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Contradictions of Angkor Vat

Thankfully Mr S’s eyes are closed. Here i would like to introduce our ever so nice & gentle tour guide. He is 20 something young lad, who has studied Khmer, English, little French & now wants to study Spanish.
Extremely versatile, enterprising…but imagine the situation he is in. He is among the 5000 tour guides at the World Heritage site – Angkor Vat. For many new readers this is the world’s first ever Brahma temple. In India the HIndus do NOT make idols of lord Brahma or construct his temples…he is creator of this universe so he is everywhere, i guess…
Angkor Vat is part of Cambodia. The country ravaged by war since eons…first war with Viet Nam, then they were French Colony. Then US carpet bombed Cambodia. By then Hindusim influence was seen at every level & the caste system too pervaded at every level. So the Brahmins became intellectuals & ONLY they studied & were permitted to study, while the lower castes were deprived. As a result, the Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot, who studied the Frnech Revolution in France & majorly influenced by Mao returned to make revolution in Cambodia. He made everyone march to villages to toil as labourers, the rice they rew & harvested was bought by China for the arms they gave him…men were killed brutally, people were held captive. Women raped, then killed brutally. Children thrown on trees & killed. Ovewr 1.7 million died of both brutality, starvation & fear.
Mr S’s family are survivors. The family was separated like many. Since they survived they could give birth to Mr S. Today he has realised he needs to work to study. Interestingly, the govt of cambodia wc is a dual govt (Khmer supported by Vietnamese) & local have opened the country for investments.
So there is China -largest investor, others like Korea & other foreign invesors in different sectors. Heritage sies like Angkor Vat too have investors. Mainly Apsara company wc is Vietnamese. They charge $20 for full day, they have hired staff for security, guides. The Cambodian govt gives guide licence, uniform, rest is all in the hands of this company. The 2nd bigger company is Korean. They conduct the night tour wc is $15 for 2 hours ONLY.
Both these companies keep all the profits. They pay appallingly low salaries to the staff. Mr S said that they get ONLY few $ this is more than doctors who work in govt hospitals. SO you can imagine the levels of salaries. The guide told us that the company doesn’t provide any benefits like bonus, leave, medical aid, benefits, insurance or any such benefits to the staff.
The security is posted at nook & corner to check Photo IDs. They si on plastic chairs with NO shed or protection. The guides depend on tips given by tourists…often many are students or backpackers….
The guide told us they have an Union but they would rather be low key…they maintain low profile. Because few years before when some union leaders have spoken up, they were killed. Mr S said that the govt of Cambodia bumped them off. So they all rather keep quiet instead of fighting for their rights.
He said that Apsara also has hotles. Most of the 200 odd hotels in Siem Rep are owned by foreigners. They employ locals, but NO major benefits are given to them. I asked if the union of hotel employees & travel guides are combined or have dialogued & Mr S said NO. I suggested they begin informally some dialogue so that they can grow slowly in numbers. He was overwhelmed..we assured him that this is what we can do as peace felllows to give concrete suggestions to make their lives better…but he said they have to be careful.
The good part is I am proud being an Indian. Was always & after visiting angkor vat, im re-emphasising it. India is THE only country which has given money & funds for restoring this site & is reviving it..for its preservation…unlike the other foreign countries that are fleecing Angkor Vat….i hope Karin & I can start facebook online capmpaign to help guides like Mr S & help save Angkor Vat.

Conflict in the group

Now, we are Peace fellows, class of April 2009..having said this i will reiterate that we are ‘supposed’ to take initiatives to the communities, society at large & more importantly within ourselves to spread the message of peace. I believe that Peace is like our breath which we constantly live by. Now what i am writing is extremely disturbing more so since the whole episode has left bitterness among the whole class. The group is now divided on gender lines – women versus the men.

I am NOT talking of normal tiffs, conflicts due to strong personalities, NO, these are nothing in comparison to what has been happening in our group. But then aren’t police supposed to be the ultimate responsible persons for upholding & maintaining law & order? Do they fulfill their responsibility? So if they fail why do i get so disturbed & rattled with my colleagues? Because i thought here are people who have been selected by their countries, to come learn, study about conflict resolution & go back to their countries & implement, internalise what they have learnt here. More so because some earnest tax paying people have bloody well invested in these rascals.

We have among us men in the class of peace fellows. We are in Thailand, Bangkok (eeks i have sooooo many corny names for these 2 places…Thai -Land, Bang -kok!!) so people have conceptions, rather misconceptions & desires or rather fantasies which they want to fulfill after coming to this land. Now i am NOT insinuating that women are incapable of feeling the way like men. But having said that i definitely believe that such women are rare.

For long we had been hearing that some men in our group have gone visiting Pat pong, brothels, slept with sex workers, prostitutes, etc etc…I definitely agree that what anyone does in their personal lives is their own ‘fucking’ business. We not here to sermonise or convert. However, there are some facts that hit one’s face when we speak of Peace fellows are indulging in these practices.
(1) Someone has sponsored them to come here & study
(2) A renowned Internationally acclaimed organisation Rotary has sponsored them. They may be elite but they have a good reputation
(3) They are bloody living on the campus in the ‘official’ residence
(4) They are indulging in “illegal” business
(5) They represent their countries, dammit they are Ambassadors of their countries

Friends will say whay are you rattled Neeta, let them do what they want. Oh! Sure, infact i had NOT even raised this issue with the management, intially. Though some of my female friends took the initiative.

But what is more infuriating is that one man in our group went & made a sexual advance & proposition for becoming sex mates with another female colleague. This is outrageous, disgusting & he definitely needs to be kicked in his arse & thrown out of this place. More so he even spoke disrespectful of his wife to her. She told me about this & I made her talk more, so that i could get her to express everything. She was like, “Neeta I can just imagine what you would have done & said to him.” Well, i am proud to say there are NOT many people like, who will stick their neck out & speak for their rights. I am a minority. This is worse than going to a brothell I asked her to tell Jenn, but she told me she should handle it ‘maturedly!!!!’ Means, SILENCE.

