Friday, October 31, 2008

Tour de France - Part X

Halloween was a big thing at the American School of Paris. The halls were decorated with cutouts of witches on broomsticks, pumpkin posters and black cat silhouettes. Suji loved the spooky atmosphere imparted by the rolls of cotton simulating spiderwebs and the cereal box tombstones. She decided that she wanted to be a witch for the pending costume parade through the cafeteria and gym and told Amma firmly “No, I don’t want to dress up in a silk pavadai and blouse and go as an Indian girl. I want a black costume and a witches hat.”

Amma was at a loss initially about what to do for the costume, but she had always been very clever at sewing and crafting. She came up with a cardboard and cloth version of the pointy black hat (stuffed with crumpled paper to keep the point up.) and modified an old black underskirt for a sari as a sack shaped cover, with holes for the arms.

The gym was filled with game stands for traditional Halloween fun, but Suji had little success at the ringtoss and the bowling games. She did manage to snag an apple while bobbing for it, but would have vastly preferred the small toys that were being given out for the other games. Still, an apple’s an apple, she thought, as she munched away.

There were about 20 other witches at the parade, all far more elegantly dressed than Suji in their purchased costumes, but she was definitely the happiest of them all. She loudly sang along as they marched around the school :

Witches, ghosts and goblins
Screaming down the street,
Knock on every doorway,
Trick or treat!

When the door is open,
This is what you’ll meet
Scary creatures shouting,
Trick or treat!

The cold crisp weather meant recess was mostly indoors in the gym. The drama club had started its sessions, with Suji promptly signing up. She enjoyed declaiming poetry and drama scripts as they worked their way through listening to tapes of A Christmas Carol and the witches scene from Macbeth. Which one would they perform? A vote was taken, deciding in favor of the Macbeth scene.

Suji was delighted. She could reuse the witch costume from Halloween without much trouble. But what to do about the ‘beard’ that the Macbeth witches were supposed to have had? Amma came up with a solution again. “Try wrapping your long hair around your chin and tying it to stay up on your ear.”

For the final performance, that’s exactly what Suji did, even though the hair did threaten to slip away from the chin as she declaimed, in as shaky and eerie sounding of an 8 year old voice that she could muster:
Fair is foul and foul is fair,
Hover through the fog and filthy air.”

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

A Time to Rally

I nearly talked myself out of it quite successfully. I hate crowds and queues, I get migraines when I have to be in enclosed spaces for more than a couple of hours, couldn't manage the timing with the kids getting back from school, they were going to cover the event on live television and everyone know that you get a better view on HDTV anyway, so I would be better off watching it at home. And yet, barely four hours later, I was waiting with S in midst of a crowd of about 13, 000 screaming and adoring fans of ...Barack Obama the political rockstar.

The pressure started piling on the day before:

"Sujatha --
I'm coming to Pittsburgh today, Monday, October 27th.
I'll be holding a rally at Mellon Arena and talking to folks about what we can do together to change this country.
See the details below and RSVP for the event:

