Waiting for the revolution…

 

 

It was the year 1989, a month after the Tianamen Square protests rocked the world.

Moyna’s uncle was angry.

“Does your father know that you are going to a mafia infested area to do your report?” Boro Pishe asked.

“It is a newspaper report,” Moyna explained for the umpteenth time. “My father knows I am doing the report. The Socialist will pay for the car I hire to go to the coal workers’ settlement and all other costs. You don’t need to worry!”

The Socialist was a major national newspaper. Moyna worked in the Delhi office as a reporter. She was taking a break to visit her aunt and uncle in Dhanbad. When Shyam Nagra, the assistant editor, heard she was going to Dhanbad, he asked her to do a follow-up story on a documentary that had focused on how a Harijan coal slurry worker had overcome the corrupt security forces to help improve the remuneration given to them.

Moyna was excited about it. But her uncle was not.

Boro Pishe said, “Nothing doing young lady. I will go with you to meet B. L. Sen. I am responsible for your safety while you are in Dhanbad. There is a whole mafia around this area that can finish you up. I will come with you this evening.”

Moyna and Boro Pishe went to BL Sen’s office. BL Sen was the local Marxist MP. The office was crowded but BL Sen made room for them.

“You see, the film was made a few years ago. The situation has reverted,” BLSen said. “The workers have again been subdued by the security forces. Not just that the mafia has become stronger and now takes a larger part of their income. The security also takes a share. So, the miners are left with less than one third of their daily wages.”

Moyna asked, “Is it possible for me to visit the settlement?”

“We will take you to where the workers live and the trade Union office. But be warned young lady, you can visit them only once for an hour or two and never return there again. You must collect all the information you need within that time. You can never go back because once the mafia knows; they will finish you, your camera and tape recorder. Also you must dress simply to blend in,” concluded BL Sen. He arranged to have Moyna escorted by one of his men two days later. They arranged a lunch for her with the trade union leaders.

Boro Pishe was dissatisfied with the development. He said, “You will not hire a car. I will use a rickshaw that day to go to work and my driver will take you and BL Sen’s men to the site.”

Moyna had no choice. She went with Mukund, the driver, and BL Sen’s escort, Babulal.

Moyna got off at the settlement from the car. Both Mukund and Babulal came with her. Boro Pishe had instructed Mukund not to leave her side for a minute.

Moyna  stared spellbound at the diorama that unfolded before her eyes.

Everything was black with coal dust, even the puddles and ponds of water around. Mal-nourished children with potbellies and scanty, torn clothing seemed to solidify out of the coal dust. They stared at her as she approached the settlement. Moyna was wearing a simple cotton saree and rubber slippers. But she felt overdressed. People here were in tatters and rags of the indistinct color of poverty. There were no voices or sounds in the settlement, only the eerie silence of spineless, abject sub-human existence. People lived only to breath, and eat if fortunate…

Babulal allowed her to pause and take pictures of a man taking out coal slurry from a black pond. She looked at her surroundings. She had never in her life seen anything like this.

Everything was black and shades of black, coloured by the fine grains of coal from deep within the bowels of Earth. People had no houses. They lived in shelters made with tarpaulin stretched on sticks. There were not even thatched huts. Children stared at her, as did men and women.

“Is this how the workers live?”

“Yes. They come from a number of villages to work here.” responded Babulal.

“Do they have electricity and water?”

Babulal looked at her amused.

“No. They do not have water and electricity where they stay. They lead a hand to mouth existence.”

“Then what do they drink?”

“There is a tube well a little further on.”

“Do they not fall sick?”

“Yes, they do and they die also but they have no alternative.”

“What is their average life expectancy?”

“We have never done a survey… but most of them die before they turn thirty because of the coal dust they inhale. Come let us move forward to the trade union office.”

The three intruders moved ahead.

Moyna wanted to help but had no idea how and dared not ask. “My god, how lucky am I,” she thought. “And how sad that people had to live like this in the twentieth century! How can people tolerate others living like this?”

The trade union office was a shabby brick building. They sat on the floor and ate half cooked lamb with Moyna. She was the VIP visitor and they showered their warmth on her. Moyna was touched.

She interviewed the people identified by BLSen’s workers and recorded their statements. She had to leave within an hour and a half as Babulal pointed out that the mafia or security forces would soon be coming around.

As Moyna lay down in the air-conditioned comfort of her uncle’s guest room that night, she was thinking that today she had seen another world, a world perhaps that she would never had known existed…Her Boro Pishe had been very solicitous towards her welfare, she knew. But the reality remained that the India of the coal slurry workers was different from any other India she knew…

Their protest had been subdued. They had been quenched to become subservient commodities for their masters, thought Moyna ruefully. Their life expectancy continued at less than thirty years as opposed to India’s 57.47 years in 1989. And people just accepted it! Most of the workers were illiterate. Educated Indians spoke of the need for freedom of speech in her world and protested everything possible but in the settlement, where a revolution might have helped them survive decently, the workers’ voices had been silenced, their spines broken. Some of them did not even want to speak.

Perhaps, it was the year of quenched protests… Tianamen and then these coal workers,  Moyna cogitated as she turned off her bedside lamp. She wondered how many of these workers understood independence and freedom and had benefitted by it…yet they voted? Could they even think about freedom as they were driven to battle for survival on a daily basis? Was living like these workers better than dying? Why did the workers not protest? Why did people tolerate the mafia? Why did the government give in? Moyna slowly drifted off to sleep thinking on these issues.

It was 2017, the year when China had surged ahead. The Tianamen incident had been forgotten and forgiven. It had drifted to an insignificant corner of the past…

Moyna woke from her afternoon siesta and her housekeeper asked, “Tea, madam?”

Moyna nodded in affirmation.

Moyna lived in Singapore now. She was over fifty and had two children. Her sons had seen more of the rest of the world and less of India…

Her younger son came and said, “ Mamma do you have a spare earphone? I ripped mine again today.”