All what we have learnt in the last 2 months seems to have fallen on deaf ears. The need to stand up for one’s rights, handle conflict & resolve it, repsect each other, it seems Greek & Latin when are faced with such people. Well the conflict wasn’t resolved. Because after visiting the brothel this man has the gall to go & tell the lady colleague that he visited a brothel. NOW! what does one say to such people??

Meanwhile the women friends & colleagues went & told Jenn about the illegal activities. Till then Jenn wasn’t aware. More so i had a long chat with the women. I said I have NO sympathy (Gawd even empathy) for these men, or for their spouses either. I really don’t care. But what matters is that they are indulging in activities which they should do after the course is over. Also NOT when they are staying on official college premises. More so, i wanted them to tell of another loud, ill-mannered otherwise nice male colleague who of course wears his country’s tag on his chest. What with their newly elected President.

Mr X came with us to Pattaya. He made hotel bookings with us, accompanied us. On the night we women visited the sleaze street, he came along & told me at least thrice. “You know Neeta if i had come with my group of male friends i would’ve have fucking come here. I would’ve have done things like sleep with these lady boys.” So i was like “ofcourse you still can go.” what is it about this place that attracts men sooo very much??

The next day he didn’t answer his cell or room land line. We were sure he wouldn’t come with us to Koh Samet. We 4 women with Dilshad, wife & daughter enjoyed & returned to the bus stop. There we saw Mr X in a delirious state! His eyes were listless, foam around his lips, aimlessly walking, soiled Bermudas & eeks he was wreaking of alcohol & some substance…god knows what it was. Dilshad called him & brought him to where we sat. We had presumed he had gone off to Bangkok wt Sofia. Please, i have a younger brother who was an alcoholic & i really didnt want to play counsellor to a male colleague who has shown a similar pattern of immature drunken behaviour in the last 3days.

Wendy & Chiara accompanied him for his safety. He paid & got off at MBK for food & by then they were exasperated. They returned to the dormitory. I urged them to talk to Jenn about this just as they would talk about the brothel part. On my part i told Mr X he should take someone along with him the next time he went binging again. coz as a journalist i told him you are bloody white! means, he is the first target, most vulnerable & can get mugged, raped, drugged, or even falsely implicated.

After listening to me, he NEVER once told me he had lost his camera, thankfully i had shared this all with Simon & asked him to get some information out fm Mr X. Yes, we must know details, coz he could have been raped or injected or drugged, more so did he know?? More so dammit he came with us. He at NO point told us that he will go separate ways on our stay & we should NOT be bothered about him. Because that would mean he is solely responsible for his acts or misdeeds. Since he did NOT tell us, had something to happen, we would have had to face the consequences. Well, Mr X has still NOT learnt, he repeated his performance yet again on Tues night.

By now the management is aware of these dealings. I am glad they are. Initially i was of the opinion that we women shouldn’t bother. Let these men face the consequences. But then, the legal points i raised would mean, if something has to happen, all of us could get branded. And hell will breka loose if I am branded with these arse holes man.

Worse still, a good, nice, socially committed course will get tainted & blacklisted because of these horrendous men & their misdeeds. It also means Rotary gets tainted, the people who have sponsored, conceptualised this course, the Chulalongkorn University & the authorities here, all will labelled in one category with these sort of men. Of course, it will happen. Just imagine if any of these chutiyas has to get caught in their act, how it can backfire & what a sensational media case this will be! I would have gone all out to unearth it, had i been covering it.

What is worse is that some of these men even approached a Thai male colleague in the group. One who is a monk in the making! He is so very nice, a Buddhist who has undergone Dhamma doctrination. He was distressed & asked me what should he have said to the men who asked him to take the
m to a brothel. In my blunt way i told him Tony you must say upfront you are NOT a pimp & if they want they can get lost finding brothels for themselves. Also, what the hell do they mean by Thai girls?? Are all Thai girls whores? I mean why do men think below the belt??

Away from this course i give an ant’s arse of space to these male colleagues in my mind, life. But their activities has left us all baffled & sickened. I feel sad that what a waste of money to have invested in such men. Tomorrow they will be going out in the huge world, will they continue to behave like this? The vulnerable women in conflict zones will be made to feel further vulnerable.

Bangkok Calling

My first 2 days in Bangkok (BKK) were spent in a sleep mode. It took me a while to recover fm the stress of work, tying up loose ends & the last min change in travel plan. Thankfully i love reading maps & details of a city before reaching…so it wasn’t difficult to find Chulalongkorn Univ. Yes, came alone from the airpot to Vidhaya Nives.

A past fellow had drawn the entire Chula, MBK, Rama road, etc for me. So i trudged to the MBK in search of food…before i came to BKK i had read of the impact of recession on the toursim industry. I must admit i needed to search the impact wt a magnifying glass. There were people & more people pouring out of that MBK! Scores are buying by the dozens, another 100 odd Indians falling out of every nook & corner of MBK. thai youth eating, shopping like there is NO tomorrow. wow…i was tired, but roamed around. Plus thanks to the last min schedule change i needed clothes desperately.

Food I know was going to be BIG oroblem for me, considering im a veggie. Yes initially it was tough adjusting. it was worse b’coz the canteen where we have our daily lunch, they made me feel like a recuprating invalid!! No lies. Boiled veggies thrown over a lump of boiled rice! or boiled noodles day in & day out till 2 weeks passed and i decided to speak wt Jen. She understood why me a foodie wld always sit wt my head down & eat it mechanically…taste, i guess it varies frm culture to culture. Here the concoction of 4 items -sugar, chillies, lime & salt is taste! I cant call them spices -i mean its not cinnamon, clove, garlic, turmeric, et al….its NOT flavour either!
In the thai class i asked the kids to tell me a thai word for ‘flavour’ & they were whats flavour? What flavour?? i now udnerstand their predicament….

I liked the city. Its clean, most of it. What i liked most is that they use bottled water even on the carts along the streets for food off the roads…now that’s where India fails miserably, although we have some great street food wt flavour. The roads are broad wt clear deamrcations for Zebra crossings…yes, i did a story 2 yrs ago on how the zera crossings in Mumbai were fading…its a fundamental rt of a commuter, if ofcourse they are enlightened of their rts!

