good reads and time-wasting projects for lazy unproductive people

The best part of having a couple of bad weeks of teeth-and-jaw-pain is not feeling bad about doing the things you most enjoy to the exclusion of almost all else. Reading in my case. I often put holds at the library on some of the newly published books, and wait my turn to read them. Sometimes, as happened recently, they all seem to become available at the same time. I was reading the new book about the Duchess of Windsor THAT WOMAN, when suddenly SOME ASSEMBLY REQUIRED, Anne Lamont’s new book written with her son Sam, came up. I read reasonably fast, but not that fast, and besides, there are all kinds of other things to interfere in my schedule. I decided all I could do was carry on, read as fast as I possibly could and hope it worked out.

Then I fiddled away an hour and a half at the library while Hubby attended a meeting there. Have you ever noticed how some things just seem to call out to you only, so loudly you can’t possibly resist? Like Oreo cookies for one. And books. With so many books all around, how could I resist picking up another  to have a look at while I waited? Bad mistake.  By the time we left, I had another book checked out–now I had three books I needed to finish in three weeks! THAT WOMAN, SOME ASSEMBLY REQUIRED, and HINDI BINDI CLUB.

I was already well into THAT WOMAN (by Anne Sebba). I had read quite a bit of books about Wallis Simpson, beginning in the late 1950s with her own autobiography (1956), THE HEART HAS ITS REASONS, so I already had an idea of who this Mrs. Simpson was. Social climber, right? I thought so then. I find that reading now, at 70, as opposed to reading about her when I had barely reached the age of majority, gave me quite a different take. I plead guilty to falling for all the hype about this “poor relation of a southern bourgeois class,” but by the time I finished this book, I’d changed my mind. At least I’d decided that no one except the Duke and Duchess themselves will ever know the truth, and they’re not talking. What seemed to be true isn’t necessarily. Depends on viewpoint, and mine had changed a lot the past 50+ years.

I remembered a taped interview of Martha Gelhorn I’d seen a few weeks back–after I watched the HBO movie about Gelhorn and Hemingway. In fact I’d viewed her through the same lens I’d used to look at Mrs. Simpson. I wished I could see or hear her to see for myself. That’s what led me to find the archived video interview with Gelhorn herself on YouTube (26 minutes). She may have started off hanging onto the coattails of Ernest Hemingway, but she sure learned to make her own way by the time that interview was done.

Wouldn’t it be nice to hear what the Duchess really sounded like? I thought I remembered seeing the two of them on 60 Minutes once. Maybe I could find that, leading me to still another online search that turned up a fascinating BBC broadcast from 1970. For about 48 minutes The Duke and the Duchess together discuss their lives, expressing opinions on modern youth, smoking, the Establishment and the role of women in society. The duke speaks candidly about his lack of a conventional job in the working world, and shares memories of his royal family. Makes me glad I wasn’t born royal. The question came down to Duty to family and country, or the right to love and marry the one who makes you happy, and we know what he decided. Who can say he was right or wrong? For sure the Monarchy under  King Edward VIII (and Wallis?) would have been far more modern than it was under King George V and Queen Mary or, for that matter, the present queen Elizabeth II.

On to Anne Lamont’s new book written with her son, Sam, SOME ASSEMBLY REQUIRED, which is her take on becoming a grandmother and Sam’s on becoming a father at 19. Like all Lamont’s books, for me thi was not a disappointment. What she brings to her writing is the feeling that she’s just like the rest of us, living from day to day trying to make sense of it all, looking for the answers when we don’t even know the right questions to ask. I especially enjoyed the several chapters (she hesitatingly spent away from her grandson) as she accounted her visit to India. She said it all the way I wish I could have. I’d recommend anyone who wants or plans to visit India to read it before you go, if for nothing else, then for the advice about how to respond to the deluge of beggars, not to mention the guilt you feel for having so much when so many poor and uneducated people there have little or nothing.

Well, now that I’d heard Martha Gelhorn, and Wallas Simpson and the Duke speak, my inquiring mind needed to know what Anne sounded like, so off I went to find her. Here she is in a video taped interview with her son. At just under an hour it’s a tad long, but I fast-forwarded through parts of it. When I was finished I wanted to move to California and become her neighbor.

Two down, one to go; it was time to pick up the impulsive pick from the library, a debut novel from 2007 by Monica Pradham. Clearly a “fast read.”  THE HINDI-BINDI CLUB wasn’t written quite as well as the other two books, and I admit I couldn’t help comparing it unfavorably to Amy Tan’s JOY LUCK CLUB, but the recipes for regional Indian dishes at the end of some chapters looked tantalizing. No doubt I’ll have to try a few.

