I started this blog as a way to easily share in one place a range of personal and sentimental articles about my family home and my growth through experiences there. Hopefully I will be able to branch out from that baseline eventually, but for now I’m a heart girl, facing the immensity of life as best I can. And yes that was a One Tree Hill quote, be ready for plenty of those because there’s no crushing the fangirl heart completely.
Here at the Shivpuri White House, the routine is very often just my style: relaxed and peaceful, but never for a moment dull. The family was disbelieving yesterday when I told someone on the phone that the peace keeps my writing flowing, because the frequent fanfiction is not necessarily a valid outlet in their eyes. But luckily for them and blissfully for me, today was the kind of day so perfect I can’t end it in any other way except to play You’ll Be In My Heart on Youtube and let my heart speak for itself.
I love babies and pets and I can’t really understand how anyone can not, to be quite frank. But it was the combination of both that made today the perfect day. Getting lost in an excellent novel until I dozed off in the super-comfortable blue leather recliners in our link was an ideal morning, so I didn’t feel the absence of a nap despite the heat starting to set in.
Gayatri of course is less of a fan of the strong sun because it means she has to stay indoors more often, the girl is more adventurous and outdoorsy than I can relate to. I live for the rare quiet moments when she chooses my lap to curl up on, thumb firmly in her mouth, even if it is just to demand her favorite nursery rhymes on Youtube. I play the auntie card all the time; because I know my days to grab those memories are limited every year.
Her old football was punctured recently and the latest trip to town was productive for my girl. Sam returned home with a plastic cricket bat, a small white plastic ball to hit it with and a mini basketball. My own hand-eye coordination is utterly hopeless, but for hours I soaked up the feeling of being needed to slam the little ball around for her with the bat. Once it rolled behind a chest of drawers and the face she made was the cutest thing, along with a surprised little hand motion to indicate the disappearance of her precious ball. For ages she chased that ball around the entrance hall, crawling at times and running impossibly fast at others.
I think the main reason the words are flowing tonight is some kind of desperation to commit to memory how her gleeful laughter sounded. Last time I met her was ten months ago, at five months old instead of fifteen she couldn’t even roll over yet and her laughter was for something as simple as a rattle shaking in her face.
Fifteen month olds are temperamental, I’m learning now. The girl who can blow kisses fearlessly to a roomful of people she loves made her adorable squawk of protest when I tried to take video of her today. That’s why this piece is happening, to rave about my happy bubble and hold on to it next time I need that feeling of pure joy. When she’d had enough of chasing after the little ball, Gayatri lay down suddenly on the cool tiles of the entrance hall floor, as if determined to go to sleep on the spot.
It didn’t last long but then every moment is fleeting with this girl, and as a creature of habit I admire her fearless spirit. Of course at her age it’s because she doesn’t know any better, but I hope she never loses that easy smile and endless curiosity. The way she dribbles imaginary basketballs watching the schoolboys play with a ball she can barely lift, feeds her loved ones imaginary food from her empty bowl and touches peoples feet for no reason – these are the things I will carry with me when I inevitably miss her.
I have the embarrassing feeling my life-size toy baby doll will find her way out of the storage in the coming months, because the instinct with Gayatri I too rarely get to act on is to snuggle and protect her with all my heart. I hope someday she feels the love in the baby blanket I knitted her, because the peals of laughter as we played hide and seek behind bushes and living room drapes is all I’ll ever need. Since her conception that little girl has been the missing piece I didn’t realize my family needed. Their world revolves around her and she holds my happiest and most peaceful memories in her little hands. The longing to just steal her when she climbed into my empty suitcase voluntarily was unbelievable; it’s too bad her parents adore her (kidding, sort of).
Between her love of hiding behind the curtain and the addiction to the red gravel I demanded be flown all the way to Switzerland when I was two, in some ways Gayatri does remind me of myself. Every day with her is a trip down memory lane in subtle ways, like the time I was on a flight with her and she demanded her favorite book be unpacked right at the baggage claim. Today we put some of the red gravel in an empty plastic bottle, so she could drag it along on the dog leash instead of taking herself for a walk. For some reason the rattling noise the gravel made in the plastic bottle scared her and that nervous face was again so cute I would have loved to have captured it. She has that same reaction to the spinning Barbie which wrongly calls itself a Frozen doll. I can’t blame her for that one; the Barbie looks nothing like Queen Elsa and plays the same two lines of Let It Go over and over again. It’s hardly an improvement from the singing Minion toy she once loved, but this doll sometimes freaks her out because the head has a tendency to fall off, it’s slightly disturbing, never mind for a baby.
