Neighborhood Engagement

The roads in my neighborhood are in a bad shape. For the last month, the municipality has been digging and filling and digging them again for revamping sanitation, kitchen gas and water pipelines. Working professionals in the neighborhood had to make alternate arrangements for transport since parking and plying cars was a great hassle (especially those with small children who had to get to school by 7:30am in the cold wintry mornings!). Small businesses such as vegetable, fish, fruit, houseware vendors bore the brunt too, as practically there was no movement through the neighborhood streets. There were no flyers or communication regarding what the municipal officials set out to do, how long it would take and how we could all cooperate. Hence, like many other decisions in the past, common citizens were once again expected to abide by adhoc policies and implementation procedures that someone somewhere may have designed, keeping the community in mind, but without minding to inform them.

Why do most government programmes fail? Why do citizens often associate well designed programmes with election gimmicks? Time and time again, I have seen the same in my work area of public health too. One big factor is the total closure of communication with beneficiaries -who ultimately define the success or failure of the entire programme!

Sometimes I wish we could borrow a few learnings from the marketing departments of commercial businesses. New products introduced in the market go through a rigorous process of research evidence, pilot testing, people engagement and proper canvassing. Although many a times these can be extended beyond reason for profit making, but without proper need assessment and participatory engagement, projects are on a downhill trajectory.

However, the present irritation in the neighborhoods has not been a bad experience so far. Through this process, I recognized a few neighbors with great potential in community engagement. A reclusive neighbor from the adjacent house came out with a flask containing tea, some paper tea cups and packets of cookies for the workers on our street. In India, daily wage earners mostly work in all construction/infrastructure projects. Men and women completing the physically challenging work of digging the dirty roads, could at least spend 5-10 minutes refreshing themselves with a hot cup of tea. Another neighbor led an active engagement with the workers. Asking them how long they would take, what utilities they were covering, and informing the neighborhood of the same. It was only through his information, that I could plan out my alternate transport schedule for the 4 weeks. One other proactive neighbor informed about the application forms for the new gas pipelines, without which, our house would have been surely left out from this initiative.

Although my neighborhood is covered in a mass of dust and people are constantly sneezing, coughing or both, and although we are on a make shift time plan, scampering around making last minute arrangements for keeping to our daily schedules, I am more or less happy to see that there are definitely some leaders in my neighborhood who act when the time comes with spontaneity and grace. While my contribution to the entire process may be limited to admiring them from my balcony and highlighting them on my minuscule blog or for voicing the lack of information at my neighborhood gossip sessions, the feeling of belonging to a community, of being part of a proactive neighborhood is motivating and cheerful.

Advertisements

Summer Holiday!

This year during my daughter’s summer school break, we visited my parents in Kolkata, a city in the East of India. We were visiting the city after a gap of 4 years and were pleasantly surprised how much it has changed in the few years. For one, the city looks much cleaner and greener. The roads are wider and the parks near my parents home have been given a ‘facelift’ with fancy park benches, sculptors and lovely landscaping. The streets have decorative lamps and a lot is being done in terms of connecting the ends of the city through subways and roads. Kolkata reminds me of my own childhood, where my parents used to take me for every summer vacation. It reminds me of my grandmother’s home, where the kids used to have their fill of sweet juicy mangoes, tart tamarinds or homemade rice wafers during the lazy afternoons, while the adults religiously took their afternoon siestas. Kolkata is also the city where my father took me to see my first museums, planetarium and zoo.

This year, my dad took my daughter to visit some places in the city. I also realized (with a slight jealous pang) that my dad may well be my daughter’s favorite person on this planet. Unlike other cities of India where I grew up or worked, Kolkata is very unique in many ways. Everything can peacefully co exist in this city. Like the buildings from the 1800s and high rises, that may be neighbors and yet have managed to keep their places. From the first Chinese colonies in India to Armenian and Jewish heritage, people of every race, ethnicity, qualification, can find a place to co-exist here.

No wonder I liked New York City during the two years I spent there. It reminded me so much about India and particularly Kolkata. The sea of people of all races, the street carts selling gyros, dosas, biryani and the most wonderful Jackson Heights. With its rows of Pakistani, Bangladeshi and Indian shops. In NYC, I also sampled international cuisines to my heart’s content. I think my heart is tied between a pho and a sushi, but still, I cannot turn down a warm toasty bagel with spinach cheese spread or a soft pretzel with apple almond dip!

