Tuesday, October 21, 2008

The True Secular Indian

A few years back, a lady named China worked for me in the capacity of domestic help. When she joined I asked her why she was named after a country. Her answer was that when she was born, nobody wanted her so the name China (meaning "not wanted" in Bengali) stuck. She told me her real name as well but I can’t seem to remember it now.

China had this immense need in her to feel wanted and that showed up in her sphere of work as well. She used to pamper us with all kinds of good food and later she sought out the attention of my neighbors by preparing all sorts of delicacies for them - without my approval. Soon my monthly grocery supplies started to diminish at the speed of light. So I decided it was time for her to leave. She was politely given a one way ticket to Calcutta and asked not to return.

The lure of money is too hard to resist and apparently cooks are in short supply in Mumbai. She came back and has been living and working in the area I live for quite some time. My current domestic help is got to know her and off and on she tells me some bits of gossip about China. It seems that China has large debts; her room mates are tired of shouldering her expenses and were contemplating on marrying off the much married China to a truck driver with HIV and lots of money to clear the debts. How she is kicked out of almost every job she takes on as she is unable to work or be regular.

With such problems China could only turn to God for help. She converted to Christianity and Jesus provided her with some basic necessities. In return, she goes and prays to Jesus every Thursday regularly. For her debts, she turned to Allah during the holy month of Ramzan. She wore a veil and sat in front of a mosque where she received a sizeable amount of money donated by the various people who came to pray. She was able to repay her debts by the grace of Allah. To keep her often failing health in order, she wears an amulet and chain around her neck with the image of Goddess Kali and prays in the night.

That is what religion is to a person who is struggling with every day living and to think that people fight and kill in the name of religion...

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Lady of the Night

Life and its polarities have always been topics of debates and discussions. What is good and what is bad dominates almost every aspect of our existence. Man is always attracted or curious about the "bad" while the "good" is just normal and boring.

Prostitution has always been considered one of the evils of society, the ladies or girls are labeled as "bad" along with a wide vocabulary of phrases to describe their "fallen state". I was as curious as the normal average human being about these ladies who wear garish make up and gaudy clothes and stand on some bridges of Kolkata in daylight as well as early dark. I used to see them while going to Alipore and there used to be a queer silence in the car with some odd whispers saying "Look at them" while others turned their heads in the opposite direction in an attempt to shut out the seamier sides of the society from their lives.

I was told that Kolkata has these "pick up points" in the midst of the hustle bustle of markets and popular places which I heard but never came across as such as I was always busy going my way and had no special interest in my surroundings. One day I asked the Taxi to stop next to Triangular Park gate as there the road is easier to cross. I saw this very elegant lady dressed in a sari with every pleat in place and jasmine flowers in her hair. I gave her a passing look of envy and rued my ever clumsy appearance and walked on almost coming in the way of a tram that came trundling down the tired tracks of Rashbehari Avenue.

On many evenings I continued to see this lady patiently standing near the gate - each day perfectly groomed and the flowers fresh and fragrant enough for me to catch a whiff. I assumed she was waiting for someone perhaps. One evening I saw a car slowly halt next to her, the man craned out, the woman bent down to speak to the man at the window, their conversations were inaudible as voices were low. A few minutes later she got into the back seat and the car drove off into the dark night.

Another evening I caught sight of her and pointed her out to my husband and said that I see her almost everyday near the gate of the park. He took one look at her and said she is a prostitute of this locality and I should avoid being around the park gate as that was a "pick up point". I connected the cars that stopped and the negotiations and then realization dawned.

I can’t remember any immediate reactions as this was years back but when I think back, my first thought is one of admiration. She and many in her situation have to deal with the unknown on a daily and hourly basis, they have to act out parts, fulfill fantasies, get abused and beaten perhaps, deal with pimps and law enforcers, fight over commissions and the areas of operation and probably other situations which we don’t really want to know about. In this vortex, she and others like her, have to be presentable enough to be purchased - after all what looks good sells more.