Hope to see you there,

With this personal email request, how could I be so hard-hearted as to ignore the invitation? I dawdled over the thought for about 5 seconds before my left-brain kicked in and told me "Not on your migrainy head-head-head!"
Next, a couple of hours later, a phone call from J the activist in our township. He was assembling a carpooling, train-riding contingent to attend the rally, planning to leave at 1 pm to get to the opening of gates at 3 pm. I told him, "I'd love to, but can't- I get migraines in crowded situations!" He 'tsked' his disappointment.
The next morning, I plodded away to contribute my once-weekly volunteer hours in local Obama campaign field office. As I pecked away at the computer terminal there, Cindy popped by, sliding me a couple of blue tickets that would guarantee the holders 'VIP seating', whatever that meant. I wasn't going to fall for this. I cast around to see if there was anybody else who might like my tickets, and mused on whether I should hawk them around my neighborhood or pass them on to J.
I got home and showed my tickets to my husband and he promptly took over planning how I was going to leave with S as soon as he got home from school. He didn't fall for my migraine protestations and bamboozled me into a plan that might actually be workable, assuming that the average time to enter the Mellon arena wasn't four hours waiting in line. We left the house as soon as M got home from her school, shoehorning her into the van with a bag of snacks, as we raced to beat the traffic.
45 minutes later, S and I jumped off the van, walked up to the end of the queue which appeared to snake around the building, only to be told that we were in the wrong 'short' queue for blue-ticket volunteers. Ha, I waved my tickets triumphantly and stayed in line. We waltzed through security and were seated in under half an hour(!!??!!) in a prime position to take reasonably good photographs. (I feel faintly guilty admitting how easy it was, considering that some of the audience had been parked in line since 7 am in the morning.)
The atmosphere was joyful and enthusiastic, some bored members of the audience taking it upon themselves to exercise all those stiff backsides parked in the chairs by 'doing the wave'. We tired of it after the third round.
The large gentleman directly in front of me could have easily auditioned for a rap video, and was loudly insistent in exchanging his 'Change we need' sign for one that said 'Veterans for Obama'. "I am a veteran", he shouted over the noise to the volunteers handing out the signs. We got handed tiny little American flags, since we didn't care to haggle for the signs.
With remarkable timeliness, the events of the evening were started off at 5 pm with a fairly inclusive non-denominational prayer by Sr. MaryAnn Something, praying for peace upon the world, the country and the candidate and all and sundry, followed by loud echoes of her Amen, reminding me of the days when I was called upon to sing a suitable shloka at the start of IEEE conferences on electrical engineering papers (Don't ask why an engineering conference needed a starting prayer!). I was tempted to shout 'Ameen' or 'Tathaastu', but missed the moment by a millisecond.
Then, a field organizer in a taupe suit took the stage to lead the Pledge of Allegiance, to which I mumbled along- the words aren't second nature to me as a relatively newly minted US citizen (only 4 years), unlike the rest of the audience. A lady in red came up to sing the Star Spangled Banner, and was given a background chorus by the audience as she sang. Very patriotically inspiring, like American flag lapel pins ;)
Next, the crowd howled its approval as the campaign field director, followed by governor Ed Rendell, senator Casey and congressman Dolan took the stage, all making brief speeches patting the campaign on its back as a prelude to the main act. I didn't hear or pay attention to what they were saying, just primed my camera for the right zoom as I remarked with annoyance that Mr.Veteran had decided to stand up, blocking my view of the podium unless I stood too.
A couple of toe-tapping but pounding-the-brains-bass-boosted songs later (did I detect a tiny protest starting in my head, a glimmer of headache to be?), the whole crowd started their shouts of approval as ....Pittsburgh Steelers owner Dan Rooney strode on stage. 'Not more blathering', I thought as I sank back to the seat, a moment too early, as Sen. Obama ran on stage from another side, waving to the crowd. Holy cannoli! I missed clicking the moment when Rooney handed him a Steeler's jersey with 'Obama 08' in huge letters. Never mind, there will be other photo ops.

