mom of all trades

mom of all trades

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Monday, April 17, 2017

The scent of nostalgia

The faintly acidic smell of ebony colored tamarind balls speckled with shiny bits of rock salt, make my tongue pucker up in anticipation of the sour, tart sensation; as if I have sucked on a piece of tamarind. The scent of tamarind and rock salt fills me with a sense of dormant excitement, a harbinger of the exciting things that lie ahead. It transports me to the ‘kottathalam’ the huge granite floored wash area in my grandmother’s home, lined with brass utensils waiting to be scoured out with the tamarind mix, until they glisten like gold. That for me signifies the start of the festival. Next to the wash area is the mammoth kitchen, which smells of burning wood and freshly pounded masalas, from the slow cooked curries, gently simmering away on the wood fired open stoves, like a contented elderly matron.
 The night before Vishu, is a magical time when the puja room in my grandmother’s house gets transformed into an ethereal space, filled with brocades and antique brass ware. The scent of fresh jasmine garlands and wreaths of golden hued ‘konna’ flowers hang heavily in the air, mixed with sandalwood scented incense and burning, oil soaked, plump cotton wicks. It is this scent which permeates our senses first, even as we falter in blindfolded, with clumsy steps, like a baby learning to walk; unsure of where to put its foot next. It somehow make the whole experience of actually seeing the beautiful arrangement of flowers, fruits, the deity adorned in brocade and bathed in a celestial amber light from the flickering lamps, more pleasurable; much like how eating a meal off delicate porcelain china, enhances the taste and the overall experience of the meal. 

The much awaited' kaineetam'*, brings with it, the scent of crisp, freshly minted currency ,which are doled out by benevolent relatives. Most childhood festival memories in my mind, feature my grandmother; with her gossamer thin muslin ‘ mundu veshti’* that smells of starch and buttery, mellow sunshine and soft skin which smells of Nivea cream and floral scented talcum powder, always ready to pamper us with gifts and time in equal measure.
Scents and odors, they say travel right up to the emotional or memory making part of your brain and words find their way up to the thinking parts. For me, it combines to turn an experience into a beautiful memory, to last a life time.
* Kaineetam:The popular tradition of elders giving money to younger ones or dependents of the family.

Friday, January 6, 2017

This is it --- Musings, as we embark on another trip around the sun.

The majestic copper pod tree, with its golden yellow and amber tinted flowers, framed by the windows, formed a living tapestry on my bedroom wall. The ground around the tree would almost always be carpeted with fallen yellow flowers; like a pool of liquid sunshine.

 At times, as I go about my day, putting away freshly laundered clothes, burying my face in it for a moment and taking in the scent of old sunshine and starch, I catch a glimpse of the tree, now shorn of all its adornment, gently reminding me that winter is on its way. At other times as I steal some moments, to tryst with my thoughts, curled up on the couch next to the window, the tree quivers in a gentle breeze and I see tiny buds sprouting up in preparation for spring. To me, the tree is a silent reminder of the seasons slipping off like pearls, from the thread of time.

So it seems to me a cruel twist of irony, that this tree with the brilliant yellow flowers which had so firmly planted itself as part of my daily life, should meet its end at the hands of another flower.
‘Vardah*‘ or the red rose, that wrecked havoc over Tamilnadu and gave us a whiff of what terror feels like, plucked   off my copper pod tree like a jasmine bud from a bower.  My eyes still keep  returning  to that spot where the tree stood, muddled  for a moment to see the vacant space, before the painful prick of reality sinks in, much like a person who has shaved her long locks off   keeps reaching for the hairbrush, to brush the nonexistent locks. Impermanence seems to me, a grey hooded sorcerer, who can change the world as we know it, with a wave of his mystical wand.  

I have often found that most of the unresolved questions in our lives, which often hover on self pity (why did this happen to me?) tend to be like, being spoken to in a foreign tongue. You can only respond after you have mastered /translated the language; the same way the answers will appear before you, when you are ready to see them in the light of your age earned wisdom.

‘Wabi-sabi’,the beautiful Japanese concept of finding beauty in imperfection and accepting impermanence, seems to me deceptively simple yet extremely difficult to follow in our daily lives.

 The act of being fully present in the moment and living it for what it is and not how we wish it would be, seems to me a lofty task. The opposite of inattention seems to be love, for I find that I can easily pay attention to something/ someone if love is involved. It does not require much effort from my part to be fully present, to be mindful.

 So then, this is it. This moment is all that we have. Everything else, the flowers and trees, our feelings and  priorities, our grudges and agonies, the look in  our  child’s eye, even  life as we know it today, are temporary.

 This new year, let us  get lost in little moments of mindfulness, pay close attention to our loved ones and keep an open heart; who knows, we may even find ourselves and each other in the process.

Happy New Year!


