Sunday, 30 May 2010

A short walk to Fairy Glen

The beauty of Mussoorie - or of Landour - is in its trees.

There is something for everyone.

Coming up from the plains - tired and out of breath - we normally start out with small walks around the 'chukkar' at the top of the hill.

To walk around through those leafy boughs is to step back into a place where we belong. The quiet - punctuated by the occassional rustle of the trees - and your footsteps has to be felt.

In the constant metal noise around me (fans, dogs outside, aircons in neighbouring homes, the dull rumble of traffic and machinery) we rarely if ever hear silence. A short walk around the chukkar does that for you. Plus there is the bonus of a bun-omlette or other culinary delights at Anil's place in Char Dukhan at the end.

And if you are tired - well - then your Daddy can carry you!

OK. So the Chukkar has been done. Maybe even repeated.

What is next.

Fairy Glen of course.

Thanks to the unbelievable amount of hill real estate that Woodstock School has - we actually have what is one of the most beautiful forests around draped over the side of that blessed hill.

And Fairy Glen lives up to its pixie like name.

For us in Shanti Kunj - we start with a small climb to Sisters Bazaar. And then a short stroll along the ridge of the hill behind the ITM.

Then we descend into beauty.

Where do you get to see such looooong trees? These would have done yeoman service as the main mast of some British merchantman. Some would actually pin the rise of Empire forestry on this very need - naval supplies after the saucy American colonies rebelled against the Raj - meant that the Raj took over the forests in India - importing a German (Schlich) to help set up a scientific regime.

But don't let that spoil the sheer joy of being out in the open.

The walk down the hill to Fairy Glen is a total joy. Rich varied forests - the hills peeping through the trees behind. Every rock covered with some kind of moss. Small bright red lady-birds making their unhurried way in the world.

Perfect for young and old.

Then you come to the mixed forest area of Fairy Glen itself. It is a flattened area (probably old fields) which is surrounded by majestic trees.

Just in case you don't know where you are - there is a sign announcing that this is the real mccoy (or perhaps that should be the asli dham).

The flat area is ideal for picnics. And games. And badminton. And cooking out (we didn't do that this time).

The steep drop - as usual in the wonderful Mussoorie way of khuds and clambering up and down - means that a frisbee will often sail away down. And a delightful search and rescue party then forms to find the errant disc.

Our own professionals quickly took over - and did a fine job at recovering the truant articles - under the watchful supervision of Stefan Uncle.

The other thing that having a beautiful forest all round you - especially when you are a kid - is the amazing games of hide-and-seek that can be played.

We had our share - and thoroughly enjoyed creeping through the undergrowth while the hapless person who was "it" searched for us.

We wound up our Fairy Glen excursion this year a little early in the afternoon as we saw the sky darken. Clouds started scudding in and we packed up and started climbing the path back to the top of the hill.

As soon as we reached the ridge the rain started. Gentle drops of coldness. We were well decked out with wind-cheaters and hats and so were happily trotted along with Asha trying to 'drink water from the sky.'

We made it down to Shanti Kunj slightly damp and in high spirits. And then we had the luxury of being indoors in the warmth of home while the hail fell in sheets outside. The tin roof of Shanti Kunj sang as the hail stones whinged down from on high. Summer storms in Mussoorie have their special charm (if you are indoors with a good cup of hot coffee in your hand that is).

A day to remember. A time to cherish. Another loop of beauty experienced and lived out together.

This is the life.

Shanti Kunj days - tastes of paradise

These are the days of miracle and wonder,
This is a long distance call,
The way the camera follows us in slow-mo

The way we look to us all
(Paul Simon - Boy in the Bubble)

The last 2 weeks have been a long-drawn out taste of beauty.

Asha and her cousin Joanna wake to a new day at Shanti Kunj.

What will the day entail?

A session on the front-porch swing? Note the elegant hats our ladies are decked out in...

Or will it be baking chocolate-chip cookies with Oma?

Maybe it will include listening to Enoch tickle the keys

With enthusiastic contributions from cousin Ashish too?

The possibilities are endless...

When we have the joy of having the 4 cousins together (Anjali badly missed this time) at Shanti Kunj...

There is no end of things that can be done!

We were so glad to have Stefan and Ashish up with us for the first few days of our time with Oma and Opa in Mussoorie.

Writing this from the pre-monsoonal sweat-bath of Thane the whole time seems like some kind of a beautiful dream. And it was. In fact it was the best kind of dream - the lived out one. The one where we knew that all this goodness was real - and that we were living through it!

