Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Jubilee Joy

(Copyright Gowri Mohanakrishnan)

In the Picture, l to r: Twerps/Kumar, Baggy and Kit-Kat of Eng Hons Sec A, 1980-83.

Last year, 2005, was a double jubilee for some of us. As LSR turned fifty, we, who first entered its gates in 1980, could recall happily that it was all of 25 years since we joined college. Five of us from English Honours (Sec A) 1980-1983, got together in Delhi after many years and made a trip to LSR in the blazing heat of a June afternoon. The university admissions were on, and we knew we'd have to make another trip to meet friends and faculty. For the time being, it was enough to say hello to the well-loved buildings, to chant the college prayer in front of the auditorium, and to run on to the lawn. We ran, as we did 25 years ago, because that lawn always made us so happy.

Possibly an earlier generation had had its thoughts shaped by a coffee house. For us, it was the lawn. We spent every moment of our free time there. The 'teachers' on the lawn were our seniors and friends. Our gang would engage in serious or utterly ridiculous debates on topics of diverse nature. There were occasional musicians with guitars, putting in some serious practice between classes. There were 'SPICMACAY types' who went around advertising afternoon 'baithaks'. My first lessons in singing seconds were on the lawn.

There were demonstrations on 'How to Divest Yourself of Irksome Inner Garments Unobtrusively in Public if The Winter Afternoon Sun Gets Too Warm'. There were serious Eco Honours types who waited on the lawn until the Reading Room opened at 2.30 p.m. They were not always serious about everything. Some of them were always good for a rendition of 'Chapel of Love' with seconds. I wonder now why we chose that maudlin 60s number for our lawn and 'special' (we sang it on the bus as well) anthem. It probably started off as a parody in the first place. (One of the things that shocked me when I visited Delhi last year was the discovery that there are hardly any 'U'specials running now.) Sometimes there'd be a game of Scrabble, and the Hindi Subsi class for which we had ostensibly stayed back would be forgotten completely.

The lawns taught us acceptance in a big way. No one, just no one, could be elitist. If they were, they just didn't have any friends. And in our youthful arrogance, if sometimes we showed off, we were first ignored, and then firmly made to shut up.

We were like children in a garden. There were a few unhappy souls in the college -- impossible as it sounds -- and these people were absolutely disgusted with our lack of dignity. It didnt bother us. We never let go of our childhood, except in our Discussions on Life. They were often very intense and always left us in need of sustenance. Some eight or nine of us would pull out 20 paise each to buy a community masala dosa from the canteen. One bite to each contributor, and one for Subramaniam, the canteen dog, thus named because of his very obvious love of dosas. Whether we were dayskis or hostellers, we were always ready to eat, and eternally short of cash. The Canteen, as it was known then, had a pretty limited menu, and the food wasn't always great. Yet, we were always ready to eat there, especially when someone else paid. Some people actually talked of doing Canteen Honours.

Irreverence was a way of life with us. I think (Sangeeta) Kumar/Twerps summed it up succinctly when we were musing together about our days, 'We were so attitude-less!' The teachers accepted this irreverence even if it exasperated them at times. On occasion it was actively encouraged as a source of creativity. It was understood that irreverence was not the same as disrespect. I guess they knew that we knew where to draw the line.

We would wait mercilessly for the editors of the weekly wallpaper to pin up their offerings on the main notice board. They, poor things, waited until there was an afternoon lull in the corridors, but we lurked, pens uncapped and ready, to add our comments to every piece of writing in the space provided for feedback. 'Spellingses' we once wrote, 'ar hiley orriginle and inspyring.' I don't think we had any intention of being nasty. We were just celebrating the freedom of expression. Even today, I'd say that's the biggest thing LSR has given me; the urge for self-expression.

We did conform to some things, and the fashion code was one of them. Youth always conforms to its own norms. Our designer wear came from Janpath or from the State Emporiums. FilmSoc types wore paintbrushes through their artistically twisted 'jooras'. Serious academic types wore jeans, with oversized men's shirts which must have belonged to their fathers and hawaii chappals, and they carried jholas and registers and had pens tucked into their knotted hair. Ethnic was in: pretty cotton skirts were teamed with Kolhapuri chappals, payals and danglers in the ears. Interestingly, the make-up look of the day was the no-make up or the natural look. It was symptomatic of the spirit within that was free -- especially free of artifice.

What could embody that spirit better than the 'Fresher of the Year' competition? It wasn't a Miss LSR contest. The young women of LSR were wise beyond their years. Instead of saying anything about beauty or brains, and without resorting to trite phrases like 'woman of substance', they just held a contest where participants were given a free rein. In our year, the theme was 'Your Favourite Character from Fiction'. Not one of the participants saw it as a chance to 'dress up'. The girls were remarkably original and outrageously hilarious. Shalini Subbarao chose to be Jughead, and, in the manner of true actors who strove for verisimilitude, tearfully chomped her way through a burger filled with nothing but sliced onions -- the only filling the canteen could provide at 2.30, when the contest was held!

The following year, the theme was The Age of Punk. I remember Promilla Puri expressing her anguish to our class over the choice of something that sounded so decadent. And yet, no objection was voiced by any member of the staff. The girls had decided on a theme, and they could go ahead with it.

I also remember a couple of freshers coming to us and asking if we had any feathers to loan them: they had chosen to interpret Punk as 'Pankh', the Hindi word for feathers, and they were planning to go as birds!The winner that year, Meenakshi Rishi, symbolised the uninhibited, freethinking and wildly imaginative LSR girl. She turned up on stage in a dhoti and shirt, a huge twisted turban, a curly moustache, and carrying a solidlathi. There was a blanket thrown over her shoulder. She said she was the official representative of P.U.N.K., or 'Phaltoos Under territories of Nangia and Karnal'!!

Twenty-five years ago, the Silver Jubilee celebrations were held. There was excitement in college from Day One of the academic year. Princi, Dr.S.M. Luthra, wanted everything to be perfect. Mrs. Indira Gandhi, then Prime Minister, was to be the Chief Guest. On the first day of rehearsals, Uma, my friend and fellow Students' Union member and I were dispatched by SML to 'Call Meenu'. The college President Minu Dhand was sitting with SML, so we correctly interpreted that to mean that we were to go to the staff quarters, where Meenakshi Gopinath, lecturer in Political science, who was then on study leave, lived.

As we walked there, Uma told me how her mother, herself a senior lecturer in the University, had always said that 'young Meenakshi' would one day become the Principal of LSR. And Meenakshi has been the Principal for over seventeen years now.

We rang the doorbell and felt a little foolish saying, 'Ma'am, Dr.Luthra sent us.' Ms Gopinath smiled and asked us in. The house was fragrant with sandalwood and tastefully decorated with little pieces from Kerala. Meenakshi herself was dressed in a Kerala mundu. She came back with us and took charge immediately. She was competence itself: it took her less than two days to train a choir to chant Sanskrit shlokas. She split them into five sections and positioned them at different places and elevations in the audi. The effect was quite awe-inspiring and the acoustics were amazing.

