Kitchen Baubles

It is a standing joke in our family that I am a collector of pots and pans. I have been told that I am crazy or that I am a hoarder. “Crazy” is a favorite word that R likes to use. I have been asked what will happen to my collection after me. I have been accused of having lakhs of rupees worth of kitchen utensils and pans – money that could have been put to better use. The number of pressure cookers I own has been counted and recounted and an exaggerated figure has been arrived at, in an attempt to shame me. (R peeked at this and said the word was “dissuade”. No, it is “shame”.)

In my defense, I submit that it is all an exaggeration. Everything I have acquired was at a discounted rate from the cheaper shops over the years. I have never spent more than a few hundreds on anything and then only if it was a guilt-free acquisition. Some of them are gadgets seen in any modern kitchen like a food processor or a mini-chopper, electric items that other people generally ruin and either replace or throw out. It is not my fault that I take good care of whatever I have and my decades old machines are still going strong. My mixer blender is thirty years old. My oven is the same age. The other items were replaced because they broke down at some point, being electronic, or because R wanted an upgrade even when I had not made a demand. Like the washing machine which R had replaced because he thought it went with the furniture upgrade. The kitchen stuff costs less than the monster sofa set I am sure.

There are also gadgets and some pots and equipment acquired from the West on trips abroad or supplied gleefully by D on her visits home, or with disapproval by A, and with nonchalance by S who would say “You want them, you get them”. They satisfied the thirst in me for the “foreign” things that every Indian born before the eighties has and others of that generation will remember. (To clarify, A believes in minimalism, D loves shopping for anyone, and S thinks “Each to his own”.)

Before the new millennium, only a fortunate few could and did flaunt possessions gifted by generous relatives living abroad. The rest of us whose relatives were stingy, had to be content with the limited choice in the market because our country was too poor to be able to import goods and what we had was functional sans variety and sans glamour. My rich classmates generally wore Favre Leuba watches on their wrists while I wore the HMT Sujata which my father had bought after a six month wait and had originally intended for my mother. This was a tiny-faced watch with a brown double-thread strap. The only other ladies’ watch made by HMT was called Nutan and was slightly larger. Everything was made in India and was of shoddy quality in those days. Except the HMT watches which ran for ever without breaking down.

So for a decade of foreign visits and trips home by our children, I acquired differently-shaped pans and kitchen gadgets and exotic – to me – cast iron Lodge products. My family was bemused by my fascination. Of course R. was more than bemused. He was enraged, but my children heeded my pleas either happily or reluctantly. I boldly stood up to R and asked him why I should not buy what pleased me when he could get himself shoes and track pants and T-shirts. His reply was always the same – that he was not stopping me from buying myself shoes and track pants too, knowing very well that I did not want them.

Now thankfully I am over this hunger.

I do have a few pressure cookers in my kitchen but I refuse to count them. They are also of different sizes and materials and are for different uses. Certainly they have been well-cared for, and certainly they do not touch double digits as R is fond of complaining to any friend or stranger. When it comes to my kitchen he displays no reluctance in shaming me and it is always a matter of resentment for me. I wonder what a counsellor would make of it. Would he say I have a right to acquire what I like within limits? And who sets the limits? Is it for a husband to give permission to his wife when she is not actually bankrupting the finances of the home? Is it for him to decide what comes into the house , which the husband generally thinks of as “his” house ? Which leaves me wondering what my status is in the house.

But my true love in the kitchen is my collection of eeya chombus and vengala panais – which are for the aficionados really. For those who do not know, they translate into silver-white pots for making the delicate South Indian rasam and the bell-metal pots for cooking rice and rice dishes like upma and payasam, not forgetting the heavenly sarkkarai pongal (which is actually made with jaggery , not sugar or sarkkarai). It would not taste the same made in stainless steel pans. There are also the Kerala urulis made of a heavy bronze and used for making payasam and vegetable dishes. All of these are expensive no doubt but no more expensive than the skin creams or the lingerie of the modern women or their itty bitty clothes where the design costs more than the material used. I never spend money on those. All the things I buy for my wardrobe are cheap and functional.

Spending much of my day in the kitchen, all the things I have acquired over the years make each day more fun than it would be otherwise. I like to experiment and I also like to cook the way my grandmother did, making food that tastes authentic and divine, in more ways than one. Food is “annam” which is offered up or presented to the gods as Naivedyam before we eat it. Cooking must be done after a bath with pure ingredients in a clean kitchen using traditional, sometimes modern, pots and pans. It should be eaten with reverence because we are what we eat. Families should eat together at the same time. Food should, in short, be cooked with love and eaten with love.