Sunday, November 27, 2016

Where the light gets in

Dr Denton Cooley, the name sounded exotic to my 6 year old self. It was unlike any other name I had heard before. It sounded exotic and important; a name to be uttered in hushed tones, respectfully, almost reverently. The fact that people were willing to travel to the opposite side of the earth, in the middle of a brutal winter to consult him, made him a sort of demigod in my eyes.

 To my sister and me, the celebrated cardiologist was nothing short of a hero, who had miraculously healed our beloved grandfather or ‘appachan’, as we fondly called him. I often picture my grandfather travelling with my father to faraway Houston, their maiden voyage to a foreign land; their bodies, used to tropical weather, reacting with shock to the sudden drastic  dip in temperature; their minds getting overwhelmed from having to absorb a whole new world around them.

Afterwards, when our grandfather lapsed into tales of his adventures abroad, he would describe the sterile hospital rooms and corridors, so clean that you could almost eat off its floors; the nurses with their kind, sympathetic eyes and accented instructions which made him feel almost guilty, for asking them to repeat it again, slowly. The huge portions of food they served, always with a helping of dessert, jelly which looked like brightly colored glass cubes or a sweet muffin, which he never managed to finish.

 His eyes lit up every time he spoke about Dr Cooley; the tall, soft spoken doctor who had given him the best gift a person could give another; the gift of time. Time, to watch his granddaughters grow from pig tailed girls to young women; time, to teach them the ways of the world, to love them, to know them and pass on his legacy to them.  His eyes turned moist and threatened to overflow when he spoke about Dr Cooley, who wore his celebrity status so lightly and treated each patient as a person first and not just a number to be ticked off the list, who took out the time to sit with the patient and his family, to answer their ‘silly’ doubts and dispel their fears. As Sir William Osler quoted, “A good physician treats the disease; the great physician treats the patient who has the disease”.

 “Have you seen the hands of God?’ he once asked me. Amused by my bewildered expression, he continued “it was a pair of hands that gently shook me awake, welcomed me into my new life after the surgery. It felt warm and surprisingly soft, as it held my hand and as I looked into Dr Cooley’s blue eyes speckled with a tinge of grey, I said to myself that these are the hands that gave me a new lease of life; these are the hands of God”.

“There is a crack, a crack in everything/That’s how the light gets in”.
-Leonard Cohen (Anthem)
You were that ray of light for our family, Dr Cooley. We thank you for that.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

A feast for the senses

It is not just any other day to linger in bed, but my eyes remain stubbornly shut, as I coax them to shed the cobwebs of delicious sleep that cling to them. It is the early hours of dawn when the day is still like a coy maiden, with the first rays of delicate, rosy tinted light streaking her pale cheeks.  I scramble out of bed, nudging my sleeping cousins, who crawl deeper into their quilts in response.
The house wears a shroud of serenity, which belies the frenzy of activities that will soon ensue. I sidle next to my paternal grandmother or ‘valliamma’ as we call her, helping myself to the milk biscuits that she religiously has with her morning coffee.  I listen to her going over the things planned for the day, as I dunk my biscuit into her glass of milky coffee and savour the sweet mush. The preparations and the festive air that precedes the festival, excites me more than the actual festival itself.  
When a little girl has her brand new silk skirt, the colour of a ripe pomegranate, trimmed with gold brocade, matching glass bangles that tinkle every time she moves her hands and little jhumkas (earrings) to complete the outfit; she wants nothing more from life- for that day. My cousins and I gather around our grandmother, dressed in our festive finery, which have been carefully chosen by her. She inspects each of us and adds her little touches; a smear of’ kajal’, a touch of talcum powder, smoothing out a ruffled pleat of a skirt. Her apparent joy in seeing us dolled up makes us silently vow, not to spoil our clothes or mess up our hair.

We troop out into the courtyard to help out with the flower carpet preparations, presided over by my grandmother. It is an ambitious project, but then, my grandmother is not known to do anything on a small scale. A talented artist bordering on genius, she has drawn an enormous picture of a little Krishna leaning against an ivory colored calf, a golden flute on his lips, under an arbour of multi colored flowers and creepers . Aunts, uncles, house helps, are all engrossed in various stages of preparations. There is a certain invisible hierarchy that is in play. The minions fetch the flowers and the leaves, sort it according to color and shred it to tiny bits, so that it looks like a smooth carpet when it is done. The more ‘talented assistants’ follow instructions and slowly use the flowers to add life to the picture, sometimes mixing two or three flowers to get that perfect shade. In the center of it all, sits my grandmother orchestrating this symphony of flowers.

