My Annual Journey!

We pass the Himalayan ranges, Mount Everest the highest mountain of the world. We howl, we freeze, we carry storms and then we came to the plains of North India. We pass forests and mountains, we follow the route of the impatient rivers with crystal clear pure water, that rush and tumble to journey forth and reach the plains where several rivers converge to form India’s most famous river the Ganges.

We have no age, we have no belongings we only pride on how we affect the people who we come in touch with. We dance, we pirouette we take a bow and playfully allow other troop members to orchestrate a dance. A spontaneous dance that is created at that instant, for no wind of my group has ever practiced before and will never repeat a step again. We whoosh through the intricate marble carving of the Taj Mahal in Agra and the Red Fort in Delhi. We pass the majestic buildings, opulent residential colonies and slums and ghettos of Delhi. We are not snobs! We pass through them all, we howl at them and if we are in the mood we playfully take a bow, do a little cha cha cha and waltz away the debris on the ground.

We proceed to the deserts of Rajasthan. The camels crouch down as we approach and close their eyes, they are not willing to suffer a sand storm, and they too know how cruel we can be collectively. We slide through the palaces and forts that were built by mighty kings and emperors. Empty, cold, stone – hard monuments that too will soon disintegrate into dust, but only because my friends and I sweep through them each year!

They have all left their imprint on us. We remember the invasions that have entered our land, we remember the Moguls who were originally the Mongols from the Steppes of Russia. They entered India through the Khyber Pass and found unbelievable riches and prosperity in this green and wonderful land where people were generous and trusting and were willing to share their bounty and welcomed them. They found the local Hindu temperament fickle and suspicious in nature and they played one race against the other and ruled the country. They would not leave.

We watched the white men, come in their ships from far away Manchester and Liverpool. Our cousins, a band of strong winds from the seas had transported them here. We watched a group of hungry clerks from the East India Company in search of spices and silks trade in this country. We watched how they gradually were able to make India, the ‘jewel in the crown’, of there far away Empress Victoria. We watched them gloat when they found untold riches, like the world s largest diamond -the Kohinoor that even today nests in Queen Elizabeth’s crown, They found it easy to take the Indian peacock throne and carry raw cotton that grew abundantly, to their mills in Lancaster and sell it back to the natives.

We have cried and supported the Indian freedom fighters when they told the British to quit India, Gandhi the man we befriended in his attire of a loincloth and walking stick. We crouched around him when he was imprisoned. We followed him when he led a group of Indians in protest to the seashore to make their own salt. They refused to pay tax to the British for salt! The British were clever they used my friends the winds from the ocean and carried their ships home. We wept when the British left after they had partitioned this rich and fertile land in to two countries India and Pakistan and six million people were killed in communal riots!

My friends laugh at me. They tell me I have become too Indian. They remind me that we exist because we stay together; they say we exist because we have momentum and force; otherwise we are nothing but air! They warn me that all the winds on planet Earth have no loyalty, and when the axis of the planet tilts, we will probably have to relocate elsewhere permanently. I don’t believe them. Because I know each hot summer when my friends – the northeast monsoon enter North India from the Bay of Bengal I will retrace my steps. Gather strength to go back to my mountainous retreat. Refresh. Renew. As I have done each year and wait for my annual journey down ward. I love my route and want to do it again. Again and again! Call me a romantic if you will.

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(A take off from the childrens fairy tale “Jack and the bean stalk” )

Jack is a young lad living with his widowed mother and a milk cow who is their only source of income. `

Jack tried very hard to fulfill his father’s last wish – finish University. It took him a little longer than most, but he had interests that he spent a lot of time on. During the day he loved to lie on his back and stare at the clouds. They were his friends and he created stories based on the shapes and sizes. Everyone thought him a bit queer, he was a loner, but he could be pleasant and friendly when he wanted. Jack’s mother was bedridden with rheumatoid arthritis and worried about him. They lived in the country and his father had left behind a small dairy farm.