Obama started off with some routine thanks to the organisers, other politicos present and then launched into his well-rehearsed stump speech, modified with small adlibs and improvisations to play to the Pittsburgh audience, eliciting approving shouts and extended applause and sign/flag waving every now and then, occasional boos when mentioning McCain/Palin, with Obama's now trademarked "We don't need those boos, we just need you to vote."
The speech flowed on with all the cadences of the accomplished orator, ringing out stentorian, dropping down to conversational levels occasionally. I gave up looking at the larg screen closeup on the closed circuit screen display hanging above us and focused my attention on the demeanor and body language of the senator as he stood at the podium.
Determined as I was not to be impressed, I did feel a prickling at the back of my eyes as tears threatened to flow when he said something about immigrants moving into America trying to make a better future for their kids. I suppose that was the 'highlight' of the speech that connected with me.
Obama's speech was less about content (which is talking points cobbled together from a zillion stump speeches) and more about how he was connecting with the audience- it almost seemed like a preacher's challenge in church with a response from his parishioners at appropriate intervals.
Bingo, it was like a really big tent, with people of all colors and creeds and backgrounds, but an evangelical fervor pervaded the air, just like in a church! At least two skeptics were in the crowd, unwillingly drawn into this manic response, waving our flags rather weakly when prompted by the crowd, but clapping with moderate enthusiasm when a non-talking point statement adlibbed its way into the speech. S was soaking in the atmosphere and impressions- "This is the last chance I may have to see Obama in person as a candidate- he could be the next president, or not!"
So, it was as a tired crushed-to-the-bone contingent that we returned home, surrounded by joking cheerful party acolytes on the train home. Regular commuters handled the extra rush with good humor, squeezing their way to the exits with polite "Make way please!"s. We got a seat halfway back and sank into them gratefully. S declared "Today is a mixed bag, rather than being totally wonderful! I enjoyed the rally, but not the train ride home."
I smiled - the poor kid didn't know what a real crowd meant, having never sat between two fishwives and their largely empty baskets at the end of a busy day, among the other crowd on a KSRTC bus. And he was complaining about a commuter squeeze on a train after a rally that had drawn 15,000 people by the final counts?
It's all for the good. Now, if he could only vote, which he can't for another 4 years at least.
Who knows, maybe S will get a chance to decide if we should re-elect a President Obama or not!

P.S to the 'anonymous' trolls: Ad hominem attacks and Godwin's law invocations will be summarily deleted.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

The Autumn Devi

Every autumn, as I rake leaves under our maples, I angle the rake just so, and in a precise swift movement, sweep back the rustling piles towards the roots. Then, as I repeat the movement, I'm reminded of the stance of the Devi, poised with her trident over the demon Mahishasura, in many depictions that I've seen. And I wonder"What would a Devi of the suburbia look like?" Would she be jabbing a pile of leaves with a rake, with a leaf blower, pruner, edger and shovel in her multitudinous arms? I wish that I had the drawing or Photoshopping skills to come up with a suitable pictorial rendition.

The leaves are dry, faintly acrid and musty, not an unpleasant scent. Maybe I should consider trying to develop an 'Eau d'Automne' with faintly musty highlights on a base of jasmine and patchouli essences. But who would want to purchase something that smells faintly of decay? Definitely not the usual customers. Maybe the ghost-attired contingent could douse themselves in it as they drive off to their Halloween parties.

That's it, I'm done with raking for the morning. 4 bags done, and only about 60 more to go, as all our trees drop their leaves in annual sequence : Side maples first, front red maple second, oak behind third, maple 3 next, front oak last. An insistent trill sounds out, followed by a near precise imitation of the phrase further away. Music lesson time for some young Carolina wren, I presume. I pause for a moment to listen to the guru and disciple as I top up the final bag. I put the rake and gloves back in the garage, and try for the nth time to locate the cute little shovel that I had bought months ago. Soon enough, it will be time to carve and set out the pumpkins that the kids picked up at the farmer's market.

This year's pumpkin carving experiment will be the tricky 'Trick or Treat skull' stencil, one of the few leftovers from the book of stencils bought several years ago. S has promised to try the major part of the carving himself- we'll see how he fares. He nearly gave me a heart attack the other day, claiming that they had paid an enormous amount for the pumpkins at the farm market. $47 for one large and 2 smaller pumpkins! (Luckily, the actual amount was less than $12). Teenagers- don't you love it when they decide to sport with your credulity!

