Tag Archives: Desi writer

The Henna Artist Empowers Women

I had been looking forward to a book event planned for March 31st at Kepler’s bookstore in Menlo Park. Author, Alka Joshi, was to speak about her debut novel The Henna Artist.

And then of course, like numerous other events, it was canceled. As March began, it became increasingly clear that life as we know it was changing.

With this cloud hanging over all our heads, I welcomed the opportunity to pick up The Henna Artist. The image on the cover is attractive and inviting. A woman walking under some decorated arches in what may be a palace in Rajasthan, with ornate chandeliers visible above. In the inner flap, the picture of the author is lovely – a striking composition of gray, red, and blue.

This eloquent, engaging novel is the story of Lakshmi Shastri, a strong woman who seizes her independence out of an abusive marriage and a life of poverty, by slowly climbing the ladder of security with rungs built by hard work, creativity, and determination.

Born in a village in Uttar Pradesh to an educated father turned alcoholic after being slighted by the British and a helpless mother, Lakshmi reluctantly leaves her home when her marriage is arranged to an abusive and violent man. She grows to love his mother, her Saasuji, who teaches her how to heal with herbs. 

Eventually, she cannot bear it anymore and runs away, bringing shame upon her parents and the village where she grew up.  Joshi has an eloquent passage on this concept of family honor.

From UP to Agra to Jaipur, Lakshmi finally settles and is embraced by Samir Singh, an architect, and his wife, Parvati, who become patrons of her art (henna) and healing. Through Parvati’s introductions, Lakshmi meets members of the royal family – two maharanis. Lakshmi’s success with herb treatments also captures the attention of Samir’s friend Dr. Jay Kumar, a doctor trained in Western medicine.

One day, a 14-year old girl, Radha, arrives at her doorstep – a sister she never knew she had. Radha’s arrival complicates Lakshmi’s carefully constructed world. As with any teenager, Radha’s eagerness to absorb all the new experiences combined with her innocence leads to complicated circumstances.

All through the book, Joshi’s detailed descriptions of the characters, their appearance, surroundings, and their state of mind are evocative and paint an engaging portrait. The high points in Lakshmi’s timeline bore captivating descriptions of lavish lifestyles, elegant homes, palaces, and extravagant parties. When her luck turns, the places she frequents are increasingly dreary, with poignant descriptions. 

Here are a few lines of what she sees on her way to the palace for the first time.

The descriptions of nature, birds, and their movements are quite lovely.

Motherhood is a theme that permeates the book. There are many mothers in the story. Lakshmi’s helpless mother in her village. Her mother-in-law, Saasuji, whom she loves and reveres, having learned about healing from her. Once discovering that Lakshmi has run away, Saasuji checks her money and herbs, and discovers that they are gone. “Shabash,” she exclaims. “Well done,” capturing in a word her wishes and aspirations for her daughter-in-law, to build her own life.

There are women longing for motherhood, who seek Lakshmi’s help following one miscarriage after another. There are women who wish to avoid motherhood, using Lakshmi’s herbs to prevent conception or terminate a pregnancy. There are women who become pregnant by choice or by accident, unintentional/accidental mothers, whose circumstances make it impossible for them to keep the child. There is a mother whose child has been removed from her due to the father’s superstitious fear that the child would cause his death. All the characters are portrayed with compassion and varied as their circumstances and choices are, nobody is demonized. Not even Hari, the abusive husband.

The book is sprinkled with quotes and references to English literature. Lakshmi’s father was an English teacher and both his daughters, Lakshmi and Radha, have absorbed his love of books. We interact with Shakespeare, poems by Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Jane Eyre, and even Lady Chatterley’s lover. Dr. Jay Kumar quotes Dickens in one of his letters to Lakshmi, from the opening paragraph of A Tale of Two Cities: “…it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness.” Perhaps the Anglophilia is representative of the post-Independence era in which the book is set; it was, after all, only a few decades later that Salman Rushdie would burst into the literary world and plop Indian writing in English firmly on the literary map.

I was thrown off by the transliteration of some Indian words. The words for daughter and son are ordinarily written as Beti and Beta, but here they are written as Behti and Behta. The core of Hindu philosophy is the Bhagavad Gita; oddly, here it is spelled as the Bahagvad Gita. Twice. In my experience transliteration is tied closely to pronunciation in the original script. These transliterations are not drawn from the Devanagari script with which I am most familiar. For me, these were odd choices of spelling and gave me pause. I wondered if they were typos but they appear a few times throughout the book.

This is a story of two worlds: one of the immensely wealthy, who move in clubs and palaces, with numerous staff to cook, clean, shop; and one of the service class, the ones who cook, clean, shop, apply henna, dye hair, offer herbal home remedies. The Henna Artist brings both worlds to life, allowing the reader to move between them and glimpse into both with ease.