I decided to give the novel some slack–it was a first book after all–I thought there were enough really good moments that made up for it. To my surprise, I began to like the characters, even though it was difficult at times to discern who the speakling. and I even look forward to book two if/when it comes along. The theme weaves the stories of different generations of women, mothers who grew up in different parts of India in different class systems and from what became Pakistan and their American-born children. They learn  from each other, after a series of life tragedy, what they need to know in order to sustain traditional old-world values while accepting the inevitable differences of their daughters. Likewise, the women growing up in the U.S. learn to appreciate the people their mothers were and are. Several visits to India reveal India herself changing subtly along with them. As much as I thought I already knew a lot about India, I still learned from this book. Isn’t that what we’re all hoping to do when we read?

One final word about Miss Pradham. I learned in the credits at the end that her parents settled in Pittsburgh in the late 1960s where she was born. Hubby and I lived there several years from the mid-1960s, and we were somewhat active  in the Indian Society at the University. It’s quite reasonable to think our paths may have crossed somewhere. Small world, isn’t it?

all in the family

Some of you asked about the family project that was driving me to distraction in November and  December, and I kind of dropped the ball in responding. I’m now ready to reveal this unwieldy project for whatever it’s worth. It’s a four-generation “tree” of family members of the Indian side of our family. Beginning in the middle, there’s Hubby’s father and mother (with a larger photo just above), then fanning out on both sides with each of his siblings, and their children and grandchildren, all surrounded by candid photographs from each family. Thumb sized pictures are also shown in each box, along with the birth-marriage-death dates, so that future generations can easily pair the person with the name. My daughters have commented on how many facial characteristics–head shape, lips, etc.,  they share with some of their aunts, uncles and cousins in India. It was done using Microsoft Word 2010 in a word document with all the complications encountered in producing a poster sized document on a much-smaller scaled computer monitor, drawing the text boxes within text boxes with Word’s “paint” program in the manner of “eyeballing to make everything fit. Miraculously, everything did!

Some of you may remember our planned 2010 Indian family reunion in Goa where we planned a weekend to reacquaint our daughters and their families with Hubby’s side of the family. Unfortunately, my health concerns precluded my participation, but we urged the family to proceed without us. Our daughters, not having been to India in about 25 years, asked their father for a crash course of sorts–who was married to whom, who were their children, their father or mother and so on. That may have been when the initial seed was sown to develop a patriarchal family tree for everyone’s benefit. This idea was further reinforced when we had most of Hubby’s relatives  based in the US visit us during the summer. Family genealogies were typically passed along orally, or hand-written by elders to be passed down, so somebody knew some family specifics, but despite the effort so much family history seems to get lost. I, for one, am a strong believer is preserving and strengthening family links. So for my own sake and that of our small family, I decided to undertake the task of setting down–as officially as possible within my own limitations–a family register for the current four generations, to coexist with that of my own family origins. With the current trend of geologically scattering of families, for ours it would be a beginning family connection all-around.

This undertaking was by no means a simple task. As in the case of hubby’s family in South India, complications such as there being no family surname such as Smiths or Browns as we have in the West. Instead, a child with a given name such as Fred will often be identified as Fred, son of so and so. In addition, the families often use  “clan” names which may indicate the ancestral village of their origin and the sub caste the family belongs to, although not routinely used as an official or daily use name. To complicate the matter further, the child “naming” ceremony occurs about 10 days after the birth of the child and so the hospital birth records do not identify the child with any name except as son or daughter of the father so and so. Thus, use of birth records to construct a family tree is out of the question.   The way the children in the Tamil Brahmin families are named also adds another layer of confusion. Depending on the sex of the child the given name  may be a god’s name, or a deceased grandfather or grandmother’s name.  Very often the grandparents and other close relatives weigh in on the names and the parents try to accommodate everyone’s wishes.  So, the children end up with official name (for school records) and several other names given by the relatives.  Most of the time, as in this country, the long names are shortened with nicknames for daily use.  That explains why so many of Hubby’s family are known by different names within the family. I think you can see how, for anyone born in the West, it makes for much confusion about who’s who in the family. The project was duly completed and mailed to each family a week or more before Christmas.

I believe it quite appropriate to end this posting with the same quote by Rabindranath Tagore printed on the poster itself (just above the bottom picture border). “The tapestry of life’s story is woven with the threads of life’s ties, ever joining and breaking.” Ever joining indeed! As with these kinds of charts, ours has already become obsolete, but in a good way. One of Hubby’s nephew’s wife in India just gave birth to their second daughter few days ago. As per the custom, we are waiting to learn her name.

meandering along a country lane in Nashik

Remember that old saying You can take the girl out of the country, but you can’t take the country out of the girl! As far as I’m concerned, it’s one-hundred-percent true. Ever since I began this series on India 2011, I’ve been looking forward to posting these views of a very different kind of India than the one I’ve shown you so far. It’s great to take your pilgrimages to religious temples and historic monuments, but for a very long time I wondered–where do Indians go to just get away from the proverbial rat race? Well, now I know, so I refuse to apologize for featuring these lovely village and country scenes before even telling you about the vineyard that brought us here in the first place. For now I’ll put the cart in front of the horse and save the talk about wines and all that and instead talk about the perfect getaway from crowds and traffic in Bombay.

