And the cow jumped over the moon…

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One of the things Preeti discovered early in her childhood is that cows that wear bells were rarer on streets as they belonged to someone. It was always the cows without bells that were an issue. They were the ones who stood munching on the open rubbish heaps and gazed menacingly at her when she walked past. One day as she gingerly skirted behind their flanks, one of them turned around and chased her! She ran screaming, “ bachao, bachao(save me, save me)… guy(cow in Hindi) guy…” but there was no one on the vacant street. A cyclist zoomed past looking amused and the cow, realizing probably that Preeti was not a competitor for the trash heap, went back to munching stale banana skins and vegetable trash… maybe paper, cloth and what not…

Unfortunately, when Preeti recounted the story to her family and friends they could not stop laughing. She added, the white cow had a hump and horns. By googling one can see such a species of cow exists… perhaps the Brahman cow. But her descriptions held everyone in throes of humor. A friend even punned on the word ‘guy’, saying no doubt the ‘guy’ found her very attractive and therefore chased her!

Preeti even googled the cow to prove to her friend that a cow could have humps and horns. She found the Brahman cow was exported from India to USA and mated with various species and is noted for it’s presence on dinner tables as a premier steak! Could it be that they found their way back to India… or was it an unlisted species? Preeti could not fathom. Cows were mysterious for her. Ironically, the Brahman cow, she found was named after the Hindu Brahmins. Perhaps, not unjustifiably as in the fourteenth century Marco Polo noted that in the kingdom of Bengal, people drank milk and ate flesh and rice and had bulls the size of elephants. Vedic lore also gives out…

 

“Fifteen in number, then, for me a score of bullocks they prepare,

And I devour the fat thereof: they fill my belly full with food. Supreme is Indra over all.”

— Rig Veda X. 86.14.

 

And there are many more hymns that talk of Hindus of all creeds and castes devouring meat and beef. Her friend, a ‘pure’ vegetarian, still persisted in humoring Preeti. Preeti often indulged in silent cogitations on bovine creatures for her abject fear of them and of being seen as a disbeliever in their divinity that put them beyond the reach of the dinner table. She often wondered and researched on these matters as she lived in an area where the fight for bovine rights consumes not only pages of print but also occasionally, human lives. By and large, she tried to give all bovine issues a wide berth, including the creatures themselves.

Her next encounter with a cow drove it literally to the doorstep of her grandparents’ home. She was visiting and volunteered to open the gate for her grandfather who had driven her in his car to buy some groceries. What she did not notice in her hurry to get to the gate was that there was another cow ruminating near the entrance to the garden. The minute the gate was open, the cow rushed in and Preeti rushed out screaming,” Bachao, bachao..guy guy…” .

This time her grandmother and the housekeeper chased the cow… but not before the divine bovine had managed to snack on a rare flower that bloomed once every three years to indulge it’s taste for gourmet fare!

Cows manifest themselves all over India, on roads, in homes, between traffic, near rubbish heaps, off dinner plates and on the plates as steak or the Keralite delicious spicy beef ularthiyathu or beef vindaloo. People worship them, people chase them out of their gardens, get chased by them as did Preeti. They occasionally block traffic by planting themselves in the middle of a congested or uncongested roads as do elephants and their calves in Kruger Park (South Africa) but the elephant is protected from the culinary designs of mankind by laws and the cow is not!

Oops! In India it is… by howling hordes… when they feel it infringes on their religious sentiments. They have such a penchant for saving the divine bovine that they can easily kill a boy or a girl or a child for it. After all they are not cannibals but merely passionate protesters who go scot-free by being a part of a maniacal mob.

Perhaps, cow protection by law will soon come into effect in India.

Preeti eventually moved out of India and lived in various lands where cows are only seen as part of dairy or edible products on supermarket shelves or in farms. They do not really roam streets or temple grounds anywhere else. She did once see tigers roaming temple grounds in Thailand but never cows. Their freedom is much curbed.

However, whenever Preeti visits India, she has a special encounter with them. The last she saw of them was in Lucknow, not just amidst crowds and cars but also from her five star hotel room. They seemed to drift out of a fog on the grounds of a temple near the hotel. Were they real…she wondered initially. But then, what she witnessed convinced her that they were not a figment of her imagination. She saw a cow chase from her room. Only this time she enjoyed it, as she was not the butt of the joke…

As the cows ambled on the temple grounds, one of them strayed near the gate and looked philosophically out. The person who could be dubbed the cow caretaker decided to enter the premises at this precise juncture. The bovine mind decided to make a bid for freedom and took the opportunity to run out of the gate. The caretaker started to wave and shut the gate and chased his errant charge into the receding mists of Oudh…

It was like an episode from a silent film, as she could not hear either the caretaker or the cows’ voices. She did not know if the ambling bovines were trying to call out to their galloping friend in different harmonies of cow song… But, this time, she enjoyed and laughed out loud at the cow chase.

