The Mystery of the Missing Flower

I am not a little proud of my garden.

This little patch of paradise in the Nilgiris shines with so many jewel colours on a sunny morning – beds of impatience unfurl their many shades of reds and pinks while nasturtiums climb in vibrant shots of yellow and orange. White and cream geraniums raise their bunched heads and crimson salvia looks confidently around. Fragile angel wings glow in pale ivories and peaches, glossy begonias beam even as the stalks of lily wait to burst into hundred small starry petals.

Then there are my potted plants – graceful ferns, elegant palms, proud ficus, slender bamboo and a luxurious Christmas fir all blink awake to the morning sun. Not before long, these lose my attention to ruby azaleas and gorgeous fuchias which hang like so many jewelled ‘jhumkas’ or drop earrings.

But what is this?

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Where is yesterday’s double-flowering fuchsia that had bloomed in twin layers – a pearly core surrounded by overlapping magenta petals! I look around the base of the pot to see if dropped in last night’s gusty rains? And then half-suspiciously at Ginger to see if she has been bounding across the garden causing the flower to fall from the delicate stalk? Even if that happened, it should have fallen somewhere around!

Unwillingly I make way for a less-than-pleasant alternative – could someone have stolen into my garden at the crack of dawn to pluck this solitary flower? Unlikely, considering that the rose shrub is still showing off its blooms and rows of succulents sit primly in all their miniature glory.

As my family wakes up and one by one, they stream into the lawn still glistening with diamond dew drops; I ask them about the missing flower – they evoke polite interest before transferring their attention variously to the newspaper, phone, dog or coffee.

I am left wondering at this curious incident…my eyelids droop lulled by the humming of bees on the honeysuckle hedge and the streaming warmth of golden sun…at the very edge of my hazy vision, a graceful figure wearing a flowered wreath wafts past fragrantly just as my daughter’s voice jolts me back to wakefulness, “Did you know Mum, according to this blog, Flora, the Roman goddess of flowers and gardens is said to have helped herself to whatever blossom caught her fancy from a garden – isn’t that sneaky…?”

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Now, I know…!

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A Lost Soul

For a fraction of a second, I lost control!

Though my hands were firmly on the steering wheel, the sight of that brown slender body darting across the road forced me to halt on a side and get out of the car.

It was a beautiful black Dachshund. And it was clearly lost.

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I strode up and down the road, looking for its owner. I even asked a few passers-by which direction it came from. I looked for a sentry on traffic duty to keep it safe – no luck. And all the while, the little creature kept darting to and away from my heels; running uncertainly on its stubby legs towards, and then almost immediately, away from my car. Clearly the dog was looking for its owner – its instinct for safety made it come near me and my car but then its senses probably told it that we were not who it was looking for.

There was not much more I could do then – I clicked a pic to circulate it in the neighbourhood Whatsapp groups. I left – wondering how it came to be stranded on a busy road – a gate left ajar? A door not latched? Or an owner who could no longer be bothered? For a moment I was even tempted to let it hop into my car but had to drop the idea since I knew someone back home would be far from welcoming.

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As I parked my car in the garage and walked up the steps of my home, Ginger – my brat of a German Shepherd – ran out to greet me. However its enthusiastic licking soon gave way to a quizzical look as it realized that, today, my thoughts were somewhere very far away…

Personality – in the stars? Or me?

There was a time I used to write about zodiac signs – not so much because I was an avid believer in human destiny ruled by stars but because I was paid to do so!

Soon though my web content-writing assignment topics – strange though they initially seemed to me – piqued my interest and I began wondering whether there was any truth to the notion of behavioural traits influenced by zodiac signs.

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With my birthday a couple of days away, I thought this would make a timely topic for a blog post. So let’s see how much I do and do not agree with characteristics typically ascribed to a Sagittarian:

Most definitely, a higher purpose in life motivates me – what I do, has to be more than about just making money, interacting socially, keeping home and so on. Like the Archer’s gaze, I like to aim higher and like Jupiter – the reigning deity of this zodiac – it is usually at something that will further my search for wisdom. Naturally my greatest pleasure is travel and fear, being constrained emotionally, psychologically, physically. Among the usual Sagittarian follies are an incorrigible tendency for social faux pas and I guess, a limited ability to see into people.

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Then again, there are so many traits supposedly associated with this zodiac which I barely find within myself – optimism is unfortunately not my strong point and neither do I badger people with my lets-save-the-world ideas. I don’t gloss over details in a project; nor do I forget to pick up the laundry! Again, though I value the truth, I hardly go around forcing it down others’ throats.

…so what can we make of such zodiac personality traits? Astrologers and experts will point out that there are complex factors involved in the determination of a personality type – the date of birth being only one among many. My own studies in psychology have acquainted me with a plethora of personality theories ranging from psychoanalytic and behaviourist to humanist and those based in physical traits and genetics.

At the end of the day, I like to believe that rather than being cast in a type I am a work in progress – I think, do, bond – sometimes goof up, other times succeed – but most importantly, I never stop trying!

A Taste of the ‘Figs’

The first time I came across her words were actually in a collection of quotes – I forget now, on what subject. But the haunting simplicity and quiet intensity of the words had me hooked:

“My candle burns at both ends

It will not last the night

But oh my foes and ah my friends

It sheds a lovely light.”

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I dug deeper and found out that this was actually an entire poem titled ‘First Fig’ by American Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, Edna St Vincent Millay who was famed as much as for transforming the sonnet with a new sensibility as for her independent sexuality. Her life and art are filled with instances of standing up to sexual and social norms of the time and one such anecdote that caught my interest was her struggle to claim her own name early in life. Apparently despite being named Edna, she wanted to be called ‘Vincent’ and even crossed swords with her school principal on the matter.

This biographical anecdote lent a fresh perspective to yet another favourite piece of mine from Figs from Thistles, titled ‘Prisoner’:

“All Right,

Go Ahead!

What’s in a name?

I guess I’ll be locked into

As much as I am locked out of!”

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Dream On…

Can it be really true?

That every face from your dream has crossed your path in real life – sometime, somewhere…?? Ok that thought now gives me the shivers! What about the skeletal person I encountered at an empty circus ground in my last dream? Or the old crony from a familiar nightmare? Is it possible that I have actually come across them in my waking hours.

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This time at the Feeling Bookerish workshop, the theme was “Dreams” and looking for some trivia about dreaming, I came across this page. We also discussed a few more interesting  tid-bits like how people who are born blind can also dream, one cannot read or tell the time in a dream and especially the phenomenon of sleep paralysis when you most wish to escape your pursuer in a dream, you find yourself unable to move.

But how strongly are these fun ‘facts’ backed by science? Not much – I could not find any news or institutional source on the internet where these have been proved by  systematic research. That my workshop participants and I had a lot of fun, imagining fictional situations bearing out such ‘facts’, was another matter!

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Additionally we discussed books where dreams play a crucial part in the theme or plot like Alice in Wonderland, A Christmas Carol, Harry Potter and the Order of Phoenix, The Mummy’s Foot and, of course, the inevitable Interpretation of Dreams. Personally I came away delighted having made my acquaintance of a new word, “oneirology,” – the study of dreams – and loving the roll of the word in my mouth – “oneiron” !

Just my cup of tea

On a sunny Wednesday morning, three of us set out for Tenerife, an elegant bungalow cradled within the emerald slopes of tea bushes in Coonoor. We had signed up for a tea tasting tour at a private plantation which marketed its gourmet teas under the brand, Tranquilitea. After a winding walk through tea bushes, we arrived at the bungalow which serves as a plantation farm-stay and was now to be the venue of our journey through the finest Nilgiri teas.

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Currently the third-generation owner of the plantation, our host Sandip at first took us out to take a look at the tea plant which if left untrimmed can actually grow to the height of a small tree as well. The ancient method of plucking “two leaves and a bud” is apparently still the best harvesting method and the phrase took me back to the similarly titled novel by one of India’s earliest English fiction writers, Mulk Raj Anand. But before I could warm up to the issues like class exploitation and migrant labour that the novel deals with, I found everyone walking back to the bungalow and so, followed as well.

Upon our return, we took our places at a round dining table, glowing with finely polished wood. As Sandip guided us through the stages of tea processing, his soft, cadenced explanations were the perfect complement to the wispy mist building outside the bungalow. In all we tasted 6 types of classic teas – neither blended nor flavoured – ranging from the rare and highly aromatic silver tipped leaves to the widely available and robust CTC, crossing an entire spectrum of colour, fragrance, taste, body.

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Our tea-tasting experience ended with an invitation to refill our cups with a brew of our choice and then share our perceptions. Looking at the six carafes with variously coloured brews, I mused, how very like Life this was. How Life too, brings us experiences infused with varied emotions, sensations and hopes. Our host’s gentle voice wafted through my reverie, responding to the guests’ suggestions of a woody after-taste, a citrusy note or mellow texture, “there are no wrong answers, ladies and gentlemen, no wrong answers…”

 

 

Cry for Nature

It had been quite some time since I had read The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran. So when I came across another title by the Lebanese poet, at a friend’s place, I asked if I could borrow it. The Storm turned out to be a modern translation of Gibran’s prose poems as well as a couple of short stories. Narrated in his distinct style – soaked in mysticism and lyricism – so many of his central themes reached out to me : like the essential isolation of the human condition, the shackles of organized religion, the hollow materialism of the world and so on. The one theme however that spoke to me with the greatest urgency was the beauty of Nature and its inevitable degradation by humans.