Though we only have two days left before we leave Bombay for New York, Raghu planned a wonderful excursion that took us to Nashik, in Maharashtra State (incidentally, Bombay’s the capitol city). It’s about 180 kms away (or about 112 miles). Due to the roads and the heavy traffic getting out of Bombay, that isn’t exactly a day trip; it takes about six hours by automobile, so we’d be staying overnight. Nashik is considered India’s greenbelt and top producer of grapes (wine country), onions and tomatoes, and varieties of fruits and vegetables. It’s also where the nation’s currency and stamps printer, the Security Printing Press, is located. Incidentally, Hubby’s father was the Director of the Stamps Press in Nashik during the last three years of his career. One other tidbit you may enjoy: According to the Ramayana Hindu epic, it was Nashik’s forests where Lord Rama hid out during his 14 years of exile after killing the demon king–the one that stole Sita, I presume.  Even though it’s one of the fastest growing cities in India, there’s still room here to breathe.

And talk about breathing room! We arrived at the Sula Winery mid-afternoon. After checking into our rooms, and sharing a tray of cheese and crackers washed down with glasses of wine on the dining room veranda, it seemed the perfect time take a late afternoon, leg-stretching, walk to explore. Tomorrow we’d tour the winery and sample the wines.

Right away we come upon a cow. I wasn’t afraid as we approached, but kept a respectful distance all the same. The cow and I “eyeball” each other as we pass. I’m not sure who was more nervous, me or the cow. At least I wasn’t thinking about cobras at this point. Raghu shared with me that he thinks that cows are awesome creatures and there is nothing more peaceful than seeing a cow resting under tree looking very contented. As a country girl who practically grew up with cows, I had to agree. Both of us, dedicated amateur photographers that we are, snapped away with our cameras, I with my point and shoot canon, he with his much more sophisticated, albeit heavier, single lens reflex digital.

What could be more appealing or more restful than lakes and mountains in near perfect weather conditions . . . and could that be a bird swooping down on that tree limb? I was so busy looking at the cow I didn’t notice.

Add to that puzzle another bit of mystery–how did this USA 385 Speed Bot come to rest in this pasture in India? There has to be a story there, don’t you think?

Ditto for this little objet d´art.  It’s deceptively large in the picture. Actually it was quite small, probably about three inches long, and stitched from a gray-colored heavy canvas fabric with painted features and filled with some sort stuffing. It’s an interesting little relic and could be anything. A religious symbol of some sort? Voodoo doll? A pagan or religious amulet? Fetish doll? Most probably it’s a homemade doll some poor village child lost. Looks can be deceiving though. It’s either very frightened or very mean. Look at that mouth! I left it where it was for the next tourist to ponder.

With these kinds of vibes in the air, I must confess I wasn’t exactly unmindful of the fact that there might be cobras lurking about. I had read in the local paper from the hotel that cobras are quite common in the area. There was even a story about a resident living on the road we were on during the drive had reported one in his yard just the day before. And the sun was beginning to sink below the hills.

And then we were approaching this interesting looking structure I’d had my eye on for awhile during the walk. I asked Raghu if he knew what it was used for. Indeed he did. It’s an open-air funeral pyre Hindus use for cremating their dead. Traditionally located near a body of water (there’s just a glimpse on the right just below the tree branches), a pyre is prepared with piles of wood stacked on the concrete stage you see here.

 The body, laid out on a stretcher, is then placed on top, feet facing south (so that it can walk in the direction of the dead). The chief mourner–usually the eldest son–facing south, walks around the pyre three times, sprinkling water and ghee. He then lights the pyre with a flaming torch. After the fire consumes the body, which usually takes several hours, the mourners return home, and the entire family must then have a bath, and begin a period of mourning lasting 12 days during which the family is subject to many rules and rituals. One or two days after the funeral, the chief mourner returns to the cremation ground to collect the remains in an urn to be immersed in a river. I tried to imagine what it would be like to attend a cremation ritual as a member of the family. I was mightily relieved when Raghu informed me that only men attend the actual pyre–women and children remain at home.

