Wednesday, 23 July 2014

A Place Called India. A Place Called Pakistan

What is the difference? Asked my son. Both countries are part of his history, but how best to explain to a 7 year old. His school project - Asia - gave us the perfect opportunity to explore more.

Here it is.

Sunday, 3 November 2013

Happy Diwali...... pomegranates and He-Man

Pomegranates and He-Man. My enduring memories of Diwali at home with Ma, Pa & little sis.

When we were little, Pa used to bring home one pomegranate every Diwali. Just the one. A rare and an expensive fruit once upon a time in a India, for his two precious girls. Every year it was the sweetest thing we ever tasted. Over the years, the presence of the fruit started getting more frequent. But now when I think of Diwali at home - I am little again, dizzy with anticipation for our special treat.

So for the last 14 years, I have been trying to turn around and retrace my steps - buy pomegranates every Diwali. I close my eyes and inhale like I haven't breathed in ages. But I have yet to find one that tastes just as sweet or smells just as delicious.

And then there was He-Man. Every year after she had bought us new clothes, Ma used to let us buy a few garishly coloured clay toys. The dazzling colours and the array of the caricatured figurines spread across markets meant a few giggling hours spent trying to buying the clay toys.

One year, both my sister and I were fixated on He-Man on TV and desperate for the He-Man toy, which we were promised one Diwali. Not sure why, but the thrill and fuss of that year looms large in my memory. I can clearly see the He-Man toy sharing space next to all the clay figurines that Diwali.

I thought I should start my own traditions with my son, and asked what he wanted for Diwali - "Something exciting," said the boy who clearly wants for nothing.

Some things happen only with your parents, and this here is not the house I share with them. These moments don't happen here.


Wednesday, 30 October 2013

I want India, Pakistan and England to win the match Mummy.

I am not a child of the Indian Partition. It happened 66 years ago. My parents were born just around or after that time, and my in-laws certainly were the children of that horrible time in Indian history. But my sense of that era comes from the numerous films and books on the subject, but more so from my granddad - a brilliant storyteller who brought history alive - after all it was the story of my family and where I came from. I remember I was 10 when he told me how he had been married before, much before he was betrothed to my grandmother, but she sadly died (a fact unknown to Papa, or his two brothers); how Papa was only few months old when they fled from the newly-created Pakistan to India on a packed train with little food and no water.

There were several other far-more heart-wrenching stories. Maybe because I can still recall my late granddad telling me those stories in his room, filled with thousands of curious little glass vial bottles and smelling sugary and sooty at the same time (not many people were allowed in his room - he was a strange loveable amazingly tall creature who practiced Ayurveda) - that every time I watch a film on Partition or read about it, I feel transported in time.

And I also want my son to be aware of his history. Roshan generally enjoys history - got the top grade in his class in his Black History project; loves reading about Guy Fawkes, Henry VIII and Mary Seacole.

The best way, I thought, was to get him to watch a film. I bought Partition - not one of the best films made, but it is in English. Roshan switched off the film in tears. "But Ahmar is my friend," he cried.

At the age of seven, not sure if this was too close to home for him. His (several) best friends at school are all different hues, religion and nationalities, and he does not even want to entertain the fact that Sikhs and Muslims massacred each other or Indian and Pakistan have been at war several times.

A child that cannot watch a cricket match because he cannot decide which team to support -- Mummy, I want India, Pakistan and England -- all of them to win the watch, he says - does not want to recognise his own history. How long should I wait before I try again, I wonder?

Monday, 28 October 2013

You angry, Mummy? You tweeting then?

My first encounter with politics was when I was eight, I think. I marched with my mother & my little sister and with the rest of the neighbourhood in tow, to demand for our civic rights, while banging pots & pans. I remember the time with much glee, and perhaps it was also my first lesson in fighting for change.

At the time, we were living in a newly-built Government house (in India - this is quite unlike like the council houses here, but instead is a prized accommodation reserved for public service officials & different sized houses are dished out according to the hierarchy of position) but the only access to the house and all the neighbouring houses was through a dirt road. My parents, being of the active variety (the type who write letters to the editors on a daily basis), invited the press, wrote to the authorities but nothing much happened. The Indian monsoon flooded the area, and the area surrounding the entire street was a great big puddle that Peppa Pig, George, Mummy Pig and Daddy Pig and all their friends could have jumped and played in all day! But my Mummy & Daddy were not into jumping in muddy puddles. They were angry, very angry.

Ma tucked up her sari, picked a few pots and pans, asked us to start drumming, went around and gathered all the women in the neighbourhood and marched to the Commissioner's (a City Mayor) house and all of us stood outside banging for hours and demanding that paved streets are built outside our homes. I can't remember how many hours the protest lasted or whether Ma had to carry us back home. But I do remember opening the door to the Commissioner the next morning, who had cycled through the muddy puddles to get to us and who promised to get our streets built.

