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Back to the Beginning

I sat with some feeling of trepidation, exhilaration and excitement as the Ethiopian Airlines Boeing 737 took off from Delhi at the ungodly hour of 3:45am for Addis Ababa on Sunday. Already late by about an hour, we had been fuming with non-functioning AC for some time onboard when we finally took off. At least we will be away from the drudgery and routine of office life for a few days I comforted myself as I finished off the last of what was probably the worst airline meal I’ve ever had.

I looked out the window as we approached Addis Ababa, wishing we had some time to get out and explore the city often referred to as the political capital of Africa because of its historical, diplomatic and political significance. But we had just over an hour to catch our connecting flight. The chilly and gentle breeze that welcomed us as we emerged from the aircraft on to the tarmac to get on the bus that would take us to the terminal where we would catch our connecting flight for Maputo was a welcome relief from hot and humid Delhi.

And so, on a cold Sunday morning I found myself in Ethiopia, often called the original home of mankind due to various fossil discoveries like the Australopithecine Lucy, and once rule by Emperor Haile Selassie, revered as the returned Messiah of the Bible and God incarnate by Rastafarians and immortalized as the Lion of Judah in Bob Marley’s ‘Iron Lion Zion’.

All thoughts of Bob Marley and the Lion of Judah quickly dissipated by the time we reached the end of the interminably long queue leading to the security check-in inside Bole International Airport where we were thoroughly checked again and made to take off almost everything including our shoes. As we took off for Maputo on another Ethiopian Airlines Boeing 737, I looked down at the city engulfed in light mist with the Entoto Mountains in the north calmly and majestically watching over the city. I looked out the window till the city disappeared.

The 6 hours it took our aircraft to reach Maputo was one of the most uncomfortable flights I have been on, with cramped seats and lousy food but it brought us in one piece to our final destination. It was good to touch down in Mozambique again after more than 11 years. As I looked out the window, I saw that the small, cozy airport we flew out of in early 2005 had morphed into a big terminal with its own aerobridges and all the modern accoutrements one expects to see nowadays in any self-respecting international airport.

The cool, almost chilly, winter air of Maputo that welcomed us as we stepped off the plane was a welcome change from hot and humid Delhi and, by the time we came out after clearing immigration, all the discomforts of our flight were forgotten as we wrapped our jackets closer to keep out the chilly breeze. After some delay caused by some of our delegation members having forgotten to take the mandatory yellow fever vaccination for passengers transiting through Ethiopia which is in the yellow fever belt of Africa, we finally reached our hotel at around 4pm.

Apart from the modern airport that welcomed us, Maputo, where we spent almost 4 years from 2001 to 2005, felt almost the same as we drove towards our hotel. I hardly noticed anything new on the drive from the airport to Av. Kenneth Kaunda where the Indian High Commission is located. As we drove past the High Commission and down Rua Jose Craveirinha towards Southern Sun Hotel, located right on the beach, where we would be staying, my first sight of the beautiful Maputo Bay after more than 11 years made me realize that, yes, I was really here again. We drove past the new Radisson Blu, which had come up during my absence and soon reached our hotel which was just a stone’s throw away.

As soon as I learned that I would be going back to Maputo, my thought immediately turned to Av. Friedrich Engels, the back street behind the highrise apartment on Av. Julius Nyerere which was our home in Maputo and where I first started jogging all those years ago. I planned to retrace my steps, as it were, at the first opportunity. From previous, similar assignments, I thought there would be ample time in the mornings before the official part of our trip began later in the day. But, as it turned out, from the very day of our arrival there were so many meetings and arrangements to be made and loose ends tied up, I did not make it to my old jogging street till the morning of the day we were to return. I fumed and fretted for four days, unable to make time for my planned trip to the past. I did manage two trips to the hotel gym and half-heartedly went through the formalities on the treadmill, all the time thinking how near and yet so far was I to my dream run, just a few kilometers away.

I was up at 2am on D-day and, except for a minor hiccup, everything went off smoothly and I was able to finally crawl into bed, exhausted, before midnight. We were to leave the next day at 2pm which meant I had about 6 hours to complete my mission as well as try and tick off whatever items I could from the long shopping list thrust upon me by the powers-that-be the night of my departure from Delhi. So I set my alarm for 0530, aiming to start my run at 0600, and soon drifted off into a dreamless sleep.

The next thing I knew was my mobile alarm telling me it was time. I quickly awoke and, after dumping as much excess weight as I could from the scrumptious dinner the previous evening and freshening up, put on my jogging outfit. It was just before 0600 as I stepped out of my room, ready for my dream run. Though it was still dark outside, the hotel staff was already up and about readying for another day. I walked into the lobby, past a few guests checking out to catch their early morning flights to wherever they were headed next.

The chilly breeze that greeted me as I stepped out of the hotel reminded me that it was winter in this part of the world. I stepped onto the pavement and, finally having completed my official assignment the previous day and all tensions gone, began the run that I had been planning for the past two weeks. I put on my earphones and pressed play to my regular ‘jogging’ track on my ‘walkman’ and, turning right onto Av. Marginal, began my run. After about a hundred metres, I turned left on to Rua Jose Craveirinha, which is a gentle climb just opposite Radisson Blu, and soon reached the top where the road merged into Av. Julius Nyerere.

