Wednesday, 28 January 2015

Book Review – Miles to Run Before I Sleep by Sumedha Mahajan

The last sportsperson’s autobiography that I read was Lance Armstrong’s ‘It’s Not About the Bike; My Journey Back to Life’. It was a gift from a friend who emphasized to my unsporting sceptical mind how such books are important to read in the array of other genres that we usually do. Such books? Well, books which show us how legends are made and how they remain so; which are autobiographical but also self-help, because inspiration can be drawn from them; and which bring to us true first-person accounts of people who dreamt beyond the visible. 

Sumedha Mahajan’s ‘Miles to Run Before I Sleep’ is one such book. Sumedha was a married, working woman who was on the brink of embracing motherhood when she decided to take up an extraordinary challenge. She had taken to running in community parks to keep herself fit and out of the hospital, which was her second home because of asthma. While Sumedha’s and her husband’s jobs took them to different cities, Sumedha carried her passion along, so much so that ‘running became my religion’ and she realized soon enough that ‘I am addicted to it and there is no cure’. It is at this point that one phone call from Milind Soman changed her life, as he invited her to run 1500 km from Delhi to Mumbai in 30 days, for Greenathon. ‘I wanted to create history’, and so despite misgivings of her family and unpredictably fragile health, Sumedha ecstatically agreed. 

Miles to Run Before I Sleep’ is not just about the physical challenges that she had to overcome but also about the mental struggles she had to undergo as a woman in India – a married woman who leaves her family behind to run, through conservative villages in shorts, or on dusty highways where even relieving herself and cleaning her menstrual blood came without cover. While her body endured, she had to constantly fight the prejudice of onlookers (even her own crew) who were convinced that she would fail miserably, and primarily because she was a woman. This book then becomes a very personal account of not just an endurance runner but of a woman juggling roles while looking for a new identity. Her story is thus rife with issues that beset so many women trying to challenge the lines of conduct set by a society.

Why are you doing this? They all had the same questions. What could I say that would explain my reasons my actions, my endeavours to rank strangers? What motivated me, made me push myself to the limit of my endurance? It’s not something anyone would have ever understood …’

Miles to Run Before I Sleep’ is Sumedha’s way of making us see and understand exactly this.

Connection, correlation and context

While endurance runners will find enough in the book that they can relate to, three prominent aspects helped make Sumedha’s story one which connects with lay readers, especially because of the correlations the readers can draw between her life and their own. They are – role of parents, a husband’s presence and a flaming ego. 

The Prologue shows us the parents’ instant reactions. Predictably, they wanted to ensure male company during the run and basic physical comfort, at first. Then, once they learnt what the marathon actually entailed, worry and the quintessential concern ‘it’s time for you to run around a baby, not around cities’ escaped their lips. Sumedha signed up for the race anyway, choosing to hear the bits she wanted to. What was left for the parents to do except become cheer leaders waiting at the finishing line, worry and sleepless nights, included? Sound just like our parents, don’t they?

Through the beautifully supportive relationship she shares with her husband, Arvind, Sumedha’s story shows us that side of marriage where ‘with the bib in my hand, I called up Arvind’, not to seek permission for the full marathon but to know his mind, only because she trusts him. Even when he does offer his misgivings the final call always rests with Sumedha. A woman independent in marriage, encouraged by her husband and who decides to follow her in her crew car every weekend only because he cares. A sign that marital dynamics are coming of age, and that not all marriages eat into our ambitions. Something that so many of us experience and thus can relate to.

Then, in so many moments during the long marathon ‘I was dragging myself ahead, but my ego was still not allowing me to listen to my body’. Sumedha’s is a will-power born in her as a child who first feels happy to be able to just play tennis, without even hoping to win it, but soon wants to prove to the people that she is fit and second fiddle to none. On the border is her ego which when defeated (when she gets her first DNF – Did Not Finish tag) rises like a Phoenix soon. With injuries and asthma attacks always hovering in the next polluted town, every blister feeds the ego to push, to move on and further. Sounds quite like mine, and yours? 

The story of ‘Miles to Run Before I Sleep’ is rooted in an Indian context where on the one hand Sumedha is “privileged” to be running as the only woman in the marathon and on the other, ‘I was running through a state where the birth of a girl child was considered to be a curse’. Where either she is seen as a foreigner or asked by little girls to ‘stop wearing clothes like men and dress like girls’. In moments of humour and frustration we see how the ‘Indian highway belongs to the humble dhaba’ really and the real face of TRP-hungry media houses and management politics behind popular shows. By showing polluted cities and towns, man’s role in environmental degradation, around which idea the Greenathon was conceptualized, is given due space too. 

The voice

There is a beautiful simplicity, self-judging honesty and seasoned maturity to this narrator who is looking back at a brave chapter of her own life. Sumedha speaks as if she is talking to you so that some moments remain with you – of camaraderie between friends drinking milk straight from dairy bottles, or of those spent in solitude, reading signs of success in 180 degree rainbows and seeking company in peacocks. There are scenes of loneliness and pain, of bandaging blistered breasts with a sock stuffed in the mouth just so no one knows she is injured. And humorous musings too as ‘I never expected to finish the run with any toenails remaining, but I did not want the first one to go on the very first day of the run’. The voice is of a driven woman and at the same time of one who so many drive over with their prejudices, ‘who treated me as a burden they’d rather let go of’. In this very wavering between energy and demotivation, high notes and low we see the human behind the celebrity, the innermost thoughts behind microphone bytes and the humility of lessons learnt behind the pumping ego.  