Despite the smile that was brought to Preeti’s lips by the frolicsome cow, she has not been drawn back to her homeland but continues to roam the world where bovines are not worshipped and treated as divines but rather as veal cutlets and beef. She has friends from all over the world who indulge their palate with meats of the divine. Despite the sacrilege, she tolerates them, like the government of India, which is the largest exporter of beef (even if they are said to be mainly water buffaloes) and unlike the maniacal mobs who are intolerant of atrocities on cows but not on buffaloes, women, children and men. They can kill their own kind for desecrating cows! But do cows cry for the loss of their male counterparts? A difficult question to answer, I guess, seeing how their devotees adore and adorn them…

Meanwhile, while Nostradamus projected the future of all races, he left one page unturned, untouched… the development of bovine intelligence. The Greatest of Holies, Holycowbaba, has predicted that as the years move towards the annihilation of the universe, in the land of cow worshippers, the devout will have taken to defending the divine bovine with their lives and laws and the cows will dwell in peace and prosperity with their followers. Then, the prediction continues, the bovines will be so well looked after and protected that they will decide to repay man by taking take a leap of faith and trying to make true the projections in Mother Goose’s poem, Hey diddle, diddle. They will compete to create a world record and be the first cows to jump over the moon!

And when that happens, cows can be ridden to the moon. The race of cow worshippers will be the first settlers on moon.

 

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The Land of Nawabs and Kebabs

 

Lucknow, the land of nawabs and kebabs… of grace, courtesy and old world charm had been luring us since 2015, after we saw the cinematic rendition of Sandip Ray’s father’s story, Badshahi Angti, in a movie theatre in Calcutta. We saw the Bhul-bhulaiya for the first time on the silver screen as the modern version of Satyajit Ray’s famed detective, Feluda or Prodosh Mitter, wound his way through the dark passages of this labyrinth in the Bara Imambara armed with a mobile and a revolver. As he fought villains in the Residency and bit into delicious kebabs and savored biryanis, we imagined ourselves in this city of grace, charm and courtesy and firmly decided we would explore Lucknow during our next trip to India.

Meeting nawabs was not on our agenda as I had read the last one, Wajid Ali Shah, had danced Kathak and sung Babul Mora into the arms of the British East India Company conquistadors more than a century and half ago and eventually migrated to Calcutta. Still there was their palace, Chattar Manzil, on the banks of the river Gomti and the mysterious Bhul-bhulaiya built by the nawab who moved the capital from Faizabad to Lucknow in 1775, Asaf-ud-Daulah, that remained to be explored. The Bhul-bhulaiya is the only labyrinth of it’s kind in all of India. As for the kebabs, the thought of them made my mouth water…

When we landed in Lucknow, we were told courteously and gracefully that no cab could accommodate four adults and a child from the airport to the hotel. They only had small cars. While the negotiations were on, I was forced to make a minor diversion in quest of a washroom as our little party was taking turns at stomach ailments after landing in India. The airport had access to a sad bathroom as the others were being cleaned… all a part of the endemic charm of small towns in India, I thought as we got in to the cabs that would take us to the hotel. The two cab drivers we finally hired did not know the way as the hotel had opened a fortnight before our arrival in the newer part of Lucknow that was being developed. We, first timers to Lucknow, had to download google maps to guide the seasoned local cab drivers. The good thing was that the courteous drivers were willing to listen to us and took us to the right place.

The first morning greeted us in a mysterious shroud of a white, opaque fog. We could hear temple bells from somewhere in the mist.

