Friday, November 14, 2014

Baba ... Black Sheep?

I don’t like to make any comments on ‘godmen’, spiritual leaders or faith healers. There are believers and there are sceptics. Baba Ramdev, who came into the limelight some years ago, has attracted enough attention from each category.  Apart from lessons on spirituality, yoga and faith healing, the Baba ran a line in traditional medicine. The medicines (like Baba) became a rage and soon news channels on TV were afire with the story that they contained traces of crushed human bones. It takes more than a scandal or two to destroy a success. The noise died down the way it always does.
Baba Ramdev has been called a rogue, a charlatan and a Casanova. He tried his hand at politics, but he made a quick exit. You can read about it here and on Wikipedia.
The Baba hasn’t made news in some time now. It turns out he makes much more.
Last year when my daughter had come home from Delhi she was on the lookout for a ‘Patanjali’ shop here in the Dooars (the tea growing region of North Bengal).  Patanjali, she informed us, sells a range of products including soaps and toiletries made with natural ingredients and free from harmful chemicals. And it is owned by Baba Ramdev.
My husband laughed outright. ‘Powdered bones,’ he said.  I didn’t want to take sides, and I kept my thoughts to myself.  My daughter had brought home a bar of Patanjali  ‘Multani Mitti’ (Fuller’s earth) soap.  It looked good, in that it really looked like clay, and it smelt wonderful. I washed my face with it after she asked me to give it a shot, and I was ‘converted’.  Now this is the dangerous part when the reader begins to think this is an ad, after all.

 I expected to see a price tag of Rs.85/- at least, because that is what fancy ‘natural’ or ‘herbal’ soap bars sell for. This one was priced at Rs. 35/-. An ‘I told you so’ hung unspoken in the air.
Now, scepticism gone, we went in search of a Patanjali shop. To our surprise, there was one in Hamiltonganj, a small town close to the tea garden where we lived at the time. The shop had a stock of Multani Mitti and much more, including biscuits priced at Rs.10/- for 100 gms. Those biscuits were fresh and crisp. The ‘Neem Kanti’ soap at Rs. 13/- for the bar - around half the price of a standard bar of soap-  was even better than the Multani Mitti. One single use was enough to convert the husband.

   The gentleman at the well-stocked Alipurduar Patanjali let me take pictures.

I found it absurdly delightful that there was an outlet in Hamiltonganj, but there is one in Hasimara too, and that is an even smaller town. After my eyes were opened, I’ve seen shops all over the Dooars: in Binnaguri, Jaigaon and Alipurduar, in Mal Bazar, Chalsa and Oodlabari, all small towns dotting the countryside around tea gardens. Every shop has a large poster of Baba in orange robes with arm outstretched, as if calling out to customers while blessing them.  
We found an outlet close to my sister’s home in Chennai too, and we’d thought the Baba only ruled in areas where Hindi is spoken!
The shampoo and hair oil are every bit as good as the soaps and I’m saving money on these purchases as well as my dishwash and detergent bars. All our old brand loyalties have gone out the window. It’s simple: Patanjali provides  quality products at reasonable prices. Instead of pitching the product at a high price for the privileged few, it chooses to attract the common man – or the thrifty woman.              
There is one outlet in our part of the Dooars – no names - where we stopped to stock up last month. A shop assistant packed our stuff while his boss was busy dispensing medicine, advice and attention to a group of women who were hanging on to his every word. He had a good supply of words in at least three of our local languages: Nepali, Bengali and Hindi. His audience was giggling and shrieking with enjoyment. When my husband went up to pay for our purchases, he took the money and handed him his change without a break in the patter.
Make no bones about it, soft soap sells.

Friday, July 18, 2014

A Garden Party

Our cold weather garden has been nothing short of a celebration this year. I'm like that lucky hostess who does nothing but enjoy herself at her own party. Our malis are all novices and this is their first success. They are overjoyed at what they have achieved. For them, yes, this is a real garden party.

