Friday, August 8, 2014

The perils of interviewing

While interviewing people in the course of work, I always am slightly uncomfortable. Researchers ask respondents for their time, their opinions and their  emotions. All of this is often willingly given. And what do we give in exchange? Very often, it is nothing.
And sometimes, we offer entertainment in exchange.
This happened when N and I trudged up to a village almost exactly in the centre of Uttarakhand. 'We are trying to understand the river', we said. 'We would like to speak with you.' We were led to a group of  five merry old women-maybe in their seventies. These were old friends who had now moved to various cities, but return to their village every year.
 On age:
'What is your age?' I asked one.
'The same as yours'
'But I am 37!'
'That's what I said. Now write that down!'

On livestock:
We asked them the number of cows, buffaloes, goats, and mules  in the village. At the end of  it, one of them pointed to a mango tree.
'There are crows there. We don't know how many, but you should go and count them.'

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Towards the light

The dark underground space was full of small chirps and whistles. Almost unheard among these was the faint sound like paper being torn as the first baby pushed out of its egg. This was immediately followed by more rustlings till the entire brood had emerged from their eggs into the warm darkness of their nest. Aimlessly, they stumbled around till the first of them felt a far-off thunder and sensed a glimmer of light above. This faint radiance drew the brood towards it with the all consuming passion of  going home.

Its siblings stayed back as the first baby turtle struggled up from the nest and poked its head out onto the beach. After several suspenseful seconds, it clambered out and was immediately followed by the rest of the brood. They were going home.

There it was. The sparkling horizon reeled them in, all instincts led the turtles to scurry towards that light. Where the light twinkled, their bodies told them, there it was. There they would find home.

They continued walking around, over, and through traps that their instincts could not warn them against. The plastic bags and discarded nets and rolls of twine trapped some, but the others went on and on towards home.

Stray dogs claimed some turtles and terrorised the others. But it did not matter, there- just in front of them- surely was home.

They couldn't reason, but their bodies knew what to do. Over the beach they struggled, filled with an overwhelming sense of urgency that drove them on. And so the turtles eagerly panted on and on, towards the distant rumble and twinkling lights of the East Coast Road.

Far away behind them, the sparkling Bay of Bengal continued to call its babies.

*  *  *

D, my colleague, told me of the disorientation of the Olive Ridley hatchlings due to the road along the beach. Very few of these hatchlings survive that first walk to the ocean, even fewer reach adulthood. There are some efforts being made to lessen the extent of the damage that humans are doing. The Chennai Students Sea Turtle Conservation Network I've been told, are doing stellar work.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

In hiding

There is a woman I wish I knew better. She's super-intelligent, attractive, and tough. She has committed her life to a cause most would consider lost, but still retains her sense of humour. Her integrity, her courage and her brilliance are held in awe by all the people who know her. In three sentences, I have told you pretty much all I know about her, barring a few details of name and place. Despite this paucity of information, I love her. I believe she likes me too.

She has been diagnosed with cancer of the breast. The mutual friend I spoke with could not hide the betrayal he felt as he told me that the tumour was not discovered for a long time. 'I don't understand how you can not notice something like that', he said. 'It's in such..such  a prominent place.' And then stuttered at his wretched choice of word. He didn't need to. I understand what he  meant. As a man worried about possible  inflammation of a hidden gland, it can be difficult to understand how women can not see something right under their  chins.

The truth is, we banish our breasts into hiding.

I am not talking of publicly- there of course, the two-three layers are there, covered with a dupatta over it all. I am talking of in private. Neither I nor my friends, non-prudish and non-diffident women though we might be, ever look at our naked breasts. We shower in a hurry, wear our clothes in the bathroom, and only face the mirror for makeup. We are conditioned to go through life hiding our breasts, and we have learnt to do that so effectively that we hide them from ourselves as well. And yes, there are times when we show them off. But then too, they are not something we look at for themselves- they are just tools in our seduction kit. Do you ever anxiously examine your chisel? And so it is shockingly easy to not notice any changes.

A breast self-examination. Learnt properly, practised regularly. Please.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Gardening is sexy!

Yes, it is incredibly sensual. There are very few other activities I know that so utterly enchant your senses. To potter around among the vegetables, feeling the air on your skin, smelling the flowering tomatoes and being kissed by the plants while the bees hum around you? It's a wonder I get any other work done at all. Focused on your surroundings, no detail gets missed. The tight symmetry of a sunflower bud, the glossy back of a ladybird, the intoxication of brushing against mint- the only other time we notice and admire such details is when we fall in love.

Our tomatoes
But like making love, gardening has its share of painfully embarrassing moments. And I am not just talking of those mornings when we wake up with aching muscles and realise that our enthusiasm has once again overridden -excuse the pun- our abilities.

