Saturday, 27 November 2010

If I were a Kargil war widow.....

If I were a Kargil war widow, I would be perplexed at a few things emerging from the 'Adarsh' Housing Society scam.....

  • Why was Colaba chosen as a location for building houses for war widows? (Ideally, I would have liked to live in a place that provided, among other things, a strong social support network. Especially now, with my husband gone, I would have preferred to stay in familiar surroundings rather than an alien city. That would make me ask my next question)
  • How many Kargil war heroes were from Mumbai? How many of their widows even knew of this scheme?
  • Were the flats meant only for the widows of officers, or for those of persons below officer rank (PBOR) too?
  • Assuming I was allotted a flat in "Adarsh', how would living there actually be for me?
  • If I as an officer's wife would find it difficult to survive in a place which is said to have one of the highest costs of living in the country (my husband would have been a young man in his thirties, and maybe a young father, who at the time of his death wouldn't have had a very substantial saving), could  the wife of a PBOR even think about it? 
  • How many of us would have then sold our respective flats to the highest bidder, and bid adieu to Mumbai?
Questions that haven't been raised by even the media, because like every other Mumbaikar and metrophile, it is completely consumed with the fact that some people who didn't deserve to, got a flat in a prime location.

If I were a Kargil or any other war widow, I would be dismayed that the term 'war widow' , instead of being used with great caution and respect, had been (mis)used to throw people off guard and stop them asking too many questions.

I would be indignant that the term could also be associated with something as murky as a scam

I would wonder how many cases of real need would now be viewed with suspicion because of this one incident.

I would wonder how one act of greed could bring such indignity upon the service and the war that my husband and others like him gave up his life for.

I would find it very difficult to remind the public that they need not get cynical about the Armed Forces just because of the greed of a few men. 

With passing time, and scam upon scam, who knows how long my child/children and I would be able to view the Armed Forces and the country as my husband saw it, worth dying for......

Thursday, 21 October 2010

Thinking like two, or maybe more.....

What was the "wisest" advice given to you before you went for that crucial job interview?

I remember one well meaning friend asking me,

"Think hard, would you hire yourself?"

Another one quipped,

"Try and think like the interviewer. What does he/she want? What are they looking for in an employee?"

As if it wasn't enough that my blank mind had forgotten what and who I was, like a cruel joke, I now had the added burden of imagining who and what my interviewer(s) was(were)! If they didn't know who they were and what they wanted, did they have any business interviewing me in the first place?

Such sane questions occurred to me only after the mind numbing experience of being grilled over a slow fire, glad that my anatomy was not any the worse for the ordeal.

I'd heard of the saying that one has to be cruel to be kind, and I decided whether my well meaning friends had been one or the other only after the outcome of the interviews.

I digress, hugely. Let me try and get to the point I'm trying to make (and at the moment I'm thinking just like plain old me, not like any of my readers, I swear!).

Vishwanathan Anand claims it, job seekers swear by it, and many other successful people vouch for it...being two, or sometimes more than two, people.

Perfect case for schizophrenia, you say?

Wait a minute. Vishwanathan Anand, our very own Chess hero, claims he always thinks what his opponent will be upto. Not that his opponent doesn't do the same.

Look all around you. The people who know other people better than they know themselves always seem to have the upper hand. Which is why the majority of human beings are happily engaged in this engaging sport!

I no longer find those American movies that have control of all the people of the world as their core theme, stupid. That is what everyone around is engaged in, after all!

Doesn't the lawyer think of what his opponent must be up to? Ditto for the politician, the marketing person, the advertiser, the maidservant.....the list is endless...Seems like everyone is trying to second guess everyone else, and trying to know them better than they know themselves! Insane!!

Well, its often been said that there is a thin line between sanity and madness.

Many celebrities claim that well controlled madness has helped them achieve fame and success.

The only differene between such people and those locked up in asylums being that on account of their amazing abilities, their 'strange' behaviour is explained away as 'eccentric'.

I cite some of my observations of one such 'strange' behaviour--thinking like two, or maybe more, people, and its consequences....

In the days of instructive teaching, in my sepia tinted memories, I can almost hear my teachers saying (with advancing age, they appear, horror of horrors, en masse in my mind's eye, instead of individually, all mouthing the same words!)

"Think like the examiner. Imagine him/her surrounded by mounds of answer sheets. Imagine if he/she has had a fight with his/her spouse. Your different answers will only irritate him/her. So, just write as I'm telling you to. Believe me, I have been teaching board classes for 10/20/30 etc. years."

