Category Archives: India

A Saree for the Palace…



“To be honest,” Mr. Prakash says in a lowered tone, “a saree gives a sexy look. Yes, yes, it is a fact,” he nods gently. His small shop is stuffed with the saree’s colourful accompaniment, the cropped blouse or choli. They are stacked in veritable mountains – splashes of colours and stitched for every size. Worn with a saree (or sari) to expose the midriff, Mr. Prakash specialises in these enticing bodices.

Considering the vast array of colours, choosing a choli is proving to be interesting. And as is the custom, a choli can also be stitched from the end piece of the fabric of one’s saree. I ponder it all rather carefully. After all, this choli will be for a grand event… I’ve been invited to a wedding at the Palace!

Having my own choli, and saree, had long been on my wish list; the wedding invitation finally coaxed me into action. And by chance, a few days prior to Mr. Prakash’s affirmation of the garment’s sensuality, a saree draping event had helped convince me – it was time to finally own this iconic garment of India.

The draping event was in the home of a member of the women’s group I belong to in Bangalore. I adore these ladies, a mixture of Indians and foreigners – refined and interesting, welcoming and fun to be with. The morning of the saree event was no exception. While the women shared their techniques of saree draping, there was laughter, humour and, wonderfully, a bit of ‘girl’s only’ talk.

First things first. “Make sure you’re wearing your heels before you begin,” someone pointed out while imparting the method of draping in her home state.

I learned that there are at least eighty different ways to wrap oneself in a saree. “Back and forth, back and forth. Now five pleats here,” expert fingers moved slowly for those of us not so adept at this age-old practice. With the saree in place, a lovely voice called out.

“You’re looking smart, very smart. Yes, it’s draped beautifully.” All were in agreement.

Stories were shared and that ‘sexy’ word was mentioned more than once. There seems to be no question; the saree is a sensual garment to wear and we’re told that regional differences can impact this.

“In the old days in Kerala, the young housemaids weren’t allowed to wear full saree. Oh those girls were so lovely, perfect shoulders, no bras, saree gathered at their chest. I can’t tell you how beautiful they were and such an enticement for the men,” someone recalled from earlier days.

“Yes and to think that originally there were no blouses, no cholis. Just the fabric draped over the breasts,” a friend reminded the group. This is an intriguing fact that I had gleaned in my reading. The usage of the short blouse and a petticoat came during the Mughal and British Raj period. The Victorian age demanded a little more modesty – especially in the Empire’s far flung nations where the local ladies were often a ‘distraction.’

The 5 meters of fabric has always been associated with elegance, grace and a bit of mystery. The word saree derives from the Sanskrit meaning ‘a strip of cloth,’ and not only is it beautiful with its endless fabrics and prints, it is practical; warming in the winter and cooling for the summer months.

I have been bewitched by sarees since I arrived in India and that morning’s talk is not only instructive for me as I soon planned to buy one, I simply loved the stories recounted and the insight into this aspect of Indian culture.

“As is the Bengali way, our keys are pinned to the end of the pallu then flung over the shoulder,” a lady originally from that area demonstrated.

“In Coorg, ours are pinned with a brooch,” a Southerner added. There was then a bit of to and fro in the conversation as to the merit of pricking your precious fabric with a pin and perhaps spoiling it.

We heard about the sarees from Assam in North India, much of their silk a unique golden colour – their silk worms prefer only golden leaves, so the story goes. Another saree was modelled, then one from Orissa, and from Lucknow with its typical chikan fabric. How will I ever decide what type of saree to choose, I mused to myself. Will it be silk, silk crepe, chiffon, georgette, silk twill, organza, even cotton?

“I bought my first saree while on a college trip,” one lady recounted nostalgically, taking me away from my impending decision. “I had empty pockets and had to borrow 200 rupees. The agent got 6 of that. Oh it was a special one!”

That reminded one of the foreigners in our group of her own treasured saree. “I’ve been wearing one for some 60 years, since I married my Indian husband,” Mary related, showing off her wedding saree of the finest green and golden Benares silk.

“Ah Mary it’s still looking lovely, very lovely,” she’s assured. When Mary then revealed that she had just celebrated her 55th wedding anniversary, a chorus of congratulations rang through the room.

I then saw an opportunity to pose that nagging question. “How many sarees do you ladies have in your wardrobe?”

“Oh at least 100.” – “Not less than 200.” – “Ah, it would be difficult to count.”

It had been a wonderful morning and I felt more prepared for the endeavour of a saree purchase.


So here I am a few days later chatting with Mr. Prakash and pondering which choli to buy. Along with a simple set of Indian jewellery, my saree had been chosen – and of this rich and visual event, I’m pleased to share it in a video below.

With Mr. Prakash’s help, I’ve finally decided upon on a brushed-golden choli with tiny capped sleeves. The transaction complete, Mr. Prakash guides me through a lane to his tailor for on-the-spot-adjustment.


Vinod is a young tailor whose father was in the newspaper business, “But I started stitching at 12 years old,” he tells me. His shop is no larger than a triple-wide broom closet, yet Vinod is the proud owner and he clearly takes pride in his profession.

There’s just enough room for an apprentice tailor who sits at an old Singer sewing machine behind him.  As Vinod adds another hook-and-eye to my little blouse, I announce excitedly that in fact, I’ll be going to my first Indian wedding. When I ask Vinod if he’s married, he laments that these days, it isn’t always suitable to marry a tailor.

“Now everyone wants to marry an IT person,” he says ruefully. Bangalore is of course the IT capital of India, yet Vinod doesn’t dwell on it.

Flashing a smile, he asks, “Have saree already Ma’am?”

“Yes indeed. It’s a soft navy blue, with golden highlights,”

“Ah Ma’am will be looking tip-top,” Vinod reassures me.

“Thank you Vinod, let’s hope for the best,” I say, promising that I’ll be back soon for some tailoring.

“Very good Ma’am. Welcome, welcome anytime.”

And so just like that, I had a ‘wedding ready’ choli and jewellery waiting to don, yet the choice of a saree had been much more involved. It was just how I had envisioned it – a wonderful experience full of colour and fabrics, a confusion of choices enriched by kind advice from strangers and from experts. It is normally the kind of experience that I would revel in relating to you but just for once, I decided to share the experience in a short video. I hope you’ll enjoy accompanying me on my saree adventure…

Filmed at Mysore Saree Udyoy in Bangalore

Mr. Prakash is close by at Attraction in Commercial Plaza B-3

Video by Trixie Pacis – So It Goes Production

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‘India 101’… The Taj Mahal and to Dehli, part two


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It is a haunting image, Shah Jahan the great Mughul Emperor, peering out over the Yamuna River towards the Taj Mahal, year after lonely year. Imprisoned for eight long years by his own son in nearby Agra Fort, Shah Jahan gazed out to his own ethereal creation, a soaring mausoleum to immortalise his beloved wife Mumtaz Mahal. In helpless captivity, it is believed the Emperor’s last breath was taken while looking out to his exquisite monument.

It was Valentine’s Day, 1989, when Bruce and I first ventured to the Taj Mahal. We had driven past the monument the day before. Young romantics that we were, we averted our eyes to save the first glimpse for that special occasion. Alighting from our cycle rickshaw, we paid a few rupees and quietly strolled into the grounds, walking directly into heart of the great edifice. It was so casual yet magical, breathtaking and yes, incredibly romantic.

Fast forward to the day of our second visit, we now join many thousands of people. Walking through the grand portal, we behold the luminous marble icon, a collective gasp issuing from onlookers, thrilled at this first glimpse, murmurs and exclamations of delight rippling the air; one of the seven wonders of the world is before us! There is no doubt, it is still as breathtakingly stunning as on our first visit.

Long lines of visitors patiently wind themselves around the perimeter and yet more stroll the grounds, serenity and solitude now firmly of the past – this time the experience is a shared one. Shared too with our family – and we’re all unanimous in our surprise at the sheer magnificence of the monument. As the visit turns into two hours maybe three, I realise that I’m surrounded by a sense of communal joy. We all wait patiently for a spot that affords that perfect backdrop for a photo. Cameras exchange and we take each other’s pictures. Snatches of many languages can be heard. Our ‘kids’ are asked to join group selfies… simply, there is a collective exuberance in the air.

“Are you happy to be back sweetheart,” my husband asks, squeezing my hand. I feel as if every pore of me is smiling – the answer is most definitely yes.

A mixture of Indian, Persian and Islamic influences, the Taj seems to have been transported from the heavens themselves and placed ever so gently on earth. Its construction however was indeed by mortal men – all 22,000 of them, aided by 1000 elephants. Masons, stonecutters, inlayers, carvers, painters, calligraphers, dome-builders and other artisans were requisitioned from the across the Mughal empire, Central Asia and Iran. The Taj Mahal was completed in 1653, after 22 years of construction.

IMG_2770Mumtaz had been Shah Jahan’s third wife and by all accounts his closest confidant. She died giving birth to their fourteenth child and during two years of mourning, the king shunned the court’s previously lavish lifestyle – of dancing girls and harems, of rich furnishings, jewels and grand processions.

His sons would battle for the empire they soon hoped to claim from their father, and, when Shah Jahan did not fully recover from an illness, he was declared incompetent to rule and placed under house arrest by his son Aurangzeb.

The house of his arrest was in fact Shah Jahan’s stately home, Agra Fort. We make our way there early the next morning. It’s a cold and misty start, two pashmina scarves attempt to keep me warm. And similar to the previous day, rickshaw drivers almost come to blows over who gets our fare. Tension levels in Agra can become a little elevated and, save for its spectacular monuments, it is not an attractive city – you visit the Taj, the fort, perhaps Fatehpur Sikri, and you leave. Many tourists choose to day-trip from Dehli.

Yet I feel the fort is an integral part of Shah Jahan’s story and a must-see. Once a red sandstone edifice from which the Mughul’s ruled from 1558, it was rebuilt to Shah Jahan’s own specifications after ascending to the throne in 1628 as the fifth Mughul Emperor. As with the Taj Mahal, his penchant for white marble is evident and the misty morning renders it even more ethereal, more translucent, more serene than I remember. It’s as if he commanded, ‘Let there be columns by the score, exquisite arches in abundance, vast quarters for my harem!” The effect is beautiful, almost mirage-like. So too is the ‘magic imagery’ that our tour guide encourages us to have fun with. Yet he becomes somber when relating Shah Jahan’s ‘fort arrest’.