SML knew how to get the best out of people. She couldnt be bothered with appearances. To use Kumar's words again, she was 'totally Attitude-less'. We were probably more deeply influenced by her than we realised then. There was a child like quality in her, an impulsiveness that was so endearing, and this complete enjoyment in everything that she did. No wonder we could be so free and fun loving ourselves; the Princi herself was so happy to be in LSR! She loved a good laugh. Someone did a take on her one College Day. The sari, the hair-do, and the Punjabi accent, the 'Thought for the Day' which she read out on Monday mornings at assembly: everything. I can't forget the look of pride (in the performer) and sheer enjoyment on SML's face as she watched.

She admitted to pampering our batch because we were young enough, she said, to have been her grandchildren! I wish SML had lived to be a part of the Golden Jubilee celebrations. She would have loved it if the Principal had sent a couple of Students
Union members round to 'call Dr.Luthra'.

Are We Dead Meat to the Media?

A PIA plane carrying forty-five people crashed yesterday and there were no survivors. Along with reports of the tragedy, we have another set of gory photographs appearing in the leading dailies. Pictures of charred bodies, barely recognizable as human beings after the fire has consumed them. Worse, there are pictures of body parts. Death by fire must be incredibly tortuous and painful. Whenever we hear of accidental death we tend to put ourselves in the place of the victims. This could happen to us, too, because it could happen to anyone, we think. The utter helplessness of the victims is disturbing. And what the victims' families have to undergo during the process of identification preys on the mind. We don’t need photographic reminders of the horror of untimely and accidental death. But this horror is laid bare to the public repeatedly by our print media and television networks. Why?

Can you imagine the impact on little children who see these images on television or in newspapers and magazines? Wont they have nightmares? The images are enough to disturb the peace of the strongest minded. In the interests of gathering fodder for news, and in competing with rivals to be the first with breaking news, is not the media losing sight of basic human decency? Is this sympathy for the victims? Or is this voyeurism and violation of the worst kind? Is nothing sacred or inviolate any longer? Apparently not. We are just dead meat for the media.

The dailies and television networks, which carry these pictures, have no right to divest the accident victims of dignity in death by publishing pictures of charred, broken and mangled bodies. They may be bodies today, but they were loved ones yesterday. I ask you to recall with what ruthless regularity we see pictures of dead bodies of terrorists, criminals or their victims--alas, equal in death--which are blood soaked, mangled, gruesome and horrific.

Death is the ultimate reality in life and there is no true wisdom without accepting this fact. On the one hand, people today seem to be obsessed with the idea of fighting death as the natural end to life. It is as if we want to seek a cure for death. In many cases, the elderly long for death as that natural conclusion to life's labours; a long wished for and well earned sleep. Today's life prolonging therapies offer an extension of life, but they do little enough to alleviate physical and mental suffering. Death is natural, whether it comes suddenly or expectedly. We have to learn to accept death as a fact of life, but that doesn’t mean that we become blasé or brutal about it, either. We must pay the dead the respect due to them.

We cannot permit this violence of the lens to continue. I appeal earnestly to all who think alike to join me and to use their influence where possible. There must be some moral code, some ethical guidelines that our editors and television programmers must follow.

Sunday, June 25, 2006

The Road to Destruction

We are going to attend a condolence meeting to mourn the death of yet another tea planter in our district. Young Tirtho Das, around thirty odd years old, father of two adorable little girls -- the younger just a baby, just one and a half years old -- and husband of Sanchita, was killed in a car accident on the National Highway near Mal Bazaar two days ago. Yet another young life extinguished in an instant on a highway where nothing goes as it should, or stops when it should. This highway isnt wide enough to accommodate the kind or the variety of vehicles that travel on it.
It is a narrow road with dense vegetation on either side, for most of the way. There are no road dividers, and what should be a single lane serves as a double lane. Cattle, goats, stray dogs, and very often elephants are frequently encountered hazards. Two wheelers, rickshaws, pedestrians, cars , buses and heavy vehicles of every description are forced to vie for space. We do have jams, even though we dont have a heavy flow of traffic on a regular basis, now and then. This especially happens at the congested, ever growing towns through which the highway careers on without a bypass route.The highway has claimed the lives of many friends from our district, and many of them young. In the last two years, we've lost three young boys from gardens in the district. There are other victims whom we knew who were not from the tea community. There were others, tourists and bus passengers and pedestrians, an entire marriage party, and even a school-bus load of children who lost their lives and of whom we came to know through local information channels or the next day's newspaper.
It is horrifying to think of the numbers of people who are killed in road accidents, not just in our Dooars or the Darjeeling and Sikkim hills near us, but in all of India. When will something be done to control the occurrence of these terrible collisions of traffic? Are we Indians manufacturing too many lightweight and high speed cars? Do vehicle designers and manufacturers keep in mind the conditions of Indian roads and the volumes of traffic on these roads? Is there no chance of traffic ever being regulated into smoothly flowing lanes and divided by categories, so that all the vehicles can safely move together? Is there ever a chance that we will have a government that takes serious steps to pass legislation against drunken driving? Will we ever have effective police posts manned by officials who take in offenders and test them for alcohol levels instead of reaching out to accept a 'small something for chai-cigarettes'? The image of the drunken cop on duty who waved us ahead majestically at the Matelli Police traffic check post while we were coming back after a late night in the Western Dooars last week keeps haunting me. Let him not be the face of my India in the future.
All the horrors of our unsafe roads come crowding into our disturbed minds whenever there is an accident.
Tirtho was driving along what he thought was a clear stretch of road near Mal Bazaar at a good speed. It was nine o'clock in the morning. Most unexpectedly, a truck backed on to the highway. The collision was inevitable. There was no chance that the driver of the smaller vehicle could survive the impact of that crash, and we are all grateful that Sanchita did, sitting in the passenger seat as she was. Today, she's still in the ICU, after having been operated upon -- a procedure that took around eight hours -- for a broken jaw, broken teeth and a fractured knee and elbow. Merciful God spared the little children from any major injury or worse.
We at the club are all intensely distressed. We are all in a state of mild shock and disbelief, and deeply disturbed by the suddenness and unprepared ness with which this very nice young man met his end. Would he ever have abandoned his family so suddenly if he'd had a chance? But that was just what he didnt have, a chance. Lucky are those who are offered one. I wish we would each one of us count our blessings and thank the Almighty for every good fortune we have ever experienced, because good luck is as little under our control as bad luck. Not one of us knows what fates await us or those for whom we spend sleepless nights praying and worrying. Apart from our grief for this young family there is the grim fear that enters all our hearts : is anyone ever safe? Does anyone ever know what happens in the next moment?
There is an added trauma to the loss Sanchita and her little girls must face. They must vacate the home where they have spent what surely must have been happy years. The family was happy, without a doubt. Even the baby never did anything but smile and laugh when meeting strangers who pinched her cheeks or tickled her chin at the club! Their older daughter goes to primary school and now she must move -- school, home, friends, all will be left behind. Sanchita will leave behind all the dreams that she and her husband would have shared, including maybe dreams of being in really grand bara bungalows some day.
My friend Raj said something so poignant on the phone the day after the accident. 'We all depend so much on our husbands in tea, Gowri.' We do, indeed. The planter husband is a provider. He carries a lot of responsibilities which no one can share. When a planter marries, he undertakes to supply a home and to fulfill all the needs of the family. His wife's responsibility is to manage the resources which he provides. At most, a woman here can have a career which provides a supplementary income and the 'treats' that it can buy. Of course, this doesn't apply to the women who live and work in cities and only visit their husbands on the garden. They have another home in the city. Here, as in many sad cases in the past, husband, father and home are lost in one stroke. Every woman who marries a tea planter knows that it could happen in her life too. What a terrible thing, that so many losses should be borne together.
I know Tirtho worked for a good company and that the good people there will never let his family know want. Whatever happens, though, they will have to move out. I can only hope that our collective prayers will in some way help this young bereaved girl and give her strength, and that life may have some joys in reserve for her and the children.

