Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Christmas in the mountains

Convent school educated, brought up in an area with large Catholic population- Christmas means a lot to me. It means meeting friends and family for curiously coloured fried snacks and plum cake. It means carols sung off-key. It means over the top decorations. It means a lot of joy.
 I was missing the Christmas of my childhood when our neighbour asked me if I'd like to go to the Christmas eve service with him. 'Yes!' I said, and at 5:30p was ready in all the white, red and glitter I could wear.
It turned out to be a full car..several others were going to the same service. When we arrived, our little group effectively doubled the number of people in the pews. Used to Roman Catholic pomp and grandeur, this church seemed bare at first..When we started,  I realised I was not going to hear any of my favourite hymns- the service was in hindi. And then the nativity began..a magnificently ambitious but woefully unrehearsed musical.
And slowly, I got what I had come looking for. The church might have been small and bare, but it soon filled up with happy families. It was obvious that everyone in there knew each other and had played a part in making this night happen. The nativity was simple, but its managed to tell its story in a simple and honest manner that would have been lost with more props. I couldn't sing along, but the church was filled with voices singing- just a little reassuringly off-key. And on our way back, our gang was invited home by a colleague. 'The whole paltan?' I asked incredulously. 'Yes', she said, 'Its Christmas!'
And we went. She sat us down in her wonderfully decorated hall..full of trees and tinsel and a nativity and cottonwool snow. And then she fed us plate after plate of crunchy fried snacks and plum cake.It was Christmas.

Merry Christmas, everyone.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Puppy snacks

All summer, and well into autumn, I would keep ice cubes in the freezer for the little Bhotiya pup. It got so that everytime she heard the fridge door open, she would come running and go through her entire cycle of 'lessons' (sit-down-good girrrl!). But then I unpacked the sweaters and stopped freezing ice.  And today I realised that she still misses her snacks.
It snowed today! It makes the last two sunless days worthwhile. Not that they haven't been cozy. The first day, the Bhaloo and I spend on the couch with a hot water bottle (she still prefers to hang out with her human family- the Ugly Squeaklings* are left to their own devices). The second day I baked this, which by its aroma alone made the house warm and of Christmas.
And today, we woke up to this

And if this isn't a X'mas card, I don't know what is

And finally, a photo of the tiniest Bhaloo in her element

*: The Ugly Squeaklings? coined by my niece- and a more fitting handle for the grand-pups I can't think of

Thursday, December 13, 2012


The thing is, I am rotten at photographing black-grey-brown fuzzy objects that continuously tumble over each other. And there are only so many snaps I can take of them nursing and sleeping.

But today, one of them posed for me. A little wobbly, its true, but her* eyes are open!

The sun has been in hiding..Once its out, I'll take the pups into the yard and then maybe we'll have snaps.

* Turns out her grandparents made a mistake. The roll is a girl, a boy, another girl. Oops.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Its a girl! a boy! another boy!

It took six hours of gnashing of teeth, chewing bedclothes, grunting, and hyperventilating before Shona delivered her first pup- and we are just describing her human parents here. Shona Bhaloo endured it like a champion- though she did rip up a carpet and her basket to relieve her feelings.

It was a proud moment when the first pup emerged at 5am today- though I took one look at the flat head and the protruding tongue through its sac and wailed 'it's dead'. Her (the first one was a girl) mother knew better and ripped, licked, nudged till the little one began clamouring lustily for a drink. The second popped out thirty minutes later. And that, we thought was that. We kept checking on the little family and finally napped for a half hour. When we woke, behold! there were three.

So that's the tally now. One black female, two grey males, one tired mother.

And here is  the only decent photo of the night. Nervous cameraperson + bad lighting + excited subject = disastrous snaps.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

What I do

A conversation I have every single time I meet someone new in the village

'So, do you work for____ (insert name of NGO)?'
'No, I work from home. Most of my work can be done over the internet.'
'So what is it that you do?'
'I write about water and related issues- like the forest.'
'Ah. you do research.'
'Not exactly, no. I present other peoples work on this website I work for.'
Blank stare
'Its like being a journalist.'
'Ah. So you report on the elections and all.'
'Not exactly..its mainly about water.'
'It helps people understand, to plan better

Now don't get me wrong- I am a staunch proponent of stories for stories' sake, for data for data's sake. I also think that online portals and research organizations have a stunningly important role to play in stopping the world from going entirely to ruin (or atleast slowing the process).

But talking to a farmer tends to give one an entirely different perspective on things.

Monday, November 5, 2012

It looks like a planetarium

We were all laying on our backs in the sand. This was the largest sand dune within a day's drive of Jaisalmer, about 40 km from The Border, by which all India means the border with Pakistan. The sun had just set, and we were looking at the stars appear one by one till the Milky Way stood out strong and clear just above us. That is  when my colleague likened the vast dome above us  to a planetarium.

For the last 20 km, our driver had been telling us to watch out for Ranau. It is a most cute little desert village, he told us. He reminded us again when we crested the last hill before the village. All of us gasped on cue. My thought? It looks like a Star Wars set.

Confronted with startling beauty, the two of us reacted in the same way. The only way we could make sense of what we saw was by linking it to our childhood. The only way we could refrain from being overwhelmed enough to hide under our blankies  was by associating these sights with our childhood experiences. Does anyone else see any irony in that?

