my own son up from outside the school. So when my cousin from Pune , who was my classmate in school, messaged me the news, I literally had no words left...
I lost a former student too, a few days ago, the victim of a road accident in my home town. He was fifteen years old and soon to appear for his tenth standard board exams.. I have his mother's number in my phone, but I do not have the words to express my grief and sorrow...Many of his classmates and friends are currently my students on Skype and the day after we got the news, every one of them made mistake after mistake in class. All I could say to console them was, 'I know you are upset,don't worry about your errors now. You will do well in the exam...'
When a mother has lost a child, offering condolences seems so trite, it seems as if one is being deliberately cruel. How can you condole pre mature death? Nearly three decades ago, I read an article about facing loss in Reader's Digest which has stayed with me to this day. Never, ever, tell a grieving parent, 'Oh I know exactly how you feel.' NO, you cannot know what a person who has lost their baby in a particular set of circumstances is going through, so do not even bother to try. Instead, send a hot meal, send a prayer, send a warm hug...do NOT send condolences.
Why did I choose to write about this when almost the whole world is on holiday and on vacation in exotic locations around the world and in a relaxed 'end of the year' mood?
My former teacher's Face Book post from a couple of days ago compelled me to put down what has been on my mind for a while. She said there is a word for a woman or a man who has lost a life partner :widow/widower. There is a word for a child who has lost both parents: an orphan. (And also for a child who has lost either parent: motherless/ fatherless). But there is NO word in the English language for a parent who has lost a child... She has requested everyone to remember those parents who have lost children and to say a prayer for them..even as you go about enjoying and living your own life, as you should and you must...
Today it's also been two years since my son's friend lost his little sister. A few hours from now, I will plant a tree in her name in a location in our garden, where, when it grows after a few years, it will be seen from the road this child took to school every day. A school she left too soon...That's my way of passing on my condolences, to all I know who have lost a child. I know it's not enough, it never will be, but it is all I can do...

Wednesday, 13 December 2017

My Grand Mother's Pumpkin Ice Cream


                                                       Boiled, sliced, orange Pumpkin   

                                                       Peter, Peter, Pumpkin Eater,
                                                       Had a wife and couldn't keep her.
                                                       So he put her in a pumpkin shell,
                                                       And there he kept her very well!

These lines, which will have my ultra feminist daughter up in arms, (wives aren't kept, they can well earn their own 'keep', thank you very much, I can hear her say), are from a book which was a childhood favourite: Illustrated Mother Goose, Nursery Rhymes. Outdated and outmoded the rhyme may well be, but whenever I gazed at the pumpkin in my refrigerator, it kept echoing through my mind...And stared at it I certainly did because it sat on a shelf in there for two whole weeks. My husband was on a business trip to Tanzania (he's back now so I can safely declare it in this post!), my daughter isn't home from college for her winter (Nairobi summer) break yet and so with just my son and me rattling around the  house, cooking had been reduced to a bare minimum. The longer it sat there the more distasteful the idea of cooking it became. Being Indian, we have myriad ways of cooking pumpkin: a stir fried vegetable with peanut powder and spices, or steamed pumpkin with spiced curd or sweetened pumpkin mixed with whole wheat flour and deep fried...the list can run on, depending on which region of India you come from. None of these seemed very appealing and then I remembered my grandmother's pumpkin ice cream!
I was ten years old and we were living in Gauhati, Assam and my paternal grandmother was visiting us. My sister and I came home from school one day to find that a lovely surprise awaited us. A mellow yellow, tempting, home made ice cream! We immediately helped ourselves to bowlfuls of frozen gold, for that's exactly what it looked like. My grandmother asked us to guess the main ingredient, but  try as we might, we just couldn't and had to finally, reluctantly, give up and ask her to disclose the answer. It was Pumpkin Ice Cream!
Since that day, until she passed away nearly a decade later, my grandmother often made this particular ice cream, especially when we had guests over for a meal. Our favourite game was asking people to hazard a guess about the core component! Believe me, few succeeded...
My grandmother belonged to that generation of ladies who never really needed a recipe to cook. They did everything off the top of their heads. And silly, foolish, immersed in academics me never bothered to ask her either...And so the recipe for the perfect pumpkin ice cream, instead of being passed on to me, passed away with my grandmother...
A couple of times in the past I did try to make pumpkin ice cream. But either I could clearly SEE pumpkin strands embedded in the ice cream or worse I could taste boiled pumpkin, which was not supposed to be the case at all...So I had given up.
This morning I did not have a very busy Skype class schedule and that pumpkin in the fridge was grating on my nerves, with its clearly printed super market price sticker. Pumpkins are expensive here! The Internet did not yield a satisfactory recipe because every American pumpkin ice cream recipe had cinnamon and other similar spices! We use cinnamon in our curries and biryanis, rarely in our desserts...I decided to make up a recipe as I went along..
So I asked my house help to skin the poor pumpkin and chop it up. She kept complaining how tough it had become...well, it had been aged to perfection! It was finally ready to be boiled, then pureed and mixed into the milky concoction. After simmering the whole mixture for quite a while and then cooling it, it was finally ready for freezing.
                                           Bubbling merrily away in all its golden glory...   

I wanted to play the guessing game with my son but I realized that I had given away the secret on the family WhatsApp group, which he read after coming home from school. I tend to forget he's on that group because he has only recently been allowed to use WhatsApp, albeit only from home.
 Post dinner I scooped up some ice cream for myself in a glass bowl. It was amazing, though it still needed a bit more time to freeze firmly, but it certainly brought my grandmother and those long gone days to mind.. But my son was very skeptical and took just a spoonful of the ice cream to begin with. Needless to say, he LOVED it and came back with a huge bowlful. GenNext had become successfully addicted to this nutrient dense, rich ice cream.
  My sister wanted the recipe immediately and I told her I planned to write up the story on my blog and would share the recipe there too. So here it is! I've never shared a recipe in the last six and a half years of blogging simply because there are people better qualified to do so out there but I really couldn't get anything good for the Indian version of this ice cream and so I modified my Kulfi recipe!

Whole Milk: 1 litre
Condensed Milk: 1 can
Saffron: A few strands
Cardamom: A few green pods
Pumpkin: 400 gms approximately.The bright orange one, skinned, deseeded, chopped, boiled and pureed finely, when cool.