There are a few interesting, informative, and even amusing sections provided as appendices – henna and its history, a henna recipe from Radha, and a Rabri recipe from the royal palace. 

There is also a section on caste. While the characters are described as belonging to various castes, the daily injustices and injuries of which Joshi writes, struck me more as socio-economic. The difference between the haves and the have-nots. Except for a passing mention of caste regarding the installation of WCs (water closets/toilets), it isn’t woven into the narrative. 

Also, while the story is set in the 1950s, post-independence Jaipur with historical touches add flourishes to the story, it is not a historical account. The strength of its book lies not as much on historical accuracy or any in-depth portrayal of caste differences, but in the engaging story and the well-developed characters.

Joshi thanks her parents in the Acknowledgments section, and notes that her mother, married at 18 and a mother of two by 22, inspired the story. A beautiful tribute indeed. I’m sure her mother is proud.

When we get out of this COVID-19 crisis, I hope Alka Joshi and The Henna Artist get the book tour they deserve. I sure look forward to seeing her at Kepler’s someday.

In the meantime, Kepler’s of Menlo Park is hosting an online event with writer Alka Joshi on her book “The Henna Artist” on Wednesday, May 27th at 7:00pm. Learn more about the event and sign up here to listen to Alka Joshi in conversation with journalist, Angie Coiro.

Raji Pillai lives in the SF Bay Area, and writes at www.rajiwrites.com where this article was originally published. 

When You Love Someone…

It was a Valentines weekend but it was not jolly! My world was hurtling down a steep cliff, only it was worse than my hormone drenched teenage-ish mind imagined. My gut was in overdrive, signaling danger, and my cerebral cortex was out of orbit. 

I have always been a late bloomer and although my limbs stretched in height, my brain failed to catch up to speed. So when I got married, my baby face and warm, almond milk palette did not know that I was hurdling head first into a sharp, glacial disaster. As I said, it was not jolly.

Having fond memories of the ancient city of pink palaces – Jaipur – as a child was radically different than going as a bride into a family of three strangers and their even stranger acquaintances! 

Their thought processes were radically different from mine. They were very conservative in terms of customs, food habits, and medical treatment. A daughter-in-law should wear a saree, cover her head and touch the feet of every stranger who stepped into the house. Food was extra spicy, difficult for me to digest, and if I fell sick,  I was only allowed two or three antibiotic capsules instead of the entire course.

Most of these issues I could navigate. But there were times the home dynamics were rocked by temper tantrums and hysteria which defied human logic. I was absorbed in the quixotic chaos of my marital home with the eyes of an avid reader of mystery novels but not enough to prepare me for the harrowing hair-pin-bend-like Jumanji moments in my newly wedded life.  Help from home was a few thousand miles away. My parents lived in Bombay. There were no cell phones. The only landline phone was in the living room and was not private. There was not a single soul in the ramparts of my Piya-ka-Ghar who was sympatico. 

On one such dire occasion when my cup of sorrow was spilling, I made a plan to make a phone call from an outside line. I stealthily crept out of the house in a sweltering mid afternoon down the dusty lane when the family folks were on their daily siesta. There were no public phones and neighbors had no connections. I walked into the office of a relative and I told him a white lie. “The phone at home is not working and I have to call my parents in Bombay.” He acquiesced and I dialed home. When dad came on the line I explained to him, “It’s bad!” I wailed and then rattled off the issue in code language. To my dismay, my brilliant dad was having difficulty cracking my code. Regardless, I told him it would be good if he came there urgently, choking over every wor…d…he was having difficulty understanding. My only hope was that he could grasp the gravity of the situation from the emotional current in my voice. Mr. Relative kept staring at me but did not ask questions. I hung up and ran back to my in-laws’ house sobbing silently. I was at my wits end.

Monita Soni and Her Father

Hours passed and my mom called on the landline but her message was not conveyed to me. Then at 3 AM on a very cold and foggy winter night, a very tired, bleak-eyes tall man in a tweed coat and muffler came over the threshold. My mother-in-law called out my name: “Monita… your dad is here”. I ran out in my nightgown, bare feet without bothering to throw a shawl on my shoulders. “Daddy!”, I cried out and clutched at the hand knit grey sweater on his chest and started bawling.

He gently patted me on my back and said, “It’s good to see that you are okay my daughter.” I looked up at his face, he had not shaved and his lips were cracked from the cold. There was a worried look around his eyes.

Later, I found out that he was flying from Bombay to Delhi for an urgent business matter when he took my “call” and then not knowing how to contact me for a better understanding of my duress on the phone, he took a night taxi from Delhi. He traveled all through the dark, bitter, cold night to check on my condition.

