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Happiness

Growing up with Mother Goose and Old MacDonald ( I went to nursery school in an era when the Happy Meal serving MacD was yet to appear on the urban landscape) poetry recitation class was a series of rhymes being churned out one after another beginning with a tea pot that poured tea out and reaching a crescendo with the entire kindergarten group clapping their hands in unison to the beat of When you are Happy and You Know It.

This summer I walked into a book store  in Mussoorie to find a hardbound green pocket book by Ruskin Bond entitled Little Book of  Happiness. Placed on my bedside now the book runs like a thread of tiny quotes on happiness in Bond’s inimitable style.

“Happiness is as elusive as a butterfly, and you must never pursue it. If you stay very still, it may come and settle on your hand. But only briefly. Savour those moments, for they will not come in your way very often.”
Ruskin Bond

When I think of it, happiness is not that elusive once you start to savour the brief moments.

The bliss and warmth of sleeping in the mellow winter sun

the hint of cardamom and ginger as you wrap your fingers over your morning cup of tea

freshly washed sheets when you slip in between the covers

a walk in the mountains through the mist with the mountain breeze on your face and the whisper of pines in your ears

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a good book to curl up with on a rainy afternoon  

the Dachshunds flopping by my side after an exhausting evening of chasing each other and then nuzzling for comfort

a plate of exquisitely spiced fragrant home made biryani laced with saffron and the love that maa put into it

memories 

the first litchis of the season

long conversations with old friends the kind that stretch late into the night and you end up wondering where the time went

finding that perfect moment and capturing it in a photograph

an old song with a haunting melody

fresh blooms in the garden 

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Life for me has been about seizing happiness from between the moments of trial and tears by snatching these little joys – savouring them ,holding on to the after taste even when the moments have gone by.  As Pema Chodron said,” Rejoicing in ordinary things is not sentimental or trite. It actually takes guts. Each time we drop our complaints and allow everyday good fortune to inspire us, we enter the warrior’s world “

Of course there are the other moments as well…when I overcome the nagging fears of the unknown , the worries ,the gnawing knots in the stomach and go beyond them – the tiny successes that come when you jump off that cliff of constant fear and slowly inch towards the dream that you carved out for yourself. For it is only when you quit folding yourself into a pre-conceived shape – when you get out of the amniotic sac of comfort while knowing that perhaps sometimes things take a little while to fall into their own- it is when you celebrate the tiny highs that you can get past the inevitable lows.  Of course one can never have eternal happy- the proverbial roller coaster of life shows you the  dizzy euphoric highs and the crummy miserable lows. But eventually when the calendar flips, if you keep the zest for life,if you can grab joy in the small moments, maybe occasionally even clap your hands and stamp your feet as the rhyme went-  that is when you can find happiness.

This post is a part of Write Over the Weekend, an initiative for Indian Bloggers by BlogAdda.’

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Serenity and Happiness – The View from Dalai Hills

News reports and weather apps reported a monstrous summer below in the plains. Daunting prospects as we prepared to rejoin duties in sweltering climes after a brief memorable hiatus in the form of the Mid Career Training at the Academy in Mussoorie. April had been a pleasurable month both in terms of the inputs for Mid- Career correction offered by the course as well as the attempts at mid-riff correction attempted by the over-zealous ( and over flabby) amongst us who conscientiously puffed and panted down to the Happy Valley grounds at dawn earnestly beseeching the layers of adipose secretly hoping for a meltdown. After 10 years on the job the four week stint at the academy had been a refreshing change.

One morning as I wheezed my way for the customary run( walk?trot? crawl?) to the PT grounds ( innocuously called Happy Valley Grounds and as every probationer who has developed sprains and strains on each shrill call of the drill instructors whistle will tell you Happy is not an emotion associated with the said grounds) R and S were beaming with an idea. ” Let’s walk down to the Dalai Hills.”

Interestingly having spent around a year plus at the academy during the initial training days and having explored around it, I had never ventured towards the Dalai Hills. During the day one could see prayer flags fluttering in the distance and signboards pointed towards the Tibetan school but we had never really been there. In 1959 when the Dalai Lama escaped from Lhasa he found asylum in Mussoorie right here in the Happy Valley and a Tibetan school, temple and settlement came up here. Later His Holiness moved to Dharamshala but the monastery and some Tibetans made this their permanent home. The Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration overlooks the Happy Valley.

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The Academy in the distance

We walked past the new gymnasium, few shops and houses our pace quick enjoying the sharp chill of the  omnipresent mountain breeze as it fanned our faces.  Enroute a sleepy brown haired mountain dog raised an eyelid as it looked at us -undisturbed. We walked past prayer flags and down a winding concrete path under a gate that read Shedup Choepelling Temple. The temple offered a breathtaking view of the valley below- lush and vibrant after the rains the previous day. An old monk walked slowly in the courtyard in front of the temple , his wrinkled fingers wrapped around brown beads that hung from his hand, his lips murmuring gentle prayers as he shuffled. Tall deodar trees flanked the monastery standing guard to the ornate prayer wheels that creaked slowly. We entered the temple charmed by the vivid murals and colourful paintings on the wall. An instant calm and sense of tranquillity hits you inside the temple. Red cushions lay spread out in front of red wooden benches that were lined with books of prayer and incantation- signs of an early morning prayer that had probably just finished. In front of us a was huge statue of the Buddha surrounded by flickering lamps. The statue exuded peace and all four of us stood spell-bound.

