Tuesday, March 7, 2017

What Can Women Do?


It is being talked about everywhere......International Women’s Day! For the past one week or so, the same topic is everywhere; be it the radio, television or the newspaper. Got me thinking as to what it is, to be brought up as a girl in post independent India. In what way was my mother’s life different from mine and how was her life different from my grandmother’s?

                I was born in a Tamil Brahmin family exactly Eleven years after India became an independent country. My maternal grandfather was posted at Pollachi in Tamilnadu and I was born at home on 17th October 1958. My father, far away in Delhi was jubilant and treated all his friends to Masala Dosa, Sweets and Coffee, much to the amazement of his North Indian friends. Even the landlady to whom he joyously handed a packet of Doodh Pedas, shook her head and consoled my dad; don’t worry, next time you will be blessed with a son!

 My early childhood is a long list of colourful memories; the spotted deer of Delhi zoo, the white Roshogullas at Bengali market, boat rides and fun at the India Gate and the long convoluted slides of the famous Children’s park. My parents taught me to recite Shlokas and taught me the alphabets and numbers with the eagerness of all young parents with their first born. Soon we shifted to Rishikesh, where my father was one of the pioneers in setting up the IDPL factory. I was sent to the project school along with all the other children of IDPL employees. All boys and girls studied together and even after 55 years I fondly remember all the fights, fun and masti we had in the class room when the teacher was away. Many of my friends had six or seven siblings. I remember Jayshree who had five sisters, and finally her mother gave birth to a boy and there was such jubilation and celebration. Another friend Preeti had seven sisters but no brother. There was another boy Rajesh who had four brothers but no sisters. I was the only one who had no sibling up till I was ten years old.

 IDPL was a Public Sector undertaking, and there were people from all parts of the country, but as far as I can remember, there was no discrimination between boys and girls. In fact girls always got a little more, be it the special Lehenga for Rakhi or coloured glass bangles for all major festivals. We got to play Sita’s friends in the local Ramleela play, where we would all be decked up in finery and flowers and got to occupy the prime position on the stage on the day Sita Svayamvar was  enacted. The boys only got to wear red or black shorts depending on which side of the army they were in the Ram-Ravan Yuddh. Their faces were unrecognizable as they were either painted red or black. All they got to do was run around the stage shouting Jai Shreeram if they were part of the Vanar Sena and make strange noises if they were part of the Raavan army. Even in the school annual day, girls got all the glam and glitter, while the boys sweated it out on the sports field.

                It was my mother who took care of my early childhood education as father got very busy with purchase and accounts and recruitment in the new pharmaceutical industry. She herself went to school only up to Eighth standard at Bishop Cotton Convent in Trivandrum. She told me tearfully one day, that her father had to withdraw her from school as in those days girls were not allowed to go out of the house once they attained puberty. She was so sharp that I am certain if she was allowed to pursue higher education she would have ended up as a scholar. My mother had told me the story of her paternal grand aunt Shankarambal who got widowed at the age of seven and was not allowed to go out of the house, play, wear colourful clothes or glass bangles. One day she asked her father the reason for the treatment she got and he explained that her husband was bitten by a snake and he had died. Hence she has become a widow and widows are not supposed to enjoy anything in life. According to my mother, this aunt requested her father to be allowed to study. A home tutor was appointed and she was taught by him sitting behind a screen. She studied hard and stood first in the state of Travancore in the matriculation exams. Her father was so impressed that he made arrangements for her to study medicine. Later on she went abroad and got her MRCP and FRCS and returned as an accomplished surgeon. She never remarried, but adopted two boys and led a fulfilled life. Whenever I asked my mother as to why she did not protest and insisted on studying further, she evaded the question and never answered. My grandmother too was married off at the age of eleven and became a mother at the tender age of fourteen. My paternal grandmother too got married at twelve and by the time she reached thirty was a mother of fourteen children. I remember them as extremely intelligent, wise and erudite women. They were almost magical in the way they handled the entire household, took care of their children and grand children, gracefully handled all social obligations and remembered every single recipe, ritual, story, and songs for every occasion. Surely they were highly respected and emancipated members of society. I am not condoning child marriage and multiple childbirth and domestic slavery, but I marvel at the dignity with which the women of my grandmother’s times carried themselves, and carved out important social niches for themselves.

