Saturday, May 26, 2018

Swimming Surprises

It's summertime and swimming is the highlight of our day.  The best way to celebrate 'no school', in my opinion (and probably my son's too).

My own swimming is usually a low key but happy affair of relaxing and watching the water move by, with shafts of sunbeams piercing it.  A place of no thought and effortless gliding.

With my son around, it takes on a completely different hue.  The Bangalore club pool is packed in the summer with other children (being coached), their parents sitting alongside, regular swimmers and, thrice a week, an aqua-aerobics class attended solely by grandmothers.

In the midst of this, we come, splashing in- the grandmothers turn to give beaming smiles to my son and chat with me about their lives.  I exchange smiles with the parents (they are quieter on the whole than the grandmothers), get to know the children by sight and by name.

The swimming coach comes over to share a few moments of conversation and swimming tips with my son.  I am one of the few, possibly the only parent, to enter the pool solely in order to teach my son.  And he is learning, in his own determined, chaotic way - refusing teachers and floats, bobbing up and down in the water until he is able to move a little at a time, by himself.  Hands and feet move in an unstructured but determined fashion while he breathes out bubbles and endures the chlorine of the water (glasses are too tight, he says, and so are swimming caps).  A happy, bubbly, truly free style swim.

After this, we sit out with his toy trains and eat our snack (which has gradually increased in size over the last few weeks, the number of trains has also swelled).  We watch the swimmers and my son strolls over to say a word or two to his neighbours.  Sometimes, they talk to me as well.

And what wondrous things result from these conversations!  Grandmothers' tips on places to buy swimsuits, a European lady telling me that my son would certainly learn swimming - based on her swimming experiences with Polish coaches, and most recently a very precious gift of an old winding train set from England, placed carefully in a hand painted biscuit tin, given by one of the swimmers to my son - it is the set he used as a child.

My son beamed on receiving this and said he would have fun with it forever and ever.  I hope he does- and I hope he has fun with his swimming forever and ever too, just as I do, with mine.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Holidaying At Home

My son's first summer vacation - and we are spending it at home!  It's blazing hot in most parts of the country and so we decided just to sit back and do all the fun things that we had planned but never got down to.  No summer camps, no retreats and no road trips.  Just waking up when the sun pours in, eating summer fruit and home made bread and cheese and heading out to greet the day.

Swimming every morning is a must - and we go to Bangalore club, meet all the old regulars, say hallo to the swimming coaches and splash about for an hour, thoroughly refreshed at the end of it.

Then it's time for our snack, and we open our tiffin box with great gusto.  I sit back and relax and my son splashes in swimming pool puddles, urges the swimmers to jump in (and make more puddles!) and walks around looking for fallen baby coconuts.

Occasionally we shop, trying to avoid the big malls (my son trying to steer me to toy shops).

We get back home in time to water the garden (with more splashing) and eat a light, cool lunch.  Then it's time to crash and wake up for an evening walk to a neighbouring pond.  We keep some time aside to hear music, paint or build trucks and cook a special dinner after which we read our favourite books.

In the midst of all this, we try and meet all the friends we couldn't during school time- this is truly enjoyable and enriching.  As the world shrinks, it seems our lives do too unless we make an effort to stay in touch with people.  So we have spent our time inviting and cooking for family and friends, making mango tarts for my husband's lab, meeting people in Bangalore club and elsewhere for a meal or just a chat, and visiting a few homes.

We have returned with freshly churned white butter for our breakfast, hollow papaya straws (to blow soapy bubbles), fresh green papaya (to convert into meat tenderiser for biryani), freshly picked Coorg oranges and lemons for marmalade, a bottle of splendid champagne and most of all- happy memories that will stay with us forever.

Friday, May 11, 2018

Election Action

State elections are round the corner and the usual busy-ness is going on at every nook and corner.  People are complaining that ATMs have run out of large notes, presumably they are being used elsewhere.  The Election Commission is cracking down on goings on, at least in the capital city of Bangalore.  Alcohol is absolutely frowned upon, and for the first time Kingfisher beer has vanished from the shelves in liquor shops.

But bribes take new forms- apparently last week a tempo (no way to explain the concept of Indian tempos- they are like small vans piled high with people or goods) was caught carrying vast amounts of biryani and laptops for mass consumption- providing plenty of bytes, as a friend said.

In the midst of this mayhem, we decided to make use of our 'one night free stay' coupon at the Sheraton hotel, mainly for our son who has summer vacation right now.  With a busy four year old in tow, we decided to make full use of this opportunity and invited some friends over for dinner and planned to finish our pending shopping at the neighbouring mall the next morning.  We carried with us a bottle of wine for our friends, and laptops to keep my husband and son suitably occupied.