Despite the climb of about half a kilometer, I found myself breathing comfortably and, turning left on to Av. Julius Nyerere, continued on my usual pace to the rhythm of my regular jogging tracks on my walkman. To my left I glanced at Maputo Bay where dawn would soon break. To my right, I caught a glimpse of the High Commission where I spent an eventful three and a half years of my life. I crossed the street and, with the Presidential Office to my left, continued my run towards the historic Polana Hotel, our temporary HQ during my trip. I was surprised at the ease with which I continued my run and the thought came to my mind that perhaps it was because I was running at sea level where Oxygen would be at its maximum. Or perhaps it was all the anticipation that I had built up in my mind the week before my trip and the frustrating few days when I was unable to get time off for the run.

As I continued on my run towards Polana Hotel, some 2km away, memories of the many times I had walked on these same pavements more than 11 years ago came flooding back and, before I realized it, I found myself crossing the traffic juncture just before Polana. I crossed the street and continued past Polana and soon turned left onto Av. Friedrich Engels.

Finally, as I turned right on to Av. Friedrich Engels, I again saw the familiar street where I first dreamed of being able to run at least a kilometer without having to stop for breath. I stopped awhile and stood at the railings from where we would look out on to Maputo Bay and beyond, often telling ourselves that our loved ones were somewhere across the Indian Ocean thousands of miles away. Dawn was now breaking over the Bay lighting up the horizon and, as I looked at the deep blue sea, felt like I had never been away. I turned right and looked up at the 11th floor balcony of our old apartment where we would sometimes set up our barbeque on an evening and, with the cool breeze blowing in from the Bay, reminisce about old times, a can of chilled 2M or Laurentina in hand.

I shook off the flood of memories that threatened to overwhelm me and began my run afresh along the familiar pavement. With Maputo Bay to my left and the row of beautiful Portuguese-style bungalows and their well-manicured lawns to my right, I ran on till the end of Av. Friedrich Engels to the corner where I would turn back for home. The street was exactly like I remembered. From the row of trees that lined up one side of the street to a corner at the end of the street used as a natural dumping ground for empty plastic cups, beer and liquor bottles by late evening revelers and romancing couples, everything was the same. It seemed the trees hadn’t grown an inch since we left, and the content of the corner dumping ground showed that youngsters had continued their party even after we left.

I turned back at the corner and, instead of returning the way I had come, turned right at the beginning of Av. Friedrich Engels, on to Rua Caracol which is a steep road, about 500m, leading to Av. Marginal and the beach. As I ran down the steep road, I recalled the many times I had run up and down the very same road. I met quite a few early morning joggers running up the steep road. Most of them greeted me with ‘Bom Dia’ (Good Morning) as we passed and I recalled with nostalgia the pleasure of being in polite society where even strangers wish you as you pass by on the streets.

I soon reached Av. Marginal and crossed the road to continue my run on the pavement next to the beach. I turned left, across from the Clube Naval de Maputo and headed for my hotel up the road about a kilometer or two ahead. As I passed by a stretch close to the beach I recalled the one time we had gone down to the beach at that very same spot when the tide was low, picking clams and even some small prawns which tasted quite good. As I ran on, I reached a spot where we once came across a live puffer fish that must have been washed ashore by the high tide, wriggling in the sand. I ran on and all sorts of memories which I had forgotten came rushing in and I realized that I was really reliving my memories.

As I neared our hotel, I turned right on to the beach and continued till I reached the portion of the beach maintained by our hotel. I ran on the beach a little past our hotel till all the songs in my ‘jogging’ folder ran out. Despite the early morning winter chill, I was drenched with sweat by the time I stopped to walk across the beach to my hotel.

That’s when I realized that I had just run one of the best runs of my life. Because it was a run which brought me back to the beginning.

11 July 2016

(Written on return from an official trip to Maputo 3-8 July 2016)

A Dream Realised

I can now cross off one of the few items I have on my wish-list or ‘things-I-must-do-before-I-die’ – that is, take part in a real marathon. Yes, I took part in the Tokyo Marathon 2010 last Sunday. Not the full marathon – that is too much at my age. I’ve not yet put it on my wish-list. But, who knows 😉

It was only the 10km part of the Tokyo Marathon, which I completed in just over an hour. Maybe nothing much to boast of for the pros and the sportsman-types, but for me it was a culmination of a dream – something I’ve strived for and worked hard at during the past seven years or so.

All those early morning (and some late evening) jogs finally paying off and culminating in that precise moment when I crossed the finishing line was something I will not forget. Though there were no TV cameras, or for that matter any type of camera, recording the precise, ecstatic, moment I crossed the line, I can recall and savor the exact moment even now. And I know it will remain one of the highlights of my blessed God-given life.

I knew from the moment I awoke at 6 in the morning that all the predictions of bad weather and rain had come true. I lay awake for some time just taking in the fact that the Big Day had finally come and listened to the rain lashing against our bedroom window. I felt like a small kid on Christmas morning thinking of the presents Santa would have left around the Christmas tree the night before as I finally got up to dress for my first ‘marathon’ and have a leisurely breakfast before leaving for Shinjuku where the race would start at 9:10. I peeked through the window and saw the steady drizzle and overcast sky in the early morning light and thought of the first time I started seriously jogging all those years ago.

