Diwali


Diwali meant a lot of things back then. It was not just about the new clothes, the Ulundu-Kozhukattai1firecrackers, or the sweets.  Every Diwali, I go back in time to those moments when every single thing around the festival was filled with hope. I’m sure though that at the age of 10 or 11, I would’ve never thought of calling the days leading up to and the days after Diwali as ‘hopeful’ ​​Other festivals like Varalakshmi Pooja and Vinayaka Chaturthi make me nostalgic too. Particularly a longing for the soft, fluffy *kozhakkatais my mom used to make for both these festivals. However, Diwali was very special.

Diwali was THE festival of the humble, single-bedroom HAL Colony inhabitants in Bengaluru. Another festival that led to a flurry of activities was the Bogi Pongal where a lot of old stuff was piled up into a tall and huge stack and then set on fire. A symbolic riddance of all that’s old, bad, useless. I have a very vague memory of this bonfire ending in a fire accident and probably the practice was later abandoned. Being raised in a colony or ‘quarters’ as it is still called, provided the distinct advantage of having a cosmopolitan upbringing. I’ve absolutely no memory of Diwali or Bogi being ‘Hindu’ festivals. The same mood and festivity were seen around Christmas where we’d all gather to set up the manger. Most households sported the mandatory star, ushering in Christmas.

My mom used to stir up a magic concoction that would solidify into soft and porous mysorepakMysore Pak for not just our family, but also for ‘Joy’ aunty, our loving neighbor. Her name was Rosamma, but her children were nicknamed Joy and Chickoo. By virtue of being their mother, she became ‘Joy’ aunty. Mysore Pak was accompanied by a ‘Mixture’, a popular Indian savory. The process of making this ‘Mixture’ used to be fascinating. For it was really that, a mixture of a lot of fried savories. Unlike today, the ‘Mixture’ from my childhood never had cashews, almonds, or raisins. Fried peanuts and finely chopped coconut pieces in this ‘Mixture’, were considered a jackpot. My mom and my grandma tried in vain to shoo us away. There is this myth (even now in many households) that watching it during preparation would jinx the making, or it’d jinx the festival! However, we paid no heed and hovered around them and were willing ‘tasters’.

The foremost duty assigned to me on the evening before Diwali was to gather or buy cow dung. Yes, you heard me right! Cow poop was and still is sacred among many households. I don’t ever remember feeling repelled by its texture, color, or odor. If we got lucky, the cows grazing in the open grounds in our colony would drop a generous helping of dungs. There’d be a few others waiting to strike gold ​​With a small plastic bucket and a spatula to scoop, we’d rush to the spot and mine the dung. If we don’t get lucky with the free droppings, we could always drop by our milkman’s house and he’d dispense off some dung for a few coins. This dung, so painstakingly obtained would be mixed in a bucket of water to a consistency that was probably a little runnier than the dosa batter. Every home had a small front yard of caked mud. Beautiful rangolis adorned this front yard. During Diwali, this small area got a thorough cleaning. This surface would then receive a fresh cow-dung coat that’d firmly seal the cracks and give it a darker sheen. This also prevented the dust from rising as all the loose mud would be firmly sealed in​​The rangolis looked bri

 

My friends and I would then embark on the Rangoli project. This also included the cow-dung coat and rangoli for the neighbors, particularly Joy aunty. We’d shortlist and practice a few rangolis a few days before Diwali. In about 3 hours on Diwali eve, most of our front yards would be decked with beautiful rangolis. If I were to give the feeling a name, I might today call it both therapeutic and cathartic.

Another task where we (my sis and my friends in the neighborhood) showed equal or more enthusiasm in was the act and art of drying firecrackers. This would start a week before Diwali! We’d fervently pray that the rain god steered clear and the sun god blessed us with a copious amount of sunlight. We each had a palm winnow in which we’d dry our share of crackers. There would be one portion that was meant for pre-Diwali use. We’d religiously tug-off a bit of the paper wrapped on the wicks so it lights faster. I’d save up a few Waterbury’s Compound Red Label bottles ( a tonic usually prescribed back then in the HAL hospital to ward off cold or a cough) and empty coconut shells. I’d arrange the rockets from the firecrackers in a way that they snugly fit into the mouth of the tonic bottle or underneath the coconut shells, and just pull the wick out.

The bottle would sometimes burst into shards along with the rocket. A very dangerous and senseless thing to do, I know. This was totally unsupervised and my parents had no clue whatsoever. A tiny shard once cut into my wrist and that was the last time I used the tonic bottle. My mom was sure that it was the work of some ‘rowdy’ kid and wondered on several occasions in the weeks that followed, on how people raised devils for kids. Also, for some reason, she assumed the rowdy was a boy. I never mustered the courage to own up and it’s one of the several things I regret not having told her.

Another thing to look forward to on the dawn of Diwali was the nice oil massage our dad used to give us. He would take a handful of warm gingelly oil and drip it on our heads slowly and would pat them down hard on our skulls​​He’d say something about the oil cooling the  hotheads he had for daughters 🙂  After the mandatory oil-bath, we’d be administered the Lehiyam/Legiyam/marundhu, a paste made of several herbs, jaggery, and cooked in ghee. My grand-mom made this from scratch.

Diwali was the only occasion when we got new clothes. It almost always was the same fabric, color, and pattern for both my sister and me​​They were always tailored. If we got a little lucky, we’d get different colors. The tailor used to get our dresses ready just the night before Diwali. The anticipation of how the dress and pattern would turn out when it would be ready, and when it’ll dawn, made us at once happy and restless.

