Sunday, October 25, 2015

Pune bakery gyaan

Pune bakery gyaan, after several years of painstaking research:
Persian Bakery, Kolsa Galli : pitta bread, black bread, focaccia (fondly referred to by them as ‘Italian chappati’).
Imperial Bakery, Poolgate: their whole-wheat cheese papris are just fantastic, their rot and coconut biscuits are also pretty good.
The bakery at Poolgate after Imperial Bakery and Chandan kiranawala whose name I can’t remember: best naan bread in the city.
Diamond Bakery, Bhairobanala: the best ever brown bread, multi-grain bread and mava cake.
Royal Bakery, MG Road (the south end, before the One Way starts): plum cake – ultimate.
City Bakery Pune MG Road, open after 4pm only (these products deserve A*, gold medal and Sahitya Awards): nut biscuits, flan (also known as pig’s ears), cheese fingers and of course Shrewsbury. They also have new products like chocolate-chip cookies which are pretty good … and, all much better than what you get at Kayanis, and served with great wit and good humour, traditional Irani style (unlike the bad-tempered Kayani staff). I used to love Scottish shortbread but prefer their Shrewsbury any day.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Chile Diary

First impressions

Santiago is a city of parks, water-bodies, sculptures, churches, and a marked European influence. The homes I visited were in stylish and comfortable high-rise buildings. However, even those districts of the city in which the underprivileged live are clean and well-maintained, with sturdy buildings constructed to withstand the frequent earthquakes. Europe recedes and Latin America emerges in street upon street of two-storey houses vibrant with graffiti murals. Santiago, with its arty metro railway and giant supermarkets is still a city whose petrol pumps and parking lots have attendants.
With the Andes hovering protectively over Chile, Santiago sits in a valley surrounded by low snow-peaked mountains. It’s a beautiful backdrop – but one which makes it highly polluted. In winter, the city waits anxiously for rain to relieve its smog. The day I was leaving, a pollution crisis was announced. Forty percent of the city’s cars were kept off the roads and schools cancelled sports and physical education classes.

That Sinbad feeling 

I was in Chile with a tight interview schedule, and had studiously avoided learning about sights that I might never see. So when we landed in Iquique, about 1500km north of Santiago, I was astonished and mesmerised by the landscape: sandy hills extending from the Atacama Desert on one side and the beach-lined Pacific on the other.
Since the mid-1970s, Iquique has had a zone for free trade, and Sindhi entrepreneurs were among the first to make use of the opportunity. Now numbering a few hundred, they form a close-knit group of fun-loving cosmopolitan families. I stayed with the gracious Renu Melwani, in what was once Pinochet’s Iquique home.
Driving to the free zone next morning, I passed shacks selling varieties of fish and shellfish. Pelicans and Patagonian sea lions, jostling for the entrails tossed back into the sea, formed another unexpected and delightful sight. Containers from China crowd the Iquique port and the zone stocks merchandise of every kind, including used cars from the US and Japan. Next day we visited Humberstone, a saltpetre mining town abandoned in 1960 when chemical fertilisers phased out saltpetre. The area is also rich in copper and Chile is the world’s largest exporter. Among the pervasive pick-up vans of the mining community it felt good to see Mahindras. The picturesque road through this hilly desert is lined with roadside shrines commemorating loved ones who died on the spot. We also passed sand graffiti sites, aboriginal and contemporary.

Non-veg country

In Iquique, dinner at Miguel’s is a must: it’s a Chinese restaurant with a menu that extends to samosa and loli (traditional Sindhi spicy roti). Another memorable meal was in the resort town of Viña del Mar. A vegetarian alone, rather than grapple with a menu in Spanish, I bought an avocado and ate it on the seafront with a packet of fries from McDonald’s and an occasional benediction of icy water from the Pacific.
Surprisingly, one of Santiago’s popular restaurants, El Naturista, is vegetarian. A century ago, its founder apparently travelled to India, and was influenced by Tagore. We ate Arroz Hortelana, a rice preparation; Papas Salteadas, potato with herbs; and Verduras al Gratin, baked vegetables with cheese. My favourite was the quesillo, Chilean white cheese, and the luscious artichokes native to Chile.
Santiago has good Indian restaurants, and we enjoyed flavoursome meals, with chilly reduced for local tastebuds, at both Saffron and Majestic. The owner of Majestic, Suresh Goklani, came from Ahmedabad to work for a Punta Arenas trading company when he was 20, in the 1970s. Today he owns a hotel, a chain of restaurants in Santiago, and several businesses across Chile.

