Sunday, July 30, 2006

Where are we going friends? (contd)

My second daughter is doing her Ph.D. in UCLA and is happy with her set up. She would like to do a post-doctoral work after she finishes. No saturation or satiation seems to have set in. She had a friend over for dinner one day. A young boy of 27, waiting to finish his Ph.D and get back to India. He spoke of a dream that he had for his motherland.

“ I want to do something for the youngsters in India. As a kid I was scared of my Chemistry lessons. We should have interactive sessions that make the subject interesting. I want to join an organization or body that could make this possible.”

I had no heart to discourage him and I kept mum. It is easier said than done. I was reminded of a professor in our own university. He had done his research in Japan and was the HOD of the Botany Department of a college in Jamshedpur. The college had been recently granted permission to start PG courses in a number of subjects including Botany. The professor in question wanted to revise the syllabus for ecology and environmental studies. He wanted to include applied aspects keeping in mind the industrial nature of the township we live in. He had several meetings with the powers that be. They would not budge an inch and the reasons they gave were as outmoded as the syllabus that was being followed. Finally the professor had to withdraw his syllabus to pamper a few inflated egos. He did whatever was in his power. He refused to allow his students to offer Ecology as special paper. What a paradox! It was the students who suffered in the end. If a HOD, a person with a standing of his own in society, is treated in this manner, can we blame students for not wanting to do PG courses and take up research projects? The curriculum should appeal to students whether they are in grade I or X. The syllabus was revised five years down the line but care was taken to keep our professor out of the whole thing. The attitude was –‘ So what if you did your research in Japan, I did mine in Germany.’ When do we grow up as a society? How do we learn that knowledge is meant to be shared and sustained?

Then comes the question of getting good teachers for our children. Teachers in government schools and colleges get a decent pay but there is no accountability. Those in private schools and colleges are badly exploited and are a frustrated lot. Either way students are losers. Parents dare not question the teacher - they prefer to send their wards to private tuitions paying a hefty amount as tuition fee. Gone are the days when only the weak students took tuitions. Parents are no longer as confident as before. As I said before the blame game continues, with one group blaming the other.

Let us not, however, lose hope. These questions are at least being raised now. We have a small but significant group of youngsters wanting to do their bit for society. And they are the ones who will make a positive impact. We cannot influence policy makers. We cannot stop the trend of the majority in society. But here are things we can do.

Let us appreciate one who out of choice or otherwise returns to his motherland instead of saying ‘he must have been thrown out.’

Let us not laugh at the research scholar saying ‘may be he didn’t get an IT job or for that matter any job’. I have a nephew who did his doctorate out of choice. He got a good rank in the common entrance test and could have become an engineer or doctor. He took up microbiology, qualified for the prestigious UGC-JRF and has several papers to his credit. His mother wanted to get him married. She couldn’t find him a girl! He finally married another research scholar because she was the only one who could understand his passion for research work. The couple is managing well with their scholarship money but in the eyes of the world they come across as fools. His younger brother has followed his footsteps and parents are okay with it. It is the so-called ‘others’ who make life miserable for them.

Let us teach our children to love and respect their teachers. Society will automatically respect them.

Teaching and learning go hand in hand. One cannot teach if he is not willing to learn. Let's not look down upon the kid who didn't make it to the IITs or other engineering colleges. Even if by default he may become an excellent teacher and may end up teaching our own grandkids.

I am done with my bit and I welcome inputs from all of you.

Friday, July 28, 2006

Where are we going friends?

‘ For years, degree colleges offering pure science courses have had few takers and even the paltry few who join are mainly those who haven’t got an engineering or medical seat. People prefer to get an engineering degree from a mediocre college than a science degree from a reputed one. Who is going to teach science to the next generation? Who is going to carry on research work in our prestigious laboratories? More engineers? Doctors with five years experience are still earning about 15 k while a raw engineer starts at 20 k plus and other benefits. Why blame the kids when the system is bad? IT companies are able to give the young people the motivation in terms of a huge purchasing power and promise of a good life – even if there is nothing beyond it that is still enough compensation for the individuals. But can the system sustain on this lopsided growth – do we plan to become so rich like the gulf nations or some of the western nations which are able to attract immigrants to do other jobs?’

I take the liberty of copying the above paragraph from Usha’s ‘Selling one’s shadow’. This is a question that has been worrying me since the past few years and I am yet to come up with an acceptable answer. I am not talking of universal acceptance. Let me find an answer acceptable to me. I’ll worry about others later.

I have three children as you may have understood. Two are in the IT sector and one is into research. So I tried to talk them into coming out with what was good and bad their respective fields. This was 2 years ago during my last visit to the US. I was interested in the Indian perspective. Working conditions in the US do not apply to Indian ones.

My son in law was quick to respond-
“After the shabby treatment you yourself have received would you ever recommend a teaching career to any one else?”

I was shocked. I had never realized that I was myself at the receiving end. I had not realized that my children had kept a close watch over my career and had expressed their anguish to the new comers in the family fold. And all the while I was under the impression that I was good at projecting the brighter side of things. I prefer to keep my own story as the last example but let me tell you what my son in law said when I questioned the wisdom of giving unrealistically high salaries to fresh graduates. It was like tempting them with money and buying their services.

“ Hasty climbers soon to fall” I concluded “ They should climb one step at a time. Getting too much and too soon is not good for them. ”

“ An IT professional has already struggled enough” he said, “ he struggles for admission to a good school, then for his entrances, exams and finally his job. He appears for rounds and rounds of interviews before he is finally selected. He struggles to stay in his job – lay offs are more a rule than an exception. Why then do you grudge him a salary that he cannot even spend? These are days of cutthroat competition. There is more tension than what you see or perceive. ‘Survival of the fittest’ in its worst form. Money is the least one can give him.”

I was no IT professional and I could not comment. I wondered if the recipients of the largesse, if I may use the term, were happy with what they were doing. I got my answer two years later when my son expressed dissatisfaction over his IT job. He had worked for a year in Chennai and another year and a half in America. He had finished his M.S. in three semesters instead of four and his job was confirmed while he was still in college. He had repaid his student loan. He was only 27 and has a long career ahead. Any one would want to be in his shoes. But he had already reached the saturation point.

