Saturday, June 26, 2010

Simian Encounters

My recent trip to one of the hill stations in the Kumaon Hills where the ubiquitous langoors and Rhesus monkeys can be spotted swinging on trees and jumping on rooftops, brought home some memories of other Simian encounters in another time: past and not so distant past.

When I was a young collegiate, we lived in a city situated in the foothills of the Shivalik Range and would drive uphill to towns further up very often. One of these places was Shimla. The town was infested with monkeys, some of which were just naughty while others were downright pests. The first time I actually observed simian cunning, was in the market where a fruit vendor had a rehri full of bananas. He was having a tough time keeping the thieves at bay. Every time he dealt with a customer, a bunch would be flicked off the cart. He would yell and gesticulate threateningly and smack his forehead but it just didn’t matter to the long-tailed Rhesus who would happily munch through the bunch and wait for the next distraction at the cart. While we were having our laughs at the expense of the agitated vendor, a young boy probably the vendor’s son, arrived. His appearance was an obvious relief for the man. He gave him a stick and put him on guard duty. Many of us, who had nothing better to do than watch the show, decided to move off. The fun had ended or so we thought. Fortunately, we were among a few who took their time moving along, and that’s how we got to witness this scene.

The boy successfully staved off all the monkey attempts to steal bananas. Every few minutes a monkey would approach the cart and by then there were more than one, coming in from different directions. The poor fellow had to run left and right shouting and twirling his stick. We cheered him on and this helped him to go at it with more gusto. Suddenly my friend whispered something and pointed under the cart. Underneath the cart, perched on the metal support was a smaller monkey who would stretch his arm and pull a couple of bananas from a bunch near the edge. It would eat them while staying hidden beneath the cart. It was not visible unless one bent down low and peered under the cart. With the bigger ones keeping the boy distracted and customers keeping the father busy the little one was making hay while the sun shone! However, we inadvertently gave the little thief away, and he was shooed off.

The next day we went up to Jhaku. It’s a point higher up and is frequented because of a famous Hanuman Mandir that sits on the top. Here the monkeys dominate the place, not only by numbers but also by the reverence they enjoy. In India monkeys are revered, as they symbolise the Hindu god Hanuman. This is why in places of worship as in Jhaku, they are kings of all they survey. It was amazing to see how they applied themselves to profit from the faith of the believers. This was a long time ago, in 1974, and things might have changed now. I haven’t been there in years. Anyway, to come back to the narration, we set out for Jhaku. It had rained and the pathway, which was quite narrow at places, was slippery. Certain patches had little pebbles and gravel and those of us who had worn leather-soled shoes had a tough time staying on their feet. Being a group of teenage girls, there was a lot of screaming and laughing as we slipped and slid. Finally, we managed to get to the top without much damage beyond scraped knees and palms.

Unfortunately the mandir had too many devotees at that time, so we had to wait. The place to sit it out was on a plain ground below the temple. Since I did not intend going into the temple to do puja, I wasn’t geared to jump up and run as soon as the crowd on top dispersed. Thus I found myself alone in a few seconds as the others were already running up. I got up and picked my bag, blissfully unaware of the big primate, keeping guard at the entrance to the sit-out. I heard a strange animal sound and looked up to see bared yellow teeth, and eyes warning me to stay where I was. I screamed, which agitated him more. The scream had alerted the other people around, who took in the situation and immediately responded; I was bombarded with advice; Do’s and don’ts and ill-timed humour.

“Sit down. Don’t move.”
“Stop screaming, you’ll scare him.”
“Don’t look him in the eye. Look away or down,”
“Don’t worry, he won’t harm you.”
“Hey, you got a monkey admirer.”
“Don’t monkey around...hahaha.”
“You picked the alpha male...”

It must have been a few minutes but to me it was eternity, before an old man who lived in the area rescued me from this siege. I laughed nervously as everyone broke into loud clapping and cheering.

The girls filed into the temple to offer their prayers to the deity. One of them left her purse, unattended, on the low wall that surrounded the compound. A very foolish thing to do in monkey territory. ..finders keepers, losers weepers it was, as a female monkey proceeded to investigate the contents. What didn’t catch her interest was tossed all over the place; and there was a lot that did not interest her...especially money. Then she came across a compact. For some reason it intrigued her enough for her to throw the purse aside and give her whole attention to the compact. While she turned it around and figured a way to prise it open, I hurriedly retrieved whatever I could, including the purse. All of a sudden, I heard a shriek. She had managed to flip open the compact and saw herself in the mirror. It was hilarious. She would glance into the mirror, look away, then shriek and jump up and down. Finally she tossed the offending compact away...I wonder if she disapproved of her image or the perceived competition.

