Saturday, 14 January 2012

6.    Animals and Birds we see  from Saaremaa  
(written by our younger son, an avid bird watcher)
                          From this heavenly abode we see a wide range of animals and birds all year long. Our favourite past-time in the evening is just to sit out in the veranda and listen to the numerous animals and birds outside. Every night, without fail, we hear the coughing call of the Barking Deer which moves up and down the steep mountain slopes effortlessly, barking in order to warn its fellow species of any predators or danger. However this species of deer is very small and is perpetually hidden in the densely forested mountain slopes near our house making it hard to spot. However, once we spotted one while drinking our first cup of tea in the morning on the back verandah. It gingerly walked on just beyond our makeshift badminton court and started nibbling at some leaves there. We sat absolutely still and watched it for quite a while, while it lifted up its ears and head every now and then to see if anyone was looking. Once it spotted us, it scampered off as fast as possible. 

The barking deer who visited us at Saaremaa..

Another time, when we were returning to ‘Saaremaa’ from a late night Diwali get-together on the motorcycle, we almost knocked a scared barking deer off the road. It was pitch dark and it suddenly came out of nowhere, scaring itself and us too. It brushed against the motor cycle and then bolted into the night. This was on the ‘perilous’ forest road very close to Saaremaa.
Our two acre land is very often visited by Wild Boar, which often dig holes in our yard and eat whatever few crops are available in these patches! These animals do not make much sound and hence are not heard at night when they invade our field! The wild hare or ‘jungli kharghosh’ as our Chowkidar calls it, is another common visitor. Much to the chokidar’s chagrin, it has eaten up all the lovely ‘dal’ (pulses) he painstakingly sows season after season on the flatter areas of our land.
On a few occasions, we have also heard the handsaw grating call of a leopard deep into the night, especially during the winter months! We did not believe daddy when he made us wake up and hear it once in the wee hours of the morning and I came back to Delhi to actually check the sound on the internet! It proved to be uncannily and eerily accurate! Garhwali folklore is full of stories of leopard eating farmer’s cattle, dogs and at times their children as well!  These animals are made out to be extremely horrid and vile, seeking every opportunity to attack a human settlement. On the contrary, they are extremely shy of ‘homo sapiens’ and only once in a blue moon attack humans, unless threatened. They do, however, love the opportunity to gorge on cattle and dogs leading to despair among farmers. The chowkidar nonchalantly often tells us stories of villager’s cattle being taken away by leopards and claims to see leopards every month or two! Unfortunately, for us, we have never had an opportunity to come across this majestic big cat.
Some other rare animals we spot at this altitude in the forest are the yellow throated martens, porcupines, civet cats, ghurals( which is from the deer family but looks like a mountain goat) and flying squirrels. We are yet to come across these animals, but as usual, our chowkidar claims to have seen each and every one of them and more on our property and we hope to be lucky enough to also see them someday.

The Rock lizard whose family lives behind one of our Rain water tanks

However, here I have to mention that we have acquired two pets over our years of stay at Saaremaa. The Rock lizard is one which lives behind the rain water tank on our first floor terrace and keeps climbing up and down with various members of its family. The second and more fascinating is George’s family of spiders. They are large, unwieldy and rather solemn looking creatures which stay hidden behind furniture and paintings until one begins a cleaning spree and spots them scurrying away sideways. We saw one with a huge sac of eggs attached to her body and realised we will soon be inundated with George’s family as we had named the first one we saw ‘George’. The name sounded grand and apt. In reality, they stay to themselves and have never caused us any trouble at all.

George's relative crawling along our kitchen!
Even more than the wide array of mammals here are the innumerable species of birds. We often call our home ‘A Paradise of Birds’. Every time we walk out of our house, at least half a dozen birds are either seen or heard in the vicinity, the most common one being the Black headed Jay which can be seen literally nearly every time without fail. During the summer evenings, all of us hear the wonderful, yet monotonous cry of the Indian cuckoo chanting a four syllable tune. 