By the time I went for my daily walk this evening, a sliver of moonlight was up in the sky already. As ever, those few circuits of the driveway was where I tuned into the peace of the day, playing a fitting song from One Tree Hill’s soundtrack, Feeder’s Feeling A Moment. I felt every crunch of my beloved red gravel under my shoes which never stay their clean black for long out here. And feeling the moment, I was thinking of Max, who is the reason I visit the expanding pet cemetery every day. The red leash Gayatri insists on being walked around with these days was once his and seeing her fascination with it, it’s like he’s still here.
What made today complete was Cloey climbing into the space between our legs when Mom and I sat on the floor to play with Gayatri. It gets no better than the freedom to read myself to sleep and then awaken to a dog and baby, both equally desperate to play and be loved. Luckily for them, that’s what I do best and luckily for me, they exist. At the risk of super-predictably ending this capture of a blissful day, to quote One Tree Hill “In my heaven, it’s you and me.” This day was in every way, my version of heaven and I will hold on to it with these words, my memories and the endless love I feel, always.
The first fodder for the blog I finally created this year were articles written in 2013, intended to be the beginning of a “festival series”. Technically I am a Hindu and the scope is endless for a series like that to be immense and deep to explore. I am constantly told to pull out my personal opinion and stick to the facts in articles like this, but I’m not a reporter for a reason.
Shivpuri has always been where my words find their flow, whatever the topic may be. In a world fraught with the ugly consequences of religion, this town has taught me the beauty of worship. Three years ago, I witnessed firsthand Ganesh Chaturthi 2013, or the birthday of Lord Ganesh. I not only learned the words to Om Jai Jagdish once and for all during that annual ten-day celebration, I also saw how in a small town like this, religious festivals promote the people’s sense of community and are pretty much the main reason for social gatherings.
In the West people clean their homes with fervor once a year, with the intent of welcoming spring and the light and joy of the season into their homes. Hindus on the other hand have nearly fifty different annual religious festivals, every year so vast in festivals that a unique Hindu lunar-based calendar exists to mark them all. Coming up as I write this is Maha Shivaratri meaning The Great Night Of Shiva.
It is celebrated for over three or ten days based on the Hindu luni-solar calendar. Every lunar month, there is a Shivaratri (12 per year). The main festival is called Maha Shivaratri, or great Shivaratri, and this is on the 13th night (waning moon) and 14th day of the month Phalguna (Magha). According to the Gregorian calendar, the day falls in either the month of February or March. In brainstorming for this article I’ve heard about all sorts of rituals on the big day, whether it’s fasting in God’s name to prompt the deity’s blessings or prioritizing the time for prayer above any daily duties.
There was a procession through the heart of many-templed Shivpuri, to give a huge silver avatar of Lord Shiva the chance to “visit” the other deities in the area at their temples, carried on the shoulders of firm believers. Shiva is the patron god of yoga, meditation and the arts, as well as one of the Holy Trinity of Hinduism alongside Brahma and Vishnu. Witnessing the pushy, chanting crowd flooding the nearest temple as the statue was carried on its journey; I was reminded of a rowdy football crowd. Actually, when I got to see the masses of worshipping souls first-hand, I couldn’t help but realize the difference in spirituality and hardcore religious people.
To many people in small towns like this, God in any form (each standing for different blessings or different virtues) is like a friend, a being to have faith in when times get hard. The avatars of Hinduism’s many different deities help people to feel less alone in their struggles. The same goes for the average religious person, I suppose. The media likes to dwell on those who commit atrocities in the name of God, but people like that would use any excuse to spread their hatred.
As someone who draws inspiration and courage from fictional characters and celebrities I look up to, I would never disrespect those who take strength from the intangible. For me, the courage to face hard days comes from family members living and dead, and the love and support I luckily have from them. The strength comes from memories and emotions, as intangible as God but powerful nonetheless. Let people worship statues that represent virtues like honesty, love and gratitude if it makes them feel as strong as I do when I think of how it feels to hold my grandmother’s hand.
It can be no coincidence that the only hymn I know is my Gayatri mantra, when little Gayatri is who I think of when I need a sense of purpose. My family and friends are the only ones I ever need believing in me, but I’m sure at least some of them are as wonderful as they are because of their own faiths in greater beings. Here’s to nobody ever having to struggle or suffer alone, belief in even the possibility of happiness is half the battle.
When most people hear the term White House, they think of the presidential home in Washington. This article is about a White House much younger than the building to house every U.S president since 1800. This is the story of the, as of 2016, 60 year old White House in Shivpuri. Some members of my family have lived long enough to call a 60 year old building the “New White House” because it wasn’t even my family’s first home in Shivpuri. But it was and is the first place I can tie a million childhood memories to, it is my safe haven, happy place and in a word, home.