                One of the many women who left a lasting imprint on my growing years was my school headmistress Miss Pateth. She encouraged me to be part of every single academic event in the city as well as state and honed my communication skills in Hindi as well as English. After passing class eight it was time to shift to the Girls Inter College in the city as the project school was only up to class eight. Our Headmistress Dr. Hemvati Gupta was a freedom fighter and a firm believer in woman empowerment. She wanted us to be part of the state cricket team and take part in all other sporting and cultural events. We grew up idolising Diana Idulgi and Shanta Rangaswamy( the female cricketing legends of India). Of course we had our share of crushes on Sunil Gavaskar, Farooq Engineer, Tony Lewis, and Greg Chapel.

 The seventies were the time of great romantic Hindi films with the handsome Rajesh Khanna, the poster boy. Many of my classmates had secret crushes on anyone who managed to look like Rajesh Khanna. It was also the era of angry young man Amitabh Bacchan and the boy next door Amol Palekar. Art films like Ankur, Nishant, Mrigaya with strong social messages left a very lasting impression those days. The 1960-80  was the most happening era of the century. While the Indo-Pak wars left us all steeped in patriotic fervour, the clamping of Emergency by Prime minister Indira Gandhi left us all groping in the darkness of political turmoil. Man landed on moon, the television sets took over our social lives and Doordarshan took up the role of friend, philosopher and guide.

I was sent to Dehradun to complete my graduation and Post graduation. Many of my father’s friends wanted to know as to why he was spending so much money and risking sending me to a hostel for higher studies. These were the very same people who went to clubs and danced and drank, but became very conservative when it came to their daughters’ upbringing. The city of Dehradun those days was a curious mixture of modern, fashionable and forward looking yet traditional social set up. We were the first batch of the students of the newly formed Garhwal University. The ‘Chipko’ movement started by the women of Uttarakhand (the erstwhile UP) against large scale deforestation of the hills was at its peak and the sparks of agitation for a separate state had been ignited.

It was an exciting era, with great women like Sushila Dobhal as the Vice Chancellor of Garhwal University. Social evils like the dowry system and child marriage were strongly condemned and many of our male friends publicly took oaths to never marry for dowry. It was an age of idealism; female foeticide was unheard of, there were very few dowry deaths. Parents were convinced about educating their daughters and letting them work. The sunshine of gender equality had started peeping through the dark clouds of oppression.

                I think it was the sudden surge of material well being and the rat race for more material gain that upset the apple cart. Our next generation suddenly had too much of everything; from information to communication to access to more opportunities for some, and deprivation for many others. The entire society got caught in the cross current of conflicting ideas and ideals and what was perceived as modern vs traditional. The state of anxiety and the confusion that this conflict has brought is the reason for all the aggression, violence and hatred.. It is sad to know that women young and old alike no longer feel safe; gender bias and gender based crimes have surpassed all limits, and women of our country have to fight for everything; even the right to be born!  

                The scenario is not restricted to India alone. The air in the world is thick with intolerance, hatred and violence. The root cause of it all-greed to possess more and more, and if you can’t do that, annihilate those who seem to have more than you.

                What can women do to change the scenario? Stand united, move on with conviction; raise your voice against everything that is threatening peace on this planet. Don’t be afraid because you are a woman, because that is your greatest strength! Get your act together and show the world the path to peaceful co existence!

                HAPPY WOMENS DAY..........

 