On one of my recent visits to Kolkata, I saw her again, same place, the same pristinely pleated sari, the jasmine flowers in her hair, her head held high waiting for a person who she can offer some solace, comfort, passion or love - for a price...

Thursday, June 19, 2008

The Accidental Pilgrim

I am a Hindu by birth, a Brahmo by marriage, I feel close to Islam and connected to Christianity yet I have never been religious, I believe in God and that for me is enough. I have lit a candle at a church, offered a chaddar at a mosque, I tied threads in a dargah and I have rung a bell at a temple, most of my experiences have been due circumstances or my curiosity to see the place.

My first experience was when I went to Jharkhand with a group of friends; the trip in itself will need another long post which I will write later. We decided to do some trekking and found the hill on which a famous Jain Pareshnath temple was situated to be an ideal location. Right below the hill was a Digambar Jain monastery where we had to stop to attend to nature calls. We turned beetroot red with embarrassment at the sight of near total nudity of the senior male residents. We kept our eyes strictly focused on the way to the wash rooms which were incredibly dirty) and once done marched out with our eyes focused towards our toes. The hill was about a 1366 Meters climb, the first half was a gentle slope with nicely laid out steps while the second half was a steep climb on a dirt trail which was somewhat non existent due to recent landslides. We came across a gurgling post monsoon stream flowing down which we gingerly crossed by stepping carefully on the stones in between. By the time we had climbed three fourths of the hill, our bodies were screaming with exhaustion but we could not give up so we literally dragged each other and ourselves up the remaining portion of the hill and by the time we reached the steps of the Pareshnath temple, we felt as if we had conquered Mt Everest.

There was a sense of achievement and purpose to our climb once we entered the temple which was very peaceful and quiet. While doing the customary parikrama, I was astonished to discover the height we had climbed. The sight of the lazy Barakar river flowing below was a wonderful sight to behold. We did not have the luxury to remain at the top for long as dusk was near and the hill was not safe after dark. There were dacoits as well as wild animals from adjoining forests to contend with so we descended as fast as we could and by the time we reached the bottom, we resembled the walking dead.

My affinity to Jain pilgrim spots did not end with this stint. Recently on a family vacation, we went to Shravanabelagola with some vague expectation that Bahubali would be visible without much effort. However this was not the case, Bahubali was situated atop Vindhyagiri hill which is about 436 Meters high with about 500 steps to climb. At noon in mid summer this was not a feat for the faint hearted or the easy going vacationer. Being the stubborn one in the family I said I would climb by foot while others opted for the doli which was a cane chair carried by 4 people. The climb was easy enough though it had me panting in between and I had to stop to recover my breath. It’s always a nice feeling to look down to see how much one has climbed. There was a serene looking square pond visible below which is actually the 'belagola' or pond. There is a shrine midway (also known as Odegal Basadi) which has 3 large statues of Jain Tirthankaras carved in black stone.

After crossing this shrine there are a few more (steeper) steps leading to the Gomateshwara shrine which I climbed easily enough - thanks to the midway rest. Nothing had prepared me for the awe inspiring statue of Bahubali or Gomateshwara which stands at 58.8 Meters, mysterious, peaceful and casting no shadows around it. Humans were just a speck of existence at his feet. The pillars around the temple have many beautiful carvings which are worth seeing.

Rest of my family had a rather adventurous journey up and down the steps on a cane chair. The 4 men literally ran up and covered the 500 steps in 15 minutes or so one way while for the average human it takes about 45 minutes one way. By the end of it one either has a sore bum or sore feet but what’s a little soreness in front of such magnificence which is centuries old?

Monday, June 16, 2008

English: A Language that Unites while it Divides

India, a country with an ancient heritage and culture which is thousands of years old, a country which has many thousands of languages, in some way or another derived from Sanskrit and yet ironically we don’t have a language to unite our country.

