The Storm

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A shooting star zipped across the sky, studded with pinpricks of lights that twinkled against the blackness of the velvety night, a night that throbbed with music on the lawns of the exclusive club where Dolon and Suresh were celebrating their silver wedding anniversary. The star went unnoticed by all except a figure that sat at a distance wrapped in what seemed an extension of the night sky, a sinuous black sari speckled with tiny silver spangles. The figure smiled with happy thoughts and perhaps made a wish as the shooting star disappeared into oblivion.

The sumptuous party with turbaned waiters and long white tables swung in it’s own beat. Guests draped in expensive saris, suits, jewelry and perfume expressed their satisfaction with the opulence of the affair. Besides Dolon and Suresh, stood their daughter, Brishti, and son, Sreshth. Brishti’s fiance, Arjun, came and whispered in her ears. Brishti gave a shy smile and looked at her parents. Dolon smiled and the young couple took off towards the dance floor, a little raised stage in the middle of the lawn where the younger moved to music.

“ I think all the guests are here except for Subir da. He is late as usual,” said Suresh.

“ Then let us go and mingle,” said Dolon.

“I am off to my gang then,” said Sresht and went off to a gaggle of young men talking and laughing.

Dolon and Suresh went first to the woman in black, the star gazer who occupied a chair near the entrance of the party. She had a face similar to that of Dolon but looked a little older.

Didi, I am so glad you could come all the way,” said Dolon to her elder sister, Damayanti.

“And how would I not? On such an important occassion…” said Damayanti with a smile. Suresh came and touched her feet. She blessed the couple from the bottom of her heart.

“Go and mingle with the others. I will sit here and wait for Subir. He is late as usual,” said Damayanti with an indulgent smile. Subir was her husband. She was five years older to Dolon and her only daughter, Sreya, was married and living in South Africa.

Damayanti sighed and gazed at the figures of her sister and brother-in-law moving among the guests. How happy they looked together, happier than her and Subir, whose inability to be in time distressed her! And yet, she could not help but recall that night almost fifteen years ago, a day after her sister’s wedding anniversary celebration, when she got that horrifying call that Dolon had slashed her wrist and was hospitalized…

She would never forget the nightmare. Subir and she had driven recklessly from their home to the nursing home. It was surreal for her. Her lively younger sister Dolon… the one who always smiled, was always so sure of herself, always got her way, was so strong to oppose wrongs to women, to children , to anyone, was so loyal in love… why would such a positive and strong person try to commit suicide?

At the nursing home, their father, Harihar, was pacing up and down. The young children were clinging to Seema, their grandmother. But, where was Suresh and why had all this happened?

After a few hours, Dolon regained consciousness. The family were allowed in one by one and asked to be quiet. The children went in with their grandmother. Then the rest followed slowly. The doctors asked them not to talk to her or agitate her in any way.

What had happened? That was the question on everyone’s mind but no one dared ask. And why was Suresh not there?

Harihar had received a call from the housekeeper that her madam was lying in a pool of blood and the children were crying with fear… Harihar instantly called a private ambulance and rushed her to the nearest nursing home. He was also not clear what had happened… and why they couldnot find Suresh anywhere.

No one wanted to question Dolon much…

Brishti and Shresht went to their grandparent’s home from the nursing home. Brishti said Dolon had asked them to go to their room when Suresh mentioned he wanted to talk to her alone. Then they spoke and their voices became loud and incoherent. The door banged shut. The children could hear Dolon crying as if her heart would rend. Slowly, the weeping seemed to stop. And then they heard a scream from the housekeeper. They came running out of their room to find their mother with her wrist cut. The housekeeper called up Suresh immediately. Suresh’s phone was switched off. So, she called Harihar. The arguement had happened while she was in the market. When she returned, Dolon had been weeping in her room and Suresh was missing and the kids were in their room. She only came into the room when the weeping almost ceased thinking Dolon had calmed down. Instead, she found her lying in a pool of blood.

From the nursing home, Dolon also came to her parental home. She was very depressed and quiet. The doctors had prescribed anti-depressants. No one dared question Dolon. Harihar continued to call Suresh but his phone was still switched off!

Damayanti, Subir and Sreya temporarily moved into Harihar’s home to try and ease the situation. Also Dolon was closest to her sister. Everyone was hoping she would tell her what had happened.

After two days, Harihar had a call from Suresh. Suresh had returned home after two days, unkempt, unshaven and heard the story of Dolon’s wrist slashing from the housekeeper. He wanted to talk to Dolon. Harihar asked him to come over and explain what had happened. Suresh came, looking unkempt, anxious and abashed. He first wanted to talk to Dolon. But Dolon didnot want to talk to him or see him.

“What is the matter? Will one of you tell me what has happened? Why Dolon had to resort to such extreme measures?”said Harihar with impatience.

Suresh found it difficult to say anything. He just left.

The evening of the day Suresh visited them, Dolon opened up to Damayanti, “He wanted to leave me and go with his secretary… It seems she has been in love with him from the first day she saw him… whereas he thinks I have no time for him… I love him so much. Life has no meaning without him. I married him to spend the rest of my life with him…where did I go wrong Didi? …It really hurts…I was only looking after the kids and home. I have always been there for him… He is the one who is always busy. He has no time for the kids or me… He doesnot know the kids’ teachers or friends. He sees us only on weekends practically. He is always taking clients out for dinner and getting home near midnight… he is the one who spends more time with his secretary and work than with any of us…yet, we have never complained…”

Damayanti was furious, “Divorce him! Divorce him this instance… we told you not to marry the orphan…but you still did. And now…” Suresh was an orphan. He was brought up by his aunt, who died before Dolon met him. She knew him for twelve years before she slashed her wrists.

