Miriam James

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Miriam was born in 1900, in a small town in Punjab. Her mother, a widow, had converted to Christianity before her birth. I do not recall her mother’s name, but since Miriam went as Miriam Shaw, I guess I’ll just call her mother Mrs. Shaw!

Mrs. Shaw must have been a forward-thinking woman, an exception in that era when girls, in India, in most cases, were not allowed a formal education. Although she was illiterate, she was intelligent. She had a family to support and while she wasn’t poor; she was not a lady of ample means either.

To augment her income, she lent out money; loaning money at a fixed interest. She kept meticulous accounts although she had never been to school. Miriam was fortunate to be born to such a woman.

Mrs. Shaw decided that her daughter would have a good education. She sent her to study at a boarding school in Andrew’s Ganj in Delhi. Miriam completed her Matriculation there. Having studied in Delhi, she learned English too. This was an asset as her children learned the language even though they studied in small town Government Schools in Punjab.

Miriam’s education also served in getting her an educated husband. She married Bernard James, a teacher in a government school. Teachers, in those days, were highly respected members of society, especially in small towns. (And Bernard went on to become a senior teacher).

Their position as teachers also ensured that their larders always overflowed with the offerings and gifts of grateful parents and students. It would have been very rude to refuse the gifts of grain, ghee (clarified butter), fruit, farm-fresh vegetables which they brought to the home of the teacher. This was “Guru Dakshina,” a gift of gratitude from a student to a teacher and not a bribe for favors of any kind. It was unthinkable to attribute any such base motive to these gifts.

Miriam and Bernard had ten children; five boys and five girls. Owing to her mother’s precedent of not discriminating against the girl child, all of Miriam’s daughters had a sound education too along with their brothers. The eldest daughter joined the Army; Women’s Auxiliary Corps – India (WACI) in the forties. Two younger ones became teachers, and both retired as Headmistresses. One died young, and the fifth didn’t work opting to marry a Naval officer and be a housewife.

After Bernard became a senior teacher in the Government High School, he moved to Mission Schools. He rose to the post of Inspector of Schools (mission schools). Their second child, Jason, was my father.

Miriam was a woman of substance. She had grit, determination, strength, perseverance, and all this coupled with her pragmatism made her one formidable force. To understand how progressive she was and how adept at adapting, I will have to recount this story I would make her tell me over and over again when I was a little girl.

Grandpa would be out of town often when he was on an inspection tour. This left Grandma alone with the children, and not safe and secure as their house stood by an orchard on one side and fields on the other. Times were a-changing and petty crimes like thefts were on the rise. Grandpa had already dealt with a few attempts of thieves to scale the boundary wall on the orchard side. But Grandma didn’t scare easy. She didn’t fret and rose to the occasion.

To protect the home and family, she devised a plan to have Grandpa always at home! Since keeping him back physically was not possible, it had to be a ruse. Whenever he went on a tour, that night, Grandma would wear his “pagri” (turban), light the “hookah” (hubble-bubble) and sit up through the night until daybreak, smoking the hookah.

She hoped that the glow of the embers and the silhouette of a turbaned person would mislead anyone peering over the wall into believing it was a man. However, one day, some daring men decided to take on the ‘lone man’. Bad idea!

Grandma, ever alert, heard the sounds of furtive movement and whispered voices behind the wall. Thieves! Before they could get a hold on the top of the wall and heave themselves up, she was waiting and ready, armed with a big, thick “lathi.” The moment the first head appeared over the edge of the wall, she struck with all her strength and let out a full-throttled war cry! This sudden, ferocious attack not only took the men by surprise but also woke up my father and his elder brother.

Although they were in their early teens, both were tall and had robust physiques. They were quick to gauge the scene. Both were on top of the wall in a jiffy with lathis (stout sticks used for self-defence in India) hurling warnings and threats of dire consequences at the retreating backs of the thieves.

There were two outcomes from this strategy: There were no more attempts at theft and, Grandma became a regular hookah smoker!

