Experience In Singapore 2019

I visited Singapore with my family last month. Many people have visited Singapore and have been surprised and impressed by this small city nation that has come up a long way in developing infrastructure and its institutions in such a way that it is in the top three countries in the world in per capita income. You find the life to be very orderly, people polite, roads and public places very clean. IMPRESSIVE. Crime rate is amongst the lowest in the world.

Normally when I have gone to other countries and people come to know that I am from India, they will talk about Mahatma Gandhi, Amitabh Bachhan, Raj Kapoor etc. So when we boarded a taxi in Singapore to visit a friend, the young taxi driver asked me, “Do you know Mukesh?” I said, ” Mukesh Kumar, a great singer.” He said,”No,no, I a mean Mukesh Ambani?” I was a bit surprised and replied,”Yes, he is the richest man in India.” “He has a company registered in Singapore, you know” he said and continued,”If you invest in Singapore, your investment is safe. Nobody will steal from you. Why don’t you open a company here? Also our tax rates are very low?” He went on for quite some time on advantages of investing in his country. I explained that I am retired and have no intention of working to make money and that I run a small school for the poor to pass my time. The guy again surprised me, my taxi bill was about 22.5 Singapore dollar and I gave him 25. He refused to take tip saying that I was doing a good job and should spend this money on poor children. Clean Bowled.

Will They Or Won’t They

Recently, in the news, there was a picture of a young girl pulling a hand rickshaw with her father sitting in the vehicle. Her way of thanking her father for his support against all odds that enabled her to be selected in IAS or Indian Administrative Service, one of the toughest competitive selection process involving several written tests and interviews. Her father eked out a living by pulling this hand rickshaw. While saluting this extra ordinary father-daughter pair, we note that there are many bright children who do not have similar luck and remain deprived all their lives.

It was a nice sunny day in Indirapuram. Anita and her sister Nisha were playing stapu, a game children play by drawing a large rectangle and then dividing into a few smaller rectangles on the ground. The game requires balancing and moving on one leg and kicking a piece of stone. They were both wearing printed cotton frocks that were a bit too long for them. They looked fresh and tidy with hair washed and braided. Another few kids were playing cricket with 3 water bottles as wickets and a flat piece of wood as a bat; they played with a rubber ball. These kids were mostly clad in dirty clothes and their hairs were dry and unkempt. They were aged five to ten.

A car stopped bye and a man and a woman got down. Both were in their fifties and well dressed. They looked pleasant and had an aura of serenity about them.  The man beckoned the girls and started a conversation. The other children soon joined in to see what was happening. Normally, cars stopped there only to ask for directions to some place. But an outsider having a conversation with kids was atypical.

“Why are you playing here? Why are you not in school?” asked the woman pleasantly.

No response. Children just looked at her. “Have you ever been to school?”

“Yes”, a boy of about eight responded.

“Why are you not in school now?”

“My name was struck down.” He said,” My father would not give the school fee.”

Some other children also murmured that they had faced same situation.

The man then asked the children, “Are your parents at home? Can you please call them?”

Children said that most of the parents were away working but two children hurries away towards their huts.

After some time, two pregnant women appeared. The visitors talked to them and explained that they were from an NGO that was opening a school in the neighborhood. They would be happy to admit these children in school and provide them free education, no fee whatsoever.  All study material, uniforms, and lunch would be provided at no cost to the students.

The women asked a few questions to satisfy themselves about the NGO, school location, working hours etc. Then one of them asked,” What do parents have to do?”

“Well, to begin with, children should come to school regularly. They should take bath and wear clean clothes. It will be parents’ responsibility to bring the children to school and then bring them back.” The man explained.

“Is that all? You really would not ask for any money?” one asked.

Finally the women said, that they will discuss with their men folk and requested the visitors to meet them on Sunday, when some men would be home.

The man and woman then chatted with children for some more time and parted after giving the some chocolates and indicating that they will be around at 11 AM on Sunday.They were Vijay and Sneha,  two friends, who had just founded an NGO to promote education amongst the under-privileged. They had rented and furnished a house to run a school.

Indirapuram is a colony that has come up only during the last 25 to 30 years in India’s National Capital Region (NCR). It lies between East Delhi and Ghaziabad and it borders Noida towards its south. A modern colony with high rise buildings, large malls, shopping arcades, schools and institutes of higher learning, several parks and other markets. Like the other parts of NCR, Indirapuram also has its underbelly. Whereas the rich live in gated communities with private parks, clubs, swimming pools, round the clock power, water and security; the other half of the population lives in unauthorized colonies and shanties with shortage of water, power, sanitation, and, of course space. This is where Ram Kishen and his wife Shama had settled down after migrating from village Bandha in Madhya Pradesh with their four kids ranging from nine to two.  Anita and Nisha were part of this family. They lived in a small hut. All their cooking, sitting room and bed room was this hutment which was no larger than a bed room of a flat in the near bye high buildings. For toilet, they had to go to a deserted place about one kilometer away from their hut. When the parents would go away for work, Anita took care of her siblings, stored water (as water supply was for one hour only at the near bye tap), swept the house and fed their younger siblings. They loitered around and played in the neighborhood.

Anita and Nisha witnessed the proceedings quietly. But Anita’s mind was in turmoil. She had seen the children dressed in uniforms going to school with their school bags on their backs. She had reconciled that she would not go to school as she was told that they were too poor to do that. Will her parents listen to the visitors? She had often wondered what school was like. What kids did there. Was it fun.

When her mother returned home from work, Anita told her about the visitors and told her that she and her siblings could go to school without spending a farthing.

“Arre, you don’t get poison for free. Who is going to teach you and give you books and clothes for free?” the mother retorted. Shama very much wanted to send their children to school. But whenever she had brought up the subject with Ram Kishen, she had been rebuffed. His pet sentence was, “Are your children going to be District Collectors or Head Mistresses? I do not have any money to spare for schooling.” She was not hopeful that her husband will agree. However, she confirmed with the women who had talked to Vijay and Sneha and then agreed to meet the pair provided Anita’s father agreed.

Anita explained about the school prospects to her sisters and sold them the dream of going to school like the children they see walking to school or taking buses every morning.

The children were eagerly waiting for their father in the evening to see how he would react. The father was a quiet man and did not often talk to the children. Both Ram and Shama were unlettered. After Ram Kishen returned and had finished his dinner, Shama raised the subject of sending their children to free school. She, right in the beginning emphasized that it was free and they won’t have to pay any fees. Ram Kishen looked at the expectant faces of her daughters and simply said, “ Theek hai (Okay). Meet them.” On Sunday, Anita and Nisha took early morning bath and put on their best clothes. When Vijay and Sneha came, there were a few parents to meet them. They explained that their mission was to eradicate illiteracy. They informed the parents that unless they sent their children to school and gave them a chance to become doctors, lawyers, engineers, clerks or businessmen, their children will lead a life of misery and poverty. Their chance of giving their children a hope for better future laid in education.

After a few questions and answers, the gentleman said,”Our school is only 300 meters away. Let us go there and you can see what we have to offer the children.”

A few parents and children went to the school and saw a house with four rooms having desks, school bags, a projector and screen, and a number of charts hanging on the walls. There were also a few toys lying in a corner which were eyed by the children with special interest.

The gentleman then said,” Okay, if there are no further questions, please come forward and tell the names of the children who will be coming to school from tomorrow. The school starts at 10 in the morning and will be held for three hours on weekdays. Parents should ensure that they bring the children on time and also collect them from school.”

Five children were registered. Anita and Nisha were not among them.

The disappointed Anita and Nisha came home and asked her mother,” Why did you not register our names?”

“Who will fill the water, sweep and look after Prince?”

Anita said, “ Maa, we will finish all jobs before going to school. You only need to take Prince with you. I will come to your workplace after school to fetch Prince. Maa, it is just for three hours.” 

On getting agreement from their parents, the three sisters were amongst the first children to reach school the next day..

Soon enough, the school had about fifty children, Anita, Nisha and Ayesha were among them.

The school started with only one class. All the children aged from four years to twelve years sat together and learnt counting and alphabets. Periodical evaluation was started.In a few months, the school had three classes –  nursery, LKG and UKG. Mostly those who were seven plus learnt the nursery lessons quickly and moved to LKG and then the fast learners moved to UKG. The NGO management was happy with the performance of the children. They got good response from their friends and community and soon enough, a yoga teacher, an athlete, a drawing and painting teacher joined the school as volunteers. The children would learn about environment, festivals, moral values and watch cartoons and Panchatantra stories.

Children were encouraged to perform dance on bollywood songs, recite rhymes and share jokes to encourage them to overcome inhibitions and gel together.

