28 December 2013

2013 Garden adventures: growing from seed

I have been attempting to garden now for about 4 years. I was a prolific killer in the first couple of years. Being ambitious, I wanted to grow things from seed - not a good idea for someone endowed with a brown thumb. Not even weeds used to grow in my garden. I got around this by buying fully grown plants and then killing them slowly. Buy, water, kill - that was the unintentional cycle I was in. This year though I think I finally managed to grow from seed and maintain, that's right, maintain healthy plants. Yippee.

When I started to garden, like with most pursuits, what I did first was to read the literature and then disregard it completely. My introduction to growing from seed was inspired by a natural farming method advocated by Masanobu Fukuoka. I was mightily impressed by the concept of throwing seeds around and letting nature do the job. Let's remember that, at this point, I was trying to apply a philosophy for farming fertile acres, to a pot of crumbly soil I got from the roadside, in the balcony of my apartment. Somehow this irony escaped me before.

Scattered seeds
I got a crate together and threw seeds around of different plants on it. I thought that once they grew up, I could recognize them. It slipped my mind that I don't have a degree in Botany. This technique I applied to a bag of salad greens (I wrote about it before). The result, as you can see, looked good, but I had no idea what I was eating! So at the next trial, I decided to be more regimental about where I scattered the seeds. I did them in rows. Only I forgot what I put in each row. Aaargh. Also when some of the rows had nothing, I got exasperated and threw in methi or coriander seeds just to have something green. Gardening is supposed to teach you patience; I still don't think I know of the concept.

Finally, I got a seed tray. I got cocopeat. I learned from the GeekGardener how to prepare it for seedlings. Importantly, I wrote down what I planted where. Success. Oh, this also happens to be Gardening 101 which I had carefully disregarded previously.

The [dead] Cucumber
I planted this season - jalapenos, cucumber, tomato (Turkish) and peanuts. The cucumber flourished, gave flowers and then got these black ants all over. I tried to get rid of them by spraying neem oil - nothing changed. Then one afternoon I was on a butchering spree - needed to get my 7 ft tall kadipatta plant (who couldn't support itself) down to size, and the lemongrass, which looked like savannah grass, trimmed. Since I was chopping things anyway, I did the same to the cucumber plant. Not a good idea. It died. The lemongrass and kadipatta made it though. See, I told you I had become better at not killing the plants!

When I transplanted the tomato, there was only one plant in the pot. Soon there were two. I know twins don't happen magically; then I remembered that the pot used to house a tomato plant in my previous home. Maybe a seed survived and bloomed because there was a lot of fertilizer in it? Now I had previously grown a cherry tomato variety in this pot. What I got were golf size tomatoes. The turkish plant on the other hand was giving cherry sized tomatoes. Go figure.

Peanuts I grew as an experiment to rejuvenate the soil - they will plant Nitrogen through Rhizobium. Ultra scientific and all. The plants have come up, so have a couple of peanuts, and surprise, so did a rat. I left the bag of nuts for planting out on the balcony and it turned into a steady supply in the winter for a rat that came in through the balcony door one night and gave us thrills for a couple of days.

Jalapenos - success. 100%.

Then there were things I didn't seed that also showed up - thai basil and beans. The basil is from another pot, so it was in the garden already. The beans are a mystery. Did they come from the leftover kitchen water that I use for watering the plants? or the compost?
I leave you with this picture of the *Star of Bethlehem*, the only flowering plant I have. The sight and fragrance are gorgeous; too bad they only last a night.

22 December 2013

Being an Indian Citizen who counts: Devyani Khobragade

The case of Devyani Khobragade clearly demonstrates who the Indian State considers important. Compare the response by our External Affairs Ministry to a falsely accused Sea Captain Sunil James, who was left to rot in jail for eleven months in Togo, to that of Ms Khobragade, who at least on paper appears to have violated US laws. The sea Captain was a regular citizen, wielding no privileges, while Ms Khobragade's father, belonging to a powerful clique of civil servants was immediately allowed access to the Minister of External Affairs.

The diplomatic furore that has surrounded the actions of the US law enforcement agents focuses only on what happened to Ms Khobragade, not what prompted the action. The allegations, that she lied on a visa application form and underpaid her maid, themselves have been swiftly set aside. Ms Khobragade's arrangement with her domestic staff does not elicit raised eyebrows. After all, In India, which of us has a written contract with our maids? It is also probably not considered odd that Ms Sangeeta Richards, Ms Khobragade's maid, was paid partly in US dollars and partly in INR, into her Indian bank account. Shouldn't there be all manner of tax implications for something like this?

