Thursday, April 28, 2011

Mommy, not buddy !

This is a stick I occasionallly beat myself with. At a time and in an era when all around me, parents were readily becoming their children’s best friends, here I was, hung up on being first and foremost, a mother. Mine was a “tough love”, no two ways about it.

I had expectations of my daughters. That they would make an effort to put their best foot forward was presumed. My vision for them was that of two self reliant, strong and secure girls. Their orientation at home was to be unmindful of minor discomforts, of heat and dust, of silly irritants. It was suggested that they keep their eyes peeled on the essential, the important. As far as I was concerned, their software programming had to be that of mind over matter. The guiding principle was: anything can be achieved if one sets the mind to it.

The values that hung over and swirled in the small flat we shared during their senior years of school were: love of knowledge, respect for time, consistent progress, keeping your word, meeting commitments. All very boring and old fashioned. I expected them to be grateful for all the opportunities to learn moreover.

Like the typical Indian parent, I believed salvation lay in education. I brought them up to think appreciation for their teachers and instructors and to ever be eternally grateful to anyone who shared their knowledge with them. I carted them around to art exhibitions, classical dance performances, serious theatre, even the museums. My plan was to give them food for every faculty: body, mind, soul and heart.

We forgot one minor detail. A day has only 24 hours. So there they were, with a tag of making “guest appearances” at birthday parties and exams-over celebrations etc. It was quite de rigueur for them to attend in a pair of track pants, or ballet leotards or a concert outfit. They were invariably on way to or back from somewhere.

It was not often said in so many words but they got the general drift that missing school was not an option, nor for that matter was missing a music/dance/sports class or rhearsal a possibility. Our theme song was, “Whatever it takes.” They were too busy to fall sick or to complain. They simply concentrated on keeping it moving. Everything smelt of sweat. The apartment, the car, the bags they carried. Deodorants were a much later development!

Feeling lazy, chilling, hanging out...these words were foreign to me.Relaxation in my dictionary was a change of activity ! I would tell them what a wonderful gift knowledge was and how books and skills could be great companions. I wanted them to understand that at the root of everything beautiful lay effort and work and discipline. The phenomenal movies that they enjoyed, the wonderful plays that lifted them up, the books that shook them to their depths, the chocolate fudge that melted in the mouth....they all came from a certain ability and that refusal to accept any half hearted effort.

Yes, their growing years were spent rehearsing, practising, attending, coaching, and studying. Make something of yourselves first, was the general anthem. You be strong and sure of yourself and then you will have something to give back to the world. Be an asset wherever you go, I told them. Roll up those sleeves and pitch in. Don’t waste precious hours crying, cribbing and complaining.

There was opposition and vague disapproval at times, from friends and family. There was also praise and admiration for the work going on. I brushed it all aside with some help from my Mom and read the girls inspirational bits from my black diary, on blue days.

There were many proud moments during those whirlwind years but two stand out. First, the day Aqseer got a message on her cell phone congratulating her on the acceptance at NLSIU, Bangalore. I remember how she sat up and then fell back on bed with these words, “Worth it, worth it. It was all worth it!” Second, the day Asawari clicked the button on her Princeton decision. As she punched in her password, I distinctly remember the capital, bold orange letters, “CONGRATULATONS !” scroll down lazily on my Reliance Datacard connection. I should have recorded what followed.

What was the basis of their sincerity of purpose and the associated, focused drive? Where did their maturity spring from? What gave them that sense of balance, the ability to differentiate the core from the peripheral ?

Was I authorotative? Or worse, an authorotarian ? I don't know. Guess, time will tell.....

Over and above all this, there was the abiding influence of their father. In fact, some of my school friends would go so far as to say that they entirely took after their Dad!

The Guru Shishya Parampara

The Gurus:
 (L to R) Gayathri Subramaniam,Kavitha Dwibedi, Malti Shyam, Jayaprabha Menon
The Shishyas:
(Anticlock) Thankam, Snigdha, Asawari, Bhawna

Monday, April 25, 2011

A minefield called Puppy Love

”And they called it Puppy Love, Just because they do not know, How a young heart really feels and why I love you so......”

Back in the late 1970s, I used to be on the stage in my Maxi and two signature, over the ears, hairbuns, singing this Paul Anka/Donny Osmond piece on Saturday evenings at the Pachmarhi Club. Lara’s theme, Top of the World, Fernando and Those were the days, more or less constituted my repertoire. I also sang...I have to confess, “My heart is beating," from the film Julie. I had to make an effort to shut out Preeti Sagar’s voice insisting, “My hurt is beating”.

The Army Education Corp Centre at Pachmarhi boasted of a full fledged Armed Forces music wing. There would be a live band in attendance and there was the SODA, in action on the mike! Incredible days, those were. If a young officer fancied a dance with one of us, they would first seek the father’s permission! “Sir, may I have a dance with your daughter!” Fancy that.

The greatest the next leap took this generation was to a co-ed college. Dad and Mom’s guiding pearl of wisdom, “It is all right to have friends who are boys but not boyfriends. And please to make sure that you invite them over. We would like to meet them”. There was no dating, no going steady and no being in a relationship for most. We were brought up on a diet of two flowers gently colliding together or an umbrella playing spoil sport just as the lead pair began to get adventurous on the screen in Eastman Colour movies.

Cut to the year 2010. There has been all around, such a sea of change. Attitudes, perceptions, needs have evolved to entirely new parameters and there is an attendant vocabulary. My state of denial dissolved the day I had a young lady tell me across the table, “Ma’am, my boyfriend will take care of the pick up.” Boyfriend?! I marvelled at the ease with which the loaded word was out and aired and declared.

