The curious case of the meat cleaver

One of the first ‘demands’ of parents of the slum where we began our work way back in 2000 was to teach their children English! Somehow these illiterate parents knew intuitively that knowing English would give their children a better start in life. We heeded to their request and as you well know by now the first ‘centre’ that we opened was a spoken English class that catered to about 40 students of all ages. I must say with some amount of pride that a large chunk of our first band speak good English and are gainfully employed. In those days classes were taken by a group of volunteers from the other side of the fence and thus their English was to say the least spot on!

Over the years Project Why mutated into a after school support operation and a well thought model was evolved that was based on employing local talent, thus people from the other side of the fence. Our mission was to ensure good results in school and contain drop outs. The space for English was thus restricted. International volunteers were assigned that task it was quasi impossible to find people who spoke good English willing to work at salaries we offered and in the conditions we worked in. In spite of this, our children are quite proficient in the language.

That English gives you a better start in life is a reality we are all aware of. However today’s blog is about how little knowledge of the language can land you in big trouble. There was a news item is yesterday’s paper that illustrates perfectly what I am trying to say. Here is an abridged version of the tale. Two young girls were carrying raw meat in their bag, probably their dinner. They were stopped by the officer in charge of the scanner. A journo decided to intervene and ask why meat that was neatly packed could not be carried in the metro. The man said it was a banned item and showed him a list of banned items pointing at the item: meat cleaver. The journo tried to explain that meat and meat cleaver were two different things but the man would not hear anything. The matter was taken to a superior and the girls were allowed in. However the man was still insisting he was right and the matter got out of hand with the poor journo being roughed up!

My first reaction was how come a meat cleaver appeared on the list of banned items. I guess it must be a lost borrowed from another country. And I agree that meat cleavers should not be allowed. But what this incident shows is that little knowledge is dangerous. The person manning the scanner did know the word ‘meat’ but had no idea of what a cleaver was. I do agree that ‘cleaver’ is not a word that appears in school books frequently but then I think the staff has to be trained and shown what the banned items are, or maybe one should add a picture of the items to overcome language inadequacies.

I felt sorry for the poor journo who was being gallant and a good Samaritan, but the incident brought a smile on my face and the inevitable reaction on the stupidity of the administration.

Rani – a lesson in compassion

The very first day I started visiting the Kalka temple every morning at 7am, my attention was drawn to a woman many would called a beggar as that is how she supports herself. But I was drawn to her as to me she seemed regal and beautiful in a haunting way. On days when I did not see her,I would look for her and if I did not find her, I would leave a tad disappointed. Each time I saw her, sitting and sipping tea, talking to someone or just standing I would wish her with a loud: Jai Mai Ki! I was sort of mesmerised by her. She was always impeccably dressed in the brightest of colours, squeaky clean – not and easy task in this environment – and smiling. Sometimes I would slip her a few rupees which she accepted with extreme dignity, making me feel grateful. As days went by we used to exchange a few pleasantries. I must confess I looked forward to these small trysts. I was dying to hear her story but never asked anything for fear of offending her.

A few days back she stopped me. She wanted to ‘introduce’ me to her niece. She told me the little girl was orphaned and was being badly treated by the relatives she was living with. Bhavna is nine and a lovely child. She asked me if I could give the child some clothes as she only had the one she was wearing. She also told me that the child would be leaving soon. The nest day I gave her some money to buy the girl some clothes. I also asked her what her name was and how come she had landed in the temple. She did not tell me much but told me her name: Rani. Rani means queen in hindi, what else could she have been named.

Two days ago she told me she had decided not send Bhavna back but to keep her with her as she wanted her to get an educations. She asked me to help her do so. While we were talking a few of the regular beggars gathered around supporting her decision to ‘adopt’ Bhavna and offering to help in every way they could.

I could barely hold my tears. Of course we would help this child. But what moved me was how the very people we reject and sneer at, the ones that live on her so called ‘charity’  had a heart far larger than those who live behind gates or in impregnable mansions.

