Discussing my last blog “Dissent” with friends brought to mind my Convocation address to students at North Maharashtra university six years ago and I thought I would share it. It also brought back memories of my guide and mentor Prof. Udai Pareek who, days before he passed away, read the speech and approved it. The thoughts I expressed there are still valid and important to me.
* * * * * * * * * *
Hon’ble Vice-Chancellor,Dr.K.B.Patil, distinguished members of Senate,
Management Council, Academic Council and other authorities of the university,
members of the teaching and non-teaching staff, graduates, invitees, media
persons, ladies and gentlemen, 

It is indeed a great honour for me to be invited to address you on this momentous
day, the 18th convocation ceremony of North Maharashtra University. I have had
the pleasure of seeing this university at different stages of growth under
successive vice chancellors, and its present position with its significant growth in so many dimensions of modern technology, research, industrial linkages and
national and international outreach, presents an exciting place equal to any
eminent centre of higher education in India. We remember how the first Vice
Chancellor Dr.N.K.Thakare saw a dream take shape on these barren hills, as he
laid the foundation of NMU. When Dr. S.F.Patil was here I saw lakhs of teak
saplings planted by students under the Campus Diversity Initiative of the Ford
Foundation and the environmental development program was a visible Green
Initiative. I returned and saw a flourishing campus under the stewardship of Dr.
Mali. Today under your leadership, Dr. KB.Patil sir, I see your vision in expanding horizons, a vibrant community and seeds of ideas you planted that will
undoubtedly see this university reach new heights. For institutions are not only
green campuses, modern infrastructure and technological excellence. The
bedrock of values, integrity and honesty of purpose in human relationships and
interactions, are the unseen ingredients that will have had an impact by your
leadership on all those who pass through these portals.

We are all gathered together here as learners. We are not only receiving
knowledge and skills, we are learning about ourselves. This self-development is
a learning far more important than the degrees we distribute today. For it
increases our effectiveness as citizens, members of a family or community, as
human beings sharing a small planet.

My address to you is first an expression of my appreciation, faith and confidence
in this generation of graduates that I see before me. My congratulations to you on your achievement which is evidenced by a cap and a gown and a diploma that
indicates you have reached a significant point in your journey. In America a
graduation or convocation is aptly called a Commencement, for it is not the end
of a course of study but a beginning of the journey of life. Armed with these
degrees you are qualified to work, make a fruitful contribution to society and its development, to study further, research, and be in the forefront of a growing
knowledge economy. However, more importantly, this is the beginning of a
discovery of your own self. In fact, by now NMU would have set you on that
path, but you have undoubtedly been too busy finishing academic tasks, striving
for grades, anxious and stressed about passing exams, trying to meet the
expectations of parents and teachers who have invested their efforts in seeing
you meet this immediate goal.

On this occasion of your convocation, I ponder over many thoughts that I want to
share with you. I recall that I myself graduated fifty-eight years go. I am not sure that the degrees I have earned have given me the same satisfaction I now have in reaching out to young people like you. I recall very humbly that I did not sweat and toil to get a PhD, but the honorary doctoral degree I have – but which I do not like to use, officially– gives me greater satisfaction because it signifies my learning though interaction with students and teachers. It recognizes my work in the past two decades when I have spent considerable time working with students, and in teacher training. I have learnt – and continue to learn – from my training programs. Research by behavioral scientists has shown that academic excellence does not necessarily contribute to success in life. It seems that what we teach our students gives them qualifications for fruitful work but not necessarily the ability to cope with life. It is common to hear people talk about Life Skills. Basically these are coping skills, the ability to deal with failure without discouragement, to have the confidence to pick yourself up, and start again with renewed efforts, because these are the basic elements of optimism and a positive attitude to life.

The learning starts here, in school, college and university. The diversity of India is a huge laboratory where we can study cultures, languages, religions, economic practices, design of houses and modes of transport, different types of arts, music and dance, foods, and clothing styles. This diversity is overwhelming, exciting,and we are proud of it, because it is enriching. It is unique. Foreigners from western countries come here to learn from this diversity, but we look westwards, a little apologetic that we are “backward” and try to be like them. On the contrary, we should realize all this richness gives us a unique opportunity to learn from life and acquire these coping skills. But we do not seem to have learnt the core lesson: there is one important element we have missed, and that is the importance of learning to live with this diversity, to live with each other, to learn from each other, to respect each other, to develop an important attitude and that is one of inclusivity. We are uncomfortable when we come in contact with people who are different – they do not speak the same language, they are from different religions and caste backgrounds and we don’t like that; they have strange customs and food habits and we do not accept that. We are uncomfortable with their proximity. I learnt something important from a professor I admire greatly. He told me that “the greatest learning comes with a moderate degree of discomfort”

When we are uncomfortable in a situation, we call upon our coping skills to learn
to understand and adjust our thinking, change our attitude to see how best we
can come through successfully. If instead of learning from the situation we
acquire a prejudice, it blinds us, because prejudice comes from lack of
information, lack of knowledge about the basic elements of this difference.
I came to NMU first as the coordinator of the Campus Diversity program. My
learning began here. I met your students, your faculty and tried to understand
the problems faced by starting a university in a largely tribal area. I visited many small towns and villages in Khandesh, in the Satpudas. I tried to communicate with the people I met, even though I do not speak Marathi, or any of the tribal languages. Most people I met did not communicate well in English, or even Hindi. But communication is not entirely about language. It is about the
discomfort in not being able to communicate with spoken words, and instead
observing, sensitizing oneself and developing an empathy for what people are,
what they want, and what they are trying to become.

Students in this university I am sure, face this situation but have not sought to
resolve it, or understand it, because academics come first. However, if you live in a hostel, eat in a mess with many students, a certain amount of introspection is absolutely vital to dealing with the discomfort of living with diversity. It may seem a temporary problem of adjustment, but the development of the attitude of inclusivity, and acceptance of another with respect, is essential to success in life, whether in your family, or in the workplace.

