Tuesday, 27 September 2016

The 6.13 Ladies' Special

The 6:13 Ladies’ Special creates a phenomenon of biblical origins on the suburban train stations of Mumbai: the parting of the Red Sea. As soon as the announcement crackles over the noise and clamour of commuters waiting to return home, there are two distinctly opposite reactions. An audible grunt of impatience from the men, who have to move backwards, grudging the minutes lost in the rush back home. And a sigh of relief from the women, who triumphantly step up to the front. The Ladies Special glides in, and with a cacophony of screams and shouts to match no other, a surge of women sweep on board. This is the daily commute for most middle-class people living and working in Mumbai.

As the city progressed from a tiny fishing village to a flourishing city, more and more people streamed in from different parts of India to make their fortunes. The British built the railways, and in 1870, the Churchgate Station opened. Mumbai, then Bombay grew in a linear fashion, stretching along the western coast of India. And the need for the tracks to go further into the suburbs created the 153 km long railway that ferried people from one end to the city to the other.

I was fortunate that in 1991, the world’s first ladies only train was introduced. I had just started college, and having to negotiate the rush hour journey across town was quite an initiation into independence. In time I too became a toughened old hand, adept at jumping in and out of running trains every day. Two torn ligaments, results of falling off running trains are the only proof of my struggle in my daily commute.

In time I got a job and that placed me right in the heart of the business quarter of Mumbai: Nariman Point. My office was near the seafront though I never did get to see it through the darkly tinted windows of my workplace. Funny how in order to keep the sun out of sight, we also had one of Mumbai’s most beautiful sceneries obscured from view as well. At lunchtime, my colleagues and I often took a stroll on the Marine Drive promenade. The sun baked our heads and scorched our skins the colour of chocolate. But a breath of fresh sea air was essential after being cocooned in a stale air-conditioned environment for hours. At the end of the day, most people, tired and impatient to return home, hurry along to the station. In fact, an aerial view of Churchgate station, golden domed in the setting sun, could easily pass for a hive, with people swarming towards it like bees.

As it’s best not to mess with bees, it’s not a good idea to stand in the way of the thousands of commuters already highly stressed about their journeys back home. It takes an hour and twenty five minutes on a fast train from Churchgate to the then farthest point on the Western Line, Virar. That’s about 84 kilometres. The suburbs have now extended beyond Virar, adding eight more stations to the Western Line, an extra sixty-nine kilometres of track.

But that’s only the physical distance from one point to another. It takes a hardened commuter a lot of will-power, die hard attitude and the willingness for repeated self-torture to be a regular passenger on these local trains.

There are rules. And one must always obey them, or the result could be disastrous. One should never travel on a Virar Fast, which stops at selected intermediate stations, to go to a destination that could be reached on a slow train, which stops at each and every one. If you manage to even inch towards the exit (the phrase ‘packed like sardines’ fits perfectly; as nearly five thousand commuters crush themselves into carriages meant to carry only eighteen hundred), you will be showered with abuses, poked with vicious elbows and I have even heard that safety-pins have found their uses in commuter train battles. 

Hair-sprayed office PAs gnash teeth and grind their bodies against salwar-kameez clad shop assistants. Fisherwomen returning home from the markets hold their stinking, fish water dripping baskets in front of them as armour. Tight jeaned college girls tap giggle flirtatiously to their boyfriends on their phones while digging their well manicured nails into an unsuspecting victim. Beggars sing for their dinner. Hawkers push their plastic wares into sweating faces and banter for a sale. Train friends swap tales and snacks, or play cards if lucky to be sitting down. The technical term, ‘super-dense crushload’ is completely justified here.

As the stations fly by, more and more women pack themselves into the train. The Ladies Special is a haven: an entire train to the women. No pinching fingers or heavy breathing to fear. No sexual innuendos or badly sung Bollywood songs to endure. In spite of the constant battle for space, it is still our battle. We womenfolk fight our own corners and sort out our own problems. After Bandra, the crowd starts to thin a bit. There’s still half the journey left. But at least by now, there may be place to sit. There’s an opportunity to breathe deeply and relax. To smile at the person opposite. To take the vegetables that one has hurriedly haggled and bought outside the station out of the bags and then begin to chop them one by one. There’s never any time to be wasted. As a woman in the metropolis, one is always thinking ahead. There are hungry mouths to feed at home, and no time to cook. Simple solutions like cleaning and preparing the vegetables for meals begin in the train. Women gossip and get ahead of their housework. A seamstress takes orders for dresses she will make and supply on the train in a fortnight’s time. She measures her client, pins stuffed in her mouth, measuring tape flapping as they are jolted from side to side in the speeding train.