When the cow stops giving milk, Jack’s mother has him take her to market for sale. On the way, he meets an old man who offers “magic beans” in exchange for the cow, and Jack makes the trade. When he arrives home without any money, his mother becomes furious, throws the beans to the ground, and sends Jack to bed without supper.

One day Jack informed his Mother that he had come across a bunch of investors who wanted him to form a company. His contribution was the livestock and cows and he had been given equity and the assurance that he would soon make a steady income without any hard work. The head office was in Thailand and they had invited him there and had given him some travel coupons. His mother was furious with him and threw a tantrum. He couldn’t understand why she was so upset and decided to give her time to cool down. He plans a visit to his partners in Thailand. Things are beginning to look up already!

A gigantic beanstalk grows overnight, which Jack climbs to a land high in the sky. There he comes to a castle, that is the home of a giant. He asks at door for food and the giant’s wife takes him in.

Jack goes to Thailand and realizes that the addresses he had been given didn’t exist. He is upset and spends his first night in a nightclub. He meets Lucy, a beautiful Thai woman, she is older than him and she buys him many drinks. Her big black eyes, masked in thick mascara and turquoise blue eye shadow and her waist long straight hair enchant him. She takes him to her huge palatial mansion and seduces him. Jack is ecstatic – things are definitely looking up! She tells him that she has a very Rich Russian benefactor who provides her with all her needs and asks only that she is available to him when he visits Thailand once a month.

Jack spends time with Lucy, they go to the beach and he lies down on the sand staring up into the blue sky, and recognizes his old friends the wispy white clouds. He squints his eyes from the hot sun and imagines a big juicy succulent plant that will transport him straight up to the sky! He remembers that as a kid, his dad had called him Jack from the beanstalk story that he had read to him hundreds of times. Jack laughs. “Yes I am Jack. I am the guy who has a beanstalk! I am the guy who has found the hen that lays the golden egg!“

When it is time for Jack to return home Lucy gives him money and packs his new clothes and gives him a packet of white powder. She instructs him to carry it back and tells him that it would be picked up on his arrival from his house. Jack’s mother is happy to see him and is overjoyed when he gives her money. She asks no question. She thinks, “ Thank God, things are looking up!” Jack looks after her but ever so often he returns to Thailand. The mother wonders who the people are who visit Jack with their strange accents and wear fur caps in summer. Jack goes again to Thailand and this time his girlfriend doesn’t pick up the phone.

When the giant returns, he senses that a human is nearby:
I smell the blood of an Englishman,
Be he alive, or be he dead,
I’ll have his bones to grind my bread……

The guards do not allow him into Lucy’s house. He stands outside and hears some strange noises. It sounds like someone is growling “ Fee-fi-fo-fum! Fee-fi-fo-fum! Fee-fi-fo-fum! “ Over and over again. Jack shrugs his shoulders. It must be the Russian.

A day later Lucy calls and tells him that she can’t meet him on this trip because her Russian giant is there. She sends him money and another packet of white substance to take home. He goes home but he is disturbed and listless looks up at the ceiling all day long. His Mother doesn’t know what to do with him. She nags him, she has opened a letter from the equity partners and has come to know that the ‘bogus’ company has gone bankrupt. Jack decides to marry Lucy and thinks that things will only look up after that !

Jack once again boards the flight to Thailand; Lucy waits for him eagerly and tells him that she must escape with him. She tells him that her Russian boyfriend is a drug dealer. She says she wants to run away with Jack to his home, marry him and start a new life. They catch a flight to return to Jacks home. Jack doesn’t know that the narcotic police force have been tipped and will arrest him at the airport on arrival. Jack doesn’t know that the Russian boyfriend will be at the airport to receive Lucy and hand him over to the police. He doesn’t know that he was just a pawn in this intricate plan between gorgeous Lucy and the Russian drug dealer. But right now Jack is happy, he looks through the window as Thailand is left far behind and says to Lucy “Life could never be better – things are definitely looking Up!”

