Sunday, 25 August 2013

The Tapestry of Dreams-I

The onset of this year also marked the beginning of our lifelong journey as parents. No joy in the world could compare with the joy of holding one's baby in one's arms for the first time. Every parent in the world aspires to give the very best to his kid, often more than what he/she got as a child. Its a pure joy to watch her grow before our own eyes and perhaps even before we would realize, she will grow wings and will be ready and set to embark on a journey of her own. Much as we would always strive to provide her everything we can and perhaps even more, right from the day her angelic smile illuminated our lives, I wished we could give her something to remind her of how much more her parents love her with each passing day and what an absolute delight she has been to us. While it is our duty as a parent to bring her up in the best manner possible, something I strongly wish she comes to possess is the power of imagination and the perseverance to translate her dreams into reality.

After much thought, bickering and planning, we zeroed in on a grand hand-embroidered tapestry project and decided to label it as 'The Tapestry of Dreams'. For days on end, me and hubby kept sketching and visualizing objects to incorporate into our tapestry and scanned every source of inspiration (books, internet, signboards  etc) for hours on end. In a random Ikea catalog, I saw an interesting doodled fabric and hours of image search led me to Tidny by the amazingly gifted designer duo of Sissi Edholm and Lisa Ullenius. I have incorporated several of their doodles into the tapestry and hope to embroider it as beautifully as we can.After hours of deliberation (and endless baby related jobs), we started upon our project bit by bit. The progress has been slower than we expected but, without hubby's contribution it could have very well been a zilch!

In this first post in a series on 'The Tapestry of Dreams', I restrict myself to the top most panel which depicts the sky/space/ weather and elements there of.The coexistence of sun, moon and stars, as also the aeroplane and the UFO speaks of our attempt to combine the real and the imaginary. Isn't that what dreams are made of? Am also linking it up with Artistic Inspirations challenge

Our collective fascination for the colours of the rainbow is manifest in the double chain stitched rainbow rising over the horizon and an aeroplane flying across the sky leaving contrails. Reminds me of my recent flight when I witnessed the same while landing in Lucknow.

While they say, every cloud has a silver lining, nobody must have seen the same but ours definitely has one to boast of. Needless to mention, this silver lining proved to be the most difficult one to accomplish! The clouds outline has been done in running stitch with rain in single chain stitch. The filling of the cloud has been done in multi-colored button holes.

As is often the case in my life too, while it pours in Lucknow, Delhi boasts of a sun in its full summer splendor! Our vibrant sun however,shines beautifully over the city in our tapestry and is nothing like the scorching sun of Delhi one grew up under. The sun rays have been done in superficial herring-bone stitch and the disc has been done in button hole stitch.

The thunder of Lucknow lightning strikes can be seen in the purple blazes in the left corner but need not be feared in the presence of a benevolent planet and twinkling stars.

Lastly, the UFO in the right hand corner does not drop unfriendly aliens but stands for everything mysterious that our current level of scientific progress can not explain. Like its eager antennae extending outwards, for the rest of our lives, we too will be eager and anxious to receive any form of communication from the Small One. 

Hopefully when she will look at it sometimes in a ponderous mood, she will remember and understand a lot of things said and unsaid. As they say, 
 "It is the unspoken ethic of all magicians to not reveal the secrets." (David Copperfield ) 

Saturday, 24 August 2013

Travails of traveling in a no-frills airline!

Some days you just have it plainly unlucky. Much as I can not bring it upon myself yet to travel alone in a train with our six month old and the time involved therein, in all our combined wisdom (read cleverness) I booked a  return ticket from Lucknow to Delhi for August nearly a month in advance. Not just that one even secretly congratulated oneself on saving a few hundred bucks due to early bird discount on the top travel website. 