You know that feeling when you arrive at a celebration that every one has been looking forward to for ages. There's a sense of disappointment when things don't pick up. Well, that's what it was like at first. We had our share of stragglers and latecomers and we almost gave up waiting. Our marigolds took their own time. It was the same with our dianthus, sweet williams and antirrhinums.  Once they arrived it was a riot, and everyone forgot how worried and disappointed we’d been. The party was in full swing once they all got into the act.   

Then there was the flamboyant brigade - the dahlias and the gerberas. They were the stars from the beginning; all admiring eyes went towards them. The phlox were like those people who form groups with the like minded and chatter and sparkle among themselves. Phlox always look so happy, running riot in their chosen area, all bright and lively.

The gatecrashers at our party were made most welcome; last year's blue eyed daisies popped up unplanned and spread light and loveliness here and there. You'd actually think we'd placed them carefully. They are great at mingling, those friendly creatures. Ditto with the californian poppies.

Our garden has a little something for everybody.  There are plenty of intoxicants, even though the party is drawing to a close. There are sights, sounds and smells that can transport you to another plane altogether. There is plenty of food too, if you are the kind of person who appreciates food for thought.

I must mention the special guests; they were driven here from my friend Jayati's bungalow one evening, all ready to go straight to the beds prepared for them here. Some muscians flew in from the North in all their finery. The one with brilliant red and black feathers stole the show. The musicians have departed, and our 'local talent' has started screeching raucously, practically monopolising the mike. 

And now we have the debris that starts collecting at the end of festivities. You start seeing it out of the corner of your eye when the bash is in full swing. Dead leaves are gathering everywhere and the boys have their hands full sweeping them up. Soon we will be left with photographs, memories, and loads of cleaning to do. And after we've thanked and congratulated all the people who worked so hard, it will be time to plan our next party. One of the chief summer attractions is already in place: the solitary tokay lizard has returned to his tree. He announces his presence every evening with a few 'tokay's. We're relieved he is back; we thought poachers had got him at the beginning of the cold weather. 

Cicero said that if you had a garden and a library you had everything you needed. Give me a life of the senses: all I need is the garden for now.

Thursday, September 05, 2013

A Little Knitting Yarn

Our  girls are both wearing skirts knitted by their grandmother, my mother Maiji.
My love of knitting is something I've inherited from my mother. She knits round the year and keeps the entire family supplied with sweaters, ponchos and shawls. Knitting keeps the mind alert and the fingers agile. Summer or winter, it’s good to have a little project going. I’m sharing some memories of friends and past associations that come to mind whenever I knit.

When I was at school in Delhi, Miss Saldhana the needlework teacher taught our class how to knit. She took a double period with us on Tuesday afternoons. It was 1972, and it must have been a golden era if girls in Class V were actually allowed time for classes in needlework, art, elocution, singing and dancing.

Many of us found Miss Saldhana scary. Our first project was a pair of baby’s bootees. We had to bring two balls of wool from home. One girl brought black wool. Miss Saldhana called her to the front of the class and shook her shoulder with one hand while wagging the bag of wool at us with the other. 'Black wool! For baby's bootees. Like a sign of death on the baby's feet!'

Miss Saldhana's sharp tongue and good teaching ensured that we all completed the bootees in very little time. We actually enjoyed the work too. In the winter holidays that followed, I'd ask my mother or sisters for a bit of wool and knit useless little patches that could be undone and re-done.

Just one of the dozens of dolls Maiji has knitted!
My mother knitted all my sweaters, as she'd done for my brothers and sisters before me. I'd show off her creations in college. Some of my friends asked if Aunty would be so kind as to knit for them too, and she always obliged. It took her hardly any time to turn out colourful and imaginatively designed pullovers.

More knits by Maiji
I enjoyed going with her to the wool shop in Sarojini Nagar. We would spot a good knitting pattern in the latest issues of the English magazines 'Woman' or 'Woman and Home' from the mobile lending library which the magazine wala carried around on his bicycle. The patterns of those days fuelled the imagination. 'Our model is wearing this sweater in Ash, Rose and Snowflake,' one would say, and it might continue: 'Our knitting editor also recommends Toffee, Russet and Freesia or Navy, Cornflower and Magnolia.' The names were enough to transport me to an unseen land.  

