Sri. Me.And the ghosts of childhood past

I am sitting on the steps in front of the house underneath the cool green canopy of our jasmine bush. While breathing in the subtle fragrance of these delicate white blossoms, I can’t help thinking of my grandpa; my thatha.It is my favourite place in my grandparents’ house in my small hometown of SriRangam. He had planted and nurtured this bush and I can’t help thinking this is his lasting legacy. He passed away a few years ago at the ripe old age of 94. Sitting on these steps, my mind travels through myriad moments across multiple summer holidays , many of which were spent at my uncle’s place a few doors down, where my grandparents used to live before they came here. This summer holiday is a little different from the others. This time, I am here with my little one for her summer holiday, to show her the town that her mother and grandparents hail from. Is it because I want to show off that my heart seems to have more affection for Sri?

I actually like her now.

It wasn’t always like that.

I never really liked Sri growing up. She was too small and too crowded. One had to share space on the streets with shops whose merchandise overflowed on to the street, roadside stalls and raucous vendors, adventurous auto rickshaw wallas, honking cycle rickshaws, cows, hens and sundry other domestic fauna. Oh yeah, every so often, there was the temple elephant too ambling along taking coins from passersby and blessing them in return.

Everyone spoke in Tamil. Of course they would, the town was in the Tamil hinterland, you say. But for me, understanding and navigating the different accents, the various nuances and the localisms was very intimidating.(I am used to speaking Tamil only at home, having mostly lived outside TN. This was Iyengar Tamil, which, I learnt much later, was different from Iyer Tamil and Chennai Tamil and ten thousand other variants of Tamil, apparently. Even Lord Ranganatha (Vishnu), our resident deity, couldn’t save me!) I couldn’t get comfortable.

Life in Sri pretty much revolves around the Ranganatha temple. She has grown that way, with settlements all around the grand temple complex expanding outwards. Going to the temple is an unquestionable requirement, not a choice. And though I enjoyed the walk through the glittering shop lined street and loved even more the wide open spaces in the huge, beautiful old temple complex, I hated going for the darshan. I had to brave serpentine queues, rude guards and pushy maamis( “we come here every day for this sevai, how dare you presume to tell us not to push you and squash you?”). All this, barely to get a glimpse at the deity before being shoved and shouted out of the sanctum. Spiritual experience, it definitely is not.

Staying with my grandparents meant adhering to the rules of my formidable grandmother, my patti, who I haven’t stopped being scared of even now at the ripe old age of 35! Her rules include(d) everything from personal appearance , to personal hygiene to random things that defied logic (like this time, she said you can’t go back to your husband’s house from your parents house on the 9th day. Why? Beats me) It was sacrilege to be without a bindi and an unadorned neck and hands. Leave my hair open, and I risk angering the whole pantheon of Hindu Gods! Gods or not, I was more worried about incurring my patti’s wrath. All good girls had long, well oiled & plaited hair adorned with flowers (Imagine how I felt, I who rarely had hair long enough to stick a pin on, forget the plaits and the flowers). It wasn’t just her though, it was the town. The neighbourhood maami would come and insist I wear flowers while the maid would remind me that my forehead was bare (Lady, I just woke up, haven’t even sniffed the coffee yet!). And my mother, anxious not to let her child be seen in a “bad” light, would suddenly turn into a big nag. I felt stifled, and out of place.

This is not to say I didn’t have fun. It was loads of fun to meet aunts and uncles and cousins. Awesome to be part of weddings and engagements and ceremonies for which we all usually congregated. Fun to get my local cousin to buy ‘panneer soda’. Eat masala dosas by the dozen. Gorge on the tons of food lovingly fed by my patti and other aunts. The whole lot of us sleeping together on durries in the large hall. Good times, but if I were to make a list of my favourite places in the world, Sri would have been hard pressed to find a place on it.

