Friday, April 28, 2017

Plays in Parallel

My daughter's dance school recently put on a production of  Rabindranath Tagore's Bengali language dance drama Shyama, with recorded music and live dance performances.It went very well, and was rapturously received by the audiences on both days of the show.
The story is that of a beautiful royal courtesan Shyama, who falls in love with a young merchant Bojrosen, unjustly accused of theft and condemned to death. She persuades Uttiyo, a young admirer of hers, to substitute for the merchant. Uttiyo willingly sacrifices his life reasoning that there could be no greater trajectory for his life since Shyama has rejected him and set her heart on Bojrosen instead. After Uttiyo's execution, Shyama spends happy times with her new lover. Going against counsel from her companions, but racked by guilt over the death of Uttiyo, she confesses the train of events  to Bojrosen, who is horrified and casts her aside, vowing never to allow her near again. However he still agonizes over his lost love and pines for her presence. Calling out to her desperately, grasping an anklet of his beloved, he is almost reconciled with her, but it is not to be. Haunted by his horror at what she had done to procure his freedom, and the life lost, the former lovers go their separate ways.

Tagore had reworked a brief story from Rajendralal Mitra's book of Sanskrit Buddhist tales from Nepal.

The original runs thus:

Story of Shyama and Vajrasena. —
The reason why Buddha abandoned his faithful wife Yashodhara is given in the following story.

There was in times of yore a horse-dealer at Takshasila, named
Vajrasena ; on his way to the fair at Varanasi, his horses were stolen,
and he was severely wounded. As he slept in a deserted house in the
suburbs of Varanasi, he was caught by policemen as a thief. He was
ordered to the place of execution. But his manly beauty attracted the
attention of Shyama, the first public woman in Varanasi. She grew
enamoured of the man, and requested one of her handmaids to rescue
the criminal at any hazard. By offering large sums of money, she
succeeded in inducing the executioners to set Vajrasena free, and execute
the orders of the king on another, a banker's son, who was an admirer
of Shyama. The latter, not knowing his fate, approached the place of
execution with victuals for the criminal, and was severed in two by the

The woman was devotedly attached to Vajrasena. But her inhuman conduct to the
banker's son made a deep impression on his mind.
He could not reconcile himself to the idea of being in love with the
perpetrator of such a crime. On an occasion when they both set on a pluvial
excursion, Vajrasena plied her with wine, and, when she was almost
senseless, smothered and drowned her. When he thought she was quite
dead, he dragged her to the steps of the ghat and fled, leaving her in
that helpless condition. Her mother, who was at hand, came to her
rescue and by great assiduity resuscitated her. Shyama's first measure,
after recovery, was to find out a Bhikshuni of Takshashila, and to send
through her a message to Vajrasena, inviting him to her loving
embrace. Buddha was that Vajrasena, and Shyama, Yasodhara.

Tagore's short story recast it somewhat, and formed the basis for his more elaborate dance drama, the last that he would write :

Shyama becomes a larger than life personality, more wronged against than sinner from the original Sanskrit tale.Uttiya becomes a willing selfless sacrificer, rather than an unwitting dupe, and Vajrasen is not quite as violent in how he disposes of Shyama when he comes to know of her role in Uttiyo's death.

I noticed interesting parallels to the Tamil epic of Silappadikaram, which features a merchant Kovalan unjustly accused of theft of an anklet, a tale also featuring a beautiful dancer Madhavi as Kovalan's lady-love, but in addition brings in the element of wronged wife Kannagi, and the unjust king who literally drops dead of remorse when he finds out that he has erred in ordering the execution of an innocent man. Kannagi is still so inflamed at the miscarriage of justice that she curses the city to go up in flames, exempting only the young and elderly, even in her fury.

Perhaps both stories have their roots in older Jain morality tales and just gotten filtered through the lenses of their times and eras , embellished by poetic license. The parallels of merchant, dancer, anklet, unjust execution, love, sacrifice and retribution are striking, to say the least.

On a personal note, a mini-drama played out on the sidelines. My daughter M, was unhappy at her being recast in one of the shows, where she had been earlier allowed to play the role of a Sakhi (companion)who advises Shyama to stay silent about Uttiyo to Bojrosen ('Nirobe thakish'--"Stay silent, O Sakhi", she counsels.)
She underwent the usual pangs of a rejected teen, to the point where I had to say. 