The dream was as real as Oma's flowers from her 'greenhouse'

And as real as the cherished set of memories that we take back with us. Memories of attempting a 1000 piece jigsaw puzzle (almost but not quite completed):

Wer will fleissige handwerker sehn? There is always lots of work to do at Shanti Kunj. The need for construction workers for the building of mountain roadways remains acute:

We also did something that we used to do as kids - stuffing envelopes for one of Dad's mailings. The ambience of the family dining room added much - and having cheery helpers meant it was all over before it even seemed to have started.

The days are just packed.

Some days will have a hike...

While others were profitably whiled away through digging deep into literature. Both the Enid Blyton variety - as well as books read aloud like North or be Eaten! and the ever green library of Tintin and Asterix ....

High culture was greatly appreciated

by an enthusiastic audience:

One morning it was a costume and juice bazaar:

Complete with competent cashier:
Somebody hire the man!

And enthusiastic participants:

To sum up: all in all a fabulous time was had by all.

Many thanks to our loving parents for blessing us with these days of refreshing and joy!
Many thanks to loving Father for His blessings to us His special kids.

Back again

For the last day and a half we have been hurtling slowly across central India.

Our mode of transport - and air-conditioned wheeled box - attached to a series of other wheeled boxes.

The Amristar-Dadar Express certainly starts in Amritsar and certainly ends at Dadar. Whether it is an 'express' is more debatable - judging by the tiny stations across Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra that we stopped in.

We were well stocked with books as we traversed the parched landscape (MP) which slowly gave way to greenery towards the end of yesterday. Why were there so many more fields of bananas, sugar cane and other crops in Maharashtra rather than in Madhya Pradesh? They both get about the same levels of rainfall? The difference to my eye were the many electric water pumps in Maharashtra. You don't find green without water. How much the local aquifers are being depleted is another question of course.

It was a strange journey. We started out with an awful 'thump' at 11 PM on the first night. We were all asleep and were horrified to see Enoch crying on the floor. He had fallen off from the upper side berth of the train in his sleep. He got a bad bruise just below his right eye. It was not a happy night for us. For half the day Enoch was quiet and reserved. A steady diet of books was consumed by all 4 Eichers. I read Charlie and the Chocolate Factory to Enoch and myself. Towards the end of the day Enoch recovered his spirits - it was great to hear sounds of laughter pealing from Asha and Enoch again.

A short disturbed sleep second night and then we were about to get off at Thane station at 3 AM. We disembarked and were welcomed by the night heat. A short auto-rickshaw ride - crammed full of Eichers and luggage and we were back to our home!

We are literally enjoying a warm welcome back. The place has been shut up for the past 2 weeks and is like a tandoori oven. Being on the top floor means that the goodness of the sun gets soaked up by concrete and radiated down on you. Yesterday's paper told us that India has just been through the hottest April and May in 100 years according to the Indian Meteriological Department. Our hot baking welcome home makes us believe it!

Mussoorie was a wonderful cool dream - stay posted for more on our Mussoorie days...

Thursday, 13 May 2010

Holiday reading

We leave for Mussoorie in a few minutes. The house is clean. We are all packed. A last shower and then down to the taxi - over to Borivali - onto the Rajdhani Express and then at 11 AM tomorrow we are going to be smothered in love from Ashish and Anjali, Stefan and Neeru - and Joanna, Victor and Sarah.

Late tomorrow night we take the night train to Dehra Dun - and should be up at Shanti Kunj, looking down from its blessed coolness on the wide sun-lit valley of Dun by about 8 AM on Sunday.

Here are some of the books that I am hoping to read on the "way up":

1. Living the Resurrection - Eugene Peterson
2. Gilead - Marilynne Robinson
3. North or be Eaten - Andrew Peterson
4. To Sir, with Love - E.R. Braithwaite
5. The Runaway - Patricia St.John

And there are more to come - a huge library awaits up in Mussoorie. What books will be devoured this summer hols?

What a delight books are - portable doors into other worlds - conversations that cross space and time.


Wednesday, 12 May 2010

Streets of Gold

Why do people still come to Mumbai?

They come because its streets are streets of gold.

Check out this pic by Robert Stephens - architect, blogger, Ameri-desi...

Click on the photo for a view of the panorama of South Mumbai.

