Monday, June 27, 2011

Doves on the Landing

Doves on the landing, squirrels on the parapet…and other such sights

I cannot, by any stretch of the imagination, be called an industrious gardener. Indeed, I cannot be called a gardener at all. I don’t particularly like examining the soil and its contents at close quarters. But, the combination of a family affinity for plants, a childhood spent in green cantonments, and a dislike of combining vegetable and fruit peels with the rest of the garbage, means that our terrace garden is always full of plants. Some of these elude recognition not only by rank amateurs of my kind, but also the malis who profess to know more and who, occasionally deign to climb up to our third-floor flat to disapprovingly survey the mad profusion in our pots.

The more direct of them, tell me outright, that I simply must not grow more than one plant in a pot. Snehanshu, who likes method in all things, and expends much effort in buying and hauling pedigreed chandni, bel, juhi and other such lovelies up the long flight of stairs, heartily concurs. But there’s the rub. I don’t actually plant anything. The nearest I have got to deliberately planting, is when I pushed in the seed of a particularly sweet mango in one of my seemingly unoccupied pots. And nothing has emerged as yet. But then, like Contrary Mary, How does my garden grow?

I attribute it essentially to luck and laziness. Since I do not have a compost heap, I liberally distribute tea leaves, apricot shells, fruit and vegetable peels and other such things in all my pots. And nature does the rest. So, we are constantly being surprised by new vegetation. The four pomegranates which are now taller than me, sprung up themselves. I have also, in various stages of growth among the bougainvilleas, hibiscus, champas and lilies, three jamuns, two chikoos, lots of musk-melon plants, beans, pumpkin, and one tenacious green which has been variously identified as bathua, jakhia, and a wild non-edible. This summer, we had an exciting time tracking tomatoes as they changed from yellow flowers to green to yellow to orange to red fruits. All in all, we harvested about 70 tiny ones, and they were a great attraction to the children in the neighbourhood, and very sweet to eat. They grew themselves in pots designated for statelier plants, who have now reasserted themselves. I myself think, it’s a more efficient use of space, though this arrangement cannot strictly be called tidy.

The birds and beasts, at least, seem to like my casual scattering of seeds – and crumbs. The regulars in our terrace are a rakish bulbul with a particularly endearing tousle-head and his family, three polite doves (who incidentally were born and grew up on the old deer-antlers on our landing, and have merely moved further in, I suppose), many nameless blue-rock pigeons (I understand that is the attractive name they go under) who ponderously upset whatever they can, and one vociferous crow. On occasion, we have also been privileged by the visit of blue sunbirds, brown sparrows, bright green parrots, and once even a family of little weaver-birds who built their nest in one of our larger plants. And then there are of course, the squirrels, baby lizards, moths, butterflies and wasps who have adopted our terrace, and like the Camel with the Arab, now believe that our rooms are as much theirs as the terrace.

So altogether, it’s a full house.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Plain Tales from Doon - Third Instalment