 

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This is an Arabic hookah and not the kind my grandparents smoked. Theirs had a clay cup for tobacco and a brass water compartment at the bottom to hold the water. I couldn’t find a pic of the ones that were in Punjab at the time.

 

From then on, it became a common sight to see her puffing away at her hubble-bubble, not only in the night but in broad daylight too. She and Grandpa always had their lighted hookah between them and would take puffs alternately while they chit-chatted or shared their silences. I had the privilege to see them like this when we moved from the city and returned to our town. I was just a girl, but it impacted me.

It was such a wonderful sight to see. So much of togetherness oozed out of these moments. That grandma never felt the need to smoke the hookah in hiding and indulged in her newly formed habit with undisguised enjoyment, speaks volumes about her zest for life.

In pre-independence, rural India, Miriam was a rare gem in her class.

“To all those who care, You can’t forever. 
Time steals the years, And your reflection in the mirror.
But I can still see the story in your eyes, And your timeless passion that’s never died.
While your skin became tired, Your heart became strong,
The present became the past, And your memories like a song.
And though the moment at hand is all that we have, 
You’ve taught me to live it like it is our last.
Since two words don’t say ‘thank you’ the way they are meant to,
I’ll try all my life to be something like you.” -Crystal Woods

 

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A Midnight Watch in Viña del Mar