“My life is over,”said Dolon. “Why did you save me?”

“What about the kids?” Said Damayanti. “If you and Suresh think only of yourselves, what of the kids?”

Harihar was furious too, “He is banned from coming here! Dolon will divorce him”

But when the kids left for school the next day, the bell did ring. And there was Suresh.

“Get out!”said Harihar.

Suresh forced his way in despite that.

“Please let me see Dolon once,” he begged. “I will go away forever if she wants after that. Please let me apologize. I was wrong. I do love her.”

Dolon came in.

Everyone was silent.

“Do you really?” asked Dolon. “Then why did you say all those things and disappear not letting me have my say…”

“I was confused…I cannot live without you…Please give me another chance. I will be a good father and husband. I will change my ways. Please, please Dolon I beg you.”He knelt. He bowed his head and pleaded.

Dolon said, “Okay. One more chance is all I will give and then if it happens again, I will leave, not die, with the kids.”

“No Dolon. Do not believe him,”said Damayanti.

“He will hurt you again,”said her Seema.

“He is not worthy of you,”said Harihar.

Subir, who had just returned after dropping the children to school, collared Suresh, “If you come near us again, I will hand you to the police.”

“Stop.”shouted Dolon. “For my sake stop.”

Subir let Suresh go.

Dolon deliberately walked over to her husband. She held his hand and said, “Let’s go.”

Brishti and Shresht returned home that weekend. And Subir and Damayanti returned home with Sreya. Dolon’s family kept urging her to divorce Suresh. But, Dolon ignored them and their rebuke. Damayanti didnot know what Dolon did, but it had all worked out. Dolon had been very strong through it all, siding with her husband, supporting him with love and trust.

Once when Damayanti questioned her on why she forgave him so easily, Dolon said, “Our children need us both.”

Her children never knew exactly what happened but they were attached to both their parents. Initially, the family ignored Suresh. Then, seeing how good he was being to Dolon, they started relenting. Suresh tried to win back the family too as he had none of his own.

Infact when Harihar developed cancer, Suresh was the one who paid for most of the chemotherapy, his argument being that he had no one else except this family to care for whereas Subir had his parents too. Suresh stood by like a rock for his mother-in-law when her husband passed away and he was by her when she died two years later.

One day when the two sisters were having tea, Dolon had confided in Damayanti, “The past that threatened to tear us apart has drawn Suresh closer to my heart. He has softened. He seems kinder…to understand me better …perhaps because he started giving us more time… life is good now.” That was about a year after their mother died.

Strange how people were…

That the lively Dolon could be so strong and take a positive step towards rebuilding her life despite the family suggesting otherwise was amazing! That she had succeeded was fantastic! That she found it in her heart to forgive her erring husband was so kind and loving, and so unlike the reaction people would have expected from the fiery Dolon… A waiter with a tray of drinks stood before her, “Would madam like something?”

She jerked back to reality…

The moon had risen higher and the waiter waited with his tray. “No, thank you,”said Damayanti.

Where was Subir?

Someone tugged at Damayanti’s saree. Damayanti turned around and looked. It was Subir. He whispered in her ears, “What were you thinking? You looked lost and lovely…”

There was tinge of sadness, concern and accusation in Damayanti’s glance as she looked deep into Subir’s eyes and wondered why he was always late. Why could he not ever  be in time…Could it be another…?

She wiped the disturbing thought. And smiled back with a sense of regret.

The party continued to swing.

Book Review

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Title: The Further Adventures of Ebenezer Scrooge

Author: Charlie Lovett

Published in 2016, The Further Adventures of Ebenezer Scrooge by Charlie Lovett is the story of the changes wrought in and wrought by Scrooge two decades after his ghostly adventures. It shows how the protagonist of A Christmas Carol (by Charles Dickens, published in 1843) creates a kind of butterfly effect to ripple social reforms in the world around him. The supernatural story is set in Dickensian England, twenty years after three ghosts paid a visit to Scrooge on Christmas eve to help make him a kind, humane, helpful man and to instill good values in him.

Lovett has made the spirit of giving the theme of the whole book, just like Dickens did. At the start of the book you have a quote by filmmaker Valentine Davies, “Christmas isn’t just a day; it’s a frame of mind”. And, it is in that spirit of giving that you have the altered Scrooge wishing everybody “Merry Christmas” in the middle of June. Lovett says he started by parodying the first paragraph of Dickens, which starts “Marley was dead to begin with”. Lovett starts with “Scrooge was alive to begin with”. Lovett starts with a sense of hope and continues bringing hope through the book. Dickens starts with a bleak picture and through darkness, he brings light and hope.