It was the biggest lesson in compassion I have received. Bless Rani to have allowed me to tiptoe into their world. I am humbled.

PS: this is not the best picture of my friend Rani. Will get a better one some day!

One proud maam’ji

Utpal won two medals in a skating event held by a  local skating club. It was a national (!) event as there were participants from other states. Utpal life on skates is a long saga. In the summer of 2011, when he was very disturbed and almost unmanageable, Radhey his all time pal and my auto rickshaw driver suggested he take skating lessons that were held every evening at a nearby park. After much cajoling and coaxing he agreed. The rest is history. he took to skates like a fish to water and graduated to professional skates in no time. Somehow he felt empowered while skating. At that time his school had skating as an extra curricular activity and Utpal spent all the time he could on his skates. Sadly, for reasons I am unaware of, skating stopped in his school. It was heartbreaking when he brought his precious skates back on a short break. I then decided to make sure he continues skating when home on long breaks.

This summer, it was his pal Radhey who discovered a skating club in the area and Utpal joined it and began skating again. He was soon into figure skating and complex manoeuvres and one fine morning I was told about the competition and the need for dishing out 200 rs to register. I did.  A few days before the event, Utpal got the jitters and started making excuses for not wanting to participate. He did not want not to win! It was time to talk about winning and losing and the importance of participating regardless. It worked and Utpal participated in the event and won two medals. We were all thrilled and so was he as he proudly strutted around the house showing his medals to every one!

It has been a difficult year for me on the home front and moments of joy have been far and few. The two medals were much needed balm to a hurting soul. But more than that, they were the gentle reminders I needed to find the strength and the courage to carry on as I must admit there have been times during the last 12 months when I have been on the brink of looking at winding up pwhy, as I have been unable to give it the time it deserves. My team has been ace and has kept the project alive and kicking but the Damocles sword of funds still hangs and the sustainability plan is still just that a plan!

Sometimes one wonders how things should end. (apologies but thoughts of the Dark Angel have been up most on my mind). Life is replete with endings and new beginnings. The wise know that. Many early civilisations and even our own gave the choice of deciding when to proceed to the forests or the mountains. I have always wished for an exit with dignity for those I love. I realise that I want the same for project why. But the two little medals were a gentle reminder that there was still more to be done before the last hurrah

We have come a long way Popples and I. When I first saw him, I could have never imagines that the little bonny chap being bathed every morning in front of what used to be my office would one day become an integral part of my life. He had to suffer excruciating physical pain and tormenting mental hurt before he did become part of us but the way is still long and before my last hurrah, his life has to be secured. If I am to be worthy of being Maam’ji, then there is a long way to go. But what is important is to start planning for all eventualities now. Yes I am a proud Maam’ji with all it entails.

Buy me a ride

As always Nani was on ride duty yesterday evening! Rides at the Kalka Temple which are my grandson’s preferred ones. And the all time is the ‘jump jump’ which is a big inflatable copy of a  Disney character. It is also Utpal’s all time comfort    place as it has been a constant in his tumultuous life since he was a baby. So it is a place I cannot escape as both my boys love it. The strange thing is that it grows on you once you get past the initial shock as it is a place that aggresses all your senses    with a indescribable violence, leaving you gasping for breath. If you are brave enough survive the initial shock and set your apprehensions aside, you are in for an unforgettable experience. The place is magic and grows on you as the squalor you first see surreptitiously gets replaced by the intensity and fervour of the faith of everyone around.

A visit to the Temple can be a family outing. Women dressed in glittering attire, bedecked with jewels, children in their Sunday clothes coming to pay hommage to the Goddess who is not easy to access. Sometimes the wait in the queue can be for hours at end, but no one minds. Strewn along the way are shops selling ritual offerings, but also drink and food and of course toys! After paying obeisance to the Goddess it is time to relax and enjoy: a stop at one of the many eateries offering a varied fare, shopping for religious ware of all kind, from idols to incense; succumbing to the constant tug at your clothes and whining demand and purchasing a toy or stopping at the rides, the options are varied and numerous. Certain days are busier than others.