He also said: “Daughter when you love someone, you don’t subject them to stress.” I forgot my troubles and felt guilt because I realized how much anguish I had caused my dad and how he must have suffered not knowing what was troubling me. I gave him a comfortable bed and said: “Dear dad, you rest now. We will talk in the morning”.

But my dad’s words “ When you love someone…” are instilled in the staccato of my beating heart. I can never forget his worry-stricken face. I also became acutely aware of how many insurmountable struggles of his own he had kept hidden from me. Those gently spoken tough words from a very tender hearted man caused me to transform from a crying daddy’s girl into a woman of tremendous resolve like a koi fish swimming against the current.

Because when someone loves you… you grow.

Monita Soni grew up in Mumbai, India and works as a pathologist in Decatur Alabama. She is well known for her creative nonfiction and poetry pieces inspired by family, faith, food, home and art. She has written two books: My Light Reflections and Flow through my Heart. She is a regular contributor to NPR’s Sundial Writers Corner. She drew the featured image as a symbol of her love for her father.

Edited by Assistant Editor, Srishti Prabha.

A 55 Year Love Story

A Short Introduction 

This is the love story of Yatindra and Sadhana Bhatnagar – nearly 55 years of sharing cheers and tears, facing odds and overcoming them, together.

It’s a story of reaching great heights – he in journalism and she in painting and sketching.

Yatindra wrote books, Sadhana contributed to some. They collaborated on some more.

Both traveled widely. From New Delhi to Indore, mingling with Presidents and Prime Ministers, top diplomats, artists and business people.

Sadhana raised their two lovely daughters and wrote poems for Yatindra; he wrote them for her as well.

She was an excellent cook, expert in sewing, knitting, crocheting, singing, embroidery, hospitality, making life-long friends and helping others. They gave love to their daughters, their daughter’s husbands, and strangers. In return, they got love from far and wide.

They were always on the same page; two bodies and one soul.

Both remained love-birds, till her last day. He would sit by her side, hold her hand, look into her eyes, and whisper sweet nothings in her ears.

This is their Fairytale Love Story.

Start of a 55 year old love story

Talking about pairs, arranged or love marriage, meant marrying in our own community (caste) and region, with similar customs and language and habits, family background – and of course matching horoscopes. None of these figured into our marriage at all. 

Ours was a beautiful combination of love and arranged. 

We had only one ‘date’ on April 21, Milan Divas – The Day We Met, and got to know each other. That was enough for us. 

In the six-months of waiting, dozens of letters were exchanged. Phone facility was not easy; it was also expensive. So we had the mailmen helping us. In this case ‘the middlemen’ were welcomed. Letters were a big consolation. 

It started with my four-year-old friendship with Indrajit, Ved’s (Sadhana’s) brother, that led to our marriage and 55-years of courtship.

Destiny had played a significant role. 

Ved was born in Nowshera, now in Pakistan, before her family moved to Abbottabad.

I was born in Indore, over 800 miles from Ved’s birthplace. She moved to Abbottabad and I to New Delhi – the distance cut by 90 miles. When we married she lived in Dehradun and I in Delhi, only 150 miles away. 

We were surely destined to move closer and closer till we became one. 

The rest is history, as they say.

We married on a ‘bad’ day but made a good life

October 8, 1961! The day, I believe, no marriages took place in orthodox Hindu families. 

That is because it is part of the Shraddh season when orthodox Hindus remember their dead, pay respects to their souls, feed the Brahmins and the poor, and pray for the eternal peace for the dead.

Our marriage on a Shraddh day!

Indrajit and I consulted ‘Mr. Calendar’ and decided on the convenient Sunday.

Everything happily fell right into place. Virtually, the entire city came to witness this ‘unique’ marriage. We got the best hotel to stay, had one of the best bands available, and the caterers were happy to get business during a slow season.

It was no “Big Fat Indian Wedding” yet lovely and pleasant; a good family event where two families became close.

Mataji (my widow mother-in-law) gave away the bride, another break from the orthodoxy. 

I gave Ved a new name – Sadhana, the desired one, my prayer. 

On the bus heading home – and to new dreams – a non-stop singing session started. Sadhana obliged by singing what became one of our favorite songs:  

Nayee manzil nayee rahein, naya hai meherbaan apna, na jane ja ke theharega kahaan yeh karvaan apna. (New destination and new path, new partner-friend, I don’t know where this caravan will end up.) 

How appropriate was her choice!  

Making of a Home 

Back home well past midnight, everyone was tired and retired to bed early. No ‘first night’ ritual. We looked forward to the future. 

The next day my errands took a long time and it was a late evening when I returned. I was stunned – my beautiful wife was waiting for me in her elegant dress, simple yet lovely jewelry, hardly any make-up, and the apartment had transformed into our “home.” 

