Count your blessings!

Warning: Long post

I recently completed eleven years of marriage and found myself on a trip down memory lane–to the place where my husband and I first set up our home, in a nondescript sleepy town nestled deep in the picturesque hills of Kumaon in district Pithoragarh,Uttaranchal (now Uttarakhand).

The town was eight hours by road from the nearest railway station at Haldwani, which in turn was 24 hours by train from my home city.

I arrived in this town on a chilly late-winter evening, covered from head to toe in heavy woollens , shivering and staring in absolute awe at the faraway snowclad peaks glowing in the setting sun.

The town itself had a population of no more than about 2000 people but boasted of a bank branch, a post office and a decent(by local standards) market. By virtue of these, its streets bustled with people from neighbouring villages and hamlets during the day. By nightfall, however, the same streets wore an eerily deserted look, with not a soul in sight

Our house was rather sparsely furnished(no tiles in the kitchen/bathroom, basic cement floors) but it was newly built, spacious and also offered a great view. Best of all, it received plenty of sunlight too and there is a premium on sunlight in hilly areas, as I soon discovered. We got down to the exhausting but very enjoyable business of setting up a house from scratch–making it look cozy, lived in, comfortable and inviting. We made a day-trip to Pithoragarh, which was two hours away, to shop for furniture, curtains and knick-knacks. The end-results of our attempts at interior-decorating pleased both of us no end.

Soon enough, though, we became aware of the rather limited range of food-items, particularly vegetables and fruits, available in the market. Only a very few vegetables were ever available, and most of them looked stale, dehydrated and unappealing. The lone veggie- vendor in the town got his stock only once a week, so he took care to bring only those veggies which did not spoil easily and kept selling them throughout the week . Poor storage and long-distance transportation ensured that they looked barely edible even when they had just arrived.

Apart from potatoes and onions which were available throughout the year, we got cauliflowers, cabbages and tomatoes in winters. Cauliflowers were actually apologies for cauliflowers, being rarely, if ever,  white–more often than not they were yellow with specks of brown . In summers it was just gourds and bitter-gourds.

Once in a while shrivelled capsicums and dessicated carrots and radishes, and miserable looking lady’s fingers  also made an appearance.  No brinjals, beans, spinach or any other greens. No fruits, except bananas and occasionally guavas.

Now, I’d never been terribly fond of vegetables. They always seemed to form a pocket in my throat and my mom had a tough time making me finish them at mealtimes. And here I was now, craving fresh fruits and vegetables, dreaming about them really, like my life depended on them.

Whether it was a case of merely wanting what one cannot have or whether I had actually been nursing a secret liking for them all this while– or whether I was having withdrawal symptoms on suddenly being deprived of something I was used to having– I will never know. I think it was a combination of all three.

In any case it was not just fruits and vegetables. We also did not get decent sliced bread–the locals apparently only bought the bread baked in a local bakery and, well, it looked so ghastly I never had the heart to give it a try. We didn’t get paneer or butter either because the the shops there did not have refrigerators. Deciding what to cook for lunch or dinner was a harrowing chore. My limited cooking skills were severely tested when faced with such a dearth of ingredients.

It was only after four months that we were able to make a much looked-forward-to trip to our home-towns. We set out early one morning on one of those Tata Sumo jeeps that ply on the hills (the ones that went to Haldwani only left early in the morning ) and corkscrewed our way to the plains for the next eight hours. I was sick and exhausted by the time we reached Haldwani , where we had to wait another five hours to board our train and then spend the next 24 hrs in the train. Phew! In retrospect I am amazed that we made three such trips in the one year we were there.

Pardon my rambling. Okay, so my mom ( and my mom-in-law) fed us loads of fruits and veggie dishes on our trips, and I gorged on them like there was no tomorrow. “I feel like a prisoner on parole”, I told my mother. I was only half joking.

Our town did not have a single allopathic doctor–there was a Primary Health Centre in the town all right and a doctor was supposed to be present on all week days but nobody in the town had ever had the privilege of setting eyes on him. There was not even a single medical store. The locals , in any case, patronised the home-grown ayurvedic quacks, so nobody complained much.

I very carefully maintained a stock of analgesics, anti-pyretics, anti-allergics, OTC drugs for upset tummies, antiseptic liquids and creams, Burnol, Iodex, Vicks and God knows what else. I knew I didn’t have the luxury of walking into a drugstore and buying whatever I needed whenever I wanted.

It was early days yet for the mobile-phone revolution in India, and the networks had yet to come to the hills. A landline connection took many months to materialize. So once every week we walked almost a mile to the solitary public telephone booth to talk to family and friends. It took several redials for a call to get across, and the connection echoed with your own voice, which was disconcerting. The booth -owner shut shop at sundown, which meant you couldn’t make a late night call even in an emergency.

I relied mostly on good ol’ fashioned letters to stay in touch with family and friends. Much like the ladies in those Victorian-era novels, I sat down to write letters after breakfast every day. I still have with me every single one of all those letters received over there  somewhere in the house–each one of them had brought me so much joy. I also regularly received mailed parcels containing books and gifts from family members.