Our grandma would pluck the mehendi leaves from our backyard and grind them to a fine paste on a stone pestle in the afternoon. After dinner, she would apply it on our palms even as she narrated the story of Narakasura for the umpteenth time. We never challenged the right and wrong: ) One well-guarded secret around this time was who’d set off the first firecracker. We’d wait for the alarm to go off at 4.00am. However, it would invariably turn out useless because someone always used to beat us to it. We’d be woken up as early as 3.30am by the loud noise of someone in the colony setting off the ‘atom bomb’ at that unearthly hour. We’ll join the ruckus right away by adding our own share of noise, explosions, and litter.

I don’t remember anything of the Diwali feast that must have been cooked because all the kids would be hopping in and out of the house with firecrackers and never seemed to tire of it. Though we never purchased a lot, we purchased the ones that came in several numbers and in bulk packs. The most favorite was the ‘bijli’- the famous, small singles. With about 3 or 4 packs, one could go on all day, bursting them one by one. The guns and capes were another favorite too. Pounding the capes with a stone seemed more fun and noisy than the using the guns. The best was reserved for the evening. Most homes in the colony could not afford a decent television. So there was no lure or addiction. We spent most of the time outdoors and didn’t know otherwise.

There would be slight signs of withdrawal on the night of Diwali but we’d pretend that the day would still go on. The days that followed would involve sharing a lot of real and made up stories of the exploits and adventures of the firecrackers. None of us bothered to validate the accounts of our friends though. The innocence and guilelessness of that time make it surreal.

I can’t help but compare to the Diwali now. New clothes aren’t rare anymore while ordinary, quiet days have become rare​​New movie releases, TV channels hopping, out-sourced sweets and savories, expensive fireworks, a night sky lit with aerial shots, whatsapp-ing, facebook-ing, instagram-ing, Netflix-ing,  mark Diwalis now ​​I’m sure that this is an outlook of a boring adult, but I still think my children miss out on the simple joys that I was lucky enough to have as a child.

So, if you’ve been patient and kind enough to read until here, what were your favorite festivals? Do you have fond memories as 10 or 11-year-olds around Diwali or any festival that you’d care to share? Are there things you miss now? What aspects of the different festivals we celebrate do you enjoy now?

Wish you all a very happy, fun-filled, safe, and peaceful Diwali people!

*Kozhukattais– South Indian variation of momos filled with either spicy lentils or coconut and jaggery :))

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My munchkin turns 9!


“They don’t call me the best in business for nothing” you parrot a line picked up from Jordindian. Your brother convinces me that this youtube channel is certainly not for 9-year-olds.  Your conversations are generously sprinkled with ‘hashtag pro-life’, ‘hashtag thug life’, or ‘hashtag cool-guy’, depending on the situation and context! And I realize that I must’ve been lulled into a deep stupor for a few years in between or time has played some crunching trick on me. I feel pretty helpless when I can no longer tell you that the beach is locked on a Sunday, or the ‘Electricity Uncle’ has cut the power to the computer and television and that the Amazon Uncle ( I make sure it’s mostly the uncles who are the bad folks) refused to deliver a package.

I’m trying hard to recollect and pin that exact moment when you lost your supreme love for the blue thing and have taken to sporting just cotton shorts! All your tiny, beautifully lined pearl white milk teeth are gone and are replaced by the crooked adult teeth. Your interest in listening to stories are down several notches, but you make up several interesting ones! I don’t know whether I should laugh or cry when you mimic your anna who mimics Chandler Bing’s dance:/

I dread the weekend afternoons. Particularly when the clock is about to strike three. It’s like your system is on an auto-pilot, with an automated agent that triggers your thirst for tea. “Ma, don’t be lazy. It’s tea time”, you announce. And literally, yank me or your dad out from our comfortable perch and get us to make you that tea. You have no qualms taking up anybody’s offer of tea! You’ve also learned how to brew like how your anna did!

The cutest development though is your attempt at writing and maintaining a diary! You’ve still not ‘grown-up’ enough to know that you can let your amma read your entries and also click the pics. Like always, she is very thoughtful and doesn’t share with all and sundry. Just shares on her blog.  Which anyway is a much-neglected space these days.

You have also earned the nick-name – *Ippo-Ramasamy, for, your demand for things always falls in the ‘right-now’ category. But of course, you know by now that you really are a spawn of the older Vs because your right-now is always met with an equally emphatic not-right-now! Poor thing, you! You do know the art of sweet-talking your way through though!

Your ambition now is to become a Youtuber. And because of which you have very deep questions such as, why should you actually bother with Science, Mathematics, Language and such subjects in school. Why indeed! I fib something about how learning these subjects actually sharpens your mind, and how basic schooling is so important to pursue any career. You feign a yawn and clearly discourage me from imparting any further gyan.

That said, you have been consistent in a few things that really matter. Your jumping in defense of your brother and telling us how he REALLY has been studying when we were at work. Which doesn’t mean you fight or argue with him any less. You notice how he’s been coughing badly and promptly decide to make a ‘Talk Book’ for him. You are convinced that making him talk more aggravates his cough and so you think it’s best he writes in the ‘talk book’ to communicate with others and doesn’t exert him much! You still give me those wonderful head massages that make headaches worth having.  When I’m unwell, you check on me every few minutes and ask, “Ma, all good? You ok?”. That’s the sweetest.  You still let me squeeze you into hugs, cuddle you, and make you squeal. But you do throw a fit when your dad draws you into a tight hug. Thatha is still your friend in need and lately, your evening tea-buddy! You handle your new twin baby cousin sisters with so much love and adoration. And the adoration surely is mutual!