It is almost noon and the great dining hall has been cleared of all furniture, cleaned and lined with straw coloured reed mats on the ebony coloured floor. Fresh banana leaves are placed in front of the mats and from a distance it looks like the room is framed with borders of beige and green. The center of the room is lined with a plethora of dishes in gleaming steel and brass utensils. There is steaming hot, fluffy rice to be doused with ghee and salted dal, the colour of daffodils. Sambar the quintessential lentil stew, tangy rasam ; avial, the medley of vegetables in a coconut paste, thorans, crisp, flavourful vegetable stir-fry spiked with shallots and a dash of freshly grated coconut, crunchy papadams and an assortment of chips, pickles, relishes and almost all the sidekicks that make up a malayalee sadhya. For dessert there are payasams; at least two kinds.  The entire family sits down to partake of this festive meal, like generations before us. The dishes remain the same over the years, the people sitting down to eat change; some new faces gets added some fade away.

Towards late afternoon, as the gluttony induced coma slowly ebbs, we race upstairs to the ‘unjal muri’ or the ‘swing room’ to claim the best seats on the swing. It is a huge rectangular shaped room, fringed on all sides with windows painted a mint green, bare except for a huge swing which hangs in the middle. The swing itself is gigantic and can easily hold six of us , painted to echo the same mint green colour of the windows. Most of the paint has peeled away revealing how popular it is with the inmates of the house. A room exclusively allotted to enjoy the pleasures that only a swing can provide. Some days we swing higher and higher till our  feet almost touches the ceiling and everything around us blurs and for those deliciously agonizing moments, it is just us, the wind in our hair and our heaving insides. On other days we lounge on its broad surface, devouring a good book or simply day dreaming, as it gently rocks us to and fro.
After we are sufficiently dizzy and nauseous, but miraculously ravenous enough to ponder on the snacks that will be served with tea; we ambush the harried cook, who is yet to recover from the lunch fiasco. There is pazhampori, batter coated sweetened bananas; plump ,crisp and golden brown and ‘elayada’  a  mixture of honey coloured jaggery and fresh coconut smothered in sugar, sealed in a disc of rice flour dough, wrapped in a piece of banana leaf and steamed till cooked.  The filling transforms into a treacle like consistency lending the perfect balance to the bland rice flour coating, and the burst of flavours as I bite into it is nothing short of alchemy.
The day slowly takes its last bow, amidst games, laughter, lively conversations and creating memories to last a life time.

Onam is perhaps one of the rare festivals that celebrate a demon king and his triumph over the gods. As the legendary king Mahabali who was banished to the netherworld, returns back for a day of revelry with his beloved subjects, how delightful it would be, to bring back our inner child, from the deepest recesses of our mind and spend a day filled with good food, family, laughter, games and the simple pleasures of life.
Happy Onam!

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Our beacon light

“St Josephs be our beacon light, in this wild and tempestuous night..
Be our radiant, guiding star o’er life’s troubled seas, till dawns eternity”

Some songs are so much a part of you, that the lyrics and the  melody  come to you magically, even though the last time you sung it maybe  a couple of decades ago; standing in  that expansive school ground, hemmed in on all sides by beautifully preserved school buildings, which are more than a 150 years old.  It’s the morning assembly time, when the scorching sun coats everything in your line of vision, in a hazy white layer, like looking through a curtain of ivory, gossamer thin mulmul or muslin.  The assembly always ends with the school pledge and the dramatic swooning of some students who cannot stand the heat and the subsequent scramble to whisk them away to the ‘sick room’. The girls file into the class rooms, smartly dressed in their navy blue pinafore, which falls exactly two inches below the knee.

There is something about school teachers that makes you gush like a school girl, even as you introduce your school going child to her. You remember the teachers along with their little quirks, the lessons they taught you, which ironically have little to do with academics and most importantly the quiet, unobtrusive way they helped you evolve from wide eyed, giggly girls to young ladies; ready to deal with real world outside the school.

The class rooms are bright and airy with high ceilings, exuding an old world charm, with wooden desks that have been used by generations of girls before you; the carved inscriptions giving you a glimpse into their school days. The class rooms open out into wide parapets, where you spend many a recess hour, sharing tasty morsels of lunch with your friends, while doling out delicious bits of school girl gossip or spread out your books, trying to coax your brain to cram in as much information as possible, before an exam. The first floor class rooms open out to wooden planked corridors that creak every time you run though it and makes you stop for second to ensure that it has not crumbled under your weight.

The chapel is like an oasis of calm in the frenzy of activity that marks a typical school day .It is cool and dark with an arched doorway and marble flooring which feels cold, even through your stockinged feet. You sit on the polished wooden pew, letting the scent of incense, the soothing soft murmur of a nun deep in prayer, her wooden rosary keeping count and the intermittent toll of the chapel bell lull you into a state of tranquility.

