Thursday, November 29, 2012

Model Makeover!

During its first 12 years, Ishwarpura’s anganwadi was just a playroom for children. But since 2010, when it initiated the use of the ECE kit, it has become a model for teachers and learners

Eisha Sarkar
Published in Success Stories in Early Childhood Education Gujarat 2012 by UNICEF, Integrated Child Development Services Scheme and GCERT

“In which district is Waghodia located?” Taraben Vasava asks the 20 children who have formed a circle around her at the anganwadi in Ishwarpura village. “Baroda (Vadodara),” they answer in chorus. “In which state is Baroda located?” “Gujarat!” “Where is Gujarat located?” “INDIA!” Their voices get louder with each answer, their faces brighter. Suddenly, they break into a song on India. Taraben picks up the khanjari (tambourine) to accompany them.

Changing ways

Since its inception in 1998, Taraben has seen a drastic change in the attitude of children who spend five hours of their day (from 10.30 am to 2.30 pm) at the anganwadi. “Till 2010, all we had were a few balls and toys. I have studied only up to the ninth grade so there was little I could offer to the children. They would just come here, play a little, eat their food and go. Yes, we would sing songs and recite poems, but that was all I knew of,” says the anganwadi worker (AWW). A little over a year ago, the anganwadi got its first Early Childhood Education (ECE) kit. Taraben also undertook a training session to understand how the kit could be used to its best advantage.

Anganwadi worker Taraben Vasava initiates an action-song sequence for the children

“ECE kit has helped me too”

Since then, the anganwadi has become more vibrant and colorful. The walls have been painted with names of the months of the year, seasons, birds and animals. Alphabet charts vie for attention next to a colored picture of Mahatma Gandhi. And the children color the pictures in their much-used activity books with crayons. “I read the books and create my own stories and characters and narrate them to the children,” says Taraben, adding, “The ECE kit has also helped me educate myself.”

Getting children to participate

Children wait to dig into their midday meals
The 28 registered children, who age anywhere between three to five years, are more or less regular in their attendance and are willing to participate in all the activities that are conducted at the anganwadi. “If they do not turn up, I actually go to their houses to fetch them or find out what the problem is,” says Ashaben Vasava, Taraben’s helper. Some of the children are intrigued by visitors and ask them questions. Others keep strangers at bay. “Jaideep, what is your name?” Taraben coaxes a shy, little boy to introduce himself. Jaideep doesn’t answer. She urges him to speak his name. He finally does, much to the delight of others. Everyone claps.

Becoming a ‘model’ for others

Of the 2638 anganwadis in Vadodara district, Ishwarpura’s is a model. It provides the children a healthy environment to learn, interact and grow. It offers them proper meals (cooked in a very neat kitchen) and even teaches them about maintaining basic levels of hygiene — like using the squat toilet in a thatch-walled shed behind the brick-and-mortar anganwadi or washing their hands before they sit for their meals.

To make things better...

The anganwadi could do more to raise the bar for all anganwadis. “They could use more pictures instead of text on the walls and even allow the children to draw or paint on a part of the wall. In order to provide the children with more space to move about, they should stack the chairs one on top of the other when they are not in use. And I would certainly like to see the children using a mug to take the water from the bucket to wash their hands instead of putting all their hands into the same bucket. It beats the purpose of handwashing,” notes ECE consultant, Dr Jigisha Shastri.

Children wash their hands in the same bucket of water placed outside the anganwadi
Making a difference

Anganwadis such as Ishwarpura’s have made a great difference to the lives of the children in villages around Vadodara. By June, six of these children, who have crossed five years of age, will be enrolled into the primary school at Waghodia for the new academic year and three new ones will be brought into the fold of non-formal education at the anganwadi. These baby-steps pave the way for a bright future ahead!

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

A school camp that’s home

Banaskantha’s first rural residential school camp is changing the lives of children of migrant salt pan workers

Eisha Sarkar
Published in Success Stories in Education Gujarat 2012 by UNICEF and Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan

The salt pans, about 8 km from Boru
At the tiny village of Boru in Vav block of Banaskantha, about 25 km from the Indo-Pak border, a small residential camp for 25 children of migrant salt workers in a primary school has not only  prevented them from giving up on education altogether but is also bringing about subtle changes in the social fabric of the village.

