Sunday 15th December

It is sweltering. There is a steady and repeated ‘thwa-thwa’ as the arms of the ceiling fans beat the still air. There are layers of noise making up the sound of the background: the voices of the street sellers, impatient beeping from the road outside the shop and the sounds of the ‘shopman’ moving boxes behind them. Bapuji, in his pale blue, close- fitting suit jacket, and Indira are more interested in the footsteps of the man climbing into the shop. He comes every year, at this time. He buys new decorations for Christmas, waiting for Bapuji to pull out samples from the glass display cases. Tinsel, shiny gold. Banners of metallic colour and bright, folded paper balls from China. He leaves with carrier bags full of cellophane-packed Christmas cheer.

This year there is little evidence that it is mid-December: there are few decorations in the streets or visible in doorways and windows. The  terrorist attack has taken its toll; tourism is at its lowest ebb. This used to be the country that the tourists flocked to in Africa, eager for the safari experience and the white sand beaches; over the last ten years or more, the gradual decline of the services available and the development of tourism in the other big safari countries has led to fewer people booking tickets to this land. Tourists, of course, are unlikely to buy decorations from Bapuji’s toyshop, especially as the beachfront hotels usually excel in shine and glitter during December. However, their delicious wonga, used to purchase bracelets, henna tattoos, sarongs and wooden masks, paintings on canvas, soapstone chessboards, shells and printed bags enables the locals to engage in a little retail therapy of their own. There is still a little spending- a small trickle of feet over the toyshop threshold- but people are adopting the ‘less is more’ approach.

Bapuji is still front of house, inviting in potential customers, waiting and watching until they decide on their purchase or turn to ask for advice. He points out the dolls which speak and the bicycles with bright, plastic baskets and shrill bells.

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Bapuji’s figure is slight now, but he stands very upright. He enjoys speaking to the customers, getting to know some of them well. When it is quiet in the shop again, he and Indira will sit quietly and wait, watching the hazy heat outside.

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Tickled

Tickled

This photo was taken almost 4 years ago. I have several more of the two olds in complete stitches. Why the hilarity? Well, the two of them were soaking up some weak British sun when Ba mentioned that her feet were aching. Someone suggested, tongue in cheek, that Bapuji should give her a foot massage. Much laughter ensued, until both complained that their belly muscles hurt. Foot massage? Positively indecent behaviour!
In other photos the two of them grin, side by side but not touching. That is still their code of propriety, and they are sticking to it, seven children or not.

WonderBa: the beginning

On the west coast of India, between the Gulfs of Kutch and Khambat, the ancient country of Kathiawad lies, now incorporated into the state of Gujarat. It is in one of its towns, Bhanvad that Ba was born, in 1922. She was an only child: her father died of tuberculosis when she was just a year old. Her mother was left destitute, making blankets and duvets to get by.  They had very little money, and lived for six months of the year with her mother’s brother, in the princely state of Dhrafa. Ba has spoken of the seemingly very visible princes in the past, and when the telephone connection is finally fixed I am hoping that she will elaborate. There were hundreds of princes, in fact – many in the state of Dhrafa alone, with one prince acting as leader. Our Royals are enjoying a rise in popularity at the moment, but imagine the combined excitement and dismay of the population (depending on their Royalist inclination) when informed that there would be a hundred more Wills and Harrys. There would be benefits for the princes- sharing those Royal engagements would leave more time for family and polo – but it is unlikely that Kate would have made it onto the cover of Hello, or that Prince William would have had the chance to perform Livin’ on a Prayer with Bon Jovi at a charity gala.

