October in Dehradun

A week at home turns out to rush by even before you catch it by the tail,almost in a flash there you are looking upwards at the signage on the airport glowing in the setting sun the letters spelling out DEHRADUN, as you climb out of the wobbly ATR and before you know it, you are back in time watch the sunrise out of the hills as you prepare to catch an early morning flight back at the end of the vacation that sped by. October is the best time to be in Dehradun, well-atleast it is close contest with June( the litchis in June,sometimes add an edge to being home in June perhaps). But October has its merits. With the rains receding, the sun comes out to dry out the musty walls (and piles of damp washing that my mother struggles with through the monsoon and extended monsoon that Dehradun is famous for).20160414_180900.jpg

October stands stark,lined with the dregs of the monsoon initially and the mellow sun heralding the onset of winter as the month progress. There is slight briskness to the air early in the morning as the sun begins to shine fearlessly, devoid of the cloud cover that masks it through the previous months. Evenings get longer and pink and peach hues cast their presence across the horizon. It is not time to be swaddled in the scarves , jackets and woolly socks that make up winters in Dehradun, but the nip in the air calls for some extra moments of clingyness with the blanket each morning. 20161011_152519.jpg

Memories of October are laced with smells and sounds just peculiar to October- of paint , of acrid smoke from crackers pre and post Diwali, of chikki in school being prepared just in time for Founders Day, of frentic excitement and a buzz that takes over as the festival season kicks off. October was always about unpacking school blazers and de-tangling Diwali lights, of hot cups of coffee and watching the trellised shadows of yellowing leaves on the walls.

Chrysanthemums jostle with marigold and the city seems cast in a faint yellow glow-of autumn, of the receding monsoon, of the upcoming festivals and of nature about to welcome a cold winter.


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.

A Tryst with Tradition

This write up by me appeared in Arbit , Rashtradoot on 26th July 2016

A day before the Chief Election Commissioner announced the schedule for the Lok Sabha elections in 2009, I received an order that I had been transferred as Sub-Divisional Magistrate (SDM), Beawar from my then posting as SDM Alwar. Since I was not expecting the transfer it came as a bit of a bolt from the blue but as is customary in the service I packed my bags and headed off with a wee bit of trepidation to undertake the new assignment. Beawar, I was told by many solicitous senior officers was going to be unlike my first posting in Alwar, more so because it was an independent sub-division far from the district headquarters and because it presented a number of challenges that no other sub-division in the state did.

Beawar, the name itself presented a legend wrapped in the history of the sub-division, one that made me a feel a sense of dread at the prospect of what lay ahead. Upon reaching the new office, the staff and residents of the city took it upon themselves to educate me on the historical significance of the city of Beawar and where it got its unusual name from.  The region where present day Beawar is located was called Magra-Meawara and was ruled by the fierce Kathat tribes and Rawat Rajputs. Despite the efforts of the British to subdue them, these groups continued to present resistance to the British through their guerrilla warfare techniques. Beawar was of extreme strategic importance to the British located as it was at the tri-junction of the states of Jaipur, Jodhpur and Udaipur. Hence a fortified cantonment was built here by Colonel Charles George Dixon (1795-1857) in 1836. As for the rather distinctive name, the legend goes that the British put warning signs of “Be Aware” around the cantonment as an alert to their officers and men leaving or crossing the cantonment. Slowly from these boards the name Beawar was born.

An impending election looming large ahead of me and the legend of Beawar behind me I had a sense of imminent dread yet attempted to be undaunted and felt quite like Frodo Baggins of The Lord of the Rings as he made his way to Modor. If I believed that the  conducting the Lok Sabha election was the biggest challenge before me as I arrived at Beawar and took over, I was wrong, a bigger challenge awaited, one that the staff and other officers of the Sub-Division were fretting about.  Nine days after I joined the new assignment was the day of the Badshah Holi, an age old tradition in Beawar and for the first time one of the main protagonists of the festivities was going to be a lady officer –me.

