Growing up with Grandparents

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It was those days when the raindrops used to be blue, green, purple and burnt-sienna. The old, fat toad used to sit under the Toad-stool  and tell stories. The breeze carried the smell of Neem flower and butter-toast.  And in those days I was small enough to tuck myself between my grandma and grandpa to listen to the radio play. My grandpa, the ever hypochondriac that he was, used to be wrapped in a warm shawl from head to toe – with only his tiny eyes visible. Grandma’s long locks smelling of Amla hair oil used to casually flutter over my face. By the time the play used to get over, she would be fast asleep. My grandfather would silently put off the radio with a ‘click’ sound and wrapping the shawl tighter would go off to sleep.

Our childhood was with and about grandparents. We were nine of us – cousins, technically, but we had a single collective tag – ‘brats of Mamma-baari’. Mamma was what we used to call our grandma. Being the assertive and stronger one of the duo – our grandma was the matriarch of the family. So our house unknowingly became “Mamma Baari” (Mamma’s house).

Our grandfather was the soft one – gentleman in the truest sense. By the time I grew up enough, he was a retired man – taking recluse in the comfort of the sofa set in the front room. He was so pinned on to the sofa day in and day out that every second year the sofa would pop out the springs inside–as if to announce it’s exhaustion!  Soft that he was, my grandpa would hardly complain till one of us would get a chance to sit on it! Ouch! What was that?? Grandpa! How could you not tell us all these days? An expert would be summoned to repair it within no time! Once repaired grandpa would be back to his seat. When I was younger, grandpa used to spend his retired moments helping maids and masons open bank accounts in the newly opened branch of a local bank- just like that. When I grew up he became Amitabh Bachhan of Piku. There was this yellow telephone with those round dials kept just for him. Every morning he would dial his second daughter – my aunt- who is incidentally married to a doctor. His opening lines would be something like this:

“Hello Pia. This morning I am a bit better. I went to the toilet and had a near clear motion. Now, should I still take the enzyme in the afternoon?”

Or

“Hello Pia. I just went and tried but ‘it’ did not happen!”

My ever-loving and soft-spoken aunt would patiently answer him or comfort him – as the situation be.

But the ‘it did not happen’ would be the cause of his depression for the rest of the day. He was a terribly neat and tidy person and would insist on shaving daily. But on the days when ‘it did not happen’ he would not shave and would eat as little as possible. Back from office during lunch time, my father would laugh, “Why didn’t you take a shave Baba?”, very well knowing the answer he would get in return.

“Huh, what shave…I did not even have a proper potty!”

My grandma was always poles apart from grandpa.  That they spent more than sixty years together is a Black-hole mystery of the family!

She, unlike grandpa, was robust, loud, hot-headed and unlike women of her age and time – a total dictator of the family! From fixing marriages to ensuring education of all her grandchildren she was the ONLY authority in the family! From her food habits to response to life’s situations – she was so different from grandpa! While grandpa was a frugal eater – satisfied with just a light fish curry and rice, grandma would eat four times his consumption level – and some strange eating habbit it was! While we would be over-filled with our morning breakfast of Parathas or bread, grandma would have an additional 10 am ‘mid-morning snack’! She would have a bowl full of left-over rice from previous day, add oodles of raw mustard oil, salt and then devour it with immense passion with a green chilly. And then have a full three course meal after two and half hours – rounding it off with a short helping of her handmade pickles!

Unlike a ‘womanly’ woman, she would hardly show her patience when it came to cooking. So most of the younger days of my dad and aunts was spent in eating strange items like – half-burnt curries, massive chunks of boiled potato to be had with rice, fish curries still carrying the smell of raw fish, hot chapatis with sliced onion!!!  She was hardly bothered about what the others thought about her! Her real passion lay in her eccentricity! That she was a good writer of her times was a catalyst to that! Once, just after my mother was married into the family, she came home from the market with a dozen small fishes to be had for lunch.

“Just clean these and keep the oil and masala ready. I will come and cook”.

My mother did as instructed and waited for her mother-in-law to return. One hour passed, two hours passed…..with the racing hands of the clock my mother began to panic. It was near lunch time but grandma was not to be found anywhere. Hesitantly my mother took the plunge and cooked the fish her way! My grandma ultimately returned after two days! She had gone to her younger daughter’s house in Dakshineswar –a half an hour train journey from Calcutta – not to meet her but spend moments besides the river Ganges in order to get ideas about a story!

She would hardly be at home, finding opportunities and pretexts to go outside. So, almost every evening I would accompany her to the nearest Gariahat market just to buy ‘important’ household items like – a pair of rubber slippers or clips for hanging clothes or even a handkerchief. I would proudly accompany her –  sitting in the hand-pulled rickshaw. This was till the day we had ‘rickshaw mishap’! God knows why or how but having found a school bus in front of him, the rickshaw puller suddenly gave up! He let go of his hands, leaving grandma and me see-saw head down while he himself hung in mid-air. Men all around came rushing towards us. They brought down the rickshaw puller from his mid-air position , only to flung grandma and me back in mid-air. While the game of see-saw gave fodder for loud laughter to the crowd, grandma was ready to turn the poor man into ashes by her angry stare! From that day on, we both went and came back to the market by feet but strangely that rickshaw puller was never to be found again!

