Sunday, November 27, 2011

Dhaka Delight!

After weeks and weeks of induliging in laziness, I finally managed to kick my own butt (thanks to my new yoga classes) and here’s my account of my recent travels. There are actually 3 places I want to cover (Munnar, Trivandrum and Kol-Dhaka), but shall do so in 3 different posts (hopefully before the year runs out!) 

New Market
After a girls-only trip to Israel in March, my friends and I picked up the courage to leave the kids home and venture on a second trip in late Oct. Due to various commitments and maid-schedules (yes!) we decided to go to Kolkata. I’ve lived in Cal for almost 2 years and I LOVE the city, but did not fancy going there for a whole week.  In a moment of pure whimsy, giving in to my tantrums, my friends agreed to go to Dhaka with me. Why Dhaka? Our Jet Miles were sufficient to only cover that distance J Pure economics, nothing else(at least initially).

Evening at Kalighat
To cut a lengthy prologue short, we arrived in Cal one lovely cool Sunday evening. Spent the next day with a really close friend of mine and my 4 months old godson.  Went to Kalighat that evening. Despite having lived for 2 years at only a stone’s throw away from the temple, I had previously never visited Kalighat. I REALLY wanted to visit the temple this time, and what a rousing reception She gave me. There were no queues, very minimal hankering for money and a lovely long darshan. Filled my heart with joy! Ate that evening at ‘6 Ballygunge Place’, a restaurant that serves authentic Bangla food. I recommend the restaurant as a must-visit – the ambience is perfect (an old Bungalow), the menu quirkily designed (all mocktails are very ‘cal’ centric) and the food, oh-so-yummmy (I only had veg food though). The nolin-gud icecream is delicious beyond imagination, the sukhtoi is an explosion of veggies and the lucchi-aloo just melts in your mouth. Two thumbs up!

The next morning we went to Dakshineshwar and Belur-Math. The temple is well maintained and beautiful.  Spent the rest of the day in shopping out Kolkata (am sure the next day was a self-declared bandh, we shopped SO MUCH!) Treated my friend to authentic street food, courtesy puchkas and Maharani. Spent a grand total of 21 INR and could barely walk after that. Cal is just the same!

A Hero's welcome indeed!

Early next morning, the 3 of us left for Dhaka. A half-hour flight led us to a lovely airport with a never-ending corridor. Thanks to our host (a friend’s really influential friend) we breezed past immigration and exited to…… chaos! “Mine is bigger than yours” is the driving mantra in Dhaka. Big minivans are the chosen vehicles to plow one’s way through the traffic or cool off, feet stretched when stuck.  Traffic is completely a jungle here… make-way-for-the-biggest-and-meanest! Estimates for going to Sonargaon from Uttara, Dhaka (about 30 kms) range from 30 mins  to 10 hours!!! We were lucky to have a super guide(Z) with us (a dear friend of one of my fellow-travelers). A witty and engaging personality, he kept us entertained  and we were in Sonaragon in a record 45 minutes (also thanks to Farukh, the brilliant driver. Move over Vettel!).

Sonargaon was the old capital of Bangladesh. We took a look at the  17th century houses (walled in, but in good condition) belonging mostly to Hindu traders who had settled here. The streets are intact and the inscriptions on the door-arches are clearly visible. The pink sandstone houses had large courtyards for singing and dancing. Pretty trellises and carved arches spoke of the sophistication of the inhabitants here. It was surreal looking in, as if one were in a set of ‘Devdas’ …. I could almost hear the singing and dancing that went on here ages ago.

Returning from Sonargaon, we were stuck in a traffic jam for over 2 hours… and our host said we were lucky it lasted only that time!  Drove past all historical spots in Old Dhaka, with Z pointing out the key sights from the University to the Parliament building to Ahsaan Manzil, Lalbagh Palace, Kazi Nazrul’s memorial, Banga bagaan and the Old Court building. Mostly a blend of Anglo-Mughal architecture. Similar to many of the monuments we have across India, yet different and architecturally unique. We visited the Dhakeshwari temple (I guess from whom Dhaka gets her name). The kali avatar here is smiling and oh-so-pretty. The temple is maintained really well and unlike Dakshineshwar and Kalighat (which we had visited in Calcutta), there aren’t any touts here, making the spiritual experience richer and memorable.

We also had the opportunity to savor some local veg delicacies (which I strongly recommend). The first was a sweet 'pitha',  yummy dish with a nalin gud (palm jaggery) filling. The covering was made of rice noodles and garnished with coconut flakes on top. Somewhat similar to the Tamizh ‘idiyappam’, this dish had us licking our fingers for more. Where to find it? On the roadside in Old Dhaka! We also had 'dal puri', a deep-fried dish, with a batter outer covering and different fillings of potato, onion and raw banana. Similar to fritters or bhajjis, except made with mustard oil in a roadside shop in Old Dhaka J The other foods that tantalized our taste buds  were  the excellent dal (the lentil preparation had coconut shavings and poppy seeds to give it a twist), eggplant roast and the alu-parval (which traveled across its Paschim Bongo border I guess!)

On day 2, we headed off for a leisurely cruise down Sitalakhya river (I strongly recommend Guide Tours, however  only if you take the longer cruises). Our guide was an entertaining enterprising young lad (just turned 20) whose dream was to do an MBA in Delhi! He was thoroughly clued into Indian politics and cricket, and was quite a find (ask for Johnny, if you use Guide Tours). A slow ride on the river took us past the Zamindar’s old bunglow (called Zamindar bari) to a village that specializes in weaving Jaamdaani saris. After a walk around the village, we headed back after enjoying a lovely dinner onboard. 

Dhaka is known for its export-quality china. My friends bought a complete set of dinnerware, from serving bowls to dinner and quarter plates, soup bowls, spoons, tea cups & saucers et al (some 78 pieces in total) each. These sets were meant for Royal Doulton, Harrods. The retail price at Harrods is about 800 GBP and my friends picked it up for about 14000 INR!!!! Thus spake export-economics!

Day 3 rushed past in a blur of shopping in Aarong (a cooperative, a MUST-visit should you shop in Dhaka) and just making the flight back to Kolkata.

The entire trip away from family gave us perspective on how much we missed our husbands and kids J It was a lovely breather and despite raised eyebrows, Dhaka is a lovely city to visit.  Unlike what one may ‘assume’, Dhaka is NOT like any Indian city. The culture, people, language, food and even the outlook of the man-on-the-street is different from India and uniquely Bangladeshi.  And that uniqueness is endearing, warm and lively. In my opinion, it’s an affordable holiday…. Just do it!

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Buttonisms : The questions we ask!

Button's Logic!
Button has been learning several shlokams  since we moved to Chennai (grandparents, school influence etc.). One of the shlokams he knows is 'Saraswati Namastubyam Varade Kamarupini'.