In retrospect, it was probably when I got married to my north Indian husband that I felt closer to my roots. As if being part of a new reality was making me more aware of mine, and more appreciative of it.

So it was, that this time when I wanted to introduce my little girl to the place and reality I come from, I felt more ….accepting of it. And this acceptance made me look back at things in a different light. When the present becomes a memory it somehow becomes rosier, doesn’t it? Sepia tinged. Gilt edged. Instagrammed.

I felt I had been given a chance to rediscover the town that I was born in, but have never felt attached to. I was determined. Born and brought up in Srirangam, my mother became my willing aide. I visited the Ranganathar Temple armed with an audio guide app and my mother and set out to enjoy every gopuram and every story of this magnificent structure of history and faith. Not once, but thrice in order to cover it to my satisfaction. My daughter loved the stories, the wide open spaces, the elephant sculptures and dropping coins in the Hundi.  And in her laughter I remembered the fun I had had too. The darshan was still a crowded, pushy affair, but this time I chose to marvel at the immense faith of the people that made them brave the heat and crowds just to catch that one glimpse of their God.

After years I was enthusiastic about climbing up Rockfort, a Ganesh temple set atop a hill. And got sorely beaten by a 5 year old and a 65 yr old in enthusiasm and joy. An old friend and a weekend visit from a cousin and his wife added to the merry party.

Kolams (Rangoli) in the morning are an intrinsic part of my tamil identity and of my association with Sri. For the first time in all these years, I took the responsibility of making the morning kolam in my patti’s house and felt a new sense of belonging.  And I realised, is it Sri’s fault that I had never made her my own?

My daughter fed a cow. Gave a coin to the elephant, which she could not have enough of. Met goats and squirrels. She sat on the stairs by the window, and read, like I once used to do. Along with her, I dressed up with gusto. We happily tied our hair and wore jewellery and wore a bindi. Small everyday things, but I felt relieved, in a way. I wasn’t rebelling any more. There was no need to.

This is not to say that I have become more religious or traditional or ritualistic. I am still the same. But, accepting Sri for what she is, even for a brief period, made me happy and content.

This trip therefore, was important and memorable in more ways than one. One of the best moments however, was when I told my mother that I wanted to wear flowers, white & orange, enough to cover my hair. The shock on her face was equal to her look when I broke the news of wanting to marry a North Indian, Non Vegetarian, Non Brahmin!

Both times though, it was worth it.

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Thanks to the Helper Monkeys at WordPress :)

So wordpress summarizes the performance of each blog at the end of the year… this is how ashishandradhika.com did this year !

The stats helper monkeys at WordPress.com mulled over how this blog did in 2010, and here’s a high level summary of its overall blog health:

Healthy blog!

The Blog-Health-o-Meter™ reads Wow.

Crunchy numbers

Featured image

A helper monkey made this abstract painting, inspired by your stats.

A Boeing 747-400 passenger jet can hold 416 passengers. This blog was viewed about 5,300 times in 2010. That’s about 13 full 747s.

In 2010, there were 14 new posts, growing the total archive of this blog to 98 posts. There were 11 pictures uploaded, taking up a total of 358kb. That’s about a picture per month.

The busiest day of the year was September 16th with 115 views. The most popular post that day was A few dusty books…. (a story).

Where did they come from?

The top referring sites in 2010 were facebook.com, samvedg.blogspot.com, orkut.co.in, orkut.com, and myprivategarden-sapling.blogspot.com.

Some visitors came searching, mostly for ashishandradhika, sussegad, candle, ashishradhika.com, and diwali candle.

Attractions in 2010

These are the posts and pages that got the most views in 2010.

