Visiting Manjula’s Village

Summers are hot in India. As hot as hot gets. We left England to go to India right in the middle of Indian summer. One afternoon, Manjula invited us to meet her family that included a buffalo and a calf. The entire village turned up seeing our car parked outside Manjula’s house. There were many children, young men and women, some elders and a shaman. The shaman was squatted on the floor holding a bouquet of peacock feathers. He spoke little, but enticingly. I have never believed in shamanism, astrology or black magic, but he convinced us that we must have our stars looked at (he said forehead, as in India they believe that future is “printed” on your forehead)

So, I gave in… I was given a chair while he continued to be seated (squatting) on the ground. He recited (mumbled) some mantras. At one point, I burst out laughing but I sensed his annoyance at my ignorance (read frivolity). So I shut my mouth and observed. Even started to enjoy as he started touching and tapping the peacock feathers all over me and I felt tickled and relaxed. I didn’t want him to stop. Five minutes later, he stopped and said, “it’s fine now.” He was so reserved as a person that I didn’t want to question him (due to fear of annoying him, a shaman, in case he gets angry and I’m subjected to his wrath (curse)), “what was fine? Was it not fine before?” I left those questions for my mind to deal with. I simply thanked him and moved aside.

Then he turned towards Deepak and told him that he needed a mantra “treatment” too as something was “picked up” that needed warding off. Deepak, superstitiously, sat down for the cleansing ritual immediately, partly not wanting to take any chances, and partly out of respect for the old medicine man who might have been doing this to make some money, but the village folk were convinced the old “doctor” had supreme powers. Perhaps he did. Perhaps he did ward some evil influences off us. After the same feather-touching ritual, tickly and giggly massage, Deepak paid the guy for the two of us. The old guy looked very pleased and blessed us all. I believe his blessings really helped.

As if every visitor had to go through the cleansing custom before being allowed into the village, we were taken through the alley that led to Manjula’s house. We were shown every single room, kitchen, cattle and their tabelas, and also the street dogs that had conveniently made the place their permanent home.

Chandni, the fully-grown female buffalo came running towards Manjula. “She’s thirsty,” said Manjula, to explain Chandni’s slapdash. Chandni was given a bucket-full of water. She played with the petite Manjula and continued to dance – this time she was entertaining the guests with her performance.

After the theatrics, she posed for my camera like a true star.

Jiri Chahiye!

Can’t remember what triggered this memory, but today I was remembering my childhood days and my taste for jiri (sugar-coated fennel seeds) introduced to me by my chacha (father’s younger brother). Every single evening, I waited for my daily jiramin-dose, and no matter where we lived, Bombay or Pilani, my chacha on his way back from work unfailingly brought me a pudiya of jiri. I was a jiri addict with no hope of kicking the habit. The moment he walked in, my small hands stretching out in demand – jiri chahiye.

My chacha himself had, and also instilled in us, some particular habits – never to eat anything out in the open, never to shake-off water off wet hands, never to wipe wet hands on the clothes worn…. to name but a few. There was an episode from my childhood my bhuas (father’s sisters) reminisce…

A little background first… All my three bhuas were very possessive about me.. They would fight with each other for me, take turns to pick me up, sleep next to me in turns, take me to the market, and so on.

Now the episode:

One day, they took me to the market and bought me my favourite drug, jiri. Like a greedy pig, I poured the whole packet in my hand and was about to stuff my mouth with it when all of a sudden I saw my chacha coming from the opposite direction. I knew he didn’t like anyone eating on the streets/or out in the open/or under the sky. Seeing him, I got so frightened that my hand, that was close to my mouth, turned upside down (a knee-jerk reaction) with all my favourite stuff on the ground, mixed with the balu ret of Rajasthan. My bhuas still laugh when enacting the whole scene, but I don’t think it was funny losing my day’s quota of the delicious mithi-saunf. What a loss!!

Ghoongat – Statement of Sexiness

Seeing women walk the streets with their heads covered with a brightly – coloured sari pallo is a sight I’m ever so used to. And yet, I was sold into the fuss of the hijab in the West until a friend noticed my photos from Rajasthan and enquired whether Rajasthani women wore veils too, like the Muslims. Veils? Of course, that’s what it looks like! That’s when it struck me how Westerners, who are not familiar with the Eastern customs, perceive a ghoongat.