We had a wonderful stay and packed our bags the next afternoon, with an additional bottle of champagne (which our friends had gifted us) and a new laptop that my husband had bought.  Driving down sedately in our little yellow car on a sleepy Sunday afternoon, we were quite surprised to be flagged down by the police.

They were on election duty and wanted to search our car so we opened our bags and out popped the champagne!  It looked very suspicious but the policeman couldn't figure out what it was, it did not seem to be anything on his list.  He called the other two officers and each one did a search in turn.  The first policeman, tired of asking my husband for a receipt (hearing over and over again "It was a gift, we have no receipt," turned to me.  "Madam..." he began but I was running out of patience, trying to keep my son from leaping out of the car and running off.  "Please keep whatever you want, we have to move," I muttered irritatedly and the policeman finally gave up on us and began a conversation with my son about swimming.

Of course our swimming bag was opened and out came the armbands.  These kept the police quite occupied; they were trying to figure out if anything was stored inside.  This was fortunate because they missed the half opened bottle of wine that reclined behind the swimsuits and all our numerous laptops.  On the whole, the officers were quite cordial especially when my husband showed them his identity card.  Many things change but people here still seem to have a kind of respect for teachers.  They advised us earnestly not to go around with unreceipted liquor, said we could be hauled off to the police station the next time.

Finally, we were on the road again, discussing how if we had been in the U.S., things would never have functioned in this manner.  There would have been sirens and loudspeakers and we would all have had to exit the car with our hands above our heads, or some such thing.

In general, my brushes with the law in India have been fairly gentle, with many officers being stern but kind hearted, almost avuncular in nature.  I know that I have been fortunate.  Certainly not so in the U.S.  - I remember my last encounter, six years ago at the airport in Boston.

As we went bleary eyed through Immigration, the officer asked my husband how long we were planning to stay.  "I am going to New Hampshire for a meeting for a week, my wife will remain in Boston, and then we will leave," my husband said.

Somehow this was too many words, it seemed.  The officer was not happy.  "Is that an answer?" he snapped.

Under these circumstances, reactions vary.  I prefer to put on my dumbest expression (the kind I use when Americans start talking to me in slow mo).  My husband remains unperturbed and unwavering. What is better?  One never knows.

"Yes," my husband (naturally) said.

"That's like saying,'The sky is blue but we'll paint it purple today," said the officer.

He let my husband go but kept my passport and waved me aside to a corner.  There I was herded along with a bunch of Russian men to the basement where everyone addressed me as 'Vladimir' without making eye contact!  It was fairly surreal.  I waited until finally somebody decided that I could enter the country and handed my passport back to me.

That was before the last U.S. election and all its repercussions, and looking back now, I think perhaps I got away rather lightly.

So, here's to dizzying blue skies and champagne, to drown election action woes!

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

The Baul's Song

It's Christmas time in Calcutta, everyone is on holiday and making the most of it.  Even the non-resident Bengalis come home to visit old haunts.  Shops and restaurants are packed, loudspeakers are blaring, streets are filled with cars and pedestrians.

In the midst of all this, I feel truly blessed to have our local Baul visit every Sunday morning.  He walks down the street, playing his simple string instrument and singing his soulful songs.  Hardly anyone listens but he always stops in front of our family house, where he knows someone or the other will emerge.  And if I am there, I always do.  I love listening to these down to earth songs with mystic roots.  Songs which remind us that God must be searched for (and discovered) within our own hearts, by ourselves.

Bauls- the wandering mystic minstrels of Bengal used to travel from village to village, bringing these messages and their wonderful music to the common man.  Each village would provide them with food and shelter and take care of their needs.  Now things have changed, the Bauls have to fend for themselves and their travel is restricted.  They are hardly seen in urban settings, except for a few high profile ones, who perform periodically in concerts.  These performances are quite powerful but they often lack the spontaneity and simplicity found in a more natural setting.

This time I was fortunate enough to have my cell phone with me while rushing down to hear the Baul.  And so I made my first recording of one of his songs, the link is given below.  There was plenty of neighbourhood action at the time of the recording (and my hand finally shook when my little son made a beeline for the road).  People were coming and going, the driver was revving the car, the dhobi arrived with his bundle of freshly ironed clothes, an irate crow was demanding his biscuit breakfast and so on.  But the Baul was lost in his music and in his world - which is as it should be - and it reminded me to search for what gives my life meaning and pursue it without distraction (or at least attempt to)! 