Well, your smitten mommy can go on.  I want to talk about many real-world affairs and about things that will make you a responsible, sensitized, sensitive, caring, intelligent, successful, and compassionate individual. But I guess it can wait for another birthday. For now, on your happening 9th, and for all the years to come, I wish you perfect health, all the happiness, a world of love, a beautiful sense of humor,  great wit, lots of friends, and a little more Amazon, Flipkart, and eBay purchases! Happy birthday my rasagullah!

 

 

Paris and Lucerne – Roti aur makaan (food and stay) ;)- Part 5


Part 1- Don’t underestimate the power of Schengen Visa Officers.
Part 2- To go or not to go? That is the question.
Part 3 –Poguma, pogadha?
Part 4 –Inside scoops 🙂

Food was not on top of our agenda and I don’t remember a single day/place where we took a long time to decide and place an order. We stuck to vegetarian food mostly except once or twice where a couple of them found non-veg options to their liking. This probably was the first time in a group trip where every single day, every single meal was wiped clean off our plates except one day where we were left with extra food because the restaurant folks misunderstood and delivered a double-order for a couple of dishes. Not a morsel was wasted otherwise. Wasting is already bad. We’d be wasting in Euros there!!

Paris
Coming to some of our stay experiences, I already told you all, in great detail, on our budget stay in Paris and how awesome the breakfast was. There was also an awesome waitress there who, no matter what the question was, answered with ‘oui’ and ‘merci’. According to her, 3 times 6, 5 times 6, 11 times 6, everything added up to 50 Euros. I gave up trying to explain that 11 of us had breakfast and that I’d given only 50 and that I need to give her more. She wouldn’t listen. Typing the question or the explanation in a translate app and showing it to her still didn’t convince her. She insisted on accepting only 50. I gave up and assumed she was in a mood to give us a discount. The next day, the moment we entered, she promptly put us on to another person who could speak English! And therefore no more discounts 🙂

In another instance, at a restaurant where we’d ordered pizzas, we also tried ordering some French fries. Apparently French fries are called so only in India and not in France. I’m not sure. This reminded me of the movie Queen where Kangana Raunat tells her roomies that French toast is available only in India. So, we cut the ‘French’ from the fries and went with just ‘fries’. No luck. All actions, pointing at some pictures stuck on their counter, still elicited some long drawn responses from the restaurant folks. It seemed like the fries came with some specific food combo and not ‘standalone’. I quickly showed an image from Google with just the fries in it, and asked if only that will be available. Somehow, after 10-12 minutes of dance-drama, we got the point across and were served super hot and yum fries along with our pizzas.

Lucern
The stay in Lucern was by far the best. The Easy Living apartment was clean and spacious, stocked with the fluffiest of pillows and mattresses. The local bus stop was just around the bend, a 2 min walk, with a bus every 2 minutes, and a bus No.2 taking us to the Lucern ‘Bahnhof’-the railway station. The whole town (and the rest of the places we visited in Swiss) looked like a picture sketch- PERFECT!

Of the two times we had ‘Indian’ food on the entire trip, the first was in the Kanchi Indian Restaurant at Lucern. It looked inviting but was over-priced by any standards. We put together a quick breakfast of sandwich or cereals, and cooked the dinner ourselves every night that we were here. On a couple of nights, it was pasta for dinner and on a couple others, we stir-fried some fresh veggies, and wrapped them up in store-bought semi-cooked tortillas. We also had some of the best flavoured yogurts when here! The Lucern station had one or the other vendor giving away free sample food or drink every day. It was fun to shamelessly seek out and get that fruit yogurt, the flavored oatmeal, that fruit drink, some random snack 🙂 The best ‘food’ on this trip was however the piping hot veg samosas and equally hot ginger tea at the Rhine river, near the Swiss-German border. The owner of this food joint was a Gujarati and the taste was as authentic as Gujju food can get!

The folks at all the travel-desks understood English and were the most courteous. Train travel here was like no other. Huge windows, comfortable seating, scenic routes. The regular trains were like panoramic trains and some even had play area for children, complete with a slide inside!  It was in this leg of the trip where most on our group wouldn’t have minded losing our passports 😉 Every minute awake was a feast to the eyes.

Our next leg was Italy. More on food and stay in this beautiful country, in the next post!

Inside scoops ;)


I’ve been itching to offload all our trip stories quickly. Those rare days when you want 72 hours in a day as opposed to the norm of wanting 24 hours for 5 weekdays put together, but 60 hour weekends 😉

Part 1- Don’t underestimate the power of Schengen Visa Officers.
Part 2- To go or not to go? That is the question.
Part 3 –Poguma, pogadha?

So, I’m back to bug you more until you scream stop. I will not though. Will try to make it less detailed. Raji, referred to as R henceforth, will do the hard work of recording all the places we visited and how we got around on her blog. I will conveniently link to hers. In this post, I intend to capture some snippets that I’d like us all to remember.

The group unanimously conferred the title ‘Dora‘ on R. R has a built-in magnetic compass. Yes, she’d be the one ahead of us and would do the most tedious task of determining the correct route, correct bus stop, the right train line. She’d not want the entire group to go down two levels of platform only to discover that the trains there would go the opposite direction. Her idea of ascertaining the right bus stop from our hotel to the Eiffel tower was to ask everyone to wait in the hotel lobby, go to the bus stop, take the bus, alight at the Eiffel tower, ensure that it indeed was Eiffel, come back, gather everyone and make the trek again! To our credit, she had a couple of able assistants who would dutifully open the map, trace the route, buy group tickets, distribute, keep a tab on Dora speeding ahead, and usher the rest of the troupe to catch up, remind Dora to slow-down, and most importantly remind that there was such a thing as hunger and another thing called food 🙂 Less fuel, more mileage- that is R for you. Truth be told, she survived on the mushrooms we discarded from our own share of food. There’d be an occasional tomato or a bell pepper.

