Indelible ink on my finger

Just back after having voted in the General Elections with mixed feelings. I voted in the nearby school building and having gone early there was no one waiting in line.
I remember having voted for the Congress Party in 1952 which won with an overwhelming majority in Parliament. The Congress candidate for who I voted was Shri Mehar Chand Khanna, who was elected by a large majority. He became a Cabinet Minister for Rehabilitation. A refugee himself, he was responsible for settling the refugees who came to India after Partition and many of the “colonies” we now see in Delhi were plots allotted to settle those who came to independent India with no material possessions. Meherchand and Khanna markets in New Delhi are named for him.

I voted in every election after that for the Congress candidate and was loyal to the Congress party whose chief opponents in the early years were the Communist Party of India.

I joined the disillusioned section of congress supporters when Mrs. Indira Gandhi came to power when staunch party loyalists were critical of her autocratic ways, I think mostly because she distanced herself from all who were close to her father Jawaharlal Nehru. There were sporadic disturbances and protests which increased her insecurity. With friends and colleagues I attended meetings by Jai Prakash Narain and his strong voice of dissent.
Nevertheless I voted Congress in the 1971 elections. The election was not without controversy as Raj Narain who was defeated by Mrs.Gandhi In Rae Bareli filed a petition citing her corrupt practices. The Supreme Court ruled against her
Mrs. Gandhi’s isolation, surrounded only by a few sycophants, culminated in the Emergency in 1975 which shook most of us. Two years later many voted against her in the general elections that followed. Like them I rejoiced in her defeat in the elections that followed. 1977 will remain a year to remember.
I have not voted Congress since that year. There were many whose integrity and courage in the Emergency years brought them into the election fray in 1977. By then I was employed and had an independent income. I felt I must support those I admired. I contributed to the campaigns of the distinguished journalist B.G.Verghese from Mavelikkara in Kerala, and socialist politician H.V. Kamath from Hoshangabad. Kamath was elected to the Lok Sabha. I was disappointed that Mr. Verghese lost in that election. He continued his journalism and was awarded the Magsaysay Award.

I believe I MUST vote and choose candidates who I like and admire, regardless of whether they are “winning candidates”. The integrity of the candidate, his or her leadership without populist rhetoric is what I look for, as also the party’s contribution to civic progress. The media reports of their campaign are the last and the least credible 😉
This 2019 election is probably the dirtiest I have experienced, marking a nadir in political invective, slander and irrelevant issues used in mud-slinging. Whether dignity and honest debate will ever return to election scenario is something I sadly doubt.

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If there is one topic constantly discussed and debated in private and public forums, commented upon or reported in the media, it is Corruption. Every political party in government states that eliminating corruption is on top of their agenda. The public are concerned for its impact on a citizen’s daily life is multidimensional. There is no one who is not affected by an illegal twist in day to day transactions.
There is scant satisfaction in the performance of government agencies when we read about top personalities being targeted by CBI for corruption. The word however has come to mean ”unaccountable wealth” avoidance of tax, and payments for favours granted.
Demonetisation was declared as one of the means to tackle black money and corruption. We read about huge amounts of cash in suitcases and cupboards uncovered in raids by tax officials and publicised in the media.
Despite all this there is a strange acceptance of corruption as pervasive and unavoidable. The fight against corruption one would say has to be tackled at every personal level, in every day dealings with officials and people in charge of institutions. If one is asked to pay a bribe, or “speed money’ for a service, one pays it with a sigh of resignation, because work must be done, small tasks accomplished. One pays to move a file from one official’s desk to the official one step higher in the approval process, or to avoid penalty for a misdeed.
However, this article is written by one who has spent a lifetime in the field of education to highlight the plight of parents seeking admission for their children into schools. Their desperation and the undoubted affect it has on the little ones who are innocent victims of this rampant commercialization of education, is a situation we do not collectively raise our voice against. The urgent need to get a child admitted to an educational institution makes it necessary to pay a “capitation fee” disguised in the word “donation” to the School Society or Trust. Even for four year olds seeking to enter nursery the going rate at an English medium school is several lakhs. Parents do not know what quality education is but a private English medium school is what every parent aspires for their wards. The managements of these elite private schools are only interested in fleecing parents who see in the schools a means of fulfillment of those dreams they have for their children. And parents are willing to pay a cash “donation” even if the additional monthly fees that are charged are hard to afford. The affluent parents who can afford to pay are pleased once the child has entry at the lowest level, for they believe this is an end to their worry about the child’s future course in education. The plight of parents has been portrayed in the film HINDI MEDIUM – and the film has been rated high because most people empathise with the characters in the film.
Once the child is admitted there is a regular demand for “fees” in some form or the other. There is an admission fee, development fee, tuition fee, computer fee, sports fee, smart classroom fee — as also periodically for school events, trips and excursions. Every year there is a steady increase in all these fees. No one asks what cash reserves the school has, nor do the parents’ groups get satisfactory explanations on why they are regularly asked to pay. Their child is a hostage in the system.
Even if money does not exchange hands, the management’s power of controlling access to a citizen’s right, is heady stuff. It appears this is why persons of high social standing see their “voluntary” work in management committees desirable for they are neither educators by profession nor interested in the classroom. They are there because they have the power to grant favours (read admission) for children of influential people. Every admission for the child of a government buaucrat, police official, income tax officer, or judicial magistrate is a quid pro quo. The principal is the really the principal “chamcha”, in sharing this position of influence. The common man has no chance. The name of the game is power, and when educators and concerned parents raise inconvenient questions, then there is window dressing and “successful” educational projects are showcased for proud and pleased parents. The current buzzword is “digitization” and children are now expected to purchase tablets “instead of heavy school bags of books”. However, concern about the child’s academic performance is raised only in the senior classes when Board exams draw near. This is when tuition becomes a necessary evil. Teachers find tuition for their students after school hours earns them more money than the VIIth Pay Commission salaries they demand and get from the school. Teaching shops make hay. By now it is Tutors for Tablets; tuitions are the answer for successful college entrance. The parents then dig in their pockets to pay the extra price for a prospective IIT / IIM/ medical college aspirant.
As a concerned educator, I am a lone dissenter because management has only self- interest, principals and teachers are comfortable in the way they have adjusted their ways to please management and perpetrate the system to their own advantage. And paying parents are relieved their children have been admitted to an English-medium school that they hope, ostrich-like, their children will somehow get through school. RTE parents are confused and dubious of the “Right to Education” promised by a democratic government and worry that their children cannot compete.
The misuse of power, and the suffering of a victim who seeks his or her rights – right to education, right to health services, a right to food and shelter – rarely gets redress. Seeking redress through the law courts means long years of waiting for justice, and equally expensive. For the powerful in educational management bodies can influence bureaucrats, the media and the judiciary. And above all, one who protests, or exposes corruption is condemned to a life of harassment. Whistleblowers are always threatened and always stand alone.

Gandhiji spoke his views in education when he said a child should learn the values of right thinking and honest actions, not receive education as a commercial product. No, the schools are not listening, because they are not comfortable with Gandhi’s truth. However they, and parents, should know that the greatest learning takes place when there is a measure of discomfort – when systems are challenged, when dissent is allowed, and when change becomes inevitable and has to happen. It is up to us sustain our efforts, for true learning never ceases.