You may be thinking how barbaric. However, Christian burial–when it comes right down to it–is no less barbaric. Growing up in the southern U.S., where children usually attended funerals at an early age (at least in my community), I always worried as a child What if Aunt Harriet really wasn’t dead, just in a deep sleep or in coma? How horrendous if they woke up later and found themselves in a box in a pitch black grave. I think I’d just as soon be torched as be buried in the ground.
And here’s the edge of nearby lake just to the right of the funeral pyre.

And as dusk approaches, more cows standing nearby in that peaceable kingdom may have all the answers to all the deep complexities of life and death. But they’re not saying anything. 

Well, we haven’t seen any cobras yet, and here’s a paved road home, or at least back to our rooms at the Sula BEYOND, so we elect to head back that way instead of crossing the fields in darkness.

On the way, we pass this pretty girl from a nearby farm, a perfect Kodak moment if I ever saw one.  I ask and get permission to take a photograph–and get at least two shots in as quickly as possible. (Okay, I admit that I had to do a little adjustments with the light setting because it was nearly dark by the time I took these pictures. I think they turned out well in spite of myself.)

Just today I was reading the new PEOPLE magazine, in which the “fairy-tale” wedding pictures of celebrity-for-no-reason Kim Kardashian were featured. The bride was perfectly made up with diamonds worth millions of dollars from head to toe. She was lovely of course. But may I say, no matter how much money she makes just for being the daughter of a famous dead fashion designer, she (Kim Kardashian) can’t hold a candle to the natural beauty of this simple village girl.

Finally, nearly everyday here along the Wasatch front in Utah, U.S.A., we’re treated to a wonderful sunset. Here’s what that same old sun does on the other side of the world. It’s my National Geographic moment. And look! More cows!


(Next time we’ll take a look at the winery and learn a little about the wines themselves.)

Postscript:  Daughter, S-I-L, Hubby and I enjoyed another Margarita evening on Thursday of this week. One year after the completion of my chemo- and radiation-treatments at Huntsman Cancer Institute, my scans are still clean. Happy to report we’re still living happily with NED.



malabar’s hanging garden, towers of silence, victoria terminus, and jain temple

Being a flower lover, the first time I visited Bombay and heard “hanging garden,” my imagination went wild trying to imagine a garden filled with hanging baskets of flowers. We went by ourselves, sans guide, while I loved the peace and quiet, I never did figure out why it was called the “hanging” garden. I saw lots of beautifully manicured lawns with flower borders, then as now, ringed with flowering fruit trees with exotic names, and in the distance there were views of the city, as well as Chowpatti Beach along Marine Drive if you found the right spot. I remember also the displays of topiary animal shapes cut into the hedges much like those we had seen at Disney World in the U.S.

This time was different. Our guide Sudha–seen here strolling along with Hubby–explained the name. This terraced garden is laid out over the top of the three water reservoirs that supply Bombay its water. The soil the garden is layed out on is only 6 to 30 inches thick spread over the surface. That’s why the trees grow only on the slope of its perimeter. The reservoirs, constructed in 1880, were renovated in 1921 and the capacity increased to store 30 million gallons of water. Besides providing a storage place for the city’s water, the garden is a popular destination for quiet walks and contemplation for both tourists and locals alike. It’s design is also believed to be a practical application constructed to deal with the contaminated waters from a nearby tower of silence you’ll learn more about below.

The towers of silence are located in secluded gardens in the Malabar Hills on land donated by a Zoroastrian (Parsi) industrialist and chairman of the Bombay Stock Exchange from 1966 until his death in 1980, Sir Jamshetji Jeejeebhoy. It’s off-limits to tourists, but I caught this glimpse of the steps that lead to the tower where the centuries-old custom of exposing  remains of the dead to the sun–to be picked dry by scavenging vultures–takes place.Because they regard the elements of nature as sacred, they neither cremate–as Hindus do–nor bury underground–as Muslims do–because they believe such practices corrupt the natural element of fire and earth and thus defiled by the dead.

As urbanization spread, more and more high-rise apartments were erected in Malabar Hill. Soon it was too easy to catch a glimpse of the tower’s interior. One day a citizen was horrified to see shrunken corpses stacked in piles inside the tower. He was so disturbed that he complained, and soon a wall was built to screen the tower from anyone other than those tower attendants who worked there. I must add another cautionary tale of modernity here regarding still more influence of changing times. Sometimes, as the old saying goes, you gotta do what you gotta do! As the numbers of the Zoroastrians, or Parsis, began to decline and possibly a result of pollution as well, fewer vultures are around to flock to the tower for their ghastly task. Also, for  reasons not quite so clear–those that do come seem less inclined to touch the corpses anyhow. Hence the bodies take far longer to deteriorate than they did in the past. In time, naturally, bodies begin to accumulate. In what could be referred to as a “green” attempt to assist nature, solar panels were installed. Many in the community have had enough grisly experiences, however, and continue to press for changes to the old custom. Note to self: you can’t escape change–not even when you’re dead!