To me the most endearing aspect of working with students is their idealism, their
passion for a goal they are seeking, and their energy and enthusiasm for
innovative and creative ideas. I have learnt from them the need to ‘think out of
the box’, to review my solutions, to admit my ignorance, and to confront questions with sincerity and honesty. On the other side of the coin, as a teacher I have to counsel them to manage their emotions, not to react immediately and
thoughtlessly to issues which, while they concern them deeply, can ride on the
emotions of a group. This we sometimes refer to as a mob mentality. As a group
I try to counsel them on the strength of team work, of the importance of
responsibility, and the courage to take a stand even at the risk of being
unpopular. Above all they must set themselves a long term goal.

Lastly I want to say a few words to the teachers assembled here. I envy you the
opportunity to work with the young. But, as I said before, (and I hope you will
agree) we learn everyday, from our students, and in guiding them whether it be in
academics or as counselors. We too have to learn to cope with weak students
coming from disadvantaged backgrounds. The challenge of reaching out to them
with empathy and patience is our zone of discomfort that we have to learn from.
Communication skills must go beyond classroom instruction, to an understanding
of their needs, reassuring the insecure, diffident and depressed student that he
has great potential. Your reward is greater when you see such students achieve
success and self-confidence. This is your self-actualisation. As teachers yours is not only a profession, a vocation, or a job, but a larger mission, that of guiding generations to take the first step at Commencement. They need role models and we as teachers have to try to meet that need So as I congratulate you on your part in producing today’s graduates, I invite you to join this community of learners all striving to build this country into a place where everyone regardless of ability, regional and religious background, has a place to grow and to live in harmony. May we all, students, teachers, parents and
administrators, together find within ourselves, the awe and elation of discovery of the one-ness among us all.

On another occasion, speaking at a graduation in another college I quoted my
favourite poem of Rabindranath Tagore. It expresses a philosophy that transcends religious beliefs and in its wisdom I have found inspiration and guidance:

Thou hast made known to me friends I knew not,

Thou hast given me seats in homes not my own,

Thou hast brought the distant near and made a brother of a stranger.

I am uneasy at heart when I leave my accustomed shelter;

I forget that there abidest Thou, the old in the new.

When one knows Thee then alien there is none,

Then no door is shut.

Grant me my prayer that I may never lose the bliss

Of the touch of the one in the play of the many. (from Gitanjali)

Once again, I extend my best wishes to all the graduates and award winners for
their successful and fruitful future.  I am grateful to the university authorities for inviting me for this auspicious occasion. 

Thank you.

Sharada Nayak

March 2, 2010

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This Blog is called Reflections. As one gets older there is time to reflect on life’s experiences and this one is particularly painful because it counters the memories of elation, inspiration and enthusiasm of past years.

I was there when this country was born, on August 15 ,1947
I was part of the first Republic Day parade when our college group enacted Rani of Jhansi in a parade depicting scenes from history.
I was there when Martin Luther King spoke of his dream.
I was also there when JNU was announced and constituted. Shri G.Parthasarathi the first Vice Chancellor was a family friend.

Now I am asked : Whoever called JNU an elite institution?

JNU was conceived by a well meaning set of founding fathers who tried to design a global studies dimension to the university. The university prides itself on its diverse student body. It is an inverted pyramid which admits students from the rural and distant regions of Bihar, Orissa and the Northeast to compensate for the neglect of the rural base by the “elitist” Delhi university, with its frankly elitist colleges which all student achievers aim to enter.
JNU’s emphasis on inclusivity is laudable, but it has quite naturally fostered a radical leftist “elite” drawn from the “left out” rural, Muslim and northeast youth. This is good in that education is now available to a wider section of youth, but it has given the radical Left an opportunity to nurture those who have a grievance about the lack of opportunity they complain about. I have nothing against competing political ideologies on campus, and I support freedom of speech and dissent in democracy. But because of the continuing failure of administrators, notably Vice Chancellors and senior Faculty, the attitude of students is self-centered and arrogant. Who gave them the right to rant against the country which has given them the freedom, the inexpensive education and vast campus space paid for by tax payers like you and me? And above all they forget that they have the advantage of this subsidised education (for several years as they linger on to do their PhDs) because of the selfless struggle of thousands who fought for India’s freedom. Today we laud our army’s sacrifices in fighting wars, an army we are proud of. But EVERY Student should go to the cellular jail in Port Blair and read the names of unknown common citizens who showed uncommon courage and died unsung and unrecognised in that bleak fortress in the Andamans.

I think the best thing that could happen now in the JNU – now that we cannot undo the mistakes of the past and continuing degeneration of student attitudes – is to add a new additional department of Sports, sports management and allied fields of training and vocational expertise. It would take away from the mistaken belief in the “elitist” nature of the university.
Today the only equalising space in our training and educational institutions is in the area of physical education, where we have people from ” backward” regions doing remarkable feats to add to our national pride ; ordinary people climbing the Himalayas, coal miners and boys from the slums featuring in cricket victories, farm youth excelling in football and hockey , -without screaming slogans of insults and hatred for the country that gave them birth. Communist countries of eastern Europe won most of the gold medals in the Olympics during the Cold War period, because the money poured into sports facilities attracted millions of young people to build their physique rather than waste time talking in Dhabas ! It has been demonstrated many times, that giving kids an opportunity to participate in sports raises self-confidence and improves academic performance, JNU never produced a Milkha Singh or a Dhyan Chand, a MS Dhoni or a Saina Nehwal.
I was only 15 years old when my school principal asked me, as Head Girl, to unfurl the tricolour on August 15 1947 at our school assembly. I still remember with pride, – that memorable occasion when I made my first speech in which I explained the colours of the flag – saffron for sacrifice and renunciation –not Hindutva – white for peace and purity – and green for valour and courage – not Islam. It is the flag and the national anthem that still stir me and arouse my pride in India. Now that beautiful face of resurgent India has warts and scars, unwashed, uncared for. Occasionally we wipe that face on national holidays, and media generated programs publicising efforts to promote clean environment, or social harmony.

