Author Archives: NBD

About NBD

Citizen of Beautiful but Frustrating India. Liberal in Spirit. Radical in Thought. Curious. Creative. Animal Lover. Traveller. A Work in Progress.....

History On The Big Screen

Countless, absolutely a countless number of films, documentaries, TV series have been made by the French & the British on their Kings, Queens, Mistresses, Popes.
Similarly, on the French Revolution, World War I & II, its famous personalities Churchill, Franklin D Roosevelt, Hitler, Stalin, Charles De Gaulle, the Normandy Crossings…..
So many histories, threads, truths & untruths, a cause for controversy indeed.
However, each film is a body of work with its opinion, creative license, artistic liberty & it goes & settles in its own niche, claiming its own fame & notoriety & complementing a whole, from which one can draw ones own conclusion.

Reasons for demanding changes & or, censoring any recent film in the UK have been for explicit violent sexual content, cruelty to animals & children, DIY films on bomb making.
The days of protest for inter-class sexual escapades were forgotten after Lady Chatterley’s Lover & Lolita looks like a bed time story today.

France’s own very liberal attitude towards the Arts is legendary. In comparison the UK & US come across as prissy & puritanical.
Withstanding, till the early 1990s the Catholic Church in France gave its own recommendations for films, books & art.
In TV magazines one got to read the review of the CNC – Centre Nationale De Cinema et L’ Image Anime as well as the Catholic Church.

What is however exceptional about France is, that it’s not only a nation so proud & overtly so, of its history, culture, cuisine, language but it’s irreverence to it all, is as much a national characteristic.

It’s noteworthy however that no protests by any faith, community or racial group has been given consideration for the release of a book, film, play or art in both these countries though they are very much multi racial.

Closer home in Malaysia, most biblical films like Benhur, The Last Testament of Christ, Da Vinci Code were banned for ‘religious’ reasons.
With a predominantly Muslim population, Buddhist, Hindu & Christian sensibilities get short shrift.

Babe was banned because it showed a pig in a positive light & then released only on VHS. Whereas, Schindler’s List was considered a propaganda film, seeking sympathy.
Brokeback Mountain wasn’t released because it was empathetic to homosexuality & Wonder Woman because its leading lady Gal Godot had served in the Israeli Army.
The populace doesn’t have much say in any of these decisions. However, the State in its wisdom acts on the behalf of the Bhoomiputras.

A case in point is Kamal Hasan’s Vishwaroopam. It was initially shown in Malaysia but withdrawn in a couple of days as it was thought to show Islam in poor light.
This it seems had the approval of the citizenry at large but they didn’t mind seeing the heavily cut version on VHS in the privacy of their homes.

Malaysia’s own home grown films are now starting to focus on family, social issues & historical values.The most popular being The Iban Warrior, a story of a national war hero fighting against communists. Sticking to known facts, its considered a very popular classic.

Where then does Indian film sensibility lie in regard to the UK with whom we share a language, our parliamentary system, education system, our laws & an important slice of our history?
With France, who gave the world hope with Liberty, Equality & Fraternity & is as proud of its cultural heritage as we are or perhaps a once colonised Malaysia to the East, which carries four distinct diverse faiths & languages…?

For a country like ours so rich in history & folklore we can probably only list a dozen period films with famous historical personalities.
To name a few there was Prithviraj Kapoor’s Alam Ara, Sorab Modi’s Sikandar & Dara Singh’s Greco-Roman action packed entertainers.

However it was Mughal-e -Azam that caught the nation’s attention.
It can be said that it kept our new cinematic sensibilities in mind & didn’t touch on the historical or political aspect of a well documented time & emperor. But chose instead, to tell a little known love story of his perpetually smitten son.

The big screen mesmerised us for its songs, Madhubala’s ethereal beauty, Dilip Kumar for his lovelorn role, Prithviraj Kapoor’s acting prowess, his voice & bearing …..
But did Anarkali actually exist?
Was she really condemned to be bricked up in a wall for the crime of falling in love with Jehangir, an important heir & prince, future king of Hindustan?
We do not know & nor do we care. Is it because as long as it brought tears to our eyes there must have surely have been some truth to it?

In the 70’s Fatehpur Sikhri’s guides were disdainful of the Anarkali story. However on a recent visit a young guide pointed out with great authority to a wall Anarkali had been bricked in. He informed us that there was a tunnel to Lahore right beneath us & that’s how Anarkali & her mother escaped with the connivance of Akbar’s courtiers, probably with the approval of the king himself.

To those who say – It’s only a film –
Was myth turned to reality because of a film?
Or fact finally acknowledged?

It’s tragic indeed in one of the world’s largest film industries there isn’t another single film or documentary produced to offer the ordinary film going audience a contrary version or another perspective at looking at the same story.

Jodha Akbar comes to mind as a recent period film which made an impact.
We loved Aishwarya & Hritik in their roles. But, for some sketches in our school history books, we had & still have little idea how the man looked & much less his Hindu wife.
The colours, the extravaganza, the haunting music …three hours of that love, romance & that ultimate tapestry of cultures that should have amalgamated & been the norm, if only history had been, as taught….

But then- someone threw a cold bucket of water on our beauteous Jodha & asked Jodha Who?
Is there another film, documentary or TV series that we can turn to?
Another director’s artistic license, perhaps? Or a brutal taken down? Sadly not.

To cover the Revolution for a history class in France an average school student could take to the school library, the district library & the film archives at the museums.
In the mid 1970’s one could access over 3000 documentary films, French & foreign TV series & other films on the subject.
One had to book a time, mention the subject of interest & if one required assistance.
Then in a booth one could watch films, making notes. Some films were unknown but critically acclaimed, others world famous but most were meticulously detailed & researched UNLESS specifically mentioned so.

And that brings us to the question : Why Are We So Touchy ?
Perhaps for two reasons.
One, the cinematic treatment in the ‘facts’ department is meagre & mediocre.
Two, the political twist doesn’t help matters.

We have only one single popular film on Akbar & his Jodha.
(Around 30 on Queen Elizabeth I, including rip roaring comedies)
It is as if a national monument was raised & because of its permanence we wanted it to be perfect. If the past is anything to go by, we knew that this film would be the last cinematic word on this subject for decades to come. A Go To film hence, every aspect deserved attention, every detail mentioned & the veracity of historical facts checked & rechecked.

Many among us are are content with the pretty-pretty & then there are those who want to scratch every wound because for them pride, honour or simply the healing process requires it.

Between weak-kneed film makers whose scriptwriters & research teams have little scholarship & politicians greedy for vote banks, we have an exacerbated situation where they give in to groups that claim to be offended & insulted.
With doing this once, the flood gates are opened for the next group demanding the same.
To then use the argument of creative license is insulting & unfair.
It’s not difficult to comprehend that one rule should hold for all or expect ‘artistic liberty’ to be manipulated & threatened.

The tragedy in this complicated story is that the people on whom we bestow this responsibility of raising a monument, are not necessarily up to the job. Withstanding their own pretentious opinions of themselves.
They excel in fantasy, a pre-set formula that sells, where king meets queen & to hell with recorded facts because blow fans tossing beautiful hair, will do the rest of the story telling.

A change can only be expected if cinematography of a higher calibre is encouraged & when film directors break out of the mould.
When history taught does not merely mean learning dates by rote but by researching, assessing & questioning.
…..Till then we are chained to a cycle of mediocrity, obfuscations & a lazy manipulation of the truth.

Its not just a film –
The Art of Filmmaking Is The Most Influential Form Of Art That Has Ever Existed Throughout The History Of Human Artistic Endeavours

Dera Sacha Sauda – An Encounter

Dera Sacha Sauda, hitherto unknown to most of us, has in the past few days occupied much mind & conversation space. Our senses have been battered, from the ridiculous, to the evil, to the inexplicable fervor of the followers.