It’s funny, the things that stay engrained in one’s memories years after the event. In spite of my lacking spatial sense of imagination, I remember moments of my own first move in Switzerland. There too the new Haksar home was built from the ground up and it really is the little things that are remembered a decade later: the first Diwali at the construction site after the land belonged to us, the tiny flickering flame like a predecessor to many roaring fires in the past decade of winters. Anyway the point is sparks of recollection, like the only thing Mom has told me about the “Old White House” being how she, Arvind Mama and Malu Masi would relish rain water getting clogged up in a corner of the old courtyard, so they could splash about in glee as children do.
Their joyous entertainment from something as simple as dancing around a blocked drain inspired Nani’s dream of a home with a swimming pool. Sixty years later, as I sit writing this in the “link” of the L-shaped wing of our beautiful White House, I look out upon that curved swimming pool, baby-proofed this winter to keep our energetic Little Miss Gayatri from harm. To Nani reminiscing, the scrapes and cuts experienced by Mom, Arvind Mama and Malu Masi against the pool’s rough walls may feel like yesterday. They once learned to swim in that pool before it was even tiled and now Gayatri’s turn has come so many years later.
There is talk now of decreasing the depth of the swimming pool at some point, to conserve water. Whatever change may come about to the physical shape of the pool, nothing can take away the depth of the memories tied to it. All the cousins twirling around the stone edging of the pool to Shania Twain and the Men In Black theme tune, a fashion show for Nana’s 80th birthday sixteen years ago. The cringe-worthy water ballet with then-gap girl Kim that same night, memories immortalized in home videos and our hearts.
This town has faced many water shortages over the years, a complete drought in 2002 even killed the palm trees lining our red-gravel driveway which were planted by Mom, Arvind Mama and Malu Masi as children. The garden once even boasted rose bushes as a gift from Nani’s father, subsequently removed when monkeys attacked the fresh buds and posed a threat with their numbers. I myself have seen monkeys taking drinks from the pool in summer and munching on the fruit from the trees, formerly peach and now guava, the primates clearly aren’t fussy.
Through their impressive fight for survival, the gardens surrounding the White House have been one of the most inspirational factors to my writing for years. One of my very first non-fiction articles was an observation of an old willow tree nearby. Some of the trees in these gardens are as old as the house itself, gifts from my great-grandparents. The entire concept of the White House was structured around a grove of trees sixty years ago, so our home sits surrounded by green on all sides. The abundance of space and light is part of what makes it such a peaceful and inviting place.
In the big cities I am familiar with in India, Delhi and Bombay, I always find myself stressed by the noise and the traffic, so much less civilized than what I’m used to in Switzerland. The walk to the Bombay physio centre, technically no further distance-wise than my Swiss physiotherapist, was a daily mini-heart attack with honking horns of speeding traffic on all sides. But here in Shivpuri, despite a great increase in traffic over the years, I find myself able to re-charge and reflect deeply enough that the words stuck deep in my heart gain life.
I gather the sounds and sights of this White House in my mind, to get me through the moments back in Switzerland where stress may swell and surge. I take it all in: the patter of Cloey’s claws against the freezing tile flooring, the sound of Gayatri’s laughter as she takes refuge behind the heavy living room curtains (my baby is bringing curtain hide-and-seek I called “dakshalacing” as a toddler back, seriously) and so much more. I always tell my shrink back in Switzerland that the smell of chocolate brings me back here, probably because every trip the same brownie recipe coerces me back into Baker Rina mode, even when I’m not supposed to be eating them myself.
Nani may have been shocked by the appearance of Mr. Bhardwaj, the young leather pants and jacket-wearing architect, all those years ago. But his concept combined with her perseverance and sense of style is the reason these lime-stone walls are still standing over sixty years later. Our home and garden were built from vision and heart with innovation and creativity: I thank the toil of donkeys to bring in the red gravel I hold so dear, and feel that in a way these walls do talk. The impractical pit in the middle of the link’s floor may be long gone but even the teakwood flooring to replace it is from our very own factory. Old machinery from the mill has become sculptural garden décor rather than ended up as scrap metal and will long remain a testament to how far the White House has come. It’s hard to imagine that this house has seen times when television and Internet connectivity didn’t exist and today it has functional Netflix streaming abilities.
Our White House has been home to multiple generations and holds a lifetime of memories for my entire family. Over the last sixty years it has proved capable of changing with the times and yet retaining the warmth, security and heart at its very core. For me it is a nostalgic and sentimental place, but it is also strong, safe and enduring. The famous series ending line of my favorite show One Tree Hill goes: “There is only One Tree Hill and it is your home.” The way my favorite fictional characters thrive in their small town, I can safely say that there is only one Shivpuri White House and it is my home.
Daydreaming and feeling overwhelming surges of inspiration is normal for me when I’m separated from the means to write (in other words, my laptop) for any extended period of time. I admit that very few times in my life have been so hugely joyous that a certain urgency to capture it in words lasts past the event. Some people have the gift of being motivational rather than nagging and I fully believe that it is the seven hour car ride next to Sam and my number one baby that I owe this determination to not procrastinate anymore to.