The girls paid their obeisance to the deity and came out with prasad in their hands. We had to hurry back as it looked like rain and we did not want to get caught in a downpour. The way in and out of the Mandir was very narrow at one point, at that time. It had a wall or something, I can’t recall that, on one side and the other side went down in a slope, so people had to single file through that way. As usual, I lagged behind with a couple of girls who were intent on eating the delicious prasad. As we made our way back, we discovered we had to pay “tax” before we could pass through to the other side via the narrow passage.

One monkey out of the lot that surrounded this little pathway, was sitting right in the middle of the passageway. It would hold out its open hand ( or fore leg or whatever one calls it) and each person would put a bit of prasad into it, only then would it move aside and let the person go. All my friends paid up and passed through except for me and another girl. She was ahead of me so she was handed the remnants of prasad from the other girls. This left me with none to offer. I thought I could slip through but I sure had another think coming. Our big hairy friend would not budge. It sat staring at me and so did all the others that were squatting on the wall and all around. The moment I took a step, it would stick out its open hand. It was absolutely unbelievable! The only thing in their favour was that they were not aggressive or hostile. Finally I conceded when I realised there was no way I was going to get past that blockade. I went back and begged people to part with a bit of Prasad, which I paid as “tax” and got through.

Many years later, I worked in a residential school in the hills and there were instances of ‘monkey pranks’ all the time. But the worst was when they would attack in a group. This usually happened when they wanted food or when they were angry because someone had pelted them with stones. There was a particular gang of ‘food thieves,’ that used to hang out on the ‘dinner’ route, where an ambush would deliver a meal. A few of us did not go to the dining hall for dinner, so the maid would carry our packed dinners back to our cottages. Although she took care to avoid this notorious gang yet she got waylaid, twice or thrice. The dinners were snatched from her and she even got a few scratches in the bargain.

Monkeys are interesting creatures to watch but they can be a menace too. I suppose it is all about us folks taking up their space and habitat. We have forced ourselves upon them, encroached on their land and imposed “civilisation” on them. Well, if they ‘ape’ us must we complain?



Mandir..........temple, place of worship
Prasad..........Anything, usually edible, that is first offered to a deity in his name and then distributed to others.
Rehri (pro.. reh-di)............a hand-pushed cart with four wheels


Wednesday, June 16, 2010

I'll be away for a while..

I've been rather caught up with setting up my new Firm and have not been able to write as much as I'd love to. All my writing skills and energy are being put to use in doing writeups for flyers and website (which is under construction)and getting the presentation just right, making modules and finding the right ice-breakers, activities etc.

I will be out on my first business trip tomorrow...going uphill to visit some residential schools. Just wish me luck and those of you who pray...please pray that it goes well..:)

Will not be here on this page till Monday. See you then.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Khaandaan Ka Paandaan..cont

Superstitions, Myths and Black Magic

India is a land of many superstitions. Today we do not hear much about them, as education and science have played their part in a large way. Having said that I must mention that all don’t come under this education of the mind. India lives in the villages and in these villages superstitions thrive.

Grandma was a storehouse of strange stories, superstitions and myths. She was a strange mixture of cynicism and credulity. She was a firm believer in God, nevertheless she had a couple of beliefs that had nothing to do with him. At times, I wasn’t so sure if I wanted to believe her or not. However what I saw convinced me she was right about developing strong conviction, but not about the superstition per se. What I saw was not was extreme calm in the face of danger. This courage was born of unshakable faith. When one believes implicitly in anything, it transfers immense strength to the inner self. This is what I saw and learnt. But her stories and actions based on her belief in certain superstitions were indeed very interesting, and for that moment I allowed myself to go with it. It gave me the thrill that scary movies give...goose bumps and white-in-the-face breath stopping moments.

One of her firmest beliefs was that, a snake got hypnotised or as she put it “blinded,” if the firstborn child of a family came in front of it. Since she was the firstborn child in her family, she believed that snakes couldn’t move if they encountered her. Since we lived in the country and had big fruit gardens and vegetable gardens, our home was host to many snakes; permanent residents as well as visitors. Many of these unfortunate ones met their end at her hand. Now killing a snake isn’t such a great feat, but killing a snake that stayed rooted to the spot while she picked a lathi or stood quietly watching the snake while a stick was brought to her, now that’s something I have never seen or heard of before. The snakes were swift and agile when any other member of the family tried to nail them. They usually made their escape. To explain it further, I’ll recount an incident that truly left me flummoxed .

Grandma’s kitchen retained its rural identity to the core. It was fairly spacious, with an inbuilt “Chula” occupying the right corner in the north. A chimney, over the chula, released the fumes and smoke of this typical earthen cooking place. Coal and wood were used to light it. This corner chula, stayed burning 24X7. There would always be a kettle of tea on the embers. This was also the constant feeder for their hookah fire.

