The Man Eaters of Tsavo

In a race against darkness, the men hurried towards their camp while the sun was being devoured by the blistering plains of the land known as Tsavo. Their skin still prickled from the intense heat of the day and they ignored the thorns that tried to desperately to make them stop. The closer they got to the camp, the more vicious the thorns became below them and the darker the sky got above. It was as if the land itself had conspired against them and given rise to the demons that began haunting them a few months ago.

Alongside the orchestra of the crickets, a mumbling of prayers in Sanskrit, Punjabi, and Arabic began. Despite not understanding exactly what the other person was saying, they all knew they were praying for the same thing. One more day of life. Darkness had taken over and even though the camp was not too far from the railway they were working on, they felt like they had been walking for hours.

The air became viciously cool, but that could not stop the beads of sweat that trickled down their foreheads as they thought of the monsters that could be lurking in the dark. It had been two days since the last incident, and today was probably the day the pair would come back to strike. The men wanted nothing more than to be back in their tents, somewhat safe from the dangers that the land had spewed out.

The lamp signalling the beginning of the camp was now visible, and their footsteps became faster to reach the light as quickly as possible. As though crossing into the threshold of the camp would magically protect them. As they hurried, the ground began to get more uneven and the thorns began to get sharper, piercing into the worn soles of their leather sandals. One of the men stumbled and fell, his turban unravelling and getting caught in the thorn bushes beside him. The rest started screaming at him to hurry and stand up. The ones in front ran into the camp, and the ones behind tried desperately to reach them as well, repeatedly knocking down the man who had fallen.

Their screams and the blood that had started dripping from their feet to the ground had awoken the still horrors, and as they shone a light towards the man who had fallen they saw the demons materialise out of the night and pounce on him. His screams captured the rest of the men, and they were unable to move any further.

“You left me!” he kept shouting.

“You left me! They’ll get you as well!” his screams stopped.

They stood and watched as he was ripped to shreds and taken away. His turban released itself from the grasp of the thorns, and flew towards them, shrouding them with his curse. Within a month, all of the men who ran away from the lions that night would be devoured by them, and they would all hear the curse placed on them by the man they left behind, as the lions would tear them apart.

***

In 1898, the construction of the Lunatic Line in Kenya came to a halt as workers in Tsavo were attacked by two man eating lions. The lions are believed to have devoured 135 men within nine months. The ordeal came to an end in December 1898, after the lions were killed by Lieutenant Colonel John Henry Patterson, an engineer who was sent to oversee the construction of the Uganda-Kenya Railway.

The lions were abnormally huge and were believed to be spirits that were summoned to stop the construction of the “iron snake” across the land. Some people even believed they were possessed by the devil and the pair were given the names Ghost and Darkness because of the havoc they wreaked during their time.

Their corpses were sold to the Chicago Museum by Patterson, and upon further investigations it was seen that one of them had a bad tooth which made human beings easy prey and was used an explanation for their behaviour. However, there is still no explanation as to why the lions seemed to enjoy the killings, striking even when they had no need to. According to testimonies, the behaviour of the lions was not typical in any form. They fearlessly outsmarted their prey and began a “reign of terror” as Patterson explained it.

I visited the site of the railway construction, and the killings in Tsavo. I stayed at the Man Eaters Lodge which is located along the banks of the Tsavo River, the location where the lions killed most of the railway workers, and where they were killed themselves. The lodge has a few artefacts such as lamps, lanterns, and spades from the time of the construction which was very interesting to see. They also have some pictures displayed and a bit of information regarding the events of 1898.

Right outside the lodge lies the ruins of the old railway line, the station, and what looked like some living or storage quarters. I spent some time walking around this site, thinking about the history behind it. I wish there was a stronger effort to preserve this part of the country’s history, but I am glad I was able to visit nonetheless.

Although my day was spent in awe of the landscape and thinking about the stories that the earth there holds, my night was not as comfortable. Falling asleep was hard. The sounds of the night in Tsavo filled my soul with dread. The river that flowed ferociously outside my tent was not loud enough to tune out the screams that lingered in the air over a century later.

I know I tend to become a bit too engrossed in a story, but it reached a point where I no longer wanted to think about any story. I wanted to be in a rational frame of mind and know that terror no longer lurked outside my tent. But every time my eyes would shut, they would open again involuntarily.

I conjured up goddesses and friendly animal guides from my childhood to guard my bed from all directions. I said prayers my lips had long forgotten. I thought about my great-great grandfather who had apparently worked on the railway and I wondered if he had been here during the time of Ghost and Darkness. I wondered if he also conjured the same helpers I had, and if the same prayers had escaped his lips 102 years ago.

They say trauma can carry forward multiple generations. It is inter-generational. I pondered over my lifelong inability to walk in the dark- always fearing that a lion would emerge out of the darkness and that would be the end of me. I never quite understood where the fear came from until now.

Perhaps he had been here, and he had survived. Perhaps his fear and his prayers had lodged themselves in my throat four generations later. I pictured the derelict railway tracks that he probably crouched over all day to build, and as a cold breeze wafted into my tent, the hair on the back of my neck stood up, just as his might have. Could it be that I was feeling the fear of a man whose name I didn’t even know?