For the uninitiated, traveling in India by air can leave you with a hole in the pocket and thanks to the Ministry of Civil Aviation jargonized concept of "unbundling of costs", private airlines can charge you for just about anything they deem fit.The ticket cost included something called the 'CUTE' charges in addition to the regular levies one had been paying so far. For a moment me and hubby were left wondering if it has got to do something with the cuteness of the baby tagging along with us! Much research later it manifested itself as Common User Terminal Equipment (CUTE) which means that passengers can reap the benefits of automated check-in from any CUTE enabled check-in counter, no matter to which airline they belong to. With all the years of economics behind me, I fail to understand this 'snowballing' of charges while one is already being made to shell out airport infrastructure and development fees. When I checked the trend at other international airports (like Cairns airport /Dallas-Fort Worth Airport) we only seem to be heading in the opposite direction. No wonder Malaysian low-fare carrier Air Asia  stopped flights to New Delhi and Mumbai from its Kuala Lumpur hub in March citing the steep increase in costs at the two facilities.Travel websites too seem to have taken a cue from the relaxed policy outlook on the matter and never forget to remind you of the convenience they afford, by charging a 'convenience fees' of Rs 300 per person over and above the ticket costs.

The bad luck had not even begun and as if flying with an infant is not a test of nerves enough, flying anywhere in this country on the eve of a National Holiday surely is. For me, nothing else could explain a kilometer long queue at the aircraft boarding gate whereby passengers were being made to open their baggage and each item physically examined by the crew members.As an officer myself, I appreciate the concern for security but checking loose articles from passenger baggage after the x-ray check makes no sense and if somebody intended real mischief, the crew members without any specialized equipment will clearly be unable to do much.

Upon my request for a loader to assist me with the checked-in baggage, I was politely informed by the air-hostess in her Indigo outfit, that the same shall be available near the conveyor belt. Upon reaching there however, unlike my previous trips, I was gladly informed that porter services at airports are a paid help now, just as it had been at the railway stations so far! Indian Railways however do not charge you for the infant, do they? Unlike our magnanimous Indian Railways, airlines ticket you for just about everything you carry on your person and that includes your infant too, no matter how young. Needless to mention, while you pay for the infant's boarding, you do not get a seat. 

This was just the beginning of an incredibly jinxed trip and due as I was to fly back on 13th (unlucky!), Hubby informed he has some official work in Delhi and would be flying back on 14th. The temptation of staying back for another day was too strong to resist and I immediately tried to reschedule my ticket.However, a rescheduling fee of Rs 1102 (Jet Lite) and a travel portal convenience fee of Rs 250 in addition to the fare differential of nearly 4K were too huge a cost per person to be borne for no apparent reason and much to the surprise of our staff in Lucknow, I flew back alone with the Small One, while Hubby joined us a day later.

The flight back home on 13th was the biggest challenge of all. While checking in my baggage, the lady at the counter requested me to make a payment of Rs 1500 before giving my boarding pass. I was flummoxed to learn the same. She informed me the charges @ Rs 250 per kg of extra baggage. It was the same 21 kg suitcase I had arrived in Delhi with and no significant additions had been made. Hubby, in particular, is overly cautious of airlines' baggage policy and while the free baggage ranges between 10-15 kg per passenger in economy for most airlines, between me and the Small One, we have always been way below the limit and I could never have imagined that airlines today are even free to choose their 'free' baggage allowance. The Jet Lite staffer in this particular case refused any free baggage allowance for the infant as per their airlines policy and insisted upon the payment of the said sum. I asked her the rationale behind the infant ticket in that case and she coolly informed me there are no levies apart from the 'fees and charges' in the ticket cost. I could have argued how is that different from my ticket cost in any case but decided to carry the Small One's diaper bag and feeding pillow as hand baggage (they permit 7 kg of that and weigh it just outside the boarding gate). 

Before taking my boarding pass however, I requested the intelligent lady , to put me on a left side window seat (A) as it would help me in feeding the infant during take off with some degree of privacy. The sensitivity and training of airline crew members, except for the infant safety instructions they have memorized by rote, is evident from the fact that the seat allotted to me was a left side aisle seat! The only lucky thing about the entire trip seemed to be an under-booked flight which enabled me to find a row of empty seats towards the back and I could thus nurse the baby in complete privacy and comfort. 