Today I weep for this generation of so- called bright and bold youth who are neither democrats nor communists, neither nationalists nor dissidents, neither orators nor demagogues. Just a motley bunch of misled young people who do not understand that leadership means accountability, that freedom of speech needs self restraint, and fighters need team discipline.
This is not about patriotism versus anti-nationalism. It is about a commitment to the integrity and integration of one’s homeland.
Kanhaiya, we are told, is maligned and misunderstood. We can also ask, Are you not the elected student leader? Are you not accountable? You can identify abusive slogan shouters on videos available. Can you honestly affirm that they are “outsiders”? Isn’t it true that you supported their actions and their slogans in the interest of “Freedom of speech”
The buck stops with you and you have to answer our anguished questions.
We are saddened to see that we citizens have suckled our public-funded universities, with a false hope that we are building our country.
I cannot march in protest. This therefore is my voice of dissent.

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A Swami’s Life

Grandfather’s house in Pudupet, Madras (now known as Chennai) always had interesting visitors and guests. He came from a large family, but in the thirties he was the only one of his siblings who had left the home in Mangalore and traveled to Madras, to study medicine. He settled down in Madras and was one of the leading doctors in the city, specializing in the treatment of tuberculosis. He and my grandmother welcomed sundry relatives with unfailing hospitality. His house in Pudupet was for many years a home for nephews and nieces who came to Madras to study. He and grandmother considered living in a college hostel undesirable for the young people – bad food, uncomfortable accommodations shared with other students who were undoubtedly a distraction from serious studies. I am not sure the young students agreed, but their parents expected their uncle and aunt to be their guardians, – and besides, since they were not affluent they thought home hospitality was certain preferable and less expensive.
One such nephew, Srinivas, an only child who had lost his parents at an early age, came to study in college in Madras and my grandfather took upon himself the responsibility of the college education of his sister’s son.

Srinivas, a quiet young man, appeared downstairs only at meal times, and spent most of his time in the little room upstairs which was his bedroom and study. We often went to chat with him and found him interesting but he did not encourage us to stay long and socialize because he took his books and studies very seriously. He went off alone in the evenings, perhaps to meet his friends, but rarely brought them to the house. He obviously loved the cinema, because he had pinned on his walls movie posters of Norma Shearer,and Devika Rani among other popular actors.

One day, grandfather walked into his room unexpectedly. The young man was taken aback, and stood up awkwardly, a little scared and embarrassed. Grandfather barely noticed that he had his books open in front of him. Instead he looked around at the pouting lips and smiling eyes of the movie actresses displayed on the walls and did not hesitate to indicate his disapproval. He scolded the young man for wasting time on movies. Angry, he turned and left the room only to return a short while later with a book
which he slapped on the desk in front of his nephew saying :”Here read this; read some good literature for a change and learn some values about life and education!” The book was LIFE OF SWAMI VIVEKANANDA, which he had purchased some months earlier from the Ramakrishna Mission. Srinivas came down for dinner, chastened and quiet. He continued cramming for his BA examination and we rarely saw him and did not want to disturb him.
One day, soon after the exams were over, Srinivas did not come down for dinner and grandmother sent someone to call him down. He was not found in his room. His books were neatly placed on his table. The walls were bare of pictures. His trunk and his clothes were missing. Srinivas had run away!
Grandmother was in tears. She had always given her nieces and nephews her love and caring and felt responsible for their welfare. She blamed grandfather for being so harsh on the orphaned youngster, who he should have nurtured, she said, as his own son. Grandfather was clearly upset and worried. He consulted his friends on how he should go about looking for the young man. He was reluctant to report to the police of a Missing Person. Friends and relatives scoured the town inquiring from people who Srinivas may have visited, his friends and classmates, but no one had any clue.
Three weeks had passed when a letter arrived for grandfather. It was from Swami Vimalananda, the head of the Ramakrishna Math in Mysore informing him that a young man had arrived there, purporting to be his nephew. He said he wanted to join the Ramakrishna order as a monk, but the Math did not accept any novitiates without the permission of their families. Everyone was relieved that he was safe. Grandfather was perplexed. He immediately left for Mysore and met with the Swami as well as Srinivas who greeted him with a confident smile and touched his feet. He informed the Swami that he was not sure if his nephew was sincere and committed to join the Ramakrishna order – of which grandfather himself was a follower and admirer. He left it to Swami Vimalananda to assess his abilities and decide whether the young man was suitable for this vocation. But he was surprised and pleased to see in his nephew’s expression an enthusiasm and determination he had never seen before and felt maybe Swami Vivekananda had indeed inspired him, as this legendary Swami had so many others then, and ever since.

Srinivas spent his years as a brahmachari at various branches of the Ramakrishna Math, including their publications division at Mayavati.
He received his sanyasi robes as Swami Avimuktananda and continued to keep in touch with his uncle with utmost respect and affection. While we always referred to him as Uncle Srinivas, whenever we visited him we addressed him as Swamiji. We visited him over the years in many of the cities where he continued to serve the Ramakrishna Mission in various capacities.
We met him last as head of the Ramakrishna Math in Hyderabad where he served several years before he passed away recently.

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The Flowers will survive


October is here and anyone who has a garden in Delhi is busy. My ‘garden’ is just a collection of flower pots on the terrace and a strip of earth near the paved entrance way to out flat, where I try year after year to grow sweetpeas. Each cool October morning I wake up with a pleasant feeling of busy-ness. The flowers will soon be here, I think. There is so much to do, and Nature won’t wait. The roses have been pruned and manured, and the flower seedlings transplanted and potted. But then there is still the question of the survival of the sweetpeas. For in October the birds are busy too. The few precious sweetpeas that still have the courage to poke their heads cautiously through the soft earth, are in constant danger of being gobbled up by the voracious birds. Each morning as I inspect the damage and devise new methods of chasing them away, I think of Sadiq, my mother’s gardener.