So all right, there are the boyfriends, girlfriends and other multi-benefit friends. Status is pretty much a flag mast on the Facebook. Perhaps, it truly is beyond me to understand and appreciate what goes on in a typical young person’s life today. Perhaps there is a pressure to be considered complete in every respect, including their sexuality. Perhaps they feel the need for one person in their high pressure lives that they can trust completely in today’s competitive environment. Perhaps it is lonely, living away from family and they have to have people they can hang out with on a regular basis. Perhaps there are logistic reasons for cultivating relationships...someone to get you coffee or medicines or bus tickets.....there is the business of living.

To any young person today including my girls, I would say, “Whatever your reasons, perceived or real, do not be in a hurry to commit. Keep it open. Grow up first. Don’t give too much of yourself and too soon. Be selfish enough to keep the focus on your own development. Also, do not expect too much and too soon.”

My overriding concerns for the love struck young: Are they equipped to handle the exclusivity that comes with this tag of a relationship ?At a time in life when they need to personally grow, extend and explore, are they tying themselves down to someone their age who is perhaps as anxious and confused, even miserable. How do they expect to handle the mutual blame game that relationships invariably lead to? What will see them through the lows...there being no contract, nothing binding? What point are they going to prove together as a couple when they have not proven any on their own yet? How will they grow in a friendship that by its very nature is bound to become somewhat possessive and restrictive. Where will they find the strength to deal with the consequences of a self image dependent on someone else?

It’s jokingly been said, "If you marry on the strength of puppy love, you'll end up leading a dog's life". I must hasten to add here that young people today are far smarter and level headed to wind up anywhere close to this. Just the same, it might be worth it to remind them to look for someone who helps them reach their highest potential. Someone who empowers and affirms and synergizes. Let the two make one another feel good about themselves. Let them help each other grow in new directions.

After the buzz and the fizz and the crackle settles down, all great relationships are ultimately strong, lasting friendships built on mutual respect and trust.

Where is the hurry? You will remain young longer than you think you will! You may just not be that into each other yet. As they say!

Sunday, April 24, 2011


No greater thrill
Solid, the color of oak and as dependable. But also known as a ride for the not so nimble. Big brown, melting honey eyes with just a hint of cataract. Always in a hurry to get back home. Partial to carrots over jaggery. The handsome old coot, quite wise beyond his years which meant he was pretty much on way to becoming a fairy considering the veteran was touching the outer limit of a horse’s age spectrum.

The arrival of the hunt season was a nervous time for riders at the Defence Services Staff College. The DSSC Wellington as it was popularly known was named after the Duke of Wellington in the 1840s. The college had a long history of participating in and supporting the Ooty Hunt, originally formed by the 74th Highland Regiment in 1835 to chase Sambhur Deer, Bison, Wild Boar and the stray Tiger. It was believed that the Club had hunted every year since, with only a brief pause for the Indian Mutiny of 1857. More than six decades after the dissolution of the Raj, the Ooty Hunt Club still rides to hounds, chasing jackals, the premise being that the sport provides leadership skills and inculcates teamwork that are essential for all Military officers.

The Ooty Gymkhana Club Hunt is known as the World’s fastest and only surviving hunt, east of the Suez. It is also the grand event that most riders at Staff College aspire to. There are some nine to ten hunts spread over the year but it is the opening hunt that stands out for all the pomp and show and ceremony. On a crisp, blustery dawn over the undulating Nilgiri hills, there is a bonfire and a briefing-cum-inspection by the Master of the Foxhounds, in his knee length scarlet coat and green collar. He leads some 40 riders, on the gallop after eight hounds across Ooty's rolling Home Downs, 7,500ft above sea level, at this opening meet.

The Ooty Hunt takes off
The Directing Staff get their pick of the stables for this event. It is the rest of us who awaited the rider-ride list with the eagerness that is nationally reserved for the IIT success list. I routinely prayed to be paired with, whom else but Touchwood, the dear daft and wise Touchwood. Neerja Singh/Touchwood. Well, I got lucky enough to ride him in a hunt, only once.

I quite suspected senility had begun to beckon him. One chilly morning, out on a hack ride I cannot ever forget, he took off from the top of Gorkha Hill. We were all trotting in a perfect file. All of a sudden, Touchwood leapt ahead. “Aaraaam se bhaithe raho,” the Saheb called after me. Very helpful, that suggestion. Off we went in a cloud of dust, the trot rapidly metamorphosing into a canter, stopping just short of a gallop. While coming down the hill towards the stables, Touchwood went into the dressage mode. Some familiar faces passed by, looking up to smile. I tried hard to pretend I was in charge, trying as nonchalant a seat as possible and praying fervently that he in fact was headed towards the stables. What if he had a last ditch romp on the downs in mind! Descending the hill, across the road, over the downs, canter right, pushing aside the surprised stable guard and cleaners, busily sashaying past the initial stalls and he came to an abrupt stop in his pen. My legs had turned into jelly by then. I hoisted off awkwardly, a tight knot in the pit of my stomach.

I recall staring at the “points of a horse” poster on the wall that day and vowing that come what may, I would go on this hunt, riding Touchwood. There was something very primitive and beautiful about the sport and so appealing about this horse. Coronet, croup, dock, fetlock joint and the rest of you Touchwood. You and me, me and you!

And sure enough, my first hunt was logged, astride Touchwood.