Amidst all, the visitors are the ‘residents’ of the Temple. I do not mean the priests but those that have made the temple their home. The ones that society has marginalised and forgotten. There are the very old and  the disabled but also younger men and women as well as children. The temple premisses gives them not only shelter but allows them to live with the dignity they lots for no fault of theirs. They live their life on terms they may not have chosen but have adapted with grace. In the early mornings when I go to the temple to complete my chalisa (40 days), I have never been asked for money but for a cup of tea, a fruit, a meal, clothes..!

Yesterday, when I was ‘on duty’ at the rides two little girls approached me. They must have been 9 or 10. It is always difficult to guess the right age of One was wearing a worn out municipal school dress. I do not know if she does go to any school. I do not think so. The other girl was wearing a washed out dress of indeterminable colour. Both were bare feet and seemed to belong to the ‘resident’ community and must have left their posts and gone for a stroll. They stood besides me for a long time. Then one of them mustered up the courage to ask the question they had been dying to: buy us a ride! Those three little words brought to fore in an instant the terrible reality we are all guilty of: letting down the children of India born on the wrong side of the invisible fence, in spite of all the highfalutin  schemes and laws that are so eagerly shoved down our throats by wily politicians. We pay the cesses and levies that are dumped on us in the name of education, health, and what not, never wondering why any child should be begging on the streets, or working in a home or in a tea shop!

All children are children and have the same desires and dreams. Be they rich or poor. Buy us a ride is a poignant proof of this sad reality.

I did buy them a ride, or rather many rides! I hope that for those few moments they forgot all their woes and laughed their hearts out the way only children can!

Everybody Loves a Good….

Everybody Loves a Good Drought is a disturbing and thought provoking book written way back in 1996 by P. Sainath. One could substitute drought with flood or any other cataclysmic event. Just like the telling book about hunger, Ash in the Belly, that makes you ashamed of your very existence, Everybody Loves a Drought throws light on the idiocy of what has been termed as development. In a review of the book a reviewer writes Sainath has captured an entire landscape of people for whom everyone from global agencies downwards to the mohalla politician and bureaucrat has a concern. Often this concern either gets diverted to the pockets of the local strongmen or lands up for the wrong cause. Things have not changed

17 years later the floods that have devastated Uttarkhand must be ‘welcomed’ by many as they will once again be able to feed on disaster like vultures. It is noteworthy that the CEO of the State rushed to the capital to secure as much funds as possible. One would have thought that he would have remained on his turf overseeing rescue operations. The tragedy was waiting to strike. For years the fragile eco system of the region has been violated in as many ways as possible. The efforts of environmentalist to get the zone declared has eco fragile was shot down by politicians. Not heeding warnings and driven by greed, the policy makers and their acolytes went on a development frenzy that blocked the natural flow of the rivers. This is something that seems to be the rule rather than the exception as we have seen in Delhi where the flood plain is brimming with construction. Another view is that the cloudburst was a natural calamity. The author writes : Humans haven’t yet perfected the art of bringing rain, forget about a cloudburst! What he suggests are concrete measures that would ensure proper emergency measures should and when a natural disaster happens. Natural disasters will happen no matter what.

Believe it or not we have a  national disaster management agency headed by our PM and replete with ‘specialists’, experts and bureaucrats and a swanky website! A interesting and revealing post on FB gives a bird’s eye view (pun intended) of the true functioning of the NDMA with a rather grand office in SDA providing sinecures to retired generals, bureaucrats and politicians. One has not heard from them at least not as one should have! However as it is pointed out in the post the members have been on junkets across the globe to ‘study’ disaster management! Yet when ‘they’ are needed one does not hear a squeak from them. As always it the Armed Forces that come to the rescue. The local administration simply crumbles.

