Payal’s story – the early years gb

(Illustration by Desiree Bashi)

The first sound Payal could remember hearing was that of her Baba (father) and of the nearby waves. The waves were never harsh , they were always soothing and gentle on her ears. At night it seemed to her that the waves swaddled her body and rocked her to sleep where she dreamt such beautiful and happy dreams. Baba was always the same ; kind and gentle and encouraging her in everything she did as she grew.

She wasn’t certain at what point she realised that she didn’t have a Maa. It must have been during one of the festivals when all the little girls and their mothers were invited to the palace. The king and queen used to organise prayers and give offerings to the gods to keep the land safe and the people happy. It was a grand ceremony with many priests and wise men, the palace was decorated with torches, fresh flowers and silk cloths draped over walls. All the servants were in newly made garments of white and yellow cloth with large silver buttons. They looked smart. Yellow and white is such a fresh combination don’t you think?

Afterwards the guests would be fed a delicious meal followed by mouthwatering sweets and a drink of honey and almond milk. The girls would all sit in a line with their mothers sitting opposite them. Baba had insisted that Payal go. You know how persuasive fathers can be. I think Payal must have been eight years of age and decided that it was easier to go than upset Baba. The women of the village had helped get Payal ready.. The clothes were not a problem; a long sarong type skirt in green with a bright orange blouse for that first year. It was her long hair that Baba struggled with. He would try and plait it and as soon as he held one strand another would fall out. This carried on for ages until most of her waist length silky black hair was loose and a small plait was left in his hands. Payal and Baba looked at each other and burst out laughing. He gave up finally and took her along to where the other girls and their mothers were gathering. A couple of the women took Payal to one side and plaited her hair and did some wizardry to bring it all together in a loose bun. One of them with a satisfied smile then placed a flower in the gathered masterpiece.

So here she was in this grand hall sitting on the floor along with her friends all chattering away. The women were opposite the girls. I’ve never been able to work out why they did it this way. Perhaps to stop the girls getting bored. Some women even had two or three girls. How was that even possible she thought. She looked opposite her and there was an empty space. I think it is unfair but Payal never complained but did occasionally wonder why she was the only one without a Maa. The Queen used to look forward to this event. She had two sons and yearned for a daughter. She hardly saw the boys as they were with their tutors during the day and after their evening meal would fall asleep too quickly with her. She thought a daughter could remain with her at all times. She hadn’t really thought this through.

The Queen wondered amongst the seated guests and happened to see Payal. She wasn’t a pretty girl but was very striking. Such long her , big oval eyes with long lashes that curled over. A sweet smile. She looked over to see her mother and saw the empty space. Her heart sank for the girl. She looked at her again and did not witness any sorrow. Infact she seemed perfectly happy. How very strange!

Then the queen did a most extraordinary thing. Can you guess? Yes. She sat down opposite Payal. The entire hall fell silent and was pretending not to stare. The king and the two princes were smiling as they watched. So typical of her. She was such a rebel. You now know where Madhvi got that wild streak from. This was her grandmother and the older prince who was only ten at the time would later become the king and her father. I wouldn’t want you to say that I didn’t keep you informed. Anyway back to Payal.

Payal became of everyone’s eyes upon her. She raised her own eyes away from her food and looked ahead and nearly choked upon see the queen in front of her. Ok, she thought what does one do faces with a queen. She really hadn’t given this situation much thought in her young life. She seems nice enough and was smiling at her and seemed to be genuinely wanting to speak to her. Oh well here it goes she thought. “Hello your highness” she said in her politest voice. The Queen perked up and replied “hello child, what is your name?”. Everyone knew Payal’s name so this question came as a bit of a surprise. “It’s Payal” she replied without adding “what a silly question”. The Queen sat amongst them throughout the meal asking Payal questions about where she lived, who she lived with, what she enjoyed doing, names of her friends and then asked the killer question about her missing Maa. Payal gave her a puzzled look. No one had ever asked her so many questions, even the teacher at the village school. She thought about it and said simply, “I just don’t have one”. Tears started flowing from Queen’s eyes and Payal thought she had done something very wrong to make the Queen cry. The girls and the women near them looked at her reassuringly and mouthed don’t worry. The queen stood up and bent over Payal and told her that it had been lovely to meet her and she was a very brave girl. And then she did another extraordinary thing. I bet you can’t guess this time. Well let me tell you. She took off her pearl necklace and placed it over Payal’s head. Payal was a little overwhelmed and murmured a thankyou and bowed her head. The Queen then left the hall. Before long the noise levels were up again and music could be heard from the courtyard. Everyone went out to watch the dancers and listen to the musicians before heading home.

Payal’s friends were so happy for her and recounted the evening’s events to her Baba when they finally reached home. Jealousy had not emerged amongst these people. Baba looked at her daughter and the pearl necklace which seemed to give her an added glow. But how could they accept such a gift. It had to be returned. He would discuss it with Payal the following day. That night as Payal slept with her hair flowing around her she could once again hear the sounds of the waves. She fell into a deep sleep and the pearl necklace clung onto its new owner. Payal was swimming in deep waters, actually under the water. She was smiling and her eyes were wide open. She was confused .. I am supposed to be asleep. She was far from that. Fishes of all sizes and colours swam with her and they chatted away; about what I am not so sure. Bigger creatures kept their distance as they did not want to frighten the princess who came to visit them daily. She reminded them of her mother…..

Payal’s mother, Aakavi had been a sea queen. In those times there was no difference between the land and the sea people. I am assuming her father was a nobleman but I am not certain as he died before her birth. Aakavi fell ill with grief before giving birth to the baby Payal and instructed her court advisors to find a good man in the nearby village. He would raise her child. She knew her life would be ending soon. But Aakavi was not sad. This was the way things passed and they would meet each other again because true and pure love never dies or separates.