Some Further Exchanges Between Garhwalis and Kumaonis…Telephonic and Otherwise

My father, belying Onial Mausaji’s general pronouncements on the differences between the Kumaonis and the Garhwalis, fits in quite contentedly with the vagaries of the Ghyldiyals. His military training may have something to do with it. But it seems to me that his motto of “Quick march”, (without any attendant fear of where he is marching to!) is only partly due to his life in the army. For it seems to have been his creed even before he joined the NDA. As a fairly little boy, Papa was once on his way home with Bhawani Chacha - his slightly younger brother – when he spied a ladder-seesaw contraption. It was hanging from a tree, part of an obstacle course for training soldiers. Before Papa could finish his very natural investigations into its possibilities, Chacha’s hold gave way. From his position half-way up the swaying rope-ladder, Papa found himself whizzing through the sky. Landing a great distance away with a nasty cut over his bleeding lip, he needed the imperative attention of several surgical stitches. That, he explained disarmingly, was the reason for his attractive lop-sided smile.
Since, neither that experience nor others that followed have ever shaken Papa’s impatient fascination for the new and the curious, he continues to have varied and exciting experiences. His nonchalent optimism rivals and occasionally complements Mummy’s characteristic concern for cleanliness, to produce some interesting situations. One recurring object that he never ceases to tire experimenting with, is the cell phone. His cell-phones retire sooner rather than later under the pressure of his random punches or their outdated technology – depending on Mummy’s interpretation or his. While drawn to their mysterious charms, Papa resolutely refuses to take them seriously – or indeed take at all, whether on his daily walks or his round of golf. Conversely, when he is in the vicinity of his phone, it is generally switched off. So, the family knows better than to call him on his cell phone – which is just as well. He also changes the phone companies he patronises, adding greatly to the custom and confidence of salespersons.
Once, we all went to visit Deepa Chachi - Bhawani Chacha’s wife - after her knee replacement surgery. She was at my cousins’ house, 25 kilometers away from ours, a fair distance in the NCR. We all sat without worrying, since my father, as the more frequent visitor to that house, had assured us that he would direct us. As we neared our destination, he casually said that he did not know the house number, but that was all right. He remembered the route perfectly.
After we had circled the colony a couple of times, Snehanshu at the wheel tersely requested that we call up my cousins’ so that we could check the sign-boards announcing the house numbers. Mummy dug out Papa’s phone from her handbag and handed it to him in the front passenger seat. A couple of hasty tries later, Papa declared there was no answer. Luckily, I had in the meantime, managed to get through from my phone. We drove up, amidst my parents’ animated discussion on the proper way to use cell-phones and directions.
Halfway home in the evening, at the conclusion of an afternoon of much conversation, tea and dosas, Papa suddenly enquired, “Aruna, have you got my phone?”
“No,” answered my mother. “You took it from me just before we reached. Remember when you tried to call - but couldn’t - for directions to the house? What did you do with it?”
“I kept it in my pocket…and then on the table next to where I was sitting. I thought you would have picked it up,” remarked Papa in an imperceptibly aggrieved tone. “Never mind if you didn’t. It is safe enough there.”
After a minute, he added “Just call and check. It is there of course, but just let them know”.
I called again. My cousin Vimal, promised to look for it. He found it almost immediately, reposing quietly on the table, and asked if he should come down to give it to us. We were nearly at Noida, and considering my father’s frequency of using the phone, I firmly declined to let him come so far on a smoggy winter’s evening. Anyway, as Papa reminded us, Bhawani Chacha was going back to DehraDun in a few days time. He could carry it there with him, from where Papa could easily collect it since he was planning to visit DehraDun as well.
We all agreed that this was the best thing to do. Almost immediately, he thought of another idea. Arvind Bhai, Papa’s sister’s son, who also lived in Noida, was planning to visit Deepa Chachi the next day. “Arvind can get it back. He is just a few kilometers away and we can arrange to pick it up.”
I duly called up both sets of cousins to inform them of the handing and taking over of the bag. “You can switch off the phone,” I told Vimal. “No, I’ll keep it on – that way Tauji will have a record of his missed calls.”
“Don’t bother”, I told him. “He doesn’t”.
He obviously did not believe me. In due course, the phone came back, still switched on, just in time for my parents’ forthcoming visit to Dehra Dun. I advised my father to keep it handy, and answer phones, to enable coordination of station-dropping and picking. “Don’t worry, I have it with me,” he said brightly. “Yes, the charger too.”
I finally tracked my elusive parents in one of the numerous houses at Dehra Dun the next day, after many phone calls to the houses of aunts and uncles from where they had just left or were just expected to reach. “Why don’t you switch on your phone,” I demanded, justly irritated. “Oh you know, the battery had drained off, and I found the charger I was carrying did not fit,” was the equable answer.
Two days later, we arrived at DehraDun as planned. “Of course, I don’t really need it now that you all are here and we will travel back together,” Papa said, after he had thanked us profusely for restoring his charger to him, retrieved from its hideout inside the cabinet in his study. “Your mother, as usual, must have tidied it away - you know she can’t bear to see anything lying around”.
“Indeed? You must have got mixed up with the charger of one of those innumerable phones that you persist in buying.” Mummy countered.
And they steadfastly stuck to their individual explanations.

© Anisha Shekhar Mukherji

More Plain Tales from Doon

The enumeration of the eccentricities of the Ghyldiyals was received rather enthusiastically by those in the family who were ‘half-and half’. Most of the full-blooded Garhwalis reacted by a studied silence or by retrieving superior anecdotes from their own store of tales worth telling. My father, from his Kumaoni vantage point of an objective onlooker, was the most appreciative.