The shop was quite big. It had 'lacchas' or bundles of wool tumbling out of shelves that ranged up to the ceiling. There were cardboard boxes, neatly stacked, which held balls of wool. There was wool in sacks on the floor. The shop was always packed with people buying, and there were many salesmen. One of them assigned himself to my mother, who was a big buyer. His name was Bhagwan Das. He wasn’t very young, but he could hop over the counter and up into the loft if required. He always managed to find just the shade we wanted.

I only felt the need to knit when I became a mother myself. The babies had outgrown what their grandmother had knitted, and she was going to be away that winter. Living in a tea garden was like living in an extended family. I turned to the other ladies on the garden for help.

I first asked Rosie if she could teach me to make warm vests for the babies. Rosie promised to come over and give me a lesson. Two or three days passed. A packet came from her bungalow with a note. It said, 'Sorry I didn't wait to wash them, Gowri. I was in a hurry to give them to you.' There were two pink vests, knitted in just the right sizes for the girls! I went to Rosie’s as soon as I could and thanked her with a big hug. She laughed happily and said she'd had such fun planning the surprise. It was lovely to be   knitting little pink things, she said, being a mother of two boys! That memory is warm, just like the handy vests which the babies wore for years. 

When our elder daughter started school, she needed a V necked sweater. This time Smita took what I had knitted and worked on it. I could only knit the back and the front pieces up to the point where they needed shaping. These pieces were sent off to Smita’s bungalow, where she did all the hard work, shaping the armholes and neck, and making borders for them. 

The next year I started on a sweater for my husband and took my work to the club like an experienced knitter. Western Dooars Club was full of ladies who knitted frantically in preparation for the cold weather. They all became my gurus.

Rafat took one look at what I was doing. 'Not Fisherman's Rib, Gowri,' she said. 'You'll use kilos of wool, and it'll take you ages to finish.' She made me rip out what I’d done, and thanks to her, Mohan got a sweater which was knitted in a sensible pattern - one which I could finish!

The following year, Mridula ripped out whatever I'd knitted of a sweater for my youngest because I'd cast on too many stitches. She sat and supervised while I cast on the correct number and began again.

Cold weather mornings in the club on the days leading up to the Christmas party were the most enjoyable ever. The mothers would be as excited about Christmas as the children were. We all wanted our little ones to be wearing new sweaters, coats or knitted frocks, so when we weren't putting up Christmas decorations we'd be knitting.
This Super Mario sweater pattern was in Woman's Weekly
Those days the good wool shops were all in Siliguri. We'd talk about them for hours at the club. There was 'Vandana Wool Emporium' and 'Bengal Wool House'. You could take your pick from many brands, but Vardhman was the best then as it is now. Later on two well-stocked shops came up in Mal Bazar, both called 'Siddhi Gopal Stores'. There was one in Birpara as well. 

Over the last few years, the unpretentious wool shop in Binnaguri has become the only place where I am able to shop for wool. This is where I find wool not only for my needs, but also for my mother, who can't get good wool in Chennai. When I need a little cheering up, it's the best place to go. The names on the ball bands send me on those little imaginary trips again – Gold Mohair, Feather Glow, Passion, Blossom, Christina - and the varieties, soft or sparkly, speckled or tweedy, suggest endless possibilities. It doesn't cost much to pick up a few balls of wool and start a small project like a muffler or a hat. Some bright wool and a finished product at the end of two or three days is just the cure for that 'Nobody Loves Me' mood.

I love what the wool shop stocks these days!
I asked Deepak, who runs the shop, if he had a lot of customers buying wool. I wondered what kept his shop going in Binnaguri when so many others had closed down. The Birpara shop stopped keeping any wool at all. So did the shop in Banarhat. Deepak told me most of his customers were the ladies who lived in the army cantonment. The jawans’ wives knit a lot. 'Hardly anyone from “civil” knits, ' he added.