A couple of days ago, I told Button that my grandmother's name is Saraswati. He looked puzzled. So I repeated - "Button, amma's paati's name is Saraswati. Your big paati's name is Saraswati". 

He looked stunned and he continued "Cheenu thatha's (my dad's) name is Namastubyam, Amma's name is Varade and I am Kamarupini"!!!!!! 

Talk of extrapolation. 

Button's Candor
His personality has been growing by leaps and bounds since he joined school and began going to daycare. He is now learning to say that he "does not like" things and he "likes" others.

In the car yesterday - 

Me: "Button, do you like daycare or do you like going to your grandmom's house?"
Button: (studied silence)
Me: "Button, do you like your grandmom's house or our house?"
Button: (Continued studied silence)
Me: "Button do you like your caretaker (girl) to play with you or do you prefer going to daycare?" 
Button: "I don't like it"
Me: "What do you not like?"
Button: "I don't like the questions"!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

This conversation actually got me thinking. I don't know why we stop stating the obvious as we grow up. We use cliches and metaphors, or even say something that is diametrically opposite to what we are thinking. A child's honesty is refreshing. If we could communicate politely, but honestly, our lives would be SO MUCH better, ain't it? 

Button's Generosity
Button and I were in the car the other day. We had just bought a few pastries from a bakery he likes. I had packed one separately and was feeding him in the car. 

As expected, we were waiting at a red light and a ragamuffin knocked at our door - a young boy, not older than 5 or 6. He kept looking at the cake. Button looked right back at him and smiled. 

I told Button that he was hungry, his parents could not buy him a pastry. 

In a thrice, he offered the boy the pastry he was eating. He said "Mamma, he is hungry now. Lets give him a cake too. He will be a good boy and eat without spilling anything!" 

I did not have the heart to refuse my son or that boy. So saving me a few calories and buying me some goodwill, I rolled down the window and offered the boy the box of pastries. 

Friday, July 29, 2011

Charity does begin at home!

Charity means differently to different people. My grandmom believes in feeding anyone she meets.. from the daily helpers to any extended family member to any child in my building who walks past her door. If she could feed me via phone, she probably would! But clothes, old newspapers, old utensils… NO! They are meant to be ‘sold’ to the raddiwala for money. This included our old clothes, school notebooks, carefully washed Bournvita bottles and even old tattered shoes. 

My mom’s beliefs are different. She believes in ‘volunteering’ – from giving blood to teaching anyone who asks her for help to giving her seat on the bus to older travelers, she believes in extending herself. Having had to struggle financially herself, the only time she would open her wallet to give money generously was to aid education in any way – from becoming a guarantor to paying fees to hostel fees to buying books, she has done it all. 

My definition of charity? I never believed in it, until recently. I did not believe in unorganized giving – I would contribute annually to a not-for-profit of my choice, but my old clothes, books, vessels – all of them would be dumped in the dumpster, never ‘given’ to any cleaning or cooking help. I never gave ‘giving’ to my support staff any thought.

Until Button was born.

I listened to the stories of my cleaning staff’s children and I began to notice the children on the road. In my head I have categorized them as the ones belonging to ‘begging’ rackets and the ones who actually belong to families who love them, keep them, but in abject conditions (due to various reasons). The latter category I have begun to help.  I give away Button’s old toys and clothes and sometimes even books. I don’t think I can help ALL the children I see. Even the one or two I help, I sometimes wonder if I am doing the right thing giving them something that is not sustainable (and against my tenets of organized development). But I do feel sorry to see them robbed of small pleasures like a car or crayon, or even worse the necessity of clothes.

Every morning I cross this dumping ground near my office and I notice a little boy(a boy exactly the same size as Button) being fed by his mom or cuddled by an aunt or teased by his siblings. Yesterday, I saw him playing naked in a black puddle with a used paper cup - my heart sank, my stomach roiled and my temper rose. This morning, I met the mother of the boy, gave her clothes, toys and a healthy dose of ‘sanitary’ advice and reached office. Although I am not sure if I did the right thing, my heart is lighter. At least for some time the boy will not step into sludge(hopefully) and play with toys instead of  unhygienic rubbish.  

On a more proactive basis, can anyone direct me to an orphanage in Chennai that accepts donations of used toys, clothes and books? 

Friday, July 08, 2011

Let her be....

Today's women have it bad, really bad. The world expects them to be super successful at everything and yet have a serene smile on the face with perfectly coiffed hair and pale pink unchipped nails. Most people I met pre-work would ask me what I was doing and I'd grin and say that I was enjoying motherhood. Either people would stare at me as if my words were in Aramaic or smile smugly thinking of how exalted their positions were. In fact I have known friends who'd call themselves "only" homemakers, bah! Now that I have begun work (and it has been an exhausting juggler's act for 5 weeks now), I am struggling to find enough time to do everything. However, all the people I've met without exception, now nod sagely and smile appreciatively when I tell them that I work fulltime! Again, such easy judgement. As if life is easier. 

My mom worked too, She was always running around in the evenings with Bank work or Community service or some extra school work. She was quite frazzled. But my wise energetic grandmom was. She was the anchor in my house. The house revolved around her. Even in those days, she believed that cooking and cleaning were best outsourced. So, we had a cook and a maid to do the housework. She read voraciously, listened to music and talked to everyone and most importantly listened to everyone. She is 82 years old now. And doesn't regret any decision she made, except not traveling to Kashmir when she had the chance. 

That 'anchor' is an important fixture in every household. Despite the necessity of an anchor, the women who decide to stay-at-home are laughed at, patronized and ridiculed. But I salute these women, who put in everything to make the lives of their immediate family so much more meaningful. But the world won't let her be. 

Does it mean working women ought to stay at home? No. I don't plan to quit my job anytime soon. I am enjoying it!  But the anchor is important. The anchor - systematic time together is important, I've realized. I am working hard at getting the anchor into place.... God help me! 

Friday, July 01, 2011

Q & A with Button

Prologue: When Button is in a foul mood (crabby, sleepy, tired) it is easiest and most fun to ‘irritate’ him. It is also the best time to get lovely zany crazy answers about life J
All the questions below were on different days of course....he'll learn someday how amusing he was.
Me: Button, what is my sister’s name?
Button: Thumbelina!
Me: Who do you sit with in your class at school?
Button: A dinosaur and a pig!!
Me: Button, what did mamma give you in your snacks box?
Button: Many hugs (awwww, that too my son)                  
Me: Where did you go after school today?
(the answer is supposed to be his grandmom’s house)
Button: California                                                   
Me: What is appa’s brother’s name?
Button: Hanuman (It most decidedly IS not!)
Me: Who do you love more... amma or appa?
Button: Hyundai Verna !!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Buttonisms - 3 going on 300!