Monday, June 19, 2006

Those Ringing Bells

When I moved to a tea garden twenty years ago, it dawned on me that life as I'd known it would change for ever. We had no telephone, to start with. There was no way I was going to be able to hear my parents' voice, for who knows how many months! That is something to think about in these days when we have daily chats with children who live far away.
In 1986, Rajiv Gandhi was the Prime Minister of India and he was farsighted enough to realise the role and importance of telecommunications. What we have today is definitely the result of a process initiated by him. Still, it all took some time.
In 1986, our little Birpara town, the town closest to Birpara Tea Garden where we lived, had a telephone exchange, and one or two telephones in each garden in the district. The Manager's bungalow had a phone with a two digit number. So did one of the Assistants' bungalows. It was something we all marvelled at; a telephone in the Assistant's bungalow. The number was 86. That phone never rang. I dont think anyone ever put a call through it during our three years in Birpara. It had an extension in the Joteswar bungalow which was located furthest away from the factory, where the Assistant who looked after the Joteswar Division lived. The extension phone was, in one sense at least, a cordless phone! 
Many years ago, a Division Assistant who'd grown fed up of Burra Saab's habit of giving him repeated calls on the extension line yanked the instrument good and hard, and pulled it out of the socket. And there that phone lay ever since, with not a cord connecting it to anything anywhere in the bungalow. One could carry that phone around and use it as a stage prop. It speaks for the remarkable solidarity among the Assistants who came on transfer to Birpara that not one of them ever attempted to get that phone fixed.
I survived about a year of garden life without a telephone. I didnt actually lose my mind or start hearing voices in my head or anything. Our elder daughter was born in Delhi, where I spent some months. The news was conveyed to a clerk in Birpara Tea Garden office over a crackly trunk line and he sent a note to my husband. We could not speak to each other over the phone at all. We wrote letters, those days, maybe four and five in a week.
The day my father died, the news that he was seriously ill was conveyed by telephone  from Delhi to a shop in Siliguri which acted as a receiving centre for news for all the company's gardens. They sent a messenger to Birpara and the senior assistant rode around the garden on his bike until he found my husband and told him what had happened. We took the next plane out of Bagdogra, which was the following morning, without any telephone communication with home at all, not realising that we would reach Delhi only after my father's funeral. The news that he'd died twenty four hours ago was something I heard when we called home on arrival at Delhi airport.
Our next garden, Bagracote, offered a slightly better deal by way of telephone communications. We had graduated to three digit numbers by then. We could go to the garden office, which was Oodlabari 254, and wait there for trunk calls which family would make to us.
By 1992, STD had come to stay. The most modern exchange in the Dooars area was Banarhat, and our friend in that area had an STD phone in his bungalow. He actually chatted on it with his sisters who lived in America. We could not get over the audacity of it.

I was hospitalised in Siliguri for a week early that year, and the family, spread all over the world, was grateful, in those moments of anxiety, that Siliguri had STD. Cheerful Malayalee and Nepali nurses at the hospital would happpily carry messages to my bedside from America, Singapore, Chennai and Mumbai. The further the place where the call originated, the more chirpy the messenger would be!
In 1993, we moved to the first ever Manager's bungalow of our experience. It had a phone that worked, with only a three didgit number, true, but a number that allowed us to make trunk calls through the exchange. For the first time in seven years I could call family and chat. Over a real, working, cordless phone.
Mal Bazaar, the closest thing to a metropolis in our lives, was a forty five minute drive away. It had a five digit number preceded by an STD code. We'd sit in the cramped first floor area over Abhinandan Stores and make a twelve rupee call to my brother in Singapore to tell him we were 'there'. At which he'd say 'Hang up' and call back at once so that we could chat with him and with my mother.
Ten years ago, 1996, was the year of our first STD enabled phone. Which meant we could receive calls from friends and family all over the world at home.Ten years on, we have the STD telephone, plus internet, and almost one mobile phone per family member!
What irritation I experience when I cant download all my mail in the morning.How I rage at the display on my mobile phone that reads 'Network Failure'. How lost I feel if I take a trip to the bazaar nearby without my cell phone. 
We got by alright without any of these things. That's how it always is when you recall those good old days that sound so good in the recollection. We got by, we managed or we just accepted our limitations. We went on long drives and couldnt call to let anyone know when we'd be back. We drove through miles of elephant ridden country and terrible roads with our little children to meet friends who might be out. We didnt worry so much when we waited at home for someone who was expected back late. We just had a little more faith, and maybe a lot more patience -- I certainly seem to have less now. Is it just me, or have we all become more difficult as life has become more easy?

Saturday, June 17, 2006

Thoughts in a Garden

(Published in The Statesman, 22 March 2006.Copyright Gowri Mohanakrishnan)

I have begun to believe that the world is made up of two kinds of people: those who grew up in a house with a garden and those who didnt. I say this because anyone who enjoyed a garden as a child grows up to be a lover of nature.
Anyone who grew up in a house with a garden will remember the smell of a freshly mowed lawn; the heaps of cut grass, so aromatic, so tempting to jump into, and so surprisingly and painfully full of stinging insects. The garden hose pipe, with air bubbles rushing along in their race with the water. Those endless December holidays of my childhood in Delhi, when we would sit on the lawn listening to music or the cricket commentary on a transistor radio, while eating oranges and peanuts. We would chase the warm sunlight into the last corner of the garden before finally giving up and going indoors, shivering.

In the summer, we would carry our charpoys and spread out our sheets by eight o’clock to cool them by the time we went to sleep. The laburnum tree outside the house would be in full bloom then and the street lights would make the flowers look like luminous golden grapes. Oh what freedom it was to sleep under an open sky. The faithful transistor kept going, at low volume now, considering the late hour, and played sentimental hits like ‘Puppy Love’ and ‘Sealed With a Kiss’ on Forces’ Request. The summer nights were too exciting to sleep ever, and while the rest of the family awoke at dawn, when chilly jasmine scented breezes blew, I would lie there fast asleep with a sheet over my face as a protest against an increasingly hot sun.