Moyna went inside to rummage her desk for an earphone. Her old portfolio got dislodged and fell out. The article on the coal mine workers fell to the floor. Moyna picked it up and looked at it. She showed it to her son. She told him how this article had won her kudos and a scholarship to a postgraduate course in a European university. The university had kept the article as part of their resource material in their library.

“Mamma why did the university keep it as their resource material?” asked her thirteen-year-old son.

Moyna said, “I don’t know… I wonder too.” She replaced the article in her portfolio. Her son wanted to read her old articles. She gave him her portfolio and walked to her balcony and sat down as her housekeeper brought in her tea. Moyna took a sip and started thinking of what had been.

She recalled how she had found it difficult to stomach the attitude of the professor at the European university. He insisted that their way was the best for third world countries to step out of poverty. Moyna had not agreed. Firstly, she hated the term third world. They were developing countries…there were so many differences she had… Moyna felt the best way to move forward was defined by the indigenous people themselves and their needs and not by the needs defined by other people. The need to move forward had to come from within. That could only come when the basic needs hunger, shelter and education were resolved…

Moyna had returned after she completed her course on Economic Development Studies and continued working for the newspaper till she fell in love, tied the knot with her husband and moved out of India.

Today as she stood watching the waves ripple across the water body in front of her home, she wondered, had she done the right thing submitting that report for her scholarship? Why did the university need a resource material like that…? She had never understood the reason…

She wondered did the settlement still exist? What were the worker’s living conditions? She googled the name of the settlement on  her mobile but drew a blank…

The needs of those workers were so different from hers. She remembered that

Moyna could not bear to look at beggars and poverty but what was she doing about it?

Moyna fell into a reverie.

Could she ever do anything for the poor? Could anyone do anything for them? Why did most people in India accept the state of things, including poverty and lack of education, as they were? Why is it all people did not still have access to housing, food, clean water, electricity and good roads?

What was this apathy?

Why were the basic needs so hard to meet for some countries and so easy for others?

Her husband’s voice jerked her back to the present reality. “A penny for your thoughts. What are you thinking?”

“I was thinking of the past… wondering what good did I do by going to the coal mines and writing about it…?” Moyna replied.

“The exposure taught you many things and you have brought up compassionate children… is that a small thing?”

“But I could do nothing to help improve their lot….”

“How do you know your article did not help the people who were trying to bring a positive change in the condition of the workers? At least it raised awareness about the plight of the workers among the readers…”

Moyna smiled. “You are trying to placate me. Come let us eat dinner.”

 

 

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Book Review: The Librarian by Kavitha Rao

By Mitali Chakravarty

The Librarian
Title: The Librarian
Author: Kavitha Rao
Publisher: Kitaab International Pte Ltd
Price: ₹ 299/-

 

 

The Librarian by Kavitha Rao is a novel that strolls through the old corridors of a library in Bombay, meanders through the lanes of London and returns to the dystopian world of the terrorist bomb blast that ripped Mumbai in 2008. Kavitha Rao has created a suspense-filled, layered story of a young girl’s passions, of the annihilation caused by uncontrolled obsessions and has unravelled the mystery behind the disappearance of Mrs. Sen, the assistant librarian. It has facts, romance, history, glamour, murder, robbery and gore, somewhat like a Dan Brown.

The protagonist, Vidya Patel, journeys through her childhood, guided in her passion for books by the intrepid librarian, Shekhar Raghavan. The library is also home to rare manuscripts; it reflects in microcosm a world in which Shekhar is the presiding deity…

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The Mona Lisa Smile

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Sanjana was like a sunflower that bloomed in the light of love and approval. She could do so much more if he only approved. But all she heard was criticism from her spouse.

“Sanjana, you spend too much on useless things.”

“Perhaps you should do something more than just socializing. There are things called books and reading, you know…”

“You should work.”

“You should cook yourself and not keep a full time maid. You are growing fat doing nothing.”

“What do you do the whole day in the house?”

Sanjana had been married for more than two decades. She had been an accomplished dancer. But, her mother-in-law did not want her to perform on stage. At 22, when she married, she had wept to give up her bells. Her heart had split into two. But her mother explained, “You will now have to shift your focus to your home and family. Dancing may ruin your chances of having a child.”

“But that has been my life, Ma,” wept Sanjana.

“It cannot be helped. At least, they agreed to the marriage. The boy is back from USA with a degree in law. They do not want a dowry. The last match broke. That boy had a girl friend in New York. We cannot turn down this one.”

Sanjana’s heart was breaking with sorrow, fear and apprehension. She did not want to marry the boy. She loved another, but her parents refused to listen. “Abhishek is not worthy of you,” her father said.

And Abhishek’s mother said, “The beggars! They have set that witch on my Abhishek… they are of a lower caste. How dare they set their eyes on my son?”

Abhishek had proposed to Sanjana.

“Let us elope,” he said. Abhishek was a young doctor with a bright future. Sanjana was not sure what to do. She refused.

She had thought Abhishek would propose again with an eye to winning her parents approval. Instead, he eloped with a minister’s daughter who was willing…

Sanjana was left in the cold.

Her parents really mattered to her. She had wanted to keep them happy. She gave up her dancing bells for a lawyer who married her under duress from his family. He did not love her either.

After twenty-one years of marriage and a child, Sanjana sat in front of a sheaf of papers and, with trembling hands, signed on them. Suresh, her husband, was leaving her. He had had enough! He was going to marry his secretary who understood law and was smart and pretty.

Sanjana had started to put on weight after she stopped dancing. A few more kilos were added on after childbirth. Her legs and back ached as she walked. Often, she needed pain killers. Her son was in hostel in Berkley.

Suresh was what they called ‘a stud’ when he married Sanjana. He wanted a docile bride but not an unsmart one. Sanjana did not quiet make the cut. Her English was not that great. She did not read much. It was an embarrassment to take her for his client’s parties. She did not drink and sat quietly in a corner.