“ I want to come back to India and start something on my own” he said, “ I’d rather run an motel on the National Highway than be a highly paid IT clerk. I know I’d struggle to establish it but it would be better than what I’m doing today. It is so monotonous.”

I was not surprised. I knew it would come sooner rather than later. Intelligent minds are bound to revolt. But then, he is in a position to say that. He is not married and has no liabilities. What if it were my son in law saying it instead of my son? Many would like to call it a day and be done with it all. How many could afford to actually do it? Aren’t we parents responsible for the situation in our own way? We want the best for our children that much are clear. Who is to decide what is ‘best’? What is the definition of the term? We taught them to struggle right from the day we coached them for K.G. admission.Now they seem to have no respite.I thought I had an answer but I see I have none.I have more questions now than when I begun.

I turned to my daughter who was into biochemical research. But I’ll keep it for a later post.
(To be continued)

Catch me if you can

Nikhat was busy arranging for the practical examination. This was the final day of a four-day schedule. As the Lab in Charge in the Home science Department she had to oversee the seating arrangements, collect the record books of the students and hand over the materials to them once the exam began. Home Science practical require extra vigilance, she felt. The students had to cook a few dishes in the presence of the external examiner and for this purpose they brought in stoves and portable gas cylinders. They were young and inexperienced girls and tend to be careless. There had been minor accidents before luckily no casualty. It was going to be a long day thought Nikhat while allotting students their working area. Just then someone called out-


Nikhat turned around to see Smita Jha, a student of hers, an examinee due to appear for the practical exam on that day.

“Yes, What do you want Smita? Why don’t you take your seat? The externals have arrived. They may walk in any time. Go to your seat.” Nikhat said in a soft tone.

“ Ma’am could I go home to fetch my Record book? I’ve forgotten it at home.” Smita’s voice indicated a nervous urgency.

“ How could you do this Smita? Where do you stay? Can’t you ring up and ask someone to get it?” said Nikhat.

“ My mother wouldn't know to locate it ma’am. My house is close by. I’ll be back in 10 minutes.”

Nikhat thought of her own student days and relented.

“ Okay, but come back fast. The examiners won’t let you in if you are more than 15 minutes late.”

Smita was gone.

Nikhat got busy with her work. Everything went smoothly. It was time to wind up.

The external called out. “Roll no. 683……….. get your record book”.

No answer.

“Roll no. 683…… Smita Jha …… Where is she?”

The name rang a bell in Nikhat’s mind. ‘Didn’t Smita go home to get her record book.? Hadn’t she come back?’

She went to the external examiner and said in a soft voice – “ Ma’am, the girl wanted to go home to fetch her record book and I granted her permission to do so. I got busy after that and the matter slipped off my mind. She hasn’t returned.”

The Head of the Department was upset.

“ Hasn’t come back? But you’ve marked her present and she has signed the attendance sheet.”

“ True, ma’am. I thought she had really forgotten her record book. She told me that she’d be back soon.” Nikhat sounded apologetic.

The HOD was about to say something when there was a commotion at the door. The gateman was standing at the entrance along with a uniformed nurse.
“ Madam” the gatekeeper called out. “ This nurse has been waiting at the gate since morning. She says that her duty hours are long over. She has to escort a student named Smita Jha back home. She wants to know when the girl would be ready to go.”

The external and the HOD were truly confused and Nikhat was at her wit’s end.

Addressing the nurse she said “ If you were at the gate since morning why didn’t you go and fetch her record book? And why do you have to escort her back?”

“ I do not know anything. The Chief Medical Officer of the hospital in which I work asked me to escort her to college, remain at the gate and fetch her back after her exam. I was relieved of my hospital duties for this very purpose. My duty gets over at two in the afternoon and it is now well past three. I cannot wait any longer.”

The whole thing now made sense. The girl’s father, for some reason, had posted the nurse to stand guard for his daughter and the girl had given her the slip. The external was amused.

“We’ll mark her absent since she hasn’t turned in her paper.” She said. Turning to the nurse, she added, “ You were on duty and yet let her slip past you. How would you explain that to your CMO?”

“ I swear on God she didn’t cross the gate. Not with me sitting right at the entrance.” The nurse was genuinely bewildered. “ Oh God!” she wailed, “ What do I do now?”

The whole episode now took a new turn.

A muslim girl came running.

“ Ma’am” she wailed, “my burkha is missing. And I cannot go home without my veil. My father would skin me alive. I had left it in my bag before the exam started.”

Smart girl that she was, Smita Jha had conveniently donned her friend’s burkha and made it past the nurse on duty. The college hired a full taxi and with Nikhat accompanying her to explain the situation, the girl who had lost her veil went home. Later we heard that Smita got married on the very day to a man of her choice.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Induction into society

My son did his Engineering from PESIT in Bangalore. At the time of his admission my daughter who was already working in Bangalore took care of his admission so I did not attend his induction. Another parent, a friend of ours, whose son also joined the same college came back and reported the proceedings.

The Director of the Institute, Mr. Jawahar Doraiswamy got on to the pulpit to address the freshmen and their parents. He began with the benefits of acquiring technical education and went on to say how the society would merit by the services of the young men who had opted for an engineering career. Finally he asked the new entrants a question.

“ How many of you would want to take up teaching as a career?”

Not a single hand went up.

“ I can understand” he continued, “ Now listen carefully to what I have to say.”

Pointing out to the front seats occupied by faculty members he said, “ Here are gentlemen who have opted to teach you when they could have easily taken up lucrative jobs which would have fetched them much more money. They are those that have the responsibility of shaping your lives. They have undertaken a job that none of you want to do. I, therefore, expect you to treat them with the respect that they deserve.”

Needless to say that his concluding words received a thunderous applause.

I missed the opportunity of meeting a fine gentleman.

