Thursday, March 30, 2006

Goa Routine

Sudha asks me as we sit on the beach one evening, “Do you miss Bombay?” I realise very definitely, I don’t. There is nothing I miss about it, except maybe my cat – and my parents. I don’t miss the flat, I don’t miss my room, not my computer, nor internet, nor email. I don’t miss the books, haven’t even thought of the music system. Well well well. Even I feel surprised when I think about it. I have even been writing – as in writing with my hand! Carrying on with the translation from Samuel’s latest book and discovering I haven’t yet lost the ability to use my thumb and fingers, completely.


In a short time a routine is established. Mornings we carry our chatais onto the beach and spend a good half hour exercising by the sea, watched by one or two fishermen pottering around their boats and various dogs who come by, sniffing at our faces and our feet and checking out to see if we are interested in friendship. (Which of course means food for them). Our training is followed by breakfast, a short walk to the nearest general store from where we pick up a mango drink to enjoy at Max’s place. Then it’s two hours of solid work for me – either translating or planning out future sessions, while Sudha catches up on her notes. Twelve thirty means it's time for beer and lunch after which we pass out for a couple of hours because it is too hot to actually do anything.


The best part I find are the sunsets and our post dinner meditations on the dark moonless beach. We don’t know much about the stars and constellations but it is lovely just sitting there and watching them and once in a while going “Ooooh!” as a shooting star appears from nowhere and curves down in a graceful arc and once again vanishes in the dark.

Often, sitting in the restaurant we watch Max’s two boys playing in the sand. The older one, Preston, who is two and a half, is very shy and even a bit fearful. Max says he once saw a cow bolt in his direction and although she meant him no harm and stopped long before she reached him he has been terrified of animals since then which probably means humans as well. The younger one, Princeton, a year younger than Preston, is more outgoing, curious, and constantly tottering around the place, in his zeal to explore the world. We’ve renamed him “Penguin” because that is exactly what he looks like, especially on the days that he wears his yellow and black T-shirt , or the black and white one, with his arms flailing at his side to help him keep his balance. Fatima, their grandma, Max’s mother, calls them Peshtone and Pinjone.

The worrying thing is not knowing how long it will be before the marauding mobs descend on this more or less isolated beach and turn it into a discotheque with their boom boxes and stalls and what not. There are signs of increasing huts and rooms being built in the village but as yet (thank god!) no luxury hotels. Only hope the old man/woman in the sky thinks fit to protect the place and keep it intact. At least for a million years or so.

Group website:

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Goa in March

Stillness. Peace. Tranquillity. Balmy evenings by the sea.

Afternoon beers and evening pegs of feni with lots of fish and squid to go with it.

Silent after dinner meditations under the starlit sky, watching white crested waves crash on the shore.

Chats with Fatima about recipes and children and travel and the price of fish, as the grandchildren played around her feet with their spades and plastic boxes, filling sand into fanta bottles, emptying them out - again, and again, and again. Tirelessly.

Exchanges with the local school kids who used to pass by our cottage on their way to class every morning just before eight. Good morning! How are you? What is your name? How long you staying?

Palm trees, palm trees and more palm trees surrounding Max’s place, where we stayed this time. And pigs scuttling around and occasionally squabbling with each other and also with the local dogs. And lots of chickens. No sign of bird flu yet!

Bet you envy us our week long stay on the beach. And that’s it for now since I’ve barely got back home. More to come in the next few days.

Monday, March 20, 2006

Cultural Progress!!!

Reading about some of the tribal societies in India really makes you wonder where Indian culture is heading – where culture in general is heading. The Dards and the Broghpas for example, are a tribe living in Ladakh, with none of the usual inhibitions which hamper the rest of us civilised Indians. Supposed to be descendents of a group of soldiers who lost their way returning to Greece, after the battle with Porous, they settled down in the fertile valley of Dhahnu in Ladakh. According to Norboo, a scholar who has extensively studied this tribe, they worship the cow, offer sacrifices, are fond of music and wine, and dance together at the onset of spring.