End of the world

Before the Panama Canal, every ship stopped in Punta Arenas, near the southern tip of South America. As early as 1907, a Sindhi entrepreneur had disembarked and opened a store. Our weekend with the families here was one of Sindhi hospitality, fascinating stories and exquisite vistas – interspersed alternately with benevolent sunshine, stormy rain with Antarctic winds, and beautiful, gentle snow. On the first night, the placid streets of this historic town suddenly erupted with revellers. Chile had defeated traditional rival Bolivia 5-0 in the Copa America.

Earthquake capital 

Everyone in Chile has earthquake stories. I have one too: I slept peacefully and only learnt about it from the Indian ambassador, Debraj Pradhan, a few hours after it took place. We were in his very Indian, light-filled home and I was flying back later that day. He told me that India and its arts and industry are integral to life in Chile, that yoga and classical dance are widely practiced, and that the Sindhi businessmen established for decades, as well as pan-Indian entrants from the new Indian multinationals, are treated with respect and warmth, and lead comfortable lives. Interesting to know this about a country so far from India that if you tried to go any further you would be on your way back.

And, a few more things ... 

It was a writer’s dream, being invited to a book club meeting on the other side of the world in an exotic place called Iquique and finding that some of the women had read a book I’d written and others were reading it.
The view from this balcony, in the house where Pinochet once lived, is coastline on one side and stark desert mountains on the other.


As a young child, I lived in a place from which the closest town was Valparai, Tamil Nadu. It was a special highlight of this visit to spend a few hours in stunningly beautiful Valparaiso, Chile, once one of South America’s major ports and today a UNESCO heritage site. The sea, the heritage buildings near the port, stacks of brightly coloured huts on the hillside - and the most striking street graffitti. Of course I will have to go back for more.
There was an 11-hour transit in Paris on the way home. At the end of the aerobridge leading out of the plane stood three burly, stern-looking policemen primed to catch all the Santiago thieves trying to enter their lovely city. “Where are you going?” one of them barked at me with hatred. “Mumbai,” I replied, surprised. By then, leafing through my passport he had found, to his horror, a Schengen visa that entitled me to enter Spain on 2 July – nearly two weeks later! In renewed anger and disgust he shouted again, “Where are you going?”
Ahhhhh …. India, India!
Parts of this appeared in Outlook magazine in the 17 August 2015 issue.

Sunday, August 2, 2015

In Chile, on the Sindhi trail

Punta Arenas, Chile, is one of the southern-most cities in the world. There was a time when every ship crossing from the Atlantic to the Pacific through the Straits of Magellan or around Cabo de Hornos (Cape Horn) halted there. Navigating giant waves, deadly currents, Antarctic blizzards and icebergs, the journeys took months. Arriving at Punta Arenas, the storm-battered, scurvy-ridden sailors would stumble out of their cramped quarters in relief. The town thrived.
View from room window
We flew in more than a hundred years after the Panama Canal had changed things for Punta Arenas. At the Hotel Cabo de Hornos, we bumped into someone from our plane who had stayed over to catch his (once-a-week) flight to the Falkland Islands. Paul, from the South Atlantic Research Institute, told us that there was a post office nearby where Robert Scott, the early Antarctic explorer, had posted letters and packets.
These days too, this historic town is a base for Antarctic expeditions. The less adventurous can catch the tourist boat to a nearby island thickly populated by penguins. Punta Arenas, like much of Chile, nestles between wooded slopes on one side and a lavish seafront on the other. Like other Chilean cities, it has well-maintained public spaces that sport sculptures of different types: traditional European, contemporary and aboriginal. Its cemetery is said to be exceptionally beautiful and historic. We saw none of these, however, having come with the specific purpose of meeting the Sindhi families of this town.

