There is such a thing as a free lunch…

…a bad substandard one.

I was an NCC cadet in college. My dad was one too. He told us of stories in engineering colleges where hostel students enrolled themselves in NCC for the free and sumptuous breakfast after the Saturday parade. In my college, Saturday breakfasts came from our own canteen which was pretty good. So for a whole year, we had no real complaints about the food.

2nd year meant that we had to start going for camps where cadets would be selected and groomed to take part in the Republic Day Parade at New Delhi. That is the one thing every cadet aims for. Our first camp was held in the month of May at Wallajahpet, not far from Madras. We were supposed to stay at the government arts college there for 10 days (or was it 2 weeks? I forget). Accommodation for girls was arranged at the girls hostel there since the college was empty during the summer holidays. 25 girls from my college were given 2 tiny rooms to stay in. But the true horror was the state of the rooms and bathrooms there. We were told that it was a functional hostel where girls lived during the semester. But it was filthy, dusty and full of cobwebs. It took us about 2 hours to clean up both the rooms just to make them habitable. Of course, there were massive arguments about who got to sleep under the fan! I just decided to sleep in the corridor and stay away from a fan that only circulated the heat and body odour around the room.

Then came the horror of the toilets. Like all dormitories, the toilets were shared. I could be wrong but I think we were about a 100 odd girls sharing about 5-7 toilets and about the same number of bathrooms. There used to be fights over using them every morning. One had to always make sure that the person using the toilet/bathroom after them was someone from their own college so as to not relinquish control.

After these startling and exhausting adjustments, we sat down for our first lunch at the camp. After so many years, I distinctly remember how bad the food was. The rice was not clean & finding a worm was not surprising. Asking for it to be tasty was just too much. It was unappetizing and made us sick. I had carried a bunch of snacks from home. My staples were Marie biscuits and a few squeezy tubes of milkmaid. Many days, I would eat just that for lunch. There was a small shop inside the campus with a telephone. Their most attractive product was warm maaza. I used to down at least 2 a day. But nothing makes up for proper solid food especially when you’re involved in physical drill from 6 in the morning to 4 in the evening (again, it was a long time ago, so I don’t remember the exact schedule). One day, out of sheer exhaustion, I asked my parents to drive down to the camp with food from home, lots of it. My entire contingent sat in a circle, salivating in anticipation when the food was being opened. You had to be there to understand the meaning of the phrase, inhaled the food. I have never before or never again seen food disappear that fast. On the last day of camp, as a treat, we were served suspicious looking boiled eggs. The girls who ate them ended up with upset tummies.

In addition to the starvation, a lot of us ended up with acute urinary infection due to the poor sanitary conditions. When we complained about it to the camp commander, she ordered the toilets to be cleaned once at night too. I figured the cleaners came around 2 am to clean the toilet. So I’d set an alarm to wake up and use the toilets right after they were cleaned. I’d try not to use it again unless I really really had to.

When I read about children dying due to contaminated midday meals, I could truly imagine how deplorable their state was. We, students from good urban colleges, after endlessly protesting about the food and sanitation issues, just like our seniors did during their time, were able to change nothing. Nobody gave a damn. It was thought of as a part of roughing it out.

My heart bleeds for those children cos nothing is about to change. People are not going to stop sending their children to government schools. For many, it might be their only means to one meal a day.

I decided to quit NCC after that camp cos in spite of everyone saying that the camps got better after the first one, I was thoroughly disgusted and nothing was going to make me go back.

My heart bleeds cos I know that luxury may not be an option for these kids. No one is going to bat an eyelid at the sight of stones or worms in the rice. You simply throw them away and carry on eating.

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Checking in

It’s that time of the year when I get all pensive and serious about life. My birthday’s around the corner and every year I start thinking about all the new things I want to do in life and the number of things that are still pending in my to do list.

If there’s one thing that 2013 has taught me, it is that life is unpredictable. All it takes is one moment for your life to turn upside down. The price I’ve paid to learn that lesson has been very high. While it scares me to think about tomorrow, it’s given me the clarity to not shy away from challenges. Sometimes the biggest challenge I face in my life is just myself. I’ve opened this page to write something so many times. I write 5 sentences and exit without saving anything cos I’m convinced that a. It’s not worth going through with b. No one’s really going to read this c. It’s not as flowery, insightful, interesting or beautiful as xyz’s blog. I always ignore that tiny inner voice that says that unless I go through with it and work on it, I’ll never know.