D is THE MAP. The moment we’d step out, she’d tell North from South. Validation of choices we’d make vested with her 🙂 It could be about a preferred mode of transport, choice of restaurant, or the place of visit. She’d also ensure R, in her excitement, did not jump out of the radar and vaporize. So she had her hands cuffed with R’s for the most part of the trip. I’m not exaggerating folks. Will send some pics (upon request) which J1 has so tactfully, yet truthfully captured on her wide-angle lens 😉 D apparently is also one who has attained total nirvana in our gang 🙂 She put her security management skills to good use and made sure our choices were always safe and intrusion-proof 🙂

If anything got R and the able D (I like the R &D ring to it!!) excited more than the white, snowy mountains or the rolling meadows, it was the Tabaachi shops in Italy! For the uninitiated, they are the tobacco shops. Yes folks. It would be hard to miss the excitement levels that’d be a notch up, with their palms visibly trembling and shaking in anticipation. These are the typical withdrawal symptoms. It was their bounden duty to rush to the nearest Tabaachi every morning, sometimes in the noon, or on some nights, to stock up. The days would be a drag to them and as a consequence, to us, without this mandatory visit to the Tabaachi. Of course there’d be even distribution of the ‘maal’ and sometimes involved additional perks like ice creams or cappuccino! But the bulk purchase here earned us curious looks that even bordered on shock😀 . If 11 tickets seemed like too many, asking for 22 must’ve seemed ridiculous! But Tabaachis were the only outlets selling local transport tickets at 1.5 Euros per ticket as opposed to 2 Euros if you buy in the counter or inside the bus. We were both cent-wise and Euro-wise you see. So, even before the last of us finished bathing, R & D would’ve set out to the nearest Tabaachi to do you-know-what!

J1 in our group was the official photographer and therefore earned the title JC-PC. However, unlike PC, her shots had a lot of light and life. But she was dressed for the most part of the trip like an astronaut. She clicked photos of everyone from every possible angle, with every possible pose. Her candid shots included my open-mouthed laugh that revealed the teeth that got root canal and the replaced ceramic one. Each of us have a hippo-look-alike pics where we are yawning away to glory. Jokes apart, J1 has captured every amazing moment of the trip and so beautifully that surfing through them feels like being on the trip again. When she was not busy clicking pics, she’d either be tossing-in tons of chilli/pepper powder in her food and eat, or she’d be sleeping. She’ll also speak sparingly so as to save up her energy to click the skies in all its splendid hues!

J2, till we boarded our return flight, existed in two parallel worlds. In one she was drooling over Shahrukh Khan cut-out on top of Mount Titlis, while in the other she was singing her 5 year old junior, back home in Chennai, to sleep 🙂 She was blissfully unaware of a thing called ‘itinerary, and would mostly ask about the places we visited after we returned to the hotel;) On the day of boarding our return flight, she was a fox on an over-dose of honey. Four of the remaining 5 moms, that is, the notoriously evil ones, were already suffering from withdrawal and were trying to figure out how-moms-work. The only other time besides the return flight where she was existing in one piece was, every night around dinner time. If Tabaachi set R & D’s hands shaking, the kitchen counter top did that to J2. She’d wipe the place clean and leave it cleaner than the homestay/apartment folks let it to us. In fact, if they’d perused the monitored webcam footage, they’d be tempted to reduce the room rates for us, or would’ve contemplated paying her a hefty sum. J2 also made the best hot chocolate!

P, the quintessential mom, who until then had not believed it possible to do a trip sans the kids, exhibited some faint traces of being a split-personality. While she was the one who kept extracting promises from me and others to lose her in Switzerland and not bring her back home, was found profusely weeping on Titlis. For a minute, I was wrong to assume that the sight moved her so much that words failed her. Knowing her, I also knew that words won’t fail her. She was sad that her kids missed being where we were. Thanks to wifi, she was able to relay the beauty over a whatsapp video call and get her little ones to catch a glimpse! Other than that, whenever she mentioned ‘home’, she referred only to Switzerland and none other. She had already decided how to earn in keep in this beautiful country. Idly shop. There is absolutely no competition. Could not find the omnipresent Saravana Bhavan (which supposedly has a branch in Zurich) nor the speciality outlet-Murugan Idli Shop. I’m sure that is the bestest thing to do! 1 Euro/idli. The batter will never become sour. It might not raise too. But there is yeast! Will keep you all posted when her venture comes through.Throughout the travel, she kept furiously scribbling into her diary and would insist on finishing a paragraph even if the train reached the station we had to alight at. This was her best mode of coping with the rest of the group who will never be able to catch up with P’s rate of words/minute 😉

N1, the one who had taken an oath to process her visa no matter what, and avenge by not doing the trip, was on a roll. She was busy posing for not only J1’s camera, but everyone’s phone-cameras too. She is R’s able ward and has imbibed the ‘no-hunger’ culture from her. She was busy looking up the marathons happening around that time and her feet were itching to run. R will think. N1’s mind voice will catch and act on it. While the rest of the ladies in the trip were certified aunts, N1 was the ‘akka’ figure. The trip probably wouldn’t have happened but for her! Though she is in denial, I’m sure she got a personality make-over ever since the trip- inside and outside 😉 And guess what? N1 is said to have wept inconsolably because the trip came to an end. And she was caught in action by the sonny who apparently doled out some gyan on why it was okay to cry. Again, the evil moms wondered ‘why-cry?’! It is only a matter of time before our gang’s country effect rubs off on her!

