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Saffron

SAFFRON

On a bus tour in Amsterdam, our guide carried an orange flag.  I thought no more of it than as a sign to help us locate him in crowded areas, in the midst of so many other sightseeing groups.  Somewhere along the way, he explained that ‘saffron’ is their national colour and they are very proud of it.  They put it on every banner and poster in their country, and then I started noticing.  There are even stores, simply named ‘Orange’.   Not in our country alone, does ‘saffron’ evoke so much passion and emotion.  Only, for us, the colour also arouses a lot of controversy as well.

Amsterdam, beautiful, as everyone can see from pictures, is an amazing place, besides being the home of the famous painter, Rembrandt, and Anne Frank to whom is dedicated a museum – the same building in which she and her family hid during the holocaust.  The Jewish influence on Dutch history, of course, goes much beyond Anne Frank’s diaries because the Jews had settled here long before World War II.  There is a tourist spot called Jewish Cultural Quarter displaying the Jewish lifestyle and culture.  Here also, is the famed Gassan diamond factory which treats you to an amazing display of the various stages of processing diamonds.  (They also give you free coffee!)

Amsterdam is full of waterways, like Kerala.  You criss-cross the canals over quaint little bridges or commute by boats plying all through the day. A Hop on-Hop off ticket not only allows you to hop on and off buses, you can also hop on from bus to boat and back.  Amsterdam is located by the sea, the Zuiderzee.  It was an inland sea in the early 20th century and the  biggest battle fought by the Netherlands was to reclaim land from raging seas by constructing several dykes (water barriers) and polders (low-lying lands protected by dykes).   Even now 40% of the country, as the name itself suggests,  is below sea level.

This kind of terrain, especially in farm lands, requires special wooden clogs.  Most tours take you to factories where clogs are designed and manufactured.  You can also buy miniature clogs as mementos.  The clogs, windmills, the lion and tulips are Dutch national symbols.  By chance, we happened to be there on the country’s National Day or King’s day – 27th April, the birthday of King Willem Alexander.  It was a long holiday and the weather, very sunny.  People were outdoors, celebrating and enjoying the warm weather.  Our woollens and warm clothes (mandatory for us, as European countries are always cold ) turned out to be quite a burden.  But our guide kept telling us that the weather was unpredictable – it would rain any day and then it would get cold.

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There are many kinds of local transport available – express trains, metro, tram, buses (here also you can buy a common ticket).  In the city itself, there are cars but the favourite vehicle of the Dutch is the bicycle.  Everyone cycles – young, old, men, women – from everywhere to everywhere.  A tourist can also hire a bicycle at many places.  Special lanes are reserved for cyclists on every road, which are constantly in use.  Rows of bicycles are parked at the end of bridges or in parking lots.

Through most of our Europe tours, I had carried packets of instant foods like ‘upma’ ‘poha’ ‘khichdi’ (of a brand called Visavi) and of course, ‘theplas’.  Though Indian food is available in most places, the outlets were often way off our routes and wallets as well.   But in Amsterdam, the main streets (straat, as they call them), are lined with Indian food outlets easily accessible.  There are a variety of continental and Mughlai cuisines also available for the more adventurous, as well as delicious pancakes on street sides!

About an hour or so away is Old Holland  where the fishing villages of Volendam and Edam are located. Here, one can visit cheese factories and even sample and buy cheese.  Not only is the cheese manufacturing very elaborate, the variety of cheeses is also amazing.  One can cruise along quaint little fishing villages, also see windmills in operation in neighbouring Marken.  The famed tulip gardens are in Keunkenkof, Holland.  It is indeed paradise – with such a huge variety and colours of tulips and many other flowers.   The garden is vast and despite signboards, one can get lost again and again. There is a ticket for this garden, so if you enter, be prepared to spend at least 2-3 hours.

In case you have missed out on any sight or place of interest, no worry, Madurodam, a memorial dedicated to the war hero, George Maduro, replicates the whole of the Netherlands in miniature.  Here you can relive your entire tour in a short duration as well as indulge in several activities and interactive games.

