Count Your Blessings!

Count Your Blessings!

Hello Everyone,

Kapil here from Mishmi Takin. How are you? How is your week going?

This month I wanted to write about a different topic but life has a way of intruding when least expected. So, this email is about more topical things happening around me, things which have a tendency of making us focus on what is truly important in life.

Earlier this month, my wife returned from a Europe tour complaining of an upset stomach. Couple of days later, this became pain in the abdominal area. We thought it would go away in a day or two but it didn’t. We feared that it might be appendicitis and so we finally went to ER (emergency). The ER doctors ordered a CT scan and lo and behold, my wife had a tumor the size of a football growing out of her pelvic area and covering her entire abdomen. It obviously scared the daylights out of us. My wife was immediately transferred to a speciality hospital and operated upon a few days later. The cauliflower shaped tumor was taken out and a couple of her other organs also participated in the organ donation program. Eventually, it was found out that the tumor was mostly filled with mucous. It turned out to be benign and we collectively let out a sigh of relief. My wife is now on the road to recovery and all is well.

This wasn’t the only event of note. My brother and sister-in-law got into a major car accident last month. Thankfully both of them escaped unhurt. Someone else was not so fortunate though. A classmate of a young friend of our’s also got into a car accident and perished. She was an undergraduate student at MIT. She had just finished her spring semester and was at her home planning her classes for fall semester. She went out with her sister to get ice-cream when a drunk driver hit her car and she didn’t make it. A promising young life was taken away. One minute she was planning classes and a few minutes later she was no more.

All this has been weighing on my mind. As I waited to find out the results of my wife’s surgery, life seemed to be balanced on a knife’s edge. It had never felt so binary. We survived but it was a very close shave. It made me realize how unpredictable life is and how we tend to think in a linear fashion. We think that someone is there, so they will always be there. Or, we think that something is going in a certain way and it will always be like that. However, life is not a continuous, linear function. It does not always go in a straight line. Discontinuous change does happen and when it happens, it catches us by surprise and ends up having a far bigger impact on our life than we expect.

With all this in mind, just wanted to say that in the daily hustle of life, let us take a minute to count our blessings. Let us take a moment to hug our loved ones and tell them how much we love them and how much they mean to us. Even if a loved one has hurt us somehow and is estranged for some reason, let us reach out to them, let bygones be bygones and tell them that they are still loved. Life is too short to hold grudges.

That’s all for today. Have a great summer.


P:S – By the way, it is probably a good idea to get an annual checkup done. We take our cars for a checkup every 5000 miles or so. It is a good idea in my opinion to do the same for the most complex machine ever designed, our bodies. Good day.


Gear comes second.


Picture Courtesy: – Capt Suresh Sharma, Green Dot Expeditions.

Hello  Everyone,

Almost all of us tend to start a new year with some or the other health related resolution. In that vein, sometime back, a friend asked me, ‘What app do I need to get back into running?’. Apparently, he had not been running for a while and wanted to get back into running and hopefully train for a half marathon. All very noble goals, the kind of resolutions we make for ourselves on new year’s day. However, his question suddenly struck me and made me reflect for a while.

If we look at a modern runner, we see someone decked from head to toe as if heading to battle – besides the shoes, there is the GPS watch, heart rate monitor, the hydration belts with ergonomic bottles, gu gels, iphone arm bands, apps to track runs, ear phones with hand-picked playlists, compressions socks, sunglasses etc etc. Now, don’t get me wrong, all of the above definitely help and make for a more enjoyable running experience. However, I wonder if with this big focus on gear something gets lost in translation – the essence of running. Running is one of the simplest activities which can be enjoyed equally both by the rich and the poor. But, at what point does the simple joy of running gets replaced by the chore of tracking runs, monitoring heart rates, uploading charts and making sense of data.

My mind harks back to my childhood in India. Me and my siblings had a very middle-class upbringing in the 80’s and 90’s which meant that our family never had a lot of money. But somehow, I never seem to remember feeling the lack of money and proper gear being a hindrance in enjoying our childhood games. We used to play cricket with a bat which had a missing handle and a cork ball which was broken from so many places that it no longer looked like a sphere. Yet, trying to hit a ball making completely random movements with a bat you could not hold straight was so much fun. In fact, it was the most fun I have had in my life. My mind also goes back to our radio which had a broken cover and had so much static that at times it was hard to even figure out the words of the song being broadcast over the air. But I remember being moved to tears by those faint words barely standing out above the static. It was not the absence or presence of high-fidelity sound which produced a reaction in me. Rather, it was the meaning of what was being said and the connection which the almost inaudible words made with my heart which moved me. When I look back at those simpler days of my childhood, I realize that it was not the gear which produced the joy but the connection I felt in my heart which really made it memorable. In that sense, gear to me comes a poor second and instead, the most important part is to feel the joy and connection with the activity in its simplest form.

So, perhaps it might be fun to forget about the gear for a minute. For a change, let us forget the GPS, forget the heart rate monitor, not worry if we have the latest and greatest shoe, and forget about tracking the run. Instead, let us just get out there and just run and feel the wind in our hair, the sunshine on our skin and hear the sound of rustling leaves underneath. Let us first feel the joy in our heart and only then worry about our heart rate. For, in the end, it is not the app which gets us back into running, it is the thrill which keeps us going. To paraphrase Nike, let us just get out there and just do it.

Have a very happy new year in the great outdoors. Warm wishes for a healthy and prosperous new year from the Mishmi Takin team.