As we stepped out we were greeted by the chatter of cherubic little kids in navy sweaters walking hand in hand around the temple being ably guided by a young boy and girl possibly their teachers. A few minutes of coaxing and the lure of S’s selfie stick and they were soon posing for pictures -coy smiles from the girls and mischievous victory signs from the boys as they huddled to get into the frame.

Merry giggles rose into the raw morning as S showed them the results of the photographs clicked. The simplicity and contentment of their lives was visible in their eyes and the sheer thrill they found in peering into the phone screen of a stranger’s phone. We waved our good-byes and headed westward beginning our ascent to the Dalai Hill top. The meandering path took us past the settlement ,a tiny tea shop, a few more sleepy mountain pariah dogs and a young girl wearing a bright sweatshirt deep in prayer that she was reading out from her mobile phone.

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The path up to the statue

As I panted up the steep climb I found myself being engulfed by the slow rhythm of the place. Prayer flags lined the path and the valley below. Each little curve offered new vistas- an unhindered view of the Hathipaon mountains on one side and the Kempty valley on the other. Prayer flags fluttered and whispered strains into the wind as the sun grew warmer forming a bright orange ball breaking out of the clouds as we climbed.

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The sun breaking out of the clouds

Daisies and wildflowers grew alongside the path sheltered from the winds by rocks and bushes. A shiny ,bronze Buddha stared down at us peeping through the maze of prayer flags as we faltered and panted up the hill.

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We entered through a revolving gate one at a time finally up the craggy spine of the Dalai hill. An air of calm exuded from the Buddha statue as it sat there on the platform overlooking the valley below. A few sparrows pecked on the ground unperturbed by our presence even as a Mynah and whistling thrush laughed and rent the air with their sonorous songs. It was almost like time had stopped still here- creating a Zen like atmosphere- unfettered, undisturbed.

A monkey made its way up the railing along the path paying scant attention to the four girls who stood there. As if by magic an emaciated cat appeared from behind the platform, making its way towards the new entrant. They cast steely glances at each other neither too keen to make the first move. Then slowly an uncanny friendship developed- maybe the serenity imbued in this place had its effect on all creatures- great and small.

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An odd friendship

Some how up there in the quiet, tranquillity the multiple divergent threads of my life gave way to the tempered calm of a Zen monk. Grudgingly we began our walk back – classes, routine and the rest of the day beckoned. She was still there, reciting her prayers , the young girl we saw as we made our way up. This time she looked up and smiled at us and even helped us past one of the mountain dogs which had now woken up and looked rather intrigued by our presence! A few boys from the Tibetan settlement met us on our way down smiling and waving at us as we laboured down the narrow path. It seemed that the Happy Valley is aptly named- most people here radiate happiness- despite their circumstances.

As I walked into class for the penultimate day of the course I wondered what it was about prayer flags and Buddha statues that constantly drew me to them. The chant Om Ma Ni Pe Me Hung reverberated in my head through the day. I had read the lines by the Carribean poet Amie d Cesaore sometime back.

Hurray for those who never invented anything
Hurray for those who never explored anything
Hurray for those who never conquered anything
But who, in awe , give themselves up to the essence of things
Ignorant of the shell , but seized by the rhythm of things
Not intent on conquest ,but playing the play of the world

It seemed to me that day it would be wonderful if we could just give ourselves up to the essence of things- seized by the rhythm of things, not intent on conquest.

A day later the course was wrapped up and I rejoined work in the sweltering plains, but that moment of serenity , the cool breeze and the smiles of the Tibetan children stayed with me long after.

Far from Home

He sat slouched in his chair ,his legs stretched out before him ,one foot on top of the other wrapped warmly in wooly socks. His wizened hands  lay on his stomach  his fingers interlocked ,wrinkles glowing in the mellow Dehradun winter sun. Near him stood a rickety old table with a bright blue tablecloth  with red roses in a neat delicate cross-stich pattern  the handiwork of my grandmother that bore the weight of the activity for the morning. On it were the day’s newspaper folded  which lay beneath the dark black spectacles, a bright blue box of cigarettes,  a matchbox and his patent grey woolen cap. His grey hair was messy indicating he had just taken his cap off. He hadn’t noticed me walk in ,nor heard the clanging of the iron gate as I unhooked it from its creaky hinge. The black cigarette case was missing today I thought to myself reminded of its magical ability to pop out a cigarette with a  gentle press from my grandfather. His head  was slightly bent,the eyes seemed fixated on the bushes in the rambling garden or beyond at the maze of dark litchi trees in the distance.

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“Hullo Nanu”, I called out to him and he slowly turned breaking into a warm toothless smile that I was all too familiar with. His arms stretched out for the grandfatherly hug and I reached out to hug him inhaling the potpourri of cigarette , Palmolive shaving cream and the CSD bought hair oil that he had used.

“How are you beta ji?” he asked as I sank into the light brown cushion on the chair next to him. An all too familiar sight of pickle jars had been lined up in the sun indicating that my grandmother had been at work. Some things were a constant at my grandparents place.

