Friday, December 31, 2010

Learning Plateaus

4 years ago, I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to do some serious navel-gazing. I went through several assessments, by myself and by those around me. There were personality tests, leadership assessments, skill analyses- the lot. The outcome of all that was what my mother had been saying for two decades-but never mind that. With the help of my coach, I drafted a Development Plan. At the end of 2010, I am still working on it. I still catch myself getting into trouble for doing things I know I should not be doing.

I tried and tried to make bread, concentrating on just two recipes (rustic bread and cinnamon-raisin-oatmeal bread), with variable results every time. This weekend, I will buy some more yeast and add a third one- roasted potato bread. (All by Jeffrey Hamelman, recipes in his book or online at The Fresh Loaf). I expect more unpredictability there.

I am still trying to learn enough English to teach it to a six-year old. We started tenses yesterday, and I realized that I only remember six of the twelve (or is it 9? or 15?).

I intuitively understand the concept of resilience, but cannot define it- and I certainly cannot sound erudite while talking about it. I see vulnerability, but find it tough to assess it without including disclaimers with every phrase.

For the first time in my life, I feel my father's absence. I now see that I have no idea how to do this husband-wife thing. My observations of married people are either dowry reports in the newspaper or the 'how to iron Father's shirts' chapters in my 19th century housekeeping manuals- which makes me as stable as Himalayan geology. Working on it, but I don't think I'll be asking Mian for a stakeholder assessment anytime soon.

My basil died in October due to the cold, my earthworms in November. The mint and garlic are alive. I don’t know how to garden below 15 degrees Celsius. Still feeling my way around northern gardening calendars.

I spoke of two challenges facing me last year. The work challenge I have bowed down in defeat to, the personal challenge is a continuing one.

Cakes, yes. Pies, no. Ensuring equitability, sort of. Basic conversation, no. Thinking before I speak, sometimes. Thinking before I snap, no. Got my work cut out for me.

This has definitely been a Year of Learning. Where learning is a verb, of course. Still working on all that, and thoroughly enjoying the process.


Happy new year.

The photo? my big adventure of the year. Our wedding day dinner..

Thursday, December 30, 2010

street food

In an earlier post I had dismissed all dehraduni street food as leaving a lot to be desired.  Because here one does not get what people south of the Vindhyas call 'chaat'. The light-as-air pani puri and the jewel-bright bhelpuri are reduced to sad shades of their real selves when they come here. Things like the wonderfully bilingual SPDP (sev dahi potato puri) and the dabeli are conspicous by their absence. But I was being a pompous ass with my Pune hangup.
You do get tasty, tangy, more-ish street foods in Dehradun. They just tend to be of the stick-to-the-ribs branch of the Chaat family. Street corners are packed in winter with sellers of ground nuts. In the evenings, the heap of roasted groundnuts is topped with a little pot filled with burning coal, the glowing embers serving to warm the groundnuts and the seller while enticing the customer. There's also aloo tikki, this being something I have very rarely. The oil has been re-used umpteen times which is a deterrent. And secondly, the fluorescent nature of the chutneys displayed in the stalls makes me ask for one 'plain' sans everything, which is missing the point of a tikki. So, no.

But then there are the roots. Kachalu (a giant colocasia tuber, or arbi on steroids) and sweet potatoes which have been either boiled or roasted, then chopped up and tossed with seasoning.
That's what the nice Chachaji is making for me in the photo and very tasty it was too..tangy, spicy, sweet-all that chaat is required to be. The 20 Rs. pricetag has frugal me thinking 'I can buy a  kilo of sweet potatoes with that cash!' but you know what? I doubt I'll be able to get that very same taste, and the pleasure of receiving a leaf-full of mouthwatering goodness is well worth the 20. Can you take mum there? why not? I do tend to steer clear of the chaat street near the clock tower- the proximity to an open drain rattles me and will rattle your mum too; a nice clean tree-shaded chowk will be just fine



Saturday, December 25, 2010

Merry Christmas!

Thursday, December 23, 2010

I, Grouch

It is 2 am, and I am lying in my berth on the train. The train is supposed to reach Dun at 8am, but generally gets there at 0830. This means that I only have one hour to get home, breakfast, bathe, and cook lunch before getting into the office. I know I need to sleep, but am unable to do so because a group of young men are partying in the berths below me. I am generally quiet despite the calls for rum, the frequent use of naughty words in a desperate attempt to sound cool, the loud and inane conversation. I try and think back to my college days when something like an overnight train trip with friends was An Adventure or at the least, a Bonding Opportunity. But I seriously wonder if we were ever as oblivious to the needs of others around us. Or am I only wise in hindsight?

At first glance, it seems that I have a right to complain. A train carriage is a public space after all, and everyone expects lights out after 11 or so. Twice, when they start playing dance music, I ask them to lower the volume. They are nice boys, they respond immediately, and I thank them.

I only voice my objections twice; but for the major part of the night- from 11 pm to 4am, I think purely evil thoughts about them. Once, I drift off to sleep but wake up whimpering from a nightmare. Its all because of the partying, I think. I am feeling angry and vulnerable. But then it strikes me that I am the only one who has a problem with the noise. No one else complains. There is an old lady -they call her aunty- who needs to get off the train in the wee hours. Instead of sleeping, she has decided to join them and is roguishly pulling their collective leg. Was I being a grouch?

And today at the office. I was speaking to a colleague, P, about our ill friend's health..
C (to P): Vis still feeling dizzy? how is his bloo..
(Third person, He, stands between C and P)
He (interjecting) : namaste
C (to He) : ah! namaste
C (turning to P) : V's blood..
He: how are you?
C (to P..errr..He): press..I am fine! how are you? just  a minute..
C (to P): pressure?
P (replies with details)
C (turning to He): Sorry, we were talking about his health
He: (walks away pissed off)
C: hey, wait! I was in the middle of a sentence..we were worried about his health..why are you angry?
He: It's ok..apparently I am not important enough.

Was I a grouch?  Am I one?

I can't do this interacting with humans thing. I need a farm with a couple of dogs and lots of plants. grrrrrrrr..

Thursday, December 16, 2010

It wasn't all toil and trouble..

For starts, I stayed here.
That's the valley of the Kosi river (not the flood prone one, that's in Bihar. This one is in Ukd and just learning its flood capabilities). The little patch of sand in the centre of the snap is the river bed.
I visited houses that had been built by people with poetry in their souls. Accessibility be damned, most houses were built for the view. Essentials are a stone courtyard with plenty of sun where the entire family lives all day
in the winter.
And a little backyard which both gets the sun AND is close to the warm kitchen.


