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Heve(r) Ho!

The sun shone brightly in the blue, cloudless sky. Birds were twittering, there was a slight breeze that cooled our brows and it was lushly green as far as our eyes could see. As I stood next to the lapping water, I so wished I could just lay down here, for ever and never be taken away from this beautiful vista surrounding me.

I was at Hever Castle, in Kent, England, childhood home of Anne Boleyn, the mother of Queen Elizabeth I. I can honestly say that it was one of the most beautiful places I have ever been in. Whichever direction I turned, there were picture postcard perfect scenes. Tall, shadowy trees, stood whispering through the skies. Despite the screaming children and the milling families, there was a sense of calm and serenity in the air.

The castle started its life as an ordinary farmhouse in 1270 AD. When its owner, Geoffrey Bullen (Anne's great grandfather), was made the Lord Mayor of London, the house was upgraded to a manor house, as befitted a Lord Mayor. From 1505, the castle was the home of Sir Thomas Boleyn, the 1st Earl of Wiltshire and 1st Earl of Ormonde and Anne's father. Though it is unclear if Anne was born here, there are loads of references to suggest that Anne, along with her siblings Mary and George, spent her childhood years here. Upon her death, the castle became the property of her husband, King Henry VIII, who gave it to his fourth wife, Anne of Cleves, as a part of her divorce settlement.

Tudor Village

The castle then changed hands a few times, fell into disrepair and was finally bought by the rich American family of William Waldorf Astor. When Astor moved to England, he bought the dilapidated castle and upgraded it to an extremely high standard. He constructed the famous "Tudor Village" to accommodate guests and built the gardens and the lake.

The current owners bought the castle in 1983 and opened it up to the general public. There are some magnificient 16th century portraits on display, as well as Anne Boleyn's prayer books and some scenes from her life. The main draw, however, are the splendid gardens. Astor expanded the existing garden to include the Italian Garden, to house his collection of Italian sculptures. There is also a beautiful Rose Garden, touted to house more than 3,000 plants. Astor also got the lake constructed, which took 748 labourers to dig and two whole years before it was ready. The latest owners are credited with the Millennium Fountain and the hugely popular Water Maze.

Water Maze

Situated around 30 miles from London, this is a local favourite. On a clear sunny day, it makes for a fantastic picnic spot. With acres of flowers, boating facilities on the lake and three mazes, the castle offers something for every member of the family. Entrance is priced at a modest £10.40 and is well worth every penny.

Posted by DesiGirl 1:00 am 9 comments Links to this post  

Feminism in a desi setting

Fellow blogger and one of my oldest mates, apu tagged me on this. And she says we have good ole Ams to thank for it. As it is a tag, I'd like to tag my fellow fem bloggers - Suj, Dee, Premalatha as well as my fellow mommy bloggers - Mad Momma and Tharini, as well as Kishore to take the baton from me.

Right, now let's get started. What is feminism, exactly? According to the dictionary, feminism is the doctrine advocating social, political, and all other rights of women equal to those of men. Feminism in an Indian (or desi) context is a wierd thing. It is like Antartica - everyone knows what it is but no one wants to go there. To most, life goes on as it always had, as if feminism never existed.

Like I mentioned in one of my previous posts, I realised what feminism truly is and that I am a feminist only after I started blogging actively. Till then, I was going along with the Antartic effect. Having been brought up to be fiercely independent, I did not question my right to do things my way. I always thought that that was mostly thanks to my folks' outlook towards most things concerning self and sibling. But I realise now, it is thanks to them being feminists (in their own setting) that they could go with the choices they made, which in turn made it easy for me to go with my choices, my way.

But to many, this is not the case. I have heard of many, many cases where the girls were so 'protected' that many had hardly ventured into the Big Bad World on their own. S frequently jokes that I had a lot more freedom growing up than he did!

In that sense, I feel feminism is linked to your basic freedom as a child. If you, as a girl, are raised as an equal to your male siblings, then you (and your siblings) will grow up to think the same way. If, on the other hand, you are told right from the time you were a child that you must defer to your male siblings or that they come first, then chances of both sexes retaining this and forming a template to their lives, is very high.