I know that what I have said will be a subject for ridicule or counter-arguments. But books that say food should be eaten with “mindfulness’ fly off the counters. To quote an Indian proverb – ghar ki murghi daal baraabar. I do not like bringing a chicken into this discussion – being a strict vegetarian – but this proverb is very apropos. What our parents or grandparents have always said – about eating food – is now being reiterated by many self-professed Buddhist proponents in the West and is being lapped up by our people at home.

In my grandparents’ home, when called to dinner, everybody sat down at their plates or banana leaves at the same time. Food was never served till all had taken their places. It was served in the same order to all and no talking was permitted. No books were allowed. After we had finished eating we either washed our plates or rolled up the banana leaves and put them in the garbage bin for the cows and crows. Then the floor would be cleaned because we always sat on the floor to eat. No cutlery was used and we ate with our fingers. The food was hot and was served with love by mothers and grandmothers who ate immediately after. No food was allowed to be wasted.

That was mindful eating.

It was my generation that started the rot. Dining tables became de rigueur. It began with a proclamation of having “arrived” and became a matter of convenience. Books were allowed at the table because the father thought he needed to read the newspaper and naturally the children wanted to be allowed to read books. The ubiquitous TV was kept turned on because it was a matter of catching up with the day’s happenings or with the serials where the heroines wailed loudly blaming themselves for everything that had ever happened and villainous females cursed the heroine and her family and called down all the plagues upon them. From the book we moved on to the cell phone. Then the children stopped coming to the table because they were busy with their laptops or phones in their bedrooms. The food was plated and delivered in their rooms where it was never eaten hot. The parents moved to the sofa before the TV with their own plates because there was no one to eat with. The next thing was for the food to be left in the kitchen for the children to help themselves if they were hungry and when they felt the need to eat. The parents ate anyway because the father thought of the cost of providing the food and the mother wanted to taste the food she had cooked with so much labor. It was not till the next morning that she knew whether the night’s dinner had been eaten. Then she threw away whatever had gone bad and heated up what she could for her lunch.

Now every Indian home has a dining table in the hall with six chairs. It has one or two bowls on it overflowing with keys and bills and wallets and loose change. Sometimes a bag of groceries and fruits sits on it waiting to be put away. Bags of wafers and chivda – opened and unopened – lie on it for anyone to pick up when they want something to munch on. Now and then, all these are pushed to one side, and the dining table is used as an ironing table. The chairs are never used unless a large group of relatives are visiting and then they are pulled out as seats.

I agree that I may have a lot more in my kitchen than I may ever use, but it is the one place in the house where I can be myself and please myself in cooking and enjoy the feeling of being in my own skin. The other rooms are where I have to please the rest of the family and where I am not at home. The kitchen belongs to me. I own it.

Before I forget, I remember the day when an old neighbor admired my kitchen and said “Oh, I have more cookers than these. Whenever I see a differently-shaped one I buy it!” I repeated it to R” with glee.

Two Thoughts

A while ago, I was reading a book on a Yogi – T Krishnamacharya – by his son. In my ignorance, I had never heard of this remarkable Yogi and Yoga teacher who had been trained in the Himalayas and had lived in Chennai, and as a householder, set up a training institute on Cutchery Road in Mylapore. It is still being run there in an old, somewhat dilapidated building.

In this book I came across the advice given by Krishnamacharya to his son – “never worry about your children or grandchildren”. It was as if lightning had struck. He says that once your children have grown up, your responsibility for them ceases. They are adults and no longer your charge.

This I realize is said in the context of the Hindu thinking that we are all souls or atmas who have incarnated on Earth for our own purposes, the goal being to experience our karma. Our children are ours only to be taken care of and brought up to adulthood. At some stage, they are here to experience their own karma and there is no more role for us to play in their lives. I remember having heard that till the age of twelve, they are the instrument of their parents’ karma. Whatever happens to them till then is a result of their parents’ actions in their past life. After that it is the result of their own karma and that is why the parents cannot blame themselves for what goes on in the lives of their children especially after they grow up. Their experiences are their own.

The corollary of this and what remains unsaid is that people should stay in their own lives and detach themselves from their children – or indeed from any other individual, no matter if related in any way – because each atma is separate, at least on earth, and must find its own way ahead. This is possible only with non-attachment, which is the ultimate goal of a Hindu. This is a very difficult achievement for anyone after years of attachment and the difficulty is attributed to Ajnaana, which actually refers to lack of wisdom or non-enlightenment. Very few people can hope to become non-attached even in the last few years of life, which is why the dying person wants his family around him at the end. It is not a good or sensible desire for the dying Hindu.