This house defines warmth and cosiness..the stone, the little babies, the smoke curling out, the pumpkins soaking up the sun..
What is not visible in these pictures is an aspect of the traditional houses that I love. In stark contrast to urban houses which are built to deter other creatures from entering, these are built to welcome them in. There are little triangular niches under the eaves to welcome nesting birds, some of the older houses have a beehive in the wall adjoining the kitchen..It makes economic sense of course, to have honey and pest-eaters close to you. But it also illustrates an awareness that humans are but a part of a larger ecosystem.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Toil and trouble..

Am back a sadder woman. The last week's travel was a little harrowing for me.

Yes, the scenery was great and while walking in the mountains of Nainital, I could feel the approbration of the 10-year old chicu who had a crush on Corbett. At one point, we reached the top of a mountain-where I would stay for the next two days- late at night. I stood in the courtyard at midnight and was surrounded by sparkles- both above and below me. The sky was clear, moonless and  liberally sprinkled with stars. Below me spread a valley with a hundred little villages, each house a tiny and intense point of light. Only the band of darkness where the high Himalaya were, enabled me to distinguish between earth and sky. Despite the cold, I stood there for a long, long time.

In the midst of all that beauty was great injustice. The family I stayed with had three young children, all girls. They were intelligent, beautiful and hungry for love. For the crime of having given birth to them, their mother was continually berated. Within half an hour of my arrival, the matriarch of the family began complaining- in front of her grand daughters- how expensive it was to feed them. The mother was anaemic, and malnourished with shoulders like a coat hanger. Despite this, she will be forced to go on giving birth to children till she finally produces a boy, who will be spoilt far more than is good for any human and who because of his upbringing will carry on the misogyny.

My colleague refused to drink water at any of the houses that belonged to scheduled caste villagers. These families did not offer water to me either- they had probably learnt the hard way that it is a crime to offer their 'tainted' water to visitors. I made it a point to ask for and drink water at each such house and was rewarded first with astonishment and then a smile of welcome. But of course, this only serves to make me feel good and will have no impact on their lives whatsoever.

On my way back, I exploded at my good and patient Mian leaving him sad and bewildered. I travelled back wishing my life came with an undo button. When  I got here, I learnt that a colleague is seriously ill.

Plan for the next week? get bucket of sand, bury head

Saturday, December 4, 2010

In hot water

That, quite literally, is where I will be over the next week.
I am working on a livelihoods project and the chap on the phone has asked me to meet him 'at rabu-da's shop at garampani on monday'. And now you have all the information I do, with the exception of one precious phone number..I set off tonight expecting adventure.

I will be travelling in the hills for the next week and a half or two. See you when I get back.

Mata Hari might have had a point.

A few years ago I listened aghast as a friend confessed to me that he had spent the last few weeks sleeping on a mat and a cardboard sheet. Why? Because he did not know where to buy a mattress from in Pune.

'Why didn't you ask me?'
'I wanted to see if I could manage on my own resources' he sheepishly confessed
'I am one of your resources!' I snapped.

It was entertaining to watch his face as the validity of what I had said dawned upon him. But I too am guilty of that. My wanting to do things 'by myself' often results in my not making full use of the tools at my command. Especially when those involve makeup..

Living mostly alone means that I am fairly adept in doing basic odd jobs around the house. I don’t need to call in A Man to change a lightbulb for me; unblocking a drain is child's play. Driving nails into a concrete wall is entirely another matter however. I do need to buy me a electric drill sometime soon (preferably pink, why not?), but in the meantime I do the best I can with a hammer.

The best is not always too satisfactory.

Which is why I needed to pull out the heavy artillery- super lengthening mascara to the rescue! Some flourishes of the wand, followed by one slow bat of the eyelashes and I now have this.

Just using all the tools at my disposal.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Sunshine and cookies

When you next visit Rajpur, toil up the steep path past Lhasa and keep on doing it. The exertion does not matter- you are earning your dessert.

Because near the middle of the slope, on your right is Chhaya. This is a café perched on the lip of the Rispana valley. The place makes the most of its view and is designed like a sunroom with huge windows and cane furniture. They sell pastries, cookies, coffee and a decent assortment of lunch items. Their chicken potpie is highly recommended; my usual fix is a coffee and cake. This makes an eminently satisfactory meal- especially for around Rs 50 after a morning walking around in the hills. My only quarrel with them is over their fondness for lemon essence. I am speculating here, but it seems that at one point Santa gave them a giant barrel of the flavouring, and they now feel compelled to use it everywhere. Yellow cake, zucchini bread, nimbu soda- it does not matter. Artificial lemon has an overwhelming role to play-which is sad considering the easy availability of fresh, fragrant lemons. On Friday nights, they fire up a brick oven and make pizza, which is rather good and entirely free of lemon essence, or so I've heard. Despite the essence-in-a-bottle, the cafe is a pleasant place to sit for a while.

Chhaya also has a little shop alongside where they sell hand-made quilts and clothing. The things are rather good- take a look around.

Mum'll love the place, but accessibility is a problem. Public transport vehicles stop at the base of the hill and autos dislike the climb. Talk one into taking you up. As long as you don’t let her know what the auto-wallah charged, things will be ok. And remember they stay closed on Sunday.

Incidentally, if you walk further up the slope to the very top, you come across a lovely old house with wooden blinds. This is Studio Alaya- Mecca of the sustainability aware, socially responsible, aesthetically picky treasure hunter and home of the most adorable rocking horse I've ever seen.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Why I don't say 'no' to a project

One of the more juvenile -and reprehensible- habits that M and I had fallen into when working together was writing notes to each other during meetings. I came across this exchange in my notebook the other day:
C: I am not sure they have understood the larger goal of the project. Should we initiate a short session discussing that?
M: I dont think they like us..
M's reply wasnt really the sad non-sequitur it sounds like. This was a new education-based project being initiated, and the partners seemed absolutely unimpressed with the two women hosting the meeting.

Imagine my reaction then, when I was again called to intereact with the same partners, but in my role as civil engineer. Initially, I needed to establish my credentials- something I thought I had stopped needing to do 8 years ago. I am glad I persisted, because I was given wonderful gifts at the end of it.

After nearly a year of scheming to go to Pithoragarh, I was sent there with a day's notice. I stayed in village homes hosted by truly generous families. The photo of the golden glacier was snapped from the porch of one of the houses I stayed at. And the people..
Most were quietly friendly, like this stunningly beautiful grandmother
But there were also the imps. I met these siblings during work, and enjoyed talking to them and taking photos.

