Wednesday, March 25, 2009

In praise of the small and simple.....



She appeared at the door last week. An old stooped lady, wearing glasses with fairly thick lenses. Wearing a traditional nine yard sari, the sort you carefully wash, fold and then store under the mattress in such a way, that it gets a natural ironing, thanks to everyone sitting and or lying down on the one big bed in the house , holding several mattresses. In her house, the place isn't big enough for large amounts of furniture. And the mattresses are pulled down at night for everyone else, while the oldest elder gets the bed.


She was accompanied by a grandson. That's who I thought he was. At first I didn't recognize her. She looked up at me, and smiled. Toothlessly. Through her cataracted eyes. Shining. And then it hit home.

Bhagabai. Who was so much a part of my life when i went to my parents for my first delivery.


It is very traditional, for a girl expecting her first child, to go to her parent's house sometime before her due date. Today, with so many working women, and migration to the metros from small towns, understanding parents make the reverse trip to be there for their daughter and help. Sometimes, understanding parents-in-law chip in with their own help.

But going to one's parents house gives you the sort of freedom, you don't get anywhere else. You can sleep late, cups of tea magically appear when you vaguely wish about them, all kinds of culinary stuff is made for you, and you can absolutely dig in without appearing to be a greedy fool. "I don't feel like doing this", a phrase you dare not utter in front of your in-laws, is quite acceptable here. Although it is considered bad manners to sit with your feet up even in front of your parents (forget in-laws), going to your parents at this point is like mentally putting your feet up , if you know what I mean .... When you go out, you run into some of your school friends' parents and siblings, the local cycle shop fellow who repaired your punctures in college, asks after you and your husband, and the vegetable lady, sends her granddaughter with you, to carry the veggies when you return from shopping .


Post delivery, a very interesting person arrives on the scene. That was Bhagabai.

About 30 years ago, it was fairly routine to employ ladies like Bhagabai, for what was called Post-natal massage, and bathing and massaging the baby. I came home from hospital, and settled in. Bhagabai appeared a few days later. Ladies like her, are experts in the bathing and massaging of babies, in the traditional way. Alongside, they also massage the desperately tired muscles and ligaments of the mother, and there is a technique to it.

They use ordinary oil, and you feel the goodness oozing out of the rough, hardened, fingers, as your muscles get a indulgent talking to. An unusual aspect of the massage is a small utensil made out of a certain alloy , for which I do not know the English name. This utensil, and the oil , is rubbed on the soles of your feet, to remove the "heat". Whatever the science behind this, it used to feel good, and you felt very light after the sole rubbing. You were then accompanied into the bath, where water, as hot as you could tolerate, was poured on you by the big tumblerfuls, and garbanzo flour paste was used to remove any oil that had not managed to seep in by then, into your somnolent body. It felt wonderful. It did things not only to your body, but also to your mind. And some hot-off-he-griddle freshly made tortillas for breakfast with some delicious veggies completed the heavenly routine.

Bhagabai would then sit on the floor, with her feet out in front. Tuck in her saree above her knees, spread a soft white freshly washed cotton towel across her knees, and place the baby on her knees. A dab of oil on her palm, a rubbing together of the palms, and she would proceed to massage, the fairly new knees and ankles and things. Arms, shoulders and back were next. Sometimes the baby was laid on its stomach , so that the shoulders got a nice rub. Indian babies tend to have a nice mop of dark hair, and that was oiled too, with a special type of massage at the point where the fontanel was. You needed to go a bit easy there, as things were still joining up there at that point. The baby was bathed with warm water, to which sprigs of Neem were added. No soap was used, but it was all about using garbanzo flour paste. It had no chemicals, it didn't matter if you managed to eat some, and the face shone after you washed , to such an extent, Proctor and Gamble would have simply quietly vanished if they were watching....

Swaddled in fresh cotton clothes, and a cotton wrap , special wraps being done for the belly button area of the baby which was still healing from the loss of the umbilicus, the baby would lie restfully next to the mother, while Bhagabai would fan a largish plate containing some charcoal fire. She would then throw a mixture of few seeds like fennel, cumin, ajwain (carom seeds), etc, on the fire, and a wonderful smoke and aroma would pervade the room. This was designed to disinfect the atmosphere in the room, as well as give protection from allergies to the mother and child.