In about a year’s time, the school strength rose to eighty and seven students were promoted to Class 1. This was a remarkable achievement for these seven to move from Nursery to Class 1 within a year. Anita and Nisha, both the sisters were among this group. Anita proved to be the smartest kid in the school. Besides study, she excelled in dancing, sports, painting and craft. With her performance and general behavior, willingness to learn as well as do any work that the teachers assigned to her she endeared herself to the management and teachers. Nisha too was performing well.

The school management wanted that this talent should get a chance to grow and prosper. They approached the parents to send both Anita and Nisha to regular schools. The parents were assured that all their school expenses will be borne by the NGO as long as they studied. The parents had different plans. The father was not earning enough and wanted to keep his wife and children in village. The children would go to state run school in the village. On learning this plan from Anita, Vijay again approached the father to tell him in no uncertain terms that he had bright children who could make them proud and break-out from living in hutments if they are given a chance to study. Taking them to village will jeopardize their future. The offer was again explained to both the parents.

The school was closed for summer vacations.

One evening Vijay, ran into Anita and Nisha, who were buying some small gifts for their cousins living in their hometown. They were all excited about the forth coming train journey and the prospect of meeting their grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins. They were leaving for their home town the next day. They, having full faith in the wisdom of their parents, were not bothered if they will live in village or come back to Indirapuram.  Vijay wished them good luck and walked away with a heavy heart wondering will Anita and Nisha pursue their studies further and have a better future that they deserve. Or, will parents’ apathy force them to end up working as domestic help.

Only time will tell.

In the meantime, parents of another three children put their children in low cost private schools. They performed well in admission test conducted by the school and joined Class 2.

Jass : The Pony Rider

I along with my wife was on our way back from USA to Delhi after spending five wonderful weeks with our daughter in the Silicon Valley.

While at SFO (San Francisco Airport) check-in counter, we met some other Indians and got talking. They were to board the same flight as we. Our conversation revealed that they lived very close to the street we had lived about 60 years earlier in a small town. My parents had left that town and moved to Delhi. We talked about various people and realized that there were very few whom we both new. After all it was all so long ago, and besides, we were both kids then. I was less than 8 years when we left that town and the people we met were also of my age.

Then suddenly, one of them asked me if I had heard of Jass?

The very mention of the name resulted in my mind rushing back about 60 years and remembering Jass and his pony in the environs of the town club.

He was called Jass, a rather uncommon name. I guess it could be a short form of Jasbir, Jasjeet or Jasvinder. But everyone called him Jass. He was about 12 or thirteen years old, i.e five years my senior.  He was five feet tall, a little on the plump side, had olive skin and bright dark brown eyes. He combed his hair straight back without any parting. He spoke quickly as if always in a hurry.  He was the only son of a rich business man (one of the richest in the town). His father had a big blue car, a rarity in the 1950s. They owned a huge plot of land, in the middle of the town, which housed their living quarters, warehouses, offices etc.  Jass had a room of his own which had an air conditioner (the first time I ever saw one), his bed, study table and a chair. A pile of comics were stacked on his table. There was a large picture of his mom and dad with him in the middle (perhaps when he was about a year old). He was proud to show me his collection of toys, sports goods and story books when I visited house for the first and last time. He was studying in a boarding school in Mussoorie or Simla. We saw him only when he was home during vacations.

I normally met Jass in Club, where our fathers played tennis.

The father came to club in his big car and the son would come trotting on a pony.

Yes,  Jass had a pony that he could ride well.  The pony was about 4 feet in height, brown in color, wearing saddle, stirrup, breastplate, crupper and reins and halters. It was an adorable pony of even temper. The animal and the master understood each other well. Jass could make it run fast, make it jump across a wide drain, that existed along the road leading to club or go on an even trot. He was the envy of all other children coming to club. Once in a while, he would be generous and allow other children to ride with him on the pony.  I remember that once he would not give me a ride despite my many requests. Finally, I went crying to his dad and complained. Only then Jass gave a short ride and that too cursing me all the time sitting behind me on the pony. He did not mix with other children much and spent his time mostly riding / playing with pony or enjoying lemonade at the bar.

After we moved to Delhi, not much was heard about the people we had left behind in the small town, Jass and his family included.

My new acquaintance from the town filled me up on Jass that I am sharing below. They happened to be quite close to Jass and his family.

After finishing schooling, Jass joined St. Stephens College in Delhi. He rented an apartment and had a servant to take care of him. At home, his father was a strict person and had not allowed Jass to mix with neighborhood  kids. Soon he made some friends and started going out with them. He had lived under strict discipline during his missionary school days and the freedom in Delhi was a new experience.   Delhi had numerous places of entertainment like movies, theaters, bars, restaurants, parks, play grounds etc. that distracted the young man from his stated objective of obtaining higher education. Combination of money, opportunity and bad company soon resulted in Jass taking to drugs. This was the period when hippie culture was in vogue. Youngsters, like Jass and his friends were being swept in this culture in hordes. Youngsters wanted to wear torn jeans, dirty T-shirts, long hair and unkempt beard. Such groups were seen smoking in cafes and parks despite police cracking on them from time to time.

 Jass’s day began at eight with a cup of tea, he would glance through sports and movie pages of the newspaper while having breakfast and then go to college. There he would meet his friends, attend one or two classes depending on the mood, and then go to canteen. There they would drink endless cups of tea and gobble down snacks while discussing sports, movies and girls. Then they would go and watch some movie or go and spend time in the corridors of Connaught Place. In the evening the friends assembled at Jass’s flat and enjoyed beer and cigarettes laced with drugs. His attendance in college steadily dropped. 

Jass got a shock when his father landed at his flat. The father had received a letter from the college that his son was not meeting the minimum attendance requirement and was therefore being barred from taking the annual examination. Looking at the liquor bottles, cigarette butts and Playboy Magazines in the flat he was horrified.  He soon learnt that his only son was also taking drugs.  The father was well aware of the possible devastating effects of drugs. He was very angry with his son, but he controlled himself and behaved with restrain, knowing that losing temper would make matters worse. He talked to him normally, took him out for dinner and on return to his apartment advised him to pack up. They returned home in the big car the next day.  The parents decided of put him in the local college in the following academic session. But the fate had its own separate plans.

The first priority for the parents, on arrival from Delhi, was to ensure that Jass received lot of love and affection and was not censured for what happened in Delhi. The doctors prescribed some medication to reduce stress/anxiety and induce sleep. He missed his Delhi activities, but knew that those days were gone. He would simply lie on his bed staring at the ceiling or sit on a chair in the verandah and count the birds in the sky.  Jass had taken to drugs but was not yet a hardcore addict.  So he did not become violent or try to escape from home. The family would take care that he was not left alone. They employed a male nurse to be with Jass from dawn to dusk. They would discreetly check all his pockets, table drawers and wardrobes etc., besides scanning the toilets and other likely hiding places to make sure he was not having any drugs. Letters from Delhi were not allowed to reach him.  The parents wanted their son to completely forget the year he had spent in Delhi. The days were long and passing time was an ordeal. His mother would try to engage with him and the two would play games of carom or cards.  Jass would lose interest in the game rather quickly, and leave the table to lie down in his room. Books and journals were provided in plenty, but he would just turn pages and put them aside. He just could not concentrate on doing anything. This continued for a few months. With passage of time, medication and loving care, he started recovering. Now he would accompany his mother to the market and sometimes go to club with his dad. He could be seen listening to music on the gramophone. The male nurse was considered redundant and was thus removed.

Jass started reading newspapers and magazines. At times he would sit with his dad in office. Family still took care of not leaving him alone. During this period, he came in contact with Shalini, a seventeen year old daughter of one of the employees of the family that lived close by. The mother, while going to the temple, would ask Shalini to keep an eye on her darling son. The mother had known Shalini since she was a baby. She frequently used her for small errands and rewarded her with chocolates from time to time and some clothes during festivals. Shalini was about five feet tall, had slim body structure, large dark eyes and thick rosy lips.  The physical changes taking place in adolescence made Shalini look very pretty. Her hair was braided into two long braids that she would often bring in the front of her shoulders. She wore traditional Punjabi dress of kameez, salwar with a dupatta put on her shoulders. She wore kajal in her eyes and a red bindi on her forehead.  She had studied till class eight in the local school. She could speak, read and write Hindi quite well whereas her English capability went a little beyond the alphabets. Her whole face lit up when she smiled. Initially, she would sit in the verandah while Jass stayed in his room. Looking after Jass was a novelty for her. She wanted to do it well to please Jass’s mom. Soon Jass started taking interest in the girl and ask her to do small things for him like fetching water, tea or some books. She would quietly obey. Sometimes Shalini caught Jass looking at her. He would look away as soon as she became aware of his gaze. One day Shalini mustered courage to engage Jass in conversation and satiate her curiosity about life in Delhi. She asked him, “Did you really live in Delhi?” and continued, “I believe all the big people stay there and the city is very beautiful.” The ice having been broken between them, Jass would describe his college and the hustle and bustle of Delhi life.  Shalini was wide eyed to learn about the double-decker buses, thousands of cars buzzing past each other, women working in offices,  the huge size of the house of the President, control of traffic with lights at the crossings to name a few. She was frightened when told that an Englishman taught him in college. The presence of a white man still aroused awe and curiosity in Indian villages and small towns.  Jass liked telling stories as well as his audience, whose reaction was often a wide eye “oui Maa”. Jass deliberately touched her hand while taking a glass of water from her; she blushed and pulled her hand away smilingly. Soon this became a daily affair. After a week they were sitting closer to each other holding hands and sharing some kisses and hugs. Jass would playfully pull one of her braids and she would laughingly protest.