They would come running up to see the pictures on my camera and jostle each other out of the way.
Far more dignified was their ring-leader. Not once did she come up to me or chat, preferring to oversee her gang from a distance. That child is pure drama..note the pretend-cigarette.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Toy town cakes

Nearly all the time, Mian and I eat as close to natural as possible. Whole, unrefined, unprocessed, local. Often, the only convenience food in our kitchen is the dried pasta that's made in a factory from refined flour and shipped in from I-don’t-want-to-know-where.

And sometimes I swing in the opposite direction and decide I don’t want any more multi-layer flavours, back-to-the-earth goodness, or carbohydrates more complex than integral calculus. Give me simple, I say. Sugar that zings straight to my synapses, transfats that make a bee-line for my arteries and chemical additives that flirt with my immune system.

It is then that I turn to Sugar Box. As the photo illustrates, there is nothing natural about the things they sell there. And in a way, I respect them for it..they are extremely honest in that they do not pretend to be anything they are not. The pastry in the photo might be called Strawberry, but nothing in the colour, filling, or flavour hints at a nodding acquaintance with anything that might be grown on this earth. And it does not matter. The 'cream' is tasteless but plenty, the sugar cannot be ignored, the mouthfeel is eminently satisfactory in its fluffiness. Sometimes that is all we need. And at 35Rs for a pastry, one has cash left over to embark on the detox diet of one's choice.

Not gourmet, not like mum makes, but an acceptable junk food fix. I know of two outlets, near the clock tower and in Indira Nagar, there might be more. What about mum, you ask? Well, its clean and respectable. Whether she loves it or hates it depends on whether she spent her youth celebrating the arrival of super-snazzy instant coffee powder or lovingly tending to her pot garden (pun utterly intended)..you decide.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Sweetness in the air

Travelling by Vikram on Kanwali road in the evening is a miserable experience. There are traffic jams, it is noisy, and even being crowded with the rest of the passengers does not lessen the impact of the cold winds that blow in from everywhere. The people sitting inside are tense and in an uncharitable mood; they try to make themselves as rigid as possible to ensure that no one crowds them even further. And then on a certain stretch of the road, they close their eyes and inhale deeply. Bodies relax, tension dissipates, eye contact is made and smiles exchanged.

All because of the warm and sensuous aroma of jaggery. Unlike sugar, jaggery has a complex taste- sweet, salt, caramelly, malty, and unexpectedly spicy. When it is melted, the aroma makes one swoon with a happy sigh, especially on a cold night. This is not the warmth of a duvet, it is the generous smiling warmth of an embrace. It is sweet but not cloying, warm but not oppressive; it is unrestrainedly sexy. And it alone is the reason I make it a point to often go down Kanwali road in winter.

For most of the year, Saharanpur Chowk is my least favourite place in town. It is crowded, noisy, littered and sends me home with a headache. From November to February, it is still crowded, noisy and littered, but also fragrant.

Candy shops line the street for maybe a hundred meters past Saharanpur Chowk as one travels up Kanwali road from the station. They are unnoticeable most of the time- as I write this, I find myself unable to recall what they sell in the warmer months. In winter though, each shop sets up a candy making unit at the back. The sweets they sell- 'gajak' - are designed to beat the chill. They are made entirely of warming foods- jaggery, sesame seeds, ground nuts- that provide a bit of warmth, sugar and protein for 60-100 Rs a kilo. Buy Mum the sweets, but subjecting her to the traffic is not necessary.

Unless she is interested in the candy making process which is fascinating and reminiscent of the proceedings in a witches' kitchen.. In each shop a huge (1.5m dia or so) iron kadhai rests on a rough stove. In it, a thick brown liquid simmers with an occasional 'glop' as a bubble rises to the surface. This is the jaggery that brings customers here. On the floor is a mound of bright tinkling sesame seeds waiting to be mixed with the jaggery. And suspended from a hook on the wall is Rapunzel's braid. Actually, no..it's a glistening golden rope of sugar that is being stretched and twisted till it is perfectly ductile and made of hundreds of fine threads. Sadly, I don’t have a photo of that..though I do have one of the candy-makers I bought some gajak from a couple of days ago.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Fauxlooda

Yes, just after I promise to accept Dun food at its own value, here I go again.

But see, for me falooda is a very specific food. A tall glass of super-cold, sweet, frothy milk- preferably bright pink and flavoured with rose water- and always, always, a good heaping tablespoon of crunchy-slippery basil seeds. Originally Persian, it is now firmly a part of the wonderful mixed goodness that was the Bombay of my childhood. My Parsi cookbook lists it, tightly wrapped plastic packets of violently coloured 'falooda mix' are sold in Pune throughout Ramazan and my mum would make it for me during the summer holidays.

A falooda is defined by the seeds- these are called sabja, and are of the 'kama-kasturi' plant which is a stunningly fragrant member of the basil family. The seeds are supposed to be cooling, and so dispel heat rashes, crankiness, and other such summer-holiday mishaps. It is traditionally flavoured with rose water or syrup, which is also reputed to be soothing. Restaurants nowadays carry saffron or mango flavours, which is quite sacrilegious since these are warming flavours, and falooda is more of a cooling medicine than a high-calorie indulgent icecream. Anyway, that's my story and I'll stick to it.

All this is just to explain why I refuse to call the wonderful concoction sold by Kumar's Sweet Shop a falooda. It is a helping of silky smooth kulfi, topped with rice noodles in a sweet syrup, further crowned with condensed milk. It is definitely tasty, and I do eat it often, and I do think that it is difficult to get this amount of sheer indulgence for 40 Rs. But it is not a falooda.

Kumar's Sweet Shop is at the Clock Tower Chowk, and all their sweetmeats are worth fighting your way to the shop through the crowd of hungry shoppers. Take mum there, she's probably better at elbowing others out of the way than you are. Be prepared to drag her away though..



Thanks to uppercrustindia for the image.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Travelling in Kumaun

I got back a few short hours ago, and I still have not collected my thoughts. What I have done, however, is downloaded my pictures. Here then, are some images of the fortnight I spent in the mountains.

I spent Diwali with my Mian, and to go to work the following week, I needed to walk down a mountain to catch the bus to take me to the place from where I could walk to the place I'd meet my colleagues from where we would all drive down to the village. The walk was beautiful though, with the entire valley still covered in mist.
I travelled alone in the lower Gori Ganga Valley, near Munsyari. My work required me to visit three villages there, all situated several kilometers away from the nearest road head. A steep walk of a couple of hours brought me to the first chai stall of the little village of Golpha. Looming over the chai stall is the Bainti Glacier, that as far as I can make out from the map, flows down the side of Nagling peak.
No less dramatic is the road to Bona, though sadly my photograph does not do justice to the wonderful striations on the rocks. They were marvellously coloured in all manner of blues and greens. As for the stream itself, I drank from it and a more refreshing drink I've never had.