Homes are made with love, vision, respect, commitment and a desire to become and grow as one. Sadhana arranged the furniture and other things to make the small rooms look larger and bare walls were adorned with photos and paintings. The home looked inviting; it bore the stamp of a lady with good taste and creativity.  She did everything with love and care to make it her home, our home.

Wonderstruck, I could only say: “Tumne to ise swarg bana diya (you have turned this into a heaven.) She had a lovely smile on her face as we exchanged glances that said more than we expressed. 

I was apologetic for being away for hours but she put me at ease with a phir kya hua (no problem, that’s okay).

I was stunned and could only look at her full of admiration and joy.

I fell in love with Sadhana, again. And that love continued for about 55 years. 

Our Honeymoon and More

We didn’t have a honeymoon in the traditional sense. We had made no plans and we kept everything limited and simple. As part of our wedding, just a couple days after our marriage, we were off to Dehradun for Phera (return).  

The Phera tradition serves two purposes: one, to know first-hand from the girl how she was welcomed at the groom’s place and how she feels about the groom (Mataji could tell from Sadhana’s glow); two, to know the son-in-law better without his entourage (Baraat). 

After spending a couple days in Dehradun, meeting Sadhana’s family and a host of her friends, we went to Mussoorie for a day to have time exclusively for the two of us. Unexpectedly one day became two.

Our lives had become the ultimate union of two hearts and two minds to reach the divine state of one.

That was the relation between Sadhana and I, from the beginning to the last. 

We did have a delayed honeymoon after 11 years where we went to Europe and Egypt for 40 days. It will remain a cherished memory.

Life, of course, is not a bed of roses. 

We encountered problems. We faced hardships and challenges. We had our disagreements. We argued. But they were few and far between. 

The ‘ceasefire’ was quick. Tears shared and sweet smiles exchanged happily. 

The arguments did not last long.

The ‘silent treatment’ could not go beyond a couple hours. 

We wouldn’t have it any other way.

In early 1940s in India, Brooke Bond Tea widely displayed an ad proclaiming: “Two leaves and a bud, the standard plucking method of the high grade tea.”

When we would patch up – and I loved that job happily – it was “two tight hugs and a kiss, the standard patch-up method of the highest grade of love.” 

Peace will be inevitably restored in no time to be followed by more tight hugs and more shower of kisses, enough to drown us in love and loud laughter.

Sadhana was an incredible human being!  

Yatindra Bhatnagar, a journalist, author and poet has been writing for more than seven decades.  He was chief editor of daily, weekly and monthly newspapers and magazines in India and the United States. He has done more than three thousand radio and TV programs and written 20 books, in English and Hindi.  He has extensively traveled in India and abroad. At nearly 91, he is still writing books, contributing to papers, doing radio programs and has his own website: www.internationalopinion.com

Edited by Assistant Editor, Srishti Prabha.

Black and White Are Not Colors

The second-generation Bengali woman known as Mother in Devi S. Laskar’s emotionally raw debut novel, The Atlas of Reds and Blues, is forty-three years, six months, twenty-five days old when an unexpected, swift, and tragic chain of events transpires. Upon returning home from dropping her three young daughters at school, agents storm her house, she refuses to remain silent, then she finds herself lying on her driveway in an Atlanta suburb, bleeding from gunshot wounds. On the concrete, Mother zigzags through a montage of memories, leaping between present and past, recalling a lifetime of slights, taunts, comments, and snubs by society, wondering what in her life led her to this point. Now police, neighbors, and news crews work around her as if she weren’t there, solidifying the invisibility Mother has felt all her life. 

A woman of color, a wife, and a mom, Mother also is a former crime reporter, demoted to part-time obituary writer, and a novelist-in-waiting, her dreams never quite holding strong enough against those ubiquitous slights and snubs. Her husband, known as her Hero, the Man of the Hour, or Daddy—an American blonde with blue eyes—loves her but travels internationally for work and is rarely home long enough to notice her extreme isolation. Only Greta, the family’s late dog, offers Mother unconditional love and protects her.

To protect her children, Mother teaches them “the quiet game,” one in which one’s thoughts and feelings are kept to oneself. Mother is the master of the game, and she teaches her daughters to keep their heads down and stay completely still and silent in the face of discrimination, to take the abuse, to not cause trouble. Concurrently, the people in her neighborhood are seen and heard from a distance, her colleagues are mostly passersby, and only Mr. Patel, a shopkeeper, speaks to her without criticizing, asking why she is there, or suggesting she go back to where she came from. Ironically, like the author, Mother was born and raised in North Carolina. 

“Atlas” is a powerful story of the unacceptable, unforgivable treatment persons of color—especially women—are forced to endure even now in the twenty-first century. Vivid and honest in her pain during which she sees the blue sky and as voices laugh and joke about her, she is every woman in her desire to have a good life and one in which she is an equal; however, the equality to which she aspires carries a weightier load because her skin color—one so disparate from the neighborhood’s whiteness—prevents fulfillment of that simple, common wish. 