I have a confession to make. I lied to you. I didn’t want people to think badly of Aakavi. Payal’s real father is actually Baba (his name is Kusham), who was a poor but very gentle and handsome fisherman. One day I’ll tell you their tragic love story; but it did create the wonderful creature called Payal. I know it sounds very common and it keeps happening over and over again. A princess falling in love with a poor man or vice versa. It must be the danger element don’t you think or the forbidden fruit nonsense.

As Aakavi was taking her last breath she came and presented Kusham with his daughter and then she simply melted away in the water. The tears of her people and the creatures of the sea caused a surge in the seas for days ; waves crashed and there seem to be no end to it. The villagers were unable to travel or fish and were beginning to think their homes too would soon be washed away. Kusham sat with his baby daughter and looked at her in wonder. She simply slept in his arms and did not make a sound. She didn’t cry, she didn’t fuss, she slept and didn’t make any demands on him in those early days.

People in the village were not even aware that there was a baby in his house otherwise they would have come with gifts and sung songs of welcome. He frowned and thought how would he explain her presence? It kept him awake for many nights. But to his surprise after he had prepared a long convulated history and presented her no one seemed to be listening to him but were just transfixed by the smiling Payal. I can’t tell you exactly why he chose this name but it I like it. Later the same day he took Payal towards the ocean and cried out to Aakavi’s spirit that he loved his daughter and would protect and nurture her. Everyone in the ocean heard his voice booming out to sea and from that moment the waves retreated and the water’s greyness disappeared and it returned to a shimmering turquoise; warm and welcoming.

So Payal grew strong and tall under Baba’s guidance. She was a real tomboy but one with ridiculously long hair ! And in those days there was no way it would be cut. Payal often wondered how much her hair weighed and if her head was really strong as a result of carrying it. So now I’ve bought you upto speed with Payal and Baba (I prefer to call him by this name) let’s return to the issue of the pearl necklace and its return. Payal woke up as normal and reached to touch the silky beads. She hadn’t imagined it after all. She knew why the queen had given her the necklace; she had felt sorry for her. That had been obvious even to the young girl. She had never owned any proper jewellery. There was no reason for her to as she was only eight years old. She looked down at it , played with it, twisted it all the way around her neck. It was the same throughout; pea shaped creamy white pearls that were held together with a gold thread. She wondered if she should take it off ? But thought better of it, what if she lost it.

Baba walked in and paced around Payal. He had planned to reason with Payal and explain why they should return the necklace to the queen. Unfortunately it came out as “we need to go to the palace now and give the necklace back immediately”. Payal tried hard not to show any emotions but she was sad. If Baba wanted to give this back, it would have to go back. After having some breakfast of fruit and coconut milk they started on the walk to the palace . It would take at least an hour on the path that ran along the edge of the forest. Baba hadn’t quite worked out what he was going to say. Payal just skipped alongside him trying not to think about giving away the necklace.

They saw the palace in the distant and they both stood and looked; how could four people need such a big house ? They turned towards each other and shrugged and carried onto the path that curved its way to the gate made of flowers and jewels. Baba knocked and gave his name and asked for an audience with the Queen. The small door to the side opened and a young man beckoned them in. They walked behind him, Payal gripping Baba’s hand, more for his benefit. He knew it too. The Queen ( gosh I’ve forgotten to tell you her name , it’s Vedi. ) was sitting with an older woman at one end of the garden. They weren’t busy with anything in particular. Whilst I’m imparting basic information I had better tell you the names of the whole family. The King was Rivam and their sons Tali and Irap. Tali was the same age as Payal and Irap was two years older.

Vedi looked up and saw the girl from the previous night. She was delighted to see that she was wearing the necklace. Then she moved her gaze to the handsome man with her. She wondered if it was her father although she could see no resemblance. He looked very nervous and Vedi spoke earlier than she would do normally to put him at ease. He smiled and explained who he was and thanked her for the generous gift but they would not be able to keep it. It was too precious and what would his daughter do with a pearl necklace anyway. At that point Payal wished her Baba would dream beyond the village and their bit of the ocean. Why couldn’t she wear such a necklace? Vedi requested that they sit and listen to her idea. I wonder what she has in mind.

Payal sat there dumbstruck. The entire conversation concerned her but they didn’t consult her once. She wasn’t unhappy about the plans but she wanted to declare her presence and shout “I am here, right here, look!” The drawback of being an eight year old girl. Then there was silence and Baba looked down at her and said,”what do you think Payal, could you handle this change?” Ahh finally you think it’s important to check she grumbles to herself. “I would love it Baba, who wouldn’t. I get to be with you, see my friends and get to spend time in this beautiful place.” She thought she was whispering but Vedi could hear the excitement in Payal’s voice.

So it was decided that the young Payal would come to the palace every other day and spend time with the Queen. She would help her with her education and would be allowed to play with the princes. And when she was old enough, probably fourteen or so she would come to work as one of the Queen’s maids. The discussion over the necklace; now did it actually take place ? Payal and Baba went home in a daze whilst the necklace still hung around the girl’s neck. I am not convinced that Vedi was totally honest. I think there is some history with the pearl necklace; why for example did she have it with her on the night of the festivities, it was not her normal jewellery. Why was she drawn to Payal and why would she allow a village girl to play with the princes?

Payal would make the journey to and from the palace accompanied by a guard. He would be there outside the house when she awoke and ensure she was home before dark. Baba would wave her off with a great big bear hug. The guard and Payal walked in complete silence and although the she tried in the early days to engage him in conversation but to no avail. The man would look down at her and smile when she wasn’t looking. He wanted dearly to talk with her but it just wasn’t the done thing and he took his job for the Queen very seriously. Payal would occasionally skip or sing to pass the time.Then there were also periods when she would work through all the names of people she had to learn about, gone by kings and queens and important ministers and court officials. How could it take so many people to look after our land? King Rivam had so many men (no women and perhaps that was the problem, well you were all thinking it). She was sure she could do better.