In the photo below, if you look hard at the top of the dome slightly right of the gable in the center, you’ll see a statue of Queen Victoria (the white one), for whom this impressive example of Victorian Gothic architecture spectacularly infused with stone domes, turrets and pointed arches of traditional Indian architecture, was built in time for opening in 1887 on the date of her Golden Jubilee. It took 10 years to build.

If memory serves, it was the explosions from a few years ago in the Victoria Terminus, Taj Mahal Hotel and other Bombay sites that led to a policy of NO photography inside the terminal, which is a crying shame as I’ve seldom seen such a magnificent interior, especially in a train station. There were ornamental iron and brass railings, tiles, and wood carvings–angels to elephants–everywhere. I remember wishing I were skilled at sketching so I could make sketches and remember things in more detail, especially the jungle-themed facade with peacocks, gargoyles, monkeys and lions. Historian and author, Christopher London, wrote in Bombay Gothic that Victoria Terminus is to the British Raj what the Taj Mahal was the the Mughal empire.

As beautiful as it was inside, however, it was one of the noisiest, busiest places–with people swarming like bees everywhere–the noise was phenomenal. I was particularly impressed that women all ages and alone were briskly moving in and out of trains. Since I’d read in local newspapers about vicious rapes, even numerous killings of young women in Delhi’s train terminals, I had wondered how safe they felt in the chaotic confines of Victoria Station. Sudha assured me that–not only was it safe, but it was easy as well to learn the system. Women of Bombay apparently feel free to move about quite freely at any time or day in Bombay.

Like everyplace else in India, the trend of renaming important locations with Indian names in response to demands of a political organization, the station was renamed after a famed 17th century Maratha King. It’s now officially called the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, although I suspect most Indians–as I–will always think of it as Victoria Station.  Whatever you want to call it, it’s still the busiest railway station in Asia.

Another tour, and yet another temple! I expect my readers are getting used to finding temple notations throughout our India tour this year. How better to learn about the people than to explore the institutions they erect. The last temple we would visit was the Jain Temple located nearby in Malabar Hill. It’s relatively new, built in 1903. One of the significant differences in the Hindu sect of the Jains is that their followers are not only strict vegetarians, as are most Hindus, but they go to great lengths to avoid killing any living thing. Flowers are used as offerings in most Hindu temples, but not here at the Jain Temple, lest a bug inside the petals inadvertently be killed. Some sweep the path ahead of them while walking, and often wear masks so they won’t accidentally inhale insects. The most devoted among them will not eat any root vegetable like carrots or potatoes for fear of killing bugs when pulling the roots from the ground.

The entrance to this Jain temple is flanked by two stone elephants, like the one in the picture above.

One of the main tenets of the Jain community is charity. In this temple, a group of volunteers from the temple assist the poor by providing the means to purchase medicine they might not otherwise be able to afford. Each worker carefully looks over the individual doctor-issued prescriptions to verify their legitimacy, then the prescriptions are filled at the pharmacy, and dispensed afterwards to those who need them.

One final note for this post. I kept noticing bamboo scaffolding around construction and buildings of all sizes–skyscrapers, and modern office buildings alike–during our stay, like this one:

I kept thinking it couldn’t possibly be a scaffold assembly because the bamboo poles looked far too flimsy, but I asked the guide about it anyway. I’m so glad I don’t let the risk of sounding ignorant outweigh my desire to know things! She was quick to point out sound reasons to use old-fashioned albeit flimsy looking bamboo rather than the metal I was used to see in the U.S. (1) it’s strong–in spite of its skeletal look, and (2) it’s extremely lightweight and easy to handle, and very flexible as well, plus another decided advantage in what would soon be a very hot Bombay summer–it stays cooler than metal and thus less likely to burn bare foot workers. Sometimes simple is just better and a lot less expensive.

Next we’ll visit an art festival and have tea in the newly renovated Taj Mahal Hotel. Hope you’re able to come too.

mani bhavan (Mahatma Gandhi Museum)

This is Sudha, our guide for the day.

As we arrive at the Malabar Hills residence where Mahatma Gandhi lived from 1917 to 1934 during his visits to Bombay, I couldn’t help thinking about all the things I’ve read over the years about western women’s attraction to Gandhi, particularly one American woman–whose name completely escapes me now–who would likely have lived in my grandmother’s generation. I could hardly imagine my mother, and certainly not my grandmother (!) traveling alone to India to live and work with a little brown man–prophet or not–and I wondered if I would see any allusion to her now.