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Aurore, ‘The Dawn’ by Kahlil Gibran

‘ ” Sweet Brook,” I asked, “why do you mourn?”

“Because I go unwillingly toward the City”, it answered, “where Man will spurn me. Instead of me, he will drink the juice of the grape and use me to carry away his filth. How shall I not weep when soon my purity become foul?” ‘

– From ‘A Lamentation in the Field’

Recently back from a trek through the Niligiris, I could not but help obsessing over the muck and mess human habitation spawns all around it. Towns looking like an ugly heap of tin roofs, sewage drains spilling on roads, traffic forced to a stand-still by reckless parking, vehicles belching out black fumes despite ban on unclean fuel – I could go on…

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As we climbed higher into the hills, the air became purer and the surroundings cleaner. But then, we hardly saw any people around – slopes of tea plantations eventually gave way to forests and then to steep slippery narrow paths to the summit, known here as the Bakasura-malai. Why should one have to compromise on human company if one wishes to live amidst beautiful natural surroundings? How do other countries, societies manage to retain picture-postcard appearances despite having thriving communities?

I am aware these questions lead me deeper into issues of population, poverty, exploitation, corruption and many deeply inextricable civic matters. At this moment, however, I rue my limited time in this corner of paradise here and dread going back down to the madding crowds!

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Bakasura-malai peak

This House of Wine

“Here I am, within the House of Wine, holding a cup

Which in turn holds the nectar, reflecting this place.

Such is the mystery I have spent my life working out –

Am I within the tavern or is it within my soul?”

-Translated from Madhushala by Harivansh Rai Bachhan

After a long while, today I played my CD of award-winning Hindi poet Harivansh Rai Bachhan’s classic verse collection, Madhushala, rendered in famous singer Manna Dey’s finely nuanced voice. The title loosely translates to a tavern, a place where lovers of wine gather, drink, sing and love. Indeed it functions as a rich, multi-faceted symbol – sometimes standing for the final destination of the earthly journey and at other times, representing the ideal universe that celebrates equality, humanity, creativity and love.

 

“The one whose inner fire has burnt away all books of religion,

The one who has broken down the walls of all temples, mosques and churches

The one who has left behind the calls of all priests and pundits,

Only such a one can be welcomed in this house of Wine”

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A central figure in the poem and the Tavern is the ‘Saki’ – the Pourer of Wine. Usually an idealized feminine figure, she is also the Beloved and represents beauty and creativity. But not always. The complexity of the symbol is evident in a stanza where the poet says,

The God of Death will come one day as the Pourer of Wine, bearing a black cup;

Drink now this pure nectar, for then my friend, you will never regain your senses.

That will be the final Bearer, the final cup and the final oblivion;

Thus traveller, drink now with love, for you may not pass again by this House of Wine

 

What a deeply humane and richly poetic vision!

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Poet Harishvansh Rai Bachhan. Photo Courtesy: Amar Ujala

After the festivities

People all around!

Faces all around – smiling, sulking, grinning, flashing, beaming, glittering…who knows what they conceal and what they express! These faces that are masks, mirrors or malleable as melting wax…

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Fresh from the merry-go-round of festivities, I am wary now of eyes, smiles, faces. I look for shadows to draw back into since mirrors glint shards and masks drip poison. What sense can I extract from the hum of these social bees and the twittering of such plumed birds? Thinkers assure me that meaning is actually relational, dialogic; social interactions or transactions are essential to understand behaviour – not only of others but also of the self.

And yet – I look around for an exit…

I escape and come across one like me – breathing words from the hazy sky through her skin pores. As we take turns to turn pages, we are joined by another – following the trail of my bloodied footprints out into misty night. Unseeing, in silence we commune, stroke and smile.

Till one heeds the call of the blinking indoor lights and leaves…

Now two mourners remain – Oh how we hate people!

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Mythology with Kids

 

This time the topic of my Feeling Bookerish workshop was ‘Mythology’. Almost all my young participants fell back upon the familiar and turned up to discuss the Ramayana and Mahabharata – the two epics of ancient India.

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From ‘Mahabharata’ – Draupadi’s humiliation

Of course these texts are an endless source of delight and entertainment for Indian kids – with myriad stories within stories but in the end the good winning over the evil. Thus Mahabharata unravels the genesis of the Great War between two families – the Kauravas and Pandavas – while Ramayana is all about the victory of heroism and the just over treachery and the unjust.

Somewhere along the way, we also got discussing gods and goddesses of Greek mythology and their Roman counterparts – Athena/Minerva with her wisdom and quiet courage turned out to be a particular favourite of the older girls in my workshop, especially in comparison to her brawny, vain brother Ares/Mars. Zeus and Poseidon were the subject of numerous anecdotes – thanks to teen fantasy fiction and movie representations which seem to have become more popular than the original mythological stories.

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Egyptian Sun-god Ra travelling through the Underworld

 

But where were the fascinating tales of Arabian adventure from 1000 and I Nights, brooding heroes  like Odin and Thor from Norse mythology, the complex facets of Egyptian gods like Ra, Isis and Osiris and fascinating Native American creation stories? I wish the participants had taken a bit more effort and ranged a bit further in their reading. But as the session continued beyond its scheduled two hours, I realized that at least a spark had been lit and the next time the kids would find themselves in a bookstore or a library – virtual or real – they just might reach out for that book on mythology that is unfamiliar, remote and strange…

 

How to be Assertive

‘Being Assertive’ was my lecture title today. Since it is a common enough topic, I planned to keep it short. Most of the slides were about how to adopt an assertive rather than passive or aggressive stance – like:

  • Ask, rather than demand
  • Learn to say ‘no’ when required
  • Hold your response till the correct time to express it
  • Check the prevailing mood before speaking
  • Collaborate rather than compete

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And yet when I tried to do a few exercises with my students, we all realized how difficult it was to come up with ‘assertive’ responses to difficult situations commonly encountered in day-to-day life. Aggression came more naturally since one could simply release the cauldron of irrationality always lurking beneath ; indeed sometimes it was even easier to be passive – just switch off and give over the field to the annoying person rather than expend time and effort in coming up with the ideal assertive response.

Part of the reason, I think, why being assertive far more challenging as compared to its two alternatives is because it requires a careful balancing act – express your own needs but also listen to others’ opinions, say ‘no’ when needed but also fulfil your responsibilities, stand up to the bully but stay calm and so on; in fact it would take a high degree of self-awareness to recognize one’s own self-worth without giving way to a sense of entitlement which in turn can easily lead to an aggressive stance.

One way, I think, that can help is to have an all-round respectful attitude – that way you can express your own needs and even if you disagree with the other person, you can do it without put-downs or sarcasm – respectfully !

An Uninvited guest

Apparently my dog and I are not the only ones that like basking in the Nilgiris afternoon sun that streams into our front garden. As I headed out today for my usual post-lunch newspaper perusal I was arrested in my tracks by the sight of an uninvited guest. Though I have known them to reside in the neighbourhood and even spotted by the odd passer-by, this was the first time one had dropped in to share my patch of green and the sun.

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Painting by Otto Marseus van Schriek

 

My afternoon siesta had gone for a six and the whole time – with my dog securely under my blanket now – I kept wondering how D H Lawrence divined their beauty and mystique as evident in the famous poem, Snake…how it

“…looked around like a god, unseeing, into the air,
And slowly turned his head,
And slowly, very slowly, as if thrice adream,
Proceeded to draw his slow length curving round
And climb again the broken bank of my wall-face…”

Lawrence was known for his intuitive understanding of the primal beauty of the creatures of Nature. This poem in particular reveals how men goaded by the voices of their “accursed human education” have not only failed to recognize this beauty but indeed done their very best to stamp it out of the face of the earth.

But tonight when my dog wakes me up to be taken out, will I have the heart to step forth in the dark…knowing that somewhere around, quite near, resides my black, serpentine neighbour?!

The Glow of Festivities…

With Goddess Durga bidding us mortals farewell for another year, I started thinking of what Durga Pujo actually means for contemporary Bengalis, scattered across the globe.

Being the five-day long, elaborate, highly ritualized religious occasion that it is, Durga Pujo is, these days, primarily a communal affair. In cities with large Bengali population, neighbourhoods organize their own Pujo whereas in places with limited Bengali presence, people come together to form cultural associations which then take the onus of organizing the Pujo. Though there are still some ancestral families in Bengal which organize their private Pujo, their numbers are few and gradually declining.

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Durga Pujo in Camden Hall, London

In foreign lands on the other hand, festivities have to be planned, not according to the religious almanac dates, but on a weekend when people can afford to take a couple of days off from work. even then, a thousand details need to be thrashed out well ahead, starting from the idol, priests and dhaki ( those who play the traditional drum) needed to be flown in from India to arranging ingredients needed for the ritual worship and finally of the immersion of the idol.

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Durga Pujo in Singapore

So, why make the effort – especially in places like this, where even coming across a Bengali on a street is enough to make me cross it and introduce myself in my mother tongue. I guess, it has to do with the innate human desire to connect over common cultural practices, especially when faced with the prospect of being subsumed by a different majority culture. Bonding – even for four days – over shared tastes, fragrances, language, music and visual images is deeply satisfying and sustaining. For me, there is the added interest of facilitating my daughter’s awareness of Bengali rituals and customs.  so, though she did not feel compelled enough to wade through Ashtami crowds for the afternoon ‘bhog’ of ‘khichuri’, the same evening when, the tall tiered lamp was lit with a hundred and eight lights for Shandhi Pujo, her face too glowed in wonder and appreciation – and that was enough for me!