Sunday, August 29, 2010

The Heavenly Canvass






20th August 2010....7AM. I am ready for my trek in the valley of flowers. Suman, the cook at GMVN guest house has agreed to be my guide/companion for the trek. Everyone warns us about the rain and the landslide on the way. I am determined to go....We reach the valley gate and move in. The drizzle is heavy and constant, but the scenery is beautiful. We cross the first bridge and the second bridge which is a length of tin kept in place by boulders. The Pushpavati river is swollen and the waters seem to be in a great hurry to go down. The flowers are all familiar, I had just been there the day before. Something above catches my eye and I look...It is a wonderful sight! The blue cones of Abies webbiana...the inky blue dotted with the white resinous oozy secretion looks delicious...like some exotic gourmet ice cream! I click away from every possible angle. There are Barberry bushes laden with ripe red Berries..Suman plucks some and offers..i put one in my mouth very gingerly. Delicious! I pop a handful of them in my mouth. The taste is so unique, so energising!
We meet a group of Valley of Flower enthusiasts; a group of women from all walks of life, pursuing different professions have got together and come all the way, just to experience the valley of flowers!One of them points out an inflorescence of Aconite, royal blue in colour...No one in the group wants to believe that the roots of this plant contain deadly poison which is used as medicine to cure many ailments.
We reach the area of the big landslide. It is actually a melted glacier. The frozen water keeps the incline negotiable, but as soon as the ice melts, everything comes off loose! Now we have to climb up the rocks and come down again to be back on the path to the valley. There are quite a few enthusiastic visitors; a portly gentleman with his tripod and a big SLR camera tries in vain to take a few pictures of the spectacular valley. The rain and the mist make it impossible....
Finally we step into the main land of the valley, and we are greeted by a million Impatiens, Potentilla, Cyananthus, Geranium and Angelica... It is a heavenly canvass of blue, pink, yellow, white and gold and emerald green. I manage to take a few pictures with my Samsung SL 605. I am pleased with results! Thanks to digital technology! The polygonum weeds have taken over everywhere, and the golden ferns are threatening to steal the ground from beneath the delicate Angiospermic herbs. The blue Gaultheria berries are tempting and so are the lovely bell like flowers of Silene. The white Anemone dot the ground and the stately Angelica form pretty white canopies.The pedicularis, Phlomis, Thymus and Fritillarias add to the attraction. I want to keep moving ahead and visit Joan Margaret Legge's Memorial. Suman seems a little reluctant, but I egg him on. We cross the most dangerous bridge; a long piece of tin kept in place by big boulders. The water rushing below the bridge looks menacing. We wade through icy cold water, cross the rickety bridge and wade through some more water to get to the other side. A few hundred meters more to Legge's grave, the signboard says. All our companions have gone back, the rain gets heavier, and Suman is not particularly happy walking towards a grave in such weather! I keep walking, and finally we reach the memorial stone on Legge's grave. The presence is awesome, i can almost visualise the great Botanist, pencil and notepad in hand, walking through the alpine meadows, noting down every single detail. The mist is rising from the meadows up to the hills and the little clouds of mist look like dancing apparitions! The pink Impatiens and Geranium and the white Angelweed make a pretty backdrop for the impromptu performance. I share a bar of Five Star chocolate with Suman, and click a few pictures and decide to return. This time I agree with Suman, we must cross the bridges before they get swept away. A pair of whistling thrushes decide to lead us and keep us company. They flit about amidst the gay profusion of flowers, almost tantalizingly. I want to click their picture but they vanish as soon as i take the camera out of the case. The rain is pelting down heavily and we take shelter under a huge boulder. A Pica( rabbit mouse) peeps from its dwelling place, probably eying for the tit bits that might fall. Suman shares his Aloo Paratha and Sabzi with me. we drink the cold water from the brook gurgling and rushing below and move on. I see some yellow Corydalis, red Potentilla and Epilobium on the way back. There is a bee enjoying the nectar from an Erigeron flower and I manage to capture it on camera. More Lichen festoons greet us on the way back. I click some more pictures of the blue pine cones. We are almost near the gate , the town of Ghangharia looks small and enveloped in the mist. Suman insists that i take a picture with the town as backdrop. I oblige and he clicks...the most nostalgic photograph of the trip!
Next morning 6 AM and I am ready to leave. No mules to take me down to Govind Ghat. The streams on the way are overflowing and no mule wants to cross it. Everyone is waiting for the rain to stop. i move on, my back pack slung on my shoulder I move down to Govind Ghat... Good Bye Ghangharia and the beautiful Valley of Flowers!
Adios! till we meet again,and I am sure I am coming back to see the heavenly canvass once again!