In A Christmas Carol, Scrooge fears the ghost of his former partner Marley and the three spirits. In Lovett’s book, Scrooge looks forward to seeing them. It is to help free Marley from his ghostly and shackled existence, Scrooge embarks on his second adventure with ethereal beings. Again in A Christmas Carol, Marley had helped Scrooge and in The Further Adventures of Ebenezer Scrooge, Scrooge helps Marley, Bob Cratchit, his former clerk and current partner, his nephew, bankers, the rich, the poor and the world. He helps bring out the need and to help mankind in others and make this world a better place.

The sequence of the ghosts is pretty much the same as in A Christmas Carol. I will say one thing of this book that one has to be familiar with Dickens’ creation to really appreciate Lovett’s sequel. First the spirit of Bob Marley initiates Scrooge in what he is to expect and then come the spirits of Christmas Past, Present and Future… except in Lovett’s book, Scrooge directs and accompanies the spirits to the persons who need to be awakened to make the changes. Unlike in Dickens where Scrooge went alone with the spirit, two men and the ghost embark on an adventure together.

The two books can be regarded as a set. Lovett has actually taken the sense of social reform a step further than Dickens and said how the reforms were being started and continued. Both the books end with a note of hope. They are good if you read them together or present them as a set to someone for Christmas.

Lovett has actually captured the Dickensian spirit of reform to make the world a better place more effectively than the Hollywood movie Scrooged (1988), for which again you need to have read Dickens’s Christmas Carol. Scrooged is set in a more modern world context but the dialogues are weak and I would give it an adult rating for some of the dialogues, violence and disturbing content.

Lovett’s book is not only in the spirit of Christmas, reform and Dickens but it also is one which the whole family can read together… from age eight to eighty, a rare occurrence in present day literature. Perhaps, they can even make a movie of The Further Adventures of Ebenezer Scrooge one Christmas!

Hello 2017!

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At the end of every year, I feel so many things have rushed by and there is so much more to do. At the start of every year, I feel time stretching out just as at the start of a new day or a birthday…

As 2016 draws to a close, I am filled with a hope that we have reached the end of a dark phase in the history of mankind and now things can only get better! This year has been a year of refugees displaced, of people unwilling to share their countries, of terror triumphing, of partisan deals made by world leaders, of de-globalization and the trumping of Trump. On the brighter horizon, were the demonetization of currencies by India and Venezuela…perhaps the start of a rainbow after stormy skies…

2016 had exciting books and movies…JK Rowling’s two stories around the Harry Potter series, though not her best, rang a note of hope in the heart as I always feel uplifted seeing how against all odds a child makes it in the world and how there are always benevolent and tolerant people who make sure that good triumphs over evil. One had to read the book to enjoy the movie, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.

Star Wars returned with a not so star studded cast. It was disappointing to see Han Solo (Harrison Ford) killed by his own not so powerful but villainous son and there was too less of Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia. That Princess Leia, if at all she features in the next Star Wars, will have to be played by someone else is tragic! The second Star wars, Rogue One, was too violent with everyone annihilated at the end…I would like to see a Star Wars filled with hope and Jedis again.

On a personal note, 2016 has been a most exciting time for me. I turned fifty… completed half a century of earthly existence! This has also been the first year where I was acknowledged as a poet in a gathering of intellectuals…though in my estimation, I continue a mommy and wife who writes for fun…

I am left dreaming that with my writing I will, at some point, bring happiness and hope in the hearts of readers. Maybe, people will learn to think of themselves as part of mankind, part of this universe, part of a galaxy, a speck in the universe … perhaps they will find a new dawn on January 1 st, a magical dawn where a rainbow will encompass the whole world and bring hope and colors.

Wish you all wonderful dreams in the New Year!

My new publication

(In reverie, An anthology, poetry by ten contributors, 2016)

http://www.amazon.in/dp/9383785373?_encoding=UTF8&m=A27OJUQ7QXJ7N6&qid=1482819105&ref_=sr_1_4&s=merchant-items&sr=1-4

My old book

(In the Land of Dragons, prose, humor, about life in China, 2014)

Amazon link

http://www.amazon.com/In-Land-Dragons-Mitali-Chakravarty/dp/1490704337/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1394358194&sr=8-1&keywords=mitali+chakravarty

India link

http://www.amazon.in/In-Land-Dragons-Mitali-Chakravarty/dp/1490704337/ref=sr_1_6?ie=UTF8&qid=1396481959&sr=8-6&keywords=In+the+land+of+dragons

The Journey

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Sushma sat facing the ocean from her balcony on the thirtieth floor in Singapore. The twenty second century was a year old. Sushma’s whole family, her two son and their offsprings, had gathered to celebrate her eighty-fifth birthday. She was now the grand old matriarch. Her grand children were just returning. She could hear their voices as the front door closed.

“Oh! Where is granny?” her fourteen-year-old grand daughter, Sheila, was asking her mother.

“I think she is in the balcony,” her mother replied.

“Alone?” asked Ron, her seventeen-year-old grandson.

“Yes,” and a discussion followed in muted voices.

Sushma knew her sons, their wives and children were planning something big…. but she did not know what…. no one would tell her. She played along.

The balcony door slid open and her two grandchildren stepped out. They were her younger son’s children. The older one’s son was married and expecting a baby. He was posted in Singapore with his wife. They lived in a separate apartment and would be joining the rest of the family later.

Ron and Sheila plunked on chairs near her.

“How was your jog?” asked Sushma.

“Great,” replied Sheila as she sipped a cold apple juice from a tall glass.

