A life outside the ordinary

My childhood was spent outside civilian life. Often located tens of kilometers away from a large city or town, factories that build and equip our armed forces and the private housing they provide their employees form mini-cities and develop a culture in themselves. This extraordinary setting was my home until I completed my college and moved West for higher education.

I remember large mansions, thanks to the British origins of our homes. I have memories of running from room to room, identical and adjacent to one another with boarded up fireplaces and sloping tiled roofs. Space was never a constraint and I had never heard of eliminating anything just due to lack of space. We had two kitchens, an outhouse, a long corridor that spanned the entire length of the house with grilled windows (grills were later added to keep the monkeys from entering the house with ease). Our garden was full of trees and a large collection of potted plants curated lovingly by my mom. I remember even a flagpole with a tiny circular dias around it in the center of our garden and endless carefree evenings spent twirling around it. I remember the marigolds that came alive in the early spring and the bougainvilleas that adorned our fence turn to lush pink during the late summer. I saw shepherds gather their goats and sheep walk past our home with our dog Blackie snarling at them. I recall their efforts to pluck fresh tamarind that grew in plenty from the giant Imli trees or stone the mangoes to get some fresh fruit. Roads around our home were private, with complete freedom to walk, run, bike with abandon and summon friends for evening play. I recall buying milk on my own since I was six from the nearby milk booth on my tiny red bicycle. I remember gaping at the depth of the just-drained swimming pool at our local club and accompanying my mother and our help to the weekly vegetable market twice a week, my teddy bear in tow.

Jabalpur is special to me in more ways than one. Though my recollections are tiny compared to my family members who have lived there considerably longer when they were much older than I was, I always remember the place with rose-tinted glasses. Trips to the local ice cream parlor and watching the buffaloes in the diary, counting the pigs and buffaloes wallowing in the naali on the way to the school, the rare city trips that would involve a trip to the bookshop and a bakery to eat hot puffs or watching the fountains in the community garden come alive after being broken (and fabricating stories about how it might be haunted), are all my fondest memories from a place that is often overshadowed by its more important and historically influential neighbors such as Bhopal, Indore and Gwalior. But Jabalpur firmly retains a special love, not just by me but by all who were blessed to spend many years of their life there.

Chennai was no different. We call our private estate as being in Chennai, since the closest city was Chennai. But we lived far from the hustle-bustle of the main city. Whisky and I have spent countless humid evenings rustling the touch-me-nots, biking through the local rowdy group of dogs to irritate them, avoiding thorny bushes and running like headless chicken on the local roads. We have seen cobras do their mating dance, run away from scorpions, escorted so many leeches and snails to safety, waded through ankle deep water during heavy (and rare) monsoons, heard month-long frog and cricket concerts, watched baby-toads swimming in the drains and watched meteor showers from the luxury of our house (thanks to the very dark sky). We had the best of both worlds where we lived in peace and in-sync with nature but had the luxury to venture into one of the largest metropolitan cities of India to eat at a restaurant or very rarely, watch a movie. I loved my home in Chennai that boasted of two floors with large balconies sheltered by tall trees. All I needed for entertainment was my dog Whisky and a big staircase at home on a holiday. Chasing street dogs, watching the birds eat his food and his fear of cats entertained me no end. Birthday parties were simple treasure hunts, memory games and homemade cakes and goodies. Traffic and pollution were never an issue and the facilities to play any sport were just a five minute walk away.

I spent lesser and lesser time at home and more at hostels after Chennai but our place in Dehradun was memorable for its long driveway, portico, abundance of litchi trees and giant voluminous rooms (heating and cooling bills would have been gigantic!). Plants love the chilly Uttarakhand winters, the pleasant spring and fall, producing plenty of vegetables in our tiny patch resulting in delicious pakoras from freshly picked greens and infinite steamed dumplings. Watching the lights of Mussoorie from our home or watching the tiny but fierce Dulhani flow was enchanting, just as having a huge mountain right in front of our home.

As I integrate into the civil society as an adult, with no such luxuries to boast of in my career choice, I reminisce with wonder. I realize today that the things I took for granted were indeed the rarest to find in today’s cities or  in a bustling metropolis. I plan vacations that take me to pristine mountains or lakes, that show me a million stars with fresh air and long to have gardens with tons of flowers and vegetables, but also with the choice of venturing into the heart of the city in under an hour. As spring awakens the slumbering vegetation around me, I cannot help but recollect my childhood homes with utmost fondness.