The big shops in Siliguri, the ones we used to long to be able to visit frequently, don't look like wool shops any more. Four or five years ago, I found they had hardly any new stocks of wool, even after the cold weather and the knitting season had begun. What's more, the shopkeeper said it was a waste of time to knit when you could buy ready-mades! When he saw the expression on my face, he quickly said the women in his family were lazy and didn’t bother to knit. He got a positively dirty look from me for running down his own women.

I don’t carry my knitting to the club any more, but there are still many of us who knit in tea gardens – and I like to think we are all reasonably ‘civil’. The internet has any number of websites featuring knitting techniques and patterns. There are ace knitters out there who are willing to share their expertise: some for a price, and some for free. I don’t miss that old mobile magazine wala library any more.

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Thursday, August 29, 2013

A Page from A Monsoon Diary in the Dooars

Does guava jelly keep monkeys away? I decided to find out when I saw that the guavas on the tree in the corner were beginning to ripen. They were small and woody and not worth the picking and eating. Those guavas can give the strongest tummy terrible aches.

Parrots and monkeys love these fruits. Parrots are okay, but monkeys! We have never been plagued by monkeys as we are here. We could handle regular visits by elephants who routinely destroyed our crops of corn and trampled or uprooted palms, banana and jackfruit trees. Elephants, we’ve seen, are destructive without any provocation, but after having suffered monkeys, I feel like putting out welcome mats for them.

We thought the monkeys would keep away if there was nothing to attract them so we picked all the guavas off the tree. Into a big vessel they went one evening and by morning the juice was ready to be made into jelly. We got one small bottle of a richly coloured jelly.  I smirked at having put off at least one monkey raid.

Yesterday the rogues were back. This time there were young ones too. Two or three sat on the swing, and they got it going. I could swear a couple more were pushing the swing. Maybe I am losing my mind. Another couple of little ones were on top of the slide, waiting to come down. Some had already torn flowers off the bushes here and there. I give up. I don't see myself making allamanda wine or hibiscus jam to keep the demons away. Any suggestions?

There are days and there are dull days and there are days when the excitement arrives just when you are about to drop off. A python entered the section behind the bungalow. It scared the wits out of Margaret, the ayah, and the chowkidar who saw it crossing the road as they were going home.  We heard about it at around 9.30. Mohan and the chowkidars made sure the cows and the calf were safe in their shed. I was worried about the calf, especially after reading about the two little boys killed by a python in a pet store owner's apartment in Canada.

Mohan popped up at 11.30 p.m. and told me not to feel scared about the python entering the bathroom or anything - that was really nice of him, considering I had forgotten all about it. Goodbye to all sleep for me that night. In the morning, we were all still excited. The python could be hiding under the bungalow. A gardener sprinkled some strong smelling insecticide all around to drive it away. Later, the estate chowkidars said they knew about the python; it lived in a section near the pump house and had been there for a long time. After a couple of days of being on the lookout, we guessed that it would have gone back there.

August is almost over, and by now we should all have been fed up of eating corn. We'd have it steamed at breakfast, or roasted on the cob on rainy evenings. It was a staple in the monsoon months when green vegetables were hard to come by.  All that is in the past, I now realise.  We don't grow corn any more, because the monkeys won't let it rise. We couldn't find any to buy either, and that was a mystery! The last time I found any in the daily 'haat' was in the month of May. I have now learnt that the Railways have forbidden the growing of corn anywhere near the tracks, and the Forest Department has forbidden the cultivation of corn anywhere in the region - that is, anywhere in the neighbourhood of the Buxa Tiger Reserve.

It's obvious that the Railways don't want any elephants wandering about near the train tracks. Corn is fodder, and it brings them into inhabited areas. With no solutions yet to the human-elephant conflict, the Forest Department and the Wildlife Department must put their faith in these short-term preventive measures, I suppose. And it is obvious that we must learn to eat frozen packed corn.

