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Being Indian

Ours is a huge country. Almost a continent in itself. Filled with so many cultures. But as five families, one each from the north, south, east, west and centre, testify, it’s all India. All ours.

entertainment Updated: Aug 13, 2011 15:27 IST
Hindustan Times

Ours is a huge country. Almost a continent in itself. Filled with so many cultures. But as five families, one each from the north, south, east, west and centre, testify, it’s all India. All ours

In Shillong
The Japanese Wife

by Rahul Karmakar

If you sniff Gujarati vaghaar at 4,900 ft, it is likely wafting in from quarter number L10 in Shillong’s North Eastern Hill University (NEHU) complex. And it will be 39-year-old Caroline Mukhim preparing panchkutiya shaak (five-vegetable curry) to go with khatta-meetha bhaat (sour-sweet rice).

Caroline agrees that Gujarati khana needs a lot of getting used to. The three years she spent in Ahmedabad when her husband Kenneth Pala was transferred there in 1998 made her so accustomed to the cuisine that she often gives her family a Gujarati break from jadoh, a pilaf-like Khasi staple, and dohkhleh (pork) or dohsiar (chicken). Kenneth, 41, prefers Maharashtrian cuisine; he developed the taste via his local guardians during an earlier stint in Ahmedabad. But food should be relished, not fought over. So the couple and their daughter Alethea, 9, and son Brendon, 8, discovered a ‘middle path’ – south Indian food – thanks to their Tamil neighbour.

Shillong familyCaroline, a doctor in NEHU, and Kenneth, a Shillong-based monitoring and evaluation manager at the UN-affiliated International Fund for Agriculture Development, encountered the indigestible while adapting to ‘mainland’ fare. In Gujarat, people would often confuse Shillong with Ceylon. The height was when a nationalised bank manager turned down their home loan application because he thought Caroline was Japanese. "I took a long time convincing him we were as Indian as he was, but I couldn’t buy a flat in Ahmedabad," says Kenneth. "But there are no hard feelings; as much as other Indians need to be more sensitive about the country’s fringes, the onus is on us to sensitise them."

The couple attribute their adaptability to their schooling and their liberalism to their families. “Most schools in Shillong don’t allow you to mingle with your own kind during breaks,” says Caroline. Their children have Hindi as their second language and not Khasi because ‘Hindi offers more opportunities’. Caroline is good in Hindi English, Khasi and Assamese; Kenneth’s Hindi is kaam-chalau and his Gujarati has suffered in 10 years away from the state.

Plus, adds Caroline, “We socialise a lot, visiting kin, friends and acquaintances.” Socialising adds ‘a bit of music’ to the rhythm of their life. “Shillong offers that extra bit beyond responsibilities. We drive to Mawphlang (a nature trail in a sacred grove 30 km from Shillong or Umiam (a lake 20 km from Shillong) occasionally. And we make it a point to go on a long vacation at least once a year,” says Kenneth.

Their last trip was to Kerala. “We have gone everywhere except Kashmir and Haryana, but we prefer southern India because the people there are nicer and we freak out on south Indian food,” says Caroline. On a trip to Kolkata, Kenneth was indoctrinated to the world of Hindi films. The family watched 3 Idiots, their first Hindi film together. “We like Aamir Khan and Kareena Kapoor,” she says.

Caroline and Kenneth are proud to be Khasis as well as Indians. They feel their uniqueness as a matrilineal community enriches India’s multi-ethnic tapestry. “That we live in the most diverse country on earth makes our existence all the more meaningful,” says Kenneth.

In Bhopal
The Modern Day Royals

by Rahul Noronha

Independence Day holds a special meaning for someone belonging to the erstwhile royal families of India. That’s because while most people were gaining a nation, they were losing theirs.

However, Aruneshwar Saran Singhdeo, who hails from the erstwhile ruling family of Surguja in modern-day Chattisgarh, has a different take on the transition. “It is true that at a personal level, the princes lost a lot in terms of wealth and power at the time of independence,” says the 46-year-old. “But some princes also played a role in fostering democracy, and many of them ended up as political or administrative leaders.” Since independence, it has been a continuing process of integration for the erstwhile princes. For Arun, his marriage to Sapna, a year younger than him and in some senses his childhood sweetheart, also signified integration. “I come from a Punjabi business family while Arun hails from a princely background. So there was a lot of resistance to our marriage,” explains Sapna.