Temperatures will be dropping to the 30's tonight. It's time to bring in all the jasmine and hibiscus pots and the numerous cuttings that have rooted over the summer. The whole sliding window is completely hidden by the screen of green. I can't possibly fit all of them there and need to now identify 'good homes' to whom I shall give away these little rootlings- it has to be someone with a reasonably green thumb, who will not neglect and abandon it over the winter. I'm off now to find out who it shall be.

Monday, October 13, 2008


Do you know where I can get an...Obama yard sign?
If I had a dollar for every time someone asked me that, I would be able to singlehandedly bailout the US economy from its trillion dollar shortfall.
I tried donating some money to the campaign, in the hope that I would receive one of the yard signs, but the deadline for getting those by mail is still a few days away. Who knows when they will arrive, given that there is a shortage of wire holders for the signs. In the meantime, the increasing incidences of McCain-Palin signs in our majority Republican community is headache-inducing, to say the least, every time I go for a walk. No shortages of those signs, with some houses having even two or three of them planted in their yards.
But wait, what happened to the McCain-Palin sign prominently displayed at the house at the fork? Wasn't it there just a few days ago, next to the US Congressman's? Did they remove it after seeing the light with the McCain campaign's shameful use of the race card, or was it the random teenage sign-ripper at work?
Last weekend the doorbell rang, with my friend waving an Obama-Biden yard sign, campaign brochure and buttons in triumph.
"I got this for you at the W_ county union office! They were going to give me only one, but I talked them into giving me another one, which I might be able to place in my mom's yard. This one's for you, though."
I gratefully accepted this one, and timidly planted it a precise 14 feet away from the road (as per township regulations, though this rule is violated with impunity by other supporters who move it to within a few feet of the curb).
The other sign she had didn't stay much longer in her car, since another friend stopping by for the Navaratri rounds cajoled her into parting with it.
The next day, as another neighbor of mine walked his dog, he stopped by to admire my new sign and asked where he could get one. I promised him the one that was due to come in the mail, should it arrive in time.
Yesterday, as I walked the neighborhood, I saw another four or five signs that had sprouted up overnight, and passed another lady of Indian origin who was evidently walking in the area for the first time. She stopped by my house to ask, you guessed it, where she could get an Obama-Biden sign like mine. I gave her the brochure which doubled as a window poster on the other side, being the only other thing I had handy, since she sounded desperate to counter the sea of McCain-Palin signs that had sprouted like dandelions around her house.

Maybe I should take my preciousssss sign in at night or insure it against theft. It wouldn't do to lose a potential collectible that could go for a gazillion dollars on Ebay after the election...

Thursday, October 9, 2008

The Gremlins Got My Money!

Today, M brought home from school a math problem to solve:

The chief clerk at Gremlins National Bank is worried. Each night he counts the money in the Big Red Box. On the first night there was $1500, and on the second night there was $1475. On the third night he found $1425, and on the fourth night he counted $1350. On the fifth night there was only $1250. If the money keeps disappearing in the same way, when will it all be gone?

Seriously, this sounds a lot like our IRAs in the past few days. Maybe those will vanish on the twelfth night, just like the money in the Gremlins National Bank's Big Red Box.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

A Blast from the Past

Here's an old article that I wrote about 3 years ago on Desijournal. The same still applies today, except that Evites and email invitations have taken the place of phone calls.

Nine Nights' Wonder

Having religiously celebrated Easter (garish bunny cutouts on windows, color changing plastic eggs), Halloween (brilliantly tacky neon pumpkins lit in the lawn, yards of fake spider webs dangling from our trees) and Christmas (fake Xmas tree threatening to fall apart) for five years, I decided it was high time I started setting up a kolu (doll display) during Navaratri. I must add that the garishness and tackiness apply to the decorations that we used, not to the festivals themselves. I have long given up hope of our house and yard ever showing up in a photo feature in Martha Stewart Living or Better Homes & Gardens magazines!

