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Community in Varanasi

Community in VaranasiAfter leaving Mumbai at 3:30AM to fly via Delhi, carrying a fabulous bag filled with fine Varanasi-made salwar kameez, I arrived in Varanasi for the first time in a year and a half. They had a brand new airport.

Previously, the Babatpur airport was about twice as big as my overpriced Pali Naka studio: you could put down your bag at one end of the conveyor belt and pick it up again ten feet later. But now, the Babatpur airport is an international airport, because it hosts flights to Bangkok and Kathmandu. So now it runs the length of Bandra station and is all shined marble and glass.

Community in VaranasiIn Nagwa, I let myself into Little Stars School unceremoniously and sat down in the office, where everything was in the same place as I’d left it a year and a half ago.

One by one, the women who cook and clean and run the school came in and grabbed me, held me and hugged me.

Asha came into the room: she’s is the principal of Little Stars and selfless in her dedication to providing the highest quality education to the kids in her neighbourhood, children of vegetable salesmen and rickshaw walas. More than 500 students attend Little Stars School. I touched Asha’s feet: a gesture that displays great subservience and honour given to that person, as it signifies taking the dust of the their feet in hope of becoming as wise as they are. It’s a gesture I shy away from unless I feel I can do it wholeheartedly, as in Asha’s case.

community in varanasiI met the hostel girls: a group of twenty two girls who have been abandoned at some point of life, in some awful circumstance, and now live and study at Little Stars. Some had left babyhood to become girls, and some were leaving childhood to become women, taller and more beautiful than before. They led me up to their hostel room and took me back into the fold: holding my hands and touching my cheeks, asking questions. We sat on their bunk beds and I listened while they spoke over one another’s voices, showed me their photo albums and their new precious things, like special hairclips and powder compacts given by past volunteers.

In Assi, I went back to the house where I’d spent so many months three years ago: the Yadav family home up from the river. In the laneway, I was called into people’s homes to see their new babies, to see the children I’d known before who were now so big. I met Ashish, one of my ‘brothers’ in the lane behind the house, leaving on his motorbike for some undefined commission work. I met the strong wind coming off the Ganga river with equal force and went inside, where everyone was passed out on the thin mats in the airy living room at 4pm in the afternoon. Lalu, the middle brother and one of my favourite people, woke up and made tea. More friends came over to sit and talk and pass the time.

We went down to the ghats where they bought some bhel, or ‘goat food’ as Lalu calls it. Far from the shore, Raj handed me two diyas that he had bought from a child. We lit them and I dropped them over the side of the boat, where they glimmered in the water for an unusually long time. The rest of the power in the city went out, the old ‘light ka problem’ that is naturally still unsolved. Only the facades of crumbling buildings shaped the curve of land meeting the river. I lay down and looked at the stars and felt the warm wind and listened to an old song play out of a mobile phone and the boys’ voices, and felt hugged by the world around me.

Back onshore, I ate some chana and rice that Lalu had cooked before Raj took me back to Little Stars on Ashish’s bike, whistling through the galis and narrowly avoiding goats, dogs and small kids. At school in their pyjamas were more familiar faces, the remainder of the girls I hadn’t seen earlier in the day, covering me with hugs and beautiful words.

“Bas, bahaut ho gaya, Brownie didi is tired now. Sab log goodnight bolke upar chaliye,” said Asha.

community in varanasiTo me: “You’re tired, you have to sleep. Come and first I’ll give you a nice head massage.” While she massaged my hair with Amla oil, Asha chattered softly about who was getting married to who and what else was new. I closed my eyes in absolute contentment: I would have been purring if my throat had that mechanism.

How is it that in Varanasi where there is nothing compared to Bombay, there is all of this? How can I walk in after so long and be so beautifully cared for? I will never know, and will never give as much back as I’ve received.

Visit Bronwyn's Blog 'little bird bombay' at

http://www.littlebirdbombay.com/ for many more interesting experiences.

The picture featured in this article were taken by the author, Bronwyn McBride.

New House Puja: An Indian Housewarming

My sister in law and her husband recently bought a new three bedroom apartment. For the past month, my brother in law (who’s an interior designer) has been doing it up. With completion near, it was time for the housewarming puja.

In Hindu homes, this puja (Griha Pravesh) is considered very important to remove evil spirits, protect against the evil eye, and bring in happiness and prosperity.

My husband and I arrived just after the puja had started at 2 p.m. The fact that it had commenced on time, and had taken over the whole of the living room, indicated serious business. The pandit who had performed our wedding was there, accompanied by two assistants. But what really astonished me was the amount and assortment of paraphernalia, all apparently having a specific meaning and purpose.