Boil the milk in a heavy bottomed pan and let it simmer for around thirty minutes. Add all the condensed milk, along with the saffron and cardamom and keep stirring. When the quantity reduces to three fourths of the original, add the pumpkin mix and keep stirring. Let it simmer for at least thirty to forty minutes more, until you actually see it becoming thicker and creamier.
Remove from flame and allow it to cool completely. Pour it into the vessel or box you want to freeze it in. After a few hours, take it out from the freezer, scoop it up and let the rich, smooth, creamy goodness trickle down your throat! There will be no ice crystals if you have done it right. And yes, allow folks to try it out and play the game with them! That's actually the icing on the cake... I mean the topping on the ice cream!

Home made pumpkin ice cream, anyone?

Saturday, 11 November 2017

Knick-Knack Paddy Whack, Who Gives A Bone?

The past week has not been an easy one. The mother of a very dear friend of mine passed away in my home town, Pune, after a month long battle with multiple ailments. While we all have to accept that our parents are ageing, what makes this triply hard to bear is the fact that my friend lost her husband to brain tumour more than nine years ago. Since then, her mother has been her bed rock, helping to care for her then toddler, now pre teen daughter. And when the time came, my friend stood strong, like a rock too, by her mother's side in the Intensive Care Unit, firmly pushing away the terrible memories that hospitals evoke from her husband's battle for life, of more than a decade ago.. When I messaged her yesterday, she was keeping herself busy, 'taking stock of things', she said. This brought home the point that while our bodies leave this earth, we leave behind a vast array of our 'things'...
This grim reality was spelled  out to me when I came to view the house we are currently living in. I have been wanting to write about this for a long while but somehow, the time never seemed right, and it just kept brewing in my mind for the last nearly ten months...So here's the rather strong brew for you. Ingest it, if you can, then act upon it, if you will...
I contacted the house agent after seeing the advert for the bungalow for rent in our bi weekly on line school reporter. We were interested because the house was a minute's walk from my son's school and we had been saying for a long while that once our nose-to-the-academic-grindstone daughter graduated from high school and moved on to college, we would definitely move closer to the school because, besides academics, our son has a finger in every pie: Music, Sports, Drama and this entailed in him reaching home rather late most days of the week, something that makes me very uncomfortable in Nairobi. And so there I was, with an appointment to view the house, having rushed across town in between taking classes on line, because good houses, that close to school, don't remain empty for long...

The first thing that greeted me were two permanent geranium beds on either side of the front door steps, filled with scarlet geraniums, interspersed with pristine white ones. I have loved these flowers since I was a child and it looked like the owner did too...

As we marched up the terracotta coloured steps, I saw two decorated, brightly coloured cloth birds hanging from either side of the door, very ethnic, very Indian.. I turned to the agent and asked if the owner was a person of Indian origin. She affirmed that that was indeed the case!
We stepped into the foyer and I took in the mellow wood floors and the chocolate brown built-in cupboards, shelves and cabinets. Carefully selected (or so it seemed to me) paintings hung at well chalked out intervals along the long, broad passageway, leading up to the living room or hall, as we call it in India. Long curtains, both sheer and printed ones, fluttered in the gentle breeze coming in from the French windows, which led to a spacious porch, where I could just imagine the owner and his wife sitting down for numerous cups of tea over the last few decades, since they built this house.
The house agent explained to me that the old man had passed away six months ago, while his wife had preceded him a few years earlier. Both the sons, had left Kenya for greener pastures many moons ago and that's how the house was now available for rent. Numerous vases of various types lined  the mantelpiece, over the huge fireplace that dominated the room, each one chock full of artificial flowers. I guess, as the couple aged, they gave up getting in fresh flowers from the garden and settled for fake ones instead...Other knick knacks too vied for space there and I could see souvenirs from various countries around the world, much like I have back home in India. Compact disks spilled out of their allotted niche in the television cabinet. Rugs and comfortable sofas were scattered around the room.
A beautifully carved, black-brown glass fronted crockery cupboard adorned the dining room with it's large dining table and fancy overhanging lamps. That cupboard and another built in crockery cabinet were both crammed with delicate tea sets, dinner plates, quarter plates, exquisite bowls, cut glass serving bowls, expensive glasses and pudding sets. Specially bought and cut to size laminated faux-wood paper lined the shelves which were literally groaning under the weight of this collection, out of which some of the items were at least half a century old, if not more..
A quick walk through the master bedroom revealed a huge ornately carved bed and two of the walls were lined with floor to ceiling wooden cupboards. I dared to open one just to check the shelf size but hurriedly closed it again when I saw that bedding, pillows, quilts, towels and curtains were threatening to spill out of that vast space!
The remaining three bedrooms were no better off in terms of the sheer quantity of items in cupboards, old mementos, books, long forgotten clothes and more pillows, but the agent assured me that the things would be 'disposed of' the minute someone agreed to rent the house. The master bathroom cabinet had packets of disposable gloves and medicines, a poignant reminder that an ill old man had lived and breathed his last here. And then, I came to the kitchen.
The heart of any Indian home is it's kitchen. Our spicy, tasty food, with an infinite variety of  dishes aims to please the palate. But that comes at a cost! We need a large number of utensils to whip up those delicious meals. This kitchen, with its cosy breakfast nook and 'cooking' themed grey tiles was no different. Though the lady of the house had died a few years ago, her things remained untouched. Shelves upon shelves of steel vessels in all shapes and sizes, iron woks, serving spoons, knives, peelers, pressure cookers in myriad sizes, rolling pins, a built in oven, electric stove top, you name it, it was there..A tiny glass cupboard was still full of her spices dating back from heaven knows when. All the little touches that make a home were present. Only the owners were conspicuous by their absence...
The most heart wrenching sight, for me, that day, was a little wooden temple lying empty in one of the bedrooms. All the idols of our Gods were missing and someone had carelessly thrown a back supporting orthopaedic belt across it, one that had probably been used by the old man. The house, being a very tangible and lucrative asset, would be cleaned and rented out for a princely sum but no one was bothered about that one lone belt that had been the old man's constant companion in his last days, perhaps his only comfort.
By the time we moved in, the house had been 'decluttered' and, the agent told me, all the furniture and most of the things had been distributed to friends and distant family members. The rest of the things were either being taken away by the live in house keeper or had been consigned to the dust bin. And so that was how a full house was reduced to a mere shell and a lifetime of memories were simple swept away or given away, because frankly nobody had the time or the energy or the inclination to care..
On my first morning in the new kitchen, the house keeper who was vacating the detached servants' quarter that day, knocked at the window. When I opened it, she told me to look in between two shelves in one of the kitchen cupboards and to pull out the three things kept there. I did as instructed and out came three cast iron griddles...Any Indian woman will tell you how particular we are about our griddles because they influence the quality and texture of our chapattis, parathas, dosas, to a very large extent! The house keeper wanted to take away those for her own use but had overlooked them earlier, as had my house help, when she had cleaned the kitchen from top to bottom, before we moved in... I handed them to her through the window and, as I closed it, sadly thought to myself that I had now truly obliterated the last trace of the actual owner of this kitchen, I had just donated one of the cornerstones of her kitchen, her 'tavas' (griddles).
After this interesting and novel experience of moving, I was doubly glad that I started my own declutter process in my own home in India nearly a decade ago! Instead of hoarding and buying more and more, I simply keep donating what I have, be it clothes, toys, crockery, furniture, NOT books! Holidays are restricted to buying just a couple of affordable souvenirs, if at all even those..Literally and metaphorically, at the end of the day, I would rather throw my own junk out of the trunk than have strangers do it for me...because really who gives a bone about your knick knacks?

