Originally posted on EARTH: SOME CALL IT HOME: Mother Teresa to be canonized on September 4, 2016, Pope Francis will declare Blessed Teresa of Kolkata a saint at the Vatican on that day. It is time to share the joy ….. from the City of Joy of which Mother is very much a part. *******…
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?”
“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.”
“Yes. It is a social service organisation.”
“How much do you pay currently? “
“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.
“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!
Benu 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.
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)
From ‘Current Noon’ to ‘Colitis’ He would first take the reddish-black balls. The half-marble size globules would then be bathed in two different kinds of salt. A reddish salt that had a milder, sw…
Source: Hunger Games-II
From ‘Current Noon’ to ‘Colitis’
He would first take the reddish-black balls. The half-marble size globules would then be bathed in two different kinds of salt. A reddish salt that had a milder, sweet taste. Followed by a blackish salt that we called ‘current noon’ (current salt). One had to just take a dot of the black salt and touch it at the tip of the tongue. A severe acidic current used to pass through the tongue and then the entire mouth. What lent it the severe acidity or what really was the composition no one knew, but the salt had some kind of orgasmic pleasure to all of us girls standing in the queue. The reddish-black pellets called “Hojmi” are normally meant to ease a troubled digestive system but loaded with suspicious-looking salts they hardly had any good properties left except to add to the glitter of hungry pairs of eyes surrounding the “Hojmiwala” (Hojmiseller). Post-school hours and just before the school-bus would ‘pom-pom’ their horns for the final call, we girls would surround the ‘best man in town’ – the Hojmiwala, clutching our little coins. Popping a ‘Hojmi’ in my mouth I would momentarily transcend to a different world which was sweet and sour and more sour and more sweet. The malice of the school hours – the punishment for undone homework, the incomplete class-work, the little tiff with best friend – would all be over with the divine tangy touch!
There was another hawker who used to sit within the school premises during tiffin hours. He had a black tin trunk where his wares used to lay assembled – sugar candies resembling cigarettes; multicoloured sugar candies that used to pop-out of the little opening in the mouth of the Joker drawn on the cover, black colored ginger candies and then he had his special ‘home-made’ chips. I am not sure how the chips laden with salt and generous sprinkling of red chilly powder could catch the fancy of little girls but it was the super-selling item of the vendor!
Being on the costlier side, I would venture to buy from him only on special occasions like a birthday or a friend’s birthday. For me, the ‘Hojmiwala’ was the guardian angel in disguise who would generously supply umpteen quantities of Manna at a mere cost of a one or a two rupee note.
It was for him that my love affair began with the food sold on the ‘other side of the gate’. What began with ‘Hojmi’ and ‘Current Noon’ gradually transformed into umpteen number of items. After college hours I would drag my friends to taste the variety of items outside the college gate. So one day it would be the sweet mango pickle, the other day it would be a special mixture of potatoes and boiled peas tossed in tamarind sauce. The ‘Fuchka’ (‘Golgappa’ /’Panipuri’ as it is normally called in the other parts of India) was my Marijuana; the cheap ice-creams made of coconut and milk was my Hashish…..My love affair with food multiplied over time. The day time used to be spent sampling food items, the nights were spent in food-blabbers while deep in sleep. “Somme morrre salt pleaaaasee”….”Mmmm…niccceee….sommeee morrree tamarind wattterr”.
My friends – Panchali, Paromita, Manasi, Madhurima, Aniyanta- were my compatriots – a few willing; the rest unwilling. By the time I completed my college I had tried out every kind of items – from junk food to healthy green-coconut juice- in and around the vicinity. Many a times I had chosen to walk a few extra miles just because I had invested my bus fare on food!
And all this without giving a thought to the junkyard where I was dumping my junk…..till the junkyard was overloaded. It was a day towards the end of the final year of my college. I hadn’t attended college that day. The day had begun with a severe stomach ache so I had decided to skip college. In the evening I made a phone call to my friend Panchali – only to know that she too was suffering from a similar stomach ache. All along the rest of the call we only discussed about the possible culprit for our ache. Timid and soft that she was, she was one of those who was always unwillingly dragged into my food experiments!
What began as a day’s call continued for three long months! The pain wouldn’t subside, neither would the phone calls.
“Today I was alright in the morning hours and then around afternoon ‘it’ began again”
“Yeah, yeah…same here.”
“A bit towards the right. Like a screw being pushed within”
“Yeah, yeah…same here…same here…only towards the left”.
No doctor, no medicines, no home-made remedies would work for us.