I think it was the winter of 2002 when I first seriously thought of taking up jogging. We were then in Maputo, Mozambique where the seasons are opposite what we are normally used to because it is in the southern hemisphere and winter there falls during our summer season in the northern hemisphere. So it was sometime in March-April 2002 that I decided to try jogging. A beautiful park overlooking the Indian Ocean just below our apartment which was usually full of early morning joggers was a big factor in my decision. Plus the sight of all those fit and beautiful joggers who seemed to go on and on without ever getting tired.

Anyone who has ever known me will testify to the fact that I have never ever been the sportsman-type. As a child growing up in Sielmat, where everyone played football, I was always the last person anyone would pick for their side. Though I love football and tried my best, I could never master the dribble or any of the moves that could have made a ‘captain’ pick me for his side. On the few occasions some friend took pity and picked me, I was so pathetic at the game that I would soon be substituted. So I remained a spectator at most of the games. This has continued throughout my life – the only place you will be sure to find me during any sport or games is in front of the idiot box or in the spectator stands. The only sport I have a little skill at and which I played regularly was badminton and, to a small extent, volleyball. But, looking back, I sometimes have the feeling that the only reason I got to regularly play badminton with my friends back then was simply the fact that the rackets belonged to us.

And so, except for the occasional game of badminton and volleyball during my school and college days, I never really played any real sports. Even the occasional games came to a complete halt once I left home for my job, got married and our kids came along. Having been born with an excellent appetite and marrying the girl of my dreams who is also an excellent cook did wonders for my weight which started to slowly balloon till at one stage I tipped the scales at almost a hundred kilos just after my son was born in Morocco. But after getting back into the daily office commute and grind in Delhi, I settled back into my ‘slightly’-overweight-for-my-height/age status which I have more or less since maintained.

When I first attempted jogging, I used to get so out of breath even within the first 100m or so that I simply had to stop to catch my breath. With my irregular schedule, it took me more than a year to comfortably jog for up to a kilometer. Though I must have made a pathetic and embarrassing sight, I kept at it till the day finally came when I found myself jogging without running out of breath even as I passed the old, gnarled tree which marked the spot where I usually stopped to catch my breath. I still clearly remember the incredible feeling of well-being and excitement as I realized that even though I had already crossed my usual landmark and was still running, I was breathing normally and my legs were moving in a steady rhythm pounding the dirt tract. At some stage I even felt like I was out of my own body and watching this handsome, strong jogger out on his regular morning jog, casually passing lesser mortals with a slight sneer on his lips 🙂 It really felt like an epiphany of some sort, a kind of spiritual feeling which I had never experienced before. And I have been hooked ever since.

Though I knew it would take me less than 30 minutes to reach Shinjuku, I left home at 7:30 to ensure that I reached well in time. It was around 5 degrees, chilly, with an overcast sky and drizzling as I stepped outside and practically hit the ground running as I jogged down to our Metro station to catch the Toei Oeda line for Shinjuku. The metro was full of other runners, all decked out in their best running suits, excitedly chatting. As we filed out of Tocho-mae station, we came upon thousands of other excited runners checking for directions to their own allotted blocks. I joined the throng and, after making sure I was on the right track, decided to take off the extra sweatshirt which I had worn for warmth and keep it in my allotted ‘baggage bag’ which I had to deposit with Luggage Truck No. 4 that would take it to the finish line to be collected after the race.

As I came out of the station, I saw that it was still drizzling. I adjusted my cap and put up the hood of my wind-cheater below which I wore the official Tokyo Marathon tee-shirt. I looked at my watch which showed exactly 8:05am. I followed the sign for the Luggage Trucks to first deposit my ‘baggage’ and then find some shade from the rain near my starting block. Having deposited my ‘baggage’, I started looking for ‘K’ block which was my allotted starting block and finally found it, the last of the starting blocks, at least 200-300m from the start-line.

I only found out later, long after I submitted my application for the Marathon in July last year, that the starting blocks were allotted from ‘A’ for the elite runners and so on to ‘K’ for amateurs, first-timers and those who were not exactly expected to break records, according to the ‘estimated time expected to finish the race’ which every applicant had to fill in. Seeing that the maximum time given to complete the 10K race was 100 minutes, I filled in 90 minutes as it was my first race and I had never even run 10K at a stretch in my life. I was, accordingly, allotted the last starting block, ‘K’.

Though it continued to drizzle and I could feel the rain water starting to seep into my sneakers and I was starting to shiver in my tee-shirt and wind-cheater, the excitement was palpable as I made my way towards K block which was a small grass-less park now turning muddy with puddles all round. I looked at my watch which told me I still had about 45 minutes till starting time. I looked around for some shade, a tree maybe, or some structure, and found none. So I made my way towards the front of the excited pack and stood in the rain and mud like the rest. It was probably the coldest 45 minutes I have spent in Japan with the steady drizzle and more rain water seeping into my shoes every passing minute. But the excitement of being in my first marathon (ok, 10K race) and being in the midst of 35,000 excited participants more than compensated for the cold and soon enough the announcement came that the race had started and a couple of crackers exploded overhead. It seemed like ages as we slowly shuffled along with the crowd towards the starting line. Being in the last block, I made it to the start-line at exactly 9:31 and I was finally off.