At the end of it all, she would sit back, have a cup of tea, chat with my mother for a while, and push off for her next massage assignment. If she felt the child was developing a cold or something, she would alter the mixture of the final seeds that were smoked, and the baby would be fine.

Bhagabai came to us for a month for me, and another month more for my son. She was a big part of the day we had the naming ceremony, and got special sarees from my in-laws and parents on that day. By and by I returned to my own home in Mumbai, and lost touch with her. But she would come once in a while to see my mother, ask after us. At some point of time, she kind of retired from all this and went back to her native place, to her ancestral house, where she lived then with her two sons and their wives and children.

She had been to Pune , and someone told her about my parents being no more. She asked about us, and my cousin told her where I lived. Her grandson was accompanying her to Mumbai as they had come to see someone who was seriously ill , and in hospital, and belonged to Bhagabai's generation.

On an impulse, she found out how to get to my place and came. To offer condolences.


"You know , those days are gone. These young mothers today can't sit still. They start going out to work and shopping, and stuff, and eat outside stuff. They worry about their figures. They avoid eating the old style prescribed stuff , satwik food, and then complain about aches and pains and inability to breastfeed the child....", . She shook her head, adjusted the end of her saree over her head, and looked up at me, as her grandson sort of rolled his eyes and looked up, but indulgently.

I remembered a friend's daughter who had just delivered and I asked if she was interested. She was nearby. Bhagabai could stay with me, and go there. It would be a nice change for Bhagabai, for me, and the new mother.

She smiled.

"You know, the heart is willing, the hands are willing, but I need to go back in a few days. " She motioned to her son to carry the empty teacups and plates into the kitchen and leave them there.

Her reason completely stumped me.

"Elections are there. My name is registered at the village. And I have to be there to vote. I have not missed a single election so far. It is important that we vote for the correct chap. today money power is misused. ....."

Yes, we are having our national elections in April.

This has been a tumultuous time.

Tumultuous in the highs and lows of economy, morals, money,violence,politics and yes, sport; as the 26/11 carnage in Mumbai festers in every one's mind, and makes you look over your shoulder, more than normal. For the ordinary person on the street, worry is a real and valid activity, till you reach your destination. Every time your child is late getting home, your hand reaches for the TV remote.

In the midst of this, India decided to keep its date with democracy. We have general elections, every 5 years. And now is the time.

Come April, and in a country , with an estimated population of 1.15 billion, representing 17% of the world population, 714,000,000 voters will use 1,368,430 electronic voting machines, to indicate their choice. Some will fly in, pose, smile, and vote; some will drive; some will step out of a decelerating public transport to do their civic duty; and in the back of beyond, rural areas, some elder son with a strong back, will carry his old mother piggyback over hill and dale, so she can cast her vote. She may be illiterate, may not know the names of first citizens, but she has a fine work ethic, a pride in the country, and can discuss and decide which man or woman, is worth voting for.

29 different languages are spoken by at least 1 million people each, where several hundred languages are designated as mother-tongues.Being the most culturally, linguistically and genetically diverse geographical entity after the African continent
, this country is home to folks from 9 major religions, Hindu (80.5)% (13.4%), , Muslims Christians (2.3%), Sikhs (1.9%), Buddhists (0.8%), Jains (0.4%), Jews, Zoroastrians, Bahá'ís and others. Tribals constitute 8.1% of the population.

Folks will make their way to 828,804 polling booths, and do their bit to preserve democracy.

Something we seem to be fairly good at, given that we have more reasons to divide us than unite us.


The Home Minister cannot emphasize enough the security aspect of these elections, and the country's law and order forces are totally committed to this.

In the midst of this , the Indian Premier League, the most commercialized money making cricket extravaganza , if there was one, schedules its matches right in the middle of the election period. This, despite the fact that a schoolchild knows that elections must happen before May.