                                         Some of my knick knacks from back home in India!

             Well, to be honest, I have a whole cupboard of them! But no additions now...Who gives a bone!

Wednesday, 11 October 2017

Helpful Houseguests Make Happy Hosts

No matter how much we protest, a time comes when our children go off by themselves to friends’ houses for short as well as long durations of time. It starts with a much begged-for sleepover, followed by a weekend friend’s house, then a long weekend to a friend’s straight from the college hostel. Of course, coming home and then leaving would not be worth the time and money. These scenarios are going to come up sooner or later in all our lives and the sooner we start training our children, the better it will be for all concerned, but more especially for the parent hosting your child or young adult!
To read more please go to  http://www.parentous.com/2017/09/29/good-manners-during-sleepovers/

Tuesday, 10 October 2017

My Grandmother's Ginger Tea

Today, the 10th of October 2017, it has been TWENTY years since my paternal grandmother passed away. This is also the point where I have lived longer on this Earth without her than I have with her around... Hard to get my mind around that fact but it's true..Last night as I was mulling over my grandmother's memories, I came across a blog post by a family friend's son where he had written about the technique of making a cup of good, strong, ginger infused tea. I cannot think of ginger tea without thinking of my grandmother...so it truly seemed like a sign from above.
Just like my mother's panacea for all ills is a cup of strong coffee, my grandmother's was tea. No matter who comes to our house with no matter which problem, the first word's out of my mother's mouth, before she offers any sympathy or a more concrete solution are,"I will make you a nice cup of coffee!" Little wonder then that my Dad tracks coffee prices around the world so that every time they go overboard with their household budget, he can conveniently blame the ever (and over) flowing coffee!
My grandmother had to start her day with a cup of hot ginger tea. No dry ginger powder for her.. It had to be fresh ginger, pounded meticulously in her brass mortar, and then boiled in water with carefully measured tea leaves. Milk was added separately to the cup along with sugar and then she would sit down to enjoy her first cup of the day.
I remember groggily awakening to the sound of the mortar and pestle at the unearthly hour of 4:00 am at times... Those were the days when my very social grandmother had invited relatives for lunch and had to start cooking literally at the crack of dawn. She made everything fresh, on that very morning, from scratch herself.. no fancy cooks would have ever passed muster with her. But before she began her first self assigned task of the day, she HAD to have her cuppa chai! And hence the sounds that used to shake me awake from deep slumber...I think the only time she ever actually relaxed was with her first cup. After that she was on the go, almost throughout the day, putting many a younger folk to shame with her high energy levels even as she came close to seventy years of age.
Her second cup of the day was when our milkman of more than forty years brought fresh milk. No pasteurized, sterilized, plasticky milk for her. It came straight from the cow and her ten o clock cup
actually had unboiled milk in it. She always claimed there was nothing to match that taste!
On the first of the month, she unfailingly paid the milk bill, with crisp rupee notes which she had withdrawn from the bank that very morning. Oh yes! There was a method to everything she did...That was also the day, month after month, when she made a nice hot cup of ginger tea for our milkman who, after so many years of faithful service, had become family, with the fresh milk from his steel can..
Her third cup of the day was at 4:00 pm, after her short nap and before her evening walk. This was also the time when people would pop in to meet her and to share life's travails over a steaming cup. In those days of no social media,, people actually visited each other and bonded over tea and Marie biscuits.. Simple pleasures but it took them through the daily battle of life...
Cup, Mug, Teacup, Beverage, Drink, Tea
Today, her antique steel kettle, with its tightly fitting lid, lies unused in my mother's kitchen.My mother prefers to use her own steel vessel with its handle for easy transference of the tea to a cup. The mortar and pestle, which once upon a time, shone like spun gold and were home to finely crushed ginger every morning and noon, are covered with the fine patina of age and memories.. so so many memories.. of sipping tea after being diagnosed with jaundice at the age of seven, after a hectic day at school, after complaining about a sore throat and after getting married when I started brewing  my own tea to coming back for a visit and drinking my grandmother's unmatched to this day ginger tea...

Monday, 31 July 2017

From My Desk: Tales Out Of School

                                               My Alma Mater, St.Helena's School, Pune.

As we went back and forth on the Core Group via WhatsApp, regarding the sequence of events that would unfold during our 25th Reunion on 24th June 2017, a couple of our team members categorically told me that I would have to give a speech! I had been the Head Girl of my batch and had also represented the school during elocutions and debates, and so they insisted I speak a few words. At first I tried to wriggle out of the responsibility, telling them to find a worthier candidate (they found this most shocking!) but both of them absolutely insisted upon a speech, with the remaining core committee chiming in their agreement too. 
And so I thought I would come back from our sojourn up North and would pen down a few words just before the reunion. Imagine my horror when, one hot summer's day in Delhi, I received a message from the group saying they wanted to print my speech in the Memoir Book and needed it before the end of next day. So in the middle of sight seeing and admiring Mughal architecture under a scorching sun and gorging on North Indian delicacies, I had to actually write! I had to borrow my husband's lap top since I wasn't carrying my own and had to sit down and write, after our day had finally ended at 12 midnight. It took me a couple of hours to write this, it was fun after I actually began and got into the groove and I finally finished the speech and mailed the group by 2:00 am! 
Last Sunday afternoon a dear aunt and her family came to our house for lunch. In the midst of all the chatter and feasting on ice cream, she did not get adequate time to go through the memoir book in detail. She herself writes beautifully and so she was especially keen. I told her I had been mulling over the idea of putting up the speech on my blog, so fellow Helenites who missed the reunion could read it and I would do it soon. I have reproduced it verbatim from the original. (In other words I have copy pasted it!). Here it is!