We would miss classes, be depressed most of the time and wait for each other’s phone call to discuss about ‘it’ – the stubborn tummy ache.
With passing days the level of our imagination crossed every limit possible – from ulcers to tumours – we had every range of discussion possible.
All the doctors would look at our tummy – press here, press there but not be able to identify the disease at all.
Being already engaged to be married, I even wrote a ‘goodbye note’ to by fiancé and kept it with my friend – to be handed over to him ‘in case of an eventuality’.
I do not know how long this mortal suffering would have continued till my mother decided that enough was enough. And so did my friend’s mother. All they did was to chalk out a diet plan and force it upon us. So, the tangy sauce was replaced with a near-transparent fish cooked in as less oil as possible. The variety of fried goodies were replaced with boiled veggies. And a total curfew was installed on our ‘just trying out some snacks’. What the doctors couldn’t do in three mon ths, they nearly managed in three weeks. And the doctors ultimately concluded that all that I had was a case of mild Colitis.
My ‘goodbye note’ was finally replaced with my wedding card and our phone bills became lesser. But if you feel it was a lesson well learnt towards healthy eating then ha ha ha ha. My friend Panchali and I still call each other pretty often and the discussion mostly veers towards either of the two topics – food or tummy ache!!!
Okay, yeah, this is a misnomer. It has nothing to do with the series of ‘The Hunger Games’. It is about the hunger games we play in our daily lives. Basically, it is about the little tales surrounding food.
It is normally believed that there are two types of hungry people in this world: one who eat for the body, the other who eat for the soul. Sadly, my genetic traits have clubbed me to the latter half of the population who live to eat. But, trust me, this is not just because of me. It has been there – in the DNA of my family – for ages and nano centuries perhaps. Our festivals, gatherings, arguments have always been around food. The farthest tale I can recall is that of my grandmother’s ‘food stories’. In the lazy afternoons she used to narrate about the huge quantities of food that used to be prepared and gathered for family functions during those times. When refrigerator was an yet-to-be-heard word, foods in huge pots, buckets and bowls used to be kept under the high cots. The servers had to tactfully take a portion from one corner of the utensil and go about the serving business. In one such event, my food-lover grandmother and her sister kept a keen watch on the array of food items on display under their cot.
“Given a choice, which one would you eat first?”, my grandma asked.
“The one with the fish and the red gravy”, grandma-young replied.
“I would start with the meat. And then the sweet. And then the curd”, grandma’s excitement wouldn’t ebb away – as she kept pointing to one food item after the other, sitting from her high seat on the cot.
And suddenly there was a noise. A crash, bang – followed by another bang.
The next discovery was done by my grandma’s mother – two young girls bathed in gravy of different hues. Her shrill voice alerted the others. The two pre-teens were then fished out of the tons of gravy, smashed pieces of fish and meat, blobs of curd – all of which had mingled into a single mass of utter disaster.
Stopping at this, my grandma would have a hearty laugh.
“ So excited were we both about the food, that we had hardly noticed when we had come precariously close to the edge of the cot – till both of us fell head-long into the bucket full of food”.
With a grandma as this, it was no surprise that my father was equally obsessed about food. Though there are many tales around his food obsession –one takes the cake –literally!
It was the wedding of one of my aunts. A huge wedding-cake had been ordered. A wedding cake was a novelty item those days. And being the younger among his umpteen sisters and cousins, my father had the privilege of being the closest to the grand wedding cake. His little eyes marvelled at the number of marzipans shaped into wedding shoes and wedding bells that adorned the cake. So, while the entire wedding was on, his little fingers crawled time and again to reach out to the edible ballet shoes, bells, flowers. Finally, when the cake was no longer the centre of attraction he even peeled off the cake icing, stuffing those into his mouth as much as possible. Things would have gone unnoticed, if he hadn’t begun complaining about tummy ache just moments later. What began as a mere whimper due to a tummy ache, gradually converted into a night-long howlathon –interspersed with unending visits to the loo and bouts of severe vomiting. The elders would have been left clueless if the half-digested shoes, distorted bells and petal-less flowers had not tumbled out of his tummy.
From that day on, during every marriage ceremony, one of the sisters or the other used to be deployed to keep an eye on my Dad – lest he repeated his feat!