The family was happy at the good progress being made by Jass, oblivious of the reason for this lifting of his spirits. Both of them looked forward to their daily forty-five minute rendezvous with eagerness.  Shalini would start dressing up for the meeting and spend considerable time before the mirror while she waited to be called. The acquaintance had got promoted to liking and then turned into love. Love can’t be hidden, not for long anyway. The mother soon got suspicious and on close questioning, Shalini broke-down and told her everything. Shalini was promptly forbidden to enter their house.

Jass was now restless when it was time for her mother to go to temple. He would be pacing in his room,  He lost interest in food, books and newspapers.  He would climb a few stares to the roof and peak into Shalini’s house to get a glimpse of her. A short look of her made his day. The parents were once again worried and talked to him about the reason for his being so distressed. He said,”I want Shalini. I wish to marry her.”  The shocked parents argued endlessly that Shalini was not a good match for him and that they would become laughing stock of the society. They explained that difference between the social and financial status of the two families was just too wide. They offered to find for him the most beautiful and cultured woman from their community. But, in the matters of heart arguments seldom cut any ice. For Jass, at least at that point of time, Shalini was his apsara and most suitable life partner. Parents did not agree and going further arranged with the girl’s family to send her away to her aunt’s place in Ludhiana. The boy was further distressed. The only pleasure of an occasional glimpse of her love was also snatched away. He would eat less, talk less and lost all interest in life. All efforts to engage with him were unsuccessful. Everyone in the house felt miserable and prayed to God for help. His replies to all queries from her parents and doctors were in monosyllables. He had no interest in life. Doctors expressed concern and warned the parents that things did not look good. The son needed to find some happiness, something to live for. The parents got the message. Much against their wishes, Shalini was brought back and the two were married.

 The love story of Jass and Shalini remained on the lips of the people of the town for a long time.

The marriage turned out to be perfect for both of them. With full time attention, love and care Jass recovered completely. Jass persuaded his parents against his going to college. He joined his father as an apprentice. With passage of time he became proficient in running the business. Shalini gave birth to twin boys. Dad slowly withdrew from business and started playing with his grandsons.  Jass took over the family business and prospered. By the time boys were twenty years old both the grand parents had passed away. His two sons grew into fine gentlemen. One went abroad and the second one joined his father in business.

Jass had also started playing tennis with his father and other members in the club. This was a good getaway after a day’s work in office. He enjoyed playing tennis and then follows it up with a round of billiards. Most of the important citizens of the town were club members and the time was utilized to discuss everyday problems, politics and news etc. Shalini ran the household with her daughter-in-law. She had one grandson and one granddaughter to keep her happy and engaged.

Misfortune has the habit of striking when things look perfect. The happy household was struck with a tragedy one afternoon, when Iass was playing tennis. Jass tossed the ball in the air to serve but failed to contact the ball with his racquet, the racquet having fallen by his side as he collapsed on the floor of the court, the ball came to a stop after a few bounces.   He had suffered a cardiac arrest. He was close to being seventy years old.

I sat quietly and sadly reminiscing the time spent with Jass and his pony and visualizing the tennis court and the lifeless body sprawled on it. I said a short prayer for the peace of the departed soul.

I bid farewell to the co passengers at IGI Airport, while still thinking of Jass, the young ebullient pony rider of my childhood.

Kindness from Strangers

It was about eight in the evening. I was sitting nervously in a well-known sweet shop of the area we lived in. This was the first time I had ventured into an eatery all by myself. The shop was primarily a sweet shop that excelled in Bengali sweets like rosogolla, kheer kadam, rajbhog, lavangalatika, but also sold north Indian sweets. Besides sweets, the restaurant was also known for its mouthwatering chana kulcha /bhatura, golgappas and chats. There were two large sweet display counters kept at right angle to each other. The owner/manager stood behind these counters. The sweet counters were well lit for people to see and select what they wanted.  Behind the manager, was a small eating place with three tables with benches on either side that could sit 4 persons on each table. 

It was an evening in the month of April/May of 1958, if my memory serves me well. I was about eight years old, and I looked small for my age. I was playing cricket with my friends. We used to draw three lines on the wall of a house to serve as wicket on one end and the bowling end was marked by one or two bricks. We played with a short bat and soft rubber ball or with a tennis ball. I was perhaps the smallest member of the group.  My lack of playing skill was compensated by my passion. I would be made to run and bring the ball whenever it was hit away long distance. I could play the game endlessly forgetting food, studies and home!

It was getting late in the evening, the Sun had started going down in the West and darkness had just started creeping in. My brother had already called me several times to come home. On my not playing heed he walked up to me in the field and told me that the entire family was ready to go to Connaught Place for dinner and I should quickly come home and get ready. I told him that I preferred to play and it would be okay if he gave me 2 annas (12 paisa) and I would eat channa kulcha at the sweet shop after my game. Seeing that I was bent upon continuing my play he gave me the money. The street vendors sold chana Kulcha for 2 annas those days.

Finally when my friends had abandoned me for their families and dinner, I found myself standing inside the shop with two annas carefully kept in the pocket of my half-pant. On one of the other tables sat an old man having his samosa and tea. He would pour some tea in the saucer and drink it making smacking noises. He did not seem to be enjoying his tea and snacks but rather taking them in mechanically. His heavily lined face and demure gave the impression that he was tired as well as bored with life and was oblivious of his surroundings. Another table was occupied by a young man, his wife and a small baby. They had placed their order. They had put the baby on the table and were happily playing with the baby while waiting for their food. The baby sometimes pronounced the word ‘mama’ or just chuckled to make his parents happy and demand more.

Just then two young girls entered and seeing a little boy sitting on a table by himself took the two seats opposite me after giving me half a smile. The girls must have been around seventeen / eighteen years of age. They did not look like sisters. One was wearing salwar kameez and had a dupatta/chunni on her shoulders. The other, who appeared younger of the two wore long skirt and blouse and wore her hair short. She, the younger one wore a big red bindi on her forehead. This big red bindi appeared to be like a bulb giving her face a pleasant radiance. The elder one looked serious and quite while the other one did most of the talking.  They talked in whispers and I could not make out what were they talking about. It was not my business and besides I was not at ease.

Finally, the waiter came and the girls placed their orders after some discussion and instructions to the waiter. Then the waiter looked at me. I said,”One plate channa-kulcha.” Before the waiter disappeared in the kitchen, I followed him and caught him and asked him the price of one plate channa-kulcha and was shocked when he said,”4 anna. 2 annas for channa and 2 annas for the bhatura” I said,”But I have only two annas.” Without saying a word, the waiter went into the kitchen. I was not getting my dinner, I felt.

Crestfallen, feeling disappointed and not knowing what to do, I came back and sat down. This was an awkward situation that 8 years old are not often faced with. I took my seat to mull over the situation. I could eat Kulcha without the channa or just eat the channa with no kulcha. Eating thick kulcha without channa was going to be difficult and eating only channa would leave me hungry. I could leave and wait for my family to return and mother would cook something for me. But, I did not know how long my parents were going to be away. Then I thought, it is only a matter of 2 annas and I can tell the man behind the counter that I would give 2 annas the next day. But then I noticed a small plate reading “FIXED RATE. NO CREDIT” fixed near the counter. The girls sensed that something was wrong. The elder one very kindly asked me,”Is there some problem?” I told her that I had only two annas and waiter said chann- kulcha costs four annas. My parents are not at home as they have gone to Connaught Place.  The two of them discussed for some time, perhaps determining how much money they had between the two of them and if they could afford to help me. Finally the girl asked me for my two annas and confirmed the order to the waiter. I had feeling of relief on one hand but also felt as if I have compromised my self-respect. I felt even smaller than my diminutive stature. Nevertheless, I ate my food quietly and quickly with my head bowed down to avoid any eye contact with my benefactors. After finishing I shyly murmured a quick thanks and left for my home.

It is about 60 years since this happened, but the memory of the two kind girls is still fresh in my mind.