Even the camel's laughing at us.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

We have everything here

That statement sounds like a boast- what made me stop and think is the detail of where I heard it. Not in the super-stocked aisles of Delhi, and not in the lush Konkan where you can't see the trees for the fruit.
I heard that statement (and other versions of it) while talking to people who live in this landscape:

And where this is considered to be a field so lush people are brought in from miles to see it:

Walking around in the north-west of  Jaisalmer district, I listened as people counted their blessings over and over again. I listened as they thanked the fates for receiving 20 mm of rain this year. I heard them extoll the virtues of the milk  their goats provide, of how the sweetness varies with the herbs the goats eat. I was stopped at nearly every bush, every plant while my hosts told me of all that it provides them. I tasted the sweetest berries, drank the most live-giving water. The well overflows, I was informed. We have more than enough.

Contentment is a quality I like to think I have, one that I consciously cultivate in myself. But contentment I now know is more than virtuously refusing to complain. It is honestly exulting in the life that we lead. I do it, but not enough. I need to practice.

I have more than enough.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

It is a Good Thing

 That's what Mian told us as he peered into the distraught faces of his wife and pup. And it is, I agree. A wrap around porch, non-mud floors, a rat-free kitchen, open shelving, solar hot water..the list goes mouthwateringly on. Living there was becoming stressful, it is true.

But. There is always a but. And that but is summed up in this photo of Sho.

Our porch was always her favourite spot. There, she could sit in the morning sun and look out over the valley. More often than not, Mian and I would be there too. Belly rubs were there for the asking, and always there was the comfort of being in a loved place. 

Now that porch is no longer there. It has been ripped apart, the wood and stone stacked up to build our new house. All that remains is a bit of stone floor that the masons have retained. 

And the first thing Shona-Bhaloo did when we visited was to run over and plonk herself down in as close an approximation of that old spot as she could manage. Maybe that way, home would come back.
It should not be a surprise that both Mian and I teared up when we looked at her there. She feels exactly what we feel too. We miss our Chatola home. We want those mornings back. We want to huddle by the fire again. We want to wake up and watch the birds.

soon, soon.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Baking day

Sourdough breads at our home.
My Mian, he bakes.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

A wide-spread besmirching of reputations

To understand how several reputations in the area were damaged in one fell swoop, you need to visualise several scenes.
Scene 1: A woman returning home after a week away from her husband and hearth. She should be happy and excited. Instead she is edgy, tense. At every bus stop she gets down, requests an extra 5 minutes from the driver and darts off looking for a chemist. The object of her search? Emergency contraceptives. I know what you are thinking; all the other passengers were thinking the same thing.

Scene 2: A man who has been alone and wife-less for the last week is busy on the phone calling everyone he knows of who might be travelling between towns. 'Would you mind stopping at a medical store?' he asks each one. 'I need emergency contraceptives. If you won't mind asking for them. Yes, I will text you the name.'

Scenes 4-9: A young and unmarried taxi-driver is ferrying his passengers from town A to town B. He requests a stop at every chemist and darts inside, only to emerge red-faced and empty-handed. What is he asking for, the passengers ask. 'i-pill' he mutters. The passengers sink into a stony and disapproving silence.

Scene 0 (the explanatory scene)
This actually is a series of phonecalls. But first a little background. Mian and I turned out to be procrastinating parents. 'We'll call the vet next week' was repeated often, and before we knew it, a lot of male dogs started besieging our home. Our little pup was clearly all grown up. We dealt with it for two weeks- a stressful experience for all concerned. Just as we were at the finishing line, Sho slipped her collar and got entangled (most literally) with a chap we had named Red1. (the others were Red2, Interloper, Tiger, Rocky, Scruff, and Black).

I cannot, I decided, deal with a litter now and so made perhaps the 2nd most embarrassing call* I've  ever made to her vet. He recommended the emergency contraceptive. And while we can buy instant popcorn in our neck of the woods, we don't have a chemist.

And this is why all of the Chatola area had to go  through that.
Shona and Interloper, before her parents figured out what was going on and became very nasty towards her dates.

* The most embarrassing call ever? 6 hours after the call to the vet, when I had to call up a most dignified neighbour and ask him if he could procure contraceptives for me..err..actually, for the dog.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Learning plumbing

'I tried to change my eating style once', I told Mian in the middle of a mini-breakdown in the kitchen. 'I tried to do everything at once- low carb, raw, frugal- and I couldn't. I cannot handle too many variables at once. I could possibly stick to any one rule, but not all'. The bewildered and slightly worried look on his face reminded me that I was talking to a guy. Metaphors are not delicately coloured illustrations of life, they are mine-fields. 

'I can cook without a stove' I translated. 'and I can cook without water. But I can't do both.'

And that is the gist of our lives the past week.

Our beautiful, beautiful house took a battering in the monsoon, and began to fall apart. And the rats had gotten to an unmanageable point. So when A visited, looked at the place, and suggested rebuilding the house, we agreed happily. And yes, I am glad to be free of rats (almost..we still have a visitor), am glad to have a house that's easy to clean..but I do miss the old one.

Our gas cylinder sputtered out on the day of the move..and when we got here, we trusted in the pipeline and cleaned out the water tank.

The next day, we realised that a) for various reasons, we cannot get a new cylinder for the next 12 months and b) the pipeline- like Bertie Wooster's head- is more for ornament than use.

The food issue is okay- lots of roasts and breads and stews. Our solar oven and the electric one mean that the only thing I cant do is saute, and we can live without that. The water however, is another issue. I have no idea how we managed for the last few days, but now as I sit and write, I hear the sweet tinkle of water pouring into the tank.

