Storms ruled the first thousand years of life.
By the time I claimed my room, I turned into a zombie...
Suspended somewhere between the worlds within and outside...
Vaguely aware of either...
But then, existence needs more meaning, and spectacles need a windowpane...
Right here, I found mine…

Who am I? An average woman - trying to work on my share of maze through layers of haze...

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Brooms, Mops and the World Beyond: Ganga’s Story

Didi, I noticed some cobwebs along the walls today. I’ll come early tomorrow and dust them off. You’ll be home all morning, right?”
I: “Huh! What cobwebs? Which walls?” 

Didi, umm… is bhaiyya too busy? Emmm … I was wondering if he could help me push this box cot. You see, the floor below hasn’t been swept or mopped for quite some time, and this cot is a bit heavy for me...  Just a few inches would do...”
I (post cot-shifting): “Ow, that’s a lot of dust! How the heck did it get there?”

I: “Ganga, there’s a huge pile of soiled utensils today. We had guests last night. Can you somehow do the heavy utensils? Sourav and I will wash the rest later.”
Ganga: “Oh, don’t bother yourself at all didi! Any household will have its share of guests. What good is a kaamwali (maid) who can’t wash a few extra utensils once in a while?”

Meet Ganga, our domestic help. To say the truth, I’ve often been just a wee bit jealous of quite a few things about her – say, her effervescent smile, and how she strikes up a warm conversation with all our guests without ever overstepping her boundaries, or her inherent proactiveness, or her apparent lack of complaints about the monotony of her job (or life, or anything in general), or the featherweight dignity with which she carries herself. In a discrimination free world, she’d probably be considered a better professional than me on any given day.  

Ganga’s kids never fail to me amaze me either. Aged eight and six, Karan and Arjun are friends with this entire ‘brigade’ of neighborhood kids. Children of IT employees and management executives shriek with them in ecstasy as they run behind each other to catch the ‘thief’ or roll in the sand together. On some mornings, the two wail in unison at the top of their voice – “Why do we have to go the school each and every day? Hadn’t we been good boys yesterday, Ma, and the day before that? Let us stay home and play today, pleeeeeeease.” Otherwise, they go to a small English medium school close by in tip-top dress, and Arjun even managed to top his class last year.

Ganga works from dawn to dusk as maid and/or cook in several households in the locality. Bahadur, her husband, serves as the security guard of our building and washes cars for some extra bucks. A small single room at the heart of our car parking zone, a rope charpoy laid outside it, and a toilet close to our boundary wall are what they call their home, sweet home.

A few weeks back, around 1-30 am, shrill, helpless shrieks of Karan and Arjun pierced through the night. “Uncle… uncle… save us… bnachaao… somebody… please help… ”. The sense of panic in their pleading voice intensified with clanging of metals, smashing of glass and random thuds. We rushed downstairs. And there we saw Ganga – an angry, distraught, complaining Ganga - with her eyes red and her face puffy, her cheeks laden with streams of tears.

“See how this monster has been beating up the kids, didi! He kicked me hard in my belly while I was sound asleep, and kept on kicking till I fell out of the cot. When I protested, didi, he turned his rage on the poor boys!”  

Ganga’s tolerance was spilt out on the floor amid flung out utensils and splattered rice grains. The trembling kids stood huddled in a corner, seeking safety in each other’s tightly-held palm.  A badly drunk Bahadur hurled the choicest of expletives at the small crowd that had gathered there.  Most of them were from the neighboring buildings and had been jolted out of sleep by the chaos. While some tried to pacify Bahadur or threaten him back to sobriety, others turned on us – “Why do you guys keep this drunkard as your security guard? We’ve complained on this issue before. You should talk to your association and get him replaced straightaway.” If Bahadur lost his job, it would cost his family their current shelter and much more. That night, I stopped being jealous of Ganga.

What does Ganga do if her husband turns rogue? – I found myself mulling over the question for the next couple of days, when she let her guards down and shared the darker pieces of her life with me.

Bahadur, when drunk, sometimes contemplated deserting her for a better wife; a wife who’d drink along with him and bring masti to his life. His friends told him that his wife spoke way too much, and that he beat her up way too less than he ought to. It was not Bahadur’s fault that he was swayed by their advice, believed Ganga. He was orphaned early and grew up awaara (like a vagrant) among these spoilt bewra-s (boozers). It was not her family’s fault either that they had married her off at a tender age to a drunkard twenty years older to her. Her father was run over to death by a car when she was just seven, and the family lost its only source of income. The girls could not be educated and had to be married off early so that the meager left-behind savings could be utilized for the education of the sons.

Apparently, it was nobody’s fault that Ganga was stuck where she was stuck. Apparently, there was no respite. Apparently, as it dawned on her when her sense of hurt subsided, she could rather do without complaining – for she was much better off as compared to the rest of her lot. They got thrashed daily; she got thrashed once in a couple of months.