The chula was on ground level. So cooking was done seated on “pidhis.” These are very low stools made of wood with woven jute ropes forming the seat. There were four or five of these around the place. In the left corner there was a table, and a comfortable armchair. The other two corners in the south were occupied by big grain-bins and a hand pump.Grandma would sit between the chula and the table, with a kerosene stove in front of her on the floor. She would cook the main meal on this stove.

One day, I was sitting in the armchair and happily chatting away, while I ate a hot, crisp “cheeni paratha” straight off the griddle. Suddenly Grandma put her finger to her lips, signalling for me to keep quiet. I looked at her quizzically, but refrained from any verbal query. She stretched her arm out and picked up the “phukni” which was lying near the chula. Then she gestured that I should lift my feet off the ground. By now I knew it had something to do with a snake, but where was the creepy crawly? Grandma got up and bending down lifted her pidhi and kept it to one side. There coiled up and petrified lay a Cobra. I gaped and the next second I felt a scream coming up. Thankfully it got frozen into silence. Grandma lifted the iron phukni and smashed it down on the snake. She hit it some more to make sure it was dead then called Grandpa to take it out and burn it. Burn it? Why? I wondered. There is another myth attached to that.

I asked her how she knew the snake was there and when had it slipped in. She admitted that she did not know when it had come in but had sensed that there was one under her! She felt sorry that she had to kill a Cobra. She had another belief connected to that. She repeated her firstborn theory again and frankly speaking, I couldn’t but believe her then. But till date, I often wonder at the power of conviction for that is what it was all about, it had nothing to do with her being a firstborn. There were many similar instances when we saw her take her time dealing with poisonous snakes that lay quietly like lambs for the slaughter. However, none of these were burned.

This was another weird belief in the villages then, that Cobras carried a picture of their slayer in their eyes, like a negative and not like a positive print. So, if it wasn’t burned, its mate would see the image and then seek revenge on the killer. In the bargain it would attack many humans, till it found the actual murderer. This was why any Cobra that was killed had to be burned! Even as a child I found this pretty unbelievable. I wonder how people could digest this absurd story so whole-heartedly. We even had quite a few Bollywood films, at my time, based on this myth.

Grandma also believed that people used black magic to get even with their enemies or to get something they wanted really badly. I loved to hear her stories, they were spooky and I used to get chills down my spine. However what actually spooked me was an incident that convinced me that people did resort to some practices that could only be termed as “black magic” because they had evil intent. Whether these practices gave the desired result is anyone’s guess.

We had a teacher living down the road. She had married rather late in life and desperately wanted to have a baby. I am talking about the year 1965. India was a very young nation and very under-developed. We had no advanced medical facilities and generally women who wanted to have babies and could not conceive visited sadhus and medicine men, who would perform rituals to help them, while others would go to ‘tantriks.’ These are people who perform black magic.

One evening Grandma told us kids and my mother not to allow the teacher to carry my baby brother the next day. We found this odd as the teacher never did show any particular interest in my brother. She was only on ‘hello’, ‘hi’ terms with us. Besides, grandma was cautioning us about the next day, which was even more unusual. I asked her what made her expect the teacher and why we shouldn’t allow the teacher to carry my brother, but she told me that sometimes it was best not to ask too many questions.

Early the next morning, I was ‘walking’ my baby brother in Grandma’s garden when the teacher leaned over the low boundary wall of Grandma’s house and asked me to carry my brother to her. The sight of her put me on guard. This was bizarre. Grandma was right as usual, she did appear and she did show an interest in the baby. I refused to give her the baby. Then she asked me to bring him closer so she could play with him. I saw no harm in that, as she wasn’t going to carry him. No sooner had I reached the wall than she leant over and grabbed him from me. I yelled at her and called out to Grandma, who came running, and took in the scene at a glance. She literally grabbed my brother from the teacher, and for the first time I heard her talk to someone in such a harsh manner. The teacher almost ran back the way she had come. She seemed terrified by my grandparent’s vehemence. Actually right then I was a bit terrified of her too, she looked awesome; like an avenging angel…eyes blazing,and wrathful face wreathed by her crown of snow-white hair.

I was next in the line of fire. I explained that I had not let the teacher carry the baby; he was snatched from my arms. This was when she sat me down and told me that, that day was particularly auspicious and used for magical rites. I don’t remember what day it was. She explained that the teacher had displayed all the signs of black magic rituals. It had something to do with her hair being freshly washed, wet, left open and uncombed. There were a few other things that she mentioned, but I can’t recall them. Any way she called my mother and told her to keep a check on the little fellow. To monitor any change in him. By then we were all highly perturbed and worried. We did not believe in these things but Grandma was so serious about it and that affected us. Within the hour my brother developed high fever. He was taken to the doctor but I don’t think that was of any help because the fever wouldn’t subside. Soon he was throwing up. Grandma came up with all her home remedies and prayers. She prayed and prayed. Finally, the fever went down and he was well. I can recall without exaggeration, that my fat little brother became a twig in those four days.