Around the time the second hunt came up, Touchwood had slipped further on the decline. He did not figure on the hunt list. I remember missing him keenly as I advanced tentatively towards Mist, a roan beauty of feisty and frisky disposition. He was prancing even while I was mounting him. The hunt had departed and he was impatient to catch up. While I had indelible memories of the first hunt, this time the only sensation I registered was of being in flight. I was sailing over the wooden stumps, past several other riders, even yelling at one to step aside. I remember being airborne and my mouth tightly pursed, the heart was right there, threatening to plop out. I fell over the horse's neck when we finally came to a stop, gradually registering my peeled fingers; there was a fluid dripping over the riding gloves, the skin had gone raw.

I weaved a shaky and meandering path to the family and the sumptuous Ooty Gymkhama club hunt breakfast, awaiting me.
Back from a Hunt, playing the fool !
Aqseer,Asawari; the rides...

PS: Just as the hunting season was drawing to a close, a decision was taken to have Touchwood put down.
I wrote an ode to him.
Nothing to rival this one by Ronald Duncan though:

Ode to a Horse
Where in the world can man find nobility without pride,
Friendship without envy, or beauty without vanity!
Here, where grace is laced with muscle, and strength by gentleness confined.
He serves without servility, has fought without enmity.
There is nothing so powerful, nothing less violent, nothing as quick, nothing as patient.
The world’s past has been borne on his back.
We are his heirs; he is our inheritance.
The Horse

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Bone, Bane and Boon

The slip is showing lady...
In many Indian homes, house work is all three. A bone, a bane and a boon. It is a bone of contention between the occupants, a bane for the one who carries the burden and a boon for the manipulative members who use it as a stick with which to beat the drudgery executives around them.

What exactly ought to be the place and priority of housework in the domestic scheme of things? Is it a necessary evil to be dealt with for the sake of maintaining a liveable quarters. Or is it the absolute litmus test of a house wife’s right to live and breathe.....a mirror to reflect her capability and integrity with, a symbol of her commitment to the family, the very reason for her existence.

Picture this; a small bowl of rice got overlooked, tucked away in one corner of the fridge, behind the two litre pan of milk. The lamp corner of the room cheated the wet swab on two successive days; a 250 gms of half opened soya porridge caught the big deal, the able bodied and educated family of professionals are all agog over this monumental waste complemented by a sense of personal injury and betrayal.

I wonder at our own pathetically lopsided view of this whole business of housekeeping.

Yes oh yes, I get it, there are children starving all over the world, the man works so hard to earn the family bread and every drop does make an ocean. But a sense of balance, pray. Adding insult to injury, it is the women themselves who inflict these disproportionate and misplaced views on themselves and their sisters, for want of a better word. Many of us take great pride in our shining brassware, our gleaming toilet bowls, our starched linen, our polished floors that look fit to eat off. Nothing wrong with being house proud just so long as it stops short of being a personal, family and social benchmark.

Obsessively compulsive, I know more than one genie who keeps the candles in the freezer to make them last longer, whose house has all the table covers turned up for the sweep-swab drill and who undoubtedly is a painful mother in law, a harangue of a senior wife and a traumatic presence for the husband and children. Sadly enough, house work is an Indian woman’s most treasured and basic validation and it is the homemakers who struggle to keep it that way. Rather than a task necessary to live in health and hygiene, the daily drudgery is the housewife’s anthem, not a whisker less important than silly world issues like the Nuclear Deal or Corruption Cornucopia.

And who is to say if much would change with more Dads opting to stay home. Would they give the cleaning, polishing and portioning just the attention it deserves or would they too turn it into some sort of signature campaign.

It might be a good idea to sit down every Sunday and list out the essential and the non-essential in one’s life. For instance, one might start by counting how many people would take in one short and sharp breath in their busy lives, sparing even a quicksilver thought for them, should they hit the bucket that day. It is one of life’s eternal mysteries that deep down, we all harbour a strange sense of immortality. Not to us, it cannot happen to us, not in the near future in any case. It might be a good idea to remind ourselves that we may not have as much time left together as family as we think we do.

This may be the last time you will hold someone you love close. The last time that you may be sitting across the table, with family around.

Sure, the house needs to be clean and it can be done. Why be drastic and diminish or belittle the most important people in your lives over this ? Why rage over things that do not matter so much in the long run ?

So your handyman used Harpic on the sink in place of Vim. It’s ok. Tomorrow is another day. Make the switch....

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Whose God ?

I have always wondered at the arrogance of the religious. A hotline with the supreme should by rights have imbued the earthling with nothing but humility. But far from being gracious over the human state as it were, the “dharma” minded are supercilious if not outright condescending and contemptuous of lesser mortals who do not visit God’s home regularly, as though He needed a roof over His head !

By virtue of having been born an Indian, I get my daily dose of religion, thank you. Bharat, the birthplace of four of the world's major religious traditions, one of them, Hinduism, being the oldest living religion ever. I also witness firsthand the tremendous power the religious wield over their families and their surroundings. More often than not, this influence stems from two assumptions; one that God belongs to them in a very private way and two, they are morally superior for taking His name regularly and therefore justified in indulging in a bit of emotional blackmail within their units.

Hear the note of propriety in their voices when they declare without so much as batting one pious eyelid, “Mera Nanak, “ or “Mere Baba,” or “My Lord”.....there is a social sanction of their presumed piety and goodness by a logical extension of their ritualistic lifestyle, very often carried to ludicrous lengths. When they should be large hearted and accepting by virtue of their closeness to God, I find them tight fisted, mealy mouthed and malevolent, full of disdain for those who do not heed religion related symbolism.

Time to state the obvious.

I am not a regular at holy places.

In my defence, I have a metaphysical bone to pick with any religion that calls itself different and therefore superior to the rest. This self centeredness reeks of disrespect for God’s creatures. And what can be a greater religion than regard for what God gave us...laying a healthy store by life and the living.

Age should have taught me some fear but to move on........