As if that wasn't enough, Mr Lalit Modi, the gung-ho IPL commissioner argues and tangles with the government demanding security for the games. The latest terrorist attack on the Sri Lanka Cricket team in Pakistan has upped the threat perception. Big names in cricket , from UK, Australia, NZ, and SA, who have signed up, are expressing doubts about their own availability , worried about the security aspect.

Everyone is aware, but the amount of security personnel are barely enough for countrywide elections. The interests of the country are paramount. Cricket can always be played later. And IPL isn't even cricket, like test cricket. . It's like McDonald's trying to be the Taj Mahal Hotel.

The news channels show nothing else for 3-4 days, not having the IPL matches is declared a shame on the Nation, and the IPL pffice bearers, all politicians , who knew when the elections were scheduled, alternately huddle together, and fly cross country in a frenzy of discussions.

Yes, the IPL matches WILL be held. But not in India. The head honcho, Mr Modi flies to SA and the change in venue to SA is announced.

To me. the IPL-organizers is a standing example of what should not be. Wheelers and dealers. To them, its all about maximizing revenue, and reducing losses. Commercials and media ads, and sponsorships, and stadia advertising. They have "bought" and traded cricketers for huge sums, and will have mud on their face if these don't turn up due to perceived security problems.

So they make outrageous security demands from the government during election time. Refusals from the government are blithely dismissed as political posturing. In the meanwhile, someone somewhere is quietly moving the jamboree out of India. So that the foreign players will turn up. The Indian players will miss out on so much family time because of travelling .They play for the country, and that dedication is ruthlessly exploited. So many people will stay away from the country and forget to vote. But who cares.

These big guys, non-playing, non-sporting IPL types, who have so much in life, money, power, prestige, hangers on, authority, and what have you, don't have one thing that Bhagabai has.

National pride.

Its your country, and its important that you vote. That you be there.

But is anyone listening ?

27 comments:

  1. "kashaachi" waati ka ga? That metal has always been a mystery to me as to how it absorbs all the heat from the feet if your rub your sole with it.

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  2. how many people will stay away from their country and not vote bcos of the IPL? 100/200/300/1000? Is that a blot on democracy? Let the Indian government atleast give them a right to vote outside the country, if they cudn't guarantee their safety within the county during the great Indian election tamasha.. Don't they deserve it?

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  3. I think it would be wonderful to have someone like Bhagabai around to apply her skills with the mother and baby.

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  4. We had Lady N! I wrote about her a while ago. My baths for my kids are a far cry from how she bathed me and my cousins in my grandma's house in Mysore. Sigh.

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  5. But then , women like Bhagabai always did habe their priorities right. Something which many of our tech-savvy, fast-food, faster-pleasure-craving generation often get mixed up about. Lovely post!

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  6. Moved by the fact that Bhagabhai wanted to go to vote... wish we would have been so "Jagrut" previously...

    but "jahan se jaage, wahi se savera !! "

    Regarding the IPL... too big ego's and too big people to bend or be flexible...

    so its good they go out... when they will not get crowds for matches... they will learn their lesson...

    I m sure !

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  7. to sit with your feet up cha literal translation - tangdya var karun basne na? :D
    Frankly, I am feeling so proud of Bhagabai right now. If she (who i believe is not very literate) understands the importance of one vote, I don't see why the educated lot (many of my friends in fact) don't. Who put the cynicism in their heads!?

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  8. So cute and so chweeeeet! I am reminded of the oil bath I used to have regularly every thursday till I was twelve. My mother would put me to sleep by massaging my head.

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  9. Vinita Ho. Kaashyachi Watee.

    Someone told me that it is an alloy of zinc and copper.

    namya Its not about the country missing 100-300, even 1000 votes. Its about the total insensitivity shown by the IPL powers that be vis-a-vis a special constitutionally decreed event like an election, and the required security. IPL ani elections eka tarajoot maptaa yet naheet.

    And there is no rule that says that the country must provide massive security to IPL type games extravaganzaas. The elections and safety of ordinary people come first.

    Honestly, the IPL types are behaving like spoilt brats. If they were so desperate about things, why not raise their own security staff ? Why burden the country ? Probably doesnt fit in with their business model .

