Wadsar, Gujarat 1978

    I was 7 years old when I heard Pandit Bhimsen Joshi for the first time.
    It was 1978, and my father was stationed in Wadsar, where the Indian Air Force had just set up a base. We, and ten other families, were the first occupants. Wadsar, then, was in the middle of nowhere. Other than the base, there was nothing.  For every thing, from milk to movies, we had to drive for over an hour, to Ahmedabad.
    In the winter holidays, Panditji would come here his family to spend a week with his younger brother, also in the Air Force. We were a gang of 15 kids, and all of us would line up at the gates, waiting for him to arrive, highly excited about a famous person visiting our colony.
    Every night, after 7 pm, Panditji would have an adda, with his brother on the tabla. I, by virtue, of being best buddies with Rama and Dhruv, his niece and nephew, was among the few kids allowed inside their drawing room to listen. Most nights, he would allow us to hang around, watching us in a  tolerant fashion, until our mothers would drag us off home. Their sessions, would carry on for a long, long time; his voice filling the cold. night sky.
    Three years later, my father was transfered out, bringing an end to those encounters with Panditji. The connection to his music, I am glad to say, remained. First, through my father, and later my husband who made it a mission to acquire rare recordings.    I saw Panditji again 25 years later, at a concert at the National Centre of Performing Arts in Mumbai. He had been ailing and was performing onstage after a long time. He looked feeble and needed his son Shriniwas’ assistance to walk. His voice though was unchanged, and wove that same special magic.

    Even today, when I listen to his music, I am filled with the same tranquillity and wonder I felt as a 7 year old hearing him for the first time.

 

not just another yellow lemon tree..

    Hanging from a tree in Palbhavi village in Belgaum, were the biggest, yellowest lemons I have ever seen. Their tangy, sharp fragrance filling the air, bringing back memories of certain summer afternoons in Mumbai.
   During my growing up years we lived a while in Navy Nagar, Colaba, home as the name suggests, to an Indian Navy base. With it’s beautifully laid out roads, greenery and military order, Navy Nagar, even today, is far cut off from the chaos and noise outside its gates, in the rest of Mumbai city.
    Every afternoon, my mother, perched on a recently acquired cycle, would toodle off for an hour, longing, no doubt, for a break after a whole day spent doing routine chores.  She would buy vegetables, pick up odds and ends, and make her way back via the Afghan Church. A nearly 200-year old, majestic Presbyterian Church, built by the British to remember the soldiers who died in the First Afghan War of 1838.
 
 
 
 
 

    Inside the church walls was an old lemon tree, where she would make a brief stop and discreetly pluck the lemons within reach. She would come back, her cycle basket laden with all her shopping, the juicy, glistening lemons nestling right on top. She did this for months; quite sure her little theft was going unnoticed. Until one day the old Father came out and smilingly gave her a handful of lemons.  From then on, it became an open practice.

 

   The lemons I found in this Karnataka village, locally called ‘elakkai” were much bigger. I got two to take back to Mumbai, their spicy, heady scent filling my hotel room and suitcase.

 
The lemon tree at Palbhavi

   I pickled them, the Belgaum way, the recipe a little more elaborate than my mother’s version. She would chop them up; add bits of ginger and green chillies, a dash of turmeric and some salt.  Bottle them for about 4 days and they are ready to eat.

   This is what I did. Fry a teaspoon each of these – Fenugreek seeds, Cumin seeds and Onion seeds. Grind them well. Cut the lemons into small pieces and add a dash of turmeric and red chili powder. Mix with the ground paste. Fry a teaspoon of mustard seeds separately and add to the lemon. Bottle this and your pickle is ready to eat after 5 days. You can even try this with regular sized lemons. Do try it. It’s simple, and tastes great with everything.
 

Chimni’s Story

        There she was, a tiny soldier, shivering in the morning chill, as she scrubbed her clothes carefully and got ready for school. Blue pinafore tugged down, hair oiled, neatly combed, a big bag of books on her shoulder, and off she went, shoeless in the January winter.
   
      One week after their father died, Chimni’s mother discovered that she, and the children, were HIV+.  They were thrown out of their village. Desperate, the mother moved to a city hoping to find a job, leaving them with a relative who wanted to have little to do with them.

