Saturday, March 17, 2018

Birpara : 'Bride and Prejudice'

Ghenwa the Jewel: A Birpara Story

One of the tough examinations I've had to pass in life was the test set by the bungalow servants in my first tea bungalow.

Ghenwa was cook cum head honcho of the world beyond the dining room. He looked like some kind of tribal Amitabh Bachchan: tall, thin, arrogant and unsmiling. He was a handsome man, with thick wavy hair, large brown eyes and lips that could smile when they weren't being curled. He couldn't have been much older than me, but he filled me with nervous fear. 

I, who had quelled classrooms of undergraduate students not four years my junior with one look just weeks before my marriage!

Mohan had been in the Engineers' Bungalow in Birpara for about a year before we got married. Ghenwa was a trusted aide. Mohan left the running of the bungalow to him, and Ghenwa served him with devotion; in fact he quite doted on him. He felt let-down when Mohan produced a bride at the end of one 'chhutti'. From Ghenwa's point of view - I see it now - it meant the end of independence, and a reduction in stature.
Mohan didn't want me to bother with the kitchen for the first few days. I was grateful only because I was too chicken to enter Ghenwa's domain. The bearer Joseph was a cute, smiling chap, quite cowed by Ghenwa, like me. He became an ally. He'd serve our breakfast in smiling silence while Ghenwa, after finishing up the cooking and delegating toast making to some unseen hands, would enter the dining room in state and take up his position at Mohan's right hand. He would stand there and declaim - a sort of daily round-up or news bulletin - in what was a strange lingo to me, and Mohan would reply in the same lingo. If Ghenwa wanted to make me feel left out, he succeeded. This colloquy would continue until Mohan asked him in Hindi what he was going to serve Memsaab for lunch. 

The first time I ventured into Ghenwa's store and pantry, I made a hesitant suggestion about the food. He gave me the full Amitabh Bachchan stare, and said by all means, I was free to issue any commands, but he could not guarantee that his saheb would like what I suggested. I fled.
I was the encroacher in his little kingdom, and I was too ashamed to tell my new husband how inadequate Ghenwa made me feel. His hafta chutti was probably the happiest day of my week. 
Once this tyrant went home at night, the chowkidaar took over as my chief tormentor. Etowah - that was his name -stole everything that wasn't nailed to the floor. Mohan told me how he'd served him tea one chilly morning wearing his - Mohan's - socks. When Mohan bellowed at him, Etowah swore those were the socks that a departing Chhota Saab had presented him many years ago. 
Another time, Mohan surprised him when he had his head in the fridge and several fingers in a bowl of custard! Etowah could also make sugar and milk disappear from bowls without a trace.
I was wretched. What kind of administrator was I, who couldn't even keep house for two without losing potatoes, onions, oil, milk and sugar by the kilo?
Life wasn't all housekeeping, though, and we had a lot of fun. Also, there were others like me, new to tea and with similar tales of woe. We all met regularly at the club or at one another's bungalows. 
There was a tradition of people coming in from the club in the wee hours to torment newly-weds in the district. We had our turn too. It must have been two thirty in the morning, when we woke to the sound of several cars honking outside our gate. We could hear voices yelling, 'Open up! Once the crowd of merry makers was in the bungalow, there was much leg-pulling and ribald laughter, and it was impossible to feel anything but happy. Everyone clamoured for coffee. Of course, coffee! That was the reason they'd all 'dropped in' barely two hours after we'd said goodnight, for an early morning cup of coffee!
I wasn't embarrassed when they'd all pounded on our bedroom door and asked how much time we needed to dress, but now, I was red in the face. By now, I thought, Etowa would have drunk every last drop of milk, copiously sweetened with every grain of sugar in the bungalow. Still, I rang the bell and weakly asked him to bring coffee. Everyone around me continued to shout with laughter and have a good time while I sat and waited for the ground to open and swallow me up. What was Etowa going to serve ? There must have been a dozen people there!
The door swung open and in he sailed, with my best (wedding present) cups on a tray, each filled to the brim with frothy and fragrant coffee. The sugar bowl was full, too. My nightmare was suddenly magicked into a happy dream! Today the man had changed his act: he was making things appear and not vanish!
Some months passed, with one or two more riotous night time invasions. These were no 'intrusions of privacy'. We didn't know what privacy was in those days, and I don't think we'd have cared much for it. What we had instead was community - a family that pulled you into its fold - in a world far away from home. If loss of privacy was the price we paid to belong, we were happy to pay in those days!! 
     'Family' Picnic

Ghenwa continued to dazzle and hold sway, and he must have been satisfied with my state of surrender. I had a brand new mixi and he had skill, and we'd started calling people over to eat. On one Sunday, we asked one of Mohan's oldest bachelor friends to breakfast. He'd - let's just call him B - he'd left Lankapara early in the morning and run into a colleague - T -in Birpara town. When he heard where B was headed, T called him a lucky man and said he felt like eating dosas too, so would he tell Mohan and Gowri that he'd be along soon with whoever was at the club?