Other than the poisons of deep-rooted patriarchy and wealth disparity that afflicts the entire sub-continent, is there any other factor that contributes to Ganga’s vulnerability to abuse?

Is she capable of working hard enough to provide independently for her sons and herself? May be.

Does she have a minimal job security? If she were to be bedridden for a couple of weeks and irregular to work for another month or so, say due to a relapse of the severe anemia she had last year, how many jobs would she retain? How would she cover the regular expenses for the period of her joblessness in the absence of a paid notice period and a fallback bank balance? Does her salary allow her to save for rainy days? And what about the rising healthcare costs? Can the Gangas of our country afford health insurance coverage for themselves and their family?

Is it justified that the profession of a domestic help should squeeze away her time and energy as long she is healthy and capable, and in turn guarantee her almost nothing beyond two square meals a day? How much disadvantage would it put us in if our maids were legally entitled to formal employment contracts with minimum wage policies to be adhered to, in addition to a weekly day off and a certain number of sick leaves per year? How much would it benefit the country to have its huge sector of domestic workforce formalized? 

Bahadur has been sober for the past three weeks, and Ganga smiles a lot. But Ganga’s smile is fragile. And now I know the sparkle in Karan and Arjun’s eyes to be less perennial than it seems to be. So let us take a peek at the alien world from which numerous alien hands emerge every morning to sweep our floors, dust our furniture, cook our meals and keep our happy households running. What do our eyes see? What do our hearts say?

Acknowledge. Share. Raise a mass concern if you feel so. 

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Mosses, Tombstones and a Lingering Morning, May 26, 2014

Lt Col. Miss Violet David “Sunbeam” rose from her grave and beamed at me with the quiet radiance of the springtime sun. I smiled back gratefully. The last couple of minutes had had me wondering about the curious title engraved next to her name on her epitaph. Now I knew.

It was the morning of May 26, 2014, our third and final day in Ooty, and Sourav and I had sauntered to the cemetery behind St. Stephen’s Church in search of some good photographic subjects. The dead didn’t approve. With my lens aimed at the nooks and crevices of their mossy tombstones and broken crosses, we were unwelcome intruders. The tall trees that spread out their hundred and one arms to form the wall that holds the churchyard a world apart from the rest of Ooty conveyed to us that we had stepped into a sacred place. So did the birds and the crickets that chirped in a rather measured tone, and the sun that shone sparingly through the foliage. We packed our gadgets away.

The cemetery, with its many decrepit colonial era tombs covered with layers of fallen leaves, mosses and wild flowers, teemed with a silent consciousness. Fragments of a long-lost Ooty stay trapped here, in the collective memory of all who lay here. A Major General William Pitt Macdonald, Madras Staff Corps, sat stone-faced at a lonely corner of his grave. It was the 12th of March, 1867 when he had passed away – says his epitaph. His face, with its innumerable lines and wrinkles, had witnessed the rolling of decades with the deepest impassivity. A Victor David “Sunbeam” strolled past us, hand in hand with Violet. They had died as recently as 2007 and 2011 respectively, and their distinctively unscathed black marble tombstones stood out rather as misfits amid the surrounding unkemptness. A few ill-fated Brit kids, who had succumbed to various epidemics more than a century ago, loosely gathered around us. Their eyes for sure had stories to tell. Their ears thirsted for tales of all the newness that continually unfolded in the world beyond the church and the trees – and was yet beyond their reach.

We couldn’t speak to each other. I wish we could. Their voice is too subtle for us, and ours, disturbingly loud for them. They are creatures made of thin air, and when they were more than air, they had treaded the same lanes of Ooty that we tread today.  They belonged to families that founded, planned, built Ooty and served in its armies.

That afternoon, we started back for Bangalore, thus concluding my third trip to Ooty. The ethereal morning spent at St. Stephen’s, of course, is destined to remain etched in my memory as a precious takeaway for years to come.

How to Drive a Driver, May 25, 2014

Telescope House, Doddabetta Peak
Ooty, on Day 2 of our stay, thrust upon us this driver who'd get cold feet at the very sight of a traffic congestion! He'd grumble and whine, and look as sad and miserable as a forlorn puppy, only to get us out of his car. He'd prod us to walk 3 kilometers uphill to visit a point of interest, while he'd park his car somewhere downhill and enjoy a sweet nap. Sourav would consider obliging, I would turn defiant, my osteo-arthritis afflicted MIL would get into panic and my DIL would diligently try to play the referee in the ensuing chaos. 