And I learnt one very important, but saddening thing today. I wasted the first three years of my professional life BS-ing a lot of people. See, I worked for a plumbing consultancy, and my job was developing specifications for every teeny-weeny bit of the system. I had drawings and specs for the distances between pipes, and the way they are to be laid, for angles and curves, for thicknesses and weights. If I were to turn a pipe to the left, then down a wall, and along the floor, the drawings would have included one long bend, one elbow, one thrust block and umpteen spacers.

Not one of those specifications included bending a pipe by wrapping it around a tree. The humbling realization? It works. It might worry Shona, but  it works.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Pyaar ke rahi

I was in an overnight bus yesterday, and was lucky enough to have that most perfect of things- a window seat with no one next to me, which meant I could put my feet up and snuggle against the window.

To make it more perfect, the breeze was just right and the moon full. (actually it was gibbous, but let's not squabble over fractions). As is usual with me- and with most other people in the subcontinent, i fancy- I started humming 'Khoya khoya chand'. One thing led to another, and I was soon humming snippets of all the old Dev Anand songs.

The moonlight and the songs put me in a dreamy mood and I was oscillating between thoughts of my childhood and of my mian. I wanted to share these songs with him, I decided. The only question was whether to show the films or just play the songs. I remember my sister's dismay when I begged her to show me a movie that a song I liked was from. This was a pretty special song, still is. Both Mian and the song had entered my life at the same time, and at that time the song was forever on my lips-whenever it could elbow Mian aside, that is. My sis had finally shown me the movie, and explained the reason for her reluctance. 'First you could see him in your head when you sang this' she said,' now all you will see are Rekha's green plastic earrings.' It was an 80's movie-plastic earrings were perfectly correct. I was happily curled up and remembering this while humming the song.

I realised soon, that I was not just humming- I was humming along. The bus driver was playing the same songs that were running through my head.  And this continued through most of the night. Usually, I would resent the playing of music in the night. However, not one of those songs was one I did not react to with great pleasure. By the time he moved on from the cheerfully hummable (hum hain rahi pyaar ke) to the more sentimental (yeh safar bahut hain kathin magar), he was occupying a great deal of my thoughts.

I firmly believed by then that the two of us were kindred souls. And the scene was perfect for a black and white movie - the valiant bus chugging up the mountains, the moonlight, the stunning high-contrast landscape, the music, the  woman passenger and the bus driver in silent communion.

Until a passenger who had apparently also been humming along burst into song.

It was not just me- every single passenger in that bus was also conjuring up dancing-in-the-rain fantasies around the bus driver.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

on writing, schedules, and guilt

Today as I checked my mail shortly after I woke, I smiled. And I am smiling still. The reason? A letter from a friend who I thought had gone out of my life. It has been more than two years, he wrote. And went on to say how  embarrassed he was, but how  it is reassuring to know that I was still on the other end of that letter. And he had no reason to be apprehensive- I received his letter as joyfully and naturally as if that two year gap was never there.
And that letter also made me lose my apprehension  and begin to write again on this blog. You too, I think, will receive me as joyfully as if the irregularities were never there.
There has been plenty to write about..and I will. But there also has been a voice (largely due to Problogger and their like) that I need to stick to a daily schedule or nothing at all. And that has had me seriously consider stopping this blog. But I won't..I get too much pleasure from this blog and from the friends I have met through it  to stop.
But  the other blog- the homestead one- I am taking offline. Maybe some day I will be disciplined enough to keep both as they deserve. In the meantime, I will strive at this, keep writing, keep trying.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012


It is the practice of offering one's food to the beings of the land, water and air before sitting down to eat. A good practice, one that reminds us that we are not the only inhabitants of our world, that we are the new tenants in a bustling community.

And it is also a good way to reconcile oneself to the  loss of one's harvest. What with one thing and the other, Mian and I have not tasted too much of  the  fruits of our toil. The wheat I wrote about. 
I was proud of the corn- as I should be, na?

15 plump, luscious ears. One more week, and they'll be perfect for the picking, we decided as we wiped the drool from our faces. The porcupines thought so too. We returned one day to see all the corn gone, stalks and all. A little scouting showed that the plants had not gone far. Just below the garden was a heap of corncobs and gnawed stalks.

The tomatoes we did get a taste of, can't complain even though sundry ground crawlers got more.

My first reaction to the loss of the wheat and the corn  was utter rage and distress. I swore to eat pies made of grain-fed, free range, organic parrots and porcupines. My second thought was that this first harvest was naivedyam. A sharing of food with the rightful occupants of the land. They are not the thieves, after all. 

 There are still some tomatoes, two ears of corn, the beans are just setting fruit. And now the all-important september planting is due. Here's a photo to prove that atleast one of us did enjoy food from our garden.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

The tiniest Bhaloo

is what I used to call her as I rocked her in the winter.
Shona with her faithful-and permanently puzzled- Jhumroo
Now that is no longer accurate- I am pretty sure there are a lot of smaller bears around. The basket of  which she once occupied only a quarter has now been flattened into a pancake by her trying to fit into it. She has chewed off the edges now, and sleeps on it- overflowing from all sides.

What I love best about her is that she has so much of Mian and I in her. Mian and Shona tend to be at their snuggliest in the mornings, they have the same expression when they do something they shouldn't be doing. When I was visiting mum this time, I missed one particularly endearing trait they both have.

When I stand and cook, these two tend to potter about in the same room. And every time one of them passes by me, I get a peck. There is nothing in the world as lovely as standing in ones home, cooking for the ones you love, and having them show that this love is reciprocated by little kisses at two different heights depending on the kisser- so that I get some on my face, and some on my knees.