“We saw a komodo dragon!” exclaimed Ron. He was really excited, as they had grown up in California where such creatures were unusual. “And Sheila was screaming with fear.”

“I was not. I was shocked seeing it cross our path so casually.”

“It was running too,” said Ron. “Obviously, it was scared of us too.”

Sushma smiled and intervened, “Good. I always love to hear of your discoveries.”

“Grandma, today you will tell us your stories. Will you again tell us the story of how you and your mother moved here?” asked Sheila. “I always love to hear it. Maybe, someday I will write it down.”

Sushma smiled affectionately and said, “I also love recalling my past. It rekindles my sense of hope and happiness.”

“I was born in an army cantonment in a city called Kanpur in India. My father was a soldier in the Indian army. When I was six-months-old, he was killed in a terrorist attack in his border camp. He died fighting and was declared a hero. My mother was only twenty-four and heartbroken. My grandmother was inconsolable. Medals were given to my father posthumously. But medals did not bring food to our plates or gladness in our hearts.

My mother was always sad. I do not recall much of the early phase in my life except everyone seemed dark and gloomy. There was no laughter, no sense of hope.

We were poor. We had to leave the army cantonment. My grandparents moved in with their second son, who lived in Bombay and my mother went back to her parents in New Delhi.

My mother’s in-laws did not want her and the baby as they said we had brought bad luck on the family. More than the terrorists, they blamed us for losing their beloved son.

I do not remember much of that time but, I believe, my mother’s family let her to go back to studies. My mother had been a bright student and had married at twenty under family pressure. She had not been allowed to complete her graduation by her family or that of her husband’s. Actually, there had been no time after all the housekeeping in her husband’s home. Her parents-in-law also lived with them and expected her to serve them, do all the cleaning, cooking and laundry.

Now that she was widowed and had no home to service, my mother went back to her studies. She bloomed, studied economics, got a fellowship to Singapore and we moved.

This time, her parents did not halt her progress despite criticisms from relatives and friends. My mother said they probably realized the pleasure she got from it was necessary for her survival. Also, her fellowship brought her so much money that her parents, who had come from a small town called Pilani to Delhi to seek their fortunes, were amazed. It sounded like a small fortune to them! Her father was a clerk in the Indian Railways. He had three daughters, the eldest being my mother. The other two were married by the time we came to Singapore. So, he had very less left in his pocket after giving his daughters ample gifts and spending on the functions.

I was six-years-old when we moved to Singapore.

My grandparents did not come with us. They had been my main caregivers in India as my mother spent her time studying. For my mother, it was a very big and bold step. She had never travelled on her own. Even during her journey back to Delhi, her father had gone to pick her up. This was not just a trip. It was her first trip on plane and that too to the first country outside her own!”

“Amazing! Isn’t it? Imagine not having flown at all till the age of…how old was she grandma?” observed Sheila

“It was not unusual for lower middle income families in India then. My mother was thirty. She was a strong woman and over a period of time had become quite an outstanding person. She was tall, fair and beautiful with grey eyes. Over the years, she had learnt to speak English well.”

“My mother had taught me the basics of English at home but my first language at the age of six was still Hindi. I did pick up English fast, though, as no one in the campus understood Hindi, not even the Indians as their ancestors were mainly from Tamil Nadu and they spoke Tamil,” continued Sushma. “ I remember we rented a room in a house in Buona Vista. There was a double bed and an attached bathroom.

My mother took me with her to the university the first day. People were very kind to us. Initially, she put me in the university childcare. Then she moved me to an international school. The university paid for it, I believe. Eventually, my mother was absorbed into the university faculty. We moved into our own home in the campus. The school bus would pick me up at eight and drop me home at four-thirty. My mother saw me off and was home when I returned. If I fell sick, she would take leave but then, eventually she kept a full-time Indonesian lady to help her out.

I had a good childhood from then on…fun, frolic, work and home…

When my grandparents came to visit us, they found it hard to adjust, especially to the fact that their daughter wore trousers, mixed with many races and ate all kinds of food. I remember how my grandmother harangued at my mother for an hour one day for abandoning what she called her ‘culture’. They also did not want a Muslim helper in the house. They did not want to eat food prepared by her as they were strict Hindu vegetarians. When they came, they would cook their own food. We also ate vegetarian and did not tell my grandparents that we did consume non-vegetarian food when they were not around, which was the larger part of the year. They very much disapproved of non-vegetarianism.

During their last trip, they left after a couple of weeks in a huff and never returned or entertained us. They never saw our faces again.

It all started when I invited my best friend, Lydia, home to surprise my grandparents. My grandparents discovered I loved eating chicken as our Indonesian helper had made some fantastic chicken rendang on my request.  Lydia  loved chicken rendang too. When my grandmother discovered the chicken being cooked, she questioned the help and me. She told my grandfather. They neither wanted to have Lydia home nor wanted meat in the house. My grandparents were really angry. They called up my mother in a huff. My mother was teaching and could not attend to them. They were even more upset when I tried to reason with them. I cancelled Lydia’s visit looking at the situation at home. They tried to lock me up but could not as all locks in Singapore opened from the inside. The helper, who I called aunty, texted a message to my mother about the uproar in the house. They told aunty to leave. Aunty went out and stood downstairs, waiting for my mother. My mother had to take leave and come while my grandparents stood guard over their errant grand daughter. I was thirteen then. Aunty came up with my mother. My grandparents did not want aunty to enter. I was more attached to aunty than to my grandparents by then. My grandparents asked us to choose. They also would have us return with them then it self. My mother refused. My grandparents would not listen to reason. There were laws about foreign workers in Singapore. We were not allowed to violate them, my mother tried to convey that to them. They packed their bags and left for the airport. My mother was driving then. But they would not go in her car. They left in a taxi and that is the last we saw or heard from them.