My grandma had a unique knack of being associated with troubles and mishaps of all types. So every second year she would end up with fracture of some kind or the other. The orthopaedic had almost become a family member! Though with her impatience, grandma would hardly carry on with her plaster cast for too long. One fine day we would find her with her favourite pair of scissors – cutting away her plaster cast with uneven cuts! As a result she had knees that wouldn’t bend beyond a certain level, a half-twisted left arm, a limp etc.

But beyond all this she had a self that was unique. That was that part that ensured that her six grand-daughters grew up to be self-reliant and strong-willed women!

But my purpose of writing this blog was not just to tell about the unique people that my grandparents were, it was also to talk about the fact that irrespective of what or how they were, they were an integral part of our lives. They were luckier than the grandparents of our children. When I see my parents, my in-laws, my aunts and uncles – I realise that though they are busier these days, they are lonely somehow. With nine grandchildren creating havoc, my grandparents were a luckier lot! Till the day my grandfather died, it was an unwritten rule in my family that food would be first served to him. It was a satisfaction for my mother to see her father-in-law closing his eyes in front of his plate of frugal meal for a short prayer of thanksgiving.

Sundays were especially special. My grandparents would watch with loving eyes as nine of us would empty jars of biscuits and puffed rice! My father would lovingly accept the little note of donation from my grandfather as his contribution towards ‘one kilo of meat’  for a special Sunday lunch.

“Son, would this be enough for a Kg of meat?”, he would ask.

My father would smile, “Ofcourse Baba. This would be more than enough”, though he well knew that the amount wouldn’t even fetch half a kilo.

And most of all, for us and our parents, their decision was always the final decision. Erratic, wise, eccentric, unbelievable, practical, impractical – we accepted all their decisions – with frown or with smile – but we did accept!

Today, my parents are the ones who have their dinner after all of us . Now, I do not expect my son to have the same level of obedience towards his grandparents as I had. And my aunt who was once a patient listener to her father’s call waits unendingly for a call from all of us!

We are too busy to attend to their needs ; too involved with our own selves to teach our children the value of ‘genuine bonding’. Parents and grandparents are now a matter of need and convenience rather than of necessity.

Times change, so do situations and we are, perhaps, victims of our changing circumstances. But how I wish there was one thing that hadn’t changed – growing up with grandparents – the way we did!

 

 

Fourteen Days to Madness

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Almost every week I receive a call or two from a variety of job aspirants. The conversation ranges from serious to funny to downright outrageous.

“Hello. Is this an NGO?”

“Yeah, this is a social service organisation”

“Yes, yes…I LOVE social work”.

“Glad to know that.”

“ From childhood I am very ‘social minded’. I give blood, give money to beggars, work a lot during the community puja in my neighbourhood.”

“Wow, you do a lot of social service.”

“Yours is a women’s organisation, na?”

“Yes, it is.”

“I love women…err…I mean I love to work for women”.

“Oh, that is good. But how may I help you?”

“Madam, I want to help your organisation.”

“Yeah, sure. But what kind of help do you want to provide?”

“May be some kind of job.”

“Why not! But we work mostly in the rural region – in the remote villages”

(Long pause and a longer sigh!)

“Mmmm…don’t you have any job in the city? I can help in the office work.”

“We do have, but it is very limited.”

“No problem, I can volunteer. By the way, how much do you pay your volunteers?”

OR

“Hello. Is this a women’s organisation?”

“It is. How may I help you?”

“I have done Masters in Social Work.”

“That is fantastic.”

“I want to do social work and I want to join your organisation”.

“That would be great. But ours is a field-based organisation – mostly in rural regions”.

“The rate is different you know. If it is city I take a different rate. For villages my rate is different.”

“Rate, what rate?”

“Means my salary. Being an MSW, I expect a higher rate obviously. And if I stay in villages, the rate goes still higher.”

“Hmmm. Do you have a work experience?”

“Ofcourse. For three years I have been working in a BPO.”

OR

“Hello. NGO?”

“Yes. It is a social service organisation.”

“How much do you pay currently? “

“Excuse me!”

“I mean what is your salary, perks? Any Provident Fund ? What are your retirement benefits?”

“Excuse me, but who are you and what do you want exactly?”

“I already work for an NGO. But you won’t believe how less they pay. Just imagine, for the TA, they would only pay for the tea. Arrey, what if I want a Samosa with the tea? I can get hungry, na?”

“So, how can we really help you?”

“That is why I am telling you na. If you can give a little bit extra on the salary, TA etc than I am getting here, I can join your organisation.”

“Not really. Because we do not pay for the Samosas with the tea. Not even for the tea actually. We share it!”

*****************************

The world of the NGOs is really a bit weird. Weird, controversial, challenging……an amalgamation of many contrasts. Though I do have an allergy with the term but in India most social service organisations are known as NGOs – Non Government Organisations. Contrary to what most people believe, especially in the context of current controversies, the work of the NGOs is not doing what the Government cannot do but is to facilitate the work of the government – build a bridge between the people and the government. At times, we are the conscience keepers – letting the government understand the lacunae in implementation of programmes, flaws in policies, loopholes in systems etc.