On this morning, it is impossible to view the Taj just across the river from where the deposed Emperor languished. But I know it is out there hiding in the mist, and I envision the ruler on his fort balcony – counting his prayer beads, meditating, hoping and waiting for release, for the chance to visit Mumtaz Mahal’s grave just once more. He was laid to rest beside her at his death in 1666.


Back on the streets, Agra has come alive as shopkeepers and vendors hope to entice the thousands upon thousands of tourists – with street food and tiny Taj replicas, with marble this and marble that. Or in my case, with a chess set. “We’re on the train today, let’s buy one!” I declare, this experienced traveller unknowingly about to encounter a classic North Indian scam.

It takes place in front of a shop and a fellow has interested me in a small chess set. I negotiate and we agree on 500 rupees (about 10 dollars), I only have a Rs. 2000 note and hand it to him. I watch him go into the shop with my money. He comes out followed by two other men with 1500 rupees in his hand.

“Give me the 2000, here’s your change,” the shopkeeper demands.

“No, I already gave you a 2000 note,” I protest.

“No, no note. Now you give me 2000,” he insists.

I check my wallet. Yes, I have already given him the 2000. Unbelieveably, the two men who followed the shopkeeper out, are also now insisting that I had not yet handed over the 2000, despite not being witness to the initial transaction.

“I absolutely gave you 2000 rupees. Come on, I live in India. I know what you’re trying to do here,” I say furiously.

One of my sons confirms that I’ve already given the money, but by this time a crowd has gathered. We argue but he doesn’t back down. Finally, grabbing the 1500 rupees from his hand, I practically throw his chess set back at him.

“You’re a thief! I don’t want your goods and you should feel ashamed of yourself for taking advantage of people.” The crowd looks on bemused and the man has made another easy 500 rupees. It is not a lot of money, it’s the principle, but it isn’t worth causing a scene. Besides, it is life in India… always a contrast of the beautiful and the wanting, the gentle soul and the manipulative, of reconciling our privilege against those working so hard to feed their families. I’m upset with myself, but the nearby street food wallahs soon help me forget my wounded pride. They are endlessly pleasant and when their hard work and long days are rewarded with compliments about their food, they are pleased and proud. Our middle son has become a bit of a street-food connoisseur and brings smiles to their faces as he partakes in the local offerings.

Making our way to the train station the next morning, the busy platform is welcoming as we’re greeted repeatedly by local travellers. We’re anxious to board the train and make the four and a half-hour trip to Delhi. We’re on the ‘slow train’ and due to fog it’s seven hours late, yes seven! We’ve been tracking its arrival into Agra since the morning. No, surely not ideal on New Year’s Eve.

The train pulls into New Dehli just in time for us to check into our hotel and to then celebrate. We reminisce about the trip’s experiences, the highs and lows, the laughs and the precious moments we’ll always cherish. But then the night isn’t only about India, it’s about family and the adventure that seven of us were able to experience together. It was magical all those years ago but to retrace those footsteps with our family… well, I’m so pleased I broke that ‘rule’ and returned!

Delhi is still to be explored, but with Andrew and Ayla having returned back to university in Canada, and one of us in bed with a serious bout of ‘Dehli belly’, the last fews days of our India 101 feels like a gentle footnote.

We briefly visit the Red Fort, yet the crowds on New Year’s day prevent us from entering its expansive grounds and even though it’s currently wrapped in bamboo scaffolding, its early 17th Century walls are impressive. Shah Jahan, feeling that the streets of Agra were not wide enough for grand processions, had sent his royal engineers to find a suitable site for a new city. Long a capital of empires, Dehli was chosen and with its strong Hindu traditions, the muslim Mughals felt they could reinforce their legitimacy to rule in the eyes of the people. In 1639 the vast plan for the Red Fort was begun, its extensive palace buildings were a small city within itself, where the emperor’s court lived in great luxury. A vibrant culture and commerce rejuvenated the ancient city, and with a population of 600,000, (greater than Paris at the time), its grand intellectual and cultural history is well recounted.

We find ourselves in the renowned bazaar area of Chandni Chowk, just outside the walls of the great fort. Designed by Shah Jahan’s favourite daughter, Jahanara, it once boasted precisely 1560 shops. It radiates along a broad street and in that time, a central canal led to the square and reflected the moonlight, the chandni. Prominent residents enjoyed the evening air on caparisoned elephants passing through the bustling bazaars stuffed with spices, rich textiles, jewels, gold and silver.

Today the narrow streets are choked and hectic, noisy and alive – old Dehli in the truest sense. The air is pungent as mounds of spice sacks are laboriously hauled through the streets or piled precariously on bikes. We pass through the silver souk, the saree souk, the book and the stationary street, the spice and dried fruit bazaar, the ironmongers row, the purveyors of brass pots and cauldrons. Nothing seems changed since our visit in 1989, in fact if anything, it looks more aged as the buildings stand in various stages of decay and faded glory.

At Lodhi gardens however, the 15th Century monuments are still resplendent and echo the once great Lodhi empire. Perhaps their demise at the hands of the Mughals encapsulates our India 101 trip. Empires have come and gone, those before the Lodhis and those after the Mughals. Even as the East India Company morphed into the British Raj, ousting the Mughals, it too was destined to ultimately fall. From Varanasi, to Agra, to Dehli, the rich storied past is still here to embrace. On more trying days you must draw upon your resilience, but mostly, you are simply humbled and exhilarated to behold it all.











‘India 101’… Spirituality and the conflicted in timeless Varanasi, part one



I had hoped it would be as magical, as compelling as it had been that first time. During the two-month Indian leg of our backpacking trip in 1989, we had saved Varanasi for last. Positioned on the sacred Ganges River and considered to be one of India’s holiest sites, it was now the first destination of our ‘India 101′ trip with our sons and their girlfriends. It had been a difficult decision. Though we live in Southern India, should we venture north to travel this iconic route – Varanasi, Agra, and Dehli – or stay in the more gentle South. We decided on the former.

You want to get it right when your loved ones have traveled from afar, when you only have six days together ‘on the road.’ And I had been reluctant to revisit some of these treasured sites from our young traveller’s days. I wanted to remember them in that somewhat magical hue of days gone by, of simpler times. We had revisited Jaipur this past July and were pleased that we had. I had broken my ‘rule’ then of not revisiting… maybe it was alright to do so again?

After a brilliant Christmas at home in Bangalore, we strapped on our packs and flew north. Of the holy site of the Ganges, a quote from my old journal reads, “How fitting that this city of the faithful and holy should be our last stop. For to have experienced it early in the trip would have been too difficult to appreciate. Instead, it was the missing piece to completing the puzzle of India.”

Now, on reflection, had this visit been my first I might have been less convinced. Varanasi, or Benares, is said to be older than time itself. Ever wry, in 1897 Mark Twain wrote, “Benares is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, and looks twice as old as all of them put together.”


And indeed, it is. Several thousand years old, Benares is the holiest of India’s seven sacred cities. Hinduism, Jainism, Sikhism and Buddhism claim all, or part of their origin here. At nearby Sarnath, Siddhartha Gautama is believed to have founded Buddhism in 528 BC. In the 8th Century, the worship of Shiva was established as an official sect of Varanasi and further, Hindus believe that cremation along the sacred Ganges River will bring moksha – liberation from the cycle of reincarnation. It still feels as if one is stepping into a vintage National Geographic article. Holy men – sages and swamis, babas and sadhus – meditate, pray and wander in vivid shades of orange, tangerine and saffron. The more temporal – barbers, hawkers, soothsayers and snake charmers – also fill their days along the ghats. All eighty-eight of them.

These stone stepped embankments, some dating from the 1700’s, lead down to the edge of the Ganges providing access for pilgrims and locals to perform ritual ablutions. “My mother has bathed daily in these holy waters. Maybe for thirty years,” our guide imparted. For most Westerners this is mostly unfathomable. The sacred Ganges is full – of human and toxic waste, of dead cows, human ash and bodies, of bone remnants that defied cremation – the ribs of men, the hips of women.


The Aarti, before sunrise, is how Benares comes to life on the ghats. The air is chilled, the Ganges still swaddled in a misty shroud as we make our way to Assi Ghat. Brahmin students are lined in a row on a raised platform facing east to the river, where the sun will soon rise. The chanting of mantras ring through the air – the slow, steady beat of a gong accompanies the Sanskrit verses. The scent of camphor and sandalwood drifts around us. The young priests in training are precise, in perfect sync with their prayerful motions – the Aarti awakens the holy Ganges. Each day, each year, century upon century.

A separate prayer circle is close by, arms stretched out over a small fire. Not for warmth, but for the blessing of one’s body and soul. A priest sprinkles the devotees with petals. Ghee and grain are offered. Shanti, for peace is chanted. “It’s a bright example of reverence and living with less,” our guide offers solemnly. It is now 6:30 am.

We walk a few ghats upriver where a boatman is waiting. We seven huddle for warmth in his wide rowboat, one of hundreds that will soon float gently along the murky water. As his oars slice, soft and rhythmic through the water, seagulls call and circle. Boat wallahs beckon, piercing the calm morning air. Their wares are arranged prettily: prayer items, lacquerware, incense and Hindu prayer beads.

As the sun rises on the eastern horizon, ghat after ghat reveals itself. Each one serves a different purpose with distinct origins. A late King of Nepal built a temple on Lalita Ghat. Jain temples can be seen on the Bachraj Gat. The Maharajah of Jaipur claimed a ghat in 1770. The Dashashwameth ghat celebrates the Agni each evening – a worship to fire. It is also where dutiful prayers ease the Ganges to rest at the end of the day.

Perhaps the two most intriguing are the cremation ghats. Smoke is rising from the Harishchandra ghat as we row past in a respectful hush, a number of cremations in progress. Women are nowhere to be seen; it is believed their tears may prevent the soul from departing. The larger, busier Manikarnika ghat is further up river. Roughly one-hundred and twenty bodies are cremated daily. Wrapped in simple cloth, the face is left exposed, the body infused with ghee (clarified butter) so the body will burn as expected – usually up to three hours. The eldest son traditionally lights the funeral pyre, circling once for each of the five elements. He ignites by touching a taper, kindled from the eternal flame watched over by its guardians in a temple above the ghat, “Here, longer than anyone knows,” we’re told. Eventually the remaining bones will be laid to rest in the water by the cremation keepers. From the lowest caste, the untouchables, theirs is a job passed on through the centuries.