Statistics reveal that more than five hundred people die annually in train accidents. Many fall off moving trains, others hit a live wire if sitting on the roof and get electrocuted. There are incidents of stone-throwing by slum-dwellers at passengers and also of people hitting electric posts because they lean too far out of the door in order to get a foothold into the train. But there are other stories too: heroic acts of bravery, loves found and lost, and some that are too good to be true.

It was a normal weekday. I was returning home from a client meeting. The Ladies' Special was running late. I decided to wait for it, rather than battle it out in the general trains. I hung around in the background, eating roasted peanuts to pass the time. When the train finally approached, I braced myself to fight and elbow my way into the train. I was lucky to have a first class pass, and to my absolute delight, not many women approached my compartment. Elated by the ease of the commute, I entered the train. It struck me a bit strange to find women huddled on one side of the first class, leaving the other side empty. I turned towards the window seat and looked in horror around me. The women shouted, come away, come away. There was blood splattered on the seats and floor. I ran back to the populated side, aghast. It looked like a murder scene. But the women seemed very animated. They laughed and chattered, waving their arms and rolling their eyes in excitement. Of course, they were discussing the event that had taken place earlier on in the journey.

“Baby, baby,” one woman cried, waggling her head. She seemed like a proud grandparent. I stared at them, not sure what to believe. But it was true indeed. A woman had just given birth in the first class compartment of the Ladies' Special. The commuters described to me the scene with renewed excitement. How her waters suddenly broke after setting off from Churchgate. They pulled the chain at Bombay Central, but she was unable to move. Doctors rushed to the train, and with their help, the woman pushed out a healthy, six pound baby boy into the world. Unbelievable, I gasped. This could only happen in India! And no wonder the train had been late.

When we approached the next station, a man with a red plastic bucket and broom jumped into the train. He splashed water on the bloodied seats and floor, and swept with a maniacal force. We kept well back, shouting at him for sending sprays of that water towards us. A local train waits at each station for 30 seconds. In that time, he had washed and spread the blood and mess even further across the train, before jumping out again. We sighed and shook our heads. And then the high-pitched conversation resumed once more.

The next day, I was handed a laddoo by my fellow commuters. The woman and baby were safe and thriving in hospital. I stuffed the sweet into my mouth, joining in the celebration in the Ladies’ First Class. There was no sign of any birthing in the compartment. Probably it was a bit too clean, and that was a sign in itself. The train authorities had had no choice but to scrub down the compartment. We were the elite First Class passengers after all. We laughed and celebrated the baby’s birth with full gusto. We exchanged stories of births and trains and all things in between.

“This baby boy will probably be the one and only male ever to be welcomed into a Ladies' Special,” I joked.

“Yes,” the women chorused. “The only male to set foot on our train with our permission!”

Bless him, I thought. He’ll also be one lucky guy to get a lifetime’s pass to travel first class on a local suburban train in Mumbai. But not on a Ladies’ Special, we wouldn’t grant him that!

First published in Riptide Magazine: The Suburbs, Volume 10, 2014

Wednesday, 21 September 2016

Memoir: At Home, at Sea

This essay was featured in The Commonwealth Writers Journal. Here's my story about my life as (most of the time) the only woman on board oil tankers.
Approaching Gibraltar

Before I came aboard, I was a city girl to the core. Born and bred in Mumbai, I was used to jostling my way on to a crowded local train to college and then to work on an everyday basis.  I felt uncomfortable in silence. Holidays in hill stations or other ‘nature spots’ were fine for a few days, but then I needed to return to the city and a hectic pace of life. So when I first started sailing, the sea, the sky, the steady sound of the water and the open space that surrounded me, made me nervous.