So, what has feminism given me. Well, it has given me the right to be me. I can be my own person and not be defined as someone's child or wife or sibling or mother. I can be my own person, in my own right, charting my life the way I want. It lets me be what I want to be. Heck, it gives me the right to make that choice. It puts me in the driving seat of my life.

This basic right is denied loads of women across the country. For them, the alpha male has to make the decision - should they work full-time, do they stay at home,
can they do this or should they do that. Every time a woman is unable to act independently, she is denied the right to freedom.

In my opinion, feminism is synonymous with freedom. And for feminism to truly flourish in a desi setting, it is imperative for not just the women, but the men to become feminists as well.

Read Ams' and Apu's view points.

Posted by DesiGirl 11:08 am 5 comments Links to this post  

Restaurant Review: Chilies, Basildon

There is a rather unfortunate habit amongst us expats to view some things (or most, depending on one’s perspective) with the rather jaundiced viewpoint of ‘oh are they ill-treating me because I am an Indian / non-white?’ Whilst I am not a card-carrying member of this group, I will definitely put my hand up and admit that there have been a few occasions when I have asked myself that. More often than not, the offending situation would resolve itself to make me rethink my views. But some times, certain situations pan out in a certain way that more or less cements my belief that no matter how ‘accepting’ or ‘open’ a society prides itself to be, the reality is often a totally different concept. Last Saturday, something happened to reinforce my thinking and I would be greatly interested to see which way the readers of this post align themselves.

The past couple of weeks, I had been harbouring a hankering for a good margarita. S also kept hinting at the long overdue meet we were planning with a good (fellow Indian) mate of his from work and his wife. Deciding to kill two birds with one stone, I suggested we head for Chilies Restaurant and Bar at Basildon, which was local enough for all of us and which, more importantly, served some amazing cocktails. Plans were made and on ringing the venue, we were told that as long as we were in a group of less than eight members, we would be given a table with minimum fuss and delay. We got one within thirty minutes and I counted ourselves lucky as I recalled a past visit when we visited for a record two hours and forty-five minutes for a table for four (P was two years old then)!

We sat at our table, chatting and managed to come to a reasonably quick decision regarding the menu – made easy by the fact that three of us were vegetarian and we had just two or three mind-bending choices to make. Then we waited.
We talked about our families, which part of the country each of us were from, the languages we each spoke, our colleges, the different cities we each had lived, how we were finding living in the UK and my blogging. Still no sign of a waiter / maitre’d. And we waited.

P was getting impatient and quite a bit peckish. His enthusiasm with the kiddies pack had exhausted itself by now and he had made up his mind about what he wanted to eat. But still, there was no sign of a soul.

The restaurant was full and all around us, the staff were running around taking orders, bringing in the food, generally making sure the people were getting fed. But no one seemed to be paying us a blind bit of notice.

After waiting patiently, we decided enough was enough and we flagged one of the girls down. Who took our orders and we specified that we preferred the drinks, starters and P’s order to come in first. So it did – well, almost. One starter and P’s mains arrived together and we started tucking in, mentally imagining the beautiful pitcher of margarita.

But there was no sign of the ambrosia and we had finished devouring the garlic bread. We were desperately thirsty now and P was beginning to chant for his OJ. Another frantic hand waving resulted in a supremely uninterested girl plonking some side plates and cutlery in the middle of the table and vanishing into thin air the next minute.

This was the first time any of us had been to a proper restaurant and ended up doing part of the staff’s job ourselves. Joints like Nando’s pride themselves on their casual approach but as other patrons had had the luxury of the staff setting the table for them, we had assumed, foolishly, the same would be available to us too.

After a colossal thirty minutes, when we saw our neighbours finish their meal and exit the restaurant, we got our drinks – a pitcher of margarita, with some beer glasses. We first thought they had made a mistake. When we pointed out the fact that we were missing cocktail glasses, the girl who brought our drinks coolly explained they had run out of glasses and we had to make do.

By now, we were getting a few degrees ahead of peeved but still were determined to have a good time. So, we gamely drank our delightful margaritas out of beer glasses, imagining the salted rims and the still-absent tostada chips. Some time later, our pitcher was nearing empty, P had finished his dinner and the garlic bread was a distant memory. There was still no sign of our food – the remaining starter or our main courses.