Leaving Delhi (where I grew up) and reaching Lucknow (my adopted hometown) had never been such a relief till this eventful journey I undertook with a six month old infant, three items of loose hand baggage and a checked-in suitcase weighing precisely 15 kg! Every cloud has its silver lining though and in this case, I found it to be literally true. The endless rain in Lucknow had resulted in a full rainbow arc in the sky and as I watched from the window of our plane, I forgot all the anguish I had nurtured through the journey and remembered Pablo Neruda's words, 

"Donde termina el arco iris, en tu alma o en el horizonte?
Where does the rainbow end,in your soul or on the horizon?"

Friday, 2 August 2013

Of Thana Fatehganj, stories of dacoits and a Chandela temple!

Just as  things were beginning to look up after the Bhatta-Parsaul imbroglio and and I was looking forward to settle down in my life in Noida, before the sun could set on 30 June 2011, I received the marching orders for Unnao. People in office were jubilant and could not stop congratulating me for the first charge of a district, the happiest moment in a civil servant's career. I, however, as is always the case with me, was too dazed to be able to comprehend and react. The district headquarters of Unnao are a mere 50 km from the Lucknow airport and mid-way between the cities of Kanpur and Allahabad. In terms of connectivity,  few districts in UP have had it so good. 

Being unhappy over such frequent change of places, I had little option but to book the ticket for Lucknow. Before however I could hang my boots in Noida and could handover my responsibilities officially, the orders were cancelled and I was instead posted to Banda. The same notes of congratulation immediately turned into sympathy and regret and few even advised me to scuttle the order by proceeding on leave. The advice was flowing in thick and fast and the impression I was given was as if I had been sent in exile to some dacoity-infested forest land where life is uncertain and for a woman even more so. Surprisingly, even in the administrative quarters, people with considerable experience consider Bundelkhand (especially Banda) a kind of punishment and merely bide their time. There was little one could do and without any pre-conceived notions in my mind, I arrived in Banda on the sultry afternoon of 4 July, 2011.  

Growing up in Delhi, the sense of space and time, given the remoteness of Banda was a liberation of sorts and the first time I looked at the rivers, the fields and most importantly, the low hills, I knew nothing could have been better! Even today, looking back at our time in Bundelkhand, me and A wouldn't trade it for anything in the world.  Yet in an important Election Commission meeting, to my utter surprise and dismay, a senior official was furious at the state machinery for posting a woman in a dacoity-infested land and for him given the past incidents in the area, Assembly elections were doomed to be anything but peaceful!! No wonder, the policies for the development of this region are often made with the same pre-conceived notions and thanks to our media's sensitivity (read sensationalization) isolated incidents become forever entwined with the image and character of the people of a place.

It was with this background that I was presented the story of Thana Fatehganj (Village Dadwa-Manpur) where dacoits are believed to rule the roost and people (read government officials) are afraid to go even in broad daylight. It was here on the fateful day of 23rd July, 2007 seven policemen were killed by the dacoits in an ambush near Kahlua Mafi forest and since then fear  and insecurity loom large in the minds of the residents of nearby villages of UP and MP. Sporadic incidents of dacoity and murder continue to happen and the area has been traditionally infamous as a stronghold of dacoits all over the country. Surprisingly, while naxal-infested districts have well equipped Thanas (police stations) all over the country, this Thana which covers a large geographical area doesn't even have a boundary wall and a regular electricity connection. Needless to mention, the remoteness and poverty of this place have rendered it unviable even for our state run BSNL to erect cellphone towers and connectivity therefore, is as much a matter of chance as life and its related necessities. So much so for the development!