“How have you been?” I asked my faced scrunching up at the sun’s rays falling into my eyes. As I shifted the chair into the shadow of the chakotra tree that we had spent many summer holidays climbing and falling out of, he sank back into the chair and the reverie I had found him in.

“I was reminded of my days in Wazirabad this morning” he said looking back into the bushes. I hugged my jacket closer as a cold breeze from the snow clad Mussoorie hills blew towards us ,he seemed oblivious, his eyes having developed a shine as he transported me into the tale that all his children and grandchildren had grown up hearing. Words I was familiar with and some that I had forgotten tumbled around me like gentle waves in a sea – the story of the man who clung on to the memories of Pre-partition India. I squinted at him, the glow from the sun getting into my eyes as he looked beyond me into the bright blue Dehradun winter sky with its fluffy clouds that had snowed down in the mountains a day earlier. “Was Wazirabad this cold too?” I ventured to ask, knowing I was in for  lesson in Geography.

He paused shaken out of his musing and reached out for his cigarette pack slowly.  His movements were languid and un-hurried those of a man whom age and time had slowed down. As he struck the match and held the cigarette between his lips I noticed how he sank back into the chair almost willing himself to travel back in time. The thin transparent plastic film he had ripped off the cigarette packet fluttered in the breeze. He took a long drag ,blew out a cloud of smoke and spoke ,each word emphasizing the thought and memory that he had willed it out of. It was cold, but perhaps not so much in Gujranwalla and Wazirabad, it used to be colder in  Abbotabad and Srinagar, he said. His words formed an imagery before my teenage eyes and each one of the places he had lived in sprang to life right there under that tree and in the golden winter sun. He spoke of the timber trade ,his travels to the mountains, his English professors in Gordon college  ,the Chenab and Jhelum , rivers that had meandered through the cities he grew up in. His eyes lit up with pride each time he spoke of his grandfather, the Rai Bahadur or magistrate. Once more he had transported himself into the time and place that he called home.

The words raced out of his mind and memory hurtling over the 50 years that had gone by in between. It seemed like time had stood still , the intermittent years a dull haze in his mind. Home was always on the banks of the Jhelum and Chenab; rivers he left behind to settle in this town that lay between the Ganga and Yamuna. How strange it was; for me his grand-daughter for whom the chakotra tree under which we sat was home. Yet at that moment as the words tumbled out of his memory I realized that his home was far away-in the mists of Kashmir and beneath the trees that lined the Chenab.

Written for Word Press Daily Prompts. The prompt for today is Far from Home

Lives Less Ordinary :What I learnt from my Grandparents

“You know the Greeks didn’t write obituaries, they only asked one question after a man died, ‘Did he have passion?’” A weekend movie marathon led me to ponder over this line from the film Serendipity. It led me to think of obituaries and passion and what passion means in life. When it comes to the factual accuracy of Greek and obituaries I cannot really be sure, but what is certain is that the presence of passion implies living life to the fullest. Passion does not arrive like a sudden downpour seeping all over you, or a flash-flood imbuing in you a sense of vitality. Instead it develops slowly, steadily, breathing life into you and imparting a new dimension to your being or existence.

 I never really realized that two of the most passionate people I have encountered in my life were my grandparents, my Nani and Nanu- two absolutely different people in habit and outlook but with one thing common between them, a raging fire of passion for life, zest for living if you will and two people who spent every second of their lives experiencing its richness and spreading that zest to every person they encountered. From them I have learnt that life is not about just being it is about living –celebrating the highs and shrinking the lows.

 I remember my grandmother as a short, frail lady, wrinkled and bespectacled, her frame shrunk with time, given her medical ailments especially a long severe battle with asthama. Nani’s was once beautiful, and the family still spoke of the days when as a young girl she was everyone’s favourite and admired for her beauty. Aging sepia pictures in the drawing room endorsed the claim. From her I have learnt that kindness is all encompassing. Once as a child, I happened to visit her with my mother while she was admitted in hospital on one of her many trips to the hospital in a later years as she and her many ailments fought a long prolonged battle. We found her, intravenous tube inserted in a limp arm, bent over, with her supply of IV fluid by her side, gently speaking to another lady admitted in the hospital with a broken hip bone. My mother was almost beside herself, quickly huddling Nani back to bed, admonishing her in the manner only a daughter wracked with worry can. Nani was calm and smiling, unfazed by the fact that she had just come out of intensive care and the list of extremely ill people that the Doctors had been concerned about. The lady with a broken hip was in pain, and she simply had to go over and offer a word of comfort. That was my grandmother-someone for whom kindness was a way of life.

Nani’s house was over-run with visitors always. Young girls, friends of her daughters dropping in for a cup of tea, a neighbor with marital issues she needed some advice on , friends in the town, a motley group of people who would crowd into the living room sipping endless cups of tea engaging in banter with my grandfather and rolling in laughter at his tales and anecdotes.

From Nani I have learnt what giving freely of yourself means , that giving of your time, a comforting word here ,generosity of spirit are qualities that endear you to people and live on long after you have passed away. Even today I meet with people who recall her warmth, gentleness, concern and limitless compassion. Nani loved to knit and almost all my memories of her include a pair of knitting needles between her hands, her soft conversation peppered with the clicking of the needles as she knitted. Almost all the children born to family members, neighbours, friends in fact any newborn in the locality spent their early winters clad in the warmth of a cap, shawl or sweater knitted by my grandmother.