Whatever it was, I don’t think the lions ever really left Tsavo. I could almost hear them roar as my eyes shut completely for the night.

dudh makhna naal…

Jeet Khanna, my maternal grandfather was born in Lahore on the 26th of July 1937. His father was a wrestler in his heyday and ran an arena as well, where many famous wrestlers would train and fight. His father passed away when his younger brother was born, and all that was left of him was a tattered old photograph of him standing in front of their three storey house in Lahore.

When news of an expected partition began to spread, his mother sent Jeet and his 3 year old brother Kishan, to her sister’s house in Pakpattan. They stayed there for a couple of months, but when the border was drawn and Pakpattan fell on the wrong side, they began their journey away from their childhood.

His aunt and her husband booked tickets for everyone to Delhi and decided that Jeet’s mother would meet them there as well. Jeet looked forward to train journeys because of the delicious snacks that he would get when the train would stop, so when the train stopped just before the Kasur Railway Station, he was disappointed when he looked out the window and he couldn’t see the platform or any vendors. All he saw was the grey sky pouring out its pain.

Suddenly everyone began screaming and trying to run out. His aunt screamed out his name and told him to run, but he could not move. He had seen what had triggered the commotion- a mob of men with swords as long as their arms had entered the train. The shine of the metal was covered by blood, and he saw heads roll off necks.

Jeet froze and Kishan began bawling. Jeet tried to look for his massi, but he could not see her anywhere. The only thing he could think to do was cover his brother’s mouth, hoping that they could remain invisible among the destruction that had ensued.

A man holding a red-streaked sword locked eyes with Jeet and began making his way towards him. He crouched down so his kohl rimmed eyes were at level with Jeet’s. He moved Jeet’s hand away from Kishan’s mouth and carried Kishan on his shoulders. The man grabbed Jeet’s hand with his sword-free hand and took both the boys outside of the train. Kishan had stopped crying.

Jeet could not keep his eyes off the mound of dead bodies that they were heading towards. The man placed them on top of the mound and told them not to move. He returned to the train. The stench of decay filled Jeet’s lungs, and if he had eaten anything that day, it would have come straight out. He looked around at the wet earth, littered with bodies whose bellies looked like his mother’s did before his brother was born. Crows, vultures, and dogs feasted on the men, women, and children who lay around and below him. He moved Kishan closer to him and wondered where his aunt was.

What seemed like an eternity later, the man came out of the train and silently walked with Jeet and Kishan into the next village. He handed them some dry channa and left without saying anything. Jeet recognised the town as he had been there before to visit his mother’s brother with her. When he somehow found the house, his uncle’s wife was audibly upset about him being there. They also had to leave, and they were not willing to take Jeet and Kishan along with them.

Jeet had no answers for the questions that followed. He had no idea where his aunt and her husband had vanished, or where his mother was. He did not know who the man with the sword was, or why he brought them to this village. All he knew was that they were on their way to Delhi.

Later that night, the smell of Prontha being fried in ghee made Jeet’s stomach rumble. He had not eaten the whole day. The channa that the man with the sword had given him remained in his pocket. When he went and sat near his cousins with Kishan, they watched as their aunt, would put hot Prontha in the plates of her children and drizzle extra ghee on top. They watched, patiently waiting their turn. After his cousins had eaten, his aunt took the hot tawa off the fire and stood up. She put a cloth with rotis wrapped inside in front of Jeet and left. When Jeet took a bite of the roti that had began to decay, his stomach churned. He remembered the stench of the dead bodies. He put them away, went inside, and got the channa out of his pocket.

The next morning, the same rousing smell of ghee-slathered prontha wafted in the air. After watching his cousins eat, the same bunch of stale rotis that he put aside the night before were thrown his way. When he broke into the roti, he looked at the sinewy strings that presented themselves, and he threw it back at his aunt. Without a word, he took Kishan out of the house and began his trek to Delhi.

Sustained by the kindness of strangers, eventually Jeet found himself in Delhi. Away from waters of the Sutlej which tried desperately to wash off the blood stains on its banks. The kindness of strangers disappeared once faced with the harsh reality of the refugee camp that they were in. He had to find a way to get food for himself and Kishan, and stealing was not an option. Memories flooded his eyes and he remembered the first and only time he stole; a one rupee coin that was left lying around by his uncle who worked in a bank, a couple of years ago in Lahore. Jeet picked the coin up and ran to the market outside, filling himself with delicious rabri. Upon returning home, his uncle dragged him along their courtyard, and his grandmother’s delicate but firm voice stopped a slap mid-air. As he looked at her hair that was as white as the rabri he had eaten, and her eyes as green as the pistachios that garnished it, he heard her voice come back to him in the refugee camp- “whatever happens in your life, you must never steal.” So, he did not.