There are some things you cannot escape, even if you wish to. And the ‘hyper-active hunger DNA’ continued to swish down to us too. And by us it would normally mean three of us – my brother, my cousin brother and myself. Every year during Christmas, a local doctor and family friend , Dr.Paul, would be invited to have lunch at our place. It was almost like a ritual that he would arrive with a huge earthern-pot full of spongy, white Rasgullas – the quintessential Bengali sweet delicacy. Considering the number of family members, the number of Rasgullas would be about fifty or more. Dr.Paul would only have fried Luchis (Poori) and Alu Dum for lunch so mother, grandma and aunts would be busy fishing out one fried Luchi after the other, while my brothers would do the same with the big pot of Rasgullas – kept in one corner. Turn by turn they would scoop out one sweet after the other – wiping their mouth intermittently. By the time Dr.Paul would finish washing his fingers, my brothers would have made way to some hidden corner of the room. Post the guest-session, my grandma would bring out the pot of Rasgullas only to discover a lonely piece floating unwillingly in the pot full of sugary syrup – in the company of an ant or two. No amount of searching would find the two-some and they would reappear only when things would have been forgotten and forgiven in the festive spirit!
But this habit of ‘help-thyself’ has brought in many an embarrassing moment as well. In one such occasion, when the newly-wed cousin of mine came for her first post-nuptial visit, like a good, typical Bengali family we served him a plateful of sweets. It is part of the custom to present a plate over-flowing with a variety of sweets to the new son-in-law. And like any other shy groom, my brother-in-law exclaimed that it was way too many for him.
“Why don’t you guys join me?”, he offered politely. Given this sort of an offer, normally we would help ourselves to half a piece or so. But to my brother, it was a green-signal to gate crash. Smiling ear-to-ear he picked up the largest piece. Being the youngest, his brashness was greeted with an indulgent smile by my brother-in-law.
“Hey, take some more”, he offered.
The flood gates were now open……one after another he kept on picking up the best sweets of the plate.
One of us rolled our eyes, the other winked, someone else gave him a mild nudge, my nervous aunt began to sweat visibly. But there was no stopping the monstrous DNA. My brother-in-law watched helplessly as his youngest trouble-maker was on a all-out-eat-all spree, leaving very less on the plate meant for the guest. In order to prevent further dent to the damaged reputation I finally managed to give him the hardest pinch.
His mouth overloaded with sweets, he managed to cry out, “Wha aa yo phinshin ma?”
“Why don’t you go and wash your fingers now?”, I yelled .
Having achieved three-quarter of his goal, he now didn’t mind the cleansing and happily obliged – much to the relief of the family and the guests!
So, these days when I discover the upper lips of son laced in cream, the sticky fingers of my daughter or nibbled-and-then-reshaped pudding, I smile to myself. And inspite of their vehement denial and violent shaking of their heads, I can still guess the name of the cat which stole the milk! Well, we really cannot escape what runs in the family, can we?
(And you thought, this is it? More food stories to follow…..)
Pic Courtesy: Pixabay
Whatever I am today is because of my mother. Whatever I am not is because of my father. I am not exactly how a mom of two kids should ideally be. I am not a cleanliness freak, neither a very organised person – my house is normally like a bachelor’s pad. I am too impatient to be an ideal mother. If the string of my salwar whooshes inside and beyond the reach of my fingers, I hardly bother to pull out and re-push it patiently with the help of a pin. I conveniently cut open the place where I can feel the string and draw it out enough to tie a knot. My mother keeps complaining about the loose buttons in my daughter’s dress that I never bother to stitch again. ‘Inspite of being a woman’ (and how I hate this phrase!) I hardly use creams, shampoos and have not visited a parlour since my marriage day! And inspite of the general feeling in the virtual world that I am an over-friendly, smiling Whoopi Goldberg, I am not. I am rather a withdrawn kind of person whom the neighbours and relatives hardly find – in happiness or in grief! And I know that I have inherited this bohemian gene from my Dad.
With my Dad, life is a never-ending picnic, as also of learning. With my Dad life was never supposed to be normal – not conventional in the least. His marriage is still a talking point in my family. For his marriage reception, instead of wedding cards, he distributed printed leaflets, inviting ‘only the young friends’ with a strict warning that no one should bring any gifts for the wedding. It was a musical evening instead of a lavish wedding feast. There were only snacks accompanied by a musical programme – songs sung by my Dad and his friends. The relatives frowned, my mother-the new bride-was puzzled, but he stuck on to his plans. But he was always like that. He sold shirts in the bus-stand, spent days in the refugee relief camps in the name of ‘just going for a walk’, walked in political rallies against the government, gladly denied a secure, government job.