Nani was a cook par excellence. Even today if I close my eyes I can almost taste the spicy sweet tang of her cauliflower and carrot pickle in my mouth and the explosion of flavours in my mouth as I crunched through a piece of carrot. Meal times at my grandparents home were about celebrating food and sharing. Nanu cooked too, patiently standing over the pot in which his own brand of lamb curry bubbled and simmered, exquisitely spiced, the fragrance of slow cooked mutton wafting over the house. Everyone was welcome home for a meal, anytime of the day any day.  In their warmth and generosity they never failed to include the not-so-fortunate.

From my grandparents I have learnt that to move on means truly that. My grandparents came across to India post partition, having left behind homes, possessions, friends and an entire way of life. To start afresh in a new city bearing no grudges and carrying with them no malice, no feeling of resentment, no emotional baggage except a collection of fond memories and endless hope despite the messy imperfection of life, takes a kind of courage that I often find difficult to muster up even when faced with much smaller stresses. In the case of my grandparents the emotional and physical struggle with facing the upheaval and anguish of partition almost engendered in them a sense of gratitude. A sense of gratitude that permeated every action of the rest of their life and made them seek joy in every single moment they were alive without an emotional landscape scarred by the trauma wrecked on them in the early years of their existence. This probably is a lesson that I have found the hardest to learn, all too often being weighed down by lesser and more insignificant stresses.

My grandfather was almost a tableau of anecdotes and stories, stories that we as grandchildren spent many a hot summer afternoon reveling in, as he would gaze into the distance, take long drags from the cigarette hanging between his fingers, sip his tea and narrate with the fervor of a professional raconteur. He could talk about world wars and world leaders and take us from Tashkent to Tiananmen. His tales would transport us to the apple orchards of the Kashmir valley, the streets of Lahore and the peaks of Pahlgam. Each one of his stories was like peeling one layer of paint after another. And another and yet another ad infinitum. There was a sense of longing for the places and time he had left behind yet that did not stop him from celebrating the now he lived in.

 From my grandfather I have learnt that there is no age to stop learning. To follow your curiosity. He could be found nose buried in a book or newspaper reading everything he could lay his hands on- from stories of Bollywood starlets to treatise on galaxies and constellations. For us grandchildren he was a font of information, pointing out the stars in the skies and being the encyclopedia on any topic that interested us. One of his favourite people was the neighbourhood kabariwallah– from whom Nanu would forage old books and magazines and read them savouring every word. His overwhelming curiosity about everything in the present and his daily need to celebrate life made him very popular with the children in the neighbourhood and my grandparents were famous baby-sitters as well.

Every year he would take the grandchildren and a whole host of other hopeful children to the Dehradun Parade Ground to watch Ravana go up in flames on Dusherra. He would walk back home, child in each hand with a prized balloon or two narrating the Ramayana story year after year- neither he nor the children seemed to get tired of the narrative.

My grandparents were obsessively and compulsively in love with each other. She was a college lecturer in her days and he was young Casanova. They met and fell in love with each other and stayed in love with passion that is uncommon these days. For us grandchildren, it was quite amusing watching them bicker about daily chores and events-they would insist on calling each other Darling even while telling the other one off as we watched and giggled! Long after the children left home post marriages and to follow their careers the two of them never complained of being lonely. Content in each other’s affection, always in love the two never ran out of conversation. They would be impeccably turned out, Nani in her beautifully tied saris, her hair neatly in a bun at the nape of her neck, an embroidered handkerchief in her hand and Nanu with his creaseless shirts and polished shoes. Nani’s greatest concern when admitted in hospital perhaps was not so much the endless supply of drugs being pumped into her as much as having disheveled hair-something she was would be most upset about.

My grandparents lived a life less ordinary- a life that comprised of rejoicing in the ordinary things- a new flower bud on a plant gently tended to or a festival celebrated by sharing food and joy. I never recall them having a negative thought or word for anyone, their lives enlivened with pragmatism, positivity, infinite patience and boundless optimism. They did not just survive their stresses or deal with them; they used them to give shape to their lives-lives of passion, of contentment, of kindness and gentleness, of gratitude and inexhaustible hope.

The Miracle of Faith

I watched the patch of moisture on the glass window of the SUV reach outward as I exhaled onto it, my nose pressed against the window, eyes firmly set on the icy, razor back peak beyond. We were at Khardung La, 18,370 feet above sea level, the highest motorable
(if it can be called that!) road in the world. Bone chilling winds penetrated into the jacket I huddled into as we stepped out into the rarefied air taking in the view around. Clear blue skies above, barren brown snow capped  ranges glistening in the morning sun and the road lined with loose rock and melted snow. After an arduous drive from Leh at 11,000 feet the cup of steaming hot lemon tea and bowl of watery maggi was welcome. A bright yellow board swathed in colourful prayer flags welcomed us to the highest point in the world along with a warning, not to stay beyond thirty minutes. Rows and rows of faded colourful prayer flags fluttered against miles of stark white snow. Nature in all her fury and beauty both apparent here and the faith of the Ladhakis in a higher omnipresent power apparent in the infinite number of prayer flags strung between peaks and all around this little pass which is also an army outpost.