4am watchkeeping on the bridge
I had just married a Chief Officer in the Merchant Navy and jumped head first into my marriage by accompanying my husband on an oil tanker, a few weeks after the wedding.  If sailing around the world conjures up romantic images of sunsets and doing the Titanic pose on the foc’s’le, I won’t disagree, but there are many other sides to it. I had to learn to live as the only woman in a totally male-dominated environment. I had to find a balance between companionship with my husband – together on a boat every day and night without other friends or family – and my own privacy.
I had too much time on my hands and I felt guilty about the fact that I could lead a life of leisure. I didn’t have a house to run, or work to report to. If I wanted, I could spend all day in bed, or watch films endlessly. After sailing for the first few days, I got a little anxious. What was I to do with myself? I had brought along my art materials, but I couldn’t just paint day in and day out, surely?
My husband, having sailed with other officers’ wives on board, was adamant that I find ways to keep myself busy. Otherwise, he knew only too well, boredom would make me despise sailing, and like some of my predecessors, I would eventually stop accompanying him on voyages.
Watercolours: Macieo, Brazil
I did my best to maintain a routine. My mornings began at 3:45 am when my husband, as Chief Officer, had to do the 4-8 am watch. We’d spend time on the bridge; he busy with his day’s planning, while I enjoyed my morning cup of tea with him, often watching the most spectacular sunrises I had ever seen. I helped out with accounting, calculating overtimes and keeping a check on the ship’s safe. I also did watercolours of my travels and wrote journals. But the job I really enjoyed was plotting the ship’s voyage on the maritime charts. I learnt a lot about ocean currents, ship routes and weather systems. I had many opportunities to steer the ship in open seas.

Living on a ship was like living on an island that had its own rules and customs. It was a place populated by men: it was their work and living space and I was an outsider. This didn’t make it easy for either side. I had to do most of the adjusting as I had come into their world. There were unwritten rules that I had to follow. I would stay in my cabin a lot of the time. I didn’t venture into the work spaces unless my husband was present. If I wanted to watch a film in the mess room, I could only do so if I was alone. If another officer wanted to watch a film, it was understood that I should leave and give him the opportunity to relax in his free time. There were certain videos and magazines I pretended not to notice. After six pm, when the men gathered in the mess room to relax, it was out of bounds for me, unless I was accompanied by my husband. Sometimes, I slipped past these boundaries when I joined the men in table tennis and cricket matches, or was lowered off the side of the ship in a full body harness, to go ashore.  But in a way, I had to become an archetypically feminine woman, according to outdated traditions.
Going ashore in a fishing boat in South India
My Mumbai life as a single, working woman had not prepared me to accept invisibility. When the ship docked in Kuwait, I had to stay in my cabin and not come out for days, until the ship left the shore. The inspectors and dock workers coming on board were prohibited from seeing a woman – or was it the other way around? All books, DVDs, videos, magazines and alcohol had to be put away in a sealed room for the duration of our stay in port. I might as well have been stashed away in that room – I would have enjoyed myself better – rather than kept waiting in my cabin, peeping out from behind the curtains at a hot, sandy landscape and raging against the unfairness of it all. I had been used to my independence – a freedom to live as I wished – having not experienced much discrimination in my life so far.
This isolation and being cut off from the rest of the world while sailing helped me to look inwards more.  I gave my emotional needs an importance I never had before. I learnt to love my own company and explore my creativity. I spent hours writing detailed letters to family and friends, bringing me closer to them than when I was actually living amongst them.
Seagulls chasing our ship!
The weather played an immense role not just to the smooth voyage of the ship, but also to the mental state of those on board. When the sky was grey and the sea choppy for days on end, it was difficult for me to get out of bed. When the sun shone, and the sea sparkled, my mood immediately changed for the better, and I spent my days outside on the deck, walking miles back and forth on the bridge. It reminded me of my childhood days, when I could spend hours in the back yard, hitting a ball against a wall and catching it, while making up stories in my mind. I did the same on board: my hours of walking produced many short stories and half a novel.
At the same time, I gained a deeper understanding of the working life of seafarers and how their lives were fraught with danger. Before, my husband had only told me beautiful stories of the sea; of the dolphins and whales and different countries he had visited – brighter anecdotes of adventures during his career at sea. He never mentioned the darker side: the dangers of work to which even lives could be lost, or the stress and fatigue that was taken for granted. There were times when they worked 72 hours at a stretch, for example during tank cleaning operations.  My husband would come back and collapse on the bed, in his greasy boiler suit and with his work boots on.
Dangerous jobs on board
He once handed me a spare walkie-talkie and told me to listen in while he went out to the fo’c’slestoreroom to investigate why the fire alarm had gone off there. There was a gale of force 10 blowing outside, the ship pitching recklessly and brutish waves engulfing the main deck. I couldn’t bear to watch so I stayed in my cabin, listening on the walkie-talkie to the shouts and cries of the men outside. They had tied themselves to a rope, my husband leading the team, and were inching forward in the heavy rain. I got increasingly panic-stricken, knowing I would be helpless if anything should happen. Then I heard a shout: “Look out, Chief.”  Silence followed. I rushed to the toilet and threw up. I stared at the walkie-talkie, petrified, willing it to come to life again. After what seemed like ages, I heard from them again. My husband was safe. Later, he told me very casually that he had hit the side rails along with a few others, but the rope tied to their waists had saved them.
But it was not always so grim on board the ship. Christmas parties were the highlight of any winter voyage. Once, the chief cook, being very artistic, organised a fancy dress party. He managed to transform about twenty-five men into all sorts of characters, mostly female! He used everything he could get his hands on: mops as wigs, a nurse’s uniform from the rags store, paint, footballs, grapefruit and even my lipstick! I had a difficult job now, being (of course) appointed judge of the best costume.
Pilot arriving on ship in Amsterdam
I had my own jobs on board. I sat by the bed of a crew member who had inhaled poisonous fumes and was rendered unconscious. I helped my husband to administer shots to another officer, jaundiced and shivering in the ship’s hospital bed. Stress levels soared when the ships were due for inspection. Everything had to be in perfect order for the ship to pass all the stringent tests required to mark it safe as a place to work.  All paperwork had to be up-to-date, ship standards maintained and health and safety issues checked.
When we sailed out of Brazil in 2003, the tanker got orders to sail to Nigeria for the next loading assignment. All supernumeraries would require an immigration pass, and that included me. But knowing the political situation in Nigeria at that moment, and the time it would take to acquire the pass, we realised it would not be possible. So I sailed into a country without any papers and, to avoid a fine or imprisonment, hid in my cabin for a few days. Once again I became invisible. The mess man and I had a code, so that I would open the door only to him so he could slip me my food. I sat cooped in my cabin for three to four days, listening to Nigerian radio and eating fish curry and rice in my day-room.
The radio was my companion on all my voyages over the four years I sailed, almost six months at a time, on seven ships. Whenever we anchored in a port, I would tune into the local radio, listen to programmes and record songs.  I built an entire library of those recordings that I have to this day. Sometimes, when I hear a particular song, it transports me back to that ship, that cabin, that country where I recorded it and played it endlessly on the longs days at sea.
Mumbai skyline
Then, one day, the ship sailed into the port of Mumbai. From my vantage point on the deck, I could see the familiar skyline of my city. The Gateway of India. The Taj Hotel. The spire of St Andrew and St Columba church. I was looking at my life from the outside. I longed to go ashore and get lost in the crowds of Mumbai. But I was on my own, standing on the deck, trying to spot familiar landmarks through my tears. I borrowed a pair of binoculars and would spend a long time peering through them, hoping perhaps to spot known faces.
I saw the hospital on Mahim Bay, opposite the school I went to. I tried my best to catch a glimpse of the school, knowing my mother would be teaching inside. Would she know I was looking out for her? I went back to my cabin and a little later there was a knock on my cabin door. Reluctantly, I opened it and there, grinning at me, were my mother and sister. My husband had arranged to have them come aboard to surprise me. I was so pleased to have them on board, with a chance for them to see how I lived; what I did. It had become important for me that they understood my way of life on the ship; now a part of who I was.


