Robin Hood

Surprisingly the coming of summers brings to mind many memories from my childhood. While this narrative isn’t about summer specifically, I was reminded of it while on my morning walk.Most people go to their native place during the summer breaks, and spend the long hot, summer days there. It is common knowledge that many flats in the city are locked up as their owners are away for the two months or at least a month of the school holidays. It is common knowledge to the potential thief also. And so one finds the police urging people to be vigilant about who they inform when they go away on holiday and if possible to inform the local police station if they plan to be away for a long stretch. Of course the pandemic stretching over the last two summers has made travel plans close to a fantasy.

As these thoughts crossed my mind on my walk this morning, two incidents came to mind and in spite of them bit not being funny situations per se, they never fail to make me smile.

My mother grew up in Girgaon. Those who are familiar with Girgaon of olden days will recall the various chawls where multiple families shared a life in them. My mother grew up in one such chawl, though it hosted just eight families. She often narrates snippets of her childhood. Even though each family occupied a one room accommodation, the bond shared by the families residing there spread over the entire chawl. Everything was a collective activity, including measles and chicken pox. we have heard stories of how they celebrated festivals together, studied and played together within their limited space and means. It is one such incident which comes to mind whenever I think of house thefts.

Because space was tight, many residents slept in the common verandah at nights to avail some cool breeze. there was no practice of locking the doors to the rooms at all. The doors to all the rooms were shut but never locked. The people sleeping in the verandah slept in a way which left no room for movement once everyone had settled in for the night. One night a thief chose to visit their chawl.Little did he realise when he climbed up to the first floor verandah that there were so many people sleeping in the verandah. Within a few seconds he had stepped pn someone’s out-stretched limb. The startled but alert person who had been woken up by the thief, raised an alarm and soon the verandah was full of light and people. In all the humdrum, the thief had no option but to head for the nearest exit. What he didn’t realize was that the opening at the end of the passage led to the common washrooms and not to the stairway. Realizing he was trapped , he headed into one of the toilet cubicles and locked himself in. It was around 4 am by then and the men of the chawl settled outside the entrance to the washrooms, after urging the women and children to go back to bed. Having a thief locked up inside the washroom didn’t deter any of them from sitting and having a good chat and before they knew it, the sun had risen and everyone realized that soon they would need to use the washrooms in order to get ready for work. The thief too spent those hours huddled in the cubicle, too petrified to peek out. When there was no alternative left but to force him out, they started hammering on the door of the cubicle. Only when they threatened to break down the door, did the thief meekly open the door. He was given a sound thrashing and a warning before being allowed to go. The simplicity of life in the mid 50s is seen when one notes that no one rushed to call the police, but instead dealt with the situation in a very simple manner.

Am sure the method worked, and the thief spread the word, because though another such incident did take place in the following years, it didn’t affect the residents. After the above described theft attempt, it was decided to employ watchmen for the chawl. One night another thief did come, but even though all the doors were open they didn’t dare enter the building. Instead they stole the wrist watch from the arm of one of the watchmen, who was sleeping on duty. This gave the children of the locality a great opportunity to tease the watchman for days to come.

Another interesting theft occurred in my neighbor’s house when I was a child. I use the word interesting because of the things which were stolen. In the 70s the concept of grilled windows were yet to gain popularity in Mumbai and one found many flats with framed windows, but having no grills as protection. Our flat had grills which could be opened and closed as per will, and that was because there were small children at home.Our neighbors flat did not have grills and they never bothered to shut the windows at night except when it rained heavily. We lived on the second floor and one night a thief climbed up to their flat using the pipes. He stole and left without awakening anyone at their home. When the occupants of the flat woke in the morning they realized they had had a nocturnal visitor when they found dirty prints of footwear near the living room window. This is where you will understand why I used the word ‘interesting’. The flat was occupied by five people. The parents, their two grown up sons and the daughter in law. The thief had only stolen the clothes belonging to the men. Not any cash , or any other valuables lying around the house, but only mens’ garments. This was one choosy thief. And while it was a serious situation initially, eventually it became a funny story which was shared by all of us.

Lockdown & the new normal

Around a year back, the word lockdown didn’t exist in our dictionaries. And now our daily routines revolve around that very word.

Many years ago I had read a book, ‘Life As We Knew It’ by Susan Beth Pfeffer , a science fiction work, where it is predicted that an asteroid is all set to hit the Moon. People are excited to witness the magnificent event. When the day arrives, nature doesn’t go down the predicted path of just the asteroid hitting the Moon , but instead the impact of the phenomena pushes the moon closer to the Earth, causing a change in the Earth’s gravitational pull. This sets off a chain of horrific occurrences like tsunamis, earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. Families struggle to survive in a world where there is food and gas shortage along with extreme weather changes. People sustain themselves on stockpiled food, limited water and wood burning stoves. Each day becomes a routine of finding ways to stock up on food and water. 