The happiest and saddest experiences are either the easiest or hardest to put into words. In my grief for Max in 2015 I tried desperately to put into words the sudden sense of mortality I felt, being able to remember him as a little pup as if it were yesterday. But unlike my externally forced graduation speech back in 2010, which told as neutrally as possible of my hellish high school years, I couldn’t find the words for my sweet boy. The ever expanding graveyard is since that summer where I find my ultimate peace and maybe that’s all I can ever say about it.
Maybe because I’ve admired and looked up to One Tree Hill actress and my idol Shantel Vansanten for so many years now, but I finally understand why she says “I look for inspiration in everything around me.” There was a time when I used to wait for that surge of urgency to write, but now many writing courses and pep talks later I’ve realized that it takes as much determination and focus as it does genuine inspiration to be productive. Every time I have heart to heart talks with Sam, I come away feeling more talented and capable for it so I owe it to her and myself to capture all the moments that it brings me joy to think about.
After the family vacation through Bruges in Belgium, the French war memorials and last but far from least Watford’s Warner Bros Studios three years ago, I always regretted not pushing through the procrastination to write about how much lasting joy I gained from October 10 2014. Naturally it was my psychologist who helped me make use of that day of bliss at every turn, by using the happiness of the memory to put me back in a good headspace during stressful and less joyous times. Because I’ve figured out the key to making memories long-lasting for me personally, it is and always has been music. The more Indian weddings I attend the more certain I am that any Indian function my possible future wedding may have will be a sangeet only. I have a carefully chosen anti-anxiety playlist of positive musical associations and have to give even my least favorite One Tree Hill character, Peyton Sawyer, credit for one truth:
But I digress, being a huge fan of John Green’s The Fault In Our Stars after the film adaptation released in summer 2014, come the sightseeing in Belgium that October it was the soundtrack’s peppy track Boom Clap I tuned into as we walked the quaint streets of Bruge. The film’s love story took place in Amsterdam before terminal cancer turned it tragic and hearing that song on a tourist boat ride in Belgium felt close enough to the movie magic to be a joy to recall.
Seeing the war memorials on the next part of the trip it was my Dad’s excitement and the sheer scale of historical melancholy that made it unforgettable, being there to witness the 100th anniversary of WW1 was obviously an immense and sobering experience. But all that took place before one of the happiest days of my life, the one I’m sure I would think back on if J.K Rowling’s Patronus Charm existed in real life. In a way I understand how she made the joy-sucking Dementors a metaphor for her own depression because that single day has had the strength to carry me through hard times ever since.
Harry Potter was what turned me into what I define myself as today: a fangirl. The fascinating Marauder era still holds a very special place in a heart no longer seventeen but probably happier than nearly a decade ago. It makes me feel old to think that the first Potter film adaptation came out sixteen years ago, 2001 was incidentally the same year to give the world Karan Johar’s Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham, which initiated my ten-year obsession with SRK.
Coming back to the Watford experience, I can safely say it was life-changing: Between Tom Felton’s humorous tour guide recorded narration, the animatronic Buckbeak that actually bowed and blinked and my first taste of Butterbeer, I was floored long before the most exhilarating and then emotional parts of the day. The simulated broom ride which thanks to the souvenir videos and photograph reminds me more than anything else how happy that day was, is still something I just have to watch to feel intense surrealism to this day. But my favorite photograph that day is of me posing behind the Privet Drive sign. It’s hilarious to think that on the set the awful Dursley’s home exterior is right next to the ruin of Lily and James Potter’s house.
Already soaring on a wave of bliss that had begun with the HP film scores blasting all the way to the parking lot, standing in front of that scorched wall is where I got really emotional because somehow the couple who are dead before the series even begin have always meant the most to me. Yes walking through Diagon Alley’s set with the incredible detail on all sides I genuinely felt like Harry in wishing I had about a hundred eyes at once. But somehow it was still that ruined Potter cottage that I remember responding to now; the fictional sacrifice for their baby’s life as stirring and inspiring as anything else that trip.
When I was sixteen I once had a crush on a boy just because he resembled the fifteen year old James Potter from the Order Of The Phoenix film adaptation, incidentally my last non-celebrity / fictional crush to date.
Needless to say that went nowhere and Harry Potter has stayed an important happy place for me longer than anyone in school ever did. There might still be times when the high school years negatively affect how I feel about myself but those days are few and far between.
Luckily for me, it’s a fact that time heals all wounds and someday only those powerful happy memories will remain. As Albus Dumbledore so wisely said after all…
Even as a writer, with a craft as creative and yet honed by habit as many others, the end result of a piece like this isn’t always in sight from the beginning. There’s always the fine line of discussing a work in progress with my cheerleading family and figuring out on my own what feels right. I’ve had all sorts of advice; to combine experiences or don’t, or to be honest and heartfelt but draw the line somewhere. But at the end of the day, I know that the only way to get the words out is find my own flow and go with it. All the song lyrics and Disney mottos about following your heart have got to come from a place of some kind of experience I suppose, so that’s what I decide to do with every word.