I first saw the name Punta Arenas on a map in a book by the French scholar Claude Markovits, The global world of Indian Merchants 1750-1947 Traders of Sind from Bukhara to Panama. The map marks places around the world which had branches of trading firms headquartered in Hyderabad, Sindh between 1890 and 1940. I felt surprised and impressed to see that it included about a dozen places in South America. How had Sindhis got so far away from home so long ago? Invited to meals at the homes of the Sindhi families of Punta Arenas to be told their stories, it felt like I was eleven and invited to Harry Potter’s birthday party.
The first evening, Chile was playing arch-rival Bolivia in the Copa America, and I was learning how, one day in 1907, a Sindhi merchant, Harumal, came ashore. As the fascinating story proceeded, raucous cries rang out and vehicles revved loudly on the streets outside. Chile had won, 5-0.
The account of how Harumal opened his first store; how it got handed over to someone else; what happened during the First World War and then the Second; how Partition affected the Sindhis of Punta Arenas, will form part of Sindhi Tapestry, the ‘companion volume’ to my first book, Sindh: Stories from a Vanished Homeland.
So far away from India, and with their home here for more than a hundred years, the Sindhis of Punta Arenas still speak Sindhi and eat Sindhi food. Family attachment is as strong as I would expect in a joint family. Like other diasporic Sindhis, they have an international network: not only family members and business connections. Three household help I saw in the homes of these Chilean Sindhis were from, respectively, Nigeria, Indonesia and Burma. The homes were lavish and decorated like those of fabled Oriental potentates, thick with curios and mirrors and objets d’art. In front of the Hindu temple of Punta Arenas stand three empty pedestals, awaiting statues of Gandhi, Tagore and Mother Theresa which they are preparing and will soon install. On Sunday morning, we attended satsang in the temple, which occupies prime real estate on the seafront. It was a moving service, conducted in both Sindhi and Spanish.
Satsangs are an essential component of life in the Sindhi diaspora, and they tend to have a syncretic character. Like in other Sindhi mandars around the world, many world religions are represented here. It was once an essential characteristic of Sindh that spirituality and the inner life were revered beyond human classification. And then, it became an irony of history that the Hindus of Sindh turned out to hold so much store by their own religion that they were forced into exile from a beloved homeland on account of it.
In 1947, these doughty people lost more than their homeland and their possessions. In their determination to move on and make the best of what they were left with, they lost their past too. In an extreme endorsement of this easily-verified fact, someone in Punta Arenas told me, “I really learnt a lot today. I never even knew that Mohenjodaro was in Sindh!”
Yet another thing that suffered a blow was the Sindhi brand identity. Arriving in Bombay with nothing to call their own, many turned to trading. A number of these Sindhis had professional degrees and had left behind steady, lucrative practices. In a new land, and with the urgency of feeding their families, trading was a way to make a respectable living. Competing as they were with cartels entrenched for decades, and obliged to trade on lower margins to get a foot in the door, they were branded early on as ‘cheats’.
Considered rationally, it does seem likely that an unbiased analysis of a behaviour bell curve of successful Sindhi businessmen would reveal the majority to be hardworking, opportunistic, shrewd (perhaps lucky too, as many of them would stress) – and with a dishonesty rating on par with any random sample of population.
As it happened, the early resentment produced Bollywood caricatures of wealthy and villainous businessmen speaking in thick Sindhi accents, and widespread aphorisms of the “If you meet a Sindhi and a snake, whom should you kill first?” kind. These were things I began to notice when my book inexplicably established me as some kind of authority on the Sindhi diaspora.
In 1947, when the Hindus of Sindh dispersed and sought new homes, many settled in Bombay. However, an early foundation had been established for the diaspora by the pioneering Sindhi entrepreneurial community, the Bhaibands, who had their kothis in the Shahibazar locality of Hyderabad, Sindh. As mapped by Markovits, they had branches all over the world, particularly dense in South East Asia and Africa, and even South America. This gave a base to the displaced ones. Families sent their young sons out to these outposts. They worked hard, deprived themselves, sent money home, and (some sooner than others) started their own businesses which, over the years, grew and grew. Often enough, they were displaced yet again by global politics and economics. In the 1950s, events in Vietnam sent them out to Thailand and Laos. In the 1960s, their stronghold in Indonesia loosened and Hong Kong opened up. In the early 1970s, Africa became hostile. The story went on.
It was something that happened in Chile in the mid-1970s that took today’s Sindhi population there. A government leaning to Communism was violently overthrown by the military dictator Pinochet. The new government began to nurture the Chilean economy with policies formulated by a group of young US-educated economists wryly referred to as the Chicago Boys. One of the initiatives was the Iquique free trade zone. In came the Sindhis.
In Iquique, I stayed with Renu Melwani, in what was once Pinochet’s home in the town he is said to have loved dearly. Bordered on one side by the Pacific Ocean and on the other by a range of low hills extending from the Atacama Desert and running parallel to the Andes, Iquique’s natural advantages include an exceptionally beautiful landscape; a countryside so rich in copper that Chile is the largest exporter in the world; bountiful coastal waters that export seafood delicacies all over the world; a harbour so filled with containers that the free zone is like a mini-China in Chile, stocked with inexpensive products that are sold locally and exported to neighbouring countries by trading companies in the zone.
If the Sindhis I met in Iquique could be used as a base to create a stereotype, then Sindhis are kind and welcoming; cosmopolitan, fun-loving and extremely close-knit. At the Hindu temple in Iquique, the Saturday soup kitchen has volunteers from across the town to cook and take the food out to underprivileged areas of the town. One evening, at a potluck dinner in Renu’s home, I helped myself to an unfamiliar dish and learnt that it was gado-gado, an Indonesian delicacy. Where else but in Chile?
Chile is a beautiful country with great natural beauty. I returned home with the unforgettable scenery of the places and of its all-pervasive public art installations implanted in my mind.
I suppose I will have to admit that I also loved Chile because, for a writer, there is absolutely nothing which compares to travelling half way across the world and finding people there waiting for you with your book in their hand.
parts of this first appeared as A Long Way from Home in Hindustan Times on 2 Aug 2015

