Back To School

Let me get this straight

“You mean you are actually – willingly – doing this?”

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Back to Studies

My daughter’s incredulity would’ve been funny had the scene been playing out on the TV screen, like in a Man with a Plan type of family comedy series where teens perpetually talk to parents with an arched eyebrow.

“Why should it be so strange that I might want to do a course?” I tried to keep my equanimity even as I felt fine tendrils of self-doubt uncurling in my heart.

“Who would want to voluntarily study, take an exam, go through this —?!” the last word was quite expressive of the hatred that kids have for exams.

As you may have guessed by now – this mini inter-generational drama was all about my signing up for a college course.  I had a sneaking suspicion my teen daughter’s reaction was actually resentment at the possibility of not having me at her beck and call for a few months the following year when I would be in the thick of my studies. But over the next few weeks my suspicions evaporated. I found her actually happy that she had a co-sufferer now and eventually my darling even began taking on the much-despised pet-related chores off my shoulders.

The rest of the family was just relieved I had found something to plug my intermittent whining about the absence of a ‘proper’ career.

Outside, my revelation was generally met with varying degrees of interest – from an off-hand “oh really” in the middle of a rambling description of shopping in Dubai’s Gold Souk to real concern that I might be subjecting my brain cells to more than it could bear at this age. Two reactions stand out in my memory – one:

“Really – But why? What possible good can any course do now – will you even make enough to cover course fees?”

And the second was, of course, what started it all:

“I see…if you are so interested in the subject, maybe you should go ahead with it – just find a way.”

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Minerva and the Nine Muses by Hendrick Van Balen – Minerva is the Greek Goddess of Wisdom

Some words, uttered by someone, in a moment of pure congruence – you never know where it can lead you.

 

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Lessons In Letting Go

Can it happen already?

I remember the first post written after I settled down in my cosy nook here, in the Nilgiris. There I had reflected on difficulty of uprooting oneself and changing homes ever so often.

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And almost exactly a year later, I am back facing the same questions. Freshly moved to another house though still in these sylvan surroundings, here I go planning wall decor even as my half-awake mind seeks the familiar door handle at 3 in the morning when I have to let out my dog.

But most of all, my heart searches for the colours and blooms of the garden I have left behind. The burst of colours on the flower-beds, grass so green it would hurt the eyes and the perpetual humming of bees as they hovered over the hedges.

And yet I find myself embracing my new surroundings with some equanimity now. I roam its expansive grounds, feel the silken warmth of gladioli petals that bloom here in abundance and admire the gorgeous bougainvillea that embraces the porch.

But curiously I feel no desire to do more. No compulsion to impose my ideas of Beauty on these grounds, no need to recreate what I have left behind. I sit in the filigreed shade of the pine trees and watch my dog chase squirrels and rats. I know the boundary is secure but thankfully I have no more exotic flowerbeds to obsess over.

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Am I moving towards the Nirvanic ideal of detachment? I’d like to think so…and turn towards an ancient Australian Aboriginal proverb for understanding,

“We are all visitors to this time, this place. We are just passing through. We are here to observe, to learn, to grow, to love, and then we return home.”

A Trusted Travel Companion

I decided to play a little game –

With eyes closed, move my head around; stop randomly, open my eyes and then the first thing I notice – write about it.

Yes, writer’s block can make you do strange things.

Back to my fun experiment – my gaze had come to rest on a suitcase. Old but not too battered, roomy but without the works. The piece of luggage had been with me for almost eighteen years now but none too worse for the weather. It had accompanied me to different parts of the country, the most recent being my trip to Kohima but this was already after having breathed the cool climes of Landsdowne, basked in the southern sun of Kovalam, romanced the stone forts of Mandu in central India. This sturdy dame had done it all.

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But, then I remembered with a shard of regret how it had also missed out on the Rhine cruise from six years back as well as the Seoul city tour from two. It was not deemed fast enough for the airport of Hong Kong nor fashionable enough for the luxury of Venetian Macao.

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And yet, I have it still. When I have to zip across nearly two thousand kilometres to my hometown at two-days’ notice or worry that my snazzy luggage will my ruined in the grimy train interiors, or need to pack in so much of my Kolkata shopping that I have to sit on it for the lock to click shut – I fall back upon what else – my old trusted suitcase.

Not too pretty, a little frayed around the edges, understanding of my needs and the proud bearer of so many marks and stains that on the conveyor belt, it just cannot be confused with someone else’s luggage – that’s my trusted travel companion.

So here’s looking forward to many more journeys together !

Worry Woes – 3 Wily Ways To Fix Them

Dog’s appetite

no career

maid’s holiday

exam questions

garden weeds

daughter’s college fees

varicose veins

blueberry cheesecake

saree blouse designs

scratch on the car

party over the weekend

friend’s promotion

 

Can you guess what these are?

That’s right ! items buzzing in my overcrowded brain accompanied by much hand-wringing every day – leading to ridiculous waste of my time, mental energy and head space. So what do I do – here are 3 quick worry shooters that i have personally found helpful. And believe me, coming from a chronic worrier like yours truly, that’s saying something.