The very act of taking a maid from India smacks of irresponsibility. You promise someone more money, but overlook the social price they would pay. Did Ms Richard's know English? Even English-speaking Indians feel alienated in new cultures sometimes - was there an outlet or mechanism for Ms Richard to cope with being in a new country all by herself? No doubt Ms Khobragade required help to raise young daughters, but why couldn't she hire locally? A place like New York City has sufficient diversity to allow recruitment of household help of a particular ethnicity. But that would have required a higher level of legal responsibility, in addition to financial burden. It appears that our diplomats are no better than us when it comes to household help - get it cheap, and treat the relationship like a favour.

What is further galling is that the Indian Government has come out blazing in its response. Ms Khobragade has been transferred immediately to a position that could offer better immunity to prosecution and apparently in retaliation, privileges have been withdrawn for US diplomats in India. Ask yourself - would this have happened if Ms Khobragade was an investment banker or software engineer in New York City? In that case, the media would have reported it, we would have had two or three editorials about how maids should be treated and the matter would have died down. Because of the nature of Ms Khobragade's position, it appears that the Indian Government wants to purportedly protect "Indian dignity". Let it be known that there are some of us who think it is more shameful that we treat domestic help poorly, than having our diplomat strip-searched. That the Indian Government wants the charges dropped is further proof that we value face-saving, to dealing with the matter in a just and fair manner.

What about Ms Richards? Where is she, and why is it being over-looked that she too is an Indian citizen? Her family appears to have moved to US shortly before the arrest - the obvious reading of this is that the US Government was well aware of how the situation might snowball, but another reading could be that Ms Richard's family genuinely feared for their lives. At one point or another, we Indians have experienced how having "influence" can turn the tide of affairs in the corridors of government power. Isn't it likely that her maid's family felt threatened? One Sunday afternoon, N and I came to blows with riff-raff just because we parked outside a politician's house in Hyderabad. There was no legal restriction to parking; but public space all around that house was commandeered and policed by his goons. When something as trivial as parking space can cause politicians to inflict violence, what would you expect in a more serious case as this?

I am pained that in terms of action, we continue to focus on how our diplomats are being treated and view it in the broader context of national pride. Why can't we discuss and introspect more on what caused this situation, and how we should treat our domestic staff better so they don't feel that their only recourse to legal aid is asylum in another country?

Update: Read here the official charges filed by the US against Ms Khobragade.

15 December 2013

Maids are working women too

Buried in the news story about India's outrage at how our diplomat was treated by law enforcement officers in New York City (Read: Indian diplomat arrested on visa fraud charges), is the not so uncommon story of treating domestic help poorly. Although in this instance, the jury is still out, a couple of years ago another Indian diplomat was convicted of abusing her domestic help, and asked to pay her compensation (Read: Indian diplomat asked to pay $1.5million to ex-maid). More recently, in India, was the horrifying actions of an MP's wife on her two helpers, which resulted in one of them dying (Read: BSP MP, wife arrested for maid’s death in their Delhi house). I find this disturbing. Why are we mean to people we hire?

I grew up in urban India and as a culture, everyone I knew had maids. Most people had daytime help - people who would come for a couple of hours in the mornings, and more rarely, where the stay-at-home help who came from remote villages. So when I came back from the US, I did the usual thing - I hired a maid. Sensitized by my experiences in the US about being politically correct, I thought hard about what I would call this person. "Servant" was out. That just sounded demeaning. Domestic help? Housekeeper? Maid? Hired help? I think the way we treat them starts with this discovery. How would you describe them?

For me, my maids have been extraordinary. They are hard-working women, who are sometimes the only bread-winners for their family. I have also been very lucky with finding them - my maids have been thoughtful honest people who are extremely professional about their tasks. There are two rules that I announce before I hire one -

Rule # 1: You will take a weekly off.

Rule # 2: Please don't ever lie to me. 

For all the maids I have had, Rule # 1 comes as a surprise. They aren't really sure what I mean by it. I try to explain that everyone who works normally gets a weekly off; If I get one, so must you. I also explain that this is included in the monthly salary. My preference is that they take off Sunday. This weekly off is in addition to sick leave and paid-leave for holidays. When I explain my philosophy to colleagues, they mention how Sunday is the only day they get to supervise their maids. Fair enough, then give her another day off. I don't understand how people can expect their maids to work 7-days a week, but find it perfectly acceptable that they get one or two days off weekly from their office.

Rule # 2 is to assure them that I understand how unpredictable life can be, and would like to accommodate this in our relationship. So, if she wants to take 10-days off, I request that she be honest about this. It disturbs me when she takes off for 6 days and doesn't return on day 7. At the very least, I expect a phone call if there are change in plans. 