N2, the awesome sister of mine, had panic attacks even before the trip. She was sure she’d not survive the weather. Then she’d philosophise to herself with, ‘when we’ve weathered so much, of what consequence is this weather’. On day-2 in our trip, she was turning Paris upside-down searching for a woollen face mask that would show just her eyes had have holes to breathe. Her extra-large nose got in the way and caught the chill in the weather much before the others. For most part of the trip, she sported a parakeet-like red nose, and a matching pair of red eyes. Though we were never able to ascertain during the entire trip if the redness was because of the chill or something she’d downed without our knowledge to keep the chill at bay 😉 She did find a burglar mask at the Paris flea market. I conspired with a few others and dissuaded her from buying insisting that it was expensive. Live like a Parisian in Paris and all that. She knew when J1 had her camera on her and would pose for the not-so-candid shots. Of the 5K odd pics on her camera, 50% would be N2’s!

N2 and I earned the title ‘cookies’. No. Don’t get any ideas. We can never be sweet. We cooked a simple one-pot meal for dinner in some of the places we had the facility to cook. We happened to overhear (not eavesdrop!) a conversation between two men sitting adjacent to ours. There was this handsome young man who introduced himself to the other thus,” I’m a cooker”. Indeed! If a guy who cooks is a cooker, what can the feminine gender be but a cookie? So. We were the official cookies who cheated our way through by doing a stir-fry of assorted veggies and wrapping in tortillas, or cooked a simple pasta meal. All the while pretending to do a thorough professional job of pounding some spices that weren’t there and tossing in random stuff (edible ones of course). The others profusely thanked us for putting food on the table and we soaked it in shamelessly!

About the three musketeers, the nephew, the niece, and the sonny. I have just three words. Simply Awesome Threesome! They survived the grind without as much as sulk or a whine! They were convinced that their main purpose on the trip was to help lug the luggage;) They added a lot of fun and cheer to the trip. Though I knew my babies had grown up, this trip showed them in real ‘grown-up’ light. How time flies! Won’t say more. Kaala Teeka and all that!

Well, about moi, what can I say? You know by now how modest I am and how little attention I want to draw to the self. I would dutifully assist R & D, mercilessly tease P and J1, egg N1 to strike different poses for the pics (not that she needed telling!), hound P into not getting scared of the canine (a detail I overlooked mentioning earlier!), coax J2 nicely to make hot chocolate,harass N2 on keeping her bag safe, hound the kids to pose for the 8 cameras sticking on them, and chase to hug and kiss them.

All I’d say to end this post is this: *Aaashi-Aaashi-baaee!

*Our own little secret 🙂

*Poguma, pogadha.. (Part 3)


… in Urban dictionary, translates to – “Will it go?”. And thus we had an eventful beginning to our trip.

Part 1- Don’t underestimate the power of Schengen Visa Officers.
Part 2- To go or not to go? That is the question.

Before I get into the particulars, like my friend, Raji, has mentioned on her blog, we all have our immediate families, extended families,  and friends to thank for, without whose support this trip would have been difficult. And also a special note on our little ones that were left behind on this trip. They were amazing and were very cooperative. They dutifully made appearances on video calls everyday that we were away and showed a lot of understanding!

That aside, almost all of us got asked if the children didn’t miss us, and how we managed to convince them. The question is moot. Of course we’d miss. I had taken the older one, Vyas, on this trip and told the little one the real reasons for not taking him. That it would be a very tiresome journey, and that it involved a lot of walking and travel, and the weather might not agree with him. And that traveling as a family would be different where we can take each day slow and easy, especially if anyone falls sick, and how the same thing will be difficult when traveling as a group where we’d end up slowing down everyone else. He understood and has since not thrown a fit. Nor the children of my other friends who left their little ones behind!  So, the point in case- our children are nice like us and so are the other members in our families 😉

Coming to our eventful beginning, on the day of travel, all the eleven in the pack assembled at the airport 2 hours 45 minutes before the flight. We spent under one minute to bid adieu to the nice folks from our families that had come to drop and see us off at the airport. We had an hour and a half to kill before boarding the flight. Recording our memories of the trip began right there. Never would you have seen the interiors of Chennai airport captured so beautifully and artistically.  What we were not able to truly capture is the inherent smell of phenoil (disinfectant) that is so Chennai-airport.

Our boarding was announced and we hopped into the flight, and settled in nicely. There were a few first-timers. And we all breathed a sigh of relief as the trip was now REALLY on! The pilot steered the flight on to the runway even as the usual safety instructions were being relayed. The flight picked up speed on the runway and just when we thought it was going to go more faster and take off, it slowed down. It was followed by a slight commotion in the flight a few rows ahead of us. Which was followed by an announcement from the pilot that a passenger was very sick and needed medical help. There was a bustle of activities with a few people crowding around the sick passenger. It seemed like this person, an aged man, had a stroke. His daughter was on board the flight too. But we were not sure about the nature of sickness. Paramedics arrived in 10 minutes and more flurry of activities. The pilot steered the flight back to the departure gate as the passenger had to be de-boarded! It was now 30 minutes past the departure time. Our connecting flight from Dubai to Paris was in 90 minutes from the time of the actual arrival time in Dubai. More staff and more medical support arrived including an   IV, a stretcher, oxygen, wheelchair et al. The old man apparently was rendered immobile and the staff had a tough time bodily moving him on to a stretcher. He did not get any better with all the medical help. It was a good one hour by the time he de-boarded and his checked-in baggages were removed from the flight.