At the other end her friends would always repeat the same comments. “You’re so lucky”. “Tell us what is new there?” “What are they like?” “Do you really play with the princes?” It was an endless list and over the years I am certain she would have answered them truthfully. She shared her experiences with great honesty, openness and as if she were hearing the questions for the first time. She would tell them how kind the Queen was, how funny the King was, how loving Irap could be and how studious Tali was. Payal would watch them with wonder when they were together; each being a part of the whole. She also noticed how Queen Vedi had introduced her into this exclusive club. Over the years Payal had started to sit with the princes during their studies. And she was by far the brightest and wise beyond her years. The princes were never upset by this but used to tease her and say that she would one day rule the kingdom (I will come back to this point as it will be the game changer for all concerned in this story). They all missed her on the days she wasn’t there and Baba missed her on the days she was away from him. Payal was equally happy at both places but knew that her Baba needed her more. At the palace she was never asked to do any manual work. At home she was responsible for cooking and cleaning and fetching the water. She was what you would call an all-rounder. I can’t think of anyone who didn’t love her or didn’t wish her well.

She was about to turn fourteen and Baba knew that soon she would be living at the palace. She would visit him but he wasn’t able to come to terms with her not being at home, he was losing Payal but also Aakavi. Payal was also concerned and resolved to find a solution. She discussed the problem with the Queen. The Queen mentioned it to her husband. Payal also spoke with the princes. It didn’t take long for the answer to appear. They were all trying to take credit for it but they all secretly knew it was Payal’s idea that had been weaved into their thoughts. Baba could help run the Royal fleet.He could live near the palace and would still be close to the ocean. Baba would never leave his beloved water. He needed to touch it every day and listen to the waves. Ofcourse Baba was sad to leave the little house and the community he had spent so many years with but he belonged near Payal, she was still a child. Just past her fourteenth birthday Payal was settled into the women’s quarters and Baba in a shelter a short distance from the palace.

Life was moving on.I think she became more beautiful and graceful as she grew older. She continued to have magical dreams and swam with the people and creatures of the ocean. She remembered more and more of her visions and contemplated ways to make sense of them. She decided to go to the ocean’s edge on the night before her 18th birthday. The water was still and a faint humming could be heard from below the surface. Payal walked into a warm silky ocean and found herself in her dream state. Above the water just a few yards away Baba watched as his daughter went to her mother’s world. Payal swam, met people, talked about her world and listened to stories going back years of Aakavi and her adventures. It was soon time to go back to the palace so she simply raised her arms and gently spun her way to the top. It mirrored her dreams precisely. As she strode away from the water she was dry and felt renewed. Baba was still there but had fallen asleep, Payal woke him and smiled at him and told him all was well.

Later that day the Queen held a private celebration for Payal’s birthday. The King and the princes were there along with a very uncomfortable Baba. He had never got used to the pomp and luxury even after all these years. Although Payal and he still lived in quite simple quarters they were constantly surrounded by the excess of the palace. Even the garden seemed to have more than it’s fair share of flowers. Although Vedi and Rivam were not the showy type they could not escape some of the grandeur needed. Don’t feel too sorry for them. Today there was just a simple spread of nuts, fruits and sweets for them to enjoy along with water flavoured with rose petals and honey. The Queen seemed to be anxious to speak. She looked excited and impatient. Payal knew what she wanted to tell her. Vedi had not guessed that Payal had been going to the ocean all her life and had become aware of the old friendship between the two Queens. The pearl necklace was a gift from Aakavi to Vedi when they were young girls. Vedi had seen Payal long before the first night they had met. She had guessed that she was Aakavi’s child but it’s not a thing you just drop into everyday conversation. Especially to a girl such as Payal.

Rivam looked at his wife and said,”come on Vedi please tell us all what you are bursting to reveal.” That was just the cue she needed and about an hour later the audience which had sat in complete silence remained speechless. Baba and Payal hugged each other. Rivam and the princes bowed and all welcomed Princess Payal, “ we are honoured that you are amongst us”. Rivam winked at her. Irap dug his elbow in her ribs whilst Tali gave her hair a quick tug. So, nothing really changed other than Payal was moved to the royal block and proclamations of her new status were sent out. She was also given the grand title of Advisor to the Princes.She sensed that the existing supporters of the king were not especially happy with this news. However, she ensured she involved them in any decisions relating to the princes. In addition she started disappearing for long periods of time and reports of her adventures would reach them long after her return. Helping poor farmers, rescuing ill treated women, resolving feuds and anything else good you can muster. She never forgot her village friends and would visit them regularly even if it was just to deliver some fuel or food or to simply chat; she always seemed to appear when they needed her the most.

So this is how Payal became the fairy godmother like figure in the land. She had a magical presence. And if you are wondering, she didn’t marry either of the princes. Life isn’t that simple or predictable

Perhaps I will get the opportunity to share some more of her adventures another time. The first one will be surely be about the day her pearl necklace broke and it is said that the Pearl Girls or Odissi Dancers as they became to be known were created from these very pearls …

…………………….the end for now………………

The Princess 👑 and The Odissi Dancers

The gorgeous and talented Desiree Bashi created this beautiful image and prompted me to try and write the story behind it. I hope you like it 🙏🏽

Princess Madhvi – it’s such a wonderful name, isn’t it. So pretty and graceful. You will probably be imagining a beautiful Indian princess dressed in an ornate extravagant jewelled gown. Perhaps in pink or blue or emerald green. Ok, so she was really very pretty; well actually the prettiest in the land! I know that’s such a predictable start to a story but I don’t want to lie to you all.

But that’s where the good stuff ends. I’m sorry to disappoint…but in reality she was a nightmare child! Well when I say a child she was actually 17!! And her 18th birthday was fast approaching.