It was the start of protest rallies and marches for me. I remember protesting against the size reduction of the samosa in the college canteen.

But what do I do when British Gas announced a whopping increase in gas prices? I sent out three indignant tweets to British Gas and one to David Cameron.

Roshan knows that when Mummy gets angry, she will tweet.

Tuesday, 3 January 2012

A Christmas Tale

My first Christmas in the UK. In 2011. The first year that I did not fly back to India with my son to be with my family and friends. And it did not disappoint.

I have always resented my husband's family for being. Sometimes, just being. For being around him when he needs them. Whereas I always have had to pretend that I am happy to be thousands of miles away from home, content with just three weeks holed up with them every year. So every year I fly back to India to be with my own people, especially during Christmas. But this year was very different. I stayed put in a foreign land, taking part in a foreign fuss.

I often get asked if I celebrate the big day or whether I make turkey curry on the day? Curried turkey? Not everything can be made edible by adding in curry from a jar.

What makes a celebration, any celebration is when family and friends get together. Not all my near and dear ones in this country celebrate Diwali, and anyway it is not even a holiday, making it so much more difficult to arrange a feast on the day. So Christmas it is then. Add excitable kids to any of these occasions, and it makes it so much more memorable.

My son made my Christmas. He was almost at bursting point on Christmas Eve, making the day just perfect. Trips to Santa's grotto, Christmas tree, Christmas dinner with all the trimming, a never-ending mountain of gifts, Christmas markets. This was one of the best ever in a very long time. But not the only one. It reminded me of how my sister and I used to celebrate in India.

Coming from an Indian middle class meant that we were both sent to an all girls overly-strict Catholic school and therefore the images of Jesus Christ, Mother Mary and even Mary Magdalene stayed with us through our growing years. Our Christmas day started with our parents driving us to the local orphanage as bearer of gifts for those "not as lucky as us" and spending time with them, followed by us building a "shrine" for Mother Mary and the baby in our garden. Me and my sister used to spend hours looking for the choicest flowers and stones to build our shrine, followed by some tinsel, balloons, and Christmas decorations going up on the guava tree in the garden. We were then joined by our two favourite cousins for a Christmas feast. Mamma, a teacher at our school (she's still there!), at the time must have felt duty-bound to join in the Christian fun (it is a marked day in her calendar these days, which she celebrates just as she would observe Baisakhi) and would bake cakes and samosas. And of course any excuse for gifts. We were of course the lucky ones, who would get presents for not birthdays alone but also for Diwali, New Year and Christmases.

But our festivities did not end here. We took it extremely seriously.

One year, we planned to put on a play-- it was some sort of a ghost story. I think I was 12, my sister nine years old and my two cousins 13 and 10. We wrote the script, did costumes (spent months!), and even managed to convince the 14 yr old son of one of our family friends (who I used to have a crush on) to come and join us in our production! We wrote invites; rummaged the drawers in our homes for any old junk that we could wrap and then give away as Xmas gifts at the end of the show. Come the day of our show-- December 25, 1985-- and the four girls and one rather tall, gawky lad were all ready to go, dressed in some white robes held by safety pins. My sister and my 10 year old cousin were both statues who come alive (it was a ghost story). We had an audience of about 15 people in our garden, and the play progressed beautifully I think, though the din of the crunching of samosas and gurgling through the straws failed to cease. We were finally coming to the end, when the two statues who had been still for a rather long time started getting a bit itchy, resulting in my sister's robe getting undone. Unflinchingly, she just picked it up and resumed being a statue. Always the pro. But me and my other cousin collapsed on the stage in a fit of girly giggles, the 'other' statue joined in. Forsaking all reverence for Baby Jesus, whose picture was on the 'stage', we were rolling on the floor hysterically, my sister was crying in anger and the boy walked off the 'stage' in disgust- with the rest of our audience. We never managed to finish the final scene of our play, and anyway the audience had had enough and were being called to get back to their homes and finish homework.

Never one to give up,  a year later it had to be done differently.

This is one of the best memories of childhood. Me dressed up in a padded red jacket riding on my red bicycle around the city of Chandigarh, shouting "Merry Xmas" to everyone. Perfectly choreographed, the 'Santa' on the bike was followed by my three helpers- my little sister and my two cousins. My sister and my two cousins, running after me singing Jingle Bells. My bike was adorned with balloons and I was throwing hard-boiled sweets at everyone! Naturally.

Sunday, 25 September 2011

I love being free....

I was made redundant, a few weeks ago. For the second time. And from the same publishing house that made me redundant the first time, rehired me, and made me redundant again. Obviously, this time I knew the motions. How to be singularly focused on getting the best deal for myself while maintaining a sense of dignity. It's never easy.