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Durga Pujo in the Nilgiris

Durga Pujo

And so the celebrations begin

Part of the fun in following the lunar calendar is its variability. And so with the beginning of each Gregorian year – based on the solar calendar – on 1st January, Bengalis around the world first take a peek to check out when the Hindu month of Ashvin would come about – anytime from mid-September to mid-October.

Ashvin is special for Bengalis not just because it has always ushered in a much desired change in the Kolkata weather – from hot, humid days to cooler, crisper mornings but because it marks their biggest religious and social festival, Durga Pujo. Over five days, Goddess Durga is worshipped according to rules laid down in ancient Hindu scriptures though like all complex religious symbols, she means different things to different people.

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The dominant theme is of course, of the victory of good over evil. There are in fact two stories exemplifying this theme and associated with Goddess Durga. According to the story of origin, the Goddess was created by pooling up the resources of powerful Hindu gods in order to defeat the buffalo-demon king Mahishasura whose growing powers were on the verge of driving out the celestial  beings from their abode in heavens. Later the Hindu god Shri Rama would worship Goddess Durga and invoke her blessings in his campaign against demon King Ravana. Both stories end with the defeat of demons and victory of gods.

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My personal favourite however is the story which represents the Goddess Durga as a beloved daughter. Married to Lord Shiva who lives in the remote peaks of Himalayas, Uma – an avatar of Durga – spends the whole year looking after her husband and children. In the month of Ashvin though, Uma with four children makes the long trip down to her natal place where her family – and everyone else in Bengal – celebrates their divine daughter’s and grandchildren’s stay with five days of merrymaking and feasting. Indeed in the ‘Agomani’ songs which herald the arrival of Durga Pujo around a week ahead, it is this story that is narrated – and which echoes in the heart of every daughter who is always a goddess, a source of love and strength for her family – no matter how far away.

When the Earth twisted and turned…

As news of Mexico devastated by a massive earthquake hit TV headlines, exactly on the other side of the world, I was getting ready to retire for the night. An endlessly running the TV ticker tape mentioned intensity, number of casualties and the epicentre but the news, as though, skimmed the surface of my consciousness in a similar loop…

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Photo Courtesy: ABC News

It is only now, with the lights turned out and the TV on mute that I really think of what is going on there…families grieving, struggling with loss, so many searching for loved ones, not knowing whether they are alive, injured, lost or gone forever.

And so many homes destroyed – with shelter goes safety, privacy, protection apart from destruction of assets, comforts and necessities. Women, children, babies, the sick and old find themselves forced out of their familiar surroundings and at the mercy of the outdoors, or at least in the grip of uncertainty. Even people who can fall back upon support from relatives and other resources, find getting back on their feet enormously daunting.

Worse still is the unpredictability that erupt with such disasters in human nature – if at one extreme, there would a person willing to risk his/her life to keep digging away at the rubble to rescue a stranger, at the other end might be familiar faces not thinking twice before snatching away that bottle of drinking water from your child’s hands.

 

Can I actually imagine – with my family safe, warm, peacefully sleeping by my side – what unimaginable difficulties such disasters  bring. Possibly not. And yet, some images arise from the dusty crevasses of my mind, taking shape of Eliot’s Wasteland,

‘Unreal City

Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,

A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,

I had not thought death had undone so many.’

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Ooty Literary Festival 2017

On a Saturday morning pleasantly refreshed by a light drizzle, I drove down the winding hill roads towards Ooty. My destination was the Nilgiris District Library which over two days was hosting the Ooty Literary Fest. Just in its second year, the Fest had already attracted several famous literary names from various parts of India, especially the southern states.

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As I parked my car in a corner of the ample Library compound, I could not but help but admire the elegant colonial structure before me. Though founded in 1858, the Nilgiri Library moved into its present building in 1869 which continues to impress with its high Gothic arches and stately Victorian architecture. Its striking red and white exterior conceals a warm interior boasting of wooden flooring and several pieces of claw-footed antique, dark teak furniture.

I proceeded towards the central reading room where a panel discussion on “Feminisms of India” was scheduled to begin shortly and found myself a comfortable chair. The hall soon came alive with discussions of various strands of Indian feminism, expressed through stories, mythology and art. Maharashtrian writer Urmila Pawar described how Dalit women suffer double discrimination while Bama recounted how gendered constructs like “mothering” and “maternal” affection actually shackle women to weakness. Samhita Arni on the other hand talked about various lesser-known versions of Ramayana which explored the predicament of characters like ‘Angad’ and ‘Mandodari’ who bear the brunt of the King Rama’s war on Lanka.

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What emerged was the realization how Feminism can be more than a cry for women’s equality – a tool to chisel away at other forms of discrimination like casteism just as it can liberate men from equally oppressive gendered expectations, of “macho-ness” and “masculinity”.

As bell hooks, says

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What Michael Found In The Garage…

I feel a bit embarrassed to admit now but before the name was suggested by one of our book club members, I had never come across David Almond. The slender copy I decided to pick up was titled, intriguingly, Skellig. The book jacket informed me that it was the winner of the Whitbread Children’s Book of the Year as well as the Carnegie Medal and comforted by such assurances of its worth, I dived in.

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Skellig turned out to be a heart-warming story of the power of love and acceptance to bring about miracles. A lonely boy makes unusual friends in a new neighbourhood which eventually brings about more than one kind of blessing. It is also about how much humans can learn from Nature and how we are all part of the one universal soul that he beats within every heart.

The simple yet powerful theme is perfectly complemented by Arnold’s deeply symbolic style. One instance is his use of metaphors of birds and flying to unite his main characters and express the ability of love and innocence to lift an individual to a higher, more spiritual plane of existence. His sparse syntax and use of repetitions make his fiction read like a parable – almost Biblical, in fact.

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In times of increasing cynicism and hopelessness about human bonds and environment, Skellig reads like an affirmation of faith in a child’s ability to give and believe – values which can yet make the world a better place.

 

Hidden Histories…

How little we know of our own history!

In Kerala for a holiday weekend, this realization struck me with wonder and a tinge of regret. In the north Malabar city of Kannur, or the erstwhile Cannanore, is located the Arakkal Museum. Though rather plain looking to eyes used to Mughal glamour and Rajput grandeur, the traditional architecture of the Museum building  – with its low long structure, laterite tiles, gleaming wooden beams within and pearl white walls without – blends beautifully with the palm-fringed verdant landscape.

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The Durbar hall of this former Arakkal-kettu or palace complex has now been transformed into the main display area where a visitor can glimpse various objects associated with the royal family, ranging from the original handwritten letter to the East India Company to weapons, utensils, furniture – right down to an antique telephone which still has instructions for use.

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What I found most interesting though was the presence of so many women in the photo gallery of the Arakkal rulers. Kerala has a history of matrilineal social instiutions – where lineage passes through the mother. Even then it was more often the eldest male member in the maternal family who would be the real power centre. The Arakkal famly is not only the sole Muslim royal family of Kerala but also has the distinction of having the senior most member – whether a man or a woman – as the ruler. While the male ruler would take on the title of the Ali Raja, the female ruler would be known as Arakkal Beebi.

Queens and female rulers have been less of a novelty in India than mainstream historians would like to believe. And yet only few writers and researchers have bothered to find out how such women negotiated deeply entrenched patriarchal institutions to fight and rule. Who knows, some day the Arakkal royal history may yield fascinating new knowledge not just about the country’s and state’s past but about its women rulers as well.

 

 

Of Bengali Barks and Badminton Racquets

“Auntie does she understand Bengali?”

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The question was about my four year old German Shepherd and was put to me one evening by my daughter’s friend as she thoughtfully stood outside our garden gate. I supposed the girl was being funny till I looked at her genuinely incredulous face and realized that my mild admonishments to Ginger – my dog – in my mother tongue must have seemed pretty weird to her.

So what does it mean for a dog to grow up in a multi-lingual family? Mostly we speak in English with friends while at times we switch our national language, Hindi.  With family members, it is our mother tongue, Bengali, which seems natural and comfortable. Does the plurality of our linguistic identities confuse our dog? Could this be the reason that most of the time Ginger remains regally indifferent to what we tell her to do and more importantly, not to do – like spare my tender marigold saplings as she rushes about chasing a cat in our garden?

Dogs generally learn to associate the sound of the words – or commands, during training – with specific actions. For example, if she learns to come down on her haunches when I say ‘sit’, when one says ‘baitho’ or ‘bosho’ – equivalents in Hindi and Bengali respectively – it will mean nothing to her. Also the tone matters – if I want her to get down from my bed, the same two-three words voiced in stern staccato sounds is more likely to elicit a prompter response than when spoken leisurely and indulgently.

However, animal behavioural experts and researchers are learning new things about our canine companions every day – indeed there are reports that dogs can process language much like humans do. According to an August 2016 study whose results were published in the well-regarded journal Science, a group of Hungarian scientists led by Dr. Attila Andics of Eotvos Lorand University, in a first-ever experiment of its kind, found that dogs could not just recognize what humans say and how they say it but could also combine the two to come up with a correct interpretation of the very meaning of the words – exactly what we humans do when conversing amongst ourselves.

