Thursday, September 30, 2010

Joy Sticks

The summer time in Kolkata was idyllic.

Every year in May, my mother, my brother and I would travel to the city and spend 2 whole blissful months there. Since there was no television in the house, the long, hot afternoons would be spent playing with cousins or cooking up some trouble. The curtains would be drawn, and the carrom board would be out on the floor. There would be Ludo and card games and there would be a huge pitcher full of homemade lemonade.

There was also another event that all of us would wait for every day. At exactly 4.30 pm, we would hear a strange guttural sound from the distance. " Ice-creeeeam wallah...Kwality ice-creeeeam..." That cry was what we waited to hear every day. A shabbily dressed man of indiscriminate age pushing a cart through the neighborhood and calling to the children. We would scamper down and order what our budget permitted. An orange bar which cost 25 paise. It was a princely sum those days, specially when you consider the fact that we had an ice cream almost every day. When an uncle or an aunt came to visit us, we would shamelessly ask for a special treat, a choco bar which cost Rs 1.50. That day was like a celebration.

The parents trusted only Kwality's, my mother thought any other ice-cream was made with  gutter water. The image of someone making ice cream with sewage water and dirty ice was so horrifying that even looking at some other carts gave us stomach cramps. So every evening, Kwality's  it was. The guy would stop at our doorstep and look up hopefully, knowing full well there would a small army of children noisily descending down the stairs. My brother, who hated orange flavour would always ask for a chocolate bar and for some reason my mother always indulged him. I strongly suspect she was biased towards her first born, but that is of course another story.

In Delhi, there was another popular brand, called Gaylord's. Now when I think about the name, it makes me burst into laughter. But those days our vocabulary was pitifully limited and we never thought about the significance of the name. Every year they would run a promotional campaign to con us into buying more from them. Some book where we would have to stick hundred stickers.Or save the wrappers of the ice creams for some prize. It goes without saying that we never managed to win anything. But the ice cream memories were priceless. Sticky fingers, dripping cream, orange tongue, and the fine art of finishing off the ice cream before the hot Delhi sun melted it down. I did not care about the hygiene or the man's filthy fingers or even those sometimes dirty wooden spoons to scoop out the ice creams. I would continue to lick even when the poor spoon broke down filling my mouth with tiny fragments of soft wood. Precisely why I personally think I never had typhoid or jaundice or even mild diarrhoea.

The ice cream experience is different these days. There are hardly any hand carts to be seen and we go to sanitised air-conditioned  parlours that boast of hundreds of flavours. Names I had not even heard of in my childhood. Tiramisu. Kiwi. Hazelnut. My ice cream vocabulary had never gone beyond orange, vanilla and chocolate. The men (or women) serve wearing disposable rubber gloves, no dirty fingernails visible. They ask  if you want an ordinary or a waffle cone (never knew about that too) and are kind enough to give you tissues to wipe those sticky fingers. There is an alternative to licking your fingers clean that I never knew existed in my childhood. The prices are unimaginable. A small, tiny cup is now Rs 60. On a single day my children spend twice as much as we did on our entire vacation.

The idyllic days of summer are long gone. Nobody stays home playing ludo with cousins anymore. We are all very busy zipping off to exotic locales for our summer vacations. The Kwality's that we knew is long gone, taken over by an international giant. But on a hot day, under the scorching sun, I still stop by, with my kids, to indulge my taste buds. Take a stick of coco-vanilla, lick it, swirl it around my tongue and savour the taste of unadulterated joy. "Ice-creeeam..."

Some children obviously never grow up.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

The Lost Childhood

My local grocer has a prized employee. He is quick and agile on his feet, obeys each command instantly, smiles all the time and is ever ready to please all his customers. It also helps that all the people who buy groceries there, like him too. I was in fact shocked the first time I saw him. He was trying his level best to carry a 10kg sack of rice to a car parked near by. He did not look strong enough to carry the load, Tiny feet, tiny hands, he could not have been older than my younger daughter, Ayushi, who is nine.

"Do you go to school?" I asked. He just smiled. "Do you know you have the right to go to school now?" He smiled again. He did not know what 'Rights' meant. All he knew was he had to some how get the sack to the car.I was angry that an able bodied man, who was more than 3 times his age and size, expected him to carry his rice. The heaviest burden my daughter has ever carried was her school bag. Most mornings, her father, taking pity on her, carries it himself to her school.