Deciding enough was enough, we asked for a passing waitress if we could speak to the manager. The manager materialised in a few minutes, with the standard ‘hope you are having a good time’. She did not seem too shocked by our ‘no, not really.’ After complaining for a few minutes, our friend finished semi-jovially, ‘I hope you are not making us wait for our food ‘cos we are Indians’.

To which she replied: ‘No, I don’t think so.’

I was gaping at that. Having got used to a PC Britain, where at least in public people put on a politically correct mask, this nonchalance was surprising, to say the very least. The slight matter of a few patrons waiting for their food and of cocktails served in beer glasses didn’t seem to matter much and after some half-hearted platitudes, she went away to investigate. She came back, with our main courses and useless starter, and a laughable explanation of why we had been sitting there for the better part of an hour, twiddling our thumbs. The kind lady, who was ‘in charge’ of our table, was having a bad day and it was all getting a bit too much for her. Enjoy your meal now that you’ve got it.

I could not bite my tongue any more and reamed into her at the disgusting treatment meted out to us. Not once did we get a heartfelt apology or horror at having some seriously irate patrons, complaining away about every single thing.

We ate our food then in silence, most of it turning to ash in our mouths. A promising evening ruined and I couldn’t even enjoy my margarita. That was when a lady we had never seen before put in an appearance. She bustled in, full of apologies and we assured her everything was okay, all the time wondering who the heck she was. She explained that she was so busy that she was unable to pay any attention to us and she felt so close to tears to know how awful we felt.

WTF? This was not the girl who took our orders. Not unless she aged a good decade in the time since we saw her last. This was definitely the lady who was serving our neighbours and now was apologising profusely. This farce was getting ridiculous and after placating the woman we tried to carry on with our food. A few minutes later, the lady materialised one more time, armed with a scoop of ice cream for P, who gobbled it all up.

The bill, I must say, arrived without any delay and we found our delightful experience was not cheap by half. Though I wasn’t betting on it, I had thought that the management would have had the courtesy to deduct some bit off our bill, as a goodwill gesture. Well, it was obvious that goodwill was in short supply that night, especially when we were at the receiving end of it.

The only thrill we got was walking off without tipping them for treating us so nicely and making the evening a memorable one.

To think I told a friend last week that Chilies was my favourite restaurant in Britain. How things can change in the span of a few days! I think the joint should do what I suggested and put up a big board stating in no uncertain terms that folks of our sort were not welcome to partake food there. Do not start being a hypocrite at this late hour, Chilies and stick to your guns like you did last Saturday night and display the same nonchalant spirit in showing everyone what you stand for. At least this way, your august establishments will not be soiled and your staff, needlessly overworked.

Posted by DesiGirl 12:11 am 8 comments Links to this post  

Driving Us Crazy

No, this is not the sequel to the much-acclaimed Driving Miss Daisy. This, my dear Chennaivasis, is the story of the battle we wage every day – on our roads. I am not talking only about their condition. I am, of course, talking about our road sense – or lack of it.

Though our country can never ever say with pride that its citizens are good drivers, I think gradually the standard has degenerated into absolutely appalling levels that these days it is a wonder if you can set foot outside home and come back unscathed. A casual bang to the side of your vehicle, courtesy a whizzing scooter is the norm.

While driving, we are supposed to look out for each other. Bah humbug, say the drivers. It is one mad dash to get from one point to another. To quote a popular holiday website, the traffic lights in India resemble the start of a grand prix race, with each vehicle vying for pole position. If only our roads were as good as the ones in Monaco! No wonder there is an increase in the number of people interested in becoming Formula 1 drivers. After all, they get practice every day!

One can’t put all the blame on Chennai drivers alone. The roads play a major role in this mess. And a right mess would describe the city roads perfectly. Huge craters in the middle and massive trenches along the sides are so yesterday. The latest accessories to the Chennai road are iron girders – and lots of them! Thick, long iron girders are plunged in the middle of the road, with the trench being strategically placed to make it unfit for traffic to pass in either direction. Add the monsoon (Thank you, Lord Varuna, for your bounty!) and you have one big water feature.