With the ever-present knowledge that I was attempting to run a distance I had never done before, I started tentatively but running amidst thousands of excited runners and crowds lined up on both sides despite the steady drizzle seemed to pump in extra adrenalin into my body and I found myself picking up pace as we crossed the first kilometer. Concentrating on my run, I was surprised when I saw looming just ahead the 5km mark, which was the maximum distance I had ever run. Before the race, one of the recurring thoughts that came back again and again was of me trying to keep my pace while runners continuously passed me by. But I surprisingly found that I was able to keep my steady pace and, in fact, was passing more runners than the other way round. As I passed the 5km mark, my watch showed 10:02 and the big electronic clock showed exactly 00:52:49 which meant just over 52 minutes had passed from the official start of the race at 9:10am. A quick mental calculation told me I had done 5km in 31 minutes! At last (like a true sportsman), I now have a ‘personal best’ time of sort, I thought.

And so, just as I had passed that old, gnarled tree which served as my landmark when I first started jogging all those years ago in Maputo, I passed the 5km mark without stopping and continued on. Except for a slight pause to get some drinks at the drinks table which came up just after the 5km mark, I pushed on almost as fresh as when I started. The tiredness in my legs started to creep in as we passed Iidabashi and approached the 8km mark on a slight climb, approaching the Imperial Palace. By the time I was running past the Imperial Palace with the Finish Line in Hibya Park just round another bend in the road, I started to feel the full effect of what I was doing as I felt my leg muscles starting to protest. I realized I had reached the stage where I simply had to put one foot after another and tell my poor, faithful, tiring legs that it was just a matter of a few more minutes to the finish line.

For the last few hundred metres I hardly noticed the waving crowd as I concentrated on reaching the finish line – and making a last sprint as I crossed the finish line. Which I did, and was rewarded by some clapping from the crowd. My watch showed 10:37 and the big electronic clock showed the time from the race start as exactly 01:28:11 when I crossed the finish line. Which meant I had finished the race in 67 minutes, or more precisely, 67 minutes 11 seconds or 1 hour 7 minutes 11 seconds, counting from the moment I crossed the start line at 9:31.

Another recurring thought I had before the race was of me collapsing during the race or even as I crossed the finish line. But, happily, nothing of the sort happened and, except for my tired legs, I felt as fresh as ever as I walked towards the race officials waiting to guide me to the ‘reception’ area. As I walked to one of the race volunteers to have my computer chip (which had my details and recorded my exact race time) taken off, my happiness was quite obvious in my smile. As she gave me my chip and pointed me towards where I could exchange it for my medal, she gave me the sweetest smile and congratulated me. I gave her my best Japanese-style bow and simply said, ‘Arigato’ but she was already congratulating the next finisher, little realizing that had she looked my way she would have seen the happiest person in Tokyo at that moment.

Though there was no formal medal ceremony or opportunity for me to climb the medal podium, I did have a real proper medal hung around my neck by a bonafide race official when I went to the next table to cash in my chip. As I went to retrieve my ‘baggage’, my medal proudly hung around my neck, I passed by happy, fellow runners and more smiling race officials who handed me a towel emblazoned ‘Finisher Tokyo Marathon 2010’ along with a bag containing a chocolate bar, some fruits and a bottle of water.

It was still drizzling with specks of snow starting to mingle with the raindrops as I walked towards the exit of Hibya Park to go home. I started to tuck in my medal into my wind-cheater but then thought, ‘Why not?’ and with it dangling on my neck and the brightly colored ‘Finisher’ towel draped over my shoulder, I walked towards Sakuradamon station for home. I proudly wore the medal all the way home on the metro. After all, I had done it. I had realized a dream.

Memories of Africa – Part 1

Its funny how memories almost forgotten suddenly rush in when you least expect it. The other day, I attended the second day of the fourth meeting of the Infrastructure Consortium for Africa (ICA) meeting in Tokyo. Meeting with and seeing so many African faces after more than three years brought back many fond memories of the almost-four years we spent in Mozambique. Listening to the African delegates speaking of their problems and hopes in their unmistakable African-accented English was a nostalgic trip back in time for me. It also brought back memories of Morocco, another African country and our first foreign posting. I remember, as if it was yesterday, a night in June eighteen years ago when I paced the corridors of Clinique Al Hassan in Rabat at 4 AM, all alone, as my wife struggled to give birth to our firstborn. The feeling of pride, love and concern for my wife mixed with a great loneliness and longing to be amongst friends and family as I finally became a father was and still is indescribable. I will never forget the moment I heard my son’s lusty cry announcing his arrival to the world which, at that ungodly hour of 4 in the morning consisted of our doctor, two nurses, my wife and me pacing up and down outside in the corridor. After what seemed like eternity waiting outside the labour room, the nurse finally came out to tell me I was the father of a healthy boy. I remember my wife looking tired and weak and happy all at the same time, as I went in and saw her holding our son for the first time. He’s taller than me now and quite a handsome young man, even if I say so myself. So its been quite a while and I think I really need to refresh my memory chip before I can write more about Morocco.