Everyone loves a good flood and the writing is on the wall, some of it quite shameful and which shows how defunct we as a nation are of values such as compassion, empathy, kindness, humanity and all the synonyms one can think of. I was horrified and ashamed to hear of the looting pilgrims had to suffer. How can anyone take advantage of suffering and loot unabashedly and with impunity! Women have even been molested and dead bodies looted. But that is the beginning of the loot game. Like in all disasters funds will be diverted and misused as it was after the 2004 tsunami!

And that is not all. As we are in pre elections time, everyone is rearing to get as much political mileage as possible. One senior politician decided to rescue people of his state only! Absolutely unacceptable. Others are seeking as many brownie points as they can accrue. The floods did come at the right time.

Money will pour in. I hope it is not squandered or diverted as some of it is more precious than anything you can imagine like the 20 000 Rs donated by the rag pickers of four states!

Some compassion still exists, albeit in the heart of the poorest. Maybe it is time we learnt from them.

a little box from way down under

It was hot and humid and I had survived a rough morning. The mood was definitely not the best. Things were not getting better as no one was answering the door bell. Someone finally did. But before I could vent my annoyance my eyes fell on a packet lying in on the table near the entrance door. I picked up and tried to look for the addressee as the rains had done their job of smudging the writing. It was indeed for me and came from way down under from a lovely person who I so loved. She and her darling man had come twice as volunteers and spread love and joy across pwhy an had somehow crept  into my heart in a place that lay empty till then. The more than half a century was well worth the waiting.Each time they came, they had bags full of surprises for the children and I somehow thought that they were sending something for the pwhy kids. But I was in for huge surprise: this time the kid was me.

The last months have not been the best for me personally. The pain of a loved one is by far the worst ache in your heart, and not being able to heal it is agony. Trying to keep a brave and happy face in the wake of all odds is undoubtedly a piece of acting worthy of an Oscar! Anyway I went to the kitchen to get a knife to cut the parcel open and imagine my surprise when I realised that it was for me! Well not quite me, as there were things for others in the family, but I would like to believe it was just for me. The box had a book for me, one I had been longing to read, and one for my golf mad partner. There were other things: a soft toy, a key chain, and trick moustaches as well as two beautiful cards and lots of little stars. One card was from people one had never seen but felt one had always known.

That was the visible elements, but that was in no way what that box contained. Like the Little Prince you had to look with your heart and out came truck loads of love, joy and happiness; countless prayers that could in no way go unheard and the feeling that the miracle I have been seeking would materialise. It was just a matter of time.

I was moved, speechless, transfixed. Then from I do not know where the smile I had lost for so many months reappeared and joy filled my heart.

It is always the unspoken words, the unseen things and the invisible articles that say more than any perceptible ones. Long after the box was emptied of its contents, it is still radiating joy all over the house.

I have another confession to make. From the time people who love me know I am going through a rough phase, another loving soul has been sending me boxes of chocolates that I greedily eat alone, to ashamed to let the world know my peche mignon. Each mouthful is again another burst of joy!

That my two guardian Angels share the same name cannot be mere serendipity.

who do they belong to

[Saturday is the day I visit the Shani Temple in Govindpuri. I have been doing so for quite some time now. It is a quick ritual as one lights a lamp and bows one’ head and scoots off. Last Saturday as I was wearing my shoes, an man entered the Temple. He must have been in his late 40s but a life of want and strife made him look much older. He simply told the priest: I am hungry give me something to eat. I was holding a ladoo and simply gave it to him. An array of feelings caught choked me sending me into an almost catatonic state. I who normally do not take any time to dip in my ‘pocket’ and hand out everything I have just stood frozen. It would take me some time to process what I had witnessed and why I had reacted so violently.]

For the past 19 days I have been going to the Kalka Temple every morning at 6. I have to do the same for 40 days. Prior to this, my forays into this teeming temple were for other reasons: take Utpal to the rides that are almost akin to a pilgrimage for him as he has been there since we was a tiny tot. For me it was at best a moment with Popples. I never ventured to the holy side of the Temple as somehow the long queues and crowds were anathema to my version of the spiritual. I always look for peace and calm. The hustling and bustling seem to put me off. And I am a little agoraphobic and claustrophobic! I guess that is the fashionable way of defending your inequities. But never say never! I far too often forget this wise maxim though I have experienced it more times than I would like to believe. Let us get on with the story, if one can call it that.