Thanks and Regards,

An Evening with Santa

Hello Everyone,

A couple of days back, I ended up quarreling with a close friend of mine and felt miserable about it. With dark and overcast skies last week, the weather outside seemed to reflect my mood. Bored of sitting at home, me and my 4 year old daughter decided to visit the Tampa zoo to see their Christmas lights. It was Friday evening. It had been raining off and on throughout the day but as we got to the zoo the rain thankfully stopped. We made our way inside and were greeted by the sight of a huge, 30 ft Christmas tree pulsating with colorful lights. My daughter jumped up with joy and ran around the tree a couple of times. She found another girl of her age, they quickly became friends and ran some more laps around the tree laughing and giggling all the way. ‘Jingle bells’ played in the background providing a perfect backdrop to their joyous fun. Soon, it was time for the new friend to go and we bade her goodbye. My daughter decided that she wanted to pet the sting rays, so we set off in that direction. Along the way lay Santa’s Village. We were not planning on visiting Santa. My wife was away and we wanted to come back with her to go meet Santa. But, as we passed the village, we said, ‘what the heck, let us take a look inside.’ We sauntered inside, saw a cookie shop and grabbed some holiday cookies. We finally got to Santa’s workshop. Usually the place is full with dozens of exuberant kids waiting impatiently for Santa but that evening, there was nary a soul in sight. It seemed that Santa was waiting just for us. We had him all to ourselves. The brightly colored elves greeted us on the porch and quickly ushered us in the presence of Santa.

There we were, in front of Santa all robed in red and snow white. Santa gave out a joyous ho, ho, looked at my daughter with smiling eyes from behind his silver rimmed glasses and asked her, ’So, have you been naughty or nice?’. My daughter spread out her hands in her inimitable style and promptly answered,

‘My father, he fights with his friends and makes them unhappy. I play with my friends and keep them happy’.

Santa gave out a loud laugh, shook his head and said, ‘I see that you have been very nice but someone has not been nice.’ We chatted with Santa for a while, asked for our presents and someone promised Santa of nicer behavior next year. As we left Santa’s abode, the heavens opened up as if to wash everything away. The father daughter duo jumped, hop-scotched, slid and ran to our car and quickly made our way home.

The moral of the story being – be like my daughter and not like me, otherwise you won’t be getting a lot of presents from Santa. Did you make it up with everyone you made unhappy? There is still some time left.

Merry Christmas everyone. If you don’t celebrate Christmas, then best wishes for Hanukkah, Kawanza or any other way in which you let god into your life. All of us can do with more of god’s warm and friendly gaze.

Check out some pics of my daughter’s time with Santa.

Best wishes and holiday greetings,


When I had less than a dollar in my bank account!

When I had less than a dollar in my bank account!

It is almost a cliche that every entrepreneur has to often go through tough times. Irrespective of how much money s\he started with, the entrepreneur is always short of money, often running just on fumes and the business is often on the verge of going belly up. Today, I wanted to write about one such moment in my journey as an entrepreneur and in the life of Mishmi Takin as a company.

Since I was short of money to begin with, I decided to go the crowdfunding route to raise the money to bring our products to market. Team Mishmi Takin conducted a successful Kickstarter + Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign in Summer of 2016 and raised $80,000. However, I made a critical mistake in our crowdfunding campaign; I had offered far too many products to our backers. As a result, at the end of the campaign, we found that even though we had raised a healthy total, we were obligated to produce too many products and we did not have enough money to produce all of them. This was a potentially business ending mistake.

But, both me and my wife were not ready to throw in the towel and we bravely soldiered on. Both of us maxed out all our credit cards, wiped out our retirement accounts and took as much personal loans as we could get from anywhere. A couple of family and friends also pitched in and over a period of 6 months, we somehow managed to pool together the money to pay for the production costs. We got the production done; but, there was the small matter of customs duties. We still needed to pay the customs duties and there was no where else left to turn to. On the very last day when the customs duty just had to be paid, we were saved by a kind friend who could not say no even though she wanted to.

We got the product, yay, but now it had to be shipped to all the backers and the cost of shipping turned out to be a killer. I had saved a credit card just to cover shipping costs but it maxed out in no time. I had no money left even to ship!! I was forced to wait for sales to happen on our website to get some money to ship.

Matters came to a head in middle of July, 2017. My wife doesn’t get salary over the summer. From May to July, we watched as the cash from her last salary payment gradually inched towards zero. I think it was July 17th, 2017. I made a loan payment from my personal account and realized that my balance was now less than $1. My wife’s bank account had already dropped to less than $1 and our business account too was below $1. Earlier in the day, Citibank had called and suspended my last functioning credit card because I was late in making my payment. Essentially, we were completely out of cash and had no credit left.

As this realization was dawning on me, my wife called from the kitchen to say that we were out of milk for our 3 year old daughter. As I sat contemplating the zero balances, she came over, saw my face and realized what was going on. She gave a short laugh and said, ‘I guess it is what it is’ and went back to her work.

The next day, my 3 year old daughter, who obviously did not know anything, kept asking for milk. So, I had to go around house, rummaging through things hoping to find some loose change. Eventually, I found $7 in loose change. I got my daughter the milk and we managed the next 4 days on the loose change. Finally, on Saturday, July 22nd, we got our next payment from Amazon and we breathed a sigh of relief.

We eventually got through the summer, shipped to all our backers and fulfilled all our obligations (except to the kind friend mentioned above). Mishmi Takin has come a long way since then, winning awards and great appreciation from our customers.  We still are not completely out of the woods. But, I learnt my lesson – to bite what I can chew and not to take obligations I can not fulfill. I also learnt that some things you can read about but you don’t really understand till you go through them. Some victories just have to be ground out. Finally, I learned that the things you buy when you don’t have money taste much sweeter than the same thing bought when you have lot more money.