I was fascinated, and wanted to settle in and watch it. Instead, the rest of the family dragged me reluctantly away to go out for lunch. However, if I’d known that the puja would continue for the next five, yes five, hours, I wouldn’t have been so concerned!

On the way back from lunch, my other sister in law and I discovered that some mehendi artists had set up on the roadside. “Get it done,” she urged. One of the joys of India is never knowing what you’ll come across, so it didn’t take much to persuade me. The emerging mehendi design on my feet replaced thoughts of the puja for the next half an hour.

Much to my surprise, when we finally returned to the house, not only was the puja still going strong with the pandit reciting mantras from his book, it was about to step up to a whole new level. Preparations were underway to light the holy fire for the havan (Vedic fire ritual). One of the assistants pulled a large handful of wood from a nearby bag, and stoked it up.

Soon, the living room was filled with eye-watering smoke. If there were any evil spirits remaining there, I’m sure it would’ve driven them out because I definitely had to leave!

The havan drew to a close with an aarti and singing two hours later. The stamina of these panditjis really can’t be underestimated! At this point, guests had started pouring in to look at the house, and of course eat. The house is enviably stunning, decorated in warm classy tones. My brother in law is a talented guy. And of course my sister in law couldn’t stop smiling, with all her dreams for a big and beautiful home come true. It was a very happy day.

Visit Sharell's Blog 'Diary of a White Indian Housewife' at http://www.whiteindianhousewife.com/ for many more interesting experiences.


Living in a tarp house during the Mumbai monsoon

There is hardly a warning before it rains. The sky darkens and the wind thickens, but all of that sometimes happens in only a matter of seconds, allowing no time to prepare for the downpour.

When the first drops fall, there’s a scramble for damage control. A wife who is also a mother, and a sister who is also an aunt run from one of the tarp houses that line Khar railway station to the fence that separates them from the train tracks. Each races the rain, pulling family possessions off of the fence that acts as a clothesline and storage space, throwing worn bedsheets and children’s clothes over their shoulders and running back inside, too late.

The race has been won by the rain that is now sliding sideways. Water is coming into the house, as the house’s borders are not raised: they are defined only informally. Only those who live in the neighbouring tarp homes would know where the family’s space begins and ends. Mom lifts everything off of the ground and hangs things from the pole that holds up the tarp roof, filling pots and pans with family toiletries and stacking them on a stool. The young kids and elder sister duck underneath the tarp that stoops under the rainwater in its folds, running unprotected into the weather. Within moments, each carries a liter of water in his oversized shorts; her salwar hems. Rather than being weighed down, each becomes lighter.

Inside, Mom pushes the tarp upwards to release the water that is threatening to crumple the house. It pours from its pools off the edge and into the washbasin held up by her son on arms thinner than his mother’s braid. He immediately throws the water on his older sister. Then, running between passerby to the middle of the walkway, he beats his bare chest with the same thin arms, dancing in the same oversized shorts, grinning wider than the taupe-coloured blanket of the expansive sky.

The women waiting on the train platform hold their saris up to step over puddles. The sister doesn’t bother: she’s already wet, and throwing her soaked dupatta over her shoulder with a thwack, grabs her own container to retaliate.
Rain in Mumbai
The sky is merciless and the two take water from the tarp’s dip as quickly as it fills, throwing the rain at each other and unsuspecting stray dogs, confused and shivering with their tails between their legs.

The family baby is too young to remember any monsoon before this one. He can only stamp his feet in the puddles that come up to his knees, watching the only people he knows in the whole right in front of him, their animation and colours against the stillness and grey.

His family have all seen this rain before, played in it, run from it, burned with fever because of it, aimed their faces skyward and celebrated it. It is part of the weather, the seasons, the way the world works.

The only reason the littlest can see for this downpour is a bigger tarp, somewhere overhead.  His understanding of the monsoon is this: in the same way that his mother pulls at the tarp edge to allow the flood to pour over, some god or sky giant must be pulling at the edge of a tarp wide enough to cover the whole world; as far as he can see from two and a half feet above ground from his stance beside the station.

The endless grey platform and all of its people, covering their heads with newspapers. The baby flowers between the rails that appear to flounder in the rain, but thrive afterwards. The cloud backdrop that has hosted so many storms, so much fog, so many coral coloured dawns, so much promise.

Visit Bronwyn's Blog 'little bird bombay' at

http://www.littlebirdbombay.com/ for many more interesting experiences.

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