However …

While the narration is smooth and, excuse the cliché, breezy, those looking to experience the book as a story per se with a main central character may not find it gripping. Injuries and attacks become predictable after a point and the book speeds up to hurtle towards the finishing line in Mumbai. Perhaps for this reason the road of narration at the end is lined with editorial errors, with the Epilogue inexcusably so. 

In a few places, some generalisations like ‘the educated man is more dangerous than the illiterate one. He is the reason behind the large scale destruction of nature’ seem raw and simplistic. Simultaneously, claims like ‘we had all agreed to be a part of the initiative because we genuinely believed we could make a difference to the environment’ seem tall and unmatched with the personal aim which had led Sumedha on, in the beginning at least. For me, the book would have worked just as well without the pep talk.

Finally …

Many aspects about ‘Miles to Run Before I Sleep’ would seem picked up from the readers’ own lives. Many others make for novel reading for a non-runner reader, like myself. While I cannot say how the book will fare with pro runners, for others who haven’t run a mile yet the book may help reflect on their identity, and the roles they play. It whispers how life, much like the marathon, ‘is not a race, but an endurance run’ and where we are to ‘channel both encouragement and discouragement towards enhancing your performance’ because ‘for every upward incline, there is a downward incline’. 

Sumedha says the run was ‘my passage of self-discovery’. For some, this book might become the same. 

'Miles to Run Before I Sleep' is a Rupa Publication, 2015

[This review was commissioned by Rupa Publications. Views are my own.]

Thursday, 22 January 2015

On Tiger Trails and Travails

Tucked between noisy news of parachuting politicians, noisier roadside shows and noisiest intellectual opinions in 140 characters about both, was a piece of news that made me roar with joy sitting in New Delhi. It said – ‘Good News. Tiger Numbers in India up from 1,400 to 2,226 in 7 Years’. 

Good news, indeed, because tigers and I go back in time a long and winding jungle way. You see, I’ve been looking for them since exactly seven years back. And something tells me my heart-felt but unheard call in the wild, ‘Oh show me your face, a paw, the tail or even a whisker, will you please?’ must have echoed in the various Reserves, Sanctuaries and National Parks I honeymooned in. Must have inspired them to multiply. While then not an inch of stripe did I see, in true election-style I hereby snatch credit for making boy tiger meet girl tiger, man tiger meet woman one, and so on and henceforth for hitting this milestone of 2226. 

As I sit wondering if it’s time for a second run through the wild, this time with greater chances of meeting the ‘Tiger, tiger burning bright’ (albeit without handshakes and hi-fives, Jai Mata Di) I thought of putting my tiger travail flashback to rest by bellowing about it right here. Yes, I call it a travail because to spot a tiger is like looking for a needle in a haystack where the hay is not just wet but spray-painted silver too. 

On the face of it, our jungle sojourns summarized looked something like this: 

On the face of it. 

The greatest thinkers on Facebook warn you that every happy family picture veils a load of sadness (and hen-pecked husbands) behind it. This picture too is that cheery curtain on the stage behind which such misery resides as would make you shudder and sigh. Because, even as we both say ‘cheese!’ in these snaps we had not spotted a single black stripe after visiting the most densely tiger populated habitats and spending hours there. Instead, we could write a thesis on ‘The Cheating Wild Boar; The Grunt that excites as if a Roar’ or ‘Mosquitoes; The Bloody Suckers You Can’t Beat’ or ‘How to Cushion Your Ass against Mud Roads When On a Safari’. A chapter on ‘The Importance of Patience’ picked from sacred texts could be the common one between the three.

Of course, when it first began at Buxa Tiger Reserve I was an uninitiated idiot high on love and love for all things wild. There I stood on the watch tower, excited to know from the beat guard that ‘Any time now, madam, the path behind you will be blessed with a tiger. You can make a wish, it is lucky to spot one.’ With a wish list prepared, mister in tow and khakhi-pants asked to double-check the lock on the gate, we had stood there long enough for migratory birds to have reached South from North, with a lunch break and siesta at the Equator. 

The beginning

Just when we were calling it a day, Jumbo had walked in as if to say ‘I am all that you got, honey. Stay and I’ll spray you with some namak I’m about to eat’. I had said tata to his salt and made my way out of a Reserve which had a tiger in its name but none on its knees four feet, and certainly not for me. 

The standby suitor

I had pocketed the wish-list I had made at Buxa though, hoping to ask the black-and-orange genie for some material pleasures (which soon enough meant Odomos, and drinking water) but failed to summon the other genie who would call the tiger out for me in the first place. 

So, for Sariska National Park we woke up early, really early to have more viewing time. It was cold and misty as we circled the beautiful lake our guide began the tour from. Dear reader, while I may lay the blame for a bursting bladder entirely on the cold, do know that the playfully deceptive whirls of mist in an area teeming with tigers does no good for the enthusiasm and confidence one goes looking for the national animal with. If anything, the mist seems full of evil eyes and with all intentions to pounce at the slightest sound denim makes against denim.

This is where I saw multiple tigers, in my mind's eye

We did see a host of other animals once the sun was up in Sariska, but did we meet The Royal One, snoozing behind the bush or feeding in the grass, swaying his lazy tail at a butterfly or licking her cubs clean? Le Sigh, etc.