Between sips of reinvigorating lemon tea I stared at the prayer flags, arranged from left to right blue, white, red, green, and yellow representing the five elements. Horizontal prayer flags (Lung Ta) connected along their top edges to a long string hung from high to low between rocks were visible all across. Tibetans believe that prayer flags spread goodness, prayer, mantras and blessings to all as the wind that passes over them spreads it into the universe. To me as I struggled to keep out the cold winds from entering my bones and the nausea that was inevitable at that height, the prayer flags symbolized an uncanny faith of the people in a higher power even in this perilous terrain.

Memories of the trip across Khardung La’s treacherous slopes and the fluttering prayer flags resurfaced while driving along miles of common grassland in Bikaner. This grassland- gochar or grazing lands belongs to the famous Karni Mata Temple Deshnok. Dotted with scrub vegetation, ber and khejri trees the grasslands extend for miles into the horizon, blurring the distance between heaven and earth. During the months of October and November, devotees who throng the renowned temple perform a parikrama here where in they offer their prayers and tie red cloth onto the ber and khejri trees. Red chunaris, scarves even bangles dot the barren landscape tied onto a tree ,a prayer on the lips of the devotees mostly women who walk for miles from their villages across Rajasthan to get here, their resilient faith enabling them to undertake this strenuous walk.

Legends and myths abound across the sands of the Thar and those surrounding the Karni Temple have remained popular in local folklore as well. What sets this temple apart from others in the country is the fact that thousands of rats live and are worshipped here. That alone makes it a fascinating place for tourists both Indian and International to visit. The temple is dedicated to Goddess Karni, who is regarded as a reincarnation of  Durga, the Goddess of power and victory. Legend has it that the descendants of Karni Mata are reincarnated as rats more popularly known as kabbas. Karni Mata is believed to have lived here and performed several miracles during her time in the 14th century.

The temple was created after her mysterious disappearance from Deshnok and completed in the Mughal style in the 20th century by Maharaja Ganga Singh ji of Bikaner. White marble walls with fine engravings make up the temple fascade. Two massive exquisitely carved silver doors were donated by a devotee and at the entrance a carved marble lion sculpture sits and looks on at the temple as it bustles with activity all the year through. But it is not for its architecture that this temple has attained so much fame but for the abundance of rats. At first sight it can be overwhelming for someone who comes here for the first time to see the thousands of rats scampering about the temple premises. Most of the rats are black, and the few white ones are considered Holy. Spotting a white one is deemed good luck and if you were to visit the temple and see a group of people crowding in a corner chattering excitedly rest assured a white kabba has been located.

Rituals begin at 4 AM every morning and are performed by a selected group of priests from the Charan community who make up the majority of the population of this small town of Deshnok.  Murky incense spreads through the air as prayers are offered in the main shrine. Kabas wander about undisturbed by the presence of devotees and priests and are venerated and fed by the devotees. As dusk arrives and the evening prayers begin you can spot men and women sitting cross legged on the floor, chanting their prayers, oblivious to the scurrying rats, enlivened with the hope that their prayer to the Goddess will be heard.

On my first visit to the temple, like most people I too could not keep my eyes off the rats as they oscillated between definitive states of action and lifeless inertia in the temple complex. The initial unease at this unique sight is of an ephemeral nature. Over the years the people of Bikaner and across India have developed an unfettered faith in the temple and the Goddess who presides over it. From the historic Maharajas of Bikaner and Jodhpur who worshipped the Goddess to the present day population, this temple presents a unique tapestry of infinite magnificence and incomprehensible trust that the people have for the deity.

Bikaner in all respects is a small town at heart , it’s people are good-natured with infectious warmth draped in absolute conservativeness. For the city, its surrounding villages and the areas around the temple, Karni Mandir is not just a temple that stands out because of the distinctive presence of rats. For them, this temple has been celebrated in timelessness and has been a protector and guardian over generations.

One of the first stories that was narrated to me when I reached Bikaner was one from the 1971 Indo-Pak war. Being cheek and jowl with the Pakistan border, Bikaner was at risk from the constant cross border shelling and air attacks. But the city and district remained safe during the war, a miracle that the people attribute to the beneficence and miraculous power of Karni Mata.

Since this story sounded much like the one surrounding the Tanot Mata temple in Jaisalmer, I was inclined not to pay too much heed to it when I first got posted as District Collector Bikaner.  One night only a few weeks after I had joined the district, a firecracker godown in the heart of the city caught fire.  As I paced up and down the Circuit House corridors that night, uneasy and concerned, alternating between phone calls and instructions hoping against hope that the inevitable casualties could be avoided, a concerned staff member of the Circuit House tried to placate me by narrating an event from 2002.

Army trucks loaded with ammunition for Operation Parakram had caught fire one January afternoon in the cantonment only about half a kilometer from the city. Around 1,000 tonnes of ammunition was reduced to ashes and the sound of explosions had shaken the city with several people still recounting having seen missiles that had fallen around the city. He recalled the panic that had ensued on that day but gently added, “Karni Mata protected the city,like she always does- the damage could have been huge, there were only two casualties. Don’t worry madam- this fire will be put out as well”

That night his narrative for me was like an attempt to offer chamomile tea to a raging bull – I was too perturbed to take heed of what he was saying. But as the fire tenders and officials labored interminably at the site of the firecracker godown, and the fire was put out with no casualties, I found myself marveling at the miraculous escape we had just had. Could his story have been true? Did Karni Mata really protect the city?