When we were a few days into the lockdown, the memory of this book was very strong in my mind. I clearly remember that when I first read the book, I used to pause many times , to think about how it would be if such a situation ever came to be. I had made mental lists of what one really needs to sustain in a similar scenario. Little did I imagine that one day we would be passing through a remotely similar situation. A year back, if anyone had told me that we would be confined to our homes indefinitely for the coming months, I would have scoffed at them and walked away.

The first phase of the lockdown was 21 days long and there were these moments when the word, ‘surreal’ crossed my mind many times. Not ever thinking that the phase would be longer than 21 days, we all got into the spirit of stocking essentials, doing household chores on our own and in general, kind of enjoying the isolated feeling that the situation brought. Each night before we retired to bed, we decided on what the menus for the next day would be, depending on what the pantry held. Household chores were assigned to each of us and the first few days everyone diligently adhered to the roughly chalked out routine. 

A new kind of quiet descended over this city which never sleeps. As I sat in the balcony  with my morning tea or with a book, I could feel the tension of the neighbourhood as we wondered when the pandemic would actually touch our lives. Initially one could hear some kids playing in the neighbourhood but as news started trickling in that Covid19 cases had actually started being detected in some parts of the city, it all became a grim reality and soon the lanes had a deserted look.

I took this opportunity to go through my phone book ( yes! I still maintain an old fashioned, handwritten address/phone book ) and get in touch with people with whom I had not spoken to in a long time. Cousins, long lost classmates from school, friends from old neighbourhoods, anyone whose name popped up in my memory. Some of us who are regularly in touch made plans to meet up in virtual meetings. My schoolmates’ online meet ups took some careful planning as we are spread out over seven time zones and it took a bit of effort to ensure that we did not land up keeping up one of us awake at some unearthly hour. 

There had been days when I had jumped out of bed, excited over some new recipe I had planned to bake that particular day. Then there had been days when I stood at the sink, despondent, mechanically washing dishes, and getting this feeling that this is all I seemed to be doing. Washing Dishes!!! How can one household produce so many dishes? It was as if we had nothing better to do than to cook, eat and pile dishes. Every night before going to sleep , I made resolutions that I would resume my writing, work on an incomplete painting, or read a book. Then the next day I would  promptly fall into the rigmarole of clean, cook and wash. By evening all I felt like doing was curl up in a chair and look out of the window. I think there were days when I got palpitations just at the thought of doing this for an indefinite period. 

By May, Covid 19 held a firm hold on our country and this city. But by June things started easing up a bit. By mid November, somewhere around Diwali, we all started feeling as if we were finally out of the woods. The new year dawned with all of us very hopeful that while Covid 19 was something we would have to learn to live with, at least the worst was over. But March brought a feeling of déjà vu, and the situation took a turn for the worse. So once again it is May and we are home bound. Corona has reared her ugly head once more and my lively, buzzing city is held hostage all over again. 

We have gracefully or not so gracefully accepted that this is going to be the ‘new normal’, as we call it. Another new word in our vocabulary. We now wear a mask outside home the same way as we would naturally wear shoes when we step out. Sanitising our hands frequently has also become part and parcel of our regular hygiene regime. Yes, I miss meeting my parents, siblings and friends but we are fortunate to have digital contact almost 24/7. The only factor which has given our lockdown days structure has been Mr A, our two year old Goldie who has kept us occupied and entertained with his antics and demands. 

‘This too shall pass’, is a thought I hold on to dearly, as must be by so many of you. And soon our country and our city will come back to normal. Am sure the day we see our local trains being thrown open to regular runs ,to everyone in the city will be a sure sign that the situation is coming back to normal. Till then we can only pray that all remain safe, and those in need of medical attention get it in time.

On a lighter note what I will definitely take back from this phase is the knowledge 

  1. Our family of four plus Doggo can co-exist for an indefinite period with just each other as  company without any danger of anyone disowning the other in frustration. 
  2. InvestIng in an unlimited WiFi plan has been one of the most sensible decisions of 2020 .I think the first has been possible thanks to the OTT channels which kept us sane and out of each other’s way. 
  3. We have come up with a dozen combinations to eat Maggi noodles.
  4. Ditto for fried rice preparations.
  5. My culinary skills  has improved by leaps and bounds in these last few months. 
  6. So has my ability to wield the broom and the mop.
  7. Not dusting the house for a week or so at a stretch will not affect anyone’s health. 
  8. One can get used to wearing pyjamas and tees at all times.
  9. For the next two years at least, teachers will not have to worry about which topics to assign their students for their English essays. Covid has taken care of that.
  10. I regularly dream vivid dreams about travelling which just reconfirms how much I love and how much I miss travelling. 

I will definitely remember many more titbits even after I wind up writing this. And so will you.

Stay Safe Everyone

Cable Fable

 

Recently I was sharing some anecdote from my childhood with my children when it suddenly struck them that I belonged to that era when there was actually NO television at home. Did I use the word ‘era’? Yes I did! Era is a word which one associates with historical facts. Being fifty plus years makes one an antique in our kid’s eyes on some days. Anyway coming back to the television. 

