Tuesday, March 10, 2020

Colour by Memory

Another Holi is over.

As I look at the mixed colours of the flowers outside, I can almost see three little girls, Sonal, Vanita and Gowri, sitting at the edge of the flower bed and drying themselves in the hot sun on another lawn in another time. They seem sad that Holi is over but are already making plans for next year. They'll have more water and colours ready next time to throw at Babloo, Vivian, Vernon, Bobby and Uday.

What a happy thought - next year! Only 364 days to go! Next year they will all be one year older - one year closer to playing the boring Holi that Viji, Rekha, Manju and others go and play at Mamta Sinha's house, playing the dholak and singing songs.

But not as bad as Maiji and Babuji's Holi, all they did was walk around the colony going to each house with the uncles and aunties, carrying dry colour and putting only a little bit of that on each others' foreheads. 

Some doors never opened on Holi.

Maiji's plateful of ellu urundai was kept ready for visitors in the front veranda and next to it there was a plate with packets of red and green colour. Gupta Uncle, Uday's father, wore a starched white dhoti. Aunty, tiny next to him, in a fluffy white saree. Uncle had the second biggest smile - Babuji's was the biggest!

The girls would sit there in the sun until they were called home to have their baths and then eat. They knew that there'd be no more hot water baths allowed after today.
No sweaters needed, either, and best of all, they could switch on the fans in the evening.

Wednesday, March 04, 2020

I don't want to be your friend

I don't want to be your friend.

You hate the thing I am, what I was born.

You hate the 'different' and the 'other',

This is what I choose to be:

Follower of my faith, any faith, non-believer.

Meat eater, wheat eater, gin lover, ant eater.

Lover of men/women, life - all living things,

Intolerant, yes  - of intolerance.

Friday, February 28, 2020

Monday, June 03, 2019

Dear CJM

As I pressed and shaped these cookies while the oven was heating, I wondered why they looked familiar, and wasn't sure what they reminded me of - but the shape, the size and the edges were exactly like something I'd seen somewhere.

After they'd cooled a bit, I broke one into pieces and tasted it - and memories came rushing back. Memories of the 'tuck wallah' who sat near the junior school building at break time and outside at the car park (the one inside the big gates, where we never saw a single car parked, ever) when the going home bell had gone. We had junior school morning assembly there, and later, as seniors, that's where we played throwball.

I can actually see the tuck wallah, with his big, bony frame, hair and beard orange* with henna, loose pajama-kurta and small neat trunk of goodies. And the goodies, all packed carefully in packets of see through butter paper, folded and stapled at the top. He had a sort of tray with compartments and  it held all the items, arranged so attractively!

For 15 paisey, he sold a cookie like the one in the picture, packets of salted shelled peanuts, thick salted potato chips, red hot chilli potato chips and little squares of light brown or white fudge. There were small samosas, priced at 25 paisey, and I think there were veg. and mutton patties as well. The mutton patty was the 'expensive' item.

The bestEST thing in his trunk were 'sticky chips'. I'm sure none of my friends has forgotten the taste! Deep brown shiny sweet coating on cruchy pieces of chips. Oh it was heavenly, especially if you'd bought one just as the bell rang after break. You could open your desk and eat a little bit in the Sanskrit period (always the first period after break)!

The sticky chips came from the same source as the other chips - they were deep fried sun dried sliced potatoes. The fried chips were broken into little pieces and coated in really dark caramel and allowed to dry. My adult mind worked out the composition of course, those days they were just deliciously sticky and mysterious and never to be seen anywhere else.

Please write to me if you want the cookie recipe.

*I remember asking my father how some men had orange and red hair; was it because they used red coloured hair oil?
The sticky chips scholar

One of our wonderful teachers Ms Susheila Mani, with dear Sr Dorothy who was the principal when I joined school. Thank you for putting up this pic on Facebook, Ms Mani. And thank you for everything, CJM.

Thursday, September 06, 2018

A Taste of Home

On a cool and cloudy morning like today, I could have fooled myself into believing  I was in Bagracote Tea Garden in the late eighties. It must have been the freshness of the rain-washed breeze; Bagracote was a place where it rained everyday round the year. At three p.m., without fail - and that, as I said, was in the late eighties.

Those days, a hot meal of Uppuma and chutney like the one we just had for breakfast would have taken me back 'home' in the same way.

Home : a world both Mohan and I had left so far behind, in Delhi. We had to travel for many hours to reach Delhi. There were no telephones and certainly no coloured images flashing on screens to bring other worlds into our lives all day and everyday. For this reason, very few people in the city knew anything at all about tea gardens. I had never heard of the Dooars myself until I got married!

We were all afloat in a world that was remote and had very little in common with life in urban India. Almost all the little towns in the Dooars had come up only because of the tea gardens. The gardens themselves were less than a hundred years old!! The nearest city was Calcutta. There was no way you could bridge the gap between city  and garden with ease in those days; besides, each seemed to exist in a different time zone. 