Now that Button has become a 'big' boy, his vocabulary has significantly increased and he communicates well in 3 languages.... well 2, and understands Hindi quite well already. His 'logical thinking' leaves us stumped many a time...

Button: "Amma, you said you'd buy me a Lightning McQueen at Landmark."
Me: "Yes, we'll go this evening"
Button (at the shop): "Amma, I want Sally, Doc, King, Mater........."
Me (HORRIFIED): "Button, ONLY ONE car. Why do you want to pick up so many, it is expensive."
Button: "Amma, Lightning McQueen will feel lonely, he needs his friends!!!! Otherwise he will be 'depressed'."

As if this were not enough, his new 'wily cunning' negotiation skills stepped in then...
Button: "Amma, I will take only ONE Lightning McQueen, but please let me play with him for longer, at least he will be happy to have me"! (Is he only 3 again?)

One day my cook left home at the same time as Button and I. In the elevator,he asked her...
Button: "Sundari aunty, where are you going?"
Cook: "I am going home."
Button: "Where is your car?"
Cook: "I am going by bus."
Button (earlier he'd've professed delight at traveling by bus,but he now said):"Mom, why doesn't she have a car?"
Me (struggling to explain): "Maybe she doesn't have money to buy a car?"
Button: "Lets go to the ATM and give her money. It is hot today, let her buy a car right away."

That day, I tried explaining how each thing costs money and we have to pay money (even if it swiping a card) in order to purchase any item. Ever since, the moment I pick up something, from a potato to a perfume, he pipes up "Amma, what is the price? Can we 'afford' it? It is expensive!" Who needs a watchdog?!

My father-in-law: "So, Button, what do you want to become when you grow up?"
Button: "Fat Controller!!!" (ref: Thomas and Friends) "I want to work with all the engines and Rusty and Elizabeth and....and....and....."

In Chennai, people find it difficult to pronounce his name. So 'Dhruv' become 'Duruvu' or 'Turuvu'(also the Tamil word for grating, like grating coconut) or 'Drew'! So, he has resorted to a new trick.....
Person: "What is your name?"
Button: "Nemo, and this is my mom Dory and my appa Marlin"
Evidently, given our features, we don't look like a Dory or Marlin! Its funny to see the expressions on their faces then.

And at school, his teacher had a strange remark to make about him. Button does not like sitting on the floor for circle time. Apparently, he rubs the floor with his index finger and tells her "The floor is dirty. I'd like to sit on the chair itself, please"! (I do believe in genetics now! And understand how my mom must've felt when my teachers told her the same. Amen!)

Friday, June 17, 2011

Thanksgiving in June!

Many good things happened this week. Thanksgiving is in order. Especially since next week better be good!

a) I started full-time work at an IT transnational at Chennai in a support function I've been interested in for ages. After a week (although I am still settling in) I haven't had any twinges of doubt. That itself is an achievement!

b) The lovely offspring started school. Thanks to my mom, I've been managing everything (read, she has been managing everything!). Next week will be different. But I'll survive.

c) In a week, I complete half a dozen years of companionship with arguably the most wonderful person this universe has produced... the fact that I think so after so many years of living with him is a miracle!

d) I've decided to enrol for the long distance certification program I was thinking about. After my decision making skills began resembling a pendulam in motion, I just tossed a coin. Am in!

e)This is my 100th post.I've always believed that there aren't any milestones in blogging, but this feels like one. Thank you my beloved blogfriends, my readers... for encouraging me, inspiring me, staying with me, supporting me...I owe you guys :)

Wednesday, June 08, 2011

Journey of Motherhood

Button turned 3 last Saturday... how much he has grown in the last 3 years, and how much I've grown! Many thoughts ran through my head, like a PPT presentation on fast-forward.... the stunned silence that filled our house when we discovered that we were going to be parents (Button was a happy accident!), the many sonographs and the doctor visits, the slightly-blurry hospital days, the first feed, the first tooth, the first step, the first fall, the first word.... the list is endless.

When I think back, I wasn't ready for motherhood when I discovered I was pregnant. I was upset and happy at the same time. I knew my life was going to change and perhaps I wasn't ready to let go my party-hopping, wine-guzzling, trigger-happy traveling days. My lovely new job that I 'really really' wanted was certainly going to end in a few months time (as it involved traveling, many con-calls etc.). At the same time, I knew my husband was truly happy and I drew strength from his happiness.

A few short months later Button was lying in my arms. Everybody crooned and laughed and 'wished' their lives could revolve around him... I felt petrified and constricted, I had no choice, my life WAS going to revolve around him. I could handle an irate customer well, but I went to pieces trying to understand my wailing baby.It rained all day for the first 3 months. My maids did not clean well enough. My mom 'did not know' how to handle my new-born well enough! I changed 4 cooks in 4 months. Even my driver did not drive properly (when I don't even know how to start my car!) The worst of my barbed comments were reserved for my husband... he tried hard, and is a lovely father... but just wasn't good enough for me. I was sleep-deprived and wasn't lactating enough...most importantly, my heart didn't seem to be 'overflowing with love' as the books prescribed and fellow bloggers gushed about. I felt inadequate and upset... I am a perfectionist and wanted to be the perfect mom! What's worse, I felt guilty feeling this way.

Months rolled by... the weather changed for the better. My son began smiling at me. The husband did his best to take me out, handle the kid in the evening so I could get some me-time. I began to get comfortable with Button, but would still fret a lot over the smallest of milestones. A strong comparative mentality ruled me... my son hadn't turned over many times today, oh-no,he is going to be behind in his son did not like potato, oh-no he is going to be laughed at for disliking french son did not sprout a tooth yet, oh-no he is going to be a slow poke.... my list of worries were pointless and endless. But hindsight is perfect. I would get so much into a frenzy worrying that my husband contracted sympathetic paranoia! Luckily my mom-in-law who visited me then realized I was getting too hemmed into motherhood and suggested getting some help, and luckily, I listened to her.

Initially the help could do nothing right, but Button adored her. She was a bright young girl, quick to learn and wonderful with Button, soft-spoken and incredibly patient... both with him and me!My doc assured me that I wasn't suffering from PPD. I began socializing a little bit more and switched on my phone after many months. Blogging was an incredibly empowering outlet... it was completely me-time on the blog with neither Button nor the husband peering over my shoulder. I returned to my first love - books. I read like a maniac. I healed physically as well and felt stronger.

Once Button turned 10 months old and showed me how much his world revolved around me, I think slowly I began to love him, rather I understood that I did love him. The feeling of happiness at every small gesture from him, the pride at his achievements, the pain when he fell off the bed, the terrible helplessness when he cut his lip, the utter annoyance when he exhibited his stubbornness... hurray! I began to really feel for him.