That is how all my ties with India ended.

Initially, my mother wept but she would not have them treat me as they did. She wanted me to grow open and strong, able to take on the world. It had been a struggle for her to come this far and she was not going to give up!

Her sisters kept her informed through letters … they did not know how to email at all. They could not also afford air travel to Singapore!

After about four-five years, she heard from her sisters her father had passed away and, subsequently, her mother. Her parents had left express instructions that she was not allowed to visit or mourn them with the rest of the family. I know my mother mourned many years privately shedding tears but there was no one who would entertain her sorrow and her sense of rejection from her parents. She was sure she did not want herself or me to return to the earlier life she had.

For our vacations, we explored the world. We walked the Great Wall together. We visited Disney Land. My mother even took me to India as she felt I should be in touch with my roots. My grandparents were living the first time. They refused to see us. We stayed in a hotel and had a grand time. My aunts did not live in New Delhi. And we were doing New Delhi, Calcutta and Bombay that holiday.

My mother’s sisters lived in Daulatabad and Bhopal. When we went to see Ajanta and Ellora, she did try to arrange a meeting with her sister in Daulatabad, but somehow it never happened. I think my mother’s family had cut her off as an errant one.

Anyway, we had a good life though my mother was every now and then sad about her family.

Ever since, we have had a happy, smooth journey…

I did well in school and started university here where I met your grandfather. He was my professor, young and dashing. We married after I graduated. I continued with my studies and then you know the rest of it….”

“Thus, ended my childhood ,” said Sushma with a smile.

“Our great grandmother was really a brave and outstanding woman,” said Sheila. “I love to hear her story, how she made it despite all the ties that would hold back most people. She must have been a very strong woman!”

“That she was,” said Sushma. “ And she never let me feel left out. You know, the aunty who my grandparents wanted us to send back, stayed with us for twenty years! She only left when I married Paul. Then, we insisted my mother move in with us. I was lucky in Paul because he was so kind to my mother… and having her was an asset as she helped look after your father and uncle. She also loved Paul very much. She looked on him as a son she never had. Yes, our later years were filled with happiness … all for the one step my brave mother took!”

Ron looked away and wondered, “ Grandma why were they so rigid in India in those days? Why were the social norms for women so restrictive? Are they still that rigid?”

“I couldnot say my dear… in any case after the regionalization of the world, things have changed very much. Perhaps, you can go back to India again at some point and check out what it is like now….” replied Sushma.

Towards Driving to a Century…

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What was it like to wake up the day after having crossed half a century?

Did I become wiser, greyer, more dynamic or more decrepit?

I woke up looking forward to finishing the new play on Harry Potter co-authored by JK Rowling. It was again a racy read after many days. I also reached a new high score while playing Sudoku on my ipad and started writing this piece.

Many might say what frivolous preoccupations or how childish! But, believe me, nothing could be better than tucking up with a new Harry Potter at the end of half a century of earthly existence.

And an interesting earthly existence I have had over the last half a century…

The last decade I walked the Great Wall four times, wrote and published my first book, fought with publishers (a number of them), decided I preferred being labeled a mom and wife to all things. By thirty, I was a first time mom and by forty, I had two kids. Thirty to forty was a great decade…went frolicking with my twosome and did things with them, for them and appreciated handiwork by them. I tried being a democratic and docile parent and my sons appreciated it by telling me I had the makings of a great dictator! The thing is most kids would not tell their mother that they were like dictators. Mine could, did and still do!

Twenty to thirty was the period I fell in love. What could be more enticing! I also published poetry and many pieces of somewhat immature writing in newspapers, quit journalism in disgust…went to universities, did theatre, travelled on university funding (a profoundly happy experience). Ten to twenty…I grew up…climbed trees, broke rules, had fun, almost got kidnapped once, fell down a number of times, fought with people, made some fabulous long lasting friends who never forget to greet me on my birthdays and wedding anniversaries. Zero to ten… I dreamt, sang (a trifle off scale) sitting on trees with my best friend (who sang more out of tune than me), danced, played games and pranks, fought and generally thought I would turn into a blonde-blue eyed princess when I grew up.

I definitely did not turn blonde unless you can refer to my silver grey hair (which I dye dark) as ash blonde…and my eyes remained a steady brown but I lived my life the way I wanted, the way I thought was right, with personal integrity. I lived out my dreams…a trifle differently perhaps… always wanted to write a book on China and did.

I keep writing … have done that from grade three. I miss writing when I don’t the way you miss a favourite TV show.

Now, as I browse over the old Harry Potters and write about the magical completion of my fiftieth year, I wonder if Nicholas Flamel of Philosopher Stone fame felt as I do. Did he also think that fifty was the start of life? Did he want to learn on at fifty? After all …. I just feel I am at the brink of life in its prime. In some Asimov’s, there are people that are a few hundred years old. So, fifty is really sixteen for them! Even in Hobbits, adulthood starts very late in years compared to our current society. So, life does start at fifty and learning an essential skill at that age is just great! The essential skill that I talk of is driving!