To all budding and fellow entrepreneurs, carry on.


 P:S – If you have stories of how you faced adversity, do write back. I would love to hear them.

Most Memorable Christmas

Most Memorable Christmas

Hello Everyone,

I wanted to take a few minutes and wish everyone a happy holiday season. Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah and every other way you celebrate the season. Hope you have a great time with family and loved ones. As we take a breather from the mad rush of the whole year, my mind wanders back to memories of Christmases past and all the fun we have had this time of the year. I thought I would share some of those memories with you.

One memory which stands out in particular is of Christmas day, 2006. Since we are Hindu by religion and don’t have much family in US, we don’t have a lot to do on Christmas day. So often the answer to the question, ‘what are we going to do on Christmas day?’ is ‘Let us go hiking’. So, me, my then partner (now wife) and a friend, Madhu, decided to go hiking in White Mountains, New Hampshire. Given the lazy bums we were, we did not leave Boston till well past 10 am. We got to Lincoln after noon at which point Madhu announced that he was hungry and we made a quick pit stop at McDonalds. It was 1 pm by the time we got to the trail head. For those of you keeping track, it was the East Pond trail off the Kancamagus Highway. It is an easy 10-mile hike to East Pond, a small pond nestled in the mountains. This was the very first hike I had done in White Mountains in 2003 and loved it and that is why we were back to revisit the hike this Christmas day. However, this was the very first time we were in white mountains in winter. We did not have much by way of gear and my friend, Madhu, was wearing his formal leather shoes. 3 clueless hikers, hitting the trail at 1 pm without any gear, what can possibly go wrong, right? So, we started.

The trail was beautiful, weather slightly chilly. A mile in, we got to a stream and joyfully hopped across it. The trail rose gradually and about 4 miles in, we reached the ridge. At the ridge, there was a light dusting of snow on the ground and the surrounding forest was serene. We saw some animal footprints in the snow and wondered what animal it was. At this point, Madhu started complaining that he was feeling some pain in the right knee. But, we thought, the pond is right here, let us get to it quickly and then start back. So, onward we marched. We got to the pond by 4 pm. The pond is spectacularly beautiful, framed by the ridge on the left, Mt Osceola in the front and the forest on the right. We spent some time at the pond, took in the sights and then headed back. As we got back up the ridge, Madhu complained that the pain in his knee was increasing. It was about 5 pm by now and it had started getting dark. Madhu picked up a stick and we hurried down the path. Few minutes later, Madhu’s knee was jamming up, and his second knee was also now in pain. Soon enough, Madhu was not able to bend either of his knees, had sticks in both his hands and was waddling like a duck. On top of it, it had suddenly gotten very dark. We were shocked, ‘it is so dark so early’. We were obviously not prepared to hike in the dark. Thankfully, earlier in the day at our pit stop in Lincoln, I had bought a flashlight on a whim not knowing that we would need it the same day. So, there we were, 3 hikers with one flashlight, waddling down the trail wondering when we will get to the road. But first, off course, the stream. We got to the stream and found that the water in the stream had doubled by now. Some of the rocks we had hopped over earlier were now underwater. I was pretty sure that Madhu was going to take a dunking in the water but some-how he managed to balance himself and got over the stream. It was only a short distance now. When we finally got to the trailhead and heaved a sigh of relief, we were greeted by a most spectacular night sky. I have never ever seen as many stars in the night sky as that evening. The whole sky was bejeweled and glittering like a bride at her wedding. After taking in the sky, we hurried to the CVS in Lincoln and then straight onwards to Boston. You bet, the Aloo Paratha at Punjab restaurant in Arlington tasted heavenly that night.

Have a holly jolly Christmas and happy new year. I would love to hear what memories the season brings for you. Write back when you get a chance.



Our Thanksgiving Tradition

Our Thanksgiving Tradition

Hello Everyone,

Hope you had a great thanksgiving with family and loved ones. Is there something special that you did this time? Do you have a family tradition for thanksgiving? I am from India where we don’t have Thanksgiving. However, living in US, we are fast evolving our own thanksgiving tradition. Every year, we as a family like to take some time off and spend the holiday enjoying the great outdoors in America. That is what we have been upto this week. Myself and a friend hiked into the Grand Canyon down the Bright Angle Trail to the Plateau Point for some glorious views of the river and the inner gorge. I loved seeing all the beautiful flora and fauna on the Tonto Trail and saw some mountain goats high up the canyon slopes. Earlier this week, my 3 year old daughter surprised all of us by hiking 4 miles in the Red Rock State Park. Not once did she complain about being tired or needing to be picked up!! And, we spent Thanksgiving scrambling over some Granite rocks in Prescott. Today, we are headed back to the Grand Canyon to watch the night sky. It has been one amazing week.

Hope you had a great Thanksgiving as well. I would love to hear how you got to spend the holiday. Write back when you get a chance. Enjoy some pics in the meantime.



How to slow down time?

Dear Readers,

It has been a long time since I wrote anything and we last got in touch. There was so much to write about but I never got around to doing it. There are so many Liberia stories which still need to be told. In addition, my life has seen lot of change in the 2.5 years since the last post. I have had a beautiful daughter who is a source of eternal joy to me and my wife and I left my job to start a new company. Changing diapers while trying to figure out the nuts & bolts of building a company and while steadily going bankrupt is a highly fun, stressful and chaotic activity. It has been fun to do conference calls discussing plans for world conquest with a wailing baby in one hand providing background soundtrack. I feel that I can legitimately claim to have some idea of the life of a single mom. In short, life in the last 2 years has not been short of drama and things to write about but the mental space has certainly been in short supply.