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Copper country charm

Looking back, I realise that as the plane hovered and then started its descent into Iquique, I must have been gawking like a fool. All I could see were low desert hills. The landscape was stark and lavishly beautiful, and I was unprepared for such a sight.
As we drove into the town, my host laughed at my expression and told me about a young man he knew who had been transferred to work Iquique. When the plane landed, he had refused to get off, insisting loudly to the airline staff that there had been an awful mistake and there was no way they were going to get him into this godforsaken desert.
Iquique airport: desert hills and a parking lot filled
with pick-up vans used in the local mining industry.
Many of these are Mahindras.
Our taxi took a turn and once more my head spun in delight. The wide Pacific Ocean stretched placidly out on our left, while on the right, low buildings, shacks, containers and the occasional statue were all that obscured the view of the barren grey hills rolling down to meet us as we drove.
Patches of red sand reminded us that this was copper country: Chile is the largest exporter in the world.
As we approached the town, low palm trees began to appear, stacks of containers, low houses and then taller, more formal buildings. Even when the midrange high-rises of Iquique made an appearance, the stunning sandy grey hills continued to form an exquisite backdrop.
Next morning, walking along the curving beach, we passed long stretches of well-maintained playground and gymnasium equipment. Despite the ubiquitous sandy mountains, the lawns, hedges and trees lining the beach indicate that water is abundant. We saw joggers, and families lounging on the beach, though the water was icy cold. A zumba group danced energetically to music which included a Punjabi number. Iquique has a free zone, and many of the trading companies belong to Indians. Amidst ancient and modern churches of the town nestle a mosque and a Hindu temple.
Pelicans and Patagonia sea lions in the very commercial town of Iquique
Driving along the coast, there are prominent reminders that this is one of Chile’s most important ports: navy buildings, customs houses, and, right up to the horizon, container and cargo ships, navy and sailing vessels. Spotting a tall wall with a row of pelicans perched on it, I got off to take photos. Another surprise awaited: in this intensely commercial town, as the fishermen sold their morning catch of fish and shell fish, a crowd of pelicans and Patagonian sea lions jostled for their share of the waste being thrown back into the sea.

Next day, we drove out into the hills towards Humberstone, a saltpetre mining town that had been abandoned in 1960 when chemical fertilisers reduced the demand for saltpetre. Our taxi driver, Raoul, proved to be an excellent tour guide, giving us interesting information about this mining area and pointing out a high-security prison, dog cemeteries, sand art and sand graffiti. Wayside shrines, in memory of loved ones who died on the spot, proliferate. Rain is rare in this area. When it comes, it causes havoc in the town, ruining homes and goods stocked in the warehouses. However, it transforms the desert into a different kind of wonderland with a carpet of colourful flowers and tourists rush to catch the sight.