Himalayan Indian Cuckoo seen outside our window
The black and ashy Drongos are both visitors to Saaremaa and can be seen perched on the branches. We see flocks of both the plum and slatey headed parakeets all year long, flying from tree to tree. The red and yellow billed as well as common Magpies are also seen near the house during our morning and evening walks. The Rufous tree pie is a member of the magpie family and a regular visitor to our abode.  The bushes and thick undergrowth on the land are also overflowing with tiny birds such as the Sparrows, Munias, Tits, Warblers and marvellously coloured purple and crimson Sunbirds. All these tiny creatures create a ruckus in the bushes. Due to this, a ruffling noise can nearly always be heard during our morning and evening teas on the verandah. Once we saw a beautiful Khalij pheasant strutting right up to our back verandah and luckily had our camera ready for a photo!

Our photo of the Khalij pheasant we saw from our back verandah

The Oriental Turtle Dove perched on the Oak tree outside 'Hiiumaa' - our other cottage  above 'Saaremaa'

Another major attraction to our home for bird watchers are the various Birds of prey (raptors) which reside in and around it, the crested serpent eagle being the most abundant of all. I have seen this bird of prey a few times, the most memorable occasion being when it swooped down and picked up a frog from the ground. On winter mornings and afternoons we have often seen the majestic Himalayan Griffon high up in the sky doing imaginary laps in the troposphere. The Griffon’s wingspan is between five and six feet and it looks magnificent from down below.

Himalayan Griffon Vulture flying above Saaremaa

We have a varied library of books on animals, plants and birds, and sit with our binoculars, ready to catch a closer glimpse of any bird, common or rare. Then, we rush in and check the name in our book of “Birds of Northern India’. We try hard to memorise it so we recognise it by its name the next time we see it!

 One of the beautiful species of lilies growing in abundance at Saaremaa

Friday, 13 January 2012

5.   Rain water harvesting and solar power……
             Saaremaa would never have been completed had it not been for my dear architect- husband’s nature-friendly views on rain water harvesting and harnessing solar power. Initially, we did try to get a water line and paid a pretty packet for it too, but it didn’t work out as the villagers nearby hardly get water during the summer, and didn’t naturally see why outsiders from Delhi should share their meagre water supply. Fair enough, we took this in our stride and we decided to rely entirely on rain water. We got a 30,000 litre underground tank built and an effective filter made up largely of layers of sand and gravel, which filtered out the rain water from all the pipes leading to it from the slanting galvanised iron roofs of Saaremaa. A few good rains and the entire tank would fill up!
If there are two things that have saved our lives a million times over in Saaremaa, they are the clean rain water we get in our taps and the solar lanterns which light up the house at night and also charge our Nokia phones! The collected rain water would be pumped up to the tank above, every day, by a hand pump.
Nature friendly 'Saaremaa' - rain water pipes, filter, tank and hand pump.

This was usually done by our Chowkidar, but whenever we had guests and large quantities of water had to be pumped up, the highlight of the day would be the water pumping. Everyone would take turns at it and there would be a competition as to who was the strongest. This was judged by the number of pumps he/she did! On an average, one pump of the hand pump lifted up only one large mug of water. Keeping this in mind, the children all took turns at pumping water on a daily basis. They each pumped up around 15 mugs for a bath, 10 for flushing and 5 for washing everyday, a total of 30 pumps at least. Needless to add, very rarely did any of them actually bathe during their time at Saaremaa!
I really miss this aspect of our life at Saaremaa now that there is electricity (since October 2010). The solar lights have been replaced by CFL bulbs and the hand pumping by an electric motor. Anyhow, the electricity is not exactly very reliable here in the mountains and we still charge and use our solar lights regularly and feel very happy while doing so.

4. Choosing the name ‘Saaremaa’

                    Moving back to our home, ‘Saaremaa’, let me mention how we hit on the name for it. The Estonian connection is obvious... Saaremaa is the largest island off the west coast of Estonia. It is about 6 1/2 kilometers by ferry from main Estonia, the island where my great grandmother (Dida's mother, Nadezda) was born and lived as a child. Also, as children, we had heard from Dida that one of her cousins, who had resisted being sent to Siberia by the Russians, was hiding somewhere on the island- Saaremaa. Although we visited the island North of Saaremaa called Hiiumaa during our visit to Estonia in June 2008 and July 2011, we never had a chance to go to Saaremaa.