The theme of this article is holding on to joy and describing some hugely happy moments in my recent past would not be complete without the last week’s trip to Kottayam in Kerala. Some say this past week, with a royal Indian wedding and such a fabulous vacation with old friends deserves its own article and maybe someday it will get it. After all it took three years to pay tribute to the Potter joy as this article does.
But stand-alone tribute or not, the vacation in the south after the fancy wedding deserves a very heartfelt mention for inspiring me to write again in the first place with the love from old friends and simply breath-taking experiences. In a way it does tie in to the whole filmy Potter experience because Chacko Uncle shared his jaw-dropping world so modestly with us. How often does the average person get to sneak onto an active TV set and witness a girl prance onto the stage to an iconic SRK song?
For almost a decade my love of Bollywood became a way to connect with my roots from abroad and now it is always being in India that finds some way or other to remind me how much I will always admire King Khan. Granted there’s a huge nostalgia factor now but that song choice and moment in a little corner of that studio, trying to sneak a peek without tripping over the wires or squealing out loud was something I won’t forget in a hurry.
Over the next two days, the thrills just kept on coming, whether it was the epic serenades of our very own crooner Charles (the man stole my heart with Kuch Kuch Hota Hai and kept it awed with a freaking Swiss German number) or getting to feel like a film star speeding along the backwaters, it was definitely like the Warner Studios tour in that I wanted to drink in all the sights and hold on to how I felt in the moment.
I’m not normally particularly keen on selfies, but with the enforced dressing up for the wedding before the Kottayam vacation, maybe the habit of sharing spilled over to that part of the holiday. Cruising along the backwaters I felt able to define wind-swept hair quite literally and even the slight motion sickness became easy to ignore with the sun kissing my exposed skin and finally getting to put my prescription sunglasses to good use. The picturesque backdrops helped me to feel beautiful and for that I am more thankful than anything. Here’s hoping ten years don’t go by until the next reunion, visits to the south are as much a fascinating window into Mom and Dad’s past as anything else.
As my former obsession show used to say “by its very definition, glee is about opening yourself up to joy” and with experiences like these under my belt I might yet learn to do just that more often. Despite the way it crashed and burned, Glee did teach me to never stop believing and I like to think I’m one step closer to that faith with the power of all these good experiences to guide me.
One Tree Hill creator Mark Schwahn made the idea of “someday” a trademark of many couples he wrote and I think my someday of just feeling good might be a lot closer these days. To end on one final OTH quote because it has words for everything…
I’ve come to realize I don’t have to dismiss the bad things in my past in order to find happiness, but I feel like my perspective on the years of teenage suffering has changed and that, for now, is good enough.
In late August 2013, Happy Days School was about to celebrate 25 years in business. 25 years of, as the school motto wisely puts it; “Education To Change Lives.” I was fortunate to be around to witness the celebrations at the time, to see former students come flocking back to the school that laid the foundations for their success stories.
Although it was never technically my school, in some ways I think of myself as one of Happy Days’ success stories. This school has taught me invaluable lessons about my dreams and capabilities, on top of basic self-belief which my own high school experiences destroyed so long ago. The flaky Internet and occasional indigestion issues literally feel like a small price to pay for living in the place that makes me happier than I feel anywhere else.
When I am faced with crowded places or intense unfamiliar situations, my anxiety has tended to flare lately. Those underlying feelings of panic were put to a huge test last year, when I applied at my former college to complete the part-time CELTA course. With it I hope to earn the certificate to be qualified to teach English to foreigners, wherever that may be. The three month duration of the course itself was some of the highest stress I’ve experienced in a very long time, preparation workloads combined with severe social anxiety which made speaking in front of the class endlessly terrifying. Every week the necessary evaluation and judgement from my course leaders made me doubt myself and I’m still not sure how I got through the whole thing.
But being back at Happy Days for my second extended trip, I can now feel the difference between Rina Didi, who taught the 2013 literary hobby group German they still remember, and Rina Ma’am. It used to make me feel awkward to be around these insanely polite kids, adorable though they are, because three years ago I didn’t feel worthy of their respect. It sounds strange to say that teaching at Happy Days is like coming home, since technically it is home. But that’s exactly what it feels like, if I’m completely honest. In every class I’ve coached or taught here, whether it’s the sweet third grade hostel boys this year or the seniors before their exams earlier in February, I try to instill how proud they should be of their school.