My son spent four years in the college. He, like others of his age, got in and out of trouble. Some of those episodes may find a place in this blog in future. I asked him once what he thought of his college. He replied -

“ There were times when I wondered what I was doing in this place, this is worse than school. But now I feel that if I have a son I would want to put him here and nowhere else.”

Thank you PESIT and Mr. J. Doraiswamy for making my son a fine human being.

Is Might Right?

Three years ago I was traveling to Mumbai in an AC three-tier coach of a super-fast express. The train had almost reached its destination with just one more stop to go. A well-dressed gentleman boarded the train and positioned himself at the most convenient spot as if he owned the train. A shoeshine boy, who had entered the coach along with him, offered to polish his shoes. The gentleman initially asked to be left alone but with a little persuasion he let the boy polish his shoes while he read the morning newspaper. Having done his job the boy asked to be paid for his services.

“How dare you ask for money?” roared our office going ‘gentleman’ “did I ask for you to polish my shoes? You impose yourself on me and have the audacity to ask for money! Who gave you permission to enter this coach in the first place? For all I know you could be a thief or a pickpocket. I’ll teach you scoundrels a lesson”

“Sir” the boy pleaded, “please do not deny me my hard earned money. I’m only asking to be paid for my job”

The scene that followed was appalling to say the least. The gentleman slapped the boy on his cheeks, back and wherever possible, twisted his arms and flung his bag out of the door along with his footrest, polish, brush and perhaps the little money he had managed to earn that morning. The gentleman then gave a long lecture on the danger posed by such people to society and about how the Railways should issue authorization slips to hawkers who entered the train to ensure passenger safety. Everyone present in the coach including the TTE nodded in agreement while the poor shoeshine boy beaten and bruised stood alone in a corner sobbing his heart out for all to hear.

I, who prided myself on being an upright and just citizen of the country, witnessed the unfortunate episode without having the courage to speak up for the boy. My heart went out in sympathy to the wronged shoeshine boy. A lot of questions popped up in my mind. I wanted to ask the man whether he was himself authorized to travel by that train and if he had a valid ticket in the first place. I wanted to console the boy and give him a little money towards his rehabilitation. I wanted to do a lot of things but did nothing except look away from the boy unable to meet his pathetic gaze.

The episode left me shattered. What was the reason for my silence I wondered? Why had I, along with other thinking citizens distanced myself from the incident that was an obvious injustice to the boy? Had society changed to such an extent? Or was I just being selfish and cowardly? Did I deserve to be called an educated person when I could not behave like one?

Just then something unexpected happened. A vegetable vendor had also got into the train along with the shoeshine boy and was standing near the entrance of the compartment to escape being noticed by the TTE. She came out of her hiding place like a thunderbolt.

“How do you plan to make up for his loss sahib?” she asked “it was very easy for you to throw his belongings out of the compartment. Do you realize that you have robbed him of his livelihood? You called him a thief! Now I call you a dacoit and that too in the presence of all these high-class people who cannot stand up for a just cause. If, with your suit and tie, you did not have the money to pay this poor fellow you could have asked him to waive his charges and he would have gladly obliged!”
Turning to the TTE she continued her tirade.
“Regarding you sahib let me not open my mouth! The less I say, the better for you! You hound poor people like us and extort money if we get in without a ticket. What about this ‘big shot’? Did you check his ticket and is he entitled to travel in this compartment?”

Having thus vented her displeasure, the lady squatted on the floor beside the shoeshine boy, offered him something to eat and consoled him in a manner that only a person who understood and shared his agony could do, while the rest of us sat looking out of the window waiting for the agonizing journey to end. Might is right or so they say but I wondered who was mighty in this case. The vegetable vendor who stood up for the boy despite being herself a ticket-less traveler and risked being fined or thrown out or the impudent ‘gentlemen’ who not only slapped the boy as payment for his services but also held the rest of us as mental hostages for a ransom paid not through currency notes but by the more valuable call of the conscience which we had willingly and conveniently pledged to him even without being asked.

Monday, July 24, 2006

Let me be 'myself'!

Two of my stories were published in a leading Indian magazine but double the number were rejected including ‘Striking Roots’ that I had earlier posted in this blog. In fact, I had twice posted a story based on my childless aunt on this blog and I ended up deleting it, the reason being a comment from my daughter.

“ Your stories are unbelievable mummy” she says “ far too idealistic. The magazine has to draw readers, right? Your stories have an overdose of goodness in them.”

I do not deny that my stories tend to harp on the good side of human nature rather than the evil. It is not as if I haven’t had a brush with evil. I’ve had more than my fair share of disappointments and disillusions. I’ve tried to learn from them and I’ve not always been successful. Their effect on my mind has come to be manifested permanently in my body as hypertension and high blood sugar. However, much as evil affects my body, I have no intention of letting it permanently affect my mind! I have met so many wonderful people and had such wonderful experiences that I have no need to waste precious space writing about mean and petty minded people. Don’t we have enough of them in the junk we call soap operas? I prefer to report through my writings the goodness that still prevails in the universe – the servant maid who worked 22 years for me and had never asked for a salary raise and trusted me to do it at the appropriate time, the washer man who brought home my laundry at ten in the evening (or should I say night) because I had to board a train early next morning and so many others who have treated me with affection – believe me the list is long! It is these that need a mention. They are the ones that do not realize their worth and need to be told how much I appreciate having been in their contact.

Bear with me if I tend to repeat. Forgive me if I sound like a preacher on the pulpit. My accounts are true to the best of my knowledge and my stories are drawn from events that happen around me.I tried writing about evil forces but I've failed to create the 'right' impression. Let me be what I've wanted to be - Just 'MYSELF'

Passerby55: I love being called Preeta but my real name is something else. I assume the name in my stories and I have a reason for it. Continue to call me Preeta. I'd like to be Preeta to you and others like you!