One reason why Iquique delighted me so profoundly was because I had found Santiago disconcertingly un-exotic. On my first morning in Chile, I looked out of the windows lining the breakfast buffet into the hotel courtyard at pale colours, sparse and elegant design, tall buildings, and slim trees daintily shedding autumn leaves. It reminded me of Sweden. I felt overcome by dismay that I had travelled half way around the world and landed up in place that, though lovely, looked too familiar. When I told my host, he laughed, but added that Chile is generally considered less noisy and vibrant than the stereotype of Latin America.
It was only when I returned to Santiago after the Iquique experience and took a one-day city tour that I began to perceive its individuality. The city is set in a valley and surrounded by a ring of picturesque snow-capped mountains. Unfortunately, this makes it highly polluted, especially in winter when smog keeps getting denser until rain brings relief. Santiago has tall residential buildings, flyovers, an abundance of parks with a lot of greenery, grand statues of Chilean heroes, majestic European architecture, orderly traffic, a 7km tunnel under the river – to say nothing of large shopping malls.
The upmarket feria in Las Condes, Santiago.
However, it is also a city with plenty of stray dogs. Labour is not expensive. Some districts have smaller and more modest houses and, for someone coming from a country of notoriously corrupt and inefficient municipal corporations, the absence of garbage and chaos was soothing. Even the local street feria, the market, was a treat: clean, organized and beautiful with quite a bit of the fruit, vegetables and legumes unfamiliar or not easily available in India.

With Nehru, Gandhi and Tagore in a tranquil Santiago square
Santiago has an Indian population, but not enough to sustain its Indian restaurants. We ate at two: Saffron and Majestic. Both served high-quality, flavoursome Indian food with minor concessions to local taste buds. Chilean food centres around meat, but we did eat at one of Chile’s popular downtown restaurants, El Naturista, which is vegetarian.
When I saw districts with long streets of houses decorated with colourful and striking graffiti, I realised that public art is central to the Chilean persona. I saw this again in Viña del Mar, where the rocks that line the lavish seafront occasionally sport attractive doodles. And nearby Valparaiso, once one of the major ports of South America and today a UNESCO heritage site, is itself a magnificent work of street art. Built on a hillside, the lower part of the town has a number of large, French-looking buildings. As you go up the hill, the scene changes completely. The houses are smaller and crowded together but adorned with flamboyant graphic illustrations.
Bordered by the Pacific Ocean on the west, the Atacama Desert to the north and the Andes Mountains on the east, a narrow ribbon on a map, Chile is a country of diversity, natural resources and beauty. Its great geographical sentinels make Chile’s eco-diversity unique and carefully preserved. When you enter, do not risk ticking ‘no’ in the customs form inquiring about plant, dairy, animal import. That little twist of chikki or chocolate lying forgotten in a corner of your bag might get you in trouble. One more friendly piece of advice: not many in this wonderful country speak English so you might want to prepare by learning a few words of greeting, the numbers, phrases like “Excuse me, where’s the bathroom?” and so on.
Chile has many more unique and outstandingly beautiful places than I was able to visit. However, I was fortunate enough to spend a weekend in a third major port, the town of Punta Arenas close to the southern tip of South America. Before the Panama Canal was built, ships ferrying goods and passengers from the East Coast of the US to the West Coast, or carrying supplies out to the Spanish Empire, had a choice of crossing from the Atlantic to the Pacific either through the Straits of Magellan or around Cabo de Hornos (Cape Horn). Both were hazardous voyages with strong winds, large waves and the occasional Antarctic iceberg, and often took months. Punta Arenas was an important resting and restocking point.
We stayed at Cabo de Hornos, a hotel with sitting rooms and public areas that have a distinct regional character rather than the impersonal feel of most hotel chains. The view from my room window extended from the thickly wooded central square with its monuments, street lamps and benches, over the colourful houses of the town, to low hills capped and streaked with snow. It was not a view that was easy to detach from, but by the lift another treat awaited. Beyond large windows, beyond low roofs, the majestic Pacific displayed its vessels implacably.
We drove past sculpted hedges, an exceptionally beautiful cemetery, more sculptures – traditional, contemporary and aboriginal – enjoying the coastal view on one side and the Antarctic scenery on the other. It was a weekend during which the weather turned from pleasantly warm to stormy rain followed by gentle, beautiful snow.
Punta Arenas has museums and historic walking tours which preserve memories from early whalers and maritime navigation to the heroes of early Antarctic expeditions, Amundsen, Scott, Shackleton and Byrd. We saw none of these; neither did we tour by boat to Isla Magdalena y Marta to gape at the penguins and Patagonian sea lions. Instead, our high point in Punta Arenas was Sunday satsang in the Hindu temple. There were sermons and bhajans, followed by an enchanting arti. Then, because it was International Yoga Day, a Chilean yoga teacher had been invited and we practiced simple asanas for the next half an hour.
Pablo and me: On a bench outside the house of Pablo Neruda in Valparaiso
first appeared in Pune Mirror on 12 Jul 2015