I need to push myself to make that tiny inner be heard louder and learn to trust it. I’m beginning to see that being a parent is one of the hardest things anyone can ever do. I don’t know how the previous generations did it. My mom managed 2 kids and a job. My grandmother managed 4 of her own kids, about 10 of her nieces and nephews, a big joint family, a husband with a big ego and much more on limited resources. I have a maid, a cook and a doting husband. All I do is take care of my son and yet I’m exhausted on most days by 6. I realise that the exhaustion is more mental than physical. I know I’m never going to be as wonderful as my grandmother but I’m going to try. I’m going to stop being my own obstacle. One tiny step towards making myself happy. One tiny step towards being happy with myself.

Mothi

Imaginary friends are cool. They always laugh at your jokes, compliment you on your pretty new frock, never let you feel lonely, show bursting enthusiam for all the games you invent, and display unflinching loyalty even when you behave unreasonably. Not that real friends behave any differently. Imaginary friends are cooler cos, well, they’re just yours and you don’t have to share them.
Mothi is my imaginary friend. She wears a black and white checked frock and white pearl earrings. She’s the one I shared all the games and activities I invented with. Like making pots and plates using red clay found under the tree in the front yard. She was the only one that knew the right amount of water to be mixed with the clay and the exact spot they were left to dry in the scorching heat.
We used to have long conversations about all my classmates and why Raji miss beat me yet again that day and all our worldly worries while making pulpy keerai paste of leaves on the ammi in the backyard. This would then be cooked on our brittle red clay pots. The conversation would continue through the delicious meal. In the night, she would lie down next to me and talk to me and sing songs with me till I slept.
I thought of Mothi today after many many years. She feels just as real as she did when I was 3. What the hell, its 1.30 in the night and I could use some nocturnal company.

The struggle

I came home to find that I did leave some books behind here at that I didn’t take with me. Amongst the pile that got left behind, there was a thin black book that I didn’t quite remember. I, by the way, know where each one of my books were bought, which were bought in a particular batch, who was with me that day, the order in which I read them et al. So I picked this one up and found that it was autographed. Tenzin Tsundue, Chennai, 16th August it said.

It all came back to me in a flash. When I was in college, we once had a signature campaign for free Tibet. Mr. Tsundue’s latest book of poems was on sale and I was so impressed with the way that man spoke, I bought a copy. I’m not a particularly huge fan of poetry. But his poetry was so simple and sincere.

My Tibetanness

Thirty-Nine years in exile.
Yet no nation supports us.
Not a single bloody nation!

We are refugees here.
People of a lost country.
Citizen to no nation.

Tibetans: the world’s sympathy stock.
Serene monks and bubbly traditionalists;
One lakh and several thousand odd,
nicely mixed, steeped
in various assimilating cultural hegemonies.

At every check-post and office
I am an ‘Indian-Tibetan’.
My Registration Certificate,
I renew every year, with a salam
A foreigner born in India.

I am more of an India.
Except for my chinky Tibetan face.
‘Nepali?’ ‘Thai?’ ‘Japanese?’
‘Chinese?’ ‘Naga?’ ‘Manipuri?’
but never the question-‘Tibetan?’

I am a Tibetan.
But I am not from Tibet.
Never been there.
Yet I dream
of dying there.

I’m tired

I am tired,

I am tired doing that 10th March ritual,
screaming from the hills of Dharamsala.

I am tired,
I am tired selling sweaters on the roadside,
40 years of sitting, waiting in dust and spit.

I am tired,
eating rice ‘n’ dal
and grazing cows in the jungles of Karnataka.

I am tired,
I am tired dragging my dhoti
in the dirt of Manju Tila.

I am tired,
I am tired fighting for the country
I have never seen.

I’m in awe of their strength. How deep rooted that faith must be I wonder. To fight for a cause, a cause that bigger than one’s life and everything that engulfs one’s being. The passion has got to be infectious. But when the passion and the strength wear off, the faith, that still drives all of this must still be quite strong.

I remember standing in the temple, my eyes closed, brows knit in concentration, fervently praying. The unquestioned faith that I was convinced about. I believed that I would get that new tricycle if I prayed hard enough. Years later, my wants grew, and there I was standing in the same temple. My eyes are closed, I want to pray. I want to believe that my faith is strong. But somewhere, a ray of doubt creeps in. This time I’m not so sure. The faith is not enough.

To the people who’s faith has remained steadfast after all the draining struggle, I salute you!