An NGO worker is essentially an activist. Though in the recent years there indeed are NGOs which do offer salaries, perks and facilities at par with the corporate houses, most social activists are semi-lunatics. Or to put it more correctly, are expected to be semi-lunatics. They are supposed to get paid less than the lowest rung staff of any government department or of any private organisation for that matter; they are expected to put in a ten to twelve hour a day of service and most of their meets and programmes are expected to be on Saturdays and Sundays.

Atleast, that is how I have observed my parents since my childhood. My father was a born social activist and my mother was an adopted one. So, our front room was always the hub of activites – torn papers, half-empty glue bottles, open sketch pens strewn here and there – that is how our front room has always been. Our kitchen has always been a Community Kitchen with a twenty four hours of open service. And I have never seen my parents keep any of their personal bank documents with themselves. One of their colleagues keep their cards and she is the one who knows their ATM pin number! I have seen a Sharing Meet of our field workers being carried out in our back room while my grandma’s coffin was being brought in through the front door.

So, it is but obvious that changing times do pain them. My Dad still does not believe that social work these days is more about profession than about activism. He speaks of his days spent in dense forests or drought-ridden villages with young men who worked with him ‘just for the heck of it’!

It was during one such heart breaking moments for him that he reminded me of the “Fortnight Training”. It was one of those rare trainings of fourteen days duration that changed many lives.

*****************

I couldn’t believe what I saw. My father – standing amidst leaping flames – encircling him all around. The titbits of paper of paper around him burnt in all mirth and glory. The fire, just an inch away from his denim. He stood with a calm face. The participants around him stood equally wide-eyed as me, taking many moments to believe what was just happening in front of their eyes. Till one of them almost dived into the fire and pulled my father out. Having woken from a trance, a few others rushed to douse the flames.

Unfazed, my father smiled and spoke out.

“This, my dear friends, is the Sensitivity Test.”

He took a moment’s pause and continued.

“The first and foremost requirement of a Social Activist is this – Sensitivity – towards others and the situation – at the cost of one’s own safety and security.”

It was a fourteen day long training in weirdness – to help a bunch of young people discover the seed of lunaticism in themselves. There was no agenda, no timings. One day the training began in the evening hours and went on till early morning the next day. One day instead of a proper lunch, the participants survived on fruits – that too in very limited quantities. There was no room for inhibitions. At times the participants had to drink water from one single glass, eat from one single plate.

On day three, two of the participants packed their bags and left.

“This is an insane training”, one of them said.

In the evening hours or very early in the morning there would be games – robust games like football(soccer) and the women were expected to play alongside with the men. It is there that I learnt that best way to hit a football was to hit it with the slant of the toe and not the tip of the toe!

During one such game, one of the participants fell down and hurt himself badly. As the rest rushes towards him, my Dad stopped them.

“ I am happy to see the sensitivity in you all but this is a test for him. Social Work is a tough job. And it requires grit and endurance. So, get up!”, he instructed the one injured. Very slowly he got up, much to the anguish of others. He washed his own hands, went to his room alone and waited till a doctor was summoned.

“ Imagine, you are in the remotest of regions. And there you are sick. There is no one, no facilities to reach you and you have to survive….You must learn the art of survival.”, he explained to the bewildered participants.

In another session, he asked the participants to identify any object in the room that they would like to possess. It could be anything.

One of the participants wanted a LP record that was a prized possession. My father handed it over to her.

“Take it. It is yours”.

She couldn’t believe what she was hearing. My father repeated. She happily took the record.

“Now”, my father said, “break it into two halves.”

There was a murmur in the room. The participant could once again not believe what she had just heard.

“Do it”, my father commanded.

With shaky fingers she broke it into two.

He then called another participant.

“And which one object would you love to possess?”

“The HMT watch that you are wearing”, he smiled mischievously, knowing well that my father had a soft corner for the watch.

My father held out his left hand. “Take it”.

The participant smiled and took it. There was a look of challenge in his eyes.

“And now, throw it on the floor with all your might!”, my father commanded.

“Excuse me?”, the participant now looked worried.

“Do it.”

“I cannot”, he held out the watch back to my father.

“Do it”, my father repeated with a cold voice.

With total disbelief he flung the watch on the ground. The watch broke into three parts.

“A social worker is like a Sanyasi – a hermit. You may have desires but not a clinging obsession to possess any material goods. The moment you let your possessions rule over you, you stop being an activist. An activist is like a nomad”, he explained. There were tears in many eyes.

I was too small to fathom the depth of his words but when I saw participant after participant jumping from a very high platform, letting go of themselves, it did strike me that there was something magical about his words.

“If you are a social worker, you MUST learn to trust – situations, people, co-workers.”, he shouted loud, as one after the other the participants jump down with the belief that their co-workers would rescue them unhurt midway through their fall.

I spent most of the sessions drawing on my own or playing with my dolls; I don’t even remember most of the sessions but all I understand now is that those fourteen days to madness really did help build social workers – ACTIVISTS.Today, all the participants who attended those trainings are established social workers in their own rights. Irrespective of the different challenges of life, not one has wandered away from this madness of activism.