One might argue that moving frequently has led to no permanent sense of belonging or an established group of friends. The inconvenience of relocating and moving a home can easily overshadow the obvious upside of gathering experiences and creating memories that would otherwise take multiple lifetimes to assimilate. As The Wonder Years rightly pointed out, “Growing up happens in a heartbeat. One day, you’re in diapers; next day, you’re gone. But the memories of childhood stay with you for the long haul”.

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In a land far far away

Most people I introduce my birthplace to pass it off as Jaipur, the more famous city that sounds like it but is nowhere near, aesthetically, geographically or culturally. I was born in Jabalpur, a nondescript little town in Madhya Pradesh located almost perfectly in the center of our country and on the tropic of cancer. I’m always proud of that, having a geographic talisman, that represents nothing but the one place where the sun is overhead on the 21st of June. There, I gave a little old-fashioned geographic gyaan. It is a little place swamped with government factories, army cantonments and its ticket to fame is the famous waterfall dhuandhaar or the marble rocks where Narmada gushes over pristine white marble . But dont panic!This post is not written on behalf of M.P tourism (which has a kickass jingle of its own anyway).
I was born in a little village just outside Jabalpur called Madan Mahal. Actually it is one stop prior to Jabalpur station if you go by train. Apparently the best hospital then was in that place far away from where our house was. Of course, today neither the hospital nor the doctor exists. (The doctor had some licensing issues and her degree was revoked! God! I hate to imagine if she was a quack!). So that tragedy apart, we lived in Khamaria, a small village on the outskirts of the little town. Our estate was luxurious, huge villas constructed by the British complete with elaborate portico’s, long driveways big garages and outhouses,red-tile roofs and giant corridors with wooden floors and fireplaces, enormous gardens, parks and tons of trees. It was a cosmopolitan closed little society, where everyone knew everyone else, where one could ride bikes without the fear of any traffic, where huge empty spaces with little grass were in abundance for kite-flying and little shepherds with their flock of sheep used to invade the estates during the hot summer afternoons. Tales of panthers and cheetahs spotted near tiny little creeks just outside the estate used to prevent us from venturing towards the factory which was mostly in a jungle. We had a little triangular park with lush grass and rabbits and deer and even a toy-train, a musical fountain and a dinosaur with glowing eyes. The little Westland bazaar used to come alive every tuesday and I used to accompany my mom and our domestic help as they filled their bags with fresh organic vegetables and fruits. Something that we pay insane amounts for here. Beautiful gulmohar and eucalyptus trees lined the roads which turned flaming orange in the fall. It was a beautiful place to grow up in then and it was my home.
My mornings were all about going to Moni dairy and picking the cow I wanted milked and getting free ice-cream samples of the newest flavors ;bathing in cold water in summers and scooting off to school on Vishuprasad’s bike and watching the buffaloes wallow in the mud as his cycle rolled down the steep hill into Chandan colony and to my school St.Gabriels. My afternoons were playing hopscotch with my baby-sitter and eating her delicious daal-chawal or waking up Blackie from his afternoon siesta. There were no 1000 channels or flat-screen tv’s. I dont even remember paying any attention to the television unless it was Sunday morning 10 am when we watched Ramayan or Sri Krishna in rapt attention. My idea of fun was running around the garden, sitting on guava trees or mango trees and avoiding the monkeys. I used to accompany my dad to Digambar stores, a tiny little grocery shop and then watching in awe as the mithaiwala in sonali sweets made samosas by the dozen in an instant. Eating hot jalebis and cutlets, reading all signboards in shudh Hindi. I knew not a word in tamil. Club dinners and diwali melas where I used to eat Chhole Bhature and ride on giant wheels and hang out with my sister’s friends. Teej season was one of hearty shrikhand-puris and sooji halwas in every aunty’s house. I used to pluck fresh vegetables from mom’s vegetable patch or play with newborn chicks and goats. Wild hibiscus and genda(marigold) lined our gardens. Spent days watch the langurs take over entire gardens and destroy them and named two-red faced ones Morgan and Torgan. Evenings were for pittu or just some crazy bike-riding. Not Diablo 3’s or Wii’s. The trip to the one bookshop in Sadar Bazaar was filled with extreme delight and hour-long rickshaw rides to chungi or the rickety tempos that took you to “the city” were highly anticipated. It was so magical and innocent. It was not a city, there were no supermarkets, no cell phones, no computers, just us in a small little town with so many friends. Summer vacations to Madras were like going to another country in a train that took 42 hours. Still, nothing felt like going home to Jabalpur.
I realize how different my life is today. Of course, you need to keep up with the times and move with the flow of technology. Everything there has changed as well ( as I realized much to my chagrin in 2005). But my memories remain fresh and clear, almost like a fairy-tale.Except that it was real and in a land far-far away.