And finally, home. The train I take back to Dun lands me there at 04:30, which is a most unreasonable hour to wake my landlady. And so I generally spend a couple of hours in the waiting room. many months of doing this has led to my thinking, 'Ah, my travels are over.' when I step into it. I stretch out there, recharge my phone, read a book. Today I found a paper someone had left the day before. I had a pen, and I bought chai. What better way to unwind?

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Being The Other Woman There

My father died when I was two. In most families, this would have meant an instant crushing of hopes, a reining in of the pursuit of happiness. It did not mean that for me and my sister. All because early on, my mother gritted her teeth and swore not to 'let her children feel the absence of a father'. In most things, big as well as little, we were allowed to explore and experience all that we wanted to- including some things that probably would have had Baba hrrumphing. There was one limitation though, that my sis and I felt the injustice of and protested. The deciding criterion for everything- choosing restaurants, activities, professions- was always the same.

'are there Other Women There?' my mum would ask.

'So what?' We would say, our feminism bubbling over, ' let us be the first! Other women will see us and come!' The irony of protesting for our rights with the woman who had instilled in us the confidence to do so was lost on us then.

I recognize irony now, and smile when it presents itself. Three decades after my mother needed to create a new set of rules for a suddenly altered life, I have adopted some of those rules into my own. All other things being equal, the deciding factor that entices me into one restaurant instead of another is the old question of 'are there Other Women There'.

That question caused me to enter Aapka Dhaba instead of all the other places on the Inamullah building street. Not only is this the cleanest and neatest by far, but it is also the only place where I've ever seen Other Women. This is the first eatery as you walk from Tehsil Chowk to Prince Chowk, and is on your left- maybe a 100 metres past Tehsil chowk. While the sign is faded, the restaurant itself is quite noticeable, being an open-front restaurant paneled entirely in beige formica.

And whatever the reasons for choosing it, it is a smart choice- the food is beyond sublime. I do eat there throughout the year, but the food comes into its own in winters. A rich and spicy broth with succulent pieces of meat and a couple of spongy rotis to mop everything is the perfect dinner on those cold and dark evenings. I walk up and say hello to the baby-faced and bespectacled owner. By now, I have 'my table' and if it is unoccupied, that is where I go. I hear a cry- 'Madam is here! See to Madam!' and someone comes up with a glass of water. As I eat, every now and then someone will come up to press a little extra gravy on me, or ask if I want a roti. By the end of the meal, I am invariably smiling.

A meal there- of a half-plate of curry or kheema and a couple of rotis- costs around 30 - 40 Rs. You won't want to drink the water, so factor in another 15Rs for a cold drink- and a mango drink goes wonderfully well with the rich curries. These prices are for 'meat' which is buffalo meat; chicken or mutton will cost a bit more.

Don't take mum there. The buffalo meat will distress her, the gun shop a few metres away will make her uncomfortable. And most important, while I have occasionally seen Other Women There, they aren't there all the time

That said, should you wander in on a weekend afternoon you might see a woman sitting by herself at a corner table. She will have a bag of groceries on the seat next to her and a book propped up on the table. She might see you peek in and smile at the thought that now she is the Other Woman There reassuring travelers that its okay to enter. Do walk up and say hello, I'd love to meet you.

*The photo of the little Tandoor-wallah? Taken by Maliha, who is proof that vegetarians also can have a good meal there..

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Momos

The perfect momo is utter bliss. A thin, transluscent wrapper artfully pleated around a scant teaspoon of minced beef*, onion and broth. Nip a little hole into one, suck out the broth, eat the momo, smile appreciatively at the cook. Sadly, this perfect momo is a little hard to come by. Most of the streetside stalls sell indianized versions without the broth and with garam masala. horrors.

But no worries. The line of restaurants near parade ground sell exquisite momos and thukpa. They also do chowmein, but I never liked that. These restaurants are in the Tibetan Bazaar, and across parade ground from the Gandhi park. 25 Rs for a plate, and I would encourage you to go ahead and have a second plate just to have the proprietor beam at you. there are four or five of these little eateries, and I have always gone to the pink one. Largely because it is pink (is that not enough of a reason?) and now also because I know and like the people who work there. And it is good to go there in the morning, around 10:30-11:00. Firstly, you can watch them make the momos, and secondly, the broth is exceptionally flavourful then- I think they just keep topping it up with water as the day goes by. And I wouldn't take my mum there- because of the meat and the non-pristine nature of the buildings.

And then there's Lhasa. Should you ever get tired of plain momos, Lhasa has a variety of them..cheese, veg, chicken. And little itty bitty momos in soup. And thukpa. And a whole other world of amazing food cooked like your little old Tibetan grandmother would if you had one. It's in Rajpur, on the main road, just a few paces from the Vikram stop, and on your left as you walk uphill. The only problem is that they tend to stay closed for festivals, renovation, cleaning, or just because. Do call before you start off  and go ahead, take mum along.

* When I say beef, I mean buffalo (or Buff, as it is called here , which always creates interesting images in my mind) . This IS the Devbhoomi, after all.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Twenty-five months..

That's how long I've been here. I know my way around this place now- I have my favourite little nooks, my escapes. I know where to go for cheap coffee beans (Satyapal, Paltan Bazaar), for good coffee beans (Kumar's, Rajpur road), for a bit of flirting (my sabziwallah), for being treated with gallant courtesy (Inamullah building, Tehsil Chowk).

It took me a while to do all this. When I came here, I tried to look for replacements to the things I loved in Pune..my beloved Dorabjee's, the bounteous Shivaji market, the little Parsi eateries tucked away behind Moledina road, vadapav for Rs.4, Westside, Manney's book store, bananas and coffee from Kerala, the British Council Library, Mocha. That search ended in disappointment, of course. Dehradun did not offer me any of these things. They are still irreplaceable, longed for, and add zest to my annual trips to Pune.

But there are other things in Dehradun. Parsi cuisine is unheard of, but Tibetan foods are at every corner. Dorabjees isn't here, but Kumar's is. Street food leaves a lot to be desired, but the mountains are full of berries.

And it only struck me today that I need to share this. For visitors, for me, and for other people who will move to Dehradun dragging a trunk with them. Being me, I will start off with the restaurants I love here. In some cases, 'restaurant' might be stretching it a wee bit, but I am not awarding stars here. In all cases, the food will be good, the place will be safe. My classification system will not enable the ranking of places to eat, but will maintain harmony in the home. How, you ask? For the purpose of this blog, all places are classified as 'can take one's mother there' and 'hide from mother'.