So, it was no surprise that when I was born, he was not around. While my mother was battling a near-fatal child birth, my Dad was somewhere in some remote drought-prone region – distributing relief material among the extremely poor population. He first saw me when I was three months old. From that day on, we developed an unusual bond. Not only that of a father-daughter. But also of a guru-shishya.
Life has been an unending story of adventure since that day. For one, he made us believe that we must take life as it comes and enjoy every bit of whatever we have. Having a bohemian social worker as Dad is never an easy life. We’ve spent a near nomadic life – living in deep forest areas known for dacoits to lavish campuses to red-soiled rural areas. And we’ve always lived with the mantra that it is not important how much you have but how well you live with whatever you have!
So, with our limited resources we would have ‘barbeque nights’ in our terrace, organise little picnics in our neighbourhood park, have a ‘night out’ to the local restaurant where four of us would share a big bowl of soup and a plate of noodles. Because of him we learnt to enjoy our food as well as be thankful for it. While we were in Bangalore, wearing his trademark bright orange wind-cheater, he would take my brother and me to the green expanse of Bangalore Gymkhana grounds – just to buy the smoky kebabs from the road-side sellers. Enjoying the breezy ride, we would inhale the strange smell of smoky kebabs, amalgamated with the dewy smell of the fresh grasses of Gymkhana. On Sundays, he would travel all the way to the suburban areas – just to buy farm fresh chickens. Every winter we would come down to Calcutta for Christmas. He had a strange passion. While the train would stop at major railway junctions, he would ask my mother to take out our big tiffin carrier. He would then get down from the train and go all the way outside the station to buy best local food. While the train would whistle loudly-signalling ready-to-depart – my eyes would frantically look for him in the station. The train would then begin with a jerk and I would almost start sobbing. “Babaaa”, I would begin to weep and press my face against the window rails, looking for my Dad. And then, out of the blue, I would see him waving to me from the entrance door- smiling.
He has never been a dad-like Dad. For one, instead of studies or career he only spoke about music and movies. So, by the time we grew up , both my brother and I , had immense knowledge about music and movies. Come Sundays, and our house , would resemble a mini festival arena. From the little tape-recorder songs ranging from The Beatles to Ghulam Ali would fill in the air while mother would get down to cook umpteen number of items. My father would then sit on the cane chair and discuss movies from The Good, The Bad and The Ugly to Indiana Jones. We would listen in awe while he would hum songs of Mohammed Rafi. Not that he wasn’t interested about our studies. He had an unconventional approach to it. My brother, who was a difficult child to teach, just wouldn’t sit to write his spellings. So, my father had an unique plan. He recorded the words in the little cassette recorder. He played the cassette and asked my brother to write the spellings. Tech-buff that he was, my brother happily jumped at the proposal, much to the relief of my mother!
His way of imparting knowledge and the range of subjects covered was weird. We learnt how to prepare the best thread for kites using cat poop; make a TV satellite receptor using umbrella; use different chemical powders to prepare hand-made crackers; use our teeth effectively to cut electrical wire ; understand the different paper sizes and fonts used in a printing press….
When we were quite young, he gave my brother and me, the entire salary of a month and asked us to maintain the expenses. He said that it was one way to know how tough it is for mother to manage a family with limited resources and understand the value of money as well. After a month we gave up!
But if there was one major thing that my father taught us was never to be perturbed by the report cards. So, our mere pass-marks would mean a huge treat from my Dad! Even our failure would never perturb him. He would merely smile and say, “No problem. Next time. Next time.”
He instilled in us a unique value system of frankness and honesty. And that was not to be compromised. So, we were brought up to be absolutely free and frank with each other. So much so that when I had my first periods, it was my father and not my mother to whom I spoke about it. As I lay down in extreme pain and discomfort, I could see the pain in his eyes as he tried to comfort me. Much of this was possible because to him ‘gender’ was and still is just another word. He would insist that I climb trees and learn to ride bicycle. Unlike typical Indian father I never heard him speak about ‘marrying me off to the best guy ’; instead he always insisted that I get to travel the world, be independent, be myself. So it was no wonder that meet-the-groom in my case was unique as well! He never, ever asked my boyfriend whether he worked or not, where he was employed or what his earning was. They met at a restaurant in my absence. As my jittery husband-to-be smiled nervously, my Dad asked him just one question: “What did you have for breakfast?”. Staying alone as a bachelor, his options for breakfast were limited, so he admitted that he had some leftover rice from the previous night .That was all he had for breakfast. My father shook his hands and sealed the deal, followed by a sumptuous lunch. Later, I asked my Dad how he could decide that he was the right one for me. My Dad smiled and said, “His answer was enough. One, I knew that he was an honest person. Two, I knew that his wants from life were simple. A man who could be happy with the breakfast of left-over rice would definitely be simple and less demanding to keep my daughter happy”.