He found odd jobs here and there and struggled to resist the temptation of paaya or other delicious food that was being cooked around him. He had to focus on Kishan. He cleaned glass bottles with acid for about a year and the marks remained on his hands for the rest of his life. He did not enjoy it much, but it was honest. About a year later, a woman in red ran towards him in the refugee camp. She picked Kishan and hugged him tight, and tried to embrace Jeet as well, but he resisted. She said that she was his mother, but she looked nothing like the mother he remembered. His mother was a widow, and the lady in front of him was wearing red, and had bangles on her wrists. She kept saying that she was his mother, but he refused to go near her. He spotted his mother’s sister walking towards them, and his heart sank with the realisation that the woman in red was truly his mother. She had remarried while on her way to Delhi, and her new husband helped her trace Jeet and Kishan. They left the refugee camp, but Jeet refused to stay with his step-father, or to acknowledge him at all. As far as he was concerned, he only had one father- Ram Jawaya Mal, the wrestler who fought with death… and lost.

One of Jeet’s friends took him to a printing press that was looking for boys to deliver newspapers around town. Once there, the owner of the press recognised the Lahori twang in Jeet’s voice and enquired about his family. The man was a friend of Jeet’s late father and agreed to give him a job for the sake of an old relationship. Jeet requested his new boss to also let him stay in the printing press and promised that he would keep the place clean and learn how to maintain the machines. This was the only way he would be away from his mother and her new family. The owner agreed.

Jeet spent a few years saving some money and dropping the rest of his earnings to his mother for the sake of Kishan. He spent his nights, with a dictionary in one hand and the next morning’s newspaper in the other. As he started growing older, him and his friends would sneak into restaurants and clubs to hear how people would speak English. His best memory of his “Golden Years” was saving up for a chicken burger every two weeks. As his skill set grew, and his salary increased, he was able to move out of the press, and would frequent all the restaurants and bakeries across Delhi to try everything that he could.

The best part of his success was the ghee and butter he would buy to slather on his bread or prontha, to drip into his daal or curry, to his heart’s delight. He managed to buy a house, get married, and raise his three children with a pantry full of delicious things to eat. For as long as he was alive, there remained an abundance of butter, ghee, nuts, and sweets around him. A sign of a good life, he would always say, is to have hot food and fresh ghee.

I would leave Kenya during school holidays to go visit him in Delhi and wake up to him telling me to try a different stuffed prontha each morning with a generous helping of butter or fresh malai. During lunch he would mix two heaped spoons of ghee into my little bowl of daal and excitedly wait for me to give my verdict on how delicious it was with his secret addition. I would watch him spread half a packet of butter onto our evening bread, and he would demand at dinner time for saag meat or paaya to be brought from outside.

His eyes would light up when we would bring a box full of pastries from his favourite Wenger’s or bottles of milkshake from Keventer’s. He would ask about our plans for the day, and whatever corner of Delhi we would intend on visiting, he had an excellent suggestion of a beloved dish of his to try there and to bring home for him.

As he grew older, he would be told to ease off on all the butter and ghee that he used to consume, and those were the only moments I would see my otherwise Zen Nana Papa get fazed. He would look over at me and begin telling me stories of his childhood. Moments when he would long for food but be given stale roti instead by a cruel aunt. Stories of nights he would spend hungry in the printing press and eat a handful of channa after tying a wet cloth tightly around his stomach to keep his hunger at bay.

When I would get disturbed about something or the other, complaining about how much my life sucked, he would gently explain to me how to be thankful for the hot and fresh food I had on my plate, and that’s a lesson I will cherish forever.

Despite hearing his stories all my life, it took me a long time to realise the true significance of his love for food. In many ways, he remained a ten year old boy, looking longingly at the prontha in his cousin’s plate, and then at the stale roti on a cloth in front of him. And as long as he could eat whatever he wanted to, he knew he was far away from the mound of dead bodies, and the swords coloured with blood. I knew it was not easy for him to be away from his beloved Lahore because of the tenderness with which he always spoke about its streets and the sweetness of its water. I knew he always wanted to go back, because he told me many times. But he built a life for himself out of nothing, in a city that he eventually managed to call home. He would often narrate how he was all alone, and slowly his family grew to include a wife, three children, seven grandchildren, two great grandchildren, and six spouses of his children and grandchildren, and he was always grateful for his abundant hearth and home. He filled it with love, laughter, and a never-ending love for food.

His story is not the only one that is filled with unbelievable horror and strife. Countless others went through sometimes similar situations, and sometimes much worse. The resilience with which they overcame this tragedy is what was common in all of them. A whole generation of people emerged with an unmatched strength in the face of adversity, and many times, the goal was always a hot meal with fresh ghee.  

Inauspicious Introductions

Wedding season is upon us, and woefully for those of us who are not directly involved in the festivities (family or close friends), it’s the season of trying on our clothes only to realise how much damage December actually did.

Another damage brought to the forefront during this season is that of tradition and time.

I know that’s quite the accusation, but hear me out…

We pride ourselves on being “modern”, and “liberal” and having left “regressive” traditions in the past, but have we really? Have we had a close look at the things we still do in the name of tradition, and we accepted them for what they truly are? Outdated, patriarchal, and unnecessary.

Punjabi weddings have many customs that upon closer inspection, have no place in today’s world. The most annoying being the constant presence of “shagan”.