Not worth its salt

For many years, the children, mainly from the Bakshi Panch communities, have had to leave school in the middle of the term in November to accompany their parents to the salt pans that are spread over 20 square-kilometers of the Rann (the salt marsh on the fringes of the Gulf of Kutch) 8 km away. The saline groundwater is pumped out from a depth of 50 feet and collected into huge troughs. The water is left to evaporate for a period of six months, during which it needs to be continuously mixed and ‘combed’ for the salt to crystallize. It is this process that requires intense labor. The larger the size of the crystals, the better the salt tastes. At the end of six months, the huge agglomerates of salt are hand-picked by workers into steel trays and then loaded into trucks which take them for further processing to the factories in Ahmedabad. 

That's the only shelter in the 10 sq km stretch

The 2000-odd workers from 10 neighboring villages work from dawn till dusk. The salt seeps into their bodies, causing them skin, kidney and respiratory diseases. Left with little choice or entertainment, the children of these workers were also enrolled into this activity for a paltry sum of Rs 20 a day. Their parents earn about Rs 100 a day, much more than what their water-scarce farms yield. 

Salts seeps into the bodies of the workers causing them skin, kidney and respiratory diseases

Setting up the residential camp

It was Satish Desai, the pro-active headmaster of Boru Prathmik Shala, who came up with the idea of setting up a nivasi (residential) camp for such children, who tend to be very irregular at school and may, at a later stage, even drop out of school. With the help of District Education and Early Childhood Education (ECE) Consultant, Hetal K Patel, Desai approached members of the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan Mission (SSAM). The provisions of the Right to Education Act 2010 reach out to each and every child to bring him/her into education’s fold. This formed the basis for setting up the residential camp.

Then there was the issue of getting villagers to send their children to the camp. “The main problem here is that there never has been any inclination of parents towards education,” says Desai, adding, “The caste system is very rigid. Parents did not want to send their children to a school where they would stay with children from other castes. I had to meet them many times and then slowly managed to convince them to send their children here.”

Satish Desai (left), the headmaster of the Boru Prathmik Shala speaks to the salt pan workers

The camp was finally set up on the premises of Boru Prathmik Shala in January 1, 2012. It enrolls children in classes from I to VII. Gangaram Jhakesara, the balmitra (teacher), has been appointed by the School Management Committee (SMC). Jhakesara, 22, is among the very few people in the village who has studied till Standard XII and is armed with a Primary Teacher Certificate.  He stays at the camp with all the 19 boys out of the 25 children who come here to study. The six girls spend most of their daylight hours here and then retire to their homes once their parents come back from the salt works at sundown.

“Feels better than home”

The children start their day at 6 am. They get up, brush their teeth, bathe and then dig into some breakfast that could be mamra (puffed rice), papadi (flatbread) or shakarpada (a kind of a sweetmeat). Then they begin their lessons for their respective classes in Arithmetic, Gujarati, Hindi and a little bit of English.  Urmila Solanki, who teaches Hindi at Boru Prathmik Shala says that it is important for the children to learn Hindi and English so that they can interact with people from outside the village, should they ever have to go out for their studies. The balmitra also teaches the children how to paint, work with clay, make models out of cardboard and study maps. The children break for their midday meals of rotlas (flatbreads made of bajra) and vegetables cooked over firewood in the neat kitchen. Post-lunch, they spend their time playing with bats and balls that they have neatly packed into their trunks, reading storybooks, singing bal geet (children’s songs) or garba (much to the delight of the girls), or simply chatting. It’s time to get back to the studies in the evening before they once again break for dinner and finally retire to bed at 10 pm. 

Children at the residential camp in the Prathmik Shala

“I like staying here because I have so many friends,” says 12-year-old Mukesh Parmar, who does not want to go back to his parents house. Mukesh’s father, Amrabhai Parmar, who works at the salt pans, says, “I am happy my son is studying in the sixth standard. He now has a safe place for play and tuition while I work through these months.” 