“But you haven’t written about our Ghyldiyal”? he encouraged hopefully.
Our Ghyldiyal, is of course my mother, Aruna - or ‘Urhna’ as she complained her mother-in-law, my Dadi, insisted on calling her. The youngest of Nani’s three daughters, the family traits are not immediately apparent in Mummy. Her brief and acute comments bear little resemblance to Saroj Mausi’s detailed drifts from corruption to Chaucer. Or to Guni Mausi’s enigmatic utterances, darting between gardening lore, unusual recipes, child-rearing, and much else. Mummy’s adamant adherence to a clockwork schedule, come rain or shine, is also rather different from the untrammeled space and time-cycles of her elder sisters.
It takes the privilege of proximity to realize that in Mummy, the Ghyldiyal connection manifests itself more in deed, rather than in word (though she has not entirely escaped the particular family feat of carrying on a conversation quite independent of the listener’s response). Having apparently inherited all her seven siblings’ share of my grandmother’s legendary order and neatness, as well as the clan’s ‘do-it-yourself’ motto, she is akin to an extraordinarily efficient whirlwind. You have only to say something. Like Maggi Noodles, Mummy has already done it in what seems like 2 minutes. You need not say it either - and she will still have done it.
Chotti didi bahut jaldi karti hain”, Nani spluttered with laughter as she remembered the resigned comment of a harassed family servant in her father’s house years ago. My mother, all of perhaps nine years old, had passed through the room on her way out to play. With an already characteristic quickness of eye and hand, in the short interval that the servant returned with some matching thread, she had tidied away the special buttons lying around, destined for the coat of Pandit Haridutt Shastri. This was Nani’s father, the head of the household, the Rajguru of Tehri Garhwal, and from all accounts a stately and stern personage. Then with a useful ‘out of sight-out of mind’ philosophy, she forgot where she had put them, or even that she had put them away.
Mummy’s energetic efforts at ensuring neatness in her neighbourhood often leave me at a loss too. Within the space of the half-hour that it takes me to pick up my daughter from school, I return to a sparkling and unfamiliar kitchen bereft of its usual merry mix of organic dals, herbal teas, powdered orange-peels, and dried neem leaves. Mummy - instead of reading the many interesting books that I have pointed out for her edification and entertainment, or admiring the squirrels on my terrace – has been ‘clearing up’. The empty bottles and jars which jam my cupboards (owing to my reluctance to add them to the garbage heap, and my ambition of someday using them to make interesting ‘bottle-walls’) are now suitably stuffed with useful things – or packed outside to be thrown. The kitchen is wonderfully clean, but it takes me rather longer than usual to find what I need. And since our notions of necessities don’t really match, where and when I find them is often a surprise.
Such as the one I got on a damp morning several years ago. My brother and I were about to resume our progress on Delhi’s roads, after unsuccessfully sheltering under a bougainvilla bush during a brief burst of rain. It took me an instant to realize the identity of the blue bundle, with which Vivek was briskly mopping up the seat of his mud-spattered motor-cycle. By then, it was too late. Dust and grease stains had joined together to render my much cherished T-Shirt emblazoned with the memories of NASA – National Association of Students of Architecture - unfit for wear. Which, it always had been, according to my disdainful parent. I feebly drew attention to it, whereupon Vivek turned surprised. “Oh is it something you use? Mummy gave it to me to clean my bike.”
I therefore, like the rest of her family, regard my mother’s skills with admiration tinged with trepidation. One of her self-imposed tasks is to bring some order into her busy sisters’ houses whenever she is visiting Dehradun. The methods she uses to transform an untidy room into a marvel of neatness at lightning speed, are direct but effective. The results are a bit like a conjuring trick. She simply bundles unsightly things into bags, under beds, and inside cupboards. From where, as my cousin Manishi giggles, they roll out when least expected.
Naturally enough, it is in combination with her sisters that Mummy manages to make most of her memorable moves. As on a visit to DehraDun a summer ago. We were at Saroj Mausi’s digesting a lunch of delicious Garhwali dishes accompanied by her quintessential turns of speech. It was then that Guni Mausi called up in a state. She could not find her phone anywhere – either in her own house or in the one across the lichi trees where Nani stayed with my younger uncle’s family. Had any of us seen it? We diligently scoured Saroj Mausis’s overflowing house to no avail. Sometime later I heard a low buzzing in the background. Recollecting my frustration at getting through to Saroj Mausi on the phone, I firmly directed her attention to it. But, both hers and Onial Mausaji’s phones were lying decorously silent on the table.
“It is coming from Sarojdi’s bag,” observed Mummy. We fished out Mausi’s black capacious bag, which she contrives to fill, like Mary Poppins, with an array of surprising articles. After some delving, we discovered a phone, ringing insistently. A visibly astonished Saroj Mausi, expressing wonder at this Mystery of a Strange Phone, tentatively answered it. “Hallo? Who??”
Audibly excited tones carried to us. “Your phone?”, said Saroj Mausi. “But how did it come inside my bag?”
Almost immediately, an indignant Guni Mausi arrived in person down the two short lanes and little length of road that separated her house and Saroj Mausi’s. “Everyone knows how absent-minded you are - but to put my phone in your bag and to not remember it even when I ask whether you’ve seen it, is really the limit”!
They were still trying to reach a satisfactory explanation, when Mummy who had been exclaiming with us over the discovery, was struck by a possibility.
“Sarojdi, I put a phone inside your bag in Guni’s house. I spotted it on the divan when I was tidying up at the time that the maid was sweeping the floor.” she explained.
“Since you say it isn’t yours,” she added wisely, “then it must have been Guni’s.”
“Though really, I did not expect Guni to be as careless as you.” By the time her sisters could collect their answers and their bags, Mummy was on her way out of the room, pausing to point out thoughtfully in passing - “Just as well that I kept it away safely. What if the poor maid had been tempted to take it?”

Images © Anisha Shekhar Mukherji; Text © Anisha Shekhar Mukherji