Of course, the usual adornments such as the Veeranam pipe, smaller pipes, random wires and posts, vast quantities of dug-up mud, chunks of tar road and the ever popular garbage sundries all make our road a thing of beauty indeed! One wonders what must go through the minds of the Onyx workers each night, as they toil to clean these excuse of our roads.

I guess therein lies the problem – the Onyx cleaners do their bit while we are sleeping. Come morning, we see the clean roads and our hands just itch to start throwing things! We do have to give something for the poor guys to clean every night, don’t we? We don’t want to deprive them of their likelihood!

You know something? I have always wondered at the volume of mud that lies surrounding the road trench. Even after they are covered, there is still a 2 feet surplus sitting all around it, making it a mini hillock. What puzzles me is that 2 feet surplus. Where did it come from? I mean, it was dug out of the same place and the lovely corporation guys have put it all back in, haven’t they? So where did the extra bit come from, the bit that sits atop like a crown on the head? Did they dig somewhere else to get that bit? Is there an unidentified crater somewhere that has contributed to this trench?

Ok, now I am digressing.

We have identified the problems – bad roads, worse drivers. So, let us all take a moment and think. Road users – we have to stop battling one another. We all have to get from Point A to Point B. There is no point in going like a bat out of hell, only to be caught at the next signal. We might as well go slower – and safer.

Do move to Sholavaram if the spirit moves you. Bullock cart men, please exercise your pets when the city has gone to sleep.

Meanwhile, corporation Annas, please don’t wait till the roadways department lays the road to start digging. Feel free to get in there, be first! And can the wizard who sunk in 8 feet of iron girder into the middle of T Nagar’s Dr Nair Road please put up his hand and explain the mystery behind it?

Brothers and sisters of Onyx, in addition to night shift, please do work on occasional day shifts too. Then you can actually catch us red-handed, making a missile of a banana peel and missing the bin by a mile.

Lastly, can somebody please stop all the timer clocks at the signals? Even Michael Schumacher doesn’t race everyday!

[First published under 'Desi Diaries' at ChennaiOnline on Nov 9, 2004.]

Posted by DesiGirl 9:31 am 2 comments Links to this post  

Most Wanted

Before I proceed any further, I would like to clarify that I am not desperate or anything so wierdos and wackos out there, walk away now!

Let me explain the title: Most Wanted. I should actually expand it to 'Most Wanted: A friend', preferabl a gal pal. Why am I doing a chum version of A long and relentless search for one, that's what.

You need a mate to hang out with, just to chill, right? Well, that's where I am drawing a blank. The ones I bump into are all okay at the outset but a little bit of digging turns up some majorly iffy characterstics.

So what the hell sort of a friend am I looking for then? Well, for starters, one that is fun. Who likes movies, music, the theatre, is a mild foodie but not a big glutton, has a healthy sense if not wicked sense of humour, loves reading, knows that blogging has nothing to do with clogged drains, doesn't think having a glass of Archers will make me Mata Hari's evil twin and most of all, this is v important, doesn't confuse being the good wife to being fused at the hip with the spouse. Oh, let's not forget, it would help if the said person was in the rough vicinity so real hanging out can happen!

This is my biggest problem. I do go out with S and our little one but at the same time, I would love to go out with a friend too, you know. But the proper shaadi-shudh desi womenfolk seem to think that once you are married, thou shalt not set foot beyond the line drawn by the hubby. That drives me nuts. And I get looked at like I am a harlot for putting such thoughts into their heads. *sigh*

You would think, in this day and age, it would be easy to find some like-minded people. Natch! And the only like minded folks I know are either spread far and wide or are virtual. I know, I know. *sigh*

I rather feel like Siddharth and co in Shankar's Boys, belting out enakkoru girlfriend venumada all over Chennai, as I sit typing this post. I know how you feel, Sid ole boy! Though not for the same reasons, mind you. (Lest the parents fear I am coming out of the closet in a rather roundabout fashion!)

So what say?

Posted by DesiGirl 8:53 am 5 comments Links to this post  

The Constant Companion

Anita could still remember the day clearly as if it were only yesterday. She was five years old and along with the rest of her Year 1 classmates, had been to the Theosophical Society in Besant Nagar for their school field trip. She remembered looking up at the huge trees in awe and felt tiny in comparison.