Those who are not cremated – children of a young age, priests, pregnant woman, and others who are already considered holy – will be rowed out into the water. Weighted and given over to it, they too will have have attained moskha, fortunate to have died in Benares or to have been transported here. What may your beliefs be, to witness the Benares ghats at sunrise is a poetry of daily rituals – the first bathe of the day, the slap of laundry against aged stones, the suns first rays on chiseled temples, the rainbow array of boats, the first kite zigzagging the sky, the hues of vivid oranges glinting in the sun, ashen sadhus re-dabbing their spindly bodies, the murmurs of first prayers – the circle of life in raw, intriguing motion.


As the morning unfolded we meandered through the back streets that radiate from the ghats. Needling our way through crowded narrow lanes, again I felt the weight of Varanasi’s history. A story told in trade – of fine muslin cloth and silk, of ivory works and sculpture – punctuated by cultural revival under Akbar, the Mughal Emperor in the 16th century. The enlightened Akbar built two large temples dedicated to Shiva and Vishnu, just a few of the thousands that dot Varanasi. We squeeze past worshipers waiting to visit one of the most sacred, barefoot and prayer items in hand, hundreds upon hundreds wait in line. Shopkeepers have sold the devotees prayer items, provided storage for their footwear, and served up morning dosas. We are forced to step aside a number of times. Pressing our backs against aged walls, we watch silently as families pass, their deceased loved ones hoisted high on stretchers as they manoeuve to the ghats.

IMG_2683We see few foreigners in these narrow passages despite tourism playing a significant part in today’s Varanasi. Yet I know that many come to this city to bathe in its spirituality, to elevate and open their consciousness. They follow in the steps of many prominent Indian philosophers, poets, writers and musicians who have also sought enlightenment in this holy place… some do not leave.

We make our way back to the five kilometre long ghats, along a street of many outstretched, imploring hands. Begging is a reality in India and sadly, syndicates operate here openly. Time and time again we are besieged by young women, listless babies in their arms, some reportedly opium sedated. A little digging will tell you these precious children have either been kidnapped or rented out by their mothers for a small sum. With a filthy baby bottle in hand, the mothers plead for milk for their child. Should you yield to their pleas, know that it will be sold back to the shopkeeper, some of your rupees then lining the pockets of the syndicate. Even with this knowledge, it is wrenching to walk away, time and again. Also heartbreaking is knowing that some of the beggars are limbless or deformed, perhaps purposely maimed.

Our youngest son, on his first trip to India, has a difficult time reconciling it and accepting that this is an aspect of India – even that it occupies a place in humanity. He wonders how we manage to live in a country with such injustices, such crushing poverty. Our inadequate answer is that one has to find a way to rationalise, to mentally detach and perhaps find joy in other aspects of India. Should that joy prove elusive or the culture shock too intense, it can be difficult to manage. We find solace and purpose in our active support of an independent school, making a difference in young children’s lives… it has helped us reconcile the many inequities of this society.

Moved and impacted by the scenes of the morning, we try in the afternoon to appreciate other facets of life on the Ganges edge as we wander back to our ‘home’ ghat. Up close, we witness the deep reverence of those bathing in their sacred river and even the holy cows taking their turn. We speak to artists and babas. We delight in Andrew joining a cricket game on one of the less busy ghats. He hits a ‘home run’, a moment with local kids, a common thread, a semblance of normality. Yet so much of our time is spent deflecting the begging and the predictable scams. Eventually we retreat to a roof top restaurant for a long relaxing, yet animated brunch. From this viewpoint, the temples reach up to the clear blue sky and children dart their kites above Benares’ ancient vista. Here all is peaceful and serene. But that evening our curiosity exposes us again to conflicting emotions.


Five of us make our way to the large cremation ghat. Twenty or so bodies are in various stages of cremation, sparks leaping through the smokey sky, up to the heavens. The air is thick, filled with the scented smoke of mango, sandalwood and banyan. It is a scene that challenges description and I struggle to recapture the spiritual experience of that first time. It is so busy, so many bodies, so overwhelming. We are immediately approached by a personable young man. He encourages us to follow him for a tour. “I’ll explain everything,” he tells us, “but no pictures, no photos. And just give what you want at the end.” A few of us are skeptical, a few of us more trusting. We go along.

We hear and see more. We meet a mourner, head shaved, as is the eldest son’s duty. We are taken up to the sacred flame. After about twenty minutes, my eyes are burning, breathing is difficult and as if on cue, the tour is pronounced to be over. The young man then leads us further behind the ghats where the light of the pyres doesn’t penetrate, to the dark mounds of stacked wood. We’re told in mournful detail how much wood is needed to cremate one body, many cannot afford it, but we can help and contribute. How many kilos would we like to buy to donate? Now we’re led further to a small shrine. An older lady is perched on a platform beside it, dark kohled eyes peering from her sari wrapped body. “You’ll be blessed by this sister. How much wood will you pay for?” The tone and manner of the guide has changed. A few of us go along with the ‘blessing’. One of our sons refuses. We nod to each other knowingly – yes surely it’s a scam – but are there more accomplices waiting in the shadows in case we don’t comply. It feels ominous. We venture a modest payment.

Eagerly making our way in the dark through a zigzag of lanes to the direction of a main street, we ignore propositions to buy drugs, dodge cows blocking our path, notice glances that feel less friendly. We find our way out to the main street, just as our ‘guide’ from the ghat cruises past on a motorbike – yes, his job is finished for the day. No doubt he has paid off the ‘sister’ who ‘blessed’ us and perhaps the ‘mourner’ who repeatedly shook our hands – maybe a little too profusely. Their day of ‘work’ is finished for them all.

We ride back to Assi ghat debating what we had witnessed, incredulous that death, especially in this city, could be a way to deceive, to devalue sacred rituals. At a rooftop bar with the soothing sounds of an Indian ensemble in the background, we talk and process the experiences of the day, rationalising it as part of traveling, part of the experience, part of India. I mention that not once in my almost two years of living in South India have I felt compromised in the same way I’ve felt here – I missed ‘home’.

I notice that I’m still wearing my shanti beads. Bought earlier that day on the ghats, they are considered divine, tears of Lord Shiva. Their rudra seeds go through blessings – washed in a mixture of holy cow’s dung and urine, milk and ghee. “For enlightenment and self-empowerment,” the baba had told me as he draped them around my neck. How I wish that for the many millions of women and children in India who are in need of this and the release of poverty.

The next morning, we bid farewell to Varanasi, I know it will be my last visit. I dig out my old diary where many happy memories are recorded of upcoming Agra and Dehli. This ‘India 101‘ journey continues for our family and we anticipate more compelling sites and, without doubt, more thought-provoking experiences. We’ll experience it together…  to be continued


A calm moment in Varanasi, with Shanti beads

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At Sarnath, home of Buddhism













Serendipity in Mysore… friendship in the seventh country



My third journey to Mysore and I return to these charming, soulful streets. It is an ancient royal city that seems to encapsulate the romance of India. Yet on this visit, I forego the pleasure of the beloved Maharajah’s palace and storied battle fields. Instead I just soak it up, wandering and indulging my love of serendipity.

For two days we engage Shiva, a trusty auto rickshaw driver. First, we bless our ‘carriage’ with a string of marigolds – a vendor unwinds a meter from his impossibly long floral coil. We then allow ourselves to yield to Shiva’s insightful and skillful guiding; to the undiscovered through narrow streets and tucked-away neighbourhoods. It is my dear friend’s first visit to India and she is delightfully overwhelmed – the noise and the seemingly choreographed chaos, the riots of colour, the abundance of holy cows. The warmth of the people and smiles, hands pressed together in greeting, namaste.’

We halt Shiva excitedly, time and again.”Let’s stop here,”– for bustling bazaars and their friendly vendors, many perplexed as to why we are so curious. But of course it is the panoply of fruits and vegetables, colour coded and geometric, lush and bountiful, artful and creative. 


We engage with sellers of all sorts: fruit and sugar cane juice, garlands and greens, spices and sandalwood-scented fans. And purveyors of enormous aluminum pots, pans of all sizes, thali dishes and tiny tiffins.

We chance upon a street of busy tinkering repairmen, and some not so busy. Then shopkeepers who pause to chitchat outside their over-brimming, narrow shops. Perhap a customer’s arrival cuts into the neighbourhood gossip, newspaper perusing and an animated discourse of the day’s happenings. The rhythm of the lively back lanes and streets is their daily soundtrack, and heartbeat – a small town feel, despite a large city.



Once-glorious buildings hint to the days of the British, and to the skilled craftsmanship of refined Indian architecture. They make a striking backdrop. “The door there, you must see,” we’re told. We appreciate its ornate solidity and we conjecture what secrets it holds beyond its beautifully carved facade. 


Mysore is also dotted with stately government buildings and once lovely gems – some restored, others barely holding-on in their precarious, faded glory. We come upon sprawling gardens, now tangled and overgrown. We creep into courtyards once brimming with life, now the cows munch idly in the afternoon sun. 



But we’re pleased to also meet some dear, friendly women. Under a canopy of rosy-pink bougainvillea, a group awaits at the local temple. “Open at four,” they tell us, nodding towards its massive, carved door.

 Striking up a conversation, one of the ladies takes my hands as she speaks. She is diminutive in her later years and her warm eyes are suddenly faraway when she hears I live in Bangalore. “I was there many years, shifted here now,” she says wistfully. “Still busy there?” she wonders. “Oh yes, very hectic,” I assure her and then add, “I like it here in Mysore.” She nods knowingly and I sense she is torn between two cities, even two lives. Our conversation is short, but nonetheless, still heartwarming and tender.  

The afternoon is fading to ‘happy hour’, but when in Mysore one really must treat oneself to a fine pashmina scarf – perhaps even two. We alight from Shiva’s rickshaw one last time to peruse an array of delicate, colourful scarves. It can take time to choose, but Kristin and I have thrown away the clock – all the better to treasure these hours together.

Ensconced back in the homely elegance of the Metropole, we luxuriate in the shade of long verandahs. We reminisce countries by the numbers and tally that India is the seventh we’ve had the pleasure of sharing. We cheer with our wine glasses and ponder… where next? 