Allow me then to jump over the wonderful years spent in Milan after Morocco by which time we were blessed with a beautiful daughter, to more than ten years from Morocco, to 2001. In May of that year, it was time for us to move again and begin another chapter in our journey – this time, a posting in Maputo, Mozambique. After a mercifully short flight from Delhi to Dubai on Air India, we boarded the Emirates flight for Johannesburg just before midnight. After flying all night over the great continent of Africa, we landed in Johannesburg in the morning. Johannesburg was an unexpectedly modern looking and impressive city. Except for the predominantly black faces everywhere, it felt like being in any European city. The impressive airport lounge, wide tree-lined roads with the latest cars zipping pass, clean and impressive high-rise buildings all added to the feeling of having landed somewhere in Europe. It was definitely not what I had expected of a city in Africa. Mozambique still hadn’t opened its Mission in India and we had to get our entry visas from their Consulate in Johannesburg. Arvind, a good friend from the Indian Consulate, met us at the airport. After duly obtaining our visas and a hearty lunch at his residence, Arvind dropped us again at the airport to board our flight for Maputo in the evening.    

It was getting dark by the time we landed in Maputo. As our LAM (Lineas Aero de Moçambique) flight landed, we could see the less then impressive buildings that made up the one terminal of Maputo airport. Just slightly bigger than Imphal airport, it was more or less what I had expected an African airport would look like. Any expectations of a modern, progressive city raised by our short stay in Johannesburg were further dashed as we passed through jhuggi-like clusters of overcrowded one-room tenements just a kilometer or so from the airport on our way to the hotel where we would be staying initially.

Maputo, however, turned out to be much better than our first impression. It was home to us for almost four years and memories of the good times we had and the lessons we learned there remain. For the first time in my life, I began to seriously read and study the Bible on a more or less daily basis. Maybe the Maputo International Christian Fellowship (MICF) where we worshipped with other English-speaking expats had something to do with it. We also had the privilege of meeting and sharing some time with the most inspirational preacher I have so far met. Rev. Brian Jennings, a South African pastor and his wife Lorraine had just come to Maputo as a temporary replacement for the Methodist church pastor, an energetic Englishman, who was going to England on an extended holiday of three months. During their three months’ stay in Maputo we were privileged to be counted as one of their friends. The small Methodist church had a special English service at 5 pm every Sunday where he used to preach. He never spoke for more than 15 minutes but they were the most inspirational preaching I have ever had the privilege of hearing. I consider him the most inspirational preacher I have ever heard because his message would stay with me for the rest of the week. There were times when, during a break from a busy day at office on a weekday, I would recall and be refreshed by some particularly inspiring word that he had preached the previous Sunday. As a person who has not missed many Sunday services, though I have never been a particularly spiritual person, I cannot recall any other preacher whose words have stayed with me throughout the week. I have been more used to preachers, even the more famous ones, whose messages don’t usually last beyond the service. Maybe the problem is me, and not the preacher, but I believe this is true with most of us not being able to recall the Sunday message by the time we reach home.

Though we kept in touch through email for some time after they left us, we lost touch after a few years when my mails started bouncing. Their email ID through which we corresponded for a time is still in my Yahoo address book. I remember them whenever I come across their ID while looking for other IDs and memories fill the mind, like the exceptionally sumptuous dinner and the excellent South African wine we had at their pastor’s quarter in Maputo and the conversations and exchanges of experiences we shared. Perhaps it was the wine talking and if it was, I thank God for it and the privilege of having been able to share wine and break bread with an exceptional man of God.

More Than Words

I’m still experimenting and learning how to upload pictures. So, here are some pictures. Hope they load better than last time. (Damn, they are all blurry and I haven’t the faintest idea how to un-blurry them 😦 But click on the pictures for a better view. Wait till I figure this thing out;) )

New Year

This is a picture I took on New Year Day 2008 during my evening walk. Its a view of the sun setting across the river Tama, signifying the end of the first day of 2008 in Tokyo. The Tama river marks the boundary between Tokyo and Kawasaki and is just 8-10 minutes walk from where we live.

my kids

That’s Esther, my beautiful daughter, typing, as Andrew, my handsome son, looks on. Am so proud of these two beautiful kids. More below.

sondaughter

Here are some more with my girls:

my galsmy girls 2

Here’s our car and our apartment on the top floor. The third pic is inside our ‘tatami’ room – that’s our wedding pic and various mementos ; Mozambican painting (left) leaning tower of Pisa, etc.:

carapartmentinside

Here are places I go jogging on weekends:

jog 1jog 2

That’s all for now folks, ‘cept for one more below. Though I’ve known her for about five months now, we have never spoken. I pass her by every morning and look at her and wonder whether she’s smiling or pining. I sometimes see her looking sad and frail and lonely. And then, some days, she seems to be smiling and about to burst our laughing……… 🙂

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Musings On Language and Food

If we spoke a different language, we would perceive a somewhat different world – Ludwig Wittgenstein

There are two languages that I speak fluently (at least, I think I do) – English and my mother tongue, Hmar. I speak enough Hindi to make myself understood in office, and to get around any place where Hindi is understood. To my eternal shame, I don’t speak Meitei, except for a few words that enable me to eat and buy the bare essentials – even though I did my graduation from DM College in Imphal. In my defence I can only say that my roommate was Achet, an Ao Naga from Mokokchung, Nagaland and all the guys I used to hang out with in college were Nagas. Since Achet knew even less Meitei than me we would all converse in English. But, I am ashamed to say that by the time we graduated, Achet had picked up more Meitei than me. I was the only one stuck in something like a time warp – after my more than two years’ stay in Imphal, I never progressed beyond ‘Chak cha bara’ and ‘Si kaya ra?