We strained our eyes from the inside of our hotel rooms to locate the source of the sound. As the fog drifted and lost it’s opacity, we noticed one of the temples had cows grazing outside. As we ‘gazed– and gazed– but little thought’, we had a glimpse of a situation that would bring pleasure when we were in a ‘vacant or pensive’ mood, much like the daffodils did for Wordsworth in 1802, about fifty four years before Wajid Ali Shah succumbed to the poet’s countrymen. The sight we had from our rooms was that of a cow chase. As the cows ambled on the grounds, one of them strayed near the gate and looked philosophically out. The person who I would dub the cow caretaker decided to enter the premises at this precise juncture. The bovine mind decided to make a bid for freedom and took the opportunity to run out of the gate. The caretaker started to wave and shut the gate and chased his errant charge into the receding mists of Oudh… It was like an episode from a silent film as we could not hear either the caretaker or the cows’ voices. There was no way of knowing if the cows in the fold were doing a choral number pleading for the return of the cow on the run.

Breakfast brought us back to the reality of arranging a transport to take our party to Bara Imambara. We had called up a distant contact to help us book a “big” car the night before. He had said he would look into it. The next morning, however, he as well as the hotel staff both assured us that Ola was the best option, except we discovered that Ola taxis did not offer cars that could accommodate five people…four maybe, three yes, two … surely… but not five. We called up the airport taxi company. They promised us a transport in some time… when we checked after half an hour, they said as the big car was coming from Kanpur, we would have to wait a couple of hours! Mind you, all the while everybody, including the hotel staff, had been courteous, warm and welcoming!

But, we lacked patience… it was around noon. So, we went to the hotel concierge for help. We had a big car in half-an-hour and started our journey by the sides of the river Gomti, a tributary of the Ganges.

In Hindu mythology, Gomti is regarded as the daughter of Ganga and sage Vashisht. Bathing in the Gomti river on certain auspicious dates (Ekadashi) is said to absolve the bather of sins. However, 25 drains in Lucknow also pour untreated sewage into the river! Perhaps, the purity of the river dissolves the impurities generated by untreated sewage … I definitely would not want my sins absolved in this manner. The banks of the Gomti had gardens and fountains. It is known to house some magnificent structures, including the Chhattar Manzil. However, I was disappointed to see that we could only see the building from outside as from 1950 it housed the Central Drug Research Institute. Though the Wikipedia entry said that the government of Uttar Pradesh is renovating it to make a museum of it, the CDRI board still hung at the entrance. A bit confusing for a tourist I guess.

As we approached Bara Imambara, we were amazed at the number of people, vehicles, cows and dogs that infested the entrance. In the movie, the area had looked deserted and mysterious. But, we discovered that it was a haven for crowds. There were people outside, people inside and people all around!

At a distance we could see the Rumi Darwaza. Despite the crowds, as we entered through the majestic gates, the beauty and mystery of the structures overrode the sense of congestion. The Asfi mosque on the right hand side of the Imambara was exquisite. One could get a glimpse of the elegant Rumi Darwaza beyond the palms and the boundary walls of the mosque and Imambara. On the left hand side was the Bowli, a step well built by the nawab. The Bara Imambara with it’s Bhul-bhulaiya took the center stage. The whole atmosphere felt electrifying as the ancient edifices beckoned with past splendor.

But the fact was that there was a huge queue outside the Bhul-bhulaiya and we had to find a guide. As we approached the doorway of the main building, we were told to take off our shoes and enter to locate the guides. A square counter of shelves surrounded the shoe keepers, who seemed so busy that it was a task to get their attention and deposit the shoes.

As we padded into the Imambara in our socks, we were surrounded by official guides. They negotiated a fee with us. The ticket counter had given a hundred and fifty rupees as the fixed price. But the guides wanted more. They told us that price only covered the labyrinth. We needed to pay more if we wanted a guide for the whole complex. In the Chinese tradition, we had to pay before the guide took us on a journey of the complex at breakneck speed.

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Ceiling of the Imambara

We started by exploring the inside of the Imambara. The elegant black and white ceiling is fifteen metres high. Ornate tazias line a wall… tazias from the recent and past Muharrams, a festival that celebrates sorrow and death. And here also lies the simple grave of the Nawab Asaf- Ud- Daulah. In fact there is an interesting story story around how this Imambara was built. There was a huge famine in 1785. People had no jobs and no food. The nawab decided to generate jobs by having this Imambara built. Every day the workers would toil to build the walls. And every night, noblemen would tear down what had been built during the day. In this way the nawab and his noblemen generated jobs for the jobless. This process went on till 1791 when the whole edifice was completed. The nawab did not want to give out free doles to jobless workers. He believed that people needed to learn to earn a living and not depend on charity and avoid work. This approach has been dubbed Keynsian by some. The other unique thing about this Imambara is that the architect of the building is also buried here.