The term shagan translated literally means auspicious. During weddings, it refers to monetary gifts bestowed either on the couple or other family members. Shagan is doled out at every step of the way. The first time you see someone, the first time they come home, the first time you hear their voice, the first time you hear their dog bark, and so on and so forth.

Now, I have no issue with people giving this monetary “blessing” to the couple. Heaven knows they’ll need it in the coming months. I started my business with the shagan I got during my wedding, so it was super helpful, and much appreciated!

The problem lies in the pressure of doing this continuously, and for a lot of people, not just the bride and the groom. Both families are expected to go back and forth in the name of formality and tradition with giving and receiving shagan during the wedding festivities, and beyond. We don’t consider that sometimes it may be burdensome to keep forking out this “blessing” for so many people, despite having already paid for a lavish wedding with the best décor, and the most interesting food choices.

I mean, our weddings last a week, and every day for a week we have at least 20 people eating at least two out of three meals in our houses, and on top of that, we expect parents and elders to pay at least 10 other people to convey their thanks and best wishes? Seems very unreasonable to me.

Now, at the centre of the problem with shagan, is the milni ceremony. Possibly the most problematic of the lot. The term milni can be translated as “to meet”. It’s called that, because back in the day when my ancestors hadn’t ventured outside of state lines, this was the first time any of these people were meeting each other. So, I guess it made sense to have a ceremony to formally introduce the families. The groom’s family would bring the wedding procession to the bride’s village, and the fathers would be formally introduced in front of the rest of the wedding party, and other uncles, brothers, and relatives would follow. Female relatives would also be introduced to each other, but somewhere else, and at another time.

This still happens. You’ve met your “equivalent” in the other family many times, but during the wedding week, you will still be formally introduced. So far, you’re probably thinking I’m complaining about nothing. So, what if there’s a few minutes of introductions? It’s just a chance for some fun and games, isn’t it? Well, that’s not wrong. A lot of people have found ways of injecting some humour into the otherwise serious ceremony, and that’s not the problem.

The problem is again, shagan. The girl’s family is expected to thank the boy’s family for their presence through gaudy and ridiculously priced garlands, gilded envelopes, rings, clothes, shawls, and turbans, that will NEVER be used in any way. The boy’s family graciously accepts, and these items sit for endless years at the back of some dark wardrobe. After all, it’s a sign of “respect” and “honouring traditions”.

Do you know what this tradition is called?

Dowry. That’s what it is.

Dowry.

We can put it in five pretty trays and surround it with all the ladoos and fruit we like, we can place a thousand colourful flowers and bows on it, but that’s what it is. Dowry.

No, it’s not “gifts” or “blessings”, or even “love”. It’s dowry.

It’s the diasporic cousin of the ones back in the villages of Punjab who take the lives of over 20 women and girls every day, even today. The only difference is that it wears something different and talks with a shiny twang.

Both uphold the same ideas, that a girl on her own, is unacceptable. She must come with something else. She must keep everyone happy, no matter how distant. She must “respect”, even if it hasn’t been earned. I know we don’t look at it in that way. I know that almost all of us view it as a harmless tradition and have no greed in ourselves while being a part of this tradition. But just because we think it’s harmless, doesn’t actually make it harmless.

Ask yourselves, does this tradition of “giving and taking” have any place in our lives today? Does it have any significance? Do we really need it?

I don’t think so.

We can comfortably do away with it and lift the burden to subscribing to it off a thousand already heavy shoulders. Can you imagine what else could be done with that money? How much it would help the couple if given to them to start their new lives instead? Or how much it would continue to help the families if they didn’t spend that money in the first place? Alternatively, if a family is comfortable spending that money, how much it would benefit the people who really need it?

Why don’t we make charity a bigger part of our lives and our weddings? The money you’re going to give a relative who doesn’t even speak to you, would be in a much better place if it went towards a good cause. You can plant trees with it, you can buy books or clothes or food for someone who has none of that.

So, I proclaim today, that I’m kicking the polished cousin of “daaj” out of my life. If my future children choose to have a Big Fat Punjabi wedding, I’m not partaking in any of this “giving and taking” business. Be it for my son, or my daughter. If the other side insists on having a milni, all envelopes whether given by me, or received by my family, should enclose receipts of donations made on behalf of the couple. If my children’s future in-laws are reading this, I hope they remember this post in the next 35 years when we meet as a family. If not, I will remind them.

Let us be unafraid of calling a spade, a spade. It’s time to let go of traditions that don’t have any place in our lives. Traditions should evolve, and be relevant for times they’re practiced in. It’s time for our traditions to be more inclusive, understanding, and helpful.

 

 

 

 

 

 

R.L Mehta and his family

An article that was published in the SSD Centennial Celebrations Magazine

I was seated in a room asking some of my family about my grandfather, Rattan Lal Mehta: a man I was only fortunate enough to know for the first year of my life. I have no recollection of him, and yet, he feels so familiar from all the stories I have heard. I was told that he would read religious literature every evening, and on Sundays, would sit out on the patio to soak in some sunshine while reading. I can picture him sitting in my childhood house, his glasses almost at the tip of his nose, with a book in his warm hands. I feel an urge to travel through memories that aren’t mine and talk to him about what he’s reading.