Who are these people & why would they even look up to this Neanderthal creature of puerile sensibilities in Lycra, sequins & special effects?

So, it was a strange coincidence indeed, that I actually met a devotee of Dera Sacha Sauda last evening at a close friend’s!
Strange, because not once did I think, that I may know someone so removed from my life, in a place that I considered as good as home.

In the course of the evening I made conversation with a woman in her late forties, visiting from Canada, to trousseau shop for her daughter.
The conversation flitted from ‘designer’ lenghas in Chandni Chowk, to the extravagance of genuine ones, the choice available today &….. all things mothers discuss when they’re as excited as their daughters but tempered down by looming bills.
Her husband she said, works for Vancouver City & she, for a real estate company after years of being a home maker.
Before we fly off, she said, my daughter had hoped to take the blessings of our elders at the Dera, but this time it’s not to be.

Dera.
A word which had no place in my lexicon till last week perked my ears – Which one? Where?
~The one that’s on TV~

At the risk of sounding snobbish or was it ignorance, that I couldn’t for the life of me associate her with the image I had in my mind.

Her in-laws & a dozen other families, Dera followers, immigrated to Canada in 1950s & 60s.
And though Sikhism frowns on the caste system it’s actually a reality with Jats being on top of the pecking order.
The lower castes, marginalised, landless, with few opportunities, left as labour for New England fruit orchards & lumber jacks in Canada.

With the connections & the association of the Dera they belonged to, they stayed close at Gurudwaras, Langars & Kirtans.
They socialised & offered emotional support to each other.
The feeling of belonging & having someone of their own was comforting in foreign lands.

After all these years their ties with the Dera were strong. It is a close-knit community that remains eternally grateful for the start & opportunity given to them.
The second generation is educated & largely successful.
They organise Deras & Bhandaras in North America. Some of them hold positions of authority in the overseas organisation & also collect huge contributions. The figures were actually mind boggling.

Their children are encouraged on vacations, to return home & spend time at the Dera for Seva, to connect with their roots.
Doctors, engineers, architects offer gratis expertise to the Dera’s works & projects. In fact, a devotee parfumier was working on a perfume for their store.

Articulate & with an astonishing frankness she answered many curious questions.
We get a lot of respect at the Dera, she said. Others look up to us & our success. It gives hope to the less fortunate that they too can make a good life with hard work & perseverance.

The family who remains in Bhatinda is associated on a daily basis.
A cousin is a manager in the Dera’s dairy. Others also find employment, social interaction, affinity through arranged marriages. A club of sorts.

But what about the horrors & crimes of Gurmeet Ram Rahim?
~He’s a Baba gone rogue. Punish him. Let the law take its course.
With your closed minds & lack of understanding of our position in Indian society don’t condemn an entire Dera and the work its done – the security, the opportunities, the employment, the solace it has offered to thousands of people.

The Radha Soamis also have the same kind of organisations.
Beas follows the hereditary tradition, Dayal Bagh is like ours. Is it because their followers are wealthy & well connected you aren’t critical of them?

No, I’ve seen the Radha Soamis up close I told her. The community service they do is highly commendable. The bonding they offer is good for those who seek such ties but it makes me wary that the Huzoor, Guru or Baba is almost God incarnate & his word & wisdom is taken as gospel (pun intended).
That ardor & devotion can test a lesser man.

Yes, she said, Gurmeet Ram Rahim was that lesser man.
A speck. A shameful blot. The Dera is bigger than that.
He can go to prison but my family and I are forever grateful to this Dera & nothing will shake our faith

After all these years in another country, a different life what ties you to the Dera?
~Our roots & culture. Most of you wouldn’t understand because you’ve never spent a day in our shoes.
Do you know what it feels like, if you are stopped from singing at your place of worship because it disturbs the higher castes? Do you know that our Gurudwara decorations can irk them too ? Our people get protection at the Dera. Can you even begin to understand that? ~

Did you know what he was up to?
~ Many benefited from his misdeeds. Others were scared & kept quiet.
When ordinary people see powerful politicians & administrative officers hobnobbing with the Baba, they know they have no recourse – be it for rape, murder or extortion – as both are in cahoots.
In fact, I blame the politicians who gave him a free pass. They emboldened him ~

Who were these people who descended upon Panchkula?
~ The foot soldiers, who Gurmeet Ram Rahim used & took advantage of & a large number of political goons added to the mayhem.

But her passing comment, turned the evening’s conversation upside down-

The word at the Dera is that the BJP laid a trap for Gurmeet Ram Rahim. They assured him that nothing would happen to him & he should come to the Court with his cavalcade, in full regalia & style. He walked right into their trap.

You’d be surprised how many of us are grateful for that ~

Headline : Chandigarh Stalking

Nirbhaya was brutally raped, thrown on a road, stripped off her clothing, her intestines pulled out, when like any ordinary city working girl she simply decided to go for a film with a friend & take a bus ride home.

Sunanda Tharoor wife of a cabinet minister checked her self into a luxury suite at The Leela & was found dead with bruises & bite marks.
The sham investigation that followed this high profile case didn’t even feel the need to make excuses for its cover up.
How many expected something to come out of it ?

Stalking, harassment, kidnapping, rape & murder abound in a country of 1.2 billion.
The media selectively plucks one out ( usually People Like Us ) from which they can derive the maximum TRPs & we unquestioning their choice, discuss on cue, lack of policing, dismal security, shoddy investigation, CCTVS that don’t work or exist.

TV channels have spawned these talk shows & candle light marches. We willingly change our Facebook & Twitter DP happy to have done our bit & ravenously pore over sanctimonious & smug op-eds of pop psychology that capitalise on our 30 day attention span.

Because we only follow up from headline to headline the fact remains that our cities are terribly unsafe. Our police ill equipped. Law & order dismal. Promises of CCTVs & Helplines forgotten.

Nevertheless TV anchors & their panelists play out the circus breathlessly –

Dear viewer.
We bring to you the very first stalking.
Scary. Frightening.
How do you feel ? What do you think ?
The victim is going to fight it out. The victim has since died but her parents will fight on.
Hashtag IndiaWithXYZ

Dear viewer.
Here is this politician’s spoilt son.
A goon, a drunk. The first man to harass a woman in this country.
His father needs to resign. The Govt needs to go.
Hashtag NeedsToGo

Outrage. Hysteria. Outrage.
What a bloody farce.

If our governments have no intention of providing security. If they have no intention of enforcing law & order & if we are going to allow them –
then this is just another God given opportunity for the out-of-power ones to fix the ones in power.
A chance to be gleefully back in business.
To gleefully scavenge on someone else’s trauma & use it for ones end.

For systemic change we civil society & all its components must demand every hour, everyday of the year that our cities must be made secure as modern, urban population expect all over the world.
We must demand police reforms.
We must demand our law agencies are allowed independence to enforce the law.
We must pressurise a lazy & fearful judiciary to dispense justice.

This is not to say that in civilised societies, mature democracies there isn’t an attempt to protect one’s own. But with the system & institutions in place, the checks & balances make it that much more difficult to do so.
……Or else it all remains a merry go round of hollow, empty rhetoric for which we must share equal blame.

We might not care to recollect those three young girls found hanging from a tree after they went out into the fields one night to urinate. Just like their mothers & grandmothers have done every day of the year before them.
That story is too remote & too far removed from our lives.

But instead please care to remember closer home – Nirbhaya’s parents.
They still live out her brutal rape & slow death every minute of the day. To say ~ time heals ~ would be insulting to those who endure such physical & mental anguish.

However, these very same professional wailing banshees have forgotten them like yesterday’s newspaper.