From the Imambara, we were rushed to the Bowli by the guide. The Bowli is a step well with running water. The nawab’s source of water was guarded by a special mechanism. The security guards could see the reflection of people who were entering the gate in the water with the help of skilled engineering. It was interesting to see.

From the Bowli, the guide literally ran to the labyrinth in the main building. Perhaps, I thought, he wants more clients.

The labyrinth had no sense of mystery at the entrance, as there was a huge queue of people outside. But once we squeezed ourselves behind the guide with crowds pressing on us from both sides on the ancient staircase, we reached the outside of the maze. There is a beautiful view of the main gate from the top, especially of the front entrance.

The labyrinth itself has 1024 passages and 489 doorways. Some of the passages are said to lead up to the river Gomti, Faizabad, Agra and even, Delhi. There are stories of people lost forever in the maze. Portions of the passages were crowded and portions were dark and empty. When the labyrinth came in view of the main hall, the crowds grew in strength. The guide left us at one end of the labyrinth above the main hall and went and lighted a match at the other end. The acoustics were that good that we heard him light the match despite the noise of the crowds.

The Bhul-bhulaiya was an experience that I would not fast forget, especially the steepness of the stairs and the sense of relief I had on reaching the open top… definitely not a climb for people suffering from claustrophobia. It was amazing to see the engineering feat of the nawab’s fleet, elegance laced with practicality. As we came out of the maze, the guide bid us adieu. I still wanted to see the Asfi mosque but the guide told us we could do it on our own. Getting our shoes back was another task…but we managed to be well shod again. The Asfi mosque was under repair and a sign said that as it was still used, only namaz readers would be allowed in. Perhaps, an understandable precaution for the devout… what little bit we saw of the façade of the mosque was beautiful.

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The Clocktower

Then amid beggars, flies and crowds, we found our way to the oasis of our car and did the rest of the tour of the area from within the vehicle. The Rumi Darwaza was exquisite. The clock tower adjacent to the Rumi Darwaza is 67 metres high. It was built in 1881 to mark the arrival of the first lieutenant governor of the United Provice of Avadh. The tower is also located opposite the Chota Imambara built in 1838 by the then nawab to serve as a mausoleum for his mother and himself.

Our next destination was the Residency. The hotel concierge had described it as a set of insignificant ruins but the buildings held so much history and the museum had a wealth of information about Lucknow. The Residency has the remains of homes, a palace of an English Begum, a mosque that is still functional, a church, a graveyard, mess hall for bachelors, canons, storages and so much more. The museum had photographs, paintings, maps, letters and etchings from the eighteen hundreds. It was constructed by the fifth Nawab of Awadh, Sadat Ali Khan II, between 1780 and 1800. It must have been a magnificent building in it’s hey days. Now, what remains are bombed towers and edifices, broken buildings with big holes. The Residency was almost completely destroyed in the revolt of 1857. This rebellion took place because the British altogether ignored the religious sentiments of the soldiers who battled for them against their own kind. The British greased cartridges with pig and cow fat. The Hindu and Islamic soldiers had to bite the cartridge open while loading the rifles. The cow is holy to some Hindus and therefore, inedible and the pig is unholy and dirty to Muslims, and therefore, inedible. To be forced to bite into holy and filthy things was too much for the sepoys and, therefore, they broke into a rebellion, which lasted almost a year in the Northern belt of India. People from both sides died. The Residency remains an ode to those who fell to the rebel guards.

Interestingly, there were still some indigenous soldiers loyal to the obtruding British during the rebellion. At the entrance to a hall is a plaque bearing the names of Indians who remained loyal to the British and fell as victims to the ‘rebels’, their own countrymen who felt their religion had been violated. There are two ways of viewing the rebellion … as the traditional Indian historians do it and as I see it. The traditionalists side with the rebels and talk of Jhansi and Bahadur Shah Zafar. I see it as a tryst to express the soldier’s indignation against the violation of their beliefs. Both sides lost men, women and children.

Violence is the last resort of the uneducated and that is what most of the troop was. The strange thing was that most of the nawabs and majority of the population had not noticed that in the name of trade, the British had taken over their country, perhaps more peacefully than the violent predecessors of the last Mughal , Bahadur Shah Zafar. The rebels crowned him emperor, though his ancestors have been labeled conquerors. Bahadur Shah, no one noticed, was the last vestige of the earlier conquerors, who built buildings that are still disputed (like the Babri Masjid).