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July 28, 2016
The recent news of Salman Khan’s acquittal in a case of poaching, after a trial that lasted 18 years, has provoked sharply divided opinions and angry abusive comments by trolls on social media against those who questioned the verdict. Those who are staunch supporters, among them the entire Bollywood fraternity, have stated that one must respect the judiciary in their fair and well thought out judgement. But when one actor, a colleague of Salman’s raised a question : Why did the judiciary take so long to pronounce the verdict, angry trolls have attacked her. She asks a very valid question : What is wrong in asking questions? Should people not express their opinions?
I would extend that to the ask a more wide spread statement that I (don’t we all?) hear all the time : “I don’t want to get involved.” Accident victims are noticed by motorists passing by, but they do not stop to help because they don’t’ want to get involved with the police. There is the tragic case of the Nirbhaya rape victim and her companion who were lying bleeding by the roadside in freezing cold, because those motorists driving by who saw them : ”did not want to get involved.” Cruelty to animals, women attacked in the open, street fights and injury, are noticed by bystanders who watch without any protest, – some may even use their cell phones to record (later to be used by the media for publicity, often for a price). Eye witnesses politely decline to make a statement because they do not want to get involved.
WHY? Why do people with even an ounce of humanity not stir themselves to offer succor to those in dire need of help? Why do people not stand up for justice and voice their support.
On the judicial side, yes, court cases drag on for years causing prolonged mental agony and stress to those plaintiffs seeking justice. There are often sympathizers who voice their support in private but will not take a stand in the cause of justice to the aggrieved, because they do not want to get involved. For those wealthy litigants prolonging a case is a remission from justice. But for the thousands of rural poor or lower middle class litigants thronging our courts, there is no end to the continuing pain, anxiety and financial distress. WHY?
I can answer. As a fighter I have always fought alone. My so-called friends and supporters either lack the courage to voice an honest opinion for fear of the consequences. There is no such thing as the ‘greater good’, or in the ‘larger public interest’. The thought behind this lack of involvement is usually “what is there in it for me?” Self interest drives citizens, social good is usually not at all relevant. Dharma is a flimsy word discussed more as an intellectual exercise than a real active expression of a duty to uphold fair play.
I can extend it even further to ask why a judge/magistrate or judicial official recuses himself (or herself) from a court case without an obvious reason, because a litigant usually sees this as copping out of a decision the outcome of which they fear – they don’t want to get involved. One questions the ethics and suspects raw self-interest – ostensibly their motive in withdrawing from a case, but in actual fact a quid pro quo.
So the thought for the day – everyday – is : Let the media handle this, they need the eyeballs. But — I don’t want to get involved.

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Beyond the margins

Hasmukh Patel is an old friend, a Gandhian and also an alumnus of Lisle International of which I have been a member since student days in the US. He has been an activist and a social worker in Gujarat for many years where he and his wife work in the tribal region in northern Gujarat on the border of Rajasthan. I have visited him in the past and the ERC trust has supported his work in education for tribal youth.
When Mark Kinney (Executive Director of Lisle) and his wife Nancy visited me I suggested we travel to Hasmukh Patel’s NGO, the Samvedana Trust located at Virampur near Palanpur.
Pleasant surprise ONE: The Rajdhani train to Palanpur was excellent; not only was the train on time, the train AND New Delhi Railway station were unbelievably clean! That night we were served a good meal from the train dining car, and an early morning cup of tea the next day.
We arrived in Palanpur at seven in the morning and were delighted to see Hasmukh at the station to receive us with two vehicles (as he surmised we had a lot of luggage). As a matter of fact we travelled with one backpack each, and the porters did not give us a second look!
Palanpur is a former “princely state” a tiny principality once ruled by a Nawab who is still remembered for his good governance of his state – with strict rules, concern for his subjects,- living in his “palace” in the middle of a small but flourishing town. It is now a bustling town like any other urban centre. The rose attar industry for which it was famous has wound down, with only one family now in the traditional business of making the fragrant perfume,attar. The palace is a now a shabby government office, and there appear to be no heir and descendants of the Nawab.
Pleasant surprise TWO ; The roads are excellent. We drove on a beautiful four lane highway towards Ahmedabad. A side road branched off on the pilgrim route to the temple town of Ambaji.
Virampur is a wannabe town (a large village actually) with busy roadside stalls selling cloth, grocery and household supplies and colourful baubles and trinkets popular with the adivasi (Bhil tribe) and Rabari population. Perhaps being on the road to Ambaji and a favoured stop for small vehicles and jeeps it puts on the airs of a prosperous market town. It obviously has not heard of Modi’s Swach Bharat campaign because there is trash everywhere, and the cattle obviously have not been warned of the dangers of eating plastic.
We continued on a single lane but good tarred road without potholes, a smooth ride that many of our cities could emulate. Hasmukh’s institution has an attractive campus, looking much more attractive than when I saw it ten years ago. The trees have grown and so has the garden. Immediately behind the main building a new hostel has come up – two floors with twenty attractive rooms for visitors and guests and a conference room.. This addition has been made possible by a generous donation from Hasmukh’s brother who is a doctor, and other friends of the Trust. The ground floor has classrooms and dormitories, kitchen and dining facilities for a hundred tribal and other rural groups of children grades 3 to 7. The boarding school is a new extension of Hasmukh’s work in this tribal district. There is a large playground, with toilet facilities. The sounds of chatter of the children as they go through the day’s schedule of activities makes for a cheerful atmosphere,
About thirty years ago Hasmukh came here and worked to assist the adivasi villagers in accessing all the government schemes available for their agriculture. After a serious drought, he helped build check dams and irrigation facilities, water conservation and social schemes in health and education. Now the villagers have drip irrigation in their small landholdings, small village schools, and a milk collection centre. Most of what they grow appear to be cash crops – fennel and cumin, mustard and castor for oil, and vegetables. The Bhil adivasis rear sheep. The Rabaris are more prosperous; they are cattle and buffalo herders, and sell the milk to the dairy. They also grow millet and wheat. They are vegetarians, and will not sell their aged non-productive animals. They also do not drink any alcohol.
This is in sharp contrast to the Bhils who rear sheep for sale, love their meat and drink, song and dance and while they live in poor housing in unsanitary surroundings, they are cheerful and friendly and live on amicable terms with the Rabari with whom they have a symbiotic connection of barter. The adivasi brings down fodder for the cattle from the forests on the hills, and exchanges it with the rabaris for milk and grain.
The three days we spent here were very busy. On the first day we went for several miles in the interior, and stopped at two schools. These are makeshift buildings, a short walk from the main road where we parked the car. In the first one there was a thatched hut, with forty children and two teachers. They were all wearing school uniforms of checked cotton, and were busy drawing pictures with crayons, colourful depictions of their ideas. Especially interesting was the elephant which none of them have seen but which fascinates them. They sang songs about numbers – to make math interesting! – and several poems imparting values of working together and caring for each other. While we were there we met a farmer on whose land the small classroom has been built. He offered the land and labour to build a brick school house and Hasmukh agreed to provide the building materials very soon.
The next school was smaller and accommodated under a plastic sheet over a bamboo frame. The thatched hut had been destroyed in a recent storm, so this was a temporary structure. The third school we could not possibly visit, as it is a three hour hike over the hills on a forest track. It has about seventy children we were told, all of whom walk several miles to school every day. Shilpa, Hasmukh’s colleague who is in charge of the education aspect of the trust comes here on foot once a week. She says the teachers come regularly as do the children, and attendance is never a problem.
In one school we met mothers of the school children, one with a healthy four month old baby, who had come to see the school, and talked to us and answered our questions. They speak their own language but most speak a modicum of Gujarati. Some of the teachers know their language but the instruction is in Gujarati both written and spoken.
In the evening we visited an adivasi village where we were entertained by the villagers. The women danced to the rhythms of drums in a swaying movement in a circle around the male drummers. Soon there was an audience of children from the area who came running when they heard the drums. Some of the older girls joined as they continued dancing seemingly tireless as they continued dancing and stopped only when food (snacks) which we brought with us, was served.
The next day we went to a Rabari village where we visited the home(s) of two Rabari brothers, both of whom appeared prosperous. We sat on cots in the courtyard and answered many questions, translated into Hindi by one of their clan who works for Hasmukh’s trust, in turn translated by me into English for the Kinneys. The American visitors were asked about their marriage customs, cost of living, the value of the dollar etc. The question directed at me, because I was introduced as a former Fulbright Director, was about visas to go to America!
In the evening we watched the milk collection at the dairy collection centre which is situated at the entrance to the village from the main road. A line of men and women stood patiently in a queue each carrying their can of milk. There were three men seated at tables next to a chilling tank where the milk is kept cold until the tanker comes at night to transport the milk to the dairy. Milk is collected twice a day but collected by the dairy tanker only at night.
At the table where the farmer empties his can of milk into a container is the man who measures on a meter the fat content of the milk and the quantity. Another man at a computer records the meter reading and enters into the computer the data. He prints out a receipt in which is recorded the data i.e. quantity and fat content – and the receipt is given to the person who has deposited the milk. Even if he (she) cannot read they are satisfied to have a printed record,. Every fifteen days they are paid in cash according to the computer record. We were told they received Rs. 27 for a litre of cow’s milk. (In Delhi we pay Rs. 40 for a litre of cow milk) I asked what would happen if the electricity failed or the computer did not work. They had back up, either a generator or a solar operated system. The third person at the centre is the computer technician who is delegated to check the equipment by the dairy. It was amazing to see how technology has touched the lives of these villages.
The next day was a Sunday, the last Sunday in the month when a medical camp is held in Virampur.The venue was a “resthouse” built by the government called the Shabari guest house, named after the tribal woman in the Ramayana. It is place where villagers who come to Virampur from distant villages can rest as they wait for their bus, or when they come for a day’s excursion to get supplies. It was a basic structure – a large room with verandah.
In the morning four doctors, two female nurses and two pharmacists arrived at Hasmukh’s hostel from Mehsana, the nearest large city, and they had breakfast with us. Then we all went to Virampur where the camp is held from 10 am to 1 pm. We were late in arriving and there was already a small line of people registering themselves with two receptionists seated at a desk. The pharmacists soon took up their position behind a long table with six trays of medicines, sorted perhaps according to category. The patients came with their prescriptions and received the medicines, while the pharmacist patiently explained in detail the dosage and instruction on when the medicines should be taken. There were a couple of old people due for cataract surgery and appointments were made for them to go by an ambulance to the nearest hospital. All expenses for medical care and treatment are taken care of by the Trust. It was moving to see how the old were brought with great care and assistance from their sons and daughters. Some had walked for three or four hours from their villages; others were fortunate to have male relatives with motor bikes or bullock carts to bring them to Virampur.
At 1 pm we all returned for a sumptuous lunch, with extra dishes and dessert in honour of the visiting medical team. The hostel children ate in rows seated on the floor, and sang a prayer before the meal. The food was cooked by the staff there and was excellent Gujarati vegetarian fare.
It was on the whole a remarkable experience for us, – meeting people living in the margins, understanding their culture, livelihood, their needs and their way of adapting to the environment, was a valuable learning experience and also a humbling one for those of us who take so much of our modern comforts and amenities for granted.