As months went by, I kept myself from Googling the probability of spotting a tiger in the wild. Something told me for the number of hours we had spent in these two widely-apart tiger habitats without spotting one would mean we had been incompetent and undeserving failures. I knew now what we thought was our stomachs grumbling with hunger was indeed a tiger purring in pleasure for having tricked us. That what we brushed off as the play of light-and-shadow on the tall trees or dry grass actually had two eyes staring right back at us. 

Oh, if only we had looked harder and not let our rational minds rule supreme.

I looked and waited

He waited on me and looked too
One day, when I made up my mind to bring home a cub of my own, I heard that we would float around in the Sunderbans for two days to spot tigers and tickle crocs with our propellers. I was ecstatic! I was ready to be robbed of breath at the sight of a majestic Bengal getting his paws dirty in the slush and giving me the looks. Except, I had no idea our room for the night in the middle of nowhere and surrounded by nothing human would be as tall and as wide as a baby's cot. Breathless I slept, breathless I woke up. As for what happened the rest of the time?

We learnt the laws of this land. I prayed too. 

We asked around and cried when we heard 'It just passed by'

But looked around, with ferocious hope

Till 2 seemed 4, and everything at least 2

And the deception continued ...
Till the point when faraway egrets seemed to roar

Till dawn became dusk, twice over

No tiger did we ever see, not even the tip of a tail. 

Le Sigh number two.

Aside - whenever we sit and think back to those days of backpacked wild abandon, even the discomforts and disappointments of those days we miss. There is something so unique in seeing plants and animals and native tribes enjoying their natural homes; with an ease that no other place affords and a sense of belonging that another’s territory can never create. Much like us humans, happiest where the heart is and we know the heart is always at home. 

Of course this poetry-in-prose doesn’t mean I am not ready to lock home and go for round two! 1400 has become 2226, the good news, the good news! 

Perhaps, next time I will go lusting for wild boars or deer, squirrels or parakeets. Maybe then I will spot a tiger? Who knows how Murphy the Ranger thinks! Some tiger somewhere has to be born to grace my presence with his majestic frame. It cannot be otherwise. It just cannot be.

I'm not dropping my anchor yet. Not just yet!

Monday, 19 January 2015

What to expect when you’re not expecting

Thank you, Google.

It is that exact time in my life when people have started poring over my stomach to look for signs of a second pregnancy. After all, my first child is now going to be four! And even Doordarshan has known since times Krishi-Darshan that just like the ideal gap between two saplings is 3 feet, the one between children is the same number, in years. While I feel intelligent enough to draw myriad pleasant-thorny parallels between children and plants, wrap those inferences into a theorem and publish them as natty derivations, I am yet to figure out how to keep those eyes from gazing intently at my belly. Or those stranger-getting-weirder mouths from pronouncing, ‘It’s high time now!

High time it is, indeed, that I claim my uterus and its neighbours, my husband’s similarly located organs and my family’s personal choices as exclusively my own. Oh, add my fertility (waning as it may be, main lut gayi) to that list too! 

That family-planning is the community’s business is the single greatest truth that drives the generation which has been-there-popped-theirs’ and packed up the nether regions in chaste panties and briefs for reproductive use in another life now. (Thank God! Some genes need to go dormant till the dinosaurs walk back!) But that doesn’t mean well-wishing minds will jump into the noise-cancelling well just when you want them to, which is exactly the second they ask ‘What about number two now? This is the best time!’ One would imagine they mean it’s a good time to go shit, but a few years into motherhood and you know they mean … well, shit still. Regardless that they barely know you. Oblivious that they may be intruding into private territory. And ignorant of the expression they make when they ask such silly questions – one eyebrow raised, half-a-smile and fleeting glances at your spouse which may want you to scratch their faces with pitch forks.

Such violent thoughts seep into your cherubic minds as would shock you, but probably not more than being asked in McDonalds over an extended family-cum-friends birthday party and across a table-for-twelve in a hall full of din – ‘Your first child is going to school. Are you trying for the second one now?’ Around you heads turn to look (often at your stomach) and on your lips are the words – ‘Yes, madam, I am, with my hand on my softy and his on his Maharaja Mac right this second. Demi-Gods have been born in such super ways one never knows, right?’ But you just smile, shake the image of those hair-spa heads into the fryer and convince your mind that some murders will be in self-defence. Plus, God helps those who help themselves. Amen.

To be asked ‘when next?’ by those you don’t feel akin to is like hearing the sound a fork makes when your tod’s teeth rub against it while having a banana, again and again. But to be advised to ‘have one, one more’ is like seeing the same banana-infested fork being shoved up your nose. These being my exact feelings.

So, what’s my plan? 

Maybe I can carry an 18”x18” cushion and push it in my jumper whenever my radar catches the signal of an individual with an inverted red triangle (c.f. GoI) for a mouth. What fun it would be. ‘Second trimester, aunty ji. Cancel your Europe trip and stay ready for an invite to the baby shower soon. Theme – Stone Age.’ 

Perhaps, a better idea would be to ask the experienced to speak up in the same gathering they advise you so politely in - ‘Do you think a particular rare position is conducive to producing a healthy second child? Planetary, planetary position of course. Your pandit ji should know, nahi?

On a day when I feel totally vanquished I will just remind the tied and dyed kitty party that ‘You know, the world’s oldest mother to conceive naturally was 59 years old. And you are way beyond natural, so why not try it yourself, hain ji?’ All this with one eyebrow raised, half-a-smile and fleeting glances at the revered uncle jis, of course.