In the old days the Kings were expected to hand over their reins to their children when they became fit to rule. To avoid supervising or interfering, they moved to the forests with their wives, and lived in non-political retirement. At a later stage, they began to lead an ascetic life. The ordinary householders did not have the luxury of leaving the city or village, or rather, the forests could hold only so many, so they stayed at home and began to devote themselves to their prayers and practice of detachment.

We, in modern society, are the householders who are unable to withdraw into the forests. We are still involved with our lives and the lives of our children, largely because we live in a digital age. We can communicate with anyone, we can visit each other, and there is no need to rely on the postman for any updates. While not being actually present, we have the illusion of being there.

When we were younger, it took us more than a week to get news from someone, if the postman was regular. Telegrams were reserved for bad news generally. Visits were for summer or for attending a wedding, generally in a village or in the hometown. Attendance depended on the financial position, which was usually poor. So it fell to one person to represent the family at the wedding and meet the other relatives and catch up on years’ worth news.

I think of M seeing us as a 22 month-old on the video call and saying Hello Patti and See you later Patti, and, I remember D at the same age, seeing her father after a four month absence and asking me who that Uncle was. (D was more talkative than most toddlers at that age.)

The question is how to cultivate detachment enough that we stop worrying about how our children are getting along. There are enough disquieting things in their lives for us to be anxious about, no matter how much they try to reassure us that they are all right. It may be hard for us to believe. But what they are saying is probably that it is not for us to worry about them because it is their life and they can and will deal with it. It is still hard to believe, but this is where we have to fall back upon our age-old Hindu belief that it is time for us to move out figuratively into the forest. Whether they are happy or sad, it is for each person to carry their own burden.

When I think about it, my grandparents – at least one widowed grandfather – played no part in my father’s life after settling his wedding. My father was married at the age of twenty-one after moving to the city in search of a job, and after that my grandfather knew nothing of my father’s life beyond the facts of our births. That was his own doing because he lived in the village and had a second family to care for. But he was not alone in this. This was the general state of affairs in most families of that time. So my grandfather was content living his life in his distant village and my father struggled along in his. My father would have appreciated some help and support no doubt, but it was not the practice then.

Now we are back to that way of thinking due to circumstances – which mean that this is the age of the NRI parents. This is a misnomer in itself because it is the children who are the NRIs, not the parents. As NRI parents, we see up close, yet paradoxically from an invisible distance, the lives of our children. There is much that we wish could change in their lives, much that we cannot do anything about, but watch helplessly nevertheless. A person who is baffled by the Internet is not necessarily stupid. He is probably wiser when it comes to life. He could not have survived otherwise. Life has thrown so many things at him.

Many young Indians seem to believe they are rebels, when there is nothing to rebel against. They are free to shape their lives any way they wish, because they are in a new country where they face no interference, but instead of retaining what is valuable from their old lives and adopting what will add more value from a new country, they seem bent upon throwing away everything that is from their past. It is a case of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. There is no need for a wholesale rejection of their past because what they are today and are proud of being, has been shaped by the way they were brought up back home. If travel helps to broaden the mind, then migrating should do so even more. A person who has lived in different countries should add breadth and depth to his vision. Addition, not subtraction, should be the desired goal.

I began by talking about detachment but have wandered off the subject, but perhaps not too far off. Our children have their own lives, however happy or unhappy they may seem to us. It is not the life we would have chosen for ourselves or was ever thrust upon us, rather. We have lived the way we best could and our choices are very limited now. Realistically, we cannot create happiness for our children or protect them from the vicissitudes of life, much as we may like to. For one thing, it is the life they have chosen for themselves and it is what they have, not what we see. For another, we are only passing through. We will have to go back to our home far away both literally and metaphorically, and it is better to imagine they are all right rather than worry over them. This is the modern life which mirrors the old days when my grandfather had no connection with our life. We are connected to many digitally, but not in fact. Technology has made this connection easier, but also a lot more difficult for us to insulate ourselves from the outside world. Insulation is needed in the face of helplessness. Detachment is even more helpful. That comes from Vairagya which is determined detachment – or, a steely intent to let go. Vairagya requires constant practice and is very difficult, needless to say.