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A Different Road

Karkala in South Kanara District of Madras Presidency had little to distinguish it from other villages on the road to Udipi – except the famous Jain statue of Gomateswara, an imposing monolith set atop a black rocky hill on the outskirts of the village. Along with the Jain temples of Mudbidri nearby, it was a place of pilgrimage for Jains and Hindus alike.

In the first decade of the 20th century Karkala was somnolent, its life revolved around the paddy growing cycle of seasons. The monsoons brought plenty – watering green carpets of rice fields and coconut palms, aptly named trees of wealth.

Old timers in Karkala remembered the Prabhu family patriarch, a simple man who was entirely self-made and whose rags-to-riches story was often related.
Ram Prabhu tried to make a decent living as a small farmer, but he had ambitions that he nursed secretly. His father Srinivas Prabhu looked to him and his brother Sheshgiri to work on the small piece of land and shop they owned. They had a bullock cart that he drove to the fields, and periodically, to carry the farm produce, and sometimes small goods he bought from itinerant traders who came in from the port of Mangalore, which were sold in the shop. But his gaze went beyond the cultivated fields, to the distant mountains of the Western Ghats where he found the forests and rivers, wild, beautiful and exciting. On a trip to the highlands he saw the farmers there growing areca palms and selling the nuts which were in great demand at paan shops for their supari. He saw the profits made by middlemen who brought the betel nuts to his shop, and decided it would be much more profitable to buy nuts directly from the growers. By the time his father died, he had made up his mind that he was not interested in working in the fields. He was content to let his brother take the land and he started his journeys to the mountain region, partly by bullock cart, part of the way by bus, and on foot. Ram Prabhu was a familiar face to the hill people working on their small landholdings. With them he found ready hospitality and pleasant conversation. Time was of little importance, when as a tired traveler you arrived at a resting place, tasted home grown coffee freshly brewed, and exchanged news and stories.
He was popular because he brought news – and stories -from the port of Mangalore. They were also appreciative of small gifts he brought them, imported from foreign lands. Most of them had never seen the sea but they had heard that ships came from Arabia, that sailors from there were Muslim and spoke a strange language. He described the busy harbor and the dhows that anchored a distance from the estuary of the river, unloading their cargo into smaller boats to be rowed ashore by the Navayati Muslim boatmen. Their eyes were wide with interest as he described an incident when a woman passenger stepping from the dhow into the rocking boat, missed her footing and fell into the sea. She would have been swept away by the tide, but for the alert boatman who, catching her by her hair, pulled her up. Sitting around the kerosene lantern the men and women listened, their hands over the mouth in astonishment at the graphic account of this near tragedy.

Awakening to the cold mountain air, Ram Prabhu walked to the fields. He stopped to gaze at the pattern of the tall slender areca palms, columns of pencils against the sky. Often he would see a man climbing the trees which swayed as he jerked his feet up step by step to reach the bunches of yellow fruit at the crown. Cutting down the fruit he swung bending the tree to spring, and leap to catch the trunk of the next palm. He marveled at the nimble movements and accurate handholds, like those of a trapeze artist, but with no safety net below should he drop fifty feet.

Ram Prabhu returned to Karkala from these trips carrying baskets of areca nuts on his head. He was pleased to return home to his brother’s house where his sister-in-law Kamala provided good food and his brother’s children were happy to take time off from their schoolbooks to ask him questions about his travels and listen to his stories. He never felt the desire to marry, set up his own house start a family. He thought a settled life would chafe him and curb his wandering spirit. The large profits he made from the areca nuts excited him and he meticulously kept an account of his earnings. Making money was his main goal. He hardly bought anything for himself; the dhoti, banian and towel on his shoulder comprised his entire wardrobe and people who greeted him on the main street saw a simple friendly villager, hardly realizing his substantial net worth in financial terms.

His brother Sheshgiri was close to him, and he was generous in providing for his brother’s family. With no banks in Karkala, at the time, ( Canara Bank, was the first bank to start operations in Mangalore in 1916), investment in land was the next step. His brother bought a substantial area of rice fields in a village twenty miles away, improved irrigation and leased the fields to tenant farmers. Soon there was enough cash to buy gold jewelry for his brother’s wife Kamala and their daughter Saraswati; the boys had enough saved for higher education. They were not going to work on the land either; an education in English schools and colleges in Mangalore was their goal.

Soon the brothers built a large and attractive house, with a spacious courtyard, a well that provided sweet water. At the back of the house there were coconut trees that met their domestic needs, and provided enough fruit to sell. In the cattle shed there were two milch cows, in addition to the bullocks for the cart that provided transport for servants and farm produce. A new acquisition was a horse carriage – called a jutka – which provided comfortable and fast transport for the family.