Madhvi’s parents were very generous with their time and love for their people. Everyone seemed to live happily in this enchanted idyllic land. The only time that they weren’t smiling and dancing was when they came anywhere near Madhvi.

She could do everything and did it well; she could paint, she could ride, she could sing, she could run fast, she could write well. In fact, all the other children were in awe of her but no one really wanted to be her friend because she never seemed happy and if she wasn’t happy she made sure those around her were miserable. She just couldn’t help it.

No one could understand why she was not content with her life and all the pleasures that came with being a princess. I know you’re all rolling your eyes wondering what is wrong with this young woman. So let me tell you: Madhvi just couldn’t dance! No rhythm at all. Could not coordinate arms and legs, looked like a broken puppet. Not a big deal is it, you’re thinking. But if you’re a princess, you are expected to dance and be graceful and be twirled around by handsome princes at grand balls. And when does that start? You’ve guessed it! At her 18th birthday party. Like all princesses she would need to find a prince. Sorry to be peddling stereotypes.

It had been two years of planning by the king, queen and numerous minions up and down the land getting the best of everything. In the meantime in a private room somewhere in the palace Madhvi was watching different dancers and after each performance she would, with their encouragement, join them. What can I say?! it was a disaster. They would politely reassure her that this wasn’t her dance but the next one surely would be just her “thing”. Well let me tell you, that never happened and Madhvi became more irritable and, in addition, very sad. She even stopped looking beautiful.

At this point I think we need some magic to help out our princess. No fairies or magic slippers or even unicorns but a fish! And a tiny fish at that. No, I don’t know her name. But for the sake of this story let’s call her Payal.

Payal’s job was to bring the last remaining form of dance that the princes had not seen or tried to the court, Odissi. It was a dance that came from a distant land and had been made famous by Parvati, Sheeba and Desiree. When the dancers heard of the princess’s plight, they wanted to help. The three dancers set sail in a round boat that had no sail. Although very frightened they knew they would be fine as Payal appeared ahead of them and sparkled, set the route and seemed to pull them along…

The friends were at sea for many weeks but in our story it was just a few days. Delicious fruits, cheeses, bread and fresh water appeared during the night. The girls ate, drank, sang and enjoyed their time at sea. But they were starting to miss their dancing and were worried they would disappoint the king and queen. They were very proud of their Odissi dance and spent many hours practicing and preparing their vibrant costumes and jewellery. They were always immaculate and prepared. Professionals, you might say.

Payal shone and shimmered. She would swim ahead, dart back and then swim around the boat. She would smile at the girls and they would wave back enthusiastically. On day eight the dancers awoke to see that Payal was no longer in sight and their boat was now amongst others all in a row, but theirs was the only small round one!! And the only one without sails. Not a particularly cool way to arrive to a new country, they thought. They whispered amongst each other as to what they should do next. Both Desiree and Sheeba looked towards Parvati for some guidance; after all, she was the oldest and wisest. They loved and respected her.

Parvati stepped out of the boat and helped her friends out. As they stepped forward they noticed a tall beautiful woman with long flowing black hair wearing with a long silver dress. She had a very familiar smile and as they stared at her she gave them a wink. Good grief, they thought! And all of a sudden there were crowds around them creating a path behind the woman. Parvati encouraged the other two to follow…what else could they do? Payal had disappeared and their boat was trapped between these fancy ships.

You’ve guessed it! They were soon at the palace gates which were adorned with flowers and jewels. They had never seen anything so special and beautiful (I know this word is being overused but there is no other way of saying it). I really wish you could see it. The tall woman with no name knocked ever so gently that the three friends wondered who would actually hear them. However within seconds the gates swung open and they carried on in. It was your typical palace but there seemed to be an abundance of beautiful flowers, many of which the dancers had never seen before.

Once in the dance room Parvati, Sheeba and Desiree were left all alone, oh except for the musicians who sat at one end. It had been a long time since they had been in such a wonderful space that the friends started working together and danced. All were moving to the music and telling stories of the Gods, watching each other, switching places and continuing the dance. They did not notice the three people spying on them from above; all were entranced and smiling at each other with knowing and approving looks.

Guess who the three were ? The King. The Queen. The third one was the tall beautiful woman named Payal – I am sure you’ve all guessed this already. She was not your normal fairy godmother!

The plan was made. Madhvi would be initially allowed to watch the three Odissi dancers and would slowly, under Parvati’s tutelage, begin learning the basics. Over the weeks and months, Madhvi seemed to develop an aura about her. She looked even more radiant and beautiful but now she also spoke sweetly and was kind and generous – a younger version of the Queen herself.

And the other extraordinary revelation I have for you is that she was a natural and gifted Odissi dancer. I would never have guessed that part. The three soon became four. They would perform for the court and anyone else amongst the fragrant gardens. And from Odissi Madhvi learnt the connection between her body and music; she was graceful and captivating.

The eighteenth birthday celebrations were approaching and Madhvi had learnt all the rules for the day – they were endless! How to dress. How to address people. How to receive the Princes and their gifts. When to sit and stand at the party (she did wonder if this was really what a party was). With whom she could and should dance. What a bore this was going to be, she thought, and felt ashamed about feeling ungrateful. She really had changed.

The night of the party arrived. The three dancers put on a special show for Madhvi. The princess was watching intently but she longed to be with them. She mingled gracefully amongst the guests as planned. Then it was time for her to receive the good wishes and possible marriage proposals from the Princes arriving from far off lands. This seemed to take forever and she was getting visibly bored. The king was looking at his daughter encouraging her to smile. She could not. There was not one handsome man amongst this lot. I just wanted to clear up that no handsome prince was about to sweep her off! And anyway that’s not what she was unhappy about. She was sad that the dancers were leaving that evening. They had admirably completed their task and had come to love Madhvi in the process.