The natives get a lot of exercise cycling and with waterways and windmills still in use, more clean air – no wonder, the happiness quotient of the Dutch is one of the highest in the world!

It’s dog’s life!

 

He is Man’s best friend – not out of choice.  They say, the dog instinctively follows Man and where there are human beings, there must be dogs.

There are innumerable people I know who are avowed dog lovers and when their ‘dog’ conversation starts, they can go on and on, even more than doting mothers about their kids.  “Ria must have toast with butter and jam, Ruta only toast and salad.  I have toast with cheese, but Sultan must have all the toppings.  Otherwise, he makes a face and goes ‘gr….gr’”- an ex-Principal of mine would narrate.  Her face and expression would be exactly like Sultan, who by now, you have guessed rightly, is the family dog, aptly named Sultan.

Another pet dog would refuse to enter the house or have dinner until her master returned, and woe the evening when the man is out of town.  She would keep whining and complaining all night, not touching a morsel of food despite the whole family explaining to her that the master was well and would return in a couple of days.

I have observed that the facial expressions of most dog owners start resembling their dogs’, especially if the pet has been around for a long time – much like old husbands and wives whose love or even lack of it is so mutual that when death takes away either one, the other follows sooner than later.  Many dogs follow their masters to death, much like Yudhishtra and his dog.  And dog owners never get over the demise of a loving dog. Children, especially, are disconsolate.  My brother-in-law has this firm belief about dogs – the master would never go into depression or contemplate suicide, because even if the whole world thinks you are worthless, the dog still places you on a pedestal.

But this blog is not about the pedigreed, tamed and trained pet dog, privileged and pampered.  I am talking of the dogs that loiter around in housing colonies, streets, gardens, just about anywhere.  In some places they are quite mild-mannered and harmless, just looking for a pat or a bite and then they leave you alone.  In one small town I lived, even if someone returned in the middle of the night and dogs were lying asleep here and there, they barely glanced at you and went back to sleep.  But not in all places.  In my native town, dogs would be aggressive and more so, at night, and chase people returning late from work, causing many two-wheeler riders to lose balance.

The local pedestrian or morning walker finds his or her own way of tackling these strays who frighten and chase them.  One friend of mine carries a small stick to ward off hounding canines, another leaves some biscuits in a corner so that they leave her alone.

When we teach active-passive voice, some students only learn the trick of substituting subject with object, so ‘The dog bit the man’ is changed to ‘The man bit the dog’ which we tell them is absurd, but I have heard of bizarre instances where man has bitten dog in frustration or revenge.  And there are frightening cases of aggressive strays chasing helpless children into accidents or even deaths.

Strays – whether dogs, cows or pigs – pose a challenge to human beings.  That they poop just about anywhere is too much for even Swachh Bharat loyalists. Not everyone is philanthropic or moneyed enough to be able to provide a home to them.  Not everyone who advocates protection of animals really acts.  Some of us are happy when the dog-van comes and they are taken to the pound. It is another matter that in a few days they are back in their home grounds.  In one residential campus where I worked, the guards would catch hold of some monster dogs and escort them in trains to a few stations away.  The dogs would miraculously find their way back to the Centre, on foot.

 

I am sure there are pros and cons to this issue of strays.  Culturally, ‘what cannot be cured must be endured’ is ingrained in our genes.  Most of us simply resign to the fact that humans and animals have to find a way to co-exist even if it seems far too challenging in an over-populated society where even living with one another is strife and struggle.  So, we develop coping mechanisms, turn a blind eye, ‘leave’ and let live or it is survival of the fittest. Indeed, a dog’s life, any which way!