All this I told my daughter’s friend while she waited for my daughter to join her with the badminton racquets. I am not sure how far she followed my explanations but as the two girls walked away chatting excitedly, Ginger gave three short barks which almost sounded like “Hey, you leaving me behind?” Both girls turned back, looked at Ginger and said laughing, “We’ll be back soon”.

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From my corner in garden, I smiled at the scene before me and thought, “I guess it’s ok – as long as we all understand each other…”

Feeling Bookerish With Kids…

Yup! That’s the name of this literary workshop I have started with around six kids in the Nilgiris. Going by the fact that for each session, they arrive well before time, duly accompanied by a pen and notebook and before leaving, actually ask for “homework”, I think it is going pretty well.

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So we started with a session on fiction writing where fundamental concepts like character, plot and setting were discussed. This was followed by a game where the character and setting were randomly matched and such hilarious combinations as “FLOTUS at the Wellington Gymkhana Club” and “Policeman on a deserted island” were threaded into a plot.

Next followed a session on essay writing – and I was determined to make it more interesting than the usual school exercise. So I set the tone by asking the kids to read up the delightful “Bathing in a Borrowed Suit” by Homer Croy and then followed it by suggesting similar humorous topics for their essays.

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Today of course was the most active session of all – drama. After a couple of theatrical warm-up exercises, we went on to discuss dramatization of character and plot besides setting a scene. The kids had a rollicking time acting out varied characters and minor plot-lines. In the end, they even dramatized a story of their own and agreed to write proper dialogues for it as a home assignment.

“You are never to do old to do goofy stuff…” said the character Ward Cleaver in the widely loved family sitcom of the 1960s, Leave it to Beaver – on this bracing Saturday afternoon by the Wellington Lake, as we all tumbled along the grassy slope, I couldn’t agree more!

A Prayer for India…

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On the occasion of the 70th Anniversary of India’s freedom from British colonial government – celebrated as Independence Day in the country – no other poem feels more relevant today, than this one from Rabindranath Tagore’s Nobel Prize winning anthology, Gitanjali:

Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high
Where knowledge is free
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments
By narrow domestic walls
Where words come out from the depth of truth
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way
Into the dreary desert sand of dead habit
Where the mind is led forward by thee
Into ever-widening thought and action
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake

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Spice it up!

India for centuries has been home to some of the most exotic spices in the world. For the same reason, it has long attracted explorers and traders – indeed the country was a prominent stop on the famous Spice Route that at one time extended from the west coast of Japan to the Mediterranean.

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 Spices of various kinds

And it is here, in the Nilgiris, that many of these coveted spices are still grown. A moist climate throughout the year together with moderate temperatures and rich soil works wonders to sprout these jewels of exquisite flavours.

Fresh peppercorns look like garlands of plump, green berries. Depending on the kind of processing, they turn either black or white – while the former is hot and pungent, the latter is milder and smoother. When soaked in brine, the white peppercorns acquire a luscious pink hue. Black pepper in traditional medicine is believed to be a digestive, diuretic and stimulant.

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Types of peppercorns

Cardamoms again can be of two types – the green is smaller but more fragrant while the larger brown variety has a bolder taste. Besides refreshing the breath, cardamom is believed to aid the digestion and act as a heart stimulant too. A small shopping tip – buy cardamom that is still encased in its pods so that its flavours remain intact. After using the cardamom seeds, you can put the pods in jars of sugar or rice to impart a sweet aroma.

Cloves are actually dried flower buds that have a sharp astringent taste. Apart from flavouring food, clove is used for dental hygiene and its oil applied to treat toothache. However use clove sparingly – a little of this intense spice goes a long way.

With its warm, sweet flavour, Cinnamon is a must-have for any self-respecting gourmet. And believe it or not, it is actually the inner bark of trees of the Cinnamomum genus. Apart from jazzing up cakes and curries, cinnamon is again thought to alleviate symptoms of acidic peptic diseases.

Isn’t it wonderful how our very own corner of the Western Ghats is home to such flamboyant flavours? No wonder then the masala chai brewed from all these spices turns out to be the perfect  accompaniement  to cold, misty Nilgiri evenings.

A Peek into Toda Culture

The winding uphill path suddenly opened out to a wide grassy plateau-like feature. We had arrived at a Toda village – the chief reason why I had signed up for this 14 km hike in the first place.

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The Todas are an indigenous tribe of the Nilgiri hills in southern India. They are originally a pastoral community, even though the modern day members are steadily settling down to agriculture and small businesses. Regular contact with civilization has eroded many socio-cultural practices, like fraternal polyandry as well as much of their distinctive language. Paradoxically though certain aspects of their culture have become disproportionately popular – like their shawls brightly embroidered in red and white as well as their signature jewellery – indeed in recent times a rising awareness about the need to conserve their habitat has actually led to new construction of their typical oval, half-barrel-shaped hutments.

No such structures were in sight here, though. But as several Toda men and women milled about on the grassland and even performed a traditional rhythmic dance, my gaze travelled to a secluded grove lined with stones, in which their temple was housed.

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The Toda religion is as distinctive as their temple. In keeping with the central position of the buffalo in Toda culture, their religious head is the priest-milkman who tends the sacred buffalo and apparently, lives under numerous strictures, including leaving behind his family for the time he acts as the keeper of the sacred dairy.  Again we did not get to see either the priest or the animal – instead the organized merry-making concluded with a highly animated visit to the busy Toda handicrafts stall and then finally the customary felicitation of the village headman by the hike organizers.

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As we started back, I could not help feeling that this brief, superficial interaction was not exactly what I had in mind when I had set out for the hike. But then, I realized that a deeper engagement with their culture based on long meaningful conversations and preceded by a good deal of reading was the stuff of serious research, lifelong study and dedication – and surely this ancient people deserved no less!

The Hunt is on…

On the day of The Hunt, the sun dawned on a regal scene. Red flags fluttered in the gentle breeze as the lush valley glowed a pale emerald in the heart of the Wellington Gymkhana Club – today the site where the dashing riders of the Ooty Hunt Club would converge on their steeds after a three hour ride. Even as elegantly dressed ladies twittered in the pavilion and their bundles of energy darted through chairs, there was a palpable sense of expectation – any moment now, the riders might come into view…

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The Hunt in this context is actually a formalized horse-riding exercise, often through uneven terrain. Though real hunting of game no longer takes place, the hounds faithfully carry on before the riders – in a throwback to the British tradition whereby the erstwhile colonial rulers brought the Hunt into this corner of the Nilgiris in 1835. It has remained active ever since, thus making the Ooty Hunt Club the only functional one outside England and Ireland. The Club is primarily patronized by the riders of Defence Services Staff College in Wellington, whose Commandant is its Honorary President as well. Every year there are around ten Hunts conducted, with each getting progressively difficult.

Low sighs of wonder rustled through the audience as the riders galloped into view – the Masters of Fox Hounds resplendent in their red blazers and other riders – including a lady and two kids as well – smart in their navy ones. After the new riders were ceremonially given their lapel pins, it was photograph time…

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All around were bright, happy faces – riders and spouses posing proudly with the mounts, kids petting the now-sleepy hounds, the grooms beaming proudly upon being complimented on their excellent work – I wondered at the shrill ugly voices of hyper-nationalism, always dangerously near. Always up in arms to defend “tradition”, would they ever understand this scene before me? These values of fairplay, respect for rules, regard for the sport and sheer love for these grand animals – values that represented tradition in the best sense of the word.

 

Super-powers of the Deep

Recently I came across something very interesting about certain creatures of the deep sea. At great depths of the ocean where there is no natural light, there are a few species which actually produce their own light. The angler fish and the appropriately-named flashlight fish are two such kinds. In fact the angler fish has a spinal projection from its head at the end of which is a bulb that glows – it can even switch on and off the bulb by controlling the flow of blood to the particular part of its body. Incredible!

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Photo courtesy: nationalgeographic.com

The phenomenon of living things giving off light is known as bioluminescence. And while glow worms and fireflies do this by mixing chemical compounds in their bodies, the deep-sea fish described above, do it with the help of special light-producing bacteria in their bodies.

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Photo courtesy: Ammonite Films

Then at the other end, is a kind of deep sea fish which has the ability to make itself practically invisible. Known as the hatchet fish, it has sides covered with large silver scales that act like mirrors besides two rows of light-producing organs on its underside. With any light falling on the fish being reflected back by the mirror-like scales, it can easily escape detection by its enemies and predators.

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It is only a matter of time, I guess, before DC and Marvel Comics come up with a super-hero inspired by these amazing creatures of the deep!

Should it come to this…?

On a day that I received a whatsapp forward with a link to a news report about a most unsavoury incident regarding two services wives, I was sceptical. So much of fake news is afloat on the internet that I don’t bother to go to the link unless I recognize the name of the news site.

But because this mentioned a specific incident, I decided to click on the link. The details I will not go into but for the purpose of this blog only indicate that a lapse in military etiquette escalated into an incident of reported physical assault. Fortunately I personally know neither individual involved but unfortunately I am all too familiar with the situation. Services wives throwing around the ranks of their husbands and using it to humiliate younger ladies is one side of the picture while on the other side is a pressure-cooker environment where otherwise ordinary personalities crack under pressure of expectations from the upper hierarchy and break out in unacceptable behaviour.