So, at such a young age, I and many others like me, were already thinking like two. Sounds similar to 'eating for two" when you're expecting a baby, but with comparatively less than happy outcomes.

After school, you feel you have left thinking like two behind for good, when you discover the gory truth.

Two is the minimum you think like. You have to think like the boss (that's if you've gone past thinking like your interviewers), the boy/girl-friend (oh yes!), the prospective in laws, the customers, the neighbours, your domestic help ......

Strangely, a little bit of sanity returns when one gets married. After a certain period of time(different for different individuals) if you're married, you have at least two or three people less to think like-namely, your spouse(sometimes the activity ceases within hours of tying the knot!), your in laws, and for a brief period, your children.

Of course, the hiatus is short lived, as, once your children become teenagers, your sole preoccupation in your waking hours as well as when you're asleep, is to think like them, and try and pre-empt and second guess their every decision, failing miserably at most times, but like an obsessively compulsive (or compulsively obsessive-take your pick) person, going on trying till they are well past that dreadful period. The fact that your own parents never succeeded in this herculean task doesn't occur to you at all.

After a certain period of time, when you are exhausted thinking like everyone around, you realise that you were so busy thinking like so many other people, you've forgotten to think like yourself, almost completely. Mid Life Crises! (I wonder who comes up with such scary names for life's simple processes?).

So you now spend the rest of your life attending Sri Sri Ravi Shankar Art of Living Sessions, wondering aloud, "Who am I?" !! Round robin, but still thinking like two!

All that hoopla just because God gave you a brain so you could think for yourself like yourself, but you taxed it heavily by thinking like others. All that time and money wasted on shrinks, gurus, and retreats, when all you have to do is stop and say, "From today onwards, I'm only going to think like me, for me", and hey! Presto! The crises is gone!

Let me end this piece here and now, before you split up even further than you already have, and try thinking like me...Meanwhile, I have to go back to thinking like you readers...What must you be thinking of this piece, will you forward it to others you know, will you be interested enough to leave a comment.....??!! Have a good day!

Wednesday, 9 June 2010

Who Else am I not-Part Five: "The Bell(e)s of St. Mary's"

All eyes in the school refectory (dining hall) were on the tiny bell in Sister's hands.

The hands of the girls were busy too. It was bath day for Class twelve.

Boot camp drill would have been shamed at their crack readiness for bathing in a matter of minutes, between finishing lunch and running helter skelter towards a separate building reserved for the activity, the Bathhouse!

Unseen by Sister's eyes, hands were busy undoing what could be undone without any indecency involved--hair, shoes, etc., so that minimum time was wasted once in the bathrooms.

All conversation ceased as THE moment drew close. Slowly (many a times I felt  Sister deliberately slowed the entire motion for dramatic effect), the hand holding the bell started to rise.

It's tingle was lost in the clamour of chairs being pushed back, girls getting behind them in a trice and pushing them in again, the fast-forwarded-at-a-speed-of-12x recitation of the after-meals prayer, followed by the sound of screaming and running out of the refectory, past the library, dodging the huge stone pillars, towards the bathhouse.

In the two years that I spent there, no amount of admonishing by the nuns ever made us stop doing this, including the yelling.

The reason was simple. Hot water was switched off after around ten minutes, leaving us with as much icy cold water as we wanted. I wonder if you've ever tried washing your face with icy cold water in the hills, leave alone have a bath. For some minutes, the face falls off the mind's sensory map. It's the closest to 'rigor mortis'  a living being can get!

The older girls knew exactly which bathroom had a big fat spout, that gave double the amount of water in ten minutes. Many had favourite bathrooms, and they had a common understanding amongst themselves not to bag the other's.

 Joining a boarding school at an age when the survival skills of most of its older boarders were honed to perfection (there were many who had been there since class one) was tough.

I joined St. Mary's Convent, Nainital, also known as 'Ramnee'(established in the year 1879, on a piece of land owned by a Col Ramsay, from which the word 'Ramnee' came about) for two years, a couple of days before all the girls returned from their winter holidays. So I had the opportunity to check out its grounds, the field, the classrooms, the infirmary. I was already feeling quite settled by the time the first batch of the girls and their trunks and holdalls made their way up the wooden staircase and into the dormitories. I was ready with my welcoming "Hello, fellow boarders" smile.