The interesting thing is that the Brogpas traditionally practise polygamy and polyandry and pre-marital sex is not looked down upon. “We didn’t know what shame was,” says one of the tribesmen, Tashi. “But we are learning it gradually, because of modern education and giving up our culture and traditions.” And so polyandry has vanished although instances of polygamy are still to be found, with a man having two wives and up to ten children.

The sad thing is the way the Indian army has succeeded in breaking down local culture, labelling tribal practices as “uncivilised.” Till 1970, groups of men and women would kiss each other openly without consideration for marital partnerships. “Now we do it only when there are no outsiders around,” says Tashi.

It takes so little to destroy the freedom and innocence of others, and so long for us human beings to retrieve it – if it is at all possible to get something like innocence back! Sexual innocence. Do any of us in the civilised world even vaguely understand what that is? In fact many people will try to counteract the notion with instances of sexual abuse in the western countries, or indeed, all over the world. But then one has to see, that sexual abuse and perversion is not the same thing at all, as freedom.

Questions as to why and how sex began to acquire the connotations of shame and guilt which they have today, will continue to bother those of us who have an inkling of the role that sexuality plays in the drama of life. Of the frustration and violence that result through our lack of understanding of the subject. Those of us brought up with the kind of conditioning which has made us almost neurotic, will know what it means to struggle with such issues and continue to grapple with the riddle. The rest will continue to seal the subject up in a mental box, not meant to be looked at or spoken about and will continue to act prissy and a bit weird all their days. Never quite realising all that we have lost, in losing our freedom and innocence.

(Am off to Goa tomorrow morning and will be back next week. See you then).

Group website:

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Kids Parties

I hate to sound like an old grandmother (which I find I am doing increasingly these days) but when I was a kid, our parties had a different flavour to them than what you see today. We met, we played hide and seek, we ran around, we chatted, we drank stuff like orange squash and ate cake and potato chips. Occasionally when an adult got it into his head to organise games for us we found ourselves playing "pin the donkey’s tail" or taking part in a lemon and spoon race. By seven o’clock our mothers and fathers or ayahs would turn up to take us home and off we would go, after screeching out prolongued “Bye’s” and clutching a balloon or a packet of sweets in our hands.

Well a couple of days back, this four or five year old kid’s party was celebrated with a bang (literally!) in the garden downstairs. It was one of those stage managed affairs. A hu…uu…uuuu …ge blue plastic playpen was set up at one end of the lawn with green plastic palm trees at the corners and a huge wobbly plastic clown in the centre with steps on the sides and ropes hanging down for kids to practise their rappelling skills. There was a fire-eater, a young DJ who kept making silly jokes and various games which had the kids run to and fro all over the lawn. All of which might have been okay if it hadn't been for the music.

Two huge loudspeakers blared out thousands of watts of noise to crack your ear drums. The DJ kept up a running commntary on the mike and a woman in a light green trouser suit (the manager of the event?) busily attended to the details. The party must have cost a bomb. As I watched it all from our balcony on the first floor, I wondered what it must be like to be a kid these days, in Bombay, being fattened on this kind of wealth. Also, what it must be like to not be rich and to attend these kind of parties and then throw a tantrum at home because you wanted the same kind of party on your birthday and your parents couldn't afford it. I wonder what it must be like to be parents these days at all. So dependent on money and artificiality to prove your love for your kid. I am just glad to have grown up in the days that I did.

Group website:

Saturday, March 11, 2006

Who is What?

Manisha with friends

Shahnaz with Dinyar

Another meeting with the people at “Anchorage” this time at the workshop itself. When we had met a few weeks back during the dance class, Meghna and Shahnaz had suggested I come over for lunch one afternoon so there I was last Thursday. It felt good to be not only recognised but greeted like an old friend by the crew – by Manan, (who beamed at me and pinched my cheeks like I was a five year old!) and Dilber and various others.

Lunch (provided by the staff – that is, by Meghna, Manisha, Bhavna, Shahnaz and Nirupa) was a pretty lavish affair with mountains of teplas, dhokla, two different kinds of chutney, salad and vegetables. And glasses of fresh lassi.