~ Law & order exist for the purpose of establishing justice & when they fail this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of progress ~

Sent from my iPad

Kuch Nahi Hone Wala Hai

Kuch Nahi Hone Wala Hai
How often do we hear it & say it ourselves in regard to –

Traffic
Pot holes & roads
Pollution
Garbage & debris disposal
Wastage of resources
VIP racism
Small crime
Big crime
Small level corruption
Highest level corruption
Terror & it’s tentacles
National security issues….?

This hopelessness, the resigning one self to, has been the soul destroying, spine breaking & single biggest achievement of our political class & establishment.

Our state of perpetual gratefulness when we procured a berth in a train, hospital bed, a telephone & LPG connection & when we came out alive with barely our shirt on but our wallets much lighter after meeting a Babu, kept us distracted & unquestioning for decades regarding the larger issues of governance & our rights & duties as a citizen.

In the business of making a basic life & as the French put it so succinctly-
Metro Boulot Dodo or Metro Work Sleep we only got excited over Cricket that bound us, Bollywood that dumbed us & Corruption Chatter that only ‘ate away our innards like an angry cancer but diminished our instinct for innovation & creativity’….

We forfeited our voice to a few, who we believed, spoke for us & had our good foremost in mind, with their education, position in society & yes, their proximity to the powers that be.

So when the Government of the day actually declared Swacch Bharat & even though the PM took it on personally, our first instinct was as usual Kuch Nahi Hone Wala Hai.

We actually had well known & respected citizens take pictures of garbage piled in their localities or at landmarks & scoffed the PM for his initiative.
Did it not occur to these people that in this day & age of 24 x 7 media & other platforms the local municipality & it’s functionaries could be brought to task ?
That they could be named & shamed for not doing their job ?
Did their schools forget to teach them that the police are the public & the public are the police ?
But instead the focus was on simply criticizing & calling out the movement as unsuccessful.

To mention the reaction of other political parties & their – We Did /Thought Of This First – would be digressing because this about us & us alone – The Indian citizen.

When construction of toilets was taken up on a war footing the most common comments & questions heard were –
Who is making money in this project ?
Wait and see they’ll be no water & disposal system.
It’s a such a sham.
Our people are like this & will remain so.

How many actually took it further & offered their staff at home or at their work place loans to build a single basic toilet ?

Surgical strike, Demonetization, GST…..
Raids, Enquiries, Law Suits on the mighty & powerful. Yes, not all, not enough, but no doubt a beginning……

We have to admit we’re now live in unimaginably different times.
In our hardened cynical souls, battered & beaten down by a system that respected & rewarded dishonesty we now see a flicker of hope.
How else could you explain this impatience & desire for results in 3 years when we were uncomplaining for more than 6 decades ?

As citizens we have much to re learn if we still believe that we’re subjects & our rights are favours bestowed by the dispensation. Basic amenities are either procured through connections or awaited for, like crumbs flicked off the high table.

The first lesson in fact has come quick, hard & jolted us.
Were we mistaken about those who spoke for us & had platforms to ask questions ? Were they so comfortable on their pedestals, that they now mocked our aspirations & our beliefs ? And worse, turned on us when we questioned their disconnect ?

The fact of the matter is fellow Indians –
One man has planted a seed. But it has to be watered & nurtured by us & us alone.
And if we leave it those whom we had forfeited our voice to –
Kuch Nahi Hone Wala Hai.

~ The tyranny of a prince in an oligarchy is not so dangerous to the public welfare as the apathy of a citizen in a democracy ~

How Nations Confront Their History

The gates itself were intimidating.
We were led through a Jewish prisoners arrival & life at Dachau.
First the rail wagons on which the prisoners arrived packed like cattle, clutching their scant belongings.
The barking dogs & guards who separated families & pushed them into different areas.
Shaving of heads, the fumigation of people who were till last week doctors, lawyers, teachers, bakers, bus drivers …..
The barracks, the work houses, the kitchens all leading to each other via gravel paths.
The crunch crunch of gravel, the barbed wire fencing, the tower guards, the walls & huge seven feet tall pictures of life at Dachau bore down on us. Healthy men & women turned into skeletons beaten down by work, batons & starved on gruel.
Dogs tearing into & eating prisoners in full view of others, children with dead eyes, that basic concentration camp striped uniform & sabots.

The other visitors were European & American Jews.
Some hard faced & others sobbing unbearably.
Members of a French Book Club and an Austrian school trip.
The Germans were there too, taking their young children around showing them what two generations before them had done.
Perhaps some had grandparents or grand aunts & uncles who had been guards at Dachau or train drivers bringing the cattle containers with Jews or just administration staff weighing the hair of gassed prisoners , their gold teeth or making an inventory of the bones for tea sets & cutlery handles.

The guide then moved back as we walked into a large room.
Behind us the doors slammed. There was a moment of terrified silence.
From behind a glass panel she asked us to look up & through hundreds of nozzles we were told DDT was sprayed on the prisoners who, because of the lice in their hair & mites on their body, were grateful for it.

Next they were led to the ovens.

These were all men & women who were no longer able to contribute to the Nazi industrial machinery, sweat shops & factories.
Hence were disposed off. Simple. Easy. Cruel beyond imagination.

From the chimneys dark smoke emanated & the village of Erlangen an hours drive away, never once questioned the smoke & why were the chimneys letting it off day in and day out.

Today we know 31951 Jews were killed at Dachau & the Germans see it, hear of it & confront their past every day while driving through or living in Erlangen.

700-900,000 were killed in Treblinka
11,00,000 in Auschwitz
50,000 in Bergen-Belsen
600,000 in Belzec
200-250,000 in Sobibor.

All of them are museums open for viewing.

The visitors ran their hands over names they recognized …or was it over their carcasses ?
Feeling each bony rib, each emaciated arm & leg, the spiky hair over brutally shaved heads. The pain was piercing & real.

In the oven room we recognized one single Indian name – Noor Inayat Khan.

For me, a 15 year old girl from India in the 70s, Dachau was my first life changing moment. There were two others much later but Dachau….
The girl who walked in was an entirely different person from the one who walked out three hours later.

It was an epiphany -a peek into a world of grown ups & what horrors they were capable of.
It seemed judges, teachers, doctors & ordinary folk all contributed in the murder of 6 million Jews & 14 million other nationalities because they believed it to be justified & mostly they liked it – quietly.
O yes there was the silent majority. But that majority was worth zilch because it was silent.

I returned to school in Paris & discovered the Cine Club of which I was a member & where I only watched French heart throb Alain Delon or the beauteous Catherine Deneuve films, had an archive on the Holocaust.

With an awakened interest, I watched over two years more than three hundred films.

Heyy Hindoo ! Were you a Jew in your last life ? Who knows ? Who knows ?
(All Indians were known as Hindoo in French & for some reason only Red Indians were called Indians)

Polish Hungarian Romanian German French American…. films from a Jewish child’s point of view, a Jewish music conductor, prostitute, seamstress or a Kapo, a Jew prison functionary.

Then there were films of the German side. The commandant & his wife living a genteel life of culture in the midst of a death camp, of camp female guards, of young girls caught up with the latest fashion, crushes, war, hunger & the mystifying smoke from a camp.

Two members of in our club were Jewish. One had lost her entire family at Treblinka & the other’s grandmother still bore the tattoo of Auschwitz.
As per club rules because we were a group of eight plus we could invite guests & the grandmother with the Auschwitz tattoo came to give us a talk.

In those days the French Education Minister Simone Veil proudly wore her prisoner number on her arm & was not shy of talking about what some believed was France’s dishonorable role during WWII & Marshal Petain acquiescence to the Nazis.

There were open secrets too.
How collaborators had been whitewashed & found their way to the highest echelons of government machinery & society.

The uncle of our school book shop owner had been a member of the French Resistance. He volunteered to take us through the streets on cycles weaving a path from safe houses to Gestapo offices & meeting points along the Seine.
Can we wear a trench coat & beret, please ? After all 15 year olds can only be 15 year old…
He had guffawed – And Ladies don’t forget the red lipstick !