Ghoongat ‘is’ a veil, but not a hijab. Ghoongat is worn only to cover the face in front of family male elders, or elderly visitors, but not strangers. Head is incidentally covered as there is no other way to bring the sari on the face. (Head-covering is a custom many religions around the world observe during religious practices, and hence not unique to Hindus)

Coming back to the ghoongat, it is not as long or as dark-coloured as a hijab or burkha; it is mostly made from a colourful semi-transparent material; and only reaches either below the nose, exposing the lower face (lips, chin and neck), or barely below the face, leaving the neck exposed, while the face is faintly visible too through the chiffony material. Funnily, some women who wear the ghoongat have their cleavages or bosoms revealed with no sari draped over the blouse, making the subject far more conspicuous instead of doing the opposite. I personally think it’s a statement of sexiness. 

When I photographed these women, my foreign-born sister-in-law was with me, and curious to know why one lady was more covered than the other. I knew the answer instantly – the older woman, with less covering, exposed bust, was the mother-in-law of the newly-wed younger one who was fully convered out of respect for the elders in the community who were around when we met them. My sister-in-law responded, “It’s totally the wrong way around. Younger woman should reveal more, while the older should remain covered.” 😂 Made complete sense. But the young one was preserved, so to speak, for her new husband.

Well, on old or on young, the ghoongat covers much less than it reveals. A ghoongat might be a veil as a hijab is, but the distinction between the two remains stark. 

In a separate discussion on cultural nuances….

There was an incident in the US where a female employee of Indian origin walked into her corporate office wearing a sari, but was asked by the employer to not repeat that attire in the office as it reveals too much flesh (waist, back, neck and arms) and deemed “overly sexy” (the word ‘sexy’ was actually used). Strange, because in India we consider sari a conservative piece of clothing, while a skirt not so much, as it reveals legs. In some cultures, it’s okay to wear work suits that keep your legs uncovered, but wearing clothes that reveal the upper body flesh would be considered inappropriate. On the other hand in India, a country that’s labelled conservative (by western standards), though the legs remain mostly covered (not prohibited, thankfully), flaunting of cleavage and waist is permitted, because that’s exactly what a sari does, and yet it’s considered a conservative attire and broadly worn by professional women. Ah, so fascinating to observe these cultural differences; and difference in understanding and perspectives.

Early Telephone Conversations

An intriguing anecdote. That there was actually a World Telecommunication Day was interesting as I have fond memories of the primitive telephone machines when I was barely a few feet tall. 

My father said that when he was growing up,  it took a year to get a phone after registration and there were only a number of telephone lines . That too, only a few could afford. In Pilani, the huge havelis of Birla and Saraogi had a telephone line each. The telephone numbers were of four digits only. A funnel-like instrument was put to the ear to listen to a person and one spoke through another contraption that looked like a glass.

My father continues with his narration…..Whenever the telephone rang, there was competition to pick up the phone. Everyone was eager to pick it up. And along with calls from friends and relatives there were innumerable wrong numbers as well. Today, he is amazed that even with having to dial only four digits, people could still manage to dial wrong numbers. A routine wrong number was for the BITS, Pilani, whose number differed only by one digit. Dad says that he is sure that the staff at the BITS must have been as exasperated as the havelians.

The telephone connection in India had a flavour entirely of its own. Even if the telephone line belonged to someone else, the community regarded it as communal property and had an affectionate relationship with it. The neighbour’s telephone number was unabashedly shared by the whole neighbourhood and calls could come at any time requesting you to inform someone who lived at the end of the road. You of course were required to chat warmly with whoever had rung before telling them to ring 15 minutes later while you went and fetched your neighbour. After the neighbour finished their call, in everyone’s presence (this was before the age of personal space) the topic of the neighbour’s telephone conversation would be open for general debate and after it had been discussed threadbare, the neighbour would take their leave.

We moved to Pilani just before my birth, but my dad had to leave for Bombay where we were settled and he worked. My dad would call us up at Saraogion ki haveli. He would call back in 15 minutes while one of the Saraogis or their handyman came to call my mother. I would accompany her. A tough-looking Saraogan sat on a high throne-like pata, chewing supari and pan with a sarouta permanently in her hand. I remember being afraid of her. Zero privacy for a phone call. 