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The army is too vast, varied and hence complex for anyone to come up with easy solutions to such problems. All that I realize is that with every passing day is that it becomes more difficult for the organization to live in a cocoon and pretend that it will remain forever untouched by the rapidly changing interpersonal, socio-economic dynamics of the larger society. Equally undeniable are challenging working conditions of military officers which in turn determine their special social and gender codes. The way ahead probably lies somewhere in between and would require reorientation at every step but till it is found, some sensitivity and mutual respect would, I think, go a long way…

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ART You Like It…

In case you thought that the only art worth owning in the world was the Da Vinci’s Monalisa and Van Gogh’s Sunflowers, you will probably not believe that narrow alley walls and iron corrugated sheets can be the site of art installations. Here are then two kinds of creative expressions that have pushed the boundaries of ‘art’.

Graffiti Art

Isn’t that an oxymoron – scrawls on disused building walls, one would think, was the exact opposite of Art. But Graffiti in the hands of artists like Banksy is now not only appreciated as a highly creative form but it has been around much longer than the of modern urban slum. The word actually is Italian in origin and means ‘scratched’ – in fact the first ‘graffiti’ artists were busy chipping patterns on rocks and pebbles a whopping 30,000 years back.

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Pop Art

Soup cans and comic strips as Art ?! Yes, you read it right – these were some of the everyday objects that was transformed into cultural icons during the 1960s. the most widely recognized example of the Pop Art movement is perhaps the golden print of Hollywood sex goddess, Marilyn Monroe by Andy Warhol.

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On a day when I left chose a quiet drive into the mountains over shopping malls and city restaurants, this quote by John Muir said it all for me:

“Keep close to Nature’s heart and break clear, once in a while, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean”

With worldly commitments, a week away would have been clearly impossible, but I did come away refreshed in soul and the smell of pines in my hair…

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A Beginning…

Amidst the misty environs of the Nilgiris, few pursuits can be more fulfilling than reading. With a book in hand and a steaming cup of Darjeeling tea, one could easily get lost in winding, twisting lanes of Imagination or get transported to faraway times and places.

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And so, a long-held dream was given shape when our very own book club met for the first time. It included members from fields as diverse as pure sciences, management and literature. We began talking about the kind of books we read and subjects that interest us.  What a myriad colours went up to make the palette – travel, fiction, poetry, philosophy, biography and so much more. We discussed the perplexing plot of The Time Traveller’s Wife which is nevertheless made relatable by its charming comedy. Also up for discussion was the philosophy of spiritual leader J Krishnamurti and the challenges involved in its comprehension. Far more engaging was the digression to Rishi Valley School, based on Krishnamurti’s vision of education and its relevance to present-day educational system. Scattered mention of Oprah Winfrey’s new biography as well as Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet added variety to our discussions.

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Eventually we got down to the business of choosing a book and headed for the library’s biography section. After a good deal of rifling through shelves and badgering the assistant librarian about book titles, we decided to go with four different biographies of the first woman Prime Minister of India, Indira Gandhi. With her being at the helm of several controversial and decisive moments of the country’s history, the texts promise to be interesting!

When The Lights Went Out

As I looked for the candles, one of the stories from Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies came to my mind. In this short story titled, “A Temporary Matter”, an estranged couple makes a series of confessions over four nights of power outage which eventually impacts their marriage in important ways.

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Will this evening bring about such significant changes around me too? Unlikely, I thought as the cheery voices of my neighbours rolled in from their balcony, singling ‘Mamma Mia, here we go again, My My how can I resist you”.

In these times of social media compulsions, masks and faces have become increasingly difficult to differentiate. Perhaps, this darkness brought about by a two-hour power cut might be one of those rare occasions when, with no gadgets to fall back upon, human souls would be compelled to dig into their innermost resources. Thus while some belted out songs from a carefree past, one settled down with a book in the light of the candle. While I rustled up comfort food in the flickering kitchen lamp, another persistent soul, I realized with a rueful smile, sought out the powerbank to connect the smartphone.

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What would people have done long ago, I wondered as I sat down beside my dog – petting her occasionally, unfamiliar as she was with this kind of darkness. In the past, when people’s lives were governed by the rhythms of nature? They would have got up with the sun, worked in fields or shops or travelled, and then winded up things with nightfall. Life would have been simpler ; indeed the significance of the Bengali ritual of lighting the evening lamp struck me now – in the gathering darkness, the first lamp to be lit in the home would be at the sacred altar accompanied by prayers for the family’s safety and well-being as well as the blowing of the holy conch. In fact according to my mother, the sound of the conch would serve to scare of any wandering snakes trying to get too close to village homes…

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A chill ran down my spine – simpler, maybe, but never easy. Life has nowhere, not at any time been easy!

The One Known as Shakyamuni

Paradoxes attract me. So the other day when searching online for images of inspirational quotes, I was quite intrigued to find so many by the Buddha. For a world battling violence, hatred and destruction at multiple levels, it is curious how popular his words are.

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This is turn motivated me to refresh my knowledge of Buddhism. Dating back to 5th century BC, this religion preaches nirvana or liberation from the cycle of birth and death through the practice of meditation, morality and wisdom. Buddhists believe in the Four Noble Truths according to which this world is chiefly characterised by impermanence and suffering which can be avoided only by walking the Eightfold Path of right understanding, intention, speech, action, livelihood, effort, mindfulness and concentration.

Though Buddhism does not believe in rituals or worship of deities, its followers regard the Buddha or the Awakened One as the ultimate source of spiritual wisdom. Originally a prince of the Shakya clan,   Siddhartha Gautama, went through a spiritual journey which ended in the sixth century BC when, seated under the Bodhi tree, he received enlightenment on how to move beyond the cycle of suffering and rebirth to nirvana. The teachings and ways of living that emerged from this enlightenment eventually became formalized as Buddhism.

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How is then Buddhism relevant to the contemporary world? For a society steeped in materialism and vulnerable to violence, do Buddha’s precepts apply at all? Some would say his messages of non-violence and detachment to earthly pleasures are more pressing than ever. But to me, it is the focus on personal spiritual development that is most empowering. Removed from all notions of ritualistic practices and human inequality, his is a call to discover the core of stillness and purity within the human self and then act accordingly in the outside world.

 

Through the forest trail

A ten km hike – did you say? I pushed my brains to some extreme calculations – alright, if the morning walk with my dog amounts to roughly one and a half kilometre, then multiply that into…mmm….a little more than six times?! And yet even after such mental calisthenics, I was no nearer to gauging how the hike would turn out in reality.

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When I had first looked up the word ‘zen’, I had found that one of meanings was a state of such complete absorption in a particular experience that there was no place for doubt or anxiety. Something similar happened in the hike – both my physical and emotional faculties were so deeply immersed in the sights, sounds, smells and texture of the forests that we passed through, that nothing else mattered – not the undone laundry at home, unreplied mails, pressing work deadlines or long pending appointment with my hair stylist.

The soft forest floor which sprung ever so gently under our steps, the myriad shades of green all around us, the refreshing scent of pine and ever so many kinds of bird calls – chirps, trills, whistles and even the occasional outburst of the laughing thrush…all this engaged my senses so entirely that at the end of three hours – including a couple of ten-minute breaks – I returned to the everyday world with mixed feelings – looking forward to a hot, three-course meal but also concerned for the sanctity and the vitality of these sylvan Nilgiri slopes.

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Eye of the Crocus

Famous for warming up any dish or drink with its intense colour and delicate aroma, Saffron is undoubtedly the most attractive of spices. And the fact that it is the most expensive too, only adds to its luxury quotient.

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Saffron’s exorbitant value owes directly to the fact that it takes over two hundred thousand stigmas from around seventy thousand Crocus sativus flowers – grown in roughly the size of a football field  – to yield just a pound of saffron ! Fortunately a little of the good stuff goes a long way – you need only a few threads of this to add the rich red colour and honeyed aroma to a family meal.

While Iran today accounts more than 90% of the world’s saffron production, good quality spice also comes from other Meditteranean regions of Greece, Morocco, Azerbaijan, Spain and Italy as well as the Kashmir valley in India.

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A parting tip before you buy saffron – check for red threads with orange tips. If the threads lack the orange tips, avoid them as they may be dyed.

While saffron has been used in cosmetics, medicines, fabric dyes and even pesticides in different cultures, today it is most coveted for its power to transform the simplest of dishes into food fit for the Gods. So dust off your recipe book and see what you can make from this most gorgeous of spices.

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How To Make Your Teen Read More…

The twentieth anniversary of the release of the first Harry Potter book, saw a flurry of media articles on the way J K Rowling has changed kids’ reading choices forever. A lot was discussed on how  stories of the boy wizard making his way precariously through the forces of good and evil has caught the imagination of both young readers and their parents.  And statistics have been quoted to prove how the habit of reading was alive and kicking among children.

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And yet, why are these trends so rarely reflected in our own families? Why do I find it difficult to engage my teen with books? A major reason, I am told, is the vast range of recreational options available to kids these days. Smartphones, tabs, laptops, Playstations, the telly – a virtual Disneyland of electronic entertainment which streams endlessly into our homes… Why then take the trouble of choosing a book and make the effort to read and use your brain to figure it out too?

Experts on the subject have no dearth of suggestions on how to get kids and teens hooked to the world of books. Make them relevant, some say; why take them to Malory Towers and  Hoggwarts, when the wide open fields or the fantastic mythology one’s own country can be the setting for stories? Again others believe one has to make an extra effort to get these kids’ attention  – sign up for  story reading workshops, take them to celebrity book launches or get movie stars to act out the stories in films and TV series so that they can go back to the written word.