From Anupama's Desk
Our dearest teachers and my fellow Helenites, (notice that I still say Helenites and refuse to use the word ‘ex’! Once a Helenite, always a Helenite!
I would like to welcome you all to the 25th reunion of the batch of 1992. Precisely twenty five years and four months ago, we were hard at work, studying for our much dreaded and much awaited ICSE exam.  Today, we realize it was the first of many challenges life would throw our way. Our teachers had prepared us so well for the ICSE and it is that training which has stood us in good stead. No matter which field we chose in life, no matter where we travelled, we have excelled in our respective fields and continue to do so. We stand head and shoulders above the rest, though I say it myself, I know I speak for all of us. The credit for our achievements, clich├ęd as it may sound, lies in the roots that gave us wings to fly: our teachers.
No matter where we may be, we remember you all at any given moment. Whether it is while explaining concepts of various subjects to our own children or to our students, while reading a poem, or while travelling, or while watching a classic movie and humming each song along with the lead pairs, listening to or using a foreign language, conversing fluently in Hindi, doing the household accounts, making a hand written list, admiring a work of art or while using computers, or exercising or playing a sport to keep fit, you, our dear teachers loom large in our minds. You rank really high for us, the people who molded us, guided us, yelled at us or gently corrected us, as the need may have been. You cannot even imagine how your words remain deeply engraved on our minds. It takes but a WhatsApp chat trail or a mini reunion (or the planning of a mega one!), or a sepia tinted school photo doing the rounds to revive many, many fond memories. I quote:” Recall it as often as you wish, a happy memory never wears out.”  Truer words were never said. Our memories of our school days are such happy ones! Never mind if we got pulled up by Miss. Massih herself for the wrong patterned uniform, or that we were caught eating in class or rebuked for using bad language or chastised for rushing pell-mell down the ancient wooden stairs, at the risk of breaking our necks. It was our safe, secure world, where the only stress was wondering which vegetable Mummy had made for our tiffins, or whether our friend had brought our favourite veggie or pickle that day or whether we would pass the Maths test or if we had enough money for a visit to the tuck shop to buy Zebra sweets or Bobbies! How fortunate we were that our parents chose St.Helena’s School for us. How proud we are that she is our Alma Mater.
Those were the wonder years. The friendships and the little cliques that were formed during our school days remain alive and thrive even to this day. Such is the beauty of being school friends, that  although years may pass by before we meet, whenever we do, we reconnect as if we had never parted that long ago March day. There’s a comfort factor that’s peculiarly unique to each batch and so it is with us. We have all eaten India Ice cream under the ‘shady’ tree, we’ve gone through adolescence together, had fights, burst into tears, gone for sleepovers, laughed at the silliest jokes possible, agonized over miserable marks in a particular test, worn super short P.T uniforms (and imagined that our gangly legs and bony knees looked stunning!) we’ve experienced it all. We knew each other before we knew our college friends, husbands and colleagues, we have experienced so many things together, have had so many firsts as a group. The 8th standard Mahabaleshwar trip experiences, our concerts, choir festivals, debate and elocution competitions, sports events and games, our 10th standard socials with the Bishops boys, our first board exams,  to name but a few. Whenever we meet our fellow Helenites, we fit together like pieces of a puzzle that had been scattered by the wind and has now been safely gathered up.
Many of our girls could not make it to the reunion today and we are missing them sorely. Some of us are here from far flung lands, some of us never moved out of our home town, but wherever we may be, our school and our teachers and all those associated with it hold a very special place in our hearts. The green uniform, which we grumbled so much about during our days, stands out today in our minds, as the one cohesive factor that united us. Coupled of course, with our green bloomers, black ribbons, black shoes and white socks that the teachers and prefects were forever asking us to pull up! See what I mean by comfort factor? Would I have dared mention green bloomers from any other podium?
We were a highly spirited batch. The average IQ for our batch was super high and some of us still have those IQ cards because we were all tested together in school! But sometimes we used our brains to get out of doing work. I guess it’s now time to disclose to our teachers that one really dark and dreary monsoon day, to get out of giving a Maths test with Mrs. Iyer in 9 B, we managed to turn off the main electricity switch for the entire floor. We instigated our bell monitor to flip the switch on her way out to ring the bell. It really was too dark to see and gave us the perfect excuse for refusing to give the test. 10 B had a Chemistry test at the same time and they later told some of us that it really was impossible to see what they were doing, but Mrs. John refused to cancel their test! The switch was turned back on when the monitor went out to signal the end of the Maths period and no one was the wiser that we had actually managed to play a trick a la Mallory Towers and St.Clares!
We were in 9th standard when Mrs. Thadani had Ashwin, Mrs. Dinshaw’s daughter had Lianne and Mrs. Iyer’s daughter too had a baby. Close to Mrs. Thadani’s  due date, we spent every lunch period before every Biology test, praying that the right hormones ( which Mrs. Thadani herself had taught us about) would get to work, land her in hospital and make us miss the test! No such luck! That was also the time each of these teachers put me in charge of their classes, to teach and to productively use the period to make the class do the work they had set out well in advance. I truly tried my best and I can honestly say I learnt how hard it was to be in their shoes, in charge of fifty girls! My respect for all our teachers went up many notches in those few months.
Our children are horrified when we tell tales out of school and they cannot believe how terrible and incorrigible we were! But all good things come to an end and so did our school life….But all said and done, we were good kids, as I’m sure our teachers will be more than willing to testify. Of course we are no longer sixteen going on seventeen, innocent as roses, like in the song Ms. Postwalla taught us! No, for our 25th reunion, we can safely be described as ‘ Roses in full bloom’ but Mrs. Dinshaw herself explained to us ‘ A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.’
Lastly, I don’t want to brag or make anyone jealous, but I can still fit into the ear rings I wore in High School!
Thank you.