This tale has many elements that need to be recalled.

When I decided to enter the world of what is again fashionably or cynically called NGOs, I was at a loss. I knew I had to repay a debt for all that I had been given since the minute I saw the light of day, I did not the way. So when you do not know the way, your best bet is to latch on to something visible and disturbing. To me it was the beggar child that tapped at your car window at ever red light. So, quite naively I came up with my nutritive biscuits idea that of course was doomed to fail. And though project why thrived in its new avatar, the issue of beggars and children made to beg never failed to disturb me. And the callous attitude of those in power and with power always enraged me. I also fell for the ‘mafia’ theory too well portrayed in Slumdog Millionaire. The situation seemed hopeless.

Those were early days, when one was naive and credulous. Times when one believed almost blindly in the multitude of programmes and legislation that were passed to benefit the poor and undiscerningly  voted swayed by the pro poor slogans so cleverly crafted. With such legislation India would or should be ‘shining’! It is when I ‘dirtied’ my hands and experienced the reality on the ground that I saw how we  had been had and  fooled by politicians time and again.

Today we are again being seduced by yet another pro poor Bill: the food security bill and  politicians  of all shades and hues want their share of the pie as elections are looming large. The proposed bill will ensure 5kg of food grains per person to 800 million Indians. The model is faulty as it seems to perpetrate the saga of the generous donor and the poor recipient without addressing the large issues of hunger and solving them.  An interesting article points that rather than give them means to build their lives, we give the poor ‘food’. This is the condescending attitude of an inherently ossified system which considers doles and grants a matter of great benefaction and magnanimity, and expects the ill-fated recipients of such a transaction to be eternally grateful and genuflect before the ruling classes and meekly vote them back into Lutyen’s Delhi. I think one does not need to be a rocket scientist to know that the Bill will not eradicate hunger in our country.

The biggest problem is that with the complex and administratively heavy formula of identifying the ‘beneficiaries’, I wonder whether the man I saw in the temple would ever ‘qualify’ for his 5 kilos of grain!

As I said earlier, I too ‘fell’ for the mafia image of beggary. However this is far too simplistic and there are several categories of beggars in India and some are truly quite horrific. But there also extended families who are compelled to leave their villages and come to big cities to beg or those who have been brought by greedy contractors who are not willing to pay proper daily wages and thus get labour from faraway states. When the contracted work is finished, many families stay on and eventually turn to begging. This is probably the story of the families living under the bridge on my way to pwhy. But for the last 3 weeks or so I have seen another side of mendacity up close and personal. My walk from the road where you alight from your vehicle to the shrine is rather long at the Kalka Mandir. At the time I go, the ‘beggars’ I encountered on the few occasions I visited this temple in the past or the many occasions when I accompanied Utpal to his favourite rides, it was normally ‘working hours’ and one saw the beggars in their begging mode: sitting in a line with their array of working tools: a bowl, a pan, a visible injury (real or fake) and the well rehearsed script aimed at getting your attention and pity. Some of the beggars have some stuffed plastic or cloth bags that they guard with their life! It is true that in their working avatar they look quite wretched but and one often walks past them without a look except if it is the  day when you are in alms giving mode and have your coins in hand and drop them in the proffered begging bowl, often without looking at the beggar!