One of the reasons I do not possess a valid driving license is that driving instructors do not quiet appreciate my skills. I am very considerate. I was one of those people who stopped in the middle of a road (in the training school) when I saw a trainee driver driving in front of me. I merely gave way to a newcomer. My instructor mistook my consideration for panic!! He assured me what others achieved in five lessons, I would not achieve in fifteen. He did not appreciate my concerns about the other driver’s nerves.

Obviously, the instructor did not know my father used to get jumpy when I drove at eighteen. I had a valid driving license then. And somewhere along the way it expired and I had my husband to drive me…Finally, when I went for a refresher course, my instructor lacked the necessary attitude to teach me! Then, because I was expecting a baby, the doctor banned me from driving. I think I saw my instructor heave a sigh of relief when I gave him the news. Then, we moved to China where we were not allowed to drive but were given a chauffeur driven vehicle 24/7. Being docile and obedient by nature, I was happy to comply!

The joys of being driven is great! You never need to know the way to anywhere. You do not need to know left from right. This has always been a challenge for me. My husband has his first ride on the bike with me indelibly etched on his memory… He was driving and I was directing. I was saying right and pointing left. He figured out early in life left could be right and right could be right too. And left could be left or right. After all these are all names. And as Shakespeare said in Romeo and Juliet:

What’s in a name? That which we call a rose


By any other name would smell as sweet.

My husband had it all figured out then itself…. more than twenty-six years ago….before we tied the knot.

He used his common sense. There was no right turn and he turned into the only available turning, which was on the left.

Now that I am out of China, I have resorted to taking cabs when I go out on my own. I figured out cab drivers are not familiar with Shakespeare. The problem with cab drivers is that they ask for directions and get angry when you give them your own directions. They seem to lose their calm if you say left instead of right. They get even angrier if you mix up names of places and roads!

It has come to a point where I am thinking of self-reliance as an option. What better age to start at than my present one … fantastic, fabulous fifty!

Surely, despite automatic self-driven cars, my newly acquired driving skills will be well honed by the time I hit a century!

 

 

 

Travel

Camels in Cambodia

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Believe me, I did not see any camels in Cambodia and I did not go to look for camels. After we returned from our trip to Siem Reap in Cambodia, somebody told us we should have bought black peppers from there as the country is famous for this spice. We did not buy black peppers either.

Then people will wonder, what did we do in Cambodia? We sunned our bodies in ancient buildings that housed history more than a thousand years ago. We went to see Angkor Wat and saw a whole bunch of very unique things and had unique experiences, including very severe traveller’s diarrhea.

We were received at the airport by a driver who made a deal that he would take us around during our stay in Cambodia. He had been sent by the hotel.

The first day we wanted to see a unique site at Phnom Kulen , a little mountain just outside Siem Reap. They had underwater carvings of deities and the Shiva linga dating back to about 802 CE, when Jayavarman II founded the kingdom of Kambuja. First, we had to buy tickets priced at US$20 each at a ticketing office in town.

Here I must make a minor diversion to clarify that in Siem Reap, in the true spirit of internationalism, local people prefer using US dollars to the Cambodian riel. When I asked our driver why people prefer the USD, he explained that as 1 USD was equal to 4000 riels, it was more practical to do transactions in USD. The interesting thing was the transactions were always in terms of dollars and never in terms of cents. For example, the driver charged us US$100 for a trip to Phnom Kulen. Lunch cost us another US$48… never a transaction in cents or riel. This was really an interesting phenomenon in context of the current revival of nationalistic fervour among the voters for Brexit and the trumpeting of Trumpian followers.

To get back on track to Phnom Kulen, we traversed dusty uphill roads. The dust was orangish-red in colour. The driver told us he needed to turn off the air conditioning to make it up the path. The ride was like a roller coaster ride through hills and dales of untouched roads where modern machinery had not dared to trample. I felt like Indiana Jones or Lara Croft out on a new adventure!

IMG_0092We parked on a riverbed and walked to the Siem Reap river where we saw ancient carvings. Some of it was very clear and some, we could not figure out…

A few urchins followed us from the parking area. They were evidently trying to earn a few US dollars for their families. They were too poor to attend free schools provided by the government and had to try to supplement the family income otherwise they would starve, the driver told us. They need to work so that the families can eat! We gave them a dollar for photographing our whole family. They did a great job and were very enthused. They followed us uphill to the Buddha temple that had been built by later Buddhist kings. They looked after our shoes when we went to the temple and earned a few more US dollars.

It was interesting to see the way Buddhism had mingled with Hinduism here and had paved the way for a strange new set of myths. I read that the Hinduism that they followed in ancient Cambodia was tinged further by their local religious beliefs! Below the Buddhist temple on the hill was a statue of an apsara ( a heavenly maiden) drying the ocean with her hair to save drowned sailors . A Shiva linga stood next to it. And upstairs was a huge reclining Buddha. You could see a man taking care of the linga and a Buddhist monk praying and blessing people beside him. It was truly wonderful to see this harmonious existence of different religions.