Lesser known directors and actors from the films we watched spoke to us on the subject, the emotions, the demons & the catharsis.
This wasn’t even an institute of film making. A mere school cinema club of teenagers.

This was history out there in the open. For us to see, feel & deal with.

Then on Friday night from what looked like a beautiful study with plump sofas and winged chairs, in a manner so French, Bernard Pivot with a glass of wine in hand, conducted Apostrophes.
Pivot ran this very successful program for 15 years, watched weekly by 6 million viewers, occasionally visibly drunk.
An hour devoted to books, authors and literature. World famous personalities were invited to an open discussion which was interesting, exciting and often volatile.
On Monday afternoons in school we had a class to discuss the topics Pivot had taken up earlier.
Legal abortion was big, WW2, what it meant to be French, antisemitism & ….the Holocaust.

By eighteen I was back in India.

One summer evening sitting in the garden after Krishi Darshan at 6:30 pm and before Chitrahaar at 8pm, I was telling my grandfather about my school & the subjects I had enjoyed & why I wished to pursue History in university.

He watched me animatedly speak of films & the subjects that interested me.
He was shocked at how history was discussed & taught in France.
But that’s keeping hate alive he said.
Look at us. How we suffered Partition. How we were left penniless.
What we left behind. That fear & that panic for the safety of our women still engulfs me on days.
But we have buried it deep. We don’t talk about it. We must not.

This- Must Not – was all over.

My university’s history under graduate syllabus didn’t cover Partition.
When I asked why isn’t an event that claimed millions of lives, the largest displacement of population in recent history not taught? It was met with a stoniness that led me to fear that my professor had already judged & slotted me.

Getting into the National Archives was like having the temerity to ask for Indo-Pak war plans.
Requests for entrance were met with the same encouragement the Indian State excels in. Attested copies of this & that. Proof of research etc etc.
JNU Library was then the most wondrous place to be and many hours were spent reading, searching …. quite unaware then of the Left’s Great Silence & their criminal role in sanitizing history.

Book stores had a single half empty shelf of that period. Kushwant Singh’s Train to Pakistan being the most popular. Certainly there must have been books in other languages but I was handicapped by not being proficient in them.

Till 9 years later, we watched Tamas on TV.
That evening, the drink was nursed & dinner somber unlike others. That night in a single air conditioned room where the beds were laid out, my grandfather dredged out from deep within him an experience that could only be spoken of with the lights switched off. The five people in that room changed forever – one film, the images, the characters & a desperate journey had prised open a chest filled with pain.

He then slowly became open to speaking about the Partition.
For a stoic soldier of WW2 vintage having fought the Japanese in Burma, witnessed his country torn asunder, having left his beloved malta orchard in Sargodha, it took some doing.

By the time we watched Train to Pakistan in 1998 I was recording his stories.
He had taken to inviting fellow travelers from that time for drinks, dinner & conversation so that young people could learn their history.
We learnt of people we knew & how they had coped or succumbed.
Of that journey.
A beloved uncle, a mustachioed much decorated soldier, orphaned during a terrifying train journey ended up rolling out rotis in a refugee camp.
We heard shameful tales of well known pillars of our society. The compromises & the betrayals.
We met people who were completely forgiving & others who still carried a dagger in their heart.
And no he wasn’t that sort of Punjabi who yearned to see Sargodha, Lahore or Quetta. He wanted it out, out of his system. Cleansed forever.

Urvashi Butalia ‘s The Other Side Of Silence & Shauna Singh Baldwin’s What The Body Remembers were published years later & are simply superb. testimonies of those turbulent times.
There must have been several wonderfully researched books & documents available for scholars but very little for the pedestrian reader & viewer. And if there was so little to read at my age what was being taught in school ? The project it seemed was to bury deep like shame.

Kirron Kher’s Pakistani film Khamosh Pani was released much after my grandfather’s passing.
That story would have torn his heart out or perhaps his spirit would have been freed if he had known earlier that there were deep wells in other people’s lives too.

Art, culture, history taught & spoken are soothing balms for wretched souls savaged by violence.
Our leaders, historians & thinkers in their wisdom never utilized these means to assuage a new country & it’s trauma. They were blind to how other nations handled their demons and attempted healing.

So with maybe four films & a handful of books dedicated to the Partition, we watched an Englishman’s version of Gandhi.
We couldn’t trust ourselves to make a film on him. A Sanjay Leela Bhansali or a Ashutosh Gowrikar would have left us cringing or perhaps even more damaged.

The unforgivable tragedy is that we were deprived of National Therapy, a collective conversation to reveal, speak, discover others equally wounded and above all question.

To make it worse we continue to repeat our errors by obfuscating the truth. And in obfuscating the truth we refuse to name & recognize the gangrenous nature of what was once our limb.

Dear Mr. Prime Minister

Dear Mr Prime Minister,

Thank you very much for the greetings on my birthday. It was a surprise and much appreciated.

May I ask for a favour?

Today, I am an 84 yr old officer commissioned in Dec 1952 and belong to the 1st Course of the National Defence Academy.
From Jan 1949, when I joined the NDA, I have only seen a steady decline in the status and financial state of the Armed Forces. If this decline is not arrested we will have an abundance of fine soldiers (due to unemployment) to be lead by mediocre or below par officers.

Field Marshal Carriapa said at our Passing out Parade in 1952 that the Jawans are always good, it is the officers who have to be capable of leading them.
It is sad that due to the neglect by successive governments only mediocre or below par officers are being inducted as the cream of the youth available has been skimmed off by the civil services and the corporate sector due to poor financial and social status.

Till mid 1950s we used to be equated to the British company officers and the civil services were considered nowhere near AF Officers.
Most senior officers in the police were seconded from the Army who were medically unfit for army service, and the senior most officer in the police held an appointment of Inspector General which was junior to a Brigadier.

Unfortunately, the scene has changed completely.
The AFs are being undermined consistently and relentlessly as though the bureaucracy’s only agenda is to belittle the soldiers.
Previously, the governments were least concerned and aim was how to stay in power and milk the Nation.
While the AFs continued protecting the sovereignty, with inadequate equipment due to rampant corruption, the civil services quietly continued up grading themselves vis a vis the soldiers.

After the biggest national victory in 1971 the slogan being chanted was “India Is Indira & Indira is India”.
While the 3rd CPC inflicted the most grievous wound on the AFs, by lifting the pensions of civil servants, reducing the pensions of JCOs and OR and not giving any additional benefit to the officers.
It looked as though it was the civil servants who had created a new country and taken 93,000 POWs.

The cunning and cussedness of the IAS started from the time FM Ayub Khan declared martial law in Pakistan.
They started putting fear in the then government that the Indian Army may also take over the nation. By playing on these fears and the insecurity of inexperienced politicians the IAS ingratiated itself with the ruling party and started eroding the status of the AFs while consistently upgraded themselves.

When I was commissioned an IAS officer felt that he would be happy if he retired as a deputy secretary at age 55.
The AFs aspired to retire as Lt Cols at 48 yrs after commanding their regiments.
The difference was in their pensions.
A Dy Secy took home less than Rs 400 pm while a Lt Col took Rs 675 pm.

Now every civilian entrant, whatever be his performance, retires as an additional secretary at age 60, while the Lt Col retires at 52 and both take home 50% of last drawn pay.

As the IAS had to carry other civil services along, except the AFs, crumbs were thrown at them also.
Now these services have more additional secretary level officers in a cadre strength of about 15,000, than all the AFs together, which have an officer strength of about 60,000.

Something is radically wrong in the cadre management, which is costing the country a pile while providing poor administrative support to the citizens.