All of a sudden there was a gasp, then ‘oh my’s, followed by some claps. The line of Princes stood speechless and could only watch as Madhvi shouted, “I’m too young to worry about this and anyway I am going to take a gap year for dancing”. Didn’t I say she was also very bright and had a place at university? Princesses do normal things, too!

She ran bare feet alongside the sea in her ridiculously heavy embroidered and jewelled gown gown and hoped that her new friends and teachers were still there. They were waiting for her. The four friends, that included Madhvi now, ate, drank water (no alcohol as it’s a children’s story), slept and talked of nothing but their beloved Odissi and where they would dance next.

Payal sparkled and shone and was now guiding four friends across the ocean. For a tiny fish she never seemed to tire….and knew exactly where she was taking them.

To be continued I am sure …..

There was & There were & There will be 💕

There was a lifetime of normal.

There was a lifetime of being independent.

There was a lifetime of being strong.

There was a lifetime of being a daughter, sister, wife, mother, aunty.

There were two children – one of each.

There was a lifetime a lifetime ago.

There were many hours at the mandir.

There were countless steps along the Broadway.

There were yards and yards of sarees.

There were never ending supply of shoes.

There were countless people fed, my cooking was in demand.

There were the strokes, they were drawn to me.

There was the dementia, when did it arrive ?

There were the months of being incomplete.

There were the piles of dosset boxes.

There were the glorious months back home in India.

There were the endless adaptations to make life easy for me.

There were the wheelchair walks to the park.

There were the attempts at frame walking, I was an unwilling participant.

There were the fun days with family.

There were the visits from the grandchildren;Nanimum and Daadiji.

There were the times I couldn’t stop talking.

There were the days I made life bleak for those around me – they didn’t seem to mind! They pretended…

There were the flowers that Guddi always bought.

There was the smile that Simon bought.

There was the love that Sam showered me with.

There were yet more ambulance rides.

There were the worried looks on faces.

There were many hospitals and many wards.

There was the garden where I soaked up the sun, the amazing tilt & space wheelchair.

There were the ups and downs of the hoist machine, some escape from the bed.

There was June who shouted all the time but she didn’t know why?

There was the lady who was beside me for many weeks and then wasn’t.

There was the young girl who lied and made lots of noise.

But she couldn’t help it, I saw the cuts.

There was the young woman who moaned all the time. She wanted a hotel experience.

There were the women who had no visitors, my heart breaks for them.

There were the nurses who called me Aunty.

There were the nurses who cared.

There were the young doctors who seemed too scared to speak.

There was the giving consultant.

There was the “get the bed emptied” consultant.

There were the relentless needles, hunt the vein.

There were the unforgivable hospital meals that Ramesh fed me.

There was the nasty thickener in everything, even the tea.

There is this room, with Sky TV no less

There is Zee, Sony and religious programmes, I want my soaps.

There is Gayatri Mantra every time Guddi is about.

There is the missing tea.

There are flowers, photos and a little temple – this is my new home.

There are the people standing over me, wanting me to acknowledge them.

This is Meadowhouse Hospice , this is my last stop.

There was my family.

There was the love.

There was the worry.

There were the tears.

There was hope.

There will be a future for all.

There will be someone watching closely.

There will be light again.

💕💕💕💕💕

My mummy

Shashi Bala Sharma

10th July 1946 – 11th October 2019

The Art of Buffet Eating 🍵🍤🥘🍲🥗🌮🥙🍕🍗🍳🥚🧀🥖🥔🍠🍞🥕🥒🍆🥭🍓🍇🍉🍌🍒🤢🤢🤢🤢🤢🤢🤢🤢

In this world of excess I would like to take you through some do’s and don’ts when confronted with a buffet. As the holiday season approaches I hope you will find my words of some use.

Actually the trick is not to go big on the first visit. Pace yourself … pace yourself … pace yourself.

Be calm and cool. Walk casually glancing but note contents at each station. Don’t show signs of commitment even if the displays are magnificent and enticing. It’s a negotiation between your head, eyes and stomach.

Forget about the principle of a three course meal. Buffet eating is when the number of courses should not be mentioned.Haven’t you heard “what happens at the buffet table stays at the buffet table”.

Also don’t limit yourself by being choosy .. “I’m having Indian , Italian, salad or pizza ….” No no no. Buffet is the one time when you can mix and match cuisines with ease and without judgement. Pizza and curry – why not? To make it more interactive there are often chefs at each of these stations – the Indian guy making fresh naans, the Italian (🤔) making pizza, the Arabic guy arranging the Middle East table etc etc. I for one believe (or am I dreaming again) that the nationalities of the food and chef are “matchy matchy”. Then there is the head honcho wondering around making sure that not a bean, a prawn or lettuce leaf are out of place and playing their part in this show.

To give you an example to get you buffet ready ;

Option 1

Starter: flat bread, hummus, tatziki, cucumber, carrot, popadom, salad

Mains: naan, Kashmiri pilau rice, okra curry, chickpeas, paneer & peas, popadom , raita

Desserts (note plural form): fruit, baklava,pear tart, – avoid the chocolate fountain unless you want to be splashed by the giggly girls experimenting with various food and their chocolate applications !!

Option 2 (see the seafood theme)

Starter :prawns, mussels smoked salmon fish and salad

Mains : South Indian fish curry, fish Biryani , grouper and nan bread

Desserts : baklava , fruit,

Drinks: wine , beer , coffee and water

I am sure they use stylists at these buffets. Each one looks like a piece of artwork and who wants to be the first to put a great big ladle or knife through it.And that dessert counter or should I say counters. Which wonderful chef created that. That trauma at the end of a meal where you can’t choose one single pudding, gone in a swish. No sharing needed. And perfect for me to try a bit of everything. 😱

Don’t be complacent though, watch out for

⁃ the people who pile their plates so high that they can’t remember what was on the bottom layer. They will get their money’s worth!!

⁃ The naughty kids at the ice cream station who can’t stop the ice cream from flowing.