Off I go now, to eat my way through Dehradun and post about it over the next few weeks. Tough job.

The photo? Dehradun railway station.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

It's that time of the year again..

when I can be upto my elbows in booze at 7am of a weekday and feel good about it.
We're having this cake instead of a pudding this year..using the pudding bowl is mandatory though. Have you started Christmas baking?

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Meeting an old friend

When I first came to Dun, I was excited by the idea of living close to the mountains. And so early on-when I didnt even know how the city buses function- I armed myself with a sketch given to me by the Amazing M, and walked up to Mussoorie. And then I did it again. And again. And then I stopped. The summers were too hot, the monsoons were too wet, the winters were too cold.

When I finally decided to go there last weekend, I surprised myself by developing butterflies in my stomach. And the silliest worries too..what if I don't get the bus? what if I miss the stop? Should I take a Vikram instead? I couldn't understand it then. Sunday morning, only my stubbornness made me get out of bed and lace up my boots.

I am so glad I did.

I was cosseted by my guardian angel all the way. Yes, when I asked for a ticket to Rajpur, I was curtly told to catch the city bus. And my shrinking-violet mood didnt let me explain that I actually wanted to get off at the Moravian school and so needed the inter-city bus. But no matter. The city bus I caught miraculously turned out to be one of the few that do take the circuitous route past the school. And working on the hypothesis that taking care of someone else helps take one's mind off one' own worries, I was sent Red to accompany me- all the way to Jharipani and back.
She looks like an interpid explorer here, but she was actually a pretty urban dog. On the trail, she walked ahead for a few metres, but once we left the paved path, she made sure I went on ahead to flush out any dangerous bulbuls that might lurk there. It was good to have her around, and comfort her when she was terrified by falling leaves and other such perils.

I was thinking of my earlier trepidation and realized that it is the same feeling that has caused me to lose touch with so many friends. The 'it has been so long, can we pick it up again' feeling. But as would have happened with the trail, I end up the poorer for listening to it. The trail is amazingly beautiful and stunningly welcoming. I should not deny myself that, no?

Thursday, October 14, 2010

a day's work

If I've learnt anything by now, its that the multiverse does not allow me to stay despondent for long.
The day I wrote about the mahseer and how I felt incompetent at work, I experienced little victories in two other challenges I am working at.
Firstly, my little girl and I had a breakthrough. After realising that she still did not know the meaning of 'up' and 'down', I had written down a set of basic words she ought to know and asked her to both translate them and make up sentences using those words. That was an absolute hit with both of us. After that, she wrote a small note on her playtime that day. She enjoyed the opportunity to write whatever she liked, and I understood finally how to explain concepts. With trying to craft sentences by herself, she understood the idea of splitting verbs, and transposing the subject, and other such things. The sentence structures are still pretty random, but now we have the key. She was so happy that evening, she danced around me all the way home,'You are happy with today's work, na?I made you happy na?'

At the risk of sounding condescending, I told her 'you always make me happy.' And I did mean it..she is a wonderful child who teaches me a lot more than I do her- and gives me gifts besides. Like Ssarp in the photograph above. She made him at Latika Vihar and gifted him to me.He is actually a Very Ferocious Guardian. The pie-eyed look is just a disguise.

And that wasn't the end of the day either. I had started off a bread that morning- a recipe I have been trying repeatedly but never quite 'getting'. And that night, I did. The bread sang to me throughout its making, and finally all the things I had read about made sense- how the the tension in the loaf is evident while scoring, how it peaks during the final rise, how the crust audibly crackles as it cools. And so that night after I sent my crust-and-crumb photos to Mian, it was my turn to clap my hands and dance around the computer. 'You are happy with today's work, na?I made you happy, na teacher?'

Monday, October 11, 2010

Am depressed

Back home, my sister thinks I am fighting the good fight and saving rivers. In reality, am utterly ineffectual.

I am at work right now, and my colleague has asked me for help designing a dam. It is small, but on the main drain of a catchment area. Worse, the amount of water stored does not justify the damming of a river. Even worser, the dam is most likely on a Mahseer run where hundreds of fish swim upstream to lay their eggs. Next year, they will find their way blocked by concrete. Unable to comprehend the futility of their desires, they will continue to batter against an unyielding obstacle until finally, they die.

I ask my colleague, 'do you know that there is a very strong probability that the stream is a fish run? Where Mahseer come to lay eggs? That you are blocking their access? That they will DIE?'
He stares at me uncomprehendingly.
I try another tack, 'It is doubtful that the dam will justify its cost'
'The villagers asked for it', he says, irritated at the turn the conversation has taken.
'so what?' I persist 'did they hold a gun to your head that you cannot refuse?'
He laughs at the crazy woman.

When in Himachal, I did that..I negotiated my way out of just such a dam. But now I am powerless and sad. There's more. At one level, there is my 1.5m high Mahseer-killer. At another level altogether, there's this. Jairam's professional ethics are being labelled his 'whims'.

I want a blanky to hide under.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Hospitality..

I had posted earlier about how my mum is good at making friends wherever she is. And she had given me a tip - to offer food, which also means offering time, space, security, and companionship.
And so every morning, I keep food out for the birdies that visit our terrace. Watching them is pleasurable and their antics a great source of merriment. Mian and I had begun to identify some regulars- the babbler that sat in the bowl and refused to share, the aggressive bulbul that even the mynahs were scared of. The time a squirrel came to the birdfeed was the highlight of the week for us.
And then one day, he came to me bursting with suppressed excitement. 'You've got to see this'. I went obediently, expecting to see another squirrel.

Not quite.









I don't really have the heart to shoo monkeys away. Poor things, they get chased away from everywhere, denied access to everything, and then labeled as criminals. But at the same time, I am a wee bit scared of them. So I stopped putting cooked food out.

And now they've started bringing their own packed lunches.

Friday, October 1, 2010

of gods, people, and a crowded planet.

सुना हैं, कुछ सज्जनोंने ढून्ढ निकला भगवान का जन्मस्थान
एक तोड़े हुए कुब्बे के ठीक नीचे
मुझे किस फैसले तले दफ्नाओगे?
कहाँ तै की हैं इंसान के मौत की जगह

I have heard that some good people
have determined the birthplace of God.
Right below a destroyed dome.

What decision will you bury me underneath?
Where have you determined
a place for a human to die

Nadi.