Sunday, July 23, 2006

My only 'YOU'

‘Take care of yourself
You’re the only YOU that I have.’
Those were meaningful words - written on a wall hanging at my cousin’s house. It might not have otherwise drawn my attention had it not been for the fact that my cousin had no children. Her only child was born with Down’s syndrome and died at the age of six. The couple had not opted for a second child. I look around me and see a number of childless couple and most of them have a way with children. This cousin of mine loved children and as kids we’d look forward eagerly to her visits. She would tell us stories, crack jokes, laugh and play like a ten year old.
My mother’s sister had no children but she was a second mother not only to us but to children from her husband’s side as well. A friend of mine worked in a school before marriage. She would come back from school, finish giving tuitions to two batches of students and come over to our home even if were only to see our children sleeping. She again has no children.

The founder principal of the college I work in, had a kind word of enquiry for all the staff member’s children, so much so even the day before she died she had expressed concern over my daughter’s college admission. Though she had by then retired, we continued to visit her. Unfortunately she had no children of her own. Because of her attitude we were bound together as a big family and remain so even now. I could give many more examples but no valid explanation. Except perhaps one.

People who have no children are God’s chosen ones. The love that they spread cannot be limited to single family of two or three children. They have enough of it give to all those whom they meet and more to spare for those yet to come.

Friday, July 21, 2006

Mother Hen

My children call me an enabler. They accuse me of behaving like a mother hen not towards them but towards my husband.
“Why don’t you let him grow mummy?” they say. “Leave him alone. He’ll be fine.”
If I left him alone I’d be out of work. How do I explain this to them? Let me give an example.

He offered to make our morning coffee. This was fine with me. I love my morning sleep. The half sleepy state with birds cooing and chirping, the sound of a few two and four wheelers starting to ply and newspaper boys and milkmen starting their day.

“ How many spoons of coffee powder do I put into the filter?” he’d call out from the kitchen.
“ Four” I’d reply without opening my eyes.
I would hear the sound of boiling hot water being poured into the filter. Then that of his brushing his teeth, gargling etc. and finally…..

“ Where is the milk?” he would call out.

Now that was one silly question. Milk would be in the fridge where else? I keep specific steel containers for heating milk. Why he was never able to locate the vessel I could not understand.

Properly advised about the whereabouts of the milk he’d call out once more.

“Where is the gas lighter? Oh yes! I’ve found it. Why can’t you use matchsticks? How much sugar?”

“Coffee is ready” he'd finally announce.

“ Why do you offer to make coffee when you need to be advised at every step each and every day?” I ask.

“ Drink my coffee first and then pose your question.” He would reply.

“Why can’t you get up and make coffee mummy?” my children would grumble. “He wakes up the entire neighborhood.”

I find it difficult to answer them. I seem to enjoy my role as an enabler. However much as I fret and fume, my husband continues to depend on me. Or so I like to believe.

I started working when my oldest daughter was seven years old. Getting to work at seven in the morning, after preparing fresh lunch and breakfast each day, was not easy. My husband would get the children ready, drop them at school and go to his workplace. The children also rose to the occasion. My daughters would pack their own lunch as well as their father’s, from time immemorial. Folding clothes and stacking dishes got into their system and we all worked as a team. The daughters became natural organizers and my son seemed to rely more on them than me to tie a shoelace or comb his hair. All this suited me fine but there was a price to pay. Over time I realized that I was perhaps no longer indispensable. The kids grew out of my shadow pretty fast. When I wanted to pamper them they were no longer there. When my children flew the nest, or perhaps even before that, I started pampering my husband! My motherly instincts needed an outlet and my husband was willing play the dependant child. Here was a kid who would never leave me.

“ Where is my towel?” my husband calls out.
“ Let him look for it.” My daughter whispers.
Only God knows that I cannot leave him alone. You cannot be an enabler unless your subject wills you to be one!
Deep in my heart I dread the day when my husband may no longer require my services.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

'Digital' grandmother!

The last time I was in the US I chanced upon a book on ‘Grand parenting’. I forget the name of the author but my daughter had then told me that she conducted very interesting talk shows on television and was a practicing psychiatrist. I was on the verge of becoming a grandma for the first time and the book offered useful inputs from an experienced grand mother. Among other things one line seemed to sum up the contents of the entire book.

‘Unless their actions are illegal or immoral do not offer your children unsolicited advice or suggestion on the upbringing of your grandkids. They are parents and they should know.’

‘No problem there’ I thought. ‘ Why would I interfere?’

My daughter was no teenager and my son in law was keen to bond with his daughter unlike my husband who started picking up our children only after they began clamoring for attention. How ever, theory and practice hardly went hand in hand. At least not initially.

There was nothing immoral or illegal about giving the baby a bath at 8 in the evening and my daughter waited for her husband to return from office to give the child a bath. I had been advised against giving unsolicited advice. I tried my best to concentrate on my computer game. I just could not.

“Priya,” I called out. “ Why don’t we bathe the baby in the afternoon?”

“My husband wants to be present to help me with her bath.” She replied. “ Moreover according to our pediatrician a child sleeps well if given a bath at night. Don’t worry mummy. Nothing will happen. Get on with your game.”

I thought of the time when this very daughter of mine was born. Bathing her was like a sacred ritual. My mother wouldn’t trust her with anyone else. She would heat the water to an optimum temperature massage her body with sesame oil and scrub it clean with a mixture of gram flour and natural herbs that gave a pleasant aroma all day long. She would insist on bathing her at the same time each day preferably around 8 in the morning. She would never allow a change of hands claiming that children tend to catch a cold if a different person bathed them. When I returned to my husband my mother gave me umpteen instructions.

“ Don’t you start bathing the child yourself,” she advised, “ Your mother in law has the age and experience to do it. In all other matters, listen to what she says. Child rearing is no joke.”

This is the age of Internet parenting and the computer is perhaps mother and mother in law rolled in one. There must be a site for Internet grand parenting as well. I am sure gonna to check it out! An acquaintance of mine preponed her return to India since her daughter in London would not let her massage the grandchild with mustard oil the way her mother did. Another insisted that the baby’s hair be dried with incense fumes and when she did the fire alarm buzzed off and quite a few neighbors came rushing to help. I am however doing no such thing. I am going to enjoy being a ‘digital’ grandmother in keeping with present times. Plants and animals adapt to their environment. Why not me?