Monday, 17 July 2017

Genius Girl Geetanjali

It has been a long while since I last posted on my blog. We moved to a new house in Kenya and then had a plethora of guests from India in the new house and somehow I never got around to writing about it. I hope to do so in the near future. Then we came on our annual sojourn to our home town Pune and we went for a quick vacation up north, in an attempt to expose the children to the northern half of their genetic make up. The northern part of India has a ubiquitous charm and there's lots to write about but again, not right now.
While we were traversing across our national capital, I was also a part of the core team on ground zero in Pune, who were hard at work planning our 25th school reunion. And thanks to the connectivity on WhatsApp, they asked me to pen a tribute to a beloved class mate who had passed away in a very tragic accident. I have been wanting to write about our class genius for the last many, many years. I had, in fact, even asked her younger sister for permission to write (and received it too)  but then found it too overwhelming emotionally and so never really got around to doing it, except in my mind. Now, it seemed, my class mates had left me with no choice, as they wanted to print the tribute in the school memoir book we were publishing. And so, on my way from Delhi to Agra I managed to write a few lines about a very dear friend, even as I scrubbed away my tears. So, through a blur of tears, here it is...
When I first joined St.Helena's in class two, way back in 1983, Geetanjali was in my division. Our mothers had been class mates in school too and the family's brilliance was already legendary. This, in effect, meant that whenever Geetanjali and I were in the same division, I had absolutely NO chance of standing first and had to be content with a second rank. My mother fondly recalls a day way back in 1985, when we were in fourth standard, and Geetanjali and I were in different divisions. When my mother came to collect the report card, Geetanjali went running upto her and joyfully exclaimed,'Aunty, Anupama has stood first!' Well, so had she in her own division, but was just too modest to add that! That was our Geetanjali to the core.
But the beauty of it was that we all automatically deferred to Geetanjali's far superior intellect and had nothing but praise and admiration for her all through our school years.  She, in turn, remained humble, helpful, generous in sharing her knowledge and ever willing to explain the intricacies of Maths, Physics and Chemistry to those who needed help in High School..
Geetanjali and I were immersed in reading books, even throughout lunch break in school, much to the irritation of our friends. She loved Anne Of Green Gables. Surprisingly, I never read Anne (with an E) then, and became fond of the Anne books much later. But I can never read Anne without thinking of Geetanjali, even today...Before I left Kenya last month, I watched all the Anne episodes newly released on Netflix and desperately wished I could message Geetanjali to get her view of it all!
 I always had the highest marks in essay writing. During an essay competition in the 9th standard, our teacher had given us the topic, 'My favourite Book'. I had just put down Benazir Bhutto's 'Daughter Of The East'. I had nothing but admiration for the lady in question, after reading about her travails, and that came through in my essay about the book and I thought I had written a brilliant piece! Geetanjali, on the other hand, wrote about 'Anne Of Green Gables' and she won the first prize! As a fourteen year old, it was upsetting for me at that point, but in retrospect I can quite see why our teacher found Anne more delightful than Benazir! Today I'm SO glad Geetanjali won that day... for she was to lose a very major battle a few years down the line...the battle for life.
Due to our surnames being in alphabetical order, a U and a V in school, we sat close to each other during exams. Geetanjali writing an exam was a sight to behold! She was absolutely calm and steady and if I ever felt overwhelmed by a question, I only had to glance at her and observe her demeanour for just thirty seconds to regain my confidence! 
She had a brilliantly fair complexion and actually glowed from within and truly stood out as extraordinary. Her eyes were  glowing, glittering jet black orbs, framed by beetling brows and sparkling with all that knowledge deep within her. An Everest house prefect, Geetanjali was loved by all who came in contact with her. Other friends fondly recall cycling to school with Geetanjali, especially during the monsoon months when she stood out by virtue of her bright yellow raincoat. Yet another friend says whenever she visted Geetanjali's house, she often found her Dad teaching her from books meant for the next academic year! Her brain could easily absorb material meant for a grade higher than the one she was currently in. Little wonder then that she found the current year's work child's play...An IQ test in school in the 9th grade proved what the rest of us always knew.. Geetanjali, with an intelligence quotient of 149, was at genius level...
Engineering or medicine? Daughter of an engineer father and doctor mother, she faced this classic dilemma. Eventually medicine triumphed and she became a radiologist. As a doctor, she once again went out of her way to help and guide friends who had medical issues and is very fondly recalled by every single one of them today.
One new year's eve, fifteen or so years ago, I received a cryptic message on my cell phone. 'Happy New Year'. Geetanjali. I knew only one Geetanjali in my life who would reach across to me, a decade after we last met, with just a short message and a name. I grabbed the phone and chatted non stop with her for more than an hour... We promised to meet and catch up but it was not meant to be, for I moved to Tanzania very soon after that. Then her younger brother and I were in touch through the now extinct Orkut and he gave me the news that Geetanjali had a baby daughter and another little one was on the way. Many messages passed back and forth between the two of us, via her brother, even as her second doll was born. Geetanjali would not live to see her second baby's first birthday. Today, it has been exactly ten years, on this very date.
I will never forget that July night when my mother called me up in Tanzania to give me the heart breaking news that Geetanjali had succumbed to her injuries after a horrific road accident. My first ridiculous thought was ' But she hasn't read the newly released Harry Potter yet. How can she go?'Our common love of books bound us, even as I heard she was no more. I accused my own mother of lying to me because my heart and mind refused to accept the heart wrenching news. Even as tears blinded me and my own then three year old son clung to me, my only thought was for her two daughters. Every time tears flowed down my face my son burst into tears too.I felt as if I could not even mourn for such a dear friend. I had to control myself with great difficulty and often resorted to sobbing in the bathroom, with my three year old toddler banging on the door from outside. If I was in so much pain what did her immediate family go through?
 The two adorable baby girls she left behind are in middle school today and, friends in touch tell me, are as brilliant as their mother was! I am so glad that her legacy will continue after her and I hope I can meet them some day when they are older. We all have so many memories of their mother that we would love to share with them.
She will always be loved and missed by us. We salute you Geetanjali even today, like we did then. We missed you sorely at our 25th reunion and it wasn't really complete without you...We are planning to institute a rolling trophy for Outstanding Academic Performance in your name, in our alma mater St.Helena's School, Pune, so that generations of girls, not just us, remember Geetanjali Vaidya...

                                                           Dr.Geetanjali Vaidya Swami
                                                             April 1977-  July 2007

Monday, 10 April 2017

The Tsavo Tale: Aruna's Story Of A Walk With Rangers And An Encounter With Poachers.