But for the past three weeks I have seen a different side of these souls some of whom have even become ‘friends’ as we greet each other every morning. The before working hours scenario is quite something else. As I walk past, I come across touching and moving scenes. The walkway has a tin shed and some fans placed I presume as a gesture of devotion to make the waiting (sometimes for hours) of the devotees a tad easier. The walkway has an iron barrier and the fans are place just on top of these barriers. This becomes the five* sleeping space for beggars. As I pass by at the same time everyday, some are still fast asleep: a father and a young son with their legs entwined, an old woman in foetal position her sari covering her face to keep away the flies; a mother with her children. But the biggest eye opener for me was to discover the ‘treasures’ contained in the bags that one sees next to many beggars. They contain their entire possessions and are often practically empty when I pass by in the morning. The bags have sheets and blankets, empty plastic bottles for water I presume, a half cake of soap, a used and overused tooth brush, some utensils, an umbrella, some clothes, a plastic sheet, bits of cardboard that are judiciously aligned to make a ‘bed’ at night; some half eaten biscuits packets and toys if there are children, a broken mug, a broom to clean the space they sit in. The contents differ according to the age of the beggar or whether they are alone or a family. The older women seem to have a stick I guess to chase dogs.

The ones who are awake when I walk by are busy with their morning chores, just like any body else. There are no begging scripts being spouted but normal conversations: a mother talking to her child while she bathes him – yes bathing is very important – women gossiping away while their hair is drying, men sipping their cup of tea while chatting. Many of the beggars who now recognise me say a bright Jai Mati di, Jai Mata more as a greeting than soliciting, often accompanied by a huge smile. It is surprising that I have not been once asked for any money! This morning one very old woman was busy eating her ‘breakfast’. It consisted of a tiny quantity of one day old rice and half a fiery red chili! This reminded me of an article on malnutrition and starvation where mothers gave very hot food to their children as this would make them drink a lot of water and hence quell their hunger. Maybe this old woman did not know how long she would have to wait for enough coins to buy a meal. There are days when devotees organise feeding sessions and food is plenty. The Temple also runs some kind of a soup kitchen but I am not sure if it is every day and more than once a day. I presume the innumerable eateries must also give their leftovers if any. The fruit vendor certainly does as I have sometimes seen bruised and over ripe fruits being eaten by the old and the children.

It is a motley crew making you wonder what made them come to this place. There are some very old men and women who one guesses may have been thrown out of their homes, there are some younger women with children one would like to believe are theirs. In some case it is very obvious. There are some disabled people. One sadhu who seems ancient has settled down on the side under a largish bamboo and plastic contraption which hold a bed, an alter, a grouchy old wife. The old sadhu, also grumpy is always busy cleaning the outside of his ‘home’ with water and a wiper! I would so like to hear their stories, but am still hesitant. Maybe I will pluck the courage to do so before my 40 days are over. There is one lady who I think may share her life  story. I call her a lady because she is regal and beautiful in a haunting sort of way.

Somehow I cannot anymore club  these people under the word ‘beggars’. For me they are people, each with their story, each with their dignity, each with their life. They are worthy of our respect, if anything.   My daily tryst with these people has once again outraged and incensed me. Many questions come to mind and once again I wonder if these people will ‘receive’ any of the benefits of the zillions of projects, programmes, bills, laws, ordinances that are promulgated, enacted, passed amidst great fanfare by political parties who all want appear as the Saviour of the Poor. One just has to think of the innumerable slogans invoking the poor as a sound election plank. Over the past decades all parties have  tom tommed about eradicating poverty. If they were a tad sincere then we would have looked different as a country.

I have said this time and again, almost as nauseum in various blogs but to no avail. Yet I repeat it once again hoping this time will be the right one. There is a question we all need to ask ourselves when we see aberrations like children dying of hunger in the thousands, or families begging, or children roaming the streets: who do they belong to. The simple answer is us! Yes each one of us who has allowed things to come to this. Our apathy, our indifference, our refusal to step out of our comfort zones are the real reasons why we have come to this. When will our collective conscience awaken? Never seems the answer!

A letter to Kamala

Dear Kamala,

It has been exactly 23 years since you left me. And every minute of those years I have missed you. I have missed your smile, I have missed your grace, I have missed your words that were always the ones I needed to hear. I have memories of you that go way back to when I was still a child, memories of walking holding your hand in new cities, under sun or rain, discovering new sites and I remember how you never tired of the million of questions I asked. You always answered them with a smile. Yes your smile, that incredible wand that made the darkest moment into a sun drenched one. I remember how you were always there for me be I a child or a middle aged woman. It is in your arms and at your feet that I found every answer I needed and healed every hurt from the scraped knee to the harshest blow. You were always there to soothe away any grief or pain your child had suffered.