That night as I slept my mind was in a kerfuffle -grappling with the overwhelming need to stick to my rational notions and avoid getting into the ocean of inexplicable eccentricities that I thought this small town held. One thing was for sure, faith did over-ride rationality sometimes and possibly this was one more incident.

In May 2014 around 300 labourers in an industrial area in Bikaner, fell ill after consuming contaiminated water. Doctors suspected a cholera outbreak. Around 80 persons were admitted in hospital and more kept pouring in. We set up a temporary clinic in the industrial area and camped there along with other officials and doctors for a few days. We found several dehydrated labourers and the count was going up steadily. Teams worked round the clock ,frenzied activity all around, administering medication, intravenous fluids and checking factories and water samples. The situation was overwhelming to say the least. As dawn broke on the fifth day, a peon in the office, offered solicitous advice, “they will all recover, Karni Mata will take care.” For the second time round I was disinclined to believe what he said, the people lying all around me debilitated by severe dehydration hardly looked like they were on their way to recovery. As far as I was concerned, mostly the peon seemed to have tableaux of anecdotes to narrate, this was more serious stuff. Much to my disbelief and relief, the 300 persons who had taken severely ill began to recover; the unabated efforts of the untiring doctors and medical staff seemed to have paid off. Could it possibly have been a premonition coming true?

Mark Twain defined faith, “as believing what you know ain’t so”. Normally faith and rationality appear to be in conflict divided by some unbridgeable chasm. In Bikaner, however, the Karni Mandir of Deshnok evokes a faith where reason and faith work together seamlessly. Thinkers and philosophers the world over have written reams on the domains governed by faith and reason. For a cynic faith could seem like an occasion to suspend one’s critical faculties, but for the unseen Ladhakis who strung prayer flags across the treacherous Khardung La Pass probably faith gave them the capacity to deal with the exigencies of a hostile environment. For the thousands who throng the Karni Mata temple, faith in its miraculous powers is an orchestration of collective human optimism. For me the implicit faith of the people in the temple is humbling and probably a bedrock for a faith in humanity itself.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Why I am not a son to my parents?

“So you don’t have a brother or a sister?”

If I had a penny for each time I have shrugged my shoulders , shuffled my feet and blown bubbles through a straw into the Gold Spot bottle in my hand, at this question as a child I would have been able to buy personal chalet in Switzerland by now.

As every Army brat worth his/her father’s CSD card will tell you,childhood is about being on the move constantly and consequently making newer friends and smiling at and wishing newer adults. Conversations with adults is a sine qua non if you grow up with your father in the army. Social events, people coming over to welcome you (well-your parents actually) to the new place are commonplace. If you spent a greater part of your childhood in a cantonment you probably have had your head petted a number of times by an avuncular officer and his wife while answering the umpteen questions on “which class-which school-favourite subject and favourite game”. In my case this questionnaire would dissolve at  a defiant”I AM AN ONLY CHILD” reply.

Officers’ wives at the army ladies’ club would pause between scratching out their “two little ducks ; twenty twos” on the  perforated pink and yellow tambola tickets look down their patiently powdered noses at me and then questioningly at my mother as she sipped her drink and looked for her “any line” without a hint of concern at the apparent vacuum in her world. Some older women were more direct in voicing their concern. “you don’t have another child? No  son? Aren’t you planning on doing something about it?”

My parents, my mother in particular was largely unperturbed by the barrage of questions, suggestions and advice that came her way regarding the discernible “lacuna ” in her life created by the presence of only one child-and that too a girl.There was an inherent problem here in the eyes of all the well-meaning people-not only was the family a little incomplete-the greatest void here was the absence of  a son.At times the persistent prying by the ladies would make me get cranky and teary eyed by the time we got home. My mother however, would dismiss all the suggestions of “you-must-have-another-child-but-a-s0n-is-a-must” with a pointed “she is all we need”

As I grew older and was fortunate enough to do well academically and in a competitive exam that enabled me to get into the government, the well-meaning advice to my parents grew into an understanding” oh-it’s-wonderful-your-daughter-has-done-so-well-now-she-is-just-like-the-son-you-never-had”remark. I have often wondered why most people I meet tend to use a son as a benchmark for anything that a child should be.

They love their daughter just like a son.

Their daughter is awesome, they’ve never needed a son.

There is something fundamentally odious about this comparison. Have you ever heard it said for a boy who is an only child- his parents treated him like the daughter they never had?! Laughable isn’t it?

My parents thankfully chose to bring me up without putting me into the pigeon-hole that often comes pre-built for daughters in this country.There were no pink sheets and pink frocks when I was born. Nor was I clothed in blue to be a stand-in for a son who was not there. Instead there were mauve and orange sheets and frills and lace and a kaleidoscope of colours.  In fact my mother chose to dress me in every single colour in the palette. Sunshine yellows, soothing lavender, fuscia pinks, baby blues,creams, whites- my wardrobe was a testimony to all hues and vibrant shades that would make the Asian Paints shade card wince with a feeling of inadequacy. My toy shelf was the same. Cabbage patch dolls and bunny rabbits fought for space with dinky cars and battery operated airplanes. Once when my father arrived home with a set of toy cars for me he was severely admonished by my mother for spoiling me and replied that a friend had been buying toy cars for his son’s birthday so dad had decided to do the same-although my birthday was a few months away. I played with dolls and kitchen sets just as much as I did with lego sets ,board games and doctor sets. Knees were meant to be scraped and holidays were about running races with friends in the morning , cycling in the evening and putting the dolls to bed at night. There were no clear lines between what was meant for the “boys” and what was territorially mine. Friends included boys who also liked playing with my dolls and then  start a spirited game of cricket which ended with everybody aiming the ball at each others shins.