Despite not unfolding the offending incident linearly or in detail, it is disturbing, nonetheless. Laskar’s poetic precision gives us enough to be shocked, angered, left with much to consider and contemplate. Her writing’s beautiful lyricism juxtaposes the compactness of language with the prevailing ugliness of the world in which Mother and we live. The book, based on an incident that occurred at Laskar’s own home, never discusses racism, but the incidents in Mother’s short life offer abundant fuel for discussions that society must undertake. The Atlas of Reds and Blues is simply a must-read.

Jeanne E. Fredriksen lives in North and South Carolina where she is a Books for Youth reviewer for Booklist magazine/American Library Association and a member of WCPE-FM The Classical Station’s Music Education Fund committee. She is working on an assortment of fiction projects.


THE ATLAS OF REDS AND BLUES by Devi S. Laskar. Counterpoint Press. 269 Pages.

 

Dance Lessons Bring Romance to a Midlife Marriage

As a single mother with a teenage daughter, when I decided to marry a widower with a daughter, I knew what I was getting into. Or so I thought. From one half of a mother-daughter duo, I became the key piece of a puzzle which held four very different people, all wary and a little apprehensive about this new midlife adventure that Aditya and I had jumped into. 

There was much to be learnt, both inside and outside our home. Moving from India to Singapore meant, among other things, giving up the luxury of driving our own private cars and relying exclusively on public transport in a tiny but super efficient metropolis far removed from the chaos of India. The girls entered a new school, skeptical about making friends, and nostalgic for the familiar faces they had reluctantly left behind.

Inside the home, I bore the brunt of figuring out meal plans and food preferences, sleeping habits and unique quirks of my new family. My hopes of finding a job started fading after a few months. Even as I ranted against the unfairness of the job situation, the most frustrating part of the early months of our marriage was the lack of private time between Aditya and me.

At home, we hesitated to hold hands in front of the kids, unsure of what they would read into such gestures of affection, given our conservative Indian outlook and upbringing. I missed the one on one time that we enjoyed during our courtship through late night phone calls. We would say goodnight after sharing stories about our day and making each other laugh. My idea of a happy marriage involved a spouse who would be my friend and confidant, my buddy and my muse, my better half who would make me want to be a better person. 

Our daily life however, was buried under to-do lists and spreadsheets, our schedule filled with meetings at the school and appointments at the immigration office. All of our conversations centered around the home or kids or finances. 

Perhaps I was wrong to want romance in a midlife marriage. Candlelight dinners and walks on the beach were only for the young, not for couples with bills to pay and homework to supervise in the first year of marriage. But a part of me still craved alone time with my new husband. 

As newly-weds didn’t we deserve some time to find an equilibrium with each other before being inundated with family priorities? 

One day at the library I found a flyer announcing ballroom dancing class at our local community center.

“Let’s sign up for this,” I suggested, hoping it would give us something to do together while providing an excuse and a focus away from the kids. Aditya agreed. 

On the first Thursday evening, I waited eagerly for Aditya to return from work. Although unsure about the dress code for such an activity, I knew comfy shoes were required. I convinced Aditya to not change into his usual home attire of shorts and t-shirt. We took the bus to the community center and found our way to the dance studio on the third floor. 

The spacious room with floor to ceiling mirrors on two sides of the large, smooth, rectangular floor looked intimidating. The registration sheet showed at least ten names but we were the only couple to show up for the class. The instructor, a tall elegant gentleman dressed impeccably in formal pants and long-sleeved black shirt, looked as if he would have been happier had we not shown up. 

In spite of his misgivings, the agile instructor tried to teach us the basic waltz three step.  One-two-three. One-two-three. One-two-three. He paired up with us, one by one, to demonstrate. We were happy to be led and tried to follow. Soon he asked us to pair with each other and repeat. 

Despite our best intentions we were unable to complete more than two ‘1-2-3’ counts without stepping on each other’s toes or bumping into each other as we navigated the corners of the room. On the way back home, we laughed at our feeble efforts but sincerely showed up each subsequent week. At the end of the ten-week session, there was no discernible improvement in our technique. We continued to hobble around the dance floor like disjointed robots but we optimistically asked the instructor,

“When does the next session start?”

“I will call you,” he replied wryly, not impressed by our enthusiasm.  

 After ten weeks of missing cues, not getting the rhythm, and stepping on each other’s toes, we were forced to conclude that we were no Fred and Ginger. Our dance lessons, in addition to making us laugh, did teach us a few valuable lessons – how not to step on each other’s toes, literally; how to leave behind our disappointment with our lack of progress at the studio, and how to laugh about our two left feet. 