What is a visit to one of God’s homes supposed to accomplish, I have often mused? What are the thoughts going through the bowing, scraping devotee heads? They may be there to express gratitude, a form of thanksgiving; or they may simply be praying for strength; perhaps they are asking for a miracle. Yes, it is true that there is a sense of peace and anchor and calmness in holy spots. But it is also an open secret that God meant man to be strong and unafraid and optimistic and forward looking. Imagine what that would do to the human hierarchy on earth. What basis would the family seniors or the religious heads have to exercise any power over their respective jurisdictions? Oh no, religion is not just opium of the masses, it is the taming of each and every man, keeping him in line and out of trouble and of some use to the wielder of morals. It also serves to keep our sanity, making possible our unquestioning acceptance of an unfair world. What if some poor sod got wise to the fact that life is iniquitous and he deserved better. This kismet connection and the doctrine of Karma are good for everyone’s piece of mind.

There is an emotion however that leaves me choked in the throat, sitting inside the gurudwara. The notion that here, inside the high domed, ornate hall, on the holy seat resides an amalgamation of man's highest values, ideas accepted and revered by many. And there is absolute honour in bowing to one's beliefs, personally held convictions that one is willing to die for.

Of course, I want our girls to be religious in the sense that I want them to be pro life. I want them to make life affirming choices. I want them to be benevolent, large hearted, generous, accepting and appreciative. I want them to expect life to be beautiful and have the faith that there will be light at the end of any tunnel, God forbid that they may have to enter briefly, if at all.

My father once told me that he thought it was a matter of great privilege and pride to have been born a Sikh. I respect his view because he is fair and quick to condemn the outrageous in every faith, including his own.

More than anything, I want to come away from God’s home feeling empowered and hopeful and light and forward looking. I want to come away on wings, not dragging chains because I did not rub my nose hard enough

Another confession!

I do not have a Puja room in my house but try to remind myself constantly to keep the front door wide and open.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Slipper clad SODA

SODA. Ready to go.

The Senior Officers’ Daughters’ Association.

Affectionately viewed and indulgently pampered, this is a greatly looked forward to, periodic presence, lending verve and spirit to an otherwise predictable life on defence bases out there in the beyond of wilderness. The sporadic appearance of SODA on trips home from schools and colleges makes news on stations. There comes with them, a frisson of life in the bachelors’ alley, the prospect of an exciting new potential partner for the anniversary dances and some bonus colour-cum-glow in the Holi bashes and Diwali festivities.

SODA is always welcome except for one recently occurred, technical detail. More and more, SODA is coming calling in slippers these days. Slippers! Those darned slippers. Now everybody knows what a chip the defence households carry on their brass shoulders about chappals. This item is too informal, too insolent, too laid back and not finished enough to find acceptance in OG (Olive Green) homes. One does not air them outside the bath or the bed rooms, better still, keep them to the dressing rooms.

Heaven help us, if we do not have a clothing revolution on hands that is shaking the very core of a protocol bound society for the simple reason that it is striking from within and behind the lines. The offensive is from the SODA, in their carefully cultivated “out of bed” look. Mussed hair, parallel jammies, gunjies and horror of horrors, them slippers. Those harmless looking, colourful flip flops are devastating an age old code, leaving Military homes struck and shattered. Converse, Puma, Adidas....they may be the fanciest of brands, call them by any name, chappleeez are chappleeez. They are not smart enough and make the wearer seem in a state of unpreparedness, both anathemas in this part of the woods.

Mothers are better able to absorb this foot fad. It is the soldier Dads who don’t know what to make of this terrifying trend. A Commander at work but a vexed father at home, he stands there, spluttering and protesting his daughter’s choice of footwear. What is this shabby, strappy contraption the girls wear that looks like it is ready to fall apart?

These sights are not unusual in cantonments any more: a Flag Car in waiting, engine running, the Flag Officer in full regalia, body rigid with disapproval, scowling at his vibrant, spirited young Princess, standing her ground in a pair of sliders. In many defence homes in Delhi, the evening fencing begins with an innocuous enough query, “Shall we go out as a family?” Instead of the whoop of joy this should elicit, the proposal is met with a pregnant silence, the unexpressed thought being about the “dress code”. An institutional dress code that has been a way of life for generations.

Oh no, the legion is not about to give up without a fight. Some valiant Dads continue to resist these stringed inroads into a way of life they hold sacrosanct and dear. Several pairs of shoes have been bought and acquired. And the one day she decides to humour the old man by gamely slipping on a pair, he can’t stop smiling and the compliments come in a rush, “What a nice pair of slip ons !” Easy, easy...lay it on easy, he is thinking.....

Anything will do; anything, even a peep toe, a pump or a gladiator. Anything but those silly, wispy affairs.

In one particular case I know closely, the father looks stricken as though he has just been dealt one in the solar plexus, when he learns that his young lady is riding her Pulsar ...those very skidders.....

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Bridge to Serbia

It is a remarkable comment on the global phenomenon as we have come to know it that a teenaged student of the Indian subcontinent, comes to represent an Ivy League American University at an East European nation, in a nine month long service program.

The BYP Serbia Group
Even more remarkable is the startling fact that a regular, Indian, middle class family that would call the daughter five times on her cell phone if she was late coming home in an auto-rickshaw from her dance class at Jai Lakshmi Apartments near Mayur Vihar, found it in them to pack her off, half way across the world, twice over. And alone ! Within twelve hours of having been picked up by cousin Kabir at Newark, she was at her University campus, amongst complete, multinational strangers she was going to spend the next nine months of her life with, thousands of miles away from home.