Whether I technically reach Cambridge’s very high standards or not, my time at Happy Days has given me what it does every time I set foot in the place: A sense of belonging, acceptance and joy. That, in my humble opinion, is the most important thing in the world and I already can’t wait for my next visit. The flowers my sweet students bring me every day will wilt, but the memories and happiness I felt around the kids will carry me through whatever the future throws at me back in Switzerland. Thank you Happy Days!
For as long as I have been seeing my psychologist in Switzerland, I have told her about the Shivpuri White House and used my experiences made here, through trips long and short over the past two years, as fuel for everyday life. On a practical level, Switzerland is the perfect place to live of course. Being in India does put into perspective how we take enough water and reliable Internet for granted a lot of the time. But despite long periods where a “Facebook detox” is enforced by flaky connections and I therefore go long periods of time without the comfort of my fangirl bubble, I find it the best place to build upon my non-existent sense of self-worth.
As chronicled by my articles two years ago, my extended stay and days helping at Happy Days were some of the happiest of my life. Not necessarily for a great love of teaching, but for the overwhelming acceptance and love from those then fifth grade performers. It was a massive and much needed contrast to my own school days. Meeting them two years down the line with the highlights of The Peepal Tree as vivid for them as for me was an incredibly gratifying feeling, despite the limited communication and brief phase of formality when we first reunited.
More has changed around here than just the ages of my favorite students in the last two years. The biggest difference of course is the loss of Max two months ago, which shattered my heart when the news arrived in Switzerland. In all the stories I shared with my psychologist this past year, he and Chloe were the shining stars and I was so grateful for my photography obsession two years ago when it came to material I had to create collages with, as I do lately to express feelings.
That was the last time before this burst of inspiration that I tried to put into words the pain I felt, but it proved impossible. I think the difference in Max and all the other Shivpuri dogs through the years was our being there when he arrived in Delhi as a little puppy. I still remembered how scared Cindy was of the lost little furball he was, missing his mother and seeking affection from one who lived with her own mother too long to develop the maternal instinct.
The shock of losing him from one day to the next was sort of combined with the realization that those memories are fourteen years old, as he was. So my now regular trips to the much-expanded dog cemetery in our peaceful yard became about more than breaking the denial that he’s physically gone. Back home I am very lazy about walks, but circling the driveway here that holds the red gravel I apparently demanded as a souvenir when I was a kid, I feel a sense of peace almost impossible to describe. I have even worn a hole in my only pair of socks on these brief evening walks, but going around in circles would not feel so therapeutic anywhere else I think. Seeing Nana with his new walking stick this year, I am reminded of how he would keep track of his number of rounds with a pebble placed on the stone pillars flanking the steps to the lawn. Perhaps shamefully considering the seventy year age difference, I never did that many more rounds than he used to.
But tuning into songs with lyrics of solidarity and about not being alone on those rounds is somehow the most at peace I ever feel. Life has been the furthest thing from stressful this past year, but it has taught me that even the laziest people need a reason to wake up every morning. On this trip I have been alternately urged to cook and write something almost every day and the prospect was intimidating. During a whole afternoon spent on my feet in the kitchen, I probably had every negative thought in the book. I never thought of myself as a person who craves other people’s approval to the extreme, but this trip has taught me that it’s more the fear of how disapproval affects my shaky confidence that I can’t handle. That is something to work on, I suppose, thicker skin as Arjun put it.
I may not be as productive as the knitting squad for our “family baby” yet, but I can barely remember the last time I was this excited about something. My contribution so far has been pumping Sam full of my brownies to give the kid a sugar rush, because feeling it move is the most amazing thing ever. I can’t wait to tell Durga Prasad about how Arjun has been Sonya’s “father” since the age of sixteen, according to her kindergarten classmates in awe of his height. And of all the changes to this home and our family in recent years, I’m going to be biased and say Sam is the best one. I’ve had some low points recently but my Bhabhi Jaani has always been the one with the most epic pep talks, great Mom in the making. Two years ago, I wrote my last article here as Rina Didi and in some ways I still feel like that girl. But I hope that this time I can hold on tighter to the happiness I find only in Shivpuri and become D.P’s favorite Bua. This kid has plenty to learn about the art of fangirling and I happen to be an expert.
As the gorgeous Robert Buckley, my One Tree Hill hero I sometimes just call Abs Man once wisely said “I’d take failure over regret any day.” My goal now is to be brave enough to accept failures and not let procrastination and fear swallow everything I am. I have a family baby to impress!
Happy Days School celebrates its 25th year in business this year. It has given many people very happy days to look back on over the years; this is in a way an account of mine. At almost 22, the school is only a little bit older than I am and there literally isn’t a time I can’t remember the school being a part of my summer holidays with my Nana, Nani and family. This is the story of a school and its growth certainly, but also the story of a girl from Switzerland, becoming in time more than just the principal’s niece.