Bhopal familyArun and Sapna were in the same class at Bhopal’s St Joseph’s Convent for a few years before Arun joined the all-boys Campion School. Later, she was sent to Simla to do a BA at St Beed’s, while Arun pursued an MA in Economics at the Bhopal School of Social Sciences. They got married in 1988, and have two kids, Aaditeshwar, 21, who is studying engineering in Delhi, and Aishwarya, 17, who is in class 11.

While Surguja smoothly integrated with the Indian Union, Arun’s father took his process of integration into independent India a step further. The late MS Singhdeo was a 1954 batch IAS officer and a former chief secretary of Madhya Pradesh. “He studied at Allahabad University and took the exam after being influenced by his father-in-law, Raja Digvijaya Singh of Jubbal, an ICS officer of the 1942 batch,” says Arun.

Arun is keen to dispel any notion that he was brought up with a sense of entitlement. “My upbringing was more like a civil servant’s child,” he explains. He’s also proud to point out that, “Madhya Pradesh and Chattisgarh are like an India within India – there are numerous stories of integration. People who’ve come from other states have always been accepted.” Arun’s ancestors too, came from Palamu in modern day Jharkhand in 902 AD and set up Surguja state.

Arun and Sapna are a regular couple. They love holidaying together, even if, like many couples, they disagree about the choice of destination. “My ideal holiday would be a wildlife lodge in Africa, but we haven’t been able to do it,” says Arun ruefully. The ‘compromise’ destination is either the beaches of South East Asia or an urban setting in the US or Europe, he explains. Within India, the family is much-travelled, having covered almost the entire country except the North East. Their favourite destinations are wildlife reserves, as Arun, besides having a stake in the housing sector, has also diversified in jungle lodges at Kanha and Bandhavgarh. “Himachal and Kashmir are our favourite destinations, and we would like to visit the North East now,” says Arun.

“Though we both love food, cuisine is a major point of disagreement,” says Sapna. While Arun likes to cook and relishes Indian food, followed only by Chinese, Sapna is fond of eating out and loves seafood. “My favourite restaurant is China Kitchen at the Hyatt, while Arun loves Karim’s at Nizamuddin,” she says.

But the couple have much in common, just like the country they live in. "Both of us like meeting new people," says Sapna. They also share similar views about the India of the future. "I think my generation let down the country in some ways. If you speak to old people in the villages – in spite of the apparent prosperity that’s come about in the last few years, people are not happy," says Arun. "Our next hope is the youth, our children’s generation as they are truly global and independent thinking and will earn India her rightful place."

In Diu

The Contented Official

by Mahesh Langa

He did a Ph.D in Hindi literature from Punjab University, Chandigarh, and always aspired to teach Hindi poetry in the interiors of Himachal. But fate decided otherwise. Dr Anil Kaushik now finds himself in the former Portuguese colony of Diu, as an assistant director (official language) in the collectorate. Anil attributes this change in his life to fate: "Every moment is pre-decided, so I accept everything that life offers," he says.

Standing in the magnificent 16th century Diu fort, the 38-year-old native of Haryana explains that his job requires him to train government employees in developing their Hindi language skills. Anil moved to Diu in 1996, when he joined government service, and admits he would never have thought of settling in this former Portuguese colony otherwise. His wife Sushmita is a teacher in a private school, and their only son, nine-year-old Kulshobhan, studies in class 4.

Anil, an avid reader of writers like Premchand, Dinkar and Nirala, feels that Hindi literature is a mirror that reflects Indian life as it is, which no other literary works and certainly not anything in English, do. "True India, its people and its life, are reflected in our literature, so I wanted to teach it," he explains. "I still dream of teaching the novels of Premchand, and the poetry of Dinkar and Nirala in the US if I get a chance."

Diu familyHowever, Diu is not really second-best. Sipping coffee in his sea-facing government residence, Anil says: "I am thankful to this job which brought me here. Walking in the morning along the serene coastline is an immense pleasure one would never get elsewhere."