Even today when many of them touch my Dad’s feet and acknowledge that what they are today is because of him, I get goose bumps. Many, many, many times I’ve heard these participants introduce my Dad as their Guru in public forum. And that is an inexplicably special feeling. It brings tears to my mother’s eyes too.

I know that times have changed. I understand that social activism is gradually being replaced by a more disciplined way of working in the social sector- in line with the global requirement. I understand. But my father doesn’t. Holding his inhaler in his hand, with his unkempt hair and near-torn slippers he still waits – waits for that one activist who would risk his life to drag out a fellow-human being from the fire of distress!

Gerua…..

GERUABenu looked to her left and then to her right. The Banana leaves created strange silhouettes around her. The breeze smelt of raw mangoes. A strange shadow crossed their path and vanished into the woods. Benu shivered a little – just a little. Not as much as Nenu, her younger sister. Even if she felt afraid, Benu knew she had to keep up a brave face. Atleast for the sake of her younger sister. With their mother already busy with two other kids, she was in charge of her sister. Atleast that is what she thought.

A man appeared in the vicinity with a lantern in his hand.

“Selaam Sahib”, he grinned from ear to ear – trying to balance the lantern and the clumsy salute.

“I was told that a bullock-cart would be available at the station. Why was it not sent?”, John Solomon thundered.

“ I am sorry Sahib but the pig ditched at the last minute”, the man sounded apologetic.

Sejdi, what use is a pig to a bullock cart?”, Nenu whispered.

Benu giggled. It was no use explaining to her that the pig in this case was the cart driver himself.

As they walked behind him, the man went on to explain in detail as to why it was not possible to catch hold of yet another bullock cart and the challenges of staying in a remote village.

The post sunset evening light was not bright enough for Benu to get a clearer picture of the village. At that moment she wasn’t interested either. Her stomach rumbled for want of food.

The last food they had was a sumptuous lunch at the Ferry-ghat where their steamer had just landed. The sailors always had a make-shift arrangement for the travellers using the steamers and launch-boats. Balancing through the knee deep water and clay the Solomon family had managed to sit under the make-shift canopy. The sailors had then served huge helpings of steaming rice and chicken curry – heavily peppered with red chilly paste.

But that was five hours back. And the railway ride and walk had already made the children hungry.

*****************

The landscape of the suburb village in East Bengal was so much different from their home at Kolkata. This truth dawned upon Benu the next day when kissed by the morning sun, the sky became clearer. As far as her eyes could see it was endless expanse of greenery. Little huts and single-storied houses dotted here and there but there was an engulfing calmness all around. The numerous ponds and water-bodies mirrored the travelling tufts of cloud sailing in the blue sky above. For Benu, who was the naughtiest among her siblings, this was an open invitation to unending adventure.

John Solomon, who was a police under the narcotics department, was too happy to be back to where his roots were.  Inspite of constant complaints by his wife, he was not too eager to admit the children to school. He wanted them to enjoy the landscape, people and unending happiness of his homeland before being pushed to the daily grind.

For Benu it meant unleashing her curiosity to the maximum extent possible. In the afternoons her mother would go for an afternoon siesta with her two younger ones, giving a warning to Nenu and Benu that they should never venture out in the afternoons as the ‘Childpickers’ use those hours to kidnap young children. Nenu would close her eyes and pretend to be asleep, while Benu would wait for the signal of the soft snores. She would then tip-toe to the huge expanse of mango orchard at the back of their two-storied residence. Bundling up her long tresses into a top-bun, she would wander from tree to tree – plucking raw mangoes, searching for bird nests. Interspersed with the rustle of the dry leaves there would be the faint sound of breeze through the branches. Ta hoot utu, ta hoot utu…..Tihaa tihaaa tihaaa…..kirik kirik kirik….birds would twit on their own. Benu would train her ears to identify the birds. Picking a twig from one of the trees she would travel deeper into the orchards….till she reached the old, broken, deserted house. No one stayed in that abandoned house. Some locals even labelled it as a haunted house. Though curious, she hardly had that much guts to enter the dilapidated building. Till the day she gathered the courage enough to look through one of the half closed windows. To her surprise and much to the discomfort of her racing heart she discovered a moving figure inside the building. She would have let out a loud scream but placing his finger on his lips – the young man gestured her to keep silence.

“Who are you? Dacoit ? Ghost ? “, having regained her courage, Benu asked in a low tone.

“Ha, ha, ha”, the young man laughed, “a bit of both”.

“Come in through the back door”, he spoke to her through the little slit of the window opening.

Benu was in dilemma. She wasn’t sure if it would be safe to listen to someone who may be partially a ghost and a dacoit. But as always, her curiosity won hands down.

She tip-toed in through the back-door. The old, rusted door made a creaking noise. The inside looked as dilapidated and dirty as the outside. The young man stood at the entrance.

“Sit here”, he instructed, clearing out a small stone-platform near the back entrance.

Benu hopped in.

“Who are you?”, Benu asked.

“I told you, didn’t I? Half ghost-half dacoit. And who are you?”, the man asked, a smile hanging on to his lips.

“Benu. And what is your name?”. By now, the paced of her heart had subsided it’s speed.

“Haider. Do you know I have a niece like you back home? She loves me very much.”

“Then why are you here? Have you done something wrong?”, Benu was curious.