‘THE’ PINCH

Appa used to always quote, “Only the wearer knows where the shoe pinches”. We understood and appreciated its figurative meaning. As children, it did not have much literal meaning. In those days it was more like we were pinching footwear, especially chappals. When in a hurry, we quickly wore anyone’s footwear that fitted and ran. More often, we ran barefoot and hardly felt the rough gravel when we played or ran errands in the neighbourhood.
For formal occasions like school, we wore leather shoes (or rubber, in the rains) which also we easily exchanged with siblings, cousins. But soon we grew too big for our shoes and then it was a problem getting the right fit – especially the leathers prescribed by the school. Fortunately, there were no strict rules and we managed to finish the final years of school in cheap canvas with hot and smelly socks which we stuffed into our bags on the way home.
School over and childhood as well. Some more years went by in the scramble for college and jobs. Some joys and much disillusion as we settled into the realities of adulthood. Many were or had to be reconciled to, but one hunt for me has never ever ceased – the hunt for the perfect footwear.
If the size fitted (which rarely did) the design was inappropriate or the colour too odd or it was totally weather-unfriendly. What had beauty did not have utility or durability. When everything else fitted, the shoes really pinched the wallet! Sometimes I did find the perfect fit. I would try a few steps in the shop itself. And a couple of days at home or at work. By day 3, there would be blisters, bites and then it went into cold storage, along with many of its ilk, and I was back to my old footwear – relative comfort!
There were shopkeepers who told, rather sold, me that the shoes would widen a bit with wear. I didn’t need much convincing – one of my sisters once made this profound observation – “Have you noticed, how after a time, there is a resemblance between the shape of footwear and the wearer’s face?”
Oft have I stood outside wedding halls and temples, admiring such handsome footwear and envying the fortunate people who are able to wear them. Oft have I contemplated exchanging mine for one of these and would have executed the plan, had it not been for the ‘pinch’ of conscience or of late, the fear of CCTVs. A person’s footwear attracts my attention more than their sari or dress. And I continue the search for this elusive pair of shoes or sandals.
One seller, after many trials, finally told me that my feet were irregular size. What is new, I thought, I have known this since my teens. “No madam”, he says, “your left foot is bigger than the right.” Much like Stephen Leacock’s photographer, who after much camera and lighting adjustment, declared that everything was wrong about his face. Should I now go for plastic surgery, I considered. But a friend had the perfect solution. “Footwear, like readymade clothes, are designed to approximation. What you need are custom-made shoes.” She takes me to this shoemaker who measures feet and then makes the shoes. His shop was more like a clinic than a shoe shop with lot of posters about caring for feet, proper posture etc. A very smart technician made me stand on various footstools, scales, made a sketch of my feet, measured my height, length of my legs. I was very impressed. The diagnosis – my left leg (not foot) was longer than the right. I needed corrective orthopaedic designer shoes. Needless to say, the cost threw me off balance.
I remembered my mother telling me when I was young that I walked with a slight tilt towards the right, like my father. Finally I got it. I was born into a family with foot problems. My younger sister is dead against the modern smooth flooring in homes, malls, schools. They put too much pressure on the feet. She wears some special shoes to manage the pain. A brother of mine, wears only one particular brand of oversize chappals, rare to get, and which the shopkeeper reserves for him. My grandmother, great aunts in their pristine white saris, spent all their lives barefoot. When they could be persuaded in their old age to give up superstitions and protect their feet, they could only wear cheap, loose, ill-fitting ‘Burma’ chappals. The fault is indeed in my stars.
Late Appa comes to my rescue with yet another pet quote : “I cried for shoes, until I saw a man with no feet.”
(Dedicated to my father on his death anniversary)

The teacher taught

After putting it off for ages and ages, at last one gets down to cleaning that attic/bookshelf/wardrobe to accommodate new acquisitions that cry for space.  And what joy – when one finds amidst all that junk, such treasures that cannot be parted with!

An article written ages ago, newly discovered among old papers, thus claims its space in this blog. Here it goes –

A student whom I cannot forget

In my early forties, I made a career change – from that of a secretary to a teacher.  Uncannily, the first job I landed as a teacher also included the responsibilities of warden of a hostel of 65 girls in the age group 16-20, in various classes of junior and senior college.