First peaches from the garden
No, I am talking of conversation. Since G undertook to do the digging and heavy work around the garden, I find myself in increasingly more involved and explicit conversations. This is not helped by my poor hindi and his impeccable propriety.

Take something as simple as planting maize. G adores rows, I prefer blocks. In this case, I wanted  to explain to him why it is not just a matter of preference in the case of maize. I wanted to say that the male and female flowers are separate, that the plant is wind pollinated, and that block planting ensures that the pollen falls on the female flowers. Simple enough in English. Try to do that in a language you are not comfortable with. I ended up slipping into hand gestures before I blushed and ended with 'please just prepare a square be..plot! i mean square plot!'

And today he found me among the squash trying to impregnate a pumpkin. Not for the faint hearted, this  gardening business.
Zucchini- thankfully, these pollinate themselves

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

A story of perfume

Open any woman's cupboard and you will inhale a rich mixture of scents, evocative of her own self.

There might be the deep sweetness of a sandalwood jewellery box, the intense woodiness of some carefully hoarded spices, the lemony fruitiness of her favourite lotion, and there will always be perfume. That's how I remember my mother's and sister's cupboards. Amma's cupboard was redolent of sandal and lavender, my sister's of more complex perfumes and creams. As a tomboyish child who - if you were lucky- smelled of Nycil and Pears, these cupboards were indescribably exotic.

And then my  own cupboard acquired fragrance. First simpler florals and finally grown-up perfumes. I remember a friend hugging me once. 'Oh, that's what the magazines mean,' she exclaimed, 'when they say a perfume should be only smelled by the one kissing you.'

But later on, a mean little voice began to be heard inside my head. 'Such things are for pretty women' it hissed.'What are you doing with them?' I stopped and my cupboard  became a purely functional, sterile thing.

Still later, Mian came along and insisted that I deserved all the prettiest and most splendiferous things in the universe. Incredibly enough, I began to believe him. But I still did not buy any perfume. By then, I was out of place in a store that sold fripperies. I felt clumsy and gauche and showed it.

Fragrance came back to my list of 'someday haves' though, spurred by a friend who told me with a mix of shyness and defiance 'I buy nice things for myself these days. Why not?' Why not indeed? I began to read fragrance blogs. Mian, spectacular husband that he is, took notice and took notes.

And on my birthday, he pulled out the very bottle I was lusting for .'Did I get the right one?' he asked worriedly. He had, but there is no wrong one.

Now when I open my cupboard, there it is- that lovely, lovely fragrance. All mine. Back after so many years.
Thank you, Mian

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Death by indiference

I wrote earlier about Rubeena and her family.
Since then, I have put up a photoset on India Water Portal's flickr page. Please do go and take a look- The people and the landscape need to be not forgotten.

Monday, June 9, 2014

How my garden grows

I have three gardening enthusiast friends in the Chatola-Sitla area. Two of these, A and L, have gardens as mature and exquisite as themselves. Their gardens manage to be both quiet and exuberant, voluptuous  and aloof. When confronted with these gardens, I find myself stunned into silence with my mouth hanging open. Come to think of it, that's also how I am in the presence of the ladies who created these spaces. I covet a garden like that, just as I too want to be as gracious and..and refined  as the gardeners. And I know that neither is achievable for the bumblebee that I am.

Our garden is  still in its infancy as far as Mian's and mine influence goes. But thankfully, we have inherited established plants from the people who lived here earlier- things that give us much joy and would have taken us a decade to grow. There are the fruit trees, of course. But there are also the giant sunflowers that I love so much, and the beautiful old roses, the lilies that crop up every year.

There are also things that I am not particularly fond of, but still turn up and are welcomed every year- the ramrod straight gladioli, the faded-yellow dahlias. They are all welcomed.
The beautiful rose arch..would have taken us  years to get it
Our mark- Mian's and mine and G's- is becoming slowly apparent now. We have planted things to climb over the house- ivy and roses and cathedral bells. There is a baby rosemary hedge- it is 6 inches tall now, but soon I will be able to spread our linen to dry on it. There are lots of golden rod and salvia to attract bees. There's parsley and chives and sage for the picking.
The Giant Sunflower in the foreground, flanked by gladioli, mint below, parsley and chives in the background, and lettuce and squash just visible!

 And things are always happening in the garden- nearly every day, a new 'project' gets executed. I want fragrance, and shade. I want bumblebees and honeybees, and birds and frogs and earthworms. And for this, I need lots of fragrant flowering and fruiting things. It will happen- Not soon, but it will.

The wild himalayan rose- my favourite flower here. We don't have it near the house yet. This  monsoon, I wil plant lots