Now, any questions? 


Saturday, 17 January 2015

Book Review - Nature Chronicles of India; Essays on Wildlife

I was a 14-year-old adolescent when my adrenal gland malfunctioned. During our nature walk in the thick of Rajaji National Park, Uttarakhand, we had come across two hills of what was casually announced to be elephant dung. The wildlife conservationist had excitedly removed his big hat and poked a long stick right through the centre. In those silent seconds, as my heart beat like a drum in a tin can, I was hoping he wouldn’t say ‘it’s fresh’. What did he say? ‘It’s fresh! They are around!’ Mr. Adrenal forgot his function is to fight too, and simply got me sweating for flight while I prayed to the pantheon of Hindu Gods, with particular emphasis on Ganesha, to keep them elephants from reducing me to pulp.  

These true feelings from my history I would not have ever confessed, had it not been for the “encouragement” I vicariously received from Rauf Ali’s essay ‘My First Days in the Field’ in this collection. Rauf Ali had sat ‘huddled for an hour’ in Sengaltheri forest for the fear of an elephant, confessing how ‘steaming elephant dung continued to horrify me for a while’. 

This reference warmed me up (ignore the pun) to ‘Nature Chronicles of India; Essays on Wildlife’, edited by Ananda Banerjee. I am no scientist, I don’t know Warbler from Babbler, I don’t dream of snow leopards and all I did with my parent’s Down-to-Earth magazines was make cut-outs for my school projects. Thankfully, this collection doesn’t ask for an informed background. In turn, it aims to inform and also entertain as it educates lay-readers about our natural history, conservation of lesser known species, community efforts and personal experiences of conservationists, wildlife experts, researchers, journalists and British colonists. (Yes, them too! Did you know – The process of documenting modern natural history in India started with the colonization of the country by the British? Now you do!)

The book is divided into two sections,  Contemporary Writings, which feature writings from modern researches in wildlife conservation from the Indian subcontinent, and From the Archives, which consists of diverse stories by seven British wildlife writers. The editor has chosen those works which unveil lesser-known species, and writings shelved in corners of libraries,  hidden by layers of dust and perhaps a lazy librarian.

The essays, in a nut turtle shell

Just like no two Zebras can have the same pattern of stripes, each essay in the book is unique, in what it aims to convey and how it puts it forth. The information and experiences, both contemporary and colonial, are interspersed with not just meaningful suggestions towards conservation but anecdotal humour straight from the thickets, or from within the writers’ homes. 

Jay Mazoomdar’s ‘Community Conservation: A Work in Progress’ reads like a travel narrative, combining food with people with statistics with over-due Olive Ridley hatchings. Jay effortlessly informs us about these turtles and of our pet-mistakes through ‘souvenir anecdotes’. By introducing us to Anna, ‘a villager in his mid-sixties … the face of turtle conservation at Velas’, Jay impresses upon us readers the role communities can play. I do wish I had “seen” the eggs hatch, though. Had not an impatient youngster pleaded – ‘You keep saying they are overdue. Just perform a Caesarean, guys!’? 

Krupakar and Senani have been ‘conversing with several generations of wild dogs (dhole)’ and the essay ‘Wild Dogs’ gives us a peek into this elusive species and the travails of trailing them in areas where ‘headlines … like the death of a chief minister in a helicopter crash would reach us a month later’. Mada, in his ‘mini-skirt lungi’ becomes an example of how native tribes can act as invaluable support for researchers, because nature’s lessons are, after all, available for all to learn, together.

Rauf Ali’s account ‘My First Days in the Field’ deserves mention not just for the dung-and-danger connection I mentioned. This memoir shows us in minute detail, the real life of a wildlife ecologist and the tasks he has to master- from learning to drive in a rainforest and communicating with rest house boys without a shared language to managing the red-tape involved in convincing park authorities that the idea of pursuing research on monkeys was not hilarious, and that he did not steal chappals! P.S – He reveals a tiger scam too! 

In ‘Are Warblers Less Important Than Tigers?’ Madhusudan Katti argues in favour of keeping the lens of attention on the mini- and micro-fauna too and embracing a broader ecological perspective. Ananda Banerjee’s essay ‘The Flight of the Amur Falcon’ portrays the ground reality of how grants and assistance can convert ‘a scene of massacre (of the Amur) like no other’ in a Nagaland village to one where government campaigns and even the church get together to protect this beautiful migratory bird which covers 22,000 kilometres in a year!

Warm Turtles in Cold Waters: The Leatherback’s Journey’ by Kartik Shanker gives us a smattering of surveys and science and ways to save this fascinating creature. And Yash Veer Bhatnagar’s ‘Lunch with the Snow Leopard’ serves us a lovely narrative of how he went looking for the ibex and how he found a snow leopard looking right back at him! 

The section From the Archives is a fascinating window into the forests of yore through accounts of British civil servants and naturalists, army men and ornithologists. The seven essays also offer a peep into the mind of the colonizer, a foreigner looking to nest in alien territory and among exotic species. 