Everyone, young and old looked forward to harvest time. The family piled into the jutka and went to the village, the elders to supervise the gathering of the crop, the women would arrive when the rice was being winnowed, camp in one of the village huts and cook their own food. The share croppers were Bunts, the peasant community of the district. and they spoke Tulu. The men guided the bullocks as they trampled the rice. Some beat sheaves of rice on the ground to loosen the grain, women winnowed the grain shaking the winnowing baskets held high to let the breeze separate the chaff. The Prabhu brothers looked on with satisfaction as the piles of grain grew. The sound of the pounding of the grain was rhythmic and continued into the late evening.
Most of the grain was packed in large round balls of woven rice-straw called “moodas” The children loved to watch this special art of the farmer hands. Rice straw was twisted into a long rope and wrapped into a spiral coil. It was gradually coiled round, in ever widening circles, each circle of rope tightened and knotted in place until a bowl -shaped basket container emerged under the expert hands of the craftsman. The cleaned grains of hand-pounded rice were poured into the basket-bowl and the wrapping and twisting continued until a globe-shaped moora took shape which had sealed within it about twenty pounds of rice.
The mooda and its contents were of standard size and weight, the accuracy of the weight was rarely questioned. Buyers would pierce the straw mooda with a hollow steel stick, draw it out and check the quality of the grains of rice that were drawn out in the stick

Community kitchens provided a meal at midmorning, of “paz” a gruel of rice cooked with plenty of water, to provide a rich soup which was slurped with relish, with lime pickle adding to the taste.

Kamala was the matriarch of this large property in Karkala who supervised the women’s work in the entire operation, the winnowing, pounding and cleaning of the rice. A handsome woman, she stood tall and straight-backed, a portrait of a woman of status, the wife of one of the wealthy landowners of Karkala. Her husband’s relatives, and members of the clan, were of considerably lesser means, she was the natural head of the family.She carried herself with confidence but without arrogance. Her sarees were always attractive, and her jewelry drew one’s attention because the sparkle of diamonds in her ears and nose set off the colour and smoothness of her skin.

As the work ended, the landlords carefully counted the moodas of rice , the tenants were given their due share, and the larger number transported by bullock cart to Karkala.
The celebration of the harvest was an occasion for music and revelry. If the monsoons had been kind there was much to add to the celebration, fruits, vegetable were plentiful, chicken, fish and meat added to the diet, and home-made arrack was essential for the evening convivial mood. While the Prabhu family never joined in the noisy celebration, they waited eagerly for the itinerant Yakshagana party that turned up. The entire village sat around the threshing floor next to the main house, the cleared field turned into a theatre for the night-long dramatic presentation of the Epics. The children wide-eyed at the loud aggressive declamation of Duryodhana, soon dozed into slumber, occasionally awakened as the drum beats became loud and insistent at a dramatic climax.
As dawn broke, the Yakshagana party left. The men sans costumes and extravagant headgear turned into mere mortals. Thankfully drinking their coffee, after the landlord had paid them a handsome fee in cash and kind, they would move on to the next village.
As the twentieth century dawned, the family had established its place in the changing social and economic map of this little corner of Madras Presidency. Male relatives who were educated at the Jesuit institutions in Mangalore had joined the professions, as doctors, lawyers and professors they were largely settled in Madras, Mangalore or Calicut, busy cities with their traces of Portuguese history and strong British commercial and administrative presence. But the brothers, living away from the urban settlements, heard only of the changes brought by the British administration. Increasing transport facilities brought visitors by the daily bus from Mangalore but they did not aspire to taste the cosmopolitan life. Their life revolved around the agricultural season. It was a good life, with its sure rhythmic pulse. Life flowed according to the allotted span, as in nature so with man.

Ram Prabhu was barely fortyfive when he contracted typhoid and local medical help could not save him. His brother and small nephews stood by the funeral pyre remembering the man to whom they owed their comfortable life and secure future.
As body and breath merged with the earth and the sky, the verses chanted by the priest exhorted them to remember the deeds, remember the deeds, remember….
Without an English education and knowledge of economic theory he had established a legacy that changed the lives of the generations following him. His story had ended but other tales were born, with different endings.

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The recent news of Salman Khan’s acquittal in a case of poaching, after a trial that lasted 18 years, has provoked sharply divided opinions and angry abusive comments by trolls on social media against those who questioned the verdict. Those who are staunch supporters, among them the entire Bollywood fraternity, have stated that one must respect the judiciary in their fair and well thought out judgement. But when one actor, a colleague of Salman’s raised a question : Why did the judiciary take so long to pronounce the verdict, angry trolls have attacked her. She asks a very valid question : What is wrong in asking questions? Should people not express their opinions?
I would extend that to the ask a more wide spread statement that I (don’t we all?) hear all the time : “I don’t want to get involved.” Accident victims are noticed by motorists passing by, but they do not stop to help because they don’t’ want to get involved with the police. There is the tragic case of the Nirbhaya rape victim and her companion who were lying bleeding by the roadside in freezing cold, because those motorists driving by who saw them : ”did not want to get involved.” Cruelty to animals, women attacked in the open, street fights and injury, are noticed by bystanders who watch without any protest, – some may even use their cell phones to record (later to be used by the media for publicity, often for a price). Eye witnesses politely decline to make a statement because they do not want to get involved.
WHY? Why do people with even an ounce of humanity not stir themselves to offer succor to those in dire need of help? Why do people not stand up for justice and voice their support.
On the judicial side, yes, court cases drag on for years causing prolonged mental agony and stress to those plaintiffs seeking justice. There are often sympathizers who voice their support in private but will not take a stand in the cause of justice to the aggrieved, because they do not want to get involved. For those wealthy litigants prolonging a case is a remission from justice. But for the thousands of rural poor or lower middle class litigants thronging our courts, there is no end to the continuing pain, anxiety and financial distress. WHY?
I can answer. As a fighter I have always fought alone. My so-called friends and supporters either lack the courage to voice an honest opinion for fear of the consequences. There is no such thing as the ‘greater good’, or in the ‘larger public interest’. The thought behind this lack of involvement is usually “what is there in it for me?” Self interest drives citizens, social good is usually not at all relevant. Dharma is a flimsy word discussed more as an intellectual exercise than a real active expression of a duty to uphold fair play.
I can extend it even further to ask why a judge/magistrate or judicial official recuses himself (or herself) from a court case without an obvious reason, because a litigant usually sees this as ‘copping out’ of a decision the outcome of which they fear – THEY don’t want to get involved. One questions their ethics and suspects raw self-interest – ostensibly their motive in withdrawing from a case is a ‘conflict of interest’ , but the fact is, it is a quid pro quo.

So the thought for the day – everyday – is : Let the media handle this, they need the eyeballs. But I don’t want to get involved.

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75 years in Delhi – Part 3 – The War Years