I remember an incident when I went looking for eggs to buy. Those were the days when PLA and PREPAK had just started making their presence felt and all shops would close down along with the sun. Since it was already dark all the ‘vai/mayang’ shops had long closed down and the only shop open was a Meitei shop. It was a provision shop also selling fresh vegetables and looked like a shop that would stock eggs. I entered and looked around. Either the shop didn’t sell eggs, or they were kept well out of sight because I could not spot any eggs that would have enabled me to point to them and say in my perfect Meitei, ‘Si kaya ra?’ Since I didn’t know the word for eggs in Meitei, I could not even ask for them. I felt too ashamed to ask ‘Anda lei bara?’ because I was so obviously a local, so I bought a kilo of potatoes and told my roommate that they didn’t have eggs. I later on learned the word for eggs in Meitei, which I have never forgotten. I returned to the shop a few days later and with my newfound knowledge, asked for eggs. They appeared magically from beneath the counter and we could finally make omelets.

Having matriculated from JN Model School, Churachandpur, I could also speak Paite quite fluently by the time we were in Class 10. I still more or less fully understand Paite, but it has been more than 20-25 years since I last used the dialect, and I am now unable to use it like I used to. Like anyone else who has grown up in Churachandpur, I can also understand most of the dialects spoken by the greater ‘Zohnathlak’ community such as Vaiphei, Thado-Kuki, Gangte, etc. Being a Darngawn and having been exposed to Lusei/Mizo, also known as ‘Darngawn-Sâptong’, since childhood, I read, enjoy and fully understand any novel, book, newspaper, or magazine in Mizo. But I find myself tongue-tied and somehow unable (or unwilling?) to actually speak in Lusei/Mizo, even though I have absolutely no problem in understanding the language. Having spent more than three years each in Morocco, Italy and Mozambique, I have also picked up a smattering of French, Italian and Portuguese – enough to at least tell the difference when someone speaks in any of these languages.

There are people who pick up and speak a language within a few months. Because I am most certainly not one of them, I admire and envy this capacity of theirs to absorb and speak a new language within no time. I greatly admire multi-linguists – people who can switch from one language to another with effortless ease. The multi-linguists I have known have all been extroverts, generally above average in intelligence, and good conversationalists. They are usually the talkative type, innately curious by nature and easily make friends. As an introvert and someone who rarely opens his mouth unless absolutely necessary or unavoidable, I suppose whether I am a multi-linguist or not would hardly make any difference!

The best way to really understand and appreciate any culture is to first learn its language. Language is an intrinsic part of culture and is the medium through which all the characteristics, traits and ethos of a people or society find expression. We are usually more inclined to learn the language of a people or society we admire. Which probably explains why most of the drunks during my childhood, especially the really drunk ones, used to speak in gibberish, which was supposed to be ‘English’.

Then there are societies and people like the French who only speak their language and look on other languages with disdain. Things may have changed since August 1989 when I first stepped foot in Charles de Gaulle (CDG) Airport, Paris, enroute to Morocco as a naïve, newly married young man. The Air India flight touched down in Paris late, as usual, long after most of the airlines had closed their counters. We were supposed to catch a connecting flight the next morning and had been booked into some hotel by Air India. By the time we got down from the plane and collected our baggage, the Air India counter had closed and most of our co-passengers had left.

Stranded and all alone in a strange city with a new wife, apart from it being the first time we were traveling abroad, I roamed around the big terminal looking for some counter or anyone speaking English whom I could ask for assistance in getting to whichever hotel we were booked so we could at least rest for the next few hours. I spoke to a few well-groomed Frenchmen none of whom spoke English, or maybe refused to speak English.

Growing up in a remote corner of India where our exposure to the wider world, especially the West, was through the few English movies that occasionally showed in the one cinema hall in town, or the magazines and newspapers that usually arrived a few days late to the only news agent in town. In those days even just going to the cinema was considered as something only ‘bad’ boys and girls did, and, apart from saving the coins and occasional one rupee notes from our pocket money to be able to afford the Rs. 1.50 ‘middle’ tickets, one went at the risk of being found out. Apart from the ‘middle’ class tickets being basically the only tickets we could afford, there was the question of buying some snacks during the intervals which also cost as much as the tickets. The choice was usually between sitting in the ‘middle’ class and having some chanas during the interval or sitting in the ‘balcony’ seats without any chana. From the perspective and the situation and the time we grew up in, we thought that all Westerners spoke English. Even now, after having lived in non-English speaking countries for several years, it still feels somewhat strange and surreal to find Westerners, especially whites/Europeans, unable to speak English at all.

Perhaps those Frenchmen really did not understand English, but I had the feeling that they fully understood what I was saying. The only reply I received to all my pleas for some information and assistance was in French. The only French I knew at that time was the numbers 1 to 10 and ‘Comment allez-vous?which, obviously, were not of much help. Coming from a society where people go out of the way to try and help strangers, the cold and aloof attitude of the French people (at least the ones I met that night) was a real shocker. After going round the terminal a few more times and unable to find anyone speaking English, we ultimately spent the night sleeping in the airport lounge with our suitcases for pillows.