I would like to bring to your notice that in the military academies, the Sword of Honour winners among the cadets do not become the Chiefs of the services.
The order of merit (O of M) is decided on the performance during training and then it is revised based on the performance during an individual’s service.
However, in n the civil services the O of M is decided by the performance in the UPSC entrance examination and they carry it through out their service, whatever be their contribution to the nation’s well being.
It is ironical that with NFU the civil services have thrown performance linked promotions out of the window, which is ensuring that we stay at the bottom of the comity of nations despite paying much more than our civil servants deserve.
Ask any HR professional and he will give an adverse report within minutes, on the way the cadre management of civil servants is being done.

The worst part is that to maintain the supremacy of the civil servant this gang will not hesitate to feed wrong data to any committee being set up eg., the 7th CPC.
They have become so confident and brazen that they are not even worried about committing contempt of the Supreme Court by supplying wrong data, just to prove their point.

I had written to the RM a few months ago that the integration of the MOD with the AFs must be done, as recommended by a knowledgeable civil servant, Mr K Subramaniam in his report, post Kargil operations. This will ensure that decisions by the civil servants in MOD are not taken in silos and the RM receives well considered advice.
Otherwise, he will always keep telling the Services, “I will look into the matter” after every biased decision is announced by the MOD.
As it happened after the recent announcement of an unfair revised equation between defence officers and civil servants, in the MOD.

This one sided decision making is not new. In 1975 when I was Military Attache in our Embassy in Paris I was paid Foreign Allowance (dearness allowance abroad) equal to a 1st Secretary, even though I was entitled to FA equal to a Counselor as per a MEA letter, because the MOD had issued a letter giving arbitrary equations.
It is still happening because the MOD is always looking for ways to belittle the armed forces.

May I therefore, please ask as to why the government is ensuring that the soldiers not only have to fight our enemies on the outside, but also the known enemy within?
The latter fight is more debilitating and demoralising.

Your government has its objectives clear, but regretfully a major portion of the bureaucracy is not with you, as it still owes its loyalty to earlier masters.

With warm regards and wishing you and the Nation a very Happy, Healthy and Prosperous Diwali, under your leadership.

Lt Gen SK Bahri PVSM

birthday-greetings

Am I Proud To Be ……?

Recently a Facebook post asked with some derision
Are you Proud To Be Hindu ?…..
Proud To Be Muslim or for that matter…. Proud to be an Indian ?
The responses swung between embarrassing soppy-ness & belligerence. Between declarations of patriotism nationalism & sheer illogical bile….
If nothing else it set the cat among the pigeons ….

Shorn of any labels as an individual & as a human I was born into a family that lived in India who had the privilege of food on the table, a roof over their head and access to education.
I was told I was an Indian around the age of 4 when my father went to War. I remember hoping that the Indians on whose side I found myself to be on, were winning this War.

It was much later when I was in a school that I came home and asked – What was I ?
And the response was – Indian.

The question is deeper I thought & these people are just fobbing me off with Panchantara Tales & stories of this obedient man who had a horrible step mother but kept his fathers word & left with his wife & younger brother for the jungle.
The ten headed Ravan who was burnt down once a year which meant that cracker season & Diwali was on its way.
The story of a carpenter & his pregnant wife who sought shelter in a manger and…. the bald old man in a dhoti who without picking up a gun threw out the British & while in his youth he got thrown out of a train coach meant for white people.

A grandmother taught me to say the Gayatri Mantra at night before bed & patiently heard me recite the school prayer Our Father Who Art in Heaven thereafter.

Yes I was an Indian.
Till one day an uncle came visiting & showed us a handful of photographs of a beautiful home, a big red car, a pretty garden & a family with blonde hair.
Why, I asked my father, weren’t we Germans ?

So coming to the question am I proud to be an Indian ?
The response would be – Frankly I had no choice.
But true to the traditions I grew up with –
We make the best of what we have.
We love it. We enjoy it.
We learn & experience whatever we can about it.
We take pride in its progress & are saddened & angered at its missteps.
Because it belongs to us we want those who betray it & cause it harm to be punished.
But most important – We take Naam Namak Nishaan to heart.

Now to the identity that I discovered later.
Am I proud to be a Hindu ?
Hand on my heart – I had no choice in this matter too.

But as I have grown older & as I have seen & experienced the world around me.
As I have studied read & discovered –
I thank and I’m eternally grateful to That Being who was distributing babies all over the world on that given day that he chose to give me to a set of people who follow the Hindu faith.
So rather than- Am I proud to be a Hindu ?
I would say I’m grateful for being one.
It allows me to waver, falter, digress & return without fear. It allows me to question & to reject. And above all it allows me the Freedom To Be.

So with no hesitation I salute with great pride a land that made me who I am & gave me what I have – & a faith that holds me in good stead.

“The First Step On The Way To Victory Is To Recognise Your Opponent…..”

Put aside for a brief moment the wave of OROP that has swept the country.
Put aside the lessons learnt about how little your country men actually know about the Armed Forces.
Do not not dwell on what was promised & that which was eventually offered.

Cast aside the pain of how you were talked down to by people who know nothing about your lives & you. Easy with keyboards clicking ‘respect’ & ‘disrespect’ one day to the the next. Snug safe & smug with limited information.
What hope of understanding from people who do not even know that successive governments over six decades have fought disabled soldiers in court ?!

Don’t waste your time explaining how the Babu has appropriated Rs.22000 crores AND it is reviewed EVERY year too. The tax paying citizen not being any the wiser…..
Those who grudge your medical facilities don’t know they have been paying for the Babu’s Sloan Kettering & other such like medical centres bills for years.

Ignore the accusation that you are being unreasonable & demanding – when all you are asking for is a restoration of your rights…..

Why not use this rage that has overwhelmed you ?
The realisation that offering your life is just not good enough for them.
( Remember you get ‘free’ rum )
Take a deep breath & focus on the goal ahead. And work on how it is to be achieved.
Identify the road block & how you are going to overcome it.

What brought about the degradation & de scaling of your service conditions right after a victorious war?
Who brought it about ?
Who benefited over the years from your slide ?
Who is in control of your lives that are willingly sacrificed – no modern equipment not adequate
clothing but expected to fight a 21st Century war in hostile terrains ? The Babu delays- bargains & scouts for every piece of silver in commission of armaments & equipment unmindful of lives lost & soldiers maimed meanwhile.

Who stays when politicians come & politicians go ?
No matter which way you look at it.
Your answer will be the Babu.

So Veterans using football parlance.

Mark Your Man.
* marking is an organized defensive strategy which aims to prevent a member of the opposing team (usually a striker) from taking control of the ball. Several marking strategies exist in football, and they mostly differ to each other according to duties assigned to defenders, positioning and off-the-ball style *

No matter where you live – City Town Village. Mark your Man.
Keep one Babu in your cross hair.
Check his history. Check his reputation. Check his credentials.
And if he is like most of his breed ….Work towards proving his crimes naming him & shaming him.
Behind every scam of mind boggling numbers is our Babu.
He shows the way – he sniffs the opportunity & facilitates the process for the politician.

It’s about time you called his bluff & exposed him.
If those who have fed on the fat of the land can surreptitiously & quietly take what is a brave &
honest man’s right – why should you let him get away ?
Why should he speak with his forked tongue for you ?
If you can be ordered to fight & shed blood why do your political masters find it below them to speak to you directly ? And why aren’t you on those committees that decide your lives & working conditions ?

Make the Babu work for his living. Like you do for yours.
For a highly professional lean & fit military you are put through the paces – whereas you know competent or incompetent the Babu can only go up.
So help remove a leech from the system. A termite that’s hollowing the core.

Mark Your Man.
If OROP is not given to you why should it be to him ?
Mark your Man.

Why must the funds for OROP be taken from the silent & helpless ? Why does the PM feels he has to snatch from the poor to give it you ? Why not stop instead the loot of the Babu ? Take it from his carefully nurtured money draining turfs. From Air India – failed PSU’s or if push comes to shove check their box beds !