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The Worry Bogey

Focus on the friendly 5

Simply focus on your 5 senses – what you see, hear, smell, taste and feel around you. And before long you will actually begin to enjoy the exercise. Like the warm envelope of a soft dressing gown straight out of a cold shower. Or the day-long bird chirrups around my Nilgiris home which I hardly paid attention to – or was thankful for – till i arrived in Kolkata in the peak of summer. In fact for me the faint earthy smell of a dog is truly comforting and i want to get as much of it now before her 11-12 years are up. Keeping your mind on the feast of senses works wonders to keep worries at bay. The catch is of course, that it takes practice before you get to see results. It is only too easy for chronic worriers to lapse back into picking mind warts. Indeed even unpleasant sensations can help you to keep off niggling worries – right now just as i started worrying about the dismal readership of my blog, I immediately shifted my mind to my uncomfortable writing posture. and well, it helped me to go on.

Ditch Products – For experiences

OK there goes my chance of finding sponsors for my blog – but really, retail therapy is one of the unhealthiest ways to deal with chronic worry. Buying something gives you a just a momentary mood spike but you can be sure the euphoria will wear away sooner than later. Even worse, if like me, you cannot afford unnecessary purchases, rest assured you have added another item – credit card bills – to your already long list of worries. Instead try and acquire experiences – like baking a batch of cookies, playing with your pet, calling your Mom, listening to rock music at an un-neighbourly volume!

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Fix a time

Chronic worriers may find it helpful to actually schedule worry. Sounds counterproductive, right – if not outright bizarre. But keeping aside a fixed time for worry will help you tell yourself, “ Hey, its OK – if worrying means so much to you, let’s find a time when you can worry without interruption. But then don’t do it at other times – deal?” And trust me, most of the time you’ll find yourself agreeing.

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Look for help

Finally, take care of yourself. If you find your worries getting out of hand – like interfering with your appetite, sleep or straying to thoughts of self-harm – get out and look for professional help. Life is the best gift of all – and nothing, absolutely nothing is worth damaging it.

But ending with a widely-loved quote on worry by, who else, Mark Twain:

“I have spent most of my life worrying about things that have never happened”

Agree??

Kohima Chronicles

No, I didn’t spot a hornbill – nevertheless there was much to marvel in this Land of the Brave and the Beautiful.

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The brave…

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Sprawled across the slopes of Japfu range is the capital city of the state of Nagaland – Kohima. The city and its people walk with a calm balance – here sunny mornings can give way to sharp, gusty showers later in the day. gorgeous blooms of roses, geraniums and hibiscus grow in dusty pots, if not plain poly bags.

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And the Beautiful.

Though the tinned roofs of the cityscape are an eyesore, the predominance of bamboo walls could be a lesson in organic growth to other Indian hill stations. There are no opulent bungalows and sprawling hotels but neither there are reeking poverty-stricken shanties. Apart from KFC, I didn’t notice many big brands but was elated to find so many shops selling musical instruments and plump succulents. Here is an attractive example of inspirational graffiti art:

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I was warned that the Naga market with its raw display of meats was not for the faint-hearted yet I was found so many types of organic grown greens on sale. Then again despite the messy tangle of corruption, extortion and politics, people appear satisfied and self-contained. In fact my whining about the bone-jarring drive from Dimapur to Kohima was met with mischief-marked smiles – leading me to believe that they don’t mind the torturous access so much if it keeps crowds away. And yet over the first week of December, Kohima throws open its arms to the world for the Hornbill Festival.

Not surprisingly I returned with more questions about this land than answers…I would love to hear more from anyone who has lived and breathed its moist, mist-scented air!

New Market Matters…

Paisleys, stripes and waves dancing on royal purples, jade greens, ruby reds – a myriad colours, patterns and textures shimmering before my eyes. I lapped up the sensory feast though fabrics were clearly not on my shopping list.

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But then, this was how one of Kolkata’s most popular markets made a lifelong follower out of you. Typical of the city’s paradoxical attractions, New Market continues to be called so, despite the fact that it is more than a century old. Built on the express initiative of Sir Stuart Hogg, then Chairman of Calcutta Corporation, it was inaugurated on 1 January 1874 as the first municipal market of the city and a much-needed destination where the colonial settlers could shop for their stationary from R.W. Newman or Thacker Spink or buy their dresses from Ranken and Company. Later the market was named Hogg Market but eventually came to be known as just New Market.

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New Market in 1945

Today, I was interested in a bewildering spectrum of stuff – leather hand-bags, baking accessories, summer shorts, wine-glasses and finally biscuits from Nahoum and Sons, the only confectioners in India that I have come across who sell the Turkish dessert baklava on a regular, no-frills basis. Smoky Bandel Cheese is again one of the cherished offerings of New Market and might well be among the remaining traces of Portuguese cuisine in India outside Goa; just like delicious pork sausages that my friend tells me cannot be matched elsewhere in price and flavour.

Dripping in the humid heat, nevertheless we plodded on – she rolling her eyes at my “under-developed bargaining skills” and I guiding her through the semi-lit, steaming, maze-like lanes. Eventually when our arms could no longer bear anymore weight, we hailed a cab. Truth be told, I a little reluctantly, since my brain was still ticking off the items I could have still bought to take back to the Nilgiris.

Maybe a slice of hot, smoky cosmopolitan Calcutta to carry to my cool, hill-side home. Yes, I would have liked that !!

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New Market now

Lasagna Lessons

A One-act play on human nature!

Yes, that is what unfolded last evening at the dinner table. At the heart of it all was the bubbling casserole of lasagna that I placed with quiet triumph. And my lesson at the end of the day was that there are roughly 4 types of human reactions to your success.