⁃ The people who don’t know how to queue at the omelette station ! I’m not calling out the nationalities — you know who you are and don’t want to start a diplomatic incident….. When you do get to the front make sure you don’t faff and ruin the flow .

⁃ Those children running around making it a dangerous assault course. 😂

⁃ Mistakenly using a large plate for the starters. Hmmmm we don’t do that do we?

⁃ Bad timing, you don’t want to be that person standing waiting for one thing that’s being replenished.

⁃ That one person who wants a guided tour of the whole buffet- I think this is just delaying tactics because they are confused and overwhelmed.

Now that you’ve ready don’t get lulled into some false sense of security if you arrive at a themed buffet. It is out to get you . They will squeeze in flavours and options that will make you raise your eyebrows. Go with it … buffets are a perfect place for experimentation.

Food priority is an area to consider. Especially for those that eat everything. Why would you put cucumber 🥒 (love cucumber btw) on your plate if you could put prawns 🍤 or lobster 🦞? Don’t fill up on bread, it’s easily done with the mountain display of tempting shapes, flavours and seeded options. Then they throw in rolls and flatbreads. Slowly walk past and acknowledge this carb feature or if you must take some for one person. You are not sharing tonight -reminder.

And if all options fail (as it sometimes does for me) play the I am a vegetarian card “really disappointed with the choice you have amongst all this wonderful… no I don’t want to have salad again for £££. Yes that would be very kind of chef. Yes if he could make it spicy that would be lovely.”😬 Smile graciously and thank generously- how many nights are you here ?!?!?!

Be careful in those restaurants. It may be prudent, no absolutely necessary to have another person with you. But make sure that the other isn’t my hubby – a buffet tart! No dear I don’t have any tablets – no I didn’t keep a track of how many courses you had. “Did I drink too much as well?” Imagine my rolling eyes 🤦🏽‍♀️.

No need to make eye contact with the waiting staff… they’ve seen worse. Remind yourself that you are not greedy and it was in the contract to taste as many foods as possible. It would be rude not to …surely ?

🙏🏽

Seema

Two women..Two Tories..same but different 🤷🏽‍♀️

Dear Mrs May and Ms Widdecombe

Let’s not hold with formalities. Theresa and Ann. I thought I would write to you at the same time to be green. I’m also on my way out of the country again for a holiday. Although not terribly green, it is much needed. I promise to plant some trees in my garden. And as I have been vegetarian for 53 years I’m probably in the plus.

On to other matters. Theresa, I was a bit surprised that even after two letters from me, you did not respond! I will start thinking you don’t like me. I know you have been busy going around Europe – not inter-railing I know. What was your favourite country by the way?? I hope they were kind to you. Is that Brexit thing happening? October is so far away – are you hoping that everyone will come back after the summer holidays and have forgotten about last term? What will the BBC do?? They will have to create some fake news to fill up their schedule.

I digress. It would be churlish of me not to thank you for the lovely weather you got us for Easter. So you must have seen my last letter 👍🏽 What are the plans for the summer? I think if you manage to get us a good summer the country would get right behind you. Does anyone in government know what is happening in the country? I hope someone is paying the bills and keeping up with the regular chores such as education and health?

I know you’ve handed in your notice. But goodness you’ve been very canny with the conditions. The negotiation gene is in there! Much as you and I don’t see eye to eye please, pretty please don’t let Boris, Michael or Jacob get the key to Number 10. Change the locks. I can send you the details of a reliable locksmith from Bedford and he’s not too expensive – I know we are being measured in our spending.

Are you looking forward to Donald’s visit? If it were my decision he would not be allowed here, but I suppose we need all the help we can for those future trade deals. There are a lot of Americans and we want their Dollars. Whatever it takes, Theresa! But we don’t expect you to let him hold your hand. There are limits to everything.

Finally, are you keeping well? I have been concerned at your persistent cough and greyish tones. Do you need some drugs? Nothing illegal but I have a lot of new friends in Bedford who are Doctors. They are all Indian, by the way. I am sure I can get one of them to see you without waiting for weeks for an appointment. Did you see what I did there?? Mixed immigration and healthcare 💪🏽

I don’t want to seem like a stalker (that is illegal, I believe) and I am certainly not going to beg for a reply. I have my pride. But always here to offer help if you want it. I’ve been baking recently so can offer tea and cake.

And now on to you, Ann.

I heard that you have joined Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party. I hope you didn’t think it was a remake of Noel’s House Party?? No, so you seriously made a conscious decision to step up with old Nigel. Perhaps I am not as clever as all you politicians – try doing something that brings people together rather than creating more division. And if you put on that superior voice to start lecturing me … all I will say is “Strictly and hanging in mid air”. Everyone should do what they feel is right and honourable BUT I wait to be shown how Mr Farage adds any value to this country. Shame on you for walking over to his world.

What do you think you and Nigel do once Brexit is achieved? Do you have other passions that will surface? Does he dance too? I don’t mean to be rude, you’re the same age as my mum. But could you not have achieved something positive without him? I feel as if I’m reiterating my dislike for Mr Farage so I will stop. And I know you aren’t bosom buddies with Theresa so you will understand my feelings.

See you both on Halloween! 👻🎃

🙏🏽

Seema

The Art of Redundancy 🤔

Life has a funny way of sorting itself out sometimes. I am delighted to report that I have a new job which I will be starting on 3rd June. I obviously have to squeeze in some more travel before then. Those of you that know me will not be surprised with the previous statement.

I am looking forward to seeing many of you at Exclusively Housewares in my new role as Housewares Sector Manager for BHETA. How wonderful to be able to stay in an industry I genuinely love. I am hoping I can help and support others, going forward, in this role.

I thought I would pen a few words about my experiences over recent months. So let’s start from the beginning.

The definition of redundancy is given as:

“The state of being not or no longer needed or useful”, or

“The state of no longer being employed because there is no more work available”.