This is not a war with Pakistan or China.
This is a war with the enemy within. The Babu.
Your last assignment again in the service of the Nation.
Expose only one lakh of them & you’ll have OROP many many times over !
Mark Your Man.

Meanwhile re strategise your OROP demand. Don’t back off or another forty years will be lost.
Agitate when necessary. Negotiate where you can.

But.
Mark Your Man.
The serving soldier will remember you for ripping off the mask off the enemy at home who plots while his back is turned.

And if you can – convey to the political class a simple message.
Pay heed.
Read what is put before you. Check. Double check what is being done in your name.
Remember you stand for elections.The Babu only laughs all the way to the Bank.

Mark Your Man.

A Complete Family – Sand In My Teeth

I looked curiously at the little bundle as the nurses gathered around us. “We are going to keep this little boy, this chinnha tambi,” they giggled. “We are not going to send him home.” I couldn’t believe it! Even Ma was smiling.
“No!” I said very calmly and clearly. “He is mine.”

Just this morning Anjali had rushed me through breakfast. “How long are you going to take to eat that egg? Come, hurry, hurry. Don’t you want to see your little brother? You are a very, very lucky girl, you know.”
Then losing patience, “Okay, okay, leave it. Let me wipe your face. You have egg around your mouth.”
Hustling, bustling, Anjali had cleared up. She had taken me to the kitchen sink and with her hard, bony, wet fingers deftly wiped my mouth and then with the corner of her sari dried it.
She would have never done that if Ma had been here. First, she would have dabbed my mouth with a serviette, then gone to the bathroom where, a pretty convent hand-embroidered towel would have been used…. but today was different. Anjali was in charge.

Anjali with her long arms and legs, her jaggery-brown smooth skin and her thick rope plait that had a life of its own! Sometimes swishing back and forth as she rushed about her work or lying primly against her soft plop-plop breast as she sat me in her lap.

“Once I have the baby,” Ma would say, “I’m going to get down on my haunches and mop the floor like Anjali. None of those ‘Woman & Home’ exercises for me. Mop, mop, mop. Firm hips and good breasts!”
Anjali would throw back her head and laugh, blush and laugh some more.

Now she pushed the party frock over my head with one hand and with the other tried pulling the arm out of the puffed sleeve. “Oh! Ho! Girl, come to life!”
“You are being so rough!” I complained. “And why are we rushing?”
“Why are we rushing? Why are we rushing? Arre! We are rushing because we have been blessed with a brother. BROTH-THER! You understand? Not everyone is lucky to have a brother. You know Bhagwanji looks down and sees a good girl. ‘Oh! Ho! That’s a good girl,’ he says, ‘Give her a brother!’ I don’t know what you have done. Because I have neverever, neverever known you to be a good girl. Have you ever said a prayer? No, never! Even your Ma. Never! But then you must have done something because he’s decided to give you one.”
A matching hair band was then found and stuck on. A crisp white-initialled handkerchief pinned on my chest. Lacy socks and white shoes.
“Ready! You are finally ready! Come, come.” Anjali had been so excited.

Actually, the excitement had begun last evening with my father’s appearance. He was smiling, as usual, but something was different. He had picked me up and had waltzed me up and down the living room.

I had had dinner by myself for the very first time, feeling truly alone. Anjali had been nervous and snappy, “Where is your father?” She would say one minute and then, “Eat, girl, eat. When there will be two, you will have to look after yourself. Your Ma and I will be very, very busy. No running after you and saying ‘Eat, eat.’ You are a big girl. Three years old! Imagine three years old.”

Now with my father here she could no longer contain herself, “What is it Sahib? What is it?”
“We have a baby brother!” my father had announced grandly.
Anjali had clapped her hands and laughed. “Thank God! Thank God!”
Parminder Singh had looked so pleased.
“With God’s grace the family is complete,” they repeated over and over again.

I had not known that we were incomplete. Daddy, Ma and me. It had always sounded complete.

The excitement slowly got to me. “When can I see him?”
“Tomorrow!”
Then he had poured two glasses of a beautiful red liquid from the casks that he had got from Goa. Two years ago, my father had been among the first paratroopers to land in Goa and it had been set free from a tiny country somewhere in Europe.
“We’ve thrown the damn British out. And the Portuguese think we’ll let them stay?”
Now sitting on his knee I had drunk to Ma and my new brother.

I had not seen Ma for three days. It was strange to wake up in the morning and see my father have tea all by himself. I would stand uncertainly at the door, all crushed and sleepy, and he would pull the bed sheet aside and get me wrapped up. All cuddled, I would sip warm cardamom milky tea looking out of the windows at the gently rolling blue hills of Wellington. The morning mist would clear away to bright sunshine.

Every now and then my father would look up from his newspaper, “No spilling milk on my bed,” and I would reply with all the seriousness and responsibility, “No Daddy.”

Parminder Singh would come in carrying an enamel mug of boiling water, “Shave, sir,” and click his heels.
While my father shaved and I sipped my tea Parminder Singh would lay out the uniform and go through the whole drill of buffed shoes, ribbons and medals. One for fighting with the Chinese in 1962, one for Goa, also in 1962, one for serving in Kashmir, one for….
“Can I wear one please?” I would beg.
“You can’t wear one till you earn it,” Parminder would admonish me, lovingly hooking them on.

“Did I tell you about our neighbour’s cow?” Anjali would ask. “The cow that was actually my dead grandfather. Arre baba! What a fright we got when it called out to my grandmother, ‘Stupid woman! Get me fresh hay! Another day of this stinking hay and I will kick you’.”
“How did you know it was your grandfather?”
“Arre! Who else could dare call my grandmother stupid?”

My favourite story was about the little boy who refused to wash his hands. Even after potty. “Wash your hands! Wash your hands! But no! One day he burped. How he burped! And Ohmygod, Ohmygod thousands and thousands of worms came out of his mouth. All tumbling and tumbling, fat ones and long ones, pinkie ones, brownie ones…”

I missed Ma most before bedtime so they all made much of the nightly ritual of laying a trap for mice. They would put a large piece of cheese in the wooden trap and put it in the kitchen. I wouldn’t let them put a roti as the English people in my storybooks always left cheese for their mice.
“Aha! Your mouse is a Sahib, is he?” Parminder would say. Ramrod-straight in the presence of my father he could turn into one laughing beard and turban with me. “No roti-shoti for him! Only cheese! What a shaukeen mouse! What a dandy he must be.”
Next morning they would check if there had been any visitors and invariably there would be a big, ugly fellow in the trap. Nothing at all like the sweet ones in my storybooks. Parminder would go out with it.
“Where are you taking it?” I would ask with some anxiety.
“To his Mummy, where else?”

This morning Anjali and I had locked the house and we had half-run, half-walked down the slopes till we came to the stream where our dhobi, with his wife and daughters, was washing clothes on huge, big stones.

Mid-morning usually meant a trip to the dhobi family to deposit our laundry bundle and catch up with the gossip. He had stopped what he was doing and looked at me all dressed up in my party frock. But he had spoken to Anjali.
“A chinnha tambi, is it? Captain Sahib must be very happy.” Then looking at his wife: “Any man would be happy.”

But she had continued thrashing the sheets on the stone.
The dhobis had already heard about the fright that Ma had given everyone a few days ago. We had gone visiting one of Ma’s friends, the one who always wore smart-looking slacks, matching blouses and had a mop of curly-curly hair. “Permed,” they said. “Ava Gardner if you please!”