“Ha ha ha. I should be home. But I have to kill demons. So I am hiding here”.

Benu felt a mild touch of fear reaching somewhere down her throat.

“Are there really any demons here?”, she asked, taking a quick glance around.

“Not here exactly. They are many in numbers – out to destroy our country”.

Benu really didn’t like the idea of someone destroying this beautiful country.

“And with what will you kill them? Do you need a gun? My father is a police. He can give you a gun”.

For a few seconds Benu could see his face turn ashen.

“ No, not really. I do not need a gun. But promise me that you will not talk about me to anyone. Otherwise no one would allow me to kill those demons. And never come this side”.

His voice had suddenly turned stern.

“I have to go now….You run and get back home”

Benu jumped down from her seat. It was already late afternoon and her mother would have already woken up.

As she walked away from the house she looked back once more. She couldn’t see much but could sense a pair of eyes that were keeping a watch on her.

*******************

The oldest among the girls spoke up.

“ Girls, it is time we express ourselves against the atrocities of the British. They don’t want us to use our own clothes. They want to push their ideas, their clothes, their food. But there are so many who have come forward to protest against this. Khadi is our answer to their atrocities. And for that we have the Tokli.”, she held out a small device – a hand held version of the Charkha.

Benu and her friends skewed their eyes to look at the mini version of the device to make threads from cotton balls in an indigenous way.

“Do you know who she is?”, one of the friends whispered.

Benu looked quizzically.

“She is the cousin of the famous revolutionary Pritilata Wadedar”.

Benu felt happy. She had heard a lot about Pritilata Wadedar.

A girl younger than the speaker handed over the Toklis to the small group of girls around.

“Girls, today we shall use the Toklis to make threads as a mark of protest against the British atrocities on our freedom fighters. We are school girls, we cannot do much. But by this way we can send them a message”, the speaker concluded amidst a light applause. Their little gathering before the school hours had mostly gone unnoticed by the school authorities.

As promised, Benu held on to her Tokli during class hours. She could hardly make a proper piece of thread but she knew that it was a symbol of protest.

“Rekha Solomon, will you please deposit your device here on the table!”, the teacher thundered.

Benu tightened her grasp on the Tokli.

“Rekha Solomon! This is my last warning to you. You will be thrown out of the school if you do not part with that thing!”

Benu looked down, her fingers adamantly clinging on to the Tokli.

“Please follow me out of the class”, the teacher ordered.

Benu obeyed.

Being the younger among the girls, she escaped being rusticated but as a punishment Benu had to stand outside in the hot afternoon sun for the rest of the day.

***********************

“Hold the edges carefully”, Benu instructed her younger sister.

Nenu obeyed her sister but her young fingers were too small to hold on to the slippery banana leaf.

“What are you doing?”, John Solomon tried to figure out the plan from the wide array of things strewn around – Huge Banana leaves, bamboo pole, red colour, small pieces of cloth.

“Trying to make a flag Baba”, Benu smiled – her fingers and nose already dotted with various hues of color.

“Flag? What flag?”, Solomon Sahib  quizzed his daughters.

“An independence flag”.

“With Banana leaves?”

“Yesss”, Benu replied empahtically, “we shall write I-N-D-E-P-E-N-D-E-N-C-E on the leaves and put outside with the help of a pole”.

“Yes. And I am helping Sejdi”, Nenu smiled meekly.

“Hmm….”, their father turned to look at their mother.

“Let them”, she answered, her eyes shining with pride. “This is the only way they can take part in the freedom movement. I too have thought of a plan”.

John Solomon laughed out loudly.

“Pramila, I am a Police under the British. If they get to know the grand plans of my family, it wouldn’t take long for them to boot me out of my job”.

“You are in a different department Mr.Solomon. And moreover, it really does not matter. We have to stand for what is right”, his wife teased.

“Ofcourse. I have my full endorsement for that. But what is your grand plan ?”

“As a housewife I cannot do much but from now onwards, no chinese silks or georgettes. If you can get me some Khadi cloth pieces I can stitch dresses for the children. I too would like to wear only Khadi saree”. Her determination reflected in her voice.

“ As you say”, John Solomon smiled, as he left for his duty.

**********************

The honeymoon with the picturesque sub-urban East Bengal wasn’t for a long time. Soon there was a transfer order back to Calcutta.

Benu’s mother spent an entire day sharing her tears with her neighbour Mehrunnissa. They spoke about the beautiful days they spent discussing new stitch patterns, learning new recipes, sharing the woes of family life.

John Solomon tried to mask his gloom with business of last minute duties.

And for the last time Benu visited the Mango orchard. After many, many long days she tiptoed to the broken and abandoned house in the orchard – just in case she would chance upon the half ghost-half dacoit! The house seemed totally empty. A lone bat flew away as she tried to open the window to look inside. Disappointed, she returned home, having said her good-bye to the birds and trees.

******************

As the bullock-cart made took it’s last turn from the village premises, a small gathering of men and women stood on the road –unknowingly blocking their way.

“Is something wrong?”, Benu’s mother asked her father.

“Yes, I guess they are here for Haider”.

“Haider? Who Haider?”

Benu shuddered a little. Did she hear the name somewhere ?

