Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Mothers Will Be Mothers...

Come summers, and the raw mangoes, fiercely protected by her from street urchins, would come off the tree in the yard, and the process would begin.

Some were sliced vertically in thin, long slices to make the traditional aam ka aachaar.

The rest, she would grate finely to prepare what was her very own speciality – the delicious, sweet and spicy Gujarati chutney we called `choonda’. The mix had to be `cured’ in the sun for about a fortnight, for which we would trudge up to the terrace every morning with the huge cauldrons, only to bring them back down after sunset.

The glass jars (barnis), normally stocked on the upper shelf above the dining table, had to be taken down. As I climbed up onto the chair, she immediately stopped me, and asked my elder brother to do the needful. “Pappu”, she told him, “Tu laa. Ede kolon tut janiya ae!”

My brother tried to reason with her that I was now a full Colonel in the Indian Army, was commanding a Regiment, and was therefore, perfectly capable of retrieving the jars without breaking them.

“Ede thalle barah sau aadmi henge” (he has 1200 men serving under him), he added for good measure.

But my mother’s faith in my abilities remained unshaken. She shook her head “O vi saare ede varge e hone ae!” she said. (I’m sure they’re all exactly like him!)

My mother was something else. Her rustic sense of humour, and her one-liners delivered in her own brand of Punjabi, have become folklore in the Puri household, and have been passed down from generation to generation.

For a woman with no formal education, she made sure that all the six children she raised (including one grandchild) were well read. Two engineers (Colonels too), one doctor and three graduates!

Mummy's `khes'
Although her name was Rakshawati (check the beautiful way she embroidered it on her khes), she was called `Rixaben’ by her Gujarati friends. She, however, remained `Mataji’ to all of Pudumjee Park – our Sindhi neighbour Ishwari called her that, and the name stuck. I think only me and C2 (my kid sister cum niece) called her Mummy.

Knitting was her forte. She won the Dhariwal Knitting Competition three years in a row. She had to just look at a design for a few minutes, and could replicate it stitch for stitch. With no formal education, mind you. Her sweaters, and I still have some of them, could beat the best of Marco Polo hands down!

She was asthmatic, and spent most of her life in Poona, which is not kind to asthmatics. Winters and monsoons were her bane, and she suffered terribly in those months. She passed that on to my sister Shobha, and to the rest of us she bequeathed her `nervous’ digestive system.

With grand daughters 2T and Sumi
Between her two daughters and her eldest son, there was a gap of about ten years. In this period, she suffered eight miscarriages, and it seemed her desire for a male heir would remain unfulfilled. It took a trip to Sialkot (now in Pakistan), and a holy bath at Puran Singh’s well, for her to finally bring forth my brother Satish into this world.

She had made that trip with a cousin of hers called Mahinder (or was it Surinder?). Apparently this guy was called Mahinder, but his nick name was Surinder (seriously!), or as Mummy would put it “Na Mahinder si, kehnde Surinder si”. This has now become a standard phrase in the Puri lexicon for anything that is absurdly named.

She was in her late 30’s when I was born. Asthma had made her totally feeble, and I barely remember her ever carrying me. She hated being touched, hugged or even fondled, but I was her youngest, and got away with everything.

“Je tenu nahi karanga, te ki Ishwari nu karanga?” I would ask her. She would push me away, saying “Tere na hath nichlay nahi rehnde!”

Mummy passed away on 25th September, 1996 – barely two and a half months after my father. When she passed, we tried to locate her cousin Mahinder/Surinder. All we knew was that his surname was Yakhmi, and he lived at Shahdra, near Delhi.
When we finally managed to get through, we learned that he too had passed away two weeks ago!

Mummy died at Vishakapatnam. We took her ashes to the banks of the Godavari river at Rajamundhry, about four hours away. Throughout the journey, I held them in my lap, and as I caressed them gently, I could almost hear her plaintive voice, asking me to stop.

“Tere hath hale vi nichlay nahi rehnde!” she seemed to be saying.

Some chapters in life are difficult to close. And mothers, no matter what their idiosyncrasies, will always be mothers.. 

Tuesday, 23 September 2014

How (Not) To Write An Obituary..

“I wake up every morning at 9, and grab the morning paper. Then I look at the Obituary page. If my name is not on it, I get up!” said the great Benjamin Franklin (he of the hundred dollar bill).

Having finally reached the age when you are more prone to get written about, rather than write on the Obit page, I too give it a good dekko. So far, I haven’t found my name on it. So I’ve dragged myself out of bed every morning!

Sadly, none of us will be around to read our own obits. Am quite sure the Times of India has no circulation in Heaven - or, as in my case, Hell! Didn’t someone describe Hell as the place where they gave you the Times crossword, but didn’t give you a pencil!

But even if we could, none of us would believe a word that was written!

Obituaries, by their very nature, are maudlin. Mawkishly over sentimental, they have a tendency to gloss over anything that doesn’t immediately tug at your heart strings.

Naturally. When one is misty eyed, has a lump in the throat, one tends to remember only the good. Hell, one doesn’t speak ill of the dead anyway.

I first `met’ Samina through a most stirring piece she had written on her husband immediately after his shahadat. I remember mentioning to her that I wouldn’t mind dying tomorrow if I was sure someone would write me such a beautiful obituary!

We became good friends thereafter. Soon, her parents passed away in quick succession, and she wrote the most poignant pieces for each of them. “I’m becoming somewhat of an expert in obituaries”, she remarked wryly “but really, enough is enough!”