If you go, allow me to mention my preferred:

Always stay at the Metropole Hotel.

Visit Ajaaz at The Heritage for scarves, collectibles and perhaps a carpet.

Royal Mysore Walks offers brilliant tours.

My tuk-tuk driver on the ground is Shiva. He’s usually parked close to the Metropole or call at: 988 682 2409

The Shatabdi Express leaves Bangalore at 11:00 am. and arrives just a few hours later. Stop for lunch at the A 2 B for a delicious southern thali as you walk the two blocks to the Metropole. A perfect weekend getaway, enjoy!






A flourish of marigolds… the very best, exotic neighbourhood celebration



The marigolds were the last touch. Shanti smiled graciously and handed the delicate blossoms to me, “Madam can help now.” I was pleased. The intricate rangoli was spread joyously on the driveway of our apartment building. Shanti and Kajul had been planning, chalking and decorating the welcoming design since sunrise.

The occasion was Navratri and from first light, our small apartment complex had been exuberant with the spirit that only a festival can rouse.

IMG_0044“First cleaning, then decoration,” I’m told as I venture downstairs to see the preparations firsthand. Boran is busy cleaning the gate and the doorways. By this time, Kajul and Shanti are applying colour to the rangoli at the front gate.

Our apartment manager Anand, and a friend, are just cruising into the driveway, back early from the market. Anand’s motorbike is barely visible. It is seemingly sprouting…with marigolds and banana leaves, with tulsi and sprigs of ashoka leaves. And of course there’s a bundle of food for the blessing, the puja.

Soon a stalk of banana leaf is attached to each side of the gate, garlands and greens are strung in place. Then it’s time to apply the tripundras. The three-striped motifs are streaked across the wooden slats of the gate and on doorways, even the elevators. They are decorative and spiritual, and the mark doesn’t disappear quickly. A tripundra had only just faded into an outer apartment wall from last year’s celebration. Now all is renewed, re-blessed.

Over the next few hours a more intimate glimpse of Kajul, our security guard, is revealed. I am fond of him and it’s a pleasure to see his creative side and his commitment to tradition. He is happily engaged in helping Shanti decorate the rangoli.

“Kajul have you done this before?” I ask, noting one of his fingernails seems purposely longer than the others. It is painted a reddish hue and I watch him wield it like a paintbrush; guiding different shades of kumkum into each petal, into each leaf-like pattern.

“Oh yes Madam. In my village, helping my mother and sister.” There’s a nostalgic look in his eyes and we take photos for him to send home.

Small parcels of vibrant kumkum await on snatches of newspapers. Shanti and Kajul converse in Hindi. There’s artistic planning and some laughter, but also a seriousness to their endeavour. I watch them for an hour or so, enjoying a coffee in the morning sun, savouring the activity of the neighbourhood.

A neighbour from the next-door apartment strolls through the gate to borrow a dash of the white kumkum. Their gardener passes by with lengthy stalks of banana leafs and a hatchet. It seems he avoided the market and fetched his from somewhere in the neighbourhood.

A few people peer-in to admire the evolving work of art. Oh we definitely have the prettiest and most elaborate decorations, I think to myself. If I might be forgiven the comparison, it feels a a little like I’m back home admiring the Christmas lights on our street. This festival does evoke that Christmas feeling: school holidays, time for family, best to do some ‘spring-cleaning’, perhaps a new outfit or two. It’s also time for veneration to the Hindu gods.

Finally, I can’t resist the temptation – that childlike instinct to paint-by-number, to colour. The enfolding array of designs beckon like a colouring book and a newly-sharpened box of pencil crayons.

“Would you like some help, may I help?” I ask Shanti. She looks over to Kajul, both of them are on their knees, delicately positioned between a flower that’s slowly coming to life.

“Oh no, no thank you,” they say shyly. I’m a little surprised. Is it maybe because I’m not Hindu, or perhaps they’re worried I’m not quite as fastidious as they are and will spoil their creation. I chuckle to myself remembering school days when I preferred that classmates did not work on book projects with me. I couldn’t bear the thought of anyone ‘messing it up’. Yes I understand.

IMG_0063I go upstairs to refresh my coffee and see that our front door is not being forgotten. Boran is stringing a garland of marigolds then dotting each side of the door with a tilak and also blessing it with the swastika symbol. This ancient religious mark is a symbol of auspiciousness and good luck, it remains that today in India. Boran then proffers the melon and I contribute a rupee or two into its dyed, square ‘collection box’.  Before long, I’ll learn its destiny. IMG_0067
I’m soon called back down to the driveway where Shanti and Kajul are gazing proudly at their expansive creation. It’s a rainbow of colours. A feast of home-spun geometry. A happy mural – childlike, yet intricate and abloom. “Full complete,” Kajul says with a beaming smile.

“Madam can finish,” Shanti says kindly, handing a passel of marigolds to me. I get the honour of the last touches…a flourish of marigolds.


Meanwhile there has been a flurry of activity in the underground garage. “Time for puja,” Anand says inviting us down the sloping driveway, into a garage as pristine as a surgeon’s operating room. Cars and motorbikes have been washed. Machines tuned and cleaned. This day is Ayudha Puja, the occasion when traditionally weapons are worshipped, when tools are cleaned and revered, when specific attention to one’s profession and its tools is important. A divine force is summoned for all of them to perform well; here in Southern India it is highly adhered to.


Babu, one of the drivers, has set things up in immaculate fashion. The cars are festooned with garlands, an altar of sorts offers fruit and sweets. The tires have been marked with the customary three stripes and a lime has been positioned under each front tire. Motorbikes have also been decorated, but I notice a bicycle on its lonesome in the corner of the garage. The guys laugh when I note it has no colourful embellishments and before you know it, they are at its side decorating to match the other conveyances. After all, the apartment’s back-up generator and even the piping has received some attention.

With everything in place, Babu lights small flames and incense. Invoking the god Krishna, Babu holds the sacrificial melon with two hands and slowly circles each vehicle, then the motorbikes. He then smashes the ‘sacrificial melon’ on the floor. It crashes open, coins tumble out and a cheer of some sort erupts. Now its time to offer the sweets to us all. And for the final observance, the time has come to move each car and bike just slightly forward. Pop, pop, popeach tiny lime, now sacrificed under the front wheels…the puja is complete.

It’s known that the most traditional and colourful place to celebrate is in Mysore with its parades and carprisoned elephants. Yet I’m pleased we were part of our apartment’s celebration, here to acknowledge the hard work these people perform throughout the year to make our lives more comfortable. It was special to have seen them in a more personal light and share in their enthusiasm. Yes, it felt like the very best, exotic neighbourhood celebration.

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We thought we’d venture out into the streets and decided upon the older neighbourhood of Malleshwaram. It is a quaint lively area, built in the 19th century to accommodate people fleeing the city centre from the plague. Today there’s an excited atmosphere as families celebrate. Ladies are beautifully wrapped in lavish saris. Children delight in a festival treat, maybe an ice cream or a shiny new pinwheel from a passing wallah. 

The streets are alive with marigolds and roses, with limes and banana leaves, and yet more of those melons. We come upon an orange-robed priest blessing a row of motorbikes. We stroll along lovely, well-lived streets. I adore the vivid colour, the whafting of incense and the easy smiles of vendors. Everywhere is verdant, alive and joyful. Here, still more banana leaves are just now being fixed to the corner point of shops, but so many more await to be be part of the festivities. The streets are awash in them. It occurs to us that most of Navratri decorations are natural, organic, connected to the earth.

And there’s more around every corner. More garlands of marigold, more lovingly designed rangolis, and more flamboyantly adorned buses, trucks, tuks – even a cement mixer has received some reverence today.

It is known that India, with its more than 30,000 gods, is a nation of festivals and cultural traditions. To experience these in an intimate fashion, away from the masses of crowds and feeling the spirit of a neighbourhood, is decidedly my preference.

“Madam, please take photo?” I’m asked yet again. The locals are keen to have the day captured.

“Alright, smile everyone,” I say happily. Serendipity has once again rewarded us with a feast of colour and with the gentle warmth of people.












A Monkey Temple… good karma and a mantra



“I can’t go in there, you two go ahead.” I’m adamant. But all the same, my husband and son try to convince me. “No I’m certain. I’ll wait here with Mohan.”

Mohan is our driver in Jaipur and we’ve arrived at our destination, one that I’d prefer not to be at. He’s driven us about 10 km outside of the city. Manoeuvring on a narrow country road, we’ve threaded through small villages with once stunning architecture. We’ve circumnavigated more cows than I’ve seen possibly anywhere in India. Cow-patties attest to this; large numbers of them bake in the afternoon sun. They’ll soon be used as ‘firewood.’

We’re now parked in front of the gate of the pink-hued Galtaji Temple. Except that I can’t bring myself to go beyond it… this is also a Monkey Temple.

A cow stands patiently at the gate as if wanting to enter. But me, I harbour no such desires despite continued pleading from Bruce and Matt.


“Believe me, there is nothing I’d rather do less. You saw how afraid I was earlier today with just a few monkeys.”

I’m referring to the scene that morning. A Skype call with my parents on the verandah of our hotel suite, a waiter serving me freshly brewed coffee, his colourful tunic striking a pretty picture against the archways, then…’pop, pop, pop!’

“Goodness, what was that?” mom asked with alarm. Spinning the computer around to the scene of a uniformed security guard aiming his air rifle, I answered rather matter-of-factly, “Oh, just the guards keeping the monkeys away.”

“Really, I’m surprised you’re so calm,” she remarked. They are well aware of my fear – I don’t know where it came from. Nonetheless, it seems today won’t be the day I conquer my pithecophobia.

Back at the monkey temple, I tell Bruce and Matt that I’ll stay in the truck with Mohan. Noting there is nowhere else to go, I wave them off as they disappear behind the dreaded gate.

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Mohan explains how sacred this temple is. “Many people come once per month, very good karma ma’am.” He tells me of his beliefs and then with a bit of coaxing, Mohan chants his Om mantra, his morning prayer. It’s beautiful and evocative of the devotion that infuses this culture. All too soon the mantra comes to an end.

Back to reality, the large red gate with the mark of Om is to my left and to the right? Well I finally dig up the courage and decide to explore… I don’t see any monkeys on this side of the gate.