My grandfather, whom we fondly call Daddy, started his own company, Auto Tyres Ltd., with his sons, and made it a familiar – and well-respected – name in Nairobi. I know it was because of his hard work and devotion, not only to his work, but also to his family, and most importantly to God. I hear that he lived what he read, which means he lived up to the Hindu ideals, and observed a life filled with humility and morals.

The feeling that even though I didn’t know him consciously, I still know what he was like, exists because his values continue to live on. His eldest son and my uncle, Nitin Mehta, tells me how Daddy would go to the SSD Mandir every single day before he opened his workshop for the day. I think of what a feat it must have been to do that, and I realise that for Daddy it was natural. He knew that success can only be fulfilling if it is dedicated to God, and he lived that ideology in his daily life, imparting it to his family of six children, their spouses, and 11 grandchildren, with the immense help of his wife, and my grandmother, Santosh Mehta.

Daddy and Mama not only instilled the values of devotion and dedication in us, they also taught us about the importance of honesty and generosity. They made us realise how fortunate we were to be blessed with a roof over our heads, and food on our plates. Giving became a very important part of our lives. I recall numerous times when I heard Mama saying that we should help the less fortunate, and actually leading by example and doing it.

Throughout the years, Daddy and Mama remained very actively involved in the Mandir. They would visit regularly to offer their worship, individually, and with the whole family. They would attend all key festivities, such as Shivratri, Navratri, and Janamashtmi. They would offer garlands to the deities, and pluck the best flowers from their gardens to place at the feet of the deities at the Mandir: traditions that are continued by the family even today, at times at different temples too. The Mandir was always a very important place for them.  At the time of the construction of the new Mandir, in Spring Valley, they donated a Shivling, which was installed in June 1995, and a few smaller Murtis. Photographs of this historic event, where the Shivling was lifted by a crane and brought in through the ceiling, are cherished as important pieces of the family’s history.

Today, even though Daddy and Mama are no longer with us physically, we hold their legacy in our hearts and live our lives through their teachings and blessings. From 1953, when Rattan Lal Mehta and Santosh Kumari Saggar got married, their family grew, with six children, who got married, and gave them 12 grandchildren, and five great-grandchildren. The Mandir continues to hold an important place in our hearts, and the family continues to participate in various events and affairs of the Mandir as our beloved Daddy and Mama would have wanted.

We congratulate the SSDS Mandir on their centennial celebration, and pray that the Mandir continues to flourish for all of eternity and passes on their legacy to generations to come.

On Belonging

Originally published on the Storymoja Festival blog.

Belonging is a funny thing. We spend our whole life searching for it in different places, but it’s never ours to take. It’s always something that must be given to us. Early on in life it’s is the most natural – for those of us lucky enough, we find it with our parents and families. For me, it lay in the food I ate, and the nooks I choose to hide in. It was captured by 3 feet high scribbles on walls and my grandmother’s favourite tea set.

Then it started to become more difficult. Has a classroom ever given anyone a sense of belonging? Fifteen years wasted in the pursuit of it through bangs, and highlights, and atrocious wardrobe choices. Even my body didn’t feel like my own anymore. I looked in the mirror, and everyday there was something I didn’t like. Suddenly the boy who laughed at me during P.E had more power in his taunts than the voice of my mother which a few years prior, could instantly stop my tears.

I was fortunate to find a permanent place of belonging one afternoon, at a barbeque I almost didn’t go for. Belonging walked in tall and handsome, with a face that felt so familiar and hands that felt like they’re meant for only me. He didn’t make me feel like a stranger in my own flesh. Belonging stayed.

But there’s still a part of me that is waiting for it. Yes, I have always had my family, and I have found my people as well, but we can’t only find it in human beings for it to feel complete. There must be a place too. Where is this place?

A girl of Indian origin, born and brought up in Kenya, where do I belong?
I want to belong to Kenya. If belonging were mine to take, I wouldn’t feel this dismemberment. I want to belong to Kenya, but all my life I’ve been told I don’t. I’ve been told I don’t belong by matatu drivers, and custom officers, teachers, and even people from my own family. I go to India, and I don’t feel it. My lungs don’t open fully, still locking in a piece of home. Yes, Kenya is home. I can stake my right on that word. Whether I get belonging or not, Kenya is my home.

Belonging feels like it’s mine when I think of the past. Not my past. The past of unknown people. People walking through lush fields of mustard in Punjab. That’s mine. The smiles on their faces bright, the hope in their eyes unspoiled by the horrors of the 1947 partition. The Punjab I belong to doesn’t exist anymore. Spread out across India and Pakistan, ruined by drugs and politics, today’s Punjab isn’t mine. The people aren’t mine, the air isn’t mine.

Why can I only see my belonging in sepia tones? Despite being recognized as the 44th tribe of Kenya, why can’t it be as vivid as the sunset in the coast, or as loud as the rain in Nairobi? Why doesn’t it prickle me like the February heat?