Dilber, Meghna, Dinyar and Yasmin

I got some more information about how the place was initially set up in 1989 – about the handful of parents of mentally retarded children. (I refuse to use the term “mentally challenged”. I don’t like it any more than I like to use the term “physically challenged” to describe myself. Prefer to stick to good old fashioned terminology like physically or mentally handicapped because they are perfectly adequate and anyway euphemisms don’t change a damn thing about the way other people actually see you. I will write more about this later, some time!)

Dinyar and Nirupa (popular fellow!!)

So anyway, a group of parents had got together to found what they call a ‘sheltered workshop’ for their children who were fast growing up and needed to learn to be independent. The five founder members got together with a special educator to organise productive work contracts so that they could train young adults in a small garage. Today this cooperative offers many services which include training in various areas of work, teaching life skills, yoga, arts and crafts, music and dance and so on

Bhavna and group

During my visit I saw people busy at work putting the finishing touches on costume jewellery and switches as well as involved in packaging products like paper handkerchiefs. As on the previous occasion when I had met them everyone seemed to be having a ball and I had the feeling at the end of it all when I came away, that maybe we need to seriously look at who’s who and who is what. I mean, if those young adults busy at work at the Anchorage are supposed to be mentally challenged (hmmm ok I will make an exception and see what it sounds like to use this term!) – then maybe the rest of us are emotionally challenged or challenged in terms of self expression, generosity, spontaneity and all the rest of it. Let’s put it more simply, the rest of us are “egoistically challenged.”


Thursday, March 09, 2006

Radio Bihar

Raghav Mahato

Once in way you come across a really interesting piece of news in the daily press. Like the story I read a few days ago about a young man who set up a radio station in a small town in Bihar. Bihar as everyone knows is best known for its chaos and corruption and dacoity and other terrible goings on, so something as enterprising as a guy of really modest means and modest education setting up an FM station is nothing short of a miracle.

This young man, Raghav Mahato climbs up to the third floor of a hospital building in Mansoorpur, with his box of tools and sender and antennae and other stuff he requires and gets this station going. Raghav Entertainment FM 1 is what he calls it which he runs for about ten hours a day with the help of friends. The station plays Hindi and devotional and all kinds of music and disseminates information on various happenings in the town and nearby areas, including things like the dates and timings of polio vaccination camps.

In the couple of years that he has been working on the station, Raghav has acquired a large fan following. People who listen to his station – which is the only one they get on their receivers! - come to meet him from ten kms away. None of it has earned him hard cash though. He continues to run his electrical shop “Priya Electronics” which earns him roughly Rs. 2000 a month (in case my American and European friends are wondering how much that is, it translates into roughly $50).

I loved reading about Raghav Mahato. It somehow made me feel good, just to know how enterprising people can get and that not everyone puts their heart and soul only into money spinning projects. I wonder sometimes why these kind of stories don’t make the front page and why they don’t relegate Bush and Tony Blair and our own politicians to the back pages so that another kind of reality can come to the forefront and be seen and recognised by - and bring hope - to people.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

I Want Your Brain!

If you ask me, Hitler was not the scariest person on earth. I don’t mean to make fun of his crimes at all – or of the fact that over six million Jews met a gruesome end at the hands of his deranged crew. But those crimes were so obvious, that it is relatively easy to see what was wrong about the whole movement and for those of us who have any conscience at all, to vow not to allow ourselves to be misled by madmen.

Aberrations occur however, that are not easy to pin point or even see as such. Some days ago, flipping through the channels on TV I accidentally came across this bizarre scene of one of India’s most popular gurus taking part in some mega celebration, of I am not sure what. Maybe it was his birthday or maybe it was just some happy occasion but what it involved was thousands of people gathering together while the guru sat on a podium along with his henchmen, all of them listening to one speech after the other by a string of the most boring looking, boring sounding devotees.

The first devotee was an elderly bloke in a safari suit who droned on and on about the goodness of the guru, while reading from a sheet of paper on the lectern in front. He was followed by a fat, black man in a white shirt (Indian white as my friend Gisela used to refer to it in the days when she used to live in Bombay. This means it is a sort of white, but not quite the dazzling shade you would expect, when you think of “white” – because it is usually tinged with a bit of grey without actually being grey, if you know what I mean).