The Lonely Tiger’ by Hugh Allen is a beautifully told story of an orphaned tiger cub. But before Hugh makes us sit on a fork made by a giant tree to look around for the tigers, the essay documents how the first criticisms against ‘over-keen sportsmen’ and the idea of gaming trickled in. Sadly, it required ‘much more plain common sense’ than was abound at that time. Alternating between heart-warming descriptions of a tiger family to wrenching ones of injury and death, this essay moves the reader. The Lonely Tiger’s image like that of – ‘a small boy pondering the cruel fate that had killed his mother first and then his sister, and so condemned him to the heartache of loneliness and unexciting games played on his own’ will linger.

A very short essay called ‘The Seven Sisters’ is so full of wit that even the ‘disreputable-looking’ Babblers would not mind the honest portrayal Frank Finn gives of them. A Babbler is ‘in about the same stage of moral evolution as that represented by the public school boy’ and it ‘could not be dignified if it tried’, says Frank, in all frankness. Oh, and Dehra Dun, my hometown, is probably inhabited by a particularly ‘war-like clan’ of Crateropus canorus. What can I say but beware!

Edward Hamilton Aitken’s ‘The Bats’ is another hilariously enjoyable read. Aitken’s amusing love-hate relationship with this ‘sort of incarnations of Satan’ with ‘extraordinary detective apparatus’ will keep you hungering for more, much like the bat hungers for unripe berries all night long. Almost as an afterthought he mentions their virtues but also says that ‘beyond this in their praise it would be affectation to go: their virtues are not of the striking sort’. I would agree!

The Indian Leopard’ by Richard Lydekker is packed with a lot of scientific information about the species. ‘The Kharakpoor Hills’ by Edward Lockwood, ‘The Sal Forests’ by Captain James Forsyth and ‘The Mysore Jungles’ by George Peress Sanderson are significant for the panoramic picture they paint of places and the people inhabiting them. It is an interesting perspective of our homeland by foreigners, and one which we were yet to arrive at. In case you are wondering, no offensive colonial gaze directed towards the natives was found in them (except once or maybe twice) and by and large the descriptions of the various tribes and forest dwellers was ‘truthful and honest almost to a fault’. These three essays document how man and nature coexisted. (As an aside and quite ironically, while Captain James finds the Byga tribes ‘most terrible enemy to the forests’ he enjoys his game, hunting for meat to finally spend a ‘Christmas of considerable joviality in that remote wilderness’ with the dinner consisting of meats of many kinds. Ahem!)  

Wow moments of truth

This review cannot be complete without an interesting list of trivia I gathered from the book. Did you know:

- The sex of a sea turtle hatchling is determined by the incubation temperature. 
- In the abundance of summer, the ibex selects its forage based on the nutritional value of the plant.
- Many trees in forest fires smoulder for months!
- A white-bellied sea eagle usually pairs by the age of six and uses the same nest for the rest of its 30-year-life.

While we as humans cannot follow the ways of the white-bellied sea eagle (age of six!), there are myriad ways in which nature and its creatures hold valuable lessons for us. ‘Nature Chronicles of India’ tells you of the contempt the migratory birds have ‘for human geopolitical boundaries’. The Babbler may be appallingly ugly but with devoted courage this ‘feeble-winged creature will rush to the defence of a comrade held in the grip of a trained hawk’! Even the bats have one lovely virtue – family affection. 

The essays on wildlife contained in this collection can be enjoyed by young and old, informed or not, alike, because they take us beyond Rudyard Kipling and Corbett’s adventures and into the unknown wild. They re-present tales of yore, revive interest in the lesser known creatures, remind us of how we as a community can help in conserving nature and most importantly restore our faith in the basic goodness that runs as a common stream between both the plant and the animal kingdoms. 

However, the book cannot rid you of fear; fear in the middle of a forest with nothing in sight except two hills of just-launched, steaming elephant dung! 

Well, at least I tried!

'Nature Chronicles of India; Essays on Wildlife' is a Rupa Publication, 2014

[This review was commissioned by Rupa Publications. Views are my own.] 

Thursday, 15 January 2015

Doing nothing, in Doon

I knew Ankit had to finish his omlette and milk before his mother let him go to Dheeraj’s place with his Physics book. He said it was 10 am and he’d be down by 10:30, “maximum sey maximum”. His voice had to travel from his second floor balcony to the driveway across the road, over the oval jhoola park and skipping the circular lane skirting it. Of course he had to scream (I’ve heard it runs in the family since 1950, or so). A toddler was going berserk on the swing and his grandmother even more with her vocals. A theli wallah’s nasal was trying to drown it all down under a list of fresh vegetables straight from the hills. I had never heard those names before. Some sounded obscene. In the hibiscus shrub that stood in the corner of the garden a very sweet sounding bird was decidedly delighted to see at least seven different shades of purple blooming in the flowers. Clearly, my father-in-law loves that colour. 

Not that I looked up to see any of this right then. Just the sounds surrounded me, of a sleepy semi-retired colony of officers-of-yore sometimes entertaining visiting grandchildren but mostly themselves; in corners where narrow lanes met, over pickle-bottles lining low boundary walls or even while turning clothes over on clotheslines on roof tops. I didn’t look up to see all that. I was staring. Staring sleepily at my wriggling toes beaming in bright Doon sunlight after a dreary existence inside woollen socks in Delhi’s cold. When was the last time I saw them? Hello Big Toe. Hey there Tiny One. Long time no see …

See, mumma, see! I found a bag of toys in the gar-garage. Look! See! It was behind the bucket of tube-lights!’ I had to look up this time. Who knows what he held in his hands in the name of toys! In a grey matted cloth bag which must have been embroidered by some woman of this house and carried in her trousseau – with huts in cross-stitch and trees in rose-stitch – were orphaned pieces of puzzles and broken toys which were once his father’s treasure. His father’s? His father’s! Imagine the preservation sans preservatives. What stories each piece held, how must he have played with them. Fought over them. With a Dheeraj and an Ankit, perhaps an Ankita, from the hugging houses around? A hurtling sound snapped the thought as the bag was excitedly emptied on the grass. Wonderment made way for concentration, the kid’s tongue popped out, trying to make whole what seemed so out-of-place in the present to me a moment ago. The tongue was a good sign. It meant he was busy now. So I went back to where I was. Hmm. Where was I?   