After the temple, we went to the waterfalls. The water was cool, fresh and untamed. You could see nature at it’s best. Many local families could be seen picnicking there. We returned by a road built by Koreans for the locals. It was a great, smooth ride.

That evening, we went for the Apsara dance show at the Kulen 2 restaurant in Siem Reap. We had to give the hotel US$18 per head to get us tickets the day before. One thing I did IMG_0089learn in Cambodia was you could never make unplanned trips. Everything that savoured of local flavour was done against booking and tickets. The music and dance performances were interesting and the buffet the most sumptuous I saw in Cambodia.

The next day, we were to go our dream destination…the legendary Angkor Wat. Our driver picked us up by 9 am and we went to another ticket office. This time, the driver told all of us to disembark, as other than paying US$20 per ticket, we needed to have individual photographs on them! The tickets had our photos printed on them. I have never had a ticket with my photograph on it! The driver informed us that they did this so that we would not share the ticket with a friend…. not that we had one there… only the person with a picture on the ticket could explore the temples! And mind you there were security guards all along who checked and rechecked our tickets against our faces!

We could use this one ticket to visit all the temples in the Angkor region. We were told there were more than a thousand temples in Siem Reap alone. We made it to just three.

IMG_0133Angkor Wat looked fabulous from a distance but the carvings and the staircases were really worn out. It was made with rocks from Phnom Kulen. Because the rocks were porous, the carvings had partially eroded. I had seen the carvings in Ajanta and Ellora in India, temples and caves carved out of rock faces of mountains, and the carvings had stayed with me. Those were sixth century CE and older. The carvings at Angkor Wat were relatively new but were more worn out.

The temple also housed the mausoleum of Suryavarman II, the king who had the temple built in dedication to Vishnu.  The grave was covered with rocks placed over it like a pyramid. There were no inscriptions in English or any other language explaining the history of the temple. So, one really had to depend on a guide. We had a guide who left much to be desired. He was found by our driver and gave us an amazing interpretation of Hindu lore, told us how violent Buddhist rulers defaced the Hindu statues of Vishnu and Lakshmi, which in itself was an oxymoron as Buddhism is a religion of peace, love and kindness. He told us that the building was being restored by Germans and had been found by French. This sounded closer to what guide books said. Angkor Wat had been found by the botanist, Henri Mouhot, in the nineteenth century, though recently his role has come under flak. And a German team had been working on some of the bas relief structures. One of the libraries had been restored by Japan in 2005.

IMG_0062The next temple we visited was Ta Prohm. This was a welcome surprise! It had trees growing out of the building. The temple popularly is called the Tree temple and is dedicated to the tree spirits, the driver told us. However, when I googled, I found the temple was built by Jayavarman VII in 1186 AD and called Rajavihara. It was a Buddhist monastery. The restoration of this temple is being carried out by the Indian government. Ta Prohm, literally means ‘ancestor Brahma’.

This was an amazing temple with trees and a wild magnificence! It was so spectacular that it had been used to film Lara Croft and the Tomb Raiders. So, in a way I was reliving Lara Croft adventures as I had felt in Pnomh Kulen.

A group of musicians playing local instruments performed in the open, near the gate of Ta Prohm. They had a notice that said that these were all land mine victims trying to earn a living without begging. We had earlier seen land mine victims on the stairs of Phnom Kulen Temple. It was sad to see able-bodied men unable to eke out a decent living because soldiers dropped land mines all over half a century ago. I wonder why the men who made and sold the mines could not find a way of de mining the rice fields of Cambodia and Vietnam and making it safe for farmers. Maybe, because there are no camels and too many monkeys in Cambodia.

We saw a monkey snatch a packet of bananas from a tourist’s hand in the grounds of Angkor Wat . The couple were trying to get it back from the monkey in vain. Our macho temple guide, we discovered, was good at dealing with monkeys even if not too sound on historical matters. He jumped to the rescue! He chased away the monkey and restored the bananas to the young blonde couple, who started to munch on it.

IMG_0135The last temple we visited was in Angkor Thom. It had huge elephant carvings, which were again very worn out. The city of Angkor Thom was a huge complex built by Jayavarman VII. Unfortunately, the whole city was in ruins, except for the fabulous Bayon temple with it’s giant faces of the Bodhisattva towering over the horizon. The Bayon temple with it’s unique and striking architecture is being restored by Japan.

One of the things we found in common is very few sculptures were whole within the temples and the city ramparts. They were mostly missing heads. We did locate the missing heads in the Angkor museum the next day. Again we needed tickets but this time without photographs…the ones with pictures were only for temple visits!

The Angkor museum with it’s audio-visual displays did a great job in explaining what history of the region has been unearthed. A lot still needs to be done.

We had an amazing four-day experience.

Siem Reap was unique in many ways. They used dollars instead of local currency. We could never just drop into any historic place…tickets and official guides needed to be pre-booked. Local people were very laid back and accepted whatever came their way. They had hammocks outside homes, restaurants and shops so that they could take an afternoon siesta…we discovered our driver in one of these one day. I could be paying more than the price even if I bargained. I had a unique experience while buying a temple guide book from a local vendor. Our temple guide, the one who chased away monkeys for tourists, looked on as the whole transaction was carried out. The vendor started by telling me to to pay US$ 28 for the book.  To get rid of him, I said US$10. He agreed, but because I did not buy the book, still kept chasing us. Finally, my husband bought the book at US$10. Then we saw the same book being sold for US$5 at the back gate of Angkor Wat and for US$1 at Ta Prohm!