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Was it Fate?

The kid could not have been more than six years of age when Jessie first saw him. She was a new bride and he stood on a stool and peered into their flat along with his fourteen-year-old sister who was curious to have a look at the new ‘bahu’. Jessie smiled at him and he waved back. They were a muslim family staying in a flat behind Jessie’s. Though the two families did not visit each other’s homes they did spend a lot of time talking from their respective verandahs. Theirs was a family of seven members including five children. Ayesha was the oldest and Ahsan the youngest. Their mother Zeenat was a friendly woman and would advise Jessie on housekeeping and dealing with servant maids.

“How do you manage to use that thing?” she’d ask pointing out to Jessies knitting machine. “Don’t your hands ache?”

“It’s really very easy” Jessie would reply, “Send your daughter over. I’ll teach her to do it.”

“Naa baba naa” she’d throw up her hand in mock despair. “. We are better off using our two hands! Moreover, as it is, we have enough work to do.”

Those were times when Hindus and Muslims lived together in the same area and would exchange sweets during Diwali and Id. Who would have thought that things would change over night when communal riots broke out in the steel city.

Riots had paralyzed life in their small township. Night curfew was on. Schools had closed down. All sorts of rumors were doing the rounds. Nothing could be confirmed. Muslim families fled from Jessie’s locality taking with them only essential belongings. Hindus likewise fled from muslim dominated localities.

Jessie wondered if Zeenat and her children were safe. Six years had gone by since the day she first saw them. Ayesha had now grown into a beautiful young woman. Each time Jessie heard of rape and abduction she remembered Ayesha. She shuddered to think of what might have befallen her.

Suddenly there was a commotion. Jessie looked out to see a huge crowd gathered below her block. They were pointing out to Zeenat’s flat.

“There is some one there. He has been there since last night.”

“May be he has come to plant a bomb.”

It is their youngest son, Ahsan or something..”

Jessie’s heart missed a beat. What ever made the child come over? Good God!

“These people can never be trusted.”

“They have relatives in Pakistan.”

“ The father is a committee member or some such thing.”

Jessie saw a familiar face among those present. Raju Bhaiyya. She tried to catch his attention and succeeded after a few attempts. He came up to her house.

“Raju Bhaiyya “ she implored. “ Ahsan is only a kid he can do no harm. Ask them to let him go.”

“Listen Jessie, You keep out of this.,” said Raju Bhaiyya “ A kid has no business coming here. Which father would send a twelve year old to a sensitive area unless he has a motive?”

“Send him away after a warning” pleaded Jessie.

“I’ll try. But I cannot promise.” Raju relented.

Unfortunately it was too late. Ahsan panicked and tried to run away. The crowd chased him and literally drove him to his death. Ahsan in his confusion ran across a neighboring park and reached the banks of the Kharkhai river. Seeing a whole lot of adults in close pursuit, the boy jumped into the river. He was probably unable to swim to safety for the news of his death was published in local newspapers two days later. Jessie was shattered. It took her a long time to get over it. She kept wondering if there was something she could have done for him. Her neighbors were less sympathetic.

“It was his destiny” they claimed. “ None could have prevented his death. Why did he have to come to here of all places? It was death beckoning him.”

‘How very convenient’ reflected Jessie. ‘ So easy to blame destiny. After all destiny could never defend itself!’

It was only two years later that Jessie could find out why Ahsan had come over. It was his mother Zeenat whom Jessie met in a local transport that told her.

“Ahsan had left without our knowledge or permission.” she said. “ He wanted to get his books as his final exams were to start as soon as school reopened. He told Ayesha that since he knew the uncles and aunties in the block, they would take care of him in case of trouble. How was he to know that the very same people would kill him? What did they gain by murdering my son?”

Jessie had no answer. Zeenat spoke with sadness in her eyes but her tone bore no grudge.

“ People lose their senses during riots. Our community as well as yours. I may not be educated but I do know that neither Allah nor Bhagwan want bloodshed. We Indians talk of having inherited a rich culture. Was there any culture in driving to death, a helpless twelve year old?”

How very true!

Monday, July 17, 2006

Have we changed?

My mother would often come to spend a few months with me once in a while. Those few months were a great relief to me because she’d automatically take charge of the kitchen an area that she was fairly comfortable with. My mother in law had passed away even before my kids began school and being a working woman any help in house – keeping was welcome.

While I had no problem with my mom in the house, my husband did have a few of them. One such problem was that my mom would stand up in attention the minute he entered a room. “ Please ask her to remain seated,” he’d whisper “ I feel like a stranger in my own house.” I tried to reason out with my mother but it did not help much. She avoided talking to him directly unless I was away and it was absolutely essential. After the initial hesitation, she’d sit in a corner of the room and listen to our conversation without contributing to it. Any input from her side would be addressed to me in private with a request that I keep it to myself. This, according to her was a way of showing respect. After all a son in law had to be shown due respect!

“ Absolutely not,” I’d retort, “ Why should a son in law be any different to a son?”

Time flew and my daughters are now married. I enjoy a warm relationship with my sons in law who are fine young men. We have discussions on a number of topics starting from global warming to terrorist attacks. I don’t know about them but I did have a problem when I visited them. When I worked in the kitchen they’d come right in and help themselves to food or make themselves a toast.

“ Why do they do it when I am around?” I asked my daughter in private. “ I have no problem cooking or serving.”

The naughty girl reported our conversation to her husband and that too in my presence.
My son in law laughed heartily.

“ Why do you make me a stranger in my own house?” he asked. “ I have no problem helping myself to food or helping out with dishes. I could even make you a cup of tea if only you’d let me!”

‘Had I heard that before?’ I wondered. Certain things never change.