I ran my fingers in my short crop looking straight up at the sky, stretching my legs all the way to the cacti and folding the slightly wet layers of hair inwards as I went from root to tip, root to tip. The chair creaked a bit, threatening to give way … but oh the sky. Blue. Clean blue. As blue as it gets. But then who knows what the bluest of blue looks like? Would there always be a bluer blue somewhere? No, this is blue. This sky, now is …

Did you keep my blue muffler somewhere?’ he asked, standing at the door of the verandah with an expression which meant he didn’t know what to wear on his birthday after many decades of being born and still needed help. Let me think. I had kept it wrapped on my head all night, because the room had refused to warm up to its visitors. I thought why not try some Scottish wool. While the check on it was so handsome, the icy cold proved the stronger suitor. I asked him to check under my pillow, or in the outside pocket of the suit case, or the living room sofa, or the book shelf on the first floor lobby, even as my lethargic hands ruffled my hair and my head refused to jog its memory too hard. Of course I wanted to get up and help, but I was sitting here because … because ...why was I sitting here? Since how long? What time was it anyway?

A few more minutes and I’d get up... 

I’ll be back in five minutes. It’s almost 10:30 and I forgot to get the milk. No, no, you are not going to get it. Just relax and be. Haan, the phool wala will deliver three plants. Just have him put them near the postbox. I’ll plant them later’ and my father-in-law walked out the gate, a bag in one hand and a newspaper cutting in the other. Hah! He’s meeting friends near the chowmein shop at the bend for a breaking-news group discussion. He’s not coming back soon. No sir, he isn’t! Wait, did he say 10:30? It’s 10:30? Only? 

I pushed my happy toes into the slippers and suddenly stood up with hair dry and glowing. The antique wood under me groaned at the careless treatment. Oh! Here’s the muffler, dear, I was sitting on it all this … but he was already dressed for the day, maybe. I noticed then that Ankit and Dheeraj were together now, poring over a thick book in Dheeraj’s lawn. And it wasn’t Nutan Physics. Not at all! My son in the meantime had engineered an airplane out of pure waste and was chasing a butterfly in it, with a round stone as the pilot. 


That was a nice, relaxing moment of, of … doing nothing. Doing nothing? Is one ever doing nothing, no matter how lazy the morning or how small the town, asked I wisely of the bird witnessing it all near the Bottle Brush at the gate. I breathed in and then out and wrapped the muffler around my neck with a swish and a swirl and a sorry face ready for mister …

Miss, uncle ji told me to put these three dahlias near the postbox’ said a good-looking pahari from over the boundary wall and looking lovely from between the morning glory vine. Miss? One after the other in what seemed such slow motion (but then you never know on certain syrupy mornings) he put those delicate darlings down in a row. There they stayed gleefully, three new born dahlias, watching the blue sky and busy boys, flying planes and butterflies. Waiting, as if, for my father-in-law to get back with much news, much gossip, and hopefully some milk in the jhola too. Three wonderful dahlias, in different shades of purple, of course.

Some things exist to never change. Like ... like doing nothing in Dehra Dun.

Wednesday, 14 January 2015

A defining health trend

I have heard enough number of times how with each successive generation good health and physical fitness are on the decline. Genes or lifestyle, careers or deficiencies, something seems to be amiss somewhere. There is no longer a minimum age for medical problems once known to rear their heads only after half the lifetimes were up. It almost seems as if every previous generation is now fitter than the next. For someone like me who knows the unmatchable joys of being a mother, what remains a most distressing trend is the increase in number of couples trying to have babies but without success. 

You too would know enough women who are trying but are unable to conceive. You would also have noticed how this inability can affect their personal relationships, sociability, psychological health and general well being. Often, the reasons remain unknown and lots of valuable time is lost in trial and anticipation. Many times, superstitions and fruitless rituals prolong not just the period of waiting for a natural pregnancy but also the stress that comes from it all. 

This is where it becomes important to embrace newer technologies in medicine; to open our minds to what was once lesser known but is now charging ahead successfully. And that is – Assisted Reproductive Technology by Nova IVI Fertility.  

Nova IVI Fertility is a joint venture between Nova Pulse, India, and IVI, Spain to introduce exceptional standards of processes, protocols and policies that exist in the West to deliver the most sophisticated Assisted Reproductive Technology in India.

It is India’s largest chain of fertility centres that offers women the best and most ethical infertility treatment using the latest medical and surgical techniques. Established in 2009, Nova Specialty Hospitals’ mission is to provide world-class surgical care that is widely accessible at an affordable cost.

Nova IVI Fertility Clinics achieved and completed 5000 successful pregnancies in the last 3 years. Skilled embryologists, clinical expertise and cutting edge technology helped achieve this happy number. And what also helped was trust in their IVF technology in partnership with IVI Spain, which gave hope to thousands of women who had difficulty conceiving naturally. 