I got a stare, and looks that said,  "Who's she?", or, when I persisted, some giggles and another look that said, , "What's wrong with her?"

The girls, some of them in their eleventh year there, must have felt like being welcomed by a stranger in their own home.

The two years of boarding school made me realise I had a lot to learn, as well as a lot to teach, in life. The 'belles' of St. Marys' came mostly from wealthier backgrounds than my fellow students in previous schools. Many had experienced a life of travel outside the country, but I found few that had traveled extensively within the country like me.

Friendships were difficult to form at that age. I was lucky to have two other new girls besides me that year. We stuck together, and had the most memorable two years ever. One of the girls' parents lived close-by, and I have many memories of us rushing off to their place, enjoying her mother's cooking, and roaming the countryside. Twenty eight years on, the bond has only grown, to include our husbands and children. That is something I shall always thank the school for.

Academics, to me, was an insignificant part of the whole experience of being in a boarding school, as I proceeded to drink it all up to the maximum in the meagre time I had.

I have never seen a hotel housekeeping staff as efficient or dedicated as the housekeeping nuns of the school. We girls were spoilt rotten, as we had our clothes washed, ironed, and neatly arranged in our cupboards by them. Twice a week we would get a fresh set of clothes, our shoes were polished by the smiling old Samson, our trunks were packed tidily.....I think I appreciated this effort only when I started looking after my own house

A few years ago I revisited the school with my husband, and was amazed to find how fully we had lived our lives in such a small area. Each minute of our lives was accounted for and organised, and we made the most of what we had, despite the outwardly stiff demeanour of the European nuns (they did let down their guard at times, and give us a glimpse into their softer sides, except a few like Sister Christine), and the sullen behaviour of most of the Indian nuns, barring just a couple (the unhappy mix of a small difference in our ages and a big difference culturally made for many explosive encounters, and what was often dismissed as  girls-will-be-girls behaviour by the old guard was considered gross misdemeanour by the latter lot).

More than a bunch of buildings and fields, the school was a storehouse of stories, traditions and customs that were carefully preserved and shared by the European nuns, especially by Sister Josephine. An ex Ramnee-ite herself, it was rumoured that she chose to become a nun  after the death of her fiance in World War Two.  Another nun, Sister Christine, whose father was in the British Indian Army, used to live in the house that is now the Municipal Hospital, on the hill facing our school.

An example of how a sense of connectedness with the past was woven into our lives at the school was the visit to St John's Church in town.

The year that I joined was the centenary of the massive land slip of September 18,1880, that had caused the demolition of an entire hill near what is known as Mallital (malli = high, tal = lake; higher end of the lake).

(Nainital before the landslip in 1880)

Sister Josephine spent an hour with the senior girls describing the entire horrific event, bringing it alive so realistically that I could almost see the helpless victims disappearing into the vortex of the muddy earth! It was after this description that we walked down to the church for a prayer service, in memory of the victims. I felt like the land slip had happened the day before, and not a hundred years ago...

(Nainital after the land slip in 1880)

As I grew older, I realised Ramnee and Sisters Josephine, Pia, Margaret and Dominica did have more of an effect on me than I had thought they would.

At the end of school when our character certificates were being written by Sister Josephine, she told us that she would never ever write anything negative for any girl, because, for the discerning person, it was not what she wrote, but what she didn't, that counted!

Ramnee and my other schools may not have made me a brilliant pupil, but they have given me a healthy, vocal conscience, and a sense of fair play that has made itself an integral part of my being . Subconsciously, I try even now, to live up to the values exhibited by these indomitable spirited women.

The buffet that life had spread out for me was soon to get more interesting, as college, and marriage awaited.....of course, I had no inkling, as usual!

Wednesday, 24 March 2010

Who Else Am I not? Part Four-'Living in Shangrila'

My first day in Yangchenphug High (then Central) School in Thimphu, Bhutan,  was declared a national holiday. A Bhutanese national had committed suicide by jumping from the bridge in the city into the Thimphu river below.

This was the capital of Bhutan, and the entire nation mourned the death of the suicide victim, so rare was the occurrence.

The people seemed very happy with whatever they had, and the Gross National Happiness factor, that made headlines the world over recently , was very much in evidence all around us at the time.

The world as we had known it so far,  was left behind, as we began our relationship with the only place that could come close to the legendary 'Shangrila'.....

The sound of the deep Bhutanese 'dungchen' (long trumpet) and the Tang Du (drum) intruded our conversation one Sunday morning.