I am thankful for having a hippie Dad. Because of him I’ve learnt to take life less seriously : enjoy the smell of simple rice and dal served in a Saal leaf-plate in a remote village, savour the joy of travelling miles just to taste one simple food, not be worried about the bank PIN number, believe in the fact that religion is a philosophy of comfort and not a struggle with rituals.
Because of him I am beginning to understand that life is all about living – living to the fullest. His funda is simple: If you live life properly, once is enough. As I am writing this piece, he is uploading his social songs in the Youtube with the help of my son, while receiving phone calls from our field workers in remote tribal regions. He has been pestering me for the past one week to know about building network through Indiblogger. He has just acquired a camera from my brother to try his hands at photo-blogging. I am not sure about his next venture….From making paper lanterns to buying semi rotten mangoes – for him and with him, every bit of life is an adventure. And I am glad that my children are getting to travel the same road as us. On his part, his fresh innings has just begun with his grand children.
It was a tunnel. Or perhaps wasn’t one. It seemed too green to be a tunnel; too illuminated to be a tunnel. It was a long way forward. Too fast and blinding. There seemed a light at the end of the tunnel. But the pain that I felt was way beyond my endurance to actually know the distance between myself and the lightning light. I heard some voices. Damp voices, muffled voices.
“Open your eyes. OPEN your eyes”, one of the voices seemed to command. Or was there a tinge of request? I tried to open my eyes. Though I didn’t want to.
“Mrs. Srichandra. What is your surname please?”, this time there was a definite softness to the voice.
I opened my eyes. My eyes opened to a blank white wall. Somewhere next to the blankness a picture stared at me. My vision seemed too hazy to recognize the picture. I blinked. The blink took ages to become a BLINK. This time I could recognise the picture. Sri Sri Ramakrishna Paramhansa. A sense of contentment was just seeping in when I heard the voice again.
“Your name. What is your name?”
“Srichandra”, I answered. Rather my lips whispered. I seemed to have no control over my lips.
“Perfect. And your full name?”
“Srichandra Venkataramanan”. I took ages to spell out those two words.
A smiling face now appeared within my line of vision.
“Congratulations. It is a baby boy”.
I’ve almost always spoken or written about her daughter. Her trials and triumphs. I’ve hardly ever written about my son. That is because to me my son is more like a friend than my son. When I conceived him I was fresh out of my college. I was too young or more immature perhaps to understand the gravity of my role. So much so that I hardly told anyone that I was pregnant with my first child till it was too visibly obvious in my sixth month. The reason for this was strange. I was too shy to share the news! So, unlike many girls I didn’t have a gala announcement -no balloons and sweets for the announcement, no doctor informing a host of eager relatives-“Mubarak ho, apki bahu/beti maa ban ne waali hai” (“Congratulations, your daughter-in-law/daughter has conceived”). Thankfully I did not even have the usual pregnancy symptoms for others to understand. And it was but natural that my post delivery symptoms bordered on non-motherly mommyhood. I would openly feed my baby which was strongly criticised by many, I would insist on sleeping on leaving my hungry son wailing, I would throw tantrums at par with my child and would feel utterly jealous of the attention showered on him. This went on till in his second year when my little son decided that ‘enough was enough’ and found to his comfort that his grandma was a better mother material than his own mother. So, from then on my mother became his ‘Maa’ and I became his ‘Mummy’. That is how we almost ‘grew up together’.
Unlike my daughter, he was born in extremely positive situation and circumstances. He got the best gifts, best smiles from relatives and best of attention. On his first birthday we had a huge Dennis-the-menace cake, a baby synthesiser, biriyani, people, smiles, laughter. By the time he was two he had a toy car of his size which he could ride. We would go for weekend trips, taste food from different food courts, go for vacation trips; while he would floor people with his childish laughter. By the time he was four, he had a really, real Casio keyboard. We also employed a private music teacher for him. Life was beautiful. There was everything a child could ask for. And suddenly, one day he had none. None meant nothing. None meant No One.