As of now, Nova IVI Fertility Clinics are present in 8 cities across the country – namely Ahmedabad, Bangalore, Kolkata, Mumbai, New Delhi, Chennai, Jalandhar and Hyderabad.

[This post is a sponsored review.]

The Strength of Preparedness

If you were to look inside my handbag readied for a simple trip to the nearby market, you would think I was preparing for the sky to fall down. From band-aids to energy bars, umbrellas to phone chargers, I carry what I can out of the Very Important Things list that permanently hangs on my fridge. Ask me why and I will probably just leave it at a ‘just in case’ scenario. But scratch the surface a tiny bit and you will realize how my handbag is symbolic of my mind; a mind that is always preparing for the sudden and unexpected, good or bad. 

But not everything that destiny has in store for us can be taken care of by objects in a bag. The worst cards dealt ask much more of us, as persons. We need fortitude and resilience to walk beyond the speed breaker. We need the strength, the courage that comes from support, like a 24 by 7 power back-up that never lets the lights go off. Which is why, we need foresight which helps us look ahead and plan, in time and no matter how uncertain life remains.

It is at all these levels that Birla Sun Life Insurance's campaign “Khud Ko Kar Buland” and its touching video spoke to me. While there are enough surprises in life that we cannot control, it is the strength of preparedness that helps us control the Jack-in-the-box.

Birla Sun Life Insurance believes that security and planning can help protect your dreams and those of your loved ones, too. Not just that! Security also means an opportunity to follow your dreams and do great things in life. In keeping with this essential mantra, Birla’s new campaign is a call for strength - “Khud Ko Kar Buland”.

And the video brings this out very well, in a context that is conspicuous by its absence in popular media. The father in the video is a single parent who receives an unexpected piece of news regarding his child’s health. But, instead of getting discouraged and giving up he immediately starts planning ahead, preparing to give his child that security he needs to live his life happily. The short video covers many years of their lives together, highlighting the troubles yet keeping the spotlight on what helps alleviate them.

Do watch this video of a very meaningful campaign.

[This is a sponsored campaign review. Thoughts are my own.]

Monday, 5 January 2015

Book Review – The Black Hill by Mamang Dai

The narrator in Mamang Dai’s latest novel says for the book - ‘these are the words of a woman telling me a story’; where, how, she doesn’t know. As if in an empty hut ‘a closed book is opening’ to bring back from the past this ‘silent and endless’ story. Immediately after, the narrator pronounces this tale a part of the ‘many lost stories in the world’. Thus begins the Prologue to ‘The Black Hill’, where two things have happened. The narrator (inseparable from the author) has distanced herself from the conception of the story but in doing so immediately made it a part of the ‘versions that were misplaced yesterday or a thousand years ago’, that is, given it a universally relevant status of undocumented “history”.

The Black Hill’ is the story of Gimur, a girl from the Abor tribe who runs away with Kajinsha of the Mishmee tribe. Their tale of love is painted with the mid-nineteenth century Northeast India as the background - a time when foreign winds had brought the East India Company into the region, and along with it inter-tribe unrest and superstitious xenophobia within the native dwellers. It had also brought in missionaries, one of them being Father Nicolas Krick, a Jesuit priest who wanted to carry his mission to Tibet. ‘The Black Hill’ is a richly imagined story descriptively created around two recorded historical events - this French priest’s mysterious disappearance and the execution of Kajinsha for his murder. The ‘miglun’ – the white men – remain a constant presence, peripheral but very much there, for the story is set between 1847 and 1855.

What forms the backbone to the book is, in the words of the narrator – 

what I believe: that after everything is laid to rest, all that matters is love; and that memory gives 
life, and life never ends.’

The book gives shape to the love between a man and a woman, expresses a priest’s love for his divine calling and portrays a community’s love for land, territory and for the identity drawn from its ownership. In thick jungles and barren landscapes these different loves intertwine, through events first and finally and most beautifully in essence too. 

Gimur and Kajinsha

While the Abor tribe struggles to fend off strangers, Gimur is ‘the lone arrow flying over the hill’ as she elopes with Kajinsha of the Mishmee tribe. Soon enough, the inter-tribe politics fuelled by suspicion for the ‘white devils’ ensnare the warrior Kajinsha’s life of love in the lone hut. ‘How have I failed you? Why have you failed me?’ remain unspoken personal questions between the couple, heard but gone unanswered.  For, among all the unrest and conspiracy, where is the time? Gimur muses if ‘it was only a dream the Gods had spun out for their sport?’ but swears to ‘spin it further … and let the gods be damned!’ Her love for Kajinsha draws blood. She finally sees Kajinsha caged in jail, his ‘eyes … burning darkly, looking at her with love. That look!’ the final look of affirmation that their love has out-lived their lives, untainted by the ‘evil, unhappy wind’. In the last scene, sitting on a hill all she is left with is memory – 

The gods have played a game. They tossed something down – a piece of soul, maybe … and their toy broke into two. One piece was found by Kajinsha and the other – I swallowed it! Now they cannot find a way to undo what has happened…

Krick’s Faith

The most well-fleshed and thought-provoking character is that of ‘padri’ Krick, who is seeking a ‘faith that is unshakeable’ and for which he needed ‘to live another life’. In his quest ‘to love and to serve’ Krick develops a single-minded determination to reach Tibet, ‘the land of savage mountaineers’. The book maps Krick’s actual physical journey through tribal villages, nettled with the most precarious circumstances. The book also portrays his personal growth in the midst of ‘the beauty of creation unfolding before him’. His philosophical musings lend the book so much poetic beauty, as the reader sees ‘the nature of faith’ itself personified in this seeker. In the end, by surviving this land and its diseases as one of them, Krick comes to understand the faith of the ‘savages’ who surround him, indeed metamorphosing into their ‘foreigner shaman’ – 

Everywhere people clung to their beliefs, and why not … it was a person’s claim to being someone on earth. It added up to a life. He knew it well now and he felt closer to the nature of the sacred. 
Every moment was complete and important.