At the end of the trip, a surprise lay in store for Year 1. The lovely people at the Society had packed a sapling of a banyan tree for each of the children, a lasting memento of the day. There were gasps of excitement when the presents were handed out.

Anita couldn't wait to get home! As soon as the school bus dropped her off in the corner of her street, she raced off with the frail sapling held fast in her little hands.

'Mom! Mom!!' she screamed as she ran in.

'Don't scream Ani, you will wake the baby up. Your mother just managed to put him down for his nap.' said her grandmother.

'Ok, granny' answered Anita and tiptoed to find her mother.

Her mother was there in their room, holding her brother. Anil had just turned two and was such a terror. He took ages to fall asleep and even then, he woke up screaming at the top of his lungs if you made the teeniest noise.

Her mother turned around as soon as Anita opened the door and smiled at her daughter. 'Sh' she motioned with her finger on her lips and slowly put Anil on his cot and stepped out of the room. By the time her mother came out of the room, Anita was hopping from one foot to another in barely controlled delight. 'Mum, look what I've got' she blurted out, shoving the bag up her mother's face. Mother managed to grab hold of the bag with its precious contents and examine it herself, before her daughter did any serious damage.

'Do you know what this is, Ani?' she asked.

'Yes, mum, I do. It is a baby banyan tree. I learned about it today. Can we plant it please?'

'Well, alright Ani but you have to promise something first' said Mother.

'Yes mum anything' interjected an eager Anita.

'You must take good care of your baby tree. It will be like your baby from now on. You must water it, protect it and look after it properly, all by yourself'.

'Yes, mum, of course mum. Can we plant it now, can we can we?' chanted Anita.

Mother laughed her tinkling laugh and off they went into the back garden to find a place for Anita's baby banyan. They finally decided on a spot well away from the main path as well as the compound wall. Mother used an old ladle to dig a hole while Anita lovingly set her tree down it. They both covered the roots with moist soil and sprinkled a little water on it. Mother had to curb Anita's enthusiasm lest she flooded the poor plant on its first day.

Once the deed was done, they both sat back on their haunches to admire their handiwork. Anita had sparkles in her eyes and it gladdened her mother's heart to see her little daughter so taken up by a tree. She thought to herself that the fascination would last about 4 days before she forgot all about it and moved to the next one.

Mother was so wrong, remembered Anita. Anita never broke the promise she made. Every morning before she took her bath, she used to rush down and water her tree. It also got a special wave goodbye as she rushed out of the house on her way to the school. Anita also remembered how her father, on seeing his daughter's interest in her tree, got her a huge book all about trees. It was big and colourful and so full of interesting stuff. He also took her to the local nursery the following Saturday, where they got the proper food for the tree. They had a grand time that weekend, preparing the manure and sprinkling it and generally getting very mucky.

As Anita grew, so did her banyan. Soon, the tree became her friend, her confidant. It was there to listen to her woes after her first big fight with her best friend, in Year 7. It also stood by sagely as Anita sobbed her heart out after she got her heart broken by the boy from the next class. Its leafy branches seemed to hug her like real hands and cheered Anita greatly.

Years went by and the tree grew strong. It became a place of refuge for Anita. She used to run to it when she was told off for fighting with her brother. Once, when she failed History and her father yelled at her for the first ever time, Anita climbed up her tree and sat amidst its comforting branches, drying her tears. When her father came in search of her, he felt oddly poignant to see his daughter getting comfort from her tree.

The tree also patiently comforted Anita when her best friend's father got transferred and they moved away to a different city. It was there when Anita poured her fear of the impending Board exams and how she was afraid she might score very less, disappointing her family. It waved its leaves in glee when Anita scored 90% and hugged its big trunk.

It was also there, listening, when Anita confessed her first ever crush – her new neighbour, who was a real cutie! Anita was sitting right under her tree, engrossed in her M&B, when he popped his head over the wall and said ‘hi’! She almost swallowed her tongue!

Anita thought back to her 18th birthday party. Her parents had arranged for a special treasure hunt and she followed clues all around the house – they had hidden the best gift in the squirrel hole in her tree. In the evening, she had a great party right underneath its huge branches. Father had strung a line of paper lanterns all over the garden and it was like magic!