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Or maybe, just find the time to sit and read together. Though the initiative comes from me, and I have to call upon my limited dramatic skills to make the narration as lively as possible, after a few days of doing this, she picks up the book on her own and looks for the page where we left off. I guess, this works best with my teen –  let me know what works with yours…

The F word…

Today I came upon an interesting bit of news, tucked away in the inner folds of the newspaper – actress Emma Watson leaving around copies of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale all across Paris in an attempt to enhance awareness about women’s issues.

Despite being in an industry where an image is carefully crafted to appeal to the widest public opinion, fortunately Watson has no qualms calling herself a feminist. This got me thinking about iconic feminist books, one of which is The Feminine Mystique by the American writer Betty Friedan. The title refers to “the problem that has no name” – a sense of worthlessness women feel in roles that require them to be emotionally, financially and intellectually and dependent upon their husbands.

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Published in 1963, the book grew from the responses Friedan got to a questionnaire she sent to other women in her 1942 Smith College graduating class. Most answers indicated a vague dissatisfaction with their lives which led Friedan to expand the scope of her research, including not only suburban housewives but also looking into the psychology, media, and advertising of the time. Through her findings, Friedan hypothesized that women are victims of a false belief system that requires them to find and meaning in their lives only through their marriage and motherhood.

The impact of the book was immense – it asserted that women’s issues were not merely a private matter but were shaped by forces of politics, culture, media and commerce. More importantly The Feminine Mystique went on to influence theories in other related fields such as politics, sociology, history and literature as well as women’s studies, thus ushering in the second wave feminism in United States.

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Of Paddy and a Silly Bro-in-law!

So many of these posts are about the rains – not consciously though!

Monsoons are a big part of India’s natural, cultural and emotional calendar, like I mentioned in one of my previous posts. And it is that time of the year now!

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Besides, presently living in the Nilgiris, I love these gentle drizzles – just enough to moisten the air and the earth but with none of the ferocity or the resultant muck typically of heavy rains on the plains.

As I was listening to old Bangla songs on rains, I came across a few lines which in turn took me back to folk rhymes of my childhood. These would be traditionally short stanzas – lively and colloquial. One goes thus:

“Aaye brishti jhenpe,

dhaan debo mepe,

dhaaner bhetor poka,

Jamai-babu boka!”

The above may be loosely translated as:

“O Rains, come down hard

so that we can plant paddy

but insects have spoiled the grains

and guess what – brother-in-law is a duffer!”

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I completely understand the befuddlement of readers unfamiliar with Bangla language or folk culture. What on earth does paddy have to do with one’s bro-in-law!

Maybe because ‘poka’ (insects) and ‘boka’ (silly) rhyme well!

Seriously though, all I can think of, is that the arrival of monsoons ushers in relief and merriment among the village women folk and thus, in spirit of the season, a brother-in-law ends up as a convenient object of ridicule. Indeed the relation between a shaalika and jamai-babu – a young girl and her elder sister’s husband – is traditionally a fun bond involving gentle teasing and at times mild flirtation too!

More on Bangla folk rhymes next time…

A Sip of the White Peony

At a time when the world is looking for ways to de-stress, the good ol’ cuppa has enjoyed a resurgence of popularity. Green tea especially is known to be rich in anti-oxidants and hence to boost the natural immunity of the human body.

But which tea is the most flavoursome? The one grown on the mist-laden slopes of Indian Himalayas, many would agree – more specifically the Darjeeling variety, known as the ‘Champagne of Teas’ for its aroma and delicate body.

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Photo courtesy: makaibariteam.wordpress.com

And if that is so, some connoisseurs would point out that the equivalent of a Dom Perignon in the tea world would then probably be Makaibari. Shadowed by the third highest mountain peak of the world, the Kanchendzonga, Makaibari is a premier tea estate in North Bengal, India. Comprising over 250 hectares of Camelia Sinesis on slopes ranging between 700 m and 1500 meters of the majestic Himalayas, this plantation has several firsts to its credit – the most significant are being the wold’s first tea factory in 1859 as well as attaining the world’s first organic certification for a tea garden in 1988.

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Away from the world of statistics, I prepared for myself a cup of Makaibari Bai Mu Dan or White Peony tea. The brew had a pale green colour  – almost white – and it was subdued on the palate with a mild honeyed aftertaste. And though I failed to recognize the aroma of “soft peony and mown hay”, as mentioned on the cover, I realized that my gaze had already drifted to the straggling geranium bushes in my flower beds whose shadows in the gathering dusk appeared like slightly drunk,  swaying caterpillers on the garden wall – happily, the tea was doing its work!

One in the Other

Yesterday at a friend’s place, I spotted a set of nesting dolls – a series of dolls of decreasing size, the smaller fitting into the larger. Since she had just returned from a trip to Russia, they could only be the country’s famous Matryoshka dolls.

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While I had come across such sets in museums and living rooms before, looking up its history never occurred to me. So I turned to the internet and found a delightful blog detailing the probable origins of this form of folk art. It appears the Chinese were the first to come up with nesting boxes which eventually gave way to crafts based on the basic premise of one hollow structure encompassing another. The Japanese too have their tradition of kokeshi and daruma dolls which draw on its ancient mythology as well as tradition of Zen Buddhism.

The first nesting dolls to be made in Russia were apparently by a folk artist named Sergei Maliutin assisted by Vassily Zviozdochkin with the support of Savva Mamontov, a wealthy patron of the arts. Eventually the craft of making these dolls spread to East Europe and other parts of the continent.

Today, nesting dolls come in an attractive variety of sizes and themes – while mythology and folk culture remains the traditional models, modern artists are drawing on politics and pop culture too to give nesting dolls a contemporary edge.

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My imagination however began ranging further – what is the reason behind the timeless popularity of these nesting dolls? Is it because they are painted in bright colourful patterns, depict matronly women to appeal to the infant in us or perhaps because they symbolize one of the fundamental truths of the universe – that life can be known only by peeling off its many layers – one after another…

 

Monsoon Musings

With the monsoon clouds gradually spreading their welcome shadows over the length and breadth of India, I felt like searching for poems which would make apt reading as it gently drizzled outside.

And while I browsed through a few classic verses on rains, it occurred to me how different cultures feel about this natural phenomenon. For the European landscape, where rains usually intensify the cold and bleak weather conditions, it can mean misery and suffering while in a country like India where the fields and its people wilt under the blazing summer, the arrival of the rain-bearing monsoon winds – ‘from the Arabic word ‘mausim’, meaning seasonal – spells relief and prosperity.

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Here is a poem by renowned American poet Emily Dickinson, which depicts the transformative beauty of the rains – its arrival is celebrated almost as a festival, something that Indian folk culture can relate to !

Summer Shower

A drop fell on the apple tree,
Another on the roof;
A half a dozen kissed the eaves,
And made the gables laugh.

A few went out to help the brook,
That went to help the sea.
Myself conjectured, Were they pearls,
What necklaces could be!

The dust replaced in hoisted roads,
The birds jocoser sung;
The sunshine threw his hat away,
The orchards spangles hung.

The breezes brought dejected lutes,
And bathed them in the glee;
The East put out a single flag,
And signed the fete away.

-Emily Dickinson

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Rainy Evening Treats

What is better than a cup of steaming tea on a rainy evening?

A plateful of hot fritters to go with that steaming cuppa, of course.

I am not sure if there is any complex physics as to why fritters should taste better with the rain pouring outdoors but it just does. Common sense tells me that the cold dampness brought about by the rains is naturally evaporated by the warm fumes of tea and hot fritters. But then why doesn’t other stuff like a plate of scrambled eggs just off the stove-top or roast leg of lamb fresh out of the oven warm the cockles of the heart equally?!

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Let’s break apart that fritter and see what goes into it? Variously known as pakora, bhaji, tempura, arancini, calas or latkes across the world, these are fundamentally, bite-sized fried finger foods made from a batter of chickpea flour, cornflour or egg, coating cut, sliced or mashed vegetables, cheese, meats, fruits or starch and then deep fried in some form of fat.

But wait – “hushpuppies” and beignets have no filling to speak of and yet they are lapped away as fritters too!

So, like all things universally successful, the fritter too scores because of its simplicity – lending itself to a whole range of permutations not only with ingredients but methods as well – some can be shallow fried on a skillet too; ideally you  just need some stuff for the filling, a batter to bind it all with and away it goes, sizzling into the hot oil…

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…So all ye gods, bring on the rains!

‘My Story’

Many a time when I am used by people, I am described as white – does it mean I come in other colours? The other extreme, perhaps – black? Or an indeterminate, in-between shade – grey, maybe?

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Of far more variation is the purpose to which I am put – to gain power, riches, love or to kill and hurt but equally to save, protect, indulge in social niceties and sometimes simply to make someone feel better. At times, I am dragged into a matter merely to act as a ballast to an ego or conjured into existence simply out of habit.

Isn’t it curious that considering the rampant use that people make of me to realize their own interests – small and big – they are equally keen on inventing mechanisms that are supposed to put me away? Personality tests, behaviour study, graphology, high-tech machines and even the practice of swearing on a holy book before a court!