The Badshah Mela of Beawar dates back around 150 years and finds its roots in a story of Akbar and one of his nine gems Todarmal.  According to the legend, whilst on a hunting expedition Akbar was captured by some bandits who threatened to kill him. He managed to escape with the assistance of Todarmal and in gratitude granted Todarmal the “Badshahi” (power to be king) for “dhai din” (two and a half days). As the period of his Badshahi came to a close, Todarmal led a procession through the city and threw gems and precious stones from the state treasury into the cheering crowds. Finally the procession ended at the palace where the Emperor Akbar welcomed him. To commemorate this event, the Agarwal community of Beawar joins hands with the sub-divisional administration and celebrates the day after Dhulandi, by re-creating a ceremonial procession complete with a person from the community who is dressed like Todarmal and another from the Brahmin community who is Birbal. In Beawar, the procession culminates at the SDM office. Crowds from the town of Beawar, the surrounding villages and even neighbouring districts like Bhilwara, Pali and Rajsamand stand along the roads , on roof tops as the procession makes its way along the traditional route from Bheruji ka Chowk, through Ajmeri gate and onwards to the SDM office. Todarmal rides on an open truck along with other members of the organizing committee. Birbal in traditional wear dances to the gair a dance performed in Rajasthan around Holi. Both Todarmal and Birbal are selected carefully, physical fortitude and a strong arm to throw colour for hours being a primary pre-requisite. Pink gulal or colour is hurled up in little packets of paper by the team atop the truck and in return the people along the roads and the women and children  on balconies throw pink colour on the procession. In a few minutes after the procession starts the whole environment is a sea of pink. Men and women collect the packets, a sign of good luck and keep them in their lockers as a lucky charm that will bring prosperity all the year through.

As the evening advances, the procession and crowds make their way to the SDM office where the SDM and other officers await their arrival on a specially made stage outside the building. A raging battle of colour ensues between the public, the team on the truck and the administrative officers led by the SDM, each hurling colour at the other. Thereafter, Todarmal and Birbal are led onto the stage where Todarmal presents a “farman” or a directive to the SDM ordering him to take certain steps for the welfare of the city. In return the SDM presents a nazarana to Birbal in the form of a coconut .

When I heard the story, I felt vaguely anxious, facing a crowd of around one lakh people hurling packets of colour on me sounded like a litany of torture. The staff at the office too was in a conundrum, a lady officer had never been at the receiving end of the Badshah tradition. “Would madam want the Tehsildar to stand in for her?” was the query whispered to me by a sympathetic official. However, being eager to banish any misogynistic theories perpetuating patriarchy I was quick to snap back, “of course not!” There was to be no debate or discussion, I was taking up the gauntlet and would stand and receive the procession as was customary.

As D-Day dawned and the rest of the country slept after the Holi frivolities, officials and staff from the municipal board arrived to set up the stage and large halogen lights outside the office. I inspected their work in frenzied anticipation only to be informed by a cheerful official that two years ago the stage had collapsed under the then SDM and his staff as the crowds approached. The thought was unsettling to say the least and I looked on at the pillars and poles under the stage with consternation. A trip into the market was in order as preparations by the Agarwal community began early in the morning. Gallons of thandai were being made in the inner lanes, to be served to the milling crowds. The organizers unaware of my dread seemed infused with transcendent joy as they went about with their preparations for the day. In my office, a small room had been converted into a war room- staff and my orderly sat on the floor squatting between packets of colours, making small packets, their fingers and nails a bright shade of pink. Animated chatter prevailed; everyone seemed to be galvanized with a new vigour and energy in preparation for the evening completely oblivious to my disquietude.

At around four in the evening the procession began slowly weaving its way through the streets. The police bandobast was in place and intermittent messages on the wireless system reported its location.  I sat in my chamber trying to keep my legs which were quivering like a jellyfish by then steady. My orderly Ram Singh made his way into the chamber, with a pair of transparent plastic glasses, much like divers use for deep sea diving, a cap and a pair of plastic gloves. During the course of our training at the Mussoorie Academy, I recalled how during the lecture on law and order management we had been strictly told not to step into any law and order incident without being armed with the necessary paraphernalia – read helmet and jacket. Possibly these glasses and gloves were the requisite battle armaments for this battle. I gratefully took them from the orderly, blessing his sagacity. A little later a head bobbed into the office, wrapped in a yellow cloth, eyes hidden behind a pair of black glasses; it was my Tehsildar, also prepared for battle.

Nightfall approached and the bags with packets of pink colour were carried onto the stage. For the umpteenth time I asked the Junior Engineer to check whether the stage was strongly erected. After what seemed like a geological epoch we began to hear drum beats in the distance as the procession approached. My orderly stepped in quietly and whispered to me, it was time. I stepped out into the open as a crowd of people were marching and dancing into the office compound. In the bright yellow halogen light a mist of pink was visible. My newly acquired battle gear in place on my nose and head, I climbed up the stage along with the team of officials. As I looked on into the crowd, the truck with Todarmal made its way slowly towards the stage, its occupants barely recognizable in the layers of pink. An exhausted looking Birbal continued to dance in front of the truck. The first packet of colour hit me on my leg and dissolved into a heap of pink at my feet signaling the start of the battle. My orderly held out a packet to me and I hurled it out with all the strength my shoulder could accord. Very soon packets of colour were flying in both directions; the stage held out and was soon covered in a layer of pink. It was an experience like no other. The drum beats reached a crescendo and the crowds cheered as packet after packet were hurled between the administration and the public.