"Let's arrive at a decision.", he'd say. "Do we, or do we not, want to see this place? Is it, or is it not, worth an hour of uphill walk? In case it is, does that leave us enough time to cover the rest of the sightseeing points by evening? And in case it is not, is it feasible for him to turn his car back?" His questions would have the precision to invoke a clear-cut majority rule, and yet we'd debate on hopelessly and haplessly to the point of a deadlock. The driver would be pestered a few more times to line up behind the stagnant queue of cars, and he'd nod like a stubborn mule, looking sadder and sadder with each passing minute. Finally we'd budge and decide to give the place a miss, and voila, the traffic ahead of us would suddenly start moving! We'd unanimously cheer, only to land up in the same soup, or loop, in the next 10 minutes - the takeaway lesson being, NEVER visit Ooty in the peak of the tourist season!!!

The view from Telescope House

Anyways, if I manage to ignore the element of unentertaining 'loopiness' that prevailed throughout the day, and one particular episode of our driver running into serious trouble with the policemen, and yet another all-the-more-inexplicable episode of us actually having to walk 3 km through mostly traffic-less roads and fields to discover the parked vehicle, the day turned out to be good. We visited the Doddabetta Peak, the highest point in Ooty, and caught a lovely glimpse of the surrounding hill slopes through one of the telescopes maintained in the Telescope House. We also enjoyed a demonstration of the tea-making process and machinery, along with a complimentary cup of Nilgiri Tea, at the Doddabetta Tea Factory. By the time we left Doddabetta to travel to Coonoor, our car dickey was filled with boxes of many sizes and shapes, all holding Nilgiri Tea in its many available flavors. 

While Coonoor itself offers some splendid viewpoints - Dolphon's Nose, Lamb's Rock and Lady Canning’s Seat - that provide breathtaking panoramic views of the lush Nilgiris, the journey to and fro Coonoor turned out to be no less visually fulfilling. As we meandered from one slope to another along the serpentine hillside paths, each turn brought forth a yet new look of the layered Nilgiri greenery - be it in the form of its untamed forests, grass-covered valleys or wide tea and coffeee plantations. 

Ensuing Dusk
On our way back to Maruthi Cottages, we briefly touched a very happening Ooty Lake brimming with adults and kids alike, with hundreds of people lined up at the Boat House to avail the paddle and motor boating facilities. The day wrapped up with Sourav and I taking a long semi-aimless stroll to the serene St. Stephen's Church, and along the busy streets of Charring Cross, and we ended up buying more handmade chocolates, 'Varkees' and aromatic spices for ourselves and our friends back in Bangalore and Kolkata.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

An Ooty Downpour, May 24, 2014

This post has been selected for BlogAdda's TangyTuesday Picks (July 1, 2014).

It was not the first time Ooty saw me. She had, in fact, known me back in 2008, much before I got married, even before I shifted to Bangalore. The wind under my wings had grown curiously strong those days, and they could fly me from Kolkata to Hyderabad to Bangalore to Ooty, all in a single weekend, at the drop of a hat. Prior bookings? Who cared 'bout them? Hectic schedules? Who gave a damn? 

But now that I am married, and (therefore) chubbier, and have Lazy-lazy-lazybonesourav as my husband, and was travelling for the first time with my new parents, things were different. Full-sleeper bus berths were booked via Redbus well in advance, and MakeMyTrip hotel listings were scanned and re-scanned to achieve absolute unanimity of choice. The results were somewhat lukewarm. While I snored gracefully (or so my husband claims) throughout the night of our journey (from Bangalore to Ooty), the rest of the folks
 had sleep rattled out of their eyes and bones by the jerky ride. And the first glance of the hotel we had booked, Maruthi Cottages, had us suspect the plus-fifty praise-gushing MakeMyTrip/TripAdvisor reviewers to be bots. 

Ooty welcomed us with a torrential downpour that had Sourav and I undertake nothing short of an adventure in order to procure lunch. Our hotel offered no dining or room service facilities, though their website designer had the gifted imagination to advertise separate vegetarian and non-vegetarian restaurants in the premise. We ate, watched the rains, sneaked into our blankets, still watched the rains, slept, dreamt of an Ooty in floods, and finally woke up to a lovely, mildly rain-sodden evening tempting us to step out. We ventured out to the Botanical Gardens that was muddy, splashy and on the verge of a stampede, courtesy to an impressive flower show, an unimpressive cultural event and some ministerial visit. Maruthi Cottages turned out to be stone's throw away from Charring Cross, the commercial center of Ooty. And we somewhat forgave the bots on MakeMyTrip after tasting some of the renowned handmade chocolates sold in the shops lined along Charring Cross. 

Night descended with the gleam of a thousand meditating fireflies seated on the hill slopes. We watched mesmerized, only until one of the two supposedly out-of-order TVs in our cottage sprang back to life. City humans, alas, give in to the lure of the idiot box a little too quickly. Some random IPL match, some more heavenly chocolates, a few more clicks, reminiscence of many other hillside trips, and with that, our Day I at Ooty came to its closure.