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Men and women, young and old – each human makes use of me sometime or other. However there have sprung up popular legends about some personalities who reportedly became famous without much help from me – there is George Washington and story of the cherry tree as well as the persona of the ‘Honest Abe’. Again the iconic proponent of non-violence, Gandhi, conceived an entirely philosophy and plan of action named ‘Satyagraha’ in opposition to me.

Sure, there are people who claim to be able to do without me just as societies and religions devise ways and means to find me out. But guess what – I am gonna be here a long, long time, my friend…after all, how will the world run without a lie?

-Extract from, The Autobiography of a Lie

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Travelling Light

Ask any veteran traveler and he/she will tell you all the benefits to carrying minimum luggage on a journey. You can breeze through airport check-ins; spend more time sleeping in; watch the sun go down the mountains; dawdle over the morning cup of coffee with your beloved…generally take your time over myriad little pleasures that life has to offer.

On the other hand, if you have a mountain of stuff to lug around, you are sure to be sucked into the whirlwind of planning, plotting, packing, forgetting something, taking a few items out and trying to fit it all back in – in other words, using precious time and energy obsessing over things you probably don’t even need in the next destination.

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Sounds uncannily true of life, too – doesn’t it? Yes, it sure helps to shed some weight as one transits through significant phases in life’s journey. Does one really need all the baggage of the past? Why not leave behind the praise and blame with equal grace! Just as you wish to walk away from the hurtful experiences after learning its lessons, so also absorb the strength of joyous occasions and then move on.

The great Latin writer Seneca wrote, “Every new beginning comes from some beginning’s end.” And travelling light is the best way to prepare oneself for a brand new start…

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“Lake water lapping with low sounds…”

In the wake of the World Environment Day, I thought I would pen down something about the need to protect the natural beauty of the Nilgiri mountain range. Ooty, variously known as Ootacamund and Udhagamandalam, is the busiest city of the Nilgiris.  It is an extremely popular summer holiday destination for people from the plains of southern India. Unfortunately in recent years, it has been showing the ill-effects of such popularity too. Roads choke with traffic, parked vehicles and garbage while ugly hotels and unplanned construction pain the eyes.

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Thus it was with a great sigh of relief that we left the town behind and turned to the narrow path leading to the Pykara Lake. Technically a reservoir formed as a result of the dams on the Pykara River, the Lake nevertheless mesmerizes with its azure blue waters. This is exquisitely set off by the emerald green of the bordering forests. As part of the protected nature reserves, these forests have been known to shelter a variety of wildlife including herds of wild elephants, bisons and even the odd tiger.

The Pykara Lake has exciting boating options for visitors ranging from motorized speed-boats to rhythmic canoes and even comfortable paddle-boats. A short distance from the Lake are the Pykara Falls which look gorgeous with their white foaming waters after they have been replenished by the monsoons.

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With better road connectivity and more tourists coming by cars, such hidden gems of nature have become more accessible now. Unfortunately this brings with it the danger of environmental pollution – hence the challenge remains to balance tourist delights with preservation of pristine habitats.

Literature and Setting

On a day when The Hindu carried an interview with the Booker-winning Indian author Arundhati Roy, my mind turned to what really goes into writing fiction. When the interviewer Zac O Yeah asks her about how much autobiographical detail goes into her book, she responds with a question of her own – “…where does your imagination end and experience begin?”

As I began to ponder over the question, my eyes swept over the misty blue hills visible from my front veranda and my attempted intellectual exercise took an unscheduled turn. So then, could a physical setting – the colours, sounds, smells and even the mood of a place affect your writing? I began to wonder…

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There are accounts that writers look for a peaceful and evocative places to compose poetry – certainly the Nobel Laureate Tagore did that! He not only visited naturally exquisite places in India like Ranikhet and Shillong where he wrote some of his best works but travelled to far-flung places like Japan, Turkey and South America which provided the impetus for his essays and letters on a range of topics like culture, nationalism and history. Then there are the famous English Romantic poets like William Wordsworth who found inspiration in the serenity and beauty of the Lake District.

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On the other extreme are women writers – no surprises there! – like Emily Dickinson and Jane Austen who barely left their immediate surroundings and yet left a mark on the history of English literature.

How about dirt, pollution, conflict, violence – can one write in a place marked by such intense negativity? Even though a writer could be writing about experiences like riots and forced migrations, but can he/she do it while all around the landscape burns and smokes?

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These are questions to which there are no simple answers and which take me to entirely different time periods and settings – far, far away from my bit of paradise in the hills where my dog sits softly curled up at my feet and nuzzles me for her breakfast.

A Case for the ‘Little Grey Cells’

This afternoon was devoted to Poirot and Hastings as they unravelled The Tragedy at Marsdon Manor. Since I had never come across the title in an Agatha Christie book, I was quite intrigued when it popped up on Youtube. For around fifty minutes, I let myself be carried away by the fantastic play of the famous little grey cells – I love practically everything about the ITV series – the authentic setting, smooth direction and of course David Suchet’s meticulous acting as the titular Agatha Christie’s Poirot.

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When I finally settled down for my siesta, my mind began wondering about what was it about detection stories that have always captured a large section of readers and now viewers – is it a recognition of the villain’s evil desires in the shadier realms of our own heart? Or the more straightforward civilizational longing to see good triumph over evil ? When harmless young girls and hapless old women or any such innocent people are brutally killed, something rages in us and demands that justice be done, that the murderer gets his/her just desserts – and the instrument for this is of course the ever-reliable detective.

Indeed so popular has been this subgenre of fiction that today one can find various subdivisions of this figure – there is the amateur detective like Miss Maple, the private investigator like Sherlock Holmes, the police detectives in the manner of Inspector Dalgleish and now thanks to the TV series, forensic specialists too – the most (in)famous of whom is perhaps Dexter from the eponymous series.

But of course where would the detective be without the faithful assistant! Sometimes providing comic relief or the humane angle, at other times the much-needed support of the brawns to the brains and very often the narrator’s voice – an effective assistant is indispensable to the success of detective fiction. And so Holmes’ exploits are narrated by Dr. Watson, Poirot is complemented by Hastings and even the bungling Inspector Clouseau has his devoted Ponton.

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At the end of the day, the appeal of detective fiction, may lie in something simpler – the innate human desire to put together the jumbled pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, to find the answer to an intriguing riddle. Perhaps it is this which makes us want to curl up on a rainy evening with a mug of steaming coffee and a good who-dunnit !

Happy Reading 🙂

Crossing Frontiers of Gender Roles

It was while writing my book on 20 Greatest Explorers of the World, that I first came upon the figure of Sacagawea – an amazing Native American woman who played a crucial role in the success of the early nineteenth century Lewis-Clark expedition which became the first American group to discover a route to the unexplored North-western part of the USA – all this at a time when women were expected to stay at home and bring up children!

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Here are a few more jaw-dropping facts about the woman pioneer:

  • Sacagawea was the only woman in a 33 member Lewis-Clarke expedition
  • She was from the Lehmi Shoshone Indian tribe and acted as a guide and translator for the expedition thus ensuring the leaders of the expedition could negotiate with the Indian tribes along the way in a fruitful way.
  • Her traditional survival skills were of great help to the well-being of the expedition. She was extremely knowledgeable about where edible roots, plants and berries could be found in the forests – all of these were used as food and sometimes, even as medicine.
  • When the preparations for the trek began in full swing, Sacagawea was pregnant with her first child. By the time the Clark-Lewis expedition set off, Sacagawea had given birth to a baby boy who would be named Jean Baptiste and would also make the entire trip and back, snugly resting in a sling on his mother’s body.sacagawea.jpg
  • In July, 1998, the then US Treasury Secretary Rubin announced that an image of Sacagawea would be chosen as the face of the new dollar coin. Though the decision led to some controversy since it ended up replacing the Susan B. Anthony coin, eventually the choice of Sacagawea put the seal on her rightful place in the annals of the great explorers of the world.1_Dollar,_United_States,_Sacagawea,_2000_D_-_National_Museum_of_American_History_-_DSC00279.jpg

 

‘How I Feel About Changing Schools’

Today’s crumbs are scattered by another pen – My daughter’s:

*Huh. People want to know how I feel. That too, about changing schools – A topic I could not be more familiar with.*

“I really don’t feel like lying now, so I’ll come out with the truth – I HATE changing schools. Ever since I moved to Wellington, school has been stuck in my head. This caused the following nightmare to hijack my dreams of swimming in chocolate: I dreamt that for some reason, I was late on the first day of school. When I reached class, my friends from my previous school were in one section, and I all alone in the other. Fortunately, I was woken up by the loud sound of Rabindra sangeet playing somewhere on my mom’s phone. Ugh. Anyway, good riddance, I thought.

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Actually, changing my school (again) has been bothering me since we left from Secunderabad. I wasn’t tensed as much as mamma or papa about the packing, furniture etc.  What was really depressing, was changing my school. I counted the number of schools I had changed, and it came to a grand total of seven…! When we arrived in Secunderabad, I told myself not to get attached to anything, or not make too many friends, since we were only there for ten months. But  I found the best friends I had ever made in my life. I felt accepted there, which is something every kid of my age wants. I found amazing teachers there. Leaving all that behind, especially for a cranky teenager like me, didn’t exactly help my self esteem.

