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


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.