After telling Mohan it was lovely that he shared his mantra, I suggest we take a small walk. I’m immediately overwhelmed with the smell of cow manure and urine. As we arrived, there had been a group of cows with people gathered around, but I hadn’t realized the significance.

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“Ma’am this very holy too,” Mohan says as I survey the surroundings. One lone tree, a shop with shading umbrellas and a barn-type structure at the far end. “People come to feed holy cows, sometimes before work. Good karma,” he emphasizes once again.

In Hindu belief, the cow is considered sacred and held in high esteem. It is seen as a caretaker, a maternal figure because of its ample resources; dairy products, strength for tilling fields and dung for fertilizer and fuel.

“Feed the cows?” Mohan asks, motioning to a heap of ragi on a cart outside of the shop. You can buy a handful for a few rupees.

“No I’m fine. Thank you though.” I then notice peanuts on display and put two and two together.”

“Ah the guys could have bought food for the monkeys, that’s a shame,” I say to Mohan. Then nodding to the shopkeeper, trying to make small talk. “Monkeys like?”

“Yes good, good,” the peanut seller says warmly. He has a captive audience with the temple-goers having to pass his establishment.

The Galtaji Temple with its water pools was built a few hundred years ago. Now perhaps some five thousand monkeys call it home. Its environs get even busier during festivals and yet more lively. Curiously, jumping from the surrounding cliffs into the tanks is an attraction.

“Monkeys and people use the bathing, good for soul,” Mohan says as we wander further. Of course the image of communal bathing reels in my mind, but it dissolves as we come upon Saba.

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“This is cow shed for holy cows and keeper. This Saba,” Mohan acknowledges the man as he steps from the barn. Cows munch on ragi behind him as Saba stands at his gate. He does not smile. His silence speaks volumes.

I wonder if this is a small goshala, there are thousands of these institutions that care for old and infirm cows. With more than three-hundred million of them in India, the highest in the world, some of the luckier cows will finish their life in a goshala rather than abandonment when they are no longer useful.

Most cows are owned in India and traditionally each household had their own. They were part of the family with names and personalities and as with most pets, you would not hurt or eat them. It is now common to see them foraging throughout the day, then making their way back to their owners at sunset. I have seen it often; a string of cows sauntering home just as it gets dark. There’s a saying in India… “If you can’t remember your way home, follow your neighbour’s cow.” 

‘I’ll buy water,” Mohan says as we turn back around to the shop. I notice Saba has made his way here as well, it’s right next door and he seems more at ease now. He orders a chai and the seller asks once again if I’d like peanuts for the monkeys. Politely foregoing the temptation of the ragi and the peanuts, I wander across the smelly, dusty road to strike up a conversation.

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A  young man has the deep-orange mark of the monkey god between his eyes. The shades of oranges in Rajasthan are vivid and have great meaning attached to them. The man motions to his mark. “Hanuman,” he exclaims with a proud smile. He doesn’t speak English and Mohan isn’t particularly pleased that I’m attempting a conversation with him.

I finally see my two guys emerging through the gate. At least an hour has passed and they’re effusive.

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The mark of Hanuman

“It was fantastic you should have seen them Ter, swimming and playing,” Bruce says swiping through his photos to share with me. One shows a monkey standing on his shoulder. There’s a video of a baby scampering along his arms and a family frolicking in the pool.

“Come on Mom, we’ll go back in,” Matt says hopefully, like he’s ten years old again and doesn’t want to leave the fun-fair.

“To be honest, let’s get on the road,” I reply, shying away from the photos…and the monkey urine on Bruce’s shirt. It’s mingling with the aroma of cow. Yet I’m pleased to see these two have shared this unique Nat Geo experience. One that I’m convinced will come up more than once around the family dinner table!

“Sure, let’s go. Are you ok Ter?” Bruce asks.

“Oh yes, I had my own little adventure.” I’m thankful I left the safe-haven of Mohan’s truck.

The peanut seller gives me a wave as we pass and I mention that they could have bought peanuts to take to their new friends. “Matt we could go back in and feed them,” Bruce says. He’s only half joking.

“Keep driving please Mohan.” He chuckles. “Yes ma’am not liking the monkeys. But very sacred here.”


After a quick stop for the two to shower and change, we drive to Nahargarh Fort as its position on a hill over Jaipur is the ideal location to view the sunset. As we make our way along the fort walls to the outlook, monkeys dart in and out of the imposing yet romantic structure. A large monkey sits on a low wall that we have no choice but to pass.

I begin to breathe rapidly and grab Matt’s hand for protection. Shielding my eyes, my body tenses as I rush past the substantial primate.

“Mom I had no idea. You really are afraid,” Matt says slightly bewildered. “You’re ok, we’re past him,” he assures me.

Then calling over his shoulder, he announces to Bruce, “Dad, I don’t think mom would have done well at the monkey temple, good thing she didn’t join us.”

Well now that’s an understatement…


But in fact as interesting and as sacred as some people believe monkeys to be, the situation in India is one worth mentioning.

Simply, there are too many of them. This is evident on the streets of old Jaipur and apparently the situation is worse in other cities including Delhi, the capital.

Monkeys have habituated themselves to urban living and often terrorize in large numbers. They seize food and other items, they bite and attack with serious implications; ninety percent of monkeys carry tuberculosis. No we hadn’t realized this – Bruce assured me ‘the temple monkeys were very well behaved.’

Yet having no natural predators they are considered by many to be out of control, but the belief that they are the reincarnation of the god Hanuman ensures they are safe from any attempt to decrease their numbers. A quote by a government official further confirms their role in religious folklore, “These aggressive macaques cannot be the incarnate of Hanuman, they surely belong to the evil monkey king, Bali.”

The practice of feeding monkeys on Tuesdays and Saturdays for good karma contributes to their reliance on humans. Of late, discussions have intensified as fear and destruction continues. When one of the waiters at the Haveli heard we had gone to the temple, he was eager to show us an image of his village’s beautiful town hall. The monkeys keep tearing it apart. “Twice the community has repaired it. These monkeys are most destructive.”


They also cause havoc on farms as crops are destroyed across the country. I find reports of farmers having deserted their land with no solution on the horizon. The numbers of monkeys rises unabated.

It seems then that designated temples are a good environment for monkeys (and humans), but it’s only a ‘drop in the ocean’ considering the numbers.

The same problem doesn’t exist where we live in Bangalore. I’ve evaded them in a number of parks, but thankfully I rarely see them on the streets in our area.

So for now, a visit to a monkey temple is checked off the list of ‘must-sees’, at least for two out of three of us.

For me, the highlight was Mohan sharing his evocative mantra.

But there have been many special moments in Jaipur. I hope this musical slideshow captures a little more of the ‘pink city’ and its environs…







Ode to romance… to the ‘pink city’ of Jaipur




Dear Jaipur,

You welcomed us twenty-eight years ago and we return nostalgically to you. There has always been a fondness for the ‘pink city.’ As young travellers you offered us colour and mystery… the romance of a storied destination.

You are much busier now. Your Maharaja-designed 18th century streets are in constant motion; a stream of life and noise, of endeavour and exuberance.

Tuks, camels, cycles and bullocks, strain both people and cargo through lively streets. Monkeys scamper on ledges and peer through stamp-sized shutters. A procession; a swirl of a wedding marches past as a band trumpets, an elegant groom on his festooned horse – to the bride’s house he gallantly goes.


You still beguile and please with your facades, lattice work windows, your streets washed in soft shades of pinks, roses and salmons.

   The signature Hawa Mahal, Palace of the Winds, is still your calling card. Evoking the richness of Maharajahs and Maharanis, it is a fine blend of Rajasthani and Mughal styles with miniature domes and delicate screens, all nine hundred and fifty-three –  modest viewing galleries – for the ladies.


 Moghul inspired archways, peacock doors and splashes of frescoes fascinate the eye. They are tributes to your past; of proud Rajput warriors, fairy-tale palaces and flourishing bazaars.


But your beauty is also in the finer details – bangles upon sparkly bangles, slipper-shoes of soft camel leather, bejewelled textiles and intricate block prints.

And perhaps just the simple – golden pomegranates on laden trees, toys of old newly discovered and heavenly corners to luxuriate within. We find divine comfort in the Samode Haveili…it becomes our haven.


It all feels like a past remembered – familiar yet newly captivating. We are entreated from all corners: to ride, to purchase, to visit, to partake, to view the beautiful.

Lemony and saffron turbans wrapped atop weathered faces hint at untold stories. Ladies primp and pose, tradition captured in cautious smiles. Young entrepreneurs bargain a good price and Mr. Chand’s outdoor photo studio recaptures us in monochrome memory. We still have the photo from years ago, we believe it was taken here. “Maybe me or my father,” Tikam Chand contemplates. “Yes still here, isn’t it?”

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 I am coaxed to an astrologer’s chair – this city is known for its mystic vibe of bespoke gems and stones, sage-like astrologers and stargazers. And for me a first. I don’t believe, but still…

“Sunrise and meditation is good for you. Maybe you think too much and please madam, you must wear white on Mondays. But good life, good marriage.


He doesn’t know that twenty-seven years of marriage has just been marked. Perhaps fittingly, on a postcard of the Hawa Mahal, my beloved wrote… 

We would never have imagined that our journey together would have taken us this far and into so many corners of the globe. Thank you for being my travel partner of nearly twenty-nine years – my past, my present, my future.”

And so dear Jaipur, the monsoon rains cooled as we traipsed barefoot on your ancient stone, welcome respite from your desert climate. We soaked up your enduring sites, luxuriated by candlelight and dined on fine Rajasthani cuisine. We weaved through your scented bazaars, climbed the heights of formidable forts and spied peacocks under the shade of ashokas.

Indeed more luxurious this visit – the backpacks have long been put away. Yet it was here those years ago, that our travels sparked a romance and now beckoned us to return. So with a fond farewell Jaipur, you will always be a jewel in our traveller’s souls…






A train passage to Enchanting Hampi…




Night train to Hampi – day one

The Hampi Express pulls into Bangalore just before 10 p.m. Hauling a staggering number
of carriages, it almost snakes its way back out of the station as hundreds of people rush at it. Those with general tickets jostle to find a seat; the 365 km journey to Hampi is a long way if you must stand.