Suresh had married her at his mother’s insistence. Now, his mother was no more. He did not need her. He had never taken her out on his own. She was always curled and quiet. Sonia, his secretary understood his every need and loved him passionately. Suresh did the decent thing in his opinion and promised to pay for her upkeep and that of his son. Sanjana could continue to stay in their old home. Suresh and Sonia would move into a new condominium with fantastic club facilities.

Sanjana nodded quietly. She accepted everything that came her way as a docile and a good wife should…even the shame she experienced at being rejected.

But what would she do in a huge home alone with a gardener, maid and driver?

A month after Suresh left, she invited her old school friend Romila to spend the day with her.

Romila had married and gone off to USA with her husband. She returned a widow with no children after five years. Her husband, a high-end tycoon, had succumbed to a massive heart attack. Romila was initially very sad and depressed. Over time, she picked up the pieces and built a life for herself. Money was not an issue for her either. She established herself as a trainer and image builder with a chain of beauty stores. Sanjana and she met accidentally at the Shiva temple one day. Sanjana recognized her and called out. Romila took a while to recognize her.

“What have you done to yourself?” Romila asked. “You were so pretty and such a great dancer. What happened to you?”

“Aging,” responded Sanjana.

“That even I have aged. But you are looking old and sad. What’s up sweetheart?”

“Nothing.”

“I thought you were happily married…”

“No more. My husband left me.”

“What?!”

“He divorced me last month… I live alone and my son is in hostel in USA!” And Sanjana broke down and cried. With her pallu stuffed into her mouth she wept as if her heart would burst.

Romila put her arms around her shoulder and said, “Calm down… I am sorry I asked… I remember your wedding. It was so grand! Calm down… I am really so sorry… come with me to my house and we will sit and talk. I am alone too… Have been alone for long… Come…come.”

Romila led a weeping Sanjana into her car, gave her address to the driver and asked him to drive to her home, which was nearby. Romila had walked to the temple as she did every morning. Sanjana had come to seek spiritual solace in what she felt was her hour of shame and rejection.

She had not been able to eat and sleep properly from the day her husband left her. She thought it was all her fault… she was not good enough for him. He was in the right and had been decent, he had said.

Her son was twenty and studying engineering in Berkley. He was the result of the carnal pleasures of her wedding night. She was so lovely that Suresh had no hesitation asserting his conjugal rights. Sanjana was in a state of shock! But, like a docile bride, she had complied. He continued asserting his conjugal rights every night till her pregnancy was confirmed. During the day, he treated her with disdain. He did not even talk to her properly.

Her mother-in-law, Lata, was pleased with the state of things.

“You are a good daughter-in-law. A woman’s relationship is always best maintained with her husband behind the closed doors of the bedroom at night. And now you will give us an heir.”

And that is exactly what happened. Sanjana had a son. Her mother-in-law named him Sourabh. She had no say in choosing the name of her son. She did not mind.

Her husband had grown even more detached towards her as during her pregnancy as the doctor had warned him not to assert his conjugal rights till after the birth of the child. It could endanger the life of the child he had been warned. He started working late and often came home after dinner as he said he was busy. Sometimes, he came home reeking of alcohol because he had to drink in parties, he said.

He never took Sanjana with him after the first time. She had proven that she could not fit in into a party right after their marriage. He had taken her for a party organized by his friends for the newly weds. She wore a saree, sat in a corner and refused to drink or dance with his friends to western music. He found her behavior unacceptable.

His mother was very sympathetic towards Suresh.

She told Sanjana, “You must look after all his needs. Remember, he is your lord and master and women are but servants of their husbands.”

Sanjana kept her head covered with the pallu of her saree and complied with all these injunctions. Lata praised her to her neighbors and friends.

“My daughter-in-law is truly a Lakshmi and Sita. She is so docile and good. She follows all the rules, does all the work and never disturbs my son. His income has also gone up. Sometimes, he even goes to London on work.”

Suresh and his secretary had gone to London for two weeks. Suresh told them he was going on tour to London, but omitted the fact that Sonia would accompany him.

Saurabh grew up, nurtured by his grandmother and mother. He loved both very much, maybe Sanjana a little more. Sanjana helped him with his schoolwork. She had a good head for maths and science. He excelled in both. When he came in the merit list in his grade twelve exam, his father was very proud of him. “He is just like me,” he declared. “I will send him to USA for further studies.”

No one asked the women who brought him up or the boy what he wanted.

The boy had learnt compliance to his father’s wishes was the accepted way of life. He was a good boy. He complied.

That his mother and grandmother missed him and were heartbroken when he left for Berkley with his dad to settle him in was not a major issue. Sonia flew down after a few days because she needed to ‘help’ Suresh attend a lawyer’s conference in Los Angeles. When he came back, he found his mother sick. She was sore for missing her grandson.

Saurabh came home the next year in June. His grandmother was bed ridden and he was sad to see her as such. After he returned in September, she became more sick. At last, she left Sanjana all alone. Lata had departed for her heavenly abode. Suresh could not fathom the emptiness in Sanjana’s life. She had become fatter, quieter and greyer. With his mother dead and his son in university, Suresh felt the time had come to assert his freedom. He was ready for the next step… divorce.

It came as a shock to Sanjana. Saurabh was not informed. Suresh had told Sanjana to refrain from expressing their separation to him. “It might disturb him,” he reasoned. “ And in any case, he calls you up at home. You are going to continue here. Only I will move out. I will pay all your and his bills. But I think since we have nothing in common, it will be best this way.”

Sanjana had accepted her sad luck with a guilty, downcast face.

She could not figure out what went wrong, why she had to face such dishonor? She did not even tell her sister who lived in London. Her brother had moved to Cape Town in South Africa and her parents went with him. She did not tell them either.

Then, why this sudden breakdown before a friend?