Whoa There

I will probably be lynched for saying this but the current movement of MeToo leaves me cold. I am skeptical of women who suddenly turn up and say they were victims of sexual harassment years ago. Their claims of having been groped or having been targets of verbal sexual attacks may well be true but many of them have continued to work with their attacker or even partied with him moving as they did in the same social circles. Evidently the harassment did not affect them enough that they moved away or dropped out and certainly not enough that they protested or complained at the time. If they had been child victims who picked up courage years later to complain, I can understand. But many of them were grown women who knew what was happening and could have responded suitably.

Much of this assault is of the kind faced every day by many women on a crowded train or on a footpath from a passerby who quickly walks away. To remain quiet for years, and even continue to meet the man socially or professionally, obviously because it was to their benefit, to then cry “wolf” is what is unacceptable. This trivializes the actual and terrible abuse faced by really vulnerable women and children who are forced to remain quiet in the face of threats to life and fear of social stigma, or the fate of those who did complain only to suffer retribution because they were on the wrong side of social lines of birth and position.

The three month old rape victim is seen less as a victim than an affluent grown woman who says she is suffering prolonged trauma because she was touched on her backside thirty years ago by someone she is still friends with.

Then there is the woman who complained of molestation because her superior touched her hand in the course of an argument/discussion…

Women in India are quick to lodge complaints of molestation in cases of dispute because it is easier and because the onus of disproving it lies with the other person. In our building a woman who had a running dispute with the society over feeding stray dogs inside the complex, accused a society member of molestation and lodged a police complaint. It was fortunate for the member that there were at least twenty witnesses who knew the complaint was false. Even so it took several hours before the man could be extricated from the hands of the police.

There are men who are worried about being alone in the house when the maid comes to work and make it a rule to leave all the doors and windows open.

It is not my case that women do not have a right to protest. But a much-delayed protest is of no value especially when it becomes a case of she says he says. The veracity of the woman becomes doubtful when years have passed since the incident and she seems to have been happily carrying on with her life meanwhile. All the talk of trauma does not convince.

Move on, woman. Make way for the women and children who have actually been raped or abused, and have received no justice.

You have had your fifteen minutes of fame.

People, Good, Bad And?

I am sixty-four years old now. I think it is time that I stopped worrying about expressing my opinions and time I stopped fearing the anger aroused by such expression. I may not have many years left of my life and it seems very cowardly to hide my feelings behind a veneer of politeness and diplomacy. As they say, after the age of sixty death sits on the shoulder. I must tell it as it is before I go.

To me, a hardworking and loyal person is always above someone who may be intelligent but self-centered. After all, intelligence is not a concrete quality. Education, a good job or a large income – all these are incidental. A good person is one who does what is her duty and does not limit herself to it, who has a strong sense of identity but is not self-centered, and who respects other people instead of looking down upon them. No matter how intelligent or educated a person may be, no matter how much material success they may flaunt, what they are inside is more important even for their own selves. A person is born with a high IQ which is an inheritance, not an achievement. But how she lives her life is of her own making. What she does with her life is what she has to face at the end, not the number of books she has read, not her bank balance and not her position at work. Of course there are many who will never learn this, but some of us will learn when it is too late to go back and set things right.

I think the idea of self-worth is taken to such an extreme now that it is less a sense of self than a desperate and aggressive attempt to assert oneself at the cost of even spouse and children. Is it a case of establishing one’s own rights and denying the same to others? In which case it becomes utter selfishness, a ruthless assertion of self that does not recognize or acknowledge other people’s contributions to one’s life. Which is a patently false position to adopt and exploits the goodness of the people who are around them. No one is Athena to have been born fully formed. There are people behind them who worked hard and gave up a lot to help them reach their self-proclaimed heights.

At the end of the day, other people may come and go, people may walk out of your life, but you have to live with who you are. The fortunate ones will see themselves soon enough through the eyes of others and will be shocked. The less fortunate ones will always consider themselves to be superior to the whole world, but if ever the day comes when they are forced to take a good look at themselves, they may end up despising themselves. That day there will be no reviled “others’ , only “you” of whom you have been so proud.

(No, that is not true, because that happens only in books, where the characters either redeem themselves through remorse or get their comeuppance.)

In real life, the good and humble are generally oppressed and the proud and selfish people continue to get their own way. Perhaps this is because there are always good people who are willing to put up with them, even forgive them and cherish them. This is the way of the world and it is no use waiting for realization to dawn on them and impel them to mend their ways.

