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.

Kapil

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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.

Kapil

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,

Kapil

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.

Enjoy the music.

Kapil

http://www.mytruspot.com/members/6620/song_focus_8346.php

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.

Later,

Kapil

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,

Kapil