At the end an exhausted Todarmal and Birbal were led up the stage with the farmaan. Both the SDM and the stage had survived the exhilarating adventure. As I wiped the colour off myself that night I realized that administration was not just about files and orders. Instead it meant connecting with the people, their traditions, understanding them and being a part of the history of the place. A year later I was still in Beawar, to face yet another unique Badshah Mela.  For the people of Beawar, Badshah is a time honoured tradition, celebrated by the entire town with much energy and joy, all communities and the administration coming together for an unforgettable evening of enthusiasm, harmony and joie de vivre.  For me, it was an insight into the heritage of a unique town where I learnt some valuable lessons on administration.


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.







The Rains are here

One of the first things that struck me about the monsoon in Rajasthan is that in the months from July to September everyone you meet (at least in government)
will talk about it. Whether it is late or early, excessive or short, the damage the rains have wrought by their presence or their absence. As a District Collector one of the super important reports brought to me twice a day morning and evening was the amount of rainfall in the day and I have learnt not just to appreciate rain drops as they roll down the branches of vilayti babul but also to measure in millimetres the true extent and impact they are likely to have in the larger scheme of things. In my first district I was struck in particular by a senior officer (now long retired) who took it upon himself to quiz me every single work related phone call on how much rain the district had seen.

Having been raised in Dehradun where it rains pretty much all the time,I had begun to take the monsoon and the rains for granted.  It is only after all these years of working in Rajasthan that I can truly appreciate the impact of rains in this mostly rain starved region. Despite the water-logging , the traffic jams , the broken electricity poles, the rains bring a sort of calm to this arid region after a scorching summer .

Jodhpur saw its second downpour this season. Much awaited after I had all scanned the skies my hopes rising every morning at the slightest sign of faint fluffy clouds ,mentally imploring all the rain Gods that be to share some of their droplets with us. Almost in response to the combined prayers of Jodhpur the clouds stopped in their onward journey this weekend and exploded in a flurry of rolling thunder and the city was awash with the bounty of the first rains of the monsoon. Zigzag streaks of lightening crossed the grey skies as the rain roared onto the water logged streets and the trees turned liquid ,droplets streaming down the leaves. Perched in the  narrow veranda of the government quarter I drew my toes in as the wind swept a shower of droplets my way. Twiddler was not amused, he tried pawing the shut door to go in and then turned back to glare at me for my insanity. His woof could barely be heard under the thunder, the jangling wind chimes and the wind blowing through the trees. Little rivulets crisscrossed the yard into a giant puddle near the gate and rain drops smashed into the puddle making it a sea of ripples. As the rain stopped a chirping of birds could be heard over the blaring horns of slightly irritable car drivers trying to make their way impatiently through the water logged street.


Growing up in the hills gives you a different feel of the rains. Rains are torrential the sun barely paying a visit in the months of July. In Rajasthan the rains come in bouts yet the landscape bursts into a sea of green just after two rains. It’s funny how a barren, stark expanse of brown can change colour so soon. Trees that shed their leaves to survive the onslaught of a very harsh summer start to break into little bits of green and tiny blades of grass poke their heads out of the sandy road side. Little scrub bushes spring up across the sandy desert and in the Aravallis the rock faces almost disappear behind a veil of green. Peacocks begin to display and dance , a common sight in the villages .

Droplets of water glisten on electric lines glowing in the light of the halogen on the street. An oppressive humidity clung to the air but all is forgiven in the joy that the rain has brought.



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.



Nightly Tales

The black tar top road matches the blackness of the night as the car hurtles down the desolate highway. Dark silhouettes of scrub trees stand silent in the vast expanse of Rajasthan’s landscape. A half-moon casts a pale silvery glow into the car through the window, cleanly divided in the middle, the man in the moon visible partly in the silver light and partly in the dark semi-circle. A faint star flickers in the silver halo of the moon the lone star out tonight.
In the pitch blackness an ocassional light flickers in the horizon , a tiny home in the distance perhaps, flickering like a lone fire fly. Thorny bushes give way to tiny hamlets. School buildings stand dark and quiet waiting for the noise and pattering feet to return in thr morning. A speed breaker and a white metal board it’s paint peeling off point out the exisistence of the school. A tiny lamp gleams behind a metal grill gate guarding the idol in the temple for the night. The pujari and presumably the God in the temple have retited for the night. In a house lit up by a clear white bulb brass utensils gleam telling a tale of an evening meal taken. The hamlet gives way toa limtless expanse of scrub divided in the middle by the road .
Red reflectors on the back of trucks cut through the black night, the only spot of colour  in the blackness. The white  line marking on the road race towards the car almost being swallowed by it as the driver accelerates ahead of the gigantic trucks. We whizz past a bus, most passengers are aleep their heads resting againt the glass panes rolling ocassionally. Save one little girl.She has her nose pasted against the glass pane ,her mouth flattened against the window staring into the night. Another one fascinated by the world the shadows and night creates.