I remember Sadiq, a rather dejected figure in a soiled shirt and narrow pyjamas too short for him, twisting his cap in his hand as my mother delivered the morning lecture over the list of things he had not done. It was some time before my mother realized this daily scolding was a waste of breath because Sadiq was quite deaf. Sadiq was not lazy, he was just slow. For him October should have had ninety days. There was just too much to do in this month, so he concentrated on the flowers he liked best – roses and sweetpeas. When the roses had been pruned, the sweetpeas took up all his time. If my mother berated him about Hollyhocks plated too late, or seed beds that needed his attention, Sadiq did not hear – or if he did, he didn’t take much notice. He just stood there, his bony knees sticking out of his torn pyjamas, his hand locked behind his back, and his head nodding a vigorous and ready “Accha-ji.”

Sadiq knew that a gardener’s working hours cannot be fixed. He was there whenever he was needed. In the summer during Delhi’s recurring water shortages, we would see him at night, a shadowy figure in the darkness, watering the lawn when the pressure in the hydrants was at its maximum. We found him hovering around when the children had a party. He knew that little boys could not resist plucking the little golden Chinese oranges and pelting each other with the fruit. Without Sadiq as chowkidar, the trees would have been quickly stripped bare, and my mother deprived of fruit for her favourite marmalade and squashes. But throughout the day, during October and November Sadiq stood by the sweetpeas bed, chasing the birds away, pinching the tendrils to ensure bigger blooms, and trying each stalk to its supporting stick.

Sadiq’s care of his favourite flowers was made increasingly difficult by two people, – my son aged two, and my grandfather aged eighty-two. The little boy was easier to handle. He plucked flowers ruthlessly, but he could be chased away by Sadiq’s angry bellow. Or he could be enticed away from the flower bed with a colourful weed or a branch from the hedge. But my grandfather loved birds, and in deference to the Bada-sahib’s age, Sadiq said nothing. Every morning and evening grandfather strolled on the verandah, his walking stick tap-tapping on the floor. The sound of the stick was a Morse-call to dinner, and the signal for a wild delighted chorus as innumerable birds swooped down to where he stood scattering birdseed. As he fed them he talked, coaxing the timid ones, admonishing the greedy and chasing away the quarrelsome ones. As he watched them, Sadiq muttered dire threats at all feathered friends. He knew that after dining with grandfather it was only a short hop to the sweetpea trellis for dessert. In a last despairing effort to keep the birds away, he fixed little glittering paper windmills to the trellis, and left for home commending the flowers to God.

The New Year arrived and the garden was alive with colour. Sadiq filled several vases with all the colourful winter flowers, and our home and our hearts were brightened. When the sweetpeas which had miraculously survived all vicissitudes, stood nine feel tall, so also proudly, stood Sadiq.

This year, as the last flower crumpled under the early summer winds, my parents packed their belongings to shift to another house in Delhi. Sadiq was sad at parting with a memsahib who loved flowers as much as he did. This was their common bond of friendship. He helped transport some potted plants to the new house, and looked at the neglected weed-grown garden with undisguised dismay. Trying to cheer up my mother he said, “ I will come back in September with a few days leave, and help you start your winter garden. You can plant your standard roses here, and your herbaceous border at the far end of the lawn. Your sweetpea bed you must have at the other side of the house away from the Bada-sahib’s room!”

But Sadiq never came back. He was stricken with an incurable illness in April, and in July when the first monsoon rains revived the parched garden, Sadiq was dead.

Every season the garden brings memories of Sadiq. When the children gather with their Divali sparklers in their grandmother’s garden we will remember Sadiq gently steering them away from his precious flower beds. In the morning he would gather the charred remains of the festival crackers from the lawn he tended. When Divali is over and the season’s first roses start to bloom, I shall think of him again. The lovely flowers will be as young and fresh as ever. They will return each year, a joy to those who are here and a memorial to those gone away. When Sadiq died, he left behind a host of flowers to smile and live.

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Remembering Sarojini Naidu

(Edited version of an article published in the Statesman April 27, 1979 on Sarojini Naidu’s 100th birthday))

We were three little girls ranging from 12 to eight years. There was a party at home and a great deal of activity in the house. We peeked from behind the curtain as the guests arrived, With suppressed giggles, we commented on their clothes or imitated their walk. As I tweaked the curtain and looked through the crack with one eye, the visitor saw me. To our horror she came straight towards us instead of turning into the drawing room bright with lights, conversation and gaily dressed guests.
We scampered away, but it was too late. Three girls in pajamas blinked as an elderly formidable looking woman came into the bedroom. She wore a maroon sari with a pair of long earrings and a long necklace that looked rather incongruous on this heavy set woman with a not-too-handsome face.
“Hello”, she said, “what are your names?” The youngest ducked behind the bed, the two older girls stammered their names.
Father walked in surprised to find the guest of honour in the children’s room and attempted to lead her out to meet the other assembled guests. “Why aren’t your daughters at the party?” she asked in her resonant voice. Mother came in at the moment and explained that we had to go bed early because the next morning we had to go to school.”But this party is for them!” she cried. Taken aback and a bit flustered, mother agreed that we could come out.We dressed rather hurriedly, greatly excited that we were to join the party.
We sat on the floor at her feet as she talked to us ignoring the guests who stood around.
“What time do you go to school? How early do you leave?” she asked.
“Our bus comes at six-thirty.”
“Isn’t that a lovely time of the day?” she said
“No,” I blurted, then bit my tongue in embarrassment at having contradicted her.
“Why is it not a nice time?”
“Well, we always have to rush to get ready in time, and the thought of going to school is not nice.”
“But then think of all the beautiful things that a morning brings you. Can you tell me of the things you like.”
We listed all the funny, joyful, beautiful things we knew – colours, sounds, scents. She described he own childhood delights, and we agreed that the smell of rain on dry earth, the rustle of dried leaves under our feet, the silk cotton tree in bloom, a dog’s wagging tail, a weaver bird’s nest were all beautiful.
“What are your favourite colours?”
“Not white,” I said, “we have to wear white uniforms to school and also white reminds me of nurses and hospitals when I was ill.”
“But think of all the beautiful things that white reminds you of.”
As she talked, encouraged us to express ourselves, and listened to us, her face was transformed, her words wove descriptive strands of colour into picture poems.
It was 10 o’clock. Dinner was served. The spell was broken. Three little girls were hustled off to bed.
* * * * *
The next morning, I carry my schoolbag to the kerbside and set it down, and wait for the school bus. Soft fluff floats down from the silk cotton tree. I try to catch it before it touches the ground. A group of Rajasthani labourers come down the road. The women follow, russet skirts swinging above gleaming silver anklets. They sing, shrill cadences that rise and fall as they walk in rhythm. One of women looks at me and laughs. It is a beautiful morning!
* * * *