I had decided not to write about the Babri Masjid verdict, finding my words inadequate.
Thank you, Nadi.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

How to manage your husband Pahari-woman style (and other life tips)

This time around, I travelled alone in the hills. This not only meant that I did not need to share my bed with my colleague, but also gave me admission into the world that the women had carved out for themselves. I needed to seek it out, of course. Perhaps because I was travelling alone for work, I was treated in a masculine manner and told to sit in the parlour, kept away from women, etc. A little dodging around and wistfully peering into the kitchen enabled me to break that barrier.

And I am glad I did. The women of the household are mere shadows when in the company of their men, but among themselves, they blossom out into fun and laughing spirits. The kitchens are small, basic, warm, and cheerful. They sit together all- mothers, daughters, and daughters-in-law- to cook and chatter. They can not eat till after all the household has eaten, but no matter. They roast corn on the hearth and munch on that (without sharing with the men, of course). They trade recipes and excitedly gossip with this stranger in their midst. For most of them Dehradun (a six hour journey by bus) is impossibly far and exotic. After I told them of my life and of the city, they would ask me, "Who looks after your crops and your cattle when you travel?"

I called my Mian one night and told him that I'd caused a dozen women to fall in love with him.
'And what exactly did you tell them?', he asked cautiously.
'You don't want to know', I laughed.
 It wasn't much, actually. I was describing our evenings to them. How Mian and I cook together in the kitchen, how we then sit and eat together, how he makes my favourite treats for me. They were astounded at my naivete in gadding about alone and leaving such a prize catch unsupervised. And then they gave me tips too..'Do like we do and keep a lathi hidden in your pallu. Your Mian looks at another woman, use it on them both!' I just hope they meant it figuratively.

Unlike the men who were always full of complaints, the women were downright gleeful. And that is strange, because their troubles were far more than those of the men.

Though that might only have been my urban point of view. They were sorry for me because I do not adorn myself. The simple two strand mangalsutra around my neck does not count, they insisted. And so one afternoon, Samota Devi and her daughter and her daughter in law all dressed me up. They painted my nails, loaded (and I mean loaded) my arms with bangles, placed a bindi on my forehead and were out to pierce my nose when I managed to escape. I will string the bangles as lightcatchers now..a reminder of a most generous woman.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

A man I met.

I heard a story last night of a couple who fell in love in Banethi Taluka in Sirmaur, Himachal Pradesh. She was a young bride of a scheduled caste in a remote village in Himachal, he was a travelling seller of shawls from Uttar Pradesh. I only heard the bare bones of the story, but it is easy to flesh it out. A young girl with no real choices before her, newly become a wife to a man she had never met before. She probably discovered that marriage meant the end of whatever little freedoms and joys she was allowed at her old home. Having spent the first one-and-a-half or two decades of her life in one village, she would now spend the next five in one house. And then a man came along, carrying warmth and softness on his back, with his tales of all the lands he had seen; she was enchanted. When he offered to take her with him, can we really blame her for accepting? Apparently, the good people of Himachal can. They hunted down the couple, beat the man to within an inch of his life, and returned the woman to a life now even more fettered and harsh.

I was told this story by T as we sat and talked on the roof of his house. As we looked over the valley, he also spoke of the forests he had lived his life in. When I asked him if he earned any money by selling pine resin, he told me that is a sinful way to earn money. 'It hurts us so much even when we are pricked by a thorn. Can you imagine cutting into a living tree? What agonies it must feel!' T is a handsome man belonging to one of the Thakur families of himachal, and only saved from pomposity by being the younger brother. Instead, he is full of the graceful courtesy that only hillmen seem to possess. He made up a bed for me to lie down in when he saw me flagging. He looked hard and long for a meswak tree when I said I had not seen one before. On my expressing an interest in butterbeans, he picked them for my dinner. Together, we picked over and prepped the beans on his roof by the light of a full moon.

T was also part of the group that beat up the seller of shawls. When asked about the number of children he has, he says two, meaning only the two sons. His first born, his daughter, is not worthy of being counted. He prefers women not to be tej (sharp/fierce/assertive).  As he saw me safely on my bus, he placed a small bundle of beans in my bag.

This is a sad and complex world.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The Scented Forest

I am no forest-wallah, so please do take all that I say with a pinch of salt.

Now that the disclaimer is over with, I can start theorizing.

The pine trees in Uttarakhand confuse me to no end. The very first time I traveled in the mountains, I gasped in delight as I saw the pine forests. And they ARE beautiful. The forest floor is covered with needles that form a smooth red carpet. From this carpet rise the straight trunks- also red and with markings resembling those on a giraffe. The tree then forms a neat head of long deep green needles that glow silver in the sun. 'There are few things more beautiful.' I enthused. I was censoriously harumphed at by my colleague. 'There is nothing more terrible' he corrected me.

And that largely sums it up. All the villagers and development workers I have spoken to have informed me that Pine is a ruthless invader, first brought by the Britishers and then propagated by the Forest department. It ignites and burns their land, takes over productive oak forests, covers the soil with an impenetrable cloak of needles, and adds nothing to the local economy whatsoever. The only use they admit to is for firewood, and needles for bedding cattle. It would be hard for them to deny the lopping for firewood, because it is difficult to find a pine tree that has not been pruned till it resembles a mangy paintbrush but they will not admit to any other use. Pine forests are now the battlefield between the Govt and the villages. Google 'chir pine' though, and the first sentence informs you that chir pine (pinus roxburghii) is 'one of the most useful trees in the region'.


I dont know which story is true. Perhaps they both are. One thing though is that pine trees are exploited to within an inch of their lives. In addition to the  lopping I mentioned earlier, they are also tapped for resin. Each tree is scarified and  fixed with a little pot to collect the aromatic sap. 

Over time and with repeated harvestings, the tree becomes a mass of scars
I understand that forests need to be used, and that this can be done sustainably. I also understand that communities depend on natural resources for their survival and that this harvesting of resin generates revenue which enables the protection of forests. I do believe that fortress conservation is a Bad Thing.  But there is also something called carrying capacity. And I fear that we have long ago exceeded that.

And leaving conservation-speak aside, the child in me still believes in dryads and living trees. Those wounds must be painful.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Wanting more.

He is here, my Mian is.

Travelling to Delhi despite jetlag just because I needed to go and we weren't prepared to be separated again. Gravely agreeing with me that the mould on the walls does add a certain decorative something. Good humouredly jumping headlong into the Great Game of stalking and appropriating our newspaper before the landlords 'borrow' it. Sharing with me the wonderful joy of a morning coffee while watching the world wake up. Eating a hastily made dahi-rice as if it was the most splendid thing ever.