We children were only allowed out into the garden in the evening after five-thirty, when the heat and the glare had reduced. Then it would be fun to water the plants, and to listen to the hiss that the hot concrete walk made when it was hit by water from the pipe. The smell of that water evaporating off the hot earth or flower pots made us feel like tasting the earth or at least biting into the flower pot.

One doesn’t see oleander trees now like the ones that grew in all gardens then. We children would pluck two of the long leaves and, holding the ends together, we’d bring them close and snap them back to make a loud noise. There was a lovely creeper jasmine with very dark green leaves and flowers that were whitest white on a pale green stem. We’d pluck them when they were still tight buds at five o’clock in the evening, and my mother would bind them into strings for our hair without using a needle at all. She’d then invert a katori over the neatly coiled strings, and within an hour the blooms would open, with a maddening fragrance. We had enough jasmine strings to distribute to most of our neighbours. We’d make a habit of counting the number of buds we plucked, and often it exceeded a thousand!

At fifteen, I sat with my history book open before me, supposedly studying for the Board Exam, but actually looking at the phlox, sweet sultanas, petunias, verbenas and hollyhocks that thrust themselves out of the earth so boisterously! And every bird in the world seemed to be singing in that garden of my childhood, mocking at me who sat indoors!The Delhi in which I learnt to love nature has changed beyond belief, and though I sometimes regret that I’ve left it so far behind me, I'm glad that my daughter, at fifteen, has the same distractions as I had at her age in the place where we now live. 'Ma, I cant study, there's too much to look at in the garden!' she wailed. She will pass it on, I know, this love of the flowers, the seasons, and the rhythms of life.

If you have ever lived in a house with a garden, even one tree, whether spotted out of a car window or during an evening walk ; one flower, one bush in the park, or one bird's song, will bring it all back, all the wonder that you ever felt as a child!

A Letter to my Teenage Daughters

(Published in The Sunday Statesman Magazine, June 5, 2005.Copyright Gowri Mohanakrishnan)

My dear girls,
Do you remember how in your essay about yourself you said you hate South Indian food? Another time you said you hated being corrected for making fun of the Tamil language. How it annoyed you that something that can so simply be called ‘Alu’ becomes ‘Urulakayyangu’ in Tamil. It is not a crime to dislike what you are force-fed. Or spoon-fed, literally, like sambar.
It is quite natural to rebel against these things at sixteen and seventeen. I guess you cant imagine your mother in the same role, but at your age, every time my 'Paattu Saar'--that's the music teacher--went away after a class, I had to play the Rolling Stones' 'Jumping Jack Flash' at top volume on the record player. I made sure he heard those rocking, mocking opening chords before he reached the end of the road from our gate. My purpose was two fold. One, to rid the air waves in the drawing room of the reverberations of my halfhearted vocal exertions. Two, to get back at the teacher who took an unnecessarily malicious pleasure, in my view, in complaining to my mother about my faulty Tamil pronunciation and my absolute inability to read or write the language.

I had to carry on taking the singing lessons, however little I enjoyed them. However, my mother never stopped me from playing the Stones record at the end of the session. She was really a very wise lady even then!

In time, I came to love Carnatic music. What I really learnt of musical appreciation was definitely from the parents, certainly not from the 'Saar', though I still have the registers he filled in his crabby hand with lyrics (in Tamil) And I can belt out any of those songs at a moment’s notice.

Our culture, according to the edifying extracts in our school textbooks, was a legacy. It was handed down to us from the generations before us. Our culture represents who we are. This is not something to scoff at, I learnt later in life. On reflection I realise that in addition to being 'Good South Indians' we were also taught at home to be 'good Indians'. Above all this there was a culture, which we were taught to value, and that was the importance of being good human beings who practiced and upheld good moral values. If I had to give it a label it would be Liberal Humanism. These values are tied up with everything I ever learnt as a child, whether it was learning to walk, learning to feed myself, or learning to read. I choose these examples because I can’t remember when I learnt any of these things, and I cant forget or un-learn any of them either. Being good, law abiding, tolerant of other people and respectful of their freedoms was at the heart of this cultural legacy whose packaging may well have been South Indian food, language and customs. There was truly liberal thinking here, live and let live.

When I was young, it was considered important to marry within the community and carry on the traditions we'd practiced. I don’t mean my parents wanted me to marry a cook (ensured supply of ‘kootu’ and rice) or a pundit (who would chant correctly pronounced Sanskrit verses at me) or a Carnatic musician who would cure me of my fondness for Jumping Jack Flash!
Now that brings me to the real point. Jumping Jack Flash was as much a part of the education I imbibed at home as Madurai Mani Iyer's 'Seethaapathey'. More than two cultures could and did coexist without cancelling each other out. I didn’t realise that until I was older (and I hope, wiser). Wodehouse, Georgette Heyer, Woodstock, My Fair Lady, Archie Comics, Mad Magazine. The Beatles, Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer, Kumar Gandharva, K.L.Saigal and R.D.Burman --we were exposed to all these at home. There was a harmonious coexistence of different cultures. Harmony, as you both know, is something that runs parallel to the melody and enhances it. You can have many things running together in your 'cultural heritage' and I think you'll find that you do have them. The more there are, the richer you will be. Even the hard to please music teacher would borrow books from my Dad's Wodehouse collection and enjoy them thoroughly.

I hope you understand that it would be possible for any of us to survive in surroundings where there was either no South Indian --or any Indian-- food or language or music, no Tamil New Year's Day and no Diwali celebration. But it would be impossible to survive without any language communication, any music, any books or any conversation.

And it would be very difficult to live amongst small-minded, selfish, ungenerous or uneducated minds all our lives. So remember that when we speak of our culture we are speaking of something very big, yet something basic, which you'll find among all civilised people. It is something inclusive and evolving. It doesn’t exclude ideas or influences; its existence isn’t threatened by anything new. You could find that you share something of this with someone in Finland or Tirunelvelli or in Assam or Japan. A shared fondness for sambar has nothing to do with it. It's all about not letting your dislike of sambar get in the way of someone else's fondness for it. Dislike it as much as you please, but understand that someone else can like it. Live and let live.

Love always,

Look Beyond the Illusion!

Look Beyond the Illusion!
The smash hit film 'Rang de Basanti’ calls out to a generation that seems to have everything going for it: cash, conveniences and clear consciences. It is about a tragedy that strikes suddenly in the lives of a group of youngsters who seem to live only to party. The tragedy shakes them up terribly and awakens them to the iniquities in the political system. In the manner of anarchists, they wipe out the perpetrators of evil, and get killed in the process. It is a very dramatic death; a thing of moments only, of bullets that kill swiftly: a film scene that has a laughing hero waiting for the fate that he knows is going to get him.
No time for penitence, afterthoughts, or soul searching. Like everything else he’s ever done in his life.

I am worried about how very young viewers will interpret the film. Why is it I find something very wrong with this ‘Rang De Basanti’ generation? It seems to me to be a generation which has never been denied anything by its loving and indulgent parents. It has been allowed adult privileges minus adult responsibilities. It has, in addition, continued to be granted the privileges of childhood.
The parents seem to be saying, Go ahead, beta, you can stay in Papa’s and Mamma’s house for as long as you please, and you can do it all. You can binge on clothes- and shoes-shopping, fast food, parties, alcohol and sex, even guns if you will, and if you should make a mess of your life, we will sort it all out for you in the end.