Coincidence?... Black Magic?... I still don’t know what it was. But Grandma had predicted that the teacher would come, and had warned us about it. My perfectly, hale-and-hearty brother developed a strange fever suddenly, after being carried by the woman...again something Grandma had feared would happen. No, I don’t know what to make of it even after so many years. You can draw whatever conclusions you want.

Glossary means oven. Coal, wood are used to light it. It is made of clay (soil)
Phukni.... a bamboo or metal blowing-tube (for a fire).
Cheeni Paratha.....cheeni means sugar. Paratha is an unleavened Indian flat-bread. It is made of layered whole wheat (atta) dough. And fried on a Tava (griddle) There are many kinds of parathas. Cheeni [paratha means sugar stuffed in the paratha.


Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Khaandaan Ka Paandaan...cont

Miriam James

Miriam was born in 1900, in a small town in Punjab. Her mother, a widow, had converted to Christianity before she was born. Her mother must have been a very forward-thinking woman, an exception in that era, when in India girls were generally not allowed a formal education. She was illiterate but intelligent. She had a family to support and while she wasn’t poor, she wasn’t a lady with ample means either. In order to augment her income, she began lending money; loaning money at a fixed interest. She kept meticulous accounts despite the fact she had never been to school. Miriam was fortunate to have been born to such a woman.

Miriam’s mother decided that her daughter would have a good education. She sent her to study at a school in Andrew’s Ganj in Delhi. Miriam completed her Matriculation here. Having studied in Delhi she learnt English too, which was the main reason why her ten children learnt the language fluently even though they were studying in small town Government schools in Punjab. Miriam’s education also served in getting her an educated husband. She married Bernard James, a teacher in a government school. Teachers in small towns, in those days, were highly respected members of society and their larders were always overflowing with the offerings and gifts of grateful parents and students. It would have been very rude at that time to refuse the gifts of grain, ghee (clarified butter) fruit, farm-fresh vegetables etc, which were brought to the home of the teacher. This was “guru dakshina”(gift of gratitude from student to teacher) and not any kind of bribe for favours of any kind. It was unthinkable to attribute any such base motive to these gifts.

Miriam and Bernard had ten children, five boys and five girls. Owing to her mother’s precedent, of not discriminating against the girl child, all of Miriam’s daughters were given a sound education too along with their brothers. Bernard went on to become a Senior Teacher in the Government High School and from there he moved to the Mission Schools. He rose to occupy the post of Inspector of Schools. Their second child, Jason, was my father.

Miriam was a woman of substance. She had grit, determination, strength, perseverance, and all this coupled with her pragmatism made her one formidable force. In order to understand how progressive she was and how adept at adapting, I will have to recount this story that I would make her tell me over and over again when I was a young girl.

Grandpa would be out of town quite often, as an Inspector of Schools. This left Grandma alone with the children, and not very safe and secure as their house stood beside a huge orchard on one side and fields on the other. Times were a-changing and petty crimes like thefts were on the rise. Grandpa had already dealt with a few attempts of thieves to scale the boundary wall on the orchard side. In order to protect the home and family, she devised a plan to have Grandpa always at home. Since keeping him back physically was not possible, it had to be a ruse. Whenever he went on tour, that night Grandma would wear his “pagri,” (turban) light the “hookah”(hubble-bubble) and sit up through the night till daybreak, smoking the hookah. The glow of the hookah embers and the silhouette of a 'turbaned man' would be misleading to anyone peering over the wall. However, one day some daring men decided to take on the lone 'man.' Grandma, ever alert, heard the sounds of furtive movement and whispered voices behind the wall, and even before they could get a hold on the top of the wall and heave themselves up, she was waiting and ready with a big, thick “lathi.” The moment the first head appeared over the edge of the wall, she struck with all her strength and let out a full-throttled war cry. This sudden ferocious attack not only took the men by surprise but also woke up my father and his elder brother. Although they were in their early teens, both were tall and had robust physiques. They were quick to gauge the scene. Both were on top of the wall in a jiffy, with lathis (a stout stick, used for self-defence in India) in hand, shouting warnings and threatening dire consequences to the quickly retreating backs of the thieves.

There were two outcomes from this strategy... There were no more attempts at theft and Grandma became a regular ‘hookah’ smoker!

From then it was a common sight to see her puffing away at her hubble-bubble, not only in the night but in broad daylight too. She and Grandpa always had their lighted hookah between them and would take puffs alternately, while they chit-chatted or shared their silences. It was such a wonderful sight to see. So much of togetherness oozed out of these moments. That Grandma never hid the fact that she smoked the hookah, and indulged in her newly formed habit openly with undisguised enjoyment, speaks volumes of the kind of woman she was. In pre-Independence rural India, she was a rarity...a true woman of substance.