Fortunately, my van-vaas lasted only fourteen months, after which we were restored to civilisation. But those fourteen months taught me invaluable life-lessons.

I came to have some idea what it feels like to be deprived of comforts you have been used to.

I feel, really feel, for people who live in those far-flung areas–they live in such difficult conditions and don’t even realize it because they’ve never known any other way of life.

And of course I learnt to appreciate the little things which make so much difference to the quality of our lives–things we often take for granted.

I now have the option of having the best quality fruits /veggies delivered to my doorstep, in the dead of the night if need be. My friends and family are just a call away–and no walking a mile to the pay-phone– at any hour of the day, and so is our doctor. There’s a medical store a stone’s throw away. There are restaurants to go to when I feel like eating out. I can take a flight to my home-city any time I want.

I am thankful for these small and not-so-small mercies–because I remember a time in my life when I could only dream about them.

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17 Responses to Count your blessings!

  1. Zephyr says:

    True indeed. We take so many things for granted in life. And as you observed a large proportion of our population lives in such deprivation and do it without complaints because they have known no better. I can related to this post because ours was a lower middle class family which did not have a lot things which we take as necessities today — fan, gas stove, mixer, a two wheeler, even a Godrej safe — not because they were not available, but because we couldn’t afford them! But that only has made me appreciate all the things I have today.

    • You’re right, Zephyr. Experiencing a period of deprivation, whether due to lack of resources or non-availability, makes one more aware of and more appreciative of the little comforts and luxuries that may come our way later on. In that sense it might even be seen as a blessing in disguise, in retrospect of course !!

  2. G Vishwanath says:

    That was nice to read.

    My memories go back even further.

    I too have lived in far flung places (at project sites) alone as I did not want to uproot the family and subject them to the rigours of having to live with bare boned living facilities. This situation was common during the initial stages of any new project when the first batch of construction crews moved in to create facilities and infrastructure for later entrants. Being basically a Civil engineer (who later specialised in design of steel structures for Industrial buildings), I would often be part of the staff posted during the initial stages of a project at God forsaken places.

    One of these places was Hazira in Gujarat, at the mouth of the river Tapi.

    I was posted there for a little over a year in the eighties. Today it is a vast industrial complex with all the comforts of a big city, but the present project site was under water during high tide and it was slushy during low tide. Earth and sand dredged from the bottom of the river had been used to fill up the area to a depth of 4 to 5 feet to create land to build the project on.

    We lived an hours drive away from the project site where accommodation meeting minimum standards of civilisation could be arranged.

    Even drinking water had to be carried in a bottle to the project site which we accessed through Jeeps. I still remember those bone rattling drives. Ordinary cars couldn’t take the bumps.

    I remember offices inside wooden Porta Cabins resembling Railway compartments, located near any place with a tree nearby so that we could get some shade for some time during the day and give us some respite from the harsh rays of the sun. The humble typewriter was the most sophisticated piece of office equipment. Carbon paper produced copies, not photocopying machines. I won’t upset you by describing what toilet facilities we had during the initial weeks. You would retch if I told you!

    You at least had your hubby with you. Over a career spanning over 26 years in one organsiation, I lived a total of nearly three years in three separate installments, at three different places like Hazira without the family and without even being able to contact them by telephone unless I drove several miles to the nearest post office and booked a trunk call.

    Like you I relied on good old snail mail and the sight of a postman would gladden our hearts.

    Potatoes and Onions were our staple food! We would eat these with hard to chew dry rotis made from coarse atta, prepared by some skilled project construction workers who doubled as a cooks or who enlisted the services of their wives living in nearby labour camps. Pickles bought from home later helped relieve the monotony. Biscuits and locally available fruits were used for surviving hunger pangs in between meals. Whoever visited the city, brought back bag fulls of junk snacks that had some shelf life so that we could indulge our taste buds. Smokers over indulged those days to ward of frustration and depression. Alcohol was prohibited in Gujarat and that upset some of my colleagues though I was not affected. I am a teetotaler.

    These experiences made me reflect on all that our ancestors must have lived through.
    They lived difficult lives creating the modern comforts that we all take for granted today. Next time we travel by train, or drive along a great new highway, let us spare a thought for the poor souls who slogged to make it possible for us. I am also reminded of what our Defence personnel must be going through when they get posted to non family stations. North East and North West frontiers come readily to mind. And perhaps the Sia Chen Glacier takes the cake. Just think of those Pakistani soldiers who are still buried under. But for the grace of God, it could have been Indian soldiers. But who knows what God has planned for another day at Sia Chen.

    Thanks for this opportunity to reflect on the past.

    • Whoa!! The description you gave of life in Hazira is scary, GVji!! I definitely had it easier. I at least had a decent house to live in with a TV, a music system, a fridge, a storage water heater and other gadgets( electricity was available almost 24*7). And of course I also had my husband with me.