There were no references to what”good girls” do and what normal behaviour for a girl was. What was important was being well-behaved and a good human being. At a social event when her sons cheekily swore and yelled back at their mother as she admonished them for something; the exasperated mother despaired the fact that her son were a little “boisterous”. I  recall her congratulating my mother for having a well-behaved daughter . The praise was peppered with a disclaimer, “girls are not as wild as boys- you are lucky-boys just refuse to listen to parents”. It smacked of an unpalatable explanation for the boys completely obnoxious behaviour. My mother who listened politely and followed it up with “it has nothing to do with her being a girl,I would expect any child of mine to do the same”

Thankfully my parents did not treat me like the son they never had. I am and always have been the daughter they doted on, pampered and were proud of.

I am often asked if I have to work harder to prove myself in a career which is largely male-dominated. My reply is always,”harder than what”. The underlying premise behind this seemingly innocuous statement is the rather loaded stereotype that being a girl places on me, of not being competent enough to get a job done well. Is it possible to be a good officer despite being a girl? Does one need to be more masculine to be taken seriously in organisations that are dominated by men? Do emotions like sensitivity or empathy get taken as a given when the manager/leader is a woman? I don’t think I have all the answers but I have realised in my workplace that there is no point being defensive about my gender. I work for the government. I worked long hours in difficult circumstances and not because I am trying to act or be like a man, but because the professional exigencies of my career call upon me to do so.

During my tenure as District Collector I recall an event when  a group of angry men and women had marched into the water supply office and thrown a pile of bangles at a rather bemused official claiming that he was incapable of resolving their water supply problem. This is actually a common affliction in India. “Chudiyan pehan lo“( go wear bangles) a euphemism for incompetence . After showering the glass bangles on the official, the group came to me as District Collector and requested me to ensure regular water supply in their area. As I wrote out the order for them, the bangles on my own wrist jingled and I pointed out to them the irony of the situation, I was sorting out the water supply problem for them, despite wearing bangles myself!

(Needless to say in the district there were no further attempts at berating officers by throwing bangles at them)

There is much talk of girls equalling the boys, out doing them perhaps, of stereotypes in the media and in our lives , of the tough times girls face in their workplace and out of it. I too am one to post and retweet any and everything on gender equality. In the midst of all that noise I sometimes pause to think and say a mental thank you to my parents for allowing me to be their daughter and not a stand-in or replacement for someone who was never there.

 

 

Reading Lately

Participative Governance in District Administration (Memoirs of Collector Raigarh)

Author : Dr Nipun Vinayak

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  • Pages:164
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 9352072766
  • ISBN-13: 978-9352072767

In an era where cynicism for the system in general and  Indian Administrative  Service (IAS) officers in particular is a pandemic across the country, Dr Nipun Vinayaks’s memoirs of his tenure as District Collector in Raigarh, Maharashtra comes as a breath of fresh air. IAS officers have a penchant for writing their memoirs post retirement, this one  Participative Governance in District Administration has been penned by a serving officer and is a refreshing change as it does not delve into self glorification and instead objectively summarises the issues prevailing in the district. In their foreword the champions of Right to Information Act in India, Aruna Roy and Nikhil Dey describe the author as one of the “exceptional and rare committed officers”and set the tone for what is an extremely perceptive, sensitive and reasoned account of some extremely complex issues before any young administrative officer in the district today.

The author in his role as a district administrator displays a keen power of understanding the issues of the people across sectors and schemes as well as an insight into the workings of administration. His uncanny ability to go into the details, separate the grain from the chaff, understand the mind-set of not just the local people but also of key civil society organisations as well as senior bureaucrats, display exceptional “faith in the wisdom” of the local people make this book a must read for all interested in the working of district administration and present and future district administrators. Nipun Vinayak belongs to that rare breed of officers who have un-learnt several “principles” of bureaucratic administration and projected themselves not as “providers” but as ” facilitators” in the system. He is not wrong when he describes himself as a “social physician and the running motif through the book is that of an administrator willing to reach out to all rungs of society in order to maximise “good” for the people.

As the title suggests the book delves into the subject of Participative Governance across sectors and programmes in not just a theoretical manner, but by illustrating the implementation of the principles of participatory democracy at the  grass root level . Participative Governance is the central thread which runs through the entire book as  the author’s narrative takes words like transparency, accountability and participatory democracy out of the shrouds of conceptual papers  to the citizenry.