The War Years ’41 – ‘45
We arrived in Delhi 75 years ago, from Chennai, travelling directly to Simla where we stayed the first few months in Simla for the British Government moved to the hill station in the summer months. We settled in later in New Delhi.
Our initial years in Delhi were dominated by The World War, with daily newspaper headlines on the progress of Allied forces in Europe. Concurrently the Japanese were on our eastern borders.
With Delhi and Calcutta important bases in the CBI (China-Burma-India) military strategy under the US Army led by General Stilwell, the war news and the military presence were pervasive, although by then the British Government was preoccupied with dealing with our Independence movement of 1942 and the formation of the Indian National Army under Subhash Chandra Bose, in Burma.
By 1944 New Delhi had a rash of new buildings – low single-brick yellow temporary barracks called “hutments” built to accommodate the US Army that was based in Delhi to take part in the eastern front. We got used to seeing the US army uniforms – a light khaki in colour, and caps with a different tilt from the “forage” caps we saw on British army soldiers. The hutments were hastily built on the green areas around the Secretariat buildings, although the large camp for the GIs was on the outskirts of the city beyond the Safdarjung airport on the road to Mehrauli.
The temporary hutments lasted many years after the war ended and the Yankees went home. Offices were allotted to accommodate the increased space needed by the government of independent India, until they gradually were replaced with new offices. Some hutments are still in use for Government offices in Delhi, remnants of these US army barracks. The large American camp beyond Safdarjung airport which was after the War, first occupied by the Indian National Airlines, (whose planes operated out of Safdarjung airport), finally became what is now the popular busy INA Market.(Most people do not know how it got its name)
The US army base had its own radio station called VU2ZY, to entertain their troops, which broadcast American popular music, and “news from home.” Radio being our favourite form of entertainment, we soon got to know all the American songs on “Hit Parade” especially popular recordings by Bing Crosby and the Andrew sisters. The troops’ request program every evening before dinner was never missed. In Connaught Place at the movie theatres we saw our favourite movie stars, Clark Gable, Bette Davis, Mildred Crawford. The movie was always preceded by the anthem, God Save the King, and a newsreel, full of news of the war front. The theatres in CP were also full of American GI’s although they had their own open air movies projected on the high wall of the water tower in their camp. I remember we watched “Road to Morocco” starring Bob Hope, Dorothy Lamour and Bing Crosby, on the wall from our roadside vantage point, without the sound of course. We thought the silent movie quite hilarious, but enjoyable without paying for tickets.
When they saw groups of us in our school uniforms, the GIs were always friendly, and offered us Wrigley’s chewing gum and Babe Ruth candy. I always thought the candy was named after a movie star called Babe Ruth. It was only ten years later as a student in a US college that I learned about the baseball hero of that name and laughingly told my friends about the war time “Americanisation” of school kids in Delhi.
We had got used to petrol rationing. Father got coupons for five gallons of petrol per month. which hardly lasted very long with our gas-guzzling Chevrolet sedan. We saved the coupons for occasional trips to old Delhi to visit friends who lived in Civil lines, or for a weekend outing to the Qutb Minar or Tughlakabad fort, all sites quite far away from our government allotment on Tughlak Road. Mother was the only person who used the car for shopping in Connaught Place or buying groceries in Gole Market; Father and we girls cycled to work and school.
The only bus service available for those who could not cycle, or did not own a car, was a shabby green bus line run by the Gwalior and Northern India Transport (G.N.I.T.) owned by a well-known personage called Anthony de Mello, who was also a cricket enthusiast and one of the founders of the BCCI. He persuaded Tata to buy the land to build the Brabourne stadium in Bombay, I am told. His valuable contribution to cricket is undoubtedly a worthy reason to remember him. But I remember him as someone who could not improve a bus service for which we waited for hours in the sun, and in sweat and frustration we named his company Goes Never In Time
Most people went to work on bicycles and Sikander, our dog, discovered his favourite sport was chasing cycles, a harmless exciting race which was fun for him. Not so, the Naval officer who cycled to work via the service lane behind our house. Every morning, Sikander, knowing the routine of the man in his white starched uniform, would wait for his morning high. Unfortunately the naval lieutenant did not consider this worthwhile entertainment, especially if his spotless uniform was often smudged and stained in the exciting chase, and even more so because he saw the lively dog as a terrifying mastiff, who wanted to bite his fast-pedalling legs. One evening Father got an angry written ultimatum on the Naval HQ letterhead warning him, that if “that dog” appeared the next morning he would be shot. Sikander was chained and chastened the next morning and every morning after that. And so ended the daily sporting event of Tughlak Lane, which never reached Sikander’s distant goal in the competition for the Daulatabad Stakes.

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75 years in Delhi- Part 2 School Days

Our schooling in New Delhi was continued by another Englishwoman called Miss Connolly who had a small school in her home on Barakhamba road. (The house still exists. It is JK House at the corner of Barakhamba and Hailey Roads.) We were enrolled in the school which had a few classes for older children, aged 7 to 12 years, in three rooms in her house. She had two other teachers who taught all subjects. We attended the school for the rest of the school year, and made some good friends. By the summer of 1942 with the heightened disturbances in the country Miss Connolly realized it was time to return home to England and informed the parents of her students that she was handing over the school to a new owner.
It would be fair to say that our schooling actually started in the year 1942 when Reverend J.D.Tytler, Chaplain of the Church of the Redemption, agreed to accept Miss Connolly’s students and start a school called the New Delhi Church High School in the grounds of the official church of the British government.
The New Delhi Church High school started with less than a hundred students but soon many students from other schools, particularly those who were enrolled in the Presentation Convent school in old Delhi, but lived in New Delhi, found the new school preferable. Rev. Tytler was a well known personality and his name attracted many parents and teachers.

James Douglas Tytler, a Scotsman, was a minister of the Anglican Church by profession, but was by nature cut out to be a British Public school headmaster. He had a love for teaching, and struck an instant rapport with young children. There was always a smile and twinkle in his eye as he greeted us every morning. He often joked with us, his sense of humour was always at the surface and the ease with which he spoke to students of all hues, was the hallmark of his personality. In later years he was known for his interest in sports and in dramatics, as he often acted on stage and later in a film called “Shakespearewallah” Many years later I met him in Udaipur where he was with the film crew, when he greeted me by name and inquired about my two sisters, “the three dis-graces” as he named us with a laugh.
He knew all his students by name, greeted them warmly, but was a very strict disciplinarian. Many a student remembers a stinging palm when his ruler whacked down on it in punishment for inadmissible behaviour.
Rev. Tytler and his school were always struggling to raise funds for a building, It seemed my parents were frequently meeting him with other parents, with complaints about shortcomings in classroom accommodations, lack of facilities, irregular school buses, and of course about the fees they were asked to pay!
We were a heterogeneous group of students. Some were children of bureaucrats in the Government and professionals and businessmen working in Delhi, a very few were from British families who had business interests in India, a significant number were Anglo-Indians who dominated the Post and Telegraphs Department and the Railways. They lived in the area behind Eastern Court in Atul Grove (which was pronounced as one word “Attlegrove”!) or from Railway quarters near the railway station. Our teachers too were either Indian Christian or Anglo-Indian, an exception being the “oldest” teacher, one whom Tytler hired first – Mr. Banerjee who taught us Hindi.
We were fortunate that four or five senior teachers from Presentation Convent joined the staff, and they made a great difference to the quality of classroom teaching and discipline in this diverse bunch of students. In the beginning the students were accommodated in the outer verandahs of the church, later tents were pitched in the spacious grounds and the strength of the school increased to about 350 boys and girls. There were two school buses, for north and south Delhi, but many of us bicycled to school.
The curriculum we followed was the Cambridge School certificate examination which was held every December. The Junior Cambridge was for class 8 and Senior Cambridge for class X. The papers were set in England and also evaluated there and the results declared by January. As the college academic year started in July after the summer vacation, all the Senior Cambridge students had a six month break between the end of their school in December and the college admission process in May.
The first Senior Cambridge class from the school passed out in December 1945 and enrolled in the Delhi university colleges in July 1946. My sister Kanaka was one of that batch of six students, five girls and one boy, who passed that examination.