“Haider was a young chap – a revolutionary of sorts. He died last night in a gun battle with the British police. It seems he was hiding somewhere around”, John Solomon’s voice drowned in grief.

Benu felt like crying. She could never ask him if he could ever meet his niece again. Or if he could atleast kill the demons.

Brave that she always was, she wiped face with the edge of her khadi frock. She hated to let others know that she way crying. She would rather let the tears melt away with the fading sun-set.

****************

For all my life, I had seen my grandma holding a special place for anything to do with the country. Once, as I was colouring a flag, she asked me if I knew what the colors of our Indian flag meant. “The orange means…”, I was about to begin.

“Na..na…not orange.”, she interjected, “ It is called a Saffron – Gerua. It is the colour of sacrifice.”

Everytime the National Anthem would be played in the TV or on radio, she would prompt us to stand up.

“You must. That way you show your respect to the country, as well as those who have fought for the country”, she would insist.

Those days I could not fathom her spirit or her emotions. But today, as I have grown older, I realize that India’s freedom came with a lot of cost and a lot of sacrifice – a sacrifice that was not limited to big names and big leaders alone but also to thousands of Haiders, Benus and unknown faces.

I really hope my children would see Independence Day as being beyond yet another holiday with a lazy morning and a sumptuous lunch….for the sake of the sacrifice – big or small – of many Haiders or another little Benu – their great grandmother!

Rang de tu mohe Gerua….

PHOTO COURTESY: Subhadip Mukherjee (Indian Vagabond)

 

 

 

 

The Magic Maker

Jharkhand_March_2011 059There was a certain moistness in the air – not moist as in wet but that calm, moist feeling of a breeze that just brushes past. The outside was dark – pitch dark but a picture-perfect one …..dots of fire flies, misty smell of some unknown wild flower and a faint sound of the drum. He smiled to himself. How vastly different this was from the life he was used to! The deserted cottage- often rummaged by snakes and foxes hardly resembled the comfort of his city home….

“Food is ready Dada! “, Pande called out from his ‘kitchen’ – a dilapidated shed attached to the main building.

Serving two-plateful of piping hot rice, potato curry and boiled eggs, Pande cautioned again, “ Have your food fast and then we’ll wind up. The kerosene is too little to let the lamp burn beyond another hour!”

“Hmm…But what about the person who stays in the adjoining room? When will he come?”

Pande smiled. “He is a police-man – the local Darogababu! He has his own timings…But thankfully, due to his presence we can rule out dacoits from our list of predators!”.

He was amused. “Do the dacoits harm the villagers too?”

“Hardly”, Pande explained, “There are five villages atop the hill – all tribal villages – the villagers hardly come down to the plains. They are so poor that it would be a sheer wastage of energy for the dacoits to climb all the way up and bring back nothing except drums!”

They laughed together. “But….”, Pande added again, “They do face a lot of exploitation. There is a group – you can call them mafias in a way. They ride on horse-back, go up the mountain and buy sack full of string beans from the villagers!”

“But, isn’t that good? They have a ready buyer!”

“Would have been good if they had paid money for the entire lot….instead they strike a deal with the locals – a sack full of beans in exchange of a handful of tobacco!”

“Tobacco! Just a handful of tobacco?”, he couldn’t believe his ears.

“Yes….They know that the tribals would hardly come down and they are too fond of their tobacco. So they let go of the entire lot of beans for just a palm full!”

Dinner was already over and Pande hurried to finish off with the cleaning before the flickering lamp would dissolve into darkness.

The sound of the drums grew louder and the light dimmer. He looked at the strange play of shadows on the walls of the old building.

“Welcome to Life!”, he told himself.

**       **      **     **     **     **     **     **

A bike-ride uphill is always difficult and the one down-hill is risky! But he loved risk. The day hadn’t been bad.  A round of dance to the drum beats did the trick! The villagers laughed and clapped seeing the ‘City-Babu’ match steps with them. He knew that was the only way he could break the ice. So, reminiscing the moments, the road downhill seemed rather a happy one for him….till he felt a nudge. He had almost forgotten about his co-rider.

“There…there goes one of them!”, Pande whispered into his ears. He looked ahead. A few steps ahead of him was a horse rider – an over filled sack adorned the horse-back along with the rider. Though the face wasn’t visible, the posture of the rider spoke of umpteen pride and nonchalance!

It took three and half seconds for him to decide the next step. Bit by bit he accelerated his speed, careful not to go over-board at the same time.

“What are you actually trying to do Dada?”, Pande whispered.

“Shhh…just hold me tight!”, he whispered back.

The Good, The Bad and The Ugly!  He couldn’t help but wonder!

The motorbike gained speed and within seconds he was right ahead of the horse-rider. With careful manoeuvre he placed his bike face to face with the rider. Face to face! Startled at first, it took just seconds for the rider to regain composure.

“What kind of a joke is this?”, the rider barked.

“Not yet! But it will soon be if you do not stop exploiting the poor people!”, he hissed back.

“What do you mean, you two-penny fellow?”

“Note down this day…this moment rather…from  this moment onwards you will never venture to go up and carry on with your business. And not just you, convey the message to your friends as well. The house down below is mine, which I share with the local Police chief….if you have any unsettled business,  meet me there!”.