We have the luxury of being booked in a four person sleeper. Two sturdy ceiling fans, frayed burgundy curtains and packages of linens await us…Southern Indian Railways bordering their edges. Two long seats below will transform into beds, while above, two bunks are perfectly serviceable for those who don’t toss and turn.

Lulled to sleep by the gentle locomotion, I am awakened through the night by the absence of movement at various stations. At one, I pull back the curtain as the unwelcome light from a platform threads into our compartment. On a station bench a tall gangly figure is wrapped in a shawl, arms on knees, his eyes pierce mine. I modestly retreat behind my drape, but as we roll along through the night I imagine all the people. All of the lives in the small villages that line the track…some seventy percent of India lives rurally.

I peer outside just before sunrise, steel factories loom against the awakening sky. This land is rich in iron ore and I see shadows of families scavenging scattered pieces, tumbled from passing trains and scooped into wicker baskets.

Hampi unwrapped – day two

The cry of a chai wallah from outside our compartment awakes us– an informal announcement that we’ve arrived at Hospete station. We disembark at 7:20 am, two of us rested, one of us groggy. Our senses are immediately heightened as we alight. Carriages disgorge flocks of passengers. Porters proffer their services twirling cloths into mini turbans on crowns of heads, a ready perch for a bag or two. Wallahs announce and drivers implore, tuk-tuk, tuk-tuk?

We have a driver waiting and he is soon maneuvering through traffic along with stray dogs, cows and bulls, wild pigs and piglets…all navigating the lively streets.


After a quick refresh and breakfast at our hotel, we’re back on the road and the lush countryside welcomes us. We pass bullock cart after bullock cart laden with feed, crops and the fruits of the land. I understand why this site was chosen as the heart of an empire. The Tungabhadra river runs through the valley bringing sustenance to sugar cane and banana plantations, rice paddies and coconut groves. It is fertile and beautiful.


A few kilometres down the road we come upon Hampi, a richness of deep-red soil framed by massive monolithic boulders. Shades of bronzes and rust, pale pinks and greys offered a natural defence (and building material) for the once mighty Vijayanagara Empire. After waiting for a shepherd and his goats to pass, we enter through the narrow Talavaraghatta Gate. One passes into an enchanting land…


Now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Hampi has attracted settlers, travellers, traders and pilgrims since the mid 1300’s. With ruins that rival those of Rome and Pompeii, accounts from early foreign travellers capture scenes from the past…

DSCF1078“Travelling about three-hundred miles from Goa, we arrived at the great city of Vijayanagara…sixty miles in circumference…ninety thousand men bear arms. Their king is more powerful than all the other kings in India. He takes to himself twelve thousand wives, of whom four thousand follow him on foot wherever he may go. A like number are handsomely equipped and ride on horseback.” Nicole Conti, an Italian traveller, 1420

The lore of Hampi is not only infused with tales of an extravagant and powerful empire, but with the presence of gods, goddesses and heroes – a connection to the Ramayana, the ancient Sanskrit epic which follows Prince Rama’s quest to rescue his beloved wife Sita from the clutches of Ravana with the help of an army of monkeys. We learn this through Basava, our guide throughout the day from Explore Hampi.

“Everyone calls me Hampi Basava,” he tells us. The son of a farmer, Basava grew up hearing tales of the great empire from his grandmother, inspiring him to share the richness of his hometown. As did encounters with archeologists who excavated the site, “I learned much from them, but still learning.”


The Vijayanagara empire reached the zenith of its power under Krishnadevaraya from 1509 to 1529. Over time the city of Vijayanagara Pattana, became simply ‘Hampi’ and hosted the Pan Supari Bazaar with its daily market and almost one-thousand meters of stalls.

We walk the broad boulevards now quiet and forlorn, but I can still feel and hear the pulse of the people. The clatter of hooves mixing with the slow squeak of a rusty oxen cart. The calling of traders from colonnaded street-long bazaars. Colours gleaming against the scorching sun – gold and jewels glinting. Exotic spices, vermillion, turmeric and sandalwood piling in peaked domes. Sensuous silks and imported Chinese blue and white, hiding in the shade of the columned stalls. A chiseled relief of a fish announcing a nearby water-well. A sign suggesting the courtesan’s bazaar…always held on a Tuesday.


In 1520 Domingo Paes, a Portuguese horse-trader, wrote…”In this city, you will find belonging to every nation and people, because of the great trade which it was and the many precious stones there…the streets and markets are full of laden oxen.”

We approach the Vitthala Temple and I am instantly mesmerized. The massive enclosure has lofty gopuras (pyramidal temples) to three sides, grandiose protection to Vishnu’s mode of conveyance, the opulent stone chariot. “The wheels were once capable of turning,” Basava assures us. The king, concerned with the long treks the pilgrims endured to the sacred temples, entreated the weary pilgrims…Take the energy of the wheels.


The nearby mandapas, intricately columned gathering places, are exquisite. Relief carvings depict dancers, drummers, voluptuous courtesans and warriors, royal elephants and sartorial hints of foreign visitors…a fez from Morocco, a cloak from Europe, a turban from the Middle East.

Basava taps on musical stone pillars sending harmonious notes through the open air pavilions. The granite architecture has beguiling lotus motifs with traces of colours that once decorated and hints of Chinese, Indo-Islamic and European influence. We see shrines, sculptured gateways and monuments to a legion of gods, Shiva, Vishnu and Ganesha, a god favoured for good luck.


Nearby at the Royal Enclosure, the queens private bath, the royal stage, the king’s underground shrine and even a stepped water-tank speak of grandeur. The king had admired it else elsewhere and imported it piece by piece, step by step. Numbered and reassembled in its odd- numbered formatting. These are the numbers Indians favour – 1 for a preferred God, 3 for the past, present and future, 5 for the elements, 7 for the days, 9 for the planets.


By late afternoon the much anticipated monsoon-rain threatens on the horizon. Clouds roll over orchards and palms, and the granite-bouldered sky. It’s been a stifling hot day, the wind picks up and the clouds shower upon us. We don’t mind. It is cooling and refreshing. “Raindrops like lotus buds,” Basava says lyrically. “The farmers will be blessed. Come, we can’t miss the elephant stables.”
The number varies as to how many elephants the kings kept, accounts speak of anywhere from four to nine-hundred. Twelve or so royal elephants resided in the lavish stables. Domingo Paes elaborated…“The elephants are covered with velvet and gold with fringes, and rich cloths of many colours, with bells so that the earth resounds. On their heads are painted faces of giants and beasts. On the back of each one of them are three or four men, armed with shields and javelins.”

imagesWe dash across the rain-soaked grass to the stables with its lofty doomed roofs, surely too beautiful to only house elephants. But these beasts were an integral part of daily and royal life, fitting of an empire that ends…abruptly.


IMG_5164I almost don’t want to hear the fate of this once great city. In 1565 the empire’s armies
suffered a catastrophic defeat by an alliance of Muslim sultanates. The great city was captured, plundered, holy Hindu sites destroyed and more than 100,000 Hindus massacred. As with many great empires, its life cut abruptly short…its heart and soul ripped away.

On a mountain side at the end of the day, we stop for a cooling drink of coconut water. The river gently flows below us and I hear a haunting voice, repeating like an ancient mantra. Lost in her own thoughts, a tiny aged woman crouches under the shade of a boulder. The plaintive strains of her lyrics punctuate the day. Quietly I sit, and listen.




A coracle across the river – day three

With the option of a small ferry or a coracle, we chose the latter. The round cane-bound vessels have plied this river since before the days of the empire and though precarious to board, we float peacefully down the Tungabhadra River. Only the warnings of crocodiles concern us…the monkeys play in the temples, the sloth bears and leopards stay on land. Patches of leafy greens contrast the boulders that seem set to topple into the shallow waters. Temples are chiseled from the granite, integrated seamlessly into the chunky contours of the land.


We walk a kilometre or so along a winding road, through a hamlet and past emerald fields. We pass local teens playing cricket, heaps of sugar cane piled on stout wagons and the shell of an old coracle now tidily protecting firewood.DSCF0802

We reach Anegondi the 3rd century capital of the Vijayanagara empire. Yet even before then, legend speaks of the monkey kingdom here as noted in Ramayana. Local story-tellers refer to Anegondi as mother earth, one of the cradles of dynasties.

After walking through its ancient gate, we are almost immediately upon the town square, a ceremonial ‘temple car’ parked off to one corner. Unlike the stone chariot in Hampi, the elaborately carved wooden ‘car’ can be pulled through the streets on festival days. Rickshaws, town-folk, holy-cows and cyclists manouver a smooth, black-stoned sculpture…perhaps it is the town round-about.


Close by, the Gagan Mahal begs to be restored and I picture how stunning the palace must have once been with its lattice work detailed arches and breezy terraces. While I’m peeking inside, Bruce is surrounded by village children. They flip through our guide book and hoist themselves up on the stone wall. I line them up for a photograph and on a whim decide to buy them a drink. Our ‘child’ is back at the hotel recovering from sun-stroke so we’re happy to improvise. It’s Father’s Day after all.

We march the troops across the street and besiege the small shop. The shopkeeper is surprised, perhaps he knows that news travels fast in this sleepy town. Before we know it, yet more youngsters gather and holler out their drink of choice. “Now enough,” the shopkeeper firmly cuts us off as other customers await their turn, not entirely amused by our generosity.

We wander further, the same children pass on their bikes and shout a ‘hello, namaste, thank-you.’ We stroll onwards through the streets.




Rice shifts and slides from bamboo baskets.









Bangles are offered from a turbaned peddler.










Slathers of mandarin-orange paint brighten a simple village home.



I am happy here, surrounded by shades of pinks, baby-blues and soft greens. It reminds me of those romantic, carefree days of travelling in India from our past…no agenda, no expectations, just the hope of serendipity.

We travel the ferry back across the river, taking the bus instead of a tuk-tuk to the hotel and unbeknownst to us, the next day we’ll hire a car instead of returning home by train. Southern Indian Railways inexplicably cancels our return tickets. We can stand, we can wait five days until sleepers can be booked, or we can see the countryside by car. There isn’t much choice, perhaps it is what I hoped for after all. And my lingering image?

As we leave Hampi behind, a group of nine or so people journey along-side the road. One waves a bright red trianglular flag, each person wears a matching scarf – no bags, no luggage. They are pilgrims.