What she gets from me I think is her utter love for our home. Now that we are living with Mian and his students, our visits home tend to take on a festive air. She and I don't quite know what to do, and so we do it all. In Sho's case, it means sitting on her patch of the porch, digging up her bones, chasing the birds, and splashing in the stream. I am embedding a very inadequate video of her reaction when we visited it last. It is sheer joy to see her splash about in the stream..I do hope this video gives some idea of the utter delight that is Shona-Bhaloo.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Living in a city

I did it before, for over a decade. But the last four years have spoiled me.

I am in Delhi now, attending a week-long training program. And this means that I am living nearly the regular city life- wake up, commute, work, commute, get whatever I need to get done after work, try to get back safely, sleep. I don't have a house to look after, but I am still left wondering where my day went. And I quite enjoyed it once. My life has changed me.

And in more ways than one. My not being a city-wallah seems to be written all over my face. What is  it, I wonder. Is it the shopping lust in my eyes that manifests itself as a 500gm bag of coffee, and a 400gm jar of Cuticura*? The DIY fringe? The flyaway hair? Or is it the salwar-kameez worn with hiking boots?

Twice in the last two days I have been confided in by men who knew I would understand their longing for the rural life. One was a auto-driver- father of two, pays Rs.4,000 as rent, saves half that much each month, gets ghee and dals from his village, wants to return there soon.
'You know how it is', he said, 'life is cheaper and easier in the village. But we must think of the children'. Talking of where I was going, he asked,' Have you started service there?'.
No, I told him. It is a training programme.
 'It is good you took an auto the first day. But from tomorrow, you take one of these white mini-vans. You won't be able to afford the auto everyday. Don't worry about me. I will get some passenger or the other.'

And then there was the young man- no family, he said, just a father and mother and brother- who spoke to me of his fields back in Rajasthan. And then refused to let me walk. 'You stand here. It is getting dark now. I will call an auto for you'.

*Cuticura talcum powder that I grew up using! It was discontinued a few years ago, but  it is back! It still smells the same, or nearly so. Sad about the new and hideous bottle. I did so love the old one (shown below)

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Home sick

I need home, I have realised. Being with family is the most important thing, of course. But it is not enough for me. I need the actual physical being home. It is hard not to judge myself, not to scold myself and say that I am being greedy.
I came home with a sprained ankle, and with one thing and  another, have only been there a couple of times in the last week and a half. Most of the time, I am at Sonapani. And I don't like it. And I don't know why.
I should be supremely happy here. I am among family and friends, in a  place where I am loved and that I consider another home. The area is stunning with D's carefully planned garden. Even as far as amenities go, the internet works well enough here for me to stream Star Trek episodes, there is running hot water, and I am served the most delicious food.
On the other hand, home is leaking, internet and phone only work sporadically, and food is limited to grains and preserved things.
And I still want to be there. Soon, soon.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Welcomed home

I was away for a month- a bit of work, a bit of visiting family. I got back on a foggy damp day. In the evening, the Himalayas welcomed me home with a spectacular show.Viewing the mountains is extremely rare in the monsoon. And to have it accompanied by unearthly golden light and brooding clouds is truly a gift. I am a lucky woman, I thought.

But this was not the best welcome.

I came in to Sonapani, instead of our home in Chatola. Mian's students are here, and so my wee household had moved here lock, stock and barrel when I was away. When I arrived, they were both busy with important things- Mian was meeting with his students, Shona B was showing her best friend who's boss.

I'll go and rest, I told them, come down when you are free. I turned and started to go down the steps. A noise made me turn around. There they were, my family. Students and play ignored, walking down the steps single-file behind me.

I am an incredibly lucky woman.

Monday, June 25, 2012

No longer in safe custody

I wonder if anyone remembers the note titled 'Every woman should have' that was circulating the internet a couple of years ago. It listed a number of things some of which made sense- like a set of tools, and a reliable recipe for 'company'. I would like to add one thing to that list: a landline.

Shortly, very shortly after I moved to Dehradun I went and got me a phone. I did it myself and acquired a good dose of self-confidence along with the phone connection. I met interesting people along the way, and they helped me feel at home. The broadband connection allowed me to skype with Mian and enabled me to sail through times that would otherwise have been lonely. That phone bill increased my legitimacy and allowed me to open a separate bank account, renew my passport, replace my lost PAN card. In case of a glitch in cellphone connections, I had the landline as a backup. Above all, it was mine. It was a phone connection I had untangled red tape for. It was my claim to responsible citizenship.

And so when I left Dun I was loth to abandon the phone. Despite not knowing where we would be going, and despite the fact that I could always get another, I did not want to let this go. Instead, I ran through bureaucratic  loops once more, and put it  in safe custody- a lovely term for BSNL's holding on to the connection for me.

But it is not working out well. There are no phones where I stay. Getting them to lay a line will take more energy than I have. And today, I started the process of terminating my phone connection by applying that it be taken out of safe custody.

It has been nine months since I left Dun. The hard, nearly homeless, cold days are over. Now we have a home, furniture, a garden, a dog even. I have two cell connections and a data card that allows  me to be connected no matter where I am. I am glad to stop paying every month for a phone that I do not use, and do not see any way to begin using.

Why then, do I feel bereft?

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

One of those who watch

Shona-Bhaloo with best friend Rambo in the background. He trotted over that day for a self-planned play date.
Sho, of course, was extremely happy.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

What Shona and I gaze at most evenings.

The Wedge-tailed Green Pigeon. Stunningly beautiful. These are distinguishable from the Pompadour because only the male has the red blush on his wings. What I find most enthralling is the orange glow at the throat.They come every evening to a tree with berries on it and fill the air with their cooing. Yesterday, a pair flew to the lemon tree and posed for us. How could I not obey?