When we later recounted this incident or even as I record it here, it kind of felt/feels selfish to have worried about our connecting flight. I guess we were all given to some amount of cynicism ever since  a few visas got rejected. A terror attack in Paris exactly 6 days before our journey added to our concerns. We were sure that someone was out there, trying to jinx this trip. Seems very silly now. The things rejections/failures can do to you! We sincerely hope the old passenger got timely medical help and has fully recovered. It is tough to imagine how it would have been handled if he’d fallen ill 20-30 minutes into the take off. Hats off to all those who handled it smoothly!

The pilot made good time and we had about 50 minutes for the next flight. The airlines folks were thorough and whisked us to the departure gates without further ado. So we got off one, did a run-walk-run through a security check, and boarded into another without even a loo-break 😉 And finally we landed in Paris! We had evaluated quite a few options on the best way to get to our hotel much ahead of the trip and found Uber to be the best, most affordable option. And so, we Uber-ed.

We checked-in at ibis budget hotel in Montmarte. True to its name, everything about this hotel had ‘budget’ written on it with a capital B. To give you an idea, the bath towels were ‘budget’ towels. Which means the length would be half the actual size of bath towels. The bathroom and toilets are separate. But your movements inside both are ‘budget’. Very restricted. A person of average height cannot swing a full arm without banging the elbow or at least the wrist on the wall or the door. But who needs to swing a full arm inside the bathroom or toilet, right?! And yes, there is no lock on the door-like fixtures on the bathroom and toilet. But what is there to complain when you can afford to post a guard outside while you are at it? So it worked. The beds were comfortable, the wifi was great, the location was great and safe, hassle-free check-in/check-out, the paid unlimited breakfast (6 EUR/person) was awesome with a great choice of beverages that included piping hot coffee, tea, and hot chocolate.  Paris welcomed us with an evening temperature of 4 and 5 degrees against our expectation (based on web information) of 15 or 16 degrees!

And right away, we learnt our first lesson on France. The spellings and their pronunciations have no bearing on each other.  They are like synonyms – two different words, but the same meaning 😉 You can never get around to a place by pronouncing the name of a place going by the spelling. A tip- prepare a cheat sheet of names, phrases, and directions! Or, learn French!

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“The end justifies the means”, they say. The day that began with some apprehensions, ended with a memorable evening and a lovely, cool, night on the Eiffel Tower. We had arrived!

Read more on the places we visited in Paris, here!

To go or not to go? That is the question. Visa officers answered!


Part 1- Don’t underestimate the power of Schengen Visa Officers.

This trip was in the talks for almost 3-4 years. It was meant to happen this year. And how!!

We came up with a mini agenda for the trip that went thus:

  • finalize countries
  • budget the trip
  • decide the possible dates
  • book the tickets
  • book the stay
  • get the visas
  • finalize the itinerary
  • fly

We arrived at the dates that would more or less work for everyone without conflicting with work priorities and on the home front. After analyzing the pricing across different airlines and routes, we picked Emirates, and booked our tickets. Confirmed tickets and stay bookings are a part of the mandatory travel proofs for tourist visa processing. Most sites we researched suggested that we even book the internal travel. We had 2-3 itineraries and didn’t want to risk booking internal tickets and incur cancellation losses. We decided to do it after procuring the visa.

After buying the tickets, we booked our stays in all the intended cities through Booking.com and picked the cheapest ones lest they charge payment to the credit card. Yes, they collect the card information at the time of booking including the cvv number. While airbnb had awesome options for a smaller group, booking.com showed more options for a larger group. All our stays allowed free cancellation until the intended day of check-in barring one where free cancellation was allowed until 4 days before the check-in date. Items 1 to 5 on the agenda- a big tick!

With the air tickets and stay bookings out of the way, we started processing our visas. We assumed this to be just another formality and that it would be a cake walk. A few of us who have traveled abroad on work had until now not encountered any hassles with visa approvals. We however were aware of instances where the visas were delayed and when they finally arrived, it would be too late and the people abandoned the travel plan. We were advised to apply in Italy as France had supposedly upped their scrutiny ever since the terror attacks. Quite understandable. But we didn’t want to apply in Italy because a few colleagues who’d earlier applied there, were summoned to the Mumbai center for a personal interview. Dragging a 11-member battalion to Mumbai would be a trip in itself and the prospect didn’t seem appealing. We decided to apply in Switzerland instead. And we did. And waited. And were quite composed. As we waited, a few of us regrouped every 2 or 3 days or discussed over lunch and finalized the detailed itinerary. And then they came. The visas. In instalments. Over 4 torturous weeks :/ With the first rejection that came within a week of applying, our plans came crashing down and things were in a limbo. Nothing progressed the next 3 weeks and wtih more rejections coming, we abandoned the plan. We were holding back on cancelling the air tickets or stay bookings as the cancellation charges were the same till the last day before the travel date. Hope is a good thing, after all!

Img credit: Google

At this point, our dejection turned into angst directed at the visa process and the officers. The nature of rejections were absolutely random. All had sufficient and more bank balance to show. All had consistent salaries and payslips and ITR returns to prove. We had the necessary leave sanction from the work place and NOCs obtained from the schools for the 3 teenaged children. We had confirmed air tickets and confirmed stay bookings. The reasons of course were either lack of means of subsistence or lack of proof of return! I mean, really?!! All our covering letters had all our names and passport details listed as co-travellers and we explicitly stated that it was a group travel. So instead of giving up without a fight, we thought we should still try and NOT go even if the visas are through the next time 🙂 Watching too many cinemas or soaps can do this to you. You lose the faculty to rationalize that the loss will still be yours if you don’t go. Monetarily, mentally, philosophically 🙂

A lot of discussions on Quora and Tripadvisor weren’t giving any favorable leanings towards re-applying. A few Schengen visa myths we busted:
1. Some suggested we apply in the same country.
2. Yet others suggested applying in a different Schengen state.
3. A few dissuaded from re-applying.
4. A few agents we casually spoke to said that usually rejected visas will be rejected again.
5. A few said that the visas will be granted if we apply after a gap of 6 months.
6. Many suggested doing it ONLY through agents.