They have broad paements, bt like in India i have a grouse they are really high. There is no desecent and ascent to climb unto them easily. Yet, they are clean, broad, even if there are hawkers. Some places the tiles have come off, but that’s common. They have good sky walks that wc dont shake…yeah in Mumbai it was like as if im giddy with the sensation of the sky walk shaking. These are well tiled, solid and one doesn’t feel tired. I dont know why back home when i walk so much despite the same kind of weather i feel drained, tired. Yes, may be bcoz the people are lot more peaceful.

Have roamed the streets and numerous areas of BKK already. I liked the BTS trains. Oh how i wish those stupid politicians fm my country come here & replicate the BTS instead of the hideious skyscrapers that seme to crawl on our skyline….yes ive a grouse abt them & i dont like them. May be our builders can come & see the architecture here, but im intersted in the public transport. Their aircon buses are good, but otherwise the normal buses need imrpovement.

The Chulalongkorn Univ is a city byitself. Yes, im sure univs world over are like this. I’ve visited Stanford – love those alcoves, arches & architecture there, other univs in california & Washington, yet there is something different abt this place. But…i’ve NOT understood one thing. Whats wt the thai obsession for water, fountains?? They have a severe problem of malaria & then they have GREEN, STAGNANT water bodies all over the Univ & the city…what mosquitos, their bloody grandfathers will be bred here….i simply cannot understand how they can live that much stench and mosquito breeding problem…otherwise i’ve bene comfortable.

The people are warm, helpful -though have faced some stray crazy types who i give a benefit of doubt to…they must’ve NOt understood us, english, sign language, one must excuse them. All the while they are ever smiling, warm & helpful. Now im waiting to explore the rest of Thailand.

Its always Indianness….

What do I say? Just as i thought the year 2008 was NOt ending, well so much had occured in the last one year wanted it to end soon, it got over. The new year came and went. Till 2009 January 1, i wasn’t evne thinkin of the Rotary Peace & conflict resolution course i was selected for. How could I? There was office, ideas, bringing out sunday edition, plus so many other nitty gritties of mundane life – yes that bloody darn banks. (That’s a separate blog input i want to write soon). Tying up loose ends, leaving money for aged parents, winding up fm Cell service companies, utilities, etc etc. In all this maize i had presumed the dear Indian Airlines had got me booked a seat, ocnfirmed for the 11th night flight. Apparently i was mistaken.

I’d asked Shruti (My friend fm PTI) to request her father to upgrade me using his clout, yes being a journalist i thought i cld use this previledge. I needed to carry reading material, copies of my newspaper, etc…her father happened to tell shruti tell neeta call him as he did not see my name on the airline system. Now that is not a surprise for me, things are complicated and full of excitement in every moment of my life.

Fm then on 5.30pm to 7.30pm, i was on either the landline or cell phone. Finally after trying to convince the nerdie, moron call centre employees who were asked to tell me that i was not ‘contactable’ what english is this????? i had to use my authority as a senior journalist to get the duty manager’s telephone numb. Gosh why is it soooooooo difficult to tell an Indian look, its ur job to give me the person’s number if i am s[ending my own money to make this call for enquiring why the airline has chosen to cancel my flight without informing me. that lil chappie then told me that it was because of the fog? I was compelled to say, yeah in ur head, coz there is NO fog in Mumbai city…there was NO winter till i left….

finally after sweet talking the duty manager in our mother tongue i got a confirmed seat for that night itself…i’ve never rushed at such speed fm Fort, to Home to the airport. Here it was agonising to be on the feet for 2 and a half hours! No i am not exaggerating…its a fact. There were long winding queues, customs officials who simply unreasonable and yes the systems shut down just when our number is called out…grrrrhhhh….it happens ONLY in India sooooo very frequently.

I only could remember calling Warangkana, poor thing it was their time 11.45pm, telling her how my whole schedule had gone for a toss….well, i managed to get onto a flight, which was one of the worst flights ever. The pilot refused to inform us that the aircon had failed and that is why we were getting warm air from those ancient ducts. Instead we had a rather over bearing stewardess who curtly told passengers that the message had bee sent to the pilot and pl be seated! I’m sure in some other country (Especially in US) the stewardess and pilot would’ve been sued. But you see this is India…anything can happen at any time.

Happy days in Bilimora villa

Last week I wrote about how the Villa that used to be has been converted into one concrete shanty. But thankfully my last memories of the Bilimora Lokesh Bhuvan are mixed…good regarding the building, life with some nice cousins & lots of bad …I don’t want to dwell on either..

But I want to re-trace the road to my aai’s (mother’s) roots..the few memories that I have are mixed yet they always remain. Now Bilimora falls on the western railway track on way to Delhi. It takes as much time to Bilimora as to Pune (Central line). Now if i narrate this whole episode of my life one would think that we were like little princesses to the outside world.

We would travel by trains that were named after queens or princesses… like Deccan Queen Pune and Flying Ranee (Queen) to Bilimora!! These still exist. Nothing as a child was more imaginative than these names. I really thought the Pune train was for a queen & Flying ranee meant as if the train trudged at a flying speed!

Once at the station, it used to be amazing ride on the Kutcha muddy road to the Sardesai villa. The horse carriage owners knew who the family was & where we lived…as I child I always believed that all the people in this world lived in such huge houses as ours…see, every holiday either we would visit this town which was maternal home or Pune –where my baba’s sisters stayed. The eldest lived in a decently big house & younger atya in a bungalow. So, I thought all people lived in big homes.

The reason my grandparents had this sprawling villa was the family were partners of Guj Chem Distilleries & some other firm, none of this ever interested me. Today there are only acres and acres of flat land, with nothing on it. But as a kid my story was different…

Now here as we entered the vicinity, the first structure on the right was the Ganesha temple, exclusively for the family. Huge place…with a big porch, place for the priest & his family to stay & play. It was old tilted construction typical to a village. Then on the left was a mini playground a pit with loose sand & open space with slides and some metal jungle gym kind of thing & yes the first swing! There were plenty of trees that aligned a wall and a biggish garage. Though I do not remember seeing the cars parked there. Instead they would line up outside the door of the villa.