Another friend, Vivek Vyavaharkar, lost his brother Ashok at the (relatively) young age of 63. Ashok’s son Rohan, a trained journalist (some of you may remember him as the dapper reporter at NDTV) penned his tribute to his father on Facebook.

It was a touching piece, and moistened quite a few eyes. What I remember most about it were the closing lines - `I wish I had told him I loved him. But I guess he knew that already!’


I have two basic grouses with them. Firstly, they are like the speeches you hear at your farewell parties or `dining outs’. What a great guy you were, and how your contribution to the world or your unit will never be forgotten.

Reminds me of the story about the drunken lout who died. Now he had never done an honest day’s work in his life, had totally neglected his wife and children, and his passing was actually a case of `Good Riddance’.

Yet at his funeral, the priest was full of the most glowing tributes. “This man that lies before us,” he eulogized, “was a totally devoted husband and a truly caring father!” So much so, that the widow soon nudged her little son “John, go and check if it’s really your father in that coffin!”

My second, and more serious problem, is that the guys for whom these obits are written are never around to read them. `I wish I had told him this or that’ means nothing at all. Dammit, you should have told them when they were alive. To their faces. Repeatedly.

Once you’re gone, you’re gone. Poof! All the world’s a stage, says Jacques in his famous speech in Shakespeare’s `As You Like It’, and describes the last stage as..

Last scene of all,

That ends this strange eventful history,

Is second childishness and mere oblivion,

Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.

So here’s my dictum to my children. Don’t wait.

Don’t wait till I’m a garlanded photograph on the wall to tell me what a terrific person I was. Tell me now, while I still have cockles in my heart that can yet be warmed.

If you have issues with the way I do/did this or that, tell me now, while I can still do something about it. If you’re convinced I messed up, tell me now, while contrition is still an option.

Me, I wear my heart on my sleeve. I constantly tell people I love that I love them. I hug people. Repeatedly. Not for me the `I wish I had told him’, I do tell him. Now, when it still counts.

So the best way to write an obituary is to never have to write it. Leave nothing for the beyond. Do it now, and mean it. Leave nothing unspoken, nothing unsaid.

Before it’s too late! 

Thursday, 4 September 2014

To Awaken, Not to Teach...

“Pa,” said Sowmya the other day, “do tell me about the Gaza problem in detail”

“Right,” I told her, “but to understand what’s happening in Gaza today, we first have to go back to Egypt under the Pharaohs, some 5000 years back”

“There we go!” Sid groaned, rolling his eyes heavenwards.

Reason? “As kids, when we asked you to explain the Pythagoras Theorem, you would say ok, let’s first start with straight lines, angles and triangles!”

“Well, did you just want to mug up the Pythagoras Theorem, or actually understand it?”

My logic that once ones fundamentals (called fundas) were clear, the rest was a mere cakewalk, seemed to cut no ice with them.


Pardon me, but in some respects, I’m still old school. Some debts in life you can never pay back – to the person who puts food on your table, and to the person who fills your mind with knowledge!

And because you can’t pay these debts back, you pay them forward – by feeding and teaching others, thus dispelling hunger and ignorance in the generations that follow you.

My first debt, of course, goes to my father. His decision to move from the sleepy hollow of Shahkot to Poona, the Oxford of the East, has, among other things, made `Mitti Pao!’ a reality.  The decision to enroll his kids at St Anne’s and St Vincent’s was an inspired one.

The next is to my elder sisters Shukla and Prem, elder to me by 12-14 years, who had to work to put us through school.

At St Anne’s, where I did my nursery and First Standard, my first teacher was Miss Williams – a tough as nails Hitler, who brooked no nonsense, and made liberal use of the wooden foot ruler she always brandished as a weapon of class destruction!

The Second Standard at St Vincent’s was a whole different ball game. Miss Rose Fernandes was an absolute angel, and I immediately fell passionately and irrevocably in love with her. She was sweet, pretty as a picture, and the way she pronounced my name with that Anglo Indian lilt had me totally weak in the knees!

As aside. Have learnt from the Vincentians Old Boys Association that Miss Rose, now in her eighties, is still alive and well, settled in Melbourne. When we visit Nisha, meeting Miss Rose will be on top of my agenda – just to hold her hands and say `Thank you!’

As one grew, passion was replaced with admiration, tinged with a hint of fear. The principal at Vincent’s, appropriately called Father Schoch (pronounced `shock’), was an awe inspiring figure as he marched down the corridors of the school building.

But if there was one teacher that I owe everything to, who had by far the greatest influence of my student life, it was the principal and English teacher at SSPMS, Mr N L Khanolkar.

Mr N L Khanolkar
A slim, ramrod straight, austere figure, educated at Oxford, and more English than Mr Walton, the actual Britisher we had on the staff, Mr Khanolkar’s English was out of this world! Quite easily, at least half of my vocabulary and knowledge I owe to that one man.

He made us mug up Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, and Mark Anthony’s `Friends, Romans, Countrymen’ speech as the greatest examples of oratory the world had ever known. I still remember them, word for word, almost half a century later. That was Mr Khanolkar!

What teachers we had! They were supermen, they knew everything! Today’s teachers, even with Google and Wikepedia at their disposal, simply pale in comparison.

Knowledge and wisdom, they gave us both. They inspired us. What can one say but assure them that we’ve done our best to pass it on, that the flame still burns bright..

And yes, Thank You, and God Bless!