I know that the few people I met that night do not in any way represent Paris or France (they probably were just fellow travelers passing through), but my impression of Paris and its inhabitants remains that of a cold, unwelcoming and pretentious city. We passed through Paris three more times during our three years’ posting in Morocco. But they were only to catch the next flight either to Rabat or to Delhi and we never got to see anything of Paris. Though I can say that we saw the Eiffel Tower, but from a distance, for about five or ten minutes, from the window of the airport shuttle bus that we had to take from Orly to CDG to catch our connecting flight. Also, we did not have to sleep in the terminal the next time we had to spend a night before our next flight. Fully prepared and properly briefed, we managed to find our way to our hotel, which turned out to be the Paris Hilton. I suppose it was some compensation for our last botched overnight stay in Paris – and I can say that I have stayed at the Paris Hilton.

It was also the first time I tried sushi – I still remember the unexpected taste of raw fish on my tongue as I looked around for ways to unobtrusively spit it out. With memories of our somewhat humiliating sleepover in the CDG terminal in mind and finding no suitable way to spit it out without offending others in the restaurant, I somehow managed to swallow it. Though they are not on my list of favorites, I have since eaten more sushi and come to like or at least tolerate the taste. The first time I ate raw jellyfish at a Korean friend’s house in Maputo over dinner, I remembered my first sushi. But having become a little bit wiser to the ways of the world and strange foods, I knew what to expect and even had more helpings as it was prepared with a lot of Korean spices and red chilli powder, which gave it a somewhat kimchi-like appearance, and the raw fish smell was suitably camouflaged by the spices.

The worst food I have tasted has to be the raw oyster (supposed to be good for the libido, according to Italians) at a friend’s New Year party in Milan. The fresh lemon juice that was supposed to hide the extremely strong raw fish smell and taste only seemed to make it worse and I can say with all certainty that it was the first and last time I will ever eat raw oyster again. Whether it did any good to my libido, I don’t know. Those were the days before Viagra and I’m sure quite a few Italians must still be thanking Pfizer.

 

A Royal Interlude

[Just finished dinner and I have this feeling that I should update my blog. I sit down, thinking I should put in something about the White Christmas that never was. But the words just don’t come. Maybe its the post-Christmas blues. Then I suddenly recall the African Christmas song presented by our African brothers at the Christmas eve service at our church the day before yesterday. Memories of Mozambique flood my mind. I remember a piece I wrote for DT about Swaziland and me meeting with King Mswati III, Africa and the world’s last and only ruling monarch – and the time this very hands shook hands with real royalty. The Indian Embassy in Maputo, where I was posted at that time, was concurrently accredited to the Kingdom of Swaziland and we had accompanied our High Commissioner when he presented his credentials to the king. I know I’ve put that piece somewhere in this computer of mine. Sure enough, its still there. I highlight the piece, copy it, open my blog, and paste it. So easy. Why wrack the brain while there’s something to cut and paste :)]

He exuded an aura of confidence, his handshake firm and strong, as one would expect a king’s handshake to be. Maybe a touch challenging, as if daring you to squeeze back. I also had a sneaky feeling that it was a deliberately strong grip, perhaps practiced over the years, to show who was the boss. I imagined pictures of the king as a young lad practicing his handshake with his minions – of course no one dared squeeze back, at least not too hard. I had a sudden impulse to squeeze back, even as wild pictures of the king and me hand-locked and testing our strengths briefly came to my mind. And then it was all over, a quick bow, much like the Japanese do when they greet each other, and the protocol officer quickly herded me into line next to my colleagues.

The rest of the ceremony passed in a blur, as our High Commissioner presented his credentials to the king, made the obligatory speech recalling the good relations so happily existing between India and the Kingdom of Swaziland and conveyed best wishes for the personal well-being of the king and the people of Swaziland from the President of India. After the formal ceremony of handing over and acceptance of the High Commissioner’s credentials, came the photo-op with flashbulbs going off in all directions as we posed with the king. Even as the TV crews juggled for space along with the cameramen, the king signaled an end to the formalities with a nod to one of his courtiers and then proceeded to the next hall, accompanied by our High Commissioner. As the protocol officer herded us out of the hall, and we followed in the wake of the royal entourage, I breathed a sigh of relief that everything had gone off smoothly.

The hall into which we followed the royal entourage was a bit smaller than the main hall where the presentation of credentials had just taken place. It was lined with spacious and comfortable sofas lined up on either side from the entrance, with two ornate chairs on the far wall directly facing the entrance. One could immediately discern that the furniture and furnishings from the sofas and chairs to the carpets and long-flowing curtains were meant to impress, to convey a feeling of royalty. The ornately carved tables and other furniture in the hall were all painted in gold. Garish, in a way, and I remember briefly thinking how it all looked very much like my idea of what the living room of a typically neo-rich Punjabi house in one of the posh new colonies in Delhi would look like. Retaining the natural colours of the ornately carved wooden furniture would, to me, have made the whole room and décor more royal and impressive. But then, to each his own taste, I thought. As the king took his rightful place in one of the ornate chairs, with our High Commissioner to his right, the protocol officer dutifully seated us on the sofas, next to our High Commissioner while the king’s courtiers and his Foreign Minister sat to his left, facing our small delegation. As we sat in rapt attention listening to the king speaking of some of his dreams for his kingdom and his people, I could see from the corner of my eyes some of his courtiers stifling what looked suspiciously like yawns, obviously having heard their king making the same speech innumerable times.