The indigenous people had reacted to an act they felt would destroy their religious standing. Was that more important than the lives of humans, especially their own brethren who fought by the side of the British or against them? The handful of rulers who joined the rebellion probably felt violated as their crowns had been taken or shaken by the traders of the East India Company. How many of them really thought of an unified India? Did India exist as a unified whole before the advent of the British? The British introduced the concept of nationalism after industrialization so that, eventually, the cloth mills of Lancaster could have a market and raw materials. Jehangir never realized that he was playing into the British hands when he signed the document. So, what were the rebels really fighting for?

The Residency stands as a mute witness to the destruction generated by wars and differences. The sprawling lawns and graceful architecture is preserved but only to highlight what negative passions can do to the innocent, the beautiful and the helpless.

We were told not to stay within the precincts after dark. I wondered why as I strolled through a graveyard with graves of children and adults. There was uncooked rice strewn all over the buildings. Evidently, uncooked rice keeps out evil spirits. There are tales of cries of anguish and a white child asking to be taken home within the Residency after dark. However, I only saw squirrels and birds having a fiesta with the grains in the bright light of an afternoon sun.

The other thing we discovered in the Residency is that the bathrooms had no running water. They had beautiful pictures indicating men and women and all the fixtures but no running water for more than a year, according to the attendant. We were still using bathrooms frequently as our stomachs had not yet won the battle against the germs of India.

Actually, it was difficult to find decent bathrooms and clean restaurants in Lucknow outside of our hotel. The driver took us to a few recommended by friends and the concierge but they did not live up to our hygiene standards. One of the most sought after kebab and biryani joints had no running water in the bathroom and the kitchen but lot of dirty water running on the floor of the smelly yard…

We had a memorable trip to Lucknow, except we met no nawabs or their ghosts and had no kebabs or biryani

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Squirrels at the Lucknow Residency

 

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.”

 

 

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

 

 

 

Vanda, Ms Joaquim

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First there was a name. Then there was a flower. Then there was a story… and a new story.

In the garden stood a maiden, a young woman in the first bloom of her youth… olive skin, dark-eyed, with a soft fringe and a pert nose. She wore a red dress and had red lips…then came a tall stranger from beyond the seas and swept her off in a whirlwind of romance…

That is how the story should have gone, but it did not. There was a garden and in the garden were many flowers. There was a young woman and she had scratches and cuts all over her knees, which she ignored. She was walking through the bushes and the thorns and twigs had left harsh imprints on her soft flesh. She was wearing a pair of shorts and a blue t-shirt. On her head was a straw hat. She was dusky, short and had hazel hair and eyes.   She was looking for something…

As she peered into the bushes, a football came and hit her, hard on the back. She fell. A group of boys playing football nearby had sent the ball flying into the bushes, unintentionally. But the young lady was angry, her dignity being injured. She started getting up from amid the bushes and shouting, “How dare you?! You vandals! You nitwits!”

A strong arm came and helped her up and a deep voice said, “Come! Come! It was not intentional… what were you doing in the bushes anyway?”

“ I had a keychain. It had orchids in it. I was taking my landlord’s dog, Chester, for a walk and had a ball in my hand too. As I flung the ball for Chester to fetch, the keychain with it’s bundle of keys flew out too and I could not find the keychain anymore. I dropped Chester back and came to look for my keychain. It has the national orchid of Singapore in it, Vanda Ms Joachim, but actually, of the Papilionanthe family.” She nodded her head fiercely trying hard to look dignified and offended.

The owner of the strong arm and deep voice started to smile and almost laughed for the spectacle she provided was funny. She had a smut of dirt on her nose of which she was oblivious and dry leaves from the bushes in her hair. He threw back the ball at the group of boys playing football and dug his hands into his pockets.

“Would this be it?” said the deep voice dangling a keychain in front of her. “I found it lying under a bench near these bushes and had picked it up hoping to drop it off at the nearest police post.”

“Yes. Thank God. Thank you so much!” said the owner of the keychain.

She smiled and stretched out her arms to get it. The owner of the deep voice was a young man in his late twenties. He gave her the chain and smiled.

“ My name is Michael,” he said.

“I am Madhu. I am a botanist and have come to research orchid hybrids in Singapore. This keychain holds my favourite. It is pretty and the flowers are resilient and sturdy. I love the colour. So, this was very important to me.”

“How long have you lived here?” asked Michael.

“Oh! For almost a year…”

“And do you like it?”

“Well. Yes. I miss my family though…”

“I live in the houses across the road,” said Michael.