The lesson we have to teach all children is this: You can’t get away from the consequences of your actions. You can’t kill someone and then put things right after that. Nothing you do will reverse your actions or undo what you have done. Real penitence is a sign of a good character, but it doesn’t wash the slate clean. Nor can you escape from your core self. You have to live with who you are and what you make of your life.

It is difficult to identify heroes and role models for the citizens of our county in the protagonists of ‘Rang De Basanti’. Their heroic deaths don’t come across as a sacrifice, but as the finale to a series of wilful acts of self-indulgent self-destruction.

Thursday, May 04, 2006


I've had some interesting people visit me from time to time . I'm not talking about friends or family but about strangers, who've come to see a tea bungalow and a tea garden for the first time in their lives. I've received them in my role as chatelaine of 'Bara Bungalow'. I don't feel like a rare species under study when this happens though people do tend to marvel at the rather unique living conditions here. I also enjoy receiving visitors from places I've never been to. It gives me a window into other worlds, which I've never visited myself.

It is sometimes nice to meet strangers who will probably pass out of our lives without any commitments or expectations on either side. It reminds me of the friendships that are formed on long train journeys. Tea garden life is very lonely, and the sameness of our situations makes it rather boring and predictable for the same small community to meet again and again. We welcome people from the world outside most enthusiastically. If they are communicative and interesting, all the better, as we have new things to talk about amongst ourselves for a while!

One such visitor was from the U.K., Donald. He was over seventy years old, a concert pianist and a complete Indophile. His mother was born in Rawalpindi, and his grandmother in Allahabad. He first 'came out' as he put it, in '91 or '92. He has visited India almost every year after that. He sponsors five children at a residential school up in the hills. The school is a hundred years old today. It was set up as an orphanage to house the offspring of British planters in the area, mainly those who were illegitimate and of mixed parentage.

We'd invited Donald and our friend with whom he was staying to my favourite meal : evening tea. Evening tea remains one of the quaint ceremonies that has survived in tea gardens, possibly because we have the time to spare for it! There are beautifully laid out tea trays featuring pretty china and starched linen. There are cakes, sandwiches, tarts or biscuits, pakoras and chutney. After a meal like that all one can do is lie back, digest and maybe experience a little regret at overindulgence. Or else, engage in good conversation over a drink or two.

Donald, while recovering from the disappointment of having been served bland fare (everyone here in India makes that mistake when they hear there's a Brit coming, he said with a sad smile) loved what the called the '1930s atmosphere' – the colonial bungalow, the potted palms in the long verandah outside, the high ceilinged drawing room, and 'the bearer bearing whisky' as he put it. To add to it all, there was a Scott Joplin CD playing in the background. That's when he told us about being a pianist himself.

Our young friend, his host's daughter, asked him if he was now able to visualize how his ancestors must have lived. She said that they as British saabs and memsaabs in the heyday of the Raj would've have had far more luxury and elegance than we did today in similar surroundings. Donald laughed out loud, 'My ancestors! Oh no! My ancestors worked in the Railways. Quite the wrong side of the tracks, I assure you. Tin shanties would've been more their style!' We just loved him for that!

He felt he had roots here in India and he said he found it difficult to keep away for more than two years at a stretch. I wondered what it was that brought him here again and again considering he made his first trip to India so late in life. His desire to bond with the past was very strong. I was reminded of a friend's sister, who was visiting India after twelve years, and was on a plane which got diverted to Guwahati before it arrived here in Bagdogra. She took permission to get off the plane there to 'touch the soil of Assam' where she was born. My sister once spent hours at Trichur, where my father lived as a boy, just walking around and soaking up the atmosphere.

Donald's love of India doesn't just limit itself to his India trips. He enjoys the taste of India in London, at his favourite haunts that don't skimp on the spice! He attended the first night show of 'Bombay Dreams' there and loved it.

He brought with him such an air of old world charm and dignity, and he kissed my hand gallantly when he said goodbye.

Sunday, April 30, 2006

The Dooars : A World

When there is talk of tea estates, people think chiefly of Assam or Darjeeling. Most people have heard of Darjeeling, but not of the Dooars. When I married my husband, twenty years ago, I hadn’t either. I’d had visions of living on the slopes of Darjeeling with thrilling chilly mists swirling around our little red roofed habitation in the best manner of Hindi films. That image went ‘ping!’ when he drove me out into the hot and humid plains to Birpara Tea Garden, after we arrived at New Jalpaiguri Railway Station.

The Dooars is a world that abounds in natural beauty, with its forests, rivers and mountains. There are more than two hundred tea gardens here. We call them gardens and not estates. It makes the place sound idyllic, maybe like a Garden of Eden, and in some respects that isn’t too far off the mark. Many people who have seen the Dooars have described it as Paradise.

The gardens themselves are really beautiful, with acres of tea bushes forming a sort of velvet tableland dotted with occasional trees. A short drive can take one into the heart of the Darjeeling or Bhutan hills, or to a picturesque forest or riverbed. We can see the majestic Kanchenjunga from most parts of the Dooars.

Dooars is an old name for the long neck of land that is a part of present day North Bengal. To its east lie Assam and the other North Eastern states. It has international borders with Bhutan in the North and Bangladesh in the South. All along the North run the Himalayas. To the south of the tea growing areas lie fertile river fed fields of paddy, date, jute and areca plantations, and much further south is the huge gangetic delta of Bangladesh. The Teesta River originates in the Sikkim Himalayas and its many tributaries merge with it in the Dooars before it eventually flows into the Ganga-Brahmaputra confluence in Bangladesh.

The Dooars, or Duars as it was spelt about a hundred years ago, belonged to the ancient kingdom of Kamarupa before it became a part of Bhutan. The Dooars was a typical terai region, thickly forested, with a few pockets of bustis where the Kathambs, Totos and Mechis lived. Bhotias, Lepchas, Koches and Rajbongshis were the other ethnic groups who made up the then tiny and scattered population.

Dooars was and still is an area of entry points into the mountains. There were eighteen of them and hence the name Athara (eighteen) Duar (doorways). I can’t swear that I know the names of all of these entry points. Some names have changed, and I cant be sure which or how many of the original duars are now here and how many in Assam. I know of Lankapara,Bagrakote, Dalingkote and Chamurchi for sure, and I've made many trips into the hills through the last two.

The forests were vast hunting grounds for the King of Bhutan. The British fought the King’s armies in the Duars Wars and annexed the area in 1864. They divided it into two. The Eastern half was made a part of Goalpara District, which is in Assam. The Western half became a new district named Western Dooars,and it was renamed Jalpaiguri in 1869.