And instead of wholeheartedly enjoying this, I am grumpy because he leaves in a fortnight. Somewhere inside me is the ability to be thankful for the now, to not let tomorrow spoil today. I need to find it, that's all.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Water and onions

The two are tangled up in my mind. And the reason has nothing to do with the water requirements of onions, or with the fact that Maharashtrian farmers boast of water sufficiency by saying 'we can even grow onions here!'

The reason is a little more basic. When I first started working in watershed management, I was under Kamthe Sir's wing. Before teaching me soil and water conservation, he taught me survival. 'Water and onions', he said. 'Make sure you have plenty of those two things. Carry enough with you, and dont feel shy to ask for either in the villages'. He had a point. Onions are cooling, hydrating, and add zest to a dry meal. I am not entirely sure if the ones I love are entirely happy with my love for crunching raw onions with nearly every meal, but I am.

I was thinking about him because it has been a very long time since I have gone off to plan water conservation in a watershed..the last time was in 2004, I think. And that is why I welcomed my trip to Himachal Pradesh.
That, and the things I was looking forward to seeing there:

Well maintained and lovingly preserved non intrusive water harvesting structures. These are designed to tap the springs' natural flow, as opposed to tube wells which pump out water and deplete aquifers.
The photograph below this shows the exterior of the same structure, and also the trough to accumulate the runoff from the spring, so that the animals can drink too.

And I looked forward to walking on farm paths.

And the mountains

And always, the people. no, this is not my sleuth grandpa. This is a much younger man who worked under the NREGA scheme. We had gone up to where they were working, and he had quietly taken charge, calling the women over, pointing out a woman who was a widow and needed assistance, and offering us all (me included) a beedi before lighting one himself.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

The people I met in Nahan

I was there for a little less than a week, and in that time enjoyed the hospitality of and learned from several people in the villages of Nihog, Garson, and Rahaur (Taluka: Nahan, District: Sirmaur, State: Himachal).

Since I started visiting villages for work (in 2003), I have been amazed by the warmth and ease with which people have hosted me in a variety of circumstances . In Rahaur, my (male) colleague and I blushingly shared a king-sized bed complete with a crimson damask cover. More often, I've lain down on a mattress with all the women in the family. And I hope that if I am ever confronted with a casual acquaintance with a backpack and no shelter, then irrespective of the state of my house, I'll be able to say 'of course you'll be staying with me.'

Not all encounters were perfectly good. At one place, I was sharing a room with the mistress of the house. After quizzing me about the exact particulars of my caste and origin, she asked me how many brothers I have. Not the number of siblings, the bhai-behen, I might have. She was only interested in the brothers. "Not one", I cheerfully replied.
"you are alone?"
"no, I have a sister."
"What? Just one sister? How can that be?" she asked, causing me to formulate and regretfully discard a number of replies invoking the birds and the bees. I settled for a smile and a shrug.
The topic then moved to my sister's children.
"My sister has one daughter" I said, my voice warm with pride as I thought of my spunky, book-devouring, piano playing niece. She tut-tutted in commiseration. I tried half-heartedly to challenge her stand, to make her think instead of reacting by rote. Not too strenuously though- I was a guest after all, and I was already saddened by all that I had seen that day.

The grandpa who trekked up the mountain at 7:30 in the morning to meet the two strangers visiting the village  had far more serious matters on his mind. He quizzed us at length about our organization, work, and whether permission from the village headman had been obtained. Our answers apparently satisfied him, because he then explained that he thought we were spies- from Pakistan, of course. Once he had satisfied himself that we were not a threat to the nation, he was free to do some recreational interrogation.

Grandpa: 'how many children do you have?'
Me: 'Zilch'
G: 'Oh. What exactly is wrong there?' (Indicating area where his womb would be- if he had one)
M: 'eh? oh, oh..nothing's wrong. We haven't been married long, haven't had time'
(G looks at me as if he would dearly like to give me The Talk, but mercifully lights a cigarette instead)

And below are photos of a place we stayed at(the crimson damask one). The dangling glass thingies are probably cymbals, and the water heater is wonderful for its utilization of pressure as an operating mechanism.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Forlorn

Also hungry, tired, soaked, utterly lost,a wee bit scared, and wanting their mothers..
Two intrepid engineers out to plan rainwater harvesting programmes find the intrepidity being leached out of them.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Independence Day

Nothing has caused more grief for less gain. For hundreds of years, it has caused bloodshed and unhappiness. Today, this artificial idea with no validity in the natural scheme of things remains the only generally acceptable excuse for rape, murder and looting. I am talking of the concept of a nation-state of course.

In a world where xenophobia is a hated word, where it is increasingly unacceptable to ask a person for his or her race or caste, it is okay to exclude people because of their nationality. Environmental laws are increasingly stringent, except where they 'threaten national security'. Running amok with a bomb is criminal, except when done in the name of the nation.

Despite this, my mother, my sister and I cook a sweet every Independence Day. The nation has nothing to do with it.  The people we have loved are the reason we celebrate. For me, Narvekar Aaji is the reason I will be making kheer today.

She was not my blood grandmother, but a friend of my parents. However, she was the main grandparent for me for much of my childhood. Fierce to the point of aggression, she was capable of loving with the same intensity. Her husband, Bappa Narvekar, was a gentler soul but equally loving. They loved India with the same unquestioning tenderness that they showered on us children, and in the same manner.


They would celebrate India's birthday just as they would celebrate ours- by making and distributing sweets. On Aug 15, we would visit to eat the kheer or the halwa she had made. And that was not the only time they gave us sweets either. At the beginning of term, my sis would catch the 6:45 am bus to the town her college was in. Bappa would be at the bus stand, holding a parcel of jalebis- her favourite sweet.

The photograph? I thought of putting one up of the tri-colour. But this man represents my India. He is a jalebi-maker in the little village of Sulibhanjan where I worked for about 2 years. He made a living and took care of his family despite infinite odds. He was unfailingly kind, courteous, always retained that broad smile and delighted in life. And he makes wonderful hot, syrupy, crunchy jalebis.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

happily ever after

Being married for seven months makes me an old hand at this marriage thing now. However, my theory that marriage is an unnecessary blot on society remains.

Make no mistake, meeting Mian was the most fortunate thing that ever happened to me. Not a day goes by that I do not fervently thank all the gods, universities, friends, and airlines that made it possible for us to meet. Rather than my options closing after marriage, Mian has opened up possibilities I did not know existed, and taught me to aim further than I had ever dared to. Rather than increasing stress and negotiations, Mian is a place of refuge for me.

But that is him, not the institution of marriage. I am lucky enough to not have a TV at home, and so was shielded from the new phenomenon that is sweeping India- Reality show marriages. These are shows where a group of women compete for the attentions of a man. They are put through tests, evaluated, and exhibited like so many succulent steaks. The man on the other hand, shows off his fancy house. In the last series, the would-be groom had a history of domestic violence. Despite that, otherwise sane women fought on television to marry him with the blessings of their proud parents. Four months down the line, the ‘lucky winner’ is displaying her bruises to the media.