I belong to Kenya’s 44th tribe, but where does this tribe belong? I want it to be in these streets, but that isn’t mine to take. Who will give it to us? Why is the boy in the playground back, his voice louder than the verbal recognition of my belonging, laughing at my readiness to grasp it?

On Fossils

I got married 2 months ago and it was incredibly fun. I almost had everyone who means anything in attendance, there was minimal drama (shocking for a Punjabi wedding), and most importantly, I married a wonderful person whom I actually love and admire.

But besides all the happiness, there’s a very profound feeling of loss that I’ve been left with. The loss of a life that was once mine. Don’t get me wrong, I’m deeply happy and in love with my current life, and my “new family” is making adjusting to this “new life” very easy for me, but I still do hold this loss of what once was in my heart.

For the first fifteen years of my life, I lived in a joint family setting. We had a huge house, and it was always full. I’d have cousins coming in and out of our side, and I was going in and out to their sides. I had a close bond with my uncles, and aunts, and of course my grandmother who held everything together. I never even knew what the term “cousin” meant for the longest time. All 9 of them were my brothers and sisters (and still are).

My father passed away when I was 9, and my uncle passed away 6 months later, and then my grandmother passed away when I was 14, so loss is a concept I’m very familiar with. But leaving the family house was the beginning of a very long and complicated journey of my relationship with loss and what it means to me.

I couldn’t believe it when I was first told that we were moving out. It didn’t seem possible in any way that I could live away from that house. My brothers, mother, and future sister-in-law really tried to make the idea fun for me, but it still didn’t feel right. I remember crying and crying and crying. I remember the physical weight of that pain pressing down on my chest. It was not just moving away from a house, it was moving away from my childhood and moving away from the only physical memory left of the three people I had lost. Especially my father. In retrospect, I never quite got over the death of my father until I moved out of the family house. But that’s another story for another day.

So, home was different now. It was quieter. It was new. It was a beautiful place, and towards the end I did warm up to the idea of being there and decorating it together with the 4 people who now consisted of my immediate family. I still had some of my cousins coming over, and we still met my uncles and aunts, so it wasn’t extremely lonely.

My brother got married, shortly after my niece was born, and there was a new energy to the house. It felt familiar. The noise, the mess, the fullness of the space. It’s funny how someone so small managed to add so much to our lives. We were now 6 of us.

A while later my brother moved out with my sister-in-law and my niece. And while there was no negative reason for it, and he moved to a place that was very close, and we were still seeing each other regularly, the space became empty once again. The walls were too far apart for only 3 people. I now realise that it wasn’t a matter of physical emptiness. It was just having to deal with the concept of what home and family actually meant.

From the beginning there was only the idea that home is where you live with all your family, and your family are the people you live with. But it wasn’t like that anymore. It was scattered all over the place. It went from being 18 people in 10 rooms, to 4 people in 3, then to 6 people in 3, and now I had no clue what it was. Family couldn’t have just been the people you live with, and home couldn’t have just been a physical space.

As the years went on, and as I continued to develop these concepts in my heart, it reached a point where it was clear. Home was where my mum was. Wherever in the world she was. If she was standing with me in the middle of Nakumatt, home existed there. If we were on a plane to see her parents, home was being transported. This was ok. I could work with this.

But then I got married.

And now, 2 months later, I find myself asking the same questions I asked 8 years ago. Where is home? What does it mean? I feel at home in the physical space I’m living in now, I’ve begun to refer to it as home. The people who share that space with me are my family, and I’m happy.

But what is home, really? What is family?

I find myself thinking a lot about the house I grew up in. I get hit during the day by pangs of nostalgia, and I get transported to the 12-seater dining table, with the smell of tulsi tea and freshly fried samosas enveloping me. I hear the voices, and the laughs, and I feel the warmth, but I can’t reach out for anything. I can’t lick the icing from the cake box, I can’t pick the fallen telephone diary. But I keep going there. Again, and again, I reach out to memories and smells frozen in time for some sort of answer.

I go back to the word family. What does it mean? Of course, it includes all the people who love me and care for me. The people I know I can rely on. I know this. But what about the face I saw the other day in the supermarket? The face that once lit up with warmth and love, but now puts up a barrier. The face that I saw all the time as a child, but wasn’t there the night of my wedding when I was saying goodbye to my childhood. Is that face part of my family too, even if it doesn’t want to be?

I can see the face clearly in my mind, and it glows with the power of a hundred suns. But no, that is not the face I saw in the supermarket.

The face I can see was part of a different time. A different life. And things are different now, the way they always are. Things are different, but I remain sitting on the swing in front of the red brick wall. My feet going in and out of the sunshine. I still walk the corridors, from the wooden tiles to the black and white squares. I still hear the tune of the clock, muffled by 23 voices of the past.

I’m still there.

The first home I knew.

The Inheritance of Displacement – lessons from Lahore to Nairobi

70 years ago, in 1947, ten-year-old Jeet Khanna and his eight-year-old brother Kishan Khanna left Lahore to go visit their aunt in a village near Kasur. He remembers sitting on the upper level in a compartment of the train carriage he was in. He looked around at familiar faces from his days in Lahore. Before reaching the Kasur Railway Station, the train carriage was stopped in the middle of nowhere. An angry mob stormed into the carriage, and indiscriminate slaughter began. A man wielding a sword as long as Jeet’s arm locked eyes with him. As he inched closer, Jeet clung to his brother, stunned and unable to move. The man got Jeet and Kishan down from the compartment.