Don’t believe the above when it comes to being made redundant – take it from me. A human being is never “no longer useful”. Work does not define you or your life unless you are one of the lucky creative types. Of course, it helps to pay for the annoying things in life like mortgages and bills, but also the treats. There may be no more work available at your current employer but there has to be some somewhere! At this point I would also like to remind you to never forget your worth which is tested acutely at times. Good people cannot be kept down ( Kam Nash).

Many of you reading this will at some point have experienced redundancy personally, through colleagues, family or friends. In my career, I have survived redundancy once, have been part of the team that has made people redundant and stopped a redundancy. I did not truly appreciate how people felt and cannot turn back the clock to come up with the appropriate words. I just remember feeling great sadness when colleagues were no longer around. But I have also seen those that have been made redundant flourish elsewhere.

Over recent months I have experienced sadness, loneliness, worry, hurt and a sense of being lost. Why me? I’m good at my job….people have always said that. I had lost my anchor, which I believed to be work.

I hope I do not come across as preachy or gushy but here are some observations after being made redundant at the end of 2018 along with six of my colleagues.

– Try and remain positive. Don’t shoot the messenger 🙏🏽 I can’t tell you how and cannot convince anyone that it is easy.

– Think about what you want to do. Do you want to carry on doing what you did before? Do you have skills to do something else? Hmmm, I wish I’d taken my metalwork seriously. Can you afford to learn a new skill? I have spent many hours and had numerous conversations debating and trying to unravel these points.

– Surround yourself with kind but honest people. They will keep you on the right path. They will help keep it real 😬 You will have some dark days; let them come and pass. I’ll leave mindfulness and being in the now to those in the know.

– Do listen to people and try not to roll your eyes when you hear for the umpteenth time “everything happens for a reason”, “something better is out there for you”, “enjoy the paid holiday”, “it will give you a chance to decide what you really want to do”. Well, actually, I just want to work and do a good job. Jeez! Being positive for weeks on end sounds tough.

– Get your CV checked by a professional CV writing company; get recommendations. One of my darkest days was when one of these companies targeted me. I felt absolutely dejected and they left me wanting to curl up in a quiet corner. Let’s just say that was not a productive day. They did not know me and had pitched it wrong – they completely pulled my CV to shreds (which btw had been created by another company only a few months earlier and is pretty ok).

Redundancy is a painful experience. I am not trying to belittle and undermine the emotional upheaval. And for many it brings with it financial trauma. I have a daughter at university and my concern was how would I continue to support her. In addition, my husband had only recently started a new job himself. I was lucky enough to go through the process relatively smoothly and was treated well by my previous employer.

I read so many posts and the positive memes … but my personal favourites and ones I have tried to live by are as follows:

– Keep busy. I was lucky enough to go to India for six weeks as many of you know. I made sure I visited some new places, learnt more about The Hope Foundation in Kolkata and immersed myself in family. Back in the UK I got more involved with the charities and community group I support. My kitchen cupboards have never been so tidy and everything is within its use by date 😂 Who can claim that?? I’ve made sure that every day I do something. Walking is free so have been trying to do more of this in readiness for my 10 Peak Lake District Challenge – it seemed like a good idea at the time. 24 miles in 12 hours with a 5am start 🤦🏽‍♀

– Rediscover the things you used to enjoy before you became a workaholic. Well, my husband and friends can’t believe the amount of baking and cooking that’s going on in my kitchen. And all from scratch! Blimey, how times have changed. Be warned that this brings on extra calories.

– I’m also enjoying creating conversations through my blogs. I don’t claim to be a great writer but get great pleasure from connecting with readers.

– Don’t be embarrassed.

– Don’t be angry.

– Try something new – well why not! When will you get this time again? Why wait until you retire? Well, I am trying something new but it’s a secret for now 🤫

– Spend more time with your loved ones. I’ve spent so many nights away and on the road. Before you know it you will be back at work.

– Keep networking and enjoy it. Do it because you get a kick engaging with people.

– Remember that people genuinely want to help. Be gracious if nothing comes out of these conversations. It’s all about timing.

So many events overtake our lives on a continual basis and it is very rare that we are actually in control. We firefight and juggle all the commitments of modern life like true pros. These recent months have given me the opportunity to slow down and learn to wonder at my life more. I have always been grateful and will continue to be so.

I’m truly excited about my new job and accept I am one of the lucky ones. If you think I can help you just get in touch.

🙏🏽

Seema

And hoorah for me for not mentioning Brexit!!! Well, not until now!

HOPE …. because without hope there is darkness

I was lucky enough to be born 53years ago to a family that was able to clothe, feed and provide me with shelter. Later came the education, opportunity to travel, freedom to think and speak and act independently. But, for now, I want to focus on how lucky I was to have the basics of life. Was it down to good fortune or just pure chance?

IMG_4493(Image: Howrah Bridge over the Hooghly River)

I had the opportunity to visit Kolkata, the city of Joy between 31st January and 9th February with a view to visiting the three girls Simon and I sponsor through The Hope Foundation and some of the projects (crisis centre, girls’ & boys’ homes, hospital,4 crèches etc.) run by the team. Jhulan Ghose, who handles the volunteers was my first point of contact out here. Any volunteer really needs at least 6 weeks so this week for me was a taster session. Jhulan is a passionate Kolkatan lady; bright articulate and full of so much knowledge about the city and its history. She also only drinks Darjeeling tea and can be found with a supply of tea bags on trips abroad.

IMG_4754
(Image:Jhulan Ghose)

The HOPE Foundation, now 20 years old continues to help the street children of Kolkata and often their families too – no child should have to suffer or lose their childhood. The foundation has garnered the support of many especially the Irish community back home. Plaques all over the city illustrate the generosity of various individuals, families and organisations.