Our joint effort towards a common goal was all that mattered. By providing a relief valve from the stress during the early days of our experiment of a second marriage, the ballroom dance lessons served a purpose – of allowing us to lighten up and let ourselves some slack. Who said we had to get everything right? 

Five years later, on a family holiday to Alesund, Norway, I paused midway on a hike to Sukkertoppen hill, not sure I could make it. Suddenly, a familiar hand appeared. With his lean build and athletic frame, Aditya could have easily raced ahead with the kids, but he had stayed back to check my progress. I took his hand. 

Sometimes he walked ahead to check the best path. At other times, he walked besides me. We moved, not in unison, but in response to each other’s unspoken prompts until we reached the summit with its breath-taking view. Did the dance lessons help? I’m not sure. But romance in midlife, that’s a different story.

Desi Roots, Global Wings – This is a monthly column focused on the Indian immigrant experience

Ranjani Rao is a scientist by training, writer by avocation, originally from Mumbai, former resident of USA and now lives in Singapore with her family. She is co-founder of Story Artisan Press and her books are available on Amazon. She is presently working on a memoir. Medium | Twitter | Facebook | Blog

Thanks to 7 SeTh and Alex Iby on Unsplash for the images.

 

A Forgotten Love Story of Indian Train Travel

A few years ago, my husband and I decided to take our two children on the train to NYC. We always drove but I wanted our children to experience train travel; they struggled to understand why. It was deep-seated, you see. I wanted us to have a shared memory with my children that was reminiscent of my childhood in India.

Though we had taken the Metro Rail to Washington DC several times, the idea of inter-state train travel seemed appealing to me. We got to Union Station and after marveling at the structure and browsing through the stores were ready to board the train. The doors to the platform opened, we walked quietly, boarded a carriage, and sat down. As the train started, I began to think back to my childhood days and how different the train journey was. Here in the US, with everything so organized, there was none of the confusion or the loud excitement. People sat quietly in their seats with their laptops and devices. No looking out the window, no talking, walking, or eating. None of the joys that we experienced as children. It was actually boring. My children sat with their phones and I felt a pang. That is when I decided to translate my love of train travel in India into words, so as not to forget the memory. To share how absolutely thrilling it was to take an overnight train.

Train journeys were an integral and an exciting part of our lives, especially for those of us who grew up in India in the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s.

As the train turned at the bend, the child craned his neck against the bars of the window squealing in delight – “I see the engine, I see the engine”. I am sure that this is a mutual fond memory of my generation in India.

Growing up, summer vacation usually meant going to visit grandparents Back then, vacation was not visiting exotic places or expensive holidays. Rather, it was the simple joy of going back to the village, town, or city of your grand-parents. Invariably, the journey was by a train. 

In those days, trains were not as fast or as clean and comfortable as they are now. The seats/berths were hard, had no foam bedding, and you were not served meals. Traveling by train meant packing not only clothes, gifts, toys and books, but also carrying your own bedding in something called the ‘Hold All’. In the ‘hold all’ you stashed your pillows, blankets, sheets, shawls, etc. It was rolled up like a sleeping bag, and carried along with your other luggage which included two or three suitcases, handbags, and even at times, small furniture. Then of course, there was the multi-container steel tiffin carrier (lunch box), which contained idlis with chutney, sandwiches, chappatis & sabzi, and yogurt rice. There were packets of biscuits and other fried savories to snack on. 

A taxi would be hailed to get to the railway station. No sooner had it halted at the station, coolies (porters) would come rushing wanting to carry your luggage. After a bit of haggling, a price would be settled and on the poor Coolie’s head would go two or three suitcases, a bag on each arm, and anything else you had. But, before you entered the station your eyes would fall on the weight machine that was standing there minding its own business. After a tussle and some pleading, some of you would stand up on the machine, insert a coin, and wait for the tiny rectangular cardboard piece that said how much you weighed.  

With the platform located, the porter would unload the luggage at a place where your carriage was estimated to stop. While waiting for the train to arrive, children would run up and down the platform, plead for chocolates, toys, or cool drinks from the vendors who had set up stalls. Train delay announcements were greeted with dismay, and on time arrivals sparked excitement and a call to the coolie to get ready to load the luggage. 

Chaos ensued when the train arrived at the platform. People scrambled to the coaches to check the lists posted on them for their seat/berth numbers! Then, there would be a hustle to get on the train, and locate your seat. 

Finally, we would begin the best part of the journey. After getting all settled in, luggage safely tucked under your seat (sometimes even chained to the berth to prevent it from being stolen), your parents would flip through magazines and newspapers and you would eye other passengers to see what interesting stuff they had. If your traveling companions were friendly, you would talk and play, and even share snacks and food with them. When it was time to sleep, the middle berth, which was your back rest till now, would be pulled up and secured to the upper one with an iron chain. A minor skirmish would follow for the upper and middle berths. With that settled, out came the ‘hold all’ and all of the bedding. Then came the hard part, trying to sleep amidst the smell of food and multiple snores heard through the carriage.