He carried Kishan on his shoulders, and held Jeet’s hand as he led them out of the carriage, into the rain. As they got out, Jeet laid his eyes on a 15-foot-high pile of dead bodies. The unbearable stench filled his nostrils. He looked around at the crows, vultures, and stray dogs feasting on the bodies, unbothered by the heavy rain. The man put Kishan and Jeet atop a smaller pile, and told them not to move. He left them to the mercy of the dead, the scavengers, and the flooding waters of the Ravi on one side, and the Satluj on the other. As Jeet and Kishan sat there, paralysed by fear, the scene burned itself into Jeet’s memory.

As the British prepared to leave India, disagreements between the two major political parties; the Congress, which had a majority of Hindu members, and the Muslim league which spoke for the minority Muslim population in India, caused tension and raised questions of the stability of the nation post-independence. To quell these disagreements, it was decided that the country was going to be partitioned into two separate nations. It was decided that the states of Punjab, and Bengal, would be partitioned to create a separate nation for the minority Muslim population of India, where their rights would be safeguarded.

Sir Cyrill Radcliffe was summoned from London, and was given 5 weeks to draw the borders between the Dominion of India, and the Dominion of Pakistan. Radcliffe had never visited India before, and therefore was considered the best candidate to conduct the job without seeming biased. This division caused the displacement of about 12 million people from both sides, and left over 2 million people dead.

So, is the partition the cost of freedom, or the cost of religion? Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs, who lived together harmoniously for centuries, began to destroy each other in a matter of months. Where did this hatred erupt from? Why was it so strong, that it caused neighbours to turn against neighbours? People who grew up together, walked in and out of each other’s houses, began to hide from one another. Love turned to hate, and the waters of the Ravi, and the Satluj, turned to blood.

People left their houses, their gold, their lovers, and their brothers behind. Forever. Although many managed to rebuild their lives from scratch, this displacement is something that has stayed behind. Instead of inheriting the gold necklaces or the silver plates that were dug near wells for safekeeping, we inherit this displacement. Stories are passed on to every generation to say, remember. Remember the horrors that the quest for power left us with. Remember the blood that was shed, enough to call upon the forces of nature to wash it away, and remember the stains that remain. The stains that the most powerful flood can never manage to wash away.

Even today, 70 years later, my grandfather, Jeet Khanna can clearly remember the swollen bellies of the bodies that lay around him. Men, women, children, all pregnant with death.  Even today, the stench of decay hasn’t diffused. Even today, as he talks about it, his eyes reflexively widen with fear. Even today, he longs to walk in the streets of Lahore once again, but he can’t.

My grandfather managed to survive this ordeal and build a life for himself in Delhi. He managed to carry the burden of his past for 70 years, and sitting here in Kenya today, in the country I call home, I cannot bear to think of what were to happen if a displacement of that sort were to ravage my home. I cannot bear to think of myself 70 years from now, longing every day to come back to Nairobi and breathe its air once again.

I believe that words have a lot of power, and it is through words that our fate is decided. Although, I do not have the same power as our political leaders do, I have my words. And my words today are, please… let us learn from our past, and the past of the world we live in, and let us build a better future. Let us not leave our great-grandchildren with the inheritance of displacement, loss, and horror. Let us not leave them with a feeling of never belonging anywhere. Let us not leave our destiny in the hands of people who put power before peace, and divide us in ways that have never divided us before. Let us use our own words to determine our own destiny, and let us do so together, with peace. We are all we’ve got.

 

(photograph by Margaret Bourke-White for LIFE Picture Collection)

The Crimson Conflict

The 9 day Hindu festival of Navratri is dedicated to the Mother Goddess- Durga.
On the 8th day of the festival, families invite 7 little girls to their houses. Any girl who hasn’t had her period is believed to be a form of Durga. She is revered.

As soon as a girl gets her period, she cannot take part in the festivities as a form of Durga. In most households, girls while on their periods, cannot participate in any way in religious practices, or visit the temple.

Periods are considered impure.

The colour red, is a very auspicious colour for Hindus. It is used as the vermillion powder placed on foreheads during rituals, used on idols, and dedicated to God. Brides wear red on their wedding day, and it is a colour believed to be favoured by Durga.

Can a Mother possibly not know anything about periods?
Can the Mother Goddess, be impure and untouchable for 5 days every month?

 

11 –

They call 7 of you,
feed you, give you gifts.
They touch your feet
and seek your blessings.
After all,
you’re a form of the Mother Goddess.
The circle they place on your forehead,
bright, deep, red.

12 –

They call 7 girls,
feed them, give them gifts.
They touch their feet
and seek their blessings.
After all,
they’re a form of the Mother Goddess.
The circle you see on the bathroom floor,
bright, deep, red.