Saturday, August 28, 2010

The Brahmakamal










19th August, 5AM....I start for Hemkund Saheb. The drizzle is non stop. I want to trek beyond the Lokpal lake so I hire a mule to go up the 6 Km steep incline. My fellow traveler is an old Sikh woman, who keeps chastising the mule man for beating it with a stick.It is dark and the mule moves up the steep slope. As things get visible I see the small town of Ghangharia left way below. We stop for a cup of tea at the 2Km mark. There is no sunshine, but the rain seems to have stopped! We move on...the climb gets more and more steep. Both sides of the path are laden with flowers, small yellow Corydalis, white Anemone and the red Bistorta greet me. I spot the beautiful blue Aconite and a rain soaked droopy blue poppy plant; but my eyes are straining to see my first Brahmakamal. The climb is getting steeper now, we take a sharp turn below a glacier, I look up to see the Gurudwara gate: Lo and behold! I see the first Brahmakamal perched precariously on a hanging piece of rock. It's white petals catch the first ray of the sun and the glow is ethereal!7:30 and I have reached the Lokpal lake. I dismount the mule and make a beeline to the ancient Lakshman temple. The Pujari has just begun his daily ritual of offerings and prayer. I sit cross legged on the damp mat and watch patiently. He puts a big sandal and vermilion dot on my forehead and gives me some prasad.The pujari's son appears and I ask him if I could get someone to accompany me to the slopes above the lake. He agrees to come with me after some initial hesitation.We walk up and after a few hundred meters i see the entire slope covered with Brahmakamal. The sight is absolutely amazing...my camera goes crazy clicking them from every possible angle. there are singles, twins and large groups of Brahmamkamal. some are surrounded by the red colored Bistorta. I spot a beautiful plant of the Himalayan blue poppy. it's petals are translucent blue, and the water droplets make it look so heavenly! amidst the rocks I find a beautiful plant of the white Ranunculus! the flowers are just opening! My heart leaps with joy! The dizzying altitude of 4500 meters is playing up with my imagination....the lake, the Gurudwara behind the lake and the tiny Lakshman temple look picturesque in the mist. it has started raining again...I do not bother to cover my head...I feel i am being blessed by the gods I cherish the pure divine moments......
The descent is particularly dangerous, with rain making the steps slippery. People warn me not to take the steps but I have already come down half way...more Brahmakamal on the slopes. i keep clicking as i come down. My legs are jammed, every step is a torture...I make it to the rest house by 4PM, tired and soaked to my skin. But my heart is singing a song and my camera is laden with memories of the beautiful flower of Brahma, the creator himself!

Journey to the Garden of Gods






The wanderlust in me compels me to visit the valley of flowers once again! So what do i do? Pack my bags, make necessary arrangements at home and my workplace, book my accommodation at Ghangharia and leave. 17 th August 2010...5 AM there is a heavy drizzle. I hop into the first bus to Joshimath. The day moves on as the bus ambles through the long ascent in the mountains. Our first stop is at Devaprayag. I get down to take some pictures. I buy a few bananas, and to my amusement find all the cows in the area surrounding me; they want the banana skin! I eat half of a banana and feed it to one cow, and the next one and next and next go the same way. the driver sounds the horn and i hop back into the bus. The bus moves on, the steep ascent is evident as the river below looks tinier and tinier. We stop for lunch at Mayapur. I share the table with two sadhus from Khajuraho. They find it very strange, a woman traveling all by herself just to look at some flowers! i reach Joshimath at about 4PM. A Sumo taxi takes me up to Auli for the night. Am I dissappointed? Auli is enveloped in thick monsoon mist and cloud and the downpour is steady. Can't see beyond my nose!Next morning is the same rainy misty cold weather, and i am told that the road to Govind Ghat may not be in a motorable condition. We drive down to Joshimath and what joy! The roads have been repaired! Off we drive through the awesome Vishnuprayag valley and reach Govind Ghat. It is 10 AM and I straight away take a mule up to Ghangharia. I reach the GMVN guest house at Ghagharia at about 1PM after a 14Km long uphill ride on a mule(his name was Bobby and whenever he went astray, a gentle call of Booby Darling! would put him back on track!). I complete the necessary formalities, dump my bag at the guest house and rush out, camera in hand to take a look at the valley! The waterfall at the climb to Hemkund Sahib cascades down in full fury, and I feel like putting my hand up and greeting the beautiful scenery in front of my eyes. I am stopped at the gate to the valley. No one goes in as late as this, I am told. I promise to take a quick look and return by 3. I am allowed in very reluctantly. I walk past many curious trekkers and tourists returning from the valley. The 3 Km trek to the valley is laden with flowers and festooned with strands of Lichen hanging down from the blue coned Abies trees. I go trigger happy....clicking away. The Origanum and Thallictrum, Inula and Ligularia form a colourful tapestry on the forest floor. I amble up the path under the little waterfall and cross the first bridge. More curious tourists on their way back want to know why I am going in so late. The mauve Erigeron and the pink Impatiens look bright and cheerful in spite of the incessant drizzle. I cross the third bridge when I am sent back by the forest ranger. Danger ahead, fresh mud slides near the glacier and many more expected. I trek back through the familiar market place of Ghangharia. I am told at the GMVN rest house that if I want to see the celebrated Brahmakamal i must trek up to Hemkund Saheb. So i decide to do that next morning and call it a day!