Our household had no television till I turned 13 or 14. My father was and still is of the opinion that watching too much television addles our brains. He calls it the ‘Idiot Box’. The black and white television telecasts started in India in the early seventies and the colour television telecast in early eighties. The black and white period had very limited programmes and were aired every evening for a few hours. Maybe that is the reason I remember the names of many of the programmes aired then. Not that I watched all of them. But there was Chhaya Geet which later came to be renamed Chitrahaar and was aired on every Thursday. This was a half hour slot which featured six songs from Hindi films. While there was no particular theme to the selection of songs, if that particular week had a festival in it, then the songs aired were around that particular festival. So if it was Holi then the songs selected for that week were all about Holi. There was another show named Phool Khile hai Gulshan Gulshan which was a program where the presenter Tabassum interviewed a different film celebrity every week. These two were popular programmes across all age groups. There were four programmes aimed at youngsters. Santakukdi in Gujrati on Mondays, Kilbil in Marathi on Tuesdays, Khel Khel Mein In Hindi on Fridays and Magic Lamp in English on Sunday mornings. 

In those days there was just the one channel, Doordarshan and programmes of various languages were aired on the same channel. Saturday  evening was devoted to a Marathi film and Sunday evenings to Hindi films. One very popular slot was the Saptahiki on Sunday mornings, right after the Magic Lamp show. This was like a weekly tv guide where the presenter announced all the shows to be aired the coming week, some of them were accompanied by a itsy bitsy preview of the programme. Most of the households did not own a television set in the seventies but it was an unspoken understanding that the households which did own a television set opened their doors to their neighbours. At least most of them did. So one could see children and women trooping into some house in their building to catch their favourite show. Household chores and school homework was planned around these TV shows so that one didn’t have to miss it. For an individual from today’s generation the thought of only one channel to watch on a black and white set was an unimaginable situation in the first place, add to it  a communal television and its akin to a horror situation.

I love the look on their faces when I am narrating all these little details of a life which they can only hear about from us. I don’t think their imagination will ever take them that route. I decided to horrify them a little more. I had to tell them the story of the rabbit ear antennae of the television set. Initially television sets had these two antennae at the top of the box. These usually had to be positioned in a shape “V” and they earned the name of rabbit ears because the two ends generally tended to droop a bit. In case of a fuzzy picture on the set, these antennae had to be moved around to rectify the picture quality. As the years passed, these antennae gave way to outdoor antennae. These were mounted on a pole and fixed to the top of the roof or terrace of the building. It was a very common sight to see the edges of most building terraces dotted with many television antennae. Now that this was an outdoor contraption, adjusting the picture quality became a bit of a public affair. One family member had to go upto the terrace while another manned the television control. No, television sets in those days did not have a remote control. Even more horrific , isn’t  it? The children of the household usually served as remote controls as they were the ones who were sent from couch to TV to decrease or increase the volume. Luckily there was only one channel. So to get back to the antennae. The person on the terrace would adjust the direction of the antenna and yell generally in the downward direction and ask if it had made any difference. Then the person at home would yell back a reply. This went on till the picture quality reached a point of satisfaction. Of course there was always a last resort solution to a wavering screen. A couple of sharp whacks on top of the set were sufficient to discipline the set.

As I mentioned earlier, our household acquired a television set only in around 1981. We had shifted to a new home and our new neighbours had three grown up daughters. They often called my siblings and me over to spend some time with them and to watch TV at their place. Baba didn’t mind us going over once in a while. Then came a phase when they called us over, put on the TV, muted it and went about their own work. We three were too polite to point out to them that we couldn’t possibly enjoy a show without any audio accompaniment. It wasn’t that we were watching some cartoon show, these were programmes which needed us to hear the dialogues. One such evening my father came over to call us back home so that we could complete our homework. He took in the scene where the three of us were watching a muted TV show. He didn’t say anything then. But the next week itself we had a spanking new television set in our living room.

The above mentioned new acquisition came with a set of rules and conditions. We could only watch TV if we had completed our school work. This was not all. We had to tell Baba what programme we wanted to watch. Any kind of shows connected to Hindi and Western films were frowned upon. Children’s shows and any shows connected to wildlife and nature were allowed. As a result I watched my first Bollywood movie in a theatre only after I finished my school boards, that too after my friends collectively cajoled my father into sending me with them. There were so many queries to be answered to watch any TV show that all three of us preferred reading or going out to play with our friends rather than go through the lengthy process of asking for permission from my father.

The colour television made its entry in the early eighties.i can recall that Sunday evening so clearly when one of my friend in the same building called me excitedly to see their new colour television set. All of us gathered at their home and watched it come on. There was a movie going on and the cake being cut on the screen was all white, pink and blue. It is strange how some memories just stay on in your brain, isn’t it? 

Eventually most households possessed a television set, be it black or white or a coloured. Soon Doordarshan introduced some shows in the afternoons, and eventually breakfast TV made its advent. Regional channels were added to the bouquet offered. We had heard stories of cartoon channels in the western countries which ran the whole day. That became a reality here in India also eventually. Not just cartoons but a whole plethora of other shows of various genre became available to the audience. Today we are spoilt for choice what with cable TV, DTH and OTT content at our finger tips. It is no wonder that the younger generation balks at the thought of no television at all. 