                                                  Only Elephants Should Wear Ivory

We see a different Africa, a luxurious one, ensconced in tents in five star resorts, devouring international cuisine and going on safaris in top of the line safari vans. And then, one day, I met Aruna Varsani, who had taken on the challenge of venturing into a different part of Africa, the one we had only heard about, felt sad about and seen pictures of…I was shaken  to the core when I heard Aruna’s Tsavo story and looked at her detailed pictures.
I began by asking Aruna the motivation behind undertaking such a unique adventure. She candidly revealed that she wanted to come out of her comfort zone (very similar to the one I am currently wallowing in) and that she wanted to volunteer to do her bit towards elephants who are poached for ivory. She wanted to interact with the people on ground, the ones who risked their very lives to protect elephants.
Her biggest challenge?
 To survive a twelve day trek, with a bare minimum of resources available, be it food or water.

                                                            The Bus To Tsavo

On a cold August morning, leaving behind her husband and young children, Aruna boarded the bus in Nairobi, joining a group of complete strangers, to spend a period of twelve whole days and nights in the wilderness of Tsavo, that humongous national park, once so lovingly nurtured by David Sheldrik.
A seven hour drive, with a brief lunch halt at the very old Sikh temple at Makindu, found the group in Tsavo by 9:30 at night. An open camping ground awaited them. They had to unload the bus themselves and pitch their own tents.  Aruna was feeling completely lost as she had no clue about how to set up the tent. This was her first camping experience. Two rangers accompanied the team, helping them light a bonfire and keeping a look out for wild animals, even as the team readied for the night.
Luckily for Aruna, her tent partner knew how to set  up a tent. So Aruna handed over materials as and when needed and hunted for stones to hammer the tent pegs in, working in the inky, impenetrable darkness that descends over Tsavo, the minute the sun sets.

                                                                The First Camp

Soup from a packet of soup powder was made over the bonfire and then devoured with bread that had been bought in Nairobi, early that morning. Given how elaborate even everyday Indian meals are, Aruna could barely swallow this makeshift meal. Then it was time for the briefing for the next day.

                                                  Briefing Around The Camp Fire

Back into the tent, sleep eluded Aruna. Every sound is magnified in the jungle and, as the night wore on, newer sounds added to the threat level. Finally after tossing and turning for hours, Aruna joined the rangers who were still sitting around the fire and requested them to heat some water for her to sip, in order to ward off the chill of the night.
Come morning, they only had water to brush their teeth. A shower was a luxury they could not afford that first morning! Clothes had to be in earthen colours, in order to provide a good camouflage in the jungle. Perfume in any form was strictly forbidden and after a morning briefing about the day’s twenty kilometre march and a meagre breakfast of black tea and bread, the group was ready to set off through the thorny Acacia trees that thickly dotted the landscape.Talking was out of question, and they could tap a person’s hand to attract his or her attention. There were two reasons for this. One was to avoid attracting wild animals and the other was to avoid alerting poachers to the fact that a patrol was close by.

                                                     And The Walk With Rangers Begins...

As they forged ahead, spiders, ticks and snakes entangled in the branches were what they had to watch out for. The intense heat, a sleepless night and a frugal lunch of rice and fruits meant Aruna was exhausted, even though the walk through Tsavo had barely begun…
After facing the challenge of pitching the tent again for the next night, Aruna had to be content with wiping herself down with wet wipes and a fresh set of clothes, as only a mug of water was allotted to each camper.

                                                              A Typical Camp

The next day, the landscape changed to tall grasslands, interspersed with trees. They saw wild buffalo grazing nearby and had to maintain absolute silence as they were in danger of being charged at. They also came across zebras, giraffes, deer and ostriches, reminding Aruna that she was very much in Africa, without the comfort of a safari vehicle.
The third day meant an entry into dangerous terrain. They came across dry bones of elephants who had been killed for ivory and also saw bones of dikdiks (a type of small deer), killed by poachers for meat. The reality did not hit Aruna then… A little later the group was hit by a powerful stench. They stumbled upon the half rotten, maggot infested carcass of a huge elephant, with its face smashed in, to remove the portion of the tusks that is embedded deep inside. It was obvious the animal had been killed by a poisoned arrow, as poisoned flesh smells worse than that of an animal killed by other means. Also, the flesh remains untouched by scavengers like hyenas and jackals.
The ground still bore evidence of the gigantic beast’s desperate struggle to survive after it had been hit by the arrows. Aruna’s heart almost stopped at this heart wrenching sight. After searching for some evidence which would point towards poachers, the rangers paid respect to the elephant by laying a small branch across it. Aruna, being a believer in the elephant god, Ganesh, knelt on the ground and bowed her head low, saying a heartfelt sorry for the cruelty that a member of the human race had inflicted upon the innocent animal.

                                                       That First Carcass:The Agony...
A few more kilometres ahead, they came across a six month old skeleton of yet another elephant. The rangers told them an interesting story. After an elephant has been reduced to a mere skeleton, other elephants come and arrange bones in their original shape, no matter how many times they are scattered around by other animals.
Finally the day dawned when the campers were allowed a bucket of water for a shower in the jungle! A banner was strung around a few sticks which had been  fixed into the ground, in a half moon shape and flat stones were placed on the ground for the person to stand on. A buddy system was used to issue warnings, in case other people approached the area. When Aruna’s turn came, she rubbed shampoo into her long hair. Soon she heard the buzzing of bees, attracted by the floral fragrance! Suddenly the no perfume rule made sense! Aruna frantically poured all her water on her hair and yelled for her friend to hand over her bucket as well. Finally all the shampoo was washed off and a simple bath had turned into an adventure! Never mind that she had to trudge back to camp to refill the bucket for her friend…

                                                          Sunrise In The Tsavo

Another sunrise, another day, and coming across more carcasses and bones depressed Aruna and started bogging her down.  They hardly spotted any living animals as animals are smart enough to avoid areas with more bones, directly proportional to poacher activity in a particular area. The landscape changed yet again to knee level grass, where they had to watch out for snakes. Here, Aruna found a coin, this time a Euro, as is the norm for her on every single trip she has taken! She termed it her lucky Euro, as she finally saw a few more living animals that day, which helped to lift her sagging spirits.

                                                               Aruna's Lucky Euro!

That night, her bathroom was the breadth of a thick tree trunk, with a towel held by her tent partner from the other side. Stars twinkled down on her from a dark sky. By now, Aruna was more in tune with the jungle and said she enjoyed the refreshing bath more than any she had had in her Jaguar fitted bathroom at home. A basic meal of rice and pasta followed, (with a side of a green chilly to add some spice!) along with an exchange of ideas and experiences and a warning that now they would enter an area thickly infested with poachers.