When Right to Education Consultant, Dr Ankita Sharma, asked the children about the qualities they liked in their best friends here, many said that they liked the fact that they did not use swear words and were great company. When she asked the children about what they did not like about the camp, most of them said that they could think of nothing. One boy, however, noted that he could live without the lice he had contracted from his fellow students!

The balmitra dutifully maintains a timetable for the classes and a register of the students’ works and activities. Teaching has been a fulfilling experience for him. Having studied at the Boru Prathmik Shala, Jhakesara points out that he is the only one from his batch of 40 students, who is still pursuing his studies. “All I want to do is to give these children a chance to study and become better people. Already, they have become more cultured. They say ‘Jai Mata Di’ or ‘Namaskar’ whenever they meet anyone.” 

“We need a lady teacher”

The social codes of the orthodox Rabari and Thakore communities do not encourage any kind of mingling between the genders in public spaces. The girls at the camp sit separately from the boys and do not play or even talk to them. They say one of the things the camp lacks is a lady helper or balmitra. Since most able-bodied married women either accompany their husbands to the salt pans or work in the fields nearby, the SMC still has not managed to find one to look after the girls. Also, according to the SSAM’s rules, the balmitra should be literate. However, Desai says that they haven’t found any literate women in the village. Therefore, though many of the girls want to stay at the camp at night they cannot because there is no lady balmitra.

The need for a female balmitra grows stronger as more and more parents want to enroll their children into the camp. It also spells the need for a separate space for the girls who want to stay here. Right now, the camp has room for only 25-odd children. The boys’ trunks line the shelves of two of the walls of the room. “I now have 50-odd children wanting to come here but we just don’t have the place to accommodate them all,” says Desai.

Changing social attitudes

The residential camp has changed the people’s attitudes towards education not just in this village but in Jhaloya 10 km away. Dhuriben Rabari, who works on the salt pans, says, “We are illiterate women and hence we cannot find any other job. We work from dawn to dusk, even on Sundays and public holidays to make whatever little money we can make. Had we studied, we would have looked for other, more comfortable jobs.” She goes on to request the District Education and ECE Consultant to open another camp like Boru’s in her village so that she does not have to keep worrying about what her children are doing 
while she is working.

Education has helped boost the children's confidence levels

Boru’s School Management Committee member, Shundabhai Thakore, strongly believes that the residential camp is the best thing that has happened to the village in recent times. “The children of our village have become more confident and are able to express themselves freely because of the education they have got. I am illiterate and I have had to stay in this village all my life. I  really wish that our future generations get a chance to study and go out of this village for good jobs,” he says. 

The enthusiasm of the students to learn, especially those of the girls, has rubbed off on balmitra Jhakesara, who married recently. The 22-year-old now wants his wife, who has studied till Standard VIII, to finish high school. “She can then become a lady balmitra,” he suggests. 

Bringing education to children

The success of the residential camp is an example of how hard work and dedication can help bring down the number of children who have dropped out of school or have never been enrolled into one, especially in Banaskantha, which has 5923 out-of-school children as per the SSAM report on Alternative and Innovative Education 2011-12. Vav shows much progress in this regard, Block Resource Coordinator, Hansmukh Trivedi notes, adding that many of the out-of-school children in the block have been enrolled into 10- to 20-month special training programs. These small steps will help them integrate into mainstream schools and give them the opportunity to look forward to a brighter future.  

Where learning is great fun...

A kitchen garden, an elaborate handwashing routine and the award-winning dedication of a worker to ECE makes the anganwadi in Dhandha village near Palanpur a role-model for others of its kind

Eisha Sarkar
Published in Success Stories in Early Childhood Education Gujarat 2012 by UNICEF, Integrated Child Development Services Scheme and GCERT

“First, we wet our hands. Then we use the soap. We rub the soap on each finger. We take special care of the nails. And then we wash all the soap off rigorously with water.” It’s a dry run for the handwashing routine that will start soon, says anganwadi worker, Parulben Nagaria. She likes the children to do it in the form of an action sequence in class. “This way, they have more fun and get habituated to wash their hands,” says Parulben, who initiated this routine at the anganwadi in Dhandha village near Palanpur after she attended UNICEF’s training program for anganwadi workers in September 2011. 