While we thought of ‘Griffon’s Cottage’ , ‘Babbler Bari’, ‘Skylark Home” and ‘Eagle’s Nest’ among several other names based on  the hundreds of delightful Himalayan birds we see from Saaremaa, we just weren’t sure which magnificent bird’s name would most suitably befit our abode in the mountains. Finally It was while my husband was playing his Sarod, a musical instrument with nineteen strings, one evening, facing the Himachal ranges of the Himalaya mountains from our first floor bedroom, did the strains of ‘Sa-re ga-ma’ touch a chord, and we thought, why not have a musically Estonian name, especially since the whole family loved every form of music? 
Hence, the name ‘Saaremaa’ stuck and before we got the name-board made, we wondered what exactly to write on the board as it would be final and permanent.  Right from the beginning when we bought the land, we were extremely keen to grow organic fruits and vegetables like lettuce, cherry tomatoes, broccoli, leeks, etc. We bought two huge books weighing at least 4 kgs each on the joys of organic farming in the hills and after much thought and deliberation, we finally hit on the  name at the entry - ‘Saaremaa Organic farms”.  As of now, the wild rabbits and wild boar have dug up every bit of organic farming we have attempted, but yes, we have managed some huge cucumbers, a lot of delightful mint, small and juicy tomatoes, some wild strawberries and plenty of dal planted painstakingly by our ‘chowkidar’.

   First glimpse of the land we bought….
View from Saaremaa just after a bout of rain

My first visit to see the land was quite eventful as it was a cold and rainy day. We drove down from just below the Mussoorie Bypass road.  A 4 wheel drive jeep and driver were organised and the driver  dropped us to the land and we walked back. By Jove, it was a very long and winding walk, both uphill and downhill! However, what struck me the most was the sheer fall of the valley below and the lush mountains on the opposite side. What a gorgeous, scenic view! The forest was thick, mostly filled with Oak trees and some Deodar and Pine trees. There were Rhododhendron trees blossoming at intervals too and the bright red flowers made my heart glow and gave me the courage to walk with renewed energy. The road was reasonably wide but not paved at any point. There was no way any car but a four-wheel drive could make it, and that too with difficulty. 

   Reaching Saaremaa……
Reaching Mussoorie from Delhi was easy, but reaching 'Saaremaa' in the early years was quite an adventure. We either drove up from Delhi to Mussoorie via Ghaziabad, Modinagar, Meerut, Muzaffarnagar, Roorkee and Dehradun, in that order, or went by train. Driving up had its advantages in the way that we could carry up a lot more stuff needed for the house, but the main disadvantage was that it took the better part of a day, leaving one exhausted. Also, on a non summer’s day, when the days were relatively shorter, we would reach in the evening and since 'Saaremaa ' had no electricity until the winter of 2010, setting up the kitchen with our solar lanterns was not that easy.
Saaremaa and our most frequently used back verandah

The road from Delhi  to Dehradun has improved since and instead of taking anything from 7 hours to 11 hours earlier, in spite of a so-called ‘Ghaziabad bypass”, ‘Meerut bypass and ‘Muzaffarnagar bypass’, it takes about 5 to 6 hours  now. This is thanks to a new, rather beautifully made toll road from Meerut to beyond Khatauli, completed in 2011. Khatauli was literally a one-horse town in the late ‘70’s, but now it is a messy, sprawling, badly planned township which took an eternity to pass through.
Once in Dehradun, one has to obviously add time for lunch, usually a quick bite at Mc Donald’s at the well known Astley Hall, petrol filling and buying of supplies, especially bread at Nany’s or Ellora’s. All this takes about an hour after which we set off straight to Saaremaa. That’s another hour and a bit, depending if we can drive straight to the house or not. Most often, the short cut via ‘Jhari Pani’ would be taken which is really picturesque and passes Barlowganj. Then, on to the Mussoorie Bypass road so one misses the crowded Mussoorie mall and markets   which are witness to several traffic jams especially during the peak summer season and long weekends. From the bypass road, down to Ridgewood hostel of Woodstock school, past Dhobhi Ghat and then up towards Chamasari village, a little beyond Pari Tibba.     And there, perched in the midst of the Oak forests lay our beautiful ‘Saaremaa’.

