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.”

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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.

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…

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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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…!

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…”