A boy washes his hands thoroughly before a meal at Dhandha anganwadi as Champaben Jadav, the helper, asks the other children to wait for their turn in a queue. 

Twenty-six children queue up near a bucket. Helper Champaben Jadav doles out mugs of water with which the children wash their hands. “Look how diligently they are washing their hands. Even we adults do not take such care to clean our nails every time we wash,” observes Ritaben K Patel, the anganwadi’s supervisor.  
This simple task of handwashing is an important part of the lives of the children who come to the anganwadi. The drill helps them understand that washing their hands will prevent germs and dirt from getting into their mouths and, in turn, prevent them from falling sick. Some children have even ensured their parents wash their hands before they sit down to eat.

“This has been my biggest achievement. In each one of the 205 anganwadis I oversee, I have seen to it that the children have made handwashing a habit,” says a proud Shashiben Brahmabhatt, the block’s Child Development Project Officer (CDPO), who started this initiative after she attended a training program in June 2011. 

Creating a ‘model’ anganwadi

With its innovative ways of teaching, fun-filled activities (that include dancing to children’s songs that are played on a DVD player), use of painted walls as activity boards for children and a garden that grows onions, lauki (round bottle-gourds) and arvi (colocasia), Dhandha’s anganwadi has become a model for others in Banaskantha district. 

But it wasn’t always like this.  “Earlier, we did not know what to do. I have been an anganwadi worker for nine years. The children would just come here, eat and then go away. Somewhere down the line, even I lost my interest in teaching,” says Parulben. 

Children enjoy their time at the anganwadi

In June 2011, she attended a training program on Early Childhood Education (ECE). It changed her outlook towards her work. “I learnt why ECE is important, how the kit should be used and why cleanliness is essential in bringing more children to the anganwadi,” shares Parulben, who holds a Master’s degree in Gujarati.

Mentored, facilitated and monitored by the State ECE Consultant, Parulben and Supervisor Ritaben have created a child-friendly learning atmosphere in the anganwadi. She uses puppets from UNICEF’s ECE kit and enacts the stories for the children. She also gets them to participate in group activities, where they play with building blocks, toys and memory cards or thread boards. 

Anganwadi worker Parulben Nagaria uses illustrations in books to teach the children

She strictly follows a timetable. Meals are now served on time and on clean stainless steel plates. There is a separate provision for drinking water. The idea of using a ladle for the water came from an anganwadi worker from Surajpura village who Parulben met at the training program. Parulben and her helper, Champaben, also see to it that the newly-tiled toilet is cleaned regularly and that children throw chocolate wrappers into a dustbin made out of a jerry-can.

New ideas, new learning ways

Painted walls are used as activity charts
What sets Dhandha’s Anganwadi No 2 apart from the rest of its kind is the innovation that has been put into the process of learning. Parulben uses the books not only to narrate the stories but also to create her own. She uses a combination of poetry, dance and puppets so that children can actively participate in the storytelling process. Parulben says that she has picked up these ideas from the Anganwadi Workers’ Module, which has been prepared by UNICEF and which she has been trained to use. 

In order to allow all the children to play with puppets at the same time, Ritaben suggests that she will get a village tailor to stitch puppets that are similar to those in the UNICEF kit. 

While the children have their activity books and toys to help them develop their brain and motor skills, the anganwadi worker has also devised a way to enhance their senses. She has created a ‘scent box’ that contains vials of spices such as variyali (fennel), lavang (clove), elaichi (cardomom) and gulab (rose). A similar ‘taste box’ contains sugar (sweet), salt, and mango/tamarind powder (sour) to help children distinguish the tastes. She says they still have not managed to find a ‘bitter-tasting powder’. Shashiben, the CDPO, suggests they could use methi (fenugreek) powder.

Turning parents into participants

The main reason for the anganwadi’s quick turnaround over the last few months has been the involvement of the community, especially that of the parents who send their children here. 

When Ritaben came up with the idea of painting the walls of the anganwadi, following her interaction with State ECE Consultant Dr Jigisha Shastri, she was initially cagey about asking the parents for money. But her fears were misplaced and they happily contributed the required Rs 2500 to create a bright, colorful place for their children. 