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Be damned with faint praise

“Oh my! So you made lasagna today. Hmmm…very nice. Reminds me of Aunt Mildred and her amazing Sunday brunches. The table would positively groan under the weight of all those courses. And her lasagnas of course were the creamiest, tastiest ever!”. For such people, no matter how great your achievement, how much effort and time you have put into it – you are never good enough…

Focus on faults

If you were wondering how to respond to such high praise for Aunt Mildred at your dinner table, save the bother. This reaction would not even take the trouble of coming up with an unflattering comparison but cut straight to the faults. “Hmmm tastes good but maybe you can go a little easy on the salt next time? Don’t worry dear, you’ll get there. Eventually.”

The Royal Ignore

Did you really mess it up? You look for confirmation from another guest. Nothing. Not a word about your efforts. Instead conversation flows, “I told Susan to take that sorry excuse of a presentation and shove it up her…” You look at the big spoonfuls of lasagna she is shovelling in her mouth and wait for a response, “…Would you believe her nerve? And all this right in front of me, in my office!”. Yes. You do believe. That some people can have minds that are so small, so petty that a word of praise for another’s success can actually threaten their entire existence.

Pure Joy

Finally, you get the reaction that celebrates all those hours of effort. A broad grin that makes the eyes dance. Ecstatic groans that rise all the way from a satiated alimentary tract. “Mmmm…best lasagna ever…” By then you don’t need to hear any more. You are half-way through your own dinner.

And you know exactly how Success tastes !

 

 

October on my mind…

A week after its release, I finally managed to watch October – a finely-nuanced Hindi movie about love, loss and waiting for both. Director Shoojit Sircar sets it in Delhi – that rare Indian metro city where autumn is properly felt as a season and not just a transit between the humid summers and cool December. The title appropriately evokes the themes of near-death, near-love in the backdrop of near-winter.

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October mornings in Delhi. Photo courtesy: DNA India

But this is not a movie review.

This is more about thoughts on what, ultimately, makes Life worth living? Having someone to love? Like a 21-year old daughter in coma who cannot even say ‘Ma’ but for whom the mother spends nights in the hospital and days earning the money needed to keep the life-support machines running.

Or maybe being loved by someone makes the real difference – like by the young man who daily checks her urine output and is the one to jumpstart the healing process by bringing her favourite flowers to smell.

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October flowers – Shiuli

Perhaps it is those young interns who are actually right – having found the balance between practicality, carrying on with the business of living and still concerned enough about their hospitalized friend to shell out precious cash for her medicines and cover for the guy who wants to be there.

One might even wonder if the cantankerous uncle – who never stops whining about ballooning hospital bills and the prospect of lifelong paralysis – is nearer to the brutal truth of what physical and mental faculties actually define a quality life. Much as we would want him to shut up.

Who knows who is right, what is right ? Scriptwriter Juhi Chaturvedi does not leave us with easy answers. The movie and its questions linger long after the closing credits – much like the faint fragrance of Shiuli – the delicate, short-lived flower of October mornings.

An Idle Question

Now what??!!

The question accompanied the sinking feeling of having made a bad choice. The strawberries of course, sat in the bowl innocuously – shimmering in ruby red colours perfectly accessorized by their green tops.

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“Too sour” – my daughter echoed what I already knew. And with her reaction, drained away the lukewarm hope that her teen palate wouldn’t mind the tart fruits. I had asked someone else to do the veggie shopping and now I heartily wished I had gone to the store myself.

With a heavy heart, I reached for my phone and Googled ‘sour strawberry recipes’. Apart from some pretty useful search results, what really surprised me were search prompts like, “what to do with sour strawberries”, “how to sweeten sour strawberries” and so on. Cheered up by the realization that I was not the only one struggling with the sour-strawberry-dilemma in this world, I sauntered to my garden – the culprit bowl in one hand, my phone in the other. The green lawn were lit up by a golden sun, the bees were humming around the honeysuckle hedge and I chose my favourite spot near the jewelled petunias to sit and go through the search results.

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The tips were the usual mix: macerate the sour berries in a mix of honey, lemon/ fruit juice, bake them in muffins and cakes, blend them into a smoothie, cook them into a spicy chutney or just douse them with sugar and keep overnight. However my mind was already totalling the cons – honey would rack up calories and cooking would ruin the nutrients.  May be, I should take the easiest way out but as I glanced at the bowl to gauge the quantity of the berries, I was taken aback.

Only three remained – had I absent-mindedly been popping them into my mouth all this while? May be they weren’t so unpleasant, after all. I wish I had enjoyed them as well – the taste, texture, their luscious tartness with just the right degree of crunch…

So much like Life – we fret about what is not right, why we should have decided otherwise and how we can make it better – whereas all the while we are living it, spending it and forgetting to enjoy its sweet-sour moments !

 

Follow the harvest trail…

Today amidst the flurry of New Year wishes, one particular post on social media caught my attention.

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The fact that we Bengalis – as a linguistic and cultural community undivided by international boundaries –  share our New Year with festivals in other parts of India invariably gladdens my heart every time April comes around. As we get ready to feast on kosha mangsho and payesh – must-haves on the traditional Bengali spread – Tamil Nadu is celebrating Puthandu, Kerala is enjoying Vishu Kani, Assam is swaying to Bihu, Punjab is rocking to Vaisakhi and Orissa is marking Pana Sankranti.

Interestingly, many parts of South and South-eastern Asia also usher in their traditional New Year around this time. Thailand, Laos and Burma are awash in the colours of Songkran, Pi Mai Lao and Thingyan respectively.  The Cambodian Choul Chnam Thmey literally means “Enter New Year” in the Khmer language and the Sinhalese New Year is known as Aluth Avurudda. The official calendar of Nepal, Bikram Sambath too is unfurled around this time. Indeed Bangladesh celebrates Pahela Baishakh  in a most spectacular manner with the Mangal Shobhajatra in Dhaka now being declared by UNESCO as a cultural heritage of humanity.