(Published in The Sunday Statesman and on

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Delhi Heart

I spent my growing up years in Delhi: more than half my life. I went to school and college there and worked for one year before getting married and moving to the Dooars. Yet when I go there I don’t know the city as well as I should know my home town. It doesn't seem as if I understand the layout of the city at all. That changes – or it seems to - every few months. There are new buildings everywhere. New flyovers come up, necessitating new intersections, U-turns and approach roads.

And then there is the Delhi Metro that has sliced up the city. Some roads, intersections and even buildings have vanished. Still, it is something I admire. I love seeing the stations, the escalators, and the trains arriving every two minutes. Delhi's people are making good use of the Metro service. It is the one thing that has helped me to feel a little independent when I’m there. It's freed commuters from hours spent in traffic which never seems to move, and from bargaining with auto drivers or paying criminal amounts to hire cabs. I was always comfortable in the Ladies' Compartment, right up at the front of the train. I revelled in the Arctic air-conditioning of the train itself. A Metro Rail Card freed me from long queues at the ticket counter. I could go to places like Dilli Haat, the sprawling crafts bazaar, directly by Metro. I could make meeting points with friends or with my brother who would always have a car waiting to pick me up at a Metro station in the less crowded parts of Delhi.

The overhead Metro line is a bit of an eyesore, though. It's sad to see it going past my old college. One can’t see that lovely building from the road any more.

'Running house' (my daughter’s flat) was great fun in Delhi. I enjoyed having the kitchen all to myself. Oh the audacity of being able to go out and buy what I wanted only when I needed it! No stocking up on potatoes, onions, oil, eggs or sugar for fear of being caught up short. Here on the garden the bawarchi and I buy stuff as if we're preparing for a siege. His lists look like detailed horoscope charts, long and scroll like as they are.

For many years, my husband and I longed set up house and live in Delhi. We thought it would be so romantic. Madness? Not really, because the Delhi we remembered from childhood was quite another city; it stopped in the eighties. We longed for a life free of all the complications or 'jhamela' of living in a tea garden. What little grass grows there in Delhi always seems greener to us.

(Published in The Camellia magazine)

Friday, October 19, 2012

Monkey Mail!

In all the years I've been married, we've hardly ever had a postal address with a house number or a street name.

Our address has always been 'c/o' (husband's designation), followed by the name of a tea garden, a Post Office, and a district name. A bit like the Phantom, who sends a man to collect 'any mail for Mr. Walker' from the Post Office in Denkali, a tea garden manager has a 'dak wallah' who goes to the nearest post office every morning to drop off and pick up letters.

Couriers don't come to our doors but leave their dak or mail and packages at the nearest town.

So when my sister Viji in Mumbai sent me a package with things that our brother Bala had handed over to her in Chicago for our mother Maiji and me, she was worried that I never acknowledged receipt. Viji called me on the 28th and said the courier office there told her that the parcel had been collected on the 25th by one 'Surit Nandi, peon'. I called my husband Mohan and told him at once. Mohan said Surit Nandi was not a peon, but he was a garden chap all right. 'Who is Surit Nandi?' was all I could think of.

They found him. He was questioned by Mohan and the head clerk. Surit denied (stoutly? perhaps) that he had taken any parcel from anywhere. The head clerk, or Bara Babu as we call him, told Mohan he would follow things up.

Viji called with more news. The parcel was on its way back to Mumbai, according to the courier, DHL. This was terrible. Bala had sent, among other things, the video of his son Kartik's wedding.

I told Mohan the parcel was heading back, and he told Bara Babu. Bara Babu rang up his friend, the proprietor of Sree Krishna Stores in Hamiltonganj and told him what had happened. 

Sree Krishna's son swung into action. He stormed into the DHL outpost in Hamiltonganj, thumped the desk and hollered at the clerk there. Why, he asked, had they not alerted Sree Krishna Stores when a package arrived for Mr. Mohanakrishnan?  That was all they'd had to do. Sree Krishna - and son - would take all responsibility from then on. The clerk apologised. It was a terrible mistake, he agreed. He promised to make enquiries.

