Thursday, December 30, 2010


Was the original choice of name for my blog, because I had that perennial stocking toe stuffer in mind: the liquorice sweets we enjoyed as children – crunchy, multicolored thingummies which used to release a burst of invigorating flavour as one chewed happily on candy brought by a thoughtful Santa. The name, apparently, was already taken and so I settled for the present moniker. But the itch for my original title remains and so it heads my thoughts for the day and, given the randomness of this post, rather appropriately.

Here, in India, it’s already the 31st, the last day of the year. A time to give thanks for the year gone by: we have experienced joy in the ‘ups’ and have, hopefully, been refined by the ‘downs’. Looking back on the bad times from today is like looking down the wrong end of a telescope: bad times are neither small nor insignificant but, because we have weathered them and because they are now in the past, we can view them with relief and let them go. The good times, on the other hand, stand out, magnified, bringing back the rush of elation of the original moment.

I didn’t win a lottery and my highs may seem insignificant to some, but as in the words of the song, ‘Little things mean a lot’.

For example, the lady who takes collection greets every member of the congregation with a wide smile and an unspoken ‘thank-you’. Such a small thing, but the corresponding smile is still on my face several hours later. Since collection is taken only on Sundays, this is a weekly gift. 52 uplifting smiles!

Then there is the local rag-picker. A not so elderly, solidly built woman, she settles down at the edge of the pavement to catch her breath after the exertion of rummaging through the garbage dump. She immediately attracts the local dogs and she lovingly strokes and murmurs to each one. They nudge and nuzzle her. The conversation may be a 'silent' one, but the shared affection is very apparent. We exchange smiles, hers contented, mine happy. A vignette to remember.

As I type this, I listen to the songs of Christmas in MP3 format compiled by a thoughtful niece. The music ranges from the nostalgic Jim Reeves to the foot tapping Country and Western to the traditional and classic rendered by various Church choirs. A little gesture but such a joy-filled gift. There is nothing like music to give you that special lift!

Then I remember friends who have been so supportive and encouraging. They range from those who have leant a listening ear, to those who have actively extended a helping hand, to those that have kept me occupied and out of the devil’s workshop. It feels good that I do not have to look very far for a good deed to be done or to earn my blessings!!

An item in today’s paper says that thinking young, doing young things, keeps you young. For the better part of the year, my students let me into their very happening lives and, for a while, I felt like sixty going on twenty: hopefully, the after effect will linger. A well developed sense of the ridiculous and also the inclination to mischief (of the nice kind) add spice to the everyday, the routine. The church cat and dog were mewing and woofing in unison, reminding anyone who was prepared to listen that supper was late. I added my bit with that old party favorite ‘How dry we are’ which almost certainly got the parlour boy’s attention. I will probably go down in local folklore as one of the parish eccentrics. Oh well, ‘fame’ at any price is still fame – don’t knock it!!

The time and the ability to read and a bountiful supply of books are also blessings for which I give thanks. The bonus? The library sent me two gift vouchers for a meal at McDonalds. One never knows where a book will take you, literally or figuratively!!

Little things, inconsequential things. But, added up, they are like the loaves and fishes multiplied.

To paraphrase the song that put my thoughts in motion:

Throw me a smile from across the room,
Say I look nice when I’m not;
Stop to chat when you cross my path
Little things mean a lot.

Give me your hand when I’ve lost the way,
Give me your shoulder to cry on;
Whether the day is sunny or gray,
Give me a heart to rely on.

Send me a mail, forwards will do

It’s not the deed, it’s the thought:
For now and forever, that's always and ever
Little things do mean a lot.


Wednesday, December 29, 2010

A very precious gift

She is locked into an immobile world, unable to move or speak. But her mind is active, her eyes expressive. She understands all that is said and she feels, deeply, both joy and sorrow. Gently nursed and lovingly cared for, she can look forward to each day and even more to the evening.

At sundown, her neighbour comes across to spend an hour with her, to read the day’s news, pray the rosary and share the happenings of her own day. Having lived side by side for over forty years they have supported each other’s families through birth, marriages, illness and death. Life’s milestones. They each know the other as they would themselves. And the affection is mutual.

Sometimes, they are joined by a third and a fourth and then the conversation turns lively – a conversation kept as inclusive as possible so that she can participate as the listener. Sometimes mirth overflows and she can laugh with them too. Being included, being loved can do more than the best medicine; they may not cure but they make life worth the living.

Here is a home, here is one who is visited, here are wise friends who bring themselves and their very special gift: the gift of time. In today’s terms, priceless. Gold, frankincense and myrrh rolled into one.

Given the time of year, it is but natural that the Magi come to mind. As does O Henry’s story that has survived generations and still mists up the eyes; a story that reminds us that there is a special ‘wisdom’ in the simple act of giving with love. For, “… all who give and receive gifts, such as they are wisest. Everywhere they are wisest. They are the magi.”

And, she also gives who sits, listens, smiles and silently gives thanks in her heart.

And the sharing of this experience is also a gift: my gift to you. May it lift your spirit and gladden your heart. And may you, too, experience the joy of giving and receiving in the year ahead.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Star-blessed lovers

He has declared that he will take her as his wife. She has handed over her heart to him, with alacrity. But like every Romeo and Juliet before them, there are problems.

He is the youngest of four siblings and it is the custom for the daughter of the house to marry first and then the male line in sequence from eldest to youngest. He must not break the pattern. What would the extended family say? Once one breaks the ‘rules’ others will want to follow. One cannot dispense with tradition so lightly.

Then, there is the fact that he hails from the North and she from the West. The language of love requires no translation but the kith and kin can find no common ground in caste, community or tongue. And so, the respective families find spokes to put in the wheels already set in motion.