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Photo courtesy: The Asian Age

There are many ways of explaining this concurrence of festivities. Astronomically, this time marks the beginning of the Aries zodiac known as Mesh in Sanskrit – thus countries which had been influenced Sanskrit/Hindu astronomy historically, for example as a result of invasion by the Chola dynasty, still follow its cultural observations.

What I like to think though is that all these communities are bound by ancient rhythms of seasons and agriculture. Not so long ago and still so in some places, harvests would be gathered in at this time, larders filled and prayers of thanks offered for Nature’s bounty. What else could explain so many rituals associated with rice, water and earth?

Today, with increasing urbanization, many of these harvest rituals are fading away. And yet, the spirit of cultural belonging remains strong. If music, food, art and nature help Bengalis push religious and national identities in the background to come together on Poila Boishakh, young Khmer girls dress up in all their traditional finery half-way across the world in Georgia, US.

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What an amazing place is this world of ours !

Awash in Purple

It is that time of the year when the verdant horizon glows with splashes of purple!

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That’s right – Jacaranda trees are aflame now in the Nilgiris, painting the landscape a deep mauve in places. The Wikipedia informs that Jacaranda is technically a genus of flowering tree that includes as many as 49 species of plants, bearing the signature bluish-purple blossoms. The variety most common in Asia and the one most blooming all around is the Jacaranda mimosifolia.

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After a gusty night, the paths appear to be covered in a rich violet carpet. Indeed if you happen to walk through an avenue of jacaranda trees on a breezy day, you are likely to be greeted by a shower of delicate lilac-coloured petals – enough to make you feel as though receiving the most vivacious coloured benedictions from the heavens.

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Jacaranda has lent its name to many a bungalow, lifestyle outlet and road in these parts. The visual extravagance of its blossoming draws tourists from the plains and in fact places like Grafton and Brisbane in Australia have their own Jacaranda festivals.

A good idea for the Nilgiris, really – and yet another opportunity to ruminate at length how these Blue Hills got their name…

3 Ways to Get Going

These days I have a powerful quote as my laptop wallpaper – and it serves as a highly effective motivating mantra

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The only thing really to do is to start! Forget about being in the right mood to launch into that novel, the right frame of mind to update the resume or even the right weather conditions to weed the garden. If something is bugging you deep within, it is never the right moment – instead just dive into what you have been wanting to do. Remember how that annoying know-it-all uncle from childhood would drone on that you are never gonna learn to swim while splashing at the shallow end? Or how your older sibling would threaten to take out the training wheels from your bike? That’s right – you just gotta start – and then figure out, as you go along, how to do it better.

This though doesn’t mean that you cannot use a little help. Rope in positive people to keep your spirits up – apart from supportive family and genuine friends, it could be a former teacher, a kind neighbour or even that kind person at the deli counter who really listens when you dreamily talk about your longtime desire to go hiking in Bhutan. Since this kind of support is really not within your control, do what you can make it easier to get going. Just yesterday a few of us were discussing how playing our favourite music makes it easier to wash dishes and finish other such boring chores. Apart from music, lighting an energizing fragrance or sipping a cup of freshly brewed lemon tea could do the trick.

Finally, do what you can. Break up a difficult venture into small, realistic, regular targets which have greater chances of success because they seem less daunting. Reward yourself for each target accomplished but as we agreed in our life skills class – let the reward be commensurate with the goal. So rather than splurging on a new pair of shoes for finishing one chapter of your Research Paper, wear your fire-red lip colour or scarf to work/college that day. Keep bigger indulgences for major goals met.

And before you know – you will be raring to go!

 

 

 

 

Today Tell Your Story

 

“IF A STORY IS WITHIN YOU, IT HAS TO COME OUT”

-William Faulkner

How important is it to tell your own story?

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Human lives are densely interwoven with stories – we are born as the result of intersection of two people’s stories, grow up listening to tales, acquire morals, warnings, inspiration through them and inevitably construct our own narratives – replete with sub-plots, twists and turns, climaxes and temporary resolutions till another complication begins to take shape. In fact I think our stories do not even die with us – they might figure as a prologue in our children’s or sub-plots in other people’s stories and anything else that we leave behind as a legacy.

And who best to tell your story than you?

A few days back our book club met to discuss Marcus Zusak’s The Book Thief. Remember Liesel, and her inexplicable tendency of swiping a book wherever she comes across one? Even though in the beginning of the novel she cannot read ! Eventually Liesel moves beyond “collecting” books – she learns to read and most importantly, write. The act of writing her own story saves her –  metaphorically, as it imbues her life experiences with meaning and optimism and then literally in the end as she falls asleep in the basement while writing her book and thus escapes the bombing which wipes out her foster family.

And yet not all personal narratives need be positive. The theory of narrative therapy as propounded by Michael White and David Epston, points out how problem-saturated life stories can lead to unhappiness, worry, anxiety and such psychological issues. The way ahead lies in re-interpreting, re-framing negative events and episodes to construct a positive narrative and looking for “unique moments” or opportunities to bring about beneficial changes.