None of the above suggestions hold water. It is random free advice.

And then, there were a very few threads that said we can reapply anytime, but with more documentation that supports the reasons cited in the first rejection. This was random good advice. What do they say about you wanting to hear/listen/infer/discern ONLY what you want from what is said or read? Yes, so we scooped out only those countable number of conversations that sounded encouraging. Even otherwise, how will we know if we don’t try, right? Yes, we are unrelenting like that. So after many days of going back and forth and ditching the sour-tour, we gave the process a phoenix-like quality, and decidedly stayed positive. All extra documentations were pooled together and once again appointments were fixed, submitted, and then the next round of waiting began.

In less than 5 days, 5 of the 6 visas came through and again one was rejected on grounds of lack of proof of return. With about two weeks time, we had to give it one more go. We didn’t know what possible risks a third application entailed. We didn’t have it in us to leave one person and go, especially because she was the one instrumental in getting the others to re-apply. She however kept insisting that we should all go ahead without her. Yes, we will, but not without giving it another try and we still had a little over 2 weeks. This time, we gave a covering letter, a collective representation from all the rest of us with visas. And also an additional proof of her return- the marathon registration which I’d mentioned in my previous post. And what do you know! She got it on the 9th day as there were 4 holidays in between! We had exactly 7 days for our flight.

A couple of us did a night-out that Friday. Booked all the internal travels, passes, discount cards. Re-booked some of the stays in an attempt to bring down the stay costs, with better proximity, and with better safety. We ‘travefy-ied our day–by-day itinerary and also Google-trip-ed, offline-ed some maps, and also some tours. Items 6 and 7 on the agenda- another big tick! Our trip was ON!!!!

We have large hearts. We decided to forgive the Schengen Visa officers. We decided to forgive the processes. We forgave the eye-rolling, smirking reactions of the VFS folks. We decided to make a stately visit to the Schengen states. We are not only relentless, but also magnanimous like that!

Next post- Poguma, pogadha? – An eventful start to our journey!

Don’t underestimate the power of Schengen Visa Officers


I wanted to title this post as, *’Usss appa, Schengen Visa’. But the sis has already blocked/patented that title for a book that she intends to write soon.

Just back from a rocking trip to Europe that covered 3 countries- France, Switzerland, and Italy, with a tiny entry into Germany’s beautiful Black Forest. The sonny would be miffed if he hears me say 3 countries because I’m sure he’s already been telling all and sundry that he visited 5 countries, adding Germany and Vatican to the list!

While there is loads I’d like to share about the trip, the places, the travel, the food, and the great company, I’d first like to offload a big part of the entire project – obtaining Schengen Visa. Clearly, we underestimated the documentation needed. I’ll, in this post, try to give a comprehensive account of what women need to do to obtain the visa.

A little preamble on our travel group
We were a group of 11 of which 8 of us were women and 3 teenagers. Of the 8 women, one falls in the category of ‘working youth’ by virtue of being a twenty-something working woman. The rest of us fall under the more glamorous and fashionable middle-aged group which today ranges from mid thirties to early forties 🙂 One of them is a homemaker. Now, stop doing the math and get to reading what is more important- how to successfully get a schengen visa. No, strike that. The best practices to obtaining a Schengen visa.

Typical reasons for Visa rejections

There are enough and more Schengen visa processing horror stories on the web. And they are true stories. Six from our group were refused visa! But we all have read and stayed inspired by Mohammed Ghazni’s relentless attempts. And it really helped in this case:) The typical grounds for rejections are:

1. Proof of subsistence: A fancy way of saying that there isn’t enough proof of your having the financial means to support your trip expenses- travel, stay, food, all included.
2. Proof of return: Implying, there isn’t enough proof of your return.

The 2nd reason is annoying at one level because while it questions our credibility, it also assumes that we’d not want to return to our homeland because the country we are applying into is so compelling that we’d not want to leave! That said, looks like lot of people abuse tourist visas and illegally settle in these countries.

Who should submit what

1. Woman of any age/social/career status-
A sure-shot way where you or your documents are not subject to too much scrutiny for granting Schengen visa is to have a valid US Visa. It is almost the gateway to schengen visa. So, if you have a valid US visa, you are through. If it is a viable, doable option, get a US visa if an opportunity presents itself 🙂

2. For married, stay-at-home women– If you are married and a home maker, submit enough proofs of your family wanting you back here. As proof of subsistence, submit your,

  • bank statement with a consistent bank balance and regular transactions that show upwards of Rs.1.lac as balance
  • submit your spouse’s bank statements, pay slips, IT returns,
  • property documents, fixed deposits in your name, [or]
  • value estimation of jewels worth, duly attested by an advocate and a notary public.

Note that it might not be necessary all the time. But the grounds for rejection are very frivolous. So, provide as much documented proof of your financial capability to undertake the trip, as possible.

As proof of return, get ‘no-objection’ to your tour letter from everyone on this planet. But of course, I’m exaggerating. Get the NOC letters from your spouse, which explicitly states that you will be returning home on the specified date as you have responsibilities back home- aged parents care, home care, young children needing your care, pets-care et al.