Anil and Sushmita were married in 2000, without meeting each other even once. "He didn’t come to see me as our engagement was decided by our families," explains Sushmita. "However, after marriage we realised that we share good chemistry. We are content with whatever God has given us," she adds.

The Kaushiks have not really savoured the joys of travelling to all parts of India, primarily because, come vacations, they return to their hometown every year. "Anil has not taken us to many places," explains Sushmita. "But I want to go to Kerala, because I read that it’s one of the 50 most beautiful places in the world."

About Diu, she says it’s a wonderful place though a little far-flung and isolated. "I also miss north Indian sweets and sarson da saag, because I grew up eating those in Pinjore," says Sushmita. However, the Kaushiks make the most of their location when it comes to food. "We eat many different types of vegetables, sugar-laden Gujarati food, and even north Indian sabzis," says Anil.

Despite being in such an ‘isolated’ place, the couple once had a chance to be upfront in a Bollywood movie. "During the shooting of the movie Aakrosh in Diu, we were asked to sit with actress Bipasha Basu in an ice-cream parlour," recalls Sushmita. "But Anil refused because he is very camera shy." She sighs. "I very much wanted to feature in the shooting but we missed an opportunity to be seen in the film."

However, there have been other times when the couple has been in the limelight. Anil is a regular compere at official events like Independence Day, Republic Day or during the visit of state dignitaries. "It was a proud moment for me when President Pratibha Patil praised my compering during her last visit to the union territory last January," says Anil.

But no matter where they live, the Kaushiks stay positive about India’s future. "The country has made progress in the last few years but without corruption, the benefits of development will not reach the far-flung interiors," they say.

In Srinagar

The Committed Indians

by Toufiq Rashid

In a state where Independence Day for over 20 years has meant empty roads, closed shops and barbed wire, getting people to speak about their love for the country was a Herculean task. But a quiet couple living in the bylanes of downtown Srinagar have no qualms in stating that ‘a secure future lies with a stable, progressive India’. That’s how Mohammad Altaf, a small-time handicraft entrepreneur, feels. “India is developing in a way that even America is looking at. Obviously we would want our children to grow up in a place where we feel their future is secure,” says the 41-year-old.

The family is proud to be both Kashmiri and Indian. “The special status of the state is what connects the state more to the rest of the country,” says Altaf’s wife, Rabia. “The solution to the problem has to be found within the Constitution, but if Kashmiri aspirations like restoring the 1953 position are considered, it will bring back everybody’s faith in the greatness of Indian democracy.”

Srinagar familyRabia is also proud that her family are true practising Muslims. While Altaf sports a well-trimmed beard, Rabia doesn't forget her veil even while making halwa and wadas in the Kashmiri summers of 30° C. Though these are not traditional iftar snacks, they are what the couple and their two sons, Mohammad Suhaib (12) and Mohd Ilyas (5), break the Ramzan fast with. The boys, besides liking traditional non-vegetarian Kashmiri dishes, love aloo parathas and chola bhature. "My sons are very Punjabi in their tastes," says 43-year-old Rabia.

Perhaps that’s because Rabia was a different person before marriage. She was born and bought up in Delhi as Nirupama before converting to Islam in 1989. Rabia’s Kashmiri Pandit family left Kashmir in 1947. “My grandfather, Pandit Parmanand, was the last accountant general of Jammu and Kashmir. My father was just three when we left Kashmir,” she says. Rabia came looking for her roots in 1989 as a Youth Congress leader and ended up taking up Islam as a faith. “I didn’t convert at the time of my marriage. I converted long before that,” she explains.

The couple met in Delhi in 1997, fell in love and got married. “I am a businessman and was running my handicraft business in Delhi when we met,” says Altaf. They shifted to Srinagar in 2004. “We wanted to help our community, which we felt was under a lot of stress,” explains Altaf. Rabia set up the NGO All India Centre for Rural and Urban Development, and started working with Kashmiri youth. Altaf meanwhile still runs his ancestral business. “He earns money, I spend it in social work,” grins Rabia. “I work with politicians, separatists, and common people, and am producing a document with the help of civil society which we will submit to the government,” she explains.