"You are getting a good feel for how Uttiyo must have felt at Shyama's rejection." 
M was bent on talking to her teacher to find out why the 'demotion', when I pointed out multiple possible reasons, all reasonable. It was then my turn to advise her :
"Nirobe thakish- don't bother asking", as the end result would not change the outcome, beyond making her more or less happy. 
We truly ended up in "It's all the same to us" mode, quite worthy of a Buddha.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017


I stood in line at the local department store, clutching a couple of tops and a blouse, wondering why the person ahead was taking so long.
To my left, a family with a little girl belted firmly in the stroller. She yelled loudly "Appa..." and my mind categorized them firmly as 'another desi family'.
The cashier wasn't done yet with the man at the register. He stood, looking thin and worn out,  in a leather or pleather jacket and jeans, with an 8 or 9 year old daughter in pigtails standing at his side. A toddler with cropped hair wearing a floral dress over leggings padded about in bare feet around the store display, while her sister watched her from a distance, not attempting to go after her, just holding silently to an empty umbrella stroller.
The line behind me was growing longer, the whiff of impatience growing stronger with little murmurings behind me. The toddler waved about what looked like a gift card and wrapper, her father looked desperately in the direction of the shoe aisle, waiting, as he clutched a discount card and flyer.
A loud voice announced something about buying a dress, behind me. In Tamil. Ok, so that means 'desi family' was actually Tamilians shopping in the store.
Hmm, what about the harassed father with two daughters? They looked faintly desi, but not quite.
Just then, a very young lady with a highly decorative hijab, blue with embroidery and a small sparkly fringe, wearing an equally pretty blue kameez and pants, rushed up to the counter, carrying a winter jacket.
The man sighed in relief as the cashier finished up the sale and rang them out, smiling broadly as he handed over the discount coupon. The mother looked frantically a moment for the toddler and retrieved her from near the dishcloth display, perching her on the hip with a swift efficiency. The gift card fell unnoticed to the middle of my path to the cash register.
Should I pick it up or ignore it? No matter, a bare half minute, the older daughter darted in, picked up the gift card, and adroitly put it back in with the other gift cards at the sales counter.
Sale done, the whole family trundled out the door, discussing their purchases of bulky winter jackets that were almost surely a fantastic bargain, end-of-year clearance. Hopefully it will keep the girls warm as the weather turns cold in the fall.
The cashier seemed extra short and unfriendly to me as she went through the motions of ringing my purchases up, no matter that I finished up my transaction in a tiny fraction of the time of the previous customer. Maybe she was worn out from holding on to her civility for them, and not too inclined to be polite to any more brown people for the day.
If so, I'm glad that the young family ahead got the polite and patient treatment, even if I didn't. Let them have at least some more time to savor America as a welcoming refuge, even if time eventually disabuses them of that dream.