Romila was very kind and sympathetic. She had heard Sanjana’s story and shared her own saga. “My husband was kind and caring and I was heartbroken. I also knew he would hate to see me sad and broken. So, I pulled myself together and made a life for myself back home. The love he cherished on me and his memories has sustained me for the rest of my journey in life,” she concluded with a sad smile.

Sanjana said, “You were lucky to have his love.”

“You are lucky to have had a son and your child’s love. And you must pull yourself together for your son’s sake,” retorted Romila. “ I will come over to your house tomorrow. And we will spend the day together, mapping out a new start for you.”

When Sanjana returned home, her heart felt lighter and she could even watch a dance performance on television without crying once…something she had not been able to do since Suresh announced his decision to leave her.

The next day Romila came in her jogging suit with a gift for Sanjana. When Santana unwrapped the gift, she found a jogging suit and sneakers! Romila had remembered that they could fit into each other’s shoes and slippers.

“ I cannot jog! I am too old and fat. I have a backache!” said Santana.

“It is triple XL. You can fit in. We will not jog. We will walk, “said Romila.

“What is the use of losing weight now?”

“ Why not? We are still not old… get back to dancing!”

“ I can’t anymore.”

“Why not? You are only in 43… you can open a dance school. I will help you. Actually, it would help my trade too!”

Sanjana was still not convinced.

“Please you could be the big story in my career. I have nothing else except that to live by… you know that,” asserted Romila.

Romila went on till Sanjana agreed to walk with her twice a day.

Three months passed by. Every morning Romila took Sanjana out. They had started jogging now. Sanjana was regaining her shape and her aches and pains had reduced. Romila had put her on a low carb diet, taken her to a beautician and had her hair cut and colored. Sanjana had started dancing a little now. She sought out her guru again, acquired a pair of bells and went for regular classes in kathak.

All this while, Suresh had paid her bills and talked on phone when absolutely necessary. He and Sonia had gone on a tour of Europe to celebrate the start of their life together. He had never been on a honeymoon with Sanjana. They had always stayed at home. Suresh travelled alone or with Sonia while he was married to Sanjana. Sanjana had never lived anywhere else except for her mother-in-law’s home for all the twenty-one years of her married life… and now she continued in the same place. Suresh went to USA on a business meet with Sonia and met Suarabh. He had still not told Saurabh about his divorce. Saurabh wanted to do a summer internship in Berkley during the holidays. Suresh encouraged him and promised to visit him with his mother.

Back in India, he called up Sanjana, “Saurabh will not come to India this year. We will visit him. I have not yet told him about our divorce. There is no need to disturb him. We will get your passport made and visit him in August.”

Sanjana complied as always.

By now, the fruits of Romila’s and her hardwork had started blossoming. Sanjana was looking good and younger than her age. She had started helping her old guru teach dancing. She was happier than she had ever been in the last two decades.

Suresh told her to get her passport photograph taken. He wanted her to send it to his office with the driver. She complied. The completed form was sent to her and she signed. The efficient Sonia had overseen all the details. Suresh was not bothered by such small details.

Her passport was ready.

July… Sanjana went shopping with Romila. She was looking very good now. Sanjana was more confident than she had ever been in her life. She was dancing, even though not on stage.

Finally, Sanjana was in the car on the way to the airport. The car stopped in front of Suresh’s house. Sonia was not coming this time.

Suresh stepped into the car and closed the door. He had not turned to look at Sanjana, who was seated in the corner in the dark.

Then he saw her.

“Sanjana?!” Suresh exclaimed with surprise.

He looked at her spell bound.

Sanjana smiled at him and said, “Yes?”

“You are looking good! What have you done to yourself?”

“Nothing.”

“You cut your hair.”

“Yes.”

“You look good. You are wearing pants…I have never seen you in anything except sarees!”

“Jeans. They are convenient for travel. You have never taken me anywhere with you till now.”

Suresh stared at her open-mouthed.

Earlier she would keep quiet and nod shyly. Now she spoke.

In the brightly lit airport, he could see she had make up on and looked very good. Young men turned to look at her as she pushed her trolley.

Suresh was stunned!

She had got her figure back.

“You have lost weight and your hair is brown!” Suresh stuttered.

“Yes. I am dancing and I color my hair,” smiled Sanjana.

When they went to the counter, Suresh asked for two seats together.

He kept looking at her as if to make sure everything was all right. When Sanjana took out a Dan Brown to read, Suresh blurted out, “So, you are reading too…”

“Yes. I never figured out how much fun it is to read thrillers. A friend introduced me to Dan Brown and I cannot stop reading his books!”

Suresh watched her asleep. How beautiful she looked, prettier than when he had married her. He would have loved to touch her, to have her as his wife again. He had been a bit peeved with Sonia of late…She was always nagging him for things the way Sanjana never had… maybe they could get back together. He had never married Sonia… Sonia wanted him to formalize their relationship with a wedding ring. He had pleaded Saurabh’s reaction… Sonia still nagged…

Maybe, he could ask her when she woke up… meanwhile, he gazed at her and then tried to read.

Sanjana’s eyes fluttered and she sat up.

Suresh looked at her and smiled. She had always been putty in his hands. Maybe, he would ask her soon…

She would surely agree! She had always agreed to anything he said… even the divorce…

Suresh waited for Sanjana to be fully awake.

Then, he smiled at her.

She smiled back.

“Feeling refreshed?” he asked.

Sanjana nodded.

“I have been thinking things through while you slept. Saurabh does not know we have separated. If we get back together, he will never know of the rift.”

“What do you mean?” asked Sanjana.

“I mean we can terminate our divorce and stay married forever.”

“Really?”

“Yes. Sanjana we could go back to being together and, if you want, we can remarry when we return.”

“Why?”

Suresh could not believe his ears.

“What are you saying? You do not want to stay married to me?”

“I am not married to you any more. I am having too good a time now to think of tying a knot.”

“Are you saying you do not want me?”

Sanjana looked at him and gave an enigmatic smile in the tradition of Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lost!