A little ahead the right ahead was a huge garden. It had a lawn wherein my dada ajoba (maternal grandfather) & we would take walks, have evening tea sometimes or sit as a family, when suddenly we would remember to have family bondings…There was NO television in those days even if there were black & white ones, this huge monstrous place had none.

There would be a fleet of cars lined up…9 cars, including one Impala & a grey Dodge! Where the cars went rest of the time I don’t know..i was too small to concern myself with these happenings. Often I saw no car & often all were parked there. I NEVER ever saw a petrol pump in that area as a child, so I would wonder who or what filled the fuel tanks of these cars..i always thought my grandfather, dada ajoba was a magician!

There was a small board that said, “Trespassers will be prosecuted & beware of dogs..” on the left was the entrance to the villa. It had metal criss cross grill across the door. On entry on the left was the wooden swing, some chairs & sofa. Right above the swing where my dada sat a stuffed head of a bear…its scary at nights when suddenly our eyes fell on it..as if roaring to get at us..it had powerful eyes though. I forget wc was the second animal! Then the walls would be covered 3-4 lizards when we all cousins would sit together to say our shlokas (Prayers) in the evening. Dada would ask us to forget they are on the wall & continue with our stories or shlokas. It tormented us kids why elders never realised it, i wonder.

Next to that was a secluded section, where we some 15 odd cousins were bundled together in the afternoons, so that all could fight, play or sleep peacefully. It was called the guest house..within the mansion…hehe..yeah it was secluded but also was always cool somehow. There was a big hall one opened into the guest room & the other was my ajoba’s study room, wt book cases, table, bed, all his carpets & yoga carpet.

Dada loved this room. He would do yoga, meditate & breathing exercises which amused us. He would lock us noisy pesky cousins. go inside to the courtyard jump & call out to dada ajoba. I remember the odd noises he’d make that amused us , then. The guest room was amazing…it had the first bath tub wc I ever saw in my life. It was bluish-sea green colour. It was something out of this world!

We once rebelled – according to my family under my leadership –considering I always got into trouble for rebelling & sticking my neck out I wonder how it was called leadership!! Now this guest house section would be converted into a getaway for uncles and aunties to eat non-vegetarian food –mostly fish & drinks. I remember sneaking there with the smells & have tried fish..ofcrouse that was rebelling, so got the usual beating for it .

Also, 1 imp factor to be noted is i felt my dada was a visionary or his forefathers were …coz nearly every room in this mansion had an attached bathroom, toilet in those times!! Wow! We were by ourselves usually as a result a lot of things happened among us. Fights, physical abuse & groupism… Not necessary in that order or always.

Nxt to this isolated space was a mango room. It was a semi-store room most often empty except when the mangoes from the farm or wadi as it was called. Yes we would go there, jumping around trying to pull down mangoes or steal fm neighbouring farm. This part of the house was where I was also beaten often by 2 of my cousins. One male – who has a son- another a cousin sister –who’s life has been on the downswing ever since I recollect. The beating had for years left scars on me emotionally that took its toll on my adult life for years till i came to terms with it. Which im glad b’coz i realised i am the maker of my happiness or enjoyment & no one can ruin it.

Next to this room was the god’s room, where my aai aji (mother’s mom) spent lot of her time. She would make garlands, offered innumerable flowers, prayed and it was a sanctimonious room. I would ofcourse would choose a pretext to peep in & look at my aai aji, she was always a person of curiosity. We had little rapport & communication, but of immense curiosity for me. Ajoba was more like a teddy bear & we’d be all over him harassing him& he indulged in every grand child of his eeuqally…Aai aji was one tall, lean lady who like my doll aji (father’s mother) wore a nine –yards saree, lugda.

Me & the gods have not been in sync for over half my life me thinks…not really…but i avoid such prayer rooms seriously. Because twice a day I would be forced to go & say all the prayers in sanskrit, oh it was traumatic. They say the Hindus have some 3 lakh odd gods, if one had to see the numerous idols & photos that were in this room, they‘d think the gods had descended in this villa! More so the gods were pampered by this aaji. Freshly plucked flowers were offered twice a day, fresh garlands & the fragrance of flowers & incense did smell nice.

Then on the right was a dark dingy entrance to three rooms…now I am confused if they were 2/3. One was where we kept our bags –my sister / me & it was Sudha aunty’s room. She passed away early, though I do remember seeing her. The other was shut & last was aai aji-dada’s room. Often they
would sleep in the air-condition room where we would be bundled on the first floor. I think this was the only room which I’m told had an AC otherwise too it was pretty cool. There were 2 rooms that were led from this AC rrom, but were out of bounds for us. Then there was this Table Tennis playing table hall…

Again as only the men & boys were allowed. As if we girls weren’t capable of playing. Behind this huge hall were the rooms of my 2 uncles. They are weird. I strongly belive this was THE most dysfunctional family, till i saw the Forestors on the Bold and the Beatiful….well some aunts & uncles who are cousins had affairs, lots of the sex dramas unfolded in front of our eyes… aha…big fat indian joint family ha!

Adjacent to the stairs were my aai’s & nanda aunty’s rooms..Interestingly each had balconies & 2 windows wt attached bathrooms. Above all this was the huge terrace. This was surrounded by tamarind, mango, amla & numerous trees. The fruits would fall on the terrace. Now the this terrace had a room actually could have been 2 rooms of my eldest uncle, again wt a toilet which was locked permanently! First because it was out of bounds for us in uncle’s absence then later bcoz of the in-fighting between the brothers & their wives. We all kids would sleep here, since the rest of the town & that part of Gujarat would always be in darkness.

Now imagine we fm Mumbai, cousins lived in light all our lives. Here we’d come & every time the bloody electricity would be cut off, which was anyways was most part of the night & day. Imagine me, the scared one would want to pee, I’d be petrified of going down the stairs in the dark to the toilet, so would wet my bed till quite late stage in life. The next day fm morning itself i would be made the target of ranting & punishments. Now I am not exaggerating, because this part of my life was a harsh reality, then.