Shyamla

[ One of my favorite novels is ‘Nirmala’ written by Munshi Prem Chand almost 90 years ago.  In this novel, the writer has described the agony and suffering of a young woman who is married to a much older man with three children. The honest, well-bred woman is a victim of her husband’s suspicion and tortured by her husband’s sister who lives with the family. Her entire life, devoid of any happiness, is that of suffering and agony that ultimately takes her life at a young age.

A lot might appear to have changed in Indian society since then. A young reader of ‘Nirmala’ today might be tempted to label it as archaic and outdated.  But has the Indian society really changed all that much?  A closer inspection might tell a different story.  My story is not a pure work of fiction but based on real life experiences in the 21st century. ]

She is on her way back to her village in Jharkhand, earlier a part of Bihar; with her two daughters named Kamla and Sundri aged 11 and 8.

She remembers the day she had entered her husband’s house the very first day after her marriage when she was only 16. It was late in the afternoon. The shadows were long. There were occasional sounds of vehicles blowing their musical horns on the state highway near the village. A small crowd of neighbors and relatives had collected in front of the two room hut. Some old men were sitting on the charpoys discussing issues of daily life and disinterested in what was happening around them. She got down from the three-wheeler that carried her from her old home to the new one. On the short journey, her husband, Lachman, had tried to hold her hand but she had firmly put them in her armpits. The mother-in law and sister-in-law decked up in their best dresses had welcomed the newlyweds and performed a small puja before sheentered the house and sat on a duree. Lachman sat outside with the men folk. I heard loud laughter as his friends teased him good humoredly. I wondered if they were making fun of me. A baby started crying and her mother offered her nipple to feed him. The child sucked hungrily.

She found Lachman to be gentle and caring when he made love to her that night.

Next morning, the screaming of peacocks and barking of dogs woke her up early.She got up, took bath and was ready to start her new life.

Her mother-in-law, now Ma to her, greeted her with an all-knowing smile, while she bowed and touched her feet, and said,” Beti, today you will enter the kitchen for the first time. What will you like to cook, some halwa or kheer?”

She had chosen kheer. Soon the two of them were busy cooking, Ma providing all the ingredients and Shyamla doing the cooking. Kheer was first served to Baba, the father-in-law, who blessed Shyamla by putting her hand on her head as she bent and touched his feet. After this, kheer was served to other guests.

Lachman commented,” Ma, kheer is superb, isn’t it? I want another helping.”

Ma playfully teased,” Yes, son, it is prepared by Shyamla, now you will only like food cooked by her.”

Lachman blushed and could not think of a suitable response.

Lachman was working as a mason under the tutelage of her maternal uncle. They would construct mud houses as well as brick and mortar houses. The roofs were mainly of baked clay tiles supported on timber beams or just bamboo and reed grass.

Shyamla remembers how happy Lachman was when she delivered her eldest daughter Santosh, though her Ma and Baba were a little disappointed at her not giving them a grandson.

Lachman would say,” My queen and my princess, my two loves.’

Whenever Santosh cried in the night, he would be the first to wake up and change her nappies and put her to sleep after her feeding.

Shyamla was happy that her mother had trained her in all household chores as well as told her howto behave with her in-laws, respectfully and patiently, even when she was distressed. She knew she had to adjust and live with them under all circumstances. She was often distressed when her brother was treated better than her. He would be given more food, more freedom and less tasks while she would eat the leftovers with her mother, helped her mother with all household chores.

 Her mother had once explained to her,” Beti, we are women. We are created to take second position to men. This is the law of the society. We worship gods in temples, but our living gods are our husbands. It is the husband who feeds, cares and protects. If your husband abandons you, you are as good as dead. The society will look down upon you. You are young now, but one day you will understand.”

The family was having a normal life with its everyday ebbs and troughs till a sharp twist came there way with the visit of Subhash.

Subhash, a childhood friend of Lachman, visited them. He had gone to Delhi to a relative’s house and ended up working as a mason with a contractor in Ghaziabad.

“Lachhu you are wasting your time in the village. If you want to see real life, come to Ghaziabad with me. You can earn a lot more there and enjoy life with so many malls, cinema houses, markets, beautifully dressed men and women.” He said and continued,” You would be able to send more money home than what you earn here. Your daughter will be a city girl and learn lots of new things.” Lachman, then noticed his friend‘s grass green shirt of fine fabric, brown trousers, nice looking shoes, well shaven face and shampooed hair and sun glasses to top it all. He suddenly felt inferior to Subhash in his ordinary pyjama and kurta.

Shyamla’s reverie got interrupted when the train stopped at Kanpur Station and her daughter shook her and said,” Ma, we are hungry.” She was in no mood to get down, She handed some money to Kamla and said,” Go, buy some food. I am not hungry.” Then she bought some tea in a plastic cup from a vendor for herself. The daughters bought noodles with manchurian and enjoyed the same.

The train again started moving eastward. The three of them had a full seat to themselves in the second-class compartment. She sat next to the window, looking outside and the daughters huddled together on the remaining seat. Soon the daughters were asleep while she sub-consciously resumed her daydreaming.

She recalled the conversation at the Meral Railway Station, where she and the little Santosh had gone to see off Subhash and Lachman. Santhosh was merely three years old.

She said to Subhash,” Bhaiya, he is going there depending on you. Please take care of him.”

Lachman felt he was being considered inferior. He sourly said,” Arre, am I a child? I have been to Ranchi and Daltongunj. Don’t think I have not seen big houses, cars and well-dressed people. Subhash is my friend and he will take care of me and find me a job. You need not worry about me.”

She kept quiet and felt sorry for showing her concern.

“Will you take me to Ghaziabad when you have a job?” She asked after a few moments.

“ Yes, only if I do not find another Shyamla in Ghaziabad.” He said jokingly.

The words said as a joke pierced her heart. These words combined with the pain of separation were too much for her to bear. She started crying loudly and people on the platform started looking their way.

Both felt embarrassed at this attention. “Don’t you understand? I was just teasing you.” He continued,” When I am well settled in the job I will come and take my queen and my princess with me.”

There was a lull in the conversation as she composed herself and Lachman played with Santosh kissing her again and again.

The train arrived and after a brief hug to his wife and last kiss to the princess, Lachman and Subhash boarded the train.

She remembered the difficulties with which she spent a year with Ma and Baba.  Though both were kind to her but she missed her husband badly. She would also get tired taking care of Santosh and doing her duties as the daughter-in-law.

When she felt lonely and sad her Ma will try to cheer her up. Twice she visited her parents’ house in Audharia, on the insistence of her mother-in-law, who believed that she would be more relaxed at her mother’s place. Her mother was so happy to see her and Santosh. After a few hours she would think of her Ma and Baba and return home to be with them. She felt guilty being away from her-in-laws.

Lachman soon got a job with a sub-contractor. He started earning good money.  He would send enough money to meet their expenses. Baba, who was getting old and losing strength, stopped working as a laborer. Instead they created a kitchen garden next to their hut to keep engaged. Santosh would enjoy watering the plants and enjoy fresh tomatoes and carrots. They would also get about one letter a month from Lachman.

After about a year, Lachman came to his village to fetch his wife and daughter. When his parents heard this, they were inconsolable.  After prolonged discussion they decided that Lachman and Shyamla would move to Ghaziabad and Santosh, now 4 years old would stay with her grandparents. The separation of the child from the mother was a very poignant moment. The mother, torn between the husband and daughter sobbed relentlessly, the daughter cried out loud at Meral Station as Tata Amritsar Express pulled away carrying her parents.

With the help of Sandhya, Subhash’s wife, she set up her household quickly. Now she would prepare meals in the early morning, make her man eat breakfast, and carry his lunch in a tiffin box. Then she would lovingly bid him good-bye, before becoming busy with other chores. Soon they had a black and white TV and a gas connection for cooking. Shyamla gradually bought some dresses from the weekly market at bargain prices and did away her village clothes. However, she ensured that her dresses were having long sleeves and high-neck. She would not go out without her dupatta and always kept her bosom covered. She had been wearing such clothes from the time boys started looking at her bosom as she began growing into a woman in her village.

Shyamla met a few women who worked as household maids in the flats in the multi storied buildings around village Kanawani. One day, after dinner, when the husband was in a relaxed mood, Shyamla nervously asked if she could work in the flats like other women. She explained that she had so much time and was getting bored while he was away. Lachman, himself was concerned about the finances. He wanted to buy a motor cycle and drive his wife around the city. He allowed himself to be persuaded and allowed her to give it a try.

Shyamla was soon working as a household maid. Her employer’s family consisted of a husband, wife and a school going child of about ten. Soon she learnt use of cooking range, microwave, washing machines as well as the various soaps and detergents used in the flat.

She gave birth to another girl when her eldest one was 6 years old and to another girl 3 years later. After this the family reconciled that they did not have a son in their fate and opted for sterilization.