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Ashima was inside a machine that hurtled through the space-time fabric, slicing it with the silence of vacuum that filled the empty spaces in the Milky Way. Around her at a distance were nebulae with their vividly colored stars. She could see sparkling stars dot the space outside and blue, red and yellow clouds creating swirls that breathed warmth into the cold, unsympathetic blackness.

Ashima looked out of her speeding vehicle. She was sitting curled, as if in a womb and she had no control over her own situation. Fifty and with knees that hurt, this was an uncalled for adventure… she would love to be out of it. Ashima had a bad left knee. Her kneecap had got displaced for some reason, which she herself had not been able to figure out. After two years of physiotherapy, she was able to walk. But, she could not run, jump, dance or crawl…

As Ashima tried to move her mind away from the pain in her knees, a blinding light seemed to tear the space-time continuum and she landed with a thud on a solid surface. The capsule in which she had been hurtling opened and the seat almost ejected her out. She was back where she had been last week…in the grasslands of South Africa.

“Is it in Maropeng again?”Ashima wondered.

Around her was a clear blue sky, the kinds of which can only be seen in South Africa. She had been a bit intimidated by her adventure into the cave of Mrs Ples, the Taung child and the Little Foot, the home to two to three million-year-old fossils that had been discovered from the 1940s to the 2013 if she recalled right.

The cave had been dark. She had gone with her family and a guide. They were in a group, which was being given a conducted tour of the cave. The cave had been fascinating though intimidating too. The guide had shown them minerals on the walls of the cave and fifteen meter long stalactites… evidently lot of South Africa had subterranean caves… they were even explored in King Solomon’s Mines. And the lake in this cave had reminded her of the lake seen by Allan Quatermain and his cronies. She had just re-read the book before coming to South Africa. The huge lake with it’s blind worms squiggling in the corners brought to her mind the blind fishes in another cave of subterranean Africa on the edges of Kalahari. The blind fishes had been colorful, almost like bits of flame. They were part of a TV documentary by Richard Attenborough. They had watched it just before they caught their flight to South Africa from Singapore… only here the worms were tiny and colorless, almost white.

The guide had clearly stated that the group was not allowed to wander as the cave systems were enormous and if one wandered away, one could be completely lost and eventually die of starvation… It had been difficult for Ashima to keep pace but she had come all the way to see this… see it she must… so she had trudged along till she almost collapsed from exhaustion. They had to crawl or slide along parts of the cave. As Ashima could not put her weight on her knees or crawl on the hard surface for fear of injuring her kneecap again, she had to bend double and walk. It was really tough, even though the stretch was short. She felt breathless and on the brink of collapse! Finally, when her heart beat till she felt exhausted with it’s pace, she told her family she could not survive the ordeal! Her twenty-year-old son had called the guide, who had been very kind to her. She helped Ashima take off her woolens which she had needed in the cold wind outside but was not needed inside the cave with its constant perennial temperature of 18 degrees Celsius. The group stopped as she rested and she went slowly the rest of the way. In any case they had been close to the exit. Despite the terror of the situation, Ashima had a tremendous sense of achievement and she had decided that she would make herself physically fit to see more of the subterranean world! But, definitely not this soon… and also she needed the time to improve her fitness level…maybe in a few years…not just yet…

The guide had also said that no one knew exactly how far these caves could stretch… Such caves were made of limestone and they formed a receptacle for varieties of fossils over the last three million years. They believed that the hominids fell into sudden sinkholes that appeared in these sites… what if she too fell into something similar, thought Ashima… Just as she feared, like Alice in Wonderland, Ashima was plunged into a hole that seemed to stretch out endlessly… she was falling, falling into a sinkhole… all alone like the millions of years old Little Foot they found… Ashima passed out.

When she came to, Ashima found herself surrounded by strange monkey like creatures almost as tall as her. They were looking at her and making funny noises. They looked like the pictures of hominids she had seen. Ashima was terrified! She was lying on some kind of soft fern. It was a pale colored world… the vegetation around was more brown and white, actually sepia toned, and there was a strange kind of light that emanated from the walls that surrounded the group. Was it some kind of phosphorescence?

Where was she? As she regained her consciousness, she could hear the trickle of water… her throat felt incredibly parched… These creatures were touching her with their furry hands… she fainted again…this time from fear.

Ashima came to her senses again as some kind of a soft receptacle was being pushed into her mouth and she felt a trickle of water flow down her throat…she was too scared to open her eyes. Reluctantly, she looked up and she found a pair of kind eyes looking down at her. The face was that of a hominid. As soon as she opened her eyes, more of these creatures came running to see her…

“Where am I?” wondered Ashima, “In some subterranean world? Who are these creatures and what has happened?”

From a distance, she heard a voice say, “I was lost too and I landed in their world… I have seen eyeless monstrosities. I have battled sightless dinosaurs. These creatures are very kind compared to those…”

Ashima turned to the source of the voice. A man dressed in ragged khaki and with a long beard stood at a little distance. His beard was of an indeterminate brown…Ashima’s whole body felt cold and hurt… she felt all her bones were broken.

“ There was no speech a few million years ago… we have both travelled back in time to a time lock,” the reedy voice drifted to her as the man came forward to her line of vision.

He had a frayed unkempt wispy beard and an uncouth look about him. His clothes were in tatters. His feet had the remnants of boots on them. She looked at him from the side of her eyes in surprise. He saw her look and started speaking again.