      I could so completely relate to what you said about the sight of the postman gladdening the heart like nothing else 🙂

      I never cease to be amazed by how our defence personnel spend upto three years at a stetch on those non-family stations under such impossibly difficult conditions. My maternal grandfather was in the army and I’ve heard so many stories of those bleak non-family postings.

  3. Scribby says:

    True! On the contrary it’s like being human, don’t you think feel so? Like when you probably were put in that less privileged situation is when you realized how you might have taken things for granted otherwise and/or that such life also exists. It’s the same with us all. We might know by reading or listening to other’s experiences,like I’m doing by reading yours, but seldom we feel the exactness of the feeling.

    On the other hand like you said people do live in such conditions and they’re still okay there cause most of the times they don’t even know that better lives are possible or people are living better lives with special amenities at their beck and call.

    The point I’m trying to make is we all know and have been taught right from our childhood that we must respect and thank god for the mercies he has on us-that we have food,shelter and clothing and touch wood there has never been any dearth of it…theoretically we all do that but only when we are met with experiences like yours,we practically realize how lucky we are to have a smooth life!

    P.S. Happy 11th anniversary 🙂 I’m sure you guys had a great time 🙂 A decade together,how does that feel? write about it sometime 🙂

    • Exactly, Scribby. We do empathise with people less fortunate than us even if we’ve never experienced any deprivations ouselves but when life actually throws us into a less-privileged situation, it tends to raise our consciousness up several notches. It makes us more aware of our blessings, and by the same token, more conscious of the problems faced by others in similar or worse circumstances.
      A little like when you see a heavily pregnant women waddling slowly, you do realize how uncomfortable she must be, whether or not you’ve been pregnant yourself. But if you’ve actually had a child yourself, you almost kind of * feel* her discomfort yourself…

  4. R's Mom says:

    Happy 11th..WOW! 11 years of togetherness…awesome 🙂

    Your post reminded me of the time when my parents shifted us from the truely comfortable township into our house which was in the outskirts of Brc..most people called my parents MAD! And I think there is a gene of craziness somewhere…I was in class 3 and RMB was in class 6…we changed schools, there was no public transport..Appa’s salary used to go away in the home loan so Appa had to take a luna to work…we used to either walk to school or cycle ot school which was like 4 kms away…yep at class 3 and class 6 my parents didnt worry at that time about safety 🙂 Of course the villagers were absolutely amazing! They used to walk with us till we reached home safely and all….the house didnt have windows for the first 2 months because Amma Appa didnt have enough money to pay for them 🙂 it was an adventure and my parents ensured that bro and I enjoyed it 🙂

    I am definitely thankful for that makes me appreciates everything I have in life so much more 🙂

  5. Thanks for the wishes RM. Time certainly flies–that’s what I think on every anniversary !

    It’s really wonderful on the part of your parents that they managed to ensure that you and your bro enjoyed the adventure–I am sure it must have been a big learning experience.

  6. Ashwathy says:

    Fond memories 🙂 Such struggles in life really teach us the value of things we have taken for granted.

    I am going through a similar phase now, and particularly so right after I got married last year. But it certainly has been an eye-opener and is teaching me a lot of lessons about life 🙂

  7. Deeps says:

    What a beautiful post! So full of nostalgic memories! I could imagine myself being transported to that little sleepy hilly town in Kumaon thanks to your superb play of words! You’re so right, we tend to take so many things for granted without realizing how blessed we are for what we have!
    Belated wishes on your anniversary! Hope you had a great day 🙂

  8. Sanjana says:

    I had the same problem when I was in college (worst place ever!). The food given to us was mass-produced in the hostel mess and so terrible that we used to come back to our rooms as hungry as we were when we went down to dinner. It was normal to find worms and stapler pins in the food, and the food itself was disgusting and almost inedible. (they used to serve rotted cabbage almost everyday!)
    In my first year… I remember surviving for weeks on end on a daily ration of 2 glasses of rasna and 1 mutton puff that I bought from the cafeteria (which really was more like a hole-in-the-wall!).

    We also didn’t have clean water. The water that came down the mountains were taken untreated and just boiled in a small room with a big cauldron. The whole room was black with soot and the water tasted of soot as well and was slightly yellowish in color. Of course, we didn’t have a choice but to drink it. We also didn’t have a TV, plus we were not allowed to keep our personal walkman or radio even! Any phone calls we made would be in the presence of the warden and they listened to everything we said! It was like jail!

    When I went back home after our first semester for my hols, my mom opened the door, took one gasp at my reed-thin frame and burst into tears and wouldn’t stop crying for a while! She kept shoveling food down my throat, trying to make me gain some weight!

    Now, when I’m trying to lose those pesky last 5 kilos, I sometimes think I need to go back and stay at that hostel for a week and I’ll lose the weight in an instant! 😛

    • OMG, that sounds horrible! To survive on 2 glasses of rasna and one mutton puff a day for weeks on end! And to have your conversations overheard by the warden–it really does sound like a jail ! How long did you stay at that place?

      You’re right, that hostel is the place to be for anyone trying to lose weight. Heh.

  9. Pingback: Day 4: Achievement | Scribblehappy

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