Ba cackles with laughter every time she is asked about her past. ‘Why is it important? You don’t need to know all of that rubbish.’ she protests, while I try to explain how fascinating her story is to everyone that hears it. Ba showed promise at an early age; she was entered straight into year 2 at school, but she lived in a time and place where education was not valued for girls. Additionally, changing schools every six months was desperately difficult; different systems, different teachers, different everything meant that Ba lagged behind, and at the age of 14 she left education altogether. She remembers one teacher who stood out (we all do, of course, remember the one that made the difference), a teacher called Maniben, who tried to persuade Ba to stay on at school. But Ba simply did not understand the importance or the relevance of school, the idea of knowledge and learning as tools of empowerment being utterly alien. Over the last seventy years, amongst Indians in India and abroad, there has been the most amazing about-turn in the perception of education as the gateway to success, for men and for women. It is often joked about, the current tendency of many Indians to pursue careers in the ‘big five’ professions: medicine, dentistry, finance, IT and engineering, but the idea is that they are stable and can provide job satisfaction and enough money to buy food (and, if you are very good at them, a big boat).

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Ba starts to speak now of ‘sharam’-shame- a word that crops up many times during the retelling of her life story. She was acutely aware of her position as a young, poverty-stricken girl with no connections. She would have loved to restart school, but the thought of speaking up, of approaching an adult was overwhelming. In the mornings, over her clothes, she put on her cloak of insignificance. As Salman Rushdie put it in his novel, Shame “Shame is a short word, but one containing encyclopaedias of nuance. It was not only shame . . . but also embarrassment, discomfiture … modesty, shyness, the sense of having an ordained place in the world.” I believe Ba’s story, her sense of sharam, but to me Ba has always been a small, slightly feisty grandmother, and the two versions of Ba have great distance between them. The transformation began, very gradually, after she married Bapuji. But that is a story for another day.

Sunday 1st December

There was no telephone connection earlier today. The lines could be down for hours or days. This is not news- it has been happening for at least the last thirty years, but rather than the improvement that we should have witnessed with the development of systems and technology we find that the service is worse now than ever before. Telephone, water, electricity are all badly affected.

Indira spoke a few weeks ago about the struggle of everyday life. For several months the family have had no water supply. Every day the Derasar, the local temple, provides ten litres of water for free, for longstanding members; it takes more than one trip to transport this up to the family home. This is usually sufficient for the family’s daily needs, but on wash days they need to purchase water, sold by the gallon. Water for drinking or cooking with is boiled and poured through a muslin cloth into a barrel-shaped clay pot, the ‘matli’, which has a tap at the bottom. No fuss is made; contacting the water company has proved futile, as always. I cannot help but think that they need a mass effect, a large body of people who could take on the powerful companies. Here, there are websites acting as platforms for social change, and they are succeeding. Companies failing to make water available would be forced to capitulate: it just wouldn’t wash :-). It would, however, need to have impetus from outside: in parts of Africa they are all too busy carrying gallons of water.

One of my earliest memories is of the power cuts, which occurred not infrequently. We would be plunged into sudden darkness, and someone would be sent downstairs to the storeroom to fetch the gas lantern, while someone else would unlock the giant green metal cabinet which held the constantly replenished stock of candles. I remember spending the rest of one such evening perched with Ba, Indira and my mother on the large wooden swing on the balcony, listening to their quiet chatter, which was punctuated occasionally by a cackle of amused laughter from Ba. It is a rose-tinted memory, of course. They are likely to have been as disgruntled about missing their regular evening television show as the people who gathered indignantly on our London street earlier this year during a rare power shortage, muttering about missing ‘Strictly’. However, I do not think that I am imposing a sense of contentment on that memory- I think that was real, and came from being part of a family in happy times, telling stories to each other. This blog is my attempt at retelling the stories. A friend who e-mailed me last night explains it much more eloquently than I can: Once upon a time, long before books, we sat round fires with our extended families and told stories to each other which were passed down through generations and into which, I imagine, each generation wove their own histories and interpretations. Then we started writing things down and they became standardised and authoritative and lost their fluidity and immediacy and perhaps their relevance too. Now that we are scattered across oceans and timezones, blogs are in some ways the closest thing we have to that tradition (Elinor Brown).