Outside the chapel, the school ground is abuzz with the hustle and bustle of lunch break. You come across a group of girls, deep into a game of lock and key or basket ball, someone trips and scrapes her knee and is taken to the office room, where the staff in charge brings out the large first aid box and dabs the wound with a smear of tincture of iodine, its startling purple shade covering up the wound. In the distance, you can hear the strains of the trumpets and the steady beat of the drums as the school band does its practice sessions. Sports day is fast approaching and the two opposing teams red house and blue house, recognizable with the red and blue badges practice hard to beat each other in an eternal battle for supremacy.

The screeching sound of the electric bell   as it slices through the quiet afternoon signifies the end of another long school day, filled with laughter, learning and friends. You pack your bags and say your goodbyes, safe in the knowledge that tomorrow you can do it all over again.

“Education is the movement from darkness to light”- Alan Bloom

Thank you St Josephs,  for being our  beacon light.

All photographs taken by the talented Saina Jayapal.

Friday, August 5, 2016

Take a little time – a note to my son from my 11 year old self

Dear Kanna,
If you can stretch your imagination far enough to a time, when you were a figment of imagination yourself, you can see her sitting crossed leg on the floor. She is wearing a blue frock, the color of the summer sky seen through wisps of tattered clouds. She is 11 years old, scrawny with untidy hair covering her forehead and a mischievous glint in her eyes, just like you. She looks up and smiles at you and her smile seems strangely familiar and comforting, like a beautiful melody sung in a foreign tongue.

As your 11th birthday inches closer, she wants to assure you that 11 is a wonderful age to be, an age where childhood is still friends with budding boyhood.
She wishes that you would take a little time, to savor this year and not be in a hurry to be a ‘big boy’, as these moments drenched in the sunshine of innocence, will leave everlasting memories when you are a ‘big boy’. Take a little time this year, to be comfortable in your own skin. As Dr Seuss quoted” “Today you are You, that is truer than true. There is no one alive who is Youer than You”. Good things happen when you don’t pretend to be what you are not.

She hopes as you sit side by side on the moss covered wall, brown legs swinging to and fro like an orchestrated performance, that you will take a little time to laugh, love and live rather than exist.
Take a little time to tell your loved ones what they mean to you, and realize that what you see in their eyes is perhaps the closest you will come to magic.

She prays, as she watches a tiny dimple jump down your cheek in response to a joke she cracked, that you will take a little time to cement in the cracks of failure and disappointment not with guilt or fear but perseverance and love, with some tears to soften the rough edges.

She whispers, as you tearfully bid her good bye that she wants you to take a little time to remember that the magic is within you.

Friday, June 10, 2016

The language of God

  As the car winds its way through the narrow roads of the quaint little village of Elangoor, sandwiched between layers of verdant greenery, spilling on to the sun dappled streets, my son is enthralled by the sheer beauty of the place. Local tea shops, ‘chaya kadas’, the quintessential countryside social hub, that brew fragrant milky tea and gossip with equal gusto, dot the scenic way. Its glass cases are piled high with artery clogging, soul satisfying, deep fried treats; ‘pazhampori’, banana fritters golden and crisp, spicy ‘bondas’, mashed potato spiced to perfection, batter coated and fried.

 Ironically, the first thing I notice is the silence that envelops the place; not the kind that is stifling and weighs you down, but the kind that washes over you and invites you to enjoy the moment. It follows me as we pull into my husband’s ancestral house, to spend a day with his grandmother. ‘Ammumma’ exudes a sense of serenity, an absence of restlessness or agitation; even time seems to glide by her in slow, graceful moments rather than the frenzied, hurried ticking I am accustomed to.

She is a lady of few words, but then, she is one of those people who radiates so much of warmth and positivity that words seems superfluous. Her delight in having us over is apparent in the lunch that she serves us; supervising the cooking herself, so that the ‘naadan chicken roast’ (one of my husband’s favorite dishes) is roasted just so, redolent of coconut oil, crisp curry leaves and toasted bits of coconut and the baby mango pickle, tart, spicy and delicious is taken out of the huge ceramic urns or ‘bharanis’, where they are preserved with a thick layer of oil, especially for the visiting great grandchild.

“I’m a year younger than this house, I’ve lived here all my life” she tells me, mildly amused at my fascination with it. The house, like most old houses where generations of a family have lived their multiple lives under its roof, is full of character. It is filled with unexpected nooks and crannies and echoes of countless laughter, conversation, and memories resonating off of its walls.

She talks to me about her childhood in this house, the mango saplings she planted around the house, of how she loved spending time among trees and plants who are still her friends, of how she has discovered a new passion; collecting exotic recipes. I am humbled and inspired by her enthusiasm and zest for life; the way she has kept her sense of wonder intact. I discover that she has learnt the art of befriending her solitude rather than fearing it or despising it.

As Rumi quoted “Silence is the language of God, all else is poor translation”

realize then, that she has deciphered the language of God.