Friday, May 20, 2011

The Important Things in Life

Susha Mama, my mother's eldest brother never sat me down for a 'lessons of life' talk. The things he did teach me are the practical tips I use nearly every day.

He taught me that one tilts a glass to pour a beer without getting a fountain of bubbles. That it is important to salt an omelette after it is set. That it helps to pour the egg into a vessel with vertical sides before going at it with a fork.

The closest he came to giving me marriage advice was when I was still young. 'Someday you will be grown up and have a house of your own, beti," he began. " you will be cooking for  your husband, and sometimes you might even have friends over." He patted my head before continuing." It is possible that you will be late with cooking, or it will not be good, and your husband will be hungry. You should then remember to quickly put an entire onion on the gas. The house will smell so good, noone will notice the lack of food." He beamed at me and waited for me to file that tip away. And you know what? It works!

He let me take a puff of his cigarette when my age was still in single-digits. The resultant coughing fit kept me away from them for the next three decades.

He was visiting us in Pune once, and asked me to mix him a feni and water drink. I mistook the bottle of vodka for his bottle of water. After my mum and I helped him off the floor, I expected a scolding. He wagged a finger at me, "now you know beti, what happens when you drink too much."

He introduced me to his collection of P.G.Wodehouses, and taught me to keep them back on their shelves when I was done reading. By telling me he bought them while waiting for connections, he got me addicted to browsing at train stations.

I am the woman who sits and reads a book on a railway platform, laughing aloud and not caring who sees her. I usually know where my things are. I am an okay cook, but can create fun supper parties with willpower and caramelized onions.  I mix decent drinks and am generally aware of when's enough. I only have had soda bottles explode on me a dozen or so times. Not doing too badly, eh?

Susha mam passed away last week in Mumbai. I was in Dun.

I miss him.

Monday, May 9, 2011


My mother is 65 years old and she's building a house. Mian and I visited in Jan and the house is gloriously beautiful. Red laterite, warm brown wood, terracotta tiles, red coba floors- it is a little jewel.

When I was 25, my first job was building a house. Only, I did not do it alone. I was assisting a site engineer, who was assisting his boss. We had back-up in the office to work out finances and ensure that the right cheque reached the right person in time. The office staff would help us do the inevitable follow-up with suppliers and the whole army of craftsmen. As we were regular customers, these agencies had great motivation to cooperate with us above their other jobs. I never knew of the mechanism for various permissions required, someone else did that for us. Despite that, I was stressed and over-worked.

My mother is doing it all alone. No admin-backup, no big, influential boss to scold errant sub-contractors, no promise of future work to lure them in, no strange person who would come in the dark of the night  and then get the required permits for us. (btw..he was legit, he only came in after office hours because this was his moonlighting job).

Two years ago, she decided that she wants to live in our childhood town. She went there, and started work. This meant getting the land in her name, getting a promise of a water line, getting building permission, the whole works. And it meant living as a tenant in a little place after 4 decades of being a house-owner. It meant dealing with often-untrustworthy, sometimes aggressive workmen. It meant staying there, managing a thousand different things. She is still doing it, though now she is in the finishing stages (always the difficult part).

For her, it has also meant a new lease of life. The woman who could not walk around the house now routinely walks everywhere. She is having a whale of a time being the boss again- 10 years after she sold her hospital and embraced the retired life. She wakes in the morning, laces up her shoes, wears her hat, takes her packed lunch and takes the bus to 'the site'.

But I know that I would not be able to do what she is doing. I would not be able to navigate the decision-making, the management, the planning, the execution all by myself.  With no experience and very little support, she has created a lovely home for herself and for us.

She is sometimes in tears when workmen don't show up despite promises. She gets frustrated when one of them damages the work of the other. She experiences self-doubt when confronted by a bewildering array of tiles. She calls me up to describe a butterfly she saw. She feeds birds at our new house. The pineapples and roses and medicinal herbs she has planted are all thriving under her care. She sits on the verandah and watches the sunset. I am so amazingly proud of her.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

It's everyone's world, after all.

Leading the crowd of worse things that cluster accusingly around my bed at 5am is a photo I took a few years ago. When I was working in the little village of Sulibhanjan, a woman invited me into her house for chai. While she was making it, my eye was caught by a sudden movement. The door to the outhouse was weathered near the floor, and a child was peering at me through one of the holes. To do it, he must have crouched so that his chin touched the floor. I laughed at the surprise of it. "See, your son is playing hide-and-seek" I said gaily, as I took a photo of him.

"He lives there", his mother told me. "He is mad."

Stunned, I looked again, and noticed the padlock on the door. As soon as I came to my room, I deleted the photo. It has been 6 years now, and that image still haunts me. It does not matter that I did not know. This was a boy who lived locked in a loo, and I had laughed at him.

I do not blame the mother; she did not have any options. But that child was in front of me all evening today as I listened to a lecture on inclusion and the right to education act organised by the Latika Roy Foundation.  As he tried to sort out the question of 'Whose School Is It Anyway?' (the title of the talk), Chief Justice Ajit Prakash Shah was passionate and informed as he always is. More than that, he was compassionate. "When you are my age, these things will no longer shock you" he replied to a student who was outraged that a woman would 'choose' to have her daughter beg in the streets rather than go to school; his voice hinted that these things would always sadden him. That was reassuring. The Right to Education Act is a step in the right direction. That is also reassuring.

My afternoon was not just reassuring, it was positively uplifting. I spent it playing and eating chole-bhature with the young students and almost-as-young teacher of Street Smart, a school conducted for street children near Astley Hall. Not inclusive in the ideal of a classroom where they would rub shoulders with 'elite' children, maybe. But it works. The genuine friendship between the students and their teacher was unmistakable; they studied, and more important, they had someone who cared for them.

My friends and I sneaked out of the lecture hall a few minutes early. On our way to the car, we justified our decision 'not really our field..we don't really have an opinion..what can we say..mumblemumble'. Five minutes later, we were arguing at the tops of our voices, gesticulating wildly, and slapping each others hands out of the way. At one point, my hands were tightly pinned down so that I would stop trying to interrupt. All this for a topic that we had decided we don't have any strong opinions about. The LRF lectures do that to one..

 The photo? while I deleted the one I talked about, I do have one of most of the family- sans the men who were selling their products, and one little boy.