After saying bye Ma had tripped and fallen down a long flight of stairs and landed in one heap at the bottom. I had watched her roll, helpless and frozen.
Her friend had given one long, blood-curdling scream and run down after her. Cradling her head, she had yelled out instructions, “Bring some water. Can’t you see she needs water? You! Come here! Sit here with Memsahib. I’ll call the ambulance.”
Someone had scooped me up and had bobbed me up and down. “Hush, hush.” I wasn’t saying a word. But still, “Hush, hush.”

Ma had moaned, “I think I’m going to lose it.”
Her friend consoled her while desperately jabbing the phone, “Be brave, be brave. Hold on! I know it’s a boy. I know it.”
Ma was not glowing and most certainly looked worn out. These were good signs. These were signs of a baby boy’s arrival.
I had suddenly found my voice, “But I want a sister.”
I hadn’t really, really thought about it. But it did seem a good option.
“No!” Ma’s friend had glared at me. “Say I want a brother. I want a brother.”
Did it all depend on my saying it?

Now standing in the stream with the dhobis, Anjali had grinned, “Yes, yes we’re going to see Memsahib and the chinnha tambi.”
The dhobi’s wife had looked up from her work, “You look very happy, Anjali. What are you going to get?”
She herself was certainly not a happy sort. Always looking, always watching and always touching if I had worn something new. But never saying it was nice.

“A sari with a big gold border. I told Memsahib if it were a boy I would take a sari. ‘Boy or girl, Anjali you will get a sari,’ Memsahib has promised. Come!” turning to me, “We must go.”
But then she herself couldn’t resist one last juicy bit. Drawing me close to her and hiding my face in the folds of her sari she revealed, “You know she had an operation. They had to cut her up. I told her, ‘Eat ghee, eat ghee Memsahib. Otherwise how will it slide out?’ But she would turn up her nose. It smells, she said. It smells! Imagine pure home-made ghee smelling.”

The dhobi’s wife smirked, “Operation, huh? All cut up? Mine just slid out and that too without ghee.” Then waving in the general direction of her daughters and me, “These just slide out. It’s the precious boys that give you so much grief.”

Muttering she had got back to work, “If there is no pain, if there is no screaming, how will we know the chinnha Raja has arrived?”

And Forgive Us Our Sins – Sand In My Teeth

In a far off hill station, hidden behind majestic pines, was a deceptively beautiful chalet. The cars had to be parked below and a long walk led to the office of the Mother Superior.

A coolie carried my newly painted black trunk on his back. My father, holding my brother’s hand strode ahead while I clutched Ma’s, my heart pounding so loud that I could hear it in my ears.

Oh yes, I had wanted to be here.
A boarding school had sounded so exciting. Fed on Enid Blyton’s Mallory Towers and St. Claire’s, I was looking forward to midnight feasts and tuck shops.
Ma too had chipped in with wonderful stories of her stint at Nainital. But by the time we walked past large pots filled with geraniums, an exquisite stone grotto and into a well-appointed ‘Parlour’ where we met a very cheerful Mother Superior. I just wanted to go home.

We had been but three months in our new home, a little hamlet of a Cantonment, only two hours away from school.
It was breathtakingly beautiful, with apple blossoms lining crazy little paths. Larkspur and candytuft grew wild and purple pink hydrangea filled bed after bed. Pretty cottages dotted the hillsides and larger bungalows sat on hilltops.
Ours even boasted of a chapel and an orchard.

We were woken every morning, without fail, by Chippy, a wildly enthusiastic yellow Labrador pup. In the clear mountain sunshine, warmly clad in our jumpers and jeans we would run down to the stables, for our eggs.

“Horses for the white Colonel Sahib and chickens for the brown Colonel Sahib!” my father had chuckled when he decided to house the stables used by the British, with hens.

We would find the smoothest golden brown eggs for our breakfast and hand them over to Prabhu, the cook.
Overlooking the valley below, in our Sunroom, where Lord Dalhousie, the Viceroy of India, once breakfasted, we too enjoyed toasts, omelettes and homemade guava jelly.

We always had plans for the day.
Trekking to some hill or a splash in the sparkling stream. Sometimes we spent the entire morning simply rolling and sliding down the slope to the orchard, where we would help the malis pluck apples or better still, catch the yellow butterflies.

On a quieter day, Parminder carried my easel and I followed with my paint box, stool and Chippy.
Vikram, Sujata, Sanjay, my brother and I were Enid Blyton’s Famous Five.
There were only two rules: Breakfast with my father at eight and home as soon as the streetlights came on. In between it was absolute freedom and complete joy.

But now I was in the Parlour.
“Say farewell to your Mummy and Daddy,” said the Mother Superior in a rather quaint way.
For a moment, Ma had looked unusually uncertain but my father just shook my hand very formally, and gave me a little punch. “Go on, girl. See you soon.”

An Ayah led me to my dormitory through a large room with a shining stone floor. Dark wood cabinets with marble counters ran along the dazzling white-tiled walls and shining chrome taps. Numbered white-and-blue enamel basins were placed in a perfect line on the counters. In the middle of the room was a highly polished brass towel rail with neat triple-folded towels, each an inch apart from the next. The dormitory itself was a long room with beds, which carried on forever.
Large windows on one side overlooked a green, shrub-strewn hillside while on the other was the rest of the school.
The ticktackticktack on the rich wood floor unnerved me and I tried walking soundlessly on my toes, but it was impossible.

The Ayah put my small case on my bed, which thankfully overlooked the hillside as I was already beginning to feel claustrophobic.
“Sister is coming. Wait.”
“Where is my trunk?” I suddenly had this desire to have all my things around me.
“Don’t worry. It will be soon put next to your bed.”
I felt myself choking, thinking about the whole term ahead of me.
“Oh God, how would I last here? Would I die before I saw my parents again? Would someone remember that I was here in this God-forsaken convent?”

I waited endlessly, very close to tears, when a bell jangled me out of my reverie. A stream of girls in grey skirts and sweaters trooped in. The empty dormitory was now full.

I felt my breath returning. Would I ever be able to sleep with so many girls in one room? They gathered around my bed and questioned me curiously, just like all the girls in all my other schools.
“What is your name? Where have you come from? Which class are you in?”
This didn’t look so bad. Maybe it will be like St. Claire’s after all!
My trunk was soon next to my bed.
The Ayah opened it and took me to wardrobe number 24 where she laid out my things in neat piles.

Underwear, warm vests, socks, all labelled with my name by Ma. My towel was triple folded on rack 24 and my night suit was put under my pillow on bed 24. I was to use basin 24 with my toiletries in the drawer of the same number. Basically, I was now number 24.

“Girls! Girls! Girls!” strode in a small bespectacled nun, in a spotless white habit.
Without a glance at me she clapped her hands and everyone scuttled away. “Change and go for Study. Come on, come on. Haven’t you seen a new girl before?”

A set of my clothes had been put on my bed. “It doesn’t match,” I complained to Ayah. “I don’t wear this trouser with this blouse.”
“Just wear it,” she replied, so menacingly that I quietly took them.

While I was removing my clothes and standing in my underwear and vest, I realised all eyes were on me. For the first time Sister Christine looked directly at me and said, with some disdain, to the girl next to me
“Teach her to be modest. Explain to her what it means to be a modest Indian girl.”
With great pride my little instructor put my dressing gown over my head and then, inside that makeshift tent, I was told to remove my clothing and put on my new set without revealing any skin. All around me, each girl was in her own tent, sitting on her haunches on the side of her bed, shielded from the eyes of the other girls, all of our own age.

We emerged all sweaty from our warm dressing gowns fully clothed and not one inch of our precious Indian skin revealed, wearing completely mismatched clothes.

Frocks with churidars! A combination of jeans and dresses! Long-sleeved jumpers poking underneath from short-sleeved blouses! The Ayah, who only wore saris, had had a field day selecting our clothes and seeing that every bit of us was covered!

Then we moved to the Washroom.
Here, three splashes of water, two wipes of the towel, a dot and a half of Charmis all purpose cream and a comb in hand, we stood in a line to get our hair done by two Ayahs and Sister.