When I was a kid, I used to fall down and hurt myself all the time while playing. But I never gave it more than a passing glance. There was only enough time to brush the sand off and get back to the game. I didn’t want to miss any of the fun. There was always time later to worry about the wound and the scar. Actually, I liked looking at my scars cos they fascinated me. It was almost like the shape of each scar was trying to sketch a story. When the wound starts healing the scar forms a definite shape and then, the story was etched, for eternity.
Everytime I tried meddling with a raw wound, my mother slapped my hand away and told me to leave it alone. She said it would heal with time. But I didn’t have the heart to let the game go by without me in the meanwhile. She would bathe the wound and bandage it for me, she said. But I didn’t want to be seen with a big bandage. It was too sissy. The moment she was out of sight, the loving bandage would be ripped right off. Ouch! Thats when it hurt a little bit. Maybe I’ll wear a longer skirt today and hide it. I was careful not to limp and run faster than everyone else.
One day, perhaps, I will sit and count all the scars in my body while they recount their stories and we would laugh and rejoice about that wonderful time called childhood.

I walked into work today and I could hear people exchanging new year wishes. I had to smile…

I’m not a big believer in celebrating the coming of a new year or new year resolutions or that a new year brings new changes along with it. I very strongly believe that changes happen only when you will it to. But there’s so much anticipation in the air that I can’t help feeling excited! New hopes, new expectations, and new excitement that a new start brings with it. Like a friend said, ” New year resolutions are things you want to accomplish in the new year. So, I anyway have time till the end of 2008 to fulfill my resolutions.” Its like sales targets or company OKRs 🙂

This new year was quite quiet! The number people on the streets increases every year. The desire to be a part of them is lesser every passing year. I’m quite content sitting at home, watching some silly movie and nursing my drink.. Sigh, these sound like signs of the years catching up on me!

PS: Happy new year to the 4 people that actually read my blog 🙂 Thank you!

Amsterdam and Paris

When I was a kid, my life revolved around the Famous Five and Enid Blyton. I wanted to be cool, just like those kids. There’s this one book where Julian talks about this guy in his class who became fluent in French ‘cos he spent one whole summer in Paris. I used to dream about the day I could go to Paris. I wanted to pack picnic lunch and take off on a bicycle and sleep on the grass in the middle of some strange village. I wanted to get lost and spend the night in a barn and talk about it the next day, animatedly. I wanted to wanted to stay on a farm and milk the cows. Then the teenage happened, and Amsterdam featured in that list as well. As luck would have it, my closest friend moved to Belgium to study and she said ‘you’ll come there to visit me, right??’ and that’s how we started planning.

I started saving up money and we made tall plans. Or I thought they were just tall plans. The more we spoke about it, I couldn’t wait to go there. We decided to go to just Amsterdam and Paris due to lack of time and vitamin M. Like they say, when it rains, it pours, I got an opportunity to visit Dublin for 3 months on work. Hence started my escapade almost a month back.

For me, this whole journey has been a culmination of teenage fantasies. Now, I’m here in Dublin. Was it all magical? Maybe not in a fairy tale kind of way. But, the whole experience has been liberating. I wanted to pig out on cheese and pasta and French food. But after 1 week of pesto and cheese sandwiches, when I went to an Indian restaurant and had proper sapad, I almost attained Nirvana. I clicked pictures of the aircraft I flew in, couldn’t stop smiling on top of the Eiffel tower, wanted to just not leave when I saw windmills in Amsterdam, wanted to give up eating when I saw the price of food in Paris, fell in love in Madras local trains all over again when I travelled in the Paris metro for 4 days continuously, never wanted to leave the subway train station when I heard people playing the violin, clicked pictures of the tunnel that changed color in the Frankfurt airport at the risk of being a cliched tourist, went to a casino and just stood there grinning at people ‘cos I couldn’t figure out for the life of me how that thing worked, clicked about 800 pics in 7 days, met people I would never have met otherwise, got pissed off when it rained in Paris and Amsterdam, bought shocking orange shoes ‘cos my shoes were soaked in the rain, ventured out one day on my own in Paris with just a metro map and map of the city, walked into random churches, took the stairs up the Eiffel tower, when I thought I was going to die, I figured I had actually reached the top alive, picked up a conversation with an Italian guy who didn’t speak any English and I, obviously don’t speak any Italian, cooked Indian food for 4 strangers, stayed with an amazing Dutch lady in Amsterdam, and I could just go on.

Can I live in Europe? Never, I love my own country just too much to do that. But, will I come back to Europe? I most certainly will. In fact, I have the itinerary for my next trip already planned. There’s something intoxicating about travelling that introduces you to all these things you can’t even imagine and something so humbling that you will have new found respect for your homeland.