With sincerity, honesty, and her good behavior, Shyamla established herself as a reliable maid. She working in 3-4 houses and earned around Rs 7000 per month. In addition, she would get some nice food, clothes and other goodies from those she served so diligently. She was so trustworthy that the ladies would often give her the keys to the house for doing her work while they were away.

They would visit Ramna every year and meet Lachman’s parents and Santosh. Santosh was going to school and also helping Ma and Baba. With some money coming from Lachman, the house was in a better condition. They had fixed wooden doors and windows in their hutment. This saved them from very hot air during summer and chilly winds in winter.

Her two daughters Sundari and Kamla were admitted in school at age of 5 years. The two daughters were good in studies. Kamla could draw beautifully and with the help of one of the ladies for whom Shyamla worked, she was also taking extra coaching in drawing and painting in the multi storied apartments. Her husband would occasionally come drunk and they would have a fight. Other than a few such incidents their domestic life was uneventful.

Lachman moved from one work site to another and picked up additional skills of working with construction equipment. Between them they were earning above Rs 30,000 per month, but with house rent, sending money to village and expenses, the saving was meager. Despite these concerns, the couple would often compare their life in village to their current life and thank their stars and Subhash for bringing this opportunity their way. They felt that life was much happier, and they could hope for a much better future for their children as a result of moving to Ghaziabad.  They used to talk about their daughters going to college and Kamla making her name as a painter. At times, they would laugh at how ignorant they were in village with no exposure to metro rail, taxis and city buses, the cinema halls, the markets and malls; so much better schools, hospitals and availability of so many varieties of foods, clothes and modes of entertainment.

Unfortunately, good times are not forever. 

One day Lachman came home and broke the news that his company had got a contract in Abu Dhabi and they have offered him a job in Abu Dhabi at Rs 40000 per month.  He was very happy with this offer and was looking ahead to visit another world and earn more money. When he broke the news to Shyamla she asked him,” How will I stay here without you?” “No” he said,” you go back to Ramna and take care of your daughters and the old in-laws. Apparently, he had figured out everything before bringing it up before his wife. She argued endlessly and tried to explain that it was not worth it. She tried everything to make her husband see that what he wanted to do would undo all the progress they have made in the last so many years.  She begged him to think of their children’s future, their studies, the quality of life in village, the prospects of being well educated etc. The daughters too expressed their preference to stay in Ghaziabad. When Shyamla realized that he was bent upon going abroad, she suggested that she would stay in Kanawani with children while he worked abroad. This was also not agreed by Lachman.

This was their biggest fight in the last many years. To protest the decision, Shyamla stopped eating for 2 days. She would just cook the food and keep it in the kitchen and lie down on the bed. She did not go to work, did not talk to her daughters or to her husband. Her daughters cried with her and begged her to eat. But her husband was unmoved. Then she remembered what her mother had told her, when she was still a child,”The men are the masters and we, the women folk, have to obey them.”

The man had made his decision completely oblivious to the views, desires, welfare of the woman with whom he had spent 19 years. She submitted to the command of her god, as the words of her mother echoed in her mind.

He bought their train tickets, packed their baggage and put them on the train. The husband and wife hardly exchanged a word before parting.

While she was lost in her memories of past and musing what lay ahead for her children and herself, the train was chugging along towards her village.

Legend of Lajwanti

(My First Short Story)

Lajwanti was anxious and excited. Her periods were 6 days overdue. She wanted to wait a bit longer to be sure before breaking the good news to her husband. Next she started to suffer from morning sickness and soreness in her breasts. Now, it was almost certain that she was pregnant and she softly and shyly broke the news to her husband, Mangal Singh. They had been married for about twelve years. Three earlier pregnancies had been unsuccessful. Her mother-in-law had passed away about a year earlier without the fulfillment of her desire to see her grandson. 

She was about 28 years of age, of wheatish complexion, with large sad eyes. She was of slight built and had long hair that she normally kept neatly braided in a single braid. Dressed in  light coloured cotton saree,  she also wore a large bindi on her forehead and sindoor in the parting of her hair as a mark of her having a husband.

Her husband was her world. During twelve years of marriage she had been to her father’s house near Meerut only thrice; once for his brother’s marriage, second time when her brother’s wife delivered a baby and third on learning of her mother’s death. She did not feel comfortable when away from her husband.

Mangal Singh was about 5 feet 10 inches tall, broad shouldered and barrel-chested. He had very dark eyes, prominent nose under which he wore pencil mustaches. His front two teeth were broken a long time back, when he had fallen flat on his face while going hurriedly for his morning ablutions in the dark and failed to see a brick in the path. He tried his best to keep his wife happy. He normally wore kurta- pyjama with a sweater on top in winter. He was now about thirty five years old and exuded strength, having been a wrestler in his younger days.

They lived in Village Chitoda near Murad Nagar in Uttar Pradesh. It was a small village with a population of about 1200. The village population was dominantly that of Chaudhuries, i.e. Jat Community who are characterized as well built, honest, hard working, proud and generous.  The villagers were mostly small farmers who grew sugar cane, wheat, maize and sorghum. The few shops in the village were that of grocery, barber, blacksmith and a tea shop. In addition there were a few hawkers who sold fruits and vegetables, small toys and plastic goods etc. from the baskets they carried on their head. These vendors covered a few villages everyday to earn their living. The village also had a Primary School. There was a temple where all prominent Hindu gods were worshiped. There was a nurse posted by the Government to provide medical care.  Many people reared cows and buffaloes and as such there was liberal availability of dairy products.

The village tea shop was run by Mangal Singh. Besides tea and milk, he would also sell pakodas, samosas and jalebis. The tea was prepared on a small oven in the shop itself and the samosas, pakodas and jalebi were prepared by Lajwanti at home and carried to shop. Whenever Lajwanti brought the preparations to shop she will linger on for a few minutes to talk to Mangal,who for some unknown reason, felt embarrassed if there were customers around and would send her back home quickly. They made a decent living. Their earnings, like that of the farmers in the village, depended on the mercy of rain god Indra. If crop was good, the villagers earned more and were happy to enjoy tea and snacks frequently as well as liberally.

The pregnancy was now in its 10th week. Having suffered three unsuccessful pregnancies, the couple was very apprehensive and uncomfortable and wanted to ensure that this time they had a healthy baby. Lots of advice came their way. After carefully sifting and evaluating all the advice, they zeroed on what the village priest had recommended, to seek blessings of the Mata Vaishno Devi seated in a cave inside the Trikuta mountains near Jammu. After a full 20 hours journey by bus and train they reached Katra, the base town, from where the number of pilgrims visiting the temple were controlled. From here starts a long upward trek of about 14 kilometers involving an elevation difference of 4 Kilometers.  Lajwanti and Mangal, like millions every year, completed the trek, took bath at the bathing ghats, and obtained divine blessings for a healthy male child. They brought prasad of mishri for their friends in the village. The Khazana prasad,  a coin given to Mangal by the priest in the shrine, was kept in his shop cash box. It is believed that Khazana Prasad brings good luck and prosperity.

A healthy boy was born to Lajwanti and they named him Lal Singh.

Lajwanti never conceived again. Both were happy to bring up their only son with all the love and affection they had in them. When one is happy the time flies quickly and this was the case in this household. Lal Singh was growing into a fine strong lad. He inherited mother’s large eyes and complexion and strong built of his father. Lajwanti would feed him well, give him bath, comb his hair and usually give in to all his demands. She would often ask him, ”who is dearest to you?’ Even as a child of 4 years age he knew what really will please her mother most,and would reply, ‘You Amma. I love you the most.’ This made Lajwanti feel as if she was in heaven. Soon Lal  was sent to village school and then to Murad Nagar to complete his matriculation. He did so in second division to become the most qualified person in his family. The Matriculation Certificate from the Uttar Pradesh Board of Secondary Education was duly framed and displayed prominently on the house wall like a trophy.

Now Lal Singh joined his father at the tree shop as an apprentice. He would spend a few hours at the shop and enjoy life with his friends after that. He had just turned nineteen when the family suffered a shock. Mangal Singh failed to get up one morning after suffering silent heart attack. Lajwanti was heartbroken and was beyond consoling. Lal Singh would not leave her mother’s side till the Chautha Ceremony. After the Chautha, he opened the tea shop with his mother’s blessings. The absence of his father at the shop felt very strange and painful. The mother was in no shape to either cook or to go to the tea shop. So Mangal sold only tea and milk for a few days. After the initial shock and mourning, Lajwanti collected herself to face the situation pragmatically.Now, having become a widow, she did not wear any sindoor in the parting of her hair. She joined him in the shop. This togetherness of the mother and son helped them ease each other’s pain. Lal Singh was gradually picking up skills and tricks of the trade under his mother’s loving care. The physical strain of managing the shop, preparing the refreshments and running the house hold were tiring her. The first death anniversary of Mangal Singh was observed with offer of prayers for the peace of the departed soul and providing refreshments to brahmins and other kinsmen. After performing this mandatory ritual of death anniversary Lajwanti was free to look for a bride for her eligible bachelor son.  Lal Singh was handsome, healthy, educated and thus his family was well placed to negotiate a good amount of dowry from the bride’s family.