Images of harassed matrons from umpteen movies and stories came to mind – myself, a strict middle-aged spinster, and these monstrous girls constantly upto tricks, imitating and mimicking me at my back.  But how contrary real life often is!  The girls in my charge were simple and sweet girls from small town middle class families.  Having left home for a purpose, they were full of dreams of higher education and bright careers.  In a couple of years I settled down  to a most enjoyable routine.  There was, of course, the occasional runaway, the instances of ragging, regular fights in the bathrooms and Mess, but nothing that could not be handled with some counselling and some retribution.

Now when I look back at my short stint, I find it crowded with a lot of memorable events.  One that stands out, happened in my third year.  At the start of a new session, I had to send to the Mess, a list of the new entrants to the hostel indicating the number of vegetarians and non-vegetarians.  On Wednesdays and Fridays, there would be a sweet dish for the vegetarians and some chicken/meat for the non-vegetarians.  On the first Wednesday that term, there was one sweet dish short.  I was sure one of the senior girls might have cheated, but on checking and re-checking, I could not find fault with them.  Next, I lined up the new girls and confirmed the Mess list.  The ‘vegetarian’ list went off without a hitch.  Then as I reeled off the names on the ‘non-veg.’ list, one girl interrupted me.  “Ma’am, my name should have been on the ‘veg’ list.  “But I thought, since you are a….” I could not have completed without saying something stupid and insensitive.   Generations of pre-recorded Brahminic data in my head said – weren’t all Muslims meat-eaters?  I had not even bothered to cross-check Aliya’s admission form.  “No, Ma’am,” she corrected me, “We are Mulla’s….pandits…we are vegetarians.”

Curious to know more about her, I called Aliya Mulla to my room at night.  “Are there many people like you?”  I asked.     “I don’t know that there are many people like me, Ma’am, but there are certainly many like you who ask this question,” she said, a little aggressively, and then added softly, “Perhaps because you are from a city you tend to box people in convenient slots.”  (I did not see any connection   and hitherto I had prided myself on my cosmopolitan, urban or rather, urbane, rootlessness).  “Back home where I come from,” Aliya continued, “we do not know such distinctions.  My father is a respected scholar in Marathi and Urdu, and in our ‘mohalla’ Ganpati festival, my parents offer the first ‘aarti’.  Our entire village is like that, Ma’am.”  The heart of India, I thought, lies not in its villages, but in its villagers.

“Where the world has not been broken up into narrow domestic walls…”

How many times I must have taught this!  Still at 40, one’s mind is a solidified rock of indelible knowledge and little nuggets of unlearning must find narrow, slippery crevices to hang on to!

 

The Gods have turned Deaf

THE GODS HAVE TURNED DEAF

Often I have heard ardent devotees cry in frustration, “My god does not hear my prayers. He has turned deaf.” I would feel sorry for their plight. But there are times when I think there is much truth to this.
Come Ganapati, and the neighbourhood is gearing up for the 5-day festival. In our housing colony of around 72 flats, one pandal is just below my house. A breakaway group has another a few metres away. Outside the gate, to right and left, are two ‘sarvajanik’ (public) mandal ganapatis. There is one more in the temple grounds behind our colony.
History says that this Ganpati festival which is usually celebrated in Maharashtrian homes by bringing home a clay idol of Ganesha to be installed and worshipped for some days before being immersed in water, was mobilised by Lokmanya Tilak into a community activity in order to bring different sections of society together during the freedom struggle. But what purpose does History serve if not distorted? And so this activity has now assumed gigantic proportions to become a public disturbance, obstructing traffic, creating loud sounds and generally turning worship into a frenzy of noise.