A tale of three ‘dabbas’

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The word ‘Dabba’ literally means ‘box’ in Hindi. Some dictionaries define it more specifically as a round metal box used to carry food. While I too generally use that term in connection with storage of food and other such items, this is  a narrative about a different kind of dabba. 

I was fortunate to study in a school which has it’s own swimming pool. It was an optional extra-curricular activity and the girls who opted not to take swimming lessons , could take an alternative activity like embroidery or music or some other such engagement. The ones who opted for swimming came to school with their swimming gear in an extra bag, thrice a week. 

We waited eagerly for these sessions and got into our swimming gear amidst lot of chatter and laughter. It was mandatory to wear a proper bathrobe for the walk from the changing rooms and swimming pool which was a bit of a walk away. It was a familiar sight to see a gaggle of girls making a useless attempt to walk in a straight line to the pool which was in a different enclosure. 

We had two swimming coaches. Let me refer to them as Miss A and Miss B. Miss A was the main coach and we did actually find her in the pool with us on the days when there were students new to swimming. Miss B generally sat by the side of the pool and kept an eye on the goings on in the pool. 

This is where the dabbas come into my narrative. We did not use rubber floats for our swimming lessons. What was used instead were round, tin boxes. These boxes or tins had both ends sealed and had a metal loop at each end. Through each of these loops was tied a sturdy length of rope. This tin box had to be tied around our waist, with the knotted rope at the front of the waist and the dabba secure in the small of our back. These empty but sealed boxes served as our floats. This is not all! There were three sizes of dabbas. Big dabba, medium dabba and small dabba. Believe me , that’s exactly how we used to refer to them. The big one was for beginners. As the lessons progressed and the student got the basic hang of swimming, she was asked to start using the medium dabba. Graduating to the medium dabba also meant that the student could now venture out to the middle of the pool. Here it was neither shallow enough to stand, neither was it very deep. Eventually the student graduated from the medium dabba to the small one. The smallest of the three tins was around eight inches in height. Just enough air to keep you mentally in the safe zone. If one had to ultimately swim without a float or a dabba then the next step was to appear for a practical test, after which you could start swimming without one. The students who were ready to take the test had to float in the deep end on their backs, without a float, for two to three minutes. The rest of the class stood around the pool and watched. Miss A also stood ready in her swimsuit to jump in and fish out a girl if she panicked or faltered. 

The ‘dabba-less’ status was a much sort out one because of various reasons. Whenever we reached the poolside for our swimming sessions, we had to queue up to pick out our float from a rack next to the pool. The dabbas were arranged according to their sizes and one picked out the one they had been assigned with. That took a few minutes from the one hour assigned for our swimming sessions. If one had reached the point where one did not need a float then one could save those precious minutes. It was just a matter then of hanging up your bathrobe and into the pool. I didn’t use the phrase ‘jump into the pool’ because to our exasperation, we were not allowed to jump into the pool. It was only permitted when we learned to dive or jump from the spring board on the deep end of the pool, under our coaches’ eagle eye. Though to be honest it didn’t stop one of my naughty and bold classmates from defying that rule and running and jumping into the still pool before anyone else got in.The girls who swam without a float also got the chance to act a bit superior to the girls who still had to wear a float. 

With search engines at our convenient disposal in recent years, I tried to find out if such dabbas were used commonly as floats four decades back. But nowhere did I come across any such information or image. It was a very unique device indeed! While such swimming sessions don’t give one wide scope to fine-tune the techniques of swimming ,it served well to dispel the fear of getting into a pool, learning the basics of swimming and create fun memories to dig into as we grow older and drift apart.

Of Samosas, Fafda & Jalebis

 

 

IMG_9812Each year, the display and sale of the Indian tricolour at stores and traffic signals herald the celebration of our Republic Day and Independence Day. The morning of both these days also never fail to bring to my mind the memory of the samosa, fafda and jalebi breakfast of the building complex where I grew up. 

Though the building complex housed only eighteen families, there were around twenty children, and any activity planned by us always received enough encouragement from the parent community to ensure that we celebrated each and every festival throughout the year with great enthusiasm. For no particular reason and by an unspoken understanding, the Republic Day and Independence Day celebrations were taken care of by the parents. On the eve of the celebration , the flag pole was brought out and installed at the designated spot on the building terrace. The flag, which was kept carefully folded in the society cupboard, was brought out a few days before and inspected for any wear and tear before keeping it ready to be tied to the flag pole on the morning of the hoisting.

At dot 9 in the morning, we assembled on the building terrace. Uncle D’s assistant Bahadur, was the designated flag installer. Once he had tied the flag to the pole, we all gathered around it, ready to hoist the flag. Usually it was one of the elderly members who was given the honour of hoisting the flag, while the children generally stood quietly, waiting for all arrangements to be completed. Quiet, because all of us knew that any kind of disturbance meant delay in hoisting the flag, which subsequently meant delay in distribution of snacks. 