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But, like all things, I guess there is a good side to changing schools too. I thought about this and realized, I have a chance to make friends all over again. So if I get lucky, who knows? Maybe I’ll have better friends and teachers here. Eh, the more the merrier, am I right? :D”

Rediscovering Don Quixote

 

While setting up house, I discovered that the abridged copy of Don Quixote – admirably retold by Henry Brook – that I had bought some months ago for my teenage daughter was still in a suspiciously good condition. After being assured that “Of course, Mom, I have read it till the end”, I decided to probe no further since I was myself guilty of merely skimming this classic when it was part of my undergraduate curriculum way back in college.

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So, I decided to give the Don another chance.

To say that I enjoyed it would be an utter understatement! Don Quixote, which is today best remembered as the source of common proverbs like “tilting at the windmills” and adjectives like ‘Quixotic’, has so much more to offer its readers. Yes, it is bustling with pranks, comedy, eccentricity, and wit but at the same time it underlines the importance of being true to one’s purpose – no matter how much derided by a world which does not understand.

Both the main characters are unforgettable, to a great extent because of the way they contrast and complement each other. The lean, middle-aged Don Quixote fantasizes about being an errant knight which repeatedly puts him at the receiving end of pranks and skirmishes, often with great cost to his physical and emotional well-being. His squire Sancho Panza on the other hand is more practical and loves his creature comforts, especially a good meal of pig’s trotters and a flagon of red wine.

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And yet all is not so simple – in the second book, Sancho Panza too succumbs to illusions perpetrated by the Duke and his wife. And in fact it is Don Quixote – the butt of jokes all this while -who eventually comes off as the epitome of true knightly qualities like simplicity, modesty, helpfulness as well as courage and conviction that are not just physical but moral.

Indeed, one of the most interesting aspects about the work is a self-referential exercise by the author. In Part Two, Don Quixote is told about how a book has been written about his ‘exploits’ and what a huge best-seller it has turned out to be. Here we can appreciate Cervantes’ nod at his actual literary project and possibly poor financial returns since at one point, the Don asks whether the author has been able to make any money out of the book – a predicament that us writers can commiserate with!

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Miguel de Cervantes is today regarded as among the greatest writers of all times and the most famous poet of Spain. Though his literary corpus includes poetry, plays and other novellas, his most enduring work remains Don Quixote often praised by eminent literary historians as the “first modern novel”. For someone like me, reading it on the other side of the world and four hundred years later, the novel not only appeals with its engaging plot, lovable characters, gentle humane vision but most poignantly the idea that before time runs out, follow your dreams – if possible with a companion who need not be a romantic partner and need not entirely share them but just someone who has your back!

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3 Things I Now Know About Superheroes

With the hype building around Spiderman’s Homecoming, most movie channels are raining Superhero movies on their hapless viewers. After watching quite a few of them this summer, here are 3 things I now know about superheroes.

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They have daddy issues

When viewers meet the superhero for the first time, he is well into adulthood. We almost never see him being brought up as a child – at the most, we get back stories and inevitably they involve missing parents. Though generally brought up by a loving foster family, our superhero remains angst-ridden all his life over the fate of his own family and this mystery often make up sub-plots in successive films.

They love getting Kinky with costumes

Half the fun of transforming into a superhero is deciding on what fantastic costume to take on. Think Rubber, lycra, leather, armour – you name it, and there could be a look waiting for you. Though capes and tight-fitting body-suits are slowly giving way to high-tech ‘intelligent’ costumes, still there is a lot of space to play around with colours, materials and masks.

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They get the coolest girls

Fighting alien monsters and saving the world are all in a day’s work for our favourite superhero. But if this is a job description that you wouldn’t care for, consider some of the perks that he gets to enjoy. And among the most attractive of these are the girls that the superheroes get to romance. These range from spunky reporters like Lois Lane and Vicki Vale to the resourceful Pepper Pots and the vivacious Gwen Stacy. Of course – none of these romances can turn into happily-ever-after stories since our superheroes are kept busy battling ogres of all shapes and sizes. Still, till the time their girlfriends are around, there is never a dull moment.

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What else have YOU deduced from the many superheroes movies? Share with us in your comments…

When do you know that a friendship has ended?

If you are like me, then you take a long time to let a friend close to you – and a longer time to realize she has moved away.

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Friendships come difficult to me – to chance upon a person who shares my interests and fundamental values is in itself a timing-consuming undertaking. Next follows the delicate business of reaching out to such a person and gauging whether I might mean as much to her as she could mean to me. At last comes the chemistry bit – how do we really feel when we both hang out? Are the breaks in the conversation comfortable or embarrassing? Do we look each other in the eye when chatting and laughing or are we checking the phone every other minute? Are we eager to make time for one another despite busy schedules? Do we finish each other’s sentences or share the highs and lows of our own life?

Over many months, it became increasingly clearer that none of this was happening between me and her. Physical distances are an undeniable fact of modern life when social and professional mobility scatters people who have grown up together. And yet the modern age also has given us the amazing gift of technology which makes keeping in touch across the miles easier than ever.

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What do you do to find closure when you know a friendship isn’t going anywhere? I could call and text – yet again – but will probably be met with silence or a curt “been busy” like every time I have tried in the past months. Or I could go for the surgical measure of deleting her phone number, pics and memories from my system. If neither works, perhaps I need to find a way to let my friend know how much she meant to me and how sorry I am we moved away from each other.

If only she were reading this…

Cycling To The Lake

Though, soft-spoken, Cherry is a bright and eager seventh-grader at my Feeling Bookerish workshop. For her blog-post she decided to write about a cycling trip that she took with her dad and few friends.

“I still remember the time my father and I went on a cycling trip to a lovely spot in Central India, known as the Berchha Lake. One the day of our trip, my father and I got up at 6:30 in the morning. After prepping our cycles, we were ready to start with packed breakfast. We waited at a spot for some of our friends to join us. Soon we were on our way to the lake.

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Warm-up before the trip

In a short while, I was sweating steadily as this was my first cycling trip and that too, on a regular and not a gear bike. Even then I tried my best to keep up with the more experienced cyclists. On one occasion, one of the cyclists had to stop because of a puncture and we had to spend some time looking for a repair shop. Fortunately we were on our way again, though this time I kept nagging my Dad about how much further we had to go.

At last the lake came into view – and what a sight it was! After enjoying its scenic beauty, we wolved down the all the food that we had got with us – with me especially enjoying my mommy’s delicious ‘chicken keema’ and bread.

After lunch, an uncle decided to try his hand at fishing. To our collective amazement in just ten minutes, he actually had a fish flipping at the end of the line ! Though we decided to let it go, incredibly, he caught another again just after five minutes – it sure was his lucky day!

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celebrating after making to the lake

Soon, we started back and after a long ride, finally reached home. With my limbs aching till bedtime, I asked my father that how many kilometres we had covered that day. Ten kilometres, one way. This meant that I had actually cycled twenty kilometres in all – not bad, considering this was my first cycling tour – and with that happy thought, I fell into a well-deserved slumber !

Music and Mood

Yet another participant of Feeling Bookerish came up with a write-up on music. Adhiraj, a perceptive and inquisitive seventh-grader, is himself a passionate musician and hence he explores the intense relation between a listener’s moods and choice of music.

“Do people listen to music according to their mood?

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Almost everyone listens to music. But did you know that the music you hear is largely determined by how you are feeling at that particular moment – in other words, your choice of music is usually a reflection of you mood. For instances people tend to prefer slow songs when feeling sad; on the other hand, when happy they are likely to choose upbeat songs that may even move them to get up on the table and jive.

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Interestingly music is not just influenced by the listener’s mood but in turn has the power to move people to a particular frame of mind. So if a person who is feeling quite alright to begin with, starts listening to sad songs, it is quite possible, he/she may get pensive too. Likewise a reasonably happy listener after listening to a few intense rap numbers may start feeling restlessness and angry.

All this goes to prove music is a powerful force with strong connections to mood, feelings and emotions of the listener.

 

Joys of travelling

With the year coming to an end, I got busy wrapping up my Feeling Bookerish workshop sessions. Blogging tips turned out to be a popular topic and I agreed to the kids’ demands on condition that they each write a blog post. The first to submit was a quiet and graceful seventh-grader Sana who wrote about a memorable Trip to Kerala

“I get bored cooped up indoors – day and night – especially on weekends or on Sundays. Imagine sitting at one place for hours and not doing anything ! No wonder then, I am often pestering my parents to take us exploring new places. Travelling refreshes my thoughts and ideas as well as calms down my restlessness.

I would want to tell you about my trip from the pretty hill station of wellington in Tamil Nadu to the neighbouring state of Kerala. One bright morning, we took our packed suitcases and started off at around 7:30. After passing through picturesque tea gardens we reached Coimbatore in a couple of hours  and decided to check out a mall. A whole lot of shopping later, we were on our way again and reached Palakkad late afternoon.

Eventually our journey ended at Thrissur- the town of my ancestors. There i met my grandparents and cousins. One of the highlights of this trip was a leisurely cruise on a house-boat. Sailing through the calm backwaters of Kerala,  I took many photos of animals and birds.

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Through the backwaters of Kerala

The following day we decided to have some fun and thus found ourselves at an amusement park called Wonderla in Kochi. The rides were hugely thrilling and the day rushed by in a haze of excitement. Imagine my parents being afraid to get on rides which I found so easy – it was hilarious!

Next day it was time to head back to Wellington – but with a load of good memories. So friends, put that tab or smartphone aside, pack your bags or at least put on your walking shoes and just head out – you are sure to have a great time!