Right down on the ground floor, there was a huge hall. 2 wooden arm chairs wc had arms that would open out & aai aji & dada would rest their legs on those outstretched arms…they looked like one royal pair. There were 2 beds like sofas, telephone, radio, record player, 2 desks of my cousins, a black board & a long tale that was like mini bar cum beetle nut holders. The image of my youngest uncle was that he would always cut beetle nuts.

There were 2 doors fm here that led to the huge dining room. In the hay days there were opn an average 50 people living, talking, some 30-40 odd eating in that household. There were some 10-12 domestic helpers, cook, their families, the family that looked after the cattle & lived there…so it was a mini village by itself.

My aai aji would head the dining table. Dada sat on her right & brothers around. We little ones all around. The middle mama would be a terror. He always targeted his own son & me for taking out his anger on us, besides ofcourse killing the big black ants called as mungles. Everytime I sat to eat I remember being forced to eat brinjal, egg plant. I cannot eat that vegetable. I despise it. What is imp was that I always forced to eat Brinjal else was deprived of mangoes!

Now if there is anything that REALLY makes me sad is being DEPRIVED of eating alphanso mangoes. I believe I am born in the month of may, when it is the season for the king of the fruits. i consider it my birth right to eat alphansoes…I live the year round to eat this fruit…yes, nothing is more rejuvenating, motivating & inspiring than alphanso mangoes. We used to have a fridge but I don’t remember us kids being allowed to use it. So have NO memories of it.

Now the second most traumatic memory is of drinking the sad water of Bilimora. I was always falling ill. We kids fm Mumbai were used to the water which many allege is full of chemicals. But Bombay’s water is NOT hard, salty…its tasty. Here in Bilimora, the water was dammit hard & salty. I’d get stomach upset, loosies, stomach pained & I really would face trauma to drink that water…why NO one ever realised that instead of splurging on rubbish that the family did all they had to do was take care of the kids & give us Bisleri. Its NOT spoiling the children, it simply was depriving us of basic good drinking water.

The other memory was waking up to seeing women of the kitchen –wc did NOT include my mother making mango ras juice in the mornings. There was no limit to the amount we drank. In the afternoons we children would sit on the wall of the courtyard and my middle mama would bring us baskets of mangoes (alphansos) & chopped sugar cane…every afternoon. This was THE only time we were allowed to eat as many mangoes, there after NO mango could be eaten. Then at night if we our stomachs were good, we could have more ras…

The other was my aai aji feeding the first piece fm her plate to the in-house parrot. He knew all our names, would act very smart & was active full day as he’d talk to us. There were besides the kitchen 3 rooms. 1 that was devoted to making chaas, buttermilk. The churners were long ones tied to thick ropes on the walls. Huge vessels were put as we had cattle in the house. There then was a room besides these which had trinkets & heirlooms, wc of corz were NOT jewels, but ceramics, earthen pottery, etc.

Then behind the kitchen was a door where I remember as a child going there wt peanuts & chana then we would feed the Peacocks wt this food! Yes, it was a high point for me. I never thought or knew till I grew up that Peacocks were rare or exotic birds. All I knew that there were plenty of Peacocks in this part of India, like crows in Mumbai. Yes, even in my sister’s college, BITS, Pilani these darn peacocks would create a ruckus fm early morning, pick up lingerie & drop shit constantly all over the place! So I always though they were normal birds like crows & sparrows that are fed by people.

So, the life there was one pretty fairy tale for us kids. Well, I NEVER was a believer in those fairy tales…so i had questions even as a child, wc were never answered. What we weren’t told were the fights within the family. Greed, possessiveness were the obvious causes. But what i always wondered was why and how these grandparents could not control their sons? Why weren’t they made more efficient, hardworking & accountable? Why weren’t we asked if anyone was bothering us, abusing us, especially girls?
Sometimes im surprised I never got into alcohol, drugs or prostitution or took to anti-social activities….yeah we saw a lot, experienced a lot around us. It did NOT disturb me that my mother’s younger good for nothing brother did not welcome us when my cousin & I paid a visit. none of this surprises me. I feel vindicated. Even though he & my dead uncle were insane, NONE of this can ever erase the fond memories i have of this place. I am glad that my grandparents gave us a good childhood & with lovely memories. That they failed to reign-in their sons is a mystery they had to answer & something we’d never know. I’m glad I saw a world in early years that was soooo different, like a picture unreal….

Billimora trip

There are many memories when one is growing that are pleasant & many more that are worth forgetting. Most often as we grow older we forget the bad ones & try & hold onto dear ones…I’ve tried to clear my memory of most experiences- good or bad…however some stand etched permanently.

I went to Surat & then to Bilimora on this weekend. For most Bilimora is the station after Valsad on way to Delhi. Bilimora is a far off suburb for the richie rich Navsari Parsis & Gujjus. There were industries & remaining were farmlands; it was a weekend getaways for the Navsariwalas.

Now Bilimora is a town which is unique – gets hot in summer & really cold in winters. It has a some river side area …small compared to even any stream in the western ghats. The drinking water tastes awful. Its salty, terribly hard for Bombayites like me. It was traumatic to say the least. I’d get Nightmares & was always ill. My aai’s (mother’s) maternal home wc was actually a palatial villa. See, there are few secrets of the family which I can’t reveal..some I may just let out…but believe me when I say palatial its NO exaggeration. It was 52 rooms like old palace…No rickety stairs but many swings..remember ayega…ayega?? (Old Hindi film).

Ok so on the Gandevi road to the left was this Sardesai villa –Lokesh Bhuvan. On Monday morn it was a mission for my cousin Milind & me to make our trip come true! Our maternal uncle’s daughter made contact wt me. She & her crafty, schizo husband called me one night persuading me to come to visit them. Now my last memories of this house, nearly 28 yrs ago, was what I remember… a beautiful memory that was, till I saw the eventual reality. I NEVER wanted to go there after the 50th wedding anniv of my grandparents. By which time I had got the power to say NO! Didn’t want to re-visit a place where I had memories of being abused. Physically and sexually.