New Delhi: London: Newark: New York: intercontinental loop of trust and credibility, fuelled by electronic communication, crackling over fibre optic ocean cables. And who are the posts holding this entire interface up? A triad consisting of the program director at Princeton University, the program co-ordinator in Belgrade, and the home page of the University Bridge Year Program.

Truly remarkable and in more ways than one.

Notable that Asawari should find her way to that corner of the world that had long held her fascination for primarily two persons; first, Béla Károlyi, the Romanian gymnastics coach who trained three of her favorite gymnasts; Nadia Comăneci , Kerri Strug, Dominique Moceanu and second, Alexander III of Macedon, creator of one of the largest ancient empires.

Wonderful that she should discover her window to the sky in a country called Serbia. Republika Srbija and not Sibir' of Russia. A nation one had heard of, mostly in the context of the Non-Aligned Movement, founded in Belgrade during the Brijuni Islands summit by Josip Broz Tito of Yugoslavia, Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt, and Jawaharlal Nehru of India, the year being 1953.

Amazing that she should at this moment be among the Roma people, an ethnic group with origins in India (from the region of Haryana !)but now living mostly in Central and Eastern Europe.

It’s a story worth recounting, a tale of our bridge to Serbia called Asawari. The start of a lifelong friendship. A discovery that people are pretty much the same everywhere and that outstanding human collaborations are possible in the shadow of world tragedies. The extraordinary fact that she has been comfortable and safe and looked after by two Serb families that we have not seen and are not likely to meet ever. An account of how her presence there has founded a new Indian loyalty to Novak Đoković playing anywhere in the world !

The night she left home, I had the flight tracker switched on, besides my bed. It was as though I was trying to aid her flight mentally. And when the tracker said, “No info, the flight may be over the ocean,” I shut my eyes and there they were, those two guarantees; the toss of her ponytail at the airport and that squaring of her slim shoulders as she turned into the waiting beyond immigration check!

Surely, something is right with the world.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Sending them away

Here we come...
Every once in awhile, at regular intervals actually, I am ashamed to say, I bedevil my daughters with the refrain, “Did we do the right thing by sending you away at seventeen?” All credit to them that they do not remind the mother how consistently we worked towards this event.

For the most part, it is all good. But there are these periodic attacks of anxiety, self-doubt and uncertainty. The little snakes that slither in: will this experience of leaving home make them cynical; what kind of influences are they under, being well out of our reach now; has their going away loosened the family fabric; who is knocking whom up, them or the world?

That daily happening during which all of this comes into play is the telephone call. It is never a simple, comfortable, confident welfare call it should be. I dial the number and wait in a cloud of anticipatory flutter. There is relief if the call is picked up. A missed call is cause for further palpitation and hyperventilation. Is everything all right? Where is she?

The click and voice at the other end send my maternal antenna into overdrive. I strain to pick up the channels in their voices, trying to decipher the tenor, the timber, the tremulous. If they sound sleepy I wonder if they are depressed and miserable and in the process of sleeping it off. If they sound like they are whispering, I run down a mental checklist of who they might be with. The sound of wheels conjures up images of horrifying traffic. The slightest cough, wheeze or sniffle immediately portends an impending medical catastrophe.

A lilt in their voices on the other hand, sends the blood coursing through my veins with happiness. Their laughter can keep us going for weeks. Every little experience shared is recounted to grandparents and family over and over. It is as though, no one ever left home for college before.

There are the memorable calls, “Mom, I won such and such,” or “Mom, I missed my flight,” or “Mom, I danced at 6 am on a Serbian Hill”, or “Mom, great street food in Taipei,” or “Driving home from Macedonia,” or “Lovely ride on the airport highway”. And of course, there are the standard exchanges, “I am withdrawing money”; “No charge in phone,”; “A trip going out, can I?”; “Have taken my medicine”; “I am up.”

The mind carries out crazy orbits. Are they hurting? Are they leaning too much on someone? Are they stumped for ideas? Are they safe? Are they lonely? Am I calling too much or too little or just enough? I don’t want to intrude or to bug but I am certainly looking for reassurance.

And should the father have placed the call, my first question, “Did she sound ok?” Of course they are ok. They have their schedules, their environment, and their pressures to handle. They are busy being what we wanted them to be all along...autonomous, independent, well functioning adults.

Keep it up girls!

Friday, April 15, 2011

Dilli mera dil..

Mumbai meri jaan or Dilli mera dil?

Can Delhi ever be spoken of, without that invariable and implicit comparison with Mumbai?

I have heard it said often that Delhi is a difficult place to like. The urban incites extreme reactions, more often than not, one of distaste and distrust. It is the supposed rape and crime capital of the country. Regularly pilloried for being heartless and ostentatious; hollow and blasé; opportunistic and corrupt; a city of rootless immigrants with no sense of belonging or pride or responsibility. A glutton of a megalopolis where everybody is somebody and you are invisible if you are a nobody.

By contrast, relative safeties, a professional work ethic, financial muscle, entertainment Mecca are the adjectives one hears when Mumbai is spoken of.

I am hardly a true blue Delhite and far from being a Mumbai baiter. It just so happened that I came to spend a substantial period of time in the political capital of the country. I was not born here, I did not study here, I have no ancestral connection with Dilli and yet, I think I am in love with this city. I miss Delhi when I am away and there is always this sense of homecoming whether it is arriving into the ISBT, the Railway Station, the Azadpur Highway or the IG Airport.

It is a lot more than plain liking. If truth be told, the fact is that I owe a whole lot to the Rajdhani. It is in Delhi that I have spent some of my life’s most memorable years. My marriage was solemnised here; the city was and continues to be my professional home. My idealistic young years, the “I will conquer the world by age 21,” were marked here. And the most important of all, it is this culturally rich metropolitan that gave my girls direction, focus and meaning in their lives.