You can follow Roberts adventures at:

Friends in high places

I stopped over at Lok Hospital to talk with Dr. Stephen Alfred today. Asha and Enoch were with me since their holidays are in full swing.

Stephen mentioned that he had an unexpected encounter on Monday afternoon. The State Bank of Travancore had out of the blue decided to donate an ambulance - and asked Stephen and the others to come for its handing over. Stephen, expecting a simple affair, went as he normally is dressed for the hospital - half shirt, comfortable pants.

When he got to the site it was posh. And everyone was dressed to the nines. There were 3 chairs on the podium. One chair for the MD of State Bank - one for Stephen - and one for .... Amitabh Bachchan.

"Who is Amitabh Bachchan?" asked Asha - who was listening on the story. When Stephen pulled out a newspaper with their picture in it - Asha said: "He's the guy on the chocolate."

Among Amitabh's many activities - being brand ambassador for Cadbury's chocolate is the one that has him known among the younger Eichers.

Stephen said that Amitabh was quite friendly and gave some gracious comments at the do. When it was Stephen's turn, he chose to go beyond the normal "thank you for the ambulance, we are so grateful" bit. Stephen told a bit about how he had come back to India to serve in the name of Christ, and shared some of range of activities that the trust is doing. He also challenged the audience not to take their privilege for granted. Not to think that they have acheived what they have by their own hard work alone. To acknowledge the grace of God and to realise that we all need to give back as well.

Who knows what each day will hold? We may find ourselves seated (unexpectedly as Dr. Stephen did) next to Amitabh Bachhan. We may be sitting next to one of our billion other countrymen (and women). Each one is precious. Each one deserves our respect and the earnest good that comes from conversation. As image-bearers of the divine creator - what a privilege it is to serve people - no matter how marred or splintered the original image may be at this point.

Dreaming of the hills

In 2 days we leave.

That amazing annual pilgrimage to the hills.

It seems like a mirage at this point - a flickering hope amidst the heat of today.

And yet May 14th has come closer and closer - and now is within striking distance.

Bags are in the process of being packed. Lists made and being ticked off. Work issues being worked through. Plants. No milk. Dog (wait - we don't have a dog - though there is a constant clamour for one by the junior Eichers).

Friday evening sees us board the Rajdhani for Delhi. Then a glorious day in Delhi with Stefan, Neeru, Ashish and Anjali - as well as Victor, Sarah and Joanna - and who knows how many other precious people.

Then the night train to Dehra Dun (literally - it leaves at 11.45 PM) and the joy of getting into Dehra early in the morning. A magical taxi ride through the 6 AM empty streets of the city (now the capital of Uttarakhand no less) - and the slow winding road up to Mussoorie.

Our kids will probably stop half way to retch a bit. Par for the course. But that will all be made up for by experiencing the coolness and seeing the beloved sights of oaks and pines - the joy of after bend of beauty unrolling before us - though it will be marred a bit when we see the ever-increasing pockets of hotels clustered on top of almost every hillock near the top.

And then finally, after scooting through the still sleepy town of Mussoorie - winding through the long linear bazaar of Landour - going up hair-pin after hair-pin to get to the top - the taxi will stop in a small spot at Sister's Bazaar.

Our parents will be there. Waiting for our taxi to grind to a halt. Cheery and bleary-eyed. Smiles as wide as the Himalaya. Warm hugs. A short prayer of thanks. Notes given to the taxi-driver - along with a tract or two. Then the joy as we walk down the short path to Shanti Kunj.

All this lies before us - beginning a short 48+ hours away....

Sunday, 9 May 2010

Urban dreams

An article in today's paper mentioned two mind boggling things about the Greater Mumbai area.

1. The population of 16 million is expected to go up to 32 million by 2031.

That's today's population of Uganda. That's almost today's population of Canada (34 million). That's just absurd.

2. The density per square meter of commuters in the 'crush hour' of Mumbai's commuter trains that ferry 6.9 million people every day - is 16. Yes, that is 16 bodies in 1 square meter of space.

No wonder that when there is even the tiniest bit of room to breathe - that people say 'the train is empty' (अरे गड्डी एक दम खली है).

No we do not need more 'urban planning' - the plans are all there - but the pattern of the thrust and hustle of urban reality is just so completely different to what exists on the papers (especially the ones that are hidden in files piled up willy-nilly and cloaked with dust in various municipal offices).

Its no surprise that 'outsiders' are easily labelled as the cause of all of Mumbai's problems.

When will our people fly? When will we see a city of light instead of the grinding brutality of a city that Mumbai is?

'Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy.' Ezekiel 16.49

Scenes in a police station

The men who come in do not wear labels.

Some have uniforms - of course - and you can start figuring out by their pips and stripes how high up they are.

But others just walk in wearing civvies.

Who is a cop. Who is a 'visitor'. Hard to tell.

I look and see how the others react. Do they greet. Do they ignore. Do the suddenly stiffen up and salute?


Its the beginning of a new day. Cops come in and report. Sign the muster book. Show up again wearing the uniform. Collect their gun and bullets.

The hand-guns are kept in - of all things - square plastic boxes - the kind that you see in any kitchen - boxes in which to store cut up vegetables in your fridge. These humble boxes hold the fire-arms that Mumbai's finest strap on themselves when they report for duty.


A man walks in. Slinks in. He is a small and very dark man. He looks like a comic book character. Something out of the Phantom. He bows to various policemen and moves quietly to the corner where one of the inspectors is sitting. I can see them out of the corner of my eye, through a small window. The man bows down to the ground. He says something to the inspector. The inspector says something back. The man bows again. The inspector slides something into the man's hand. The man bows again and slinks out.

An informer? I feel like I am in a Tintin comic.


Fax machine. Not working. Go to nearest PCO and get. Time to ride in a Qualis. Doesn't start. Needs to be pushed. We are off, knowing that if we cut the engine we are stranded. Make it to the next station ok. Get a push start again on our way back.


A man and a woman walk in. They are talked to by an inspector. Is it a domestic violence issue? The inspector looks at them earnestly while talking. It almost seems like a marriage enrichment session.

I see them come again later in the morning.


The colonial wooden arches of the station remind of another era. The ubiquitous calendars of a certain local business are found in each room. Various deity images adorn the walls. I hear Hindu names among the policemen - and a surprising number of Muslim ones too. Plane clothes as well as ones in uniforms.


A man sits down in the corner next to me. He slumps with a sad smile on his face. Caught driving a truck without a license. After 30 mins he is called. Something happens and he leaves.

Did he pay a fine? Or was it a bribe? How much does the amount vary depending on whether you are passive or aggressive?


People walk in at all times. Most do not wear uniforms. Who is who? The great guessing game continues.

Friday, 7 May 2010

Ersatz world

Joy! Here is a tiny tot experiencing the wonder of the farm. He (she?) is milking a cow.

Well.... that's one way of looking at it.

The trusty Beeb website offered up this image from the just about to be opened World Expo (or whatever it is called) in Shanghai. The blurb tells us that "children milk a fake cow at the world expo in Shanghai, China."

Yesterday's paper tells me that Shanghai has spend more on this 'fair' than Beijing did for the Olympics. Since Mumbai has been stricken with a deep case of Shanghai-envy for some time now - perhaps we will need to take note.

What strikes me about the pictures of the two tots and their synthetic teats was just the sheer plasticity of it all.

Two kids on a green carpet to mimic grass - with the faux holstein cattle whittled down to their size - clad in what looks to be some kind of antiseptic mask and hair net outfit to make sure hygiene is maintained.

Hanging down from the nether parts of these cattle look to be some kind of latex teats which when squeezed apparently give out 'milk.'

These happy farmers have been squeezing fake milk out of fake cows.

What next?

Miniature faux cow-dung patties being moulded by kids and stuck on walls to dry - in day-glo colours? Plastic veterinarian experiences where kids can help give shots to cattle without being kicked? Village water wells where kids can draw up water and splish splash while wearing wet-suits and masks to avoid getting sick for some reason?

Walt Disney started all of this when he brought that cuteified rodent to southern California (and then Northern Florida and then all around the world it seems - we have been spared in India so far... at least from a physical Disneyland that is).

The premise was to bring many experiences together in a safe, family-friendly, controlled environment. Machines were made to mimic the wonders of the south seas, pirates, dinosaurs, past presidents, ghosts, the future - and all to be had while whirling by on some kind of a ride - to join the world outside after your 10 minutes of immersion in 'another world.'

While Disney claimed that it was to 'stretch the imagination' - in reality it was the opposite. The rides are all about presenting something to be consumed. This is TV in 3D - but without glasses. 'Fake-real'. To be ogled at in safety. And then to whet our appetite for... some more synthetic approximations in their sterile and 'fun' packaging.

How far we are in our so-called progress?