Anyhow, I am hoping to change it and start writing more. The posts now are going to be more diverse in character and draw upon my experiences as an entrepreneur and a dad. They are going to be less about far away places and more about the far away states of mind that lie within us. With that long backgrounder, let us get started.

As I spend my days running after my daughter, Kamakshi, it is fun to notice and think about the differences between the life of an adult and a child. We, the adults, keep talking about meditation and esoteric terms like ‘mindful living’ as ways to deal with daily stresses. Most often we don’t really know what ‘mindful living’ actually means or how to go about it. When I look at my child, I suddenly understand what ‘mindful living’ is. She has no conception of yesterday or tomorrow and spends no time thinking about what happened yesterday or what might happen tomorrow. She is fully engaged in the world around her right now, be it the Northern Cardinal or Koel cooing in the background or the fire brigade passing by. Running after a fluttering butterfly or watching a caterpillar eat a leaf is a source of tremendous joy. A few days ago when we went out in our backyard in Florida, she showed me a black & yellow grasshopper. I had never seen that grasshopper before and after she showed me one, I suddenly realized that our backyard was full of them. It actually shocked me and I realized how much life is around us, living right under our nose, but we never even see it. That is when I realized that the child actually lives in this world while we, the adults, live in our minds. ‘Mindful living’ is nothing but beginning to live like a child and engage with our natural world and the here and now and disengage with our incessant chattering mind.

The engagement of Kamakshi with the world led me to think about the paradox of how long and vivid our childhood seems to be and how life suddenly speeds up when we become adults. Growing up from 5 to 15 feels like forever but you go from 30 to 40 in the blink of an eye. (I admit to crossing the 40 mark and am still surprised how quickly i got there). Every year from 5-15 is etched in memory but 30-40 is an indistinguishable blur. Again, looking at my child, I realized that everything in the world is new and exciting for her. We were taking a plane to come to India and she was agog with excitement all day. Everything in the airport, the train and the plane was a source of wonder and joy. She kept observing every single detail – the colors, the metallic birds hanging in the terminal, the seats , the sizes of various planes and kept exclaiming, ‘we will sit in the plane and go shooon to India’. I don’t remember the last time I was so excited about anything. And, I wonder if that is the key to the paradox.

When we were young, everything was new, there was a sense of wonder and the thrill of discovery. We didn’t know what to expect and paid attention when something was happening. We didn’t have fixed ideas, instead learnt as new things came up. But, as adults we lose that sense of wonder and behave as if we already know everything.  I have a hunch that it is the loss of this sense of wonder and the lack of attention which makes the time speed up. When I came to US 13 years ago, it was completely new to me. Me and my wife were broke graduate students but just the simple act of walking through town and discovering new streets was a joy. It was like a second childhood and we have very vivid memories of simple things like taking a bus to the Middlesex Fells just outside Boston. The memories of those first 2 years are much stronger compared to the memories of next 10 years when we got a car and had more money to go to far off places.

So, coming to the question in the title of the post, how do we make the time slow down? I think that it is easy – be more like children, learn new things, do things which you have never done before, things which interest you and, more than anything else, pay attention and the time will slow down and we will make some memories that will last a lifetime.



P:S – I think that it is the same thing which makes entrepreneurship exciting. Contrary to what most entrepreneurs outwardly say, the reality is that you actually don’t know what you are doing. Trying to figure out your path in the fog of ambiguity is what actually makes entrepreneurship fun. If you already knew everything before you started, it would be so boring.


Traveling Like A Liberian

It was February of 2012. The rains had ended 2 months earlier and the dirt roads had dried out by now. Travel was now possible and I decided to take advantage of the situation to go and check out the port in Buchanan. (Buchanan is Liberia’s 3rd largest city and lies nearly 80 miles (125 km) south-east of Monrovia.)

Come Saturday morning, I called our office driver, Jeff, to take me to the taxi stand from where the ‘bush taxis’ leave for Buchanan. As I got ready, I realized that I had only 950 Liberian Dollars (LD) in my pocket (the equivalent of  13 USD. 1 USD was roughly 75 LD). ‘It would have to be the bank first’, I thought as I waited for Jeff to arrive. Jeff dutifully took me to the bank but when we got there, we found out that it was the Armed Forces day, a national holiday, and all the banks were closed.

Jeff is a tall, middle-aged guy with a pot belly. He can be a bit gruff at times, not very communicative and somewhat lost in his world. He turned to me and said, ‘Kapil, looks like, you have not planned your trip well.’ ‘What’s there to plan?’, I replied, ‘I take the taxi, get to Buchanan, take the taxi and get back’. ‘So, you want to go?’ ‘Yes, It takes 400 LD to get to Buchanan and 400 to get back. I have 150LD spare. I got plenty money’. ‘As you wish’, said Jeff with a short laugh. He dropped me at the taxi stand and left.

ELWA junction (named after ‘Eternal Love Winning Africa’ ministry) is not really a taxi stand. It is a busy junction between Monrovia and Paynesville cities where ‘bush taxis’ wait for their passengers by the side of the double lane road. The taxis, their aggressive drivers and handlers and the passengers jostle for space with roasted cow meat sellers, bread stalls, currency exchange traders with their small blue kiosks and sundry other roadside vendors. The road is flanked on both sides by hardware and building material shops and small, make shift restaurants. The ‘bush taxis’ themselves are yellow colored Toyota and Nissan hatchback models that have been used, beaten down and discarded by the rest of the world.