Yet, my cousin, my mother’s younger sister’s son was my support. He & i have been buddies since childhood and he convinced me to go. We made a plan & I informed Sonali & her husband…they were all gungho, till they realised I wont be coming alone…they informed me –after I had made all the train bookings that “pl don’t come, We won’t be in Bilimora, we have to go to Ahmedabad for an unlimited period of time.” I called Milind & he said I shld come to Surat, only to prove a point we should go to Bilimora.

Yes, both our instincts told us that this was all a BIG lie, no one was going anywhere…they did NOT want us to come. We both wanted to make a point. But you know what, NO one can deny us the right to visit our maternal grandparents home. Bcoz of our mothers, all cousins, till I was born, were born either in Surat or Bilimora, bcoz cousin’s father was a fine gynac. I was the first to be born in Bombay.

Now before i had left i had heard of ghostly stories about the place – it was in shambles, NOTHING of the past was around. The villa had become a shanty, the gardens, lawns were sold out since the maternal uncle was in heavy debts; Lot was taken away due to those debts and most of all, most was eaten away by white ants. It wasn’t the place of my childhood, yet I wanted to see it with my own eyes…Surat was fun as usual. I realised Sonali & husband helped me save my money….I didn’t take them any brownies from Theobrama – the place which would make Bombay’s best brownies – that I had taken for cousin’s family.

On Monday morn, we embarked on our journey. First we met the bhaiyaji who had worked at my cousin’s house since we all were small….an old man now has cataract but was his old self…who recognised my voice and name! we took photos with him & saw the cloudy skies clearing. We both looked at each other & said let’s go & ruin the plans of our relatives.
We crossed Navsari, the sister city of Surat & postponed out sweet shopping trip…we discussed how we would be welcomed or not. As we hit Gandevi road, we were puzzled, we drove past trying to identify the structures. To our right few metres down the road, was the 3 and a half room shanty, that which once was a 52- room mansion! The entrance was no more muddy, there was NO playground. Alas!
The blue Ganesha temple is now re-painted in beige, but closed with a huge lock. Although exclusive Sardesai family temple, it looked like NOBODY’s ever gone there…the trees around were chopped or had simply died. All plants around the bungalow too seemed to have died. The shock for me was that the garden was barren land! It was all naked and exposed for the world to see, like the lives of my surviving maternal uncle and aunty.
Some part has been leased out by my good-for-nothing uncle, so that he can sit on the arm chair & get money in his lap. The garden, thick lawn, trees are reduced to some green & muddy spot. The house still has the old grills and design, but as we approached, I saw that after 28 yrs this is a concrete shanty wc is worse than the slums of Bombay. The board which said “Trespassers will be prosecuted,” too had disappeared. How do I explain this place, which once was straight out of a fairyland!

A fleet of 11 cars,  lined this entrance, greenery that would make environmentalists proud! A variety of flowering plants, trees that bloomed as my dada ajoba would talk to his plants. Board which said, ‘Trespassers will be prosecuted, beware of the dogs” fascinated us always. In addition, a mini maidan, huge compound, open space ahead and behind, a compound for dogs plus cattleshed…it was absolutely unbelievable, the amount of land owned by my grand parents. And ofcourse the mango wadi, which was near some river.

Today, atthe entrance of the bungalow, a stuffed Bear’s face juts out – just like the olden days, yet the lamp is broken, walls are discoloured, with patches & black spots. The rest wc used to be a guest room with bath tub, my dada’s room & the hall, all of it is destroyed. The god’s room stands closed. Don’t know what’s hidden inside. Then a 30 -40 ft verandah is now reduced to 5ft where 2 Labradors are tied…the dogs’ kennels, playing ground and a compound is no more. It looks as if this shanty is an encroachment on a huge mass of land which once belonged to Sardesai family. A lady forced to expose herself due to compelling circumstances.

The servant’s quarters, the 3 extra rooms of the kitchen, the store rooms, other rooms…all gone. We looked to our right & the entrance is still dark & dingy. Sudha maushi’s room & aaji-dada’s room wt their toilet is there, rest, NOTHING.

It is NO surprise we were NOT welcomed. What I noticed was the uncle’s lordly fascinations of keeping dogs, sitting with his legs up still continues. The 2 Labradors barked their lungs out…the hall has the same black & white checkered design tiles that my grandfather had built, are a proof of the quality of olden days. The blackboard of my cousins, too was intact, but not the rest. So was a lot of wooden furniture. I was told, most of the furniture and entire villa was destroyed by white ants. The 2 beds & cupboards and the desks of kids is there…one bed is turned up against the wall & there sat Aditya in his wheel chair. A grown up son, rather an attempted abortion gone wrong. Sad, he is a challenged man.
The maternal uncle was sprawled on the grand arm chair that belonged to aai aji-dada. The dining area, where the entire family of over a dozen sat together for meals here, once is barren. One gas range in the old place & the kitchen is now shifted outside. Behind the table the wash basin & grills remain . Rest is all a vacant land! NO factory, but a new bungalow and few houses are seen 1000 of metres away.

Milind told me aai’s & his mother’s rooms were intact…but it was out of bounds for us. My maternal uncle seemed terribly upset upon seeing us. Me especially 🙂 Mami who I feel sad for, yes despite her silent support to that crafty b@#%&*@$d who is actually her brother-in-law, but left my older abusive uncle for this monster, seems resigned to her fate- consequences for NOT making a change for herself & letting herself live in this strange house….I feel bad for her, though she seems happy, even with the actions she has taken. Guess she has resigned to her fate. Ok, he has been a monster with me, but has loved her always, so I guess she will have a soft corner. We both spoke after like 28 yrs??? It was my uncle’s b’day a few days ago and she made sweets & offered us. We both ate reluctantly…that man refused to look in our direction. He has NO idea that the most eccentric nephew & niece were on his doorstep, especially the niece…I can IGNORE people wt such elan, he will be surprised. Later some sense dawned on him & he stood up to talk to us.. he had worn a shirt wt 6-7 holes…his teeth discoloured & mouth filled beetle nut, as usual.