Next, when she wanted to get identity cards for each child, she once again went to the parents for help. “Each card costs Rs 12. The parents told me, ‘Don’t worry, we will give it you’,” she says adding that the parents also contributed for the files the anganwadi maintains on the children’s activities. 

The villagers also took pride in re-doing the place. One person put racks on the wall to create storage space for the files. Another provided two chairs and two tables. A third person paid for the utensils and others contributed to the binding of the books. 

The most recent contribution has been in the form of a DVD player. “I’ve been asking them to put a DVD player for the past six months. But they couldn’t find a donor. Then somebody gifted me a player, recently. I thought I may as well put it here so that it can be used regularly and the children can enjoy themselves,” says tailor Bharat Hirabhai, whose four-year-old son, Harshil, goes to the anganwadi. “Now that we have the DVD, we’ll also get a TV!” In fact, Parulben has already started advising the children to limit the number of hours they spend in front of the television. 

The parents actively participate in the anganwadi’s affairs. They track their children’s progress records and attend parent meetings regularly. 

When Parulben was awarded for her work in the anganwadi, many of the parents took time off from their schedules to congratulate her.

To make things even better

When State Right to Education consultant, Dr Ankita Sharma visited the anganwadi along with Hetal K Patel, District Education and ECE consultant, she was taken in by the commitment of the worker, the helper (she takes on the functions of the anganwadi worker and keeps the center running when the latter has to attend meetings), the CDPO and the supervisor towards education. 

Children play with toys provided in the ECE kit

The children, who only a year back were malnourished and disinterested, have now become healthy, confident and are eager to learn. Dr Sharma notes that greater participation of the parents by attending meetings regularly at the anganwadi will further benefit the children. Shashiben also points out that the anganwadi needs to be supplied with four to five liters of milk everyday. This, the village Sarpanch, Ramilaben Varecha, has agreed to provide for. She says, “For the development of the village, the development of the anganwadi is a must!”

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

How to be German in 20 easy steps

I came across this blog written by one Adam Fletcher and thoroughly enjoyed reading it. I hope you do too!

Monday, November 19, 2012

Jab tak hai jaan

I finally watched Jab Tak Hai Jaan. I went on my own and there were only 20 people in the hall at Inox. It didn't look promising, even though the movie had been in theatres for six days. It's not the best Yash Chopra movie I've seen. (My pick would be the Rajesh Khanna-starrer, Daag, with its soul-stirring dialogues and speeches). And Shah Rukh Khan's performance, even by his own standards, is about average. But once he came on screen, I could not take my eyes off him and his hot stubble. (I have never loved facial hair as much!) I understand why people did not like the film. In an age where the average multiplex film is about two-hours-long, this one stretches to three-and-a-half. The story is very simple, with a bit of a love-triangle thrown in and the songs... well, I don't remember them much. But, in spite of all that, I watched the film and liked it a lot. I guess that is the mark of a great filmmaker. He makes you want to watch his film even if you think you know all about it! RIP Yash Chopra. 

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Mandarmoni, West Bengal

About a 3.5-hour drive from Kolkata, towards the south-west, is Mandarmoni, a tiny beach resort town. You get a spectacular view of the Bay of Bengal and a long beach, that is devoid of pebbles and rocks, and hence is a swimmer's paradise. The waves are not as high as those at Puri and thus it's a safe destination for kids as well. Also, since not many tourists know of it (Digha, 28 km away is more popular), it offers you peace and tranquility and thousands of red crabs. There are a few hotels that line up the beach and you have to drive down the beach to get to them. The tariff's around Rs 5000 a night, inclusive of meals, a bit much, but you've little choice. The drive down from Kolkata through paddy fields, villages and forests is really worth the effort. Here are some pics:

Red crab at Mandarmoni... there are thousands of them on the beach

At 5.30 am

Lighting up the spaces in between

Basking in the glow

Post-immersion, this is what is left of Durga. Thank God, it's all made of hay and clay