"Why do you employ him?" I asked my grocer. " Where will he go ma'am? He has nobody. He works here. Sleeps here. Most of my customers pay him some money when he delivers their grocery home. He keeps that money plus his salary here. If I turn him out, he will have nowhere to go. He will probably end up in a home for juvenile delinquents. Do you know what goes on there?" 

I do know. But still it was heartbreaking to see a boy that small work for his keep. I also knew he was not alone. There are millions of little children in India, working in worse conditions just for survival. They peddle books at traffic signals, work at road side tea stalls, pick rags, clean houses. Their parents are too poor and too ignorant to know how education can change their lives. Sometimes even knowing does not help. They need the money the little ones bring home. Childhood, a tender time which should be reserved for play, laughter, exploration and reading, is forever lost to these children. The condition of the girl child is of course much worse.

India, which is slated to be one of the top economies in the year 2020 does not care for its poor and homeless children. Neither do the Indians. The local schools will not take such children. Neither will any family agree to offer street kids free food and boarding while they completes their studies.The child working in a grocery store of a prime area of Mumbai knows that. That is why he does not complain while carrying those heavy sacks. 

He has no body to complain to.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

What Indian Men Can Learn From Our Favourite God

There is a perfect role model in our own homes and our men never even noticed.

Born bang in the middle of India's cow belt, adopted by Yadav parents, he is amongst our top 3 Gods entirely due to his own merit. He never thought of using the 33% reservation quota, did he?

All of us know he was dark. So did he start using the Fair and Handsome? The girls fell for him anyway. It was his charisma and his personality. It's time Sahahid Kapoor, John Abraham and Shahrukh Khan acknowledge the fact that to us girls, fairness is not the priority. The personality is. Hindustan Unilever, are you listening?

Never was he scared of wearing yellow. Never was he scared of accessorizing his outfit with something as outlandish as a feather. It's all about style baby. We women prefer a bit of daring. Blues and blacks can be boring after a while.

And what about the musical instrument? We all love a man who loves music. There is nothing as romantic as being serenaded with a classical piece. It was the flute that was with him all the time, not the Blackberry. 

He gets extra brownie points for coining the country's (and the world's) most popular spiritual expression of all times, Karma. Who can forget "Karmanye Vadhikaraste Ma Phaleshu Kadachana?" Every Indian mother quotes these lines to her children before exams, interviews or before any other challenging times. Wisdom at its sublime best. 

No , he didn't go to Harvard. Or even to the IIMs. He simply created a Management School of his own. One of the best books I've ever read on management issues happens to be the Bhagvat Geeta. He convinced a  disillusioned and devastated warrior to pick up his arms again to fight for a just cause. Let's face it. He was history's first and the best Motivational Speaker and he didn't even charge money for it.

He was not scared of loving a woman older than him. And though he was supposed to be a lady's man, none of the women he was involved with were bimbettes. They were all women of strength, unafraid of speaking their minds.  He respected women. Didn't he come to Draupadi's rescue while all her five husbands, including Arjun, sat quietly? I love him for that.

I know there were too many women, but let's forgive him for this transgression, shall we? He, after all was the God of Love. And don't believe every thing that you read. Some reports were probably just publicity stunts engineered by some gopis.

He ran wild with his bunch of friends, he stole butter and cheese, he gave his mother apoplectic fits. But he also talked of war and peace. He talked of love and duty. And most important, he tried to tell a nation that  work can be the only solution. We unfortunately have still not learnt this lesson, even after 5000 years.

So here's wishing  my favourite God a big Happy Birthday. While I celebrate it with some thick aloo parathas with a big dollop of white butter on top and some fresh home made lassi, you guys think about why we constantly look westward for inspiration. Let me know if you come up with some valid answers.

By the way, I am eternally grateful that I was born in a Nation that values freedom of expression but still, do not tell any SS, MNS or Shri Ram Sene activist about this post, OK? I do not want hate mails (males?) flooding my inbox.. After all, this post just exposes my quirky humour and is not meant to offend any body, or any religion. I hope you understand...