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Fire burns the old!

Fog embraces the Indian capital Delhi each winter night. Post sunset – moisture, smog and pollution settle down near the ground like a thick blanket .This is due to the inversion of temperature as the ground stays warmer than the cold sky above. Once again at daybreak the temperature gets warmer and all signs of fog are erased and the sky is once again bright blue. The dark thoughts of the night replaced with a buzz of activity of work and play and movement.

Yesterday the family got together in the evening and we lit a small fire in the garden. The monsoon had departed weeks ago and the temperature in north India had dropped drastically by nightfall. The fire was lit to bring a feeling of cheer and warmth to the family. The family gathered together, guests and friends dropped in, it was the festival of Diwali the season of lights. Tiny oil lamps were lit and placed all around the garden. Delicious traditional sweets and dry fruits – almonds, walnuts, cashew nuts and raisins in silver bowls were passed around.

There was chatter and talk and now and then the flow of conversation halted. Every one stared into the fire. Little golden specks shot straight up and then exhausted, drained of all sustenance died a natural death. An odd spray of golden specks flared up into the sky and got extinguished in seconds. A crackle and a hiss and then silence ! The play of flames continued occasionally replenished by more fuel. The fire gave life to our little garden in suburban Delhi. Fire released the pent up energy of wood and charcoal consuming the matter that had been preserved for years.

We avoid eye contact, knowing that it would only bring forth a spray of words, bringing to the surface irritation that had developed with over familiarity over the years ! Our children were around, happy to see the family together, enveloped in the evening fog. They too sensed that a spark lit between us would surface above the flames – but they knew that it would die a quick death. They had seen it so often, and had got used to it. They didn’t not want to give it energy and made jokes and teased each other to lighten up the atmosphere.

Feelings and old resentments compressed each day pounded by commitment to the family had created dead wood within me. Layers and layers of little thoughts and actions that I had chosen to ignore or not give energy to had created fossil wood in my soul. There were times when I longed to light the fire and let the dead wood blaze. Let yesterday go quickly and extinguish itself . Let my hurt feelings that had become charcoal in my soul crackle and evaporate as smoke.

I stared into the fire in front of me watching the sparks dance and die and realized that if I let my tirade out all too soon I too would extinguish myself. In seconds I too would end up in ash and smoke with no substance left. The spark of my soul existed nourished on my experiences. I knew the sun would soon appear and lighten up the morning sky. I would soon be busy with the bustle of activity and the dark foggy thoughts I had would fade away with the demons of the night !

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Starry, Starry Night …..

Starry, Starry Night ….. Paint your palette blue and grey……

I look up into the sky and watch millions of stars twinkling in the dark black sky of the universe. It is a perfectly clear night with no clouds and the moon is just emerging. I feel I am in a planetarium, but – no! I remind myself I am out in the open and this is the real thing ! The feeling of timelessness and space that I get as I watch the myriads of stars out there in the universe only make me feel insignificant and small.

I am told that there are 500 thousand million stars in our Milky way! Zeros scare me ! I am terrible with calculations. I can never remember how many zeros there are in a million or a billion and then how do I figure how many zeros there are in 500 thousand million stars which just comprise our milky way and I am told there are thousands of similar galaxies as is our Milky way! Indians feel that the rest of the world is always indebted to India – after all ancient Indian scholars from the 5th–2nd century BC gave the world the ZERO but what we do without a calculator ?

Ancient Indian scriptures describe ‘Indra’ as being the God of the Universe He is the king of the gods and ruler of the heavens ( mainly in this case the Indian heavens). If the Universe is personified as a God – Indra then other elements such as the planets, fire, water, sun, thunder and rain also need to be personified. Each of them are under the command of Indra who commands them in war against the demons. Mythology gives us the consequence of these great wars – the eternal and universal war of good against evil! So we in India revere the planets and elements in the universe and give them names and worship them. Our myths are about how they interact , fight and love each other. The interplay of these mighty cosmos giants change the course of us earthlings. They fight and there is destruction, famine, drought or floods on Mother Earth, they love and share their bounty with us and there is plenty !