Hindi has been announced as the language that will unite India. It is mandatory to learn Hindi in schools but we often come across instances where people from other the eastern or southern parts of India can barely understand it. If the region has a high infiltration of Bollywood films then there may be some hope but down south where the influences of Bollywood have been firmly kept away due to a strong south Indian film industry, chances of people knowing Hindi is almost remote.

In most schools down south, children are allowed to carry books and consult each other during the Hindi exam while the person 'on watch' kindly looks the other way, which of course is not the case for other subject exams. If you are a tourist in Tamil Nadu then there is an unwritten rule - don’t speak Hindi!

It’s even more ironic that our country shuns a language which is indeed 'ours' and universally accepts English which is a leftover of the British Raj. Everybody in urban areas and some of the emancipated rural areas can speak a smattering of English or they are trying their best to learn. Even Indian bureaucracy uses English as it crosses all vernacular barriers. If we observe our daily conversations at home and work, it is comprised of almost 50% English and 50% vernacular.

On the other side while in a way English unites our country, it divides our classes - perhaps more in the urban context. People with better diction and vocabulary are regarded highly 'educated' and 'cultured' while regional accents are frowned upon. When people use a wrong word inadvertently, we are quick to judge and snigger within ourselves - "Oh probably he or she was not educated in an English medium school!" At a workplace one's capability to write and converse in English has a distinct advantage.

So much is our love for English that we look down on the use of our own languages and have now stopped learning it altogether except for what schools force upon us as mandatory learning till class 10.

We are probably victims of our colonial past but it may be interesting to observe that highly advanced first world countries like Japan and Germany have progressed using their own languages while ancient India being the inventors and significant contributors to science, medicine, mathematics and astronomy use a borrowed language to progress.

We have benefited from our colonial past too, the wide knowledge of English in our country helps it to be the back office to the world and provide IT services to many countries so I guess we may love it or hate it but we definitely cannot do without it.

Monday, June 09, 2008

Au Revoir Tooth Fairy

Bidding farewell to tooth fairies in my thirties is probably a little late in the day as I should have done that when I was 10 or eleven as that is the time by when one looses all one's milk teeth.

My one particular canine was rather reluctant to part with me so it stayed on refusing to budge as the years went by. In the process the suppressed canine protested and violently pushed up my fourth incisor on the right hand side, leaving me with one crooked tooth, a flawed smile and a general bad feeling about my appearance. The dentist gave me a wire brace in my teens which suppressed the crooked tooth for a while but it reared its ugly head (or is it face?) once my mouth outgrew the brace. The dentist maintained a stoic silence in front of a desperate teen, who had to flash pretty smiles at men but could not. He asked me to accept my crooked smile and said that it adds character to my smile! D'uh. The guys definitely didn't think so - no one said I have a pretty smile so far and that more than thirty years.

Well the tooth prevailed and remained and it didn't really create any major problems once I 'accepted' my smile. Somewhere in my late twenties my solitary baby tooth started to make its presence felt, it ached, it chipped and it ached some more and then it disappeared. Of course I wasn't going back to philosophical dentists anymore so I just popped a pill instead.

Slowly and steadily the milk tooth kept depleting, my smile in my photographs started to take on a Draculean air (Dracula Like based upon the word Herculean). The milk tooth now resembled a small fang ready to dip into an unsuspecting neck - it was a nicely chipped triangle hanging from my gums and to make things more sinister, it started to blacken. My aversion to Dentists kept me away - Dracula beckoned.

The other day while brushing my teeth with my contact lenses on I happened to catch sight of my right profile and I nearly shrieked out loud with horror. All my long held affection for my solitary reminder of childhood vanished and I fixed myself an appointment with the Dentist (after 15 years), I marched in bravely and just said - this little black one has to go. A prick of anesthesia and a yank was all it took and it was over in five minutes. The Dentist knowledgably informed me that it was my milk tooth and a new tooth may... just may grow in its place. If that happens, my crooked incisor may just straighten up. Definitely a life changing incident - a perfect smile without spending thousands! If not, then a ceramic replacement would do just as well - one has to compromise I guess.