Writing your story can be cathartic when emotions and feelings are raging inside you, can give coherence when you can’t make sense of your life and finally closure, when you need to get over episodes or people to be able to move on. Finally, as one of my favourite poets, Maya Angelou says,

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Image Courtesy: Brainyquote.com

 

The Elephant in the Quilt

A quilt shaking as though it has a life of its own, like an elephant in there – a pair of young female eyes  is struck into silence by what she sees…

This is how the 1942 short story, Lihaaf translated as The Quilt ends which was eventually hailed as a trailblazer in women’s writing about class, gender and sexuality in the Indian subcontinent. The author was a bold, irreverent 27 year old woman named Ismat Chugtai whose liberal upbringing and a keen awareness of patriarchal politics made her take up the pen. Later in life, her non-fiction work, Yahan se Wahan Tak would read, “The pen is my livelihood and my friend, my confidante…Whenever I want I can send for anyone via the pen’s flying carpet, and when these people arrive, I can say anything, make them cry, laugh or reduce them to ashes with my harsh words.”

Ismat-Chughtai

It is this fire from her pen that charted a new kind of writing where women could use the form of the short story in Urdu to talk about not just female sexuality but about other kinds of discrimination, oppressions they faced on a daily basis. This however did not go unopposed by patriarchal institutions as stories like Lihaaf faced court cases and others like Angaarey were banned at various times in the subcontinent.

 

Apart from Lihaaf, Chugtai is today best known for her story collections like  Chhui Mui, Thori si Pagal, Aik Baat, Do Haath, novellas like Ziddi which was made into a hit Hindi move of the same title but most of all for the novel, Tehri Lakeer or The Crooked Line which was considered her magnum opus. Later her non-fiction work like essays and memoirs especially Kaghazi hai Pehraan too received much appreciation and renown. Official recognition came in the form of a slew of media awards including the Filmfare Award for best Story for the Partition classic Garam Hawa on which she worked with noted Urdu poet Kaifi Azmi as well as state awards, including the Padma Shri in 1976.

Chugtai died in 1991 in then Bombay but not before she had been successful in ‘Lifting The Veil’ – incidentally the title given to an anthology of her stories – from the reality of gender and class politics in the subcontinent and offered women writers to come, new avenues in literary form and style.

For my Daughter – On her Birthday…

It took me a while but eventually I found it !

The perfect poem for my daughter on her birthday

Titled “The Writer” and written by Richard Wilbur, the poem is a visual and finely-pitched exploration of a parent’s thoughts as he/she wishes strength and perseverance for the daughter to fight, learn and fly.

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THE WRITER

In her room at the prow of the house

Where light breaks, and the windows are tossed with linden,

My daughter is writing a story.

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I pause in the stairwell, hearing

From her shut door a commotion of typewriter-keys

Like a chain hauled over a gunwale.

 

Young as she is, the stuff

Of her life is a great cargo, and some of it heavy:

I wish her a lucky passage.

 

But now it is she who pauses,

As if to reject my thought and its easy figure.

A stillness greatens, in which

 

The whole house seems to be thinking,

And then she is at it again with a bunched clamor

Of strokes, and again is silent.

 

I remember the dazed starling

Which was trapped in that very room, two years ago;

How we stole in, lifted a sash

 

And retreated, not to affright it;

And how for a helpless hour, through the crack of the door,

We watched the sleek, wild, dark

 

And iridescent creature

Batter against the brilliance, drop like a glove

To the hard floor, or the desk-top,

 

And wait then, humped and bloody,

For the wits to try it again; and how our spirits

Rose when, suddenly sure,

 

It lifted off from a chair-back,

Beating a smooth course for the right window

And clearing the sill of the world.

 

It is always a matter, my darling,

Of life or death, as I had forgotten.  I wish

What I wished you before, but harder.

(From New and Collected Poems, published by Harcourt Brace, 1988. Copyright © 1969 by Richard Wilbur. All rights reserved)

Many thanks to this page at poetry.org where I found a collection of evocative poems on daughters – the love, joy, youthfulness and hope they bring into their parents’ lives, the strength that they display through life’s challenges but also their differences with parents which eventually mark them out as individuals in their own right.

Mummies of Egypt – an ancient science and a lasting wonder

Of the original Seven Wonders of the World listed by ancient Greek travellers like Antipater of Sidon and Philo of Byzantium, today only the Great Pyramids of Giza remain. Egypt though continues to draw travellers from across the world for a related attraction – mummies.

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The Egyptian God Anubis attending the mummy of Sennedjem

Ancient Egyptians believed that earthly death was the beginning of the person’s journey into the next world. If the person was to live in another world, the body had to survive and to this end was invented the science of mummification. This was a process of preservation of the body – all the internal organs of the dead were removed and put in canopic jars. The body was next covered with a mixture of salt known as natron to remove all moisture. Then the body was wrapped in thin strips of linen, decorated with protective amulets and placed in mummy case or coffins.

Because of the highly expensive and lengthy – the mummification of a single body could take up to 70 days – the process was reserved only for the rich and powerful. However , all Egyptians in those days would be buried with certain goods essential to make the supposed journey to the other world – these would include food, household objects like bowls, grooming tools like combs and other trinkets. The wealthy were of course were expected to make the journey into afterlife in style and hence were buried with jewellery, furniture and later with certain symbolic objects like shabtis and scarabs.

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A complete set of canopic jars

No matter how elaborate the burial arrangements, the living however could not expect their responsibilities to diminish – they were  supposed to continue to visit the tomb of their deceased relatives with food and prayers –  talk about the dead not giving up !