32 –  

You call 7 girls,
feed them, give them gifts.
You touch their feet
and seek their blessings.
After all,
they’re a form of the Mother Goddess.

Your daughter cries in the next room,
she wants to see her friends,
the little Mother Goddesses.
But the circles on her mattress are
bright, deep, red.

If the Mother Goddess
was so revolted by red,
would she place it on our foreheads,
in our clothes,
on herself?

The Maharaja’s Monologue

Maharaja Duleep Singh, the last king of Punjab, and the son of the mighty Maharaja Ranjeet Singh, was taken away by the British from his identity at the age of 10. This separation from his family, language, and religion led him to convert to Christianity, and at the age of 15 he was exiled to Britain.
In Britain, he was integrated into the upper class and was viewed as an exotic addition to Queen Victoria’s entourage. She referred to him as her “black prince”.
Towards the end of his mother’s life, they were reunited and she came to live with him in Britain. During this time Maharani Jindan, his mother, reintroduced him to his true identity. Unfortunately, her life with her son only lasted two more years after their reunion. However, she ignited a flame in him to search for himself.
He kept trying to return back to Punjab, but the British never let that transpire. After reconnecting with his cousin and being exposed to Sikhism, he was reinitiated into the religion.
At 55, he died alone in Paris, and even after his death he was refused a Sikh funeral and cremation. He was buried as a Christian in England by the British, and there he remains today, away from his land and religion. 
The tragedy of Duleep Singh’s life was that he was never allowed to be whom he was supposed to be. This monologue from his perspective explores his desire of reconnection.

 

I have these dreams all the time.

I am riding on a horse, a sword in my hand, and I can swing it effortlessly. Its movements flowing like five rivers.

I see my shadow and I am adorned with a turban.  Five and a half metres of strength and pride.

People look at me, and they know who I am. My turban, the turban of kings and warriors, makes it clear to them.

They don’t fear me, or the brownness of my skin. I am not a black prince for them, I am a mighty maharaja.

Then I wake up, no turban on my head, no sword in my hand. My hair is shorn and my shadow is indistinguishable from those who think I don’t belong.

Do I belong though?

Perhaps somewhere else.

Let me tell you where I belong. I belong in the land of the five rivers that keep calling to me. I belong where my turban is my crown.

Take me there.

Take me to the mud that coloured my skin, the water that gave it shape.

Take me to mornings filled with the sound of the dhol, and sunsets the colour of my mother’s phulkari.

Take me where the moon shines brighter than the Koh-i-Noor, and where the air I breathe doesn’t sting my soul.

I look at the strokes of Gurmukhi, and I know if I could read them, they wouldn’t pinch my tongue.

I look down at my right wrist, and I know it misses the weight of iron.

I look in the mirror, and I am incomplete.

Separated from my land, my lord, and my language.

I am incomplete.

Take me back to my Punjab.

Fourteen years of forever

Dearest, sweetest Papa,

It’s been 14 years since I last saw you. 14 years, and this hasn’t gotten any easier. I have spent more than half my life without your physical presence, and yet, you remain the biggest part of it.

14 birthdays, 14 Diwalis, 731 Sundays. I’ve grown 40 centimetres taller, some books wiser, and a few heartbreaks happier. Through all of this, I’ve wished every day that you were here. I’ve imagined how white your beard would have been by now, and I’m convinced your hands would be just as warm. I’ve forgotten your voice, but I remember some of the things you would say. The funny nicknames, the lame jokes.

I learnt how to cook, and I learnt how to drive. But I haven’t learnt how to let you go. Yes, thinking of you doesn’t hurt as much as it used to, and my tears don’t flow as easily as I used to let them, but I still haven’t let you go. Every June is tainted with grief, and there are some songs that I just can’t listen to anymore.

Papa, I’ve gone through guilt for trying to forget you, and frustration for not being able to. There are days I felt angry at you, and days I’ve been overwhelmed by love. I talk to you in my mind, but you never reply. You never reply. I feel angry that I can’t call you whenever I want, take selfies with you, I can’t laugh at you trying to navigate your way through social media, and I can’t test random recipes on you.

I try to be strong, and I think I manage pretty well, but some days I just can’t. Some days, the loss of you feels greater than the happiness I have. But I am happy. I wish you were here, but I am happy. You’re the biggest part of my heart, and that will never change, but I have learnt how to make it bigger to fit in more. I have learnt how to think of you and not feel my eyes well up, and I am learning so much more. I hope you’d be proud of me, because God knows how proud I am of you.

I am proud of the love you gave, and the hope you had. I am proud of your ambition, and determination. I am so proud of you, Papa. I hope you knew how much I loved you, and that I would love you forever. It’s been 14 years, and this love continues to grow. It will never stop.

I think of you, and we’re frozen in time. My head on your belly listening to all the funny sounds it would make. Your hand on my head, the most secure warmth in the world. I think of you, and I can feel the happiness your laugh gave me. The immense love I felt, way before I could comprehend it.

So, thank you. Thank you for everything you did, and everything you would have done. Thank you for showing me nothing but love. Love that transcends time, space, death, and grief. Thank you, Papa.

 

I miss you.

 

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