1

A few dusty books…. (a story) September 2010
41 comments and 1 Like on WordPress.com,

2

A job more important….. (a rather short story) September 2010
22 comments and 3 Likes on WordPress.com

3

An ode to my cubicle… March 2010
15 comments

4

About Us ! February 2008
5 comments

5

Imagine… June 2010
12 comments

A Sunflower in a Coriander patch…( A story)

I found my way to the verandah and sat on the footsteps leading into the house. The sun was bright and sunny, the warmth of the sunshine embraced me as I emerged from the shady interiors of our house. Three bedrooms, one kitchen, one hall and a verandah…all wrapped together by a piece of land we called our garden … vegetables planted in the back and flowers grown out front.

Sometimes, Sunflower seedlings would sprout amongst the coriander sprigs at the back…

“They are shy” Amma used to say,” They do not like to be seen by everyone but only the family, if you take good care of them, water them everyday, they will flower soon”

And believing her I would take special care to water the shy ones, the ones who were resplendent in private, whose beauty was known to only those who were allowed to walk over all the way to the back of the house…who managed to get past the hall filled with heavy wooden furniture, the living quarters strewn with rumpled bed sheets and text books covered with brown paper and a kitchen fragrant with spices of a meal in the offing…

A sunflower in a coriander patch… how incongruous, how endearing…

“Can you come back to Kanpur tomorrow? Beta, mummy is not well. Beta, just come”, said my father before breaking down over the phone…
I had to call my uncle to get the sordid details… an internal infection, a high fever, a sudden failure of the body organs, and suddenly, my home seemed so far away from Mumbai….

A frantic search for available flights and a flurry of calls later, I found myself aboard a 3.5 hour long flight back to Kanpur…

How many times have you said goodbye to your mother?

Each day, each morning, she would drop whatever she was doing to see me to the door as I left for school. I waved back too… am sure I did. Or did I? A thousand inconsequential farewells…

And then there was the day I left for my engineering college… my parents dropped me at the college and helped me complete the mountains of paperwork colleges in India demand before you are given a room in a hostel and a roll number for the next 4 years. I was scared as my parents waited for the cab to take them back to the railway station. She turned and gave me a big hug and held me till I squirmed with embarrassment. Her face covered in tears she went away, waving from the window…

I missed my family terribly for the first few months at college, writing long winding letters and making anxious call home each weekend… I cannot really pin-point when was it that I moved on from being home sick to falling in love with my college life.

“Can’t you get a job in Delhi, its closer to Kanpur? Why Mumbai?” She had asked, just once. I was too filled with pride at my newly acquired job to notice the hint of sadness in her question. I packed away my stuff making sure that I carried some of my favorite books along. She helped me clear up my book cases, absent mindedly flipping the pages of some books that she had bought with me together over the years.

They waved as I entered the airport… standing next to our old family car… and I waved goodbye never to look back.

The flight was now circling over Kanpur… I could see the blue crescent of the Yamuna river as it sliced the city into two…

“This is where I come from” I thought to myself, “And this is where they remained”

The cab ride to the hospital was a blur… The entrance to her private room was crowded with friends and family…

“Your father is inside, they just brought her from the ICU” Someone said between hugs and greetings and somber smiles…

I found him sitting by his side. My burly father seemed even larger sitting by her tiny frame. She seemed asleep, and he was talking to her, in a voice so filled with love that I nearly cried. He turned towards me and looked at me with eyes rimmed with tears. My own eyes stung as I bent down to touch his feet, and in a voice not completely my own I said

“Don’t worry Papa, everything will be fine”

We sat by her side through the night… the medical equipment blinked and beeped and her breath rattled in her chest as it strained its way through her tired body. The needles and tubes running in her body, her matted hair against the pillow, and eyes slightly clenched as she slept. In the morning, after a spell of disturbed breathing, she passed away.

The next few days were a blur of ceremonies and rituals… all I remember are snatches of conversations, grieving faces, all of us pouring a blend of ingredients into a holy fire. Amongst all of this, I found myself tearing up each time I saw her picture laden with garlands.