Gossip, Interrupted

There – I had managed to do it! It had taken some concerted effort on my part, but I had stuck it out, held on to my guns and not given up. In case you wondering what all the self-congratulation is about, I shall give you one word – Gossip. and I had managed to survive an entire party without giving in to its temptation.

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 Oil on cradled Panel titled ‘Gossip’ by Eugen Von Blass, 1903

In his best known work, Faerie Queen, Elizabethan poet Edmund Spenser, described Slander as a Blatant Beast who wreaks havoc, less by brute physical force and more by sneaky rumour-mongering. Indeed the wounds inflicted by the Beast in the lengthy poem turn out to be almost incurable since they not just physically hurt the victim but destroy him/her psychically.

Seems a bit fanciful today, doesn’t it – after all, everyone indulges in a little harmless gossip now and then. And yet, is it really harmless?

A snide remark here, a loaded suggestion there. Rolled up eyes and a meaningful wink – so many weapons to shoot a reputation down, attack a person behind his/her back. And oh, this kind of arsenal is gender neutral – men use it as much as women to strike.

Is this why people gossip – to bring down others? Is this the only pay-off? This word is actually a loaded term from Eric Berne’s Games People Play where one of the psychological games described is Blemish. In fact, he really classifies it a classic Party game and yesterday, as I was revising Transactional Analysis for my students, I realized with a jolt, how often have I seen it played out before my very eyes – and daresay at times, participated myself!

“ ‘Blemish’ players do not feel comfortable with a new person until they have found his blemish,” says Berne “… It has internal psychological advantage of warding off depression, and the external psychological advantage of avoiding the intimacy which might expose the player’s own blemishes.” (from Games People Play, Eric Berne)

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As I pondered on the pay-off, a more contemporary metaphor came to my mind – maybe not high-falutin’ Spensarian allegory but I wondered if gossip does not act as a drug! You start with only this amount to get a high – the Bernian pay-off – and then proceed to increasingly higher doses to attain the same level of pay-off.

But as Berne also points out, a script can be changed – rewritten too if driven by awareness and enough volition. And as I think back on all the exciting conversations I had at the last party with guests other than the gossipers, I realize that I had managed to beat back the Blatant Beast – take that Gossip, I don’t need you anymore !!

And yet I am aware that this requires hard work and will-power –  after all tomorrow is another day, another Party…

 

PTSD – How to help

On a day that our guest lecturer dealt with the topic of Stress and Trauma Management in a highly impactful way, I came back home and started pondering on PTSD. Standing for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, it is a psychological condition that affects those who have suffered a major trauma to the psyche and/or the body.

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Actually I knew nothing of the acronym or what it meant the first time I saw it in action – in an Oliver Stone movie, Heaven and Earth where Tommy Lee Jones plays the role of an American soldier who returns from the Vietnam War not only with a wife but also inner demons which eventually drive him to turn the gun on himself.

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Courtesy:Warner Bros

If your loved one is suffering from PTSD, here is how can you help:

Know the symptoms

Ideally, the person should be seeing a counsellor as part of his/her recuperation process from the traumatic incident. If that has not happened, watch out for unusual behaviour. Signs that can alert you to a PTSD victim could range from apparently minor ones like sleep disturbances and a tendency to avoid social situations to extreme ones like intense fear, anxiety, helplessness, hypervigilance and even hallucinations. If such symptoms have been continuing for a month at least, it is time to look up a doctor for the right diagnosis.

Get Help

See that he/she continues with treatment which could be therapy, medication or a combination of both.  This is because though symptoms can vary from apparently mild to obviously debilitating, they can quickly take a turn where the affected person can put their own selves or those of their loved ones, in harm’s way.

Really Listen

Be available when the victim wants to talk about the incident or about anything else. Avoid arguing and interrupting him/her but when you are concerned, wait your turn and voice your feelings clearly. Above all, don’t offer advice – rather ask what you can do to help.

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Finally, offer your complete support. Invite him/her to accompany you out of doors for some time everyday – like going for a walk, feeding the ducks in a nearby park or some such peaceful activity. Encourage him/her to take small steps to get back to family and friends but never rush a victim to “snap out of it” – recovering from PTSD is a complex process and both the victim as well as his/her loved ones like you need to give it time.

 

RUMI – The Mystic

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The other day I managed to beat the alarm.

After lying in bed and staring at the darkness for what seemed an eternity, I decided I might as well enjoy some coffee.

Now fortified with caffeine, I was raring to go. But rather than diving into work, I wanted to do something different – “let me use the early hour”, I thought. As I stared at the wallpaper, I realized a change was long due – soon I was browsing for a suitable replacement.

Rumi has always been a favourite voice for inspirational quotes and images. While I have quite a few of these on my phone, I hunted for an image of good resolution for my wallpaper.

But first a little about the person himself. Jalal-ud-din Rumi was born sometime in first century AD in Balkh – a flourishing centre of arts and learning in Khorasan, north-eastern Iran. Like his father, Rumi became highly respected as a teacher and philosopher, even before he turned 30.

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But soon his life was to be turned upside down. At 37, he met a wandering dervish named Shams al-Din Muhammad bin Ali Malikdad Tabrizi and was deeply influenced by the latter’s mystic teachings. However Tabrizi’s fame earned the jealousy of many and the seer left without telling anyone. Though heartbroken at Tabrizi’s disappearance, Rumi was inspired to write Divan Shams Tabrizi, now considered his greatest poetic work. Eventually all of Rumi’s teachings and philosophy came to be compiled in six volumes of Mathnavi, by his loyal disciple, Hesam al-Din Chalabi.