Canine Instincts

We had a neighbor called Mr. Sinha who was an animal lover. He began by giving left over food to one stray dog. Soon there were at least seven to ten street dogs of all sizes and ages occupying different corners of his house. Come winter they’d laze around the front verandah and the lawn adjacent to it and in summer they would select the coolest spots including the one with the facility of an air cooler. There would be a few more standing by the gate waiting to get in! Those inside would get the ‘cake’ and those in the ‘waiting list would be satisfied with the ‘crumbs’! The Sinhas had to buy at least four packets of bread to feed their dogs. Milk was no problem since they had three or four cows of which at least two yielded milk at any given point of time in the year. Mrs. Sinha would crib and complain about the house getting dirty and who could blame her considering the kind of the erratic and unreliable domestic help available these days. She was getting on in age and managing a mini zoo was not easy! Moreover, her social life had nearly come to a standstill with most of her friends wary of a visit to their place not knowing whether a bark or bite would welcome them. Finally it seemed that her problem would get solved when Mr. Sinha retired and they shifted from the company quarter to a rented house some four kilometers away.

While shifting to her new home Mrs. Sinha put her foot down and said that the dogs had to be left behind. Mr. Sinha relented albeit half-heartedly. They took the cows and their calves along and left the canines to fend for themselves. They had, however, underestimated their herd of cows for when they were let out to graze the following day, they returned with all ten dogs in tow, merrily wagging their tails!
Needless to say that the Sinhas gladly welcomed them back.

Unfortunately Mrs. Sinha passed away early this year. And it is his mini animal kingdom that helps him to get on with life. I do feel everything that happens to us, including the feeding of leftovers to a stray dog,happens for a purpose.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

A Comedy of errors - Part II

Grandma began by looking out for Suraiyya’s car and the minute she spotted it at the gate she’d open the front door and stand at the entrance to greet the actress on her way to the second floor where she lived. Gradually Suraiyya began to take notice started acknowledging her presence. Initially she’d just smile at her but soon a “Namaste Maaji” followed. My grandmother was all praise for the lady. “ How very modest” she’d say. “Who would believe that she’s a famous actress earning in lakhs!” Her only regret was that due to her lack of proficiency in Hindi she had never seen her on screen. “What difference does it make?” she’d say. “ I get to see her in person almost each day and she never forgets to greet me”. She now resorted to sign language to ask Suraiyya if she was okay or why she was late. The two of them must have communicated well enough for one fine day Suraiyya invited my grandmother to her place for tea.

Smiling at Suraiyya and talking to her in sign language from our entrance was fine with my grandmother. She did not mind going to her place but was hesitant to have anything to eat. Her orthodox mind did not permit her to ‘break bread’ with any one outside our immediate circle and community but at the same time she did not want to let go the opportunity of getting to see the interior of Suraiyya’s house. Like an expert Bharatanatyam dancer specializing in abhinaya mudras she pointed to her baldhead and white sari and indicated that her widowed status did not permit her to eat outside. Suraiyya must have understood since she finally convinced my grandmother to have milk and fruits at her place. By then the two of them had become good friends.

The onus of accompanying my grandmother to Suraiyya’s apartment on the second floor fell on me. My mother made me wear a party dress and instructed me on good manners before sending me off. I was annoyed at having to sacrifice my playtime and secretly hoped to find reasons to leave early. After according us a warm welcome Suraiyya took us to her living room. We were initially in awe of the luxurious settings of the house but managed to settle down soon enough. We looked around to see a life sized photograph of a beautiful young girl. There were other photographs of the same girl receiving awards as well as in the company of eminent persons.

“ Who is this?” my grandmother asked a servant who brought in milk and sweets. “Suraiyya” the servant replied.
“How silly of me not to understand.” Said my grandmother “Of course it is Suraiyya. See what make-up does to a person. She looks so young and fresh!”
Just then Suraiyya who had gone inside to instruct the servant came back.
“Ask her when she plans to marry” my grandmother asked me to translate. I repeated her question.
“Why do I need to marry?” laughed the lady.
“You cannot remain single all your life,” said my grandmother. You need to have someone to look after you.”
The lady looked confused.
“But I’m already married and I…….”
She had not finished the sentence when the door opened and the beautiful girl in the photograph walked in looking absolutely stunning - like an angel who had descended from heaven.
“Ah child! I see that you are back early. Meet our tenants from the first floor. Major Viswanathan’s mother and daughter.” Turning to my grand mother the lady continued. “Meet my daughter Suraiyya. She normally does not return before 8 at night but it looks as if her shooting schedule has been cancelled for some reason. This is an unexpected luxury”.

My grandmother almost fainted. After the initial shock that left her groping for words my grandmother regained her composure. We had a pleasant evening and when we finally left Suraiyya – I mean the real one gave my grandmother 2 postcard sized photographs duly autographed by her. I was too young at that time to understand the comedy of errors but the story of Suraiyya’s mistaken identity is one that we enjoy repeating whenever we get together as a family!

Comedy of errors - Part I

An item in the local newspaper caught my attention and I read with amusement the news of 35 kilograms of sweets being distributed among the poor and needy by a certain Pappu Sardar to celebrate the 35th birthday of Madhuri Dikshit. He was an ardent fan of the actress and it was his way of announcing his affection for her. In a way I was glad that he opted to feed the poor instead of hosting a party for his affluent friends. Being drawn to actors and actresses and carrying one’s fancy to abnormal levels is nothing new. I had a friend in college who almost committed suicide when a famous actor, for whom she nursed a secret crush, announced his decision to marry his childhood sweetheart. My paternal grandmother who was otherwise a very religious woman found information about screen personalities very interesting. She knew details of their umpteen marriages and affairs, their shooting schedules as well as their personal likes and dislikes. She had no favorites but was generally in awe of their lifestyle. Upon her death she had bequeathed to her grand children the contents of a steel trunk that contained along with gold jewelry and silverware 2 signed photographs of the Hindi film actress Suraiyya, which made us recall the events that led to their acquisition.