Friday, February 24, 2017

Lessons on a Sewing Machine

I'm not really a novice sewer, despite the impression that the title of this post might convey. But with my father's Tanglish aphorism of 'Inji-neer, chukku-neer' ( a pun on 'Engineer' and 'Ginger water') ringing in my memory, I undertook to repair my nearly 25-year old sewing machine, an appliance that I have lived with longer than with my own kids.
Flashback: I went out on my birthday to pick out a suitably decorous birthday present as a new bride. A lovely pair of opal studs caught my eye and it was duly paid for and boxed up in a delicate little jewelry box,. But the price tag was a sore trial. At $150, it seemed like a small fortune to me, especially considering it against what we might have paid in rupees.
I went home and rethought the 'investment'. The opals and the 18k gold of the studs were of no real value, it wasn't going to appreciate in price, and the amount seemed too steep to pay. I hesitantly spoke with my husband and asked if we could return the studs and instead get a less decorative, but to my mind, a more valuable gift for about the same amount. And so we did. I came home the next evening, the proud owner of a new Singer 5932 machine with 23 stitches and 4-step buttonhole.
Now, so many years and plenty of miscellaneous sewing of clothes and home furnishings later, the machine was still chugging along just fine till last week.  I needed to make a small modification to a new dress, and disaster struck. 
Without being too technical about it, the sewing machine has a presser foot lowering lever, which somehow lost the spring loading that kept the fabric pressed up properly against the feed and advanced the fabric as the motor was running. I couldn't sew, period, as the presser foot wouldn't go on, and with no way to insert the needle correctly.
Armed with a couple of old screwdrivers, I started to take apart the machine, and identified what might have been a problem part. But part of the problem was that it appeared to look just fine, not broken or in need of replacement. I googled to price the replacement part and found it to be around $12 with shipping. That won't be too expensive, I thought, as I started to put the removed parts back together again. Maybe I should go ahead and get that and try to replace it, painful as it might be to manipulate that part in place. But it might not fix the problem, and then what?
Problem #2: - I had failed to note how I dismantled the machine, and struggled mightily to get everything back together. Did the black screw go here or there? Why am I having to press this part hard against that in order to insert this screw? Oh dear, I need a third hand here! I called my highly-amused husband to help with tightening that screw.
"Why do you struggle so much over a 25-year old machine? Just get rid of it and get a new one."
He had a point. I abandoned trying to close the machine, with its screws incorrectly positioned and all, and spent a happy hour on the internet, looking up replacement sewing machines.
A day later, I placed an order online and avidly tracked the shipment, with the new sewing machine delivered at my doorstep in a couple of days.  I unboxed it, admired it to my heart's content, with critical eyes that noted however that (a) it had more plastic parts than the older model, including some high-use parts that were sure to be candidates for replacement sooner rather than later (b) the lighting was  a tiny white LED, more energy efficient for sure, but hardly helpful for ageing eyes. Threading this needle was going to be a painful endeavour, unless I learned to use the autothread mechanism in a jiffy. (c) Bobbin sizes were much larger than the old one. How annoying, I might not be able to use all of the old bobbins then.
I started the sewing, and well pleased with the new machine's performance,  happily finished my project, plotting all the while what to do with the old one.
Next, I looked online for suitable repair places and found what looked like the best option, a tiny old-fashioned repair store that was right on my way to work, owned by someone who sounded like a character from a novel. 'H.M. helped me repair my old vacuum, even though I thought it couldn't be fixed'. or 'He tuned and fixed my mother's sewing machine for a very reasonable price.' the reviews were few, but sounded quite genuinely heartfelt.
"Why bother with repairing it? Surely some sewing studio or the other will take it as it is as a donation and fix it themselves to be able to use it." -Another reasonable suggestion from Hubby.
I tried calling around, and no they did not want a 25-year old Singer, even if it had been in proper working condition, being tied in with an ecosystem of other manufacturers whose machines they sold to the customers. I was going to have to try sneaking it past the eagle eyes of the Goodwill or Salvation Army and see if they would take, disassembled/unrepaired as it still was.
Every evening, I took to dedicating 10 minutes of my time to going back and examining the disassembled sewing machine. Something clicked in my brain. This screw should go there, that screw should go here, this needed to be connected to that plate, and that one to this plate, and voila, everything would fall in place like a charm and I would finally be able to close the machine up correctly. Well, at least everything except for a  final horrible little screw that held the cover in place. But at least it all fit properly together.
Another day, and I decided, "Let me take another look at the spring assembly and try something that I had found on Google." Bingo, now the presser foot was raising and lowering better, closer to the way it should, though not yet quite right.
A third day, and I brought it down to the kitchen table with bright sunlight streaming down on it. Every part seemed ablaze with the light, and I could feel a sense of wellness as I happily unscrewed plates and took it apart for the nth time. It was an old friend whose insides were rapidly becoming as familiar as its outside had been all these years. Let me try one more adjustment, push up on this, unscrew and tighten that. Finally, the holy grail, a functional presser foot that moved up and down correctly. Time to reassemble and give it a try with stitching.
Alas, not so fast, the height was still incorrect. Take a deep breath, watch a couple more assembly videos on the internet ( of different unrelated sewing machines), disassemble and try again. Readjust the foot ever so carefully, and finally put it all back again. Worn out, getting to the final cosmetic screw, resort to cellotape to hold that in place in a couple of strategic points.
Rethread, start up the machine, lo and behold, my sewing machine was fixed, and I was super-thrilled of having lived up to the 'Inji-neer, chukku-neer' ideal!