At the doorstep of death, what he sees is a surreal marriage of the belief he carried to Assam and the one he gathered along his journey in it. A very beautiful description of dying and death. 

The love of Land

In deft strokes of Realism, we are shown how various tribes live and love, heal and celebrate - steeped in superstition, ridden with taboos, bound by rituals and governed by nature’s whims for bare survival. As if lending them credence, ‘The Black Hill’ shows many visions and omens coming true in the book; at once fascinating but hard to believe, too. Recurrent signs that ‘a bad time is coming’ are impressed upon the reader, with the physical presence and imagined intentions of the miglun fuelling this environment of ‘war and violence’. All because of Land. 

Land meant survival – a territory to call your own, to grow your food in, and thus survive. Gimur muses … 

the root of conflict … men spoke of land as a possession… every piece of land was claimed … men fought and killed each other. Blood flowed. Brothers became enemies… what is land? Why is it so precious? … it is where you were born! … and how important was that?

Land is also identity, passed down generations. For Kajinsha ‘their land could not be divided up, for they had lived in these lands for centuries, while empires had come and gone’. While his father said ‘if a man owns land he owns rest’, that was once upon a time. Now, the times have changed Kajinsha’s perspective and his aim - If there is land, you need to stake your claim to it. ‘We read the land. The land is our book.’ It is religion, nothing less! 

And land is also the root of suspicion for the outsider, and towards one’s own. Gimur thinks for Krick – ‘I think we should not talk to them. The moment we speak our breath leaves us and the strangers can take our hearts away with their words’.  The white men are taking their people ‘away from us’, and taking control of their lives away from their own hands, through their own land. And so they would fight; shed blood, in the end towards which the book spirals. 

But then, what about the love that got the colonizer here?

For all its intricateness of poetic language, skilful narration of a thick plot and successful drawing in of the reader into its world, the narrator of ‘The Black Hill’ comes across as strangely devoid of an opinion on colonization. More so, because it is set in a context and contains events that cannot be viewed in separation from the larger political events unfolding at that time. The book may not necessarily need an opinion, but what it also lacks in is a real, well-rounded depiction of the colonizers, or even their intent behind occupying prime towns. There are references to mountains of Mica shining like gold and big rocks of granite lazily lying around; there are references to beliefs that white men were coming ‘deeper and deeper’ rumoured to bring ‘death and captivity’; being called ‘the rulers’. But the questions ‘What did they want?’ and ‘what hungers drove them?’ remain prominently unrepresented. After decades of being colonized, we do know the answers, but why is the book so silent about them? 

Thrice in the book, the narrator mentions ‘records’ (government records/history), yet the story seems intentionally created as a unique impression of colonization. All we see are the side-effects that the mere presence of miglun have on the native minds – minds provoked by their own ideas of invasion and cunning, greed and exploitation, and hatred towards those of the community who wanted to embrace change even if ‘it would bring a better life’. 

Maybe Mamang wanted to wrap all humanity in a common thread of vices and virtues; like making the persons of Krick, Gimur and Kajinsha merge into one entity. Perhaps, Mamang’s intention was to show the cracks through which such strong winds of change found home. I do not know. I cannot stop thinking that this alternate “history” seems to be catering to a colonized mind. And, coming from one too. 

So very interesting, isn’t it? My mind right now? ‘A map of bewildering images’!


The Black Hill’ touches you with its poetic beauty, it terrifies you with its realism and it even triggers a re-opening of a debate on colonization. From descriptions appealing to those appalling, the author’s pen creates a darkly fascinating world in the novel. Our half-knowledge about people of our own country will make us see this as ‘exotic’! But we know it is 1847, and hence a context not just far removed from the present but also from popular discourse – political as well as literary.

The book is written in such beautiful language that many passages will look up in askance to be read again, and again. It is a ‘story of love’. It is also a story about ‘treachery of men, and the dark thoughts that grew out of solitude in this cruel and bewitching landscape’. The three thematic Fs of Frontier, Foreigner and Faith find significant space in the book. Many readers may be reminded of Chinua Achebe’s ‘Things Fall Apart’ but an equal number will see how this book falls short of a clear voice on colonization. Nevertheless, much like Achebe’s book, ‘The Black Hill’ shows us the importance of the oral, of telling stories; stories from times gone by but which transcend time, and need to be told. I remember this - 

Tell them about us, Kajinsha had said to her that night in jail. Tell them we were good. Tell them we also had some things to say. But we cannot read and write. So we tell stories.

A book which could be a part of an English Literature course. Look how it makes one study itself! 

'The Black Hill' is an Aleph publication, 2014

[This review was commissioned by Rupa Publications. Views are my own.]

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...