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Sights and Sounds of Calcutta

Calcutta it always will be, especially at Christmas!  Busy, bustling, bursting at the seams...  A way of life and a spirit very different from other Indian cities - but as everywhere, some things have gone, some have changed and some continue, almost the same over time.

The pastry shop Flurys, now Marwari acquired but as efficiently geared for Christmas as it used to be, with the same eclectic cactus collection on the pavement outside.

Nahoums is still alive, the last Jewish bakery, with the last of its descendants running it and churning out their famed cakes, pastries and puffs.

Jazz has not been so fortunate, with the passing of the much loved jazz guitarist Carlton Kitto.  Wondrous music played in a down to earth manner with little fuss and a lot of happiness.

Happiness- also embodied in steaming cups of Darjeeling tea, meltingly tender sandesh (a sweet) in banana leaf packets, dazzling orange marigolds, delicately woven sarees.  A fragile but still existing world.

Closer to home is the sprawling Gariahat market, with its mounds of fresh fish and seasonal vegetables.  We walk down in the mornings, and decide on our menu for the day.

My favourite tonic (that apparently only die hard enthusiasts still partake of) - tender bitter neem leaves with fresh haldi (turmeric).  I have seen this combination only in Calcutta.

Sunday mornings are unforgettable, not because I indulge in jalebis and kachoris (a favourite fried and heavy breakfast) but because the local Baul singer comes by, singing incredible songs of faith, love and remembrance.

Each time we visit, we leave with incredible memories.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Christmas In The Air

We usually do not celebrate Christmas, but it's always very much a part of our lives, for it is in the air, everywhere greeting us.

This year, with my son just beginning to learn music in school, I get to hear Christmas songs at home when he returns.

My husband, who is in Delhi, has ordered some of the most delicious Christmas cake and pudding (from IIC) which he will bring back.  Thus I have saved my Christmas cake recipe for next year.

We have a tree in our little garden, but as we will be in Kolkata over Christmas this year, I have kept the decorations for next year (when my son will be older and able to reach the top branches).  This is prudent because our garden is full of leaping monkeys, inquisitive squirrels and nosy ravens right now.

Christmas in Kolkata has its own charm, even if Park street is too crowded to walk down, even though the old jazz haunts are now hard to find, even if our favourite traditional bakery closed its doors last year.  Christmas is still Christmas, and spending it with family and friends is always special.

Here are two old versions of my son's favourite Christmas songs -

Rudolph the red nosed reindeer-

Jingle bells (apparently the first song to be played in outer space, which gives it an added appeal, in my son's eyes)-

And here is my favourite song (which was also Elvis's favourite Christmas song, as sung by him)-

Blue Christmas-

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Listening To My Spirit

The end of the year is just a calendar reminder to stop and think of one's resolution for the year to come.  It's something I always like to do and the best resolutions are the ones that don't wait for the year to end before being implemented!

Sometimes, it's not very easy to think of one particular thing, but there are times when a specific thought slips itself into my mind effortlessly, as has happened this year.

This year has been marked by great changes in our lives, and  for me, the most important, through the ups and downs, has been the expression of the spirit (as I perceived it, in myself and others).  I usually refrain from dwelling overly on personal details but have decided to do so, for this blog.

As I write, my son, Nayan, weaves his way through nursery school, with optimism and determination; qualities that I hope will serve him well through his life.  He is learning how to deal with things he doesn't understand, things that scare him or worry him.  As we ourselves are.

An unexpected death in the family left us grappling with pain, wondering how to deal with it and what to make of death - and life.  I am grateful that my mother-in-law lived an active and happy life almost upto the end, and left with very little suffering.  I am grateful also for parts of her which live on in spirit- in the things she did and, in some way, in Nayan.

This year, my husband found an opportunity to extend his scientific creativity (an essential part of his life) to do some of the research that he was not able to easily do in his academic life (which continues alongside).  He has started a company to design new flu vaccines.  This is a big leap of faith that appears to be leading to much satisfaction (and fatigue)!  It would not have been possible without his business partner, ex-student and old friend, Gautham, who complements, supports and sustains the company.  They are the only two employees, as of now!

As for myself, life has taken me down yet another untraversed path.  I'm just beginning to pick up the threads and feel my way through.  I have a new routine (at least on school days) that I had not really planned in any way.

My yoga practice has restarted, in a slow but definite way.  I sense the presence of my yoga teachers and something leads me on, one small step at a time.

At the start of the year, I had a head full of ideas for books and I wrote one (a children's book called 'Marco Polo Gets A Job!').  As months went by, most of the other ideas evaporated, leaving me in blankness.  Blankness is not something I despair of or dread, it usually indicates a period of shifting and refocussing of energy.  I just let things be.