The small street side independently owned shops in NYC are very similar to those in Kolkata. In Kolkata, people from different ethnicities have bonded well over food via their will to extend the boundaries of their cuisines, by way of flexibilities or through experimentation. I had my fill of traditional Bengali vegetables which I cannot cook or are unavailable in my city. One of my delectable is unripe green figs, which can be cooked with potatoes in tomato garlic gravy. I was fortunate enough that the lady who helps my mother at home brought us some young figs from her fig tree. Another dish that most Bengalis have tasted is a paste of Taro stems with fresh coconut. Traditional recipes that require more effort to cook are slowly being wiped out from our daily lives, but in Kolkata, many restaurants have begun to spring up which promise food from yesteryears which are now being replaced at home by quick fixes.

A book that I own named ‘The Calcutta Cookbook’ by Minakshi Dasgupta is quite a favorite and it covers recipes beyond all ethnicities that have now added to the Kolkata heritage. This year I had my fill of sweet mangoes and juicy litchis too. Of the 30 varieties of Mangoes available in India, Himsagar is my favourite. It is very sweet and has more flesh than other varieties. It is available only for 4 weeks in Kolkata, just like the litchis. The production of Himsagar is small, but to the Kolkata dweller, one Himsagar a day is a must while it is in season.

Below is a list of a few videos of Kolkata from the view point of a foodie-

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LLeEK2YjC4Y

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=saIU-ahpsdE

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KHiLQYwZ0jo

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AJblfGmlsE4

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2KBXfV9NsGg

 

Its Autumn!

Autumn is my favorite season. Not only does the temperature get to an optimum level, but people are more outdoorsy, enjoying the cooler evenings and breathing a crisp air and there is still time, till things get cold and grey and the air is heavy with particulates.

Nature goes through a transformation, more evident if you live in the hills in the tropics or in the Northern hemisphere. I read somewhere that fall shows us letting go is a part of life and nature makes it a colorful farewell while making space to usher in new happiness of the spring. I think winter is a period of contemplation, between the old and the new, necessary to absorb your learnings from the past while planning the next course of action. maple-leaf

Autumn is also the time for Durga Puja, when once a year, the Goddess Durga arrives at the mortal world, to be pampered by her worldly children. Bengalis all over the world celebrate this festival with great joy and fervor.

I have very fond memories of the Puja from childhood. Growing up in the southern part of India and studying in a school for children of predominantly defense personnel, I had a mix of friends from all across the country, from Jammu and Kashmir in the North, to Assam in the East, to children belonging to Rajasthan in the West and everyone from the South. Although my school was a mini India, my home was in a locality mainly inhabited by the Bengali community. This enabled me to absorb a little of my Bengali heritage, although, I can never compete with brethrens raised in Bengal, on any topic relating to Bengali culture, nor on Tagore and certainly never on politics and its repercussions on postcolonial Bengal.

durga-puja-photo-gallery-at-belur-math-on-saptami-2012-108During my school days, for the five main days of Puja, children performed cultural programmes every evening. SB, our community mentor would recruit us early, during the school summer vacation itself and start coaching us for these programmes in October. I am yet to come across someone as versatile as SB, having a day job as a Statistician in a National Research Center, SB was immensely talented in playing the flute and equally gifted in writing scripts for plays and musicals. After coming home from school, we used to rush to SBs house for the rehearsals. He helped us build camaraderie and made my childhood so much fun. For one hour of practice, SB gave us each a lemon candy, entirely from his own funds.

One year, when I was not serious about the practice and was constantly giggling over a particularly funny script, SB not only gave me an earful, but also told one of my friends to start laughing every time I had to speak my lines, so that I ‘get a feel of the real audience’. I was so annoyed after that, not only at SB, but more at my friend for taking it all so seriously and laughing like a hyena, every time I began my lines!

In later years, SB was upset with me for not choosing performing arts as a professional career and giving in to societal pressure or the ‘fad’ prevalent those days to choose subjects that promised a more secure future. Even though I may not have lived upto SBs hopes for me, I am truly grateful for him being a part of my childhood. He had not only opened his heart to all of us, but his home as well, with a wonderfully well stocked library and his own children too, who are good friends even today.

Pujas always bring back happy memories for me, and the realization that community mentors are so important for children. I wish every child has a SB in their life, to cheer them up and help them enjoy their childhood…..serious things can wait….for now, just live and laugh.

Acknowledgements:

Pic 1: Fallfoliagerentals

Pic 2: Ramakrishna Mission Belur Math Durga Puja