The house belonged to Shri Revashankar Jhaveri, Gandhi’s friend. This is what the neighborhood looks like now. (That’s the museum grounds behind the concrete wall on the right.) In the series to come of other tourist attractions in the Malabar Hills, it will become very evident that this part of Bombay is a very exclusive area with property values of more than $1200 per square ft, which only the wealthiest Bombay citizens can afford.

Gandhi’s lifetime spanned October 2, 1869 when he was born, to January 30, 1948 when he was assassinated. Everything commonly known about him casts him as a very simple man dedicated to equality and justice, but a closer look reveals a much more complex man. I knew from my reading, for instance, that as his father lay dying, a 16-year-old Gandhi was having sex with his wife Kasturba (whom he had married at age 13) in a nearby room. When a servant came to inform him of his father’s death, the guilt he felt was overwhelming. Indeed, at age 39, while still married to Kasturba, he made the decision to become celibate until he learned to truly love, not just lust. I don’t know what is true, nor what is untrue, but like any man of great notoriety, many things have been written about the Mahatma. In fact a book published just this spring alleges that actually he forsook his wife for a relationship with another man–and was indeed bisexual. In terms of what he accomplished during his lifetime, I don’t think it much matters at this point. Gandhi himself said once that truth alone will endure; all the rest will be swept away in the tide of times.

Be that as it may, these things were much on my mind as I entered the museum, and I confess I wished that (1) I were psychic or at least truly believed in it, and (2) that I would be able to sense what was real and what wasn’t. I came out knowing very little more than when I entered, but still thinking of the Mahatma as a very interesting man. There were absolutely no references to any feminine relationships, western women or otherwise.

In the library, because these are the things I like to know about people, I checked to see what kinds of books he’d collected and read. I noted a lot of Tolstoy–even a collection of short stories.

There were also copies of letters to he’d written to famous people like Roosevelt and Einstein–as well as Tolstoy–but the one that drew my attention most firmly was the one he wrote to Hitler, in which he addresses the recipient as “Dear Friend.” The letter goes on to say “Friends have been encouraging me to write to you for the sake of humanity. But I have resisted their request because of the feeling that any letter from me would be an impertinence. Something tells me that I must not calculate and that I must make my account for whatever it may be worth.” The next paragraph continues with “It is quite clear that you are the one person in the world who can prevent a war which may reduce humanity to a savage state. Must you pay that price for an object however worthy it may appear to you to be? Will you listen to the appeal of one who has seliberately [sic] shunned the method of war not without considerable success. Any way I appreciate your forgiveness, if I have erred in writing to you.” Signed M.K. Gandhi and addressed to Herr Hitler of Berlin, Germany.

I’ve always been obsessed by all things in miniature, so naturally the dioramas  depicting important civil disobedience protests Gandhi led during his lifetime became my immediate focus. This one demonstrates boycotting of foreign cloth that resulted in an immense bonfire in Bombay that kindled India’s economic emancipation in 1921.

This is the bedroom with a portrait of Gandhi on the wall, and various antiquated spinning wheels lining the walls. The simple cot, on which we assume he slept while staying here, seems almost an afterthought . . . and–try as I might–I couldn’t, and can’t, see a single ghost or spirit to tell me who the real Gandhi was, can you?

Next post:  continuation of Malabar tour with stories from the Towers of Silence.

first, a bit about bombay

If pressed for a one-word impression of Bombay, I would choose cosmopolitan, or to expand a little further, it’s the financial and entertainment capital of India, much like New York City here in the U.S.   First of all, let’s get the name out of the way. With the limits of history taught in my country grammar school added to the disinterest I showed in my high school days, I’d always assumed Bombay was named by the British after they arrived in the 17th century. In the beginning, or at least before written history, much of the west coast of India was pretty much owned and controlled by the Mughal Empire who didn’t call it anything as far as I know. In actuality it was named by the Portuguese–those same adventurers who invaded most of the western coast of India fairly early in the 16th century. It looked to them like a beautiful bay so they called it that. BOM, meaning or “beautiful” and BAHIA meaning bay. In 1995, it was renamed Mumbai from Bombay but many of us, even those who live there, still refer to it as Bombay.

Throughout much of history, marriage arrangements have determined who gets what in the territorial department. That’s how Britain was added to Bombay’s picture in 1661–through the marriage treaty drawn between Charles II of England and Catherine of Braganza, the daughter of King John IV of Portugal.  As part of Catherine’s dowry to Charles, the islands along the coast that made up Bombay was turned over to the British Empire. Of course we all know how the British, and since then, the rest of us, grew  quite fond of India’s tea and spices. Not too long after that, it was turned over to the East India Company. A self-taught artist by the name of Robert Melville Grindlay served with the East India Company’s military service from 1804-20 and during this period produced a large number of sketches and drawings recording the life and landscape of India. A copy of one, done in 1826, shows the early cosmopolitan culture of the city, which endures to this day.