Fishermen at Digha

Sunday, November 4, 2012

From Miss to Memsahib

Book: The Fishing Fleet - Husband-hunting in the Raj
Author: Anne de Courcy
Publisher: Weidenfeld and Nicholson (Orion Publishing)
Pages: 335
Price: Rs 750 (hard-bound)
In 1822, Stuart Corbett, a young officer of the East India Company, wrote a letter to his father in England about his impending marriage to one Charlotte Britten. “I shall be able by this step to lead a regular and steady life which I have not been able to do for the last 4 months, the Officers of the 2nd Battn (Battalion) being all single and fond of sitting up till 3 or 4 in the morning which I do not like and still as a single man am not able to avoid it,” he wrote. Britten happened to be one of the girls then known as the Fishing Fleet - young women who travelled out to India in search of a husband.

“The story of Charlotte Britten and Stuart Corbett,” Anne de Courcy writes, “is typical of how the Fishing Fleet became an established phenomenon and of the magnetic pull exercised by India. It also shows the courage and adventurous readiness to take risks then inherent in the British character. How many parents these days would send a sixteen-year-old daughter on a six-month voyage that might easily end in death by disease and drowning to a country from which she might never return, even though the golden apple at the end of the journey was that essential commodity, a husband? And how many daughters would consent to go?"

Rarely do we find references to these brave women (gold-diggers, yes, but brave, nonetheless) in books on the British Raj. The Raj was entirely run by men. Many of them were brilliant administrators (belonging to the Indian Civil Service or ICS), military officials and businessmen, but would they have continued for long in a foreign country without the company of the fairer sex of their own race? Once they had formed liaisons with Indian beauties but by Corbett’s time these days were past. In the Victorian era, mixed-race marriages were frowned upon and children of mixed blood shunned by both British and Indians. In fact, some of the deep caste and class prejudices of the Indians were imbibed into the British hierarchy.

Against this backdrop, with a growing number of young bachelors, the need was felt to bring some white women in India. At first, the British East India Company sent them out from England. But gradually, as the reputation of India as a place where even the plainest could find a mate grew, so did the number of women travelling out there. In England, a land where women outnumbered marriageable men, a girl without beauty, money or grand relations had little hope of making a good match. In India, she was showered with immediate proposals. And those who did not manage to find a mate in India, were back home as “returned empties”, a label, they would find hard to shake off.     

With the help of the memoirs of the Fishing Fleet girls, de Courcy strings up a narrative that takes you through their journeys, the excitement of their arrival in India, how they dealt with the heat and the dust and dangers from snakes and diseases, the parties they were invited to, the dances, the hunts, the sports, the races, the courtships and the proposals, grand weddings and finally how they settled down in a land very unlike their own after getting married. The transformation from a Miss to a memsahib, was quite rapid (sometimes, it was just a matter of weeks), for the ratio of men to women in the Raj was roughly four to one. "So, for both parties, marriage was not so much about passion and romance but a matter-of-fact life choice sealed by contract, that had to be arrived at briskly or the prize would be lost to someone who was quicker off the mark," the author writes.

This well-researched book transports you to a world of steamships, jungles, tiger-hunts, viceroys, maharajas, colonial houses and ballroom dances. It also delves on the attitudes of British men of the period towards their women, of how they wanted brides who were less intelligent and good at managing the household, needlework and throwing parties. Unfortunately for women who lived outside the presidencies of Bengal, Madras and Bombay, there was precious little to do, since the servants would do the domestic chores. Life under the Raj post-marriage could be rather boring and lonely, since the men played sports and hunted whenever they had any free time. And the most difficult time for the women was when they were forced to choose between their children who would be sent back to England for schooling and their husbands, who would remain in India. 

Much has changed in India and Britain since the demise of the Raj in 1947; still some of its remnants are still intact and most notable of them is the bureaucracy. While the book is mainly about the plight of these young Fishing Fleet girls, it also throws light upon the evolution of the ICS in India, the need for it and why it became so rigid and patriarchical over the years. It became so rigid that it was alright to have the Queen in England, but a woman for the post of the Viceroy of India was unthinkable.