Monday, June 22, 2009

visit to Rajaji National Park



It was a warm summer afternoon. My daughter Radhika had just arrived from Delhi. I went to pick her up at the station and on the way we decided to spend our afternoon at Rajaji National Park;just a half an hour drive from our home at Rishikesh. It was indeed a thriling experience, we encountered herds of spotted deer, elephants and a pair of Kalij pheasants and the ubiquitous langurs and rhesus monkeys.
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Sunday, June 21, 2009

Journey to Paradise


Circa 1976....DAV Collage, M.Sc. Botany first year, Dr. Somdev Sharma's taxonomy classes, and field trips to various places in and outside Dehradun. It was the boys only trip to the famous Valley of Flowers that made all of us girls green with envy. We were told that the journey was perilous, there was no proper place to stay, one had to sleep in wayside tea shops and trek endlessly through glaciers and rickety bridges and camp inside the park for days to get a glimpse of the elusive plant species; especially the Brahmakamal, Saussuria obvollata.The desire to visit this Paradise on earth lingered on....even after thirty three long years. The trip was planned, and we set off on a warm and pleasant morning by a private taxi to Govind Ghat, the last point of motorable road. Breakfast at Monal, lunch at shangrila in Karnaprayag and we were in time for gate no. three to Govind ghat. The gate system still exists between Joshimath and Govind Ghat in order to regulate traffic to Badrinath. We had tea at Vishnuprayag where Bibek went crazy clicking pictures of mountain birds, and off we went at full speed oscillating between 2500meters above sea level to 1059 meters. At about four in the evening we reached Govind Ghat and almost immediately started off on a fourteen km long trek to the bustling town of Ghangharia located at about 3020 meters above sea level. The trek was steep, but was breathtakingly beautiful with the playful Laxman Ganga, a small tributary of Alaknanda rushing down through the dense forests of Quercus, Alnus, Rhododendron,Walnut, Pine,Maple and Abies. The bushes of cane, wild roses, prunus and the clusters of Arysema, the Indian Cobra plant in the undergrowth made the journey interesting. Ahead of us was the snow covered Kakbhushundi parvat and then, as we approached Ghangharia we saw the breathtaking and grand glimpse of the Nar Parvat. I could hardly sleep that night; every one hour I would get up, open the window and take a look at the snow white peaks of Nar Parvat. I could hardly believe I was about to realise my dream of a life time; a visit to the valley of flowers, now part of the Nanda Devi Biosphere reserve, and also a world heritage site, 675 sq Km and located at an altitude between 3032m and 3750 meters. The wake up call of "Bole so Nihal... Sat sri Akal" woke me up at three in the morning and we were ready at 5 AM for a trek into the valley. Beautiful bushes of wild rose Rosa Macrophylla, laden with flowers greeted us right at the entrance. The song of the whistling thrush kept teasing Bibek who was going crazy trying to locate and shoot. There was the Plumbeous Redstart near the stream, the Orange Bullfinch perched on an Abies branch and a Pika showing us glimpses of its posterior and hiding into its cave. the Maple, Rhododendron, Betula and Abies trees with their characteristic canopies were enticing us deep into the valley. The red and orange Potentillas, white Anemones, golden ferns, the secretive buds of Rheum and the trying to scare us Arysema were spellbinding. I did not know where to rest my eyes; on the grand snow clad mountains, the lush valley, the colourful floweres or the elusive birds. There was one more treat of course... the cool and crystal clear bubbling water of the Pushpavati river that flows right throught the valley. The tiny Violas and the Potentillas seemed to compete with the Ranunculus, Polygonum, Androsace and other flowers. The valley was just beginning to come alive and the spikey rosettes of Morina were visible everywhere. Sadly, the early blooming Iris was visible only