It was now two months that we had been living in a house on a hilltop in Simtokha, that overlooked the scenic Thimphu valley and river, seven kilometers before Thimphu, the capital city of Bhutan.

Our house faced a lawn edged by a wired fence, from where the hill fell unnaturally sharply, interrupted by a broad road. It had been cut to make way for the national highway, which, at the time, was the fastest road link from the capital city to Phuntsholing in the plains.

Below the road, the hill continued as before, gently sloping down to meet the river.

At the time, the river banks boasted of apple orchards with apples that were so maroon in colour that they appeared almost black. During the apple season, sometimes at night, we could hear mountain bears grunting with pleasure as they feasted on the fruit.

That morning, my brother and I ran out to see what was happening, but our vision was hidden because of a curve in the road. 

A procession seemed to be headed our way. The wind carried the sounds of Buddhist chanting, guttural, slowly getting louder and louder. 

We hung patiently onto the fence, sure that something interesting was just about to unfold, and what luck that it was to happen so close to home!

Suddenly I shouted, "There they are!", as the first bit of red and orange of the monk's robes flapping in the wind appeared round the corner.

Slowly, as if it were a stage show, a line of monks appeared, followed by another, then another. After them, clad in a striped regal 'Kho' followed  a very handsome young man (who, we learnt later, was the king, His Majesty Jigme Singye Wangchuk).

I don't remember whether he wore a crown or other 'kingly' items. Viewed even from that distance, he clearly stood out. He, in turn, was followed by a group of around fifty or more men, (at that distance, I couldn't make out if there were any women in that group), all wearing the national dress, the 'kho".

The image of that 'royal' spectacle, with the smoke from the incense burners in the monks' hands  rising up and lingering in the air, their orange and maroon robes and scarves fluttering nervously in the breeze, is still vivid in my mind.

They all made their way down slowly to the banks of the Thimphu river, and carried out a couple of hours prayers, punctuated by periodical blowing of the 'dungchen', chanting, and beating of the 'tang du'.

The next day, when we went to school, we learnt the reason for the elaborate ritual.

There had been no rain that year, and the king, a representative accepted by the largely agricultural population as appointed by the Almighty, had gone to the banks of the sacred Thimphu river to pray to the Rain God.

Bizarrely, it did rain the very next day!

School for me meant putting on the 'kira' (the Bhutanese national dress for women) five days a week.

For the first timer, it is no less frustrating than wearing a saree, and coaxing that one elegant fold in front was the result of forty five minutes of hard labour. Despite all our efforts, the Bhutanese girls looked like they were born in them, and we 'foreigners' like uncomfortable lesser beings.

I often wore my normal clothes underneath, so that when I reached home, I could just rip off the whole garment, and run off to play.

It was strange to be called a 'foreign' national in school.

My school followed the I.C.S.E. pattern, and while the second language in the ninth and tenth grade was Hindi for us Indians, it was 'Dzongkha' for our Bhutanese classmates.

Since they were larger in number, their Dzongkha teacher took class in the classroom itself, while our Hindi lessons were conducted in the Physics Lab.

The first time that I had a period in Hindi, I wondered why my Indians classmates ran out as soon as the bell rang. I took my time collecting my books, and was about to leave, when the Dzongkha teacher walked in.

He looked at me like Cyrus Broacha looks at a new 'bakra' on MTV.

Using sign language, he asked me to stand in front of the class, and wish everybody in the local manner (bowing down with hands outstretched, and saying loudly, "Quuzzu-zam-bola"), modelling it for me. He wouldn't let me leave until I had demonstrated it. The next time round, I was more than prepared to flee as soon as the bell rang for our Hindi lesson!

I tried not to miss a single day of school. The 'naughtiness' we indulged in was at times innocent (once on our return from a class picnic, the boys stole apples from an orchard, and were nearly hacked with a 'khukri' by a zealous Nepali guard!) and at times ingenuous (we tried to use a periscope to see what specimens were laid out for us in our Class 10 Biology practical!)

A self contained world, unmindful of what chaos existed outside its frontiers....truly Shangrila!

Friday, 22 January 2010

Who Else am I not-"The Two Idiots"

The next decade was a blur of places, names, people, schools, uniforms, teachers, exams, report cards.....

The one thing that remained constant in our lives were the Himalayas.

In this time, my father went from Udhampur, through Kalimpong(a second time), and Phuntsholing(Bhutan) to Thimphu (Bhutan)

By now I had started taking the weather, always ranging from pleasant to cold, the breath taking view, and the non polluted environment for granted.