My picture of this mama has been one, where he would be standing facing the windows at the end of the hall, cutting the beetle nut with the nutcracker. His fingers stained, dark red-black like his teeth. Milind & I took pics and I played wt the dogs for a while. The dogs were besotted by me, seemed rather lonely. Milind smartly took sonali’s numb & called her in front of them. The colour on aunty’s face turned ashen, the first rains washing the dirt on the leaves! She tried to tell us the same story, they were to go somewhere and she realised the contact was made. Sonali answered the call. We gave her no time to react and simply said we are on our way. Meanwhile mami said we could meet Bondre kaku (the cook of yesteryear’s) & her daughters as we left…the call from Mapara household rang instantly as we were leaving.
It was a visit that churned so many emotions and memories for all. What struck me the most was, this family has simply NOT come to terms wt the FACT that what goes up can come down. There are NO more landed rich and feudal lords. One has to work hard for one’s living..simple rule of life wc the men in this family NEVER understood. They wanted it all easy, as if privileged and their birthright. To the extent, they would have even got us to sleep wt other men for fulfilling their own goals. Thankfully the women had more brains. Especially my aai who got out from there rather early-college days. The interesting part is, the current rate for property in Bilimora is Rs 110 per sq ft, (under 3$ per square feet!!). From 52-rooms, the villa is down to 3 and a half room shanty. What more evidence do these relatives need to learn their party is OVER. Who would want to come & live here? acres and acres of barren land.

The Mapara household was funnier, as Manish the husband, my so-called brother in law, a crafty man, ran away. We were only offered tea but we never saw anything at the table served for us. We then headed to Nandan Math, an ashram that once was promoted by my dada ajoba… there we were treated better than our own ‘relatives.’ The former cook and her daughters recognised Milind & me. They gave us tea & sweets!! Mostly they made us feel at home in their 2 room cozy chawl room. Despite living in an ashram, they were warm & down to earth. They related to us as if they were our real family. They know the family’s secrets & truths far better than the ‘players’ themselves.

Geunine anger, but why do the jingo?

I was at the Gateway of India, as part of the protest rally. But what I saw was that although the poeple were genuinely angry, the protests were far confusing. The rally was for paying homage to the slained in the November 26, 2008 terror attacks. But it was a complete jingo, loud nationalist, slogan shouting exercise.

Ok, I am not really sure where to begin. I believe if we fail to find one strong leader or a person who has leadership qualities, then we get a sea of masses-means huge crowds of public which cuts across class and caste-with no specific direction or path.

Am I sounding harsh? Well then there were many people and instances on Wednesday December 3, evening that have made me doubt this very rally and its purpose. This controversy began on the Facebook, sms and all other virtual networking thingies from which the common public were disconnected. It has its own repercussions. There were hundreds of thousands of people who had simply ‘heard’ of this rally and had genuinely come from far off suburbs to pay their homage to the dead.
Among the various smses I got, one said that Manyata, a wife of a leading Bollywood star Sanjay Dutt – who in my eyes is still an alleged criminal (alleged is ONLY to be legally sound, else he still is) who has bought his freedom thanks to his family’s political clout and money. Yes, I stand by what I say because he has admitted to the police and in the TADA court that a gangster deposited to his residence a Russian Army weapon (AK47) and a truck full of explosives, including RDX for ‘protecting’ his family from the Bombay riots of 1992. Interstingly when these arms were deposited the pogroms had already stopped in the city! I feel his father was a politician who could have called upon the police or national security but he sought the help of the underworld. Today he is a free citizen under the ARMS control act, while other Muslim accused are stuck in the jail under TADA for the rest of their lives.

Now his wife was to lead this rally, which she did by holding a torch. I am sorry, I took immense objection to this episode and aired my misgivings to the organisers. What qualifies her to represent the city & its people? Why did she dorn make up & come as if she was running a marathon? The other problems was the truck load of celebrities who were to make an appearance.

By afternoon, all television channels had set up their stalls across the Gateway of India since they had been given a list that celebrities like Manyata, Rahul Bose –who is at least doing good work with the deprived- Preity Zinta, Javed Akhtar, Farhan Akhtar, Adhuna, Farhan Azmi politician Milind Deora and scores of others who graced this occasion.

This whole episode reminds of a recent conversation I had with a Facebook friend, who is a writer and lyricist. I happened to ask him to write some poetry after the terror seige, since he has a way with words. Thought these tough days was the real time to write good poetry or some prose , which would inspire ordinary people. I was given quite a talk..because I am sure the person did not understand my purpose or predicament. He wrote… “this is not a time to write poems …..this is the time to make our actions into poems this is the time to feel not to express…” Point is as a journalist I have stopped feeling over two decades ago. Like a doctor I see, dissect analyse and report with a neutral bent of mind. I do not have the skill or inclination to write poetry, prose or a piece of writing apart from news report. This person has a huge fan following and his words are read carefully by them all. Yet, i realised he had ‘avoided’ really expressing his angst against the system, a fact that the rest of the public was atleast talking about.

I have been since then observing and trying to understand this whole thing about ‘feeling’ that every second Mumbaikar seems to be talking about. What is a good time to feel? What is it that people are feeling now that was missing earlier? May I request the readers to re-think. Most among the 2.5 lakh persons who attended this rally were under 20 -35 years of age. So if we make them rewind their memories or remember the incidents of 1992 , then it simply means most of these were teenagers & many still toddlers in the year 1992.

The reason I speka of 1992, is because there seems to be a ‘common amnesia’ regarding the first act of Hindu terror on December 6, 1992 when the Babri Masjid (mosque) was pulled down. Thereafter the second, pogroms Mumbai city in which scores of rich and poor Muslims were killed heinously gravely wounded and although officially 900 had died, many still are missing. Then we faced the 1993 blasts which again affected the spirit of this dear city of mine, Bombay. Since then I thought the restlessness and feelings would’ve have increased. Except for a handful who have consistently protested and are labelled ‘activists,’ I did not see this anger or feeling ever expressed so openly. These acts of crime were no less henious than Nov 26.