The flag was hoisted. We all saluted the flag. The national anthem was sung. Very solemnly. It was sheer discipline and obedience which prevented us from breaking out into giggles at the sight of all the older people standing seriously and seriously singing the national anthem. I am sure if one had recorded our rendition of the anthem, one would have heard the mumbled singing of the elders being sung parallel to the strong young voices of the children. Many of the adults looked relieved once done singing because they were so unused to singing at all. 

When I look back I think it was the snacks which induced our hundred percent attendance. I am speaking about the children.  We knew the fixed breakfast menu for the day, yet that never dulled our appetites. One could not miss the bags of hot samosas, crisp fafdas and syrupy jalebis which stood on the table on the terrace. There were also boxed juices lined up. Waves of patriotism had to put up a stiff fight with the waves of aromas escaping from the packed snacks. 

The samosa is an Indian snack which practically everyone in the world has heard of, if not had one. Fafda is a fried crispy crunchy tasty Gujrati snack made with gram flour. Jalebi is a sweet snack, popular all over India. It is made by deep-frying maida flour batter in pretzel or circular shapes, which are then soaked in sugar syrup. All super caloric, but every bit satisfying to our tastebuds. I also realise that we grew up in an era where words like diets, calories, organic, superfoods were only to be found in dictionaries. 

Samosa, Fafda and Jalebi. Individually very ordinary Indian snacks. But serve them together with a garnishing of childhood memories and then the flavours become very special. What followed the flag hoisting ceremony was the breakfast. Rugs were spread out on the floor of the terrace, chairs were pulled up for the elderly and we revelled in breakfast and chatter. 

I really don’t recall any of the conversation but what has stayed with me is the knowledge that for me no Republic Day or Independence Day is complete without having at lease a samosa and some jalebi. It just goes with the mood of the day.

Fast and Feast

“Ma is fasting tomorrow!”, announced Keya. One would expect such an announcement to be met with a groan. But the opposite happened here in the Banerjee household when Keya made this announcement to her sisters, Maya and Pia. When Ma fasted for religious purposes, it did not mean a day without food, but on the contrary it was a day with delicious and special dishes. In addition to the regular meals prepared for the rest of the family, Ma prepared some specific dish for herself which was allowed to be consumed by someone who was fasting. She generally cooked a larger quantity so that the three girls could also have some if they wished to. As a result the family waited for these days of fasting. 

“ What is the occasion?”, asked Pia. Keya had no answer to this and the three girls went to the next room to ask Ma what the occasion was.”It is Maha Shivratri tomorrow. People fast through the day and go to the temple in the evening and offer flowers and fruits to Lord Shiva before breaking their fast. Many pledge to not consume anything throughout the day, not even water.”, said Ma. “ What is so difficult about that”, scoffed Maya, “ we can go for hours without drinking water, can’t we, Keya? It is not that difficult to observe a fast. Ma, tomorrow we have a holiday from school on the occasion of Mahashivratri. Can we also fast tomorrow?” Nine year old Pia looked a bit tentative at the thought of not being able to eat for a whole day. But seeing the enthusiasm of twelve year old Maya, and fourteen year old Keya, she didn’t want to look like a coward , and went along with her older sisters. 

Ma hid a smile. Not wanting to discourage them, she too went along with their plans of fasting the next day. She suggested softly, “ Since this is your first attempt at a full day fast, why don’t you three girls make a pledge to have only fruits and sweetmeats, and some savoury dish which is permissible during this fast? That way you will not have your regular meals, but yet have energy to sustain you through the day.” This sounded quite agreeable to the girls. They disappeared into their room to make plans for the next day. After an intense discussion Keya went to Ma, “ We had our discussion and have made a list of the essentials items needed for tomorrow’s fast. Ma, can you please buy these for us when you go to the market this evening?” 

Ma was very curious to see the list of things which the girls had drawn up for observing a simple fast. She opened the sheet of paper, expecting to see a list of essentials for the puja next evening. She had to stop herself from laughing aloud when she saw the heading of the list. 

‘Food Items for our fast’  said the heading. It was followed by a list of around twenty items which included names of different fruits, dry fruits and nuts, and each of the girls had put down the name of their favourite sweetmeat. Rassogolla, Malai Sandwich and Boondi ka Laddoo. For their savoury option they had unanimously chosen Sabudana Khichdi as their lunch. 

Ma solemnly went through the list. And with an equally solemn face assured the girls that she would not forget to buy any of the listed items. The entire evening was consumed by their talks on how they would be observing the fast the next day. That evening their neighbour, Aarti Maasi dropped by with her two daughters, Neha and Shruti. The two girls, inspired by their friends also decided to observe the fast. Excited about the whole thing, the two households retired for the night. 

The next morning dawned bright and clear. The girls in both the households were also up early. When they emerged from their room, hungry for their breakfast, Ma directed them to the big platter of diced fruits kept on the dining table. Next to it sat a small bowl full of almonds and walnuts. Eager to make a good start to the day, the girls ate the fruits and nuts without a word of complaint. “ This is the only meal you will get till lunch time.” warned Ma. The girls finished their breakfast and realised to their dismay that observing a fast did not mean that they were excused from their daily chores. Each time one of them went into the kitchen to grab a snack, Ma was there to remind them that they were fasting and could only eat certain things at specific times. Lunch time seemed so far away. Finally the clock struck one and the famished girls sat down to a small lunch of Sabudana Khichdi followed by one piece of the sweetmeats they had asked Ma to buy the evening before. 