Whenever we visited our cousins in the plains, I longed to get back to ‘our’ side of the continent.

Academics appeared to be the only black lining in our silver cloud, as we joined our new schools at any time of the year. Sometimes, after more than half the academic session had elapsed!

It never occurred to my father that my mother, my brother and I should stay back in a place to complete a session, and I will be eternally grateful to him for that.

In a way that was good for all of us in the long run, he felt strongly about the family staying together at all times, whatever the consequences.

Our regular traipsing all over the Himalayas with our parents had two very happy consequences, in my opinion.

The first was that academics became an inconsequential matter in our household, though not deliberately.

Our school life just could not match our experiences outside the classroom.

Though our parents sang the usual refrain of “you must come first with 90%”, they were easily distracted by the other options available.

Udhampur saw my father come into his own (he was a trained classical singer, an amateur actor, and a stand up comedian), whether it was announcing tambola at the Chinar Officers’ Institute, singing popular duets with officers’ wives and /or daughters, having musical evenings at home (where everyone sat on mattresses covered with white sheets, and ate pakodas while listening to classical and film music), or writing and acting in humorous plays.

He was all over the place, and, as a consequence, so were we.

The second was that, with my father’s penchant for travel, and despite my mother’s distaste for it, we were enjoying holiday weekends long before the phrase became popular in India.

Srinagar was on our monthly calendar, so, at least once a month, sometimes twice, breakfast would be in Batote (two hours from Udhampur), late lunch in Verinag (just after the Banihal tunnel-now called the Jawahar tunnel), evening would include a shikara ride on the (then) beautiful Dal Lake, and dinner would be in the cosy Officers’ mess situated on the main road running along the lake.

This was also the time were visited by dozens of relatives and friends.

Kashmir, and the expansive and generous nature of my father was too loaded a combination to miss out on! Thanks to them, we visited Vaishno Devi four times, and seemed to practically live in Pahalgam and Gulmarg!

How could school and boring text books ever match up with this?

The occasions when our father would glare at us before signing our report cards were tiny blips dismissed by the radar of our minds!

Kalimpong the second time round was very different compared to our previous stay there.

This time, we had to stay in a colony built by my father's organisation for its personnel. While my brother and I did have a good time, I missed staying in our previous house on the hill above the 'Kali Mandir'. In my mind, that was the ‘real’ Kalimpong.

I believe that the beauty of a place can only be felt by seeking out and absorbing its native, local flavour, which was absent in the colony.

After the gay abandon in Udhampur, with the happy informality of the Indian nuns, getting back to the strict and at times unsmiling demeanour of the European nuns was difficult.

Academics could not be overlooked here, as long as they could help it. So, life did get a little tough for my brother and I, when we failed in, of all things, Moral Science(I had to read up the Holy Bible in a couple of months) and Nepali!

Though I got back with my old classmates, I noticed now what I had missed, and what may not have been as distinct, earlier.

The boarders were THE people to be in the school and dayscholars merely incidental (I saw the other side of this world only after I attended another school as a boarder myself, later on). For the boarders, spending five hours a day with 'dayskis' as we were called, could not compare with spending every waking moment with each other.

I remember being extremely envious of their midnight feasts and after-school activities.

Some other things about round two of Kalimpong will remain forever etched in my mind.

The omnipresent Kanchenjunga was everywhere. I didn't remember taking notice of it as a child, but now its beauty seemed inescapable. Like the sea, this majestic mountain had different moods, and just when you thought you had seen them all, it surprised you with a completely new one!

Our school song, which I loved to sing, was sung to the tune of the Scottish National Anthem (of which I learnt only a couple of years ago!).

Our uniform included a light blue beret, and made our uniform look the smartest I've ever worn to any school.

On the 15th of August in 1978, we girls put up an 'Ai-Ki-Do' (a martial art form) performance in front of the Town Hall, to the tune of 'Kungfu Fighting' by Carl Douglas!

At home, life continued as before. My father was undeterred in his zest for travel. So, it was no big deal to visit Gangtok for the weekend, or to be woken at 2 a.m. in the night, be bundled in the back of a Willys jeep, and be driven to Darjeeling in time to see the sun rising behind Tiger Hill!

Like I mentioned before, my cloud was made of special sterling silver!

Very soon, we were off again, this time to tranquil and breathtakingly beautiful Bhutan...!!