“Going to the Hampi temple,” our drivers enlightens us, “finding sleep in temples along the way.”

“How far have they walked?” I ask.

“Maybe days are there, or weeks from village.”

For many this will always be a spiritual and magical place.




The gift of mangos and colour…the beautiful spirt of a people


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Charles and Mary have helped restore me – helped soothe the some-time ‘abrasiveness’ of living in a populous Indian city. The couple’s three-wheeler is tucked against a wall in a quiet leafy street, five or so blocks away from our apartment. After a long Sunday morning walk, we find them sizzling masala omelettes and fluffy dosas on their cast irons. When they reveal they’ve been setting up here for twenty-seven years, I suggest that they must have been the original ‘food truck’. They’re happy to have the attention and we spend some time together.

The tools of their trade are neatly stacked and at the ready: variants of stainless steel, gas burners and tanks, prepped veggies. Charles dips his hand into the bucket of chopped chilies and onions, giving it a further blend. Mary shyly reveals that June 14th is their anniversary. “Thirty-one years together and this,” she gestures with a sweep of the hand across their thriving business.

They are in perfect sync as they prepare their street food. Motioning to a photo gazing magisterially down at them, Charles wants me to notice the small shrine. “We’re Christians, Mother Mary and Jesus.” He nods at his Mary as if counting his many blessings. As workers from a nearby high-rise construction site make a beeline for Mary’s dosas, we take our leave – a few dosas and omelettes in hand.

A young lady floats past on the street, her sari matching the stunning blooms of a Scarlet Cordia. It’s been an inspiring corner: the vibrance of colour and the personal, genuine encounters. I pause to reflect…yes, it’s almost always about the people isn’t it?


Allow me to back up…

After more than two months away, it’s been wonderful to be back in my modern Bangalore apartment with its soft hues of greens, blues and whites – its cool marble floors and lush ‘mural’ of trees and coconut palms beyond. It’s been a relief to sit at my desk and write in one spot. For much of the first week I cocooned myself; to transition, to slow down and yield to jet lag, to finally unpack.

The weather is cooling as summer passes and the monsoon rains are upon us. I gazed down to the profuse flowers and to the Headmaster’s garden, my adopted backyard. It’s pleasant, as are the charming interruptions. I heard the thwack, thwack of a coconut harvester’s knife, coconuts tumbling to the red-clay earth below. “Would Madam like coconuts?” a harvester asked as I stood a few wide meters away on my terrace. Minutes later the phone rang, Kajul’s voice informing me, “Madam coconuts here, I bring.”

I welcomed the cry of Raj, my dependable vegetable wallah. “Madam, long time since,” he said, whacking open a coconut, chiselling out its delicious contents. “Good for coconut chutney,” he suggested, as if to answer my ‘what to do with the gifts from next door?’ As I chose my vegetables, I received the usual reprimand from the villa ladies for being away so long. They have also gathered around the neighbourhood ‘water cooler.’

“How lovely, your homes have been repainted,” I commented, noticing the lemony wash on the aging villas. Now somewhat restored to their former glory, their statuesque mango tree is now framed more prettily. “Mangos are soon ready,” Anu said, pointing to the masses of plumping fruit.

The next day a hefty bag of mangos was presented by our landlord. “Welcome back,” Nando said in his affable manner, “the gift of mangos.” He has also recently returned after time in his other home in Belize. He and his wife will now spend six months enjoying the downtown view from their perch on the top floor – from their terrace that floats amongst the tree tops. “Come up for a drink sometime,” Nando adds.

“We will,” I agreed, “you’ll have to meet our Matt.” And as is the Indian way, drinks will start about 9, dinner not served until at least 11 pm.

On my second week home, I became absorbed with my book and also with another writing project. One which demands honesty and vulnerability, and so I’ll continue along that vein.

Matt is here with us in Bangalore, it’s been some years since he was last in Asia. He’s embraced the neighbourhood, the food (especially Preya’s) and he’s also opened our eyes. Seeing a place anew through someone else’s perspective is always thought-provoking.

Not long after arriving, Matt returned from the nearby five-star hotel that is also our club. “They treat you like royalty, almost over the top. Does it get tiring?” he asked. My mind paused…it struck me that I take this completely in my stride. Yet this is my present reality.

“It feels like I’m in a tropical rainforest,” he contunued roaming his eyes around the apartment. “It’s all beautiful Mom.”


“I love it too. And I never tire of this view, it’s my solace,” I told him.

And in saying that, the question was…solace from what exactly?

Allow me to back up, yet again…

While I was away, I was interviewed from afar by the Economic Times of Bangalore. The article featured me as a writer and as an expat living in this booming city. What did I think of the city? Why was I here? What did you know of the city before you arrived?

I mentioned how Bangalore’s people and history inspired me to write. How I could relate equally to security guards who leave their villages to work and to altruistic entrepreneurs who give up careers to care for children in need. I’m fortunate to hear their voices and write their stories.

I was pressed to compare Bangalore with other former homes – Osaka, Amsterdam, Aberdeen, Doha, Muscat, Stavanger, Aktau and Houston. Encouraged to give anecdotes, even as a writer I asked myself…how honest should I be? Too many answers, where do I start?

I related that I love the unexpected. What’s around the corner. I adore the tropical greens, the vivid saris and sumptuous fabrics, the spicy curries, the moveable feasts of fruit and vegetables carts and the cool roof-top bars. And wonderfully, I am always made to feel at home. But I was also honest.

I admitted that Bangalore’s congestion, waste management and lack of green space is a cause for concern. I lamented. “They must stop chopping down these magnificent trees for the sake of continued growth. This city would be so much more livable if the sidewalks were not as hazardous. If city ‘fathers’ recognized pedestrians were as important as vehicles.”

But there is an unwritten rule in an expat life; one shouldn’t offend their host country. I try to live by this. Yet just once, I’d love for someone to allow me to cross a street safely. Could traffic yield to me while I’m on a cross-walk. Perhaps education from the government to educate. Elevated pedestrian bridges to avoid the senseless monthly death-toll. Should this not be a basic human right in a city that attracts investment from companies worldwide?

“Mom has anyone ever stopped for you?” Matt asked one day, alarmed by the craziness. “Yes”, I answered, “Twice.” He was amused that I actually had an exact number for him.

“I know,” I told him, “it would be funny it it weren’t so sad.”

I also could have elaborated about the pitiful waste management. Trash defiles many of the streets, though we are more fortunate in the heart of the city, and at least here we don’t have open fires burning garbage and further polluting the air. Thankfully, we are remote from the many toxic city lakes that froth and foam, that catch on fire due to volatile chemicals . The papers report this, people protest, promises are made, on and on it goes…

DSCF0464These are a few negatives that I might have mentioned in the article, had I been more candid. After time in pedestrian and cycle-friendly Holland and the beautiful mountains and cityscapes of Canada, there is the inevitable adjustment to India. This coming and going in an expat life takes one across the full spectrum of experiences and emotions, there are many of them.

When adjusting back into this other world, exploring is often my antidote. This past weekend we headed to Bangalore Fort with its gate ‘tall enough for an elephant plus howdah‘ and its robust Islamic-styled granite walls. It stands testament to the struggle of the Mysore Empire against the British. I had been here before but again I’m captivated by its imposing elegance.

Tipu Sultan’s Summer Palace is close by, beautifully adorned teakwood pillars, arches and balconies, evoking scenes of the great Sultan holding court, planning his strategy to hold back the British.

Now, the fanned traveller’s palms and nearby temples evoke peace, not war. Serenity, not plunder. I soaked it up, breathed it in, not wanting to leave the hushed walls and enter back into the fray of the frenetic streets.

These landmarks of Bangalore’s history stand in one of the older pets, those neighbourhoods where many people barely scrape by…day by day, rupee to rupee. After taking photos of the fort and the palace, I put my camera away. That day I didn’t feel comfortable taking photos of vendors who line the streets. The wallahs for whom I have great respect and often empathy for…the back-bone of this country of 1.3 billion people. Many do well, like our Raj, but many sit under the baking sun; maybe just a few limes to sell, some shrivelled brinjal that no one is going to buy. And simply, many are too young.

“Let’s go home,’ Matt said, “I feel like I’m intruding.” That sentiment has crossed my mind many times. The wallahs are hard working and a contrast to those who beg for alms; but then I can’t judge their circumstances. It remains disconcerting for me, the inequity never making sense either to ‘seasoned veterans’ or ‘fresh eyes’.

DSCF0520The following Sunday morning we walk through nearby Cubbon Park. It’s not exactly manicured, but lush and peaceful nevertheless. There are glimpses of the city’s past as a British cantonment, military legacy of the final Mysore war. A reminder of when residents strolled through this once glorious ‘garden city’.

We come upon the Government Museum, a 19th century neoclassical. A troop of gardeners and one security guard, are digging ragweed from the lawn. “Good Morning sir, you’re working early. And you’re making progress,” I offer, spying a pile of weeds.

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The guard introduces himself and adds, ‘Yes too many weeds are there, much work.” Motioning to Matt to give it a try, he hands him the weeding tool. He watches as his new apprentice-gardner up-roots a few pesky weeds, encouraging me to take a photo. A brief but sincere encounter…the geniality of Southern India.

We meander to another neighbourhood, the small houses making rainbows of colours. Without hesitation, the children run to me, “Auntie, auntie, where from?” They are playing happily in the street, pestering at the local corner store and as always, pleading for their photo to be taken.

It seems that households have been busy. Reams of laundry dry in the warm June morning, dishes await scrubbing, garlands decorate doorways and a young mother poses eagerly with her toddler. The colours and images are vivid and again I reflect that this is when I’m most content in India. On peaceful streets with daily activities like anywhere else – without the reminders of perpetual toil and poverty.

As we make our way out of the neighbourhood, a pack of mangy dogs mark us as interlopers. They snarl and yap until a kindly lady steps away from her heaped cart of pots and pans. Offering her apologies, she escorts us around the corner, swiping and scolding the mutts. The chickens let us pass.


So I come full circle to Charles and Mary at the end of that second outing. It was as if they greeted us back to our own bustling, yet reassuring neighbourhood, more privileged than most yet still typical. Vibrant colours, chaotic traffic, life lived on the streets – lives of difficulty and of prosperity. Simply, it is India.