There are aspects of daily living in Delhi that I thoroughly enjoy. I like driving to work, listening to Radio FM. I love attending events at the Kamani. I am happy roaming around the National School of Drama. I relish the landscape dotted with tombs and relics of the Sultanate.

There are other cherished signatures in this stretch. The wide roads, the green roundels, the smart signage, the big flashy cars, the good looking and well dressed young Delhizens and the old, in no seeming hurry to bid bye to their youth. Delhi is well off and comfortable. There is a sense of plenty offset by an omnipotent sense of history. An illusion of being at the centre of the universe. There is an air of prosperity, abundance and large heartedness. I have not heard any aggrieved, envious harking back to the past in this hub. Not many tales of injustices suffered or humiliations endured. Happily enough, Delhi is quite about staying alive and getting on with it. In my fifteen odd years here, I have not known many, nursing ancient wounds and bemoaning a lost glory. People are too busy working, playing and aspiring.

A life without Gopala’s dhokla, Nathu’s Rajkachori, Keventer’s milk and Chocolate Wheel’s plum cake is unimaginable. I may not frequent these but it is reassuring to know that Chandani Chowk, Karol Bagh, and Chawri Bazaar are accessible, should I need to.
Sure, there has been the odd unsavoury day. My wallet got picked at Bangala Sahib gurudwara. Someone banged into my car at Lajpat Nagar in the parking. I have had my share of glaring motorists and rudely gesticulating VIP security men. But during the course of a typical day, were I to look around with particular care, I think I would be fortunate enough to see more than just evil on two legs. I would see ordinary people like me, going about their business.

I particularly like the Delhi Punjabi young. Yes, they swagger with that sense of propriety. They do wear their glares over their heads. They also exude a sense of entitlement. I believe they have often been accused of being predatory chauvinists. But by and large, despite their obnoxiously consumerist lifestyles, these yuppy puppies have their hearts in the right place. There is a deep sense of family and traditional values.

As for the underbelly of Delhi, well there are the ‘N’ numbers of NGOs, quite equal to the task of clearing and cleaning up. And all else failing, there is the media, ready and waiting to take us all down.

In the final analysis, it is not what the city can do for you, but what you can make of this city.

Dilli tujhe salaam.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

My first crush

Brij Bhushan Bhandari !

Where are you Brij?

Yes. Him!

Brij Bhushan Bhandari was my first official crush.

I was a ninth grader, studying in a girls’ convent at Jhansi and looking back now, that big head harboured some pretty exotic notions. I believed that only girls fell for boys and never the other way around. Ritu Nanda and Catherine Kingham, two of my precocious class mates, were paragons of feminine beauty in my eyes. I did not consider myself attractive. In fact I was conscious of my ample fundament and faintly pimpled skin.

We had a brother institution close by. Local lore had it that a crypt under our Blessed Virgin Mary’s statue in the garden, led to a tunnel, that came out right into the courtyard of Christ the King School.

It was as giddy a time as it could have been in the life of a charming little cantonment, the year being 1977. There were the usual stories of the May Queen Ball, weekly movie day at the Sarvatra, the Taalbhet and Babina school bus recaps by virtue of having Ritu Nanda as one of the passengers. And there were the four of us: Sadhana Atri, Hutokshi Nadirshaw, Catherine Kingham and yours truly a la Amar, Akbar, Anthony and Arjan!! We carried egg patties in our Tiffin, ate chocolate fudge at Jimmy’s and whispered nonsense about Sister Denise being pretty and Brother Dominic being handsome. We also made time to throw the javelin, attend music lessons in a huge, wooden floored hall with sister on the piano and march playfully during recess to the refrain, “We must, we must, we must increase our bust!”

Jhansi, the seat of the legendary firebrand queen Laxmibai, India’s enduring symbol of resistance to the British rule. It was in this major, rail and road junction on the banks of river Betwa that our 3 Ton Military School Bus, complete with the Danda Man, traced a daily rattle route, carrying a miscellaneous pack of Army kids to and from school. If you struck lucky, you would get to squeeze onto the wooden, makeshift benches. The rest of us hung on to the sides, we clutched someone’s shirt or looped low from the handles dangling down the tarpaulin roof.

It was noisy and sweaty and uneven, the school trip. And I would have missed him completely but for the orange bell bottoms. Those bells blared across the rushing tar as he rode his lady's cycle in hot pursuit of the 3 Tonner. I can’t recall the exact point he made his appearance but BBB was a regular both ways. I haven’t the faintest idea if he attended school or college. In fact, for the longest time, I puzzled over where this energetic fellow giving chase was going. He did not overtake.He did not fall behind. He managed to shadow the bus just right.

An epiphanic episode occurred near the school water tank one day when this familiar looking junior came up and explained, “Bhaiya did not come today because he has fever.” I stood there tongue tied. Oh, o....he was this girl’s brother which also meant his mother was one of the senior teachers in school! Identity and intent having been established, the perspective did a U-turn and it was a new me that afternoon. I was looking out for him as we drew up at the boys’ school gate. Bingo! The fever had vanished. There he was under the tree, foot on the pedal....

What do you know? There was no cell phone, no facebook, and no twitter. Back in those days, if you fancied someone you just picked up the bicycle and ran !

This daily sequence lasted over a month. I felt nervous and embarrassed and confused and excited, all at the same time. Without having come within 150 m of a person, I was discovering what it felt like to be liked. Yes, I wrote his name in a notebook and applied the “Love, Like, Hate, Adore” formula.