Way back in the early sixties we happened to stay in Suraiyya Mansion, which as the name implies belonged to Suraiyya the then famous actress and the undisputed queen of Hindi films. A part of the building happened to be leased out to the army and my father being a doctor in the Army Medical Corps was allotted a flat in the Mansion. My mother who was then in her early thirties had her hands full with three school going children and it hardly mattered to her whether the apartment belonged to Suraiyya or anyone else. But not so my grand mother who had all the time in the world. She was so excited to be sharing the roof with a renowned actress that she started offering special prayers to the gods to enable my father’s posting in Bombay to last long enough for all our relatives to be able to pay us a visit and be blessed with at least a passing glimpse of the lady. She wrote to as many of them as possible and urged them plan a trip to Bombay without delay. “ Vishu may get transfer orders anytime.” She’d conclude “ so don’t blame me if you don’t get to meet her. I’m doing my best. The rest is up to you.” Luckily those were days when telephones were considered a luxury and we did not have one. If my grand mother had access to this modern communicating tool she would have given an hourly account of Surayya’s activities to any one who was willing to listen.

My grand mother was an orthodox south Indian Brahmin lady who followed all the rules applicable to a widow’s existence in keeping with our community’s tradition. She had shaved off her long luxuriant hair after my grandfather’s death and ate only one meal a day. Not that she’d starve the rest of the day. She would have for her evening meal items manufactured in God’s own factory viz. at least four varieties of the season’s fruits, a whole lot of dry fruits and a liter of cow’s milk simmered till it attained a pinkish hue and flavored with cardamoms and kesar along with some sweet dish. How much we’d long to be able to exchange our supper consisting of dal, sabzi and roti for her evening meal but my mother would hear none of it.

Coming back to my grand mother’s growing interest in Suraiyya there was a small problem. My grand mother would have loved to talk to her but she knew no Hindi and Suraiyya hardly knew Tamil or Telgu the two languages that my grandmother was proficient in. Therefore chances of getting acquainted with the actress were limited. My grandmother was not the one to be put down so easily. She first coaxed my mother to act as her interpreter but my mother politely refused claiming to be busy with her housework. She tried calling us but we being in our pre - teens and too busy playing were never available. Finally she decided to try on her own.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Two sides of a coin

My mother and mother in law were as different as day and night. Both had the experience of raising five children each and had seen a lot of ups and downs in their lives. While my mother had dropped out of school while in her pre teens due to poor eyesight, my mother in law refused to go to school at the age of six because “ the teacher kept blowing his nose all the time!”. They both had private tutors coaching them for a short while before marrying at the age of fifteen and thirteen respectively. Lack of formal education was however in no way an impediment to their success in becoming successful homemakers. They were both smart and intelligent and I was always under the impression that given a chance my mom could become a finance minister and mom in law would make a fine home minister in the union cabinet for her administrative capabilities. These could never be simulated by me or my sister in law who had the added advantage of having inherited her genes. Despite their similarities, they were so different in their approach to people around them.

My mother was a woman of few words and I do not recall a single instance when she had had to raise her voice, let alone a finger to discipline us. She drew a line in her relationships and the famous quote “ If you do not understand my silence you will not understand my words” was perhaps coined for the people like her.

My mother in law on the other hand was an extrovert. She could never hold anything back neither anger nor affection. She would start by yelling at us (daughter and daughter in law alike) then feel sorry for her outburst and end up pampering us.
Whose approach was the better one of the two? This was something I could never decide. My heart speaks in favor of my mother but my head tells me otherwise. After all, my brothers wives have never enjoyed the warm relationship that I did with my mother in law.

Friday, July 14, 2006

A Second meal!

There was a tradition of having lunch at about 10.00 AM in Tamil Brahmin homes skipping breakfast. There would be an elaborate ritual of tiffin at 4.00 PM either preceded or followed by coffee. Dinner would be a relatively simple affair and very often curd rice and pickle would do. This arrangement suited office goers as well as school going children. The ladies in the joint family also preferred this arrangement since it gave them time enough to pursue their hobbies like sewing, trying out new recipes or even for a game of ‘pallanguzhi’ as Usha pointed out in her post. Come vacations, the children in the family visiting their grandparents, would be treated to what they called a ‘second meal’. Wow! The memory makes my mouth water even now.

Around two in the afternoon when children would be done with plucking mangoes and climbing trees an elderly aunt or grandmother would call the children for ‘rendandharam’ or a second meal not to be confused with ‘rendandhaaram’ or second wife! She would mix a big bowl of curd and rice and keep beside it a smaller bowl of south Indian specialities like ‘milagu kuzhambu’ or ‘vattal kuzhambu’ as side dish. Children of all ages would form a circle around her. They would be given a ‘vadumangai’ or tender mango to ‘bite’! Narrating interesting stories and anecdotes about various family members, the lady in question would ask the children to stretch out their palms and place in it a small ball of curd rice. The children would dig out a small depression in the rice ball and a little of the side dish would be placed in it. All this was done with care. The amount of curd rice served would be proportional to the size of the child’s mouth so that it could be swallowed at one go. Children would end up eating twice their normal quota when food was served in this manner. As children we never got tired of listening to stories about ‘girl seeing ‘ ceremonies of our aunts and how a burglar was cleverly chased away by our grandfather etc. etc. We would often ask for a repetition of the same stories.

Times have changed now and these simple pleasures are no longer available to kids in their pre-teens. Vacations are taken up with summer camps and tours rather than a visit to one’s native place. And of course TV serials and cartoon shows have taken over from the few grand parents who may be willing to narrate stories to their grandchildren. As for parents, in their anxiety to avail the best for their children they remain a confused lot

Thursday, July 13, 2006


One afternoon Preeta happened to notice an appeal in the newspaper bearing the name of her college. The appeal had been made to all former students of the college to contribute generously to rebuild the college library that had been damaged and destroyed by a flood in the area. The news brought tears to her eyes. She thought of the many evenings she had spent browsing through books and magazines in the library. She thought of the librarian who treated the library like a temple and tended to the books as if they were her children. She wondered about the librarian’s reaction to the calamity and felt sorry for having called her a “vigilant vulture”. She sat brooding over the unfortunate event when her mother-in-law called out to her.

“Why don’t we start preparing dinner” she said, “fetch me a knife and the cutting board. I’ll start peeling potatoes while you make tea….”
She stopped on seeing the expression on her face.
“What is the matter child?” she enquired “what’s bothering you? Are you alright?”
Had it been another occasion she might have given an evasive answer but the news had evoked memories of a life that had been so precious to her. She handed the newspaper to her mother-in-law and explained in brief the calamity that had befallen her Alma Mater.