Shall I give it away, or stash it away in case the brand-new delicate darling machine ever fails? I don't know. I shall temporize and keep it for a while till I decide.

Sunday, July 31, 2016

A Time to Rally-2

Much like 8 years ago, the email arrived in my inbox: campaign event in Pittsburgh on July 30, with Hillary Clinton and Tim Kaine. Should I RSVP or not? I remembered M, she might like to go. So I asked her and she was excited about the chance. I sent in the RSVP and received a simple confirmation email with the time and location.

Would we get good seats, how long might we have to wait in the queue, should we take food and water? How close to the speakers would we be? All questions running through my head yesterday.
We reached the venue, the David Lawrence Convention center, to find a long line that snaked all around the block. It looked like it was going to be at least an hour or more of waiting. M and I joined the line. We had not gotten too far when the 'entertainment' started. A large limo with waving flags and a sticker 'Women for Trump' circled past us. The plumpish older lady and her young son ahead of us yelled at the car "Show the taxes!". Shortly later, the lady in front started off on a Trump diatribe, listing his manifold sins, while I nodded sagely and smiled/laughed at appropriate intervals. Another protester walked by with a bizarre 'Hillary killed Harambe' sign, and a couple of people handed out some anti-LGBT end times style tracts. The Trump car circled twice and duty done, vanished.
And of course there were the badge peddlers and shirt-salespeople. A family group ahead of us got Marijuana leaf buttons for all the kids, which had me puzzled. Maybe it was their family's big 'issue', though I couldn't make out any connection the young age of the kids ( 1 preschooler and couple of grade schoolers).

Another group of Trump supporters closer to the entrance started shouting slogans as we reached that part of the line. Lady and son ahead of us "Show the taxes!" shut them up quite quickly. Did they not have a suitable rebuttal to that? 

 One and half hours later, we made it to the entrance and rode up the escalators to the ballroom where the rally was being held. "Sign up to volunteer", "Sign up for campaign updates", or even "Sorry, no umbrellas- Place your umbrellas there, and hopefully you be able to find them after the event." Next was security, with people examining the contents of purses, and a metal detector that uttered not a beep as M and I passed through it.

We entered the ballroom and were immediately horrified at the crush of bodies, more bodies and particularly annoying, very tall bodies who blocked any reasonable view of the stage, even if we stood on tippy toes. The event was supposed to start in an hour and M started griping immediately. I tried shifting this way and that, but it was obvious that this wasn't going to work. Over what seemed like a near eternity of 5 minutes, I asked M to snake forward, finding little gaps in the wall of people. We stood next to a couple with young kids and got lucky. A blue-shirted volunteer came forward to lead the family to the Promised Land of Less Crowd, and we followed in their wake and reached an uncrowded section of the hall, where, 'Hallelujah!',  we could see the podium from where Hillary would speak, and there was space, precious space, to sit down on the carpet if we needed.

One and half hours later, alternating sitting and waiting, and watching the cute little 3 year old (very well-behaved, and playing with his Ninja turtle figurines), the speeches finally started. From the organizers, from assorted city and union council people. The celebrity level started ramping up slowly. Senate candidate Katie McGinty gave a rousing speech, Braddock mayor Fetterman, who had been a strong Bernie supporter earlier, made the case for electing Hillary to the Bernie fans in the crowd. Congressman Doyle spoke, bashing Trump aplenty. Mark Cuban of Shark Tank fame...
M was thrilled, since she loves to watch Shark Tank. Cuban spoke of his childhood/school days and early career/failures in Pittsburgh. The crowd loved it and clapped prodigiously every time he inserted yet another Pittsburgh reference in his speech.Then he too started off on the enemy and awarded him the ultimate Pittsburgh insult of  'jagoff" (And no the term doesn't mean what you think it does. Check the link, I promise, it's safe and gives a good explanation.)

M spent her time fiddling with some game of her phone, texting a friend, watching kid play with Ninja turtles and handing them back to him when he dropped one, darting complaining looks at me and wondering out loud when a 'good speaker' would come. 'It's so boring, all these speeches!', until Mark Cuban made his appearance.