    Judy True. Would you believe it , today Bhagabais are a vanishing breed.

    Sujatha How wonderful that you blogged about your N. Do send me the link to that post. Would simply love to read it.....

    Sucharita Thank you. Its the Bhagabais that keep us grounded today.....

    Hitch writer Thank you. And I agree about the IPL. You hit the nail on the head about the egos. I am actually convinced that the demand for security to the country was an excuse to move the IPL out, as they werent getting the forigners due to security concerns. The IPL types were planning the move anyway....

    G Your literal translation is just perfect :-)....

    And yes, simple folks like Bhagabai, think very straight. They dont analyze too much, and give great importance to the need of the hour. We dont. Shame on us.

    nsiyer Thank you. Takes one back to those wonderful days....I think these things still happen in smaller towns....

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  10. AAh! She sounds so good.. even though I have not had a baby recently!!
    I didn't have the good fortune of having a Bhagabai but I DID stay at my parents' house a month before my elder son was born! That in itself was heaven as I was struggling to complete my thesis just before that!

    The IPL is such a big scam.. I am so glad that they are not getting any security... its such a ridiculous idea!! Its just a way of celebrities showing off how much money they have and, in view of these hard economic times, they should be ashamed of themselves for doing that.

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  11. Ugich, here's the link to the Lady N post - http://blogpourri.blogspot.com/2007/07/traditional-baby-baths-in-india.html

    Let me know what you think! Thanks.

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  12. I think everyone should have a Bhagabai in their lives. Another interesting post on your life there Ugich. Massage is a wonderful thing and of course poor little babies bodies are traumatised in the birth process and I am sure this is essential for their well being. Who knows how many problems never get rectified. I honestly wish more of these traditions were carried on. I think I will go get a massage. By the way what type of oil was used in these massages? How is your book coming on. I still want your book.....one day maybe?

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  13. Wonderful post. Wish there were more such Bhagabais. ROFL@ G..."tangdya var karun basne" - dolyasamor ali agdi pose LOL.

    g

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  14. Roshni The Bhagabais are really a vanishing breed , particularly in bigger cities. I think these customs are still followed faithfully in smaller cities etc.

    And these IPL types just take advantage of the cricket obsession in this country.....

    Sujatha I just saw the link...and you paint such a wonderful picture , I could visualize the stony bathroom, with the water heating , and N organizing her self to bathe the baby. I could probably even smell the stuff.:-)

    We all have the same customs, only the names are different...

    Fantastic post. Loved it.

    Lilly You really need to see Sujatha's post here on a similar topic, and she speaks of customs followed in places in South India (I am in the West). She didnt get sidetracked by the elections in India then , and so has all the massage details :-)

    They normally use sesame oil. My late father who was much into naturopathy and Ayurveda, would always massage himself with sesame oil an hour before his bath, and he always said that was the best.

    About the book. maybe if you make a trip here or if

    I win a lottery and travel to Canberra, I will make a copy specially for you....:-)

    gauri Without the amount of young indians having babies in the US, I can forsee a time when Bhagabai services might be greatly in demand as a thing to be exported from India. If only they changed the rules about smoke and alarms...

    ....and "tangdya var karun basne" conveys so much more attitude than the English words, isnt it ? :-))

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  15. Ugich, thank you for reading. So delighted that you liked it! Cheers!

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  16. nice message and yet another sweet story about your life !

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  17. Your talk of massage and oils makes me wish I was once again a baby ...
    June in Oz

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  18. Women like Bhagabai are very hard to find these days. I knew one such lady who did this job volunteerly and used to say the future of at least a very very small part of the nation is getting stronger in my hands.

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  19. Vow ! what a lovely post. I am over from your comment at Lilly's. I am glad I came. I felt as if I came home to a life of luxury 'just putting up my feet and sipping tea at mom's. That was 27 years back. My Bhagabai is still around (in India) and insists that a body massage is the panacea to all evils of illnesses and health issues. She would give awsome massages to my US visitors -my daughter's adopted family, actually. (Most international students have these local US families who help them with shopping, festivals, birthdays etc) My Bhagabai was so popular with them, they not only paid her $10 for each massage, but took lots of pictures of/with them.