“I need to run home now. Bye,” said Madhu. She had become a bit wary… a stranger in Botanical Gardens. He did make her feel shy though.

Michael looked at her receding figure, shook his head and smiled. She disappeared.

The next day he saw her at the bus stop. She was waiting for a bus. Michael was driving past, returning from work. He slowed down but the bus came before he could halt and she was gone. He smiled when he thought of her. She was like a whiff of fresh  spring breeze.

Michael had grown up in Singapore. His family was an old Pernakan one. Pernakans were Chinese immigrants who had intermingled with the local population of the Malay Archipelago during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Over the decades they had developed a Westernised culture and converted to Christianity. Michael’s family had a few Indians and Westerners too. They celebrated every festival and were culturally very open. They accepted all people, all customs. They were rich traders who had the money to acquire the best in the world. They owned real estate firms in Singapore and China and gold mines in South Africa.

Michael had studied in Singapore and USA. He was a businessman too, like his father, and contributed to the family business. He was in the habit of getting what he wanted but always with a smile and graciously. So, now when he found himself thinking more than necessary of the hazel-eyed girl who popped out of a hedge in Botanical Gardens, he really wanted to know her better.

Every now and then he saw her at the bus stop in the evening but could never catch her. One day, he returned home early and went walking to the bus stop at the time he normally returned home. He saw her coming at a distance and pretended to look at his mobile. When Madhu reached the stop, Michael felt very nervous.

With his heart in his hand, he said, “Hi! Do you recognize me?”

Madhu looked at him surprised, “Oh! You are the one who found my keychain! I did not know you came to this stop.”

“Yes. I live very close. Do you research at the Botany Centre in the Botanical Gardens? ” Michael asked.

“I do. What about you? Where do you work?” Asked Madhu.

“I am a businessman. My head office is in Clark Quay.”

Madhu saw her bus coming, “My bus is here. Bye!”

She got onto the bus and so did Michael.

“So, where are you going?” asked Michael taking the seat next to her.

“I am going to the national library at Bras Basah. I normally get a book from there and have dinner and return to my room every night.”

“What a coincidence, I am going there too…I want to pick some reading material too…”said Michael.

They chatted on the way to the library. They talked like old friends. Somehow, Madhu felt she could trust him and liked him.

Madhu borrowed a couple o Agatha Christies and Michael borrowed a Dan Brown. They ate dinner at the cafe outside the library and took the bus back home. Madhu had rented a room in a bungalow at a little distance from the Botanical Gardens.

The next day Michael was there again. Madhu accepted his presence naturally. This went on for almost a couple of months with a few breaks on weekends. Then one day, Michael invited her home to meet his family.

It seemed the most natural thing to do. Madhu bought some chocolates and flowers and went over one Saturday afternoon. The family was very nice to her. Aliya, Michael’s mother, gifted her a hand painted white silk scarf with Vanda Ms Joachim on it. Madhu loved it. They even had the hybrid in their garden. Michael’s father, Alvin, was very nice to talk to. He knew many things about plants because he loved collecting rare ones. Michael’s younger brother, Melvin, came in for lunch and went back to study. He was a final year student in medicine and had exams to face. They had Nonya chicken curry in honour of Madhu for lunch. The food was really nice. Madhu loved it. She ate with gusto.

The next Monday, Michael took her to the library in his car. Madhu was gracious about it. Then, they walked to an Italian restaurant for dinner. And as they waited for the food to arrive, Michael took out a tiny box from his pocket and opened it. In it was a beautiful ring with an orchid holding a cluster of diamonds. The orchid was of pink and purple gold. It was beautiful and exotic!

He held the ring up to Madhu and said, “Marry me!” in a pleading whisper…

“What?!” exclaimed Madhu.

“Will you marry me?” asked Michael.

“I have not thought about it at all,” said Madhu. “Can you give me some time, please?”

Michael nodded and tried to look understanding. Then he said, “You mean, you did not figure out even when I invited you home?”

“I have not thought about marriage as yet because I have my work and I am away from home. I know my parents want me to marry … an Indian boy and settle down in India… I have been running away from this whole thing… just give me some time… and then I will have to break it to my parents too… Can we just continue friends for some time…I do not want to lose you…”

“All right. I will wait and we will continue as before. Will you keep the ring?”

“No. I will accept it after I work out things with my parents. In India, marriages are between families,” said Madhu.