This is an extreme case. But ‘normal life’ is not so different. Too many of my friends- intelligent engineers all- have had their faces bleached, their teeth straightened, their cooking skills tweaked. And the lies and the grovelling! I went through the matrimonials for a short while, to make my family happy. The day I put my foot down and refused to play along was the day I overheard my mother apologizing for me. I forget what it was she was apologising for- either my salary or my language skills. But that was the last straw.

And today, I am glad. The thought of where I would have been today had I played along terrifies me. Continually apologising for my existence, suppressing all that makes me Chicu. Telling myself ‘love does not matter. Atleast he does not beat me’ as I’ve heard my friends tell themselves. Structuring my life in such a way that I minimize contact with the man who is my husband. Lying. Cheating.

The heavens bless this man I am with. He is loving, considerate, fun, supportive. And he would have been even if I were not married to him.

I am still mystified by the importance marriage is given. It is not the goal. The goal is to spend one’s life with someone you love so much you cannot imagine not being together. If we find someone like that, it is wonderful. If we don’t, living alone is better than putting up with someone odious just for the sake of public appearances.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Thanksgiving

It's over, my period of penury is now over. I had been living the last fortnight with a self-imposed tightened belt. When I say self-imposed by the way, I am not implying a stunt of some sort, but merely referring to the combination of too little financial planning and too much misplaced pride that left me with Rs. 240/- for fifteen days. This requires considerable ingenuity, but if I have been able to do it at all, it was because of those that love me rather than because of any thought on my part. There were many things I could not do, but I was not hungry. I might have eyed the cooking oil anxiously dreading the time it ran out, but the putting of meals on the table was not just possible, but pleasurable.

And this is where my loved ones come in. Not that they gave me emergency packages, but I benefited from the continuous loving concern and giving that I am blessed with. I have not really had to buy too much food in this period. My mum had, over the last year, sent me enough dried fish and masalas to feed an army. My Mian had stockpiled the house with enough flours and yeast to start a bakery. Maybe more important, they had taught me enough of their cooking skills for me to use this food. I had not just the raw materials, but also the culturally diverse techniques to allow me to wonder if I wanted pesarattu or buckwheat noodles for dinner.

I hate to admit that I had bickered as they loaded up the kitchen, "we can buy more anytime! It's clutter!". No, sometimes we can't buy more. It's food.

I have also been thinking. This was a cash flow hiccup, nothing more. These rupees were only meant to top up food stocks. I have all the necessities- a properly set up household, a job that punctually pays me a salary. I even had an adequate and liquid emergency fund in the shape of a $50 note. Not only would any of my friends and family have helped me, but the two who knew the state of affairs were actively insisting that I allow them to do so. If I did not accept, it was because I was never in distress, just uncomfortable. Even this mild level of discomfort occupied my thoughts to a large degree.

And that is why the Arjun Sengupta report made me ashamed of my complaining. 836 million Indians live with 20 Rs a day for ALL their needs- food, shelter, clothing, medicine, life. 20 Rs a day. Always. Not for a fortnight till the next cheque comes in. Always. For far too many people all over the world, the state of affairs I was in is wasteful affluence.

I am ashamed that I have not given thought beyond the occasional 'tut-tut' to this; I have never done anything to alleviate their real distress. I will now keep my eyes open to help someone out in a real way- not the occasional five-rupee charity, but something more reliable.

How can I end my tale of the last fortnight without sharing the way the multi-verse stepped in too? One day, pretty early on, I gloomily held the last coffee bean on my palm and resigned myself to a fortnight without the soul-satisfying and pleasurable mornings that are my one 'habit'. That same evening M stopped by with a request. She was going away soon and her family were all tea drinkers. Would I mind taking a pound of coffee?

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Teaching English

The little girl who visits me on alternate evenings. She is now becoming more comfortable coming home, and opening up wonderfully. She has begun going to a children's activity center and the question "what did you do today?" opens up a flood that I need to stop with a stern call to studies. She paints excellently, has an astounding grasp of mathematics and a keen interest in the world around her. She is also exceedingly generous and often brings me little gifts like this flower she made.

The problem is, I feel like a fraud when I coach her. I have bitten off far more than I can chew, and it is sheer bloody-mindedness and the reluctance to withdraw what little help I am without offering a better alternative that is making me continue.

I am supposed to be helping her with Maths and English. The Maths she only needs the slightest help with, and the English she needs far more than I can give her. It is not her intelligence that is at fault. It is the education system. Its emphasis on focusing on the exams means that children like her get by with concealing the real state of their knowledge till they are suddenly thrown into the world.

She reads her English text well including words like 'attended', and 'jealous', and 'regularly'. She translates each paragraph correctly into Hindi. All this made me think that she is competent in English. No, she isn't. She has simply memorized the textbook.

Trying to converse with her in English made me realize that she actually has an extremely poor vocabulary. She did not know the meaning of 'you' or 'me'. This has me stumped, because I cannot conquer the large gap between what she knows and what she has learnt by heart. Getting her to translate a simple new sentence,"what is the time?" is impossible, because she tries to translate each word. We end up tied into knots because not only do Hindi and English have their subjects and predicates at different ends, but they also split verbs in a maddening manner.

For a while, I said goodbye to the school curriculum and focused on language games. The BBC games were a little out-of-context, but she had good fun with the graphics and would actually listen and try to understand the instructions. And making words with scrabble tiles was fun too, though that game usually ended with us building a house instead.This starting from scratch would probably yield results given time

But now exams are around the corner. I know that her parents expect that she'll do better because of the time she spends here, and the only way to do that is by dropping this and 'doing her lessons' which is learning the questions and answers by rote..knowing that if the question is worded even a little differently, she does not have the language skills to know what is being asked of her.

I have no idea what to do..should I sit down with her father and explain matters to him? Tell him that it is important she develop basic language skills now, before the gap between her curriculum and her skills is unbridgable? And even if I do, will I still be able to teach her, knowing that she has an utter phobia towards the language? I want her to know that English has an applicability outside the classroom, that there is pleasure in the written word. I show her my books- the few with pictures in them- and plan on buying some appropriate for her soon, but will that be enough? Is it any surprise that I feel like a fraud?

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Harvest

Remember these guys?
 Well, they have been drinking in sunshine and water in the month I was away, just so they could welcome me in their full splendour:

 and tonight, they fed me.


Buckwheat noodles with pesto.