Police Memorial BandaIt was here on a routine visit to Thana Fatehganj, my fellow SP, G,  invited me to the Memorial police has built in the memory of those who lost their lives in 2007. The fact that the area is surrounded by low forested hills on all sides and is scarcely populated must have been of strategic advantage for the dacoits who are known to inhabit the forests nearby. Today, the Memorial stands on the spot of the encounter in the middle of nowhere and bears a silent testimony to those who have laid down their lives fighting for  an unknown cause in this inhospitable terrain.

The road leading to the temple
Having reached that far, the police officer in-charge-of-the-station requested us to also visit the  ruins of a nearby old temple  locally known as Bilariya Math. The road (dirt track) leading to the temple was  a narrow and desolate one. The only people we saw on our way to the temple were a motorcyclist and the staff at the nearby forest check post. I specifically noted the presence of the check-post thanks to the visible accumulation of a large number of historic carved stones and figurines in its compound. Hopefully, the relics will not be conveyed any further than that. Surprisingly however, there was a government school just opposite to the temple and on enquiring it was found that on rare occasions when the school opens, the only person who comes to teach the kids is a poorly paid  ill educated matriculate tutor hired by the school-teacher!

The temple was reached by a flight of stairs  while its 'shikharam' can be seen from a good distance.  The stairs were in a good state of repair but a huge number of artifacts and figurines lay strewn about. The temple chowkidaar (watchman) hired by ASI (Yes! its a protected monument) only appeared after fifteen minutes or so and was completely nonchalant about the existence of the monument altogether. Without any insistence whatsoever and certainly none in material terms, he seemed easy if we were to carry any number of artifacts or carvings along, as long as we could bring our own mode of transport!

The single shrine which stands intact today is richly carved and bears striking similarity to the temples at Khajuraho. At some point of time, the temple must have formed part of a larger temple complex given, the foundations and perimeters of certain other structures are clearly visible even today. The temple offers superb views of surrounding countryside and must have been an idyllic location for prayers and devotion. The carvings seem to confirm the Chandela period origins of the structure and hence the similarity to the ones at Khajuraho. 

The view from the temple

Across the temple on a nearby hill top are said to be the ruins of Madfa Fort with a pancha-mukhi rock-cut sculpture of Shiva. Legend has it that both Kalinjar and Madfa, situated atop nearby hilltops, were built on the same night. The team of artisans on both forts had a bet going as to who will finish the fort first.It was decided the one who finishes first will light a torch and the other will immediately stop work. It is said that the artisans in Kalinjar dropped their tool and lighted  a torch to find the same. However, the torch was misunderstood by the team at Madfa, who immediately stopped work and the fort remains incomplete till date.

Thanks to good light, I could click some pictures of the temple even with my obsolete 2 MP camera- phone. That very day, I found a very old District Gazetteer of the undivided Banda District in my husband's official library in Chitrakoot. Even the document mentions a Chandela temple in the village Dadwa-Manpur. However, the temple rarely finds mention in any discussion of the region anymore. It is not even a temple in the truest sense of the term any longer given an empty sanctum sanctorum which it seems could not stand the ravages of time..

Even today when I look back at villages like Dadwa-Manpur, I wonder what hope and future do the residents have. In  a place where basic amenities of health and education are still a far cry and people's horizon are limited, forget girls, even boys must be finding it difficult to imagine a life different from those of previous generations.I even remember stories of people turning down alliances from villages which lack a 'pucca' road or houses which do not have  a cemented floor. In Banda, people do not marry into a family or invite those in marriages who lack a fire-arm. I knew of several such villages in Banda and Chitrakoot which continue to languish in a time warp and have little to build their dreams on. There must be thousands of such villages all over this country, each with its own set of 'dacoits' to live with and each with its own unheard prayer of a better future for their children. I hope things will change for better in my own lifetime and place like these will witness development in real terms but till that happens, remote villages such as this will continue to be infested by dacoits of ignorance, illiteracy and poverty..

Strange as it may seem, I still hope for the best, even though the best, like an interesting piece of mail, so rarely arrives, and even when it does it can be lost so easily.” 
― Lemony Snicket (The Beatrice Letters)