 That was B's style. Our club – well, all our tea clubs - were filled with eccentrics, both men and women. I could just visualise T going in to Dalgaon club and standing at the entrance, announcing, 'Everyone's invited to Mohan and Gowri's bungalow for dosas! Chalo!!!' When B told us about this, my jaw dropped in horror. I could provide dosas, chutney, sambar et al for another couple of people, say three more at the outside, but the early morning tennis crowd from Dalgaon Club?? What kind of disastrous life had I let myself in for when I married this happy-go-lucky moustachioed man? 

The man turned out to be as big a crack-pot as any of his nutty friends. He laughed!! He summoned Ghenwa and told him to expect another dozen people and said, 'Tum pugaa do; sab ko khilayega!' (stretch your resources, feed everyone). He looked at me and said, 'Relax! Our man will manage!' What blind faith, I thought.

Ghenwa piped in, 'Hum pugai dega, Memsaab! Aap log pehle kha lega!' ( I will manage! you should all eat first!') at which Mohan and friend B, the invited guest, expressed complete agreement. 

By this time, Burra Sa'ab's jeep had rolled in, and Jusep Driver had unloaded a case of beer. Burra Sa'ab and Mem saab would be along soon, he said, but they wanted us to chill the beer. I was fretting about place settings at the table but the two mad men in my bungalow urged me to eat quickly, and I remember I did eat, even though it choked me to think of what would happen when the crowds arrived.

It was Ghenwa's show all the way. In great good humour, he even treated me with kindness, bringing me my coffee himself with an air of deference. I was in shock, I think. 

The crowds came. Burra Sa'ab and Mem Sa'ab, a few friends, some tennis players I knew only by sight and of course the villainous T. Ghenwa fed them all until they swore they'd had enough. 'Excellent!' 'Brilliant!' 'Genuine South Indian taste!' was what I kept hearing. The ladies wanted their coffee in what they called 'those little south Indian glasses and katories'. They got what they wanted. 

After coffee, beer flowed. Burra Sa'ab and Mem were full of praise and thanks for a wonderful morning. 

Ghenwa had ensured that I didn't enter the kitchen, and I honestly have no idea, to this day, how he managed that show.   
Image result for coffee davara tumbler 

Wednesday, January 31, 2018


I miss my father whenever there is an eclipse. He'd have been amused by the media hysteria around this 'triple' phenomenon or 'three-for-the-price-of-one' hype which is all around us.

When there was a total eclipse of the sun in India in 1980, there was no internet or satellite television. We didn't even have 24 hour telecasts on our lone TVchannel. There was a special telecast of a very popular Hindi film to keep people indoors that afternoon.

My father thought it was ridiculous to create fear and keep people indoors during a solar eclipse. Delhi only had a partial eclipse, but it was exciting enough. We assembled a couple of simple 'eclipse viewing kits' and he said we could get some customers to watch if we wanted!! Only, the streets were deserted on that February afternoon in Delhi. I was quite happy to stand outside with my father and watch the reflection of the eclipse in water. Many years later, my wish to see a total solar eclipse came true.

In tea gardens, if a thing is heard or seen on television, it is accepted without question.

I put on one of the news channels this evening to check the time of the eclipse. I couldn't help but feel a little superior, as one who's known all about these things since childhood. I put on my coat and went downstairs to take a look at the sky. From the stairs, I heard screaming and metallic banging sounds coming from the workers' colony nearby and froze. The first thing that comes to mind is elephants - but there are none where we live. It had to be the eclipse! It must be whopper of a show, I thought.

Out in the open, the sky was dark, with not a glimmer of light anywhere, not even a star. The shouting and metallic banging continued. The sky was covered with clouds!

Half an hour on, status quo.

One hour later, the celebrity hadn't shown, but appeared to have cancelled without notice. Pink Floyd wasn't playing Dark Side of the Moon tonight. We'd got 'Obscured by the Clouds' instead!