3.   A Place for my Grandmother’s bench…  
                           When my grandmother (Dida) died in 1997, she was buried at some out- of-the-way burial ground near Roorkee by my uncle, her only surviving son. The other beloved son, who was in the naval fleet of the Indian Airforce had been tragically killed over Pakistani soil in the 1971 Indo-Pak war. His plane had been shot down and to this day, his name crops up in the list of POW’s or ‘Prisoners of War’ and the ‘Missing believed Killed’ lists. While Dida was more realistic and after so many years had lost hope of ever seeing her son again, especially after he was posthumously awarded the Param Vir Chakra by the Indian Government for bravery, my poor Grandfather never lost hope and believed him to be in Baluchistan somewhere. Anyhow, the fact remained that none of the grandchildren could ever visit our dear Grandmother’s burial site  as we had no clue where exactly it was.

 My mother’s parents, Dadu and Dida, as we grand-
children always remember them in Dehradun

This turn of events made me dream of a place we could dedicate to her in a part of India she loved dearly. Hence, even before we bought the land on ‘Pari Tibba’ I had planned to dedicate a bench or something to that effect in both my Grandparents’ names. Both of them dearly loved the mountains and in fact, most of my Didas’ beautiful paintings (yes, she was an artist who had many art exhibitions too!) depict the splendour of the mountains. Some of Kashmir, some of Nainital, Manali and of course, of Mussoorie. These gorgeous paintings hang in all our homes today.
When we finally did buy the land, the house was truly secondary in my mind. It had by now, slowly and surely dawned on me that building or for that matter, any form of construction would be a long and uphill task considering the pretty remote location. We began by building a one room out-house and then, a make-shift shed for storing construction material. Every moment there, over the years of getting the main house built, I thought of places in the beautiful area around us where we could build a lovely, large, comfortable, all purpose bench which the whole family could sit on and remember the super-happy times we spent with Dida and Dadu.
 In Delhi, from the marble market, I chose a small, white, marble piece and got it inscripted with the following words :
In memory of our beloved  Dida and Dadu,
Ira Roy (1913 to 1997)
Major General A.N.Roy (1910 to 1985)
From your loving grandchildren.”
As soon as Saaremaa was ready, the bench was the first thing to be made by our helpful Chowkidar, under my watchful gaze. It is large, both in length and width, with arms on the side and covered with terracotta coloured broken tiles. The marble inscription was inserted at the head of the bench and it was just perfect. I even had the soil which my in laws had carefully collected and brought all the way from my Grandmother’s childhood home in Kasmu, Estonia, the previous year (This lovely house is now a Writer’s Home and houses different authors who need peace and quiet from the main cities of Estonia and all over Europe).  We sprinkled the soil behind the bench along with some Estonian strawberry seeds also brought all the way from Estonia by us during our visit there in 2008. 

View from Grandmother's bench - Mussoorie range and The Haunted House

Thursday, 12 January 2012

2.   The two Estonian-Bengali couples meet
       When my father in law and his (also!) Estonian wife came from New Jersey in the United States to settle down in Kolkata, India, they were told that there was another Bengali –Estonian couple, also by the same name who lived on  Kid Street. This was the year 1954. Of course the two families met and became fast friends.
 Prior to that, my grandfather (who retired as Major General A.N. Roy) was a Major with the  British Army Medical Corps.  He was posted to several places in India and during the 2nd world war, served with the British medical Army in Quetta, Pakistan, while grandmother lived with the missionaries in a quaint old home in Landaur, Mussoorie. Their two older children studied at Woodstock school, while the 3rd was a baby. My mother was not yet born! My grandmother had truly happy memories of her life during those pre-independence years in Mussoorie and made sure that, over the years to come, not only her children, but grandchildren too, visited her favourite haunts, Clock tower, Landaur Bazaar and Sister’s bazaar on top of the hill.
 It was so ironical that my grandfather, who retired as a Major General in the British-Indian Army Medical Corp and my grandmother had met in the early 1930’s at a youth hostel in England where my grandfather was studying medicine on a full scholarship at Bartholomews Medical College. My grandmother had been sent to England to learn English and get over a budding romance in Kasmu, Estonia, which her parents were not very happy about.. Her parents thought the change would do her good! Little did they know that another, much more permanent romance awaited her across the seas! 
 My dear grandmother sadly told me when I was much older, that when she went back to Estonia with my handsome and dashing grandfather, to tell her parents that she would be marrying the Indian gentleman who accompanied her, her mother (Nadezda Kaskni Kristenbrunn) was heartbroken because her precious, only daughter would be going so far away, to an almost unknown land. My great grandmother  died at the young age of 48 after a bad bout of pneumonia, and it is said till today that she died of sheer sadness at the thought of rarely seeing her daughter  again, as in those days travel across the seas was long and tedious and only by ship. After her mother's death, my grandmother and grandfather tied the knot and once they left London and returned to India, poor Grandmother truly did not ever have a chance to return to Estonia.
Similarly, my husband’s parents and my in laws met at Cambridge, Massachusetts, U.S., while my father-in-law was doing a doctorate in Chemical engineering from M.I.T. and my mother-in-law studying at Bennington College, Vermont. Both the Bengali gentlemen  married their Estonian wives against their parents’ and family’s wishes, yet both couples chose to come back to India and face the ‘not too pleasant’ music on their return! However, their friendship grew over the years while my father in law headed the Chemical Engineering department at Jadavpur University, Kolkata and then shifted to Delhi, while my grandparents moved from Kolkata to Dehradun. The couples made it a point to meet regularly and my mother as a nine year old remembers helping my mother in law at one of her little nursery schools! 
My Bengali father in law and Estonian Mother in law
 (Dr. Tuhin Kumar Roy and Silva Mardiste Roy) 