As I neared the taxis, multiple handlers accosted me, ‘Boss-man, My car goo, goo one.’ The fare turned out to be 450 LD, more than what I had expected. I picked the taxi which was almost full and ready to go. Immediately after we started, the taxi pulled into a local ‘gas station’. The gas station had an array of jars filled with gasoline, displayed on a wooden plank, ready for dispensing. As the driver and ‘gas station’ owner haggled over price, the gas station attendant put a funnel into the fuel tank and poured the gasoline into the tank.

With fuel in the tank, the taxi set off. There were 6 of us in the taxi besides the driver – 2 guys on the passenger seat in the front, 2 women, myself and another guy crunched together on the back seat. The woman next to me had a baby on her lap. The trunk was full of goods and barely able to close. As we gradually moved out of the city, the houses thinned and the greenery began to take over. We passed the army barracks, then the airport and through the Firestone rubber plantation.

The guy next to me was Mohammed and he was the owner of a small packaged water business, ‘Prosperity Water’. Monrovia does not have drinking water supply and packaged water is big business. Mohammed, like many other packaged water businesses, sold water in 500 ml pouches which were being drank by practically everyone on the streets of Monrovia. Every pouch sells for 5 LD and Mohammed told me that it is a very profitable business with almost 100% margin. A short while later, the baby on my left got hungry and started to cry. Her mother very nonchalantly lifted her blouse and started breast-feeding the baby, all in full view. Soon, we reached a police checkpoint and were asked to stop next to the ‘Liberia-Bangladesh Friendship Shed’ erected by UN peacekeepers from Bangladesh. A policeman in a deep blue uniform and beret approached the driver. They shook hands, money exchanged hands during the handshake and we got waved past the checkpoint.

The road from Monrovia to Buchanan was being laid by a Chinese company and the portion after the checkpoint was still being graded. As soon as the taxi reached the un-metaled road, it started going sideways and sputtered to a stop. The passengers burst forth in fury at the driver. ‘I knew he does not know how to drive by the way he was pressing the clutch and the brake’, opined the man in front.

Now, I was in a fix. We were half way to Buchanan and I had practically no money to spare. A wiser guy than me would have turned back but not me. The driver started flagging down passing taxis to off-load his passengers. The woman with the baby found a seat in a passing taxi and left. One guy decided to turn back and hailed a passing motorbike. Finally, the driver handed us over to a passing pickup truck. The back of the pickup truck had multiple tyres and other stuff strewn in it. I perched myself on a tire and held on for dear life to the two sides of the truck as the truck sped on the dirt road. It must have been an amusing sight as a passing villager shouted, “OOO, white man in the back-ohh”.

I finally made it to Buchanan around 2 pm. The last taxi back to Monrovia left around 4:30 pm. Time was short. I asked my way around and hastened towards the port. I walked and walked along the winding dirt road by the side of Arcelor Mittal area but even after 1 hour of walking, the port was nowhere in sight. At 3:30 pm, I decided to turn back. By this time, I was feeling hungry too. A passing taxi had a bumper slogan – ‘No Money, No Respect’. ‘No Money, No Food’, thought I. I came across a coconut seller and found to my pleasant surprise that coconut in Buchanan was cheaper than Monrovia, only 10LD apiece. I promptly ate 2. Now, I was at risk of missing the last taxi back. ‘Should I make a run for it or Can I afford a motorbike’? I eventually hailed a pen-pen driver and made it to the taxi stand just in time with 455 LD still in my pocket. The return fare turned out to be 425 LD, leaving me a princely 30LD still in my pocket.

On the way back, as we crossed the St. John river, we came up a small roadside market where children and market women were selling bananas, plantains, sweet potatos and other food stuff. I splurged 20LD on roasted corn, which tasted heavenly. Later, as we passed a village, a villager hailed the taxi. ‘Ma mein, you got space?’, he asked. ‘Yes, my VIP is empty’, replied the driver. The villager promptly went to the back of the taxi, opened the hatch and made himself comfortable in the trunk. Surprises never cease !!

As Ab, our driver, picked me up from the taxi stand in Monrovia, he laughed, ‘Kapil, I heard you went to Buchanan with no money.’ ‘Yes,’ I replied, ‘I wanted to experience how it is to travel like a Liberian.’


Dreams and Memories

My father

My father

Most of the time, I look outside and write about far away places which most people would never visit and share slices of the lives of people most will never meet. This time I thought, let me look closer, much closer, inside myself.

As some of you know, my father passed away nearly 2 months ago. Early October, as I stepped out to go to the gym, I looked up at the night sky and saw some bright stars twinkling. Something about the stars triggered the thought that one day I will get a call informing me that my parents are no more. This is the life of an immigrant, the emotional burden that they carry. So far away from home, from people they care about, not always able to tell how much they care and not always sure why they are away. Couple of days later, the dreaded call finally came. It was 4 am and I was fast asleep. My phone was on silent and it took me a while to realize that my phone was vibrating. As I picked up the phone, I saw there were 6 missed calls. I knew what the call was about. The moment had come.

It takes nearly 24 hours of flying to get back home, plenty of time to ruminate. I took solace in the fact that my father had been hearing good news in the last few months. He had been preparing for my brother’s marriage and was in reasonable health. I also took solace that the end was quick and he did not suffer much. I could not have asked for much more.