We again suffered a series of blasts on the trains and BEST buses, wherein middle class and elite members died. More importantly the bomb blast at the Gateway of India on August 25, 2003. That time the people who died were balloon sellers, photographers who shot pictures of tourists and some beggars. Sadly, at that time there was no mass movement or any celebrity who came forward to march on. Worse still this amnesia was reflected even last Wednesday evening, when no one paid a tribute these poor souls who lost their precious lives in that dastardly act.

The list goes on till the local train blasts 2005 and Malegaon. Yet, no one thought of coming out to protest or express their anger. I am happy a very delayed action of ‘anger’ and ‘feeling’ have taken over a complacent middle and elite class who now want to act.

However pardon me saying this, did I expect anything apart from lighting candles, speeches and shouting slogans? No, but I definitely expected some trouble. It was a sheer news instinct, considering the agitations and threats that were echoed by many, I expected some spats and may be stone throwing or altercation with the police.

Huge masses of people walked or were thankfully compelled to walk, as they had to abandon their vehicles in various corners. The police who should have been doing their duty of protecting the Gateway of India area, failed misreably in keeping crowds away from this spot. Meanwhile we reporters continued with our follow up work, which also meant going to CST station where 8 kg more of RDX was found! No one seemed to mind that security had been breeched and the police and authorities had succumbed to public pressure.

I wish this pressure was passed onto some more concrete action. I first went to the Radio Club side, where some celebs had paid their visit and argued among themselves how they needed to go to the Gateway of India side to share the platform with the other folks. Suddenly I heard people shouting “Vande Mataram”, “Bharat mata ki jai,” “Pakistan chor hai” and so on. There was immense pro-India and anti-Pakistan jingoistic. There were many who spoke of war – again most who were not even born when the 1971 war took place. Even as a tot I distinctly remember the dark nights wherein we had to eat and manoeuvre around our houses in pitch dark during the 1971 war. Yet, like forbidden sex, the war and loss of freedom seems to fascinate those born in this largest democracy.

Suddenly there was an announcement for more agenda. Meanwhile the crowds got restless and began hooting. So one uncle called upon his wife, an organiser atop a truck asking her to take another point on the agenda. “Enough of speeches, this is not happening. Th
e crowds are angry and are turning awa, do something more,” said the loyal hubby. Auntyji heard and gave the mike to a young gal who screeched into the mike about why we need to boycott elections and no -voting. All around me were youngsters in hip tight low waist jeans looking sad and suddenly woke up to “Don’t tell us what to do,” “We know what to do. Shut up and give us action!”

Some metres away atop a wall of some compound people began lighting scores of candles. The melting wax fell all over; same scene took place on the pavement opposite the hotel Taj. India’s national flags made from all sorts of material were being pushed into the air. Then like in Karan Johar films the organisers felt they need to bank upon people’s sentiments and everyone broke out into the National Anthem. A young man who was an organiser was egging on people to sing loudly by shoving his fist into the air at the time of the anthem. A former armed forces uncle next to me to screamed, “Hey you rascal in the cap put that hand down, you are singing the national anthem. No discipline I tell you.” The jingoism in the air was too heavy by then.

Meanwhile, I met up with a Sikh army person. He has joined Trig Security and had volunteered to help the forces clear debris and bodies at the Taj hotel. As I walked away to see the mess the melted wax had made, two gals with a cloth flag shouting slogans walked towards the DNA photographer Kamlesh and correspondent, me. We were aghast and infuriated to see these chicklets holding the flag upside down. I was not in my spirits to give them some chaste abuse, which I normally would have, as I was upset with the whole drama. I told them at least hold the flag correctly, it is a shame…the gals sheepishly said oh, oops, sorry…and smiled into the camera!
By then the Sardarji friend was over the top and would have picked these two girls and thrown them into the sea. (I was hoping he would have). He told me this was a stupid fracas with aimless youth. As we stood talking across the road we noticed an old aunty walk with a plastic flag that was totally crushed. “Yeh to ab logon ka tamasha aur mazak ban gaya hai. Kyu ye sab shaheedon ka mazak udane,” said the Sardarji friend. (These people have made a mockery and drama of this whole situation. Why are they making fun of the martyrs & the flag?) He genuinely was disturbed. We decided to walk towards to the candles to take a break from this mockery, when in front of us a richie rich family came and stood near the candle-lit wall. The young man tore open the box, rushed his wife to open the candles and asked the son to hurry as they had to catch up with celeb uncles, aunties. The box which was torn open, its litter was thrown down on the road. The richie man and wife lit the candles in a super quick speed and rushed out from the spot.

The Sardarji led me to see the people walking in the rally. He said “You must report all this rubbish and turned to look at my expression. Sardarji friend asked me, “You will write this I pray.” He need not have asked me, because this is my commitment and job, to write exactly what I have seen. Thereafter for 15 minutes we both stood rooted with clenched fists. Every person in this famous rally was on their cell phone, either smsing or talking non-­stop.

May be seeing and experiencing harsh realities too frequently has made me a sceptic, however all these anecdotes and happenings left a deep mark on my mind. I saw the anger was genuine and I grant that. But I cannot fathom how indifferent in attitude and body the public was when participating. Sorry, this was no Olympic marathon or torch rally wherein celebrity women carried a fire torch with make up. This simply does NO good to anyone. Young children had lied at home some rebelled, as my colleague saw parents pulling down a college girl, “Stop it, enough is enough we have to leave now,” may be embarrassed by her guts, which I definitely appreciate more than the mass tamasha. I felt bad for all those ladies who had come a long distance braving the local train rush hour and the fear, considering the police had forgotten to detect the RDX (left behind by the terrorists eight days ago). I do not think such foolhardy events serve any purpose.
We media thought we had played a role in removal of the chief minister and like us the public too was delusional. Delusional I say, because the Congress Party and the leaders showed they cared a damn for us and for all those who died, but were more concerned with their ‘power,’ chairs and posts. These events without a concrete cause and mission are futile waste of public time, energy and cause immense security concerns. Not once anyone thought of letting the police do their jobs. Kamlesh and I had to run half way back to CST, because we had to get the story and picture of RDX being found. It was a nightmare to see so many countles stranded on the road and another sea of humans walking towards their homes.