In the morning, with the middle berth back as the backrest, the ‘hold all’ packed and rolled up, everyone all cheery and bright, the excitement of arrival ensued. At the first station of the morning, you would hear the tea and coffee sellers, and vendors selling breakfast items like idlis, wadas, and upmavs. The “chai, garam chai and coffee, coffee, coffeeya….” still rings in my ears. A brief period of anxiety would pass if a loved one got off the train and the guard’s whistle went off. A sigh of relief, everyone aboard, but wait, some more tense moments, as some who had climbed into a different compartment so as not to miss the train, had to walk through the precarious gangway to get to the right compartment! The last leg of the journey continued with impatience and anticipation about what awaited at the destination!

Passing the green paddy fields, counting the green squares, waving back to the smiling village children who would stand in a row, watching stalled traffic, houses and trees zoom past, counting the number of stations, watching the steam coming out of the engine (getting soot in your eyes), and if you were brave, the walk on the precarious gangway connection, all made the train journey more interesting. 

When the train finally arrived at your destination, you would rush to the platform side of the train and wave your arms profusely while yelling out the names of your cousins or uncles who came to receive you. Once again surrounded by porters, your luggage unloaded from the train and loaded into a car or taxi, your fun vacation of a few weeks began.

As I was writing this, I began reliving my childhood and began feeling the same love and excitement as I did back then. A thought crossed my mind, my children would never be able to relate to this. Sadly, for the present generation, this would probably be a fictional read, something they would never fully comprehend. It will be a forgotten and unrequited love story between me and the Indian train. 

Anita R Mohan is a poet and freelancer from Fairfax, Virginia. She has a passion for writing and especially enjoys writing about Indian life and culture. 

Edited by Assistant Editor, Srishti Prabha.

Flight of the Sparrow

It’s Spring. The birds perch on the bird feeder and peck at the grains playfully, making chirping sounds. They remind me of ma, my mother. A woman of small stature, slightly bent with age, deep wrinkles on the face, the kind that tells stories. She has hands with folds and creases, snowy white hair and a wooden stick that supports her old age. The birds know her. They gather on her balcony all year around. She makes sure they get plenty of food and water. 

Short hair, glasses, a big red bindi on her forehead, beautiful well ironed crisp cotton sarees in vibrant colors, a watch with a leather strap and medium heels. Elegant and graceful is how I remember ma. When younger and still working, she would stop by my school on Mathura Road in Delhi on way back from teaching at her college on Lodi Road, where she was an Associate Professor in Political Science. All my friends knew her and those that didn’t, would ask me after she left if she was my mother. I would nod with pride and give her a huge hug, as if to claim her as my own.

She was born into a large loving family of six siblings in Jammu. Growing up, I spent many a summer break at my maternal grandfather’s huge home. Even today, when I close my eyes, I can picture that house on Link Road like I visited it yesterday.  A strong scent of mangoes, lazy summer afternoons, friendships and fights with cousins, and hidden secret spots come to mind. Bauji, as we called my grandfather, was very much the patriarchal head of the family. He was large hearted, generous and adored his grandkids. Father to two sons and four daughters, he assumed the typical trajectory and focused on getting a good education for the sons and ensuring that the daughters were married into good families. But when Bauji saw how well my mother did in school and the keen interest she took in college, he decided to let my mother pursue higher education. It was a difficult decision to send his daughter from a relatively small town to the big city – Delhi.

I find some pictures of ma in a stylish hair bun with dark sunglasses and tight-fitting pants or churidars. This gives a peek into her college days. A student of Ramjas college, she stayed at the Indraprastha College hostel, pursuing her Post-graduation in Political Science. The pictures don’t tell me  if she was a shy homesick girl who would run back to be with her family or if she was inquisitive and curious about this new world of Delhi, its academic trends, institutions of higher learning, fashions and styles.  I wonder and weave my own visuals from that time.  

We are here to be with ma and papa on their 50th wedding anniversary. We have been trying to convince her to have a symbolic get together with friends and close family, but she dismisses us. We argue and cajole her by saying we have come from miles away to celebrate this milestone. She just smiles and her eyes look sad and then she says that the sparrows that she tended to for years, have left her nest and flown too far. 

The wedding album photo speaks a thousand words. Papa looks really confident and sharp, standing next to his bride. You can tell he is proud of marrying such a beautiful, accomplished woman.