The British soon cleared and planted out these newly acquired lands into tea gardens. With tea gardens came British planters and their way of life. Colonial bungalows, clubs, airfields and roads came up. Jalpaiguri town, the district headquarters, became a fashionable town with its huge bungalows on the banks of the Teesta. A good lifestyle remains a part of tea garden life to this day. ‘Work hard, play hard’ was the motto of those original planters.

The British were great at establishing ‘dastoors’ or ‘the way things are done’ and Indians are great at carrying on with tradition, and also at adapting and modifying things as required.

Even now, we don’t have any problems carrying on with some of the traditions the British established, as we neither hate nor venerate them. In any case, our generation has no nostalgia for a past in which the British were present. Our ‘good old days’ are definitely post Independence. In tea, we have known and lived with an entire generation of planters who worked for and with the British. Clubs still resound with anecdotes of Burra Saabs of old with names like Sandy, Jimmy or Ginger. The last of the expatriates stayed on in tea until almost thirty years after Independence -- not all that long ago!

The early British planters brought with them thousands of migrant Aadivasi labourers from the neighbouring Chhotta Nagpur region. They also brought Nepali workers from the hills. The original inhabitants of the area were gradually outnumbered. With tea gardens and the trade they generated came a large number of Marwari traders from Rajasthan. Biharis came in considerable numbers. Most gardens had a small migrant Chinese population whose speciality was carpentry. In the early part of the last century, a number of Sikh families from Punjab moved in to find work in the tea gardens as mechanics, fitters and carpenters.

North Bengal began to grow into the multi ethnic region it has become today. Most people speak Hindi, Bengali, Nepalese and three or four aadivasi dialects like Oraon, Munda and Saadri with ease. For non linguists, it is enough to know Hindi. Anyone from any part of India can come here to live and soon start feeling at home. The provision shop in the town nearby will start supplying him with a magazine in his language and some foodstuff or other which is a specialty of his region!

Where I now live, the nearest town is just two kilometers away. National Highway 31, as well as the second broad gauge line from Guwahati to Delhi, runs less than one kilometere away from my house. I can watch the traffic, sitting in my verandah, when I have nothing better to do. There are gardens in the interior too, from where a ride to the nearest town could take an hour's drive over riverbeds or through dark and frightening forests full of wild animals. We even have wild elephants, snakes and leopards that very often make their way into our bungalow compound!

There are many worlds that coexist here. There are bearers and evening teas, darwans and dastoors, mobile phones and dak-wallahs who carry handwritten notes from one bungalow to another!

Since 1992, we’ve had satellite television, and since 1999 we’ve had Internet connections. We didn’t have a phone line that could connect us to family in Delhi until 1996, though! We wrote letters and waited for weeks for replies to reach us.

Life is an amazing and curious mix of old and new, civilization and wilderness, natural beauty and cultivated plantations. Maybe none of this would have been here if the British had left the Bhutan Raja to his hunting!

Friday, April 28, 2006

Hazaaron Khwaishen Aisi -- Of the Thousands who are Unsuccessful but not Unfulfilled

I think 'Hazaaron Khwaaishen Aisi’ is a grown up version of 'Rang De Basanti'. 

At the outset the filmmaker establishes a distance from the characters and the action. The events that have been chosen are at a point in time more than thirty years ago, and this additional distancing makes for an ironic detachment which is entirely missing in the other film. Even the characters view their motives and emotions with detachment. Geeta and Vikram sometimes speak of themselves as if they are characters in a fairy tale: ‘Once upon a time there was this young girl who believed.’
Thousands of people think they can change the world. They get attracted by ideology and the idealism of ideas. Courage and sacrifice are very attractive, as is the thought of suffering in the name of a cause: as long as they all remain abstractions.

What happens when ideals come up against actuality is shown without flinching. Interference with the existing power structure in the villages makes fugitives of the young group of activists. They are forever on the run from a corrupt and antagonistic police force, local administrators and politicians. The women are battered and raped, and the men are brutally beaten -- one of them, until he is almost brain dead.

There is no glory. 
There are no heroes. 
There are no absolutes and there are no solutions.

The age-old problems continue to plague the villagers. There are powerful oppressors to be battled with in the world outside and raging self-doubt and guilt to tackle within the mind. Those who have the courage of their convictions need not be the most articulate people.

Courage, honesty : these are not qualities that are always rewarded. They are just qualities you may or may not have. If you have them, you will do what your heart tells you to do. The real test comes at the moment when your existence is threatened. And at that point of time, there are no heroic solutions. There is only one thing; the nearest escape route, whether it is the phone number of a ‘contact’ or a wad of currency thrust in the face of your attackers.
Nothing makes a difference to the system at large.

The only difference, at the end of it all, is within the minds of the characters, when they achieve self-realization. And though they have all changed, they are back to being their core selves. They are, each one of them, ultimately true to type.

What elevates this film to a higher plane is this, the self-mockery, the self-realization and the acceptance of the futility and the transience of it all when viewed in the larger perspective. The realistic handling of situations doesn’t leave us with filmi types of heroes and martyrs. 
The dignity of human endeavour is never belittled. That is why I believe this film really celebrates the human spirit.

An April Day

(Reproduced in http://www.koi-hai.com/indiantales2.html#An April Day. Copyright Gowri Mohanakrishnan)

The weather plays a very important part in our lives on a tea plantation. After a long, dry spell, and some weeks to go before the monsoon, we are waiting for rain. But it’s a brilliant morning. The sunlight is blinding at even 8.00 a.m. and the heat and glare are harsh upon the malis who work on my lawn. The tea bushes shimmer in the heat haze outside.

I finish off with my instructions to the mali very quickly, and postpone my inspection of the vegetable garden to a later,and I hope cooler--hour. That is one area where we never see eye to eye, but today he and I have formed a brief alliance; our common enemy is the heat. I ask him why none of the malis has carried an umbrella to work. The pluckers out in the tea area do. He doesn't have a theory to offer. Time was when you couldn't part the tea garden worker from his umbrella. He wore it crooked into the back of his collar, rain or shine.

I escape into my cool room. The curtains are drawn, and there’s soothing music playing. The rhythms sound like ice tinkling in a glass of something refreshing. My husband comes back for his lunch break, and tells me what a hot day it is. The heat has slowed the pluckers down. It's rain he wants, and quickly too. I leave him to his 'afternoon lie-back', that great tradition established by planters of old. At about three thirty or so, we come out to find everything changed.

The hills had disappeared in the morning’s heat haze, but now I see a mass of black clouds in the direction where they lie. Overhead, there are clouds of different structures and shapes. It’s as if an artist had gone on a binge in a grey period. Surely we're in for what is called 'hawa-pani' by the garden folk, literally, wind and water, a most inappropriately mild label for what is to follow! In some places, the clouds are already swirling, as if they're forming a whirlpool in the sky. That is something we only see in this season. And soon, the wind starts off. I say wind, but it is like a cyclone. The bungalow servants rush into the verandah, to clear away everything that is in there, from potted plants to chairs and cushions. We're all laughing, now that it’s cool and beautiful. It isn't advisable to stand outside any longer. The trees are thrashing about wildly and at any time one may fall. Suddenly a loud crack of thunder is heard and our dog howls in fear. The lights go off at once. Somehow, the electricity just dies with the appearance of a storm.