My experience with both rules is that maids are wary. Till they start working with me and realize that I mean these rules, they don't open up about it. It is sad that rule # 1 is quite useless because other people that she works for, don't give her an off. There are other taboos that I don't follow - our maids eat and drink from the same cups as we do, they don't handle my hazardous sanitary waste or the compost waste, they are welcome to anything in the fridge/ kitchen to satisfy their hunger. I never shout/ raise my voice. If I find something amiss, I point it out gently.

I consider my maids as an asset; without them, it would be difficult for me to be efficient and functional. I also don't set them tasks that I wouldn't do myself. I might dislike doing the dishes, but I am capable of doing it.

Above all, I think of my maids as working women first. Like me, they have to balance work and their own homes. Unlike me, they don't have the luxury of having someone else do their chores. They have period cramps, annoying in-laws and demanding children. Just like I expect professional treatment in my work place, they should get professional treatment from me. As a professional woman, I should play it forward.

13 December 2013

Real estate crazy Bangalore

Hoardings in Bangalore predominantly come in two flavours - jewellery adverts or real estate ads. Why these are the only items worth marketing, is a rant for another post. What really galls me is the content of the ads. Jewellery, is most times Indian. Fine, we like our gold and at least sometimes, these are aesthetic. You might not like jewellery, but you can admire the design. 

With apartment ads though, all you see is - Californian-style villa, Spanish-villa, Italian-marble, German-architect. I never see ads about structures that take inspiration from a Toda tribal hut or Chettinad-style veranda or fabulous ventilation of a Kerala tharvadu? No mention ever about a South-American, African or Asian aesthetic, barring sometimes, a Japanese zen garden. Are we this obsessed with living like the west? 

Regardless of the price you pay for your foreign-labelled home, you'll still have to get your water from the corporation, electricity from BESCOM and your maid from a halli nearby. The thesaurus has been milked dry for adjectives to define "luxury" on the hoarding. When you finally settle in that dream home, everything about it is Indian - a dozen rules were probably flouted for construction, the land might have had shady antecedents and your main source of water would be the bore-well that will run dry in a couple of years. Such a mismatch between what you are promised, and what you get. 

Yet, the city's real estate is like an adolescent on growth hormones. The skyline is dotted with apartments, sticking out like acne. Ugh. I live in one of them, and have to call it home.

3 December 2013

Missing numbers

Rukmini took a sharp intake of breadth and loudly exclaimed, "Ayyo!" She hastily opened the letter from the taxman. Since they weren't known to send out congratulatory letters of any sort, she was certain the news was not pleasant. Despite this knowledge, her heart leaped into her mouth as she read how much the bar owed the taxman. In the agitation that followed, her glasses tumbled on to the floor and she stepped on them.

As she ground the glass with her heel, her mind raced, "How could this be?"

Accounts was not Rukmini's strong point so she had a Mr Swaminathan who did all the numbers. He told her to sign here, here and here. She did. Swaminathan was a friend of Murugan and she has felt comfortable with him. There hadn't been an issue for over a decade. So, what was this all about?

She dialed Swaminathan. After many rings, a woman answered and said he wasn't available to come on the phone. She mumbled something about illness, and before Rukmini had a chance to plead for an audience, she cut the line. When she tried the number again, the mobile had been switched off.

After tossing and turning in bed that night Rukmini decided that she needed to take the bull by its horns: she decided to visit the Tax offices. It was a sunny day, armed with an umbrella, her most faded dharmavaram cotton saree, and a hairstyle that made her face appear vulnerable, Rukmini set out. After visiting each floor, three different Mr Nataraj's, three peons who felt obliged to send her down corridors with stinky bathrooms, Rukmini reached the office of the taxman who had signed her letter.

"Madam, as it says here, service tax has not been paid and the government would like to claim that. What is the problem, eh?" His tone was paternal and perplexed, like Rukmini was expecting to be appreciated for solving the difficult problem of what two plus two equals. After delivering his insight, the officer busied himself with peering intensely at the various files on his desk. Rukmini was flabbergasted, and after a moment, collected herself, saying "Yes Sir. The letter is plain. What needs clarification is how the Government reached this conclusion? I have copies here with all the previous years tax papers. Everything tallies." After browsing all the papers in the file in his hands, the gentleman cleared his throat, looked up, rather confused that she was still sitting in front of him, and intoned "Madam, there is an appeals process. Go to the third floor, they will help you."

Rukmini spent the day learning about various forms, what items were required in triplicate and mused that if one were to be given a choice on being reborn as an annoyance, the taxman must top the list, followed perhaps by a mosquito.

Swaminathan was still not reachable by phone, so she decided to finish her day by visiting him. His office was shut. Seeing her confused expression, the security guard of the office opposite informed her that Swaminathan's office had been closed for three months. Had he been ill for so long, wondered Rukmini? Must be something serious. So she decided to visit his home.