Saturday, July 11, 2015

from a 'Writer's Block' column in Sakal Times

Photo for Sakal Times by Anand Chaini at my home
I am used to writing anywhere. There are times when the words flow well and there are times when they don’t, but for me it is not to do with where I’m sitting. I write in airports, planes and trains, in waiting rooms or reception areas, sometimes sitting up in bed. The place where I get my ideas is inside my head and it has never made a difference where I am.
Though I started writing when I was very young (I had a poem published in the school magazine when I was seven J) my writing career began when I was twenty-nine years old and in circumstances due to which I badly needed to earn a living. There was never any time to fuss about ‘inspiration’ or having a studio or anything like that. I worked very hard to get assignments, took all that came my way and wrote as fast and as well as I could.
Then a time came when I had three small children close in age and I was writing my columns between household chores and homework. For a period of around five years, I wrote columns for four newspapers, three in Pune (basically, for all the Pune papers in those days) and one in Bombay. My environment was always noisy and demanding. Nobody at home realised that I was doing something that needed concentration or thought it was necessary to give me space.
Along the way, I realised that although all writers string words together, each writer has different skills. Over time, my focus on non-fiction increased and most of my books have been biographies. I have worked with elderly people, helping them to write their memoirs. It is a long process of exploration and discovery. For this, and for the oral histories I write, I find it works best to listen quietly and intently, to try and understand what the person is saying, never make assumptions, create a space where the stories will pour out. The person will now understand old incidents with the perspective of the present; old wounds will be healed; and he or she will look back on life with satisfaction and with a new and much more crystallised interpretation. Somewhere during this process, the sequence of events and the way in which they should be presented becomes clear.
Yes, I think discipline is important – not just for writers but for all creative people. Talent is not sufficient to express creativity: discipline is equally important. There’s nothing like harsh necessity to instil discipline in anyone and that’s what sparked the discipline in me. Over time I began to enjoy it, the way one’s body begins to enjoy and crave exercise. Discipline is useful to a columnist who has to produce a high-quality piece of writing every week and with all thoughts fit into a specified word-length.
For the last few years, I have spent my time writing nearly all day, unless I’m reading. When I’m travelling, I write whenever I can sit down and take my laptop out.
My book Sindh: Stories from a Vanished Homeland came about when I asked my mother to tell me about her childhood in Sindh. She was thirteen at Partition, and remembered a lot. I realised that these were fascinating and important historical facts that had been forgotten. I extended the scope of what I had planned and brought out the book on 14 November 2012, exactly sixty-five years after my mother arrived in Bombay, with her parents and siblings, having left their homeland forever. In 2013, Oxford University Press, Pakistan, published the book and later the same year it was selected to participate in the South Asian Festival of Literature in London. It is now on the shelves of university libraries around the world.
I continue to study the Sindhi diaspora and to publish new information and insights about it. I still write columns on invitation and the occasional travel article, but these days I find myself turning more to research and understanding the historical times from which we have emerged.
This interview by Meeta Ramnani appeared in Sakal Times on 11 July 2015