Friday, 9 September 2016

Workshop on Life Writing at Badger Farm Community Centre

Hello all,

I'll be hosting a creative writing workshop focussing on Memoir and Life Writing on Saturday 24th September from 10.30 -12.30 at the Badger Farm Community Centre, Winchester.
It's £10.00 to book, and please email me at


 to register.

Is there a memory or experience you would like to preserve through writing?

There will be writing exercises, exploration of ideas, discussions and resources shared in this 2 hour workshop.

Here's a life writing piece I wrote for Commonwealth Writers:


I look forward to seeing you then!

Thursday, 21 April 2016

Celebrating the Curry Leaf Comeback!

South Indian food is a firm favourite in our house. Though we are Bengalis, our roots being in West Bengal where fish curry and rice are staple foods, we tend to think of South Indian food as our 'specials'. There is great excitement in the house when I announce there will be dosas or idlis for dinner! Though the preparation of dosas is a long process, the fermentation of the batter taking up to a couple of days, here's a version I've adapted from my French friend, Stephanie, who had made some awesome buckwheat pancakes on Pancake Day!

Buckwheat Dosa:

For the batter, I've added water and some salt to about a cup of gluten-free buckwheat flour to make a runny batter. If you want to be more adventurous, you could add a teaspoon of finely grated ginger and chopped chillies. I haven't for this one, but might try it the next time round.
Now cook the dosas exactly how you would make pancakes. I added little drops of oil onto the hot pan before pouring the batter in, and then dotted the sides with oil so it's easier to flip.