When she got there, she was surprised to find the metal gate, which served as the entrance, was bolted and locked. She started rattling the gate and shouted, "Mr Swaminathan! Mr Swaminathan!" Nothing stirred. In a fit,  Rukmini jumped over the gate, ruing that she had worn a saree. Then she rang the bell. Again and again, giving vent to her exasperation. She stopped when she felt the vibration of her mobile phone. An SMS from Swaminathan's number. Come to the back door.

"Be quiet" Swaminathan's wife, assumed Rukmini, hissed these words as she pulled her roughly by her hand into the house. All the curtains were drawn so it took a while for Rukmini to adjust her eyes to the darkness. The house felt warm and suffocating, likely because no window had been opened in a while. "My name is Rukmini. I am Swaminathan's client. Please calm down. I think I spoke to you yesterday, and you said he was sick. So, I wanted to make sure it was nothing serious." Rukmini tried to be calm and matter-of-fact, as she spoke. 

The woman introduced herself as Sudha, and motioned Rukmini to sit down "I don't know, ma. He has disappeared. One regular office day, he locked up as usual, but didn't come home. We have been married fifteen years and not once has that man not followed his routine. I waited for a few days and then filed a complaint with the police. That day, he had left his mobile at home, so I can't even use that to trace who he might have talked with. Soon after the police got involved, three thugs started visiting the house. They too wanted to know where he was. They said he owes them money, for gambling." Gambling? Somehow it was hard to imagine Swaminathan, his forehead bearing a red V, the mark for Vishnu, who didn't eat hotel food, didn't keep friends, drank only water boiled in his house, to have got into gambling. Sudha went on to share that because the thugs kept showing up at odd hours, she decided to shut herself in.

Rukmini convinced Sudha to come live with her to avoid the goons. She accompanied Sudha to the police station to find out what progress they had made. Swaminathan was neither a criminal, nor a politician, or a wealthy man, so his priority as a missing person was pretty low. The only thing that stood out was a single transaction, in Swaminathan's bank account; it was a deposit made a week before he disappeared. It had been made by a company registered in Mauritius and was worth about ten times as much as Swaminathan would earn in his lifetime. Sudha had no idea about the account or the money; Swaminathan had always taken care of the finances. When the police contacted the company, they got a lawyer who wouldn't give them any information, till he received orders from the proper channels. It was no surprise to Rukmini that the proper channels involved the Ministry of External Affairs, from whom the police expected a response in six months. 

Rukmini's head swirled - her life had become a movie plot. She got a tax notice, and her tax consultant has disappeared. Somehow the mafia was involved. What next? Was she going to get a death threat? Or a ransom note with Swaminathan's pinkie as incentive?

Sudha was a sad guest to host. She weeped copiously and whenever Rukmini met her, talked about what a good man Swaminathan was, and how cursed she was to be without a husband. Always the one for action, Rukmini shuddered at these meetings and tried to convince Sudha that she wasn't helpless, just a victim of circumstance. After a few weeks, Rukmini conceded failure; Sudha's refrain was that she wanted to go to her village. She needed money to do so, and the police had closed Swaminathan's account. Lawyers were contacted, and Rukmini arranged for Sudha to have access to the account to make a one-time withdrawal, till the police could complete paperwork to declare Swaminathan legally dead. As she waited outside the bank for Sudha to complete her transaction, she wondered what would become of her tax problem.

So caught up was Rukmini that she didn't realize that even after an hour, Sudha had not emerged from the bank. She rushed inside, irritated with herself for not being vigilant. The poor woman was so frightened of those goons! There was no Sudha in the bank however. Rukmini badgered the teller about Sudha, but she hadn't seen any woman of Sudha's description at her post. Just then, Rukmini spotted a conference of the cleaning ladies by the Ladies bathroom. They were holding up what looked like Sudha's saree. Rukmini was frightened. The cleaning lady couldn't understand Rukmini's fear; after all, what was the big deal? Someone had left a saree, neatly folded in the ladies' room. Mysterious, but not scary. Rukmini immediately went to the Manager, explained as best as she could, and had the police summoned. Meanwhile, they checked Swaminathan's account. The account had been closed, and all the money withdrawn as cash. The teller had verified the signature against records, and it had matched Swaminathan's.

Rukmini spent hours at the police station, explaining what she knew. Obviously, they didn't believe her. Luckily she had visited the police station with Sudha, so they were witnesses to some of what she experienced. Being interrogated as a suspect was exhausting, and she was glad when they finally let her go, because of a technicality that they couldn't grapple with. Rukmini was escorting a woman who as per records, had been dead for the last five years. Her family in the village had confirmed this.

Back home, Rukmini found a folder on a bed. It contained neatly filled forms, in triplicate, for the tax office. All she had to do was sign here, here and here.