And for those of you who  remember my camera-less state, the Mian changed all that. I now have a gorgeous machine whose standards I need to educate myself to!

Friday, June 8, 2012

What is wrong with these men?

Imagine this. A well-lit and fully occupied bus traveling down the highway. The driver's love for music has created all the passengers to realize that they will not be able to sleep this night. A woman is traveling. She is galloping towards her forties,and her grey hairs attest to this. She sports a mangalsutra, and the rest of her outfit is frumpy enough to cause her concern at times. She is confident and assured. Sitting next to her is a man in his fifties. He is traveling for work, and has spoken on the phone of wanting to get back to his family. He has ingested nothing but water throughout the journey. A safe enough scene. No victims,no perpetrators that leap out.

In the middle of the night, the man tries the old surreptitiously-stroking-with-extended-fingers.

Seriously? Did he think I would not notice? Did he think that I would be too intimidated to protest? Or, I shudder to think, did he think I would welcome it? Perhaps he thought that I would not have seen the trick before. Perhaps he thought he was the first man  ever to think of it, and did not know that every woman in the subcontinent has experienced it a dozen times.

These men should know that we have perfected our 'strategically-poised-thumbnail' trick.

Go ahead and lust after every woman you see. Go ahead and think you are God's gift to the world. But do yourself a favour and don't underestimate our intelligence.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Burning mountains

I am sitting here on the porch anxiously waiting for Mian to return. It has been two hours since he went off to fight a forest fire. I know there are other people around, I know that two hours is nothing when it comes to fire, I know Mian is a careful and responsible man, but still I worry.

The fire as it was last night. See how it is restricted to the top of the ridge
But back to the fires. The hills around us have been burning for the last several days. Some set accidentally, some 'controlled fires' that weren't, and some lit by embers from other fires.

And still we are lucky. In most areas, forest fires are a sort of Somebody Else's Problem. The villagers believe that it is the forest department's job (which, one may argue, it is) while the forest department has no personnel, equipment, or funds  for anything other than painting 'prevent fire' hoardings (which is also true). The area we live in is different. Right now, there are about 20-30 people trying to control the fire I see in front of me.

Methods for fire prevention are primitive, to put it kindly. A bunch of people go to where the forest is, and stand there in the heat and smoke. Using branches, they beat out embers and the advancing flames. Other people use rakes, sticks, and their bare hands to clear away enough litter to create a sizeable fire line. Their hands and faces are blackened, they inhale smoke, and are cut by thorns. It is hot, thankless work. And so not surprising, perhaps that people don't go to put fires out.

Except here.
The forest fire as it is now, at 5:30 pm. It is daylight, but smoke covers the valley, and I can hear the crackle as it burns

If here, people tend to run towards a fire rather than away from it, it is thanks to the wonderful people at Sonapani. These people have taken it  upon themselves to protect the forest they love. Since the area started burning, they have been out there with rakes and determination. And they do not restrict themselves to the fires that threaten them. The last marathon 18-hour fight was for a forest across the valley. Today, they are here with the Chatola villagers. Bless them.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Of furniture

I wonder if anyone remembers Champak magazine. If you have never heard the name before, you haven't missed much. It was a children's periodical (perhaps monthly?) and extremely shoddy. The language was bad, the illustrations badly-drawn, and the humour crude. The type of magazine, in fact, of which we would smirk 'humph, North Indian' as if that explained it all.

Hungry for reading matter, my sis and I would still occasionally  buy it. And one of those stories stuck in my mind. It was a tale of a chronically messy boy who was unable to clean his room. He just did not know where to start. One day, his mother gave him a vase of sunflowers. He couldn't bear to keep them on a messy table, and so cleared the top. This necessitated clearing the drawers, which required him to tidy the closet, and so on till finally, the boy stared wonderingly at a gleaming room.

Something of the sort happened to me  yesterday. The carpenters finished their work, and left me looking at three tables, two chairs and two shelves. The shelves called out for a vase of flowers, which called out for tidily arranged spice jars, which needed a clean space for the other vessels, and so on.

At the end of it, I stared wonderingly at a gleaming room. The kitchen appliances shone. In the center of the room stood a table with two chairs drawn up to it. A cloth had been spread on it and a teapot squatted in the centre. The light streamed in from the window next to the stove and created a bright orange square where Shona sat. The rose on the shelf glowed like a jewel.

I looked at it and burst into tears.

A table is so little to ask for. And it has taken us since November to get it. All winter, we have been squatting on the floor, or on camp stools. We have been cooking and prepping food on a stack of suitcases, or on the stone wall near the patio.

It seems like we are making a big deal of furniture. But think of all that it means. It means cooking side by side in comfort. It means a workspace where we can put books and papers without things sliding off our laps. It means goodbye to that incessant pain in my lower back. Above all, it means meals with grace. It means no more balancing plates on our laps and guarding food from the dog. It means a table laid for dinner. It means candles, and flowers, and conversation, and laughter.

It might have taken us since November. But it is worth it.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

To-do lists, love and a wee bit of jealousy

Mian returns in a fortnight, and this means that I get into a little flurry of getting things done before he comes.

 He protests mightily at this of course.   'We should do it together' he says. 'I don't want you to think that you need to make things ready before I come' he insists. I shrug and go on with my happy plans of surprising him when he gets here. Some of these plans are laudable, designed to make his life a little easier- like making tables. Some plans lean more towards hiding evidence of misdeeds- like cleaning up oven splatters. Whatever they are, they are done for love of the man.