That picture, is now hanging in the hall. Next to the oil painting she painted years ago… facing the window. “This is a good location for hanging my paintings” She used to say, “The sun light makes everything in the picture glow”

I lit up a cigarette and breathed in the smoke, and smiled wryly as I remembered how much she hated my smoking. Well, some things are hard to let go of I guess. I walked all the way round to the back of the house… our vegetable garden needed to be weeded. I could almost see her bent over the rows of plants, using tools improvised with kitchen utensils to hoe the soil, uproot the weeds and trim the dry branches…making space for the fruits to grow… making sure that the fallen leaves, did not hold back the young saplings.

I treaded carefully amongst the rows of plants, trying not to get too much mud on my leather loafers… and then I saw it, nestled amongst the sprigs of coriander, a tiny sunflower seedling.

“What is that?”, I turned to find my six year old nephew standing beside me…

I pointed a finger and said, “That’s a sunflower plant”

“But it does not have any flowers !”

“It will flower if you water them”, I smiled as I stubbed my cigarette..

“Trust me….they always flower. ”

Ramblings at 2 AM…

I have never been known to write poetry with any semblance of elegance… please be kind 🙂
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I waited with bated breath, for the moment to pass me by
Untouched and unnoticed… tip toeing… on the sly
Smiling knowingly, I wave in its wake
Who needs secrets anyways…

A life left behind, and a life yet to live
Of what I received and what I have to give
Balancing one while the other walks away
Who needs equations anyway…

Pointless journeys and meaningful rests
Constant scurrying from east to west
Missing the monsoons on a sunny day
Who needs day dreams anyway …

A girl I love, and a love fulfilled
Smiles and laughter, and tear drops spilt
Tart and sweet, a marriage is made
Who needs to be alone anyway …

You can hear the whistle blow a 100 miles…

As the train finally started moving, I could barely contain my excitement. Pressed to the window, watching the people & the hawkers & the waiting room & the Wheelers Stall all pass by with increasing speed, my mind crowds with multiple emotions- excitement, anticipation, & somewhat strangely, a peacefulness.
I love train journeys. I am traveling with my dad to my native town in interior TamilNadu, and apart from the excitement of meeting all my relatives, the most awaited aspect of this vacation was this – the train journey! That I am traveling with my dad, after ages, brings back a flood of nostalgia…and the landscape outside changes to twenty five years of flashes of memories…

Train journeys – how much preparation went into them! Days before we (us kids) would decide what luggage to take & argue with mom about the clothes to carry, the number of books & comics, what games to fit in. Travelling games usually would be Uno, Memory, Ludo etc. There was this phase when all the kids in the neighbourhood, probably the country, went crazy after WWF cards, and Racing cards & what not & my brother was one of them. So these would be carried along too.

Food preparation used to be a huge activity in itself. Now that I have seen more of the world I have realized that every family has its own staple travel food- For example,My husband’s family, who are from UP, used to carry parathas or puris with a dry aloo ki subzi. In fact, we are carrying some of the yummy stuff with us right now. Many of us must have seen Gujaratis or Marwaris travel- boy- I don’t think they have any separate journey food- They somehow manage to carry the very same meals they have at home on travel too, from farsaan to salad to pickle!
For us, Tam Brahms that we were, Idlies & thayir sadham (Curd Rice!) was the most common staple. Mum would prepare idlies by the dozen & would carefully smear each with an oil & gun powder paste, instead of carrying the usual sambar-chutney which would spoil. Sometimes instead of idlies we would have puliyodharai (tamarind rice) or lemon rice. Curd Rice however was omnipresent. It was fragrantly seasoned with coriander & curry leaves, green chillies & ginger for a subtle bite with a sprinkling of mustard seeds & urad dal. If it were summer, we would have freshly cut pieces of raw mango with salt & chilli paste to go with- merely the thought of this combination is making my mouth water! Its true – curd rice & Tam Brahms are inseparable-whatever part of the world they are in or however many cuisines they enjoy! Now apart from the food we carried, there would be a lot of intermittent snacking going on, where every hawker who passed by was stopped, his wares examined, & more often than not, sent on his way lighter.. and what about all the chais & coffees?

