Intruders 2: the sequel

It was Sunday. Bapuji wanted to visit the derasar- the nearby  temple- and waited for Indira to join him. Growing impatient, he made his way down the stairs and out of the front door, calling for her. Indira, sensing the irritation in his voice, hurried down the stairwell with the cut-out walls, forgetting, in her haste, to lock the grille at the top of the stairs.


The ‘askari’- guard- who usually patrols the area had been up to the apartment to help Anil, and then went out to fetch water, closing the front door carefully behind him. Ba was in the kitchen when she heard the sound of the grille being pushed open. Before she could react a hand had been clamped over her mouth, dark eyes staring threateningly at her- the rest of the assailant’s face was hidden behind layers of a long, white scarf wrapped around his head. There was one more man behind him, face similarly disguised. Anil was on the balcony, hidden from view, when he heard Ba’s muffled shouts. ‘Ba! Ba!’ he called in distress. The intruders, presumably alarmed at the thought of another person in the apartment, chose to flee. Ba rushed to Anil and, looking down at the street below from the balcony, could see the askari returning. ‘Fetch Mama (Indira) from the derasar- quickly.’ she cried. Indira and Bapuji were already on their way back, and together with the askari, searched the apartment carefully in case anyone had remained behind. It is too much, this constant threat of violence, for anyone – but especially for four people whose combined ages equal 322 years.

Accepting the unlocked grille at the top of the stairs, the question which provokes the most concern is how the men got into the building at all. One theory is that they snuck in while Bapuji was standing with his back to the front door, perhaps looking towards the derasar; they may have hidden in the shadows next to the stairs while Indira climbed down. However, they hid their faces with scarves, which suggests premeditation, unless both intruders happen to be partial to neckwear in 30 degree heat. Another question follows the first: if it was a premeditated break-in did they have insider help? A copy of the front door key, for instance? It is pure conjecture, there is no proof at all, but we are left with a slightly anxious feeling in the pit of the stomach. Let us hope that this post does not become a trilogy. (Read the first instalment here)



It is the toy shop, and all of its previous guises, that my family’s story revolves around. After Bapuji sailed across the seas aged sixteen he landed, eventually, in the position of shop boy – general errand runner and dogsbody. He worked hard, he claims, but he also remembers the price of mistakes: an earful and a smack around the head. As a much-mellowed grandfather he retains a cheeky sense of humour, so I imagine a certain amount of mischief took place during his teenage years. Several years and a marriage later he rented a duka, a small shop in a village called Yala. Without money to buy stock outright, he collected baskets full of corn from local farmers and clothes from the nearby town, and carefully noted down any sales, racing around each evening to return unsold stock and pay the farmers what they were owed.


Three years later he moved his little enterprise to Gilgil, following the hope of military money, and when the British Army marched on he, too, moved himself and his growing family to the coast. There was fierce competition, Bapuji remembers. Each duka was a mini general-store, and the only way to stand out, to build a regular clientele, was to appear charming and reliable, the man who had, or could get. Eventually his duka morphed into its current form, the toy shop of my childhood. By then, Bapuji had become a small-businessman, dressed smartly in his high-collared Nehru suits, planning international trips, supporting his family of nine.


Pills and potions

It’s a miracle! Take physics and bin it!
Water has memory!
And while its memory of a long-lost drop of onion juice is infinite
It somehow forgets all the poo it’s had in it (‘Storm’, Tim Minchin)

Saw palmetto and dilutions, De-qi and adjustments. Do they work? Is there evidence? Do you believe?
The family are believers. Alternative therapies, in particular herbal medicine and manipulation, yoga and deep breathing are an integral part of the Indian culture, and entwined in the daily rhythm of my family’s lives. They have engaged in all manner of activities designed to prevent the catastrophic, to cure the ailing, to enhance the mind and body: five almonds a day to improve the memory; a spoonful of turmeric dissolved in warm water before breakfast each morning to keep colds away; clove oil swabs for dental pain.


As an adventurous but clumsy child I had not the purple of iodine but the bright yellow of turmeric pressed into my frequent wounds, and, believe it or not, I never had a wound infection- not even when the soles of my feet were peppered with punctures from sea urchin spines. When diagnosed with diabetes, Ba promptly started to drink the juice of karela, one of the most bitter-tasting vegetables known to man. Her willpower is enviable, as are her blood sugar levels. The entire family swear by the life-improving benefits of Pranayama, a form of yoga in which deep-breathing exercises are said to improve blood pressure, lower respiratory rate and reduce stress. All of these effects have been replicated in studies, although many other claims regarding Pranayama remain unproven. I can’t help but thinking that something must be keeping the olds bounding out of bed every morning.


I think the most fascinating experience of alternative medicine in our family concerns Indira, whose asthma was poorly controlled despite regular steroid tablets. I remember her sitting forward, arms against the tabletop for support, wheezing and breathless. She had read somewhere that donkey’s milk could relieve the symptoms of asthma. To the donkey farm we went, and for several months she drank the sweet-tasting milk. I loved the weekly journeys to see the brown-eyed, docile beasts, but the effect on my aunt’s asthma was inconclusive at best. She then read about Bathini fish medicine, touted as a cure for asthma. In short, a medicine composed of secret ingredients (the recipe passed down over 160 years within the same family) is stuffed into the mouth of a live murrel fish, which is then swallowed and wriggles its way through the throat and down to the stomach. Thousands flock to receive the therapy, which is only administered on one day every year. It is said that to be cured of asthma a patient needs three consecutive years of treatment. Indira travelled three times to Hyderabad, and although she still has asthma, she was able to stop steroid tablets shortly after receiving the Bathini fish medicine. Whether it was because she swallowed the live fish and the secret medicine or that she had also increased her use of inhalers, which she had previously been loath to use, she is better.


Old wives tales, titbits handed down from generation to generation, from neighbours and friends, the family have tried them all, but one thing which has remained constant is that all of this has been as an addition (albeit a very important one) to conventional medicine – a bonus boost for health and wellbeing.

I have dipped the tip of a toe in the murky pools of complementary and alternative medicine, and found that sometimes the water remembers nothing at all, but that sometimes the water’s just fine. In other words, Mr Minchin, if something seems to be working I don’t care if we can prove that it works: the treatment might be effective or it may simply be a placebo effect. Even if it is placebo, it can certainly work surprisingly well, and who cares if it is a deception? My advice is this: be sensible. Don’t swap aspirin for crystals; if it doesn’t work then stop: take your hand out of your pocket, move away from your wallet. That is all.

An explanation: Time to digest

It got a little crazy here for a while.

Nothing serious, just too much on my plate

The usual shenanigans: under the weather, overstretched, in the wars, out for drinks.

I was in a pickle.

So I walked away from my plate-too-full.

Took a breather, a hiatus, a KitKat break.

It was just what the doctor ordered.

Now I’m back, full of beans and with an appetite for writing.