We are told, in various texts like the Gita, that no work or karma is lowly and doing their allotted karma or duty to the best of their ability is what is expected of anyone. If a scholar is learned, he is only doing what is expected of him, which is, to learn well. If a man of business is wealthy, he should be pleased that he has done his work to his own satisfaction. But neither of them has the right to look down upon a lowly laborer for not being educated or rich. The laborer is doing his allotted work faithfully and honestly, and it is not his fault that he is a laborer and not a scholar or a man of wealth. Birth is an accident and “There, but for the grace of God, go I”. Those who are inordinately proud of what they have achieved would do well to consider how their life would have been if they had been born to the lot of the laborer. Many are only too appreciative of a successful person but do not appreciate the hardships faced by the less successful and the less lucky. Success in a human setting must not be measured in terms of wealth or social acceptance. It must be seen against the background of a person’s life and how hard it must have been for him to have overcome the obstacles in his life.

It is easier for a doctor’s son to become a doctor . A peon’s son becoming a clerk is more difficult. A housemaid’s daughter finds it even more difficult to get a college degree and work in an office. She has the added hurdle of gender to overcome, while an IAS officer’s daughter has an easier life choosing when and whom to marry. Which of these people is more worthy of our admiration?

The measure of a good human being lies in our ability to love other people. It is only too easy to love and pity ourselves. We need a clear vision to see who we are and the true sign of maturity is the ability to step back ever so often and take an objective look at our thoughts and actions, and correct ourselves when wrong. This has nothing to do with age. I have seen mature twelve year olds and childish forty year olds.

I think of my grandmother who studied up to the fifth class, was married at thirteen as a second wife to my much older grandfather, and became a stepmother to a six-year-old and a mother of four children. She had nothing, all she knew was her home and kitchen. Nobody bought her gifts, nobody took her out, nobody showered any praise on her. But for more than sixty years she worked in her primitive kitchen for seventeen hours a day without complaining. She fed anyone who came home, she prayed religiously for her children and grandchildren but not for herself, she became concerned when anyone fell ill though nobody ever enquired about her health. She was the last person to eat in the household. She lived every day of her life doing what she believed in – doing her duty – without complaining. She saw no reason to complain and she wore a smile on her face always.

Now I see the modern / affluent Indian women who are so jealous of their space, of their individuality, of their rights which are anyway unchallenged, and their self-indulgence. They take up causes like gay rights and the rights of the girl-child, contribute to NGOs which work for plastic ban and saving the environment, and light candles for victims of brutality. I can appreciate all of it, but as they say, charity begins at home. Even a smile is calculated and manufactured only for the selected recipients. Why? Is it because they have no joy in them?

Between the two, who deserves more respect? My grandmother would be called a loser by the modern Indian woman but she stays in my heart and in the hearts of many others, years after her death. She died twenty-eight years ago. But anyone who ever met her remembers her with love and respect. When I think of her, she glows with the kindly smile on her face. She never wore an angry look, she did not know what it was to be selfish. She never lighted a candle for anyone because she was ignorant of the outside world.

Can any of us hope to receive as much love and respect? If not, we are not as wonderful as we have convinced ourselves we are.

Please, look around you, see the joy in life, smile. It is all too easy to believe you are a victim, to be miserable every minute. No, you are not a victim, there are many other people in this world who are the real victims, and who have every reason to be unhappy. But they are happier because they have so little in life that they make more effort to reach for even the little moments of joy and hold on to them.

Seize the joy.

Entertainment, Entertainment, Entertainment

Now there is a title most Hindi filmgoers will recognize, a clue being Vidya Balan. There is a lot of it to choose from now, mostly from the internet. Even what used to be on the cinema screen near you can be watched on the laptop with no sign of the ubiquitous VCR or the DVD player around.

That reminds me of the heartache the VCR used to give rise to, as it was my lot to operate and provide much-needed entertainment at home. It was a very unpredictable and very unfamiliar equipment whether because it was not very user-friendly or because I was still nervous around such an expensive acquisition I am not sure. But I think most people found it difficult to operate. Sourcing a VCD from a nearby video library was another enterprise in itself. Most VCDs were of dubious quality, being pirated or tending to be scratchy and refusing to run, and one never knew where the fault lay – in the tape or in the hardware. Despite that we watched several English and Hindi movies that we could never have seen in theaters, like the Return Of The Jedi, which I did not even know was an iconic movie and part of the Star Wars. So much so that when R objected to it and said I was allowing the children to watch rubbish, I had no reply. But I knew it was not rubbish. Then there were the Indiana Jones series which were great fun. But the VCR had only a brief life before we gave up on it and cable took over, to my relief.