I remember many years ago, maybe it was in the late seventies, I am not sure of the exact year but we were informed by the Indian Meteorological Institutes in India that we would witness a total solar eclipse for a few minutes. We were told the day and time this would happen and were also informed of certain regions in the country where the viewing of the total eclipse would be maximum. As seen from the Earth, a solar eclipse occurs when the Moon passes between the Sun and Earth, and the Moon fully or partially blocks the Sun. This can happen only at new moon, when the Sun and the Moon are in conjunction as seen from Earth in an alignment referred to as ‘syzygy’. The disk of the Sun would be fully obscured by the Moon in full day light. Which meant that for a few minutes there would be almost complete darkness in the middle of the day!

Translated into Indian mythology it would be equivalent to the conquest of the mighty Sun God by the smaller and less powerful moon god even for a few moments ! Though the eclipse was a natural phenomenon, the effect of it could be easily attributed to supernatural causes or regarded as a bad omen or even the start of destruction of Mother earth! For anyone who had not been forewarned of its effect a total solar eclipse could be frightening.

I travelled with a group of college friends about 150 miles from my home to see the Total eclipse. People like us who travelled to remote locations to observe or witness predicted central solar eclipses were known as eclipse chasers or umbraphiles .We were told not to look directly at the photosphere of the Sun (the bright disk of the Sun itself), even for just a few seconds, as this could cause permanent damage to the retina of the eye. This was because of the intense visible and invisible radiation that the photosphere emitted. This damage can result in impairment of vision, up to and including blindness. The retina has no sensitivity to pain, and the effects of retinal damage may not appear for hours, so there is no warning that injury is occurring. We went armed to our expedition with special sunglasses to be used when we gazed up.

Look out on a summer’s day…..With eyes that know the darkness in my soul.

We were a little late to reach the suggested spot before the appointed time. We were just about 30 miles away and suddenly even before we looked at our watches we could feel the changes happening outside. From the road we noticed a small lake and a small grass thatched hut. We got out of the car and rushed inside the hut. My friends wanted to record the phases of total eclipse. It was about 3 pm in the afternoon and suddenly the sky became dark. A strong breeze gushed around us and we could see the dead leaves and dust swirl around us. Suddenly there was pin drop silence you could not hear a single bird. It was like an unseen force had unplugged Mother Earth we saw darkness cast on us we saw the shadow spread on the lake. The little animals did not understand what was happening – for them it had become night in the middle of the day ! The birds flew into the large trees to find shelter and wind and dust, the dogs stopped barking. We waited in silence for those few minutes which seemed an eternity. There was a doubt created in our minds, – should we appeal to the Sun God and ask him to vanquish the Moon God that had blocked the sun’s bounty from reaching us? Should we pray to the Moon God to spare mother earth and move away. Was the brightness of our souls being blackened by darkness from within?

Suddenly the darkness lifted and you could see the shadow recede from the lake. Light infused the atmosphere, we were happy to see the happy face of the sun. What joy – the earth was once again plugged in once again . The crows started screeching the hens, sparrows and little birds were chirping loudly! The dogs were barking and the village chatter started once again! The mid day darkness had receded,

They would not listen, they’re not listening still……Perhaps they never will…

( stanza from Vincent by Don Mclean)

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Through Time

Belgundi village 1910 , a young boy Ganpat would race his classmates during the noon recess to the top of the nearby hill. He would try and reach the Jamun* tree before anyone else. The fastest and brightest boy in his class. Panting he would mark his territory by peeing on the side of the gnarled Jamun tree. Squinting his eyes from the midday sun, he stared into the horizon. Plush green paddy fields, a meandering river, clusters of mango trees, hillocks in the distance and the little village where he was born .“One day I will own this hill and I will build a glass house from where I can see the view from every direction!”