rarely. The different varieties of Primula and Nomocharis oxypetala a wild golden coloured lily of course, made my day.Rhododendron companulatum and many other smaller species were in bloom ,but i did miss the grand Rhododendron arboreum with its bright red bunches of flowers. The imposing Rataban peaks were visible now and they seemed like grand sentinels, keeping a close watch on all the intruders, lest they pluck the flowers and destroy the natural beauty. The tree canopies were equally beautiful, especially the Betula (bhojpatra) tree barks hanging down like A4 size papers ready to be written on. It was already 1:30 pm and the forest guards warned us of the imminent bad weather. Sure enough, we could see dark menacing clouds over the mountain peaks, and the icy cold winds were warning enough for us to start trekking back. We reached the park gates at 4:30 with all the beautiful sights captured in our cameras and more vividly still in our minds eye. There was no network for mobile or phone connection; I was told by the forest guard. Yes, there was a guy in the market place with a wi fi connection and if I were ready to part with Rs 20 per minute, a call could be made. How could I resist the temptation of making a call to my best friend only to share the thrilling experience of my visit to the valley of flowers? The call was made, and then it was time to rest and rejuvenate our souls with garam chai and hot parathas.
The next morning it was time to trek up to Hemkund Saheb, the famous place where the Tenth Guru of the Sikhs, Guru Govind Ji was supposed to have meditated. So off we trekked at 4:30 in the morning along with an energetic group of Sardars and Sardarnis, with their kith and kin chanting Satnam !Vaheguru! all the way. More and more beautiful sights greeted us and as we climbed up, we could see the town of Ghangharia with its blue roofed Gurudwara becoming smaller and smaller. The trek was perilous, the slopes steep, and the air rairer and rairer. The sun was shining bright, yet we were shivering, as the cold winds from the glaciers around us wizzed past. Two menacing glaciers had to be passed, and we tiptoed across, for fear of dislodging even a chunk of the icy monsters. A gay profusion of Caltha palustris greeted us on the hill slopes. the bright yellow blossoms with their round green leaves seemed to sprout out of every nook. the Alpine Rhidodendron with their pale pink cluster of blossoms were a welcome sight, and so were the Alpine Chough ( a raven like bird with a yellow beak). After five hours of climbing steep and winding path up the great Himalaya, we reached Hemkund Saheb located at an altitude of 4500 meters above sea level. The Sabad Kirtan sounded like some heavenly music emanating from the snow clad mountains, and we were rendered speechless by the sheer granduer and majesty of the natural beauty. After paying obeiscence at the shrine, we made a beeline for the Guru ka Langar; a steaming hot gruel of rice and lentil and a tumbler full of hot chai. Food and drink never tasted so heavenly before! I rested for a while, drinking in the beauty of the pelucid icy cold sarovar, surrounded by snow clad himalayas. It was surely like an emperors court, with the mighty ruler presiding over the day's events with nonchalant benevolence......eons of this ritual must have passed by and many more eons would come and go, and the mountains would stay there, unchangeable yet ever changing.....

The day packs up at high altitudes by 1:30pm and we could see snow shovers on the neighbouring peaks. It was time to leave, we were told. So off we trudged back the steep downhill slope, even more perilous than the uphill trek. It started raining, and the path became treacherous. I can't remember how many times i slid down the stony steps, hurting my toes so badly, that every step felt like a torture. With heavy and weary feet and an equally heavy heart we reached down, and on the way, exchanged pleasantaries with the fellow pilgrims. The changeover was dramatic; we went as explorers and returned as pilgrims.....with a prayer on our lips and a promise to return... as soon as possible.