When me and my brother made it home, the body had been on ice for nearly 36 hours already. My father’s face had turned deep purple but he looked peaceful. It looked as if he was asleep and would wake up any minute. I thought to myself, “How does one tell that he is not in deep sleep? What distinguishes this from deep sleep? The body is here all right, then what has changed so dramatically? The only thing which is different is that the body has lost its capacity to self-regulate. It can no longer maintain homeostasis.’ In one minute, I understood why so many cultures had come up with the concept of soul. I was reminded of the shlokas from Bhagwat Geeta – “Just as a person casts off worn out garments and puts on new ones, even so, the embodied soul casts off worn out bodies and takes on others that are new.” Looking at the degenerating body of my father, It kind of made sense why someone would have written that 3000 years ago. I don’t know if there is a soul or not. I don’t know if soul is nothing but another name for consciousness. But, I marveled at life itself which had found this nifty runaround mortality, jettisoning weakening bodies and bringing forth new ones and perpetuating itself till eternity. I felt as if I myself was nothing but a vehicle for life to carry itself forward.

As the sleepless night gave way to dawn, we did the ritual bathing of my father and carried him to the nearest crematorium. The body was decaying rapidly, there was some blood on the face and some flies had begun buzzing around. We quickly covered him with wood. I put the last wood and then consigned him to the god of fire for safekeeping.

The day after cremation, me and my uncles went back to the crematorium to ‘pick the flowers’. I had heard about the custom but did not know what it meant. As me and my uncles sat down by the remains of the pyre, I finally realized that the flowers that we have to pick are the remains of my father. So, we started separating the charred bones from the ashes and putting them in a white sack. At one point, my uncles debated which bone was the one that they had in hand. It was the pelvic bone.

We needed to go to Ganga to deposit the ashes in the river. As I sat in the car with the white sack containing the remains, my aunt told me to hold the ashes in my lap – ‘Your father cradled you in his lap all his life, now it is your turn.’ And, off we went, with me carrying my father in my lap. Once we got to the nearest tributary of Ganga, we distributed the ashes in the river. The river carried the remains out to the sea. What belonged to the earth had been returned to the earth. We are made of dust and to the dust we go back again.

In the last 2 months, I have often remembered my father. Last night, I saw him in my dream. I was in Delhi and I got the news that he was having a heart attack. I went to the Safdarjung Hospital and started waiting for him to get there. Then, someone told me that he died along the way. Time seemed to slow down, I waited for a long time outside the hospital, looking at the roads and trying to make sense which road went where. Finally, the auto rickshaw carrying him came up to the hospital. My relatives were trying to pull him from the auto but were having some difficulty. Finally, they managed to pull him out of the 3 wheeler. My father felt very heavy but he was very much alive. As we stood him up, he asked, ‘Kapil aa gaya?’ (Is Kapil here?). I was almost next to him by that time, so I said “Aa gaya”. He said,” End of life scenario lagta hai.” (Looks like, this is the end). I replied, “Kuch nahin, theek ho jaoge. Aap to pahle bhi kitni baar mar ke jinda ho chuke ho. Kaunsi baar hai yeh – teesri ya chauthi”. (Don’t worry, you will be fine. You have come back from the dead so many times. Which time is this – 3rd or 4th?) He smiled, and very cheerfully, almost in a singing voice said,” Kauthi baar hai bera nahin” (Don’t know which time it is).  At that moment, the dream ended and I woke up. His happy, amused voice was still ringing in my mind. It was good to hear his happy voice.

The dream perhaps referred to the first time my father had a heart attack in 1989 and both of us went to the Safdarjung Hospital in an auto-rickshaw. I remember him sitting down outside the hospital, having pain and crying I think and I stood next to him, not knowing what to do. Then, we took another auto and went to NDMC hospital in Moti Bagh. In the 1990’s, this happened a number of times, when he and I rushed to the hospital in an auto, sometimes to Safdarjung, sometimes to NDMC, sometimes to Deendayal, sometimes during the day, mostly at night. I remember spending time with him in the ICU, and, on multiple different trips, going down to the tea shop outside the hospital for some breakfast. At times, it was like deja vu, the same thing happening a few years later. I remember, once we were standing on the terrace at NDMC and he was happily telling me that he walked to the embassies in Chanakyapuri that day. This perhaps was in 1989 itself.

Yes, he had come back from the dead multiple times. Will he come back this time too? I don’t know. The dreams and memories are all intertwined now. It is no longer clear where one ends and the other begins.

As an elderly friend of mine used to say, ‘We meet to create memories and part to preserve them’. I preserve the memories. I am the speaker for the dead for now. Life continues, with me as the vessel until someone takes my place.


Lunch in Sinje

Last year, end of March, 2012, I found myself in Sinje, training health workers in the new tools that the Ministry of Health was rolling out. Sinje is a small ‘town’ in Grand Cape Mount county roughly 75 km from Monrovia and maybe 15 km from the border with Sierra Leon. The training was being held at one end of the town, which really is a village, in a community hall by the side of the school. As I finished my section, I started thinking about lunch. For a vegetarian like me, food outside Monrovia can be a big problem. Most of the time the only thing I can eat is bread, fried plantain, roasted corn, roasted cassava, coconut or maybe boiled rice with ‘peppe’ sauce (peppe is the West African hot pepper. It really is hot). Sometimes, I eat boiled egg because I can not find anything else. So, this bright and sunny, beautiful day in March, I found myself wondering what am I going to eat for lunch today. I figured that I should go into the town and talk to the lady who is preparing lunch. So, I set off to do just that.