He finally segued into an announcement of the entry of the Clinton-Kaine duo, along with their spouses. Bill Clinton garnered an extra loud applause. Tim Kaine spoke briefly, a rehash of his introduction, a few folksy gut punches to the opponent and some likeable but not particularly memorable anecdote. He reminds you of the friendly next-door neighbor who can be relied upon to help out in times of need, general good guy vibes.

Hillary spoke next, veering from policy wonkish lines, to implicit condemnation of Trump's lack of temperament and qualifications for the job of president, to a couple of cute anecdotes. She's not a natural yet, and comfortingly that is the very thing that makes me want to trust what she is saying. It seems to show someone who is more concerned with results than the ability to convey inspiration to the public, of which we have had plenty these last  8 years. Not to say that Obama didn't have results, it is amazing what he has managed to get done, even amidst the push and tug of highly partisan politics.

Finally, speech over, the far end of the crowd started to melt away, while people closer to the candidates moved for a handshakes with Hillary. M wanted to see if she could get in for a closer look, but the crowd was too much to weave through, and Hillary was moving too quickly down the line for us to be able to reach there.

We stepped out, I located my umbrella with amazingly little difficulty among several thousand others, it being in exactly the spot where I had placed it. As we headed down the escalators, a trio of Cosplay characters from Star Wars posed for our photos, waving at M as she took a last photo of the day.

Quite a contrasting experience from the previous campaign experience with Hillary eight years ago, or tthe Obama rally in the Mellon Arena!

And now for the photos ( final photo credit : M)

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Scentsational Summer

I know, it's an oft-overused pun. But this year I have been noticing it all the more. Now, reminded by this article written by my friend and erstwhile co-blogger Ruchira Paul at 3QuarksDaily, I venture to write of my own olfactory experiences this year, with a few photos to go with them.

Summer is the time of the scent of fresh cut grass, usually on those dry hot days when the lawnmowers will not get clogged up with wet intake. It's a dry green smell, if scents could have a color.
Then there is the wild honeysuckle that lines the paths of the walking trail near my house. I walked along it on weekends, with a group of friends who inhaled its fragrance and tried to identify the flowers. 'Lilac' suggested one, 'No, no, it's called something else.' said another. "Why don't you take a photo and do a reverse image search?" I suggested. "Good idea, I'll try that."
The next week, I asked her whether she was able to find it, but she said it was a fruitless search, as she had photographed it at the wrong angle. I pulled out my phone and took a wild guess- 'Honeysuckle." and there it was, the exact flower that I had photographed.

As the early summer warmth gives way to mid-summer heat and thunderstorms, there's a new odor along with that of dried grass and mulch baking. It's a sweet smell which I identified only around specific patches of grass, home to no more than a few hundred clover plants, humming with bees and the preferred haunt of wild jackrabbits. These are the small unspectacular white clovers, not as pretty as their pink larger cousins, but infinitely more fragrant in groupings.

And of course the pretty-in-pink one, which is spectacular, but doesn't grow in groupings large enough to generate quite the same fragrance.

At one point during the walk, I detected a slightly different fragrance than the clover, near the house which is haven to a group of turkeys in the backyard. There was a small shrub by the mailbox with white flowers that seemed to be the source of the scent. I bent down and sniffed, and there it was. I have no idea what shrub this is, so I took a photo of the flowers, naturally. But Google failed me on this one, the reverse image search just turning up a gazillion white flowers that bore no resemblance to the flowers. So here is the photo. If you are able to identify, dear reader, please leave a comment below with the name of the plant. The flowers were approximately an inch in diameter, for a sense of the scale in the photo.

I would be remiss if I didn't mention my Home Depot-purchased jasmine plant from several years ago. It never fails to put out a multitude of fragrant white blooms in the heat of the summer, and this year is no exception. Nothing like the whiff of jasmine to bring back memories of India!

And finally, just for fun, and a splash of color after all that white, here are unfragrant but lovely denizens of my yard, including a delicate but beautiful mushroom which may very well have served as parasol design inspiration, and a Behren's silverspot butterfly feeding on the coneflower (endangered visitor, from what I gathered).