The brahmins, who are experts in brokering marriages, were commissioned to look for a bride. There were many families in the village and other nearby villages who were ready to accept Lal Singh as their son in law. Finally, Lajwanti agreed to a marriage proposal from a rich grain trader. She knew that her house was small and with son’s marriage and having children,there could be problems of everyone not having enough space. She also knew that they would never have enough money from the shop earnings to carry out construction work on their own.  So she negotiated that the bride’s family would construct a 3 story building over the shop. Ground floor would be shop, first floor will be for herself and 2nd floor for the newlyweds. There house was the highest building in the village.

Shyama, the bride, was seventeen, fair complexioned, square shouldered with long dark brown hair that she kept tied as a pony tail or as a bun. She had dark brown eyes, high cheek bones, an upturned nose, small mouth and dimpled chin. She had a mole below her right eye. She had pleasant voice and she spoke slowly. She had studied till class seven and could read and write.

Lajwanti, now nearing fifty, had seen enough households being unhappy and broken following the marriage of son due to the bride and mother-in-law not getting on well. She was clear in her mind that she would not allow that to happen in her house. Shyama was matured beyond her years. She was energetic, responsible and sweet natured. Lajwanti sweetly talked to her and explained that the family happiness depended on both of them, and went on to accept her as a daughter. Shyama reciprocated well and the relationship began on a happy note.

Soon Shyama learnt and took over the kitchen responsibilities. Lajwanti spent a few hours at the shop with son and some time with Shyama. During lean business hours Lal Singh would be sent up to spend some time with his wife while she managed the shop. She would retire to her room rather early in the evening to spend time with herself, to pray and to rest. The passage of time had not healed her heart of the hurt caused by her husband’s death. She missed him.  She would eat her dinner in her room despite protests from her children.

Now when the mother would smilingly ask her son,’ Who is dearest to you, beta?’ The answer would still be the same, ‘You are dearest to me, Amma.”, but it had lost its spontaneity and sounded hollow. Lajwanti new whom his son loved the most and graciously accepted the change and would bestow all the blessings in her heart.

Under a minor irrigation scheme Ganga Canal was constructed which made abundant water available to the farmers of Chitoda and other villages in the region. Use of chemical fertilizers and high quality seeds changed the fortunes of the farmers. Their income doubled in a few years.

Soon Shyama was pregnant. Lajwanti ensured that like herself, her daughter in law also obtained blessings of Mata Vaishno Devi. The three of them took that journey and were duly blessed by the Mata. Shyama gave birth to a boy, who was named Dhruva.

With the coming of Dhruva, the lost energy of Lajwanti reappeared. She took very good care of her daughter in law as well as the grandson. Soon, her life revolved around Dhruva. She would  ensure that he is fed properly, change his nappies as often as required, wash them and dry them, give him sponge bath etc.Smile on one’s face will result in the laughing of the other, such was the bondage between them. This facilitated Shyama to return to her duties quickly. The love between them blossomed and one could not live without the other.

After 3 years Shyama gave birth to a baby girl. Lajwanti, then was taking care of  Dhruva as well as Nisha, the girl child. Dhruva was very affectionate towards her sister and would talk to her and make her smile all the time. He would help grandma in looking after Nisha.

Sometimes Lajwanti would take both the children to the shop and the whole family will be together. Dhruva will enjoy some biscuits and feed the same to Nisha. Everyone cherished these moments. Lajwanti could not help but notice that with growing of pencil mustaches, Lal Singh looked a lot like his father, though he was not quite as strong as his father. Lal Singh had added an extension to his tea shop and was also selling items of daily use like soaps, hair oils, combs, tooth paste and brushes etc etc. They had hired a young boy to help at the shop.

 Lajwanti’s desire to beloved once again prompted her to ask Dhruva, “Whom do you love the most?”  “You, Dadi” would come the prompt reply. With this assurance Lajwanti would pour her love on him in the form of providing him his favorite sweetmeats, sheltering him from his parents’ rebukes when he was being naughty or disobedient. She would tell him stories of Lord Rama and Lord Krishna as well as some fairy tales.

One day Lajwanti, while collecting the laundry from the terrace felt week and sat down. Dhruva sensing that something was wrong quickly fetched his parents who gave her water and put her in the bed. The nurse from the village dispensary was called and she checked the pulse, the pupils and tongue of the old woman and assured the family that all was well. She gave her a sedative and left. That night, Lajwanti woke up with intense chest pain and passed away even before the nurse could be called. 

After the cremation of Lajwanti, life returned to normal for the family except for Dhruva. Lal Singh, with improved income could now hire a woman to help his wife to perform her tasks and to look after the children.  Dhruva suddenly  found a big void in hislife. No one else had time to tell stories or play with him.  He would repeatedly ask her parents what had happened to Dadi. ‘Would Dadi never come back?’he often asked. He would go to his Dadi’s room, lie on her bed and sob quietly. 

Time passed, children were growing up quickly. Dhruva joined school on reached six years of age and made new friends. He would often think of his Dadi. Nisha was still small and did not remember much.

One day Dhruva was standing in the balcony and talking to some friends down below. He was leaning against the railing while enjoying the conversation.  All of a sudden the railing gave way and he fell down. All hell broke loose, the boys started shouting and his parents and neighbors came running to see him lying on the ground. He was motionless, but his breathing was even. Two drops of water were there on his cheeks. Lal Singh lifted him and shook him as if to wake him up from sleep. Dhruva opened his eyes and asked, “Where is Dadi? I saw her holding me when I fell down. She had tears in her eyes’ Lal Singh was relieved that his son had not suffered even a scratch on his body despite falling from a height of 20 feet and wondered if the two drops on his son’s cheek were really the tears of her late mother. There was no answer to this question. That was the last Dhruva saw his Dadi. 

Lajwanti  became a legend in the region. The story of how Lajwanti saved her grandson even after being dead for months is being recounted in the region even today, after 80 years of the occurrence. And young girls would go to temple and request the Lord for a mother in law like Lajwanti.

Good Old School Days

It was the month of May, 1961. We moved to a new neighborhood in Rajinder Nagar in New Delhi in a rented accommodation after our previous landlord expressed his inability to rent the house any longer. This was the third house we had moved into after migrating to Delhi from a small town in Punjab about five years ago.  The family had learnt to adapt to new places, this being the third relocation in five years. I was about 12 years old, and the youngest of six children. Even before the baggage from the truck was taken inside the house, I had befriended a couple of boys who were curiously watching the unloading of baggage. Two of them, one Mohan, whose family stayed in one portion of the same bungalow (as us) and Jitender, who lived right opposite across the road, became long time friends and partners in  games, sports and merry making.

The accommodation was a part of a big bungalow and consisted of one bed room, one living room, bath/toilet and kitchen. It was a good accommodation for a middle class family of Delhi of the 1960s. Other than the bungalows, Rajinder Nagar was full of small quarters built on 80 square yard plots for those who came to India from Pakistan following the partition of India in 1947 and creation of Pakistan. We settled down quickly in the house. We learnt the whereabouts of vegetable market in Karol Bagh, the milk booth of Delhi Milk Scheme, the corner grocery shops of Kalicharan and Sardarji. A maid was hired to help my mother with domestic chores. After settling these important house matters, my father, who was aged fifty then, started on next round of tasks – getting me and, my brother, Rakesh getting admitted into school, and my sister Vina, into college. Getting admission was not easy even in those days, though not as difficult as it is today. Rakesh was a good student and got admission easily. For me, our father had to request the Principal several times and assure of my improved academic performance before he agreed to admit me. This was because my grades in the previous school were poor.  Vina’s admission into a college went through smoothly. The three of us, thus, were on our way to continue our education.

I was regular in attending the school but that is all that can be said of my interest in education. My heart was always elsewhere.  In the months of July and August, I would be seen either flying a kite, or running after a kite.  Or, I was busy strengthening the kite string with powdered glass and some special adhesives to teach a lesson to those who dared to challenge me. When not flying my own kite, I would still be on the terrace with Jitender watching others fly their colorful kites high in the sky. During winter cricket was my game. If cricket was being played any where within one kilometer of my home, I was likely to be there. There were four or five groups of children who played together and I was a member of each group. Naturally, with such strong commitment to friendship and passion for cricket, my availability to focus on studies was rather limited.