This childhood memory stays green after a passage of seventy years.
This summer morning I see a red vented bulbul pecking at wild mulberries on the tree outside my window. As I get ready to go to work, the laburnum tree drips gold petals on my parked car. At the traffic light a smiling urchin comes to the window selling jasmine gajras. I hurriedly scrabble in my bag for change to buy one before the light changes. White jasmine fills the car with fragrance. Yes, white is a beautiful colour.
Thank you Mrs. Sarojini Naidu for awakening a child’s mind to beauty. Then and ever since. You are a hundred years young in a child’s memory.

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We are three sisters and what I remember of my mother with gratitude, is that she took us with her whenever she visited elder women, her friends or relations. We stayed out of the conversation, unless directly invited to respond to queries, or asked our opinion on any subject. But we listened. And we formed our own opinions of the women we met. My mother’s ostensible reason in taking us to them was to introduce her children to elders, and invariably we were expected to seek their blessings by touching their feet when we said our farewells. Listening, observing and talking to these women have left some indelible memories.

I first visited my great grandmother when I was about twelve years old. I had met her several times in her daughter’s (my grandmother’s) house, but visiting her in her native village was a memorable experience. A doorway off the main street of Karkala, a small “porch” with narrow seats under the overhanging roof, led us to an inner courtyard. These porch seats were where we could sit or stand to watch the traffic on the street, or more importantly, to watch the temple car procession, a festive occasion we were able to witness that year. In the courtyard there was a tulsi plant on a high pedestal in the centre. On the verandah surrounding the courtyard sat my granduncle, grandmother’s elder brother and the head of the household. My great grandfather had long passed on, and great grandmother had shaved her head, discarded all her jewelry and confined herself to the kitchen area, ‘as per custom”. Her son and daughter-in-law ran the house. Or so it was said, again, as per custom. But as I sat and observed the family, I watched granduncle sitting on the floor removing the copra from the dried half-coconuts that were spread out in the sun. He had a sharp tool with which he scooped out the copra shells. The coconuts had been collected from the coconut palms in the back compound of the house, and were one of the sources of income for the family..
I went inside. Grandmother sat in the kitchen and chatted with her mother: How many coconuts were you able to sell this year? What did they sell for? And the copra? What is the market price? I heard the conversation, at that time mostly about agriculture and prices of the products of their land.
Soon a worker from the fields arrived, stood at a respectful distance, his eyes lowered, as he raised his hand to his forehead in greeting, when he saw granduncle. He did not enter the house beyond the courtyard. He reported to his landlord on the state of the rice crop which would be soon ready for harvest, asking for instructions. Uncle rose to his feet and went inside to his mother to convey the sharecropper’s message. In a low voice she gave clear and precise instructions. These instructions were conveyed to the peasant outside, but they were uncle’s instructions, orders from the landlord.
We had lunch and stretched out on straw mats on the cool floor of the back verandah. Before drowsiness and sleep took over I heard the conversation between mother and daughter as they discussed marriage alliances, recipes for medications for our childhood illnesses, plans for the coming months, before the monsoon rains descended, on making the preserves and papad and pickles that were needed for the family’s year long consumption. Underlying the conversation were the connected threads of economy, family needs, decisions for future contacts with relatives, and above all sustainability, whether it be in agriculture, family ties or plans for the children’s future. When my grandmother disagreed she would only say “wouldn’t this be better and more advisable?” without aggressive dissent. Her mother would listen quietly and respond in her own calm way. A word that comes to mind now, when I recall the episode, is “Balance” There was no acrimonious debate; just a delicate balance as the scales tipped one way or another. Different generations had their say, and there was accommodation as something was added or something taken away from every point of view, to even the balance.
I recall now that it was this illiterate widow, with no material possessions and no overt social status, who was really the head of the household, the power behind every decision that was made – fair and even-handed in all dealings.

We went to visit Mr and Mrs. Rao, a couple in their seventies, at their grandson’s home in Mangalore. They were warm and hospitable; coffee and snacks were served with the minimum of fuss and with every consideration for the taste of young children. As we conversed in the inner living room Mr. Rao sat with us, quiet and smiling at the women’s chatter and humorous quips, with minimum response. He had had a small business and some income of rent from a small landholding. But all his children were doing very well in life and their own monetary needs were little.
While we sat with them the doorbell rang and Mrs. Rao went out, a little grey-haired lady with a large round of kumkum on her forehead and the traditional jewelry of a Hindu upper caste wife. She returned to her husband with a brief report : “Sadashiv wants to know whether we would sell our old cow. I really think we should let her go and I have told him the price we would expect.” She raised her brows inquiringly and her husband merely nodded. She returned to convey to the visitor her husband’s decision!
A modest soft spoken woman with little education, she is not well known or listed among the remarkable women of India, although her four sons, each in his own field rose to fame and pre-eminent positions in their professions – education, finance, journalism and political administration. All of them were among those listed in the Who’s Who of India. They left home to go abroad, married foreign women, but came back to serve their country with distinction. Their parents, their mother especially, accepted their lifestyles, marriages and above all supported them with strength and confidence. This little woman was the rock on whom they built their successful lives and distinguished careers.

In mother and grandmother’s social circle were several such women, none of them had more than a minimum education, and all of them were hemmed in by the patriarchal fences, But they were confident in their role and their ability to listen before acting, and balanced in their judgment.