As a little girl, the highlights of my summer vacations in Shivpuri were visits to the playgrounds of the school. I can’t say I remember much about those days, but to see how the school has developed and expanded over the years makes me proud to have grown up alongside it. I took great pleasure in informing the children of my literary hobby group, who envy the kindergartners of today, that most of the toys in the nursery come from Switzerland and once belonged to me and my sister. To see toys that gave me such joy put to use like this made me happy long before my association with the school deepened in recent months.
I feel proud that the literary hobby group was apparently formed just because I came on board at the school for a while. There are huge differences in the educational systems here in India and back in Switzerland. I suppose it’s easy for me to preach about the importance of school pride, now that I’m technically done with school myself. But a fact I am trying to instil in my hobby group is how lucky they are to stay in the same school through the entire 12 years of their formative education.
I moved around more than most people during my school years, when bullies made a transfer necessary in the eighth grade. But even for the average Swiss student, kindergarten, primary and high schools are normally in three different locations, even in the small towns like I’m from. To witness the evolution of one’s school like the students of Happy Days do over a period of twelve to fifteen years is unique and something to be very proud of in my opinion. The closest thing I ever had to that was being a student at my primary school when the building turned one hundred years old. For my little town that was a grand affair, but when I compare the festivities to the likes of celebrations at Happy Days, it feels completely insignificant.
It’s true that India has many more holy festivities and holidays than Switzerland, so being in Shivpuri for more than the average three weeks of my summer vacation in July has been a learning experience on more than one level. Having so many festivals serves as inspiration for the constant plays the school performs I suppose, because the love of theatrical expression is definitely something the Swiss people lack. In Switzerland primary school ends after the fifth grade and at the end of that year was the only time I was ever in a school play. I was incidentally nothing more than the narrator at the very beginning of the play, an early sign of my expression best coming through with words.
There is a quote above the lockers in the school room saying “There is no such thing as a bad student, only bad teachers.” When I first saw that poster on my first day of being the teacher instead of a student, it terrified me. My teachers in school all used to preach about how wonderful “lightbulb moments” were, when kids suddenly understand the lessons. Being the student, I never understood that back then, but now I can honestly say that I do.
After passing on the German language I grew up and studied with my entire life to the literary hobby kids for just a few weeks and seeing their bright enthusiasm, it’s like there’s no greater feeling in the world than these kids remembering something so foreign to them week after week. The vivid recall could be down to how much harder kids here study than Swiss students, but enthusiasm is something that can’t be forced and to see it there to the extent of being approached after class for help is just the most indescribably wonderful feeling.
Even being in a teaching position now myself, I still have the greatest respect for the nursery and kindergarten teachers. I spent some time with the little kids as well initially and while they are undeniably adorable, to keep such little children occupied is something I found extremely challenging. The language barrier might certainly be a part of that, making one of my personal aims in the coming months to improve my Hindi if possible. But even if I could understand the little ones, matching their energy and keeping up with the short attention spans was really tough.
For the first few weeks spent mostly in the KG section, the literary hobby sessions on weekends were a clear highlight for me. Although it was nerve-wrecking at first, slowly getting to know that group of kids better and the great reception of my German lessons made it gradually more exciting week by week. And now here I am, the Swiss Miss become Rina Didi and sometimes even (disturbingly I might add) Ma’am to the masses at Happy Days. Already there have been experiences I wouldn’t have dreamed of a few months ago, such as the brief speech on Independence Day. Sad as it may be, my regular students here are sweeter than any friends I’ve ever had. There are less pleasant differences between the educational systems o f Switzerland and India, but the great acceptance is one difference I am very thankful for. Long Live Happy Days School!
The second in my documentation of festivals and holidays experienced on this extended stay in India is a very sweet and symbolic ritual: Raksha Bandhan or Rakhi.
Raksha Bandhan means bond of protection and that is what the custom is all about. The sacred thread around a man’s wrist is symbolic of the sworn protection of a girl by her Rakhi brother. In return he can count on her blessings and good wishes for him. The tradition is in fact rooted in the royal history of Rajput queens who sent Rakhis to neighbouring kings as tokens of peaceful brotherhood. Over the years it has evolved into a much more familiar and sweet custom.
Rakhi tying is no longer limited to blood relatives; of this I have personal experience. In India joint families give cousins the same value as brothers from the same parents; my example takes the power of the sacred bond one step further.
My Dad grew up with an older sister, who tragically died of meningitis when she was 17 years old. I’ve often been told I look just like her, a simultaneously flattering and saddening fact because I will never have more than stories of her. But her death also proved the power of Raksha Bandhan outside the immediate family.