Above all what I’ve come to love here is its people. I respect their industriousness and for many their perseverance. So yes, I could have added more to that article. I would have implored the government to do more: fix the sidewalks, protect the trees and greens spaces, combat the pollution, ensure the water supply for farmers and for all, try to eradicate the vast inequities. People like Charles and Mary, Raj, Kajul, Preya, the children who welcomed me as ‘auntie’, they all deserve a voice. I advocate for them, not myself, my time here will be only another year.

One last quote from that article, “Bangalore has become like the other cities I’ve lived, I cannot imagine not having been here.”

I embrace India for the complex layered story that it is and I’ll continue to cherish the beautiful spirit of the people.

And so I await the next playful unpredictability, the next enchanting exploration and naturally more sincere encounters to come.

It seems that will happen this coming weekend. It’s time to initiate Matt into Indian train travel, a passage to the bewitching ruins of Hampi has been booked. Another chapter in our Indian story.



Priya’s story…part two


IMG_2803Priya’s story has revealed itself gradually; snippets of conversation as we’ve come to know each other in our one year in India. I have known since she joined us as housekeeper, that Priya is widowed and raising children alone. This in itself, could be considered remarkable in India.

It is not uncommon for widows in India to be considered inauspicious and shameful to their family. They can be marginalized, cut off from family property and money, and considered an inconvenience and a burden. Widows can be abandoned with no place to go – simply cast adrift.

Traditionally, widows are expected to wear white, shave their heads and discard their jewellery – essentially renouncing anything that symbolizes womanhood. In some areas of India, social norms still hold to the belief that for a bereaved woman to remain in society, she must have a supportive brother or son.

In rural parts of India, where arranged marriages commit young women (often girls) to marry older men, it is not surprising that widows comprise ten percent of the adult female population, some forty million. Many, widowed at a young age, find that their life is essentially over or irrevocably altered. It can still be considered improper for upper castes to remarry, lower castes often do, ideally to a brother-in-law.

To understand their plight one has only to read about or see images of Vrindavan, a sacred city which has become home to thousands of destitute widows. Begging to pilgrims and chanting bhajan (sharing) hymns for up to four hours a day, earns them enough for one meal and perhaps shelter. For young widows in Vrindavan, poverty may lead to sexual exploitation, a last resort for those already stripped of their dignity. The organization Maitri endeavours to alleviate this, collecting contributions for the purchase of mosquito nets, fresh white linen saris (perhaps now a symbol of sisterhood) and even sewing machines for a widow’s livelihood.

The abhorrent practise of shunning widows is a grim residue of an Indian tradition sati or suttee, the burning of a widow on her husband’s funeral pyres which was once (and by some accounts is still) practiced. The perception of woman as chattel is rooted in the patriarchal culture which must change, in step with the values of a civilized society. The women at Vrindavan and other shunned widows represent all women. They were once girls, wives, mothers and grandmothers – deserving respect and dignity.

Within this cultural context, Priya’s independence and resolve is all the more admirable. She has mentioned to me that she is very careful not to acknowledge that she is on her own.

Priya was somewhat distracted this past month as her search for a new home was far more difficult to secure without a man’s name on the lease. Our offer to help negotiate was politely declined and I was relieved that a driver of another family Priya works for was available to help.

Thankfully Priya has found a new home, one with tiled floors and running water, an improvement from her previous house. However, she is not pleased that so many cows wander close by and she worried that her previous landlord might take advantage by not returning her security deposit, “Madam, this is life without a man, not easy,” she said stoically.

Recently as I relaxed, reading on my sofa, Priya eased herself down on the carpet beside me. We had just arrived home from a trip, the house was already clean and I was happy to have some time to speak with her. Priya’s brave and inspiring story flowed forth. With her resilience worn firmly on her face and her engaging personality coming through, her reflections evoked introspection, wistfulness and even laughter.

I use Priya’s own speech patterns. Madam is usually said with a Ma..dam, the last syllable lilting up lyrically as if it is a happy topic. Otherwise, the dam dips down with a tone of seriousness…it is the name she uses for me.

Priya where did you grow up?  I am not from here, from Tamil Nadu. We lived in a house of coconut leaves with mud floor, like a squatter’s village. We had no food, maybe gravy with onions and rice, once at night. I tell my children,”You are lucky.”

Did your father work?  He died, I was five. Preya puts her thumb to her mouth like a soother, indicating that her father was an alcoholic. Four other children, never enough food.

Did your mother work then and take care of you all?  She worked in rice fields, taking the husk. Very hard work Madam, 6 rupees a day.

Your older brothers and sisters, did they go to school?  No, no, no one. Sisters from a convent came to take me, so poor were we Madam. My mother said, “Take her for better life.”

IMG_0124How did you feel, do you remember this?  Oh yes, I was happy. Food was there. The bus ride was far, to Kerala, a convent. Sister Paulina took me. You know Madam, Priya gazes out to the lush rain tree and palm trees beyond for inspiration, coconut leaves were rolled long for lights (torch). Moved back and forth, very pretty at night. And spoons from jackfruit, we eat rice, lots of rice and coconut chutney always there. Priya smiles with the memory of this and I tell her I love this kind of chutney. Oh yes Madam!

Priya what did you do at the convent, did you start school?  Just a little, maybe one month, but no interest. I work, clean, play with children, pick up the coconuts. Madam, then a rich family wants to take me, “Give us Priya,” they said. I was five and a half.

Did you miss your mother, your family?  No Madam, there is nice food, clothes, soap. I go with the family and play with the daughter. I see her go to school and now want to go. I cry to go, but they say no, just housework and playmate for the girl.

Was anything paid to you, or your mother?  Yes Madam, 10 rupees a month. The convent send money to post office, to my mother. The grandmother was nice in the house. At nine, a Sister dies and I’m at convent for a break, but don’t want to go home. Priya works three years in the convent. At twelve years I go to new home. Sometimes now I talk about my family, but they buy me gold earrings, new dress to stay. From five to twelve I don’t see my mother.

Priya, all this time you didn’t study, only worked?  Yes Madam, I’m sorry but what to do, work from five years old. One day I want to see my mother, big arrangement to do this. The sisters ask, “Why Priya, they are still poor.” But I must see my mother, so I go, fifteen day holiday. Madam I don’t know my mother’s face. I go home, my sisters, brothers don’t talk to me. My language is changed. So poor, no study, only playing, no food. Mother work all day. Again I’m hungry. No clean water. Only two days I stay.

Were you sad to leave your family again?  No Madam, only think of food. It’s clear this is difficult for Priya to reconcile. The convent keeps me now to work, mother can come once every two months if want, two long buses away. Madam I like the schedule at convent. 5 a.m.up, church, food, bath and work. Now too old to learn.

For five years Priya’s mother is sent a salary from the convent. They also saved money separately for her dowry.

Madam at seventeen, I’m asked, “Do you want to go to Dehli?” First time for train, happy but a little scared. One sister took me. Delhi very different Madam!

Where did you go in Delhi, to a new family?  Yes, first year was good Madam. A girl there about three, but then the Sir, you know, was slapping my bottom. One night tapping me on the arm, I sleep in the hallway. I tell him, “I will tell!” I cause big problem, no one understands why I want to go back. The Convent comes to get me, three days again Madam on train. And then bad.

What happens Priya?  My mother comes to Sisters and begs for money for my sister’s dowry. She’s old twenty-five, they give my dowry money Madam. I don’t go to wedding, a mess.

Priya that must have been a terrible shock; all those years you worked.  Yes, now the convent says, “Priya go to a convent in Bangalore, Saint Anne’s.” My God Madam, the first time off train there is breath coming from mouths, so cold, like a frozen town. I work Madam like before and now I’m old, twenty-two. Then one day, they tell me rules are change and I must marry.

IMG_9338You didn’t go back home of course, you had no choice but to marry?  No this is my life. I dream Madam and Priya laughs at her own naivety at the time, I can watch T.V, cook for my husband, a good life. Her voice trails off at what might have been…

They find money for dowry, 20,000 rupees, earrings and a chain. Some teachers collect saris for me. And Madam, everybody knows husband is a drunk. Me a good convent girl, no family wants him. And mother too, a drunk.

I’m so sorry Priya. Yes Madam, what I’m thinking, she pauses for some time, I trusted the Sisters. I remember a cleaning lady at engagement party, “The boy is a drunk,” she says and someone says shhh! But too late, maybe sisters know.

Where did you live after the wedding?  
A place Tannery Road, everybody drunk, even now I would never take children there. Fifteen days after marriage, he says, “Go to work,” the mother-in-law, “George B……Why is she sitting there, send your wife to work!” Priya laughs and repeats it twice in a threatening voice. My dreaming is finished. Madam I’m happy you’re writing.

So am I Priya. You are an inspiration, everything you’ve been through. So you went to work housekeeping, what did your husband do?  Worked in a small shop, TV repair but only drank. The Sisters came and talked to him four times, but Madam, what to do…nothing changed.

Priya would quickly become pregnant. A kindly family she worked for allowed her to rest at work, offering her extra food. With no one to collect her from the hospital after the birth, the pattern of neglect and abuse began. Priya was able to take the baby to work with her; she cannot imagine not having had this ‘refuge’. Unfortunately the family moved out of state. An incident soon after the birth of Priya’s second child, left her fearing for her life. She felt she had no choice but to flee from her husband with her two young children – with no money, no job and nowhere to go.

Priya persevered and bravely worked her way through these most difficult times. I am aware of other details of her heart-rending story but much of it is too personal to publicly share. Her resolve, determination, maternal instincts and loving character is an inspiration to me…a poignant emblem of the strength of womanhood.


Sometime last year, despite being detached from her family for all those years, Priya took her children on the long bus trip back to the village in Tamil Nadu to pay respect to her mother,”Madam, no cross is on her grave, I must do it.”

It says much about her character that she had the charity and compassion to make this journey for a family which has not been a part of her life. I sense that she views herself as the ‘lucky one’ having been given to the convent as a young girl.

When I show this blog to Priya before I press publish, she sees her photos and laughs her infectious laugh, “Madam, to the world?” she asks. I tell her that I do know much of the rest of her story, but it isn’t printed here. “You know Madam?” Tears well in our eyes.

“Yes Priya, you are very brave.”

“Madam,” she says reflectively, “I wasn’t strong then, not like now. I tell my daughter she must study, she must be strong.”