After them came the generation of educated women, with college degrees, but no real ambition for independent careers. Marriage was the goal, arranged for them by parents, within the caste and community. One such woman Susheela was engaged to a young man in medical college, an eminently suitable groom from a well-known family. He went to England for his post graduate study promising to return in a year to marry the chosen bride. What happened then was typical of many such events we encountered ; he married an English girl. It was a common joke among people, in such instances, to say that the young man acquired a MA.LLD degree – married a landlady’s daughter! It was a cruel joke however on the young fiancée Susheela because broken engagements were as bad as broken marriages, socially. The anger, shock and humiliation were known only to the young girl and her close family. She refused any further suggestions of marriage, and decided to continue to study with the intent to become a teacher. Soon the independence movement gained momentum and Gandhiji’s charisma drew many to his group of close followers. This young woman joined him and soon became his secretary, It is not known to many that the articles in “Harijan” , and Gandhiji’s letters now in public archives, were all written or typed by someone who was now indispensable to the Mahatma. Her position of influence in Gandhiji’s coterie of followers is not evaluated, but she is there, unidentified in the background of photographs displayed in the Gandhi Smriti museum. She played a small part in India’s history, definitely a more influential position than that of the wife a successful doctor in London. Her quiet decision tipped the balance.

A young Tamil Brahmin woman was rejected by her husband and sent home, because her face was pitted with smallpox scars. Her shocked father gave her courage and helped her complete her education and pursue a teaching career. Young Lakshmi went to England to complete her Master’s degree in English, and returned home to teach at Queen Mary’s College, Madras, where she later took over from the British Principal to become the first Indian lady principal of the elite Women’s college in Madras (Chennai). Her influence on so many young women students like my mother, from conservative homes, whose minds were opened, their potential realized through their education, is not known or assessed except by her students.. But many of them, women who later assumed important roles before and after independence derived their power from their education, which inculcated in them a strong sense of Self. (Kamaladevi Chattopadhyaya was an alumna of Queen Mary’s College).

Women like these, now long gone, gave me a deeper understanding about the meaning of power, and taught me that to inspire and influence people in a quiet unobtrusive way
adds an important dimension to the meaning of Power. They did not have the freedom or space that I enjoy today, thanks to the education and opportunities that I have been privileged to receive.
But it is still a patriarchy!

Today I am privileged to be part of an educational Society which runs many schools. We are only three women – less than 20% of the membership. Most of the men have retired at the end of successful professional lives, where they have reached their career peak of power, prestige and money. We women too were equally successful in our careers, are committed, and articulate – and independent. Yet the overt thrust of power is clearly male, even though the Sanskrit word for power is female “Shakti.”

In every culture it seems the thirst for power is not slaked because men are unwilling to share the space with once-quiet women. In the twentieth century women received education. We question patriarchy. We grew up grounded in values of sharing, fair dealings and equity. We raise our voice not for shared Power but for Balance. The scales cannot be tipped by egos; balance is achieved by renunciation of position, and stability is achieved by sharing responsibility free of gender-derived bias.

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Follow the birds

Uncork the champagne !!! 
October 8 and 82

Hi All,
Thank you all so much for your birthday wishes, and all the loving messages. It felt so good to hear from friends around the world, with some lovely e-cards too. Facebook announced it, so I had messages from students and friends from across the country and the US. It was really a great way to celebrate the networking of friendship across space and time.
My sister Shanthi came from Bombay to celebrate my birthday and as usual I had to plan a get-away to a different exotic place!! Many years ago when we were children – in 1943 to be exact, we had a lovely family holiday in Bharatpur, a princely state in Rajasthan, where Dad’s friend Mr. KPS Menon ICS was the Dewan – (British Government Minister representative) to the Maharaja. It was our first encounter with a Maharaja, and we were filled with awe at the opulence of the palace at Bharatpur, the lovely maharani (who was a princess from Mysore) confined in strict purdah in the women’s wing of the palace. Our host’s family and we were special guests at the palace at Deeg, about fifteen kilometers from Bharatpur, where the maharaja and maharani went for summer retreats. It was a magical evening as we were served at a long table on a balcony overlooking a large spring-fed tank, and two thousand illuminated fountains transformed the gardens and lit up the night sky. The next day we all went to the bird sanctuary where every winter migratory birds arrive from the cold north to breed and fill the air with their cries. The maharaja and his British guests then enjoyed duck shoots – which shocks us today, as we see the list of numbers of birds killed, a wanton slaughter by these so-called sportsmen. Lord Linlithgow, Viceroy of India, came with his group as guests of the maharaja and shot down over 4000 birds, boasted the record list.!(As a visitor once remarked sarcastically, “how courageous they were!”)

Shanthi and I talked about re-visiting the place – she had not been back in 70 years although I have re-visted more recently. So my birthday celebration was at the Forest Lodge in the Keoladeo National Park.
We rented a car from our good friend Vini, and took the new fast expressway to Mathura, accompanied by a dear friend and ardent birdwatcher, Papsi Bhasker.
In this town of Krishna’s birthplace we stopped to ask the way to the Museum, but were invariably accosted by enthusiastic “guides” who wanted to take us to the Krishna temple for a fee –
The Archaeological museum which had some excellent stone carvings of the Gandhara and Kushan period – including the famous headless statue of Emperor Kanishka, 1st century AD, with his long coat, sword and Reebok designer shoes!! The imposing red sandstone museum had a large standing Buddha statue in the garden juxtaposed incongruously with a seated imperious Queen Victoria holding scepter and orb.
The museum was under renovation and while carpenters and painters worked briskly, the statues were all shrouded in plastic some of which we were permitted to remove and examine the sculptures. The only other visitor was an older woman, art historian from Belgium who knew the subcontinent well and spoke Hindi fluently. She chatted and told us with wonder that this museum had more excellent stone sculptures than the National Museum in Delhi! I wish more people would visit the Museum at Mathura.