“I am Professor Nowiki from Poland… I made a time machine, which I hoped would help me travel back in time to meet Prof Lidenbrock, the one who went into the Icelandic Snaefellsjokull volcano and came out of Strombolii… I wanted to join his expedition. I was living in the early twentieth century… The first trial took me to a world, which was filled with sightless monstrosities. When I managed to escape back to my machine, the time knob malfunctioned and brought me here. As I stepped out of the machine, it collapsed into a sinkhole and disappeared… I cannot access it any more… I have been in this time lock for almost a century now… I think…”

As his voice faded, Ashima felt terrified. She was surrounded by curious furry hominids. They occasionally touched her. Some of them touched the professor and then her, perhaps to sense the difference. She wanted to get up and run away. She wanted to be securely back with her family… Her whole adventure had landed her in a nightmarish situation. Would she ever see her family again… her two sons and husband…She was desperate to see them, to find them…As tears trickled down her terrified eyes, she heard her husband’s voice calling out to her, “Ashima, Ashima…. what happened? Why are you shivering and weeping?”

And Ashima opened her eyes. Thank God she was on her own bed, by her husband, Sharad. What she had witnessed was, in reality, a nightmare… it was still night…

She sat up and told Sharad the story… “Well it is a good story… you could write it down at some point… maybe an impact of visiting the cave and watching too many adventure movies, Star Trek…”

Ashima took a sip of water from the bottle by her bedside and laughed and said, “You are right you know… except, maybe, the bearded guy was perhaps a figment contributed by my love for Journey to the Centre of the Earth… And I really want to see more wonderful things like that cave, maybe go down the Snaefellsjokull volcano…”

“ It is 3 am! Night still. Go to sleep now… crazy woman,” said Sharad half asleep. Ashima lay down, cuddled close to Sharad and closed her eyes again.

 

Animal Antics

 

A monkey sat and watched the passers by in the middle of the walk with thoughtful eyes. A little boy was trying to hold a conversation with the creature…the monkey stared at the child with a patient look. Passers by were taking pictures with their mobiles. I was returning home from a walk by the waterfront and paused to take a picture too.

Every now and then, I see otters at play in the ‘river’ in front of my home. They dive and they swim in the fresh water reserve. One of them even likes to pose for cameras! Earlier the fresh water reserve was a sea inlet and was called a ‘river’. The name has stuck to this water body, which has a walk lining its shores up to the sea. A decade or two ago, we used to have schools of small shiny silver fish jumping in the water during high tide. I do not know the scientific name of the fish but we christened them the jumping fish…Now, they have been replaced by fishes that don’t jump, otters and turtles.

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Snail eggs

We also see a variety of snails and birds fishing by the river. The snails lay eggs that look very pink, almost the color of a flower! Especially visible by the river are a herons, egrets and kingfishers. A Brahminy kite glides in the sky every now and then. I have even spotted a koel on a treetop from my window at home, sitting by the river and calling out…somehow the koel’s song always reminds me of the cuckoo in Wordsworth’s Solitary Reaper.

A voice so thrilling ne’er was heard

In spring-time from the Cuckoo-bird,

Breaking the silence of the seas

Among the farthest Hebrides.

And a “Cuckoo-bird” can also be found around here…in fact many cuckoos…

The other day when I was returning home from my evening walk, a monitor lizard crossed the jogging track on its way to the river. It gathered a number of joggers. Some took pictures and some merely watched.

Now, you must be thinking I live near a zoo or in an animal reserve.

I don’t.

I live in a flat in the heart of Singapore. Many perceive this city as a paradise for shoppers and a place lined with cement brick and mortar. Almost half of Singapore is green (47 per cent) according to a research published by an online website (http://www.skyscrapercity.com) whereas Shanghai has 2.6 per cent of greenery, Mumbai 2.5 per cent. New York and San Francisco have greenery below 20 per cent! And in the 47 per cent greenery, live birds and animals in harmony with man and nature.

Each morning, I wake up to bird songs. I watch butterflies flit from the yellow angsana flowers that cover the heads of the trees near my home. If the butterflies are yellow, they almost seem like flowers taking flight. White and pale green butterflies do stand out.

The other avian visitors near my home are sunbirds, pigeons, mynahs, doves, orioles and flocks of parrots. The orioles blend in well with the yellow angsana blooms and like the butterflies, seem to become a part of it. Parrots on the top of trees look almost like quivering leaves. The only issue is they make so much noise that you know there are parrots out there somewhere…they can also be seen in the seaside parks squawking and flying from tree to tree! Sometimes they fly in huge flocks across the river.

Once, one of my neighbors had a sunbird nest in her balcony garden. It was a little yellow sunbird with a nest made of dry leaves and twigs… such a quaint sight!

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Oriental whip snake

We discovered snakes sometimes live by the sea. One evening, when my children were renting cycles from a shop by the beach, we saw a green snake entangled amid some vines outside the shop. It almost looked like an extension of the plant! Later on googling, we found it was called the oriental whip snake. Evidently, a family of whip snakes nested near the shop and the shop owners let them be… live and let live was the motto they adopted!

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Pigeons by the pool

Pigeons and mynahs often take sips from our swimming pool. Every now and then, we have white pigeons among the grey. Thankfully, in our condominium, we only have bird visitors. I heard a monkey went for a swim in the pool of a neighboring condominium on a hot day!

Why he opted for the pool when there is a fresh water reserve right next to the condo is something that remains a mystery… maybe the monkey liked the color of the pool. After his swim, he felt peckish. He found a table laden with food in a home with open windows. He helped himself. Unfortunately, humans draw a line at sharing their meals with monkeys and they were forced to call authorities to help. I believe, the monkey has been relocated to greener pastures!

Monkeys are a common site in most nature reserves in Singapore. We have had monkeys relaxing on the roof of our car when we were returning from a walk in a nature reserve one day. Ducks, swans, crocodiles and mudskippers can also be spotted in some of them. Of course one has to be careful in reserves with crocodiles. Reserves with crocodiles do put up signs that ask one to watch out for these creatures. One good thing is most Singaporeans who visit these places are educated enough not to tamper or tease wildlife. These creatures live outside the realm of ‘tourist spots’ or zoos, in places more frequented by the local population. Sometimes you can see flying squirrels leap from tree to tree though they are less common than normal squirrels or monitor lizards.