I was sometimes ensnared by my parents or siblings to show my notebooks and school dairy. Every such incident resulted in a strong dressing down by the parents. Next few days used to be of pleasant surprise for the teachers as I would oblige them by doing all my home work and paying  full attention to studies in school. Slowly the clamp of close control and supervision will loosen and life will again be more fun. October and November were very special months for me and my friends. We watched Ram Leela, the enactment of the epic Ramayana by various local groups in the city. I would take bow and arrows in my hands and shoot arrows at various targets during the day and watch Ram Leela at night for 10 days. Then came Diwali. I would go to Sadar Bazar,the wholesale market, to buy fire crackers at cheap price. Sometimes my entrepreneurship will result in my selling some crackers to friends at a premium to make  additional pocket money.

In winter, the days were short. There was barely any time to play.  And to make matters worse, this was also the time for mid-year exams.   School examinations always bother the parents more than the school boys. My normal activities had to be substantially curtailed to make time for grammar, essays and calculation of simple interest and mugging up what a great job Akbar the Great did for his subjects and the princesses he married to spread the boundaries of his kingdom. With Christmas Holidays this ebb in pleasure activities would return to peak. Normally international cricket matches are played during the winter and this was the time for me to enjoy the centuries scored by Nawab of Pataudi and Chandu Borde and curse English batsmen Mike Smith and Collin Cowdrey when they were hitting our poor bowlers across the fence. The Test Matches led to spending more time in the fields with dreams of one day enthralling crowds with super hits in the Feroze Shah KotlaGround, the venue of Test Matches in Delhi. We would play with our collars raised as did the Indian Captain Nawab of Pataudi, the one eyed batting sensation.

The end of the academic session was approaching which brought with it the unavoidable evil of the final examinations. The pressure for studies became intense both at school as well as at home. My going out was severely restricted and Rakesh, the elder brother,would ensure that my mother was promptly informed if I made a move to escape.  It is said that every cloud has a silver lining.  My silver lining came in the form of my daily trip to Delhi Milk Scheme booth to fetch milk.  This duty, that I normally detested came very handy in getting out of the house and steal some minutes with friends. Additionally, to overcome my distress, I started borrowing comic books and reading them whenever I felt it safe to do so by keeping them inside my open books/notebooks.

The examination fever that had started in the beginning of March finally ended when the last examination paper was handed over to the invigilator on 20th April. Once again I and my friends were free from the close supervision.  But all was not hunky dory with me. I knew that I had not done well in the examination. I was afraid of being detained in the same class. I was very scared of failing and I shared my fear with Jitender, my closest friend.  Jitender said he himself was in similar circumstances. The two friends then went to a temple on Tuesday and offered Prasad and prayers to Lord Hanuman, the monkey god, and sought divine intervention in getting both of us promoted to the next class.

Our prayers were answered and both of us scraped through when the result was announced on 30thApril. Our happiness knew no bounds. Sweets were shared and Lord Hanuman properly thanked with the offering of sweet boondi.  New books and notebooks were purchased. Soon the classes started. Once again I made my customary resolution of studying hard and topping the class. After a couple of weeks of classes came the summer vacations.  School was closed for two months. Students were given homework to be done during vacations. The last day in school, before vacations, was the day of rejoicing. Vacation plans of visiting relatives and tourist places shared among friends.

 I came home and kept my school bag some where in a hurry to rush out. All were happy at my passing and the resolution of doing well. The vacations have a bad habit of passing too quickly. In a daily routine of morning walks, loitering in the street, gossip sessions and games of Monopoly there was no scope of any time for studies. Parents would remind me of home work every now and then but would be satisfied with my assurances.

On the eve of the reopening of school, I got my new dress ready. In the evening I started looking for my school bag with all the new books and notebooks in it.  I looked in the bed room corner where I normally kept it, then looked in the almirahs and cupboards and even under the table my father used to work on in the living room, and all other possible places. Now everyone in the family knew that my school bag was missing / misplaced and all tried to search at different probable as well as improbable places. With the help of Rakesh I moved the heavy big tin trunk used to store winter bedding and found the bag lying between the box and the wall to our great relief.

The bag was of tough cotton and jute with two buckles. When I opened the buckles, a big surprise was waiting for me – there were no books or notebooks. They had been completely shredded,and there lay six pinkish small mice babies in the soft comfortable paper cushion of what were my books and notebooks.

As A Newly Married Couple at Kiriburu

 

In late 1970s, when I was still single, I was posted in Kiriburu, a small mining township located about 200 km south of Jamshedpur.  I worked in Streel Authority of India’s (SAIL’s) iron ore mine there.  It is a small township of about ten thousand people. The SAIL management built houses, schools, hospitals, clubs, stadiums etc. to provide a healthy and wholesome life to its employees in Kiriburu. The entire town exists because of Kiriburu Mines. 

Kiriburu is a picturesque town with a pleasant climate. Summers are mild as are winters.  It does get heavy rains between June and September.  The town is situated in the well-known Saranda Forest and is rich in flora and fauna. You see Sal trees everywhere. The other trees are of Jamun, Jackfruit and mango. Sightings of wild elephants is quite common in the region.  People also talked about leopards, tigers, bison, sambar and chitals being in the area. Once upon a time Saranda Forest was the private hunting ground of some Rajas. Overall, it is a very pleasant place to work and live despite the heavy rainfall. So much so that, of late, some enterprising persons have started running hotels for the tourists in the area. It has all the makings of a hill station with the blessed absence of bone chilling cold.

 

                                 A view of Kiriburu Landscape-Greenery, Hills and Valleys with Low Clouds

I was enjoying my time at Kiriburu.  I had a good group of friends there which consisted of my fellow employees and their families. I was an avid Table Tennis player and introduced many young children to the game. I was happy and content and hadn’t really thought getting married.  Besides, I had an older brother who was yet to be married.  So, it wasn’t my number yet anyway.   

                                                                           A View Of The Iron Ore Mine

My mother visited me during the summer of 1979.  Having failed to persuade by older brother to get married, she had come determined to change my mind.  My reluctance was no match for her persuasive skills and I gave my assent. Within a few months, as is the practice in India, I met several prospective young women to choose a bride. The search ended when I met Madhu. Madhu was pretty, pleasant, highly qualified and, above all, she appeared to like me as well. Soon we were married and arrived at Kiriburu as newlyweds in December of 1979. The journey in a car from Bara Jamd  a to Kiriburu enthralled my wife.  The road is a constant climb with, many U-bends, having hill on one side and valley on the other and greenery all around. Finally, we reached home to a warm welcome from my (and soon to be hers also) friends.

Madhu was extremely happy to be in Kiriburu. Our house was on the top of a hill with large Saranda forest all around.  To add to this beautiful landscape, we were surrounded by wonderful and loving friends.  My boss, a very kind hearted gentleman, gave me a lot of free time to take care of my wife. Slowly we started settling down as a household with help and guidance from our friends. Madhu, my wife, took up the wifely duties of cooking and performing other household chores.

These small townships have a lot of advantages like having everything you need close by – bank, post office, market, school, hospital, everything we needed was a short distance away.  We were also part of a close-knit community and enjoyed spending time together with our friends. However, Kiriburu being a small place also offered a limited supply of vegetables, confectionary, consumer durables, fashionable clothing, restaurants, theaters and yes…of cooking gas.

With the departure of servant, Madhu realized the difficulties of running a household. The chores included cooking, washing, sweeping, purchasing supplies etc. and still find time for the gossip sessions and playing cards. Everything was manageable except cooking. She tried cooking on electric heaters, but supply was very erratic due to power shortage. Sometimes we ended up eating only dal and sometimes we had to request the company guest house for dinner. We had a big problem at our hands. 

As a bachelor I was managing with a servant who would cook on electric heater or light a sigri using coal. My requirements were very limited. Now the things had changed. Every meal had to be properly cooked and moreover culinary skills had to be displayed to earn respect of other ladies in the town. The servant was long gone since a man servant rarely survives working under the ever-watchful eyes of a housewife.

We tried kerosene stoves but that was messy besides we could not stand the kerosene odour that would somehow seep into the cooked food. Madhu had no experience of working on sigri let alone lighting one Both of us struggled in lighting up the sigri. We will break the coal into smaller pieces, use kerosene and wood chips and waste paper to get the coal burning brightly. Sometimes it took us more than an hour to make fire in the sigri. It was then that I realized and appreciated the tough life my mother had cooking for a family of eight on a sigri for many years before we got a cooking gas in early 1960s, when cooking gas was first introduced in Delhi. I recall my mother getting up at 5 am in winter and breaking coal and lighting the sigri so that she could serve us hot tea as we got up one by one which was immediately followed by preparation of breakfast and other meals later on during the day..

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                                                                                                  Angithi or Sigri

The solution to our problem lay in getting a cooking gas connection. This was easier said than done. For getting the gas connection one had to apply to a dealer, submit lots of documents, and then wait for years to be allotted a gas connection. The nearest gas dealer was at Chaibasa, about 100 km from where we were.   