“Cha—i—ya, chai-yya…” “Bhaiya- ek chai dena.” As I sip on my third chai of the journey, I can’t help but think how those days have undergone a change.
Those were the days when second class travel was the norm and AC a rare luxury. When train bathrooms didn’t give you nightmares from days before.When train food was fun & hygiene was simply a word in the dictionary. When hawkers added to the excitement instead of being a nuisance. When time was our own and no one was in a hurry….
You know we would usually reach the station about 2 hours earlier, because , well, my father is a cautious man , to say the least. So that would mean a good 2 hour time pass at the station – as a child I guess a railway platform is a fascinating place – there s so much happening! Now, all that I can see is an unbearably dirty station, stinking & smelling of the sweat of all the people jostling each other for space with railway carts, luggage, hawkers, beggars & the odd stray animal. Hair raising to say the least, but then, I am the one who has changed…

I like to simply look out the window… the whizzing varying landscape fascinates me…here field after field of sun flowers.. there you have mangroves for miles.. rice fields pass by now, with a solitary farmer trudging along side his crop…then a beautiful serene vast expanse of water- was that a crane that broke the surface?…then a bridge comes & the steady clatter of the wheels changes to a slower deep baritone & I look in awe at the river flowing beneath, always thinking, what if…? Here comes a city..a line of impatient lorries & cars & scooters straining against the level crossing….the window is actually like a bioscope..
There usually would be a mini World War between my brother & me- who would get the window seat? Usually, I being the elder one, always got to be the larger hearted one & had to give him whatever he wanted. The many sacrifices an elder sibling has to make for the ever-demanding never-satisfied greedy younger ones is not funny  Well anyway we would arrive at some kind of amicable arrangement for the window…I remember this one time when he & I were traveling all by ourselves for the very first time- from Chennai to Hyderabad to meet our cousins. Boy were we excited or what! I remember we kept chatting & giggling non stop throughout the journey….

Its getting dark as I am writing this now. I am snuggled beneath my sheet with my curtains drawn & my little over head light shining a little round spot on this page as I write…I think am sleepy now.

As I switch off the light & lie down, I am happy & peaceful as my eyes are lulled to a close with the soothing rhythmic movement of the train echoing in my sub conscious…

The one where there is a wedding…

Lets drop the ‘cousin’ business right over here shall we ? We don’t really have an equivalent word for a cousin from where I come from…

Till a week earlier, I was an IT consultant pretending to solve the problems of the world. Till 3 days earlier my elder brother was struggling with designing a better a more beautiful Delhi airport. The eldest brother in the family was busy wrapping up things in London before flying off to India for a week, while the sister in Bangalore was busy convincing her 6 year old son that he will be able to manage two days of school without her being around. Suits were dusted and cleaned and jewelry was taken out of bank lockers…Hundreds of tickets were booked and a million dresses tried on, saris oohed over and menus cast aside… before we all decided to set everything else aside and come together give our sister a perfect wedding.

She was my younger sister growing up in our small little town. My earliest memories of her take me back when I was well, a kid myself. Chacha, Chachi and Pikku would appear magically during the night. I would wake up on an otherwise usual morning to find more faces than usual around the house… I used to look forward to Chacha’s trips to Lucknow from his various postings across northern India. And sometimes, I would get a day off school when they came visiting.Things as you may have noted, used to be distinctly happy.

And then Chacha, was transferred to Lucknow…. Where he and his family became a part of my childhood like few others have been. I found a playmate in Pikku, we explored unexplored frontiers of crumbling tube-well walls and ancient banayan trees around my house. She loved our dogs, and spoiled them silly when she visited. I ate more ice cream at her birthday parties than I care to remember, and while teasing her about her tastes in music became a fan of Michael Jackson myself. We fought and made up, and told each other of our first adolescent crushes and decided that no one,was really so worth it in life.