By 4 pm Pia was restless and kept going to Ma every few minutes to ask when they would go to the temple and offer the prayers which would signal the end of the fast. The older two were more patient. Finally at 6 pm Ma asked the girls to get ready. They called out to their neighbour, Aarti and the five of them drove to the nearby Shiv temple. To their dismay, when they reached the temple the girls realised that it would be a while before they would be able to end their fast. There was a serpentine queue in front of the temple. Devotees held small pots or containers of milk, which would be poured over the Shiv Linga. In addition to the milk, they also had brought along flowers to be offered at the temple. Initially the girls chatted amongst themselves, but soon pangs of hunger silenced their chatter. They stood quietly waiting for their turn to enter the sanctum. Soon they could perform the puja and come back home. 

As soon as they entered home, Pia rushed to the kitchen where Ma was about to arrange for some light refreshments for the family. “Ma, is our fast finally over?”, she demanded to know. When Ma replied in the affirmative, Pia stood with her hands resting firmly on her hips and very loudly and clearly said,” So can you please make me a good fat omelette for dinner?” The smiles and laughter which Ma had suppressed over the last 24 hours finally spilled over, and Ma guffawed at Pia’s demand. She just didn’t have the heart to tell her nine year old little woman that when one observes a religious fast, one cannot eat non-vegetarian food as well. She simply walked over to the refrigerator and took out the carton of eggs.

A Temple

The building where I grew up shared a wall with a temple compound. In those days the temple was a simple structure. It was an old, but renowned Ganesha temple. While there was an unending stream of devotees coming to the temple from early morning to night, it was a very peaceful area. 

Though the temple opened its doors very early at 5.30 am, the morning Aarti took place at 7.30 am . The pundit signalled the beginning of this Aarti by vigorously ringing the temple bells. It was a beckoning to all the devotees gathered there to congregate in the inner hallway of the temple to sing along and offer their prayers. The same was repeated at 7.30 in the evening. The Aarti was a very soothing sound and evoked pious feelings in most of us. This was till the temple authorities decided to install a mic and a loud speaker. From then on the peaceful feeling one had associated with the temple vanished. It was almost as if the priest discovered an unrealised potential in himself to become a singer. He wooed the mic with a vengeance, while the listeners had to put up with a tone deaf priest. The worst part was that the people who surrounded him could not hear the ‘singing’ (to put it politely) , but the people who lived in the surrounding buildings were subjected to this torture of an off key priest each time he sang the Aarti. 

With the Aarti reaching such high decibels, it now served two additional purposes. The morning Aarti became our wake up call for school initially and eventually a way of telling the time. No matter how deep asleep we were, the morning Aarti seeped through our groggy minds to tell us that we could not put off getting out of bed anymore. The evening Aarti became our alarm to return home after an evening of play. We just could not ignore the Aarti.

The temple compound also housed a small residential structure where around ten to twelve families, including the priest, stayed. They had planted many varieties of trees. Unfortunately for them, and fortunately for us, most of the trees leant over the wall towards our compound. Of these, the drumstick, the mango and the jamun (Indian Blackberry) tree were the ones which very obligingly leant towards our side. The moment the trees started showing signs of flowering, we would begin a vigilance to see when the fruits would begin to start making an appearance. When the raw green mangoes started showing up, so would  many birds like parrots.Their pecking at the fruit dislodged them and most of them fell to the ground below. This was the moment the children in my building would start collecting them. Some were washed and eaten by us on the spot. Some were taken back home and our mothers either prepared something nice for us or pickled the raw mangoes. The jamuns also met with the same fate. Drumsticks were something which couldn’t be eaten raw and taking them home usually earned us brownie points. 

While we children revelled in this activity, somewhere along the way this became a bone of contention between the two sets of residents. The residents of the temple argued that as the trees had been planted by them, the fruits of those trees were rightfully theirs. The residents of our building argued that as the fruits fell into our compound without having to forcibly take them, we were entitled to the fruits. This became a never ending issue and now that I think of it, I am not sure whether it ever got resolved.

The temple compound was an integral part of our lives in many more ways than we realised. It is only now, when I look back on my childhood, that I realise that so many memories are attached to something to do with it. We grew up with the sweet sound of the temple bells ringing each time someone touched it to invoke blessings. It was a background sound which we took for granted, but yet missed when we went away for a few days. Today when I visit my parents, I generally stand in the balcony and spend a few silent minutes recalling those days.

 

of lockdowns & more

It is mid August.  Almost five months to the day ‘lockdown’ was officially declared in the country. And yet the surreal feeling doesn’t seem to go. It has lessened with time, but has not gone away totally. 