Like everyone else around me, I took it for granted redundancy is not something that happens to you. My first close encounter with this dreaded 'R' word was five years ago, when my husband, a civil servant, took voluntary redundancy. I must confess that it did not really matter much to me. I had always earned more than him, I loved what I did, and he hated his job. So absolutely failed to understand why his self-esteem hit rock bottom or why he appeared depressed at the best of times. It is that constant feeling of being 'finally found out' that gnaws at you, something I do now know. Combined with that sense of the enormous amounts of time that you wasted worrying about work-stuff. And that feeling of not belonging, and being made to feel like an outsider. I felt like the foreigner I truly am.

I came across Louise Chunn's (editor, Psychologies) outpourings on redundancy when she was "dumped" from Good Housekeeping. (It was around the same time I was reflecting on my sufferings) . I understood every syllable of that piece, and because I knew Louise it struck more of a chord with me. I even cut out the article to keep at my bedside. It was one of those many things that told me why I was at home and out of work when I was at the top of my game. All this time I was surrounded with love and affection from all the people and the industry I had written about, but it wasn't till I found another job that I got my mojo back.

The second time around, redundancy was more mind-numbing. I don't remember feeling anything. When I think back to that hot summer day when I was told I was being redundant (again) I remember a robotic-self. Very calm and collected. The only time I shed some tears was when I called up home to talk to Papa.Can never bear to disappoint him. He was of course more than encouraging. And hubby dear, as always, demonstrated his 100% faith in me. "You will find something better," he said!

But what surprised me most was how I felt this time. I was ready for a new challenge, ready to take everything I had learnt with me and start afresh. Most importantly for the first time I felt sort of free.

I remember walking around Soho in my ridiculous heels ricocheting across cobbled streets and finally falling into a pub to enjoy my afternoon G&T. And it felt so good. I sat there for hours. Not drowning my sorrows, but remembering the shy 26 year old shy Indian girl who celebrated her first job in this country with a double espresso outside Carluccio's in Soho. It was my first taste of the Western world, where no one even looked let alone judge a lone woman.

And if there is one lesson I have learnt in these 11 years of living in the Western world is the importance of freedom. The beauty of freedom of thought and action. Simple everyday pleasures that allow me to live the life I want.

And that is what redundancy meant the second time. I'm not sure if paying off the mortgage with my redundancy gave me that sense of abandonment or my middle age. It might be knowing that what I left behind was a job. Just a job.

I have learnt that I will always have the skills to look forward to and enjoy in the next challenge. And that the freedoms that this world has offered me has allowed me the ease of spontaneity.

I am on to pastures new soon, and I am willing to go full throttle again.

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

I long for the Indian monsoon

I was 10 yrs old when the 1984 anti-Sikh riots erupted in India. Unabated violence in Northern India against Sikhs, following the assassination of the then Indian Prime Minister Indra Gandhi by her two Sikh bodyguards. It is not a time that I've thought about or ever remembered in any great detail. But last night, the haunting images of my tearful mother and a distraught dad shaking every time the doorbell or the telephone rang during those riots just would not leave me. I remembered after all these years how my father had to hide in the Hindu household next door for a few nights. And how we were holed up in our house, with curtains drawn and no lights, for several days. Horrible memories triggered by the images of London burning last night on my TV screens. Something that I've never talked about loud and shudder to think about even now. I was only a little girl then.

But it wasn't the London riots itself that gave me a sleepless night and reminded me of that frightening time in India, but the more shocking images of a helpless police standing by and not doing anything.

I insisted that my son slept in my bed, I became so paranoid. It did not help that living in Croydon, one of the more severely affected areas, made me feel very vulnerable.

The background of the 1984 riots in India and how the violence was characterised at the time are both hugely different to what happened on the streets of London and beyond in the last 72 hours. But as a law-abiding citizen what sent a shiver down my spine is how bloody helpless we are when violence erupts. The State always fails to come to rescue. And you could be anywhere in the world.

Coming from India, like many others I was led to believe that nations such as Britain have the willingness to look after its citizens and their welfare. Living in this country for the last 11 years has dissipated that belief to a large extent (Six years ago when my car was vandalised in front of our house and two of the car wheels stolen by joy-riders, the only luck we had with the police was an incident number we managed to get on the phone. The police did not bother to grace us with their presence. "It's a common occurrence," we we were told). But it is the urbane corruption and the hypocrisy of this country that make me tremble with both fear and rage.

Living in England in 2011, I should not be living in fear of my life, my family's life. I should not be driven to keeping my passports & valuables within reach or forced by fear to keep a knife under my bed. I need to have faith in the system and the people around me.

Tonight I shall go to bed wishing for an Indian monsoon. A downpour of heavy rain, booming thunder and plenty of lightening and wash away this melancholy.

Tonight I want to sleep safe again.