We got our break when my close friend and well-wisher, R. Prasad, gave me a call one blessed afternoon.  A lady was leaving Kiriburu  and was selling her gas connection. On being asked the price, she demanded Rs. 500, a sum equivalent to more than a third of my monthly salary! She was obviously aware of her leverage.  But when it comes to making your new wife happy, even a princely sum appears paltry. Within minutes I paid the lady and called a driver to take the cooking gas home. It was only then that we could say, “Home, Sweet Home.”  

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Chulha used in poor rural households – Fuel is tree Branches from Forest

Having gone through this experience, I feel very happy with ‘Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana’ under which more than 50 million poor women are said to have been given gas connections. Without going into the veracity of the claimed beneficiary numbers, I feel happy for each woman who benefits from this scheme and is freed from the drudgery of collecting fire wood and lighting a chulha/sigri (suffering exposure to toxic fumes) to provide food to her family. Besides the benefits to the individual, this also helps in safe guarding our forests and reduction in discharge of greenhouse gases in the environment. 

Coming back to our days at Kiriburu, we have very fond memories of those days when we had a wonderful time with so many friends. We are still in touch with some of those even though close to 40 years have elapsed. With long drives, picnics, pot lucks and long sessions of card playing and occasional drink party, life was immensely enjoyable. 

We, sometimes, still talk about the speed with which we grabbed the opportunity of getting a gas connection despite the price. A bargain we have not regretted even for a second.

Mining – The Source of Raw Materials

I was visiting my daughter and my five year old grandson in Bangalore, the Indian IT hub that many compare with Silicon Valley. One weekend my daughter had a few of her friends over for dinner. Quite naturally, her friends asked me what I did for living before retirement. When I mentioned that I was a Mining Engineer, their faces were blank.  These techies had little idea about mining. Their knowledge can more or less be summed up as, ‘ oh mining, the activity that Hyderabad politician was doing illegally to make millions’ and ‘ok, ok, the industry that is causing so much damage to the environment.’

It is then, that I decided to write this blog about mining and minerals.

You may be surprised to know that the raw material for the spoon with which you eat, the plate you eat on, SIM cards in your phones, the artificial knee joints that are changing the lives of so many oldies, comes from mining the earth. There is a little bit of contribution of mining in everything we use. 

Earth is the source of all raw materials that we use ( at least till we start mining the other planets). Radially the earth is made of three main parts – the crust, the mantle and the core. For mining, we are mainly concerned with the crust which is the outer solid layer of the earth has over 110 elements in it in the form of thousands of minerals. The earth’s crust is extremely heterogenous. Some areas may be rich in iron ore, others may have huge deposits of oils (the Middle East) or coal (as in Dhanbad and Singrauli areas) and  others may be blessed with diamonds. 

Not all mineral deposits are fit for mining.  A lot goes into deciding whether the mining is going to be economically fruitful.  One such factor is the location of the deposit. The location of the mine must be such that the ore can be easily transported to wherever it needs to be used.  This was a problem for the Faleme iron ore deposit in Senegal. Many companies have carried out pre-feasibility studies and found that the project is not viable as the cost of taking the core to where it can be used, from West Africa to Europe or China, is too high for the project to make sense.

Another factor is how easy it is to get to the mineral.  There are two things that get in the way.  First is the fact that minerals of high economic value rarely occur in isolation. They are intimately mixed with other minerals.  This mixture is referred to as ore. The mineral needs to be separated from the ore to be usable. The second problem is that the ore doesn’t occur on the surface of the earth.  As the thickness of the overlying waste that the ore is buried under increases, the profitability of the mine decreases due to the additional cost of removing the waste material. A point is reached when the cost of mining of iron ore plus waste and sale of iron ore is equal. This is called the cut-off stripping ratio for mining. For mining minerals which are deep in the earth, underground mining is used in which overlying material is not required to be removed.

The amount of money that can be spent on mining, processing and getting the mineral to the market depends on the cost of the product in the market.  For example, for gold which is currently at Rs. 3000 per gram, more money can be spent on mining the ore, the waste and processing etc.  In fact, gold mining is done even when the yield of gold is just 2-3 grams per ton!  The highest gold content being mined today is about 18 grams per ton. Steel, on the other hand, costs Rs. 40,000 per ton.  Therefore, the amount of money spent on mining, processing is much less. In India we rarely mine iron ore below 40-45% iron content. (only when processing costs are much lower due to nature of mineral)

Now that I have mentioned all the reasons mining mine not happen, let me get to how the mine is created.  The process starts with Geologists and Geophysicists locating the parts of earth rich in minerals.  Once the deposits are found, it takes considerable amount of resources to carry out exploration to determine if the area is suitable for building a mining project at that place. As exploration progresses assessments are made from time to time. With each positive assessment the next stage of exploration, physical and chemical analysis, metallurgical testing, and geo-technical studies are undertaken. And yes, these studies do include impact on environment.  It may be worthwhile to mention that out of 100 areas that are considered by the mining companies only one or two may actually be developed into a mine. In all the balance cases, the money spent on prospecting and exploration is waste. So you see how risky business this is.

Before I finish, I will like to inform you a very distinctive feature of mining. You cannot choose where to open a mine. A mine can be opened only where the deposit occurs. You can have an IT hub in Bangalore, Delhi, Kolkatta, Mumbai, Pune or any place of your choice. We, in the mining industry do not have that choice. I grew up in Delhi and ended up in Bailadila, for my first job, in Bastar District that had the distinction of being the most backward district in the country. This fact, of mining being site specific,  also often puts us at loggerheads with the environmentalists. Most of the mineral deposits occur in forests, animal habitats or otherwise environmentally sensitive spots. The society then is forced to weigh the pros and cons of mining or not mining.

I do hope you understand a bit about the need, the problems and the risks associated with mining industry.  

Resurgence Post Retirement

In the year 2013, I retired after working for more than forty years in the Mining industry. Last twelve years were spent living and working in many countries outside of India. On retirement, we returned to India and took a flat in a gated community in Indirapuram near Delhi. We met like-minded people and engaged in many fun activities like playing cards, frequent potlucks and picnics. It was, on the face of it, an enjoyable life. However, all along, there was a nagging feeling, as is common among retirees, that we needed more than just have fun in our lives – a purpose. We need a purpose in life that makes living meaningful as well as enjoyable.

The first breakthrough came one fine day when my wife, Madhu, MG for me, ran into a woman carrying some nursery books in the elevator of our apartment building. They got talking and she mentioned that she worked for a Non Governmental Organization (NGO) as a volunteer and taught young children. MG has several years of experience in teaching science and mathematics. She had also been looking for ways to contribute to the society. MG mentioned this to the lady. This chance conversation led to the next meeting with the founder of this NGO called Asmee Foundation.  The founder asked my wife if she would be interested in teaching class nine students.  My wife was delighted to be back in the classroom.  Since then, she goes to the school six days a week to teach.  This NGO is doing a great job of running a primary school, coaching good students in mathematics and science, and giving vocational training (tailoring) to women and some other such activities.

 

With one candle lit, it was natural for the light to spread and illuminate another candle. I had always wanted to run a school for underprivileged kids and had discussed this with MG on several occasions. Since the NGO she had joined was run exclusively by women, I had to keep looking for my calling.

The next breakthrough came with another chance conversation.  I mentioned my desire to start a school to a friend, Ajai, with whom I had been playing Table Tennis for some time. Ajai had access to a rented house where he runs a coaching institute in the evening.  He jumped at the idea and offered that we could run a kindergarten in that house in the morning. We gave ourselves a deadline of seven days to make this happen, i.e. to start the school.

The following week was busy for both of us. We bought school bags stationary items, some games and books etc.  We then visited the nearby slums to engage with community and convince the parents to send their little ones to school. We told them about ourselves. We told them that their children deserved better lives, and to make this happen the children needed education. We offered them an opportunity to begin studies at our school.  The parents were worried about the cost aspect. We assured them that we would take full financial responsibility and the school would be free for their children.  We further explained that it would be parents’ duty to ensure that children were presentable and got to school on time.  We also informed that we would provide the books and other material for study and play.  The relief appeared on their faces in the form of wide smiles and that made us smile too.

 

 

We named our school ‘Bal Shiksha Kendra’ meaning ‘Center of Education for Children’. On 7th of September 2018, our dream of opening a school materialized. We had an inauguration function where we were joined by our friends as well as the students’ parents to bless the children and wish us success in the venture. We started with 17 students. The children were a little apprehensive, a bit curious and a lot happy to see the toys and their new friends. Some of the parents asked a few questions about school timings and expressed their appreciation and gratitude.   Today, we have 43 students being taught in three classes.

 

 

The two friends are dedicating the school to their mothers and have dreams to make this venture bigger and better.