A further call from Viji said the courier was not DHL, but DHC. Right. After we had - well someone had, on our behalf - made a ruckus at DHL.  I felt sorry for the chap who'd been threatened. But he hadn't protested. He'd apologised for a mistake he'd never made. It must be a tough life out there in Hamiltonganj.

I asked Viji what DHC had to say. Once again, the suspect's name cropped up. Surit Nandi. He had signed for the package on the 28th, not the 25th. Who is Surit Nandi, I asked Mohan. He is the school bus driver, said Mohan. He drives a bus into Kalchini and Hamiltonganj everyday, ferrying the workers' children to and from schools there.

This was spooky. A bus driver had pulled Maiji up into his vehicle after Kartik and Danielle's wedding and she'd hurt her knee. Now, a bus driver had made their wedding video vanish. 

I decided to go to the DHC office. It was a little shop, not an office, which turned out to be in Kalchini, not Hamiltonganj. It had a Xerox machine on one side and the courier's desk on the other.

'DHC?' I asked in a chilly voice. 'No, Madam, this is JaYshree courier service'.
Silly me. I felt even sillier when both men behind the desks stood up and directed me in polite voices to the right place. 

I went outside in a hurry. Our driver brought someone to the car. A sweet-faced plump chap who smiled and gave me a 'Namastey'.
'Memsaab, this is Surit Nandi', said the driver. What! This man! But he didn't look like a thief! Surit Nandi! He was still smiling.  
One thing was clear. I wasn't going to let this Surit Nandi get away. I asked him to get into the car and come to the DHC desk with us.

This time I made sure I saw a sign that said DHC before I opened my mouth. I took out a piece of paper on which I'd scribbled the docket number which Viji'd called out on the phone.

'Do you have this package?' I asked the man at the desk, putting the piece of paper in front of him. Very business like.
He had no smiles for me, and he matched my aggression with a 'So what?' kind of defensiveness. Here's how it went.

He: 'Yes, I received it.'

I: 'Where is it now?'

He: 'I made so many calls to the telephone number on the packet. That person said he would come. I rang up five or six times. He kept saying he would come, and he never came.'

I: (dripping with sarcasm)'Oh! Is that so? Let's talk to him now.' (I dialled Mohan on my phone)

He: (quickly) 'But he was in Alipurduar'. (I cut the call)

I: WHO was in Alipurduar?

He: Actually it was my brother who rang him up from Alipurduar. My brother isn't here now. 

I: I want to check when your brother called on my husband's number. 

He: He should have come to collect it.

I: I have come to collect it. Where is it?

He: Company rules say that if a package is not picked up in three days it has to go back to the place where it came from. But I know you are from a tea garden. That's why I asked him (pointing at Surit Nandi) to sign for it.

I: What! You gave him the package!

(Here Surit Nandi piped in: I don't have any package! I didn't take anyone's package!)

I: (frantic) Then where is the package? When will it reach Mumbai? What did they say?

He: I have it.

I: WHAT!! You have it here??

He: I didn't want it to go back to Mumbai. But I couldn't break the rules. That's why I took Surit's signature and informed the company in Mumbai that it had been collected.

(Short silence)

I: Will you give it to me?

He: Yes.

He went in and came out with a parcel. I couldn't believe it. It had my name on it. It had Viji's name on the other side, spelt Vigi.
I smiled. He smiled. I said thank you. He asked me what my name was, and wrote it in his receipt book which I signed. I asked him what his name was. Ajit, he said. He smiled and said thank you, and I smiled and said thank you. 

Oh the joy of coming home and opening the package! I took out the wedding video and we all watched it as soon as we could.

At dinner time, Mohan had something to report. 'Halla has broken out among the garden workers that Surit Nandi is a bad man and a thief, and that he stole a parcel belonging to the Superintending Manager.' Oh, oh.

(Published in The Statesman annual, 'Festival 2012')

'Human Laboratory' in Hamiltonganj