The Gateway of India was built in 1914-18 to commemorate King George V’s and Queen Mary’s visit in 1911. The arch is Muslim style and the decorations Hindu style. It’s probably the most visited attraction in Bombay because it’s a good place to hang around. The last of the British troops to leave India–after independence on August 15, 1947–ceremoniously passed through the Gateway for the last time in 1948 on the 28th of February.        

The beautiful Venetian Gothic style building on the far left , the David Sassoon Library, is located on Mahatma Gandhi Drive. Sir Sassoon was a wealthy Jewish Bombay banker.

From my first Bombay visit, in 1980, I have many memories of thousands of virtually homeless people living in slums like those portrayed in the movie Slumdog Millionaire. Those shadow city slums are still there, but I didn’t see so many this time. In talking to local family members, it seems some of them could afford to live in better digs, but prefer not to–for reasons I can only imagine. These pictures show how a large majority of the lower classes still live . . .

but they are located within the city adjacent to major highways but well away from the commercial center.

Things look decidedly better the nearer you get to the city.

Then there’s the famous harbor area near the Taj Mahal Hotel. Yachts, fishing boats, commercial cruise lines, sailboats–you can see them all here. Thirty years ago, on a far less crowded day, we were waiting to board a ferry to the Ghandupuri Island there the Elephanta Caves are. A Saudi Arabian man stood on the top deck of a yacht similar to the one below drinking a bottle of Coca Cola. As I looked directly at him, he turned to look at me and offered me one, which I declined.

The haves (as opposed to the have nots) will most probably be found in a highrise like this one along Marine Drive.

The middle class nature of this old-looking condominium is apparent where laundry is hung out to dry every morning, just as you can see along the balconies of many of the high rise condos in the suburbs. People seem to own fewer clothes and wash each day’s soiled clothes every morning. There are views for awhile, but they often disappear when another high-rise rises in front of you. Imagine living in a unit in the middle building. The view from there will be the window of another unit across from you.

Here we enter one of the high end malls, the Palladium. Known as one of THE places for the ultimate experience in high end shopping, its elegant interiors spread across four levels with premium and luxury brands mixed in with small gift shops and boutiques. I checked prices in one of the less expensive stores and found they were no cheaper in India than the U.S. Any westerner would feel comfortable shopping or spending an afternoon here, even if he/she can hardly afford to buy anything . . . unless it’s on sale of course! India’s merchants caught on very quickly to the western mode of inducing people to buy things they probably wouldn’t otherwise with those gigantic 51% OFF signs.

When I return, we’ll have a look at some of the unique sights and attractions of the city, such as the Dhobi Ghats, the Hanging Gardens, the house where Gandhi lived during some of his more tumultous years between 1917-1934, and of course another temple–the one a fascinating look at the Jain religion. Hope you’ll be here too.

a day in nagpur looking for the old days & ways

Very early the second morning after our arrival in Bombay, we flew off once again–jet setters we are!–to visit Hubby’s sister and brother-in-law in Nagpur where  Hubby was born and often refers to as “home.” This is his sister Saradi.

And this is her husband, Dr. Nagarajan, the author of some of the more distinguished comments on a few of my Wintersong posts. Quite the educated pair, he holds several PhDs as well as one D. Litt already and currently working on a second. She earned her master’s degree after her kids were born. These are the posed versions of the two, the resulting likeness you get when you ask someone if it’s okay if you take their picture. Very nice, but only revealing how you looked the day the photograph was taken.

But do they show the real “you”? Invariably the pictures I like best are those taken without warning, preferably after someone has just cracked a joke or repeated an old family story. This is my favorite pictures of these two; it’s the image of them I now carry around in my head.

Then, as is often customary when you visit someone’s home for the very first time–particularly when you’re staying overnight–there’s a quick tour to show you where things are. This is Saradi’s kitchen with that familiar two burner stovetop similar to the others I’ve been seeing in homes I’ve visited (and the houseboat in Kerala).

When I spotted this sewing machine in an extra bedroom, it took me back to my childhood and my own mother’s old straight-stitch Singer sewing machine. This model is India’s answer to Singer, an Usha,  and is about 70 years old according to Hubby, probably purchased not too many years after India first produced their own indigenous sewing machine in 1934. This one works by turning the wheel on the right with your hand while pushing the pedal to and fro with your feet. I remember how tiring that was when I was forced to take a home conomics class in my old grade school in Florida.

Shelves in the living room are filled with books, several of which were authored by Dr. Nagarajan himself. Imagine my surprise–and pride–when I spied my own there as well (the book with the red spiral binding in this stack).