Finally, this month, I got the feeling that the most fulfilling thing to do (fortunately I have the option!)  is to listen to my spirit.

Dentists' clinics have their advantages!  While waiting for yet another filling to be done, I began reading Walden and came upon this line- "The finest qualities of our nature, like the bloom on fruits, can be preserved only by the most delicate handling.  Yet we do not treat ourselves nor one another thus tenderly."  I had plenty of time to dwell on it (and hope the dentist did too!) and it resonated somewhere deep within.  Soon after, things began to get a little clearer.

I awoke the next morning (pain free!) with the thought that I was really missing my diary.  I had kept a diary for years and had abandoned it at some moment when other forms of writing emerged.  While I express a few of my thoughts and experiences through my blogs, I realized that I would like to spend a little time on writing for myself.  Jotting down thoughts and stray bits of information that might be of no particular interest to anyone else.

Memories flashed through me - not of my own diaries- but those of my mother and grandmother.  Very distinct and different from mine, and from each other- providing just a glimpse of their lives, with gaps to be filled through knowledge or imagination.  As time and energy is limited, I know this will cut into my professional or everyday writing, but it feels like the perfect thing to do at this moment.

This was by no means the end of my instinctive decisions.  Things got curiouser and curiouser.  The next change involved my reading.  I have a large collection of cookbooks and books on food that I have not had time to look at.  It seems a bit ridiculous to spend a precious hour perusing these when I cannot possibly try the recipes immediately, and when there is a long list of already pending chores to be attended to.

But I just felt like reaching out for those books - and so I did; thus I began reading about food once more.

This feels absolutely right and it leaves me with happy, intriguing thoughts on cooking and eating.  To my surprise, this has also led to ideas on clearing and tidying up, beginning (not surprisingly) with the kitchen.  One step paves the way for the next, and I find myself carrying out my pending chores in an unplanned but simple manner (they are far from over, in case you would like to know!).

I have seen this ease and efficiency when the spirit (a word I use, but others may put it differently) expresses itself - a non linear, ill defined path that a computer would not be able to traverse, but which humans can do effortlessly at times.  Often it results in the feeling, "Why didn't I think of this before?"

I am grateful for all the help and happiness I received this year through various people, near and far.  Many friends reached out to us during our time of grief, the thoughts and feelings they shared helped to comfort us and fill a void.

Apart from this, there were acquaintances and friends, new and old, who made a difference to my life this year.  I'm mentioning a few of them-

Our cook in Delhi, Pushkar, who spent his own money in keeping the household going while my mother-in-law was in hospital, and did not even mention it until he was asked when his last salary had been paid.  He knows what each person likes to eat and makes a special effort to cook these when we visit, without our asking.

My driver, Busanna, who received a call yesterday morning, telling him that his young nephew had died in the village.  He was driving Nayan and me to school and did not tell me until we reached.  He tried to make arrangements to go home once his driving duty for the day ended, but this meant he would miss the funeral, and so he decided not to go.  I was making arrangements for another driver but he said it would not be necessary.

These are the kinds of people upon whom we depend, without whom our lives would be much harder and less happy, and it is only fair (as Pushkar requested while talking at my mother-in-law's memorial) that they be treated with consideration and compassion.

Other people, who, by being what they are, have enriched my life, and that of my family-

Nora, a wonderful friend, and a gifted acupuncturist, whose wisdom and love always help me while I am faltering (and whose writing I love to read).

Danny, whose quest for tribal carpets leads him to central Asia, but also to Bangalore, where his carpets now have a happy home.  He spontaneously and very kindly offered his newly set up carpet studio as a place to hold a memorial for my mother-in-law, and it was the perfect place for such an occasion.  His family- Renuka, Luri and Tulu, who bring us great happiness in little ways.

Prakash, one of the last few accordion players in the country, who plays just because he wants to (and has an immense repertoire of music stored in his head) - who deals with family responsibilities with the same apparent ease that he displays while playing his music.

Amit, the jazz guitarist, who is trying to make a place for himself in busy LA, but who always has time for us when he's visiting Bangalore.

Vikram, a new friend discovered during my son's swimming expeditions, an author who spends his time writing and swimming and occasionally giving me advice on how to get published (with no success so far)!

Tanu, sister-in-law, but more of a sister and friend, the one I turn to for all my needs in Delhi (and who never fails in her attempts to help!)

Andrej, the scientist of Slovenian origin, with an extraordinary mind and heart, who stepped into our lives quite by chance.

To these, and others who  make our lives rich and complete- and to all my readers - for helping me sustain this blog!  A big thank you (for wading through my writing) and a happy new year!

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