Today Rumi’s words quite often find their way into lists of inspirational sayings and quotes. One reason why they are so popular could be perhaps that even when taken out of context, they do surprisingly well. Then again their essential mysticism means that they lend themselves to varied interpretations – depending on the inner compulsions of the reader. Finally the natural imagery, fluid verses and a sparse symbolism means that despite being translated from Persian, his words glow with hope and generosity across time and space.

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Why the Republic Matters

Today India celebrates its 69th Republic Day.

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A Republic is understood, technically, as a nation where supreme power is exercised by elected representatives of its people. In India, the President is elected by Members of Parliament and State Legislatures who in turn are elected by the people. Granted the process is circuitous, but at the end of the day, even the highest executive authority in the land cannot govern just because he/she happens to be born into the right family, gender, caste, religion or class.

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If the Republic is the temple of Indian democracy, then its reigning deity is none other than the Constitution. The longest written Constitution in the world, this lays down the fundamental rights as well as the duties of Indian citizens.  The Preamble crystallizes the essence of Constitution, laying down for all time to come in clear, ambiguous terms the core principles of the Republic namely, Justice, Liberty, Equality and Fraternity.

The real message to take home after all the pomp, splendour and self-congratulation is over.

3 Top Signs You Are With A Frenemy

Among the more colourful portmanteau words to have invaded pop culture in recent times is Frenemy – someone who appears to be a friend but often, insidiously, behaves like an enemy. If a couple of people in your personal circle send out such ambiguous signals and leave you feeling confused, here are top 3 ways to spot a Frenemy.

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Back-handed compliments

Do words of apparent praise from this person actually leave a bitter taste in your mouth?  If yes, watch out! Say you just pulled off a negotiation with that difficult client and instead of celebrating a sure-shot fat commission or a corner office coming your way, he/she says something like “Wow, now you can go on more out-of-town office tours in business class” , focussing on the minor negative – longer tour hours – rather than major positives like higher pay or perks.

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Goading you to make bad choices

Yet another sign of a toxic pal is him/her pushing you to make choices that may be couched in trendy words but are clearly bad for you – a lip colour that makes your skin look paler or stripes that make you appear stouter. Once you have fallen for your frenemy’s suggestions,  he/she is sure to smirk and point out that they would not be caught dead wearing THAT.

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Makes you feel bad

So why do people stick with such toxic personalities at all – frenemies usually take pains to be nice in the initial stages of a relationship and by the time you have recognized them for what they really are, they have put you down to their heart’s content and thus got their pay-off before moving on to other unsuspecting souls. Again such personalities are usually hyper-social and appear to be very popular, fashionable which attracts people rather shy or less self-assured.

Unfortunately the high of being befriended by someone apparently popular is a very brief one as sooner than later, their words and attitudes leave you feeling more miserable and introverted than before.

So wise up to that cool girl/dude feeding off your insecurities and before he/she can hurt you again bid your frenemy goodbye!

A Walk through Calcutta History

1724 – Calcutta gets its first European Church, built by the Armenians.

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The Armenian Church Spire

So, what else is happening across the world in early 1700s ?

In mainland Europe, the War of Spanish Succession pits the Grand Alliance of newly united England and Scotland, the Dutch Republic and Austria against France, the kingdoms of Naples, Sicily and supporters of Philip in Spain.

North America is still a stage of colonial struggles among the British, French and Spanish though the colonialists are facing far more defiance in the southern continent from its original inhabitants and slave communities like Maroons.

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St. Andrews Church at a busy Calcutta crossing

Europeans have arrived in Africa in search for trade opportunities and found slaves to be the most lucrative prospect; Australia is still being “discovered” by European explorers while the Qin empire  around this time has made China the biggest economy in the world. In the Indian subcontinent, the Mughal empire is past its prime, 1707 being the year of demise of its last powerful ruler, Aurangzeb.

Fourteen years later Calcutta already has a thriving Armenian community who have the resources to build their first church. As more European traders flock to this hub of trade and commerce at the mouth of the Ganges in eastern India, the city opens out its arms to communities and people from across the world.

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The Portuguese Church in Mediterranean colours

And this is what the walk, was all about. Over the course of three and half hours lit by a weak winter Calcutta sun, we explored old churches, temples and synagogues practically hidden by shops and stalls on busy streets but all of them rich repositories of a diverse, multi-cultural ethos that Calcutta is still proud of today.

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Gorgeous interiors of the Maghen David Synagogue

Along with the Armenian Church on (ahem !)Armenian Street, we looked up St Andrews Church in Dalhousie Square, the Portuguese Church in the Bara Bazar, the Beth-el Synagogue on Pollock Street, the newly renovated   Maghen David Synagogue on what else !, Synagogue Street, the Saifee Masjid in Chitpur and the remains of the older Fire Temple on Ezra Street. The walk was rounded off with the visit to the Chinese Sea Ip Church on Terita Bazar as well as the Burmese Temple next to Central Avenue.

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intricately carved wooden panel at the Sea Ip Church

Cheekily titled, The Walk of the Unfaithful, the tour was conducted by let us go; well-known blogger and guide Rangan Dutta regaled us with facts, legal tangles and trivia about all these heritage structures and the colourful past that they symbolize.

Calcutta – so proud of you! Can’t wait to go back and sign up for another walk…

 

My New Year treat – date palm nectar

What sweet libation is this…Nectar fit for the Gods!