Then we hear it, a rushing sound, as if something very huge is moving towards us. It’s the rain, which we can see, like a moving wall of water, before it actually is with us. The verandah is open in three directions and now it seems to be pouring in from everywhere. Strong gusts of wind lift up and carry the water droplets. It’s crashing down on the tin roof. We shout to make each other heard. Lightning rips the sky apart in blinding flashes and thunder applauds loudly, often after a stunned pause. I send up a prayer of thanks that there is no hail, only rain. When there’s hail, it rips through the tea bush and seals the fate of a garden for the season.

Later in the evening, my husband tells me there’s been an inch of rain. Is he happy, I ask, to which I get an inscrutable shrug. Planters are a superstitious lot. He doesn't want the weather gods to think he’s complacent!

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Niren Baruah, Artist

(Copyright Gowri Mohanakrishnan)

I was thinking of Baruah as I was baking biscuits yesterday. When Baruah was around, we got freshly baked rolls and bread. We got soufflés of every flavour and description. His tarts, biscuits, puddings and cakes stayed in our memories—and on my hips—long after we’d eaten them.

If Baruah had a sorrow, it was that we were vegetarians. Once he’d forgiven us for not eating any ‘real’ food, he used his ingenuity and substituted meat with soya, cottage cheese or vegetables and baked us savoury pies and rolls fit for a King’s table.

He was a great cook and a good man, Baruah.

We moved to a tea garden called Ambari early in 1996. We didn’t know what lay ahead. We were prepared for any kind of adventure. This would be the second garden my husband was taking over as Manager. We received a warm welcome there. The bungalow was pretty, though it didn’t look too much like a traditional tea garden structure. It had a happy feel about it, and with our two little girls aged eight and six years old, that mattered a lot to me.

We found the table laid for lunch and sat down to quite a nice meal soon enough. It was a carefully cooked meal, rather guesthouse style, not leaning too much in any direction. It was ‘standard’ tea garden fare. Whenever a new ‘Saab and Memsaab’ moved into a bungalow, the cook, or Bawarchi, would prepare a meal that didn’t reflect his real style of work. It would be dal, rice and vegetables cooked without a trace of imagination or a personal touch. It was a way of saying there was room to adapt to our preferences and also of saying we’d have convince our new Bawarchi that we deserved good food!

Living with a number of servants, or helpers, including a Bawarchi, bearers, ayahs and gardeners is a part of life on tea gardens. The bungalows and their surrounding grounds are large, and a number of hands are required to maintain them. There has never been a moment in my life in tea when I have been absolutely alone at home. Wherever we have lived, our helpers have become a part of our extended family. We accepted long ago that we didn’t have complete privacy. And after all, we shared our space with people who helped us and made our lives easier. It was also very important to get off to a good start with them whenever we moved to a new place.

A smiling bearer, Shamoo, served us lunch. The Bawarchi would report at five o’clock, we were told. His name was Niren Baruah. Immediately my husband and I exchanged a look. Niren Baruah. A Mugh cook!

Mugh cooks were rare in 1996 and I'd never dreamt I'd have one working for me.

They enjoyed a formidable reputation and were much sought after. They could ask for, and succeed in getting, a salary higher than other employee in the bungalow. They were experts at continental and English food. Anyone who’d succeeded in getting a Mugh cook to work for them would do anything to keep him, and to keep him happy. I’d once heard that if a Mugh cook were asked to make a paratha or a roti he might resign on the spot. That was not a job for a master chef.

The Mugh cooks originated from Chittagong and Sylhet Districts, both of which were once part of India, but went to Bangladesh after having been part of East Bengal, Assam and then East Pakistan till 1971. The word ‘Mugh’, it is believed, was once used to describe the people of Burma, and it is quite likely that these people were of Burmese origin.

I was frankly nervous about my first meeting with this Niren Baruah. At our first interview, I was sure, it was I who was going to be scrutinised, examined, summed up, and found lacking.

Baruah reported at five in the evening for our interview.

He was in his mid fifties, a round faced, balding man with fair skin, large eyes and a white moustache. He had a rotund figure and wore pyjamas and a shirt. In a suit he would have looked like a professor. His expression was serious. He was dignified.

I too tried to be very dignified. And all I told him was to carry on functioning as he’d been doing in the past. I said I would see how things worked here, and then if I wanted any changes I would let him know. I also told him we’d had a nice lunch. I needn’t have lied. He didn’t thaw.

We conducted daily meetings at five in the evening, when he would take orders for the evening’s dinner and our lunch the following day. It was during these early days that he found we were vegetarians. That damned us in his eyes, for a start. His spirits rose when my little oven was unpacked. Sadly, the bungalow hadn’t had an oven in the kitchen. Later I realized what a serious handicap that must have been for someone like Baruah.

Gradually, I succeeded in getting Baruah to treat us to his special cooking. He stopped churning out ‘standard fare’ soon enough and we found delightful new flavours in our food. Then he started preparing a sweet every other day. He made us superb desserts.

The oven had made him happy. He asked for yeast and started producing heavenly little dinner rolls, which filled the kitchen and dining room with a lovely aroma and melted in our mouths. Sometimes the rolls were stuffed with savoury fillings, which came as a delicious surprise. I began to eat a lot. We lavished praise on him. But he continued to be a little sticky – unlike his superb soufflé -- and aloof. He never let me enter his domain. The kitchen was firmly out of bounds to this Memsaab.

That was when I realized that it is as important for the bungalow staff to start trusting their new employers as it is for us to start trusting them. I’d never thought of it from that point of view earlier.

He wasn’t above letting me down, either. We called a couple of friends over for dinner. That was it, just a couple. He made a dal, one vegetable and a paneer dish with parathas and rice. I made ‘avial’, a South Indian speciality, because I wanted the meal to have a personal touch, and a ‘home’ feel. The avail was the hit of the evening. Little wonder, as Baruah – due to some quirk of temperament—had made ghastly, over spiced, soulless food. I felt wretched with every mouthful. And it wasn’t as if the dessert was any compensation, either. It was equally soulless.

I wondered what had gone wrong. There was more to come. Upon inspection of stores the following day, I saw that three fourths of a litre of oil had been used to prepare the disastrous spread of the previous evening. Seven hundred and fifty ml of oil for TWO extra heads, I asked Baruah, amazed. With that much of oil, I told him, we could have catered for a small party. Party! He scoffed. For a party, he said, he would need two to three litres of oil. I was miserable. I couldn’t yell at this man. We were new to each other, and this was a first offence. I couldn’t allow him to make a second, though, and I hoped my silence conveyed my displeasure. I resolved not to invite any more people until this headstrong and surly man who was newly ruling my life became manageable – if at all.