He was shocked, taken aback, bewildered…..at his own voice, at his own mannerism.

Who gave that strength in him? Who instilled that confidence?

There was complete silence except the rustle of the breeze. He looked straight – eye to eye!  The confident look of the rider changed every moment till he turned ashen – a hint of genuine fear swept past his face.

With a push and a thud the sack fell off the horse and in a jiffy the rider had galloped away into the oblivion!

The beat of his heart which he had almost kept locked was finally allowed to beat in mirth.

Guru, how did you do this?”, Pande, who had maintained a stony silence so long, finally spoke up!

He really didn’t have an answer but he knew he had to speak up!

**     **     **     **    **     **    **

“So, who all among you want to join me?”, he spoke loud enough for the crowd to hear.

A lot of hands went up – mostly young ones! He felt happy. His eyes searched for the ‘squirrel-boy’. It was the little boy who had actually helped him get the break-through. He had accidentally discovered the boy –hardly six to seven years – hunting squirrels in the wilderness. It was the little boy who told him that the children of the villages never study because they had no school in the vicinity – they would play and hunt squirrels and wild rats all day long. This had actually given him an insight into what was to be done.

He had hardly spoken for a minute or two but his speech was convincing enough for the people to think of having a school in their very own village. The elders were skeptical but there was no dearth of enthusiasm among the youth. Many of them willingly came to the forefront.

“Tell us what your plan is and we shall help you in every way possible”.

He smiled at them. “You have a lot of free space here, don’t you? Will you all be willing to give a piece of that land for building a school?”

The elders looked at each other – there was still a fair amount of doubt in them. But, sensing the bubbling enthusiasm among the young ones, they too had to relent.

“Okay, then we’ll have our school right here – in the heart of this village. And now I need two more things – just a bundle of hay from each house of the village and a few strong hands to help me build the school. “

“Yes, yes, yes”, the crowd chorused.

**    **     **     **    **    **    **    **    **    **

Five schools in a week! He let out a sigh of relief, keeping an eye on the bubbling cauldron all the while. The Khichdi – a mish-mash of rice, lentils, potatoes and locally grown vegetables, all provided by the local people, boiled away in tiny spurts of volcanic eruptions.

“Mmmmm….smells so goooooood!”, the squirrel boy exclaimed, almost thrusting his nose inside the cauldron.

“A few more minutes boy….then the plateful of food and the school will all be yours”, he laughed.

Meanwhile the village headman had already begun the inaugural function. Pande showed him how to hold the scissors. With shaky fingers he cut open the discoloured ribbon at the entrance. The entire village erupted into spontaneous applause. A few enthusiastic ones beat the drums as loud as possible. The little ones danced to the beats.

Being nudged by others, the village head-man stood on a raised platform to give the very first formal speech of his life.

“Friends”, the headman spoke, “ From this day on, our children will have a better life. No one, and I repeat, not one child of our village will be without education. For centuries we’ve remained cut-off from the rest of the world….ignored, shunned and discriminated against. And now, we have a tool to make the change. And we will all ensure a better life for our children”.

There was a few seconds of stunned silence. Even the head-man himself couldn’t believe that he spoke so well. Then the cheerful applause and drumbeats drowned every sound in the vicinity.

The bubbling cauldron too had been pacified to a small simmer – ready to be served.

**    **    **    **    **    **    **

The night looked different – the velvety, bluish-black texture had a charm of it’s own.  He sniffed in – the sound of wet soil was unmistakable!

“There is rain somewhere nearby and soon it would start pouring here too!”, Pande explained, giving touches to the left-over Khichdi. Thankfully the villagers had cared to send some with them, otherwise it would have been hard to arrange food for dinner. The stock of rice was already over and there was no time all these days to replenish the stock!

The heady scent of the wild, wet bushes made him happy. He remembered his mother, his home….

Guru, food is ready!”. Pande passed him the plateful of Khichdi and a half-burnt omlette!

He was already hungry and didn’t wait for the food to cool down.

Looking at him, Pande gave a smile of content. “ It was sheer hard work all these days. And now you can relax a bit!”

“Ha! What a joke! The work has just begun Pande!”, he said, trying to toss the hot food around his mouth at the same time.

“No wonder they have given you the special name.”

“Special name?”, he was curious.

“Yes, the villagers have given you a special name. They call you – the magic maker!”, Pande said – his voice brimming with pride.

**   **   **    **    **   **   **   **

For many, many years after that and for many, many more people he has been the silent catalyst for a positive social change.

For the rural people he is The Magic Maker.

To me, he is my hero – my father!

Tagging Tagore

delonix-regia-332879_1280My fingers worked fast on the keys. I knew I had to finish the work before deadline. And it always is  a challenge competing deadlines with a talkative kid seated next to you. Old nail-polish bottles, paper boats, one-eyed, dressed and semi-naked dolls, hair brush, racing cars – every piece of possible tools of distraction aka attention was strewn around but my eight year old was hell bent on having ‘serious conversation’ . Ranging from the plight of fire-men to the possibility of settling down in moon – she had tried out every topic under the sun and beyond. I tried to keep up with the flow with ‘umms’ and ‘hmmms’ – struggling to avoid typing ‘pencils’ instead of ‘penury’. Just then she veered her attention to a fresh new topic.