So technically speaking I am entitled to my last tooth fairy visit, the remains of my milk canine which will be placed under my pillow and I hope she will leave me a nice present....

Thursday, April 24, 2008

My Father's Brother

I guess it’s a strange way to refer to my Kaka (Uncle) but it describes it the best. Jotu as he was known in the family, parts of the family also called him Lal Mama, because he was fair skinned and had pink cheeks, lived in Germany for almost his entire life. Some of his initial years were spent in Lucknow scraping through educational institutions after which he went to Germany to pursue further studies - at that time many Bengalis opted for the erstwhile West Germany to pursue further studies.

From whatever family conversations I had heard about Jotu Kaka, studies were the last thing on his mind in Germany, blessed with good looks and oodles of charm, he was probably busier pursuing ladies rather than higher education. One particular lady - a very pretty lady named Uta managed to stop his wild ways and domesticated him. As the family lore goes, Jotu Kaka lied to Uta Kakima about his age, wooed her and finally married her. He was about 12 years older than Uta but claimed he was just 2 years older. Uta says she was so much in love that she believed everything he said.

After the marriage in Germany - a church wedding, photographs were sent to India, some of the older family matriarchs fainted on hearing the news - a Bengali Brahmin marrying a German who eats beef, the shock was too much to bear! The younger members of the family were curious and eager to meet this "memsahib" who the much loved and popular Jotu had married. When Jotu and Uta came to India for their second traditional Hindu wedding, they were welcomed with open arms by the young and the old. Uta was a lovely girl who won over the family with her charm, manners and respect for the Indian traditions and cultures. The wedding was a grand affair, from what I have heard, which ran into several days with hundreds of relatives converging in to Lucknow. Video shoots were unheard of back in the sixties but thanks to German technology, the wedding was captured on film which includes my Mother's exotic hairdo. My Mother and Jotu Kaka got along well and Jotu Kaka would often tease my Mother about how much effort she spent on dressing up and elaborate hair do's.

I was born much after the above events took place, to me Jotu Kaka and Uta Kakima were just a photograph in the album - it was their wedding photograph, a black and white one with Uta in a white dress and probably orange blossoms in her hand and both of them looking deeply into each others eyes and smiling. That photograph still epitomizes the word romance for me. My pre teen adolescent mind fed by Georgette Heyer, would often wonder about how magical their meeting and coming together must have been.

One fine day my Father announced that Jotu Kaka would be coming to Delhi to visit us, I was very excited as for me the photograph would come alive. I cannot recollect my first impressions of them except that they seemed, for the lack of a better word, foreign. Jotu kaka used to teach Physics to school going children in Düsseldorf (Uta Kakima had forced him to study and get a degree after their marriage) and Uta used to work in a departmental store called Metro AG. Both were avid golfers. We took them to Lucknow, where our ancestral house was to meet Pishima and then for a short weekend getaway to Badkhal Lake - a place near Delhi where migratory birds come during winters. My Father used to cook biriyani very well and we all cooked biriyani together at the Badkhal resort and it was served with much fanfare, decorated with silver sheets (warak), and photographed from all angles. At that time I found it very odd that Jotu Kaka accompanied all his food with beer, it seemed like sacrilege to mix the world's best biriyani with beer.