Over 5 days I visited several projects, most of which are described briefly below. All the children enjoyed having their photos taken as you can see. Please note that I cannot give location names for security/child protection reasons.

The hundreds and thousands that are born here on the streets of Kolkata (and some who come from farther afield) did not choose this life. But do you know what, they handle it will dignity and grace. They see it as their lot. The children have their eyes wide open and smiles that warm your heart. They are cheeky and friendly with their new aunty! Like children everywhere.

Creche

(Images:Creche within the slum)

This is serving a slum community. We’re dropped off on a road and Jhulan darts into a narrow alley and weaves through to a doorway from where you can hear chatter. We walk in, shoes off and there is huge excitement from the little ones. We sit and watch, and you’d be forgiven for thinking you are at any normal creche; posters on the wall and the teaching methods. Jhulan tells me that training is provided regularly, and experience is shared by teachers from Ireland every year. The children are so well behaved and keen to show off their talents. My favourite was “heads, shoulders, knees & toes”.

Girls’ homes
The security is visible across the two homes I visited. In a city where children are seen as a commodity for traffickers this is critical. The homes look after different ages; younger ones and then the 13-18years olds. Their days are filled with school and extra-curricular activities. Fresh food is cooked on site for these growing girls. They are proud of their home.

IMG_4763

(Images:Girls from one of the homes playing after school)

Boys crisis unit/home
Most of the boys at the crisis centre were rescued from the railway. When we visited they were keen to show us their dance, artwork and just play games. The boys were wonderfully open and happy.

(Boys from two homes playing after school)

Mother & Child Unit
No phones and photos allowed in this unit as this is a rescue centre. Some of the children are here with their mothers, but not all. It was a much quieter unit than the others. The mothers were all out for a routine X-ray that the foundation had organised. It was a calm place and I was taken by a teenage girl with autism who was here. She is an orphan and unfortunately her adoption fell through. With the support of the team she can now participate in more activities.

Out of town creche/classes
About 1 ½ hours outside of the centre we see the below hill. But it is not a natural hill, it is a rubbish pile around which a community has developed over several years. It is a source of income for the people. HOPE has both a creche and classes for the local children here. As you can see they are not shy! I can also verify that they all have strong lungs.

(Images:Creche & School)

Hospital

(Image: Samiran Malik, Paula, David with me during our visit to the Hope Hospital)

Samiran Malik has been here from 2008 when the hospital began helping the poor of Kolkata.
It’s inception and existence has been possible through many generous donors. They have an operating theatre, ICU and a specialist eye unit. There are 40 beds and it caters for children and adults. Volunteers often come and sit with patients. Samiran’s passion for the place was evident. He insisted on having the above photo as he keeps a record of every visitor.

Night ambulance
Soma is the administrator and is the cowboy who walks into the slums and within a year of doing this job has built a relationship and earns the trust of the various sites they visit. There are 18 field visits during the week on a rotation. Soma rounds up and encourages anyone who may need medical support to simply come and talk to the doctors that are in the bigger ambulance. She seems to know everyone and their situation; I am in awe of her calmness and her ability to cajole people into taking the help they need. The homes are made from what we would consider waste and rubbish – cardboard, tarpaulin, carrier bags, old rags, sticks. I meet a mother and father who are so determined for their daughter to be educated – she is a sponsored child. I feel relaxed and confident beside Soma and am overwhelmed by the acceptance these people have of their situation. No moans or complaints. The kids have become overly excited and decide to race; mostly barefoot and along the main road beside their homes.

(Images: Night ambulance visit)

Hope Cafe
Run by the wonderful Renu Singh. She makes it look so easy. The cafe is a haven for HOPE volunteers but also a place for great eats for the local office workers. Tasty food at incredible prices. And cakes are yummy too! And whilst there I had the privilege of meeting Jenny Forrest. Part of the original team and Maureen Forrest’s sister.

(Images:Jenny, Renu & Anne-Marie, Paula & I: all at the Hope Café)

Life Skills
To survive you need to earn money. To earn you need a skill. And here the young adults are taught in areas of food &catering; beauty; tailoring and computer skills. The HOPE team then helps them either to secure paid employment or set up by themselves.

(Images:Hope Life Skills)

Hope Kolkata Office
This is where we had the opportunity to meet our sponsored children. Seema was cheeky and had some spark to her personality. She stays in a protection unit. The two sisters Jyoti and Bhoomi were beautiful and shy and were accompanied by their father. They had lost their mother in January. They liked their gifts of a top each and some stationery. It’s a strange overwhelming situation but I for one was happy and somewhat quiet for me.

(Images: Sponsored children)

The people I met
– Jonny the driver — always smiling. You knew you were nearly at your destination because his seat belt would come off just around the corner.
– Gora – head of logistics. What Gora doesn’t know isn’t worth knowing.
– Geeta – The Director. She is part of the original set up team and works tirelessly to get more funds.
– Anne Marie who has now working with HOPE for 14 years. Calm and elegant. With the uniform of a white salwar and bright kurtis. She walks amongst the locals at ease. Softly spoken but strong.

In a city where 5star hotels and branded malls sit comfortably less than a few minutes away from abject property. By this I mean no electricity, no running water and where there is no imaginable future. The only escape is through education and in a country where this is a priority for all it means it is a million gazillion times harder for any child from the street. And this is where HOPE comes in. Not only is the mantra that no child should be hurt. They work with various NGOs and the police and other groups to arrive at the best outcome for every child. The teachers and staff at the various projects are dedicated and nurturing.
There are so many memorable moments from my trip; the above are just some of the highlights. Please visit the HOPE website and donate whatever you can. If you have the ability to sponsor a child please do let the team know. It costs just £20/month.

Thanks for reading.
Seema
(NB: I will be doing ‘The 10 Peak Challenge’ in the Lake District on June 8th and will be raising money for The Hope Foundation. I will be setting up a JustGiving page shortly.)