Cable TV was an amazing improvement on Doordarshan which had ruled until then. But in its own way, Doordarshan had shaped our tastes with its Hum Log – a steady soap opera which was more a refection of life than the jerky TV serials that came later with their poor acting and sudden twists and stereotypes. There were even the short series that were based on literary masterpieces and rang true. The Ramayan on Doordarshan dictated the whole country’s timetable while it ran. But Cable TV came along and from being limited to a few hours in a day, the channels multiplied endlessly and became a 24 hour madness.

Now of course it is internet streaming which has taken over and perhaps is more in sync with our individual tastes. We pay and we choose what to watch and when to watch.

But still, when I went back to the cinema after a long hiatus, I found myself sitting in my plush seat and felt the thrill of the big screen and the acoustics of the Dolby as the screen came to life. I felt as excited as I had in my childhood as I waited for the picture to begin and the larger than life characters lived out the drama of make-believe.

This – this – was entertainment at its best. A good movie and a multiplex theatre – what more could one ask for? I will dispense with the popcorn and the soft drink though.

Going Out

The first time I travelled outside India, I had stars in my eyes. It was going to be a long flight from Mumbai to New York, the city which had always had an iconic status. Glamorous, frenzied, wealthy, it was a character in its own right in many of the books I had read. My first introduction to New York had been through the book, “A Tree Grows In Brooklyn”, in which the protagonist was a girl of my own age. I loved the book and identified myself with Frances, though the events in her life could never have happened in mine. But her angst was mine, her hopes and fears were mine, and I felt her pain as keenly as she did. I read the book several times, and fervently wished a happy ending for her, but the book ended before she grew up. It was a coming of age novel, after all. I grew up too and realized that she belonged to a different world and time. But the city of New York left a lasting impression on me as seen through the eyes of Frances across the Brooklyn Bridge, as she longed to be a part of the nearly unattainable world across the bridge.

So when my first trip abroad was to New York, I was excited and happy. We flew over London, with a brief halt for the connection. The sky was clear and I saw the landmarks of London laid out clearly, its bridges across the Thames and the imposing Westminster clearly recognizable from countless movies and photographs.

In New York, a cousin was kind enough to put me up for a fortnight and show me the sights. We went into Macy’s, and drove down Sixth Avenue, and walked in Central Park, craning our necks to look at the Trump Tower. Ground Zero and Harlem were part of my education. Everything was impressive and the shiny Manhattan and the townhouses around Central Park were what I had hoped they would be.

On our way back to India, I had insisted on a short stay in London, where we were on our own, though we had managed to get a short stay apartment in Golders Green. With the help of a four-day Tube pass, we made our way around the city, which, in those days of no cell phones and Google maps, and no local friends, was an achievement of sorts. Added to it was R’s habit of converting his pounds to rupees and his refusal to spend more than what he would have spent in India, which meant we were on a shoestring budget, which meant we literally starved for a week. We had the cheapest cornflakes for breakfast, half a jacket potato for lunch or no lunch at all and half a packet of ready to cook rice and vegetables cooked in the microwave. But the joy of walking over the bridges on the Thames, the visit to the Fort of London and the Westminster Abbey where we walked over graves of the rich or famous with a little shiver, the look at the Buckingham Palace from outside, all compensated for the constant hunger. Every stone, every building had history behind it and to us, who, as Indians, had grown up reading all things English, there was a rush of familiarity at the sight. So I returned to India, hungry but satisfied, and with as much “foreign” stuff for our children as we could buy, which I was happy for them to show off after years of watching other children dressed in “foreign” jeans, eating “foreign” chocolates.

That was to be my one and only foreign trip I believed. There was a short visit to Singapore a few weeks later. That was that, or so I believed.

But a few years later both A and S had moved to London and a US city, and I made longer visits to both cities. From being a tourist I went to actually living there, like a local person, and became familiar with moving around and getting through the day as I did back home in Mumbai, but in Western surroundings. It was not very difficult though adjustments had to be made. Being with my children made up for everything and I was sorry to leave them behind when my visa ran out.

My husband retired and we made many more such visits. D also moved abroad and we have to visit them if we want to spend any time with our children because their visits to us are all too fleeting.