The young couple is exasperated. The lad says he will marry without consent – he is of age and financially independent. The lass says that she will ‘take poison’ if forced to consider any other suitor. I wonder if Shakespeare has been translated into Marathi and Haryanvi and whether any of our protagonists has read the script.

There is much protesting, pleading, threatening and finally conceding. The parents agree that they love their children and it is their happiness which should come first (Capulet and Montague take note). The wedding will take place on the weekend. There is no flurry of preparation. No invitations to be sent out. The dearly beloved present will comprise the parents from each side and the bride and groom. If there is to be a celebration, it will come later. Much later. Perhaps when the couple welcome their first child.

He is 24. She is 22. They will wed with the stardust still in their eyes.

Will they remain in love forever like those immortalized in fable?

Neither Friar nor Nurse but mere spectator, I am keeping my fingers crossed and wishing with all my might that they will. And may no one to the marriage of true hearts (and true minds) admit impediment!

Friday, December 10, 2010

A little man with a large heart

The world knows of Mother Teresa, but it is Fr. Fred Sopena who touched my life and I wouldn’t trade all the saints in heaven for that!

He is a dapper little man and has an artificial leg which no one knows about unless they know him. The first time I met him I was reminded of a schoolboy who has just played a prank on his teacher and is waiting to be found out – a delightful mix of mischievousness and lively anticipation. And he must have been all of 75 at the time. The artificial leg is mentioned because despite the trauma of losing a leg in an accident – a lorry knocked him off his bike on the highway – he just picked himself up and got on with doing what he does best – helping those in need. No obstacle too big.

We met because of a letter he wrote in our diocesan weekly, The Examiner. The letter asked for contribution of talent in terms of needlework, woodwork, electrical skills and so on. There was no appeal for any kind of financial donation. This was unusual. I was intrigued. I contacted the numbers given and offered my skills as a crocheter. I was visited, my work duly inspected and my offer accepted. Contributions were sold at Christmas and the resultant funds were used to lay the foundations of Fr. Fred Sopena’s latest project at that time.

A Spanish Jesuit, Fr. Fred’s heart is firmly and totally committed to India and the downtrodden, particularly children. Which is why he realised a dream when he set up a centre in Mahad for the children of Katkari tribals – landless, migrant labourers who have nothing except their skills and who depend on local farmers for their livelihood. The children of these tribals accompany their parents from place to place, which means that they can never attend school. An extra pair of hands to the plough, they would normally face as bleak a future as their parents. But then Fr. Fred crossed their path and life would never be the same. Like the star above the stable, enthusiasm shines from his visage and is so infectious that before you know it, you are caught up in his mission to do what you can – and more – for the least of the Lord’s brethren.

The band of followers has grown with missionary zeal from that one little seed planted in unlikely ground, so many years ago. There are those who know him better and not just from one chance encounter. They will no doubt be able to do a better job of eulogizing the person and his work which encompasses much more than the one project mentioned here.

I write about him because he is the living example of the Gospel message of the power of love and what better time to do so than the season of Christmas – the time when we are reminded of what it is to love and to give.

Friday, December 3, 2010

By lanes

Khotachiwadi, not just a place but a way of life, is in the news and for all the wrong reasons. Besieged by a futuristic world that views destruction of the old as progress and preservation a white elephant, the residents are standing shoulder to shoulder in an attempt to stem the encroaching marauder.

Khotachiwadi is firmly embedded in the fabric of my memories. While courting, I visited my husband and his family there; then, as a new bride, their home was my dwelling place for a year. And like homing pigeons, we returned for birthdays, anniversaries, weddings, christenings, First Communions, funerals, feast days, Christmas and for no reason at all other than a tug at the heartstrings.

A visit to Khotachiwadi with its cluster of interlinked winding lanes dotted with balconied, tiled homes, is an adventure. Once you step inside, you are in a different world, a different time and a different mood. As you wend your way through from entrance to destination, friendly faces smile, friendly hands wave and friendly voices call out a greeting and a query. Everyone knows everyone and for generations. People are known for their occupations and their talents from the doctor to the Bebique aunty (sadly no more – her Bebiques were legendary and the memory of the taste, though faint, still lingers). And directions always included a left/right from the kolsawalla, or the chip-shop, or Anand Ashram or someone’s house.

It is also a self-contained place, better than the best developed modern township – hospitals, schools, places of worship and shops are all within walking distance. No vehicle required. But if you should need to travel further afield, the location is well networked by bus and rail. Even better than the network of facilities, is the network of people. You may be alone but never lonely.

Big houses meant large families and warm hearts. I remember once telling a friend who questioned my lack of a ‘social life’ that I had no need to visit restaurants or jaunt around the town, the family birthdays and anniversaries kept me entertained and well fed!

But times change. And in the cause of ‘development’ there are those who scorn preservation for the few when viewed against the ‘needs’ of the many (though I think they really mean ‘money’!). A bungalow inhabited by one family could reinterpret itself as a high-rise for sixteen or even more. It would also mean a very healthy profit for the developer and all those who ‘assist’ in the development.

Divided between nostalgia and practicality, I know deep down that change is inevitable. But I do not want to dwell in memory in the here and now. I want to be able to see, hear and feel. I want to know that I can still find a living, breathing place which answers a favourite prayer: ‘Slow me down, Lord, still the frantic beating of my heart…’ A place which embodies the adjectives, homely, gracious, affable, vibrant, charming, heart-warming.

A place where time stands still long enough for batteries to be recharged. A little bit of soul in the middle of a hurried and harried city.