We were prepared to be disillusioned by the Deeg Palace which has been neglected and “falling apart” for years. The last time I was there we had to contend with a number of bats and their sharp unpleasant odour.
But I was pleasantly surprised to find grounds and buildings in a fairly good shape, if a bit unwashed and dusty! Bats were gone. The maharani’s Mysore teakwood furniture (part of her dowry) was faded and out-dated, the stuffed tigress in her glass cage too seemed to have aged with time! There was little magical about it this time, and, as expected, childhood images crumbled into the dry fountain ‘pools’.. But the sun shone on beautiful arches and battlements and I had visions of renovating this place into a popular tourist destination.Hopefully the Rajasthan government and the archaelogical survey of India will have some plan to do this.The only sad sight was the litter of plastic, and paper floating on green slime in the once beautiful tank.(Modi should ask his Chief Minister of Rajasthan to get busy with some cleaning up!)

Arriving at the National park, we were surprised by a thunderstorm and hail as we arrived – we sat in the car with the loud clatter of hailstones the size of marbles, wondering if they could break our windshield! Soon the ground was covered with hailstones, – and just as quickly as it started the rain stopped, and we could get out.
We found cars are not allowed inside, so we took out our bags from the car and climbed into cycle rickshaws and were pedaled to our hotel, about 1.5 km inside the forest. The rickshaw –wallahs are all expert bird watchers and as we pedaled along they pointed out various birds including too lovely little owlets snoozing on a branch by the roadside. The vivid colours of the brown-breasted kingfisher will remain etched in my memory of that morning.
Early morning, and late afternoon of the next day we went by rickshaw on three hour bird watching expeditions into the forest, saw water birds – cormorants, painted storks, ibis, and cranes – some animals (antelope and sambar )– and many many varieties of birds too numerous to list here, but what a joy to see the diversity of birdlife amidst the green of the trees and bushes. The previous day’s rain had refreshed birds, animals and insect life, and every species was busy with the business of feeding and looking after their young ones. There was so much to observe and learn.
That evening we had a birthday celebration with champagne that had cooled nicely in the refrigerator. The hotel was most solicitous in giving us whatever we wanted, and served a birthday dinner in our room with the chef’s fish curry – he being a Bengali said it was his best recipe.
(We had expected to observe a full lunar eclipse (announced by NASA) – but it turned out NASA had intended the announcement for the people in the US because it was not visible for us during our daylight hours.
Late in the evening we were surprised by the arrival of a birthday cake! Vini had asked the driver to buy a cake for me. The driver, of course, could not deliver it, so he gave it to a rickshaw-wallah to deliver at the hotel. The next morning, when we checked out and got into rickshaws with our bags, the rickshaw-wallahs surprised me with a Happy Birthday greeting!
We said our last goodbyes to the owlets and the peacocks, as we set off for home, three old birds flying free.

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It was September 2013 and the post monsoon humidity was high. The air conditioner was still a blessing even though the summer was officially over and the temperatures lower. Not only did it reduce the sweat, the cool air discouraged the mosquitoes. Comfortable in bed reading my book I was startled by a loud noise as the air conditioner’s purr was shattered by a loud clatter. I jumped out of bed and shut it off and pondered sadly that this was surely the death rattle of an old friend.
I had bought the machine in 1980, a beautiful Westinghouse window model from an Embassy official who was leaving India. He had hardly used it for two years, and I was delighted to enjoy the luxury of a cool bedroom during the Delhi summers.

I looked at the battered old thing, its grill rakishly askew, dials dull with age. It had been serviced regularly and repaired at least half a dozen times. Get a new one? At my age? Well maybe I could use a new one, and maybe I will live another ten years?!!

The next morning I sent for my old electrician friend Ishwar Das. He has a friend Ram Singh who specializes in Ac’s and has taken care of this old machine with great admiration and loving care. “You don’t get compressors like this any more,” he always said, “this is a foreign one. Will last you for years…:

On this visit though, he opened it up and looked at it sadly as he pulled out the fan, one blade of which was broken. “This is a good machine, but an old one and one can’t get these parts any more” he said, shaking his head. The two friends looked at each other, talking in a low voice. Then Ram and Ishwar, being of one mind, pronounced : “You don’t need an Ac until next summer. We will look around and see if we can find a fan from an old Westinghouse AC.”
“Take it away and sell it to a kabadi for scrap’” I said, heartless and yearning for one of those new fancy ones that Murti advertises. to pamper his father-in-law, in dry Delhi or humid Chennai.

Without answering me, the two men lift the heavy machine and fit it into the window, and leave it there, promising to return until they could blow life into it, – or until scrap do us part.
* * * * *
It is spring 2014 and the airconditioner is still Westing in the House.

I was on a car trip with friends through the Punjab. The mustard fields were in bloom a bright yellow, and the sunshine mild. We stopped at a small village dhaba to get a cup of tea. Suddenly I saw a strange contraption drive up and stop in front of the shop. It looked like a vehicle that had been put together by a committee,– its wheels were from motor bikes, its seats from an old jeep, the engine was probably from a tractor. The driver sat on a high seat while the family sat comfortably on lower seats, the “trunk” was full of farm produce like the back of a pick up truck. We admired the creativity of the driver who had put this together by joining parts of several vehicles. He grinned and said it was his JUGAAD. The teastall vendor smiled and told us there are many similar “motor vehicles” in the villages. They were used mainly for transporting goods to the market, and sometimes the family went to the nearest town to buy necessities. They were registered as motor vehicles and operated on diesel.
Later I learnt that the word Jugaad had come to be a part of normal Punjabi vocabulary.
If things don’t work, then use your ingenuity to put things together to get your work done! That is Jugaad. It was usually used in the context of mechanised things, but soon it came to denote “fixing” by operators who will get your work done for you through Jugaad!! You just need to make the right connection.