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She stood there, about two feet away from the curb, right on the road. I stood a few inches away from the window, partially hidden behind the curtain, and watched.
It was past midnight; half an hour past the witching hour. I had dozed through the serial I had running on my laptop, waking up in fits and starts, to reconnect with my longtime favorite character, DCI Tom Barnaby. He’s losing his hold on me it seems! I wouldn’t have dozed on a Barnaby serial two years back. Anyway, the murderer was found and another murder case solved in Midsomer by Barnaby, and it was time I dropped off to sleep.
As usual, I switched off the lights and went to draw the curtains a wee bit apart to allow light from the street to filter in. And as usual, I peeked into the street below my window.
It was a weekday, and I expected the street to be deserted, only this time I saw this young girl standing almost in the middle of the road, in the middle of the night, trying to keep warm. It was a cold and windy night.
“Prostitute,” I pronounced.
I wondered why she was at this intersection. It wasn’t a section of the city frequented by streetwalkers. Besides, I didn’t think there would be much traffic down these roads so late into the night, in the middle of the week. But then I guess she knew better, and soon I did too, as the cars whizzed past.
On any other day, I would have forgotten about her before I reached my bed. But that night, sleepy as I was, I continued to stand and keep watch. There was something about her face and general appearance which caught my attention.
Our home stands at the corner of an intersection, so I had a good view of the four roads that diverged from there. And the streets are so brightly lit, I could see the girl clearly. She stood facing me and I noticed she did not dress the way a woman in her profession does, neither was her face done up with heavy make-up; in fact, she wore almost no make-up: a light pinkish lipstick (no dark eyeshadow) and light make-up around her eyes. Her hair wasn’t curled, permed, frizzled or done up. It fell around her face, up to her shoulders. No unusual coloring; ordinary, everyday hair.
Her jewelry comprised a pair of modest danglers. Nothing about her: clothes, footwear, or hair was loud or garish. Her clothes were those of an office executive. She looked like one of the many smart, office executives who passed beneath my window every day. Her body language and posture did not support the stereotypical street-walker.
I do not know if it is politically right to say this, but then I’m not a politically right person most times. I had felt disgusted at the first fleeting sight of her. However, the initial revulsion I had felt when I first noticed her, dissipated. There was something about her that was so vulnerable. She seemed out of place in this scenario. Even when she stood and watched the cars whizzing past, and called out and waved to some who slowed down, she didn’t sound like the person I assumed she was.
She was neither brash nor bold and didn’t look like a hooker; she didn’t sound like one either. This intrigued me because she was the antithesis of what I had read, heard, and seen of women who were streetwalkers.
Fifteen minutes passed. And then another five dragged by. I told myself I was being utterly stupid. At my age one doesn’t stand at a window, well past one’s bedtime, to surveil an unknown woman who knew what she was about. No amount of cajoling could coax my feet to walk away from my vantage point of observation to a decent night’s sleep. I had to watch, I wanted to know more.
I wrapped a shawl around my shoulders, leaned against the glass pane, still hidden behind the curtains with a clear view of the girl.
I could tell that the night was getting colder. She stamped her feet; rubbed her hands to keep warm. Then she took out a packet of cigarettes from her coat pocket and lit up. She stood in one place, almost in the pathway of oncoming traffic. If it were daytime, she’d not be able to stand on the road without being run down or hauled away by the police.
Cars whizzed by. She stood and watched, turning to see if any stopped ahead. There were the cars with youngsters who shouted derogatory remarks and guffawed as they sped past her. She didn’t react. Her expression didn’t change. She maintained her emotionless demeanor. The only time a flicker of a smile played on her lips and her face lit up was when some cars slowed down as they approached her, some out of curiosity I suppose, most to avoid hitting her.
Then a car drove up right under my window. It stopped at the pedestrian crossing and I guess the driver gestured for her to come to him. She was like a child who’d been promised an ice-cream or chocolates or a day at the beach.
She ran across and this time she had a broad smile on her face. She was pretty, and young too. I could see her better where she stood, below my window, facing me, with the streetlight on the opposite side lighting up her face. 
Ah! Finally, she gets a customer; I thought and didn’t like the way I thought that. Don’t ask me why. I felt sad and sorry for her. There were many things going through my mind and it had all to do with how young and bright she appeared, and how sad that she was on the streets like this.
Anyway, I saw her talking to the person in the driving seat. Some words floated up through the quiet night. Negotiations, I announced to no one in particular. However, something wasn’t right. Her expressions and the way she spoke didn’t look like she was talking business. If I hadn’t been observing her, I’d have thought she was talking to someone she knew and exchanging small talk.
Then she made gestures and expressions that showed contriteness, helplessness, and if I’m not mistaken, she appeared ashamed… no, regretful! I realized the man in the car was in no mood to be a customer. He seemed to be talking to her about what she was doing and why. She wrung her hands, raised her shoulders in a sign of helplessness and slumped them in resignation. And I heard a lot of, “No Señor. Si Señor.”
It was a long, slow conversation of about five minutes, and she smiled a lot and nodded in agreement to whatever was being said. Then she stretched out her hand to take something from the man, and I saw a packet. I thought, (awful of me) that’s a lot of money. “She’s a great negotiator!” I whispered with something like respect.
Then instead of getting into the vehicle, as I expected, she slipped something which looked more like money from under the packet and put it into her pocket. As she thanked the man, she took something from the packet and popped it into her mouth. She went chomp, chomp like a squirrel with a stuffed mouth.
The man drove off.
He had counseled her, in my over-positive opinion, handed her some money and a tit-bit to munch on. What! Can this be happening! I was totally awestruck. What a man! 
The girl finished what she was eating and stood for a while. Then she saw headlights approaching and sprinted right into the middle of the road, in front of the approaching car, waving both her arms wildly. What now, I thought, with bated breath.
This was so unlike her… since I had been observing her for some time, it surprised me. This was like a serial unfolding before my eyes. The car slowed, swerved but didn’t stop. She ran alongside a few paces, saying something to the driver. Then gave up as the driver sped up. She stood looking after it.
A few yards up, the car stopped. She ran down the road. I couldn’t see much of what was going on, I couldn’t make out her expressions or words. But I saw the door opening and the girl getting in. And then she was gone. “She’s taking a lift home,” I said with relief. I wanted a good ending. I wanted a hopeful ending. Whatever my mind said to the contrary, my heart said: she went home.
I like to think the sudden, wild burst of energy and emotion had something to do with her encounter with the previous gentleman. I also like to think that she hadn’t been putting on an act for the kind man. I want to believe that one act of compassion had taken a young girl off the street for one night at least. I want to believe that goodness, kindness, and compassion still roam around the streets and linger around the corner, waiting to help someone.

Grandma’s Tales – Piggly

PIGGLY SMELLS THE ROSES

By Joy Clarkson

Acknowledgment – Thank you, Mia, for planting the seed of an idea for this story.