A complete circle

I was sitting on my bed and reading a journal paper, laptop beside me with at least some 10 tabs open. One of them being NDTV. It was 11:45 at night and sleep was just showing its first signs after all that cycling and exercise. I casually clicked on the tab to glance at the latest news and the world now knows what I saw. The mastermind, supercriminal and most wanted fugitive who managed to evade the mighty US forces for a decade was now dead. It brought back memories of 9/11, an experience that I would never ever forget.

Cut to 2001, warm summer Chennai evening. Mom doing her puja, I had just returned from play with Whisky and was giving him some water. The phone rang asking for my sister’s phone number in US. She worked in NY on the 78th Floor of the WTC North tower. It must be around 7pm. I ran upstairs, booted that ancient computer and gave the number. Then another call came and another. I wondered why so many people were suddenly asking her number. My mom got suspicious and asked the latest caller, must be atleast the 20th that evening. She hastily told “Nothing Aunty, official work”. Dad was home and eating dinner. I was now upstairs playing with whisky in my room. And then one of my sister’s closest friends called and told. “Uncle, turn on the TV”.

The next three hours were the most horrific of my life. Even as I type this, 10 years on, I can hear my parents scream in horror, the disbelief that something so awful can unfold and that my very sister is there under attack. Images that I never want to see again, but unfortunately captured by my brain flashed past me as I muttered “No, no nothing can ever happen to her. She’ll be fine.” With no calls being answered and the ultimate collapse of the towers, my parents lost hope. I could not believe what I was watching and was hoping against hope. I remember being so blank that nothing was entering my mind or getting processed. Amidst all the tears, the witch like boss of my sister announced over the phone. “We’ll let you know one way or the other”. One way or the other? What does she mean? How inhuman can one get, I wondered.

At 2 am, the phone rang. It was a long call, the ISD variety. I picked up the phone,heart thumping so loud I think the caller could hear and heard the voice that made me realize the value of life in an instant. Silence (time delay) followed as I barely muttered “Hello!”, I heard finally ” Chotu?” It was my sister. That instant is one I will never forget in my life. Ever. I could not say anything more and passed on the phone to my mother, who was in tears. We hugged each other and smiled. Whisky jumping around in happiness, confused and tired but happy nevertheless. The cold dinner was warmed up and eaten at last, hunger returning out of giddy relief. It was past 3 am.

For the next few months, horrific images flashed across the world with unbelievable headlines swamped across the front pages of The Hindu. It has been a long battle, the pain of loss easing a little, but never being forgotten. I know how hard it must be for thousands of people who lost their near and dear that fateful day.
I came back to reality, listening to the White House briefing. I smiled in happiness. “Finally! “I said to myself and thanked God for his blessings, the gift of life ,family and my sister once again. This is a day I wont forget. Just like the one 10 years ago.

Vacation

Vacation is

…getting first off a plane only to get lost in the luggage concourses, followed by a relieving hug from G-Joo at 1 am!

…cuddling up and sleeping next to mom after 3 whole months.

…giving sis a bear hug after half a year.

…introducing yourself first time to your 2 month nephew and being called a-gooo. 😀

…playing with all his toys and rattles.

…watching the Manhattan skyline from the bed.

…looking at the Statue of Liberty, Staten Island bridge and Hudson from the living room window.

…eating steaming hot idlis and mum-made coconut chutney for breakfast.

…driving in a BMW to the biggest mall and entering every shop possible.

…trying out shoes at Nine West.

…getting locked out of a GAP trial room in the store.

…digging a Mama Sbarro’s pizza and planning the next store to attack.

…not being able to decide between a Donatella or a DKNY jacket for half an hour.

…tasting divinity with Dule De Leche from Haagen Dazs.

…hunting for swimwear in Macy’s and buying something totally unplanned for.

…getting irritated with the full-of-attitude AT&T store people.

… introducing G-joo to twitter \m/

…enjoying the morning breeze on a walk with mom.

…giving nephew first ride on shoulders and making him sleep.

…eating homemade godlike pulao and beans sabji followed by Ben&Jerry’s Imagine Whirled Peace. (yummm)

…finishing the shopping list with visit to the all-familiar Target.

…eating california burgers with coriander chutney and sauce.

…more ice cream.

…showing mom around facebook and all my friends.

…hot mom made dosa with garlic powder from Grand Sweets.

…debating which phone to buy for ages and finally deciding on the iphone.

…thinking of a twitter nick for sister.

…watch nephew sleep and smile in his sleep.

Ladies and gentlemen,now that’s what I call a PERFECT VACATION!
😀
{Thank God for the awesome break, Im all set to hit my books again! \m/ }