It is May and I decide to go on a short holiday to Europe. I asked Ishwar Das when he was going to sell my broken AC. He suggested that since I was going away and would lock the bedroom, perhaps he better take out the machine and leave it on the verandah.
I agreed and the square hole in the window was boarded up with a piece of plastic sheet taped into place.
It was foolish on my part to return to Delhi in May after the delightful spring weather in Europe. The day after I returned, at 4 pm the sky suddenly turned dark as night. I tell Raj that a storm is expected and we should lock all the doors and windows. Hardly had we done so the storm breaks and with a loud crashing of trees., banging of doors , gusts of wind blow sand in through the Westing-Hole-in-the Wall. I scream, and try to ‘batten the hatches’, putting my weight against the plastic sheet that had blown away, to hold it down and block the wind. After what seemed ages, the wind died down a bit and we are able to move some heavy boxes against the window and cover the hole..

Upset, I complained to Ishwar Das the next day that thanks to him I had a non-functional air conditioner and a sand- filled chaotic mess in my bedroom. He looked at me expressionless and said he would talk to Ram Singh.
The next morning Ram Singh came in – as expressionless as Ishwar, but the muscles of his face tight, his lips compressed with determination.
”What will you do?” I asked irritably..
“I will fix it with Jugaad” he said.
I watched, bewildered first, then unbelieving.
He held up a fan. He had found it in the junk shop, he said.
In half an hour we had a Jugaad. The fan did fit, it did blow in air.
It did cool my room. I had a Jugaad AC. Relieved, grateful, I thanked him and
asked him his charges : Rs. 700 for the fan, and Rs. 500 Labour charges!.
The cheapest organ transplant in non-medical history.

This is the hottest week in Delhi. Record temperatures of 46 degreesC
But I will survive the summer with Jugaad.

PS The old broken fan is ‘westing’ in my garage, in case Ram Singh needs it for a Jugaad somewhere else.

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Perfect days in Provence

A perfect Sunday in Provence May 25
(Trying to get the pictures inserted!)

The Cathedral at Marseille

On Sunday Krishna had planned a family day visiting the calanques near Marseille. These are inlets in the sea like small fjords amidst tall cliffs where a boat takes tourists and is a popular outing which we were all looking forward to. But when we reached Cassis the small port from where the boats leave we were informed there were not enough passengers and their boat would not make any trips till the afternoon. It is not yet tourist season and there were certainly no tourists other than our family. Disappointed, we turned around and headed for Marseille. This turned out to be an excellent idea. We headed for the newly opened Museum of the Mediterranean, where there are exhibits from the countries that rim the sea. The most impressive was the collection of bronze artifacts on display from Morocco, Libya and some parts of Egypt. These remarkable pieces date to the period between 2nd century BC and 2nd Century AD from Volubilis. The bronzes were probably not actually made there but brought from other regions of the Roman Empire and made from Greek artistic models.
Volubilis was the seat of King Juba of Mauretania, who married Cleopatra Selene, daughter of the great Cleopatra and Marc Antony..
In the culture section there were displays of masks and traditional carnival celebrations from different countries.

We walked across the plaza to the cathedral which is an impressive example of
Byzantine/Roman style of architecture built in the early 19th century near the site of the old Cathedral of the 12th century. I was fascinated by the arches and tried to take a good picture to show the construction, to the new architect in the family – Nandita!

Last day, but yet another perfect one in Provence — May27th

The only shopping I wanted to do in Provence was to buy cheese! So we put it off till the last day and Priya took me to Carrefour – a large yawning Mall full of everything one would want – Priya wanted things for the household, and I spent the time looking at the cheeses. To our surprise we found Cheddar in addition to the French varieties, sheep and goat cheese, and my favorite ripe Rocquefort.

On the way back home we made a detour as Priya wanted to take me to St. Maximin and the Basilica of Mary Magdalene. Although the large monastery can be seen from afar dominating the skyline of the village of St. Maximin la Sainte Baume, it is not a very striking building from outside, having been sacked by the Huguenots and later rebuilt by Charles of Anjou nephew of Louis IV.
Anjou discovered the remains of Mary Magdalen in a sarcophagus in the crypt. There was some dispute because in a church in Vezelay in the north of France the priests claim they have the remains of Mary Magdalen. But Charles Anjou verified that the remains in St. Maximin were indeed those of Mary Magdalen. Soon the Basilica at St. Maximin became a centre of pilgrimage and many miracles were attributed to the grace of Mary Magdalen whose skull and other remains are in the sarcophagus along with those of Sr. Maximin and other followers of Jesus. It is said a group of them fled in a boat without sail or rudders and miraculously landed safely on the coast near Marseille. St Maximin, a blind disciple of Jesus along with Mary Magdalen and several others were in the group who fled to the coast of France. The town is named Sainte Baume after a nearby mountain, where Mary Magdalen is said to have lived and died. (Baume in Provencal means Cave)
The monastery is now a hotel and restaurant. The church was rebuilt by Charles Anjou King of Naples but never finished because construction stopped with the Black Death in 1348 which killed nearly half the population. The front face of the church remains unfinished to this day.

We were fortunate that when we entered the church, looking up with awe at the soaring arches, a young soprano in the organ loft was practicing for a recital and we heard her sing accompanied by the organ which dominates the south side of the church. The clear notes rose to the high arched ceiling in beautiful resonating cadences that left me overwhelmed as the music wafted and died away.
It was totally serendipitous and indeed a memorable “concert”

It is interesting that parts of the movie DA VINCI CODE were filmed in this church and monastery!

After our visit Priya and I had lunch at a little café across the street from the church.
As we drove back home through the vineyards we stopped at a domaine to buy some bottles of the local wine.

My departure on the 28th was as smooth and comfortable and stress-free as my outward flight from India. Krishna dropped me off at Marseille airport, which was quiet and empty. I was sad to leave. As I wrote to most of my friends and family it was the most flawless, perfect holiday I have had, doubtless due to the love and caring of Krishna, Priya and family. Vacations should be like this – where the mind is rested and the spirit healed.

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A Perfect Day in Provence Part IV

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It is Friday and Krishna took the day off to show me around the Côte d’Azur. Priya takes painting classes on Fridays with an elderly woman artist in Aix. The children have school but Aditya was bringing home a friend … Continue reading

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