The school recess was on and children were playing in the clearing next to the school. The school and the ground were surrounded by lush green forest (‘Bush’ as they call it in Liberia) –  tall bamboo plants, some palm trees, cassava plants and a host of other trees the names of which I will never know. Under a tree, by the side of the ground, sat two frail women with toothy grins. In front of them were reed baskets from which they were selling some badly shaped cookies, peanut & sesame strips and some more eatables. I bought some roasted peanuts from them. As the children lined up to buy things from them, they chatted with each other but I could not understand a single word of what they said. So I asked, ‘Which language is that?’. They replied , ‘Vai’ and I suddenly realized that I am in an area populated by Vai tribe and just 75 km away from Monrovia the language has already changed completely.

As I ventured further, the children ran ahead of me shouting ‘white man, white man’.  Reaching close to the cluster of mud huts which constituted the ‘town’, I didn’t know which way to go. So I just followed the children and took a left turn on a small dirt path which seemed to go through the middle of the cluster of mud huts. I came across a veranda which had a mango tree around which children were playing (mango is called plum in Liberia). I asked one of the children, ‘Can I get a plum from the tree?’ He asked me,”white man, you eat plum, eh?”. I said, ‘Yes, I do’. All the children got excited, started shouting, running around to get sticks to get a plum. A few minutes later there were 5/6 plums being offered to me. I took one and distributed the rest back amongst them.

A couple of huts later, I came across a small ‘shop’. There was a sort of elevated table made of bamboos nailed together,  maybe a foot above the ground, on which a cloth was spread and few items kept for sale. The seller was a cheerful, stocky, young girl maybe in her late teens. As I bought bananas from her, I asked, ‘what is your name?’ She said – ‘My nee is Patience’. I was struck by the name, ‘Really’. ‘Yes’, she said, ‘there is lot of patience in Liberia’. Her mother came around and I chatted with the mother & daughter for a while. They wanted me to buy some more and I said that I will buy when I come back next time. ‘You will come back?’, she asked. I said, ‘Yes’. She said, ‘Next time you come back, you will marry me and take me away?’ and started laughing. We shared a laugh and as I started to go, she said, ‘Remember my name’.  ‘I will’, I replied.

Not knowing which way to go, I took a right turn, passing through the narrow space between two huts, and as I came to the front of the hut, I saw 3 women busy cooking in the veranda. There was a big pot on a charcoal stove in which some meat was stewing.  A wisp of smoke arose from the stove and curling past the zinc roof of the veranda it got lost in the branches of the breadfruit tree. One of the women was chopping onions while another one was cutting a big bunch of ‘potato greens’ (potato green are the leaves of the sweet potato plant). I asked them if they were the ones supplying lunch for the training. One of them replied, ‘Yes, I am’. She was a big, burly woman of substantial girth and a round, friendly face. I asked, ‘ I am a vegetarian. Do you have something for me?’ “No one told me ooo, everything has meat in it”, she replied. ‘Do you have egg?” “Yes” “Can you make omelet for me?” She didn’t know what an omelet is. So, I said, ‘I will tell you. Fry an egg and put small onion, small peppe and small salt in it’ (Small, Small in Liberian English means a little bit). She said, “I can do that”. Feeling better, I asked, ‘Do you have bread?’ She didn’t have any bread. So, I set off again.

I continued straight, passing right by the huts and came on to the main road connecting Sinje with Monrovia on one side and Sierra Leone on other. There was a small shop on the road, basically a cube made of wooden panels supported by bamboo. There were two men listening intently to the radio. I asked, ‘How is the day?’ One of them replied, ‘Trying small small, Thank god for life.’ They didn’t have the bread either. The other man kept listening intently to the radio. On the radio was BBC news world service, broadcasting from Sierra Leone. A reporter was interviewing a woman outside the ICC special court in Freetown. I suddenly realized that today was the day when verdict was going to be passed on Charles Taylor. The woman was happy that Charles Taylor had been found guilty of war crimes. ‘Justice has been done’, she exclaimed. The other guy, who was quite till now, suddenly spoke, “Ma Mein, what is da woman talking about? I want to slap her. Ghankay is like father to us. He is like Jesus.” I was taken aback by this utterance and decided to find out more about such sentiments for Charles Taylor. That, my dear readers, is the topic for the next post.


Chimp Island & Marshall – II

Even though the 2012 trip to chimp island was great, we had missed seeing the chimps as it had started raining. So, in Feb 2013, I decided to go again. Alwin and Michele from UNDP joined me for the trip. The day was absolutely gorgeous. It felt like everything was soaked in golden-yellow, liquid sunshine. We had trouble getting a vehicle but Ab, our office driver, came through and provided us a learner’s taxi from his driving school. We drove out of Monrovia towards Roberts International Airport and took the dirt road branching out just after the army barracks. After traversing 15 km on the dirt road, we got to Marshall. Marshall lies at the tip of a peninsula where the Du river and Farmington river merge and enter the Atlantic ocean. The tip of the peninsula has an amazing beach where you can see the calm river waters on one side merging with the crashing waves of the ocean on other side. From the tip, one can also see multiple islands of different sizes in the delta formed by the 2 rivers. After some haggling, we got into a Fanti canoe powered by a motor. As we headed to the chimp island, we realized that there are at least 2 islands with chimps on them and we were headed to a different island this time as compared to last year. Perhaps because of the proximity to the ocean waves, the canoe was oscillating heavily. Many times, it felt as if the canoe top will go below the water. As I can’t swim, my heart was in my mouth. Thankfully, I had the good sense to buy a life jacket before coming on the trip. Otherwise, I would have died of heart attack before reaching the chimp island. Initially, we didn’t see any chimps but as we got closer to the island, we saw the chimps emerging and soon enough, there were more than a dozen of them. The chimps were creating a big raucous. We had brought some plantains for the chimps and started throwing the plantains one by one to them. The chimps started fighting for the plantains. It turned out that one of them was a big bully and he cornered at least 4-5 of the plantains that we threw. I was amazed at how the chimps were surviving on some plantains thrown by visitors. Michele commented that the authorities should seed the island with banana, papaya etc so that the chimps can feed themselves instead of depending on humans.