When he turned 2, my husband took me to Singapore for a holiday.. just him and me....'just like old days', I thought. I developed a fever right at the airport...which went away only after a day of resting in S'pore. And I realized that I was actually missing my baby...all the feelings of being a bad mother leaving him with grandparents and not doing 'my only job' surfaced. Again, the husband ensured that he sorted my feelings out. I returned and took up a part-time, work-from-home option. Juggling motherhood, my house, my job, my marital relationship, my social life(which thankfully was getting a lot better) and best-of-all, my holidays, made me feel more human.. more alive... I felt stronger and happier and a better mother.

We moved to Chennai in Jan this year. Coupled with Button's independence, super-support from my in-laws and my growing confidence, I went on a holiday to Israel with a friend, without my husband or child. I was sure I would miss Button....I was certain I would make myself miserable worrying about whether my household set-up would unravel in the 6 days I was away. But like Gautama Buddha, I found enlightenment in the Holy City. I did not miss Button. I did not miss my domestic set-up. If anything, I only missed my husband occasionally. I did not feel guilty. I came back super-charged up, with a clear sense of purpose. I came back with a crystal clear idea of how my life should be.

I did not need to be a perfect mother. It is okay to give my son chocolate. It is okay to let him be with grandparents who pamper him silly. It is okay to let him watch television for a few minutes every day. It is okay to let him play with his vehicles for more than 10 minutes a day. It is okay to toilet train him at his pace. It is okay to not force him into an imagined rat-race. It is okay to let him get dirty. It is okay to let him fall, mess up, express his anger in words. It is okay to let him be. It is okay to let him grow up at his pace!

I did not need to maintain a perfect house. It is okay to change curtains once a quarter or even after 4 months or 6 months. It is okay to let the house-help take a day or two off to handle their family affairs. It is okay to have dirty corners and cobwebs (even better if they have spiders I could show Button!). It is okay if I forget to salt the rasam or make chapattis. It is okay to eat curd rice or even pizza occasionally. Double okay to eat Maggi and Nutella sandwiches!

I did not need to 'become' a perfect wife. I am. For my husband. I truly am blessed to have him in my life.

I ought to work. Enjoy the stress of deadlines. Complain about my boss. Drink 10 cups of horrible machine coffee. Feel harried about leaving 10 minutes late from home. Worry about my ratings. Fuss about the formatting of my presentation deck. Yell at my laptop for not magically saving my data files.

And so, I listened to Button more. Kissed the husband more. Apologized to my mom for being a difficult daughter. Hugged my sister more. Thanked my in-laws more. Found a job. Smiled at the Universe's abundance.

Fast forward to June 2011. It was time to drop Button at school....I watched him square up his shoulders as he walked in bravely, a few tears finding their way down his cheeks... and I started crying softly... my heart finally overflowed with the love I had been reading about all these months. I AM a good mother I realized. Button loves me for who I am, not who I think I should be. Amen!

Friday, May 27, 2011

Israel Chronicles: The Israel Pensieve

Lingering thoughts about Israel (before I forget)!

1.Food: Vegetarian food is lovely, especially if you like Hummus, Pita, Babaganoush et al. Too many chickpeas consumed for all meals may have repercussions on a non iron-clad stomach.
The Arab-Palestine veg food is brightly colored especially cauliflowers. A bright lurid pink that one usually spots on bougainvillea shrubs is typically the preferred color for cauliflower stuffing in the falafels. The Israeli Jews have a couple of veg dishes as well. One must-try is the 'Latke'.
If you can imagine potato pancakes served with vegetables you are spot on. If you can't, imagine a south-indian potato bhajji instead, served with sour cream and vegetables on the side... yeah, you've got it. If you still can't imagine how it tastes, visit Jerusalem. Both Israeli Jews and Arabs are liberal with salads and olives in their food. Considering they are all slim and tall, the food is probably worth emulating!

2. Black Jerusalem: The color black hits your eye the moment you step onto the streets, be it near the Walled city or even a modern Mamilla Mall or distant Masada.
Both Jews and Muslims wear the color black - black skirts, black burquas, black overcoats, black shoes.... it is ubiquitous. One morning TP and I had ventured into Mea Shearim (of 'Acts of Faith' fame), an area where very Orthodox Jews live. We thought we had dressed in conservative clothes, in our long printed skirts and full sleeved kurtas and scarves. Needless to say, we stood out like a still in Kill Bill...bold splashes of color in the black and white surroundings!

3. India: Always knew that Gandhi had a greater following in the world outside India, but Shah Rukh Khan and Amitabh Bachan are almost as big as Gandhi! Have heard 'Dil to Pagal Hai' being whistled, 'Eechak Dana' being sung and was even asked to visit a shopkeeper's old dorm in Aligarh University! Announcing that you are Indian also brings many curious questions about availability of Bhole baba's prasad and sly questions about how to source if I'd tell even if I knew. Huh.

4. Politics: All Israelis LOVE to talk about politics... it is almost comical to see the heated discussions, the angry gestures and the strong points of view.
I definitely recommend talking to the common man on the street about his opinion on how the Israel - Palestine conflict ought to be resolved... some of the thoughts are visionary. The conflict has been going on for so long (since 1948) that people have almost resigned to a lack of resolution (any thoughts on the LoC at Kashmir? Especially regarding PoK?) There are strong views, heart-rending personal stories, but still no resolution. Not a happy thought.

5. Surroundings: Some parts of Israel, especially parts of West Jerusalem and Dead Sea public beach area, reminds one of India. Not very clean, people spitting on the roads and arguing loudly. Whereas other parts of Israel - more modern areas of Jerusalem, parts of Nablus and the touristy Masada were spic and span, an example of how we could showcase our rich history. Israel is a bit like the western counties, a bit like Middle East, a bit like India, a bit like nowhere else....overall very hospitable, very travel-friendly and extremely memorable.

8. Pride in Nation:
Most Israelis / Palestinians I spoke to, had a strong sense of their identity, a sense of belonging... love for the land.Some were fanatic, Nationalists to the point of being jingoistic, but most were moderate, just happy to be Israeli, happy to have such a rich cultural heritage. The sense of patriotism combined with the constant presence of soldiers does make one feel the 'Israeliness' in the air. Not just in Jerusalem, all over Israel. Definitely Indians are more reserved in their display of patriotism (I don't doubt the feeling, just the expression).I don't know if we need to shout out our Indianness, but it is worth considering.