Many years ago I had read a book, ‘Life As We Knew It’ by Susan Beth Pfeffer , a science fiction work, where it is predicted that an asteroid is all set to hit the Moon. People are excited to witness the magnificent event. When the day arrives, nature doesn’t go down the predicted path of just the asteroid hitting the Moon , but instead the impact of the phenomena pushes the moon closer to the Earth, causing a change in the Earth’s gravitational pull. This sets off a chain of horrific occurrences like tsunamis, earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. Families struggle to survive in a world where there is food and gas shortage along with extreme weather changes. People sustain themselves on stockpiled food, limited water and wood burning stoves. Each day becomes a routine of finding ways to stock up on food and water. 

When we were a few days into the lockdown, the memory of this book was very strong in my mind. I clearly remember how I used to pause many times when I was reading the book, to think about how it would be if such a situation ever came to be. I had made mental lists of what one really needs to sustain in a similar scenario. Little did I imagine that one day we would be passing through a remotely similar situation. Five months ago, if anyone had told me that we would be confined to our homes indefinitely for the coming months, I would have scoffed at them and walked away. Somedays I think we all have coped better with the lockdown because we were not pre-warned and have just gone with the flow. Sometimes being pre-warned leads to over thinking. 

The first phase of the lockdown was 21 days long and there were these moments when the word, ‘surreal’ crossed my mind many times. Not ever thinking that the phase would be longer than 21 days, we all got into the spirit of stocking essentials, doing household chores on our own and in general, kind of enjoying the isolated feeling that the situation brought. Each night before we retired to bed, we decided on what the menus for the next day would be, depending on what the pantry held. Household chores were assigned to each of us and the first few days everyone diligently adhered to the roughly chalked out routine. 

A new kind of quiet descended over this city which never sleeps. As I sat in the balcony  with my morning tea or with a book, I could feel the tension of the neighbourhood as we wondered when the pandemic would actually touch our lives. Initially one could hear some kids playing in the neighbourhood but as news started trickling in that Covid19 cases had actually started being detected in some parts of the city, it all became a grim reality and soon the lanes had a deserted look.

I took this opportunity to go through my phone book ( yes! I still maintain an old fashioned, handwritten address/phone book ) and get in touch with people with whom I had not spoken to in a long time. Cousins, long lost classmates from school, friends from old neighbourhoods, anyone whose name popped up in my memory. Some of us who are regularly in touch made plans to meet up in virtual meetings. My schoolmates’ online meet ups took some careful planning as we are spread out over seven time zones and it took a bit of effort to ensure that we did not land up keeping up one of us awake at some unearthly hour. 

There have been days when I have jumped out of bed, excited over some new recipe I had planned to bake that particular day. Then there have been days when I stood at the sink, despondent, mechanically washing dishes, and getting this feeling that this is all I seem to be doing nowadays. Washing Dishes!!! How can one household produce so many dishes? It was as if we had nothing better to do than to cook, eat and pile dishes. Every night before going to sleep , I made resolutions that I would resume my writing, finish an incomplete painting, or read a book. Then the next day I would  promptly fall into the rigmarole of clean, cook and wash. By evening all I felt like doing is curl up in a chair and look out of the window. I think there were days when I got palpitations just at the thought of doing this for an indefinite period. 

Thankfully with the coming of June, things started easing up. While two months down the line, the situation regarding Covid has not changed much and numbers only seem to be on the rise, we have gracefully or not so gracefully accepted that this is going to be the ‘new normal’, as they call it. We now wear a mask outside home the same way as we would naturally wear shoes when we step out. Sanitising our hands frequently has also become part and parcel of our regular hygiene regime. Yes, I miss meeting my parents, siblings and friends but we are fortunate to have digital contact almost 24/7. The only factor which gave our lockdown days structure was Mr A, our one year old Goldie who kept us occupied and entertained with his antics and demands. 

In the past one month, we all have been slowly getting back into some kind of normal routine as schools have resumed classes, albeit online. I am sure that this isolated phase has left some kind of impact on our minds, which we will realise over time. Many of us must have introspected about a lot of matters. Many of us must have come away with new resolutions regarding different aspects of our life. And yet, we are not yet out of the woods. We are still in the midst of a battle against an invisible force. All of us watching and waiting for life to come back to the way we knew it. 

On a lighter note what I will definitely take back from this phase is the knowledge 

  1. Our four member family can co-exist for an indefinite period with just each other as  company without any danger of anyone strangling the other in frustration. 
  2. InvestIng in an unlimited WiFi plan was one of the most sensible decisions of 2020 .I think the first was possible thanks to the multiple streaming media which kept us sane and out of each other’s way. 
  3. We came up with at a dozen combinations to eat Maggi noodles.
  4. Ditto for fried rice preparations.
  5. My culinary skills improved by leaps and bounds in these last few months. 
  6. So did my ability to wield the broom and the mop.
  7. Not dusting the house for a week or so at a stretch will not affect anyone’s health. 
  8. One can get used to wearing pyjamas and tees at all times.
  9. For the next two years at least, teachers will not have to worry about which topics to assign their students for their English essays. Covid has taken care of that.
  10. I regularly dream vivid dreams about travelling which just reconfirms how much I love and how much I miss travelling. 

I will definitely remember many more titbits even after I wind up writing this. And so will you. What a phase this has been!