The Church of Redemption in New Delhi, a Protestant Anglican church, was often called the Viceroy Church, because it was the official church of the British Government and it is arguably one of the loveliest churches in north India. Built in 1931 when the capital was under construction, it was designed by Henry Medd. Edwin Lutyens, the chief architect of the new capital was one of the members on the committee that planned its location. The Viceroy, Lord Irwin gave the design his approval. Built with pink and yellow sandstone it blended with the buildings of the newly built capital, and matched the buildings of the Central Secretariat and the Viceregal House. It is located to the west of Parliament House , and faces west towards the tree lined North Avenue which was then a broad road leading towards Connaught Place and Gole Post Office. (Today the green borders of the once- wide avenue have been taken over by houses for members of Parliament, –as is the case in South Avenue, on the other side of the secretariat complex which leads to the Commander-in-Chief’s residence – now known as Teen Murti House.)
The Church which was completed in 1935 is a high Gothic building crowned by a pink sandstone dome. Its square base has four porches at each corner. The main entrance faces west and as one walks up the aisle and looks up at the soaring arches and the grace of the altar at the far end, it invokes a quiet awe. The high ceiling keeps the church cool in the hot summer months, and at that time there were no cooling fans for the congregation.
As students we sat quietly on the polished wooden pews at morning Assembly. The hymn books in front of us taught us the words of some familiar hymns which we, the older students learnt to sing. Although this was a Christian house of worship, and the service was Christian, those of us who were Hindu or Muslim followed the protocol, respecting the ambiance, without feeling any resentment that we were subjected to a different religion or any covert attempt to convert us.
However, we were curious and asked many questions. This was even more so when a few of us took Scripture as a subject for our Cambridge examination because we were required to take seven subjects. In our school, largely in tents, we had no opportunity to take science – physics and chemistry – as our subjects, with no lab facilities. English language, Literature and Maths were stressed more, along with Geography, History and Hindi. Rev. Tytler taught us Scripture; the Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles were part of the subject syllabus. He was a very interesting teacher, as he taught us the Bible as an absorbing historical narrative of the times. We were a small group of six or seven and the sessions were interactive. We learnt the Bible in an inter-disciplinary study of its history and geography. (Forty years later when I visited Israel and the Holy Land, I surprised the tour guide that I was familiar with the incidents and knew the Biblical history and geography of the region that I had learnt in school.) I remembered then with a smile and some pride, Rev. Tytler handing me the prize at the annual school function, saying with a wry smile “And this year again the Scripture prize goes to a non-Christian…!!”
We were outdoors for a large part of the day. Our music class and choral singing was under the trees, outside a tent inside which the teacher played on an upright piano. At a physiology class, one of the boys eyed a large grapefruit on the tree nearby and asked the teacher a simple question : “Why does my mouth water when I see that fruit?”
There was some tense excitement one day when our English teacher Mrs.Mina Nayak announced that Mr. Sethi, the Director Education was coming for an inspection of the school. She had kept our notebooks in a neat pile on her desk making sure that Kanaka’s essay on Wit and Humour, (which she had marked ‘Excellent’) was right on top. Mr. Sethi walked in, a tall bespectacled man with a slight stoop. The small class of twelve students stood up, scraping back their chairs, to wish him ‘Good Morning’. He looked over the rims of his glasses down his nose at the anxious faces, picked up the topmost notebook on the teacher’s desk, and noticed the essay on “Wit and Humour”
“What is the difference between Wit and Humour?” he asked, looking over his specs, inquiringly at the class. There was nervous fidgeting and no answer forthcoming, until Indira blurted out “Well, one day when Akbar and Birbal went for a walk….” Her attempt to “illustrate by example” was cut short by an abrupt remark from Mr. Sethi: “Sit down, I know that story.” Indira sat down, flustered and squelched.
He looked around at the class again, over his glasses down on his nose. He said, ”If I came running into this room, slipped on a banana peel and fell down. And you all laughed. Would that be Wit or Humour?”
Kanaka spoke up immediately with a cheeky remark, “That would be an accident, sir”
Mr. Sethi looked at her with a half-smile, and said, “That’s Wit” – then he turned around and walked out , as the class subsided into giggles.
* * * * * *

An excellent Maths teacher who we feared, but also considered slightly mad (not merely eccentric) was Miss Simpson, an Anglo-Indian older grey-haired woman, who never seemed to comb her hair, and who wore multiple dresses one over the other. We noticed the varying lengths of her skirts and decided she possessed, and wore, about five frocks, and every day of the week she peeled off one, before coming to school! She had an audible sniff as she drilled maths into our heads with great clarity and determination. But, she openly discriminated against girls, saying we were genetically useless at learning maths, and she reserved her praise for the boy students. When one of them gave a right answer to her question, she visibly brightened as she barked at him “Take an Extra Mark for That!” We all were commanded to come to the blackboard by turn to write, solve problems or draw diagrams to show that we had understood the lesson. We were all addressed by our surnames, but if that was too difficult to pronounce it was just “YOU there, come here!” (Sniff!) My surname got me into trouble on one occasion: I was inattentive, probably doodling away and not listening, when one of my classmates was drawing circles, diameters and radii on the blackboard. When she made a mistake in the formula, Miss Simpson said sharply “ Pi ! π “
Hearing my surname ‘Pai’ I shot up out of my chair and answered “Yes, Miss Simpson”
She was startled as was everyone else, then the class burst into laughter and Miss Simpson too could not hide her smile – with a sniff.

* * * * *
One morning in January 1946 the Principal announced that there would be a holiday the next day. We were surprised, because there was no official holiday that week to give us this welcome day off. We heard later that Joan Wavell, the daughter of the Viceroy Lord Wavell, was to be married in the church the next day. Four or five of us gathered to talk about this exciting news and wondered how we could possibly witness this romantic event. We knew there was no point in asking Rev. Tytler who would hardly be expected to give us permission to be there when the distinguished guests arrived. We talked to Hiralal, one of the two vergers whose duties involved taking care of the church and its ritual functions. Hiralal gave us the information about when the wedding was scheduled. We stayed back after school, four of us, to plan where we would stand (and not be visible), to see the bridal procession and the guests arrive. We slipped into the church to decide our plan of action and to our surprise we heard the beautiful strains of the organ. Having never heard a pipe organ before we were awestruck by the beauty of the music as it soared toward the high arches and filled the space with rich harmony. It was the church organist practicing for the next day’s function. As the music ended we climbed the narrow stairs to the organ loft where the organist sat – startled by our surprise appearance. We chatted with him asking him about the organ, how it worked and watched his fingers on three levels of keys and his feet on the pedals, as he continued to play for our benefit. In a small voice I asked him if we could come and watch him play for the wedding the next day. He looked at me for a long thoughtful moment. “IF you will promise to be absolutely quiet and stay out of sight,” he said, “otherwise I will be in trouble with Rev. Tytler” Delighted at his reply we solemnly promised to behave ourselves and scuttled down and cycled home with great excitement.
We left for school at the usual time the next morning, our parents unaware that it was a holiday. Hiralal and Nathaniel were too busy with the florists and the decorators to notice us. As we slipped into the church we saw the aisle and altar decorated with beautiful flowers and ribbons. The church was transformed with flowers and greenery. We reached the organ loft well before the organist arrived and looked down on the scene below, our chins resting on the polished teak balcony ledge. The shining pipes gleamed above us. Below, Hiralal and Nathaniel, unfamiliar in their white surplices, arranged the tall white candles on the altar, the lectern and book for the minister at the head of the aisle near the step where the bridal couple would take their vows.
The guests began to arrive, and we kneeled to peep over the edge of the loft, to stay out of sight, quiet as church mice! Most of the guests were British either in formal suits or military uniforms. The organ started playing as the pews filled up, the Viceroy’s household arrived last and sat in the front pew. Our excitement heightened as the organ played Lohengrin’s wedding march and the bride arrived on the arm of her father Lord Wavell, her long white train held by two bridesmaids. At the end of the aisle she was joined by her groom, an army officer in uniform. Rev. Tytler, impressive in his white robes, conducted the service. We stayed till the end when the newly wedded couple came out of the vestry to the triumphant march by Mendelssohn, our romantic hearts thrilled with this fairy tale wedding.