7. Prayers:
In Israel, someone is always praying... a church's tolling bells, a muezzin reminding you to bow to God, a bunch of Jews in a synagogue bowing back and forth in prayer, someone telling their beads, a taquiyah (skull cap), a tzitzit (religious shawl), a Bibile, a Koran or the Siddur (Jewish daily prayer book).I am sure if I'd been observant enough I'd've even spotted a Jedi Knight! It is impossible to not reflect upon one's relationship with the Big One up there.

To sum it up, the tagline for travel to Israel said it all.... "Visit Israel, you'll never be the same".

ps: The end of my Israel account. :)

Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Israel Chronicles: P.A.L.E.S.T.I.N.E. - The West Bank story

On Day 4, TP and I fulfilled our long time secret desire of traveling to Palestine when we visited Nablus in West Bank(Palestinian Authority). We were part of a guided tour with a company called 'Alternate Tours' (managed by Abu Hassan).We highly recommend him and the tour company.

To give a brief background, Nablus is an olive-rich PA territory, famous for its Olive soaps, communal ovens and Kunafeh. It also gained notoriety as the hub of the second Intifada, early last decade and ever since has been under strict Israeli (Jewish) control. Our tour group consisted of 12 people - 2 Spaniards doing social work in Ramallah, 8 trade unionists from Norway (who had broken off their ties with an Israeli trade Union and were doing a recce of Nablus to decide if they wanted to affiliate with them) and my TP and I(2 Indians, with sketchy knowledge of the Israeli-Palestinian politics, but high on enthusiasm).

Our first stop was at Balata.
A UN refugee camp established in the 1950's,it resembles the dense living conditions of Dharavi in Bombay.We had the opportunity to interact with the community centre head (an American of Palestinian origin)who spoke about the multitude of problems facing Balata, from lack of civic amenities, to lack of job opportunities and lack of space, all leading to a spiral of depression, anger and finally organized violence.
We walked around camp through alleys that barely let us walk in single file, past toilets that were stinking due to water shortage,past vegetable vendors, haggling women,thoughtful old men fresh-faced teenagers furiously typing away on their laptops, old ramshackle cars,
girls playing football…(yes, you read right) GIRLS playing football and young boys discussing the latest football game (it was an Arsenal – Munich Bayern one I think!).The westerners with us were shocked at the living conditions, the two of us Indians were heartened by the indomitable spirit visible in abundance.Every street corner had pictures of martyrs who were killed in their struggle for a free Palestine by the Israeli army. Oh, how common it is to the country- Arab or Jew - to honor their dead and remember their names and faces.

Our tour group then met the Mayor of Nablus (what an honor, what a wonderful insight into Palestinian politics). The building was very similar to any Indian beaurocratic building (not surprising considering Palestine was a British Mandate).
We waited in a conference room which had several pictures, of previous Mayors dating all the way back to the late 1800s! The mayor, bustling with energy and enthusiasm swept into the room a few minutes later. He was interested in understanding our ‘outside’ perspective of Palestine's issues. Palestinian cities have twin cities all over the world, with Stavanger, Norway being a twin to Nablus. Nablus's mayor shared his plans to invite Stavanger's Mayor and some school children on a cultural-exchange program.

The Mayor talked about the current peace process, Norway's role and narrated some ground-level realities that sent chills up my spine.
Israeli settlers (Jews from anywhere in the world) are paid to ‘settle’(or squat) on Palestinian land and practise the Jewish way of life. Adequate comfort is provided through generator sets and borewells, and security through military presence. Palestinian land is encroached upon by building fences and ‘declared’ the property of the Jewish settler there. Woe betide any Palestinian who decides to contest this hostile takeover… he could spend his fortune in a legal process and his life in jail. If settlers refuse to ‘settle’ in these lands, and the land happens to be too close to the Israeli border (decided by the Israelis), the land could be declared ‘no-man’s zone’.

Recently (just a couple of days before we visited Nablus), an Israeli settler’s 4 year old kid had been killed.
Immediately several Palestinians had been rounded up, put in jails, their families traumatized, road blocks established around Nablus, Balata’s water supply cut off for 3 days and yet,no confessions. Finally the murderer turned out to be a Thai migrant worker who wanted to return to Thailand (against his Israeli employer’s wishes) and wanted his salary (due to him for over 6 months). On being refused time and again, he lost his marbles (when his kid lost his life back home due to lack of funds)and in an act of revenge, he killed his employer’s child. And so many Palestinians wronged!

The Mayor said something that still resonates in my ears. He said “I only own the land I stand on. If I want to buy my neighbor’s house, I have to take permission (from the Israelis). If I want to build an extra storey for my newly married son,
I have to take permission (from the Israelis).If I want to dig the ground for water to feed my newborn, I have to take permission (from the Israelis).” The Mayor was hopeful about change in the near future. All Palestinians were. All Palestinians are. When you hit rock-bottom, there is no way but up, ain’t it? He talked about the power of youth and Facebook, and how Egyptian youngsters had harnessed the power of the internet for a good cause. He expressed hope for a ‘Final Settlement’ in Obama's tenure(ah,the man of ‘Change’ and ‘Hope’!)

We walked around the market later.
The market is a traditional Arab souk. Long winding alleys, smiling men in the their traditional kaffiyehs, selling everything from headscarves to spices to hardware equipment... and curious about the non-Caucasian tourist women! 2 brown-skinned women with Indian features can probably pass off as Arabs…the moment we proclaimed we were Indian, it would be greeted with smiles and claps and loud cheers, sometimes extolling Gandhi (do you remember him?), sometimes Amitabh Bachhan, sometimes SRK, and surprise, sometimes Shahid Kapoor!
We had men gallantly singing “Abhi na jao chodke” to “Yeh chand sa roshan chehra” to “Dil to pagal hai”! Yet, we NEVER felt unsafe, never felt harassed. I think Indian men could learn from Palestinians how to be chivalrous and walk the tough line of being pleasantly charming, never flirtatious or annoying. We sampled the world-famous Nabulsi Kunafeh, a lovely dish made of cheese that just melts in your mouth. Bought some scarves (how could we not!), olive soap and zatar(an ingredient in several Lebanese hung-curd based dishes).

My hotel manager (a LOVELY guy called Sammy) hails from a place near Nablus. When he saw our gift of a plate of original Nabulsi Kunafeh he almost kissed us(no he didn’t though!). He said something that shocked us.
He hasn’t been to Nablus in over twenty years and hasn’t met his relatives there in all that time. He said that no matter how tasty the kunafeh in Jerusalem is, it isn’t Nabulsi and could never be authentic! He said it was probably easier to visit the North Pole than Nablus! The (American)community centre manager in Balata had talked about entry barriers too and I hadn’t believed him then. Any American / Canadian of Palestinian origin cannot just decide to visit his relatives – he might be sent back at the airport itself(no immigration clearance). If he landed in Amman, Jordan, then at the Jordanian-Israeli border(so close, yet so far).
In fact, Israeli roads are built in the West Bank area with so many check posts that traffic could halt sometimes for days on end.Villages that would barely take 20 minutes by road could take over 8 hours due to checkpost clearances and round-about travel routes.In contrast, a Jew could declare his religion in Greenland or Pluto for that matter, and an El Al ticket and Isareli citizenship is guaranteed and the country open to him for travel and living. Such disparity based on religion in today's time and age is upsetting.