If you are reading this BBB, thank you for lesson one: the boy girl thing is a two way street!

PS: I see you Sadhana, falling off your chair sitting in California. Hold that stomach and cover the mouth, for heaven’s sake.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Troubled waters

If you are Indian, your troubles can never be smaller than your friend’s and neighbour’s. There is a keen contest amongst us, of the grand subcontinent, to be the sadder, the greater stricken, the one who throbs more.

Have you ever attempted telling a friend that your head aches? His will promptly hurt a nerve more. Try relating to a colleague how you got pulled up for a traffic ticket and you will suddenly find yourself in conversation with the largest contributor to the traffic department coffers. Woe betide you, should you so much as breathe a word about a houseful of guests at home; your hitherto sympathetic listener will promptly be revealed to be harbouring one more. Voice an ailment to a family member only if you enjoy watching them pucker their lips in pain as they launch into an excruciating checklist of ills that plague them.

We take morbid narration to a whole new level while holding forth on episodes of purges, acidity, migraines, and that omnipotent backache. We are hurting, paining, aching and complaining all the time and mostly in a spirit of camaraderie and siblinghood. Let no acquaintance, brother, neighbour, colleague of ours feel they are down and out by themselves, we are right there besides them, a clear rung lower.

What to do, as they say, we are like that only.

Jai ho !
It is in our culture. Our antique psyche. We are too well bred and gracious to permit a comrade to feel low. We lighten his load by appearing to carry a heavier burden. His troubles suddenly begin to seem smaller by comparison. It’s a wonderful kink in our cultural conscience, this concern for the other and an associated willingness to whinge and whine some more. Imagine the other all blue over a lost piece of baggage. You whip out your tale of how you nearly lost the baby on one trip. Here is a person crying over having missed his train and you have a narration ready, complete with lost passport and tenure in prison. He is obviously relieved.

We have been brought up to shower compassion publicly. This land, dotted with temples, gurudwaras and churches keeps us tuned and humming for instant empathy, plus one. We melt in the face of any mention of personal loss or unease. Just as we cannot drive past a temple or a church without that awkward dip, we cannot stand to see anyone we know in greater pain than we are in.

Is it fellow feeling or a pure and simple defence mechanism? Perhaps nature has wired us so that we may ensure the strobe light stays focused on us.

Be that as it may, the axe I am looking to grind however, is with that vague sense of malaise that infects Indian homes and workplaces. Hard to pin and very often used as a way of eluding responsibility for themselves and the world around, this is a quick sand of the most paralyzing and debilitating kind. It is the “not feeling well” brigade. There is a ladies meeting to attend, one is suddenly not well. An unexpected and annoying working Saturday, it is cause to promptly go under the weather. If a boring social event is coming up for attendance, can a viral attack be far behind? I know. I sound so un-Indian!

This newest Forbes survey being touted everywhere has really missed the point. How can India be one of the most unfriendly places for expats? Could they have misunderstood and misinterpreted our propensity for tribulations? Surely we are the world’s most understanding and responsive people, considering how we match the distressed every step of the way.

There is only one Indian I know of who is anything but; my grandfather Sardar Dalip Singh Sangha; a sturdy, Pakistan émigré, Jat Sikh from Moga.

He did not possess one sympathetic stapes in his body.

His philosophy: one had no business so much as exhaling, unless one had been shot in the spleen!

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Dad and Mom

Harnek and Nirmal, 1961
Congratulations on your golden anniversary Dad and Mom !

Col (Retd) H S Sangha & Mrs Nirmal Sangha, 2011

50 years of an adventure, a journey, a promise.....

Friday, April 8, 2011

Power to the Primary

Primary teachers suffer from an inferiority complex. There is an inexplicable, implied and rampant “dumbing” down of the profession. It is as though the vulnerability and perceived intellectual level of the students in their charge automatically pegs them alongside lab assistants, no offence meant. To add to this dowdy visage, there is their punishing class schedule that leaves them no time to be of any nuisance value.

Schools that practise the mother-teacher system in the Primary, place such an onus on the personal resources of the class teacher that she is done for with the very first school bell. A typical Primary class teacher today handles the academic load of forty odd children in addition to preparing daily absentee lists and keeping up with a battery of duties: bus, stay back, break duty. She is also a subject-in-charge, bulletin board-in-charge, and club-in-charge. There are records to be maintained such as the teacher’s diary, attendance registers, bus attendance registers, gifted as well as remedial cases, assessment related paraphernalia including report cards (online and hard copy), certificates, mark lists and not to mention the information booklets for the successive class teachers at the session end. There are the annual day and sports day rehearsals to get through. Quite a merry go round! They magically find the time to pack in a dozen seminars in a year and there are the staff welfare events to attend. Somewhere amidst this whirlwind day, a reasonable amount of effective teaching-learning is also to take place.

The 6th pay commission is supposed to justify all of this as also the accompanying ringing of the ears, spinning of the heads and palpitating of the hearts. And it goes without saying that there is always that universal echo permeating the busy hullabaloo, “But what does the Primary teacher do the whole day?”

To begin with, the Primary is a world unto itself. A planet inhabited by raw, range of the moment, unique young people who are crying for validation and attention. It is not enough here to give them mere knowledge. They need and take a part of the teacher, if not a pound exactly. A good Primary teacher invests a lot of emotional energy in the classic manner she begins to identify with her class. This is a stake of a very personal nature. It is some of these crusading teachers who identify and nurture the wilting clovers, they back and showcase the tiger lilies, and they nudge and coax the humble heather. One has to hear that tinge of propriety in their tone when they say,” My class....”