Interesting and insightful, de Courcy’s The Fishing Fleet is a good read. If you have the time, you don't want to miss this one. 

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Be a traveller in Kolkata, not a tourist

You may not love Kolkata at first glance. It is noisy, polluted and overcrowded. But, if you allow her and are patient enough to go through her hard-to-get games, she will bewitch you.
My first trip to Kolkata was way back in 2000. My grandparents had left Patna, their home for over 50 years, and retired to a three-bedroom flat at Behala, the southern end of Kolkata. The move had not made me happy, for all my childhood memories were that of Patna - of their big house at Rajendra Nagar, where I would play with their black labrador, Gypsy, and recite poetry to my great grandmother, of Faggu tailor, who would stitch new dresses for me out of my mother's chiffon sarees, of the patients (my grandfather was a doctor), friends and house staff, who would speak in the different dialects of Bihar such as Maghi, Bhojpuri, Maithili and Bhagalpuri, of the Patna Women's College and St Joseph's Convent, where my mother had studied and of Bankipur Club and the Ganges right next to it, where my grandfather had taken me for my first swim when I was four years old. As a resentful teenager, I saw Kolkata as a place that could not offer me any of those things. It was too overcrowded, too hot and humid, my grandparents did not know much about the city to suggest new places to check out and worst of all, few people understood Hindi. Unable to communicate with the locals, thanks to my very weak knowledge of Bengali, I spent most of the very hot month of May indoors and was very happy when I got back to Mumbai.
My second visit to this metropolis, was in December 2004. The cold season made the city seem much better. It was decked up for Christmas and I was amazed at the number of people who would picnic at the Maidan or make a beeline for the zoo. My grandparents were much better equipped to take me around - to the National Museum, the Victoria Memorial, New Market, Park Street, Howrah Bridge and the Botanical Garden at Alipore, where we would go for our morning walks. Hindi was more commonly spoken, thanks to the increasing popularity of Bollywood films. I enjoyed the week I spent here and wanted to come back again to explore more of it.
I got another chance in early 2008. Having spent, the previous month in the steel city of Jamshedpur in Jharkhand, I actually looked forward to visiting this big city. Once again my grandparents took me around - to have some delicious Chinese food at Tong Fung, Park Street, browse through the music at Music World and buy dark brown leather boots from a Chinese-owned shop at Bentinck Street for just Rs 500. The city had new flyovers, which helped me cut traffic time by half. I also witnessed a huge rally organised by one of the Communist Parties, during which streets were lined with red flags and truckloads of people and cabbages (probably to be cooked for the participants' lunch) were being transported to the site of the rally.
The next year, I was back for a couple of days in February, and found new flyovers, discovered the Millenium Park on the banks of the Hooghly, a popular hangout for couples, had my first puchkas (Kolkata's version of a pani-puri), browsed through the 18th-century sketches of India at the Victoria Memorial and finally tried out the rum balls at the famed Park Street confectioner, Flurys. 
This year, I got the opportunity to visit Kolkata twice - the first time for a fortnight in March, and then in October, for the whole month. In March, I chose to spend my time with my ageing grandparents. I would wake up at 5 am and go with my grandmother for a morning walk to the Parnasree Lake, which has been cleaned up and beautified with a promenade, a walking track, benches, fountains and gardens. I met my granny's friends, who would sing Rabindranath Tagore's songs and recite his poems. I also discovered, from their speech, that most of the Hindu inhabitants of Parnasree, belonged to the erstwhile East Pakistan and had fled to India during the 1971 war between India and Pakistan that led to the creation of Bangladesh. They would still talk about their ancestral homes in Khulna, Dhaka and Chittagong. I also noticed how many of the gates, walls and even buildings around the city were painted blue and white, the colours of the Trinamool Congress party, which had finally ended the 34-year reign of the communist parties in Bengal in the 2011 elections.
But it was in October this year, that I finally managed to enjoy the rawness of Kolkata. One day, I took a tram ride at 7 am from Beckbagan Row to Esplanade. We rode through lanes full of shuttered shops and roadside vendors heating the coals to cook a meal of luchi-tarkari (puri-bhaji) or shingara-jilipi (samosa-jalebi) for breakfast. I walked round the Governor's bungalow (I had mistaken it for a park), towards the Dalhousie Square, past the Office of Official Languages (yes!), then back through Chowringhee and New Market to Esplanade to take the tram back to Beckbagan Row in Ballygunge. Another day, I accompanied my mother to the Park Circus Market to watch her haggle with fishmongers and butchers. I salivated each time I entered a sweet shop - Gobinda at Behala, Mithai at Beckbagan Row, Gupta Brothers and Haldiram's at Syed Amir Ali Avenue, K C Das at Bentinck Street and Balaram Mullick's at Park Street - for they promised to offer to me a platter of the softest and sweetest sandesh.