Belgundi village 1936, a young man Ganpat returns home from Berlin. He has been in Germany for several years and his employer – the newspaper Berliner Tageblatt sends him to India to report on Gandhi’s non cooperation movement against the British. He discards his leather shoes, his necktie and blazer and once again runs up the hill, to the same Jamun tree, to perform the same ritual. But in his hands are the title deeds of the hill that he has purchased! Still panting he gazes into the horizon, a cigarette resisting gravity in his lips, his jet black hair combed, his hands on his hips. He leans on the tree and thinks of how quickly the years have passed and shuts his eyes. For that instant he is at home !

Belgundi village 1945, Ganpat has been recently released from the local prison where the British had detained him as a political prisoner for the duration of World War 2 because of his long stay in Germany. He is now an activist in India’s Quit India movement against the British Raj. He is with his fiancee and they are soon to be married and they stand under the Jamun tree, he points to the horizon and shares with her his dream of the glass house he will build for her. This will soon be their home !

Belgundi village 1975, Ganpat’s memorial stone is laid under the Jamun tree as he had expressed a few days after he breathed his last. A huge crowd from the village come to pay homage to the man who set up industry locally and gave them a means of livelihood. They gaze into the glass walls of the mansion in awe – ‘Ganpat was one of us’, they think, but in their hearts they know he was different from them – he had lived his dream and had finally come home! They gather under the Jamun tree, that stood there through every monsoon and every season. With arms outstretched The Jamun tree had waited patiently for this day – to embrace his favourite Ganpat back home .

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Out of the snakes belly!

On one of my frequent journeys from my hometown Belgaum, down the forested hills of western India, I remember seeing young boys kick down a 3 feet high anthill . In seconds they maliciously destroyed what thousands of ants must have taken months to build. They knocked down the red – mud – animal – made edifice, the home of thousands of ants. Suddenly hundreds of ants of all sizes were streaming all over the place! This scene came to my mind when I journeyed on a local Mumbai train in the rush hour and had the same sense of wonder ! I avoid crowds and normally do not travel on the local Metro, never at rush hour but there was no other route to reach my destination. Witnessing thousands of people rushing around, without anyone bumping into each other, all finding their respective platforms and all in a hurry reminded me of those tiny little ants!

That evening I entered a ‘ladies compartment’, designated only for women and was crushed between commuters between the ages of 18 to 60. I watched two young girls, they looked like sisters with black kohl lined eyes talking and laughing. They both had hip length, long, black and straight tresses which they swished from side to side in rhythmic coordination. A little like when you visit a dairy and see the cows swish their tails right left and then right and then again and again !

Young teenage girls returning home from college sessions, mobile phones held in their manicured fingers. Others with sweat streaming down their faces, fatigue in their eyes and the tension of having to reach home in time for them to supervise their children’s homework or dispense medicines to their ailing elders . It reminded me of a television documentary I had seen on bees. I was fascinated at how well organized bees were. Each little creature knew its mission, it knew where it had to go and carry out its duty. Its responsibilities ingrained in its genetic code ! The Queen , the drone , the worker bees all part of a complex scenario!

I remember visiting a snake farm once. On display was a giant King Cobra with bloated and dazed red eyes. You could sense him enjoy the feeling of satiation after his heavy meal. He was waiting for the wild hare he had eaten alive to digest in his stomach. I am told that giant King Cobras can ingest an animal like a calf or deer many times their size ! The train reminded me of a King Cobra as it slithered through its tracks passing trains on the other side. Very few people got out, more commuters entered squeezing those that were already there. I could hardly breath, I was being suffocated, bodies pushing me constantly. The combination of smells nauseated me – pungent sweat, a whiff of fresh jasmines pinned in the hair of the sari clad women in front of me, stale perfume and the smell of fried samosa’s, a popular fried savoury snack sold at most Mumbai platforms.

I got up from my seat, squeezed through and barely got out when the train reached my destination. I had this wonderful feeling of still being alive, I could breathe! I walked out of the station to the cool breeze and a full silver moon in the sky. For that moment I experienced bliss – I felt I had gone through the King Cobra’s alimentary canal and had come out whole and alive !!