Which is why I was touched to realize that G had such a list too. He has been excited about getting the external wall plastered and coated with a lime wash. I am in the middle of my all-too-frequent cash flow hiccups.

'We can do it later', I told him.

'No' he asserted, 'before Saheb comes.'

I recognised that urgency all too well. 'My Saheb' I snarled- almost.

Plastering walls is fine. But if  G's to-do list includes a pedicure, my wifely antennae are going to start tingling.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Absolutely Cuckoo*

One morning, Mian received a text message from me, 'I think I am going out of my mind..a bird just miaowed at me.'

It happened like this. Shona and I were pottering around the garden when we heard a plaintive miaowing. Shona and I both hunted for the cat, but couldn't find it. We both stood under a tree that had seemed to be where the sound was coming from, and looked at each other. And then we heard it again, directly above us.

We looked up and an a jay looked back at us. It opened its beak and miaowed. It was at this point that I yelped, Shona whimpered and we scampered back home. I checked the bird book, and there was no mention of miaows..the bird is supposed to screech. It is at this point that I messaged Mian.

I am glad Shona B was there, because else I would have seriously thought the mountains were addling my brain. As it is, when G came around, Shona and I  nonchalantly brought the conversation around to ornithology.

'Lots of birds now' I said.
'hmm' said he
' Some that I haven't seen before.'
'The bird calls are different here too'
Taking my courage in my hands, 'In fact, today I heard one that sounded like a cat'
This time he looked up, relief flooding his face 'So you heard it too! yes, there is one that miaows.'

I am sane. Or atleast, no crazier than before I moved here.

* The title? How could I resist? Magnetic fields, and well worth a listen.

Friday, May 4, 2012

A most decadent day

By Pahari standards, at least. Shona and I spent a grand total of 50 rs between us, and felt like two pampered princesses at the end of it.

It all began when I made dinner for the little one and realized that I was out of rice, and out of cash to replenish supplies with.  

So the next morning, I fed the pup her breakfast and went off to Mukteshwar which is where the nearest ATM is. I had only done this walk once before, and that was with my Mian. In my minds eye, I saw it as being long and ardous, and so had decided to make a day of it.

It wasn't bad at all, we reached in only 1.5 hours. And we had started early, so the walk was when the birds were still active.Its spring, and the walk was wonderfully fragrant. It surprises me how close the plant life here is  to the Pacific Northwest. A lot of the flowers I passed, I had first seen in the Olympic National Park. Buttercups, ox-eye daisies, wild roses..The last especially were wonderfully fragrant. This monsoon, I plan on getting cuttings and planting them where they will ramble over the walls of our house.

But to go on, we walked up to Mukteshwar through the forest with me looking at the butterflies and Shona hunting them. Once I was done with the ATM and the bank, a most wondrous thing happened as far as the little one was concerned. We shared an omlette between us, and I had some chai. Spicy, salted meals come very rarely in the pup's life, and she went into transports of delight. After she was done and as I sat sipping my chai, she turned her bowl over to lick the underside-in case some egg reached there by osmosis. 'The pup's never been fed' I could feel the passersby thinking.

On our way back home, I stopped where a rock juts out over a cliff. We sat down, and I pulled out a second surprise for the pup- grapes! Grapes are possibly the only thing the pup loves over a  bone..she was so excited to see what was in the bag that she actually fell over. That was the highlight of my day..sitting there on a cliff and sharing grapes with scrupulous fairness.

And then when we got home, we napped..and the little one woke to a belly rub. Spoilt pup? maybe a wee bit.

Friday, April 27, 2012

I miss Dehradun

In many ways, I am living a childhood fantasy. Its quite incredible in a 'connecticut yankee..' sort of way. After all, how many children do grow up to be astronauts or royalty-trapped-in-a-tower?

But I miss Dehradun

And this was driven home to me during a visit this week. Some aspects of it I still don't like- the 'might rules' attitude, the xenophobia..but, but..

You see, I shared my dehra with the people I came to love.

The fruit-seller who was so happy to see me, he insisted i sit down with him and eat some grapes. The old man who is now senile, but still recognized me and managed to convey it. The colleagues who made rice and brought my favourite foods in their tiffins. The little girl who spent all  the previous day making a drawing and mounting it on cardboard for me and Mian. The little boy who thought I am moving back and was overjoyed till he learnt the truth. The only slightly older boy who couldn't stop talking and remembering the last time he had been home. The friend who drove out of her way to meet me for fifteen minutes. The families who took me into their homes and fed me and entertained me. The woman who nearly burst into tears when she saw me.  The colleague who bumped into me 'accidentally on purpose' and proceeded to tell me of a land dispute- he knew I couldn't help, but 'I can't tell anyone else', he said.

And this is the gist of it. Somehow, I touched lives there..I realised this week that just as they were part of my life, I was part of theirs too. And I miss that. And I hate that this seems to be one more instance of my unreliability. I will be back, I promised them as I left. More than for them, the promise was for myself.


Thursday, April 19, 2012

Close, too close

Finally able to share, and thrilled about it.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

What would Lemos Teacher say?

Mian and I both dread the days when a button comes off his shirt. That is when something primordial rises up in me and despite the fact that he is better with a needle and thread than I am, drives me to say, 'I'll do that! No, really. I can do it,  honest. It's easy as pie!' Being the gentleman that he is, Mian refrains from pointing out that I can't bake a pie either and hands over the shirt. If the shirt is lucky, I forget about it. An unlucky shirt gets mangled beyond rescue and handed back to its owner with the promise, 'I'll buy you another one. Honest.'