I can never forget another of his disasters. This time, luckily, only the family was subjected to it! I’d ordered a continental lunch, a savoury cheese soufflé and and a salad to go with it. We’d got lots of healthy looking spinach, so I said, ‘Make it spinach.’ Baruah stopped to check if he’d heard right, then he shrugged and walked away. The girls and I came home from school, starving, and I couldn’t wait for the lovely meal I’d ordered. Strangely, we got rice and roti with dal and subzi. Funny, maybe Baruah had forgotten what had been ordered. I was too hungry to care. When we got up from the table, the bearer asked us to wait for the sweet. Oh great, he’d done us a sweet; we were thrilled.

Out came a glass bowl with a quivering, creamy concoction in bright green. It was a soufflé, flavoured, just as I’d instructed, with spinach. The girls collapsed with laughter. They were hooting; they had a legitimate excuse to make fun of Mamma! They insisted on my tasting a spoonful of the beautiful looking dish. I can’t forget the taste in a hurry. It has remained an unsolved mystery with us. Why did Baruah goof up like that? Was he being cussed? Or was it a genuine mistake?

He started liking us eventually. Who wouldn’t, when he had praise heaped upon him after every creation of his had been had been demolished? He went so far as to allow me to enter the kitchen and initiate him into ‘Idli’ ‘Dosai’ and ‘Vadai’ making. In no time, he’d mastered these, our favourite South Indian breakfast dishes. His ‘Rava Dosais’ were light as lace doilies, buttery and crisp.

I had to indulge a number of his quirks, but I found it a small price to pay for the privilege of employing such a craftsman. He was like an artist, really, in his approach to his cooking. So I didn’t grumble when he scoffed at home made or shop bought cottage cheese and insisted he’d only use the tinned variety. Or when he dictated the lists of masalas I had to buy separately for the preparation of each dish. Or even when he turned up his nose at ‘Desi’ or local vegetables. Only English vegetables like cauliflower, cabbage, peas, carrots and beans were good enough for him.

He became quite friendly in his manner, first because I went to work as a teacher at the girls’ school and therefore stayed out his way, and secondly, because even though we were vegetarians, we liked to try out different kinds of cuisine. And then I never questioned him about his shopping expenses. He was uncrowned king of the kitchen! Baruah allowed me to play the role of helper once in a while. He permitted me to beat up cake mixes. He was actually giving me little lessons. He even taught me how to grease and flour a cake tin thoroughly.

This was quite something, because the old Bawarchis were a crafty lot who didn’t want to train youngsters but guarded their secrets jealously They wouldn’t show anyone their special techniques. On days when they had their ‘hafta chhutties’ or weekly day off, the family would be subjected to what fare the second in command could churn out. Not one of the other hands in the bungalow could ever replicate a dish from the Bawarchi’s repertoire. It was interesting how their sons, probably the only people they’d have been willing to teach, never wanted to train as cooks.

Baruah stopped looking grave and serious at our evening meetings. He’d roll in looking jolly and grin at me. These meetings had turned into regular chat sessions from the earlier crisp passing on of orders. He would look very happy when he saw me sitting with big piles of books. He thought I was a great reader and writer. He couldn’t read or write at all. I now marvel at how he remembered every recipe with no aids such as books. He’d ask how my day had been, and that was a signal for me to make an appreciative remark about the lunch or the little tea time treat he’d prepared and left carefully covered for me as a surprise when I arrived home from school.

He would twinkle at me and ask me if I really liked what he’d made, as if I were a little child whom he was indulging. Then he’d tell me what he planned to make for the next ‘treat’. He behaved like an elderly uncle and not like an employee. On Sunday mornings, if we lolled about delaying our breakfast, he would come out of his kitchen and thunder, ‘If Sahib and Memsaab take so long to come to eat I will get ulcers!’ We would be at the table, quiet as children, as soon as we heard him.

He once told me he’d stopped wanting to work as a Bawarchi when he’d been questioned too closely about kitchen accounts and leftovers by some people in the past. It hadn’t been any fun cooking for them. In real sorrow he told me some of them actually made him stand at the storeroom and measured out ingredients before handing them over to him for the day’s cooking, as if he’d been a novice. He said sadly that everyone hadn’t been like me. What did he mean by that? He searched for words to make his meaning clear, and came out with, ‘Gentleman type.’ I grinned hugely like him when he said that!

I could never bring myself to question Baruah too closely about expenses in the kitchen. He had stature. I always felt things would go smoothly if I trusted him and left the management of the kitchen entirely to him. Maybe I’d save forty or fifty rupees in a month if I breathed down his neck over purchases. I didn’t think it was worth the trouble. I couldn’t function without complete faith in the people who worked for me.

He enjoyed talking about the old days. During the Second World War, he’d worked for the Army. The British officers were good to him. He said that he had many tales to tell me, if I would listen to him and write his stories for people to read. We never had the time to get down to story telling and writing.

I was interested in whatever he could tell me about his community. He had a cousin who had worked for Indira Gandhi, and became so exclusive and superior that he never spoke to Baruah or any other members of the family.

He mentioned how their numbers were dwindling. His son ran a shop, and had never wanted to work as a Bawarchi. Baruah himself had left one of the gardens in a huff and sat at the shop for a year until he’d been tracked down and coaxed to join here in Ambari by one of the erstwhile Bara Memsaabs. She’d moved into Ambari and painstakingly brought the bungalow and its flower and vegetable garden to standards of excellence that had, alas, fallen by the time I moved in.

Fortunately, the owners of the garden really appreciated Baruah and his skills and treated him with affectionate indulgence. They cut maintenance costs everywhere, but Baruah continued to enjoy the special privileges with which he’d been tempted here in the first place, one of which was a job for his son! Baruah served his maliks faithfully. He worked overtime without grumbling when they came to stay – at alarmingly frequent intervals – and prepared all their favourite items for the table. He had even invented an eggless variety of soufflé for them, because they were vegetarians.

It wasn’t Baruah who left us. It was quite the other way around. My husband had a good offer and was asked to join a garden nearby as soon as he could. So before we had stayed even ten months at Ambari, we were packing. We’d been so happy here. The house had proved true to its promise. Our younger daughter wept loudly and clung to her ayah who kissed and hugged both the children with tears streaming down her face. It broke my heart. We were all wearing huge garlands of flowers. We said goodbye and all the servants promised to visit us at our new garden.

I never expected Baruah would come around visiting, but he did. We welcomed him very happily. He approved of our new garden, the bungalow and its compound. We asked him to have lunch. He laughed and blushed a little, and agreed. After lunch he was ready to chat. He’d wanted to come and work for us. He wanted a change, and I could tell he hadn’t been too happy. He didn’t let on, though. He told me, in his inimitable way, that he approved of the cook who was working for us. He’d liked the food he’d been served. Then Baruah said his bye byes and left.

We didn’t hear of him for a long time. Then we heard he hadn’t been keeping well. He went away to Hashimara, the town where his son ran a shop. Someone who had no connection with Ambari told me when he died, and it was a complete shock to us. I wonder when the people who’d worked so happily with him in Ambari came to know about his death. I wonder if they could go and pay their respects to him or whether poor Baruah died far away from the people with whom he’d spent so many years.

Had they told us on time, we would have tried to be there for Baruah.

I remember the promise I’d once made him — that I would write the stories he never did get down to telling me.