When the couple is not working, their sons keep them busy. “The older one loves cricket and will soon be participating in the under 14 KPL starting in Kashmir soon,” says the proud father. The younger son however doesn’t care about cricket; he is happy spending hours watching his favourite cartoons – Ben 10 and Chota Bheem. Meanwhile the family’s connection with the world beyond the PirPanjal range remains strong. In the holidays, the boys will be heading to Delhi to be with their maternal grandparents. “My parents were shocked first by my conversion and then marriage, but they have come around,” says Rabia.

However, the family might not be lucky enough to witness a normal Independence Day for some time. The day will again be marked by a shutdown, curfew, protests, statements, counter-statements and a lot of politics. “We will celebrate with a holiday and an inter-family T20 and cheer for the family’s budding Zaheer Khan,” quips Rabia.

In Thiruvananthapuram
The Happy Travellers

by Ramesh Babu

They live in a state (Kerala) that almost all Indians dream of visiting. But for Thiruvananthapuram residents Krishna Mohan (30) and Meera Krishna (25), nothing beats the joys of travelling the length and breadth of the country they live in. “Wherever we go, we find our country most beautiful and enchanting – an invisible thread runs through from one corner to the other and that is the beauty of this great country,” they say.

But it isn’t all play and no work for this couple, who love to call themselves backpackers. Hailing from a business family, Krishna Mohan’s first love was jurisprudence. After taking his law degree from Ambedkar Law College, Chennai, he even practised five years at the Madras High Court. But the call of duty forced the eldest of five siblings to don an entrepreneur’s role two years ago – he now runs a sprawling car showroom.

Kerala familyMarried to Meera four years ago, the couple has a three-year-old daughter, Shivani. A BBA from American University in Dubai, Meera also has a business background. She currently helps her father in his realty business and is also one of the directors of a construction firm in Thiruvananthapuram. No matter how busy their days are, the Krishnas always make time to travel, and to read Paul Theroux, a favourite contemporary travel writer. Besides crisscrossing the country, they have also visited more than a dozen countries.

“To savour different foods, cultures, absorb different styles of architecture and languages, it is something great. It allows you to experiment with something new, meet people and helps you learn more about yourself,” explains Krishna. But India still holds a special charm for them. “Our country offers the most varied cuisines of any place on the planet, but many are not exposed to its wide varieties and sadly stick to the same dishes,” complains Meera, who is a culinary expert.

She talks about some of her favourites – the Indian Chinese food at Zen in Rajiv Chowk, Delhi, or the yummy seafood on offer at Mahesh Lunch Home in Juhu, Mumbai. And the foodie couple relish their culinary experiences – whether it is a starred hotel in Europe or a dhaba in Karol Bagh, they both try to experiment with cuisines, besides enjoying their favourite dishes of seafood and kebabs. Unlike many people their age, who often show scant respect for the voting process, the Krishnas are ardent fans of democracy.

“They don’t know the value of freedom and free expression, that is why some young people turn their back on it,” they explain. Krishna has exercised his franchise in all elections. He adds that politics is not a bad word and that it is unfair to place all the blame for all the country’s ills at the doors of politicians. “We have to empower our democracy. It is the duty of every citizen of the country to ensure it,” he says. Both Krishna and Meera feel the induction of young blood into politics will not solve the nagging problems of the country, instead they favour a proper blend of experience and youth.

“More than age, experience and vision matter,” says Krishna, a fan of former president APJ Abdul Kalam. Whenever he notices an article or report on Kalam, he reads it with the enthusiasm of a 10-year-old, he admits with a chuckle. “I’m really amazed at the way in which he influences youngsters and inspires them,” explains Krishna. Though the couple does not subscribe to a timeline for the country to become a superpower, they are sure it is inching towards the goal.

“Our population and natural resources are our strength and our economic fundamentals are strong. No doubt the 21st century belongs to us. But of course everyone has to chip in for this,” say the Krishnas.

From HT Brunch, August 14

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First Published: Aug 12, 2011 16:22 IST