After being brought to the place with lot of clamour and clanging, all through loudspeakers, the ‘aarti’ in the morning and evening must be sung to drums and bells on the loudspeaker, in addition to cultural events in the evenings. The time limit for high decibels is extended by the State during festivals, but what is the constraint for so many loudspeakers in the same area to vie with one another – who is the loudest of them all? So it is a cacophony of ‘aartis’ following one another and the announcements and songs in the evenings, assuming that the God’s huge elephant ears will take in all these sounds. A loudspeaker may be justified in the evening programmes, but why do ‘aartis’ and bhajans need to be amplified when there are so many people singing together?
The ’azaan’ and prayer in the masjid must be on the mike daily, that too 5 times. Weddings and inaugurations are also incomplete without treating the entire neighbourhood to the sounds of the proceedings.
When our family shifted to Ahmedabad in the early 70s, the ‘garba’ was a novelty for us. After finishing household chores and dinner as well, people would come to the open space in their colony, where an idol or photo of Ambe Mata would be placed and perform the ‘garba’. Either the dancers sang as they danced or a few people sat aside and sang while others danced. This went on till a little after midnight. On Ashtami, Navami towards the close of the festival, people danced till early morning. No mike, no dress code, minimum lighting. Sober, graceful and a great community feeling! Over the years, this same celebration has turned into the extravagant ‘Raas Dandiya’. Now there are dress codes, tickets for participation and of course, the loudspeakers blaring all night!
About Diwali, the less said, the better – there is too much sound for anything to be said or heard.
During all these festivals, there are small children, the elderly and the sick whose sleep is disturbed? Then there are others who are sensitive to noise. They are left to their own devices and the mercies of God.
So go on, festival after festival – no dearth of them – ‘navaratri’ ‘tajiyas’ Christmas, ‘rath yatras’. Is it surprising then, that the Gods have turned deaf?

Press 1, Press 2….

PRESS 1, PRESS 2……

My Water filter does not work.  I call the service number on the contract.  The recorded voice goes –

Press 1 for English

Press 2 for Hindi

Press 3 for Marathi

I press my preference.    It continues – Press 1 for Vacuum Cleaner, 2 for Air Conditioner……. Water filter is at Press 5.  Music

Again Press 1 for new product, Press 2 for upgrade, Press…..7 for complaint

When I think I am there, she tells me to hold on while she connects me.  Music again.  Follows an ad with many children squealing and shouting and the Mother says, “Do not drink any water.  ‘X’ filter water is the healthiest.”   Then a jingle -“We Guard your health”.   Some more music.  I must have been holding the phone for about 5 minutes.  Again, she says, “Thank you for holding on.  Please wait while we connect you to Customer service.”

It is 10 am.  Workday must have just started.  I wonder how Customer service can be busy this early unless they have a backlog of complaints.  Whatever.  Now I disconnect and call the man who had left his mobile number when he drew up the service contract.  Fortunately, he answers, but tells me that he cannot take a complaint.  I have to dial the toll-free service number which has already taken a toll on my patience.  My hand has got enough exercise, transferring it from ear to hand for pressing. I give up.

From time to time the same company calls me offering a new version of the filter machine.  “Ma’am, your machine is more than 5 years old.  It is better you upgrade.”  When I tell him about the poor after service, he gives me another number and name, telling me to call there.  Back to square one.

I rarely call my Bank, but when I do, it’s again Press 1 for Hindi, Press 2….

After 2-3 such series, at number 9, I am told I will be connected to a representative.  There is music and more music till I give up.  No person ever comes on the line. I finally go personally to the Bank.  If I have some balance worth investing, 3-4 people come up to me and say they are my ‘Personal Banker’.  They even give me a card with their name and mobile number.  I have rarely seen a ‘Personal banker’ in the same branch after 2-3 months.  When I narrate my woes with their toll-free numbers, they say they’re sorry, it’s the system.  Not in their hands.  If I still persist, then they tell me, “Could I please go to that table?” – the farthest one!

It is the same with the mobile service provider, the DTH services and so on.  Press 1, Press 2.  Sometimes when I am not too frustrated, I actually enjoy the music, even though the services are never delivered.  So much for the computerised and digitalised world!

When I was young, my father had read out an article, “The tyranny of things” which described how the gadgets and machines we acquire for our comfort, gradually enslave and tyrannise us.  This, with an army of smooth-talking salespeople, great promises of after sales service and how life is incomplete without all these frills.

I know some people who have with families, formed groups and live in remote areas, ‘far away from the madding crowd’ – a civilised life, but without the trappings of technology.  They work the land, enjoy the bounties of Nature as well as face the hardships and educate their children to live a simple yet full life.