Potato or Sukhi Aloo Bhaji

This is a sure accompaniment of the dosa. Either on the side or as a filling for the dosa. Boil the potatoes, then chop. Chop onions and coriander leaves. In a pan, add a tsp of mustard seeds and curry leaves and chopped chillies to  2 -3 tsp of hot oil. When the seeds start to splutter, add the onions and fry a bit. Then add a teaspoon of turmeric and stir it around. Quickly add the chopped potatoes and coat it with the onion mixture. Add seasoning, and garnish with coriander leaves and some lemon juice if you like. Remove from pan. 

Curry leaves are/were banned in the UK recently, so when I found some in the local Indian store last week, I danced a jig. South Indian food without curry leaves is like fish and chips without vinegar. You can eat it, but it's not the same. 

So this meal was all to celebrate the return of the curry leaves!

Sambhar Daal

You will get all the ingredients in the Indian store. Boil a cup of red lentils with a tsp of turmeric, salt with 2 cups of water. Add vegetables of your choice in the daal, usually aubergine, okra, carrots, courgettes, pumpkin work well. But you can get creative. Add sambhar masala to the daal.When the daal is soft and cooked, take it aside. In a frying pan, heat some oil. Add mustard seeds and curry leaves, chillies and some grated ginger, when they splutter, tip the pan of hot oil into the sambhar daal. be careful because the hot oil will sizzle and leap out, usually in your direction! Check seasoning.

That's it then! A variation on dosa and a big success! And binge on the curry leaves while you can! Enjoy!

Wednesday, 4 November 2015

Recipes from The Normal State of Mind

Maacher Jhaal (Fish Curry)

1 Seabass  cut into 3-4 pieces or cod fillets
1 tsp Nigella Seeds
2 tsp  Coleman’s Mustard powder
2 tsp milk
2 tsp Lemon Juice
1 small tomato, chopped
Coriander leaves, handful, chopped
1 tsp Turmeric powder
1 -2 Green Chilli
3 tbspMustard oil (preferable) otherwise sunflower oil

Marinate the sardines in a tsp of turmeric, salt and some lemon juice.
Make a mustard paste with a bit of water and a pinch of salt and ¼ tsp turmeric. Keep aside.
In a heavy bottomed pan, pour 3 tbsp of mustard oil. When hot, add the nigella seeds and green chilli. Cover as it will splutter.
When it starts spluttering, reduce heat and add the fish. Cover. After a minute, turn on other side. Remove and keep aside. Add the chopped tomato, fry a little, then add the mustard paste, fry it a bit, add a little water. When it starts to boil, add the fish again and let it cook for a few minutes until done. Check seasoning. Add the milk to finish. Add chopped coriander leaves. Serve with rice and a wedge of lemon.

Batata Vada (Potato Cakes)

Batata Vada pic courtesy:Spiceinthecity.co
Ingredients: 2 big Maris Piper potatoes, boiled, peeled and mashed.

2 cm ginger and a chilli, ground to a paste, salt to taste

2 tsp Cumin powder, ½ tsp turmeric powder, coriander leaves chopped, one small red onion chopped fine, a small green chilli, chopped fine

In a bowl, add all the ingredients, mix well, and make into golf size balls. Flatten into shape. Cool in the fridge while you make the batter.

To Be Mixed Together Into A Thin Batter (similar to pancake batter consistency):
1 cup
besan (bengal gram flour), water
1/4 tsp
chilli powder
1 tbsp
a pinch
soda bi-carb. salt to taste

Heat enough oil for deep frying in a deep pan. Dip the potato rounds in the prepared batter and deep fry a few at a time on a medium flame, till they turn golden brown in colour on all the sides. Drain on absorbent paper and serve hot with chutney/ketchup of your choice or in a bap with ketchup.
Easy Egg Roll

Egg Roll pic courtesy: Nizam's
Ingredients: 2 ready to eat chapatis
2 eggs
One red onion finely sliced
1/2 cucumber finely sliced
handful of coriander leaves, finely chopped
1-2 chillies finely chopped
ready cooked chicken pieces (optional)
pinch of turmeric and cumin powder (optional)

Break one egg, beat it, add salt to taste, turmeric and cumin, chopped chillies and some coriander leaves. Mix well. In a pan, add some oil, when hot, pour the egg mix, place the chapatti on top, and keep on low heat until the egg cooks. Remove from pan. Place on a plate, egg side up. Add chopped onions, cucumber, chicken, and chopped coriander. Can add a squeeze of lemon if you wish. Roll it up tight, serve hot with tomato ketchup.
My kids love this for tea, minus the chillies!