I have seen a mynah frighten a monitor lizard as it strolled across a lawn littered with picnickers on a Sunday afternoon. The mynah squawked and pecked near its eyes till the monitor lizard found shelter under a fern and rock overhanging. A crowd gathered to watch our tiny, feathered friend object to sharing the lawn with a lizard that was more than ten times it’s size.

Monitor lizards by and large seem to walk around freely. I remember, one rainy day, we had a huge traffic jam in the road outside my home. The jam had been caused by a monitor lizard parking itself in the middle of the road! Cars had to wait for it to cross, pretty much as we did in Kruger animal reserve in South Africa. Of course, there it could be monkeys, zebras, kudus or elephants crossing. In Singapore, it was a jam caused by merely a monitor lizard!

 

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Monitor lizard fleeing in fear

 

 

 

 

Book of the Week

 

 

Title: Peony

Author: Pearl S. Buck

Published: 1948

 

Peony is a novel set in Kaifeng, China, in the 1850s. It is my favorite among Pearl S Buck novels because it propounds tolerance and looks beyond the borders of religion, culture and nationality. It gives a clear portrayal of how creating walls in the name of culture and communities can only bring them tumbling down.

The other thing that I liked was how Peony, the protagonist, develops into a wise and respected woman, an advisor to her former employers, revered by the people who she served as a child.

Peony, named after a flower that has mythological significance in both Greek and Chinese lore, starts her life at eight years of age as a bond maid in a rich foreigner’s family that had emigrated from Palestine a few generations earlier to avoid harassment. She was bought as a companion to the only son of the house. She learnt writing and reading while her young master studied. Peony, as expected, fell in love with her young master, David. However, knowing that she would never be accepted as a daughter-in-law by the family, she overcame her desires and helped her young master marry a bride who would bring him happiness in the long run.

Her mistress, an upholder of the Judaism in China, was keen that her son marries a Rabbi’s daughter. Both the Jewish women (David’s mother and future fiancée) loved what they believed to be Judaism as it was interpreted by their Rabbi. They believed that they were the chosen ones and superior to the ‘ heathens‘. Their religion drew borders and created only rifts with the local population. In the middle of the book, there is an interesting dialogue between the Rabbi and a liberal Chinese trader, Kung Chen.

“There is only one true God, and Jehovah is His name,” the Rabbi declared, trembling all over as he spoke.

“So the followers of Mohammed in our city declare,” Kung Chen said gravely, “but they call his name as Allah. Is he the same as your Jehovah?”

“There is no god beside our God,” the Rabbi said in a loud high voice. “He is the One True God!”

Kung Chen, a buddhist and an open thinker, is appalled by the Rabbi’s intolerance and tells David, Peony’s young master, “None can love those who declare that they alone are the sons of God.”

Perhaps, with this one statement Pearl S Buck has summed up the issue faced by many in the current day world, intolerance towards others’ beliefs.

I have not looked into the authenticity of the historical fact or the religious belief of those times. But what struck me was that this is an age-old truth. Intolerance only breeds hatred and violence, as it does in the book.

Earlier the Jews who came for refuge to Kaifeng were not intolerant. Over a period of time, the group grew smaller and became more rigid.

In the past, a liberal minded follower of the same Judaism had engraved on a plaque in the same temple where the Rabbi propounded his intolerance: “Worship is to honor Heaven, and righteousness is to follow the ancestors. But the human mind has always existed before worship and righteousness.”

It is the human mind, which helps us make choices. When we stop thinking, we lose touch with reality and become fanciful, as had the Rabbi and his daughter. After all, the human mind has been made by God who, probably, wanted us to think and take responsibility for our thoughts and action.

Peony by her actions generates the positive feelings of calmness, peace, harmony and tolerance whereas the Rabbi’s daughter generates passion, violence, intolerance and fear. She is so passionate and intolerant in her outlook that she comes to a sad end.

Peony, on the other hand, gains in social and spiritual stature.

I also love what the book does with Peony, a woman who might have become a concubine in the royal court of China. She defines her own position by her selflessness and opts for a more meaningful existence. She rejects power and glory for love and kindness, values that would make for a happier world.

Her role in the latter part of the book reminds me of a few lines that are often quoted and were written by Julia Abigail Fletcher Carney in Illinois around the same period as when this story was set…

 

Little deeds of kindness,

Little words of love,

Help to make earth happy

Like the Heaven above.

Cape Town Cruise

As I stood on top of the lighthouse in Cape Town and the wind ripped through my hair and face, I could see rain clouds drifting towards the landmass from all sides. I was filled with a sense of wonder and exhilaration. Those were the seas that Bartolomeu Dias must have sailed in 1488 when he landed after being tossed across the stormy waves on a landmass that he christened the Cape of Storms. And that is where I was standing! So, much had happened since then. The whole world had changed over this one discovery. It had drawn closer in quest of ‘Gold, God and Glory’.

The Cape was only renamed Cape of Good Hope by Dias’ monarch, the King of Portugal, King John. He called it Cape of Good Hope “ for the promise it gave of finding India, so desired and for so many years sought after”.

Vasco Da Gama was the one who, with the help of a pilot from Kenya, ultimately ‘found’ the sea route to India. He landed in the Keralite city of Khozikode (Calicut) in 1498, ten years after his predecessor had discovered the Cape of Good Hope. The Arabs had been trading with India from the seventh century. However, they did not need to use the Cape of Good Hope as they crossed only the Indian Ocean. The Arabs also made no attempt at blocking other traders. The Portuguese subsequently conquered land to try to monopolize the trade. The British, the Dutch and the French later beat them at their own game!

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Cape of good Hope

While driving through the park towards the Cape, we had seen distant crosses dot the landscape in memory of Dias and Da Gama…but the highlight was the view from the Cape with the sea stretching out and beating against the tall cliffs with the strong breeze

I could see the old lighthouse at a distance. There is a trekking route to that point too as there is to the beach.