On his fifth birthday his life became different. We had just zeroed in on one of the best schools in the town. Among 300 students applying, he was among the only 30 lucky to be selected. We were almost ready to purchase his school uniform when his father’s professional life received a massive setback. Overnight our lives became different. Tough and different. While his sister had a tough life being born in this phase, his life was tougher because he had to adjust from a situation of ‘Have’ to ‘Have Not’. All of a sudden what was easily available to him, became hard to get. Overnight he had to be admitted to a small, middle class school in a far away corner of the city. We were apprehensive that perhaps the changing situation would be a jolt to him. But what he gave us in return was a surprise to us. Overnight he stood tall. Tall enough to comfort us in turn. He would happily clap at my shaky attempts to make a birthday cake. “My mommy is the best baker in the world’, he would declare triumphantly. He would sync himself with any and every situation. So much so, that by the time his sister grew up, he became my comrade. He would cycle around the neighbourhood for the best deals in vegetables, milk and other household items. One day a neighbourhood shopkeeper called my husband and spoke to him. “Is that your son, Sir?”, he asked. My husband nodded. “In all my life that I have been a shopkeeper, I am yet to find a young boy like him Normally boys of his age would buy chocolates, ice-creams or chips with the spare money; he buys strange items – packets of tea leaves, sachets of shampoo, a small thing or two of household item. Even if I offer him something, he politely refuses, saying he would buy the item if he required it. You are a lucky father”. That day I learnt that sacrifice has no age. As parents we often speak about the sacrifices we undertake for our children, but there are moments when their mammoth sacrifices dwarf ours.
In all his life, he has offered such stunning moments which has made me believe that contentment and virtue comes from within – no money in this world can buy those. Once, after many days of request, I had given him a ten rupee note to buy an ice-cream cup for himself after school. He came back from school – happy and content. “So, are you happy now?”, I asked him. “I am”, he said. “But I am sorry mummy. I couldn’t buy an ice-cream. There was a old lady begging for food outside my school. So I bought two biscuit packets and gave her”. I couldn’t respond immediately except for a feeble pat on his back.
We couldn’t afford his music teacher beyond six months, but he clung on to his passion for music. He tried. He let his fingers play on the reed. He failed. He tried again. But he didn’t give up. That Christmas was a special service by the kids. “I would play the piano”, my son declared. “Would you be able to?”, I was apprehensive. “Ofcourse”, he beamed in confidence. As his turn came I could hear my heart beat. I closed my eyes. He placed his little fingers on the reed. “Silent Night, Holy Night”- the lilting tune wafted from his piano. That silly lump crawled up my throat. I stood up in sheer joy. That day I learnt that money or lack of it cannot affect one’s talent. It is the passion that matters.
As he grew up, he coped with the challenges of an unequal world. Not only did he cope, he coped with his head held high. That December we were trying to tide over a very tough situation. The resources were limited, the wants were many. And amongst this act of balancing we had failed to notice when a small hole in his school shoe became gapingly large. Being one of the School Prefects, it was easy to spot him and his left shoe. The Vice Principal hauled him. “Antariksh, this is too shameful that being a Prefect, you have such a huge hole in your shoe. Can I expect to see a new pair of shoes tomorrow?”. “I am sorry Ma’am. Not tomorrow. Give me time till Christmas. I shall ask for a new pair of school shoes from my grandma as Christmas gift. Till then, please excuse me Ma’am”. There was perhaps a sense of conviction in his voice. Strangely, the Vice Principal relented. That day he taught me a very vital lesson. Faced with challenges, the best way to overcome is to look straight into the eyes and tackle head on. There can never be anything as convincing as honesty.
With him, my journey became the one of daily learning – of evolving as a stronger human being. He is the one who helped me believe that beyond the story of the hole in the shoe is the story of a new pair of shoes.
So, my dear son, thank you. As you grow up I do not wish you become the richest man or even the most famous one. All I wish is that the dreams you stack up in the attic saying “One day I shall” , come true. For your sake. I do not want you to prove yourself to the world, not even to us or yourself. I just wish you get to live your dreams – however odd or strange those might be. The other day as you pointed to the bright expanse of green, blue, purple, orange on the computer screen, I could see the glitter in your eyes. “Aurora Borealis”, you had spoken in gleeful whisper. I wish one day you stand face to face with your dreams – health facilities for the poorest, a car which runs on green fuel, fusion music band, making movies or even witnessing Aurora Borealis. I wish atleast one or all of these happen to you – for the immense strength with which you faced the challenges of life, for your immense positivity of believing that the best shall happen one day, for those moments of comfort that you had offered, for giving birth to the strong woman in me and definitely for the sake of the hole in your shoe. Happy Birthday!
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Source: The Medal