By 1946 Delhi was busy with political activity. The Constituent Assembly was elected and met in December that year. Hectic political activity brought to the capital personalities from all over the country elected to the assembly. The Muslim members boycotted the assembly demanding a separate constituent assembly. Among the Muslim politicians who lived in Delhi in 1946-47 were some well-known men but two names were known to us school students because their daughters attended school with us. Gen Iskander Mirza, who was Joint Defence Secretary in undivided India, brought his family to Delhi. While his son Humayun Mirza was sent to England to study, his three daughters, Zeenat, Fakhrie and Taj attended the Church school and traveled on the school bus with us. (Later he became President of Pakistan in 1956 and established military rule in that country in 1958,) Hasni-ara Haque, daughter of Azizul Haque (Muslim League, East Pakistan) was more conservative than the Mirza girls. Her parents refused to let her wear short skirts, which were our school uniform and insisted on her wearing long-sleeved kameez and salwars to school. She was a curiosity but did not seem to motivate the other girls to refuse to wear our drab grey and maroon school uniform!
These Muslim school friends spent a very short time in the school in late 1946 before the Mountbatten plan made Partition a reality that none of us had seriously thought about. So by the summer of 1947 many of our Muslim school friends had already left Delhi and, sad to say, we never heard of them later.
Rev. Tytler was disturbed by Partition for he had no desire to leave India give up his vocation as school headmaster. He resigned as Chaplain, and was separated from his wife Cynthia and children Ruth and Graeme who returned to England before the summer. The children were in any event going to school in Britain but were always home with their parents for vacations and we had got to know them only slightly.
He talked to us at Assembly one morning that with the birth of a new India the school would take on a new character and a new mission. He announced that he was negotiating for a plot of land where the school could move. He suggested that we think of a new name for the school. He announced with a smile that there would be a competition and a prize would be given for the chosen entry.
About six or seven entries were given to him and I was delighted when my suggestion “Naveen Bharat High school” was chosen along with my design of a school crest – a shield and a hand holding a flaming torch. I received the prize money of ten rupees and could hardly wait to rush home and inform my parents.
My choice of the name and school crest was implemented soon thereafter. By the end of 1947 in a letter I wrote to my mother in December (as my parents were in Moscow at that time), I mentioned that he had nearly finalised a location near the golf club. By 1948 a plot of land on Mathura Road had been allotted and Naveen Bharat School got a new identity, different from the Church school, as did its Principal who gave up the ministry. The tents were moved to the new location, and Mr. Tytler re-organised the school in its new home.
The management of the school was handed over to the newly formed Delhi Public School Society headed by a group of leading citizens of Delhi : This was the birth of Delhi Public School.
I had finished my senior Cambridge exam by then, but my younger sister Shanthi and her new friends who had moved to Delhi from the Punjab after Partition went to school in the new location on Mathura Road, where Delhi Public School was established.

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75 years in Delhi- Part I

Our family arrived in Delhi in 1941, a new discovery of India as we journeyed from the sea to the mountains, for our first stop was in Simla where we came via Delhi on the Kalka Mail. We arrived in Simla in May 1941.
Shimla or Simla (as the British called it) was one of the many hill stations that the British built on higher elevations, where they could move during the “hot weather’ to escape the heat in the plains. For a while Murree (now in Pakistan) was the summer capital until Simla was chosen as closer and easier of access from Delhi. Most government offices, and many businesses moved to Simla in May until September each year.
Built on the forested slopes of Shimla, which at that time was inhabited by only a few locals around the ancient Jhaku temple, – it soon boasted many “pucca” homes of British officers built in the Elizabethan style, followed by many “summer palaces” of Maharajas, among them were the homes of the maharajas of Patiala, Kapurthala and Mandi.
The house that my father had rented for us was in Kaithu and with the unlikely British name of Balmoral Cottage. It was the property of Malik Khizar Hayat Khan Tiwana, an imposing name for an imposing man with a turban topped with an audacious starched plume, – fashionable, and a sure sign of his status, for the Tiwana Jat family of wealthy landlords, were politically powerful in the Punjab. His father had been honorary aide-de-camp to King George V and King George VI, so the name Balmoral cottage was named after the Royal castle, except that this Balmoral was a ‘cottage’, not a castle, a modest two storied house on the slopes of Kaithu hill. The upper floor had an entrance from a road branching from the main road, and the lower flat could be reached from a driveway down a steep slope; two separate flats with separate roads leading to them. We lived on the upper flat.
My first view of the Himalayas from my bedroom window early one morning as dawn broke on the distant peaks frosted with snow, remains a vivid memory. We had covered the length of the country from the sea to the Himalayas, I thought with awe. Geography became more than an interesting study in maps and books. It was a real experience of the diversity of the country, a journey through landscapes that were no more dry facts in books, but the changing kaleidoscope of sea, plains plateau and mountains, forests and fields of grain, fruit orchards, and wide rivers. The deodar forests were new places to discover on our walks, beautiful pine cones were collected, wild strawberries we found were much tastier than store-bought ones. New friends were made with ponies and their owners and the distant villages were explored on horseback.
Our education was an abiding concern, my father’s transfers were invariably at an inconvenient time. We had arrived in Simla in the middle of the school year. Most of the children of my father’s colleagues in Government attended Loreto convent but considering the short time we would be in Simla before moving to Delhi, it was decided that we would study with a private tutor.
Miss Meakin, our tutor, lived in a small attractive cottage on Circular Road a long distance from where we lived. But my parents were persuaded that she would give us the same personal care and attention that we had received from Miss Delcourt in Madras. We learnt later that she was from the Meakin family of the Dyer-Meakin Brewery in Solan, near Simla. Meakin bought the brewery from Dyer, and manufactured Lion Beer which was very popular with the thirsty British. After Independence the Dyer-Meakin brewery was bought by MM Mohan, and the re-named Mohan Meakin Brewery sold beer with the label Golden Eagle.
Miss Meakin was however a sober middle-aged woman, with whom one would never associate Lion Beer! She had an attractive smile and a quiet but firm manner of making us work at our reading and writing skills. I remember her most for her love of nature and the time she took to introduce us to plants and flowers in her garden, their names, answered questions on why the leaves of the Virginia creeper turned red in the autumn. For a long time I saved pressed flowers and leaves in a special book I had for the purpose. I also saved a book of drawings I had done for a lesson on Red Indians, their headdress of feathers, their wigwam and tomahawk. It was a very colonial education, but it stimulated a child’s curiosity in many people and places of the world.
It was a long walk from Miss Meakin’s cottage to our home in Kaithu, along the Mall, past Loreto Convent School down a steep slope to Kaithu. Sometimes, we had the luxury of a pony ride to school, but the trips to schools were always full of interesting things to see on the way. If we felt thirsty, we had been advised to stop at the chemist Bliss and Cotton, on the Mall, and they would give us distilled water to drink. Bliss and Cotton, like many businesses in New Delhi’s Connaught place, had branches in Simla where they found their Delhi customers during the summer months. The manager, a Tamil, who my parents had got to know in Delhi, always greeted us with a friendly smile. Sometimes as a special treat we would stop for an icecream at Davico’s.
When most of the Government offices moved to Simla for the summer there were many of my parents’ friends, civil servants in government service, and their families, who lived in Simla for the duration of the summer. Some of them stayed in suites of rooms in Cecil Hotel, many of the children attended Loreto Convent. I sometimes envied them because they were going to a “real school” and not a private tutor like me. But when we met and played together in the evenings I often heard from them that they had few friends in school. There was an unspoken barrier between the British and the Indian students. At lunch and recess in Loreto convent the Indian girls sat separately in groups to eat their lunch. There were few lasting friendships from that school, I am told even today by my contemporaries, who were with us in Simla. Our stay in Simla seemed to end all too soon, and we traveled down to Delhi, at the end of the summer of ’41.
The British Government in Delhi did not move to Simla the following year which was marked by unrest. With the failure of the Cripps’ mission in July 1942 the Independence movement picked up momentum. The Quit India movement in August 1942 followed the Congress Working Committee resolution demanding complete independence, and calling for a countrywide nonviolent movement to press this demand.
When we returned to Delhi we stayed in a rented house on Prithviraj Road. It was a quiet road, shaded by neem trees, and very little traffic, except for an occasional tonga or car. There were twin houses, 25A and 25B, mirror images of one another. Our house 25A, was at the corner of two roads, Prithviraj Road and Aurangzeb Lane. There was a small patch of lawn in front but on the side there was a fair-sized patch of lawn where we had room to play and where we learned to ride our bicycles.
One morning as we rode our bicycles around the lawn we saw a man walking down the empty road, followed by a dog. In his arms he carried a new born puppy. We stopped to pat the dog and asked the man what he would do with the puppy. He said he would give it away. We were charmed by the little helpless creature whose eyes were barely open. We ran inside and persuaded mother to let us keep the puppy. After some bargaining we acquired our first pet for the magnificent sum of two rupees.
That was year 1941 when the film Sikander with leading actors Prithviraj Kapoor and Sohrab Modi was screened and won popular acclaim. We went to see the film and for a long time hummed its tunes. Prithviraj was our hero for many years after that, and as members of his fan club we named our first pet Sikander.
Sikander was our friend and companion for fifteen years, a mixed breed with some unmistakable Dalmatian spots but not much to distinguish him except an excellent temperament, love of runs and chases, and an endearing habit of cocking his head to listen, and when we admonished him, his eyes showed that he understood that he had not been “a good boy”. When asked by our visitors what breed he was, my father, with his quiet humour, said he was a Pie-dog, a pun on our surname Pai.