Designed as payback time for all the Maamis who insisted I attend their displays and put out rusty renditions of "Maamava sada janani", it would now be my turn to request musical (or not) offerings (granted, some were really good singers!). I was determined not to nit-pick and was quite sure the Devi would smile graciously upon even halting renditions of "Twinkle twinkle little star" or highly prompted versions of " Saraswati namasthubyam" performed by lisping toddlers. It’s just the principle of the thing!

Decisions, decisions, decisions - three steps or five, or perhaps "boldly venture" where nobody in my circle had gone before and try for a seven step kolu? How on earth was I going to cover seven steps, even if I brought out the entire set of Burger King figurines accumulated over a span of ten years? Perish the thought, especially with the specter in my mind’s eye of Neela’s impeccable, authentic Made-in-India collection inherited from untold generations, lovingly mummified in tissue paper and transported in elephantine hand-luggage. No, I would have to settle for the three-step, with foldaway features for easy out-of-season storage, and perhaps with future expansion capabilities built in. Ha! Now that was an interesting problem for my husband’s inner engineer! A trip to Home Depot for lumber and a few hours wrestling-with-the-saw-and-drill later - tada! Behold a new set of three kolu steps built to my precise specifications. I was thrilled with the results and proudly displayed them to all visitors, prompting a frenzy of similar "new construction" in their homes.

The top-most step presented no problems, since I had assorted statues of deities picked up on trips to India (Martha Stewart wannabes, please take note – only tasteful earth tones such as sandalwood, rosewood, black metal and bronze.) An expedition to the local dollar store netted me assorted witches, fairies, dancers and other miscellany to cover the middle step. I filched a few Disney dolls from my kids’ fast food restaurant "happy meal" collection to add to the groupings. Inspiration struck as I heard my friends discussing their ‘kid’s kolu project’ of gardens and farms. I spied a set of mini plastic pirate dolls and decided that with a bag of sand and shells, "Pirates in search of treasure" would work for my kids’ kolu activity, placed carefully on a small side table.

The big day arrived. I spent more than a couple of hours arranging and rearranging the dolls to my satisfaction. I then proceeded to make turmeric dough for the representative face of the Mother Goddess to be applied on a ‘haired’ coconut. I used sliced garlic cloves for eyes, and marked the pupils with laundry marker instead of kohl. A molded and gold-painted Sculpey crown with rhinestone decorations was my only innovation to the tried and tested look. Rhododendron leaves stood in for mango leaves to provide a collar around the mouth of the kalasam, or pot, on which the head was placed.

As demanding as any screen goddess, the Mother Goddess’s face needed a special moisturizing regimen. I carefully dripped water on the face every few hours with a medicine dropper to prevent any cracking of the smooth turmeric complexion. To my great surprise, the yellow of the face started to turn a rather rusty red in color while the tip of the carefully shaped nose remained yellow, prompting irreverent comments from my husband about "Ambal is turning into Elmo!". I anxiously googled in search of explanations for this phenomenon. Was this something I ought to bring to the notice of the local temple, a miracle perhaps? Alas, it was nothing so wondrous. The Internet assured me that it was just your average "chemical reaction of turmeric with water or lime juice, a long forgotten method of preparing kumkum or sindoor". Hmmm, at least I knew what to do if I ever ran out of sindoor.

Next, the mad race every morning to make the typical food offering every morning of the next ten days. Time for the sundal 101 course with the venerable Meenakshi Ammal’s text book - Cook and See - translated from the Tamil original.

"What is one ollock or viss? Must not forget to check the lentils for stones - are there any stones in the highly processed stuff we get at India Mart anyway? Why pachai karpooram (raw camphor)and why can’t I substitute the regular camphor used for pujas instead?"All these questions ran through my head as I determinedly struggled with the cooking.

Day 1: Overcooked lentils; decided to make a payasam instead of sundal.

Day 2: Undercooked lentils; I couldn’t offer these to the visitors and substituted fruits for the offering.

Day 3: Perfectly cooked lentils; but extremely salty – this sundal was ready for a rendezvous with the trashcan.