Jotu Kaka's next visit was after my Father had passed away, by then I was well into my teens and this was the most memorable visit ever. The first few days were difficult; I think my Father's absence along with some other family under currents related to division of property made them uncomfortable. Jotu Kaka wanted to visit Kashmir and he suggested that we also accompany him, which we did. Those few days were when I had my first long conversations with him, about my school, my friends, my hobbies and whatever else that came up. He taught me how to use the Minolta camera which he had given me, I discovered the joys of photography and the many tricks of manual focusing and uses of light. I still remember the plight of an old man leisurely pulling on his hookah somewhere in the Shalimar gardens, he was asked to sit and pull the hookah at some angle while Jotu Kaka photographed him. I am sure it wasn't pleasant for the old man but he complied readily - maybe he was just being polite because a gora mem was beside him.

Family property is more of a curse than a boon, the sale of our ancestral house in Lucknow managed to tide over some difficult times and provide the much needed monetary support, on the other hand its sale created rifts as deep as the Grand Canyon between the people who benefited and those who did not. I think no one can really give up ancestral property - it’s probably something to do with our roots and our desire to hang on to them, even if it is just a few thousand rupees in our bank account. From my perspective, since then arctic winds started blowing in our direction with very brief bouts of warm weather when some relatives remembered my Father and visited us.

The ensuing arctic chills and the many misunderstandings (which now seem inconsequential) kept me from meeting Jotu Kaka during his visits to India. Weddings are a time to forgive and forget, my wedding card was sent to Jotu Kaka and Kakima and they came to India soon after. My husband and I went to meet him, I was happy to find that he was still the happy, enthusiastic, somewhat childish and spoilt person that I remembered him to be - fifteen years is a long time and not much had changed really; maybe the distances we create are more in our mind than in reality.

In one of the other visits Uta Kakima and I exchanged email IDs and we kept in touch though occasional emails. The last time I met Jotu Kaka was when he visited Mumbai a few years back. That’s when he met my son for the first time; it was touching to see how easily they connected. After the introductions were over, Jotu Kaka asked my son "Babaji, cholo ice cream kheye aashi". My son, ever so glad to get some windfall in the form of ice-cream trotted off happily across the busy Malad streets. Both of them came back looking extremely satisfied as if they had accomplished an important mission. I cooked biriyani for them trying my best to reproduce my Father's recipe. I gifted him the remaining biriyani masala which he promised to use in Germany - which was incidentally; powdered using the mortar and pestle used by his mother, my grandmother who I had never seen. I showed him the only remnant of the Lucknow house which I had - the mortar and pestle, using which my Thakurma (Grandmother) ground the paan (betel nut leaf) which she could no longer chew with her teeth.

A few days ago, we got a phone call where a relative said that Jotu Kaka wasn't keeping well and these may be his last few days. A day later we heard he had passed away and had been suffering from lung cancer. They were in India, in Mumbai for a while to visit Pishima. I am not sure why he didn't get in touch with us - I guess I'll just put it down to the fact that this as a typical trait of my strange family, it’s always full of surprises.

I was perhaps through my interaction with Jotu Kaka, trying to discover my Father who I had lost when I was 10 years old, trying to find a bridge into my Father's world; with Jotu Kaka's passing away that bridge has become too frail for me to cross - maybe its best left alone.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Broker vs Broker

I was checking with a colleague who has just moved from Mumbai to Kolkata and this is what he had to say about Mumbai and Kolkata brokers. I hope you all find this entertaining and in the meanwhile let me rack my brains how to rid myself of this darned writers block. I seem to be having rather long continous spells these days or was my 'writing' phase just a passing phase I wonder...

Just an example of the difference I am finding between the two places –

“I met my broker for house hunting today. He is a 70 year young man with big black spectacles, dressed in dhoti and a kurta and greets me as “Kaimon ache babu?” and takes me around tree lined lanes of lake garden in a cycle rickshaw humming a old Bengali tune. He shows me 6 houses within 1 hour and manages to sit for tea with one of the landlord, a ‘bhadralok’, who forces me to have a cup too even if I am not keen to rent his house and discusses about the working culture in banks nowadays and whether Obama or Clinton will win.”

