Thursday, 30 May 2013


Celebration time. Jyotsna, the girl who lives next door, has passed her Class Ten board exams (CBSE): and with a 92 percentile score. Her report card had no B grades at all, only As, and many of those A grades had double and triple plus signs alongside.

So what's special?
Jyotsna when she was eight. She is the taller one.

What's special is that Jyotsna's father, a jawan in the army, died when she was four. Her mother, who works from morning to night tending cows and collecting fodder, is illiterate. She lives in a two-roomed house with a shifting population of relatives and sometimes there are fourteen people living in those two rooms, sometimes three or four fewer. There's no generator for the hours and hours when there is no power (every day). She has no quiet corner, let alone a room to study in, nor a desk of her own. She goes to Central School, about six kilometres away -- walking, whatever the weather.

None of this is is unusual. What is remarkable is that despite all this she managed to learn to use computers, read and write in English. She read the newspaper every day, taking it from us in the evening because her family can't afford a paper.  I don't know what else she did to carve out the time and space to crack the big exam.

Yet she's no nerd. I've seen her belt out jhatka-matka dances at wedding 'sangeets' and she has an enviable sense of style: a tee from one place, a dupatta from somewhere else, a few snips and tucks on a pair of pants, a toss of her head, and she's off!

Monday, 27 May 2013


Summertime, and the tourists have come, the water supply has dried up, garden plants have shrivelled, the forest is getting ready to go up in flames -- as every year. But the roadside bushes are loaded with  raspberries and purpling blackberries and our bird cherries have turned red.

Our plum tree had to be propped up using a car jack and a forked log, it's so heavy with fruit and marauding monkeys.

The good thing about the hills is that most people share their fruit. The other day a complete stranger offered me a handful of pine nuts -- she had been collecting them from under the trees -- and they take ages to find, so it was almost as noble of her as sharing ... water. Would she share water? Probably not. Water makes blood flow here.

We've no apricot trees but an ancient carpenter, Kunwar Ram, who has been part of our life for years, came from his village with a couple of kilos; our nearby taxi driver friend Harish, whose house burnt down in last year's forest fires, also sent across apricots from his tree (it didn't perish in the fires). Harish, incidentally, is the most wonderful of drivers, the best in the Kumaon, booked months ahead for long road holidays by people who want him to drive them in the hills again and again. He turns down prospective customers, though, on the basis of their personality: if he detects what he terms the lack of a "loving nature" he refuses to drive those people a second time. Because most of his customers happen to be Bengali he has a stash of mournful Bengali pop song CDs in his Tavera, which he plays again and again if he's driving around a Bengali (eg me). Harish is a foodie: rajma only from Munsiyari, mung dal pakoras only from a particular shop in Kainchi etc -- so if he thinks his apricots are good enough to give his friends, they're guarenteed top class.

Peaches and greengages arrived from other neighbours. Fresh fruit for breakfast, in-betweens and dessert. But soft fruit spoils quickly. Tarts were obviously asking to be made, and jam. Sensing overwork, my sixteen-year-old oven died one quiet evening, without drama, abandoning the two loafs of bread inside it to their flopped destiny. The thing is that you can't buy new ovens in Ranikhet, nor can you repair old ones: nobody knows how to. We knew this from experience.

Gappu-da, the harassed gentleman who runs the electrical goods shop in the bazaar, made phone calls to suppliers in the larger foothill towns and reported that we were behind the times: nobody used conventional ovens now, it was a microwave or nothing. The apricots turned yellower, the peaches began rot, despair was in the air. And then a supplier who had one -- but only one -- oven in stock was located in Kashipur. There was no question of deliberating over the right brand or size. It was to be that one or nothing.

The delivery was fraught with tension because the supplier in Kashipur had to go to the bus stop at midnight and load it on the overnight bus to Haldwani, from where it was to make its journey to Ranikhet by taxi. Would it reached unscathed? Would it reach at all? Would the box actually contain an oven? It was a blind date.

And then at last it arrived.  I agree that tarts don't look like much, but that's because I'm a lousy food photographer and I don't have nice enough plates. They were buttery. They were tart and sweet and soft and crisp all at once. They tasted fabulous.

 As does the jam.