You wanted an army of kids, you only got one! For the 38 years we lived together you made me feel loved at every instant, even when I threw a childish  tantrum or behaved unpardonably. I feel tiny and shamefaced when I recall some of those instants, specially those when I was grown up!

We lived together for 38 years + nine months, and each of those years, months and days were blessed. This year I too have been a mother for 38 years. But I can tell you now without hesitation that I was and could not be a mother like you! And somewhere it is because you were too perfect a mom! Having married late and lived a difficult yet extraordinary childhood and young womanhood, where you broke so many social mores to get your way, you became a mother who could bring to her child innumerable and astounding examples of life. You were the woman who had battled every more and tradition to not accept marriage before your country became independent as you were part and parcel of the fight for Independence being a  freedom fighter’s daughter. In times were women were still in purdah you were the one who had to apply homemade balm on the lacerated backs of your father and his camarades in arm. I think if was that terrifying experience for a child that made you decide not to have yours before India became free. You did not want to bear a ‘slave’ child. You would rather remain an old maid. But you had made a sacred pact with your father: should you still be of marriageable age you would marry any man your father chose for you. And you did even if it meant leaving your home and loved ones in an age where communication across the world were in their infancy. I married the man I chose and ensured that I live close to you and when my husband was posted out of India and I was unwilling to make the move, you scripted a act that would make things easier for your precious child: you left with papa for a European holiday and made you sure that your last port of call was the place we were in.

You were the woman who had to battle to get educated. Your father would have, like all fathers happily stopped your studies in class VI, if there were any studies at all. If I remember well, you told me that in those days girls were put to test by potential in laws. The ‘tests’ were  whether the would be bride knew simple arithmetic, whether she could talk – lest she be deaf and dumb – whether she could sing devotional songs, whether she could read the holy scriptures or more often whether she knew them by rote. That would have been the sum all of your education had you played by the rules. But you were made of some other mettle. The first school for girls  opened in the small mofussil town where you lived. The two exceptional assets you had were your mom and your paternal grandmother both born women’s libbers and what I would call your education drama in umpteen acts began. Needless to say you were Roll no 1 in the said school and your Gandhian methods of fasting (while you were fed at nigh by your two partners in crime) ensured you pass your class whether she could sing devotional songs, go for your Bachelor’s degree to Benares Hindu University and live in a hostel, secure your MA, LLB and a PHD in Prague. My education came on a silver tray as everything else in my life. The best schools across the world, the best Governesses, the best of everything. But what you did manage to make me understand was the importance of education, specially for women. Something I always remembered and valued and perhaps the first seed of what awaited me when you would not be there with me.

My life was replete with amazing and unique lessons that would take volumes to recount if I were to do you justice. Maybe I will some day. The one I very often recall is how you stopped me from leaving food in my plate and wasting it. You who had known hunger and want at a tiny age could not see your child not value food. You had to teach an Ambassador’s daughter the pains of hunger pangs. You did. You just kept the food I had left in the plate in the refrigerator and placed it cold and congealed in front of me for all subsequent meals. Being stubborn and spoilt it took 3 days fro me to break and believe me when I tell you that never did a morsel taste so good. What I came to know much later was that you and Pa had not eaten for those fateful days. You would be appalled and saddened so see how much food is wasted today whilst millions sleep hungry in the country you fought for.

I could go on and on as memories of you are so easy to recall.