My take at the end of the trip? I think the Western media has got it all WRONG. I think more than half the world has got it wrong. At a political level, the Palestinian land belongs to the Arabs too.
The Israelis are doing unto the Palestinians the injustices that were wrought onto them - first by getting the Palestinians into today's ghettos (by imposing rules in PA cities) and then possibly by ousting them out of their country.My fervent prayers for peace to prevail. At a social level, I hope for better understanding of the Arab culture by the Westerners.
They are just as fun loving and courteous and polite as a Malaysian or Chinese or Japanese or Canadian.And large hearted.Arab women do hold positions of power, play soccer, use MAC lipsticks, wear designer shoes and swoon over Bradley Cooper.So there!The world would be a better place with more understanding and open-mindedness for diversity, ain't it?

Moral of the story: Hope reigns supreme. The defining picture of my visit to West Bank is this one -

a lovely green shrub smiling at the world,enjoying the sun,despite growing in a stone building....reflective of its caretakers, its country. Despite all the violence and political unrest, the hope and love in the country is incredible. A must visit.

Saturday, April 30, 2011

Princess? Duchess you mean!

The Royal Wedding, yesterday was exquisite. Thanks to my fascination with all things Royal and Wedding, I was a prime contender to watch the televised proceedings on BBC. Button was asleep (thanks to the time difference) and I watched the ceremony fully, eating a delicious cheesecake to celebrate.

Button woke up just in time to watch the Duke and new Duchess of Cambridge walk up the aisle to the lovely 1902 horse carriage. (And gave me the ultimate compliment)... "Mamma and Appa got married and are coming back home"

(some girl will be proud of being his partner one day!)

Monday, April 25, 2011


Button has begun correlating his storybook characters to real life a lot, of late. Our car is Lightening McQueen. My squint-eyed baby-helper is the 'evil stepmother' (poor thing!) and my morning helper is Noo-noo (from Teletubbies, because she swabs the house). I never really paid heed to him, until I dressed up to go out with my husband yesterday. In my flowing skirt and a lovely embroidered top, I twirled around. Button took one look at me, smiled and said "Mamma, you look like Cinderella, a princess'. Thank you sweetheart!

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Israel Chronicles: In memoriam - Yad Va Shem

People react to disasters in different ways. In India, the Independence struggles, the oppressive regimes have all but been forgotten. Because our primary religions (I mean Hinduism, its offshoots and Islam)teach us to be 'fatalist'.
We forget (in time forgive) and move on. Not the Jews. NOT EVER. The holocaust remains a blight on human history and the Jews are never going to forget it, never going to let anyone forget it, and in some respects rightly so. In the 19th century, the Jews had assimilated well into the cultures of various countries and yet managed to retain their individuality especially in terms of religious rituals. Enter Hitler, and the final blow on their individuality and safety was struck. Did they lose their minds? No. The Jews are a strong race. They took their lives into their own hands, created Israel (it is another matter that the Palestinian Arabs got a raw deal out of it, more on this later) and created a magnificent memorial to their loved ones who were unjustly dealt with during the holocaust.

The Yad Va Shem, meaning a memorial to the tribes of Shem (son of Noah from whom the Jews descended) is a tribute to all the Jews who lost their lives in the Shoah(Hebrew for Holocaust).
Its not a museum, more an interactive 'memorial' (for lack of a better word) that lets you FEEL the horror of it all. For example, you walk over a glass display floor and when you look down you can see thousands of pairs shoes underneath. These are shoes found at Dachau (some of them contributed by survivors or their families). You 'feel' the sadness and the enormity hits you like a physical blow almost. Yad Va Shem is systematically constructed in chronological order, with the horror mounting further and further, till at some point you do end up breaking down and wondering what the point of all the senseless targeted execution was. The grey walls and black benches add to the bleak atmosphere. The audio guide that we took with us(depositing our passports at the entrance) helped us get a context. The audio guide is EXCELLENT and I highly recommend it. At Yad Va Shem, there are several TV screens with live depositions and accounts from survivors. Heart-rending. I actually was shocked beyond tears.

We meandered through the events into an Aushwitz death-wagon and then I felt stifled. I walked through the rest of the sections trying to squelch the growing nausea(of the horrors) into a lovely section about the 'Avenue of the Righteous'. This section was built to honor non-Jews who believed in humanity in those tough times and saved many many Jews, the most popular of them being Oskar Shindler. (Nanny Sandra Samuel to Baby Moshe, of 26/11 fame is recognized as a 'Righteous Gentile'). In the gardens outside, several of them are honored with a tree planted for their service.

Finally one walks into a room with a deep well. The well reflects walls and walls of box folders. One folder for each person who perished during the Shoah. More than 2 million folders are yet to be identified and the space for them is blank. The Jews believe in knowing their ancestry and it pains them immensely that several of their ancestors had perished without survivors or records. It is an unbelievably touching memorial reflecting the resilience and defiance of the Jewish race, not to mention their love for their brethren and meticulousness in preserving their memory.

My usually talkative TP had now forgotten all of the 6 languages she speaks. In silence we walked through (the ubiquitous souvenir shop) into the gardens and into a memorial for children. Thats when the tears started rolling (and didn't stop for a long time).
It is a lovely breath-stopping memorial to the little ones who were killed before they could see the world for what it was. Perhaps the world then was bleak, perhaps it was not the best of times for the Jews, but they had their parents' love and the support of their community, and never lived to see it. The memorial is a walk-through memorial - a dark room with thousands of mirrors reflecting one single glowing light. It refers to the lovely children who 'became stars' and are watching over the world. There is a solemn voice recording that intones the names of the children, their age and place of murder giving the place a chilly overtone (we got goosebumps for sure). Strong Jew pride and spirit of 'we shall not forget', isn't it?

If we - Indians, Hindus, young-enough to have never witnessed any holocaust or oppression, living a yuppie-privileged life, moderate in thought - were moved beyond words, imagine how an 18 year old Jewish military recruit feel? After the shock and sadness passes away, am sure it would be replaced by patriotic fervor. The Jews as a race believe in remembering, and passing on the remembrances. Yad Va Shem is the pinnacle of this belief to preserve their memories for posterity.

"And to them will I give in my house and within my walls a memorial and a name (a "yad vashem")... that shall not be cut off."