    I loved the part about going to mom's for delivery. I enjoyed both timeswhen my daughters were born. I would do nothing except eat, and sleep. aah. I miss those days.

    "Ugich" is also a marathi word right? pls tell me a bit more about your ugich konitari....Ohhh I got it actually. LOL.
    great.
    Loved your blog. will be back for more. I have a blog on my house maid.
    http://minusrelationships.blogspot.com

    pls visit if possible. I wonder if we all Indian ladies (memsaabs) have a blog about our Bais each. I think we do.

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  20. my blog is:

    http://innergodliness.blogspot.com

    and the post is 'Minu's relationshpis'

    sorry about that!!

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  21. Radhika Thank you.

    June Saville Just for your information, there are ladies who also come and do decent massage for what I called grandladies. ....:-)

    Pradip Biswas You said it. I havent been able to find another Bhagabai for a friends daughter. And how true it when she says "a very very small part of the nation is getting stronger in my hands...."

    IntrospectionThank you. And welcome to the blog. I get the impression that I am maybe older than you are. But we do identify with some similar experiences and customs, dont we...

    Actually, I move in more proletarian circles. Full day maids, drivers and cleaning folks are not my scene. (A cooking help lady that comes 2 hrs a day, ditto for a cleaning lady, and instead of drivers, there is me, which is great because I also help drive and push stalled cars, on potholed roads :-)

    I enjoyed your blog about Minu. Amazing lady. I hope her son gets a chance to get a decent schooling.

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  22. What a wonderful post about Bhagabai and a lovely tradition. We have NOTHING like that here! The first time I had a newborn (it was my second child, the first adopted at 10 months) I was so freaked out I would beg my mother "please don't leave me yet" whenever she wanted to go home because I didn't know what to do with him. What a nice tradition to go the parents' home and have a Bhagabai to treat the baby nice. My poor baby was completely traumatized after his first bath. LOL.

    Oh well, I think he's doing okay today. So far. We haven't started therapy yet at least. :)

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  23. Wendy,

    Thank you for visiting. Actually, everything is so new for the first time mother, that it helps to have someone like Bhagabai tell you and demonstrate the tricks and techniques of bathing the baby nd so on. Although many young , married Indian women today , are working m the US etc, it is still common for Indian parents to go over for like at least 3 months and be there for the delivery and care of their daughter and grandchild.....

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  24. Staying at parents' place just was sheer bliss...and your description of the endless pampering during those few months is just so right!

    Bhagabais, are unfortunately,
    replaced by the ayahs from the 'Ayah Centres' who dont know their jobs and are poor substitutes.

    The IPL and endless newsreel on IPL, the crores exchanging hands & the gliterrati associated with it, tire me so....

    Wonderful post...

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  25. Having someone like your Bhagabai would have been a wonderful luxury after giving birth. Today is my youngest daughter's birthday and I have been remembering the days following her birth and it was not luxurious at all, but we managed.

    My grandmother marched and protested as a suffragette to get me the right to vote and I believe she would be very disappointed in me if I did not vote after her sacrifice. Women in America have not had the right to vote that long. The 19th ammendment to our Constitution giving us the right to vote was ratified in 1920. Not that long ago.

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  26. I love the way you link the wonderful Indian traditions around birth (which every non Indian mother in the World envies you), with the darkness of our Age, and your elections.

    I had a terrible time after my first birth. Then second time, I learnt baby massage at hospital (inspired by Indian techniques) and it made all the difference. I also personnally tried the foot massage with the ustensil you mention... this is pure bliss.

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  27. And how I wish my child went thru the same therapy.. As in my parents still go and give my kid a gul poli made by her own grand mom or a sanjyachi poli which a lot of people haven't ever eaten.. or a takatele pohyache papad from pen or a puranachi poli; or a amrakhanda made at home (with chakka and amba) .. so who is more Marathi today? And it's a truth or dare on that.. I can give you any dish u want me to?

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