Wednesday, 11 January 2012

SAAREMAA  -  A dream come true....
1.  How it began……

It all began with our dear friend way back in 2003.... She was the one who wanted to buy land in ‘Pari Tibba’ or ‘Witch’s Hill’, and suggested that we should too. Little did we know just what we were getting in to! Land, on the outskirts of Mussoorie, just a few kilometres from Woodstock school ! Wow, we would have a lovely little cottage and a much needed get-away from the dry, hot plains of Delhi in the summer. How very simple it seemed..... Mussoorie has always been the most sought after hill station for both my husband and me, purely for happy memories and nostalgic reasons.
For me, Mussoorie brings the most wonderful memories of my beloved grandmother, who left her homeland Estonia, to marry my Bengali grandfather. They met in England, and after a brief visit to inform her parents in Estonia, sadly, due to Russian occupation, she never could go back to the country where she grew up. India became more than home to her, and she learnt Bengali, both the language and cuisine, wore a sari effortlessly and had it not been for an old, faded, blue photo album of her childhood she showed my younger sister and me in Dehradun during one of our many summer holidays there, I wouldn’t even have guessed of a life beyond India and more important, a life beyond her grandchildren for her.
The album had old sepia tinted photographs of her in her little sea side home town called Kasmu, just a two hour drive along the Baltic coast from the capital city, Tallinn, in Estonia. There were pictures of her home, her family and her friends whom she talked about so lovingly. She must have had deep regrets at never meeting them again as many among her family and friends fled Estonia and the rest were sent to concentration camps in Siberia during the cruel Russian regime. However, she never let us know it and was always so wonderfully cheerful and positive. It’s only as I grew up and actually visited her home town, Kasmu, did I realise what she gave up and what a lot of adjustments she must have had to make in a country where just about everything was so alien – food, dress, religion, language, culture. The thought always brought tears to my eyes.

My Estonian grandmother who lived in Kasmu, Estonia.
My grandmother’s father (Alexander Kaskni) died when she was very young and her mother remarried one of the pillars of North Estonian Maritime business and Headmaster of the Kasmu Maritime School (Eduard kristenbrunn) who adopted my grandmother. The Kasmu Maritime School is now a famous Maritime museum full of memorabilia. My grandmother’s cousin (aunt’s son) also came and lived with them in Kasmu as his mother had passed away at an early age. My grandmother tells me how she was initially quite jealous of my grand uncle as he took a lot of her mother’s initial attention as a little 3 year old would, but  within a few days they were inseparable and thick as thieves. He finally settled in Denmark after escaping Estonia during the Russian regime.

My darling grandmother is no more, but Saaremaa, our home in the Himalayas, just outside Mussoorie, has been made in her memory and all the wonderful times as children - my brother, sister and I spent with our grandparents, our ‘Dida’ and ‘Dadu’, as we called them, in their  Dehradun bungalow. We would also rent a little annexe cottage at in Landaur, Mussoorie , where we would lazily spend our summer holidays. My husband and his brothers too, stopped several times by at my grandparent’s place in Dehradun, on their way up to Mussoorie. They were very fond of my grandparents, and my in laws' and grandparents’ friendship goes back at least 60-odd years to Kolkata, then of course, known as Calcutta. Thereby, lies another fascinating tale....