When it came to shopping, we were taken to very high-end emporiums. A packet of candles that cost S$2.50 in Singapore were being sold at US$ 25 there. The only justification was that the candles were made by handicapped people. Finally, we did our shopping in the Night Market, where bargaining is the only law. Buying souvenirs in Siem Reap was an exhausting experience…both for our pockets and our stamina!

As long as we explored the ancient temples, we did not feel the need for camels in Cambodia. But when it came to shopping, or listening to our guides, or avoiding stomach issues, a long camel ride out of adventure land avoiding all monkey antics would have been what perhaps Lara Croft would have done. And then, of course, she would take a warp speed plane back to the Brexit land of Britain.

 

How the lotus came into being

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Once there was a girl who fell in love. She fell in love with the green undulating, grass swaying on the riverbank. She fell in love with the ripples that lapped the wet shore, with the lovely golden oriole, with the open blue skies and the soft clouds floating by. She fell in love with the tall Jacaranda tree and the lonely koel that sang its song every morning and evening.

And then came a breeze laden with the moisture of verses that garlanded her very soul. Her being danced to the rhythm of the trees that swayed, to the waves that swished, to the bees that buzzed and to the colourful wings of the butterfly that flit silently past her. She had the magic to weave silence into her words…an amazing gift as words normally destroy quietness.

She spun a world of magic around herself with her simplicity and imagination. She lived dreaming of rainbows and unicorns till a strange steed flew to her from the skies and turned into a young traveller from a distant land where wild blew the golden sands. He had travelled through desserts and snows in search of his soul mate and at long last the lilting songs of the girl had touched his soul and he became again a man from a stallion. He had a story to tell too….

As he travelled through the Arabian sands, he was followed by a beautiful creature, winsome, doe-eyed with pale skin and jet-black hair. She had a perfect figure and a sinuous walk. She followed the young traveller from one caravanserai to another till he, who was still untouched by the wiles of the young damsel, noticed her. When she threw herself on him and declared her undying love, he turned his face away from her. For, in his soul, he did not love her. There was something in her kohl-blackened eyes that seemed to rankle in his pure heart. And he was right, for the beautiful, sensuous creature was a wicked Jinn who had escaped the confines of her bottle when a drunk looking for free wine in a caravanserai uncorked the ancient jar that had been her home for a thousand years. She had been tricked into the bottle by a clever magician when mankind believed in magic and magicians roamed the world. The first man the wily Jinn saw was our young traveller. He was so young, pure and handsome that she fell in love with him and started following him.

She was infuriated with the young traveller for turning her down. She turned him into a winged stallion who was forced to fly till the strains of his soul mate’s melody bought him back to his original form and life…

He had flown for a decade in the clouds, living on dewdrops and rainbows, till he suddenly heard the melody riding on the waves and touching his heart and soul. A strong draft of breeze came and carried him down to the young, innocent girl in love. Her song and innocence reached out to the purer and rare air where magic had led the winged stallion. This time the magic that had been woven by her song was stronger than the magic that imprisoned the traveller in the body of a stallion. As his hooves touched the ground, the winged stallion transformed back to his original self.

The maiden saw the young man and fell in love with him too. The two of them twirled and danced amidst the trees, sipping nectar of flowers, eating fruit and drinking from young springs.

Then came the mists of the night. They whispered through the forest as the young couple slept on the soft grass. The mists of the night were minions of the doe-eyed Jinn. She had cast a spell on them. They spied the young couple and saw that the stallion had turned back to the young man. They whispered the story to the Jinn when they visited the desert sands. The Jinn was furious. She turned herself into a crane and flew to the tropical paradise where dwelt her heart throb. She did not want anyone to have what she aspired and could not get.

She descended to a branch of an Angsana tree.

“Look, a crane!”cried the young girl in surprise. “How beautiful it is! Pure and black. I have never seen anything like it!”

The young traveller started. He had seen the worst of black magic in his travels and he wondered if it could be…the Jinn. As he thought, she transformed herself back into a beautiful woman with cloudy, wavy jet-black hair, red lips, a pale skin. The boy recognized the Jinn as she shouted, “What I cannot possess, neither can she. I will destroy her and you if you do not come away with me.”

The young man, with a downcast face walked over to the Jinn, to save his loved one. The loved one looked on startled and said, “Where do you go?” As she spoke, the Jinn cursed her to turn to ashes and dust and dissolve  into the marshes near the river. The spell flew out of her mouth and where the young girl fell sprouted a beautiful flower, so clean and pure that none of the mud or slush from the marsh could stick to it. The boy, astounded and stunned, fell to his death as he ran to catch his beloved. He fell right where the flower was sprouting and he turned into it’s leaves, which remained as unsullied in the marshes as the flower. As for the Jinn, she was so angry that she dissolved into ashes and mud and the marsh swallowed her up.

The daytime breeze that watched the whole drama carried the story to the village of the fisher folk. The fisher folk came to see the new flower and named it after the girl who fell in love, Lotus.

People from far and wide came to see the flower and said, “How beautiful is the Lotus with her unsullied purity and lush, clean leaves!”