Thinking of my parents’ experience with the Indian phone connection reminded me of my own unique primitive experience with the French connection. I had joined Alliance Francaise to learn French and was getting quite good at it too. Any given opportunity and I would use French even on a non-English-speaking person in India for whom French was not even an option. I remember one sweeper guy telling me, “Didi, your English damn good.” I replied, “oh oh, it’s not the rough English, but the soft French, and I started teaching him words – merci, beaucoup, parlez vouz, je m’applle Bansi, je suis sweeper (can you believe it? 😬) and so on. 

I would call up my French school in presence of all my friends (chose no privacy) to enquire aimless things, just to show off my French. If the effeminate French receptionist at the other end enquired something, I’d have to switch to English, because he spoke the authentic French that’s spoken in France, not my kind of stilted French conversation that completely lacked the élan, the savoir faire. With the receptionist a l’Alliance Francaise, any deeper queries on the phone led to a quick, “Je parle Français mais un peu” and an even hastier “Au revoir”!But no French conversation could compare with the joie de vivre of our rustic telephone experience in India of my growing up days.

We will talk about mobile phones in the same manner one day. But the difference would be… “Only privacy. Zero community spirit.”


Covid will be history soon…

“This too we shall overcome…”

(The portion in quotation marks is from an article I have read but don’t remember the source…but it struck a cord and hence it is reproduced here)

The Covid-19 pandemic seems like an endless nightmare, from which we will never wake up. But here are some thoughts, telling us of how mankind has overcome even worse natural and manmade disasters:

“Imagine you were born in 1900. On your 14th birthday, World War I starts, and ends on your 18th birthday. 22 million people perish in that war. Later in the year, a Spanish Flu epidemic hits the planet and runs until your 20th birthday. 50 million people die from it in those two years. On your 29th birthday, the Great Depression begins. Unemployment hits 25%; the World GDP drops 27%. That runs till you are 33. When you turn 39, World War II starts. Between your 39th and 45th birthdays, 75 million people perish in the war.”

During the same time span, the great plague and cholera epidemics and the Bengal famine kill over 10 million people in India. On your 47th birthday, one of the bloodiest partitions of a country takes place on the Indian subcontinent, with one of the greatest migrations of a people in history. Millions are displaced and millions perish.

“Smallpox was epidemic until you were in your 40s and it killed 300 million people during your lifetime. At 50 the Korean War starts. 5 million perish. From your birth, until you are 55 you dealt with the fear of Polio epidemics each summer. You experience friends and family contracting polio and being paralyzed and/or die. At 55 the Vietnam War begins and doesn’t end for 20 years. 4 million people perish in that conflict.
During Cold War, you lived each day with the fear of nuclear annihilation. On your 62nd birthday, you have the Cuban Missile Crisis. Life on the planet, as we know it, almost ended and was narrowly averted. When you turn 75, the Vietnam War finally ends; but other wars and epidemics in the Middle-East and Africa, punctuate your remaining birthdays with millions of casualties.”

We are told to think of everyone born on the planet in 1900. If they endured all that and survived through everything; we can too. Well, it is not as easy as that. We are looking at these past sufferings in retrospect; whereas we are right in the middle of our present sufferings. Our whole nation has experienced a trauma; not only from the threat of an imminent horrible death from Covid-19, but also from the anguish of the sufferings of an impoverished migrant population walking hundreds of miles home across the sun-baked fields of India.

We too have strode the blistering miles with them and wept with them as their hungry children cried themselves to sleep in open fields at night. And our hearts have bled along with their feet as they trudged day after weary day; their eyes on the distant horizon, desperate to reach the love and succour of home—willing it to happen soon. The injustice of their plight haunts us and many of us in our own small ways have also tried to help them; but our whole nation needs to reach out to them and make reparations.

There is a very sharp edge to our collective suffering. Historians tell us to keep things in perspective; but it is hard. But we will still have to strive to do so. We have to tell ourselves that our grandparents got through all this, and we shall too. Human resilience, persistence and ingenuity will make sure that we do. In the meanwhile we must all hang on to the hope of a brighter tomorrow. Surely it will dawn one day.