Of Pickles and Papads

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Odd memory to be jiggled, now that monsoons are here and it has started raining almost daily. Probably it was the papad we ate at lunch a few days back. It was a sago papad. One of those which balloon up into an incredible size when one pops an innocently tiny papad into the hot oil. The first time I fried one of those, my eyes widened and I actually giggled at the way it twirled in the oil and bloomed into a curly edged papad. It is a papad meant to bet shared. But the memory that sago papad triggered was of the small papads we helped my mother make during the summers when we were small.

While the two months of school summer holidays were unrestricted playtime and relaxation, there were a few things we three siblings had to help our mother with. One of these chores was helping her prepare pickles and papads. My mother loved to and even today loves to try her hand at various snacks and dishes. Multiply three growing children by days of playing outdoors, and you have demands for food coming in very often. Those were days when women generally preferred homemade snacks and nibbles over store bought ones. 

The two most popular snacks in our household were the sago papads and potato crisps. To make the former, one had to cook sago in water to a certain consistency and temper it with cumin and salt. Once cooked it couldn’t be allowed to sit for long as it would congeal as it cooled. So there was a mad dash to the terrace of our building. Preparations had been made before hand for this activity. Ma usually used a fine, old, cotton sheet to make the papads on. The sheet was spread on the terrace floor. Each of us was handed a table spoon and we had to take a spoonful of the sago mix and spread it to a diameter of about couple of inches. Soon the whole sheet would be covered with sago discs which looked like polka dots from afar. The sticky discs stuck to the sheet firmly. Once the whole sheet was covered, another similar cotton sheet was used to cover the wet papads. A similar exercise was carried out with potatoes to make the crisps. Potatoes were boiled whole and sliced using a Mandolin cutter. These were then spread out on cotton sheets and covered with another sheet. The edges of the sheets were secured with stones and other such heavy objects to stop the sheets from flying away. This was done mainly to save the crisps and papads from the ever vigilant crows who were more than happy with this ready meal. We have spent many afternoons on duty on the terrace, chasing away crows and checking on the snacks drying on the terrace 

This was not a one day affair. Each evening we had to go up to the terrace and gather up the sheets carefully and bring them home. And again next morning take them back to the terrace and spread out the sheets. This continued till the papads and potato slices had dried to a crisp and started falling off the sheets at the slightest touch. Once done they were stored and fried whenever one desired a quick snack.

Another all time favourite was the mango pickle that my mother made. Known as Chhunda and originating in Gujarat, it is prepared with raw mangoes, combining the sourness of the raw mango, the sweetness of sugar and the spiciness of red chilli powder. This is a pickle which is totally Sun cooked.Once all the ingredients are mixed and placed in a vessel, the container is placed in a sunny spot and brought indoors at dusk. The sugar in the mix melts in the Sun’s heat and this process continues till all the sugar has melted. 

Carrying the vessel of Chhunda to and fro the terrace was also one of our responsibility. We didn’t mind these chores as we knew that we were the ones to benefit from the snacks being made. Looking back I think we didn’t even consider these as chores. It was a fun thing to do and all our friends in the building did the same for their mothers. We just incorporated this errand in the schedule of our long, summer days.

In my household I have never attempted to make either of the above at home. Since our consumption of pickles and papads is not much, I prefer the store bought variety. Whenever I do eat some though, there are times when I fondly recollect the memories of my childhood.

Puppy Tales: Mr.A

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I shamelessly and blatantly blame my menopausal hormones for making me agree to bringing home a pup. I have always liked dogs but had never envisioned adopting one because of the enormous responsibility that came along with that little bundle with a wag and a swag. So when my son started badgering me for a dog, I learnt to put up a stiff resistance to all his selling gimmicks as to why we should adopt one. My stiff resistance was not so stiff after all, and suddenly one evening I found myself sitting next to him in the vet’s clinic, holding a small basket with a smaller something inside it.

That is the moment I realize when my life was split into a pre-Doggo and an owning-a-Doggo phase. No one ever prepares you or tells you how things change the moment you hold that ball of fur in your hand.

Let’s call this addition to our family, Mr. A.

The initial months that followed were a blur of pee and poop moments. And chew moments. No, not moments. Change that to sessions. In the middle of it all, I panicked and almost gave him away. Our home became his amusement park that offered him countless corners to chew on. That fur ball marked out ‘the chew toy’ of the day in his mind and chewed on that particular corner as if his life depended on it. My husband found himself going around the house every night, armed with an anti chew spray, coating all possible furniture surfaces with the repelling spray. We now have furniture which have doggie teeth marks all along the bottom but thankfully which can still be identified as furniture. We all also wear and own clothes which have tiny holes punctured into them at ground level, and knee level too in some cases, courtesy Mr. A

It’s been six months since Mr. A has entered our lives but he has taken centre stage since the day he has come home. Each day brings some surprise and some ‘surprise’. As first time pet owners we are still enjoying the newness of his presence. The wag and swag which came with no tag,

PS : I finally have time and a subject to write on again, so wait for some more tidbits on Mr. A.