As part of a huge mass of people, I hopped from one magnificent pandal to another decorated with various forms of Goddess Durga. I talked to Krishnapriya Dasgupta, who created an entire pandal of beaten metal sheets at Ultadanga and marvelled at his brilliance and effort. I took in the fresh cold air from the top deck of a ferry on a 61-km cruise down the Hooghly while watching the immersions on Dussera. I tucked into the famed chelo kebabs at Peter Cat, soaked in the ambience of Bar B Q and Trincas, ate delicious grilled fish and chocolate boats at Flurys, sipped a wine cocktail called Cosmo Fizz at Zara, South City Mall, had my fill of Badshah's double chicken rolls and ordered Chinese from Beijing Restaurant in Tangra and Chinese Pavilion at Syed Amir Ali Avenue (both strictly okay). I listened to a new band call Span at Someplace Else at the Park Hotel. I watched British tourists flipping through books on the city's history at Oxford Bookstore. Probably they were trying to find, in those pages, their ancestors who had come here at the time of the Raj.

I walked on the finest marble mosaic floor I've seen at the Marble Palace built by Raja Rajendra Mullick (a shipping magnate and jeweller) on Muktaram Babu Street and marvelled at his private collection of original paintings by Rubens and Reynolds (worth crores of rupees), statues of marble and alabaster, gold and silver, bronzes, Chinese and Japanese porcelain, Czech crystal chandeliers and over-10-feet-tall Belgian mirrors. I listened to Rabindranath Tagore's own voice through the moving lips of a dummy of him at the Town Hall and got a glimpse of the life in Kolkata before the British had come here. I stumbled into a room, where Tagore had breathed his last at Thakurbari at Jorasankho in north Kolkata and read his final letter which is displayed on the wall.

I also moved away from the city to explore the scenic Vedic Village near Rajarhat (about 70 km from the city centre), where I indulged myself with a Kerala Ayurvedic massage. I explored the beaches at Mandarmoni and Digha. I swam in the Bay of Bengal and chased big red crabs into their holes. I bargained hard for tangail and dhakai sarees at the Tanter Haat Exhibition. I learnt that the New Market was opened in 1874! I felt the pulse of the city rise and fall before and after the Durga Puja. I watched people discuss their food, music and books passionately. I went to the Victoria Memorial to watch the son-et-lumiere (sound-and-light) show only to be told it had been cancelled that day. I would have cursed had I not looked up at the majestic building and an orange moon. And in Kolkata, a city labelled as 'lazy and extremely slow', I watched my parents settle comfortably into a new house in a new city in just under a week's time.
There are some cities you can do as a tourist. You can go to the places listed in the guide and you will come back with a sense of satisfaction that you've seen all of it. Kolkata isn't like that. Yes, there is a guide and there are tourist hotspots, but if you stick to only those, you'll end up spending most of your time in the middle of a traffic jam or waiting in the queue at a ticket counter to enter a public space. You end up being disappointed and frustrated when people do not respond to your queries immediately, when they do not show up on time and when they simply do not want to work. Drop those time-references ("In Mumbai, they are so much more efficient," or "In London, it would have taken us only 10 minutes,") and enjoy the city for what it is, moving at its own pace. Imbibe its smells, sounds and tastes. You won't find the city 'slow' then. You may find her chatter noisy, but you'll sure miss it when she goes quiet. Don't be a tourist here, be a traveller. You may not get to see all the sights, especially if you have only a few days here, but what you see will be worthwhile.