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We Are Told

Hindu’s believe in reincarnation. We are told, that the soul of the deceased are re-incarnated in another life. Maybe once, maybe several times, until it completes its karma, until its pays back its cosmic debt to the universe. Within a calendar year, we are told that the family of the deceased have to perform rituals to remember the soul and nudge the soul to ‘move on’.

Shital, my lovely daughter in law passed away last year. A vibrant, beautiful young woman of 33, had danced into our lives eight years earlier and had captured my sons heart. Almond eyes, jet black hair and an engaging smile , she was always a free soul and loved sufi whirling and yoga. Maybe it was her karma to have two sons quickly within a year of each other and she was a busy, content, happy person. Shortly after a ‘mystic’ yoga retreat that she had attended in one of the jungle resorts of South India she fell ill. She was hospitalized, and within 5 days of high fever she unexpectedly breathed her last. We were told, it may have been a rare mosquito bite that had caused the high fever and septicemia. We will never know.

Shitals parents told us to assemble at the Banganga tank in Mumbai not very far away from Malabar Hill, a posh locality of Mumbai. We drove there through the traffic and crowded streets of Mumbai. My two darling grandsons of six and four were in my car. They had been told that we were going for ‘Mamas puja’ and they were well behaved clutching on to their spider man and Benton toys. Occasional questions asked were “How does Mama know that we are doing prayers for her?” and then from the younger one “ Can she see us Granny?” and the older one again “ Will she come back to us soon?”

Suddenly we took a right, off the main road close to the entrance gate. We were amazed at the sight in front of us ! A beautiful large tank of green, still water with just a slight ripple that passed through with the breeze. Concrete steps all around and temples around its perimeter. At short distances from each other, groups were huddled around waiting for the Hindu priest to perform rituals on their behalf. We were suddenly transposed out of our lives in Mumbai city to this historical haven. We had been told of this beautiful water body in the heart of the city but had never been there before and were amazed and surprised to see this little oasis in the midst of the desert of one of the most populated cities in the world!

We performed our rituals and the children fed the crows, the ducks, the geese and even the fish in the water tank. We had a busy morning and with the satisfaction that we had completed the rituals as we were told to do, we returned to our busy lives!

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Western Ghats

Driving down the mountains of western India to sea level during the monsoons is possibly what Dorothy must have encountered when she entered the Emerald city in search of the Wizard of Oz. Verdant green and picturesque. As you drive down the hairpin bends you pass clusters of teak trees and huge bamboo plants all part of the copious green emerald forests. The Wizard of OZ was a mystery to Dorothy, an unknown. Dorothy had been told that the Wizard had the power to transport her home ! I pass through the lush green forest and feel transposed to a higher level .The level that resides in my soul, within me but yet constantly alludes me, the level that my soul identifies as ‘Home’ .

Rain hits the windscreen and the motion of the wiper-blades lull me into a somnambulistic state. The windows are rolled down and I feel the spray of rain on my face, the breeze blowing my hair . The chirping of birds, an occasional cry of a peacock, and the sound of beetles are the only sounds I register. Driving down the mountains I look far into the distance, water falls, clumps of trees, green fields, undulating hills . The sun peeps through the clouds that open now and then to reveal the far away horizon. Is the feeling of completion that I suddenly witness similar to the feeling of finding Home within me? I remember a Sufi poet who said “ Am I in the world ? or is the world there because I am there to perceive it ? “

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BBC Asia Network, London: Nihal interviews Laxmi Tendulkar Dhaul

11 am, 8th July, 2013

Nihal: Stories about your parents and your grandparents – stories of pain and sacrifice and photos to piece together their lives….. Continue reading

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Souffle Eggs on Vegetable Base

Egg Dishes:Souffle Eggs on Vegetable Base

Serves:2 People

Time Required: 40 Minutes

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