The interesting thing is that we really do not have much that is actually 'new.' Most of what we have are imitations of what we see in nature in the first place. Or what we see in human history. For all the claims of 'progress' - much of it is a repackaging and taming - rather than something novel.

So why does a picture of cute kids milking fake cows raise my hackles?

Partly because there are real cows to look after - and real farms to experience.

A good 15 years ago I had the privilege of living with an amazing farmer called Anand Singh. Anand and his family hosted me in their house (I lived in a modified cattle room) which was perched on the side of hill at 2.5oo m in the Kumaon Himalaya. Having grown up in entirely urban Bombay - it was a thrill to see and eat potatoes grown on the terraces, to be part of the cycle of work (so much!) that the rain-fed fields and orchards demand - and experience the rhythms and dignity of working with the land.

Our bodies are meant for the outdoors. It is no surprise that we see more and more 'life-style' diseases - strike at younger and younger ages. If you want to be rich in India - be a heart-doctor - there is an almost endless supply of young managers whose tickers are getting tocked!

While a basic set of sanitary practices helps alot in the pathogen prone environment we live it - total sterility leads to an odd set of problems too - the increasing numbers of auto-immune disease and severe allergic reactions to various sources. It seems that if our bodies are not 'fighting' with different agents using our immunity - that we end up 'fighting' ourselves.

So, do we write a prescription of: "off with those masks kids! Get out of the mall (or World Expo) and work on the farm!"??? For many of us - living in our concrete jungle - the very thought of being able to go somewhere and do something else is just a cherished dream. Urbanisation gives many benefits and creature comforts - but the price to pay is an almost relentless stream of work and production. In the mean time - for many its "switch on the TV and drown out the world."

One of the best ways to start is just to take a walk. You, your legs, moving forward into greenery (if possible). All things bright and beautiful, all creatures great and small... Go ahead! Its good for you!

The case of the dissappearing mobile

It happened at the end of the day.

We were packing up to leave - after having hosted about 80 odd young ones for that day's Vacation Bible School.

One of the teachers was looking upset. Word got out quickly - her mobile phone was missing.

Where had it been? In her bag.

Now it was gone.

One of our young volunteers was calling the phone repeatedly using her own mobile. It kept ringing - no one was picking up.

I thought back to some years ago and the anger and frustration of knowing that someone in the packed local train compartment had taken my mobile. I asked people to call my number but no one did for some time. When a person finally got around to it - the phone was off.

And so there we were - with a missing mobile. My thoughts were not very charitable. Something along the lines of: "What happens when we organise things like the VBS for these kids - one of them flicks their teacher's phone."

Not knowing what to do else I moved away to pack up and head for home.

As I was in the empty hall - putting things in their bags I heard something faintly.

At first I thought someone had left a mobile in their bag. But there were no other bags other than the ones I was packing. Then I looked around in the room - nothing.

The faint mobile sound could still be heard.

I looked out the window at the neighbouring lot - where a huge building is being built.

Still the faint tune of a mobile ringing.

Then I looked down out the window - and in the rubbish which the school cleaners had been dumping out of this particular window - there nestled in all of that trash was the missing mobile!

A few minutes later it was back in the hands of the teacher.

But what stuck in my mind is how quickly my thoughts had turned to the accusation of theft. How quickly I was hard in my spirit and angry. How quickly I had swept away the possibility of anything else but a deliberate taking of the mobile phone.

And then the miraculous finding. There I was packing up next to the window. A minute later and I would be gone - the phone would stay outside in the trash - and we would all be convinced that one of our kids had swiped the dear thing.

In a universe where either everything makes sense - or nothing does - I definitely and completely throw my lot for the former.

Tuesday, 4 May 2010


We are in the middle of a week of Vacation Bible School - primarily for kids of families we are in touch with at JSK.

I was looking at the faces of two little boys this morning - and noticed something familiar. The eyes, the look... what was it?

Then I knew. I was looking at the face of their father.

He died about 3 years ago.

And here on the faces of his sons are his eyes. The way he used to look.

Of course the man I knew was at the end of his life. Ravaged. His eyes had their own hauntings.

Am I imagining it, or do I see the boy's eyes retain a small slice of their father's grief?

As I looked across the room I saw other familiar faces in miniature. Some kids whose parents are still alive and breathing - some whom the breath of life has departed from. Small reflections and impressions of parents who we know through the disease that they suffer from.

And how will these little faces shape up as they pile on the years?

Will they make similar choices as their parents did - or will they chart their lives into different waters?