Language, music and food: these were our connect with home. It was much the same for the people we knew here, for all our friends, for all Mohan's colleagues and their wives. In this way we were all united, in spite of  the things that made each one of us different.We had all created a home away from home. We had gained a new community, new relationships, and a  new family where we lived. We had two homes, then, and we enjoyed each in its place.

Most of the young planters today have their families living in towns nearby. There are two reasons for this. First, most of them belong to this region. The tea growing areas of North East India have well populated towns, and any number of youngsters choose tea as a profession. People from places like Delhi, Dehradun, Chandigarh or Kolkata don't turn up in large numbers looking to make a life in tea any longer.

The second reason is that many girls who marry planters get an opportunity to work in town these days, and their children attend school there. The bungalow becomes a weekend home for them, and often the planter husband/father goes and spends Sundays with the family in town. There is no longing for a home far away, and therefore no need to create another in the garden.
Painting the verandah at Moraghat T.E. Burra Bungalow before Diwali
Some years ago, one of Mohan's assistants - let's call him Vijay - asked to go home, to a town just 50 kms away from the garden, for Diwali. His wife and children lived there, in the house in which he had grown up. They would visit him on weekends.

This conversation took place at the club Diwali 'do' when all the children were having a wonderful time with 'pataakas' (fireworks). Diwali was two days away. We would all do up our bungalows with a bit of paint, lights and so on every year.  Diwali has a special quality in the garden, an added 'flavour', and I've always believed it is enhanced by the darkness and the silence around us.

To get back to the conversation -  Mohan asked Vijay whether he really wanted to leave his bungalow in darkness on Diwali night, and the boy replied quite blandly that the bungalow could never be 'home' for him, so why should he stay there and not light diyas (lamps) at home in town!

We were really stunned to hear that he - and so many others, as we now realise - thought that way!

Somehow, our longing for the old 'home' meant we lavished a lot of love on our new homes in what was then a distant land. We gloried in the otherness of  this life. And this was home, after all, for our children!

One year, we were in Delhi at Diwali time. Our little one was just two years old. She heard the sound of 'pataakas' (fire crackers) going off early in the evening, and she announced happily to her grandfather that elephants had come! That was what firecrackers - especially the loud ones called 'chocolate bomb' or 'atom bomb' - meant to a tea garden child, because they were used to frighten herds of wild elephants and keep them away! Our children's idea of 'normal life' included elephants, leopards and snakes, forests, rivers and mountains.

The world of tea gardens is still unique. The language(s), the jargon, the 'dastoor' or customs ( most of them quirky and anachronistic ) and the hierarchy, the feudal spirit, the grave danger, the solitude, the darkness, the silence - it's all one of a kind. Definitely not a life to be taken for granted.
Workers dancing and singing at Diwali time, Moraghat T.E. Burra Bungalow

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Walk of Life

We lost Simba on Thursday, July 5.
He left us just before five p.m.: the time when he would set off joyfully on his evening walk. He had the quiet and peaceful end he deserved. Till the last, he was giving us all the love and comfort he could.

He waited for S to come home and improved enough to spend a few days - almost a week - with her. It's as if he knew. The last time P came home, he'd be there to wake her up in the morning and then spend every waking moment with her.

He was so tiny, and he's left our bungalow so empty. I don't think we humans are capable of loving with so much devotion. We have to learn to live without our darling Simbu who woke up so joyfully, as if there was something to celebrate each morning. 

He'd welcome M when he came home for breakfast and bark his head off, posititvely herding him to the table so he could hurry up and get little chunks of apple.

He was a true tea planter's dog. He lived in the Dooars and in Darjeeling before coming to Assam.

Until two years ago, he bit anyone whom he didn't like. He hated painters and bijli mistris. No one knows how he became the soul of benevolence.

M was calling him a 'sant' these past few months.

Simba was evolving into a lifestyle guru. Loving, enjoying life and laughing, in spite of failing eyesight and poor hearing. He looked about six, not sixteen and a half.
                                                          Right, boy. Run free now.

Sunday, May 27, 2018

Look Through My Window

It's that time of year when the fruit trees are laden with lychees and mangoes.

There's a large lychee  tree outside my bedroom window. The bedroom's on the first floor since this is a chung bungalow, and the tree is one of the first things I look out on every morning. 

Last night was a little blustery as rainy nights go, and I wasn't feeling too bright so I stayed at home while my husband went to the club. I had a good book* to read and decided to turn in early. The wind was fluttering outside my window at regular intervals in a rather strange way. I drew the curtains apart to see what it was.

Bats! There were at least two of them, taking turns to fly in from different directions to pick a lychee off the top of the tree, and each with a wingspan of at least two feet. Pale moonlight, rain, chilly gusty winds and these huge bat silhouettes wheeling about.

My very own Saturday night horror show.


*Norwegian Wood