“I got the ring made for you. I ordered it at the jewelers a month ago and I received it yesterday… It is also a Vanda Ms Joaquim… only for you… no one else can wear it…”said Michael.

“I promise you I will wear it… but give me a little time. I have to go for a cousin’s wedding in a fortnight. We will talk after I return again. I will be back in ten days,” said Madhu. “I will be leaving in a week.”

Michael and Madhu met everyday of the week and tried to continue like old friends but there was an element of conciousness in their interactions. On Friday, Madhu told Michael she would be taking a flight on Sunday. Michael insisted on seeing her off at the airport. He took her address in New Delhi from her. She told him she would not be wirelessly connected outside her home… and during the wedding she might be unreachable… Michael felt a little apprehensive but he had to let her go to get her back…

Ten days turned to a fortnight, Madhu was still not back. Michael was now really anxious. He called but no one answered. After the first few days, Madhu had stopped responding to his messages. She was not active on Facebook… When he contacted the botany institute, they said that Madhu had extended her leave and would return at some point. They did not know when.

Enough was enough. Michael flew down to New Delhi. He had booked into Taj Mansingh Hotel. He took a car from the hotel and drove down to the address Madhu had given. He got off outside the bungalow in Hauz Khas and walked in through the gate. There was a lawn outside the front door. A little child of about eight was playing in the garden bouncing a ball. Michael rang the bell. The door was opened by a plump, middle-aged woman in a sari. Michael asked if Madhu lived there.

The woman cocked her head to one side.

“Who are you to enquire?” she asked in a gruff manner.

“I am Michael, Madhu’s friend from Singapore,” he answered. He could hear voices inside.

“Why can’t you leave her alone? She will be married to a nice Indian boy. His family is visiting. Go now. I don’t want them to see you,” saying this, she banged the door shut on his face.

Michael’s head was reeling. He had to see Madhu once at least and hear from her that she was marrying another man. He sat on the steps of the front porch. After sometime, the little boy with the ball came to him.

“Who are you and why are you sitting here?” he asked.

“I am Michael. I want to see Madhu. I have a present for her,” he said. Michael had decided that he would in any case give her the ring as a keepsake… it was only for her, for his lover of Vanda…

“Oh! I see,” said the little boy. “You want to meet Madhu and she is not at home. But don’t feel sad for that. She has just gone to the Rose Garden with the man with huge moustaches. She is my cousin. And that was my mother! You can go there in your car.”

Michael thanked the little boy and asked his driver if he knew the way to the Rose Garden. The driver said, “It is very close.” And took him there.

Michael saw a huge garden full of roses and bordered by tall, slender Eucayptus trees. It crowded with people. He got off… how would he find Madhu? There were so many people. Groups of picknickers and then, there was an avenue going into a wooded area. What if she had gone off to the wooded area? What if he missed her? Suddenly, at a distance, he saw a scarf. The scarf was white and spread in a triangle on the woman’s back. It had the orchid Vanda painted on it… Madhu’s scarf! He had found her…She was sitting on a bench with her back to Michael with a muscular owner of fine moustaches… Her voice floated to him, “….my favourite orchid…Ms Vanda, is resilient and a hybrid… it is very unique because…” Her companion seemed a little restive and tried to put his arms around her shoulder and sidled closer on the bench. Madhu moved away. “I love orchids and my work.”

Moustaches and Muscles said, “You can have a garden to grow your flowers in our new home.”

“But I want to be back in Singapore… I can’t marry you,” said Madhu.

“Your parents said you could. Girls are shy, they say and always run away initially. So, I understand,” said her companion and sidled closer. Madhu jumped off the bench.

“Don’t you understand? I don’t want to marry,” said Madhu in a loud voice.

Michael felt it was time to announce his presence. He cleared his throat and put his hand on Madhu’s shoulder. She jumped up with a scream. Muscles and moustaches also jumped up and said, “Hey Mister! What do you think you are doing? That is my fiancee!”

Michael said, “Sounded more like she does not want you…”

Madhu turned towards Michael and hugged him, “Oh! I am so glad to see you!”

Michael held her to his bosom and said, “I will never let you go, Ms Vanda.”

He kissed her on her face, on her lips. He poured all his love into that hug and Madhu clung to him.

Moustaches and Muscles was angry, “You shameless girl, I will never marry you. Fancy, having a boy friend! Shame on you!” And he went off…

But never was a shamed woman happier than Madhu!

The owner of the Vanda Ms Joaquim scarf had accepted the exquisite orchid ring of pink and purple gold.