“Dada, Dada,” Mia called out as she scurried into the dining room and made for the corner, at which end of the dining table Dada had set up not only her permanent seat for meals but also a workstation where she’d sit and write.

Mia came and stood beside Dada who looked up from whatever she was doing into Mia’s serious and troubled eyes.

“What’s the matter, Mia? You don’t look too happy.” Mia nodded her head up and down. Dada waited.

“Dada, my lil Piggly has lost his snout!”

“Lost his snout?” Lil Piggly?” This was the first time Dada had heard about a lil pig called Piggly.

“Yes, Dada. Lil Piggly has lost his long snout,” she repeated gesturing with her hands in case Dada didn’t know what a snout was.

“What can I do Mia? Do you want me to help you find the snout?”

“Yes, let’s find Piggly’s snout,” she said, happy and relieved, as she took Dada’s hand in hers.

“Where’s Piggly? I need to ask him some questions,” Dada asked seriously. This was a serious case. Who ever heard of a pig losing its snout!

She pulled Dada out of the dining room and into the corridor that led to the bedrooms.

“There he is,” she said pointing a finger.

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“There he is.”

“Ah! I see him and he’s not looking very happy. Piggly, can you tell me where you lost your snout?” asked Dada

“Oik, oik,” said Piggly sadly, “I don’t know.”

“See,” piped Mia, “he can’t even speak properly without his snout. He’s saying ‘oik’ instead of ‘oink’!” And she looked so sad Dada thought she’d cry any minute.

Now Piggly, that doesn’t help much, does it? Let’s see, can you tell me all that you did this morning?”

“Well, I played in a muddy puddle. It was so much fun! I rolled around in the muddy puddle and splashed and jumped…” Dada interrupted him.

“And what did you do next?”

“Oik, farmer Longbottom took me to find truffles. I did a good job of it. I’m sure he’s pleased with me, oik, oik!”

“And what else did you do? Where did you go?” asked Dada.

“Oik, oik, I was tired and took a nap. I didn’t go anywhere and I didn’t do anything else.”

“Can you take us to the muddy puddle and the place where you found the truffles?” asked Mia.

“Oik, I can,” said Piggly eagerly. He did want to find his snout.

So off they went to look for Piggly’s snout in the muddy puddle. Dada used a pitchfork to dredge the squelchy, muddy pool for the missing snout but found nothing but slimy leaves and a few pebbles.

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Dada used a pitchfork to dredge the squelchy, muddy pool for the missing snout but found nothing but slimy leaves and a few pebbles.

Then they trudged to where Piggly had searched for truffles. It was a lot of searching as they had to go over a large area. They were quite exhausted by the time they had finished their search but had still found nothing. No snout!

Mia, Piggly, and Dada, who was not so young anymore, sat under a shady tree to catch their breath and rest their aching legs. No one spoke for a while. They were all lost in their own thoughts. And then the silence was broken by a big…Achoo! Achoo! Achoo!

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Then they trudged to where Piggly had searched for truffles. They were quite exhausted by the time they had finished their search but had still found nothing. No snout!

Piggly had a sneezing fit.

“Do you have a cold Piggly? Said Mia, as she patted Piggly gently.

“No, I don’t,” he replied. “It’s an allergy. It happened earlier today when I was sniffing the roses. I think I’m allergic to roses or flowers or pollen or…dear me! I’m so miserable, I could cry! Oik, Oik, Oik.”

“You smelled the roses?” said Dada sitting up straight.

“When did you smell the roses, Piggly?” asked Mia.

“You never mentioned it earlier,” mumbled Dada annoyed.

“I forgot,” wailed Piggly, “I just remembered when I sneezed. While farmer Longbottom rested under this tree I strolled that way…there. There’s a patch of wild roses down there. I sniffed them and …Achoo! Achoo!” Piggly had another sneezing fit.

Dada took Mia’s hand and both of them hurried in the direction Piggly had pointed out. A short run and they came upon a beautiful sight. The patch of roses!