Over the last few years, I realize that the gloss has worn off. I am not a starry-eyed third world tourist anymore and few things impress me now as they used to in earlier years. It may have something to do with familiarity or it might be that I have more insight now with growing age. But the dyed blondes, the fake tans and the cheery “How are you” all ring false. The world is now the same everywhere in my eyes. The Tube is better, the traffic is better managed, the crowds are less and the parks are more beautiful. There is more garbage and more greed back home and more desperation perhaps, but then there are the temples and the familiar food and the places where we do not stand out in our foreignness to compensate.

I have now found a balance between the two ends of the world. I no longer believe everything is beautiful here because it is the developed West or that it is all bad back home. The good and the bad exist everywhere and we are slowly getting there.

My children are more pragmatic than I have ever been and and have never seen the world through rose-tinted glasses. They have always laughed at me for believing in the best. I am learning from them.

Travel. Once more

Once upon a time the thought of foreign travel was very tempting to the experience-starved Indian middle-aged male. The younger people had not yet begun to apply to foreign universities as a matter of routine. Education was considered to be finished once they were out of an Indian university with a degree and the immediate need was a job. The unlucky few who did not move into jobs in the months following sought a higher postgraduate degree to avoid facing awkward questions. The day of the MBA degree had not yet begun.

The older people had no hopes of ever traveling anywhere outside India. They were barely able to make ends meet within their income. Travel within the country itself was confined to the odd pilgrimage and the fairly regular visits to uncles and grandparents where one was not very sure whether one was really welcome.

Those were the days when the possession of a passport was itself a matter of awe. Normal people never sought to apply for one.

Then came the wave of the Gulf workers from Kerala whose ambition to work in Arab countries was stoked by the riches sent back from there by the pioneering adventurers who went there as nurses, carpenters, electricians and plumbers. They were both envied and somewhat looked down upon by the more educated whose services were not in demand but who wished their turn would come to mint riches similarly.

Meanwhile a few lucky Indians who were the favorites of their bosses began to be rewarded with brief trips abroad. Passports were hurriedly procured and kept ready in the hope the call would come. When it did, the news was announced with great pride in family circles. The old wedding suit was brought out of storage and brushed and dry-cleaned, shoes were bought as a necessity, and woolens were borrowed from the lucky ones who had already traveled abroad. Finding shops which stocked woolen coats and jackets was almost impossible in those days. Meanwhile shopping lists were received from close ones and neighbors, and even the odd acquaintance. With limited foreign exchange at one’s disposal, these lists were a matter of much heartburn. Finally the traveler was off on his journey, having made all arrangements to be met or allowed to stay with friends of friends, and his victorious return was a matter of triumph for his family. Visitors dropped in to be rewarded with a ball pen if they were lucky or with a few chocolates. Those higher up in the hierarchy received souvenirs in the shape of keychains and little stuffed toys. There were no fridge magnets then or more accurately, not everyone had a fridge at home.The cheap lipsticks, colognes and shaving creams were for family. The wife was proudly gifted a bottle of liquid diswash along with cheap costume jewelry which was proudly worn for years to come. The children were thrilled to get video games.

By now, some of the earliest to move abroad to be educated had settled there and married and begun to raise families. This led to the phenomenon of the traveling grandparents who were invited to help in the birth and care of new babies. They went happily, eager to be of use and quite often this was their first airplane ride. They packed whatever they imagined was necessary, their ragged suitcases containing a strange mix of unfashionable clothes, spices and condiments needed for cooking in a strange country which had none of the essentials needed for Indian cooking, and idli plates, coffee filters and even the odd mortar and pestle. They did not expect to be anything but useful and quite often were sent back home after their six month visas ran out, with small gifts of soaps, shampoos, and a cheap sweater to wear in the mild winters at home. The occasional packet of almonds was displayed proudly to neighbors as a loving gift from the grateful son or daughter and their spouse. The fact that the entire six months were spent in the four walls of their home with an occasional trip to the local Hindu temple or the Indian store was not mentioned. The chilly welcome from the son-in-law or daughter-in-law was a humiliation to be swallowed quietly.

But this is the age of travel, for the young Indians, who fly in and out of various airports with great ease and and think nothing of holidaying in other countries, used as they are to earning in dollars or pounds or any other currency. Even the rupee earning Indians earn much more than their parents would ever have dreamed of, and plan foreign holidays without any trepidation. We Indians have learnt to spend and are among the highest spenders abroad unlike the penny-pinching foreigners. I am not saying this, surveys show this to be true. Often, many of them are generous enough to fund their parents’ holidays as well, if they come armed with the required visas.