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

To ma'am with love

Remembering Yashoda Balakrishnan

Mrs CY Balakrishnan was housemistress of Pankaj House when I joined school as a nine-year-old in 1971. I recollect her matter-of-fact kindness to a homesick child: she was caring without being cuddly; a firm advocate of the futility of self-indulgence.
Like any valued student-teacher relationship, ours changed as time passed. As I look back down the years and try to excavate memories to write this, I realise that, for more than thirty years, it was a relationship simply based on deep mutual affection. I also now perceive the extent to which my thinking and my approach to life were influenced by her.
While most of the adults around us, faculty as well as administrative and housekeeping staff, tended to have the superstitious, ritualistic mindset that prevailed in those days, she was one who had no religious picture or idol in her house. I remember once in senior school, having noticed this, I asked her if she believed in God. She gave me a “how silly can you get” look, as if I’d asked her if she believed in ghosts, and replied, “I thought you were a Mathematician!” She then told me, in the same tone as she would explain a theorem, that people who think mathematically must first question everything, and then believe only what they experience for themselves rather than what others tell them to believe.
Till then I had not particularly thought of myself as a Mathematician. I now realise that, if I took up Pure Mathematics as my subject at University, it had to do with my first Maths teacher who helped me not just to learn the subject but also to love and enjoy it. In later life when I saw how so many school children are taught Maths, how many fear and hate it, how many solve problems by memorising techniques rather than understanding their application – I remembered Mrs Balakrishnan with gratitude. In Junior School we even had a Maths Club, started by her, where we learnt Maths concepts through games. A few years later, when I became a lecturer in Maths, I inherited her books of Maths enrichment activities – a collection I treasure and browse occasionally even today. Long after I gave up studying and teaching the subject, I continue to value the first-principles approach to solving Mathematics problems I learnt from Mrs Balakrishnan, and use the same approach to solving life problems too.
At thirty-six, she herself had faced tragedy: her husband suddenly died an untimely death. Their son was just five. She had led a sheltered life and was in shock for a time, but somehow propagated strength within herself, reasoning that she was not the only one to suffer in life. Over the next few years, she took systematic steps to acquire the skills and education she needed to be able to live independently and give her son the best education.
Girls at Lawrence School, when Mrs Balakrishnan joined as a teacher, remember her very fondly as a young woman who, with her new teaching techniques and cheerful nature, brought a breath of fresh air into their dull academic lessons. Several years later, when I joined, she was one of the senior teachers, still forward-thinking and no-nonsense; perhaps more strict than she once was, perhaps not. One of the things we Pankaj House girls loved most about our housemistress was that she loved to cook. She not only loved to cook, but she also loved to feed others. She would cook large amounts of food and give it all away. When the mood struck her, she would send Poovi, her devoted long-time attendant, to the market to bring fresh ingredients. Tempting aromas would fill the dorms. Then Poovi would come out with a tray and whoever was around would help themselves. Parents who came to visit their children or to take them home for weekends would get fed. Some of her creations were absolute genius. If anyone asked for a recipe, she would explain that she just added things that happened to be within reach at the time, and never measured. That is why (she would continue) even when she cooked the same dish again it would always taste different.
I suppose I secretly admired this bohemian approach to cooking because when the day came that I was faced with my own cooking range, I began to do just the same. Decades later, I continue to pour salt or sugar or masala into a dish without measuring (often with disastrous results). Every time I do this, I remember Mrs Balakrishnan.
Over the years, I wasn’t just thinking about Mrs Balakrishnan but also very much staying in touch. She and my mother had become good friends (all those weekends getting fed had worked their magic), and we went to see her quite often, sometimes together and sometimes separately, in the different cities where she lived after retiring from Lovedale: Calicut, London and Delhi. Sometimes we would stay over. We always felt at home. There would always be super food, and parcels to take back. One of the important things about these visits was that she would update us on news about everyone we had in common. I wasn’t the only one staying in touch with Mrs Balakrishnan. OLs across the decades would call, write and visit. Here was another life lesson.
On 19 March 2014, we made our last visit to meet Ma Balu in Delhi. My mother had said, “It’s been too long! Let’s go see her.” After an absolutely wonderful time with her and her family, sharing special memories down the years, looking at old photographs, yakking away into late that night, we returned home to Pune next day. One week later, suddenly and unexpectedly, my mother died. Less than a year later, Mrs Balakrishnan passed on too. I miss them both.
first appeared in The Old Lawrencian, the newsletter of the Old Lawrencians Association, Lovedale 2Q 2015