We made our way through several cups of tea and coffee and other treats Saradi had kept in store for us in short time. We spend a couple or more hours in the local Orthopedic clinic to check my thigh that was still quite bothersome and happy after the x-rays when Doc assures us there’s nothing more serious than hemotoma and that all that’s needed is a few days of rest. After lunch we take the car and driver hired for the day to explore the old haunts of Nagpur. Our first stop led to a short hike around a quiet garden alongside a very large lake. (I wish I’d taken more and better notes because now I can’t remember what it was called.) Not far in, we felt we’d been catapulted into a lover’s lane rather than a public garden.

Imagine the chagrin of the two couples from the photo above, shown closeup here. They obviously thought they’d found the perfect hideaway from prying eyes until I showed up with camera in hand. The couple on the left pull a thin scarf to cover their heads, but the seemingly oblivious couple on the green bench behind the umbrella, backs to us, are pretty sure they’re safe. Oooooh, despicable me!

 Hubby was really surprised to see so many college age men and women co-mingling along the path. That is not the India he remembered leaving behind 45 years ago. There were couples (some even smooching surreptitiously) everywhere.

We all wondered aloud if the parents of these students knew where their children were. Clearly, India today is not the India that Hubby remembers. Even Saradi was amused but still a bit taken aback at such public displays of affection. This behavior was unheard of during her college years.

Our tour continued with a search for the neighborhood where they had lived when they were young. Instead of the row of small bungalows they remembered, their old street was covered with a partially completed, several storied glass and aluminum shopping structure. It was hard to imagine what it had been like all those years ago. There’s the street corner where Dr. Gayaprasad’s practice had been–the building still standing where the family went when in need of medical treatment. They fondly recollected the doctor. In Hindi “Gaya” means gone and “Prasad” means blessings. They remembered that everytime they had to visit him, the doctor would jovially remind them that after he was born and given the name Gayaprasad, there were no blessings left. Funny, the memories of childhood that stay with you forever.

After I turned 25 or so, I began to realize the only constant in life is change. Various learned people have said so. Thomas Wolf reminded us of  it when he wrote You Can’t Go Home Again, and Greek philosopher Heralitus (c 535 BC-475 BC) when he said you cannot step twice into the same river, for other waters are continually flowing on. But I maintain that–for some of us–the only human begging routinely for change is a wet baby.

We did find another neighborhood nearby reminiscent of the old one, at least close enough that Hubby was quick to point it out to me. Even though the light of day was fast fading, I snapped a picture. With a bit of photoshopping, I could see a row of bungalows behind a shopping district with restaurants and clubs…unlit streets…young people milling about. I tried to imagine a little boy around 10 playing in the unlit streets with his three older brothers and the neighborhood gang of boys whose fathers could be heard cursing them for not being at home studying. By reputation, only Hubby and his three older brothers could afford to ignore their studies for play because they were all No. 1 in their classes, thus had no need to study.

No visit to a new city can be complete, of course, until we’ve had a meal in a fancy restaurant, even though Hubby pointed out I’d posted enough food pictures already. We ate in what appeared to be a restaurant popular with the locals. Dr. Nagarajan ordered family sized portions of some of our favorites shown here on my plate, left to right clockwise from 11 o’clock position, spinach saag, bhindi (okra–sometimes called “lady’s fingers” in India) masala, a curry of mixed vegetables, and dal. On the table are slices of raw onion and a flat Indian bread.

The restaurant’s decor was quite unlike that of the typical Indian restaurant in the U.S. This one featured artfully arranged, three dimensional thread spools on a quilted background of dark blue fabric.

Sculptured birds in flight above narrow fabric covered pastel panels create a colorful backdrop that suggest to me lakes, mountains, and other natural vistas.

Outside as we were looking for our car and driver, Dr. Nagarajan pointed at the theater across the street. He mentioned that he and his wife had often had dinner in the same restaurant and attended movies when they were younger.

I hadn’t seen them for several years, the last time being around 1995. I remembered Dr. N was feted a year ago with a celebration of his 80th birthday. Saradi, in her 70s, was several years younger. Measuring them in terms of my own aging, I expected to find an old, frail couple. For that reason we limited our visit to only an overnight stay. What we found instead was a couple with seemingly limitless energy and enthusiasm for life. While Dr. N and myself were less willing or able to scout about on foot, Saradi almost put all of us to shame during our shopping expeditions of the day to find the perfect gold earrings as a gift for me (I wear them nearly all the time now) and a stylish Indian Kurta (off-white with gold trim) for Hubby. When we left to return to Bombay early the next morning, we were wishing that we had been able to extend our stay a bit longer so we could have spent more time with them.