Her tree – not only did it bring her joy, it gladdened the hearts of her family’s too, with its stoic presence. And now, she has to leave it and go away! The very thought broke her heart. Why did she have to get married, she had no idea. For months now, she had argued with her parents, grandparents and the rest of the family and finally, the fight had gone out of her. Rajeev seemed a good man and was the son of her father’s old friend. Her parents were very pleased with him and even Anil thought he was ‘cool’, which was high praise indeed. Anita didn’t like the idea of being put on display like she was prized cattle and thank god she didn’t have to sing and dance as well! She didn’t know who would have been more embarrassed if she had broken into song, herself or Rajeev! He seemed real soft-spoken and quiet but she assumed it was for her parents’ benefit.

As Rajeev had to report back to work in a fortnight’s time, the preparations for the wedding took place in a frenzy. Mother was permanently out on shopping trips, buying clothes, jewellery or Tupperware. As she watched the things for her piling up, a strange feeling overtook her. As Anil wheeled in her shiny new suitcases, she fled to the sanctuary of her tree.

‘What did I do?’ asked Anil the world in general. ‘I thought she would be pleased!’ Father gave her ten minutes to brood and then came to her. Huffing and puffing, cursing his ripening age, he climbed the tree, wheezing ‘I am getting too old for this, Ani’ and got a grudging smile back.

‘What’s wrong, Ani? I thought you liked Rajeev’, he said.

‘Oh dad! It isn’t that! I wanted to work – get a job, earn pots of money so you and mum can retire and go on a world cruise or something. Get Anil that Tag Heuer watch he craves. I wanted to do something to ease your burden, instead of adding on to it. I don’t know, I wanted to do so many things – now it feels like my time has run out!’ finished Anita in a flood of tears.

‘Oh Ani!’ soothed Father. ‘Is this what is worrying you? I know you wanted to do s many things. It touches my heart to learn you wanted to do so much for us. But your mother and I have our own dreams for you too, Ani. We want to see you married and settled with your own family. Rajeev is a good man. He will help you grow into the person you want to be. Just because you are going to be married, it doesn’t spell the end of everything, you big silly!’

‘Yes, dad – but I haven’t done anything for you’, sobbed Anita. Father could just hold her, helpless to stem his daughter’s tears.

At last, its time. All her bags are packed and placed in the boot of the taxi. Rajeev was joking with Anil about the contents of her suitcases, wondering if she had rocks in there. Anita hugged her mother and could feel her eyes welling.

‘I wish I could stay here with you and be your little girl forever, mummy’ she whispered.

‘You will always be my little girl, my dear’, replied Mother, planting a kiss on her forehead.

‘Go with our blessings, sweetheart’, said Father. Even Anil suspiciously looked like he was going to cry.

As the taxi slowly moved away, Anita leant out of the car window and waved to her family for all she was worth. The house was getting away from her and then, slowly her beloved tree came into view.

There it was, where she and Mother had planted it, all those years ago. She could see Father’s lounging chair under its shady branches, with the sun glinting off Mother’s reading glasses, which she had once again left on the chair.

Anita could feel the worry in her stomach disappearing slowly. She knew that, though she was leaving her family and going away, her tree would be there, always. It will forever be there in the backyard, giving them shade and breeze on a hot summer’s day. More, it will be always be there with her family, a piece of her, comforting them whenever they needed.

Anita waved for the last time, with a lighter heart. It was going to be alright after all, she thought and gripped Rajeev’s hand warmly.

Posted by DesiGirl 10:05 am 2 comments Links to this post  

What Price Friendship?

Quiet giggles in a corner
Shared jokes
Laughter and Yeats over a samosa
Bust-ups and making up
Those were the days when anything went

Angry words soon forgotten
Insults that never stuck
Fights and arguments the norm
But the feelings remained the same

Time passed
People changed
With it, the nature of friendship

Words became barbs
Looks did kill
Patience and love, non-existant.
This isn’t friendship
This isn’t relationship
is nothing.

And so,
here we are today,
what price friendship?

Posted by DesiGirl 10:03 am 7 comments Links to this post