 

 

 

 

 

The Journey

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Sushma sat facing the ocean from her balcony on the thirtieth floor in Singapore. Her 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 elder 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 in 2014. 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. 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 the capital New Delhi to seek their fortunes, were amazed. It sounded like a small fortune to them! Her father had been 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. Lydia  loved chicken rendang . I loved chicken too. I had requested our Indonesian aunty to make chicken rendang, thinking my grandparents would be okay with it as long as they did not need to eat it. Also, as they were always indulgent to me, I thought they would not mind. When my grandmother found chicken meat in the kitchen, 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 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. She turned at times to a friend called Major Diwan who consoled her and helped her get over her sense of rejection from her parents. She was sure of one thing … 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. She did have a strong friendship with Major Diwan. He was like an anchor for her. He was a widower and an orthopaedic surgeon. He used to visit us often. Sometimes, he even accompanied us on our trips overseas… He was very sad when my mother passed on… and in a year or two, he passed on too… Sometimes, I wondered if I had not been around, would my mother have taken the plunge with him… not that I would have minded if they did… you see, I had no memories of my father…

Life was smooth for me here. 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.

On the Fatness of Being

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Over the years, I have collected a wealth of wisdom, which has translated itself into layers of adipose that rest on my formerly frail frame, gently insulating me from low temperatures and hard surfaces. People envy me my layers of adipose for whenever I walk into shops, salesgirls come forward with slimming teas and creams. I find their behaviour a trifle peculiar as they try to persuade me to get rid of the layers of carefully nurtured wisdom. It is the same wisdom you can see in the laughing Buddha, the symbol of happiness and contentment.

One of the things that most people nowadays find difficult to comprehend is that necessarily a well-proportioned individual may not be a sick individual. They take it for granted that everyone needs to be of a certain weight-height ratio…something they call the Body Mass Index. This is all a matter of statistics. I used to fall sick every month when I had a slim and svelte figure…twenty years and two kids down the lane, my weight has almost doubled but I rarely fall sick. Earlier, doctors called me underweight. Now, they call me overweight. Will they ever be satisfied?

Recently, a friend who is slim and was an exercise freak had a major bypass. She had shooting chest pains. And, now, she is not allowed to exercise or travel or eat as she likes despite her lack of adipose. Whereas I am allowed to exercise (or not exercise as a matter of choice), travel and eat what I like despite my layers of wisdom. Doctors keep nagging but it is their nature to nag, exercise and diet. I have heard of a few cases where people died while exercising and some even developed anorexia nervosa while dieting.

I do not want to take risks and feel happy the way I am. I want a long life to enjoy the wonders of the universe. I want to read all the fascinating books I find around me. I want to travel to different places…Egypt…on camel back to the pyramids; Easter Island…to stand in the middle of the circle of rocks like an ancient druid and feel the rays of the rising sun bathe my portly being; the golden fort of Jaisalmer …on camel back again wearing a ghagra like a Rajasthani princess. Here, I must pause to let people know that riding on a camel back is not a hobby as you might think. Camel rides are bumpy and, as I learnt from my experiences in China and India, these creatures can make you feel your innards are all dislocated when they start to jog or run. Never underestimate a camel!

The reason I want to be on a camel is to savour the flavour of the locale.

One of the major advantages of accepting my ample proportions and not fearing life-threatening illnesses is that I can enjoy the world around me. If I go for a walk, it is to enjoy the good weather or the scenery around me. If I see a butterfly or an exquisite sunrise, I feel relaxed. When I hear waves lapping or the breeze whispering through trees, it is like soothing music to my ears. The span of a human life is less than a dot in the lifespan of the universe. Is it worthwhile to spend ones life worrying over our BMI or fearing illnesses?

I wonder if Shakespeare, Tagore or Khayyam ever jogged for fitness or worried about their BMI index. Yet they have left behind a heritage of writing which trancends their lives and times. They have eternalised their existence in the history of mankind.  Shakespeare lived a little over half a century. The other two were octogenarians. Reading their works makes me happy and content.

Finding happiness to me has become synonymous with enjoying the wonders of the universe, including my family and children and mankind’s fantastic existence. I want to live life to the full. Perhaps this quatrain of Khayyam’s best sums up my stance towards the fatness of being…

 

Come, fill the Cup, and in the Fire of Spring,

The Winter Garment of Repentance fling

The Bird of Time has but a little way 

To fly — and Lo! the Bird is on it’s Wing.