While returning back, we stopped at a small island in the river. The island was shielded from the ocean waves by a sand bar and provided an amazingly calm and beautiful environment. I could have spent my whole day sitting on the island beach doing nothing. After spending more than an hour loitering around on the small island, we got back to Marshall. As we drove back, we came across Ceaser’s beach along the way. Ceaser’s beach has a lagoon which provided a haven for folks like us who are afraid of the ocean waves. The beach turned out to be very popular with families with children and we saw some folks kayaking as well in the lagoon. On the other side of the lagoon, waves were crashing heavily on the beach. Unperturbed, a bunch of locals and expats enjoyed a game of beach soccer.

All in all, we had a wonderful Sunday exploring the environs of Monrovia.

Enjoy the pictures,


Chimps on Monkey Island

Chimps on Monkey Island

Some more Chimps

Some more Chimps

Feeding the chimp

Feeding the chimp

Pit stop at an unnamed island off Marshall

Pit stop at an unnamed island off Marshall

Pit stop at an unnamed island off Marshall

Pit stop at an unnamed island off Marshall

Small island where Du & Farmington rivers meet Atlantic Ocean

Small island where Du & Farmington rivers meet Atlantic Ocean

Michelle on an island of Marshall

Michelle on an island of Marshall

Alwin on an island off of Marshall

Alwin on an island off of Marshall

Lagoon at Ceaser's Beach

Lagoon at Ceaser’s Beach

Kayaking in the Lagoon at Ceaser's Beach

Kayaking in the Lagoon at Ceaser’s Beach

Ceaser's Beach

Ceaser’s Beach

Playing football on Ceaser's Beach

Playing football on Ceaser’s Beach

West African Music – III

Some more West African music which I heard this weekend. Both songs are Nigerian and have some amazing vocals. For a non-west African, the songs also provide a window into the society. The first song, from artist MI,  is about a young guy appreciating his girlfriend’s love for him despite his poor circumstances. The second song, from MI’s brother – Jesse, is about a bitter fight between two blood brothers, a song which may be the metaphor for civil conflict in a country (My Brother).

Enjoy the music.


Trip to Chimpanzee Island and Marshall

Last year, I went to the see the Chimpanzee Island just outside Monrovia. In the 1980’s, a lot of chimps were used to develop vaccines for Hepatitis with the New York Blood Center using Liberia as one of its research centers. Once their ‘working life’ was over, the chimps used in Liberia were retired to an island on the Farmington river outside Monrovia where the chimps still live. As part of their retirement plan, the chimps continue to be fed daily by their handlers. (See CNN’s story on Liberia’s chimp island, and a link on sad state of chimpanzees used for research). To get to the island, we had to ride in the local canoes which are made by hollowing out a tree trunk. The ride was beautiful with the mangroves on both sides of the river. However, we did not get to see the chimps as it started raining when we were still over the river. Apparently, the chimps are afraid of water and they hide in the ‘bush’ when it starts raining. While coming back, we went to Marshall where we drank coconut water from fresh coconut taken down from the tree just for us. It was cool to see a child clamber up the coconut tree and get coconut for us. My attempts to climb the tree were sadly unsuccessful. We also visited an almost deserted beach on our way back. Enjoy the photos.



Opening and Closing Prayers

Hello everyone and a happy new year to all of you. Hope that 2013 brings happy tidings for you and fills your hearth and home with warmth and joy. As the end of my time in Liberia comes closer and I start looking forward to rejoining my wife, it is time for me to discard my laziness and capture all the interesting tidbits and observations I have made before I forget them all. In that vein, here comes this post.

Liberia is a fairly religious country and like India, you can find a religious institution on almost every street corner. Between 8th street and 10th street in Sinkor where I live, there are at least 4 churches that I know of. When I go for a Sunday morning run, I get to listen to all the loud devotional singing coming from all the churches on my route. Off course, since I live in a church myself, often it is the church music which wakes me up on Sunday mornings. My church has two services on Sunday and one on Thursday evening and all the services are very well attended.

Jesus plays a big role in professional life as well. It is very common to see names of shops like ‘Born Overcomer Auto Shop’ or, my favorite, ‘God’s Anointed Barber Shop’. Almost all official as well as personal meetings start and end with a prayer. (on a side note, I once attended a ‘Wedding Planning Meeting’ which, in addition to the prayers, had a written agenda which was distributed to all attendees.) Even in the ministry where I work, almost all meetings start and end with a prayer. Coming from India and US, where the church and state are ‘religiously’ separated, it is striking for me. It is striking also because 20% of Liberians are Muslims and another 30-40 % follow their tribal practices. Christians are not even in a majority !!!

The opening and closing prayers said at these official meetings are often offered by a reverend himself and go something like this :

Opening Prayer

Our Eternal Father, we thank you for bringing us from near and far and for gathering us here today. As we discuss today, we invite you in our midst and pray that you lead us through. With this, we commit the meeting to you. In Jesus name, Amen !

Closing Prayer

Our father, thank you for all the ideas that have been brought forth today. Help us to follow-up on what we have discussed today. May the meeting have its impact. Carry us back safe & sound and guide us until we meet again. In Jesus name,  Amen !

Till we meet again, may the lord be with you,