Some amount of travel has fallen to our share as well. Our children have been generous enough to invite us frequently to their homes and provide us with whatever we may need to spend our days in comfort. We have also been happy to accept what is strange and foreign and adapt to life in new places. Incidentally, R has stopped converting pounds and dollars to rupees. But the strange bathroom habits of the West will never find acceptance in me. The Paris lavatory with a curtain instead of a door, the Roman lavatory with transparent glass doors, the complete lack of water in most, offend my soul profoundly. Of course A would say that they do not even begin to compare to China where people travel with toilet rolls in their handbags.

Airplanes have taken all the romance out of travel now. Taking long rides to airports, the long waits, the intrusive and generally offensive security checks, and the inedible airlines food, have all made travel a pain to be endured with gritted teeth. Immigration lines and the officer at the end of it crown the whole miserable experience. Occasionally one comes across a really intelligent and friendly official like the one at LHR who spoke to us in our own language. Where once the adventure began with the ride to the airport, now nothing is certain till we are back in the comfort of a welcoming home, whether it is our children’s or our own.

But at the end of it all, there is always the happiness of being back in our own country, even amidst all the complaints of bad roads, crowds and the weather. There is no need to worry about our papers being in order, no reason to justify our travel, no questions about when we are planning to leave. We are back and this is where we belong.

I go to my puja room and look at my Gods and at Sai Baba and thank them before I walk through all the rooms with a feeling of joy at being back home. This is my kingdom, this is where I rule.

Now my life has come full circle and having seen many cities and sights, I realize that no matter how much I travel, there will always be many beautiful places I will never see, and there will be many places which look identical and indistinguishable. Even if I travel every day of my life, there will never be time to see it all. It is perhaps time to hang up my boots and stay at home. To sleep, perchance to dream.

I Am Back

Well, here I am, again, like a bad penny. Although why anybody should hang on to one, if they are sick of it turning up again and again, I don’t know. Maybe it is a lucky penny, even if a bad one.

It has been more than a year since I was last here. Since then I have completed several journeys, both actually and figuratively. After returning without too much damage from the actual journey I had written about, we decided to finally move ourselves lock, stock and barrel, to a distant slower paced life in a smaller city about two thousand kilometers away. Before we could move, we had to undertake the major task of selling our apartment and winding up thirty years of life in the city which gave us a lot and took a lot out of us as well. In this city I had never forgotten I was alive, even if there was nothing much I seemed to be doing. This was perhaps the only city I really loved because it was where I grew into an independent person and learnt to assert myself, though it did take me several difficult years. I was not really happy to be leaving.

But life is like an assembly line that has a way of moving us along, whether we want to move on or not. So we moved, to a smaller town which promises more challenges to be met. It is not the retired people’s paradise that Western people move to in their sixties and seventies. There is no paradise in India except for the very wealthy who can make their own world with money. 

This late sixties move in India is a recent phenomenon, which came about with growing up of the baby boomers’ children. They moved out of India and our generation of parents moved into smaller towns. While the children seek to make their lives in Western pastures where they find careers and choices which they find fascinating, we are realizing the need to live our own lives after years of frugality and self-denial. Suddenly we have more money than we ever had in our youth and middle age – which were years of genteel poverty really – and we have discovered that it is now or never. If we don’t spend the few years of good health and mobility left to us now in fulfilling our modest desires, we will die with regrets as our parents did. Every baby boomer couple I know is traveling either in India or abroad, even if with a little trepidation, never having traveled before. The satisfaction lies in the accomplishment of the journey itself and sometimes this is the payoff more than the experience of new places.

On a smaller scale, the elderly now feel free to venture out on mild adventures of eating out without penny-pinching and in indulging in impulse shopping.

The cinema we used to frequent in the metro inevitably had elderly couples forming the bulk of the audience, especially if it was a film appealing to limited audiences. Women-centric films seem to be a hit with elderly women who have finally come into their own. I have had R accompanying me to such films and promptly falling asleep. But no matter. I enjoyed watching them without his sometimes irrelevant comments. 

During all these escapades, our generation is busy rethinking their own lives, and making far-reaching decisions to uproot and face the challenge of putting down new roots far away. Some of us play safe by merely finding a good retirement community where they feel secure in being looked after. But some others like us find it appalling having to live in the midst of an aging community and being reminded of our own age every minute of the day. So we have preferred to face the challenges of a different life in a different city. This would have been a difficult challenge even with the support of an official network in earlier times, and it is much more difficult now with no support or family around, with the added frailty of age. But we are nearly there and knowing that life is not a rose garden – it never was and never will be – we are prepared.