Then we grew up, went on to chase goals loftier than racing paper boats in the monsoons. On a rather cold night in the American Midwest, I received a midnight call from India telling me that Pikku had made it in the Civil Services. I found myself distributing chocolate to bemused Americans at office who failed to understand why a guy would be so happy if his ‘first cousin’ was going to end up working for the Indian government ! And a few months later, she emailed to tell me that she was now engaged !

So a year later, I found myself sitting on the side, watching her get married. The night was cold and dewy, and the sacred fire seemed strangely comforting. The cacophony and euphoria of the wedding day had given way to a rather still silence.

How does one react to the marriage of a sister? You are incredibly happy at the thought of her having found the guy she wants to be with for the rest of her life, yet your thoughts are tinged with a bit with sadness that she won’t be loafing around the house then next time you visit Chacha’s home. I wonder if the tradition of conducting marriage ceremonies late into the night has something to do with allowing people to deal with their own memories. The darkness and the play of fire allow ample opportunities to hide an impertinent tear if you chose to. The sonorous singing of wedding songs sets the stage for a person to move onto the next stage of their life. Memories are revisited and smiled at, and brushed aside with an indulgent shrug. As you remember the games played in sunny courtyards and the scraped knees that eventually lead to a slap and confinement to the bed for the rest of the day, you realize, that you are possibly older now than you yourself realize.

The tears at a wedding, are more for what has been; than what is to be…

And then, you see your sister smile. And notice how content the two of them appear when they are together. You realize how fulfilling your own life has been since the time you yourself decided to share it with someone five years ago, and are glad that your sister chose to walk down the same path.

The Great North Indian wedding is festooned with red and gold and marigold. While celebrating the marriage itself, it is also a celebration of The Great Indian Family. Aunts, uncles and the neighbors-next-door-from-10-years-back, all have a role to play and a script to follow. In an ostentatious swirl of music , food, dancing and a rare inebriated relative, there is an enormous joy and tenderness in spending time together with the people you rarely see but dearly love. It is a celebration of how a family scattered across the continents like seeds from pod, manages to be at the same place at the same time and behave as if nothing really changed in the 15 years or so since they last met. Middle aged men still get called kiddy names by uncles on the verge of retirement while the brothers who made it a habit of disappearing round the corner for a discrete cigarette or two are still found lurking in the shadows with a smoke in hand. All of us from my generation of kids were there for the wedding, possibly the first time in the last decade or so. Most of us had managed to grow a few grey hairs, put on a few kilos, get a few kids and a wife or a husband or two in the last few years.

I wonder when will all of us be together again… probably at another wedding. When the remaining brood of my family will pause a while from life as we know it and assemble around another sacred fire on a winter night…. and wish another one of our kin, a beautiful life ahead. Like we just did for Aashwita…

Pikku, we might not have been able to say as much during the wedding as we would have wanted to. Here is wishing you and Atul all the joy in the world. And we hope you know that whenever life gets a bit too much for both of you, there is always a place to hideaway at our home.

Love,
Ashish & Radhika

Yes we can…

First Black President of the United States…Yes we can.

Iran.Afghanistan.Cairo.Multilateral ism… Yes we can.

Barack Obama: Nobel Peace Prize Winner 2009…Yes we can.

Even though I agree to have been surprised with Obama’s selection, and agree that he hasn’t really done anything yet to be able to equal the numerous people awarded the Nobel for their lifetime of contribution, I cant help but sympathise with the Nobel selection Committee , ’cause haven’t they too voted for that hope that Obama signifies – the hope of a diverse yet united world working towards a better future? The hope that the impossible can yet be possible…that dialogue and diplomacy can take the place of aggression & war? The hope of a newly humble United States leading the world , together, towards a greener , safer tomorrow?

Maybe I am just an idealist..but well, thats the audacity of hope…