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A short run and they came upon a beautiful sight. The patch of roses!

“Be careful Mia, these roses have nasty thorns. You stay here and I’ll look around for Piggly’s snout.”

Though Dada was very careful, but still, she let out a yelp now and then when a thorn pricked her. And then, Mia heard Dada shouting…she had found the missing snout and was shouting for joy.

“How are we going to put back Piggly’s snout?” Mia wondered aloud.

“We won’t,” replied Dada, “Dr. Horsense will do that. Come on, let’s hurry.”

Later that day, after Dr. Horsense had fixed Piggly’s snout right where it belonged, Dada and Mia went to see how lil Piggly was doing.

“Oink, Oink,” said Piggly happily, when he saw them. “I’m so glad I’ve got back my snout. I’m never going to sniff around roses again. Thank you, Dada. Thank you, Mia,” said lil Piggly as he trotted home.

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“Oink, Oink, I’m so glad I’ve got back my snout. I’m never going to smell the roses again.”

The story of the story:

Three-year-old Mia, one of the twins, came running to me at my ‘workstation’ and said, “Dada, Piggly has lost his snout.”

I said, “And who is Piggly?”

“My lil pig,” she replied.

From then on the story unfolded as we went around the house…to the places mentioned in the story above.

‘Oink, Oink, it was fun finding Piggly’s snout!

How Green Was My Valley

” Terror Strikes Again In The Valley ”

” Car Bomb Explodes Near……In The Valley”

” Terrorists Kidnap Four Foreign Tourists In The Valley’

The Valley is making headlines every day. It has always been written about but never this way.

This beautiful hill town or ” Valley,” as it has come to be called, has always inspired poets; writers of nature; naturalists; and has been the backdrop and location of many romantic stories and movies. It is a tourists’ paradise, not anymore. I used to call it ‘my’ valley. But it is not mine anymore.

Three decades ago, a young college girl visited the Valley for the first time. She never left. Here she had met a handsome, young Army officer who had recently been commissioned into the Army. He belonged to the Valley region and his family had been living there for years.

The days that followed could well have been out of a Mills & Boons novella. Their love bloomed and one could see this pretty, young thing with her tall, handsome Adonis taking long walks along the lake, or going on treks into the mountains. Often they would hire a Shikara – a flat-bottomed boat – and sit silently, holding hands, while they took in the exquisite beauty of the vast expanse of placid water, surrounded by verdant hills. The boatman would row the Shikara to Char Chinar, a little island with a small restaurant, in the middle of the lake. It got its name from the four (char) Chinar trees that grew on the island.

At the Char Chinar, they would alight and drink Kahwa, a delicately flavoured green tea with slivers of almonds in it.

They used to talk and laugh a lot. For her officer was not only a good conversationist but also had a great sense of humour. Their return from Char Chinar was always very romantic. The sun would be setting and the water of the lake reflected the hues of the burning sky. They would ask the boatman to sing a love song of the hills. And as the lilting melody wafted across the lake, their boat glided smoothly over the slowly darkening water.She always wanted that moment to stand still.

I feel a slight nudge. All of a sudden three decades has flown by. I am in the present, surrounded by people – Army officers, dignitaries from the Government, journalists. I must not let my mind wander. I have to concentrate and listen to the announcer. Yes, he is describing the heroic exploits of an officer as he faced a terrorist attack on an Army Base in the Valley region.

And then I step forward and walk to the podium to receive from the President, ” the highest gallantry award for bravery in peacetime, awarded to ……..posthumously.”

My officer of the Valley is no more.

The tears sting my eyes, threatening to overflow. I must not cry. The President is saying something, there are flashes as Press cameras click away. It’s all a blur. Then I lift my hands to take the medal and Citation and walk back. They made me practise this so it came automatically but so did the tears…They never made me practise holding them back.

A young, handsome officer opens his arms and holds me. He looks like his father. I lay my head on his shoulder.

The Valley had given and the Valley had taken……

I lift my head and look into the eyes of my son. How much was the Valley going to take before peace was restored…..I dared not even wonder.

(~Joy Clarkson 2006)