The first time the holiday rolled around after her death, my Dad was understandably upset that he no longer had a sister. That was until her best friend stepped in with a promise to be his Rakhi sister from that day on. The bond formed by friendship and loyalty was solidified by the Rakhi custom and has tied our two families together for over fifty years. Today her two granddaughters call me and my sister Bhua, as we have called her for as long as I can remember. If that’s not proof of the strength of Raksha Bandhan, I don’t know what is.
I personally don’t have any Rakhi stories as touching as that one, because this is in fact the first time I was physically present on the actual Raksha Bandhan date. If anything it was a bonding experience because I tied four or five Rakhis on my cousin on behalf of all his absent sisters. For me it was a learning experience in the art of knot tying, a life-long weakness I might add. It was also a test of my Hindi recital skills as our family has a short prayer that goes with the tying of the knot. Over the years I’ve lost count of how much my sister and I fumbled and struggled over those lines with many hilarious results.
In spite of growing up so far apart, I like to think that tying these Rakhis has bonded me with my brothers across the miles. My sister’s kindergarten classmates certainly seemed to think so years ago. I may get in trouble with him for bringing this up but the funniest memory I have of Arjun is when he visited my family in Switzerland at the age of 16. Determined to drag him out of the house, my Mum took him to pick my sister up from kindergarten. The car was soon surrounded by a group of fascinated six year olds and they asked my sister quite seriously; “Is that your father?” And so Arjun Diwan became a teenage Dad and I never let him live it down. Memories like these are what make a family, Rakhi is just a symbolic representation of the bond between brothers and sisters, nowadays even between close friends.
My Dadi was telling me a story the other day about how her brother was so devoted that every year on Rakhi he would insist on spending the day with his two sisters, no in-laws allowed. The tradition clearly strengthens the basic bond between siblings but nowadays there is a lot more to it than that. In our times, the news channels are flooded with horrific treatment of women every other day, such as rape and acid dousing homicides. Under the circumstances I think it is really great to have a custom which is all about men vowing to protect a woman like a sister. The most common line in the protests against the ghastly treatment of women in this country is that they are probably someone’s wife, mother or sister. Personally I think that no one deserves such treatment because we are all human beings and should act more like it.
But at the end of the day I am very thankful for the love of all my brothers, no matter how far apart we live: family is forever. To end on a sappy note, this piece is dedicated to my Rakhi brothers Kanak and Arjun, all my amazing cousins and last but definitely not least my Dad and Manju Bhua, who have shown for over fifty years what the spirit of Rakhi is all about.
This article marks the debut of a series of documentations about the festivals and holidays experienced during my first extended trip here in India. The first is a single day which celebrates something considered both international and personal on many levels: independence.
India and Switzerland’s Independence Days are incidentally both in August, on the first and fifteenth of the month respectively. This is one of quite a few similarities tying my two homes on completely different continents together. India’s struggle for independence as a nation was of course much more brutal and nation-wide. Switzerland has a long history of neutrality when the rest of the world insisted on war, so their territorial squabbles remained local for the most part. India’s Independence Day is cause for much greater celebration, because so many people had to lose their lives for us to have freedom of expression, on the 15th of August and indeed always.
Democracy is something all countries strive for these days, which is what makes Independence Day so widely celebrated. It ensures freedom of speech and open expression of personal views. This freedom is important to entire nations but also on a much more personal level. Life is a story of growing independence for every single human being. As babies we are completely dependent on our parents for everything from food to shelter and most importantly love and protection. Everyone eventually gets the urge for their own personal independence day. Change can be a scary thing for a lot of people; others embrace and long for it. The attitude to independence is in that way a very individual thing, despite its value to the whole world in different ways.
I am definitely in the first category, terrified and intimidated by any major changes in my life. That’s why my time at Happy Days is a true blessing, a kind of safe haven allowing me to build my confidence and make experiences in teaching without straying from a home environment. Incidentally my first test of improved confidence came during the Independence Day celebrations at the school here, this past August 15th. I would not call myself a good public speaker by any stretch of imagination, simple fact. But somehow watching my Nani pull out an inspirational quotation on the spot gave me a burst of courage I still don’t fully understand. She might not be Umi Ma’am on a daily basis anymore but the nerve to get up and tell all those kids assembled from the hostel how their school is still helping me grow came from watching her.
I feel like living proof that self-confidence, however unfortunate the fact may be, must come from within. It can be boosted by others of course but ultimately the only way to be independent is to believe that it’s possible. My impromptu speech in front of the hostel assembly said simply “Happy Days has given me happy days”, cringe-worthy to me in hindsight but it also happens to be the truth. As a nation India has earned the right to freedom of speech after much difficulty and massive casualties. We as individuals can only truly pay respect to the sacrifices made by our people if we speak up with honesty and heart.
Independence is not easy to come by, for entire nations or any of us as individuals. Let it remain one of those things we appreciate all the more when at long last it is attained. And until then, here’s to 25 more years of Happy Days School, my safe haven and life-changing experience all in one.