“Do you know whose birthday it is on the 8th of May?”

“Umm?”

“Rabinna Tangon”

My speeding fingers stopped for a second. Raveena Tandon? Did I just hear Raveena Tandon?

“Rabina who?”, I asked.

“Arrey, Rabinna Tangon – the old man who wrote nice-nice songs….the ones you sing”, she clarified.

“You mean Rabindranath Tagore? In Bengali we call him Robindronath Thakur – that is exactly how you should pronounce. But what about him ? Are you all going to celebrate his birthday in school ?”

“No, not us. The seniors will sing and dance to his songs. And guess what?”

“What?”. I got excited at the possible probability that perhaps my daughter was selected to perform.

“We are having a HOLIDAY! Yay! “, her eyes shone at the prospect of a holiday.

I sighed. My mind reeled back to my childhood!

Come May and it was time for a special meeting of our secret club – Seven Star Golden Club which had not more than six members. My uncle, who was hardly two years senior, would take out his prized possession – a worn-out collection of Rabindranath Tagore’s songs and poems. Having cleared his throat he would declare, “Friends, this year we shall celebrate the birthday of Tagore in a grand way! This year we’ll try out new songs!”

“And the play? Will it be the same play this year too?”, one of us would just throw in the question as softly as possible – avoiding a direct eye-contact with uncle.

“Hmm…ofcourse. ‘The Postoffice’ is a hit play and we shall not divert from that”, he would announce. The sad reality was that even if he had wanted there was no alternative because his book contained only that single play and no more.

“Rather, we shall practice some new songs which we shall sing. And think of two dance pieces which you all can perform”.

So ‘new songs’ it would be. The first few lines would go fine – with our uncle ‘fine-tuning’ the music now and then. The problem would crop up beyond the first few lines. Invariably he would have no clue about the musical bit and would add his own touches till one of us would helplessly declare, “But doesn’t the song sound different with every practice?” The frown and ‘you-are-not-fit-to-be-here’ looks of my uncle would make us apologize and continue with the practice till the ‘fine-tuning’ would go terribly off the mark! And then finally it would be decided that we would simply ‘recite’ the songs instead of singing them!

Rehearsals over, small invitation chits would be passed on to the family members – inviting them for the special occasion. Chairs and every possible seating arrangements would be dragged out from every home for the ‘guests’ to sit and an adult would be coaxed to clean the courtyard for the special performance.

While we would struggle tucking our sarees as tightly as possible , though still looking like pregnant women in their final trimester, our uncle would invest his time giving final touches to his art-work – a portrait of Rabindranath Tagore!

“But they will publish a lot of his pictures in the newspaper. Can we not use a cut-out from there?”, the ‘stupid’ younger ones would dare question.

To this, he would just let out a smile – thumbing down their foolishness. Just before the programme would start, he would present his work of art – placing it at a high table for all to see. A cross-breed between Karl Marx and Albert Einstein, it would hardly resemble Tagore! While the adults would reserve their comments to, “Ahem! Not bad!”, some of us would struggle too hard to suppress our giggles!

And finally our show would start! Interspersed with wrong dance steps, forgotten lines and tripping over each other’s sarees, the show would never fail to marvel the audience –with each of them contributing to the pant-as-you-sing-and-dance numbers. Some of the adults would also share interesting anecdotes about Tagore – nearly converting the song and dance programme to a serious discussion about Tagore – till one wiser one would moderate the situation and bring it back on tracks! The programme would end with a huge round of applause and pat on our backs. But we would still wait patiently for the ‘final bit’. The ‘token of encouragement’ would drop in one by one – in the form of coins of ones and notes of two or five – if we were lucky enough! We were not supposed to be greedy and grab but humbly bow our heads and accept the ‘kind donations’!

And then we would run! The destinations varied but the objective was always the same – some snacks for the starved souls! The coins would clamour on the counter of the shopkeeper and metamorphose into little packets – small, square ‘Bablu’ biscuits (why Bablu and who Bablu we had no clue!), tangy-salty mixtures and jet-black balls of grainy tamarind sweet (which seemed over-adulterated with saw-dust!). We would grab the packets and rush back home – keeping our eyes fixed on the greying sky! And while we would be half way home, a Norwester would invariably race in with us. We would stop and take shelter under one of the tin shades and watch the ‘dance of nature’. The grounds would winnow out little balls of blinding dust; the orange-red petals of the Gulmohar would spray- paint here and there, the dusty pollens of mango flowers would match steps with the blowing wind till droplets of rain would calm down the mad frenzy. We clutch on to the soggy packets, watching nature celebrate Tagore’s birthday. The blinding rain afterwards would be the final touches to the grand celebration –of which we were a small part!

So after all these years it baffles me as to why, a person who was ever active all his life, would be chained to the confines of a holiday? And it really pains me to think that the one who had made it a mission to promote unconventional education system would be a subject of analytical dissection in the exam papers?

It really is time to make our following generations look at our heritage and culture beyond the confines of text-books and calendar holidays. Otherwise it won’t be long before TAGore is lost in the maze of HashTAGs!!

And how I really wish my daughter doesn’t spend Tagore’s birthday watching Doraemon and Motu-Patlu!