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The House that grandfather built (Part I)

Grandfather’s house on Harris Road in Pudupet, Madras (now Chennai) was called
SRI NIVAS, I was born in that house, as were my two sisters, Kanaka, a year older, and Shanthi, three years younger than I. My grandfather’s diary which has a wealth of information, meticulously recorded, has this one line entry : “On 8th October Sharada was born at Sri Nivas at 3.11 pm after a natural labour” My paternal grandparents and my father came to visit. Father wrote to me on my birthday years later, that on his 31st birthday, October 11th, my mother brought baby ME (I was not named until a week later at a proper Naming Ceremony), as her birthday gift for him. It was the season of the poojas, Navaratri, and it was natural that I should be named after the Devi.
I was named after my grandmother, Saraswati, then Sharada, then Lakshmi, then Durga, – all names whispered in my ear by my two grandmothers. Later, as I grew older, I desperately wanted to be called Saraswati, but Sharada was my registered name in the school records, and birth certificate and that name has stayed with me.

SRI NIVAS was a red brick two storey ‘mansion’ – for I remember it as being a large gracious house, always busy with family, relatives and friends, a hospitable place, a happening place. The gate posts were crowned by seated lions. The broad drive way led up to a covered porch with steps up to a verandah. On either side of the porch the verandah was shaded by tall palms. This space was the favored open space for family photographs, and our photo albums are replete with images of family and friends posed with a backdrop of palms, in sepia coloured photographs. Weddings, birthday parties and social events and grandfather’s professional meetings were invariably occasions for the group photos as the photographer, his camera box on a tripod and a black cloth over his head would raise a finger announcing the CLICK. A second picture – a fresh plate was inserted – and once more his head covering adjusted as we smiled for the photograph, our event immortalized.

On either side of the gate as one entered our compound were two buildings, on the left was the garage for grandfather’s brand new Studebaker sedan, a distinctive sky blue in colour, which drew admiring glances as we cruised down the Marina on our evening excursions to the beach. On the other side of the gateway was a small one-roomed house where Pasupati, our gatekeeper and general factotum lived. The driveway circled a central space filled with small trees and flowering bushes which shielded the view of the house from the busy road traffic.
Flanking the house on Harris Road were two compounds, on the left the large imposing house of Mr.Bhasker Rao Naidu, a prominent businessman and lawyer. On the right was an extension of the Presentation Convent whose property extended behind our house as well, but nearest to our gate were the living quarters of the lay teachers of this Catholic convent run by nuns of the St. Theresa’s order. Miss Alice Delcourt, a diminutive Anglo-Indian lady was one of the teachers in the Presentation Convent school, who lived in these quarters. She had been engaged by grandfather to tutor us until we joined the primary classes. In 1940 Kanak and I had joined school, but Shanthi was getting her first lessons in English and arithmetic from Miss Delcourt. Often when we played on the terrace above the porch we could look across and see Miss Delcourt passing from her room to her little kitchen and we waved shyly to greet her.

Grandfather was a pathologist in the British government medical service. In his career he had done considerable work in research laboratories on vaccines. As a young man he had gone to distant Kasauli, leaving his wife and children in Mangalore, to work on developing anti-rabies and anti-tetanus vaccines at the Pasteur Institute. From there he was transferred to Bombay and the Haffkine Institute where he worked on the anti-plague vaccine. Returning to Madras, he started his research on tuberculosis which was a major killer attacking rich and poor alike. He set up house, and educated his three children in that city. Being allowed private practice he had several patients visiting the house in the evening where he had a clinic on the ground floor. The clinic consisted of the two rooms on the left, separated, (but with a connecting door) with a side entry for patients to the waiting room. This part of the house was out of bounds for us children unless there were special guests in the front drawing room.
My grandparents abiding concern about protecting their grandchildren from infection made us, my sisters and cousins, constantly wary of the inoculating needle.

To the right as one entered from the verandah was the “gosha room” where grandmother socialized with her Muslim women friends who were “gosha” (purdah). These women arrived in curtain-ed cars and were always of interest to us, with their different style of dress – long sleeved embroidered blouses and bordered sarees with one end covering the head, something a married Hindu woman in south India would never do.
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The gosha room is linked with our memories of the Bazlullah family, good friends of my grandfather who visited us. Mr. Bazlullah was Commissioner, Madras Corporation, and has a road named after him in Chennai. Mrs. Bazlullah was a large lady, and we stifled our giggles, as we recounted the day when she was stuck in one of the armchairs as she rose to leave, extricating herself, with some difficulty.
We did not remember her sons, who we did not interact with as children, but both of the sons met us many years later in Delhi as distinguished members of the Pakistan Civil Service. The elder son, Justice Shahabuddin, an alumnus of the Madras Law College, passed his ICS and later served as a judge in Madras, and after Partition as Chief Justice of the High Court in Dacca, East Pakistan, before being appointed as Chief Justice of the Pakistan Supreme Court. My sister recalls the day when Justice Shahabuddin and his wife came to Delhi on an official visit in 1954 and contacted my father who was then Home Secretary, to enquire about my grandparents, who they heard were visiting us. They requested an appointment to come and meet them, following strictly the official protocol. My grandparents were greatly moved when the couple bent to touch their feet in true South Indian style, and recalled how the warmth of their relationship was not dimmed by the boundaries drawn in 1947. The younger son, Mohd. Karamtullah ICS, also joined the Pakistan Civil service after Partition. He came to Delhi as Commerce Secretary in 1952 to negotiate the Trade agreement between the two countries with his counterpart Mr. S. Bhoothalingam.ICS.
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SRINIVAS was really a new house built in the front part of the compound of an older house which was retained after grandfather purchased the plot The old house was a separate block at the back, connected by a short open passage with broad ledges on the walls where we could sit and spend much of our time during the warm part of the day. The rooms on the ground floor of this rear portion provided space for the women to gather, sharing household tasks, or chatting with visitors. The women folk, grandmother, aunts, cousins, spent the time during these chat sessions, cutting vegetables, preparing pickles or papad, or, stringing the fragrant jasmine flowers that the servant woman brought from the market in the late afternoon. We girls then had to sit down to get our hair combed, braided and decorated with flowers before we went for an evening outing.
At one end was a space where we would often find our tailor, seated on the floor with a hand-operated Singer sewing machine. Walking through the dining room, one reached a courtyard, storerooms and kitchen at the back, and outside near the boundary wall was the stone platform where the servant would beat the clothes to wash them.

In the new building that grandfather added in front, a staircase led up to the first floor bedrooms and a terrace. At the landing at the head of the stairs was installed the telephone on the wall, its trumpet-shaped receiver hooked on a side cradle. Connected to the new building with a short passage like the downstairs portion,, the upper floor of the rear block had two large rooms and a terrace which was our main play area when the sun was not too hot. These rooms with windows overlooking the compound of the Presentation Convent were the private space that we called grandfather’s “Dormitory”. Here, seated at his roll-top desk, grandfather spent most of his time when he was not in the clinic downstairs. He bought a small table fan which was an object of wonder and curiosity to us children as we stood at a respectful distance and watched it rotate, our eyes narrowed in delicious anticipation as it turned in our direction, exulting in the breeze that swept over our faces, blowing back our hair.

A fixed routine, strictly followed by us was writing weekly letters to our parents, then in Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and our paternal grandparents who lived on the west coast in Mangalore and Kasargod where my grandfather had property.
This correspondence – our letters and our parents’ replies – have been carefully saved, giving me this opportunity to read and relive childhood events and write the first part of this narration. Birthday cards and drawings, stories and poems written by us, school news and jokes, all form a patchwork quilt of childish chatter to bring smiles and memories for the mind to savor.

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