Day 4: Gave up soaking lentils and resorted to canned chick peas to prepare the sundal.

Day 10: The feminine curse struck, and with secret relief, I palmed off the puja duties to my husband asking him to set out fruit and milk for the final offering!

Busy lives that we lead here, the negotiations for visits and counter-visits consumed the morning hours.

"I could fit in a visit to your place on Wednesday evening, after karate class. Why don’t you stop by tomorrow evening? Is that so? Ragini has music class that evening. How about the weekend then? Oh, the Lalita Sahasranaamam chanting at Veena’s? No, I didn’t get an invitation to that yet…Okay, Sunday evening will be just fine!"( Fume…why didn’t Veena invite me yet? Am I so out of that loop?)."

Eventually, we managed to work out acceptable schedules for the visits, besting the top negotiators in the country in terms of juggling mutual interests and secret agendas. (Should I put in my job application to the U.S. Department of State yet?Maybe after a couple more Navaratris….)

Every afternoon, the scramble would start for the Ladies of the house to get dressed in formal Indian clothes.The Gentlemen of the house would remain in their usual costumes - boys badly in need of haircuts with un-ironed T-shirts and pants and men in golf- themed polos and shorts. This was the time to pull out all the marvelous saris, the not-quite-as-comfortable blouses of yore, the dazzling embroidered lehengas, cholis and dupattas. " Not pretty enough!" my daughter wailed, as I swore my way through fighting with recalcitrant hooks that fell off at first use, safety pins and salwars too loose in the waist. Three changed sets of dresses and matching jewelry later, the end result was worth the struggle. I have the digital photos to prove it- all to be printed hopefully before she is old enough to leave home for college.

The nine evenings passed, clothed in the glow of the small electric diyas and oil lamps softly lighting up the Devi’s face and shining on the kolu. Rustling silks, shimmering beads, tinkling bangles and anklets, voices raised in songs and hymns in praise of the Devi.I was starting to feel like one of those ads on Sun TV for Navaratri sales at Nalli’s when that illusion of tranquility was rapidly destroyed by discordant howls as my children fought, punctuated by "Aye-aye Captains" from the television.

At the end of the kolu season, this song kept running through my head " Hum honge kaamyaab ek din" ( the Hindi version of "We shall overcome"). The next Navaratri, I was sure, was not going to be such a mixed bag and would truly reflect the spirit of the season. In any case, my kids are already hooked and asking when we will have the next kolu.

Which was exactly my reason for setting it up in the first place!


  • Devi, Ambal: the Mother Goddess
  • Diya: small lamp
  • Kumkum, sindoor: red powder applied on the forehead or hair parting
  • Lalitha Sahasranamam: Litany of the 1008 names of the Mother Goddess
  • Lehengas, cholis,dupattas, salwars – apparel
  • Maamava sadajanani: Carnatic music song title
  • Maamis: Any youngish to elderly matron.
  • Navaratri : literally – "Nine nights" , a festival dedicated to the Mother Goddess celebrated chiefly in western and southern India.
  • Payasam: a sort of sweet pudding.
  • Puja: prayer rituals and offering to the deity
  • Saraswathi namasthubyam:a short Sanskrit prayer
  • Sundal: salty or sweet preparations with cooked lentils
  • Nalli’s: a huge clothing and furnishing store in Chennai ( with branches all over India)

Now, after 3 more Navaratris, I think that I am ready for the US Department of State post. Negotiations for visits have now been simplified by the Mutual Exclusion Doctrine : North Hills and other area visitors on Oct 5, South Hills visitors on weekday evenings. The Mother Goddess' face is of silver, no longer the turmeric skin that needs careful moisturizing, a few more additions and some deletions as the doll display changes over the years. My sundals tend to be properly cooked now, just the right consistency. Our once-brand- new stairs are now on their last legs, and will need to be replaced next year by a new design.