The bawarchi came in for his evening shift. I asked him what was up, since the sounds had died out. They must all have gone home, he said. He was in social commentator mode today, shaking his head sadly. 'Baap re! Anyone would think a wild animal had entered the village. They didn't see a thing, but they screamed and shouted!'

Monday, January 22, 2018

A Pepper Tiger

Pepper's my favourtie spice. We never had to buy any in the fifteen years we spent in Moraghat Tea Estate, where it grew in abundance. We planted some vines in Bhatkawa T.E. and some here in Thanai, too. The photographs above, however, are of the peppercorns we bought in Tinsukia town yesterday. Our vines haven't fruited yet.

We bought one kilo of black and half a kilo of green for just R.120. What a steal!

Green peppercorns are popped into boiling water for a couple of minutes, when they turn black and are ready to be dried in the sun for storage. The black ones that we found in the bazaar yesterday had already been boiled and were damp, so we gave them another good boil at home.

I plan to use the green ones for another couple of days before boiling them up.

The veggie bazaar at Tinsukia is one of the most colourful I've seen, and if I hadn't been on a pepper chase, I'd have stopped to take pictures!!

Wednesday, January 03, 2018

Waste Not...

I'm trying to define thrift in today's terms. Is thrift a virtue, or does it have only recreational value?

These questions weren't relevant when I was a child; that was the era of hand-me-downs and  re-invented leftovers. The word recycling was unknown because it wasn't needed. Everyone recycled what they could as a matter of course. You didn't buy new socks when the elastic wore out, you bought lengths of elastic and stitched them into rings big enough to hold them up. Our mothers unravelled old sweaters and knit them up again. Sewing and knitting were necessary activities, not just hobbies.
We didn't have a glut of readymade garments in our cupboards or even in the shops. Markets held goods and goodies in plenty, but they weren't exactly spilling over. Nor did we buy compulsively. We didn't shop for fun so much, or because it would make us feel better. We didn't feel deprived either. That's the way the world was those days.
Thrift isn't just a matter of survival; it involves some level of ingenuity, because you manage to make something useful out of something you would have discarded.
There are plenty of videos of handy hacks on the internet. One of them showed how to turn  an old summer top into a shopping bag. That too an environment friendly bag, a good way to say no to plastic.

The top, and the bag, below

Two days back, I was forced to recycle for an old fashioned reason : want. The New Year arrived, but no calendar came with it.
I remember what my dad had done one year in a similar situation. He turned the pages of the previous year's calendar until he found a month with thirty one days, and the first of the month on the same day of the week as New Year's Day. With his firm handwriting, he wrote out 'January' and then the year.  I thought it was brilliant, because I wasn't very good with numbers. The makeshift calendar went up on the night of the 31st.
That was how it was with my father; he changed the page on the daily calendar just before he went to bed. That simple act was hugely reassuring: no matter what happened, tomorrow would come along at the right time.
My calendar went up at noon on New Year's Day. And as it happened all those years ago in my parents' house, someone brought a calendar for us in the next twenty four hours.

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Christmas Eve

We went to the Venkateswara temple after a long time this evening.

It was late. The priest welcomed us and told us Arati was about to begin. The lights were switched off. There was small cradle placed in front of the main deity. The priest lit an oil lamp and he rocked the cradle gently. Then he drew a curtain all round it and offered us prasad: a spoonful of warm, sweet milk.

This was the 'Shayan Arati'. The Lord, in infant form, had been put to bed for the night in a tender and reverent ceremony.

In the darkness around the tea gardens of Dibrugarh, every pond I crossed on my way home had a reflection of Sirius rising in the East.  

Monday, August 14, 2017

Gul-e-Fanoosh and the Pitfalls of Photography

Here is an old favourite. We had a number of these shrubs in my childhood home, and they all had pink flowers. I would stand under the branches after the rain and get a little 'shower' shaking water off the petals, long after I'd crossed the age when it was alright to play with water. 
The sight of these flowers always reminds me of the end of summer holidays. Schools reopened in the second week of July, some days after the monsoon set in over Delhi. Delhi was really beautiful those days, neither dirty nor crowded, but a city of gardens.

This is the tallest Gul-e-Fanoosh I have ever seen. 
 Botanical names are rarely pretty and lagerstroemia indica is no exception. I found some common Indian names at The Flowers of India website. Gul-e-Fanoosh isn't mentioned there. It's a name I learnt from this lovely old book pictured below, which my brother Raja found in a book godown  in Siliguri.

A 'pitfall' can be quite painfully literal, as I learnt after slipping and falling into this pit of 'jabra mal' or dry leaves and cut grass.