The new lighthouse is above the ticket counter and restaurants. Tickets are only needed if you ride the trolley, which takes you part of the way to the lighthouse. The trolley does not go up to the top. You have to take the stairs built into the cliffs. There is a walking trail all the way up too. The view from the top with the sea beating on all sides is unparalleled. A sense of euphoria envelops ones being as the beauty of the wide expanse makes ones heart sing.

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The cow-sized goat

Below is the beach, unlittered, white and pristine.  The walk to the beach has breathtaking views all along. When we headed back to the visitor parking from the beach, we saw a huge goat grazing. It was almost the size of a cow!

Interestingly, Cape of Good Hope is not the Southern most point of Africa. The Southern most point is Cape of Agulhas about 150 km east-southeast of the point where I stood. That is where the Indian Ocean and Atlantic Ocean meet… but the history of mankind found the Cape of Good Hope and popularized it long before the factual misconception was revealed.

The restaurants are near the parking lot, midway between the beach and the lighthouse. In the outdoor seating area, there was a monkey chasing a lady with a pizza. He wanted a bite too! While one could merrily enjoy the plight of another chased by a monkey, it was difficult for me to empathize with the red wing starlings that I met at the Cape. The birds wanted a bite of my sandwich whenever I stepped into the outdoor picnic area. They swooped down so close to my hand that I could almost feel the beat of their wings. I was compelled to run and take shelter inside the self-service restaurant. I did not dare step out till I finished my sandwich!

As somebody told us, the birds in Cape Town are crazy… we saw an Egyptian goose knock at the window of a jewelry store in the Victoria and Albert Waterfront. It stood patiently and knocked but, unfortunately, no one answered. It waited and waddled but went back to knocking every now and then… a very persistent and patient bird one must say. We saw ducks roosting on their eggs along the edges of this historic area, named after the British monarch and the prince, who made a splash in this part of the world with his visit to Africa in 1860.

Seagulls were one of the most prominent occupants of the Waterfront. They screeched, they flew, they even occupied most of the outdoor picnic tables made for people. They had no fear of humans. They did not sleep at night! We were staying in a hotel in the Waterfront. Sometimes, the seagulls even knocked on our windowpanes late at night.

The Waterfront is of course dotted with shops and restaurants.

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Old Well at the Museum

The other interesting thing is the old battery that they dug up along the waterfront, the Chavoness Battery built in the early eighteenth century to protect Cape Town. This was excavated in the 1990s by students from the Cape Town University and now stands as a museum. The Chavoness Battery Museum had some interesting exhibits like guns, cannons, cannon balls, an old well and walls. It was an extension of the Castle of Good Hope. The Castle of Good Hope was built earlier in the 1660s by the Dutch. That is now located in the heart of Cape Town and houses the Castle Military Museum.

One of the things most visible from the Waterfront is the Table Mountain. It forms a backdrop to the whole of Cape Town and is one of the most popular tourist venues in South Africa. The cliffs at the Cape of Good Hope are an extension of the Table Mountain National Park. The Table Mountain is a flat plateau made of rocks dating back to 450 to 500 million years. It is home to one of the most iconic creatures we had never met before met, the dassie (hyrax). They belong to the same clan as elephants, Paenungulata. One would presume that relatives of elephants would be huge, like mammoths. But these were not huge. They were rodents, cute ones that liked to pose for the camera. They basked on the rocky surface of the Table Mountain absorbing the heat from the sun and attention from tourists.

Table Mountain has fabulous views and unique plants. You can see the whole of Cape Town stretching out to the sea. It glitters and glimmers like jewel in the sunshine. The sea changes colors as the waves splash against the rocks and white foamy waves create fluid borders that keep changing. One can see Robin Island, where the famous Nelson Mandela was imprisoned. The vastness and the sense of freedom one experiences at the top are unique as is the geographical structure of this National Park. These mountains form a natural amphitheater to the city bowl and the table bay. While queuing for almost a couple of hours to get to the top of the mountain in the cableway, the view is one of the things one can enjoy. From the top, the view is breathtaking as is the walk around.

Other than catching up with dassies, colorful sunbirds, red winged starlings and an agama lizard basking under a rock, we saw the unique flower called Protea, after which is named a hotel chain adopted by Marriot in South Africa. The branch in Cape Town has history. It is housed in an old prison built for white prisoners and showcases torture weapons!

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Red Bus

Behind the hotel, by the Waterfront and aquarium (which was under renovation) is theRed Bus Tour office. The Red Bus is a great way to experience this sunshiny town with fabulous beaches. You can sit on top of the open bus and take a tour of the whole city or get off where you want. We took a red bus to and from the Table Mountain and got to see not just the Tabletop, where we spent the day, but also fabulous beaches on the way back. We even thought we saw a whale at a far distance. The whale disappeared before we could photograph it.

Penguins are more open to photography we discovered at the Boulder Beach. The South African penguins are cute and funny to watch. They waddle when they walk and tumble and glide into the water.

Though the Boulder Beach, like the Cape of Good Hope, is a part of the Table Mountain National Park, it can not all be done on the same day. Distances are huge and to do the Park justice, you need at least three days to a week. On the way to Boulder Beach, we stopped at a port in Simon Town. This is a naval base and a good spot to buy souvenirs. I bought a few things from a local artisan who told me her name. Her name had a clicking sound in it and she said, it meant luck. This is one of the customs I found most appealing in South Africa. The locals tell you their names and the meaning of it before they sell you anything.

The sunsets, like in the rest of this beautiful country, are like molten colors rippling through the horizon.

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Tablecloth of mist starts over Tabletop

The other unique thing I found was the ‘ tablecloth’ that spread over the Table Mountains. When it rained or grew cloudy, a misty cover seemed to spread itself over the mountain and one could see it distinctly from the Waterfront! The tabletop disappeared in the mists! It was a strange sight and one could keep gazing at it… just like Wordsworth did at the daffodils…

I wonder what he would have written if he saw the views and the amazing landscapes in South Africa…

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Mist covers Tabletop