“The library must have been one of your favorite haunts in the college,” said her mother-in-law “ your mother has told me what an avid reader you were before marriage. No wonder you are feeling so bad! Why don’t we send some contribution towards its reconstruction?”

Preeta looked up feeling genuinely surprised. She had never imagined that the older woman could understand her concern let alone appreciate it. Her mother-in-law’s words touched a vital cord in her heart and Preeta felt an instant bond developing towards her.
“That would be great amma” she exclaimed “thank you so much. Could we send the amount tomorrow?”
“Why not?” she replied “the earlier the better. And why do you seem so surprised? I may not have gone to college but I also led a life before marriage just like you. I too felt like a total misfit here and longed for a return to my parental home. Your concern is genuine and I don’t expect you to cut yourself from your roots. All I want you to do is to adapt to this new environment, strike new roots and accept it as your own”
“I will definitely do it amma,” said Preeta “provided you guide and direct me”
“Let me first direct you to the preparation of an evening meal” laughed amma “or else your husband will pout and sulk like a five year old”
“Not my husband but your son!” retorted Preeta thoroughly enjoying her new found authority over her doting mother-in-law.


Preeta……..!!!” it was her mother calling.
“Coming ma” she called back hating to have to discontinue her favorite dream.
“Why don’t you learn to cook a few simple dishes instead of reading books all day?” her mother grumbled “We’ll get you married in a year’s time and all this day dreaming will have to stop once you go to your mother-in-law’s place”
“Why should my mother-in-law be any different to you?” she’d reply, “moreover you learnt to cook only after marriage. I can manage a few items if a need arose you could not even do that”
“I was only fifteen when I got married” her mother retorted “at your age I had two young children to care for in addition to an endless stream of visitors and friends to entertain. Your grandmother was a deeply religious woman and I had to arrange for her pooja as well. No one has ever had it easy. Do not have any illusions about marriage. It will only lead to disappointment”
“Times have changed ma! Don’t worry I’ll manage.” She wanted to end the discussion that was annoying her. Mamma was being so pessimistic. She thought of her dead father who had been so very appreciative of anything she did. In fact she owed her dreams to him. He had made her feel like a princess.

All dreams end and so did hers. In a matter of months she was married to a young man with a promising career in a Steel company in an industrial town about two thousand miles away from her parental home. She wondered what the future had in store for her. Arriving at her new home she was appalled at the thought of having to start her day without reading the morning newspaper. Far from sipping coffee with her husband, melodious instrumental music enriching the morning air, she was expected to prepare breakfast for her husband who had to report for work at seven in the morning. She wondered who prepared breakfast before her arrival and why the previous arrangement could not continue. Cooking, cleaning, extracting work from the part-time servant as well as attending to her mother-in-law’s whims and sister-in-law’s fancies were all considered part of her marriage contract! She hated to have to wait till two in the afternoon to be able to glance through the paper. Back home she’d be the first to get hold of the newspaper. She longed for her carefree maiden days when she would read the crisp morning newspaper at leisure. She missed her collection of books, her writing table, her letter pad and her transistor all of which had been part of her existence before marriage. In short, she considered her Scientist husband and his clan as aliens who had just arrived on planet earth on a flying saucer. ‘ How very abnormal ‘ she thought to herself ‘these people seem to think and talk of nothing but cooking and house keeping all day’. The man she had married spoke to her about his research projects and electroplating devices thus shattering her dreams of holding literary discussions on Milton and Keats in an open terrace on a moonlit night! She and her husband were poles apart she felt and wondered if she would ever feel at home with him. She thought of her friends and wondered how they were faring. ‘Certainly not as badly as I am’ she thought.



She was a young girl in her early twenties. She was called Preeta though she does not have to be given a name since there were many like her - a typical Indian Female species of the early seventies of the previous century. Brought up in an upper middle class home and having led a fairly secure life, she was free to dream. She had been among the academic toppers at school and college and prided herself on being able to appreciate good literary works in English and to a lesser extent, her mother tongue Tamil. She listened to classical music and literary debates, which were regularly broadcasted over the radio. In the late evenings she’d sit with a host of kids around her and tell them stories or read out the day’s newspaper.

Despite her education she had never thought of a career. Girls from needy families were the ones who went to work to support their families, she thought. She dreamt of the life she’d lead after marriage. She would live in a bungalow in a posh locality. Her husband would share her literary interests and love for music and theatre. They would have a room in the first floor that would have an adjoining open terrace overlooking a large portico. Together they would water plants in their roof garden that would invariably have a collection of jasmine and night queen varieties. They would listen to soft music well into the moonlit night. Somehow she never seemed to have any responsibilities in her dreams nor did she have any career preference for her husband. In fact she never gave it a thought since she was always well provided for and perhaps it was automatically assumed that he had a career. If he did not have any particular job he did not have a specific face either. He only had a mind! He was intelligent, well read, and versatile and of course he had a good sense of humor. Her interaction with her husband was purely plutonic like the characters in Shakespearian plays! Her dreams almost never included a father or mother-in-law who expected her to take charge of her duties as a daughter-in-law and even if they did exist they were there only to take her side during the intellectual discussions she held.

Monday, July 10, 2006

What went wrong?

Not long ago parents exhausted their resources on caring for their elders and enabling their children to lead a decent honest life.For their old age they had no problem settling down with their sons and becoming part of their family.they had a say in everything from the upbringing of the grand children to the appointment of a servant maid.Today's parents who are nearing retirement have enabled their children to get the best they could afford to give them.They have tucked away enough money to see them through the remainder of their lives.They are not 'liabilities' on anyone they keep on announcing.Yet they prefer to maintain a safe distance from their children.they dare not comment on aspects in their children's life that do not meet their approval.In short they are a jittery lot.Where has the confidence shown by their very own parents gone?In short 'what went wrong?' Can anyone tell me?