       There are 21 children at Sevalaya. Most of them orphans. They have grandparents, aunts and uncles, but few are in touch with them. The stigma towards people with HIV in India is huge. That’s true even of cities where there is access to treatment and information. The situation in rural India, much worse.      


       As Ravi Bapatley, the founder of Sevalaya, found out when he started this shelter 3 years ago. He quit his job as a newspaper reporter, and with a loan from a friend, bought some land outside Hasegaon. He enrolled the children in the village school because he wanted them to integrate with the local community. But the villagers withdrew their kids, and vandalized the shelter. But Bapatley persisted, with the help of NGOs, and today the children have found acceptance. Apart from food and shelter, they  have regular access to Anti Retroviral Therapy, ART.       
       

Ravi Bapatley
Volleyball game at Sevalaya

       But Sevalaya needs a lot of help. These are kids who have been rejected by their very own. They need counselling; a need the staff here, while caring and committed, is not skilled to meet. 

Take 15 year old Akshay for instance. He is convinced he is going to die soon. That is what his classmates have told him, echoing I imagine, what they hear at home. When I told him people with HIV are living good, long lives with good diet and medication, he started crying.

  Chimni loves to go to school and draws beautifully. For a 5 year old, she is amazingly independent. I guess it’s because she has never had anyone to look after her. But she is very closed, and answers in monosyllables. Ask her to sing though, and she can go on for hours. Especially her favourite song on the monsoon.

Few people have the courage to walk away from a well-ordered life and help out those living on the fringes. Especially when it means taking on the world around you. Ravi Bapatley has done that but he needs a lot of support. To hire part-time counsellors, to build more rooms and support more children.
It costs Rs 12000 a year to support a child at Sevalaya. But any support you can offer is welcome. If you would like to make a contribution -cash/food/clothes – send it to
Amni Sevak Latur
Sevalaya
Ravi Bapatley
Post Box Hasegaon
Taluka Awsa
Latur District 413512

        Maharashtra, India


Latur Notes

           We reached Latur on a Monday morning to find the entire city virtually shut down. At Hotel Manas where we had a booking, not a soul materialized for the first 30 minutes. Finally a man emerged, gave us our keys and shuffled off. Refusing, despite our several pleas, to serve up any tea. The kitchen staff, we were told, had the day off.
          Many hours later, a explanation. It was Velu Amavasya, a harvest festival, big in this part of Maharashtra.  A day farmers celebrate, first by praying to their fields and then, hosting a sumptuous lunch for the community.Everything shuts down – schools, colleges, offices. Never mind that Velu Amavasya figures nowhere in the list of official public holidays.
         Not the best start to our trip. But we decided to ahead with our visit to Hasegaon, to a shelter for HIV+ children. We were headed there for a documentary on community initiatives to fight stigma against people with HIV.
        Hasegaon had other plans. Minutes after we reached we were told we had to participate in the festivities. Our host for the afternoon, a farmer, 70 year old Kumbhkaran Gawde. An unusual name given the reverence the Hindu god Rama has in these parts. Kumbhkaran, for those unfamiliar with Indian mythology, was brother to Ravan, the demon king who abducted Rama’s wife, Sita. 
        Kumbhkaran was one of Ravan’s generals. Famous for his long, long naps and huge appetite. With his shocking pink turban and curved walking stick. this Kumbhkaran cut a rather imposing figure. He took us to his sugarcane fields, to this makeshift shrine. We paid our respects and started digging into the thali. A simple, but varied spread as you can see in this picture
       There was the Pitle, traditional dish made of gram flour, a side dish of spring onions and Unde, which are steamed dumplings made of jowar (type of cereal). Followed by the piece de resistance, khichda. Not the mutton and dal version many of us are familiar with. This was vegetarian, prepared with two different cereals.  Very simple and light food, but the whole experience of eating in the midst of the fields was quite something.
       To round it off, we had something akin to the sakhrai pongal, a traditional Tamilian dish served during festive occasions. Here, the rice is cooked in sugarcane jaggery instead of sugar, and the milk poured on the rice just before it’s eaten. Unlike Sakhrai pongal which is cooked in milk.
       As we drove out of Hasegaon, villagers stopped us at different points to invite us to their homes. Really heartwarming. We remembered them even more later that evening. Because back in Latur city, not a single hotel was open for dinner!