His advisers had obviously briefed him well as the king went on to praise India’s emergence as an IT giant in recent times and made all the right polite comments. Our High Commissioner too made all the right polite comments, showing his years of experience wading through the quagmire that international diplomacy can sometimes be, promising all within his power to better bilateral relations. No embarrassing questions asked about the king’s 12 wives, or his recent selection of his 13th bride-to-be – a 16-year old former Miss Swaziland and legally still a minor, or the high prevalence of HIV/AIDS in Swaziland, which recently replaced Botswana as the country with the highest HIV/AIDS prevalence rate in the world in terms of percentage, at over 38.6%. No embarrassing comments or questions regarding recent highly racist reports in the Swazi press about Indians in Swaziland mistreating their local employees and becoming a ‘security threat’, threatening to swamp the Swazis with their small shops and hijacking the local economy and livelihood with their tight-fisted lifestyle – milking the locals dry while sending all their savings and profits to banks outside the country, never investing it back, but just exploiting the gullible natives. All hunky-dory as the king indicated an end to our audience with him, and we left his august presence after another royal handshake and a bow.

A more informal gathering awaited us as we were taken to the officers’ club next to the audience hall. The kingdom’s chiefs of the armed forces and other officials rose as we entered, with the Foreign Minister preceding the High Commissioner. We went through the usual diplomatic formality of the Foreign Minister raising a toast to the President of India, while our High Commissioner raised a toast to the Queen Mother and the King. Formalities completed, we could at last relax as we chatted with our nearest neighbours, exchanging cards and making the usual empty promises to call or look them up when we next came to town, all the time knowing perfectly well that we would probably never meet again and even if we did, who cared? Out of sight, out of mind.

Driving through the beautiful Swazi countryside on our way back, I couldn’t help but reflect on my childhood and my origin, and how a small tribal from a largely unknown tribe in a godforsaken corner of India had gotten to shake hands with real royalty, however obscure and unknown to the larger world. Pictures of the idyllic world of my childhood flashed before my eyes – a world now long gone, replaced by guns and terror and peopled by the ‘living dead’. I recalled the times spent ‘hunting’ birds with our home-made saihlis/catapults, fishing in the small stream that ran besides our village which still had enough fish to catch then to somewhat justify the many times spent escaping various household chores. I recalled my first ‘kill’, a small harmless bird that had had the misfortune of sitting on that particular branch on that particular time and place, somehow managing to stop my ‘saihlum’. I must have been about 6 or 7, still too small to make my own catapult, but old enough to kill a small harmless bird and feel the thrill of a hunter making a ‘kill’ with no remorse. Perhaps the blood of my ‘headhunting’ forefathers still running in my blood? Because, I’m ashamed to admit, whenever I see a bird just sitting there, I still get the urge to take my old trusty catapult and have a try at it. In my mind I’m back to the good old days, lining up for my shot, the bird lined up in my sight, my ‘saihlum’ nicely ensconced within the small leather strip attached to the two rubber strips tied to the catapult frame, the rubber stretched to its limits, expecting to hear the satisfying thud of a direct hit when I let go. Even now! More than 20-25 years since I last wielded my ‘weapon’ and ‘terrorized’ the neighbourhood birds and small creatures, though I suspect some of the birds probably died more of fright than any direct hit from my catapult, because I always was the worse ‘hunter’ among my friends, usually coming home empty handed each and every time. But mother would always be there, always welcoming the hunter home from his hunt. It was enough that we had ‘hunted’ to our heart’s content, and we were back home safe and sound for the night. There never was any of the pressure to study, study, think of your future, think of being the top boy in class, etc. etc. that I now subject my kids to. The ‘real’ world and the rat race that even I would eventually join was still far away. I mentally thanked my parents for giving me a real childhood, which I’m afraid I may not have been able to give my kids who have grown up in an entirely different world and circumstances that were beyond even my wildest imagination or dreams while growing up in that idyllic world where we felt so safe, secure and loved.

As I unwillingly awoke from my reverie and looked out my window, I pictured Swaziland as the world that could have been ours. Often called the ‘Switzerland of Africa’ for its natural beauty, we swept through its rolling hills and verdant farmlands, passing roadsigns indicating directions for major towns with names like Piggs Peak, Big Bend, occasionally slowing down as we passed markets on the roadside and small villages with quaint names like ‘Hlenehlene’ and even a town which sported the sign ‘Happy Valley Motel’, reminding me of Shillong. Moving on highways comparable to any in the West, where you could be fined for obstructing traffic if you drive at speeds of less than 100-120 kmph, we passed through the Royal Hlane National Park, crossing the 25 km stretch of highway running through the Park in about 10 minutes. In the distance I saw blue mountains stretching into the horizon, reminding me once again of my beloved home. As we crossed acres and acres of sugarcane fields, with the last hilly road before we crossed the border into Mozambique approaching fast, I could not but compare our own hill roads with theirs. Despite the many curves, the highway snaking through the hills maintained its dignity, its well-maintained surface allowing us to maintain speeds unimaginable even on the best roads back home. Memories of tortuous climbs through badly maintained hill roads, going home for the holidays flooded my mind – only the final destination and the thought of loved ones waiting at the end making the trips bearable.

(Maputo Aug 2004)

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