And this is despite Lemos teacher. In the fourth standard, we were taught the basics of sewing. In that entire school, she was perhaps the only teacher who saw being left-handed not as a sign of moral depravity, but as a reason for extra effort on her part. And so she picked up the needle in her left hand, and slowly, painstakingly, pricking herself all the while, taught me to hem and sew on buttons. Her return on investment was dismal.

All this  is to justify my unrestrained pride in this:
 Made all by my own self with half a pair of old jeans and bits of an older kurta!
Which brings us to the question I asked earlier. Would she grimace at the unfinished edges, or be pleased with the frugality of the project?

Friday, April 6, 2012

Eye candy

In lieu of words, images  of the little one working it  for the camera.

She's grown, hasn't she?

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Upper class travel

Not sure if this post will be anything close to coherent. The story begins with my first 'phoren' trip- which was also maybe my 2nd or 3rd flight ever. As things go, my connecting flight was delayed by 24 hours, which meant that I needed to spend a day and a night at the Frankfurt airport. Incredibly crowded it was, and I was desperate to sleep. I wandered about till I came to a room that was miraculously vacant. There were loungers, remarkably clean and empty toilets, and a sense of peace. I sponge-bathed and lay down to sleep congratulating myself on finding a decent spot no one else had found yet.

It was much much later that I realised that I had probably gate-crashed into the business lounge. The Indian Railways have a similar and even more complex hierarchy. there are separate waiting rooms for 'sleeper general', 'sleeper women', 'general', 'AC', 'AC women', and in atleast one station a separate one for 2AC and higher.

The delhi metro might be alternately lauded and criticised. One thing is pukka, though. It is totally, unabashedly democratic. A couple of days ago, I watched as what seemed like an entire village helped a gramdma use the escalator. She was triumphant as she stepped off it. 'That was the first time', she informed everyone. 'A couple of more times, and it will be nothing'.

What do I want to say with this post? I am not entirely sure. Maybe I just want to convey the pleasure I felt when she triumphantly stepped off the escalator. Maybe my sense of empathy with her as she found herself out of her element, but coping all the same. I don't know

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Just drag her along

The day before yesterday, the little pup-let went off her food- an event sufficiently unusual to provoke a flurry of texts between me and my mian. She also threw up a pellet of animal hair- proof of a 'meal' she illicitly had when she had run away the day before.

When I called the vet however, he didnt want to take any chances and asked me to bring her up to the roadhead. 18 hours without food is a long time for a 5-kg pup, and she was too weak to manage the 45 minute trek uphill. And so I hoisted her up on my shoulders.

This caused a great deal of comment, and I needed to explain to all I passed,"This is usually her favourite walk. But she is ill, and can't do it. I'm taking her to the vet." In most cases, the response was a cluck, and wishes that she would get well soon.

 Until I met a man who said, "so what? drag her along." I looked at the trusting eyes of the little patient as she lay on my shoulders, and felt horrible about that remark.

My sadness was defused pretty soon though, when I realised that she has more friends here than I do. Little children darted away from their mothers to say hello to Shona- who they knew by name. Later that day, G came runnning down because he had been told that I had taken Shona to the vet. And in the evening, Mian told me that the villagers of Sitla were asking how she was.

 Clearly, Mr.Drag-her-along was a stranger around these parts.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

The ghosts in our house

The house that is now ours is full of stories of the people who lived there before us.
There's Kaki, to whom the house belonged and who I always suspect has a soft corner for my Mian-who she calls her Panditji. There are their relatives, visitors, and the several people who worked on this land.

But the stories I hear most often are of the couple who rented before us. I hear of their ambitous garden, of how they imported the compost all the way from Pant Nagar, of how they were scared of the rural setting, of how they lit up the orchard every night to scare the darkness everyday.
And I don't just hear the stories, they crop up in our lives. They planted sunflowers, and gladioli, and lilies- all of which are now naturalised here. They erected a creaky bird feeder which scared the birds and that I now -in a most prosaic fashion- dry laundry on. They read Mills and Boons, and I now dip into the two books they left behind. They began to painstakingly stencil the walls of their house before giving up and laughingly painting a huge flower on a part of the last wall they worked on.

And this makes me wonder about the stories we are creating. Our black thumbs, the solar cooker, the way we take our trash all the way to Haldwani, these things will perhaps be talked about. But I hope that somewhere in those stories is also mention of our coffee mornings, of how Mian and I stand on the porch wrapped around each other and look at the sky. I hope their are stories of how he brings the water and does all the heavy work. I hope there are stories of the meals we make, of our little Bhaloo. I do hope that some of this joy lingers in the house.

Friday, February 24, 2012


It was a freezing cold day on the Ganga. Despite the sun having risen nearly 4 hours ago, the clouds did not allow it to warm the earth. The two oarsmen were relatively warm, the remaining four of us sat rolled up in our sleeping bags thinking dark thoughts of the day we had volunteered for this jaunt.

Because of the clamminess of the day, the river was deserted. No boats, farmers, fishermen or even dolphins. We hunkered down in our woolens to prevent our noses from freezing.

That's when I heard laughter. We looked incredulously at two young girls as they stood in the water. They were fully dressed, but the floral salwar-kameezes were thoroughly soaked. One of them was washing her hair, the other was not up to anything that lady-like.

As we watched, she ran down the slope to the river and without a pause jumped in. Watching her swim strongly out away from the bank I was taken back to my childhood. My sis and I, we were not the sporting types ever. But the one thing we did, did often, and loved to do was swim. She taught me all I know of swimming.