The book deals with the extremely challenging and controversial subject of land acquisition under the erstwhile Land Acquisition Act 1984. It also enumerates the experience of the District Collector in implementing programmes and schemes.Right from its inception at the time of  Warren Hastings the post of the District Collector has been the keystone in public administration. Although the bureaucratic and administrative systems have undergone considerable transformation and transition the post of Collector has retained its relevance and significance. As this book illustrates in all its chapters, when a District Collector has courage of conviction, clarity of thought, faith in the principles enshrined in the constitution and democratic processes momentous changes can be made within the existing system as well.

Land is the over riding theme in the book, a greater part of the part of the book deals with the process of land acquisition and resolution of disputes related to land. Land revenue is the pivotal responsibility of district administration  or “revenue administration across the country. Land acquisition has in the last few years become an extremely complex and challenging area for all levels of governance.

In the first part of the book Vinayak illustrates the story what can be called India’s first referendum on land acquisition for the Maha Special Economic Zone (SEZ) for a private company. Much has been written and said about the issues surrounding the land acquisition in Singur (West Bengal), POSCO (Odisha) and Niyamgiri hills (Odisha). The narrative is  a first-hand account of the entire process of reaching out to the affected people of Raigarh and soliciting their opinion on the land acquisition process. Stating  that this referendum will have a far reaching impact on policy makers and legislators who chart out the course of land acquisition in India would be stating the obvious. But for the 71000 people in 45 villages whose land was to be acquired this referendum obviously had life changing impact.Such was the result of the process that eventually the entire process had to be shelved. The book elucidates the details of the process and analyses the methodology adopted as well as the role of the various players in the process. The underlying theme in these chapters are the tremendous possibilities before a sensitive administrator willing to think out-of-the-box and yet stay within the confines of the legal system in order to implement an “unpopular law” while strictly adhering to the principles of natural justice.

In the remaining part of the book the author delves into issues pertaining to land disputes, implementation of the MGNREGA , tribal welfare, relevance of agriculture and importance of simplifying the implementation system through use of e-Governance.

At a  time when legal disputes are growing exponentially and the legal system bursting at its seams with un-decided legal cases the methodology expounded by Vinayak in the chapter on the Tanta Mukti Abhiyan or an alternative dispute resolution system by co-opting local wisdom and synthesising it with  modern day law is exemplary. By demystifying the land revenue laws and involving the entire revenue machinery in the process, this abhiyan exemplifies how the participatory processes can be applied to regulatory framework of administration as well. Through a strategically planned and closely monitored mechanism the author in his role as District Collector was able to demonstrate a system that can have far reaching impact on putting in place a “sustainable people led justice system” as well as working to prevent legislation by freeing the people from the clutches of the grass root revenue machinery by empowering them through a process of educative workshops.

In the chapter on Working with Katkaris ( a tribal group in Maharashtra) the author illustrates how the two acts MGNREGA and the Forest Rights Act can be subverted by an indifferent administrative system as well as implemented effectively by a system which appreciates the spirit behind these acts. As Aruna Roy and Nikhil Dey point out in their foreword, much has been written by economists and civil rights activists on these two acts but very little by those tasked with the actual implementation of these acts. Vinayak’s analysis is therefore an insight into the real issues that crop up before young administrators today. One of the most commonly used reasons for poor implementation of the MGNREGA is the absence of “demand for work”.Through careful planning and working in close co-ordination with civil society organisations, the author was able to get past these administratively created hurdles and use MGNREGA as a means of empowering brick klin workers and the katkaris. What is demonstrated in this chapter is the necessity of changing the “mindset” of administrators before actually undertaking the process of involving people. As collector the author was able to take up the rights of forest dwellers by convincing the lower administrative officials that this was a “God given opportunity to do service”.

Agro-tourism is enunciated in the penultimate chapter.This is probably one of the most striking examples of an administrator marrying his knowledge of newly emerging sectors like tourism with the age old practices of agriculture. Despite the urbanisation and industrialisation, agriculture remains the key to India’s economic development. Vinayak displays a keen insight into the problems of this sector and makes an innovative attempt to find a solution to these problems. By recognising and attempting to learn from local innovators the author highlights the necessity of breaking out of the mindset of finding solutions from the top.

E-Governance is a rapidly expanding sector in India and it is believed that by doing away with human interface at the cutting edges of the administrative system, a lot of corruption and inefficiency can be weeded out. However there is an inherent systemic resistance to e-Governance. In the chapter on e-Governance ,the author goes to the root of the malaise and identifies the reasons for employee apathy. Many a project has failed to deliver effectively because no efforts were made to communicate with, involve and motivate the staff. Vinayak understands that government employees will remain the “face” of the government and no amount of involvement of “consultants” and /or “private” players can replace their relevance and role.
Through the book Vinayak displays extreme humaneness and sensitivity to the needs of the people. He comes across as a pro-active administrator willing to learn at all times from those working at the grass roots as well as in civil society . One of the refreshing aspects of this book is the authors genuine appreciation of government employees and his attempts to involve them in ensuring delivery of services and proper implementation of schemes by creating a “sense of ownership” in them. His sincerity of purpose is apparent in the manner in which the programmes were executed.The book is an optimistic account of a passionate officer who by his own admission used the 3 P approach of participation, partnership and passion in his job as District Collector. It makes for easy reading yet compels the reader to think about the complexities of governance. The leitmotif of the book can be defined by the author himself when he states “passion needs no explanation”. This is indeed a passionate account by an officer driven by passion for his work with the people. A must read for anyone in administration.