Yank, brush, yank, brush, brush. A deft bow of the ribbon and we were ready to escape for Study.
The hairbrush, however, made a mean weapon. All scores were settled with it.

“So Geetanjali? Talktalktalk last night?”
“Noo, Sister.”
“What do you think? I don’t know anything. Baby Jesus has given me eyes and ears in the back of my head, you know.” Yankyank.
“Ouch! Sister, that hurts.”
“That hurts, does it?” A harder yank.
“Next time I hear you talking…Catechism at five in the morning. Understood?”
“Yes Sister.”

When it was my turn, Sister was gentler. It was the first day after all and the account book was clean.
“Where have you come from?” Brushbrush.
“Bakhloh, Sister.”
“You speak good English.” Brushbrush.
“Thank you, Sister.”
“What does your father do?”
“He’s in the Army, Sister.”
“Oh ho! Army!” Brushbrush.
Then turning to the Ayahs she said in Punjabi.
“My sister’s brother in-law is in the Military. A real Sahib, that brother in-law. All tan tan, toon toon in English. Gentleman, you know. Now after the British, these are the only gentlemen left.”

“See,” she said to the other girls, pushing me away gently. “Learn to speak English like she does. You are in a Convent, not some vernacular school. No Punjabi and Hindi. Understand?” And the next girl got a hard yank. “Understand?”

This beautiful convent with its large classes and sparkling corridors with potted flowers; pretty rockeries and fountains in manicured lawns could have been in Switzerland.
Not that I had been there. But I imagined it so.

Life in school got divided into two neat compartments. Classes, games and meal times being the happy hours and the time to retire to bed became a time to be dreaded and feared. Once in bed, the lights would be turned off but we were not allowed to sleep. Cane in hand, Sister Christine walked between the beds imparting Moral Science.

“Amrita, you did not turn the tap off properly. Do you how many people don’t have water to bathe? My dear Lord! People don’t have drinking water and a sinful creature like you leaves the tap on.”

And on and on she would continue. How God would punish us. How we would burn in hell and there we would beg for water. No one would come to help us. We would die of thirst. Oh yes! We would die a miserable death.

Tapping the cane on the bed of the child who made the mistake of going to sleep she would rant and rave till she was exhausted and ready for bed.

Every night she found some girl to pick on and every night it was the same story. “I asked you to sow a button, Deepika. I gave you 18 inches of thread. What did you do with the rest? You only need 15 inches for a button. You threw it, didn’t you? You spendthrift! When you go to hell the Devil will tie you up with all the thread you have wasted. You can say all the ‘sorries’ you want but he will tie you up and you will die a miserable death.”

To shut her out, my mind would wander… to the orchard, catching butterflies, Chippy in our apple blossom scattered drive, pretending to be a lion waiting for his prey, the squirrels, absolutely unaware that his tail was swishing madly behind him.
How Prabhu once tried making naans for us. He swirled the dough with such flourish that we had to scrape it off the fan! NanaNani.
Even that terrible fruit market. My brother, my old friends Rajan, Ketaki; my new ones, Vikram, Sujata…

We cringed with every tap of the cane. And we waited with horror for our name to be mentioned.
However, every morning we got ready, left the dormitory and never spoke of what happened there.

“What do I hear? You were playing piggyback. Throwing pillows and fighting on the beds. You dirty girls. Touching each other like this. Wrestling is it? Have your parents sent you here to wrestle? Anyway, as if they care. Your rich parents! Do they want responsibility? No, they’ve dumped you here and I have to look after you. The cheek! In front of my Baby Jesus you were wrestling.
Catechism at five for all those wrestling. Stand up. Come on. Get out of bed you bold pieces. Tell me your names.”

The poor things would then have to own up, as others would be encouraged to tattle on them.
Wasn’t standing up for your friends a big thing in Mallory Towers, St Claire’s, and The Famous Five? One was respected for not ratting.
Once I got home I would check my beloved collection of books and tell them that this is not what it was suppose to be like.

But these unfortunate ones would stand on one leg or on their knees on the hard wooden floor till much after we were all asleep. Baby Jesus would finally forgive them and they would be allowed to get into their warm beds.

On every alternative weekend I would go home, only two hours away. It was a rough ride through the treacherous, crumbling limestone mountains and the landslides but nothing would keep me away. In the safety of my house,
I would beg not to be sent back.
“You are doing so well!” my parents would say. “Mother was telling us all about your essays and the prize you won for the drawing competition.”
Looking around at the warmth and familiarity at home,
Sister Christine seemed a world away. My father, sitting in his shorts, nimbu pani in hand, on our wide veranda after a game of squash. Ma on the carpet with her recipes scattered all around. Cuttings of Woman & Home, Home & Garden, and Femina.
“What should I make?”
She would ask. And we would point to the most tantalising picture. Chocolate doughnuts, soufflés, barbequed chicken, baked fish, mutton biryani…
My brother polishing shoes with great flourish alongside Parminder Singh.

How could I explain Sister Christine?
How could I explain the physical sensation of having my chest constrict when I was near her. How could I tell them that those magnified eyes behind soda bottle glasses left me shivering? There were no words to explain the fear at hearing her cane rub noisily against the steel beds.
“She goes on and on about Hell and Sin, Ma. Where is this Hell?”
I could see Ma struggle with her answer, “We believe that one’s deeds make a Hell or Heaven right here on earth.”
“Well, Sister Christine’s Hell is a hot burning place where one is perpetually thirsty. And you know something, life is very, very sad because Baby Jesus dies everyday, every time when we do naughty things.”
“Poor Sister! She is so new to it,” Ma tried to explain. “She hasn’t understood anything.”

I did tell them about the new classmates.
Ma had nearly fallen off her chair laughing when she heard how we were to protect our modesty by not revealing even a tiny bit of skin.
It was not the reaction a friend got from her parents. They were very grateful, she told me, to have found a school, which was so attuned to Indian culture.
With all these foreign nuns they feared their daughter might just want to start celebrating Christmas.
Who knows?
Worse things had happened to these convent-educated types.

On my last weekend home, only Ma had come to fetch me.
My father and his Regiment had moved to the Front. There was a fear of War.

We knew all about the refugees who had flooded across the border in millions because we had to put a pink refugee stamp on our letters home.
Sister Christine had also told us that if we sinned we would also have to carry a little bundle and become refugees like those Bengalis.

As the ranting about refugees, the bloodshed, and our sins, became more frequent I slowly came to the conclusion that War was my only escape from Sister Christine.
Every night, I said a dozen Hail Mary’s. Every night, I prayed to Baby Jesus.
No Gayatri Mantra.
Only Sister Christine’s prayers to Sister Christine’s God. If this was the hot line, I was going to grab it with both hands.

It was a prayer for the War to begin, but with the condition that my father is kept safe.
I made a deal with Baby Jesus : I was willing to eat, ugh! An egg yolk! I

While Sister walked between the beds, tapping her cane on some unfortunate’s bed, I prayed and prayed for the Pakistanis to attack if the Indians didn’t have the sense to do so.

Finally! One morning, a hurried Assembly was called and we were informed that School was going to close, as War was imminent.
All around me, girls started sobbing and spoke in hushed tones. I alone whooped in my heart with a pious look on my face.

The very next day, Parminder came to fetch me and I was ready and waiting.
With my black steel trunk. I went into the Parlour and got a hug from Mother.
I went on to tell the Ayah that I was leaving and was on my way to Sister Christine when I suddenly stopped.
I turned around and with a delicious shudder of rebellious pleasure I just walked away.
I…. was….not…. going ….to….. inform….. her…………. that I was off.
No goodbyes.
No doubt I was an ungrateful wretch, No doubt. No doubt.
I was willing to take my chance in her Hell.
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