The date palm is not among the more famed offerings of the east Indian state of Bengal. Sweets like rosogolla, fine cotton and silk textiles, umpteen variety in freshwater fish delicacies and a penchant for the artistic temperament – yes! But date palms? Isn’t that part of the usual desert landscape? Or the mandatory prop of an oasis scenery ?

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But come winter and the date palms that dot the Bengal countryside – unlike anywhere else in the world – offer the most delicious liquid molasses, known in Bengali, as jhola gur. The sap from the date palms is collected in earthen handis tied to the trees and then after a bit of cooking on wood fire results in a golden brown liquid very similar to maple syrup in appearance but much more fragrant.

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Further cooking on the fire leads to a thickening of the syrup which is then poured into moulds made within the earthen floors of the thatched huts of gur-makers.

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In fact the final product may be of two types – a lighter brown jaggery that is mellower in taste and smoother in texture

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And one that is harder and slightly grainier with a more intense sweetness. Where this variety scores over the former is in its longevity as the lighter coloured version tends to spoil sooner while this harder version keeps well in the refrigerator, over an entire year even!

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I wish this blog post could reach Champaka Haldar, and her family who are among the fast dwindling tribe of creators of this truly delectable variety of jaggery.

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Unfortunately the range of skills involved in its processing – starting from the climbing up the palm trees and tying the handis to collecting the sap and cooking it on the firewood stove for varying lengths of time to get different textures is on its way out. With fields being cemented into urban settlements, younger generation migrating to cities in search of work, lack of government support for such cottage industries and winter setting in later or temperatures not dipping enough, I fear that the art of making patali gur may not survive for long – and with that Bengal will not only lose the flavour of nolen gur in its prized winter sweetmeats but the distinction of being the only culture with the knowledge of processing this tree nectar into the tastiest of molasses and jaggery.

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Talking About Gender Inequality

Apart from a few soft gasps, the room was silent!

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This quote from a 1980 UN Report made up the first slide of the Gender Sensitization class that I took yesterday. Though women in most societies do more than men was generally accepted as a fact by my students – themselves all women – when framed in numbers, the very extent of the inequality shocked them into silence.

Over the next two hours, we covered a few theoretical concepts and then moved on to some of  the ways gender was relevant to language, communication and workplace dynamics. Along the way we not only explored various ways, language posits – for example through words like ‘sportsmanship’, ‘penmanship’, ‘right-hand man’ etc –  the male gender as the norm but also how popular psychology concepts like the masculine ‘report’ vs the feminine ‘rapport’ style of communication construct, disseminate and perpetuate gender stereotypes and hence inequality. Eventually we arrived at various gender issues at workplace, ending with the most traumatic of them all, sexual harassment.

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Though I tried to keep the lectures as focussed as possible to the course curriculum, the ‘digressions’ were especially enjoyable. We covered possible causes of patriarchy and talked about Gerda Lerner’s social historicist hypothesis in the Creation of Patriarchy. How immensely valuable is such research – using data from anthropology and culture studies, she historicizes patriarchy which eventually frees women from the notion that existing gender inequalities are timeless and universal.

 

What made the class truly enriching were inputs from my students as well. Kamla Bhasin for example was pointed as one of the foremost feminist voices in the Indian context and at one TED talk, she reveals how patriarchy impacts both genders – oppressing not only women but dehumanizing men as well. What it has done to the third gender, I asked the class to reflect, on their own.

I however not only conclude the class without a mention of the person, who started it all for me – my Gender Studies professor from Jadavpur University, Dr. Indira Choudhuri. I did my best in the last few  minutes of the class to share with my students her erudition, ground-breaking research as well as the sheer dynamism of her personality – while also regretting that as a student more than 20 years ago, I was barely equipped with the experience and sensitivity to optimize my learning from her.

Thankfully we all grow and come to know better – herein lies my hope for society as well!

3 Quick Feel Good Fixes

Haven’t we all been there sometime? Down in the dumps – the result of perhaps a skirmish at work, a nasty comment by a frenemy, fight with a better half or just the December chills getting to you. So if you have been feeling low lately, here are three simple ways to bounce back…

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Set and Meet Personal Goals

Consumerist culture like ours posits leisure activities like getting a massage or shopping as easy sources of happiness. The truth though may however be quite different. People who strive to reach personal goals by engaging in purposeful leisure like learning a new language or trying out a different sport may end actually end up happier, according to research by Bernardo J. Carducci, director of the Shyness Research Institute at Indiana University. Setting such goals and striving to reach them appears to give an individual a greater sense of purpose and fulfillment, as compared to buying a service or a product.

Connect Meaningfully

One of the surest ways to start feeling happy is to nurture positive relationships with people you care about. No wonder then family and close friends have consistently ranked high among the must-haves for a quality life. However to really feel good about the people in your life, your relationships must be meaningful – in other words, a bond where you actively give rather than just take so that you are not just looking for company or approval. So get off the computer or phone and rather than looking to ‘friends’ and ‘contacts’ at social networking sites, get involved with the real person who is important to you and you will surely feel better than before.

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Free Yourself from Expectations

Though meaningful relationships and activities can help you feel positive, it is equally important that you don’t have unrealistic expectations. For example, the day after your birthday, have you ever woken up with the feeling, that your special day wasn’t as much as you had thought it would be? This happens for the simple reason that you had unrealistic expectations of it – like your colleagues at work throwing a surprise party for you or your partner getting you an expensive gift. Once you are able to liberate yourself from this focus on what you can get, it becomes much easier to take pleasure in the natural processes – whether connecting with others or doing something pleasurable – which are ultimately what makes us happy.

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…!

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!