I have not joined them yet, but cut out on gadgets. I boil the tap water with a few herbs and drink, like my 85+ cousin and his wife, who are still so healthy and hearty.  I watch movies, news on the Net, or in single screen theatres.  Or, I read the book. I go to the bank personally.  It is good physical exercise and good to deal with people face to face. I don’t have AC or washing machine.  A phone, I still retain, to be in touch.  But I no longer go for the Press 1, Press 2 mode.  Back to the future.  Minimum technology, Maximum Life – is ‘simply’ better!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

THE ENTRY SAYS IT ALL

 

“All of us light up a room – some when they enter, some when they leave.” 

Over the years, I have been fascinated by how people enter – home, office, room or just about any space.  It must have been at the back of my consciousness always, but now that I am much like an old cow, chewing the cud, literally and figuratively, I ruminate on this behaviour a lot and have evolved a fond theory that if you observe a person’s entry closely, you understand them much better.  Having done that, I must now support it with evidences.  So much so, that I think you can learn much about a stranger from their entry – whether it is a doctor’s waiting room or an interview panel, an investor/broker or just about anybody.

 

I have a sister who, when she enters, looks around for people, beams at everyone and they start talking to her.  Even if you are in another room, you can guess her arrival by the buzz around her.She is very social and is in her element when she has people around her.

Some people enter as quietly as a mouse.  They go through life just as shyly and unobtrusively.  Not that they fall short of achievements or accolades.  A very young Manager of mine used to enter so soundlessly that he has often caught my colleagues and me, napping at our own desk or loafing at others’.  He rose to become Director at an equally young age, leaving competition napping.

A friend of mine always enters like the prequel to a suspense film, “Guess what happened today?” The incident can be as trivial as a tiff with the conductor over change or a grave accident on the road.  Drama queen.

Not all quiet entries, though, are so harmless.  Some enter a room, noiselessly, but with a suspicious look.  You never know what they have taken in, until they later express their displeasure at something or the other.

A guy in our circle would enter howling and hooting.  So boisterous that even the furniture would jump up.  But an aunt of mine, would actually bang chairs or stools herself with a bull-dozer entry.

Apart from that, her eyes would swim all over the house, looking for unfinished tasks, messy tables or kitchen and declare mournfully, “Nothing is taken care of in this house if I go out.”   Her family and maids now laze around when she is not there.  “Anyway she is going to complain and find fault when she returns.”  Predictably, she is never content.

Our school life is incomplete without the memory of the teacher’s classroom entry.  One bangs the duster on the table, “Keep quiet, class.”  As if on cue, all the children raise their voices a few decibels and more pandemonium follows until she changes her strategy.  Another teacher looks enquiringly as she enters.  The children wear fearful or guilty looks, not knowing what incompletion she is going to bring up.  The list is long.

In a selection rehearsal before the great Annual Function, our College principal would watch all the items.  Particularly, for group dances he would ask, “Entry kasha hoyil?”  meaning, ‘how is the entry?’  The item incharge would explain how the groups – split or whole – would make entry from this wing, another wing etc.  Then the dancers would demonstrate.  Corrections were made, logistics taken care of accordingly.  At that time, I used to wonder why this focus on ‘entry’.

Then I paid attention.  In theatre, cinema, public events – the main protagonists’ entry sets the tone for their role and audience involvement through the show.  Who can forget Gabbar’s roaring entry in ‘Sholay’ or Mogambo’s menacing introductory look in ‘Mr.India’? Lot of thought goes into the entry of the hero/heroine in a film/scene/song even as the audience waits, often with bated breath.  Politicians – a lot of homework goes into their entry and they present a carefully cultivated style.

In guidelines laid out for competitive exams, there are lot of suggestions on how to enter the personal interview room.  Attention is drawn to the smallest detail like how you should brush back your hair as you enter, apart from how you look at the panel members, which direction to smile, how to hold your shoulders and so on.

I wonder what others think of my entry?  Only they can say.  Meanwhile, I exit.