After finishing her post-graduate studies, ma moved to the Post Graduate Institute in Chandigarh, north of Delhi. She received a fellowship in Gandhian studies, where she earned a stipend to support herself. A few years her senior from Delhi University, also pursuing his post-graduation in Political Science, papa had met ma a few times. Being from the same hometown, Papa’s sisters were friends with ma, but they had never met formally. He wanted to know more about her. He went to Chandigarh to meet her, only to find that she was in Jammu for a short break. He left a note with the warden and went on a trip to Manali, the hills near Chandigarh, awaiting her return. Once she was back, he looked her up again, determined to find out more about this Jammu girl. She was surprised to see him but agreed to go out for coffee. In the months that followed, they saw a lot of each other. They found their intellectual faculties stirring in each other’s company, giving way to more romance and stronger companionship. Papa’s sister, married in Chandigarh, was pleased but suspicious of his many visits to the city. 

After some serious persuasion we convince ma to host a small intimate get together at India International Center (IIC) on Lodi Road, their favorite place. Last minute planning and chaos erupts. My sister takes the task head on. I call their closest friends and family. They are surprised to get a call a day before the celebration.  A number of them are very excited. Some friends of over 50 years cancel their other commitments and promise to come. 

Ma wears an off-white saree with a red border and combs her short,white hair back. They are getting longer but she wants to keep this length. My sister urges her to get a haircut. I implore that she should wear different earrings. But she ignores us and is adamant that she likes her simple look. Then suddenly, she asks if we can play a Punjabi folk song that is one of her favorites. She disappears to a time and place probably way in the past, while listening to the tune of, “Madhaniya Haye ve mereya daadeya rabba Kina jammiya kinane le jaaniya. Babul tere mehlaan vicho satrangiya kabutar bole ha”. The daughter is remembering the pigeons that freely sing in the courtyard of her fathers’ home while she is somewhere far away. The daughter wonders who and where life will take her after being born in the loving house of her parents.

They got married after dating a few months. My father expressed interest in my mother and a proposal was sent to her family.  And with much fanfare, dancing and music they were married fifty years ago. 

We reach the venue and the guests start pouring in. Their longtime friends, who studied with them in Delhi University. Some of them retired Professors in Political Science, English, History, Hindi, respected and brilliant in their fields. They talk about their friendship of many years, they speak in glowing terms about the wit and humor of my father and his brilliant sense for political analysis and they speak of grit, determination and immensely useful political work of my mother. They share embarrassing but witty and humorous anecdotes from the past. My mind zooms in and out from the past to the present. I go back to a time when our house was the hub or adda for everyone, no matter what their political affiliation. Cups of chai flowed along with snacks and food, political discussions, and arguments.

You could see that ma is uneasy with all that praise and attention at the celebration of her anniversary. Her humility keeps her away from limelight of this kind. It’s time to cut the cake and she looks in my direction and whispers. She doesn’t want us to make a big deal. Everyone protests and she is forced to cut the cake. My sister and I shove a ceremonial piece in her mouth, and she gets a hug from dad. It’s time for everyone to eat and she is visibly relieved. 

It is our last day in Delhi and the night sky is beautiful, the weather is lovely. We call Akram, our friend and driver for the past 2 weeks and he takes us to Kwality, one of our old-time favorite places to eat in Connaught Place, for a last meal together. 

We reach the restaurant and ma walks ahead slowly, with her graceful wooden stick supporting her. Her snowy white tresses fly all over her forehead. She wipes the tears that she has been fighting. Papa is cheerful and relates stories of their courtship over a sumptuous dinner. I capture their various moods in a million pictures. She is tired of my camera clicking. The welts under their eyes and wrinkles as they smile, laugh and talk incessantly, capture their beautiful companionship of fifty plus years. 

My mind again goes back to that smart and confident young woman who would come to my school and surprise me with her hearty laughter and an impeccable look of happiness. Her passion for her work came alive in her ability to strongly debate and contest colleagues over numerous discussions in our living room.  I can’t stop thinking about how in all this, both my sister and I were still her world. As I sit across from her, I wonder where all the time just went by. From being each other’s world, each day and every moment, we became a part of a different far away world, just like she did years back, away from her home in Jammu. Was this the cycle of life? It just felt so wrong. 

The next day, just as I leave for the airport, ma holds my hand with her fragile soft fingers and walks me to the balcony and asks me to feed the birds and then tells me that they will forever take care of me and my family as they took care of hers. Unguarded tears roll down our eyes and the sparrows perched on her feeder fly away as we approach them. 

I fly back to my home, away from my parents, once more with nothing but precious memories

Veenu Puri is an analyst by profession who loves to write about the experiences of Indian immigrants. She has been living in San Diego, California with her husband and two sons since 2003. Dedicated to Ma, on her 75th birthday, Oct 21st, 2019 from a very thankful daughter as another year goes by. 

Edited by Contributing Editor Srishti Prabha.