“When I met my broker in Mumbai, he was a 25-26 year old man who was wearing an ordinary tee-shirt and trousers, chewing gutka and greeted me “Time nahi hain boss, bolo kitna budget hain tumhara”. This is the first sentence he speaks! And then he curses the fact that I have no car and takes me in a taxi to andheri all the time yelling in his phone and punctuating with expletives which could make a goonda blush. It takes us an hour to reach the house over cramped and congested roads. The landlord shows us the door within 5 minutes when I try to negotiate the rent saying I like the apartment and would move in soon if we could reach a better price. He also warns the broker to not waste his time like this in future”

So, I think Calcutta is treating me really nice.


Friday, January 25, 2008

The Winter Picnic

Winter is the season for parties, family get togethers and picnics and so we even joined the hordes who set out of Kolkata to the outskirts in search of some open spaces, good times and of course good food. Lorries and buses full of screaming or singing adults and children are quite a common sight. The caterers follow with food to feed a small army for the rest of the day.

One boiled egg, two slices of buttered bread and one banana is breakfast which is usually distributed to all in whatever mode of transport the revelers travel in. Inspired by this age old custom, even we packed neat boxes with the above. Lunch was purchased and packed in individual packets the previous night which comprised of luchi, alu'r dom, nolen gurer mishti, macher chop, one plastic spoon and one napkin (English translations would be pointless!).

We set off to a place near Diamond Harbor - Radisson Fort was conveniently located there in case we feel the need for amenities and ambience. The Tata sumo was equipped with a good stereo system and the FM radio churned out non stop hits in the midst of meaningless chatter. It was a good time to catch up on the last few years and we chatted almost endlessly. After breakfast, oranges were brought out to curb thirst and hunger pangs brought on by constant chatter.

Radisson Fort wore a somewhat deserted look when we disembarked and stretched our cramped legs. We crossed the drawbridge over the moat, the interiors were pleasant but the best was the terrace overlooking the Ganga where the water glistened and sparkled with sunlight and tiny boats bobbed up and down. Some large fishing trawlers ambled by now and then. The gardens within the resort were next to the river with a paved path along the river. There was a barbed wire fence separating the resort with the parallel lane outside.

My son was carrying his cricket bat, we were generally strolling around, a boy of about 10 years was walking with his cycle just outside the fence and he happened to see the bat. He kept asking my son to give him the bat, of course my son would do no such thing, and finally when he got this dialogue went over 15 minutes, my son said "You give me your cycle and I will give you my bat". The boy looked rather dejected at the impossibility of the situation and walked of with drooping shoulders. Perhaps if the fence had not been there, both the boys could have played cricket for a while and had a good time. Some fences are just to high to climb I guess...

We had some rather costly coffee, a small price to pay for using the premises for a few hours and then set off again by the vehicle right to edge of the Ganges. We arranged ourselves around a tree which had a cemented area around it and felt the cool winter breeze. Lunch packets were brought out and devoured with gusto while observing a fisherman arranging nets a little into the river to trap unsuspecting fish. Used napkins, spoons and general garbage were collected into a bad for proper disposal. The driver was scolded severely for throwing a plastic tea cup into the river.

After walking around for a while and dipping our feet into the river, we were on our way back to Kolkata. Since we had time to spare, we went to another popular spot - Victoria Memorial. Unfortunately, the grounds are no longer free for all and there is a queue to get in so we give up the idea. Instead we settle for steaming hot cups of tea from the maidan opposite to Victoria Memorial. We also manage to find a horse driven carriage with strong sturdy horses that would be able to bear the weight of 7 healthy people. The ride down Red Road was scary with all kinds of vehicles zooming past while the 2 horses trotted but it was great fun as well. The horses and their driver got money above the negotiated rate as everybody was generally very happy.

The maidan has its own share of ponies which my son rode and was highly thrilled to shoot balloons of all colors with a rifle. Soon it was time to head back home. The picnic is over!