A white woman in the audience watching the proceedings with utmost fascination broke into smiles and waved a flag as the black guy gabbled on in Telegu. Why should I say anything about her – maybe she really could follow every word of whatever language that guy was speaking, which I couldn’t. All the while that these important looking men babbled into the mike, other important looking men in orange walked up and down the aisles and across the podium, carrying boxes of what looked like mithai which they handed over to the guru with obsequious smiles.

The guru himself, dressed in chaste white, sat on a sofa, with his legs folded under him looking alternately bored, constipated and condescending. The camera switched from showing close ups of his face to views of the millions gathered to see him. Entire groups of overseas visitors like the Japanese or Americans had assembled together, each group clad in the colours of their particular team. There were blue groups and red groups and groups clad in green and they were all waving little flags and big flags and cheering and smiling wildly. All in celebration of a guy whom I have heard say some peculiar things in the past (at least according to press reports). For example, that we are all brothers and sisters on earth and therefore not supposed to take a sexual interest in each other. Which in effect means we are all products of incest.

Watching those millions with a fixed robotic beam on their faces made my skin crawl, to be honest. Men like Hitler pale in comparison because what is happening here, in case you haven’t yet caught on, is a very subtle form of mind control, a kind of mass hypnosis of the kind that can spread like an infection among people who are insecure and need somebody else to tell them what is right. Among people who are looking for someone to solve their problems. At the point when the whole crowd began to resemble a forest full of indoctrinated chimpanzees I decided to switch off the TV set. The guru smiled. Maybe he was wishing me goodnight.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Last Rites


Monday morning, almost seven months to the day that my grandmother (Nalinima) died, we went to immerse her ashes and to carry out the last rites. The reason we waited this long was that my brother Vishnu wanted to be present for the immersion. Since we are a really uneducated family in terms of religion and rituals, we depended largely on Saru, the younger of my grandmother’s two maids and on Tukaram, our Man Friday, to inform us on the procedure.

We were supposed to get a priest (they hired one for us) and the ritual was carried out at Banganga. Not at Chowpatty beach as I had thought. So I once again visited this picturesque district of Bombay, the houses set around the ancient tank which was supposed to have been created by Lord Ram when his arrow struck the earth and gave rise to a stream.

Father trying hard to be holy in his yellow towel

Our priest was a sixty-ish fellow in a dhoti with stubby grey hair and a bugs bunny smile. He chanted away at the speed of an express train and my father who was supposed to do the last rites had to follow suit, which he managed to do with relative agility – which impressed the priest because he guessed (quite correctly) we were just a bunch of poor westernised sods who didn’t know the first thing about our religion.

The chanting and pouring of ghee into the fire and onto banana leaves went on for what seemed like decades but finally it came to an end, after which my mother, accompanied by the priest walked around the tank to the side and left an offering on behalf of my grandmother, for the crows. I must say I was impressed because a dozen of them swooped down immediately, to finish off the ladoo in the earthenware bowl which resembled a large egg cup. Saru was mighty thrilled at this, and let out her shrill giggle and triumphant laugh. That meant the old lady was happy wherever she was, she informed us.

Mother, followed by Peg, Vishnu and Saru, off to leave the offering for the crows at Banganga

Dad, who didn’t come prepared as he should have, with the ceremonial dhoti, had to wrap a yellow towel round his waist for the ritual ( which Tukaram had thoughtfully brought with him, in case they needed to dip their feet in the holy waters). And to make up for the sacred thread which my father never wears, the priest threw a tattered strip of cloth over his neck and shoulder and began to chant.

Parvati and I watched from a distance because the steps were steep and the alcove where the rites were undertaken was a bit difficult for me to access. To our left, men, young and old, who had lost some close relative, were having their heads shaved by the local barber, according to the custom. But modern attitudes have forced the priests to alter the requirements. For those who are not keen to lose their locks, a token bit of hair is snipped off – merely as a gesture. Which my dad agreed to, without a problem.

This morning the priest came over for a last bit of cleansing, and we had smoke pouring out of Nalinima’s bedroom as the house was purified and my father had to once again go through the various mantras like yesterday. Luckily the ritual was over in less than an hour.