Besides documents that substantiate the above two reasons, enclose all other documents cited in the VFS website. Do not assume that the VFS folks will provide some good advice on what to and what not to submit. Even if they reject and tell you some documents are not required, insist that they submit. You are the one paying the fee. They are only the collection agents and have no clue whatsoever on what works and what doesn’t. They are not advisors. Go ahead and submit even if it is extra documentation and even if those folks look at you askance.

3. Single, young, working woman – You are in the high-probability-of-rejection category. I’m not trying to scare you. Merely stating the facts here. You are a twenty-something, educated, single, high prospects of securing a job in a foreign land, or getting hitched to a foreigner! Here are the docs you must submit:

As proof of subsistence,
1. The usual – bank statement with balance of 1.lac or upwards for the previous 6 months and consistent transactions, pay slips. In addition, you can consider submitting PF statements, FD proofs, receipt of currency exchange purchased for a sizeable amount (at least 50K).
2. Proof of property if you are that enviable 20-something with a property to your name (land or apartment or a bungalow ;))
3. If you have a boyfriend or if you are engaged to be married soon, a letter or a proof of engagement or upcoming wedding to take place after the date of your arrival from the tour 🙂

As proof of return,

1. Besides the mandatory covering letter from the employer for leave sanction, covering letters from you parents, expressing that you’d return back to take care of them.
2. Letter from your brother (if you have one), assuring that you’ll return home to the family of birth and that they have a future planned for you.
3. Letter from others traveling with you, vouching for your return.
4. Letter from your education institution if you are pursuing studies.
5. Fee payment receipt for the subsequent months to an institution where you are pursuing some course, anddddddd, hold your breath,
6. Proof of your having registered for your favorite marathon and also proofs of your participation in similar or same event the previous years!!! That, dear friends, is the additional proof the ‘youth’ in our group submitted the 3rd time in addition to a collective covering letter signed by the rest of the women going on this party, along with our ID proofs!

4. Single mom – The proofs substantiating subsistence are pretty much the same as above. As proof of your return, here are the documents:

1. Covering letter from your aged parents stating that you are their support and that you’d return soon after your tour to take care of them,
2. proof of your kid(s) schooling and the fee paid up, birth certificate of the kids to establish you as the rightful parent

These same rules may apply to single male youth, single middle-aged or old-aged men, married, employed men, or married stay-at-home husbands/dads. Just that I wouldn’t know what other reasons they’ll be scrutinized for 🙂

Summary: While most sites and discussions talk about a minimum of 1lac as bank balance, it is better to show a much bigger balance if you are applying for any visa the first time. For those of us with a valid US visa, a lesser bank balance didn’t get in the way. Those with more than twice that balance, still had the visa rejected. This is where property documents help. In cases where property docs were unavailable, we submitted PF statements. The folks at VFS even rolled their eyes.

Coming to the big question of whether it is really worth walking all this length to get ourselves a visa permit for 2-3 weeks, well, it depends. When 6 in our group got rejected, it took the joy out of the entire plan. From a state where we were all mighty excited about doing a dream Europe trip, we were left angry, fuming, dejected, like deflated balloons. And then we researched a bit more. While we had practically abandoned the trip, we decided to collate more proofs and submit again. Just to see how much we can push and what vague reasons we’d be given again for rejection. So the 6 got everything together. All the documents cited above! Some had property documents in Tamil! The 2nd time, 5 visas came through and one- the youth’s- got rejected again for the same reason of lack of proof of return! But the second time, we had not submitted a collective letter from the rest of the group vouching for her return. We did not know it then. We did not know if that will hold as additional proof of her return. We did it anyway the 3rd time. She also submitted a copy of a marathon she had registered for a few weeks earlier and is to take place a couple of months hence. She also established that she is a regular at this event by submitting proofs of her previous participations. She got the visa the 3rd time! The trip however, made up for all the disappointments we faced during the visa processing, and was worth all that effort!!

So, to conclude:

1.Start your visa processing three months before the actual, intended, journey date. This gives you time to reapply if your visa is rejected.
2. Don’t underestimate the need for documentation.
3. Don’t cook up false documentation as you don’t want a ‘reject’ stamping on your visa.
4. Submit all possible proofs if it can in some way validate your financial capability and also of your return to the county. It can be a cricket or soccer match for which you’ve booked a ticket, another travel plan within the country for which you’ve booked tickets, anything! It might look silly. The collection centers might refuse. While someone’s property document in Tamil was accepted, another’s was rejected at the center!
5. Don’t mind being mocked or laughed at.
6. Make all the covering letters very detailed. Emphasise early in the letter that the purpose is tourism and that you’ll return on the said date. All the covering letters must very clearly and explicitly state these keywords. As a conclusion in the covering letters, split and cite documents as two sets- those that substantiate your subsistence, and those that vouch your return. Use the exact keywords; example- “I vouch for my daughter’s return….”, “We assure you that will return to work after the sanctioned vacation that ends on , “We vouch for our friend/colleague’s return with us on the same day, on the same flight back home. We would be sad and disappointed to go on this trip without ” yada, yada! I’m sure you get the drift.
7. While you can apply through agents, there is no guarantee that the visas will be through. Again, the agents can only provide expert advice on the required documentation. There are several instances where even processing through big names like Thomas Cook, get rejected.

The easiest, safest, bestest (allow the superlative please!) way to get it right the first time is to submit ALL THE DOCUMENTS and possibly a copy of your horoscope, duly attested by a noted astrologer and a notary public! Here’s to happy Schengen visa stories folks! More soon on the actual trip to the phoren-land! And yes, remember to register for a marathon. It does more than substantiate your belief in a cause or good health 😉 Three cheers!

*Usss appa- a deep sigh. No, strike that. It is the deepest sigh!

Part 2- To go or not to go.
Part 3- Poguma, pogadha?