                                                                    A Frugal Meal

They next ventured into an area of mostly dead trees, bleached white by the sun. These trees had low branches with grass growing in between. Poachers had placed cleverly camouflaged snares here, to entrap small animals, which the team helped to remove. Later in the day, they also came across snares for elephants, hanging from branches, halfway up the trees.  It becomes very easy for poachers to kill trapped elephants.

                                            And she's removed a snare! Aruna:1, Poachers:0
That day Aruna interviewed Rangers, asking them about the difficulties they face. Many of them do not have footwear suitable for long marches across the terrain, very few of them are armed and they go days without meeting their families. And yet they remain loyal to their work and their country.
                                                      Rangers: Against All Odds...

A snack break on a rough road led to a quick encounter with a snake. The guide signalled for everyone to halt and let the snake go its way. Though panic stricken, Aruna learnt that everything in the jungle does not harm you and it’s nice to live and let live.
A little while later, they came across some miners, digging channels beneath the ground for semi precious stones, an activity that is not strictly legal. The men came out of the tunnels with handfuls of stones in the most gorgeous colours. The team leader identified the stones as a type of ruby and green, yellow and red agates. When asked why they were indulging in this activity, the men, with chapped hands and broken nails as they have no tools to dig with, replied that this was their only means of sustenance. They further added that these stones, found deep in the jungles of Tsavo, eventually make their way into the gem stone factories of Jaipur and Udaipur, in Rajasthan, India!

                                                   Uncut Agates Dug Out With Bare Hands

The following day brought another illegal activity to the fore: Logging: the cutting down of trees for firewood. The father and his young son (whose school had burned down and never been rebuilt) were counselled by the team as to how they were harming the environment by felling trees. The team burnt the stash of firewood accumulated by the duo and also pulled down their dwelling, in a strong bid to discourage them from remaining in the area and causing further harm. It was also a day when they had walked a sum total of thirty two kilometres, resulting in blisters on Aruna’s feet, which required first aid and had to be popped with a hastily sterilized needle.
The next day they had to traverse such difficult terrain that they were given an ancient German truck. Branches entered the truck as it forced its way through the jungle and had to be chopped off, before they could proceed further. Leaves, dust, spiders, liberally showered the group inside the truck and the floor became invisible by the time they were through. The truck took them up a cliff, which was to be their camping spot and which also gave them a bird’s eye view of the jungle. Tents were put up, even as the sun set over Tsavo, giving them a glimpse of yet another beautiful vista. That night, for the  first time, the group heard lions roaring really close by, giving Aruna yet another sleepless night, as the only protection they had was a flimsy tent! It was also a scorpion ridden area, so the tent had to be tightly zipped up at all times…

                                       Hacking Branches Through The Truck To Make Way!

The group came down the cliff the next morning and walked a few kilometres, but then were told to retreat, as there was firing between poachers and forest officials. They had lunch on the cliff top, even as they kept an eye on the chopper circling overhead, while awaiting news regarding the poachers. Then they heard that an elephant carcass had been found nearby, with just one of the tusks removed.  The group was taken to the freshly killed elephant but were then rushed back to the cliff top, as the area was rife with danger.

                                                                      More Agony

The rangers then set a trap near the carcass. They hid themselves in a tree, along with a few experienced people from Aruna’s group. At dusk, the poacher returned to the scene of the crime. He was caught red handed trying to remove the second tusk and was then handed over to the police at Voi, the nearest town.
The entire group was later taken back to the carcass and the rangers had to remove the remaining tusk. They were equipped with just an axe and did not even have gloves or masks. They were literally risking their lives and Aruna felt deeply disturbed at this injustice. After the task was over, they had no soap or disinfectant but just used plain water to wash off splattered blood.  This scenario had a deep impact on Aruna’s mind and gave her an insight into the ground reality at Tsavo. 

                                                    The Tusk That Was Left Behind...

That night, no lions were heard and the group opted to sleep under an open sky, scorpions notwithstanding! They were rewarded by a brilliant meteorite shower, as if the heavens themselves were thanking the little band of volunteers for their perseverance against poachers and for risking their lives in the bush.
Finally the Walk came to an end. The person who had entered Tsavo at one end, was not the same person who exited at the other end.  A toughened Aruna emerged out into civilization after twelve long days…As we wound up our discussion, Aruna shared an interesting anecdote.
Midway through the trip, though the Internet was intermittent, Aruna began posting pictures on Facebook.  At that time her husband was attending a very close family friend’s wedding. People began walking up to him right in the middle of the festivities and asked him outright what kind of a husband he was to send his wife on such a dangerous trip! They even advised him to recall Aruna, mid way through the trip! He sweetly messaged her to take care and to complete the trip safely… Kudos to him!
When her sister came to know that the group had been caught in the cross fire and had had to retreat, she was furious and gave Aruna an earful for endangering her life. Then Aruna stopped posting pictures and snippets of information, until she was safely back in Nairobi.
The Indian community, that Aruna belongs to, gifts an ivory bangle to the newly wed daughter. After hearing about the plight of elephants in Tsavo, a good friend of hers from the same community remarked that she hoped Aruna’s experiences would help end this ancient practice. As Aruna rightly points out,” You cannot take a life in order to bless a girl beginning her new life!”
Before Aruna set off on this unique ‘Walk With Rangers’, she came up with an interesting fund raising idea.  She posted the advertisement banner on FaceBook and asked people to comment below, mentioning in one line how and when they had first met Aruna.  She would personally donate a hundred Kenyan shillings (One US dollar) for each comment.
Aruna collected Fifteen Thousand Kenyan Shillings, which she used to buy shoes for the rangers who walk the long walk through Tsavo, not once in a lifetime like her, but for every single day of their working lives… Aruna, through her Tsavo walk, touched not just lives but also hearts and believes she has made a bit of a positive difference in the lives of the mighty Tuskers and the indefatigable Rangers.

 Picture Credits: Aruna Varsani.

To donate to Walk With Rangers Or To Know More Please Click The Link Above. Thanks!

Wednesday, 22 March 2017

Of A Warmly Welcoming Westgate Mall and Badri's Bride too!