You died on the 13th June 1990. But you somehow knew that I would need you again years later to show me the way and heal my hurt. You knew that one of the ways I dealt with hurt and anger was to turn the house upside down and go on a cleaning spree. On one of those occasions I stumbled upon a diary you must have written in the last year of your life when your knew you were losing what you cherished the most: your mind! You scribbled feverish words that you knew I would read at the appropriate time. I did find the diary and it was as if you had guessed everything about my morrows. But that was not all. You shared your pain and in some ways shattered many images that I had held as true as you had always put up a smiling face for your child be it when you sat in a car after a major crash with all your bones broken or when my father hurt you because he loved you too much. Love can sometimes be so smothering and even hurtful. I thank you for sharing that pain with me even if it was after you were gone. I wrote you a letter last year on this very day to share what I felt reading those poignant words.

I have strived to be worthy of you mama. I guess I will know the truth when we meet. I know we will.

Your child


It went from my head and out through my feet

It went from my head and out through my feet! Wonder what that means? I give you three guesses or maybe I should just reveal the meaning! But to get to that a little background. When my grandson left India a few months ago he spoke Hindi like a native, English with a pwhy why tinge and a spattering of French with an undecipherable accent. Then he left us and flew to St Louis in the Missouri. He quickly learnt all the ‘Oh man!’ and other local expressions and in spite of our I would say meagre efforts to speak to him in Hindi on Skype and spite of his regular watching of Chotta Bheem and his mom’s occasional Hindi tirades, we slowly realised that his Hindi was slowly and ineluctably being devoured by Midwest American if such a language there is. And has he speaks at an incredible speed Nani and Nanou sometimes needed an interpreter aka his mom, to understand what we were being told.

When his mom one day asked him why he had forgotten his Hindi his first answer was that it was broken, then more recently he came up with the statement cited above: his Hindi went from his head out through his feet.

At present the house is almost like a Tower of Babel with all kind and shades and hues of Hindi and English being spoken everyone trying to communicate at best. It is really amusing seeing Radhey the auto driver speaking his version of Hinglish and the rest of the staff making yeoman’s effort at conversing with the prodigal boy and Utpal is practicing his English. He is here for two months and I wonder whether his Hindi will shoot back to his head or whether the rest of his favourite gang will find his version of English crawling slowly from  their feet to their heads!

The best language classes I have ever witnessed!

being Nani

My little grandson is back. He will fly in tonight and revive our home and hearts for the next 2 months and one week. The last months have been bleak for more reasons than one. Nanou has not been well, Nani has been running like a headless chicken not knowing which way to go, or what to tackle first and quite honestly not been very good at keeping things on course. But to my little Angel Nani is the best girl in the world! So Nani aka me, has to put her best face on, her best foot forward and live up to the little chap’s expectations. The last week has been hectic: trying to finish Utpal’s homework – dreaded each and every year particularly the innumerable pages of inane writing that still sort of incomplete –   so that the rest of the holidays can be spent playing and having fun. Now with the mercury at 45 plus, a lot of planning is required specially with a boy whose mom is very strict on TV viewing and a child who cannot stay indoors.

Utpal has been a huge help as we have set up the playroom. washed all the old toys and brought some new ones and loads of crayons and paint so that the boys can be creative. The old air conditioner has been repaired and all fingers crossed. But there will still be the power cuts and the fact that Agastya moves like a bolide across the house. As the trusted Doc is on leave for the next three weeks, a visit was made and all the medication for all the potential problems that could arise has been bought and kept in the medicine cabinet.

All the favourite foods have been bought and put in the fridge or the store room. The favourite menu of pharatha, dal and alu gobhi (flat bread, lentils and potato and cauliflower curry) has been ordered. Just need to buy some bits and bobs and we are ready for the return of the beloved child! I am thrilled beyond words at the fact that Utpal still has a month holiday and the two little loves of my life can bond and play to their heart’s content under Nani’s moist eyes.

But just like Utpal, Nani has not been good with her homework. I still do not know what colour Percy or Gordon are and have still not seen Toy Story 2 and learnt about Buzz whatever is name is. And it took me visits to a 6 toy shops to find one Buzz! They seemed to be out of stock.

The next weeks are going to hectic and for all the right reasons. Welcome home beloved Agastya!