(Isaiah, chapter 56, verse 5)

Dazed, TP and I walked straight into a mall to shop away our sorrow.
And shop we did! We went to a local supermarket(Ramy Levi), bought several edible delights for our kids and went back to the hotel. We returned to a mall for dinner and had a lovely chocolate drink from (I highly recommend) a shop called Max Brenner. Went to bed, thinking about our past, the sacrifices our brave soldiers are making to protect our borders and how little we do to honor them, and feeling excited about our day trip the next day to Palestine (West Bank, Israel).

Moral: It is important to wear sturdy shoes always. It is more important to remember what is important to us.

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

World Cup and the lessons

The World Cup Cricket 2011 is one of the momentous occasions that defines our lives. Similar to the magnitude of the Tsunami or Twin Towers bombing, thankfully HAPPY in nature.
We'll always remember and talk about what we were doing then... at a pub, at home, in bed, with the husband, with someone else... whatever. We'll remember the tears of joy when Dhoni hit the last six, the tears in Sachin's eyes, Gary's quiet joy, Virat's lovely comment... Even the smaller details will stay with us for many years to come...Poonam Pandey, the dirt streak on Dhoni's shirt during his batting innings, Sreesanth's hair, 'wicked' Malinga, the man in the audience who had painted his entire body, Rajni and Aamir together (and the couplets about Dhoni, Rajini and Gajini)and the euphoric crowds.

In an era of disillusionment with the Government,with the maid,with the American President,the hairdresser,the boss,
the Saravana Bhavan dosas,the admission process at school, the media, the rat race, the rats..... everything, Dhoni has given us the only thing that seems rarer than flowers in a desert - HOPE and OPTIMISM. The sight of the entire team carrying Sachin has re-instilled faith that 'Indian' values of love and respect for an older person (player) still live. Dhoni shaving off his head the next morning has re-given meaning to 'faith' and prayers. Kirsten choosing to go back home reminds us that 'karma' is king, what follows is not for us to decide. Harbhajan Singh thanking the whole world has reaffirmed that vote of thanks is best short, maybe 15 seconds or so! The Government offering different slabs of money to the team has re-confirmed us that in India you have to be 'seen' working. The flag doing the victory laps around the ground brought back memories of childhood pledges to 'do our best for the nation' (are we?).

Thank you cricket team. Thank you for the cup. Thank you for the lessons. And thank you for proving that Chenin Blanc Chardonnay can be consumed in the afternoon too.

Saturday, April 02, 2011

Israel Chronicles: Dead Sea is ALIVE!

On Day 2 of our wonderful trip, TP and I got a little adventurous.
We took a state-run bus from the central bus stop (that got bombed a few days later) to a place called Masada. Masada is the site of a fortress where a group of Jews fought literally to their last breath to fend off their attackers. Several army contingents in Israel go by the motto "Masada shall never fall again". The fortress is a glowing example of how a historical site is brought into today's context and woven into the lives of the Jewish people. Again, several military troops and more 'Jewish' lessons.

I almost wept for the opportunities we have in India (and do not 'use') to preserve our history. The (Masada) fortress is splendid, undoubtedly. Situated on the top of a mountain, it has a superb 360 deg view. It has a bathing chamber, a synagogue, several storerooms and cisterns, but well, after traveling to the Daulatabad fortress and the off-beat Chitradurga Fort, it was difficult for me to be impressed (note, I haven't even mentioned Red Fort or Agra Fort). All our forts also have the same features. What is common to these forts and is remarkable is how well they've withstood the ravages of time and what architectural marvels they are.

Interestingly, all tourist points in Israel exit into a Souvenir shop. Carried away by the multi-media presentations, well laid out paths, excellent tour guides and signs, well maintained restrooms and the overwhelming 'Jew' pride, most tourists spend a bomb in here... we had a lovely time walking around of course.

We took a bus from Masada to the lovely Ein Bokek.... DEAD SEA!!!
It is a beautiful spectacle indeed...blues ranging from aquamarine to lapis lazuli all the way to sapphire and a royal blue, several people were playing around. My TP and I quickly changed in (the thoughtfully provided) shower rooms and rushed to the sea. We couldn't wait to test if we'd really float... and float we did! Dead sea has always made it to the list of places I want to visit before I die, and I am so glad I got to float. After gingerly stepping past the salt crystals on the tiny shore, I waded into the water, and could barely walk! The water just thrusts you upward and you just float! It is almost supernatural and a bit eerie, a bit lovely, a bit scary and a bit exciting.

We had tea at this lovely shop where India was given a positively glowing vote by everyone. Apparently most Israelis visit India(because it is cheap and thanks to Bhole baba ka prasad!) and love the hospitality, culture and Indian food(sadly, no mention of Indian women, but after seeing some of the Israeli mothers, understandably too!)

We headed back to Jerusalem and then out to Mamilla mall for a bit of shopping.
With 2 women what do you expect? My TP went into every shop and I did what I like to do best, take pictures and observe the people walking past. Going past the black coats et al, Israelis (especially the Jews) go everywhere with their kids - Malls, Restaurants, Rest rooms... where not?Missed Button for a few seconds then.

With lighter wallets, smiles on our faces and food in our bellies, we headed back to Addar, ready to crash.

Moral of the story: Never miss an occasion to shop, never miss an occasion to announce you are Indian!

CSAAM April'11 - My son's childhood shall remain INNOCENT, I vow

My naughty 3 year old son who will be going to school soon, here is what I do to ensure that his belief in humanity remains. Some of the precautions are for safety's sake, not just to prevent abuse.

a)Since his first birthday I have been telling him that all 'chaddi' parts are not to be touched by anyone except mamma, papa and his grandparents. Maids are allowed to clean him but only in the presence of above mentioned relatives.

b)If an ayaah or helper cleans his private parts in school, I ask him to recollect whether he was cleaned at playschool or not, and by whom and whether he cried or ran away during the cleaning process. He is not yet 3 and not able to articulate well, but I watch out for these signs. If he says he cried,I check him for a rash, if there are none, I tell the teacher the next day that he was not handled properly.

c)I tell him atleast thrice a week that the driver or cook or watchman or anyone else is NOT allowed to touch his 'chaddi' parts.

d)I may sound paranoid, but I don't let him travel alone by car or even with his maid. One of the grandparents or parents HAS to accompany him.

e)Button is normally not a touchy-feely-cuddly child and I do not encourage him to become one. One day he will be older and he will have a girlfriend with whom he can be touchy-feely-cuddly!

f)Button does not like being completely naked, and I don't encourage him either.

g)When I leave Button alone with the maid, I drop in earlier sometimes, ask my neighbor to walk in at other times. Now at Chennai, my mom-in-law drops in too. ALL surprise visits.

h)My husband and I always reward Button for being open and speaking his mind. My husband also recounts his day and listens to me doing the same in the presence of Button, and we encourage him to do the same

i) Last but definitely important, is mental abuse. Not just physical abuse. I correct my maid's language almost incessantly. All improvements in her vocabulary are duly complimented, even rewarded. Even listening to bad language can change cause mental distress. I do reprimand usage of negative or 'f' words and I try to watch only child-friendly shows in his presence on TV.