During the Westgate Mall attack on 21st September 2013 and throughout that entire gruesome weekend, we had watched with increasing horror and terror as the heart wrenching events unfolded. Even as we watched live coverage of the attack on television, we only had to rush to our back balcony to watch the plumes of smoke unfurling with increasing intensity over Westlands, the area where we stay and where Westgate is located. The booms from the explosions that we could hear seemed to be eerily echoed via the television in our living room.
I had vowed then and there and in my blog post of that time as well, that one day we would go back to Westgate and we would run up those polished, yellow hued steps again as easily as we had been doing in the preceding years. At that time, looking at the devastation that had occured, I did not know how and when but I knew one day we would do it...
In the meantime, my son's school bus friend began visiting us every Friday, once he had recovered a bit, physically at least. He had been at Westgate with his mother on that fateful day and she had not made it out alive, while he, himself had been severely injured. And so I saw, first hand, how terror tears apart a family and things are never the same again. I saw how a thirteen year old struggled without his mother and how he never seemed to want to go back home from our house... We were more than happy to have him over and feed him his favourite Indian foods. This pattern continued for almost two years until he became a busy high schooler and started adjusting a bit better to life without Mom.
Westgate was painstakingly restored over the next two years (work still continues in parts of the mall) and had reopened by mid 2015. My husband and children made occasional forays to the mall, sometimes for a movie, at times to pick up my daughter's favourite Thai noodles and at other times to buy a pizza from the new-in-Nairobi Pizza Hut. My daughter met friends there and I willingly dropped her off outside the mall. But somehow, I, personally, could never summon up the courage to revisit what had been my favourite mall in Nairobi and my go to place for everything from wheat flour to a mobile phone recharge voucher to the Tuesday Masai Market souvenirs. The image of my son's shattered friend was too fresh in my mind.
All that changed two Sundays ago. My son wanted to watch a particular movie that no one else wanted to. I did not want him to go alone and so we hunted for one that the rest of us could watch as well. We found the latest Bollywood blockbuster but the timings for the two movies did not match at the older mall close to home. My daughter checked the Westgate multiplex theatre timings and it was a perfect match! So he would be alone in his theatre while we would be in the one right next door. And I realised that, providentially, the time had finally come for me to visit Westgate, three and a half years after the attack...
There was a long line of cars snaking their way towards the parking area where security had, of course, been beefed up, with armed soldiers guarding all the entrances, not just at Westgate, but at every single mall in Kenya. So the children and I got off right at the famous yellow steps, while my husband continued driving towards the parking. Pushing back memories of the dead person I had seen lying on those very steps in the early television visuals which were being beamed even as the attack was going on, I walked briskly up the steps. A quick security screening later, we were in the Mall. At first glance, it seemed as if nothing had changed, but a closer look revealed that, actually, everything had changed. Shops had shifted location, some had shut shop at Westgate and had moved to other malls and new entities had made an appearance. Wherever I looked, I could see it in my mind's eye as it had been on the day of the attack. Those extensive and excruciatingly detailed images of terror have been permanently seared on my brain and it took immense effort to clear my mind. I took a deep breath and my olfactory senses were hit by the old familiar Westgate smell,an amalgamation of the fragrance of expensive perfumes wafting out from various shops and the aroma of roasted coffee beans from the coffee shop on the ground floor. I was at home immediately and felt as if Westgate was welcoming me personally and reassuring me that there was no blood and gore around any more. The floors felt so familiar beneath my feet as I searched for an ATM machine. It took a few minutes because the entire bank of ATM machines had been shifted to the opposite side from where they used to be earlier.. Small changes which one must take in one's stride...I walked rapidly past fancy wooden carts selling various traditionally Kenyan items, past a revamped food court, then the escalators took me smoothly up to the last floor and finally I was at the multiplex. Had I really been away for nearly four years?
With my son safely settled in for his movie, my daughter, my husband and I were free to focus on ours. 'Badri Ki Dulhaniya' which translates to Badri's Bride, comes from a renowned Bollywood movie production house, but that, of course, does not automatically guarantee a good movie. We were in for a pleasant surprise.
Set in small town India, it was a refreshing change from jaded European locales. Decent, wearable outfits, no foul language and double entendres, no raunchy lyrics and 'item' numbers with scantily clad ladies prancing around, trying to seduce salivating men, meant half the battle had been won. I could actually watch without wanting to flee home ten minutes into the movie.
But the best part was yet to come. This movie  has the courage to tackle an issue that is a very sensitive one in India and it is one that the bravest and the best shy away from: DOWRY and all that it entails. From bride burning to a girl's parents being forever in debt to female foeticide, as no one wants what will become a liability when the time for marriage comes. All these scenarios and many more can be directly attributed to this one, evil scrounge that still has large parts of India firmly in its evil clutches. The groom to be looks on 'helplessly' as deals are made and sealed, even as girls' lives are negotiated and grooms are 'bought' just to prevent the 'umarried' tag that is sure to follow if a girl is not married off within a stipulated time frame.
While a handful of men from the educated class do not make demands and actually refuse to take anything at all from the girl's parents, most Indian men do succumb to greed and toe their parents' line in this matter. Others may not openly make demands but it understood by both parties that a certain amount of gold, a few diamonds and plenty of 'gifts' are expected to come with the girl, to say nothing of a lavish wedding, which includes a multi course catered meal consisting of half the world's cuisines.The movie is all about how the heroine challenges the stereotypical image of a docile bride to be and how she struggles to establish herself as an independant, earning entity. The groom actually cooks the account books of his own company, in order to pay the high dowry demanded by his own patriarchal father, but the bride even objects to this, as she rightly believes all men must take a firm stand against the social evil of dowry and just say NO, no matter who is footing the bill.
I personally agree and feel we need some grass root changes in the law so that wedding expenses are equally borne by both the wedding parties. Just the anti dowry law is not enough because demands are still made and fulfilled too...Times have radically changed and so there's no reason why a girl's parents and the girl, because most are earning by the time they marry, should foot the huge bill alone, no matter whether they can afford it or not. Any self respecting boy, like my own husband and my sister's husband did,  must share the wedding expense, along with his parents. Until that happens, a girl child will continue to remain unwanted in most homes in India, especially rural ones.
Let's hope this movie has helped an important message to percolate right down to the very dregs of Indian society. And by that I mean those who demand dowry and those who actually give it, no matter what their caste or financial position...Let's hope the eyes of worthless people have been opened because that's what they are, no matter how high their net worth!
It was a Sunday well spent. I had conquered my deep emotions and had finally visited Westgate mall, just like the heroine in the movie had won a hard earned victory over the Dowry demon...

                                     And Westgate, like Phoenix, actually rose from the ashes...
                                                        Heart breaking devastation....
                                                      Followed by painstaking restoration!

P.S : All images are from the net.

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