As I watched the girl swim in the Ganga as her sister bathed, I was envious for a moment. That envy was overtaken by pity, though. Not one of my childhood memories has either me or my sis standing on the banks while the other swam. With us it was always a double splash!

I don't do justice to a swimsuit, I don't have technique, and I can't dive to the bottom of a water body. But thanks to my sis, I can swim, and delight in it.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Going to school

'Shonaaaaa' they shout from the top of the hill. And Shona immediately runs up the hill to greet the students on their way to school. They run down together, I gather up the furry scamp near our house, and wave good bye to the others.

Till one day when the littlest girl of the lot nudged her brother. 'Well' she said, 'aren't you going to ask her?'
'Ask me what?'
'Will you tutor us? in English and Maths?'

Uh oh. Here we go again.

Only this time, it is even more challenging. Instead of just one little girl, I also have her two brothers to teach. Instead of just struggling to teach english to a hindi-speaker, I now have to teach maths- in Hindi. I opened one of their maths textbooks, and realised that there is no way I can do it. I cannot understand half the terms, and certainly cannot teach them.

They won't take no for an answer, though. 'In March', I promised. I am very nervous.

I am also humbled by the efforts these children take to get an education. I complained in the last post about the walk I need to take to the top of the hill facing ours for a strong internet connection, about the walk I need to do once or twice a week. These children go to that ridge, and then down to the other side every single day. And for what, I wonder.

What is this walk of 4 steep kilometers going to actually give them? Really, truly give them? A 10th standard certificate. And what is that? A stepping stone to a 'better life', where the better life means going away from the land they love, toiling throughout their lives and coming back as strangers. At the same time, I am the last person to say that literacy is not vital. Homeschooling is not an option where these children are first-generation learners. They clearly need to read, write, and calculate if they are not to be hoodwinked by everyone. But that is not all they need. They need to learn science, ethics, natural history. They need to learn how to use what they have learnt, to take science beyond the textbooks. And this the school does not teach them. Is it futile then, this walking to school? Is it necessary? Is there a better way?

I don't know. And next week onwards, these three come to me to fill some of the gaps in their learning. I am extremely nervous

Friday, February 10, 2012

A wee bit cold (again)

The day before yesterday was a day of hailstorms.A day when going out was not something to look forward to. So cold and hailstorm-y infact, that I had to cancel a skype meeting I had. The connection between the two? Well, the thing is that to access the reliable internet that one needs for online phone conversations, I need to go to Sonapani. A 2-km trek which would not be so bad if 3/4ths of it was not vertical. And not something I wanted to do with hail, a pup, and a leopard who snacks on pups on the route. I wish my colleagues would understand that, though. It seems that everytime I set up an online meeting, the weather gods grease up their cannons. I realise my colleagues' frustration, I feel it too. But this is a choice I have made.

And very often, that choice is amply rewarded.

I woke up to this yesterday. I photographed our dishwashing sink because the frost was most clear on the coffee cup, but every leaf had its rim of ice, every stone had a starry pattern on it. I had filled the kadhai with water to soak, it was solid. The first time that has happened. I am used to a thick crust of ice, but frozen solid? the first time. Shona and I had fun licking a kadhai-shaped ice-candy. Mian declared the two of us nuts.

And by the way, not a bad view for a sink, eh?

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

The miraculous Ganga water

What surprised me was not how dirty it was, but the reverse. Yes, at Allahabad where we got into the boat the water was atrociously, heart breakingly filthy. The first day that we were floating down, we passed what I took to be decomposing marigolds. It is only when we came close to them that I realised that they were decomposing feces. Thankfully, that stomach-turning moment was the lowest I got. After that, things rapidly got better. From the second day, the water was turbid, true, but naturally so. It was no longer 'fragrant' and for that we were glad.
On the second day, the Tamsa joined the Ganga vastly increasing its volume and its cleanliness. After that, things were pleasant indeed. DM and I took it in turns to occupy the coveted position in the extreme rear of the boat. Here we sat, exposed to the elements, one hand occasionally trailing in the water with a sharp eye out for wildlife.
We saw the Ganga in many moods, with the weather changing nearly every day. The one that is most vividly in my mind, is the day the Tamsa joined us. The sun was out, and the colours incredibly vivid. The broad ink-blue of the Ganga was bordered by a deep rust earthen wall. Beyond were mustard fields in blossom.
Beautiful day, lucky us.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Not Enough

This has been my continual refrain over the last month. And I hate it, because this continuous complaining is not me, or so I tell myself. But so it has been.
It started with the cold wave. This drastically limited my internet access to 15 shivering minutes a day, if that. How, you ask? well..we only have access to the internet on the north-east corner of our porch- the one that directly faces the Himalaya. This is also the corner most exposed to a piercing wind that seemed to blow down all the way from Nepal, carrying hail and snow with it. I could not sit there for any length of time, and so it is not till Mian and I finally ran away to the south that I learnt that there was talk of declaring the cold wave as a national disaster.
But not enough heat. Not enough electricity (the storms blew out power). Not enough space. And when we went to the south, to warm sun and warmer family, not enough time. Not enough time to visit, to talk of all that we wanted to share, to cook. Not enough time to see all that we wanted to. Not enough time to work. And in trying to do it all, I ended up making noone happy.
But now we are back. It is still winter, but the miserable cold has gone. Things are slightly easier. And this little bundle that we left behind when we went to the south is back with us-Shona Bhaloo, the centre of our world.

Soon, it will be spring.