As is evident, I feel strongly about the subject. The bottomline is that I cannot drive away ALL the wolves, but I can at least give him the knowledge of how to spot one and the faith that his parents are there to love and support him always. .

Monday, March 28, 2011

Israel Chronicles: Old IS Gold!

TP and I had decided on a loose itinerary before leaving for Israel based on our reading and our determination of what was a must-do for each of us. As per plan, we set off on a walking tour in the Old City. I highly recommend the Zion Walking Tours, though by Indian standards it seems steep (at approx 1000INR per person).( Our guide (coincidentally named 'Shalom') welcomed us on the tour.

We walked through the very private Armenian Quarters, soaking in the warmth and embrace of the Old City.
The Old City was built sometime in the 1500s and has a high wall all around it. Of the 4 quarters, the Armenian Quarters is most secluded. In it live Christians who practise the religion as per their very Orthodox church. The residents leave the Quarters for work but return by early evening, when the Quarters are physically locked.(Frost's 'The Wall' anyone?)
Some glimpses from outside took us to a world that I'd imagined from the Ukranian Fairy Tales my dad had bought for me when I was 8... women wearing shawls, men with Fez-like hats and black coats and speaking in a tongue that was strange, fascinating and interesting at the same time.

We then walked into the Jewish Quarters. In speech, and perhaps in belief, every Jew I met is highly 'Jewish', which can be loosely translated into anti-Arab (and therefore, anti-Muslim). The average man on the road will talk about how the Jordanian king razed down his grandfather's tombs, or how a Palestinian Arab shot his nephew or how the Muslim Kings built Al-Aksa on their Holy Temple.
A disclaimer here - please bear with my if the next couple of posts seem very Jewish, I shall present the Arab point of view later (when I narrate our visit to a West Bank PA Territory). But for now, let me reiterate that you can almost FEEL the Jewish character on the streets, especially in the Jewish Quarters of the Old City. Most Jews observe the tenets of their religion, growing their sideburns long, wearing a tzitzit (sacred thread) around their waist and their traditional kippah (skull cap). We walked through several interesting ancient structures like the Cardo, the Western Wall Tunnels and finally reached the Western Wall. During our walk our guide freely 'cursed' King Hussein of Jordan and believed it was his right because he fought in a 'war' against him...and my guide was a well-traveled 'liberal'(also his words)!

I can do a few posts on just the Western Wall. The atmosphere in the Western Wall complex is unbelievable. Tirupati perhaps comes close, but not really. Its quieter, more grandiose (no shrine, no idol, no priest, no collection boxes) and apart from the wall, you can see black everywhere(except for the military). The reverberations and energy one feels in the place is immense. The Wall is the culmination of 3 warring religions. The Jews,as per the tenets of their religion, have only one Holy temple(which only their high priest can enter) and several synagogues(for the average Jew to pray in).The temple was built to house the Ark of the Covenant (for more, pls watch Indiana Jones!) and the Foundation Stone (from which the Earth originated and from which Adam was made).
The Muslims also believe in the same Foundation Stone. So do several sects of Christians. Several centuries ago, the Arabs (being more powerful then) built a sacred mosque over the Foundation Stone, called Al-Aksa (one of their 3 holiest shrines, along with Mecca and Medina).The wall closest to the Foundation Stone is the
Western Wall(also called the Wailing Wall, the Holy Wall).The devotion there is touching, Jews from other parts of the world break down in tears, children keep quiet and recite the passages they know from The Torah and men solemnly gaze at the Wall.The sanctity or divine presence is perhaps the faith, hope people repose in the wall for a better tomorrow.

We walked on from the Western Wall via the Cardo(a magnificent Roman structure)to the Christian Quarters. While it does look like the Jewish Quarters, it is not as bustling or as traditional... until one reaches the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
Queen Helena (mother of heathen King Constantine) built the Church to honour the last 5 stations of the Christ on his final journey. The spot where his body was prepared after his crucification and the place where he was crucified bear similar attestation to devotion... candles, tears, silent prayers and a strong sense of a divine presence. Again, for the un-religious, I feel it is just the faith that manifests itself as divinity.

We wound up with a brief tour of the Arab Quarters, more a market. Our 'Jewish' guide, who spoke excellent Arabic (business is never confused with personal belief!) gave us some vignettes such as how the Church of Holy Sepulchre was literally a battleground with several Christian sects fighting over ownership and now each of the 'winning' sects have a few square feet each! Also, that the key of the Church is owned by a Muslim family which lives nearby. Finally, as we wound up, he expressed hope for Israel returning 'rightfully' to the Jews.

While we walked around we saw several Army recruits carrying their backpacks and machine guns! Its unnerving seeing 18 year olds walking around absorbing Jewish history and the jingoistic spiel doled out by their instructors swinging their machine guns like water bottles! But this is how the nationalistic spirit is driven in and surrounded by 'hostile' states, Israel does need it.
I have to say, these kids do look rather dashing (do I sound like Mrs.Robinson now?!) in their military fatigues and long sideburns. In fact ALL Jewish sites we went to, had atleast fifty or so military recruits (complete with machine guns) imbibing their ethos. Makes me think, it may be good for India to send all our army recruits to Jalianwala Bagh and Red Fort and perhaps Srinagar and Arunachal Pradesh.God knows we need to get a national spirit going.

After the walk, we indulged in a lovely Hummus and salad meal. The salad portions are huge and come with dips (labneh, baba ganoush). Lots of chick peas. At about midnight we reached a desolate parking lot, the starting point of a guided midnight bike ride. ( 2 South Indian women at 12 in the night at sub zero temperatures? (with teeth chattering and eyes watering) started praying to Tirupati Balaji that somehow the thing is called off (high on enthusiasm, low on warm clothing). HE is powerful, I kid you not. Coincidentally,the other participants cancelled and we gracefully demurred a private tour and came back with a free T Shirt to remember our midnight cab ride to the parking lot.But if you visit in summer, it is surely worth it. The guide and contact person are just so wonderful.The upside? The Parking lot (in an area called Talipiyot) has the loveliest look out of Jerusalem by night... all sparkling and lit up.

Moral of our day? : Warm clothes and good shoes are a must anywhere. Men (i mean people) can get carried away by perceived past slights and behave as though what happened over a thousand years ago can affect their rational judgement now.