Fortunately for this intrepid band, their love is returned in full measure. In many schools, the KG parent orientation marks that rite of passage, switch of loyalties. It is understood that from thence on, the tots will heed their teacher more than they will, the counsel of their father and mother. You have to see how they hang on their teacher’s words, how they look at her as though they will lay their lives if asked. The flowers they make. The cards they painstakingly craft. Perhaps in a Primary teacher’s life, they are the only ones who say, “Ma’am, you are looking very beautiful today.” They are loyal. They are a sight the day their teacher goes on leave. Of course, there are the odd fists pumping the air at the news but for the majority, there is a sense of sails deflating, a ship gone ashore, anchor lost. Watch them how they follow their teacher blindly where she leads them.

And oh yes, they come back after years, looking for that one Primary teacher, their faces beaming up if she happens to remember their names.

It is here, in the Primary that you need the wisest, the kindest, and the most driven amongst the teaching community. Oddly enough, the enemy is within the ranks. It is not uncommon for colleagues to ask of a particularly high calibre teacher, “What are you doing here, wasting your time?”

There have been days when I have sat in a room full of high achieving professionals, many working at far greater levels of intellectual and financial remuneration. I have always felt a curious sense of pride and have never been able to keep the smile out of my reply when someone asks what I do for a living. I find myself being very specific.

I never say, “I am a teacher.” For some reason, I like to say “I am a Primary Teacher”.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Sodhi and Sodhi

They call each other "Sodhi" !

Phoenix En Pointe

Asawari, Disciple of Malti Shyam at her Manchpravesh
It was a busy time in the life of this young family. Several projects were afoot.

The father’s professional consolidation, a mother who had gone back to studying, working, freelancing and there was the two year old, setting off in style for time out at Nina Auntie’s day-care. While all the juggling, adjusting and trundling ahead was happening down here on the terra firma; unknown to these three, a stellar alignment had shifted gear in the blue yonder. Several souls had lined up for prospective tenures on earth and the Creator’s eyes had come to rest on the most energetic, most supple and curliest mop-head ever. I do believe He then cast one disdainful glance at all the “ardaas and puja paath” afoot down here for a grandson, harrumphed and made a decisive note against her name: Harpal and Neerja.

This delightful replica of her father’s face, complete with his wild hair and a penchant for tying herself up in knots was jettisoned forthwith. She still wore the cosmic ID, a tiny round wrist band that read d/o Sqn. Ldr. Harpal Singh when she landed in the SCBU or the Special Care Baby Unit of the Command Hospital, Pune.

Wing Commander De had to have been the busiest gynaecologist in that hospital back then. A contingent from the local Air Force base, four strong, kept him particularly engaged. The community vehicle would cart this fertile bunch right into the maternity OPD at periodic intervals. The good doctor would emerge from his office, take one look at them, all placid, contented, smiling and turn on his heels, grumbling good naturedly under his breath, “Good heavens! Does this base not keep their pilots busy enough?!”

And now on the 18 Aug, at 8.59 am, while this chosen little culmination of those trips rested in her crib, her mother was emerging from an anaesthetic haze in the post operative room. She groggily focused on the huge bunch of red roses atop the bedside window ledge, slowly registering the light stroke on her forehead, “She is just like Aqseer”, he was whispering.

The Crew Room bulletin board in the squadron that day read, “Harp, two Marutis down!”

Like Phoenix, the mythical bird, her fragile frame held no indication of the long and hard flight she would embark on, years later in life. Terrified of crushing her on the hospital bed at that moment, her mother lay  frozen, staring open mouthed at this delicate titbit of a gift from the heavens. "What a beauty", she thought to herself, smiling at the warm thought that the family somehow seemed complete now.The first of the baby’s quietly assertive wails dragged her back from this self congratulatory reverie.

It was a bustling ward, what with an ambulance birth, infantile jaundice and brand new babes trying out their larynges. Aqseer would walk into all this in her mismatched set of clothes, leading a sheepish grandmother who did not have the heart to interfere with her adventurous mix and wear. Preliminaries over, she would make a dive for her mother’s house slippers; “Put them on! Let’s go home.”

Although “Maniyaar” was the name originally intended for the newborn, her Sikh naming ceremony threw up the alphabet “A” and Asawari was off to a start. She had some signature moves, to begin with. Yogic in appearance, it was hard to tell where Asawari began and where she ended every time she struck one of these poses. She was also plagued by onomatopoeia, “double u bubble u” being a favourite. One wondered if there was a past life connection with the country across the border. Five times at the very least, five times a day, this spinning little packet would flop to the ground, just like that. There she would be on the floor, bent over in a no holds barred sign of protest. When a hush fell over the house, one knew that Asawari had docked in front of an open refrigerator. And oh the soulful reproach in those almond eyes, reserved for the mother, over the maid’s shoulder, on way out of the door for an hour’s airing......
Asawari powered her kinaesthetic talent with a strong internalization. A hungry sponge for skills, Mr Bean and Takeshi’s Castle. she gave the Hanah Montana phase a bit of a wide berth, coming to rest on the Shiv Naresh sports attire. At teen gatherings, she would come into her own only after the departure of the Ryan, Seth and Summer clones, finally getting up to shoot baskets or soak a tip or two on drumming. Her mother would meanwhile be driving home, radar on high alert, expecting that call any minute, a mere thirty minutes after drop off, “I am done here!”

Her grit, perseverance and a never say die spirit has taken her where she is today.

It has been 222 days, 10 hours, 22 minutes and 11 seconds since we saw her last.
There are 77 days 14 hours 38 minute and 49 seconds left to give her a tight hug again.

Asawari: our Phoenix, our very own, home grown firebird! 

Asawari dancing Aurora (Sleeping Beauty) with IFBC